What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams.
― Werner Herzog
He hates the beach, hates the sand, hates the air, heavy with sea salt that clings to his skin and hair, but the ocean, Neil decides, is maybe something he can learn to live with.
Learn to, because as he is right now, knee-deep in sea water blackened by the night, waves roaring relentlessly in his ears, Neil feels like he’s going to be sick.
It’s been nearly five years since his mother’s death on a completely different beach, a completely different coast. Neil had been eighteen then, the death of his mother serving as a rather brutal welcoming into adulthood, and spent the following years completely alone with nothing but her memory to guide him. He had been diligent, more cautious than he had ever been to compensate for her sudden absence, but it hadn’t been enough. Neil still didn’t know what had lead his father’s men to him; didn’t know if he had stayed in one place for too long or had simply walked past the wrong person on the street. Didn’t know if he was truly just hopeless at the only thing he was supposed to know how to do, but none of it had been enough. Looking back on it now, Neil supposes that he could have only ever been as good as his teacher, and considering that she had been caught and killed by his father first, his subsequent capture really shouldn’t have been of much as a surprise as it had been.
But it had been.
Neil doesn’t ever voluntarily think of the night of his father’s death, but too often does his subconscious conjure up the phantom of Lola’s hand twisted in his hair, a knife’s blade warmed by his own blood, the premonitory heat of a hovering dashboard lighter on his cheek, and the all-consuming thought: Sorry, Mom.
Neil remembers how he had kept himself relatively composed despite all the fear and pain, the heaviness in chest that came with the realization that his entire life had been nothing but unnecessary struggle and misery, and that he was going to die as afraid as he had lived. The fear climaxed when his father had told Neil in excruciating detail that he was going to hamstring him, and Neil’s composure had finally broken, throwing himself into a yowling and thrashing frenzy at the thought of losing his ability to run. His father had backhanded him then with the conversational reprimand of, “Come now, Junior, It’s not like there’s anything you have to live for. No one’s going to miss you,” and Neil had gone still again because the words had been true.
The wet sound his father’s head had made when introduced with his uncle’s bullet was at least a more preferable memory, though if he replays the moment too many times in his head he feels his father’s smile split his face and it’s enough to bludgeon down the wisps of mania.
His brief conversation with his uncle, Stuart Hatford, had been sobering if not vaguely uncomfortable; Neil had difficulty telling if his uncle only saw his dead sister when he looked at Neil or if he just saw Neil’s father, the man who had taken Mary away from him. Even though his uncle had orchestrated the closest thing to a miracle that Neil’s ever experienced, Neil hadn’t been particularly eager to further involve himself with yet another crime syndicate, last living relatives or otherwise, and had been more than happy to allow the Hatfords to remain detached from his life.
The day after his father’s execution, Neil had found himself in a hospital bed for the first time in his life. His mother, after all, had never been too inclined to be looked after by anyone but herself, and had made sure to instill that quality into her son as well. After his condition had stabilized, one FBI agent after another had pulled up a chair to his bedside and had him tell the same story over and over until his voice grew hoarse.
Neil had told them things about his life that he had never told anyone before, things he thought he’d sooner take to his grave than ever voice aloud. Given his track record, Neil thought laying himself bare to complete strangers would have been more emotionally taxing, but the aftermath of his father’s death had left him disconcertingly apathetic. His words had been candid, but they had been delivered in such a detached manner it was as if he was reading them from a dispassionate script.
He told himself that he didn’t have much to lose; he told himself that he had and was nothing at all.
When an agent informed him that he was to be put into witness protection, they had made it sound like Neil hadn't had any real say in the matter. Neil had bristled at that, but in the end couldn’t even find the energy to be contrary about it.
That had only been one month ago. In the following days, Neil had been relocated, given a completely new and supposedly permanent identity, enough funding to pay for a basic apartment, furnishing and utilities, and had even been assisted in acquiring a part-time janitorial job at a government-sanctioned research facility mere minutes away from his apartment complex.
The day he had settled into his new apartment was consequently the day he had gathered enough courage to remove the bandages covering both sides of his face. While he had been admitted in the hospital, the bandages were often removed to let the wounds air before being replaced, but Neil had made sure to never catch his reflection while the bandages were off. Neil had a hard enough time looking at his reflection on good days, so he hadn’t exactly been enthusiastic on viewing the newest additions to the list of issues he had with his self-image.
