The rains come, quenching the dry land, and the waters stay high.
Taehyung is trying to find a new rhythm. Before, he slept when he wanted and rose when he wanted, observant of but not ruled by the endless cycle of night and day.
That is not how humans live. Namjoon gets sleepy in the evening. Soft, yielding. He yawns and leans heavily into Taehyung’s side as they sit on a bench in the inn’s common room. Every night, Namjoon sleeps.
That’s what humans do.
That is what Taehyung does now too.
Still, old habits are hard to break, and sometimes he does not sleep as much as he should. Sometimes he wakes in the dawntime, when the birds sing, when the sky is lilac. Namjoon sleeps still.
Sometimes, Taehyung lies quietly beside Namjoon in their tiny bed. This was something they’d talked about — Namjoon loves to talk about things, lay them all out in the open. There are so many things men can’t feel, so many of the subtle sweet songs of earth and sky and water they are cut off from, but men are very good at talking.
Yes, Taehyung understood what it meant to share a bed, what it could mean, and yes, he wanted that with Namjoon. Yes, he understood that it was not common for two men to love each other, and was Taehyung even a man because he came from a tree, although obviously he’s not a tree any more, and trees don’t really have gender, do they, so what did Taehyung want Namjoon to call him, because he should have a choice and —
Taehyung had put up with this for quite a while, and then he had put one hand on Namjoon’s face and said, “Just kiss me, you idiot.”
So, they share a bed now, in a literal and metaphoric sense.
Sometimes, there is nothing better in the entire world than lying beside Namjoon quietly, listening to him snore. It’s not a pretty sound, but to Taehyung’s ears it is sweeter than birdsong.
Sometimes, though, Taehyung misses the old things. Sometimes he slips out of bed before the sun is up and pulls on the cloak Seokjin gave him and climbs up the woodstack piled on the inside of the inn wall and then hops over the wall, as quick and easy as he used to climb the great old oaks.
The streets of the village are muddy and rutted. The people are tired and thin; there is not enough food. Taehyung has listened to Seokjin and Yoongi and Namjoon talk about this. Hours of debate. They must feed the village. They talk in pragmatic terms, but Taehyung can feel the fear in those three hearts.
Hunger. Cold. Death.
Taehyung is hopeful — always reaching toward the sun — but he does not have any answers anymore. He is dumb now, like a child. That is how he feels sometimes, listening to Namjoon and Seokjin and Yoongi. They ask him his opinion, ask him what he thinks they should do, and he feels he has nothing worth saying. Taehyung has lived so many lifetimes, and now he knows nothing at all.
Quiet morning. Empty streets. The mud squelches between his toes. It feels good. He doesn’t understand this obsession with shoes.
He passes an old woman pushing a cart full of cabbages. He smiles and waves at her, and she smiles back.
Yes, there is still hope in this broken town, in spite of everything.
It is the tenth month. Before, this was a time of slowing. Quieting. The leaves fell in a golden shower, and Taehyung prepared to rest for the winter. Not like the bear rested. No. He stayed alert. It was just a quiet time. A time for thinking. A time for dreaming.
Now they are racing to bring in the harvest before the snows fall.
Taehyung says a little prayer. A long time ago, when people believed more powerfully, their prayers had given him power, and that power had let him fix things. Call rain, or send it. Banish blight and disease. Make the ground fertile, and make the trees grow.
He wonders if someone out there is on the receiving end of his prayer, and if his little mote of faith will make any difference.
Through the village gate, and out into the world. Some people are already at work in their fields, bent low to sow and weed and reap. Taehyung would like to help with this labor, but their resources are so few. He does not want to waste anything in his clumsy bumbling attempts to be of use.
Taehyung does not know any work, other than to live and grow.
A cold wind blows in his heart; he is afraid that is not enough anymore, in spite of what Namjoon says.
