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Hoseok stood outside the door to the containment chamber on the bottom floor of the military facility. Or, to put it in a less primeval-sounding way, it was the room where they were holding that… the… person, half-fish… human… in.

 

Mermaid?

 

Were they holding a fucking mermaid in there? Is that what he was trying to say? Is that what he saw ?

 

Honestly, he was still trying to process the earlier part of his day, trying to figure out if what he’d actually seen was real. 

 

On the ride over here in the transport vehicle, there had been a disturbance -- something that saw the large truck needing to be pulled over. There had been a noisy crash that Hoseok could hear from inside, even over the sound of the large wheels grinding over the gravel on the road. And then the transport truck had jolted harshly before slowly crawling to a stop.

 

It had been angered voices outside that had drawn everybody out onto the road.

 

Hoseok had been toward the back on the group, so he couldn’t tell what they had all been crowded around. But he heard the gasps, the cursing, the questions; and then something must have happened, because all three of those things grew in volume and frequency around him. 

 

Desire to know what the hell was going on taking hold of him, Hoseok had abandoned his manners and pushed his way to the front, peering around the bodies of the rest of the soldiers, and that’s when he had gotten a glimpse of what had seized everybody's attention. 

 

A man (because it had been a man, at least up top) had fallen out of the transport bed on the back of the truck. He was surrounded by broken glass and water that was halfway soaked into the ground. 

 

And he had had a tail. 

 

Or, at least part of one. By the time Hoseok had made his way to the head of the small crowd, the shimmering appendage had looked to be in the middle of melting away before his eyes, like it was made of wet paper mache or something. And it had revealed legs. A whole human set of legs, right where the tail had just been. 

 

He knew what he’d seen. That was most definitely what had happened.

 

Or had it?

 

It was also possible he had been hallucinating.

 

But then, everyone else who had been on the transport with him had seen it. And everyone else had reacted pretty much how he would expect someone who had just seen a half-fish man turn into a full man in the middle of the road would. 

 

Hoseok made himself stop pacing for a moment, the sound of his boots echoing in the empty space of the hall starting to get to him -- bouncing around in his head distractedly when it was already a mess in there.  

 

Leaning against the wall next to the double doors, his thumb nail found its way into his mouth. He didn’t have much of a nail to begin with, but he gnawed on what was left in his restlessness, chewing in a manner that was both thoughtful and fretful. 

 

He was supposed to be waiting out here to meet one of the scientists from the team that was going to be working with the military on this assignment. He’d been instructed to escort the person around the potentially-dangerous specimen while they ran tests and collected samples from it. 

 

It was kind of a glorified chaperoning job if he thought about it, and Hoseok had only just found out about his role a minute after arriving at the facility. He and the few other special forces soldiers that had arrived with him had been debriefed in the bay hanger after getting off the boat that had brought them the rest of the way to the island. 

 

He’d had some trouble finding the person, which might have been thanks to how off-kilter he’d been since the incident in the middle of the road. Because of it, though, they’d now be some of the last people to arrive into the basement-level holding room -- and Hoseok still had no idea where his escortee was. 

 

He hadn’t bumped into anyone of the way down here, and the requirement to greet whoever it was before going into the room behind him was keeping Hoseok from just pushing open those doors already to see what the hell it was they had in there. 

 

Again.

 

(Because it couldn’t be what he thought he'd seen. It just couldn’t be.)

 

At the same time, he was strangely relieved that the person -- Dr. Kim, the name he’d been given -- was postponing him from having to do that just yet. Whatever they had in there -- whatever it was -- it wasn’t human; that much he was sure of. Not with all the secrecy and security and covert transportation methods.

 

Something was telling him that whatever it was, it was something that very few people had ever seen before, and the majority of those people were likely the ones behind those doors securing it right now. 

 

Hoseok took his thumb from his mouth, the nail already chewed down to the quick, and crossed his arms tightly over his chest to stop himself from continuing and drawing blood. 

 

But the nervous energy simply found another outlet, traveling down from his mouth to his foot and making it begin an off-tempo rhythm against the floor. 

 

Tap-tap. Tap, tap. Taptaptap. Tap. Tap. 

 

He stared at his boot and tried not to think too much. 

 

“Hoseok?”

 

Hoseok nearly jumped at the sudden voice, so close to him when he hadn’t even heard anyone coming down the stairs into the hall. He could credit the fact he didn’t actually leap a foot into the air to his military training, because eight years ago, it would’ve been an entirely different story. 

 

He looked up, and there was a man in front of him. Right away, there was no question about who he was. He had the whole trademark white lab coat getup going on, complete with a couple of pens clipped to the outside of his right beast pocket and everything. There was also a pair of rimless glasses nestled in there, and on the opposite side there rested a tiny brown name tag, fastened right above his heart. 

 

Dr. Kim, PhD. was etched into it. This was his guy. 

 

But the overly-familiar way with which the scientist had said his name gave him pause. Hoseok was fairly certain he would’ve never met the person before, and that their assignment together would mark the first time ever making each other's acquaintance. 


Although he had to admit -- as he straightened up from his slouch against the wall to assume a more professional stance, hands coming down by his sides -- that there was something overtly familiar about the man standing in front of him that he couldn’t quite place. 

 

Hoseok's eyebrows drew together as he curiously studied his face. 

 

The man had sharp, distinctive features -- dark eyebrows under light hair that didn’t ring a bell; but the high cheekbones, the pair of eyes shaped like half-moons flipped on their sides, the round nose and full lips all struck him as a combination of features that he’d seen before. And knew very well, as a matter of fact. 

 

Hoseok eyes lingered around the scientist’s mouth as he started speaking again, something telling him that dimples would probably appear at the corners were he to smile…

 

“Hyung…?” The man’s head tilted to the side, and Hoseok’s eyes widened a little because that voice! He knew that voice. “Is… that is you!”

 

The man’s expression went from questioning to excited in an instant, a wide smile breaking out across his features that put tiny sparkles in his eyes and -- yep, there were the dimples. The divots fit into his face and acted as the final puzzle piece to unlocking the niggling memory. 

 

Hoseok gasped as a name finally came to him.

 

“Joon! Oh my-- holy shit!”

 

Standing before him was the man who had been his best friend since the beginning of high school and through the first half of college before Hoseok had been summoned to his military service. They’d maintained on-and-off contact for a while during that time, but eventually had lost it after Hoseok went off once more to reenter the military to continue training for special forces -- and Namjoon to medical school in the United States. 

 

But Hoseok remembered all those years they spent being nearly inseparable during school -- Namjoon with ambitions to become a scientist and Hoseok not knowing what the hell he wanted to do with his life -- and it was kind of blowing his mind to meet the other man again like this. He was a little taller (but he’d always been fucking tall), a little broader, a little blonder , and a lot more grown into himself. 

 

Kim Namjoon, one of his oldest friends, was now standing before him as a whole certified-ass-scientist. 

 

He almost wanted to laugh at the strange coincidence of it all, could feel it bubbling in his chest, but Namjoon beat him to it, his signature stutter laugh washing Hoseok over with a wave of nostalgia. 

 

“Hoseok-hyung,” he beamed, dimples growing even deeper. “Wow, look at you.”

 

He gestured at Hoseok’s outfit, which right now wasn’t much more than a white t-shirt tucked into the black cargo pants of his uniform, a black KOR Army cap covering his hair. He also noticed Namjoon’s eyes lingering at the gun holstered at his hip, and figured that, yeah, he probably looked a far cry from the kid he was in college -- the one who lived in oversized t-shirts and baggy jeans and ridiculous knockoff Balenciaga sneakers. 

 

Hoseok smiled back.

 

"And what about you? America changed you," he commented playfully, looking pointedly at the shock of white blond hair atop his friends' head. The last time he had seen it, it had been jet black, like most people's.

 

Namjoon ran a hand back through his hair, looking almost shy all of a sudden, glancing towards the floor as a slight smile rounded his cheeks. Hoseok was immediately hit with images of him when they were kids, and there was this warm kind of fondness he got upon realizing that Namjoon didn't seem to have changed that much, at least in his mannerisms  -- even after all these years.

 

"I moved back here like six months ago, you know," he muttered, and Hoseok's eyes widened a little with intrigue because no, he did not know. "But yeah, I did start dying it over there."

 

"I mean it in a good way," Hoseok assured, placing his hands in his pockets and smiling warmly to atone for his teasing. "It suits you. I like it."

 

"And you," Namjoon gestured at his uniform, waving his hand vaguely over Hoseok's form. "You look all grown up, Seokie. Though, I guess maybe I shouldn't call you that anymore."

 

The scientist cringed slightly at himself, the childish nickname having seemingly just rolled off of his tongue without thought -- out of some old habit. Hoseok smiled despite himself, laughing at the way Namjoon's nose scrunched up (like it always used to do whenever he was embarrassed) and waved it off.

 

"How's military life treating you?"

 

"Good, good," Hoseok nodded a few times, toeing absently at a dark scuff on the floor with his boot. "Yeah, I'm proud to be a part of it."

 

There was a lot more he could tell his friend about his still relatively-new career as a soldier, as he'd collected a lot of stories about it just from these most recent few years alone. Up until this point, he wouldn't get much benefit out of telling them to anyone but his mother -- whom he facetimes from time to time -- seeing as all of his other current friends are in the service with him and therefore had pretty much experienced all the same things; and all his older friends from school he’d since lost touch with, just like he had with Namjoon.

 

But now that Namjoon was here, he might get a kick out of hearing them; that is, depending on how long they were going to be sticking around at this base.

 

"So, I'm guessing you're the no-name soldier I was told to meet down here, then?" Namjoon predicted, one of his dark eyebrows lifting as he readjusted the clipboard he was holding in the tuck of his arm.

 

"Guess so," Hoseok confirmed, bringing his arms out of his pockets and pointing to his friend's nametag.

 

"And you're the Doctor Kim I was instructed to escort." 

 

"I am."

 

"That's fucking weird," Hoseok admitted, lips stretching into a funny smile -- one that Namjoon mirrored.

 

"I know," he agreed, seeming to sense what he's talking about.

 

"You really went and did it," Hoseok dwelled on it for just a little bit longer -- he couldn’t help it. The last time he had seen this man, he'd been a... like a half-man. A kid in college who wore glasses that were always slipping down because they were too big for his face; with dark hair that was a little curly because he'd had the genius idea to perm it and had then kept at it for the following year because he had convinced himself it looked good; and who had been the cause of the science labs needing to be evacuated at least twice a school year because he was always experimenting with chemical combinations that every now and then decided they really didn't want to mix... and that they wanted to combust. And now, he was... "My best friend went and became a damn scientist."

 

It didn’t feel weird at all to refer to him as such after all this time. Even though they hadn't spoken for some good number of months now, that image of Namjoon hadn't changed inside of his mind. 

 

"Well~" Namjoon drug out, shrugging again and displaying some of that earlier bashfulness in his next smile. That faded out in the next couple of seconds, though, making way for a look of slight confusion, gaze going to the pair of slate grey doors behind Hoseok. "So, d'you know what we're supposed to be doing here, or...?"

 

That gave Hoseok pause, and his eyebrows knit. "You mean they didn't tell you?"

 

Then again, he wasn’t sure how the military would go about explaining the alien species they've somehow gotten into captivity -- at this point, that was what he'd resorted to referring to the fish-man-person-he-thinks-he-saw-but-probably-didn't-actually-see-because-that-would-be-crazy as. It was still very likely that he was actually hallucinating or experiencing the effects of sleep deprivation or overwork. Or that he had unknowingly been bitten by something on an expedition and has actually been dealing with the side effects of a mystery poisoning and just didn't realize.

 

Anything seemed more believable than somehow, someway, finding a... well, you know.

 

It might be intriguing to a group of scientists, but it also might make them want to run for the hills -- either because it's too ridiculous even for them to consider or because they wouldn't want to risk messing with something like that (something that, by all the laws of nature, should not exist).

 

Hoseok could relate. He'd always been that guy that stayed far away from all things supernatural and mystical and Ouiji board-esque and what have you, because all those things were decidedly un natural and he had no business trying to connect with any of it.

 

Either way, it was probably best that the military withhold any potentially incriminating details in the invitations they extend until they knew for sure the scientific team was on their side for whatever project they had in mind -- which Hoseok was still very much in the dark about himself.

 

He was simply doing what he'd been told. An important part of being a soldier was knowing how to listen, not ask questions.

 

He couldn’t help being curious, though.

 

He thought back to the man with longish hair and amber eyes and slippery skin who had silently curled in on himself in the middle of the road as they all stood over him, covering his naked body from all of their stares and avoiding eye contact with each and every person. He had looked like a man, but he wasn't a man, because he couldn't have been a man, because he had a tail.

 

Until, of course, he didn't have a tail.

 

It was all very confusing for Hoseok, and he didn’t think he was in any position to try to explain any of it to Namjoon. Wouldn't wanna scare him off.

 

Namjoon shook his head slowly. “No…” he said slowly, eyes shifting to the side and taking a moment to think. “We got flown in here yesterday.” Hoseok wondered briefly where it was Namjoon was working now, but he didn’t inquire on account of the man continuing on with his train of thought. “I know the government wants us to run tests on some ocean species that’s been recently discovered; seems like it’s something my team might be interested in in relation to our research.”

 

Namjoon ended it with a shrug.

 

It was clear he didn’t know much about what was going on either, and the nonchalant way with which he was speaking about it made it obvious to Hoseok that he hadn’t actually seen this “ocean species” they’d been called here to inspect. 

 

But they had still accepted, because he imagined a joint government/military-extended invitation is both intriguing and hard to refuse.

 

Some part of him wanted to ask just what it was Namjoon and his research team had been working on (and how that might lead the military to want to get in touch with them about this), but it was forgotten once he realized that they’d been standing out here for a while. As much as he would like to catch up, they should probably be going in now.

 

Plus, now that his mind was back on what might be behind those doors, he suddenly couldn’t stop thinking about fish tails and human eyes, and that same tightening feeling from before settled into his gut. 

 

A part of him wanted to confirm whether or not what he’d seen today had been true, but another part of him didn’t want to move from this spot, too scared that it might be.

 

“What about you?” Namjoon broke him out of the thoughts he’d momentarily started drifting off into. “You know anything about what it is? Can you give me a hint?”

 

He smiled jokingly, and Hoseok managed to return something similar after only a slight delay.

 

“Not really,” was the answer he settled on being safest to say, though maybe his voice came out a little thinner than he would’ve liked it to. “They don’t tell me anything around here,” he quipped, turning away from Namjoon’s curious gaze to push against one of the door’s silver crash bars, the heavy barrier popping open with an echoing click. 

 

“But let’s see,” he said, holding it open for other man and trying not to appear as nervous as he suddenly felt. 

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Namjoon didn’t know what to make of it -- how to make any sense out of it. 

 

The creature in the water before him, arms pulled taut by soldiers holding restraints on both sides, growling and snapping at anyone near him, looked like a man. 

 

But then it would give a particularly hard buck and the tail -- the tail -- would poke through the surface of the water -- shining a bright blue green color in the overhead lights of the holding chamber, which was the room inside of the room that Hoseok had led him into, sitting far down in the facility’s basement level. 

 

“So you see it too?” Hoseok leaned close to him to whisper, and Namjoon nodded numbly. “Oh good,” Hoseok murmured, pulling back to straighten beside him. “I thought I was going crazy.”

 

This first day was simply an introduction, all of the scientists and soldiers to be working together on the joint project gathered into the room together to have a first look at the creature.

 

Namjoon could tell from many of their faces that they, like him, were also laying eyes on it for the first time. One of the commanding officers that he assumed Hoseok worked for, a tall, study-looking man with a weathered face, greying black hair, and small eyes (Colonel Kangmin, he had introduced himself as), ran over what to expect over the course of their time here. He gave each of the scientist-soldier escort teams time slots in which they would conduct their sampling and observations throughout the day. The idea was to study the creature and to analyze it; get to know it for what it was and how it worked. He mentioned something about strict rules of confidentiality.

 

Namjoon was barely listening to all the ends and outs, far too busy peering at the humanoid being in wonder. It was quite beautiful, even for something so angry. Dark hair with ends that hung long into his eyes, which were an interesting shade of light brown. A curious spattering of freckles ran across its tan cheeks. Lean arms, a strong jaw, dark eyebrows.

 

The creature’s tan eyes met his suddenly, and Namjoon looked away, an icy chill traveling down his spine at their coldness. 

 

He was glad today was only introduction day. He would need to sleep on this to prepare himself.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Namjoon arrived at the room the next day at the same time another member of his team, Sujung, was exiting. 

 

Namjoon paused and stepped aside as the heavy double doors opened and she was ushered out of the room, flanked on either side by one of their other researchers and a soldier whom he didn’t recognize. They were helping her to stand, as her back was hunched over and she seemed to be struggling to take proper steps. 

 

Before Namjoon could wonder what had happened, he saw the red sliding down the hand that she had clutched to her chest, the thick liquid continuing down her forearm and dripping off her elbow to the floor. Her face was contorted in pain, and her teeth were gnashed tightly together, possibly to keep any agonized noises from escaping as she was led down the hall presumably to go find a first aid kit. 

 

The trio paid him no mind as they passed him and disappeared out of sight around the corner.

 

Namjoon stayed rooted where he stood as he stared after them, his eyes widened in shock and a sense of dread snaking its way into his stomach. 

 

He didn’t know what had just happened to Sujung, but it wasn’t hard to guess at what might’ve sliced her hand open like that. 

 

He swallowed as he turned back to the door, suddenly not as keen to start fresh and begin the day trying to get close enough to the mysterious creature to record decent information on it. He had hoped that it might’ve calmed down more by this second day, or at least that they’d managed to administer enough sedative for it finally to succumb to a more placid state. But evidently that might not have been the case. 

 

Namjoon tried not to worry as he thought about how the sedatives they had given the creature yesterday by way of demonstration -- one being enough to knock out any fully-grown human almost instantaneously -- had absolutely no effect on it. No signs of any sluggishness or drowsiness; no reduction in alertness, speed or strength to speak of. 

 

And they had given it three. 

 

It was an interesting note to make of its tolerance for the drugs, especially considering it looked half-human itself, but it was still discouraging to think about when the goal was to be able to be near it.

 

Without killing it. 

 

Namjoon sighed, casting one more weary look at the small blood droplets left sprinkled on the ground before steeling himself and pushing open one of the doors. 

 

As he made his way across the wide room toward the smaller containment chamber, he kept reminding himself that he’d dealt with scarier things than this throughout the course of his profession. 

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Though, admittedly, it was hard to think of any right now.

 

Namjoon had waited for Hoseok to arrive before going through the password-protected door to the large pool. There were a couple other special forces soldiers around that could’ve let him in so he could start in with his attempts at observation and, if fortune allowed, sample collection, but he’d wanted to wait until he was accompanied by the other man before doing so.

 

He’d feel a bit silly insinuating that he felt safer when Hoseok was with him (there were literally half a dozen trained and armed super soldiers in the room right now), but he couldn’t deny that the presence of his friend’s familiar face brought him a certain level of comfort. 

 

It was just like when the two of them were attending university together and Hoseok always seemed to have an uncanny knack to be able to convince him that things were going to be okay when Namjoon, and his tormenting knack of worrying all the time, often found reasons to believe they wouldn’t. 

 

And if he, a since-matured and certified PhD-holding adult, needed to turn to those distant memories from years ago to secretly work up the nerve to set foot in that room again, than he would. And he wouldn’t be ashamed of it.

 

But once Hoseok had arrived several moments later and the two of them were faced with the creature once more, it was still barely less unnerving than it was yesterday, even standing a good ten feet from the edge of the water as they were.

 

Since yesterday, it seemed to be deemed safe enough to handle without the need to aim any guns at it. It did take some of the tension from Namjoon’s shoulders to see all of the soldiers’ pistols, including Hoseok’s, tucked securely away in the holsters they wore at their hips and strapped to their thighs. The thought of any shots potentially being fired made him anxious.

 

Even so, he still eyed the creature stiffly as it fought against the restraints around its arms and the loop of wire around its neck that three of the soldiers were utilizing in an attempt to subdue it.

 

They seemed to be having quite the time of it, grunting and digging their heavy-soled shoes into the ground to keep from being pulled into the pool with every enraged jerk the creature gave. 

 

Namjoon observed it again as it continued to jerk and thrash, kicking up water with its tail and trying to get away from the people that held fast on the tools that kept him from doing so. 

 

Every time the lean tail disappeared underneath the surface of the water, Namjoon had to remind himself that it wasn’t actually all human down there. It still greatly tripped him out that something so otherworldly looked so much like a person. Splattering of freckles and interesting eyes aside, give him a pair of legs and he’d blend in with any other Korean walking down the street.

 

And they hadn’t been able to officially confirm it yet, but the creature certainly appeared male from the waist up.

 

Namjoon mused that maybe he should start thinking of him as a ‘he’, because he seemed far too alert and alive to be addressed as an ‘it’ any longer. The fact that they had no idea about his species be damned. It just didn’t really sit right in his mind. 

 

But even so, something about the way he tugged against the restraint around his neck, despite the fact the thick wire looked cinched tight enough against his jugular to choke him, beige eyes flashing as he gave full grown men -- strong men -- legitimate trouble by himself… it was perturbing. And it definitely served to remind him that no matter how he looked, the creature in the water was far from a human. 

 

They had already given him three sedatives. 

 

“Should we… try another one?” The only other white coat in the room, Lee Hanna, dubiously held up the box of syringes, of which there were only two left. 

 

Namjoon sighed, watching how viciously the creature was fighting and starting to sincerely believe that no amount of drugs would ever be enough to calm him down. 

 

Maybe they could try knocking him out, but that seemed a bit counter-intuitive, not to mention potentially damaging to the specimen. And mean. 

 

And, based on how resilient he seemed to be -- potentially impossible.

 

“I guess so,” Namjoon conceded, aware of how unsure he sounded. 

 

Aside from physical restraint and keeping the creature secured in this room, the scientific team was in charge of his handling in terms of how to go about studying him; but it was hard for Namjoon to demonstrate any of his definitely existing prowess in the area when they didn’t even know how to get him to stop fighting.

 

It was never this impossible subduing any other specimen. Ever. 

 

Looking out of ideas herself, Lee extracted the second to last tranquilizer -- number four -- and, after placing the box back onto the table behind them, stepped over to the still-struggling half-man. His dark hair was wet and hung into his eyes, which widened as he took notice of her approach. Remarkably, his thrashing suddenly calmed, and the intense wriggling and wrenching of his arms to try to get himself free regressed into short little jerking spasms and then halted altogether. 

 

It should’ve been a good sign -- that he’d finally worn himself out; that maybe the other three sedatives had finally started working -- but Namjoon couldn’t let himself relax. 

 

Just because his fighting had calmed didn’t mean his demeanor did. In fact, that grew even more threatening. 

 

The way the creature was looking at his coworker as she stopped before him at the edge of the pool and knelt down to upcap the syringe was nothing short of predatory. His eyes narrowed into dangerous slits as she fiddled with the drug, and Namjoon saw his entire body go tense and rigid, like he would pounce on her the first chance he got. 

 

He would be unable to, of course; not if their methods of restraint continued to hold up as they had been thus far, but still…

 

“Careful Doc,” the soldier holding the restraint on the creature’s right arm issued a warning right before Namjoon could voice a similar one himself. No sooner had he said it, and no sooner had Lee bent forward and pressed the tip of the needle into his upper arm (above where the thick black straps of the restraint were secured) did the creature lunge at her.

 

He didn’t get far, but he got close enough, snapping his teeth so close to her face that even Namjoon flinched. 

 

Lee yelped and jerked back, narrowly able to avoid getting her nose bit into. She lost her grip on the tube -- after only getting about half of the clear liquid expelled into the creature’s arm -- and it dropped into the water, sinking out of sight as she stumbled back.

 

The soldiers cursed and fought to keep their hold on him as his raging started up again. 

 

Namjoon came forward and held out a hand to her, face pinched into a frown.

 

“Are you okay?” he asked as Lee shakily took his offered hand and let him pull her to her feet.

 

“Yeah, yeah, fine,” she murmured, smoothing down her lab coat and touching the bun on the top of her head, obviously trying to collect herself. She then seemed to remember something as she looked back to the water. “Damn,” she cursed. “I dropped the sedative in the water.”

 

“It’s fine,” Namjoon shook his head assuredly, even though he was starting to feel a little hopeless himself. “Those things obviously don’t work on him anyway.”

 

A sharp whistle came from next to them, and they both looked towards Hoseok, who had thus far been a silent observer of the situation, leaning against the wall next to the back table with one hand resting over the gun at his hip. 

 

“Look at that,” he said, tilting his chin in the direction of the water. 

 

Namjoon followed his line of sight and saw what he was indicating. Next to him, Lee gasped.

 

Astoundingly, the creature had once again stopped writhing, and not because he was sizing up his next target to strike at. No, he looked to be falling asleep. Even from here, Namjoon could see how his eyes grew confused and unfocused as his lids started to droop. He was able to keep them open, but just barely, blinking sluggishly at random intervals. The rest of his body seemed to follow suit. The muscles in his arms softened and relaxed even as the soldiers on either side of him kept their guards up and continued to hold the restraints on his arms taut enough to keep them extended over the surface of the water. Even so, the creature’s hands unclenched from the tight fists they were making and hung limply; just like his head, which suddenly seemed too heavy for him to keep up. It tilted forward and bobbed drunkenly.

 

Namjoon felt like his mouth was hanging open, just a little. 

 

Three and a half full-strength sedatives -- that was what it had taken to get the creature to this point. Placid and disoriented, but still not even completely knocked out.

 

And yet, maybe it would be enough. 

 

Namjoon made a mental node as Hoseok whistled again, this time low and drawn out.

 

“That’s a tough sunuva bitch,” he mused, while Lee moved to grip Namjoon’s arm.

 

“We could take a blood sample now,” she suggested, eyes wide and amazed as she looked at him.

 

Namjoon nodded. “Get the kit.”

 

While Lee spun on her heel to go rummage around in one of the bags against the wall for the tools that hadn’t yet gotten to see the light of day, Namjoon walked toward the water, his eyes never leaving the now-limp body of the humanoid creature.

 

When he reached the edge and knelt down like Lee had done, Namjoon was close enough to reach out and touch him if he wanted, but he didn’t. He just looked, and he was once again struck speechless by what he was seeing. 

 

The creature looked so much different when he was like this -- much softer. His face was a bunch of delicate lines and curves that were traced by rivulets of water as they ran down his face from his hair. A strong chin, slack lips, long eyelashes, stark eyebrows. A drop of water slid down his pert nose and dripped noiselessly into the water, and Namjoon leaned over to look down past the surface after it. The wavy outlines of his tail (his tail! he still can't get over it ) were just discernible, a long, thick line of greenish-blue that shimmered as it moved sedately back and forth.

 

Namjoon was fascinated, and he had so many questions.

 

Lee sidled up to him and lowered herself onto her knees, spreading out a series of tools on the floor in front of her. Namjoon glanced over and noticed she had brought a few more things other than what was needed to draw blood. So while she prepared the needle, Namjoon took up a retinoscope he spotted, the device black and silver and sitting small in his hand.

 

Tentatively, he reached forward and tilted the creature’s chin up. His half-mast eyes were still bleary and unfocused; showing no signs of being aware of what was happening, so Namjoon ever-so-gently used his thumb to push up the skin right underneath his eyebrow. As a result, more of his eye was exposed, sleepy and unseeing.

 

Namjoon held up the retinoscope and clicked the button on the side, a bright light flashing to life and shining straight into the creature’s pupil. Still, he didn’t budge.

 

Namjoon moved the device slowly back and forth, looking closely for something he had been expecting to see but didn’t. This creature’s pupil was larger in circumference than an average human’s, and with a surge of fascination, he realized that it wasn’t shrinking at the sudden assault of light like a human’s would do. In fact, it didn’t seem to be reacting to the brightness at all. It remained as large and round and black as it had before.

 

Intrigued, Namjoon moved over and administered the same treatment to the other one and was met with the same results.

 

Namjoon sat back. What did that mean?

 

Could the fact that this creature's pupils didn't shrink upon encountering more light indicate that he was able to see extremely well, maybe far better than many species? Did his pupils possibly dilate even more than average in the dark and this was actually the smallest they could get in the light? Was this more of nocturnal being? 

 

The string of mental notes started flowing fast, and he’d have to remember them until he could retrieve his notebook and jot all of it down, but for now, Lee was handing him a pair of gloves, the fully prepped needle resting on a cloth at her knees.

 

Namjoon pulled them on, the scent of latex strong in his nose. Then, he took the small cleansing square she offered him and reached for the creature’s arm, gently turning it over to expose his inner elbow. His skin felt soft and surprisingly warm in his hand as Namjoon swabbed the disinfectant wipe over a vein in the crease of his elbow -- blue-colored just like anybody else’s. 

 

After he was done, he exchanged the used wipe with the needle Lee handed over to him, pulling his arm taut so that the vein popped more. It was the best they could do when the creature wasn’t lucid or conscious enough to clench his fist -- not that he’d listen to them if they asked him to. 

 

Lee held it there for him so that Namjoon could handle the needle. His heart was pounding oddly as he steadied it over the vein and pushed it in.

 

That’s when the creature jolted, so suddenly that he didn’t have time to react to it. 

 

He cried out, a sound so human that it surprised Namjoon (though he doesn’t know why, when he looks so much like one). The noise was sharp and loud and surprisingly deep, tan eyes snapping open and locking right onto his.

 

Namjoon barely had any time to widen his in shock, so he was hopeless to dodge the swing that the creature aimed right for his cheek, taking advantage of the split second the soldiers’ hold had slackened during the brief moment of peace.

 

The sting of nails digging into his skin made his eyes water, and the force of the blow knocked his head to the side and caused him to lose his grip on the blood-drawing tools. They went clattering across the floor as he fell over.

 

He heard Lee shriek beside him, heard more cursing and splashing as the soldiers started struggling to keep their holds again, heard a low growling sound that Namjoon assumed was coming from the creature.

 

It all blended together, and Namjoon was having trouble focusing on any one thing or distinguishing what happened when. The whole left side of his face burned, and he felt a warm liquid dripping down over his nose and onto his lips, the sharp, unmistakable taste of copper hitting his tongue. 

 

Joon! ” That was Hoseok. 

 

Namjoon didn’t know when his friend had gotten beside him, but through his disorientation he was able to look up and tell that the soldier had his gun whipped out and pointed right at the agitated creature, a mean look on his face. 

 

Blood slid down his eyebrow, and Namjoon had to screw his left eye shut to avoid getting blinded by it. 

 

“It’s okay,” he tried to say, but he didn’t know if it came out as reassuring, or as loud, as he had intended it to. 

 

He glanced back at the water just in time to see some other soldier delivering a harsh kick square to the middle of the creature’s bare chest. His whole body jolted back with the blow, and his face contorted in pain. He hunched over, a low groan slipping past his lips, arms flexing against the restraints like he wanted to draw in on himself but couldn’t.

 

“No,” Namjoon forced out, something akin to panic seizing his chest as he watched the same man wind back for another kick with his heavy-soled boot. They weren’t supposed to be hurting him. “No!”

 

But strong hands were already pulling him away from the edge of the water and hoisting him up, and Namjoon was able to register Hoseok on his left side, a concerned look on his face as his eyes traced over the wounds that Namjoon hoped felt worse than they looked; and Lee somewhere on his right chattering fretfully and asking him if he was okay.

 

Namjoon could do and say very little as he was led from the room, the pained cries of the creature in the water behind him following him on his way out.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

It had been four days, and not a lot of progress had been made in that time.

 

Progress meaning they hadn’t succeeded in getting the creature to calm down enough to get near him.

 

If Namjoon was being honest, all of it made him a little uncomfortable. 

 

Although he still didn’t possess anywhere close to a clear understanding of what exactly the specimen he’d been assigned to study was (other than the fact it was clearly half-man, half-fish, and all bizarre), he was fairly certain that, despite it’s odd nature, it was something that was capable of advanced thought and feeling. He’d heard jokes, mostly from the soldiers and staff around the base, about the mysterious being was most likely brain dead and all primal, but Namjoon didn’t know how anyone could take one look at his very human face and very expressive eyes and not see a keen intelligence there. 

 

And even if the creature didn’t resemble an actual person, Namjoon wouldn’t necessarily feel great about the fact they have to hit him with four to five sedatives at a time just to get him to stop fighting enough to approach the water. He’d worked with many animals and living species before, and it had never brought him any joy to have to subject them to experiments and testing that would, honestly, be deemed unethical to perform on any human. 

 

Even if that was something people in his profession just kind of had to deal with, it was the one part of his job that never really got any easier.

 

While he wasn't sure if it was precisely human , he still couldn't help thinking it.

 

Besides, they weren't testing anything on him, nor experimenting with him. They were just here to collect samples and study -- observe any particularly interesting traits or behaviors while running DNA tests (blood, saliva swabs, skin samples) for something that would be of interest to them. If nothing else, they’d like to find out exactly what this creature is

 

For some larger test subjects, all of this would call for the need to subdue them in some way, but the amount of distress their current unwilling participant is clearly in whenever any of them walk into the room for their allotted time slot was very palpable and left a bad taste in his mouth whenever he had to witness it.

 

It was those feelings that give him the urge to speak up on day four, when he and Hoseok were walking into the holding room right as a couple others were exiting, one person assisting another scientist who’s clutching his hand to his nose, blood oozing from some unseen gash and staining the breast of his white lab coat. 

 

Namjoon was beginning to sense a pattern here, and he didn’t like it. 

 

What had the creature done this time to cause another one of their scientists to bleed? A busted nose suggested blunt-force trauma...

 

Namjoon halted to turn and stare after them, at the contorted agony on his colleague’s face, and it was almost like he could feel the slashes on his cheek begin to throb under the thick bandage in response. Hoseok propped the door open for him and waited silently. 

 

He about-faced to share a look with the other man, but Hoseok kept his visage impressively passive, tilting his head towards the door and widening it more so that Namjoon can step through ahead of him.

 

Namjoon didn’t know what Hoseok was thinking about all of this, but he supposed it would make sense for his friend to be better able to handle stuff like this considering what he'd had to go through in order to become a soldier. 

 

An unruly specimen and a little blood? Probably nothing to him.  

