Once he was at the beach, John halfway wondered why he’d decided to come. It was dreary, dismal, and the high rocks that surrounded it on either end looked almost menacing. Calling it a ‘beach’ was being generous, really. Maybe on a sunny day it would have been better, but not by much. One look around the village had told him it was hardly a tourist destination.
But it was cheap. Even on his pension, he could afford a holiday here. They were practically giving away the rooms above the pub this time of year, and it was the middle of the week on top of that. Still, the wind that blew in from over the grey waters was biting, and John zipped his jacket all the way up.
His gun was a familiar weight at his back. It was stupid to bring it. But it had also felt stupid to leave it at his bedsit. He knew it was stupid to have it, full stop. If he wanted to start his life over, he needed to close the door on what had already ended.
John was the only one on the beach, which wasn’t surprising given the weather. He walked along the edge of the water, and then over the rocks that began to jut out with regularity. Carefully making his way to the point, John found a rock that looked moderately flat and sat down, propping his cane up next to him. The surf was breaking below him, and the water and the sky became an almost indistinguishable merge of dusk at the horizon.
John reached under his jacket and took the gun from his waistband, turning it over in his hands. He could hurl it into the ocean and be done with it. Unload it, take it apart piece by piece and chuck it into the waves. If he was going to get rid of it, he couldn’t simply throw it in a bin, not where it could be found and used to hurt someone else. A river was the next option, but London had too many cameras.
Flinging it into an ocean seemed fitting, since he had lost his purpose in an ocean of sand. John’s grip tightened on the barrel. He could do it. Toss it into the sea and return to London a new man. Use this holiday to truly start over.
“If you’re just going to throw that away, you may as well give it to me.”
John nearly jumped out of his skin at the voice. His arm hit his cane, jarring it loose from where it had been resting and sending it skittering down the rocks. It landed half in the water, where—
“I’ll have it either way, of course, though I would prefer to put it in plastic first.”
—where there was now a man. A man with pale skin and dark hair—and a silvery grey tail that could be seen moving just below the surface of the water.
John stared for a good five seconds before he looked back at the horizon and said, “And now I’m hallucinating. Just what I need.”
“Dull as being a figment of your imagination would be, I’m happy to assure you that’s not the case.”
John risked a glance at the man, who had draped his upper half over the rocks in a way that didn’t look at all comfortable, though he seemed perfectly at ease. His expression was one of amused disdain.
The tail was still visible just under the water.
“You—you,” John stammered.
“Clearly, I’m not,” he said. Then, “Let me see your gun.”
“No,” John said automatically. “You’re not supposed to exist,” he added.
“We’ve covered that. Moving on.” He picked up John’s cane from where it had fallen. He turned it over in his hands briefly, subjecting it to a quick inspection, before holding it out to John.
John started to move, before realising he would have to lean out and down to reach the cane. He halted.
“I’m not coming closer. You’ll try to drown me.”
“Ugh, drowning. Drowning’s boring.” The merman rolled his eyes, emphasising it with an annoyed flap of fins.
“So mermaids—” And God was that word weird on his tongue, “—don’t drown people?”
An eyebrow raised. “Did I say that?”
“No…” John said slowly.
“If you ever met another of my kind, I’ll concede that drowning wouldn’t be an unreasonable worry.”
John narrowed his eyes. “But just so we’re clear, you don’t drown people?”
“Even if I did, I certainly wouldn’t try to drown a recently released military man who’s suffering from PTSD and has a loaded gun in his hands.”
“How did you—?”
The merman tossed the cane up with a quick motion of his arm, and John plucked it neatly out of the air.
When he looked back at the water, the merman was gone.
John sat on the rocks for a few minutes after that, wondering if he’d gone round the bend. He didn’t feel like he had. But mermaids—mermen—weren’t real, so he wasn’t dismissing the possibility of having lost it. He couldn’t have seen what he just saw. Couldn’t have.
