Thirteen years ago - The Shipwreck
Heavy rain battered against his skin, stinging his hands and eyes, slipping into his mouth when he opened his lips to call for help. The sea had been calm barely moments ago, when he hid and fell asleep in one of the unused storage rooms close to the Third Class cabins of the ship, but now the night sky was black and torn open, and a storm raged around them.
Chanyeol didn’t know what to do.
He hadn’t been supposed to be there in the first place, and no one had known he was. There was no way in the world he could have afforded to pay for a passage, so he had just sneaked into that ship when the crew hadn’t been looking, a child too small and too quiet to be noticed. He had never trusted the sea that much, but he had expected to hide and sleep all his way to the capital.
What he hadn’t expected was the storm, the ship creaking and shaking under the waves like it was about to break. He hadn’t expected the holler of the wind, the clatter of the rain, the screams . The shrieking song above the noise.
“There’s a leak in the hold!” someone had said just outside his storage cabin. “The water’s coming in!”
“We need to evacuate,” replied someone else. “Now!”
“It won’t do! Don’t you hear them? They are here! They have come for us!”
Chanyeol hadn’t known what to do, so at first he had waited. Curled into a ball, with his eyes wide shut and his hands clasped over his ears, he had prayed for all to end, for both the tempest and the song to stop.
He had finally reacted and ran when the salty water had reached his boots, when he had realized he needed to get out if he didn’t want to sink with the ship. He had managed to leave the storage sector and stroke his way through the flooded corridors, to climb the stairs until he reached the deck, but the situation was no better there. People were running and calling to each other and messily climbing into the lifeboats still anchored to the sides of the ship. All was chaos, and despair, and black water below them.
“Someone help!” he screamed, but the wind shoved the words back into his mouth, pushed him backwards until he stumbled and fell onto the wooden, slippery floor. The rain was ice on his skin, soaking his clothes and plastering his hair to his forehead, and the song was stronger than ever now that he was outside and there were no walls to block it.
“Watch out, kid!” a voice said, and then strong hands were gripping his shirt, forcing him to stand up. The sky was too dark for Chanyeol to completely make out his features, but the man wore the uniform of the crew. He was one of the sailors. “Run to the boats, you hear me? Don’t fall to the water or they will get you!”
“Mermaids?” he managed to ask before the wind took his words away. Is it really them?
“ Monsters, boy! And now go!”
The remaining lifeboats were at the other side of the deck, and the man practically pushed him forward, letting go of him and disappearing into the darkness. Chanyeol was once again on his own, alone in the middle of a shipwreck, but he tried not to think of the waves, or the wind, or the flashes of lightning illuminating the sky. He could be safe if he reached the boats, he could leave that place if he got to them, and he focused on putting one leg in front of the other, in advancing one little step at a time, covering his face with his arms, towards the remaining survivors.
He felt the gust of wind before he heard the sound of wood breaking, and his body was pushed forward by the gale before he could even react. He screamed when his body crashed into the gunwale, his vision going white in pain, but he managed to hold onto the railing, curling his fingers around the wooden surface to keep himself upright.
His eyesight returned just in time for him to look up and see the foremast shake and collapse towards the bow of the ship, splintering into shards when it hit the deck. The floor shook like the world was ending, someone screamed and the inhumane song grew higher and clearer in his ears, but Chanyeol held on. Thank heavens, the wind had shoved him in the right direction, and the closest lifeboat was right there , almost full with people and about to get lowered into the sea.
“Wait!” he yelled, but the wind was too strong, and no one listened. There was a little girl being carried into the small vessel, crying into her mother’s arms, and two sailors helping them in. He still had time. He had to move. “Please, wait for me too!”
Chanyeol was exhausted and terrified, but fear would do him no good. He forced his frozen fingers to soften their grip on the wooden railing and started to walk again, eyes fixed on the boat. The baby girl and her mother were now inside, and one of the sailors was already holding the pulley that would make it go down.
“No!” screamed Chanyeol, but none of the men were paying attention, and they were still too far to hear.
One moment, he could see the boat. The next one, it had disappeared.
Chanyeol released the railing and ran.
For a second, he was one with the wind, with the water and the storm. He had lived in the streets all his life, he was agile and fast and the hunched forms of the sailors were getting closer and closer. He was there. He could make it. He was going to make it .
“Hey, kid!” one of the sailors called to him when he reached the place where the lifeboat had been, but he could barely hear him above the pounding of his own heart in his chest. He inhaled and gripped the gunwale, pushing himself up until he was half slumped over the railing.
The boat was still below them, suspended by the pulley mechanism in mid-air, and Chanyeol couldn’t help but smile, because he was about to reach it. He would make it if he jumped.
That was the moment the storm raged on, and the wave crashed against the side of the ship. And Chanyeol could feel it, in his blood and his bones and in the way his fingers curled in panic when they lost their grip on the wood - the way the whole vessel violently keeled to port, making him lose his balance. And suddenly, he was falling.
Beyond the deck and the railing and the lifeboat, deep into the dark sea.
The mermaid song exploded around him, unnatural, sinister and terrifying. Above the water, it had sounded like a loud, rhythmic screech, more animalistic than human, but there was a melody to it once one’s head was beneath the waves. It had an eerie harmony, the clear resonance of a song of war.
Chanyeol would have screamed if his teeth hadn’t been clenched together to the point his jaw ached. Hot tears of frustration were burning at his eyes, mingling with the frozen seawater that was making them sting. He was disoriented and all of him hurt, but he still tried to move, to focus his blurry vision, and to go towards the surface before they came for him.
Lightning struck one more time, far above his head, and he knew the direction to go. He had never been a good swimmer, but he was desperate enough to try and to frantically move his arms and legs, going up and up.
Come on, he spurred himself. Come on.
He knew he was in trouble when he felt something against his leg. He tried to move it, to pull it away without looking down, but the thing soon closed around his ankle with a grip of iron.
Chanyeol knew he should have just kicked, stomped his feet to break free, but he couldn’t help to look down to whatever it was that was holding him. The sea swallowed his scream, and the precious oxygen he had managed to keep slipped away from his lungs towards the surface.
The ocean was too dark to see clearly, but the thing keeping him underwater was big. Bigger than an adult man, and certainly much bigger than a terrified ten-year-old boy. Chanyeol could distinguish the outline of a humanoid head, thick, muscular arms, darkish skin. Spine-like fins, protruding from his back, going all the way down to a dark-scaled tail.
The sailor aboard the ship had been right. If this was what mermaids were, they were nothing but monsters.
Chanyeol started to kick once more, desperately trying to pull himself free, and he would have sworn he heard the thing laugh. He had been so close to the surface, but the mermaid was slowly swimming down, taking him with it. It stopped for a moment only to secure its hold on his body, enclosing him between its arms while he fought and moved and cried underwater. He had no oxygen left, his lungs were on fire and his head was reeling. He wanted to escape, he wanted to sleep forever and die. He was sure this was how nightmares felt, how they tasted like - like cold seawater and pain.
The mermaid’s chest was shaking in laughter again, and Chanyeol remained still against it, almost incapable to move anymore. His consciousness was already drifting, the ache in his chest becoming a dull throb. And then, meters above, lightning struck again, and he could see again, only for a second.
The monster was indeed mocking him, smiling with a mouth like a shark’s, full of crooked, pointy teeth. Chanyeol’s face was close to his neck, however, and his eyes focused on it, blinking - the mermaid’s body was clad in maroon and white scales and thick skin, but there were slits on its throat, three of them on each side, delicate and tender. Frail.
Chanyeol didn’t even think about it. He was small, and his predator had made the mistake of holding him by the waist instead of keeping his arms secured, so he conjured his remaining strength and attacked, sliding his fingers against the slits in the mermaid’s throat, pushing them in viciously, hard, twisting them under its skin.
Taken by surprise, the monster roared - a guttural, terrifying howl - and let go, and Chanyeol seized his chance. He kicked the mermaid, pushed its arms away, and bit his lip hard when one of the spine-like fins that sticked up from its skin sank in the joint between his neck and his shoulder. The pain that burned in his veins was atrocious, but it woke him up and made him move and swim up, up, up , away from the sea and the mermaid song.
He thought that he wouldn’t make it - that the monster would come back and kill him, that the lack of oxygen and the pain would be too much to bear - so he was caught with a feeling of almost hysteric surprise when his head broke through the sea surface.
“Help,” he whispered, his voice hoarse. “Help me.”
There was still a storm above the waves, and he was still in danger. He could breathe again, but he was coughing water and his lungs kept burning, and the left side of his body, where the mermaid’s spines had stung, felt numb, like his shoulder and his neck and his arm weren’t his own anymore.
I am going to die, he realized. I have lost after all. I am going to drown.
He closed his eyes, focusing on keeping himself afloat. He didn’t hear the voices calling him over the roar of the storm, or felt the arms hauling him up from the sea and into the lifeboat.
“He is wounded,” a voice said, and his vision was blurred and he was coughing water again. “He has been marked by them. That’s no good. It means ill-luck.”
“He is alive,” added someone else. “He survived. I’d say he is a very lucky kid.”
Chanyeol would have laughed, but he couldn’t even speak. Then the voices quieted and the mermaid song was the only thing that remained as he finally slipped into silent, motionless darkness.
Yixing’s shop was as chaotic as ever when Chanyeol and Jongdae returned.
“Hey Xing, guess who’s back!” Jongdae exclaimed, heading straight for the backroom of the little store while Chanyeol sidestepped to avoid one of the wooden crates piled up on the floor. There were almost a dozen, ancient-looking and more greenish than brown in color, their lids kept closed by rusty iron nails. He could have even sworn he felt the closest to his foot shake a little bit.
“Jongdae?” Yixing’s mop of dark brown hair popped up at the storage door in the back before said man could cross the threshold. He was carrying more boxes in his hands and absently smiled at them while he placed them onto the counter. “Ah, and Chanyeol, I see. Has someone told you you’re hurt? You are bleeding on my floor.”
There was some form of mild concern in Yixing’s voice, even as he distractedly inspected the boxes he had brought, and the boy allowed his tired expression to break into his usual amused smile.
“Come on, don’t say it like that. You know it sometimes happens, with a job like mine. Things get out of hand, people get hurt… It’s part of the risks I am assumed to take, right?”
“I thought you two said you only needed to deliver some merchandise to one of the warehouses near the old harbor this time,” Yixing murmured. “It sounded easy.”
“It was, until someone decided to ambush us on our way to the meeting point.”
“Oh,” whispered Yixing. He wasn’t looking at his collection of crates anymore, but there still were traces of a faint little smile on his lips. He seemed more lost in thought than actually concerned about the fact that, as he had just pointed out, there was a bleeding gash in the skin just above Chanyeol’s knee. “How rude of them. Do you need me to help you bandage that? Is that why you came?”
“No, not really.”
Yixing’s shop was just a tiny, cramped room in the New Harbor suburb of the capital. Chanyeol knew the man owned the whole building - an old-looking little house practically squashed between two larger, newer constructions - but most of the ground floor was used as a storage and no one was ever allowed to the living quarters upstairs, so only the store at the front was the only room open to the public. He didn’t have that many clients, at least not that Chanyeol regularly saw or knew of, so he probably didn’t need that much space for his shop anyway.
Or he wouldn’t had, hadn’t he decided to fill every corner of it with all kinds of junk imaginable.
Chanyeol used to love it, back when he had arrived at the capital. He still had been a child by that time, gangly and dirty, always rain-soaked, cold and scared, but determined to keep on living; and life had been hard, then, but Yixing had always been there to help. He didn’t have much to offer - no money, almost no food - but he had sheltered him from time to time, allowing Chanyeol to sleep on the floor of his shop when he didn’t have anywhere else to go. Suburb kids never had time enough to act their age, but he used to indulge himself those nights.
Even back then, Yixing sold literally anything in his tiny shop: compasses and spyglasses, shimmering necklaces, delicate ships inside glass bottles and shiny crystal beads. There were valuable things, utensils that sailors and collectors came looking for, but there were also worthless pieces of painted wood, a rusty anchor, a broken doll. Pretty, colorful trash brought to the beach by the tides that no-one else ever wanted. Chanyeol had spent his childhood nights sliding his fingers over rows and rows of dusty shelves, trying to guess the history behind every object, the place from which they came. If they had survived a storm or met the sea monsters, just like he had.
He found his first knife there too, hidden behind a jar full of white sand atop of a cupboard, and paid a very reluctant Yixing for it, when he was fourteen. You will use it to kill, he had told him, and Chanyeol had bit his lip and decided not to tell him that whoever died wouldn’t be his first one. The suburban life in New Harbor hardened everyone, and Yixing was the only one innocent enough to believe someone other than himself could survive by strolling the seashore and looking for treasures among the occasional shipwreck remains. Inevitably, they had somehow drifted apart, two different men living opposite lifestyles, but that didn’t mean he had stopped visiting the store. He was grateful after all. Indebted, and Chanyeol didn’t like owing anyone.
That’s why he accepted errands from Yixing sometimes. Without charging him a single coin.
“I made the most of my time, in today’s job,” he explained with a grin, taking a little pouch out of his pocket and throwing it to the other man. “We stopped at the village atop the cliff when we were heading to the old warehouses, so I got you the herbs you asked for. Here, you are very welcome.”
Yixing stumbled with one of the crates on the floor, but managed to catch the little leathery bag anyway. He had been making his way towards him and didn’t stop, undoing the cord that kept the pouch closed while he walked.
“Why is the bag stained?” he asked.
“There was an ambush, remember?” Jongdae chimed in. “Nasty people? Guns and knives? A lot of blood, like Chanyeol’s on your floor?”
“Ah, of course. Are you sure you don’t want me to bandage that cut on your knee?” Chanyeol shook his head in refusal, even though Yixing still looked concerned. He was no doctor, but he sometimes acted as a healer of sorts; a wise young man, who had taken care of all of his cuts and scrapes during his teenage years.
“It’s not bleeding that much, I can bandage it myself,” he said.
“Don’t worry about him, he is quite good at it,” Jongdae laughed. “And even if it left a scar, it wouldn’t be the first time, right? He can get a tattoo over this one too. Say he got bitten by a kraken and get the all the boys and ladies to swoon over him at the tavern.”
“There have never been krakens in this part of the ocean,” said Yixing.
“There are no mermaids either, and that’s exactly what he says about the thing he has on his shoulder. A mermaid bit me, I am so brave. Now would you give me free beer and a kiss?”
Chanyeol scoffed and proceeded to ignore his friend, turning to Yixing instead.
“Actually, that thing is partially the reason I came here today. Do you have ointment left? The green one, for my mark.”
The other man frowned. “Is it throbbing again?”. He let out a sigh when Chanyeol nodded. “I have run out of salve, but I can make more if you wait a couple of days. Do you two plan on staying in town?”
The capital. The big, city with its factory skyline, the narrow gas light-lit streets and the grey, cloudy sky over their heads. Once one stepped out of the luxurious districts, where the well-off families lived, it was a dangerous place, but he had learned to move, to attack and to hide. In a sense, those narrow streets are safer for him than the open countryside, and much easier to read than the black sea beneath the harbor piers.
He couldn’t say that he had missed the dampness and the smog in the day he had been out, but he was certainly relieved to be back.
“Unless Kyungsoo wants to send us on a job somewhere, we will be around,” he announced. “It’s always good to be home.”
“Oh, so you really were attacked by a mermaid?” the girl repeated, eyes wide, as Chanyeol leaned on his seat towards her standing figure, with the ghost of a smile on his lips. His table was too close to the hearth for his taste and the temperature of the room was too high, the air too heavy, so the two top buttons of his shirt were unfastened, and the mark on his shoulder stood out against his skin, dark under the crimson light of the fire.
“You bet I was. Sea monster, of the worst kind,” he replied. “Had thorns all over its tail. Would have drowned me if I didn’t escape.”
“How did you survive?”
“Well, I guess I am a lucky man.”
The girl tilted her head, parted her lips, lost in thought, before she spoke. “But I thought mermaids were pretty.”
“Not this one, that’s for sure.”
“One of the kitchen boys said scars like yours are a bad omen."
“Now, did he?” Chanyeol raised an eyebrow, and the waitress fumbled with the wooden tray in her hands, clutching her fingers around the border before pressing it flush against her chest. She was a new one, probably not older than seventeen, with a thick countryside accent and eyes too big and innocent for a face so thin. Chanyeol knew the type - kids from the rural areas that ran to the big, exciting capital and ended stuck up in the suburbs. Always so candid and so easy to impress. She would have to learn or the city would eat her alive. “It might be a bad omen for your boy in the kitchen, but I’ll take it as a mark of good fortune. Others were killed and I lived. You can’t get any luckier than that.”
The girl nodded and bit her lip, eyes shifting again to the scar on his skin. While his shirt covered most of it, parts could still be seen - reddish, dark lines marring his flesh, running down his chest and ghosting over his collarbones. Thirteen years later, there were still large welts on the skin where the monster’s spine had sank, and Chanyeol would have complained for the pain if he didn’t enjoy the attention that much.
“Well, maybe you’re right,” the girl muttered, blushing when he caught her staring. Thankfully for her, a hand landed on her shoulder, and Jongdae appeared beside her before Chanyeol could open his mouth to reply.
“Ah no, miss. Whatever this person has told you, I’m sure it was anything but right,” he said with a lopsided grin, laughing when the poor girl flinched. “And now, could you bring us more drinks, and tell Minseok we’re here when you see him? We have things to discuss with him.” The waitress nodded before hurrying back to the kitchens, and Jongdae let out a dramatic sigh and sat in the stool close to Chanyeol’s. “I leave you alone for five minutes and here you are when I come back, showing off that thing again? What did you say this time, that she should keep you company at night because the pain sometimes won’t let you sleep?"
“Nah. But I was actually about to reach the part when I told her my marks are warm to touch.”’
“Like you are any better.”
The sun was still up outside, so the common room at the tavern was mostly empty, and the murmur of chattering voices wasn’t loud enough to drown Jongdae’s loud guffaw when he erupted in laughter. A couple of patrons turned to look at them with a scowl, but returned to their own business as soon as Chanyeol sent an apologetic smile in their direction.
They didn’t have to wait much more until the waitress returned, carrying three jars of cool beer in her tray, and with a young man in tow. She looked at Chanyeol out of the corner of her eye while she placed their drinks on the table, but remained silent and finally left when her companion dismissed her.
“You should look out for your father’s waitresses,” joked Jongdae as soon as the newcomer had sat in one of the empty stools. “For your information, Minseok, they are being preyed on.”
“Well, not that my father would mind as long as they still do their job, but please, Park, have mercy on our staff.”
Chanyeol had to hid the smirk on his lips behind his glass.“Come on, I didn’t do anything.”
Among all the people he’d had to deal with in New Harbor, Minseok was one the few that he sincerely liked. He was the youngest son of the owner of the Sleeping Wolf tavern, the filthy place by the piers where the sellswords and pickpockets usually met up for drinks, and basically had two main occupations - filling their cups to the brim with watered-down beer and serving as a contact of sorts for not-so-legal jobs. There was much business in town for the likes of Jongdae and Chanyeol, but most missions weren’t exactly safe and quite the number of adventurers and fortune hunters never returned after leaving for a job. Chanyeol was infamous enough in the city underworld for being hired on demand, but Minseok was the only one among his employers who had looked at him in the eye from the start.
It was a pity that he had never considered giving them a discount on drinks, or they could had even been friends.
“What took you that long? I was expecting you two sooner,” he commented after a long sip of beer. “I had a very nice errand to offer last night, but since you weren’t here and our client was in a bit of a rush I had to give it to Jongin instead.”
“Jongin, the poor kid,” Jongdae scoffed. “He always gets the good ones, huh? He gets all the easy gold while we poor unfortunate souls need to fight for our lives.”
“Fight for your lives? Do I need to ask?”
“Don’t mind Jongdae, you know he loves being dramatic,” responded Chanyeol. “We got ambushed in our way, I bled a little, we killed the guys. Same old thing in the same old town. Nothing to worry about.”
“But speaking of our job, here’s proof that we kept our part of the deal,” Chanyeol forced himself not to grimace when he used his left hand to dig in the pouch hanging from his belt and the mark on his shoulder throbbed once more, the ache sharp and familiar in his muscles. The air was still was too hot in the room, and he realized his hands had started to sweat when he pressed the tiny object he’d been looking for against his clammy palm. “Old silver brooch with the coat of arms of the Lee family, given to us by a shady little man after we handed our delivery over.”
“Great. I’ve got your payment ready. I’ll fetch it for you when you leave.”
“You should consider giving us some extra coin, though,” muttered Jongdae. “You know, for the trouble, and the knives, and the ugly guys who tried to attack us. For your information, they weren’t only violent, but also kind of stinky.”
“Come on, don’t be greedy, we had fun after all,” Chanyeol finally placed the silver brooch on the table. He wondered for how much he could have sold it for, had he tried to get a price in one of the shady black markets. “But here, the man at the warehouses got his merchandise and your client got the brooch he was looking for. And now that we’ve solved this, is there anything else you need us for?”
“Um. Not really? You know how this goes. One day there’s nothing, and the next one half of the rich merchants from the upper part of town want something stolen or their best friend casually murdered in an alley.”
“Well, it’s a shame their dirty work doesn’t come in regular intervals.” said Chanyeol, deciding that the best thing he could do was to empty his first jar of beer as soon as possible. The undercity had been relatively calm those days, the upper neighbourhoods had been quiet and if Minseok didn’t have a job for him, at the end of the day that meant he had absolutely nothing to do. “God, I think I am already starting to feel bored. And I hate being bored.”
“Doesn’t Kyungsoo need anything done?”
“Maybe, but he wouldn’t ask me to do it if he thought it was important. The guy keeps me under his wing because I’ve always brought good money to the Guild but you all know he never trusted me.”
“And why would that be,” replied Jongdae, curving his lips in a cunning little smile that made him seem surprisingly catlike for a second. “Don’t tell me our dear boss still holds a grudge against you for that time you when you were sixteen and stole his best boots.”
“The sailor I sold them to needed new shoes. I am but a warrior of justice.”
“Aha. And how much do you say you scammed the poor man for?”
This time, it was Chanyeol himself who laughed out loud. He didn’t even try to muffle the sound, even though the group of men who had glared at them before turned once more to look at their table. They had been there when he arrived, but Chanyeol had been too distracted in general to pay them any mind, and that might had been a mistake. That tavern was his territory and he knew all the recurring patrons by sight, but those three men were completely unfamiliar, and they seemed both too sober and too heavily armed to be there by simple chance.
Chanyeol took a new sip of his beer, turned to Minseok after a last, cautious glance. “Who are those people?” he asked lowering his voice. “They are not dressed like sailors and normal citizens of the undercity never carry guns and swords that pretty. Mercenaries?”
“Or bounty hunters,” Minseok shrugged. “Wouldn’t surprise me. I’ve seen quite a few since you’ve been gone.”
“How come? I thought you said the city had been calm. That there was nothing for us to do?” Jongdae cut in with a raised brow. “We are unemployed but there are bounty hunters around?”
“I was only talking about serious jobs. I didn’t think you also needed the rumors. Don’t you have contacts in your Guild for that?”
Chanyeol shook his head. “What’s going on?”
“Remember Lord Choi?”
Of course Chanyeol did remember - everything about Lord Choi was hard to forget. He was one of the nobles who lived in the uppermost part of town, a massive man in the biggest manor of the neighborhood, known because of his pretty collection of lovers and his fancy masquerade balls. It seemed logical that a man that needed to stand out in every field also had an outstanding amount of skeletons in his closet, and Chanyeol had been summoned to his mansion to dealwith them a couple of times. He had been led into the kitchens through the back door like a dirty little secret but spoke to the Lord himself. That certainly had been a first for him.
“You could say I know him,” he replied. “Is he hiring mercenaries to kill someone or are the mercenaries actually here to get him?”
“Actually none of them,” Minseok snickered. “You’re gonna like this one. Rumors say he’s offering a reward to whoever brings him a mermaid.”
Chanyeol rolled his eyes, doing his best to hide his surprise under a layer of annoyance. Of course. Of fucking course.
“Well, he certainly has refined tastes for a man who looks like a pig in a frock coat,” he muttered. “What does he want to do with a thing like that?”
“What wouldn’t he be able to do?” retorted Jongdae, glancing at the three men at the nearby table before lowering his voice even more. The one who appeared to be the leader had called for the waitress and was pulling some rusty bronze coins out of his pouch. “You know what legends say - make a mermaid cry out of the water and her tears will turn into pearls, eat her raw flesh and you will remain young and strong forever. What person in the world doesn’t want that?”
“How many people in the world have managed to capture a mermaid alive?” protested Minseok. He always had been the skeptical, the kind to deal with any kind of undercity gossip with an open mind but never believe in fairytales. “Half of the nobles in town would keep one in a tank for their own amusement if creatures like that really did exist.”
“But don’t they?” Jongdae’s smile turned into a lopsided grin. “There’s new stories about mermaids and shipwrecks almost every year. Survivors who live to tell the tale. Our Chanyeol here is one of them after all. Sailors also believe in them, and they spend all the time at sea.”
“Precisely. That much water does something to your head: sailors would believe in anything as long as it’s dark and ominous. And I don’t know what attacked Chanyeol, but I am sure it wasn’t a half fish-half human mythological creature. He was a child after all, drowning in the ocean in the middle of a storm.”
That was what all of them thought - Minseok, Kyungsoo, even Jongdae - and Chanyeol had long ago learned not to argue. The world was a deceitful place after all and people craved to be deceived: they fell for the old mermaid tales the same way they did for a friendly look, for a smile and the promise of a kiss. He had always known people saw what they wanted to see, believed what they wanted to believe, but he wasn’t like them. Even as a child, he hadn’t been interested in fantastic beasts in the sea or monsters under his bed, but even though most of his memories of the shipwreck were blurry he still couldn’t forget. He remembered the song and the screams and the storm, and the cold sea water invading his lungs when the creature in the ocean had tried to pull him down. He still felt its laughter, like a rattle deep in his bones, and the sting of pain in his flesh where the monster’s poison had tainted it. There was a reason he never got too close to the seawater, despite not being scared of anything else.
“Well, I can tell you one thing,” he replied, half-covering his mouth with his hand as if he was telling a secret. “If that monster was a real mermaid, I bet nobles wouldn’t want it in a display tank anyway. Wasn’t pretty enough for their taste, too many spines and teeth. It would totally clash with their home decor.”
“Explain that to all the mermaid hunters,” muttered Jongdae. His gaze was obviously directed to the trio of heavily armed man who finally were opening the tavern door to go back to the streets. “And also to our dearest Lord Choi before our beautiful undercity is infested by his minions. How much is he offering anyway? Must be quite a lot, if there are idiots willing to try.”
“I haven’t exactly asked, but it seems so,” replied Minseok after a pause. “He apparently wants a mermaid caught at all costs. I heard some men talking last night. They said Lord Choi was so determined to get his hands on a mermaid because it wouldn’t be the first time he manages to capture one.”
Chanyeol frowned, “What does that even mean?”
“It means that he is not doing this by taking home every deformed kid that can be bought in the black market and thinking they’ll grow fins and a tail if he gets them underwater only because they have webbed fingers or weird birthmarks on their skin. He seems to be searching for more specific stuff,” replied Minseok. “Word says he already found a mermaid before, but that it ran away.”
Jongdae turned to look at him with black, half-lidded eyes. “No way,” he whispered, before he burst into laughter once more. “He captured a one-of-a-kind legendary creature from the deep blue sea and is hiring mercenaries to look for her again because he let it escape? Now, you talk about a good bullshit story. Who came up with that?”
“I told you it was just idle tavern gossip. You were the ones who wanted to know.”
“I see, I see,” Jongdae tilted his head to the side to look at Chanyeol. “Hey, but you know our poor Milord personally, don’t you? Maybe you should pay him a visit and offer yourself for the job. Imagine you found his imaginary mermaid. That man might be out of his mind but he is rotten rich; he would pay you enough for both of us to get out of this New Harbor hole. Buy a nice little house in the upper town instead, you know.”
There wasn’t even an ounce of doubt in Chanyeol’s face when he shook his head. It was certainly amusing to imagine old, fat Lord Choi commanding a mermaid hunt from his dollhouse in the best neighborhood in town, but despite being mildly curious he would have to decline. “Nope, forget it. I’m not in for that.”
“And why is that? You’re the skilled one here but sometimes you’re such a killjoy.”
“Maybe, but I guess I wouldn’t want to give his hypothetical mermaid back to him if I found it,” the boy shrugged. “Why sell it to a man that has everything when I could just keep it for myself?”
Jongdae groaned against his jar of beer, “Oh my God. I know we all have had our mermaid hunter phase, but I forgot you never grew out of it,” he complained. “You go on and on about how many teeth those things have but then you, what? Want one as a pet? What the hell for?”
“You said it yourself before, didn’t you? Who wouldn’t want a monster whose tears turn into pearls?” Chanyeol had stopped actively searching in the black market like he did when he was fourteen or fifteen years old, but he still had scars on his skin and bad dreams at night. He might not be able to forget, but that also meant it was almost impossible for him to give up, either. “If I found Lord Choi’s little mermaid, I wouldn’t give it back to him. I’d keep it for myself and make it cry for me,” he clarified, his face suddenly solemn while he pointed at his still-throbbing shoulder with one thick finger. “You know, in retribution for my own battle scars.”
It wasn’t until roughly half an hour later that they left the Sleeping Wolf tavern, with a smile still on their lips and their pockets full of coins. Despite their little mishaps with their delivery, the job had paid well, and now that he was outside in the streets once more, the chilly autumn air cool on his skin, Chanyeol felt satisfied enough with the deal, pleased even.
“How much did we get in the end?” asked Jongdae. The sun was setting, casting the angles of his face in shadow. They were at the time of the day when the decent people in the undercity were already rushing to their homes but the rascals, drunkards and troublemakers who filled the taverns at night were still in hiding. A peaceful hour of deserted streets and almost unnatural silence. Chanyeol had never liked the quiet, so he laughed out loud, as if he could imprint his own satisfaction onto the air.
“One hundred twenty coins,” he declared. “I am giving one hundred to Kyungsoo. Keeping the rest as compensation.”
“Compensation for what?”
“Emotional damage. I could have died in today’s mission.”
“As if,” Jongdae snorted. “Stealing from the boss. Regularly. This will eventually come back and bite you in the ass.”
“I’ll take the risk,” Chanyeol fastened his pace, turning around to walk backwards to face Jongdae when he passed him. “I told you, no one brings more money to the Guild than I do, and that stingy little monster still refuses to pay me extra. What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him, and he can’t beat me in a fight if he knows, anyway. So what?”
“I sometimes think you have a deathwish,” muttered Jongdae. Chanyeol was about to laugh at him again when he saw his friend’s head raise up, his eyes focused and alert for a moment. “Wow, watch out!”
Chanyeol turned around just in time to feel something collide against his shoulder. Someone, by the looks of it, short and weightless and stumbling under a heavy grey cape. Out of pure instinct, he raised one hand to keep the figure still by the shoulders, and the body under his fingers flinched, clearly tense even under the fabric.
“Careful there,” he warned, sliding his hands to the stranger’s forearms and tightening his grip there. He had seen pickpockets do that same exact thing - crash into a passer-by, feign innocence, use their apparent clumsiness to steal their purses - and he had just been bragging about all the gold he had on him. However, the figure was just squirming under his contact, very obviously trying to wriggle away from him. It was funny to a certain extent, a struggle so obvious and so ineffective.
“I am sorry,” the stranger murmured. The voice was clearly male, hoarse and a little husky, and laced by an accent Chanyeol couldn’t quite place. He tugged then, with more strength than he would have thought possible, considering how small he had seemed at first, and tilted his head up when Chanyeol’s fingers loosened enough on his skin for him to finally break free.
His head had been covered by a hood of the same rough, grey cloth that hid the rest of his body, but the sudden movement made the fabric slide down his dirty hair, uncovering his face for the second it took him to pull it up again. He had small, slightly slanted eyes that looked pitch-black in the twilight, a bone structure as delicate as a doll’s and the fairest skin he had ever seen in someone so unclean.
“Excuse me,” he said once more, adjusting his hood in its place with long, soft fingers before continuing his way. His stride was surprisingly graceless for someone so elegant looking, and Chanyeol couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped his lips when he saw him wobbling down the street like a clumsy child.
“Pretty,” he commented. Too pretty for the undercity, probably too pretty for his own good. “I wonder where he comes from.”
Jongdae scoffed, “I wonder what he is doing here. On his way to see someone, I guess?”
“Lucky them,” replied Chanyeol with a shrug. “Not our business, though. We should head back to Kyungsoo’s. It’s almost night.”
“Not that he’s going anywhere. He knows we bring the money.”
“True that,” Chanyeol’s lips tugged up into a smile. “But he’ll probably kick us in the head, if we keep him waiting.”
The Guild headquarters were in an old building near one of the northern piers. According to the local rumors, it used to be an inn until the owner had lost the ownership to debt. No one knew when or how Kyungsoo’s predecessors had taken up the unused place and turned it into their general base of operations, but everyone in the undercity had already known not to cross the wooden doors uninvited by the time Chanyeol had arrived to the capital as a child.
Its members were mostly young - gutter children, in their teens or early twenties - and nearly all of them died too young to reach adulthood, but as a group they were respected, even feared. Chanyeol had joined the band at fourteen, had made a name for himself before he reached sixteen. Maybe he could had even fought Kyungsoo for leadership, had he been remotely interested when the previous Guild Master was killed a year before, but seeing how stressed the other boy seemed, he was almost glad he had never been the headman kind of guy.
“Is this all you got this time?” Kyungsoo was asking. His face was almost expressionless, his voice somewhere between soft and curt. There was an edge in the way he talked, never raising his tone but lacing his words with some kind of natural abruptness, like he was always upset and tired. Maybe that was why all the kids were scared of him - because his mood was practically unreadable, despite having big eyes and quite the pleasant face. Most of the adults, however, had already seen enough of him to have actual, real reasons to fear him, so they tried to stay on his good side. Chanyeol, on the other hand, had never given a damn. “Quite a simple delivery job, but you got injured in your way. You should have asked for an extra.”
“You can go see Minseok to the Sleeping Wolf and ask him for a payrise yourself,” he said. “There’s not that many jobs to do lately. We better not bite the few hands that feed us.”
“We better not,” Kyungsoo conceded, unfazed. The purse Chanyeol had given him was closed on the old desk in the center of the room he used as an office of sorts. All the building was old, dirty and untidy, but their leader always had managed to make his own quarters look kept and aseptic. He would count the money later on, piece by piece of gold before going to bed, just to make sure every single coin was where it was supposed to be. “Do you have something else to do?”
“Checked with our usual contacts but there’s nothing. I’ll look around tomorrow again. I am going drinking tonight.”
“Good,” Kyungsoo’s eyes shifted to Jongdae, who was standing behind Chanyeol, abnormally quiet and much more fidgety than usual. “Are you going with him?”
“Me? Not really. I am staying at home like the good boy I am.”
“Then, Chanyeol, make sure you don’t get into a fight now that you won’t have a friend to take care of you.”
The boy just nodded, a smile still faintly curving his lips upward, “Roger that.”
“I’ll let you know if I need something from any of you. For now you’re dismissed.”
All the Guildsmen slept on the headquarters building - or at least that was what they were supposed to do. As one of the senior members, Chanyeol had the right to his own room, a tiny alcove barely big enough to fit a worn, lumpy mattress and his old wooden trunk. Such a privilege was considered a rare honor, and he had been elated to have his own space at first, but he had eventually grown tired of hitting his head on the low ceiling every time he tried to stand, and so had needed to take… certain measures.
“He knows it, Yeol. I am sure he knows you’re stealing money in his face and you still keep doing it,” Jongdae reproachfully whispered as soon as they were behind closed doors in the narrow space. “You truly have a deathwish.”
“I told you, he cannot touch me. He is greedy but he knows what is convenient for him and I am his best man. There’s not many people out there who carry out our usual jobs as well as I do.”
“Not that many people out there with your general lack of a conscience, no,” grumbled Jongdae.
“Hey, that’s not right! I am a very moral person, deep down! Just so you know,” Chanyeol feigned offense while he crouched in front of the trunk and opened the lid. There wasn’t much to see there, mainly old clothes and the books he had used when he and Kyungsoo had taught themselves to read, but he was almost certain he had left a relatively new knife there somewhere. It didn’t take much time to find it, and he slipped it into his boot with a grin of satisfaction. “It’s just that I am a grown-up man with priorities. I can’t spend my whole life living in the sad excuse of a room the size of a closet, surrounded by kids everywhere, no less. I needed my own place so I pay my own rent.”
“In secret. And with Guild money.”
“My money. We give what we get to the Guild so it grants us protection. It’s not like I need someone to watch my back anymore, so I’m keeping my share.”
“Of course you are,” Jongdae eyed his boot with uncertainty but managed a mocking smile anyway. “How many knives do you have on you, by the way? One day you’ll fall to the water and sink down to the very bottom, with that much steel under your clothes.”
“I’ll die the death of a warrior, if that happens.”
“You’d die the death of an idiot,” corrected Jongdae, and Chanyeol laughed.
“Maybe, but I don’t plan on dying in general. What I am doing is go drinking. Are you still sure you aren’t coming?”
“Positively. There’s only one thing I need after the mission today, and that thing is sleep. I don’t give a damn that my bunk is in one of the common rooms, and that I’ll probably be surrounded by screaming kid-thieves. I’m too tired to even hear them.”
Chanyeol knew Jongdae too well for his own good. He reached out to ruffle his hair with one big hand, “Stay in my room if you want. I don’t think I am coming back here tonight anyway.”
“I knew you’d understand,” was all his best friend said before throwing himself head down onto his mattress. “You need to change your sheets, though. These kind of smell musty, y’know?”
“Shut up or I’ll throw you out,” Chanyeol said before turning to the door.
As he had already expected the common room at the Sleeping Wolf tavern was much more packed past midnight than it had been that same afternoon. The temperature was even higher than before and the air was still too heavy, but Chanyeol had always found some kind of solace in places like those. Hellholes of sorts, full to the brim with drunkards, cursing sailors and gang kids. It had always been too much for Jongdae, who only visited sleazy taverns when he wanted to get drunk or find questionable company, and certainly too much for a controlling freak like Kyungsoo, but he had always felt like he belonged. It was certainly chaotic, but it was a type of chaos he was able to navigate.
His current table was as far from the hearth as he had been able to get, and that at least did some good to the dull throb that was once again making his shoulder pulse. He was close enough to the group of sailors that were singing out loud in the center of the room to understand most of their slurred lyrics but still too far to be noticed staring. Which was nice since, as amusing as the idea sounded, he had promised not to get into any tavern fights that night. He’d just drink for the moment, he supposed, until he couldn’t see straight - and then he’d go search for a new job in the morning, accompanied with both Jongdae and the mother of all hangovers. Kyungsoo would certainly love to learn about that.
“Are you alright here?” a voice then asked. Chanyeol glanced up just in time to meet the eyes of the new waitress, the same young girl that had brought them their drinks that afternoon. She had her hair loose that time, cascading in long, dark curls down her back.
“Why shouldn’t I be?” he replied, his tone friendly enough. He had expected her to look down but she didn’t, biting her lip instead. She was still very young, a bit too naive. Kind of pretty, but not what he’d choose to take home at night, even if her eyes were glued to his mouth when he spoke. She’ll probably be lovely and warm enough, but he knew her kind and little country kids always got easily heartbroken after.
“You are too close to the exit, and people is opening and closing the door all the time. Aren’t you cold here?”
“Don’t worry about me, I always know how to keep myself warm,” he couldn’t help to answer, only for the satisfaction of seeing her blush. That was enough for the girl to drop her gaze and excuse herself with the promise of new drinks, leaving him alone once more. She would be back, but Chanyeol would deal with that later, so he turned his attention to the front door instead.
More singing sailors were coming in, practically wailing the lyrics of a rhyme so obscene that half of the priests in town would have condemned it as blasphemous. Two middle-aged women laughed on their way to the bar, and one of the men took the closest one by the waist when she passed by and made her spin and twirl in some kind of uncoordinated dance step. Both were too drunk to even stand straight, so the man finished his demonstration by tripping over his own feet and falling face-down to the dirty floor.
It was when the noise was the highest that he stepped in, cracking the door open just enough to enter. Chanyeol hadn’t been looking, but he noticed the gust of cool air on his nape and looked out of the corner of his eye, more out of pure habit than anything else. That’s when he saw the figure under the grey, rough cape.
He couldn’t be sure - not with the half-lit room and the distance and that obnoxiously big hood still keeping the stranger’s whole head hidden - but he thought he recognized both those ugly clothes and his wobbly step when he started to head to the bar. He walked clumsily, a bit like a little child, unstable but not quite limping. Chanyeol’s suspicions got confirmed when the boy removed his hood to talk to a very busy Minseok. He could see the side of his face from where he was: pale, pretty, framed by dirty dark hair.
“Do you know him?” he asked the waitress when she came back to bring him another jar of beer. She tilted her head and observed him for a while, nose scrunched in concentration, but she finally shook her head.
“Maybe one of the Young Master’s clients?” she ventured, voice uncertain.
“Maybe,” he conceded, tapping his fingers on the unclean surface of his own table. The boy had leaned forward to say something and Minseok stared at him for a couple of seconds before shaking his head no. The way the stranger’s face fell from determination to obvious disappointment was almost endearing. “But it doesn’t seem so. Look at him, he looks so lost.”
“Perhaps he is not from the undercity?”
“I don’t know. Doesn’t seem so,” he said, but still he wondered. The poor thing was speaking once more, brow frowned and lips tight in a thin line when he finally looked up at Minseok. There was a certain obstinacy in the way he kept his back straight and his head up, but he was still hiding under that big cloak of his, clutching the fabric with the fingers of one hand despite the oppressive heat in the room. “But he’s not the kind we usually see here.”
To his favor, the boy was insistent. He had already been rejected by Minseok a couple of times, but he kept talking, frantically gesturing with his free hand like a madman. Chanyeol snickered when the bartender finally surrendered, but the last thing he was expecting was Minseok searching for someone among his patrons and sighing in visible relief when their eyes met. The moment after, he was pointing at his table from the bar, whispering something in the stranger’s ear.
The waitress flinched, “He’s coming!”
“Really,” muttered Chanyeol. The boy was approaching him indeed, with the graceless step of a cripple and the same determined expression on his face. There was no reason to conceal he had been staring, so Chanyeol kept studying him, amused when the kid didn’t even ask for permission before plopping down onto the free stool across the table. Up close he still looked young, but not as much as he had thought - early twenties, he believed, around Chanyeol’s own age. “Well, aren’t you the one who bumped into me before?” he commented, voice teasing, but the stranger ignored him.
“The bartender told me you are a mercenary,” he said. Straight to business, he went, with the most solemn expression Chanyeol had seen in months. Now, this was unexpected.
“I would prefer to be called a fortune hunter, but maybe, just maybe, he’s right. Who’s asking?”
“He said you’d work for me,” continued the boy. “If I can pay you. And I can, anything you want.”
“Isn’t that a bit risky to say? I am one of the best, you know. Anything I want can be a little too much for most people.”
The boy didn’t immediately reply. His hands disappeared under the cloak instead.
“Name your price,” he said, placing an old-looking leather pouch on the table between them. His fingers were fast and nimble as he unfastened the cord that kept it closed, and Chanyeol had to struggle to keep the gasp that had been about to leave his throat to himself when it was finally opened.
“What the…? Don’t show that here like that!” he hissed. He had never seen that many gold coins together in his life, much less in the hands of a skinny kid at a tavern in the middle of the undercity. “What the hell are you doing? People here would kill you to steal your shoes if they were new enough! Do you want to die?”
The boy closed his pouch once more, “Is that enough for you?” he asked, still solemn, while he pulled his cape open to tie the little leather bag to his belt. “Then help me.”
“Just. Who are you?” Chanyeol looked at him, at the stranger with eyes as dark as night and hands too soft and delicate to have seen one day of physical labor. The clothes he wore under his cape were mismatched and unclean, and his hair was so dirty that whole chunks of it were plastered against his forehead, but despite it all he had the mannerisms of some kind of haughty prince, all conceited and disdainful. Stiff as if someone had shoved a broom up his ass.
“It is not important,” he argued. Chanyeol just scoffed.
“Listen, boy, you don’t get to say what is important and what is not when you’re the one requesting my help. Who the hell are you?”
The stranger swallowed, hesitating for a second. The shirt he wore was so big that Chanyeol could follow the subtle movement of his muscles when he did, down to the base of his throat. His gaze lingered in the prominent line of his collarbones under the skin before it went up to his face again. He wasn’t sure if that boy was the rebellious son of an upper town nobleman or a runaway sex slave from the brothels near the piers but he was sure there were people who would have spent all their money to have someone like that.
“I am Baekhyun,” the boy finally said. It wasn’t much, but it was something. At least he had a pretty name to go with the rest of him.
“I guess that’ll have to do for now. What do you need me for?”
The boy brought one hand up to his mouth, softly biting the nail of his index finger. Chanyeol caught a glimpse of silver under his sleeve.
“You need to help me find someone,” he explained. “It’s urgent and very important to me.”
“To find someone? Only? You’re offering a whole pouch of gold for that. Who is this person?”
“Not exactly a person,” corrected Baekhyun. “Not human. Do you… Have you ever heard about merfolk?”
For a second, all Chanyeol could do was blink like an idiot, “Merfolk,” he repeated when the concept sank in. “As in mermaids. Do you want to pay me to help you find a mermaid?”
“That’s right,” confirmed the boy. “Will you?”
He still looked so serious, observing him with the cautious, shiny eyes of a trapped animal, and all the situation - the idea of it - was so blatantly surreal that Chanyeol just bursted into laughter.
“No way,” he cackled. “No way in hell.”
“Do you think this is a joke?” the boy was now looking outright offended, his face so white that Chanyeol just cracked up until his sides hurt.
“Now, seriously, where do you come from?” he succeeded to say after a while. He’d had to correct himself in that aspect: that kid was too naive to had lived the life of a courtesan. Maybe he was the son of an upper town noble in disguise after all, or some kind of lunatic who had managed to escape from a madhouse with all their cash. “How do you want me to get you a mermaid? Fishing it out from the sea with some bait and a net?”
“I’m not... I am looking for a specific one.”
“Really? A blond mermaid princess, so you can keep her in a tank and make her sing for you?”
“A merfolk soldier. Male. Not a princess,” the boy almost spat, flustered and angry. God, that kid definitely had a couple of screws loose.
“Well, I won’t judge if that is more your thing,” replied Chanyeol, still grinning from ear to ear. “But how do you catch a mermaid soldier? I assume they are too sturdy for normal fishing nets?”
The boy was absolutely livid, cheeks crimson and fists curled into balls on the table. It was funny somehow to make him angry - his silly attempts to remain composed made him look much less princely and much more like a snobby child.
“You’re mocking me,” he accused, as if it wasn’t obvious. “I don’t need you to laugh at me, I want you to help me.”
“Listen to me,” Chanyeol said, letting out a very dramatic sigh just for the sake of emphasis. “Half of the people in this city have searched for mermaids at least once in their lives, and guess what? No one found a thing. And at least they weren’t being specific, you know? But here you are, looking for, what was it? Merman soldiers. So tell me, is this merman soldier your friend? Do you know where he lives? Maybe he moved to a different part of the ocean and you just don’t know.”
“Fuck you,” the boy’s expression twisted into a snarl. “You’re such a--”
Chanyeol leaned forward on the table and planted a finger on his lips. The skin was moist, a little chapped, his intakes of breath shallow and hot. “Don’t curse at me,” he teased. “And for your information, I am one of the kindest guys around. Most of the men at this bar would have already punched you in the face and ran away with your little stash of money. In case you didn’t know, you don’t exactly look especially… competent, and they are twice your size.”
“Thanks for the information,” said Baekhyun, pushing his hand away. He looked at him in the eye while he got up, rising to his wobbly feet. “Well, your loss. Since you won’t help me, I’ll find someone who does.”
“Good luck with that!” he called after him, snickering when the other boy straightened his back but tripped on his own feet nonetheless. “And try not to fall on your face!”
It was not as if Chanyeol was interested - because he wouldn’t say he was, not beyond mere curiosity - but the boy had made him intrigued enough to keep an eye on him for the next minutes. It would had been impossible not to anyway, considering the way the boy was moving from table to table in the common room, talking to the patrons with his arms crossed and his chin high and looking unmistakingly disappointed when he got rejected.
“Stupid child,” had muttered Chanyeol, finishing what probably was his fifth or sixth beer and signaling the waitress for more.
At least, Baekhyun seemed to have learned from his mistakes and was not showing his gold off to every thug he talked to, but that probably wouldn’t save him. In the end, he had been invited to sit in a table with three men who were listening to him speak, all attentive stares and nods of interest. The boy obviously didn’t know them. Chanyeol, however, had seen them around a couple of times and doubted they were the type to search for mermaid soldiers.
It didn’t took much time for their leader to shake hands with Baekhyun, regardless, laughing and drinking in his honor and patting the poor kid in the back. One second after, they were signaling for him to get up and follow.
“The kid’s in trouble,” a voice said, and Chanyeol just turned to see Minseok, standing beside him with his arms crossed over his chest. He sighed.
“He was talking mermaid nonsense and, of course, you had to send him to me,” he protested.
“Aren’t you the expert? I thought you would show him your mark and tell him to go home.”
“I’m really sorry to disappoint, but I was being a good boy and keeping my shirt closed tonight. You know, since I said I wouldn’t prey on your waitresses.” Baekhyun and his new friends passed by them, and the kid had the nerve to glare at him out of the corner of his eye, so high and mighty that it was obvious he thought he had won. Chanyeol just leaned back on his seat and waved at him, all smiles, and almost laughed at his face again when the boy huffed at him. “He is carrying enough gold to buy a pair of horses,” he commented once Baekhyun had been escorted outside by the thug trio. “And he is totally going to get robbed by the crew he thought he hired. Isn’t it lovely?”
