The sweet, fresh air blowing off the lake brushed through his hair; wonderfully cool to his flushed cheeks as he stumbled through the muddy weeds and underbrush. His friends cursed colorfully behind him, though not because nature was winning; they perused the shores in the daylight, without the haze of alcohol, and their bodies remembered the way even with everything delightfully askew.
They had graduated from high school just that night, swarming from getting their diplomas to getting dinner, and then dancing and drinking from party to party, Jungkook barely remembering where he went first.
Growing up around a small lake, in the middle of rural, butt-fuck nowhere with the Amish meant that everyone knew everyone else—if only because of the forty-five-minute drive it took to reach their school.
Halfway through the night, thoroughly drunk, the urge to skip stones and swim struck him. Part of him jumped up when several girls talked about wanting to swim, but by the time they reached the muddy shore, the girls had either disappeared or been led astray.
Jungkook couldn’t feel disappointed, though; the moment he caught sight of the lake, he decided skipping stones with two of his idiot friends sounded great.
Stumbling down to the water’s edge, he called out to the two guys he knew for sure that had come, telling them that he was going to grab some rocks for them.
Sometimes, when he got too close to the surface of the water, he swore he could see faces lurking slightly below his reflection—superimposed like a boss looming in the doorway.
Currently enamored with nearly everything he set his eyes on, Jungkook stared boldly into the shallows, where they sloped into deeper water. Paranoia brushed at him, whispering that something other than his friends was watching him. He let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding, refusing to buy into the intrusive thought, and his hand shot down into the water, grasping for the smooth, flat rocks he knew waited for him.
He didn’t stop to think about the litter that clustered in the rocky shallows, away from where the children played, and a piece of something sharp, something with teeth, grazed the meat of his palm.
Yelling in pain, Jungkook snatched his hand back, shaking it like he could fling pain from it with the water droplets.
“Fuck, fucking fuck,” he hissed.
“Yo dude, you alright?”
He heard his friends make their way over to him, but before he could share the product of his misfortune with them, he felt a boot press to his ass, kicking him into the water.
Thankfully his dead weight floated, though his immediate kicking would have put him in deep water if he had drifted further forward, away from the ledge.
Swearing at the assholes masquerading as his friends, he went grabbing for stones again, throwing them clumsily onto the shore in their direction.
They laughed raucously, not even trying to dodge his onslaught until he trudged back onshore, pulled off his sopping shirt, and began to whip them with it.
It would be late into his hangover the next day when Jungkook would finally notice his missing class ring.
Taehyung watched. He floated from the poorer mud huts on the far end of the Depths, to his own palace crafted of bedrock and specifically broken Coke bottles, watching the humans in their boats from afar and the ones that dared step in without a barrier as close as he dared go.
Drunk humans were his favorite; they never noticed him, even if he hovered just beneath the surface of the water, camouflaged by the aquatic plants the mermaids braided into his hair.
When the warm months came, humans ventured out in droves, buzzing around the edges of his lake like clumsy, rude honeybees, polluting his waters and killing his fish if he couldn’t relocate their debris fast enough.
During the days, he dared not venture too far toward the surface, lest someone catch sight of him, but at night, he tried to clean his waters as much as he could.
And in between his sweeping, he looked for his humans.
That night he heard them while he skimmed the rocky shallows, drawing the rusty beer cans and lost fishing hooks into his satchel so he could take them back down to his castle. The humans sounded young and very drunk, so Taehyung slipped further into the water, waiting to see what they would do.
Miracle of miracles, one leaned over the water, and he slid further up, unable to help himself. He wanted a closer look, though he felt sad when the boy hurt himself.
Drawing back, wishing he could bandage him like he did for his bluegills, Taehyung nearly yelled himself when the boy came crashing into the water without warning.
Taehyung tried to orient himself, unsure what was going on, when a very distinct scent registered:
Blood. Human blood.
Worried the boy had been badly hurt, he swam forward, only to stop when something glinted just in front of his eyes.
His hands went up instinctively to cradle it as it came to rest in his palms, it wreathed in the rusted scent of human blood.
It was a ring: beautiful and thick, golden with a large red stone cut like the sun.
He inhaled shakily, staring down at it, as his vision tunneled. It had happened. He never thought it would happen.
Clasping the ring to his heart, feeling his pulse race with bewildered excitement, he nearly revealed himself right then and there, wanting to greet the boy that had given him such a wonderful gift—but he knew that the human hadn’t come alone.
Taehyung drew back reluctantly, swearing he would find this boy again—knowing it, because he now knew his scent, the essence of his lifeblood.
The others would never believe this.
Once Jungkook managed sunlight without vomiting, he retraced every step that he could remember of the night before: he went to Robin’s house, the girl that held the party, asked around about it, and then examined her yard, before being chased off with a less-than-enthused promise to text him if she found it.
His parents would kill him; the ring had been a seriously expensive, unwanted gift that he hadn’t dare put his foot down about. Graduation rings were for people who thought high school was the best part of their lives, and while he was too smart for that kind of belief, he hadn’t been able to talk his parents out of buying one for him.
He spent as much time as he could rationally allot to tracking it down, but he eventually returned home, shrouded in storm clouds as he contemplated buying another with his own money to fool his parents. God, he didn’t want to dip into his savings that much, so close to college.
Almost in response to his mood, real storm clouds grew on the horizon, promising a hearty thunderstorm that night, and a guarantee that Jungkook wouldn’t be able to go out biking to distract himself.
Frustration only compounding when he texted his two friends, and they gave him the most plausible lead as to where his ring could be, he threw himself onto his bed, knowing he likely would never see the ring again.
“Fucking stupid idiot. Fucking stupid me.”
Jungkook stared outside of his dormer window, watching the storm clouds grow, listening to the wind whipping through the eaves, thinking nothing tangible, his mind on his emotions.
After a good period of time had passed, he forced himself over to his desk. If he had to pay for a new ring, he might as well start looking into scholarships for school—surely at least one would present him with a fat check that he could use however he pleased.