Staring into the oval mirror over his small, plain bathroom sink, Neil had carefully peeled the bandages and gauze off of his left cheek, then his right, disposed of them in the small waste bin set between the sink and toilet, then calmly evaluated the damage done to his face. After a terribly long moment of detached assessment, Neil had smiled something familiar and hideous back at his reflection, causing the scars on his cheek to stretch painfully, and thought that at least now his face matched the rest of his near-mutilated body.
Lola had always had a rather sadistic sense of artistry.
Neil hasn’t bothered with the colored contacts since that day either, figuring that there was now very little he could do to avoid drawing attention to his face, and allowed his father’s powder blue eyes to show themselves for the first time in over a decade. His hair, at least, remained dyed brown, as he had touched up his roots mere days before he was taken by his father’s men, but if Neil avoids his reflection now more adamantly than ever, there’s no one around to notice but himself.
There’s no one really around at all.
Which might be why Neil, despite everything, thinks that he can maybe learn to live with the ocean.
The tide pulls at him insistently, grasping at his ankles and beckoning him to come closer, tread deeper, swim so far out he can’t even see the shore anymore. To lose sight of himself and whatever future his new identity holds, and float into nothingness.
It’s the most invited Neil’s ever felt.
Alright, maybe he’s being a little dramatic. Maybe he’s just desperately grasping at anything that’ll make his situation even remotely bearable because he’s done nothing this month but be shuffled around by the FBI, mentally and physically poked and prodded at, renamed, and relocated to some backwater coastal town in South Carolina as a new member of the ever covetable witness protection program. Maybe he’s feeling a little pressed. Maybe.
Regardless of any warped comfort the ocean might be able to grant Neil someday, he elects to withdraw from its endless pull to spare himself from any more mauldin reflection for the night. He’s expected to start his first shift at his new job tomorrow morning at five AM sharp, which leaves him a little under six hours to get some sleep.
Neil will consider himself lucky if he manages even two.
Neil knows better than to look a gift horse in the mouth. The FBI granting him protection, a check in the mail every month, and securing him a part time job at a government facility definitely isn’t anything to complain about, but after two months of scrubbing toilets and washing the stench of formaldehyde out of various surfaces, Neil can’t help but wonder why he had to be a janitor of all things.
Really, money’s a nonissue. He’s still sitting on a decent amount of money left over from what his mom had stolen from his father, even though now he’ll never be able to access the rest of it that’s scattered across the country, and Neil lives frugally enough that the money the government sends is just enough to sustain him.
When he had gotten the apartment two months ago, the program had even given him enough money to buy a used car, but Neil had chosen to save the money instead, figuring that if he needed to be anywhere he was more than capable of walking or using public transportation. Cars are more trouble than they’re worth in Neil’s opinion, especially if both his job and the grocery store are within walking distance of his home. Nevermind that he doesn’t know the first thing about them and hasn’t driven one since he was eighteen.
Though disgusting at times, the work’s not all bad. Cleaning is ‘menial labor,’ sure, but hell if Neil hasn’t learned a thing or two about stain removal and proper sweeping technique in the past two months he’s worked here. His small stature and runner’s stamina come in handy as well, Neil supposes, when it comes to fitting into tight spaces and long shifts of constant exertion — even if it makes cleaning high spaces an absolute pain in the ass.
His coworkers and the building’s researchers are decidedly a mixed bag.
“I don’t know, man.” Matt sighs, shifting his weight to allow his mop act as a crutch. Neil’s eyes flit to the man’s face before he refocuses on disposing his latex gloves and reaching for his cart to grab new ones. “As fun as making out with Dan in empty lab rooms has been—”
“That’s romantic,” Neil snorts, snapping the latex gloves tight over his wrist. They're a pleasant pastel pink color and will be completely filthy before the next hour is up. “A safety hazard too.”
“Hush, you. I’m not hearing it from the local celibate.” Matt grins. ‘Celibate’ is definitely not the word Neil would use, but he doesn’t bother correcting him. Matt recovers what Neil likes to call his ‘talking about Dan’ face, and straightens up, dipping his mop in the bucket of soap water. “As fun as it’s been, I think I want more.”
Neil raises his eyebrows at him. “Sex in empty lab rooms? Or do you think she’s ready to see the janitor's closet?” Neil’s being difficult on purpose at this point, but he certainly hopes that’s not what Matt means when he says ‘more.’ Neil’s not crazy about the idea of being sexiled from the space; he sleeps in there sometimes.
“I mean that I think I want something serious with her.” Says Matt. “She’s… Well, she’s special. I think about her all the time, even when I’m not trying, you know?”
