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Precisely When Somebody Shows You to the Ocean

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He thinks that scuba divers must have
the most wonderful job in the world.
So much water to glide through.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes, Min Yoongi thinks he’s a sea anemone.

Meaning:  he’s relatively stationary and perhaps a little prickly to those who don’t know him well.

Meaning:  his friends never fucking leave his apartment, though he shouldn’t complain too much, because his friends are the sole reason he consumes more than instant ramen and black coffee on any consistent basis.

Meaning: his friends are a bunch of clowns.

So Yoongi is an anemone and his friends are clownfish inside his fishbowl apartment. A marine biologist would instantly recognize this symbiosis as mutualism, even though Yoongi—who is, in fact, a marine biologist—jokes that his friends are parasites.

Namjoon and Taehyung are on his couch, eating plum candies and playing Monster Hunter on PS4. Yoongi does not own a PS4. Hoseok is folding a pile of laundry straight from the dryer on the coffee table, stacking yellow boxers on top of pinstriped pants. Yoongi does not own yellow boxers or pinstriped pants.

And Yoongi is standing at his kitchen table. Standing, not sitting, because all his chairs are piled too high with miscellaneous shit. Dog-eared textbooks, broken laptop chargers, four winter coats, the unopened crate of stemless wine glasses his mother sent him at Christmas. He’s too lazy to clear himself a seat to snack on leftover scallion pancakes.

“Hey, Hoseokie!” he hears Taehyung say from across the room. “Look at this lizard I caught! See? His name is Richard and he hangs around my house!”

“Why Richard?” Hoseok asks.

Yoongi can hear the shrug in Taehyung’s nonchalant voice. “I don’t know, he just looks like a Richard,” he says.

Hoseok cackles in response. “How can you tell?” Namjoon asks between giggles. “All your lizards look the same!” Yoongi cranes his head to look for himself, but all he sees is Namjoon covering his mouth and laughing into his hand in that shy way of his.

The clock on his microwave reads 9:17, and Yoongi has no idea when he began to think that 9:17 was getting late. This is worlds away from the eight-in-the-morning-nights he pulled in college. Yet here he is, debating the least asshole-ish way he can tell his friends to go home because they all have work in the morning.

Thankfully, Namjoon and Taehyung come to a cut-scene and decide to call it a night. They leave the controllers and the console on his living room floor, taking up precious carpet real estate, but he doesn’t bother fighting it. They’ll be back tomorrow or the next day to pick up where they left off.

“You’re still coming with me and my kids to the aquarium on Saturday, right?” Hoseok asks pointedly. He shrugs on his coat and finds the bucket hat that had fallen underneath the table.

Yoongi resists the urge to smack himself in the face. He had forgotten all about it.

Hoseok is taking his intermediate dance students to the aquarium as a reward for all the hard work they put into their year-end showcase. They’re mainly going to see the new exhibit—The Dance of the Jellyfish, or something like that—and Yoongi had promised to help chaperone twenty-four elementary school kids.

(Or, well. He didn’t promise, exactly. He owes Hoseok a huge favor after he rescued him from the blind date with intersectional fetishes for feet and peanut butter. Yoongi owes him.)

“Yes,” Yoongi says, hiding the resignation in his voice the best he can. “What time should I be there?”

“No later than nine.”

“Got it,” Yoongi says, even though nine means he has to be up by seven and getting up at seven on Saturday sucks.

Taehyung grabs the pile of clothes Hoseok folded, one more plum candy from the bag between the couch cushions, and his own coat before the two of them head out. Namjoon sticks around for another quarter hour to recommend the soundtrack to some American musical, but soon he’s yawning his goodbyes, too.

And then Min Yoongi, the sea anemone, finally alone and in peace, is both a little relieved and a little sad when he sinks into stillwater silence for the night.

○○○

The bulk of Yoongi’s research focuses on whale vocalization. In particular, that of the 52-hertz whale. The lonely whale.

Except, those are misnomers.

For one thing, 52 no longer sings at 52 hertz. He hasn’t for a long time. As he’s migrated up and down North America’s western coast, he’s grown and matured, and his voice has deepened to 46 hertz.

For another thing, he’s not necessarily lonely. Or at least not in the way the romantics make it sound. People act as though no other whale can hear 52. While his blue whale and fin whale cousins sing at lower frequencies, whale song can span thousands of hertz. He’s not singing into a void. Other whales can hear him, just like humans can hear flutes even though flute note frequencies are higher than human voices.

Humans are a species that thrive on empathy, though. 52 is dubbed the loneliest whale because he’s never been recorded in the company of other whales. Yet baleen whales tend to be solitary travelers anyway, and there are too many missing pieces to this puzzle to be certain of any specifics. No one even knows what breed he is. In any case, 52 seems to be doing fine on his own, marching to the beat of his own drum.

Now, Yoongi is at the aquarium on Saturday morning, trying to corral a group of ten-year-olds, and he’s never identified with his favorite whale more. Is he lonely? No. Is he speaking in pseudo-tongues to a pack of wild animals? Absolutely.

He’s taken one group of kids while Hoseok and Taehyung have taken the rest, and they’ve all split up, scattered through the maze of the aquarium. The thing is, though, the kids are used to Hoseok, and Taehyung is more or less a grown-up ten-year-old. Yoongi doesn’t know how to deal with these kids like they do. Two of them keep pushing each other, one keeps lagging behind, a bunch of them keep knocking on the glass tanks. Yoongi wants to know if they paid any attention at all during Finding Nemo.

It’s going less than swimmingly.

The kids couldn’t care less about the jellyfish exhibit. Yoongi can’t say that he blames them. They spend maybe ninety seconds with the jellies before they move along to coo at an otter stacking plastic cups. Then a blue lobster, then a ringed octopus, then tiny orange seahorses clinging to kelp. Yoongi barely even looks at the animals, too busy constantly counting his kids to make sure he hasn’t lost one.

At the next exhibit, Yoongi counts again. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Okay, good, they’re all here, crowded around the railing of the enormous, open tank inside this cavernous room. He spots a bench and thanks his lucky stars as he sits down.

The water’s surface is calm and undisturbed. Yoongi has no idea what the kids are looking at. A sign hangs next to a set of descending stairs off to the side, saying, Come take a look at who’s swimming under the sea! He thinks about telling the kids to go downstairs for a better vantage point, but he doesn’t. They have given him a chance to rest, and he’s going to milk it for all it’s worth.

Splash. The kids giggle and shout. Splash. Yoongi reminds them to use their inside voices. Splash. Some of them reach over the railing, waving at the water and jostling each other around. Splash.

And then there’s a creature—a man—hauling himself out of the water and landing on an outcropping of artificial rock with a wet smack. The kids are full-on screeching now, and Yoongi doesn’t even have the mind to shush them, because on the inside, he is also screeching.

Whoever this man is, he should be illegal. His body is all taut lines and deep collarbones and broad shoulders and a tiny waist that Yoongi immediately wants to put his hands on. His black hair is plastered to his temples, and when he shakes his head, his hair stands out in all directions like a blowfish. His cute face betrays his sex-god physique a little though, with round cheeks and deep crinkles by his eyes when he smiles.

Oh, right. And he has a tail. Maybe six feet long by Yoongi’s estimation. Shimmery and golden-scaled with fluttery fins at his hips.

It’s probably silicone. Yoongi squints at the way the scales glisten every time the guy shifts. He’s seen some amazing prosthetic work when it comes to performers and free divers, but this tail is beyond impressive. It must have cost a fortune.

The mermaid uses his tail to send a sprinkling of water in the kids’ direction, and they yell again as they paw at the damp patches on their t-shirts. One of them begs him to swim closer. Another asks he if can speak.

“Are you a real mermaid?” one of the girls asks.

“Of course I’m real,” the mermaid scoffs. He stretches his arms over his head. “Hey, do you know what fish need to stay healthy?”

The kids treat this question like a pop quiz, offering respectable answers like food and a clean habitat. The mermaid shakes his head. His grin grows wider the longer the kids guess, and Yoongi gets the joke approximately half a beat too late. The answer is still caught in his mouth by the time the mermaid says, “Vitamin Sea.”

Yoongi doesn’t know if all of the kids get it, but they laugh anyway. The mermaid laughs too, this cute, squeaky hiccup of a laugh, the sound bouncing all around the echoey exhibit. And then his laugh morphs into something bubbly, something warbled, something that Yoongi is familiar with.

“Are you…making beluga clicks?” he asks.

The mermaid seems to notice him for the first time, glancing in his direction. Then he looks down, and his ears turn red. He moves across the rock with the powerful, clumsy movements of a seal moving on the beach before he slips head first into the water. It only takes two pumps of his tail to make it from the rock to the railing.

“How did you know?” he asks when he surfaces. Water drips into his eyes and he doesn’t rub it away.

“It’s my job to study whale song. How do you know?”

“I’ve studied them, too,” he says with a shy smile. “They’re great conversationalists.”

…This guy’s an actor. He’s no different than the Disney characters that walk around the theme parks, trained to answer all sorts of nonsensical questions thrown by curious children and disillusioned adults. It’s perfectly in-character for him to say he speaks to belugas. But speaking to belugas using their own communication methods is a different story.

Yoongi doesn’t have a chance to ask follow-up questions. Apparently, half his kids have already tired of the mermaid and have decided to move on. “It was nice to meet you,” Yoongi says as an apology.

“Seokjin,” the mermaid says.

He stops for a second. “Yoongi,” he replies with a half-hearted wave, and then he’s off, rounding a corner and waddling through a hall of frogs to keep an eye on his runaways.

Before it’s time to head back to the dance studio, they make one last stop at the interactive horseshoe crab exhibit, the one where Namjoon works.

Yoongi’s never been more grateful to see Namjoon. Pass the responsibility off to him for five minutes. Namjoon has all the kids line up in front of a sink to wash their grubby hands, and then he shows them to the touch-tank full of the giant-ass crabs. (He can hear Namjoon’s badgering voice in his head, reminding him that horseshoe crabs aren’t actually crabs, but who cares.)

“Can everyone hold out your first two fingers for me?” Namjoon asks. The kids copy the way he’s holding out his own fingers. “Good, that exactly how to pet them. Right on top of their shells, okay? Gently.”

Once the kids are elbows-deep in crab-water, Namjoon nudges Yoongi with his shoulder. “You survived!” he says. It’s supposed to be a joke, but it sounds like he seriously doubted Yoongi’s survival skills.

“I did. But remind me to never adopt octuplets, ever.”

“Never adopt octuplets.”

“Thanks,” Yoongi says. “Hey, so, what do you know about the mermaid guy?”

Namjoon gives him a quizzical look. “Seokjin? Not much. He’s worked here longer than I have. Sometimes we ask him if he wants to get drinks after work, but he always says he can’t.” He shrugs. “Why do you ask?”

“Have you seen him? He’s unreal.”

“For the love of god, please don’t hit on the mermaid,” Namjoon says. “It’s weird.”

○○○

Listen. Yoongi doesn’t want to hit on Seokjin. He just wants to talk. Get to know him better. Maybe go out for coffee. Treat him to dinner. Hold his hand. And then have a ton of unparalleled, outstanding sex with the world’s hottest man for the rest of forever.

Okay, Yoongi wants to hit on Seokjin. Whatever.

But he doesn’t do it, not really. He doesn’t want to be a total creep while the guy’s just doing his job.

Aquarium trips do, however, become regular outings. Yoongi spends his weekdays analyzing whale song in specialized software, sitting in front of spectrograms with headphones over his ears. He spends his weeknights hosting his friends against his will for movie nights, dinners, and video game competitions. But then on the weekends, he goes to chat with Seokjin at the aquarium.

 

Week one:  “Whale, whale, whale,” Seokjin says with a smirk. “Look who’s back.”

Yoongi barely acknowledges it beyond the roll of his eyes, instead asking Seokjin whether his tail is called a fluke or a caudal fin because he can’t decide. (Seokjin informs him that it’s a fluke, as form follows function and it functions as such.)

 

Week two:  “You look fancy today,” Seokjin notes, swimming closer and smashing himself up against the side of the tank. Yoongi is suddenly hyperaware of Seokjin’s nipples as he presses his chest into the glass. He hates himself a little.

Yoongi feels oddly exposed as Seokjin looks him up and down. He’s not fancy—he’s just wearing slacks and a button-down—but it’s more formal than the jeans and hoodies that Seokjin’s seen him in thus far. “I’m meeting my brother for dinner later,” he explains.

“Hmm. It’s a sofishticated look,” he says, and then he sinks down, bubbles frothing on the surface of the water, so that he doesn’t hear Yoongi’s anguished groan.

 

Week three:  Yoongi asks Seokjin if he remembers Namjoon. “He works here, too, with the horseshoe crabs. He’s my best friend.”

“The one with the dimples, yeah. He came by the other day and said it was okay if I told you to leave me alone. He was nice.”

Yoongi balks. What a traitor. “He’s no longer my best friend as of right now,” he says, pouting.

“Aww, don’t be mad at him. I like when you come see me. I like that you talk to me like I’m not just a guy stuck in a tank. Besides, don’t you know what happens when you frown too much?”

Yoongi can guess the punchline to this one. It’s an easy one. But he doesn’t offer the answer because he’s not going to deny Seokjin the satisfaction of finishing the joke. “You’ll pull a mussel,” Seokjin says, his dripping face shining when Yoongi cracks a smile.

 

Week four:  Yoongi arrives at the aquarium late in the afternoon, and he walks into a fight some asshole teenager is trying to pick with Seokjin, asking what sort of man he is if he acts like a mermaid.