He searched and typed with purpose, only resurfacing vaguely when the rain hit, though the first loud crash of thunder did have him bang his knees off the underside of his desk.
Grumbling to himself, wondering how he had missed the build, he glanced up at his overhead light as it began to flicker, wondering if that was his cue to go to bed.
Saving the links he hadn’t gotten a chance to check out, Jungkook closed out of his work right as the power flickered again, lightning zigzagging outside.
Standing to close his blinds, body rather lethargic from spending so long seated, he froze when lightning struck again, illuminating a body on his roof that appeared to be staring in through his window.
His heart leapt into his throat as he tried to process what he had seen; but, with the lights of his room being so bright, he could no longer see the roof behind the reflection.
Jungkook’s legs locked up, and his mind raced a million miles an hour. He had a baseball bat in his closet, a knife in his desk, and his parents were downstairs. Part of him wanted to yell for them and run, but another thought seized control of his functions: More than anything, he was angry. Who the hell would be spying on him in this weather?
Grabbing for his second desk drawer, he drew it out and reached in for his knife, prepared to be tough, prepared to face whomever it was—
And then the person knocked at the window pane.
Yelling hoarsely, he turned tail and raced out of his room, fear pounding so thickly through him that he thought he might throw up.
By the time he reached his parents, and dragged their skeptical selves upstairs, the silhouette on the roof was gone.
Jungkook insisted that he saw someone, that he wouldn’t have reacted so badly if he hadn’t clearly seen a person, but even when he went outside to see if someone had fallen off the roof, no one was there.
A lovely discussion followed about potential drug use that had Jungkook really, truly appreciating the course of the day.
A week passed with no ring appearing, despite how many times he texted Robin.
Jungkook really didn’t want to spend the summer in ice-cream-shop hell to pay for a new one, but it had begun to look like he didn’t have a choice. He could only hope his parents wouldn’t notice its absence in the meantime.
He picked up more shifts at work, killing two birds with one stone, as he was out of the house more, thus not having to think about the figure on his roof that he may or may not have imagined, and making more money. However, the late shifts he had to work often left him coming home around midnight, splattered in enough ice cream that he was shocked his shirt hadn’t curdled.
One night, about another week into his heavier work load, Jungkook came home to their showerhead dismantled. His mother had gotten a massage head for their bathroom for Christmas, and while his father was handy, he was also lazy enough to have put it off for as long as possible.
Apparently, he had tried and failed before bed, because no matter how Jungkook fiddled with it, the water would only come out through the tap.
Sighing with annoyance, he resigned himself to taking a bath, finding their old rubber plug to stop it up while he stripped fully, grimacing at the layers of stickiness that came from his work having a grill in addition to ice cream.
He ran his fingers through his hair as the tub filled, scowling when they couldn’t pull through easily. Flashbacks to an exploding milkshake (or three) had him sighing and climbing into the tub before the water could fill it, cupping his hands under the running water so he could pour it up over his head.
Jungkook did that a few times, shivering at the cool air that met his bare skin after the pass of hot water. As much as he didn’t like baths, the temperature difference encouraged him to lean back in the tub, arms resting on the rim as he stared across the bathroom, out the single window to the road below. He would wash in a moment, but his exhaustion twisted into introspection, his thoughts being dragged toward college.
Amid his continued angst over the major he had selected, he didn’t pay the bath any further attention—he knew when to switch the tap off to keep it from overflowing, and the excessive bubbling at the end likely came from a bubble bath his mother had taken earlier in the evening.
Then, between his spread legs, a person’s head rose out of the water, revealing a pair of eyes first, the color indistinguishable in the yellow light of the bathroom, then the rest of the man’s head. Every detail Jungkook latched onto was stranger than the last: He had water lilies and fishing lures braided into his hair, he was wearing a Jacksonville Jaguars jersey that somehow wasn’t wet, despite the fact that he was sitting in the bath with him, and he was strangely beautiful in a way that made him look like he was glowing.
“What the fuck?” Jungkook yelped, scrambling back in the tub, though there was nowhere to go.
“Hi.” The man beamed at him, eyes wide as they ran over him appreciatively.
That more than anything else made Jungkook freeze, his hands shooting into the water to hide his junk.
“What the fuck are you doing in my bath!? How did you even get in here?”
The man cocked his head to the side, like those were very good questions indeed, but his eyes refocused on Jungkook’s chest, glazing over as they took in his muscles.
“I bet you play sports,” he said, like he had been debating for a while on that.
“I play baseball. Can you get out of my bath?”
Pursing his lips, the man’s attention finally returned to his face. “But I’ll disappear.”
The man looked hurt. “I didn’t expect you to be so rude.”
“I. Am. Bathing. And you broke into my house. Bath? House.”
Seeming to consider that, the man nodded. “I know humans are modest. But I figured in private—”
“You have to earn that right.” Jungkook heard the building hysteria in his voice, and he took a deep breath, wondering if he should just attempt to attack this—thing. “And you—how did you get into here? Who are you?”
He lit up again, skin seeming to glow with a green tint. “I’m Taehyung.”
“Okay. How did you get in here, Taehyung?”
“I wanted to meet you,” he answered pleasantly, holding out his hand like that would solve everything.
Against his will, Jungkook glanced down, and knew suddenly that he had fallen asleep in the bath.
Taehyung was wearing his class ring on his left hand, the red jewel darker in the wan light of his bathroom.
“You found my ring.” His head snapped up to stare into the stranger’s pleasant face. “Did you come here just to return it?”
Once more, Taehyung pouted, pulling back his hand to cradle it to his chest. “Of course not! I was so flattered by your offer. I never thought anyone would ever ask me.”
His teeth found his lower lip unconsciously, and it made Jungkook wonder once more what this man could be, when his habits appeared so human.
“Ask you what?”
“To marry you, of course.”
Jungkook stared into his bright, beaming expression, feeling like someone had disconnected the power to his brain.
“I’m sorry. What?”
“I know! It’s crazy. Namjoon always said that it was a matter of time—”
“No, no; not that. What about marriage?”
Taehyung laughed. “You know, the exchanging of vows? The promise of eternal love? Children? Marriage!”
