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The first time Taemin sees the selkie, he’s only seven years old, and he’s just barely learned how to swim. He and his older brother are spending a month in the summer with their grandfather, who lives by the sea, and even though Taesun is supposed to be watching him, he’s far up in the sand, so Taemin is almost-alone on the moonlit shore, dancing and imagining in the sand.

The waves are cool when they lap at his bare toes, and Taemin delights in the cold sensation on his sweaty skin, only daring to go up to his knees. He imagines that he’s a fairy trapped in between worlds, that he’s a mermaid torn from the sea, that the selkies his grandfather told him about earlier are real. He imagines that there are a pair of dark, soulful eyes staring at him from the sea, and he imagines that the seal (or selkie, really) comes closer, and-

He’s not imagining.

Taemin cocks his head at the seal, and the seal cocks its head back, and Taemin giggles in delight, waving and coming closer just a little. He’d forgotten about the sudden dip in the water, and he stumbles and falls forward, coming up completely soaked and disoriented. But that doesn’t matter, because the seal is closer than ever, so close that if Taemin were to reach out, he could…

The seal pulls away and Taemin retracts his hand and steps back, finding his footing and remaining where the water only goes up to his knees again. “I won’t hurt you,” he calls out, imagining that the seal will listen-

And it does follow him, all the way to shore; right before his very eyes, the seal sort of...wiggles free of its skin, and then there is a boy standing there, just his age or maybe a little older, and he’s pretty. Not pretty like some of Taesun’s friends, or pretty like the idols on tv - but he could be.

Taemin doesn’t realize that he’s staring until the selkie frowns and says, in a quiet voice, “What?”

“Oh, I. I was just admiring you, you’re very pretty.”

The selkie smiles this endearing little flustered grin and shakes his head. “I’m Jonghyun.” His hand is soft and smooth when Taemin shakes it, and maybe that’s why he doesn’t let go.

“Taemin. I’m gonna be eight years old next Friday!”

Jonghyun does a double take, squints at Taemin like he’s lying, and slowly says, “Eight?

“Yeah, why? How old are you?”

“Eleven.”

“But you’re so short-”

“I haven’t hit my growth spurt yet,” Jonghyun says quickly, “I’ll grow a lot then.”

“Oh.” Pause. “Can I touch your skin?”

Jonghyun is quick to gather up the dark bundle in his arms, and Taemin quickly steps back so he’s out of range. “I won’t take it! My grandpa told me about what happens if someone does, and I won’t do that! I just wanna feel it, that’s all.”

“Oh.” Jonghyun stares at Taemin for a long minute, unblinking and searching, and Taemin doesn’t realize he’s holding his breath until Jonghyun nods and his breath whooshes out in a heaving sigh. He waits for Jonghyun to step forward, extend the bundle and then Taemin is burying his fingers in it and it’s strange, kind of like fur but really smooth and almost tough, not soft. It doesn’t feel like anything he’s ever felt and Taemin can practically feel its mystery, its otherworldliness.

“It’s beautiful,” Taemin says, and Jonghyun smiles. Up close, Taemin thinks that is the word he’d use to describe Jonghyun: beautiful.

“Your eyes remind me of my grandpa’s dog. Her name’s Roo and she…” Taemin reaches out to brush his finger against the curve of Jonghyun’s eyebrows, the skin around his eyes, the bridge of his nose. “Her eyes are emotional. Like yours.”

“Roo…” Jonghyun repeats. He sounds enamoured, and Taemin kind of wants to kiss Jonghyun, because whenever people kiss in movies, they smile the way Jonghyun is now, and Taemin wants to make him smile like that forever.

“I can bring her here in the morning, if you want. She’s sleeping now, and I have to get back soon too, cause it’s past my bedtime.”

“Oh. I...dunno if I can be here in the morning. Tomorrow night though?” Jonghyun sounds hopeful and excited and Taemin nods without even thinking about whether he can or not, because he wants to see Jonghyun again.

But then Taesun stands and calls out to him, and Jonghyun flinches back, eyes wide and startled. “That’s just my brother-”

“I should go, I’ll see you tomorrow, Taemin.” And without another word, Jonghyun shakes the skin out and dives back into the sea in one fluid, nearly silent motion.

Taemin stares out to sea until Taesun gets to him and shakes his shoulder, annoyed. “Min, didn’t you hear me? Ugh, what happened - why are you so wet?”

“I…” Taemin doesn’t give an excuse, because he doesn’t have one. Taesun doesn’t seem to care though, just scoffs and tugs him out of the water and back to the house, grip on his wrist tight.

Their grandfather seems not to care that Taemin is soaked to the bone, and there is an almost knowing look in his eye. When Taesun explains what had happened, all he says is, “Taesun, why weren’t you watching your brother? And Taemin...go shower.”

Even though it wasn’t an outright lecture, Taemin feels thoroughly scolded, and quickly goes to clean up, ears and cheeks burning.

That doesn’t stop him from going out to see Jonghyun the following night.

Jonghyun is delighted when Taemin finally brings Roo out to the sunlit beach, and she warms to him too, snuggling up in his sealskin and allowing Jonghyun to pet her and pick her up to put her in his lap. He spends the next few minutes cooing at her while Taemin watches, amused and fond and occasionally reaching out to rub at Roo’s floppy ears.

“You two match,” he comments, “your eyes.” He doesn’t know how to explain it, but there’s something endearingly similar about their dark eyes. Jonghyun just laughs and gently rubs at the top of Roo’s head, puckers his lips and tries not to giggle when she twists around to give his mouth kisses.

“Gross!”

“There’s nothing gross about love,” Jonghyun says, and it’s so matter-of-fact that Taemin immediately bursts out laughing.

“What do you know about love, you’re only eleven!”

“More than you! You’re only seven! You’re a baby!”

Taemin scowls at Jonghyun and folds his arms with a huff, turning away and trying his hardest not to let his smile break through. He fails of course: Jonghyun is immediately nuzzling up against him, crooning out little apologies and nudging Taemin with increasing force until they fall in a heap together, giggly and giddy with only the sea and the sky (and Roo) to see.

“Can’t you come in? I want my grandpa to meet you, he’d like you. And my brother, so he doesn’t call me crazy.”

“I…don’t think that’s a good idea. You know.” Jonghyun gestures to his skin, and Taemin frowns.

“We could hide it, somewhere only we know. I won’t take it or anything, since you always come back, and that way no one else can take it or lose it either! But only if you’re okay with that?”

Jonghyun thinks for a moment, then beams up at him and nods, and they set to scouring the beach for a place to hide the skin. It doesn’t take long for them to hide it in a little nook beneath a bed of rocks, and while Jonghyun is hesitant to leave his skin there, when Taemin tugs at his hand, he relents.

“I trust you,” he says, dark eyes serious and searching and earnest. Taemin can almost see himself reflected in the black of Jonghyun’s eyes, and he nods slowly, twining their fingers together so that Jonghyun will have something else to anchor himself on. Him.

“Do you wanna meet everyone? Or we can just stay close by, to make sure no one sees our spot.”

Jonghyun bites his lower lip and then shakes his head. “We can go, Taeminnie. I want to go.”

“Okay.” Taemin makes sure his voice remains calm, but he’s excited. His favorite friend in the world is about to meet his favorite family in the world, and-

When did Jonghyun become so close to him?

“Tae?”

“Sorry, just thinking.” Taemin squeezes Jonghyun’s hand in an attempt to reassure him, and after a moment, Jonghyun squeezes back.

“Kay. I’m...nervous.”

“Don’t be, grandpa’s really nice. And Taesun is...he’s kind of mean, but only to me. He shouldn’t tease you or anything, and if he does, I’ll beat him up.”

Jonghyun’s smile is soft and shy, and he nods before pulling his hand away from Taemin’s. Taemin feels his heart sink, but all Jonghyun does is shake out his hands before gripping Taemin’s again. The slide into place of his fingers against his own makes a wave of emotion well up in Taemin’s chest, and he doesn’t even try to hide how pleased he is as they make their way through the hot sand and up to Taemin’s grandfather’s house.

“Grandpa,” Taemin tugs Jonghyun in through the back door and into the kitchen, knowing that around this time, he’ll probably be about to make lunch - and he’s right. “Grandpa-”

“I told you to call me by my name, didn’t I? Grandpa makes me sound so old.

Taemin frowns at Jonghyun, almost as if to say I told you so, but he relents and says, “Okay, Heechul, this is Jonghyun. We met a few days ago-”

“And you’re already holding hands? You’re moving so quickly!”

Taemin frowns up at Heechul, but only holds onto Jonghyun’s hand tighter, much to his grandfather’s amusement. “Where’s Roo?”

“Your brother took her out for a walk, I think. They should be back soon though. Are you two hungry?”

Taemin glances at Jonghyun, who shifts almost awkwardly next to him, so he shrugs and says, “No, we can eat later. Unless we can have ice cream?”

“Didn’t your father say no ice cream before lunch?”

Taemin hesitates and steps back, just a little, frowning. “Is that a no?”

Instead of giving Taemin and Jonghyun a verbal response, Heechul points back towards the freezer with this smug grin on his lips. “I don’t have to tell my son anything. Pig out, you two. Just don’t get sick or anything.”

When Heechul leaves the room, Jonghyun relaxes just a little, but he does let out a little gasp of laughter, clearly startled. “He’s…weird.

You’re weird,” Taemin retorts, reluctantly letting go of Jonghyun’s hand to open the freezer and find the cartons of ice cream. “Do you want cookie dough, strawberry, chocolate or vanilla?”

“I’ve...never had ice cream? So whichever?”

“Try all of them then.” Taemin shrugs. He digs out a spoon from the drawer and passes it to Jonghyun before opening all of the cartons and pointing. “But not too much at once, cause brain freeze.”

“Brain freeze?”

“You’ll see. Or, hopefully you won’t. But yeah, just try.”

Taemin can’t think of a word for the way Jonghyun looks after trying each flavor of ice cream, but it’s positively endearing. “I think...strawberry is best.”

“Gross! Cookie dough is better, you know.”

Jonghyun just sticks out his tongue and goes for another spoonful of strawberry ice cream. “I could eat this forever.

“We should go to the ice cream shop sometime...Heechul could take us. Or my brother. There’s like...fifty flavors of ice cream there-”

“Can we go now?

“It’s too hot out! We can go tomorrow maybe? And we can walk Roo there!”

Jonghyun looks so delighted, and Taemin is so caught up in his excitement that neither of them hear the swing of the back door opening and closing. But Jonghyun evidently does hear the pitter of Roo’s paws on the ground, because he gasps and drops to his knees for Roo to barrel over to him for pets. Her tail is wagging so quickly Taemin feels like she’ll fall over from the force of it, and she eagerly noses into Jonghyun’s hand whenever he stops petting her for even just one moment.

“Oh, I missed you,” Jonghyun coos, “my baby.

“Who’s that?” Taesun has just toed his shoes off, and he comes into the kitchen to grab a water bottle from the fridge before staring curiously at Jonghyun, who looks just his age.

“Jonghyun, I’m...from around.”

“How old are you?”

“Eleven.”

Taesun deflates, just a little, and around the lip of his water, he mutters, “Ten.”

Jonghyun looks confused at the reaction, so Taemin nudges him and says, “He’s just jealous cause he wants to be the oldest.”

“At least I’m the tallest, twerp. I’m gonna go swim, if you two want to come.”

When Taemin glances over at Jonghyun, he finds Jonghyun looking back, expression unreadable. “We...can meet you there. If we decide to.”

“Yeah, okay.”

When Taesun is out of earshot, Jonghyun stands and ignores Roo’s quiet whines of protest. “I don’t...know if I should swim.”

“Why not? Don’t you wanna try to swim like a human?”

Jonghyun wrinkles his nose and he looks so disgusted that Taemin can’t help laughing; Jonghyun doesn’t appear to know what’s funny, and his disgusted expression melts into a pout before the corners of his lips twitch up at Taemin’s continued giggles. “We can go up to my room then. Or, my room for now. Cause me and Taesun are only supposed to be here for a month.”

“Oh.”

Yeah. “But, we’ll come back next year! And we’ve still got a lot of time, and you can spend the night, and we’ll have ice cream and watch movies and we can swim and Roo will be here too!”

The smile Jonghyun gives him is a little strained, a little forced, and Taemin does not like it. So he grabs Jonghyun by the hand and tugs him upstairs, shows him his camera and his stuffed animals and his shell collection, and they both try to forget that Taemin will be leaving in just a few weeks.

Jonghyun is tense when he and Taemin leave the house that evening; Taemin is quick to grab his hand as they start for the nook of rocks, and when he pulls out the bundle of sealskin and hands it to Jonghyun, Jonghyun’s sigh of relief is audible and full bodied. “I was a little worried,” he confesses, eyes on Taemin, “but I trust you.”

