"What you looking at? You never seen a guy who slept with a fish before?" - Freddie, the 1984 film Splash
The accidental concert that Adam throws at the beach would have been seriously bitchin' if not for the fact that he’s starting to attract an unsettling amount of human attention.
Neil says that it's socially unacceptable to use the word bitchin', for reasons of extreme dorkiness, but Adam doesn't see why he should bother with other people's definitions of cool when he's already innately socially unacceptable on account of being a freakish ambulatory mermaid. "Your shirt is way groovy," he tells Neil, kindly, and then goes to get more Ocean Blue Nail Glam polish for his fake toenails.
It’s more fun than worrying would be.
Calling it a concert is probably a stretch, but hey, Adam doesn't get to play to live audiences that often. Well, okay, he sings for mer all the time, but it’s like singing for family; it doesn’t count. The security force couldn’t care less if Adam wants to play rock star for his own people, anyway. It’s when humans start paying attention that they get pissy.
Oh, what the hell, it’s a concert. Rock and roll, man. It's also free, and would be even if it hadn't happened completely spur of the moment, because Adam isn't legally allowed to, oh, earn money. Being that he's a mermaid and all. Granted, he does break that law pretty routinely, but his prostitution business is covert and protected by the delicate application of blackmail, whereas there are few things more obvious than rocking the fuck out on a public beach and charging admission.
There isn't any concerted plan that draws everyone to the beach that afternoon. It's just one of those days, when everything is sun-drenched and glittering and nobody's been attacked in over a week if you don't count the forty-six mer that the security force currently has in custody—which you can’t, if you ever want to relax. No one has to work later, and most of the mer are rolling around in the shallows, chasing each other, playing.
Adam is content to lie on the wet sand at the edge of the tide, watching Kris and Red play until Red goes off to tackle someone else and Kris comes over, and, unable to sit still for five seconds, immediately starts building a sandcastle. Adam laughs.
"What?" Kris pretends to huff, the faint trace of a drawl clinging to the word. Kris is one of the few land-dwelling mer who actually grew up out at sea, and it shows. "I figured you'd have already made one of your own for sure," he says, industriously heaping the sand higher. "With a flag."
He has a point. Adam sits up to help. "If we were dolphins, this would be an orgy. Instead—” He smoothes the wall they're building. "Sand castles."
It raises something pleased and warm under Adam's skin when Kris laughs, which is why making Kris laugh is one of Adam's top relaxation techniques, a list that also includes Being Fabulous and making earl gray from loose tea leaves using an actual kettle. Adam finds ritual and cute boys and occasional chaos soothing.
He would push, insist he isn't actually kidding, see if he can make Kris blush, but, well, all the mer that he knows personally actually work for him. As prostitutes. Which maybe isn't the best context from which to force a hypothetical orgy, even if Kris—like most sea mer, if the stereotype can be trusted—is endlessly, smilingly polite with mystifying notions about fucking that seem only slightly related to his slutty dolphin heritage.
Mer are part human, too, but growing up around humans doesn’t seem to have given Adam any extra insight into how mer-people—his people—think. On the other hand, one thing that's very clear is that Kris likes to hear Adam talk about sex, which Adam is always, always happy to do. So, for some future conversation: orgies.
This is why Adam spends large amounts of time thinking about Kris and sex, obviously. It's a complicated and demanding subject.
"So it's our, what," Kris is saying, "our human modesty that makes us behave?"
"Modesty?" Adam says, puzzled. "Define 'behave.'"
Kris grins. It makes him look—not young, exactly, but uncomplicated. He turns to study the sandcastle; piles more sand on top, makes a face when a loose clump drops into his lap, dabbles his flukes in the water and then flops onto his stomach. Adam is relaxed enough in the sunlight, sinking into the heat and letting it slowly swallow him up, but Kris takes to it like it’s a lullaby—warm lines, complete boneless surrender to the sand before he raises his head and grins again at Adam, who is all at once too hot and overcome with the urge to say something stupid and regrettable and quickly asks instead,
"So what did you do today?"
"Nothing," says Kris, who has a remarkable capacity for doing nothing. "Practiced walking on my tail. Pretended I was captured by pirates and they sent me off the plank."
"You are a strange person."
"Messed around with one of your songs, too." Kris hums a few bars into the cradle of his arms.
"That's not the right key." Not that Kris needs to sing in Adam's key; unless he wants Adam to join in at any point, in which case he does.
"Should be, though. I was listening to the recording and you should totally—"
"How do mer sing at sea?" Adam says, cutting off the same old argument about that song. Adam can’t believe that he’s never even wondered about this before. He falls back onto the sand beside Kris, who wrinkles his nose and shrugs.
"There isn't any music at sea."
"That," Adam says, "sounds like bullshit."
"No, I mean—” Kris half-grins, which means that it is bullshit, of a kind. Kris tends to throw complete untruths into conversation because he can't be bothered not to oversimplify; in the mathematics of life, he regularly neglects to carry the one. Adam has decided that this is a charming quirk rather than an annoying one.
Wet spikes of hair brush Adam's cheek when Kris turns to look at him. "There's, like, whale song. Anyone can sing. But mer—most mer, I mean—it's just the human thing they don't like. Guitars and hooks and, I mean, lyrics." His lips curl up at the corners; from a normal distance it would look like a smirk, but Kris is just a breath away. "Lyrics are the worst."
"In what way?"
Kris thinks for a minute. Adam likes watching him puzzle these things out, when Adam asks questions about things so deeply ingrained he's never put them into words before.
"It's like—unnatural," he says finally. "Lots of mer don't think we should ever even come to the surface. Because we can't really live on land, you know, long term, so that means we're not supposed to be here at all."
"You all learn English," Adam points out. "Human language."
Kris shakes his head back and forth, chin grazing the sand. "Everyone you know, sure."
Adam looks down at him again. Kris is mostly out of the water, his face propped on his arms, but he's wet all over. It isn’t as though he’s left the sea full-time. "So—oh, wow. Unnatural. You mean not everyone installs tubs in every room of their house so that their mer friends can come hang out?"
"Nope." Kris ducks his head, but Adam catches the tail end of his smile.
"You know—” Adam stretches, nudging Kris with his hip. "There's enough human in us that whoever got hold of me," and he gestures toward his utter lack of tail, "found enough of the right bones to give me actual knees and toes."
"Preaching to the choir," Kris mumbles into the sand. "Sing me a song."
"What, right now?"
Kris says something else, muffled—or, possibly, grunts. Adam sympathizes. The sun is sliding down over the horizon, and the air is hazy and thick but with the promise of coming coolness buried somewhere underneath. It would be a very nice thing if he could cover Kris with his body and press his face to the curve of Kris' neck and shoulder and not move for a good three hours. It really isn't asking for much.
Adam sits up, stretches his legs out straight in front of him, and starts singing. He slows it down a little, taking care with every note—savoring the music, caressing it. He keeps his voice soft. Kris' face is tilted against Adam's knee; Adam can feel his steady breathing, warmer than human breath. His tail is a shadow spread out on the sand.
Unnatural, Adam thinks, considering his legs beside Kris' tail. Okay, then.
There are something like forty mer in the water, and at least four of them have water-safe guitars with them, the unnatural bastards. One of the security guys brought some kind of hand drum, too—Neil’s friend Ray, one of a number of humans who like to work for Adam as some kind of protest. By the end of the song, he's settled close to Adam and Kris, right alongside the dangerous, guitar-wielding maniacs, and the rest of the security people, and Adam's accountant, and everyone else who'd followed Adam back from lunch in the city earlier. They're all listening, Adam realizes, and he smiles brightly at his audience of mixed human and mer. "Any requests?"
He gets to his feet as they start calling out suggestions, careful not to shake sand off on Kris, who rolls over and smiles at him and keeps rolling until he's in the water again. This is Adam's stage; and these are his bare toes, curling in sand coarse with sea salt, and these are his instructions, quickly worked out for the guitars and drum—a classic everyone knows; and this is everyone in the water and on the beach actually quieting—for a single, still, absolutely silent moment before he starts.