Minseok threw an accusatory glare at him. “Aren’t you going to help?”
“Me? Why should I? Not my problem.”
“What?” said boy arched his eyebrows the highest he could and left his empty jar of beer on the table. “Obviously the boy is not from around, and has come down from wherever looking for undercity hospitality, right? Let him have it. I promised Kyungsoo I would behave; I am not going to start a fight with three idiots only to play the hero.”
“I thought you said you were a warrior of justice.”
“Of the antihero kind.”
“They are going to give him the scare of his life. And that’s only if he behaves. If not…” Minseok stopped mid-sentence and glowered at a very unconcerned Chanyeol. “Hey, listen to me. The last thing I want is foreign boys assaulted near my tavern. I won’t charge you for anything of what you drank tonight if you help me, okay? So just get your ass out and do some good for once.”
Now that sounded interesting. “Can I keep his gold too?”
“Just asking.” With a sigh, Chanyeol got up. The room around him went hazy for a second, muddling in a blur of black and brown and red, but he managed to get his focus back when he blinked, a curse slipping through his lips. He had come to the Sleeping Wolf that night to get wasted - if he had known he was going to end up getting into a fight he wouldn’t have drunk that much. “But just for your information, you owe me.”
“Whatever you say. Now go.”
The street was dark and silent when Chanyeol finally left the tavern, the drunken songs and laughter muffled by the heavy wooden door as soon as it closed behind him. Midnight had long passed by, and there was not a single soul outside - not even scofflaws and thieves liked it that late if they could avoid it, so they spent their nights drinking indoors instead. New Harbor became a ghost town between three and six in the morning, quiet and eerie, and swaddled in the veil of white-grey mist that crept up from the sea. It was at wee hours when the old sailor tales seemed the most convincing, and people in the undercity had always been eager believers.
Chanyeol wasn’t especially superstitious but he had never liked the mist. It was bearable in the upper districts of the city, where the warm glow of the gaslights kept it at bay, but it was the thickest near the piers. It wasn’t that deep that night, thank the heavens, but there still were rags of it swirling around his feet, clinging to his clothes, drifting and writhing and coiling.
“What a pain,” he muttered, wrapping his fingers around the grip of his favorite revolver and taking it out its holster. He really hoped a couple of shots could cause enough ruckus for those idiots to decide getting into a fight was not worthy. He was also keeping his fingers crossed for them not to have taken the boy very far. He wouldn’t be able to play the knight in shining armor if he couldn’t even find them.
As if the gods were listening to him, a heavily accented voice rose to break the silence. “What the hell are you doing? Let go of me!”
And there you have it.
The ruffians hadn’t even bothered to lead the boy to a secluded place - the sounds were coming out from one of the alleys close to the tavern. Chanyeol knew that one: dead end between two shops that were of course closed at that time of the night. Only one way in and one out: they couldn’t run. Easy. He approached silently, his step swift and his grip firm on his gun, and had to suppress a smirk when he saw the scene unfolding before him.
Of course the tavern thugs had the boy cornered against a dirty brick wall. And of course he was looking up at them with the most offended expression in that dainty face of his. Haughty little thing he was. Chanyeol could have fallen in love with that attitude, if the poor kid’s attempts hadn’t been so pointless.
“I told you I’ll pay you when you help me,” he was saying. His clothes were in disarray, his hair a mess. “You uncivilized, barbarian--”
“Do you really think we are going to lose our time playing with you when we can just take your gold?” replied the man who appeared to be the leader. He gestured towards Baekhyun and one of the thug minions held him still against the wall while the other cut the strings that tied his leather pouch to his belt. Chanyeol shook his head from the shadows, still too amused to come out. Look at the little prince losing his treasure. “Tell me one thing, boy. Where did you steal all this? May be more in the place you got it from, ah?”
Baekhyun scoffed at him, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. And now give it back or I swear I’ll--”
“You’ll what?” the gang leader spat, taking the pouch and cutting its strings open. “Don’t be a smartass with me, kid. These are no regular coins. Thick, old and dirty? Seen many like those before in the black markets. Smells like shipwreck treasure, don’t you think?”
“It’s not your business, they’re mine.”
“Not anymore. And if you know what’s good for you…”
Baekhyun stood very still while the other man, easily twice his size, approached him and held his gaze when he leaned in to look at him. “Oh, I know what’s good for me, thanks,” he whispered, voice so low that Chanyeol almost couldn’t hear him. A barely a second after, he moved, quick and determined, and sank his knee in the thug leader crotch.
“Blasted gods, you little bastard!” exclaimed one of the minions at the same time their leader bent over in pain, letting out what Chanyeol could only define as a very unmanly shriek. He could not be blamed, though: Baekhyun had hit him with all he had. Maybe he wouldn’t have to save him after all.
Oh, well. Nevermind.
For someone who had just had his manly bits smashed, the thug boss surely recovered fast. With a grunt he raised to his full height and crashed his closed fist against Baekhyun’s face. The boy was still being held in place by the arms, so he couldn’t dodge it, and he screamed when the back of his head slammed violently into the wall behind him. The blow had been tremendous, but he stood conscious, with trembling lips and a trail of blood running down his temple, but still on his two feet.
“Give me my gold back,” he whispered, and Chanyeol didn’t know if he was very brave, very stupid or absolutely desperate. He would have to intervene, though. He doubted Minseok would write off his drink debts if he let that boy’s stubbornness get him killed.
“Won’t you shut up!” the thug leader was roaring, raising up his hand to throw a new blow. Chanyeol sighed and walked out of the shadows with his gun up. He could feel the thrill of excitement starting to pulse in his veins, his heartbeat quickening like it always did when he had the upper hand in a fight.
“I wouldn’t hit that boy if I were you,” he said, raising his eyebrows with a smirk when all the three thieves and Baekhyun turned to look at him. “I have a very worried innkeeper back at the Sleeping Wolf who wants him alive and, you know, more or less unharmed. If you are not concerned about me killing you, think about how sad you would be if you got permanently banned from that tavern. Such a tragedy, don’t you think? Devastating.”
The thug leader looked at him with small, dumb eyes that soon lit in recognition. “Park Chanyeol,” he said.
“Well, hi, nice to meet you, mister outlaw. A nice night we have here, huh? And now that we have been correctly introduced, do you… mind releasing the boy so we can all go home? I’m asking nicely.”
“This brat just hit me.”
“I saw. Pretty pathetic but not my problem.” Chanyeol kept his hand steady, signaling at his revolver with his head. “I don’t really want to hurt anyone, so you should consider forgiving him.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Basically? Yes.” Chanyeol’s smirk dissolved into impassiveness as he clicked his tongue. “See this revolver? I’ve got five bullets in this cylinder. That’s two too many.”
“It’s three versus one, Park.”
“Perhaps, but I’ve got a gun and I’m damn good when it comes to firing it. Try something nasty and I’ll aim to your head. I am outnumbered, of course, so maybe one of your little henchmen will get to me before I kill you three but how do you care? I’ll go for you first. One shot between your eyebrows. And you’ll be dead.”
The other man remained pensive for a while. He was big and beefy, even taller than Chanyeol and - he hoped - not very bright. It was correct Chanyeol was infamous for being proficient with guns among other things, but his head was still reeling because of the alcohol and his left shoulder kept throbbing, itching under his shirt. Not to speak about the bandaged cut on his knee. He was certain he had the skill to defeat those three goons in a fight if he had to, but things would certainly get ugly, and he also had that Baekhyun boy to take care of. His best option was to bluff and hope those idiots bought it. He would consider himself blessed enough if they did.
After a tense second, the thug leader spoke. “You can have the kid,” he gave in reluctantly. “But we’re keeping his coin for the trouble.”
Well, not his money anyway. He could had kept part of as payment for his efforts, but he supposed he would need to sacrifice some things for the sake of general peace. “Shipwreck gold? I really don’t feel like going to the black markets to trade that for something useful. You want it? You can keep it. Enjoy, but give me my boy.”
“Deal,” said the thug leader almost instantly. “A pleasure doing business with you, Park. Release the brat, guys.”
Baekhyun slumped against the wall as soon as the hands holding him in place let go, but it only took him a couple of seconds to recover and - of course - start complaining.
“Wait, you can’t do that!” he exclaimed, dashing towards the retreating band of thieves as if he could do something to stop them. Chanyeol was starting to feel equally amazed and annoyed by his perseverance, so he just moved to hold him by his left wrist when he passed by him. “They can’t leave with my money! You can’t give them my money. I need that to hire help!”
“Gods in heaven, are you always so pushy?” he snapped. “No one will help you in the undercity, and much less if all you have to offer is shipwreck gold! That’s not exactly regular currency coin nowadays, you know? Gold is gold, and of course people trade that in the black markets but, kid, be careful who you offer that to or you’ll end up the one chained and up for sale in a slave auction.”
“Do you sell people?” asked Baekhyun, raising his voice. He looked horrified.
“One more time, where the hell do you come from? Under a rock?” Chanyeol saw the faint gleam of one of the gold coins on the floor, probably a single piece that had fallen down when the thug leader had opened the pouch. He crouched to get it without releasing Baekhyun, holding him so tight that the boy whimpered in discomfort. “Things like this,” he said, “won’t get you anywhere. You already got saved once, and only because the innkeeper of the place you have just been has a soft spot for lost causes. Stop playing and go home.”
“What are you even saying?”
Baekhyun tensed the muscles in his arm and tugged, trying to yank himself free but Chanyeol just tightened his grip, pulling him close. He was much smaller than him, his bone structure so delicate that he could easily circle his whole wrist with one hand, but still he kept looking at him with his lips pressed thin in defiance.
“Let go!” he demanded. Demanded. “You know nothing of me!”
“Ah, but I do,” argued Chanyeol, lowering his voice until it was soft as velvet. “I’ve lived in the suburbs all my life, but you? Look at those hands. No one that has had to work for their lives has fingers as soft as these.” He twisted Baekhyun’s arm upwards, so his hand was facing the night sky. The boy didn’t put up resistance but he let out a gasp when the sleeve of his oversized, dirty shirt slided up on his skin, leaving his pale arm bare up to the elbow. “If you are the son of some wealthy upper town merchant, you should go back to your rich brat home instead of… Wait, what’s that?”
Something glistened in Baekhyun’s arm when the boy tried to break free once more - something small, a bit below the inner side of his wrist, that reflected the moonlight when he moved. At first Chanyeol thought it was some kind of bracelet, but the thing seemed completely stuck to his skin, as if someone had just glued it there, and was surprisingly smooth to the touch when he grazed its surface with his thumb. He went to rub it again, more fascinated than anything, but Baekhyun yanked so hard that almost threw him off balance.
“Don’t touch it!” he exclaimed, and when Chanyeol looked down all the arrogance was gone from his features, replaced by something akin to fear. The boy blinked in confusion - then realization hit him. Blood froze in his veins for the second it took his pulse to catch up, hammering louder and faster until the beat in his ears was all he could hear.
“It can’t be,” he muttered. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
Baekhyun was actively resisting now, but Chanyeol couldn’t have cared less. That boy was tiny after all - it was unsurprisingly simple to drag him out of the shadows of the alley down to a deserted, better lit street. The inner side of his arm was now clearly visible under the moonlight, and Chanyeol felt almost like laughing - humorlessly, nearly hysterically.
The tender skin below Baekhyun’s wrist appeared cracked open and a silver, iridescent oval-shaped plate grew out from underneath. It was as big as the nail of his own thumb but thicker, rigid but so smooth to the touch that it was almost slippery. Something so unnatural, disgusting and fascinating and clearly inhuman that it disturbingly clashed with the rest of his boyish self.
And it had been right under his nose. For a whole night.
“Baekhyun,” he said and the boy looked up, eerily pale and silent for once. There was still a trail of blood trickling down the side of his head, plastering his hair to his temple and staining his cheek of some odd mixture of red and black. He was sure that if he touched his hair his fingers would come out dark-stained. So cheap dark dye too. “Do you care to explain why there are fish scales on your skin?”
“I’m not...” he started, his bottom lip trembling.
Chanyeol tightened his grip until his fingers sank on flesh. “So our friends ran away with the gold but I’m the one who really hit the jackpot, huh? Guess you’re coming with me.”
Baekhyun’s pupils were blown wide, his intakes of breath turned shallow and quick. The look on his face Chanyeol knew well: it was the panicked expression of the deer trapped in the middle of a fire, the crushing realization in the eyes of the first man he killed when his knife sank to the hilt in his guts.
He was all soft and helpless, a lost, vulnerable child. Then, his expression turned to iron and his eyes to steel, and the second after he had plunged forward, sinking his teeth in the bare skin of his forearm.
“You--” Taken by surprise, Chanyeol softened his grip on his wrist for a second, and that was all the boy needed. With a surprising strength for someone so tiny, he pushed his fingers open and made a run for it, rushing down the street on his unstable legs. “Shit.”
His head and leg hurt, his shoulder throbbed and now he had teeth marks on his arm, simply wonderful. Not to mention Baekhyun was running away. Chanyeol cursed again and dashed after him, speeding up when he realized the boy was breaking away to the part of town where the mist was thicker. The piers, close by the sea. The kid was swifter than he would have expected of someone who regularly moved like he was walking on glass shards - he guessed all animals ran the fastest when they were being hunted - and Chanyeol’s knee cut was slowing him down. However, Baekhyun was foreign to the streets Chanyeol knew like the back of his hand. He could still be caught.
He made a sudden turn to his right when they reached the area of narrow alleys that were the closest to the docks in that part of town, bolting down the unpaved pathway between cramped houses. Families used to live there before but now almost every building was being used as storehouses to keep their nets, auxiliary boats and fishing utensils. Thank the gods, there wouldn’t be anyone around that late, not until the night mist started to fade.
Come on, come on! Chanyeol cursed again as he tripped on a bucket when he turned left at a crossroad. There were more of them on his way, full of seawater and live shellfish. Kids used to fish for those in the docks, then left them out overnight to sell the morning after. And all that would be wonderful if they didn’t have the tendency to leave all those buckets in the middle of the road. He couldn’t afford to lose time slipping on a puddle of stupid shrimps on the floor after all; if he didn’t intercept Baekhyun before he reached the docks and the boy truly was what he thought he was, he would jump to the sea and be gone forever.
He wouldn’t allow that. Not when one of the most sought out creatures in the whole planet was so close to his grasp he could almost taste victory.
“Stop right there!” he shouted, when his alleyway opened into the main street again. He had shortened the distance and Baekhyun was barely a couple of metres ahead of him, running like a bat out from hell. He turned his head to look at him in surprise, breath labored and cheeks flushed red, then focused once more in the street before him. The docks were some metres away and the dark sea was just beyond. “You’re not going anywhere!” Chanyeol screamed again. His leg was pulsing now and his trouser leg felt sticky with blood - his wound had to choose that moment to open. “Come here!”
There was a bucket of water close to the wall of one of the warehouses, and Chanyeol was desperate enough not to stop to think. He grabbed it while he ran, throwing the content frontward, forced to halt to a stop when he felt a sharp stab of pain in his leg. Baekhyun had been just a couple of meters away and he screamed when most of the water fell on him, soaking his back.
“No!” he whimpered, but his voice cracked and the word broke into a high-pitched screech.
When Chanyeol looked up, the boy had fallen to the floor. He blinked once and saw him shrink into himself, twice and his fallen figure became blurry around the edges. He blamed it on the throbbing pain in his shoulder and leg, blamed it on the beer, but when he took a tentative step towards him he saw Baekhyun shift.
The boy from moments ago used to have pitch-black eyes and fish scales on his wrist, but had seemed mostly human. However, he was not anymore. His legs bent and twisted, tearing the pants he had been wearing to shreds, his skin thickened and darkened and his eyes grew wide. Suddenly, he had scales everywhere, diamonds of iridescent silver sprouting from his wrists up to his elbows, covering his newly-formed tail.
“Gods in heaven,” whispered Chanyeol.
The shipwreck and the storm filled his mind once more, and he fought to keep the memory away. He remembered the monster that had tried to drown him, and it hadn’t looked like that creature at all - he had been bigger, brown instead of silver, much more monstrous than… this - but whatever that boy was, it was very far away from human. He had slits on his neck, that fluttered helplessly as he breathed, and he tried to cover them with long, webbed fingers when Chanyeol crouched beside him. There were silvery-blue fins in the back of his forearms, lighter than his skin but the same color than the big one at the end of his tail.
He wouldn’t have believed if all this hadn’t been happening just before his eyes.
“Who would have thought,” he whispered, and the boy looked at him with eyes that were all black, like a fairy’s, let out something between a wail and a sob. “Well, things are going to get interesting from now on, don’t you think? I hope you know you’re not going anywhere.”
“I don’t believe this. I can’t believe. The only thing I manage to bring home with me when I go drinking is a headache. That or the most unattractive person in the whole place, if I try hard. And you… you just go to the tavern to relax and find yourself a mermaid?”
Chanyeol just shrugged at Jongdae’s obvious surprise. “I think he’s actually a merman,” he pointed out. “Or more something like a merboy.”
“Hell, Yeol, do you really think I can even stop to care about naming technicalities when he’s got fins and a fish tail?”
“Well, he could feel offended.”
“I am--” Jongdae opened his mouth then closed it, gaping like a fish out of water. It was certainly funny to see him like this, so surprised that the only thing he could do was stand there and practically shout at him with a voice two octaves higher than his usual. It was not like Chanyeol could blame him, not when part of his brain was still in shock. The night mist had faded, the sun was up in the sky and he still had trouble believing there was a merman in the middle of his room. Despite him having brought the creature in himself.
“He is kind of snobbish for a sea monster. He is much cuter than the one I saw when I was a kid but he has been glaring at me all day.”
“Glaring at you.” Jongdae deadpanned. “The mer… person you are keeping in a barrel of water in your attic is glaring at you.”
“It’s not a barrel, it’s my washtub. But probably he doesn’t like it. I think he can’t talk when he’s like this, but he’s been making unfriendly noises for hours.”
As if trying to prove his point, the merboy parted his lips and let out a high-pitched, rather offended screech. He was half-sitting, half sprawled in Chanyeol’s washtub - a rounded metal container big enough to keep him wet but not to fit him completely - angrily splashing on the water with his webbed fingers. His silvery tail rested on the floor, however, leaving water marks on the wood every time he moved, the fan-shaped fin at the end so huge that Chanyeol had needed to keep his distance at first not to step on it. He had stopped trying to escape, at least, and was just acting offended.
“Okay, he doesn’t like you,” said Jongdae with a shaky laugh. “Who can blame him after all. Not only you have kidnapped him, but you’re keeping him in this pigsty of a room. He’s a water creature, he’s probably clean. Besides, you know, being a mythical being and all.”
“You should be thankful for me having a room outside the Guild headquarters. There’s no way I could have slipped a merboy in without Kyungsoo knowing, and the last thing I want is him butting in.”
Jongdae sighed, inspecting the boy with half-lidded eyes. “Your catch, your earnings, I know, I know. But what are you going to do with him now? Aren’t you considering selling him to Lord Choi at all? I am your partner in crime and now the keeper of your secret, and I was totally not joking when I said I wanted a house in the upper town, you know?”
“Find yourself another mermaid, then. I’m not giving this one to anyone.” Chanyeol nodded in satisfaction. He hadn’t been in such a good mood for years, and so he smiled when he crouched close to the edge of his old washtub, patting Baekhyun in the cheek with his index finger. “He’s going to cry pearly tears for me and make me rich. Right, fishboy?”
Baekhyun’s fairy eyes turned into slits, the gill slits on his neck flaring in anger. Chanyeol was about to tease him and tell him not to get mad when the damned boy shifted, too fast to dodge and slapped him with his tailfin. In the face, so hard that Chanyeol fell down on his ass.
Beside him, Jongdae snorted. “I think I am starting to like him.”
“He just likes… hitting people. Be careful or he’ll slap you too.”
The force of his blow had thrown Baekhyun off balance. He flapped around inside of the washtub while trying to steady himself but ended knocking it over and rolling helplessly on the wooden floor - the floor Chanyeol would now have to clean dry.
“You’re gonna have a hard time, teaching that one to behave,” commented Jongdae, but Chanyeol just grinned at him while he got up.
“Oh, but you know me. I have always been an optimist.”
“I’m glad to hear. Your cheek is kind of red, by the way. I think it’s swelling.” Jongdae pointed in the general direction of his face. “I hope that inflammation goes down, for your sake. A mermaid mark that makes your face look like a blowfish probably won’t made the girls at the taverns swoon.”
It was true that his cheek felt numb, but a quick look to Baekhyun, drenched and struggling on his floor was enough to confirm that at least the boy didn’t have visible stingers. “Nonsense,” he muttered. “After tonight, I am literally hurting everywhere. The slap of a kid that looks like... the lovechild of a dolphin and a goldfish can’t make it much worse, uh? Besides the blow to my pride, of course.”
“Well, go see Yixing so he can stitch you up in general.” Jongdae turned to the wooden door, grimacing when he realized the spilled water had reached the floor under his boots. “And keep this place clean for once now that you have an excuse to sweep. I need to take care of some errands for the Guild so I’ll just leave you here with your new pet. Just remember that you promised Kyungsoo you would check the undercity for new jobs today. You don’t want him to come sniffing at you for procrastinating.”
“Thank you for the advice, mom.”
“Consider it payment for lending your room to me last night. And now, if you’ll excuse me…”
Jongdae shot a last incredulous glance at Baekhyun’s shape on the floor before turning on his heels and leaving the room, and Chanyeol lost no time to pull the latch closed. The room he had rented - a small place in the attic of an old building - was a secret to practically everyone so he received almost no visits, but it was always good to play safe. He didn’t want his landlord deciding to come in without notice and finding a merboy crawling on his floor.
“What are you doing?” he asked, and Baekhyun let out another faint, angry squeak and looked up to glare at him. Once the dark dye he used had been washed off, his hair had turned out to be silvery-white. It really stood out against his grayish skin and his angry, black eyes. “You know you’re not going anywhere. The only thing you’re going to achieve worming your way around like that is hurting yourself. Aren’t those fins of yours delicate?”
Baekhyun closed his eyes and seemed to tremble for a second. And then there he went again, getting blurry around the edges and shaping once more, his tail breaking into legs and his shimmering scales disappearing into his skin. Chanyeol watched in fascination as the fins in his forearms shrank into his now human flesh. He supposed it wasn’t very polite to stare but he had never been known for his good manners.
“Like you care for my fins,” Baekhyun snapped, struggling to get up. Chanyeol just watched him try, more amused that he would have cared to admit. The kid was a whole show to watch, dressed only in his old, big shirt and shaking on wobbly legs, but still managing to look disdainful. “Let me go.”
“You’re gonna fall.”
“Don’t even try to stop me, I am leaving.”
“Can you even reach the door without--” Chanyeol had to stop mid-sentence when Baekhyun stumbled and fell on his knees with a muffled cry. His feet were red and blistered, his toes webbed in silver like his fingers had been in his other form. “How did you even run from me for that long when you can’t even stand?”
“It gets better, the more I walk,” mumbled Baekhyun, getting up again. “I haven’t been trained for this, but I am learning.”
“More like failing miserably, fishboy,” retorted Chanyeol. Baekhyun proceeded to diligently ignore him and keep walking but he screamed again when he slipped on the water on the floor and fell flat of his ass. He kind of deserved it, for the way he had tail-slapped him in the face, but Chanyeol was starting to feel sorry for his hopeless attempts.”Hey, watch out,” he warned, finally leaving his spot at the door to help him stand. Baekhyun protested when he pulled him up by the arm but he didn’t resist any further, clutching Chanyeol’s shirt with his hands to steady himself.
“I hate this place,” he muttered against his chest. “I hate your cities and your floors and your shoes.”
“Well, first time I hear of someone hating on footwear but I suppose in your case is understandable.” Chanyeol paused for a second before leaning forward and just swooping the boy up in his arms. He was heavier than he would have expected, and started to resist as soon as he felt himself being lifted off the floor, but was light enough for him to carry effortlessly across the room. His attic was anything but big after all, just a small, dusty room with curved wooden ceiling and a round window. There was a bed where the beam structure was the lowest and Chanyeol dumped the boy on it unceremoniously. Baekhyun tried to jump off the mattress as soon as his body touched it but was held still by the shoulders. He was still drenched, his hair wet and the white fabric of his shirt clinging to his skin, and now Chanyeol’s clothes were also water stained. “I am sorry to disappoint you again but you’re not going anywhere. You are my prisoner now, you see. I told you I am a nice guy, and I am being nice right now, but that doesn’t mean I am letting you escape.”
“And what are you planning to do with me, then? Sell me to those… slave trader people? Kill me?”
“Nope. Didn’t you hear me before? What I said to my friend? All of the old mermaid stories say you people cry pearls, of all things, when you’re out of water. Small, white, round, doesn’t it ring a bell?” said Chanyeol, beaming at him when Baekhyun perplexedly nodded. “Well, that’s my plan: have you cry for me, collect those pearls and sell them. Elegant and simple.”
“Sell them? Who would even buy that?”
“Oh, you would be surprised,” retorted Chanyeol, a smile still on his face but a sneer in his voice. “Young noble ladies like to wear them in necklaces around their necks and braid them in their hair. They would sell their soul for the whitest, the roundest, the most perfect. Pearls are not really that common, you see, and most of the ones pearl fishers take out from the sea have imperfections. I’m guessing that’s not the case, if they come from the eyes or mermaids?”
Baekhyun remained silent for a moment, his gaze fixed on him. He had human eyes again, the pupil and iris pitch-black, but the sclera around them white. “Do you wear them on your hair?” he mumbled.
“Not my personal choice of fashion but yes. And you’re going to cry them for me, isn’t it wonderful?”
The boy shook his head, eyes wide open. “What? No.”
“It’s not like you have much of a choice. You’re stuck here with me.”
“No,” Baekhyun repeated, scrambling back on the mattress until his body hit the brick wall behind him. He couldn’t run so Chanyeol just let him, with his most friendly-looking smile still on his lips. “Forget about this and let me go. There’s no way in the five great seas I am crying for you just because you think it is convenient. Not a single tear, you hear me? You humans and all that need for gold, you greedy, barbaric monsters.”
“Wow. Such a colorful vocabulary, you have. Are you done already?”
“I’ll kill you in your sleep if you don’t let me go.”
He looked so serious when he said it that Chanyeol just had to laugh. “Oh, that’s nice. But how do you plan on doing that? Strangling me with your little hands? Hitting me to death with your tail? Please do enlighten me.”
The boy gaped at him. “You’re disgusting.”
“Believe me, it’s not the first time I’ve been told.”
“Would you even release me, if I cried for you once?”
“Haven’t you heard me? This is not some kind of arrangement. You’re a prisoner here, so no,” said Chanyeol, shaking his head. “But get your facts straight before you blame me, fishboy. Whatever you were trying to achieve by coming here, it couldn’t go well. Limping around the undercity, with a purse of illegal gold to pay for help and fish scales on your legs? That’s basically asking for trouble.”
Baekhyun shifted again, sitting on his legs as if by doing so he could hide the iridescent patches on his skin. There was a prominent one above his knee, however, a silver cluster of scales in his inner thigh. It was almost grotesque, the way they broke through the upper layers of his flesh, but still made Chanyeol want to reach out and touch, just to know how they felt under the tips of his fingers.
Probably slippery and smooth, like the scale on his wrist had been. Cold to the touch, instead of warm like the rest of him.
“Well, so just like you said we are stuck,” said Baekhyun then, still oh so outraged and angry. “You won’t let me go because you want me to cry and I won’t do it. Over my dead body. So what are you going to do now?”
“Oh, believe me, there’s a couple of things I could try,” Chanyeol casually announced, turning away from the bed and crossing the room to his old closet. He heard noise behind him and didn’t even bother looking over his shoulder before he spoke. “Don’t even try going for the door. It’s closed and you’re too slow.”
As expected, Baekhyun didn’t stop, and there soon were footsteps moving towards the exit - the sound irregular at first but more rhythmic as he advanced. There wasn’t much inside of Chanyeol’s closet anyway so it didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for. When he turned towards the door Baekhyun was just there, hopelessly fumbling with the latch.
“How do you open this?” he asked, looking at the bolt as if it had personally offended him.
“I told you, you don’t,” replied Chanyeol. “You don’t go out. And much less you do so all wet and without, you know, shoes and pants. At least not if you want to be discreet. Don’t you fishpeople have any modesty? Or at least a bit of self-preservation instinct.”
“We are not called fishpeople.” Baekhyun grudgingly let go of the latch when Chanyeol walked towards him, but his lips parted in surprise when he saw what he was carrying. “What is that?”
“This?” The boy held it high for his prisoner to see - a roll of braided rope, thick and rough and barely used. He saw his eyes widen, hardening to hide the spark of dread that covered them for an instant. “I need to go out and pretend I am looking for a job and you need some time alone to think about your life choices. So you’re going to wait for me here and I’m going to make sure you don’t try to run away from me while I’m out.”
Baekhyun stepped back. “You wouldn’t tie me up,” he squeaked, but Chanyeol just grinned at him.
“Oh, come on, I am really nice but I am not stupid. And be quiet, will you? i really don’t want to have to gag you too.”
Minseok’s Sleeping Wolf was the last place Chanyeol visited in his quest for new jobs. He wasn’t planning to accept new requests, not after what had happened, but that wasn’t much to do anyway - mediocre, third-rate little burgling missions he wouldn’t have accepted either way. It was always good to check his contacts anyway, regardless, even if the only thing he could get was general undercity gossip. Reliable information was valuable and hard to come across, and his contacts always had something to say.
“Yeol? Gods in heaven, what happened to your face?”
Chanyeol groaned. “Someone hit me.” His cheek had been increasingly throbbing since he had left his rented attic, to the point of half of his face feeling numb for the last two hours. He really hoped Baekhyun’s tail fins weren’t poisonous because at that rate he would really end up looking like some kind of human blowfish, and Jongdae would laugh himself to death. “Slapped me this morning, with all they had.”
“I assume you were acting like a cocky bastard?”
“Maybe? I might have deserved it but that’s beside the point. I’m not here so you can take pity on my poor face, just to check there’s still nothing you need me to do. You know, I told Kyungsoo I’d ask around until everybody thought I was being very obnoxious, so I’m just doing my part.”
“And you haven’t found anything?”
“You don’t seem very worried for someone unemployed.”
“I thought that maybe I should take a break. Stop all the stealing, blackmailing and occasional killing and just relax for a while. You owe me some beer, you know?”
“You left without paying me yesterday night, and that’s what I promised I’d give you if you helped that foreign child. So I presume you did?”
Chanyeol’s lips broke into the innocent smile of an angel. “Oh, I totally saved him,” he assured. Telling the innkeeper that he technically had the kid tied to his bedpost was also beside the point, he supposed. Minseok could have misunderstood after all. “I had to allow the idiots who tried to rob him to run away with his gold but it was shipwreck coin, so it’s not a great loss. I thought you wouldn’t want me to shoot them close to your bar.”
Minseok rolled his eyes. “You’re such a sweetheart.” He seemed about to say something else when the sound of the door opening made him stop mid sentence, a sudden beam of light entering from outside illuminating the dim common room. Minseok’s face shifted to the pleasant smile he saved for his patrons only, as the young man slightly bowed his head at the newcomers. “Good day.”
There were two unspoken rules in the undercity. The first stated that bars and taverns at night were for the wicked - the mercenaries, the thieves and sailors too drunk to care - and the second said that all of them should retreat once the sea mist had faded and the sun was up. The New Harbor under daylight was propriety of the old women in their market stalls, pickpockets near the piers, fishermen, beggars and Guild children, and none of them went drinking in the mornings (or at all) so taverns were usually empty until the sun began to go down. The Sleeping Wolf had an adjacent inn, ran by Minseok’s father, so it stayed open all day, but no-one ever came in when it wasn’t breakfast or lunch time. Which now wasn’t, at all.
“Good day, Minseok.”
Chanyeol had turned towards the doors out of pure curiosity, but his hands closed into fists when he recognized the figure silhouetted at the room threshold. Tall and broad, with his blond hair slicked back, and completely dressed in black. And, of course, accompanied by a couple of dumb-looking goons.
“Kris?” he murmured. The Sleeping Wolf was in Guild territory, and Kyungsoo had never liked black market dealers. He hadn’t forbid them access to his region of town, not directly, but they usually didn’t walk in into New Harbor in broad daylight. He wouldn’t be very happy when he learned about this.
“Ah, if it isn’t Park Chanyeol,” said the other man, in a voice so neutral he could have just been talking about smog, or rain, or dirt in the streets. “Who would have expected to find you up at this hour?”
“Oh, you would be surprised. I am actually such an early riser.”
There was no reply as Kris and his friends just nodded to Minseok in acknowledgement and went to sit in one of the tables by the hearth. Chanyeol hated the heat of the embers, so there had to be some rule in universe that stated that of course it had to be Kris’ zone of preference inside the tavern. They had never gotten along after all, not even when both of them were lost children in the streets, striving for survival. It all probably went back to the time Chanyeol had hit him in the head with a metal spyglass after Kris took away his share of bread. Or to the moment Kris had decided that opium and slave trade were a perfectly nice choice of career. Chanyeol might not be the most moral of men, but at least he liked to believe he still had a bit of conscience left in him.
“He ordered wine? Who orders wine? What a loser,” he commented when Minseok went back behind the bar after serving them. He was trying to act nonchalantly but he could feel his good mood slipping away. He didn’t exactly like all that. “What is he even doing here?”
“You wouldn’t guess.” Minseok grimaced as he leaned onto the counter. “They wanted that wine for a toast, specifically to Lord Choi’s generosity.”
“Lord Choi again? Is he paying Kris too, for this mermaid quest of his?” he questioned and his friend just shrugged. “Hiring street bounty hunters is one thing, but black market dealers? And not ordinary ones, either: if he can afford Kris he is paying for the best.”
“Well, maybe milord has a lead to follow after all. Perhaps you still can join the hunt, considering you don’t have much to do.”
“Told you before, not interested. It’s usually not a good idea to step in when dealers look so happy,” Chanyeol replied, frowning when he heard the newcomers laugh. He couldn’t be sure about what Kris and his little friends knew about mermaids or what kind of clue they had, but he didn’t think they knew about Baekhyun. He knew how that man worked and he seemed too relaxed to be tracking anything specific - if he had a face to search for, he would be personally asking around, not getting drunk with cheap wine in one of the undercity taverns. If he had known Chanyeol actually had a merfolk boy hidden in his attic, he would have pounced on him when he saw him, knife in hand, instead of smirking like a self-righteous bastard.
Suddenly, he kind of regretted not having gagged the boy before leaving his room. Haughty prince or not, Baekhyun still seemed intelligent enough to understand that screaming until someone found him wouldn’t be the wisest of choices in his situation, but one never knew. A couple of bounty hunters Chanyeol could deal with, but if Kris and his men were involved he needed to be careful.
“I guess I’ll be leaving,” he said. There was more tension rippling under his words than what he would have cared to admit, but Minseok didn’t look surprised at his sudden stiffness.
“Come by night if you want a drink. It will be on me, just this once.”
“You promise? I am honored.” Chanyeol forced himself to wink and smile, but didn’t lose a second more in getting out. The street was crowded and lively at that hour and he had to force himself to walk calmly, absently waving to the people he knew on his way to his little apartment. His nerves were on edge, a sudden bad feeling spreading inside him, clinging to his chest, constricting his lungs and making his pulse race under his ribcage.
After all that happened the previous night, Chanyeol had dismissed the thought for a while, but it was true that there were too many mermaid rumors in town. Lord Choi’s foreign bounty hunters, and now Kris too, at the same moment a real merfolk boy appeared. Baekhyun, who before he captured him had also been looking for one of his own.
When renting his room, Chanyeol had chosen the top floor of a building near the limits of the Guild territory, still inside their zone of influence but too far from the base to attract Kyungsoo’s interest. Most of his neighbors weren’t especially honorable but at least minded their own business. Chanyeol had seen them a couple of times - a family of four in the first floor, and old lady in the third one - but he was sure they knew he worked for the Guild, because they always seemed to make sure not to run into him when he was going up to his attic.
That day no exception and Chanyeol just rushed up the old wooden stairs. His door at the top floor was perfectly closed, and he opened it with an involuntary sigh of relief. The room on the other side was the same as always: the arched ceiling, the round little window, his old closet in a corner and his bed against the wall. Everything was exactly how he had left it that morning except for one thing - the mermaid boy had been tied to his bedpost, sitting in the floor but there was only rope where he had been.
“Shit,” he whispered, moving to close the door behind him with a slam. The boy could have managed to free himself but the exit door had been closed all the time.
Chanyeol sensed him before he saw him, a shadow at his right, rushing towards the door and pausing for the fraction of a second when he saw it had just shut on his face. The kid thought he was clever, and maybe he was to an extent, but he was still too clumsy and naive and it wasn’t hard for Chanyeol to grab him, his fingers closing over the warm skin of his arms.
“Let me go!” he protested, desperation vibrating in every word, in each intake of air. The situation was bad enough as it was and Chanyeol wasn’t in the mood to play games so he just held him harder, pressing the boy’s back flush against his chest.
“How did you even untie yourself?” he hissed, shifting his grip so his left hand was tightly wrapped against his waist and his right was free to grab his waist. Baekhyun had stole some pants and boots from his closet but he was still wearing his old white shirt, and the cuffs of his sleeves were now stained red. A single glance to his wrists was enough to corroborate the origin of that mess: the pale skin was raw, almost torn open. Friction wounds. “What the hell have you done to your hands? Are you stupid?”
Baekhyun’s only immediate reply was a whimper. His fingers were clenched into fists and his face pale, but he managed to turn his head to look at Chanyeol, a sardonic smile on his lips. “Your cheek is all swollen and ugly. I hope it stays like that so you learn not to touch me. You’re too full of yourself.”
“And who is saying that? A fuming little thing in a big, old shirt? I told you it would be better if you thought about your choices and considered following the plan while I was being nice, but I guess you won’t listen. And you’ll have to learn, for good or for trouble. You don’t know who you are dealing with.”
For all his display of bravado barely seconds ago, Baekhyun had started to tremble now, shaking like a leaf in his arms. If it was because of rage or fear, Chanyeol didn’t know, didn’t care, so he just kept talking, whispering the words in the boy’s ear, feeling the fluttering pulse under the skin of his neck.
“I could sell you, you know, to the noble or the slave dealers, if you are of no use,” he murmured, soft and low and slow. “What would they want you for? I wonder.. Or I could keep you. There are many ways to make a mermaid obey, told over and over again in old tales. Do you know what sailors of the past did to your kind? They left you aground to dry. Half of you inside the water so you keep your tail and fins. The other half out of it and under the sun. Your transformed body is not prepared for life outside of the ocean, isn’t it so? So your skin would dry out and crack, your throat would be parched by thirst until the little gills on your neck collapsed and you couldn’t breath. Maybe you would like to scream or to cry, but you wouldn’t have a voice and your eyes would be tearless. Do you want me to try?”
“You wouldn’t!” Baekhyun now looked plainly terrorized, breath sharp and quick and pulse drumming like a frenzied bird in the cage of his ribs.
“It wouldn’t be the first time I killed a man, and you aren’t even human.”
“You monster,” whispered Baekhyun. “You all humans are monsters.”
He shifted in his arms again, his silver hair tickling his neck and Chanyeol just let him go. He couldn’t run anyway, and he seemed too scared to try again, watching him with guarded, black eyes instead.
“Of course we are. But you’re one to speak. It’s not like your people are especially merciful either.”
Baekhyun seemed taken aback. “You don’t know a thing about us,” he squeaked.
“Don’t I? You tried to pay for human help with shipwreck gold, fishboy. Have you stopped to think why so many of our ships end up in the bottom of the ocean? That’s your people killing mine, pulling our travellers down until they die.”
“That’s not…” the boy started. Chanyeol just sighed. Keeping his eyes on Baekhyun’s, he went to unbutton his shirt, grimacing when he felt the other boy’s expression shift - from confusion to perplexity to obvious disbelief. “Wait, that thing on your shoulder. Is that…?”
“It still throbs everyday, if I don’t treat it with some ugly green cream. And I’ve ran out of it, so you better not make me angry.” He paused for a moment, running his fingers through his own black hair, caught Baekhyun staring with uncertainty. “Tell me one thing, what is going on? There’s a noble who is offering to pay a very high reward to whoever brings him a mermaid. And there’s many people searching for it, including bounty hunters and slave dealers. Of the dangerous kind, if you know what I mean. Those men are so ruthless that they would make me look like an angel, and they never accept a job if they don’t think they are gonna finish it. And there they are, looking for creatures no-one ever is able to capture, the same day you fishboy appear, wanting to find a mermaid too. What are you into?”
Baekhyun’s eyes hardened. “None of your business,” he whispered. “I won’t talk to someone who wants to hurt me.”
“Hey, listen up. I can hurt you but I won’t. I may be a murderer, if I get paid enough, but I like to keep things clean. Torture is not really my style of thing. I suppose it would be easier trying to make you cry by making your skin dry or beating you to unconsciousness, but nah. I was just trying to scare you, believe it or not I am not that cruel.” Chanyeol shrugged, his voice friendly again despite Baekhyun’s obvious apprehension.
“If you’re trying to make me trust you…”
“I am not. There’s other ways to make someone cry not involving violence. For starters you want to leave, don’t you? And you’re still here. You’re a sea creature and you’re stuck ashore in a place you don’t know, surrounded by strangers who want to hunt you. So maybe you’ll cry because you feel trapped and unsafe. Or because you miss the sea and all you can do is watch it through a window.”
“That’s--” Baekhyun started to murmur, but finally he pressed his lips closed and gazed at the stained sleeves of his shirt. He looked like a child in Chanyeol’s stolen clothes; a lost one, very far away from home.
“We need to wash that thing you’re wearing. Come on, I’ll lend you a new one for now. You can’t exactly walk around these streets looking like a bloody, ragged doll. That hair is also a problem, but I think we still have that ugly cloak you were wearing.” Chanyeol grinned, his smile all teeth, and Baekhyun blinked with confusion.
“I’ve decided. I need to go out for more errands and I can’t leave you alone again, can I?” he explained. “I am going to visit my healer too, and those wounds on your wrists could need his help. We really don’t want those things to get infected, I wouldn’t know what to do with a sick merperson.”
Baekhyun blinked again. “I don’t need your help,” he huffed. And there he was, the snobby prince of the deep sea again, all sniffy and disdainful. Chanyeol had almost missed him.
“Don’t consider it help, then. Just preservation of my property,” he said. “And by the way, we are also getting you new pants and boots. As appealing that may be seeing you walk around in my clothes, they are a little too big. I’ll buy you that and a chain.”
“I need to keep you tied up somehow. And since you don’t like rope… Well, let it be iron.”
Eyes wide, Baekhyun gaped. “You’re despicable,” he hissed. Chanyeol just smiled.
“But I thought you knew that by now?”
Chanyeol had taken him to a strange little room full of strange things, and Baekhyun didn’t know what to do. The other boy seemed distracted talking to a dark-haired, older man in an ugly shirt, but he had already learned that it was impossible for him to escape only by running.
His captor was bigger, stronger, faster. He had the face of a boy and the eyes of a child, but he smiled like the devil in the old tales of his clan. Beware of demons, for their intentions are never good, the storytellers had said. And be the most wary when the smile on their lips does not reach their eyes. Chanyeol had been smiling the first time he caught him, he had kept doing it while he tied him up, locked him in, told him he was never going to let him go because he wanted him to cry.
He probably would smile too, when he killed his enemies. He would do so as well if he had to finish him. That was why Baekhyun remained quiet, now. He wasn’t going to keep playing games he couldn’t win. He didn’t have that much time left but he needed to wait - for the moment that ruthless, self-important boy murderer let his guard down. For a chance, for anything.
“This is looks horrible, Chanyeol,” the other man was telling him, and Baekhyun feigned interest in the items lined up in one of the countless shelves in the little room. There was nothing of importance there, mostly shipwreck treasure, old and rusty and covered in old seaweed and musk, but he gently ran his fingers over the objects on display anyway, keeping his head down and just listening. Chanyeol. That was his captor’s name, the way the other humans called him. “You should have come for more salve sooner.”
“What did you want me to do? I had business to take care of, Yixing,” he replied, in that happy-go-lucky tone of voice of his. If he moved, only a little, Baekhyun could see him from where he was, his shirt unbuttoned and his left shoulder bare, the skin on it protruding and swollen and purple-red. The mark was enormous, its tendrils turning dark brown where they went down the pale flesh on his back, like the huge claws of a monster. Baekhyun knew what that was, wondered with a shiver how could have someone survived a wound as well aimed as that one. That venom paralyzed and burned and killed with fevers and heat.
“Well, you should have told me about this yesterday but at least you’re here now,” said the other man. “With a wound in your knee I had to stitch closed, the mark in your shoulder red and pulsing and your cheek all swollen. What happened to your face?”
“The usual. I got slapped.”
“By a resentful lover?” Yixing asked, almost dreamily. Chanyeol just snorted.
“I wish. Nah, by that boy over there.”
“Ah, your little friend. Did he had nettles in his hand when he hit you? Your skin is all chaffed.”
“Will it go back to normal?”
“Why shouldn’t it? It’s just inflamed. Hold on and I’ll use my salve on that too. Careful, it may sting a bit.” Yixing generously covered half of his face in the same green ointment he had been using on his shoulder and hushed Chanyeol almost happily when the boy hissed. “These young boys. You laugh it off when you’re making a mess out of each other in street fights but then complain at a little of healthy pain. What do you think, young man?”
Baekhyun took a while to realize that Yixing was talking at him, his head turned in his direction and an absent smile on his lips. He came out from behind his hiding spot, trying not to wince at the pain when he walked. Chanyeol’s boots were too big on him, and he still hadn’t gotten used to walking on two legs, his feet too tender.
“I don’t like fighting,” he said, incapable of keeping the bite out of his voice. “But he earned that, so he better endure the pain, I think.”
Yixing nodded his head in distracted approval. Chanyeol just looked at him for a while, looking ridiculous with half of his face sticky and green, his eyes opening wide as he studied him.
“Ah, Xing, that’s right. I need something for friction wounds. Baekhyun’s wrists over here are all raw. Could you give me an ointment for that?”
That seemed to pique Yixing’s interest, because he left Chanyeol behind and strided towards him, his brow softly creased. “Baekhyun, it is. What a pretty name you have,” he commented, grasping his left hand and pulling the sleeve up. Chanyeol started to say something, shoulders squared and jaw tensed, but the scale Baekhyun had in his lower forearm remained hidden, still covered under the fabric of his shirt. “This really looks awful, we have to clean it or it may become infected. Would you come with me to the back room? I have clean water there. Also alcohol if I remember correctly.”
Baekhyun’s eyes met Chanyeol’s. He was smiling that kind of smile again, his lips taut and faintly curved to one side. A friendly face with a concealed warning. “Do you really need to take him there? I can clean it by myself at home if you give me salve and bandages.”
“You don’t even know how to correctly bandage your own leg, Chanyeol. Wait here and let me do my work, will you? I’ll fix your boy and give him back to you.”
There was unwillingness in Chanyeol’s voice when he accepted, but he finally allowed Yixing to guide Baekhyun to the back room of his little store. That place watch much emptier than the rest of his shop - no more piles of rusty trash on display on shelves, just a comfortable-looking old sofa, cabinets on the walls and closed crates piled up in one corner. It smelled weird - a deep, intense aroma that was familiar to Baekhyun somehow, although he couldn’t quite place it.
“Sit there,” instructed Yixing as soon as he had closed the door, pointing to the sofa. Baekhyun obeyed and watched him search for something in one of his cabinets. There were no windows in that place, everything dimly lit by an old kerosene lamp atop a little coffee table. “Chanyeol should be careful with what he does. Your human skin is not used to the outer world, isn’t it? It hasn’t seen the sun or felt the wind often, he shouldn’t treat you roughly or it will break.”
Baekhyun opened his lips to reply but the words froze in his mind. He rose his head, eyes wide under the hood of his cloak. “What?” he gasped.
“I know the children of the sea,”replied Yixing, still friendly, still with that friendly, absent voice of his. “You have eyes of night, hair of silver, hide silver scales under your clothes. The ignorant wouldn’t look and would not know but I do. Too pale, you are, too delicate, too lost on two feet. Who would have said Chanyeol would be clever enough to put his hand on merfolk, or that a merfolk child would be enough of a fool to let himself be caught.”
The air was burning in Baekhyun’s lungs, heart waking up and beating faster, faster, like it could escape from his chest. The man who knelt before him now, hands full, was still smiling calmly but there was a glint of intelligence in his black eyes, gaze focused on him instead of lost miles away.
“What--” he managed to whisper. “Are you…?”
“You seem rebellious enough, all alone here by yourself,” Yixing cut him. “Are you foamborn, perhaps? Have you ran away from your shoal?”
There it was, the dreaded word. Baekhyun gritted his teeth. “I am foamborn,” he admitted. “But I didn’t ran away. I came here without permission from my shoal, that is true, but I did for a reason. It’s just that things didn’t went according to plan. I got assaulted, then captured.”
“By Chanyeol, I assume. He is a clever one. A bit of a lost soul, but he still has good left in him.”
“He’s awful,” protested Baekhyun. “He thinks I am his to take. He won’t let me go, and I don’t have much time.”
Yixing hummed, rolling his sleeve up once more so he could observe the raw skin on his wrists. “Do you need him gone?” he asked, making him turn his arm, clicking his tongue when he saw the scabs that had hardened in the places where the ropes had cut deeper while he struggled to break free.