 

There were less people in the large room than there was on day one, probably because now everyone knew that what was in the water didn't pose a serious threat so long as they stayed equipped with tranquilizers and kept their distance.

 

(As far as they knew, it wasn’t able to shoot projectiles from its body or secrete any harmful substance, so that was something else, he supposed.) 

 

Although, who was to know if it was all one-hundred percent true? The creature had been in custody for four days, and four days wasn’t a lot of time to reveal everything something could do; or everything it was capable of.

 

It turned out the scratches on his face had looked way worse than it was, once all the blood had been cleaned away, but it still took a lot of reassurances and claims that he was fine for Hoseok to quit fussing over it.

 

He was PhD-certified -- a soldier of science --  he could handle a little blood, too.

 

And yet, it was a whole other ordeal with Hoseok when he pitched his idea to the elder today.

 

“What do you mean, ‘you want everyone to leave the room?’” Hoseok asked incredulously, staring at him like he was insane. “You mean so it’s just you and the crazy merman alone together?”

 

Namjoon had already been readying new words to plead his case, but the term gave him pause.

 

‘Merman’?” he repeated, a smile twitching at his lips as he lifted a questioning eyebrow.

 

Hoseok didn’t look like he understood his skepticism. 

 

“Yes, isn’t that what he is? Half-fish? Half-man? A merman?” Hoseok copied his raised-eyebrow expression. “Come on, you know about fairy tales.”

 

Yes, they were fairy tales, stories created to entertain children, and that was precisely why Namjoon -- man of logical thinking and fact that he was -- was hesitant to go about referring to an amazing scientific discovery as such.

 

But… he guessed that Hoseok was kind of right. And it was something else to think of him as, rather than just creature all the time. 

 

“Fine,” he conceded, for now. “And yes, I want to be left alone with the merman. I think it would help him to feel less threatened if there were less people in the room. He might be more cooperative and favorable that way.”

 

Hoseok looked like he had eaten something sour. “Threatened? He’s the one who sliced your face open.”

 

“Because he was being held down and stabbed with pointy objects.” Namjoon looked meaningfully at the firearm holstered at Hoseok’s hip. “Not to mention held at gunpoint.”

 

Very many different kinds of species lashed out when they felt cornered or threatened, and all Namjoon could think about was how much the merman must’ve felt like that yesterday. How he must’ve felt like that every day and all the time since being brought here. There was nothing subtle or gentle about the way he was being treated, and if they wanted to see positive results and ensure that this entire escapade wasn’t an enormous waste of everyone’s time and resources, then that needed to change. 

 

This wasn’t just some common lab rat they were dealing with. It was a being that obviously had a lot of complex thoughts and feelings and that needed to be approached in a different way.

 

Or they would all have a very unpleasant time here.

 

But looking at Hoseok now, he could tell the man didn’t want to budge. 

 

“No, no, not gonna happen, Joon-ah. It’s too dangerous.” He shook his head deftly and crossed his arms, the picture of resolute. But so was Namjoon.

 

“Maybe because we’ve only ever dealt with him when he’s hurt and angry, hyung.” Hoseok opened his mouth again, but Namjoon held up a hand. “Thanks for your concern, but it’s already been cleared as a ‘valid idea to better specimen temperament’,” he quoted what he'd been told when he'd gone to inquire. “You can stand five feet away from the outside of the door at the farthest, thank you.”

 

Hoseok looked betrayed. Namjoon looked smug.

 

Still, it was a whole other ordeal getting the soldiers who held the restraints to agree to leave the room, as they were literally the only people who stood between Namjoon himself and the creature's claws. But eventually they had acquiesced too, one of them muttering something about a liability on his way out.

 

“Now it’ll just be the two of us,” Namjoon sighed triumphantly, smiling at the creature, who was rubbing at the red marks on his arms where the restraints had dug into his skin.

 

“It can’t understand you, Doc,” another man jibed, eliciting a short round of snickers from the others right before the door closed.

 

“Well, we don’t know that, do we?” Namjoon spoke, more quietly.

 

Then it really was just him and the merman whose light eyes nearly shone at him across the surface of the water, almost as if they had a luminous tint to them. His face was half-submerged to just under his nose, but he didn’t immediately retreat to the bottom of the alcove like Namjoon had feared.

 

So this was good.

 

“Hi,” Namjoon waved. He obviously wasn’t expecting a response, but the heavy silence and steely gaze of the merman still made him mildly uncomfortable. He cleared his throat and pointed to his bandages. “No hard feelings about the scratch.”

 

The creature just stared.

 

“Okay, so,” Namjoon continued on, his heart beating nervously. “I’m not going to be touching you today. At all. Okay? I just want to watch you and write...” he held up a notebook and pen. “...in my notebook. Nothing else, okay? Oh, and I also brought you this.”

 

Namjoon reached next to him and fished around in his bag where it was sitting on the back table and tore open a silver packet of freeze-dried honeycomb.

 

Yeah… he didn’t know either. But it had still been the most appetizing-looking thing in this place’s break room refrigerators.

 

He tossed the morsel out into the water, where it splashed a few feet from the merman’s face. He jerked back, muscles in his arms tensing, but then when nothing happened, he just stared at it -- even sinking a little lower in the water to nose at it after a moment. Curiosity peeked through his guarded visage.

 

Namjoon readied his notebook. He watched with bated breath as the creature plucked up the floating piece of honeycomb between long fingers…

 

And threw it right back at him, narrowly missing the ends of Namjoon's white lab coat. It slapped onto the floor by his feet.

 

“No, you eat it.” The creature stared. Namjoon went into the opened package and fished around for another piece of the honeycomb. This one he brought up to his mouth, making sure the creature saw him taking a bite. He tried to avoid grimacing too much at the awful taste. “Mmm, see? I’m eating.”

 

The creature stared.

 

“Come on, aren’t you hungry?” Namjoon asked, bending down and throwing the original soggy one back.

 

It floated untouched a few feet from the merman's chest, and Namjoon was resolved that it might just stay that way for today. So until he decided whether he wanted to eat or not, Namjoon got into writing idle notes in the meantime. 

 

He wrote about the being's sharp ( very sharp ) nails that weren’t exactly claws. He wrote that he was stronger than at least several fully grown men. He wrote that it didn’t seem to matter if he was being held in freshwater despite coming from seawater. Was it because he seemed partially human? Or was his tail similar to a species of fish that could survive in freshwater anyway?

 

If they were to take samples of the shimmering scales on its tale, would they find it to be a match to another existing aquatic species?

 

He tried to keep his notes reasonably clean and organized as thoughts came to him one after the other. 

 

The light crunching sound coming from the water made his pen still on the paper, and when Namjoon looked up, the creature was nibbling on the honeycomb. 

 

Namjoon excitedly scribbled in his notebook.

 

Likes honeycomb, apparently. 

 

When the merman finished one freeze-dried food, Namjoon would toss him another from his bag, for he had nearly cleared out this place’s whole stock thinking he would be picky for some reason. But each one disappeared, the creature devouring them all in increasingly larger bites.

 

Likes anything, apparently. 

 

He made a mental note to find some fresh food and try to give that. Maybe next time.

 

Glancing up again, he noticed that the creature had drifted closer to him over time, unconsciously drawn to Namjoon while he dropped food into the water like a line of bread crumbs. Namjoon held his breath. This was the closest he'd been to him since having his cheek slashed open. Maybe more so than then.

 

Now that Namjoon was only observing, he was able to really look at his profile. The silky hair, the smooth tanned skin, the incredible tawny eyes -- he wrote it all down in his notebook.

 

His ears also seemed to end in a slight point. Namjoon had never noticed that before on account of his long hair obscuring them; and he’d never been near enough to tell otherwise. 

 

Without thinking, he slowly reached forward -- he was close enough to touch him -- planning to delicately shift the tresses to the side just enough to see the tops of his ears better. 

 

His hand had barely touched him when the creature sharply looked up, dropping the dry beef jerky he had been nibbling on. Namjoon gasped at the sudden movement and pulled his hand away. The creature’s body was positively rigid as he stared at Namjoon, and his human eyes flashed animalistically. 

 

He held his breath and didn’t move, heart pounding hard in his chest. The scratches on face faintly stung, as if remembering the pain those sharpened nails could cause.

 

The door opened, and Hoseok stepped halfway through, cutting his eyes at the water, one hand on his gun.

 

“It’s fine,” Namjoon assured quickly, turning to look at him. He didn’t want to agitate the creature further. It was Namjoon’s fault he had tried to touch him again. “It’s…”

 

He turned back around, but the creature had already slipped back underneath the water out of sight.

 

The piece of jerky bobbed on the surface, and Namjoon deflated, disappointed he had messed it up so soon. But he guessed that, after deep growls and bloody faces, the creature distancing himself instead of striking out again was a marked improvement.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Just like Namjoon’s healing face wounds, the confrontations with the creature did get better after that. Namjoon noticed, Hoseok noticed, and the other scientists and soldiers noticed, too. So it was agreed upon over the days to stop physically restraining the merman, letting Namjoon have his methods, for they seemed to be yielding better results. The creature still wouldn't let anybody touch him; would still keep his distance and eye everyone with a warning glint in his eye. Over the next week or so, Namjoon noticed that, while the creature's stares were still distrusting and cautious, he rarely all out sneered at them anymore, and that was noteworthy. 

 

It got to the point where no one would really go into the holding room without Namjoon also being there, and soon enough he had practically become the main scientist in charge of observations and sample collection. Although the merman still didn't seem to trust him or even like him, his hackles didn't automatically rise when he entered the room anymore. Sometimes he would even turn his back on the scientist as he waded around the confines of the pool while Namjoon sat with him and poured over his notes, seeming to forget that he was even there. 

 

As a result, Namjoon, too, lost more and more of the tension in his shoulders when in his presence, and he could breathe easier.

 

He gathered data as gently as he possibly could (“It’s just a stethoscope,” he had consoled the creature when he had braved trying to listen to his heartbeat, his eyes sharp on Namjoon's as he pressed the cold flat metal to his chest. “To listen to your heart. It won’t hurt you.”), and then he delivered it to the rest of his team, who worked with it from there. 

 

It was beginning to be a pretty smooth operation, and his personal guard (pfft) Hoseok was forced to witness it all -- though he had been a lot more skeptical at first.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

“This is Hoseok,” Namjoon had introduced him one day, when he caught the creature’s eyes lingering long moments on his friend as he took up his routine protector's stance in the corner, one ankle crossed over the other as he leaned against the wall across from the water.

 

“Uh, hey,” Hoseok tried, raising a hand in a stiff, awkward wave. “Sorry I, you know, pulled a gun on you.”

 

The creature sniffed and dove to the bottom of the water out of sight, and Namjoon tried not to laugh at Hoseok’s sour expression. 

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

“Hey so, I brought you some cherry tomatoes,” Hoseok said to the creature one day upon Namjoon's insistence, though he now tried to hide his grin behind his clipboard. “‘Cause, uh, Joon said you liked them?”

 

The creature sniffed again, as he seemed wont to do around the elder, and turned away from him. Namjoon burst out laughing. 

 

“I’m not meant to be a merman whisperer,” Hoseok pouted and tossed the tomatoes into the water. The landed around the merman's back in little plops.

 

“Stop being so stiff then,” Namjoon teased, noticing how the merman did discreetly bring the tiny fruits closer to himself, picking them up and munching on them while Hoseok stomped to the back of the room to take up his normal position against the wall.

 

“I’m just being me!”

 

“Maybe that’s the issue.”

 

“Humph.”

 

Namjoon blinked and it was gone, but he could swear he caught the merman’s shoulders shaking with laughter for just a moment.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

One day, things were bad.

 

When Namjoon and Hoseok entered the room to find several soldiers that weren't usual present in the holding chamber lately holding the merman down as other white coats peeled scales off of his tail and dropped them into little clear plastic sampling tubes, they didn't know what was happening.

 

“We’re doing our jobs too, soldier man,” one scientist had leered when Hoseok had yelled at them to stop. 

 

They’d left eventually, and the creature immediately retreated to the bottom of the chamber and didn’t come back up again for a long time.

 

“People just don’t know how to deal with what they don’t understand,” Namjoon had said as the two of them laid down next to the edge of the water, tops of their heads almost touching, and spoken kind words down to him. They weren't sure if he could even hear them through the water.

 

Hoseok and Namjoon were still there when he finally did resurface, and that was the first time Namjoon wasn’t sure if the water was the reason his tan eyes looked wet.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Hoseok held the merman’s hand when Namjoon took blood samples now, and as long as the needle was in his arm, he never once looked away from the soldier's face.

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

It wasn’t long before the creature had started showing signs of communicating with them, and not even with words (though Namjoon was still holding out on his belief that he could talk). 

 

“Do you think they have sandwiches in the ocean?” Namjoon wondered aloud as they sat at the edge of the water and ate peanut butter and jelly one day, Namjoon's papers and pens all spread out around them. One of the triangles sat in the merman’s wet hands. He cocked his head at the question, and then shook his head sharply. 

 

While Namjoon was screaming internally about that (because he did understand him!), that notion had still unexpected to him for some reason. “Huh?”

 

“Of course not,” Hoseok said around a mouthful of sandwich, appearing way more casual about communicating with another species than Namjoon. “The bread would get all soggy.”

 

The creature nodded, and Hoseok quirked a triumphant eyebrow his way.

 

Namjoon spluttered, suddenly indignant. “Wha--buh, I know that, but it doesn’t-- it doesn’t have be bread , right? You can make it with other things?”

 

The creature cocked an eyebrow, resembling Hoseok too much for Namjoon’s liking, and then shook his head again -- more enthusiastically this time, his wild hair flapping about.

 

Hoseok snorted, and Namjoon took another bitter bite of his sandwich.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Two weeks since the beginning of the project, the creature spoke to them both for the first time -- to tell them his name.

 

“Taehyung,” he’d said, looking almost shy about it, though his eyes were bright and a smile played at his features. (A smile. The first one he'd seen from him, ever!)

 

Namjoon and Hoseok smiled back, and they told Taehyung theirs.

 

Later, Namoon had screamed Hoseok’s ear off.

 

(“I knew he could talk! I oughta tell that one guy to suck it!” )

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

 

One day, when it was just the two of them, Taehyung had quietly apologized to Namjoon for scratching him as he reviewed notes on Taehyung's blood samples at the back table while waiting for Hoseok. Namjoon looked up and shook his head with a smile. 

 

“It’s okay,” he said softly. The scratched had already faded anyway.

 

He tried not to lose his cool and spook the merman when Taehyung slowly smiled back.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

“I don’t like the white men,” Taehyung said one day, out of the blue, and Namjoon had choked on his swig of water.

 

“What?” he gasped, wiping at the liquid that had dribbled down his chin. Taehyung pointedly nodded at Namjoon’s lab coat. “The white men.”

 

“Ahhh,” Namjoon relaxed, understanding. “I get it. So I’m a white man.

 

“I knew America had changed you,” Hoseok remarked, dodging the half-empty bottle Namjoon chucked at him with a bark of laughter.

 

“I don’t like your uniformed people either,” Taehyung shot at him, and Namjoon wondered if sass was an appropriate note to include in Taehyung’s report. “But you are the exception, Hoseok,” he added before turning to Namjoon. “And you, Namjoon. You are a good white man.”

 

“Yeah, Namjoon, you’re a good white man.”

 

“Shut up! Stop saying it!”

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Jimin seemed awfully excited about their most recent findings today. 

 

Namjoon visited the science labs semi-frequently to deliver notes to the team that worked there, sometimes sitting down to discuss theories and samples with them.

 

Park Jimin, a fairly new and relatively young addition to their team, was by far one of the most driven scientists they had. He was bright and brilliant and he could “chemistry” Namjoon under the table, a compliment he didn't dish out lightly. This new project seemed to captivate the young man more than anything else, always so wide-eyed and eager whenever Namjoon brought them new information. He was the first and last one to leave the third floor lab rooms more often than not.

 

Namjoon could understand his enthusiasm. It was pretty fascinating.  

 

He entered the lab today, nearly a week after the “white man” incident, and Jimin immediately pounced on him. He left off the microscope he was using to inspect scale samples and came around the table, his black hair messy as usual and his lab coat almost swallowing his small frame. The young man pulled him into the nearest stool at one of the black tables and slapped a fat manila folder down in front of him, one that was absolutely bursting with papers and binder clips and colorful sticky notes.

 

Namjoon tried to keep up as he prattled off lists about “new findings” and “potential discoveries” and “do you know what this means?” Namjoon smiled and nodded. He’d heard a lot of musings of the like before -- many times since beginning this project. A lot of similar-sounding nerdgasms had come from him. 

 

He scanned the page Jimin had opened the folder to, as well as the loose leaf pieces of paper he'd dropped beside him that were almost completely covered in chemistry equations. Jimin had crossed off a lot of the long strings of letters and numbers with increasingly angry-looking scratchings of not balanced, NOT balanced, NoT BAlaNcEd next to them. There were a couple that did have little smiley faces drawn next to them, though. Namjoon figured those were the balanced ones.

 

But it was as he was tuning in and out to Jimin’s constant explanations -- alternating between reading and listening -- that he was starting to hear, and see, glimpses of things that made him frown. 

 

Things pertaining to Taehyung.

 

Eyeball dissection, gene splicing, extraction...

 

“So we were thinking that a surgery--”

 

“But wouldn’t that kill him?” he asked quietly when the realization finally settled in.

 

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, maybe,” Jimin said nonchalantly, sweeping the folder into his hand to start flipping through it for a different page. “And if not, it would most likely be inhumane to keep him alive after anyway. But look at this--”

 

“Jimin we can’t do that,” Namjoon interrupted automatically. 

 

“Of course we can,” he cheesed. “For science.”

 

But Namjoon didn’t laugh. He put the papers back down on the table and stared blankly at a nearby sink faucet.

 

“What about the military?” he asked numbly. “Wouldn’t they want to keep him alive?”

 

Jimin waved his hand, snorting. “They’re big, strong men with ambition. They can find another specimen like him if they really wanted to. There's actually some pretty compelling evidence to suggest there are more like him out there. Amazing, right? And anyway, this could actually benefit both us and the military. There’s cause to believe that there’s a gene in the creature skin cells that makes it ever so slightly tougher, or maybe something that grants some sort of minute advanced healing ability that could one day be turned into a healing agent , which, if you think about it, is really--

 

“I’m sorry, Jimin. I just… I-I really don’t feel comfortable with this.”

 

“What’s not to feel comfortable about?” Jimin asked, looking genuinely baffled. He seemed to take notice of the sullen look on Namjoon's face and placed a hand on the table, bending down to look more closely at him. “Hey, are you okay?”

 

“It’s just… it’s his life , Jimin. Ta-- he’s alive.”

 

“Oh…” Jimin’s face softened, and a deep understanding dawned in his eyes. He gently patted at Namjoon’s hand where it was balled on top of the table. “Oh, I know, Joon. I know it’s tough sometimes… to let them go.”

 

Namjoon knew Jimin understood a part of it, but not the full extent. He wasn’t talking about the lab bunnies they grew attached to for a week before they died in testing. Taehyung was much deeper than that. Much more than that.

 

“But think of it this way,” Jimin went on, trying to cheer him up by making his voice brighter. “There’s things inside this species that we think could combat the effects of certain diseases, Joon-ah. It could be revolutionary! However many years down the line, think of how many lives could be saved.”

 

Jimin’s eyes shone as his spoke. That was his driving force -- saving people. 

 

Namjoon could emphasize strongly with that driving force. It was his, too.

 

But to lose Taehyung. On a surgery table like he was nothing more than a lab rat…

 

“What about his life…?” he whispered.

 

“Look, I’m not happy about killing him.” Jimin pulled away from him to start gathering the papers, his face a little bit tighter than before. “I hate that part of this job as much as you do. You know I do. But if it was a choice between one life or millions, I know which odds I’d bet on.”

 

As he was walking back over to the microscope, arms laden with loose leaf papers and the big-ass manila folder, Namjoon asked, “And what if the odds were wrong? What if none of this turns out to work and he just died for nothing?”

 

That was his worst nightmare. A living thing dying for nothing, let alone someone like Taehyung.

 

Jimin slapped the items down on the table and looked at him. “That’s a chance we take every day. And I’m willing to take it again.”

 

And then, his mood having clearly considerably dampened by Namjoon’s lack of enthusiasm about what were undoubtedly good findings for a promising future, as well as his depressing spontaneous laments on life and death, Jimin bent back over his microscope and effectively tuned him out.

 

I’m sorry, brother, Namjoon thought as he sighed and stood to leave the room. But I’m not sure I am anymore.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Hoseok had seen Namjoon sitting at a round table grinding the heels of his hands into his eyes and cradling his head in his hands as he passed by the break room that afternoon. All were marked signs of his friend’s distress, and he instantly felt bad for him. Hoseok had actually been trying to find him to unload a little bit of his most recent problems onto his friend, but the sight reminded him that Namjoon had his own to deal with. Probably more than Hoseok did with all his work research. He didn’t want to make him feel bad and stress him out more than he probably already was, especially when Namjoon could probably relate to what was eating at Hoseok as of late. 

 

But he was worried, and he wanted to get it out to someone. 

 

And luckily he knew someone he could unload on. One good old Min Yoongi, his good old soldier friend in crime.

 

Hoseok found him on his usual spot on the roof where the older man often came up to smoke and generally avoid the presence of other people.

 

Hoseok walked right into a pungent cloud of tobacco smoke as he approached, but being the man’s friend for a few years now, he'd learned to tolerate the smoking part as part of the package deal. He only wrinkled his nose in thinly veiled disgust at the stench and didn’t comment on it.

 

Yoongi shifted to glance at him, and Hoseok noticed a thick set of keys jangled lightly on one hip, ones that he knew for a fact did not all belong to him. He recognized the military insignia on most of them.

 

“Planning your getaway?” he asked said in lieu of a proper greeting, reaching down and flicking one of them with his finger.

 

“They had me test driving the boats the other day,” Yoongi grunted, flicking ash off the end of the cigarette. “I’ll give ‘em back eventually. They trust me with that shit.” 

 

“Mm,” Hoseok hummed distantly. Now that he was here, he didn’t know how he would talk to the man in a way that wouldn’t sound weird to him. They were friends, sure, but the reason he had wanted to go to Namjoon was because he was in this whole Taehyung thing with him. Yoongi might not get it.

 

“Shit’s terrible for you,” he said instead, stalling by grousing about his smoking habit like he always did. 

 

“One day, you’re gonna wake up and realize that you don’t give two flying fucks about what’s terrible for you if it means a few sweet minutes of total relaxation.” Yoongi took another long drag and held it in his lungs, considering. “Of course I can’t really have that if you’re here…”

 

“Tch.”

 

“Believe me, kid,” Yoongi slowly let out the grey stream through pouted lips. “One of these days, you’re gonna be stressed out of your ass enough to want one of these.”

 

“Not likely,” Hoseok denied. He prided himself on never touching one of those cancer sticks. No amount of stress was worth it.

 

They lapsed into silence again for a few minutes, but it was Yoongi who broke it the next time. “Hey, you thinkin’?”

 

Hoseok looked over. “Huh?” 

 

Yoongi shrugged, more smoke leaking out the side of his mouth. “You got that thinkin’ face. Is it about that part man, fish person you’re dealing with?”

 

Hoseok couldn’t help his theatrical gasp. “You know about him?” It was like he had read his mind.

 

“The whole facility knows.” Yoongi said it like it was obvious. “They got a goddamned mythical creature down there!”

 

Hoseok relaxed again, leaning his elbows on the concrete ledge. Well, since he had brought it up…

 

“Actually, I went to go see Taehyung again today--”

 

“Who’s Taehyung?”

 

“The mythical creature,” Hoseok clarified. Yoongi looked surprised, his cat-like eyes widening.

 

“It’s got a name?” 

 

Hoseok felt his expression sour. “Yes, he does,” he stressed, hunching over and glowering. 

 

“Sorry,” Yoongi murmured, holding up his hands. “How is he holding up?”

 

Hoseok straightened up and gazed down over the edge of the facility where they stood, out over the tops of the trees that sat below the roof. He tried not to look too disheartened. “Not so great,” he answered truthfully. “Not all the time.”

 

“I guess that’s to be expected from a captive experiment, eh?” Yoongi spoke idly about it. The kind of way someone who was on the outside of everything -- and who assumed that Hoseok was too -- would muse about the things in life that they couldn’t control.

 

Hoseok's fingernails scratched lightly against concrete. “I want to make things easier on him. More comfortable, if I can.”

 

That was part of what had been bothering him. Taehyung, though more open and responsive to him and Namjoon, had seemed to grow more down as of late, demonstrating almost depressed moods some days. Hoseok figured it was the captivity aspect that was really starting to eat at his mind and spirit. Hoseok couldn't imagine what it must've been like to be so free in the ocean one day only to be dumped into a dark, enclosed chamber where he was infrequently tortured the next. It must've been mildly traumatizing. Even though Namjoon and Hoseok made efforts to visit him more frequently, even outside of their work hours, being kept in complete isolation most days couldn't be good for him. Taehyung wouldn't say anything, but he had to be sad and missing home. And it hurt Hoseok to know that, even though he had no power over Taehyung being here, there was nothing he could do outside of his and Namjoon's conversations with him that would make him feel better. 

 

Yoongi snorted, and a puff of smoke escaped his lips. “Yeah, you could ask the the Colonel if the facility could spare any luxury water chambers.” 

 

Hoseok placed chin atop his arms. He hadn’t expected Yoongi to take it seriously. “Yeah…”

 

“Or ask them if they’d let you take him out for pancakes. He’d probably get a kick out of that,” the older man jested.

 

He didn’t notice Hoseok perk up with an interested look in his eyes. 

 

“Yeah…”

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Namjoon thought Hoseok’s idea of teaching Taehyung how to use his legs was an intriguing suggestion with potentially promising research benefits and the ability to further scientific discovery.

 

Taehyung was game because he thought it would be fun and was excited at the prospect of being let out for a while (“This tiny place is suffocating sometimes.”), but he still leveled a teasing smirk up at Namjoon.

 

“You teach me how to walk, and I will teach you how to swim.” 

 

Hoseok laughed at Namjoon’s unenthusiastic expression.

 

“Yeah, no,” he was shaking his head. “I take not having the capability at this point in my life as a sign to just stay away from large bodies of water altogether.”

 

But a moment later, they were taking Namjoon’s discarded lab coat from the back of the chair behind the desk and handing it to Taehyung, buttoning it down so he would get out of the water and be decently covered when his tailed morphed into legs. 

 

Hoseok and Namjoon each took one hand and hoisted the merman up out of the pool. They sat him on the edge so he could shimmy backwards and remove the entirety of his lower half from the water himself.

 

Namjoon, who had never seen the transformation happen before, inquired, “So you’ll only grow legs when you're not submerged in water?” Taehyung nodded happily, and Namjoon hummed, writing something down in a mini notebook he had procured seemingly out of thin air. “Interesting.”

 

Hoseok had seen it happen before, but only that one time, and it still sometimes felt like it had been a fever dream. Or a trick of the sun. 

 

But as the change started to happen right in front of him, he realized it was just as surreal this time around.

 

Taehyung’s tail -- a large and powerful appendage meant to push him through the water at high speeds -- seemed to steadily shrink as it was surrounded by the air. But not like it was drying out, only getting smaller; until it began to separate, starting from the center and working its way out. It should’ve made him feel weird to watch, but it didn’t. Hoseok was fascinated. It almost looked like it had the potential to be painful (essentially splitting and dissolving down the middle like that) but Taehyung didn’t make a sound, drumming his fingers along the ground inattentively. 

 

The vanishing tail began to take on the curving shape of two human legs -- translucent scales giving way to hairless skin; lustrous blue green fading into warm beige. Not much sound accompanied the change either. Only maybe the slightest rustling, like the rubbing together of soft taffeta silk. And although the tail appeared to be melting away, no remnants of it remained to pool on the ground around him. When the last of the transformation was over, what was left of the fin growing thicker and molding into five toes on each foot, it was like it had never been there in the first place.

 

The whole process had to have taken less than twenty seconds, but Hoseok felt like he had been holding his breath forever.

 

Taehyung lifted one long leg --  wet and gleaming in the reflection of the underwater lights -- up into the air and dropped his head back between his shoulder blades to beam at them.

 

Ta-da~” he sang, wiggling his newly acquired toes.

 

Namjoon’s pen dropped out of his limp hand and clacked across the floor.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

The walking lessons were as amusing as Namjoon anticipated they would be.

 

It had started with the two of them on either side of Taehyung, the merman holding onto their shoulders as they supported him with an arm around his torso each. They lead him around in tiny circles, smiling and speaking words of encouragement as Taehyung took shaky steps around his nervous laughter. 

 

Together, they walked him around like that for a while, until at some point Hoseok handed him off to Namjoon, and the scientist hadn’t even realized it.

 

He was too busy laughing and holding his arms out to catch Taehyung when the merman got too confident too fast and insisted “he had this” and could do it on his own right before his tripped over his own ankles.

 

Namjoon caught him underneath his armpits, hoisting him up even while Taehyung leaned into him and giggled into the side of his face, fingers curling into the sleeves of his shirt.

 

Namjoon insisted they try again, feeling a little warmer than he remembered being a moment ago. He held out his hands, and Taehyung took them. He walked backward and the merman moved slowly forward with him, the excitement on his face growing increasingly more palpable when, with every step he took, his legs shook a little less and his knees didn’t bend as severely.

 

He was getting the hang of it in no time, and Namjoon laughed in astonishment as Taehyung leaned less and less into his hands until they were, more or less, just there for emotional support.

 

It didn’t dawn on him that Hoseok’d had been so silent until he looked up and noticed the soldier watching the two of them, a smile settled across his face. 

 

It was a soft smile, but there was also something there that turned it a little sharp around the edges. 

 

Namjoon straightened up a little bit, and his own wide grin faltered slightly as he attempted to analyze the look on Hoseok’s face. He swore he’d seen it before, and it tickled at the back of his memory. From all those nights back in college when they’d both be so burnt out from work, yet still have so much of it left to do, and Hoseok -- in moments of exhaustion backed by a healthy dose of young adult carelessness (read: stupidity) -- would propose things they could get up to as a way to take their minds off of things.

 

Things that usually weren’t very smart, or safe… and sometimes not exactly legal. 

 

Namjoon’s fingers twitched around Taehyung’s soft elbows, and his voice came out sounding cautious, even to his own ears. 

 

“...What?”

 

In front of him, Taehyung took notice of the tone and the fact he suddenly wasn’t being lead around anymore and glanced up from where he’d been looking happily at his own newly-acquired feet to stare curiously at Namjoon before his rounded eyes followed the scientist’s gaze over to Hoseok.

 

“Nothing, nothing,” Hoseok placated, clasping his hands behind his back in an overly-innocent stance that put Namjoon even more on edge. “It’s just, Tae?” He shifted his eyes to the merman, who perked a little at hearing his name, eyes opening wider. 

 

In contrast to Namjoon’s, whose eyes narrowed at the grin Hoseok shot them both.

 

“Have you ever had pancakes before?”

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

“This is ridiculous.”

 

Hoseok snorted at Namjoon’s half-assed harping, more slightly-frettish grumping than anything.

 

It had started as soon as he’d made his grand suggestion to bust out of this room and take Tae to make pancakes in one of the building’s kitchens, stopped for a moment while he’d gone to get the merman some spare clothes from one of the place’s many reserve closets down the hall (though he didn't know what Taehyung had been subjected to listening to while he was gone), and started right back up again once he’d set foot back in the room. 

 

And now the two of them were standing a few feet away with their backs turned on Taehyung to give him some privacy while he worked on getting himself into the borrowed clothes by the edge of the water, soft rustling sounds and the younger man’s tiny grunts of confusion floating over to them every once in a while.

 

They both had their arms crossed, but somehow Namjoon made the action look more uptight, his rigid body language a large contrast to Hoseok's lax stance. 

 

“You know that, right? You know this is crazy?” Namjoon didn’t let up, looking like he was a second away from beginning to tap his foot. Hoseok shrugged. 

 

Yeah, he kind of did. 

 

But this is the most relaxed he’d felt in this place in weeks, Namjoon seemed less stressed right now, and it was definitely the happiest he’d ever seen Taehyung -- so calm and placid around his normally sharp and predatory edges. Of course, he was hardly like that at all in their presence anymore, but you get it.

 

None of it might actually be true. It was possible it was all an illusion -- this sense of peace. 

 

Maybe Hoseok was actually still quietly unsettled by all of this somewhere deep down. Maybe Namjoon was merely currently distracted from all the grueling work and other problems he was dealing with. And maybe Taehyung was still wrapped up in some kind of deep pain -- physical and emotional -- and longing to go back home, but he was pushing it aside to enjoy this small moment of freedom. 

 

That was probably the truth -- they were probably all still facing their own battles inside -- but the fact of the matter was, this was a nice moment. The three of them had somehow found some reason to smile and laugh together on this random Wednesday night in a cold holding chamber deep inside of an oceanside military facility. 

 

The soldier, the scientist, and the captive.

 

Whatever the reason, they’ve been having fun, and he’d be damned if he didn’t put his best effort into making the most of this rarity -- stretching it out for as long as he can. 

 

Because who knows when they’ll get to have this again? 

 

To him, it always felt like something was shifting day by day, like something was being steadily wound tighter the longer Taehyung was kept here. And it felt like it was on its way to breaking, or combusting, or doing something to signal that the end was near. And not the kind of end that saw Taehyung set free and the rest of them going on with their lives with no skin off their noses or chinks in their morals. He might be worrying for nothing -- Hoseok hoped it wasn’t true and he tried to shake off the nagging feeling every day -- but it just clung tighter to him and wouldn’t let go. 

 

Like a warning. But for what he had no idea.

 

Either way, that was precisely why he wanted this to happen, because one never knew what could happen tomorrow.

 

Obviously, there wasn’t much they could really do in this place that would constitute as fun, but he did know there was a kitchen on just the next level up, and food made everyone happy. Man or merman.

 

That’s was a scientific fact even he was aware of. 

 

“And what kind of rhetorical question was that?” Namjoon prattled on from beside him, and at this point Hoseok recognized that it was out of his habit of speaking too much whenever he was nervous, like doing so would somehow calm him down from being too jittery when it actually seemed to accomplish the opposite. Another thing about the man that hadn’t changed. Hoseok found a smile winding its way onto his face again as Namjoon continued to berate him like a fluffy blond puppy yapping at his fingertips. “‘Have you ever had pancakes?’ Of course he hasn’t. If the ocean doesn’t have sandwiches, it’s not gonna have breakfast pastries.”