And then he does start, and he doesn't hold anything back—energy high from the very first line, a key where Adam can move up and down and up and up and up. The foam breaks and curls around his feet and he grins out at everyone who's looking at him, because they are looking at him, and listening, and grinning, too, and he just goes fucking wild for the spiking, surging joy of hearing it echo around them. Water and sand splash up around his calves, and he spins, once, and turns around and sees a circle of his human neighbors watching, too.
Adam keeps singing because—what else should he do? They’re only standing there. He doesn't even know how long they've been—watching. Admiring. Maybe? It isn't a crowd or anything, it's seven or eight people, in bathing suits, out for a night swim and they come across a man singing. Adam finishes the song and stops there, fighting the urge to take a bow. He almost wants to just keep going and oh fucking hell what a terrible idea that would be. No, really, he tells himself firmly. Bad idea. Bad, bad, fucking bad idea.
Behind him, the mer are melting into the water with barely a sound. Adam looks at the humans, but nothing is happening, other than that they’re looking back. He can't even make out their individual expressions. After a minute, he bends down to retrieve his t-shirt, shaking it free of sand; everyone else follows suit, gathering their things. And then a few of the humans applaud—cheerfully.
Adam just barely manages not to jerk upright, shocked. After a moment, he flashes a smile in their direction, and two women smile back at him before turning away, talking softly as they head up the beach in the opposite direction with the rest of their group—a mother and a daughter, it looks like, and it's possible that they don't know who he is. The mer all know that Adam sings—and what he looks like, and how much money he'd had to make before he could afford decent recording equipment, and how long it had taken him to earn that much. The humans have probably heard of him, but there's no reason for them to think of him here.
Still. They had to have seen all the mer in the water behind him. Whatever just happened, there's no way that it's a good thing.
This is the thing about Kris: Adam can ask him to stay submerged in a hot tub for hours at a time in order to suck cock for a party of businessmen and he'll do it with no more than a shrug, but try to argue with him about music and he smiles pleasantly and disregards every word, the little shit.
This is the other thing about Kris: His bad habits are easy to fall into when you spend too much time with him. It isn't really every word.
The cock sucking, though—that happens by regular appointment every Tuesday. They've recently started asking for Kris specifically, and Adam has been trying not to think about how good Kris must be and what he would look like with his tail wound around Adam's knees, strong slim serpentine curve of him holding Adam still while his mouth—
That would be unprofessional. Adam is his employer.
Having legs means that Adam has never screwed around with a client himself, which is nice because sex is much too much fun to be turned into a work routine like that. In theory, Adam is a complete sap whose favorite kind of sex is the Sunday morning kind that involves copious amounts of making out; in theory, silly tipsy sloppy sex is a close runner-up. His professional opinions are all anyone cares about these days, though, and professionally, Adam recommends fucking humans any way you can stand to for as much money as you can get away with, which is a finer line to negotiate than most people probably think.
"My investment plan," George says, "is to last until you're all neatly interred and then have the roaches over for a looting party."
"Nice," Adam approves. "Be sure to suggest it at your next staff meeting."
"It would, unfortunately, be outside our budget at this time." He lifts a blue silk tie delicately in his claws and then sets it back on the shelf, antennae twitching with distaste. "It's such a shame that I can't wear green without looking like a Christmas tree. I think it's made me wary of any real dose of color at all."
Adam smirks and says nothing; if the cells of your body don't actually age, you do not get sympathy for appearance-related complaints. George is going to be looking good for eternity, which isn’t a bad master plan. "Anyway. He keeps just randomly playing it in B flat like he thinks he’s not being completely obvious. But I don’t know, if he's that adamant, maybe I should at least record it and compare."
"Hmm." A gray striped tie is discarded beside the blue one; George leans closer to the selection. Adam shakes his head, rolls his eyes.
"You did ask me what I was thinking."
"Yes, well, I assumed it would be something worth hearing about. To be fair, perhaps I should know by now that with you it will most often have something to do with a pretty—" he cuts himself off and follows Adam's glance toward the woman staring at them, transfixed, from two aisles over. She's obviously a tourist, out of place and uncomfortable in jeans and a plain red and black top, and he doesn't pause for more than a second. "But work must be going well? Ang tells me there's yet another property on the waterfront that's yours in all but name."
There are three, actually. Adam has a financial advisor and, apparently, a fair amount of real estate under a variety of false names. He looks away from the woman, whose arms are folded tightly under her breasts; he smiles at George. "Work? Honey, I'm unemployed. I am in fact unemployable."
George doesn't answer. He does this every now and then—asks for information with relative directness instead of subtly picking away or waiting for Adam to slip up—and Adam has never been able to figure out why. Adam isn't careless enough to wittingly share the details of his illicit business with the head of the fucking security force, but his business model involves regularly inviting people to his brothel, so. Not to mention that it's not like the Board doesn't know all about Adam's work; Andersen is the fucking CFO, and he's pretty pathetically obsessed with Kris, if Tuesdays are anything to go by.
That's why they're—well; it would be a stretch to call them friends. Adam has to roll his eyes at himself for even liking George. It's just—it's good to have open lines of communication with the other side.
Something's off today, though. Probably Adam. He hasn't had the chance to check up on any of the mer, and it’s weighing on him. It's not that they need a minder, or want one, but they make him money on the premise that he can make it worth their while in security and convenience, hiring humans he knows he can trust to see to their needs and their safety. He doesn’t intend to fall down on his side of the deal.
The woman is eying them, less terrified now and more . . . gapey. That's another thing that Adam still can't wrap his head around completely; that people away from the coast—huge swaths of the population—have somehow honestly missed the fact that lobsters have breathing, talking cousins with actual political clout and dapper charcoal suits, or that mer are real beings who do more than fuck—though, granted, she probably has no idea that Adam is mer. The legs do tend to throw people. He waves at her; her eyes widen, and she spins around too quickly and begins riffling through a rack of blouses.
Adam remembers being nine years old and knowing that he was supposed to avoid the wrong kinds of attention; he remembers clumsily feeling about for the right kinds, too.
There was one time that he’d colored with bright blue marker on his own lips and on the lips of a friend whose features are indistinct in recollection and whose hair is redder than Adam’s ever was; he remembers laughing to himself after they were scolded and separated and he was left to himself in the shower; singing under the spray, and it seems like it’s part of the same memory, but it doesn’t have to be, actually. Might not be. He’s singing a song that he learned down at the Art Center, Mrs. Specter carefully instructing him on every note; singing and scrubbing at his face and gargling the words through the warm water that fills his mouth, clambering out with a towel around his waist, humming, and stopping at the sight of his parents listening in the hall. He remembers his mother’s small grin, his dad’s raised eyebrows.
By the time he hit his early twenties he had the attention of his friends, people his parents didn’t know, friends who’ve stuck with him through three hair colors and who don’t give a flying fuck that he’s mer. Of course, playing at the edges of humanity has gotten him George’s attention, too, which is no longer as frightening as it should be. It’s just a story now. The story of how Adam became a pimp.
Mer whoring isn’t a secret. Adam even gets, sort of, why humans seem to think that mer are all prostitutes, since hookers are the ones who have to get themselves noticed, and who can’t help sometimes turning up beaten or dead in inconvenient places.
George had assumed that Adam was a hooker before they met. He was in charge of basic surveillance in those days, and knew, of course, who Adam was, and how much time he spent with humans. (Neil was the one who knew mer, letting himself get recruited to teach English and some kind of Political Theory. They’d started a school—looking for some kind of stability, Adam thought. You couldn’t swim at the beach back then without tripping over refugees.)
So of course Adam’s affinity for humanity made him a hooker. Of course it did. Never mind that Adam liked humans, having been raised by some particularly likable ones, and wasn't against fucking them, either—had done a fair amount of free-of-charge fucking with Brad, who was, as far as Adam's explorations had been able to determine in all their time together, entirely human. George had disrupted a really great night over it, too.
“Tell me,” he’d said, serene at the center of the freak-out he’d caused just by showing up. Adam had smiled openly at him and danced closer, because his first instincts aren’t always his best ones, and he’d been drunk enough to be fascinated-slash-turned-on by George’s claws. “How do you determine what sort of person is open to going home with. . . .” He gestured vaguely in Adam’s direction. “I can’t imagine that everyone is pleased by what you are.”