“You know what I am,” whispered Baekhyun. He was desperate enough to ask, to risk it. “Wouldn’t you help me?”
“No,” replied Yixing, almost cheerfully.
“What comes from the ocean shall remain in the ocean, but Chanyeol is someone close to a friend for me. I’ve seen him grow, become what he is and I won’t betray him. I told him I’d cure you and give you back to him, and I will do just that. I understand you two have a dispute to resolve, but what you want you must earn yourself. May it be by paying the price or by sacrificing something dear.”
Baekhyun shook his head. “What in the five great seas are you even trying to say?”
“I won’t abandon you to your luck, but this is the only help from me you will get.” Yixing’s hand released his wrist to search for something under his clothes. When it came out again there was something on his palm - a silver dagger, its curved blade gleaming in the flickering light of the room. “Chanyeol keeps track of all his knives but won’t expect you to carry one of your own.”
“What do you want me to do with this?” whispered Baekhyun. The dagger was small enough to carry under his clothes. It looked new, and sharp, different than the rusty ones he had seen when exploring ship ruins under the ocean. That one could cut through flesh, draw blood. He had told Chanyeol he would kill him in his sleep, but it had mostly been an empty threat “You said you won’t let me escape because don’t want to betray your friend, but then you send me back to him with a knife? I am not a murderer.”
“I also sold Chanyeol a gun once, when he was barely a child. I let him take it but I didn’t tell him what to do with it,” replied Yixing. “I am a peaceful being, and I will never wish for someone’s death. What I am giving to you is a weapon, but what I really provide is a choice. Ultimately it is you who will choose what to do with what you’re offered.”
His fingers shook likely when they grazed the handle of the dagger. It was cold to the touch, pure steel, and Baekhyun hesitated. “I don’t understand,” he whispered.
“Oh, you will,” replied Yixing, his eyes unfocused again, his face relaxing into the same distracted smile he’d had on his face while he had been spreading his ointment on Chanyeol’s shoulder. “Or maybe you won’t. No one can ever be sure of these things.”
Baekhyun had already been held captive for a week. He knew because he counted the days adding a notch to Chanyeol’s bedpost when the boy let him alone or slept. He still had Yixing’s little dagger, hidden under Chanyeol’s lumpy mattress, but hadn’t taken it out since the day he received it.
He wasn’t a killer but he was running out of time. Seconds, and minutes, and days kept rolling over and all he was doing was sitting on the floor of a dirty room, watching his human captor come and go while he remained still, a heavy metal chain closed around his ankle. He needed to do something. He needed to make a choice. Everything would be lost if he didn’t act soon.
“Are you sure you don’t want to join me? It’s going to be a great night, this one. I can feel it in the stars.”
“It’s pretty nice of you to come all the way here to invite me, but nah, not really. Told you, I’m staying home.”
Baekhyun glanced up from where he had been sitting in a corner of the small room and caught one of the humans looking at him. It was his captor’s friend, the mischievous-looking boy. He smiled more often than not, that one, but not the same way as Chanyeol usually did. The way his expression shifted was always softer, barely a subtle curve on his lips, an all-knowing glint in his eyes. He didn’t seem aggressive nor specially dangerous but he made Baekhyun nervous nonetheless.
“Are you keeping watch on the mermaid boy again?” he asked. He was called Jongdae, that Baekhyun knew. The name had seemed foreign in his tongue at first, the same all words have been when pronounced out of water but he was getting used to it. He could say it now as Chanyeol did it, brief and quick and familiar. “He’s tied to your bed, Park. He’s not gonna run.”
“One never knows,” the other boy replied, running one hand through his black hair to keep it off his forehead. “And besides, let’s imagine I go to burn the night with you and pick someone at the tavern. What do you want me to do, bring them here and try to explain why there is a fishboy in chains in my room, or just leave him alone for hours to go somewhere else? It’s not worth the trouble.”
“You could just come to have a drink. Help me out, you know, like good friends do.”
“Please, don’t torture me. You get whiny when you’re drunk. Think of me like the worst friend on earth if you want, but please don’t count me in.”
“I don’t know why I like you.”
“I know. I have always been a walking disgrace but I’m still not going. I’ll try to get some sleep, if fishboy over there is kind enough to let me rest for once.” Chanyeol grinned at Baekhyun, who just glared at him in return, then turned to explain to Jongdae. “He’s been sleeping on the floor, you know, and I guess it’s uncomfortable so that wakes him up at night. And I wouldn’t care at all but he has been using those hours to just… move around the room. You know I am a light sleeper, I can’t really keep my eyes closed if there’s someone walking in circles, dragging a chain along the floor like a soul in purgatory.”
“I told you that creature was going to be hard to tame. You should tie him at night if he’s bothering you,” commented Jongdae.
“You wouldn’t dare,” Baekhyun called from his corner. He didn’t want to say, didn’t want to admit it to Chanyeol or anyone else but he needed the training. He had walked on two feet before coming to the human capital, in the deserted beaches and rocky islands where his shoal stopped sometimes, but it had never been for long and there hadn’t been any need then for him to walk with the natural grace of a human. Merfolk required by the shoal to mingle with Dryskins were trained to comfortably move around in their cities so he had thought he could teach himself too, but more than a week after leaving the sea he was still having trouble. The pair of brown, ugly boots Chanyeol had bought for him were too constricting and hard on his skin but at least he could move in them without almost limping anymore, and that was a small success he was very happy about. He still hated shoes, so he did most of his practice with his bare feet just wrapped in rags. That was how he walked at night the most, moving around as far as his chain allowed him when he couldn’t sleep. He had been worried at first, scared about Chanyeol finding out why he was so restless and forbidding him to continue practicing, but all the human boy did every time the metallic clatter of chains woke him up was groaning about Baekhyun being noisy as hell and hiding his head under the pillow.
It satisfied Baekhyun, in some childish, silly way - knowing that Chanyeol had him there as a prisoner but he still could take his sleep away from him. It was the closest he had to rebellion, at least until he could seize his chance and run.
“I don’t need to have him tied up all day,” Chanyeol said then. “He’s been mostly behaving. He has claimed that corner he’s sitting in. He’s there all the time, or at the window. Look at that skin he has, all pale and soft. He’s already ended up with bloody wrists once, I don’t really want him hurting himself again just because he’s waking me. That would be bad for the business.”
“Such a kind master you are,” replied Jongdae, rolling his eyes. Baekhyun took note of the gesture: it made him look just the right shade between sarcastic and exasperated. He would need to try to make that face at Chanyeol as well, the next time he acted like an ego-boosted, egotistical idiot. “But well, you’re the one who’s keeping him at home so it’s your problem to deal with. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to leave to prepare myself for my big night of fun at the Sleeping Wolf, so I’ll be leaving.”
Chanyeol casted a glance at the afternoon sky beyond the window. “I’ll see you out. I wanted to stop by the public baths before they closed.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful news. How long have you been using that shirt you’re wearing? One week? Two?”
Both boys laughed, in peace and comfortable with one another. Baekhyun didn’t want to envy them but he stared, his lower lip caught between his teeth. The next thing he knew was that the two of them were at the door and Chanyeol was smiling his fake good-boy smile at him. “I’ll be back soon, fishboy,” he announced, and then they were gone.
With a sigh, Baekhyun leaned his head against the brick wall behind him and closed his eyes, breathing through his nose. The air around him was heavy with humidity, the salty scent of the sea faintly noticeable still. It was strange in a way, being so close to the ocean but still too far, not having a merfolk shoal to follow or communication codes to memorize. There were many things he had longed for when he was with his kind but at least he had known where his place was or what he was supposed to do back home. But there he was instead, trapped with a knife and a boy and a self-imposed mission he couldn’t quite accomplish.
His people had always prayed to the waves - for them to bring good currents and prosperity and peace between clans - but Baekhyun had never thought the sea was sentient enough to listen. He had discovered it calmed him, however, now that he was ashore, even though all that he could see of the ocean was a glimpse of greyish blue through the small window in the room.
So it had become some kind of habit, every time Chanyeol left him alone. Once he had accepted that he wouldn’t be able to escape - the chain was too hard to break and the bed too heavy for him to move - he had started to spend his time at the window. So he did now too, ignoring the blisters on his feet when he stood up and breathing in the rush of fresh air that came in when he pulled the window open.
He had to admit that the human capital was impressive. Merfolk shoals could be big but they didn’t like to mingle with other clans except for breeding purposes. Dryskins, however, seemed to enjoy living all together in the same place. Rows and rows of buildings stretched from the sea to the mountains - small houses near the piers, tall, elegant constructions where the land started to reach up, black gigantic structures beyond, surrounded by mist and smoke where the earth and the sky and the mountains fused into one.
Chanyeol’s building was tall enough to see the ocean, more grey than blue below the afternoon sky. His clan had taught Baekhyun to sing, made him memorize the old words and tune of the Call of the Sea when he was just a child, so opening his lips to praise the waves was something as natural to him as breathing.
He had been doing it for days, now, when Chanyeol wasn’t there to listen, and he parted his lips that very second, breathing deep, relaxing his face. He knew the words of the old tune by heart - words of love and reverence and longing that most merfolk couldn’t even understand anymore - so it was easy to close his eyes and let himself go.
He started to sing, like he always had done. The only sound that came from his lips was a high-pitched, off-key screech, animalistic and disgusting and heartbreaking. He felt his hands tremble on the windowsill but he just kept going, trying not to hear the song as it was but as it should had been.
It had been hard to accept the first time it happened, that his voice turned useless when his gills sank into his pink, humanlike flesh. His throat adapted to speech when his body changed out of water, but his singing voice remained a squeal, closer to the angry screeches of the birds near the shore than to the most beautiful tune in the world.
But the Call of the Sea was engraved into his heart, so he could pretend he didn’t hear and just go on and feel it. He could still want, could still yearn, ache for things he didn’t know and couldn’t comprehend. That song was not about the words nor the music, it surged from the cadence of your pulse, from the beat of your soul. And he had too much of that.
That had always been the curse of the foamborn. Children of the storm, restless and unstable and wrong.
“Wow, wow fishboy. What’s up with all that shrieking? You sound like you’re dying, you know?”
Baekhyun didn’t know how much time had passed since he started singing. He tended to lose track of it, when he indulged himself and let the old tune out, turning careless and vulnerable and stupid. The sky was already dark beyond the window when his eyes shot open, and the music became choking ice in his throat when he realized he wasn’t alone anymore.
There was Chanyeol at the door, with his dark hair damp and plastered to his forehead, the top buttons of his shirt undone. He looked like a mischievous kid - like the ones at home before the common mind of the shoal took them - a teasing smile on his lips but a curious spark in his eyes. And Baekhyun didn’t want him there, not interrupting his song, not even listening to it. He felt exposed, caught red-handed, like something very frail and very intimate about him had been roughly brought to light, leaving him disoriented and breathless.
”What are you doing here?” he asked, accusation lacing his every word.
“This is my room, remember?” Chanyeol replied, his mouth still curved upwards. And oh, Baekhyun would had hit him again, punched him with all he had so he would stop looking so smug. “I saw Jongdae off, went to the public baths, spent some time there cleaning myself and now I’m back. What were you expecting?”
“I don’t know. Do those baths have water? Is it deep?”
“Not enough for me to drown, if that’s what you’re trying to imply.” Chanyeol didn’t seem offended. He never was, always acting so pleased with himself even though all that Baekhyun had done for a week had been glaring and scowling at him. Everything he did was detestable, from his usual big smile to the way he towered over him even when Baekhyun tried to keep his back straight and his head high. The worst of all was the way he called him. Fishboy, always fishboy, with that deep voice of his turning lower at the end, as if he was savoring the word before letting it out because he knew Baekhyun would hate it. “You didn’t reply, though. What were you doing screeching like a banshee before? Don’t tell me it was some weird mermaid call for help. Do I really have to gag you?”
“What? No!” Baekhyun protested. He could have lied, he guessed, told Chanyeol he had requested the help of his shoal and that they would be freeing him, but it would had been pointless. Chanyeol was too fearless to feel threatened and his clan wouldn’t come for him, regardless of what he said. “It’s an old song of my people, passed throughout generations since our ancestors roamed the seas and all the clans were one. It has been--”
“Wait, wait, I have one question. Do all your ancient mermaid classics make you sound like strangled, dying cats? That’s one ugly song.”
“What?” Baekhyun repeated. He didn’t exactly know what a cat was but he could feel the blood burning his face in shame. “I am not going to allow--”
“And there you have it again, that face you’re making,” Chanyeol almost sing songed while he walked towards him. Baekhyun pressed his back against the closest wall but the other boy didn’t touch him, focusing his interest on closing the window instead. His skin was slightly damp from his bath still, a small trickle of water making its way down his neck. The wind had turned cold outside and Baekhyun swallowed. He hadn’t realized that the room was that cold. “Don’t take everything to heart, fishboy, I am just teasing you.”
“Well, don’t. You’re mocking the legends of my people and that song is special.”
“For them or for you?” Chanyeol asked, amused. His expression turned pensive nonetheless when he headed towards his closet, walking in strides. “That song seems similar, though. To another one I heard some time ago. It changed underwater, became different, more rhythmic, once you were under the waves. But it had a different feel, that one. Your screeching was making me deaf but still it didn’t sound like a song of war. That’s... good.”
Baekhyun blinked, hesitant. “Do you know the Chant of Storms?” he mused. There was only that song, when it came to war. It was intense and overwhelming, one of the few pieces he hadn’t been in charge of, back in the shoal. “How?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Chanyeol replied, searching in his closet for something, his back to him. “I should be the one to ask the questions here, you know? Like what are you doing here, for example. You are in the human world on your own, all alone and unadapted while all of the bad guys in town are looking for your kind around. You might be here for a reason but you’re not what I would send if I was the fishpeople boss. You look like the prince of mermaids, definitely not the warrior kind, all delicate and pale.”
“I don’t know what a prince is, so if you’re insulting me again--”
“I don’t think many people would consider being called a prince insulting,” Chanyeol clarified. He finally found what he was looking for, a soft whitish shirt that looked much less dirty than the one he was wearing, and he hummed in approval. “They are the ruling class among humans, the ones with the fancy houses and embroidered clothes. You know, the spoiled kids living at the highest part of town instead of surviving here.”
“Well, I certainly don’t rule anything at home.”
“I’ll believe you if you say so. But you are all uppity.”
“I am not uppity, you are the one who’s arrogant.”
“Am I not in my right to be?”
“I wouldn’t say--” Baekhyun started. He had to stop, however, when Chanyeol proceeded to ignore him once more and just pulled his old shirt off. It was shameful, the way his eyes instinctively focused on the skin of his back but there were scars there - faint pale lines and angry red strokes, remains of previous wounds like the ones merfolk soldiers also had. He was used to seeing those: they were scars of war, mementos their fighters wore with pride on their skin, but it was the biggest mark that surprised him.
Of course Chanyeol had shown him before, just a glimpse of it the last time he had tried to run but he had thought his eyes were deceiving him back then, and would still have believed it now if the scar itself hadn’t been bare in front of his eyes. He had seen those marks too, many times, red and swollen on thick merfolk skin, occasionally in the bodies of dying men and more often than not in corpses. The soldier caste had stingers on their skin, full of a paralyzing venom that inflamed tissue, made your internal organs stop and kills you slowly from the inside. Survivors talked about pain and white agony, some of them were incapable of even fighting anymore, and there he was, that human boy, laughing with those huge keloid marks on his back. Young and healthy and strong, the line of his bones marked against his skin, muscles moving under it as he started to dress once more.
“I might not live in a fancy house in the upper town, but at least I am on top of the food chain down here and that is the only thing that matters. We also know how to have fun here in the undercity,” murmured Chanyeol. He turned then, conceited smile still on his lips and his eyes narrowed for the fraction of a second when he caught him staring. “You could at least pretend,” he told him.
“That you’re not looking.” Baekhyun parted his lips to protest, ridiculously flustered by the implication, and Chanyeol just had the nerve to tilt his head and blink at him. “I didn’t know you were into scars, fishboy. It doesn’t seem like your type of thing.”
“I am not--” Baekhyun started, forcing himself to not fall into the trap and just even his intakes of air. “That thing on your shoulder and back… That is done by merfolk poison. What kind of mess did you get yourself into for one of our soldiers to sting you? Have you been hunting mermaids for years or what? That wound doesn’t look like it’s recent and they were aiming to kill with that one.”
“Of course they were,” replied Chanyeol. The dark marks stood out on his skin when he turned, his new shirt half buttoned, and walked to him with dark eyes. He had a smile on his lips when he kneeled before him but the gesture was humorless, strangely hard on his boyish face. “How I got this is not really important, you know? What is relevant here is that my enemies fear this wound and that people at the tavern love it when I show it like this. Did you know, fishboy, that the skin of my scar would be warm under your fingers if you touched it? It’s throbs and burns like it’s alive.”
Baekhyun fought to hold his gaze, pursed his lips so they wouldn’t tremble. “That’s what you say to your tavern people? I am being serious. Maybe you should have left with your friend to have fun with someone if you wanted to tease.”
“Told him and told you: I’m not leaving you alone for a whole night,” Chanyeol replied. The skin of his neck was still wet, his fingers were rough against his skin when he placed them under his chin to keep his head up. “I didn’t know you had a liking for scars, though. If that’s the case maybe you could leave the floor and join me in my bed instead. I’d let you touch, if that’s what you want.”
“Excuse me?” Baekhyun croaked. He felt stupid for how weak his voice sounded, ashamed of the way his body reacted, angling away from the touch but feeling the tingling warmth of those fingers even after they were gone, deep down and under the skin, the way foamborn children always seemed to yearn for the things that hurt them.
“Well, you are supposed to cry for me after all. Maybe there’s another way I can make you do it.”
“What in the five seas are you saying?” Baekhyun exclaimed. “You’re Dryskin!”
“And you’re a fishboy, but what? You have silver hair and patches of scales on your hipbone and inner thigh but you seem to have everything else in place. Can’t you be fucked? Haven’t you been?”
“How old do you think I am?” Baekhyun snapped before being able to stop himself. He felt the shame burning his face, a dull throb of pain making his jaw ache from the way he was clenching his teeth.
“There’s no way for me to know. You could be three hundred years old or you could be seventeen, for all I know about merpeople. But you’re pretty enough, and you look so lonely.”
“Lonely,” Baekhyun repeated, face blank.
“Pretty much. Sitting on your little corner all day and walking around at night.” Chanyeol just shrugged, smiling at him again. This time, the light reached his eyes, illuminating them into a shade of warm brown, lighter than the usual pitch-black of his own people. He switched and changed so fast, from captor to criminal to the young boy who teased him because he thought mocking him was fun. “I am serious about sharing my bed with you, you know. The offer still stands. But hey, don’t look so scandalized,” he added, shaking his head while he stood up once more. “I’ve never had the need to touch anyone who wasn’t asking for it and I don’t really plan on starting now. It’s just that you look so miserable on the floor. It’s a tight fit but there’s space enough for both, so there’s no need for you to curl up in that corner like some kind of animal. It doesn’t look very comfortable, if you ask me.”
Chanyeol had once more his back to him, looking for knives, or guns or probably something equally dangerous in that ruin of a closet of his and Baekhyun just stared, his throat strangely dry and his words gone for the lapse of a heartbeat. “There’s no way I am sharing,” he managed to reply, congratulating himself on how unimpressed his voice sounded despite everything. “If this is your way to try to win me over, you are very wrong about me. I am not that stupid.”
“How distrustful. But who could blame you? I really wouldn’t trust myself either.” The boy had some kind of curved little dagger in his hands when he turned. There was a metallic glint on his wrist that caught Baekhyun’s eye as he moved - a silvery chain that he sometimes wore there and sometimes around his neck, an undersized steel key hanging from it. It was always on him, one way or another, the tiny thing that opened the shackle in Baekhyun’s ankle. It glinted again when Chanyeol hid the knife in his boot. “I don’t think you’re stupid, for your information. Just stuck-up. And kind of naive.”
Baekhyun lowered his gaze to his hands, resting on his lap fingers interlaced. “It is not nice, you know, being called naive at 24. I am an adult among my people, I came of age this year.”
“Ah, so that’s how it is. How long do merpeople live?” Chanyeol asked, head tilted in curiosity. “Same as us?”
“I… guess?” mumbled Baekhyun, caught by surprise. He had never wondered how long humans lived; all the Dryskins he had heard of had died young, buried beneath the waves when their ships sank in the storm. He had neither expected to feel curious to know the truth, it had never been his place to inquire, but now it was Chanyeol who was asking. “We are like everything else in the sea. We are born, we live, we die. The shoal takes care of us until we are too sick or old to keep the rhythm any longer. That usually happens at… seventy-five years, maybe? Eighty?”
“Ah, so then it is the same for us,” confirmed Chanyeol with a chuckle. “Well, I wasn’t expecting that.”
“Weren’t expecting what?”
“You being older than me. I’ll be 24 soon, when autumn ends, but there’s still a couple of months left for that. And here I was, thinking that you were the fishpeople equivalent of a seventeen-year-old, silly me.”
“Well, I am not,” Baekhyun replied, in a little angry voice that made Chanyeol laugh out louder instead of shutting him up. Again, this wouldn’t have happened at his shoal - no 23-year-old kid would have spoken up to an adult, even if that adult was only months older than himself. Children were raised and educated, they never left the protection of their elders, weren’t even allowed to fight in the clan conflicts. Chanyeol might have had the face of a boy but he also had the scars of a warrior, so he had just assumed. “How old are you humans when you turn adults, anyway?”
“Dunno. I think I was maybe ten?”
“But hey, does this mean I am still a little kid by merpeople standards? Will mermaids give me candy and cuddles if I ask them to, then? I could use some love.”
“You’re mocking me.”
“Of course I am. Told you not to take it to heart.”
Baekhyun didn’t reply and just hugged his knees while Chanyeol crossed the room and threw himself face down onto his bed, his laugher becoming a muzzled hum against the pillows. The key to his freedom was still there, visible, dangling from the chain around his wrist, glinting when he moved. Perhaps Baekhyun could surprise him, take Yixing’s knife from under the mattress and sink it in the tender skin of his neck now that he was distracted, too busy laughing at him.
‘But it would be of no use, wouldn’t it? He’s the type to sleep armed in his own room. He would still hear me.’
There had to be a way to do it. He couldn’t wait for much longer but perhaps Chanyeol would let his guard down a bit more if he kept talking to him, enough to forget his knives one day, enough to let him close for the second it would take Baekhyun to do whatever he needed to regain his freedom.
It was true that Baekhyun was not a killer but he was desperate enough to swallow the lump in his throat and try. He was the elder among the two, anyway, and he was strong, like all foamborn children needed to be.
Chanyeol couldn’t be always infallible. He was only 23 years old after all.
The chance he had been waiting for came by barely a couple of days later, when Chanyeol entered his little room with disheveled hair and dark, dark eyes, his lips tight in a sardonic smile. Baekhyun had been left alone that morning, when his captor had gone with Jongdae to visit the Guild both of them constantly talked about. He had spent the day walking around the house on his blistered feet, and the afternoon trying to clean himself with a wet rag, using Chanyeol’s reserves of freshwater so his body wouldn’t transform. He had expected the other boy to be back around mid-afternoon but the sky was completely dark when he returned, the waning moon starting to shrink among the stars.
The codes for his shoal would change again with the next full moon. He was losing time, running out of it.
“Did something happen?” Baekhyun asked. Chanyeol’s sleeves were rolled up and the knife he usually hid under his shirt when he went out, tied to his forearm with leather straps, was completely gone. He looked the most unkempt Baekhyun had ever seen him.
“I got into a fight in the tavern,” he said almost childishly. His voice sounded somewhat slurred, words coming out of his mouth in a mispronounced garble. “Turns out country waitress girl had a boyfriend in town. Not that I was very interested in stealing her or something but he started going on and on and on about how much of a bastard I was and he wouldn’t shut up, so I just punched him in the nose to give him a reason to hate me. He almost stabbed me in return but we’re friends now.”
“He bought beer after to apologize, and I am very frustrated by life in general, mind you. So I drank it. It’s awesome sometimes, how alcohol brings people together.”
“Are you intoxicated?” Baekhyun murmured.
“More like drunk as hell. Haven’t you ever tried?”
“Why would I want that? You look terrible.”
“Oh god, are you fishpeople really that boring? You need to drink, sometimes. To relieve stress,” Chanyeol explained. He crossed the room in five big steps and let out a contented sigh when he sat on the bed, ungracefully removing his boots. “Isn’t your life stressful too?”
Baekhyun had been sitting in his corner, quiet and alert like every time Chanyeol was around. He caught a glimpse of the knife the other boy usually hid in his shoes, the hilt peeking out from his worn-out boot. He usually carried two daggers on him, and both of them were out of the way now, so he got up and walked to the bed slowly, his metal chain clattering on the floor with every step, his hands closed into fists.
“You didn’t seem stressed this morning,” he commented when he saw Chanyeol turn his head to look at him with glassy eyes. Yixing’s dagger was still hidden under the mattress, maybe if he could distract his captor and get it... It could be his chance. That night, that very moment.
“I wasn’t, but then Kyungsoo happened,” his captor said. “I have been the best man he had for years and he still has the guts to say I am slacking off just because I have taken a week-long break? I reject going to the countryside as his little messenger boy one time and he’s already talking about ‘cutting off my privileges’. Like I was some kind of spoiled child.”
“So you don’t get along, that Kyungsoo person and you?” Baekhyun muttered, just to say something. Chanyeol sighed again and laid down, eyes fixed in the wooden ceiling. Yixing’s dagger should had been where Baekhyun had left it, under the mattress, near the place where the pillows were so he just kept walking, trying to seem more interested in the conversation than actually nervous. His heartbeat had started to quicken, so loud that Baekhyun was certain it could be heard in the quietness of the room. He just hoped Chanyeol was distracted enough not to notice.
“We do get along sometimes, but we have very different interests. Kyungsoo needs to have everything under control and I am all about freedom. I don’t want him being aware of what I do but the problem is he always makes a special effort to know.”
“Isn’t he something like your leader, though?” Baekhyun murmured. He had reached the headboard now, so he kneeled as if to look Chanyeol in the face, the wooden surface of the floor boarding just a little rough on his bare knees. He thought he could reach the knife now, take it out from its hiding place without the other boy realizing. “Shouldn’t you obey him?”
“Maybe I should but I don’t want to. But what? You are judging me again. Do merpeople always follow orders?”
“Perhaps we do,” murmured Baekhyun, sliding his left hand under the mattress cautiously, slowly. He tried to keep his expression neutral all the time - Chanyeol was studying him after all, with parted lips and dilated, dark eyes. Intense to the point of making his throat dry but immobile. Unsuspecting. “The goal of the shoal is the greater good. There’s no reason for us to contradict it.”
“You mermaids have shoals. Like you were herrings or hakes or friendly little fish swimming together. Shoals.” Chanyeol teased, lowering his voice to a whisper. “But once more, there’s no big angry mob of fishpeople here to protect you, so where did that shoal of yours go? Aren’t you on your own here?”
“I might not be the most obedient man among my people,” whispered Baekhyun, pursing his lips when his fingers finally closed around something metallic and cold. The hilt of his knife. He had it. He could do it. He was going to do it.
“You say it like it’s a bad thing.”
“Because it is supposed to be.”
The knife was almost out. All that Baekhyun needed to do was keep pulling it, slow and steady, and then wait for his chance. He could see the key to his shackle from where he was, a tiny little thing dangling from Chanyeol’s neck this time in its silver chain. He wouldn’t be able to just take it and escape; he would need to stab and the mere idea was making his head spin, tendrils of fear and anxiety wrapping around his chest like the claws of a monster.
“So that’s why you won’t cry for me, even if I ask nicely?” Chanyeol continued in a low whisper, his expression still amused. “Because you are a rebellious merboy?”
“No.” The dagger was out and Baekhyun tightened his grip on the hilt until his knuckles turned white and his nails dug into skin. He had only one chance and he needed to make the best of it. “Merfolk may value our loyalty to the shoal but we don’t bend to Dryskins.”
“So it’s pride. That I can understand,” Chanyeol murmured. “Come here.”
Before he even had time to reply, Baekhyun felt himself being pulled up, until he wasn’t kneeling anymore and just awkwardly sitting on the bed instead, his body leaning forward, Chanyeol’s grip hot and strong around his wrist. He had been lucky - he had been holding Yixing’s dagger with his other hand and had the fraction of a second to hide it under his own leg, sit on the blunt part of the edge before the other boy saw. He was still safe, and he was closer.
“What in the five seas are you doing?” he protested. Chanyeol was half lying, half sitting on his bed and just shrugged.
“I am drunk,” he replied, as if that by itself was enough of an explanation. “And it’s the first time you have actually left your corner and came to my bed to talk to me without me calling you. Dressed in an old shirt of mine and with no pants.”
“How do you want me to get dressed if you keep me in chains?” Baekhyun defended in a whisper. “You left me like this this morning, so I could clean myself.”
“But still. To what do I owe the pleasure tonight?”
Baekhyun hesitated, parting his lips to reply and letting out a shaky breath when the words didn’t come. He could feel Chanyeol’s stare focused on him, from his face to his neck to his bare legs, a flicker of interest in the deep brown of his eyes. He didn’t know how to act or what to do: he was so close to the other boy that he could have reached out and grabbed the key around his neck; he could have stabbed him, hadn’t Chanyeol been so focused and so alert. Baekhyun was the weak one there, the one in obvious disadvantage. It wasn’t immoral at all for him to play dirty.
“Maybe you were right and I’m lonely,” he finally whispered. Perhaps he couldn’t completely understand Chanyeol or Dryskins, but lust he knew how to deal with. He assumed it was the same, both for human and merfolk - everyone could lose their head to the fire when they were given something they wanted. And maybe Chanyeol did want him enough to lower his guard for a second and let him deliver the kiss of death. He had been wanted back at home, after all, the messenger foamborn boy with the pretty voice and face.
“I thought you didn’t like humans?”
“It’s not like I can be selective. There’s only you here.”
Chanyeol just arched his eyebrows and smiled, hand still hot on his wrist. “So what now? Are you gonna kiss me, then?” he asked, all low and condescending and smug. He was observing him, immobile, daring him to act. So very different to the soldiers in his clan, who just took what was offered to them because they knew it was their right to do so.
And Baekhyun didn’t exactly want to kiss him, the same way he didn’t exactly want to kill him and stain his hands with blood, but he could feel the weight of his mission in his chest and the ice-cold steel of the blade under his thigh, so he did it. He leaned forward and down and took in a shaky breath before pressing his mouth against Chanyeol’s.
He didn’t know what he had expected, but the other boy’s lips were much softer under his that he would had assumed - a little chapped and dry but plush nonetheless. He could feel Chanyeol’s hands moving to hold him, one on his neck, the other one on his waist, prompting him to straddle him. And so he did, taking advantage of the motion to grip his knife and keep it pressed to the mattress with firm fingers, trembling when he felt the heat of Chanyeol’s breathy laughter against his mouth.
He was going along with Baekhyun’s game, holding him in place with rough hands, but he wasn’t kissing him back. And that was stirring something beneath his ribs, a stubborn part of him that made him press his eyes closed and part his lips in insistence.
“Baekhyun,” he felt more than heard Chanyeol say his name, a soft whisper on his skin, strangely foreign on human lips. The hand on his neck moved to his nape, thumb caressing the line of his jaw, and he shuddered. “You are the one who started this. Remember that.”
Of course I know, he wanted to reply, but he lost track of what he intended to say as soon as Chanyeol’s grip hardened, pulling him in and flush against him.
Lust he could understand, lust he could control - it was like the waves breaking on the rocks, a constant push and pull that came and then went away - but he was unprepared for the heat, for the scorching burst of flame that was born somewhere deep within him and ignited all in its wake, leaving him dizzy and needy and breathless.
He had been wanted, and he had wanted too but never like this, not to the point of his body surrendering and his mouth falling open, even his voice betraying him and letting out a choked, broken whimper. Chanyeol’s hands were still on him, one still on his nape, keeping him in place while he claimed him with his mouth, the other moving under his shirt until he reached the cluster of scales above his hipbone. And it was maddening, the way his fingers scraped them, pressing them against the tender skin below. So strangely intimate that he lost his focus, saw only a flash of white and red and held onto him while Chanyeol turned them over, pried his legs open and settled between them.
“You know,” he whispered in his ear, the air so hot against his skin he almost let out a keen of frustration. “For all that talk about not bending to humans you look so pliant under me right now.”
He would have liked to reply, to punch him. He felt so humiliated that he wanted to scream but his body was not his anymore, every nerve turned into a tingling mess, his blood like wildfire spreading through his veins when Chanyeol kissed him once more, lips hot on the soft skin under his jaw, hands everywhere.
You are supposed to kill him, a little voice whispered in the back of his head. Stab him while he’s distracted playing with you, not surrender to him and let him fuck you.
The plan had been clear from the start but he had let Yixing’s dagger go the moment Chanyeol had turned them both over. It should have still been there, however, sharp and deadly on the mattress, somewhere to his right and he frantically searched for it, fingers blindly groping for the hilt, trembling in desperation. He sucked in a breath when he found it, gripping it with his last remnants of strength, closing his eyes when he rose it, feeling like one of those trees struck by lightning in the middle of the storm, the ones who had burst into flame in front of his eyes when he had left his shoal for a couple of hours and traveled to the surface to see the tempest rage on rocks and boulders and isles.
He would kill him. He would sink his blade in his neck, or in his side, between his ribs, and wouldn’t let that boy destroy him. He would, and then he’d run, stronger than he had been.
“Come on baby boy, like you had the guts to do that.”
The voice was a low purr in his ear, and suddenly there were strong fingers around his wrist, gripping him so hard he whined in pain, pulling his own open. He protested while his knife was taken from him, stared with rising panic as Chanyeol observed the silver dagger with the shadow of a smirk on his lips and a glint of steel in his eyes.
“Where did you get this from?” he asked, voice so nonchalant that he could have almost deceived him. But Baekhyun could practically smell the danger lurking beneath the surface, the sting of static electricity under his skin.
“Give it back!” he demanded, reaching out to try to get his knife back, but of course it was pointless. Chanyeol was bigger and stronger than him, had been trained for that, lived for it and pushed Baekhyun back against the pillows so easily it was ridiculous. He was over him again, lips on his ear, one hand keeping him in place and the other holding the cold knife against the throbbing pulse on his throat.
“What for?” he asked, his dark hair tickling his neck. “So you can try to play dirty and kill me again? You’re not the first and won’t be the last, but you’ve probably been the most obvious, fishboy. Things don’t work like this.”
Baekhyun looked up at him in disbelief. “You knew!” he accused, feeling his face burn in shame.
“How could I not know? Did you really think it was not suspicious, you going from being all arrogant to suddenly jumping in my bed? The only day I am unarmed? I just wanted to see how far you would go. I honestly never thought you’d be sly enough to kiss me but who am I to reject you, right? I am sure you are not used at people saying no to you.”
“You bastard--” he started, holding his breath. “Do it now if you’re going to kill me!”
“Nah, not worthy,” replied Chanyeol, taking the knife away from his neck and smiling at him like a mischievous kid sharing a secret. The anger was quickly disappearing from his features and Baekhyun felt a shiver, goosebumps spreading from the place the blade had been in his neck. He felt both exhausted and mortified, still so sensitive that the mere graze of his shirt against his skin was making him tremble. Foamborn were the children of the storm, and he didn’t want to crave it, but yearn he did, ache until the point of physical pain. The burn, the kiss, Chanyeol’s fingers on his pale, humanlike skin. He understood now, why the elders of his kin always said that being what Baekhyun was was destructive. His body should not want what his heart despised, and yet it did, and the realization was scary. “Hey, come on, you look like you’ve just seen a ghost. Don’t make me feel bad, I was playing along because you started but I wasn’t going to take it any further. Calm down.”
He hadn’t wanted any of this. Not to be captured, or to be kissed, or to try to murder the same boy that now almost seemed worried, the mocking smile gone from his lips. There was no way for him to know if Chanyeol was faking his concern or not, and he didn’t want to. The only thing he wanted was the key that dangled from the chain around his neck. The only thing he needed was to get out of that place.
“I just--” he muttered, eyes half-lidded and fixed on the chain, head spinning. He was so tired that it was easy to feign weakness, let his body slump forward until Chanyeol held his shoulders to steady him. He breathed through his mouth until his lungs were full, searched for the remaining strength inside him, not caring anymore if it came from courage or from sheer desperation.
“Do you want something? A glass of water?” Chanyeol was asking. Baekhyun looked up, paused for a second and then screamed, at the top of his lungs, letting all the air he had gathered out in the fraction of a second.
He had been in charge of that, back in his shoal - communication, localization, orientation. He could use his voice to sing to the waves, but his main job had been manipulating the sound waves to locate their position, to keep the shoal away from predators and rival clans and to guide them towards new hunting grounds. He could shoot sound, the same way Chanyeol could shoot bullets with his gun, and he did so now, as close to his ear as he could get, as loud as his voice would go.
It sounded different out of water, the same it had happened with his song - an animalistic screech, the cry of a wounded animal, high pitched and off-key, like a brutal call for help that let Baekhyun’s own head ringing. He had been prepared for the scream, had covered his ears with his hands to mute at least a fraction of the sound, but the blast hit Chanyeol in full force, making him close his eyes and duck his head.
Baekhyun didn’t wait a second longer. Trying to steady himself he grabbed the key around Chanyeol’s neck and pulled, the hardest he could, until the thin, little chain snapped. His fingers were surprisingly agile as he inserted it in the lock that kept his shackles closed around his ankle, and he suppressed a gasp when he finally, finally saw them fall open.
“Dammit, fishboy,” he heard Chanyeol say, and he saw him lunge towards him on the bed, with unfocused eyes and a hand still against his left ear. “Not again!”
“Don’t you dare come near me!” he exclaimed, tumbling forward until he managed to stand on two legs. There was something wrong with his sense of balance - he felt as clumsy as a child, a little kid with no pants and his feet wrapped in rags - but he didn’t have time to lose and he bolted towards the door, sighing in relief when he could undo the latch, the same way he had seen his captor do it many times before.
He could sense Chanyeol moving behind him, screaming something at him from inside the room but he wasn’t planning on listening. He knew where the sea was, he thought while he rushed down the stairs, he would be safe if he could reach it; no human could follow him deep down, no Dryskin could swim fast enough or see as well under the darkened waters.
The cold night air bit his skin as soon as he was out in the open, the mist curling around his legs like a ghostly shroud. The streets in that part of town were narrow and confusing, full of abrupt turns and crooks, a disorienting labyrinth made of brick and stone. If there was some kind of pattern to them, some criterion in the way they curved or converge in one another, he didn’t know it and he didn’t have time to guess. He could smell the salty humidity of the sea not far beyond, he could practically feel it, its pull strong in his flesh and blood and bone, so he just followed it without thinking, running down the closest street.
His walking practice had paid off - the soft soles of his feet, still poorly wrapped in rags, sent a numb throb of pain to his brain with every step, but the ache was bearable and his stride was smoother than it had ever been. He only hoped it was enough to outrun Chanyeol this time, even if the boy knew the city, even if he was most likely angry and out to hunt him.
“Come on,” he muttered, out of breath, choosing the smallest, darkest alleys when he had to turn, trying to move in the shadows inside the shadows, towards the sea, always towards the ocean. He would spend the night there when he reached it, hidden in safety until the coast was clear and he could resume his search again. He wasn’t completely sure about how to do it but he would--
“Hey! Stop right there, boy!”
One second the street had been empty and suddenly there was a figure in the way, tall and muscular, dressed in old, dark pants and a dirty shirt. Baekhyun could not make out his face in the dark but he could almost sense his eyes on him and felt a shiver, creeping under his spine.
He didn’t want to stop so he quickened his pace, his lungs burning and heart thundering in his chest, muting every other sound around him. He tried to avoid the man, running the closest he could to the buildings at one side of the alley, shrinking into himself to avoid the contact, but he knew he had lost before he felt big, rough fingers closing around his arm, forcefully pulling him to a halt.
“What are you doing?” he demanded, breathless, as the man forced him close to his body. He didn’t know how far he had run but he knew the ocean was close, dark and safe and few meters away while he was there, once again held hostage by a stranger, once again too weak and too useless to do anything right. “Do you mind letting me go?”
“Look at this hair you have”, the man said instead, as if he had not heard, his voice as low and soft like the calm before the gale. “Saw you running down the street and had to check, kid. Is it really silver?” Baekhyun tried not to scream when he felt rough fingers on his scalp, holding the strands of hair so hard he thought they would be torn off his skin. He felt the strain in his neck as his head was brutally thrown back but concentrated in glaring at the stranger nonetheless, black eyes fixed on him, fingers clawing at his wrists. “All soft and shiny, uh? Not like those dyes the slavists use.”
“Take a look at his legs too, there’s something sparkly there as well,” another voice said. A second figure appeared among the mist then, a woman, half a head shorter than Baekhyun was, with tangled black hair and eyes rimmed in kohl. She was small but moved cautiously, with the studied gaze of a predator, was smiling at him the same way Chanyeol did when he had looked him in the eye and told him he wouldn’t let him go. “I was losing hope in getting any money at all for all this stupid mission, but maybe we’ll still be able to get the big prize after all.”
“Wait. Do you think he is the real deal?”
“Who knows. Maybe we should try to drench him with saltwater and see if the legends are true. Would you transform, boy? Are you the little mermaid everyone is searching for?”
Baekhyun didn’t reply at first, turning his head to look at the woman with half-lidded eyes. Chanyeol had talked about that too, days ago, and he had thought he had been lying. “What mermaid?” he asked. “Who is offering you gold for this?”
“The upper town bastards,” the girl just said, shrugging. She was close to him now; she smelled like sweat and dirt. “But look at him, now,” she added, her eyes on him but her words addressed to her partner. “Dressed like this and running away. He looks like one of those high-class slaves with one hell of a mermaid disguise. Those kids sold at the market… everyone would know they are not what the slavists claim they are, but take a pale, soft-skinned child and bleach his hair to silver… Maybe milord would pay for this one. Sad thing he’s here all alone, good thing we found him.”
“So we are taking him to the Lord.”
“You bet. What are those things made of, though? Glass?” the girl asked, slightly bending down and trying to place a hand on the biggest cluster of scales on his leg. Baekhyun moved to avoid the contact but let out a hiss that sounded strangely feral on his lips when the man behind him pulled harder on his hair, keeping him still. He clearly saw the woman’s face change when her fingers grazed his scales, shifting from mild curiosity to surprise to shock in the span of a heartbeat. “Hell,” she whispered. “Hold him.” Her partner complied, twisting the fistful of his hair he’d grabbed until his gaze was forced up once more and digging the nail of his other hand in his arm. The next thing Baekhyun felt was cold steel on his leg and a sudden, sharp sting of white pain where the scales protruded from his flesh. He didn’t want to give them the pleasure but he closed his eyes and screamed.
“What are you doing?” grunted the man who was holding him. There was blood running down Baekhyun’s leg, sticky and warm.
“Those things are real! He has fish scales on his skin!”
“Do you realize? We can ask the Lord for a fortune for this thing. We can sell him in the market. There’s people down there who would pay a fortune for mermaid hair, or blood, or skin.”
Baekhyun felt his body tremble, start to shake, out of his control. He remembered Chanyeol saying it, that most people in the undercity were even worse than he was. He hadn’t really believed, days ago, that there could be someone more hideous than him, but he wasn’t so sure anymore. “You wouldn’t kill me!” he exclaimed.
The man holding him made him turn, yanking his hair to make him look at him. “Nothing personal, but we may get more from you if we share you out between different people.”
“Like hell you would,” said a new voice then, a voice he knew, loud over the silence. Baekhyun thought he had imagined it, that was hearing something that, deep down, he was hoping he’d hear.
Then there was the bang. Sudden and deafening, echoing in the alley like a bolt of thunder. And everything stood still for a second as if time had stopped, Baekhyun’s shallow intakes of air the only sound breaking the silence.
He had had his head turned to the big man holding him, eyes fixed on his face when something collided against his captor’s forehead. One second there was nothing, the next one a red circle appeared on his skin, between his eyebrows. And Baekhyun didn’t understand, but he saw his eyes go wide and then lifeless, his fingers grip his hair in a spasm before releasing him. He had just an instant to step back by pure instinct before the man collapsed to a lump on the floor in utter and absolute silence.
He’s dead, he realized, as if someone else had shaped the thought in his head. He didn’t exist anymore, and Baekhyun had been there, looking at him in the eye the moment he had stopped breathing.
“Shit,” the woman beside him cursed, and then the world collapsed around Baekhyun, moving too fast for him to follow. He turned on shaky legs and Chanyeol was there, revolver in hand and lips pulled up in the smile of death. He looked more dangerous than the soldiers of his kin, lethal as the icy currents in the bottom of the ocean, the ones who trapped you and dragged you down where the high pressure crushed you before you could even scream for help.
“Undercity outsiders,” he said, like the mere idea made him thrilled. “You come here for the gold and already think you own the place. Tsk, tsk, how shameless.”
The girl’s hands flew to her belt, but Chanyeol was faster. One, two, three times he pulled the trigger, and the girl cursed and jumped to one side. Two of the bullets missed their target but the third one sank in her leg, making her hiss in pain.
“Wow, you’re fast,” Chanyeol commented. The girl held his gaze for a second, then just turned on her heels and ran.
Baekhyun thought that the other boy would chase her - he looked ready to, with his gun gleaming in his hand, his eyes alert and his body ready, tense, jaw set and muscles flexed under the skin. That’s why he flinched when he saw him turn to him, sighing in something akin to annoyance before he spoke.
“Can you walk?” he asked. The smirk was gone from his lips, but what made Baekhyun scared was that he could not read his eyes. He pointed to his leg with his gun when he didn’t answer. “You’re wounded. Can you move?”
Baekhyun had forgotten about the cut in his leg. He felt numb, as if dreaming, and could only nod in astonishment. “It’s superficial,” he muttered. “They didn’t hurt me.” He hadn’t yet.
The fingers that closed on his shoulder were surprisingly soft. “Come on,” Chanyeol told him. “This is not over. I don’t want to have to babysit you when she comes back.”
“You killed him,” accused Baekhyun as soon as both of them arrived to Chanyeol’s little room. “Just like that. You killed that man.”
“Says the man who kissed me to try to stab me.”
The boy’s lips parted, as if he was searching for a reply that wouldn’t come. He was even paler than usual, standing right next to the door with wide, black eyes and dry blood on his leg. Chanyeol tried not to look at him and focused in searching clean pants that would fit him instead. It was weird after all, looking at Baekhyun and seeing him so oddly vulnerable, breath intakes quick and shallow, fingers clutching on his shirt, the remnants of fear and shock visible in the soft curves of his face. It was strangely reminiscent of himself as a child, of the way he had rented an inn room with the earnings of his first kill and spent the night sat against the wall, eyes unfocused in the dark and mind blank.
That was the way the undercity hardened you, shaped you like steel in the hands of a smith. You either learned to survive or you died. Chanyeol didn’t like to think about it - not about Baekhyun losing part of all the fight he had in him, nor about himself allowing the boy to escape because he had thought he wouldn’t be driven enough to try to run.
Chanyeol had taught himself to be fearless but he had never been brave. He had always kept afloat in the suburbs by being mostly practical, ruthless when he needed to, wild to the point of recklessness when he had to fight.
He would had been the type to kiss his captor to stab him. He wouldn’t had even dared to think of running unarmed and dressed in an old shirt. He would had never been so stupid. But there he was now, angry both at the boy for being idiotic and at himself for being careless.
“You didn’t even give him the chance to fight back!” Baekhyun was still blabbering. “You killed him from afar, like it was an easy thing to do!”
“Maybe because it is,” Chanyeol interrupted, turning to smile at him with a pair of old pants in one hand. “Perhaps you didn’t realize when you were holding that knife before, but murdering a man is simple. You sink the blade and they’re gone.”
“But his eyes, they were--”
Ah, the eyes. What always made people gag and retch, when their first fights were over. “The trick is not to look them in the face, if that’s what makes you sick.”
Baekhyun stepped backward, livid as a corpse. “You monster! All you humans are. You--”
“Cut it, would you?” Chanyeol threw the pants at him, scoffing when the boy was barely able to catch them on air. He would have preferred to remain sarcastic and unfazed through all that stupid conversation, but he couldn’t help the scornful bite in his words. “I get your point, we all are evil. Because you are much more moral than me, aren’t you? You knew the undercity was dangerous and of course you ran away dressed in a shirt, with all those little scales of yours visible to whoever who wants to look. And when you obviously get attacked, you expect for me to save you and then you get angry. It is so easy for you. They were talking about selling you as portions of fish steak but of course I am the monster here because I shot a man between the eyes to rescue you. It’s very convenient to play the saint when there’s someone else who’ll do the killing in your place.”
“It isn’t like that,” muttered Baekhyun. “The only thing I wanted was to reach the sea. I...”
“Do you want to talk about action and consequence? Let’s do it, then,” Chanyeol added. “From the moment you got attacked, it was either you or them. I’ll have to get the girl now, too. She ran away but she’ll probably be back soon with more of her foreigner friends. I don’t think she is affiliated with Kris or the big market dealers in town but we can’t have her running around knowing what you are. She could spread the word, voluntarily or by accident, and I am known in the undercity.”
“So you’ll search her and kill her.”
“Her and any gang friends she has. Tonight, as soon as we have left this apartment for good.” Chanyeol looked around. It had been nice, having his own space for a while, but he guessed he would have to leave it empty for a couple of months and lie low, at least until things calmed down. “We could have been followed. Like hell I can leave you alone here anymore… Damn it, fishboy, I liked this place, it was peaceful.”
