Once upon a time, in a land far from here, in a time when people still believed in magic and even miracles were possible... Oh, seriously, who am I kidding? You didn't believe a word of that, I know you didn't, even without seeing the look on your face. You're all 'once upon a time blah blah blah, heard that one before, the usual bunch of crap', and frankly, I don't blame you. You know how many stories start with 'once upon a time'? Okay, I don't have a clue, but I can guess. Millions, probably. Or billions even, if you count the nonsense you and every other kid wrote that started once upon a time there was a beautiful princess, except you probably wrote bootiful, and if you're a guy, your story was all about a dashing prince who did way cool things like kill dragons and eat junk food all day. The point is, how many of those are actually true? Yeah, exactly. Talk about an overdone cliché, and an opening line guaranteed to make sure no one believes a word of your story.
My story's true though. Or his story, I should say. Or, actually, their story. But that's jumping the gun.
Let's start again. There's this little village, up north somewhere — yes, I'm being vague, not because it doesn't exist, but because I don't want you all rushing up there, hiring boats, and heading out to find, well, you'll see what there is to find by the end — and, it isn't that people there use magic all the time, or even very often at all, but there's something slightly different in the air. Nothing you can point to and say hah, that's it, but travelers passing through will sometimes shiver, and sometimes hurry up to get out of there, and sometimes one might pause a while, not entirely sure why, but certain somehow that they've found somewhere special. They usually stay, though there aren't so many of them that the village ever grows much bigger. It's a cozy sort of village, nestling in a little cove with big cliffs on either side of it. There are springy downs on top of the cliffs, covered in heather and riddled with rabbit holes, where the village children (and dogs) love to play. The village seems to fit nicely into the little cove, not too big for it and not too small. There's a dinky little harbor and jolly looking fishing boats, mostly bright blue, because the village store had a great deal on blue paint one time, and there's an inn (of course) and a small square with a few hardy purple and blue and orange pansies in wooden tubs, and lots of whitewashed cottages with bright blue shutters that match the boats (it really was a good deal on the paint).
Anyway, the point I'm meandering around isn't really the village, it's someone in the village. This someone is a fisherman, which in itself doesn't distinguish him from many of the other men in the village because 68% of the men in the village are fishermen. (Only 0.4% of the woman are, because feminism isn't that big there, and women get to stay at home, have babies and cook the fish, apart from Frieda who lives alone, wears pants, has her hair cut short, and goes out fishing. But that's a whole other story, and you've only paid for one, so one you're getting.) Back to our fisherman: he's particularly handsome (yes, it's that kind of story — he's the hero, and he's handsome, deal), and he's very tall, easily four inches taller than the next tallest man in the village, and his hair is almost white. Not white with age because he's not that old — twenty-five, maybe a year or two older — just really blond, and his eyes are blue, almost exactly the color of the boats and the shutters. No one else in the village has blond hair and blue eyes like his.
His name is Brad.
Brad isn't different from the rest of the fishermen in the village just because he's an exceptionally good-looking, hot, sex-on-legs, tautly-muscled, tattooed, Greek-god, (did I say sexy?) example of manhood. Though he is all that. And more. But Brad, like all the most fascinating heroes, has a mysterious background. He doesn't have a clue who his parents were, or how he ended up in the village (on the doorstep of the village baker, who took him in and brought him up, just in case you were wondering). So Brad didn't chose to become a fisherman for the same reason the other fishermen did, simply because his father was, but because he loves the sea more than anything. He wouldn't be able to explain why, most likely: it's just one of those things you know, without any rhyme or reason to it.
When Brad decided to become a fisherman, he took a two day hike, cut down a tree in the forest, dragged it home (okay, he borrowed a pony to help pull it — he's strong, not superman), and made a boat out of the tree.
I'll give you a moment to stop and think about that.
As you can imagine, his boat is kind of small in comparison with the others in the harbor, but it's a plucky little boat that's weathered storms that sent other fishermen scurrying back to safety. And, unlike most of the other boats, it isn't blue, but the rich dark brown of the tree he felled, kept glossy with varnish. On one side of the boat is its name, Victor One, and on the other is a small painting.
No, I didn't forget to tell you what it is. Jeez, have a bit of patience! You'll find out soon enough.
The other thing that's different about Brad is that he always fishes alone. There's room in his little boat for another fisherman, or even two if they were on the skinny side, and not the size of Manimal or his brother. Some of the lads in the village have asked if he'll take them on as an apprentice, but Brad refused. And others have asked him if he'll let them join him for a day's fishing — you're the best fisherman in the village, they say, which is perfectly true, but Brad isn't impressed by compliments, so he always says no. It's possible he would say yes to the village doctor, or the wise man, or even the harbormaster, but they've never asked, so we'll never know. It all adds up to the villagers thinking of him as a loner. That Brad, they say, he doesn't much like people.
