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Overflow of Love

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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 unbidden, 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; high school 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 cliff face, 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.

Chapter Text

Neil’s been having these dreams.

The first dream had occurred, unsurprisingly, the night Neil had stumbled upon Kevin Day assisting a merman through withdrawal on a secluded beach. When Neil had finally returned to his apartment that night, he had made a beeline for the bathroom to peel off his running gear and take a brief shower. After crudely towelling himself dry and slipping into an oversized t-shirt, Neil had curled up on his mattress, body turned towards his bedroom window, and fallen asleep to the distant sound of the sea.

In the dream, Neil had been floating on his back, rocked gently by calm waters. The clouds had moved at a rapid and unnatural pace as if time-lapsed, and Neil had watched them speed by in vague anticipation until the sky had turned a vibrant, peachy color. Just as the clouds had slowed to their standard crawl, Neil had felt something brush up against the underside of his legs, and then again at the small of his back. He had been quick to righten himself at the sensation, heart hammering away with something that had felt frantic yet nothing at all like fear, only to have been interrupted by his morning alarm. Neil had awoken breathless, but that first dream had been relatively tame to the nightmares that had followed the next few nights.

To put it mildly, every night this week, Neil has drowned.

He’s unused to dreaming so frequently, and he’s even more unused to dreaming about anything other than past events and traumas. So when Neil startles awake the fourth night in a row, mouth tasting of saltwater and gasping for air, he knows that something has to be done about it. It’s obvious what’s causing the dreams, and although Neil knows the other night’s encounter had startled him — would startle anyone — he’s still taken aback by just how much it’s affecting him.

Neil rolls over and grapples for his phone to check the time. He winces at the harsh blue light the phone omits when he switches it on, and then again when he sees that it’s nearly three in the morning. He won’t have to be at work for another two hours still, but Neil doesn’t find the idea of trying to go back to sleep when his sheets are soaked in sweat overly appealing. Neil turns off his morning alarm since he clearly won’t be needing it, then places his phone back down on the floor next to his mattress.

Really, Neil feels like he’s just prolonging the inevitable. He had known the moment Kevin had told him to stay away that such a thing would be easier said than done, and he finds his eyes constantly drawn to the seashore on his runs. The dreams only seem to be getting worse, and although they’re nightmarish enough that they shouldn’t be anything other than precautionary, he can’t help but to find them compelling as well. Up until now, Neil doesn’t think he’s ever dreamed of the sea without a car going up in flames on its accompanying beach.

Perhaps returning to the scene and finding nothing there would help him move on, realize that it really was just a one-time accidental encounter. He can go, maybe give the cove a more thorough inspection, and then he can leave. Hopefully then Neil’s subconscious will get the hint and stop leading him to dark waters every time he closes his eyes.

It sounds like a flimsy excuse even in his own head, but Neil’s already pulling on a light hoodie, some sweatpants, and his tennis shoes before he can think any better of it. He moves through his dark apartment silently and with light footsteps in an attempt to be courteous to the tenants likely slumbering below him. Neil steps out into the tepid night air, shuffles down the building’s wooden steps, then breaks into a steady jog when he hits the ground.

There’s something special about being alone outside after midnight but before sunrise, Neil thinks, like he’s the only one in the world and comfortable with it.

Eventually he reaches the already familiar strip of rock and sand, and maneuvers his way over to the rocks surrounding the ocean cliffside. Cautiously, Neil jumps onto the rocks and begins the painstaking process of moving himself along the cliff face. He doesn’t think he’s any quicker than he was his last two tries, but he manages to time his movements better and avoids getting knocked around by the waves too badly.

When Neil finally emerges on the other side, he lets out a satisfied huff and absently rubs his hands against his pants, palms stinging and slightly red from grabbing at the rock. He quickly scans the cove and tries not to feel disappointed when it appears that he’s there alone; that had, after all, kind of been the point.

Neil sticks his hands into the pocket of his hoodie and walks along the crescent of the shore, which is just wide enough that Neil could probably lay down without the tide reaching him. Neil’s never exactly been the type to get hung up on aesthetic appreciation, but again he finds himself struck by how idyllic the hidden pocket is, and he may or may not already be coming up with an excuse to return during the day to see it in proper lighting.

The cove is certainly small, however, and Neil quickly reaches the other side, which is also made up of dark, weathered rock. Unlike the rocks that Neil used to enter and exit the cove, these are wider, flatter and appear more useful for sitting on than climbing. Neil carefully steps out onto them and follows their curved-in path until he’s at the halfway mark of the cove’s circumference. Finally, he crouches down and leans his back up against the rocks behind him.

It’s… nice, Neil thinks as he relaxes his posture and looks up at the dark sky; partially obscured by the overhang of the cliff, but the moon and stars still clearly visible. The water is calm and gentle ― waves already broken by the surrounding cliffs ― but also deep enough that Neil doesn’t think he’d be able to see the bottom even in daylight. If he weren’t wearing shoes and sweatpants, he could probably even put his legs over the ledge and into the water.

Neil sits there, knees pulled to his chest and arms wrapped loosely around his ankles, long enough that his eyes eventually drift shut. The cove feels a bit like a different world, untouched and unknown, and Neil wonders who had found the cove first, Kevin or Andrew. Clearly Andrew’s not here all the time, but Neil idly wonders if the merman will stick to the area even when his deal with Kevin is complete.

Then again, Kevin had said that the next time he would meet with Andrew would most likely be the last, but he also purposely neglected to tell Neil when that next meeting would take place. It’s entirely possible that Kevin and Andrew have already completed their deal, as it’s already been a few days and Neil hasn’t spoken with Kevin since.

