Jimin offers to help Hoseok, but his voice falters and dies when he looks up.
Hoseok holds Yoongi close. No time to think. No time to feel.
Nestled in the rocks are a few small, deep rockpools, full of crabs and seaweed and endless little fishing nets dropped by kids trying to catch shrimp and eels and shimmery fish. The water is still - the winds have dropped, now the sun is rising, but in the rockpool it’s as undisturbed and still as the grave.
As the grave.
Yeah, whatever. On the rocks running parallel, Hoseok thinks he hears someone crying. He’s got Yoongi’s blood on his hands, and his fingers are trembling with the weight of -
Well, someone’s sins, at least. Jury’s still out on who.
As soon as he’s settled Yoongi into the pool, making sure his tail is sitting right, he slides back down the rocks. Yoongi’s gills keep opening and shutting with the briefest brushes of saltwater, like they’re trying to fix him on their own, and he’s still covered in blood.
No time for that.
Hoseok swims to Haewon’s. It’s five-thirty in the morning.
“Were you out all night?”
He ignores the questions, shouldering past her to the kitchen cupboards while she twitters and squeaks about his mother in his ears. A bar of soap. Antiseptic cream. A hand towel. Wet wipes.
“Do we have any marshmallows?”
Haewon sighs. “Where were you last night? I hope you’re not… Hoseok-”
“Do we have any marshmallows?” He asks again, not trusting his voice not to shake. “I need them.”
“In the... cupboard,” she mumbles. Maybe there’s something in his face.
He doesn’t thank her, but he takes them, an unopened packet, the front proclaiming that they’re perfect for melting and create fun for the whole family!
He swims back to Yoongi.
He’s lying how Hoseok left him.
Jimin and Jeongguk have left the rocks where Taehyung was - or maybe Jeongguk’s been dragged by Jimin, and Hoseok can bet they’ll be in the lifeguard hut now, watching the sun rise over the ocean. He saw it. Saw it from across the sea, the drip-drip of the puddle that used to be Taehyung floating into the ocean. He just can’t bring himself to feel anything about it.
He steps into the rockpool, ignoring the slightly-gross movement of slime and weed against his feet, and unpacks the wet wipes.
Yoongi’s blood is darker than normal. Last time it had been sunset when he’d met Hoseok, and Hoseok hadn’t noticed, but now he can see that it’s a darker, blacker sort of a red, browning rapidly in the hot sunrise, and more viscous, oozing slowly out of the scratches and clawmarks and rough digs all over his body. Hoseok brushes the soapy rag through the streaks of blood, the water in the rockpool colouring.
Yoongi doesn’t even twitch.
Hand towel next. Hoseok soaks it in the water of the rockpool and washes off the rest of the blood, as well as the residue left by the wipes. Yoongi looks soft and still and clean, small and bruised in the sunlight.
Hoseok swallows. Sets the towel down beside him.
God. God jesus fucking christ --
He stares at his hands.
Did he kill them?
He snapped it in half. Something in him, the little kid reading his aunt’s fantasy books, says that means they aren’t dead.
Did he kill them? Or just scare them? Scare them away?
Is he a -
Did he -
Hoseok swallows. He picks the towel up again.
The sun floods the sky yellow and blue, and it’s like nothing ever happened; like last night was just another night.
Behind him, in the water, Yoongi is trying his hardest to open his eyes, or to move his hands, or flick his tail, and he would were he not so murderously tired. He hears Hoseok breathing. Long ago, months ago, Yoongi memorised the pattern of Hoseok’s heart, of his breaths forming in his lungs and then shoving themselves out his mouth.
His mouth. Kissing. Yoongi enjoys it very much, more than he expected. The first time Hoseok kissed him, the night they’d brought their courting to a head, Yoongi had swum back to the school with two fingers pressed to his lips, trying to preserve the feeling of Hoseok’s against his.
His body feels heavy and light at the same time. It had been odd, watching Seokjin and Namjoon try to kill him.
Theonewiththehonourtoleadtheschool is surely dead by now, at least, and Yoongi feels as though something happened to stop anyone from dying. Nobody’s skull will be bleached and hung on a belt.