The sun rises behind a weak screen of clouds. Grey sky. White sun. Black earth. It isn’t supposed to be like this. Taehyung thinks of autumn in the forest: gold and crimson and amber and moss green. Rich. So rich. Everything come to fruit. Everything more than alive.
That is gone now. Drained.
And beyond the fields is the forest. The skeleton of it. Every time he rounds the bend in the road his heart freezes in his chest. Black bones of trees. Char. Death.
Taehyung cannot feel it anymore, but he believes there is life there still. In the spring, green new leaves will sprout.
They have to.
He squeezes his eyes shut, but the tears come anyway.
Damn this human body. He never cried as a tree.
But he pushes past it. He has to. For Namjoon. For himself.
Outside of the village, the road is rougher. Stones underfoot bite into Taehyung’s soles. Ah yes. That’s why they wear shoes.
Still, it is good to feel the earth again.
Somehow, miraculously, the stone bridge held.
It was submerged for a week when the flood crested.
When the worst had passed, Yoongi had taken Namjoon on the motorbike to the foundry, to see what could be salvaged, to see what had been lost. They had saved what could be saved, and Seokjin had led a team to clear away the car and recover the bodies.
The bridge had held, but the river still runs high and clouded, full of sediment and dirt.
Taehyung sits on the bank, letting his feet dangle in the water, letting the river wash away the mud and toil.
Please he thinks. Jimin, please. I need you.
There is no answer.
There has not been an answer, not in all the weeks he’s been coming here to wait.
When Yoongi and Jungkook told the tale of the dam, Taehyung’s heart had soared.
Jimin was alive.
Weak, yes. Weak as Taehyung had been made weak. But alive.
They had been two sides of the same coin for so long. Forest and river. Earth and water.
Jimin’s waters fed the forest and the fields. The forest had made the river rich with sediment.
They needed each other.
Taehyung needs Jimin now, so two days out of three he wakes before dawn and walks to the river, and lets his feet be cooled by the water.
High water. Dark water.
Jimin flowed cool and fast and sweet. Dancing over rocks. Singing in the falls.
The flood has fallen maybe the height of Taehyung’s arm from his hand to his elbow, but there is no sign of Jimin.
Maybe Jungkook and Yoongi were wrong?
But, no. He believes them.
He believes Jimin will come. He has to come back.
Taehyung closes his eyes. He still likes the sun, still feeds on it, although not in quite the same way he once did.
(How long ago, the slender birch stood in a stand of its fellows. How many years? He has no way of knowing. He doesn't even know why it was him. Just — men started praying to that young, white skinned birch, and Taehyung was there somehow to hear their prayers.
That is how it started.)
Taehyung’s stomach growls. Right. Breakfast. That’s another human thing he keeps forgetting. He is hungry now.
“Jimin-ah,” he says. “Jimin-ah, you won’t guess what happened yesterday. I learned how to fly a kite. Did you ever see a kite? I guess you would have. You can’t fly kites in a forest, so I never did. Jungkook made one. He showed me — you would like Jungkook. He asks about you, actually. He says you spoke to them, up there in the mountains.”
Speak to me, is what Taehyung wants to say. Jimin, please.
The water runs dark with silt still.
“It’s like a bird,” Taehyung says. “A bird made of sticks and paper and string. It’s not a real bird, but Jungkook made it fly.”
Taehyung closes his eyes. Jungkook’s kite had been simple — a diamond of paper supported by a frame of sticks. He’d painted a dragon on the front in black ink. He and Taehyung had taken it to the fields and, after several false starts, they had gotten the thing airborne. Jungkook had worked the string expertly, and the dragon had danced and spiraled in the air.
Taehyung had felt guilty. Namjoon and Yoongi were at work trying to repair a plow — big terrible eartheater — and he and Jungkook played with this flimsy little toy of paper and wood.
But the people at work in the field and looked up and laughed in joy to see the dragon soaring among the clouds.