Eyes about to pop out of his skull, Jungkook wheezed, “Children?” He glanced down at the surface of the water, noticing distantly that he had yet to turn off the faucet, and the water level was getting dangerously high. “Aren’t you a boy?”
“Never mind.” He needed to focus on one thing at a time. “I never asked you to marry me.”
“But you did. That’s why I have this.” He wiggled his fingers in Jungkook’s direction.
That’s when the crazy became too much even for his modesty, and he stood up in the tub, hands still cradling his junk as water streamed off him and he moved to stepped out onto the towel he had laid down to avoid tracking water.
Hands closed around his ankle, and he yelped, jerking away from him, stumbling forward, nearly falling onto the floor.
“Get off of me!” He gasped, relieved as he broke the intruder’s grip, his own strength and weight winning out.
He saw the man stand up in the mirror, and when he heard his name, he wheeled around to face him, unable to be modest any longer. Hearing his name had flipped his fear and confusion into anger, a most American reaction to the unfamiliar.
“How do you know my name?”
“It’s on the band of the ring,” Taehyung seemed confused. “Why are you running? I appeared to you solidly this time…”
The words made no sense for a moment, until he recalled the shadowy figure on his roof, shortly after he lost his ring.
“Get out.” The words left his throat with a rasp.
Jungkook didn’t wait to hear; he grabbed his father’s work shirt from the chair in the corner, left there so the man could easily change after his morning shower, and covered himself, marching out of the bathroom.
Taehyung called after him, voice cracking with desperation, though he couldn’t quite make out the words once he got to his own room, locking the door before the stranger could chase after him.
After yanking his curtains shut, he dressed and buried himself under his covers, waiting for Taehyung’s knock at his door and for more plaintive pleas that made no sense to him.
He fell asleep waiting, eyes exhausted from monitoring both his window and the bedroom door, unable to predict which way the man would come.
Taehyung stayed in the bathwater until the sun crept up through the lacy curtains, hoping Jungkook would reconsider and come back.
When it became clear that he had a better chance of seeing Jungkook’s parents, he pulled the plug, vowing that he would meet his future in-laws another time.
He had held it together decently, but seeing Hoseok’s eager eyes first thing when he rematerialized in the lake sent him shivering, teeth digging sharply into his lower lip to hold in his sobs.
Hoseok’s excited grin faded to concern. “Tae?”
“He—” Damn it, he would pull himself together. “He was surprised.”
Hating the pity he could see in his friend’s eyes, he swam around him, wishing for a moment that Hoseok didn’t feel comfortable enough with him to enter his quarters, before scolding himself for thinking such an awful thing. It wasn’t Hoseok’s fault that his meeting had gone so wrong.
Taehyung went to pull open the mesh netting that held his clothes, feeling the inexplicable urge to change, wondering if maybe Jungkook would have reacted better if he had gone in the white sports coat that Seokjin had suggested.
Repressing a sigh, he drew out a green t-shirt with a rather interesting, dappled pattern in purples and reds, thinking wistfully of the morning sun he had just left.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Hoseok hadn’t moved, aware that it wouldn’t take much to persuade Taehyung to talk, and he found his mouth opening despite himself.
“He’s so handsome. Jeon Jungkook.”
Clutching the new shirt to his chest, heart pounding as he conjured the image of Jungkook’s muscular chest and legs, Taehyung finally found the confidence to face Hoseok.
His friend’s tail floated stationary behind him, the forest-green scales nearly black in the early morning lack of light, and Taehyung fought the urge to compare his bare chest to that of the human he had left the night previous.
As Hoseok seemed to be waiting for Taehyung to continue, he began to speak again, retelling the conversation exactly as it had gone, though he trailed off into several reveries when describing how the water loved Jungkook, how his hands were athletic, calloused and strong.
“He could lift me, I think.”
Taehyung shook his head when he began to lose his point, finishing with a despondent “But he told me to leave. And I don’t know what to do.”
He said the last line several times throughout the course of his story, swimming back and forth in his room like the piles of treasure he collected might right the wrong, might fill the hole of longing that Jungkook had eroded in him.
The more he talked, the more agitated Hoseok grew, his tail swinging from side to side, nearly knocking over his color-coded pile of snail shells, until he finally said, “What will you do if he rescinds his offer?”
Even though Jungkook had threatened to do just that, the thought made Taehyung’s heart ice over, and the water temperature around him dropped a whole 10 degrees.
Hoseok pressed back, more sensitive to the temperature than Namjoon or Yoongi would be, and Taehyung reigned in his emotions with difficulty.
“He won’t,” his voice came out strong with confidence he didn’t actually feel. “Humans need emotional connection, I think. He’s probably just shy.”
Neither he nor Hoseok believed his words as they were, but Hoseok didn’t say a word as Taehyung glided out of his room, yanking the dead flowers out of his hair, the frost that had formed on them already dissolved.
Jungkook knew his parents thought he was cracking up. God, he thought he was cracking up. A strange man in a mediocre sports-team jersey emerged from his bathwater. Part of him wanted to refuse late shifts from there on out, as he no longer knew what to do about his class ring. If what he had seen was true, and he was inclined to believe it was, if only because he had never had such a vivid dream before, then it wasn’t really missing, was it?
He hadn’t yet made up his mind when his mother came to yell at him to hurry up; they were going to stake out the town where he would be going to college, probably grab lunch. They had visited a few times over the school year, but never in the warm months, and Jungkook’s parents wanted him to be prepared.
It had been a few days since the incident, and he hadn’t been able to put off bathing for more than two before his mother made him late for work, threatening him if he left the house “smelling like that.” Working with messy foods didn’t help his water boycott, and the smell of grease clung to him so thickly that he dreamed about their cheese fries.
But it didn’t matter that morning; he had been showering for the past few days, and had just taken a morning shower, with no stranger appearing in front of him. Despite himself, Jungkook began to admit that he might have hallucinated the whole thing. Maybe Jordan accidentally brought his pot brownies to work again.