No, Neil thinks, swallowing, he doesn’t. He can’t imagine allowing someone close enough to be ‘special’ to him or allowing himself to think of someone unbiddenly, but he gives Matt his full attention anyways. “Then ask. You two talk, don’t you?”
“Then ask, right, why didn’t I think of that?” Matt huffs, raising his now sopping wet mop out of the bucket and slapping it onto the floor, washing the dark tile of the hallway in small, practiced circles. “You weren’t kidding when you said you don’t do relationships, huh?”
Neil shrugs, then pushes his cart to the other side of the hall, a little ways down from where Matt is mopping, but still within earshot. He pulls his own own mop out of its bucket, gives it a little shake, then starts mopping his section of the hall. The two usually start in the middle then work their separate ways down the long corridor, their combined effort making quick work, and Neil tries to make a mental calculation of how quickly they’ll be able to finish the three other halls in this section of the facility. The place is stupid-huge, and Neil thinks he’d still be getting lost if not for Matt.
“She’s just so… I don’t know. It kind of feels like we’re from different worlds sometimes, as corny as it sounds. The woman’s a marine biologist and I’m a college dropout turned janitor. Not that I think she’s the type to look down on me for that. Sometimes I get the feeling that she knows what it’s like to… Well. I think she’d understand.” Matt tells Neil over his shoulder. Neil’s honestly surprised that Matt’s still going when it’s obvious Neil’s not going to be able to give him any constructive advice, but Neil kind of likes Matt, so he supposes that he doesn’t mind the distraction. “But still. Her understanding me doesn’t necessarily mean that she’d want to date me. She’s way out of my league. She deserves someone who she can have, uh, intelligent conversation with. Or whatever.”
Neil thinks Matt is plenty capable of intelligent conversation and that Dan probably spends enough time talking about her area of study with Reynolds, so he tells the man so. Judging by the unconvinced look that Matt throws Neil’s way, he doesn’t buy it.
According to Matt, his family is actually fairly wealthy, and he had gotten through two years of college until he’d nearly OD’ed one night and was forced into rehab. He had decided to ‘take a break’ from school until he got back onto his feet, yet here he was years later mopping floors with Neil. Neil can’t really say he blames him; highschool had been nothing short of a nightmare and major inconvenience for both Neil and his mother while they were on the run, and he had absolutely no desire to further his education after she had died.
“Not to mention, I’d hate to to be on Wymack’s bad side. Dan’s practically his daughter.” Matt adds after a few moments of silence. Neil scoffs quietly at that, as Matt is definitely just making up excuses at this point.
David Wymack was the facility’s head of security and had been the one to interview Neil for the job. While Neil had at first avoided the middle-aged man for, well, being a middle-aged man, he came to realize that he was hardly a threat, at least not to any of the facility’s workers. And while Dan is definitely close with Wymack, she’s a grown woman, and a very intimidating one at that. Neil doesn’t know much about how attraction works, but Matt has reiterated that Dan’s bold personality is what he likes the most about her. Wymack would be the least of Matt’s worries if he managed to upset someone like Danielle Wilds, which Neil has a hard time even picturing to begin with. Matt’s almost offensively likable.
Allison Reynolds, however, Neil could see being a cause for concern. From what Neil can tell, she’s a close friend of Dan’s, and a bigger threat than Wymack could ever be. Although Neil hasn’t formed a complete opinion on the woman yet, he knows that she’s one of the facility’s top researchers, is possibly the only person on the planet who can make a white lab coat runway-worthy, and that the first time she had seen Neil she had given him a considering look, then thrown her head back and laughed something about their facility having the cutest janitorial staff.
She’s since taken to smirking at Neil whenever she passes by him in the hallways, then giving him the rundown of the ongoing bets she has on her coworkers’ personal lives whenever she happens to be in the breakroom while Neil’s wiping down its tables. She once told him that she had made nearly five hundred dollars betting in favor of one of the facility’s older security guards being a former pornstar from the 70s.
So far she’s been relatively merciful when it comes to Neil’s own secrets, a rarity that Neil contributes to the clear indicators on his hands and face that he hasn’t lived the easiest of lives, but Neil can tell she’s eager to glean anything she can from him. He’s probably fed her more bits of the fake background he’s fabricated for ‘Neil Josten’ more than he’s given anyone else, but each fake admission leaves him more and more wary as Allison is clearly adept in detecting bullshit.
In short, Neil finds her vaguely terrifying.