Laughter is not rice. It is not meat. It does not fill your belly. But it feeds the soul, Taehyung thinks, and that is not something to neglect. He has seen where such neglect leads.
Yesterday they played, but today is a day for work. Taehyung can't help Jungkook with the motorbike, and Yoongi forbade him from trying to help chop wood. At least here he's out of the way.
He kicks his feet, splashing.
Something flashes the water, silver bright.
Taehyung narrows his eyes. It is hard to see under the colorless glare of this faded sun.
Again, there, in the middle of the stream, a flash. Sparkling. Something dancing in the water.
Taehyung's heart sings.
The fish leaps, quicksilver and starlight, and then disappears into the water, but Taehyung can see it gleaming beneath the surface, swimming upstream quick as a dart.
Taehyung gets to his feet.
Dew-wet grass does not make for the best traction, but he doesn't care. He is heedless now of anything except the shimmering light of the little fish. The fish moves too quickly, moves through water like it is just air, and Taehyung, terrestrial bound and sluggish, hurries to keep up. They follow the river down past the ruins of the foundry and right up to the eaves of the forest.
Taehyung pauses. He can still smell the ash and smoke. His heart aches.
The fish swims on, shimmering in the dim light, glowing like a shooting star.
The fish does not wait. That is not the way of it. Taehyung knows that, but —
But he's scared. Terrified. It breaks his heart to see his forest like this, but even more terrible is the idea of walking once more beneath the green canopy and feeling nothing.
Just another blind, dumb human, and not even a very good one at that.
But he wants so, so badly to see Jimin. Just once more.
He made Namjoon tell the story of coming back to save Taehyung. How hard it must have been to drive in towards the flames. Taehyung knows what Namjoon sees when his bad dreams make his sleep restless.
Taehyung has lived a long, long time. He has seen terrible things. He can be at least as brave as Namjoon, can't he? He can try.
Tentatively, he steps forward into the forest.
Dry air. Dead air. It hurts. Tears come to his eyes unbidden. He swallows away the lump in his throat.
The little sparkling fish leaps, dancing.
They walk for a long time, through the place that is just death and ash and into greener zones. The tightness in Taehyung's chest loosens. It is easier to breath here, even though he still feels dumb and blind, unable to hear even the faintest whisper from any of the trees.
His feet are raw and cut by the time they reach the place where the mountain stream widens into a deep pool. Deer drink here, and birds, and cedar trees grow along the banks, tall and elegant.
Taehyung always felt a bit awed by the cedar trees.
The fish leaps once, twice, tail flapping, water splashing, and then dives into the water and dissolves into net of stars. The stars twinkle and grow stronger, coalescing into something — a face.
Taehyung doesn't even bother taking off his clothes. He scrambles down the rocky bank and into the cold water. It bites, but it soothes his stinging feet too. Soaked to the waist, he looks down at the unquiet surface of the water.
Jimin looks up at him, and grins.
Then there is an eruption, water geysering up until it coalesces into that familiar shape.
Jimin throws his arms around Taehyung, knocking them both back into the water.
"Taehyungie," Jimin laughs. "Taehyung!"
"Jimin-ah," Taehyung says, clinging. There are so many things he wants to say but he can't find the words. Water streams down his face. His oldest friend. His only friend, for a very, very long time. "I thought you were gone, Jimin-ah. I thought I'd lost you."
Taehyung sits up. Jimin is right beside him, shimmering still. He smiles. "Not lost," he says. "Just trapped." He beams. "Those humans freed me."
Taehyung nods. Water drips from his chin. "They're good people, Jimin," he says. "They're such good people. Namjoon — he's, oh. You have to meet him. Namjoon saved me, too."
Jimin nods, seriously. He takes Taehyung's hands. They've never been the same — Jimin is a thing of water and shimmering light. Taehyung is wood and earth, brown and root-tough. The contrast is even more marked now.
They stand on opposite sides of a very great divide.
Jimin tilts his head. "What did they do to you?"