Seokjin’s refusing to run and he’s giving polite answers, but he’s staying low, hiding his tail, barely keeping his mouth above water, and his eyebrows are pulled down to an angry point. By now, Yoongi can recognize this as the “I want to bite your head off” look.

“Dude, why don’t you leave him alone?” Yoongi says.

Dude,” the kid says back, nasal and mocking, “why don’t you piss off?”

“I will not hesitate to feed you to a shark,” Yoongi says, flat-lined.

Anyone who has known Yoongi for longer than ten minutes knows that he’s a big nerd with far too many soft spots, but at first glance, he looks like the type of person who might shove someone in front of a train for entertainment. He straightens up and pushes his chest out like a brooding rooster. The kid takes the hint, grumbling profanities under his breath as he slinks away, and Yoongi decides that he’s going to stick around until closing in case he comes back.

“Are you alright?” Yoongi asks.

Seokjin bobs in the water, listless, like a trumpetfish. “I don’t know. I’m tired,” he says, his words garbled around the water that seeps into his mouth as he speaks.

“I heard the seabed is a nice place for a nap,” Yoongi says.

Seokjin blinks in surprise, and the stress melts from his face like an ice floe, and he cackles.

In this singular moment, Yoongi falls in love with the way Seokjin’s unbridled laugh echoes, the sound so crisp and full he wants to take a bite out of it.

○○○

Once—and only once—Yoongi tries to get Seokjin’s phone number, to no avail, and Yoongi never brings it up again.

(Taehyung holds Yoongi’s hand as he laments his awful luck between mouthfuls of vegetable soup. It’s so dumb, but Yoongi’s secretly grateful for this show of camaraderie. That is, until Taehyung squeezes his fingers and says, “I’m sure I could find mermaid porn for you, if you want.”)

Instead, he relishes what Seokjin does share with him.

Seokjin introduces Yoongi to two of the stingray pups that live in the same tank. He calls them Kookoo and Chimchim after his brother and best friend; he cradles them against his chest like they’re actual puppies, and they let him pet their sensitive underbellies. He brings rocks up from the bottom of the tank and skips them across the surface. He flips upside down and shows Yoongi how he can turn in tight corkscrews, his tail spinning like a ballet dancer.

He never talks about his home life. Just what he sees in the water.

While they’re discussing the sonic signatures of different baleen whales one afternoon, Yoongi at the railing and Seokjin resting on the rocks on his stomach, Seokjin sighs.

“I miss hearing them,” he says. “Even when they’re hundreds of miles away, you can still hear them underwater. Mating season is wild. Sometimes you can hear the biggest bulls singing from across the entire ocean.”

And it’s things like this that confuse Yoongi the most. Offhanded remarks that sound just a little odd, a little too specific, a little beyond what Yoongi assumes is the paygrade of a professional mermaid. Wistful thoughts that make him sound just a little too nostalgic for things that he couldn’t possibly have experienced.

○○○

The longer Yoongi hangs around the tank in the aquarium, the more he thinks that Seokjin is, in fact, a real mermaid.

On the sixth or seventh Saturday Yoongi visits, Seokjin spends most of his time underwater, entertaining droves of squawking patrons from beneath the surface. He doesn’t dive very often when Yoongi comes to see him, since it’s hard to talk that way. Yoongi doesn’t mind sitting downstairs on occasion, though, watching Seokjin perform through the thick glass.

Looking down into the water from above, it’s not that easy to tell what lives in the tank. He can see blurry, darting colors but no distinct shapes; sometimes he’ll catch a turtle’s head peeking up at the surface. But downstairs, through the glass, it’s easy to see lacy coral and gape-mouthed eels and cat-sized sharks and fish in all sorts of bright, fruit-basket colors. Seokjin looks so at home here, underwater, slicing through a cloud of fish or petting Kookoo’s flappy wings.

Seokjin floats up to take a breath and sinks back down. Yoongi starts the stopwatch on his phone.

A group of young women with flouncy ponytails comes by, and one of them presses her hand to the window. Seokjin matches his hand against hers while they all giggle. They take dark, grainy selfies against the tank with Seokjin posing in the background of each one. Sometimes he blows bubbles, sometimes he flexes his arms, sometimes he pokes peace signs into his own cheeks.

He adapts like a cuttlefish to each visitor, posing and flirting and acting as need be, and by the time he resurfaces, Yoongi’s stopwatch reads 31:55.

Half an hour. Longer than any human has ever spent in a free dive. Longer than most whales and dolphins spend diving. But Yoongi doesn’t have any idea on the planet what to do with this information. Does he confront Seokjin about it? Like, “hey, I don’t want to tell you how to be a mermaid, but you might want to remember that humans need to breathe?” Maybe not. Maybe he somehow missed when Seokjin went to catch his breath? He’d look like a total idiot if he turned out to be wrong, after all.

“Yoongi-chi?” Seokjin says before Yoongi leaves for the evening. He’s on his back, swimming in lazy circles around the perimeter of the tank, and Yoongi is definitely not watching the way the muscles in his stomach contract each time he flicks his tail.

“Hmm?”

“I kind of hate it here.” His voice is soft and a little scared. He stops swimming and floats like a leaf.

“Why don’t you quit?”

“I can’t. I can’t leave. There’s nowhere else for me to go.”

Yoongi knows this feeling. Back in college, he worked nonstop to put cheap food in his stomach and a cheap roof over his head. He knows firsthand what it’s like to need money so badly that quitting a stable job—no matter how awful—is out of the question. He knows this feeling of being trapped in a place just to scrape together a sad existence.

But.

But?

Yoongi also knows in his heart like finespun alchemy that he has no goddamned clue what Seokjin feels. This has nothing to do with money or hunger or eviction notices. He steels himself.

“You’re really real,” he says, keeping his voice neutral. “You’re not acting, are you?”

Seokjin smiles, yet it’s the saddest Yoongi has seen him. “I am acting, though. I’m pretending to pretend to be a mermaid,” he says, and several things fall together at once, like a demolition. “Did you just figure it out?”

“More or less,” Yoongi admits. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while, though.”

“Better late than never, I guess. No one ever believes me—they always think it’s the character.”

A little bubble of guilt rises in Yoongi’s throat—he thought the same thing at first. He wonders how many people Seokjin has tried to convince, or how often he’s tried to get people to see his tail for what it is. How many children have asked their disenchanted parents if he’s real just to be told no, don’t be silly.

Seokjin dives. His body barely makes a splash as he inverts. Yoongi leans over the railing, watching for the flash of gold scales like he’s searching for sunken treasure. Then Seokjin’s form is rising rapidly, a glimmering mirage beneath the surface, and he breaches in a show of power and dexterity. He brings with him a crest of water, splashing over the railing and on Yoongi’s jeans, and for the first time, Yoongi gets to look him straight in the eye.

For the first time, they’re on the same level, mere inches apart. For the first time, Yoongi isn’t on higher ground. For the first time, they’re not viewing each other through two feet of plexiglass and two million gallons of water. It only lasts a split second before gravity forces Seokjin under again, but that’s all the time Yoongi needs to see the relief and fear on his face.

“If you could leave, would you?” Yoongi asks when Seokjin returns to him.

Seokjin nods quickly. “In a heartbeat. I’ve been here for…five years? I want to see Jeongguk again. I need to know he’s okay.”

Sometimes, Min Yoongi is a fool. Sometimes, Min Yoongi looks real mermaids directly in the eye and promises, “I’ll help you get out of here.”

○○○

Yoongi knows that he’s essentially trying to plan heist, but he doesn’t want to call it a heist. That implies a much grander scale, a more complicated series of operations, a greater sense of danger.

All he’s going to do is…free a mermaid from an aquarium. No big deal.

At once, he begins to plan with Seokjin, and he learns three extremely crucial things.

  1. Seokjin can be transferred to smaller tank in the infirmary for a night if he fakes a stomach ache or something. That way Yoongi won’t have to maneuver him through the entire aquarium.
  2. Seokjin can trade his tail for legs rather easily. All he has to do is rinse the salt from his body. It might be a tight fit, but Yoongi thinks they can accomplish that in his shower.
  3. He needs help.

Yoongi texts Namjoon to see if he can meet them during his break. When Namjoon arrives in his khakis and uniform polo at half past noon, Yoongi and Seokjin stare him down like they’re parents getting ready to tell their only child he’s going to be a big brother.

“So,” Yoongi says, “Seokjin’s a real mermaid.” There’s no use in skirting around the issue. Any dramatics would harm their case. “And we’re going to return him to the sea.”

Namjoon quirks an eyebrow and laughs. “Wow, you’re a terrible actor. Someone needs to teach you how to pull a prank,” he says. “Can I go take my lunch break now?”

“Joon.”

“What?”

“Seokjin’s a real mermaid, and we’re going to return him to the sea.”

“It’s not an act,” Seokjin adds. “At least, not the mermaid part.”

Namjoon’s dimples fade as his smile wanes. “You don’t expect me to believe this, right?”

“I mean, I was kind of hoping you’d take my word for it,” Yoongi says. “I lie about plenty of shit, but this is for real.”

“Show me the proof, then.”

Yoongi wants to wave his hands around and point to all of Seokjin. It took Yoongi a while to figure it out himself, yeah, but now that he knows, it seems so disgustingly obvious. The writhing muscles all down his tail, the faint gill slashes along his ribs, the crosshatched scars on his back. All of that is proof enough for him.

But Namjoon would say “it could be special effects and makeup” and then Yoongi would say “that’s too much work to do every single day” and then Namjoon would say “it’s still possible” and then Yoongi would say “but not practical” and then Namjoon would say “you can’t believe everything you see, Yoongi” and then they’d be back to square one.

“Here’s your proof,” Seokjin acquiesces. He curls his flukes out of the water. His fingernails comb up his tailstock before he stops suddenly and yanks a scale out, wincing like he’s tearing off a bandage. A tiny spot of purplish blood wells at the skin underneath. He sticks a finger into the spot and stamps a bloody fingerprint onto the back of the scale.

“I bleed,” Seokjin says, tossing the scale over the railing, “just like any other real thing.”

Namjoon picks the scale up and turns it over in his hand. His face has gone ashen. His forehead is furrowed so fiercely Yoongi thinks he’s going to hurt himself. “Okay, so, you’re a mermaid.”

“Right,” Seokjin says. “And I’d really like to see my brother again.”

“So we’re going to help.”

Namjoon studies the scale. It’s about the size of a peach pit, oblong like a spade, blunted where it used to be attached to Seokjin’s body. The outside is metallic gold and the inside is iridescent cream, like mother-of-pearl.

“I think the word you’re looking for is smuggle,” Namjoon says under his breath.

Seokjin says, “That’s one way of looking at this,” at the same exact time Yoongi says, “If you insist.”

Namjoon looks helplessly between Yoongi and Seokjin before he points the scale at Yoongi’s face. “This is the worst idea you’ve had in—forever. I hope you know that.”

Yoongi shrugs and looks down at Seokjin, whose tail is swishing and churning small whirlpools. He grins some wicked grin. “I hope you know I’ll do this with or without you. It’ll just be easier with you.”

Namjoon grumbles to himself as he pulls out his phone. “Taehyungie?” he says after he dials. “Yes, I’m at—no, no, listen. Remember Seokjin? Yeah, the guy Yoongi wants to—yeah, right. Well, he’s a real mermaid, and Yoongi says we’re going to smuggle him.”

○○○

As unpredictable as Taehyung and Hoseok tend to be, they provide some of the most unwavering constants in Yoongi’s life.

For example, he can count on Taehyung to eat every single strawberry on top of every single birthday cake before anyone else has a chance to snag one. He can count on Hoseok to have Tinashe blasting from his pick-up’s speakers any time they carpool anywhere. He can count on both of them to squirm and shrivel like salted slugs when anyone reminds them that their first kiss was technically all the way back in high school—and Hoseok had been wearing red lipstick.

They also tend to help Yoongi with whatever he needs, whenever he needs it, no questions asked.

This is not one of those times.

Yoongi doesn’t understand. Taehyung and Hoseok have a history of having terrible ideas, so he doesn’t know why his terrible idea doesn’t immediately fly for them. It doesn’t make sense.

They’ve gathered around the kitchen table after Yoongi finally cleared off his chairs (read: dumped all the shit into a pile in the corner). His friends are acting like they’re conducting an ultra-serious job interview. Even though Yoongi poured himself a cup of coffee a while ago, he’s too nervous to drink it; it’s gone cold, and he watches the overhead light refract in the mug.

His friends cycle through dozens of questions: did Seokjin tell him or did he figure it out himself, what gave it away, how did that conversation even go, is Seokjin more mammal or fish, can he turn completely human, how does he breathe, how long can he stay out of water, when are they going to carry out this plan, isn’t this illegal, why is he even doing this in the first place?

He only has answers for maybe one-third of these questions, which makes Namjoon pillow his head into his arms and groan every time an “I don’t know” tumbles out of his mouth.

“Wait, have you kissed?” Hoseok asks over his second cup of peppermint tea. “Is that why you’re doing this? Has he brainwashed you? Mermaids can do that, can’t they?”

“No! Are you even listening to what you’re saying? How would that even have happened? He lives in a tank.”

“But you want to kiss him,” Taehyung says with a smirk. “Why else would you want to do this?”

Yoongi thought they established this forever ago. Yes, he wants to kiss Seokjin. Yes, he’d date the fuck out of him, tail or no tail. He thought they were over this by now.

But—for a moment, he worries if that is why he’s doing this. If he wants to help because he’s attracted to Seokjin. If he’s concocting some sort of hero’s complex in his head. Like “the knight in ripped jeans gets to kiss the mermaid he rescued”? He’s on the fringes of an ethical crisis for about forty-five seconds, sitting there surrounded by his friends and their drinks.