“You could spare her, if we have to run,” Baekhyun muttered, voice still shaking a bit. Of course, he didn’t seem to mind about the way the money he’d technically stolen from Kyungsoo to pay his rent was going to get wasted now. Not to mention the fact that that girl had tried to sell him, and that she probably would be back to hunt him again. “You enjoy this, don’t you? Doing all this and murdering people. You were smiling when you shot that man.”
“I enjoy the fight,” Chanyeol corrected. He had learned to ride the wave of excitement long ago, the uncertainty that made you stronger when your life was the only thing you had to lose. “But I kill because it’s my job and when I have to do it. At least I make it quick. That is not that easy. Whose fault is this anyway? You were the who got attacked.”
“While running away because you trapped me.”
“After you tried to kill me. How nice you are. And by the way, an idiot would have trapped you considering how well you hide. You didn’t stand a chance from the start.”
“I’m… Do you think I have not realized of that by now?” Baekhyun suddenly screamed. He was shivering again, looking as shaken as if Chanyeol had plain slapped him in the face. “These are your ways, and your life, and your world, not mine, and I am failing at everything! I know that but I’m running out of time and this is the only thing I can do!”
Chanyeol looked at him in silence for a moment from the other side of the room. “It would be easier for me to understand if you explained what’s going on here,” he said, voice softening.
For a second, Baekhyun said nothing. He was just abnormally quiet, gaze cast down and fingers gripping the long sleeves of his shirt. It was in occasions like this that Chanyeol was reminded that that boy was actually small, more than half a head shorter than he was; that he was nothing like him at all. “I am… I came to the surface to search for someone,” he finally said, voice wavering a bit but eyes finally meeting his. “A merman soldier, a person important to me, that swam up to this city for a routine patrol mission but never came back.” He paused for a second, determined and sad and bitter, but parted his lips again when Chanyeol said nothing. “My shoal… They don’t approve of this. It’s not convenient to send active community members to search for missing persons, but I… I ran away and came here on my own because I couldn’t leave things like this.”
“So they won’t search for you either, huh?”
“They won’t. They’ll accept me - both of us - again if we go back in time but there’s a deadline for that. There’s… There’s certain sound codes that we can use to locate our shoal if we get separated. I know the ones in use now and I can go back home with that, they’ll reply if I call, but the codes will change with the next full moon, and the moment that happens… We will be lost. Forsaken. It is impossible to find a migratory shoal in the ocean if you don’t know where to search, you know?”
“And what was your plan, then? Coming here and search for whoever by offering shipwreck gold to thugs for a mermaid?” Chanyeol deadpanned. “It doesn’t sound very clever.”
“Don’t laugh at me! It was the only thing I could do!” Baekhyun snapped back, black eyes shining. He remained silent for a while, almost defiant, but his shoulders slumped in a sigh when he saw Chanyeol was just observing him, thoughtful. “You,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “You know the city. You’re not like me, you know how to move, you have contacts.”
“And what if I do?”
Baekhyun bit his lip. “You have to help me.”
“You’ve heard me. Help me. Please.”
He was unbelievable sometimes, that boy. He looked so lost and tired but he still had it in him to make demands. Chanyeol wondered who the person he was looking for was, if he cared for him to the point of requesting help from his own captor. Maybe the little boy had lost a lover. “Help you? You are requesting this for me when you are a prisoner. The city is dangerous, this is not my problem and your mermaid soldier is probably elsewhere or dead. Everything’s full of bounty hunters. Why should I even risk my neck for this?”
He had thought Baekhyun would throw a fit again, turning angry and flustered and calling him a monster, but he did not. He simply nodded and walked across the room until he was facing him, with the old pair of pants still in his hands and dirty strands of silvery hair falling over his eyes.
“I know my place,” he said. “Don’t you think I have forgotten. I am your prisoner, and will keep being your prisoner no matter if you help me or not, but… I’ll beg this once. Finding him is more important than whatever happens to me. So I’ve decided. Help me do this and I’ll be yours.”
Chanyeol blinked, taken by surprise. “Mine?”
“You want my tears? I’ll cry for you. I’ll be your slave. I’ll let you fuck me if that’s what you want but please, help me find him and send him back to the shoal before the codes change.”
The nerve he had, Chanyeol thought. It should be commendable, in a way, to be so driven about something. Not that he would know, or had ever cared. “Well, that’s tempting,” he whispered, reaching out to brush Baekhyun’s cheek with his fingers. The boy was waiting, determined and still as a doll, breath a bit too shallow for him to be as collected as he seemed, and Chanyeol chuckled, shaking his head. “Don’t be stupid, fishboy. You are in no position to negotiate. Besides, we don’t have time for this now - we are leaving this place tonight.”
That had been his objective in the first place: pack whatever was useful and leave that part of town for a while. They had to be quick and discreet, and Baekhyun’s silvery white hair was a problem. He thought he still had the boy’s ugly grey cloak, and turned to his closet to look for it.
“Put those pants on,” he instructed. “Get your boots too. I don’t have anything to take care of that wound on your leg here but it’s not bleeding anymore so it’ll have to do for now.” He had some extra weapons in his closet and that was the only thing he bothered taking out, along with a couple of shirts and pants and all the coin he had. “Are you going to try to run away again if I don’t tie you up?”
“No.” Baekhyun was finishing to struggle with his footwear when he looked at him. “You haven’t exactly said no to me, right? So I’ll behave.”
“I haven’t said yes either.”
“Well, I am keeping my hopes up.”
The cheap fabric of the cloak was rough against his fingers when Chanyeol draped it over Baekhyun’s shoulders, securing the fastener over his collarbones and concealing his head under the hood.
“Pushy,” he whispered. He could had sworn that Baekhyun was rolling his eyes at him from under his hood. When did he learn to do that? “Come on.”
After one last resigned look to his old, good attic, Chanyeol led the way out, rushing down the stairs with a silent Baekhyun in tow. True to his word, he didn’t try to run, remaining at his side and strangely reminiscent of the first time he had seen him, hidden under his cape with his back straight and his head high.
“What now?” he asked.
“Over here,” Chanyeol whispered after a second. “Someone’s coming.”
Baekhyun nodded and followed him into the closest alley, slightly limping like he always did, but steadier than before, his pace clumsy but regular. He would learn to walk properly, after more days, if he kept spending his sleepless nights practicing like he had been.
“Who is it?” he whispered, hidden behind Chanyeol as he checked the main street from the shadows.
“Guess who,” he muttered in reply. The girl who had ran away from him, dirty, tiny and with her dark eyes rimmed with kohl, was walking down the street with two men, both of them very armed and not exactly friendly looking. “She probably followed us here when we came back, and now she’s back with reinforcements. How nice of her.”
“Do you think she knows who you are?”
“I don’t think so. She is a foreigner.” Chanyeol watched the group enter his building in silence, and then gestured for Baekhyun to follow him and started striding down the alley. The mist was thickening now, it would had covered the streets in less than an hour. “She would have brought more than two men if she knew who I was.”
Baekhyun snorted behind him. “How cocky.”
“Says the one who was begging for my help ten minutes ago. Besides, I am famous. Or… Well, maybe I am more on the infamous side. Either way,” Chanyeol sighed. “I have no idea about what to do with ourselves now. I can always go back to the headquarters of the Guild - the people I mostly work for, you know? But it’s not like I can sneak you in. I was thinking about asking Minseok at the tavern to hide us but… Too many people coming and going there.”
“What about your other friend?” asked Baekhyun. Chanyeol didn’t reply until they were walking down a wider street, far from the old docks and closer to the new ones, where the Sleeping Wolf was and the Guild controlled the streets. Kyungsoo would know that he had been walking around late at night, but it wasn’t like he could hide it if he planned to kill three people before dawn came.
“What friend?” he murmured, absently. “Jongdae?”
“Not that one. He looks more like a pain in the neck than like actual help. I meant the one with the shop.”
“Yixing?” Chanyeol would be lying if he said he hadn’t considered him, but the other man hated violence and didn’t exactly agree with his lifestyle. “He is a nice guy, but he usually keeps himself out of most undercity business. He has helped me a couple of times and he heals me when I’m hurt and all, but I wouldn’t like him to get involved. I don’t think he would like that.”
“But,” Baekhyun whispered behind him, “he is already involved. He knows about me.”
Chanyeol stopped walking abruptly, then turned around. “What,” he said, eyes wide. Baekhyun simply pointed at his left wrist, to the place under his shirt sleeve where he had a silvery, glistening scale.
“He knew about me from the start,” he repeated. “In fact… Well, he was the one who gave me the dagger I had before.”
Yixing. The man who had let him sleep at his shop when he was a child, and who spent more of his days half searching for trash to sell in the beach and half spacing out. Chanyeol had always assumed that there was more to him than what he let everyone see, but to that extent? He blinked like an idiot, too dumbfounded to even be properly angry. Yixing had given Baekhyun a dagger to kill him?
“That bastard!” he muttered. “I thought he liked me!”
“He said you were something like his friend, and also a good person. If that helps.”
“Oh, wow, Chanyeol is such a good boy! Let’s stab him to death!” Chanyeol shook his head. “I know he is kind of crazy, but where is the logic in that?”
“I don’t know, but he knew about me and didn’t try to, well...” Baekhyun gestured around, at the empty street behind him, as if trying to prove a point. “He seemed good enough. Also close to you, right? Why don’t we go to him?”
It was not what he would have chosen, given more chances, but it was not as if Chanyeol had a wide range of options to choose from. He was with Baekhyun, with all his belongings on him in the middle of a misty street. All those years trying to position himself at the top of the food chain and there he was, listening to safety advice from the most unlikely person ever.
“Aren’t you helpful, all of a sudden,” he said, but Baekhyun just huffed.
“I am trying to be helpful. And now stop being a pig-headed idiot and trust me for five seconds, would you?”
Chanyeol couldn’t help but smile. “Like hell I am trusting you, fishboy, but if you want a truce you’ll have it,” he gave in. “So okay, you win, Yixing will have to do.”
It was almost dawn when Chanyeol arrived to Yixing’s shop for the second time that night.
As Baekhyun had said, he already knew what he has when both of them had arrived at his doorstep hours ago. “Someone discovered I am merfolk,” the boy had explained as soon as they had been safe in the messy main room of Yixing’s store, before Chanyeol had the time to say anything else. “We were being chased and didn’t have anywhere else to go. I am sorry to be bothering you.”
Yixing’s gaze had travelled from Baekhyun’s pleading expression to Chanyeol’s cautious one, then back to Baekhyun once more. “Is this okay?” he had asked, surprisingly lucid. Chanyeol had felt kind of aggravated - Yixing should be talking to him; he was the one running away after all, he was the captor there - but he had let it pass with a sigh as soon as Baekhyun had nodded.
“I take it that you’ll have to lay low for a while,” Yixing had conceded. “You can stay in my guest room and keep me company. I live by myself and home feels empty sometimes, with no one to speak to. I’ll get everything ready.”
He sounded absent again, like an oblivious old man talking about inviting his sons for a holiday. Chanyeol hadn’t been entirely convinced about letting Baekhyun there alone with him, but he still had the girl and her minions to hunt that night and that had been the less of two evils.
“I have some business to take care of. I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” he had said before going out. “Baekhyun’s hurt, by the way. Can you take a look at his leg? His feet too. He’s been walking around too much, and he doesn’t seem exactly used, you know?”
The last thing he had seen before closing the door behind him had seen Baekhyun’s startled expression, his eyes wide and dark on his pale face. He had pretty eyes, he had thought, as he went back to the streets by the old docks, daggers in his belt and inside his boots, and loaded revolver in hand.
What remained of the night had been long and tiring. The woman and his minions hadn’t known the city well enough to hide from him for long, and hadn’t been hard to kill. He had had to make them speak, however, just to make sure they were alone and that no one else knew about Baekhyun. That was the part he hated the most about his job - the missions he rejected practically always included questioning. It couldn’t be avoided sometimes, but it was… unpleasant. It made him wonder, too, how his own end would be. Maybe he’d manage to live long enough to leave the streets one day - or maybe his corpse would be the next one to be thrown to the sea, buried in a watery grave where no one would ever find him.
Not that he would be that missed if he was to be gone, but god he hated the ocean.
His business done, the blood washed from his hands and knives, he walked back to Yixing’s store. He felt so tired, deep down, an exhaustion that ran deep in his bones, always under the surface but, considering how the sky had started to lighten and the mist was steadily fading, he guessed he wouldn’t have much time left to sleep that night.
The shop was silent when he walked in, but Yixing was still in the main room, scribbling something onto an old piece of parchment with a big, tousled, magenta-colored quill.
“Where did you get that thing from?” he asked, making a face.
“This? It was a present from a customer. Do you want one too?”
“No, not my style of thing.” Chanyeol grimaced. Most people in the undercity kept the color pattern of their belongings in dirty white, brownish and black. “I don’t really keep things I can’t use.”
“But you know how to write, don’t you?”
“We all know many things here,” replied Chanyeol with a sigh, eyeing around the room. Baekhyun was nowhere to be found, though the dirty rags he had been wearing wrapped around his feet were piled in a heap on the counter. “Did you say you were going to prepare a room for us?”
“Of course. I am lending my guest room to you two, in the attic. You can stay there until the coast is clear. No one will find you.”
“Great. Is Baekhyun there?”
“He was, last time I checked. I cleaned his wounds. The one in his leg wasn’t deep, and I disinfected the blisters and wounds on his feet. It will have to do. We’ll need to check on those ones, but he’ll be okay.”
Chanyeol held back a yawn. “Glad to hear it. Now, if you can tell me where my room is? I assume up the stairs. I’ve only been in the main floor of your house.”
“Oh, it is. You only need to take the stairs and go up until the top,” Yixing practically chirped. “But before you go, I’ve got a question.”
Chanyeol had been already walking to the stairs, but turned on his heels to look at the other man. He was still leaning on the counter, a splotch of violet ink on his cheek and the hideous magenta quill in his hand. “Go on.”
“The last time he was here, that child left with a dagger to kill you, and now he came back willingly. There was a dispute between you two, so I’m guessing you solved it?”
“More or… less, I suppose? Thank you for the dagger, by the way. In case you’re wondering, he tried to stab the hell out of me.”
“Is that so.” Yixing tilted his head. “So then I assume you two aren’t sleeping together.”
Chanyeol blinked. “What.”
“He’s been limping all night,” replied Yixing, very matter of factly. Now, that was unbelievable.
“Wait, wait, wait. If he is limping it is because he is not precisely skillful at walking, not because I… What’s wrong with all of you? Jongdae also thinks I’m fucking him.”
“I was just asking because I am very sensitive to noise. The walls are thin, I need to know if I need to wear earplugs.”
“Forget about the earplugs, you don’t need that at all!” Chanyeol protested. “He is my prisoner, not… whatever you think he is.”
“Ah, that’s nice, but about the prisoner thing,” Yixing added then, leaving the pink quill on the counter. “I suppose I do not need to tell you, Chanyeol, but I won’t allow chains in my house. The same way I won’t allow any of my guests to sleep on the floor.”
The chain he had bought wasn’t even with him anymore - it had been too heavy to carry, too inconvenient when he had to take only what he needed - but he threw a lopsided grin to Yixing anyway.
“So I see you’ve been having a little chat with Baekhyun about my flaws as a host,” he commented, more amused than actually angry. “I take my part of the blame for the chain but fishboy was the one who insisted in sleeping on the floor. Aren’t you going to scold him too?”
“I’ll kick you out,” warned Yixing, all fatherly and serious, and somehow cute. It reminded him of his times there as a child, and Chanyeol laughed, feeling the exhaustion settle into his bones once more after all.
“No chains, no chains, well noted,” he ended up saying with a chuckle. “I’ll tell Baekhyun about that. I’m sure he’ll be overjoyed.”
The attic at Yixing’s house was a little narrower than the room at his own apartment had been, the ceiling lower and the floor even dustier. There were two windows, though, bigger than the ones in his room, directly over the narrow street the shop opened to. The room was bright enough for Chanyeol to see and he closed the door in silence. He had thought Baekhyun would be sleeping - that night had been a mess after all - but the boy was awake, his pale figure near one of the windows and outlined in the reds and golds of dawn.
“You’re back,” he said.
“Of course I am. Missing me already, fishboy?”
“Not really,” Baekhyun replied. “But I was waiting for you.”
“What for?” Chanyeol unfastened his weapon, not even bothering to pick it up when it fell to the floor with a loud clank. “I’ve spoken to Yixing, by the way. Guess what, he told me he’d threw me out if I let you sleep on the floor, so you’re sharing a bed with me starting tonight. This one is bigger than the one I had in my room, so well...”
“Okay,” whispered Baekhyun.
The boy was silent as he walked to him, the wooden floor creaking under his bandaged feet. Once again, he had removed his pants and boots and was clad in Chanyeol’s old shirt only, long enough to reach down to mid-thigh. He was still pale as moonlight, like he was made of the faint gleam of the stars, and that brief moment between night and dawn seemed to fit him the most, darkening his eyes to pitch but lining his hair in gold.
“Have you thought of what I told you?” he asked, looking unnaturally solemn. “My deal, my… conditions. Your help for my freedom. For my tears and me.”
“Ha. You really are saying this seriously.”
“Of course I am.”
And Chanyeol wouldn’t have admitted it, but of course he had thought about the offer. He had never liked to be told how to work - the only advantage of living in the undercity was that he had at least some freedom to get his way without following conditions, but he had to admit that Baekhyun’s deal was tempting. Maybe it would be easier to help him check that his merman soldier was dead than trying to get the boy to behave. He could treat this as another job after all, and the reward was better than most.
“Do you really promise to behave, if I do this?” he wanted to know.
“I told you, right? You help me and I help you, in every way I can. That includes me not running away.”
He was looking at him, Baekhyun, with an expression on his face that made him seem much more determined and much less of a spoiled child. Chanyeol sighed. Part of him was afraid of the mess he could be getting into, but that boy’s attempts had already costed him an apartment and three kills.
“Well then. Maybe I’ll regret it, but consider your stupid offer accepted. Now how do I know you’ll respect your own part?”
It took a moment for Baekhyun to register the words, to understand the meaning behind them. His expression changed when he did, from shock, to certainty, to something soft and sad that only lasted for the fraction of a second. “I’ll swear,” he said. He looked around, circling Chanyeol to walk towards his fallen weapon belt, crouching to take one of his daggers out of his sheath.
“What are you doing?” demanded Chanyeol as Baekhyun came back to stand before him once more, his expression unreadable.
“You wanted an oath, so I’m giving it to you.”
The light of the dawn bathed his arm in crimson when Baekhyun stretched his arm, keeping it extended, the sleeve of his shirt rolled up to the elbow. There was a single scale there, the first that Chanyeol had seen when he had met him, a tiny iridescent oval that glistened under the light, from silver to red and then gold, protruding from the skin. It was in the place where scale and flesh merged where Baekhyun sank the knife, slightly but mercilessly, furrowing his brow and biting his lip.
“Wait a second, what are you doing?” Chanyeol asked, more alarmed than he would have cared to admit.
Baekhyun didn’t listen, and didn’t stop. The tip of the blade was under the scale and he pulled, prying upward as if he was trying to break it from the skin. And it finally happened, with something similar to a creak - the scale had been torn from his flesh, and the place where it had been on his arm was slightly bleeding, and Baekhyun released the dagger with a pained keen and wrapped his fingers around him. Chanyeol could heard the metallic clatter of the blade when it hit the floor but he moved nonetheless, kicking it aside to stabilize Baekhyun by the shoulders.
“What the hell was that?” he whispered. Baekhyun pushed him aside and crouched on the floor once more to retrieve the fallen scale. He offered it to Chanyeol when he got up again, just as it was, one of its sides gleaming, the other rough and stained with red blood. It was as big as his thumb nail.
“Take it,” Baekhyun whispered, his expression solemn once more, his fingers shaking. “That scale is yours now, and you must keep it. I’ll bear that mark, in this form and in my other one. Torn scales don’t grow back, so I’ll have the scar as a reminder of my promise and you’ll keep a part of me as a sign of my vow. This is the old way, an oath of truth. This is how my people make promises.”
If there were words to reply, Chanyeol was unable to find them for a moment. So it seemed the boy before him, with his bloody arm and his silver hair, was a man of honor. And it was stupid, to sell his soul like this, in a place like the undercity, in a world he didn’t know, to a gutter child like Chanyeol was. But it was admirable in a sense, so different from what he usually saw that he kept the scale, pressing it against the palm of his hand before slipping it into the pocket of his shirt.
“That wasn’t necessary, don’t be an idiot,” he whispered, holding the boy’s arm to check that, effectively, the wound would probably leave a scar but at least it wasn’t deep.
The sun was almost up beyond the windows, and the night was over at last.
The sun was bright in the sky when Chanyeol woke up the next morning, his muscles still sore because of the lack of sleep but his mind more lucid than it had been in days. For a moment he blinked in surprise, still warm and relaxed under the sheets but tensing immediately when he didn’t recognize the white walls around him or the ceiling over his head.
“What the…” he whispered.
Something soft and hot moved beside him, pressing to his side with a faint sigh. Chanyeol turned his head on the pillows just in time to see Baekhyun’s face inches away from his, tousled silver hair almost colorless against his skin and lips parted in the ghost of a smile.
Ah, that’s right, he thought, shifting his own body to face the boy with a sigh. He remembered now: Baekhyun’s escape, the killings, Yixing’s house, the glistening scale he kept in his shirt pocket and the promise he had made. No wonder he looks so peaceful. He got what he wanted after all, didn’t he? The little bastard.
The boy muttered something intelligible, a hoarse murmur that sounded strangely close to a plea, and Chanyeol wondered for a second if merfolk dreamed too, if they also awoke smiling sometimes, or shaken by nightmares. Baekhyun seem to be turning restless now, his fingers clutching and unclutching on the sheets, his breath hitching.
“Hey, you,” whispered Chanyeol, placing a hand on his upper arm to shake him awake. “Fishboy. Wake up, it’s late.”
“Huh?” Baekhyun let out a warm puff of air, his eyes fluttering open. His eyelashes were of a dark, metallic grey, two shades darker than the hair framing his face. It was easy to study him like this, while his gaze was unfocused and his body still heavy with sleep. “My wrist hurts.”
Chanyeol had to stifle a laugh at that. “No wonder. You ripped a scale off your arm with a knife last night.”
“What?” Baekhyun repeated, all alarmed, as he sat up, the sheets tangled around his leg and feet. He was looking at his bandaged wrist now like it was the most bewildering thing in the world, so blatantly different from the boy who had made a vow to Chanyeol last night, with the light of the dawn on his hair and steel in his eyes, that it seemed almost impossible to believe that they were the same person.
“It was a pretty bad-ass move, you kind of impressed me, but it was obvious you were gonna be sore today after that.”
“I wasn’t really thinking how much it’d hurt. It’s something that my people do sometimes, to show loyalty to their shoals and all. I just never thought I would end up…” Baekhyun stopped himself mid-sentence to look at him, his bandaged hand now falling to his lap. “Hey, but I did impress you, huh? And you’re gonna help me.”
He actually looked proud about that. “You are still my prisoner, you know?”
“I do, but this is improvement. We made a deal, didn’t we? I feel that I am finally getting somewhere.”
“Hey, hey, don’t get so ahead of yourself. We haven’t even started yet.”
“I know that too, but at least we are going to do something. So, what’s the plan?”
It was not that Chanyeol hadn’t seen Baekhyun smile before - he did sometimes, when he was lost in thought, or sleeping, or looking at the sea through his old room window and didn’t realize he was being watched - but he had been unprepared to see him smile at him. There was an openness to the gesture he wasn’t used to, an honesty to it that was anything but common in the streets where he had grown. It had been years, he thought, since the last time he had been taken aback by something that simple.
“What?” Baekhyun asked, leaning over him, his expression guarded once more when he saw Chanyeol was not replying. “Don’t you even think that you can leave me here and do this all by yourself, you hear me? I am coming with you, wherever you go.”
“Of course you are, of course you are.” Chanyeol kind of wanted to do it so he reached out to absently touch one of the messy silver strands over the boy’s temple. “But we have to do something with this hair first. Given what has happened every time you’ve been out, I don’t think it would be a good idea to walk around with you looking like some kind of weird fairy.”
“The fault is of this city of yours.”
Baekhyun moved back, still kneeling in the mess of sheets, when Chanyeol sat up and smiled at him. “It is not that bad,” he told him, shrugging when the boy raised a grey, very skeptical eyebrow. “At least not all the time.”
Yixing had said the dye wouldn’t last in a hair like Baekhyun’s. “It is not exactly like yours. I can make it believably black for some hours but it won’t keep the color. It will have to be redone every day he wants to go out.”
They didn’t have any other options, besides the unpractical idea of having Baekhyun hide under a cloak again, so Chanyeol had decided to go by it. And it was weird, seeing the boy walk barely two steps away from where he was, in the middle of a crowded street in broad daylight and with his hair clean and as dark as his.
“Watch out where you’re going or you’ll trip over something,” he warned, more amused than concerned.
Baekhyun slowed down to walk at his side. “What is this place?”
With all the chaos surrounding his life lately, Chanyeol had kind of forgotten that it was market day that day. Every morning, the fishermen’s families would sell whatever catch they got at the sea, but on Sundays, people from the surrounding villages would also set up their stalls in that part of town, and the usually grey undercity would be filled with noise and life and color. It was true that the best products were offered in the upper town, to the people who could actually afford to pay for quality, but the chaotic bazaar in the suburbs had always had its charms, if one knew where to search. Chanyeol had always liked visiting it when he had nothing else to do, but avoided it when he was in the middle of a job. There were too many people early in the morning, too many distractions when you actually needed to get serious things done.
He almost felt lucky to had slept in, now. Part of the stalls had already been emptied out and the streets were crowded alright, but not to the point of discomfort.
“Welcome to the weekly market of the undercity!” he exclaimed, toothy grin on his lips. “Do you have markets where you come from?” Baekhyun pursed his lips, visibly hesitating. “It’s where we buy and sell stuff. Food, livestock, tools… Even weapons if you go to the shadiest stalls. Whatever you might want, they have it.”
“That’s weird,” Baekhyun mussed, looking at the clucking chickens inside a wooden crate like he had never seen anything so amazing in his whole existence. “So you use your gold coins to trade them for things here? Isn’t that messy?”
“Not really.” Chanyeol had been keeping an eye on Baekhyun, worried that - scale in his arm or not - the boy would disregard his oath and try to run, but that seemed to be the last thing on his mind. He looked just curious while they walked, very obviously trying (and failing) to hide his general bewilderment under his usual snobbish expression. “Don’t you buy and sell things?”
“Sometimes we trade with other clans but… Not like this? Usually the shoal provides, so there’s no need for us to show our things like this.”
“That shoal thing sounds really practical. Except when it comes to search for missing people. They suck at that, but for everything else...”
“Um. I suppose it is.”
“They feed you, they organize you, they dress you. Or… wait, do you wear clothes? I guess not. I’m starting to think you hate pants.”
“I do not hate pants,” replied Baekhyun, looking outright offended. “I’m just not used. And they are itchy. But anyway, the shoal is what we are. Every single one of is a part of it, so...”
They were starting to leave the marketplace behind, the streets getting less crowded and narrowing by the second. The Guild headquarters were close now, not far away from the docks, and Chanyeol wasn’t exactly looking forward to talk to Kyungsoo that day. He stopped for a moment when the old building was in sight, crossing his arms over his chest and thinking.
“Baekhyun,” he called after a while, and the boy turned to him, slightly startled. He remembered thinking he had a pretty name, back when he had met him in the Sleeping Wolf. “You are going to meet someone who is not particularly pleasant. So please try to act very humble and don’t glare at him. Just go with the flow and play along?”
He resumed his way before Baekhyun could complain, plastering his best smile on his face as soon as he reached the front door. The common room was full that day, with shabby kids playing cards and dice, and sleeping on lumps of blankets on the floor. Quite the lovely place, his childhood home. He didn’t know if Jongdae was currently there, but it wasn’t long until he saw him, walking down the stairs with a furrowed brow.
“Yeol?” he called. “Kyungsoo saw you coming. He said he wanted to see you, and I wouldn’t say he looked happy when he told me to fetch you. What have you done, exactly? And why is he here?” he added, pointing to Baekhyun. “Last time I checked, he wasn’t a Guild member.”
“Him? Maybe he has thought about it and wants to join. But then is Kyungsoo already waiting for me in his office? That’s convenient.”
“You’re out of your mind.”
“You know I can handle our leader.”
The eye roll Jongdae gave him was everything but encouraging, but Chanyeol was already used to ignoring his friend every time he complained, so he proceeded to do so once more. Baekhyun was a silent presence behind him as he went up to the uppermost floor, his footsteps just barely irregular on the steps. The door of Kyungsoo’s office was closed but he barely stopped to knock, pushing it open before his boss could reply from the other side.
He technically had a favor to ask, sort of, but Kyungsoo was the type to get suspicious when people were too nice or tried to please him, so he was assuming his best option would be being his usual self.
“Good afternoon here,” he practically sing songed, stomping into the room and smiling so wide that most probably half of his teeth were visible from Kyungsoo’s position. “I heard from Jongdae that you were looking for me? Which is great, because I just came to see you.”
The other boy was sitting behind his worn desk, practically buried under a pile of handwritten documents. The whole wooden surface was covered in paper and parchment but still he had managed to keep a semblance of order - what looked like letters were on one side, while wide pale yellow sheets filled with numbers were stacked up on the other. Kyungsoo had been writing something with pristine calligraphy in what awfully looked like an accounting record, but his head snapped up as soon as he heard the door open, and he scowled.
“Chanyeol,” he said, his tone neutral. He had been wearing his reading spectacles, round and big and framed in thin coppery metal, but he took them off, rubbing the bridge of his nose with two fingers before pointing at Baekhyun. “Who is this?”
“Ah, him? He’s my new closest friend. Don’t mind him, he’s helping me with some stuff.”
“And you bring him here?”
“Why not? He’s not from town. I was just showing him around.”
Baekhyun took a step forward, all demure and polite when he bowed his head. “Pleased to meet you,” he said. If he was even slightly surprised about Chanyeol’s infamous boss being a pocket-sized, angry thing with big, owlish eyes, he didn’t let it show. And thank god, Kyungsoo was too distracted being angry at him to pay him any attention.
“Chanyeol,” he said. “I thought I warned you.”
“Ah? About what? Not doing my job? Being lazy? You’ve been warning me about those things since I came back from my last job, I don’t even know which one you are talking about anymore. You should be mo--”
“I am talking about the most important rule for Guild members: not drawing attention,” Kyungsoo interrupted without even raising his voice.
“Oh, come on, I am stealthy as a shadow.”
“Care to explain, then, why were you being chased by foreign bounty hunters last night?”
Damned Kyungsoo and his Guild spies. He had expected him to know sooner or later - to kill and dispose of three people wasn’t that easy to hide anyway, and he’d been in a rush - but he had counted on having more than one day to think of a convenient excuse. If squeezing information out of someone as stingy as Kyungsoo had been a troublesome mission from the start, he was going to need to play his cards well now that he was upset.
“Hey, my private life has always been very exciting,” he tried anyway.
“And I would not have any problem about keeping those exciting issues private if it wasn’t because you killed three sellswords when the whole suburbs are a mess because of this whole mermaid hunt thing. Do you follow me?”
Shit. If Kyungsoo already had known about the scales on Baekhyun’s legs, Chanyeol was certain that neither of them would be peacefully standing on his office by now - he wasn’t one for subtlety, that boy, which basically meant that he would have received Chanyeol with a knife in the guts for hiding information and sold Baekhyun to Lord Choi to get the reward. Well, he’ll get a mermaid conversation if that’s what he wants. In for a penny, in for a pound, anyway.
“How could I not follow,” he said, walking to Kyungsoo’s desk and placing his hands in the very organized surface. “You see, I came here to talk about this.”
“Your notorious adventures at night?”
“Nope. I just wanted you to know that I am joining the mermaid hunt.”
Behind him, Baekhyun stifled a gasp. Kyungsoo said nothing. That could mean good news or could be horribly, awfully disastrous. Chanyeol hoped it wouldn’t be the second option.
“You were the one who told me I was losing my time by being lazy and unemployed, so I found myself a job,” he explained. He had always been good in creative lying, and the best lies were had always been the ones shaped from some sort of truth. “Have you heard how much Lord Choi is offering? We could buy a new Guild house in the upper town with that.”
“Do you think we have time for that, Chanyeol? I thought you have given up your mermaid dreams when you were sixteen.”
“Sorry to disappoint but you thought wrong. I am a child at heart. And I love money,” the boy replied. “And about time, maybe you are busy with really interesting things like… accounting or whatever it is you’re doing, but I’ve got nothing to do and I’m bored. So why the hell not?”
Kyungsoo took a heavy, slow breath. “Because it is a policy to focus on profitable work and you won’t get a penny from Lord Choi if you don’t bring him a mermaid.”
“Oh, but I have my leads.”
“Of course I will.” And of course he didn’t have the slightest idea about what to do to grant himself the results he wanted, so he went with the flow. Baekhyun had remained silent, watching the scene unfold from one corner of the room, and he just walked to him brought him to the front, an arm around his shoulders. “Meet my mermaid expert, here.”
Baekhyun stiffened under his contact, his eyes widening in alarm when he looked at Chanyeol and only found a smile on his face. “What? I am not--” he started.
“He has come all the way from the north to hunt a mermaid for Lord Choi, and I have partnered with him to get one. We’ll have to share the earnings, of course, but there’s still a lot for you in this.”
“You are not going to find anything.”
“And then you’ll lose nothing and you will had kept me busy. Win-win for you, boss.”
“Why are you even remotely interested in losing your time like this?”
“Reasons.” Chanyeol lowered his voice to a whispered purr on Baekhyun’s ear but his gaze remained fixed on Kyungsoo’s eyes, lips curling upward when he saw them darken. “Late night tavern conversations sometimes take interesting turns. Don’t let him fool you, he’s actually pretty fiery when he wants to be. If there’s a mermaid, we’ll find it.”
“I should have known you were up to no good,” Kyungsoo muttered under his breath, his fingers rhythmically tapping on the surface of his desk. “Listen to me. I won’t have you playing around under the Guild’s name. Kris and his men are involved in the mermaid hunt as well.”
“Kris and his men are getting cocky. They were in the Sleeping Wolf the other day. Guild territory, you know, in broad daylight.” Baekhyun was warm against him, head slightly turned towards him and fingers of one hand gripping the fabric of Chanyeol’s shirt. His breath hitched when the other boy finally released him. “So what? I am still the best you have. You know I don’t fool around - I only join the game if I think I can win. So will you trust me?”
Kyungsoo deadpanned. “No.”
“But I will let you be, for now. Do whatever you want.”
He had him. He had done it. He still had it in him to make Kyungsoo cooperate. It was good to know that he wouldn’t die today, but there still was the favor that Chanyeol had come there to get left to request. “It’s good to have your permission, boss, but I meant to ask. Do you know what Kris has been up to? Exactly? Who he has been asking, or where, or what for.”
“I thought you had your own lead to follow.”
“I do, but I wouldn’t like to run into him and not knowing what I’m up against.”
Kyungsoo placed his spectacles on his nose again, focusing his attention in the bind documents before him. He found a pleasure in making people wait and Chanyeol just stood up silently, expression calm but fingers tingling with anticipation. “Kris is working for Lord Choi, as is everyone else,” his leader finally said, in a low, monotonous voice, not even looking at him. “You know what it is being said: milord had, or knew of a mermaid, but he lost it, and now is offering a lot of coin to get it back. Most of the bounty hunters and sellswords trying to get his money are idiots who think this is going to be easy money, but Kris… He is a renowned black market dealer, is he not? And from what I know, he has been moving around the black market, looking for goods to buy.”
“Slaves. Certain types of them. We are not in the business of human trade, and it is too much of an inconvenient field for me to join, so I am not that well informed, but from what I know, he is not interested in the usual merchandise the slavists have for sale. He has special preferences to meet.”
“And those are…?”
“I do not know, and I am not planning on asking. I can tell you, however, that Kris has had dealings with Oh Sehun. Perhaps you should go ask him.”
“Perhaps I will.” Chanyeol nodded. He knew the name, and that wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. “Thanks for the info, boss.”
“I hope this brings results,” replied Kyungsoo. He finally raised his head to look at him, his expression stoic like an angry child’s, his eyes lightless as a monster’s. “And, Chanyeol? I am allowing this foolishness, but I won’t be sending any men to help you if you get in trouble. You are part of the Guild, but the Guild won’t be an active part of this. Do you understand?”
The boy would had punched in the face, if only to see his expression shift. Determined Kyungsoo had always been the scariest one. But he just smiled instead, putting his arm around Baekhyun’s shoulders once more. “Of course I understand,” he says. “It means we do share the money, but we are out on our own.”
“Was it that necessary to put on a show?” Baekhyun asked when they got out.
He had actually listened to his advice and been quiet in Kyungsoo’s presence, but it hadn’t taken him long to return to his usual self, walking with his head all high and his shoulders stiff. Chanyeol was glad everything had gone according to plan - better, even - but part of him had missed the rebellious side of Baekhyun back in the Guild building. Silent Baekhyun was conveniently cooperative, but his snobbish side would had given Kyungsoo an aneurysm, and the mental image was making him snicker.
“Do you want something to eat?” he asked when they passed by one of the stalls in the market. Most of the food that was offered in the undercity was, of course, fish, but he was smelling fried chicken now, and nobody in their sane mind said no to fried chicken.
“Stop ignoring me.”
“I am not.” Chanyeol searched inside his pockets for extra coin, and handed some copper pieces to the woman behind the stall in exchange for two crumpled butcher paper cones, filled with greasy chicken pieces. “I am just feeding you. Consider it a way to blend in our culture. That is high-class food around here.”
“What is it?” murmured Baekhyun when they resumed walking, looking at the meat inside the paper wrap with undisguised suspicion.
“Chicken. You know, those noisy birds that people were selling around the market. The ones in crates all around?”
“Oh, that,” the boy sniffed the contents of his bag like some kind of tiny, wary animal while Chanyeol attacked his own portion.
“I’m not trying to poison you, you know,” he said, mouth full. “I wouldn’t have risked my own neck and gone to see Kyungsoo if my intention was killing you with toxic chicken after the meeting. Believe me, not worthy.”
Still, Baekhyun didn’t try the meat, both hands holding the package as he walked. “About that,” he started again in his most petulant tone. “Was all the show really necessary?”
“Implying things to your boss. Telling him I’m fiery.”
“You have the fieriest temper I’ve seen in years.”
“You know that’s not what you meant,” protested Baekhyun. As if trying to prove his point, he took a piece of chicken and bit on it almost furiously. His complaint would have probably sounded much more serious if he hadn’t ended his display with a muffled, appreciative groan.
“Told you you would like that thing. It’s the best we have around,” Chanyeol said. “And about the other stuff, it’s a tactical move. Don’t get all offended on me now, you’re the one who took it all much further, both getting into my bed and offering yourself as some kind of prize for mission completion. How come you care so much about what someone like Kyungsoo thinks after disregarding my feelings like that?”
Baekhyun huffed in annoyment. “I told you you could have me, not act as if you had claimed me,” he replied, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “That’s only reserved for the people who deserve it.”
They had left the crowded side of the undercity now, venturing into the maze of crooked streets that were the poorest districts. Baekhyun’s hair was still pitch-black - Chanyeol personally preferred silver on him, but he still looked so pretty and so out of place like that, with the complexion of a noble kid, the face of a doll and his fingers stained in grease and oil.
“So basically you’re telling me that I can actually take you to one of these empty alleys around here and bend you over somewhere but I can’t lie to Kyungsoo about our relationship status. Is that a mermaid thing? You fishpeople are weird.”
“I, just-- what?” Baekhyun stopped right where he was, cheeks flushed pink and mouth open. “You haven’t even touched me. I mean, not after I-- You haven’t,” he said, and he sounded almost offended. “Why would you lie to your leader about a thing like that?”
“Tactical decision, I told you,” replied Chanyeol, signaling the boy to move on. He lowered his voice when Baekhyun reached him, whispering as it was a secret despite knowing no one would listen in that part of town anyway. “It kills two birds with one stone. Or an entire flock of them, to be honest. It explains why we are living together to anyone who might wonder. Or why I am suddenly joining all this mermaid frenzy when I wasn’t interested before. Obviously, I met you when I was drunk as hell in the tavern and I’ve been swept off my feet by your charm. Probably Kyungsoo thinks I’m doing all this to please you. And most thugs in the undercity wouldn’t try to rob you or assault you, either, if word spreads. It would mean messing with me, indirectly, and not to brag but you know how good I am at shooting at people between the eyes.”
“So you had it all thought from the start?”
“Me? I didn’t have the slightest idea about what to say, but I am a man of many talents and I’m especially good at improvising. Didn’t I tell you? Go with the flow. It seemed believable enough, and Kyungsoo bought it. He gave us a clue to start from, too. That was such a productive visit, at least I feared for my life for a reason.”
“What about that lead you told him you had?”
“The biggest bluff of the century.”
They were reaching Yixing’s store now, the front door open to the public as always. Baekhyun went in first, grimacing a bit when he had to flex his ankle to set his foot on the first step of the entry stairs, and Chanyeol followed without a word. As expected, there was no one in the main room but Yixing, who seemed very busy lining all the spyglasses he had for sale by size. He had a tiny, coppery one in his right hand and he placed it in one corner of its shelf almost reverently.
“Hello there,” greeted Chanyeol. “How’s the business going?”
“I sold a compass.” Yixing had been standing in one of the upper steps of a wooden ladder, perched in place like a bird. He descended slowly, cleaning his hands in the apron he was wearing when he reached the floor and smiled at his organized spyglass collection with fondness. “It was a good one, almost new.”
“How awesome.” Chanyeol had always wondered how Yixing managed to make an income. Of course he had things to hide, but he was also in his shop all the time. “I also have good news. I went to see Kyungsoo and he didn’t behead me.”
“Oh, how nice of him.”
“He knew I had to run last night, though, and he isn’t happy.”
“Poor boy. He is so grumpy sometimes.”
“He is grumpy all the time, but he gave us a clue.” Chanyeol had taken his time to inform Yixing that morning about everything that was going on, and the other man had offered his help in everything that wasn’t directly related to the act of keeping prisoners. He had felt completely judged when he was explaining his situation, but he wasn’t in a position that allowed him to reject any kind of assistance. Even if it came from the guy who had given Baekhyun a dagger to stab him. “He confirmed that Lord Choi is kind of… looking for a missing mermaid, and that Kris and his minions are hired to search for anything fishpeople related.”
“Is that so…”
“But that’s good news, right? It can be good news,” Baekhyun chimed in. “If that Dryskin found one of my people and he lost them… It could be the person I am looking for. He could be in hiding.”
Chanyeol clicked his tongue. “But I told you. If that’s the case and he’s around, he is in deep trouble. With all those sellswords looking for him and all, you know. If he’s remotely as clueless as you were, they’ll find him. Maybe they have, already.”
The counter was empty that day, and Baekhyun used that chance to pull himself up and sit on it, bringing his fingers to the laces keeping his boots closed. He undid them with nimble fingers, letting the boots fall down with a relieved sigh.
“Most merfolk are not like me!” he protested. “I was intended to stay with my shoal so I was never instructed in the Dryskin world, beyond the basics we all know. Soldiers usually don’t go ashore because they don’t blend in as well as other of us do, physically speaking, but they all receive training. They can walk, and fight, and hide. There’s still a chance he’s safe.”
“Well, if you’re so convinced… We only have a lead to follow, so we better find something there or we’ll be back to step one,” said Chanyeol.
“Ah, but do you have a plan?” Yixing asked. “What are you thinking?”
The boy shook his head. “We don’t even know where to start searching for a missing merman in a city this big. It’s the same problem all those foreign bounty hunters have. We would be in advantage if our fishpeople representative here had any kind of idea about where his little friend could be hiding, if he’s alive but, alas, we don’t have that kind of luck. So we’ll have to start from what we do know. Lord Choi, who had a mermaid and lost it. And his little henchman Kris, who looks very interested in finding it back.”
“Wait, are you going to investigate milord?”
“What? No, not really. He’s the one paying everyone and he’s hidden in his dollhouse in the upper city. I can’t just go there and ask him, now can I? There’s no way I’ll get something out of him if I don’t know what to look for.”
“We don’t have the man but we have his minion. Kris, who is looking for certain things in very nasty places. And, we got the name of his main dealer from Kyungsoo. Whatever they are doing or searching for, a great deal of it starts with that person. Oh Sehun, he’s called, and we know where to find him. So prepare,” he told Baekhyun. “We are going to the black market.”
If there was one part of the capital Chanyeol didn’t like, it was the abandoned loading dock district. From what he knew, that section of town had been bustling with life once, before all the factories were built in the outskirts of town and new shipping docks had been constructed closer to their location. Chanyeol didn’t know how much time it usually took for a successful, cheery neighborhood to crumble into ruins, but whatever spirit it could have had already been long gone when he had arrived on the city for the first time.
Most of the buildings in the streets were still standing - taverns, inns, shops and storehouses, with tall windows, balconies once painted in white and the typical reddish brick walls of the capital - but all of them were empty and lifeless, roofs crumbled into piles of moss-covered tiles and mortar on the floor, doors long gone and rooms empty.
“This place is kind of scary,” said Baekhyun. His voice had been barely a whisper, but it seemed to boom throughout the deserted street, reverberating until it disappeared among the first tendrils of mist. “It gives me a weird feeling.”
“You’re not alone in that, believe me.”
The first thing Chanyeol noticed every time he set foot in those streets was the silence, a heavy, stifling presence that wrapped around your body like an immaterial shroud, constraining you to silence. The worst part wasn’t the quietness, but the total absence of life - the eerie sensation of standing in the middle of a ghost town, somewhere suspended in time and space where your own heartbeat didn’t belong.
They called that district Terminus. Hell inside hell, the place that not even an undercity king like Kyungsoo wanted to try to control. The biggest black market opened in the center of those streets, one time a week when the night fell. Chanyeol knew the place but didn’t even remember the last time he had been there without being specifically paid for it. In advance and in cash.
“I still don’t understand why the city council hasn’t already demolished this place. It’s obvious nothing good ever happens here,” said a voice to his right.
Calling Jongdae and inviting him to join them has been kind of a last hour decision. Chanyeol had always been more of a solo worker, but he had had almost five days to think since he visited Kyungsoo, and had finally come to conclude that, no matter how skilled he was at defending himself, walking into the black market alone with a merboy in disguise wouldn’t be the wisest of ideas.
Not that his friend was the deadliest of warriors, but he was the only one in the Guild who cared for him enough to tag along after Kyungsoo had told Chanyeol that he was on his own.
“They could, but I bet they wouldn’t. Too close to the poorer districts for their taste. What would they build here anyway?”
“I don’t know. Bars? Everyone loves bars.”
“Are you two coming?”
Baekhyun’s figure was silhouetted on the mist, small and dressed in black over the whites and greys of the fog. His hair was dyed dark again, falling over his eyes every time he moved. He looked like a tiny apparition in the middle of a wasteland.
“Why are you leading the way if you don’t know where you’re going?” Chanyeol called to him, laughing when the boy just shrugged.
“This place reminds me to a shipwreck. It’s so empty. I was just looking around.”
“And what if someone tries to attack you again?”
“Like you would let me wander if that was going to happen.” Baekhyun moved a couple of steps back, letting out a startled yelp when he stumbled over a fallen, broken brick, losing his balance for a moment. He had been practicing his walking abilities, following Chanyeol all around those days, and his clumsiness was almost completely gone, though he made a face that time, when he placed his foot on steady ground again. “Everything is so dirty here. Why are there always things on the floor?”
“Because this place is in ruins. What were you expecting?”
“I don’t know, you said we were going to a market. And this doesn’t look like the other one at all.”
“That is because it’s certainly not the same kind of market,” Chanyeol explained, snickering. His laughter, even if faint, sounded almost strident over the quietness and the fog, so he forced himself to relax and focus. When he tore his gaze away from Baekhyun he realized Jongdae was looking at him, expression thoughtful. “What?”
“Aren’t you being too soft on him?” he whispered.
Chanyeol wondered. “He’s not that bad when you get used to him feeling superior to you all the time. We’ve gotten ourselves a deal. It’s much simpler this way.”
“You’ll know best, I am not judging,” replied Jongdae, looking exactly as he would if he was judging him to infinity and back. “But I am your partner in crime and also want my share of pearly tears. I’m risking my ass for you, my friend, so I still want my little, cute house in the upper districts. Neither Kyungsoo nor Kris will find me there when they come at us for disobeying or sticking our nose in their business. Whatever happens first.”
“As you wish. You know I am always very generous,” Chanyeol stated, and his friend shrugged but didn’t reply, keeping quiet as he walked down the road at his side.
They were reaching the end of the street now, and faint sounds started to be carried towards them over the silence - the faint murmur of voices, the rattle of chains, and wooden wheels on the floor. The sun was almost completely gone now, and the oranges and crimsons of the twilight were almost completely dissolved in blackness. As opposed to the undercity, there had been street lamps installed in that district years ago, and what remained of lampposts was still there, the metal supports rusty, some of them bent, and the glass gas lanterns atop of them lightless and broken.
The sky was clear, however, without a single trace of clouds, allowing them to see well enough, and to distinguish the reddish flicker of flame burning at the end of their way when they turned at a corner.
The torches of the Terminus black market. They were arriving.
“Baekhyun,” warned Chanyeol. “Stay close to me now. We’re here.”
“I told you you wouldn’t let me wander on my own, see?” the boy mumbled, between a joke and a complaint, but obeyed anyway, regarding Chanyeol with eyes as black as the night sky. “I am not going to like this place, huh?”
