If you must blink, do it now. -Kubo and the Two Strings
Hyunjin is seven when he first hears the tale of the ocean prince. He’s lying in bed, waiting for his father to read another chapter of his favorite superhero book. The bedside lamp throws a long shadow across his comforter. He bites his nails absentmindedly, watching the empty doorway for his father’s long figure.
Another minute passes, and his father returns holding a massive book. His glasses are slightly askew, dark circles drawn around his eyes. Even from here, Hyunjin can see the blue-black smears on the far sides of his palms - ink stains. Hyunjin can never remember what his father does for a living. Just that it has something to do with sitting in his office all day and looking at really old, boring books.
His father sits down on the edge of Hyunjin’s bed. The massive book he’s holding falls onto the bed with a dull thump. It’s not Hyunjin’s superhero book, that’s for sure. Instead of slick paperboard and a cartoonish cover, the book is bound in cracked leather, the pages so yellowed that they’re halfway to brown. Hyunjin coughs on the smell of dust.
He stops coughing dramatically when his father shoots him a look. “Where’s my book?” he asks, straightening up. “I thought we were reading Mr. Incredible vs the Evil Slime Monster.”
“Maybe tomorrow night,” Mr. Hwang says. “I have a different story for you this time.” He smiles. “You might even like it.”
Hyunjin frowns. “It looks kind of boring.” He reaches out, brushing his fingers against the asymmetrical, yellowed pages bursting out from the fore edge. He frowns deeper; the pages are so thin that they’re almost like skin.
Mr. Hwang mirrors his son’s frown, but he mostly just looks amused. “I haven’t even opened it yet! How do you know it’s boring?” Gingerly, as if afraid it might break, he pulls the cover back. The spine cracks, and then the book falls open the rest of the way, slow-motion like a dream.
Hyunjin’s spine tingles. He shivers. “What’s it about?”
Mr. Hwang glances up. “This is your mother’s favorite book,” he says, not quite answering the question. “She used to read out loud every night when she was pregnant with you. I kept meaning to read it to you, but I never got around to it.”
Hyunjin’s mother has been gone for nearly four years. He barely remembers her. Just that she smelled like soap and hibiscus, and had long, black hair that tickled his face when she carried him. His father says she had brown eyes. That only meant something if you knew that Hyunjin didn’t.
She isn’t dead; just away. Whatever pulled her away from their family, it was apparently important. She writes letters sometimes, crumpled and damp like someone left them in their back pocket and put them through the wash. Hyunjin can’t read very well yet, so he hasn’t read any of the letters, but his father promises to let him do so when he’s older.
Mr. Hwang turns the page, the yellowed paper whispering with age. “Have I ever told you about the ocean prince?”
Hyunjin blinks. “No. Obviously.”
Mr. Hwang smiles. “That was a rhetorical question, Jinnie.”
Then he begins to read. “There are very few people left alive that know the story of the ocean prince,” Hyunjin’s father says in his his gravelly voice. “Those that do are too old to tell it, or young enough that they will forget. Some will tell you that the prince is a myth. Some will tell you the prince is a metaphor. You must not listen.” He looks up. His eyes narrow. “Hey! Don’t do that, that’s gross.”
Hyunjin, in the middle of biting off the end of one of his fingernails, widens his eyes. He quickly pulls his fingers away from his mouth. “Sorry,” he says sheepishly.
His father turns back to the book. “Anyway. In the old stories, he lives on the edge of the sea, in the place where the surf drops away to the cavernous depths of the ocean. There, the veil between our world and theirs is the thinnest.”
He pauses to turn the page. “On some days, when the moon is highest in the sky and the dark of the night has turned the waves into black crests, the veil grows thin enough to break. And there, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll fall between the cracks, and wake up in the palace of the ocean prince.” It reminds Hyunjin of a fairy tale like Cinderella, where the magic happens at midnight. “They say-”
“Um, what part of this did mom like?” Hyunjin breaks in. He knows his dad doesn’t like it when he interrupts, but he’s too curious to stay silent. “Like, the water part or the prince part?”
Predictably, Mr. Hwang gives him a look. He rubs at his face, and a streak of ink draws across his cheek. “Hey. Reading first, questions later.”
Hyunjin pouts. “But what if it’s really, really important?’
“Jinnie,” His father warns, a small smile twitching at the edge of his lips. “So, as I was saying. They say the ocean prince had eyes the color of sea foam, green-blue and clear as day.”
It’s at this that Hyunjin breathes in sharply. Like my eyes, he wants to say. He has eyes like mine. Because Hyunjin’s eyes are blue: dark, sure, but undeniably blue. Your ocean eyes, his father calls them. Your blessing.
Hyunjin’s father looks up. They make eye contact, and there’s a brief pause before he starts reading again. “He had hair like a manta ray’s back, shiny and so blue it was almost black. They say that if you listened, you could hear his heart wailing in his chest. You see, the prince had a lover, and there was nothing he wouldn’t do for him.”
“Him?” Hyunjin says quickly. Mr. Hwang catches his eye, but says nothing. Hyunjin feels something strange swirl in his gut.
He turns another page. “Once a month, the lovers met in secret, in the space where the surf meets the ocean, between our world and the next. But his lover was from the human world, and their relationship was forbidden. When the ocean king found out, he forbade them from being together, and decreed that they should never see each other again. So the prince had to marry another, a woman with eyes like pearls and hair that spilled down her back in black waves, a woman with a seal coat. But even so, the ocean prince gave his lover a parting gift: eyes of the ocean, eyes blue as sea foam, eyes that could see what others could not. And he gave him a promise: one day, they would be together, in this life or the next.” He closes the book.
There’s a pause.
“What part did Mom like?” Hyunjin repeats, feeling a little uncomfortable.
“You know, she always liked the bit about the seal’s coat,” he says after a pause. His words have a strange weight to them. It almost feels like when he and his father are on the phone with Hyunjin’s grandparents, and his grandmother asks about Hyunjin’s mother. There’s a weight, a meaning that he doesn’t understand. Like he’s missing context.
The book slams shut with a dull thump. Mr. Hwang smiles, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Goodnight, buddy.” He reaches across the bed for the lamp. It clicks as he pulls the chain, plunging the room into darkness.
“Goodnight, Dad,” Hyunjin replies, his voice soft.
That night, he lies awake late into the night, thinking about the ocean prince and his lover, the man with blue, blue eyes. When he finally falls asleep, he dreams of the far ocean, of a seal with his mother’s eyes and a boy’s voice, whispering through the dark.
Some will tell you that the prince is a metaphor. You must not listen.
When Hyunjin walks up to his college dorm hall years and years later, the ocean prince is the farthest thing from his mind.
The wind blows past, rippling his t-shirt and brushing his hair into his face. He shivers. It’s been an unusually cold September, the autumn wind worming itself into each week’s weather forecast. While the leaves haven’t started turning colors yet, Hyunjin almost feels like they should be.
He’s standing on the walkway up to his new dormitory, watching as embarrassed-looking freshmen brush by with their parents in tow. They drag in black duffel bags, or balance unopened duvets or pillows in clear plastic packaging on top of beaten-up suitcases. The dormitory towers over them, a monolith of gray concrete and shaded windows. It must be six or seven stories high. Over the glass doors (key card access only - the woman at check-in must have reminded him a dozen times) is a large banner with the words: Welcome, freshmen!
Hyunjin checks his information packet again. It cheerily reminds him that he’s been assigned Warren Hall, room 213.
He looks up. The wooden sign next to the doorway reads: Warren Hall.
Hyunjin sighs. I guess this is it. He reaches around for his black duffel bag, stuffed to bursting with clothes and bedsheets and two full-size posters. The fabric strains away from the zipper, like it’s about to rip with stress. It makes Hyunjin anxious just looking at it.
He looks around one more time, freshmen pouring past him, haggard parents in tow. He sees a boy with bright pink hair look disparagingly at a woman that must only be his mom just as she fumbles and drops a mini-fridge onto the stone walkway below.
“Mom, if you fucking break that, I’m going to cry,” Hyunjin hears the boy complain. The woman says something back insistently, too quiet to hear.
Hyunjin’s phone pings. He fishes it out of his jeans pocket.
It’s a text from his dad. Text me when winter break is when you find out. Good luck.
There was a time when Hyunjin would have jumped at a text from his father. But today, looking around at his soon-to-be classmates, the massive duffel bag in his hands almost too heavy to hold, he feels something twist in his gut.
Sure, he writes, then just as quickly deletes it. He’ll text his father back later.
It takes Hyunjin the better part of fifteen minutes to lug his duffel bag up the four flights of stairs to his room. By the end, he’s panting. He leans against the door to the hallway, wordlessly motioning a parent behind him to go ahead. His scalp feels warm with sweat. His biceps burn.
The hallway, cramped with people, seems to be generating its own heat. It may be near-autumn outside, but it’s full summer in here, hot and oppressive. It’s made worse by the clamor of his classmates setting up desks and lofting beds and arguing with their parents. Somewhere down the hall, someone’s playing rap music in a language he doesn’t recognize. It burns through Hyunjin’s brain, the rapper’s voice both violent and sensual, the bass thumping faintly in his feet. This floor is boys-only, but he hears the buzzing tenor of female voices echoing in the stairwell from the floor below them.
Hyunjin takes a long breath. God.
Once he’s caught his breath, he looks down at his duffel bag. There’s a word for this, he knows. It takes him a second to find it, staring down at the bulging black fabric with his body aching. Awful. There it is. That’s the word.
“You look like you need some help,” someone says from in front of him. Hyunjin looks up to see a woman with salt-and-pepper hair and deep wrinkles around the sides of her eyes. She looks like she’s both smiling and not; it takes Hyunjin a second to figure out which.
When their eyes meet, her eyebrows raise what feels like halfway up her forehead. “Whoa, your eyes!”
Hyunjin feels himself tense up. “Yeah. Um, thanks, but I’ll be fine.” A moment later, he realizes that she’s the one that dropped the minifridge on the walkway earlier. Her pink-haired son stands behind her, leaning against the first doorway in the hall. His hair is coiffed to supernatural heights.
“Are you sure? You look a little…” she trails off. “Well, like you could use the help.”
Hyunjin feels his cheeks grow warm. “No, I’m really fine.” He gestures down to his duffel bag in a vague gesture. “I’m just…” Resting, he almost says, then realizes belatedly that it’ll do nothing to help his case. He lets the sentence hang.
The woman makes a weird face, somewhere between polite acceptance and utter doubt. She turns to her son, still hanging out of his room with watchful eyes. When Hyunjin and the pink-haired boy make eye contact, he does a double take.
Hyunjin hoists up his duffel bag and slings it over his shoulder. It bores into his shoulder, sending bright sparks of pain down his shoulder blade. He walks a little ways down the corridor, looking around the mash of parents and students for the room numbers. That’s 211, he realizes, looking at the first door to the right. The pink-haired boy’s room across the hall must be 212, then.
He hears the pink-haired boy’s mom say goodbye. Another student brushes past, arguing with a gray-haired man trailing behind him. Hyunjin waits for them to pass, then crosses the hallway to the room neighboring the pink-haired boy’s room. The heat of the crowd bears down on him like a vise. All of a sudden, he feels unsteady, like someone’s untethered him from the earth.
213, he reads off the door. The copper door handle is cool under his palm. The door falls open, and he steps inside, letting the door close behind him.
Abruptly, the clamor quiets. He takes a breath, then another. His pulse roars in his ears. Chill, he tells himself.
Hyunjin takes the room in: two beds pushed against opposite walls. Two desks. The far wall has a four-paned window with a hand crank and no curtains. Two dressers, one with a curse word scratched into the front.
One side of the room looks... lived-in, which seems impossible, considering that freshman dorms have only been open for domestic students for about six hours. The desk against the right wall is covered with school books. Hyunjin sees an English textbook, another for some kind of social science, and others stacked below or hidden under the hoodie draped over the seat and part of the desk. The gray comforter is rumpled and pulled back, like someone slept in the sheets this morning and didn’t bother to make the bed after they woke up. There’s a massive poster of the ocean on the wall over the bed, and a whole constellation of photographs stuck around it.
And there’s this, too: there are stars on the ceiling. Not real stars, obviously, but the five-pointed, sticky kind that you can buy from a craft store. They make delicate patterns across his roommate’s portion of the ceiling. Their faint green tint makes Hyunjin think they must be glow-in-the-dark.
He looks at his side of the room again. Bare, the mattress looking as hard as a rock. He lifts up his duffel bag with a huff of a breath and pulls it on top of the mattress. He pulls at the duffel bag zipper, but it’s stuck. He tries again. And again, pulling it back with all his might.
There’s a strange pulling sound. Before Hyunjin can react, the tongue of the zipper pops off. He’s pushed backward, his equilibrium set off balance with the bag no longer pulling back.
“Fuck,” Hyunjin says out loud. He frowns at the zipper tongue in his hand. Well, how the fuck am I supposed to do this now?
All of a sudden, the clamor of the hallway kicks up again. Hyunjin hears the creak of the door just as someone speaks from behind him.
“Whoa, you scared me!” The Korean is flawless, but there’s a strange lilt to his voice. It almost sounds like a regional dialect, but if it is, it’s not one Hyunjin is familiar with.
Hyunjin jumps, startled. “Sorry,” he says automatically as he turns around.
There’s a boy leaning against the door, his fingers still wrapped around the door handle. He has high cheekbones, a long, oval face, and blue-black hair that must be dyed. He’s shorter than Hyunjin, but not by much. He lifts his hand away from the doorknob, and the edge of his long-sleeve pulls away from his wrist. Hyunjin catches a glimpse of dark ink before the fabric settles again. He’s starkly handsome: beautiful like an ice floe, or dewdrops after a summer rain. Almost otherworldly. It makes Hyunjin’s chest feel funny, but he immediately buries the feeling. I can’t think about my roommate like this.
His eyes meet Hyunjin’s, and they flicker with an emotion Hyunjin doesn’t quite recognize. He doesn’t comment on Hyunjin’s blue, blue eyes. Instead, all he says is, “You must be my roommate.”
Hyunjin smiles. “Unless I got the wrong room, I’d say yeah. I’m Hyunjin.”
“Cool! I’m Jisung, I moved in yesterday. Uh, with the international students,” he adds, as if anticipating Hyunjin’s question.
“Oh, nice. Where are you from?”
Jisung shrugs. “Just about everywhere, to be honest.” He rocks back on his heels, leaning his shoulders against the dark oak of the door. “Do you need help unpacking your stuff?” He leans to the side, looking over Hyunjin’s shoulder.
Hyunjin blinks. “Oh! Actually, if you don’t mind, that would be great.” He moves out of the inlet between their two beds, making space for Jisung to pass. He gestures to his duffel bag. “I broke the zipper and I can’t figure out how to get it open.”
Jisung crosses the gap between their beds in two steps. “Fuck, I hate when that happens,” he comments. Hyunjin watches as leans over Hyunjin’s duffel bag, deftly grabbing the remaining parts of the zipper with long fingers. Without turning around, he says, “So where are you from, then?”
