Today is a good day, because Jeon Jeongguk has an organic, locally grown, and sustainably harvested date with an Actual Girl when Jimin had told him not a week earlier that he should give up because the only thing Jeongguk would ever date would be his paper. Also this means he gets ₩20,000, so guess who can afford to eat Actual Dinner?
“That’s right, me and my girl Seolhyun,” Jeongguk says, snatching the bank notes out of Jimin’s sweaty, reluctant fingers before he even has them halfway out of his wallet.
“She’s not your girl yet, chill out,” Jimin says, nose wrinkled, mouth sour, but Jeongguk is singsonging at the top of his lungs. “And she is so out of your league.”
“Oh yeah? And what makes you say that?”
“Just for starters? She’s more than two years older than you and hot as hell.”
“And you don’t think I’m hot?”
Jimin gives Jeongguk a look as if he’d just asked Jimin to lick his nipples in the middle of the dairy aisle in this wholesome, family-friendly grocery store.
“I will just pretend you didn’t ask me that question,” Jimin continues. “She’s also part of a girl gang consisting of seven other girls that are equally prettimidating, the second oldest of which you imitated when you were piss drunk in front of her, so I don’t know. Things don’t exactly look beautiful for you.”
Prettimidating. It’s one of their better word sandwiches. Pretty and intimidating, and pretty intimidating. Prettimidating, and Seolhyun’s girl gang was it.
“Oh yeah,” Jeongguk says, stuffing the money into his pocket. “The other Jimin. And, please, it was funny as fuck.”
“She dumped you in my lap and told me if I couldn’t keep a leash on my children she’d put one on you herself,” Jimin hisses, tossing a package of quail eggs into the cart with only slightly unnecessary force. “Plus a muzzle. You’re going on a date with a girl whose unnie probably eats dicks for a living. I’m just trying to look out for you here.”
“Seeing as she threatened to put me on a leash, she probably does.” Jimin groans. “Kinky, you know.”
“Every day I have to make a list of all the reasons I let you become my friend,” he says. “The list is presently blank for the day and it’s already four in the afternoon.”
“How about we go out for dinner? Ssambabjib.”
Jimin raises very tired eyebrows at him.
“What the fuck,” says his wallet.
“Fine,” Jimin says, handles of the shopping basket rattling when he sets it down on the conveyor belt. “Reasons I Let Jeon Jeongguk Open His Mouth Around Me: will blow his own bank in an excuse to buy himself roast duck meat, acts like it’s treating me to dinner.”
But really, dating anyone means $$$ despite going Dutch because there are the costs of 1) looking good a) hairspray b) hair gel c) something that’s not a plain white tee, 2) buying perfume for himself and for bae 3) public transportation. Jimin tells him to shut his ugly trap because Jeongguk is living in his brother’s old apartment and doesn’t need to worry about things like paying demonic landlords sky-high rent rates or eking out an existence in a room the approximate size of an electron, which is fair. The last time Jeongguk visited Jimin’s place, he’d staggered 1.45 steps into the unlit room after too many drinks and promptly bruised his nose on the edge of the bunk frame.
“You really are not helping yourself,” Jimin had said, handing Jeongguk fresh handfuls of ice to get the swelling under wraps. His nose rapidly had come to resemble a small eggplant, just chilling out in between Jeongguk’s eyes. “You have a nose the size of America’s political ego.”
It had been a rough week.
Point is, paradoxically, Jeongguk really shouldn’t be treating two ravenous appetites to roast duck meat when he’s going out with Seolhyun tomorrow night, but he does have a nice place. Nice enough, anyway.
“It didn’t even cost as much as it would if I hadn’t given you twenty thousand won.”
“Why do you think I offered,” Jeongguk says, yawns grandly. The day’s been a long one; he’d booked it to the art studio in the early morning to start working so he could afford one evening off. Three weeks into the semester and Jeongguk’s already found some way to fall behind, and he’d appreciate it if his professors didn’t assign all their projects to be due at once. Jimin has a habit of stopping by in the late afternoon, just to make sure Jeongguk is more or less alive after The Grand Caffeine Fiasco which Jimin thought was terrifying but every other art student either personally related to or found so hilarious they had to go outside and buy another Americano. “Hey, hey. Guess what.”
“Huh.” Jimin is at the paint-stained sink, trying to get a mysterious brown stain out of the hem of his lab coat. “What?”
“I heard a chemistry joke today.”
“Yeah. I’d tell it to you, but I don’t think I’d get a reaction.”
There’s a split second of silence before Jimin turns around, water still running.
“I hope you get run over by a car,” he says, as Jeongguk laughs hard enough to wheeze up his right lung.
“I’ve been praying all week for that to happen,” Jeongguk says fervently, “I have an exam on Monday that I haven’t started any of my reading for.”
“Then I hope you get almost run over by a car.”
“—but then you’re saved in the absolute most cliché, most sickening fashion possible. You’re probably not paying attention to the road, and you’ll walk into the street, only to be knocked out of the way of an oncoming black Mercedes by someone both charming and a little odd. They have a sunflower pinned behind their ear and smell of old diaries, perhaps of the ocean. Their eyes are the color of freshly tilled soil, or molass—”
“That is blisteringly specific. Are you okay?”
Jeongguk puts his stylus down to stretch his arms over his head, groaning obscenely and yawning. “Man, it’s a shame I can’t stick around for the commencement of your annual quarter life crisis,” he says. “because I’ve got a date to get ready for.”
“You’re not supposed to meet her for another three hours.”
“I know, but—” Jeongguk stops packing up. “Wait, how do you know that?”
“Your iCloud syncs all your shit to to your monitor at your place, you know,” Jimin says, and Jeongguk slaps a hand to his forehead. Fuck. He’d let Jimin come over to use his computer when his own Wifi had sputtered out and died, again, Jeongguk please help I have a report due tomorrow morning. “Which, just saying, you have really weird taste in porn.”
“So I take that you watched it.”
Jimin shuts his mouth.
“Anyway,” Jeongguk says, enjoying the fact that Jimin is bypassing pink and turning vermilion, “yes, I do have three hours till then, but just know I almost zippered my dick this morning because I have no underwear left. And no underwear left means only one thing.”
“You have to do laundry?”
“No,” Jeongguk says, “it means it’s time to buy more underwear so I don’t have to do laundry.”
Laundry gets done anyway. If anything is going to © Happen™ [♪ Careless Whisper plays softly in the background ♫] then Jeongguk is loath to give Seolhyun and her prettimidating girl gang the impression that he’s anything but immaculate.
He is everything but immaculate, but no one needs to know this, and he huffs as he tries to shove everything he owns into the closet. Clothes, shoes, books, his collection of empty perfume and cologne bottles that are too pretty to throw out. It’s barely successful, and the door groans under the weight of 10⁶ XXXL T-shirts, and it’s only just too tragic that Jeongguk can’t leave this problem to avalanche on whatever poor soul opens the closet door next. That poor soul will be him, and Future Jeongguk will want to murder Past Jeongguk, he knows how this goes.
Ten minutes on the clock until Jeongguk has to be out the door and get on the subway to the restaurant and his belt is still nowhere to be found. “Try looking for it up your ass,” would be Jimin’s sound advice, the same one he gave Jeongguk when he lost his iPod, half his lunch, and his will to live. He’s pretty sure none of those things are up there but it would be convenient if they were.
“Hey!” says Seolhyun, when he finally does get his ass to where it needs to be, an ass clad in jeans that presently keep sagging down his waist. Jeongguk tries not to let it be obvious he needs to hike them up every time he stands, because Seolhyun looks so good it’s probably illegal in at least three countries. “Did you wait long?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Jeongguk had stood up when she arrived, and now realizes he doesn’t actually know what to do with himself—kiss her? Fuck, it’s not like they’re dating yet, and he’s not about to hug her like she’s his goddamn cousin or something. Or give her a handshake, this isn’t a business dinner. Jimin’s question are you sure you even know how to date someone is slapping him in the face with its dick right now and laughing. “I was worried I was going to be late.”
“Oh, you mentioned you’re doing summer school!” she says, and Jeongguk stares with pathological concentration at her face when she takes her jacket off because her dress is lower cut than the Mariana Trench. “I hope I’m not keeping you.”
“No, I needed a night out for sure,” Jeongguk says, pushing a menu towards her. Italian tonight, something nice and appropriately romantic. “You?”
“God, this date has been the only thing keeping me going through the week,” she says, opening the menu and leaning forward into the light so that the lamp above them turns her hair into a dance of black curls across her shoulders. “My roommate came in last night with some girl and her bra landed on my face because she just swore I was asleep, oh yeah, she doesn’t wake up if you banged pots in her face.”
Jeongguk snorts all of his water down a pipe he’s half sure he didn’t even have.
“I know,” she says, shaking her head. “So I told her she could just wait and see until Friday.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, and Seolhyun shoots him a dazzling red-circle 19+ smile that has no business in an Italian restaurant at 7 PM. He grabs at his menu and holds it up over his face because his entire body is sweating. His shins are sweating, he didn’t even think shins had sweat glands.
The rest of the dinner passes along more smoothly. Seolhyun is easy to carry conversation with, with a big laugh and a willingness to talk about herself, speaking at length about the drama department when Jeongguk asks. She makes a pouty little face when she realizes dinner has decimated her lip stain and she didn’t bring any to touch up. “You look great with or without,” Jeongguk says.
“Aww,” she says, examining the damage in the reflection of her phone, then unlocking it to reply to a text message. “Thank you. Feels weird without it, though.”
“Well,” Jeongguk says, “Nature Republic is just down the block. You want to go?”
“What, really?” she asks.
“Yeah, really. Why not?”
“I’ll cover it for you, just say the words.”
“Nah. I have too many lipstains already.” She shrugs. “I’ll live, probably.”
“Are you sure?” Jeongguk asks.
“Shut the fuck up, you imbecile,” says his wallet.
“My roommate’s not home,” she says, setting her phone down. “No fun. Buy me cake instead?”
“Cake is good,” Jeongguk agrees.
So, because there is no fun in going to Seolhyun’s place to annoy the fuck out of her roommate, they buy two cake slices and an army’s worth of macarons and head for his. They share a pole in the subway the whole way back, during the middle of which she hooks her plastic bag into the crook of her elbow and pulls her phone out from her jacket pocket.
“I didn’t even take a picture of my dinner!” she laments, turning around so that her face is next to his. “Selca, selca.”
“Ha, I did,” Jeongguk says, leaning in and tilting his face so that his cheek is pressed to the top of her head. “Jimin calls it obnoxious, though.”
“Maybe a little.” She scrolls through filters, finally choosing one with little geometric shapes, and double taps their faces to focus the camera. “But that’s all the hard work of the chef’s presentation gone down the drain.”
She smiles with a peace sign to her cheek, and Jeongguk smiles too. “Aah, we’re cute,” she says, saving.
Selcas Jeongguk is prepared for. Spending more money Jeongguk is prepared for. Hell, Jeongguk had even took her extremely distracting dress in stride without missing a beat, but what he is not prepared for her Seolhyun leaning over the railing outside the door of his second-floor apartment and asking, “Wait, you have a pool?”
“Yeah, it’s great,” he says, not truly understanding the demise that is coming. “The pool lights are shot and the estate management still hasn’t repaired them. But I like swimming at night, so I don’t really go much.”
“We should get in the hot tub.”
Jeongguk makes it as far as getting his key in the lock.
“The hot tub, the lights still work in that, right?” she asks, straightening. “I always love getting in the hot tub. There’s nothing like being a human mandu.”
“Uh,” says Jeongguk articulately, “you didn’t bring a swimsuit, did you?”
“No,” and there’s an eyeroll in her very voice. “But it’s not like said swimsuit would look any different from what I have on under this dress, anyway.”
She does have a point. And for two people that are about twenty minutes and maybe half a bottle of soju away from banging, Jeongguk is being pretty stupid about, he doesn’t know, seeing tiddies.
“Sure,” Jeongguk says, punch drunk. “We should put our stuff down?” It sounds like a suggestion, almost, nerves making his voice inflect up high. He has swim trunks, too, and ponders if he should grab them or not. Dig them out of the catacombs of his closet, more like.
Seolhyun, thankfully, makes his decision for him and that is: they will strip at the side of the pool. Never in his life did Jeongguk imagine himself in this situation, standing at the edge of a pitch-black pool deck with a mind-numbingly hot girl and nothing but a lone deck light over the hot tub to see. The official hot-tub dip order is, according to her, pool first, then tub, for maximum mandu effect. What the fuck. Okay, Jeongguk somehow gets his pants off and kicks them aside.
“They don’t turn the heater on either, huh?” Seolhyun has her feet dangling in the deep end, feet making soft splashing noises as she kicks them back and forth. “Water’s freezing.”
“Guess not,” Jeongguk says, sitting down beside her. He doesn’t know where to put his fucking eyes. Is it rude to not look at her? Yeah, probably. It’s one thing to worship The Tiddy when you’re actively doing the nasty with someone, but it’s another thing entirely when you’re trying to communicate Hey I Like You As A Girlfriend Maybe vibes. He is not going to mess this up. “Anyway, you were telling me about the—?”
Words die in his mouth when he feels Seolhyun lean in and kiss him on his cheek, and he turns his face in surprise. “You’re cute, and you talk too much,” she giggles, and kisses him full on the mouth this time. Goosebumps erupt across his skin when she reaches up to curl her fingers around the swell of his shoulder, and the part of his brain that is good at this finally kicks into gear.
Jeongguk is about to suggest going upstairs—as much public sex porn he’s watched, he’s not in too much of a hurry to partake in it himself—when Seolhyun squeaks and pulls away from him as though shocked. A spray of water lands over Jeongguk’s thighs when she yanks her feet out of the water.
“Something just—something tickled me!” she says, scooting away from the edge of the pool and getting onto all fours to peer into the water.
“Yes!” She sounds alarmed enough for Jeongguk not to have trouble looking her full in the face without being sidetracked by her floral print bra, oops just kidding. “Did you feel it?”
“I didn’t,” he says, leaning over his thighs to stare into the pitch black as well. It’s impossible to make out anything in the dark, even with the poor help of the deck light above the hot tub. “I don’t doubt you, though. Maybe it was just a—?”
This is the point this
fairytale meetcute date ??? turns into a straight-up horror movie. Seolhyun’s point is furiously proven when a warm, tight vice closes around his ankle, tilts his leg up so that he topples where he sits, and yanks him so hard he thinks his femur is dislodged from the socket of his hip.
His yelp of pain, and fear—he’s not going to pretend he’s not afraid—is drowned out by the water that closes over his head. Panic makes him flail. Bubbles rush past him in streams for the surface, from his nose and mouth, and this end is so deep that the pool seems bottomless. Jeongguk feels as though he’s suspended in open ocean.
Seolhyun’s crying above the water is muted. Jeongguk’s heart thuds a drumbeat in his ears, and the grip on his foot tightens so hard he thinks his ankle might splinter under the force before he’s miraculously set free. For a dazed one, two seconds, Jeongguk floats in a bruised tangle underwater.
Something big and heavy moves close to him, close enough that he feels the current of water curl hard into his side. Then: a face.
Jeongguk doesn’t remember too much of what happens between this moment and the next, when two arms find their way under his armpits and yank him from the pool. He only recalls a flash of white and red, a haloed cloud of hair around that face, and then—
“What happened? Seolhyun said—” Jimin cuts his own words short, and gives Jeongguk a quick once-over to confirm he still has all his limbs. Affirmative. “Fuck, are you okay?”
Jimin has his shirt off, as drenched as Jeongguk, hair plastered to his forehead.
“There’s something in there, alright,” Jeongguk says weakly. “There’s some—something in there.”
Jimin looks out at the dark expanse of water, then back into Jeongguk’s face. The surface of it is restless, and laps at Jeongguk’s feet where they jut out over the deck into the pool.
“Whatever it is, you’re lucky I was stopping by with some makgeolli,” Jimin says. “What if I hadn’t been?”
Seolhyun shivers. She’s still in nothing but her bra and panties, yet it has nothing to do with the cold.
It might have been all a very strange, very uncomfortable dream if Jeongguk didn’t wake up the next morning feeling like microwaved roadkill. It also doesn’t help that he’s immediately flattened the second he opens his closet door by a month’s worth of laundry and an entire plastic crate of perfume bottles. Total knockout.
“Fuck,” he says to the room at large. “Fuck.”
Summary: date with girl went well enough, minus the part where he became the victim of his own horror movie. He even has the title picked out. Shark in the Water. 57% on Rotten Tomatoes. At least he has two cakes and lots of macarons to nurse his bruised, scraped cheek and mediocre B-grade horror movie life with.
She’d left, shaken, after Jimin had gotten them both reasonably clothed and back to Jeongguk’s apartment. Like a hero he had let her pull his discarded shirt over her head rather than let her attempt to shimmy back into her dress, and Jeongguk had rolled his eyes so hard he caught a glimpse of his own brain matter.
His ankle is fine to walk on, mostly. It isn’t in as much pain as it looks like it should be, an oblong bruise spreading in a bloom of speckled green-purple under his skin. Jeongguk feels stupid for it, knows he isn’t, for being too spooked to set foot outside his door to go buy groceries. Weekends are the only time he has, and it’s broad daylight out. There’s no reason to expect that he’ll be attacked the second he walks outside.
The morning is extraordinarily ordinary. Jeongguk’s neighbor two doors down is banging at his garage-band set of drums already. Across the walkway the halmeoni is perched on a footstool in her latex dish gloved aproned glory over a washbasin full of Napa cabbage. A good day to make kimchi for the summer.
The pool is empty. Jeongguk is almost upset that it is, because otherwise, he could kind of have the license to brag to everyone in the art department, and Jimin, about his brush with the monster from The Host. But no, it has to be uncooperatively serene, clear as the Maldives coast, and Jeongguk has no heroic tale to account for his face.
Still, it’s better than the Eggplant Schnoz Incident.
And so Jeongguk’s life goes on, extraordinarily ordinary. The subway on a Saturday morning is full of tourists and young couples. Jeongguk doesn’t even realize, until he sees a little boy on his mother’s lap staring at him—rather, his hands—that his fingertips are bruised and scraped like the rest of him, the tips of his nails worn rough and gritty from where he must have clawed at the concrete.
Well, that’s a lie. Extraordinarily ordinary is the last choice of words that anyone would use to describe the past 24 hours of Jeongguk’s life, and there is nothing ordinary about the bizarre chain of events that’s been set in motion by almost-drowning in the three meter end of a pool. Jeongguk gets off at the stop two blocks from the market, shoulders his backpack in the flurry of businesspeople hurrying around him and up the steps. There’s a throng of people waiting at the traffic light to cross the street. The sounds of the world—car horns, shrilling ahjummas, the click of shoes on the sidewalk—fall away when Jeongguk plugs his ears with his earbuds.
He walks when he feels the crowd around him surge forward at the turn of the the light. The street is wide, warm from the summer sun already, the last busy road to get across to turn the corner into the little market where all the food is fresh and cheap.
Jeongguk doesn’t see it coming because he’s not looking. There is shouting, possibly angry—he wouldn’t know, he doesn’t hear. All his attention is focused on a square centimeter on his phone, his thumb aiming for the messages app, almost makes it when he feels a force like a moving car slam him onto the street.
“Oh,” the force says, decidedly not made of metal, and Jeongguk lies in the street winded. He cracks an eye open after having screwed them shut. “I’m sorry, that hurt, didn’t it?”