No, he thinks as he takes a breath. He’s not that shallow or selfish. His moral compass has never pointed to true north, but he values freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of body. Free the whales. Free Seokjin. He remembers how scared Seokjin had looked when he breached, rising out of the water just to make that desperate human connection. How much Seokjin had looked like a trapped animal.

This is the right thing to do. Plain and simple.

“I’m doing this,” he snaps, his voice ice-sharp, “because he needs help, and no one else is fucking going to do it.”

Taehyung cringes. Namjoon fiddles uneasily with the handle of his mug.

“Sorry,” Hoseok mumbles.

Yoongi deflates a little. “I didn’t mean to yell.”

“Yoongi,” Hoseok says, “you can always count on us. You know that, right?”

And for all the trouble they cause him—he knows.

○○○

The next time Taehyung refers to tonight as “Operation: Shoplift a Mermaid,” Yoongi is going to make him get out of the truck at the nearest McDonald’s.

…That’s untrue. They’ll need Taehyung’s manpower. But seriously, it’s not an operation, and they’re certainly not shoplifting. That doesn’t even make sense. They’re more like a taxi service, Yoongi reasons. Mermaid ridesharing. Seokjin requested a lift, and they’re picking him up.

In any case, this is too diplomatic to be any sort of thieving mission. He’s written a letter of resignation on Seokjin’s behalf and will leave it in an obvious place for the staff to find. (Please accept this letter as a formal notification that I will be leaving my position as aquatic performer, effective immediately, he had written, followed by If need be, you may contact me at the following address: Pacific Ocean, just for kicks.) Namjoon’s even staying late at the aquarium so they won’t have to creep around looking for a way in.

It’s coming up on eight o’clock, past rush-hour. Namjoon’s been texting him since the aquarium closed to the public, telling him how Seokjin’s been transferred to a holding tank in the back under the guise of tail cramps. (“He’s a brilliant actor,” Namjoon sends, along with twenty thumbs-up emojis.) Hoseok is driving, Yoongi’s in the backseat, and Taehyung is manning the aux cord. Taehyung is playing what he refers to as The Better Little Mermaid OST, which is a playlist mainly consisting of old-timey songs with lots of swinging trumpet. It’s just barely on the acceptable side of ridiculous, making Yoongi feel like he’s in one of those Fallout games he watched them play a couple years back. Yoongi texts Namjoon and lets him know they’re almost there.

Hoseok pulls down a back-road toward the employee entrance of the aquarium. He weaves through clusters of cement buildings until they spot Namjoon waiting outside, leaning against the façade, keeping the door open with one foot.

“Seokjin’s excited to see you,” Namjoon says once Hoseok parks and they’re turning down off-white hallways. He’s addressing all three of them, but Yoongi suspects it was meant for him first and foremost.

When Namjoon opens the door to the infirmary, Yoongi startles himself by laughing. Seokjin looks like a cat who’s stuffed himself into a space that’s technically too small but doesn’t care either way. He’s reclining against the edge of the low tank, his tail spilling over the side. He waves, and a jittery smile breaks across his face.

“Hi,” he says, his voice lemon-bright and wow, Yoongi wants to kiss him. Again. Still. Whatever. He constantly looks kissable, okay?

“Hey, I’m Taehyung,” Taehyung says, offering his hand to shake. “Nice to finally meet you.” Seokjin takes his hand—too roughly, if the way Taehyung’s bird-boned wrist pops says anything—and then shakes Hoseok’s hand as well.

As Hoseok wipes his damp hand on his pants, it dawns on Yoongi that he’s the last one to touch Seokjin. Two months of vague flirting (Namjoon likes calling his museum trips dates and Yoongi, for unbeknownst reasons, hasn’t corrected him) and he’s never as much as given Seokjin a high-five.

Yoongi holds out his hand expectantly. Seokjin stares at it. “Don’t I get a handshake too?” he asks.

Somewhere behind him, Namjoon says, “I can’t believe you.”

But Seokjin takes his hand anyway, first with one hand and then two, laughing, presumably, at the way Yoongi feels his cheeks go red.

“Are you ready to get out of here?”

“More than ready.”

They decide that Hoseok, with his superior upper-body strength and general aversion to all things scaly, will be the one to lift Seokjin out of the tank, and then Taehyung will come in at his hips while Yoongi supports the bulk of his tail. Namjoon will take the end of his tail, making sure his flukes don’t get caught on anything as he guides them back out of the building.

Seokjin reaches up when Hoseok braces himself against the tank, slinging his arms around his neck. Water spills all over the floor as Hoseok hauls Seokjin up and out. Yoongi thinks about cleaning it up, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter. What doesn’t run off into the drainage grates in the floor will probably evaporate by morning. Taehyung wraps his arms around Seokjin’s waist, and Yoongi’s up to his elbows in water as he heaves Seokjin’s tail over the glass.

“Jesus Christ, you’re fucking heavy,” Hoseok grunts.

Good!” Seokjin yells, and Yoongi can see the indignant raise of his eyebrows without having to look.

Yoongi lets out a grunt of his own. Seokjin’s tail is a mass of thick muscle, heavier than it looks, powerful and wriggling like a python. He’s warm beneath Yoongi’s hands, and his scales are rigid like armor. If Yoongi had a free hand (and no audience), he’d definitely take the time to pet down to Seokjin’s flukes, just to see what it’s like.

“Hey,” Taehyung says as they begin to waddle down the hall, counting off their footsteps to match pace with each other, “we could take the truck to a carwash.”

“And then what?” Namjoon asks.

“Well, Seokjin said he’d be human once all the salt washes off, right? It’d be quick and easy!”

“Yeah, and painful.”

Hoseok huffs, either from exertion or exasperation. “And then I’d have a naked man in the bed of my truck,” he interjects.

“No, Yoongi brought him a jacket!”

“Okay, a mostly naked man in the bed of my truck.”

Seokjin’s full-on hiccup-laughing, and Yoongi’s glad he’s not as traumatized as he has the right to be, but he’s slipping in Yoongi’s hands as his whole body shakes. They have to stop every seven or eight steps to hitch Seokjin back up in their arms, but otherwise, they somehow make it outside without incident. (Or, well, except for the part when Hoseok almost smacked Seokjin’s head against a door jamb, to which Seokjin yelled, “Yah, yah, there’s a wall there!”)

It’s an unceremonious task, wrestling Seokjin into the back of the truck. Namjoon gets a fluke to the face, and Yoongi is one wrong move away from pulling a muscle in his bad shoulder. All in all, it feels an awful lot like hauling a giant tuna onto a chopping block.

Before they had left, they had lined the truck bed with every bath towel, beach towel, and hand towel the four of them own as well as a spare coat, since they couldn’t hazard a guess as to how mermaid thermoregulation works. Seokjin seems unaffected by the biting cold, but he accordions his tail, folding in on himself as he nests into the towels.

“Operation: Shoplift a Mermaid is complete,” Taehyung says proudly.

Yoongi hums. Technically, only phase one is complete. They’ve still got to get Seokjin to his apartment and then figure out when and where they’re going to take him to the ocean, but he’s not going to give Taehyung the chance to name each individual phase. He wedges his foot onto the truck’s back bumper, grabs onto the side, and pulls himself up until he can crawl next to Seokjin.

“What?” he asks when he realizes everyone is staring at him. “It’s not like we’re just throwing him back here and then taking off.”

“It’s cold,” Namjoon says, as if Yoongi wasn’t aware of this. Yeah, he’s going to freeze his ass off. No doubt. But he’s going to cocoon himself in the extra jacket and suck it up.

“I’ll live,” Yoongi answers with a curt nod and a burning face.

“Alright then,” Hoseok says. He closes the tailgate with a heavy clang and digs his keys out of his coat pocket, twirling the keychain around his finger. “Do you mind if we stop for boba on the way back?”

Hoseok.”

“Kidding, kidding,” he says, grinning a heart-shaped grin. The whole truck shifts as the three of them climb inside, and then it’s just Seokjin and Yoongi, lying together in a four-foot by four-foot metal box.

“Thank you for staying with me,” Seokjin says as the truck rumbles to life. “It’s been a long time since I was outside.” There’s the muted trill of a marimba coming from inside the cab, followed by Taehyung’s belting laughter, and he’s so lucky Yoongi isn’t inside to tell him to turn off “Under the Sea.”

“No problem,” Yoongi says, and he means it. Sure, he’s already shivering, his legs trembling and his fingers creaky with cold, but he means it. Someone knocks on the rear windshield. Yoongi answers with a knock of his own, and then they’re moving, rolling slowly down the back roads until they pick up speed at the main thoroughfare.

Seokjin sets his jaw in a hard line as they’re jostled and rattled around. There’s unmistakable uncertainty in his face as they pass streetlights and billboards, storefronts and leafless trees. “I was hoping I’d see the stars,” he laments, flinching when Hoseok hits a pothole.

“You will soon enough,” Yoongi says. It’s cloudy tonight, but even if it wasn’t, Yoongi isn’t sure how well they’d be able to see the stars through the city lights and smog. But it’s only a matter of time before he’ll be swimming under starlight and sea-shimmer once more.

When they reach a stoplight, Yoongi pats the space right next to him. Seokjin wiggles closer, not close enough to be considered cuddling-range but close enough for Yoongi to awkwardly pat his clammy shoulder. Close enough for comfort.

Seokjin is warm, and Yoongi can smell the fish and salt still clinging to his skin. He’s been sitting out of the water long enough that his hair is dry and fluffy, and Yoongi takes the stupid liberty of running his fingers through it. That always calmed him down when he was younger. Seokjin lets his eyes close.

“Are you okay?” Yoongi asks above the wind and the traffic and the engine. His teeth chatter around his words and he does a shit job of hiding it.

“I will be. I trust you. Are you okay?”

Yoongi smiles even as Hoseok takes a sharp turn and they tumble into each other in a mess of towels, various body parts, and centripetal force. “I’m fine,” he says, righting himself and trying not to crush Seokjin’s ventral fins. I trust you, I trust you, I trust you echoes around in his head like a church bell, and he grows warmer even as the temperature continues to drop.

○○○

It’s a five-man circus act, carrying Seokjin into Yoongi’s building, cramming themselves like Tetris pieces into the elevator, and navigating the narrow hallway of his apartment to his bathroom. Getting Seokjin into the bathtub is a different story altogether:  the bathroom is definitely too cramped for all of them to fit in there at once. Hoseok ends up tangled in the shower curtain, most of Yoongi’s hair products end up clattering to the floor, and ultimately they end up dumping a yelping Seokjin into the bathtub.

Seokjin groans as he rearranges his arms and snakes his tail up the tiled wall. “I’m too old for this,” he says as he catches his breath.

“Me too,” Yoongi mutters, kneeling down at the side of the tub. He’s simultaneously sweating and freezing from the hellish aftermath of exertion and the ride home, and he also has to pause for a breath. He can’t feel his cold-numbed fingers yet, but after some fumbling with the faucet, he manages to get the shower going.

As the fresh water falls, Seokjin’s scales begin to slough off. They sound like aluminum coins as they hit the ceramic floor. The ends of his flukes start to disintegrate like paper scraps in a fire, leaving a trail of viscous golden slime behind. Yoongi stares, horrified.

“It doesn’t hurt, I promise,” Seokjin says, looking up with round, earnest eyes. He rakes his hands over his hips and comes away with dozens of scales in his palms that he brushes off, only to do it again. There’s no purplish blood like there was when Seokjin had given Namjoon his proof. There’s just the rainstick rattle of scales and the splash of clear water washing the salt from Seokjin’s skin.

It’s comforting to know that it doesn’t hurt, but Yoongi can’t watch this. He can stomach a lot of things—certainly more than Hoseok, who had made this quivery noise of disgust and left as soon as Seokjin had started shedding—but this is too private. This seems like something Seokjin should do alone.

“I’ll, um—we’ll be right outside if you need us, okay? You can use whatever soap is there if it makes it easier for you,” he says.

“Thank you. I won’t be too long, I think. I can already feel my tail splitting.”

Unsettled, Yoongi leaves the door ajar and joins his friends on the couch. He can’t pinpoint why he’s so nervous. Maybe it’s the leftover butterflies from the ride home, maybe it’s the queasiness that gurgled in center of his chest as he watched Seokjin’s scales clog his shower drain, maybe it’s that distant tsunami-warning reminding him that his home is not Seokjin’s home. Maybe all of the above.

“I bet he’s short,” Hoseok says. “He’s gotta have some sort of weak point, right?”

Taehyung gets up and disappears into the kitchen. Namjoon leans over to plug his phone into a charger that peeks out from behind the couch. “We could only hope. He’s so pretty it’s kind of gross.” Then to Yoongi, he asks, “Now what?”

“He said something about having to calculate migration patterns. So we’ll start there, I guess.” Taehyung comes out of the kitchen with a Coke for him and a Sprite for Hoseok. “You brat,” Yoongi says. “Why didn’t you get anything for the rest of us?”

“You didn’t ask!”

“Neither did Hoseok!”

Taehyung laughs as he cracks open his can. “That’s because we’re on the same brain wavelengths, you know? Get on our level.” He takes a drink, but then he’s sputtering, badly, coughing up Coke all over his shirt. “Holy shit,” he wheezes as he wipes his face with his sleeve.

They all look up and there’s Seokjin, standing on two shaky legs and dripping wet and fucking gorgeous and very naked.