Neil sighs through his nose and opens his eyes, casting his gaze down to the lapping water beneath him. There’s nothing unusual about the way the ocean shimmers and sways, but Neil squints at it curiously anyways, feeling as though something had shifted near-imperceptibly when his eyes had been closed. Slowly, Neil curls forward to peer searchingly into the water’s depths, the air feeling oddly charged.

Nothing happens, of course, so after a moment Neil leans back, feeling rather silly.

Neil has just enough to time to think, What am I doing? before something shoots out of the water, lightning quick, and drags Neil back down with it.

Stupidly, Neil opens his mouth to shout and gets a mouthful of saltwater on the way down for his trouble. Even more stupidly, Neil has the fleeting thought that Kevin would probably be feeling pretty smug right about now.

The past few nights’ vague dreams aside, Neil’s never actually been drowned before, so he thinks he deserves some clemency for not reacting to the situation as appropriately as he should be.

The intimately familiar pain of flesh being ripped into, however, is enough to finally jump-start Neil’s survival instincts.

Rather than flailing his arms and kicking his legs uselessly, Neil turns his efforts towards his attacker — Andrew, Neil has no doubt, as a split second before having been dragged under, Neil had caught a flash of gleaming predator eyes and moonlit hair. His right leg, the source of the curling pain, has been seized, so Neil attempts to jab at Andrew’s eyes to startle him into releasing his hold.

Neil makes a few blind swipes, miscalculating where Andrew’s head would be, until he feels his fingers sink into something. Judging by the shape, it’s not Andrew’s eyes Neil has stuck his fingers into, but the lacerations — gills, he realizes, Andrew has gills — that Neil had seen on the merman’s neck that first night. Neil immediately brings up his left hand to plunge his fingers into the accompanying set of gills on the other side of Andrew’s neck, and he feels them flap erratically around the intrusion.

He remembers seeing larger lacerations on Andrew’s ribcage, so Neil suspects this wouldn’t be enough to suffocate the merman, but it’s apparently unpleasant enough that Andrew releases his hold on Neil’s leg. Neil has probably only been underwater for a couple of seconds, but the mouthful of water he had taken on the way down in addition to the panic has Neil’s lungs screaming for oxygen.

Neil’s not much of a swimmer. On account of the numerous incriminating scars that litter his torso, being in an even partial state of undress in public is something Neil has taken great care to avoid. When it had come to the mandatory swimming unit in his high school gym class, Neil’s mother had been adamant in making sure Neil’s coach had allowed him to sit out or partake in an alternative course to be graded on. Neil can’t remember the last time he was in a body of water any larger than a bathtub. He’s not entirely sure if there had ever even been a first time.

Needless to say, Neil’s swimming prowess is limited to a very sad doggy-paddle, and he is under absolutely no illusion that he can out-swim a fucking merman. So when Neil emerges gasping for air at the surface, he knows that he hadn’t so much escaped as Andrew had just let him go.

Neil heaves himself up onto the rocks and immediately spits the brine out of his mouth. He lays there, splayed out and trembling, and waits for the static in his head to disperse and his heart rate to slow. Neil runs a shaking hand through his soaked hair and then down his damp face. His hoodie is predictably waterlogged and clinging to him uncomfortably, while his right sweatpant leg is bloody and torn.

Neil hisses in pain as he rolls up the tattered pant leg to properly inspect the injury. Thankfully, his leg doesn’t appear to be swollen or broken, but the large claw marks curled possessively around his lower calf certainly aren’t pretty.

He uses the rocks to help himself stand, then tests his right leg by stepping down gingerly on it. It smarts, but not badly enough that he’ll be walking with a noticeable limp. He doesn’t want anyone asking him any questions.

… Although, drenched, bloody and disheveled as he is, Neil doesn’t think the lack of a limp will really save him from any suspicion on his trek home, so he just has to hope that it’s still too early for anyone to be out and about.

The reasonable thing to do would be to locate the nearest phone and call an ambulance, but Neil keeps a roll of bandages and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide underneath his bathroom sink as a precaution, and he’s had more than enough practice patching himself up. He’s not going to make a habit of going to the hospital just because he’s already been there once before. After all, he has to be at work in an hour.

If climbing around the cliffside had been difficult before, it’s a real bitch now.

Fortunately, Neil had been able to make it back to his apartment and treat the wound without further incident. He’ll have to keep a watchful eye on the injury for signs of infection, and it’ll definitely scar, but at this point Neil is resigned to treating the accumulating array of scars on his body like a particularly macabre stamp collection.

He had miraculously even managed to make it to work on time, but his rare stroke of luck had evidently ran out the moment Allison Reynolds had entered the breakroom during Neil’s meal break.

“You look like shit,” She says as she walks in, cutthroat as ever. Neil had taken a painfully brief shower to clean the wound, but the smell of saltwater still clings persistently to him like bad cologne, and he doesn’t even want to know how tired his face looks right now.

“Thanks,” Neil replies, taking a bite of the uninspired turkey sandwich he had hastily thrown together before leaving his apartment for the second time that morning. He hadn’t had time to eat breakfast, and Neil already has concrete plans to immediately head home and go to bed after work, so the sandwich is probably the only thing he’ll be eating today.

“Yeah no, I’m not being cute. You look like something chewed you up and spit you out,” Allison frowns, crossing her arms and leaning her hip against the table. She’s not too far off from the truth, Neil supposes, chewing mechanically and staring blankly ahead. Although he’s pretty sure he would have actually had to have gone to the ER if Andrew had really bitten him. He doesn’t realize Allison is expecting a reply from him until she huffs and straightens up. “Fine, don’t tell me. But let me give you a ride home after work.”

Neil’s reflex is to resist, and Allison must know it, as she cuts him off the second he opens his mouth. “Humor me, Josten. It’s like a bazillion degrees outside and I know you walk. Your shift ends at noon, right? I’ll take my lunch break then.”