Somewhere across the city, Jimin guffaws.
On top of Jeongguk is someone with tilled-soil colored eyes—or, what was it? Molasses?—and a flower behind his ear. He didn’t even save Jeongguk from a moving car. He was the fucking car, and the car before which Jeongguk is currently cosplaying aforementioned microwaved roadkill isn’t even a Mercedes. Jeon Jeongguk, whose life is about to be just plain extraordinary, had to eat a Venti Triple-Shot shit in front of a Hyundai Genesis.
“Ungh,” he groans. He feels the slightest brush against his scraped cheek and opens his eyes to see the sunflower the guy has tucked behind his ear—which physically and grammatically doesn’t even sound feasible—dropping its wilted petals onto his face.
This is contemporary romance.
“Get off of me,” he says, when the weight doesn’t shift off of him.
“Oh!” The boy with the sunflower jumps, scrambles off of him with the clumsy gangliness of a child, and stands up. He does not hold out a hand to help Jeongguk to his feet, and Jeongguk sees that his own are dirty and bare. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you would be so easy to knock over.”
“It’s o—wait, what?”
“Stop that punk!”
An ahjumma with a dirt-streaked, flowered apron is charging up the crosswalk with fire in her eyes and half-clipped roses in her right fist, and to be honest, Jeongguk is not about to mess with anyone who can hold unclipped roses in their bare hands.
“I’m sorry!” says the sunflower boy one last time, and then he sidesteps Jeongguk with a speed that’s mismatched with the uncoordinated movement of his legs, gives a wave, and takes off into the crowd of morning city-goers. Jeongguk turns to watch him go, eyes trying to follow him as he weaves in and out of people walking against him, and frowns when he realizes that he had his shirt on backward.
“Why didn’t you stop him like I told you to?” the ahjumma yells at him, shaking the roses in his face. He thinks he makes some sort of unintelligent noise, and the next thing he knows she is stomping back to her flower stand.
“What,” Jeongguk says.
The light turns green, and the Hyundai honks at him as cars surge past.
“Oh my God,” Jimin says, still wiping tears from his eyes hours later as Jeongguk holds a Ziploc bag of ice to the back of his head. There’s a knot there the size of a dragon egg and so tender that even putting his head in a pillow hurts. “Next thing you know you’re going to start coming across glass shoes, or sleeping curses, or poison apples—”
“Don’t jinx it,” Jeongguk says, trying to hold his pen steady against his tablet. “You’re dangerous. It might actually happen if it comes out of your DSLs.”
Jimin fixes him with a dirty look, drops his pen on the table, and puts his hands together. “Dear God,” he says, staring up at the ceiling light plaintively. “Please shrink Jeongguk’s self-proclaimed insufferably massive cock as part of his fairytale life. Make it a curse or something, like the hornier he is, the tinier it gets. Reverse boner. Thank you, and have a rad evening, God.”
He looks at Jeongguk smugly.
“Fuck you,” Jeongguk says weakly, and the lack of an equally barbed comeback makes the expression fade from Jimin’s face.
“You really look messed up, dude,” he says. “Maybe skip class after your exam on Monday, it’s the summer.”
“I’m considering it,” Jeongguk says. “But summer school moves so fast. You basically miss an entire chapter of material if you fall asleep five minutes in class.”
Jimin doesn’t deny this. “Your foot looks like an aubergine, you have shoulder blade- and spine-shaped bruises coming in on your back,” says Jimin, after they’d stood in Jeongguk’s bathroom to assess today’s damage on top of the weekend’s. “Which I might add, look really dope. Oh, and your tailbone is giving you hell. You really want to sit in a classroom for three hours after sitting in another for an exam?”
“Aubergine,” Jeongguk says. “That’s a new one.”
When Jimin doesn’t laugh, he sighs. “It’s just bruising, ok? A lot of it. Nothing’s broken. If I still feel like used condom on Monday morning then I’ll consider booking it home after my exam, but I’ll live.”
“If any old women try to sell you stuff, say no.”
“What the fuck, Jimin, it’s fine.”
“I know you,” Jimin singsongs, and Jeongguk knows he’s lost him. “I walked with you once upon a dream.”
The scare of Jeongguk’s lifetime comes when Jimin leaves at midnight and he’s brushing his teeth, humming against his will to that song Jimin kept singing earlier. The water is running, so at first, he thinks he imagines it: a voice, singing along with his own, at a lower pitch than him.
He shuts off the water, straightening, and there is nothing but the sound of water droplets hitting the last of the water that filters slowly down the drain guard in the sink. Then, to test, Jeongguk hums again, holding his toothbrush in his fist like a weapon, and—there it is, that voice. The timber of it is low enough that it swims below the notes of his own, rich and milky.
Jeongguk peers into the hallway outside the bathroom. There’s nothing there, the doorway of his bedroom shadowy, and he darts out to the kitchen to grab his phone.
something’s in my house if i die i just wanted you to know. i hate you
are you sure??
you say someTHING and not someONE i’m very concerned. explain. i mean get out of there and explain
no i’m locked safe in my bathroom. and i say something because it’s singing.
you lost me here. if you recognize it as singing that means it’s someone unless it’s your phone, which must be in your hand.
i mean if someone wanted to kill me they wouldn’t be singing to give themselves away right?
depends. are they singing a nursery rhyme?
and is it a child singing. if yes and yes, you’re dead dude
Jeongguk jumps when there’s a thud in his bathtub, and he inhales a mouthful of toothpaste foam. It had sounded like his shampoo bottle falling, which, normal enough. But.
oh god what if it’s in here WITH ME
UHHH GET OUT THIS IS NOT A SUGGESTION
I THOUGHT YOU DIDN’T WANT TO BE A B-GRADE HORROR MOVIE
He’s going to be a B-grade horror movie, alright. Jeongguk holds his phone to his chest and his toothbrush out in front of him like a gun, slotting it into the space between the wall and his shower curtain. There’s a startled noise, one that sounds as scared as him if he could make noise right now, and he pushes the curtain aside with a single sweep of his arm.
“What the fuck,” Jeongguk says, voice muffled by foam. He seems to be saying this a lot this weekend. “How did you—”
“I didn’t get a chance to apologize properly today,” says the boy from the street this morning. The sunflower is gone from his ear now, though his shirt is still on backwards and his feet are even dirtier. “So I—”
“How did you get in?”
He blinks, watches as toothpaste spittle flies from Jeongguk’s mouth and lands on the floor of the tub. Jeongguk turns and rinses, pointing his toothbrush back at him accusingly. “Who let you in?”
“You did,” he says, eyes fixed on the brush. “You left the window open.”
“That’s not an—what?” Jeongguk throws his hands up. “Hold on. What the hell is going on, you broke into my house to tell me you’re sorry about smacking me into the street but not for breaking into my house?”
“Oh, was I not supposed to come in here?”
Jeongguk stares at him. “Who are you?”
“I’m Taehyung,” he says, proudly, standing at his full height—and with the added boost of the tub floor, he stands a good half-head over Jeongguk’s line of vision. “Of the Bermuda Tribe.”
“I don’t care, thank you for your apology, but I’d really appreciate it if you got out of my house,” Jeongguk says. “Go, go.”
“Oh,” says Taehyung. “Okay, I’m sorry for coming in, I didn’t know.”
“Uh-huh,” Jeongguk says blandly, already puzzling over the strangeness of this conversation. The way Taehyung talks, it sounds that he’s genuinely confused, and really doesn’t know to not break in. He racks his brains to remember if he’s ever heard of this. “You say you’re of the Bermuda Tribe?”
“And you said you didn’t care.”
“Apathy revoked, I care now. Where’s that, exactly?”
“The Bermuda region,” Taehyung says.
“The island in the Atlantic?”
“No, just the Atlantic.”
“Okay,” Jeongguk says slowly, trying not to notice the dark, dusty footprints Taehyung leaves across the white tile floor. “You guys just walk into other people’s houses without asking there?”
“We don’t walk there.”
“Oh, you don’t, do you?” Just a few more steps and they’ll be at the front door. Jeongguk is reaching for the knob already, ready to be done with this evening, climb into bed, and hope his Sunday is not nearly as nightmarish as the rest of his weekend has been thus far. “Well, at least with my place, I’d like a heads-up before anyone comes in. A—a knock, or something.”
“A knock, got it,” says Taehyung. His gait has lost its gangly clumsiness from this morning, but the way he moves is still unnatural, almost perturbing, as if he’d only recently regained control of his limbs after a long episode of paralysis. “Thank you, and I’m sorry. For,” he gestures expansively, “everything.”
“It’s alright,” Jeongguk lies. Taehyung doesn’t even look back as he walks down the hallway, still barefoot, the graphic tee ill-fitting on his frame and still backwards. He’s not a slight person in the least, and yet he looks so small disappearing down the hallway that something in Jeongguk’s chest makes him shout,
Taehyung slows and looks over his shoulder.
“You can take a shower before you leave, for...wherever it is. You want some shoes?”
“Yeah, I have some old ones that I’ve been meaning to get rid of, they’re kind of falling apart but they’re better than being barefoot—you look about my size, two-sixty, two-sixty-seven?”
Jeongguk blinks, then holds the door wide. “Ok, come back in first so we can figure this out.”
“Thank you,” Taehyung says, hesitating in the doorway. “I can come in this time, right?”
“You can come in.”
Jeongguk shuts the door behind them, and Taehyung hovers in the foyer now to watch Jeongguk rummage through Mount Timberland, elevation 3,000 m, suede and shoelace terrain. “You can go take your shower first, I don’t know where they are so I have to excavate.”
“Oh, ok,” Taehyung says. “How does it work?”
“Pull the knob toward you, left for cold, right for hot. Push in to turn it off. Holy shit, I thought I lost these shoes last year—anyway, yeah, it’s pretty straightforward. Shampoo’s in the purple bottle.”
Jeongguk sets aside the black Vans that he’d accused Jimin of drunkenly stealing at least once a week for a month after they first disappeared. He knows he has to have a pair of washed-out navy Converse, spoils from high school, a pair of shoes that have seen better days. He thinks the catches a glimpse of them wedged into a corner between his shoe rack and the doorframe when there’s a massive thud, a metallic clang, and a shout of pain.
“Taehyung?” he calls, standing up with a shoe in hand. No answer. “Taehyung?”
He doesn’t hear it until he’s standing right outside the bathroom door—a tearing of fabric, as if it’s being torn against a sharp edge. “Taehyung,” he says, alarm rising in his voice now, caught between the contradicting urges to back away and run, and to barge in to see what’s going on. “Are you okay?”
“Don’t come in!” Taehyung shouts.
“Uh,” Jeongguk says, “You sound like you need help.”
An angry grunt, followed by a particularly violent tearing sound. “You didn’t tell me,” more tearing, “that a shower meant water!”
“What the fuck do you think a shower is?” Jeongguk throws his hands up in the air. “Do you not take them?”
“We don’t need them!”
“What the fuck does that—I’m coming in.”
“No wait, wait—!”
Internally, Jeongguk has begun making a list of possible explanations for this weekend: number one, Taehyung is an axe murderer from a cult, and Jeongguk has a target on his back. Number two, Jeongguk had overdosed on some kind of psychedelic drug on Friday night and is still tripping. Number three, this is some kind of grandiose prank and Jeongguk is on a three-day Punk’d broadcast.
Or, number four:
“Oh my fucking God.”
On the bathroom floor is the pair of basketball shorts Taehyung had been wearing, lying in tatters across the tile as if it had been chewed up by an animal. The curtain rod lies in a damp mess half in the tub, half slanting to the floor by the toilet, and out of the corner spills a fan of red-and-cream spines as long as Jeongguk’s arms.
“I told you to wait,” Taehyung says, sitting upright with his back to the wall opposite the showerhead. “I told you to—”
“A mermaid,” Jeongguk says, partly to himself, mostly to himself, before his brain boards the nope train and blacks out reality.
And, since this is a fairytale about mermaids, here is the obligatory mention about drowning/ocean/water dreams: Jeongguk has one about being at sea, floating on his back. The slow rock back-and-forth, like he’s asleep on the water with only the stars for company. He sleeps without sinking, the water soft and warm under him—unlike the sea, with its cruel tides and icy teeth.
Warm. The sea is not warm, nor soft, at least not the one Jeongguk knows. Reality crashes into him with a seize of panic in his chest, and the floor is suddenly very cold and hard beneath his back.
“Fuck,” he slurs. “What happened?”
“You passed out cold,” says a voice that does not belong to Jimin, and Jeongguk’s eyes fly open. “You hit your head kind of hard. I’d never heard a sound that loud. I got you to lay down flat but then you woke—”
“Fuck,” Jeongguk repeats, struggling to sit up, body scuttling backwards like a crab by instinct. Taehyung straightens up when Jeongguk scrambles so far back that his back is pressed up against the cabinet under the sink, handles digging hard into his spine. “I don’t understand.”
Taehyung hangs his head. He’s—his tail rather, a concept that Jeongguk is still trying to wrap his mind around—is enormous, so long that it rests against on the opposite wall, with spines protruding from the fins at his sides. Fins. Jeongguk feels like he might vomit, this time, which is significantly less embarrassing than fainting but also significantly messier and entirely undignified.
“Mermaid,” he says, echoing Jeongguk. “Or, merman, in my case. You know the deal. Mythological marine creature, half human, half fish.”
Jeongguk closes his eyes, digs his biggest knuckle into his sockets. “Did you sing to me?”
Taehyung frowns. “Was I supposed to? How would that help?”
“I thought—never mind.”
Denim stiffens when it’s wet, and Jeongguk’s jeans are soaked from the pool of bathwater on the floor, where it must have splashed over the rim when Taehyung hauled himself out of the tub. The moisture creeps up the back of his shirt, making his back damp and uncomfortable. “So it was you in the pool that night?”
“I’m sorry!” Taehyung says, yet again. “I didn’t know—I didn’t know your foot would be connected to a whole body! I just wanted to know what they feel like.”
“You didn’t think our feet would be connected to a body.”
“Are they always?”
Jeongguk thinks on this. “Almost always. We operate on the assumption that, yes.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“You have them too,” Jeongguk says. “Feet, that is.”
And, realizing this, so many things fall into place: Taehyung’s strange gait, the things he said, the way his clothes didn’t fit him like he’d swiped them from someone else. “Bermuda Tribe,” he repeats, and Taehyung watches as understanding dawns over his face. “You live in the upper Atlantic? You live in the Bermuda Triangle.”
“There you go, and I was starting to think you all were stupid,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk sputters indignantly. “And yes, feet, I have my own pair! Cool, right? As long as I have this on,” he plucks the pearls at his neck, strung on a line of tiny cowrie shells and bits of seaglass, a motley necklace of seastuff, “they come and go as I like. Until they get wet, which is why,” Taehyung gestures at his waist-down. “Coming of age present, you know.”
“I see.” Jeongguk says faintly. This still doesn’t feel real, and he’s nearly tempted to reach forward to touch just to be sure that Taehyung isn’t just making his up, and that his tail isn’t just a hyperrealistic costume. “You uh, come on land much?”
“First time,” Taehyung says. “Already not doing so good, but I was determined.”
“I’m trying to prove something to my parents,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk raises his eyebrows. He hadn’t actually expected Taehyung to answer his question. “And I refuse to go back home until I do it.”
“Your tail doesn’t,” Jeongguk pauses, pondering the rules of mermaid etiquette, “look like what I would expect a mermaid tail to look like.”
After inspecting his new bruise—a spectacular specimen making itself at home on Jeongguk’s cheekbone—and wiping up the bathroom, they sit at the dining room table across from each other. Jeongguk has his hands wrapped around a cup of very strong red ginseng tea, letting the steam waft into his face, while Taehyung nurses a glass of water.
“What were you expecting?”
“Blue,” Jeongguk says. “I don’t know. Blue or green.”
“Why would I have a blue tail,” Taehyung says. “Did you not figure out what half-species I was just by looking at it?”
“I’m not a marine biologist,” Jeongguk grumbles, sleep deprivation catching up with the throbbing headache in his temples. “Enlighten me.”
“Lionfish,” Taehyung says. “Half lionfish, half tiger shark. My mom is the shark. My dad is the lionfish.”
“Oh,” says Jeongguk. “Different species.”
“Why not?” Taehyung shrugs. “It would be so boring if we all had blue tails.”
“No, I mean. Cross-species?”
“Sure,” Taehyung says. “Not possible in the fish world, but the human part means anything goes, really.”
“Well, almost anything,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk laughs at the way he says it, the same way Jeongguk had paused to think about feet. “But I guess it’s not too common, since my friends are all in-species. Kim Seokjin, he’s in the Bermuda Tribe with me. Giant guy. Orca mermaid. Mmm, Yoongi! Min Yoongi. I don’t see him much,” Taehyung tips his glass so the waterline slants and his fingertip can touch the surface. “He lives in the Arctic Circle. He’s a little beluga. Hoseok I see sometimes during migration, he’s over by the Gulf Stream, he’s a manta ray. So we call him sea pancake. Oh,” Taehyung sits up. “Just kidding. Not all of them, Namjoon’s a blue-ringed octopus—”
“—and a cuttlefish! He’s down in the Deep Sea Syndicate. Intense bioluminescence, like you wouldn’t believe. You can see him coming from twenty thousand leagues away. I haven’t seen him for a while. You put two of the most advanced cephalopods known to mer and man, mix some human in, you get Namjoon. He tells me he’s a bit of a disaster on land, though.”
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”
“I mean, just imagine: you’re born with eight legs and suddenly you only have command of two. I wouldn’t be able to function without leaving a path of destruction in my wake, either.”
Jeongguk blinks. “You have any salt?” Taehyung asks in the quiet, and Jeongguk wordlessly points to the cupboard above the stove. He stands, reaching, and brings down the whole carton. It sparkles when Taehyung flips open the top and pours a hefty mouthful into his water.
“Sorry, it’s a lot,” he says, bringing the water to his lips and drinking when the salt dissolves. “You should sleep on it.”
“Where are you going to go?” Jeongguk asks.
“Oh, I was meaning to ask,” Taehyung says, leaning forward. “Could you tell me where I can find love?”
“What?” Jeongguk looks up from the quivering surface of his tea at this. “Love?”
“Yeah. I need to prove it’s real, to my parents. That’s what I came here for.”
“You don’t know what love is?”
“Of course I know what it is, we know what it is,” Taehyung says, exasperated. “But that’s all it is to us, an idea. It’s not real.”
“Love isn’t real for you? Any of you?” Jeongguk asks, reeling for the umpteenth time this night. “Why on earth not?”
“It’s a long story. Bottom line is, I need to prove to them that it is.”
“It’s not that easy.” Jeongguk draws his knees up to his chest, heels resting on the edge of his seat. “Love isn’t some kind of commodity or tangible thing that’s there for you to find.”
“I know that too,” Taehyung says. “So I need you to tell me where and how I can find it.”
“That’s extremely difficult,” Jeongguk says. “And you might not even succeed.”
“I want to try anyway,” Taehyung insists. “If it means I get what I came here for, then that’s all I need.”
“Alright,” Jeongguk says. “So, what you do is…”
Once upon a time in strange circumstances, a human meets a mermaid in an apartment swimming pool, in a busy street, and in his bathtub, and is asked to say where to find love. He says, “I don’t know, but I guess I can teach you how to find it,” and doesn’t realize that the answer is “right here.” But it’s okay.