Several things want to come out of Yoongi’s mouth all at once, but what actually comes out is this alarming, wordless screech. It’s shocking enough to see Seokjin with legs in the first place—god, his thighs?—but throw his dick into the picture and Yoongi’s brain has fizzled out with a 404 error.

“Wait, no!” Namjoon says, frantically waving him away. “Go back, you need pants or something!”

Seokjin scrambles backwards like a spooked horse, catching himself on the walls of the narrow hallway. “Sorry?” he says.

“Don’t—don’t worry about it,” Yoongi says, and he should look away but he cannot. “Just hang out in the bathroom for a minute until I get clothes for you.”

“Right, of course. Humans and their clothing,” he says, mostly to himself. Yoongi tries not to flounder as he watches Seokjin’s bare ass disappear through the doorframe.

“What the hell happened to you?” Hoseok asks, smacking Yoongi’s arm.

“I panicked, okay?” Yoongi hisses.

“You can say that again.”

Yoongi ignores him and goes to get clothes. Good lord, he can’t believe his sense of oversight. He should have at least left a pair of boxers on the bathroom counter. Seokjin is broader than he is, and maybe a little taller, but Yoongi’s oversized hoodies and sweatpants should fit no problem. He bets Seokjin would appreciate the pale blue sweater his mother gave him for some birthday.

“He’s definitely not, um—short,” he hears Namjoon say faintly.

○○○

Mermaids, according to Seokjin, follow humpback migration, heading south in autumn to mate and north in spring to feed. It’s only the end of February, and the whales won’t arrive in the Sea of Okhotsk until May. Seokjin hasn’t made the journey in five years, so he comes to the conclusion that he needs to spend the month of March putting on some fat so that he has the energy to swim the distance. He’ll return to the ocean in April.

“What do you usually eat?” Taehyung asks.

They’re in Yoongi’s kitchen again. He only has four chairs, so Taehyung is sitting on Hoseok’s lap. Seokjin is visibly acclimating to things like sitting in a chair and wearing clothes and touching the floor with two feet. He shifts a lot, accidentally kicking everyone under the table like he hasn’t grasped the concept of knees yet.

“In the aquarium, it was mostly mackerel and squid. But in the ocean, we’re opportunistic feeders. We eat whatever’s around.”

“That makes things easier,” Namjoon says. “Do you have a favorite thing to eat? Maybe we can get it here.”

“Whale tongue,” Seokjin answers immediately. “I can’t imagine it’s easy to find that on land. It’s hard to get it in the ocean as it is. You have to hope the orcas are willing to share it when they bring in that sort of catch. Have you ever seen a pod of orcas hunt a grey whale calf?”

“Um,” Taehyung says, faltering. “No, I can’t say I have.”

“It’s absolutely terrifying and stunning at the same time. They’ll separate the calf from its mother and skull-bash it until it’s bleeding on the inside. Then when it’s weakened, they take turns jumping on top of it to keep its blowhole covered. The level of coordination they have is amazing. And then they go for the parts that they can easily tear off, like the tongue. Mm, it’s so fatty and delicious. I miss eating it.”

It is pin-drop-silent in Yoongi’s kitchen as Seokjin fantasizes about eating whale tongue. Yoongi watches Hoseok exchange a particular look with Namjoon, wide-eyed and scandalized. He supposes it’s no different than eating cow tongue, but at the same time, no one has to negotiate with a killer whale to acquire any part of a cow.

“Yeah, uh, we’re not going to find that on land,” Namjoon says. He clears his throat and counts off on his fingers:  “If you’re looking for fatty food, eggs, pork belly, salmon, and avocado are good places to start. We’ll teach you how to be a true millennial with gourmet avocado toast.”

Yoongi sighs. “We’ll go shopping tomorrow,” he says.

○○○

Grocery shopping is one of Yoongi’s least favorite activities. It rivals things like interacting with his shithead landlord and peer-reviewing research papers whose footnotes are longer than their actual paragraphs. He doesn’t like the lines and the oblivious crowds, and he never knows what to buy, anyway. He doesn’t eat that much to begin with, and he doesn’t like wasting money or food. At least he has the shopping list Namjoon provided this time.

A tiny, reverent “whoa” slips from Seokjin’s mouth once they pass through the automatic doors of the market. “I knew you didn’t have to hunt,” he says, eyes wide with wonder, “but I didn’t expect it to be like this.”

Their expedition is slow. Seokjin holds on to the side of the shopping cart like a child. He’s strong on his feet but he’s got sea legs still, teetering like he’s being pitched from starboard to port. Yoongi can tell that he’s overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of this store, which is funny coming from a person who knows the vastest thing on the planet.

Yoongi didn’t want to spend all day in this store. He wanted to compile his references for his newest findings on 52’s deepening song before Namjoon, Taehyung, and Hoseok inevitably invade his apartment later in the evening. But Seokjin points out fiddlehead ferns, neon bags of candies, and plastic-wrapped trays of marbled beef. Yoongi isn’t going to drag him away like a heartless monster. He can do his citations tomorrow.

Of course, the seafood section has Seokjin unabashedly fawning.

Yoongi passes the greenish tanks of spindly crabs and speckled trout all the time. On the rare occasions he bothers to cook something even remotely extravagant, he prefers to buy things that have already been deveined, gutted, shelled, filleted, and marinated. The last time he looked at the live seafood selection with any true interest was when he was a kid, back when he and his brother would take turns naming the clams before their mother hurried them along.

“This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,” Seokjin says. “You have it so easy! You don’t get the thrill of the hunt, but honestly? I’d take this over hunting any day.”

There are too many facets to shopping to explain right now. Yoongi’s not going to stand here in front of a bunch of shrimp and explain the abundant negative sides of capitalism. So he just nods instead. “Pick what you want,” he says, and he swears Seokjin lights up like a parade.

Among other things, they walk out of the store with more eggs than Yoongi has ever bought in his life, all sorts of seafood that Seokjin felt nostalgic about, and a take-out box of barbecued pork belly. Seokjin eats the pork belly on the way home, offering Yoongi pieces at all the red lights. Between enormous mouthfuls, he marvels at how delicious it is, his groans borderline pornographic.

○○○

Seokjin gets a crash-course on how to survive as a human for a month. He already knows a lot about human behavior from his time in the aquarium. He knows about shoelaces and cellphones, and he has a decent grasp of reading. But Yoongi has to teach him how to steam eggs, how to brush his teeth, how to look both ways before crossing the street. He listens as Seokjin picks up new slang and colorful combinations of curse words from Namjoon and Hoseok, laughing when he uses “get fucking shitfaced” for the first time.

So far, there are two things that Seokjin does not understand about humanity.

The first is that it gets quiet at night.

On the fourth day of Seokjin’s stay, Yoongi comes back home from a conference late. He’s been awake for what feels like a decade, and his skin is crawling with how much he wants to get out of his button-down and into a hoodie.

Yoongi lets himself into his apartment, and he stops in the doorway, the hallway light casting a fluorescent wedge on the ugly beige carpet.

Seokjin is already asleep on the pull-out couch. Yoongi will admit it’s not that comfortable, but he doesn’t know what comfort means to someone who lives underwater. If anything, Yoongi admires his ability to sleep in suboptimal conditions. He’s shirtless, as he prefers to be, and the television is still on, spouting the main menu theme song from whatever video game Taehyung and Namjoon had been playing last night.

Having Seokjin here is bizarre. Yoongi is used to his friends crashing on his couch, but he still can’t help but feel like they’ve broken the fourth wall. For a long time, Seokjin had been on display, all pretty and golden and out of reach. And now he’s just here, still pretty even when his face is puffy, but entirely close enough for Yoongi to touch. His hands still yearn to pull Seokjin in by his waist, to spell out desire like a landslide on the scarred plane of his back.

He shakes his head and closes his door. It’s easy to let himself stare when he’s this tired. It’s easy to let himself stare when no one’s around to tease him for it.

He turns off the television and shuffles to his bedroom to put on pajamas. After he’s changed and has mint toothpaste foaming on his tongue, he hears the video game music start back up. He spits, wipes his face, and peers down the hall to where Seokjin is busy swaddling himself in a blanket like an omelet.

“Hey,” Yoongi says, and Seokjin jumps, caught off guard.

“Hi,” Seokjin says. His voice is small and sleep-heavy and sweet like dynamite. The tendons in his neck flex as he yawns. “You’re late. You missed dinner.”

“I know, the conference thing ran late. I got food while I was out. What’s with the TV?”

“It’s hard to sleep when it’s so quiet. The water is never quiet.”

Yoongi looks at the screen and takes in the disturbing operatics of the Bloodborne menu. “How about you listen to something that won’t give you nightmares for the rest of your life?”

Seokjin hums and scoots over to one side of the scrawny mattress like an invitation. Yoongi doesn’t think much of it as he sits down on the other side, the weak springs squeaking under his weight. He pulls his phone from the front pocket of his hoodie and loads a playlist of some of his favorite piano pieces. There’s one piece in particular—one of Liszt’s meditative compositions—to which Seokjin takes a liking; the last thing Yoongi remembers is Seokjin mumbling about how airy the song sounds.

Yoongi didn’t mean to fall asleep on the couch, but he wakes up there. His neck aches like he had spent the night with his head clamped in a vise, but Seokjin’s back is pressed to his chest, all solid and warm. He’s dangerously close to being late for work. He has half a mind to call in sick and stay like this, but he’s supposed to give a tour to potential donors today, and the research center needs the money more than he needs to cuddle.

He clambers away, waking Seokjin as he jostles the entire couch. He skips his morning shower, doesn’t even shave the two-day stubble on his chin, and leaves with mismatched socks. Seokjin’s face is the loveliest pink as Yoongi trips over a “good morning,” a "sorry," and a “see you later” as he books it out the door.

It doesn’t even occur to him until after lunchtime that his playlist had to have ended in the middle of the night and Seokjin never got up to turn something back on.

When Yoongi asks him about it later, Seokjin says, “I listened to your heartbeat,” and Yoongi’s insides tug themselves into a messy fishing line tangle. “The music is alive, but it’s not living, you know? It’s better to listen to something so real. Your heartbeat reminds me of the whales.”

Here, Yoongi thinks Seokjin is lying. A blue whale’s heart only beats a handful of times per minute, like it’s so big it knows it needs to tiptoe inside its ribcage walls. He doesn’t know how his own heart, beating twelve times as fast, could possibly remind him of the whales.

Nevertheless, this is how Seokjin weasels his way into Yoongi’s bed. Yoongi just lets it happen, pulling back the covers when Seokjin shows up at his at his bedroom door, confident but not imposing, like he belongs there. They arrange themselves without a word, as if they’ve done it a million times before, Seokjin tucking himself close against Yoongi’s chest, and they sleep, two hearts beating in the stillness of the night.

The second thing Seokjin doesn’t understand is kissing.

It’s the eighth day of Seokjin’s stay, and they’re at the fitness complex where Hoseok teaches his dance classes. Sometimes Yoongi comes here to shoot free throws in the air-conditioned gymnasium, and Taehyung bribed him into a yoga class once, which wasn’t even as bad as Yoongi expected. But today they’re here for the pool after Seokjin had mentioned over breakfast that he missed the water.

Yoongi is not a swimmer. He is a wader, perhaps. A doggy-paddler at the most. He’d rather sit on a hot beach somewhere and toast like meringue, but here he is, sitting on the cold, wet, concrete lip of this deathly-chlorinated pool.

Taehyung’s head pops out at the opposite wall, and he slaps his hand against the no diving sign on the pool’s edge. “Ha!” he shouts, his voice booming from across the water. “I won again!”

Seokjin surfaces a few moments later, and he’s pouting like the biggest fucking baby Yoongi has ever seen. “Rematch!” he demands for the third time. Yoongi can’t hear what else they’re saying, but by the way Taehyung is moving his arms and his head, Yoongi guesses he’s giving pointers on how to breathe. Seokjin’s gills have been sealed off to the point where they’re just wispy scars on his ribs, and he’s been struggling to coordinate each stroke of his arms to each inhale.

Taehyung beats him back to the starting point. It’s interesting, watching Seokjin flail like this. He obviously wants to swim like he still has a tail, flexing his abdomen to move both feet in tandem instead of using his hips to kick one leg at a time.

Yoongi feels bad for him, but not as bad as he feels for Taehyung, who gets tackled in frustration when Seokjin realizes he’s lost yet again. They go under in a mess of broad shoulders and thick thighs, coming up laughing and coughing and apologizing to the lifeguard who is blowing her shrill whistle at their roughhousing. Taehyung disappears beneath the water like the troublemaker he is.

“This is hard,” Seokjin whines, swimming over to the wall. His eyes are bloodshot from all the chemicals. “I wouldn’t even be able to outswim a molting penguin. And molting penguins can’t even swim. Legs are terrible for this.”

“Good thing you’ll have your tail back soon,” Yoongi says. He scoots into the water with a splash and makes to confiscate a ball left bobbing under the short hoop. He may not be a swimmer, but he’s always up for a game of Horse.

“Hey, why do people do that?”

“Do what?” Yoongi asks as he shoots the ball, making the shot no problem. He looks over to see Hoseok, sweaty and fresh out of his most advanced class, entering the water via the stairs like a loser. Taehyung’s met him halfway into the pool and is kissing him hello.

“Kiss? It’s a way to show affection. Something people do when they really like each other. Mermaids don’t kiss?”

Seokjin dunks his head and slicks back his hair. He could be in an advertisement for cologne with the flirty way he arches eyebrows and the way water droplets roll down his chest. “No. I don’t think kissing makes sense for mermaids. We’d swallow too much saltwater.”