 

Obviously, he was still feeling a little burnt from their sandwich discussion sometime ago, pink lips pushing out into a pout. He was clearly ruffled. 

 

Hoseok leaned closer to him to speak, since, for some reason, they’d been using hushed tones, as if talking too loudly would disturb Taehyung’s dressing process. In retrospect, he remembered Namjoon telling him something about the merman’s heightened hearing, so he didn’t exactly know what good it was doing. 

 

“Hey genius, it was a smooth and clever way to incite my proposal, ‘mkay?”

 

“Yeah, you should let other people tell you you’re smooth and clever,” Namjoom’s full mouth perks up at the corner, peeking over at him. 

 

Hoseok drew in a little bit closer and hovers his lips near Namjoon’s ear, whispering like he was disclosing a secret. 

 

“I wasn’t talking about me, but thanks for thinking so.” The younger man's right shoulder jumped up slightly towards his ear, reacting to the way Hoseok's breath presumably brushed over his neck. Hoseok pulled back and winked, voice returning to its previous volume. He shrugged. “Though, I’ll gladly adopt smooth and clever as character traits.”

 

“Stop,” Namjoon huffed, nudging him in the side with his elbow without uncrossing his arms, resigned smile on face. 

 

A face that looked a little pinker if Hoseok was seeing right in the poor lighting, but before he had a chance to use military stealth tactics to sneak another peek undetected, a voice gathered their attention from behind.

 

“Okay!” 

 

Taehyung’s cheery timbre knocked them out of their hushed banter, and Hoseok’s eyes shifted to the noise, but he didn’t turn around just yet.

 

“All done?” he double checked, wanting to be extra sure they didn't see anything the merman didn't want them to -- not after he hadn't been given a choice in the matter when he was exposed to his entire squad out in the middle of a road during transport. Hoseok could still recall the chagrin on his face underneath the fear. 

 

“Mmhm!” came the chipper response, and he and Namjoon took that as the go-ahead to pivot and face him. 

 

Taehyung was standing before them with a bright smile adorning his features.

 

Hoseok noticed immediately that he’d put the shirt on backwards because he could see the white tag sticking out underneath his chin, directly below his oblivious grin. It didn’t really matter, though, because the shirt was the same plain black on both sides, with wide three quarter length sleeves that brushed his elbows and the creases of his elbows whenever he bent them. It's scooped neck hung low on him and exposed the bumps of his collar bones. The shirt matched the solid black of the sweat pants, also baggy on his lithe frame, with long deep pockets on the sides and string ties hanging loose at the front, little silver aglets on the ends. 

 

He was a bit of an odd sight with his brown hair that was curling slightly at the ends because it was half-dried; and his smooth skin that was a little more tanned than most Korean natives; and the faint freckles splattered across his nose; and his peculiarly light eyes. 

 

But he looked warm, happier than he’d ever been (bunching and unbunching the bottom of his too-big shirt in his large hands like he couldn't stop touching it), and positively drowning in fabric everywhere; and Hoseok decided then that he was quite the beautiful sight, too. 

 

Namjoon emitted a quick laugh, but it was more fond than humorous, and Hoseok knew why when the younger man walked forward the few paces to get to Taehyung, tucking the tag down into his collar for him so that it was out of sight. 

 

“Looking good, Tae,” Namjoon warmly praised, and Hoseok didn’t miss the appreciative little once over he gave the merman. Taehyung practically vibrated with happiness at the compliment, completely missing the not-so-subtle way he was being checked out. 

 

For some reason, the exchange made him want to smirk. 

 

“I could pass as one of you humans, yes?” Taehyung prodded, looking just a little bit proud of the fact he’d succeeded in blending in, tawny eyes flashing between them. 

 

Eh, Hoseok considered it. Taehyung was a bit too on the -- how should he put it -- ethereal side to not encite at least some suspicion from any potential passers by; guaranteed double-takes at the absolute minimum. Because, yes, he still had his eyes and nose and mouth and all his appendages arranged on his body in the exact same way that humans did; but still. Everything just sat a little too perfect, a little too pretty on him, and anyone with working eyes and a decent imagination could see he wasn’t exactly human.

 

But, for all intents and purposes he could pass as one, so Hoseok kept his musings to himself and nodded at the younger’s inquiry. 

 

“Absolutely,” he confirmed, Namjoon humming his agreement from beside him. Hoseok glanced at his watch then. It wasn’t too late -- barely past nine -- but he considered the fact that they had to get Taehyung back in here later and then get enough sleep to properly perform their jobs in the morning -- jobs that depend on them being alert and not dead to the world. “C’mon,” he started off across the room and beckoned for them to follow with a jerk of his head. “Let’s get you some real food, Tae.”

 

And yes, pancakes were real food.

 

Taehyung perked up so much he almost hopped on the spot, immediately following after. He took hold of Namjoon’s hand again because he still hadn’t quite gotten a solid hang of walking just yet, but he was still doing surprisingly well for having just started such a short time ago, barely even teetering as he pulled the scientist along with him.

 

The slap of his bare feet against the floor mingled with prominent thudding of Hoseok's boots and the softer fall of Namjoon’s sneakers. Hoseok honestly hadn’t given thought to looking for any kind of footwear for Taehyung, but he didn’t sweat it because it seemed the younger man was just fine without it -- might even prefer it.

 

It seemed fitting that land-oriented merpeople would opt out of wearing socks and shoes for some reason. Somehow the image looked right on Taehyung.

 

“This is very exciting!” Taehyung exploded once they’d just about cleared the large space and came up to the door, seemingly not able to contain himself. His heavy voice echoed a bit around the wide walls and high ceiling, bouncing around the empty space. “We’re leaving this place.”

 

Hoseok paused right when he was about to reach for the door, turning back around to face the pair behind him. He eyed Taehyung’s bright face before looking over his head to Namjoon. The younger man was standing a little bit behind Taehyung and staring at the back of his head with an expression that looked a lot like Hoseok imagined his own did -- surprised with a tinge of sympathy sitting around his eyes.

 

Namjoon glanced at him, and that sympathy became more palpable.

 

Hoseok felt his lips pressing together. They didn’t know when Taehyung could be let free, but being the only known creature of his kind, it seemed more and more likely as the days went by that he wouldn't ever be.  

 

How did you tell someone whose eyes were so excited at the prospect of leaving that they’d never be free again? That they’d never see the ocean again? That they’d never go home?

 

Well, that was easy. You didn’t. 

 

“Well… Tae, no. Not exactly. We’re just going to the kitchen,” Hoseok reminded gently, being careful about telling him part of the truth without revealing the whole bitter end. Taehyung’s smile fell, and instantly it made Hoseok’s heart clench wishing he could bring it back, but he fought the instinct to assure him that all this was only temporary and he’d get to see the outside world again. Lying would only make it hurt worse when it inevitably didn't happen. “This place is a fortress. It’d be impossible to leave it.”

 

Taehyung’s shoulders actually did drop at that, and Hoseok bit his lip and regretted saying it immediately. Maybe that had been going too far; revealing too much. 

 

Yes, he wanted to be truthful with Taehyung and not give him false hope, but he hadn’t wanted to crush him.

 

He struggled with how to undo it. “Oh, uh…”

 

“I think he’s just saying it’d be hard to leave without permission, Tae,” Namjoon stepped in, placing his free hand on the younger’s shoulder and coming around into his line of vision. Taehyung looked at him, and Namjoon tried for a reassuring smile. “But that’s not to say they won’t let you once all of this is over.”

 

Taehyung appeared to be considering it, turning back to Hoseok and blinking at him imploringly, as if waiting for confirmation from both of them. 

 

Hoseok’s heart constricted again, but this time he forced himself to smile and nod, eyebrows bunching slightly with the effort that he hoped Taehyung didn’t notice and couldn’t see through. 

 

Namjoon patted him on the shoulder twice. “Don’t worry.”

 

Just like that, the light came back over the young merman, and once again his rows of straight teeth appeared in a smile that was miles wide and rectangular. He wasn’t quick to trust by any means, but it seemed that once he did, like he had with himself and Namjoon, it was quite easy for him to take things at face value without a second thought. 

 

Hoseok didn’t know if that was a good thing or not.

 

But for now, Hoseok accepted it for what it was and let the bad things once again drift from his mind, his smile turning real as he spun around and reached out to push against the crash bar. The large barrier clicked open. 

 

If the only freedom they could currently offer Taehyung was freedom from this fucking room, he was going to make it worth it. 

 

His smile became ever more winning as he stepped out into the dark hall and held the door open by leaning his back against it, smiling at Taehyung and then Namjoon in turn.

 

“After you, gentlemen.”

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

They made it up from the dusty levels of the bottom floor no problem, taking the stairwell. Their progress was slowed due to Taehyung taking several extended moments to marvel over the filthy stairs like they were something great (“They’re like small, flat little seamounts all stacked on top of each other! How cute!”), and they were just opening the door at the top of the flight that lead out into the next hallway. 

 

The three of them peeked around the corner -- Namjoon at the top, Hoseok bent over with his hands on his knees in the middle, and Taehyung on his actual hands and knees on the floor, rounding out the bottom. 

 

Even from above him, Hoseok could tell that the latter had a big grin on his face, obviously getting a lot of enjoyment out of the prospect of sneaking around. Or maybe the fact he was seeing an entirely new area of the facility for the first time after being holed up in it's basement for so long. Most likely it was a bit of both. 

 

“Can we go? Can we go?” Taehyung chanted, looking up at them and swishing his butt back and forth like an excitable puppy. It was obvious he was trying to keep his voice at a reasonable volume, but his attempt at hushed talking wasn’t all that effective, as it seemed to reverberate down the long empty hallway before them. 

 

“Ssh, Tae,” Namjoon hushed him gently, wincing and eyeing the corridor like he expected people to appear around the corner at the end. “We have to be quiet.” 

 

“No, it’s okay,” Hoseok reassured, stepping out from their hiding spot and walking fearlessly into the center of the hallway. 

 

He’d done the obligatory left-right check to make sure the coast was clear, but he really wasn’t worried about them running into anyone. Not on this level. More often than not, soldiers kept to strict bedtime hours to ensure they didn’t get chewed out for being off-schedule by a sergeant the next day, and since that had been so drilled into them since way back when they were cadets, Hoseok figured he was safe in his assumptions that all of the ones here had at least retired to their rooms on the upper floors for the evening, even if they weren’t sleeping yet. 

 

“C’mon out,” he coaxed his two companions. 

 

Taehyung didn’t need to be told twice, jumping out and bounding out into the open after him, and Namjoon was about three seconds after him, casting one more suspicious look around before emerging and gingerly closing the heavy door behind him. 

 

“The kitchen is just down this hall and around the corner,” Hoseok announced, smiling when Taehyung started half-walking, half-toddling (he’s almost got it) down the wide space, feet slapping as his gaze darted from the floor to the ceiling to the walls and everything else within his line of sight. 

 

It was a long open corridor with white linoleum floors that were polished so frequently they shone, reflecting in them the overhead lights that -- at this time in the evening -- bathed everything in a soothing orange glow.

 

There really wasn’t much to see, but Taehyung looked at every single thing like it was brand new and exciting. And for him, it probably was. 

 

It got Hoseok thinking maybe he should put more effort into stopping and enjoying the little things more. It was so easy not to do when, now that he wasn’t in college anymore, it seemed like his mind was always full of a million other important, real-world things. 

 

Several feet ahead of them, Taehyung stopped to eye a portrait of some decorated military officer he had no doubt never seen before. For whatever reason, he bursted out into a round of sweet laughter a second later, shoulders shaking and eyes squinting, hunching into himself and wrapping his arms around his stomach. For whatever fucking reason, he found that picture gutbusting. 

 

Looking at him, Hoseok was thinking it wouldn’t hurt him to try harder to lighten up some more -- like he used to be.

 

For a moment, Hoseok let himself indulge in the fantasy of the he and Namjoon taking Taehyung out to a place that would have his senses absolutely overloaded -- a carnival, or a beach, a concert, a museum. God, if some ceiling lights and a picture of a probably long dead guy in a uniform got the merman this excited, Hoseok kind of felt like he would give anything to be able to see how his eyes would light up at one of those events. He couldn’t imagine how thrilled he’d be.

 

But knowing the chances of something like that ever happening were devastatingly low, he cut off those idealistic visions before they could make him sad.

 

“Hey Joonie,” he said, throwing himself onto his friend instead. Namjoon always did use to serve as the best distraction from bad things. He wound an arm around the taller’s neck and bumped their hips together, taking notice of how his shoulders felt just a little bit stiff -- like he wasn’t completely at ease. Hoseok side-eyed him, the beginnings of a smile twitching at the corner of his lips. “Are you worrying…?” he questioned, voice telling. 

 

“No,” Namjoon responded immediately, so obviously out of pride and principle. Not two seconds after Hoseok turned his head and dropped his chin onto his shoulder to stare deliberately up at him did Namjoon relent a little and add, “But you know what we’re doing is risky, right?” 

 

There it is, Hoseok thought humorously, having expected no less than a healthy amount of worrying from his friend. He turned his face into his neck, chuckling silently while Namjoon squirmed and whined, “I’m serious!”

 

Hoseok stood up straight again. “Ah, there you go again, Joon. Just like in college. Scared of being a little risky, hmm?

 

“I take risks!” Namjoon protested, for a second forgetting that he was the one who had been concerned with their noise levels getting them found out. “I dyed my hair, I moved to America, I chanced being broke and homeless by blowing a hundred twenty million won on tuition for med school, dammit. I’m the ultimate risk-taker.”

 

Hoseok snorted at the cute little pout that had worked its way into his voice, complimenting the one on his face. 

 

Not what he’d meant. He’d meant being wild, doing something that might have crazy consequences -- all things that Namjoon had struggled with back when they were students. Hoseok always had to be the one to have to coax him out of his bubble to get him to go out and do things with him, for the younger was never really one to take chances on things going bad.

 

Although, yeah, he could see how the med school thing had the high potential of going south in the long run, but it was still different than that! Hoseok knew what it was he was trying to say, but he saw it still hadn’t gotten any easier trying to explain it to Namjoon. 

 

“But like, what if someone from the military catches us with Taehyung?” 

 

Hoseok fondly rolled his eyes.

 

“What do you think they’ll do? Execute us on the front lawn?” he jabbed, though he did understand Namjoon's worry. 

 

To a point, they were kind of interfering with something that was technically -- and he loathed thinking this, but he couldn’t come up with a better phrasing -- the government’s property. If they were caught with Taehyung in their possession while not doing their jobs… well, it probably wouldn’t be pretty so to speak, but really Namjoon was just being--

 

“Hey,” Taehyung’s voice pulled him out of his thoughts, and he and Namjoon looked ahead to where the merman had paused in the middle of the hallway, still several feet in front of them with his back facing them both. His head was cocked to the side. “I hear something.”

 

“Something?” Hoseok repeated, bewildered.

 

“Voices,” Taehyung clarified. “People talking.”

 

Beside him, Namjoon straightened. But not with worry.

 

“Really?” he prompted, and his eyes were shining with interest. Hoseok could practically see him taking notes in his mind. “This far down? That’s incredible! How many floors up are they, do you think? Is it all just kind of distinctive noise, or can you make out words and phrases?”

 

Hoseok’s bemusement at his friend and his never ending fascination with Taehyung’s biological abilities stopped short when Taehyung pivoted around, the confused expression on his face coming into view, his dark eyebrows pinched together. 

 

“They are on this floor.” He said it assuredly, and the certainty in his voice made Hoseok frown. “Coming this way.”

 

He could feel the precise moment when Namjoon tensed up under his arm and started to actually panic a little, but Hoseok stepped in before that can escalate. 

 

“Calm down,” he said, mostly to Namjoon. He came forward to look between the two of them, hands hovering in a pacifying manner before they went to rest on his hips. “That can’t be right. There’s no one on this floor. First of all, no one would be down here at this…”

 

But that was the moment when he finally noticed the sounds of a quiet conversation happening -- one that was undoubtedly on this floor if Hoseok was able to hear it. And what was worse was that Taehyung seemed to have been right on both accounts. 

 

They were coming this way. 

 

The voices steadily increased in volume, along with the lightly echoing sound of footfalls. At least two people, maybe more.

 

Hoseok granted himself a split second to muse (semi-bitterly) that merfolk would make great reconnaissance soldiers with that kind of hearing, before his mouth was puckering shut, words were dying in his throat mid-sentence, and a few lines of of actual trepidation were shooting through his core.

 

By now Namjoon had heard them too, and he gasped, eyeing growing into saucers as he stared at something behind them.

 

Hoseok whipped his head over his shoulder, looking past Taehyung. Long shadows stretched along the linoleum floor from around the right corner at the end of the hall.

 

He jumped into action. 

 

Hoseok grabbed Namjoon by the upper arm and started walking them back toward a door he remembered passing by several moments ago, as quietly as he could while being hasty. At the same time, he was motioning frantically at Taehyung to follow, and he did, bare feet thankfully producing next to no noise as he jogged to get back to them. By some miracle, the merman was steady enough on his legs to not trip over himself and go sprawling to the floor. That would’ve been bad.

 

They reach the door in another second -- an unassuming beige-painted thing with a silver handle and a matching lock underneath it -- and Hoseok had to send up a silent prayer that it would be open, because if it wasn’t, they were fucked. 

 

It wasn’t, and he desperately thanked this second miracle as he used his free hand to pull it open enough for them to fit through (it didn’t squeak; miracle number three!) and then hurriedly ushered Namjoon in. 

 

Taehyung came up behind him right as the dimpled man disappeared from sight. Hoseok got a hand on his back and pushed him in, too. That just left him, and he practically threw himself into the space after them. It was an incredibly tight squeeze -- he could feel arms and elbows and legs bumping into his front and side along with objects that felt decidedly more wooden and metal -- but hell if he cared about that right now. 

 

He grabbed the door that still hung ajar and pulled it in as silently as he could, keeping the handle held down until it was completely shut so that the tumblers didn’t click and give them away. When he was sure it was safe, he eased up on the handle slowly, barely breathing until he was able to safely take his hand away, blowing out a stream of air in the silent version of a sigh of relief.

 

For a moment, it was difficult to tell if whoever had been coming down the adjacent hallway was going to keep straight or turn. The echo of their voices and footsteps bouncing everywhere made it difficult to tell.

 

Soon enough it was clear that, unfortunately, they had turned down this hall. Their conversation grew louder and more distinguishable, and Hoseok was able to discern that there were two of them -- a man and a woman. They didn’t sound like anyone he recognized off the top of his head, but literally anyone discovering that they’d taken Taehyung out of the holding chamber would be bad news. 

 

Finding three people in a closet together would be hard enough to explain on its own. 

 

“More white men?” Taehyung suddenly spoke, his voice not quite a whisper and certainly far too loud for the covert evasion that was currently underway. He was standing so close to Hoseok that their fronts were practically pressed together.

 

“Shh,” he hushed as quietly as he could, ignoring the way his skin tingled where Taehyung’s breath ghosted across his neck. 

 

He brought a finger to his lips to mime silence. Attempting to keep his expression stern (this was serious ) was hard with the way Taehyung sheepishly cringed, abashed half-smile forming on his face, something Hoseok could just make out from the faint light slipping in under the door.

 

Behind him, Namjoon -- equally as plastered to Taehyung’s back as Hoseok was to his front (this closet was really not made for three people), brought his hands up to lace his fingers together in front of Taehyung’s mouth, effectively muzzling him.

 

The image almost made Hoseok laugh, but he shoved it back down on sheer fear of the consequences and military-hardened willpower alone.

 

Taehyung’s tawny eyes -- that seemed to glow more yellow in the dark -- nearly disappeared as his smile widened and his body trembled with silent laughter. Over his shoulder, Namjoon looked weary, but nonetheless amused, and his wry grin ended up bringing a similar one to Hoseok’s face despite himself.

 

As they waited in the quiet for the people to pass, Hoseok wondered if this brought back similar memories for Namjoon as it did for him. How the two of them used to sneak into different buildings on their campus groups after hours just because they could (and Hoseok had somehow managed to convince Namjoon it would be a fun use of their time), only to have to dash into open rooms and closets similar to this one to evade the security guards when it turned out they had snuck in too early. 

 

He also wondered if Namjoon remembered how, more often than not, those escapades resulted in Hoseok being pressed up against those doors as the jangle of the security guard’s keys passed by on the other side of them, one of Namjoon’s thighs slotted between his own and Hoseok’s tongue in his mouth. 

 

Of course, those probably weren’t the best memories to relive right now, what with Namjoon himself looking right at him and Taehyung’s warm body currently pushed up against his own. Hell, if Taehyung shifted his right leg a little bit, they’d be in the same position as--

 

A laugh broke Hoseok from that disastrous train of thought. 

 

He jolted a little because it was shockingly loud, and close. He hadn’t realized the pair were right outside the doorway now. 

 

He instinctively held his breath, looking down to where the sliver of space under the door let in the orange hallway light that splashed over his and Namjoon’s shoes and Taehyung’s bare feet. Shadows shifted over them a second later as the man and the woman walked past, none the wiser to the odd trio packed behind the door like sardines. 

 

A few more seconds, and they’d be in the clear. The couple would either be headed to the elevator a few paces down or to the stairs at the end of the hall, but either way they were almost safe.

 

Hoseok began to let out the breath he’d sucked in in a slow, silent string of air, keeping his eyes on the bottom of the door, listening to the voices as the footsteps began to fade. Out of his periphery, he saw Namjoon starting to carefully take his hands away from Taehyug’s face, freeing his mouth again.

 

That was the first mistake.

 

Hoseok remembered Namjoon as always being a bit clumsy; nothing serious or over the top -- stuff like dropping pencils and bumping into chairs; spilling the water when he was trying to make ramen and the like -- and to his credit right now, the most minuscule movement would have worked against any of them in this situation. In this very, very cramped closet.

 

Namjoon’s elbow just barely brushed against a protruding stack of papers in a manila folder on the metal shelf next to them, which, up until that moment Hoseok hadn’t taken notice of in the darkness.

 

The little nudge was all it needed to become dislodged and go tumbling to the ground. 

 

Namjoon’s reflexes weren’t fast enough to react to it in time. Taehyung’s were.

 

Unfortunately, Taehyung was of the kind to get easily surprised -- and also of the kind to vocally react to surprises.

 

Taehyung let out a yelp as his hands darted out to catch the falling folder, managing to do so by slapping it, very loudly, between his palms, elbowing Namjoon in the process. Also in the process, his left elbow smacked against the door and, because the folder had been upturned, all the papers came tumbling out -- unstapled, mind you.

 

What must’ve been at least fifty sheets of printer paper slapped to their floor and dispersed over their feet, several of them shooting out through the bottom of the door to slide into the hallway.

 

The three of them were stone-like and wide-eyed as they stared at one another. It was quiet now out in the hallway, and part of Hoseok dared to hope that the people had already made it into the elevator and hadn’t seen or heard any of that. 

 

“Um… hello?” the tentative sound of a female voice came through the door, and Hoseok screwed his eyes shut and fought off the urge to curse. 

 

Quickly making up his mind, he motioned for Taehyung and Namjoon to stay put before putting on the most casual face he could muster and opening the door just wide enough to step out.

 

“Oh, evening,” he greeted the surprised-looking duo, trying to make it sound like he was surprised to see them. 

 

And also trying to make it look like it was normal to be loitering in a closet at night. Or at all. 

 

They both wore knee-length white lab coats over their normal clothes, so he surmised they were associates of Namjoon’s. 

 

“Oh, good evening sir,” the woman answered again, trying for a friendly smile. Her colleague blinked at him from behind her, nonplussed.

 

Hoseok gestured at the coffee mugs in their hands as he discreetly clicked the door shut. (It was loud and they both glanced at his hand, so maybe it wasn’t discreet.) “Long night?”

 

“Yes,” the woman nodded. He couldn’t tell what either of their name tags read from here. “We were just going to turn in.”

 

For the first time, Hoseok noticed the lit up call button next to the elevator. 

 

Yes. Perfect. 

 

“Okay, well,” he stalled. “Have a nice night.”

 

His smile felt rubbery and strained, but he was a soldier, not an actor, so he’d live with it. 

 

The woman glanced back at her associate, and the look the two of them shared was so obviously questioning that Hoseok could practically hear the gears turning in their heads. 

 

He just kept smiling.

 

Where was that damn elevator?

 

Someone within the closet sneezed two seconds before the elevator dinged to signal it had arrived. 

 

Hoseok’s smile faltered as their eyes went back to the door, collectively looking somewhere between mildly alarmed and suspicious. 

 

“Uh…”

 

He panicked slightly. They couldn’t know Taehyung was on the other side of that door. They worked with him too, and they would recognize him in an instant -- tail or no tail. And they’d have questions -- wonder why he was out, wonder if he should even be out. Asking them to keep it a secret would look even more like he was doing something wrong. Hoseok may hold some small amount of authority in this joint project, and even though they likely weren’t aware of how much, he had just as much jurisdiction to remove Taehyung from his chamber as they did.

 

Which is to say, absolutely none at all.

 

If this found it’s way back to his superiors, to Colonel Kangmin, that would be his ass. He’d be relieved of his duty on the project, possibly demoted, definitely chewed out, and then sent away. 

 

And then where would that leave Taehyung? Under tighter security, most likely. He’d never get out again, not even to practice walking which he, surprisingly, seemed to like to do. 

 

And what about Namjoon? Would he get in trouble when they learned that he was a part of it? Taken off his team, too? Would they start treating Taehyung worse? Hoseok could imagine the merman being less protected without himself and Namjoon there to stave off and object the crueler methods of extraction. 

 

They might start to be less gentle with him again. Go back to hurting him. 

 

Before he could come up with something to keep them from finding out who was on the other side (aside from physical force, which he was trying to convince himself was an absolute last resort), the door swung open and out walked Namjoon. 

 

Hoseok gaped at him.

 

“Oh, Joon,” the other male scientist spoke for the first time, staring wide eyed at the blond. The woman seemed to recognize him too.

 

“Hey guys,” Namjoon greeted sheepishly, shoving his hands into his jeans pockets and dimpling at them. 

 

The elevator chimed and slid open behind the pair, but they just kept staring, blinking between Namjoon and Hoseok and back again. With an internal jolt, Hoseok realized why.

 

Their hair wasn’t messed up, and their clothes weren’t in any kind of disarray, but the two of them being caught alone in a closet together had very specific implications. Even if it wasn’t true, it sure looked like it was, and the realization had Hoseok’s cheeks burning. 

 

“So, uh, I think your ride is here,” Namjoon pointed out to his still-gawking coworkers. 

 

Through his quiet mortification, Hoseok wondered if he was trying to put on a bashful act to sell their story or if he really was as embarrassed as Hoseok felt by even having people think they were up to-- that. 

 

“Oh, uh. Yeah, okay.”

 

“Suh-see you tomorrow, Namjoon-ssi.”

 

The pair’s words overlapped as they awkwardly backed into the elevator. Namjoon waved, and only after the doors slid closed did Hoseok finally let out the eternal breath he had been holding.

 

He turned to Namjoon, who was smiling triumphantly at him, not seeming to mind that their reputations around here had just been tarnished. 

 

“That’s what you came up with?” Hoseok groaned, the uncomfortable flush still clinging to his skin. But he was unable to find it in himself to be truly resentful. He’d saved them, after all. 

 

“Yep, and you’re welcome.”

 

“People are gonna talk,” he sighed, running a hand through his hair and scratching at his head. There really weren't that many people occupying the facility.

 

(God, what would Yoongi say? That was gonna be a fun teasing to fight off all week.)

 

Namjoon shrugged and turned to pull open the closet door the rest of the way. “Better about this than the merman on the loose.”

 

At that, Taehyung’s dark head appeared, peeking around the frame to check the spot the man and woman had once been before stepping out fully, looking down at his toes.

 

“Sorry I sneezed,” he winced, grinning apologetically.

 

Hoseok felt the tension in his muscles loosen, and he relaxed. Ah, who really cared?

 

“It’s fine, Tae,” he appeased, smiling. Namjoon reached up to ruffle his dark hair. That was all it took to make Taehyung lift his head and beam at them again, and the sight of it made Hoseok's heart stutter suddenly. He coughed. “C’mon, lets go get you those pancakes sometime today.”

 

The kitchen was right down the hallway and around the corner, so hopefully they could get there without any more unexpected interruptions. 

 

Namjoon closed the door, carelessly nudged the stray papers back under, and they started back off again down the hall.

 

Hoseok glanced over at one point and noticed Namjoon’s cheeks were faintly pink. He wasn’t exactly sure why.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

It turned out that making pancakes with Taehyung was an event in several ways, and it started with Hoseok having to practically dive over to the stove to pull Taehyung’s hand away from one of the glowing red eyes before he could touch a curious finger to it. He'd wandered over and managed to flip the stove on without either of them knowing, while they had been too busy milling around and gathering supplies.

 

They made sure that at least one of them was leading him around at all times after that.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

It continued with the pancake batter. 

 

Oh, the pancake batter. 

 

Namjoon had just been premixing it, since they were going to wait before frying them to find other things to eat with this spontaneous breakfast dinner. 

 

He should’ve expected that Taehyung would want to try it. He should’ve anticipated that when Namjoon had answered, sure!, and slid the large bowl toward him that the merman might not have been aware of the etiquette of getting your own spoon. Or spoons in general. 

 

So, if he put that kind of thought into it, it was really his fault when Taehyung took his wrist and brought the spoon Namjoon had been using to mix with to his lips, dragging his tongue up the length of the large mixing tool. A lot of the yellow batter gathered on the flat of it, and Taehyung swallowed with a pleased moan.

 

Oh no .

 

Namjoon watched, dumbstruck as Taehyung leaned down again to suck more of the thick batter from the top of the spoon, some of it catching on his upper lip. 

 

Oh NO. 

 

A voice was screaming in his head that it’s ok it’s ok it’s ok . He doesn’t know social norms. He DOESN’T. KNOW.  

 

Honestly this was type of stuff Namjoon used to do with close friends. But with Taehyung... well, something about it was slightly kind of inexplicably hot, and he didn’t know if he was really okay with thinking that about the mythical mermaid man he was tasked with studying.

 

He heard a throat clear behind them, but when he turned around expecting to see Hoseok looking over here, the older man was still over on the other side of the room, knelt down in front of the bottom cabinets looking for potatoes for the potato pancakes that he had been swearing up and down that he could do justice to.

 

Namjoon eyed him for a few seconds longer before turning back to Taehyung and gently extracted the spoon from his mouth with a timorous joke about saving some for the pancakes.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

The pancake batter might’ve indirectly been his fault, but Kim Namjoon had nothing to do with the shirt-removal nonsense. 

 

He and Hoseok watched in shock as Taehyung suddenly reached down, grabbed the hem of the oversized article, and stripped it off over his head.

 

“I don’t like shirts,” was his only explanation, grinning at what was probably their very stupid-looking faces and tossed it on the wooden bench table they were sitting on in the center of the room.

 

Oh. 

 

Namjoon could see how very low the borrowed sweats actually sat on his hips now. He had back dimples that he hadn't been aware of.

 

Oh. 

 

“I don’t know how humans can wear them,” Taehyung declared, turning back to eye the pot of eggs that he and Hoseok had deemed it safe to let him boil on his own. “They rub everything wrong.” 

 

Namjoon didn’t know what that meant. He didn’t know if he wanted to know what that meant, not when the hemline of the sweats shifted on his hips, revealing the dips of his--

 

“You couldn’t have found him some tighter pants?” he rounded on Hoseok when it seemed evident his mind was going straight to places he, as a twenty-five year old, was not proud of. He was struggling a bit with breathing entirely evenly, talking through his teeth to keep his voice low. His face flushed with heat at the realization he’d been so blatantly staring at the younger man’s hips… and the slimness of his waist as it curved into the gentle swell of his bu--

 

He hit Hoseok on the arm for good measure, forcibly snapping himself out of his own thoughts in the process.

 

If he was going to be appalled and mortified at himself for ogling like a teenager, then at the very least he was going to be angry with Hoseok for basically setting him up

 

Beside him, the older man yelped as he, too, seemed to be snapped out of staring at Taehyung’s backside (wait, what- ), grabbing at his afflicted forearm (it hadn’t even hurt him, the military-trained bastard) and looking at Namjoon with wide, brown kicked puppy eyes. 

 

“Hey,” he whined. “I I didn’t know, alright? The clothing reserves are, like, one size fits all-!”

 

Namjoon lightly slapped him again, this time on the back of his elbow. He pointed steadfast in Taehyung’s direction. Taehyung was humming an unrecognizable song, hips lightly swishing as he stared down into the bubbling pot with keen interest.

 

“That is not one size fits all!” he hissed.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

“Did you both use to mate?” Taehyung suddenly asked them, poking experimentally at the half-done potato pancake in the pan with a spatula, Hoseok and Namjoon monitored him at his sides.

 

Namjoon choked on his spit. Where had that come from? But on his other side, Hoseok grinned.

 

“Something like that,” he smiled slyly at Namjoon’s flustered expression, and Namjoon couldn't help but think he was getting back at him for the closet thing. “How’d you know? Merman magic?” 

 

Namjoon really hated how he was so casual about this.

 

“Mm, no… nothing like that,” Taehyung denied, giggling at the term with a knowing smile on his face. “Just a feeling.”

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

The pants began to pose more of a problem, especially when Taehyung jumped a little to try and reach something from an upper shelf. 

 

The ends of them had already been pooling cutely around his feet, but this was ridiculous. Without the shirt, they were a real hazard.

 

“Tae,” Hoseok stepped up beside him, sounding a little flustered himself as he yanked up the waistline of the sweats just before they slid all the way off of the merman's hips. (Namjoon tried to convince himself he wasn’t ever so slightly disappointed.) “You need to stop moving around so much.”

 

“Why?” Taehyung asked, raising his eyebrows at him and teasingly wiggling his hips in Hoseok’s hold. Namjoon tried not to stare at how Hoseok’s long fingers gripped the hemline at Taehyung’s lithe waist just a little bit tighter at that. Taehyung giggled. “Am I making you two nervous?”