“I don’t think anyone does. Unless you work here or you have something to buy. And now, whatever you do, try not to stand out, okay?”
Baekhyun grinned at him before concealing his head under the hood of his cloak. He looked like a mischievous kid when he did that - pretty as starlight, the kind that meant trouble. “I’ve been watching you,” he told him, faint traces of snobbery still in his voice. “I’ve learned.”
He sounded certain, but Chanyeol wasn't so sure, so he kept an eye of him as they finally entered in the big plaza at the core of the district. The infamous black market, where you could buy anything you wanted as long as you had the money to pay.
The dealers there had always liked fire, and it was everywhere in the square - in metal torches nailed to the crumbling walls of the surrounding buildings, in the lamps hanging from the stalls and in the bonfires on the floor, casting the scenery in red and black shadows. It was fitting, Chanyeol had always thought. The flickering flames made all that place seem surreal, like the hallucinations that sailors claimed to see when they got lost at sea for months.
“Arrows! Poisonous arrows!” someone was announcing, murmuring in a creaky voice somewhere at their left when they passed by a stall covered with a yellow and black canopy. “No known antidote. Your victims will never know what destroyed them. It kills slowly, from the inside.”
“Rat livers,” said another voice. “Eyes of the kraken!”
“How charming,” muttered Jongdae. “That’s what I always wanted.”
“There aren’t even krakens in this part of the ocean,” complained Baekhyun in a whisper, sounding mildly outraged.
“Who knows, they could be imported,” Chanyeol replied, softly gripping the boy by the neck to urge him forward before he started glaring at the shopkeeper. “We need to get to the slave section while the dealers are still there. We shouldn’t waste much time here.”
Baekhyun flinched but he moved, looking around as he was guided into the depths of the Terminus market, to the shadier districts, farther from the ghostly streets and closer to the sea. There was a conglomerate of abandoned warehouses near to the old loading docks, colossal buildings that had been used to stock the goods imported and exported from the capital. With the new docks finished, they had fallen into disuse, like the rest of that place, and had been eventually been taken over by the black market dealers, and they now handled other kind of merchandise.
A small crowd was already gathered between a gigantic, crackling bonfire and a wooden stage, where a thin, young man in a frock coat and a top hat was speaking, a wide smile almost splitting his face in two. He looked like the ringmaster of some kind of a macabre circus, from the red silk of his shirt and polished boots to the leather whip he had on one hand.
“And that was our fourth auction for the night,” he was saying when Chanyeol and the others reached the end of the crowd. “Superior goods, weren’t they? We only offer the finest quality, the best workforce for all your needs. Now, what more do we have in store, friends? Let’s see.”
Chanyeol turned to whisper to Jongdae. “I don’t know if Oh Sehun has already gone up to sell his stuff up there or not, but it would be easier to talk to him while everyone is distracted by the auction.”
“Do you want me to search for him around here, in case he’s done or not joining the fun today? He should be somewhere.”
“You go and we stay here?”
“Great for me. See you in ten minutes.”
“Please don’t get lost. You know I can’t stand this place.”
Jongdae laughed and disappeared among the crowd, his figure small and nimble. The people around them had been clapping at the ringmaster, who was bowing, satisfied. He looked foreign in his red and black fancy, clothes, more suited for a masquerade ball in one of the noble mansions of the upper city than that show in the ruins close to the sea.
“Let us continue!” he exclaimed, deceitfully cheerful. “It is that time of the month after all! And do you know what we have, for the next round? What you all want and no-one of you can find! Children of the sea. The only real mermaids you’ll find in all this market.”
Beside him, Baekhyun gasped and moved, as if he was about to step forward. Chanyeol groaned - he didn’t like the black market, he didn’t like slave auctions and, above all, the last thing he needed was that kind of bidding to happen the day he was bringing Baekhyun. The boy still seemed alarmed so he kept him still, sliding one hand under his cape to hold him by the waist. His skin radiated heat through the material of his shirt, and Chanyeol could feel the muscles shifting when he tensed, squirming a bit.
“Not your people,” he whispered in his ear, bending so no one else would hear. “Haven’t we mentioned this? It’s a scam.”
It took him a couple of seconds, but Baekhyun finally relaxed, back flush against his chest and a hand weakly closed against his wrist. He didn’t move until another men went up the stage, followed by a row of people dressed in rags.
Thin people, looking down. Ones visibly limping, others dragging their feet. There was a man with a malformed arm, his fingers fused in a grotesque lump, and a woman with red, big, welt-like marks on her legs. A boy and a girl walked hand in hand at the end of the line, their hair long and dirty and dark blue.
“They are getting better with that hair dye thing, huh?” muttered Chanyeol, more to himself than to Baekhyun, but the boy turned to look at him anyway, the hood slipping from his head and baring his face. His eyes were as big as saucers, filled with something between disgust and disbelief.
“Those are humans,” he said. “Chanyeol.”
The boy would have laughed. “I know. But this is what slave markets are for. There’s nothing we can do to help them.”
“It’s your people--” Baekhyun started, still looking at Chanyeol, but turned to the stage as soon as the ringmaster’s voice broke through the whispers and murmurs of the crowd, demanding their attention.
“Fine products we have today,” he said, walking from one side of the stage to the other. “Look at these two, wearing the malformations of the sea monsters. Fingers that look like fins, scales. And do not forget about this dear, lovely couple.” He stopped in front of the blue-haired kids. They looked young and frightened - and couldn’t be much older than fifteen. Brother and sister, probably. The ringmaster pointed at them with his whip, his smile still painfully wide. “Let’s start with them. Our pretty mermaid couple. Wouldn’t they be a lovely attraction for any tasteful establishment? That or, of course, you could buy them for your personal use. Together or separately. What do you say? How much do you offer?”
The stage was close enough for Chanyeol to make out the face of the girl, pale and big eyed, with full-trembling lips. By the way she was clutching the hand of the boy beside her, it was obvious that she did not want to be separated from him, not in a million years. And nonetheless, the crowd was moving and shouting, customers raising his hands, offering gold for one, or the other. It was easier to afford one than two, and Baekhyun gripped his wrist when, finally, the girl was sold for twenty pieces of gold to an old woman and the boy was given for fifteen to a masked man.
“Baekhyun,” whispered Chanyeol. “Let’s get out of here. We can wait for Jongdae somewhere else.”
The boy flinched when he spoke but remained still, face serious but livid, lips pressed in a thin, white line. The undercity was not a friendly place, and Baekhyun had spent weeks being too naive about it, but perhaps that was not the best way for him to learn how cruel that world could get.
“Baekhyun,” he insisted, but the boy’s eyes were fixed on the girl with the long, blue hair as she was dragged from the stage, and Chanyeol felt a pang of something, foreign and uncomfortable, deep in his chest. Baekhyun had been all curious before they reached that place, even if he had known that the place they were heading to was no good.
“Let’s move on to our next piece, ladies and gentlemen,” said the ringmaster then, stopping in front of the man with the deformed, webbed fingers. “Look at this one, with those horrible hands. He can’t conceal his true form, you see? His arms still look like the fins of a merman. The poor thing is not attractive, so I guess you won’t want him for entertainment but… what about medicine? Think about the ointments and creams you could make with those fins, and with the marrow of his bones even. All the gold you could get in this same market…”
With a rustle of fabric, Baekhyun slumped against his chest. It was a movement so faint that Chanyeol wouldn’t have felt it, hadn’t he been the person the other boy was leaning against. He didn’t even ask this time, just turned around and walked themselves out of the crowd, until the air around them was cool once more and the voice of the man in the frock coat was dull noise in the background.
“I am sorry you had to hear that,” he said. “The black market has never been a nice place.”
“They were selling that man to make ointments with his bones. Like the thing you put on your shoulder, but made of--” Baekhyun whispered, voice trembling. He looked like he was about to throw up. “You are doing that to your people. Thinking they are my people.”
“Don’t you know about the tales? Mermaid flesh is supposed to give eternal youth when eaten. Or… made into face cream, I suppose.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” muttered Baekhyun. “I have never heard of that. You Dryskins...”
“Most of us don’t believe in things like those. All of the slaves they sell… Nine out of ten go to pleasure houses,” Chanyeol explained, sighing when the boy slipped away from his contact, stepping back so his hand was no more around his waist. “I don’t like it either. That’s why the Guild, or me, don’t work with human trafficking. It’s too much.”
“Human,” repeated Baekhyun, flatly.
Chanyeol didn’t want to have to reply, so he just frowned. “Are you okay? You look sick.”
“I am fine. My feet hurt a bit, that’s all.” His face was still livid, the corner of his lips twitching, but he turned to look at him with a neutral, composed expression and dark, determined eyes. Chanyeol couldn’t help but admire him a bit for it - he had been a kid the first time he’d been there, days after dispatching some idiots who thought his scar was exotic enough for him to be sold on the stage, but he had been worse at stomaching the auctions. He hadn’t even lasted five minutes before he had to run. “I thought we had to wait there for that Oh Sehun person. So we knew if he went up the stage. We cannot afford to lose him, right?”
“I can see from where we are if he goes up or not. And at the moment he’s not there.”
“Good.” Baekhyun breathed through his nose, inhaling and exhaling slowly. The bonfire casted part of his face in red light and shadows, the dyed tips of his hair turning almost coppery, and Chanyeol looked away, studying his surroundings instead of gazing at him. How far was that boy willing to go, he wondered, just to find one person. How can someone be so strong-willed when he was selling his freedom away.
The slaves in that batch had all been sold out when Jongdae came back, looking for them around the square with a hand over his eyes. He smiled and waved when he finally spotted Chanyeol, walking towards him with a spring in his step and a satisfied smile on his lips.
“Hello there, Yeol. Taking a break from the show, I see,” he greeted. “Too much for your boy to endure?”
“Too much for me to like watching it.”
“It’s interesting though, how a part of the people there really think those beggars are mermaids. We really believe what we want to believe.” Jongdae shook his head, smiling at Baekhyun when the boy glared at him. “Anyway, what I came to tell you is that I found what I went to search for. Or who,” he added, blinking with amused dramatism. “He is waiting for us in his office at the warehouses. He has already sold his stock and said he didn’t have much time, so we better hurry.”
“Let’s go,” Baekhyun murmured, his fingers clutching the end of his cape.
“Okay, let’s. Just remember, fishboy, don’t stand out. Let me handle this.”
Most of the slave dealers - the ones who made money, at least - had offices in the first floors of their warehouses, little rooms where they did business with their more refined clients. The last memory Chanyeol had of Oh Sehun was the image of a very bored-looking kid clinging to Kris’ shirt when they all were smaller. He knew he had followed the other man’s steps and was working on his own now, but he hadn’t thought that he could have made it as far as where he seemed to be, self-owned study and all.
“Here we are,” announced Jongdae once they have reached a door in one of the old warehouses, just before knocking on it with his knuckles. “Best luck to the both of you. This is your issue to solve, so you do the talking and I stand, prettily and quietly, in the background. Like a picture. Like a lamp. Like a wallflower. You have been warned.”
“You are such a good friend,” Chanyeol groaned, but he pushed the door open anyway, when a voice replied from the inside.
If the outside of the warehouse, and the whole Terminus district, spoke of decay and ruins, everything in Oh Sehun’s office screamed of novelty and gold. The floor was covered in an upper city style, very expensive-looking carpet, and the walls were lined in dark wood. Oh Sehun himself was sitting behind a massive mahogany desk, dressed in a dark suit and looking as bored as ever. He looked like the son of an earl, all good looking and disinterested, holding a lacquered fountain pen between perfectly manicured fingers. Chanyeol doubted he knew how to write something with that thing, besides the date and possibly his name.
“Park Chanyeol,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I last saw you. Two, three years?”
“It’s around one and a half, actually,” Chanyeol stated, and Sehun looked annoyed at being corrected. He had been black-haired, like almost everyone in the undercity, the last time they had spoken, but now his hair was dyed white-blond. Like Kris did. He hoped it didn’t become some kind of trend among black market idiots. “But I’ve seen you’ve done well. Look at the office you have here. It’s pretty tasty.”
“I make good money,” said Sehun, face inexpressive. “More than you Guild people do, in any case.” And working much less, I assume. Chanyeol was the best at smiling at the people he despised so he did just that, trying to look so good, and innocent, and humble. He wasn’t very sure if Sehun was buying it, however. “What do you want, Park?” he asked, voice nasally stiffy.
“Oh, I think I’ve caught what everyone is looking for: a mermaid.”
Sehun raised a perfect, disinterested eyebrow. “It’s mermaid day outside. Why don’t you go sell whatever you have instead of coming here to search me?”
He had told Baekhyun (and maybe Jongdae too) that he would handle the situation, and Chanyeol hoped they didn’t think he had a plan because, to be perfectly honest, he had come there to improvise. He was still smiling his best smile, and he walked to Sehun as if to tell him something in confidence. “Well, you see, I don’t really have one of those filthy kids with the blue-dyed hair and all. I am not offering a beggar or a prostitute. I got the real thing. And I was told you could help me sell it.”
“The real thing?” Sehun repeated. “I have enough of the real thing every day. Do you think you are the first one who comes to offer?”
“Oh, come on. Aren’t we friends? We used to go together to places.”
“We were friends until you stole the first dagger I bought and lost it playing dice.” Chanyeol remembered that. It had happened in a phase of his life where he had thought he could have made a living out of scamming people in gambling. He had lost that dagger to Kris, specifically, and had decided that, no matter how sad, shooting people in the face was what he was the best at.
“I did that just for the fun,” he said, shaking his head and ignoring the incredulous look Baekhyun threw at him. “Now I am here to talk business.”
“I don’t talk business,” replied Sehun. “I talk money.”
“Well,” said Chanyeol. “I come here in the name of a client of mine, and what we have to offer means money. Any regular client of yours would be pretty much willing to pay.”
“I told you, mermaids. Specifically the ones who will transform into a fish-human hybrid creature if you get them wet. We know what we have, and what the clients want.”
“And that is?”
Now, Sehun seemed slightly interested, hands playing with the fountain pen, twirling it around his fingers. He looked every piece of the over-calculative, clever little bastard. Such a great, very funny lie, that was. “Scales,” Chanyeol said. “Scales on the skin.”
Sehun’s interest went away as soon as it had appeared, replaced by the usual blankness in his stare. “We have much like that in stock. If you want still want my men to see it, I can try to schedule a meeting for your client by… Let’s say, next month. Silver scales on the skin. Maybe I know someone who would want that. A couple of pleasure houses.”
Like hell you do. Chanyeol fought the urge to bit his lip, wondering what he should do next. Sehun had reacted when he had mentioned scales, but he had proceeded to ignore him again when they haven’t been the color he wanted. He could try again, trying color after color until something clicked, but he doubted even someone like Sehun would fall for his bluff a second time.
Maybe he should had told him he wanted to buy a mermaid, instead of selling one. That or simply take his revolver out and point it at his head. He was sure Sehun had a lot of security employees ready to come into his office if needed, but that boy had always valued his life and everyone in the undercity knew Park Chanyeol was damn fast when it came to shooting a gun.
That would have attracted a lot of attention, however, and Chanyeol wasn’t sure he wanted that. He could make Sehun tell him everything he knew, but he would make an enemy. And Kris would know. Kyungsoo would now. And most possibly Lord Choi as well. Well, sometimes he wished he were the type to make plans beforehand.
“Don’t be an idiot,” someone said then, an arrogant voice he knew so well, and Chanyeol turned just in time to see Baekhyun step forward, his face tilted upward and defiance written in the line of his lips. “Not silver,” he said. “There’s no need to lie.”
If he wasn’t so well trained, Chanyeol would have gaped at him. Sehun, on the other hand, seemed at least mildly interested in the situation once more, his head tilted and his lips curved up in appreciation.
“Who is this boy, Park?”
“Baekhyun,” Chanyeol said, almost matter-of-factly, despite the confused look he threw the boy when he was sure Sehun was not paying him attention.
“I am Chanyeol’s partner.” The boy left his place in the background and situated himself beside Chanyeol. Behind them, Jongdae let out a muffled, certainly amused sound. “A mermaid expert from the far north. A Byun clan member. I am sure you have heard about my people…?”
He sounded so conceited and so confident that Chanyeol would have laughed. He was sure Sehun had not idea about what that Byun clan was - neither did he - but the other man was soon nodding, his eyes narrowing.
“Baekhyun…” Chanyeol called, however.
“We are not offering silver scales. Of course there’s no mermaids like that,” the boy interrupted him, and he had to make an effort to keep serious while Baekhyun spoke, all small and serious. “What our client has is a red scaled merman. Male. With big chunks of crimson scales on his body. Webbed fingers and toes and pointed teeth. He changes shape when put into seawater: he gets completely black eyes, without the white, and stingers on his skin. Do you want more details? We were told you had seen more mermaids like that. We thought we would test the waters first, with all the silver scale thing, but it’s obvious you can’t be fooled.”
Sehun’s expression had completely changed now. He looked so eager, fingertips tapping on his mahogany desk with restrained energy.
“It’s like the other one,” he muttered so lowly that his voice was almost inaudible. “Who is your client? How much does he want?”
“Hey, stop there, boy.” This time, Chanyeol was ready, his arm casually thrown around Baekhyun’s shoulders and his best, disarming smirk on his lips. “This is not so easy. There’s practically a mermaid hunt going on. If it was known, who our client is, don’t you think all those bounty hunters in the streets would throw themselves at him? Ah, no, that man has gotten himself a pretty good catch. And he will have Mr. Byun here and me as his representatives until his product has reached the final customer.”
“I thought you wanted to sell it to me.”
“I said I thought you could help us sell it,” corrected Chanyeol, chuckling. “Not that we were going to sell it to you. If there are so many people in this city looking for legendary sea creatures is because someone is offering rotten money for them.”
“That Lord Choi,” added Baekhyun.
“And we heard from a good source that you know how to get him the things he wants.”
“Are you gonna deny it?”
“Do you have any more proof?”
Chanyeol snorted. “Isn’t an accurate description enough?” he asked, his tone mocking. “We came to you with the best option you are going to receive in years. Easy money for you, and for us, and for our client. For just… Let’s say listening to us and playing the intermediary. Isn’t it wonderful?”
Sehun blinked, poker faced. “What do you want from me?”
“I heard that you and Kris have a thing going on. You help him collect merchandise and send it to Lord Choi. Very specific merchandise, like the one we’re offering.”
“Red scales, pointed teeth. Isn’t it accurate?” Baekhyun added, his voice so, so sweet. Sehun huffed.
“Pretty much. But again, what do you want me to do? I am normally not the one in charge of everything. Kris is. I just take the merchandise to Lord Choi’s basement.”
So his basement it is. “Well, I’ve got a proposal to make,” said Chanyeol, grinning even wider. He could taste victory now, feel the pulse quickening in his veins, making him feel slightly dizzy but widely awake, the same as when he was in the middle of a fight. “You may not be the boss, but you are in the business. Organize us a meeting with Lord Choi. Use your contacts, you’re clever. I know the man, but despite that I suppose it would take a couple of weeks for milord to receive a gutter child like myself. Make it quicker. Make it next week. Our client wants to get rid of the mermaid soon, but won’t come out until he knows his client is interested. Help us and we’ll share the profit. Seventy percent for the client, twenty for us, ten for you. And I don’t think we need to remind you that Lord Choi is offering a great deal of money.”
“If you’re tricking me…” Sehun started.
“We are asking only for a meeting, not milord’s hand in marriage.” interrupted Chanyeol. “Just think about it.”
“We could always go to Kris, if you don’t want to help,” Baekhyun added. And Chanyeol had to look at him, about to burst into laughter just there, in the middle of Sehun’s office, in Terminus, in the core of the undercity and with his arm around the shoulders of a merfolk boy. “We avoided him because, you know, we were sure he would ask for more money.”
“Agreed. He’s a greedy bastard.”
“Wouldn’t give you a single piece of gold.”
There was silence in the room for a moment. Oh Sehun looked like a very fancily dressed, lost child, with his eyes half-lidded in suspicion and the fountain pen still in his hand.
“Let me… Consider this for a couple of days,” he finally said. Chanyeol fought to keep his face still.
“Contact Jongdae at the Guild when you have decided, will you?”
They said their goodbyes and bowed, all smiley and polite before leaving the room. Chanyeol felt giddy and excited, suddenly in a much better mood than how he had been when he had arrived there. Of course he had to deceive more men before - lied to noblemen, dealers and potential victims - but he actually had fun that time, watching Sehun’s flabbergasted expression while Baekhyun, beside him, stood smiling as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
He would had never thought.
“Do you even know who Kris is?” he asked once they’ve left the Terminus black market and were safe in the familiar foggy streets of the undercity, far from the old loading docks and the ruined ghost town.
“Honestly? I only know what you two say about him, but he sounds like the kind of person who would want all the gold for himself. Wasn’t I right?”
He looked all proud of himself, that boy, with shiny eyes and face flushed pink by excitement. He had to be the cheekiest person Chanyeol had seen in his twenty-three years of existence, and he was more than okay with it. “For the five great seas, that was awesome!”
“I know you told me to stay quiet, but that Dryskin wasn’t going to give you anything if you didn’t give him a little push. So I thought I’d help. As you told me before - go with the flow. I think I did good?”
Chanyeol laughed again, loud and happy. “Of course you did! Jongdae, are you hearing this?”
“You two are out of your mind.”
“Are we? That was a pretty impressive number.”
“Do you realize you asked for an urgent meeting with Lord Choi? That is dangerous. You sometimes act like you have a deathwish.”
“Maybe, but you still love me. So, will you tell me, then? If Oh Sehun contacts you?”
Jongdae raised his eyebrows, his gaze travelling from Chanyeol to Baekhyun, and then to Chanyeol again. He didn’t seem completely convinced, but he finally sighed.
“I guess it can’t be helped,” he surrendered. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to go to bed and sleep before you two decide to make me join another of your suicide missions.”
Baekhyun was still clearly excited when they arrived to Yixing’s store. He looked so stupidly happy, cheeks pink and lips parted in a smile that Chanyeol couldn’t even mock him about it, not even when the boy tripped over what looked like a bag full of sand and seashells in the main room.
“Hey, careful, you’re gonna wake Yixing,” he simply said, smiling when he saw the boy fighting and succeeding to regain his balance.
“His fault, for leaving a sackful of sand in the middle of the place,” replied Baekhyun with a playful huff. He moved towards the stairs, slightly limping. “You can’t expect me to look where I’m going. I’m too happy for that.”
“You look like it.”
Baekhyun was considerate enough to go up to the last floor in silence, but practically twirled to face him when they were alone in their room again, the cloak he wore flapping around him.
“I just… I did something right, we did something and it worked.”
“We did more than that. We totally tricked a slave dealer. Just when I thought my story wasn’t gonna work and that I would have to end the night threatening to shoot him.”
“Would you mind stopping to shoot people?” Baekhyun scolded, throwing a teasing smile at him that ended in a burst of laughter. He was so bright that he seemed to light the whole room, so different from the grumpy kid who had spent a week scowling and sitting in a corner that Chanyeol found himself grinning, too. “You see, we solved it talking.”
“Because you knew what to tell him. You are no better than me, you crushed his hopes and dreams. Imagine how sad he’s gonna be when he realizes he’s not going to get any commission after helping us.”
“He sells people, mine and yours, he deserves his business burning,” said Baekhyun, very matter-of-factly, taking his cloak off with a flourish. “But do you really think he’ll help us?”
“He’s greedy, lives under Kris’ shadow and is not as clever as he thinks he is so yeah, most possibly. We’ll see in a couple of days, I guess.”
“Great!” Baekhyun flopped onto the bed, face down, dyed hair a mess on the sheets. The color was already fading off to a shade of dull grey where it was closest to the skin of his neck. It was too late to wash that now, but the pillows would be stained black in the morning. “Oh Sehun mentioned that they took slaves to that place, right? There has to be something there. He knew… He knew how soldier merfolk look, out of the water. It has to mean something.”
Red scales, pointed teeth and stingers on the skin. Chanyeol knew that description, had dreamed with it until the nightmares had burned the image onto the back of his eyes, since more than a decade ago. His smile dissolved into a sigh while he watched Baekhyun unlace his boots, suddenly recalling why the boy was grimacing as he took his shoes off, why his feet were wrapped in bandages.
He had forgotten, even if it had only been for a while. It was easy to do so when Baekhyun looked unclean, and ordinary, and so deceivingly human.
“Can you… wait for me for a second?” he asked, leaving before the other boy could even reply.
Yixing had patched him up enough times for Chanyeol to know where he kept his first-aid supplies, in one of the cabinets behind the counter. There was a little bottle with ointment for his own scars, as well as bandages and wraps, clean rags and a set of small, metallic basins. He took what he needed in silence, carrying it up the stairs, back to their room. Baekhyun was sitting on the bed when he entered, his legs bare once again, bandaged up to mid-calf. For the five seas, that boy really hated pants.
“What’s all that?” he asked, eyebrows raised.
“We need to change your bandages before you go to sleep. You have been limping all night.”
Normally, Yixing would have been the one to do it. He was the expert healer after all, the one who had been taking care of Baekhyun’s feet injuries since they had started to live above his store. Baekhyun had done it himself before, wrapping his legs in rags every day and walking like that around the house. Chanyeol had offered once, but the boy had looked almost afraid, as troubled as he did now.
“I am okay,” he protested, warily observing Chanyeol as he went to leave the bandages beside him on the bed and moved to fill the basin out from the pitcher of clean water on the dressing table. “I mean, my feet are always a bit sore, but that’s normal. I’m--”
“Your bandages are stained with blood, fishboy. And you need to be able to walk if you want to come with me to milord’s house when we are summoned there. It’s already dangerous enough, getting precisely you inside that place. We don’t need you catching an infection as well.”
“Do you really want me to wake him for this?”
“No, I-- Not really, I guess. But why so sudden?”
“Why so sudden, what?”
“You being so helpful?”
Chanyeol grinned at him. “I told you when we met: I am a nice guy.”
Baekhyun had that kind of look all about him once more - that sense of alert all over him that made him feral and wary, like a trapped, wild animal. Chanyeol had allowed himself to forget, but it was almost impossible to unsee it, there and then. That boy and the creature that had attacked him when he was a child were part of the same species, more similar than Baekhyun himself was to him.
That was why he had tied the boy up at first, and why Baekhyun was on the alert, now.
“You can’t go to sleep like that,” he said. “I am not going to hurt you.”
It took a moment for Baekhyun to reply. “I guess you wouldn’t.” That meant permission, Chanyeol supposed, so he walked back to the bed, the metallic basin in his hands already filled with water. It wasn’t warm, since he couldn’t exactly heat it, but it would serve its purpose all the same. “How did you know?” Baekhyun asked in a whisper once he was sitting beside him.
“That you needed a change of bandages?”
“That my feet hurt.”
“You were limping, fishboy, and you also complained about it. It doesn’t take a genius to guess.” Chanyeol shook his head, gesturing towards him. “Now let me see that.”
After a moment of hesitation, Baekhyun nodded and complied, shifting until his back was against the headboard and his feet were practically on Chanyeol’s lap. The room was dimly lit, illuminated only by the orange glow of the kerosene lamp on the table, and the cluster of scales in his inner thigh seemed more golden than silver. There were more of them, Chanyeol observed as he unwrapped the bandage over one of his legs, oval flecks breaking the skin, in the bend on his knee, the front part of his calf and over the ankle. Delicate, in some strange, otherworldly way. Identical to the torn scale he still carried in his pocket.
He would had said something, lightly joked over them, if Baekhyun hadn’t been totally still, watching him with eyes as dark as the starless sky, sharp as black steel. If the skin under the wrappings hadn’t been swollen and blistered, stained red in the areas near the heel and the sole of his foot.
“I’m not used to walking this much,” the boy whispered once his wounds were uncovered. He looked apologetic.
Chanyeol knew how to do it and, of course, had treated his own blisters before - walking long distances in hard, heavy leather boots was something everyone in his line of work was bound to so, sooner or later - but he wasn’t sure he had seen so many at the same time.
Part of them were small and still unbroken, but most of the big ones had been torn open by friction, the softer skin underneath reddish and fragile. Chanyeol didn’t even know how in the world he had been walking with his feet like that, and much less without barely complaining.
“Has Yixing been checking on this regularly?” he asked.
“He has,” replied Baekhyun, his gaze away from the wounds and his bottom lip between his teeth. “He’s been using on me the same ointment he gives you. The one for your shoulder. And it helps. It’s… much better now than it was before.”
You should have told me, Chanyeol was about to say. In the end, he only dampened a clean rag in clear water. “It’ll sting,” he warned, before applying it to the skin, trying to clean the crusts of dry blood and pus to the best of his abilities. Baekhyun visibly flinched, still not looking at him, head leaning against the wall behind the bed and bottom lip bitten so hard that the pink flesh turned white.
“It doesn’t even hurt that much,” he whispered, with a hoarse, stifled chuckle, and Chanyeol felt it - an unexpected wave of fondness, for that bravery and that laughter, hot in his chest for a fraction of the second it took him to push it to the back of his mind.
“I think I may have already told you, but what you did before was a little bit impressive,” he said instead, smiling at Baekhyun before focusing in his task. “Sehun totally believed you. I would had believed you. You helped me a lot.”
“I was just playing along,” the boy replied. “You started the whole story about me being your merfolk expert partner, back when we went visiting Kyungsoo.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t expecting you to use it there, out of the blue. Or to improve it. What was that… Byun clan thing? I haven’t heard that name in my life.”
Baekhyun let out a giggle again. He had long fingers covering his mouth, when Chanyeol looked up again for a moment, pressed against his lips as if to conceal his smile. “Of course you haven’t. And Sehun wouldn’t had, either. That is the name of my clan. Of my shoal, the one I left to come here. It was impossible for him to know, but I suppose he wasn’t going to tell me that, right?”
“Oh, well, now I’m even more impressed.” Baekhyun let out a whimper when Chanyeol pressed the wet cloth against a particularly ugly wound on the side of his foot, and he shushed him, pressing warm fingers just below his ankle until he calmed. “You act like a spoiled child sometimes, but I have to admit that, deep down, you have it in you.”
“The aptitude for creative lying?”
“That too, yes, but I meant the will to fight. Damn, fishboy, you were the most terrible thing I’ve seen when it came to hiding, but you really are feisty as hell.”
“You already told me that.”
“And you should be proud. You don’t seem particularly pleased when you hear it, but it’s a good thing in a place like this.”
“Is it?” murmured Baekhyun. “Looks more like a trait of someone born in the storm.”
The boy looked up and smiled, very faintly. “Spontaneity has never been the best thing you can have in a shoal.”
It wasn’t very much like Baekhyun, that soft expression and that voice, so Chanyeol didn’t know what to reply. The heel and sole of his foot were almost clean, free of dry blood and dead skin, so he moved to the front part… and then stopped. He didn’t even make the effort to conceal the amused snort that came from his throat.
“Why are you laughing?” asked Baekhyun, every inch the annoyed little prince again.
“You have webbed toes,” Chanyeol said, tilting his head to have a better look. It wasn’t really that evident at a first glance but Baekhyun’s toes were joined together with a layer of white-silvery tissue so thin that it looked almost transparent. It was strangely reminiscent of the fins he had when he shifted, as otherworldly peculiar as the scales on his skin.
“Can you stop looking at them like that?”
“Like how? They’re cute.”
Baekhyun tried to kick him, then, still looking very offended but Chanyeol was expecting something like that and simply grabbed the boy by the ankle, pulling until he fell onto the pillows with a huff.
“Chanyeol,” he complained, but the other boy just smirked at him. It was such a sight to see, Baekhyun there, sprawled on his bed with only his old shirt on, lips parted and hair a mess, part black, part grey, part silver. He felt the pang of want, like wildfire under his bones, as intense as it had burned when Baekhyun had decided to play dirty and kiss him, all those nights ago in his old room. He had been warm and soft, then, so absolutely lovely. So he acted on the memory now and pressed his thumb over the scale below his ankle, only to see if he was sensitive there, if his eyes would close and his breath would hitch.
And indeed Baekhyun made a sound, a keen low in his throat - the song of the prettiest caged bird in the world. So Chanyeol let his leg go and picked the wet cloth, just in time to feel the other boy’s gaze on him before he focused once more in cleaning the mess on his feet.
“Tell me something,” he said when he finally felt Baekhyun relax under his fingers. “Why are you all silvery when the man you’re looking for has red scales and pointed teeth? Is there a reason for that?”
He thought he wouldn’t get a reply so he stopped for a moment when he did. “We are from different castes. Inside the shoal. He is a soldier, son of a soldier, and of a soldier before him. He fights and goes to war and defends us, so he is prepared to kill. I am in charge of communications, like my mother and father, so I don’t need pointy teeth in my mouth or stingers in my skin. Our scales are differently colored, too, because of the difference in status. So it is clear and everyone knows, from the very beginning.”
“So it is designated by birth, huh? That’s weird. And who’s at the top of the food chain?”
“No one?” Baekhyun sounded surprised. “Everyone has their place. We all have a purpose, no one should be above the others. The shoal is… We are very organized.”
“Doesn’t that sound a little boring?” Chanyeol asked, raising an eyebrow. He had finished cleaning one foot, finishing his work by covering the biggest wounds with Yixing’s ointment, and after he deemed himself satisfied, he started with the other one, slowly unwrapping the bandages.
“It is not boring, it is just the way it is,” said Baekhyun after a while. “We know what to do since we are born and we’re prepared for it. There’s no need to disobey.”
“So if all of you know your place that much, why is there a merman soldier up here, and why have you ran away from your perfect world to find him?”
“Things… Well, things are not always that simple. He should have come back, but he didn’t. And I was told not to follow, but I guess I couldn’t stay. Not like that. So here I am. Untrained and unprepared. Maybe if I had also been a soldier...”
“If you have had, what? Red scales all around and stingers on your skin? That would have been absolutely unnoticeable up here, of course,” murmured Chanyeol, just a hint of amusement in his voice. “Don’t think too much about all this. First rule of the undercity, fishboy: you have to learn to survive with what you have.”
“Look at how well that has worked for me until this moment,” Baekhyun replied.
“Well, if it’s any comfort, I am kind of glad that you don’t have stingers all around,” Chanyeol said after a while, attention focused on the blistered skin before him. “You hit me with your tail in the face when we met. And it is my main charm, you know? I don’t even want to think about how sad I’d be if it had started looking like my shoulder. I would have to stop being the best looking mercenary of town and become, what? A scarred, veteran warrior? I am too young for that. There’ll be time when I’m older, if I live that much.”
There was no immediate reply, but Baekhyun shifted. He was half-sitting up when Chanyeol risked a glance, supporting his weight on his elbows, face solemn, shaded in orange and red from the lamp.
“I’ve meaning to ask, too,” he said, licking his lips. His eyes flickered down, from his face to the patch of visible skin of his neck and shoulder, where the shirt was unbuttoned. Chanyeol hadn’t used Yixing’s ointment on his scar that night, and the zone was redder than usual, already starting to throb in dull pain. “That mark. It was made by a mermaid soldier, wasn’t it?”
Chanyeol nodded. “You could say that.”
“How? You’re Dryskin. I mean...”
“I know what you mean.”
For thirteen years, Chanyeol had told that story dozens of times, to just anyone who wanted to listen - clients, fellow fortune hunters, drunken sailors and potential lovers. He had different variations of the same tale, could had spoken about it with his mind dazed by beer and still remember every detail, but remained in silence until he finished cleaning Baekhyun’s wounds, acutely aware of the boy’s eyes on him.
“Not many Dryskin have one of these, huh? What does that make, a brave warrior?”
“I don’t know what that makes you. There’s few survivors, from a sting like that. It’s not impossible, but you have to be lucky.” Baekhyun was sitting up now, legs bent, eyes half-lidded and arm slightly extended in his direction.
“What? Did you change your opinion and now want to touch my scar?” Chanyeol asked, half joking and a little bitter, and still smiling his best smile. Baekhyun froze in place, but he didn’t pull back, and Chanyeol shrugged and patted his lower calf. “We are done with your wounds. Try to sleep like this to let the skin dry, we’ll tell Yixing again to bandage you up. And now off you go.”
Baekhyun bit his lip again, but obeyed, leaving Chanyeol enough space to get up and leave the rags, basin and supplies on the dressing table once more. He would organize that in the morning, when he had time. When Baekhyun wasn’t looking at him with unveiled curiosity.
“If you have to know,” he said after a while, in a soft voice, walking back to the bed. “I was involved in a shipwreck years ago. I was coming to the capital by sea and our ship sank in a storm. Your people were singing all around us, and one tried to drown me, but I escaped. If you’re wondering why I don’t feel much sympathy for mermaids or the ocean, it’s mainly because of that.”
“So that’s it?” Baekhyun scoffed at him, all pretty and dismissive, with the sudden security of the man who knew everything there was to know in the whole world. “Don’t tell me that’s why you are so obnoxious about me crying for you. You’re bitter because you have some kind of stupid grudge about my people attacking you? Excuse me, but I have been robbed, assaulted and kidnapped by humans and I don’t hate you as a species.”
“No? How many times have you said we are all barbarians, though?”
“Because you are!” Baekhyun screamed the words in a voice so loud that probably even Yixing would have heard him from the lower floor, hadn’t he been sleeping. He looked oh so angry all of a sudden, as if he wanted to stand up and punch him. Chanyeol would have liked to see him try. “Look at those people selling Dryskins in the market! Look at yourself, using me to pay for something that is probably more your fault than it is mine! Merfolk clans don’t usually attack Dryskins, unless they have invaded their territories or they feel threatened. We are much less cruel than you are!”
Chanyeol was one step away from laughing at his face. “Are you being serious?”
“Do you think I would joke about this?”
“Okay, let’s get serious, then. I have lived more than half of my life doing threatening jobs for threatening people. I know what is dangerous and what is not. And I wasn’t, back then. I wasn’t at all.” Baekhyun opened his mouth to complain, but Chanyeol wasn’t planning on letting him speak. “I was a child, when the storm swallowed my ship. Ten years old and scared, and just trying to swim to safety when I was taken and pulled down by a monster two times my size. You don’t really know how drowning is, Baekhyun. There’s only water around you and it’s dark and cold, and you can’t see, you can’t breathe, you can’t scream even if your lungs are burning.”
Baekhyun’s fingers moved from his chest to the side of his neck, pressing against the place where his gills should had been. Chanyeol realized that they were still there, in a way, barely noticeable white lines on his pale skin, sealed now that he was out of water. He remembered blindly reaching for open gills in the blackness of the ocean while the merman who had held him tried to push him down to his death. He had told the story in a thousand different occasions, to a thousand different people, but he had let the fear out of the tale every single time.
But it was there now, the memory, shaped like red tendrils of anger, directed towards the world, and Baekhyun, and himself, as ugly and painful as his own scar. And he was expecting Baekhyun to fuel it, to rise his voice even more, because all of this wasn’t his fault, because he was out of his world, too, trapped away from his people, and the things he knew. It would had been understandable for him to say that Chanyeol had deserved it, but he did not.
“You were ten?” he muttered. He looked so taken aback. “I didn’t know. There’s… There probably are violent merfolk clans out there, too. I shouldn’t have assumed. I am sorry.”
He really sounded like he was. Chanyeol didn’t know how to feel about that. Apologies always had made him uncomfortable, like all the other things, or thoughts, or words, that weren’t meant for him to have.
“Don’t be. You weren’t the one who tried to drown me,” he said, walking towards the lamp and turning the little lever in one side of the burner, until the orange flame went dimmer and dimmer and finally faded into a faint cloud of smoke. The room was lightless now, all shadows and moonlight, and Baekhyun’s solemn eyes were lost in the dark. “It’s late. We shouldn’t be speaking.”
The other boy moved when Chanyeol went to join him in the bed, lying on the space in the mattress closest to the wall, his figure almost pressed against it under the covers. His intakes of breath turned regular in a matter of minutes and Chanyeol shifted to face him, thinking he slept.
He was mildly surprised when he heard him speak, his words heavy with fatigue. “It’s a shame, you know? That you hate the sea,” he mumbled. His fingers moved in the dark, grazed his shirt, sloppily, until they were on the heated skin of his scar. Cool and feather-like. Soft. “We have things like this, but it is also a beautiful place.”
Chanyeol didn’t exactly know if he was supposed to answer, but he couldn’t be seen so he smiled. “There are also a lot of interesting things in the upper world too, if you stop to look,” he replied.
“Like the market. The morning one. I liked that,” Baekhyun said with a yawn. “Maybe I could go to see other places, after all this is over. If you let me.”
“I will take you,” answered Chanyeol. He had spoken out of pure impulse, whispering the words before even realizing what they meant, but the implications were clear now that the lights were off and the room was drenched in silence.
He knew what he had done today, and knew what he’d do the next morning, when the sun came up and made the mist fade, but had never stopped to consider what would happen in the day after that, or in the time beyond. One didn’t think about the future when he had been born in the city slums - you could give your word one day and then break it, you could be the luckiest man out there and then be dead when the next month arrived.
Chanyeol was aware of where he was now, but he didn’t trust there would be an after. Apparently, Baekhyun did. And he was there still, sleeping beside him and apologizing for things he hadn’t done. He was selling them, both his today and his tomorrow. Such a terribly stupid thing to do. So, so terribly human.
And he supposed he should have thought it was funny, or even weird, but the idea made him feel sick to his stomach, in that brief, fleeting moment between consciousness and sleep.
Baekhyun had asked to take a saltwater bath when Chanyeol came back from his morning stroll.
“I know you wouldn’t allow him to go to the sea, but he wanted to relax and I have a big washtub in the backroom,” Yixing explained, all smiles. Chanyeol had used his free morning time to run some errands for him - get him some herbs from the apothecary and a new, disturbingly thick accounting book, Kyungsoo style - and now he seemed even more obliviously happy than usual, if possible.
“How long has it taken you to fill a big washtub with saltwater?” Chanyeol asked, raising his eyebrows. He had done that, too, to show Baekhyun to Jongdae when he had first captured him, and the whole process had been tiresome to no end. They have stuck to freshwater, from that moment onwards. At least, that was easily available in public bath houses.
“Oh, I have my ways,” replied Yixing with a shrug. “He is not bothering me, and he’s a good kid. Let him relax for a while. You knows his body transforms when he gets drenched in seawater. From what he told me, he hasn’t shifted in a while.”
That was true, even if Chanyeol hadn’t thought about it that much. Baekhyun only had shifted once since he had become his prisoner. He was, by now, so used to seeing him as the boy with silver hair and clusters of scales on his legs that he had almost forgotten that he had a second, much more feral, form. Forgotten, of course. Again.
“Is he… uncomfortable in his human form or something?” he asked.
“Uncomfortable? Why should he? His ground form is part of him too. He is an amphibian creature of sorts.”
“Like a frog. Only less… viscous-looking.”
“He can live outside. But I understand him wanting to splash around every once in a while.”
“Well, thanks for taking the trouble for him, then,” Chanyeol said, then paused. “Do you… think he’ll be ready to walk in a couple of days? We are on standby now, but we’ll need to move again soon.”
Yixing crouched, disappearing under the counter, only to come into view seconds later, a big, golden compass in hand. The needle didn’t move when the man twirled the device in his hands, but he didn’t look like he minded much.
“He has been walking after you for weeks,” he said distractedly. “He will keep up with you. Why are you worried?”
“It’s not that I’m--” Chanyeol started, then decided to shut up when he realized Yixing looked too enchanted by his broken compass to even bother to argue with him. If he spoke to him now, it would practically be like speaking alone. And he could live with that, he guessed, as he leaned on the counter. He pretty much could. “It’s just that sometimes Baekhyun is… not what I would have expected a merperson to be.”
“And that is…?”
Clever, he thought. Brave. “The opposite of the thing that attacked me as a child?”
The air around him filled with dust as Yixing blew on the sphere of his compass in a rather pointless effort to clean it. Then he looked at Chanyeol, a candid smile on his lips.
“I used to collect folklore books some years ago. Old legends and tales and myths. The covers are normally very pretty, and there are also pictures in the pages. I liked that a lot,” he mentioned. “There is a lot on the sea. How could it not, when the oceans are so big? There’s a whole world down there, and human beings are fascinated.”
“Not me,” muttered Chanyeol. Not when the waters were cold and dark, and they could crush you. He had lived close to the ocean all of his life, but the last time he had stepped on a ship had been thirteen years ago.
“Not you, by all means. Not the boy who has been talking about capturing a mermaid since he was a little kid.” Yixing ended up leaving the compass on the counter, focusing his attention on Chanyeol once more. “You were attacked in a tempest, lost and reborn in a storm. It’s logical if part of the sea pulls you in, and part of it repels you. It’s the same with all humans: afraid of what man can’t understand, but drawn to it nonetheless. That’s why I loved reading mermaid legends. I don’t know if you have, but they are old as time, very similar, I think, to the sailor tales you probably know.”
“If your books talk about mermaids sinking ships…”
“And about them singing the sailors to sleep. Leaving the sea forever and joining the human world. Crying pearls when out of water, and even diamonds when they fall in love. Aren’t those pretty tales? Humans are fascinated the most when the creatures they talk about look so much like them. They are not part of their world but they could be.”
“What are you so worried about?”
Chanyeol was going to say once more that he wasn’t worried, that he had never had time for thinking about possibilities, that he hadn’t gotten that far in the undercity by considering anything else beyond the mission at hand. But he sometimes felt it now, when he was alone and his mind betrayed him - the ghost of the touch of Baekhyun’s fingers, soft on the scar on his shoulder, soothing the burn away. He had wanted him that night, wanted sometimes still.
“Merfolk are sea monsters,” he said, the term foreign on his tongue. “But Baekhyun looks so human sometimes.”
“Oh, I see. But he’s not. Not human in the least,” Yixing immediately replied. “Which doesn’t necessarily mean that he is not sentient.”
“I guess,” Chanyeol whispered. Needless to say, he had known, since Baekhyun had been chained to his bed, since the very start. But perhaps he had started to fail, now, the same way that inexperienced murderers failed, when they killed for the first time. Don’t ever look at your victim in the eye. Everyone is also someone’s friend, someone’s lover, someone’s child.
“You’re not that bad, Chanyeol,” Yixing then said. “The undercity is in what you are, but it has not made you soulless. Perhaps with the proper guidance…” He pushed the golden compass towards him on the counter. “You’ll find a way, and you’ll know you are on the right track.”
The boy blinked at the shattered glass on the sphere, at the splintered needle under it. “That thing is broken,” he blurted, but Yixing laughed, taking it back between his fingers.
“Because it is an old, valuable object. It has its charms.”
Chanyeol was about to be very inconsiderate and state that all of the junk Yixing had for sale was charming in his eyes despite no-one ever wanting to buy it, but a loud, sudden metaling clank made him lost track of his thoughts. It came from somewhere beyond the backroom door, followed by a string of angry squeaking.
There they were again, the noises from hell. And there he was once more, perhaps a little more worried than he should.
“Baekhyun?” he called. His eyes met Yixing’s for a brief moment, and he technically knew that the other man had always denied him permission to enter in the backroom of his store, but he rushed to the door and opened it anyway, holding his breath.
The room beyond was pretty normal - spare in furniture, with closed cabinets lined in the wall and wooden floor. Or it would have been, if it wasn’t for the overturned washtub in the center on the place, the layer of water on the floorboards and the angry merboy crawling on the floor, wagging his tail in indignation.
Concern made way to laughter, and Chanyeol covered his mouth with one hand.
“Again?” he asked. “What have wash tubs even done to you?”
“Oh, my, I guess it turned over when he tried to get out.” Yixing appeared at the threshold too, eyes wide as saucers. “What a mess…”
“He always does this.” Chanyeol pointed at Baekhyun’s figure on the floor as the boy tried to move towards them on his elbows. The iridescent scales of his tail glistened as he shifted, his fins open like a silver fan. He looked otherworldly and very, very ridiculous. “What are you doing? You’re gonna tear your fins if you-- Fishboy.”
He heard the sound of the door clicking closed at his back when he advanced towards the fallen Baekhyun, crouching down on the floor beside him to try to lift him off the boards. The boy wasn’t that heavy, but he was wet and slippery like a fish, warm under his hands nonetheless, but hard to hold still. Baekhyun flinched when he came near, and Chanyeol feared for his integrity for a second - that person had fin-slapped him in the face the last time he had been close to him in that form after all, and it had been painful - but all the merboy did was throw his arms around his neck with a low squeak, sounding so dejected that Chanyeol chuckled at him.
“Why are you so slick?” he muttered. Baekhyun had a dorsal fin, a stripe of silver that followed the line of his spine, and Chanyeol could feel it against the skin of his arm, smooth and delicate.
“Because he is an amphibian,” Yixing sing-songed, leaning against the closed door. There was a knock on it, a muffled voice calling from the other side, and his peaceful expression turned slightly inquisitive. “Stay here, I’ll go see.”
Chanyeol nodded and swiftly moved out of the line of sight of whoever at the other side of the door until Yixing disappeared. “I wonder if there’s something here to get you dry. What a mess you’ve made, fishboy. Do you know how troublesome it is to wipe a whole floor dry? Yixing will ask me to do it.” Baekhyun screeched again, leaning his head on his shoulder. He looked believably apologetic.
Not human in the least, but he knows how to make himself forgiven. He has that scar on his wrist, too. “Okay, let me try to look for a towel.”
He had turned away from the door when he heard it open again. Then, a voice he knew all too well was calling him.
“Hey, Yeol, I’ve got ne-- What the hell has happened here? And why are you carrying a merboy bridal-style?”
“Jongdae?” The sceptical expression of his friend was the first thing Chanyeol saw when he moved to face him. He couldn’t exactly drop Baekhyun on the floor, so he just shrugged with him in his arms. “Good day! How come you’re here?”