He glides toward Yoongi, standing up and cornering him beneath the basketball hoop. His hands reach out and settle on Yoongi’s bare waist. And then his wet lips kiss Yoongi’s.

It’s chaste, mercurial like snow flurries, and so fast that Yoongi doesn’t even have time to close his eyes, which is fucking weird. He’s probably going to melt into the pool now. He’s wanted to do this for weeks, but like, warn a guy? He can feel himself blush, tragically flustered by the barely-there touch of Seokjin’s pretty mouth.

“You shouldn’t, um, kiss people unless you know they’re okay with it. For future reference,” he says. He looks down at the sliver of water separating their bodies, at Seokjin’s belly button just because it’s right there.

“Oh,” Seokjin says, freezing. His hands drop into the water, and he backs away. “I’m sorry. I just—I really like you and I thought you—I mean. Are you okay with it?”

Against his better judgement, Yoongi nods. “It’s okay. You could even do it again, if you want.”

This is the slimiest thing he’s ever said, but it works anyway. Seokjin beams, and his pink tongue darts out across his even pinker lips. “Yes,” he says, voice higher than usual, and he leans back in.

Now that Yoongi’s expecting it, he has time to reach up and cup Seokjin’s face. Slow him down. Maneuver him until he can taste more Seokjin than chlorine. Keep him there before he slips away. Yoongi doesn’t push the envelope and stays careful, stays PG, but Seokjin drags his teeth over Yoongi’s bottom lip once, and that is definitely something. Seokjin’s learning to kiss far faster than he’s relearning to swim.

Yoongi thinks, this is nice, and then, I shouldn’t do this, and then, make the most of this anyway.

Hoseok wolf-whistles behind them, and a mermaid-shaped chunk of Yoongi’s soul screams for help.

○○○

It’s Yoongi’s birthday, and he’s doing laundry.

He notices that when he pulls the lint out of the dryer filter, it’s not the same monotonous, dusty color it usually is. The fluff he scrapes away is a dark teal-purple this time, the color of a tempest.

Seokjin’s been finding all of the things that Yoongi never wears, stuffed in drawers or buried at the back of his closet. Like this sapphire-blue t-shirt that he doesn’t remember acquiring. And this pink sweater that he bought on impulse, because he thought the hexagon pattern on the sleeves was cool, but has yet to wear himself. The tag was still dangling from the collar when Seokjin had tugged it over his head.

Isn’t it funny how he forgot what it looks like when reds and blues and pinks mingle together with all his shades of black?

Seokjin reminds him how to mix colors.

Yoongi loves him.

○○○

(They all go out for celebratory drinks. As it turns out, Seokjin can out-drink all of them, hands down, knocking back shots of vodka and curacao like it’s nobody’s business.

Taehyung and Hoseok, the lightest lightweights Yoongi has ever met, are already slurring their words. Yoongi pulls Namjoon aside. “I’m in love with him,” he says without any preamble, because he needs to tell someone.

It takes a moment for his admission to soak in, but then: “Oh, no, Yoongi, you didn’t.”

Yoongi nods listlessly and glances over to the bar where it looks like Seokjin is telling a joke to the bartender. “I did.”)

○○○

Seokjin eats a lot.

This was the plan, yes, but it amazes Yoongi how much he can eat nonetheless. Seokjin’s not fond of sandwiches or cucumbers or pan-fried potatoes, and chicken breast throws him off for some reason, but he’s otherwise an enthusiastic eater. He prefers raw seafood to cooked (understandable) but loves the spicy braised squid Yoongi makes (also understandable), and he can polish off a dozen eggs in one sitting (not understandable). He’s also got this habit where he refuses to take small bites of meat:  Yoongi’s never seen a man try to shove a whole rib-eye into his mouth in one go, but there’s obviously a first time for everything.

(He wouldn’t call Seokjin’s attempt successful, but it sure was fascinating.)

All this concentrated eating leaves Seokjin’s tummy softer, his collarbones less pronounced. His cheeks are cute and puffy—hamster cheeks, Hoseok says—and kissing them is Yoongi’s new favorite way to say good morning.

Snuggling a slightly-squishy Seokjin turns out to be the ideal sleeping situation, and Yoongi actually gets some decent rest for a change. The only problem with the whole thing begins fifteen days into Seokjin’s stay. They’d spent their Saturday afternoon at the fitness center again, and even though he had finally beaten Taehyung while swimming laps, he’s been jittery since they got home.

“What’s the matter?” Yoongi asks as they sit down with their dinner.

“Nothing,” Seokjin says quickly, shoveling a mountain of fried rice into his mouth. Some of it tumbles off his spoon and onto his hoodie. “Oops,” he says as he brushes the debris onto a napkin. “Hey, what did one bowl of rice say to the other? It’s rice to meet you.”

Yoongi stares at him. Like that wasn’t suspicious. It wasn’t even a good bad joke. He’s not even laughing and pretending like it was exponentially funnier than it is. “Are you sure nothing’s wrong?” he tries again.

“I’m fine. Can we watch Ponyo? Taehyung said I’d like it.”

Yoongi decides to let it go. If Seokjin wants to talk, he’ll talk. “I’ll see if I can find it,” he says.

It’s not until they go to bed that Seokjin decides to talk. Seokjin’s pressed his back to Yoongi’s chest—his preferred way to cuddle—and Yoongi's draped his arm over Seokjin’s bare tummy. Yoongi’s already half asleep, tired in that full-body, post-pool-day way.

Then Seokjin groans. It’s this great, exasperated thing deep in his throat, more lion than mermaid. He arranges and rearranges himself beneath the covers, jostling Yoongi around as he wiggles this way and that. He’s never been this finicky. Yoongi cracks his eyes open, worried that Seokjin is getting sick or—

“Do all humans have such poor control of their genitalia?” Seokjin asks, too loud for the stark quiet of the bedroom, too loud for being so close in Yoongi’s space. Too loud, period.

“What the fuck.”

“My body is saying it’s time to mate,” Seokjin says, candid and still too loud. “And it’s not. It’s been like this all day.”

That…can only mean so many things. Uh, no—that can only mean one thing. Seokjin’s phrasing is clinical, but he more or less announced that he has a boner.

Good fucking god, Seokjin was acting so weird earlier because he’s been horny. Yoongi is wide awake now, which means he is two steps away from doing something dangerous.

“Why are you telling me this? Go take care of it in the bathroom. You have perfectly good hands,” he says. An oppressive heat starts to creep down his neck. His arm is still slung over Seokjin’s waist. He does not move it.  

“I’ve never…”

There’s a beat of silence. Yoongi is losing his grip on reality. “You’ve never touched yourself?”

“Yah, how naïve do you think I am? I’ve just never really felt the need outside of mating season.”

“You’re a human now. Humans don’t have a mating season,” Yoongi says. His head swims with the image of Seokjin’s flushed face. Lips parted, eyes closed. His pretty moans as he rides Yoongi’s cock, maybe as he fucks into Yoongi’s mouth. His voice stuttering as he comes.

Make that one step away from doing something dangerous.

“Apparently not,” Seokjin mutters. He squirms around some more. His stomach contracts beneath Yoongi’s palm. Yoongi’s fingers slip down to brush his waistband.

The air is too tight, stretched tightrope-thin. Yoongi presses his lips between Seokjin’s shoulder blades. It’s not a kiss—it’s just enough so that Seokjin can feel him there. “What’s gotten you so worked up? What have you been thinking about all day?” he asks, hot against his skin.

“How nice your back is,” he says, compliant and raspy. “You don’t have any scars or missing pieces of flesh.”

“Very sexy,” Yoongi deadpans. He drums his fingers against the hemline of Seokjin’s boxers. He imagines that Seokjin is wetting his lips with his tongue. Imagines titanic kisses and busy teeth. (Half a step? A quarter step?)

“It is. It means you’ve never been challenged or hunted. Survival is sexy in the ocean.”

“Well, this isn’t the ocean,” Yoongi says, and he knows he’s testing the boundaries of Seokjin’s patience, of whatever bizarre relationship this is, of his own will, but he doesn’t want to stop. “Were you thinking about my friends, too? You saw all of them today, and they don’t have scars either. Are you turned on for them?”

Yoongi can all but hear him thinking through the phrase turned on. “No, just you.”

He’s bypassed his threshold by now. No steps left. Negative four steps left. Fuck-caution steps left. He runs his nails right below Seokjin’s navel. “Do you want me to touch you?”

“Yes, can you, can you please, yes—” Seokjin’s words feather out into nothing but a loud gasp as Yoongi presses his palm to his cock over his boxers. Yoongi pets down his length, holding in several curses as Seokjin bucks against him.

His wandering hands trail over Seokjin’s thick thighs, all solid muscle beneath the new cushion of fat, hairless and hydrodynamic like his tail. Yoongi’s imagination runs wild as he pictures these thighs spread and trembling. He slips his hand into Seokjin’s boxers.

Yoongi trails his fingertips over the head of his cock, plays with the precome that wets the slit. There’s so much of it already, beading at the tip and leaving damp patches against his pelvis and the inside of his underwear. The tacky fabric drags along Yoongi’s knuckles as he gives a few teasing strokes. He rubs precome between his fingers like he’s testing fine silk.

“This is all for me?” he murmurs into Seokjin’s back, relishing the way Seokjin shivers against him and whispers a weightless yes. He slides his hand out of Seokjin’s boxers so he can shove them halfway down his thighs.

Now, the gravity in this room is off. The tightening upstroke versus the smoothing downstroke, some tidal movement of back and forth like Seokjin’s brought the moon into Yoongi’s apartment. The way Yoongi feels upside-down and off-balance. The way Yoongi’s trying not to be gross and grind his own dick against Seokjin’s ass.

Part of Yoongi wants to kiss Seokjin through this. He wants to hear him struggle to regulate his breath between an onslaught of kisses and the pressure of his impending orgasm. He’s sure Seokjin would sound amazing like that, hitched inhales and short exhales. But this is still lovely, with his full moans and the occasional hiccupping whimper when Yoongi teases the head of his cock for too long.

“You don’t have to hold back,” Yoongi says, sliding his hand faster. At this point, Yoongi’s arm is aching; it’s so similar to jacking himself off, but the angle is so different, reaching farther around and lifting his shoulder higher. But he begins to twist his wrist in sharp flicks, biting at the nape of Seokjin’s neck, and it’s only a couple of anti-gravitational minutes until Seokjin is coming, spilling over Yoongi’s fingers and choking on Yoongi’s name.

Seokjin slouches, his head landing heavily on his pillow. He’s trembling in Yoongi’s arms and breathing hard. “Fuck, it’s never felt like that,” he says. He reaches for Yoongi’s hand and ends up smearing his come across their skin.

Yoongi grits his teeth and keeps his hips as still as he can. “Let me clean you up,” he says and stumbles out of bed. His left arm is asleep from laying on it for so long. When he flips on the lights in the bathroom, he’s taken aback by how catastrophically red his face is. He decides not to look in the mirror any longer as he cleans up his hands with scalding water and gets himself off in record time, fucking into a tight fist and coming with his bottom lip clamped between his teeth, all crocodile-strength and frenzy.

They repeat step one after Yoongi’s wiped Seokjin down with a towel, a process that’s almost as intimate as the act itself, checking to make sure there’s no come left between his fingers:  they cuddle up, back to front, and Yoongi can’t even tell his heartbeat from Seokjin’s anymore.

○○○

When Yoongi gets home from work the following Monday, he toes off his shoes and looks around at his quiet apartment. Seokjin’s not on the couch or in the kitchen like normal, though there are dishes in the sink that weren’t there when he left this morning.

A cursory glance down the short hallway tells him that he’s not in the bathroom either. His bedroom door is ajar, though, and when he pushes in, already unbuttoning his shirt, he finds Seokjin in his bed. It is wondrously obvious that Seokjin’s touching himself.

“Jesus Christ,” Yoongi says, turning on his heel to leave him be.

“Wait,” Seokjin says, and oh, hell, his voice is low and sultry and extremely fucked-out. “Ask me what I’ve been thinking about all day.”

Yoongi closes his eyes and rests his forehead on the doorframe with a resonant thump. He shouldn’t play this game for like a hundred reasons. But he can hear the rustle of the sheets around Seokjin’s body as he keeps jerking himself off, shameless and lewd, and he wasn’t even aware that his body was capable of getting this hard this fast anymore.

“What have you been thinking about all day?” he asks, his throat constricting.

“You,” Seokjin says. “I’ve wanted you to touch me all day. This is the fourth time I’ve done this and I still want it to be you.”

Holy fuck.

And the thing is, the other night, Yoongi couldn’t see this rosy blush that colors the vista of his chest. He couldn’t see his fluttery eyelids. He couldn’t see the newfound softness of his tummy or his arms, or the way Seokjin’s using his other hand to tease his nipples. It’s the easiest thing in the world to give in, a seamless freefall as he unzips his pants and climbs into bed, and Seokjin welcomes him with his tongue in his mouth and a clumsy hand pulling Yoongi’s cock out of his underwear.

Yoongi reaches into the middle drawer of his nightstand and pulls out a bottle of lube. He pours some into the palm of Seokjin’s hand and then his own, and this added slickness, this recalibrated friction, draws a delicious cry from Seokjin’s mouth and yeah, he could listen to that every day for the rest of his life—and into the afterlife, for that matter. Could analyze it over and over and store it forever in the ether.

He makes Seokjin come for what is apparently the fourth time this afternoon, and he comes for the first time this afternoon on Seokjin’s belly. It’s so vulgar and selfish and ill-advised, but he wonders if Seokjin could possibly be up for a fifth time.

○○○

Yoongi’s never been in a long-distance relationship, but he imagines that it’s similar to this thing they have.

