His friends were right. Jeongguk messed up big. He messed up bad. There's no recovering from this, he thinks, staring at the ocean and wishing, wanting. He thinks about the people there, the water people, the odd ones out. The strange ones, say the fire folk. Says everyone Jeongguk's ever spoken to, except for the ancient ones, and that's only because they don't speak at all.
No one really knows the water people, not for sure. They're elusive and quiet and strange. They put on dazzling shows with the waves and the sun, but no one really knows who for. Is it for them on the land? Is it for the ones above? Is it just because they can? Jeongguk used to be so confused, so wary of those in the water. They're powerful, strange, and charming as mysteries often are.
Then he met Taehyung.
Jeongguk remembers telling Hoseok about him, about this strange water boy he found on the cliffs. About how the boy jumped in and the water caught him like a parent might collect a child and whisk them back to safety. About how Taehyung coaxed him gently into the water and smiled so bright, so warm. About how he'd felt like fire even though he could make the ocean swell and draw back around them.
Hoseok had looked melancholy when Jeongguk finished his story.
“He's going to hurt you.” His hyung had said, quieter and more somber than Jeongguk had ever known him to be. It scared him, and Jeongguk doesn't scare easy. “Make friends with anyone else, just not the water people. Just not them.”
But the ocean is wide and inviting, and Jeongguk is terribly inquisitive. He goes back again and again, and always finds Taehyung at the cliffs. He's always there, like a permanent fixture on land as much as he is in the sea. It's nice and it makes him feel warm, like he's appreciated and wanted. Taehyung never gives him any reason to doubt.
“Wanna see something cool?” Taehyung asks one visit.
“Okay.” Jeongguk agrees, a little thrown. Taehyung grins and beckons the water, pulling them down from the cliffs safely and efficiently. Jeongguk isn't very good at swimming so Taehyung has to help him, as usual, pulling him along until the cliffs are a distant memory. It's scary and strange and the ocean is deep, but Taehyung is a comfort. He's never afraid.
“Do you trust me?” Taehyung asks, his dark hair catching all the light from the sun.
Jeongguk swallows audibly.
“Yeah. I do.”
Even if he shouldn't, it's the truth. Taehyung shares with him a sweet little smile and takes Jeongguk by the waist, and suddenly they're dropping far below the surface of the waves. The cold makes his skin feel numb and the salt stings his eyes when he tries to open them. When dares to glance up, the surface is as distant as the cliffs. It's a blinding white light in the dark, and it's beautiful.
It's just, he can't really breathe.
Just when his heart starts to hammer, Taehyung kisses him open-mouthed and grinning. He breathes into him and Jeongguk is shocked, just a little. Taehyung can always shock him, it seems. It's a quick thing; businesslike but still warming in a way that sets Jeongguk's blood to boil, and when it's over Taehyung kisses both eyelids, then his cheek.
He still can't breathe, but he finds he doesn't need to. He can see, too, clear as day. Taehyung's eyes are iridescent black and the ocean around them is glimmering. Jeongguk thinks his heart must be beating in time with the waves, because he can feel them pushing and pulling and curling around both of them as though they were a pair of sinking stones. He sees colourful fish, big and small, eye them curiously and flutter away. They pass a coral reef, stretching tall and winding like the guard towers back home. Taehyung watches him watch the sea, and when Jeongguk looks back he's met with a smile.
“This is my home.” Taehyung says simply.
“It's beautiful.” He replies, honest as he's ever been.
Taehyung stares at him, curiously intense, and slings an arm over Jeongguk's shoulder. He doesn't let go, not even once, and Jeongguk begins to suspect Taehyung can read his mind.
When Taehyung takes him home, Jeongguk finds himself hard-pressed to leave. Taehyung lets him go with faint laughter and a reminder that he'll be there the next day to take him exploring. Jeongguk wonders what he gets out of it, why he bothers, and finds himself asking as much.
“Because I like you, Jeon Jeongguk.” Taehyung says, simple as always.
The words echo in his mind as he makes his way home. On the way he finds Jimin, who says he saw the whole thing – and he's not happy about it.
“Hoseok must have warned you about the water people.” Jimin says, dragging him into the forest without even thinking about it. Branches whip Jeongguk's skin but dance out of the way for Jimin, instead brushing him gently as he passes. The forest doesn't like fire folk much, never has.
“He did.” Jeongguk admits. “But why? I hang out with you and Seokjin often enough, and Yoongi and Namjoon take me flying sometimes. What's wrong with Taehyung?”
Jimin turns around abruptly.
“He told you his name?” He demands, taking Jeongguk by the shoulders and giving him a shake. “Damn it, you have no idea what you're messing with!”