He put his gun away—all thoughts of getting rid of it or not getting rid of it completely gone from his head for the moment, pushed aside by the merman he’d seen—used his cane to get to his feet, and started the slow trek back to the village. It was practically dark when he returned. In the pub that night, he considered asking about any local mermaid legends, but couldn’t figure out a way that wouldn’t make him sound like a nutter.
The next morning, he was back out on the point as soon as the sky started to lighten. There was no question of doing anything else, really.
It was ten minutes or so before the merman appeared, his head popping up several metres away from John. He’d obviously been expecting John to come back.
However, he didn’t speak; he only watched John.
John finally broke the silence. “What happens if I just take a picture of you, then?”
“Take a picture of what? A swimming man?”
John realised that even as the merman drifted closer, he was very purposefully not showing his tail.
“Doubtless your phone has a camera, though you were too stunned to use it last time. But the fact that you didn’t automatically reach for it means that you’re not used to thinking of it, so it’s probably a recent acquisition. As for recording audio, I suppose you could be doing it right now, but anyone who hears it will assume we’re mates just having a laugh. Nothing conclusive to be had there. There are hidden cameras that are practically invisible while being worn, but you would have had to go to the nearest city to purchase one, and you couldn’t be back here so early if you had. Not to mention that given the state of your wardrobe and the fact that you’ve clearly just left the Army, it’s unlikely you could afford one anyway.”
John frowned down at him. “How did you know about that? What you said yesterday. Some sort of magic?”
“No.” He glared, as if insulted. “It’s simple observation. There’s nothing magical about using one’s mind. Your hands are tan, but there’s no tan above the wrists. You’ve been abroad recently, but not sunbathing. So, military, probably Army. You have a limp, but you can’t have been out of service very long since the tan hasn’t faded, which means the injury is fairly new. And the fact that you spent ten minutes alternately staring at your gun and the ocean, plus your first comment upon seeing me—‘now I’m hallucinating’—suggests some sort of psychological problem. Given that you must have acquired your injury in the line of duty, PTSD it is.”
John couldn’t hide his astonishment. “That… was amazing.”
“Was it all correct?”
“I detest getting things wrong. But your world changes so quickly.” He scowled.
John found himself grinning. This whole thing was surreal, but he couldn’t help grinning. “I’m John.”
John opened his mouth, then closed it. He looked at Sherlock, who was now at the very base of the rocks. Still surreal.
Sherlock sighed. “You’ve got questions.”
“How—are there more of you?”
“Obviously,” he said, sounding unimpressed.
“But—but how do people not know about you?” John waved a hand vaguely. “Any of you, I mean.”
“You used to. We were seen, once upon a time. But when your world changed—” He said it with a capital C. “—we retreated below. And the ocean is very large.”
“You don’t stay below, I take it?”
“Below is dull.” Sherlock flapped his tail in exasperation, making a wave. “Nothing ever changes, nobody ever does anything. There’s never anything new. It’s hateful. No, your world is much more interesting.”
John shook his head as he watched the movements of the tail. “You make a habit of this, then? Showing yourself to random people?”
“Don’t be an idiot.”
“So why are you talking to me?”
“You didn’t seem dull.”
“Thanks for that.”
“When I first saw you, you were sitting on the rocks, alone, on an evening so miserable that everyone else had the good sense to stay indoors. Tourist, I decided, one who was so desperate to see the ocean that they were determined to tough it out. But instead of staying on the beach, you made your way over the rocks to this point, despite your difficulty with the cane. You wanted to be as close to the ocean as possible, but what’s more, you didn’t want to be seen. The fact that you had a gun became the obvious reason. Suicide, I thought. Tedious. But you didn’t act like a man who had come to end his own life. You never looked at the gun in a wishful manner. Several times, you moved like you might throw it into the water. You wanted to be rid of it. Could be a criminal, but no criminal would be so attached to a simple black market item. It had more meaning, then. That plus your tan and recent injury said you were a soldier. A soldier who’s a tourist who’s come all the way here to toss his illegal weapon into the ocean, but finding himself unable to do it? That’s hardly what I would call boring. And we’ve already discussed the lack of evidence you’ll be gathering. Though I do assure you that you’ll never see me again if you try.”