His belief rested in limbo, so when they set out in his father’s car, relief came thick and strong the further they got away from the lake.
By the time they reached the town, Jungkook had relaxed and was texting some of his friends about a party that was going on that weekend, talking with his parents when their periodic conversations involved him.
College loomed everywhere in the town, the culture clinging like an aura to all the people that passed him: to the boys with wild beards and the girls with shaved heads. It was like they had gone to NYC compared to his shithole of a town, and Jungkook wanted to go everywhere, do everything. Even his strict parents couldn’t chide him too much—they were proud of their son. An athletic scholarship to one of the top schools in the state wasn’t anything to sneeze at.
His wanderings eventually wore his mother out, though, and she waved him on when he spotted a rather-enticing comic book store, calling that they would come find him after they grabbed some coffee.
Jungkook crossed the road with two other people and pushed into the small store, eyes taking a moment to adjust before he could take in the clean brightness, the walls showing in pops of cerulean behind the rows and rows of alphabetical comic books.
Thumbing through a book or two, Jungkook looked without connecting, focused instead on his future, wondering if he would start reading comics again in college. The shop near his house was decrepit, owned by an overweight weeaboo who clearly had no interest in upholding a shop that anyone else would want to shop in, and he hadn’t found anything good there in months.
Lost in the dusty corners of another store over two hours away, he didn’t hear the stranger completely when he spoke.
“Excuse me,” Jungkook mumbled, placing the New Avengers book where he had grabbed it, shuffling to the side.
The insult pulled Jungkook’s attention back to earth, and he wheeled around to face the rude stranger as the man repeated himself:
“Are you Jeon Jungkook?”
He went on guard when he heard his name, all too aware that there was no one else in the store, and that the cashier was in his own world, playing on his phone.
“Who’s asking?” He bit out.
Jungkook took a moment to give the stranger a once over, noting their height and size difference: the stranger was thin, shorter than him. It would be suicide for him to pick a fight against someone so much bigger than him. Unless he had a gun.
Glancing at the shopkeeper again, wishing he would notice the atmosphere, Jungkook nearly missed the stranger’s answer of “Min Yoongi.”
“Alright, Min Yoongi. What do you want?” Déjà vu slapped him so hard the moment the words left his lips that Jungkook stumbled back, eyes going wide.
“I think you know.”
“No.” He shook his head. Fuck that. “I don’t. My parents are waiting for me.”
Without another thought to how stupid turning his back to the stranger was, he spun around, walking as fast as he could manage without sprinting.
He took about three steps before a hand closed around his swinging wrist, the grip as strong as iron and just as unforgiving. Jungkook yelped as the man pulled him back, the dark smirk on Yoongi’s lips sending a surge of adrenaline through him.
Even with fear on his side, though, any attempt to retrieve his arm failed.
“You can’t get away from this. You can’t run away from this.”
“Hey!” Jungkook yelled to the cashier. “Can you call the police?”
The man looked up, his lips pursed like Jungkook was really putting him out by distracting him, examined the two struggling, and returned to reading his comic with a little frown.
Feeling like his eyes might burst from his skull, he tried to yank his arm free, wincing when nothing came of it.
“I can find you anywhere you go. If you upset Taehyung again, it would take seconds.”
His nails, so short moments before, dug into his wrist, and the features of the man, soft in a way that left you guessing about his age, morphed, skin purpling and swelling, like someone had tied an invisible rope around his neck.
Yoongi’s eyes bulged, and Jungkook bit back a scream of horror, watching as the man smirked slowly, his teeth so sharp in his mouth, ripe for tearing flesh,
“Do you understand?”
“Yes!” Jungkook broke free of his hold then, tripping over himself as he shot for the door, yanking it open with a desperation he had never felt before.
He stumbled back into the balmy summer air, blinking back horrified tears as he checked both sides of the road and crossed, not waiting for the crosswalk.
Yoongi…that thing. And the utter dismissal from the cashier. The memories sank into his bones, planting a seed of suspicion that had him shivering for the remainder of the day.
Uncaring what his parents would think, he rejoined them before he calmed down, blaming his tearful state on an imaginary car that had run a red light, nearly hitting him.
He hated to give the purple bruise on his wrist a rational explanation, but he knew he couldn’t hide it from everyone, so he claimed that the person who saved him yanked him out of the way.
Thankfully it was enough for his parents, but the day was over from there.
“You did what?!”
Namjoon flinched at the pitch Taehyung’s voice rose to, but Yoongi held his ground, arms crossed sternly over his chest.
“I threatened him,” he shrugged. “He won’t be rude to you again.”
Heat rose to Taehyung’s cheeks, turning his cheeks green, if his nausea was any indication, and he flailed his arms, uncaring that it looked rather hysteric. “He’s my future husband! I don’t want him to think I’m a bully!”
“I told you not to go too far,” Namjoon murmured.
Yoongi shot him a mutinous glare, and then turned back to Taehyung with a small frown. “I just scared him a little. That’s all.”
“You showed him your death face.”
A wave of dizziness passed through him and Taehyung curled up into a sitting position, staring out of the carved window, wanting to be in the open water and also wanting to hide in his palace forever.
Yoongi and Namjoon argued back and forth in the background, but Taehyung paid them no mind. What was already done couldn’t be changed.
“I’ll have to apologize to him,” he sighed.
“Yoongi should apologize,” Hoseok cut in, swimming through a window behind Taehyung, Seokjin close behind.
Immediately, Yoongi fell silent, his lips thin as he tried to look anywhere but at the merman.
“But if he stalks the human boy, that doesn’t give a very good ‘I’m sorry’ impression,” Seokjin mused.
“I need to apologize,” Taehyung emphasized. An idea struck him. “I’ll bring him down here. If it doesn’t overwhelm him, Yoongi can apologize then.”
He knew it was the right decision by the distasteful wrinkle to Yoongi’s nose, but that didn’t mean he liked upsetting his friend.
Seokjin’s gentle hands started carding through his hair, undoing his matted braids from a few days ago, and his shoulders slumped. These were his friends, sure, but he hated showing them any kind of weakness. They all depended on him, and he couldn’t falter if it might affect them.