“Love is a learning process,” Jeongguk says. “Some people believe in love at first sight. They believe in destiny. I don’t think I’m one of those people.”
“Because you need to really know someone to love them.”
“Depends on what kind of love it is, but the kind of love you’re looking for, I’d say yes.”
“What kind am I looking for?”
“Romantic love,” Jeongguk says, pushing his glasses up his nose where they’d slid down to the tip. The summer sun beats down on the roof of the art studio, and after the air conditioning had shorted out earlier in the week, Jeongguk’s classmates had booked it home to work on their projects. He would, too, if he didn’t know that being at home meant guaranteed procrastination and failure and death, not necessarily in that order. “You know, the love you have for your parents isn’t the same as the love you have for someone you want to spend your life with.”
Jeongguk peers over his glasses, they’ve slid down again, and Taehyung has his fingertips in a dollop of wet paint that Jeongguk told him he could interest himself with. “You don’t agree?”
“I never thought of it that way, more like,” Taehyung says. “Some of it is hard to keep up with.”
Jeongguk sits back. How, indeed, do you teach someone how something feels when they’ve been taught their whole life that the feeling isn’t even real? You cannot know something outside of your own reality, and trying to expand that perception of reality is a hard enough feat in and of itself.
“You know what it’s like to be happy, right?”
“Imagine,” Jeongguk says, “being happy because you get to eat—what’s your favorite thing to eat?”
“Live barracuda,” Taehyung says.
“Jesus Christ.” Jeongguk sets down his stylus. “You’re really happy about eating it, though, right? But it’s not the same kind of happiness that you feel when you see your friend after a long time apart. Or if you’re sad, the sadness of someone betraying your trust is different from the sadness of death.”
Taehyung rests his chin in his paint-smeared hand, and Jeongguk winces at the color he streaks all over his cheek. “I kind of get it,” he says. “It’s different. Same, but different.”
“Same but different, come here before you get more paint on your face and my shirt,” Jeongguk says, holding up a damp paper towel, wadded up from this morning by the traditional arts students. Jeongguk’s clothes fit Taehyung better than the things that Jeongguk had first met him in—a poor surfer’s outfit that he’d left on the beach when Taehyung had risen from the ocean in the evening, Jeongguk deduced—but he’s had to remind Taehyung of several things about land that is still taking time for him to get used to. The concept of gravity having immediate effects has been a difficult one, for example, and Jeongguk is currently three whole glasses short.
“Thank you,” Taehyung says, as Jeongguk wipes his face and hands as clean as he can get them.
“It must be weird for you, to know that ink stays where you put it up here,” Jeongguk says.
“Very weird.” Taehyung wrings his hands, nails stained blue. “Noise is extra loud. There is noise everywhere, not the constant rumble of boats. Sharp ones, high ones.” Jeongguk’s phone bleats, and Taehyung flinches. “Like that,” he says. “What is that?”
“A phone, means someone is talking to me.” Jeongguk reaches for it. “They send me a message somewhere else in the city and I get it, so I reply.”
“On that little thing?”
“Yeah, you wanna see?”
what’re you doing
It’s Jimin, presumably done with his lab for the week, and ready to run his face through a sausage grinder.
“Someone sent you that from somewhere else?”
“Yep, and this piece of shit receives it and tells me.”
i think you mean
water you doing
listen up swimdick when i get my hands on you i will finish what the monster in the pool started
“I’m not a monster,” Taehyung says from behind Jeongguk’s shoulder, and he jumps.
“Shit, I didn’t know you were still reading.” He lowers his phone. “It was just a joke. I thought I was going to die that night In there.”
“I won’t do it again,” Taehyung promises. “I didn’t know humans were so fragile.”
“Are you sure you just don’t know how strong your grip is?” Jeongguk asks, offended. “I am plenty not fragile.”
“It’s the tiger shark genes,” Taehyung says, smiling in spite of himself.
Shark in the water, Jeongguk laughs to himself that evening, as Jimin chatters about his lab partner that has an dangerous proclivity for chemical pyrotechnics. A good name for a B-grade horror comedy, he decides.
Jeongguk learns the hard way that things that are so normal and numbingly mundane to him are anything but to Taehyung. Monday morning sees Jeongguk being dragged by his now-healed ankle out of bed by his alarm, the summer sun already roasting his room humid and stuffy. The shirt he wore to sleep has to be peeled off his skin, and blearily does he grope on the floor for clothes that are passably clean, rubbing his eyes on the crotch of his jeans.
Something hums to life in his kitchen, followed by a noise of surprise. Taehyung, like some kind of benign, well-meaning poltergeist, has taken residence in his apartment, and the silence after dark is often broken by errant clangs and thuds and other bumps in the night as he learns the human world—so much like a child, yet armed with a kind of intelligence that Jeongguk struggles to keep up with.
Jeonggukie. It’s the only name Taehyung will call him, after he’d picked up a phone call from Jeongguk’s mother—Jeongguk doesn’t even know how he figured out how to answer it, but “I’ve seen enough of what you people do to figure it out, and answering phones is the least of my worries.” He has a point there.
But, right now, he’s bursting through the door of Jeongguk’s bedroom.
“I pushed a button on a thing in the, the kitchen,” Taehyung says, faltering on the word. Jeongguk stares at him. “And it lit up and started whirring and it’s not—” He pauses, giving Jeongguk a scrutinizing once-over, and points between his legs. “What is that?”
“Jesus!” Jeongguk shouts, hands jumping to his exceptionally naked nethers. “Go away!”
“Wait, but what is that?” Taehyung says, walking inside anyway. “I thought humans only had two legs!”
“It’s not a leg—”
“It kind of looked like one, like a really tiny one—”
“It’s not a leg, I don’t walk on it! Holy shit, go away—”
“Can you grab stuff with it?”
“OH MY GOD NO THAT WOULD BE HORRIFYING,” Jeongguk bellows, throwing his armful of clothing at Taehyung’s head. “GO AWAY.”
“I’m going, I’m going,” Taehyung says, picking Jeongguk’s clothes off of him. “You smell disgusting after you shower, I don’t understand why you even do it.”
“You have to tell me what that third leg is for later!”
So, third leg aside, Jeongguk has some learning to do, too. Taehyung’s tiger shark nose can pick up on all and any scents that linger on Jeongguk’s skin. This doesn’t quite hit him until he steps out of the shower, freshened up and clean cut, and Taehyung’s head snaps up to look at him where he’d been curled up on the couch.
“Where?” Taehyung looks him up and down again, and even clothed, Jeongguk feels naked every time Taehyung does it. “You reek of it.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says. “Nicked myself shaving, maybe.”
Taehyung wrinkles his nose. “I hate how you smell when you shower.”
“I was meaning to ask you about that.” Jeongguk raises his eyebrows as he snags the pitcher of ice water out of his fridge. “I smell best after a shower.”
“If you seriously think that ‘tropical ocean breeze’ smells like that, then I’m going to pray for your olfactories,” Taehyung says. “You smell like chemicals. The same kind of trash you people dump into the oceans by the shiphulls.”
“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk says. “It’s a real problem.”
“It’s upsetting,” Taehyung says. “But it’s—” He sits up, rapt, and Jeongguk is immediately on guard. “Wait! You were supposed to tell me about your secret third leg.”
“It’s not,” Jeongguk says, blushing so hard his shoulder blades must be red. “A leg.”
“A,” Jeongguk pours his coffee forcefully, splashing some on the counter, “a reproductive organ.”
“Is that all it does?” Taehyung says. “Nice. Real compartmentalized.”
“Don’t you have one yourself,” Jeongguk asks, pained. “Why is mine so interesting?”
“Shit, I haven’t checked!” Taehyung says, standing up. “I’ve been kind of—”
“You haven’t checked?”
“You really want me to get into shark anatomy and the biology of marine egesta right now? Because I’ll do it.”
“I’ll pass.” Jeongguk chokes around his croissant when Taehyung slots his thumbs into the waistband of his pants—Jeongguk’s sweats, which wrap loose around his hips. “No, don’t check here! Oh, Christ.”
“Damn,” Taehyung says, looking down at himself. “Does it just hang out down there minding its own business?”
“You could say that,” Jeongguk says, strained, holding his pastry in front of his eyes. “Put your pants on!”
“Why, it’s not like you’ve never seen one,” Taehyung says. “Sweet. It’s really like a third leg.” Jeongguk looks over the top flake of his croissant before covering his face again. “Aw. You’re right, it can’t grab stuff.”
“Please,” Jeongguk says, and the doorbell rings. He stares at the door, Taehyung following suit, and sets down his mug. “Don’t move. And put your goddamn pants on.”
“Is it someone?”
Jeongguk doesn’t answer him, checking his phone. Jimin hadn’t messaged him with something like
i’m coming over with chocopies so bring ya milkshake to the yard so maybe it’s his neighbor from below, annoyed with Taehyung pittering all night long.
It’s not his neighbor.
“Oh! Seolhyun. Hi, uh. What are you doing here?”
Her smile is confused. “I was wondering if you wanted to eat.” She makes to look around him. “Is everything okay?”
“Uh, yeah, it’s great,” Jeongguk says, opening the the door wider than the three centimeter crack he was speaking through. He can feel Taehyung moving behind him. “Everything’s great. What’s up?”
“If you’re busy, I can—”
“No, no! I just have. My friend is over. It was kind of unexpected.”
“Not Jimin.” Jeongguk glances down, sees the takeout she has in a plastic bag, like she’d wanted to come by and have Sunday brunch. He smiles despite himself. “You haven’t met him. He’s staying over for a few days. You can come in, he’s. Interesting? American,” Jeongguk tacks on at the end, with a dramatic whisper.
“Jeonggukie,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk closes his eyes and groans. “Who is it? Oh, she’s really pretty!”
“No, no, it’s okay,” she laughs. “You really do look busy.”
“I swear I’m good.”
“Your shirt is on inside-out.”
Jeongguk peers down. “Fuck. I thought I did so well.”
“Let’s go out during the week instead?”
“Are you sure?” Jeongguk chews his lip. “It’s really fine.”
“I was in the area, don’t worry about it.” She’s already turning with an airy wave of her hand.
“Okay,” Jeongguk says. “I’m sorry. I’ll pay!”
“Ahaha,” says his wallet.
She turns to give him a red-nail-polish fingergun over her shoulder, descending down the staircase to the floor below. The door shuts with a click.
“Who was that?” Taehyung asks. His pants are back, firmly, on his hips where they belong.
“A girl,” Jeongguk sighs, stripping his shirt off to turn it right-side-out again. “Not my girlfriend.”
“So there’s a difference?”
“A girlfriend is someone you’re going steady with.” Jeongguk kicks some of his shoes back into the lower shelf of his shoe rack, a belated, kicked-puppy kind of cleaning. “We’re not.”
“Going steady? What’s—”
“Listen,” Jeongguk says, standing up. Taehyung is taller than him, but something in his expression must be cold and hard enough that Taehyung takes a step back, like he thinks Jeongguk will lash out at him. “Listen. I’m just some nobody, okay, I’m just a student. And not even a good one, at that. I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. I don’t know everything that you want to know about humanity and love, or whatever it is you’re here for. I don’t know what it is with you and your inability to grasp this concept of privacy, and why it is that you have to ask me for everything—I don’t know it! I don’t—I can’t—”
Taehyung isn’t looking at him anymore, and only flickers his gaze back up to Jeongguk’s face when he comes to a loss for words. “It’s a lot for me to learn,” he says, softly, “but it’s a lot for you to learn, too.”
“It’s a lot for you. Too much, right?”
“I don’t need to be here, you just need to tell me where to go,” Taehyung says. “I can figure it out. I can learn. Maybe I come off as strange and impressionable and gullible to you, to humans, but underwater I was one of the sharpest in my pod.”
“I don’t need your help,” he says, “it was just nice to have it.”
Taehyung passes by him close enough for a breath of wind to curl against Jeongguk’s cheek. “Where are you going?” he asks, when Taehyung turns the knob, but he doesn’t answer. It’s not until the door clicks shut, locking behind Taehyung’s departure, that Jeongguk runs to wrench it open.
The hallway is empty. And just like that, this strange, strange dream comes to an end.
“Why do we freak out at the sight of other people’s genitals? It’s not like we don’t know what they look like.”
Jimin looks up very slowly from his homework.
“I mean, you have a dick, and I have a dick,” Jeongguk says. “And, no offense, it’s not like I can’t guess what yours looks like. And we all have nipples? Why do we as a society collectively freak out when we see girl nipples? Why do we as a society freak out at sacks of chest fat?”
He stares at Jimin across the table, who frowns deeply at him.
“Did you smoke an entire freezer Ziploc bag of weed?”
“I didn’t smoke anything.”
“Then you’ve got to hook me up to wherever you got it. Or did you get roped into a feminist campaign conference? #FreeTheNipple, is it? Oh God, I hope you’re not smoking anything insane. Like Krokodil? Don’t do that to yourself, your limbs will fall off, and I’ve seen you looking at your feet with an alien kind of interest this last week.”
Jeongguk dog-ears the corner of his notebook paper.
“I haven’t really had a chance to talk to you the last two weeks,” Jimin says, turning a page of his lab book. “You want to go get some fries to,” he looks at Jeongguk, “Ketchup?”
“Damn, do I look that bad?”
“Bad enough for me to tell a shitty pun?” Jimin snorts. “You look like you got your pubes ripped out by a professional brow-threader and weaved together to sew your asshole shut.”
Jeongguk draws a line and hotkeys it undone, draws a line, hotkeys it undone. “I messed up, Jimin.”
“Oh yeah? Tell me about it.”
“You seem to be under the impression I actually asked for you to tell me about it,” says Jimin, holding up his free finger as his other hand returns to writing at the speed of sound. “I meant, wow, as if this is news.”
“I told someone to fuck off when they had no one else.”
At this, Jimin looks up.
“What the fuck? I thought I taught you better than that. And I’m not even your mother.”
“I didn’t use those exact words,” he insists.
“Oh, as if anyone with a face like yours needs to,” Jimin says, rolling his eyes.
Jeongguk sputters. “The hell does that mean?”
“It means, homeskillet, you really don’t have a face that can afford you the luxury of saying anything remotely fucked up.” Jimin puts his pen down. “Your eyebrows are thick, and they’re slanted at a forty-five degree angle whether you’re laughing or yelling or taking a shit,” he flicks the space between them, “you have a mouth that frowns by default, by the way, you don’t really smile when you talk, and worst of all, you have a butt chin.”
“It’s charismatic,” Jeongguk pouts, stroking his chin.
“You mean it’s villainous,” Jimin says. “You ever see antagonists in movies with smooth chins? No.” Jimin runs his hand down his face. “But I digress. Your face is, unfortunately and infuriatingly, villainously handsome. Which leads me to my next question, which girl gang member is gonna come cut your dick off?”
“What? No, it wasn’t Seolhyun.”
“Wasn’t Seolhyun?” Jimin cocks an eyebrow. “Then who?”
“A friend,” Jeongguk says. “Kind of met him recently.”
“You didn’t tell me about him.”
“Yeah. Outlandish sort of guy. I didn’t know what to make of him.”
“Art student didn’t know what to do with an outlandish guy, huh,” Jimin says. “Must’ve been a real character. So what’d you do, exactly?”
“He needed help,” Jeongguk says. “Help that he insisted I could give him. I guess I can, but,” he shrugs. “I’m not really the best person for the job.”
“What, like he needed a shrink?”
“Not that, either.” Jeongguk scratches his nose with the end of his stylus. “He wanted to know about love.”
“Love,” Jimin repeats. “And you told him to fuck off?”
“I told him I didn’t know anything about it,” Jeongguk says.
“Well, at least you were honest.”
“Thank you,” says Jeongguk dryly, but it’s the truth. “But he seemed desperate. He really needed to know about it, like it was a deal with his parents or something. And he—wasn’t from around here, I think. Needed help with everything and anything. I didn’t know what to do.”
“He wasn’t from around here, yet you could understand him.” Jimin looks skeptical. “As in, he spoke Korean.”
“I guess so?” Jeongguk frowns. “Yeah, that is weird.”
“Are you sure you didn’t have a bad run-in with a ghost?”
“With the way things have been turning around lately, it’s not something I’d rule out.” A sigh escapes him, winding into the space between them. “What do I do?”
“The only thing you can do, my beautiful disaster,” Jimin says. “Cry, write a shitty poem about the fleeting nature of the human being, and move on.”
“What? But what if he still needs help?”
“What am I supposed to tell you?” Jimin asks. “That you should go out and look for him and, with a stroke of luck as rare as a strike of lightning, you’ll find him under a streetlamp, soaking wet in the rain on a lonely summer evening, and you’re the only one in tens of hundred of passerby who holds an umbrella over his head, a moment that sparks a love story that will be passed down for fifteen generations and made into a Disney blockbuster? Come on.”
454.) water falls from the sky.
This comes after 453.) the way laughs sound abovewater is loud and somewhat startling and, 452.) some storefronts have light-up boxes that show moving pictures that, as Taehyung has figured out, aren’t actually there.
The water that falls from the sky doesn’t taste like the ocean does. It’s oily, sharp, tinged with acid and a tang of chemicals even worse than the ones in the creamy stuff Jeongguk uses in the shower. It darkens the grey fabric of his sweats and, with tired panic, he realizes he’s going to pop a tail if he gets any wetter. Luckily it’s dark, and it must be late, because the traffic in this neighborhood park has thinned to a minimum. Human fry are tiny, much tinier than Taehyung is accustomed to seeing, and now he sits on this swinging strip of rubber that makes a shrill creaking sound every time he pushes his weight back and swings forward.
So, no progress made today in Operation: Find Love. Some progress if he counts the girl who’d smiled at him when he did her. It is disheartening how willing strangers are to look away when Taehyung turns to them, asking for help, watching the way their expressions shutter closed and cold when they realize he’s not asking something as easy to answer as directions. And it is no wonder that Jeongguk had no answers to give him.
Taehyung swings. Jeongguk. He hadn’t been very helpful in the end, either, but he’d tried at first. Sincerely, too, Taehyung knew. But the more he is here, the most he’s afraid that this love really might not exist. No one has really given him an answer. No one, really, even seems to know what it is themselves. The pearl-and-shell necklace weighs heavy on his chest, a silent jeer that he’s headed towards failure.
The sky booms, as if the clouds are moaning under the weight of the water that pelts down like herds of krill on Taehyung’s back as the night deepens. When almost all the tiny squares of light have disappeared from the darkened silhouettes of the buildings around him, he hears a distinct tearing around his thighs and scrambles, with real panic, to get Jeongguk’s pants off before the tail splits them open.
Then, just as a streak of light pierces the sky and turns it indigo, the rain stops falling.
Taehyung looks up—no, the rain hasn’t stopped, water still coming down in a torrential storm around him, but there is someone standing over him with a hooded contraption on a stick that the water rolls right off of.
“Jeonggukie.” Taehyung grips the chains of the swing on either side of him. “How’d you find me?”
Jeongguk’s face slides into the light of the lone streetlamp as he tips the black hood-on-a-stick back. “I didn’t mean to,” he admits. “I was walking home from the subway station. You scared the living shit out of me, then I recognized your tail.”
Taehyung flexes it once, a spiny fin peeking out between the soggy pant legs of Jeongguk’s sweats. “Yeah, it’s pretty special, isn’t it?”