“Seoul,” Hyunjin replies, twiddling with the zipper tongue still clenched in his hand. “So, here.” He leans over the duffel bag, still sitting stuffed to bursting on top of the mattress. All Hyunjin can see of the action is Jisung’s wiry arm disappearing under his chest and the back of his neck. He notices dark ink creeping at the edges of the boy’s shirt collar, tattoo lines much like those at his wrists.
Jisung, with his generic yet handsome haircut and plain black clothing, doesn’t look like the type to have tattoos, much less the number of tattoos implied by ink up the back of his neck and at the edges of his wrists.
“There,” Jisung says suddenly, pulling away from the duffel bag. He’s pulled the zipper open about three inches, enough to reveal the corner of a crumpled music poster and one of Hyunjin’s high school swim team shirts.
“Thanks.” Hyunjin reaches over, pulling the zipper down the rest of the way. His clothes spill out desperately, as if gasping for air. Outside the door, he hears the rap music grow louder, as if someone’s passing by with a speaker. It rumbles through his feet. He recognizes a few lyrics: a woman’s mouth, a raging party, and want. He looks back at Jisung.
Jisung smiles. “No problem.”
There’s a pause. Hyunjin fiddles with the zipper tongue in his hand, feeling suddenly awkward. He racks his brain for icebreaker questions, for something interesting to say. He glances at the photos on Jisung’s wall. In one, an older boy with similar facial features - the same sharp jaw, similar cheekbones, even the same dyed blue-black hair - stands in front of a dying sunset, palm trees waving behind him. An older brother, maybe, or a male relative, Hyunjin guesses. In the photograph, he slings an arm around a slightly shorter boy - Jisung - and pulls him in. Though his face is half-shadowed, Jisung looks up at the older boy, his mouth open in what looks like a surprised laugh.
Jisung glances at Hyunjin, then the photos. He doesn’t offer any information, though, as Hyunjin expects him to. Instead, he says, “So, uh, I heard from a guy down the hall that some of the freshmen are starting a massive game of Uno downstairs. I was going to head down there after I grabbed some stuff. Do you want to come?”
Hyunjin takes a breath. “Yeah, definitely.”
That night, with the clamor of his new hallmates mostly quieted for the evening, Hyunjin lays out on his stomach, his bedsheets forming rippled and creased patterns under the weight of his elbows. Even on the fourth floor, the bright fluorescent lights of the campus outside shine faintly through the window, illuminating the otherwise dark room in streaks. (There are no overhead lights, and both of them forgot to bring a lamp). Through the gritty corner of the window, Hyunjin can see the waning moon, partially hidden behind a cloud.
He looks down. The busy newness of the day has taken its toll on him. His body aches like it used to after particularly long swim practices, all down his legs and up his back. He has his phone out. It casts its blue glow over a section of his pillow. A while ago, he glanced over at Jisung, and found a similar blue glow emanating from a mountain of blankets.
He checks his messages. His text to his father - sure, in response to a question about winter break - lays saved and unsent in the text box. He almost presses send, but some bitter part of himself tells him to wait. He deletes it, then feels bad about it. Idk yet, he writes instead, then sends. See you then.
His phone buzzes. It’s a notification from Facebook Messenger, alerting him of a message to his floor’s group chat. Someone named Felix Lee has written, please tell me someone’s in math 150 with me
Hyunjin checks his schedule. With a burst of happiness, he realizes that he does have calculus. He sends back, What time
Almost immediately, Felix responds. 10:15 with prof baek
Me too. We should meet up before, he suggests.
Felix sends an enthusiastic agreement. They make plans to meet for breakfast and then walk over to the math and natural sciences building, where their lecture is being held.
Hyunjin smiles. See you then, he types, feeling his heart pound. Not much after, Felix sends back a smiley face.
When he finally falls asleep that night, he dreams of the ocean prince, as he often does. He dreams of a boy with blue eyes like him. The dream takes place at Hyunjin’s high school. They’re both on the swim team, and they’re in the middle of a meet. Hyunjin watches from the sidelines as the boy with hair as black as midnight plunges through the water, as fast and at ease as a leopard seal. Just as he’s about to leave the water, a pearl bracelet slips off his wrist and sinks into the chlorinated depths.
After the competition results, Hyunjin dives in to retrieve it for him. He looks for the bracelet, but the bottom of the pool has disappeared. It goes on forever. He swims downwards for what seems like hours, days. When he finally starts to drown, his lungs burning, burning, the boy appears, bracelet in hand.
I’d waited for so long, he says. His eyes are anguished. Right as Dream-Hyunjin’s vision starts to go black, the boy kisses him, his lips soft as a feather. It’s as if he’s given Hyunjin the ability to breathe underwater, because suddenly, Hyunjin can breathe again, just in time for the boy to press the pearl bracelet into his palm.
Hyunjin awakes with a gasp. A second or two later, he forgets it all, all but the boy’s words echoing in his brain. And a string of pearls, drifting aimlessly down into the dark.
Some will tell you that the prince is a metaphor. You must not listen.
Hyunjin wakes with a start, the sound of Jisung’s ambient noise alarm rumbling through the dorm. That first morning, he thought he was hallucinating; that is, until he opened his eyes to find Jisung rummaging for his phone in his blankets. “Sorry,” he’d said sheepishly, his phone in one hand.
Hyunjin had yawned, then asked, “Do you hear birds, or am I going insane?”
But now, two months into the term, he’s growing used to it. Now, sheets whisper and rumple together as Jisung searches for his phone, a near-daily occurrence. As far as Hyunjin can tell, he falls asleep while on his phone, then loses it in the bed during sleep.
Suddenly, the rumpling stops, and a few seconds later, the chorus of tropical birds cuts off to silence.
“Finally,” Hyunjin mutters under his breath. He rolls over in bed with a thump, pulling the warm comforter over his head. A moment later, the room is illuminated with light as Jisung flicks on the lamp to get dressed. Hyunjin groans.
A door, presumably the one to Jisung’s clothes dresser, slams shut. “It’s not my fault you’re a light sleeper.” His voice is rough with the early morning, rumbling in his throat and sharp around the edges with exhaustion. It does something strange to Hyunjin’s gut.
“It’s not my fault you have an 8 AM lab,” Hyunjin shoots back from under his blankets. “You should be quieter.”
“You should...” Jisung pauses. “I don’t know, take fucking melatonin or something.” The dresser door slams again.
Hyunjin can’t think of an adequate comeback, so he stays silent. He listens, annoyed, as something heavy thumps against the desk. Then there’s a jingling sound that Hyunjin’s come to recognize as the metal odds and ends of Jisung’s book bag clanging against each other as he gets his stuff ready. They’ve had this same argument almost every morning.
“Do you have anthro today?” Hyunjin asks mid-yawn. “Or am I eating lunch alone?” Please don’t have anthro.
“Uh… wait, I have to check.” There’s a brief pause. “Nope. See you then.”
Hyunjin hums in response. There’s a familiar click as Jisung flicks off the fluorescent lamp, plunging the room into the blissful, hazy blue light of the early morning. A moment later, Hyunjin just barely catches the soft sound of the door lock turning in its gears.
On days that Jisung doesn’t have his anthropology extracurricular, they eat lunch together in the cafeteria. Felix, who Hyunjin shares a calculus class with and who turned out to be the pink-haired boy from next door, has only joined them once or twice, since he has a class at about the same time that Hyunjin eats lunch.
It’s early November, two months into the year. It only took until mid-September for his relationship dynamic with his roommate to shift from excessive politeness to early-morning friendly bickering. Hyunjin suspects it has something to do with their contrasting personalities. Hyunjin is sociable by nature, but his anxiousness keeps him away. On the other hand, as far as Hyunjin can tell, Jisung seems to be the opposite: all day, he’s full of small talk and smiles, but at night, he curls up in his bed and refuses to move or speak more than a few words at a time.
A door slams shut, the wall in front of Hyunjin’s face trembling a little with the force of the movement. Not long after, his phone buzzes. Hyunjin rolls over in bed, scrabbling at the floor with one hand until he finds purchase. He clicks the home button.
It’s a Snapchat from Felix. The other boy has sent him a dark screen, and the words, tell jisung to stop fucking slamming the door :( he woke me up
Hyunjin snorts. He takes a picture of his ceiling, the glow-in-the-dark stars shining faintly in the last dredges of darkness, and adds the words: that was minho and changbin’s room lmao.
Felix texts him another sad face. Damn that means I can’t yell at them
On one side of Hyunjin and Jisung live Felix and Seungmin, two deceptively quiet, amiable freshmen that were easy to talk to. On the other side of Hyunjin and Jisung’s room are Minho and Changbin, another story altogether. At Hyunjin’s university, dorms aren’t separated by year in school, so his floor has students of all ages. Minho and Changbin are upperclassmen with large groups of friends. Minho hasn’t even introduced himself to them yet. Hyunjin had to find out the name of Changbin’s roommate through Changbin’s very brief first-day introduction.
Outside, someone else slams their door. Not long after, down the hall, someone in the bathroom turns on a shower, and Hyunjin hears the faint, dull whine of the showerhead and the sound of water slapping against tile.
It’s never as quiet as he’d like it to be. Growing up, the only sound in his house most days was the steady baritone of his own voice. As an only child, as the child of a quiet introvert with an equally quiet job, Hyunjin isn’t used to the clamor and clutter of college life. People keep saying he’ll get used to it, but today is clearly not that day.
With a sigh, Hyunjin rolls over in bed and tries to get back to sleep.
When Hyunjin’s own alarm goes off, it’s almost ten o’clock, roughly fifteen minutes before his first class. In the last two hours of sleep, the central heating unit in the dorm has kicked on. He can feel the sweat drying to the back of his neck.
He groans inwardly. I’ll have to wash my sheets this weekend. He rubs his face, then yawns, mindful of his alarm playing loudly in the background. His is set to the jolting default iPhone marimba. Like a normal person, Hyunjin adds to himself. None of that ambient jungle crap on Jisung’s fancy alarm app.
With a sigh, he slides out of bed. His phone lays beside them, and he grabs it, turning off the alarm with a few taps. There’s a text from his friend Felix (coincidentally, also the pink-haired boy next door), asking if he’s heard about an upperclassman party this weekend. Hyunjin sends back a quick reply - I haven’t heard about it, why do u ask - then grabs his collar, pulling his shirt off in a quick motion. He pulls on a hoodie from his clothes dresser, then changes out of his sweatpants and into a pair of jeans.
Right before he leaves, he checks his phone clock: 10:10 AM. He has five minutes to make it to his first class. In high school, that would have sent him into a panic. Now, he figures it’s more than enough time. He slides into his street shoes, grabs his backpack, then makes his way out the door.
The dorm is never quiet, but now, right when most people on campus are either in class or studying at the library, it’s the closest it ever gets to it. From down the hall, he hears the pounding bass of rap music coming from the bathroom, the dull slap of the water on tile nearly overshadowing it. Someone’s left the door to the stairwell propped open with a boot, and he can hear the echoing laughter of a group of girls float up from the floor below them.
He’s only three doors down from the stairwell, so it takes only a few seconds for him to reach the door. Hyunjin pulls the heavy door away from the boot, then kicks it away. He’s about to let it close behind him when someone calls out.
Hyunjin turns around. A young man is standing in the hallway, just outside of one of Hyunjin’s neighbor’s rooms. He has a smile like a snarl, eyes narrowed and glinting in the fluorescent light. If Jisung is beautiful like an ice floe, this boy is handsome like a wolf. Hyunjin notices his high cheekbones, his strong jawline. He looks like an actor. He dresses like it, too: a silver cross dangles from one ear, and pale skin peeks out of the holes in his artfully ripped jeans. His vibrant red bomber jacket is half-open, revealing a sharp collarbone and a long section of his shirt. Hyunjin just makes out the words: ---- University 2022. So he’s a junior. That explains the wolf stare.
“You gotta put that back,” The boy says, gesturing to the boot. He’s looking at Hyunjin appraisingly. “We’re going to roast in here without it.”
It's hot in the hallway, Hyunjin has to admit. With the door open, the cool outside air wafts up the stairwell and through the doorway. But- “I don’t know,” he replies carefully. “Last week, Chan came by to remind us to keep the door closed. He says it’s a fire hazard.” Hyunjin looks away, embarrassed to be disagreeing with an upperclassman.
Chan is their hall’s RA, a graduate student even more intimidating than this boy. Hyunjin knows the “cool” thing to do is to ignore Chan, hence his own embarrassment, but still. Fire is fire, and Chan doesn’t seem like the kind of person Hyunjin wants to disobey.
The upperclassman raises his eyebrows. “So? There’s nothing in here to start a fire. They don’t even let us have fucking tea kettles, much less candles.” The way he says it, it doesn’t feel as confrontational as it should. He says it like they’re sharing a secret. His gaze has some weight to it, and Hyunjin can’t figure out if it makes him feel uncomfortable or not.
Reluctantly, Hyunjin shoves the toe of the boot under the door. It drags about an inch across the carpet, then holds. He looks back up at the upperclassman, then smiles back tentatively.
The boy rewards him with a flash of a grin. “You’re Felix’s friend, aren’t you?”
Hyunjin blinks. “How did you know?”
“We’re on the same dance team, and I’ve seen you around campus with him. It’s not hard to figure out.” His lips quirk. “You know, the whole team has been talking about how pretty your eyes are.”
Hyunjin takes a short breath. “Have they?”
“Yeah,” the boy says easily. He taps a heavy combat boot against the carpet. “And they’re right.” When he smiles, it’s like honey in a fly trap. “I’m Minho, by the way.”
Hyunjin scrambles for something intelligent to say. “Thanks,” he says finally, unable to stop an embarrassed smile. “Uh, I’m Hyunjin.” In his head, all he can think is, Is he flirting with me?? There’s no way he’s flirting with me.
Minho looks at him for a long moment, smiling, then says, “So, I was talking to Chan the other day and he mentioned he’s been asking around for the phone numbers of the freshmen of the hall. Sounds like he’s planning a group activity or something.”
Hyunjin frowns. “I.. don’t remember hearing from him about that.”
Minho shrugs. There’s a strange glint in his eyes. “That’s all right. You can just give me your number and I’ll pass it along to him.”
“Oh, thanks.” Hyunjin waits for Minho to take out his phone, then recites the numbers.
“Great! I’ll see you around, then,” Minho says casually, pocketing his phone. “It was cool meeting you.” He adjusts the collar of his jacket, the pale skin of his neck appearing for a second.
“Yeah, same,” Hyunjin says quickly. “See you around.” He turns to leave.
“Oh, by the way,” Minho calls after him. Hyunjin can hear the amusement in his voice, so he’s not surprised when he turns back around to see the boy grinning. “Full disclosure, Chan isn’t actually planning an activity. I was just trying to get your number. Is it okay if I text you?”
Wolf, Hyunjin thinks automatically. Then, I can’t believe this is happening. Breathlessly, he replies, “Yeah. Yeah, definitely.”
He makes his way down the wooden stairwell, holding the railing a bit tighter than he normally would. He breathes in, then out. Fuck, Hyunjin thinks to himself.
Normally, people pointing out his eyes makes him uncomfortable. To a certain extent, it still felt weird hearing Minho point them out, even though he was calling Hyunjin pretty while doing it. Even when flirting with me, the first introduction usually mentions my eyes, Hyunjin thinks wryly. Of course.