“That’s not—” Neil starts, but Allison cuts him off with a lilting Ah-Ah, and turns on her heel to strut out of the breakroom. Neil wonders what she had even come in here for in the first place.

So two hours later, Neil — freshly showered and changed out of his work uniform — finds Allison waiting outside for him in the parking lot. She’s still got her lab coat on, but she’s pulled her hair loose from her usual tight ponytail and is wearing a white pair of sunglasses that take up roughly half of her face. When he approaches her, she thrusts a small bag of pretzels and a blue gatorade bottle in his hands with a pithy, “Eat this,” then turns to lead him to her car.

Neil doesn’t know what kind of car Allison’s car is, just that it’s probably about as expensive as it is pink.

He slides into the passenger seat and, after getting confirmation that it’s okay for him to eat in her car, tears open the bag of pretzels. The short ride is thankfully silent save for Neil giving Allison directions to his apartment and the low hum of some vapid pop song from ten years ago playing on the radio.

When Allison pulls up to Neil’s apartment complex, she cranes her head a bit to inspect the building, then puts the car in neutral. She leans back in her seat, then turns to look at Neil. “Now was that so hard?”

Neil looks into the abyss of Allison’s sunglass lenses, then down at the now half-eaten bag of pretzels and still unopened bottle of gatorade in his lap. His throat feels oddly tight. “No. Uh… Thanks. Allison.”

Silence stretches for a beat, then Allison sags a bit in her seat with an agitated huff. “You’re lucky it’s Matt’s day off today. He’s been whining over how tired you’ve looked all week, but today really would’ve pushed it. And you’re especially lucky that he can’t see you right now when you’ve got that,” she flicks her fingers dismissively in his direction, “stupid look on your face like you can’t understand why anyone would ever do anything nice for you. Now get out of my car and go get some sleep. Christ, I’m getting dark circles just looking at you.”

Neil has absolutely no idea how to respond to any of that, and he’s eager for whatever this is to be over, so he just nods, unbuckles his seatbelt, and gets out of the car.

Allison waits until Neil’s climbed up the building steps and has unlocked the front door of his apartment to roll down her window and shout, “Later, loser!” then peel off down the street. Neil watches her go, then steps into the blessedly cool sanctuary of his entryway.

Neil stands listlessly in his kitchen for a little while, finishing off the pretzels and taking measured sips of the gatorade. When he’s had enough, he sticks the half empty bottle into the fridge and throws the pretzel bag away.

He shuffles into his bedroom and strips down to his underwear once he’s made it to his mattress. Neil lowers himself down and gets under the covers, pulling them completely over his head to block out the sunlight. He waits until he’s settled and still enough to hear the ocean, then falls asleep moments later.

Neil sleeps a staggering fourteen hours, and if he dreams, he has no recollection when he wakes.

Neil’s on something of a mission the next day, which, ironically, results in him being the one to mercilessly corner someone in the breakroom.

“When are you meeting with Andrew?” Neil says, rounding on Kevin who is currently standing by the brewing coffee machine with that damn clipboard in his hand. Neil eyes Kevin’s left hand and notes that that its appearance is unchanged from last week, and Neil hopes that means he’s not already too late.

Kevin’s eyes widen at the mention of Andrew’s name and swivel frightfully to the door before they snap back to glare at Neil. “I am not talking to you about this. What did I say, Neil?”

“Something along the lines of that if word gets out that Andrew is alive you’ll be in a bit of trouble,” Neil delivers casually, crossing his arms. “The thing is, Kevin, I don’t have anything to do with Andrew’s escape. If anything, I should be getting in contact with someone and letting them know what really happened to such an invaluable research specimen, don’t you think?”

“Are you— Are you blackmailing me?” Kevin gapes, leaning away from Neil and looking all for the world like Neil towers over him and not the other way around.

“Thank you for noticing. So I want you to take me with you when you meet Andrew next; when he fixes your hand.” Kevin’s smart enough that Neil knows reiterating the or else won't be necessary.

“You wouldn’t throw Wymack under the bus like that,” Kevin tries.

“Maybe not,” Neil allows, “but I don’t have to mention that I know of anyone’s involvement but yours. If Wymack or Dr. Dobson are revealed as accomplices, that would only be because you said something about it, not me.”

Kevin swears and slams his clipboard down on the counter. Neil watches dispassionately as Kevin runs a hand down his face and mutters something about short people being closer to Hell.

“Well?” Neil prompts.

Yes, fine,” snaps Kevin. “You just want to— What? See him heal my hand?”

At Neil’s short nod, Kevin deflates and redirects his gaze down at his ruined hand. “I was going to meet with him today or tomorrow anyway…” Kevin sighs, then shoots Neil a furtive glance. “Meet me at the rocks this afternoon at seven. I won’t wait for you if you’re late.”

“I won’t be,” Neil says, stepping away from Kevin and the counter. He waits half a beat to see if Kevin will say anything else, but Kevin seems content to ignore Neil’s existence and balefully pour himself a cup of coffee. His mood’s clearly been ruined and Neil almost feels bad about it, if only because he’s unsure if Kevin will ever want to talk about exy with Neil again after this.

The rest of Neil’s shift is almost unbearably slow, and the passage of time seems to all but stop once he returns home. Neil eventually gives up trying to pass time at home and goes for a run despite the midday heat and his injury, but that only kills about an hour. Neil even resorts to doing laundry and vacuuming the floor in his anxious boredom, and he puts more time and care into preparing his dinner as well. Not that it shows, as Neil’s ability to cook is about on par with his ability to swim.

Patience has never been Neil’s virtue, and he can’t help but wonder if this is karma for being so accosting with Kevin.