Taemin nods and smiles and says that Jonghyun should go before anyone sees, and he watches wordlessly as Jonghyun darts towards the sea and disappears beneath the crashing waves.

By the time Taemin has to leave the beach house, he and Jonghyun done a lot: they’ve gone to the ice cream shop enough times for Jonghyun to figure out his favorite flavor (rainbow sherbert), they’ve stayed up all night playing video games (Jonghyun is excellent at all shooting games), they’ve set off fireworks on the sand for Taemin’s birthday (Heechul winks at them when he says to keep it a secret from Jinki).

Jonghyun has taught Taemin to swim with the waves and Taemin has taught Jonghyun how to dance on the sand, and Heechul often says that the way they twirl through the sand and the shallow waters of the sea together makes him dizzy, and that they look like they’re meant for each other. Whenever he says that, Taesun scoffs and rolls his eyes, and Jonghyun giggles, and Taemin either rolls his eyes as well or nudges Jonghyun or stretches up to kiss his cheek because that always makes Jonghyun blush and smile like Taemin’s just made his day.

But all too soon, it’s August 2nd, which means that their suitcases are packed, and Jinki and Luna will soon come to pick them up. Jonghyun spends their last night together in Taemin’s room, and in the morning he frowns down at his pancakes instead of eating them. When Taemin glances over and asks what’s wrong, Jonghyun looks up with him with sorrow in his dark eyes and mumbles, “You’re leaving.

“I’ll be back next year though…”

“That’s so long.” Jonghyun stabs at his breakfast and pouts into his cup of juice, not looking up until Taemin reaches over to pat his hand.

“I’ll be back, Jonghyunnie.”

If Jonghyun likes the nickname, he doesn’t show it, just throws Taemin a petulant glare before starting to eat his food. “Mad at you then.”

“Why?”

“Just am.”

Without thinking about it, Taemin leans over to press a syrup-sticky kiss to the column of Jonghyun’s neck. It’s something he’s seen his parents do when one of them is upset, and it always seems to make them happy, but it doesn’t work with Jonghyun.

“Gross!” Jonghyun is quick to wipe at his neck, staring down at his hand with exaggerated disgust clear on his face, and Taemin laughs.

And maybe it does work, because when Jonghyun looks up at him, he’s smiling.

But then a familiar horn honks outside, and both of their expressions drop. Taemin’s heart climbs up to his throat and he takes Jonghyun’s hand in his to lead him outside so he can introduce him to his parents.

His dad is first to step out of the car, and he smiles broadly when he sees Taemin, already ready. “Who’s this?”

“My friend Jonghyun.” Jonghyun waves politely but doesn’t say anything, and Taemin bites his lip to hide his fond grin at how shy Jonghyun is.

“Jonghyun was practically another one of the kids with how often he’s been staying over.” Heechul ruffles Jonghyun’s hair and Jonghyun nods and smiles shyly, clearly flustered with all the attention on him.

“Dad, thanks for watching the kids, and Jonghyun, thank you for being a good friend to our Taemin.” Taemin’s dad gives Jonghyun a bright smile before grabbing his and Taesun’s suitcases and hauling them to the trunk of the car.

“It wasn’t any trouble, and we all had lots of fun together, didn’t we?” Heechul’s grinning at the two of them, and Taemin knows he’s talking about the fireworks and all of the ice cream and the midnight swims that he’s let them do.

“Lots of fun,” Taemin agrees, squeezing Jonghyun’s hand tightly in his. After a moment, Jonghyun squeezes back, but then he drops his hand and pulls Taemin into a tight hug. Taemin can feel Jonghyun breathe him in deep, and he melts into the softness of Jonghyun’s hands smoothing against his waist, like he’s trying to memorize how Taemin feels, smells, looks.

But when Jonghyun lets go of Taemin, all he says is, “I’ll miss you.”

And even though it’s only three simple words, Taemin can feel the emotion in Jonghyun’s trembling voice. “I’ll come back next year, Jonghyunnie. You know I will.”

Jonghyun nods and gives Taemin this watery little smile, and that is when Taemin finally remembers that they’re not alone. But Taesun is already sitting in the car with his Game Boy, and his parents are deep in conversation with Heechul, so they may as well be alone. “Next year, I’ll try and see if my dogs can come so you can meet them too.”

“Adam and Eve?” Jonghyun perks up almost immediately and Taemin nods, pleased.

“They’ve never been out here, but I think they’d like it. I think they’d like you.”

Jonghyun looks immensely pleased. “Of course they will.”

“Taeminnie, are you ready?” his mom calls out, and Taemin...isn’t.

He turns to Jonghyun, mouth open to say something, but as he looks up and into Jonghyun’s eyes, and sees himself reflected there, he realizes that he doesn’t need to say anything more. “I’ll see you next year.”

Jonghyun nods, wordless.

From the back of the car, Taemin watches his waving figure until Jonghyun is just a tiny speck in the distance. He’s not excited even when they stop for ice cream, and even though he gets his favorite (chocolate chip cookie dough), it doesn’t seem to taste quite as sweet without Jonghyun there to enjoy it with him. But then Taemin realizes that Jonghyun wouldn’t want him to be sad anymore than he wants Jonghyun to be, so he tries to make the best of it, because now he’ll have Jonghyun to look forward to every summer.

The next few summers pass by lazily and slowly, their days filled with sun and sea and sugar sweet ice cream, nights spent with cool sand between their toes and only each other for company as they roam the empty beaches. Heechul doesn’t seem to care that they spend almost every night out, saying that as long as they stay together and no one gets hurt, Jinki doesn’t have to know. The only thing he makes Jonghyun and Taemin promise is to not go too deep in the water at night, and when they both easily agree, he ruffles their hair like they’re seven and eleven again. Normally the gesture would be annoying, but Taemin finds it endearing.

It never gets easier, leaving Jonghyun each time: Taemin is so used to falling asleep with Jonghyun curled up close that his bed at the apartment feels too big, too empty. One night when they’re both half asleep on the sand, Jonghyun tells him that the ocean has never felt so vast and lonely without Taemin to swim with him, even though Taemin’s human limitations mean Jonghyun can never stray too far beyond the shore. And without saying, Taemin knows that Jonghyun feels so much more alone when summer turns to fall, that they both wait for summer to return with an almost unsettling fervency.

Taemin starts coming to the beach house alone once he hits fourteen, and that is the year he and Jonghyun first kiss. Even though he’s old enough to stay at home now, the beach house is the only way he can see Jonghyun, and even though Taesun thinks the beach house is boring, Taemin doesn’t think he’ll ever outgrow it, not even when he’s Taesun’s age.

Jonghyun is seventeen to Taemin’s fourteen now, and not much has changed between them except for Jonghyun’s newfound interest in tattoos, the repeated dyeing of their hair (Jonghyun has kept his hair at white blonde for two years, even if the sun has repeatedly faded and ruined the color, and Taemin is sticking to dark brown for now), and of course, their ever-growing height difference.

Jonghyun is still just as sweet and endearing and soft as ever, even if he’s gotten more touchy-feely with Taemin; there’s not a second where Jonghyun isn’t touching him in some way, whether it’s a friendly hand on his thigh, the soft of their thighs touching when they sit, or Jonghyun's hand light around his waist or in his hair or twined with his. If it were anyone else, Taemin probably wouldn’t tolerate it, but because it’s Jonghyun, he does like it - enough to seek out and initiate touches that Jonghyun melts into.

They’re still just friends even with Heechul’s constant teasing, and while they used to blush and stutter out excuses, now Jonghyun just laughs and pulls Taemin close to playfully profess his love. It usually takes one gentle pinch for Jonghyun to let go, even if more often than not, Taemin allows himself a few extra seconds to stay wrapped in Jonghyun’s firm embrace.

But there are the questions that Jonghyun has started asking: “What’s your ideal type?” and “what would it be like if we actually dated?” and “can I…?” The last is only ever a quiet whisper of breath, when they’re in Taemin’s bed with Jonghyun pressed flush against him so that they’re spooning.

The question is always left open ended, but it’s always the same: Jonghyun always asks if he’s allowed to wrap his arm around Taemin’s waist, if he’s allowed to nose into the back of Taemin’s neck and breathe him in, if he’s allowed to fumble for Taemin’s hand to hold it loosely in his. The fact that Jonghyun cares so much for him always warms Taemin’s heart and makes butterflies come up in his stomach.

And yeah, maybe Heechul is only teasing when he says that they should date, but Taemin doesn’t think he’d mind it that much. Not that he’ll ever tell Jonghyun that.

Taemin’s birthday is July 18th, and they spend the day out with Heechul: they go out for brunch and then to see some horror movie that leaves Jonghyun jumpy for the rest of the day, and then Heechul retires to his room while Jonghyun and Taemin walk Roo. The rest of the day is spent in between the sand and the sea, and the night with each other.

They’ve got a small fire burning just in front of them, and Jonghyun looks soft and content in the orange glow. They’re not saying anything, but they don’t need to, because they know each other that well. Taemin picks up a handful of sand so he can watch it filter out between his fingers, and then he turns to find Jonghyun staring at him.

“What?”

“Just...hm. I’m happy to spend your birthday with you.”

“We always do this, Jonghyunnie. What else?”

Jonghyun shrugs. And there is quiet for a long few minutes before he murmurs, “Have you ever kissed anyone?”

Taemin sucks in a useless breath and shakes his head when the warmth of Jonghyun’s gaze has settled on him. “I don’t know if I want to? I want to...do stuff like that with the people I love.”

“Does that include me?”

“Yeah, I guess...you’re-” Taemin shakes his head and shrugs, at a loss for words. Because there are so many words struggling to push up and out of his mouth, and none of them will - he grimaces and moves to stand until Jonghyun’s hand, gentle around his wrist, stops him.

“Stay?”

The way Jonghyun says it is hesitant and hopeful and pitiful all at once, and maybe that’s what makes Taemin move to sit down again, facing him this time. He again wants to say something, but nothing is coming out properly, so he sits and waits for Jonghyun to speak.

“What am I?”

“You’re just...so much to me. For me? I…” Taemin’s hands gesture uselessly in the air, grabbing for words that won’t connect, and he drops them and shakes his head, frustrated. “I can’t think of the right words.”

“Then…” Jonghyun says it so quietly that Taemin almost thinks he’d imagined it, the seconds drag on and the sea sighs around them, and Jonghyun and Taemin are left staring at each other, motionless and wordless. “Then can I kiss you?”

Taemin’s heart stutters in his chest at the question, and as soon as he can hear his own thoughts again over the frantic beat of his heart, he nods. Jonghyun’s smile is soft and sweet in the flickering glow of the fire, and his movements are slow when he leans forwards to cup Taemin’s cheek with one hand, to gently tug him forward, to kiss him. And it’s not the sort of kiss Taemin had been expecting; there is no tongue or heat or heavy breaths, just the soft touch of their lips. But it fits, because it’s Jonghyun, because this sort of softness may as well define him.

Jonghyun’s cheeks are flushed when he pulls away, and at first, Taemin doesn’t know if it’s because of the heat of the fire or from embarrassment, but then Jonghyun stands and squeaks out a ‘good night!’ before grabbing his sealskin and diving into the water without preamble.

Taemin finds the gesture incredibly endearing, and maybe that’s why he doesn’t stop smiling for the rest of the night.

They don’t talk about the kiss in the morning. Just after Taemin finishes the dishes, Jonghyun comes barging into the house, taking a moment to greet Heechul, and then a long few minutes to pet and kiss Roo. Taemin leans against the counter to watch him, fondness flickering up in his chest and swelling his heart; when Jonghyun glances up and over at him, his mouth is open like he wants to say something, but as soon as their gazes meet, Jonghyun flushes pink again and shakes his head.

It would have been cute if Heechul didn’t suddenly say, “Tae, stop smiling at your boyfriend and go walk my dog for me, will you?”

Jonghyun chokes on his breath and Taemin bites back the laugh that had been bubbling up, and when Jonghyun glares at him and mouths the word ‘traitor’, all Taemin does is smile and make finger hearts at him because that’s always made him laugh.

“Yeah, we’ll walk Roo. Do we need anything to eat?”

“No...maybe some frozen fruit, since our Jonghyun nearly ate all of my blueberries.”

Even though Jonghyun is no longer facing him, Taemin can tell that he’s pouting from the tone of his voice as he argues with Heechul. They all know that neither he nor Heechul are upset though, because by now Jonghyun is practically one of the family - Heechul will often ruffle Jonghyun’s hair and refer to him as his grandson-in-law, and that never fails to make Jonghyun smile shyly and turn pink. And Taemin had never really understood why, until last night, and their kiss.