For the first time in a while, he’s grateful when he gets outside and finds out that it’s chilly, the autumn wind cold enough to nip at his skin. The cold air is almost soothing against his burning face.
He checks his phone. It’s 10:16, making him officially late to calculus. But for some reason, he can’t bring himself to care all that much. Maybe he’ll finally get to kiss someone.
It’s noon on Saturday, a few days after his encounter with Minho. Hyunjin sits at a table for four in the cafeteria, scribbling away at calculus homework. Felix sits across from him. He’d originally been working on the same homework, but he’s since put it away and started eating lunch. Seungmin sits at one head of the table, flipping through an economics textbook. Jisung is at the other end. He’s leaning on one elbow, the other arm thrown across the back of his seat. His gaze is focused on his phone.
The noise level around them is at a low roar. The cafeteria is packed for lunch, students constantly squeezing between seats and pulling stray chairs to the ends of tables already full to bursting. Hyunjin thought he saw Minho a while ago at the salad bar, but he’s since disappeared into the crowd.
Hyunjin is just finishing a derivative when his phone buzzes. Grateful for a chance to distract himself, he turns away from his homework and checks the home screen. It’s a text from an unknown number: heyy its Minho
Hyunjin startles. His heartbeat picks up almost immediately. It starts to pound in his chest. He quickly unlocks his phone, then before he can second-guess himself, he sends back: Hey :).
Frankly, he’s surprised Minho contacted him at all. After three days of waiting, it was starting to seem like Minho lost interest. He’s even more surprised when the older boy replies more or less immediately: Want to hang out later
yeah definitely, Hyunjin writes.
Minho: we can just chill
Minho: or :)
The three-dot typing bubble shows up, then disappears.
Minho: we could do something more fun lmao
“Holy shit.” It takes Hyunjin a second to realize he’s spoken out loud. He starts to write a reply, but his nervousness gets the best of him. He has no idea how to reply to that. He’s supposed to wait, right? And not sound eager?
Hyunjin: i’m good with “something more fun” lol
Minho: meet me in my room tomorrow at 7 ;)
Hyunjin: cool i’ll be there
When he looks up, his friends are watching him.
“Who’s that?” Felix asks, his voice curious.
“Uh, Lee Minho.” Hyunjin tries to sound casual. He swallows, then turns back to his food. He flips his phone over so the screen is touching the table. “We’re going to hang out later.”
Jisung, who’s been holding his soup spoon halfway to his mouth, ducks his head. His expression is complicated. “Huh,” he says, with the tone of someone who has a lot to say but isn’t going to mention any of it. He meets Hyunjin’s gaze, then just as quickly looks away.
“How did you guys meet?” Felix asks, taking a large bite of rice. He adds, his voice muffled, “He’s in Miroh with me. A good dancer, but he… uh... ” Felix swallows. “Gets around.” Miroh was the school’s dance team.
Hyunjin shrugs. “We started talking in the dorm hall a few days ago. He seems really nice.”
Jisung chokes on his food. He starts to cough. Felix pounds him on the back.
Once he’s cleared his throat, Jisung starts, “That’s-” He breaks off coughing again. “Jeez. What I was going to say was, that’s one way to put it.”
“You don’t like Minho?” Felix asks curiously. “He seems okay to me.”
Jisung glances at him. “I mean, it’s none of my business.”
Felix frowns. “What’s none of your business?”
Jisung leans forward and meets Hyunjin’s eyes. “You should be careful.” Ice floe, Hyunjin thinks.
Hyunjin gives him a look. “Okay, what’s your problem?”
Jisung raises his hands, as if to say, calm down. Nothing about his expression particularly encourages Hyunjin to calm down. His eyes are dark, dark. Jisung is so much more handsome when he’s angry. “Has he asked you to Netflix and chill yet?”
“Whoa,” Seungmin says, looking up from his econ homework. His face is a little pink.
“I just think,” Jisung says, his voice neutral, “you shouldn’t sleep with someone you just met. But I guess that’s none of my business.”
There’s a pause. Hyunjin’s face feels warm. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Jisung looks back down at his phone. Without meeting Hyunjin’s eyes, he shrugs. “All the upperclassmen say that Minho doesn’t just “hang out.” It’s pretty obvious what he wants from you.” He puts “hang out” in air quotes.
Hyunjin bites his lip. “I mean…”
“You’re seriously going to sleep with him?” Felix asks, his voice curious.
“That’s not what I said.”
“But that’s what you’re going to do,” Jisung points out, not taking his eyes off his phone. His eyes glitter as they reflect some of the yellow light of the cafeteria fluorescents.
Hyunjin lets out a breath. “Jisung, for fuck’s sake. Leave me alone.” He reaches behind himself to grab his math folder from his backpack. He puts his calc homework away with what is probably unnecessary clatter. Then, before he can stop himself, he adds, “I don’t know why you care who I sleep with.”
Jisung looks up. When he does, his expression is unreadable. “I don’t.”
There’s something about his voice that Hyunjin can’t place. He glances over at his friend, who is studiously focused on his phone. He wonders if Jisung can feel his gaze on him. He wonders what Minho’s lips will taste like tonight, and if he’s really bad news like Jisung seems to think he is.
Jisung meets his eyes. He opens his mouth like he’s about to say something, then closes it. He tucks a stray hair behind his ear, then says, his voice softer than Hyunjin expected, “Just- call us if you need anything tonight.”
Something tightens in Hyunjin’s chest at Jisung’s tone. He recognizes the feeling immediately. Oh, he thinks, his heart sinking. Oh, no. All he says, though, his voice rough, is “Thanks.”
The following night, Hyunjin slips into Minho’s room. It’s dark inside, darker than his own room. In the grayish light, he can’t quite make out the fine details; just the beds, desks, and clothes dressers. Minho sits on top of his pristinely made bed, the star pattern crumpling under his weight. His face is illuminated blue-white with the light from his phone.
The door creaks as Hyunjin closes it. Minho looks up sharply. His lips curl into a smile. “Oh, good. You’re here.”
Hyunjin crosses the floor. He can hear his heartbeat in his ears, pounding, pounding. He tucks his hands into his pockets, then just as quickly pulls them back out. “So,” he says slowly.
Minho stands up. He’s close, so close Hyunjin’s first urge is to step back. He can feel the older boy’s breath on his cheek.
“So,” Minho repeats, still smiling. He reaches up to tuck a stray hair behind Hyunjin’s ear. His gaze flicks to Hyunjin’s lips. “Are we going to do this?”
Minho tastes like candy, like sour and sweet. They kiss for a long time, then move on to other things. The only sounds are of their own breathing, the whisper of the sheets, and the low murmur of voices passing by the door.
After, they lay out on top of Minho’s black-and-white starry comforter, staring at the ceiling. Minho’s arm is warm around his back, his shoulder hot under Hyunjin’s head. It’s so silent. They’re touching, but it feels somehow empty.
Once the silence starts to weigh on him, Hyunjin starts to say something. He gets halfway through the first word when Minho pulls himself over Hyunjin and presses his lips to his, effectively burying the thought under the pressure of Minho’s mouth and the caress of his hands. But this time, a strange feeling worms through Hyunjin’s chest, and all he can pay attention to is the spaces between their kisses, when lips break away from lips or skin and they breathe and breathe and don’t talk.
By the time Hyunjin gets back to his room, it’s nearly 8:30 PM. It’s dark inside, though still not as dark as Minho’s room. He stands there for a second, then lets his legs slide down to the floor. I can’t believe that just happened. His lips remember Minho’s. He feels strangely awkward and aware of his body. He rolls his shoulders, taking a long breath.
It’s silent here, too, but it feels different, somehow. The silence of aloneness, not lack.
It’s not long before the silence is broken with the sound of Jisung’s voice. “You good?”
Hyunjin scrambles to his feet. “Yeah.” His voice cracks. “I mean, yeah,” he says again, this time stronger. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were here.”
It takes Hyunjin a moment to find him. Jisung is curled up under his comforter, his blue computer screen making shadows jump out across the hard and soft planes of his face. Behind him, the last vestiges of daylight shine weakly through the windows. He looks up at Hyunjin with a strange expression.
Hyunjin sits down on his desk chair. “So Minho invited me to a party this weekend. He wanted me to let you know you’re invited, too.”
Jisung looks away. “Mmm.” He turns back to his computer screen. There’s a few clicking sounds, then he shuts it with a tinny thump. “I’m going to head out to the pool deck for a few hours. You’ll have the room to yourself.”
Hyunjin blinks. “Oh, that’s where I was gonna go. I didn’t know you swam.” As far as he knew, Jisung was averse to any kind of exercise. He was all gangly limbs, the kind of body type that wasn’t overly thin but certainly not muscular, either.
Jisung sits up, pulling the comforter off himself with a rustle. “Oh, I don’t go in the water,” he says, almost too quickly. “I just like the humidity.” He slides out of bed, slipping his feet into his shoes. His shirt pulls; Hyunjin sees a flash of black ink around his collarbone before the collar hides it again. As if sensing Hyunjin’s confused gaze, he clarifies, half-distracted with jamming his heel into the back of his Nikes, “Reminds me of home.”
Hyunjin tends to forget that Jisung is an international student. If not for the other boy’s slight, lilting accent, Hyunjin might never remember that Jisung is from overseas.
“Oh. Well, I’ll just get my stuff ready and we can go together,” Hyunjin suggests carefully. Since their argument about Minho, they’ve been on unsteady ground, relationship-wise. Hyunjin’s not really sure whether Jisung wants to spend time with him. But still. He feels the silence of his hookup with Minho weighing heavy on his chest.
Jisung looks up from his shoes. His eyes flicker, so quickly Hyunjin thinks he might have imagined it. Hyunjin feels his throat catch. Oh, God, he’s going to turn me down.
But to his surprise, Jisung smiles, then says with his signature dry humor, “Just don’t take forever, or I might leave you behind.”
Relief, strong as a wave, washes over Hyunjin. He makes a face. “You’re an ass, you know that?”
He’s joking, obviously. Gratefully, Jisung seems to get it, because he shrugs, a smile playing across his face. “Not as much as you,” he tosses back.
Not much later, Hyunjin throws his swim bag into the back of the locker with a dull thump. The metal door of the locker squeaks on its hinges in protest as Hyunjin closes it shut with a slam. He spins the dial of the lock until he hears the familiar click.
Even this late in the evening, there are still a few other people in the locker room, either getting changed after a swim or getting ready to do so. They’re mostly students, including two guys Hyunjin recognizes from the varsity swim team informational meeting early this week. They both nod at him, bro-like and expressionless. Hyunjin tries to mirror their expressions, but he suspects the look fits strangely on him.
His goggles, tied twice around his wrist because he can’t be bothered to hold them with a hand, clack against each other as he pushes the successive heavy wooden doors of the locker room open. The moisture of the pool deck hangs between them, creeping under the door frames. Hyunjin scans his student ID to open the last door.
The air hits him first, hanging heavy with humidity. Hyunjin feels it in his lungs, his sinuses, achingly familiar. His body automatically starts to relax.
Like most large universities, the athletic complex here has an Olympic-sized pool. He sees two or three lanes in use, but the rest are empty. He squints to the bleachers, looking for Jisung. When he realizes that there’s no one in the stands, he checks the pool deck.
To his surprise, Jisung sits on a bench by the far side of the pool, staring at his phone. So far away, Hyunjin can’t quite discern his expression, but he looks relaxed, his shoulders low, mouth not pursed like it often is around Hyunjin. He’s taken off his jacket, likely due to the humidity. Hyunjin’s never actually seen his roommate’s bare arms before, since Jisung seems to exclusively wear black long-sleeve shirts or hoodies. And- oh.
The first thing Hyunjin sees is plants. Seaweed, maybe? They’re wispy and dark, crawling up his forearms and around the backs of his biceps. Hyunjin can just make out clam shells, the edge of a fin, wide eyes and a round back that remind him of a seal.
The most surprising part of it is that while the tattoos span the edges of Jisung’s wrists and up under the sleeve of his t-shirt, they don’t look like typical tattoo sleeves with no skin showing. Instead, on Jisung’s arms, there’s more uninked skin than tattoos. It makes what tattoos that do exist look less like a part of Jisung’s body as tattoo sleeves often do and more like decorations. Like someone drew them on, instead of being a part of his skin. Jisung is always handsome, but something about them makes him seem even more so.
Hyunjin’s so curious. When did he get them done? And why?
Jisung leans over his phone, his blue-toned hair wisping over his forehead and into his eyes. One arm is braced against the seat, holding him up, while the other holds his phone.
Suddenly, as if sensing Hyunjin’s gaze, Jisung looks up. He meets Hyunjin’s eyes. He quirks a smile, then lifts up an arm in a wave. His eyes glint in the bright fluorescent light.
Hyunjin waves back. He makes his way over to the next open lane. Once he pulls his goggles down from his rubber swim cap and on top of his face, he plunges into the water.
The water is cold, but not paralyzingly so; it’s the kind of cold that wakes you up, that calms your heart and forces you to get moving. He feels Jisung’s eyes on him, though he couldn’t explain how he knew that if he tried.
Hyunjin grabs the edge, then pushes off the wall. His hands plunge into the water like blades. Everything falls away. He stops thinking, stops feeling Jisung’s gaze. It’s just him and the water. Just him and the clock.
Swimming is in Hyunjin’s blood. His father made it all the way to the Junior Olympics when he was a teenager, but a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder prematurely ended his career. And while as far as Hyunjin knew, his mother never competed officially, she could swim like a seal. His father even used to joke that she should have been a free diver, since she could hold her breath for way more minutes than anyone else was comfortable with.
All that history meant that Hyunjin learned to float well before he learned to walk. His childhood is essentially a long string of pictures of him at the pool: first at family vacations or the local athletic center with his parents, then later at swim clubs for meets and competitions. And even if the photo of Hyunjin’s childhood doesn’t feature a body of water, there are usually signs of it: maybe a swim team shirt, or blurry competition trophies in the background.
After Hyunjin’s mother disappeared, swimming became a welcome constant in a very quickly changing environment. Even as his relationship with his father grew more rigid and distant, he could always depend on this: the chill of the water, the smell of chlorine, the heavy humidity of an indoor pool. He threw himself into swimming. There was no space to worry in the water. There was no space to get distracted about your silent father and your missing mother. In the water, he was raw and stripped to his barest elements. In the water, there was his body and there was the clock, ticking off the time. Nothing else.
At the end of the first 100 meters, he grabs the white grate over the overflow drain and surfaces, breathing hard. He checks the clock.
Hyunjin grimaces. 66 seconds. That’s five seconds over his personal record for the 100m free. In some sports, five seconds was nothing. In swimming, it was an eternity.
Hyunjin adjusts his goggles on his face. He takes a calming breath, trying to slow his heart rate. I know I can do better. He looks over at the pool deck, where Jisung is watching him with careful eyes. Hyunjin feels his heartbeat pick up.
Again. He pushes off the wall and propels himself through the water, letting it envelop him once more.