John tried not to smile. “You think that matters?”
“Talking to me is the most fun you’ve had in weeks, if not months. Why else would you be out here before the sun’s even risen?”
John did smile. Then he said, “So what about you? Is this some sort of, er, Little Mermaid thing? You want to be human?”
Sherlock looked annoyed at the suggestion. “I couldn’t care less about being human. The body is transport. What I want to be is not bored. Your world is not boring. If mine were this interesting, I certainly wouldn’t be up here all the time. I exhausted the possibilities of the ocean before I was grown.”
Sherlock suddenly cocked his head, listening. “Ugh.” Then, “Come back at dusk.” With that, he ducked underwater.
John looked around, but didn’t immediately see anyone. However, after a moment, two teenagers rounded the top of hill and immediately ran towards the rocks. Looked like he wasn’t going to have the beach to himself for long. He got to his feet, trying not to be disappointed that his time with Sherlock had been cut short.
The rest of the day was spent waiting. John recognised the irony of how he was spending his holiday. Instead of enjoying himself and the rural change of pace, he was anxiously passing time until a fixed hour.
When the hour arrived, he was already on the point. The beach was thankfully deserted. While he waited for Sherlock, John absently brought his hand to the back of his waistband, fingering his gun. So much for the plan of throwing it in the ocean, really.
There was a small splash in the water. “If you still want to get rid of that, I’d be more than happy to take it off your hands.”
“I’m not sure I should be arming mythical sea creatures.”
“I suppose that’s your patronising way of saying no.” Sherlock took up what was becoming his usual position at the bottom of the rocks.
“Look, I’m not going to give my gun to anyone. The whole point was to get rid of it. Gone. Done.”
Sherlock narrowed his eyes in scrutiny. “You have problems letting go. You defined yourself as a soldier—”
“Doctor,” John snapped automatically.
Sherlock’s face lit up with glee. “Doctor! There’s always something.” Then he eyed John like he despised asking the question, before saying: “But why aren’t you a doctor?”
“I am. I mean, I could get general work anywhere. But I can’t be a surgeon anymore.”
“Because of your leg?” Sherlock frowned.
“No, my arm. It’s where I got shot. Nerve damage, right here,” John said, pointing to his shoulder.
Sherlock brought his fingers to his lips. “Interesting.” His gaze swept over John.
“Why is that interesting?”
Sherlock didn’t answer, but said, “Your phone, does it have the Internet?”
“Yes.” John’s brows drew together. “Why?”
“If you lend it to me, I’ll fix your leg.”
“I can fix your leg, John. But I want something in return. Your phone for tonight.”
John tried to ignore the bubble of hope that sprang up inside him. “What do you mean, you can fix my leg?”
Sherlock gave him a wry grin. “I’m a mythical sea creature. We can do things.”
“My arm? What about my arm?”
“That’s beyond my capabilities, I’m afraid.”
John bit his lip. “And you just want my phone. For the night?”
“As I said.”
“This isn’t—I don’t know, one of those cursed wish things where I get something and then something even worse happens to me later, is it? Like tomorrow I’ll be walking on my own but get hit by a bus?”
Sherlock snorted. “If you get hit by a bus, it will be due to your own carelessness and nothing more.”
A voice in the back of John’s mind whispered that it was too good to be true. That there had to be a price, a catch. There always was in the stories. John didn’t put too much stock in fairy stories, but on the other hand, one was practically sitting in front of him.
“Of course,” Sherlock said, “you are going to have to come closer.”
And there it was. It was just a little bit dangerous.