Neil’s out the door by 6:50 and runs the whole way there, injury be damned. Kevin’s already standing by the cliffside rocks when Neil arrives minutes before seven. Neil doesn’t see Kevin’s car on the street, so he assumes Kevin must have parked it further away from the beach as a precaution.

Kevin only gives Neil an irritable look when Neil slips down the shore and approaches him. His ire is understandable, but there are worse things Neil could have blackmailed Kevin into doing than this, so, honestly, Kevin can get over it.

Kevin gives the road a quick glance, apparently not eager to make the same mistake twice, before nodding to Neil and jumping onto the rocks without a word. Neil waits until there’s sufficient enough space before following Kevin around the cliffside. Thankfully, Neil’s able to keep up with Kevin’s practiced pace and avoid wincing the whole way like he had yesterday morning.

“How will he know we’re here?” Neil asks as the two enter the cove and walk over to stand at the surf. Summer’s just begun, so it’s still plenty bright outside despite the hour. As Neil had suspected, the cove is as beautiful during the day as it is alluring at night.

Kevin crosses his arms and scans the horizon searchingly, eyes narrowed. “Merpeople are very territorial and have a sort of sense for knowing when someone’s in their space. Andrew usually knows I’m here within minutes. Although,” Kevin’s eyes flit over to meet Neil’s, then return to watch the sea. “when he notices that I’ve brought someone with me, he might refuse to show himself.”

Neil frowns; he hadn’t thought of that. Kevin doesn’t even know that Andrew had nearly drowned Neil just yesterday, and since Andrew had allowed Neil to escape, there’s not much else the assault could have been other than a warning. If merpeople are as territorial as Kevin says, Andrew had probably been trying to frighten Neil into staying away.

A few tense minutes pass before Kevin abruptly shoots his arm out in front of Neil. “Stand back,” Kevin says, “I see him.”

Neil had already leapt back the moment Kevin’s arm had swung out in front of him, but Kevin’s words cause Neil to freeze. His gaze immediately darts out to the ocean to catch a glimpse of whatever Kevin had seen.

He starts when he sees it: a black dorsal fin cutting across the water’s surface like a knife. A heart palpitation later, Andrew is pulling himself out of the sea and onto the beach, water pouring off his fair hair and skin. Andrew props his upper-body up with both his arms and immediately looks to Kevin. Kevin moves to step forward, but Andrew’s gaze becomes steely and Kevin freezes in place.

Neil doesn’t so much as blink, but Andrew’s eyes quickly shift from Kevin to him. Andrew only makes eye contact with Neil for half a second before Andrew’s eyes drop to examine Neil. The brief inspection eventually reaches Neil’s shoes in the sand, and Andrew blinks once, twice, before his eyes are climbing back up Neil with an agonizing slowness. Neil barely resists the urge to fidget.

When Andrew returns to looking at Neil’s face, Neil has to look away, knowing what the merman must see. Since Neil’s run-in with his father, whenever people see Neil — and thus his facial scarring — for the first time, they react one of two ways: startle badly and then politely never look Neil head-on ever again, or stare for a small eternity and then optionally follow up with some sort of comment. Neil endlessly prefers the former, but Andrew clearly has no concern for Neil’s preferences.

Neil swallows, wondering if Andrew will say something too, but when Neil gathers the courage to look back at him, Andrew is watching his eyes again.

Andrew’s face is completely blank, startling so. It reminds Neil of staring out at the ocean’s horizon, flat and unmoving, and he doesn’t know whether to be unnerved by it or grateful for the complete lack of reaction.

Neil hadn’t given much thought on Andrew’s personality beyond ‘violent’ and ‘soulless’, but somehow he had expected the merman to be more… abrasive than this.

Andrew’s still looking at him.

“Andrew,” Kevin says, slowly, like a warning. “This is Neil. He is… an acquaintance of mine, and the one who saw us during our last meeting. I’ve explained to him the situation, and he’s sworn to keep your existence a secret. He’s not a threat.” Kevin throws Neil a glare over his shoulder. “Right, Neil?

Neil glances at Kevin, then Andrew, then Kevin again, before he licks his lips and opens his mouth to reply. For once in his life, however, Neil’s tongue doesn’t seem to be cooperating, so Neil snaps his mouth shut and settles for nodding numbly like some kind of idiot.

Kevin sighs heavily, the sound syncing with the tide, and looks back to Andrew, stepping closer. Andrew finally takes his eyes off Neil to level Kevin a decidedly bored look.

“How are you feeling? Have the withdrawal symptoms persisted?” Kevin ventures, hovering as close to Andrew as he dares.

Andrew just blinks up at Kevin slowly, exuding a level of silent judgement Neil’s only ever really seen stray cats pull off. Kevin seems to realize Andrew won’t be deigning him with a response after the silence extends for too long, and makes an exasperated noise in the back of his throat.

Really? I preferred you on your medication. You at least answered me then.”

“Funny,” Andrew drawls, “You were more tolerable when I was drugged out of my mind too, Kevin.”

Kevin only sputters indignantly at that, and Neil… doesn’t know what to think of all this. Andrew’s voice is monotonous and dark, but carries well even over the swell of the tide. There's no odd or unusual quality to it, or even any hint of some unknown mythical accent; Andrew just sounds completely and ordinarily human. Kevin had said that Andrew was wildly intelligent and completely fluent in the English language, but somehow Neil knowing that and Neil actually hearing it are two completely different things.

That, and Neil thinks he’s probably still a little surprised by Andrew’s personality, and he wonders if he was really so different on the facility-administered medication. Medication which Neil still doesn’t know the purpose of, but is starting to form a few theories over.

Kevin’s apparently hell-bent on proving Andrew’s point of just how intolerable he can be, as he’s now taken to nagging Andrew about his health. Neil’s kind of tuning him out, and if the way Andrew shifts to sit in the sand without the support of his arms and stare listlessly off into space, Andrew’s not particularly interested in the subject either.