By the time they emerge from the doors of the athletic complex, the sun is setting already. It hides behind the large brick buildings of campus, turning the silhouettes orange and gold, as if aflame. The dark of the night sky sinks down slowly. It reminds Hyunjin of watercolor paint, navy and black running slowly into the cyan, yellow, and red below it.
The campus is buzzing with late night activities. As they walk past the main buildings, main doors swing open and closed with faculty finishing up work for the night and students heading to evening clubs. Gaggles of students brush past them on the paved path. At one point, Hyunjin sees a girl he recognizes, maybe from calculus. She’s walking with another girl, laughing at something on her phone. She doesn’t look up. Another second, and she hits Jisung hard in the shoulder.
Jisung hisses in pain. He reaches for his shoulder. “Hey!”
“Sorry.” She doesn’t sound sorry at all. She looks up twice: once quickly, a second time much slower. Her voice jumps up several octaves, from her low and annoyed apology to overly friendly: “Oh! Jisung, right? I think we have anthro together.”
Hyunjin should have expected that reaction. There’s a shadow cast over one half of Jisung’s face, outlining his cheekbones in high relief. He looks desperately pretty, impossibly handsome, his hair almost navy in the dying evening light. It’s not all that surprising that she’d take that tone with him.
Jisung seems oblivious. He nods. “Yeah, I think so. You’re...” He pauses, his brow furrowed. “...Yeji, right?”
“Yeah!” Yeji tucks a stray lock of hair behind her ear. She’s pretty, Hyunjin has to admit, but in a generic sort of way, like how sunsets in the city are pretty. “You know, believe it or not, Chaewon and I were just saying how good your presentation was,” she says. “I loved the bit at the end about traditional folklore.” She’s smiling without teeth. Her hair is tied up into two buns at the top of her head.
Yeji glances at Hyunjin, but doesn’t say anything. Something about it annoys him.
“Oh, thanks,” Jisung says, looking away with an embarrassed smile. “I liked yours, too. It was a really cool argument. And awesome graphics! You must know a graphic design major.”
Yeji dimples. Her cheeks scatter pink. “Don’t tell anyone! I don’t want someone to steal him,” she jokes. “Oh, by the way, you’re coming to the party next weekend, right? Minho said he invited you.”
Jisung brushes back a stray lock of blue-black hair from his face. His smile falters. He glances at Hyunjin, then away. “Yeah, he did.”
“You’re going, right?” Yeji’s still smiling, smiling. She glances at Hyunjin again.
Jisung glances at Hyunjin again, then at Chaewon, who’s looking at him curiously. In a second, that fake, faltering smile is back. “Yeah. I can’t wait. Oh, by the way, I don’t know if you guys have met my roommate? This is Hyunjin. He’s a freshman, too.”
Hyunjin can recognize a pivot when he hears one. Frankly, he’s surprised Jisung agreed to go to the party at all. Neither of them had been to a party yet, and he suspected that in Jisung’s case, it wasn’t for his female classmates’ lack of trying.
Yeji looks at Hyunjin. She smiles brightly. “Oh, we have math together, don’t we?”
Yeah, with Professor Baek?”
“I fucking hate him,” Yeji admits. “Um, kind of changing the topic, but are you guys going to party with anyone?” Her eyes flick to Hyunjin.
Jisung shrugs, a nonanswer that would have seemed ruder if he wasn’t smiling.
“I’m not,” Hyunjin adds.
“Oh, cool. I’m not either.” Suddenly, Yeji turns pink. She looks up at Hyunjin with a careful smile. “Not be too bold or anything, but I’ve been trying to get your number for weeks. So if you’re interested...”
Wow, I totally misread her, Hyunjin thinks. Then, that’s a clever way to check if we have significant others. Hyunjin is so shocked that he just stares at her. Eventually, Jisung elbows him.
“I’m flattered,” Hyunjin says hurriedly. “I really am. But I’m, uh. I’m gay.”
“Oh, that’s awkward for me,” Yeji says after a beat. Her voice is cheerful. “Forget I asked, then. Maybe we can exchange numbers as friends?”
“Sure,” Hyunjin replies, surprising himself. She hands him her phone and he types in his number. When he looks up, she’s smiling, but it doesn’t look nearly as sickly sweet anymore. It’s halfway to real. Her space buns glint gold in the dying evening light, giving her a sort of halo.
“Great!” Yeji pockets her phone. “See you guys around, then.”
Hyunjin smiles. “Yeah, see you around.” Jisung echoes his words.
Yeji starts to leave. Her friend Chaewon glances at Jisung, her smile fading to an expression not unlike that of a warning. Then she follows her friend down the path.
When Hyunjin looks over at his roommate, he’s surprised to find Jisung grinning.
“What?” Hyunjin asks warily.
Jisung shrugs. He looks down at the concrete path. “Nothing.” Hyunjin can hear the smile in his voice. Then, “So you’re not going to the party with Minho?”
Hyunjin shakes his head. “No, we didn’t talk about it. I assumed he was going with his friends.”
“And you’re going with yours,” Jisung fills in for him. He smiles again, then tucks his hands into his pockets and starts to walk up the path.
For some reason, Hyunjin feels his chest warm. He follows Jisung down the path. “You know, for a while, I thought Yeji was flirting with you,” he calls after him as he catches up.
Jisung’s eyes widen. “I know. Fuck, it was awful.”
Hyunjin raises his eyebrows. “Why was it awful?”
He shrugs, a smile playing on his lips. “I don’t know. I guess I’m not that into girls.”
Hyunjin breathes a laugh. He feels like he’s been running. For some reason, he starts to smile. “You and me both.”
That night, for the first time in a while, he dreams of the ocean prince. The details get lost in the haze of the morning, but what he remembers is a boy’s laugh, a long, marble hallway, and tears. Then the dream changes. He’s crying, chasing a far-off light down the beach and into the water. He misses the veil to the ocean kingdom and ends up in the open ocean, searching for a boy that no longer exists to him.
Some will tell you the ocean prince is a myth. You must not listen.
The next week passes quickly. Hyunjin and Minho hang out again twice, and each time, they barely talk. And it’s fine. It’s fine. It’s nice to be kissed. Hyunjin doesn’t need the other things, the things that he for some reason expected from Minho: laughter and lowered voices, hands linked in the dark. He doesn’t need them. Nope. Not at all.
It’s fine. He tells himself that it’s fine. He’s already lucky enough to be regularly making out with one of the most handsome guys in their dorm. This must be just how it’s supposed to be.
The one time Hyunjin tries to ask Jisung, his roommate sends him a cool look. “Hyunjin, no offense, but I don’t really want to hear about what you do with Minho. Go find someone else.”
“O-Oh,” Hyunjin stammers. “Sorry.”
It’s the coldest Jisung has ever been to Hyunjin. Normally, when Jisung says stuff like that, there’s a part of his voice or his face that tells Hyunjin that he doesn’t really mean it, or at the very least doesn’t mean for it to hurt. Maybe he rolls his eyes, or has a joking tone.
But there’s none of that here. His voice is staccato and sharp, eyes as chilled as an ice floe. This isn’t I don’t give a shit bestie lmao; this is truly, fully, stop talking to me.
It makes Hyunjin a little unsteady on his feet. His face is warm, and it's not from the heat of the central heating unit on the wall of their room. Jisung is busy on his computer, buried beneath his gray comforter. He’s wearing a loose t-shirt, and his tattoos are on full display, dancing across his arms with artful grace. His collarbones peek out at the edges of his collar, curved like wings.
Hyunjin glances away, suddenly unable to look at him. After the meet-cute with Yeji and Chaewon on the path last weekend, he thought they were good. But now, he’s not so sure.
The silence hangs like a weight, heavy and oppressive. Eventually, it gets too much for Hyunjin. He opens his mouth, then closes it. He swallows.
Jisung’s eyes flick up to him. “What?”
Hyunjin hasn’t often been on the receiving end of that glare. He quickly loses his courage. He shakes his head, as if to say, never mind. Something feels tight in his chest.
Jisung’s gaze changes. He looks at Hyunjin for a long moment, then sighs. “I’m sorry.”
The weight immediately disappears. Hyunjin blinks. “Really?”
“Yeah. Just don’t- I don’t know.” He bites his lip. “I-” He looks at Hyunjin carefully, then says, “I guess, don’t hate me for this, but I think you’re making a mistake with Minho.”
Oh, we’re back on this. Hyunjin braces himself inwardly. “Why?”
“Whatever you want from him, he can’t give you.”
Hyunjin frowns. “What does that even mean?”
Jisung sucks in a breath, as if considering for a moment. “I guess… I didn’t want to tell you this before because I didn’t think you’d believe me, but I overheard him talking to his friend in the bathroom a couple weeks ago. He said he’s hooking up with people he doesn’t care about because he can’t have what he wants.”
Hyunjin purses his lips. “I… don’t think I believe you.” But he feels a little uncomfortable as he says it. He thinks of Minho rolling over and stopping him from talking with the press of his lips. He glances at Jisung, and notes that the other boy’s eyes are wide and honest.
He doesn’t think Jisung would lie to him. But if it’s the truth about Minho, it sits uncomfortably on Hyunjin’s shoulders.
Jisung doesn’t reply, though he does roll his eyes, as if to say, that’s what I thought. Instead, he climbs out of bed, then grabs the hoodie slung over his desk chair and pulls it over his head. His tattoos disappear in a flash.
Hyunjin feels strangely disappointed. “Wait, where are you going?”
“The fucking bathroom,” Jisung retorts, sliding his feet into his flip-flops and grabbing his keys from his desk. The closes behind him with a slam.
Jisung’s words echo in his brain: Whatever you want from him, he can’t give you. And shit, he’s exactly right.
He doesn’t return for a long while, long enough that Hyunjin starts to suspect that he lied about going to the bathroom. Eventually, Hyunjin gets up to go to dinner.
When he does, he notices that Jisung’s bed is strewn with crumpled papers and notes packets. One paper catches his eye; he does a double take. His pulse stills.
Mindful that Jisung could walk in at any moment, he picks up a sheet of paper closest to the edge of the bed. Most of it is anthropology jargon: words like folklore and register and iconism. But at the top of the page, Jisung has underlined the words: presentation title!! the cautionary tale as genre: Anansi in Akan folktales. And then, off to the side, as if a reminder to himself, the bit that sets Hyunjin’s heart racing: like the ocean prince fable - we want what he cannot have
A little shiver runs down Hyunjin’s spine. He feels a little like he’s falling asleep; halfway between dream and waking. He thought his father had made the story up.
And maybe it’s a coincidence. But maybe it’s not.
He picks up another page. It’s mostly more anthropology jargon, but in the margins, Jisung’s doodled a series of connected circles, almost like a string of pearls. At the bottom of the page, he writes, remember to check with mom !! but doesn’t clarify what exactly he means to check.
The door creaks open. Hyunjin drops the page with a start.
“Hyunjin?” Jisung is frowning. “What…” His eyes flick to Hyunjin’s hands, still holding up the page.
Hyunjin can’t speak at first. It’s been a long time since Hyunjin’s read the story of the ocean prince, but he still remembers the words perfectly. The light of the hallway illuminates Jisung from behind, making a few strands of hair stand out light blue. But his eyes are dark brown, brown as the soil next to the paths that crisscross the university.
When Hyunjin was younger, he used to imagine that he was descended from the ocean prince’s lover. That the reason he had blue eyes for as long as anyone could remember was not because of a genetic mutation as doctors had said but because it was a gift from the ocean prince in the story. He wondered if he, too, would one day meet someone from the ocean kingdom.
But then he grew up, and once he realized that no one else knew about the ocean prince, he quickly made the connection: his father must have made it up. Just a bit of family folklore, a way to explain the unexplainable. But it was already too late. The story had permeated his psyche. Mostly, he was good at reminding himself to stop making up stories, but sometimes, his thoughts run away from him.
He’s spent most of his teenage years thinking that his father, though well-meaning, was full of shit. It’s part of the reason they’re not on great terms these days. This… complicates things.
He can’t meet Jisung’s eyes. After a pause, he says, his voice awkward, “Sorry for looking at your stuff. I saw a.. word I recognized.”
“Or, I guess a phrase? The ocean prince?”
Jisung looks at him carefully. He doesn’t look angry, but something else, something Hyunjin didn't expect. Something more quiet than upset. He waits for a long moment, then says to Hyunjin, “You know, I’ve never asked, but I was wondering… how long have you had eyes like that?”
It isn't the first time Hyunjin’s heard that question. In his experience, it tends to be a more polite way of asking what people really want to know: Are those contacts? Frankly, he’s just surprised it took Jisung more than two months to ask.
“I’ve had them forever,” Hyunjin replies, stepping back from Jisung’s bed and surrendering the space. “It’s a genetic mutation.”
If Hyunjin was looking at Jisung, he might have seen the other boy’s expression drop. But he isn’t looking, so he doesn’t see it. He just grabs his ID off his desk and, mumbling a goodbye to Jisung, heads to dinner alone.
Before Hyunjin knows it, it’s the evening of the party. Felix, who ends up invited by some dancer friends, sends him the address. It’s in one of the buildings slightly off-campus, a former frat house now rented out on all floors by some upperclassmen. He and Jisung take off for the address slightly after sundown, when the November chill starts to bite with the disappearance of daylight.
As they approach the party, Hyunjin can hear the music from well down the street. The moment they slip into the house, he feels the bass of the music in his feet, rattling his bones and attuned to his heart.
He doesn’t know where to look. It’s a little overwhelming at first, what with the loud music and the purple LED lights strung along the wall trim and the people everywhere doing a billion different things. So much is happening at once: mostly people chatting in corners, but also girls dancing, others refilling red solo cups with open cans of alcohol. There’s a group in the corner playing beer pong; they erupt into a loud cheer. It smells like cheap alcohol and sweat. Hyunjin catches a whiff of perfume, heady and flowery. And despite the outside chill, it’s incredibly warm- warm with the crush of bodies in a small space.
Mostly, Hyunjin can’t believe how many people the fraternity managed to cram into one house. He doubts you could walk shoulder-to-shoulder with someone else for more than a foot or two without one of you shoulder-checking another student or tripping over an outstretched shoe.
He swallows. Stop looking everywhere and freaking yourself out, he chides himself . Instead, he looks over at Jisung.
In the midst of all that movement, Jisung is shockingly still. He doesn’t even blink as he surveys the scene in front of them with a neutral expression. Hyunjin feels something inside himself steady.
Jisung glances at him, as if sensing his gaze. He frowns. “You good?”
Hyunjin shrugs, but he can tell based on Jisung’s expression that it doesn’t carry the nonchalance Hyunjin wanted it to. He remembers his first week in the dorms, the constant clatter and noise, the rush and roar of hundreds of students living within close proximity making his nerves on edge. Though the overwhelmed feeling is fading as he focuses on Jisung, it’s identical to the one he’d had all first week.
He feels the low beat of the party music in the soles of his feet. It’s somehow both rap and EDM, the bass line steady like a pulse. The rapper rushes through syllables like he’s running from something, his voice low and dark. He recognizes the song once he starts to listen to the lyrics; it’s from a spy movie he saw in high school. He doesn’t remember the exact scene it was in; maybe in a car chase, or a scene in a nightclub, or something more sensual.