“We’ll get the Scallions to help clean up,” Namjoon jumped in, ever the gentle mediator.
“And we’ll help, too,” Hoseok agreed.
They all turned to look at Yoongi, who huffed. “Of course I’m going to help. What do you take me for?”
Hoseok beamed at him, and the rest of them pretended not to notice the way Yoongi softened under the attention.
“Dead people are following me,” Jungkook whispered to himself, as soon as his parents left him alone that night.
He slept horribly that night, dreaming of deep sea anglers morphing into people, their mangled hand-fins reaching out to caress his face, before growing claws to slash him to pieces.
After his own thrashing woke him once, he retrieved his baseball bat from the garage, laughing at himself for not being afraid to go out into the yard at 3 am, when the bathtub gave him the heebie-jeebies.
The week passed like that, with Jungkook barely securing enough sleep to get him through work, but when a second week passed of nothing, he stopped sleeping with his bat laid out next to him, and instead kept it below his mattress. Panic and fear faded into the background, to be replaced with grim determination. He knew it wasn’t over.
Midway through the third week, he went into the bathroom after work to take a leak, contemplating a second shower that day, and when he turned around, Taehyung was seated much like he had been for their first meeting.
“You need to stop popping up here when my dick is out,” Jungkook said much more calmly than he felt.
He resumed his walk to their sink, washing his hands, refusing to look at the man in the mirror, expecting a horror movie scenario.
When he shut the water off, he asked, “So what are the rules? Can you appear anywhere?”
Taehyung sat somberly, eyes fixed on the bottom of the tub, a direct contrast to their last meeting. Jungkook stopped to wonder for a moment if the tub needed scrubbing, before waving that off.
“No.” He glanced up at Jungkook, expression tight with what appeared to be nerves. “I need enough water to be at least partially submerged, if I get too far from the lake.”
“The lake?” He changed his question. “This is too far from the lake? We’re not even a mile away.”
“This isn’t,” Taehyung cleared his throat. “But I figured you wouldn’t let me in if I just walked up.”
It seemed like he had started thinking a bit more rationally since last they met, and while this was still a major invasion of his privacy, it was civil enough that Jungkook’s constant paranoia hadn’t swallowed him—and it was a relief to not be waiting for something to happen. Taehyung was in front of him, so he couldn’t appear and surprise him.
Silence rested between them for a long beat, and Jungkook pointed toward his bathroom door. “Well, I’m going, then.”
Taehyung stood up, hustling to get out of the tub, and without any good weapon to grab for, Jungkook snatched up his mother’s curling iron, brandishing it in front of him like a nightstick.
The man stopped, looking at him miserably, like he was hurting his fucking feelings or something, for not being thrilled that Taehyung broke into his house.
“You never told me, what are you?” Jungkook snapped. “If you don’t want me to leave, you’re going to start answering my questions.”
He watched Taehyung’s teeth find his lower lip, a gesture he recalled from their last meeting, and his eyes unwillingly dipping down his jaw, and then the column of his neck, before he forced his attention back to his face.
Taehyung hadn’t seemed to notice. “I’m…the spirit of the lake.”
“Yeah. Humans have had all kinds of words for it over the years. Natives recognized us, the Greek called us naiads—”
“So you’re a mermaid?” Jungkook let out a slightly hysterical burble of laughter.
“No, no! I’ve lived as long as the lake has.”
Unsure what that distinction meant, Jungkook squeezed the clamp on the curling iron, flexing the little arm in a way that he didn’t even try to justify as being intimidating.
“So you’re old. Like, super old. And you’re trying to marry an 18-year-old?”
Taehyung’s cheeks flooded with color, tinged blue rather than pink or red. “Physically, I’ve always been this age. Mentally as well, I suppose.”
“And if you’ve been around this long, why do you want to marry the first guy you lay eyes on? Why not a girl? You know I’m not immortal, right?”
No answers came after his slew of questions, but he noticed Taehyung had balled his hands into fists at his sides.
Before he could think of another question, Taehyung whispered, “I wanted to apologize for Yoongi. He wasn’t supposed to go after you.”
Remembering the white-purple mottled face from the comic store, Jungkook took a cautious backward step toward the door. “He said he was from you.”
“He’s one of mine. They can get kind of overprotective.”
That thought was so ludicrous that it caused Jungkook to rise from his defensive stance. “Overprotective of you? You’re immortal and a lake.”
“My lake is their home. My health is crucial to their lives.”
Taehyung spoke so flatly that even suspicious Jungkook felt empathy welling in his chest.
“Look, you don’t seem like a bad guy,” he began. “But tricking someone into marriage isn’t the way to find love. You need to talk to them, go on dates. Surely you could find someone who would be willing to stick close to the lake? I mean, I wouldn’t date Yoongi, but if there’s more people like him, couldn’t you date one of them?”
Taehyung’s nose wrinkled. “It would be like dating a sibling.”
Jungkook winced, but frankly he had run out of suggestions. He wasn’t going to fall in love with some water spirit just because he had accidentally proposed to him.
“Look,” he flashed back to all the times he had let girls down gently. “I don’t think this is going to work out; I’m going to college in a month, I’m going to live on campus, and we have communal showers. No bathtub for you to appear in.”
“Come visit the lake with me,” Taehyung blurted out.
“Did you hear anything I just said?”
“Yes.” His expression settled into determined lines. “And I want to show you my lake.”
He had seen enough horror movies to scoff, “No offense, but I know once I’m down there, I’m in your realm. How would I know you’d let me go?”
Taehyung had the grace to at least look embarrassed. “I swear I wouldn’t do that. But if you wanted to leave your parents a letter, it could say like ‘if I’m not back by 10pm, check the lake’ or something.” Possibly sensing that Jungkook was about to protest again, he added, “You’re not any good to me dead, and if they drain my lake—well. That’s it.”
Jungkook didn’t know why he trusted that that was the truth, but he did, and he dropped the hand wielding the curling iron to his side. “If I go with you, can I have my ring back?”
“Can you come today?”