“I go home with my boyfriend,” Adam had laughed, lightly.
But that was how the idea took root.
In the here and now, George selects an ivory tie and steers Adam toward the registers. He says crisply, "I'd thank you not to antagonize the dear, ignorant fishermen and their neighbors."
Adam shrugs and glances back at the woman. Any hick fisherman who thinks lobster are a threat to his or her livelihood is an idiot—lobster advised the Board on the Three Ocean Takeover; they're no more a threat to lobster fishing than any random john in the street, and not worth taking on, politically—but George is always careful. Adam can respect that. "You're an incomparable ass-kisser, you know that?"
"It's an acquired taste." Outside the shop, another tourist nearly trips over his feet at the sight of them. George is utterly impassive, watching the man drag himself upright and hurry on his way.
“I don’t think,” Scarlett reflects, “that I can drink that.” She steals an olive.
Deshaun slaps her hand and hands a pale green cocktail to someone over Adam’s shoulder. “You’re breaking my heart.”
“I don’t know what else to get,” she says pathetically. “I have terrible decision-making skills. Just make me something? Please?”
“You don’t order it, I don’t make it.” He pours a couple of whiskey sours over ice.
“You’re putting very negative energy out into the universe right now,” she says, and Adam has to nod along earnestly. It’s true. He is. Deshaun eyes him without expression.
“Hey, I have excellent decision-making skills,” Adam says defensively, and Scarlett laughs.
The drink that she turned down is Deshaun’s invention, a citrus-tequila-something that goes down smoothly and carries a kick like—pretty much like a kick, actually. To the nuts.
Deshaun named it the Thunder Fruit, though. There’s really no getting away from that.
“Get out of my olives, order something that doesn’t offend you, and let me finish my shift in peace.” He slides the corkscrew down the counter to where Anna is gesturing for it. Scarlett sucks one cheek contemplatively into her mouth.
“Strawberry daiquiri, please.” She rests her chin on her folded arms, and Adam sips his wine, nodding amiably when people smile and wave. He doesn’t exactly know all of them, but the music thing is kind of—awesome like that? Like, yes, it’s a problem that humans are starting to show up when he sings, like he has a sort of following now—and the hazy, unfounded suspicion that it extends past where he can see, friends of friends padding out the crowd when he takes the stage, but—still.
“Adam! Nice to see your pasty white ass for once!” It’s a guy Adam vaguely remembers as a friend of Alisan’s.
“I’m actually pretty committed to clothing right now,” Adam says, and the guy shakes his head sadly and lets his boyfriend pull him away. Adam grins. He doesn't go out as often as he used to, but after the night of the concert he'd decided to take a weekend off from giving a fuck. He loves this place—the crush of bodies under high cathedral ceilings; the canal that snakes in from outside, filled with mer swimming in and out; Macy, Anna, and Deshaun, who split their time between the bar and some completely sick work on the dance floor.
They take their drinks over to the others, closer to the music. Danielle slides over on the couch and pulls Adam down next to her. Scarlett perches on the arm so that she can check out Deshaun and wave energetically at him every time he looks over.
“I didn’t think you were going to show,” Rahab says, kicking Adam’s ankle gently. “You look gorgeous, by the way. I love the boots.”
Adam laughs. The beach seems very far away, and his skin is humming pleasantly with music and movement. He stops scanning the mer when Danielle squeezes his hand. “Am I really all work and no play?”
“I guess not.” Rahab smiles slowly across the floor at someone Adam can’t see.
“His shift ends in like ten minutes,” Danielle says to Scarlett.
“I know. He’s coming over here.”
Danielle’s nail draws patterns on Adam’s open palm. “I was worried you weren’t going to come, too,” she murmurs. Adam looks at her and she smiles. “And then I would have been sad.”
“Hey, I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Good to know.” She takes a sip of his wine, starts to hand the glass back to him, and stops. “Dance with me?”
Adam smiles absently at the third stranger in a row to nod at him. He gets up and offers Danielle his hand, and she grips it and springs to her feet.
They get a small crowd watching them pretty quickly, not standing still and staring or anything but just, like, dancing with half an eye on them. Danielle is a ridiculous dancer, light on her feet and unable to be serious about it. She holds onto his hips for an exaggerated grind, tossing her hair back, and he smirks down at her. She laughs.
They break apart from each other eventually, and Adam ends up dancing with two guys who look related but hopefully—well, aren’t. They’re both pale and doll-like, slender, sharp cheekbones, although one is blond and the other has darker hair.
“I love your boots,” the blond says over the music, a friendly grin softening the angles of his face. Adam draws him closer with one hand, the smooth leather of the guy’s pants sticky against his fingers and palm, and keeps on dancing.
He gets home at a time of day that is sometimes (accurately) referred to as morning, stumbling over the bags from his shopping trip earlier. He’s disconcerted to land in a puddle right next to the couch immediately afterwards; that's the kind of thing that rarely happens when he's this close to sober, because Adam is a conscientiously neat person in the rooms of his home that other people are likely to see.
He looks around him and is struck by an abrupt surge of fear like the creeping of a thousand unclean things; clumps of wet sand dot the room like afterthoughts—the lamp has been knocked askew, and two books are open face-down on the floor beside the shelf, pages crumpled and bent—and he's through the sliding doors and sprinting down the beach without a second thought, instinct keeping him to the right so that if anyone's out there, they won't see him coming head-on.
But the only ones out there are Kris, bent over little Red, and Jess, pushed back on her tail beside them, gun in a ready grip. Red's right arm is a mess, crushed and splattered on the sand. Blood is soaking into her hair in thick muddy bunches. Kris looks up from tying off a towel high above her elbow and sees Adam, and the relief in his eyes holds Adam hostage and gives him focus: Yes, I'm here, yes, I'll fix this.
"Look at this bunch of hotties," Adam says, and very carefully does not heave. Her arm is twisted the wrong way. The muscle is torn open, and white bone stares him in the face. "I really do hire only the best, don't I."
"Yeah, you're a genius." Jess tosses him something. "Maybe next time you can remember to take your damn phone, you know?"
Fuck, but that's unforgivable. "How long—"
"Just a few minutes." Kris strokes Red's hair and she swallows, breath coming in ragged bursts. "I just got back here from going up to the house. I was trying to call you."
"Yeah, I saw—" Adam hits speed dial one. "You made a mess of my living room."
Red laughs, and chokes on it. "I told you," she says faintly. "I told you we need cell phones, man."
"You make a convincing case when you want something, baby, I'll give you—Doctor," Adam says, when she picks up on the first ring, "This is Adam Lambert. One of my pets is terribly, terribly hurt and can't be moved."
"What kind of hurt?" the doctor asks after a moment.
"Her arm got torn up by a—" he raises his eyebrows at Kris.
Kris shrugs with his eyes, his shoulders, his hands. "Human, Adam. It was two guys."
"Predator of some kind," Adam says into the phone. "There's a lot of blood."
"I'll be right there."
"Thanks so much." Adam snaps the phone shut and drops to his knees beside Kris. "Check it out, I got you injured for your birthday. Hardly anyone puts that much thought into a present these days, but I knew it was just what you wanted."
"Have you been reading her diary again?" Kris says, going for stern and missing by several continents, still combing her hair with his fingers.
Red is biting her lip and regarding Adam. "I won't be able to work . . . like this," she says. "You're the one who's getting what you wanted."
"Fifteen is still too young to work for me, actually." Her jaw clenches mutinously and he smiles. "I'm glad we aren't going to be arguing about that, though. Wouldn't want to ruin your birthday."
"If this is how you apologize," Jess says, gun shifting restless and controlled in her hands, "y'all are even crazier than they told me."
Kris' makeshift tourniquet seems to have slowed the bleeding pretty well. "We aren't going to get anybody asking about those guys, are we?" Adam asks.
"Nah." Jess still has her tail dug into the sand, keeping her upright and steady. "They scattered after the warning shot."