And that's, well, true and not true. He doesn't have many friends in the village, and he doesn't particularly care for many of the people in the village, but it doesn't mean he likes being by himself all the time. The truth is, Brad's lonely.
Not that he'd admit it if anyone asked, and he certainly doesn't cry into his porridge in the morning, or write emo poetry about how lonely and misunderstood he is. If he were that kind of guy, frankly, I wouldn't be bothering to tell the story, because they're a dime a dozen and boring as hell. Brad barely even admits to himself that he's lonely, and he wouldn't consider himself unhappy. It's just that sometimes, when he's out in his boat and the weather's perfect, he wishes he had someone to share it with. Someone who'd appreciate beauty the same quiet way he does. The sort of someone he's never met.
It's okay, it's not going to be a hopelessly mushy story — you don't need to go hunt for your hankie.
But Brad's life gets really interesting one spring. Early spring after a long, hard winter, because the village really is pretty far north. Brad's been getting restless, cooped up for so long — even on days he did go out fishing, he couldn't risk going too far, certainly not out of sight of land, and that's one of the things he loves most about fishing, going so far there's no land in sight, nothing but the wide blue (or gray if it's a middling kind of day with not much sun) sea. It makes him feel lighter, somehow. Like he could throw off his shirt and run around with his arms out wide and be entirely free.
Did I mention the village is kind of staid? There's a preacher, Father Sixta, and although he has a face like a potato (and secretly Brad thinks he has the mentality to match his face), people listen to him, probably because he glares so much everyone's a little bit afraid. So there's no swearing in front of him — nor any other time because he's got a knack for creeping up on people — and everyone dresses properly every day of the week, not just Sundays, and even mustaches are always kept perfectly trimmed. It's probably the only village in the north where not a single fisherman has a beard, because Father Sixta has a very strict grooming standard.
Anyway, Brad's seriously relieved that the weather's looking good enough that he can go out for a full day's fishing. He gets up hours before it's light, packs himself some food (tuna sandwiches, a big chunk of fruitcake and two apples, in case you're curious, plus a couple of flasks, one hot, the other medicinal), and heads down to the harbor. There are lights on in some of the cottages already, but he's the first one out, which is the way he likes it.
He sings to himself as he sets off. He can't hold a tune, and he doesn't remember half the words, but only the seagulls can hear him, and it's a little-known fact that all seagulls are tone deaf, so it isn't really a problem. It's still dark, but Brad knows the harbor like the back of his hand, and he could steer his way out blindfolded, so that's not a problem either. And by the time he's gotten some distance out to sea, it's getting light enough that he can tell the difference between the water and the sky on the horizon. Brad watches the birds, and looks at the ocean, sees how the tide is flowing and the way the wind blows, breathes in deep, and makes his decision. West south west today.
No, I don't have a clue how he does it, but he knows where to find the fish. Maybe it's magic, maybe it's experience, maybe it's some trick he's not letting on — one thing I can tell you for sure, Brad's going to come back with a boat full of fish. I know it, and he most definitely knows it, judging by the cocky smile on his face.
The sun's been up for three hours before Brad slows his boat and casts his net. He pulls off his shirt (if you're all city folk or inlanders, or have never gone deep sea fishing, you may not realize that nets aren't dainty, lacy little concoctions: they're huge and heavy and made of sturdy, knotted rope, and even a guy as fit as Brad — and trust me, Brad's fit — is going to get sweaty handling one) and lets it fall on the deck.
After that, there's not a lot to do but sit on the deck in the sun, hum off-tune and munch one of his apples. He throws the core overboard when he's finished, and checks his net. He jiggles it a bit, tugs a bit more — or at least that's what it looks like — then gives a little nod of his head that means he's happy with the amount in the net, and starts hauling it in.
We'll bypass a blow-by-blow depiction of his rippling muscles as he's hauling in the net, or the story'll never move along. Just use your imagination, and then add some.
As more and more of the net lands on the deck, he slows down. He even pauses for a moment and wipes his brow (a few stray fish scales get stuck in his hair, but somehow it doesn't make him any less hot, which is really kind of maddening), then sets to again, his breath coming faster now, sweat glistening on his back.
The catch is huge, bigger even than Brad expected. His boat's low in the water with the weight of all the fish, and—something else.
Brad's had some weird catches. There was that freaky spotted eel thing he caught once, and a huge fish with a flat face and long whiskers that looked like a squashed cat (and didn't taste much better), and there was the time he found a head with long blonde hair, only thankfully it turned out to be a wooden figurehead. He's caught strange, eyeless fish and many-tentacled monsters, none of which have surprised him.
But this isn't a fish and it isn't a monster (probably). There's pale skin visible underneath the squirming fish, and, even more telling, a white hand clasped tight. A very human-looking hand.
Brad opens the net almost tentatively, and lets the fish slide to one side, forgotten, even though they're his livelihood. A lean, delicately muscled torso comes into view, no injuries visible, but completely still. Brad steps in closer and sweeps aside his catch until he can see more.