John hadn’t actually been within reach of Sherlock since he’d met him. And while he did mostly believe Sherlock was sincere about not drowning people, this would be putting it to the test.
John found himself scooting down the rocks.
Sherlock’s lips quirked in a smirk, like he hadn’t had any doubt of John doing otherwise.
John moved as close to the water as he could get without falling in. “Okay, now what?”
“Stretch out your leg.”
Sherlock drifted closer as John did so, and then placed one sopping hand on John’s thigh and the other just below his knee. He squeezed, his fingers digging sharply in, and John felt something almost like a jolt go through him.
Then Sherlock released him. “Done. Now, your phone.”
“Hang on,” John said.
A displeased look settled over Sherlock’s face. “You’re not going back on our agreement.”
“Just—that’s it? It’s fixed?”
“Yes. Which you could plainly tell if you would only stand up.” He made an impatient gesture. “Your phone.”
John held the phone just out of Sherlock’s reach. “You do know you can’t get this wet?”
John raised an eyebrow at Sherlock’s hands.
Sherlock wiped his hands on John’s jeans and extended his fingers. John gave him the phone, which Sherlock snatched with delight.
“Do you, um, need me to explain how to use it?”
“It’s hardly complicated,” Sherlock said, already focused on the screen. “I’ve used ones similar.”
“It’s amazing what people leave lying around on their boats. Quite easy to take at night. Of course, I can only use them until the battery runs down. Tedious.”
“Right. Well. I’ll just leave you to it. Um, thanks for the leg.”
It seemed a profoundly inadequate thing to say. But Sherlock only said, “Yes, of course,” and waved in John’s general direction with his free hand. He didn’t once look up from the screen.
John stood and left him there, walking with ease over the rocks. He could feel a new bounce in his step, and he swung his cane from his hand.
A look over his shoulder, and he caught Sherlock’s face in the near darkness, illuminated by the light of the phone.
When he reached the beach proper, the curve of the rocks obstructed the view, and nothing could be seen of Sherlock at all.
John was out at the first hint of light the next morning. He knew if he wanted to see Sherlock, he would have to be there before sunrise.
It was also the last day he was supposed to be here. Not that John had anything pressing to return to, or even had a job at the moment. But his plan had been a quick holiday, and then back to London.
Still, John couldn’t help the anticipation that ran though him as he rounded the point and spotted Sherlock.
He was in the exact same position as he had been when John left him, partially out of the water and holding the phone in front of him. His hair was completely dry and was a dark mess of loose curls.
“Morning,” John greeted him.
“Mm.” Sherlock didn’t even glance at him.
“Find anything interesting?”
“Four percent battery remaining,” Sherlock said in a dismissive monotone, continuing to stare at the phone.
John tried not to be offended that a merman was ignoring him in favour of the Internet. Phones were undoubtedly a novelty to Sherlock, and John really couldn’t blame him for having his attention captured by one.
Instead of keeping to the high rocks, John settled on a rock at the water’s edge next to Sherlock. Sherlock remained engrossed with the phone, his tail slowly whipping from side to side.
John waited patiently until the phone’s battery died, at which point Sherlock relinquished it with a sigh. Then his pale eyes slowly raked over John, almost an inspection.
“What?” John asked.
“I don’t usually get to examine a living human this closely.”
“Hang on. You said you didn’t drown people.” This seemed like an especially pointless point to bring up now, since it wasn’t the first time John had been one arm grab away from being dragged under, but he said it anyway.
“I don’t. But I’m hardly going to let a body go to waste if I find one.”
It took John a moment to realise what he meant. “You cut them open?”
“I dissect lots of things. Would leaving them for the sharks be preferable?” Sherlock’s voice dripped with disdain as he said, “Of course, as a doctor, you’ve never used corpses to learn from.”