Once in a blue moon, the lovers reunite. For a holiday, for a weekend, for as many hours as they can spare. They’re together for now, but they know it’s only a few days before they’re in different time zones again. They hold hands with an inkblot of anxiety mingling between their palms. The lovers enjoy their time the best they can, but each kiss still tastes like they’re about to say goodbye.

Seokjin is going to say goodbye.

But he and Seokjin aren’t a couple. They’re hardly even lovers, unless he counts some kissing and three hand jobs as requisites for being lovers, which—he’s not even sure if he counts that.

They’re just existing together for this short skip of time, Seokjin in the wrong ecosystem and Yoongi in the wrong headspace.

○○○

Seokjin becomes a god at playing Mario Kart. Yoongi takes him to get new piercings, since he said the ones he got with urchin spines closed off years ago, and together they pick out tiny, black pearl studs. They jerk each other off a couple more times. (Yoongi wanted to blow him, except:  “The human part of me trusts you,” Seokjin explained, “but the mermaid part says I shouldn’t trust anyone who’s in the position to bite my dick off,” which was disappointing but fair enough.) March trickles to an end. Taehyung insists on a going-away party, bringing with him a cake and teary eyes, and forces them all into a group hug.

Their last morning is asphyxiating grey. It's not raining, but the sky looks like it could crack open at any time. Yoongi has been awake for a while now. He is still tucked into his comforter. One of his arms is still slung over Seokjin’s tummy, rising and falling with each deep breath he takes. His alarm goes off in a beeping crescendo, and Seokjin finally stirs beneath his hands.

“Good morning,” Seokjin says, wriggling around and twisting all the blankets so he can plant a kiss to the center of Yoongi’s chest.

Yoongi is going to miss this. 

Seokjin had concluded that his journey would be safest if he could follow Japan’s coast northward, and so they drive to Busan while the day is still young. It is a long drive. Yoongi grips the steering wheel so hard that his knuckles cramp up. Seokjin spends most of the time recounting anecdotes about the shenanigans he got into with Jeongguk and Jimin; Yoongi has heard most of these stories already, spoken adoringly across his kitchen table or into the space between his collarbones in bed.

At some point, the motion of the car lulls Seokjin into a short nap, the seatbelt tucked beneath his chin. When he wakes up, he asks if he can hear his favorite Liszt composition one more time.

They find an out-of-the-way inlet near an out-of-the-way neighborhood. Gravel crunches beneath his tires. The coastline is abandoned. Yoongi parks on the edge of the sand. It is so quiet. Seokjin fidgets, staring longingly out the windshield.

“I know it doesn’t matter,” Yoongi says, “but I love you.”

He doesn’t know why he fucking said that. It’s an acidic truth, hurtful on his tongue, and more of a complication than anything else. He could have not said it. He could have kept it inside and left the syllables to die. He shouldn’t have said it. Seokjin tears his eyes away from the waves chasing up the beach. Yoongi wonders if he imagines the hurt in his face or if it’s really there.

“Of course it matters,” he murmurs. “My home is filled with so many things, but love is not usually one of them. Thank you for doing this for me. I owe you everything.”

He does not say it back. Yoongi did not expect him to. In the end, it doesn’t matter:  Yoongi cannot love him from land in all the ways that he wants. “You’re welcome,” he says, even though it is hollow and insufficient, but it is all he can muster now.

They get out of the car. Yoongi does not lock the doors. The early spring air still carries a bite with it, cold and drying, and his lips are chapped.

As they make their way to the water, Yoongi takes Seokjin’s hand in his. He thinks briefly how holding hands is too human for the sea. Thinks of entanglement and ties and the whales that die when they become tangled in fishing nets and buoys, their fins trapped so close against their warm bodies that they can’t help but sink.

Yoongi lets go of Seokjin’s hand. Thinks better of it.

He can’t drown him like that.

Seokjin begins to strip in the middle of this cold beach. First the coat with the fur-trimmed hood, then the slate-grey hoodie, then the shoes he borrowed from Hoseok, and then the white socks. When he reaches for his belt buckle, he casts an unsure look in Yoongi’s direction, his bottom lip caught between his teeth. Even after Yoongi had explained to him that being naked is a private thing, he had never been shy about his body, and his reluctance tastes wrong in unnamable ways.

But he finishes the job, loosening his belt and shucking his pants until he rivals the Birth of Venus. Yoongi shivers in his padded coat.

“Can you stay with me?” Seokjin asks. “I’m nervous.”

“I’ll stay,” Yoongi says.

Seokjin walks forward. The whitewater tide rushes up and welcomes him. He continues walking.

It is only when Seokjin is chest-deep in the cold sea that he turns to face the beach. Then he goes under.

Yoongi doesn’t know what he was expecting. The violent transition of a werewolf, leaving him volatile and vulnerable? The sparkling theatrics of a magical girl, his tail fluttering into existence in a swath of light? Not a clue. None of that seems to happen, and several minutes pass. He worries that Seokjin is already gone without as much as a goodbye.

His fear is assuaged when he sees Seokjin’s head pop back up, closer to shore than when he started. He spits water and thrashes wildly until he relaxes and flips over to float on his back. The tide sweeps him to shore like flotsam, and now Yoongi can see the glimmer of gold beneath the waves. He swallows the lump in his throat.

Seokjin rolls up onto the beach. His biceps and shoulders strain as he drags the massive weight of his tail behind him. Sand clings to his stomach, leaving wet panko trails on his skin. His gills have opened up again, the gashes on his ribs fresh and pink.

“This time it hurt,” he admits, panting, but he’s smiling. He lifts his tail; his flukes are curled inward like ribbons, flimsy like the dorsal fin of a newborn dolphin. “It’s so nice to have my tail again.”

Yoongi is not sure what to say. There are no words that could fill this silence as well as the whisper of the water. There are no frequencies of whale song that could echo the lonesomeness he is drifting toward.

Seokjin wriggles around and arranges himself so that he can sit upright. He flicks his dripping hair away from his face. “You’re being weird,” he says. “Come over here. You can touch me, if you want.”

Yoongi blushes, and he blames it on a bitter gust of wind. He nods. He’s not wearing the right shoes for this, and his toes squish in his socks as water seeps into his soles. “You’re really beautiful,” he says.

“I know.” Seokjin grins. Yoongi pretends like he doesn’t know that Seokjin is only this blatantly cocky when he’s trying to compensate for something.

When he kneels down, Seokjin grabs one of his hands and guides it to the place on his hip where skin becomes tail. It’s strange, the way Seokjin’s squishy belly transitions into rigid scale and bulky muscle. He touches him, his palm flat and hesitating. He tries to feel each ridge give way to the next. Tries to memorize each scalloped edge. Tries to take his time.

Tries to stall.

Seokjin’s flukes begin to unfurl and stiffen like the wings of a freshly-hatched butterfly. His gives a feline shiver as Yoongi’s hand makes it all the way down the sprawling length of his tail, stopping before the flare of his fins. Yoongi’s socks are waterlogged and his toes are tingling cold, but still he waits, crouched there in the sand. At last, Seokjin’s flukes flatten out and firm up.

“Jeongguk is waiting for you,” Yoongi says.

“I hope he is. I hope he hasn’t forgotten me.”

“Trust me, you’re kind of unforgettable.” Yoongi smiles, but it feels like a fake bottlenose-smile. He cradles Seokjin’s face in his damp hands and gives him one final, simple kiss, tasting him and all of the ancient sea.

“I can’t thank you enough,” Seokjin says, his breath on Yoongi’s lips.

“It’s okay. You don’t have to.” Yoongi stands. He balls his fists and shoves them deep in his coat pockets. “Go home, Jinnie,” he says softly.

Seokjin whispers a tiny “okay” and one more “thank you,” lingering a moment longer before he drags himself back into the wake, his tail leaving a deep, snaking trench across the wet sand. The frothing tide comes up and fills the space where Seokjin used to be, smoothing the beach over until his imprint is erased.

He looks like all the poetics of a fairy tale, unreal and timeless, as he dives. His flips his flukes above the surface like he’s waving goodbye. Then he disappears from sight, his inborn compass leading him in exactly the right direction.

Yoongi leaves.

○○○

The heart breaks like a starfish.

Heartbreak is defined by loss, by feeling incomplete, by the sympathetic nervous system kicking into overdrive as the body tries to figure out how to fix something that isn’t there.

It is not uncommon to see incomplete starfish, their bodies deformed into shuriken on the sea floor, missing an arm or two or three. Sometimes their limbs are severed, torn by king crab claws or sliced off by oyster farmers with fillet knives. Sometimes starfish do it to themselves. They rip their own arms off to confuse predators or stop infections from spreading throughout the rest of their bodies.

However, starfish regenerate. It takes a while, yes, but cell by cell, millimeter by millimeter, they regrow their tube feet and spines and round out their radial symmetry. Starfish can be made whole again. Easily, naturally, painlessly.

Perhaps the heart doesn’t break like a starfish after all.

○○○

Summer comes, and Yoongi carries on with his life. He goes to work and listens to whale song day in and day out. On some sad Sunday, he goes back to the aquarium to see Kookoo and Chimchim, but there are at least half a dozen stingrays in the tank that Seokjin used to live in, and he doesn’t know which ones are which. He becomes a third wheel when Taehyung and Hoseok pity-invite him out on their barbeque dates.

He cries once. Only once. It’s so fucking stupid, so incomprehensibly weak. It’s when he’s doing the laundry and realizes that everything is black, that he hasn’t touched any of the clothes Seokjin liked to wear, and now he’s crying over the dryer lint like a little bitch. He went days with dry eyes, but it hits him now that he has nothing to prove that Seokjin was ever here in the first place.

Namjoon is present for this meltdown. Neither of them know how to handle his sticky eyelashes or tissue-raw nose. Usually, when Namjoon gives him hugs, he makes himself small, tucking himself into Yoongi’s neck because Yoongi is good at making people feel safe. This time, Namjoon stands at full-mast and rests his cheek against Yoongi’s hair, becoming the shield Yoongi didn’t know he needed.

The day after, Namjoon gifts him the single scale Seokjin had torn from his tail all those weeks ago. He wants to cry again when he holds this golden memento in his hands, but he does not.

○○○

In late July, he and his core research team are invited to spend three weeks in North America observing the southern resident orcas; in the Salish Sea of the Pacific Northwest, the three patrolling pods speak in dialect, almost like the way he slips into dialect when he argues with Taehyung.

“There’s no reason for me to go,” Yoongi says, laying on his couch, his head in Hoseok’s lap. Taehyung is speed-running Super Meat Boy on the television, and Namjoon is typing away on his laptop. Yoongi thinks—not for the first time—that he should start asking them to chip in for rent since they never leave.

“It’s literally your job to study whale sounds,” Hoseok points out.

“Orcas aren’t even whales,” Yoongi mutters. He closes his eyes, hoping this will end the conversation. He’s not that lucky.

“It’ll be good for you! A change of scenery. Some actual fresh air. You should go.”

Namjoon adds, “If nothing else, it’s a free trip to the U.S., right?”

“What about…what about my cactus?” Yoongi asks. Taehyung snorts. Yoongi sighs in defeat—yeah, fine, that was dumb.

“Oh, no,” Hoseok says, sarcasm dripping in his voice like candlewax, “who could you possibly ask to look after your cactus?” So Yoongi ends up packing a bag with long-sleeve shirts and neoprene leggings and finds himself in Seattle.

Here, he is violently reminded why he is not a field researcher. Why he chooses to do the analytics from the safety of a desk and four walls. The first day he spends on the red-hulled boat, he desperately pops antihistamines and chews candied ginger while trying to combat the seasickness. He throws up off the stern right as someone calls out, “There’s J-17 at eleven o’clock!”

Everyone knows J-17. Her name is Princess Angeline, one of the oldest members of the J-pod, and man, what a shitty way to greet the princess. He feels better after washing his mouth out, though, and he joins the rest of his team at the prow to watch other individuals come up for air. He doesn’t recognize most of them, but he can pick out J-27 Blackberry, a bull whose dorsal fin is taller than Yoongi is, and J-53 Kiki, the baby of the pod.

It’s not even remotely plausible, but he hopes Seokjin can tell, from thousands of miles away, that he’s been out to sea.

○○○

Orcas are not Yoongi’s specialty, but they’re on the forefront of his mind while he’s here. Seokjin told them about the North Pacific pods that drown grey whale calves. The South Atlantic pods chase seals onto dry land, beaching themselves for a snack. The New Zealand pods flip stingrays upside-down to induce tonic immobility.

A stingray, when put into tonic immobility, goes limp like a burst balloon. It cannot sting. It cannot swim. It will lie there peacefully in the whale’s mouth, ready to be eaten.

Yoongi thinks he’s gone into tonic immobility himself. He’s been sleeping so poorly in his hotel room—spending all day in the sun, going to bed too late, and startling awake to a chorus of jackhammers because every fucking street in this city is under construction—that he, too, feels trapped between bullet-shaped teeth, ready to be eaten.

When Yoongi wakes up on his last full day in the U.S., his neck hurts, and opening his eyes is a chore. He lets himself lie there for a while, meandering in and out of a restless doze. In this middling half-state of lucidity, what Yoongi expects, knows, and hopes are three entirely different things.

He expects to roll over and tumble into Seokjin’s body, pliant and shirtless. He knows Seokjin had to have made it north many weeks ago and is swimming along with his brother. He hopes that the previous few months have been a collective fever dream and he’ll go back home to Seokjin cracking a whole carton of eggs into one frying pan.