The man in the net has hair the color of the setting sun, deep golden red, shockingly bright against his white skin. Brad's never seen hair that color before. His lips are barely darker than the rest of his face, and his eyes are closed, lashes damp-dark against his cheeks.
Brad's thinking exactly what you'd be thinking if you were staring down at the stranger — he's beautiful.
Brad leans over him sadly. He doesn't recognize him, or have any idea where he came from, but he can't help mourning him. He picks a piece of weed off the man's face and the back of his hand brushes against the stranger's cheek; his skin is smooth but cold.
You already know that Brad's not an overly sentimental man. But some things just get to a guy, even a tough, unsentimental guy, and seeing this beautiful stranger and knowing he's too late to save him, well, it's not that surprising that Brad sheds a tear or two. He doesn't sob or anything like that, just lets a couple of (manly) tears run down his face.
Only one actually falls before Brad wipes his cheeks with the back of his hand. The tear lands on the stranger's lips. And—
The man's lips open. He gasps in a breath, licks the salty tear off his lip, and opens his eyes.
His eyes are green. Like spring meadows or young leaves, not to get too poetic on you.
You know what's coming next, surely.
Brad looks down at the beautiful stranger with his wide open green eyes, and the beautiful stranger holds his gaze without blinking. Brad leans down, then leans a bit further, and then the beautiful stranger pokes just the very tip of his tongue out and wets his lips which is practically a written invitation, so Brad leans the rest of the way and kisses him.
Unfortunately — though, when you think of it, it's rather obvious considering he's just been covered in fish — the beautiful stranger tastes distinctly fishy. Not that Brad has anything against fish — he has it for dinner most nights — he just prefers fish on a plate to fishy tasting kisses. So it isn't the best kiss in the world, or even the best kiss Brad has ever had. But it isn't totally terrible either, so that's something to be grateful for. It's the sort of kiss that makes you think you'd like to try it again under better circumstances, rather like the time that boy you were crushing on kissed you in homeroom, and you were all embarrassed because your friends were looking so you ducked your head just at the wrong moment and your glasses caught him on the side of the nose but he still smiled at you afterwards, this really cute little smile and— Well, you know what I mean.
The beautiful stranger takes a deep breath and starts to sit up. He's still half-covered in fish, which slide off him as he moves, and that's when, well, there's no delicate way to say this. His scaly, fishy, merman lower half appears.
Yes, he has a tail.
From the waist up, he's a beautiful young man, with smooth, pale skin. From the waist down, he's covered in glistening scales in all shades of blue and green and silver. Objectively, if you look at him from a purely aesthetic point of view, it's a beautiful tail. Especially when the sunlight catches it — it sparkles really prettily in the light.
Brad, judging by the way his jaw has dropped open, isn't looking at the beautiful stranger objectively. His eyes slide slowly down him, right down to the long tail fin then back up again.
He doesn't say anything. He isn't a garrulous guy, and, honestly, what could he say other than to state the obvious? Instead, he reaches over to his hessian lunch bag, pulls out the slimmer of his two flasks, takes a drink, and hands it over to the beautiful stranger. The stranger starts to raise it to his lips, then shakes his head. He looks regretful as he screws the cap back on the flask, but he hands it firmly back to Brad.
Brad remembers a story he read one winter, about Persephone. Maybe it was a myth, and maybe there was some truth in it.
There's an awkward moment after that. Brad hasn't spoken, and the beautiful stranger hasn't spoken, and it isn't as though they know each other and can have long comfortable silences in between chats. Brad doesn't fidget, because he's the kind of guy who looks cool, calm and collected no matter what, but it's obvious that he wants to do something, but has no idea what. Eventually, he clears his throat, and tries to think of something to say other than nice day for a swim, or what are you doing in my net?
What he actually comes out with is, "it appears your skin is peeling." Which as a first-time greeting between (if the story goes the way we're probably all hoping) potential soulmates, lacks a certain something.
The result isn't ideal either. The beautiful stranger looks down at himself. It's true, his skin is looking dry and starting to peel, and his tail isn't glistening the way it was when Brad first saw him. He reaches out, touches Brad's cheek, then kisses him. It's a slow kiss, a sad one, because it feels like a goodbye. And that's exactly what it is. He pulls away finally, drags himself to the side of the boat and slips overboard.
Brad could have stopped him, of course. He could move far faster on the boat than the merman could. But he doesn't even try, just watches the water until the ripples have disappeared, then sets to sorting his catch.
He thinks about the beautiful stranger as he heads back to harbor, and all night, and all the next day. And... you get the point. He's distracted. He's never been the most sociable guy around, but now he's even less so. He fishes all day, and at night he thinks about the merman until he falls asleep, and when he wakes up, for just those first few seconds each morning, he has vivid memories of dreaming of him.