He threw his away, last night, right before Seokjin had bitten deep into his shoulder. He’d torn the stupid thing off, all of the bones rattling along the length of it, only thinking of how badly Hoseok was trying to understand, how badly Yoongi wanted - wants - will always want -
“Hoseok,” he tries to whisper. His tongue feels odd between his teeth, but then, he never had much cause to use it like this until he met Hoseok. “Hoseok? Are you… there?”
His head hurts when he opens his eyes, but he does so anyway. Everything hurts, little concentrated specks of pain. Hoseok isn’t smiling at him, but his hands are tight and firm around the curve of Yoongi’s tail. “You’re… feeling okay?”
“I feel sore,” Yoongi says. “What happened?”
He smells hot saltwater, although not from Hoseok. He smells grief, from Hoseok most strongly, although a clear path of it lies across the water and towards the beach. He smells siren on the rocks. All over the rocks, like Taehyung had been lying over them. He smells anger from Hoseok, although it isn’t directed at him.
“I don’t know,” Hoseok says. His voice seems scratchy. “I don’t know. Do you feel okay?”
“You asked me that already.”
“I want to make sure.”
“I feel okay,” Yoongi tests his extremities gingerly, twitching each finger individually and then flicking his tail up and down in the water. It hurts, but not a lot. “Why am I in a rockpool?”
“I needed to clean you. You were… you’re pretty beat up,” Hoseok’s hands move up his chest, brushing over the sore spots.
Yoongi nods. “Seokjin and Namjoon came again last night. Did they hurt you?”
“I hurt them, I think,” Hoseok whispers. He sounds more horrified than happy. “I think I hurt them real bad.”
“Did you kill them?” Yoongi’s trying hard to make himself think of everyone like he thinks of Hoseok; trying to make himself think that it would hurt him if anyone died. He’s too used to the skulls and the belts. Too used to being part of the school.
“I don’t know if I did.” Hoseok’s never been part of a school. It hurts him, Yoongi knows, to think about killing anyone.
“I don’t think you did.”
“I don’t smell death,” Yoongi says quietly, wincing as saltwater laps around his gills. They feel weirdly sensitive. Maybe Seokjin bit him there, too.
“Y-you don’t -” Hoseok looks confused. “You don’t smell it anywhere?”
“I smell you, and Seokjin and Namjoon, and I smell… grief, a lot of it, and I smell Sei all over the place. But I don’t smell death.”
“Are you sure?”
Yoongi feels something squeezing his heart. It’s being nervous. He’s got more - sensitive, these past months. “What happened last night, Hoseokie?”
Hoseok’s jaw moves like he’s chewing air, his eyes droopy and wide, his cheeks pale, and Yoongi suddenly realises that Hoseok hasn’t got any sleep. “I - last night? You almost died and I used the weight of their sins and Taehyung melted into the ocean, that’s what happened last night.”
Yoongi mulls it over for a moment or two. “The weight of their sins?” He chooses the middle ground. He doesn’t want to ask about Taehyung Sei. Annoyingly, the stupid thing has grown on him, and - but he didn’t smell his death.
“The bone,” Hoseok mumbles into the water. “The whale bone. Seokjin’s hunting trophy. I snapped it in half and I threw it and they sank, just like they were dead.”
“They aren’t dead,” Yoongi says.
“How’d you know?”
Yoongi taps his chest, then regrets it as something on his skin burns. “I feel it. The school. I know they’re not dead. I think… snapped in half, it loses its… potency.”
“Are you sure?”
Hoseok breathes in deep, burying his face in Yoongi’s neck, and Yoongi lets him. He feels warm and light and sore, yes, but ever-so-weightless.
“Tell me about Taehyung, now.”
Jeongguk isn’t hurting.
It’s been a week.
Jimin spends most nights crying, because he always opens shop with a red nose and soggy eyes, and Park Senior has taken to manning the shop by rocking back and forward and giving his son concerned looks when he thinks Jimin can’t see him. He hasn’t seen Hoseok at all. He thinks Hoseok might be hiding in the bay, because Haewon’s coming down the hill looking more and more worried.
(There are five pens in her hair. Jeongguk wishes it was normal, so they could laugh about it.)
It’s been a week, and Jeongguk’s grandmother - an astute old woman when she wants to be - has started cooking him more food, prompting him into more games of draughts and chess, encouraging him to take on more shifts with the council as a lifeguard. He smiles at her. Plays her games when she wants, eats her food when she wants, goes out when she wants.