 

Hoseok’s eyes snapped over to his, and Namjoon’s eyes snapped to the glasses he was busy pouring orange juice into at the table, trying to pretend he hadn't been gawping. He prayed the heat of the stove warming the room was enough to explain how flushed he felt. 

 

Hoseok suggested that Taehyung tie the strings on his pants, a curious red tint creeping up his neck as well. But, since Taehyung apparently didn’t know how to tie strings, the all-important task fell on Namjoon -- since Hoseok was conveniently busy with the actual pancakes now, pouring dollops of batter into the pan with the butter. They sizzled and soon filled the room with an enticing sweet aroma.

 

Taehyung went to sit on top of the table before Namjoon, who knelt in front of him and grabbed the dangling pant strings and tried really hard to focus on the task and nothing else -- like Taehyung's completely naked upper half before him. 

 

Of course he couldn’t do it -- his overly analytical mind wouldn’t let him.

 

Namjoon discreetly took note of Taehyung’s powerful torso, lean and toned just like the rest of his body but not too muscular -- from all the swimming, no doubt. He could give Michael Phelps a run for his money, probably.

 

He didn’t know when his thoughts had started shifting into mental notes for himself. Ones that had nothing to do with scientific observation anymore.

 

This was ridiculous;Taehyung was bare from the waist up all the time. Why was now any different?

 

Because he was touching him, maybe. Because he could feel how smooth and warm his skin was against the backs of his fingers. 

 

Partly aquatic, but warm-blooded , he thought a little dazedly, finishing up the little bow he was working on.

 

Glancing up, Namjoon stared with some marked fascination at the way Taehyung was looking down at him -- his eyes soft but heavy on the spot where Namjoon's knuckles brushed him just underneath his belly button. A flutter kicked up in Namjoon’s chest when he noticed Taehyung was blushing, the deep rosy hue coating over his freckles like water color.

 

Namjoon was staring, but he kind of couldn’t stop.

 

It was both disappointing and relieving when Hoseok announced that breakfast-dinner was ready. 

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

But all of that -- all of that inner turmoil -- was worth it to see the look of utter delight on Taehyung’s face when he took his first ever bite of a pancake.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Colonel Kangmin punched in the code to the door of the creature’s water chamber. 

 

He didn’t know why he had come tonight, at this hour. It could’ve waited until morning, he supposed, but he had been up anyway and he wanted to see it -- the prize they had fished out of the ocean.

 

Upon stepping into the area that housed the pool, he made his way over to the edge, arms held behind his back and heavy soled boots echoing crisply around the dome-like walls. Looking down into the water, he didn’t see it.

 

He leaned a little further over. He still couldn’t see it. No movement, no silhouette. Nothing. 

 

It was odd.

 

And then something else caught his eye, right next to his boots on the ground. Water.

 

Or, no. 

 

This water seemed to form a trail, the large puddle at the edge of the pool thinning out the closer it got to the door.

 

Footprints. 

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

They had finished eating and were showing Taehyung various random videos on their phones -- all of which he was elated by, but no more so than the ones of the concert variety. And not even because of the music. He liked the fireworks that often accompanied them, cooing and clapping at the smoke and dancing lights in all of their colors.

 

So it was odd when he stopped abruptly to look toward the door. His smile quickly vanished.

 

“Someone is coming,” he whispered, and Hoseok knew better than to doubt him a second time. 

 

He immediately stood from the table’s bench, dragging Taehyung up with him by his upper arms and hustling him over to a corner of the room where their sat smaller round tables and potted plants. Blocking them from the view of the door was a counter that extended out from the wall.

 

Taehyung dove behind it, scooching on his butt back to curl up against the wall, and not two seconds later, Colonel Kangmin rounded the corner. 

 

Hoseok swore he heart stopped in his chest.

 

“Evening, Colonel,” he greeted after a second of stunned silence that he hoped didn’t give away how terrified he felt. He was proud, at least, that he’d managed to make his voice come out normally.

 

“Evening,” Kangmin greeted, nodding at Namjoon, who looked like he was going to salute (the dork), but thought better of it and settled on an awkward wave. He looked to the pile of used dishes and utensils on the table. “Thought I smelled food. Late night snack, Jung?”

 

“Yessir,” Hoseok forced a grin. He didn't seem to be able to speak anything other than formally with the Colonel. His military background made him too aware all the time of the strictly defined roles of hierarchy within the service.  “You know how it gets some nights.”

 

Kangmin let out a dry laugh. “I do. Actually, I was up a little late myself.” His eyes scanned the room, as if looking for something. “I went to see the creature this evening.” The dark orbs of his eyes stopped on Hoseok. “I didn’t see it in there.”

 

“Yes, well. Sometimes he goes down to the bottom, when he doesn’t want to be bothered, or when he's sleeping. It gets really hard to spot him then, sir.”

 

“Hmm,” Kangmin nodded slowly, glancing around the room again. It made Hoseok’s palms sweat, but at least he remained in the doorway. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Taehyung kept completely motionless, his arms wrapped around his legs. “Well, I don’t want to interrupt you boys.”

 

Hoseok’s heart jumped, and then he realized he'd been referring to Namjoon.

 

“Good night then,” Kangmin nodded at them again.

 

“Good night, sir.”

 

And then the Colonel disappeared back into the shadows of hallway as silently as he’d come.

 

His breath of relief left him shakily. Namjoon’s shoulders sagged. The first and only time they'd tried this and already almost two close calls in one night. 

 

Once they were sure he was gone, he motioned to Taehyung, and the boy rose from behind the wall, nose crinkled like he smelled something bad. 

 

“I don’t like that man.” 

 

Hoseok shrugged. He actually couldn’t disagree. He hadn’t been under his jurisdiction for too long, but the Colonel’s emotionless eyes had always made him just a little bit uncomfortable. 

 

“It’s the eyes,” Taehyung added, and Hoseok laughed at the coincidence. 

 

A little put off from staying in the kitchen to continue watching videos after that, it appeared that it was time Taehyung be getting back to the water now. Though there was something in the air that suggested none of them wanted the night to end just yet. 

 

Eventually, Namjoon suggested they go hang out in his room for a while, since the “night was still young.” Of course Taehyung was vocally excited at the prospect of seeing a room, with a bed and a lamp and everything. Hoseok agreed and Namjoon nodded, rambling off other excuses about how “You should wait an hour to swim after eating something, you know” as Taehyung took hold of his hand and led him down the hallway like he had any idea where the scientist’s quarters were. 

 

As he gazed at his friend’s expressive hand motions and slightly pinkened face, Hoseok couldn’t help the sly smile that slid its way onto his.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Taehyung had gasped, ran and flopped face first onto Namjoon’s bed as soon as he saw it, giggling excitedly and kicking his legs around in the air behind him. Hoseok and Namjoon had stayed back, watching in amusement, until Taehyung had beckoned them over with rapid flaps of his hand.

 

Hoseok had made it known to Namjoon before that the beds in the military facility were enough to accommodate one fully grown person, and one fully grown person only. Now, he went with Namjoon to lie down on either side of the merman on his bed, and they didn't instantly need to stack on top of one another to fit like he'd clearly been expecting. 

 

That’s when Hoseok had realized, with no small amount of verbalized indignance, that the facility treated its soldiers to the bare minimum, but spared some expenses for its guests.

 

As it turned out, the scientist’s beds were enough to fit two fully grown people. True luxury. 

 

Still, they were a little tangled up in each other, but that was attributed to the fact all of them happened to possess long limbs, which meant legs and arms were draped over bodies in what should’ve been a gangly, awkward mess of a way, but it wasn’t. It was actually pretty nice.

 

Taehyung was lying face down between them, his face pressed into a pillow, arms spread out across both of their chests and legs pretty much the same way. 

 

He popped his face up and smiled thoughtfully. “Do you think they could put beds in the ocean?”

 

“You don’t have beds in the ocean?” Namjoon asked curiously. On Taehyung’s other side, Hoseok lifted his head up and shot him a deadpan look. “ What? No, that one was a valid question. Why wouldn’t they have beds?”

 

“We have beds,” Taehyung declared, and Namjoon stuck his tongue out at the elder in a moment of childish victory. Hoseok rolled his eyes and flopped back down, smiling at the ceiling. “We have beds,” Taehyung continued, fondling at the comforter underneath him. “Just not, like, this… type.” His nose scrunched cutely as he tried to think of the proper word, eventually settling on saying, “We make them out of different things. That are in the water.”

 

Namjoon smiled, wondering what else was down in the ocean that he had absolutely no idea about. And this time, it wasn’t because he was thinking about recording something in his notebook to hand over to the research committee, but because all the possibilities were making him genuinely curious to learn about. Humans didn't even know the half of what went on down there in the vast world that existed below the ocean's surface, let alone the world Taehyung had come from. 

 

And the merman had said ‘we’, so was it possible there were others? Namjoon’s tongue itched to inquire, but he held it instead. Taehyung was always hesitant to talk about where he came from, whether that was because it hurt him too much to think about the world he had lost or possibly because of some other obligation to protect it by keeping it a secret. But he consistently grew reserved whenever he or Hoseok would bring it up. 

 

He looked so happy and calm right now, so soft around the edges. Namjoon didn’t want to ruin that. 

 

Taehyung suddenly started poking him in his cheek with his finger, and Namjoon came out of his thoughts, blinking up at him in confusion. A few seconds later, Taehyung leaned over to Hoseok and did the same to him, lightly jabbing his finger into the side of his face over and over. 

 

Hoseok chuckled at Taehyung's ministrations. “What?”

 

“You both have indents here when you smile,” the merman mused. 

 

Indents? ” Namjoon repeated, and then he and Hoseok started howling with laughter. 

 

Taehyung jerked his finger back, looking lost as the two of them lost themselves in a fit of giggles underneath them. “What?” he inquired, looking back and forth between then, a bit of amusement sparkling in the corner of his eyes amidst the confusion. “What did I say?”

 

“You call them indents in the ocean?” Namjoon asked while Hoseok wiped at his eyes beside them, chest jumping with a residual laugh every now and then.

 

“Yes,” Taehyung responded simply, managing to look a little pressed about it. “What do you call them?”

 

“Dimples,” he and Hoseok answered together. Taehyung blinked, obviously running the word over in his mind. 

 

“Ohhhh…. That’s stupid.”

 

That started them both off laughing again, and by the time they had calmed down, Taehyung was giggling too. 

 

“That’s fair,” Namjoon admitted. “So, what do you call these?” he asked, lightly tapping his fingers along the spattering off freckles across his cheek and nose. 

 

Taehyung breathed a laugh and scrunched his nose again. “You first.”

 

“Freckles,” Namjoon supplied.

 

“Speckles,” Taehyung said right after.

 

“That’s valid,” Hoseok remarked.

 

Namjoon found another different, fascinating past of Taehyung's body and selected that. “What about these?” he asked, reaching up to fiddle with his lightly pointed ears.

 

“Hyung,” Taehyung laughed, dipping his chin into his neck at the tickle. “ Ears.

 

“Hyung?” Namjoon parroted, glancing over at Namjoon. Hoseok had been watching them, and he smiled when he met Namjoon’s eyes. Taehyung, on the other hand, looked a little panicked.

 

“Oh, should I not? I won’t call you that -- either of you -- if you don’t want me to--”

 

“Hyung is fine,” Hoseok interrupted, running his hand down over Taehyung’s back in a soothing manner. The merman seemed to melt a little under the touch. 

 

“Hyung is good,” Namjoon added, watching in fascination as color seeped into Taehyung’s cheeks. 

 

“Okay then,” he said softly, almost shyly. He looked at Hoseok. “Hyung.” He looked to Namjoon. “And hyung.”

 

Something in Namjoon shivered at the way he had said it, the way he had looked when he had said it. And it didn’t help that Taehyung was still gazing at him now, that distracting blush growing ever deeper as Namjoon’s eyes traced over his face. God, his eyes were beautiful, and his eyelashes were so long, and his mouth…

 

Namjoon had the sudden urge to to just sit up and slam their lips together. There were right there, parted and plush-looking, and he wanted to. What would Taehyung think if he did that. What would Hoseok? The other man was right there, and that would be inappropriate.

 

...Right?

 

No, right. It would be inappropriate. 

 

Namjoon forced himself to reel in his thoughts before he could run away with them  any further.

 

He glanced over at Hoseok, breaking the wordless spell that seemed to have settled over himself and Taehyung. The other man was watching them with dark eyes, his cheek pressed against his pillow, his own lips slack.

 

When his gaze slid over to Namjoon, something in it made him turn away because what came with it was a flood of heat dancing across his body that Namjoon didn’t think he needed right now.

 

But still he wondered, as he started up another silly conversation with the two of them, if Hoseok could tell what he’d thought about just now.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Hoseok honestly hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but he had, and when he woke up to find that he was still tangled up in the warm bodies of his friends in Namjoon’s bed, he was terrified for a second that it was too close to morning and that someone had gone down to the holding chamber by now and realized that Taehyung wasn’t there; soon after to find out that it was himself and Namjoon who were responsible. Or maybe worse -- they didn’t know that Taehyung was gone, but there were already people moving about the lower levels and in the room, therefore making it impossible for Hoseok and Namjoon to return him without anyone finding out. 

 

But as he lifted his head up with a start, heart in his throat, he quickly found the clock on Namjoon’s opposite wall displayed that it was just past midnight. 

 

The relief that flooded him at the realization was instantaneous and sweet, and Hoseok practically flopped back onto his pillow with a grateful sigh. 

 

He slowly blinked open his eyes and was met with parts of both Namjoon and Taehyung's soundly sleeping faces next to him. Most of Taehyung’s face was obscured by his long and wild hair, and part of Namjoon’s was being blocked by Taehyung's, but it was still a cute sight to wake up to. They were cute. 

 

Hoseok wouldn’t expect anyone in the facility to start moving around until about five am, maybe four for the super early-risers and the sadists (the two sometimes pretty non-distinguishable from one another in his opinion). Either way, they had to play this really safe. After that scare with Colonel Kangmin earlier, they couldn’t be too careful. He shouldn’t risk falling asleep again and waiting too late to take Taehyung back. 

 

He reached over the merman, brushing his shoulder, to poke Namjoon in his “face indent.”

 

“Joon-ah… Joon-ah, I’m gonna take Tae back now,” he whispered, wondering if his friend was too dead to the world to hear. 

 

But Namjoon stirred a bit at his voice, eyebrows lifting even though his actual eyes remained closed. “Oh? Yeah... good idea,” he yawned.

 

“Tae,” Hoseok whispered, moving over to hover over him next. “It’s time to go back to the water.”

 

Taehyung’s freckled nose twitched. “Mm…”

 

Hoseok carefully climbed over them and hopped silently to the floor, bending to slip on the boots that he had kicked off onto the floor earlier. He came back over to the bed after tying them, leaned over Namjoon’s slumbering body, and managed to get one arm looped under Taehyung’s back, the other hooking under his knees.

 

He was trying not to think too much about earlier tonight as he carefully gathered a drowsy Taehyung into his arms, managing to lift him over Namjoon without too much trouble. But when Taehyung reached a hand out to brush along Namjoon’s arm before he got too far away, mumbling, “G’night, Namjoon-hyung,” in a sleep-addled voice and then leaned up to wrap his arms around Hoseok’s neck and snuggle into him, head fitting into the crook of his neck, it was honestly so difficult not too. 

 

“Night, Tae,” Namjoon murmured back, and Hoseok almost groaned because why were both of their voices so deep? 

 

Namjoon yawned and pillowed one arm behind his head, turning his face towards Hoseok. The action stretched his already severely-twisted henley shirt across his chest, and Hoseok could swear that there was a button or two undone that hadn’t been that way before.

 

“Night, hyung,” Namjoon spoke to him, blinking his eyes half-open as his lips slid into a sleepy smile. Hoseok stared at him. A piece of his sleep-mused blond hair had fallen across his tan forehead and curled delicately underneath his left eyebrow, and Hoseok tried really, really hard not to find the picture so sexy. 

 

“...mhm.” 

 

He didn’t trust his voice to work properly under the double-assault of Taehyung’s warm body curled up against him Namjoon blinking languidly at him and smiling like that, so he settled the affirmative noise before forcing his legs to move away from the bed. 

 

After checking to make sure the coast was clear, and that he had a good hold on Taehyung (who had seemed to have drifted back to sleep), he carefully stepped through the doorway. He closed the door gently behind him and started off down the hall, planning to locate an elevator to make this easier.

 

With nothing but the quiet thump of his boot soles against the floor, he kind of had nothing to distract his thoughts from wandering back to earlier tonight; or maybe it was Taehyung’s steady breaths warming his chest through the fabric of his shirt that dragged his memory back there. 

 

Hoseok knew that Namjoon had wanted to kiss Taehyung earlier -- he had seen that look on him before. He had received it enough times before in his life to know what it meant. 

 

Hoseok had actually held his breath, kind of anticipated it almost. What would Taehyung had done? He had been giving his friend a strange look too, but one that made his insides swim weirdly to witness it, made him fight the urge to swallow. It hadn’t been on him, but he could imagine what it had felt like -- the weight of it. It almost felt like something he wasn’t supposed to be in the room for -- would’ve felt like he shouldn’t have, like he had been intruding, if not for the grip Taehyung had kept on his arm at the time, if not for the leg he had slotted between both of Hoseok’s, grounding him in the moment with the two of them -- whatever the moment was. 

 

So, what did he do with this information?

 

Nothing. Nothing right now. He was just going to take Taehyung back into the holding room before going back to his own room to roll over and go to sleep, thank you very much.

 

He reached the bottom floor room, opened the door and walked across the open space to get to the second, more secure door to the water chamber. He shifted most of Taehyung’s weight to one arm and reached up with the other to type in the passcode he’d now memorized.  

 

At that moment, Taehyung shifted in his arms, rearranging his head against Hoseok’s shoulder in a way that pressed his nose up against his neck. 

 

Hoseok stiffened as the door gave two quick and affirmative beeps to signal it accepted the passcode and could now be opened, but he didn’t move. A flush ran through his body on its own accord. 

 

He’d already been thinking about them both in a way that wasn’t entirely innocent an inappropriate amount tonight, and this was not helping matters. 

 

“Tae?” he spoke softly in case Taehyung was actually still sleeping, licking his lips once the merman hummed faintly to show he wasn’t. 

 

“Hyung…” Hoseok tried to ignore the swoop his stomach gave at hearing the honorific spoken like that -- all breathy and drowsy and deep. He wondered if Taehyung knew was he was doing. “I have a question…” 

 

“Hmm,” Hoseok acknowledged, swallowing before finally going to pull the door handle. He kept it propped open with his foot, turning sideways to step in without bumping Taehyung’s head on the frame. 

 

He forewent turning on the lights, as the underwater lights in the pool were still on, and it filled the dome-shaped room with a reasonable cerulean glow. Enough to navigate without difficulty. 

 

“...Why do you wear this uniform?”

 

Hoseok paused again before getting to the edge of the pool. He hadn’t been expecting that. Some sleep-induced babble about pancakes or fireworks, maybe, but not that. 

 

When he didn’t respond for a few extended moments, Taehyung lifted his head from his shoulder. Hoseok prepared himself to glance down at him, but still wasn’t ready for how wide and attentive his eyes were, shining almost yellow in the dim light of the room. He was idly reminded of the merman’s apparent night vision. 

 

Taehyung’s face was so close to his that Hoseok felt if he were to breathe normally, the long lengths of his eyelashes would flutter. 

 

“I… to help people,” he whooshes out, the strange quickened pace of his heartbeat making him feel ever-so-slightly lightheaded. 

 

The answer had come easily to him though, once he had gotten enough of a grip to voice it. It was the same reason he had for joining the military a second time, and the same reason he always reminded himself of since. He liked to think he had known it even before -- back when he had no idea who he was or what he wanted to do in life, when he never seemed to be good enough at anything to make it his livelihood. 

 

But helping and protecting people? That was his driving force. It wasn’t hard, and Hoseok knew he could make something of himself by being part of something that would let him do so every day. 

 

There’d never been any doubt in his mind when it came to why he was here. 

 

Taehyung was still staring at him, not saying anything, and Hoseok wondered if maybe that wasn’t enough of an answer. 

 

“I want to keep people safe,” he added, keeping his voice soft, slightly distracted by the blue tint of the nearby water being reflected across Taehyung’s eyes as they blink at him; and down the side of his smooth face, curving over his cheek and under his chin like he’s being caressed by it. “It-uh… it’s good to help people, Tae.”

 

Taehyung’s expression was blank enough that Hoseok had cause to wonder if he’d even heard him.

 

But it turned out that maybe he had just been mulling it over, because then he was nodding; albeit barely. But enough so that the lengths of his dark hair that brushed against the tops of his eyelids shifted slightly with the movement.

 

“Okay,” is all he said, an exhale more than anything else, and Hoseok’s eyes went down to his mouth against his better judgement. They were slightly parted and pillowly-looking (just like he now knew they felt against his neck).

 

Hoseok cleared his throat, and Taehyung blinked. 

 

“So, uhm,” he began woodenly, forcibly taking the last few steps forward and lowering Taehyung down to deposit him at the edge of the pool. “Here we are,” he announced unnecessarily, stepping back and holding his arms out toward the shimmering water like he was presenting it -- also unnecessary, but he suddenly didn’t quite know what to do with his hands.

 

Taehyung twisted toward the water and sighed almost dreamily, sticking his hand down into the blue to drag it slowly back and forth, gentle ripples fluttering outwards from the movement. 

 

Even though Hoseok couldn’t currently see his face, he was suddenly hit with the thought that Taehyung seemed quite sad in that moment. Maybe that sigh hadn’t been dreamlike at all.

 

Maybe it had been wistful. Yearning. Aching. 

 

Hoseok drew his lips in as a sudden pang of empathy stabbed through his chest, a little stronger each time he considered how much Taehyung must want to go home. 

 

“You should probably take the pants off before you get in,” Hoseok suggested before Taehyung could drop into the pool. He had already moved to strip his shirt off and swung his legs over the edge to lower them into the water. It came up to lap just a few inches under his knees. 

 

The merman paused and looked over his shoulder at him curiously, so Hoseok tried to elaborate. 

 

“I just… don’t know how easy it would be with the tail.”

 

The worst-case scenario in Hoseok’s mind was that Taehyung’s legs would merge back together to shift into his tail but somehow trap the inner thigh parts of his pants inside in the process, so the tail would’ve formed around the fabric and it would be painful and possibly irreversible and-- yeah, he thought it best that Taehyung just take them off beforehand, just in case. 

 

The simple version of the explanation seemed to resonate with Taehyung, who pulled his legs right back out, water splashing slightly as he placed his heels down on the edge again. His sweats were darkened and sopping from the shin down, and a small puddle formed on the linoleum.

 

Hoseok was about to turn and give him some privacy when Taehyung went to lie down, pulling his arms above his head in a stretch, but Hoseok wasn’t entirely sure that was the intention. 

 

He arched just enough for a small sliver of space to be visible between his back and the floor, the position making his stomach suck in and the muscles in his arms shift. Practically on display like that, Hoseok couldn’t help how his eyes traced over the lines of him. He caught his gaze lingering on Taehyung’s smooth, hairless chest, on the soft brown buds of his nipples, and promptly averted his eyes, ever so slightly mortified with himself. What was wrong with him tonight?

 

But apparently he hadn’t looked away fast enough.

 

Taehyung smiled at him like he had caught him -- which, maybe he had -- and his arms bent to pillow his head behind him. It wasn’t one of his usual smiles; none of those face-splitting rectangular cheeses; not even the quieter ones that seemed soft and warm but always somewhere far away. 

 

It was the kind of smile that consisted of the slow and deliberate curling of the lips, drawing attention to their thickness as they separated just enough to reveal a hint of glimmering teeth -- teeth that came apart to bite down on his bottom lip. His lids hung lower over smouldering tawny eyes that made Hoseok feel hot underneath their scrutiny, even when they glittered with amusement. 

 

“Would you like to take them off of me?” 

 

Taehyung offered him that just as easily as he might have offered to water his plants for him while he was away on vacation. 

 

And what really threw him off was how sweetly he had said it, something smooth and thick coating his diction like molasses. The words carried an inviting note to them that caused his face to sting right before he spluttered and momentarily lost all composure.

 

What?” he squawked, almost losing his balance from nothing at all. 

 

“Just kidding~” Taehyung nearly sang, his expression gone all over sweet again. Genuinely sweet this time -- boxes and eye crinkles -- not all of that faux, coy, come-hither stuff he’d just been assaulted with, and the split-second transition gave Hoseok a small case of whiplash. Taehyung chuckled softly; laughing at him, he realized. “Humans are so easy to fluster,” he mused.

 

Hoseok’s head spun.

 

“Yeah… okay, Tae. Good one,” he muttered, scratching his head and looking off to the side at anything other than the half-naked mythical creature in front of him.

 

“I’ll take them off now.”

 

“Mm.” 

 

Hoseok’s vocabulary had deteriorated greatly in the presence of Taehyung and Namjoon tonight, and he was resolved to the fact he’d be using bare minimum caveman sounds until further notice. 

 

He shuffled around to actually turn his back on Taehyung this time, trying not to be too aware of the telltale sound of cotton being pushed down long, slender legs -- it just made it more difficult for his face to cool down.

 

He frowned and tried discreetly fanning at his face, though there was nothing for the uneven beating of his heart.

 

He seriously needed to pull himself together. 

 

Soon enough, the distinct sound of a body sliding into water filled the space, and Taehyung’s reaffirming “All done” came a second later. 

 

Hoseok turned around to see him floating around the chamber on his back, using wide sweeping motions with his arms and light flaps of his newly reappeared tail to propel himself in small circles and figure eights across the surface. 

 

Then he dipped underneath the water, leaning back to go head first. His tail kicked small droplets of water into the air before it, too, disappeared from sight.

 

Hoseok followed it’s shimmery blue-green outline with his eyes as Taehyung darted around the bottom of the pool, moving much faster when he was completely submerged -- almost too fast for him to keep track of. The density of the water did nothing to slow him down like it would for a human. Even if Taehyung was half-human, it didn’t affect him. 

 

And why would it if he was born to be in it?

 

Forgetting a bit of his earlier embarrassment, Hoseok walked forward and crouched by the edge of the pool, his passive expression lifting into a smile when he heard Taehyung laughing from within the depths while his lithe body twisted and flipped and danced around below the surface. The sound carried up and seemed to float around the dome, echoing in his ears. 

 

Born to be in it. 

 

Hoseok’s smile waned again as the phrase started to bounce around in his mind with the laughter, eventually drowning it out all together and doing nothing except remind him that Taehyung was being held prisoner here. He currently seemed happy enough just being back in the water -- any water -- but Hoseok knew that soon that giddiness would fade like it always did when Taehyung remembered that he couldn’t go home. 

 

Soon, just any water wouldn’t be enough, and Taehyung’s heart would start to beat again for the ocean, his home. And break again when he couldn’t have it. 

 

Hoseok was frowning now, having quickly put himself in a sour mood. 

 

But when Taehyung’s head suddenly popped back up in front of him, merely a foot or two away, he managed to change his dire expression into something more pleasant before he could see. 

 

Hoseok was slightly splashed in the process, and Taehyung looked apologetic when he realized.

 

“Sorry,” he simpered, barely even blinking away the rivulets of water that ran into his own eyes as he reached forward and did his best to wipe the droplets from Hoseok’s cheeks and nose and forehead. 

 

It didn’t really work because Taehyung’s hand was wet too, so he was kind of just spreading water around, but Hoseok didn’t say anything. 

 

“You’ll be back to see me tomorrow, right? You and Namjoon-hyung?” Taehyung asked eagerly when he returned his hand to the water. Hoseok nodded.

 

“Of course, Tae. Every day,” he promised, even though he was sure that, by now, Taehyung knew that to be their routine.

 

Taehyung looked pleased. “I really enjoyed today.”

 

“Me too. We’ll do something like that again, really soon.”

 

“Promise?” Taehyung leaned forward, hands gripping the edge and eyes shining. 

 

“Promise,” Hoseok responded automatically, thinking a few seconds later that he probably shouldn’t make promises so easily to Taehyung. Especially when they were somewhere where procedures and protocol changed every day, with every new thing they learned about him. 

 

And especially not when he had no idea if he could keep any of them. 

 

But Hoseok promised him anyway, because Taehyung looked so beautiful when he smiled.

 

And, at least in moments like these, Hoseok felt like he could give him everything he wanted; like nothing was out of reach. 

 

Hoseok extended a hand and used a finger to push some of Taehyung’s sopping wet fringe to the side and tuck it behind his left ear, out of his eyes. It was just long enough to do that.

 

He couldn’t tell if the slight reddening that started across Taehyung’s cheeks and crawled to the tip of his ear where Hoseok’s finger was brushing it was a trick of the blue light, or maybe his imagination. 

 

“Night, Tae,” he said, and without thinking, let his fingertips trace lightly along the younger’s jaw and chin as he pulled them back. 

 

Night…” Taehyung breathed out, and Hoseok knew he wasn’t imagining how his eyelids drooped low like he wanted to close them -- or like he was having difficulty keeping them open -- and how the mysterious rosy tint on his face deepened. 

 

Hoseok thought back to how Taehyung had looked when he was sure the merman had wanted to kiss Namjoon earlier -- sleepy eyes and glowing blushes -- and it was much like how he looked now.

 

But he abandoned that thought and whatever it meant and whatever this meant (and whatever he wanted to do with it), because it was too much to think about with everything else. With all his frayed morals and heavy guilt and conflicting sense of duty. 

 

Loyalty, trust, affection…

 

Too much.

 

He stood, casting one last half smile at Taehyung, who returned it dazedly from the water. 

 

Hoseok could feel himself being watched as he crossed the room, opened the door, stepped through, and went to type the code into the keypad next to it. 

 

He couldn’t stop himself from glancing through the long window toward the water again, and he was mildly disappointed yet relieved in a way when Taehyung had already disappeared back underneath the surface. Hoseok couldn’t see his silhouette at all from here, so he must’ve gone deep. 

 

The reason he was glad for it, though, was because Hoseok had never felt more sick to his stomach typing in the combination that would lock and seal the door before. His hand shook as he practically stabbed the thick rubber buttons with his fingers. 

 

He hesitated with pressing the Enter key after all nine numbers had been punched in, his finger hovering unsteadily over the button and not going any further. It was like half of him was saying one thing, and the other half was telling him a million others. 

 

His finger wouldn’t move closer. 

 

It was like he was malfunctioning, his mind and body fighting each other. Warring with himself. 

 

Like a robot that was designed to carry out an order but then received conflicting input and now didn’t know how to act, so it just stood there -- twitching, smoking and useless.

 

Bt Hoseok wasn’t a robot. He was different in that he knew which orders he had to follow. He knew what was possible -- despite any other part of himself trying to whisper to him that he had other options. 

 

They wouldn’t work. 

 

That didn’t stop finally pressing the Enter button and once again locking Taehyung up in his cell from feeling wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong…

 

And maybe he was malfunctioning. 

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

The three of them watched a movie in Namjoon’s room a couple nights later, and the entertainment hadn’t come from the quirky old black and white comedy that Namjoon was fond of, but Taehyung’s commentary on it. 

 

Hoseok wanted to take him to see a movie. And fireworks.

 

Those kind of sentimental thoughts overwhelmed him tonight, and as he and Namjoon sat on either side of Taehyung as the credits rolled silently on Namjoon’s laptop screen, the merman lying sleeping between them, bundled up in one of Namjoon’s big red sweaters, Hoseok had to say it.

 

He had to get out what he had been thinking. Fearing. Because he knew Namjoon was at a place where he could feel it too. 

 

“We have to protect him, Namjoon,” he said in a voice barely above a whisper, stroking at Taehyug’s soft brown hair. “It's gotta be us. Nobody else is going to do it.” Namjoon lifted his eyes from where’d he’d been watching Taehyung to look at him, and Hoseok took the opportunity to pin him with his gaze and ask, “They're gonna kill him after the surgery you told me about, aren’t they?” Namjoon cringed as if he’d been slapped, and yeah, maybe it was a little harsh -- too blunt -- but Hoseok felt like he needed to be. This was serious. “You've known that right? I can see it on your face, Joon-ah. It's normal practice in science to put things down because it wouldn't the humane to keep them alive, right? After?”

 

“That's the ethical thing, yes…” Namjoon voiced weakly. “In animal testing…

 

“Right. Animal testing,” Hoseok scoffed. “But Tae’s not just another lab rat.”

 

“Of course not,” Namjoon whispered harshly, frowning as if offended Hoseok had even suggested he’d thought that.

 

Hoseok leaned forward, a glint in his eye. He was glad to know that Namjoon felt just as strongly about it as he did.

 

“But they're gonna wait until after they use him to try and find more first, aren’t they? And that could be a chance.”

 

Namjoon looked dubious. “...A chance?”

 

Hoseok leaned back, an uncharacteristically serious look overtaking his features. And he told Namjoon what he was suggesting.

 

When he finished, Namjoon sat, wide-eyed and struck speechless. He even looked a little scared.  

 

“That's crazy,” he eventually breathed. “And it sounds impossible.”

 

“Maybe…” Past his initial fervor, it did still sound crazy to hear out loud and not just bouncing around inside his head for several days. And he had no idea how they would pull actually it off, if they were to risk trying it. “He asked me why it was I wear this uniform. I told him it was to protect people. Isn't that why you wear yours?”

 

“It is.”

 

“Then we have to protect him,” Hoseok insisted again, knitting his eyebrows together earnestly.

 

“What about…?” Namjoon paused and licked his lips. He looked like he didn’t exactly want to say his next words. “But what about all the people who could be saved if the experiment was a success? Hoseok, if it works, then that could be millions of people we’re protecting. I don’t know what the military wants him for--” he aimed a pointed look at him. “--but the scientific team is studying him for a purpose. A just cause. And maybe it’s valid.”

 

“You don’t mean that,” Hoseok said simply. Certainly. He could see it in his best-friend’s eyes. He was feeding Hoseok the words he thought he should say, not the ones he actually felt. “You can look at him and say you'd let him die by cruel means for a chance?” The pained expression on his face was answer enough, and Hoseok placed a comforting hand on his thigh. “Talk to me as Kim Namjoon, not as Dr. Kim.”