Summer comes and goes, and the days start getting shorter, and still Brad's obsessing about the merman. (Obviously he doesn't call it obsessing, but let's be honest here, that's what it is.) So much so, that he goes out one autumn day without looking at the clouds or the birds first, and it isn't until he's far out to sea that he notices the dark clouds rolling up, one over the other. They're still on the horizon, but they're heading towards him fast.
If this were a movie, there'd be an ominous drum roll, or something equally tingle-down-the-spine inducing. Because these aren't fluffy little clouds, or the sort of clouds that make you think you'd better get the washing in. They're batten down the hatches, close the shutters, get the animals inside kind of clouds. Bad clouds.
Brad is all quick efficiency straight away. He turns his boat around, back towards the direction he knows land lies — he's so far out there's no sign of land, but even distracted Brad would never get lost — and heads towards shore as fast as he can.
It isn't fast enough. The storm hits long before shore's in sight, and it's even worse than it looked from a distance. The boat rocks from side to side in the wind, and then the rain starts, that sort of rain that people call raining buckets and when you're out in it actually does feel like someone's tipping entire bucketfuls of water over you. The waves grow, and Brad struggles to steer his little boat. He knows he's getting blown off course, but he's more worried by the way his boat's struggling up and over each wave. He feels as though any minute his boat is going to be facing straight up, and, sure enough, the next wave is so steep, the brow of his boat aims for the sky.
Even if you're not a boating person, it's obvious that boats are meant to be horizontal, not vertical. Vertical is bad, vertical means occupants get thrown out of the boat into the sea. Vertical means Brad is swallowing water, can't see the boat, can't see the sky, can't tell which way is up or which is down.
He means to swim. He knows he does, deep-down inside. He doesn't want to die. And yet he's still floating underwater, sinking he thinks, although it could be he's rising to the surface, it's hard to tell. He closes his eyes, and opens his arms, and—
Wakes up in a cave. Lying on dry rock, though he's soaked. The light's strange, but that's not unusual in storms, weird blue lightning and cold silvery light, so Brad's blasé about that. What he does react to (no more than a quick blink, but that's a reaction from Brad), is the figure standing over him.
It's his beautiful stranger.
Two, perfectly normal-looking (as far as Brad can tell, though the beautiful stranger is wearing pants, so Brad can't get a detailed look) legs.
"You're awake," the beautiful stranger says.
"You've got legs," Brad replies, "and you can talk," because he's not particularly suave, and he's just nearly drowned; even a hero can't be expected to be eloquent all the time.
The corner of the beautiful stranger's mouth turns up a fraction. He's probably being thoroughly decent and trying not to laugh at Brad.
"I can speak in this form, yes. Not in the form you saw me before."
"You're a merman," Brad says, and maybe he doesn't mean to make it sound like an accusation, but it does. His tone is the sort of tone you'd use if you're accusing someone of being a Nazi or a child molester.
The tone isn't lost on the beautiful stranger. The laughter in his eyes vanishes, and is replaced by an icy look, the sort that says I might be pretty, but I'm a badass motherfucker too, so don't you fucking think you can mess with me. What he actually says out loud is, "I can take you back to your boat."
Brad doesn't take time to think about it. He just nods, the beautiful stranger steps towards him, and—
Brad wakes up again, this time in his boat, drifting near the harbor walls. The storm's died down, though there's flotsam in the water and the sky's still dark gray. Brad makes his way slowly into harbor.
The winter sets in shortly after the big storm. There isn't much to do in the village in the winter, so Brad reads. He buys every book he can find on mermen, and reads them cover to cover and then all over again. They all say the same thing, that mermen are cruel, inhuman, evil, that they do terrible things to humans they capture. Brad tells himself he had a lucky escape, but secretly doesn't feel lucky at all, at least, not in escaping.
In fact, the more he reads, the angrier he becomes, until it's visible on his face all the time. He glares at people instead of smiling, and soon the villagers begin to avoid him in the street. He doesn't care particularly, though he wishes he understood why he's so angry.
He's heading towards the market one morning, for potatoes and onions to go with his salted fish, when he hears someone muttering behind his back.
"Always was a sure thing, that'd he'd go bad. It's in his blood, and blood will out."
Brad turns around quickly, but he can't tell who spoke. Everyone to a man (or woman) has their head down, scurrying away.
Brad isn't the kind of man to pay attention to idle gossip, and normally he'd ignore a comment like that, but it sets him wondering. He's never asked about his parents, or how he ended up on the baker's doorstep, but now he finds he wants to know.
He goes to the preacher first.
"No good'll come of lookin' inta things that don't concern youse," is all Father Sixta says on the matter. He gives Brad a lecture on the length of his hair, and no doubt any number of other things he finds unsatisfactory about Brad, but Brad tunes him out.