“—And would it kill you to let me change out those bandages? They’re filthy. God knows what you’re even hiding under there that you’d only ever let Dr. Dobson see anyway,” Kevin rants, which causes Neil to seek out the bandages in question.

Wrapped around Andrew’s forearms are elastic bandages; they’re most likely water resistant, but Kevin’s right, they are in a pretty sordid state. If not for the small metal clips holding the bandages together, they look like they would have unraveled months ago. Curiously, Neil notes that while the bandages are certainly dirty, there appear to be no traces of blood on them.

But now that’s Neil’s looking at Andrew, he can’t seem to stop.

Physically, Andrew’s something of a living juxtaposition. He’s actually rather small, which, coming from Neil, is really saying something. Neil hadn’t realized it during their first two encounters, but he thinks that even if Andrew stretched out to his full length, he still wouldn’t be as long as Neil was tall. Despite Andrew’s small scale, he’s clearly quite muscular, and Neil doesn’t doubt that Andrew would probably outweigh him even without the strong, heavy-looking tail.

And the tail.

It would be almost shark-like, on account of the prominent dorsal and pelvic fins, if sharks were jet black and shimmering. The short but powerful line of dark scale melds seamlessly with Andrew’s light skin, and the sharp contrast between the two is yet another juxtaposition.

Neil’s so distracted by the anomalism of Andrew’s basic anatomy that it takes him much longer than it probably should have to notice all the scars.

The first thing Neil catches is the bald patch on Andrew’s tail near one of his pelvic fins, where the scales are largest. The scales around the patch are chipped and the exposed muscle is an angry, pinkish color which suggests the plates hadn’t fallen off on their own accord. More incriminating is the clear incision that spreads across the visible muscle.

Neil tilts his head slightly and squints. His eyes trail upward to look at Andrew’s more human half, which Neil had mostly skimmed over in favor of Andrew’s more… unfamiliar attributes. Directly above the space Andrew’s tail meets with his skin, is a long, swooping scar that runs along his lower abdomen. It’s white and not overly stark against Andrew’s skin, but it’s thick and centipede-like, which reminds Neil of a long-since healed surgery scar.

Andrew’s torso, Neil realizes, is just about as marred as Neil’s own, but where Neil’s scars are jagged and imperfect, Andrew’s scars all have a clinical neatness to them. The sheer amount of them, however, lead Neil to believe that they’re no less cruel.

The largest scar climbs up Andrew’s stomach and stops once it reaches another, just below Andrew’s chest and parallel to the one on his lower abdomen. There’s a couple of scars that cut diagonally across his sides, and another vertical incision that sits along his sternum.

They’re all silvery and light pink, suggesting their age, but Neil feels a familiar sense of dread seeing them as if he were looking into a mirror.

A wet slapping sound jars Neil out of his morbid captivation.

Neil’s gaze jumps down to where Andrew’s tail fin is pressed flat to the wet sand, which had presumably been smacked to get Neil’s attention, then darts up to see the warning gleam in Andrew’s eyes. Neil feels a spark of irritation at Andrew’s hypocrisy, as Andrew had been the one to stare holes into Neil first, and refuses to feel contrite as he glares back. Andrew blinks, his face losing all trace of expression once more, and he turns his head to look back to Kevin, who had been watching the silent exchange in vague confusion.

“Hand,” Andrew intones, apparently tired of the delay.

Kevin straightens in surprise, then mutters a quiet, “Right,” and lowers himself to kneel in front of Andrew in the sand.

Andrew takes up Kevin’s left hand without preamble, and Neil’s shocked to see Andrew’s hands are nearly as big as Kevin’s. They’re claws, really, and dipped in obsidian up to where Andrew’s thumb meets his palm, like cropped gloves. A grey, translucent webbing connects his thick fingers, and his nails are sharp and black. The sight immediately draws Neil’s thoughts to the deep gashes carved into his calf, which throb dully underneath their bandaging.

Andrew encases Kevin’s hand in both of his, hunches slightly over them, and goes perfectly still. Kevin looks equal parts terrified and uncomfortable, and Neil would find it humorous if he didn’t feel like a bowstring drawn taut himself. Andrew’s jaw clenches near-imperceptibly the longer the silence stretches and nothing happens, and Neil tentatively interprets the micro-expression as frustration.

Kevin gasps then, quietly, and Neil looks back to their hands.

Neil hadn’t given much thought over what magic would look like — he’s still trying to wrap his head around the fact that it exists at all — but something sparks like a flint and a hazy, golden smoke rises up from their joined hands like the tendrils from a cigarette. A mermaid’s magic taking the appearance of a byproduct of fire seems a little ironic to Neil, and he ascribes it to being another one of those contradictions that seem to make up Andrew’s entire being.

Andrew’s eyes are golden now too, and Neil doesn’t think he’s ever seen anything more arresting or strange.

The smoke eventually clears, and Andrew is quick to pull his hands away, which tremble slightly as he does so. He looks exhausted now, Neil notes, his eyes tired and dark again and his gills flaring harshly. Kevin’s still got his hand held out, and that’s shaking too. The jagged scar on the back of Kevin’s hand remains, but his pinky and ring finger are properly aligned and notably straight. Kevin wiggles his fingers and curls his hand experimentally, but there’s no sign of pain on his face: only wonder.

“I…” Kevin starts, but he’s cut off by the sound of Andrew’s tail dragging in the sand.

“We’re done here. Leave,” Andrews says flatly, clearly bored with it all. His voice is surprisingly level for how worn out he looks, and Neil suspects he’s eager to get back into the ocean, uncomfortable with being in such a vulnerable state on land — and in front of two humans no less.