 

“Does that mean you’re just Jung Hoseok right now?”

 

“I am,” Hoseok nodded, and then sighed. “Look, Namjoon, I know it's hard. Morals are so hard and so unclear sometimes. As a scientist, I know what you think you have to do, but you're Kim Namjoon first. And what does he think? Because I know him, and I know he knows this isn’t right. Jung Hoseok swore to protect people who needed it, and now Tae needs our help.” he pressed, a pleading note mixing in with the determined steeliness. “I know this is what I'm supposed to be doing.”

 

He leaned back, hand sliding from Namjoon’s thigh, and silence filled the space between them. 

 

Hoseok had always been the one with impulsive decisions he only thought through for a second before he did them. Namjoon was the one who was focused and calculated and made sure to carefully plan his moves before he made them. 

 

Hoseok wondered if Namjoon was thinking about that too; how, of the two of them, Hoseok’s judgment was probably the one to be least trusted. This wasn’t high school anymore, after all. Or college. This was the real world, serious business. Grown up stuff. Their actions could and would have much bigger consequences than a slap on the wrist from a dean.

 

But it wasn’t like that , Hoseok had wanted to say. This was different. 

 

He could feel that this was something he had to do -- which wasn’t a good reason, but it was the best he had. 

 

In a way, he guessed it was kind of like those feelings he had back in their school days right before he dragged Namjoon off on one of his crazy schemes. Right before they snuck into a local concert the day before final exams began, Hoseok had been right about the fact Namjoon had desperately needed to get away from his computer screen and mountain of notes that he’d been slaving over for multiple hours every day for a week before he had a literal breakdown. When they left, he had looked more relaxed and happy than Hoseok had seen him in a month, and he aced his finals after that. It was like right before Hoseok had “accidentally” led them into an abandoned classroom to evade campus security one night and used it as a guise to get him somewhere spontaneous and dark and quiet and kiss him for the first time. He had been right about that fact that Namjoon had apparently wanted him to for months. 

 

Hoseok felt like it was like those kinds of things, but on a much grander scale. He was older now, and more mature, and he understood the way the world worked. 

 

He knew what he would be getting himself into, but that gut feeling was still strong -- and that had to be an indicator that it meant something. It couldn’t just be him being silly and impulsive like he always was.

 

He would be saving someone. 

 

He would be doing something right. He knew he would.

 

“Think about it,” he told him, eyeing him carefully. Namjoon looked away, down at the comforter between them that he was picking at with his fingernails, but he did nod, slowly, a few moments later, and that was enough for Hoseok for now. All he wanted was for Namjoon to consider it. He sighed and tried for a smile, knowing he had made the mood in the room pretty heavy. “I’ll be back.”

 

Namjoon didn’t respond.

 

As Hoseok maneuvered off the bed in a way that wouldn’t disturb the sleeping bundle of merman a couple feet away, he thought over what his friend had said in counterargument to his proposition for helping Taehyung out of this.

 

He understood why he was hesitant, and why he might think it could even be better the other way. From the perspective of a scientist and pretty much any other sane person who didn’t have future plans for ending up in prison, Namjoon’s points had made perfect sense. His qualms had been reasonable.

 

Hoseok was always the more wild one in their relationship with all the wacky ideas and taboo plans, but he’ll still be the first to admit what he was suggesting they do was way out there, and a far cry from sneaking into the campus gymnasium after hours to fuck beneath the bleachers. It violated several self-preservation boundary lines, even for him. But Hoseok was starting to feel desperate, and scared for Taehyung’s safety; and he was definitely beginning to believe that anything short of a little crazy wouldn’t be enough to save his life.

 

And despite Namjoon’s hesitancy, Hoseok knew he would probably end up coming around. He could already tell that the younger man felt a similar sort of protectiveness toward the merman as Hoseok did, and he could tell that Namjoon did agree with many of the things he had said. 

 

He saw the way Namjoon looked at Taehyung -- with so much gentleness; so much weight. Hoseok had seen that look before. Once upon a time, he’d been given it, too. He knew how Namjoon cared. 

 

Hoseok didn’t know how that made him feel knowing that he was fairly certain he cared in that way for Taehyung, too. But then, he got that same sort of feeling for Namjoon -- like all those years of history and being around him again had recarved a specific place in his heart for the scientist to sit, right next to Taehyung. 

 

He didn’t exactly know what to make of that -- feelings like that for two people, and after what wasn't even that much time at all, but the immediate answer was simple enough.

 

Namjoon and Taehyung were both precious to him, and that meant he was going to do what he could to protect them.

 

In whatever way he could free Taehyung and keep Namjoon out of the crossfire if he didn’t want a part of it, he would do.

 

But for Namjoon, it was always a matter of doing what was most logical and most likely to succeed and end up yielding the most benefits. In other words, he’d always wanted to play it safe, in Hoseok’s opinion. Hoseok’s idea didn’t sound very safe, or logical, or even likely to exceed, because he had formulated it on instinct and heart and a good old gut feeling. And that was why he wanted to do it, because all three were attributes he’d learned from past experience did him good to listen to.

 

And what was more was he knew that Namjoon had his own healthy dose of instinct and gut feeling and so, so much good heart, and he knew he’d do the right thing. Even if it was the ridiculous, insane thing.

 

Because he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t. They both had that in common. 

 

Hoseok grabbed his jacket from the back of Namjoon’s desk chair where he’d tossed it upon arriving earlier tonight. He swung it onto his shoulders and slid his arms into the sleeves. 

 

He knew he would need it to keep the late night chill off when he went to the roof to see Yoongi again. 

 

Hoseok opened the door and stepped out into the brighter lights of the hallway. He was in the process of dragging the door closed behind him when he noticed the man to his left.

 

Hoseok just barely suppressed a gasp upon seeing Colonel Kangmin standing there, about a dozen feet to his left. He wasn’t looking at Hoseok; he was turned toward the wall, inspecting some of the portraits of past Sergeants and Colonels and Generals hung there, but Hoseok still got the overwhelming feeling he had been waiting for him. 

 

He squeezed his hand around Namjoon’s doorknob, gently pulling the door the rest of the way closed.

 

Kangmin still hadn’t looked over at him, but Hoseok could tell he knew he was there. 

 

“Colonel,” Hoseok addressed, trying to keep his voice steady, trying not to panic even when he could feel his heart punching so hard against his chest that he couldn’t breathe properly. His hand went clammy around the knob, so he let it go.

 

His commanding officer was before him, and Taehyung was less than thirty feet away behind this door. If Kangmin found any reason to go in, Hoseok wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. 

 

“Some of the greats,” Kangmin declared by way of greeting, and Hoseok realized after a short moment of delay that he was referring to the pictures. He didn’t know how to respond and didn’t exactly trust himself to speak unless it was absolutely necessary, lest he end up putting his foot in his mouth (and Namjoon’s and Taehyung’s along with it), so he remained silent. “Late night?”

 

That was directed at him, and Hoseok was startled to see the officer was now looking right at him. Unmoving. Unblinking. 

 

Hoseok swallowed. This wasn’t basic training or running drills or carrying out a military operation. He wasn’t taking orders from the man right now, he was having a conversation with him -- supposedly. A casual one, it could be implied by Kangmin’s light tone. And yet Hoseok had never felt so tense.

 

Because his eyes said otherwise. It wasn’t a coincidence that he was up here right now, and he would bet Kangmin knew that Hoseok knew that too. And so he was just playing with him now. 

 

But what else did he know?

 

If Hoseok wasn’t careful, he could give something away and damn all three of them. And so this casual conversation automatically felt like verbally navigating a minefield.

 

“Yes, sir,” he answered. A safe answer; and minimal.  

 

Kangmin nodded at Namjoon’s door. “You’re not on your floor.”

 

He had made it sound questioning, but to Hoseok’s ears it was accusatory. 

 

It was obvious they were on the floor reserved for the medical team. Kangmin had actively come down here himself. He just wanted to point it out to him. 

 

“I was just visiting a friend,” he supplied, not really wanting to say Namjoon’s name. Though, it didn’t matter in the next second when Kangmin took a step forward to lean around and see the printed name stuck into the clear slot beside the frame.

 

“Dr. Kim,” he read, and then smiled like he had been expecting that. The sight of it made Hoseok uncomfortable. It was too large and toothy to sit on Kangmin’s stoic, weather worn face. “Not strictly professional then?”

 

Hoseok stiffened, and he hoped the other man couldn’t tell. Was he allowed to be asking him something like that? 

 

He breathed in and told himself that everyone was free to do whatever they wanted after hours (with the exception of removing classified specimens from their chambers). He hadn’t been caught doing anything wrong, as far as Kangmin knew.

 

Or at least, as far as Hoseok hoped that he knew. 

 

“We go way back, sir.”

 

“We’re very grateful to you and Doctor Kim, you know. The two of you have been spending a lot of time with the specimen as of late, isn’t that right? Doing good work?”

 

Spending a lot of time with the specimen.

 

No, Hoseok told himself. He couldn’t know. 

 

“Our observations have been going well, yes,” he responded carefully. “But Doctor Kim has been doing most of the grit work.”

 

Kangmin hummed. “Yes, and you two are the only ones it lets get close to it anymore. That’s fascinating.” It wasn’t a question, so Hoseok didn’t say anything. “A lot of power comes with that kind of trust.”

 

Hoseok had the inexplicable urge to run away, to get out from underneath this man’s prying stare, but he wasn’t about to leave him standing alone in front of Namjoon’s door -- so close to him and Taehyung.

 

“How is the specimen doing by the way, Jung?”

 

Hoseok’s heart skittered. Kangmin’s voice had changed into something lower, his syllables scratching around the edges and making goosebumps rise on his arms, even underneath the jacket.

 

Hoseok fought the urge to glance over at the door, thanking all his military training that his tells were greatly minimized. He could pull a poker face as well as the best soldier, but he was starting to worry that, with how Kangmin was staring him down, so unwavering, he would sooner or later begin to see through the cracks in his carefully-practiced facade.

 

He had hoped that Namjoon and Taehyung couldn't hear their conversation, though some part of him he was also beginning to hope that they did. That way, maybe they could hide. 

 

“It’s healthy, sir.” Referring to Taehyung as ‘he’ in front of Kangmin suddenly felt like he would be giving too much of himself away. His intentions.

 

“Asleep in that chamber, is it?”

 

Hoseok’s mouth ran dry. “I would assume so.”

 

He wanted to take it back as soon as he said it. He had meant to imply that he assumed Taehyung was sleeping by now (because as far as Kangmin was concerned, Hoseok wouldn’t be able to know that for sure), but he realized after the words left him that they could be misconstrued as him assuming Taehyung was even in the chamber at all.

 

He should know that he was in the chamber. Hoseok was the one charged with locking him in every night. 

 

But scrambling to correct himself would just look worse, so he held his tongue. 

 

Kangmin was silent across from him long enough for it to be uncomfortable, and Hoseok’s fingers twitched at his sides with the nervous energy sweeping through his body. But he didn’t dare move.

 

He realized belatedly that the older man had stopped smiling at some point, and he wondered when that had happened. 

 

And then, horrifyingly, Kangmin started walking toward him. His steps were slow, but then it didn’t take many of them for him to get close. Hoseok forced himself not to back up, even when the Colonel didn’t stop until he had entered Hoseok’s personal space, and a little beyond that. 

 

Kangmin was right up on him, maybe less than a foot away from him, staring him down while Hoseok stared at some spot down the hallway and barely breathed. 

 

“I need you to think...” he began in a voice so soft Hoseok probably wouldn’t have been able to hear him if he were any father away. He said the words slowly, as if he were tasting them. Or drawing them out for Hoseok’s own anxious discomfort. “...long and hard…” Another pause, and Hoseok could feel his hawk-like eyes sweeping over him, almost as if they were physical things scraping against his skin. “...about where your loyalties lie here.”

 

A terrifying thought occurred to Hoseok then that Kangmin knew what he was planning. That he was somehow aware of what he had tried to convince Namjoon of just five minutes prior, even if he had been speaking quietly enough to not rouse Taehyung, who had been right next to them. Maybe he knew what Hoseok was thinking before Hoseok even knew it himself. Maybe he had been being too obvious with his discontent lately, openly showing too much compassion for Taehyung, and Hangmin could see right through him and anticipate how he would act, what he would try to do before Hoseok had even had the chance to scrape together the dregs of a pitiful escape plan. Kangmin could see it and stop it before it had even started.

 

A cold wave of dread washed over Hoseok so suddenly he couldn’t quite suppress his shiver. He couldn’t speak, but he had a feeling Hangmin didn’t want him to. He just wanted him to listen.

 

While he threatened him. 

 

“Loyalties you committed to the day you put on that uniform and swore an oath to your country,” Kangmin continued, his voice like ice. “Are you going to go back on that oath, Jung?”

 

Hoseok shook his head, feeling numb. 

 

“Are you going to go back on that oath, Jung?” Kangmin hissed lowly, like an agitated viper.

 

“No, sir,” Hoseok spoke this time, and it was the weakest affirmative he’d ever given. Answering like that wouldn’t have sufficed back in basic training. It would’ve gotten you hit and then forced to do burpees until you apologized enough times and said it right. But it seemed to satisfy Kangmin. He probably liked that Hoseok sounded so scared. 

 

He stepped back enough for Hoseok to see that his unsettling smile had reappeared. And then he clapped a hand down onto his shoulder so hard it stung. 

 

“Good man,” Kangmin praised, patting a couple more times before withdrawing completely. “You’re one of our best.”

 

And then he folded his arms behind his back -- the picture of perfect military posture -- and walked past him down the hallway. Hoseok listened until the sound of his boots clomping against the floor had faded out into nothing, and only then did he really breathe again. 

 

He leaned his shoulder against the door and took in lungfuls of air, the nervous shivers he’d been suppressing exploding across his body with the expelling tension and evolving into full-on shaking. A bead of sweat rolled down his back beneath his shirt. 

 

If they didn’t find some way to get Taehyung out of here, and soon, he would be killed.

 

But if they did, they would be committing treason, and they’d probably end up the same way. 

 

Hoseok waited until his legs were steady enough, and then he went off in the opposite direction of Kangmin to find an elevator to the roof.

 

He needed a cigarette. 

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

“Goddammit, why are you always up here?” 

 

That was how Hoseok greeted Yoongi as soon as he burst through the door to the rooftop and saw the smaller soldier standing there, leaning his elbows on the edge with one foot hooked behind the other like he always is. 

 

It didn’t even make sense that he’d said it. He’d come with the specific driving purpose of getting a cigarette off of his friend.

 

But he was also maybe going to scream into the void if no one had been up here, and the thought was suddenly much more attractive now that it wasn’t an option anymore. 

 

Yoongi turned his head to eye him plainly over his shoulder. “Typically it’s to get away from all human life, but it tends to follow me like the plague, you see.”

 

“Okay, forget about that,” Hoseok dismissed, waving his hands around and approaching him. “Gimme a cigarette.”

 

Yoongi had it in him to look mildly surprised at the request, dark eyebrows lifting as he spoke around the smouldering half-smoked tube hanging between his lips. “ You want a cig--”

 

Yes, I want a cigarette. I’m asking aren’t I? C’mon, hyung.” He made grabby hands at Yoongi’s slightly bulging jacket pocket, where he knew the goods would be, almost bouncing on the balls of his feet.

 

In all honesty, he wasn’t actually sure that he wanted a cigarette. He just had a lot of nervous energy and no idea how to deal with it or dispel it, and he figured this was a better choice for getting it to go away than, say, throwing himself off the side of the building. 

 

Yoongi stared at him and his strange behavior for a couple moments, but he was not the type to try and convince bright-eyed non-smokers not to go down the path of tainted lungs and addiction if they wanted to try it.

 

He was good and uncaring like that.

 

The elder grunted and reached into his pocket. 

 

“And your lighter,” Hoseok added, causing Yoongi to roll his eyes but accede to his request. 

 

He pulled out his semi-crushed white Raison pack and a chipped red lighter and tossed them at him. Hoseok caught them with both hands against his chest, flipping open the small box to see there were about seven sticks left inside. He pulled one out and handed the rest back to Yoongi.

 

Hoseok held up the lighter in one hand and the little white nicotine stick in the other, and for about five seconds he just looked at them. 

 

Yoongi’s impassive stare bored into his cheek.

 

“Okay, shit, I can’t do this. Here, take them back.”

 

He stepped forward and shoved the items back at the shorter man, and he snorted. 

 

“Are you right in the head right now, Seok Seok? Finally cracked after all these years?” he jested, taking the stump of a cigarette from his mouth and stubbing it out on the ledge before going to light the one Hoseok had just refused. “I myself always thought it would happen a little later into your career.”

 

“I’m fine,” Hoseok sighed, dropping his head and rubbing his hands over his hair a few times. 

 

This had a been a fail. He was running out of time, at a loss, and still terribly anxious on top of it. 

 

There came the tiny sound of Yoongi’s lighter clicking, followed right after by the faint fizzle of burning paper and tobacco. The stink of it grew stronger, but Hoseok didn’t mind as much right now.

 

“Wanna talk about it?” Yoongi offered, mumbling around his stick. 

 

Hoseok shook his head. “No.” He dropped his arms and looked back up. “I can’t.”

 

Yoongi stared at him for a couple seconds, but then nodded silently and turned his head back toward the night sky, the bright orange burn of the end of the cigarette glowing stark against it. Hoseok stayed with him for a while longer, watching the end of it grow shorter and shorter with each of his friend’s lazy drags. An ever-present breeze blew their hair around, and the sound of the ocean was a constant lull. And all the while, Yoongi didn’t say a word.

 

He was good like that.

 

For better or worse, Hoseok’s thoughts did quiet down after a little while. The fretful buzzing in his veins dimmed to a dull hum. And although he was still troubled, at least he could think again. 

 

When he bid his friend goodnight, Yoongi stopped him with his words when he was one foot out the door. 

 

“Whatever you’re thinking of doing, I know it’s for the right reasons.”

 

Hoseok was shocked, but Yoongi’s acknowledgement that he was up to something didn’t scare him like Kangmin’s had. Yoongi’s words actually made him feel warm inside; reassured, even. And that was one of the things he needed most right now.

 

Hoseok smiled, a small wave of emotion welling up inside him. “Thanks, hyung.”

 

Yoongi turned and shot him a stern look.

 

“Just don’t be stupid, dumbass,” he threw in, and his blunt words were like dousing the moment in cold water. Hoseok sobered up, returning the expression with a withering one of his own.

 

There it was. 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

When he made it back to Namjoon’s room, it was both a relief and a comfort to see both Namjoon and Taehyung still in there. 

 

Hoseok silently approached the bed, rolled up on the balls of his feet to minimize the noise of his footsteps. He smiled at what he saw. 

 

Taehyung and Namjoon were both sound asleep, blissfully unaware of the events of the night and all their heavy implications. Namjoon looked like he had lain down on his back next to Taehyung, and at some point the youngest of them had turned over and slung an arm over Namjoon’s chest, hugging him closer. Namjoon’s head was lolling onto Taehyung’s shoulder, and Taehyung’s cheek was smushed on top of Namjoon’s head, white blond hair tickling at his nose. 

 

Fondness filled every part of Hoseok, and it was just further reassurance that he needed to look out for the two of them in any way that he could. No matter what consequences he would suffer because of it.

 

He hated to break up such a lovely picture -- he wanted nothing more than to join them on the bed and curl up with them too -- but Taehyung needed to be getting back to the holding chamber now. After his most recent encounter with Kangmin, Hoseok wasn’t entirely comfortable with him being out at all; and he hated to think how the man had so effortlessly destroyed such a nice thing for them.

 

He roused Taehyung just enough to get the younger boy gathered into his arms, a soft bundle of puffy eyes and sleepy mumbling. Hoseok bent down to whisper to Namjoon that they were turning in for the night, and the dimpled man responded with a line of unintelligible gibberish and a sloppy thumbs up. 

 

Hoseok smiled, patted him on the head, and made for the door.

 

It was nerve wracking making the short trip down to the holding chamber tonight. With every corner he turned, Hoseok imagined coming face to face with a lurking Kangmin again, and there would be no explaining himself out of the situation. 

 

Thankfully, he didn’t see the man again, and he got Taehyung back into the water without incident. 

 

He was getting ready to leave when he noticed how Taehyung was staring at the surface of the water, sitting upright and not moving much. His face was a blank mask, and he looked distant. 

 

“Tae?” Hoseok inquired, turning back. “You alright?”

 

“There was another,” Taehyung said quietly, his focus still on the water. It looked like he was speaking to his reflection. “Another like me. My friend.”

 

Hoseok slowly crouched back down near the edge, intrigued. “What happened to them?”

 

“I don’t know,” Taehyung shrugged, looking despondent. “He was with me when I was ambushed -- by men in uniforms.” It wasn’t a jab at him, but Hoseok still withered while he continued. “He could be anywhere. He’s younger than me, and so much like a child sometimes.” Taehyung sighed and bit his lip, his eyes sad and far away. “I hope he got away. I hope he’s okay. But I have no way of…”

 

His throat seemed to close up on him then, and all that came out was a broken whimper.

 

Hoseok frowned, his heart clenching painfully at seeing Taehyung struggle so hard not to cry. “I’m sorry, Tae,” he said, his own voice sounding distressed to his ears. “I’m so sorry.”

 

He wanted to touch him, comfort him in some way, but he suddenly didn’t feel like he ought to. Like a part of this was his fault somehow.

 

“It’s okay.” Taehyung looked up and smiled, tears glistening in his eyes. “You and Namjoon-hyung, you are worth getting captured for.”

 

Hoseok’s stomach clenched uncomfortably, and he shook his head. “Don’t say that.” 

 

The guilt of it all was too overbearing. There was a likely chance that Taehyung would die in this facility, with Hoseok being absolutely powerless to stop it, and he knew undoubtedly that he wasn’t worth that.

 

“But I mean it,” the merman insisted softly, lifting his arm out of the water to place a hand against his cheek, drifting closer to him. It was wet, but it was warm and Hoseok couldn’t help leaning into it. “I’m glad I was able to know you, hyung.”

 

Hoseok slid his hand over his and closed his eyes, trying to figure out how Taehyung could say that, after everything that had happened to him. It hurt. It hurt Hoseok, and it irritated him because he shouldn’t be the one who felt that way.

 

Slowly, he lowered Taehyung’s hand from his face, and Taehyung pulled it back into the water with only a slight frown. 

 

“So, does that mean there are others then?” Hoseok questioned, desperate to shift the conversation. “More of your kind?”

 

“Of course there are more. So many more.” For a second, Hoseok had been a little worried that this topic was still a little too close to something raw and sensitive for Taehyung, but it seemed to revive the merman a little to talk about it. Some of the light came back into his eyes. “Hoseok-hyung, there are hundreds of us. My friend and I, we had gone out -- far -- that day, as we tended to do. My grandmother always told us we were being reckless and that we would get hurt one day, and I guess she was right…” Taehyung looked off to the side and grimaced, but he recovered after a second. “But the others… they’re hidden away in places your kind don’t think to look and possibly cannot get to.” A fierce look came over his features. “As it should be.”

 

Hoseok nodded in agreement. “As it should be.”

 

“The ocean is large, hyung.” Taehyung softened again, the hard lines on his face smoothing out into something wistful. “I just wish I could get back to it. I was always drawn to swimming farther out than I should so that I could get a glimpse of your world. I don’t think I appreciated my own enough.”

 

Hoseok studied him. “Why would you tell me this? About your kind and where you’re from?”

 

“Because I trust you,” Taehyung whispered, his eyes boring into his.

 

Hoseok’s heart pounded, and he was sure then of what he was going to do. Maybe Namjoon wouldn’t agree to do it with him. Maybe it was stupidly reckless. Maybe it terrified him.

 

But it was the right thing to do, and Hoseok had always trusted himself to know what that looked like. 

 

Just like he had always trusted that he was capable of helping someone who needed it.

 

He nodded at Taehyung. His head swimming with thoughts, his heart beating with a newfound purpose, he told him in earnest, “I trust you, too.”

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

It was the very next day when it happened. 

 

Hoseok had entered the water chamber, said good morning to Taehyung, and talked with him while they waited for Namjoon to show up.

 

Everything was good; normal; routine. 

 

And then it was shattered. 

 

The door burst open behind him, and in poured about a half-dozen soldiers that Hoseok didn’t particularly recognize. They were likely just a part of a different unit than him, but that still didn’t explain why they were all filing in here all of a sudden. 

 

It was when Colonel Kangmin brought up the rear and stepped through the doorway that Hoseok felt his confusion morph into trepidation. He got out of the cross-legged position he had adopted near the edge of the water and rose to his feet, standing to attention out of habit.

 

Taehyung looked on silently, eyeing them all warily.

 

Kangmin smiled wide when he saw him, throwing him off even more. “Nice work!” he grinned, striding over.

 

Hoseok furrowed his eyebrows. “Sir?” 

 

Kangmin waved him out of his stance, and Hoseok relaxed his shoulders in befuddlement. This was… odd behavior. Colonel Kangmin seemed almost… giddy about something. 

 

“You’re mostly here for the protection factor, but goddamn if you don’t play your roles, and well, I might add.”

 

“I don’t understand, sir.”

 

“Because of you, Jung, we now know there are more.”

 

Hoseok froze. “More... what?

 

“More of them of course,” Kangmin grinned his awful grin, sweeping one long arm in Taehyung’s direction. “ Hundreds even. Hidden away in places we don’t think to look and maybe can’t even find.”

 

No. How did he… he couldn’t.

 

“I…” Hoseok looked to Taehyung, who was staring at him with an unreadable expression. Hoseok shook his head. “No, I didn’t.”

 

As if expecting him to deny it, Kangmin produced an object seemingly out of thin air. It was palm-sized and black, with a few silver buttons sticking out of the side. A recording device. “Oh, yes. You did.” 

 

He hit the play button, and then his and Taehyung’s conversation from just last night played -- word for word -- over the deathly quiet of the chamber. With each second that went by as he listened, Hoseok’s breathing grew shallower and shallower.

 

“Because I trust you.” 

 

“I trust you, too.”

 

The recording clicked off.

 

“You put a tracker on me,” Hoseok spoke softly as he looked up into the black of Kangmin’s eyes, feeling the anger crawling its way up his throat. He recalled when the man had patted him on the shoulder. That must have been when he’d done it.

 

“And it all went according to our plan,” Kangmind slung an arm across his shoulders. Hoseok fought the urge to shrug him off. “We’ve got a real head start on finding more of these things, and it’s all thanks to you.”

 

“Tae,” Hoseok gave up on Kangmin in favor of turning to Taehyung, who sat quiet and still in the water. Hoseok wanted to plead with him with his eyes, show him he was sincere, but the merman wouldn’t look at him all of a sudden. “Tae, you have to believe me. I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t know.”

 

“And that reminds me,” Kangmin continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “Since it’s also come to my attention that we can communicate with it through Korean, why don’t we try something.”

 

One of the men stepped forward and hooked a metal loop around Taehyung’s neck, tightening it severely. Taehyung jerked and hissed.

 

“No!” Hoseok pitched forward, intent on getting to him, but two more men grabbed him from behind and held him back. “No, what---what are you doing?”

 

Kangmin stooped down and grabbed Taehyung roughly by the front of his hair, yanking his head to the side. The merman visibly winced, but he didn’t make a sound, his eyes boring murderously into the Colonel’s. “You’re going to explain where these locations are that you say none of us can get to.”

 

Taehyung said nothing, and Kangmin reached down into his pocket and brought out a switchblade.

 

“No!” Hoseok twisted in the mens’ grasp, but their hold was too strong.

 

“I know you can understand me.” He slipped the knife through Taehyung’s lips. 

 

Stop,” Hoseok was almost yelling now, feeling more and more hopeless in the situation. More and more powerless. “Don’t,” he begged. “Don’t hurt him.” 

 

“We’ll take it from here, Jung. You’ve fulfilled your role beautifully,” Kangmin dismissed him without even looking at him. 

 

Hoseok struggled valiantly on the entire way out, but it was nowhere near enough against both of the bigger men. And no use anyway. What was he going to do, after all? Even if he did break free, what then?

 

He was shoved out of the room by the men a little rougher than necessary, and Hoseok was surprised to see Namjoon there. He had been looking on from the window, listening in through the open door. They stood still across from each other. 

 

Someone inside the holding chamber shut the door, the sound of the resounding click signaling the it being locked from the inside.

 

“Did you hear?” Hoseok asked, breathing a little heavily.

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I didn’t know I was being recorded,” he whispered. “I wouldn’t do that to him.”

 

“I know.”

 

Hoseok felt the tears spilling out of his eyes even when he tried to stop them, and Namjoon took his hand and led him across the wide outside room and through the door.

 

Out in the hallway, Hoseok leaned against the wall, shuddering as he pressed the backs of his hands to his eyes. Namjoon silently watched him cry for a moment, and Hoseok didn’t have it in him to feel ashamed. After all, Namjoon had seen him break down many times before in his life.

 

“Let’s do it.”

 

Hoseok looked up at his voice, cheeks wet. “What?”

 

“Your plan,” Namjoon clarified, his face hardened and resolute. “I get it. I want to do it. I want to get Tae out of here.”

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Never once in Hoseok’s life did he think he would be going against his duty as a soldier. The military played such a big part in the protection of South Korea, it was almost like he was going against his country by going through with what they were planning on doing. 

 

Even if they ended up doing nothing after all, the plan itself was enough for them to be marked with...

 

Treason.

 

The word made his heart jump funnily in his chest, but he didn't stop walking and he didn't let it show, despite the fact no one was with him in the dark, musty halls.

 

Namjoon had told him that there was a surgery scheduled for Taehyung in four days. They were going to break him out in three. 

 

He couldn't think about that if this was going to work. He had to keep himself completely focused. He couldn't lose sight of why he was breaking the rules and going against everything like this -- why he felt like this was the right thing to do; and why he needed it to be.

 

It was to protect Taehyung, whom they were going to kill. 

 

They pulled him from his home used him, injecting him with all manner of substances -- pulling on him, poking him, sticking him, drawing his blood... and then they were just going to toss him aside and move on to the next one, when they found the next one, because they didn't care. Because he was different -- not exactly human, and that made it okay to treat him like this.

 

And if Hoseok tried to explain this to someone who had the power to make it stop... they wouldn't listen. And it would just paint a target on his back when shit went down.

 

And if, by some miracle, they did manage to coerce someone into listening and realize this wasn't the way to go about things, it would no doubt be too late for Taehyung.

 

Hoseok closed his eyes over gently and sucked in a deep, silent breath through his nose, rounding the corner to get to the stairs that would take him even farther down into the lower levels.

 

They needed to do this. And Hoseok needn't have any thoughts about betrayal to his nation or what would happen to them if this all failed and they got caught. He needed to focus on what he thought -- what he knew -- was right. Let it feed his anger and fuel him -- harden him before he started to have any doubts about it. 

 

He thought about every time he caught Taehyung crying when the merman thought he was alone, every time he found Namjoon drinking from a canteen and running his hands through his hair as he slaved over analyzing Taehyung's new test results, no doubt recalling some of the methods the scientific team had used in order to collect the data.

 

He had to protect the both of them.

 

Even more than for himself, he wanted this plan to work for the two of them.

 

By the time he approached the large double doors on the basement level, he had steeled himself.

 

Whatever happened, there were going to be no regrets.

 

Taehyung had asked him why he wore this uniform, and the answer was still the same: to help those who needed it. He had joined the special forces after his mandatory time in service because he had thought he could keep on doing that, playing a part in helping more and more of those in need. But more than that, he had joined because he had been under the illusion that his military held those same ideals in full, about justice and a decent sense of morality, protecting the rights of people... even if they were half-people.

 

Despite what the law and his oath said, Hoseok felt he had a duty to himself -- something he had always wanted to be sure to never forget, even if it forced him to make tough decisions sometimes --  and that was to not become something he didn't believe in.

 

He had to hold onto that now.

 

Pushing open the doors so he could go in to check on Tae and run through what they were going to do this weekend, he had psyched himself up for it again. Found those same heated feelings he had experienced when he was doing his best to convince Namjoon two days earlier. Or when he had been looking into the soulless eyes of Kangmin as he hurt Taehyung.

 

It really was truly amazing what the sight of one man could do make that sudden confidence boost disappear in an instant.

 

Hoseok could feel that flowing energy trickling out of him bit by bit as soon as he laid eyes on Kangmin, the Colonel staring right back at him from over by the chamber, standing facing him in front of the glass window. His held his hands behind his back, body taut and eerily still, like he had been waiting specifically for Hoseok to come in.

 

They were the only two people in the room.

 

Hoseok couldn't help the way his steps stuttered a little as he stumbled to a halt, right before the heavy metal door swung closed behind him -- so loud in the stifling quiet of the room, echoing a little in the open space. It wasn't a professional look at all, the way he had almost tripped over his feet, the way he knew his eyes went wide before he could stop them, the way he could feel the blood draining from his face as he locked eyes with the man.

 

Without even seeing himself, Hoseok knew he looked disoriented; nervous.

 

Caught.

 

"Colonel," Hoseok managed a formal greeting, snapping back into that military training a few seconds too late. He brought his feet together and erected his back.

 

Kangmin returned it, nodding at him briefly before dropping it. “Jung,” he said calmly.

 

And okay, so they were going to keep acting like two days ago had never happened.

 

Hoseok didn’t know if that made him seem more of less suspicious to the man.

 

He wanted to ask him just what the hell he was doing here, but he didn’t, because not only would it be out of line for him to inquire, it also might give it away that he has a problem with his presence, which he shouldn't. Even after what he did, he shouldn’t be hostile.

 

Superior officers can hit you, spit on you, demean you, and kick you when you’re down, and soldiers are expected to take it. 

 

With that it mind, it shouldn't be of any concern to him if the Colonel wanted to come check on how his specimen was going. He'd done it several times before. 

 

But Hoseok had been banking on this room being empty at this time of day, when it was drawing up on late afternoon. Not just so he could talk to Taehyung about their plan, but because consistent timing is the only thing that would allow the plan to work at all.

 

It Kangmin, or anybody else, were going to start getting off of the schedules they had so frequently stuck to since Taehyung was first brought in -- sporadically showing up whenever -- then the entire thing would be fucked up. Hoseok needed to know where people were going to be and when they were going to be there, or it all goes to shit.