He tries the innkeeper next, Mr. Schwetje, because it's a known fact that innkeepers hear all the gossip. The innkeeper looks at him with his bovine eyes, then looks away uncomfortably. "Well, the thing is—you see, I'm not sure that—" Brad doesn't bother waiting to hear any more.
If there's one person in the village he can call a close friend, it's Doc Bryan. So he goes to his cottage and taps quietly on the door. Doc looks angry when Brad asks about his parents. Not angry at Brad though. "Nobody ever told you who your parents were, or where you came from?" he asks.
Brad shakes his head.
"That's just—" Doc shakes his head too, in disbelief. "I wish I knew," he said.
Brad hadn't held out much hope — after all, Doc's not much older than Brad and has only been in the village a couple of years, since the old doctor retired — but he's getting more and more despondent with each blank he's drawn.
He ends up on the beach, scraping barnacles off the bottom of his boat. It's a cold job, and a dull one, and he keeps scraping the skin off his fingers, but he needs to be doing something.
That's where the wise man finds him.
Being a wise man, he doesn't ask why Brad's down on the beach on a freezing cold day, doing a job that could wait a couple of months until the spring. He just gets down on the sand, pulls on a pair of sturdy leather gloves, picks up a scraper, and starts working on the barnacles next to Brad.
They scrape a lot of barnacles. The wise man's patient, and Brad's stubborn and so the sun's setting before Brad asks his question. "Do you know who my parents were?"
"Look to the ocean, brother," the wise man tells him. "That's where you'll find your answer."
Brad mulls over the wise man's words for days. He stands at his window and looks out at the harbor and the little bit of ocean he can see if he stands just so, and ponders. Finally, he decides what he has to do.
Some men, having made the decision Brad's made, would wait for warmer weather. Brad isn't that kind of man. He just waits for a day when the wind is fair and the sun unguarded, wraps up warm, and takes his boat out. He doesn't pause to consider his direction like he does when he goes fishing, just turns west south west the moment he's out of the harbor.
He nods to himself, satisfied, when he reaches the right place. To almost anyone else, the ocean's just the ocean, all the same no matter where you are, but Brad knows this is the place he pulled the beautiful stranger on board.
He pulls off his gloves, strips off his jacket and boots and jumps into the water.
Now, the thing about Brad is that he's a smart guy, but even smart guys can do stupid things. And really, this is monumentally stupid. It might be a sunny day, but the water's fucking freezing, so here's Brad, swimming around, getting colder and colder.
Naturally, being Brad, he doesn't give up and swim back to the boat like a sensible person would. He actually stops swimming, and lets himself sink. Arms wide out like before, but this time he keeps his eyes open, and watches the sky get further away as the water gets darker.
Nothing happens. No one appears, and Brad's about to black out from lack of oxygen when his common sense finally kicks in, and he pushes up for the surface.
He's barely conscious by this time, just sufficiently alert to lie on his back and gulp in air. When he's finally breathing normally, he looks around for his boat.
Yeah, you've guessed — it's out of sight, gone, vanished. Brad's all alone in the freezing cold ocean, out of sight of land, and no boat.
It isn't looking good for our hero, but he's not the hero for nothing. Lesser men might have given up, or swum until they were exhausted and couldn't swim anymore and then drowned. Brad just swims, on and on and on. He swims until it's dark, and he swims by the light of the new moon, and when clouds roll over and cover it, he swims in the pitch dark. He doesn't give up.
Eventually, when there's a hint of light in the east, he feels the change in the ocean, and sees a dark band ahead of him. Land.
He doesn't manage to put on a spurt, because he can't feel his arms or legs and he's just swimming by rote now, but he fixes his eyes on that line ahead of him and focuses all his will on getting there. Finally, the waves grow stronger, enough that they start pulling him in, and he washes up on shore more from the strength of the waves than any remaining power in his arms or legs.
He lies there a while, too exhausted even to crawl up to dry sand. The sun rises, and Brad forces himself to stand up, sheer willpower making his legs work.
He hasn't been to this beach before, but he recognizes the shoreline, so he climbs up the cliff, thankfully shallow at this point, and despondently makes his way home.
Brad can barely even think about the loss of his boat. It's become a part of his life, reliable and trustworthy, and now, for the sake of some crazy idea, he's lost it.
He sleeps badly that night, tossing and turning while he thinks about the wise man's words and wonders what went wrong. Why the beautiful stranger didn't appear, or why he was foolish enough to believe he would — his mind swings like a pendulum, one moment thinking one thing, the next moment the opposite. He falls asleep eventually, and wakes up to sun pouring through his window, birds singing, and big boots clumping up to his door followed by a very loud knocking.
It's Pappy, the harbormaster. "Mornin', Brad," he says.
Brad rubs his eyes and tries to look as though he's awake. He doesn't think he succeeds (he doesn't).