Some of the tension leaves Kris. He leans into Adam's side and says, low, "We were on our way back from the pool house. She went ahead a little ways and when we got here they were already—"
"Sorry," Red says through her teeth.
Adam jabs his elbow into Kris' ribs. "Sorry they acted like animals? Yes, I see why you'd feel the need to apologize for a thing like that."
Her breath hitches, almost a laugh again. There are bloody hand-prints on the sand, Adam sees, and he lifts one of Kris' wrists, turns it over and finds the palm scraped raw, sand and sediment pressed in deep. His tail is scraped, too, and oozing in places. Kris looks up at him from under his eyelashes, and Adam stops asking himself what it says about him that as much as he'd like—really, he'd take great pleasure in the opportunity—to rip whoever did this to Red limb from limb, what he really wants to do right now is take Kris back up to the house and wash and soothe his hands and put him to sleep in the bathtub.
For fuck's sake. It isn't even nighttime.
"It's just from going up to the house," Kris mutters, pulling his hand away. "I thought—you know, I mean, quicker than taking the canal all the way around."
The doctor is coming around the side of the house, all sleek dark head and straight spine and sensible shoes as usual. She smiles her sticky red lipstick smile. She knows that Adam isn't actually human, but she's willing to pretend that she doesn't because she also knows that he's capable of doubling her usual fee. And paying in cash. Why she won't take the ruse a step further and let Kris impersonate Adam on the phone is a matter for greater or more twisted minds than Adam's; plausible deniability, Neil says, but Adam has to wonder if she really believes security will be interested in explanations if they ever take an interest in her.
Sometimes he almost thinks it isn't about the money after all. He wonders what she spends it on.
"Let's have a look," she says, and kneels beside little Red's mauled arm. Her touch is gentle. Red squeezes her eyes shut and holds onto Jess.
Adam shifts so that Kris slots closer under his arm, and holds on, too.
When Kris and Jess finally leave to get some sleep—and settle Red in—and Adam heads home to get some himself, he finds Ariel sitting cross-legged in the sand in front of his sliding doors.
Ariel is one of the few people on earth who can make Adam consider avoiding his own home for a while in the vain hope that she'll grow tired of the stunning ocean view and go away quietly. The other two people who make the list are the guy who keeps trying to buy his house and the guy who keeps trying to sell him vacuum cleaners, so she's in good company.
"Adam," she says brightly, getting to her feet and flashing a great deal of leg. Adam decided long ago that she's one of those people who are too preternaturally beautiful to know how to function properly. Her smile is whiter than a toothpaste ad and filled with genuine warmth, and Adam's exhaustion multiplies like a hydra's heads under a guillotine. Yes. This is just what today needed.
"I know I should have called ahead," she says earnestly; her eyes are made for earnestness, wide and imploringly blue, "you weren't even in, so I was stuck out here all morning, but I wanted to make sure that I caught you, so I—"
"How did you know I was out?" Adam says pleasantly. "I could have been inside and ignoring you."
She wrinkles her nose. "Adam."
"Don't do this." She takes everything so personally; that's her defining characteristic, really. "Please, can we just talk?"
"The thing is," Adam says doubtfully, "that we both already know how this conversation is going to go."
"Humor me," she says.
He hates the way she always ends up looking at him—a lot like Leila when she's disappointed, but she isn't his mother, and it's really just offensive. "If you don't mind wasting your time."
"I just—” She smiles hesitantly, inviting him to see things from her side. "Adam, I know that you wish we'd just leave you alone. I know, but—we can’t pretend that you aren’t in a position to do so much good."
"You mean making money, right?"
The look she tosses him is half frustrated, half-sad. Everything hurts her—the world and all of its problems hurt her, like, personally—and that means that he's supposed to feel guilty, for some fucked up reason that he's never quite been able to figure out. He's done explaining that it doesn't work that way, because she can't understand that. It's probably true that she'd want to fix her problems if she were him, but there's a fallacy in there somewhere that he can't be bothered to work out. He's the mer that all the humans know about—the freak baby abandoned at an orphanage with his tail surgically reconstructed into legs, no explanation attached; raised by humans, can go out and do what he wants as long as no one asks for his papers. To Ariel and her friends, that makes him some kind of emissary, some kind of bridge they can get people and mer to cross or meet halfway on or some shit.
Adam has other uses for his legs.
"Your clients," she says abruptly, pulling her hair onto her shoulder. It looks like a defensive gesture. "Are any of them important people?"
She cannot possibly be going there. "What the hell is your plan this time?"
A minute shrug and a wary eye, but she knows better than to lie, or to expect him to go along blindly. "Exposing the hypocrisy. Mer are supposed to be animals, but half the government uses you as fuck-toys. If we—"
"That is—” The most monumentally stupid idea they've had yet. He's surprised it's taken them this long to ask him for dirt. "Government PR campaigned for fucking years to get the public to see us as oversexed animals, and you want to fight that by—what, sending out leaflets demonstrating in graphic detail how we let them—"
"Hey, free advertising for you," she says, loud and high and clipped. "People don't exactly think that you're oversexed animals, Adam. Most people don't think about you at all. It's been almost thirty years since the takeover and it's not like mer come into the city anymore to—to—but if there's a scandal, then there's visibility, then maybe we can get people asking questions for once instead of just accepting the interest from their monthly investments while half the ocean peoples are dying out, you stupid—"
"And let me tell you what happens next," Adam offers generously, because the effects on, oh, actual mer don't seem to have been factored into this plan. It's very close to the first thing she'd ever asked of him—to come to an underground rally and tell his story to humans, like the only reason the Board gives him so much freedom isn’t that his challenge to them consists entirely of life-altering orgasms at bargain prices. "The day after you expose whomever you choose," he says, "the government will crack down on prostitution. If we’re lucky, we all get out in time and we can go and live with the rest of the mer clinging to survival out at sea."
"Right," she nods, "right, because it's not like anyone ever attacks you these days. No, they're totally safe." So it isn't just a coincidence that she's here today. She doesn't look away from his raised eyebrows; she sets her jaw firmly. "And it's not, " she says, gaze plain and direct, "like we aren't already the second generation since the Board was established, and it's not like as time goes by it's going to get harder and harder to do anything to fight them."
"And it's not like you're human," Adam says slowly, "and don't carry any of the risks of this plan yourself. Oh, wait."
"Because I can just say sorry if I get caught, right?" She shakes her hair back and it catches the light, the yawning, stretching rays of the sun as it lifts over the horizon and dapples them with cool shadow and threads of gold. "You're already playing into the party line about mer, with your . . . business. Don't tell me off for exploiting the same weakness you do for better cause."
Better cause? Better fucking cause.
"I didn't mean that," she says urgently, wide-eyed again. She's perpetually wide-eyed, and yet, somehow, she still can't see for shit. "I didn't mean that, I just meant—"
Just living a day at a time isn't a good enough cause, apparently. Adam looks at her for a minute, walks past her, and slides the door shut behind him.
He wakes up restless in the morning. He usually takes forever to fall into sleep and to pull out of it, not in a bad way, but, like, he enjoys the slow morning ritual of getting up and putting himself together. Today the sun is warm on his toes, but the idea of getting out of bed is vaguely fraught, a prickly, out-of-sight feeling that there’s something waiting for him that he isn’t in any hurry to get to. And yet. Sleep is not coming back for him. Sleep is already gone, out and about in the day. He kicks the sheet off his legs and stares at his ceiling.
“Fuck,” he says out loud, for no real reason that he can think of.
Breakfast is coffee and pineapple yogurt. He usually meets Kris for lunch, but Kris will probably sleep late today and then stay with Red for a while; she’s at the pool house, in one of the luxury Jacuzzis, keeping her bandaged arm dry on doctor’s orders. God. Mer medicine must have a completely different way of dealing with these things, but Adam doesn’t know anyone who knows what it is; Kris always looks doubtful and makes helpless grasping gestures with his hands and explains shamefacedly that he never got hurt badly as a kid. Adam washes his spoon and mug and heads outside.
He still has those humans from the beach to worry about, because George fucking hates it when humans get interested in Adam’s singing. It never used to be a problem, back when he could recognize maybe three mer total and the only people who knew him were his friends.