He feels a bit like a person with all his insides scooped out. A little hollow. A lot empty. He’s going through his day because he doesn’t know, really, what else to do.
The last coachful of tourists spills out onto the boardwalk. It’s evening, the sun pooling yellow and lazy on the sand, heating up the tarmac under Jeongguk’s bare feet until it’s almost, but not quite, too uncomfortable to stand on.
He’s sweating quite a bit. Annoyed at the stickiness, he pulls at the neck of his orange polo, then continues on his treading path - up along the street to the tip of the holiday houses, then back down the boardwalk, down the steps to the beach to the lifeguard hut, and back again.
His feet hurt a bit. The sun is nice and fat and yellow, like a freshly cracked egg yolk.
Jeongguk has thought a lot about it, these past few days. About how Taehyung looked, dripping off the rock.
Taehyung was into art. Is into art. Was?
Anyway. Jeongguk researched it in the town library, then, Modern Art of the 20th Century, and although Taehyung had been talking about the sort of art that was curving yellow strokes in the sky, Jeongguk himself was weirdly drawn to art a little further on. Big hulking creatures - odd forests with faces in them - a sofa that was simultaneously a pair of lips - a set of droopy, melting clocks over a sunless, sunfilled landscape.
That’s what Taehyung had reminded him of, as his hair slowly melted into his skin. A droopy clock in some obscure hellscape, draped over a rock like discarded clothing.
The coach, a battered white thing driven by old Kang that lives up the coast, hoots twice. Park Senior hollas in his croaky, battered voice, and they talk for a while about the weather and about young people and about the state of business. Cheerily pessimistic in the way that old friends will be.
Jeongguk starts walking up the street to the tip of the holiday houses.
The people getting off the coach are mostly late holidaymakers. It’s almost September, after all - all the families with kids are heading back to school, so it’s a crowd of elderly couples and students on tour crowding ‘round the town square. It really is getting hot.
Jeongguk wonders why he isn’t more upset, but he shoves it away. He knows that -
That somewhere in his brain is a dam, and when it bursts it will flood. He can feel it creaking against his heart. And he doesn’t want to feel the loss of Taehyung - doesn’t want to hurt that bad.
In dribs and drabs, the crowd from the coach disperse, and old Kang starts up the engine with a reluctant grumble, all conversational threads with Park Senior exhausted. A trio of students consult their maps.
Jeongguk reaches the tip of the holiday houses, and turns around back down the street, the sun burning the soles of his feet.
Two of the students have left - one is still there, holding a map over their face. The Bumper Museum Map, it says on the front, a little doodle of the Mona Lisa with a moustache drawn underneath the title, a few scribbled letters under the Mona Lisa. It looks pretty new, although Jeongguk can already see the outlines of post-it notes and scribbled lines around the coastline. Is this kid looking for museums exclusively along the sea?
What do you like about the ocean, Jeonggukkie?
Jeongguk reaches the boardwalk.
When the student lowers the map, somehow Jeongguk had already known who was going to be looking back at him.
“You said the ocean stays the same,” says Taehyung - bronze skin, brown hair, sparkling eyes. An amethyst bracelet around his wrist. “I had a dream about you on the bus. My name’s Kim Taehyung. What’s yours?”
Jeongguk feels like his feet are burning, solidifying skin against the hot wood of the boardwalk. “I’m - don’t you remember?”
“I don’t remember anything much,” Taehyung says cheerily, his backpack bouncing when he shrugs, like nothing is wrong, like nothing is hurting, like nothing is how it should be - this is how it should be. But- “I remembered your face when I looked at the sea.”
“I - I’m Jeongguk.”
“That’s a pretty name, Jeonggukkie.”
Jeongguk sways dizzily on his feet, and then everything breaks. “Hyung, I missed you so much,” he pants, his tongue thick and heavy between his teeth, and he falls down on the sticky-walked wooden boards and buries his head in between his knees and bursts into tears, right there, in front of the whole world.
“Oh,” Taehyung says. “Oh, dear.”
He’s wearing shoes. They click as he gets closer, and then there’s a heavy hand on Jeongguk’s shoulder. “I don’t remember you,” Taehyung says seriously, his map fluttering by his leg, “But I feel like I might have missed you too.”