“I don't get it, what's the big deal? He's nice!” Jeongguk retorts sharply, pulling back. The forest looms around him, angry and suspicious. Jimin watches him with careful, melancholic eyes.
“Go ask Yoongi.” He replies, and before Jeongguk can say anything else the forest spits him back out.
“Thanks for nothing!” He shouts at the trees, turning back and wandering home.
Yoongi is about as useless as Jimin, which isn't terribly surprising. Yoongi doesn't talk to Jeongguk much, but when he does it's an exercise in sarcasm and condescension. It's infuriating and it makes him want to set himself on fire, or drown himself in the sea – but Jimin wouldn't tell him to talk to Yoongi without good reason.
“What do you think about the water people?” He asks. Better to get straight down to business. Yoongi drops down from his perch in the sky and lands as gracefully as all air walkers do. His posture is casual but his eyes are cold, perhaps even stormy.
He asks, “Why do you want to know?”
“Because I met one.” Jeongguk says. If Yoongi was cold before, he is utterly glacial now. It's in his eyes – air walkers with strong affinities like Yoongi have the wind in their soul and it shows through their eyes. At least, that's what the fire elders say. It's a warning, most of the time. Watch the eyes; if they go white, you're probably already dead, little fire boy.
Yoongi's eyes are ice blue.
“Oh, I get it.” He leans back into the air, feet floating off the ground. He still manages to look threatening, and the air around them answers with a brisk howl. “You probably think he's nice, huh. Think he's different from all the stories, all the warnings that you're ignoring like an idiot.” Jeongguk scowls and opens his mouth to reply, but Yoongi glares him out of it. “He's going to hurt you like you've never been hurt before, kid. And don't you come running to any of us when he does.”
Then he's gone.
Telling Taehyung about his woes turns out to be the worst possible course of action.
“They keep saying you're going to hurt me.” He admits quietly. There's some difficulty in finding the right words, and dragging them out through his mouth is worse, but Taehyung's warm hand on his back helps a little. A lot.
Taehyung turns to look at the open sea, eyes black as the storm on the horizon.
“Do you trust me,” He asks, hand clenching in the material of Jeongguk's shirt.
“With my life.”
Taehyung leads him into the ocean and the waves seem to part around them. They get waist deep and suddenly the water goes black as the sun blots out overhead, clouds rolling in with the wind. He might be able to see air walkers in the distance, whooping and hollering in their element, showing off and having fun. Jeongguk thinks about Yoongi's words and stops.
Taehyung turns to look at him, their hands still laced together in the empty space between their bodies.
“Changed your mind?” He asks gently. Gently. Jeongguk is sure this is where he gets hurt bad, like his friends keep saying, and Taehyung is being gentle. This is hardly fair.
“No.” He replies, completely thoughtless.
Taehyung smiles and leads him on. Jeongguk pretends he's not afraid of the swelling tide, the darkening sky, and the way Taehyung's teeth seemed to grow into points when he smiled.
The sand below his feet drops off, but Taehyung keeps walking. Jeongguk's body tries to buoy him up, but Taehyung holds him down, gentle but firm. He's not going anywhere except where Taehyung wants him to, even as the waves batter him back and forth and the darkness makes him fear the black below. Taehyung keeps going, unbothered by the waves and the dark, like he's walked this path a million times before.
This time, he doesn't turn and kiss Jeongguk.
The darkness swells and he loses himself in it; he loses Taehyung, the dim glow of the surface above, the feeling of air in his lungs. But he swears, the last thing he sees are the stars in Taehyung's eyes when he turns back to say-
“I love you too-” is the first thing Jeongguk says when he wakes up, tastes the sea in his mouth and his lungs and feels it in his whole body.
“Wow, okay.” Yoongi laughs, startled.
Jeongguk's eyes fly open and he sees not just Yoongi leaning over him, but Hoseok and Jimin and Namjoon, and even Seokjin. They're all staring at him wide-eyed and concerned, but his heart is pounding and his head feels waterlogged and foggy.
“Taehyung,” He whispers, jerking up onto his hands and knees, whole body shaking uncertainly.
He's on the same beach he met Taehyung at, sticky with sand and salt. The sky is clear now, and the water is clear and blue as always. The sun is bright and stings a little when it hits his skin, rubbed raw by the sand. Jeongguk doesn't see Taehyung, but he remembers everything that happened last time they met. He remembers the sky and the darkness and the waves, the feeling of suffocation, Taehyung's last words. Did he really say them?
He can't breathe.
“Jeongguk, calm down-” Hoseok pleads.
“It's okay, you're okay now-” Seokjin tells him.
“You're alive,” Says Namjoon, like that's supposed to be good enough.