Frustrated at the man’s avoidance of his question, he snapped again, “Can I have my ring back after you show me your stupid lake?”
Taehyung’s eyes rose to meet his then, and he regretted snapping at him instantaneously, the fire in the naiad’s expression more driven than anything else he had seen from the other.
“Yes,” he spat out. “After seeing my stupid lake, you can have your stupid ring back.”
Jungkook swallowed the lump in his throat, wanting to apologize for his rudeness, yet not regretting the result. “Alright. I worked earlier today, so we can go now.”
Taehyung nodded, and then he moved for the bathroom door, Jungkook only then noticing the watery footprints he left on the floor. Part of him wanted to dry the naiad off before moving further into his house, but he sensed that he had pissed him off enough, and he wasn’t in a hurry to meet any more of Taehyung’s enforcers.
Granted, he expected his parents to spot them, ending his journey right there, wondering why he had a sopping wet stranger in their house, but they made their way downstairs and out onto the side porch door without incident.
Grabbing a notepad, he scribbled a note to them, telling them to check down by the lake if he didn’t come back by 9. It was earlier than Taehyung had suggested, but he wanted as big a chance as possible to come back.
He took a shaky breath, glancing over at Taehyung while he worked, who stared out of one of the streaky, side windows. He noticed him in snatches, tracing the elaborate braid that held his bangs back, the small, pretty stones woven into them, the strong line of his jaw, the normalcy of his long-sleeved shirt, even if it didn’t quite fit summer.
When he finished, he told Taehyung and they set out, exiting through the side door onto the mini porch, sweat beading on his brow after a few seconds.
It unnerved him a bit how Taehyung paused only for a moment to orient himself, before stepping down onto the dirt side road off the actual paved one.
Jungkook watched him go, eyes sweeping over him in the daylight, noting that for someone who spent most of his time underwater that he had a rather lovely, healthy tan to his skin.
He shook his head at the unbidden adjectives and followed him, also going barefoot, not wanting to waterlog his converse.
Taehyung didn’t speak as they made their way down the road, turning at the corner, so the lake was visible around all the trees and houses that choked the view.
Nerves pounded through him they closer they got, and he barely felt the pebbles he stepped on, mind racing. His khaki shorts would weigh a shit ton once they soaked through—not ideal for an emergency escape. Part of him wanted to turn around for more reasons than just that, but the words died in his throat as soon as he could weave them. Taehyung’s aura choked the air between them, and it smothered him.
“I feel like I’m walking to my death,” he spat out, unable to stand it anymore.
Pausing at the entrance to a grassy driveway, Taehyung pursed his lips and it softened his whole expression.
“I’m not going to kill you! I told you!”
“But you’re going to freeze me out the whole time?”
Taehyung’s hands fluttered together, and Jungkook noticed the collection of braided, summer camp-style bracelets on both of his wrists, likely so tightened by the water that he would have to cut them off to remove them.
“This wasn’t how I wanted to show you this. I wanted you to…want to see it. To meet everyone. But you’re just doing this to get rid of me. I don’t blame you for that, but I’m still disappointed.”
Jungkook took a deep breath, vowing not to be delicate. Subtlety hadn’t done him any favors so far, so he was going to try to maintain a policy of blunt honesty.
“People have to like each other before they get married, Taehyung, and I don’t even know you.”
That seemed to reach him; he bit his lip, a nervous habit that surely resulted in him drinking lake water, and guided them across the narrowest part of the drainage ditch to the right of the road.
Just past the large oak, the ground sloped down into the water at the perfect angle for dogs that liked to swim, or people who didn’t mind clumping around in freshwater weeds.
Taehyung took them that way, likely to avoid the private docks, stepping into the shallows without hesitation, gesturing for Jungkook to follow when he did.
“You’re right. If you knew anything about me, you would know I’d never keep you down here.” He seemed to have found a hill to die on, and he continued, “I wouldn’t let Yoongi hurt you, and I wouldn’t let you drown.”
“Those are all good traits to have,” Jungkook shot back, surprised by the laugh that drew from the other.
He stepped down into the squishy mud, assuming it wouldn’t have any glass. People were more careful with their dogs than their actual children.
Taehyung held out a hand, gesturing toward the lake. “We’re going to walk until it gets deep. Then you must take my hand and try not to panic when we go under. Got it?”
Jungkook nodded; he had grown up around this lake, and he would warrant he knew these parts just as well as the naiad.
They started forward, Taehyung able to move a little faster than he could, like the mud didn’t hold his feet like it did for Jungkook, and they passed the ends of the docks in no time, both able to swim to continue forward.
“We’re not deep enough yet,” Taehyung called back, now far ahead of him.
Wagering that swimming didn’t tire him at all, Jungkook grumbled, “So have you ever done this with a human before?”
“So how do you know this will work? Or that I won’t be crushed under the pressure of the water?”
Taehyung shot him a look over his shoulder. “People have dived in costumes before. And if the water was going to crush you, wouldn’t it have crushed me? Or Yoongi and the others?”
“You’re made of water!”
“I promise you I am not.”
Taehyung’s tone was so suggestive that it shut both of them up, new tension in the naiad’s shoulders, like he hadn’t planned for those words to come out.
Jungkook had to fight not to mentally dub him “fish dick.”
Finally, they got to a spot Taehyung dubbed as “deep enough,” and he held out his hand once more.
“I’m going to make a membrane of air around you, so you can breathe, and your lungs don’t drag you back to the surface. You’re going to want to breathe normally. I’m not sure what it will feel like, but you’re going to be breathing air, so it should feel the same? If you start to panic, I’ll let you go, and you can break the surface.”
The promise of some control soothed him, and he finally nodded, reaching to take the man’s hand.
Taehyung laced their fingers together, but they were sinking before he could catch Jungkook’s scowl.
Instinctively, he fought the iron grip pulling him downward, but it was too late to change his mind: Unless it looked like he wasn’t breathing right, Taehyung wouldn’t let him go.
Jungkook forced himself to stop struggling, and he slipped beneath the surface after a quick, last breath.