Kevin doesn’t even look up at Andrew’s retreat, eyes glued to his own hand and rapt with its returned functionality. Once Andrew’s in the water, Neil finally steps forward from the spot he’d been pinned to the moment Kevin had flung out his arm, and Andrew turns halfway to look back at him. Andrew keeps eye-contact with Neil, expression unreadable but oddly intense, and slowly sinks under the surface until he’s completely submerged and out of view. Neil’s not sure if there’s any way to interpret that other than threatening.

Neil steps up to stand beside Kevin, who is still kneeling in the sand, and exhales. The sun still hasn’t set, and Neil thinks it’s going to be another early night for him. Sleeping for fourteen hours had only left him feeling drowsy still, and whatever adrenaline he had built up by seeing Andrew is fading fast, the crash inevitable.

Neil looks at the trail that Andrew’s tail had made in the sand. “We should go.”

Kevin finally rips his gaze away from where he’s clenching and unclenching hand, and peers suspiciously up at Neil. “You got what you wanted,” he reminds Neil, “You won’t tell anyone.”

Neil barely resists rolling his eyes; he had never had any intention to actually rat out Kevin to his superiors, as there had been no doubt that Kevin would bend under Neil’s bluff. Kevin might be a pushover, but Neil also knows there’s not much Kevin wouldn’t do for his career. Neil might even sort of admire him for it.

“What proof would I even have?” Neil says instead, and Kevin looks a bit confounded by that. Clearly his fear had kept him from thinking rationally about Neil’s threat, which only means that Neil had been doing it right. The confusion clears from Kevin’s face, leaving behind a enervated look that suggests Kevin will most likely be spending the night at the bottom of a bottle.

Kevin grouses wordlessly as he stands up and brushes the sand off of his pants. Neil makes a head start for the cliffside, but Kevin’s caught up by the time he jumps up onto the rocks. The silence between the two is heavy, but neither attempt to break it.

Kevin’s so preoccupied staring at his own left hand, grappling deftly at the rock, that he nearly slips and falls.

Another week passes, and Neil’s still dreaming of the sea.

The dreams, at least, have stopped being so outwardly violent, and Neil’s been able to actually get some honest sleep and feel rested when he wakes up in the morning. He usually forgets what the dreams are even about moments after waking up, left only with vague, watery impressions.

At work, Matt’s stopped looking at Neil like Neil’s a box of kittens floating precariously down a river, Allison pretends that her little intervention had never happened, and just yesterday Kevin had finally broken their radio silence to wax poetic to Neil over one of his favorite professional exy players, Jeremy Knox. Or, well, as close to poetic as Kevin could probably manage.

Neil had even caught Dan giving him one of her subtle smiles while he had been sweeping the stairs. Neil hadn’t known Dan had even known who Neil was, but with Dan being friends with both Allison and Matt, maybe he should have.

Neil’s routine has been, more or less, restored.

It’s a good thing, Neil tells himself, and that just because he’s used to living in danger doesn’t mean that he should be seeking it out now that he’s finally been given some security, unfamiliar as it may be.

He tells himself that, yet here he is, standing in the grocery store’s health and first aid aisle on his day off, staring down a package of black, athlete compression sleeves.

Neil had only been in the aisle to restock his supply of bandages, his leg injury healed enough to forgo them, but his stash is now almost completely depleted. The bandages and his injury had already brought Andrew to the forefront of his mind, but the sight of the armbands had reminded Neil of the decrepit binding covering Andrew’s forearms that the merman had refused to let Kevin change out.

Neil stares at the packaging for long enough that he realizes that he probably looks a little suspicious standing in the aisle alone and unmoving, and quickly snatches the package off of the rack and throws it into his basket.

He tries not to think about what he’s doing, or planning on doing, while he checks out at the register. He tries, but trying not to think about something is still thinking about it.

Neil had only bought enough for two bags, and he carries both in one hand despite how the bag with the bands in it feels like it holds the weight of the world. When Neil approaches his apartment complex, he walks past it, feet taking him somewhere he’s only been to three times before but Neil’s confident he could find in his sleep, in the dark.

It feels like making a choice, and Neil hadn’t expected the unfamiliarity of that.

Chapter Text

Neil has to hang the shopping bags from his forearms as he climbs the cliffside rocks, and by the time he’s entered the cove, they’ve just about cut off his circulation. In hindsight, he probably should have dropped off the groceries before coming here, but Neil hadn’t really been thinking of the practicality of his actions in his inexplicable haste.

He’s been doing that a lot lately — acting without thinking — and Neil wonders if he’s grown complacent in his security or if he’s always been so inclined to impetuousness. Either way, his mother would be furious with him, and for a moment the plastic cutting into his arms are her fingers clutching at his skin as they had when she laid dying before him.

Neil’s thoughts have, admittedly, been monopolized as of late, and he realizes this is probably the longest he’s ever gone without giving his mother more than a passing thought. The revelation leaves him torn between a guilty brand of grief and tentative relief.

He stands at the surf for a long while, gaze stuck on the rolling horizon, and contemplates the difference between retraumatization and exposure therapy.

The grating cry of a lone seagull causes Neil to redirect his attention to the sky, and he notices the clouds that he had previously dismissed as overcast now border on severe. It explains the oppressive humidity, although Neil’s quickly grown accustomed to summer in South Carolina, adaptability being one of his more necessary traits.

The impending storm renews Neil’s sense of urgency, and he moves from the beach to the flat rocks that he had climbed onto the morning Andrew had tried to drown him. He walks over to the same spot that he had sat previously, sets the plastic grocery bags down, then crouches beside them, facing the water.

He won’t stay long, Neil tells himself, and that if Andrew had remained in the area even after having fulfilled his promise to Kevin, then he should already be aware of Neil’s intrusion. Neil supposes he could just set the armbands down on the rocks and leave, which would certainly be the safer option, but if Neil came back and the bands were missing, he would have no way of knowing if Andrew had taken them or if the storm had washed them away.