Neil’s lost enough in thought that he doesn’t realize he’s made his way down to the end of the hall until he catches a flash of white lab coat out of the corner of his eye. Striding down the main corridor that Neil’s hallway branches off of is the facility’s number one researcher — and possibly the most anal-retentive man Neil has ever known in his life — Kevin Day.
He’s looking down at his clipboard that Neil’s never seen him without, and Neil has just enough time to wonder if the poor thing is surgically attached to the man’s hand before Kevin looks up and catches Neil’s gaze. Recognition flits through dark green eyes and Kevin’s purposeful stride falters for half a second before he dips his head and mumbles, “Neil,” in an awkward half-greeting. He’s back to looking down at his clipboard and making his way down the hall before Neil can even respond in kind.
When he hears approaching footsteps and Matt’s squeaky cart coming up behind him, Neil turns his head to see his coworker giving him a bemused look.
“Uh, what was that?” Matt asks, craning his neck over Neil to look after Kevin’s retreating figure. “How on earth does an arrogant guy like Kevin Day know your name?”
“I caught him a couple of weeks ago in the breakroom looking at a sports newsletter on his phone,” Neil says, pulling up his cart and returning his mop to its bucket. He casts a quick glance down the newly mopped corridor before reaching down to the bottom of his cart and pulling out a wet-floor sign. “Turns out he likes exy. We talk about the games sometimes.” Neil explains as he unfolds the sign and places it conspicuously in the hall’s entrance.
If anything, his explanation has Matt looking even more confused. “Yeah, see,” Matt drawls, “I’d believe you. I would. If you weren’t insinuating that Day actually has a life outside of his work. Exy? Seriously?”
“Exy. Seriously.” Neil responds dryly, then pushes his cart out into the main hallway.
Neil has a marginally more-than-casual affinity for the sport, having wanted to play it himself growing up but never being allowed the chance on account of his mother’s paranoia. He settles for following the sport, at both college and professional level, and it’s the only reason he even bothered buying a television for his apartment. The thing’s been set to the sports channel all its pathetic little life.
“Okay,” Matt says slowly, sounding more than a little creeped and out and, really, Neil thinks, he’s being overdramatic. Even if it’s Kevin Day they’re talking about.
“I’ve been working here for two years,” Matt starts, pushing his cart to follow Neil into the next hall they’ve been assigned to clean. “And I’m pretty sure Kevin doesn’t even know that, much less my name. But you’re telling me you’ve been here for two months, and you and Kevin Day are exy buddies. Allison’s gonna love that.”
“I don’t doubt that.” Neil replies, reaching to pull out his mop again.
So no, Neil doesn’t dislike any of his coworkers. None of them probe him too intently with questions about his family or his past or his scars, nor do they seem to find Neil’s reticence or biting quips anything other than humorous if not an endearing personality trait. But they do ask him things like “How was your day off?” or “What kind of food do you like?” and tell him inconsequential, little things about their neighbor’s pet dog or how high their water bill was last month, and Neil’s not quite sure how to respond to such things either.
He’s not running anymore, but he still can’t seem to catch his breath.
Despite its seclusion and low population count, Mary Hatford wouldn’t have been thrilled with Neil’s new place of residence. His mother had always preferred colder climature, a far cry from South Carolina’s heat and humidity, and the majority of the small town’s residents are unabashedly friendly towards Neil despite his scars and cold eyes. Neil keeps his responses polite but reserved in the face of what he can only assume is southern hospitality, and refrains from any unnecessary interaction with his landlord or fellow apartment tenants.
He keeps to himself not out of necessity, but out of habit. Neil’s apartment is completely utilitarian; there’s not a single thing he owns that doesn’t serve some sort of purpose. This too, is purely habitual. The small television is probably the closest thing to a luxury item Neil possesses, if you don’t count his cellphone, which Neil doesn’t; it wasn’t purchased voluntarily, but rather forced upon him by one of the marshals assigned to his case. He’s been directed to keep it on him at all times, but that had lasted a good day and a half before Neil had decided that the device served him more use being plugged in at home by his bed acting as a glorified alarm clock and occasional web search engine. Neil can admit that having internet access readily available to him without having to go to a library is incredibly convenient, but the knowledge that whatever he searches is undoubtedly being monitored by the FBI makes him too paranoid to really appreciate it.
That being said, Neil quite likes his small apartment. The building itself only has two floors, but Neil was lucky enough to secure an apartment on the upper level, as hearing the creaking of someone’s footsteps on the floor above him sounded like the perfect way to rob him of any relaxation. His neighbors are quiet and elderly, and the lock on his front door makes a satisfying clicking noise whenever he turns it.