"You're lookin' mighty rough," Pappy says, and Brad grunts in reply. Normally he's a morning person, just, not today. Today he wants to crawl back into bed and stay there. He can't even chip barnacles off his boat, seeing as he no longer has a boat.
"Funny thing happened this mornin'," the harbormaster continues, and Brad itches to tell him he doesn't give a damn about anything the harbormaster finds amusing, even though the harbormaster is a decent chap and normally Brad would be happy enough to chat with him. "A boat drifted into the harbor, 'gainst the tide too."
Brad tries not to look too hopeful, but he can't hold back the question. "Is it—?"
"Yeah, your boat. Don't suppose you know what's up with that, do you? Got some homin' spell on it?"
There's no such thing as a homing spell, least as far as Brad knows. They're a myth, made up on winter evenings, a story embellished over the years. Not real.
But something brought his boat back. Something, or someone.
Brad smiles to himself as he checks his boat's readiness. He isn't going to give up, especially when his boat turned up unscathed, not even a mark on its glossy varnish. The very next morning, he sets out again. This time he takes his fishing net, though, and when he reaches his destination, he casts out his net. He watches it carefully, hoping for some tell-tale sign that something larger than fish has swum into it.
He's staring at it when there's a faint noise behind, a tap or a scratch or a depression in the air. He whirls round and comes face-to-face with the beautiful stranger, who's clasping the side of the boat, still half in the water. The beautiful stranger is as beautiful as Brad remembered, all lean muscle under his pale skin. He holds out his hand, and Brad takes it without hesitating, letting the merman pull him into the water. Despite all the books Brad's read, he knows the merman isn't out to harm him. The look in his too-green eyes doesn't warn of danger — Brad's certain of this.
They swim faster than Brad ever has, deeper and deeper until Brad's air is gone and he knows he can't last much longer. It gets darker, so deep the daylight barely reaches, and then darker still as Brad closes his eyes.
When he opens them, he's in the same cave he remembers from before. He gasps for breath, filling his lungs over and over until they don't hurt anymore.
"Welcome home," the beautiful stranger says, which isn't the greeting Brad expected. Not that he'd had anything special in mind — because he had all sorts of other things on his mind, and no particular room to ponder what the beautiful stranger's greeting might be — it just wouldn't have been welcome home if he had.
"I'd hardly call this home," Brad says, because he has a cottage, and though he's not particularly sentimental about the cottage (if it burned down, he'd be annoyed rather than distraught, and there's nothing inside he'd go running in to save at the risk of his own life), if pressed, he'd call that home. It is, after all, where he lives, and for most people, that's sufficient to label something home. Other people want more, and it's entirely possible that Brad comes into that category, but he certainly isn't aware of it.
On the other hand, Brad hasn't forgotten the wise man's advice, and certainly hasn't forgotten his desire to learn where he came from. And the beautiful stranger's words make Brad think he's finally about to find out. "This is your home," he states.
The beautiful stranger tilts his head to one side, then looks around. "In a sense, yes."
Brad doesn't ask what he means — the simple statement is enough for now. "Do you know who my parents were?"
"Yes," the beautiful stranger says. He doesn't ask if Brad wishes to know — Brad doesn't appreciate people who ask absurdly obvious questions — just carries on: "Your father was from here, your mother wasn't. You were born on land, and then your parents died and you were lost. Until now," he explains with pleasing brevity, then smiles, a welcoming smile.
Brad processes the idea that he's only half-human. It doesn't surprise him as much as you might think — after all, he has ocean skills that none of the men in the village can begin to imitate — but he's still quiet for a while, considering it. Eventually, something occurs to him. "You remember my birth?" he asks, looking at the beautiful stranger who looks younger than Brad himself.
The beautiful stranger laughs. "No, but we tell tales around the campfire at night." There's a glint in his eyes, amusement. Brad isn't used to being laughed at. Normally he thinks he wouldn't like it, but he finds he doesn't mind if it makes the beautiful stranger smile at him like that.
Brad paces around the cave. There are lights set in the walls, but he can see more light in the distance, beyond a bend in the cave. He turns towards the light, thinking to explore, but the beautiful stranger is in his way. "Will you stay?" he asks. He sounds hopeful, but doesn't say anything more, as though he's reluctant to influence Brad one way or the other. When Brad doesn't answer immediately, the beautiful stranger looks resigned. "I'll take you back to the village, give you time to consider. But I will return for you," he promises.
Brad nods in agreement, and the beautiful stranger whispers some words Brad can't quite understand, words that make Brad feel slow and heavy and sleepy, and then he's waking up, floating in his boat near the harbor entrance yet again. He might almost think he'd been dreaming — he's had some pretty vivid dreams in the past, including this one time he dreamed about a man who sat staring at a goat until the goat dropped dead, and this other time he dreamed he'd fucked a guy on the clifftop above the village, while a family of rabbits sat nearby, nibbling grass — but there's a huge conch shell in the boat with him, just like the shell painted on his boat.