 

So yes, his presence right now, three days before everything was set to go down -- it did throw him off, and it did unsettle him. 

 

And given the way the Colonel was looking at him right now -- black eyes boring into him to where he could almost feel their chill from across the room; thin lips ever-so-slightly quirked up at the corner, sizing him up like a shark and its prey -- it kind of felt like he knew it too.

 

"Good news," Kangmin finally said something -- thankfully, too, because Hoseok was about to burst with anticipation waiting for it, barely keeping himself still and professionally quiet. He didn’t respond to the words because they didn't really need one, instead just standing and waiting for the older man to continue, fingernails digging into his palms behind his back. “There’s no reason for you to continue being Doctor Kim’s escort from this point forward."

 

Hoseok stiffened but this time thankfully kept his composure well enough, his countenance barely even twitching. Inside though, his mind was whirring, a mess of warning bells and flashing red lights.

 

What was he saying? If it wasn't for being ordered to be Namjoon's accompaniment during his observations, he'd have no reason to come to the holding chamber at all. Wanting to see Taehyung and keep him company when he was bored and alone, as well as wanting to see Namjoon and keep him company while he worked, are both personal reasons he had for coming down here between his work hours; therefore, without his assignment, he had no imperative reason to be here.

 

And without an imperative reason, he wouldn't be permitted access inside the room anymore.

 

Kangmin knew exactly what he was doing.

 

"May I ask why, Lieutenant?" Hoseok tried anyway, mindful of keeping his voice as emotionless as possible, with maybe just a hint of innocent curiosity. Nothing that would give away how much he was slowly panicking inside.

 

He needed to keep having access to this room. If he didn't, he couldn't get in here to get Taehyung out. The plan would fall through before it had even started.

 

There was a beat of silence between them, and then. "Of course, private."

 

Hoseok swallowed and waited.

 

"You see, it turns out we’re ahead of schedule. Kim's just about done gathering all the information we need from the specimen, and the rest of the scientists are just about through running their tests. Should take another day or two after the surgery, and after that we’re all moving out.”

 

At the mention of Taehyung, Hoseok's eyes instinctively flitted to the water through the window behind Kangmin.

 

He could be underneath the surface, as he was wont to do whenever practically any human besides him or Namjoon were in the room, especially the Colonel. Taehyung had made it clear that he wasn’t particularly fond of the man.

 

And certainly not after two days ago.

 

"Is that so?" Hoseok managed to say when it felt like the silence was getting too long, mouth feeling like cotton.

 

"Yes," Kangmin agreed. Hoseok moved his eyes back to him, and he was still watching him like a hawk. "And we're ahead of schedule, too."

 

"...If I may...?" Hoseok began steadily, and the general nodded his head, once. "Where is the... specimen?"

 

Hoseok tried to ignore the way calling Taehyung that felt bitter on his tongue, but what was worse than that was Kangmin's answer.

 

"Being prepped for its surgery." His voice was cool and collected, like metal. Cold, heartless steel.

 

Hoseok's stomach felt like it wanted to drop out from underneath him, and just splatter all over the clean linoleum floor. 

 

"Three days early?" he eked, struggling to keep his voice steady, though he knew it sounded thinner than normal -- something that would've gotten him slapped upside the head if he'd spoken that way during basic training. Now, it brought a smile to the face of the man who stood across from him, slow and curling and masquerading as something genuine.

 

"Like I said, ahead of schedule," he repeated, looking proud, and in that instant, Hoseok didn’t see his Colonel from years past. Once upon a time when Hoseok and first been put under the man’s jurisdiction -- when he had been younger and newer to everything -- Kangmin didn’t unnerve him like he did these days. These days, Hoseok didn't see the same strong, patriotic lieutenant he'd thought he was several years back. Now, he saw a man who knew he was winning at something through sadistic means. That uniform didn't look right on him anymore. "And it's all thanks to your contributions to the project, Jung. We couldn't have gotten here without you."

 

Hoseok couldn't do anything but nod, feeling trapped underneath his gaze.

 

Taehyung was in surgery? Right now? Did they already start? Were they cutting into him at this very moment while he stands here doing nothing but being mind-fucked by this man? Are they killing him at this very moment, the poor merman probably having been sedated before they'd even hoisted him out of the pool so that he couldn't fight back or prolong it in any way.

 

Did Namjoon know? Where was he right now? Namjoon wouldn't let it happen if he was there. He just wouldn't let it happen.

 

“You’re hereby officially relieved of your duties here," Kangmin's gravelly voice snapped him back from his thoughts. "Go get your bags packed, because you’re leaving with Unit C on the next boat out. At 0600."

 

"But, sir," Hoseok couldn't help but protest, feeling a little frenzied inside. Everything was slipping out of his hold, and he didn't have the power to get it back. "I'm part of Unit F."

 

"I'm aware, Jung, but I'm placing you with the next Unit to cover further expedition of this species in the Yellow Sea. We’re going to need another one after this.” He smiled. “And they leave in just a few hours."

 

"But--"

 

"Are you questioning my authority?" the man's voice turned hard as rock again, just as his face did, and his voice rose about three volumes. Hoseok just barely avoided flinching, and he knew he overstepped.

 

"No, sir."

 

"Do you have a problem with your assignment?" Kangmin boomed, eyes bulging.

 

"No, sir."

 

He couldn't have a problem with it. He had no good reason to; at least, not one that wouldn't get him stripped of his title and get him sent straight to prison.

 

So he let the automatic drilled-in answers of a soldier be his voice for him, pressing his lips tight in between them.

 

"Good," the Colonel’s voice returned to a normal speaking volume, and that wicked sneer was back. "You are one of our most loyal men."

 

Hoseok kept his lips together and didn't say anything. He could feel himself shaking, and he suspected it was for a lot of things.

 

Fear for Taehyung. He didn't have any idea what was happening to him right now or if he was even alive or if Hoseok had found out what was happening too late (probably on purpose) to help him. 

 

Anger at the man before him, speaking to him like he was better when he was so much worse. Acting like everything -- Taehyung's life, Hoseok’s feelings for him, whether he knew the full extent of them or not -- were all a joke. 

 

Worry for Namjoon, because he didn’t know where the scientist was or if he's was exactly safe either. If Kangmin could pinpoint something going on with Hoseok's involvement with Taehyung, then he might've been able to pick up on something going on with Namjoon too -- courtesy of Hoseok's closeness to him. If Namjoon was discovered to be meddling in military affairs, he couldn’t imagine the punishment would be merciful. Namjoon would have even less protection than Hoseok. 

 

Anxiousness that none of this was going to work anymore -- that their plan had been demolished before ever getting off the ground. That he was going to lose Taehyung and be sent away from Namjoon and he was not going to be able to live with himself if that happened.

 

And the effort of keeping it all in was overwhelming.

 

"Hop to," Kangmin leered. "Dismissed."

 

"Aye, sir," Hoseok said evenly, then bowed, spun on his heel, and walked from the room.

 

Hoseok didn’t know what he was doing as he fished his pair of fingerless grip gloves out of his pocket. He didn’t know what he was doing when he took his gun out of the holster at his hip and checked the bullets. He didn’t know what he was doing as he adjusted his hat on his head and took the stairs two at a time.

 

But he did know one thing.

 

He wasn’t leaving with Squad C at 0600 hours.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Taehyung sat at the bottom of the water and fiddled with the syringe. He hadn’t touched it since the day that woman scientist had dropped it in here. 

 

He hadn’t seen Namjoon or Hoseok for the rest of the day yesterday, and he didn’t know if they would come in today. No one had. 

 

He didn’t want to believe that Hoseok had done that to him -- that this whole time he was simply waiting for Taehyung to say something of interest and value to the military and then report it to the people he worked for. 

 

It didn’t seem like him, and Taehyung had to keep telling himself that it wouldn’t make sense for Hoseok to betray his trust after all this time. After everything. Now with how nicely he’d been treating him. Not when his smiles were so soft and his words were so kind and his touches were so gentle. Not when he and Namjoon together had, at times, somehow managed to make him feel safe here -- comfortable in his prison when they were around, after Taehyung had convinced himself early on that he would die here resenting every single human that walked these halls. 

 

Not when they both had made him feel loved…

 

It wasn’t true. Hoseok wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t.

 

An ugly thought slipped into his head that just because Hoseok and Namjoon had managed to get close to him out of what Taehyung thought was the goodness of their hearts, that didn’t mean they ever actually stopped doing the jobs they had come here to do.

 

Namjoon was always writing things down about him in his notebook…

 

Taehyung’s hand tightened around the half-used cylinder of sedative when he detected the sound of the chamber door coming open. He stayed put, waiting to hear the familiar sound of Hoseok’s voice. Or Namjoon’s.

 

He detected a single pair of shoes. Then two. Then three. Then four. 

 

More military men?

 

“I know you’re down there.” Taehyung’s face twisted in disgust even as a peg of fear shot through him. It was that man -- the one who must of been the leader of the military in some kind of way. The one whose presence always made Hoseok appear uncomfortable. Colonel Kangmin. “You just missed Jung.”

 

Taehyung’s ears perked. So Hoseok had come to see him today? Where did he go? Why hadn’t he come in here?

 

“You going to come up?”

 

Taehyung didn’t know why he did it. The man’s casual tone made his blood boil. Everything about the Colonel repelled him -- Taehyung's body sending him signal after signal and warning after warning for him to stay away. 

 

But something felt different today. And maybe it was just because he was confused and a little hurt and so angry , but the next thing he knew, he was pushing off the bottom of the chamber’s concrete floor one second and breaking through the surface to come face to face with Kangmin the next. 

 

Taehyung didn’t flinch at his closeness, and he was proud of himself the fact, especially when his skin prickled with the urge to back away.

 

There were other men in the room, but Taehyung barely paid them any mind.

 

“You know, you wouldn’t tell me what I wanted to know yesterday.” Kangmin smelled like something old and musty combined with something that had a sharp twang, and it burned the sensitive insides of his nose. “But your buddy Dr. Kim recorded a lot of things about you -- things I have access to with one trip to the science wing.”

 

Taehyung clenched his jaw and held his glare.

 

Kangmin smiled just enough to reveal the tips of his chipped teeth.

 

“Looks like both your hyungs are gonna end up doing their jobs to screw you over and get me what I want after all.”

 

In a flash, Taehyung brought the syringe up out of the water and jammed the needle into the side of the monster’s neck, pressing down on the plunger with his thumb.

 

He had a short moment to revel in the sight of Kangmin’s wide, shocked eyes and open mouth as the remainder of the neuroleptic drug was pumped into his system before Kangmin was being pulled away from him and something cold and hard was striking Taehyung in the face.

 

And everything went black.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Jimin checked over the creature’s papers as they waited for the sedatives to kick in and take him under. 

 

The idea was for him to be knocked out so that they could begin operating cleanly and without pain to the patient -- as with any surgery. The difference with this particular surgery was that they were going into it not expecting the patient to ever wake back up again. 

 

Jimin wasn’t actually going to be doing any of the cutting or extracting -- that wasn’t his field or anywhere near his range of abilities. He was just here to oversee the process and provide an extra hand if need be. Hold the tools for people and whatnot. 

 

He looked up from what he was reading to glance at the creature.

 

They had him lying longways on a metal operating table in the center of the room. A pair of loose black pants covered his lower half, and he didn’t have a shirt. A large surgical light was bent over him and turned on, it’s nearly blinding white light gleaming over his tanned skin and made it look almost sickly. It also illuminated the few bruises and cuts scattered across his chest and shoulders in stark contrast, some of the latter still slightly oozing blood from their deepest parts. Jimin didn’t know why he had seemed so battered when he had been delivered to them by military personal or where he would have sustained the injuries, but every time he thought too hard about it, his mind led him to places he didn’t want to think about. 

 

Or even worse, he would hear Namjoon’s voice and his stomach would churn.

 

He was the member of the team that spent most of his hours in their labs analyzing the data that other people gathered. As a result, he had experienced very little contact with the creature up until now.

 

Jimin thought about Namjoon; about how conflicted he had seemed when speaking to him about the specimen. At first, it hadn’t made sense to Jimin how hesitant the older man was when it came to furthering their methods of study with the creature. All Jimin knew was that they were possibly on the edge of a scientific breakthrough -- on the edge of doing something that could help people. Doing something that mattered. 

 

And so anything that wasn’t that -- Jimin hadn’t really heard it. 

 

But looking at the creature now -- four sedatives in and dozing on the table, bleary light brown eyes struggling to stay open; and so human-looking it was scary -- he could remember Namjoon’s face when he had talked about him. Like he knew him past just studying him. Like the thought of treating him like so many sacrificial animals they’d seen and dealt with in the past was painful for him. 

 

And if Kim Namjoon -- the most textbook scientist ever, who had been the one to put on a brave face and explain to Jimin why sometimes creatures had to die for the furthering of research and medicine back when Jimin had been new to the team and frequently shed considerable tears over the lab bunnies they lost during their experimental trials -- if that Kim Namjoon was suddenly having qualms and a conflict of ethics when it came to the (thing? person? human?) laying over there on the table, then this must have been something different. Especially with the potential results at stake. Something Jimin couldn’t see, and something the rest of them were missing. 

 

And even if Jimin might have a hard time empathizing completely with how Namjoon felt, he did know this. 

 

It was a lot easier for Jimin to sacrifice a life if he hadn’t gotten to know it, and it was easier for him to turn a blind eye to the abuse if he wasn’t seeing it happen, nor seeing the emotional effects of it afterwards.

 

Jimin wanted to change the world. But he didn’t know if he wanted it like this.

 

The creature stirred on the table, rolling his head around a little and mumbling.

 

Jimin lowered the papers in his hands and took a couple steps toward the operating table, leaning in to try and hear what he was saying. The creature’s eyes were closed, but his eyebrows were scrunched together, as if in pain. 

 

Hoseok-hyung… Namjoon-hyung…” he eked out, voice small and weak. But Jimin had caught it.

 

He stood there staring, wide eyed. 

 

“We need to give it another sedative so we can start.” A woman with gloves suddenly appeared by the table, peering down at the creature. She leaned over and held one of his eyes open, but it was clear that he wasn’t unconscious. “It won’t go under.”

 

“I think there’s one more in the box,” someone else said from a different part of the room, and then the woman in front of him was gesturing at him. 

 

“Can you get it, Jimin-ssi?” she asked, and Jimin felt himself nod.

 

He felt himself turn around and go over to the back counter and spot the open box of sedatives. He felt himself look inside of it and see there was indeed only one left. He felt himself take the small syringe out and hold it in his hand, staring at the clear liquid inside of the tube. 

 

He felt himself freeze. 

 

Dammit, hyung. 

 

Without thinking twice, Jimin sidestepped over to the sink, dropped the sedative down the drain, and reached over to flip on the garbage disposal. 

 

The crunching of glass was loud. 

 

“Jesus, Jimin, what the fuck are you doing?!” he heard someone yell. It sounded like that same woman from before. A moment later, a gloved hand gripped his shoulder and flipped him around and, yep, it was her. She looked angry. She reached past him to flip the disposal off before rounding on him. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

 

“We can’t do this,” Jimin told her, and he really hoped she didn’t ask why because he didn’t have any sort of fleshed out explanation at the ready. “We can’t. It isn’t right.”

 

“What the hell are you talking about?”

 

“We don’t do this .” Jimin gestured toward the table, wishing he could express all that that meant. The other scientists in the room were staring. “He-he’s a person, he’s alive, we don’t... do this to people--”

 

“It isn’t a person. It’s the key to saving a lot of lives,” she seethed. “We’ve never found anything like this before and we don’t know that we ever will again. Doing this could lead to historic discoveries, and you are trying to fuck that up?”

 

Jimin held her glare and didn’t say anything. 

 

“Someone find me another sedative,” she ordered the rest of the room, staring him down for another second before turning away from him. 

 

“No, you can’t !” Jimin protested, grabbing her arm before she could get away.

 

What he didn’t expect to happen next was to be bodily ushered out of the room by several of his work colleagues. He tried to struggle against them, but with that many people it didn’t matter. They tossed him unceremoniously out into the hallway and slammed the door on him before he could do anything, locking it from the inside. 

 

“No!” he yelled, kicking it out of frustration. He had no idea if there was another sedative in the room, but there was little doubt in his mind that someone would find an extra eventually. 

 

He paced for a moment, running his hands back through his black hair and trying to think of something. He was a bit shell shocked by this turn of events. He hadn’t expected to have this sudden change of heart, and now he didn’t know what to do. Or what he could do. In the end, his little episode might not even matter if they still managed to operate. They’d still kill him, and nothing would change. 

 

Namjoon.

 

Jimin didn’t know if his friend was the solution, but he was a solution.

 

He took off down the hallway, rounded the corner and was about to take the stairs to the floor below where their rooms were when he heard a loud bang somewhere back behind him. 

 

“Get away from him!” a voice shouted, harsh and authoritative. 

 

Tentatively, Jimin turned and crept back to the corner, peeking his head around the edge just enough to make out a man standing a ways back down the hallway and pointing a gun into the operating room that seemed to have just had its door forcibly kicked open. 

 

Jimin’s heart stuttered at the sight of the firearm, but then recognition gave him pause. The man was wearing a white long sleeved shirt tucked into a pair of jeans. He had a black gun holster at his hip, black fingerless gloves on his hands, and a black cap pulled down over his hair, but still Jimin could tell this was the soldier who was always accompanying Namjoon in his observations. 

 

And now he was crashing the surgery. With a gun.

 

Jimin positively hauled ass to Namjoon’s room.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Namjoon’s door was left unlocked, so Jimin let himself in and hurried across it to the bathroom door. He took the desk chair out from where it was propped underneath the doorknob and practically threw it aside. When he opened the door, Namjoon stood up from where he had been sitting on top of the toilet seat and looked perplexed.

 

“For the record,” Jimin began. “I thought that locking you in your bathroom was a bit much.”

 

The confused expression turned cross, and Namjoon moved forward and shouldered past him without a word. Jimin was forced aside, and he scrambled to find words before he made it out the door. 

 

“Wait!” he said, stumbling and turning around after him. “Don’t you want to know why I’m here?”

 

“What, did they kill him already?” Namjoon blurted, spinning around to face him. And although the words were said angrily, he almost looked like he might be sick at the thought. 

 

“No,” Jimin stated, and he was happy to see the relief on the elder’s face, even laced with skepticism. “And I don’t think they’re going to. Your old boyfriend’s packing heat.”

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Hoseok had tried to hype himself up for this the entire way up here, but believe it or not, he’d never actually threatened a group of scientists at gunpoint before. 

 

Not even a real threat either. His safety wasn’t even off, and he wasn’t planning on taking it off. But he figured the presence of the gun alone would be enough to get people to believe he was being serious.

 

Although, he wouldn’t lie, he wasn’t above putting a bullet in someone if they tried to prevent him from getting to Taehyung. 

 

Taking a deep breath as he approached the door to the surgery rooms and praying this was the right one (praying he wasn’t too late), he steeled himself, drew up his leg, and kicked the door hard around the area where the lock was mounted.

 

It flew inward and banged back against the plaster on the other side, startling the four people in the room into jumping.

 

A couple of them squealed at the sight of his gun, and everyone lifted their hands into the air almost automatically.

 

But Hoseok wasn’t looking at them. He was looking at Taehyung.

 

Bruised, pale, and unmoving on top of a table in the center of the room.

 

Fear gripped his heart, but he was sure that it was the fury that forced the guttural command from his throat.

 

“Get away from him!” he shouted, gritting his teeth and bringing up his gun. 

 

Everyone gasped and shuffled back, going to form a scared huddle in the corner of the room. 

 

Hoseok rushed forward to Taehyung, panic rising in his throat. His eyes were closed, and if he was breathing, it was too faint to notice. Hoseok was almost too scared to reach down and check for a pulse.

 

“Is he dead?” he asked the group as they cowered at the back, aware that his voice was shaking. “Did you kill him??

 

They all rapidly shook their heads and set about sporadically waving their hands around, a string of denials tumbling out of their mouths and blending together; and Hoseok took that as a resounding ‘no.’

 

He looked back to Taehyung unsurely, and almost gasped aloud when he saw a pair of familiar golden brown eyes peering up at him. 

 

“Hyung?” Taehyung rasped softly, squinting up at him through the bright surgical lights.

 

“Oh, my god,” Hoseok whispered, relief washing through his chest like a tidal wave and pushing tears up into his eyes. He then looked up at the group of observers in the back and made a split second decision. “Closet,” he ordered, pointing his gun at them again when they didn’t move right away.

 

He didn’t like terrifying people, for the record, but he was on a time limit.

 

“Get in the closet,” he repeated.

 

The closet in the surgery room was much bigger than the one in the hallway he, Taehyung and Namjoon had packed themselves into that night. It would fit four people easily.

 

Hoseok ushered them in and closed the door, locking it and then hastily pushing a reasonably heavy table in front of it.

 

He jogged back to Taehyung, who was stirring now, little grunts and groans escaping him as he tried to sit up. Hoseok placed his gun down on the table and helped him, one hand on his shoulder and the other supporting his back.

 

“Tae…” he breathed, cupping the younger’s face in his hands like he was trying to assure himself he was real.

 

“Hyung,” Taehyung whispered, grabbing hold of his wrists and staring at him in disbelief. “You came to get me…”

 

“Of course I did.” Hoseok’s thankful expression suddenly turned rueful, and he frowned, eyebrows pinching. “I am so, so sorry Taehyung. Kangmin put a tracker on me. I promise you I didn’t know-- I didn’t know he was listening. I didn’t mean for this to happen to you, I-I wouldn’t…”

 

Taehyung quieted him with a gentle finger to his lips. Hoseok took in a shaky breath, closing his eyes for a second. Jesus, he was about to start crying.

 

“I know,” Taehyung spoke softly, leaning his forehead against his and giving him a weak, watery smile. “I know, hyung, I know.”

 

Hoseok sighed slowly. He wished he could stay like this -- looking into Taehyung’s eyes, his warm, soft skin in his hands; his pulse fluttering beneath his fingertips, alive and strong.

 

But they weren’t safe yet.

 

“We need to leave,” Hoseok said, sobering himself up and getting back into a soldier's state of mind. He pulled away from Taehyung and went over to the row of hooks lined on the wall behind the door he’d kicked in. He pulled a dark grey hoodie off of one of them and tossed it over Taehyung’s lap. “Put that on.”

 

Taehyung nodded and did as he was told, fumbling only slightly with how the zipper worked.

 

Hoseok was already hunched over a computer in the corner of the room by the time he figured it out, fingers flying across the keyboard and prayers flying into the heavens that this idea would work because if not --- he wiped the computer’s memory when he finished and straightened up to go back to Taehyung -- well, he didn’t want to think about if nots. 

 

“Okay,” Hoseok announced, seeing that he was fully dressed, still sans socks or shoes. He scooped up his gun again, the weight comfortable and familiar in his palm. “You think you’re okay to walk? Or do you want me to carry you?”

 

“I can walk,” Taehyung assured, wincing slightly as he slid off the table. “Just need a little help.”

 

Hoseok came up beside him and slid an arm around his back, allowing Taehyung to lean into him as much as he needed. “I’ve got you. Let’s go.”

 

“What about Namjoon?”

 

“We’ve gotta find him,” Hoseok stated without hesitation. He didn’t even know where to look, and that thought worried him when happening across anyone else after this point would mean trouble. But he figured they should try for his room first.

 

The sound of footsteps running down the hall stopped them right before they made it to the still-open doorway. Taehyung stiffened and gripped his shoulder, and Hoseok reflexively brought up his gun in front of them.

 

He didn’t want to actually shoot someone with it, but he would. If they got in his way.

 

The footsteps grew louder, and when Namjoon suddenly appeared and swung around into the room, he squeaked and nearly tripped over himself trying to back up again.

 

What the fuck, ” he gasped, arms shooting out and waving around as he attempted to catch his balance.

 

“Hyung!” Hoseok said, instantly lowering his arm.

 

“Hyung!” Taehyung exclaimed happily.

 

“Yeah, hi,” Namjoon panted, bending over to place his palms on his knees. “Thanks for much for not shooting me Seokie, Jesus Christ.”

 

“The safety’s on,” Hoseok stated simply.

 

“What?” Namjoon looked up incredulously. “What’s the point of that, then?”

 

“Intimidation factor.”

 

Namjoon raised an eyebrow and then shook his head. “Okay, whatever.” He stood up and glanced over them, eyes softening when they fell on Taehyung. “I’m so glad we weren’t too late,” he said, then frowned when he noticed the gash on his nose, the purple bruises peeking out from underneath the hoodie. “But what did they do to you?” he asked quietly.

 

"Kangmin set me up," Hoseok explained, eyes stormy.

 

"Figures," Namjoon nodded. "This operation wasn't supposed to happen today."

 

“We need to get him out," Hoseok said, adjusting his hold on Taehyung and eyeing Namjoon. “Are you still up for it?”

 

Part of him thought that Namjoon might want to back out once he realized how real this was now, but the determined look that passed over his face was as delightfully unexpected as it was fucking hot.

 

“Is that even a question?” Namjoon asked with a smirk, walking over to to Taehyung’s left side and winding his arm around his back beneath Hoseok’s. The weight immediately shifted into something more even and comfortable. He nodded at the two of them. “Let’s do it. Together.”

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Hoseok figured he could thank the fact that some squads had already left earlier and the fact that this wasn’t an overly active base to begin with for the fact that there wasn’t a shit ton of people crawling around the facility. Count the small blessings when they happened.

 

On the other hand, someone must’ve let the cat out of the bag sooner than he thought (or, more accurately, the scientists out of the closet) because they were only down one floor when suddenly the doors didn’t seem to want to be unlocked anymore. They literally only had one more floor to get down, but now they had become essentially trapped in the stairwells, between the floor for the scientists’ rooms and the bottom floor. 

 

Hoseok would guess that someone had figured out that Taehyung was gone and sounded the alarms. 

 

Which was bad for them. Very, very bad. 

 

Hoseok wrapped his hand around the handle and pressed down only for it to show no give. He jangled it a couple more times out of principle and mounting frustration alone, but nothing. The door wasn’t going to open. 

 

His mind briefly flashed to the possibility that when a military base went into shutdown mode like this, so, too, did the building itself. Meaning as soon as the alarm was sounded (silent or otherwise), the building was programmed to lock itself up automatically, securing windows and doors everywhere so that nothing from the outside could get in without a hell of a fight. Unfortunately, the same went for anything on the inside getting out. 

 

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to suspect that’s what was happening here -- the place was practically a fortress for Christ’s sake;  of course that kind of protocol would be in place. In fact, privates were taught about situations like these and how to handle them in their classes during training.

 

And even though he was present in those classes, the thought that every door in the stairwell could be closed and locked right now -- trapping the three of them inside like sitting ducks until someone inevitably found them (and inevitably ripped Taehyung away from him and Namjoon) -- made his mouth go a little dry.

 

Hoseok grit his teeth and started backing up, prompting Taehyung and Namjoon to move with him.

 

“Go back,” he told them, maneuvering their little group away from that door and around to the bottom of the next set of stairs.  “We need to keep going up.”

 

They actually needed to go down, but clearly that was no longer an option.

 

It was slower getting up the first half of the flight than he would’ve liked, but thanks to Taehyung’s injuries and the influence of the calmative drug, there was really no helping it. Hoseok could see he was trying his best to move quickly, but even with him and Namjoon supporting his weight on either side, the pain was still evident on the merman’s face -- in his creased eyebrows and the tiny beads of sweat dotting his hairline. 

 

When they got to the first platform, Hoseok was already eyeing the next ominously closed slate grey door above them with a growing sense of dread, but before they could even help Taehyung onto the first step, the door suddenly swung open.

 

The three of them jumped at the resounding bang of the door flying in to connect with the wall, whipping their heads up in tandem to stare wide-eyed at whoever had just flung it open. 

 

Hoseok’s heard leapt into his throat at the sight of a gun being pointed directly at them from the platform above. A standard handgun like his own -- not the biggest or scariest firearm he’d seen or trained with by far -- but right now it was a most terrifying sight, as it was capable of doing just as much damage as any firearm to either one of the people beside him. Whoever was holding it sported their special forces military uniform, and was no doubt authorized to use whatever methods it took in order to get Taehyung back into their hands. 

 

But as quickly as the person had the barrel poised with jarring steadiness at their chests, body rigid to fire, they began to lower it.

 

Hoseok’s eyes jumped up to the soldier’s face as it revealed itself to them more, and sucked in a breath when so many familiar features came into view, and the identity of the stranger hit him all at once. He blamed the fear and adrenaline for not being able to tell immediately.

 

Yoongi was staring right back at him, the handgun that was expertly gripped in both his hands halfway lowered between them -- which was still a little disconcerting, but at least any shots he let off now wouldn’t be deadly accurate. 

 

Hoseok didn’t know what to say. 

 

He knew how this looked. He knew exactly what he was doing -- betraying his oath, being a criminal, military treason -- and he knew Yoongi could see that, too, especially when his eyes slid over to land on Taehyung, and then Namjoon before settling back onto him. 

 

They all just stood there, tense, not knowing what was about to happen. 

 

Hoseok knew what was supposed to happen. As a soldier, Yoongi was supposed to do whatever it took to keep the them from accomplishing their objective. He was supposed to stop them -- whatever that looked like. Yoongi had basically told him not to do this. He’d told him not to be stupid, and now Hoseok couldn’t blame him for whatever happened next; for having loyalties that lied in a different place than his own. But…

 

“Yoong--”

 

“Min, you see anyone?” The sound of a voice coming through the comm device attached at Yoongi’s hip cut off whatever he’d been about to say to his friend, and he clamped his lips shut again. 

 

Without taking his eyes off of them, Yoongi brought one hand down to his hip, unclipped the device, and held down the talk button. 

 

Hoseok tensed even more, hand tightening on Taehyung’s waist. Now anything he said would be heard by everyone else who was on the other end of the connection. He hadn't even have a chance to plead his case, to beg Yoongi not to give them away if that’s what he was planning on doing.

 

Hoseok couldn’t really tell one way or another. It was so hard to discern what the older man was thinking whenever he made his face into such a perfectly stoic mask.

 

Yoongi brought the device up to his mouth, still eyeing him with that same blank expression. Hoseok’s heart was about to beat itself out of his chest. 

 

What should he do? Where could they go once every squad member in the building flooded to this stairwell? They needed an escape route. They needed a plan. They needed more time--

 

“Nothing here.” 

 

Hoseok stopped breathing for a second (an amazing feat when he felt like he was going to pass out from taking too many quick, shallow breaths up until this point). He stared up at Yoongi in disbelief as the man gave the simple two-word response, voice collected and believable.

 

“Where are you?” came the same gruff voice from earlier. Yoongi brought the device back to his mouth, speaking evenly.

 

“Third floor. Bottom levels are clear. Coming back up.”

 

Yoongi let his thumb off the talk button, and Hoseok’s breath whooshed from his lungs, allowing himself to breathe more heavily now that it wouldn’t be overheard. Namjoon and Taehyung did the same next to them, a chunk of tension dispelling from their bodies. He felt Taehyung shaking. 

 

“Yoongi,” Hoseok gasped, but the other man shook his head, effectively shutting him up. 

 

“You don’t have time to talk,” he ground out, still managing to sound composed despite everything he must be feeling, his facial expression likewise not giving much away. He replaced his comm and finally lowered the gun all the way to fish around in his back pocket, pulling something out and tossing it at him so suddenly that only Hoseok’s trained reflexes allowed him to bring a hand up at the last second and manage to catch it. “That’s--”

 

“The key to the transport bay?” Hoseok asked, incredulously eyeing the two keys held together by a silver chain. One was silver with a black rubber top and the other was a plain, dull golden color.

 

“One of the boats at the transport bay,” Yoongi clarified. That made more sense. “Number 13 -- it’s all the way at the end, sorry ‘bout it. But right now, I don’t think you particularly care.” Hoseok looked back up at him, hoping all the gratitude he felt in his body was being conveyed through his expression. Yoongi’s lips quirked almost imperceptibly. “Told ya they trust me with that shit.”

 

Hoseok swallowed, the words really hitting him. Yes, they trusted Yoongi a lot in the ranks, and he’d just betrayed it -- for them. He’d just lied to the army for them. 

 

Hoseok squeezed the keys in his hand. “Thank y--”

 

“You ain’t scotch free yet, so shut up,” Yoongi interrupted again, grumbling something to himself as he readied his gun once more and turned to leave, stopping at the last second with one foot out the door to look back down at them. “Listen, they don’t know it’s you,” he said, looking at him, and then directed his gaze over to Namjoon. “Or you.” He looked at Taehyung. “They know he’s out -- that’s it. Try to keep it that way.”

 

“Thank you, hyung,” Hoseok told him softly as the other man pulled open the door to exit for real.

 

“Just don’t be stupid,” Yoongi threw back over his shoulder without really looking at him, but Hoseok could imagine his expression when he used that tone of voice. “Dumbass.”

 

With that final sentiment, he was gone, jogging back down the hallway presumably the way he’d come, the door clicking shut after him.

 

“Don’t be stupid…” Hoseok repeated fondly, smiling slightly down at their literal key to freedom in his hand. “Yeah, too late for that.” He pocketed them and then adjusted his hold on Taehyung, nodding to him and Namjoon. “Come on, guys, we gotta move.”

 

They needn’t worry about being trapped anymore.

 

Because in addition to the one for the boat, they now had a master key to all of the facility's doors.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

They somehow managed to make it to the door that lead out to the hanger. Just beyond that was where the boats would be kept.

 

Namjoon suspected their success thus far was to be attributed to Hoseok’s friend, that soldier he'd called Yoongi. It was likely thanks to what he had done for them -- telling the other units that the bottom levels had been checked and cleared -- that the whole first floor hallway they had needed to hurry down to get here had been free of people. 

 

If they had encountered any other soldiers, Namjoon couldn’t see how they would’ve evaded them, especially not with Taehyung still experiencing the effects of being drugged as he was. 

 

The three of them turned a corner and climbed down a short set up stairs to a concrete landing with matching walls closing in around the small space. A plain brown door was set into the left side wall, and Hoseok led them over to it. 

 

Down in this little pocket, the air felt cooler, and Namjoon swore he could detect salt and brine from the sea hanging in the air. 

 

He had never been to this part of the building, never had any reason to, but he could tell they were close to being outside. 