“You were right.” He mutters to Yoongi, bitter. The faint call of seabirds is enough to make his stomach roil, even though its been some time since he washed up on shore. He spends all his time avoiding it now, terrified of what he will – or won't – see. He stays in the forest and the plains, and in the air with Yoongi and Namjoon, but never does he stray to the water.
“Actually,” Yoongi hesitates, eyes sharp and distant. “I wasn't.”
Jeongguk turns to ask him what he means, but he's gone.
He finds a picture carved on wood one day among the elders' archives of long scrolls, smudged etchings, and chipped artifacts. They're all stacked high on marble shelves, some right on top of each other as the elders ran out of space, but he still finds it. It seems to call to him from its home underneath a jar of dried ocean salt. He knows because he can smell it just as strong and overwhelming as the day he woke up half-drowned on the beach.
The wood, weathered bark of some kind, is flexible in his hands. He flattens it out by spreading his palms over it and holds it to the marble floor. It creaks but doesn't crack. It's a sign of good workmanship – whoever made these sketches wanted them to last.
The drawings depict a familiar scene. A water girl, made clear by the gills scratched into her neck and sides, stands on land with a fire boy. Her hands are outstretched and she's leaning forward invitingly; the ocean dances around her. The next sketch: the same boy and girl in the water, floating past a detailed rendering of the coral wall Jeongguk remembers clear as day. The girl looks anxious; the boy, awed.
Another sketch, another familiar story. The girl leads the boy out to sea, but here there is a difference. Far below the surface of the water is an ugly, malformed creature. It looks like it might've been human once, but is no longer. It's a massive collage of teeth, eyes, talons as thick as tree trunks. It's disturbing, so Jeongguk looks away. There are other water people leading boys and girls out to sea in the background, just a few here and there, but enough that Jeongguk wonders. In the next depiction, the girl is dragging the body of the boy far, far below the surface. The creature barely seems to stir, but somehow Jeongguk knows she's there to feed it.
He thinks of Taehyung and wonders why he didn't meet the same fate as the fire boy in the pictures.
He thinks he might already know.
“Look at this.”
Jeongguk tosses the carving up to Yoongi who catches it with typical, nonchalant grace. He holds it before himself and scans it, immediately tensing up. He looks down at Jeongguk with a scowl, but Jeongguk is so far from afraid he almost laughs.
“Tell me what happens.” He needs to know. He needs to understand, and for some reason Yoongi is the only one with anything even approaching an understanding of the water people. He'll just have to do.
“Just tell me what happens!”
Yoongi appears to be struggling with a combination of annoyance and concern. It doesn't last long – never does with Yoongi – before he's dropping down from the air and standing flat on his feet. It's kind of unusual; Yoongi rarely ever deigns to stand on the ground with the non-airborne types. Jeongguk secretly thinks it's because he hates when people look down on him. He also thinks Yoongi underestimates his own presence. Even though Jeongguk is taller, Yoongi makes him feel small and inadequate with even the briefest of skeptical stares.
Jeongguk stares back, the dark depths of Yoongi's eyes a reminder of the ocean. It's hard to bring himself to speak up again.
“If they don't feed the ancestor, it'll wake up and kill them all. If one of them fails to do the job required, they become a deserter and the others have no choice but to hunt them down.” Yoongi looks up at the sky. It's bright and the wind smells sweet today. Maybe there are flowers blooming nearby.
“They hunt their own kind?”
“Yeah. They have to. They kill the deserter and feed them to the ancestor in place of whoever they failed to seduce.”
Jeongguk has nothing to say. Something has curled up and died in his heart and it's weighing down his whole body now. Yoongi pulls something out from beneath his sweater and displays it to Jeongguk, eyes averted. It's a silver necklace, a staple of the air walkers, woven into close chains that connect at the bottom with a single loop of white opal. He recognizes it as the Min family crest.
“This was my brother's. The girl who took him brought it back to the beach. She explained everything.” Yoongi tucks it away inside his shirt again, and Jeongguk thinks about a time a few years ago when a pretty water girl showed up on the beach, dead. Yoongi rolls his eyes. “Yes it was the same girl, no I didn't kill her. She committed suicide. I saw it happen. It's not an easy job, you know. They all hate it.”
“So why don't they just kill the it? The ancestor.”
Yoongi scoffs. “How do mortals kill a god?”
Jeongguk thinks about this. He thinks about it after Yoongi says he's leaving and not to think too hard about it; he thinks about it while his feet carry his unwilling body back to the coast; he thinks about it when he finds a bracelet beaded with stones the same colour as Taehyung's eyes; he thinks about it when he parks himself in the sand, clenching the bracelet in one hand and playing with a flame in the other; he thinks about it as the sky grows dark and the ocean starts to churn; he thinks about it when he sees a pair of glowing eyes in the dark, rolling in closer with each coming wave.
He doesn't have an answer. He decides he doesn't need one.