Taehyung swallows. "The forest was burning," he says quietly. "Namjoon found me and brought me out. He sundered me. I'm not... I'm just a man now, Jimin. Just like them."
Jimin shakes his head. "No," he says. "You are Taehyung, and you are my friend."
Taehyung nods, but he can't believe it. He knows what he was, once, and he knows what he is now. He knows he is loved — by Namjoon, by the others, by Jimin — but he doesn't know what he is worth.
"I want to help them," he says quietly. "I want to help them, Jimin, but I don't know what to do."
Jimin lets go of Taehyung's hands. He smiles, a bit sadly. "Everything you were is still inside you, Taehyung," he says quietly. "You watched over the forest for so long. Now you have to let it give you what you need."
Taehyung nods, but he can't meet Jimin's eyes. He wipes his nose with the back of his hand. "Where did you go, Jimin-ah? I've been waiting for you."
Jimin looks up, and the shimmering translucence of his body shudders, grows darker, ocean stirred by a tempest.
"I lost control," he says quietly. "I forgot who I was, and where, and I let myself flow down to the sea."
Taehyung has never seen the sea, but he knows Jimin has. Jimin is old, as rivers are always older than trees, and he has told Taehyung about the ocean — the unbelievable vastness, and strange deep places, and the lonely call of the sea gull.
There is undeniable sadness in Jimin’s voice when he speaks of the sea. Sadness, and longing. Taehyung always knew he would return there one day, as all gods of water must.
“But you came back,” he says, smiling.
Jimin nods. “I came back,” he whispers. “It cost me a lot, but I had to make sure you were okay.”
Something warm fills Taehyung. Golden. Sunlight on the water.
He is not a god anymore, but he is loved.
“I’m so glad,” he says. “Jimin, thank you.”
Jimin grins. “Couldn’t get away that easily,” he says.
He is shimmering now, too. It costs him, staying corporeal like this. Before they spoke in the language of stream and tree: leaves swirling on the surface of the water, rain soaking the dusty leaves.
That language is dead to Taehyung now.
Jimin does this for him.
“I have to go,” Jimin says. “I’m so weak now ,Taehyung, but I’ll try to help. I’ll try to send the rain away. And I’ll be here anytime you need me.”
Taehyung nods, near tears again.
“Tell your friends — the boy with the bike — tell him to come say hello.” He smiles then, and squeezes Taehyung tight one more time, and then the flickering delicate shape of his best friend dissolves back into the cool silent pool, and the dark waters are alive with a million points of golden light.
Taehyung waits a moment, and the wades to the bank and climbs out. He strips off his soaking clothes and finds a wide, flat rock in a sunny position to spread them on. Then he sits and watches as the golden lights suspended in the water blink out, one by one.
The sun comes out that afternoon — golden and glorious in a blue sky. Summer stays late this year.
Taehyung walks slowly back to the village beneath the singing trees. His clothes are damp and his feet are still sore, but his heart is much lighter. The wind dances with the leaves again, tumbling them golden from the boughs, and birds call to each other. It will be okay. He is sure of it. He is not what he was, but maybe what he is now is enough.
Jimin says that, and Namjoon, and all the others. Taehyung tries hard to believe it.
He steps lightly over a fallen log, moss covered and crumbling. Little insects scatter. Squirrels chitter to each other, and birds call. There is so much life here still, so much —
He hops on one foot. He stepped on something sharp. Pain is more poignant now, somehow. He rubs his sore foot and then crouches down. Ah. There it is. A rolly round chestnut fruit, hiding beneath a carpet of leaves.
He picks the chestnut up gingerly. It is ripe and bursting, revealing the glossy smooth nuts inside.
Chestnuts are a favorite of squirrels, and —
Taehyung is not a god anymore, but he spent long, long years in this forest. He knew every tree, every grove, and that knowledge is not gone. He knows where the chestnuts grow, and the pines, whose cones hide their own soft glossy nuts. He knows where mushrooms grow, and wild spinach, and bellflowers with their savory, bitter roots.