Pissing off George is kind of funny, though.
He hears Red laughing before he sees her. The pool house is bigger than it looks, which is the point, actually; public pools outside and rooms at ground level, mer waiting for clients below. And carefully disguised escape routes through the water pipes that he’s ninety percent certain the Board doesn’t know about even with Andersen’s weekly appointments. It’s roomy inside, and attractively tiled, and sound carries across it very well when the doors aren’t carefully secured.
She says, “I’m just saying, I’m hurt, I should only have to look at nice things.”
“Hey,” Kris says, “I’m very nice.”
“You have bags under your eyes,” she says accusingly. “You don’t get enough sleep. You need eight hours, you know. You know? They told us that in school. Don’t doubt my teachers. Are you doubting my teachers, Kris?”
Kris doesn’t say anything. Adam pictures him shaking his head at her with affection and cautious doubt of her sanity.
She snorts. Loudly. “I hate not knowing how long I’m gonna be stuck here.”
“I know,” Kris says.
“Can I whine to you? Is that okay? Because I kind of hate everything right now, so. . .” She trails off.
“You can whine,” Kris says. “I should have brought a book.”
“I—You’re lucky you didn’t. You have to pay attention when I’m whining, bitch. Or else I’ll do something violent.”
“I don’t know if it counts as whining when it’s like, oh, man, I’m so pissed off that some guys attacked me,” Kris says. “Maybe. I don’t really know about these things.”
“I’m not. . . .” She stops. “These things happen.”
There’s a long pause.
“Um, no,” Kris says. “They don’t.”
A blank silence this time, longer, stretching out for painful seconds, and then a messy splashing and muffled, violent, “I hate—”
“I know,” Kris says inaudibly. Her laugh sounds wetly on the tile.
“I’ve been on land practically my whole life, you know? And most of the time it’s just the way it is. But sometimes it feels like a game, like we’re trying to pull something on them.”
Kris very awkwardly doesn’t say anything.
“Whatever, man,” she mumbles. “Give me another hug.”
The truth is that Red doesn’t even seem young most of the time, and Adam doesn’t actually feel the need to shelter her from most things. But he doesn’t want her to work for him. She’d told him a year ago that she thought she’d be good at it, and honestly, she was probably right.
She smiles radiantly at Adam as he comes through the door. “Yo! Music man! I’ve been waiting for you to show up.”
“Here I am,” he says. Kris smiles at him. Red is gripping Kris’ hand tightly. “Let the games begin.”
“Games!” She sits up straighter. “I like games.”
“Don’t be mad,” Adam says, “but I wasn’t being literal.”
She gives him the puppy dog eyes. “I’m hurt. I should have games.”
“She should have games,” Kris agrees, nodding. A sly smile lurks at the corners of his eyes.
If Red needs someone to talk to later, Adam is going to make absolutely certain to be there. “Be grateful I’m not dragging you to school.” He takes a seat at her other side, across from Kris, who is looking at Red again but still smiling a little sideways smile at Adam with every other glance. “Neil says you should feel free to come in any time you feel up to it.”
“I’m hurt,” she says, aghast. “I shouldn’t have to go to school.”
“You’re safe here,” Kris says soothingly. “I won’t let them take you.”
Adam looks down at her arm and doesn’t say a word.
At lunch, Adam orders three kinds of salad because he doesn’t feel like picking one, and Kris orders two thick pastrami sandwiches, and they take the food over to the pier and watch workers in gray coveralls unload red and blue crates onto the dock. Kris is kind of quiet the whole way over, kind of in his own head, swimming in small circles in the canal while he waits for Adam and nodding without saying anything when Adam asks if he wants to eat by the water.
Adam doesn’t want to push him, but he actually does want to talk, energy pushing up uncomfortably into his throat. Are you worried? he wants to ask. Can you tell me about your work? Should I let Red work for me? Do you wish you could sing more?
“So,” Kris says suddenly, drawing the word out long, cocking his head and raising his eyebrows and looking up at Adam. “How was last night?”
Adam stares at him. “What the fuck, Kris.”
Adam looks down at him and feels the muscles high in his shoulders, in his neck, slowly uncoil. “It was great,” he says. “Until I got back.” He tilts his head back and slumps back on his hands. “Those bastards ruined my night.”
Kris half-smiles and tosses the crumpled paper from his sandwich over to the trash can a few feet down the pier. It lands neatly inside with a swish.
Adam's days don't have a set routine at all, but there are things that he makes sure that he does: chat up George, meet with his accountant, deal with problems and concerns that range from getting cell phones for all the mer to updating the security detail. It isn't scheduled, but very little of what happens to him is unanticipated.
He does not, however, expect to hear his own disembodied voice rocking out when he goes to pick up Neil from the school for dinner with their mom.
Dinner with Mom is another ritual that Adam likes. There's something very life affirming in the knowledge that there's nobody on earth he'd rather have as his mother—and that he could have had someone else. He could have been picked up by anyone, grown up as anything, could have been left in a trash bin to die. He could have been left with his birth parents.
Adam grew up around people who know how to cope. And showered him with love, but the coping thing is pretty important, considering.
Neil's officemate Meg is playing something from Adam's metal phase. She smirks when she sees his face and turns it up louder.
"Hi, dumbass," she says cheerfully.
On the one hand, Adam's family and friends comfort him with the knowledge that not everyone who resists the Board is a moron. This school is important, even if it doesn't feel as kickass on a visceral level as the time Ariel and Neil convinced a bunch of mer to commandeer a ship from port, repaint it inside and out with the Fish Food comic strips that had gotten the artist thrown in jail, and leave it stranded three miles out at sea.
On the other hand, Neil is such an ass.
"How long has he been passing this stuff out around behind my back?"
"Oh, god, years, I guess." She bounces her head in time to the music, doing something with an intimidating array of numbers on her laptop. "This is my pump-me-up-for-looming-deadlines music. Oh, and Neil's in a meeting with a parent, if you're curious."
"I figured he's just permanently out to lunch."
"That too." She looks up quickly, grinning. "You want to wait for a bit? There are some people here who'd love to see you."
Adam eyes her sideways.
"No, really. And bring Kris next time, everyone wants to meet him now that you've started recording more collab stuff. People really—” She stops, glancing around him, smirks alarmingly, and raises her voice to call, "Michelle! You like this song, right?"
Collab stuff? They've sung backup for each other a few times, messed around with the instrumentation on each other's songs, offered advice. Adam has had more time to focus on music since he started making more money, and Kris buys black market water-safe guitars more frequently than he buys vegetables, so it's really just a natural—
"Holy shit," says Michelle—whoever she is. She gapes at him, and it's an entirely different kind of gaping than yesterday's shopping tourist. Adam grins.
"She's new," Meg says, typing again.
Michelle blushes. "You're—you're amazing," she says, and seems to mean it.
"My hero," Meg says.
Michelle blinks up at him. "And even the way you live your life, I mean, no one fucks with you, you know? The Board thinks they have mer all figured out and then you go and totally play the system and now you're like totally rich even though you can’t invest with the Board—” She says all this very quickly and then looks mortified and cuts herself off.
"You've very sweet," Adam says. Meg is smiling at him like his attempt at graciousness is the most adorable motherless kitten to ever land in her office.
"Autographs later," she says. "I have to get back to work, M."
"Oh, yeah, sorry, I—” Michelle backs away, flustered.
She so has not ever come to see him sing before. She is one hundred percent Neil’s fault, and Adam has to wonder if all the people in this place are idealists who make his stupid (okay, not stupid) hobby into something he never meant it to be. It would be so, so fucked up if George ever found out that Adam is slowly, accidentally turning into a symbol of the revolution.
Meg shakes her head and says as she pecks away at the keyboard, "You know what's really annoying about you and Ariel? She doesn't even have to encourage that shit, and you won't stop punishing her for it." She pauses, tilts her head and regards Adam. "Sit down, dude. I know it sucks to be you, I'm not going to yell at you."
Adam throws himself into a chair. Yes, thank you, Meg, for pointing out how difficult and dangerous it is to be mer. I wouldn't happen to be mer or anything. I wouldn't happen to have tripled my own security over the past six months because humans have finally started to realize just how much they can get away with.