John grimaced. Sherlock had him there. Still. “It’s different. They—”
Sherlock pushed away and dipped beneath the water. For a moment, John thought that he’d simply gotten annoyed and left, but a few seconds later he popped back up, skin wet and hair flattened against his skull.
“How’s your leg?” Sherlock asked, changing the subject. He circled closer again, though he still looked slightly irritated. John decided to let the subject drop.
“It feels fine. Better than fine, actually. I should thank you for that.” John awkwardly cleared his throat. “Doesn’t exactly seem like a fair trade, though. My leg for a phone.”
“If your sense of fair play is offended, it shouldn’t be,” Sherlock said flatly. “I didn’t do anything to your leg.”
“It was psychosomatic. I had to look the term up last night, but I was already familiar with the concept. The pain was all in your head. Ergo, if a mythical being tells you they can cure you and you believe them simply because they are a mythical being, you’ll have no more pain.”
“So my leg’s… not cured?”
“Of course it is, don’t be tiresome. Incidentally, that’s why I couldn’t do anything for your shoulder. I don’t actually have the ability to heal.”
John pursed his lips, slowly shaking his head. He half expected a familiar ache to run up his leg, but there was nothing. Part of him felt like he’d been made a fool of. Except Sherlock wasn’t laughing, just watching him.
John laughed instead. “You’re the most ridiculous thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said, surprising himself. “I wish you could come with me. I mean,” he continued quickly, “I’m leaving today. This was just a holiday, you know. I can’t—stay. I’m catching a train back to London this afternoon.”
Sherlock’s face was peculiarly blank.
“Though… maybe I could, I dunno, make this my regular holiday spot.”
“I have to clear off,” Sherlock said. “There are things that need my attention.” He was already moving away from the rocks and swimming backward.
“Right.” John shifted uncomfortably, sure he’d just ruined something, even though he wasn’t sure exactly how.
Before he could even say goodbye, Sherlock was gone.
John ate breakfast and wandered around the village, ostensibly killing time until his train. In reality, he spent it dithering about whether he should stay another day and try to go back and see Sherlock that evening. He didn’t like the way they had left things, but he wasn’t sure that another visit would improve upon it, particularly since the issue seemed to be his leaving. Today, tomorrow—no matter when he left, he was going to have to leave.
That was the only reason John ended up boarding the train.
He took a seat on an empty car, and opened the train schedules on his phone. He’d have to change at least once.
On impulse, John checked his phone’s browser history, wondering what had kept Sherlock up all night. He found a completely random assortment of web pages. A table of sunrise times. A tidal map. Information on psychosomatic injuries. Corrosion of metals under seawater. The lethality of different poisonous snakes. A Google search for ‘current United Kingdom war’. A retailer of microscopes. Census charts. The current price of gold and silver. Vintage wines. The world clock site. Recent volcanic eruptions. The human respiratory and circulatory systems. Diving equipment. A retailer of electronics. Google Earth. Advancements in solar power cells. The list went on.
The train started to move, and someone flung themselves down in the seat opposite him. John tried not to be aggravated. He was in an empty train car on a train from the middle of nowhere, and someone had sat across from him. Of course.
John looked up, and his thoughts ground to a halt.
Sherlock was sitting in front of him, bundled in a greatcoat, and yes, wearing trousers and shoes. Ill-fitting trousers, but trousers nevertheless.
“You have legs,” John blurted.
Sherlock raised a brow. “Problem?”
“You never said you could do that.” John quickly looked around, and upon seeing that the car was still deserted, he hissed, “You said you couldn’t do magic.”
“I said nothing of the sort. I said I couldn’t heal you.”
John frowned, having the distinct feeling that he was missing something. “Wait. If you’re so curious about our world, why haven’t you done this before?”
Sherlock pulled the coat further around him, suddenly looking peevish. “Because I have to be invited. We can take human form, but only if one of you invites us out.” He fixed John with a pointed gaze.
“I wished you could come with me,” John realised slowly.
“And so here we are.”