He checks his phone out of habit. There’s a single notification on the screen. It’s a text from Minho, reading, idk lmao, and tbh idc. not really the person to ask. lets hang out tomorrow tho, you free?
It’s in response to a question Hyunjin had sent him earlier, something that had seemed important but in retrospect really wasn’t. Minho’s response hangs between them in the empty space in the ether. For some reason, it leaves a bad taste in Hyunjin’s mouth. His throat tightens. It’s something about the quick pivot, the idc.
Hyunjin needs to do some soul-searching about how much this hookup means to him. He knows. He knows. He knows Minho can’t give him what he wants from a relationship. He even knows that he’s not really into Minho, anyway: it’s something about the novelty of being liked, the niceness of being kissed regardless of who the kisser is.
“Hyunjin?” Minho’s voice calls from the crowd. He sounds a little tipsy, his voice rolling off the vowels too quickly.
Hyunjin looks up. Speak of the devil and he shall appear, he thinks wryly. He looks around, trying to figure out where Minho is.
Jisung touches Hyunjin’s shoulder. “I’m gonna get a drink,” he says with a frown. He has to lean in close for Hyunjin to hear him over the cacophony and music and chatter.
Hyunjin nods, then watches as he disappears into the crowd. Any other time, that would have meant - not nothing, but less to him than does now. But for some reason, with the low light of the party, he feels the place on his shoulder where Jisung touched him burn.
Suddenly, Minho appears in front of him, his red fabric bomber jacket hanging off of his muscular frame. He’s holding a red solo cup. Hyunjin smells the beer before he sees it.
“Whoa, I didn’t think you were coming,” he says with a smile.
“You invited me,” Hyunjin replies slowly.
Minho laughs. “Oh, right. Right. But freshies…” he gestures to the party. “Don’t usually come to shit like this.” He shrugs. “I mean, whatever, though.”
He doesn’t look like he thinks it’s whatever. In fact, he looks almost disconcerted- or as much as he can be, considering how drunk he seems. You invited me, Hyunjin thinks, a little annoyed. You didn’t have to invite me.
Minho purses his lips. He leans in, not quite meeting Hyunjin’s eyes. He smells like beer and cologne. “Remember, here, we’re not… We’re nothing.” He pauses, then laughs again. “Wait. Fuck. That’s not what I meant. Just don’t…” He waves a hand vaguely. “We’re not together here.”
Hyunjin stares at him. “What?”
Minho frowns. “You know what I mean. I can’t… we have to pretend.” He places a hand on Hyunjin’s shoulder, right where Jisung touched him. Hyunjin has the sudden, inescapable urge to brush him away.
“Yeah, I got it,” Hyunjin replies, unable to keep his tone from hardening. “You don’t want me to tell people we slept together.”
“I knew you would understand. You know, things like this are always better left secret, don’t you think?” Minho grins. His teeth flash, white and straight and perfect. Wolf, Hyunjin thinks automatically. It’s the same smile Minho gave him the first day they met. Honey and sweet, a little like a wolf staring down a deer in the dark.
Hyunjin feels his heart start to pound, but it’s not because of the smile. Not like before. Before he loses his nerve, he asks, “You’re in love with him, aren’t you?”
Minho’s smile slips. “What?”
“Whoever decided to come to the party.” He takes a breath. “The one you can’t have.”
Minho’s stare turns to steel. “Don’t,” he says, his voice hard. “Stop talking.” He’s too close, his face inches from Hyunjin’s.
Hyunjin steps back, letting Minho’s arm fall off his shoulder. So Jisung was right. Something flickers in his gut. It takes him a second to recognize it as anger.
“Hey, do me a favor?” Hyunjin doesn’t even have to think before asking it.
Hyunjin knows he’s made the right decision based on Minho’s expression. Minho just looks at him. No, his gaze says. I would not do you a favor.
“Delete my number.”
Minho’s mouth opens in a kind of “o.” And before he can reply, Hyunjin pushes past him. A strange feeling swells in his stomach and crawls up his throat. He swallows thickly.
He doesn’t even know why he’s sad. He and Minho weren’t dating. They were a thing for what, a week? It can’t be about him, not really. So maybe it’s this: even up until the moment he asked Minho to delete his number, some part of him hoped their relationship might shift to the ideal one in his mind, the one he dreams of when he closes his eyes. The one with the boy from the ocean, the boy with eyes softer than silk every time he looks at Dream-Hyunjin’s face.
He didn’t even like Minho that much. But still. Something in his heart weighs heavy.
Behind him, a group of boys erupt into cheers. He looks around to see a boy chug a red solo cup full of beer on one side of a stained ping pong table as a whole group of students look on. “Come on, Jeongin,” he says with a wide smile. “Let’s see you beat that!”
His opponent, a smiley boy Hyunjin recognizes from one of his classes, shrugs. “You just wait.”
Hyunjin watches as the younger boy - Jeongin - successfully lands another ping pong ball in a cup. He swallows the alcohol in a few gulps. Changbin, who watches with a smile, suddenly makes eye contact with Hyunjin through the crowd. His smile falters.
But then another upperclassman walks up to the group, a little unsteady on his feet, and Changbin’s immediately distracted. Hyunjin doesn’t hear what he says next, but his eyes are wide and his mouth is shaped like a laugh.
Hyunjin’s throat tightens. I should go find Jisung.
Like a ghost, he slips through the crowd.
Eventually, he finds a drink in the kitchen, where a few seniors, including Hyunjin’s RA, Chan, are manning the cooler together. Hyunjin, not in the mood to talk to strangers, tries to just grab a beer and run, but the ever-friendly and imposing Chan pulls him into a few minutes of awkward small talk with the rest of the seniors. Just as the gaps between speakers start to run long as the group runs out of questions to ask, he’s rescued by none other than Yeji.
She touches his shoulder. “Sorry guys, I’ll just steal Hyunjin for a bit?” She’s wearing her customary space buns tied at the top of her head. Tonight, they’re braided with reflective plastic, glinting in the LED lights strung up on the walls.
“Yeah, yeah, no problem,” Chan says with a smile. “See you later, Jin.”
Once they’ve put a couple meters between themselves and the kitchen, Yeji sends him a glance. This close, he can smell her perfume, cinnamon and something tangy. “You looked like you needed to be rescued. Am I right?”
Hyunjin nods. “Seriously, thank you so much.” Chan is nice, but he and his friends are more than a little intimidating. And besides, Hyunjin doesn’t really want to engage in small talk right now.
Yeji’s looking at him expectantly. He searches his brain for something to say. It’s still small talk, but at least with Yeji, he doesn’t have to worry about the “intimidating” part. Now that they’re on friendly terms, she doesn’t look like she’d harm a fruit fly. Or, at least, not on purpose.
He glances back at the kitchen. The seniors hang out of the doorway, wearing all black and laughing so loud he can hear them over the music. Something about their bearings, the way they hold themselves, says Don’t approach me, though Hyunjin knows it’s through no fault of their own. Chan is super friendly, but there’s something about being around a group of a loud, tight knit group of seniors with high expectations that’s disconcerting to him. Maybe it’s because he’s a freshman.
Yeji’s gaze turns curious. “Are you okay? You look kind of out of it.”
Hyunjin nods. “I’m fine. Um, have you seen Jisung anywhere?”
Yeji frowns as she thinks. Her glittery crop top glints a distracting purple in the light of the LEDs strung up along the wall. “Um, maybe upstairs?” She says finally. “But honestly, I have no idea. I saw him talking to Chaewon earlier - you know Chaewon, right? My friend Chaewon? She was with me when we met?”
Hyunjin nods. The girl that glared at Jisung as they left, he remembers.
“I saw them talking in the hallway upstairs a while ago, but I don’t know if they’re still there. Why? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Oh, I’ve just been trying to find him. Um, if you don’t mind, I’m gonna go check upstairs.” Hyunjin sends her an apologetic look.
Yeji shakes her head. She smiles again, but it’s a lot fainter. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you in class.”
Hyunjin makes his way down the hallway, slipping between people and making careful half-circles around people he recognizes. He feels bad for abandoning Yeji in the living room, but his brain is still roiling with the encounter with Minho. As nice as she is, he can’t do small talk with relative strangers right now.
He makes his way up to the second floor, but when he doesn’t see Jisung or Felix, he continues up the next flight of stairs. The third floor is empty of people. He hears a toilet flush from the bathroom, then hushed voices coming from the bedrooms. Gingerly, he tries the knob on the first door, but finds it locked. As he approaches the second door, he recognizes Jisung’s voice floating from the bedroom.
The door is ajar, revealing a wide swath of the room. Hyunjin sees a four-poster bed with a canopy, a girl facing her back to the door, and a boy - Jisung - sitting on the edge of the bed.
“-like your dad wants to,” the girl is saying. She sounds like Chaewon, the friend that Yeji claimed she saw talking to Jisung earlier in the night. She’s leaning against the wooden bedpost, facing away from the door. Her long black hair cascades down her back. Hyunjin notices that her feet are bare, her glittery high heels discarded onto the bed.
Jisung sits close to the bedpost, his feet propped up on the edge of the bed frame. He’s holding his head in his hands. When he speaks, he sounds annoyed. “Look, I know. You act like I didn’t spend the first eighteen years of my life under his roof.”
“Did you really? Because it seems like you’ve forgotten,” Chaewon counters. “You can’t talk to that family. Fucking ever. In fact, you can’t talk to any of the humans. You think your dad will let you stay here if something happens?”
Humans? Hyunjin frowns. She must have misspoke. Or maybe she’s drunk, he thinks. Or on drugs. Disconcertingly, though, she sounds remarkably lucid. If Hyunjin had to guess, it didn’t sound like she’d taken a single substance or drank more than a sip of alcohol.
“If I get forced back home, it’ll be because you reported back to my dad,” Jisung retorts, lifting his hands from his face. “So don’t pretend you’re on my side.”
“Oh, come on. You know it’s the only way I get to stay here. He’ll bring me back to the kingdom if I don’t tell him what you’re doing.”
The kingdom… That must be the country overseas that Jisung is from. Chaewon must be from there, too. Though Hyunjin didn’t notice it at first, in retrospect, they have the same slight accent, lilting and strange, though their Korean is practically flawless. Jisung must be important if he has people watching over him. Maybe he’s the son of an official, or a state diplomat, Hyunjin muses.
He feels really bad for listening in, though it doesn’t sound to him like a particularly private conversation. This sounds like an argument Jisung might have with Felix. He promises himself to either make himself known or leave the moment the conversation turns to something more intimate.
Though the thought of Jisung and Chaewon being intimate on any level makes him a little angry.
Meanwhile, Jisung throws her an annoyed glance. “Why don’t you go surveill my brother instead? I hear his university is nice.”
Chaewon pauses. She brushes her hair back over her shoulder; it swishes back and forth. “No one’s surveilling your brother, Jisung.”
For some reason, this makes Jisung still. He looks up at her slowly. “Why?”
“Because...” She seems at loss for words. “Forget it,” she says quickly. “Just come home. Come home with me and we can get married and everything will be fine.”
Hyunjin takes a second to register those words: get married. He feels a pang in his chest. Didn’t Jisung say he didn’t like girls?
Gratefully, Jisung doesn’t seem to hear her. “If they’re not spying on him, then why… Wait. They don’t actually care if I date a human, do they? Or at least, not just any human,” He says, his voice low. He stares out at nothing, his face grave. “It’s because of the story, isn’t it? The ocean prince.”
Hyunjin stops breathing for a moment. It’s auditory confirmation that Jisung knows the story of the ocean prince. It feels… not coincidental. He wonders where Jisung learned it. He wonders where his own father learned it, since a boy from overseas knows the same tale.
Chaewon ignores him, but her body stiffens. “Marry me,” she says softly, touching his knee. “Marry me and everything will be okay.” They seem to be having two different conversations. Chaewon asking him to marry her and trying to reassure him, in her own way. Jisung, on the other hand, seems to be looking for an answer.
“It’s him, isn’t it? He’s the one.” Jisung’s voice is just as soft. He looks achingly, achingly sad. He’s not looking at her.
“Sungie,” she begs suddenly, clutching his arm. Her voice is thick, like she’s about to cry. “Don’t ask me that, please. Don’t ask me about him. Just say yes. Just give me your bracelet and we can get married. Let’s go home.” When he doesn’t reply immediately, she adds, her voice tearful, “Please, Sungie.”
She sounds almost afraid. But of what?
“Chae,” he says, giving her a careful look. “Please don’t cry. But… You know I can’t marry you.”
She doesn’t seem to hear him. “Give me your pearl bracelet,” she whispers. “And everything will be fine.”
There’s a pause. He takes her hand, looking down at their linked fingers. Hyunjin can’t read his expression. “Chae, you’re like a sister to me. I can’t-” He breaks off. “Tell me,” he says, a note of desperation entering his voice. “Why did my dad ask you to spy on me and not my brother?”
Chaewon takes a ragged breath. “Why should I? It will only end in sorrow. If I tell you, I have to report back to your dad that you know. And then you really will have to marry me. And it won’t be a choice.” Hyunjin can’t see her expression, but he does see her shoulders start to shake. “You’re the youngest prince of the ocean king,” she says roughly. “You don’t have to marry royalty. You can marry any selkie you want. Is that not enough for you?”
The youngest prince of the ocean king… She’s on drugs. She has to be.
“I don’t want to marry a selkie,” Jisung says forcefully. “I don’t. I- I can’t.” Hyunjin knows that word: seal-woman, fabled women that supposedly can turn into seals. They’re a legend, a made-up story. Jisung and Chaewon are talking about selkies as if they’re real.
“It’s him,” she admits, her voice quiet. “It’s because of him. The Hwang boy. That’s all I can tell you. So stop asking, please.” She’s still touching his arm, brushing a hand along his shoulder in a steady gesture Hyunjin suspects is meant to be comforting.
Hyunjin feels a jolt. Are… are they talking about me? He watches as Jisung reacts, his eyes bright with a mix of emotions, none of which Hyunjin can accurately recognize.
Jisung swallows visibly. “You know,” he starts, “I dream about him sometimes. And every time I do, I wake up wishing that he was one of us. It’s so much worse when I wake up and he’s...” He stops. “Chae, please,” he begs. “Tell me. What about him?”
The conversation suddenly feels achingly private. Hyunjin tries to move away from the door, but finds he can’t make his legs move. He’s glued to his space in the hallway.
“But you already know what about him,” she says, her voice a whisper. “You’ve seen his eyes. You think that’s a coincidence?”
“Sea eyes,” Jisung replies. “Ocean eyes.”
“The eyes of the sea prince’s lover,” Chaewon finishes.
Hyunjin can’t think. He can barely breathe.
“And my father thinks that I’m…” Jisung seems unable to finish the thought. “That I’m the reincarnation?” In his voice is hope, fear, other things. Hyunjin feels them in his chest, though he doesn’t understand why. He feels like he’s underwater, watching something unfold from a distance. He can’t move his legs.
“You dream of him, don’t you?” Chaewon touches his wrist. “You said you dream of him. You know what that means for someone like us.”