He thumbs at his lower lip almost absently as he thinks about it again, about how soft Jonghyun’s lips were and how sweet and cautious he’d been. About how quickly he’d fled after. Jonghyun has Roo leashed up and ready to go by the time Taemin is pulled from his thoughts, and he’s quick to grab a plastic bag and the keys from above the tv before meeting Jonghyun at the door and pulling it shut behind them.

While Roo gives her customary sniffs to the posts on the boardwalk, Taemin waits for Jonghyun to bring up the kiss, but when he doesn’t, Taemin takes a breath and says, “Last night...what was that?”

“I,” Jonghyun starts, stops. He’s frowning when Taemin glances at him sidelong, but the set of his mouth says that he’s just thinking of what to say, of what the right words are. “I feel like I should apologize, but I’m not sorry for it.”

“Why would you be?”

Jonghyun shrugs, gently tugs Roo from the newly painted bench she’d been about to smell, sighs. “You’re only fourteen, and I shouldn’t like you.”

“Like me?” Even just saying the words makes Taemin’s heart thud in his chest, because Jonghyun likes him. This beautiful, ethereal selkie likes him.

“Yeah, wasn’t it obvious? God, it’s...you’re so young. I don’t…”

“Then we can wait. If that doesn’t make you uncomfortable, and if you can wait. I don’t...know how I fully feel about you, but I think the me in a few years wouldn’t mind dating you, and the me now definitely likes you enough to.”

Jonghyun steals a quick glance around them before breathing out, “I want to kiss you again.”

When they kiss, it’s just as soft and sweet as the kiss they’d shared the night before. When Taemin licks his lips after, he can taste the sweet of Jonghyun’s chapstick; and after seeing Jonghyun swipe chapstick over his plush lips and kissing the flavor from his mouth, he decides that strawberry is his new favorite flavor.

On a rare night where it’s just him and Heechul, Taemin goes out to the front porch and sits beside his grandfather, waiting for the sigh of the waves to calm down before he asks, “How did you and grandma meet?”

“Why that of all things? God, that was so long ago...it was here though, just me and my dog Zorro out in the sand, playing fetch. Zorro was running to catch the stick I’d thrown when I saw something out the corner of my eye, and when I turned to look, I saw your grandmother. She was coming out of the water and she looked so beautiful that I sort of fell for her right then. We were young...just barely out of our teens when we had Jinki, but we were young and in love so it didn’t matter.”

“Then where…”

Heechul’s fond smile twists into a bitter one, and he shakes his head. “I gave her the choice to stay with us or go back to the sea, and she chose the sea.”

Taemin gets it then, why Heechul had him and Jonghyun promise not to go out to sea, why he so vehemently spoke about selkies, why he sometimes caught Heechul staring at Jonghyun with this...sadness in his eyes. “She was a selkie, wasn’t she? And you’re worried that Jonghyun will leave, because he’s one too.”

But Heechul just shakes his head before standing to stretch. And all he says before he goes back inside is, “I’m not afraid that he’ll leave. I’m afraid that you’ll fall in love with him, because nothing good ever comes out of falling in love with selkies.”

The words send a chill down Taemin’s spine, and even though his grandfather is probably correct, he can’t (won’t) accept it. Jonghyun wouldn’t just leave him like that, Taemin knows he wouldn’t. They’ve been together for six years now, and Jonghyun wouldn’t.

Taemin is just getting into bed when there comes a quiet knock on his door, and of course, of course it’s Jonghyun. By now, he doesn’t have to ask if he can sleep beside him or if he can hold him, but he asks anyway, and he’s careful when he slips into bed beside him. When Jonghyun’s arm wraps tight around his waist and he sighs out a little puff of breath against the back of Taemin’s neck, Taemin can’t help thinking that maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to fall in love with Jonghyun after all.

Now that they’ve established that they have feelings for each other, or at least that they’ll...probably date when Taemin is older, it’s harder for Taemin to distinguish between whether what they’re doing now is just hanging out or going on dates. Because he’s always paid for their ice cream whenever they go to the store, but now Jonghyun smiles shyly at him and reaches out to hold his hand when they walk home. Whenever they tell Heechul that they’re going to go out, he always grins at them like he’s trying not to say some sort of innuendo, but now it feels more like he knows that they’re...whatever they are, and not just teasing.

Taemin can’t help falling headlong for Jonghyun now, for his smile and for his laugh and for him; and even though he doesn’t really know what they have or what they are, he doesn’t mind. When he’s fifteen and Jonghyun is eighteen, they discover the whole range of gender and sexuality, and after days of looking things up and talking to each other, they’ve come to the conclusion that Taemin is more of a they than a he, and that Jonghyun is definitely pan, and probably poly as well. And maybe it’s not incredibly important, but it’s their secret, so that makes it mean the world to the both of them.

And when Jonghyun slips up in front of Heechul, all he does is ask what pronouns they both prefer. It’s one of the few times that Taemin’s seen him be completely serious, and for that, they’re grateful.

Heechul takes them out to get tattoos and piercings when they’re sixteen and nineteen; Jonghyun ends up with a horde of tiny tattoos and a few piercings on each ear, and Taemin only gets a pair of simple studs for their ears, much to Jonghyun’s displeasure. That’s also the year that Jonghyun dyes his hair cherry blossom pink, and Taemin doesn’t think they’ve seen anything more beautiful. Jonghyun persuades them to dye their hair purple, but instead of the dark color it was supposed to be, it turns out lavender, but Taemin finds that they quite like the color.

The first time Jonghyun sees their hair, he takes one look at them before saying, “You’re a fairy prince!”

Taemin bursts out laughing, but they’re sure Jonghyun’s day is made when they say, “Then you’re my cherry blossom princess.”

Even after the color has faded, Taemin still calls Jonghyun by his cheesy nickname, just for the way he blushes and giggles and nods.

And when they’re seventeen and twenty, and Taemin finally has to face the fact that they’ll be in college soon, they ask Jonghyun out for what seems like the thousandth time. They’re never really serious when they say it: they’ve both agreed that they’ll wait until Taemin is old enough - whenever that is - to date, but Jonghyun always gets so flustered when Taemin asks him out, and it’s one of the most endearing things Taemin has ever seen.

They’re squished together on Taemin’s bed now with the fan going strong and Taemin’s laptop between them when Taemin nudges Jonghyun and asks, “Hey, go out with me?”

And they’re expecting Jonghyun to fumble for a response like he always does, but all Jonghyun does is pause the movie and sit up. His gaze is intense and serious when he looks down at Taemin, and even though Taemin has known for years that they’ve been tumbling towards the direction of dating, it still shocks them when Jonghyun says yes.

When Taemin’s birthday comes and they turn eighteen, they spend it as boyfriends, and it’s the best birthday of Taemin’s life.

Taemin waits another week before they finally work up the nerve to say to Jonghyun, “We need to talk.”

Jonghyun is immediately backing away, eyes wide and concerned, and maybe Taemin could’ve been better with that, but it’s too late now. “What happened, did I do something wrong? I-”

“Nothing’s wrong, Jonghyunnie. Just need to tell you something important. You’re okay though, hear me?”

Jonghyun nods, sighs out a heavy breath of relief into Taemin’s neck. “What is it?”

“I’m going to college in the fall, so…I won’t really be able to come back every summer. I need to get a job if I’m going to be allowed to stay at the apartment.”

“Oh…”

“I wasn’t finished, Jonghyunnie. I’m going to be living in an apartment, and I want to know if you wanted to live with me. And yeah, we only just started dating, but we’ve known each other for ten years now, and just. It would be so lonely without you.”

Jonghyun presses his smile into Taemin’s skin and nods, and Taemin sags with relief. They’re not sure why, but they’d thought that Jonghyun would say no, so that he’s saying yes so easily… “I love you.”

It’s the first time either of them have said it, even though Taemin has definitely thought the three words more times than they can count. And Jonghyun must realize it too, because he pulls away from Taemin, eyes wide and curious. “You...love me?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Jonghyun’s smile is dizzy, but he quickly schools it into a pout and says, “Love me?”

“I do, Jonghyunnie.”

“Again!”

“I love you, cute Jonghyunnie.”

Jonghyun looks positively giddy, muffling his giggles behind his hands before peeking out at Taemin. “Again?”

He’s so endearing. “Love you lots.”

“Love you too!” Jonghyun wiggles when he speaks, and Taemin laughs before kissing the bright smile from his lips.

“Do you need to...tell anyone that you’re leaving?”

Jonghyun shakes his head and holds out a hand for Taemin to hold. “We don’t really have family ties, not like you do. I don’t know if anyone would even notice my absence. I know I haven’t seen my sister in...ages.”

“Oh…”

“Should I get a job?”

“If you want to, Jonghyunnie. You can do whatever you want.”

Jonghyun suddenly looks shy, and he wiggles in place before asking, “Can we get a keyboard? Wanna write songs.”

“Of course, Jonghyunnie. And a laptop for you. As soon as we have enough money, okay?”

“I’m excited now!”

“Me too.” Taemin’s hands settle on Jonghyun’s cheeks when they kiss again, but they’re thrown off when Jonghyun shifts so that he’s sitting delicately in Taemin’s lap. The chaste kiss turns deeper, lingering, and Taemin hesitantly sets their hands to Jonghyun’s slim hips, ready for any form of protest that does not come.

When they break apart, Jonghyun is still smiling, but Taemin is practically vibrating with unused energy, all from the kiss, from Jonghyun’s warm weight in their lap. They’ve never done anything like this before - Jonghyun’s made sure to keep all of their kisses and touches chaste, even if Taemin does like to push just a little. But it’s never been like this, heavy with the implication of what could be.

Taemin realizes then that the only light had been coming from their laptop, that it has gone black and that it’s just them in their night-dark room. “Jonghyunnie…”

And maybe Jonghyun realizes too, or maybe it’s something else, but Jonghyun shivers when Taemin speaks, and he sucks in a stuttering breath before speaking, whisper quiet. “Tae?”

Taemin shakes their head and reaches out to brush Jonghyun’s hair away. On the way down, their hand cups his cheek and Jonghyun leans into the soft touch, lips brushing the palm of Taemin’s hand as it journeys back down to his waist. “Jonghyunnie, what do you…”

“Want to be close to you,” Jonghyun says, decisive where Taemin is not. “Want to feel you.”

And oh, oh. They’re both fumbling for words and for each other, but it’s soft and sweet, and Taemin is sure to be gentle and slow because they want this to last, to mean something. They fall over the edge together, each other’s names on their lips and quiet I love you’s passed between them.

When they come down for dinner, hours later, Heechul takes one look at their faces and joined hands before laughing under his breath. “Oh, to be young.”

Jonghyun flushes pink but Taemin can’t find it in them to be embarrassed or flustered, and all they do is pull Jonghyun closer to kiss his cheek. And while Jonghyun splutters for an explanation, Taemin just laughs and pores over the pizza boxes. One plain, another half pepperoni and half pineapple. Excellent.

They all take their slices into the living room so they can watch a movie while they eat, and as Taemin curls up with Jonghyun on the loveseat, they don’t think they’ve ever been happier.

But all too soon, August approaches, and Taemin’s parents come to get them. They don’t seem surprised when Jonghyun climbs into the car next to them, and they both drift in and out of sleep for most of the ride back to the city.

Jonghyun loves the city, loves their little apartment more, and it’s so endearing to see how excited and wide-eyed he gets at every little thing. Their apartment isn’t big or fancy, but it’s home, and it’s theirs, and that’s what is important. Most of August is spent shopping online for furniture and textbooks and clothes, but it’s almost fun with having Jonghyun to do it with.

Whenever they’re not shopping or unpacking, they wander around the city together, mostly for Jonghyun. The selkie has discovered a newfound love for coffee, so they’re pretty much regulars at the coffee shop that is conveniently only a block away. Most of the staff know Jonghyun by name now, and it’s not long before Jonghyun has a job there, which works out perfectly. And whenever they’re not getting coffee or walking around the city hand in hand, they laze around at home with the fan on and bowls of melting ice cream close by.

Jonghyun doesn’t seem even the slightest bit sad about being away from the sea, and for that, Taemin is grateful. Because Jonghyun is happy, and they couldn’t be happier as well, and everything is going so well for them. There are kisses that are coffee bitter and ice cream sweet, cold from the chill of an icy drink and hot from food eaten too soon, and Taemin’s never felt more alive, more loved. And as the summer season drags on, they fall into a lazy day to day routine, one that only changes when something major comes up.

For the most part, they laze around in bed for the morning before making a late brunch together, and then they sit on separate sides of the couch for alone time while Jonghyun makes music and Taemin watches dance videos and studies for the upcoming semester. If it’s not too hot out, they’ll go out for a walk and come home for dinner, then watch a movie and the stars until they’re too sleepy to think, and then it’s back to bed. When Jonghyun has work, Taemin has the apartment to themself, and they spend most of their time choreographing and watching dance videos with their face way too close to their laptop screen. And when school starts, and Jonghyun is left alone...well, Taemin doesn’t know what he does.