Opening his eyes underwater normally would have burned like hell, but this time it didn’t hurt to look around. Taehyung dragged them down at an angle, propelling them, so Jungkook was free to examine the Mountain Dew-colored water, arms and legs kicking to help as he squinted, trying to make out anything he could.
In his tense state, he continued to hold his breath until his lungs started screaming, but as Jungkook could feel the membrane of air around him, he didn’t start gasping for breath. His first one might have been a little too quick, but when his lungs expanded with no problem, things grew substantially easier.
They sank down, down, until the light began to fade and dark smudges filled the lower horizon. At first, Jungkook thought it was just patches too deep for the light to reach, but when the water around them started to return to its normal dark, glassy color, the world sharpened around him and suddenly he could see.
He would be lying if he called it any kind of masterpiece, but the sight of a clear structure underwater, so primitive and thoughtful, gave him chills.
Taehyung must have done something to his eyes; with his normal eyesight, he wouldn’t have thought anything of the mass of stone, with holes worn in it for the fish to make their homes, but when everything focused, the structure came to life:
It was full of little seashells (lake shells?) spackled here and there, white as teeth in the gloom, and he could make out the different colors of the rock layers, warm reds and browns dotted with sparkling stones and coins and potentially aluminum can tabs.
Jungkook let out his breath in a noise of appreciation, and Taehyung squeezed his hand, somehow hearing it.
Descending further, Taehyung veered them to the right, sadly dragging him away from the underwater castle.
“We’re not going in?” He called, frowning after he spoke, wondering what the logistics of speaking underwater were.
Yet, Taehyung heard him the first time, and heard him again, turning his head slightly to call over his shoulder, “That will be our last stop. I want to show you everything else first.”
Jungkook’s breath caught in his throat; whatever had been done to his vision, it wasn’t just in reference to the lake. When Taehyung had first sprung up in his bath, he noticed nothing beyond the general quirks to his appearance—the things he could potentially tell the police about a home invader at a later time.
This time, stunned by his bone structure and pretty lips, his first conscious thought went to the elaborate braid that pulled his bangs off his face, little shells dotted sparely throughout. He had noticed them before, but more as an oddity, rather than admirable.
“Taehyung?” He called, hoping the naiad would turn around, so he could take another look, “What did you do to my eyes?”
They had been swimming further down, past the castle, so when he wheeled around to answer him, the dusk-like water acted as a perfect backdrop, Taehyung seeming to glow a faint blue against it.
“I knew you wouldn’t be able to see much down here, with your human eyesight,” Taehyung explained.
Jungkook watched his lips move, mesmerized, and he barely comprehended the words.
“And since this is my domain, I made it so you could see through my eyes, in a sense.”
His eyes traced down Taehyung’s slender neck, watching how his jaw moving shifted the skin, pulling it tight over his Adam’s apple when he swallowed, until his gaze fixed resentfully where the black of Taehyung’s shirt concealed more of the naiad from his sight.
“I feel as if I’m drunk off it,” Jungkook muttered.
Color flooded Taehyung’s cheeks, and he knew there was no hiding the greedy way that his eyes slipped further down, admiring Taehyung’s thin chest, the way he drowned in the shirt. He thought for a moment how small Taehyung would look under him, and then color flooded to his own cheeks.
“Why do you say that?” Taehyung watched him warily.
Jungkook couldn’t see the point in lying. “Because I can’t stop looking. I could have stared at your palace for hours.” He kicked his legs lightly, moving closer to the naiad. “I feel like I could stare at everything for the rest of my life, and live a fulfilling life.”
Taehyung understood the implication, and his cheeks went a dark, velvet blue that was also unlike any color Jungkook had seen before.
Suddenly, the world lost its light, and he was plunged into darkness, feeling like a bucket of cold water had been tossed over him.
“I’m sorry,” Taehyung squeaked. “Perhaps I gave you too much.”
Jungkook felt winded, felt his hand tremble where it still held Taehyung’s.
“What did you give me?”
“My sight, as well as my eyes.”
Taehyung’s hand shook alongside his own, and he guided him forward with a gentle tug. “I’ll give you the sight back in a moment. You’ll want to see the Scallions.”
Wondering what that word meant, he swam obediently after the naiad, thankful that the dark kept his still-ravenous gaze from finding Taehyung once more.
Taehyung took a minute or two on the swim to the far depths to gather himself; the way Jungkook had been looking at him had been what he wanted the first day, and what he still desired, if he was being completely transparent.
However, in that extended look, Taehyung finally understood what Jungkook had been trying to say about his expectations: They didn’t know each other, as evidenced by his shock at seeing the wonder on Jungkook’s face. He was a mythical creature, something the human hadn’t been aware of before the beginning of summer, and the fact that they had just gotten to the whimsical stage spoke to his poor people skills.
Since he had finally broken through, even in such an unintentional, physical way, he began to hope anew that things could progress, for lack of a better word. He wanted to learn more about Jungkook, wanted to see what kind of person he was in his own right.
Taehyung winced when he found he had been biting his lower lip too hard, and squinted a little when the smears of the mud huts came into view.
“We’re here,” he called. “I’m going to give you the sight back.”
Jungkook didn’t reply, but as they swam further down, he heard the man’s intake of breath at the cloaked figures, their pinkish clusters of legs poking out from the burlap material like scythes, their shrimp-like tails fluttering behind them.
“What are those?”
The fascination overwhelmed the horror in Jungkook’s voice, drawing a shy smile to Taehyung’s lips, and he led him further down to the hive.
“These are the Scallions. They’re older than anything else in this lake.”
They scuttled along the dead bottom of the lake, climbing over the broken pieces of humanity that they elected to keep, rather than flush out. From their position, Taehyung could see more than a few boats, houses clustered around them, but never on them. As far as he remembered, they used the boats for their soothsaying.
“So they’re as old as you?”
“No,” Taehyung smiled to himself, waving to the Scallions, knowing they could see him, even if they didn’t acknowledge him. “When this lake came to be, they migrated with the water, once it got deep enough for them to make homes.”