“I dream of him. And of my bracelet,” Jisung murmurs, as if without thinking. He winces. “In the dreams, he can wear it.”
Chaewon makes a sound. She pulls him close, and he rests his head on her chest without protest. Her voice thick with tears, she says, “In another life, we both get what we want. But we have to make do with what we have. So marry me, Jisung, and we don’t have to worry.”
Jisung pulls away. “I can’t, Chae, I’m sorry. I have to see where this goes.” He stands up, and immediately meets Hyunjin’s gaze.
His jaw falls open. “Fuck,” he whispers. Chaewon whips around, fast as lightning.
Jisung starts to say something else, but Hyunjin is already gone, suddenly freed from his frozen state with Jisung’s shocked gaze. He rushes through the house, around drunk students, and into the cool air of the night.
Oh my god, he thinks, his thoughts racing, his pulse pounding a million miles an hour. Oh my god.
Somehow, Hyunjin makes it back to campus. He’s developed a pounding headache on the walk. His head swims. When he gets to his room and sits down with a dull thump on his desk chair, he checks the time: barely ten o’clock. On any normal Saturday night, the night would be just starting.
He tries to distract himself from his whirling thoughts and painful head with homework and Youtube videos but ends up falling asleep at his desk. When he wakes, his cheek pressed against his calculus textbook, it’s almost one AM. For one blissful, hazy moment, he can’t remember how he got there.
Within a few moments, the memory of what he’s heard comes crashing back. He spins around, expecting Jisung to be passed out on his bed, but the other boy’s gray sheets are empty. For some reason, rather than calming him, it puts a bad taste in his mouth. He wonders if Jisung is sleeping with Chaewon. He wonders if Jisung lied about only liking guys. He wonders if Jisung and Chaewon are on drugs, or if someone drugged Hyunjin’s beer and he just hallucinated the whole thing.
Some part of him wants badly for Jisung to be telling the truth. He’s been dreaming of the ocean prince since he was young, after all. If it was true, it would be a dream come true.
But it’s not true, so it’s a little like a nightmare. Whatever Jisung and Chaewon are on, it must be strong. Or maybe they’re just insane.
In Hyunjin’s opinion, the problem with telling young children stories before they understand that magic isn’t real is that they take them as true. And by the time they grow old enough to tell the difference between dream and reality, it’s too late: the story has taken hold of their psyche, forever changed how they view the world.
No matter how hard Hyunjin tries to change it, this fact remains: everything he knows about romantic love started with the tale of the ocean prince. Everything else he has ever learned about relationships, about heartbreak, about pain and sacrifice has been built on the groundwork created by that story. That was part of why Minho was so appealing to him in the first place, and why it so quickly soured: he may have looked like a prince, but how could his silencing kisses and breaths in the dark ever measure up?
In Hyunjin’s opinion, at its essence, the tale of the ocean prince is not really about magic. It’s about a love so great it continues past the final veil of death. It’s about a man forced to sacrifice for his heritage and his country and yet unable to give up hope that someday, in that life or another, he would live in peace with the love of his life.
For some reason, he thought just because Minho had the looks of a typical prince, he would have the heart of one. But Minho, like Hyunjin, is just a man, and he has the heart to match: fallible, breakable, fixated on a single object.
He looks back at his phone, where Felix texted him sometime a few hours ago: hey um I just saw minho and chan making out??
Love is not like the stories. And he would be a lot happier if he stopped expecting it to be.
He knows that now. He just has to make himself believe it.
Hyunjin collapses into bed, but it’s a long while before he falls asleep.
When he dreams, he dreams of a grand castle under the sea. In the dream, he’s in a throne room with a domed glass ceiling and walls made of marble and jade.
Suddenly, he hears a sound, jagged and rasping, coming from the other side of the throne room. He turns.
A man with his own face is standing near the throne, his arms wrapped around himself like he’s in physical pain. This other Hyunjin is wearing a hanbok, his black hair tied up in a topknot. His brown eyes glint in the low light of the throne room, his eyelids heavy with an emotion that actual Hyunjin barely recognizes as grief. He looks older, maybe in his late twenties.
Hanbok Hyunjin makes the sound again, rattled and drawn out, a sob from the deepest parts of his lungs. One hand covers his mouth. He’s crying so hard he’s shaking.
A man runs into the throne room. Jin, he calls desperately. Something about his tone makes Hyunjin want to cry.
The man collapses down on his knees in front of Hanbok Hyunjin. Dimly, Hyunjin notices that he has bright blue hair, tied up in a topknot. His hanbok covers most of his skin, but Hyunjin notices black ink crawling up his neck and down his wrists.
Please, the man says, his voice shuddering. Please, don’t leave me.
His voice is familiar, but in the haze of the dream, Hyunjin can’t remember exactly why.
Hanbok Hyunjin follows suit, so that they’re kneeling in front of each other. His eyes are bloodshot, face red with tears. He looks sadder, older, like he’s missing something that real Hyunjin has. We have to end this, he says, his voice surprisingly fiery. I cannot watch you destroy yourself and your country for me.
Jin, the man whispers. Please. His back is still facing real Hyunjin.
His voice is so, so familiar. Hyunjin walks up to them, but they pay him no heed. It’s like he’s a ghost. Just as Hanbok Hyunjin’s chest shakes with a suppressed sob, real Hyunjin sees the stranger’s face. And he looks exactly like Jisung.
All of a sudden, Hyunjin is in Hanbok Hyunjin’s body. The man in front of him definitely has Jisung’s face, just a little older, more gaunt. There’s a livid red scar running down his jaw and onto part of his neck.
If you break the law he’s created, your father will kill you, Hyunjin finds himself saying.
We will find a way, Hanbok Jisung replies desperately. I would die for you, you know that? He reaches up. His hand is cool on Hyunjin’s face.
Hyunjin’s heart feels like it’s breaking. Again, he speaks involuntarily, like he’s being fed lines. My love, you shouldn’t have to. He pauses. I have made my decision. But I will see you again, yes?
I will see you again? Hyunjin repeats. He feels like his chest is breaking apart.
Yes. Yes, Hanbok Jisung says, finally collapsing into tears. He pulls Hyunjin into a tight hug. In this life or the next.
Even in his dream, Hyunjin recognizes the last line of the tale of the ocean prince immediately.
When Hyunjin wakes up again, the morning light filtering in through his grimy dormitory windows, Jisung is still gone.
Outside the door, students clatter past on their way to brunch or the library or wherever else. Someone laughs, bright and surprised, the sound muffled through the walls. Hyunjin listens for a while, staring up at his ceiling and watching the thin beams of sunlight from the window alight on dust particles floating aimlessly in the air. He takes a slow breath.
Eventually, his calm turns to boredom. He reaches for his phone. 8:53 AM.
With a groan, he pulls himself out of bed and starts getting his swim bag ready.
Of course, the first person Hyunjin sees in the swimming pool locker room is none other than Han Jisung.
Somehow, they missed each other when Hyunjin was locking up his stuff and grabbing his suit to change into. But not much later, when he turns the corner from the bathroom and into the locker area, Jisung is standing shirtless in the middle of the locker block, staring at his phone.
His tattoos are on full display. It’s the first time Hyunjin’s seen them in full. They go all the way past his shoulder sockets, crawling from his arms and across his collarbones. His chest is bare of ink.
To Hyunjin’s surprise, instead of swim trunks (as he would have expected from someone who claimed not to swim often), Jisung is wearing a competition swimsuit, like someone on the swim team would.
I thought he didn’t swim, Hyunjin thinks with a frown.
Hyunjin gets about five feet away from his locker when Jisung looks up. His expression quickly changes from curious to neutral.
“Look, just let me explain,” Jisung says the moment they make eye contact. In the next locker block, a metal door slams and locks.
Hyunjin looks away. He throws his clothes into the back of his locker with a dull thud. “You’re on drugs. What else is there to explain?”
Jisung sounds somewhere between annoyed and exasperated. “No, that’s not it! I- just let me explain, please.” He lowers his voice. “I’m-”
“Stop,” Hyunjin interrupts. Some part of him suspects that once Jisung starts explaining, Hyunjin won’t be able to stop him. And he can’t let himself believe what is objectively impossible. There is no such thing as selkies, or underwater kingdoms, or the ocean prince, or magic. They’re myths, stories to tell children in the dark of the night, stories to stoke imaginations and distract kids from the truth.
He grabs his swim goggles and cap from his bag, then closes the locker with a slam. He means to look straight down the length of the locker block, away from Jisung’s gaze, but the other boy has moved in the time it’s taken him to open up the zipper of his swim bag. They make direct eye contact again.
Something in Jisung’s gaze changes. “Hyunjin,” he says, his voice soft. “Hyunjin, please. Just listen to me.” He reaches out, grabs Hyunjin’s hand. His fingers are warm, warm. Something about Jisung’s tone makes Hyunjin feel impossibly angry. Like Hyunjin’s about to cry or yell or do something else he’ll regret.
Hyunjin forces himself to pull his hand away. “Don’t,” he says roughly. “Leave me alone.”
Jisung’s eyes are wide. The twinge of annoyance in his voice has elevated to more of a general tone. “You’re not going to let me explain at all?”
“What else is there to explain?” Hyunjin repeats. “You’re insane. I can’t- I just can’t. I’m sorry.”
Jisung looks at him for a long moment. His expression switches from that softer, pitying gaze to something impossible to read. “Fine,” he says eventually. “Just don’t leave because of me. Let’s just swim. You don’t have to talk to me. You don’t even have to look at me.”
Hyunjin bites his lip. Is he willing to forego swim practice just to avoid his roommate, who he’ll have to see eventually anyway?
As it turns out, he isn’t.
There’s enough people doing laps already that pool courtesy says that they have to choose the same lane. Jisung slides into the water first. He’s wearing a swim cap, too, and strangely shaded swim goggles, so Hyunjin can’t see his eyes. He pushes off of the wall, the long, ropy muscle of his back pulling tight.
And he’s fast. Faster than Hyunjin, probably by a lot. Hyunjin means to get into the water, but all he can do is stare.
50 ridiculously brief seconds later, Jisung does a kick turn at the wall under Hyunjin’s feet and starts another 100 meters. 50 seconds… That’s at least fifteen seconds faster than Hyunjin. Six seconds faster than the current world record. Seconds stretched long in swimming, but not that long.
Hyunjin has the sudden, abrupt suspicion that he barely knows his roommate at all.
With a sigh, he slides in the water on the opposite side of the lane and starts his laps.
About an hour later, Hyunjin comes to a stop at the wall, breathing hard. He pulls himself out of the water, water dripping into his eyes. There’s a bench not five feet from the edge of the pool. Hyunjin grabs his water bottle from under it, then takes a long drink.
Not long after, Jisung stops at the wall, too. His chest rises and falls, rises and falls, rises and falls. He doesn’t seem to notice Hyunjin’s attention.
He peels off his shaded goggles, then wipes at his eyes.
Hyunjin swears under his breath.
Because Jisung’s eyes, his beautiful brown eyes, are blue.
Hyunjin does a double take. Somewhere in his brain, his thoughts try to convince him that this has always been the case. That Jisung has always had eyes like that, blue as the ocean, blue as sea foam. They look as real as anything. As real as Hyunjin’s eyes, or realer, because he has the hair to match it, blue-black like a certain man in a story that Hyunjin likes.
Ocean eyes, his brain reminds him, using his father’s term of endearment for Hyunjin’s own eyes. He has ocean eyes.
Hyunjin leaves his water bottle under the bench and slides back into the water. Jisung sends him a wide-eyed double take, pulling his goggles back over his eyes with a snap. But it’s too late.
“I don’t understand.”
Hyunjin doesn’t realize he’s spoken until he sees Jisung’s expression flicker.
“I thought you weren’t going to talk to me,” he replies neutrally.
“I don’t understand,” Hyunjin says again, his voice hushed. “This isn’t possible.”
“What isn't possible?” Jisung’s voice is just as low. He glances around, as if to check if anyone’s listening.
“Your eyes are blue,” Hyunjin says, barely believing his own words even as he says them. The water is cold around him, lapping in small waves.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Jisung turns away, as if to start swimming again. His arm tenses against the overflow drain.
Hyunjin gives him a look. He intends it to be wry, but he thinks it comes off as more hazy and desperate. “Either that, or I’m hallucinating.”
Jisung sighs. “You’re not hallucinating.” He has one hand on the overflow drain cover, his long fingers splayed over the white plastic and keeping him aloft. He relaxes it, pulling himself back in towards the wall.
He peels off his goggles again. Like Hyunjin thought, his eyes are blue. Ocean eyes. Seafoam eyes.
Hyunjin’s brain is breaking. He has the sense that if this conversation was happening somewhere that wasn’t his safe place, the water, he might be taking the news a little less calmly.
“So it’s real?” His voice is a whisper. In the lane behind Jisung, a female student does a kick turn at the wall, sending a torrent of little waves out to greet them.
“What do you mean?” Jisung reaches up to touch an ink-covered shoulder. A tendon in his neck tightens. The water laps softly around them, brushing Hyunjin’s collarbones with a cool touch.
“The ocean kingdom,” Hyunjin says, feeling silly even as he says it. “From the story.”
At this last statement, Jisung gives him a weird look. “Yeah. But how do you know the story?”
“My dad read it to me when I was young.” Hyunjin pauses at Jisung’s expression. “What? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Jisung looks at him carefully. He opens his mouth, glances up at the pool deck, then closes it. They wait as a middle aged man walks past, his sandals squelching in the wet. Once he passes by, Jisung whispers, “How much did you hear, exactly? Last night, I mean.”
“From when Chaewon said no one was spying on your brother.” Spending this long in the cold water without moving is starting to bite at Hyunjin’s extremities. He ignores them.
Meanwhile, Jisung winces. “That’s a lot.”
There’s a long pause. “It’s fine,” Jisung says finally, looking away. “It just would have been easier to explain if you hadn’t overheard everything first.”
“Were you ever going to explain?” Hyunjin asks. His voice comes out tentative.
Jisung doesn’t respond. He just moves out a little from the wall and starts treading water. Not quite ignoring Hyunjin, but not answering him, either.
Once the silence starts to weigh on him, Hyunjin asks, “Why are you so fast when you swim?”
“The ocean is my home,” Jisung says. His expression is neutral, like it’s been this entire conversation. But his eyes are honest. And there’s something about the expression on his face that, more than his words or anything else, makes Hyunjin believe him.
Maybe he’s telling the truth. The thought sends a thrill of adrenaline through Hyunjin’s veins. Before the more logical side of his brain can stop him, he says, taking a long breath, “Why don’t we go talk somewhere else?”
They’re back in their room, sitting across from each other on Jisung’s bed. Jisung’s hair is still wet from the pool, his navy-black strands sticking up at odd angles. A droplet of water cascades down his temple, then across the ridges of his neck. Now that he’s out of the water, his eyes are back to brown.
As he explained on the way back, prolonged exposure to water is what turns them blue. That’s why he has shaded swim goggles, and why he didn’t swim when Hyunjin came along a few weeks ago.
“So… who are you, exactly?” Hyunjin says as he sits back against the pillows.