It’s also relatively clean and has a decent amount of natural lighting, which are things Neil can live and has lived without, yet he appreciates greatly nonetheless. The main room of the apartment is made up of a small kitchen and a living space in which a simple couch, coffee table, and television are situated. Past the living room is a single bedroom and bathroom that are separated by a short hall containing a built-in closet for a washer and dryer. Perhaps it is because Neil had spent a good majority of his life practically homeless that he can look at a full-size mattress covered only in plain grey sheets, a single pillow, and a duvet cover on the floor of an otherwise empty bedroom and feel nothing but contentment, but Neil sees nothing wrong with being easy to please.
At night, if he lies very still and quiet, he can hear the ocean.
From what he’s gathered, barely anyone who works at the research facility actually lives in the town surrounding it other than himself, as the facility is by far the town’s most interesting aspect and the surrounding beaches aren’t anywhere near as idyllic or safe as the ones in the next town over. Neil appreciates the lack of beach-goers, however, as well as the town’s simplicity. A grocery store is situated between Neil’s apartment complex and the facility, and a convenience store is located even closer in the opposite direction. Neil finds himself circling these checkpoints on his afternoon runs — afternoon, as Neil’s preference for morning runs has been compromised by his early work schedule.
Most days Neil wakes up, goes to work, uses one of the facility’s showers to briefly rinse off the grime from cleaning, stops at the grocery store on his way home if he needs anything, eats dinner, goes on his run, showers again albeit more thoroughly, then watches television until it’s time to go to bed. Showering twice a day had taken some getting used to, but really couldn’t be helped when his job involved getting dirty and his only hobby involved getting sweaty. Being clean is another thing Neil has learned not to take for granted on account of his personal history, as he had spent too many days and sometimes even weeks without being able to bathe.
It’s an unnervingly mundane life for the son of a serial killer and a mobster, so when Neil finds the routine suddenly disturbed by a single accidental encounter, he’s almost morbidly relieved.
Neil had taken an impromptu nap after work that day, and as a result was now running much later than he was accustomed to along newly lit street lamps and the rapidly diminishing light of the sunset. He’s just passed the convenience store when he catches a familiar form by the seashore in his peripheral vision. Neil only manages to recognize Kevin Day in the lowlight by his neat dark hair and hurried gait, as it’s the first time Neil’s ever seen Kevin without his lab coat and clipboard. Neil’s steady pace slows to a stop as he watches Kevin near what appears to be the end of the short strip of beach, then jump onto the rocks surrounding the bottom edge of the cliffside. The process looks nothing short of precarious, but Kevin moves with practiced ease, apparently familiar with which rocks are safe enough to gain a foothold. In a matter of seconds, Kevin’s disappeared behind the cliffside and Neil is left to wonder if he had actually seen anything at all.
Ordinarily, it shouldn’t be a shock to see Kevin Day by the ocean. He’s a marine biologist after all, but the facility has an entire section of the ocean reserved specifically for research purposes, and it just doesn’t make sense for Kevin to be slipping behind cliffsides miles away from the facility without a wetsuit or any materials. Neil would also note that it’s well after working hours, but, well, Kevin.
So Neil finds himself abandoning his run and slipping down to the small beach he had seen Kevin on only moments before. Calling the strip a beach, however, is perhaps a bit of a stretch, as it’s more rock than sand and definitely not ideal for swimming. Neil examines the rocks and tries to remember where Kevin had grappled on his own climb. He’s briefly worried that the rather substantial difference in height between Kevin and himself will hinder him from following, but Neil is confident in his agility to make up for it, especially if Kevin could manage the trip with a broken dominant hand. It’s slow going at first, and it’s probably taken Neil twice as long to shimmy himself around the cliff’s edge than it took Kevin, so when Neil finally emerges on the other side of the clifface, the sun has completely set and he’s more than just a little wet.
His eyes have mostly adjusted to the darkness at this point, and the moonlight is surprisingly bright, so Neil’s able to make out what appears to be a miniature cove of sorts. Neil silently slips down from the ledge of rock he was standing on and lands softly on fine sand. Glancing up, he notices that the cliff hangs over a good portion of the area, most likely making the location hard to view even from above. Neil can imagine that the cove would make a fairly popular spot if it weren’t so difficult to reach, but that’s precisely what lends it its desirable privacy.
Or, perhaps, necessary privacy, as Neil’s eyes finally swivel to Kevin’s kneeled form on the shore and, with a start, realizes that Kevin’s not alone.