Adam had been five when the Board had passed the first legal resolution that explicitly classed mer as animals rather than people. His parents' house had been full of yelling and frantic arguing, everyone accusing everyone else of overreacting or of not reacting enough. Adam remembers terse discussion and shouted words like 'de facto control of their resources' and 'profit margin' and 'segregation.'
Actually, he remembers thinking that the illegal sex ruling seemed kind of pointless; what the hell kind of mer would want to sleep with one of them? (As a five-year-old, the phrasing had been closer to Eh?, and he isn't sure, really, how his mom had explained what everyone was so pissed off about when he'd asked, but that was the sentiment in a nutshell.)
It hadn't occurred to five-year-old him to wonder what kind of human would want to sleep with a mer; apparently, even in his five-year-old mind it hadn't been too far a jump from raping the oceans to . . . whatever a human would get out of the sex, which he'd been a little fuzzy on, seven years before puberty.
He wishes he could remember more from those days. Not puberty, which had been awkward and disgusting in practice and painfully embarrassing to anticipate from the moment his mom had thought to worry how his surgically-altered body would handle sexual maturity. (Verdict: His body is a fan.)
So, not puberty, he doesn't need to relive that, but he does wish he could go back and take a closer look at what had been going on in the background, when the Board was still relatively new to power, still clumsy with it.
He's having the strangest sense of déjà vu, these past few days.
The next morning, Kris breaks into Adams house obscenely early and calls upstairs to tell him that they have to stay in for lunch. (The canals are still unblocked through most of the west side of the city, and mer aren't an uncommon sight there—not since Adam started bringing them into the city to work, anyway—so sometimes they eat out.)
"Okay," Adam says, blinking at the clock on his bedside table. "That's it, I'm getting you guys cell phones. Is my couch all sandy again?"
He can hear Kris moving around downstairs.
"Now it is."
"Oh, fuck you, Kris. What are you, two?"
Kris chuckles, pleased with himself. "Yeah, I'm two. Also, I wanted to talk to you."
There’s—something. Behind that laugh. Adam feels like he’s missing something possibly important here, but he’s entitled. It’s like seven in the morning. "You were already," he says slowly, "talking to me."
"You were falling asleep. Now you're wide awake."
Adam falls back on his pillows and covers his eyes with his hands and does not go stumbling down the stairs to crush Kris into the couch and grind sand into his unmentionable places. It's too much work to be pissed off. "I'm going to shower."
"Yeah, you do that." It sounds like Kris is already eating. "I'll put up some toast for you, 'kay?"
Adam lets the phone go. He really is an uncharacteristic pushover when it comes to Kris; not that he particularly cares about being a hard-ass with everyone else or anything, but he's a leader by nature, not a follower. He’s not entirely sure how this—how it even happened, actually. Kris has worked for Adam for two years now, and Adam has a hard time picturing (outside of his own fantasies, but there's a distinct element of fantasy there) Kris actually doing any of the things Adam is in a good position to know that he does, with panache, on a regular basis.
But he doesn’t even think about it when Kris is around. Somehow it becomes—tangential. Background.
Peripheral to Kris reading the back of a cereal box on and reclining in the tub in Adam's kitchen, splashing rhythmically with his tail. Adam's toast is done just how he likes it (crusty but still soft in places). Kris likes cooking, even if he looks ridiculous pushing up on his tail so he can reach the stove, and even if he has trouble explaining in English what the mer equivalent out at sea is like—they don't cook, obviously, but apparently they don't just, like, eat seaweed salad, either. He's sprawled on his stomach now, tail undulating above the ceramic, soft gunmetal gray on white. He looks over his shoulder at Adam and smiles.
Adam retrieves his plate and goes to sit at the table, on the side next to Kris. There’s half a grapefruit left out for him, too. Kris rolls onto his back and stuffs a handful of sugared flakes in his own mouth.
"So, I'm getting you a phone," Adam says, settling back. At least there aren't any new scrapes on Kris' hands or tail. As hilarious as it looks when he drags himself around on land, it really isn't worth that. "And a key, just in case you ever feel the need to break into my house again."
"I didn' brea' in." Kris chases his cereal with orange juice and swallows. "Um. You have a spare key? In the mailbox? I don't exactly know how to, you know, pick locks and stuff."
"Right." Kris clearly isn't even trying to be disgusting with the cereal. Actually, there’s something mechanical about the way he’s taking in mouthfuls one after the other, something that pings disquietingly in Adam’s gut. "You had something to tell me?"
Kris nods. He puts the box down on the table and straightens.
Then he stares down into the water and doesn't say anything. What the fuck.
"Yeah, um." Kris' tail flicks around awkwardly for a bit. Adam doesn't know whether to be more alarmed or irritated that he won't just spit it out. "Something . . . happened today, you know, I mean last night. At the pool house because—I mean, I was working, and, yeah."
Fear crawls up the inside of Adam's throat with cold feet. They never talk about work. "What happened?"
"Nothing happened," Kris says quickly. "Not—" He looks away. "Not yet."
"Not yet," Adam repeats.
"Yeah, so, that's something to be thankful for." Adam can barely make out what he's saying. "I don't know. Just—I don't know what to do." He takes a deep breath and then says, oddly, like he has the words memorized but can't really figure out what they mean in English, “Andersen wants to give me legs and take me to live with him."
Adam takes a moment to figure out what the hell Kris is talking about. "Give you legs?"
"Yeah, um, like—” He gestures vaguely in Adam's direction. "They've been studying you, so they know—I mean, they think they know—"
"Give me," Adam says distinctly, "a second."
He doesn't hear what Kris says next. Andersen wants Kris. That—really shouldn’t be this surprising. But. It doesn't make sense. Adam wants Kris, but that's different; Kris never seems surprised by other people and the things they choose to be, and is there when Red needs him, and makes perfect toast and knows where Adam keeps his spare key even though Adam has never told him. What the fuck would Andersen do with any of that?
Kris is also a whore, of course. So, there’s that.
And yes, if he opens his mind to it for once, Adam can see quite clearly what Kris must be like when he's somewhere other than here; what he'd do—has done—for Andersen; why it makes sense for him to have ended up here, working for Adam, in the first place.
He probably does almost anything. Just like he’s easy to talk to, offering up unclassifiable noises and looks that urge you on without actually needing to mean anything like what you think they do—he’s probably easy to fuck. Easy to get lost in fucking. You could make Kris do anything, be anything you needed him to be, bend him like soft clay into any shape you wanted.
As long as you never left marks for Adam to see.
If Andersen wants Kris, Andersen is going to have him. It's just that apparently Andersen likes some illusion of free will in the people he fucks. So Kris is still here, for now.
And then, just as an aside, there’s the fact that Adam is going to have to kill George with excruciating slowness and utmost pain. Because George had fucking known. He had to have known, when Adam was blathering about fucking music, when George made his snide little comment about pretty faces, he had to have already known that Andersen was planning something like this, and if they're going to regularly hang out together for the sake of gathering information on each other, this—warning for this—is the one thing Adam would like to get out of it.
His insides knot up, cord themselves painful and tight. "What did you tell him?" he asks finally. Kris stops pursing and un-pursing his lips and jumps.
"That I'll think about it."
Adam nods. "You'd better have just been bullshitting him, because that isn't happening."
Kris makes an uncertain face. Uncertain. He should be afraid—really afraid, not this nerves-tinged indecision. It isn't like Adam being afraid for him covers it for both of them. Kris should be putting together a plan, because Andersen is one of the most powerful men in a government that exists solely to exercise its own power.
Kris should be gathering himself for a fight.
But then again, if there's anything Kris has shown himself willing to fight for, this has never been it. This is what he does. Adam, of all people, should understand that, considering that it's something that he obviously considers worth doing for the right price, or at least worth getting paid for helping other people do. Which, granted, it's not like he hasn't gotten this house out of it, amongst other things, and it's not like Kris would have the time or the resources to laze around for large portions of the day listening to music if he had to scavenge for food and avoid fishermen, like the mer further from the coast.