What he didn’t say was they only let themselves be seen if they wanted you to know, only spoke if they had something that you desperately needed to know. He had his own memories; the most recent being a cryptic warning about hairspray that had saved several mermaids when the meaning hit him.
As they swam closer, one Scallion looked up at them, and he heard Jungkook gasp at the long snout, beady eyes, and clusters of sharp, lethal teeth visible even with its mouth closed.
“Shark-shrimp,” Jungkook muttered, sounding dazed.
The Scallion’s gums retracted a bit, unveiling more rows of teeth, and Jungkook yelped, kicking back to keep Taehyung between him and the creature.
Taehyung nearly told him that the he had made the creature laugh, but he didn’t want to spoil it’s fun.
“Come on,” he called instead. “There’s so much more to see.”
He knew Jungkook stared after the ancient creatures long after they disappeared from view, and he felt the need to reassure him. “They keep the lake safe. Occasionally serpents and such float through, but they never stay.”
Jungkook hummed. “So what exactly was Yoongi, then?”
“Oh,” Taehyung felt a chill flood through his cheeks in his embarrassment. “Minus the sirens and mermaids. But they’re tied specifically to this lake.”
“Oh, just the sirens and mermaids.” He thought he heard Jungkook’s voice crack. “Like, the little mermaid?”
Taehyung thought about it, repressing a smile when he thought how Seokjin would enjoy the comparison. “Pretty much. The sirens aren’t what you think.”
“So they’re not beautiful women that want to lure people to their deaths?”
“Was Yoongi a beautiful woman?”
“Ugh, good point.”
Laughing, Taehyung guided them a little further up, but more to the left, on the last semi-deep portion of the lake before it turned into open, wild landscape, with a little more sun and a lot more non-polluting garbage.
It was at a spot of shadow, almost like a bruise, that he stopped their tour once more, the area hidden by a rock formation purposefully, as far as Taehyung could assume. Nothing made the sirens settle all in one spot, but he knew the emotions ran a bit differently among them, compared to the mermaids. The lake wasn’t overpopulated by any means, but there were more sirens than mermaids—a fact that never failed to hurt Taehyung.
“Is something here?”
Taehyung glanced over at Jungkook and nodded, gesturing to the broken series of boat hulls clustered around the area. “See that? There’s rooms built out of that. The sirens live here.”
Jungkook swam up beside him, and Taehyung glanced at him as he considered the boat. He could see the deliberation, the desire to see the inside, yet the caution that came from seeing Yoongi’s death face.
“How many are there?”
“Five.” Taehyung smiled sadly.
“Are they immortal, too?”
“As far as I know.” He glanced over at Jungkook, flushing again at the intense way he watched him. “They can walk out in the world, but they rot if they’re gone for too long. I assume they would also die if anything happened to the lake.”
“Rot?” Jungkook’s eyes widened comically. “Would that happen to you?”
“No. They rot because they’re dead.”
Taehyung thought that would be common knowledge, but all the color drained from Jungkook’s face.
“Well, so are the mermaids, technically.”
When he saw that Jungkook had no clue what he was talking about, he waved for the man to follow him, noting his overwhelmed, slightly exhausted expression. They might have to save the mermaids’ homes for another day.
“What do you mean? How are they dead?” He asked after a moment.
“When people die around the lake, sometimes they’re reborn.” He stopped swimming as he pictured Yoongi’s death, the tragic tangling of the fishing net on a drunk, young man, friends who were too out of it to help him. “Sirens are born from violent deaths around a body of water.”
He heard so much in that one word that Taehyung finally focused on his face again, taking in the empathy, the sadness even for the rude, frightening creature he met once. Taehyung’s heart constricted, and he fought his urge to reach out to touch the human, wanting to comfort him.
“And mermaids are born from people who love the lake dying peaceful deaths,” he added when the heavy moment became prolonged.
Jungkook held off on speaking for a moment, and Taehyung decided he would show him the inside of the castle and the mermaids another day; he then reached out to touch his arm lightly, not wanting to startle him.
“Let’s go up for now,” he murmured.
After a moment, Jungkook nodded, and they both started upward.
The light filtering in from above was, as always, a welcoming sight—a portal to a world that wasn’t quite his. It had changed so much from the beginning, yet he knew that further away from his lake, things were even crazier. People could ride in mechanized, giant caterpillars called subways and buy imaginary food that became real from the exchange of paper of imaginary value.
No; his little piece of the world was about all the change he could comprehend.
When they broke the surface, rather than looking around like he normally would, he looked at Jungkook. For the first time, he saw the little mole under his lip, the sharpness of his jawbone, and the bright way his eyes lit up when something managed to capture his attention. Despite knowing the superiority of his own vision, he wondered if Jungkook had somehow given him more back than he had taken—because he looked like nothing Taehyung had ever seen.
“Is this how you see the world?” He murmured, and Taehyung swore at his own forgetfulness.
Jungkook looked at everything, much like Taehyung did: at the little house across the narrow part of the lake that looked like a cake, at the ramshackle houses hidden away in their own personal woods, and at the lot at the far end of the lake, out of focus to a normal human, with its shallow, imported sand and children’s daycare.
He heard the human hold his breath, and he ached for a moment. Even the sirens and the mermaids had no idea what this was like.
Finally, Jungkook turned back to him, and that beautiful, entranced gaze pinned him to the spot.
Unsure what to say, Taehyung murmured, “If you ever want to see the rest, drop a bottle cap into the lake. Something with citrus.”
Jungkook blinked, and for a moment Taehyung thought he was going to decline, but instead he smiled, the corners of his lips pinched like he wasn’t sure he wanted to give his happiness to Taehyung, but couldn’t help himself.
“I do,” he said. “And the mermaids, and maybe even the sirens. There’s—so much. And seeing everything like this…”
Taehyung returned the smile, trying not to let the hope in his chest consume him. “I’d like to spend more time with you.”
A beautiful pink color bloomed in Jungkook’s cheeks, a lovely shade under his tanned skin, and though he only said “goodbye” in response, the reaction spoke louder than anything else he could have said.
He would be back. That was what mattered.