Little too late does Neil realize that this is exactly what his mother had meant all those times she had scolded him for 'sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong.' Neil had partially assumed that it was Mary’s paranoia that caused her to drill him so adamantly on the subject, but in light of Neil following a man he hardly knows to a secluded location with little to no thought, he’s beginning to realize her point.
Kevin’s back is facing Neil, which is probably why he hasn’t noticed Neil standing there dumbly yet, and the man accompanying Kevin appears to be a little preoccupied violently vomiting into the ocean to take notice of him either. Neil can’t make out much of the stranger other than that he appears to be shirtless and must be wearing black pants as his entire lower half is completely formless in the dark. The moonlight catches easily in his hair, however, which leads Neil to believe that the stranger might be blond.
Kevin hovers over the man, who has progressed from vomiting to miserably dry heaving and spitting, but doesn’t touch him. Kevin mutters something darkly, but Neil has difficulty hearing him due to the deafening crash of waves. Neil watches as Kevin pulls what is unmistakably an orange prescription bottle out of his pocket, and upends it into his own hand. Kevin holds out his palm to the sputtering man, and Neil just barely catches the words, “last dose.”
Neil’s never had much of an imagination, but even if he did he still doesn’t think he would be able to accurately guess whatever the hell is going on here. He’s in the middle of trying to figure out how to leave the scene undetected when the stranger finally lifts his head to look at Kevin’s offered hand. The moonlight glints off his hair again, definitely blond, and washes over his skin as he rightens himself and snatches away what appears to be only a single half of a pill. Neil squints curiously as he notices the man seems to have bandages wrapped around his forearms, yet his hands are oddly covered in something black. When he throws his head back to swallow the meager amount of medication, Neil stiffens when he sees what appear to be deep, yet unbleeding, twin sets of lacerations on either side of the man’s neck. Horrifically, they move as he swallows.
Neil’s eyes trail down the stranger’s torso, instinctively looking for further signs of injury, and his eyes have just caught what appear to be even larger lacerations near his ribcage when something else steals Neil’s attention entirely. The man shifts, and his lower half lifts all in one shimmering, dark form that is neither skin nor cloth, and suddenly Neil realizes what he’s looking at.
The man has a tail.
The man has a tail, and before he can stop himself Neil is inhaling sharply and completely involuntarily.
Kevin jerks around just as the tailed man’s head snaps up in Neil’s direction and lets out a tremendous hiss not unlike an alligator or big cat. Neil’s stumbling backwards at the sound and flash of sharp teeth, and Kevin calls out Neil’s name in surprise before whirling back around and shouting, “Andrew! He’s just —”
Whatever explanation Kevin had for Neil’s unexpected appearance is abruptly cut off by the sound of the other man diving into the dark swell of the sea. Neil catches a brief glimpse of the end of his tail, which forks off into two parts like a fish’s and thinks only this: A mermaid.
Neil’s theory is only further validated the longer he stares into the sea and no one emerges. He’s never been one to dwell on the supernatural, as all his life he had been more preoccupied fearing monsters in the form of man. Even now he finds himself gripped with awe and curiosity rather than terror or panic. Neil wets his lips and reaches up to press a hand uselessly against his chest as if that would ease the relentless pounding of his heart against his ribcage.
The movement seems to startle Kevin out of his own reverie, scarred hand that had been held out towards the sea abruptly falling to his side. Kevin exhales heavily, then turns slowly to Neil, expression austere. “You followed me.”
Neil sees no point in denying that, even if his actions hadn’t been entirely premeditated. He takes a couple of steps toward Kevin to hear him better, but remains facing the ocean. “Are you going to explain?” Neil asks instead.
“You’re not — No one can know about this.” Kevin says, completely unhelpfully, as if Neil couldn’t have guessed that much himself. The existence of mermaids outside of fiction isn’t something Neil can imagine being common knowledge.
Ignoring Kevin’s nonanswer, Neil finally turns to the other man and tries again. “Is it — He? — sick? You were giving it medication.”
Kevin lets out an agitated sigh and drags his uninjured hand down his face. He’s obviously stressed, but Neil’s never been the most empathetic person and he’s not going to back down without an explanation for what he’s seen tonight. Kevin remains silent, and although his hand is still covering half of his face, his eyes clearly voice his apprehension.
“Kevin.” Neil urges, growing impatient once the silence has stretched on for too long.