“You told me to visit, remember? Three days ago? If I had news for you in the Guild. I didn’t think I would interrupt… whatever it is you’re doing.”
“News?” Chanyeol repeated. He could feel Baekhyun twitch in interest, his body tensing against his chest. “Is it Sehun? Did he contact you?”
“You can bet he did.” Jongdae stopped in the middle of the room, hands on his hips. He loved dramatic pauses when he knew the spotlight was on him, so he took his time to even his breath and judge him a little big longer. “Get your Sunday clothes ready, boys. You two have an appointment in Lord Choi’s mansion in five days to discuss confidential mermaid business.”
As one would had expected, Baekhyun liked the upper town.
The undercity was in the old portuary district, narrow and grey, noisy, busy and dirty, a different world altogether than the high-end quarter of town, that rested atop of the hills. The ocean could be seen from there, too, from the vantage points in parks and the bay windows in every pretty brick house, a blue-green mass of water that darkened towards the horizon until it became one with the sky.
The presence of the sea was familiar, but everything else was as alien as it had been the first time he had visited that place, as a child. He had learned his way around the place since then, and then he navigated the broad streets with confidence in his stride and his head held high, like he was as entitled to be there as the merchants and lords in their fancy black frock coats and their ladies in silk, velvet and pleated muslin.
Baekhyun, however, looked fascinated, his back straight with pride but eyes wide open, travelling from the trees lined in the sidewalk to the products in display in the shop windows. He had stopped in his tracks the first time he had seen a horse drawn coach, almost gaping at the sight until Chanyeol had gently held him by the nape of his neck and urged him forward.
“Why can’t you live here?” he mumbled when they resumed their way. “People look friendlier here.”
“And cleaner, as Jongdae would say,” replied Chanyeol. “This is what gold can get you. But could you imagine me here, with one of those expensive coats and a respectable job? I don’t think they would like me much.”
“Well, maybe they would if you… adapted your general style? Look at me. Don’t I fit in?”
That was easy for Baekhyun to say. Yixing had searched for new clothes to give him, before they came to the upper town - a white shirt and trousers his size, a leather belt and a new, finer, wool cloak. None of the garments were new but they were fitting and clean, and made him look somehow distinguished despite the yellowed fabric and the frayed cuffs. Baekhyun had always looked sophisticated after all, right from the moment he had limped his way into the Sleeping Wolf, with his black, shiny eyes and the mannerisms of a prince. He didn’t have the steel of the undercity engraved on skin and bone. It hadn’t shaped him, like it had done with Chanyeol.
He hoped it never did.
“We haven’t come to this district for top hat shopping. We are here to work,” he said, his tone deliberately playful. “You see, we are going to visit a rotten-rich, spoiled nobleman. And rich, spoiled noblemen love their undercity scoundrels to look the part.”
“And what part is that?” asked Baekhyun, looking everything but convinced. “You’re wearing a leather vest and a blouse without sleeves.”
“It’s not a blouse,” Chanyeol protested. “Not exactly. And what problem do you have with my fashion choices? I am wearing full black. I look dangerous and intrepid.”
“Jongdae said you look like a pirate prostitute. Whatever that is.”
“Jongdae is a filthy traitor.” There was a group of young ladies looking at them close to the door of a bookshop and Chanyeol decided to prove his point by blinking at them. One of them squealed. Baekhyun gave him his best eye-roll. “But do you see? They like it.”
“Yeah, I am sure they are really into blouses.”
“Hey, what the hell is wrong with you?” Chanyeol complained, moving towards Baekhyun to ruffle his perfectly brushed hair. He wasn’t in the mood to get angry, not when the sun was shining for once, they were moving forward with their mission and Baekhyun was laughing, his eyes crinkled and his cheeks tinged with pink.
“I sometimes forget,” the boy said after a while, however, once they had left the main shopping street behind and moved into a very luxurious, very quiet residential neighborhood instead. He still looked somehow cheery but also somehow sad, like the last spark of fireworks in the summer sky. Chanyeol watched those with Jongdae every year when the solstice festivities came - the last spark to burn was always the brightest before the night engulfed it and the colors were gone once more. “It skips my mind. That I’m here for a reason. I shouldn’t be enjoying myself when there’s someone in danger.”
“Why not? Is being all gloomy going to help him? We’re doing okay.”
“I should not… I should focus.” Baekhyun tangled his fingers in his dyed hair, and Chanyeol just watched him do it, out of the corner of his eye. It took him a second to process what the other boy was asking when he spoke. “Are we close now?”
“To milord’s house? It’s just down the street. Most peaceful and exclusive place in town.”
“It does look peaceful.”
There were barely pedestrians in that zone at the moment, only the occasional strolling couple or hasty young man, hurrying towards the more commercial districts, fancy hat on his head and cane on his hand. The avenues were broad and clean, paved with regular cobblestones, and the buildings lining them were old and proud, made of light stone and grey bricks, with tall windows and dark wooden doors.
“So here we are,” Chanyeol finally announced, stopping in front of a black iron fence. There was a three storied mansion beyond, made of a stone so light it seemed almost white in the sunlight. So pretty, so immaculate, like one of the enchanted houses in Yixing’s fairytale books. They weren’t using the main entrance, though. Everyone there probably knew what he was up to, but mercenaries were never let in through the front door. “There’s another entry that goes straight to the back gardens. Come with me.”
Lord Choi’s house was in the corner of the block, so his backyard was bigger than his neighbors - a calm, well-kept place surrounded with a wall of chalky stone. There was a single door there on the back side, nearly hidden below ivy vines. It looked inconspicuous enough, but Chanyeol knew it was guarded from the inside. They were being expected after all.
So he knocked. “Park Chanyeol and his business partner here,” he announced when he heard a grunt at the other side. “How is your day going?”
There was an unintelligible murmur of low voices, then the door opened with a creak. The men on the other side were as Chanyeol remembered from the last times he had been there for previous missions - as tall as him but bigger, with muscular arms and broad chests and shoulders. Buff as hell but, which could be a problem, but not very intelligent.
“Park,” one of them almost spitted. He flashed him his trademark smile, waved at him only because rapid, sudden movements seemed to annoy him.
“We have an appointment with the Lord,” he explained. “You know, for very secret stuff? I believe he wants to see us in person?”
“You arrive early,” the minion said. He made a really ugly face when he frowned. Which was, basically, ninety percent of the time.
“Oh, I am sorry. You see, sometimes these things happen when you don’t own a watch.” Chanyeol had known they wouldn’t be very happy if they arrived before the meeting hour, but had decided to take the risk anyway. “We can wait for him, though. We made a long way from the city slums, and we really don’t have anything else to do.”
“You shouldn’t be--” one of the guards started.
“We don’t want them hanging around outside,” his partner interrupted him, however, looking at Chanyeol with a scowl, from the silver decorations in his leather vest to the tendrils of the dark scar creeping over his collarbones and the side of his neck. He had done well, leaving the two top buttons of his shirt undone. At least, those two seemed to hate it. “They can wait in the kitchens.”
“Oh, I would totally don’t mind that,” said Chanyeol, walking into the garden with a grin when the two men stepped back to allow him. He had always liked Lord Choi’s garden, much more than he did the rest of his house. It was just the right amount of wild, the grass well cut but the bushes and flowers growing with no apparent arrangement. There were also a couple of white, metal benches and a pale stone fountain.
One of the guards started to walk towards the main building, but the other man - the one with the perpetual frown and the less stupid looking face - stopped Chanyeol with a hand on his shoulder.
“Wait there, Park,” he said. “Hand in your weapons. All of them.”
“Oh, come on.”
“We know each other by now. I don’t want you walking around milord’s house with a gun.”
Okay, that could always happen, and Chanyeol had been ready for it. He had his dearest revolver on his belt, and he handed it over along with the couple of knives he had there, as well, for emergencies. “I want them back as soon as I’m out,” he warned.
The man ignored him. “Take out the ones in your boots,” he said. “And the one strapped around your calf.” Chanyeol opened his mouth to protest, but the man took a step towards him. “If you have another one under that blouse it’s the time to take it out, too. Don’t make me strip you.”
“There’s no need for that! Jeez!” The man searched him anyway, and Chanyeol glared at him when he found the sheathed little dagger he had hidden around his neck. “And for your information, it is not a blouse.”
“Do we search the little one too?” the other thug asked then, pointing at Baekhyun.
For a moment, the boy looked startled. The two guards were taller than him by a head, and big enough to choke him with a single hand. And of course they wouldn’t attack him - especially not when Baekhyun looked virtually harmless and was, in fact, unarmed - but even if he didn’t have scales on his arms anymore, he had clusters of them on his legs. They could see, they could even feel them, if they touched too much, and Chanyeol felt a rush of annoyance at those idiots wanting to lay their hands on him.
“Really. Don’t you think you are wasting time?”
“You are the ones who came early.”
Baekhyun was glancing at him, his face neutral. Then, he shrugged and reached out for the brooch that kept his cloak in place, letting it fall open in a black puddle around his feet. “I don’t have weapons on me, but search if you must.”
The guard did so, and Baekhyun remained still until he finished, bending to pick up and fold his cape over his arm when the man stepped back. There were no shouts of alarm, not exclamations of surprise or calls for reinforcements, but Chanyeol still felt bothered by the whole situation, nerves on edge still while they were being guided away from the garden and towards the kitchens, right until they were left alone in a room once more.
He knew that Baekhyun had requested to tag along, and that he had to accept his conditions if he wanted him to behave, but had also known that bringing a merman along to the house of a mermaid collector wasn’t the most sensible option. Lord Choi would never know, not when that boy looked so human, when his accent was almost completely gone and his step looked natural, and Chanyeol had never been prudent anyway, but he was nervous this time.
What if they had discovered them? What if they got outnumbered? He could fight, and he was good, but he was only one man.
He should had taught Baekhyun to fight. To correctly hold a knife and fire a gun.
There’s no time for this, Park. Focus. “Well, we’re in,” he said.
The guards had left them in what looked like an unused service room, close to the pantry, with a robust wooden table and some chairs as the only furniture. There were no windows - the kitchens were below the ground floor - but there were two doors: one leading to the corridor they had used to come in, the other steering deeper towards the basement.
“I didn’t know we were early,” whispered Baekhyun. “Why come so soon?”
“We needed alone time, you and I,” replied Chanyeol with a wink. The other boy seemed somewhere in between suspicious and just confused, so he walked towards him and leaned on the table, close to where he had sat, lowering his voice to a whisper. “I just wanted to test my luck. Those guards are predictable: they have always brought me to wait to the same room, every time milord has called me for a mission but wasn’t ready to see me when I arrived.”
“So do you have a plan?”
“I get out the room and I investigate. This room is in the basement, and that’s the place of the house Oh Sehun mentioned. Aren’t I clever?”
“More like very lucky. And, in case you haven’t realized, I think there’s a guard outside.”
Chanyeol’s gaze followed Baekhyun’s gesture when he pointed at the door they had come from. He shook his head. “Not that,” he clarified. “The other one.”
“Isn’t that closed?”
“Most likely.” Chanyeol walked towards the second door in the room. It was made of heavy wood and was, as expected, didn’t even budge when he tried to push it open. “There’s a lock here. But don’t despair, I think that I have already told you that I am a man of many talents.”
Among all of the Guild children, Jongdae had always been the best at lockpicking. He was fast, methodical and so very efficient, to the point that even Kyungsoo had ended up admitting that, with the appropriate set of tools, there were few locks that could resist him. Chanyeol had never been that skilled - he lacked finesse and had too little patience - but he had learned enough from the lockpicking king to be decent.
“What is that?” asked Baekhyun when Chanyeol took his tools out. They weren’t very fancy, just a set of picks and a tension wrench, wrapped in a little bundle along with an extra, small dagger. “They searched you all over. Where in the great five seas were you hiding that?”
“Believe me, you don’t wanna know.”
Jongdae always talked about art when it came to lockpicking, but for Chanyeol it had always been more about being fast and lucky. Fortunately, that lock didn’t seem too complex to open: the pins inside were easy enough to pick, and the internal plug moved easily when he applied the right amount of torque with his wrench. In barely a couple of minutes, the door was open and Chanyeol was standing once more, smirking at a very wide-eyed Baekhyun.
“Hey, how did you do that? You have to teach me someday!”
“Oh, maybe I will. If you don’t try to use that knowledge to run away from me, that is. But well, now that this is done I am going out. Stay here, would you?”
Baekhyun opened his mouth to protest, but Chanyeol had left the room before he could actually said anything, leaving the door ajar behind him. The corridor at the other side went forward in a straight line, windowless and barely lit. He started to move forward, his extra knife firmly held in his hand, his stride determined and as silent as he could.
He still was in the storage zone of the house, and most of the doors he found were open and led to pantries and or junk rooms. There was nothing out of the ordinary there, just stored food and old paintings and furniture covered by sheets. Chanyeol wondered how far could he go before his absence was noticed, how much time he had left until he ran into someone. He had left Baekhyun behind after all, he couldn’t get into that much trouble.
The corridor branched, one of the passages heading left and then up, towards a set of stone stairs, and the other going left, towards a darker, unkept hallway. Chanyeol didn’t even doubt before moving towards the most ominous path - no one kept their secrets in broad daylight.
He didn’t have to walk much until he found stairs there too, carved from stone and heading down, whatever there was at the bottom engulfed in pitch-black darkness. He took a deep breath and started to descend, feeling around with his feet before supporting his way on every step, keeping his body the close to the wall.
The air was thicker down there, damp and musty and heavy, stale like the atmosphere in a room that hasn’t been opened in ages. Chanyeol scowled and went on, with his fingers grazing the wall, eyes squinted in the darkness.
The corridor, thanks god, wasn’t long. It splitted at the end, the smallest path leading to a small, empty room, the main room coming to an abrupt end in front of a robust metal door.
There was light there, coming from two simple torches on rings nailed to the walls. It was enough to see the steel hatch secured in one side of the surface, adjoining door and wall, and the heavy padlock hanging from the eyelet - open.
So. What do we have here? The door was too thick to move it without making noise, if there was someone beyond they would hear. He bit his lip, pondering what to do. That was when he heard the sound of steps, so faint that it was almost unnoticeable, coming from somewhere behind him and getting closer. Hell.
The fork in the passage was just a couple of steps at his back and Chanyeol sneaked into it, back pressed flush against a wall and dagger in his hand. He was unprepared for a fight, with a knife so small, but, judging by the steps there was only one person moving towards him. He could overpower one man, as long as he could surprise him.
His victim was close now, his figure moving towards the door, dragging his feet on the stone floor. So Chanyeol moved, then, as fast as a shadow, as silent as death. The stranger was much smaller than him, disconcerted and unprepared, and he didn’t even have time to scream before the boy covered his mouth, pressed him against the wall of the secondary passage, knife on his throat and lips against his ear.
“What is that room for?” he asked in a growl. “Is it where your Lord keeps the slaves?”
The figure squirmed under his weight, letting out a pained, low whine when Chanyeol took his fingers away from his lips, just enough to let him breathe.
“I have no idea,” he whispered. “Chanyeol.”
He knew that voice. He would had known it anyway - he was too used to hearing it, every hour of every one of his days, lately. “Baekhyun,” he groaned back. “What in the five seas are you doing here?”
“I am tagging along,” the boy whispered. “You’re not leaving me behind.”
“I could have killed you.”
“No, you wouldn’t have. See? I am alive.”
“Look, fishboy, this is not a game. If you don't--” There was a long screeching sound then, and Chanyeol froze, muttering a profanity that would probably had made Yixing glare at him in reproach. Covering Baekhyun’s mouth once more, he practically threw himself at the opposite wall in the corridor, stilling there, back against the humid stone and his partner’s body held in place, his back to his chest. “Quiet now,” he whispered.
The creaking went higher, then stopped, but there were voices now: two of them, male. Both Chanyeol could recognize; none of them he liked. Not at all.
“Now that the documents have been signed everything should be in order, isn’t it so?” That was Lord Choi’s booming voice, too pompous and loud for that place. He had expected that, but he frowned when he heard the other man reply. So Oh Sehun hadn’t lied and he was there after all. Not only doing business with milord, but also joining him in his dark basement room.
Kris, who apparently didn’t had enough with being the shadiest black market dealer in town but also loved sticking his nose in anything essentially suspicious looking.
“I’ll take care of the next batch being dispatched, then. The chosen ones will be sent to the usual warehouse. The others we will resell, isn’t that right, boss?”
“It is correct, “ Lord Choi said, then coughed. Chanyeol couldn’t see them from where they were, but he heard the rattle of steel, and then milord’s weary sigh. “Would you mind closing the door yourself? I have too many keys, and my eyes are not that sharp anymore. I really need to do something about this illumination. It is most inconvenient.”
“Don’t worry about it. My key is always safe in my waistcoat pocket.”
Chanyeol would have snorted. Of course the idiot was wearing a waistcoat. He remained still and silent, however, once the backs of the two men entered in his field of vision, a couple of minutes after. They had finally closed their padlock, it seemed, and were calmly heading out.
“I will see that everything is done as you want it,” was saying Kris, his blonde hair coiffed back and his shoulders squared, and then he laughed when Lord Choi replied something that Chanyeol couldn’t quite hear. Seconds after that, they were gone, the echo of their steps fading into silence.
“Well, that was close,” the boy muttered. He leaned back, his body almost slumping onto the wall and Baekhyun’s soft hair against his neck and cheek and lips. He remained like that for a second until he felt the other boy’s hand moving, his long, thin fingers over his own, moving them away from where they have been on his mouth.
“You didn’t need to do that,” he complained, his breath warm. “I wasn’t going to scream, or to move. You didn’t need to hold me.”
He stayed where he was, despite his words, his head turned to look at him, and Chanyeol didn’t let go. “I know. I was just making sure.”
“We need to go through that door.”
“I figured, fishboy. But not now. There is a padlock there and milord will come looking for us. We need to play along.”
“And then what?”
“There will be a chance. We’ll use it.”
Baekhyun didn’t look convinced at all, but he nodded anyway, walking to the metal door when Chanyeol finally released him. “I’m close,” he muttered. “I know it. I can feel it.”
“We will make it,” replied Chanyeol, and for a moment he felt the weight of his words, the true meaning of them. He wanted Baekhyun to succeed. He wanted him to find what he was looking for. Beyond the tears, beyond the obvious benefits that he would get if he fulfilled the boy’s conditions. The idea surprised him, made him lose his focus for a bit, and he just shook his head. “But come on. Let’s go back for now.”
The way back to their waiting room was fast and uneventful. Lord Choi’s basement was big and empty, with no servants or guards in that old part of the house. Chanyeol had time enough to check that the door they had come through seemed properly close, verify that their guard was still pacing the corridor at the other side of the place and then comfortably sit in one of the wooden chairs there, his back against the back and his feet on the table.
Ten minutes after, the door finally opened. “Park,” someone called him, and Chanyeol saw one of the entrance guards when he looked. “Lord Choi requests your presence.”
“Oh, really, so soon? And here I was, about to nap.”
The guard looked daggers at his dirty boots on the table, but said nothing as Chanyeol got up and followed Baekhyun outside. There were three more men there, waiting to escort them across the service area and up to the first floor of the house. Chanyeol had been there before and remembered - the Lord liked meeting their mercenaries in his drawing room, surrounded by his expensive paintings, imported carpets and ugly brocade sofas.
He was already there, in fact, when the guards led them inside, standing in the middle of the place with a black velvet jacket and a red silk waistcoat. He had a cane as well, its handle carved in the shape of a half-human, half-fish maiden. Chanyeol had never seen that one before.
“Ah, but if it isn’t our young Park boy. Has life been kind on you lately?”
There was one thing, and only one, that Chanyeol and Lord Choi had in common. They both were all smiles when it was convenient, all nice words and comments, laughter and apparent kindness instead of plain ruthlessness. It was a game Chanyeol was familiar with, a type of liar he had always been used to - he could go by the rules, but he also knew the dangers. Furious, angry people were much more easier to read.
“I can’t really complain, milord. I’ve been busy with work, I am still alive… There’s no much more an undercity child like myself can ask, right?”
“I suppose not, dear boy,” agreed Lord Choi, stretching his hand, family ring glistening on his finger, for him to kiss it. Chanyeol’s best smile was plastered on his lips as he moved forward to do it, and could feel the glint of satisfaction on the man’s eyes when he saw him lower his head. Upper city noblemen, even the clever ones, had always been stupid - they always thought that pride had the most to do with who bent their head and who did not. “I have heard from my men that you have a partner, however. And here I was, thinking that you were a lone wolf when it came to work.”
“Oh, I collaborate sometimes. When there’s certain… circumstances. Although he is here to stay, I suppose. Milord, meet Baekhyun from the Byun family. He has come to our city from the north.”
Lord Choi’s eyes travelled to Baekhyun for the first time, and then widened in his big, rounded face. The boy didn’t lose a second and walked towards him, all traces of clumsiness gone when he bowed his head and kissed the ring, the same way Chanyeol had done. He was a head shorter than Lord Choi, and was dressed in a frayed shirt instead of silk and brocade, but there was a natural grace in him that made him look much more the noble than the other man would ever be.
“I see why you would like to keep him around,” the Lord commented appreciatively. Chanyeol decided to roll his eyes and plonk himself down on the cushions of one of those very expensive looking sofas. There was a small coffee table in front of him, and he was tempted to rest his feet atop of it as well, only to see milord frown, but in the end he settled against it.
“Baekhyunnie? He has helped me with this whole mermaid business. He is much braver than he looks, everyone would like to keep him,” he stated with a shrug. “But luckily for me, I am the one who got him as a partner. Which brings me to the reason I have come to see you, milord. Why don’t we talk about business?”
There was a glint of interest in Lord Choi’s eyes as he sat in a heavy armchair, opposite from where he was. “Straight to the point, huh?” he said, his tone all cordial, while he took a small handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and coughed into it, the sound rattled and loud. “Ah, Park, excuse me. These autumn winds are not good for my lungs.” He waited until Baekhyun was seated too, close to Chanyeol in the couch, and then proceeded speaking. “Well then, I have heard from a valuable ally of mine that you may have… access to something I am looking for.”
“I guess it’s safe to speak here?” said Chanyeol, looking around before leaning forward, forcing himself to grin in absolute confidence. “We have an anonymous client, and he has captured a mermaid. Or a merman, we should say. He is apparently male.”
“He is approximately Chanyeol’s size, and can transform into a humanoid shape when he’s out of water,” added Baekhyun. “He still keeps traces of his old nature, though. Pointed teeth, from what I’ve seen. Clusters of red scales on his skin, webbed fingers. He has stingers on his skin when transformed. Does it sound familiar to you?”
“Indeed.” Lord Choi smiled at them, and Chanyeol felt the coldness of a shiver creeping up his spine. “I might be… interested in buying what your client has to offer, but why is he sending you instead of personally coming to see me?”
“Simple. He owns what the whole city is looking for. You, milord, are not the only one who would pay for one of the legendary merfolk. So, this is what your client wants.” Chanyeol raised a finger to count. “One, his identity to be kept secret, even after the trade is done. Two, the merman to be kept safe and hidden. We can arrange a meeting for you to see the merchandise, of course, but is has to be done in a secure place, without third persons knowing. Is that clear? And third, of course. Our client has heard that you are offering a lot of money for what he has, but he doesn’t know how much. We need to know. You have to be the top bidder if you want the big prize, right?”
The Lord remained silent for a while, his expression unreadable under his beatific smile. Chanyeol didn’t move, calmly waiting with his body leaning forward on the seat and his hands on his knees. He felt Baekhyun’s fingers grazing his side and clutching the fabric of his shirt in worry under his leather vest, but when he casted a look at the other boy, he had his eyes on Lord Choi, expression solemn.
“Very well,” the man finally said, with a benevolent sigh. “Your conditions seem sensible. I will arrange a meeting if your client finds that adequate. Does he have any preferences about a meeting place?”
Chanyeol had to fight to keep his face neutral. “As long as we can safely move the merchandise there, any secured place you can provide will do.”
“Very well. I will look into it and give you an answer before you leave. As for the other things…” The man got up with a grunt, his massive body almost stuck in the armchair. “Why talk about it when I can show you? Please, my dearest friends, come with me.”
Something tingled when he stepped forward, and Chanyeol clearly saw it - the bunch of keys hanging from a ring on his belt, under his velvet frock coat. Baekhyun’s hand was on his shirt again, as they both stood up, and the boy faintly nodded. The key of the basement was there, the only remaining things to do were knowing which one it was and stealing it without milord knowing.
Well, that certainly was going to be challenging.
“Park Chanyeol,” Lord Choi said then, and the boy tried to look very, very solicit and ran to his side as he walked, moving towards the door in one side of the room. “As you might already know, I am a collector. I relish beauty… and challenge. I want the flower who only grows in the snow to be part of my garden. I want the animal about to become extinct to be mine before its species fade into oblivion. There’s only two things I desire: to collect and to enjoy my collection as long as possible. Do you understand, boy?”
“Do I need to understand? I am just your weapon.”
“Ah, undercity children. Such a waste of life and youth sometimes. Although no one can deny that you’re… useful.”
They had reached the main hall of the house, a massive room with white marble floors and a tall, proud ceiling. There was a lamp hanging in the middle of it, a sparkling monstrosity made of metal and glass, and the stairs leading to the second floor seemed to surround it, almost like they were keeping it captive.
“Useful, that’s for sure,” muttered Chanyeol, hurrying to support Lord Choi when he started to go up the stairs and stopped to catch his breath mid-step. Up close, his face was very white, but it was more sallow than pale. It looked almost transparent, the blue veins branching under the skin. “We are happy to serve, we kids of the slums.”
If Lord Choi had noticed the faint sting in his voice, he did his best to ignore him and concentrated all of his efforts on supporting his weight of him. He smelled like his own basement - old, and musty, like humidity and naphthalene.
“You are a promising boy, Park. Much more than the others who come to visit me. You know how to speak,” the man continued when they reached the landing in the second floor. The great hall looked much more impressive from up there, and Baekhyun’s eyes, behind them, widened for a second when he saw. “You will do well in life if you learn to know where your place is. You have… potential. That’s why I’ll show you.”
He led the way across an elegant corridor, with the walls covered in what looked like old family portraits and the floors carpeted in red, stopping in front of a set of big, double doors painted in white. He searched in his bunch of keys for a moment, and Baekhyun used the distraction to sneak to Chanyeol’s side and elbow him in the ribs.
“I know,” the boy mouthed. He had the exact amount of time to replace the smile on his face before Lord Choi found the key he was looking for and inserted it in the lock.
“Look at this,” he said. “It is only a small portion of my collection, but it is, nonetheless, part of my pride.”
The door opened in utter silence and Baekhyun, still behind Chanyeol, couldn’t muffle the faint, little gasp that came out from him lips. He had sounded as horrified as Chanyeol himself felt, deep down, but the Lord smiled at him, his little eyes crinkling into crescents.
The room was huge, bigger than the drawing room or the main hall, than any other room Chanyeol had seen. There were no windows on the walls, but portions of the ceiling were made of glass, letting the afternoon light in. It would had been a pretty place, the boy thought, if it wasn’t for the display cabinets.
There were everywhere, some of them lined along the walls, others organized in rows in the center of the room. Part of them were filled with water, or sand or plants, and a couple at the back seemed completely empty, but there were animals in most of them. Big birds of prey hanging from the top of the glass with open wings, a wolf frozen mid-howl... Still, immobile creatures, all of them. Dead and displayed in the room like some kind of macabre menagerie where no-one ever breathed, or moved, or made a sound.
“Those are corpses?” muttered Baekhyun. “All of them?”
“Not all.” Lord Choi was practically dancing between the display cabinets, smiling at them like they were something precious. Chanyeol had never liked the man, but was starting to feel sick at how happy he looked and how widely he smiled. “I have vivariums too. Terrariums for my plants, you see, insectariums for my plants and aquariums for my little fishes. But sadly, everything can’t be kept alive. Hence the taxidermy.”
“So that’s why you’re paying so much for a merfolk man? So you can stuff him and put him for display?”
Lord Choi’s eyes turned into dark slits. “Control your partner, Park,” he warned, still smiling. “But to answer your question, boy, a merman would be too valuable to just display him here with the other creatures… if I can avoid it. Those sea monsters are rare. Perhaps I could keep mine in an aquarium.”
“Sea monsters? Aquarium?” Baekhyun repeated in a shaky whisper. He was still standing by the door, fists closed and bottom lip slightly trembling, and Chanyeol went to him, held him by the waist while the Lord looked, to be able to whisper in his ear without him being able to overhear.
“Calm down,” he muttered. “We made it this far. Don’t make him suspicious.”
“But are you seeing this?” Baekhyun whispered back. “Are you listening to what he says? He would do this to--”
“Let him speak, Baekhyun. Don’t be stupid.”
The boy looked at him in disbelief. “Of course you wouldn’t understand,” he hissed. “You’re like him after all.”
“I will behave,” Baekhyun said aloud, stepping back when Chanyeol released him, his gaze conveniently low and his fingers interlaced at the front. He looked deliberately submissive, soft and vulnerable like the children-slaves for sale in the black market, and Chanyeol felt a sudden pang of guilt. And despite that, he didn’t have time for that, not then and there, not when Baekhyun had decided to act all angry in front of the man that could condemn them. So he glanced at him for the last time and then turned to Lord Choi, crossed the room to meet him and smiled like he didn’t want to punch him in the face.
He would never have a collection as macabre as that one. He would never stuff and display animal corpses. He had never, ever bought or sold slaves. But you chained Baekhyun up, a little, annoying part of his brain reminded him. You started doing all this to keep him. Knowing he would do anything.
“Lovers’ Quarrel?” a voice said, and Chanyeol glanced up just in time to see Lord Choi studying him, quietly, with that unnerving smile still on his face. He had to make an effort to remind himself that he wasn’t a master of deceit, but could be the best liar in the world.
“Something like that. He is… Baekhyun is not a man of your refinement but hasn’t grown up in the suburbs, either. He is too good sometimes, a little bit too innocent,” he said, practically tasting the bile in his tongue when he whispered it, almost like he was telling milord a very funny secret. “He is little sensitive when it comes to animals. This is not usually done to them in the place he comes from.”
“And you, boy? What do you think?”
Chanyeol had to do an active, conscious effort not to grimace. “I lack the spirit of a collector, sir. My lifestyle is too simple for me to understand things like this. I do think you are… dedicated, but I would prefer to spend my gold in weapons and food.”
“At least you are honest, kid,” admitted Lord Choi after a while. “Very well. Now let me show you what you came here to see. All this room was only an example, a way for you two to know that, as a collector, I won’t let another fine specimen of merfolk go to waste.”
“Another? Rumors said that you already managed to capture one before. Was it true, then?”
“Well, perhaps.” Lord Choi took his handkerchief out once more, coughed into it as if clearing his throat on the delicate fabric, and then started walking. There was a second set of doors near to where they stood also painted in white, much more simpler and smaller than the ones they had used for entering that place. Everything in that damned place was white - the floors, the walls, the windows, even the base of all the vivariums and display cases - pale and aseptic and disgusting. “But you’re not here to inquire about my property. You are here as a messenger, to inform your master, are you not?”
“That’s what we boys in the undercity do,” Chanyeol replied.
Lord Choi had taken his bunch of keys out again, and was switching between them, trying to find the correct one. Chanyeol considered taking them for a moment. That man was overconfident, he wouldn’t expect a knife on his throat in his own house, now would he? He could knock him out and lock him in that place, then run to the basement and find whatever he was hiding. It was strangely satisfying to think about it, more tempting that he would had dared to admit… But it was also a suicide. Lord Choi was paying all the mercenaries in town for a stupid mermaid hunt, he could as well pay for Chanyeol’s head. Not to mention Baekhyun’s.
“Now be sure to tell the man you’re working for,” milord started, a little gold key in his thick fingers and a smile on his lips as he inserted it into the lock. “This is what he will get if he agrees to give me what I want.”
The key turned in the lock, the door opened… and despite his training and the tension in his shoulders, Chanyeol gasped. There was gold at the other side, the most the boy had seen together in a room in his whole life. The room wasn’t very big, but it was full to the brim with treasures: coins piled up in the corners, cups and plates in heaps all around. Jewelry scattered on the floors, thrown there like they were cheap trinkets.
“Well, that’s a lot of gold,” Baekhyun’s voice said beside him. He sounded kind of wary, voice still too low and gaze held down.
“No wonder all the sellswords in town are so keen on helping you,” Chanyeol added, trying very hard not to focus on him and show interest instead.
“Of course it is, they are. Everybody has a price, you know? A thing they want, something they would give anything to have. That is money, always, shiny gold for those who don’t have anything else to lose. There are lots of people in the undercity who would kill for it. For money and prestige, or just the thrill of challenge. Don’t you think, Park?”
Like he wouldn’t know. “Maybe it is like that, sir,” he replied. That stupid place, with its dead animals and his coins and milord’s arrogant speech was starting to get on his nerves, disgust throbbing under his skin the same way the mark on his shoulder pulsed, a dull and constant pressure in his veins. “I will inform my client. I am sure he will be satisfied.”
Lord Choi clasped his hands. “Very well. If this is clear, I will arrange a meeting between myself and your master. I will sign a document of… confidentiality too. I suppose I can count on you to safely deliver it.”
“That’s what I’m here for, milord. Will you be preparing it now? Perhaps we could wait in the service quarters for you to get it ready. If we were in such a rush to even use Oh Sehun to contact you was because our client is, you know, in a hurry. The goods we have for sale are not easy to keep hidden.”
“It will do,” said Lord Choi, nodding. “Come with me, then.”
Chanyeol was wondering how much time it would take a busy man like Lord Choi to write, sign and seal an agreement on confidentiality. That time was his trump card, the actual minutes and seconds he had for roaming the house once more and try to force the padlock in the basement open. Probably he wouldn’t have much more than half an hour, but it was his best chance.
He needed to be fast, run as soon as the guards who were guiding them to their waiting room in the basement left them alone.
He would probably need Baekhyun to forgive him too, or at least to stop looking so annoyed, but he was a bit more clueless about how to approach that matter. He couldn’t just go to him and tell him something like Well, I know I technically chained you up to my bed when we met and that I still want you to cry for me but hey, at least I don’t have a room full of creepy, dead and stuffed ferrets. He needed a careful approach, something fancier, something like…
“Baekhyun,” he called. “What if we two go drinking?”
“You know, to have fun? To celebrate we closed the deal? When we… close it, I mean.”
“So you can get intoxicated? No.”
Okay, he had tried improvisation, and perhaps it hadn’t been a good idea. “Look, Baekhyun,” he started to say, and the guard guiding them across the basement corridors had the nerve to raise his eyebrows at him. Mockingly. “We shouldn’t be arguing here. This is not the time. We’ll talk when we go back home. Or when we go drinking.”
“We are not arguing, you are talking to yourself,” Baekhyun replied from where he was, turning to look at him with his nose raised so high that he could clearly see his nostrils. How endearing. “And I told you, I am not going to go--”
The boy had been walking a couple of steps ahead of him, practically in parallel with the guard leading the way. He was looking at him, so he couldn’t see the hit coming when a dark figure walked practically into him, colliding with him with a low grunt.
“Be careful!” Chanyeol exclaimed. The newcomer was huge compared to Baekhyun the impact made the boy lost his balance, his body dangerously staggering until big hands, covered in a pair of very expensive-looking leather gloves, came to rest on his shoulders, effectively stabilizing him. Chanyeol blinked, wondering for a second who in the world would use gloves indoors, until he realized the man was also wearing a silk shirt and a very pretentious black brocade vest. He nearly groaned in annoyance - that was the last thing that he needed. “Kris,” he called.
“Ah, but if it isn’t Park Chanyeol,” the other man said. His facial expressions always ranged between various levels of contempt and utter boredom, but he looked quite smug that day, his lips almost, almost curving into a smirk. “The boss told me he was meeting you this afternoon. I already told him not to trust you.”
“Well, that’s a really wonderful opinion, but no one has actually asked for it.”
“Oh, now that I think of it, milord also mentioned that you had a partner. Is he the one?” As expected, Kris proceeded to ignore him and focused on Baekhyun instead. He was holding the boy in place with hands bigger than his head, and Chanyeol had been expecting him to glare at Kris in annoyance like he did to him, but that wasn’t the case. Baekhyun looked pensive, with his head tilted, just a little, and his lips parted. Why the hell does he look so impressed?
He would had been lying if he said he hadn’t been anticipating the moment when Baekhyun decided to return into his usual snotty prince mood and told Kris to take his stupid, grabby hand off him but, to his surprise, that moment didn’t actually come. Instead, the boy smiled at him, all lovely, and cute, and pretty like an angel. “I am Baekhyun,” he said. “I am very pleased to meet you.”
“Oh, I see. It is also nice to meet you, Baekhyun. I am Kris, of the Terminus black market.”
“And I am Chanyeol from the undercity Guild. Hi. Now would you mind getting out of the way? We have places to be in.”
“Come on, Park, don’t be rude. Learn from your partner - he is much more polite than you are.” Kris glanced down at Baekhyun and actually flashed a gummy smile at him. It looked so foreign on his usually stern face that Chanyeol had to blink to double-check. “I don’t know how your business agreement with Chanyeol works, but I’m sure whatever strike of luck he had comes from your side. He may be decent at mindlessly shooting at things but he lacks artfulness.”
“What does that even mean?” Chanyeol protested. Then he had to shut up, because Baekhyun giggled.
“I am the mermaid expert, of course most good things have happened because of my influence. I am the skilled one,” he said, leaning slightly forward. “Chanyeol there is just very helpful.”
“Well, I am sure I can be more helpful than he is. You look like an intelligent little boy. Wouldn’t you consider switching partners?” Kris asked. He should have been thankful that Chanyeol didn’t have his gun on him, because he was starting to feel the urge to shoot him in the face.
“What’s with you trying to steal my business associates in my face? Of course he’s not interested.”
Baekhyun placed a hand on Kris’ chest. “But maybe I am.”
“What? We have a deal!” protested Chanyeol. Baekhyun blinked at him, unmoving, and Kris looked so smug that the very foreign smile on his face seemed about to split his whole head in two. Even the guards were looking at him in sympathy one of them even smiling at him in encouragement.
“Well, it’s true that we do have a deal.” Finally, Baekhyun deemed appropriate to take pity on him and stepped away from Kris. The idiot was reluctant, but finally released him, an obnoxious general satisfaction aura still around him as he did so. “I am a man of my word. My loyalties lie with Chanyeol, for the good and the bad.”
“That’s a pity. You seem too capable for a gutter child like him.”
“I am capable indeed,” Baekhyun conceded. “But one has to do what he has to do. And now, if you’ll excuse us...”
For once in his life, Kris decided to listen to what he was being told and continued his way, smirking at Chanyeol one last time before he finally disappeared down the corridor. He was, without a doubt, the most annoying person the boy had the displeasure of knowing, and he knew they didn’t have time for that - and that he was a professional - but couldn’t help the scowl on his face when Baekhyun and him were left alone in the waiting room.
“What the hell was that?” he asked. Baekhyun moved to sit on the table, his legs dangling on air.
“That man hated you, Chanyeol. What did you do to him?”
“I may have hit him in the face with a metal spyglass when we were kids, but he stole my food before that. And besides, the feeling has always been mutual,” stated Chanyeol. “But anyway, I just… What were you doing with him? He is not only a black market dealer, he’s the worst of them. Look, if you are still angry and wanted to annoy me--”
Baekhyun blinked at him, all innocence. “Have you ever considered that the world does not revolve around you? All that had nothing to do with you.”
There was obvious amusement in Baekhyun’s eyes when his hand went to his pocket, such a sense of mischief about him when he took something out and showed it to him, all pleased and proud. A small, silver key. ”Remember when Kris mentioned that his basement key was always safe in his waistcoat pocket? I feel so sorry for him, but not anymore.”
Chanyeol gaped at him. “You took his key? You stole his--”
“We couldn’t even get close to the ones Lord Choi had, so I thought I’d try. He didn’t even realize.”
And neither had Chanyeol himself, for that matter. He was still kind of annoyed at Kris and his stupid gummy smirk, but Baekhyun was smiling so wide that he was practically gleaming, and then he was laughing so loud that he felt tears in his eyes.
“Oh my god, you’re a genius!” he whispered, leaning his hands on the boy’s shoulders to prevent himself from falling. Baekhyun let him, his previous animosity completely gone, both of his hands holding the little key in front of his face like it was some kind of silly offering, his eyes still gleaming with impish amusement and his cheeks slightly tinged pink.
“I did good, right? he asked. Chanyeol hadn’t seen something so beautiful in his whole life.
“Good? You did better than me!” he exclaimed. He realized that he was being loud, and that the clock was still ticking. He should be concentrating on the mission, not thinking… whatever the hell he was thinking. They didn’t really have that much time to spare. Focus, Park. What kind of professional are you? “Look, we’ll do this. I need you to stay and keep watch here. Distract the guards if needed, okay? I’ll go down to the basement.”
“Why only you?” protested Baekhyun. “This is my mission. We are in this together.”
“Because I have more experience when it comes to house burgling. And I can take care of the guards if I’m found. We cannot leave this room empty. Fishboy, please? We are almost there, we need every minute we can get. Let’s not argue.”
Baekhyun bit his lip. “Okay.”
“I’ll be right back.”
The back door was still open, and the corridor beyond dim and deserted. Milord was probably finishing his document and sealing it closed with wax, and Kris and his very ugly vest have been walking towards the opposite direction. He didn’t know how much time he could spare without risking it, but he would take as much as he could. Lord Choi had been right when he had said he normally was a solo worker - he knew how to move fast and how to act if he was caught, always sure that he would survive even if the situation took a great turn for the worse. But he couldn’t relish in recklessness, not that time. Not if Baekhyun was waiting for him, alone and unarmed.
Why in the world did I sign up for this mess?
The passage in the second basement floor looked as uninviting as it had before, the stone walls still eerily illuminated by the torches hanging from them. Chanyeol looked around one last time before crouching in front of the metal door and inserting Kris’ key in the hole in the center of the padlock. It met resistance for a moment when he tried to turn it, but it finally gave in, the metal shackle falling open with a clink.
Opposite to the lock, the hinges of the door were well greased, and Chanyeol didn’t have to apply much force to push it open. The intense stench of dampness hit him from the other side, much heavier than it had been in the corridors. There was also a faint, trickling sound, the soft splatter of water against rock, beyond the threshold.
“An underground stream?” Chanyeol murmured, frowning. He hadn’t thought about that, but it made sense, somehow. The basements of that house had been digged out in the stone of the mountain, and had been too damp for a mansion situated atop of a hill in the upper town, too far from the sea.
There was flickering, orange light at the other side, so Chanyeol just stepped in, closing the door behind him but taking the padlock with him. The room beyond was low-ceilinged but huge, a big, empty space more similar to a cave than to an actual alcove. There was, indeed, a stream at the bottom of the place, almost as wide as a small river, with black, swirling waters that disappeared into an opening in the wall. A wooden boat was secured to a miniature pier, shaken by a current strong enough to make it slightly score to the right. Four or five people could fit there - been sent in from somewhere up the stream, and then out through the heart of the mountain.
So that’s how he does it.
People, in fact, had been there not long ago. The traces of their presence were everywhere - heaps of ragged blankets close to the wall, an extinguished campfire in the middle of the place and a mess of footprints on the muddiest sections of the floor. Everything looked as tidy as it could be, not a single thing out of place.
“He likes order, huh? But there must be something.”
The course of the stream was impossible to follow once it rushed into the mountain. He would have had to step into the current for that, and the mere thought of submerging in deep, troubled waters send a shiver down his spine. He could imagine himself being dragged down, where there was no light and no air, lost below the old, solemn mountain. It was when he turned away from the stream, more shaken that he would have cared to admit, that he saw the small, wooden door, hidden in a bend on the cave walls.
Better there than here, he thought before making a beeline for it, sighing in relief when he found it open and could walk into a small, cramped room. “Well, bingo,” he muttered. “Of course a man so tidy would keep some kind of archive.”
Documents were tidily arranged in that room, in shelves that took up the whole walls, from floor to ceiling. Chanyeol knew Kyungsoo well enough to be able to recognize accounting books, labeled by year and neatly lined close to the door. And there was more, so many of them that it would have been impossible for the boy to check them all, even if he had whole hours to spare and not just minutes.
In occasions like those, he was so glad he had decided to join in when Kyungsoo had learned how to read and write. It had proven to be a useful skill for his job, even if Jongdae had scoffed at him when he had seen him trying to discern the letters scribbled in Kyungsoo’s calligraphy books. He doubted he would ever read an actual novel, but documents… Being able to know what was written on those was certainly practical when one made a living out of stealing from the rich.
He knew where to search, he knew what to look for, and labeled spines on the books and folders always made the job much easier. “Merchandise specifications,” he muttered, reaching out for a thick, bind folder. “Year 868 a.T. August to November.”
He carried the folder to the small table in the center of the room and unlaced the red ribbon that kept it closed. There were a myriad of documents inside, white letter paper and brownish parchment, piled in chronological order from most recent to oldest. Most of them followed a template, with a date of aquisition, sex, apparent age, date of shipment and list of deformities.
“Female, late teens, webbed fingers in hands and feet. Moderate probabilities, include in shipment,” he read in a whisper, his index finger following the lines on the pages. “Male, early forties, marks on skin, discarded. Male, middle twenties, has lacerations on skin, but webbed fingers and teeth sharpened into points, just like the specimen in the main warehouse. Ship to same location for comparison… Very well, but same location where?”
With so many documents there, Chanyeol just assumed that they would not miss a couple of the oldest ones, so he folded a handful of them and hid them under his shirt. He hastily closed the folder and put it back in his place, then turned around, eyes squinted, looking for something else.
“Come on, doesn’t our tidy milord keep a shipment record? Ah, there it is.” There was a whole shelf of them, as prettily ordered and labeled as everything else so he reached down for the most recent records, another identical folder filled with documents, all neatly written in dark, blue ink, and sealed and signed with red wax. The names at the bottom of the page were always the same: Lord Choi and, unsurprisingly, Kris.
“Shipment receipt. Four individuals… Ten here. How many people has he been sending?” Destination addresses were written there, along with the rest of the information. There was more than one, all of them close to the piers, all of them in the same part of town. Of course. He should had known. “Why is it always Terminus?”
He couldn’t waste that much time trying to guess if all the addresses where in use, or which ones would be useful for him so he took another handful of papers and hid them along with the others. He really hoped that Lord Choi didn’t check all of his documents daily or something, but he didn’t have time to think of a better solution if he wanted to take the information with him. He had left the basement almost half an hour ago - he didn’t have the time nor the means to try to copy them somewhere else.
But he had found what he had come to look for. And now he needed to head back.
He tried to leave everything as he had found it before walking out of the room and closing the exit door. It was strange, in a way, to had just left a natural cave carved in the mountain and be back in that dusty basement, rushing his way back to a waiting room in an upper town fancy house.
He was striding down the last corridor, so close to his goal that he could see the crack of light under the only remaining door when he heard the voices, one angry, the other just the right amount of arrogant.
“I told you that I don’t know where he is. He left a second ago, saying that he had urgent needs. As you may guess, I wasn’t going to ask further!”
“Listen to me, boy. If you’re lying to me…”
Chanyeol cursed under his breath. Kris. Kris was already there, with Baekhyun, and he didn’t sound happy. For a moment he felt a cold wave of panic, rising inside him until he was out of breath, quickening his heartbeat until all he could hear was the drumming pulse in his ears. Baekhyun’s hair was still silver beneath the dye and he still had scales on his legs. He was what everyone in that house wanted. If Kris had arrived before, if he had searched him...
He really, really wanted to close his fist and hit that idiot square in the noise, but they couldn’t allow themselves a fight, so instead he stopped to collect himself, then smiled and loudly pushed the door open. “Can you believe there’s nothing?” he said. “Not a single lavatory in this side of the house! There’s only dust, and cobwebs. How do they want me to wait if-- Hey, what’s going on here?”
Baekhyun was standing close to the table, his expression fierce and but his frame painfully small near to Kris’ tall form. “He came to give us the Lord’s document, but wanted to know where you went.”
“Why, one can’t even have a moment of privacy now? I was looking for the comfort room, you know. I, too, need to listen to the call of nature sometimes.”
“The call of nature? Park,” repeated Kris, looking rather unconvinced.
“What? Aren’t you friends with the Lord? You should tell him to set up a latrine in this part of the house, especially if he always keeps his guests waiting for half an hour.”
“Wasn’t that door closed?”
“What door, this one?” Chanyeol made a show of making it move on its hinges, and finally Kris stepped away from Baekhyun, his thick eyebrows frowned in confusion. “It looks very open to me. Maybe the lock is broken?”
“Look, Park, if you’ve been roaming around…”
“Roaming around for what? This isn’t even your house,” Chanyeol cut him. “As much as I know, and despite being used by the Lord as a messenger boy for my documents, you’re much of a guest here as I am, right? Though if you care so much, you could show me to an actual lavatory, you know? I am still a man in need.”
“Listen to me, Jongdae. We were so close to being discovered,” Chanyeol said. “We finally managed to get out of that house in one piece, but Kris now probably thinks I have some form of uncontrollable diarrhea.”
“Come on, it can’t be that bad.”
“He came with me to the servant latrines. I made him wait outside, for the sake of credibility. It was really mortifying, but his face after all of it was kinda worthy.”
“Honestly speaking? I would have loved to see that.”
“Baekhyun was awesome, too. He distracted Kris and stole the key of the basement room in his face. The idiot didn’t even realize.”
Jongdae raised his eyebrows. “Baekhyun, huh?” he repeated.
“That boy could be a master thief with the proper training.” Chanyeol said, tracing the tiny drops of moisture that had formed on the outside of his jar of beer with one finger. “It was kind of disturbing, though. Do you know the bastard tried to flirt with him?”