“Alright, enough ego-stroking. You need to get out of here before someone less friendly sees you.”
“If you have any ideas, I’m open to them,” says Taehyung. “I’m not really made for speed and agility on land.”
“Hold my umbrella,” Jeongguk says, handing the hood to him. “My place isn’t far from here. Can you lay your spines flat?”
“What’s going on?” Taehyung says, complying. “Do you guys use this to keep the skywater off of yourselves?”
“The rain, yes,” Jeongguk says. He bends down, fits the underside of his jaw to Taehyung’s shoulder, and says, “okay, put your arm around me.”
With a scoop of Jeongguk’s arms, Taehyung feels himself being hoisted out of the swing, and he flails once before grabbing onto Jeongguk’s neck.
“What are you doing?”
“Carrying you, what does it look like? Also, you’re choking me, let go let—no, don’t let go let go—”
“You are so confusing,” Taehyung mutters, holding onto Jeongguk as lightly as he can without feeling like he’s going to eat pavement at any second. He wraps his tail up in Jeongguk’s pants so that most of his fins are hidden from view. “And I’m super heavy, this isn’t a good idea.”
“Listen, fishface, I don’t do fifty sets of every part of my workout to be doubted like this,” Jeongguk says, already sounding winded. “Now stop fidgeting or I’ll really drop you, you’re slimy.”
“Aw, thank you,” Taehyung says. “Jellyfish and kelp scale mask. Does wonders.”
“Gross,” Jeongguk says, with no real bite in his voice. The rest of the journey is made in relative silence, with the sounds of the storm falling away behind them when Jeongguk makes it under the overhang to his apartment on the second floor.
“My keys are my back pocket and I can’t put you down to get them.”
“Oh, I can get them.”
“No,” Jeongguk says. “You will not.”
“The other option is to put me down and pick me back up, and you are not putting me on the floor. Not to mention the likelihood of you giving yourself a herniated disc picking me back up off the floor is one hundred and one percent.”
Jeongguk looks ready to murder. “It’s in my right back pocket,” he says, finally, and Taehyung smiles victoriously. “No, my right!”
“Ooooops,” Taehyung says, reaching over when the first pocket he plunges his hand into comes up empty. “Hey, what is this?”
“What is wh—? Stop groping my ass!”
“Asses are supposed to be squishy, now unlock the door!”
The neighbor two doors down, the loose cannon with the drumset, sticks his face into the screen of his window so that it stretches around his nose. “Can you keep it down?” he shouts. “I’m trying to sleep here!”
“So are the rest of us, you expired dollar-store come guzzler!” shouts the neighbor next door. Taehyung looks back into Jeongguk’s face with apprehension.
“Welcome to humanity,” he says flatly. “Make yourself at home.”
Take two, Taehyung wants to do this right this time around. They decide a plan is in order.
“Okay,” Jeongguk says, turning a grocery receipt over and uncapping his ballpoint pen. He writes Taehyung across the top, to the left, then Jeongguk to the right. “Let’s start with our goals first.”
“Prove love is real for me,” Taehyung says, without missing a beat.
“Way ahead of you,” Jeongguk says. “Hmm. My goals.”
“Get the pretty girl?”
“I guess so.” He writes this down, then seems to get an idea, and writes that down, too. “So how’re we going to reach your goal?”
“If you could teach me—”
“I don’t know much.”
“I know. But you know more than me, so just teach me what you do know.”
“Mmm, that sounds doable.” Jeongguk rests the end of his pen on his chin. “It’s a step-by-step process.”
“That sounds more than enough,” Taehyung nods. “I can do steps.”
Steps Jeongguk writes. 1.) “So the first thing you do when you meet someone you could love, you start with the basics.”
“Look at ’em real good.”
“Is that it?”
“I mean, yeah, give them a good look,” Jeongguk says. “Mmm. You need to practice. Try it on me.”
“I’ve seen a lot of you.”
“I mean, pretend you don’t know me, look me up and down.”
“This is weird.”
“This is how you do it, come on.”
They sit on the couch like this, a wrinkled receipt bleeding with sticky pen ink pinned between their knees. Taehyung, watching the way Jeongguk did it, has figured out how to fold his legs together in a butterfly shape so that they don’t take up as much space.
“Okay, I’m done,” Taehyung says. “You’re cute.”
“Good, shoot for the people you think are cute,” Jeongguk says. “Next—”
“So, shoot for someone like you?”
“I—if that’s what you want, I guess,” Jeongguk says, color rising to cheeks. “But you don’t have to.”
“But if I want to?”
“You can love,” Jeongguk says, “whomever you want to love.”
which is to say, it’s a shitty plan. There really isn’t even a plan, but Taehyung did sign himself someone who gave five disclaimers that he is absolutely not a certified lover. Luckily, Taehyung doesn’t seem to mind, or care, and in return, he tries to hold as still as he can at night so Jeongguk can sleep.
“You just lie there,” Taehyung says, curled up in a loose ball beside Jeongguk in bed. “For, I don’t understand, hours. You move, but you stay asleep a whole sunturn. It’s weird.”
“Do you not?” Jeongguk says, barely holding one eye open. He’d gotten up at the crack of dawn this morning to finish his animation project to hand in, and on three cups of coffee managed to get through all of his classes in a classroom with still-broken air conditioning.
“I can’t sleep more time than it takes for the sun to move one bull kelp-width across the sky or I’d drown, dummy,” Taehyung says. “And even then I don’t sleep that long.”
“Oh, you’re right,” Jeongguk says around a yawn. “No gills.”
“If I had gills, then I would never be able to stop swimming,” Taehyung says. “Worse.”
“Do you sink when you sleep?”
“Nope,” Taehyung says. “Well, maybe if I were alone. But we only sleep when we’re around our pods so that someone can swim under us when we get some shut-eye.”
“That’s cool,” Jeongguk says, and as sleepy as he sounds he means it. “Who do you sleep on, usually?”
“Standard, mother or father,” Taehyung says. “After my brother grew up he started letting me sleep on him, too. But I still swim under my sister a lot. Or other merpeople in the pod. Seokjin is a great sleeper, all broad and steady.”
“So that’s why you don’t always sleep at night.”
“Mhmm,” Taehyung hums. He’s chilly to the touch, skin always a shade cooler than Jeongguk’s. Every now and then, he remembers Taehyung is genetically part fish, and his cardiovascular system must be compromised because of it. It is no wonder he likes the summer heat, relishing in the warmth of Jeongguk’s body at night when it’s too hot to even have clothes on with the fan on its highest setting and the window open. But it’s nice, at least now in summer, to have Taehyung’s cold blood folded up beside him in bed. “Good night, Jeonggukie.”
Jeongguk is asleep for what feels like seconds when his dream—odd and twisted in the way only dreams can be—turns scary, nightmarish, and he wakes up to the feeling of being asphyxiated.
There’s something clamped shut over his nose.
“Fuck,” he gasps, flailing in his blankets, sweat beading along his hairline. The pressure disappears with a noise of shock, and Taehyung lands on the floor with a thud. “What? What’s going on?” He squints down at Taehyung’s form. “Were you trying to kill me?”
“I thought you were you doing it on purpose!” Taehyung says. “You breathe like thunder when you sleep! Why do you even breathe at all?”
“What do you mean, ‘why do you breathe,’ what did you expect?” Jeongguk hisses. “Do you—oh. You don’t breathe when you sleep, do you?”
“Of course I don’t, I have to remember to breathe,” Taehyung says. “Why do you think I’d drown if I slept half a sunturn like you do?”
“Sorry, I’m sorry,” Jeongguk says, holding the blanket back up. “Come on, get back in.”
“Just don’t try to murder me in my sleep again, sure,” Jeongguk says. “Hurry up.”
“Thank you.” Taehyung is welcome relief in the humid summer night. “I’m sorry too. Sorry for almost killing you.”
“Not the first time,” Jeongguk says, before slipping back into the deep.
“Is your ankle all better now?”
“Yeah, it’s great.” Blades of grass tickle the backs of his calves as he stretches his legs out. “Good as new.”
Jeongguk’s rare afternoon free between two of his summer cram classes sees him hitting up Seolhyun to see if she wants to get something to drink, sit in the shade of the grassy quad beside the soccer field. The usual school year means it would usually be filled with a bunch of other nineteen and twenty-somethings, sweat streaming down their shirts as they ran back and forth under the sun. “I wanted to say sorry again for last Sunday.”
Seolhyun grimaces at the brain freeze she gets, laughing through it as Jeongguk presses a knuckle to her temple to massage her through it. “No, it was okay,” she promises. “Jimin unnie has the appetite of a wounded tiger. I let her think I got her brunch and now she owes me, so it actually worked out.” She turns to him, resting her head on the arm she has resting across the tops of her bent knees. “Who was your friend? He sounded close to you. Jeonggukie, huh?”
“He’s a friend from—my childhood,” Jeongguk says. “The name stuck.”
The lie had bubbled up from his chest so naturally, and Jeongguk isn’t sure what compelled him to say that instead of something more impersonal. Some kid I know or something, not that Taehyung’s voice could have passed him off for one.
Seolhyun’s phone jangles in her pocket, and she digs it out only to frown at whatever her notifications say. “Ugh. I have to go.”
“Hyejeong keeps scaring herself about being pregnant,” says Seolhyun. “Because she accidentally touched the guy cashier’s hand at the convenience store. Oh my God. She’s lesbian.”
Jeongguk chokes on his iced coffee.
“Okay, I’m going to go act as moral support and write up another Facebook post about sex education reform,” she says, standing and brushing blades of grass from her shorts. “Thanks for this!” She waves her smoothie.
“Of course, see you soon,” Jeongguk says, eyes watering, and trying really hard not to be aware of The Tiddy when she hugs him and be cool. (Failed step one.) “Be safe in the heat!”
“You too,” she says, giving him a wet, mango-sticky kiss on his cheek before letting go and stepping into the sun along the sidewalk. And it’s weird, Jeongguk thinks, as he waves his hand with the fading smile on his face when she turns around. He waited for the flutter of his heart that never came when she kissed him. Not the same kind that used to beat the inside of his chest like an agitated gnome, hammering on the inside of his ribcage. Instead, there is only a curious silence. An unbroken calm.
“I got dinner,” Jeongguk says, stepping into his apartment and kicking his shoes in the general direction of Mount Timberland. “So I hope you’re hungry.”
“What’s for dinner?” Taehyung asks, peering around the tower of books that Jeongguk had taught him how to check out at the library. There’s a stack of world history, in Korean, the Harry Potter series in three languages, one of which Jeongguk can’t even decipher, and How to Live with a Huge Penis: Advice, Meditations, and Wisdom for Men Who Have Too Much. This one is in Japanese. Mermaids have an incomprehensible talent for understanding languages without the same struggle humans did, and “it’s not even limited to human language, I know most Whalic languages and dialects and some Icthyal languages. My parents know more, they never taught us anything in Waterfowl.”
“Fish,” Jeongguk says. “The ahjumma at the market had my favorite today, so—” Jeongguk freezes, in the middle of taking off his backpack and reaching for the skillet on the wall. “Holy shit, I’m so sorry, you’re probably offended by th—?”
When he turns around, Taehyung has one hand buried deep in the doubled-up plastic bag and the other wrapped around the tail end of a bloody fish that’s already clamped between his teeth.
“What. Are you doing?”
“I, uhm.” Taehyung removes the fish from his mouth, and in its scaly side is a perfect crimson half-moon where his teeth had been. “Uh.”
Jeongguk takes a deep breath and sets his skillet down. “Come and eat it over the sink.”
Blood runs down the chipped white porcelain as Taehyung tears into it, nondiscriminating about bones and guts. It’s horse mackerel, and the smell is strong and pungent. Halfway through Jeongguk gingerly hands him a fresh paper towel.
“Thank you,” says Taehyung, blood smearing across his cheek as he wipes. Jeongguk wads it up more tightly, clean bit exposed, and dabs at Taehyung’s face.
“Are you this messy underwater?”
“Not much of a mess underwater, is there?” Taehyung says, the tail disappearing between his lips, whole.
“I should have known,” Jeongguk says, laughing and shaking his head. “I should’ve gotten you fish sooner. You’ve just been eating whatever shit I throw into my abused college body, I didn’t realize.”
“Tiger shark, Jeonggukie, we eat anything,” Taehyung says. “You guys have some pretty good food.”
Jeongguk smiles, softer this time, as he wipes away the blood around Taehyung’s lips, most of it gone by now. Taehyung smiles back, just as gentle, the sight of it marred by the scarlet on his teeth and it jerks Jeongguk out of the dreamy silence hanging around them.
“What’re you doing?” Taehyung asks, as Jeongguk turns on the stove.
“Cooking it, Nemo,” Jeongguk says.
“What? Like over a fire? You’re going to ruin the flavor!”
“And it’s going to ruin my stomach if I eat it raw. Scoot, I need the oil.”
Taehyung is quiet behind him as Jeongguk pours canola oil in the hot bottom of his skillet, the surface shimmering and smoking on contact. He’s quiet, even as Jeongguk goes through the motions of cooking it, and doesn’t speak again until they’re sitting on the couch in the living room, watching a rerun of A Tale of Two Sisters.
“In the water,” Taehyung says, “we do a courting dance.”
“Hmm?” Jeongguk says, running his tongue over his molars to catch all the bits of mackerel. “A courting dance, huh?”
“Yeah. It’s the closest thing we have to love. We do it out of obligation. A ritual to say that yes, we are bonded now, expected to create a family together.” Taehyung clasps his hands around his knees, bumps them against Jeongguk’s bare arm. “What do you guys do?”
“When we like someone, you mean?”
“Well,” he says. “We can hug them. If we really like them, we kiss them.”
“Oh, show me!”
“Are you sure?” Jeongguk asks. “You really can’t do either of these things without asking permission first. Some people don’t like it.”
“Well, I won’t know if I don’t like it unless you show me what they’re like, right?” Taehyung reasons. “Unless you don’t want to.”
“No, no, I,” Jeongguk bites his lip. “I don’t mind.”
“Which one is easier? If there is one.”
“Hugging. You can do it for lots of people—people you love, people you like. Friends. When you’re excited, when you’re sad. When you’re happy. It’s a pretty versatile expression of affection, I’d say.”
Jeongguk sets his plate down on the coffee table, wiping his mouth on his napkin. “Hold your arms out,” he says, shifting close. He lifts them over his shoulders and wraps his own around Taehyung’s ribs, pulls him close. “Okay, you can tighten them.”
Taehyung crushes him so hard to his chest that he gets the wind knocked out of him for moment. “Not that tight, Taehyung.”
They sit in each other’s arms.
“A hug,” Jeongguk says unnecessarily.
“I like this,” Taehyung says, chin bobbing against Jeongguk’s shoulder. “A hug.” He settles more comfortably against the curve of Jeongguk’s body. “You smell good.”
Jeongguk frowns, shifting his head and feels Taehyung’s ear against his cheek. “I just got back from the gym, and cooked dinner, I’m gross.”
“Well, you smell better like this than when you get out of the shower with your Tropical Ocean Lies,” Taehyung says. “This is amazing. We should hug all the time.”
Jeongguk closes his eyes, and decides not to tell Taehyung that he’ll have to pull away sometime, no matter who it is. Some hugs after a second. Some hugs, well, after a while. But all hugs come to an end, and Jeongguk doesn’t know why he doesn’t want this one to see it.
With the emergence of the Hug Discovery, Taehyung wants to do it every chance he has. Jeongguk finds he isn’t opposed to this, “just not when I’m working, Taehyung,” which means most of it is condensed into the time in bed at night. Maybe it’s because of this, or the absence of it, that jolts Jeongguk awake in the middle of the night; he’s not one to stir until he absolutely has to. He wakes, and he’s alone.
A red glow lights up his bathroom, rippling across the tiled wall and the mirror, with the distinct sound of water splashing in a confined space. Jeongguk lies in bed, blinking sleep from his eyes, watching the dance of lights for a few minutes before rising from bed.
Taehyung has a habit of sitting in his tub whenever there is something on his mind. Sometimes dry, sometimes with the water filled to the brim, his tail stretching up the length of the wall and his spined fins spilling over the rims of the tub.
“Back in the tub?”
The water ripples around Taehyung’s chest when he looks up. “Felt a little parched,” he says, voice bouncing off the high ceiling. “Home away from home.”
Jeongguk leans back against the counter, yawning until his jaw cracks. Taehyung is uncharacteristically quiet, simply flexing his tail back and forth, back and forth.
“I didn’t know you could move it like that.”
“Oh?” Taehyung says, laying it flat. “You probably see mermaid tails oriented like this, right?”
“Mmm, I think so.”
“Part fish,” Taehyung explains. “So I flex my spine side to side when I swim, not up and down. That’s mammalian. I have joints that let me twist it, like the bones in your arm.”
“You’ll have to show me one day.”
“Yeah, I’d like that,” Taehyung says, a hint of a smile on his face. “One day.”
Distantly, late-night traffic is pierced by a thin, wailing siren. The moon is low in the bathroom window. Night is almost over.
“How can you not believe in love?”
Taehyung doesn’t even make a move to indicate he heard Jeongguk speak. The question has been curled under Jeongguk’s tongue for weeks now, well into the deepest swell of summer. He knows it, sure, objectively. Taehyung is here to prove it’s real, and yet, the more he lives around him the more Jeongguk comes to realize that so much of human life revolves around it.
“It is simple,” Taehyung says, not looking up, simply dragging his fingers through the silvery, glass-flat surface of the water. “In the ocean, nothing quite belongs to us. We may have tribes, we may have clans, pods, regions that we live in, but the water is ever-moving. Ever-changing. We cannot survive without that change. The oceans do not belong to us. We belong to the ocean. You humans always speak of the land as being your land. Their land. There are so many parts of your lives you have to call your own. At the end of all things, the only part of ourselves we have left to call our own is our heart. The only thing we need not share to survive.”
“You don’t need to be,” Taehyung says. “That is the life we choose to lead. The life we have to lead, really. You don’t need to apologize because we can’t miss what we don’t have.”
“But you do.”
Taehyung glances up at him.
“You do, enough to come ashore to find it.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
“How do you know it exists,” Jeongguk asks, “if it’s not real to you?”
“I’ve heard it in songs,” Taehyung says, “sung at sea by sailors. I’ve seen it on beaches, where you humans will wear clothes that look tight and uncomfortable and sit on the sand to watch two people hold hands and look at each other, and,” he shakes his head. “There was something about it, about the way they did. They looked at each other, and they were surrounded by all these people, and yet it like they didn’t see anyone else in the world.”
“A beachside wedding,” Jeongguk murmurs.
“Advanced love, we’re not there yet,” Jeongguk says. “We just got to hugging last week.”
Taehyung laughs halfheartedly. “Do you really think I can prove love is real?”
Jeongguk decides to save the question as to why he needs to so badly for another night. “Are you doubting me?”
“No. I’m doubting me.”
“I don’t,” Jeongguk says. “You’ll prove it. You’ll find it. You won’t have to go back home with your tail between your legs.”
“How would I have both at once?” Taehyung asks, alarmed, and Jeongguk cracks up at five AM on his bathroom floor with a mermaid in his bathtub and he must say that, of all the situations he thought he’d find himself in, this is definitely one of the last.