“The youngest son of the twenty-sixth ocean king,” Jisung says after a pause. “Of this dynasty, anyway.” His cheeks are a little pink with self-consciousness. He doesn’t seem that proud of it; in fact, he seems more embarrassed than anything else.
“And what about the prince in the story?” The ocean prince, Hyunjin thinks to himself. The one that I dreamed about. The one that lost the one he loved.
“He’s kind of my distant grandfather,” Jisung replies carefully, tucking a stray strand of hair behind his ear. “He might have been the twentieth ocean king, but no one really knows how long ago it happened. If there were any official records of a crown prince falling in love with a human, they’ve buried them.” He makes a face. “That’s kind of a theme with my people.”
Hyunjin takes a second to process this. So it turns out that the guy with the face of a prince is an actual prince. He twists and untwists his fingers, staring down at the gray comforter. Morning light trickles in through the window, making parts of the fabric look almost white. He can feel Jisung’s gaze on him. It makes his cheeks feel a little warm.
“And what about Chaewon?” Hyunjin’s voice is brusque, trying not to convey his sudden burst of embarrassment.
It must backfire, though, because Jisung’s eyes flicker with recognition. He smiles faintly. “We grew up together. She’s from a noble family of selkies. Um, those are-”
“Women that change into seals, I know,” Hyunjin fills in for him. Then, hesitantly, “Are you and Chaewon engaged?”
To his surprise, Jisung’s gaze turns dark. “If my father had his way, we would be.” He leans back against the wall, staring out at Hyunjin’s side of the room for a long second. Then his lips quirk, and he gives Hyunjin a wry look. “But like I said, I’m not into girls, so no.”
I see you, his gaze says. You’re not subtle.
Hyunjin looks away. “If you’re not the crown prince, then why does he care?”
Jisung grimaces. “Technically, he doesn’t care. As long as I don’t fall in love with the wrong person, I can marry whoever I want.”
Hyunjin’s heard similar statements before. Without bothering to sugar-coat it, he prompts, “And the wrong people include men?”
Jisung tilts his head, as if unsure of how to respond. “Well, no. At least, not anymore.”
“It’s because royal orders don’t ever expire,” he says, not quite answering Hyunjin’s question. “If you’re banned from something once, you’re banned from it for all time.”
“And what have you been banned from?” Hyunjin’s heart is pounding. He remembers overhearing Jisung’s conversation last night, especially Jisung’s face when he said, It’s him. Hes the ocean prince’s lover.
“The reincarnation of the ocean prince’s lover,” Jisung says quietly. “You have his eyes, you know.”
Hyunjin’s heart stutters. Adrenaline whispers through his veins. He stammers, “But that makes you, what, a reincarnation of the ocean prince? How do… how do they know? Like, isn’t that just a guess?”
“I have his tattoos, Hyunjin.” Jisung meets his gaze. Both his arms are bare. He holds one out to show him. The tattoos curve along the lines of his arm, fins hiding between plants caught in the middle of a movement. “I didn’t have these done,” he continues. “I was born with them. Everyone in the royal family is born with them. They’re a way to identify reincarnations. And besides, even if someone else did have these tattoos, according to our beliefs, reincarnations only occur within families. They don’t have to look far to find his reincarnation.”
Hyunjin reaches out a hand and touches Jisung’s arm. His skin is hot to the touch. Then, not quite sure what he’s doing, Hyunjin traces the curving and sharp lines of the tattoos with one finger. Jisung watches him with his customary neutral gaze. He always manages to hide expression at the most inopportune times; Hyunjin couldn’t for the life of him guess what Jisung is thinking.
He could cut the tension between them with a knife. It feels almost tangible. “So,” Hyunjin asks quietly, still tracing the outline of a pearl, “what does that mean for us?”
“Us?” Jisung says it carefully, like it’s a foreign word.
Hyunjin rushes to correct himself. “I mean, the two of us.” He stops tracing Jisung’s tattoos, but he doesn’t quite move his hand away. His fingers rest, feather-light, on the curve of Jisung’s wrist as it slants towards his thumb, on the extruding bones of his palm.
“Nothing, if you don’t want it to.” Jisung bites his lip, not quite meeting Hyunjin’s eyes. His lips are red, red. All Hyunjin can think about is the pressure of their hands as they touch. “My dad would disagree, but I think we can choose our own paths regardless of whether our souls have walked together before.” He grimaces. His expression looks almost normal again. “Sorry. That sounds really pithy.”
Hyunjin laughs. “No, it’s fine.” He thinks for a moment, staring down at their layered hands. Jisung follows his gaze. Hyunjin’s heart is pounding, pounding. He thinks of Minho, of those evenings sitting on his bed and not talking, never talking, just touching each other until they grew bored of it. Jisung’s voice echoes in his brain: He can’t give you what you’re looking for.
What are you looking for, Hyunjin?
Hyunjin knew. “Is that a path you would want?” He asks. He tries not to let his emotions show through his voice, but he’s never been very good at that. It’s only moderately successful.
“I mean, you overheard me last night,” Jisung says, his voice light like he’s trying to decrease the emotional weight of his words. “I think you know what I want. And I think I know what you want, too.” His eyes say what he doesn’t: and it’s not me. He pulls his hand away.
Hyunjin feels its absence like a cold front.
“How do you know?” Hyunjin challenges. “Did you ask me?”
Jisung raises his eyebrows. “How else am I supposed to interpret you hooking up with Minho?”
Hyunjin feels his throat tighten. He doesn’t know if he can explain it. “Jisung-”
Jisung shakes his head. “Save it.”
Hyunjin feels a weird sense of deja vu. He remembers what it took to get him to listen to Jisung this morning: the truth, unchanged and unfiltered.
They’d learned each other so slowly. There were so many walls up; so many fears and worries. If that was all Hyunjin thought about, he might have believed it himself: that he isn’t that into Jisung, after all.
He thinks of his first day, when he moved into the dorms. Jisung’s eyes unreadable, his lips curved into a smile. And his hair blue in the light, black in the shadows. And then these things: Waking up every morning to Jisung’s infernal ambient noise alarm, and getting used to it to the point that he missed it when it was gone. Bantering with Jisung in the mornings. Getting angry at Yeji when he thought she was flirting with him. And then at the party, how once he left, all Hyunjin could think about was his absence.
There’s something comforting about his presence. At lunch, Felix was always complaining, though light-heartedly, of course, about how happy he was whenever Seungmin abdicated the room for a few hours, giving Felix time to himself. All his life, Hyunjin had expected his college experience to be similar, especially since he had never shared a room with anyone before: he expected living peacefully with his roommate, maybe appreciating his presence on lonely or hard days, but not this. Not this: a little thought in the back of his brain, almost too scary for him to recognize it: what if it was like this forever?
Minho couldn’t give him what he was looking for because what he wanted wasn’t just physical touch. It was something intangible, something that exists even when you’re apart. A red thread, unbreakable by time, one that maybe leads to sleeping together but also leads to late nights watching movies, quiet mornings, long discussions over lunch. Maybe arguments, too, because in Hyunjin’s ideal, their relevant opinions should span more than just how many days a week they should hook up.
Finally, Hyunjin remembers his dream last night, one that seems more and more likely to be a scene from his past life. He remembers the expression on the face of Jisung’s past life as the ocean prince when he told Hyunjin: I would die for you, you know?
Even thinking about it makes his throat tight. He wants a love like that so, so badly. And for the first time in his life, he can see himself building it with someone. And not as a fever dream, like with Minho. Not as a fever dream but something tangible, something real, something they can build with entwined hands.
Jisung meets his eyes, his gaze flickering with an emotion that looks a little like surprise.
“In this life or the next,” Hyunjin says softly. Something thrums in his chest. He feels a little like he’s underwater.
“Yeah,” Jisung whispers, his eyes wide. Then, “Is that what you want?”
He can’t answer that. His brain is a mess of emotions. He’s not sure of anything anymore. Or rather, he’s only sure of this: he’s wondered what Jisung’s lips feel like for a while. He’ll deal with the rest later.
He pulls Jisung in. The other boy lets out a surprised gasp, his breath soft on Hyunjin’s lips, and then oh. It’s Jisung’s hands in his hair and Jisung’s breath whispering across his skin and his lips against Hyunjin’s lips, over and over and over. There’s none of the urgency that Hyunjin came to expect from Minho. It’s soft and slow and it’s everything.
When they pull apart, Hyunjin can’t stop smiling. Oh, he thinks again, his brain hazy with endorphins. So this is what it’s supposed to be like.
After that, the remaining four weeks left of the term pass by in a whirl. Not long after their kiss, they start sleeping in the same bed - just sleeping, not doing anything else. Hyunjin’s now-abandoned bed quickly becomes the room’s laundry pile/spare storage area.
They manage to keep their burgeoning relationship quiet until just before winter break, when Felix catches them holding hands under a table in the library.
He’d raised his eyebrows high, then said simply, “Well, that explains a lot.”
Chaewon passes by them sometimes in the cafeteria, always studiously looking away, clearly trying desperately to ignore them. It reminds Hyunjin of that monkey emoji with its hands over eyes, futilely trying to delay the inevitable. Every time she does, he remembers that she’s obligated to report anything she sees to the ocean king.
They don’t talk about it, but Chaewon’s warning looms large above them. Hyunjin starts to get the sense that Jisung doesn’t expect to be back on campus after the new year, though when asked, he simply changes the subject. But, as if cognizant of them losing time, Jisung suggests one night while curled up against Hyunjin’s shoulder that they spent their winter break together. So Hyunjin invites him to his annual family trip to Busan, where he knows that at least Jisung will be received with open arms.
These days, all Hyunjin can think about is his memory of their past lives, of Hanbok Jisung saying, We will find a way. But the more nights he wakes up gasping and sweating from memories of his past life, the more he starts to wonder if that’s really the case. His past life’s memories are fragmented, but what he has retained - hiding away in corners, the scent of Jisung’s cologne, the punitive wrath of the then-presiding ocean king - the more he starts to wonder if that really will be the case. Or if this life will prove a lot like the last, and if their paths will cross in this moment in time only to diverge.
In his most defeatist moments, he wonders if, at the very least, Jisung and Chaewon will invite him to their wedding. Because if the ocean king, Jisung’s father, finds out about them - and he will inevitably find out about them - Jisung will be forced to marry the girl he sees as a sister.
It’s well into winter break when Hyunjin wakes early. Outside the window, seagulls caw a cacophonous chorus. He can hear the sound of the waves washing up against the shore. There’s no sound of the shower running, no students chatting outside his door. The coffeemaker in the kitchen down the hall buzzes softly, and he can hear the murmur of his father and aunt’s voices as they try not to wake anyone else. But otherwise, it’s quiet.
On some level, it reminds him of growing up in his dad’s tiny Seoul apartment. Usually, the loudest thing around - the thing most likely to wake him - was the ambient noise from outside, much like here.
On a broader level, though, this morning reminds him of his childhood vacations. His mother always wanted to visit the sea. His family kept up the tradition even after she disappeared. As far as Hyunjin can remember, winter vacations sounded like this: seagulls screeching, the waves washing up the beachfront of their rental cottage, the low murmur of home appliances and his relatives’ voices.
This time, this vacation, it’s a little different, though. For a variety of reasons.
Suddenly, the sheets move. His boyfriend shifts beside him in his sleep, pulling the blankets almost off of Hyunjin entirely, but he doesn’t really mind.
Jisung has one arm thrown across Hyunjin’s chest, his tattoos swirling in their familiar patterns across his skin. Jisung’s face is relaxed, deep in the throes of sleep. His cheek is pressed into the pillow. Around his head, his hair makes a messy blue halo, the black dye starting to fade to reveal his natural, much brighter color.
Suddenly, something hits the window, heavy enough to rattle the glass. Hyunjin startles, then freezes. He stares at Jisung, checking to see if the sound has woken him up, but he doesn’t stir.
Hyunjin slides out of bed, padding across the floor to the window adjacent to the bed frame. He checks the window.
His heart sinks. Ugh, shit, we’re gonna have to pay for that.
Thin, spidery cracks run across the surface of the glass, expanding out from a single source point. The window is half-open, too, cold air whistling in from the beach. Hyunjin feels goosebumps rise on his forearms.
Hyunjin shivers. He feels himself frown. He doesn’t remember opening the window last night. Maybe Jisung got up in the middle of the night to open it, he reasons. But for some reason, it doesn’t sit right with him.
He reaches up to pull the window closed, but as he looks down at the chipped white paint of the bottom windowsill, he notices a perfectly round piece of mottled jade, lying just below the range of the window. If he tried to shut it, the smooth, green rock would prevent him. Below it is a piece of paper, fluttering in the wind.
He has a bad feeling about this.
He picks up the note. It reads: Meet me at the surf. Tell no one. The handwriting is slanted and elegant, more like a font from a textbook than someone’s personal hand.
And below the words is a signed name. He doesn’t recognize the first name, but it’s strange and archaic, and it looks like it belongs to someone born in the early 20th century. But the last name, he does recognize. His boyfriend shares it.
The more he looks at the note, the more the handwriting reminds him of Jisung’s; only Jisung’s is more cramped and rough around the edges. He knows like all things, handwriting can be influenced by the people we see most often as we grow up: teachers, maybe older siblings. Parents.
Hyunjin’s bad feeling starts to turn into a suspicion. Before he leaves, he scrabbles a note on the bedside table, informing Jisung in case he wakes that he’s gone for a walk.
He pockets the jade note, but he forgets the jade on the windowsill, shining dully in the early morning light.
Hyunjin’s standing by the water for barely a minute or two, staring out at the waves, when someone taps him on the shoulder.
He whips around. There’s a man standing behind him, slightly balding and grey at the temples. He’s wearing a formal suit, as if he just stepped out of a boardroom. There’s a particular look on his face, almost expressionless. It’s ruined by his eyes: they’re as cold as the northern sea. He’s so tall that Hyunjin has to look up to meet his eyes.
“Walk with me.” It sounds more like an order than a suggestion. His accent, lilting and musical, is a stronger version of Jisung and Chaewon’s.
Hyunjin eyes the man for a long moment. He has none of the middle-aged paunch that he’s used to seeing from men his father’s age. Hyunjin’s not sure which would be more dangerous: going with him, or attempting to refuse.
“You didn’t want to see your son?” Hyunjin squints at him. He’s only partly curious: the other part is simply an attempt to buy himself some time while he tries to figure out what to do.
The man tilts his head. He has Jisung’s eyes, dark brown and glinting. “I’ve always thought that it’s best to pick one’s battles.” It’s a diplomat’s answer. His words could mean anything.
Hyunjin tries again. “And meeting Jisung would be a battle?”
The man shrugs. “He’s my son. Isn’t it always?”
“Not always,” Hyunjin says. He thinks of his own father, chuckling over the Sunday comics back at the cottage. Then, wondering at his own boldness, he asks, “Are you going to hurt me?”
To his surprise, the man laughs. It holds no amusement, empty and cold. “No, Hwang Hyunjin. If you are harmed under my watch, it will only ever be your own doing.”
It’s this answer more than all the rest that convinces him: this is Jisung’s father. This is the ocean king.