In this hotel bed, Yoongi tries to sift out the fictions and move on. It’s his own fault for catching feelings, anyway. He shouldn’t have, but he did, and he wishes he hadn’t.

No, wait. That’s a half-truth. Falling in love with Seokjin was fast and beautiful and he wouldn’t wish to rip that from himself. He only wishes it had happened differently. Perhaps in an alternate reality where Seokjin could have stayed and Yoongi didn’t have to think about all the ways to use displacement in a sentence.

○○○

The 52-hertz whale is not migrating toward the tropical mating grounds this season. Yoongi monitors his migration almost constantly, checking and rechecking like he’s waiting for an important text. Hydrophones have picked up his song far off the coast of British Columbia, but always north of the forty-ninth parallel.

This is not terribly unusual. Not all whales make the journey every season. Yoongi guesses 52 is content to sing to the salmon by himself this year.

○○○

Toward the end of September, Taehyung is already trying to orchestrate their Halloween costumes. His first plan was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but they keep arguing about who would be which turtle. (“Not all of us can be Raphael,” Hoseok argues.)

Yoongi doesn’t know what he’s going to eat tomorrow night, let alone what he’s going to wear in a month. Chances are he’ll get forced into some dorky costume like last year, and the year before that. By this point, he’s accepted his fate as the designated awful-costume-wearer.

He looks at his laptop screen. His mind is vacant. His eyes are hazy. He’s spent all evening putting the finishing touches on his latest report on naval sonar so his team’s editor has enough time to tell him he has no idea how to arrange sentences. Which is harsh, but it’s not like he’s going to disagree.

There’s a knock on the door. They all look at each other, foreheads furrowed. They’re all accounted for, and he doesn’t remember any of them ordering food for delivery. It’s like that episode of Friends he watched with Namjoon a while back—if they’re all in here, who the hell is out there?

Another knock, more forceful than the last time.

“Are you going to get that?” Taehyung asks. More knocking. Pounding, more like it.

“That doesn’t sound like something I want to deal with, but I guess I should.” He clicks the save icon on his document and answers the door.

And just there is a weary-looking Seokjin, sandwiched between two wild-eyed boys, slumping as they support his weight on their shoulders. Yoongi feels like a stalling pendulum, stopped midair.

“Yoongi-chi,” Seokjin says quietly.

In a flash of panic, Yoongi straight-up slams the door shut. He yanks it back open so fast that his shoulder pops. “Sorry,” he gasps.

His hands automatically go to Seokjin’s face, brushing his knotted hair back to see him better. He’s sunburnt, and his cheeks have lost all of their peachy softness, but he’s grinning, some lopsided little thing like he’s too tired to laugh.

“He said you would help,” the taller boy at his side says, desperation edging his voice. “Please, can you—can you…” He trails off, breathless.

“Fuck, what the fuck? How—just—what the fuck,” Yoongi answers, and yeah, that was phenomenal, but he’s coming up empty-handed. Then Hoseok is beside him, wrenching him away from the door like he’s a doll and ushering the three of them toward the bathroom. It’s far more somber than the first time they did this, back when Seokjin had his tail. Seokjin’s not yelling, no one’s getting smashed into a wall. Yoongi’s far less in control of things than he was then.

The first order of business is getting the three of them cleaned up. All of the boys’ clothes are, frankly, disgusting, and they do not fit in the least. They must have gone foraging in marine litter, picking up pieces of algae-slimed cloth and waterlogged sandals.

It’s not difficult to guess which one of the boys is Jimin and which one is Jeongguk:  Jeongguk looks like Seokjin, sharing the slope of their jaw and the arch of their eyebrows. But the boys are both stocky and solid, muscle packed into their calves and biceps. Their ears are heavily pierced; fishing line loops all up and down their cartilage, strung with sea glass and sharks' teeth and miniature whelk shells. Jimin’s tight shirt says Beach Bitch in faded red letters, which would be hilarious in any other situation.

They sit Seokjin down on the toilet seat. He insists that he’s not injured, yet he hisses in pain as Yoongi tries to wrestle him out of his trashed clothes.

“Be careful, you’re gonna hurt him!” Jimin says as Yoongi fiddles with Seokjin’s constricting collar.

“I’m fine,” Seokjin says. “It’s just some bruising.”

“You are not fine, you ass,” Yoongi mutters as he drops his hands to his side. “Tae? Can you get the kitchen scissors?”

Taehyung leaves his station in the doorway—all seven of them will not fit in here—and comes back a moment later, handing over the shears like they’re in an operating room. Yoongi cuts along the hemlines of Seokjin’s shirt, holding his breath, until he can slide it off his body.

“Some bruising” is an understatement. He’s got nasty, half-healed bruises all across his torso, seeping down to his waist, his skin a sickly yellowish-blue. There are some newer bruises, fresh and purple, on his arms where it looks like Jimin and Jeongguk had grabbed too hard.

He’s also far too skinny. He’s lost all the weight he put on in March and then some. The curve of his waist is too pronounced. His tummy is too taut. If Yoongi were bold enough, he could easily trace the jutting crest of his pelvis with his fingers.

“What happened?” Yoongi asks. He wets a washcloth with warm water. The scars on Seokjin’s ribs where his gills closed over are smeared with dirt, and he begins to wipe the grime away.

“I kind of fought a tiger shark? Among other things,” he says sheepishly.

Yoongi shakes his head in disbelief, and then he’s hit with a wave a nausea. Seokjin could have been eaten and he never would have known. Jesus. Yoongi wants to hold him, kiss him, protect him. Stick him in his pocket like a good luck charm and keep him out of harm’s way. But he doesn’t know if he can do any of those things. He probably can’t. The most he can do right now is give him some Advil and make sure he can get some sleep.

He finishes tending to Seokjin, his touch gentle and mouth tight. Jimin and Jeongguk try to follow when he leads Seokjin out of the bathroom. “Oh, no, you don’t,” Yoongi says, waving them back like they’re stray cats. “You need to get cleaned up, too.” He turns to his friends:  “Just…make sure they’re okay.”

Namjoon joins them on their way to the bedroom, offering a steadying hand at Seokjin’s elbow as they inch down the hall. “How did you guys even get here?” he asks. “You have legs.”

“The river is freshwater,” Seokjin answers as if it’s completely obvious—though the longer Yoongi thinks about it, it is completely obvious. It doesn’t satisfy a billion other questions Yoongi has, but he decides that there are some things he doesn’t need answered right now.

Yoongi’s hands find Seokjin’s hips as he helps him into bed. And it’s like nothing has changed. Seokjin nestles into his side of the mattress, cuddles the comforter close to his chest, and sighs like the autumn wind as he closes his eyes. Maybe ten seconds pass before Yoongi thinks he’s already unconscious. He must be exhausted if he’s fallen asleep without background noise.

Namjoon grabs basketball shorts and hoodies from the top of Yoongi’s dresser, but he lingers inside the bedroom. “This is a lot to deal with,” he says.

“I know, but what was I supposed to do? Turn him away?” Yoongi whispers back. His mouth fills with an unspoken, desperate mantra—I loved him, I still do, I still love him—and he knows Namjoon knows.

“That’s not what I was implying. I’m just worried. For a lot of reasons.”

“Me too. But I’m sure it’ll be fine,” he says, and even though he’s never been known for his optimism, he’s trying to believe himself.

“I hope you’re right. Do you want us to stay with you for the night? You know we will.”

Seven adult men, one bed, one pull-out couch. He shakes his head. “No, you guys go home. I think it’d be best if we all got decent sleep.”

There’s a loud shout from the bathroom, followed by a frantic “Don’t worry! It’s okay!”

When Namjoon nods and heads out to see what the problem is, Yoongi sits down on the floor. God, he’s so tired. He could be hallucinating at this point, for all he knows—he’s conjured up a hundred different scenarios where Seokjin just shows up again and falls into his arms and they live happily ever after or some shit.

This is sort of a new one, though.

Yoongi dozes off, leaning against the bed next to Seokjin and half-dreaming about the maidens and deities and dragons that sailors used to carve as the figureheads for their old galleons. Soon, he hears a bunch of mumbling, then his front door opening and closing, then uneasy shifting in the hallway. He rubs his eyes with his knuckles and cranes his head to look at Seokjin’s purpled collarbones, the sharpened angles of his face.

He heaves himself off the floor to see if Jimin and Jeongguk will talk to him. Outside, both boys are sitting on the couch, huddled together. Saying that they look uncomfortable is an understatement—their legs are stiff, their breathing is loud, their lips are pulled into sad pouts. His friends did a decent enough job cleaning them up and putting them into Yoongi’s clothes, which still don’t fit them that well, but at least they’re not gross.

“Hi,” Yoongi says, like he’s trying not to frighten a pair of skittish animals. “I’m Yoongi.”

Jimin looks up to meet his eyes. “We know,” he says, but it’s not unkind.

Yoongi drags one of his kitchen chairs into the living room. It’s not like he’s going to invade their space and sit on the couch with them. “What happened?” he asks after several long, awkward moments of just staring at each other.

“Do you want the short version or the long version?”

“The short version is fine, for right now.”

Jimin shifts in his seat. “Well…I think Seokjin spent so long here that he doesn’t know how to hunt for himself anymore. The first hunt of the season is always the best one, and the easiest. We work with the whales, seals, and birds. It’s a big group effort to trap a school of fish, and then we take turns raiding the catch. And when it was his turn, he just…struggled to catch much of anything.”

“And he wouldn’t let us share our food. We tried,” Jeongguk says. His eyes are so big and terrified.

“So he spent the feeding season hungry,” Yoongi concludes, slumping in his chair. He’s grateful that Seokjin had the foresight put on weight before he left. The reality is that they were all staggeringly foolish for not predicting this:  In the aquarium, Seokjin had fish handed to him. It’d been ages since he’d had to catch his own food.

“Yeah,” Jimin admits. “It was either leave him to fend for himself or bring him back here. And we would never leave him.”

“I know he could learn how to hunt again, because Seokjin can do everything,” Jeongguk says. His voice is fierce but his shoulders sag like washed-up kelp. “But I don’t know if he’d survive the time it took to relearn. Like, sharks don’t usually bother us, but one did, so he’s seen as easy prey, and—” He stops and sighs, long and distressed, through his nose. “The ocean waits for no one,” he finishes.

Yoongi wants to ask if they know what type of relationship he had with Seokjin, if they realize the three vastly distinct ways they love Seokjin—as a brother, a best friend, and a would-be lover. It’s not the time.

“What do we do now?” Jimin asks.

“I don’t know,” Yoongi says. He kind of does, though, already thinking through the ways he’ll need to rearrange his life like a bookshelf. “We’ll figure it out. It’ll be okay.” He clears his throat before continuing, “You need to sleep, too. You can, uh, probably both fit in my bed with him, if you want. Just be careful.”

The boys get up together, holding on to each other as they stumble down the hall. They’re wobbly—more so than Seokjin was when he first got his legs—and he can’t imagine how the fuck they made it all the way here. Raw adrenaline and sheer luck? That’s another question he’ll have to ask later. He gets up as well, dragging his chair back to the kitchen.

He kinds of needs a drink. Does he even have anything to drink, or did they finish off his supply for Namjoon’s birthday? He certainly needs to send an email to his research team to tell them he won’t be at work tomorrow, tell them it’s a family emergency, or—

“Yoongi?” Jeongguk asks.

He turns around. Jeongguk isn’t looking at him, instead looking at his feet, shuffling them one at a time like he’s trying to make sense of their weight. “Yeah?”

“I missed him so much, but I know he was happy here with you.”

Yoongi coughs, and his face feels warm. He’s not going to answer. “Get some rest now, Jeongguk,” he says instead.

○○○

Some terrible, bony weight crashing on top of Yoongi wakes him up. “Morning, sunshine,” comes Hoseok’s voice right in his ear, cutting into his groggy mind. “We brought food.”

It takes Yoongi a moment to remember where he is. He’s not in the blessed darkness of his bedroom with the black-out curtains. He hears water splashing in the kitchen sink, the refrigerator door creaking open, a jumble of nondescript words. He fell asleep in his jeans, which is unfortunate. Oh, right, he’s on his couch and there are mermaids in his bed. Or, from the sound of it, there were mermaids in his bed.

“What time is it?” he asks, shifting so Hoseok’s elbow isn’t driving straight into his diaphragm.

“Like nine o’clock. Namjoon is starting coffee for you.”

“Ugh, Namjoon’s coffee is always too weak.”

“You better get up and go make it yourself, then.” Hoseok kisses him on his temple, as he often does, and rolls off of him.

When Yoongi shuffles into the kitchen, it’s weird. Weirder than usual. More lively than usual, but still weird. His rice cooker is already on and steaming, and so is his coffee pot. (Whatever. He’ll deal with Namjoon’s weak coffee for now.) Taehyung is in the middle of opening plastic containers and setting them down on the counters. Jimin and Jeongguk are standing close to him, wedged together, watching with starry eyes as he teaches them all sorts of new vocabulary: “Short ribs, bean sprouts, fishcake soup, kimchi, mangoes. Refrigerator, paper towels, light switch, necktie.” He hands a carton of banana milk over for them to try, and the bashful satisfaction on Jeongguk’s face when he takes a sip has to be why Seokjin calls him a baby.

Seokjin himself isn’t jammed into the kitchen with everyone else. He must still be asleep. Yoongi thinks he should get something in his stomach after months of his self-sacrificial bullshit; he can go back to bed afterward. He squeezes past Namjoon—who gives him a knowing look—and stops to take a breath outside his bedroom before opening the door.