“Well, it doesn’t surprise me,” replied Jongdae after a while, flashing a little, thoughtful smile at him when Chanyeol looked up. “You know how he is. He has always loved going for the things you want.”
“That’s--” the boy started, then stopped. They had gone to the Sleeping Wolf to drink that night after all, Baekhyun and he, to meet Jongdae there and to celebrate together. Chanyeol had thought that was exactly what he needed after that day: to drink and to laugh and to stop thinking, to forget about the rush of sheer panic he had felt when he thought Kris could had discovered Baekhyun, or about the look on the boy’s face when he had told Chanyeol he and Lord Choi were alike. Jongdae was certain he wanted him, and, yeah, perhaps he was right. That was the easiest part to admit: that he had wanted Baekhyun since the very beginning - the boy with the flame of defiance burning bright in his eyes and skin so warm and soft under his fingertips. How could he not? Anyone in their right mind would have done so. “You have to admit he’s pretty,” he said.
“Very. And I’m not gonna be the one to give you advice about who to bed but, Chanyeol. Keep in mind that the reason we are doing all this is to get his tears.”
“I know that. I have a deal with him.” Baekhyun was close to the bar, at the other side of the room, listening to Minseok talk with his head tilted like a curious bird. He laughed then, long fingers travelling to his mouth, and Chanyeol couldn’t see it from his position, but he knew where the little scar on his arm was, could have found the little darkened oval on his skin with his eyes closed. It matched the silvery scale he kept in the pocket of his shirt after all, in size and shape, in consequence and meaning. “Don’t you think I have forgotten.”
“Well then, if that’s the case, then I have nothing to say.” Jongdae leaned forward and patted his shoulder across the table. “We are doing it well, and you got our info from milord’s basement of infamy. Why are you looking all moody and broody all of a sudden? Kim Minseokkie, bring us more beer!”
The sun had gone down, the night fog was not yet out and the tavern was crowded and noisy, but still not full. It would had been impossible for a person with a normal volume of voice to be heard over the chatter and laughter, but Jongdae had an innate ability to speak in a deafening tone and his voice spread over the noise like fire on gunpowder. A couple of very nasty looking sailors turned to glare at them, but Minseok heard too and raised his fist in the air in approval.
Moments later, he was walking towards them, with the drinks they asked for and Baekhyun in tow. They looked so happy, both of them, faces slightly red in the heat of the common room, and Baekhyun’s hand on Chanyeol’s shoulder when he sat beside him.
“These ones are on the house.” It was Minseok who spoke, and was received by Jongdae’s elated whistle. “Don’t get used, though. It is just this once, to reward you for helping Baekhyun. I really wasn’t expecting to see him here with you tonight. I had to bribe Chanyeol before, for him to want to lend the poor boy a hand!”
Baekhyun hummed and leaned his head on Chanyeol’s shoulder. He looked comfortable there, and satisfied, and just a little bit tired, like any other boy his age would had been after a day like theirs. “I could convince him in the end,” he said. He seemed much more at peace than Chanyeol felt.
They returned home not much later, with Baekhyun slightly tipsy and clinging to his arm and Chanyeol steading him with a hand around his shoulders. Yixing had already went to sleep, turning all the lights in the store off except for a small kerosene lamp in the counter. He had also left a note there, hastily scribbled on an ink-stained letter paper.
“He thought you might want to have a bath when we arrived,” Chanyeol said after the second it took him to decipher Yixing’s messy calligraphy. “The washtub is apparently full in the backroom. Not seawater, I think, but…”
“That’s nice of him,” replied Baekhyun. He had his head tilted up to look at him, and then he giggled. Not like he had done when he had been talking with Kris but softer, more gently. “You know, it’s kind of odd. That you Dryskin leave messages to each other that way.”
And Chanyeol guessed he could have said a lot of things - boasted about his own ability to read, asked if there weren’t submarine equivalents to letters, in the place he came from - but he heard the question in Baekhyun’s voice, even if the other boy hadn’t asked aloud. “I can teach you to understand them. Also to write, if you want. Once all of this is over.”
Baekhyun smiled at him, but Chanyeol couldn’t tell if he was happy or sad. “I’d like that,” he answered, before turning towards the back room door.
The main floor was too silent, too full of shipwreck treasures and junk to make him feel comfortable once the other boy was gone, so Chanyeol went up to their shared room. It was also awfully quiet up in the attic, but at least he had things to do there. He changed clothes, took all the knives he had concealed in his attire that day, checked the blades one by one, even if he knew they were clean and sharp. He was lying on the bed, eyes fixed on the ceiling, when he heard the door opening.
“Hey,” he whispered, chuckling when he realized Baekhyun had discarded his pants and shoes again, and was once more dressed in a shirt that looked a bit too big on him. “How are the wounds on your feet going?”
“Better,” Baekhyun whispered back. Chanyeol had not wanted to turn off the light while he was alone, and the lamp on the dressing table was lit at maximum intensity. Baekhyun’s scales were burning gold, his hair was as white as the mist on the streets, and Chanyeol thought once more of the blue-haired kids holding hands in the Terminus market, of the rare plants and preserved animals in Lord Choi’s display room.
He is not human, Yixing had said. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that he is not sentient.
“Well, today went well, don’t you think? We’re a step closer,” he commented, and Baekhyun nodded.
“I am thankful,” he said, walking to the dressing table and fumbling with the light until he made the blazing flame fade into a flickering little thing. He had never touched a kerosene lamp before as far as Chanyeol knew, but he had found and turned the little knob in the burner in a matter of seconds.
“Don’t be. Not yet.” Not to me.
“But I am,” Baekhyun replied after a short pause. He walked towards him until he sat on the bed, his back to him but his head turned to look at him in the eye. He had dye stains in the back of his neck, black splotches of ink that disappeared beneath his shirt, and Chanyeol felt the foolish impulse to trace the marks with his fingers, to follow the line of his spine and his shoulder blades outlined through the fabric of his shirt. “I came up here without knowing a thing, and now I… It’s thanks to you that I’m moving forward.”
“Nah, not me. You saved my ass with Sehun and with the whole Kris situation.”
“Okay, so not only you. But I think we make a good team.”
“Do we, really?”
Baekhyun shifted until he sat facing him, legs bent on the bed and body leaning towards him with one hand stretched to playfully hit him in the shoulder. “Hey, what’s wrong with you today?” he asked. “You are always confident but tonight you look so… upset.”
“I am not,” Chanyeol replied. He reached out to hold Baekhyun by the wrist, his fingers circling the soft skin so easily it was almost ridiculous. He didn’t miss the way Baekhyun’s breath hitched when his thumb grazed the scar he had there, shaky like a little animal’s, faint like the whisper of a ghost. He would had liked to know what the other boy was thinking, but dreaded the answer at the same time.
“Minseok, the innkeeper,” Baekhyun whispered after a while, licking his lips. “He thinks you’re helping me because you’re fucking me. All of them do. Jongdae, and Kris, and that Lord in the upper town. That we are lovers.”
“I told you: let them. It’s better like this.”
“I know.” Baekhyun looked at him with dark, dark eyes. “But why lie to them?”
He leaned forward, then, and Chanyeol didn’t try to stop him. Undercity kids never asked for reasons, they just let themselves go and took what they wanted. And want Chanyeol did, want so much, want everything, from the pressure of Baekhyun’s lips on his to the way he trembled under his fingers when he turned them around.
His fishboy, so good, and so warm, and so sensitive, with his eyes blown wide and his legs spread. He always fought like a beast, but he parted his lips for him without an ounce of resistance, whispering his name like a prayer against his mouth when he drew out, letting out a broken, choked moan when Chanyeol found the pulse on his neck.
He was so beautiful like that, and Chanyeol had never wanted so much to wreck someone, to mark until the whole city saw, to touch him until he was begging for it, his skin flushed red and his breath ragged. His hand was on his thigh, and his vision went blurry when he scraped the scales breaking his flesh and Baekhyun whimpered, then turned white when his fingers grazed the curve of his ass and the boy practically screamed.
He wondered, if he could come with just his fingers, if he put them in. If he would arch against him and come undone. Baekhyun would let him, he would totally allow.
Baekhyun, the boy who would do anything to get what he wanted.
“That’s enough for you,” Chanyeol whispered against his mouth. He needed all his willpower to pull out, and Baekhyun followed when he moved, moving with him until he was mouthing on air, like a fish out of water. He looked confused, and upset and thoroughly kissed.
“What are you… Why do you…?”
“Look, fishboy, I might be a bastard but I still have a tiny little bit of morality left. We are stopping this here.”
It took a moment for Baekhyun to process the information, but his face fell when he did, his eyes wide and vulnerable for the fraction of the second it took him to look away. “You don’t want me?” he blurted, his voice lowering from shock to disappointment. “Of course you don’t. You wouldn’t want a foamborn.”
He was squirming now, trying to get away from where he was trapped under Chanyeol, but the boy slid a finger under his chin, softly making him turn his head to look at him. “This is all very convenient, huh? You’re pretty, you’re lonely and you’re missing your lover. It’s not exactly about wanting you or not. You are still my prisoner, fishboy, not some kind of slave.”
“What does being a slave has to do with--” Baekhyun started, then blinked up at him in confusion. “Wait, lover? What lover?”
“That soldier you’re looking for?”
Baekhyun make a second attempt to sit up and that time Chanyeol let him, accommodating on the bed beside him, back against the headboard. “You thought he was my lover? Where did you get that idea from? It’s my… It’s my older brother I’m searching!”
Now it was Chanyeol’s time to blink. He didn’t know if he felt relieved, conflicted or just confused. “What?”
“Did you really think I’d let you grab my ass if I were doing all this to look for a lover?”
“And how do you expect me to know how physically loyal you merpeople are to your partners? You seem rather casual about sex, offering yourself around as part of a deal.”
There was a long, pregnant pause. “Well,” said Baekhyun. “I thought it would work. I am considered beautiful by the standards of my people.”
“I see. Also humble?”
“Hey! It’s not vanity if I’m speaking the truth! I would be very well wanted if I wasn’t foamborn!”
“What is that foamborn thing even about?”
Baekhyun parted his lips but fell silent, hands falling on his lap. His hair was a silvery mess that almost concealed his eyes when he shook his head and he looked kind of sad, once more, as if someone had suddenly dimmed the light that always burned bright behind them.
“Of course you would know,” he said with a tiny smile. “It’s a term from my people. It’s how the shoal call those who are born broken.”
“I’m… sorry, but what’s that supposed to mean?”
“We are said to be born in the tempest, so we are also called Children of the Storm. Mothers fear when there’s a gale over the ocean when they are giving birth, because their children could be corrupted. Old stories say that the tempest affects us and turns our hearts as volatile as the foam from the waves, so we crave, and we yearn, and we desire,” Baekhyun explained, voice soft and gaze focused in the darkness of the city beyond the window, in the place the ocean should had been. “I told you about the shoal, didn’t I? It works like a big, great body with a common mind. The shoal teaches us all we need to know and puts the greater good above all else, but foamborn children cannot adapt. The whole group must work together by setting aside our own selfish desires. But we feel strongly, we are cursed in a way, because we are constantly restless. I have known my place since the start, I understand what I have to do, but I’ve always felt this… curiosity. I left the shoal, sometimes, to explore coral reefs or ruins of Dryskin shipwrecks, or went up, while the others slept, to see the storm. My brother is like that, too. That’s possibly why he asked to make his patrols near the human world in the first place.”
“Is that… being foamborn thing something common?”
Baekhyun huffed. “No. It just happens sometimes, like a glitch in nature. My brother and I only share the same mother but our curse is the same. Besides us, there’s no one else like that in the whole shoal. Even our mother is normal, though maybe something is wrong with her too, deep down. She was claimed by a soldier as a reward for his heroic deeds in battle and gave birth to my brother. Most merfolk are forbidden to have sons once they have fathered a Child of the Storm, but she was young, and beautiful, and helped guide the shoal away from an enemy clan attack, so she was allowed to claim a second partner. She chose my father and I was born, and apparently it was a shock for the whole shoal. She was forbidden to mate with males from then on, the same way my brother and I are not allowed to mate with fertile females. We are branded by the storm, and that storm can mark our children, too.”
The light chuckle that came from Chanyeol’s lips was humorless. “And I thought the undercity was dreadful and unfair. Isn’t that a little bit harsh?”
“Harsh on whom?” replied Baekhyun. “On my mother? I don’t think she minds much. As for my brother and me… There’s always infertile girls, if you are into that, and personally I like boys much better. I told you, I am beautiful enough, so I manage to get claimed. Not for lifelong partnerships, but, you know, temporal claims. Some days, a week, one month… mostly by soldiers who help the clan or who are brave during battle. My brother is not usually that lucky.”
Chanyeol did not answer. He didn’t really know what Baekhyun thought being lucky was, but their concepts for the term didn’t seem equivalent. “Didn’t you feel lonely?” he asked instead. “With a life like that?”
The boy’s gaze left the darkness beyond the window and traveled to him. He hesitated for a while. “Maybe I did, sometimes,” he admitted. “But being lonely comes from craving, and craving is a sign of the storm. Wrong feelings go away, most times, if you don’t listen to them.”
The bed creaked when Baekhyun moved, leaning his back on the headboard and closing his eyes with the same dejected little smile. He was the same boy brave enough to stand proud in front of a mercenary and offer him a deal, to deceive a black market dealer and steal a key in his face for the sake of his mission. The same one who had looked at the stalls in the market with his eyes shining with wonder while not uttering a word about the pain in his feet. The one who always had a reply, always an answer, learned so fast by himself but wanted Chanyeol to teach him how to pick locks, and to fight, and to write and read.
He had left his people behind and come to a world that was strange and violent to search for the only person who he thought was like him. He had given his tears and his freedom away for a mere chance of finding him without even hesitating. And, even after all of that, there he was, sitting in his bed and looking so small with that sad smile on his lips like he really believed something was wrong with him.
Chanyeol had always thought that he didn’t have a soul anymore, that he had lost it somewhere, somewhen, but he felt the heartbreak, then, hitting him like a punch in the guts, twisting inside his chest until he couldn’t breathe.
“I don’t understand,” he whispered, “who could tell you that loneliness is something bad to feel. Who in the world, Baekhyun, would call you broken.”
The boy turned to look at him, eyes wide, but still warded. “I was born in the storm,” he protested, as it that proved any point.
“And what about that?” Chanyeol said. “I fell to the sea in the middle of a gale and thought that I’d die, but I came back. I died in the tempest and was reborn in it. If you are a Child of the Storm, then so am I, in my own way. And that has never made me weak, Baekhyun, only stronger.”
Jongdae came to see them next midday, when Chanyeol and Baekhyun were helping Yixing to prepare with an especially large order in his store.
“I’m glad to see you all here, all diligent and busy, but it’s time for you all to stop what you’re doing,” he announced, after literally barging in and navigating the room until he found a place free of boxes and crates. “I’ve been investigating and I found what we’re looking for.”
Baekhyun had been taking a break after a whole morning of packing and sealing boxes closed, so he was the first to look up in surprise. He was grateful for Jongdae’s help - he usually complained but, when in the right mood, he was fast and methodical at getting information. When he hadn’t been able to find the streets in a map, Chanyeol had given him the addresses he had found in Lord Choi’s basement, and Jongdae may had scowled at him but he had left to ask his contacts anyway. Even though this all had happened barely a day ago, he was already back to them, looking around the store with shiny, mischievous eyes and a rather smug smile.
“Now that I think of it, what’s in all those boxes you’re carrying around, Yeol?” he asked, stopping in front of his friend and trying to lift the lid of the crate he was carrying. “Sand? Seashells? Metal spyglasses to hit Kris in the head the next time you see him? We could use that, you know. As self defense.”
“It’s fishing nets!” Yixing exclaimed from the backroom. “I got an order for fifty of them! They are helping me pack as a way to pay their rent.”
“So manual work, huh? That’s pretty nice, but I’ll need you to stop for a while and give me the attention I deserve. Didn’t you hear? I made improvements.”
“Relevant improvements, I hope?” Chanyeol walked back to the counter to leave his box on it and tangled one hand in the dark locks of damp hair over his forehead, trying to get them away from his face. Baekhyun was watching him from the corner of his eye, following his movements almost automatically and felt strangely shy when he turned his head and realized Jongdae had caught him staring. “Did you manage to locate where the addresses in Lord’s Choi’s papers lead to?”
“It was a pain in the ass but yeah. Maybe.” Jongdae looked so incredibly satisfied. “You were right about the map thing. It was… complicated to find a, um, very illegal and shady place in a very illegal and shady district, especially when that district is officially abandoned. But alas, I did! More or less. Aren’t you proud?”
“It depends on what ‘more or less’ means.”
“It’s just a matter of accuracy,” explained Jongdae. He moved towards the counter until he leaned on it, his elbows on the cold surface, just at the same time as Yixing finally came out. “I managed to track the addresses until one of the oldest warehouse sectors in Terminus. Do you remember those shabby storage places close to the sea? The ones north from the main black market, that apparently no one uses.”
“The ones that look like they are going to fall down?”
“Exactly. After a whole day of asking my contacts around and exploring the area I have come to the conclusion that, whatever Lord Choi and Kris are doing, they are probably doing it there. Those places are big enough to keep a large amount of people inside and so wrecked they look like ruins, not to mention separate enough from the market zone to be… discreet.”
Baekhyun felt a sudden rush of heat in his chest, a tingling that spread through his body and remained like a ghost in the tip of his fingers, intense like the lightning that tore the sky in two when the tempest came. He had known they were getting close, had counted the days remaining to the next full moon with a growing spark of hope in his heart, but the actual end of his mission had always seemed like an abstract goal - something that was there, getting closer and closer but still somewhere beyond. An undefined concept that suddenly was mere steps ahead for him to grasp.
“Do you think that the person I am looking for is there?” he asked.
Jongdae raised his eyebrows at him. “I don’t know, maybe? I located the general zone, but there are two or three warehouses that could be the place we are searching for. And inside of the buildings… Who knows? There’s no way in heaven I was investigating that by myself, so I thought I’d came to see Yeol. My chances of surviving life-death situations usually increase when he’s with me.”
“So do you want to go there?” Chanyeol asked, thoughtful. “When, now?”
“Better sooner than later, don’t you think?”
Chanyeol looked at the mess of crates around him. “Will you excuse us?” he asked Yixing. The other man shrugged with an absent smile on his lips.
“I’ll manage without you two,” he replied. He didn’t look big or strong enough to carry by himself all the boxes Chanyeol had been moving around but he didn’t seem concerned at all. “But please tell me what you find if you see something. All of this is very intriguing.”
“If you insist… But wait a second, Jongdae, I’ll go get my weapons.”
Chanyeol headed to the stairs and Baekhyun rushed to follow, the sound of his feet echoing in the wooden floor. He heard Jongdae loudly clearing his throat before he saw them move to stand in his way, his lips tight in an awkward, uneasy smile. He grabbed Baekhyun by the shoulder with strong fingers but looked at his friend instead.
“Yeol,” he started. “I know you love bringing your mermaid boy everywhere but… wouldn’t it be better if just the two of us went this time?”
Baekhyun turned to him, speechless. “What?”
“I don’t have anything against you, but I just don’t think it is the best idea to bring a mermaid person to the one, isolated place where the most evil guys in town are most possibly using to do shady business with mermaids, or slaves, or mermaid slaves. Do you get my point?”
“I have been in Terminus before!” Baekhyun protested. “I have been in Lord Choi’s house, too.”
“But, one, you were in disguise or pretending. And, second, I wasn’t there.” Jongdae released him, placing his hands on his hips instead. “Look, boy, Chanyeol may think you are terribly wonderful, but you haven’t grown up in the undercity like we have. People here have been trained to fight, and to play dirty. Taking you to the market is one thing, but I won’t risk someone shooting you - or me - in the head because you want to tag along in a stupid reconnaissance mission.”
Chanyeol sighed. “Jongdae--”
“I don’t want to break into the place here and now, not in broad light and when I don’t know what’s inside. I just want to go, and hear, and listen until I know what’s going on and when it’s safe to proceed. We are risking our necks here, I want to be cautious and bringing a merboy to milord’s warehouses of hell is probably the least cautious thing ever.”
The sharp reply was almost out of Baekhyun’s throat when Chanyeol spoke. “Okay, very well, we’ll go alone.”
Chanyeol was already heading up to the attic and Baekhyun followed once more, his heart pounding in his chest and his breath ragged. He was panting when he managed to catch up, stopping only to close the door before facing the other boy.
“I want to go,” he said. “This is my mission. This is what I’m doing here. I want to be there, no matter how dangerous.”
It was the first time Baekhyun saw Chanyeol wear a cape and he observed him, his brow frown, while he draped a black cloak around his shoulders, securing the brooch closed over his collarbones. He was already carrying his usual weapons, secured in the belt below - his revolver, another pistol and a long, curved knife. “This is not about the whole situation being dangerous, it’s about us being efficient and mainly Jongdae being happy.”
“Fishboy, listen.” Chanyeol ran his hand over his hair again. “Jongdae is used to working with me only, and I understand him getting nervous, so let’s make him happy this time. This is just a patrolling mission. We’re not going to find your brother without you because we won’t be breaking in. If there’s something there, I’ll take you next time, okay? Don’t you trust me?”
Baekhyun’s lips parted to say no. It was the first thing the shoal taught to every child, and the first that he had learned when he had arrived in the Dryskin city: humans were barbarians, humans were chaotic and cruel, humans were not to be trusted.
And Chanyeol least of all. He had took him to places and shown him things, he was helping him and actually giving his all in the mission, but even though he acted nice, that didn’t have to mean he was good. He wanted his tears, exactly like Jongdae did. Even though he seemed positively appreciative every time Baekhyun did what he wanted instead of what he was told to do.
Even though he had looked so honest, and so horrified when he had told him he didn’t understand how a foamborn like Baekhyun could be broken.
Something in his chest had ached, then, the same way it was aching now. A nice jailer was still a jailer and he should not trust. And Chanyeol was his master, the one Baekhyun had sold himself to, so he should not be asking his victim for faith. But ask he did, with hesitance in his face and sincerity lacing his voice, and Baekhyun’s whole soul yearned to believe.
“Do you promise?” he asked, and Chanyeol blinked in surprise. He had pretty eyes. He had a pretty smile, too.
“Of course I promise! We’ll finish this together, okay?”
Baekhyun was in trouble. Baekhyun was fucked up. Baekhyun had the intensity of the storm raging inside him, and it was howling behind his ribs, deceiving his heart into craving the things that he should have hated.
“I’ll be waiting for you, then,” he whispered. “So please come back soon.”
He had said he was going to help Yixing, but he didn’t go down to the first floor until the front door had opened and closed and Chanyeol and Jongdae had disappeared from the street that could be seen from the attic window. He was expecting Yixing to be all busy again when he arrived at the main room, but the other man was calmly sitting in a stool behind the counter, using a big, purple bird feather to write words that Baekhyun couldn’t understand in a piece of parchment.
“Still need help?” he asked.
Yixing shouldn’t had heard him coming, because he literally jumped on his seat, elbowing the inkwell in the process. Blue-grey ink spread over the counter, as dark as the ocean at night and so fast it was dripping into the floor before Baekhyun could yell in surprise.
“Oh, for the five seas, I am sorry!” he exclaimed in the end, running to the backroom to get some rags from the cleaning cabinet. “I really am!”
“Don’t be,” Yixing replied, appeasing. He still looked a little shocked, his eyes blown wide and a hand on his chest, still on his stool like he didn’t care about the ink that had spattered his apron and trousers as well. “These things sometimes happen. Quills are rather impractical, if you ask me.”
“I thought you would had heard me come down.” Baekhyun tried to clean the ink to the best of his abilities, but the rag he was holding got soaked in blue-grey, and his fingers with it. He ran for another one and scrubbed until the color was mostly gone. There was still a stain, though, a faint blue shadow in the cracks of the wood. “You’ll need water to clean this thing.”
“Ah, I’ll clean it myself. Later.”
Baekhyun sighed, leaning on the counter and watching his ink-stained fingers. He flexed them slowly, then closed them into fists and rested them on the surface. “I am sorry about the mess,” he whispered again.
“What’s wrong with you, child?” Yixing replied with a soft laughter. “You don’t usually sound so deflated.”
The other man was smiling at him when he looked up, with his factions soft and his eyes warm. He had never had a friend, not like Chanyeol had Jongdae in the Guild or even Minseok in the tavern, but Yixing had always been on his side, from the very start.
“I am troubled,” he said, because it was the easiest way to explain it. He tried to add something else, he really did, but his throat went dry, blocked by all the things he never said, there in the surface and deep, deep down in the shoal.
“And what are you troubled about? That purple, round mark you have on your neck, for example?”
Baekhyun’s fingers travelled to the side of it, traced the dark oval he had just below his gills when opened underwater. It was not the first time he had been marked by a lover, but having it pointed out to him made him feel unusually flustered.
“I don’t know what you’re thinking, but…”
“Please, take my health into consideration if you are going to do things,” Yixing interrupted him with a wide, angelic smile. “I have very sensitive hearing, so I will just use plugs, you know, for my ears, if you two have plans.”
“Pla--” Baekhyun felt like an idiot, gaping at Yixing like a fish out of water. “it’s impossible for you to have woken up to anything! It’s true that Chanyeol did this, but he hasn’t claimed me!”
“I asked him once and that’s what he said,” commented Yixing. He looked mildly surprised. “So has he not?”
“I offered myself but he doesn’t want me,” whispered Baekhyun, after pondering for a second if he should tell the truth or not. “I thought I understood it at first, I mean, I probably wouldn’t want to have sex with someone who tried to stab me either, but after that? I feel him looking at me sometimes, and I think he wants me, but then I tell him he can have me and he rejects me. It’s so... embarrassing.”
“Doesn’t it work better for you this way? You already gave him your freedom, you don’t need to sacrifice your body as well if he does not require it. That mentality of giving-your-all, that’s what is engraved in your mind because of how a shoal works.”
“I don’t think this all has to do with me wanting to make a sacrifice,” Baekhyun replied with a laughter, and he felt surprised about the bitterness in his words. Chanyeol was young and attractive, respected in the streets for what he did. He had told him once that he didn’t need unwilling partners on his bed, and Baekhyun had thought it was arrogant to imply he could choose anyone he wanted, but he hadn’t been lying. How many had he had? How many had he taken home? He didn’t exactly need to fuck his prisoners if he didn’t want to.
“Oh, child,” Yixing said. “Do you realize what you’re saying?”
Baekhyun bit his lip and nodded. “I am so confused,” he admitted. “It’s all probably because of my foamborn heart. I just-- I don’t know that he’s keeping me here and will keep me after all this ends, no matter if I want to or not. Don’t you think I have forgotten that he might be hard and ruthless. But he’s also nice to me, he sees me, he listens to what I have to say. He has been the only person in my whole life who has looked me in the eye and has told me I am not broken.”
“Foamborn children and their curse,” whispered Yixing. “You cannot avoid what you feel. You’re too much like humans. I am sorry.”
“But what do I do? My heart is a mess but it’s still mine. And I won’t give it to someone who keeps me in chains.”
Yixing tapped with his fingers on the counter, his cheeks stained with blue-grey ink but his eyes strangely focused, pitch-black like the ocean at night. It took him a moment to speak, and his voice was soft when he did, smooth like the steel of a blade.
“About Park Chanyeol,” he said. “Did you know that I was about to kill him two times?”
Baekhyun felt his stomach drop, the air freeze in his lungs. “What? No!”
“I was relatively new in town, the first time they brought him to me. It was tempest season and the storm was raging outside, destroying everything. The rain was clattering against the roof, and the wind was hollering, blowing so hard that I thought my house would fall down on my head. But despite all that, someone knocked at my door for help and brought me a child. So small, you know? Probably not older than ten, with half of his body paralyzed and burning with fever. They told me he had survived a mermaid attack, and they took him to me because they knew I sometimes offered my help for free to those who had no one. I accepted to aid so they would leave, then I prepared a poison to make his death easier. If that boy had soldier stinger marks, it meant he knew too much. And it also meant he would die, when the toxin he had inside him made his lungs freeze and his heart stop in his chest. It was the merciful thing to do. The best for protecting the secrets that needed to be kept.”
“But you didn’t kill him.”
“No. He was so young, and looked so helpless, so I decided to give him one last night. The gods were merciful on him, because he was shaking and crying in his sleep the morning after, but he had broken the fever. I took it as a sign, I let him live, but still took him months to recover. And even after that, he was branded, marked by the storm and the ocean. He was a good kid, at first. I used to let him stay here to keep an eye on him, and I thought the undercity would destroy him. He had utter panic to the sea, nightmares that made him wake up screaming, and a scar that hideous that no one wanted to hire him for any decent job because they said it to be ill-fated. The outer world is not like a merfolk shoal, Baekhyun. No matter how much of an outcast, your clan will always let you tag along and provide for you, as long as you obey. Human children don’t have that luck - you manage to feed for yourself or you die.”
Baekhyun’s fingers were numb, the tips of them tingling against the palms of his hands. He didn’t know when he had closed them into fists. “That’s horrible.”
“I feel a little guilty sometimes. I was fond of the kid in a way, perhaps I should have offered myself to hire him, but I did not. In a city like this one, you either harden yourself or you disappear, and before I realized Chanyeol had killed his first man for money and was in my door the next morning with his clothes stained with blood, vomit and tears.”
“How old was he?”
“Twelve? Thirteen? I wasn’t keeping track. But I still feel responsible. He has learned not to care now, but he mourned the first man he killed, without even telling me, without telling anyone. And he is what he is, now, but I believe he has lost part of what he was, but he has never turned completely heartless.” Yixing smiled, although the gesture never reached his eyes. “That’s why I did not kill him the second time. I thought about doing it, and freeing you, when he brought you here and I learned you two had made a deal. He shouldn’t be allowed to own a son of the merfolk. He shouldn’t own his life, or his freedom or his tears.”
So it was like that. Had Yixing proceeded, after everything with the dagger failed, Baekhyun would had been free from his master. Perhaps if he asked now, the other man would continue with his plan after all of this was over. He would kill Chanyeol to keep the deep ocean secrets, and Baekhyun would be able to return to the sea with his shoal. It was like that in the Dryskin world - harden yourself or disappear. And still…
“Don’t touch him,” he said. “This is the deal Chanyeol and I made. He trusts you. Please, don’t touch him.”
“I won’t.” Yixing shrugged and smiled once more, his face shifting from steel to calm, dark waves. “It’s not my heart what is at stake here and our secrets, for the moment, seem safe. I was just telling you all this so you know, so you can judge by the facts Chanyeol won’t tell you.”
“But this leaves me in the same place. What am I supposed to do?”
“As long as that boy owns you, he is as much your enemy as he is your friend, so you must keep your defenses up,” Yixing replied, after a pause. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t follow your heart, now does it? It is traitorous, my friend, but it’s also the best guide. It’s what differentiates you from the rest of your shoal, so hold it dear until the moment comes when you can give it to the one who deserves it.”
Baekhyun nodded, face relaxing into a sigh, left hand on his chest. He was about to get up, to allow Yixing return to his clumsy, oblivious self, but decided against it in the last second.
“I have another question,” he said. “What are you?”
Yixing just chuckled. “Don’t you already know?”
“Why does it always have to be Terminus?” Chanyeol whispered, his back pressed flush against a dusty brick wall.
“Oh, you know,” Jongdae replied, snickering. “Because it is the only place in town where death is most alive.”
“How deep.” Chanyeol snorted, then turned to look to the landscape before him. It was cold in this part of town, even if the sun was still up somewhere, beyond the clouds that covered the sky and the mist that was creeping out from the sea. As usual in Terminus, they hadn’t seen a soul - which didn’t exactly mean that there wasn’t anyone. People there were more cautious, they hide in the ruins and shadows and awaited, like ghost forever haunting the spot where they had died. It had took years of training for Chanyeol to be able to know whether he really was alone or not, and many more to move around without being noticed, but he still hated that place. The market he could endure, since the route was clean and it wasn’t necessary to hide, but this.
“There are three warehouses over there, all of them Lord Choi’s property,” Jongdae informed then. Chanyeol could see them, three buildings near the oldest, broken docks, close to many other ruined constructions but taller, bigger, with moss dying the brick walls green and the glasses in the windows painted black. “I don’t know which one it is where they have been taking the slaves, if it’s really one of these. Maybe they are using all three of them. I would have checked since the place seems deserted, but I really didn’t want to go there alone. Lovely Terminus hideouts always give me the creeps.”
“Well then, let’s see what we find.”
Chanyeol adjusted the hood of his cloak over his head, covered his face up to his nose with a black, opaque muffler. He was covered from head to toe, now, gloves on his hands and dark fabric covering every inch of skin with exception of his eyes. He wouldn’t be recognized, not immediately, even if he was found. He could run or kill, although killing, that time, was almost out of the question.
“Remember we need to be cautious,” Jongdae told him when they were about to leave their hiding place behind the wall. “The objective is not only returning alive, it is coming home without the bad guys knowing we paid them a visit. And I am talking to you, mister graceful. You’re not gonna get out of this one shooting around.”
“The same way you’re not gonna escape by talking, if they find you.”
Jongdae rolled his eyes but let Chanyeol guide the way, from wall to wall, and from deserted street to the next one. Nothing could be heard, except the faint clatter of their boots on the floor as they advanced with careful, measured steps, and even that sound turned into deep, heavy silence when the paved road of the streets turned into a muddy dirt floor near the piers.
He could clearly see the ocean, dark and eerily calm less than ten metres away from where he was. One of the buildings was so close to it that the waves were licking its northmost wall, making it disappear into cold, humid darkness. The zone had been a loading dock after all, so the waters were probably deep, as much as to trap you and crush you, keeping you down until you couldn’t breathe or move anymore and your lungs first burn and then froze. Closing his eyes, Chanyeol first shuddered, then signaled Jongdae to go to first to the building deepest into the land.
“This one is almost in ruins,” Jongdae whispered. The back of that warehouse had been surrounded by a metal fence years ago, but part of it had fallen down in a mess of rusty wires and both boys just stepped over it, pressing their backs against the wall as they slowly made their way around the perimeter. “I think I’ve seen a door at the other side.”
The mist seemed to turn thicker by the second, swallowing them as they walked and plastering Chanyeol’s black hair to his forehead. They were moving so slowly, so quietly that their way seemed endless, but they finally reached the doors, two of them, one loading gate, big and rusty, and a smaller metal door beside it.
“Is it open?” Chanyeol whispered.
“Of course it’s not. But I can open it for you, if you keep watch for me in return. Humankind hasn’t still invented a door I can’t force, I am a rather convincing guy with a lockpick.”
“Know that,” Chanyeol whispered with a smile that went unnoticed under the fabric hiding his face. Jongdae looked at him for a second, only his crinkled eyes visible below an almost identical hood, and then proceeded to get to work.
Chanyeol had always loved to watch his friend when he was concentrated like that - there was some sort of delicacy at the way he moved his picks around, fingers nimble and precise - but he kept his eyes on the mist instead, trying to discern any noise, perceive any shadow, be prepared to face any possible danger. His muscles were tense, his fingers tingling with the thrill, and his intakes of breath deliberately slow. It would take him the fraction of a second to jump from inactivity to action, he was almost yearning for it so the silence would break, so he could hear something else that the beating of his own heart and the murmur of the waves at his feet.
He heard a click then, and Jongdae had his head tilted towards him when he looked at his crouched form. “Got it!” he whispered, taking his black scarf away from his mouth from a second. “Let’s see what we have here.”
Chanyeol’s fingers found the grip of his revolver gun, index caressing the trigger. He held his breath as Jongdae turned the door and slowly pulled it open, then moved behind him, muscles tense and eyes half lidded, first checking the area at their back, then moving to look at what was inside the building. “Looks empty,” he whispered.
The space at the other side was one single room, gigantic and in ruins, greyish, afternoon light seeping in through the places where the ceiling had crumbled. Ivy and moss crept up the walls, almost up to the black-painted windows. All looked strangely artistic, like the landscapes in the oil paintings at Lord Choi’s house.
“It is empty,” Jongdae said. His voice reverberated through the whole room, echoing in the walls. He closed the door behind them after that, grimacing and lowering his tone to a whisper. “At least there’s no people. No guards, no slaves, only… things, and not that many. I thought they would be using these places for shady business but in the end it looks like a common storehouse. How boring.”
“It is not that boring. Wait a second.”
Jongdae was right about the place being used as a storehouse. There weren’t that many items, but the ones there were grouped in categories. Coils of thick rope were stocked in a corner, close to piles of rags and what looked like metal chains like the ones the slavists used in the Terminus market. It all would had seemed pretty common, considering who was the owner of the place, but there were two boats there too: wooden and small, barely more than rafts that would fit five or six people.
“I’ve seen boats like those before,” Chanyeol muttered, moving towards them. “In the cave in milord’s house.”
“Well, those definitely aren’t big enough to travel through open sea. Small enough for an underground mountain river, maybe. If you know what I mean.”
“So they have been taking the slaves here.”
“Looks like it. We should check take a look in the other buildings, just to check.”
Chanyeol nodded. “After you.”
They left the place as they had found it, door closed and items as they were. The silence was as intense as before when they reached the second building, a smaller storehouse with old, red brick walls. This one seemed in a better condition, with all the windows covered in glass and new, metal doors in place, so thick and strong that they looked out of place in the streets of a ghost town.
“Wow!” Jongdae mused. “Those are expensive looking!”
“Can you pick the locks?”
“Maybe, but I’ll leave marks. And I am not sure I want anyone to know that I’ve been here just yet. Wasn’t this just a reconnaissance mission? There must be another way to check.”
Chanyeol walked a couple of steps back, started to circle the building, checking the walls. There was a row of windows, glasses painted black but still wide enough for one person to seat. One of them was half broken.
“We could climb there and take a look,” he suggested. “It’s not that high.”
Jongdae looked at him like he had grown three heads. “Listen to me, Park Chanyeol. If you think I am going to climb up to a window that is three meters high in the end, you are very wrong. I don’t feel like falling down to my death, or cracking my head open, or falling to my death after cracking my head open. Do you understand?”
Chanyeol shrugged. “I’ll climb. If you help me up and don’t complain about how heavy I am.”
“Okay, that will maybe do. But don’t come to me crying if you die.”
They had done that before times enough to proceed almost seamlessly, although Jongdae usually was the one climbing and Chanyeol the one who helped him climb. It was Jongdae, however, the one who positioned himself under the window, feet steady on the floor, knees slightly bent and both hands clenched to allow his friend to put his foot on.
“You are heavy as hell,” he whispered in an annoying little voice when Chanyeol stepped on him, but gave him a boost anyway when the boy was more or less balanced. Chanyeol thought he wouldn’t made it, not with the way Jongdae was moving and shaking beneath him, but he managed to catch hold of the windowsill and he pulled himself up until he was sitting on it and Jongdae was panting and fallen on the floor below.
“I did it,” he said.
“This is the last time I am giving you a leg up.”
“Of course. But for now keep being useful and be alert in case someone comes. Got it?”
“Obviously I did. I will run away and leave you to die.”
Chanyeol smiled under his scarf when he saw Jongdae turn around to keep watch anyway, then he shifted until he was facing the broken glass, decided to finish all that as soon as possible. After an initial pause to ensure the inside of the place was silent, he wrapped his arm in his cloak and elbowed the surface close to the crack, with the intention of making it big enough to look.
A broken, echoing moan received him from the other side and he stilled, blood boiling and pulse drumming in his ears.
Shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit. His hands rushed to hold the revolver sheathed in his belt. He could shoot from where he was but he wouldn’t be able to shield himself if someone came. The room at the other side of the window was silent again, no voices calling for alarm or steps stomping on the floor, so he decided to take the fastest course of action and leaned forward to look in.
The inside of that room was illuminated, much more than the other buildings had been. The ceiling was not broken, but there were rows of skylights in it, letting the afternoon glow in. The first thing Chanyeol noticed was the light, the second was the stench - the smell of sweat and illness and filth. The third were the metal cages down at the floor, barely big enough to hold a big dog but filled, instead, by figures in rags that could only be human.
What the hell? he thought. He had known that Lord Choi was moving a lot of slaves around but he had no idea about why would he keep them there. There were at least a dozen of them, all of them silent like they were dead and squeezed together in cages that didn’t fit them. They wouldn’t look pretty if they took them out to the market. Starved skeletons never sold well in the slave bids, even if they had the deformities that could made them pass as mermaids. What does he want these people for?
He heard a new, stifled sound coming from below. It was a heartbreaking mixture between a sob and a moan, from a voice that definitely wasn’t the one of an adult. He felt the hairs on his arms stand on end, because of a wave of anger that was deeply laced by cold fear. Those bastards were looking for mermaids, were taking any poor deformed soul that they could find. They could had taken someone like him, with a monstrous scar on his shoulder. They could had taken Baekhyun, that was exactly what they were looking for, and kept him like an animal, weak and starved, defeated until he lost his voice and the light behind his eyes.
He should have killed Lord Choi, in the middle of his showcase room, among his imported plants and macabre taxidermied animals. He was doing that to those that had no one. He was doing that to children.
“Jongdae,” he called, trying to keep his voice the lowest but to still be heard. “I want to go in.”
“There’s slaves in cages. He’s keeping children there. At least one!”
“And?” His friend came out from his hiding place, gestured at him to go down. “What do you want us to do, break in and free them? If you free the kid, or kids, or whatever that is there, you’ll need to do it with everyone! Do you expect milord not to know? What’s with you? There’s children slaves at the market almost every single week! Why the hell do you care now?”
“Now? I--” Chanyeol recalled how it had been the last time he was with Baekhyun in the markets, barely weeks ago. The blue haired girl and boy holding hands, the way they had been separated. The horror and shock in Baekhyun’s livid face and the way he had taken him away. He didn’t know where they were now. By the bored look in his face, Jongdae didn’t even care, probably even remember.
They had known each other since they were children. They had played together in the streets, Kyungsoo, Jongdae and him. When had they all become so… unconcerned?
“Look, we are here to end this and get our share of mermaid tears. Get down and let’s move to the next place to--”
He stopped all of a sudden, his words drowning into a surprised gasp. He gestured again and then looked around, turning wide, dark eyes to where Chanyeol was.
“People,” he mouthed, and Chanyeol could hear them - the dull echo of footsteps on dirt and mud and the faint echo of human voices and laughter. A bit far still but close enough to be a problem. Approaching.
Fuck. He gestured for Jongdae to hide and then pressed himself against the wall of the windowsill, keeping his revolver in hand and hoping he didn’t had to use it. He could maybe jump from that height, but he could hurt himself, and he didn’t have time to appropriately climb down. He would have to wait, and remain silent, and pray to all the gods above and below for the visitors not to look up.
“So you’re giving her to me so I can sell her in the market,” someone said as the steps came closer. Chanyeol recognized that voice: Oh Sehun, as stiff as always. “How much of the final price are you keeping?”
“Fifty percent. It’s a fair deal. The boss wants her out. We need to locate the slaves in the main warehouse to this place and we don’t have that many cages.”
Kris. Of course he was Kris. Lord Choi’s associate, the prince of Terminus, a bastard cruel enough not only to sell slaves, but to keep them squeezed together in cages, waiting for the order of his master.
“Why is he moving the slaves out?” Sehun asked, from somewhere behind him. Chanyeol realized they were at the door and remained as still as a statue while he heard the tinkling of keys, the creak of the hinges while it opened. He moved to stare through the broken glass, careful not to let himself be seen. He could make out Kris’ figure from where he was, observing the cages in front of him with his hands on his hips.
“Don’t you know? All of this started because of you,” he said. “You were the one who sent Park Chanyeol and his little friend to the boss’ house. Now he wants to arrange a meeting to that client of theirs in the main warehouse. In four days. You know, he is convinced that whoever that gentleman is, he’ll bring him the thing he wants. He wishes to check immediately, so he needs seawater, and only the main warehouse has direct communication with the sea.”
“So do you really think Park and his boy have a mermaid?”
“Maybe his client does. I’ll gladly shoot them both in the head by milord’s command if he does not. I would love that, but...” Kris’ voice turned annoyed. “Right now my duty is to make that place presentable for a meeting. Take the slaves here today, arrange the paperwork at the mansion tomorrow. Come back to move our own merman out of the main warehouse in case the client sees… You know, whoever that man is, I doubt he cares about the state that thing is in, but better safe than sorry. This could all be another of Park’s big bluffs.”
And wouldn’t you like that?
“I’ll help you shoot him in the face if he’s lying, but for now give me the woman,” Sehun replied.
“Ah, yes.” Chanyeol saw Kris move around until he finally stopped in front of a cage. Moans raised up again as he opened a door no bigger than a cat hole, they turned into screams and he held someone and pulled.
“No, sir!” a woman screamed, her voice so creaky and so torn and so broken that Chanyeol had to bit his lip to remain still. That was why he didn’t like Terminus, that was why he remained in the undercity, that was why-- “Please don’t take me away from here! I’ll do anything, I’ll be good! Mercy, sir!”
“Hell, Kris,” commented Sehun, raising his impassive voice so he could be heard over the yelling. “The conditions you keep your slaves in are deplorable. How do you expect me to get a good price for this?”
“Feed her more before you sell her, I don’t care. I’ll give the sixty percent to you.”
The woman let out a sob, then screamed for mercy again as she was pushed out of the cage and made to stand. She was pale as a ghost and dirty, with tangled hair who covered a face that Chanyeol could not see.
I’m sorry, he thought. He gripped his gun so hard that he was sure that his fingers had turned white when he heard a second voice join in.
“Please, don’t take me away!”
Chanyeol had to bit his fist not to say anything, had to force his hand to remain still and not shoot the two men in the face. He was so close, so close to what they’ve been searching, and he would need to make the sacrifice but he just wanted to scream. He felt once more like the child he had been, when he looked at his first victim in the eye and saw the life leaving him. He had killed many men after that, but he had never felt so much like a monster.
Baekhyun had been right when he had told him: they all were.
He sat there in the windowsill for what it seemed whole hours, until Kris and Oh Sehun had took the woman away and her son’s cries had muffled into silence. He descended, then, took the black scarf off his face when he was on the muddy ground because he felt he was choking.
“They have another warehouse,” he told Jongdae. “The one closest to the sea. They apparently have a merman there.”
Chanyeol shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Well then, listen to me. We should force that door now they are gone and--”
“How come not?”
“Kris said he’d be back to move more slaves.” Chanyeol sighed. “That, and we need to bring Baekhyun.”
Jongdae gaped at him. “Baekhyun. Look at me for a while, Chanyeol. Remember what I told you in Yixing’s house? That boy doesn’t know how to fight. That boy wouldn’t kill a man. Your deal with him was to find the person he’s looking for, not to bring him along in dangerous missions that could get both us and him killed. How are we going to get his tears if someone shoots him in the head?”
Chanyeol just wanted to go home. He wanted to sleep, he wanted to turn off his brain for a while, like Baekhyun had dimmed the flame of the lamp in their room just before he had kissed him. “He deserves to be there,” he said. “He had fought very hard to this point. I came with you today, but he deserves to be there when it all ends.”
“Hell, Chanyeol! I hope he’s being a good fuck, because he’s turning you stupid!” He paused, exasperated, then blinked and softened his voice. “Do you realize that whoever he’s looking for may be dead?” He asked. He huffed when Chanyeol nodded, but reached out to pat his shoulder anyway. “Okay, then. You have been my partner for years, so I’ll play by your rules one last time. Are you happy?”
Chanyeol smiled at him, although he was sure the gesture looked much more like a grimace.
“Very. And now, please, let’s go back.”
When Chanyeol entered the room, Baekhyun had moved a chair close to the window and was looking out, singing his lost song of the sea, like he did every time he thought no one could hear. His voice was an off-pitch screech, so loud that even the walls seemed to vibrate with every note, but there was a rhythm to it, a cadence like the one that had been in the war song in the storm. There was something he could hear beyond the tune - a poem of love and longing.
“What is it about?” he asked, deciding to speak when the song died out. Baekhyun had apparently been too focused to hear him go up, open the door and close it behind him, because he jumped on his seat and turned to him with wide, black eyes.
“How long have you been there?”
“I’ve just arrived. You looked about to finish so I just waited until you did. Sorry if I bothered you?”
“No, you didn’t, I just--” Baekhyun stared at him, his expression strangely open. He looked so lost, like a little child in a world so big. Exactly like Chanyeol was starting to feel. “I think I told you once. It’s an old song of my people. I believed you say I sounded like a dead animal?”
“A dying one. But I’m sorry. I don’t really know that much about merfolk courtesy. Or courtesy in general, for that matter.”
He went to sit to the bed, his hands on the mattress and his face turned up to the ceiling. He didn’t believe Baekhyun would speak, so he closed his eyes when he did, concentrating in the raspy sound of his voice, in the faint, unidentifiable accent he had practically lost by now.
“Its name is the Call of the Sea,” he whispered. “We are taught it was an ancient prayer to the waves. It speaks of love and longing, and I always thought that’s so ironic. Merfolk don’t love, don’t long for anything. Outside the old legends and tales, only us foamborn do.”
Do you? Chanyeol parted his lips to ask. Do you sing because you want to go home? The words were stuck in his throat like poison, like the mermaid toxin that paralyzed you to death, because he ached to make the question but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to know the truth. What do you really think of me? What are you thinking now?
“I’d like to hear it. That song,” he said. “I’d like to listen if it changes underwater. I bet it’s beautiful.”
“I can show you if you want,” Baekhyun hastily replied. Chanyeol could feel the smile disappear from his face after that, even if he wasn’t looking. Even if he could not look. “Or… Well, if you let me.”
Oh, god. Chanyeol just wanted to close his eyes and sleep. He remembered the slaves in the cages, Kris and Sehun’s unaffectedness, Jongdae’s indifference and the screams, and felt like he was going to be sick. “I think we found where your brother is,” he blurted. He heard Baekhyun gasp, turned to him after that.