Since Taemin is going to school for dance, they often dance in their little apartment, and even though Jonghyun claims that he can’t dance, Taemin always manages to pull him from the couch and spin him around in circles until his pout dwindles and spreads into a bright smile and bubbly laughter. But as the days drag on and Taemin’s textbooks and notebooks clutter the apartment, Jonghyun is left with nothing to to do.

He’s lonely and he misses Taemin, and because he’s so used to seeing Taemin all the time, Taemin being gone so much its jarring and weird. Because while selkies aren’t very familial creatures, they’re social, and he feels abandoned each time Taemin leaves their house for class.

He tries to keep up a bright smile and positive attitude for Taemin though, because he doesn’t want to be a burden, and Taemin has enough to deal with now. Because whenever Taemin gets home late, they have this exhausted smile on their lips, and Jonghyun can’t ruin that. So he pastes on a smile and hugs Taemin tight, sits them down at the table to make them eat, showers with them and whispers quiet words of encouragement in their ears until Taemin’s smile has turned from mostly exhausted and a little bit genuine to entirely genuine.

Sometimes, Taemin ends up slipping out of bed when they think Jonghyun is asleep; they come back hours later when it’s nearing 2 or 3 in the morning smelling like sweat and fast food, and maybe it’s not healthy for them to spend so much time dancing and so little time sleeping, but it’s not...like Jonghyun can really do anything about it. All he can do is be there for Taemin and sometimes surprise them with a spontaneous present after a long day of school.

And on the nights where Taemin stays home, when they don’t look exhausted and when they cook together and actually talk, it’s nice. They’ll wash the dishes together (and usually end up splashing each other with the sudsy water) and brush their teeth together and settle into bed together, and they’re both happy. Those kinds of nights remind Jonghyun of the movies he sometimes watches when he’s alone, the ones where the couple lives together and struggles through their problems together and end up happy and in love. Whenever he watches those, he feels guilty for wishing that he and Taemin were like that again, like when they were younger. When he didn’t feel hesitant to go over and talk to Taemin, when he wasn’t scared to say the wrong thing or make Taemin upset. When he didn’t have to wonder if Taemin loved him.

But those happy, carefree nights - those feel domestic in the best way possible, and Jonghyun is always sure to whisper a quiet I love you to Taemin. Now more than ever, he can’t relax until Taemin mumbles it back, voice slurred with sleepiness.

But even though Jonghyun is sure that Taemin doesn’t notice that he’s sad, they do. So one day while Jonghyun is at work, they pack a set of clothes for them each, and that Friday, they skip classes so they can instead drive Jonghyun down to the beach. It’s still warm out, but not warm enough to swim, so Taemin sits on the shore while Jonghyun frolics in the water, elegant and playful in his seal form. Jonghyun manages to lure Taemin out into the water by splashing a wave of water all over them, and even though Taemin is freezing as they stumble to shore together, the warmth of Jonghyun’s human body against their own is more than enough to compensate.

“We should get a dog,” Jonghyun mumbles later. They’re laying in the trunk of Taemin’s car, watching the stars, and when Taemin doesn’t immediately answer, Jonghyun nudges them.

“We’re not getting a dog, Jonghyunnie. The apartment doesn’t allow them, remember?”

“So?” Jonghyun is sulking now, and when he’s made sure that Taemin is watching, he huffs and pouts.

“You’re the only puppy I need, Jonghyunnie.”

Taemin is beginning to regret that it’s not brighter out, because they’re sure that Jonghyun is pouting now, flustered and almost offended at the joke. “Stop it…”

“Stop what?”

“You’re teasing!

“What if I’m not?” Taemin asks. They can feel Jonghyun’s full-body shudder and they stifle a laugh before dragging their hand against the delicate curve of Jonghyun’s hip.

“Tae, I…” Jonghyun shivers again when Taemin squeezes his hip, the gesture both a tease and a promise.

“You what?”

Jonghyun huffs again and shakes his head before sitting up and slipping out of the trunk of the car so he can stretch. “Remember when we were younger and we’d sneak out of the house to come out here?”

“How could I forget? You used to let me ride on your back, and now it’s you riding me.”

As Jonghyun sputters for a response, Taemin slips out to join him, wrapping his arms around Jonghyun’s waist and kissing the beauty mark on the back of his neck just for the way it makes him shiver. “Jonghyunnie, love you.”

“Love you too…” Jonghyun sounds flustered and almost shocked, but he giggles at the way Taemin blows a raspberry against his neck, so Taemin tries to forget that note of uncertainty in his voice. “Thank you for taking me here, I missed it.”

“We should’ve come when it was still warm...could’ve both swam.”

“It was nice enough though. You’re here.” Jonghyun starts up a gentle rock back and forth that is almost in time with the quiet sigh of the ocean’s waves, and Taemin kisses his neck as they sway with him.

“We’ll go to a pool next time, Jonghyunnie. A nice indoor one, so we can swim together. Won’t be as nice as this, but...we’ll be together at least.”

“Can we?”

Taemin’s heart suddenly swells with love for Jonghyun, and instead of answering, Taemin turns Jonghyun around and holds his face in their hands. “Jonghyunnie, I love you.”

And normally, Jonghyun would just smile and say the same, but now he just...stares up at Taemin, breaths shallow and eyes wide. Before Taemin can say anything else though, he stretches up on his toes and kisses Taemin soft and lingering, steps closer so they’re flush together, and fits his hands against Taemin’s waist, fingertips skimming the hem of their shirt.

“I love you too,” is all he says when he pulls away, and even though his voice sounds unsteady and breathy, Taemin knows that he means it with all his heart. Just like they do.

Quiet for a long few minutes, and it’s just them and the sand and the night sea, and Taemin has never felt more in love. Taemin will say later that they’re glad Jonghyun had been too lazy to take that huge blanket from the trunk of the car to wash it, but now, they’re too busy trying to lay it out on the sand while Jonghyun watches, already spread bare for the moon and the stars and for Taemin.

They get to watch the sunrise from the trunk of the car: the blanket has since been put away and their clothes are back on, and even though the splash of color in the sky is gorgeous, all Taemin can see in his mind’s eye is Jonghyun.

Breakfast on the road is two breakfast sandwiches that make Jonghyun hum with delight, two coffees because Jonghyun likes his sweet and Taemin can’t stand the added sugar, and a danish that they split. Jonghyun seems happy to be back in the city, and Taemin is too, even if they keep a close eye on Jonghyun for the remainder of the day, just in case. Because they know from experience that even though Jonghyun will tell them when something is wrong, they also know that that sentiment is often overpowered by guilt and anxiety, and that Jonghyun often won’t tell until Taemin presses him to.

But nothing seems to be out of the ordinary as they shower together and nap, go out for smoothies and then come home to watch tv and play cards. It’s just another lazy Sunday, and for that, Taemin is grateful.

Jonghyun starts bugging Taemin about going to the beach every Thursday, so that soon becomes a tradition: driving down to the beach on Friday afternoons and coming back on Saturdays. Some weekends they’ll stay longer than others, and even though Taemin can only watch Jonghyun swim, it’s even better for them, because Jonghyun is happy. He’s happy when he dives into the frigid waters, and he’s happy when his seal head pops up from among the waves, and he’s happy when he presses cold saltwater kisses to Taemin’s lips.

And that’s more than good enough for Taemin.

But Taemin’s finals are quickly approaching, so they skip the beach one weekend so they can study. Jonghyun doesn’t seem to mind all that much: he just pouts and grumbles until Taemin kisses him no less than twenty times and absolutely promises that they’ll go next week. They do end up going that next week, and as usual, Jonghyun is quick to dive into the waves; Taemin watches him play in the water for a moment before spreading out their books in the sand so they can study some more. With their head down and their eyes on the words printed in their books, Taemin misses the way Jonghyun deflates when he comes up for air and notices that Taemin isn’t paying attention.

Jonghyun doesn’t swim much longer after that, and they’re soon loading up the car and heading back; when Taemin asks Jonghyun if he wants to stop for burgers and milkshakes like they usually do, Jonghyun barely even reacts.

Taemin spends the rest of the weekend studying in their room; they’re too tired each night to notice the hesitance at which Jonghyun climbs into bed each night. The week passes slowly, much too slowly and now even Taemin is looking forward to their weekly drive down to the beach. He says so during dinner on Wednesday, and instead of agreeing, Jonghyun puts his slice of pizza down before saying in a whisper-quiet voice, “I have to work this weekend, can we please go next week?”

He looks and sounds so hesitant and nervous that Taemin reaches across the table to take his hand in theirs, squeezing it tight and smiling reassuringly at him before saying, “Of course we can, it’s just one weekend. Don’t worry about it, Jonghyunnie. And I’ll be done with finals this week, okay? Just a few more.”

Jonghyun smiles, but it’s weak and dims in just a few moments as he mumbles, “Not hungry anymore...gonna take a bath.”

“Okay, Jonghyunnie.”

It’s not until Friday afternoon that Jonghyun sidles up to Taemin with a question in his eyes and on his lips. “I traded shifts with Minho, so we can go on Saturday…?”

“Sure, Jonghyunnie. Just let me study some and then we can head down, okay? Go pack up, I’ll only be...half an hour? An hour, tops.”

“Promise?”

Taemin holds out their hand and Jonghyun links their pinkies, giggling when Taemin reaches out to grab him by both hands and yank him down on the couch as well. “Promise, Jonghyunnie. Now go pack up, you’re distracting me.”

Jonghyun giggles again and bats his eyes, trying for the illusion of coyness and failing when Taemin jabs him in the side to make him break out into laughter. When Jonghyun finally stands up and begins to walk away, Taemin swats at the slight curve of his ass with their foot just for the way it makes Jonghyun yelp and pout at them.

“Half an hour, Jonghyunnie. Okay?”

“Kay!”

It’s 3:32 when Taemin glances at the clock; they don’t bother setting a timer or anything, just continue reading from their textbook until the end of the chapter. Then comes note taking, and...why not another chapter? And then another, and another, and when they finally get up to take a quick stretch break, they happen to glance at the clock, and it’s almost 10pm.

It's 10pm, and they'd told Jonghyun to pack hours ago, and they'd promised-

When Taemin pushes open their bedroom door, Jonghyun is lying curled up in a loose ball above the blankets. He must be cold, but he doesn't seem to care, and Taemin's heart aches for him. They don't think they've ever felt this guilty before.

“Jong-”

“You promised,” is all Jonghyun says. When he sits up and glares at Taemin his eyes are red and watery and his face is blotched from crying, and a pang of guilt cuts through Taemin's heart again. “Tae, you promised. You pinky promised.”

“Jonghyun, baby, I'm sorry. I'm just...I have to do well, Jjong.” Taemin reaches out and takes Jonghyun’s hand in theirs, kissing it before rubbing their thumb across Jonghyun’s knuckles in the way that always makes him melt. It doesn’t this time - Jonghyun sits stiff and still and unyielding, and he won’t look at Taemin. That’s what hurts the most.

“Jonghyunnie, we can go to the pool, okay? It’s not the beach, but...pools are still fun, and you can swim. Yeah?”

Jonghyun shrugs and nods and mumbles something under his breath before pulling his hand back into him. “I guess.”

Taemin sleeps on the couch that night.

It’s not until the following evening that they end up meeting with Kibum to go to the pool; Taemin is torn between sitting shotgun and in the back with Jonghyun, but when Jonghyun glances up at them through his lashes and smiles, just a little, Taemin lets out a breath and sits next to him, fumbling for his hand and relaxing when Jonghyun squeezes their hand tight.

“So you must be the Jonghyunnie Tae’s been talking about so much recently.” Kibum’s clearly teasing, and he glances back at them to flash a quick smile before turning around to pull out of the lot. “They’re right, you are pretty cute.”

Jonghyun ducks his head down, clearly flustered, and Taemin rolls their eyes at Kibum’s antics. “Shut up, Kibum. Jonghyunnie, don’t listen to him.”

“But he’s nice. He called me cute!”

“Adorable,” Kibum interjects, “and absolutely precious.”

Jonghyun hides his face behind his hands and giggles as Taemin tugs him closer, trying not to sulk as they do so. “Thank you, Kibummie.”

Kibum grins and winks at Jonghyun through the mirror, much to Jonghyun’s surprise and joy. Taemin can tell by the soft, flustered smile flirting with the corners of Jonghyun’s lips that he’s enamoured by Kibum, and that he probably already has the beginnings of a crush. “You know, if you ever want, you can come over. And I guess you can bring Tae, too.”