At that Kevin’s hand drops from his face and he takes another step towards Neil, eyes steely and jaw taut. Neil’s not even a little impressed. “This is none of your business.” Kevin states, “Only a select few facility personnel are even aware of Andrew’s existence. You are a janitor.”
Andrew, Neil thinks, remembering the name Kevin had called out in clear desperation earlier. Then…
“The mermaid’s name is… Andrew?” Neil asks, incredulity clear in his voice. Not that Neil has anything against the name, just that it seems like an odd choice for a mythical creature.
“Merman, technically.” Kevin sniffs, and Neil is abruptly reminded why all of their conversations prior to this one have been strictly exy-related.
“... Okay,” Neil says flatly, then, “Look. There’s no one for me to really tell about this, and even if there was, it’s not exactly the most believable story. I’m asking because I saw it with my own eyes and I still can’t believe it.”
“You don’t understand.” Kevin says, closing his eyes briefly in frustration. “If it is brought to the higher up’s attention that Andrew is alive, I, among others,” at that Kevin gives Neil a pointed look, “will not only be fired, but also be in significant trouble with the government.”
Neil is more than just a little familiar with being ‘in trouble’ with the government, but Kevin’s words cause Neil’s gaze to shift back at the inky blackness of the sea in quiet contemplation. After a moment, he asks, “It… Andrew is supposed to be dead?”
Kevin finally closes the gap so that he is standing side by side with Neil, both men facing the dark sea. Kevin’s a near full foot taller than Neil, and Neil resists the urge to regain space between them.
“Andrew is a former… research subject, at the facility and, to my knowledge, was all but raised in captivity. He is exceedingly intelligent, exhibiting a wide understanding of the English language and can speak fluently, albeit recently… very sparingly.” Kevin mutters the last word with no lack of bitterness.
“For all his intelligence, Andrew is… soulless. Violent.” Kevin trails off, thinly-veiled fear evident in his tone. Neil’s just about to prompt him to continue when Kevin shakes his head slightly, clearing his throat. “It was clear to me that no party was benefiting from Andrew’s captivity, but as you can imagine many would be against the release of such a rare specimen despite the years worth of tests and research already gathered on him. Andrew’s hardly the first of his species to be captured and studied, but the only other US facility that currently has another of his species is my… old place of occupation.”
Kevin rubs at his broken hand at the mention of his old job, and Neil narrows his eyes in recognition of the tell. Neil’s well-versed in the art of lying, but waits for the man to continue before probing any further.
“It’s not uncommon for merpeople to die suddenly and without clear explanation in captivity, even though their lifespan is similar to that of a human’s. Finding an explanation for the lack of a body was a concern, but due to Andrew’s… history, it was relatively easy to convince the board that there wasn’t much left that was salvageable. The only people who are aware of Andrew’s escape are those who assisted me, David Wymack and Dr. Dobson. Although,” Kevin’s brow furrows, “I believe Reynolds and Wilds have their suspicions.”
Neil would be surprised by how forthcoming Kevin is being, if it weren’t for the glaring hole in the man’s explanation. Nothing Kevin has said seems untrue exactly, but Neil has a hard time wrapping his head around Kevin Day risking his job and position in an act of pure altruism. Wymack, Neil could definitely believe, as Neil’s suspects the older man to have a bit of a bleeding heart, and although Neil has never personally met the woman, he remembers Matt claiming Betsy Dobson to be something of saint as well. Kevin, on the other hand, Neil finds is a bit more like Neil himself when it comes to selfishness, and Neil sure as hell can’t imagine himself risking his own security for another in such a manner.
At least, that’s how Neil was raised to be, as he had resolutely ignored the way his thoughts had stilled upon hearing that there had been years of ‘tests’ and ‘research’ on a supposedly intelligent being that Neil had initially mistaken for a human.
“I had no idea you were such a philanthropist, Kevin.” Neil says, a bit unkindly, tilting his head up to look Kevin in the eye. Kevin makes an affronted sound in the back of his throat, so Neil continues. “You want me to believe that you put your career in jeopardy over a creature you described as violent and soulless? And you still haven’t explained the medicine.”
Kevin huffs, breaks eye contact with Neil, and resumes looking out at the sea. It’s getting late and Neil should have returned home from his run by now, but the thought of leaving the cove with so many of his questions still unanswered is frustrating. He knows this level of curiosity is dangerous, especially when Neil can be so prone to fixating on things. He can’t help but wonder if he’s spent too much of his free time at work around Matt and Allison after all, their own nosiness rubbing off on him. He’s just begun to think he’s pushed too far when—
“We made a deal.” Kevin says quietly enough that for a moment Neil wonders if he misheard him. Slowly, Kevin stretches his scarred left hand out in front of him, allowing the moonlight to illuminate it and turn it a silvery green color. “I free him and help him through withdrawal, and he… fixes my hand.”