See, I told you you'd find out what was painted on the side of the boat.
What Brad wants right now is (a) some time to think about the beautiful stranger's offer, (b) some food, and (c) some alone time to think about the beautiful stranger (you do know what I mean, right — I don't have to spell it out?). What Brad gets is the entire village milling around on the shore front.
Women are crying, children are holding their mothers' hands, and the men are angry. What's more, when they sight Brad, they don't look at all pleased to see him. While they don't actually wave their weapons at him (every last man is carrying something that could be used as a weapon), they look as though they want to.
Brad climbs out of his boat. The crowd parts in front of him, which, while it might make him feel like a leper, at least makes it easy for him to find the wise man and Doc, standing together to one side of the crowd. The harbormaster is behind them. They're armed too, but Brad senses their anger is aimed in a different direction.
Brad raises an eyebrow at them, which is his succinct way of saying what's up, Doc.
The wise man looks at him, and the Doc looks at him. "You know, then," the wise man says, and stares some more. Brad looks down to discover that he's carrying the conch shell — he wasn't even aware that he'd picked it up.
He nods in answer to the wise man, then turns to Doc and Pappy. He can see in their eyes that they know now, which saves him an awkward apparently I'm half merman sort of explanation.
The muttering of the crowd behind him gets louder. Doc's gritting his teeth as though he wants to shout at them. "Young Lizzie's missing," Pappy says. "And all those idiots think the mermen took her."
"You know what they want to do?" Doc bursts out. "They want to lure the mermen here, onto land, and slaughter them. Without even looking for Lizzie first."
Pappy sighs. "It's all those old stories bein' told again. They say mermen are child-thieves and murderers and blame anything going wrong on them, and it doesn't matter that the stories are stuff and nonsense, everyone believes them. There was a plague in the village, before you two were born—" Pappy looks at Doc and Brad, "and children died. Old Schwetje claimed he saw a merman just before the plague started so they blamed the mermen. Weren't no one else to hold responsible. And now there's no stopping them."
"Clearly, gentlemen, we must find Lizzie before they can do anything," Brad says. Right now, he looks every inch the hero, even though he's dripping water and his boots squelch slightly when he moves. "She's Meg's kid? So high—" he puts his hand at thigh level.
Pappy nods. "Yes, that's her. Chances are, she's just wandered too far and gotten lost or stuck somewhere. She's in a world of her own half the time, always talking to her doll. Silly kid," he says affectionately.
There's a change in the noise from the crowd. Not louder or quieter, just more focused. They're using magic, Brad realizes with horror. There's a certain ring to magic chants – you might never have heard one, but you'd know it if you did. There's power in words, and they all feel it.
The wise man looks grim. "Father Sixta found a book of magic. There's a spell in it he claims will draw the mermen up onto land, and another that will bind them so they can't return to the sea."
"Then they'll die," Brad says, and imagines the beautiful stranger, bound and helpless.
"Some men cannot understand what is different," the wise man says sadly.
"So we find Lizzie," Brad says. There are four of them, and a spell that powerful will take time to work. He faces the harbormaster. "Search all the boats in the harbor."
Brad sends the wise man into the village to search gardens and sheds and trees a child might climb. The wise man nods his agreement and sets off at a run.
"Doc, you go south," Brad says, "I'll go north. If you find her, blow your whistle. If I find her, I will blow into the shell." It's shaped like a horn, and somehow Brad knows the sound will carry further than any ordinary shell.
They set out on their search. Brad knows the shoreline well, all the crevices and caves where a child as small as Lizzie might hide or fall. He runs as fast as he can; he can still hear the villagers chanting in the distance, even when they're long out of sight.
He crosses one bay, searching fast but thoroughly, then another. There are too many places a child could hide, and the sun is starting to head towards the horizon, but Brad keeps searching systematically. He can't fail.
He's tired and hungry and thirsty, but he barely registers that. He isn't thinking about the child. Instead he's thinking of the beautiful stranger, imagining him at the mercy of the villagers, helpless and weakening as his skin dries out, and the horror of it drives him on.
He almost misses her. The sun's glinting red off a pool of water, and Brad doesn't immediately register that the other patch of red he sees is a scrap of fabric, not light. But he's Brad, so it's only a second or two before he's racing over the rocks towards the scrap of red. It's a doll's dress, and when Brad climbs further, he sees a patch of blue, this time a girl's dress. Lizzie is curled up in a worn-down hole in the rocks, fast asleep. She doesn't wake when Brad picks her up, or when he stoops down for the doll. To his relief (because Brad's never been particularly fond of children, especially ones old enough to talk), she doesn't wake when he lifts up the conch shell to his lips and blows into it, even though the sound reverberates around the bay.