Technology is somewhat of a new concept to Taehyung, electronics especially, and while he understands how a TV and a phone works he seems to be under the general impression that Jeongguk is partly making it up just to mess with him.
“I’ve got an idea,” Jeongguk announces when he gets home that Friday, tossing his plastic bag of two raw fish, customary dinner now, into the sink. “For your schooling.”
“Oh, this should be good,” Taehyung says, putting down Systems Engineering and Analysis. It’s disconcerting lately, when Jeongguk will be doing work and Taehyung springs a Did you know in France and Germany called unofficial truces during Christmas during the first World War? That’s so sad, and yet he will turn around and ask, So why is Christmas such a big deal, anyway?
(He had not been pleased with the answer, “We all buy stuff for the people we care about. Hey, people we love! We give them presents. It can be a happy holiday if you have lots of family and friends, but a sad one if you don’t. Or if you feel bad, and don’t have enough expenses to spare on gifts.”
Taehyung had further not been pleased with the despondent state of socioeconomic division among humanity and reasoned, “Why can’t everyone have some if there’s plenty to go around?”
To which Jeongguk had replied, “Oh God, you’re a Communist.”)
“We are going to watch a movie,” Jeongguk says, opening the freezer to move around some freezerburnt chops of chicken breast and make room for the fish. “It’ll be easier for you to see it and then ask me about it than me trying to explain it abstract.”
“About love, dummy,” Jeongguk says. There’s a jumbo bag of tater tots jammed into the door shelf in the freezer and, after so many days of fish, he thinks he might indulge in some complex carbs later. “A lot of movies are about love.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Taehyung says.
“It was funny to watch you struggle through chemical engineering textbooks.” He shuts the door with a snap of the rubber cushion lining on the freezer’s door frame. “Besides, you wouldn’t have understood it if I’d just thrown it at you cold.”
“What are we going to watch?”
“The most iconic love story of this generation.”
“And who decided it was iconic?”
“I don’t know,” Jeongguk says. “But it’s the only DVD I own at this apartment because my brother got it bootleg in a case that said it was going to be [●REC], until it started playing.”
Not five minutes passes before Taehyung says, “Wait, I’ve been there!”
“This is the RMS Titanic, isn’t it?” Taehyung says, looking from the TV to Jeongguk’s face. “It is! The one that capsized in the North Atlantic near the Arctic Circle. Yoongi’s around there, and that’s when I met Namjoon, you know, of the Deep Sea Syndicate when our class dove down to see it.” He laughs. “You guys have a movie about it?”
“Wow,” Jeongguk says, suddenly feeling very small and very uncultured. “What’s it look like down there?”
“Freezing, obviously, but the water’s crystal clear,” Taehyung says. “A lot of our class couldn’t dive that deep to see it but I wanted to, I could only stay a little while before I had to go back up.” He crosses his legs, and the movement is natural now, nearly second nature. “It’s haunting. You can hear crying when you swim through the corridors. Music. A lot of people loved each other on that ship.” Jeongguk meets his gaze when Taehyung turns to look at him. “Right?”
“I would say so.” Jeongguk nods. “Yeah, I’d say there were.”
All in all, Taehyung’s meeting with Jimin goes well, if Jeongguk doesn’t count the part where Taehyung hugs him and says, “I want one this small!”
“Excuse me?” Jimin says, smoke practically shooting out of his ears. “You wanna go?”
“Don’t do it, he’s a shark,” Jeongguk says under his breath.
“Uh, what Jeonggukie means to say is that I’m—deceptively strong,” Taehyung says, letting go, and Jimin massages the back of his neck. “I’m sorry, I forgot to ask you if I could hug you.”
“Oh, sure, go ahead,” Jimin says. “Just don’t call me small or I’ll pour hot chocolate sauce down your butthole.”
“Is he kidding about the deceptively strong part,” Jimin asks Jeongguk later, as Taehyung apologizes for the monument of library books in the living room and offers to move them off the couch so Jimin can rightly return to his corner cushion. “He looks like I could break him in ha—”
Taehyung lifts a stack of twenty or so textbooks without even straining, and Jimin stares over the side of Jeongguk’s arm.
“He’s uh, a character,” Jeongguk says simply, turning back around to shrug a shoulder. “He’s fun. Maybe takes a little getting used to. Doesn’t pronounce all his words correctly so you need to really listen to him if he’s talking fast.”
“Where’s he from?”
“Daegu,” Jeongguk makes up quickly. “Says he’s from a rural region.”
“And you know him how?”
“We ran into each other on campus and got talking. He doesn’t have that many friends around here, I felt bad.”
“I take he’s an,” Jimin peers over Jeongguk’s shoulder again. “Engineer?”
“Undeclared, undeclared. One of those brilliant-but-lazy types, you know.”
Jimin nods slowly, once. “You’re not telling me something,” he concludes. “What is it? Fess up. What do you owe him?”
“There’s something weird about him,” Jimin says. “No, not him. You. The way you’ve been acting, and the way you act around him—you keep asking me these, these,” Jimin gestures expansively, vaguely, “questions, like you’re higher than a kite. You know yesterday you asked me ‘hey, do you think fish ever get thirsty?’ Like, what? Or what about that time you asked me, ‘hey, what do you reckon the first person who got kissed thought?’ I don’t fucking know?”
“He’s nice,” Jeongguk says. “He sees the world differently from us.”
“Okay,” Jimin says, holding his hands up in defeat. “Alright. Fine artist telling me this guy sees the world differently, I’m going to trust you on this one.”
But what they do bond over is the universal language of food.
“What do you mean, you’ve never have KBBQ?” Jimin asks in disbelief. “Do you live under a rock?”
“Actually, I lived in c—”
Jeongguk raises his eyebrows at him.
“—ondo,” Taehyung says. “Condo. A small one.”
“And you never had KBBQ, what the fuck. We’re fixing that tonight.” Jimin shakes his head, holding his hand above the grill plate, then leaning over sideways to check that the heat is all the way up. “What have you eaten all your life up till now?”
Taehyung groans. “Oh, the summer months are the best,” he says. “The reefs are teeming with everything and anything you can dream of eating. Once I tried puffer fish, that did not go over well. The groupers are always in abundance then, too, but I love barracuda the most.” He smacks his lips. “Most satisfying catch, in my opinion.”
Jimin glances at Jeongguk, then swivels his gaze back to Taehyung. “You said you were from. Daegu?”
“Oh,” Taehyung says. “Oh, right, I am! Yeah.”
“Jeongguk and I are from Busan,” Jimin says, slowly, resting his weight on his elbows on the table. “A port city. You just named a lot of species that I didn’t even know were fished varieties.”
“You guys have to try barracuda,” Taehyung says, patting the back of Jimin’s hand. “I’ll catch one for you one day.”
“Thanks,” Jimin says, confused but accepting. Their meat arrives then, whole plates laid out with samgyupsal and chadol and gopchang, and before Jeongguk can even pick up his tongs, Taehyung’s hand has closed around an entire cut of samgyupsal.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Jimin says, hand darting across the table to hold it over Taehyung’s mouth. “We have to cook that first.”
Taehyung looks at Jeongguk, who raises his eyebrows higher and tilts his head this time, like we discussed this.
“Right, sorry,” Taehyung says, reaching over the grill plate and opening his hand so the meat slides out of his palm and lands with a merry sizzle. “This is really new to me, there aren’t any pigs in the—”
“Jimin, hand me the gopchang, that takes the longest to cook,” Jeongguk says loudly, holding his hand out.
It is so easy, however, to win over someone’s heart with KBBQ. Taehyung is not an exception.
“I’m never eating anything else ever again,” he declares, snatching up bits of meat with surprising speed and dexterity for someone who has eaten with his hands for two decades of his life. “This might even beat fish.”
“What else do you want? Pick from the menu.”
“Pick something different so we make the most of our two hours,” Jeongguk adds.
“Time limit,” Jimin says. “Or else people would stay here for five, easy.”
“There’s a time limit to eating?” Taehyung flips open the menu, eyes whizzing down the text. “Boo, that’s lame.”
When the order of makchang arrives, Taehyung leans forward and points at it.
“Jeongguk, is this supposed to look like your dick?”
Jimin’s entire mouthful of soju comes through his nose.
“Yes,” Jeongguk says stiffly, holding his hand out for the plate and holding up the pair of tongs like a weapon.
“But they’re not dicks.”
“Napkin,” Jimin rasps, groping for the stack in Jeongguk’s corner as tears stream from his eyes. He hands him one.
“Nope,” Jeongguk says, the grill smoking, the oily fond crackling when he sets it down to cook. “They’re pig guts. How are we doing over there?”
“If I ever wish pain and death on anyone,” Jimin says, sounding compromised, “I will no longer tell them to step on a Lego, or to choke on Hot Cheeto dust. No. I will tell them to snort chamisul up their nose.”
“What’s that taste like?”
“Pretty strong,” Jeongguk says. “It’s alcohol.”
“Can I try?”
“It might make you feel funny,” Jeongguk says. “It’s a drug, basically.”
“Oh, like jellyfish toxin?”
“You get high on jellyfish toxin?”
“Sure,” Taehyung says. “Box jellyfish especially.”
“Yes, no, Jimin?” Jeongguk asks. When Jimin nods, eyes still resembling the Niagara, Jeongguk pours Taehyung a half-shot and hands it to him. The face he makes when it goes down is priceless.
“You guys drink this stuff for fun?” he asks, sticking his tongue out. “This tastes like petroleum.”
“And you know what that tastes like?”
“Yes, ships keep spilling it everywhere,” Taehyung says, dragging his own napkin over his tongue. “Dyed my hair pitch black for an entire season.”
Jeongguk doesn’t think to properly read up on ichthyology until he gets back home one evening to Taehyung about to take a mouthful out of something that is distinctly not a food item.
“What the fuck are you eating?” Jeongguk demands, and Taehyung freezes mid-bite. “Is that my calculator? I threw it out last night!”
“I was hungry,” Taehyung says, words muffled by pulverized number pads, “I didn’t have any money to go out and buy anything.”
“That’s trash,” Jeongguk says, snatching it out of Taehyung’s hands and chucking it back into the garbage. “How do you even—no, let me guess. Tiger shark.”
“Well,” Taehyung says. “We do eat anything.”
Jeongguk pinches the bridge of his nose. “Do I want to know?”
“You can ask.”
“What is,” he begins, “the stupidest thing you’ve ever ingested?”
“A plastic bag,” Taehyung says without even needing to think. “That was not a good day for me, let me tell you.”
“I’m not the one who threw it in the ocean, so speak for yourself,” Taehyung says, picking a screw the size of an eyelash hair out of his teeth and tossing it back into his mouth.
“Oh,” Jeongguk says. “I suppose that true. Fine, don’t eat stuff in the trash—in fact, don’t eat anything that’s not in the fridge. Got it? If it’s in the fridge, you can eat it.”
They open the door together, a whoosh of cold air rushing out. A shriveled lime In the back corner of the top shelf, two cans of grapefruit makgeolli clank together on the door, and barely-used tub of gochujang greets them.
“I told you,” Taehyung says.
“Fine, you win this one.” Jeongguk says. “I haven’t gotten groceries in three weeks, I get it.”
So dinner is delivery—bibim guksu, and Jeongguk has to grab Taehyung’s bowl before he eats it with the plastic wrap and all. He does, though, pick up his chopsticks instead of going hands first into it, and most of it makes it into his mouth without making a mess over his cheeks.
“You’re getting better at that,” Jeongguk remarks, and Taehyung looks up, halfway through putting the entire fried fish side into his mouth. “Try smaller bites, maybe. I saw you put the entire slice of cake I got from Tous le Jours last week in your mouth at once.”
“It takes a very secure man to eat that slow,” says Taehyung.
“You shove as much as you can into your mouth out there, Jeonggukie,” Taehyung says. “You never know when some other bigger, meaner predator is going to come out of nowhere and steal it.”
“I thought tiger sharks wouldn’t have any natural predators.”
“We don’t, they’re not preying on us,” Taehyung says with a roll of his eyes. “There’s only so much food. Not including us, there are still natural-blood predators, you know, the real sharks. They leave us alone, but they don’t have society,” Taehyung says. “They don’t have morals or rules. It’s the survival of the fittest for them.”
“And your rules are, no such thing as love.”
Taehyung doesn’t answer this as fast. He’s stopped answering anything about love as quickly these days, like the answers he thought he had were crumbling in his wake. “We don’t,” he agrees. “The Bermuda Tribe especially.”
“Born into the wrong family, huh.”
“All our mates are assigned,” Taehyung says. “You probably imagine this is surprising, how much our parents care about assignment when there is no love.”
“Not exactly.” Jeongguk shrugs, twirling noodles onto his chopsticks. “We have them in the human world, too. It’s just not a rule for everyone.”
“Our most absolute law is to pass down genetic information,” Taehyung says. “It’s pretty primitive, right? For creatures who have the privilege of thinking like humans, we stay concerned about offspring. And since I’m part lionfish, knowing that I have almost no chance of being sought after means that my parents will assign me to the first family who will accept me.”
“What?” Something like anger flares in Jeongguk’s chest. “Why?”
“We’re not welcome in the Atlantic,” Taehyung says. “We’re not from there.”
“The lionfish invasion,” Jeongguk says, vaguely remembering it from a passing online article from his Facebook newsfeed. “You guys are from—the Pacific?”
“South Pacific,” Taehyung says. “That’s what I hear, anyway. The only reason my mother’s parents assigned them to my father, the lionfish, was because he was a pearl-trapper, mermaids that spend their lives hunting and whittling to make these,” he plucks at the necklace that rests against his collarbones, “and mermaids from waters near and far, deep and shallow, cold and warm will travel to find these pearl trappers with things to trade.”
“And you will be assigned,” Jeongguk says, “because of your lineage.”
Taehyung shrugs one shoulder.
“Is that what you do?” Jeongguk asks. “Under the sea. You’re a pearl trapper.”
“Started from the moment I could swim on my own,” says Taehyung, and a quiet pride resonates in his voice. “It’s not enough to just find them, either. You need to carve and whittle until they look like these.” He reaches down into his shirt, pulls out the double-loop and stretches it across the table.
Each and every pearl is carved to look like a human skull, some with and without mandibles. Jeongguk had never gotten a good look until now, not with the strand of pearls always hidden under Taehyung’s clothes or the surface of the water when he was in the bathtub. “Your father carved all of these?” he asks.
“Every last one,” says Taehyung. “An artisan’s craft is prized above all else.” He tucks it back under the collar of his clothes. “It’s all I have going for me.”
“You have so much more going for you than your bloodline,” Jeongguk says. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To prove love is real, so you don’t get assigned to a mate. That’s why you’re so desperate to find it, right?”
“Or else I’ll be assigned,” Taehyung says with a smile. He doesn’t look particularly happy. “I have until the cold water migration to Bermuda. If I can’t find love, then.”
The bibum guksu suddenly doesn’t look as appetizing anymore. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I sure wish an artisan’s craft was prized here like it is in your world, though.”
“Is it not?” Taehyung asks, frowning. Jeongguk lets out a barking laugh.
“Up here, no one has respect for artists,” Jeongguk says. “They say it’s easy work. A thankless life, one that earns no food or pay. Only if you are famous will you receive respect, and even then that comes, always, with hate.”
“That’s terrible.” Taehyung shakes his head. “Only in art do we get a chance to see someone’s soul.”
“You’ve seen some of mine,” Jeongguk says. “What do you think it says about me?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Taeyung says. “You’re a pervert.”
“How the hell did you arrive at that?”
“Well, maybe it was the part where I found you awake in the middle of the night once eating tater tots and making a 3D rendering of a naked human, you were shading in his nipple with surgical precision,” Taehyung says.
“I was really drunk!”
“You were laughing to yourself,” Taehyung continues. “And sending pictures to Jimin and saying, to your phone which I am sure was not on call mode, ‘hey, Jimin, look at these precious sensitive chest pepperonis.’ So you must have been drunk. No judgment, though, you know. The human body is made to be appreciated.”
“Please stop talking, forever.”
“What’s pepperoni, now that we’re here?”
“Your other stuff, hmm, it’s harder to say. You’re too hard on yourself, sometimes. You try to do things right too much. Have you ever lost yourself in art, or are you always worrying about every line and brushstroke? You’re worried about perfection, aren’t you?”
Jeongguk blinks, the blush in his cheeks taking its sweet time to fade. “You got all of that just from my works?”
“Why, am I right?” Taehyung says. “Ha! My father always told me I didn’t have an eye for reading the art of others.”
“How do I read all of that without needing to hear you spell it out?” Taehyung asks, and Jeongguk nods. “I don’t know. How do you know you love someone?”
How do you know you love someone? When can you look at someone and know, there they are, it’s them, it has to be them. Where does that certainty come from? Where does that bravery come from?
“You didn’t tell me you changed majors to philosophy,” Jimin says.
“What? I didn’t change majors.”
“You must have, I haven’t heard that much existential dread since two hours ago,” Jimin says. “When you asked me ‘why is it that we shit on the people that bring us entertainment in our darkest hours?’”
“It was an honest question.”
“And I gave you a very honest answer.”
“You said, ‘Google is free and there for you to use at any time.’”
“See? It was very honest.”
“You are of no help at all,” Jeongguk says, bagging up eight kilograms worth of freshly slaughtered fish and tossing it into his shopping basket. “Why did you come with me again?”
“Because testing explosive reactions is a lot less suspicious when you’re just that weird kid with a penchant for blowing up tomatoes on his balcony,” Jimin says. “And, because I’m feeling nice today, I’ll give you my two cents.”
“It’s not that hard, you know,” Jimin says. “Love is when you see someone for who they are and say, hell yeah, I want all of it. I want all of that and more. All you want is for them to be happy, whether or not it’s to your benefit. Love is, ‘I hope they love me too, but if it takes someone else to make them smile the way that I love most, then that’s all I can ask for.’”
Jeongguk stares at him.
“Are you in love with somebody?” he asks, dumbfounded.
“All I know,” says Jimin, looking Jeongguk square in the face, “is that you are.”
In August, piano music wakes him. When he rolls over in bed, irritated, his body rolls into Taehyung’s.
“I know,” he says, when Jeongguk blinks his eyes open before shutting them with a light groan. “They woke me up too.”
“Time is it?”
“Almost sunup,” Taehyung says. “The sky is turning is grey.”
Piano music filters in through Jeongguk’s open window from the floor above. It’s something he recognizes, but can’t put a name to, something by Liszt. The two neighbors upstairs, if Jeongguk recalls correctly, are an old couple.
“How did they even get a piano up there,” he says, mostly to himself.
“Is that what it’s called?” Taehyung says. “I’d hear them on cruise ships all the time.”
“Oh, yeah, big black thing, usually.” Jeongguk blinks the eye that isn’t pressed into his pillow open. “You were asleep?”
“It’s not a very calm song, is it,” Taehyung says, as a piercingly high staccato rings out into the night over their heads. “And yeah. I was.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“You really have no concept of time, do you.”
“You people are so concerned with time,” Taehyung says. “Yet it’s completely made up.”
Jeongguk lies facedown for as long as he can bear, and he might even be ok with if the song wasn’t going on repeat, practically—the moment it ends, it would begins again, the same infuriating arpeggios and chords banging against the roof of his skull.
“Wait here,” he says, swinging his legs out of bed and pittering blindly around his dark room in search of a pair of lace-loosened shoes.