Another flustered giggle as Jonghyun nods again. He wiggles in his seat and presses his face into the curve of Taemin’s neck, something he only does when he’s flustered. When Kibum meets Taemin’s gaze through the mirror, he grins and Taemin rolls their eyes and flips him off even as a fond grin tugs up the corners of their lips.

When they get to the pool, they all pile out of the car; Taemin grabs Jonghyun’s bag and follows him and Kibum inside. It smells strongly of chlorine and Taemin breathes in deep, they can see Jonghyun wrinkling their nose and they nudge him to say, “They put chemicals in the pool so it can stay clean.”

Jonghyun frowns a little, but he nods, following Kibum to the locker rooms and then to the showers, and finally to the pool. It’s not so crowded at this time of day, and Kibum tugs Jonghyun to the diving board while Taemin puts their stuff down. When they turn back, Kibum is floating on his back and Jonghyun is treading water in the deep end, gaze on Taemin. He smiles a little when their gazes meet and Taemin grins back before slipping in the water and following Jonghyun over to the shallow end.

“How is it, Jonghyunnie? I know it’s not as good as the ocean, but…”

“It’s...okay. It’s just-”

“Tae, I almost forgot to ask. Did you finish your choreo for this week? Because I saw Sehun’s and his was so good, like...he’s so good.

“Okay, no. You know he and Jongin always work together.”

“They need to date already - do you see them when we start stretching? Christ, they’re not subtle at all.” Kibum begins to float again, slowly but intentionally drifting away towards the deep end.

Taemin follows him, treading water when it’s too deep for them to stand, and eventually giving up to head over to the edge of the pool when they realize that they can’t talk and tread water without getting water in their mouth. When they have a firm grip on the wall, they wait for Kibum to drift closer so they can say, “Not as bad as Baekhyun and Chanyeol, though.”

Kibum snorts, then splutters when Taemin splashes his face with water. When he’s got his bearings again, he flips Taemin off and begins to tread water. “Baek’s always been flirty like that though...that’s why Chanyeol hated you at first. Baek always flirts with anyone new he meets, and Chanyeol’s liked him forever, so. He’s just jealous that Baek is so social.”

“He shouldn’t be, I’m not when people like you flirt with Jonghyunnie, right-” But when Taemin turns to grin at Jonghyun, they realize that Jonghyun isn’t next to him - he’s sitting with their bags, wrapped in a towel. He looks so small, hair plastered to his face and wrapped up tight, and Taemin’s heart aches.

“I’ll...be right back.” Without waiting for Kibum to reply, Taemin swims over to the side of the pool and heaves themself up, making a beeline for Jonghyun and sitting next to him. They’re...suddenly unsure of what to say, and as they’re reaching out for Jonghyun’s hand, they realize that he’s holding his towel tightly, knuckles nearly white. His face is stony and he’s shivering, but he doesn’t react to Taemin’s presence at all.

“Jonghyunnie...are you okay?”

A long few minutes before Jonghyun answers, “I’m fine.” His voice is whisper-quiet and Taemin has to lean in to hear him. What Taemin is sure of though is that Jonghyun doesn’t look or sound fine, not even close to it.

“You’re sure?”

A jerky nod. Nothing else, so Taemin stands, and just when they’re starting to move away, Jonghyun calls out, “Just...the water feels weird on my skin. That’s all. I’m fine.” Jonghyun sounds like he’s trying to convince himself rather than Taemin, but when Taemin sits down again, he shakes his head.

“Go back and swim!”

“No, not if you’re not going to-”

“You can swim with Kibum. He’s all alone out there.”

Taemin just...looks at Jonghyun for a long moment, at the set of his mouth and the crease of his brow, and after a long few momets of silence, they nod and stand. “Okay.”

They miss the way Jonghyun’s face crumples when Taemin slips into the water again.

“Is he okay?” Kibum jerks his head towards Jonghyun, and Taemin shrugs.

“He said he’s fine. Just that the water felt weird, I don’t know. But he’s fine.”

“Good, he’s cute. I hope you two are happy together.”

Taemin thinks back to that first careful kiss, to those lazy summer days when they’d first moved in together, to Jonghyun’s tear-filled eyes when Taemin broke their promise, to the way they sat trembling at the edge of the pool, and they nod. “Yeah...me too.”

Taemin only has a few more tests after their trip to the pool; in between last minute studying and testing, they only vaguely notice that Jonghyun spends most of his days locked up in their room, only coming out to eat and to take baths that last until Taemin absolutely cannot hold it anymore and ends up practically banging down the door just to take a quick piss.

But they can't really do anything about it now, not when they're so busy. And even though they keep promising themself that they'll talk to Jonghyun, they don't remember until it's too late and he's already fast asleep. It makes them feel guilty: guilty for being so self-centered, guilty for neglecting Jonghyun, guilty for not being everything he wants and needs.

So to make it up to him, and once they finish all of their finals, Taemin surprises Jonghyun with dinner and a movie: Jonghyun has been wanting to see Moana for ages, and now that they finally get a chance to curl up on the couch together with the movie ready to play on tv, and sushi on the coffee table in front of them, he’s ecstatic. Taemin can barely get him to settle down and sit still - he’s too busy wiggling in place and bouncing impatiently when Taemin doesn’t immediately start the movie.

Taemin manages to get Jonghyun to eat maybe three heaping spoonfuls of rice before he begins to whine about the movie again, so Taemin sighs and leans over on instinct to kiss Jonghyun’s cheek. They don’t miss the way Jonghyun stiffens up, and they pull away quickly as they mumble an apology. They’re not sure if Jonghyun fully forgives them yet, but they don’t mind his pulling away. They’d probably pull away too, if their positions were reversed.

“Sorry, Jonghyunnie,” Taemin says again, louder this time. When Jonghyun nods and gives them a weak little grin, all Taemin does is reach out for the remote to start the movie. And it’s a cute movie; Taemin keeps sneaking glances at Jonghyun just to see his giddy grin and the way he’s still wiggling in place. The smile slips from his face when the ocean plays with the baby, but it’s soon back, even if it seems forced. There’s another twitch of the corners of his lips when the song plays as she grows up, and Taemin’s heart aches, because they can see why the movie is affecting Jonghyun so much.

But he’ll say if he’s too upset to continue watching, if it’s too much - Taemin is sure of that. He always does. Which is probably why Taemin is so surprised when Jonghyun suddenly lets out a pathetic noise and buries his face into their chest. That’s when they realize that he’s crying, that this is the first time Jonghyun’s ever really cried in front of them. They’re barely twenty minutes into the movie - she’s just been washed from her boat and there’s another stab of pain in Taemin’s heart because this was probably the worst movie for them to watch, especially now.

Even though Jonghyun’s their tears fall near silent and he only occasionally lets out quiet hiccupy sobs, it’s pitiful, and Taemin’s heart aches. All they can do is gather Jonghyun up in their arms and rock him gently, pressing gentle kisses and whispering sweet nothings until Jonghyun has stopped trembling and looks up at them with red-rimmed eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he says, voice shaky.

“Jonghyunnie, don’t be sorry, okay? You don’t ever have to be sorry, not for anything.”

“I…” Jonghyun shakes his head and it brings a wave of fresh tears, but Taemin only wipes them away and kisses Jonghyun’s cheeks and forehead, wishing and praying that whatever is making Jonghyun so upset will stop.

“Do you want to tell me what’s wrong? Maybe I can do something about it.”

“It’s...not a big deal, Tae. Can we just...don’t wanna watch this anymore.”

“Anything for you, Jonghyunnie. Do you know what you want to do? It can be anything at all.”

Jonghyun opens his mouth to speak, but then he closes it and noses into Taemin’s neck, breathing them in slow and deep. “Just...want to be close to you. Want to sleep.”

“Okay, Jonghyunnie. We can do that.” Taemin adjusts so that Jonghyun is more comfortable in their arms, strokes his hair and listens for any sound of distress that might come. But none does, and Jonghyun soon falls into a fitful sleep, still curled up in Taemin’s arms.

Taemin doesn’t sleep - they’re too caught up in the realization that has just dawned on them. Because the only thing connecting all the times where Jonghyun gets sad like this is the water. And maybe they’re wrong - Taemin hopes for their own sake that they are.

They’re not ready to give Jonghyun up, not yet. They’re starting to see now what Heechul had been talking about, but they’re...not ready to let Jonghyun go.

They don’t think they ever will be.

But at least it's almost Christmas, and their first one together. Kibum had offered for Taemin to come over with Jonghyun, but they'd declined and said that it would probably be better for them to stay with Jonghyun. And it's nice: they video chat Taemin’s parents for a bit and then make a simple breakfast of french toast, eggs, bacon, biscuits and yogurt. it's not as festive as the breakfasts for Taemin’s childhood, but they've made it together, so Taemin thinks it's the best breakfast they've ever had.

They don’t really do much after that - they’d gone gift shopping together, so Jonghyun already knows about the tea sampler Taemin’s gotten him, and Taemin already knows about the new wireless headphones Jonghyun’s gotten them. But Jonghyun doesn’t know about the set of fountain pens and notebooks Taemin’s bought for him, about the coffee mug and candles and matching necklaces, both beach related. They’d been hesitant on the last one, but Taemin knows they’ve done good when Jonghyun finally opens the tiny box and his whole face lights up.

For the rest of the day, they watch all of the Christmas cartoons that they can: Rudolph and Charlie Brown and even the Christmas episodes of whatever shows they happen to flick by. It's a perfectly lazy day and when Taemin hesitantly wraps their arm around Jonghyun's waist during the middle of Scooby Doo, all Jonghyun does is glance up at them through their lashes and smile before nuzzling into their embrace.

There's a brief debate on whether they shpuld go to Kibum’s for dinner, but they're both still in their pajamas and haven't really moved since breakfast, so after a while of procrastinating by flicking through the channels, Taemin finally heaves themself up and off the couch to put a frozen pizza in the oven. And once it's done, Jonghyun joins them in the kitchen. When he tries to take a slice too early and burns hie finger on the hot sauce, he pouts at Taemin until Taemin kisses his finger better.

It's a nice Christmas, and the days leading up to New Years are just the same. They do go out to Kibum’s for his annual New Year's Eve party - it's just him and some of his friends, lots of pizza and snacks and even more drinks. Kibum and his housemate have rigged up the ladder to the side of the house and the party moves to the roof just before the fireworks start. Taemin is busy pressing sloppy kisses to Jonghyun's neck and shoulder when they start - Jonghyun's giggle turns into a yelp at the first loud noise and burst of color, and Taemin fumbles for his hand beneath the blanket they're huddled under. One of the girls (Taemin thinks Kibum had called her Amber earlier) is sitting on Jonghyun's other side, and he keeps glancing at her and Taemin bites down a laugh when they see that his cheeks are pink.

“You like her, don't you?”

Jonghyun jumps when Taemin whispers in his ear, and he pouts and shakes his head even though they both know how obvious he is when it comes to crushes. “Not talking to you.”

“Is it the tattoos? Or did she call you cute earlier?”

Jonghyun's pout deepens and he buries his face in Taemin's neck before mumbling, “Both.”

Adorable. Taemin gives up on teasing him, instead holding him close as the fireworks burst on overhead and their friends laugh on around them.

But all too soon, Taemin's winter break is over, and it's back to school for them and back to work for Jonghyun. Along with the resuming of the routine of classes and work comes other smaller things: the smell of coffee in the mornings, snacks from Starbucks in the fridge for Taemin to take to school, small presents left all over for Jonghyun to find, midnight visits to the dance studio and frequent grocery trips, homemade dinners and desserts, Taemin's quick showers while Jonghyun loads up the dishwasher and Jonghyun's long baths while Taemin studies, watching tv on the couch together in their pajamas.

Jonghyun only takes off his necklace when he bathes, and Taemin's lost theirs. Even though Jonghyun claims it's fine, that it's just a necklace, Taemin doesn't know that he locks himself in the bathroom after that and cries while the shower water runs loud.

Taemin doesn't really know when it starts, just that it happens in between their partner choreography (worth 30% of their grade, says the syllabus in bold letters) and a huge test that leaves them drained and exhausted.

But when they finally do notice, Jonghyun is already so listless and limp that Taemin gets chills down their spine. When Taemin sits him down to ask if he's okay, all Jonghyun does is give Taemin this bitter, sad grin and say, “I'm going to take a bath now.”

Taemin opens their mouth to protest, but before they can even figure out the right words to say, Jonghyun stands and leaves the room.

Bathbombs, candles and tea. Jonghyun has been eyeing all three, and since he spends so much time taking baths now, Taemin makes a spur of the moment decision after classes to go out to buy all three. That and ice cream cake with extra chocolate crumbs on the side, because those are Jonghyun's favorites.