“Chanyeol. Chanyeol, what?”
“Kris was there, we heard him speaking. He talked about a merman they are keeping in one of their old warehouses. The plan is to move him away in two days. They are… Kris is going to be there tonight, but he won’t be tomorrow. We’ll need to go there, once the sun sets.”
Baekhyun’s expression closed, like a flower at night, like the sky before the storm. he couldn’t read it, and it made him sad, in some dark part of his soul he thought he had buried, in the deep core of him. “Tomorrow,” he said, and Chanyeol felt like he did the nights he had spent at Yixing’s shop when he was a child. He had the darkness for him, full of compasses and spyglasses and old shiny necklaces, but he would need to return to the cold, real world once the sun was up.
“Those warehouses,” he started, because Baekhyun needed to know, “weren’t a pretty place. If your brother is the one who is there, there’s a high chance he is hurt, or dead. I really… hate to say it like this, but you deserve to know the truth.”
The color drained up from Baekhyun’s face, it didn’t take much time for him to nod with determination. Chanyeol realized that his skin was not as pale as when he had come to the surface for the first time. It seemed like aeons ago, that night, when he had grabbed the boy by the wrist and had seen a scale glimmering on skin instead of a scar.
“I know I might find my brother dead,” he said, and his voice was strangely collected. “I’ve been here for long enough time to accept that possibility. But this way at least I’ll know. I will have done all I could. And if I find him and he’s trapped, I’ll tell him I love him and I’ll set him free.”
Chanyeol was choking again. Choking on the night, and the air, and the silence, and the sadness in Baekhyun’s smile. “Tomorrow,” he whispered. “Tomorrow it ends.”
The other boy laughed, throaty, and lovely, and a little shaky. “Before the full moon, too. I am glad.” he commented, pausing and biting his lip. “Is it okay to admit that I am a little scared?”
“It’s more than okay,” Chanyeol replied. At least he hoped it was, he really hoped he could use that thought for comfort. Because he had made himself a name out of being fearless, he had lived on every today, riding the wave without a single thing to lose, but suddenly he needed to look forward, to tomorrow and beyond, and he didn’t know what to do. Chanyeol felt lost in the storm once more, with the rain battering on his skin and the dark sea open under his feet, and he was much more that a little scared. “You’ll see. We’ll do our best.”
Tomorrow had come way too soon, with its dull, bleak light and its eternally grey skies. Winter was close now, spreading like a monochrome blanket through all the undercity, where the winds were humid and freezing, the sun was too weak to break through the clouds. The cold eternally settled under your skin and bones, when winter came, and Chanyeol had always hated that. He felt cold enough as it was, those days, shaking by the fear of wanting, of being allowed to have, of losing.
He had never indulged himself in wanting many things for himself, beside freedom and control. It had been easier to just look at every today instead of thinking about the future - but he had woken up surrounded by warmth that morning, with the soft covers over his skin, weak sunlight on his face and Baekhyun’s form hot against him, the boy’s head against his chest and his own arm around his waist - and it had been impossible to forget that that day was when their alliance ended, that after the one last mission was over their semblance of an alliance would end, and Chanyeol would be back to being the master and Baekhyun would stay with him to cry.
Tomorrow was now today, and Chanyeol was trying to guess what would happen after that, but he wasn’t used, and he didn’t know.
“I hope you realize we are about to do something very dangerous and very bad,” Jongdae said beside him. Chanyeol had tried to enjoy the hours of that day, but they had gone by so fast, like water dripping between the cracks of his fingers, and before he realized he was armed to the teeth and standing in one of the deserted streets of the Terminus district, his eyes fixed in the form of Lord Choi’s main warehouse, a dark form that stood out against the white mist and the dark grey sea. “Breaking into a nobleman’s property in slavist territory, getting into Lord Choi, Kris and all the bounty hunters in town’s bad side and stealing a merman. We will need to flee the city after that. And that being positive.”
“You can leave if you want,” whispered Chanyeol. “Whatever happens, and even if you’re caught, you could always tell Kyungsoo it was all my idea. He would believe you, you know.”
“What? And missing the chance to get potentially killed by two or three different groups of people? Kyungsoo will want to end us too. This is starting to look less and less like a mission and more like a death lottery. That’s why I never get bored with you, Yeol!”
“I am glad you love my company,” Chanyeol said with a wink, then he turned to Baekhyun beside him. “Are you carrying the knife I gave you?”
The boy looked as much an undercity mercenary as they did, dressed in black from head to toe, with the dark hood of his cloak hiding most of his face and a scarf covering his mouth. He pushed the fabric of his cape aside and showed him the sheathed dagger on his belt.
“You armed him?” Jongdae exclaimed.
“I thought you were the one who didn’t want him to get killed. There’s only a knife, for emergencies. I was thinking of a gun, too, but he still doesn’t know how to shoot yet, so the recoil was a problem.”
“Yet,” repeated Jongdae. “Well, boy, I am not judging you. Or well, I maybe am, but I’ll concentrate on it from tomorrow onwards. Right now we have other things to do. Are you ready?”
His revolver was charged and ready to be fired, his knives were sharp on his belt and boots. This he knew, the thrill of the fight, the steady beat of his heart and the latent tension in his muscles. “I always am. Let’s see if we can find what milord is hiding.”
A strong wind was coming from the sea that time, breaking the usual eerie silence of Terminus into the long, high pitched wail of the air slipping through the cracks in brick and stone. It sounded like the crying call of a ghost, warning them of the arrival of a storm.
“The tempest is coming,” Baekhyun whispered when they arrived at the main warehouse, while Jongdae was kneeling in front of the metal backdoor, tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth and set of lockpicks in hand. “It will rain tonight. Soon.”
“Let’s take it as a good omen,” Chanyeol replied, and Baekhyun looked at him, eyes half-lidded.
The door was newer than the rest of the building, like the one in the other warehouse had been. It took almost five minutes for Jongdae to force it open, and he seemed more nauseated than excited when he did. “This place smells rotten,” he said, crinkling his nose in disgust when Chanyeol walked around his sitting figure to enter. “You know I am sensitive to smell.”
Jongdae always complained when it came to smell, but this time he was more than right. The air inside was heavy with the foul, sickly-sweet odour of rottenness, so thick with sticky humidity that Chanyeol had to pause for a while without proceeding.
“Turn on our lamp, would you?” he asked. “There’s not enough light here, and I honestly don’t want to walk around a place that stinks like this in the dark.”
“Got it.” Jongdae always brought a portable kerosene lamp with him in stealth missions, hanging from a ring tied to the loop of his belt. He lit the flame while still crouching, held it high when he got up and walked into the room followed by Baekhyun. Particles of floating dust surrounded him, like tiny, greyish snowflakes. “This place seems lovely already.”
They were in some kind of office, like Oh Sehun’s had been but windowless and barren of furniture. The remains of luxury were still scattered around the place, but the expensive wallpaper had been stripped off several sections, the wooden flooring felt brittle and crumbly under Chanyeol’s boots and the lamp hanging from the ceiling - a small, skeletal-looking chandelier - was dangerously bent to the side on its chain, like it was about to fall on their heads.
The place looked as abandoned as the rest of the Terminus buildings, eaten by time, water and dampness and shrouded in mist, but Chanyeol could feel a bad feeling creeping up his spine, setting like a heavy knot of tension behind his shoulders. The ghost town had always been made of crumbling ruins, and smelled of dust and mold. Never, outside the slave markets, had carried the stench of rot and death.
He walked towards the door at the other side of the room, grabbing the knob with one hand and gripping his revolver with the other. Jongdae situated himself at the other side of the frame, his back pressed against the wall. Baekhyun hesitated for a second before he went to Chanyeol’s left, pale hands gone under his cloak.
Chanyeol locked eyes with one, then with the other. Finally he turned the knob and pushed the door open. Nothing could be heard, only the muffled roar of the wind and the drip of water. So he made a signal to Jongdae again, and his friend moved in first, his own gun in his right hand and his lantern held up in the air, while Chanyeol pointed his revolver at the darkness.
The flicker of the flame caught on steel, in front of them and to their right, on the wall and on the big, ancient table that was the only furniture in that room. Jongdae moved the lamp, walking to the center on the room with his brow frown and suddenly Chanyeol could see them. Blades and knives, hanging from racks on the walls, carefully lined on the wooden, dark surface of the table. Daggers, some of them thin as stilettos, others curved and thick. Sharp silver hooks and butchering knives the size of machetes. A long handled splitting axe and a saw so big it could probably cut through tendon and bone. Chanyeol didn’t know what he had expected to find, but it certainly hadn’t been that.
The stench wasn’t stronger there, but it had changed. There was a pungent, metallic tang, blended with the sickly smell of putrefaction. He knew that smell, he had known it since he had sunk his blade into his first victim’s guts.
“What is that madman doing here?” Jongdae whispered, sounding slightly sick. “This place looks like a slaughterhouse.”
Chanyeol shook his head, fighting against the first wave of shock. He fought for his breath to steady, for his fingers to relax against the grip of this gun, and as soon as he regained control he turned to Baekhyun. The boy was backing towards the wall behind him, didn’t stop until he collided against the brick surface with a soft thud. Something clattered above his head, and his eyes widened when he looked up and more saw knives hanging in a rack above him, some with straight blades, others with sharp, curved ends.
“Shit,” whispered Chanyeol, rushing towards him.
The boy, however, moved away from the wall before he could even reach him, distancing himself from the knives with his eyes so dark and his shoulders squared. “What’s happening here?” he asked, his voice surprisingly firm for someone who looked that pale.
“I don’t know,” Chanyeol whispered back.
Baekhyun’s fingers went to his belt, slightly shaking as he took his own dagger out of its sheath. “Let’s move on and find out,” he said. “There’s another door over there.”
He had his hair colored black again, and the dye had left once more dark splotches on the side of his neck. He looked so scared, Chanyeol thought, and all of that was so surreal. “Are you okay?”
“I am. Now, please, lead.”
It was true that there was a second door in one corner of the room, wooden and much older looking than the ones outside. Jongdae was already there, adjusting his muffler so it left his nose and mouth free while he observed the rusty handle as if it was devil incarnate.
“Why did you convince me to do all this again?” he mustered. “Things were much cuter when all of this was just your merboy sulking in his corner and you teasing him. I was never in for a slaughterhouse of horror. Do I really want to know what’s behind this door?”
Baekhyun walked between them and put his own hand on the doorknob. “You can leave,” he said, “if you want. But I need to see.”
Chanyeol clicked his tongue and softly pushed his fingers aside. “Let me. I’ll do it,” he offered. Then he took a breath and he pushed.
They were bound to arrive, sooner or later, to the main room of the warehouse, the big stocking space out beyond the office zones. The ceiling was high, lined with rows of skylights, letting in the light that the black paint on the walls blocked, so the cracks in the stone-paved floor were clearly visible, as old, pale scars cracking the rock open.
Chanyeol heard the sea before he saw it - the water licking an indoors pier, furious and turbulent as he clashed against the old docks, claiming them for itself. maybe that was why it took him a second to hear the rustle of chains and the whines, the movement in one far corner of the big space.
“Is that a cage?” Jongdae asked.
From what was visible from where they were, it seemed so: a rectangular, metallic structure, similar to the ones he’d seen in the other warehouse the day before. He looked around and advanced, so slowly, ready to attack, his pulse so loud in his ears that he could barely hear anything else. The cage was illuminated by pale moonlight, too low and small for a human being to stand even to kneel. There was one figure inside, however, curled over the dirty straw at the bottom of it. It moved when they were closer, raising its head and looking at them with big, round eyes, framed by a snarled mess of hair so dark that it seemed made of black ink. It was a girl, Chanyeol realized, most possibly not older than fourteen or fifteen, so thin and so pale and so ruined that she looked more caricature than person, a sketch directly out from the mind of a wicked, twisted artist.
“Help me,” she whispered. “Please help us.”
“What’s going on here?” Chanyeol asked. “Are you alone?”
“Please, let us out.”
“Wasn’t Kris supposed to have moved the slaves here by today?” wondered Jongdae. “Why is this one still here?”
“I don’t know.” Baekhyun replied. “But we should let her out.” He moved towards the cage, knife strongly gripped. He kneeled in front of the girl, uncovering his face. “Hi, I… Could you listen to me for a while? Is there a merman here with you? Has he been? A man with red scales? With pointed teeth and black eyes?”
The girl smiled at him, shaking like a small, crazed animal, her pupils blown wide and unfocused, dark hair falling onto her face. “Our merman friend,” she babbled. “We don’t speak about our merman friend, no, no, no, we do not, we don’t. He is an error, he is a failure, a mistake was made in the procedures, he won’t do. That’s why we’re here instead, yes.”
She had lost her mind, Chanyeol understood. He didn’t know what had been done to her, but it had broken her spirit at some point. He remembered the other slaves in the cages, wondered if that girl used to have relatives before, if he used to be someone.
“Wait, is he here?” Baekhyun was asking. He tilted his head out to look at Chanyeol. “Please, help me get her out.”
“I don’t think that’s the sensible thing to d--” Jongdae started to protest, but Chanyeol aimed his gun and pulled the trigger. The shoot reverberated in the tall brick walls, thunderous. Baekhyun gasped and covered his ears.
There had been an old padlock keeping the gate of the small cage closed, and it felt to the floor with a clank.
“Great, Chanyeol. Thank you!” Jongdae exclaimed.
“I have worked for that man before. Not for this but… I’ve been in his house, I have listened to him speak.”
Baekhyun moved to lift the lid, bending to help the girl out and supporting her with his body. He looked so healthy over her fallen shape, so full of life and strength. “Let me,” he whispered. The girl giggled.
“Want to hear a secret?” she whispered, voice cracking. “I’ll tell it to you, to you only. You look like him, like the mermaid thing, the boy, the monster. I was kept here because they said I was half and half, but I didn’t look like him, no, no. I am nothing. I know nothing. I won’t stop the clock, but you. Your eyes are the same. So black. So shiny. I was here before and saw them when they took him. Black as the starless sky.”
Baekhyun’s sharp intake of air resounded in the silence, more deafening than the sound of Chanyeol’s gun had been. “Do you know my brother?” he asked. He had spoken so softly that he could be barely heard, but the undertone of his words had been there, so clear it hit Chanyeol like a blow. All the hope, and the pain, and the sacrifices made. All the weeks learning to walk and to speak. Each and every one of his decisions. “Is he okay? Has he been here?”
“He is here,” the girl replied with a pout. “Of course he is. He never left.”
“What-- But, where is he?”
“Over there,” the girl pointed towards another door in the background with the enthusiasm of a kid who was glad to help. Her left hand was missing, arm ending into a stump, but she had webbed fingers in her right hand, all of them joined by a thin membrane. It looked so frail, like the one Baekhyun had on his feet, strangely foreign on her worn out body. “He never leaves his room. He is a good boy. Like I am. So nice and so good.”
“That sounds so promising,” Jongdae muttered.
“Take care of her,” Baekhyun told Chanyeol. Before he could even realize what was happening, the other boy had gave him the young slave to hold, and was striding towards the door, almost running to it. He stopped when he was inches away, and Chanyeol could feel the hesitation on his shoulders, the doubt in the way he tilted his head. He would had liked to run after him, to scream that it all could be dangerous, to go to where he was and open the door in his place, but he couldn’t move. The ruined, small little girl was in his arms, feverish and shaking, and all he could think yet again was that Baekhyun could have been her, could have been in her place had things gone differently. She was wobbling in his arms, unstable like a broken doll, and he realized that her right calf was amputated too, gone from her knee down, the wound half hidden under her bloody rags.
“What happened to your leg?” he asked, watching Baekhyun grab the handle, stop in doubt again until he pressed it down. The girl giggled once more, looking up at him with a disjointed smile.
“My leg? He ate it, of course. Like he eats all of us. Like he ate him.”
Blood froze in Chanyeol’s veins. It couldn’t be. “Baekhyun, wait! No!”
But he was late. The other boy had pulled the handle and, slowly, with a creak, the door fell open.
Chanyeol’s world fell silent. There was not a single trace of sound - the raggedness of his breath dissolved into nothing, the furious beat of his heart went mute. He could only see the curve of Baekhyun’s back, as rigid and stiff as if his very bones were made of wood, followed the movement of his trembling fingers as they left his side and raised to cover his face.
He stumbled. His shoulders shook. He lifted his second hand to his mouth and took a sudden breath that sounded as sharp as a gunshot.
Then, he arched forward and screamed.
All sound came back, the world started to spin again, so fast that it almost knocked him off. Baekhyun kept screaming and screaming - a wordless, feral wail that shattered the silence like the slash of a knife; that rose, cradled by the roar of the ocean, embraced by the fury of the storm. Chanyeol had never heard a scream like that, so inherently inhuman, so crushingly in pain.
And he had to run, he had to go. So he gave the still giggling slave girl to Jongdae and practically stumbled across the room until he reached Baekhyun, just when his voice faded into its own echo and he staggered and fell, so lifeless and limp that his weight pulled Chanyeol down, too.
“Baekhyun,” he called him. The stench struck him then, as strong as being hit by a wall, so strong and pungent and repugnant that it almost knocked him backwards. He had smelled death before but not like that: it reeked of the sickening sweetness of putrefaction over rotting meat. It didn’t surprise him when Baekhyun violently bent forward to retch; he held him through it, steadying him with a hand on his back, then pulling him close, against his chest, so he could catch his breath. “Baekhyun.”
“How could someone do this? Why would they-- to him? How?”
Chanyeol didn’t know. He had lived in the undercity long enough to understand desperation, he had watched the Terminus markets so many times that he thought he knew what wickedness and cruelty were. He believed he had seen more than enough of everything to be shocked or horrified anymore. But there it was, that body in front of him, or what remained of it, and he felt the urge to keep his eyes wide shut, only for to avoid looking at it.
The creature had been half fish, half human, so vividly reminiscent of the one who had attacked Chanyeol thirteen years ago. There should had been stingers, but they had been torn off; scales, but they had been ripped. The skeleton was visible in some places, shockingly white below putrid skin. His sternum was intact, his ribcage broken, the bones in his arms chewed down to the marrow.
There were teeth mark there, small and sharp. Most possibly human. Chanyeol only hoped he was already dead when he had gotten them.
“He’s been dead for what? Weeks?” Baekhyun murmured then, so incredulous and so sad, letting out irregular puffs of air against his skin. Chanyeol realized then that he had his head turned towards the corpse and was watching it, shaking. And he felt sick to his stomach, had to fight against the overwhelming urge of telling him not to do so, to cover his eyes and tell him it would all be okay. He craved it, wanted to shield him from the world with a raw intensity that left him breathless, but that was something he could not do. Baekhyun deserved more than lies for comfort; he had fought for the truth and earned his right to look at it in the face, as horrible as it might be. Chanyeol could only put his arms around him until he decided to glance away, hold him so tight that he thought his bones would crack. He was keeping him so close and he realized he was supporting himself too, battling for the air he needed.
Why this? What now?
“I am so sorry” whispered Chanyeol, and he really was. All of that had never been his problem, he had done it all so Baekhyun could behave and surrender his tears to him, but now that same boy was trembling like a trapped bird in his arms, and he wanted was for him not to break and cry. “I honestly am.”
Baekhyun tensed in his arms. “Are you?” he whispered. “Really?” He pushed then, violently, pulling away from him like his mere touch was burning his skin. He stumbled to stand up and looked at him with dark, bottomless, eyes and a face as pale as seafoam when the waves broke on the rocks of a cliff. Chanyeol could had stopped him but he let him go without resistance. He didn’t feel like he had the strength. “My brother didn’t deserve this! He was so kind for a soldier, too kind for-- He just wanted to see the sky, you know? And if he died in that room he couldn’t even see it! He was always dreaming of the outer world and you Dryskins gave him this!”
“Baekhyun, we tried--”
“We? No, I tried! While you forced me to make deals and your old, crazy lord was eating the only person I had in the world! And then you wonder why my people sink your ships? Don’t tell me you don’t deserve it!”
“Wow, calm down, boy!” Jongdae exclaimed. He glanced at Chanyeol, as if he expected him to continue, but he said nothing. One could not exactly speak when his chest felt torn in two. “Your brother was probably dead before you made any deals!”
Baekhyun turned to him. “And do you think that’s important? The only truth is that my brother is dead. And that no one ever will know that. He won’t be entombed in water and he won’t be mourned. I don’t know if my mother or the shoal will even care about him, but they won’t even get the chance to, now. They’ll just think he’s gone, and the worst part is that he probably died alone and away from the sea, thinking he was going to be forgotten.”
“And what do you want us to do?”
Chanyeol got up, slowly, while Baekhyun and Jongdae weren’t looking. His voice sounded foreign in his ears when he spoke. “Do you bury your dead at the sea? Is that the proper way?”
“And what if it is? It’s not like it’s relevant anymore, I can’t--”
“Don’t be stupid.” The corpse was sprawled on a table in the middle of the room, the odor so strong that Chanyeol had to cover his nose and mouth with one hand to avoid retching when he walked in. The poor body was broken and in the middle of decomposition, and it certainly was the most nauseating thing he had touched in his whole life, but he proceeded anyway, as carefully as he could. He only had his cloak so he took it off, using it as a makeshift shroud, wrapping the remains until his hands were sticky with fluid and the stench became so pungent that he thought he was going to throw up. Baekhyun came to him, alarmed, fingers clasping the fabric of his shirt as if trying to protect his brother from his presence.
“What are you--”
“Let’s take him to the ocean.”
Baekhyun froze. “What?” He looked at him then, in the eye for the first time, and something in his expression shifted before the other boy broke the contact. “Chanyeol,” he whispered. And it was so strange that even there, even then, something as banal as a name could sound so beautiful when it was Baekhyun saying it.
The sky was thundering outside when they walked out of the warehouse, Baekhyun walking in silence beside Chanyeol and Jongdae carrying the slave girl behind them. The tempest had arrived, taking the mist away and howling in the streets in its wake, and Chanyeol thought there couldn't be a better setting for a funeral, if things had to be like that. Baekhyun had told him that foamborn were the children of the storm, and even if his people weren’t there to mourn his brother, the gale had come to them to claim him. He didn’t want to bid him farewell next to Lord Choi’s warehouses so he carried the body under the heavy gusts of wind, not stopping until he reached one of the old, abandoned piers and then holding him tight until Baekhyun had finished whispering his goodbyes, his face small and white and streaked with rain.
“Let him go now,” he whispered, and Chanyeol let out his own, murmured prayer before complying.
The body fell, fell, clashed against the dark waves that opened to welcome him, and then it was gone. Gone to the ocean. Finally gone home.
“I hope this is enough,” Baekhyun said. “Enough respect for his soul. Enough honor.”
He still looked so tiny and sad, but he managed to stand with something akin to pride, a hand over his heart and his gaze on the sea. His eyes were red and his bottom lip trembling, but he hadn’t shed a single tear. And he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t cry there, in front of them. So he decided.
“Go mourn him.” Chanyeol took a mouthful of air and then he was saying it, before having the time to think and stop himself. “Your brother. Do whatever you need to do.”
Jongdae took a step forward, his brow frown. “Wait a second, what are you saying? Where the hell do you want him to go?” he asked. When Chanyeol pointed at the sea, his eyes grew dark with hot, incredulous shock. “Are you listening to yourself? Do you want to let our merboy go into the ocean? Our part of the deal is over, he found his brother! Do you really think he’s coming back to you?”
“His brother, Jongdae, is dead!” Chanyeol heard himself reply. But he was stupid, he was being so stupid, and his friend was right. “Don’t you think that he should have the right to mourn his family?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Jongdae said. “I never had one.”
He waited, then, looking at him in cold, astonished expectation. Chanyeol knew that he was awaiting an answer, but he couldn’t find words to explain how denying that to Baekhyun was so wrong, how that whole situation was so twisted that he didn’t want to be part of it anymore. He would have never thought that there would come a time when he had to fight with his best friend, but there they were, but Jongdae huffed when Chanyeol didn’t speak, and then he was turning away from him.
“Do whatever the hell you want, Yeol. You’re the prince of the undercity here.”
Chanyeol would had liked to, but didn’t stop him. And then the rain had swallowed him and the slave girl both, and the only thing the boy had left was Baekhyun’s soft touch on his sleeve.
“Chanyeol, I--” the merboy said, and he had to turn once more to look at him. He did so as a man at the gallow would have gazed at the sky before the noose of the rope closed around his neck - as something unreachable and precious that he would take with him when he fell.
“The black dye is gone from your hair,” he whispered, and he smiled because that was his favorite on Baekhyun; felt sad to the marrow of his bones because he loved, he really loved, he loved so much. “You should hurry before someone sees.”
Baekhyun bit his lip, his eyes as dark and turbulent as the storm around him. “Thank you,” he whispered. And then he jumped.
And the sky broke as he sank into the waves, and suddenly the rain and the wind were all that Chanyeol had left.
Baekhyun was not coming back.
Chanyeol had the image engraved into his eyelids, imprinted into all of him, even as he rushed away from Terminus, running until he was out of breath and his chest burned. He could see, even if he did not want. The way Baekhyun had turned towards the sea like he was calling him. The lack of hesitation in his jump. His body turning to silver light under the ocean, tailfin breaking the waves to hit the surface with the flashing strength of a whip before it had sank.
He was gone. He didn’t have reasons to come back. He would not return, and his absence was suddenly everywhere, sharp and piercing like the kiss of a knife. It was mingled with rain and lightning, echoed by the cadence of his own steps; had the throbbing rhythm of the mermaid war song he had heard as a child, laced with Baekhyun’s old Call of the Sea.
He had thought he would be safe if he kept himself away from the ocean, but he had went too close to the waves. He couldn’t fight the pull of the waters. He shouldn’t have been so childish to believe he could keep a creature out of his world, tie him to himself by a vow and still expect him to be happy.
That was so wicked. So sick. And Chanyeol was still running away because he craved to see Baekhyun and didn’t want to admit that he could not.
There hadn’t been anywhere to run, so he had just moved forward, getting lost among the grey buildings of the undercity without even looking up. He hadn’t realized where his steps were taking him until he found himself in Yixing’s shop, soaked and shaking like the child he had been, and that he couldn’t be anymore.
“What happened to you? Where’s Baekhyun?”
“Lord Choi killed his brother. He ate him,” Chanyeol whispered, bottom lip trembling. “He was dead from the start.”
“And where’s Baekhyun?” Yixing had been sitting behind the counter but he stood then, defiant, eyes as hard as black stone. “What have you done to him?”
“He’s mourning his brother. We buried him at the ocean. He deserved that, they both did. I just… I--”
“You let him go to the sea?” Yixing’s shock was more that obvious in his voice. He looked even menacing like that, when he was not playing the fool.
“What else did you want me to do?”
The expression in Yixing’s face softened. He rushed away from the room, and came back with a towel, dyed purple and so soft Chanyeol almost flinched away from it. “Oh, child,” he whispered. It sounded so foreign to be called that.
“I’ve lived a lot of things. A lot. And I’d never seen anything like that. Why would someone eat a person?”
“Because he’s not human, remember? Mermaid tears turn to pearls when they fall out of water, to diamonds when they are in love. When eaten, their flesh grants eternal youth. That’s what the old legends say, don’t they? Whether they are true or not is a different story but people still want to try.”
“But he--” He had just been a boy dreaming of the surface. He had a brother. He had done nothing wrong. But he had been exactly the same as the deformed humans for sale at the black markets, whose skin and bones were used to make salves while everyone else glanced away. “I am going to kill Lord Choi for this. I am going to kill Kris. I am going to kill them all.”
“I am sorry. I just need to be alone for a while.”
He stood up, rejecting Yixing and his kindness, and he stomped up the stairs, as if the noise could do him some favor at overcoming the silence. He wasn’t prepared for the loneliness, however, for the razor-sharp cut of Baekhyun’s absence. His presence was so strong in the attic room that Chanyeol could feel him everywhere - sitting beside the window, or practicing his walking skills around, or pressed tight on the bed against him, like he had been the night before, whispering old stories about his songs or his people.
But the sky was still torn open outside. And Baekhyun wouldn’t be back.
The morning came and found him sleepless. The afternoon arrived and he still was sitting on his bed. He had wanted to teach Baekhyun how to read, when the days had been lighter and they both had laughed together. He had wanted to take him to places. He had wanted, wanted so much that he hadn’t realized how much he loved. And now that he couldn’t have, he just was so angry, furious at that world and that city, at Lord Choi’s cruelty and at himself. So bitter because his mind was so lucid, and his shoulder scar hurt so much, and he just wanted to sleep but the air was charged with electricity and he was just sitting there, with his inner monsters running free and Baekhyun’s torn scale clutched in his hand.
The horizon was starting to turn from grey to black when he finally fell asleep, lulled to unconsciousness by the clatter of the rain and the whistling air. He had just wanted to lose himself in the blissful blankness of slumber but he woke up way too soon, roused by the pain in his skin and the nightmare of Baekhyun walking away from him until the sound of his steps disappeared into the background noise.
His undercity instincts suddenly kicked in, reacting to the sudden end of the nightmare, and he was sitting on the mattress in the blink of an eye, his fingers grabbing hold of the knife in his belt as if to confront a faceless enemy. But there was only the clash of lightning, followed by the deep roll of thunder, and he gritted his teeth and threw the blade against the opposite wall and sank his head in his hands, trying to even his breath.
It was only when the sky fell silent that he realized that there had been a second noise after all - the booming stomp of steps resounding up the stairs, clear to his ears now. Heavy and rushed and just a little irregular.
His breath hitched. He got up and took a first, tentative step. Then a second, and then a third, and then he was rushing to the door, almost running, opening it with such force the almost collided with the person at the other side.
He took a shaky breath. He used to think that one could only drown when buried beneath a wall of freezing water, but he was suffocating now, deprived of breath like all the words stuck in his throat were choking him.
“Baekhyun?” he managed to whisper.
He was seeing the boy now, and he was doing so in full detail, like the room was entirely lit instead of immersed in shadows. He noticed how big his clothes looked on him, bare feet poking from under too-long trousers and soaked shirt clinging against his shoulders; how his silver hair was a dirty mess plastered against his forehead, and his bottom lip was shaking, and his fingers trembled as he rose his hands to grab his shirt.
“Chanyeol. I--” he started, out of breath, his words hoarse and rushed and his pupils blown.
“Why are you here?”
“Back at the warehouse I-- I realized that I told you--” he murmured, then stopped. “I don’t want you to believe that. Not for a second.”
“Don’t you ever think you deserved that shipwreck. When you were a child. Don’t think that you deserved to drown.”
Of course Chanyeol had thought Baekhyun wouldn’t return, even if they were bound by the ties of a promise. But oh, how much he had hoped he did, even if it was only for a night, or even for a moment. He would have sold his soul to see him for a last time, even though he knew, deep down, that he couldn’t have him.
But Baekhyun had come back, and Chanyeol just wanted him.
There was lightning breaking the sky again when Chanyeol pulled the boy into the room, thunder following when he banged the door shut and slammed him against it. It was Baekhyun who kissed him first, however, lips trembling and hands still clutching his shirt. And it was the fingers that did it, the soft tightening of them on fabric that made his last bits of control snap into desperation.
“Hell, Baekhyun,” he whispered against his skin before kissing him once, and once more, and another time. He relished the way his mouth fell open for him, he claimed it with lips and teeth and tongue because he wanted to see the boy react, swallow every little sound that he made with the greediness of the gale around them.
And he could feel it - the rage of the storm, as he found Baekhyun’s pulse points in his neck and moved to brand. It was in the way Baekhyun’s head fell back against the door and he practically screamed, in the static electricity burning in the air when Chanyeol hoisted him up in the air, hands squeezing his ass, and felt his legs wrapping around his waist. His skin was cold and wet with rainwater, smelled like salt and smoke when he licked a line up his neck to the tender spot between right under his jaw, and that would not do. He could be the child of the tempest and the ocean, but that night Chanyeol wanted him warm, and soft, and slick with sweat.
“Please, let me have you,” he whispered, pressing him against the door until it shook on its hinges. Baekhyun had just lost a brother. Baekhyun had been assaulted and captured and deeply hurt by Dryskin. But there he was, a hand fisted on his hair, skin flushed red and cock already hardening in his pants. He wasn’t the only one: they both were hard, and Chanyeol realized with a pang of shock that he hadn’t felt so overwhelmed by a person he hadn’t still properly touched since he was a kid of fifteen or sixteen, full of curiosity and inexperience, and hopeless and burning desire. “Let me have you tonight.”
Baekhyun whimpered, face hidden but breath ragged and shook by a faint, lovely laugh. “Aren’t you the one who’s always pulling away from me? Just don’t leave me. I don’t want to think. Wreck me. Please.”
His words bloomed into a broken moan when Chanyeol bit his neck, just above the sharp line of his collarbone. He was seeing in red and white, overcome by the begging and by Baekhyun’s hands fisting his hair until his scalp hurt, and almost lost his balance as he turned, stumbling across the room towards the bed. He felt a sharp sting of pain on his shoulder but he ignored it as he threw Baekhyun onto the mattress, going down with him when the other boy refused to let him go.
“Off with this,” he grunted, hands going over Baekhyun’s wet clothes until they settled on his belt. The pants he probably had stolen somewhere, and Chanyeol pushed them down as soon as he could unbuckle them. The shirt was one of his old ones, the same he had worn when he had jumped to the sea, and it looked so good on Baekhyun that Chanyeol practically ripped it off.
He kissed him, then, prying his legs open with his knee while he claimed his mouth, blindly reaching for his thigh and pressing his fingers against the cluster of scales there, digging the nail of his thumb in the space between the hard ovals and the skin. Baekhyun arched his back under him with a desperate keen that died in Chanyeol’s lips, the curves of his body fitting against Chanyeol’s muscle and bones.
“Why there,” he whispered. And it was funny, how Baekhyun seemed to have no modesty, sprawled as he was on his bed with his legs spread, red patches on his skin and dark fire in his eyes without looking the least bit ashamed; but his lips still trembled a bit when he tried to remove Chanyeol’s hand from his scales.
“And why not? You don’t like it?”
“I didn’t say that, but the people from my clan never--”
Baekhyun was suddenly silenced when Chanyeol dived in once more, smirking against his lips before focusing on his collarbones, releasing his legs just to press the pads of his fingers across the jutting spaces between the cage of his ribs and following the curved lines of his bones under the skin. He would learn him that night, master his intakes of breath and the racing pace of his heart until he knew where to kiss him to make him beg, and to make him want. Where to dig his nails to set him on fire and what patterns to draw on his skin with his lips and tongue to have him forget anything or anyone else. "Those people from your shoal? The ones that claim their own kin like they were gifts of war?" Chanyeol asked, sucking on a nipple and using Baekhyun's sudden jerk to slide his hands down, keeping his hips in place when he bucked them. The boy had a second cluster of scales there, where there was barely more than skin and bone, and Chanyeol grazed his fingernails over it, his other hand going to the base of Baekhyun's erection. "I am not one of them, though," he said, and he squeezed. "Look at you. The people of your clan don't know how to fuck you right."
There was helplessness in Baekhyun’s voice as it broke in the middle of a protest, but a soft determination in his eyes as he made Chanyeol release him and rolled them around.
“There are many things my people don’t know,” he whispered, leaning back until he was sitting on Chanyeol’s lap and leaning forward to unclasp the buttons of his shirt. “They don’t know how blue the sky is.” He traced the line of his sternum with soft, featherlike fingers. “They don’t know the calmness of the water before the storm.” He undid one more button, and another, until his shirt was unfastened and Chanyeol’s breath was strangely irregular and shallow on his lips. “They have not idea about how it is to be in war with your own soul,” he added, sliding the fabric off Chanyeol’s shoulders and running his fingers over the scarred lines on his skin, tracing them slowly until he closed his eyes and leaning forward to kiss it, where it was the most swollen and dark. “And of course, they don’t know how it feels to lose.” He followed with his lips the same path he had drawn before with his fingers, following the marks from his shoulder to his chest, then down to his abdomen. “Or to want.”
“I know a great deal about wanting,” Chanyeol replied, while he shifted to completely remove his shirt and throw it off the bed. Baekhyun was fumbling with his belt when he looked up, and it was fascinating to observe him unclasp it, his lips slick and swollen and so well kissed, but his expression almost solemn as he tugged at the side of his pants to take them off.
“I’ve always craved, and I knew it was wrong, but I still did.” He followed the line of a different scar, the remains of a knife-inflicted wound at the top of Chanyeol’s thigh. For a short, feverish moment, the boy wondered if Baekhyun would touch him. Then, there were fingers on his cock and he was the one to arch his back off the bed with a low, desperate grunt.
“Is it nice?” he whispered, twisting his wrist. And damn, the kid was so good at it, and so desperate, starting slow, squeezing just right and then pumping faster, nails digging into skin, not stopping even when Chanyeol grabbed him by the neck and pulled him forward to kiss him.
“My people would probably leave me to die in the currents at the bottom of the sea if they knew what kind of things I wanted,” Baekhyun whispered, so, so soft, against Chanyeol’s lips, moving his hand to finger the tip of his cock, spreading the beads of precum along his whole length. And then, when Chanyeol’s blood has turned into liquid fire in his veins, and the heat was coiling down in his abdomen, intense to the point of pain, Baekhyun’s hand stopped, squeezing the base of his erection. “Don’t come,” he murmured.
Baekhyun removed his hand, moved to hide his face in his neck and whisper in his ear. “Not like that. I want you to come inside of me.”
Chanyeol’s breath hitched for the second it took his mind to catch up. Then lightning struck once and his hands travelled to Baekhyun’s waist, two and he was turning them around. Three and he was staring at his face, lit with the pale force of the storm until everything went back to dimness.
“Wait up,” he told him, leaning to kiss him one last time before he rushed to the dressing table. There was a flask of Yixing’s salve there, almost full with the ointment he hadn’t been applying to his scar since all that mess had started. Baekhyun was staring at him when he turned back, all white hair outlined in the darkness and scales in clusters on his skin - so completely supernatural while he watched Chanyeol go back to him, but absurdly human when he saw the flask and grimaced.
“What’s that for?”
“It’s either this or saliva. I don’t have anything else.”
Baekhyun’s eyes widened in shock. “You use…?” he started, and then he smiled. “What is Yixing going to think about this?”
Chanyeol shrugged, and Baekhyun looked like he was about to laugh as he laid on the mattress once more. Soon, he was all sweaty and spread before him, legs parted wide, and Yixing’s opinion was the only thing Chanyeol had in mind while he coated his fingers in slick lotion and leaned to leave marks on Baekhyun’s inner thigh to distract him from the intrusion.
He didn’t know what he had expected, but certainly not for Baekhyun to take his fingers so well, the slick in and out of the first one so seamless. He felt so hot, suffocatingly so, the tightness almost impossible when he added a second finger up to the knuckle. “For the five seas,” he whispered, while Baekhyun curled and arched against him, hair a mess around him on the pillows, lips swollen and parted but eyes open directly starting into his, much stronger that the storm bringing chaos to the city beyond the windows.
He had been born for that, Chanyeol thought, as he breached his entrance with a third finger, reaching the deepest into him he could, pressing him into the mattress so he could feel him everywhere. Baekhyun cried out when he scissored him, screamed so desperate and raw while he clawed at Chanyeol’s arms, then at his back, his nails leaving red trails of burning pain from his shoulder to his waist.
He hoped that the marks bled, like the constellations of old wounds on his skin had done, enough to bear them on him for days like battle scars. He wanted to earn more, to finger Baekhyun until he screamed and trembled. He was craving to make him come only like that, whispering Chanyeol’s name with three fingers buried deep into him.
“Hurry up,” Baekhyun told him then. “Hurry up.”
He looked almost as if he was begging him, his eyes so vulnerable, his bottom lip caught between his teeth. And Chanyeol knew it, then, as he removed his fingers and positioned himself between the boy’s parted thighs - that all of that had been meant to happen since the very start. Since Baekhyun had torn a scale from his skin to make a promise. Since he had seen him for the first time in Minseok’s bar. Since his ship had sunk in the middle of the sea and he had made it out alive, but claimed by the spirit of the storm, who had transformed him into something different than the scared child he had been.
“Chanyeol?” Baekhyun called him. He had his right hand, palm out, lain on the mattress above his head, and Chanyeol took hold of his wrist, pressing his fingers on the dark, oval-shaped scar over his pulse. Then, he sank his face on Baekhyun’s neck and he finally pushed in.
The boy tensed all around him and cried out.
There was obviously a burn - it had to be, when Baekhyun felt so hot, and so lovely, and so tight - but the boy still gave his all to pull Chanyeol close, keeping him in place with his nails clawing his arms and his legs wrapped around the small of his back. He was so wrecked and so needy, trying to move against Chanyeol even though the other boy was keeping them both still.
“Oh, god, you feel so good,” he whispered into his neck. He thought that the rain and the wind outside would had been strong enough for Baekhyun not to hear but he did. He felt his laughter rumbling against his chest and the fingers of one hand in his hair.
“You like everything I do, I don’t know if I should trust you.”
He sounded all out of breath, looked so devastatingly beautiful when Chanyeol moved away enough to look at him in the face. He remained still, looking at him with black, warm eyes when he traced the shape of his lips, first with his thumb and then with his mouth. Then he smiled against his skin and thrusted.
He moved tentatively at first, but soon they found a rhythm. Baekhyun was so small under him but he still took him so well, curling around his body and meeting him halfway, arching and pressing against him until there wasn’t space left between them. He was outrightly moaning now, the whimpers in the back of his throat turning into cries when they came out of his lips.
Chanyeol couldn’t register anything anymore, he couldn’t hear the shrill of the wind outside, or even the sound of his own voice. Everything was Baekhyun, under and all around him. His hands on his back, his lips on his neck, the way his whole presence was burning up his skin. He had thought for thirteen years that surviving was more than enough, but he felt alive now, much more than he had ever been, and he wanted this, he wanted more, he wanted everything. Oh, five great seas, he wanted him.
“Baekhyun,” he called him, perhaps because he loved the sound of his name on his lips. He supported himself with one hand, the other moving down their bodies until he found the boy’s length and curled around it, rubbing the tip, pressing hard at the slit until his moans turned into a voiceless scream.
Then, he had let go and was coming undone in Chanyeol’s arms, nails digging crescents on his back and body shaking and clenching all around him while he spilled in his hand and between their bodies, streaking their stomachs with white. And suddenly the pressure was too much, and the gale around them was too heavy, and Chanyeol didn’t know if lightning had struck or if he was just seeing white, but then his control was gone, and his body snapped, and he was erratically thrusting into Baekhyun’s spent body until his world exploded and he was following him into orgasm, holding him tight and coming deep inside him, just like Baekhyun had wanted.
It took him a while to recover the notion of where he was, to feel the ache in his bones, the throb in his shoulder and the ghost of Baekhyun’s hand carding through his hair. The other boy winced when he pulled out, but he didn’t move away, curling into his side instead. The euphoria and the desperation were leaving his body now, making way to a different kind of want - not the one that charred your bones to the core, but the little, sharp, painful warmth of unattainable wishes, the aftertaste of dreams that were too good to be true.
“You’re not so bad for a Dryskin, you know,” Baekhyun told him, voice already laced with tiredness, and Chanyeol laughed.
“Go to sleep,” he murmured.
“Bossy,” Baekhyun whispered back, but he complied. He could almost pass off as happy, like that, with his breath even, his body sated and a peaceful smile on his lips. Chanyeol didn’t know how much that would last, how long it would take Baekhyun to wake up to the real life. To the undercity, and Kris, and Lord Choi, to the Terminus markets and to him.
He would have wanted to believe him, but he knew Baekhyun was wrong: he really was the worst there was.
The morning found Chanyeol sleepless, sitting with his back on the wall and his eyes on Baekhyun.
The night had been long, and the boy has had nightmares. He had woken up screaming two times, curling his body into a ball and calling for his brother with broken screams. Chanyeol didn’t know if he was completely awake, or at least aware of where he was, but he had allowed Baekhyun to go to him and release his tearless sobs into his chest. He had held him tight after the second time, Baekhyun’s back flushed against his body, and had drawn patterns into his side with one finger because it seemed to calm him, kissed his shoulders and his nape because the tension went away from his limbs when he did.
“Is there anything I can do?” he had asked in a whisper, when dawn was breaking and Baekhyun was half sobbing again, perhaps in his sleep, perhaps half awake. “Is there…? What do you want us to do from now on?”
He had thought that Baekhyun would not hear, but he replied, his voice a whisper. “I just want to go home.”
He had sounded so weak, and so defeated, and Chanyeol had supported his weight on his elbow to look at him. He remembered Baekhyun as the arrogant prince, the one who had confronted a gang of bandits by himself and who had stolen Kris’ keys in his face; but the boy before him had dark purple marks under his eyes and the track of a tear in his dirty cheek. He checked the mattress, alarmed, and there it was: a round, white thing, under the dim light of the dawn. Chanyeol took it between his fingers without giving it a second glance, and threw it at the other sound of the room, so furious, so bitter, so sad. Baekhyun had wept in his sleep. Baekhyun, who never cried. Baekhyun, who would wake up in a few hours and hide whatever it was he was feeling under those unreadable, pitch-black eyes of his.
He would look happy, perhaps. Maybe he would even kiss him good morning. And then he’d honor his part of the deal and would give him his tears. The tears that were not for Chanyeol to take, that had never been.
If someone had to cry there, it would be him. Because he suddenly had something he wanted, and it was something he was going to lose. And he yearned for it so much, for amazed stares when exploring the city, and shared stories in bed at night. For the old songs of mermaids, and laughter, and prickling warmth of breath against bare skin. He was so heartbroken, so lost. He, perhaps, had been saved after all.
Beside him, in that very second, Baekhyun moved in his sleep, starting to stir. He seemed peaceful, now, his face calm in blissful ignorance. His expression would fall, when his mind was overcome once more with the weight of everything that had happened in the last 48 hours, but now he was smiling, and he looked so breathtakingly beautiful in the morning light that it was almost painful to look at him in the face.
Chanyeol had been wondering, two nights ago, how his tomorrow would be. He had never needed to think about the future, and the perspective still scared him, but he couldn’t help it now. And the tomorrow of before had just become today, and he hated how it was going to be, but there was only one thing he could do.
“Hey, fishboy,” he said, when Baekhyun opened his eyes.
He saw him smile at him, his lips pink and soft and his eyes full of light. Then he saw him freeze where he was. Close himself. Sit up and give him and unreadable, guarded stare.
“My brother,” he whispered. “My brother is dead.”
“I’m still… really, really sorry about that,” replied Chanyeol, even though he didn’t know if Baekhyun would believe him or not. He didn’t want to lie, not anymore, he didn’t want to keep playing that game. There were things he needed to say, and he needed to do so now, while Baekhyun hadn’t had the time to keep speaking. While he still could convince himself to not be the same selfish, stupid bastard that he was. “But, Baekhyun, I-- I’ve been thinking about what you said two days ago. That your brother had passed away, and your family would never know. I think that it’s wrong, for something like that to happen. They should be allowed to know, and you should be allowed to tell them.”
At first, Baekhyun only blinked in confusion. Then, he started to process the information, and his expression shifted to wariness. “Me?” he asked. “But I can’t. You fulfilled your part of our deal and now I should...”
Chanyeol took a shaky breath. He was stupid, stupid, so, so stupid. “That’s the thing,” he said. “Look, Baekhyun, that whole deal was a mess from the start. No matter what I promised to do for you, I shouldn’t have just… kidnapped a person and tried to make him cry. I know what I am, and I know that I don’t do good deeds for a living but doing what I did to you? That’s something people like Kris would approve of and I really want to believe that I’m not like them, so... So.”
“So you’re freeing me?” whispered Baekhyun. “Without asking for anything? You are setting me free after all you did to get me?”
“Well, it seems I get to be the good guy for once, huh? And then Jongdae and Minseok don’t believe me when I tell them I am a warrior of justice.” Chanyeol laughed, rubbing his nose, but then realized that Baekhyun was looking at him with wide, vulnerable eyes, and he reached out to caress his cheek. “Do me a favor, fishboy. Next time don’t go alone into an undercity tavern with a bag full of shipwreck gold, will you? And also please, don’t ever consider crying for those who don’t deserve it.”
For a long, noiseless second, Baekhyun only stared at him, raising a hand to cover his trembling lips. Then, he had moved, getting on his knees and practically slamming against Chanyeol’s chest, one arm around his shoulders and his head hidden in the spot between the other boy’s shoulder and neck. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Thank you so much.”
Chanyeol loosely wrapped an arm around his naked waist. “Hey, hey. What’s up with all the enthusiasm?” he teased, faking a laugher that almost, almost sounded real. What were you expecting, him to proclaim his undying love for you and then choose you over his own world? Of course he would be relieved to leave. He moved, trying to accommodate Baekhyun better against his chest, and then was when he realized that he was feeling wetness in his neck. One single look at his face served to confirm that there were newer tear streaks on his cheeks, water that went down face and then crystallized when it fell on the mattress. “Come on, fishboy, what did I just tell you about crying?”
Baekhyun shook his head and Chanyeol sighed and drew soothing circles on his back, leaned forward to kiss his forehead. He was seeing Baekhyun’s tears now, glistening on the mattress, solidified, and he couldn’t help to think that all that had happened - all that was happening, even now - was so unfair. Probably his eyes had failed him when he had thought that what the solid tear he had seen hours ago had been pearl-shaped. Because Yixing had already told him, when they had talked about old mermaid legends - that all of them were old, and widely known, but that didn’t necessarily mean that they were real.
Because it was true that Baekhyun’s tears were changing as they fell, turning into something solid and pale, but he wasn’t crying pearls. Only pretty, colorless crystal.