But. This. This would be—this would be Kris, chaining himself to be someone's . . . toy. This would be going away with the man who until now has had to come and ask for what he wants.
They want to take his fucking tail.
Adam hasn't ever known anything but legs, but when he's in the water, his skin breathes it in and his thighs slot together and propel him as if they know what to do without being told. His parents took him swimming at the beach as often as they could when he was a kid, let him play in the bathtub for hours as a baby because he grew stiff and panicked at being taken out, but even if he didn't have his own experience as empirical evidence, it would still be fucked up to think that being mer is something that you can lose with some surgery and skin treatments—that being saddled with a body that isn’t yours, that you wouldn’t choose, is in any way okay.
"Look," Kris says tiredly.
"Let me take care of it." He doesn't even think about the words before they leave his mouth, reassuring and capable. They startle him, but they aren't wrong. Kris generally has to make life choices out of an array of options that's even smaller than Adam's, but Adam has been good at sharing since kindergarten, even if it's not something they really encourage in schools anymore. Kris doesn't want to go with Andersen, even if he isn't afraid to; that much, Adam can tell. "Do you want to go with Andersen?" he asks, just in case he's wrong about that.
Kris looks torn between finding the question hilarious and revolting. "No freaking way," he says.
Adam can't really be flippant at the moment. "Then I'll take care of it. Okay?"
Kris bobs easily in the water, considering Adam. Say yes, Adam thinks. Kris' lips are parted slightly, whatever he wants to say stuck just inside his mouth. He's looking at Adam intently, and suddenly it's all so ridiculous—that this is what they are. Adam wants to kiss Kris so badly he can barely breathe.
Kris drops his eyes and says, quietly, "Thank you." And then, looking up again slant-ways: "Do I want to know?"
Adam shrugs. "When are you seeing him again?"
"In a week, I think." His mouth tightens, jutting his lower lip into an absurd pout. "And maybe don't throw any more concerts in the meantime."
"What do you mean?" Adam asks. He takes a careful bite of toast. He chews, and swallows, and sets the toast down again neatly on his plate.
"Shut up, I know George told you they’re pissed off about that. You can’t afford that kind of attention." Kris grimaces and lets himself fall a little, sinking up to his shoulders into the water's embrace. "They had a, you know, a raid last week, they arrested like a bunch of people, and he didn't tell me, I mean, details or anything, but your music was playing when they got there—"
Later, Adam is probably going to be angry about that. For now, he excuses himself and goes into the other room to call Ariel.
"Hello?" she says on the fourth ring, a little out of breath, busy and important and warm.
"Hi," Adam says. "It's Adam. I'll give you one name."
It doesn't go quite as planned.
George is busy, or out, or practicing avoidance when Adam goes to see him that afternoon; Adam cheerfully announces that he can wait, and stays to talk to Freddi and Al instead. Freddi is unusually tight-lipped, and Al is, as always, a total prick.
“I think I blame your parents,” Adam tells him thoughtfully. He blames Freddi’s more; he’s always been sure that she feels very righteous despising him, doubly so when she’s pleasant about it. He can probably blame her parents’ parents, too.
Al, on the other hand, is really very maladjusted and should probably be hugged much more often than he is. Al slams a handful of folders down on his desk. “Shut the fuck up about my parents.”
“You talk to your mother with that mouth?” Adam says. “Oops.”
“Look, you parasite—”
“Hey,” Adam says sharply. Parasite? Like working isn’t actually illegal for him. Fuck it, Al would never call a human who pissed him off a parasite.
Freddi puts a hand on Al’s arm. Adam takes the opportunity to center himself. He admires her hands; they’ve swapped nail care tips before. She uses gorgeous, complicated decals that she makes herself.
“For the fifth time, we don’t have time for you today, Lambert,” Al says much more calmly, settling into his chair and not looking at anyone. “So piss off. I don’t know why you’re still here.”
“Waiting for an opportune moment.” He follows Freddi over to her desk and leans on it for a bit, watching her work. She’s absorbed enough in what she’s doing to ignore him, though Al is still throwing him angry looks. Adam sighs. Patience isn’t his strongest suit. “Freddi. Just tell me. Is he in or not?”
“Does it matter?” She glances up at him and shakes her head. “You aren’t seeing him either way. Not today. He’s very busy.”
“It matters,” Adam explains, “because I have to know whether it’s worth it to try to barge in anyway.”
Freddi is predictably startled. “Don’t.”
He looks at her. She stares back for all of two seconds before she tears her eyes away and tosses her hair irritably, back ramrod straight. “Cut it out.” Very nice, rapped out with authority, demanding obedience. “Don’t waste your energy making a scene.”
Adam takes a moment to answer to that. He props his chin on his hand and studies her; she looks back again, wary. “It would be much better not to,” he agrees finally. “But as adorable as you are, I wouldn’t actually come out here for the sole purpose of harassing you.”
She blinks at him, uncomprehending. Of course she doesn’t think anything of coming here. This is her place of work, her path in life, her choice and hopes and dreams all pinned on being accepted to the security program, working hard, and having two personal assistants protect her privacy one day while she does important things in the back office. She’s somehow failed to notice that she’s been stuck in the same job for five years.
“Step the fuck off, you fucking fish.” Al speaks quietly for once. The venom in his voice is low. It simmers.
“You’re cute too,” Adam assures him, and Al’s eyes flash behind his glasses. He’s so endearing. Like an angry kitten. Adam can’t imagine what reason Al has for hating so much, but he hopes it’s a good one.
“Al!” Yeah, there are going to be sensitivity training seminars if Freddi ever makes department head.
“What, he isn’t a fish?”
“What?” Al demands. He gets to his feet again, takes a step toward Adam. “He is, isn’t he? He’s a goddamn fish whore. Today, finally, they say to keep him out.” He looks at Adam, and there’s hate there, but mostly he’s looking at a bug on a pin. “Maybe this is the end of it for you, yeah? Maybe we’ve gotten all we can from you. Maybe I won’t have to see you walking around here like you belong anymore, and maybe I’m going to be so fucking glad for the chance to take you apart.”
Adam stands very still.
It’s really very startling to discover that with all of the questions that he’d come here to ask (Why didn’t you warn me? Whom have they been experimenting on? What the fuck is this really about?) the only answer he needs is that George isn’t going to see him today.
Al is gazing at Adam, lip curled, smug, waiting for him to react. Adam is used to bluntness from George—casual assessments of how much Adam is worth on any given day; appraisal of how he’d survive out at sea, where mer usually starve or get caught in machinery or tuna nets or die from cold, sunlight choked away in thick oil spills. Not that Adam believes that bullshit propaganda. They aren’t all dead. Kris says there are whole colonies that have managed to relocate, intact.
But work must be going well?
Adam has always known that his freedom is an illusion. This is his home, but it would eat him alive without thinking twice, strip the meat from his bones and toss them away. The people he loves, the things they can and would do for him, aren’t enough to offset that. George likes him, and that’s why he’s been left alone. Period. George likes him. Adam feels sick. George probably likes having one person around he knows will never, ever be a threat to him. Gives him a chance to be himself or something.
And Al, watching him with narrowing eyes—Al who knows Adam, who got drunk with him once and let Adam take him home and tuck him into bed while he cried about how much he hates being lactose fucking intolerant or something—Al has always known, too. All he has to do is wait long enough to get his chance.
“You know, you aren’t that cute,” Adam says coolly, and leaves without stopping to see their faces—Al triumphant, probably, Freddi sinking back into her work, George back in his office, behind closed doors that only open from the inside.
So, this is a crisis now. Fuck.
Kris lives in a medium-sized nest of rocks that are perfectly aligned for both trapping heat inside and letting breezes through. Kris calls it his cave and uses it as proof that he needs a raise, but there's a second story underwater and Adam pays him plenty. Paid him plenty.
The cave part is Kris' music room, and he's in there, curled around his favorite guitar, straightening up and smiling at Adam and that, yes, that is what makes Adam stupid, that smile. George couldn't have made it any fucking clearer that he knows every move that Adam makes, and Adam doesn't know whether to read that as a threat or as a friendly warning, but either way, Adam had wanted Kris safe and hadn't thought it through.