Back at the harbor, Brad hands the Lizzie over to her mother quickly, just in case she wakes – even heroes get nervous sometimes. The crowd's mostly wandered off sheepishly back to their cottages – the news Lizzie was found reached them faster than Brad – but everyone left seems singularly unable to look Brad in the eye.
It doesn't bother him in the least. He's made his decision. He looks at the village, just the roof of his own little cottage visible, and doesn't feels any regret. Maybe a little nervous, but it's the sort of feeling in his belly that could just as easily be hunger, so Brad puts it down to that.
The wise man puts a hand on Brad's shoulder. "You must do what is in your heart," he says.
Brad shakes Pappy's hand. In the distance, he can see Doc returning. Brad raises his hand and smiles, and Doc mirrors him. Maybe they'll meet another time (they do, as it just so happens, and there are all sorts of tales to be told about that), but for now it's goodbye.
Brad doesn't turn around again. He dives into the water, the conch shell safe in one arm, and swims through the harbor, out into the open sea. He swims towards the setting sun, and he doesn't tire.
It's as the sun is dipping below the horizon that he sees them. A row of them ahead of him, golden-haired and red-haired and black-haired, pale-skinned and dark-skinned, men and women. And in the front, his beautiful stranger.
Brad swims to him, and the beautiful stranger holds out his hand. When Brad takes it, the beautiful stranger asks him silently with his eyes, do you want this?
"Yes," Brad answers, loud enough for them all to hear, and as soon as the word is out of his mouth, he feels a change. It's so fast it barely hurts, and he doesn't need to look beneath the water to know what has happened. He whoops with joy and dives deep, hand-in-hand with the beautiful stranger, swimming faster than he ever has before. The water feels like home, he can breathe as easily as he can on land, and Brad knows this is where he's meant to be.
Finally, they dive through a narrow tunnel and come up into a pool of water. As they pull themselves out, Brad's tail turns back into legs.
"What happened?" Brad asks, as the beautiful stranger sits on the edge of the pool beside him. They're both naked, but Brad doesn't feel any shame in it. He just appreciates the view.
"You had to want it. Only then could you be one of us."
Brad looks around him, amazed. This isn't the cave he was been in before. The pool is on the edge of a vast land, impossible buildings made of coral and pearl glistening in the warmth of daylight. Far, far above, is the ocean. There are people milling around, and the others who swam down with them are casually dressing beside the pool before heading away towards the buildings.
"I know exactly what you're thinking, buddy. You're thinking, wow, this can't be happening, I must have taken the good shit and be really out of it, but it's totally fucking real."
Brad blinks. A dark-haired, somewhat scrawny guy, wearing tight blue pants and a top with the sleeves cut off, is standing over him. He has tattoos on his arms, the only tattoos Brad has ever seen beside his own, and he doesn't stop talking. "And really, you know you can't hallucinate a place this fucking awesome, at least not without the good mushrooms, and if you're holding out on your pal Ray-Ray—"
"Shut up," Brad says. He isn't normally that blunt, but he feels quite certain that nothing less will shut this man up.
It works. The beautiful stranger grins. "Well, that's something. I'm normally the only one who can shut Ray up."
Which brings Brad to a question he somehow hadn't thought to ask until now. "What's your name?" he asks the beautiful stranger.
"Oh, fuck, Nate, you haven't even told him your name? You've been mooning over him for months, and you don't even tell him your fucking name. That's just fucked up, that is. What was he supposed to moan when he was jacking off?"
"Ray, get lost," Nate says.
"Okay, but Brad, you have to tell me everything about the upper ground when you've finished making out with Nate. Poke just spouts bullshit lies about The Man, and Nate leaves out the interesting stuff. Do you know how long it took me to find out he wanted to tie you to a bed and do all sorts of kinky shit? I had to get him high before I got the half of it. And don't let the innocent look fool you; boy's nasty. Walt's gonna want to know all about the upper ground too, but he's too pussy to come ask, says he's being all polite or some such shit." Ray snorts.
"Nobody would ever accuse you of being too polite, Ray," Nate says. He's slightly flushed, his ears pink. If Brad used words like adorable, he'd think Nate looked adorable right now.
Ray laughs, winks at Brad, and leaves.
"He's—" Nate starts, as though he's about to apologize.
Brad interrupts. "I like him," he says, surprising himself, because he doesn't like that many people, especially not on a first meeting.
Nate beams at him, and Brad thinks maybe he's just passed a test.
"So, that kiss, wanna try it again?" Brad asks, and Nate's grin gets impossibly brighter.
Later, there'll be explanations: Brad will learn that the conch shell was his father's, and that his father's house belongs to him, and all sorts of other things about who he is, but right now he isn't interested in any of that, because Nate's sitting beside him, one hand stroking Brad's jaw, the other pulling them closer, and they kiss, one lingering kiss that lasts and lasts. This time, the kiss is perfect.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the end of our story, though it's just the very beginning of theirs. I hope you've enjoyed it. The tip jar is on the left as you leave.