“Where are you going?”
“Since the complaint department is clearly open at five AM, I guess I’ll fucking file my complaint right now.” Jeongguk grabs the keys off his desk, gropes for his glasses. “Go on without me if I don’t return.”
Taehyung is still sitting up in his bed when he get back, toeing his shoes off. Now that the film of sleep has dissolved from his eyes, Jeongguk can see Taehyung clearly—hair turned silver by the glow of the lamp outside his window, with his chin propped up on his fist and his elbow resting against the windowsill. He looks up when Jeongguk comes in, reaching behind himself to tug his sweater back over his head, throwing it on the floor.
“I was really polite,” Jeongguk confesses, “and I still feel like a piece of shit.”
“What, why?” Taehyung scoots to make room as Jeongguk climbs back into bed. He looks up at the ceiling, then at Jeongguk, who’s lying on his side.
“The elderly woman above us has Alzheimer’s,” Jeongguk says. “Her husband was playing the piano because he says it calms her down. Brings her back to him.” He yawns, shifting his face on his pillow. “I didn’t know.”
“You couldn’t have.”
“I felt terrible.”
Taehyung rolls onto his side to face Jeongguk, and Jeongguk rolls onto his back—his bed sinks in the center if not enough weight is distributed across the mattress. “If it happens again, you’ll understand.”
“I’ll try to.”
Taehyung is quiet, not even breathing, and Jeongguk only flinches slightly at the cold touch of his arm coming to wrap around him in the muggy heat.
“Hey Jeongguk, what about kissing?”
The words are spoken into the side of Jeongguk’s neck where Taehyung’s face is buried. When Jeongguk doesn’t immediately answer, Taehyung lifts his head slightly to check if he’s fallen asleep—he hasn’t, his eyes are open, but.
“Kissing?” he asks unnecessarily.
“You know. Jack and Rose do a lot of it in the movie.”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says. “It’s like, next-level hugging.”
“Next-level, you say?”
“Yes,” Jeongguk says, electing not to go into the complicated nature of hookups and FWBs with Taehyung.
“Hmm.” Taehyung quirks the corner of his mouth. “But I don’t think it happens only when you’re happy.”
“Well, I guess you’re right there,” Jeongguk admits. “But don’t kiss anyone when they’re mad at you, that’s rude.”
Jeongguk opens his eyes where they’d drifted shut, and Taehyung is hovering over him now, the backlighting of the streetlamp outside Jeongguk’s second-floor window throwing his face into shadow. He can’t see what Taehyung is thinking, what he looks like, but he wonders what expression crosses his own features, frank and honest in the artificial yellow glow.
“You want to kiss me?” Jeongguk asks. “You don’t want to save your first for someone you love?”
“I want to make sure when I do meet them, I’m not bad at it,” Taehyung says.
“That’s not reasoning I can argue against.” Jeongguk laughs, just once, self-deprecating, heart hurting in a way that he doesn’t understand. He agreed to this, to teach Taehyung Love 101. “Okay. You know how to do it?”
“I think so.”
Jeongguk blinks once, twice, and closes his eyes.
The pillow sinks right, then left, when Taehyung braces his hands on either side of Jeongguk’s head. He feels Taehyung’s breath, erratic—a quick one, two, on his lips, then followed by nothing—but the kiss doesn’t come.
He opens his eyes.
“This is nerve wracking!” Taehyung says. “I’m psyching myself up for it.”
Jeongguk wets his lips with the tip of his tongue. “You want me to do it?”
“Oh,” Taehyung says. “Really?”
“Sure, hold still,” says Jeongguk, and reaches one hand up to close it around Taehyung’s wrist by his temple. He takes a breath, too, and tilts his face up until their mouths meet.
It’s so quick and fleeting that’s it’s nothing more but a press of warmth, and Jeongguk shivers at the soft sound their mouths make when they separate.
“See? Not rocket science.”
“To be fair,” Taehyung says, “astronautical engineering isn’t that hard to grasp when you give it a chance.”
“The guy knows rocket science, doesn’t know how to distinguish edible and inedible foods,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung laughs. It’s soft, but full-bodied, traveling along the entire length of Jeongguk’s chest down to his toes.
“Yeah, I guess I should have read up on that, huh?”
Jeongguk looks up into Taehyung’s face. “No hugging, no kissing,” he says. “You don’t touch each other at all?”
“Any more than necessary? No,” says Taehyung.
“Goes hand in hand with the ‘my heart is mine and mine alone’ thing, huh.”
“It does.” Taehyung chews his lip. It’s rare that he looks unsure of himself. “Okay, I’m going to try again.”
“Ready when you are.”
Hesitation tightens in Taehyung’s body for a brief moment before Jeongguk feels the bed shift again, and cool palm of his hand comes up to cup Jeongguk’s cheek. He finds himself glancing at the blurry smudge of Taehyung’s fingers in his periphery, and he only looks back in time for Taehyung to dip in and kiss him.
He is by no means artful at it, sloppy, even, but it sends shivers running down Jeongguk’s spine. Taehyung is good enough that Jeongguk wants to ask, so how many times did you watch Titanic? But he’s not going to free his mouth up to ask such a trivial question, not when he’s enjoying the press of Taehyung’s mouth to his so much. He tastes of salt and the lip balm that Jeongguk let him use when he complained of his lips always cracking on land.
Jeongguk’s heart thunders in his chest. It thunders, distantly, with love, and here he stands, watching the storm come. Here he stands, with Taehyung, without an umbrella, in the rain.
At the end of summer school, Jeongguk sees the sun rise for five mornings straight before he gets into bed finishing his final animation project. When he’s awake so many hours of the night, he has the privilege of seeing exactly what Taehyung does when he gets shuteye.
“I’m never going to get used to that,” he murmurs at the first sound of birdsong the second to last day of caffeine induced delirium. Taehyung always wakes with a gasp, a choking intake of air that sounds like he is drowning.
Jeongguk flicks his gaze at the shuddering rise and fall of Taehyung’s chest, steady, the beat of a drum.
“How you can go that long without breathing. Where I expect white noise there’s just—nothing. It’s eerie, I guess.”
Taehyung rolls onto his side, his lower body wrapped up in Jeongguk’s blankets despite the muggy air of his room. His legs are nothing but gentle, sloping lines in the fleece. “And you, you make more noise than I ever thought was possible,” Taehyung says. “You make noise even when you’re quiet.” He chews his lip. “Are you feeling better?”
Jeongguk looks up. He must be referring to the slightly less than intelligent decision Jeongguk made this morning to down four caffeine pills, reasoning that one pill was equivalent to one Americano, until he read the fine print that said One pill provides as much caffeine intake as four freshly brewed cups of black coffee, meaning he had approximately sixteen cups of coffee swimming around in his system. Taehyung had found him curled up in a ball jittering so hard his hands were clawed. Grand Caffeine Fiasco 2.0.
“Better. If we consider the pros: I can read minds. The cons: I peed earlier and it might have been one hundred percent blood.”
“You barnacle brain,” Taehyung says, yawning, reaching for his bottle of cloudy saltwater that he leaves on Jeongguk’s desk. “Come here.”
“I’m not done.”
“I know you’re not. I said, come here, not come to bed.”
“I’ll fall asleep the second I touch that bed, Taehyung.”
“I’ll wake you up.”
“You didn’t do that last time you said you would.”
“You looked so peaceful asleep,” Taehyung says, holding the blanket open. “Humans always look so peaceful asleep, I got distracted watching you.”
“Well,” Jeongguk says, rubbing his eye, and it burns like he’d touched it after slicing habanero peppers. “Okay, fine, you have to tell me to wake up if I fall asleep.”
“I won’t let you sleep, come here.” Taehyung sits up.
Taehyung is cool and soft when Jeongguk slides up against him in bed, so unlike his steely, spiny self when he finds him sitting in the tub, mouth pressed into the side of his fist. It’s a side of him that Jeongguk doesn’t have much of a chance to see except when he wakes up alone in the middle of the night to an empty bed and an red-orange glow in his bathroom. It’s such a tiny place to call a home away from home. In the past few weeks Jeongguk has found long, ominous scratches in the paint of his bathtub where Taehyung’s spines scratched along the porcelain, and it’s difficult to match that Taehyung to the same one who wraps his arms around him now.
Jeongguk jumps when Taehyung’s chest vibrates against his back with music that rattles his bones.
“Holy shit.” Taehyung stops. “You sing?”
“You sound a lot surprised for someone who asked if I sang to him after hitting his head too hard.”
“You came here and defied every expectation I have and might have had for mermaids.” Jeongguk tips his head back, rests it against Taehyung’s shoulder. “Keep singing.”
It’s a song about love. Sleep licks at the edges of Jeongguk’s consciousness, tugging at his ankles, but the sound of Taehyung’s voice in his ear, and the way Jeongguk can feel the notes as much as he can hear them, keeps him awake. For a long moment after Taehyung stops singing, they sit in silence.
“Are you asleep?” Taehyung whispers.
“No, I’m here.” Jeongguk shifts against him. “How do you know that song?”
“I heard a sailor singing it once. Just him, alone on a boat in the middle of the ocean. It was a clear night, unusually so. Not a cloud in the sky. He was sleeping under a sea of stars.”
Jeongguk rests his head back against Taehyung’s chest heavily. “The way you talk about love,” he says, “makes me think of magic.”
“Why is that?”
“You know, for us,” says Jeongguk, “we don’t really have magic. It’s not something that exists in our world. Maybe it is real in another. In some universe, it must be. But we know it’s there. And sometimes when we can’t explain something, we say that it’s magic.”
“Why would you have stories about things you can’t be sure exist?”
“For the same reason you are here, looking for love,” Jeongguk says, lacing his fingers with Taehyung where they sit idly against his belly. “In hopes that there is something more beautiful to believe in.”
He falls into a dreamless sleep.
But Jeongguk does survive the last week of summer school, and it is worth celebration. By celebration, Jimin means to get wasted or invite Seolhyun over and Victoria her Secret (“I understood all those words separately,” is Taehyung’s verdict). By celebration, Jeongguk means that he’s going to let himself buy five volumes of Osomatsu-san doujins from the local stationery bookstore.
“Everything is cute here,” Taehyung declares, holding out a handful of gel pens and mechanical pencils, complete with charms, for Jeongguk’s examination. “Why don’t you have all this cute stuff? Don’t you people like to buy everything that passes through your field of attention?”
“I try not to be one of those people. Shut up,” he adds defensively when Taehyung raises his eyebrows at his armful of manhwas. “Did you want anything here?”
“I wanted one of those,” Taehyung says, “but the price tag had a lot of zeroes on it, and you said the more zeroes, the more money.”
He points at the jumbo Rilakkuma plushie sitting in the display of the shop window, surrounded by its army of accessories.
“Yeah, no,” says Jeongguk. “But I’ll get you a smaller one.”
Taehyung’s face lights up. “Really?”
“Sure. The smaller ones are less money, go pick one.”
The line is long, and Jeongguk meanders his way to the back of the store where to get in at the end of it so that he can pay by the time Taehyung decides—and even then, it’s not until he’s at the head of it that Taehyung makes his decision and thrusts something into his arms.
“Seriously?” Jeongguk looks at it, a plush so small that it sits comfortably in the palm of his hand. It’s a Rilakkuma in a Totoro onesie. “This one is so small.”
“Yeah, seriously, I like this one,” Taehyung says. “I saw a picture of you when you were a small fry in a onesie that looked just like that.”
“What?” Jeongguk sputters. “How did you find—”
“Your room is like a treasure cove,” Taehyung says, handing Jeongguk his wallet where he’d fished it out of Jeongguk’s back pocket during his momentarily catatonic state of dumbfoundedness. “I even found this letter you wrote on a strawberry patterned letter to someone named Moon Gaehwa, but your handwriting was so bad—were you like seven when you wrote it?”
“Stop going through my stuff,” Jeongguk says, face resembling a cooked lobster.
“You write letters a lot to people that never read them, huh?” Taehyung says. “It’s not really popular anymore, right? You just write them and collect them.”
“I guess,” Jeongguk says, dumping his armful of purchases on the counter.
“Don’t want to send them.”
The cashier doesn’t comment on their conversation if she hears all of it. Jeongguk shrugs, forking over bills when the price pops up on the cash register, and he shoves handfuls of change back into his wallet as she bags up his things.
“You know,” he says. “Sometimes you don’t want people to know your heart.”
“Oh,” says Taehyung, mutedly, like he suddenly understands more than he wanted to. He brightens at the sound of the tinkling doorbell when they leave the store, and Jeongguk reaches into the shopping bag with a rustle.
“Here,” he says, holding out the Rilakkuma. “For you.”
“Thank you,” Taehyung says, reaching up to his pearl necklace and pulling it out of his shirt. Jeongguk stands there on the sidewalk, confused, as he starts pulling at the nylon string that holds all the beads together.
“What are you doing?”
“You gave me a gift,” Taehyung says. “This is all I have to give you, too.”
“No, leave it alone,” Jeongguk says, grabbing the necklace until Taehyung stills and looks at him. “That’s yours. That’s a part of you. This was just something I bought out of store.”
“Is that different?”
“I didn’t need to work so hard to get it for you.”
“Oh,” says Taehyung, tucking the strand back into his shirt. “Okay, so something that I don’t need to work hard to get for you.”
“Yeah, something easy.”
Taehyung leans forward, right there in the sunlit street, and kisses him.
People stare; the world might have stopped, and in terms of kisses, it’s not the most amazingly executed he’s ever gotten, but he is lost in it—for just one heartbeat, for just one wavebreak on the shore, he is lost in the push-pull force that he can taste on Taehyung’s lips.
Then the world speeds back up and he stumbles backwards. “You can’t just kiss me in public!” he says, a fire erupting in his cheeks, and he sinks down until he’s squatting on the sidewalk, hiding his face in his hands. Even his fingers feel warm to the touch. “Especially not in public, Taehyung, come on.”
“But you said it was next-level hugging.” Taehyung frowns. “And a hug didn’t feel like enough for this.”
“I mean—yeah, sure, I suppose I did—”
“Then who should I kiss?”
Taehyung has sunken down to his eye level, pulling Jeongguk’s hands away from his face. He still doesn’t meet his eyes, staring at his knees.
“Someone—someone you like, I guess.” His lip stings when he pulls it between his teeth to chew. “Someone special.”
“Someone special,” Taehyung repeats. He looks at Jeongguk, and at the touch of a finger to the underside of his chin, Jeongguk tilts his face up to return his gaze. It’s that unreadable one that comes over Taehyung’s face when he think he is alone in the tub, as deep and dark as the open ocean. “Someone I love?”
Maybe there’s a shark in the water.
Jeongguk fights so hard not to lean into his touch.
“Someone you love.”
“Hey, Jeonggukie, wake up.”
“Lemme sleep,” Jeongguk groans. “It’s my first real day of summer.”
“Yeah, I know, but,” Taehyung holds up his phone. “I figured out how to take photos with this! How come you never told me all I had to do is press a button?”
Jeongguk tosses just enough to see where Taehyung is propped up on his elbow behind him. “You read industrial engineering books when I went to class and you thought I doubted your ability to operate a camera?”
“I don’t really get a chance to build steel-reinforced bridges for fun, so it’s just out of curiosity,” Taehyung says. “It’s your everyday stuff that you guys don’t have books for.”
It is so early that the sky is nothing more than a yawn of pink sunrise, the buildings of Jeongguk’s neighborhood dark shadowed mirages outside his window. A bird sits on the power line that stretches over the streetlamp. Jeongguk shuts his eyes, taking a breath through his nose, then releases it just as slow.
“Take a picture with me!”
“Ugh, no, I look ugly and I just woke up,” Jeongguk says. “Later.”
“No, you look cute and you smell good,” Taehyung says. “Just one!”
Taehyung’s hair is soft and tickles Jeongguk’s cheek when he smushes his face close to get both of theirs in the screen, and, just to humor him, Jeongguk blinks one eye open again until he hears more than sees the shutter go off. “Can I go back to sleep now,” he groans.
“Yes, you can go back to sleep,” Taehyung says, resting his chin on the curve of Jeongguk’s deltoid when he rolls back into the divot in his bed. “When will you wake up?”
“When the sun is low in the sky,” Jeongguk answers, knowing three PM still means absolutely nothing to Taehyung. So, naturally, it’s not until four that Jeongguk is up and really functioning again, like his body is catching up on all the dozens of hours of lost sleep he’d endured in the past two months. He finds Taehyung in the kitchen, holding a cracked eggshell and an egg in a bowl with a stricken look on his face.
“It’s never going to be born,” Taehyung says, thrusting the chipped bowl into Jeongguk’s hands. “I didn’t know this was an egg!”
Jeongguk yawns, studies the yolk, and scratches the front of his pants. “Natural selection, Taehyung. It’s fine.”
“That’s not how natural selection works!”
“I said it’s fine.” Jeongguk bends down, the glossy sheen of his shower cooling on his bare back. “You want to eat it? I’ll—”
“It’s dead,” Taehyung mourns.
“Taehyung.” The skillet clangs on the burner of the stove when Jeongguk sets it down and turns on the gas. “It’s not fertilized. Please relax.”
“Oh.” He frowns. “It’s not?”
“It’s a chicken’s egg, they’re not all fertilized. They just pop out of a hen every day.”
“Well, why didn’t you tell me,” Taehyung says, shouldering forward and grabbing the bowl out of Jeongguk’s hands.
“I just—” It’s pointless, and Jeongguk decides to not to entertain the topic any further. “What do you want for dinner? Wait, no—!”
“What,” Taehyung says, mouth a hair away from swallowing the raw egg whole. “Do we need to go over this again? Your cooked food is tastes like rubber.”
“It’s,” Jeongguk grimaces. “Fine. Actually, you know what? I know what we should eat for dinner.”
“What, really?” Taehyung wipes up a drip of daisy-yellow yolk from the corner of his lips. “And what is that?”
There is a pojangmacha not far from Jeongguk’s university campus that serves the best sannakji and soju, and there’s nothing quite like washing down dancing octopus tentacles with a mouthful of nail polish remover.
“It does not taste like nail polish remover,” says Jimin, rolling his eyes as he pours Jeongguk a shot of chamisul. “Taehyung, want some?”
“What’s nail polish remover taste like?”
Suwoong looks at Jimin out of the corner of his eye like he’s not sure if this guy is being for real or not.
“I,” Seolhyun says, jabbing a thumb at her clutch, “just picked some up on the way here, if you’re curious.”
“I don’t know if—”
Bad idea. Bad idea, and Jeongguk watches the bottle of it pass under his nose as Seolhyun hands it across the table and sets it in Taehyung’s waiting fingers. Everyone watches on tenterhooks as he unscrews it, holds it up to his nose, and takes a whiff.
“Wow,” he says. “I take that this isn’t something you drink.”
“Definitely not.” Seolhyun drops it back into her bag. Jeongguk lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding, because Taehyung will put anything in his mouth.
“I’ll have some. This is the stuff that tastes like petroleum, right?” Taehyung asks, holding out an empty glass. He looks at Jeongguk very seriously, holding the glass up to eye level. “If I die,” he says, “please toss my body in the ocean.”
“You’re not going to die, you’ve survived oil spi—”
Taehyung stares at him.
The whole table stares at him.
“You’ve survived, uh, worse things,” Jeongguk amends weakly.