 

“This is the hanger where they keep the boats,” Hoseok was telling them, handing Taehyung over to him so the merman could lean on his shoulder for a moment while he crept closer to the door. He readied his gun with one hand and tentatively cracked open the door with the other after sticking the gold key into the lock and twisting. 

 

Hoseok peeked around the threshold and searched for signs of anyone else, the wind blowing into the hanger from the sea beyond tousling the fringe peeking out from beneath his cap. “I don’t know if they’ve sent anyone out here yet.”

 

That’s when Namjoon remembered something, so suddenly that he jolted, forcing Taehyung to pop his head up off of his shoulder and look around in surprise.

 

“I have to go back,” Namjoon announced, and Hoseok stopped scanning the hanger area to whip his head toward him.

 

“What?” he snapped, looking incredulous. “Go back where?”

 

Namjoon could feel Taehyung blinking at him in confusion.

 

“Upstairs, to the lab rooms.” Namoon clarified, feeling like he could kick himself for forgetting something so important. But he couldn’t leave here without them. Or rather, he couldn’t leave them here with the people in this building. “I need to grab some of the research papers.”

 

“Research papers? No, Namjoon, forget it. It’s too late--”

 

“You don’t understand,” Namjoon interrupted him, already pushing Taehyung back towards Hoseok so that the elder was forced to snake his free arm around his middle and support him. He felt a little bad about treating Taehyung like a sleepy hot potato, constantly passing him between them, but at least he was beginning to look a little more lucid and aware. Unfortunately, that meant that his wide eyes matched Hoseok’s in their concern as they looked at him, but he powered through. 

 

“Some of those papers have information on Taehyung that could severely hurt him or anything else out there that’s like him. We documented strengths, weaknesses, abilities, initial contact location, and honestly, a pretty attractive-looking proposal about how to potentially utilize certain elements of his biology to combat and potentially even neutralize several known diseases -- at the expense of killing him. There's even notes on gene splicing to make a biological weapon of sorts. It’s far-fetched and we don’t know if any of it would actually work. But as long as they have those papers, all of the notes and the numbers and the possibility , then there’s nothing stopping them from finding more beings like Taehyung and doing this all over again. And there are more, aren’t there?” Their silence and the look on Taehyung’s face was all the answer he needed. “They’re just gonna keep trying, and there’s no time to argue,” he quickly added when Hoseok still looked like he wanted to protest. 

 

He could see that they both knew he had a point, even if they didn’t look happy about it. 

 

“I’m going.” 

 

He made to turn around and head back up the steps. 

 

“Wait, Namjoon.” Hoseok stepped forward with Taehyung. “Where’s the room? I’ll go.”

 

“No,” Namjoon denied, making his voice firm. 

 

Hoseok’s expression turned steely. “But it’s dangerous--” 

 

“Which is why you need to stay here and protect Taehyung,” Namjoon countered, beginning to feel impatient. They were standing here arguing when he could’ve been there and back by now. “You’re the one with the gun and the special ops training. If they get him, then it’s over, and this was all for nothing.”

 

Hoseok didn’t seem to know how to argue with that, but Taehyung spoke up this time.

 

“And what about you?” he insisted, his eyes large and brimming with worry as he looked up at him. 

 

Namjoon smiled reassuringly at him, even if he had his own pinpricks of uncertainty poking at his chest. 

 

“It’s just like Seokie's hyung said -- they don’t know it’s me. None of the soldiers will stop me if they see me in the halls,” he explained, trying desperately to believe his own words. They didn’t know it was me, but could they have found out? “I’m just a scientist.”

 

Hoseok still looked severely unhappy with this turn of events, his mouth turned down at the corners and deep creases forming between his furrowed brows, but he also must have realized that they had to be low on time, and that if they didn’t get moving soon, they’d all be sitting ducks.

 

“Fine,” he ground out, and it looked like it hurt him to do so. Namjoon had never seen him look or sound quite so serious. “Be careful , Joon, for God’s sake.”

 

Beside him, Taehyung extended his arm towards him, and, still standing on the first step, Namjoon took his hand in his.

 

“You’ll come back?” he requested. At least, something about it sounded like a question, but the way his voice shook suggested he wanted it to be a command. In that moment, he seemed to have considerably sobered up, his eyes sharp and imploring and his hand squeezing tightly around his own.  

 

Namjoon looked over the both of them, not quite able to bring himself to promise something if he wasn’t sure it could happen -- even if it was to put them at ease. But still, he managed a nod.

 

“Take care of each other,” he told them, and then he forced himself to let go of Taehyung and rip his eyes away from Hoseok’s and take the final few steps back up the way they’d come. 

 

He was already planning the route he would take in his head. It wasn’t far, just the next couple floors above, and he knew this place well enough for that. 

 

“Hyung.”

 

Taehyung came up next to him, and Namjoon looked past him to where Hoseok was still scanning the area outside, his gun held in both hands up near his chest and his foot propping the door open. 

 

“What is it, Tae?” Namjoon asked anxiously, sincerely beginning to believe that all of them would end up being apprehended in this tiny corridor.

 

Taehyung stepped up to him, and Namjoon noticed that he seemed to be walking better if he was able to get up here without Hoseok’s help. But that was as far as his whirring thoughts got before they all screeched to a halt when Taehyung threw his arms around his neck, brought him forward and kissed him. 

 

Namjoon gasped against his lips as Taehyung pressed into him, the merman’s heart beating so fast it seemed impossible, and for a second, everything that was currently happening was lost on him. The essential prison break, the planned boat heist, the treason -- all of it faded to grey and the only thing that he knew was the feeling of Taehyung’s soft and warm lips moving against his own. The only thing he registered was how the younger man sighed against him, tilting his head and drawing him in deeper like he was trying to tell him something. How soft his hands felt as they pushed through his hair and held there. How nice this was.

 

Namjoon didn’t notice he had taken hold of his waist and began kissing him back at some point until Taehyung pulled away. He blinked and he was back in reality. The salt in the air, his heart crashing in his ears, the fear that came back to seize his chest and remind him of where he was. 

 

But with Taehyung still so near to him, his hands sliding down to grip at his upper arms as he looked up into his face, and the feeling of his lips still tingling away on Namjoon’s own, none of that stuff seemed quite as bad as it had before. 

 

Something drew his eyes back down to Hoseok, and he sucked in a breath when he realized the other man was looking their way. 

 

When he caught Namjoon’s eye, he quickly turned back to the door, his expression impressively unreadable, and Namjoon didn’t know what that face meant. But he knew he had seen. He knew Hoseok had watched him kiss Taehyung.

 

And now he didn’t know what to feel. 

 

But he knew he couldn’t think about it now, he couldn’t. He had to move. 

 

He looked back to Taehyung, both of them still clutching each other and breathing in one another’s personal space, but he didn’t think about it.

 

“If I’m not back in three minutes, tell Hoseok-hyung to leave without me,” he instructed quietly. Immediately Taehyung’s eyes widened, and he looked betrayed. He started shaking his head, started to speak, but Namjoon talked over him. “We can’t afford to lose you,” he said, surprising himself with the heat in his tone despite the fact it had nearly been a whisper. 

 

He somehow knew he was speaking for Hoseok, too, when he’d said it; and that there were layers to what it meant. 

 

Taehyung’s shoulders slumped and he looked saddened, but he nodded regardless, teeth worrying at his lower lip. 

 

“Go,” he said, gently pushing Taehyug back toward the stairs. “Go with Hoseok; he’ll keep you safe.”

 

Taehyung looked at him a second longer before he obliged, making it back down the stairs with only the slightest limp in his step. His dumb scientist brain wondered if he possessed advanced healing capabilities -- in a time like this. 

 

Taehyung got back to Hoseok and grabbed his hand, the two of them looking up at him one last time. Namjoon walked over to the doorway to peek around the corner. No one there.

 

He glanced back just in time to see Hoseok and Taehyung finally slipping out the door together.

 

Good. Namjoon sighed. If nothing else, they could probably get to the boat and get out of here.

 

But of course he wanted to join them.

 

With that thought, he took another steadying breath and checked one last time to make sure the coast was clear.

 

And then he ran. 

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

“We’ve gotta move -- now,” Hoseok said. Taehyung nodded, gripped his hand tighter, and they took off into the large space.

 

Hoseok kept them low to the ground as they ducked between the large military issued land vehicles that were parked in long rows all around them. They provided a comforting sense of cover as they maneuvered their way toward the beach.

 

“Hey, who’s over there!”

 

Hoseok stopped instantly and tugged Taehyung down with him behind a dark green jeep.

 

“Shit,” he hissed. It was stupid of him to think that they could actually do this without encountering anyone that would be a problem, but they were so close that he had kind of been hoping.

 

It had to be another soldier. And he had to be armed. 

 

“Come out or I’ll shoot!”

 

The voice was still a reasonable distance away, but that could change quickly.

 

“Tae,” Hoseok turned to him and placed a hand against his cheek. The boy’s eyes were wide and terrified. Hoseok tried to keep his voice as light and reassuring as possible. “Stay right here okay? Keep your head down. And don’t come out until I say.”

 

Taehyung just stared at him, breath skittering out of his lungs, but Hoseok trusted that he had heard.

 

He smiled lightly and patted his cheek. It’s gonna be okay. Then he took his hand away and made to round the car.

 

But Taehyung grabbed onto his arm and held, not allowing Hoseok to move away. 

 

“Tae.” Hoseok turned back, prepared to reassure him some more. “I’ll be right ba--”

 

Taehyung placed both hands on the sides of his neck and pulled Hoseok’s lips down to his. A spark shot across the skin where they touched, and Taehyung leaned up into him, opening his mouth a little to kiss him with a barely restrained sense of urgency. It was the most (read: THE MOST) inopportune time for Hoseok to feel heart blooming across his chest and seeping down into his stomach, but Taehyung’s lips were so soft it was unbelievable. Hoseok pressed into him, reaching around to grip the merman’s hip. Taehyung’s breath skittered across his lips, and not in the same way as before. His warm hands slid down his neck, leaving a trail of chills in their wake, and flattened over his chest, curling to grip at the front of his shirt.

 

When they pulled away, Taehyung was breathing shakily and Hoseok’s chest was rapidly rising and falling beneath his hands.

 

Taehyung had just kissed him like he wasn’t sure he was going to see him again.

 

Well. That wasn’t going to happen.

 

In fact, now, Hoseok made it his personal side mission to not die at least until they got to do that again. 

 

“Head down,” Hoseok reminded between breaths, staring at his shining eyes, his flushed lips, the faint rosy blush on his face, and trying to memorize it all. 

 

Taehyung nodded, glancing down at Hoseok’s lips once more before he moved to do what he was told.

 

“Holy shit,” Hoseok murmured to himself as he lowered himself to the ground and crawled away, shaking his head to clear it.

 

Once all of this was over, he’d have a lot of self-evaluation to do; and questions to ask both Taehyung and Namjoon. 

 

All the more reason to get through today.

 

He stayed close to the ground, lying on his stomach to crawl on his elbows and knees toward the nearest vehicle, making sure to keep his gun elevated enough that it didn’t clack on the concrete and give him away.

 

The other soldier had gone silent, probably scanning for himself and Taehyung. Hoseok knew he had to hurry. If the man knew protocol at all, he would radio for backup to his location, and then every other soldier in the unit would be on their asses before they could step foot on the beach. And that wasn’t accounting for the possibility that other people could make their way down here unprompted, just like this guy had.

 

Hoseok lowered his head to peek underneath the buggy he was taking cover behind.

 

He could see the man’s boots and the bottom of his pants as he walked tentatively, stopping every few seconds. Hoseok waited until he started taking a few steps in the opposite direction again before shimmying silently back on his stomach and going back around the bumper of the buggy away from it. Its body wasn’t far enough off the ground for a clear shot.

 

He crawled forward to get behind the car parked next to it. This one had large wheels and sat high enough off the ground to expose him to the other soldier if he were to crouch down. 

 

Hoseok wondered why he wasn’t; but then again, he didn’t want to question his luck. He only had so much of it before it ran out.

 

Using one of the monstrous wheels as cover, he drew up his gun and aimed it at the man’s legs. 

 

Hoseok’s heart pounded hard in his chest, and he drew in a steadying -- if shaky -- breath. It had been a minute since he had actually shot another person, or even fired at one -- let alone someone on his side. Only he wasn’t on his side right now. He was what was currently standing in the way of getting Taehyung and Namjoon getting safely out of here and Taehyung and Namjoon getting brought right back into the hands of Kangmin; and it was that thought that steadied his hand. 

 

He wouldn’t kill him.

 

He’d be fine.

 

He didn’t have a choice.

 

Hoseok gripped the lower half of the gun with his left hand and clicked off the safety with his right thumb.

 

The boots suddenly stopped moving, and Hoseok heard the distant cracking of comm static in the quiet of the hanger.

 

Oh, so now he wanted to call for help.

 

“All units,” the soldier spoke fast. “Requesting assistance at--”

 

He pulled the trigger.

 

The bullet hit the man somewhere on his left shin, and his words instantly cut off in favor of screaming. The man fell to the ground on his back, his gun flying from his hand and skidding several feet away.

 

As Hoseok was hastily shuffling back towards the original car, he caught a glimpse of the fallen soldier’s face as he writhed on the ground clutching at his leg. 

 

“Ah shit, that’s Soonyoung,” Hoseok noted in awe. And then he cringed with remorse. He wasn’t close with him or anything -- only ever saw him from time to time -- but he didn’t have anything against the guy. Certainly didn’t seem the type who deserved a bullet in his leg. “Sorry ‘bout that, man.”

 

Halfway back to the spot where he had left Taehyung, Hoseok hopped to his feet and jogged the rest of the way in a half-crouch. It was faster that way. 

 

He may have momentarily stopped Soonyoung from giving away their location, but as soon as he found it in him to stop yelling in pain, he’d just do it again. Plus, the military facility was large, but it wasn’t infinite. Others would arrive eventually. 

 

And that gunshot had been loud, bouncing around the high ceiling.

 

He found Taehyung sitting where he’d left him, his head ducked down between his knees and his hands pressed over his ears.

 

He jumped when Hoseok tapped him on the shoulder, but his face quickly brightened in relief upon seeing him. 

 

“Hyung!” He straightened his legs and reached for him. Hoseok grabbed his hand and helped him to his feet. 

 

“We gotta go. Keep your head down,” he instructed, moving to his other side so that his body was between Taehyung’s and the far door. He took up his hand again, and they ran together our of the hanger towards the boats on the beach. If Taehyung was in pain from his injuries, he didn’t show any indication. 

 

He also didn’t acknowledge the wailing man on the ground behind them.

 

Outside in the late afternoon, the sky was casted over a slate grey. The breeze was stronger now that they were closer to the water, and it pushed long and thin white clouds across the sky. 

 

As the concrete turned to sand beneath their feet, Hoseok was faced with another problem. 

 

He matched the number on the side of the boat key Yoongi had given him to the appropriate one in the line of awaiting boats and realized with a sinking feeling of dread that none of them were actually in the water. 

 

“Dammit, Yoongi,” Hoseok cursed as they slowed to a jog before a white, standard sized motorboat toward the end of the line. It stood stationary in the sand. His friend could’ve mentioned that little detail to him. “ Shit, we have to get this into the water.”

 

It wasn’t a huge vessel by any means, but he didn’t know the extent of Taehyung’s injuries. And even so, it wasn’t the simplest job for two people in the first place. 

 

They stopped in front of it, panting lightly. 

 

He looked to Taehyung and holstered his gun at his hip. “You feeling up to push?” he asked uncertainly, but Taehyung surprised him by shooting him a confident smile. 

 

“Just watch.”

 

Taehyung went up to the stern of the boat, planted his palms against it, and leaned forward. 

 

“Hey.” Hoseok held out a hand, mildly alarmed. He didn’t want Taehyung to further injure himself by overexerting. 

 

But just as Hoseok came up next to him, the boat began to move. He watched in astonishment as Taehyung single-handedly pushed the vessel forward with seemingly not that much effort at all, his bare feet kicking up sand behind him, arms flexing underneath the hoodie sleeves.

 

It moved slowly, but still faster than the two of them probably could’ve done it together. It was kind of amazing, really, and by the time the younger man had gotten it to the edge of the shore and beyond, the boat sliding into the water with a slight splash, Hoseok’s mouth was partially agape. 

 

Taehyung turned around and raised an eyebrow at his dumbstruck expression, a smirk curling at his lips. Hoseok thought he wore the self-satisfied look well. 

 

“Well, okay.” He held his arms out and laughed, awed. Then, turning back to the facility, he said, “Now we just need Joon…”

 

His smile faded as he scanned the back of the building. He couldn’t spot any trace of the blond. The science labs were only two floors up, so shouldn’t he have been back by now? Or had he possibly gone somewhere else?

 

He felt a pair of hands slip around his arm, and Hoseok turned his head to see Taehyung beside him, staring up at him. 

 

“What?” Hoseok asked nervously, taking notice of the sadness in his eyes.

 

“Namjoon-hyung told me to tell you…” he started, and Hoseok clenched his hands when he paused and closed his eyes, a pained expression passing over his face. This was difficult for him to say, and Hoseok felt like he didn’t breathe until Taehyung found his voice again. “He said that if he wasn’t back in three minutes to-to leave without him. 

 

No. 

 

Hoseok turned back and searched the area with more persistence, but still nothing. 

 

They couldn’t leave Namjoon here. Kangmin suspected Namjoon in all of this, and he would be the first one the Colonel went for. 

 

Taehyung squeezed his arm. “I don’t want to,” he whispered, the words almost lost on the wind and the slap of water against the hull of the bobbing boat. 

 

Hoseok patted the back of his hand. “It hasn’t been three minutes yet.” He had no idea if that was true. “Here, you get on.”

 

Their pants got wet as they walked through the shallow water to the side of the boat. Getting his hands underneath Taehyung’s arms, he helped hoist him up and over. It was low enough that it wasn’t too much of a hassle. 

 

Hoseok hesitated before ambling in himself, glancing back behind him again and weighing the option of trying to go and retrieve Namjoon in his head. It wasn’t far. But then he would have to leave Taehyung alone, and he couldn’t do that. People would almost assuredly be on them by then anyway.

 

They needed to leave. They didn’t have time.

 

“Hyung, look!”

 

Hoseok followed where he was pointing, and there Namjoon was -- dashing between the cars in the hanger, multiple fluttering papers in his hands. 

 

“Oh, my… Joon!” Hoseok called, raising a hand above his head. Taehyung started jumping and flapping his arms around.

 

Namjoon’s head snapped over at his voice, and he changed his course (because he seemed to be running with little idea of where he was going). He started down to sand to where they were.

 

“Hyung!” Namjoon yelled back, clutching all of his papers to his chest, light blue t-shirt flapping wildly on his frame from the wind. “Oh my god, you shot someone!”

 

“Shut up and run, idiot!” Hoseok responded, finally climbing up into the boat so that both he and Taehyung could lift him over when he got there. 

 

“Tae, did you know he shot someone?” Namjoon panted from the floor of the boat after they had pulled him in. Hoseok rushed along the deck to the control panel and shoved the key into the ignition. “What happened to intimidation factor, hyung?”

 

“It was necessary!” Hoseok griped as he got the motor going.

 

Even as they pulled away from the shore and shot out into the water at top speed, Hoseok secretly hoped someone showed up soon to help Soonyoung. 

 

Just not before they could get away.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

“Did we make it?” Taehyung wanted to know when nobody said anything for a while. Hoseok stopped looking at the island facility in the distance, growing smaller with each second they sped away from it, and glanced at him instead. He was sitting on the floor in the middle of the boat, leaning on the white engine cover next to him, one arm slung over the top of it. Hoseok could still see a few bruises peeking out from underneath the front of his hoodie and the bottom of his sleeves -- could still see the residual fear in his eyes -- but it was fading, being overtaken by a palpable joy and relief. He smiled wide. His hair was blowing forward into his face and seemed to block most of his sight line, but he didn’t appear to mind. “Are we free?”

 

Hoseok wanted to say they were, but the truth was it was too soon to tell. By now people had to have had a better idea about what had happened, and they would be coming for them. That thought kept a pit of dread sitting in Hoseok’s stomach. If they were chased, they would be chased like any fugitive or enemy -- with intent to stop them by any means necessary. That meant there would be guns.

 

Guns much bigger than the pitiful one he had on him.

 

“We need to get off this boat,” Hoseok answered instead, about facing and walking a little ways past Taehyung to stare out into the vast ocean before him and scan for something. 

 

“How are we gonna do that?” Namjoon asked, coming around from where he’d been standing at the stern and looking out over the water they’d already put behind them. A fluttering sound caught Hoseok’s attention and made him glance over his shoulder. Namjoon still had all his papers clutched in his hands -- the ones he had risked his safety to go back for. The scientist struggled to keep them under control as the wind blew them them this way and that in his hands. 

 

Hoseok cracked a smile. “Those things better have been worth it, man.”

 

Namjoon dimpled back. 

 

And that’s when Hoseok saw it. There was quick flash of movement coming up from the cockpit behind Namjoon. 

 

Hoseok had his hand on his gun in an instant; had another one reaching out toward him. He was taking a step forward; he was opening his mouth to warn him. But too late.

 

All of it -- too late. 

 

Kangmin emerged from out of the shadows of the cockpit and slammed into Namjoon’s back so hard that all of the papers went flying from his hands; some of them skittering along the floor of the boat, most of them fluttering up into the air and being taken by the wind into the water. 

 

Namjoon yelled out in surprise, almost tripping as the Colonel used the momentum to forcibly drive him the few feet to the boat’s port, and then he and Taehyung watched in horror as Namjoon -- too caught off guard and unable to regain his balance -- tipped backwards over the side and tumbled into the water, disappearing into the dark blue with a shout. 

 

The fast speed at which the autopiloted boat was going put hundreds of feet between it and Namjoon within seconds. 

 

“NAMJOON!” he and Taehyung screamed at the same time.

 

Hoseok caught a glimpse of Taehyung scrambling up from the boat floor before he looked down for just a second to frantically cut the motor. He glanced back up with his heart in his throat and both hands on his gun, pointing it in Kangmin’s general direction. 

 

Namjoon, Namjoon, they had to get--

 

Hoseok’s blood froze at the sight of Kangmin yanking Taehyung back by his arm as he tried to bulldoze past him to jump in after Namjoon. Taehyung was stronger than the military officer for sure, but Kangmin was fast. He had Taehyung pulled back to him with a large hunting knife pressed to his throat before either one of them could react. 

 

Hoseok saw how Taehyung’s eyes widened at the feeling of the serrated steel against his skin, but he still struggled weakly against him, grabbing at the arm Kangmin wound painfully tight around his upper chest. The Colonel had to readjust his balance as the boat slowly slid to a stop, but he held fast.

 

“Don’t move,” he growled, putting his face right by Taehyung’s ear. But Hoseok knew it was meant for both of them, since Kangmin was looking right at him when he said it. 

 

Hoseok was panicking. He kept his gun trained as precisely on Kangmin’s head as possible, but he didn’t pull the trigger because he wasn’t confident he wouldn’t hit Taehyung. He wasn’t confident Kangmin wouldn’t slit his throat before he went down, either. But every second he stood here was another lifetime Namjoon spent struggling in the water. Hoseok couldn’t tell where he had fallen anymore -- all of the choppy waves behind them looked the same. How far had they gone before Hoseok killed the motor? A thousand feet? Two thousand? More?

 

He blinked rapidly, breathing shallowly -- trying to figure out what to do. If he didn’t move, he might lose Namjoon. If he did, he might lose Taehyung. His mind was so frenzied it wasn’t feeding him anything but those two thoughts. Useless. 

 

What should he do? What should he do? 

 

He was malfunctioning. 

 

Another icy pick of fear shot through his heart when Taehyung jerked in Kangmin’s grip, trying to break his hold, but it only succeeded in digging the knife into his skin a little more. Bright red appeared around the jagged edges of the blade.

 

“Tae!” he choked, feeling sick. “Stop moving.”

 

Taehyung obliged, but he still craned his neck like he would be able to spot Namjoon somewhere in the surf behind them. 

 

“He can’t swim, he can’t swim…” he moaned pitifully, squeezing his eyes shut. Thick tears tracked down his cheeks. 

 

Kangmin wouldn’t care about Taehyung’s plea. This probably worked out great for him, knowing he had them so helplessly cornered. 

 

“Put the gun down, Jung.”

 

“Hyung, help him!” Taehyung popped his eyes open and pleaded. Hoseok numbly shook his head.

 

No, no. He couldn’t leave him. Kangmin would take him and the boat, and then he really wouldn’t be able to help Namjoon. But Namjoon still needed their help -- right now. 

 

“Or we could gamble and see which one is faster -- your bullet or my hand,” Kangmin threatened, twisting the knife dangerously close to Taehyung’s jugular. 

 

Taehyung actually whimpered and stiffened in his hold. 

 

“Turn the boat around, Jung,” Kangmin said lowly, carefully. “I may not have the papers, but this military property is going back to the facility with me or nowhere. We know they’re out there. We’ll find more. And you’re going to be brought back and dealt with as a traitor.”

 

Hoseok’s heart thundered in his chest. The waves around them crashed in his ears.

 

Kangmin’s lips curled into a leer. “We can say your accomplice lost his life for resisting.” 

 

Hoseok’s eyes flashed. 

 

“Hyung…”

 

His clammy fingers flexed around the gun, arms aching from holding it so rigidly.

 

“Turn the boat around!”

 

Hoseok shot his hand down to the motor control panel beside him and quickly pressed a couple buttons. The engine roared back to life and the vessel jerked sharply backwards. 

 

Hoseok knew it was coming, so he was able to plant his feet and keep his balance. Kangmin and Taehyung, however, did not. 

 

Taehyung yelped as both men were thrown forward and to the ground, the knife in Kangmin’s hand thankfully coming away from the merman’s throat in the process. 

 

Hoseok cut the engine off again and darted forward.

 

“Taehyung, go!” he yelled, practically throwing himself on top of the Colonel as he reached for his discarded knife where it had skidded to a stop near the bottom of the engine cover. 

 

Taehyung twisted out of Kangmin’s hold as the man left off reaching for his knife to grab at him, shooting to his feet and making for the side of the boat. Hoseok had managed to land partially on top of him and was trying to subdue him from behind, but Kangmin was large and thrashing violently underneath him, threatening to knock him off. He couldn’t get a good grip in the awkward position.

 

Pain exploded across his face when Kangmin suddenly threw his head back and cracked it against the bridge of his nose. Not enough to break it, but it was enough to get him to recoil and lose his grip on his gun. 

 

He watched in horror as Kangmin snatched it up into his own hand. 

 

Hoseok lurched forward and grabbed his arm just as the man turned and fired off two shots in the direction Taehyung had gone, but the younger had already leaped over the edge, the dirtied soles of his feet just disappearing over the side as the bullets whizzed over him. The marked splash of him hitting the water was heard a second after. 

 

Hoseok grunted as he tried to wrench the firearm out of his grip, but Kangmin twisted his arm free and elbowed him in the chest. 

 

The air punched out of his lungs, and he couldn’t gather himself quick enough before Kangmin rolled over and swung his arm around to strike the butt of the gun across his face.

 

Hoseok’s head snapped to the side, and he tasted blood. Though he wasn’t sure if it was from his lip being busted open, or maybe a tooth being knocked loose. 

 

He coughed, spitting crimson out onto the deck as his vision swam. He vaguely registered Kangmin getting to his feet in front of him, and when he looked up, to his surprise, the Colonel was tossing his gun somewhere behind Hoseok -- toward the starboard side of the boat.

 

It clattered somewhere Hoseok couldn’t see, but he didn’t dare to turn around and look.

 

He kept his eyes trained on Kangmin, holding a hand over his bleeding mouth as his former commanding officer stared down at him with something dark in his eyes. 

 

“Oh good,” the Colonel grunted, cracking his neck with a sharp jerk of his head. “I was so wanting to kick your ass today.”

=-=-=-=-=-=

Taehyung’s heart ricocheted around his chest as he pushed himself through the water, urging himself to go faster.

 

The sea was dark and murky as it was getting closer to evening and there was no sun in sight, but that wasn’t a problem for him. Taehyung could see everything perfectly in the dark. 

 

But spotting Namjoon’s body made him feel no better. 

 

He could see him floating several hundred feet away with his arms help limply above his head, as if he had tried to propel himself to the surface and failed.

 

Taehyung’s heart shook as he kicked it into overdrive, forgetting about everything that physically hurt right now and just focusing on getting to him. 

 

They couldn’t be too late. They couldn’t be. Not after all of this.

 

He cut through the water and reached him finally, wrapping his arms around his chest from behind and pulling him up, up, up -- as fast as he could go until...

 

They broke through the surface of the water, Taehyung panting and Namjoon unnervingly silent in his arms. His eyes were closed, and his blond head dropped back against Taehyung’s shoulder like a rock.

 

“Namjoon?” Taehyung placed a hand on his chest and peered at him. He looked pale. Taehyung whimpered fearfully. “Namjoon.”

 

He shot his head around and found the boat, looking devastatingly tiny and far away, but Taehyung still had more left in him, and he pushed himself back in that direction.

 

He was fast in the water, and he was strong, but he’d never had to pull the limp weight of a person (not dead weight, not dead weight) through it before. The sea seemed agitated, it’s waves battering him from all sides with no uniform to the way they crashed. They pushed against him as he tried to propel himself forward with one hand, doing his best to keep Namjoon’s nose and mouth above the surface in the process, his free arm keeping a sturdy hold around the man’s chest from behind. 

 

He was exhausted and achy and disoriented and so, so scared. He couldn’t tell if Namjoon felt cold or if it was just the water. The white boat they’d escaped on sat idle some distance away, a little closer now, but Taehyung willed it to be closer still. He couldn’t tell what was happening on it. He didn’t know if Hoseok was okay. He didn’t know if, when he got back, he’d just be taken by that awful military man again and lose the both of them anyway. 

 

Please, he thought. Please. 

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Hoseok prided himself on his hand to hand combat skills. He thought himself fairly strong, he thought himself quick, and it was a skill he was confident enough in to brag about to his teammates.

 

But he could admit that, right now, he was in the middle of getting his ass handed to him.

 

“You know the little shit drugged me?” Kangmin laughed, an ugly, dry thing that ended in a cough.

 

He slung Hoseok around into the side of the side of the engine cover, where he slumped to the ground and promptly received a sharp boot to the stomach. He tried to crawl away, wheezing painfully, but Kangmin grabbed his leg and flipped him onto his back like he was nothing before lowering himself down onto his chest.

 

Hoseok’s eyes popped open, and he struggled for air as Kangmin’s full weight forced all of it out of his lungs. He tried to shove him off, but he was so exhausted, and the angle was all wrong for him to get any leverage. He could do nothing but kick his legs around in a pitiful attempt to buck him off.

 

Kangmin was large, with over fifty pounds on Hoseok, easily. He was broad chested and sturdy, and Hoseok was in trouble. 

 

“You know, Jung,” he sighed, reclaiming his knife from where it had so conveniently ended up next to him. He thoughtfully observed the wicked blade before his hand shot down like lighting, and he stabbed it into Hoseok’s left thigh. Hoseok didn’t know how deep the blade had gone because the entire outside of his leg was searing, and he was screaming, and Kangmin was laughing. “You shouldn’t have gone through all this trouble just to fuck a mermaid!”

 

Adrenaline spiking, Hoseok brought his hand down and, with a yell, ripped the blade from his thigh and plunged it deep into Kangmin’s side.

 

Now it was Kangmin’s turn to scream, blood instantly gushing from the would and soaking the side of his shirt, and Hoseok took advantage of how he careened to the side to sit up as best he could and punch him in the face -- as hard as he could.

 

The blow to his cheek knocked Kangmin off balance with a jerk, and Hoseok took the chance to push him back off of him, pulling himself out from underneath him at the same time to bring his leg up and kick the Colonel -- right in his knife wound.

 

Kangmin wailed. It was ugly and gurgling and agonized -- and music to his ears.  

 

Hoseok scrambled for his gun, scooping it up and swinging around to aim the barrel at Kangmin’s chest, his back hitting the side of the boat and propping him up there.

 

“Don’t you fucking move,” Hoseok growled as Kangmin pulled the hunting knife from his side with a shudder, face contorted in pain. Large globules of crimson dripped down onto the deck from both the blade and the gash in his side. He was teetering, but he was still standing, and Hoseok was really beginning to think he would need to put a bullet in him to stop him.

 

“Hyung? Hyung?”

 

Hoseok used one arm to pull himself up enough to look over the side of the deck. His heart soared at seeing Taehyung, until he laid eyes on Namjoon, who was pale and limp in his arms.

 

Hoseok steadied his gun on Kangmin again. “Get off the fucking boat,” he snarled, forcing himself to his feet even when everything hurt.

 

The twisted man still had it in him to laugh. “What are you gonna do, Jung? Shoot me?”

 

Hoseok didn’t answer.

 

He aimed and pulled the trigger.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Taehyung heard the pop of a gun and the splash of a body hitting the water on the other side of the boat.

 

Kangmin’s? Good.

 

Hoseok appeared overhead, looking considerably worse for the wear, but Taehyung tried not to worry over him too much until they helped Namjoon, who still wasn’t breathing.

 

How long had it been now? Too long?

 

He handed off Namjoon to Hoseok, who pulled him gingerly up over the side. When he held a hand down to him, Taehyung waved him off and hoisted himself out of the water with a grunt. He flopped ungracefully onto the deck and hurriedly crawled over to the limp scientist’s body. 

 

Hoseok found and tossed a small round lifesaver buoy out into the water. “The facility’s about a couple miles back that way.” 

 

Now that Taehyung listened, he thought he could hear tiny, pained whimpers and moans coming from the water. Kangmin’s.

 

Taehyung hoped that the salt water burned any open wounds he had.

 

But his malicious thoughts lifted from his mind when he grabbed one of Namjoon’s hands and he was cold. So, so, cold.

 

“Hyung,” Taehyung choked out, icy fear gripping his heart. 

 

Hoseok ran to start the engine again, the boat moving forward once more, before he joined him on the other side of Namjoon’s prone body.

 

Hoseok’s face betrayed his fear as he pushed Namjoon’s shirt up above his chest and positioned both palms atop his heart, one over the other. He started pumping -- these quick, heavy pushes against his chest, one after another. Sometimes he would stop for a moment to lean down, tilt Namjoon’s chin up, and place his lips over the other man's slightly blue-tinted ones.