Which would be a waste, really, because even if Andrew doesn’t accept the armbands, Neil still spent money on them, and he would rather use them himself than let them sink to the bottom of the ocean. Maybe with armbands covering the majority of the cuts and burns on his arms, Neil could finally wear short-sleeves.

Neil’s still considering his options, lost in thought, when something cool and wet suddenly clamps down on his ankle.

Neil lets out a panicked shout and falls back on his ass at the sensation of something touching his bare skin; Neil having worn his running shorts that day. It was the most skin that he’d allow to show in public, as Neil’s legs were one of the only unblemished parts of his body. Or, at least, they had been, until Andrew had carved jagged claw marks into his lower calf — carvings that were now being gripped by the same hands that had produced them.

Neil’s thoughts are a desperate swirl of panic, but his body is stock still and paralyzed, unable to look away from the rough, webbed fingers that encompass Neil’s entire ankle, thumb and forefinger touching.

Belatedly, Neil wonders why he hasn’t been pulled in yet.

Before Neil can attempt to kick his leg free, the grip on his ankle tightens incrementally, and a blond head breaks the water’s surface. Neil’s whole body tenses, and he’s finally able to sever his gaze from his ensnarement.

Andrew has only emerged partially, leaving just his bright hair and eyes visible. There’s a strange, hazy film over Andrew’s eyes, but not even a second later that dullness is being blinked away — an inner eyelid, Neil realizes, for clear sight underwater. Intrigued despite himself, Neil leans closer.

For all the staring he had done during their last encounter, Neil hadn’t been close enough to take note of Andrew’s eyes aside from when they had been glowing gold. Neil had assumed their normal color to be brown, but now that he’s only a foot away from him, Neil can see that Andrew’s eyes are hazel, a warm brown in the center that stretches out to yellowish-green at the edge of the iris. The gold’s still there, Neil thinks, just understated, more natural.

The thing about eye-contact, however, is that for as long as you’re looking into someone’s eyes, they’re looking into yours.

Neil had never had much issue with it until recently, as he had been taught making eye-contact gave the impression of honesty, and thus was important to implement when lying through his teeth. He hadn’t had issue with it, that is, until he had stopped wearing colored contacts.

It’s strange, no longer needing to fear being recognized, but still being uncomfortable with simply being seen. Neil’s own mother had avoided looking Neil in the eyes, not without the lenses to cover the cruel color of them, and Neil thinks maybe he learned that particular habit from her too.

Neil leans back again, wanting to hide, but when he’s met with resistance, Neil remembers Andrew’s still got a hold of his leg.

Again, Neil wonders why he’s not at the bottom of the ocean right now.

Andrew gives Neil one of those slow, catlike blinks, then rises up just enough so that his mouth is above water too. Neil sees the blurry impression of Andrew’s neck and shoulders just below the surface, and a small current is being pushed in and out of his gills — distracting in its novelty.

“You know,” Andrew says plainly, “even the fish aren’t stupid enough to come here.”

Neil can’t even take offense to the slight against his intelligence, because Andrew’s absolutely right, and Neil’s well aware of just how unimaginably stupid he’s being right now.

Neil swallows. “I have something for you.”

For all that Andrew reacts to the statement, one would think he hadn’t heard Neil say anything at all. Andrew’s complete lack of expression again reminds Neil of the flat, steady line of the ocean’s horizon, but the suspicion in Andrew’s eyes remind Neil that even if the sea looks still from a distance, up close it’s anything but.

Neil’s eyes dart out to the nearly-forgotten plastic grocery bags, then back again to Andrew. Andrew follows the movement, and turns his head to look over to the bags, lifting his chin slightly to see them over the rock. After a weighted moment, Andrew finally relinquishes his hold around Neil’s ankle, and sinks back into the sea until only his hair and eyes are visible again, gaze never leaving Neil.

Now free, Neil scoots back and reaches into the shopping bag holding the armbands. Neil keeps his motions slow and predictable as if he were being held at gunpoint, aware that any dubious movement may cause Andrew to retreat or lash out. He pulls out the packaging, then brings himself back towards the ledge, holding the box up for Andrew to inspect.

Andrew’s eyes sweep over the packaging, but not in that horizontal, left-to-right fashion one does while reading. Neil hadn’t been testing Andrew’s ability to read when he had held the box out to him, but files away the information anyway.

“They’re armbands,” Neil explains, pulling them away after a few moments to tear open the cardboard. “I don’t know why you won’t remove those bandages, but you wear these the same way. They’re made to last though, so you wouldn’t have to worry about them unraveling or falling apart.”

Once Neil’s gotten the bands out of their packaging, he tosses the empty box back into the plastic bag and slips one of the sleeves onto his own arm to show Andrew how they’re worn.

Andrew lifts his head completely out of the water again, looking over the black band stretched across Neil’s forearm, wrist to elbow. Andrew tilts his head to one side in a show of inspection, and it’s probably the most deliberately emotive action Neil’s seen from Andrew aside from the time Andrew had hissed at him. That first night feels like it had happened an eternity ago, even though Neil knows it’s barely even been a month.

Neil peels off the black sleeve, then folds it back up to stack it atop the other. Andrew silently appraises the black bundle in Neil’s hands, then looks up to Neil’s face.

“What do you want for them?” Andrew asks, sounding disinterested despite his clear proposition to barter.

Neil honestly hadn’t expected to get this far.

Not that he had been banking on Andrew killing him or outright rejecting the offer — Neil’s neither suicidal nor fond of useless excursions — but he hadn’t given much thought on how he would proceed if Andrew had shown interest either. Neil’s intentions were just as much of a mystery to Neil himself as they probably were to Andrew.