This was not Jeongguk’s idea, this meaning sitting at a table with Taehyung, Jimin, Suwoong, Seolhyun, and Jimin’s high school classmate Yujin. Weird enough to have his kind-of-girlfriend-but-not-really sitting next to him with another guy who’s seen not only his dick but has had the privilege (read: misfortune) of kissing Jeongguk on multiple occasions to varying degrees of finesse, but now, one and a half strangers have to watch Jeongguk and Taehyung recalibrate their human vocabulary in the wide open public. Suwoong is only a half stranger because he’d once prevented Jeongguk from taking his clothes off after getting much too wasted, which also might have been the same night he imitated Shin Jimin’s Legendary Puss Rap. Thanks, Suwoong.
“Ok, I believe you,” says Taehyung, bringing the glass to his lips and tipping his head back. The bottom of it clinks on the rickety wood when he sets it down.
“That was anticlimactic,” Jimin says.
“It still tastes like petroleum,” Taehyung says, smacking his lips. “Then again, I’ve tasted worse things, as Jeongguk said. But I didn’t get all of your names! You were Suwoong, I remember you, and you’re Yujin. And—Seolhyun, right?”
“Seolhyun, you got all of them,” she says, holding her glass up and giving him a cheers. “Give yourself some credit.”
“Are you like, Jeonggukie’s sister?”
Reactions to this would be funnier if Jeongguk didn’t swallow his alcohol down the wrong pipe, which is exactly what he does. Jimin throws his head back and laughs like a drunk ahjussi at the tail end of a hwesik, Suwoong attempts and fails to stifle his own laughter, Yujin might have snorted a whole baby octopus tentacle into her lung at the force of Jimin smacking her back as he howls, and Taehyung just watches calmly as the havoc unfolds around him.
“I’m uh, his,” Seolhyun says, handing Jeongguk a napkin. “His, uh. We’re? Kind of. We’re.” She points at him, then herself, then runs worried fingers through a lock her hair. “Uhm. Kind of together?”
“Oh,” Taehyung says, a look of realization dawning on his face. “You’re his girlfriend.”
“Uh, yeah, kind of,” Jeongguk says. It’s a strong word, really, since he knows Seolhyun doesn’t hesitate to get friendly with other guys at this point, still, and neither of them have really put a name to whatever they have—whatever this is. “It’s complicated.”
“Complicated!” she echoes, turning back to Taehyung, who nods once, slowly.
“I see,” says Taehyung. “Complicated.” He pushes his glass closer to Jeongguk’s bottle again. “Pour me some more?”
“Dude, it’s your first real time drinking.”
“I know what I said.”
“Alright,” Jeongguk says, tipping the bottle to pour for him. “Bottoms up.”
They eat, and they drink. Jimin’s laugh turns high and squeaky when he’s drunk in earnest, and some twelve orders of sannakji and soondae later, Suwoong and Yujin decide that two drunk friends are plenty of work for him to cart home.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” Jeongguk asks when Seolhyun insists on taking the cab with them. “Should I text—”
“Don’t fucking text Hyejeong,” she slurs, patting his chest with unnecessary force. “It’s okay. Suwoong will tell them to where to take me.”
“I didn’t say that, but I guess I am now,” says Suwoong, practically holding Jimin up by the waist. “Jesus, man, get it together. Why did you have to get so drunk?”
“I didn’t do it purpose,” Jimin hiccups, and his face lights up. “I didn’t do it on porpoise,” he says, fingergunning Jeongguk before throwing his head back and cackling.
“Yeah, he’s gone,” Jeongguk says.
“’Kay, I’ll see you,” Seolhyun says. “Complicated, huh? We should fix that. Whaddya say?”
Jeongguk makes a noise of surprise in his back of his throat when she leans forward and kisses him right on the curb. She tastes of alcohol, sticky and sweet on her breath, leaning hard into Jeongguk’s body until he takes her by the hips and pulls her back.
“Okay, you’re drunk,” he says. “Go home and get some sleep and don’t let Hyejeong keep you awake with her lesbian drama.”
“Okay,” she says, not letting go of him where her arms are wrapped around his neck. “Okay, don’t be a stranger, Jeongguk.”
“Get home safe,” he says, as Suwoong finally shepherds her inside. He slams the door shut behind them and steps back up to the sidewalk.
“Ready to go home?” he asks. Taehyung turns to stare at him, as if in a dream, and his eyes are bright and glassy. “Hey, are you okay?”
“I feel a little funny,” Taehyung says. “Like I’m standing on water. Can I hold your hand?”
It’s nighttime, so late that the streets are quiet. Jeongguk is just buzzed enough to quirk the corner of his mouth and hold his hand out.
“It’s what the soju does,” Jeongguk says. “Makes us feel funny.”
“It’s warm here,” Taehyung rubs the center of his chest, over his heart. “I don’t like it.”
“I’ll get you some water when we get home. You drank a lot, I told you you shouldn’t have.”
“You’ll need to put salt in it,” Taehyung says. It is unusually chilly tonight for August midnights, the breeze icy enough to rub goosebumps out of Jeongguk’s skin. It’s cold, and it’s quiet, with nothing but the distant roar of traffic and the rustle of trees to keep them company.
Their feet slap in time on the pavement, like a drumbeat.
“Thank you for taking me out to eat sannakji,” Taehyung says. “Thank you for what you’ve done for me.”
“Hey, it’s the least I can do, right?” Jeongguk says. “You’re a fish out of water here, literally.”
“You didn’t have to help me,” Taehyung says. “You never had to come find me that night when it rained.”
“Of course I did, I felt like an asshole throwing you out like that,” Jeongguk says. “I’m sorry. It took you a while to know how to use your legs. It took me a while to learn how to breathe underwater.”
Taehyung laughs at this, even drunk, his cheeks pink when they pass under lamplight.
“I know you say we should save our kisses for people we love,” he says, swinging Jeongguk’s hand. “So just know that if I could kiss you, I would. Right now. Or—actually, I should hug you—”
“If you want to,” Jeongguk interrupts. This park is the same one outside the subway station by Jeongguk’s apartment. It’s lonely, with condensation collecting at the base of the streaky plastic slide, the swings creaking in the breeze. “You can kiss me.”
Jeongguk stops walking, comes around to face Taehyung and take both of his hands in his.
“Close your eyes.”
Red with love, warm with love. Jeongguk is drunk with love, where two boys stand in a lonely park after midnight and kiss like the world will end not in fire but with all the wrath and furor of the sea.
A notification from Jeongguk’s phone smacks him awake so hard that he wakes with a yelp of surprise, believing he’s late for class, only to settle back into his pillows when he realizes—it’s just a text.
The metal is cool in the palm of his hand, and it is nothing but a text from Seolhyun.
are you free for dinner tomorrow night?
Jeongguk stares up at the ceiling. “Dude, answer the fucking text,” the ceiling replies.
The answer is—yeah, he’s free. Why wouldn’t he be? With the end of summer school, Jeongguk has just more than a month to do whatever the fuck he likes, and most of that entails waking up and playing Overwatch for thirteen hours or going out to the library to help Taehyung return the small army of books they’ve amassed in the living room. He spends an absurd amount of time with Taehyung for someone who doesn’t want to believe that he’s in love with somebody he never planned on loving, and here Seolhyun is, asking if he has time for her.
Like any intelligently stupid boy, he texts Jimin.
help. how do i reject someone
Jeongguk can literally hear Jimin raise his eyebrows across the city.
you mean to say you’ve attracted another individual who’s interested in dating you? should i tell her you lick your dusty cheeto fingertips and don’t wash your hands while browsing reddit?
what in the fuck
i’m just saying it works.
Jeongguk sighs. His bed is cold, like Taehyung had left it a while ago to sit in the tub. He’s been doing it more often recently, and for longer; some mornings Jeongguk had risen to use the toilet only to jump out of his skin when Taehyung shifted in the tub and said, “Hey, Jeonggukie.” No, it’s not some other individual.
don’t act like i’m incapable of being a babe magnet. i’m pretty good looking
first of all never call yourself babe magnet ever again. second of all thank you for calling me a babe. third of all listen i’m not going to say i agree with you but what i will say is that you probably didn’t open your mouth around her. them. idk. point is, you gotta do it gently. who is this anyway?? what’s their history. help me out here
uhhh. it’s seolhyun
Jimin’s typing bubble appears, disappears. Then,
wait fuckin what. seolhyun?? you’re rejecting SEOLHYUN??
ughh. i gotta
oh my god. explain.
i don’t think i can do it, types Jeongguk.
i mean we’re kind of seeing each other sure but i just realized that i can’t be endgame with this girl. i gotta get out before it’s serious.
why can’t you be endgame??? did you walk out on her after sex or something???
ok if you’re going to reject seolhyun you gotta tell me why because i gave you twenty thousand won over her once.
i think i like someone else, hyung. Jeongguk swallows, heat in his cheeks at his own admission.
and it’s not seolhyun.
...it’s taehyung huh. it’s taehyung. i knew you were you fucking weird about him, it’s taehyung
i’m not WEIRD about him he’s just!!!! HE’S TAEHYUNG!!!!!!
ugh. well. do it over food so she can eat her sorrows and she’ll have a good buffer if she’s gonna go get drunk. A pause.
taehyung, seriously?? who is he anyway?? you tell me he’s from daegu but he says some really bizarre things like are you sure about this.
i’ll tell you about that...after i figure out seolhyun. it’s kind of a long story.
you owe twenty thousand won
The phone makes a soft noise when Jeongguk drops it onto his pillow in the space beside his head. At the beginning of this summer, he’d been so sure about what he felt and what he wanted—a crippling crush on a pretty girl from his university who agreed to go out with him, finally, only for Jeongguk to collide with someone from another walk of life. Someone from another world, he thinks, sitting up in bed to be greeted by that familiar scarlet glow in his bathroom.
“Hey, Jeonggukie,” says Taehyung, like clockwork. “You’re up early tonight.”
“I got woken up.”
Taehyung looks up, water splishing against his skin. “Did you?” He flexes his tail in the cramped tub. “You don’t even wake up when I—”
He doesn’t finish his sentence. Jeongguk sits down on the rim of the tub, Taehyung bending his arm out of the way to make space.
“When you what? Draw on my face with marker?”
“Never mind,” Taehyung shakes his head.
They sit together in silence.
“Maybe love isn’t real.”
The words are not loud, but it feels like an outburst, like they’d been perched on the tip of Taehyung’s tongue for a while now. Free at last. The drip of the leaky showerhead twangs the air, taut with a tension that Jeongguk hadn’t expected.
“Maybe I was wrong to come here.”
“Don’t say that,” says Jeongguk. The wet rim of the tub soaks through his boxers when he slides Taehyung’s arm off to make room to sit more comfortably. “It’s been on your mind for a while now, hasn’t it?”“
At this, Taehyung turns his gaze to him, and for the first time Jeongguk is uncomfortably aware of who, of what, Taehyung is; his eyes glitter hard and unforgiving, expression as jagged as broken oyster shells.
“How can you be sure,” he says, and this time, it’s not a question. He’s no longer asking Jeongguk to explain it, as if he knows Jeongguk won’t have an answer for him. “Have you ever felt it?”
“Of course I have,” says Jeongguk defensively. He runs his fingers across the surface of the bathwater, expecting tepid, startling when it’s ice cold. “My family—”
“Not your family,” Taehyung says, and it’s sharp as a thunderclap. “You know that’s not what I mean.” He turns to face the length of his own tail again.
Jeongguk looks down at the hands in his lap. Taehyung is right, Taehyung, with his eyes that stare into his like he can hear Jeongguk’s heartbeat, has read him easy and true. Can Jeongguk really call Seolhyun love? Infatuation, sure.
“If it’s not real,” Taehyung says, voice a murmur now, “Why am I still here?”
“Because it matters to you,” Jeongguk says with a ferocity he doesn’t recognize. “And we fight for the things that matter to us, Taehyung. If we want something, up here in human world, if we really, truly want to believe in something, then—not even the sky’s the limit.”
“Sure explains why you guys are constantly at each other’s necks. Not everyone can everything they want, no matter how much they want it.”
“If someone’s dream is just that big,” says Jeongguk quietly, not even sure Taehyung is listening anymore. “if they can fit all that hope inside them, that dream could be at the bottom of the ocean and they still would not sink.”
But this can’t be love, it can’t be. Jeongguk had told him, love is soft, love is warm, and being drunk was—that felt like love, kissing Jeongguk in the park he’d carried him home from once. But this feeling, now, in his chest, is ugly—monstrous, painful, like the beak of an octopus or the sting of a ray. It’s dark and hulking and it clamps jagged teeth around Jeongguk’s ankles and says don’t go, please don’t go.
“Do I look okay?” Jeongguk says, exasperation coloring his voice when his hair won’t lie flat on his head.
“Are you seeing your girlfriend?”
“She’s not my girlfriend, she’s just, we’re complicated.” Jeongguk shrugs. “I have to talk to her about that, anyway.”
“You have to look your best for someone you love,” Taehyung chides. Jeongguk sideeyes him. “What? You taught me that.”
“No, you have to look your best for someone who you want to love you but doesn’t love you yet,” he says. “But if you love someone and they love you, they won’t care what you look like.”
“Oh,” Taehyung says. “In that case, you look great.”
“No, you look good,” Taehyung says. “You don’t smell good, but you look good.”
“Okay, she needs to think I smell good, I’ll wash it off later,” Jeongguk says. “Wish me luck! I need it.”
“Good luck,” Taehyung says, and the spiny feeling, like he’d taken one of his own stings and driven it into his heart, is back in his chest. “What do you need luck for?”
“I’ve got to talk to her about something,” Jeongguk says, surrendering to the cowlick at the top of his head. “And I won’t be good at it.”
“Kind of,” Jeongguk says, looking at Taehyung in the mirror, then turning to face him.
“Maybe she is your kind of,” Taehyung says. “Someone that you thought would be everything but is only your kind of.”
Jeongguk looks at him. “Where did you get that from?”
“I don’t know.” Taehyung chuckles, once. “Have some faith in me!”
“I’ll tell you everything when I get back.” Jeongguk reaches for his phone, still charging, and unplugs it. “I’ll explain it all. I have so much to tell you.”
“Okay,” Taehyung says. “I can’t wait to hear it.”
“There’s extra salt under the sink if you run out, by the way,” Jeongguk says, locking his door from the inside before stepping into the hallway. “I saw you were running low.”
“Thank you,” Taehyung says. “I’ll see you.”
“Yes, I’ll see you!”
Taehyung takes a deep breath in, blows it out, like he’s come up for air before a deep sea dive. There is paper in Jeongguk’s room, and pens. There is something he needs to write.
“Hey, did you wait long?”
“No, of course not,” Jeongguk says. “I just got here.”
“Good to see you looking alive,” Seolhyun says, inclining her head at the server who hands her a menu. “You look like you’ve been getting real sleep again.”
“You too.” Jeongguk props his elbows on the table. “Your show went well?”
“It went well!” She turns the menu over, glances at the back. “Did you order already?”
“No, not yet.”
They don’t get a chance to speak properly until they do place their orders, Jeongguk going with that grilled shrimp that his mind had vaguely registered seeing passing his table on its way to other diners. Seolhyun never looks anything less than flawless, at least most of the time—she’s pretty, gorgeous, a head-turner. Someone that anyone would feel privileged to call a girlfriend. Guilt has begun to gnaw at his nerves already.
“You sounded like you had something on your mind,” Jeongguk prompts when she doesn’t speak up first.
“Ah, yeah,” she says. “I wanted to say thank you and sorry for being a mess at the pojangmacha. I don’t remember some parts of it, so.” She squishes her cheeks with her palms.
“That’s it?” Jeongguk asks, surprised. “You didn’t have to worry about it that much to take me out and say it over dinner.”
“Well, I was also going to ask—Taehyung brought it up, and, I don’t know. I thought it was time to address it.” She shifts in her seat. “Uh, what we are, that is.”
“Right,” Jeongguk says, heart squeaking with nerves in his chest. “About that.”
She peeks up at him.
“I don’t think it can happen.”
Seolhyun doesn’t sound like she’s been punched, which Jeongguk takes as a good sign. Crestfallen, perhaps, there’s audible disappointment in her voice, like the idea of him saying yes had been just a passing fancy.
“Yeah, it’s, I don’t know.” Jeongguk scratches the back of his neck. “I think—we might not work.”
The corner of his napkin is dog-eared, and he worries it between the pads of his fingers until it tears, edges soft and jagged. “It’s not fair to you. I—like someone else.”
Seolhyun takes this quietly, nodding, not meeting his eyes. She’s not smiling, but this doesn’t seem to be news to her.
“I didn’t know, per se,” she says. “The thought ‘he must like someone else’ never crossed my mind, but there’s something about you that I couldn’t grasp. Like catching water in your palm, you know?” She drags her fingertip down the slick side of her glass of ice water. “Your hand is wet, like you know you tried, but it slipped out of your fingers anyway.”
“I’m sorry.” Jeongguk hangs his head. “I should have told you sooner.”
“This is sooner,” she reasons. “Am I annoyed? Yeah, but I respect that you told me.”
Jeongguk laughs, nothing but a quick puff of breath out of his nose and an upturn of his lips. “Are you going to set Shin Jimin after me to kick my ass?”
“I’m considering it,” she says, mirroring his halfhearted laugh. “So don’t encourage me.”
“You’re not going to ask who it is?”
“Should I?” She eyes him. “You’re not dating one of my friends, are you?”
“No,” Jeongguk says, laughing in earnest this time. “No, none of your friends are homewreckers. Relax.”
Seolhyun rests her chin in her palm. “Do they love you, too?”
At this, heat tinges the apples of Jeongguk’s cheeks, but it’s not a crippling blush. “I hope so,” he mumbles, directing his gaze to the napkin holder on the table. “I’m going to tell them, uhm, as soon as I can.”
“What if you don’t get the answer you want?”
“Then I’ll go to the Hmart, buy three tubs of ice cream, and eat it all in one go, obviously,” Jeongguk says.
“And if you do?”
“Uh, probably the same thing, actually.”
“Fuck,” says Seolhyun. She leans back as their server comes by, arms laden with plates, and sets down their food. “Whatever you do, don’t try to confess next to a pool. You have bad luck around those things.”
“I think I’ll take my chances.”
Jeongguk would not say that he feels relieved after resolving things with Seolhyun, because he’s not off the hook—because it means he’s personally obligated to tell Taehyung about his feelings when he gets home. The subway ride back alone feels far too quick, the stations zooming unapologetically by. He sways in time to the gentle rock of the subway car, leaning against a pole for support; seated on the bench in front of him is a couple going home from a street fair. The girl holds a tiny goldfish in a bag in her lap.
Autumn is coming in earnest now, the days getting cooler earlier in the evening. Jeongguk shivers and pulls his jacket tighter around himself as he powerwalks towards his apartment, fingers pink and icy in his pockets. The park casts long, red-black shadows in the last smudges of sunset, the sky a salmon red above balding tree branches.
The jangle of his keys is loud on the walkway. His drum-happy neighbor is quiet; even the pianist upstairs is silent. Jeongguk pauses with his key in his lock, looking around him, as if looking for a sign of life.
He opens the door.
“Taehyung, I’m home,” he calls, the door swinging shut heavily behind him. He pulls his jacket off, groping for the light switch on the wall. “Taehyung?”