The waves crash into the beach behind them, loud like a warning. Above the man’s head, heavy clouds creep over the canopy of roofs. The wind whistles in Hyunjin’s ears, turning them cold and painful. He wore winter boots, but somehow, he can’t feel his toes.
Hyunjin swallows. It’s another non-answer. He wants badly to run, but has a sneaking suspicion that would only make things worse.
He thinks of Jisung, sleeping soundly back at the rental cottage. He thinks about the warmth of his boyfriend’s fingers intertwined with his. About the strange feeling that has descended over their relationship the last few weeks, like they’re waiting for the inevitable.
Last night, what was it Jisung had said? Sometimes, I wonder what past me would think if he saw us now.
Hyunjin had frowned, then whispered back in the dark, What does that mean?
Jisung’s voice had been rough with sleep. We’re still running, aren’t we?
Even if Hyunjin runs now, how much more time would they have left together, anyway? This man may be the king of the ocean, but the beach and the sea are Hyunjin’s home, too. He has always been safe here.
“Fine,” he says finally, feeling his heart start to pound in his chest. “I’ll walk with you.”
The ocean king dips his head graciously.
So they walk.
“Has my son told you about the bracelet?” The ocean king walks down the beach, his hands folded behind him. There’s something formal about the gesture. It makes Hyunjin feel a little like he’s being interrogated.
Watching the man’s expression out of the corner of his eye, Hyunjin shakes his head. “You mean the pearl bracelet,” he ventures cautiously.
The ocean king tilts his head. “So he has told you.”
“No.” Hyunjin almost starts to explain that he’s heard about the bracelet because he overheard Chaewon and Jisung’s conversation last month and Jisung’s strange confession that he wished Hyunjin could wear it (whatever that meant), but he stops himself. He’s not sure this man would take kindly to a perceived breach in his son’s privacy. For all he knows, that’s a punishable offense in the ocean kingdom.
“That’s just as well,” the ocean king responds, glancing down at the surf. “He knows just as much as I do that your relationship cannot last long.”
Hyunjin is silent.
As if sensing his surge of emotion, the ocean king gives him a long look. “Do not be offended. It is simply the truth.” He pauses. “But I wish to tell you, nonetheless.”
“Why would you do that?” Hyunjin asks carefully. What he really means is, what part of this do you think is going to hurt me?
Instead of answering outright, Jisung’s father looks out at the houses dotting the edge of the beach. He has Jisung’s high cheekbones and sloping jawline, just older and broader versions. His expression is impossible to read.
Hyunjin listens to the sound of his own boots crunching in the sand and wishes desperately that he had decided to stay in bed today, instead of trekking through the winter wind with the ruler of the ocean.
After a long pause, the king finally speaks. “My son has a soft heart. In some ways, that is a benefit. But in other ways, it only serves to hurt him. For instance, he cannot understand that short-term sacrifice may prevent him from greater pain. He only sees what is before him. He is too easily immersed.”
The wind whistles past, ruffling Hyunjin’s hair. He shivers. “What does that have to do with the bracelet?”
“Have you wondered why he hasn’t told you about it?”
“I’m sure he has his reasons.” In fact, Hyunjin had wondered about it. A lot. But he still follows his original policy about Jisung, the one he started in the first weeks of school: if Jisung doesn’t volunteer information about his past or his culture, it’s probably because he’s not ready to share it. Hyunjin suspects that policy is one of the reasons they’ve been able to get together. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t wondering.
The king gives him a knowing look. It freezes Hyunjin’s bones. “In our culture, giving the bracelet is like giving a promise ring made of your own soul. The exchange ties a couple’s destinies together. All romantic partnerships of those born in the kingdom must do this. Without it, you cannot have a future. And you cannot touch his bracelet.” He pauses. “If you could, maybe things would be different. It is our highest law.”
“I don’t understand,” Hyunjin says. “Is it poisonous or something?” Let me guess, he thinks flippantly. Giving bracelets to humans is just “not done.”
The ocean king stops so suddenly that Hyunjin jolts a little with the effort it takes to follow suit. He turns. Hyunjin looks up, up, up until he meets the king’s eyes. They’re narrowed to slits. He seems to have heard the bitterness, the irony that Hyunjin let slip into his voice. “Do you think our laws are a joke?” He thunders. “Bracelets are enchanted to match the soul after birth. Once the enchantment has been cast, any human that touches them will die.”
Hyunjin has to take a moment to process this.
“That is why you cannot be with my son,” the king says. His voice is an ice floe. A steel handcuff. His eyes are cold to match. “Not because of a law, as I am sure he has told you. Laws of the kingdom are breakable. If he had ever paid attention when I spoke, he would know that. But the laws of nature are not. You two cannot, and will never, have a future together.”
Hyunjin hears the sand crunch behind him. He turns.
Jisung stands there, his chest rising and falling, rising and falling. He’s still wearing his checkered pajama pants, one of Hyunjin’s hoodies thrown over his top half. His blue hair looks unbrushed. He must have run here as soon as he noticed Hyunjin was gone.
“Hyunjin.” Jisung’s voice breaks. His eyes are wide with an emotion not that far from grief. Hyunjin feels that same emotion in his chest.
It takes Hyunjin a second to notice that hanging from one of Jisung’s hands is a string of black seed pearls. It’s his bracelet. He feels it from here, exuding a strange pull. It must be the enchantment.
Jisung turns to father. His voice is furious. “Fuck you.” He holds up the bracelet. “I left this at home for a reason!”
His father looks, although unamused, rather unruffled. “I did what had to be done.”
“No, you fucking-” Jisung storms forward, seemingly unable to finish. He touches Hyunjin’s shoulder with a gentle hand. “We should go back,” he says, his voice suddenly losing its anger. He sounds a lot like his father all of a sudden, neutral and near-emotionless.
The thing is, he gets why Jisung didn’t tell him. He gets it. Besides the obvious reason that talking about any kind of long-term partnership at the beginning of a relationship is kind of iffy, the news feels a little… world-breaking. He can’t imagine himself ever getting the courage to say those words to Jisung if he were in his boyfriend’s position: we can’t have a future together.
Hyunjin feels the bracelet like a second heart, pulling at him from here.
In the back of his brain, he remembers a dream he had a while ago of standing in a throne room and receiving similar world-ending news. Only then, it was in the form of a royal order, not a cruel statement of the cold, hard truth.
Jisung seems to see something in Hyunjin’s expression, because he bites his lip. “I’m sorry,” he whispers.
He can still feel Jisung’s bracelet. He stops himself from a seemingly morbid urge to reach for it, and replies, “I know. I am, too.”
For some reason, this only seems to make Jisung even more upset. “You-” he starts, turning on his father. “You come here and-” And then he says other things, but Hyunjin can’t understand any of it. For a second, he thinks he’s having a stroke, but then belatedly realizes that Jisung’s speaking a different language. If he had to guess, the language of the sea.
The ocean king says something back. There’s a surprising amount of emotion in his voice. He sounds almost sad. Sad-adjacent, maybe. There’s still a thread of pride running through it, a kind of I know better than you tone that Hyunjin has heard more than a dozen times from his own father.
Hyunjin looks out at the water. The clouds have parted at the horizon, making way for the orange glow of the sun as it breaks through the haze. The water shimmers with it, a million little reflections of the sun’s rays into eternity. The steady wash of the waves on the shore feels a little like a heartbeat.
Hyunjin realizes that he can hear Jisung’s bracelet. That’s what he heard; not the waves. Or rather, he feels the bracelet, beating to a steady rhythm that Hyunjin kind of suspects is the beat of Jisung’s heart.
He turns around. Dimly, he realizes that Jisung has dropped the bracelet on the sand. It glimmers in the sunlight, reflecting back a hint of sky.
The urge to pick it up becomes too great to bear. Without really thinking about what he’s doing, he walks over and lifts it up off the sand.
A few seconds pass, but nothing happens. It’s supposed to kill him, but it’s not doing a very good job of it.
It fits perfectly in his palm. The blue-black seed pearls are strung in a messy chain, looping back over itself. It pulses warmth. There’s something living about it, beyond the fact that it’s an inanimate object capable of producing its own heat. It reminds Hyunjin of lazy mornings stretched out with Jisung on his bed in their dorm room, watching movies or just staring at the ceiling. It reminds him of lying with his head on Jisung’s chest, Jisung’s fingers brushing through his hair.
He realizes belatedly that his boyfriend and the ocean king have stopped arguing.
“Hyunjin,” Jisung says, his voice tight. “How are you doing that?”
His father, who grabbed hold of Jisung’s arm in the time Hyunjin was looking away, says something in the language Hyunjin doesn’t recognize. It sounds like a swear.
“Who are you?” He hisses. It’s the first time he’s shown any emotion towards Hyunjin. If Hyunjin didn't know better, he’d say he looks almost afraid.
Hyunjin looks back at the bracelet with wondering eyes. “I don’t know.”
Meanwhile, Jisung seems to have realized something. He says something, sharp and musical, to his dad.
His dad snaps something back. Then he looks at Hyunjin with those narrowed eyes. “Where is your mother?”
“Gone,” Hyunjin replies after a moment of confusion. “She left us when I was seven. But I’m not sure what that has to do with anything.” After a moment, he clarifies, “Not dead. Just gone.”
The ocean king sends Jisung a glance that looks a lot like a warning. “And she left when you were…”
Jisung lets out a hiss of a breath. He exchanges a long look with his dad. There’s a strange look on his face.
His dad says something to him, his posture suddenly formal again. He glances at Hyunjin, still cold as ice. But then, much to Hyunjin’s surprise, he turns and starts walking back down the beach.
After he’s left, Hyunjin races over to Jisung. He entwines their hands without thinking. “What just happened? Why did he leave?”
“The enchantment is our highest law,” Jisung says. He reaches up, as if to touch Hyunjin’s face, but then pulls away and intertwines their fingers back together. “If it accepts you, he can’t argue against it.”
The wind whistles past them. Hyunjin’s face is bitterly cold. “I don’t understand.”
Jisung gives him a long look, like he’s debating how much to say. The wind blows a stray lock of blue hair into his eyes, but he doesn’t brush it away. “Hyunjin, he left because if you can hold the bracelet, you have non-human blood. That’s an absolute certainty. He can’t-” He stops. He looks like he’s about to cry. But happy tears. Happy tears.
“What?” Hyunjin’s nonplussed. “How could I-”
“We have this law - a stupid, horrible law - that says that selkies that go off to the human world must return after seven years.” Jisung’s expression is somewhere between expectant and nervous.
Hyunjin shakes his head. “I still don’t understand.”
Jisung smiles sadly. “Baby, your mom is a selkie.”
“What?” Hyunjin repeats, his voice a whisper. Jisung’s statement jars a whole layer of memories. He thinks of the crumpled letters, stained like they’d been wet. His mother’s obsession with water. His father reading him the story of the ocean prince to him and admitting, Your mother always liked the part about the seal’s coat. And finally, he thinks of a memory he hasn’t thought about in over a decade: a slick grey coat, mottled like that of a seal’s, hidden away in a closet in his parent’s office. When he asked about it, his mother’s expression turned grave. Don’t talk about the coat with anyone, okay? It’s very important.
How did selkies change from women into seals, again? It was with their coat, right?
Jisung smiles. His eyes are red, like he’s about to cry. “It explains why you know the tale of the ocean prince. She must have brought one of our storybooks with her to the surface.” He pauses. “You know, I can take you to her, if you’d like?”
Hyunjin can’t think. He throws himself into Jisung’s arms. Jisung is warm, warm, his hands fitting perfectly around Hyunjin’s back. Hyunjin is still holding the seed pearl bracelet, beating like a second heart in his palm. It rattles against itself as he wraps his arms around Jisung.
Jisung pulls back from the hug. He kisses Hyunjin softly. He tastes like salt, like tears and promises.
Jisung’s father was right. Jisung did have a soft heart. It was one of the reasons Hyunjin liked him so much.
“We can go tomorrow,” Jisung says, his voice thick. “It might take awhile to find her name and address in the palace registers, but we’ve got time, right?” He’s smiling, his eyes alight. You know what this means, his eyes say.
“Yeah,” Hyunjin replies. He feels a little giddy. He can’t believe it. His body is a mess of joy and relief. “Fuck,” he says vehemently. “This means-“ He can’t finish the thought.
Jisung grins. He kisses Hyunjin again.
The wind whirls around them, chilling to the bone. But it’s alright. Jisung is warm. And before long, they start to walk back to the rental cottage, swinging their linked hands a little between them.
That night, he dreams of their past lives again. He's in Hanbok Hyunjin’s body. He lies next to Hanbok Jisung - the former ocean prince - on a traditional Korean tile roof, laying back and staring at the sky. Stars shine above them, bright like tiny bursts in the dark wash of the night.
Sometimes, I wonder what might have happened if we were born in a different time, Hanbok Jisung says quietly. He look young, maybe as young as Jisung was now- eighteen or nineteen. His fingers send little sparks down Hyunjin’s spine as they trace the fabric over his shoulder.
Or if I wasn’t human, Hyunjin finds himself saying. He laughs low in his throat. Oh, don’t give me that look, I know you were thinking about it. Again, it's like he's reading a script. He speaks without his own accord.
I don’t love you any less because of it. Hanbok Jisung readjusts his position so he’s curled up on his side. You know that, right? He stares at Hyunjin with an expression that makes his heart race. Love, he thinks. That's love.
Of course, Hyunjin replies with a smile. And I don't love you less because you're not.
There's a pause. Hanbok Jisung seems to be working on a thought.
What? Hyunjin asks warily.
I just- Hanbok Jisung stops. I wish it was easier, he whispers finally. I wish we didn’t have to stay in places like this, hidden away at night or in secret. I want to walk with you through the palace gardens. I want you to meet my mother. His eyes are bright with the beginnings of tears.
Hyunjin finds himself reaching out to touch Hanbok Jisung’s face. When he speaks, his voice is somber. Someday, somewhere, we will be together.
And now, Hanbok Jisung says after a heavy pause. We can be together in this life, too.
Of course, Hyunjin says again. He pulls Hanbok Jisung into a light kiss.
But somehow, in the hazy memory of Hanbok Hyunjin’s heart, he knows it won’t last. That destiny will pull them apart soon enough, and time will diverge their paths for who knows how long.
But I will fight for him, nonetheless, Hyunjin thinks fiercely. I will fight until I bleed. Because this man has the other half of my soul, and I have his. Nothing could be more right.
Jisung pulls away. His eyes are sparkling. In this life, he says, his voice low. Come on, say it, Jin.
In this life, Hyunjin agrees with a smile. But a tiny voice in his head adds an addendum: or the next.
Hyunjin wishes he could tell his past life that he was right. That he might not have Jisung in this life, but he would have him in the next. That fate would work itself out so that the next time he walked the earth, he wouldn't have to worry about the blood running in his veins preventing him from being with the other half of his soul.
But he can't. All he can do is this: live life as his past life would have wanted. To show him, wherever he was, that everything would be alright. That some loves are stronger than the laws trying to break them.
When Hyunjin finally wakes to the sound of crashing waves and cawing seagulls, Jisung is there, sleeping soundly. And when he, too, rouses from his sleep, they greet the world together.