Since it's a surprise, Taemin texts Jonghyun saying only that they'll be at the studio for a couple of hours and that they'll bring home McDonald's, and does he want anything?

Jonghyun replies almost immediately, asking for large fries, a bacon cheeseburger and a strawberry milkshake, so on the way back from the stores, Taemin stops for food. It's only been about an hour, and they're quick to come home and quiet when they get inside.

They'd half expected Jonghyun to be watching tv or writing lyrics on the couch, but he's not. The air is still and Taemin almost thinks that he's just at work, but his jacket is in the closet and his shoes are tossed nearby. Taemin fights down a sudden wave of panic as they check first the kitchen and then the bedroom, because maybe has Jonghyun left for good, but both are empty and the bed is cold. As Taemin doubles back to the balcony and the panic comes welling back up, they realize.

When Taemin bursts into the bathroom, they're sure for half a second that Jonghyun is dead. He's lying in the tub, water still and cool to the touch. But when Taemin reaches in to drag him out of the tub, Jonghyun's eyes shoot open and he scrambles to sit up by himself. Above his deep, raspy breaths, all Taemin can hear is the pounding of their heart and the roar of blood in their ears.

“What the hell were you doing?” Taemin doesn't realize that they're shaking until they bring their hand up to wipe Jonghyun's wet hair from his face.

When Jonghyun shrugs, it's sluggish, and his whole face is flat. He doesn't say anything, and Taemin's heart aches for him.

“Then what's wrong, Jonghyunnie? Tell me what's wrong so I can fix it."

“Nothing's wrong, I just miss-” Jonghyun stops himself from speaking and lets out a heaving sigh before slipping further into the water and resting his head on the rim of the tub.

Taemin feels their heart break and they fumble for Jonghyun’s hand in the cold water, holding it tight even though his fingers are wrinkled and cold from the water. When they let go, Jonghyun’s hand falls limply into the water, and Taemin feels tears well up in the corners of their eyes.

“Can you talk to me, Jonghyunnie?”

Jonghyun sighs again and shakes his head, lifts his head enough to say, “Please go away.”

“I'm not going to just go, Jonghyun! You looked like you were drowning, and I thought you were trying to kill yourself and-” Taemin's voice breaks and Jonghyun shakes his head, still frowning as if confused. It's almost pitying, and Taemin hates it. “I thought you were trying to kill yourself, Jonghyun. I can't just...let you do this to yourself, I can't lose you and I just. I need you, Jonghyun. Alive and here, with me. Not...fucking drowning yourself in our bathtub!”

“I wasn't trying to k- drown myself.” Jonghyun's voice is small and pathetic, and when Taemin looks up at him, his eyes are red and watery.

“Then what were you doing, Jonghyun?” Suddenly, Taemin is drained of all their energy, and they almost can't bring themself to care that Jonghyun is about to cry because of them.

“I just miss the water, Tae.” There's more, Taemin is sure of it, but instead of elaborating, Jonghyun whispers, “Please don't hate me.”

“What? I don't hate you, I could never hate you. I was just worried about you, Jonghyun. I can't lose you.”

Jonghyun stares at Taemin for a long moment, and then his expression breaks and he lets out a pathetic whimper before breaking down completely. In between sobs, he manages to get out, “Don't hate me, please,” and even though the water is cold and Jonghyun is colder, Taemin reaches out - for what, they don't know. But when their hand touches Jonghyun's shoulder, he flinches away and sobs, “Go away.”

Taemin opens their mouth to speak, but then they look at Jonghyun, and they see how forlorn he looks, so they go.

They realize then that Jonghyun won't ever be able to have a normal life with them, and that if they want Jonghyun to be happy, they'll have to give him up.

The next two months are spent in a sort of limbo, with Taemin watching Jonghyun grow steadily worse and being able to do nothing about it. They often start to say something to comfort or maybe assure Jonghyun that he'll be fine, but nothing they rehearse in their head sounds good enough, and it's like the words fall on empty air whenever they do speak.

It's in mid-January that Jonghyun tells them that he quit his job, and not days after that, Taemin catches him in the tub again. Jonghyun barely reacts this time when Taemin heaves him out of the tub, strips him down and dries him off. By the beginning of February, Taemin is on autopilot: first to the bedroom to get a fresh set of clothes, then to the bathroom to get Jonghyun, then to the kitchen because Jonghyun is definitely not eating as much as he should be.

Something breaks inside when they wake up in the middle of the night and Jonghyun isn't in bed next to them. They find him curled in on himself, asleep in the bathtub. The water is cold, and so is Jonghyun's skin when Taemin reaches out to touch.

So the next day, Taemin skips their history class to sit down with Jonghyun and set a few rules. “No baths while I'm gone, and send me pictures of your plate before and after you eat. Okay, Jonghyunnie?”

Jonghyun nods, but he doesn't meet Taemin's gaze or say anything, so Taemin tries again. “Can you tell me what I just said?”

It takes a long few seconds for Jonghyun to speak, and when he does, his voice is flat and devoid of all emotion. “No baths while you're gone. Send pictures when I eat.”

“You...know I love you, right?”

Jonghyun just shrugs. But the rules work for a few weeks - Jonghyun is gaining weight again and Taemin gets pictures of his breakfast and lunch everyday while they're in class. Jonghyun is even initiating little kisses and touches again, nothing like how he used to, but it's enough.

It works until Taemin decides on a whim to surprise Jonghyun with movie tickets and a reservation to his favorite restaurant, and when they come home early, the first thing they hear is the sound of someone (Jonghyun) outright sobbing. As soon as Taemin realizes what the sound is, they drop all of their things and rush to the source of the sound, to where Jonghyun is sitting on the floor in the hallway. He’s curled in on himself and his clothes are wet, and he’s not even trying to muffle his sobs. He starts when Taemin touches him, and when he realizes who it is behind him, he flinches and scrambles away, staring at them with hurt and confusion and pain in his eyes and in the set of his mouth.

“Jonghyunnie, what happened? What’s wrong?” Taemin tries to ignore how Jonghyun’s hair is wet and hanging in his face, how his skin is red and warm from water that was probably too hot and too harsh.

Jonghyun shakes his head and scowls down at the floor. Water from his hair drips onto the tile and Taemin watches Jonghyun tremble for a few moments before trying again. “Can you tell me what’s wrong, Jonghyunnie?”

“Don’t call me that!” Jonghyun’s outburst isn’t that loud or venomous, but there is something in his tone that makes Taemin look, really look at him. But just as quickly as the anger had come, it disappears and Jonghyun just...sags, clearly exhausted. “Don’t call me that, Taemin.”

“Then tell me what happened.”

Jonghyun looks back up, and he’s glaring now, all the emotion from his outburst back now. “I stubbed my toe, okay? I stubbed my toe and I hate feet and I hate this body, Taemin. I hate myself and I just…” Jonghyun chokes on a sob and when he looks back up at Taemin, his eyes are red and wet with tears. “I just want to go home.”

Jonghyun barely gets through his quiet admission before beginning to cry again, hiccuping sobs that shake his whole body, and even though Taemin wants so badly to comfort Jonghyun, to hold him and kiss him or even just make sure he’ll be okay, the way Jonghyun had glared at them, like they were the one doing this, hurting him, makes them think. Because..it is their fault. They’d pulled Jonghyun from the sea, from his home, from everything familiar. And they’d...ruined him without even thinking about it.

And the hurt and anger in his eyes...Taemin gets up, goes to their bedroom and quietly shuts the door behind them as they try to think of what to do and how to fix what they’ve destroyed. They know it has to be something big, something to at least try to make up for everything, but they don’t really figure out what that could be until Kibum invites them on a trip for spring break. And that’s it, that’s what Jonghyun needs, to get out of the house and away from the city. If Kibum looks at Taemin strangely when they decline, Taemin doesn’t really care, because taking Jonghyun to the beach for spring break may be the only thing that can save what little relationship they have left.

By the time March hits, Taemin has already made plans with Heechul for them to use his beach house for the week; they decide to tell Jonghyun as soon as they’re sure they can go, so that the anticipation can build and build for them both. But when Taemin tells Jonghyun one day during dinner that they’ll be going down to the beach for the week, all they get is a strained smile and a tiny nod. So they’re not too sure that this is a good idea, but when classes finally let out and the scenery begins to change, Jonghyun finally begins to brighten up just a little. He’s breathing the salty air in deep and fidgeting in his seat the way he used to when things moved too slowly for his liking.

“Are you excited?”

“Yeah!” Jonghyun says it almost before Taemin can finish speaking, and then he composes himself and says in a more relaxed tone, “very.”

Taemin bites their lip to keep their laugh in. There must be something in the crisp air, because they’re happy too, excited in the way they hadn’t been since they were a kid, and as they pull up at Heechul’s beach house, they have an idea.

“Do you wanna swim?”

Jonghyun gets that much brighter and nods eagerly, bouncing in place while he waits for Taemin to unlock the doors. “Race you!”

God, they haven’t done that in ages. Taemin easily agrees and toes off their shoes, waiting for Jonghyun to do the same before unlocking the doors. They tear out one after the other, and instead of running for the water like Jonghyun is doing, Taemin darts towards him, catching him around the waist and pulling him close. Even though their teeth clink in the kiss, Taemin feels alive in a way they haven’t felt in ages, breathing in the smell of the sand and the sea and Jonghyun.

They’d half expected Jonghyun to freeze up or not respond to the kiss, but he melts in Taemin’s grip and even if his lips are hesitant, they’re soft and he’s...almost the way he used to be, when he was really alive. But then Jonghyun’s lips curve up into a wicked grin, and before Taemin can remember that they’re technically still racing, Jonghyun shoves them back and darts towards the water, laughing delightedly as he hits the water.

He’s still human and he must be freezing, but Jonghyun frolicks in the shallow water before diving into the next wave that crashes against him. When he pops up, he’s drenched and happy, and after taking a deep breath, Taemin joins him all at once, shivering from the cold once they emerge. The water is freezing and they’d much rather be inside, but Jonghyun is happy and that’s...all that matters.

“You came!” Jonghyun sounds startled, but pleased, and Taemin wipes their hair from their eyes before replying.

“Anything for you, Jonghyun. Remember?”

Jonghyun smiles, comes close and kisses Taemin again, only pulling away when a huge wave crashes over them and separates them. “It’s so cold!” They sound delighted though, and Taemin can’t hold in their laugh this time.

“We should go inside though, before we get sick. You’re still human, Jonghyunnie, remember?” Taemin doesn’t think when they say the petname, and although it doesn’t change much, Jonghyun’s smile does falter a little.

“I…”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize. I won’t say it anymore, Jonghyun. Really.”

“What? I...oh. Oh. I..don’t really mind that, I like Jonghyunnie. I was just mad...sorry.”

“It’s okay, Jonghyunnie-”

“We should go.” The way Jonghyun interrupts them makes a tiny part of Taemin think that maybe it’s not really okay, but they follow Jonghyun out of the cold water and back to the house. While Jonghyun brings in their bags, Taemin turns the thermostat all the way up and starts a hot bath for them. They wait for Jonghyun to slip in first before getting in themself, and the way they fit together in the warm water, the way Jonghyun relaxes against them makes Taemin melt.

“Jonghyunnie, we’re going to have to get groceries tomorrow...need food.”

“Ice cream?” Even without looking, Taemin knows that Jonghyun is pouting in that way he always does when he’s trying to get what he wants.

And like always, Taemin gives in - kisses each beauty mark on the back of Jonghyun’s neck before murmuring, “Of course, Jonghyunnie. For you, anything.”

Jonghyun only hesitates for a moment before fumbling for Taemin’s hand in the water to hold it tight, and they sit there in the water until it gets cold, talking about anything and everything that happens to pass through their minds. And it feels for once like everything is going to be okay. Once the water has cooled down too much to stay pleasant, they empty the tub and towel themselves dry before getting changed into pajamas.

The debate between pizza and takeout quickly ends with pizza winning; they eat in front of the television with some drama playing that neither of them pay any attention to. Jonghyun wants to go for a walk when they’re finished eating, and pouts at Taemin until they sigh and agree; since there’s no one else on the beach, they leave right away, still in their pajamas. The sand is warm between their bare toes and Jonghyun’s hand is soft in theirs, and even though Taemin keeps catching Jonghyun glancing longingly out at the sea, the way Jonghyun smiles at them, the way he laughs, the way he kisses them makes Taemin think that maybe, just maybe he’ll stay.

Taemin doesn’t know how long they wander the beach for, but it’s long enough that the sun is soon setting; even though they’ve sat out to watch the sun set over the sea before, it feels different this time, and Taemin very nearly loses their breath at the gorgeous spread of color in the sky. When they look over and see Jonghyun next to them, the feelings that bloom in their heart make them think that what they’re feeling now must be pure, unadulterated love.