How many centuries did he spend watching the men and women of the temple make offering to him with the first fruits of the forest? How could he have forgotten? Some black burnt corner of his heart recoils — he didn’t forget, but how can he offer this to the villagers? They tried to kill him. They tried to ruin —
No. No. He will not let that darkness spread.
Clutching the chestnut in one hand, he pushes forward, back towards the village. Toward Namjoon.
Namjoon, sweaty, spent, wipes his brow with the back of his hand and looks up. He and Yoongi have spent most of the morning clearing a plot of land near the inn so they can plant an garden. It’s been a warm autumn this year, and Seokjin thinks they may have time to get in another harvest of cabbage before the snow comes.
Namjoon is no farmer; he has to hope Seokjin is right.
Taehyung comes dashing in through the front gate of the inn. His feet are bare and filthy, his hair is in disarray, and he is clutching something in one hand.
“Taehyung-ah,” Namjoon says, and a little knot of tension in his chest loosens.
Taehyung says he is not going anywhere. He swears he is here to stay. Namjoon knows what he was though, and he doesn’t understand why Taehyung would stay. Every time he wakes and finds Taehyung gone from their bed, some small part of him worries that he will not come back.
But here he is, running straight at Namjoon, beaming. Namjoon stands up and opens his arms to catch him. Taehyung throws his arms around Namjoon; they stagger backwards a step. Taehyung is damp and warm. He presses his cheek to Namjoon’s cheek.
“Namjoon,” he says. “Namjoon. Hey.”
“Hey,” Namjoon says, squeezing him close for a moment before letting go. “Where’d you go, Tae?”
Taehyung grins. “To the river,” he says. “I saw Jimin! He’s back!”
“I’m glad,” Namjoon says.
Taehyung nods. “You have to meet him,” he says. “You’re going to love him, Namjoon. He’s the best. He’s —“ He shakes his head then, like he’s brushing away some errant, distracting thought. “Namjoon, look.”
He holds out his hand then. An ugly, prickly fruit rests in his open palm. Beneath the green skin, Namjoon can see a hint of something dark and glossy. He’s no botanist, though.
“What is it?”
Taehyung rolls his eyes. “City boy,” he scoffs. “Chestnuts!”
“Oh,” Namjoon says. In the city, chestnuts come roasted and salted, half a dozen tucked in a little paper cone.
“Food, Namjoon,” Taehyung says. He glances away then, reticent suddenly. “I went into the forest. I know where all the chestnut trees are, and the pines. Mushrooms, and bellflower root, too. I know — I know it’s not much, but it might make a difference.”
Namjoon swallows. Taehyung — glorious, divine — is looking at him with such tender affection and need that it makes Namjoon’s heart ache. And he’s not wrong. It will make a difference.
Namjoon smiles. “It’s a lot, Taehyung,” he says. He leans forward and kisses Taehyung’s flush cheek. “Taehyung, this is so much. Thank you.”
“I wish there were more I could do,” Taehyung says quietly.
Namjoon silences him with another kiss. “It’s enough,” he says quietly. “You’re enough.”
He understands. Loss has left them both with cracks in their heart; they will need to love enough to fill them. It’s not an easy thing, but they are both trying.
Taehyung grins and throws his arms around Namjoon’s neck. “Thank you,” he whispers, and he hugs Namjoon so tight, tight enough that Namjoon knows he’s not going anywhere.
He can hear Jungkook and Seokjin laughing in the kitchen, and the steady thwack of Yoongi’s ax as he splits more wood. A tree grows inside the courtyard, near one wall. Namjoon doesn’t know the name of it, although he bets Taehyung would. It is autumn now, despite what the weather says. The wind picks up again and rattles dry leaves free, and Taehyung and Namjoon are surrounded by a shower of gold.