Jeongguk buries his head in his hands and wails.
He hasn’t felt this happy in a week -
He hasn’t felt this much in a week.
And Taehyung, beautiful stupid senseless Taehyung, slides down to sit beside him and puts his arm around his waist, and asks if he’s feeling okay, if he wants some of Taehyung’s water.
Fuck droopy clocks. The sun is a warm egg yolk in the sky, and Taehyung remembered what Jeongguk had said.
(“When I die, maybe I’ll come back as a human. I don’t think sirens die.” Says something in his memory. “Do you think sirens die, Jeonggukkie?”)
"I..." Jimin sighs, his head tucked between his knees, sitting between Hoseok and Jeongguk on the beach. It's mid-October, the sea air frigid, the frosty fingers of winter beginning to tease their way through the whole place. "I..."
Hoseok nods. "It's okay. I think... me too."
"Same," Jeongguk says in a scratchy little rasp. "Oh, god, same."
Jimin thinks that, although many things will change, this will not.
The three of them, sitting on the beach JeonggukJiminHoseok, staring out at the sea beyond them, every one of them knowing what the others are thinking without anyone having to say a word.
Jimin's okay with it.
He really is.
And they swim around the rockpools and the open ocean. Yoongi is working on something, some magic with the sandeels. He says he wants legs.
Hoseok doesn’t mind. He floats, face-up, salt washing over his bare frame, looking at all the lonely whales in the sky while Yoongi tells him stories about the bonefish, the rattling schools of skeletons that chase endlessly after little fishlet children - about the mermaid that came out wrong, with his head that of a dolphin, two useless legs poking out of his neck - about the flying fish, deep in the centre of the ocean far away from land, the flying fish so large it’s possible to grab them by the neck and fly with them, propelled into the air, in a glimmer of rainbow drops and sunshine.
In return, Hoseok tells his stories. He talks about his family, about his mother telling him never to darken her doorstep without a change of attitude, and then he talks about Haewon’s books and about fairies and about Jeongguk’s endless fascination with the little creatures. He talks about berry-picking and sailing and how to fry the perfect egg.
Some nights, they make slow, gentle love under the waves, surrounded by the filmy bubble of air. Yoongi discovers he has a taste for sour skittle sweets, and Jimin carries them in his pockets; jokes about feeding the fish when he throws them into the water. Yoongi dives for them. It’s a game.
And they swim around the rockpools and the open ocean.
Yoongi threw his belt away, long, long ago. One night that December, he and Hoseok dived downdowndown and found two cracked and broken halves of a whalebone, half-buried in the sand.
“They’ll have led the school away,” Yoongi says softly, gathering the bones in his palm, weighing them up, “Far away from here. This will be a cursed place. There will be legends told about you, Hoseok, the human who slays the school.”
“I never -”
Yoongi laughs. “But what a story you make, Seokie, regardless of how true they are.”
When they eat mussels and chips dipped in white wine sauce, dizzy on each other, they laugh. And smile. And Haewon stops asking Hoseok to call his mother. Maybe she sees how happy he is.
Jimin takes over the shop full-time when Park Senior becomes bedbound permanently. Hoseok helps with the ice-cream, but in the winter months there aren’t any tourists and their little town goes into a sort of hibernation, all the residents working on their farms or going to college as a way to pass the time.
Hoseok throws himself into helping Haewon, and to swimming, and to spending time with Yoongi. Yoongi paints himself across Hoseok’s skin in marks - some seen, some unseen. Hoseok knows that none of them will ever really fade.
Taehyung doesn’t remember. Jimin and Jeongguk tell him anyway, and one day the ocean washes the pair of the amethyst bracelet onto the shore, the little purple gem twinkling merrily.
And they stay.
And they swim.
And, when the summer comes back, it sees all five of them in the water - Taehyung, helping Jimin balance books in the shop, going on little daytrips to the big cities to see his favourite artworks - Jeongguk, lifeguarding, getting some obscure literature degree in the community college - Hoseok, simply existing, just living with Yoongi and the sea. Yoongi and the sea, two people tangled together, and Hoseok, as intertwined as they are.
And so they stay.
And so they swim.
And they’ve escaped, and have no intention of returning, and are all the better for it.