All of Yoongi’s pillows have been knocked to the ground. Seokjin’s sprawled on the side on which Yoongi sleeps most often, and only his left leg is under the blankets. Yoongi guesses that this was the aftermath of Jimin and Jeongguk sleeping in a bed for the first time. He tiptoes through the dirty clothes and the pillows on his floor, kneeling at the side of the bed.

Yoongi imagines that mermaids are more dignified when they sleep in the water. When sperm whales sleep, they float vertically, a forest of massive grey beasts sprouting beneath the surface. Yoongi likes the mental image of Seokjin sleeping like that, like the sperm whales, a shining golden flower bobbing along as he sleeps upright.

He pets Seokjin’s hair, smoothing it back from his face and tucking it behind his ear. Seokjin’s sunburnt nose is peeling, and he looks older without the chubbiness in his cheeks. Yoongi thinks about the first morning that he’d woken up to Seokjin in his arms, cuddled on his shitty pull-out couch with Liszt under the “recently played” section of his music library. That bubble of memory makes his chest hurt.

“Hey, come on, wake up,” Yoongi says. “Seokjin, hey. It’s breakfast time.”

Seokjin whines before he begins to blink awake, lifting an uncoordinated hand to rub at his face and taking all the time in the world. A shy smile tugs at the corner of his mouth when his eyes open, and Yoongi knows nothing on Earth has ever been this beautiful. Seokjin reaches up to brush his fingers along the underside of Yoongi’s jaw. “I missed this more than I can tell you,” he says, quiet as a wish, which isn’t fair at all.

“I missed you,” Yoongi says, because mornings make him too honest. Seokjin stretches. He arches his back and then recoils in on himself, gasping as he strains his bruised muscles. “Take it easy, now. You’re okay.”

“I’m sorry,” Seokjin says.

“What are you sorry for?”

Seokjin begins to sit up. Yoongi helps keep him balanced, being so careful to avoid the sensitive places on his body. “I left. And I came back. Something. I don’t know.”

Yoongi sighs and sits down next to him, the mattress dipping in the middle. “None of that is your fault.”

“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But…I’m sorry for constantly causing you so much trouble.”

Yoongi doesn’t say anything. The empty silence between them isn’t awkward, but it’s portentous. Outside, Yoongi hears a laugh he’s never heard before.

Seokjin’s ears start to turn red as he continues:  “Yoongi-chi? I, um. I hope it still matters, but I love you.” A look of dismay cracks across his face like a storm. “I’m so sorry for that, too. That I didn’t say it back when I should have.”

At first, there are butterflies. Of course there are. This is word-for-word what he’s wanted for the last few months, and it’s like the universe is presenting him with all the problems, equations, and solutions he needs to make it all work all at the same time. Then there’s a petty stone hurtling through the kaleidoscope of wings. It settles somewhere inside him like whale-fall. Heavy, sour. He wants to reach into his chest and pull out his sandcastle heart and say you wrecked this and I only just put it back together.

But that’s not Seokjin’s fault either. Yoongi knows this. From the beginning, they had had an expiration date and Yoongi had willfully ignored it. Yoongi should be the one apologizing for that.

“It matters,” Yoongi whispers, because it really does.

Seokjin smiles like he’s heard a million stars singing, mouth pulling wide and eyes crescenting shut. “Would you kiss me, then? I kind of want to kiss you for forever, but I don’t know if you’re still okay with it, and you said—”

And that pearl of ache dissolves away the moment his lips touch Seokjin’s. Behind all the want and worry, it’s surefire, his hands in Seokjin’s hair and Seokjin’s hands on his waist. It’s a catharsis, a breaking dam, an outshining supernova. It’s recollection and recompense. It’s sun-glitter and fine salt, guiding them both like Polaris, north and forward and home.

○○○

(Breakfast is a wild affair of chatter and clattering spoons. Seokjin does not leave his side. They all sit on the floor, because his kitchen table only has four chairs, because Jeongguk decided that chairs are too much effort anyway, because Yoongi’s fishbowl apartment isn’t meant for this many people. But Yoongi, the sea anemone, is willing to grow if it means he can keep all his little clownfish safe.)

○○○

“Is this how you felt?” Seokjin asks, shifting uneasily in the sand.

They’ve taken Jimin and Jeongguk back to the sea, watched them trade their legs for tails—Jeongguk’s copper, metallic like his brother, and Jimin’s fiery pink with a dorsal fin starting at the base of his spine—and watched the water swallow them up with nothing but a promise to meet here again in 160 days. Yoongi assumes this means is this how you felt when you watched me leave?

“No, probably not,” Yoongi answers, and he trusts him to understand.

Seokjin links his arm around Yoongi’s and clears his throat. He’s looking out to the horizon, even though the mermaids disappeared beneath the surface ten minutes ago. “I don’t know if you could tell, but they’ve traded scales.”

“Is that a euphemism?”

“Yes and no,” Seokjin says with a laugh. “Some of Jeongguk’s scales have turned pink, and some of Jimin’s have turned red. It means they’ve chosen each other for life.”

Yoongi wonders how mermaid courtship works. Maybe they sing like the whales. Maybe they dance like the seahorses. More specifically, he wonders how to make it glaringly obvious to Seokjin that he’s already chosen him.

○○○

Yoongi is trying his best not to think about citizenship and paperwork and money and education and how he thinks Seokjin needs glasses all at the same time. Yoongi likes thinking about zero things. Now he has to think about a non-zero number of highly important things, and sooner rather than later.

Baby steps. They’ll get there.

There’s one thing that he should figure out now, though:  “Do you have like, a family name? You’ll need one if you’re going to be living on land,” he says.

Seokjin looks up from where he’s practicing his penmanship in one of Yoongi’s many blank notebooks. “No. There’s no need for them. Mermaids are all family, whether or not we’re related by blood.”

“I guess you could just pick a name, then.”

“Can I use yours?” Seokjin asks, and Yoongi gets up to kiss him, hard.

So Seokjin the mermaid becomes Min Seokjin for all intents and purposes, and Yoongi desperately tries (and fails) to pretend like he doesn’t love it.

○○○

It’s February. One whole year since Yoongi broke Seokjin out of the aquarium. Five months since Jeongguk and Jimin showed up at his door with Seokjin staggering between them. About ten minutes since Seokjin last said he loved him.

Wah," Seokjin breathes as Yoongi parks at the edge of this now-familiar out-of-the-way beach in Busan. “It’s the sea!”

Yoongi smiles, tucks his keys into his pocket, and makes sure to zip his coat all the way up to his chin. “Wah, it’s the sea,” he echoes.

It’s cold as shit in the city today and even worse at the shore with the wind-chill. Yoongi’s nose is already frozen, and he can’t believe they’re going to sit out here in this weather. He’s grateful that Seokjin brought hot packs to stuff into the toes of his waterproof boots.

Seokjin spreads out the blanket they brought from home, far enough that the rising tide won’t reach them. He sits down; his legs are fawn-splayed, and he pats the space between them. Yoongi doesn’t hesitate to climb over him, settling against the expanse of Seokjin’s chest, happy to be nestled among the mass of his boyfriend’s layered sweaters and the muscles of his thighs.

“Do you miss your tail?” Yoongi can see his question leave his mouth in the cold air. He’s wanted to ask this for a while now, but it’s never felt like the right time. Seokjin’s never complained about it, yet Yoongi has learned that he is not one to share his troubles lightly.

Seokjin lets out a long, pensive sigh, his breath hot at Yoongi’s ear. “I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would,” he admits. “I miss how powerful I was, I guess. And how beautiful. I miss Jeonggukkie and Jiminie more than I miss my tail. I love everything my legs have allowed me to find, though. Like video games, and dry sand, and pork belly. God, I love pork belly. And you, of course.”

“That’s gross,” Yoongi says, but every fiber of his being is positively preening. “And wrong. I found you, tail and all.”

“Yah,” Seokjin laughs, squeaky and endearing. He latches on to Yoongi’s body with all his limbs, squeezing him like an octopus and resting his head on Yoongi’s shoulder. “I found you the second time.”

Yoongi hums. “For the record, you don’t need your tail to be beautiful. And you’re still the most powerful out of our friends.”

“That’s not that impressive. Have you seen our friends?” Seokjin laughs again when Yoongi smacks his thigh. “Also, I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Yoongi says, listening to the rush of the ocean. Yoongi scans the water and tries to gauge the position of the sun behind the clouds. Then: “I think I see them. Two o’clock.”

Seokjin shifts in anticipation behind him. In the distance, Yoongi catches the flash of a copper fluke. A short skip away, a spiny, fuchsia dorsal fin. Both of their heads peek above the waves at the same time, and Yoongi can’t help but smile.

“Seokjin!” Jeongguk screams before diving again.

They stick close to the surface as they near the shallows. Yoongi can hear them yelling at each other, but it’s all wordless interjections and curses. They look like they’re racing, and oh, yep, they’re totally going to beach themselves.

“Wanna bet on who wins?” Seokjin asks.

“Not a chance. You’d bet on Jeongguk, and you’d be right.”

“Aww, afraid to lose a bet?”

“No, just smart enough not to bet against Jeongguk.”  

Jeongguk does, in fact, win, running himself aground with the all the power and spectacle of a train wreck. It’s obvious he picked up his flair for theatrics from Seokjin. He spits a glob of sand out of his mouth, and then Jimin plows up the beach too, flopping down with far more grace than Yoongi would have thought possible.

“I got here first!” Jeongguk says.

“I was born first,” Jimin shoots back, running a hand through his hair and pushing it out of his face. He grins and waves to them.

Seokjin struggles to his feet and rushes to meet them. He slips in a patch of mucky sand on the way there, and he lands on his back, and then he’s being swarmed by scaled tails and bare arms. Seokjin starts shouting total nonsense as Jeongguk and Jimin both wiggle their ways into his lap like enormous dogs. Three bodies, two legs, two tails. Three brilliant smiles. Four, if Yoongi counts his own, which he certainly does.

“Guys,” Seokjin wheezes, trying to shove them off, “you’re gonna break me, get off, oh my god.” Both of the mermaids nuzzle into Seokjin’s coat before coming to a compromise, plopping back onto the ground but tucking themselves under each of his arms.

The handful of pink scales on Jeongguk’s tail and the copper scales on Jimin’s tail are easy to find now that Yoongi knows to look for them.

The three of them recount the last few months for each other. Yoongi drags the blanket closer so that his ass doesn’t freeze on the damp sand. Jeongguk and Jimin say things like “Sejin found a mate!” and “We rescued a harp seal pup last month!” They take turns showing off their latest scars, including a rip along the edge of Jimin’s fluke that he insists looks worse than it is. Seokjin tells them about all sorts of “weird human things” and how he’s paid to be pretty after being street-cast as a model. (“Wow, you really are the most handsome person in the whole world,” Jimin says in awe.)

Sometimes they speak in guttural clicks and whistles, like the whales do. Seokjin’s multilingual talents are brilliantly helpful when Yoongi is doing research, but not so helpful when he’s trying to join a conversation, so his attention fades in and out.

He takes a bunch of clandestine photographs of the three of them with his phone. Seokjin laughs at something Jimin says, his face turning crushed-berry pink. Jeongguk’s flukes thump against the sand like an excited bunny’s foot as he giggles along. He thinks he’ll surprise Seokjin one of these days and have the photos framed. He wishes he’d gotten a photo of all them, with Namjoon and Hoseok and Taehyung too, back in September, but it hadn’t crossed his mind back then. Maybe next time they’ll all make the trip to the sea together.

“Yoongi-chi,” Seokjin says, bringing him back to the present moment. “Can you show them Yeontan?”

Yoongi nods and scrolls through his camera roll and finds his favorite picture of Seokjin with Taehyung’s new puppy. In the photo, Yeontan is biting Seokjin’s hair, and Seokjin’s caught in the middle of a squeaking laugh, the corners of his eyes crinkly and his lips wide.

Seokjin takes his phone and holds it between all of them. “Isn’t he adorable?”

Jeongguk leans in to see the screen. “Are you…going to eat it?” he asks.

“No!” Seokjin says, aghast, and then he’s cackling. “Tannie is a pet! Like…remember when you had that barnacle on your tail when you were twelve?”

Jeongguk ducks his head. “No,” he says, lying plain as day.

“You named it Cloud!” Jimin says, reaching over to whack Jeongguk’s flank in delight. “You were so sad when it fell off, I remember!”

“Pets are like that. Not for eating,” Seokjin says as Jeongguk scowls.

They stay until dusk starts to smear the skyline. “We have to go soon,” Seokjin says. “You guys need to get going, too. You’ve still got a long way to swim. We’ll see you at the end of feeding season, okay? Keep each other safe.”

“Always,” Jeongguk says. He looks over at Yoongi. “You keep each other safe, too.”

Yoongi nods. “Always,” he repeats, and god, does he mean it. Always, always.

The mermaids slip back into the dark sea. Far off in the twilight, Yoongi sees the vague silhouettes of their tails peeking above the waves. They smack their flukes against the surface in a hollow, syncopated drumbeat. Yoongi can’t tell the difference between the sounds of their lobtailing, but he knows that Seokjin can. Then they’re gone.

Seokjin takes Yoongi’s hand in his as they make their way back up the beach. Yoongi looks down and thinks briefly how otters join hands so they don’t drift away from each other as they sleep. Thinks of entanglement and ties and the way Seokjin doesn’t understand the weight of the word marriage, but maybe someday he will. Thinks of the way Seokjin never minds at all when Yoongi tangles their legs together beneath the sheets to leech the warmth from his body. Thinks of the way he holds Seokjin down like a shipwreck as they fuck until they’re both gasping for air. Thinks they’re both better for it all.

He holds on a little tighter, and he floats.