There’s no answer. He must be in the bathtub, with his head underwater, staring up at the ceiling with most of his tail resting against the wall and spines standing straight up out of the surface of the water. Jeongguk kicks his shoes off. “Hey, Taehyung, I’ve got something to tell you.”
Jeongguk’s room is dark, too, the lights off, window closed. It looks so unoccupied that the same kind of heckling unease comes over him as it would for someone who lived alone and came home to see all of their things shifted a little out of their places.
This close, Taehyung should be able to hear him. His voice rings in Jeongguk’s ears, bubbling with life. Tiger shark, remember, Jeonggukie? But there’s no splash in the bathroom. There is no red glow in the mirror. The bathroom door creaks once, long and pained, when Jeongguk pushes it open.
The tub is as empty as the rest of the apartment. Jeongguk whirls where he stands, trying to reason to himself. Taehyung must have gone out himself, alone. He doesn’t do it often, but he must at some point. He must have gone to the library again, to check out another twenty or so books, this time about astrophysics, or pharmaceutical medicine, or the science of the world’s lost shopping carts. Jeongguk tears through his room, searching for his library card, but he doesn’t even need to look that hard. It sits quietly on his desk, as if waiting, perched on a mess of books and art supplies as if placed there.
The apartment is empty.
Jeongguk is alone.
Once upon a time, a boy was too late.
“Taehyung,” Jeongguk repeats, the word defeated and small in his mouth. Like catching water in your hands, and it’s Seolhyun’s voice this time. Jeongguk stands there in his hallway, a cold dread beading at the back of his neck, until a glint of red in his kitchen catches his attention.
It isn’t Taehyung—no, it’s piece of him, a single scintillating lionfish scale that pins a sheet of paper shut, folded neatly in thirds. When Jeongguk picks it up, a strand of pearls and shells clatters to the floor, and he recognizes it. It’s the necklace that he never sees Taehyung without.
I’m not sure how to start these things, but I think they go ‘Dear Jeongguk,’
Cold water migration to the Bermuda begins soon, and I really must be going. I had a deal with my parents—and this is where we must part ways. I’m so sorry I could not say it to you when you were here, but I don’t think I would be able to leave, knowing you were watching me go.
I got what I came here for: I proved that love was real. Against all odds, Jeonggukie, you proved to me that love is real. Maybe in the end it was really just to prove it to myself. But I learned some things about it that I didn’t know before—I thought love was this easy thing, as easily found as joy or grief, as easy-come and easy-go as anger or disgust. But I learned that it’s so much more than that. It’s happiness and sadness...anger and disgust. I learned that love is so many opposites—wanting someone to be by your side, but wanting him to be happy if it means that it’s at someone else’s. I’m sorry I couldn’t stay to listen to you tell me about Seolhyun. She is a wonderful girl, kind and pretty, and if you can smile with her the way you do with all the stars in your eyes then that is all I ask for.
But how can I understand something that, until I met you, wasn’t even sure was real? Ah, when I think about it, it’s clear. It’s like how you told me, you guys don’t know if magic is real, but you know that in some universe it must be, because there are so many, so many stories about it. I knew that, in some world, love had to exist, but maybe it’s not a world where I am welcome. A world I am not part of. A world I was not made for.
The paper shudders when a teardrop, fat with regret, lands upon it.
But, just so you know, let me repeat: you didn’t fail. No, you succeeded in teaching me what I wanted to know better than you could have ever imagined. I learned some things about love and here are some notes I took about what I think it is, one day you’ll have to tell me if I got them all right or not!
1) that time we got woken up at five in the morning by piano music upstairs and then we realized the grumpy old woman was dying and wanted to hear her husband play for her
2) the time when we saw a police officer save those ducklings from the storm drain
3) that time we saw that guy your age let the girl sitting with him eat his fries even though they were his favorite
4) when you would buy me raw fish every day and insisted you liked eating fish even though I saw you snacking on tater tots past midnight last week
You must be wondering why I left my necklace! Well, we are only so happy because we know what it is like to hurt. Love only feels so warm because we know the chill of being alone. So many beautiful things are only beautiful because their sisters are so cruel. One does not exist without the other. So the Taehyung that is human will not need to exist without you. The ocean is my home. I will do well not to leave it.
I love you, Jeon Jeongguk. I think this is what it is. We of the Bermuda Tribe give our hearts to no one, but I gave mine to you and I never regretted a moment of it.
“You of the Bermuda Tribe are so dramatic,” Jeongguk says thickly, clutching the letter to his chest, paper wrinkling in his fist. He can imagine it, now—Taehyung sitting in his tub, massaging the sore spot in his tail where he ripped a scale out. The roar of the ocean as the tide pulled in, seafoam fingertips scratching at the shore as it dragged back out to sea. The water flirting just inches away from Taehyung’s bare feet as he pulled Jeongguk’s shirt over his head, turning back one final time to look at the city skyline, a mass of lights in the distance. “Oh, Taehyung, why?”
He isn’t sure how long he sits numbly on his kitchen floor, holding the crinkled letter in one hand and Taehyung’s scale in his other. It might just be a few minutes. Perhaps it’s entire cloudy, grey days. A knock at his door jolts him back into action.
“Hey, I got a text from Jimin about—” Jimin frowns. “Dude, have you been crying?”
“Uh, no, no,” says Jeongguk, wiping at his eyes hurriedly. “I don’t even have tear ducts.”
“I thought—Jimin said you and Seolhyun—you’re not crying about that, are you.” Jimin pushes against the door, and Jeongguk steps back. “What happened? You look bad, why are you cry—what is that?”
Jeongguk holds the scale up, realizing it’s still curled in the palm of his hand, and the pearl necklace swings from his fingers. “Oh,” he says. “Uh.”
“Is Taehyung home? You look like you need food, stat.” Jimin leaves Jeongguk standing on the doormat and brushes past him roughly. “Taehyung! We gotta go out and stuff Jeongguk full of odeng, his battery’s low!”
“He’s not here!”
Jimin raises his eyebrows. Jeongguk spits the words at him.
“Did he leave?”
“He’s gone,” Jeongguk says, hating the way his voice quavers in his throat. “He’s not coming back.”
“Why, did he say so?” The couch gives under their weight when Jimin steers him to sit down, Jeongguk’s body gone rigid with the sobs he’s trying to cage in. “Did you guys have a falling out?”
“Hyung,” Jeongguk says.
“Yeah, I’m listening.”
“You have to believe what I’m about to tell you.”
“Are you on drugs?”
“God, I wish.”
“Oh boy. Okay,” Jimin says, shifting until he’s comfortable. “Hit me.”
Jimin sits stonily through Jeongguk’s entire story. He nods in the right places, but he doesn’t hum, doesn’t make any noises, only watches and nods, periodically hands Jeongguk a tissue when the one in his hand is sodden with tears. What seems like hours later, when Jeongguk’s finished, does Jimin speak up.
“You expect me to believe all of this.”
“I don’t know what else to tell you,” Jeongguk says miserably. “I would show you if I could. This is all I have, don’t I?”
He passes Taehyung’s scale, large as their palms, into Jimin’s hand. He turns it around, the edges of it catching the lamplight.
“This does seem to be abnormally large for just any regular fish,” Jimin says. “And you say he’s gone now?”
“I shouldn’t have expected him to understand what I meant, that I had a lot to say to him after I got back from talking to Seolhyun,” Jeongguk says. “I shouldn’t have. He’s been learning about the nuances of how we talk, and he hates it—says we never say what we mean. I thought he’d hear it. But he didn’t, he thinks I don’t love him.”
Jimin hands the scale back, picking up the necklace.
“And this is the only thing that lets him come on land?”
“From what I understand.”
The skull-carved pearls clack softly against each other as Jimin lets it slink through his fingers. His expression gives his thoughts away as he battles his perception of reality. He’s thinking.
“Do you think it works backwards?”
“If he puts this on, and can turn into a human,” Jimin says slowly, “does that mean you can put it on and turn into a mermaid?”
Jeongguk stares at him.
“I didn’t say it was a good idea!” Jimin throws his hands up. “But it might be your only one!”
“And what then, if it works?” Jeongguk says. “Does it matter? Jimin, it’s hard enough for us as people to find the people we love and lose, and we only live on land. There’s only so many places someone can be. Taehyung is a—a mermaid, he could be anywhere, we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about our oceans. I couldn’t find him if I tried.’
“You just said that he’s of the Bermuda Tribe, and they’re moving on their autumn migration right now,” Jimin points out. He holds the necklace out so that it dangles over Jeongguk’s lap. “Here, try it, at least. I didn’t say you have to do it even if it works. Do you want to find him again or not? We need to consider all your options here.”
Jeongguk holds the necklace up in front of his face. It looks benign, if not for the eyeless skulls staring back at him, and Jimin watches him with bated breath as he lifts it over his head.
“What,” Jimin says.
“I should get in the tub. What if I actually do sprout a tail?”
“Shit, good idea.” Jimin stands up. “Come on.”
“What—you’re coming with me?”
“It’s moral support!”
“I’m not giving birth—”
“Can you just shut up and run a bath,” Jimin says, kicking his shoes off. “Let’s go.”
So this finds the two of them standing on Jeongguk’s bathmat, Jeongguk stark naked, and Jimin holding the necklace beside him. When the water comes up far enough, he shuts the water.
“What if I’m a boring fish?”
Jimin stands over him as he climbs into the tub. “What?”
“Taehyung is part shark, part lionfish, I know, bear with me,” Jeongguk says. “What if I’m just a goldfish or something?”
“Now is not the time to hope you have tropical saltwater fish genes, Jeongguk,” says Jimin, handing him the necklace. “Okay, put it on.”
Jeongguk’s heart pounds in his ears. The water is too warm against his skin, he wished it were cooler, but he takes the pearls and loops them around his neck.
“Maybe you need to think about it,” Jimin suggests.
“Do you think I’m thinking about memes right now?” Jeongguk says. “Fuck. Hold on, maybe it takes time.”
They wait some more.
“Dude, I don’t think it’s working.”
“I can see that,” Jeongguk says, flexing his stubbornly human legs underneath the water, feeling his toes prune.
“Well, looks like it’s a wash,” Jimin says, leaning back against the sink. “Alright, out of the tub. We need to go buy alcohol.”
“What? No!” Jeongguk rips the necklace off, throwing it into the corner of his bathroom beneath the cabinet of his sink. “I just—I don’t want to get drunk, I need to think, he’s gone, Jimin—”
“I know!” Jimin says, raising his voice over him. “Jeongguk, I know. I know, and tomorrow morning, you won’t reply to my text, you won’t want to go out to eat at the pojangmacha when I invite you, and you’re going to consume more caffeine than is humanly possible when school starts again to forget this—I know. You think I don’t? Come on, out of the tub. Come pick something you want to drink.”
“Because I lied, you have another option,” Jimin says, and at this, Jeongguk looks up. “It’s just as far-fetched as this one, but at least it’s doable.”
“What is it?”
Jimin’s suggestion is so ludicrous that Jeongguk actually considers it.
“A message in a bottle.”
“Listen, it had to have worked once,” Jimin reasons, lifting the handle of bokbunja unsteadily over his shotglass and pouring himself another drink. “Or else it wouldn’t be the fabled message in a bottle, would it?”
“The movement of the ocean is just going to wash it back to the shore we toss it off of.”
“Can you suspend your disbelief for one second, maybe? Just an idea,” Jimin says. “Your life is already a fucking parody of Cinderella, so you might as well just believe in the idea that your message in a bottle can find Taehyung somehow.”
“What would I even say,” Jeongguk says, nursing his own glass of raspberry liquor. “I’m no good at this.”
“He wrote you a letter pouring his damn heart out to you! Just do the same!” Jimin leans back. “For someone who claimed to have known nothing about love, he’s a lot better at handling it than you.”
Jeongguk fights the urge to just pour his drink over his face.
“Okay, I’ll tell him the truth,” he says. “I’ll tell him everything I wanted to say.”
“Even if he does read it,” Jimin says, a sober moment in their drunkenness, “can he come back without that necklace?”
“I just—like you said. I’ll just have to believe, won’t I?”
As much as Jeongguk wants to believe, he does not think Taehyung will come back.
Dear Taehyung, yes, that is how you start letters,
Taehyung lives in the Atlantic. Even if Jeongguk’s message in a bottle does not wash back onto Korean shores, there is absolutely no reason to believe that it will make it across the Pacific, through the Panama Canal, and to the Atlantic where Taehyung must be. The waters will sooner wash it up on the west coast the United States, and someone will find it, read it, wonder who the brokenhearted writer must be, and forget about it.
I came home and I wanted to tell you I loved you, but you were gone, and there went my chance possibly forever.
As though to prove Jimin wrong—no, in the pure spirit of spiting him—Jeongguk goes back to school and attempts to survive his days without caffeine. And yet, other days, when he’s tired down to his bones and wishes for nothing more than an Americano, he thinks he can hear Taehyung in his bed, singing sad love songs to him about things he didn’t ever truly understand. Or, maybe he did understand, deep down. Maybe that’s why they all sounded so sad.
There’s nothing left to say now except that I’m sorry, I’m really sorry I made you so sad. I don’t think you’ll ever know that I loved you, and it kills me to know that you’re somewhere out there, below the water, believing that I don’t.
Once upon a time, a boy fell into the deep end of the pool, and there was a shark in the water.
I have nothing but regrets to prove that our time together was even real, not a dream, and I hate myself for it. And if anyone ever finds this letter, if you’re not Taehyung, then just know that once upon a time, a boy and a mermaid fell in love.
Time passes interminably by, and life goes on, like most things do.
“Haven’t you gone to the beach to find yourself like all seven days of the past week,” Jimin gripes when Jeongguk flakes on him again, for the seventh night in a row. He feels slightly bad about it, and only slightly so because he’s not really in the business of going out to drink with a crew of Jimin’s dudebros who all try to drink each other under the table. “It’s summer!”
“Perfect time to go to the beach.”
Jimin props his chin in his hand. “You ever swim out there?”
“Alone? Yeah, I’ll do that before an exam I didn’t study for next year. Thanks for the suggestion.”
“I’m just saying, it might take your mind off things,” Jimin says. “And what’s the point of going to the beach that many times without ever swimming out?”
Jeongguk did not plan on listening to Jimin, but he inadvertently finds himself hesitating that evening when he’s grabbing his phone and keys, throwing on the sand-crusted t-shirt that he wears to the beach every time. His room is a mess, but in the corner of his top shelf, a visible scrap of his swim trunks hangs out between his clothes. It’s sunset patterned, waving to him with its little orange hand, as if to say, come on, put me on!
Luckily, though, the beach isn’t quite as populated during the weekdays, not when parents are too busy to take their children out to the shore. No one has to see Jeongguk’s lurid sunset swim trunks. Dust clings to his flip flops as he plods across the dimpled sand dunes leading down to the shoreline, the sun dipping low in the clouds in preparation for its departure.
The crash of the waves against the sand is soothing. Humidity hangs in the air like a thick gloom, and the breeze is warm against Jeongguk’s back when he pulls his shirt over his head, wrapping his phone up in the fabric and hiding it in the shallow divot between two stones. The water is cool.
Sharply does the sand fall away as he ventures further into the surf. Seawater slaps heavily against his chest, splashing against his arms. A wave comes; his head goes under, and for a moment the muted, impenetrable silence that presses in on his eardrums is startling.
Then a force that Jeongguk can hardly fight against sweeps him out into the water, a force like an angered maelstrom, and the sandbar vanishes from beneath him. He does get his head above the surface, gasps once, twice, but then the water drags him under again. A panicked cycle of gasping for air and being pulled below by the swell of the waves works Jeongguk’s muscles sore, until one particularly powerful one pushes him down further than he’s ever been.
The coral sky abovewater is awfully dark, and awfully far away.
In a frenzy of bubbles, something grabs him. The urge to breathe is fit to burst now, and Jeongguk thinks he gasps in fear underwater—he can’t be sure. For the next thing he knows, he’s choking up water, and
“What were you thinking?” shouts a very human voice, and there are hands tipping his head back. “Swimming right into a riptide? Cough it up, come on! I didn’t swim against the Gulf Stream for you to die on me like this!”
There’s a shadowed, dripping figure above him blocking out the light of the sunset, seawater streaming from their hair onto Jeongguk’s face. The sand is gritty and uncomfortable on his back, and a jagged stone digs into the skin at the small of his back.
“Oh, sweet Atlantis, you’re okay.” Jeongguk feels his body being lifted from the sand and crushed into a wet hug.
He is afraid to say it, as if moving his mouth will wake himself up.
“Who else?” The words are tearful in Jeongguk’s ear now, and when he pulls back, Jeongguk sees that it’s true—it’s Taehyung, it’s Taehyung. The Taehyung he knows, and loves, and wished and hoped he would see again, someday.
“How?” Jeongguk says, throat raw with seawater. “You—you have legs! And, oh God, you’re naked.”
“They don’t make pants in the Atlantic, regrettably,” Taehyung says. “I told you—my father is a pearl trapper, and I’m an artisan, remember?” Then he reaches for something behind himself, and lifts up a dark mass that at first looks like a mossy stone, covered in barnacles and seaweed.
“And I got your letter.”
“Holy shit,” Jeongguk says, sitting up weakly. “Holy shit, you did.”
“You are so bad at this, you know that, Jeonggukie,” says Taehyung. “I don’t know how long it took to get to me, but it came to me.” He uncorks the bottle. “Somehow it found its way across the oceans to me. My parents never matched me, you know? Not ever since I got back home.”
“They knew, the second they saw me without that necklace, that I’d proved it real,” Taehyung says. “I even told them, it’s okay. I got what I wanted, but they knew—they knew I didn’t. They knew everything. They told me to come back, to come find you, but I had no way to without the necklace they’d given me.”
A new necklace hangs around Taehyung’s neck now, made out of pink and lavender tinted pearls, and more shells and bits of seaglass. Jeongguk plucks at it in wonder.
“You made it yourself.”
Taehyung beams. “I made it with love. I even trapped the pearls myself, too, I had to learn.”
The sun burns the wet curve of Taehyung’s jaw golden, and Jeongguk reaches up to cup his cheek in his palm. “Love is real, you know.”
“I know love is real,” Taehyung says, like he’s recited this too many times, “because it hurts.”
“It doesn’t have to,” Jeongguk says, leaning in to kiss him. “Love is real, because I love you.”
But they fell in love anyway, and no one was ever the wiser. During the summer months anyone can see the silhouettes of two boys walking hand in hand on the breezy evening shores of Busan, the sunset turning the skies coral and orange. The sand is warm, sunbaked, crumbling under their toes as they walk through the surf. Well—one of them does, his bare feet splashing in the lazy drag of seafoam as the tide comes in and out, in and out. The ocean is alive and it breathes against his ankles. He swings his hand, where it is intertwined with the other’s, and turns his head to smile at someone who walks out of the way of the tide in a pair of flip-flops. From this far away, their words are drowned out by the wind, by the roar of the waves, their clothes fluttering at their sides like fins.
This isn’t a fairy tale, not really, as it doesn’t have nearly enough faeries in it. None at all, in fact. But there is a tale, and a tail. Just one. Just a story about a boy who fell in love with someone who had fins for feet, someone who loved him back with all the cruelty of the ocean and the tenderness of the sea. A silly story. A make-believe story. A once-upon-a-time.
Okay, okay. Perhaps a fairy tale after all.