"Hey," Kris grins at him, and slips off the rocks and into the water to swim closer to Adam. And as always, everything else retreats, and he's all Adam can see, and Adam might almost be convinced that he would be worth this if this had done anything but ruin a fairly large number of lives.
"Hey." Adam settles cross-legged on a patch of moss, and Kris looks up at him questioningly. They're friends, or they've never been friends; Adam can't separate loving Kris from wanting him. It’s a good thing. It fills in the corners of every time they look at each other. They're friends, because Kris works for him, because Kris spends most nights fucking and probably prefers doing other things in his downtime, because Adam doesn't know how to broach the subject and has never really been sure that he wanted to.
"I fucked up," he says, watching Kris, whose face is almost a caricature of puzzlement and concern, and the really revelatory thing is that Kris doesn't work for Adam anymore, because that's all over, because Adam fucked up really, really badly, and before he can think better of it he kicks off his shoes and wriggles out of his pants and shirt and hops off his rock.
The water is cool and close and buoyant, like a low-rolling cloud. He circles around without bothering to surface and finds Kris inside it, runs his hands along the smooth muscle of Kris' tail; Kris pulls him up by his hands, tail shifting and rolling against Adam's knees and thighs. Kris doesn't know whether to smile or whether to ask for answers, Adam can tell, and Adam cups Kris' face in his hands and kisses him.
Kris freezes against his mouth—just for a second. Then Adam's tongue touches his; then Kris’ mouth opens hotly and with a soft half-strangled sound he slides both hands up into Adam’s hair and oh fucking god, oh fucking god it’s so fucking fucking good—
He tastes Kris’ mouth, salty and sweet, cradles his head in his hands and kisses him harder, burning hot in the cool water, feels Kris’ hands spread on his hips, scrapes the roof of Kris’ mouth with his tongue, hard, harder on the dull points of his teeth, moist and warm. Kris’ knuckles are pressing into Adam’s ass, his flukes and tail twisting and brushing all the way down the length of Adam’s body, his mouth opening wider and filled with trickles of sea water that drip in lines down Adam’s tongue.
It's like drowning, probably, if either of their bodies knew how to drown; they're falling below the surface, water hemming them in and it feels like privacy. Kris arches, the line of his body drawing Adam after him; Adam pulls back a little to see him. His eyes are wide open and shocked, and Adam strokes the curve of his tail, firm springy muscle under his fingers. Kris closes his eyes, swallows, and lets Adam pull him close, settle him between his thighs.They're still sinking, uncaring, and Adam leans forward and licks a trail of bubbles from Kris' collarbone. They burst on his tongue. Kris' hands jerk on Adam's shoulders and that—that, that's the alarm bell in Adam's head.
He lifts his hands to Kris' face again. He can't help it. He takes Kris’ hands and tugs upward, but they’re kissing again on their way up, lips and tongue and Adam feels himself falling into it again, Kris smiling against his lips as Adam kisses him one more time, and again, and again, softly, as the warm air breaks around them.
"I know." Adam wants to smile. Kris is looking at him carefully, painted with water and light, still pressing himself to Adam, smiling a tiny smile with one side of his mouth. "But I really did fuck up."
"I tried to help Ariel blackmail Andersen," Adam says, stroking his thumb along Kris' lower lip, spreading fat droplets of water into a thin sheen across Kris' mouth. "But they're going to know it was me. And George wouldn't see me when I went to talk to him today."
Kris' lips purse, and Adam's thumb rolls against them; Kris opens his mouth and strokes it with his tongue. He stares at Adam, thinking, and sucks, and then lets Adam's finger fall from his mouth. "We have to run," he says.
"I think so."
"All of us."
Adam nods. They've been experimenting on mer, obviously, if Andersen was confident enough to offer Kris legs; maybe Adam himself was some long-ago prototype, abandoned when they thought he'd gone wrong, someone with a conscience leaving him somewhere he’d be found. And if they've been experimenting, it's because they see some profit in mer who can survive on land. Adam isn't going to leave anyone to that who wants to leave.
Kris rises up unexpectedly and presses one more kiss to Adam's lips, hard. When Adam looks at him, his expression is resigned, but he does smile. "I've always wanted to show you my home, too," he says.
When they were growing up, Ariel’s house had been practically interchangeable with Adam’s own. He’d loved her family, a surplus of older sisters who always seemed to be off doing things, or on their way back from doing things, or interrupting his and Ariel’s fights in exasperation of amusement just when they were getting good. There were usually a couple around who could be corralled and convinced with some effort to sit and watch the shows he and Ariel proudly put together several times a day, which was easier than constantly nagging at their parents.
And then Ariel had gotten old enough for school, and Adam hadn't been allowed to go, of course. He went next door sometimes anyway when he got bored with being alone in the house, digging around in the dress-up box by himself or sitting in on whatever the older sisters were doing. That's how he'd taken up yoga.
They’ve never been friends as adults. Her apartment is strange to him, full of pretty furniture he's never seen before, pictures on the tables that have nothing to do with the kid he'd known. It's still more or less what he'd have expected—graceful, neat, small. The curtains remind him of the ones her sister Adela had put in when she'd decided that the living room blinds were too ugly to be allowed. There's a bowl of green grapes on the table, and he remembers her father setting out fresh fruit and vegetables for snacking.
It all seems like it would take more effort than you'd expect from someone who's supposedly busy saving the world.
Ariel stares into the box of pictures and video. She lifts one, turns it the right way up so she can see it properly, purses her lips at the image and shakes her head and manages to look disgusted and appreciative at the same time. Adam had expected this to be harder to watch, but he's going to be far away when she starts making use of all the material he's giving her now, and he finds himself enjoying her expression instead.
"Have fun, now," he says.
There's a pause while she continues to gaze at the sheaf of papers in her hand, and then she lifts her eyes slowly to his. She doesn't say anything.
"George keeps tabs on me," Adam says. "More so than I thought. It makes sense to assume that he does the same to you, so when you do make your move, you'd better make sure you'll be able to follow through on it."
She nods. "You've had this for a while," she says, spreading her fingers on top of the box. Adam raises an eyebrow.
"Of course." He hadn't expected to use it, ever, but he hadn't jumped into this work without making sure he had some kind of leverage. He's had this all along. "The originals are in there, but I thought you'd want to see what you have to work with."
She nods again, a pleased smile beginning to lift the corners of her mouth, but she seems to lose the thread all over again when she glances up at him. He can't blame her. What can she possibly have to say to him about this? He's giving her everything because he no longer has anything to lose.
She stops him, though, when he turns to go.
"Does it help to know," she says softly, moving closer, looking up into his face, "that we really are going to take these bastards down?"
He stills as the words hit him. But it's too soon; he can't really think in those terms yet. He says, "Do me a favor and take care of my family?" He'd warned his mother when he went to say goodbye. It's all he'd had time for, but she knows how to take care of herself, knows how to—
"Of course we will," Ariel says.
Kris has been busy while Adam was with Ariel. Groups of mer throng the beach, weighted down with supplies. The sand is cool and grainy where it slips between Adam’s toes as he makes his way down towards them. Adam hadn’t even known what to bring; food, yes, he’d need food, but not clothes, which seems like a shame, but they’re going to be living underwater, and he can be practical about that. He’s sort of annoyed at how much he sucks at packing; he’s always basically just dumped half his wardrobe into a couple of bags and figured out what he needed later, but that isn’t going to cut it here. He has some eyeliner wrapped in plastic and tucked into his pocket, because it’s waterproof, and a couple of bottles of nail polish. And money, he’d decided at the last minute.
Red’s hair is like a beacon, and Adam thinks he sees Kris with her, helping her. They’re too far ahead, but he’ll catch up with them once they stop tonight.
He keeps walking.
The water is choppy today, the breeze whipping the surface to a minor frenzy. The tide is on its way out, and the waves rock and roll ahead into the horizon.
It looks—fathomless. Light bounces off its angles and disappears into the air, and Adam can't see five inches deep; it's a murky, endless stretch in every direction.
Anything can happen now, Adam tells himself. We might fight. We might have to. We might even win. Whoever we are.
He goes to meet the sea.