They do draw the line though, when Jonghyun turns to them with pouty lips and pleading eyes and says, “Can we sleep outside?”

“It’ll be freezing, Jonghyunnie. Why do you want to sleep outside?”

“I want to hear the ocean…” Jonghyun gives the sea another longing glance, and Taemin grabs his hand and holds it tight as a sudden flash of fear shoots through him.

“We can hear the ocean from inside, Jonghyunnie. Please, just...let’s sleep inside. Please.”

And maybe Jonghyun can feel the desperation in Taemin’s voice, because he stares at Taemin long and hard before nodding and asking in a whisper-quiet voice, “Do you want to go to sleep now?”

Taemin isn’t tired, but all they want now and forever is to be close to Jonghyun, so they follow him inside and to their old bedroom. The bed is far too small for them both, but they curl up together in a tangle of limbs and blankets, and Taemin tries to memorize how Jonghyun feels and smells and breathes, because as Jonghyun settles into sleep against them, they feel a wave of apprehension that only barely dissipates when Jonghyun kisses their neck goodnight.

They wake sometime in the middle of the night alone, and at first they think nothing of it, but when they don’t hear the creak of the stairs or the flush of the toilet, they decide to stumble out of bed to investigate. Jonghyun isn’t in the bathroom, or in the kitchen, although there is a half filled glass of water sitting on the counter, and Taemin is mid-yawn when they see that the front door has been pushed open just a little. And all of a sudden, they’re wide awake - they rush outside and scan the empty beach with sleep-clouded eyes; their heart feels like it’s going to pound out of their chest but then they see him, and their heart all but stops. Because all they can see is Jonghyun’s head and shoulders bobbing in the dark water, and it takes another few seconds for Taemin to realize that he’s not a seal, that he’s going further into the water and their mind flashes back to all those times they’d found Jonghyun submerged beneath the water in their bathtub, to when Jonghyun had sobbed out that he hated himself, that he wanted to go home.

Taemin also realizes then how much they’ve ruined, how much Jonghyun has given up to be with them. That they’ve forced him to give whole parts of himself up, over and over again, and that Jonghyun would probably do it over and over again, all for them.

Taemin doesn’t realize that they’re calling out for Jonghyun until Jonghyun spins around, still so graceful even that deep in the water. It takes a few long minutes for him to stumble back to shore, and those precious few moments before they collapse into each other are spent with Taemin just staring, because Jonghyun looks so beautiful and ethereal and pitiful in the moonlight, small and drenched and bared. But then time begins to move again and Taemin crumples to the ground with Jonghyun held tight in their arms. Only when Jonghyun’s fingers come up to wipe away their tears does Taemin realize that they’re crying. And even though Jonghyun is cold and trembling and soaking wet, Taemin holds him tight, because they know now that Heechul had been right, that nothing good ever comes out of falling in love with selkies.

As soon as Taemin trusts their voice to remain steady do they manage to say, “I don’t want you to leave, but I can’t ask you to stay anymore.”

And Jonghyun goes eerily still in their grip, pulls back just enough to look at them before whispering, “You want me to go?”

“No, god no. I just…I want you to choose, I want you to be happy.”

“I…” Jonghyun frowns a little, and he looks, in a word, lost. Taemin longs to kiss him and comfort him and tell him that it’ll all be okay, but they don’t. All they can do now is wait for Jonghyun’s decision-

“I want to go back to bed.”

And Taemin can’t help it, the surge of hope that wells up in their chest, because if Jonghyun wants to go back to bed, maybe he’ll stay, and if he stays…

It’ll all go back to the way things were, with Jonghyun wilting like a fading flower and Taemin trying and failing and failing again to make him happy.

Jonghyun’s pajamas have been tossed in a pile on the sand, and he doesn’t bother to put them on again, just dries off when they get inside and slips into bed. Taemin bites their lip before settling in next to him, and just when they’re on the brink of sleep, and so quietly that they’re sure they’ve imagined it, Jonghyun whispers, “If I leave, I can’t ever come back.”

When Taemin wakes, Jonghyun is still asleep, facing them. Staring at the still softness of Jonghyun’s face in the early morning light makes Taemin’s heart melt, and then they remember everything that’d happened the previous night, how Jonghyun had almost…

And suddenly, even though Taemin can hear Jonghyun’s faint breathing, he seems so still, too still. The panic comes welling up too quickly for Taemin to push back down and they shake Jonghyun awake - when he blinks awake, Taemin stills because this may be the last time waking up to him, this may be their last day together.

“Morning…” Jonghyun mumbles, and even though they’re sure they both have horrible morning breath, Taemin kisses him thoroughly, licking into his mouth with ease and cupping his soft cheek in their hand. When they pull away, they vaguely realize that they’re shaking, and in Jonghyun’s eyes is pity.

“Tae, I-“

“What do you want for breakfast? Anything, name it.”

Jonghyun looks like he wants to protest, but he doesn’t - all he does is kiss Taemin again, slow and gentle this time. He’s quick to bring a hand up to Taemin’s hip though, skimming his fingers beneath their shirt and simply resting it on their chest. But they don’t protest when Taemin slips one of their legs between his, when they pull him closer and closer so their bodies are flush together, when Taemin begins to bring their thigh forward for Jonghyun to rut his slowly hardening cock against. They get each other off like that, with slow movements and lingering kisses, and even though they’re pressed together, Taemin doesn’t feel like they’re close enough, like Jonghyun knows just how much he means to them. But maybe he does, because the only thing Jonghyun gasps out right before he comes is, “I love you.”

And when they finally get out of bed, Jonghyun whispers, “Pancakes.”

It takes Taemin a few seconds to remember, but when they do, they nod and smile. “We can do pancakes.”

The small cafe they used to go to when they were kids is still open, so they eat there - pancakes and coffee and bacon and fresh fruit. It tastes just the same (if not better) than it used to, and even though neither of them speak while they eat, whenever their gazes happen to meet, the smiles they share are more than genuine.

Even though it’s cold out, they decide to walk around once they’re finished eating, just to see how much the town they’d grown up in had changed. Surprisingly, it’s not a lot: many of the shops are still there, and even their little nook of rocks is still there once the tide comes in.

It soon grows too cold for them to walk around, so Jonghyun suggests that they go back to the house, and when they get in, they watch a movie, one that turns into two that turns into three. Even when they’re finished watching movies, they stay curled up on the couch long enough for Jonghyun to fall asleep in Taemin’s arms. It’s nice, painfully domestic and Taemin is stupidly happy just from the familiar weight of Jonghyun’s body over their own.

And when dusk comes and Jonghyun wakes, he rolls over and smiles gently at Taemin, sadness in his eyes. “Hi,” he whispers. Everything is still and near-silent, and Taemin leans in to kiss Jonghyun soft and chaste as a greeting. And even though it starts out gently enough, it turns heated in moments, when Jonghyun licks into Taemin’s mouth and Taemin sucks in his lower lip in turn.

“Tae,” Jonghyun eventually sighs against Taemin’s lips, “want you.”

And Taemin doesn’t know why, but the words make them shudder, and almost without their permission, they murmur back, “Gonna make you feel good, Jonghyunnie.”

When Jonghyun pulls back, his eyes seem to shine from the moonlight that is beginning to spill into the room, and even though the words he says usually make Taemin cringe, the way he says it makes Taemin’s heart melt. “Want you to make love to me.”

Taemin is so gone for him, they realize. There are tears pricking at the corners of their eyes and they blink them back, trying and failing not to let Jonghyun see. “Tae? Don’t cry, I-”

“It’s not sad tears...I’m just happy. I love you a lot, Jonghyunnie. You mean the world to me. You are the world to me.”

Jonghyun’s fingers are trembling when he reaches up to wipe Taemin’s tears away, and his smile is watery and weak. “I know, Tae.” He doesn’t repeat the sentiment, but Taemin doesn’t mind. They hadn’t really been expecting him to. But when they’re finally bare for each other, when Jonghyun hands find Taemin’s as he chokes on a moan, Taemin can tell that maybe, just maybe, he feels the same.

And after they’ve moved to the bedroom, after they’ve come with Jonghyun beneath Taemin this time and Taemin whispering soft praises in Jonghyun’s ear, Taemin collapses next to him with one arm curled around his waist. Jonghyun’s pulse is still racing and his breaths are finally beginning to slow, and even though Jonghyun is pressed against them, Taemin feels like he’s miles away, already far out in the sea in his mind. It makes their own pulse pick up and their heart is pounding in their throat; Taemin closes their eyes instead of addressing it though and pretends to fall asleep, hoping that Jonghyun will do the same and that they’ll have one more day together, that Jonghyun will change his mind entirely.

And it works - Jonghyun gradually stills as well and after one heavy sigh, he curls into Taemin, nuzzling into the pillows the way he always does before he goes to sleep. The relief Taemin feels is practically palpable until Jonghyun whispers, “Tae, are you awake?”

Taemin feels like they should answer, and they want to, but they don’t know what to say, so they don’t. Jonghyun sighs again and carefully removes Taemin’s arm from his waist before leaning in to kiss their cheek, their mouth. And against Taemin’s lips, he whispers, “Goodbye, Tae.”

If Jonghyun can feel Taemin’s heart begin to race, he doesn’t say anything about it - he hesitates for a long few seconds before slipping out of bed entirely, and even though Taemin knows this is it, that this is the last time they’ll ever get to talk to Jonghyun again, they can’t move, can’t speak, can’t even breathe.

By the time they force themself to move, it’s way too late, and Taemin watches from the window as Jonghyun makes his way down to the beach, to the ocean. It’s almost like the water is pulling him in, and only when Jonghyun is knee deep in the water does he turn around, one last time. If he sees Taemin standing by the window, he doesn’t say anything, just turns back around and dives into the dark water.

And that’s it.

Taemin doesn’t really have a reason to stay, so the next morning, they pack everything up and get back on the road to the apartment. They feel like they’re in a trance with how muted everything feels and looks and sounds, and everything, everything reminds them of Jonghyun now. When they tell Kibum that they’ve broken up, they’re half expecting Kibum to at least sit on the phone and console them, but all Kibum does is hang up - he’s over in just under ten minutes, and by the time the day ends, everything that reminds Taemin of Jonghyun is neatly packed away.

Kibum also takes the liberty of introducing Taemin to his friend Minho; the three of them meet at the Starbucks where Jonghyun had worked, and when Kibum introduces Minho, he says, “You two will get along fine, nerd here finally just got over being dumped...he was worse than you, crying and going on.”

Minho looks thoroughly embarrassed, but he does give Taemin this sheepish smile before saying, “In my defense, it was a breakup after three years. We’re friends now, but it was hard then.”

“I hope she’s happy too, at least?” Because regardless of how they’re feeling, they want at least that much for Jonghyun.

“He.” Minho sounds almost amused at the way Taemin flounders for an answer, and then he frowns a little, like he’s remembering something. “Wait...aren’t you Jonghyun’s friend?”

“Boyfriend.” And then Taemin remembers, and they correct themself with a wry grin and a shrug, “Ex-boyfriend.”

Minho hums and nods, understanding but not at all pitying, and for that, Taemin is grateful. It still doesn’t seem real, that Jonghyun is gone, and they keep expecting to look up and see Jonghyun walking towards them with a drink right now. “If you ever need to...you know, talk. Or anything, drop by here, okay?”

“Or you could give him your number, nerd. That’s what people usually do.”

Right, thanks mom.” Minho rolls his eyes, but he’s still grinning, like this is just a normal part of their friendship.

“Shut up, nerd.” And to Taemin, while Minho inputs his number in Taemin’s phone, “Minho’s studying to be a marine biologist. He’s super nerdy. Like top of the class nerdy.”

“Not top of the class...barely top 25.”

“Smart, modest, handsome…” Kibum shakes his head and rolls his eyes in mock disgust before muttering under his breath, “what a nerd. He even does sports, he’s like...literally perfect.”

And yeah, Minho kind of is. Not that Taemin will ever admit that.

Please ignore Kibum. We’ve known each other for years, and he’s my closest friend, although sometimes I wonder why.” Another teasing grin, this one directed at Kibum, and even though Kibum launches into a whole tirade about why Minho should be grateful to him, one that is full of inside references that Taemin doesn’t even try to understand, they sort of feel like they belong here. And when Minho meets their gaze as Kibum begins to speak, Taemin can’t help mirroring his smug grin, even if the curve of Minho’s lips slowly turns softer and sweeter. They feel their heart stutter in their chest, just a little, but then they remember how Jonghyun used to smile at them like that, and their grin falters and fades.

And maybe Minho understands, because he reaches across the table to squeeze Taemin’s hand tight in his. “Tae, I’m here. For anything, okay?”