 

Taehyung didn’t know what he was doing. Was he kissing him goodbye? But then Hoseok would pull away and start pumping his heels into his chest again in sharp bursts, and then he would stop and connect their mouths again, breathing steady streams of air into him, and Taehyung surmised that this was Hoseok’s method of trying to save him.

 

Taehyung had never seen anything like it. Was it working? It didn’t look to be. Namjoon still laid on the deck, deathly still.

 

Taehyung didn't know how long they sat there trying to revive him. It felt like ages. It felt like too long to do any good, but he didn’t want to say that because he didn't want Hoseok to stop doing it -- to stop trying. Hoseok didn’t stop, but at one point he did start crying.

 

Taehyung watched helplessly as tears tracked down the soldier’s face and dripped onto Namjoon’s -- but still he kept going with his ministrations. Even though he looked to be getting tired. Even though he looked to be losing hope. But that raw determination in his eyes never faded even once, and Taehyung clutched Namjoon’s lifeless hand in both of his -- trying to warm it up  -- as tears pooled in his own.

 

And then, a cough.

 

A wet gurgle.

 

Namjoon’s body jerked.

 

Taehyung and Hoseok looked on with red-rimmed, owlish eyes as Namjoon’s chest jumped again, and he coughed again, and this time water came out of his mouth. 

 

Hoseok helped tip him to the side where he shuddered and upended the parts of the ocean he had swallowed, spitting onto the deck and dropping back with an exhausted groan when he finished.

 

“Ugh…” Namjoon’s beautiful brown eyes peeked open, sliding sluggishly from Hoseok, and then to Taehyung. “On second thought,” he spoke raspily. “I think I’ll take those swimming lessons.”

 

Hoseok and Taehyung fell on top of him and positively sobbed for… well, Taehyung didn’t know how long.

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

They’d been going full speed for about half an hour. Hoseok had adjusted their course several times since then in hopes of following a less predictable pattern. But once he felt like they were where they needed to be, he had turned off the engine, and the boat had trudged to a stop once again. 

 

They’d been sitting idle for around five minutes, the vessel bobbing steadily in the ever-churning waves. Hoseok knew that they couldn’t wait here long. He was just hoping that this worked out, because he didn’t have options or ideas past this one. 

 

Taehyung and Namjoon had gone down to the cockpit a little while ago, and after finding an old rag to press into the stab wound in his leg until it stopped bleeding earlier, Hoseok had hobbled over to the small bench toward the bow of the boat, where he was now perched, his special forces badge clutched in his hand. He had found it in his back pocket, and now he sat with his elbows on his knees, staring at the roaring tiger insignia of the military. 

 

Turning it over in his hand, he ran his thumb over the the letters stitched into the back that spelled out his family name -- Jung. 

 

He sighed, dropping his head and raking his free hand back through his tangled hair. His hat was still on the floor of the boat somewhere, knocked off his head in his fight in Kangmin. 

 

The sound of footsteps separated themselves from the sound of the ocean, and Hoseok turned his head to see Namjoon and Taehyung rounding the side of the bench. They both had matching sage green blankets around their shoulders, which made him feel good to see. They had been soaked from the ocean earlier, and having to have their clothes air dry on their bodies because there were no spares on this boat would’ve been absolute torture in the dropping temperatures of the early evening without some source of warmth. 

 

They smiled at him and came to sit on either side of him. The three of them just barely fit. 

 

He felt them both eyeing the badge in his hand, but they didn’t say anything.

 

The silence between them stretched on for another minute, and then Hoseok squeezed the tough leather material in his fist, stood (careful to keep the majority of his weight on his right leg), wound his arm back, and chucked it as hard as he could. It sailed over the bow of the boat and disappeared into the waves without a sound. At least not one he could hear.

 

He plopped back down onto the bench and exhaled deeply. He felt a lot lighter, if not necessarily better. 

 

Feeling Taehyung’s eyes on him, he turned his head to the right and found the younger man smiling at him. There was something reassuring about it. 

 

The merman shuffled closer to him to put his head on his shoulder, and on his left side he felt Namjoon shifting to do the same. The blond clutched his blanket in both hands and embraced the two of them the best he could. 

 

Taehyung giggled and Hoseok grinned, wrapping his arms around them both and pulling them closer. 

 

They were real. They were here. They weren’t gone. He hadn’t lost them.

 

He had done something right. 

 

“Uh, guys, so don’t get me wrong,” Namjoon stated after a few moments of nothing but this. “This is nice, buuut we really should be thinking about how we’re going to get off this boat, right? Or where we’re going to go?”

 

“Yeah, about that. I actually sent out a message back at the facility,” Hoseok revealed, taking his arms from around them.  

 

Namjoon looked perplexed. “What kind of a message?”

 

All of a sudden, Taehyung glanced at something to their right and gasped.

 

Beside them, a large all-black vessel had appeared seemingly out of thin air. It was bigger than theirs -- in fact, it more closely resembled a modest yacht -- with two levels to it. It wasn’t exactly inconspicuous, which was what they wanted to be, but Hoseok figured that, considering the guy who was driving it, that didn’t matter too much. 

 

It also explained how something of its size had been able to sneak up on them, almost impossibly silent.

 

Hoseok nodded at it. “That kind.”

 

Taehyung leaned around him to share a look with Namjoon. 

 

“Uh…”

 

“It’s okay, I contacted him.”

 

“Him?” Namoon parroted. A loud exclamation rang out a second later.

 

“Woooo! Did some sorry sucker order an ocean rescuuuue!”

 

A man appeared -- again, seemingly out of nowhere -- jumping down onto the deck of the mystery boat from somewhere within the depths of the cabin. He was tall and broad shouldered and had a pair of dark sunglasses shielding his eyes even though it was cloudy out. He was wearing a billowy emerald-colored short-sleeved button up tucked into loose khaki pants. His hair was a unique shade of violet, and his smile was a million watts. 

 

“...Is he in special forces too?” Namjoon inquired tentatively, while Taehyung gawked. 

 

“He was; that’s how I met him a while back,” Hoseok affirmed, lifting his arm to wave at the new arrival. “But he works more closely with the government now.”

 

“So, like CIA?”

 

“Sorta,” he shrugged with a funny smile. 

 

He didn’t really know how to describe what it was that Kim Seokjin did. Maybe he was an intelligencer, maybe he was a gallivanter, or maybe he was just really, really rich. The eccentric man didn't like to put labels on things, nor talk about the ins and outs of his life much. All Hoseok knew was that he had a military background and an impressive string of connections, even though he made a conscious effort to work for himself and himself only. And yes, he may have had ties to organizations like the CIA, but he also may have had just as many ties with groups that operated much less than legally. And way off the grid.

 

Seokjin was his friend, but he was still a walking mystery, and Hoseok had learned some time ago to just stop asking questions.

 

“I do know he’s good at making people disappear, though,” Hoseok added, hopping up and balancing on one leg to call across the water, big smile on his face. “Hyung!”

 

“Hobiiii, it’s been too long . You never call me,” Seokjin pretended to pout, hands on his hips. “So imagine my delight and my dubiety when I get an encrypted email from none other than Golden Chipmunk himself.” 

 

Namjoon and Taehyung send him wide-eyed looks of the utmost confusion.

 

“No, I don’t… that--it’s not in use anymore,” Hoseok mumbled, running his words together in his embarrassment, a slight blush creeping into his face.  

 

Across from them, Seokjin kept talking, his words loud and carrying easily over the waves as if the gentle roar of the sea didn’t phase him. 

 

“It was cryptic as shit . I almost couldn’t decode it, you know. I’m kidding. It’s me. I worked it out in ten minutes over my afternoon spring rolls -- the many, many spelling errors notwithstanding, by the way. But I could tell you were in crisis, so of course it’s okay.” He laughed, clicking a button on a remote in his hand. A set of stairs extended from the side of his hull, ending with a small platform at the bottom. “Anyway, what are you all doing sitting around down there? Aren’t you runnin’ from the law? Get on up here before the armed forces are upon us!”

 

Taehyung ended up helped him onto the boat. He wasn’t in top condition himself, but he still had his impressive strength despite it all, and he bore most of Hoseok’s weight as they ascended the little set of stairs together. Namjoon came jogging up behind, Hoseok’s cap and a few stray papers in hand.

 

“Thank you, man.” Hoseok came up to Seokjin, holding a hand out to him. “I owe you one.”

 

“You always owe me one, Little Seok,” Seokjin replied, accepting his hand and shaking it cheerily. “Don’t tell me you forgot about Lithuania.” 

 

Hoseok tried every day to forget about Lithuania. 

 

He ignored his friends’ questioning gazes. “How can I,” he forced a laugh out around his tight smile. “When you’re always bringing it up…”

 

Seokjin smirked at him and let his hand go to turn around and take up his position at the helm. Hoseok noticed that all of the buttons and gears were illuminated underneath by a purple glow, matching the color of Seokjin’s hair almost precisely. 

 

His smile turned genuine, and he shook his head. 

 

Typical.

 

Soon, they were shooting off across the water at a pace that a ship of this size and build undoubtedly should not have been able to go, but Hoseok still barely felt it. The ride was so smooth. When he realized after several minutes that he couldn’t see their little stolen boat on the horizon anymore, he wondered how far away they had already gotten.

 

“We appreciate this,” Namjoon said, the three of them huddled up on the literal couch Seokjin had positioned against the starboard side under the helm. 

 

He glanced down at them and smiled.  

 

“Any friend’s of Little Seok’s is a friend of mine,” he proclaimed. Hoseok groaned at the nickname. Seokjin’s eyes lingered on them. Or at least, Hoseok thought they did. It was kind of hard to tell with the sunglasses. “Do you always choose to forgo pants, kid?”

 

He was talking to Taehyung. The younger’s borrowed pants had been positively shredded thanks to him growing his tail while wearing them (but at least Hoseok's whole theory about transforming while wearing pants hadn't been true). The remains of fabric were just barely enough to protect his sensibilities. The towel helped some, but that mostly covered his shoulders and torso.

 

In between both him and Namjoon, Taehyung blushed, the color bleeding through his tan. “Oh, uh, n-no. Not really. I--uhm--I just--”

 

Seokjin held up a hand. “Not judging. That’s how the Romans did it. I support.” He looked back out over the ocean. “So, what’s the deal with you weary travelers, then? Tell me your situation, and good ol’ King Seokjin will help it all go away.”

 

Namjoon leaned in close to whisper. “Is that what he calls himself?”

 

“Unfortunately,” he murmured back, and his friend snickered. Unfortunately, it was what a lot of people knew the elder by, but Hoseok wasn’t about to roast him too much for his monikers. Not when his past ones still haunted him. 

 

( Golden Chipmunk, indeed.)

 

“Uh, we might be kind of wanted now,” he admitted, raising his voice to be heard over the waves. 

 

“Hiding might-be-kind-of-wanteds is my personal expertise,” Seokjin grinned cheesily beneath his shades. “No problem. I’ll bring you to my humble abode and we’ll figure out your alibi tout suite .”

 

Hoseok looked over the two men beside him. Namjoon and Taehyung had their heads leaned against each other, both of their eyelids heavy and drooping.

 

“How about food, showers, and beds first, hyung?” Hoseok suggested, suddenly feeling beyond tired himself. Even his bones seemed heavy and sore. “It’s been a long day.”

 

Seokjin glanced over again, tipping his sunglasses down with his finger to scrutinize all of them again -- their haggard appearances, bloodied clothes and the almost imperceptible slump to their shoulders. 

 

Seokjin sniffed and pushed the glasses back up, facing front. “That can also be arranged.”

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

“I’m back, and I’ve got fugitives!”

 

The secret island that Seokjin ended up bringing them to wasn’t as large or extravagant as Hoseok might’ve expected from his gallivanting friend, but it was nonetheless extremely nice. Nicer than anything he’d ever lived in, easily. The beach’s sand was thick and golden orange. A flat, square three-story house that looked to be eighty percent windows and twenty percent light grey painted walls sat slightly elevated further back up the shore. It had a long porch that wrapped all the way around, balconies sticking out on the upper levels, and long purple curtains (of course; that seemed to be Seokjin’s color this month) on each floor were pulled back to let in the late afternoon sunlight that seemed to just decide it wanted to make itself known in the previously dull grey sky. It casted rich orange hues over everything and made the sand sparkle.

 

A couple other smaller boats sat off to the side further down the beach, sitting immobile in the sand, and Hoseok thought he spotted the edges of a patio around one side of the house.

 

After quickly tethering the black boat to several thick stakes at the edge of the shore, Seokjin led them up the slight hill toward the house.

 

The three of them were still supporting each other as they walked, and from Taehyung’s right side, Namjoon whistled low. 

 

“Some fancy living,” he commented. Hoseok and Taehyung nodded in silent agreement. 

 

Hoseok was about to ask Seokjin who he had been talking to when a dark haired young man rounded the side of the house. He looked younger than them in the face, but his body was distinctly muscular. He was barefoot and clothed in navy blue and red board shorts and a loose black tank top. Hoseok thought, that if he squinted, he could make out a few light blond streaks mixing in with his black hair. 

 

“Again, bro?” he called back, smiling an easy, big-toothed smile as he approached them.

 

Taehyung suddenly stiffened in between them, prompting himself and Namjoon to look at him.

 

There was an intense look on Taehyung’s face as he stared at the boy, his lips parted slightly and his eyes open wide. He didn’t seem like he was breathing. 

 

Wordlessly, he disentangled himself from him and Namjoon and took a few shaky steps forward.

 

“Jung… Jungkookie?” his voice broke on the name, hands coming up to curl against his chest.

 

The boy had been paying more attention to Seokjin, but he stopped and looked to Taehyung now. He squinted at first, like the shine of the sun made Taehyung hard for him to see, but then he strode forward a few more steps, studied him for a few seconds longer, and that’s when the recognition began to dawn in his round eyes.

 

Eyes that, now that he was closer, Hoseok could see were purple. He could also tell that he had a splattering of freckles across his shoulders and chest, much like the ones dusted across Taehyung’s cheeks and ears.

 

“Hyung?” The boy’s voice was smooth and soft. 

 

His voice seemed to break the spell. Hoseok watched in fascination as the two of them ran to each other, impossibly wide smiles breaking out over both of their faces, kicking up sand in their wake. When they collided, he thought the force would knock both of them to the ground, but it didn’t. Taehyung used his momentum to leap into the arms of the other guy, who caught him easily. Taehyung threw his legs around his waist and in turn the boy wound his arms around Taehyung’s.

 

And they screamed. 

 

“Get this.” 

 

Next to them, Seokjin started speaking over the uproarious laughter and shrieks of “You’re alive!” and “You have legs!” and “ You have legs!” among other things. Hoseok and Namjoon turned from the scene to look at him, eyebrows lifted in twin surprise. 

 

Hoseok could feel the elder was about to launch into one of his mini stories. But he kind of wanted to hear it. 

 

“I figured they might know each other,” he stated matter-of-factly. “About three weeks ago, I was on my balcony over there, doing my morning yoga, and all of a sudden I see this guy, stark naked, washed up on my private island. Nobody finds my private island. That’s why it’s private. So, y’know, naturally I think it’s some overly ambitious seedy mofo trying to sell me real estate who thought that by pulling some sneaky Cast Away, Part of Your World shit I’d bite and listen to what he had to say. I’m about to dump his ass right back into the ocean when I realize he’s pretty banged up. So then I poke him with a stick, and realize he’s still breathing. So then I take him in, draw him a bath, and lo and behold -- a tail appears! This long, red tail just, like, materializes out of his legs. And of course the first thing I’m thinking is, ‘I haven’t smoked any weed today, so this must be legit!’ I let him stay because he said he couldn’t remember how to get back to wherever it is he came from. I ask him, ‘Where did you come from?’ and he says, ‘I don’t know,” and I’m like urrgg, you know? Haha, ahh… But, y’know, he’s a cute kid and I’m not a monster, so he’s been my new roomie. Little shit doesn’t clean up after himself, but he’s got the voice of an angel and the arms of a god, so I can’t really complain too much, can I? I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with him, and then today I’m getting cryptic emails from you and coming to scoop your asses up out of the ocean and I notice your friend’s crazy eyes and pantless tendencies and I had my ‘aha’ moment and connected the dots. And looks like I was right. Boom. Holy shit.” 

 

He finished his tale with a clap and a grand sweep of his arms, grinning at them and looking satisfied with his storytelling capabilities. 

 

“Whoa…” Hoseok breathed and turned to Namjoon. “Tae told me about him. He said he had a friend that got separated from him when they were attacked and that he didn’t know what had happened to him.”

 

Namjoon’s eyes widened a bit, turning back to observe the surprise reunion in a new light.

 

The three of them watched as the excited screaming match between the two boys slowly devolved into tears. They clutched tightly at one another, faces going to bury themselves into necks as they sniveled; until eventually they sunk together down to the sand where sobs began to shake their bodies. 

 

Namjoon slid an arm around his shoulders, smiling softly at the crying pair. Hoseok felt a warmth blooming inside of his chest and he smiled too, tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. 

 

“You’re all free to freshen up in the bathrooms upstairs,” Seokjin sidled up to him. “And you’re welcome to stay here until you get back on your feet and figure out what it is you’re going to do. I’ve got more than enough room.”

 

Hoseok wiped at his eyes. “Thanks, hyung. It won’t be too long, I promise.”

 

“Oh, whatever,” Seokjin crossed his arms and shrugged one shoulder. “It’ll be nice having some properly aged company again.” 

 

“You mean you don’t invite your business flings over to your private island ?” Hoseok gasped in fake astonishment.

 

“They are not worthy.”

 

Hoseok laughed and then cringed a little as an ache in his side throbbed painfully. Namjoon gazed at him in worry. 

 

“You look like shit, by the way. I meant to say it earlier, but I didn’t wanna make a bad first impression on your lovely gentlemen friends, you know how it is.” He winked brazenly at Namjoon, who blushed and spluttered. Hoseok snorted and rolled his eyes. Seokjin’s eyes turned softer. “Need some patching up, old friend?” he offered gently. 

 

Hoseok felt gratefulness flooding his bones, as well as a sense of nostalgia. He and Seokjin had spent much of their early days in the special forces together tending to each other’s wounds. 

 

“That would be nice,” he breathed thankfully, letting both of them lead him toward the front door of the house.

 

“Kookie, dear, please show your friend to your bathroom after you’re both done crying all over each other,” Seokjin spoke to the human bundle on the ground as they passed. “And lend him some pants, please. He’s practically mooning us all over here.”

 

=-=-=-=-=-=

 

Taehyung flopped back onto the large circular bed with a pleased sigh.

 

Namjoon and Hoseok had absolutely ruined him with it came to beds. There’s no way he’d be able to sleep-float in the ocean anymore. No way.

 

He felt great. He’d cleaned the saltwater off of his skin in the shower, he’d brushed his teeth in the sink, and rubbed something called lotion over his arms and legs and stomach because Jungkook had said that’s what you do with it and now he smelled like cherries and almonds all over.

 

He sighed again, deep and long and content.

 

“Like the bed, bro? ” Jungkook asked, stepping through the bedroom door and grinning at him. 

 

Taehyung ran his hands over red, velvety-feeling comforter. “Love it.” He smiled and sat up. “What’s bro, by the way? I heard you say it earlier, too.” 

 

“It’s like hyung but for everybody, and it's in a different language,” his friend elucidated. “I heard people saying it on TV.”

 

“TV?”

 

Jungkook gestured to something big and black behind him, and honestly, Taehyung hadn’t paid it any attention. He blinked at it. 

 

What the hell was that?

 

Though, the longer he looked, the more the plain black screen kind of resembled those of the devices that played the moving pictures his hyungs had shown him. The videos and movies. 

 

“I’ve got so much to show you,” Jungkook beamed again, coming over to jump and bounce onto the bed in front of him. He propped his head in his hand and kicked his legs around behind him, eyes shining. “It’s as amazing up here as we always thought it was.” 

 

That was a little hard for Taehyung to readily believe when he’d been held captive for most of his time up on the surface, but he still managed a slight smile and a nod. 

 

And he thought about fireworks. 

 

If the ocean was big, the world probably was too, and he was willing to give it another chance if he was able to experience it in the right way, with the right people. 

 

He and Jungkook would eventually have to try to find their way back home, of course. When they had cried together out front, the younger had whispered brokenly to him:

 

“I don’t know the way home anymore, hyung.”

 

And Taehyung realized with some mild horror that he didn’t either. Then they’d compared the scars the upper world had inflicted on them in less than a month’s time and cried some more. (Taehyung with fresh red lines on his neck and across the bridge of his nose and Jungkook with slightly more faded, pink ones cutting across his eyebrow and under his chin. And that was just above the clothes.)

 

Their families likely thought they were dead, and Taehyung hated to think about his mother, father and grandmother going through that. But then it would mean that he would have to leave Hoseok and Namjoon to properly reunite with them, and he hated that thought too.

 

Taehyung stood up form the bed and walked over to the window set into the wall adjacent to the bathroom. Looking down at where the view overlooked the the elaborate white marble patio setup below, complete with couches and a grill and the midnight blue ocean stretching out to the east, he spotted Namjoon and Hoseok on a padded bench. They were sitting close together and talking, and the sight of them brought a faint smile to his face, touched by the tangerine sunlight coming in through the window.

 

The two men who had risked everything for him. Saving his life meant going against every rule they were supposed to follow, but they had. For him. And they didn’t even have to. 

 

Taehyung’s heart ached to be near them. 

 

He heard Jungkook coming up behind him, and a second later the younger merman placed his chin down onto his shoulder from behind, wrapping his arms around Taehyung's waist to step closer and give him a hug.

 

His front felt warm against Taehyung's back, and he reached up and behind to pet at Jungkook's soft hair, scratching lightly.

 

"You have two mates?" Jungkook asked softly, sounding in awe and then a little covetous. "Lucky..."

 

Taehyung's cheeks warmed, but he didn't go to confirm it... nor deny it. He only said, "And yours is very..." he fought for the word. "Colorful."

 

Jungkook backed up and sniffed. "No, he's--we're not..." He pouted like he was confused or miffed or a little bit of both. "I think Jin-hyung mostly just finds me to be like an annoying little sibling... who eats all of his food."

 

Taehyung shook his head, reaching out to pat at Jungkook's puffed out cheek. "No, I think he likes you." Though he had given no supporting reason for the claim, it seemed to make Jungkook happier nonetheless, a dumb smile he failed at trying to conceal twitching at his lips. Taehyung mentally rolled his eyes. His friend was so obvious. He shook his head. "Who would've thought that humans would be our type?" he asked, somewhat exasperated.

 

"Me," Jungkook answered immediately. "I did."

 

Taehyung snorted and grinned. The younger man had never been subtle about his fantasy about finally making it to the surface one day and being swept off of his feet by a handsome human with pretty eyes and a nice smile. It was in very whimsical taste for someone like Jungkook, but Taehyung had always found it somewhat sweet. And while it wasn't exactly what had happened, he guessed it was close enough. A month ago, he wouldn't have guessed it would happen at all. 

 

He smiled again and turned back to the window.

 

Maybe there was some way to find his way back home and still be with them. He didn’t know, and his mind was honestly too tired to think about it right now. He could give himself one night -- just this one night where he could be happy that, after everything, he had survived the tortures of that facility somehow, found his best friend again against all possibility, and managed to fall in love.

 

Two times over. 

 

 =-=-=-=-=-=

 

Hoseok and Namjoon sat together on a brown bench on Seokjin’s back patio -- Namjoon lying long ways against the armrest with one leg hanging off the side and Hoseok cross-legged beside him. The sun was a rich red-orange and just touching the edges of the dark blue sea, throwing its last few rays across the side of the beach house behind them. 

 

When Hoseok thought back to everything that had happened today, he couldn’t believe all the events that had led up to where they were now. Especially now that they were showered, freshly dressed, and were more bandages and gauzes and antibacterial creams than people. He and Namjoon had talked about some of them, making tired, idle conversation, still trying to figure out if they had actually been through what they had. 

 

They talked about the people they’d left behind. (“My work colleagues locked me in my bathroom because I was protesting the surgery so much.” “Really?” “Yeah, but my feisty midget of a friend let me out, so it was okay. That’s how I got to you, you know.”)

 

Hoseok hadn’t known about any Jimin, but he was grateful to him in his way. Namjoon told him that they had different values sometimes, but that he was smart and nice and driven. Without him, they might not be here right now. Hoseok had asked Namjoon if he was worried about his safety at all, and Namjoon said not really, though he didn’t explain why. Hoseok confessed he was a little worried for Yoongi, but like Jimin, he assumed that the man could evade being labeled as an accomplice just fine. No one but the three of them had seen what he had done for them, and Yoongi could probably string some story together that would work in his favor. He was sneaky like that.

 

They had good friends.

 

They also talked about what they’d done. (“So, you shot another person.” “I just shot him in the shoulder, calm down.”)

 

Honestly, Kangmin might’ve deserved more than that, but who was Hoseok to say? Despite Seokjin’s protection, he was a little scared he’d run into him again one day. Or Kangmin’s connections would catch up to him. If he had made it back to the facility shore, or if someone else had found him and pulled him out of the water, wouldn’t he come looking for them?

 

Namjoon made him banish those thoughts for tonight, and Hoseok had conceded. He already stressed enough over that man to last a lifetime. 

 

(“I hope Soonyoung is okay.”)

 

He still felt bad.

 

And also, they talked about what they were going to do now. Would they be wanted fugitives in Korea come morning? Would they have to actually take Seokjin up on his alibi offering? Where could they go after this?

 

Would they still be able to keep their professions? Was Namjoon still a scientist? Was Hoseok still a soldier? Would they still be able to work? And what about the few papers of research that had been salvaged?

 

More things they would have to face at a later date, he supposed.

 

But though all the reminiscing -- if it could be called that -- they never really touched on the one thing that had truly almost changed them. Hoseok didn’t know if Namjoon wanted to revisit it so soon, but he had to let him know.

 

He slid a hand into the Namjoon's, and his voice trembled around the edges as he looked at him and said, “I almost lost you.” Namjoon’s face became a little blurry around the edges as Hoseok’s eyes pricked with tears, but he could see that the younger man was staring at him intently. Hoseok sniffed, and wow, he had cried so much today. “Joon-ah… I was so scared, I… I didn’t know if I would be able to do it. Wh-what if I didn’t- hic -I couldn't save you… couldn't protect you...”

 

Hoseok knew he wasn’t good with words, and this was proving it. Namjoon also knew he wasn’t good with words, and maybe that was why he leaned up and cradled Hoseok’s face in his hands so carefully that Hoseok’s eyes fluttered at the feathery touch.

 

Namjoon slowly brought his face to his and kissed him, and his lips were so warm and familiar that the moisture spilled from Hoseok’s eyes and tumbled down over his cheeks, probably getting Namjoon’s cheeks and fingers damp, too, but he didn’t seem to mind.

 

Each kiss was so slow and deliberate that Hoseok couldn’t breathe until that short moment between the last one and the next. Hoseok sighed and moved to lean into him, but then the edges of Namjoon’s teeth caught the gash on the side of his lower lip and Hoseok flinched a little, a quiet squeak leaving his mouth.

 

“Sorry,” Namjoon apologized when he pulled back and saw Hoseok prodding at the red split with his tongue and wincing. It was still very much so puffy and angry. 

 

Hoseok expected that to be the end of it then. Namjoon was the one who knew medical stuff. There had to be some rule in the scientist handbook somewhere that said no kissing with an open wound on your face.

 

But Namjoon moved forward again, turned his head, and suckled the lightest marks against the afflicted area -- just the gentlest little caresses of his plush lips. Did it still sting a little? Yeah. But it also kind of tickled and still managed to get something warm and soupy to curl low in Hoseok’s stomach. Hoseok whimpered a little as Namjoon moved to plant soft and languid kisses across the rest of his mouth, his tongue poking out every so often to tease at the seam.

 

Hoseok pushed him back down against the arm rest, leaning over him with his hands against his chest. 

 

That though, is when Namjoon chose to pause it.

 

“Mm, wait, okay. Don’t get me wrong, I like this,” he began, panting ever so slightly, his warm fingers skittering along Hoseok’s neck, dark eyes following the bob of Hoseok’s throat when he swallowed. “Like I really like this, but uh… how do I say this...? Okay, you know what, fuck it. You saw me kissing Taehyung, right?”

 

Hoseok could see Namjoon wasn’t expecting him to smirk, and he reveled in his slack-jawed expression. 

 

“Uh-huh,” Hoseok confirms, dropping another kiss against his lips. “I told him to give you that for me.”

 

“Excuse…?”

 

Hoseok winked. “Yeah, but uh, I think it was a little bit for him, too, if you know what I mean.”

 

Seokjin excited the house then, sunglasses perched atop his head now, with Jungkook and Taehyung in tow. Taehyung had freshened up and changed his clothes, and though he, too, was now 40% bandage and 60% mystical creature, he looked brighter than Hoseok had ever seen him. The shiny bouncing of his hair matched the bounce in his step as he bounded over to them.

 

“I got hamburgers!” Seokjin loudly announced, setting a large plate of raw beef patties down on a table a little ways away from where they were. A sleek black grill was positioned next to it. “We’re gonna be eating good in a few minutes!”

 

“Hey, Tae,” Hoseok greeted him as he stopped behind their couch, folding his arms on the back of the chair. He ruffled his hair, and the boy blushed happily, glancing at Namjoon and laughing. 

 

“What’s wrong with you, hyung?”

 

“Well, I uh…”

 

“He just found out about the kiss I asked you to give him for me.”

 

Realization dawned on Taehyung’s freckled face. “Ohhhh, yeah that!” Then he lowered his head and blinked at Namjoon from underneath those impossibly long eyelashes of his. “Did you like it, hyung?”

 

Namoon turned even redder. “Well, you know, I, I--”

 

“He liked it,” Hoseok saved him from tying his tongue into even more of a knot. Something told him that Taehyung could do that for him just fine. He patted the merman on his elbow, shooting him a wolfish look. “Wanna give him one of your own?”

 

Namjoon spluttered. “Okay, hyung, whoa, honestly, we don’t even know if Taehyungie’s-- oh- kay , ohmagahd.”

 

Taehyung stood up, rounded the couch in a few strides and plopped himself in between them, partially on both of their laps, and Namjoon didn’t look like he’d been ready for it. But Hoseok knew his best friend of over thirteen years better than that. He’d been acting flustered, sure -- and he probably was -- but Hoseok could also tell he was into it. The way his eyes darkened as Taehyung wound his hands around his neck and leaned in close enough for tendrils of the merman’s hair to tickle his brow; the way one hand slid almost imperceptibly lower to clutch at Taehyung's hip; the way his tongue licked over his bottom lip.

 

Hoseok had seen all these signs time and time again. He’d been the front line receiver for a lot of them, and he knew. Namjoon wanted Taehyung.

 

“Can I, hyung?” Taehyung asked, voice low and breathy and getting Hoseok to bite his own lip.

 

Namjoon’s eyes were huge. “Well, yeah, but--”

 

Taehyug cut him off by sliding his lips over his, and Hoseok thought bemusedly that he’d already discovered the most effective way for shutting Kim Namoon up. It was impressive.

 

Still, he started talking again right after Taehyung pulled back, brushing a hand through Namjoon’s hair and looking down at him with sleepy eyes.

 

“But, it’s not--?” he glanced at Hoseok like he expected him to contribute or something. “It’s not weird to you or anything?”

 

Taehyung knit his eyebrows. “Weird how? I like you.” He kissed Namjoon again for good measure, right on his slack mouth. Then he turned and tugged lightly on Hoseok’s t-shirt, leaning into him. “And I like you…”

 

Hoseok met him halfway, the slide of Taehyung’s lips against his just as good as he remembered from the facility, only better now because he could actually focus on feeling it without the constant fear of being shot. Taehyung angled his head and caught Hoseok’s lower lip between his teeth for a second before letting go, and Hoseok inhaled and pulled away with raised eyebrows and a pleasantly surprised smirk playing at his lips. That had been bold.

 

Taehyung returned the saucy expression. 

 

“Ah- hem,” Seokjin cleared his throat dramatically from over by the grill. “I don’t know what’s going on over there, but it better not be a threesome on my nice seaside patio!” He clicked his barbecuing tongs threateningly.

 

“Better not be a what, bro?” 

 

“So what’s weird about it?” Taehyung continued the conversation, though he was speaking more quietly now -- as if that had been Seokjin’s issue. “I mean, you guys like me , right?”

 

“Oh yeah.”

 

“Yep.”

 

“And you like each other?”

 

“For sure.”

 

“Uh huh.”

 

“Then what’s the problem?” Taehyung giggled in astonishment, a deep, happy thing that formed an endearing, box-shaped smile on his face.

 

Hoseok looked to Namjoon and shrugged, an easy smile settling into place. After a few more extended moments of looking cutely befuddled, a similar one began to spread across the younger man’s, too.

 

“Alright, darlings,” Seokjin clicked his tongs again, and Hoseok wondered if that was his latest method he had for gathering people's attention. He placed them down on the low table with a clack, and then flopped back into a single arm chair across from it, looking over at them. He had a bright blue beverage in a dainty glass in his hand, and Hoseok had no idea where it had come from. “While we wait for the magic -- and it is magic, you’ll see -- tell me all about your daring escape from a South Korean military facility. Kookie here has been talking both of my ears positively off with all about his adventures under the sea, and I’m dying to reconnect with the real world.”

 

Across from him, Jungkook scoffed and picked at the strings of a small blue ukulele in his lab, his own long legs hanging over the side of a wooden couch laden with fluffy throw pillows.

 

“Please tell me, before Jungkook starts up with his damn ukulele again.”

 

“You love the ukulele!” 

 

“Not when there are people here, dear.”

 

The three of them looked at each other, all soft smiles and shrugs.

 

They were here. They were safe, and this was today. For the last few hours of it, they could enjoy it and be thankful that they had lived through it. 

 

Together.

 

“You wouldn’t believe us if we told you,” Hoseok said, shifting them so they’re all lying more comfortably together, Taehyung pressing back against both of their chests. Seokjin barked out a laugh.

 

“Oh please, Hobi.” He took a sip from his cocktail. “ Try me.”