“Your… ” Neil breathes, barely a whisper and all but inaudible over the loud inhales and exhales of the ocean. His eyes flick over and up to Kevin’s hand, and Neil allows himself to examine it in full for the first time. Kevin’s hands are long and elegant, pretty even, Neil guesses, but his left hand is very obviously and visibly injured. Neil’s own hands are heavily scarred, courtesy of Lola during his capture, but unlike Kevin, the abuse done to Neil’s hands had only been external. Kevin’s hand displays a pale, wide gash diagonally across the back of it, and his pinky and ring finger are slightly curled and set too far apart. Held out as it is, Kevin’s hand also has a slight tremor, but Neil is unsure if that has anything to do with Kevin’s injury or is just a result of the man’s preoccupation with alcohol.
Neil’s heard the rumors about Kevin Day’s left hand of course. In fact, he’s pretty sure they were brought to his attention within his first week on the job. The rumors ranged from Kevin falling off a boat and getting his hand sliced by one of the propellers to a fellow researcher lashing out and impairing Kevin’s hand in a jealous rage. Now that Neil’s had the opportunity to properly study the damage, he’s more inclined to believe the latter to be true, as he’s all too familiar with what calculated cruelty looks like on human flesh. Kevin’s transfer to a smaller facility, alcoholic tendencies, and the haunted look the man gets in his eyes whenever he mentions his former residence are things Neil finds equally telling.
Then Neil processes the rest of Kevin’s statement.
“That’s… What?” Neil replies skeptically, “How is he supposed to fix your hand?”
Kevin sighs heavily, as though he’s trying to explain tax deductions to a ten year old, and Neil doesn’t even bother hiding his ire with Kevin’s condescension, frowning up at him openly. Kevin crosses his arms and meets Neil’s gaze. “Merpeople are supernatural beings. They are capable performing feats that cannot be scientifically explained.” Kevin explains, “In other words… magic.”
“Magic.” Neil says flatly. He’s beginning to think that he had slipped and fallen while climbing along the cliffside, that he had dashed his head open upon the rocks and was now either dead or having one hell of a coma dream in one of the hospital beds in the next town over. “And you have proof that mermaid magic can heal broken bones and damaged cartilage?”
“Of course I do.” Kevin scoffs, but doesn’t elaborate further, once again intent on trying Neil’s patience. Neil opens his mouth to pry for more information, but Kevin cuts him off sharply. “No. I’ve said enough. You don’t have the clearance to know any of this, and I only told you what I did because I didn’t want you getting us both in trouble by trying to get answers from someone else.”
Kevin turns away from the sea and walks past Neil, taking a few steps towards the cliffside rocks that are apparently the cove’s only entrance and exit. Kevin pauses before he advances out of earshot, however, throwing Neil a final warning over his shoulder. “The escape was nearly six months ago, and Andrew has spent the last four being weaned off the medication administered to him while he was at the facility. Andrew will fulfill his end of the deal during our next meeting and that will be the end of our… arrangement.”
“Just like that?” Neil asks, “You won’t stay in contact with him? Or watch him? Track him?” It’s the very least Neil would expect, really, and the thought of someone as obsessive as Kevin passing up the opportunity to gather what has to be extremely exclusive research is more than a little baffling.
“Yes. Just like that.” Kevin grinds out, obviously frustrated with both the situation and Neil’s probing. “It’s… for the best if Andrew is left alone. He’s a monster, Neil. He shouldn’t be anywhere near humans and that’s the way he wants it. It would be in your best interest to remember that.”
Kevin’s quiet for another long moment, but remains stationary. Whether he’s taking time to recover from his previous words or preparing for the ones he’ll say next, Neil isn’t quite sure. “Don’t return here, Neil. And don’t make me regret letting you off with just a warning. My former colleagues wouldn’t have been nearly as… lenient.” Kevin speaks quietly but with a tone of finality, then moves to leave Neil standing alone on the cove’s small beach. Neil watches him go, but his eyes are eventually drawn back to the dark horizon.
He won’t tell anyone. Neil hadn’t been lying when he told Kevin that he had no one to tell, but he doesn’t think that he’ll be able to let go of the situation either.
The swell of the tides is loud, but Neil’s thoughts are louder.