Despite themself, Taemin finds themself nodding. And even though their heart still aches for Jonghyun, even though they still have to go back to the emptiness of their apartment, the thought that they now have Minho makes them feel a little bit better.

And everything is good until Taemin gets back to the apartment and realizes just how alone they are, how still everything is without Jonghyun here. Taemin barely makes it to midnight before fumbling for their phone to call Minho. Minho picks up on the fourth ring, and when Taemin hears the sleepy little noise he makes, they almost hang up. But then they remember Minho’s earnest, honest smile, and so they push out, “I know it's late, and that we just met, but just...you said, and it's so lonely.”

Their voice breaks on the last word, and Minho yawns before humming low in his throat. Taemin can hear the rustle of sheets and then Minho's voice comes quiet in their ear. “I'll be there as soon as I wake up.”

“Thank you.”

Another sleepy noise before Minho hangs up, and in just under a half hour, Minho is knocking on Taemin's door. He still looks more than half-asleep, hair rumpled and eyes soft, but he gives Taemin a pleased grin before following them on their brief tour of the apartment. When they eventually wind up in the bedroom, Minho glances at Taemin sidelong before sitting down (on Jonghyun’s side) and saying, “I do want to talk now, but I’m exhausted...”

“No, it’s fine, I get it. I’ll sleep on the couch, just...tell me if you need anything? It’ll probably take me a while to fall asleep, so.”

“If anything, I should be the one on the couch, just...sleep here. You’re used to sharing a bed anyway, and I don’t mind.”

It should be weird, but it feels almost familiar slipping into bed and hearing the sheets rustle as Minho settles down as well. Familiar because of Jonghyun, and Taemin fights so hard to get that thought out of their head. They instead stare at the vague shape of Minho’s body in the dark, and he’s so far away, all the way on the other side of the bed. Taemin is itching to move closer, to touch just for the sake of being close, but they don’t move.

Taemin doesn’t know how long it takes them to fall asleep, but when they wake up in the middle of the night, disoriented and tense from a bad dream, and they heart light breaths from next to them, they reach out with Jonghyun’s name on their lips, flushing themself into him and nosing into the back of his neck.

But then they breathe him in, and it doesn’t smell like Jonghyun, and everything comes rushing back. They can’t bring themself to let Minho go though.

The next morning, Minho treats Taemin to breakfast. It’s nothing fancy, just pancakes at some tucked away on-the-corner shop, but they’re perhaps the best pancakes Taemin has ever had, and the hot chocolate...god, Jonghyun would love it.

They wish Jonghyun were here too.

“So, marine biology?”

“Yeah...I’ve always liked the ocean. When I was little, my brother took me to an aquarium and I was hooked ever since. We went to the beach one time and some guy pulled out this giant crab and just...I want to know what’s out there, you know? I also...this is kind of embarrassing, but things like kelpies and sirens and hippocampi...I’ve always liked reading about those too. And yeah, people think they’re not real, but we don’t really know that. We don’t know what’s really out there.” Minho shrugs, gives Taemin this sheepish little grin before saying, “I just like the ocean.”

“I think you’re right.” Taemin feels like they should say more, but they don’t have the words, and...they feel like Minho understands.

They end up talking for almost an hour, about school and Kibum and relationships and their childhoods. Taemin tells Minho about Jonghyun (that they’d met as children, grown up together, dated, and now…) and Minho tells Taemin about his ex, Junmyeon. That it’d been a rough breakup on both ends, but that they’re both happy now. Happy and better off as friends. That much had been mutual at least.

Minho says that even though the breakup had hurt in the beginning, they’d talked things over. They’d talked and they’d set boundaries for their relationship (they’d had classes together and there was no way they wouldn’t be able to just...not see each other) and they’d learned to become friends again. And even though Minho says with a gentle smile that maybe Jonghyun can be their friend again too, Taemin knows that he won’t.

It’s a nice thought though.

They soon end up hanging out more, and even though what they do could be classified as dates, it doesn’t feel like that until Kibum accuses Taemin of, “Blowing me off to go on a date with your new boyfriend.”

Taemin can’t help the laugh that bubbles up. “Minho isn’t my boyfriend,” they explain, “he’s just a good friend... he’s helping me like you said he would.”

“Helping…” The way Kibum says it is clearly an innuendo, and even though Taemin rolls their eyes, Kibum says in a mild voice, “You did get him in your bed the day you met.”

“We didn’t even do anything!”

“I know, I know. He told me. He really likes you-”

“I don’t want that, Bum. It’s only...we’ve barely known each other for a month.”

“You’re not saying you don’t like him.”

“Well, maybe I do. But it’s just a little crush, and I don’t want to date him. He’s like...I dunno, an older brother. Dependable and reliable and all that.”

“I totally believe you. Anyway, did Minho invite you to...actually, no. Never mind.”

What? “What? Where?”

The way Kibum is smiling says that he’s completely done this on purpose, but he shrugs and then checks his phone before standing and carefully pushing his chair in and putting the book he hadn’t been reading back on its shelf. “I’ve got class soon, I’ll see you later, yeah?”

“You ass.

Kibum gives Taemin a sweet smile but otherwise doesn’t bother replying, just hurries to get to the door and slip away.

And even though the thought is on Taemin’s mind all week, they soon find out when Minho calls them that Friday night after Taemin gets home from a late dance rehearsal. “Hey, are you doing anything tomorrow?”

They’d planned to practice some with Jongin, but that can wait. “Nothing, why?”

“Just wondering if you wanted to go to the aquarium with me. I can pick you up at ten.”

“I...yeah. Yeah, I’d love that. I’ll see you at ten?”

Minho sounds like he’s smiling when he says, “See you then.”

When Taemin gets into Minho’s car the next morning, they glance sidelong at him before asking, “Is this a date?” They’re mostly teasing, but the way Minho frowns in consideration makes their pulse skyrocket.

And after a long few seconds, Minho turns to them at a red light and asks, “Do you want it to be?”

Taemin doesn’t know what to say, and before they can make up their mind, Minho grins and shakes his head. “I’m kidding, I just have work.”

In that moment, in that split-second before Taemin remembers that they’re only friends, they can’t help the surge of disappointment that they feel.

But even though they’re kind of reluctant to go to the aquarium, it’s...actually pretty fun. Minho’s shift doesn’t start for almost an hour, so he shows Taemin around, and when he slips away for a long five minutes, he comes back with a cup of strawberry dippin’ dots, two sodas and a smug grin.

“You’re welcome.”

“Thank you.” Taemin glances at the long snack line and then back over at Minho before rolling their eyes. “What, are those your employee benefits?”

“Can’t have you knowing all my secrets on the first date.”

Taemin’s heart very nearly stops. “Date?”

“If that’s okay with you, yeah. I’d like this to be a date.”

Taemin thinks that they would, and when they tell Minho that, he smiles, genuine and bright. And Taemin thinks that maybe they can be happy with him.

They don’t really...put a label on what they have, not after dozens of outings that neither of them call dates, not after Minho kisses Taemin gentle and sweet, not even after Taemin introduces Minho to their parents. (Taemin’s mother asks about Jonghyun, and Taemin is surprised to find that their heart doesn’t ache when they give the short story: “We broke up and he moved away.”) But that doesn’t really bother Taemin, because they’re not really in love with Minho, not like they’d been in love with Jonghyun. They love him dearly, but it’s something different, deeper and more steady.

And one sunny Friday afternoon after classes have let out for the year, Minho meets Taemin for ice cream with big news: “I got an internship, Taeminnie. It’s down by the ocean, so I won’t really be able to come back and forth. Was planning on just renting a beach house down there.”

“My grandfather has a beach home, you could use that. I doubt he’d mind.”

“We can leave as early tomorrow-”

“We?” Taemin’s heart thumps in their chest and there’s a strange sense of deja-vu, of things coming full circle.

“Yeah, we. If you want to, anyway. I...I’d like to spend the summer with you.” Minho looks unusually shy, and Taemin nudges him before giving him a cold, sugar sweet kiss.

“I’d love to.”

Taemin had been somewhat nervous as they loaded up their car with suitcases and other essentials, but as the scenery gradually begins to change and become more familiar, they feel...numb. Not bad numb, but good numb - almost nostalgic, and when they look over, they keep expecting to see Jonghyun sitting there. The saltwater air smells like the way Jonghyun’s skin had smelled when Taemin breathed him in after a long day, the faint breeze carries whispers of Jonghyun’s voice, and the warmth of the sun on their face is almost the same as the warmth Taemin felt when they were pressed close to Jonghyun, even just when they held hands.

They miss him, but they’re not sad.

Taemin glances over at Minho now, Minho with his strong jaw and tanned skin and warm eyes, and he’s so different but so like Jonghyun as well. The amount of love Taemin has for them both…

Minho glances over, meets their gaze, and he smiles. Taemin smiles back, easy and genuine, but when they finally pull up to the house, their smile drops and all the memories come back. Walks along the beach, dancing in the water, that first kiss in the sand, Jonghyun disappearing into the water so many times and finally for good, playing with Roo, the first time they’d met at all. Everything, all of it had happened here, and Taemin is overwhelmed by the sheer emotion they’re feeling. And then Minho raps sharply on their car window and Taemin’s heart stops as they jump.

When they finally get out of the car, Minho is frowning, a little concerned, a lot curious. “You okay?”

“Yeah, just…” But no, they can’t tell him. Not about everything. “I’m fine.”

“Okay. Let’s just go in, yeah?” Minho’s hand settles low on Taemin’s waist to bring them inside, and even though Taemin should be introducing Heechul and Minho, they’re stuck with their memories again, of all the pizza and ice cream and pancakes they’d eaten on this counter, them and Jonghyun and Heechul and Taesun.

They miss those days.

Minho has to lead Taemin upstairs, has to tug them into their old bedroom, past the window in the hall where they’d watched Jonghyun-

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

Minho’s hand is gentle and cool on Taemin’s cheek, firm and calloused and solid and anchoring. “I’m...yeah. I’m fine. Are you...where are you staying?”

“I’m in the next room. The bed is small.” But then Minho’s concern melts into a soft grin as he laughs a little under his breath. “You’re...you remind me of a selkie.”

The breath is knocked out of Taemin’s lungs and they have to force themself not to react, not the do anything other than croak out a weak, “What?”

“A selkie. They’re...these seal people-”

“No, I...I know what they are. But just...why?”

“Just the way you look sometimes. You get this look on your face, almost like you’ve lost something. And today...it looks like you’ve found it in the sea.”

God, if only he knew. “I...I just grew up here. Memories.”

Minho doesn’t look like he buys it completely, but he drops it, just nods and kisses Taemin’s forehead before grabbing his suitcase and leaving the room. After a long few seconds of waiting, Taemin slips out of the room as well and creeps down the stairs and outside. There’s no one on this stretch of the beach, and Taemin runs for the water, cold and unforgiving against his toes, but they continue until they’re almost waist deep, until their shorts are soaked and clinging to their skin.

They don’t really know why they’re doing this - there’s no logic to it, and they can’t even know if anything will come of it, but there’s some instinct, or maybe it’s just the memory, but they call out for Jonghyun until their voice is hoarse and the tears begin well up, until they’re shivering and hopeless. Just when they’re about to turn around and go back to the house, they see a pair of dark eyes farther out in the sea, much farther than any human could swim.

Taemin holds their breath and tries, fails not to move closer. The seal (or selkie, their mind supplies) doesn’t appear to move, and when Taemin can gather enough air to speak, they call out, “Jonghun, if that’s you, I...god, I’m sorry. For everything, just...I’m sorry, and I love you. I never wanted to hurt you, you know that, right?”

The seal doesn’t move for a long moment, and Taemin shrugs. “That’s all...I just wanted to say that. I wish I could’ve said it earlier.”

Again, the seal doesn’t do anything - after another long staring contest and a few endless moments, Taemin turns back around and goes back to shore. When they pause and turn to the sea, the seal is gone. It isn’t the type of closure Taemin had wanted, but it’s closure enough, and suddenly, Taemin feels completely, absolutely drained.

Minho is sitting in bed when Taemin pushes open the door to his room, and even though Minho does frown a bit at their wet shorts, all he does is open his arms for Taemin to fall into, and he holds Taemin tight as they try to blink back hot tears.

“Are you okay, Tae?”

Taemin shakes their head, waits until they’re sure their voice won’t shake. “I don’t want to be alone.”

“Are you...going to tell me what happened?”

Taemin shakes their head again and closes their eyes tight. They can feel Minho’s sigh, but he doesn’t say anything, just brings his hand up to stroke Taemin’s hair before pulling them closer and whispering words that fall on deaf ears.

Taemin doesn’t know how long they lay like that, with Minho’s solid warmth all around them, but they’re eventually lulled to sleep by the sound of the ocean, his steady heartbeat and the memory of Jonghyun’s body against theirs.