There was still something John was missing, he could feel it.
Sherlock must have sensed that the conversation was going to happen one way or the other, because he blithely continued. “Usually this sort of deal was made between lovers: ‘Come live with me’, etc—that bit about seal skins is complete nonsense, by the way. But the phrasing itself doesn’t matter; as long as the sentiment is there we can assume human form.”
John digested that. “What’s the catch?” he asked. There was always a catch.
“If we leave the ocean for someone, we have to remain with them.” Sherlock’s voice was level and his expression was schooled, but there was a hint of something vulnerable in his eyes.
And suddenly it all made sense. John had made an offhanded comment, and Sherlock had jumped on the power behind it, but there was every possibility from Sherlock’s perspective that John wouldn’t actually want a merman following him home. Sherlock had obviously been out of the water long enough to steal clothing, yet he hadn’t approached John in the hours that John had stalked around the village. Sherlock was radiating indifference, but it was clear he was expecting to be told no.
John absently licked his lips, considering a response. Then he said, “Well, I do need a flatmate.”
A pleased look crept over Sherlock’s face. His expression barely changed, but the shift from uncertainty to excitement seemed palpable to John.
Then John cleared his throat. “Look, you’re not, er, bound to me or anything, are you? When you say ‘remain with’…”
“It simply means that I can’t use you to get on land and then have nothing more to do with you. There’s nothing so complex to it as a physical distance we can’t be separated or the frequency we must see each other. Magic… doesn’t work like that. It’s about intent. And no, I’m not bound to you in any sense of you being able to bend me to your will. However, if you order me back to the ocean three times in a row, I have to go.”
“Right,” John said. “Well, I won’t be doing that.”
There was a curious flicker to Sherlock’s expression.
“Wait, has someone done that? Have you done this before?”
“I’m not upset about it, if that’s what you’re thinking. It was years ago and I was barely grown. I never informed her of the words, but she blurted them out in a tearful rage nonetheless. I’m telling you this because you seem to be the type to speak without thinking—” John glared, but Sherlock continued undaunted. “—and I would prefer not to end our association accidentally. That was my first and last time on land. She was in love with me; I was not in love with her. I charmed her anyway, as I was frantic to see your world. Her infatuation didn’t last long, and so neither did my sojourn here. Most people I encountered were dull as well. I realised that if I wanted to return to land and remain for any length of time, I would have to find someone whose company was more than simply tolerable, someone I wouldn’t have to lead on with false expectations that were in no way sustainable over a long period. You can imagine the difficulty in that when it’s a calculated risk simply to speak to one of you. You were… unexpected. In more ways than one.”
“I was bloody unexpected,” John said, smirking. “Like I was ever expecting you. Well. We’re going to need a bigger flat. And I can barely afford what I have now.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t worry about that.” Sherlock reached into his coat pocket and briefly pulled out a handful of gold coins.
John’s eyebrows rose, and he leaned forward. “Where did you get those?”
Sherlock gave him a scornful look.
“Right,” John said. “Bottom of the ocean. Obviously.” He leaned back in the seat, shaking his head. “That’s more money than I’ve ever seen.”
“Is it? Good. Should make things simpler. I understand that I might need to buy an identity on the black market since I don’t legally exist.”
“Yeah, well, that’s not the only thing you’re going to deal with on the black market. That’s not just gold, it’s shipwreck bullion. Definitely worth more, but not exactly something you can cash in at the local bank. There will be all sorts of questions about when and where you found it. None of which can actually be answered, I’m sure.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Sherlock said, waving his hand dismissively. “I’m sure something can be arranged.” He was staring out the window at the passing scenery. It was nothing to write home about—just fields and trees and the occasional house.
Sherlock was mesmerised.
John grinned. “London’s the biggest city in England. What are you going to do with yourself?”
“I’ve absolutely no idea,” Sherlock said, bringing his fingers to his lips. “But I can’t wait to find out.”