Truthfully, Neil thinks he had just been looking for an excuse to see Andrew again, and that’s…

“I don’t—” Neil restarts, knowing Andrew would probably find Neil saying I don’t want anything to be too suspicious. “I’m not sure.”

“You’re not sure,” Andrew throws back at Neil, spoken slowly and with clear derision. So much for Neil avoiding suspicion. Andrew makes a show of eyeing the scars on Neil’s face up and down, then points a clawed finger to his own cheek. “Sorry about your luck, but I can’t do anything about scarring.”

“I wouldn’t have asked for that,” Neil says, bristling but refusing to rise to Andrew’s bait.

“Sure,” Andrew says too easily, clearly disbelieving. He leans backwards, adopting a casual posture by reclining in the water and glancing listlessly up at the sky, which has grown so dark and grey that it threatens to burst open any minute now. Neil’s surprised he hasn’t heard any thunder yet, and he really needs to hurry home if he doesn’t want to get caught in the rain.

The silence stretches, Andrew watching the sky and Neil watching Andrew. Coming to a decision, Neil exhales heavily, and Andrew rolls his head to look back to Neil in response. “Would you meet me here again? Tomorrow?”

Andrew just stares blankly at Neil, and Neil thinks Andrew’s a little too good at making someone feel stupid just by looking at them. Although, Neil supposes the request must sound a little strange, given that the cove is apparently a part of Andrew’s domain. Neil had essentially just asked Andrew if he would meet Neil in his own home.

Before Neil can grow too anxious, Andrew gives him a single, affirmative nod. Neil sighs quietly in relief, then lifts the armbands up in silent question.

Still reclining in the water, Andrew’s tail breaks the surface, then flicks purposely over to the rocks beside Neil, his tail fin lightly brushing the stone. Neil blinks at the gesture, unused to interpreting body language involving a tail, but cautiously moves to set the armbands down where Andrew had indicated.

Standing up, Neil grabs the grocery bags, then takes a few measured steps away from Andrew and the armbands. Andrew watches Neil consideringly, then brings his tail back down underneath him to propel himself closer to the rocks. Neil finds himself in awe of the casual motion, of how Andrew’s so clearly made to move in the water.

Andrew sweeps a hand out over the bands, feeling the texture of them. Eventually, he brings both of his arms up to hold them, turning them this way and that and then folding them inside out. It takes Neil a moment to realize that Andrew might be looking for a concealed weapon or tracking device, and Neil’s almost impressed by Andrew’s level of caution, but not really surprised.

Andrew casts another indecipherable look Neil’s way, then in a single, fluid movement, drags the armbands down with him under the water’s surface and out of sight.

Neil looks at the spot where Andrew had disappeared for a long while, and wonders when Andrew will start adhering to Neil’s sense of object permanence — when Neil will stop feeling like he had dreamt the whole thing up the second Andrew’s no longer within his line of vision.

A long-awaited, ominous roll of thunder startles Neil out of his thoughts, and it begins to drizzle. Resigned to his luck and the fact that he’ll be drenched by the time he makes it back to his apartment, Neil steps carefully over the rocks back to the shore, plastic bags swinging in momentum from his wrists.

The journey home is predictably miserable, and the lingering impression of Andrew’s wet palm against Neil’s bare skin clings more persistently to him than even the rain.

Neil is decidedly apprehensive during the interlude of meetings, and that night he dreams of treading water in a tempermental sea, waves crashing over him without restraint or remorse. It’s still preferable to drowning, and Neil only wakes up feeling stressed rather than terrified. The dreams had been getting better though, and Neil hopes this isn’t a turning point back in the wrong direction.

Work the next day passes quietly and without much incident, and Neil’s reminded of how grateful he is that janitorial work is, for the most part, solitary. His thoughts keep him preoccupied while cleaning, even though they’re frustrating in their repetitiveness. Neil tries to predict how the next meeting will turn out, what he could do or say, but the introspection always fizzles out in uncertainty before he can decide anything conclusive.

Neil’s starting to grow agitated with himself, his thoughts exhibiting a single-mindedness that rivals Kevin’s own, and thinks that he should probably take up some sort of hobby aside from running and following professional exy. Maybe cooking, or reading, Neil contemplates, fishing? Wait—

Needless to say, Neil is relieved when he can finally step out of his own head and onto the shore of the hidden cove.

Neil nearly trips over himself once he catches sight of Andrew perched on the rocks, his tail half submerged in the sea and swishing lazily back and forth. Neil hadn’t been expecting Andrew to already be there, and he wonders if Andrew had been waiting for him. Andrew watches Neil with deceptive casualness as Neil approaches, and Neil makes sure to sit a careful distance away from him once he’s stepped out onto the rocks.

Neil pulls off his shoes, tucks his socks inside of them, then sets them aside. After rolling his pants up to his knees, Neil tentatively sticks his feet in the water, mirroring Andrew’s position. The water’s an agreeable temperature, and Neil finds the gentle rock and rush of it soothing.

Neil stares down at his feet for a long moment before he risks a glance back over at Andrew, who’s now looking out at the sea, eyes lidded and head tilted slightly upward towards the warmth of the sun. Neil looks down, and sees the armbands.

It’s no wonder Neil hadn’t taken notice of them immediately, considering how natural they look on Andrew, like they belong there. The black sleeves match the coloring of his scales perfectly, and the contrast of them against his pale skin is just as stark.

Seeing someone wear something that Neil had purchased specifically for them is… peculiar, and Neil realizes it’s probably the first time in his life he’s ever experienced anything like it. Neil knows next to nothing about fashion or proper gift etiquette, but he allows himself to feel proud just this once.

Except Andrew hadn’t accepted the armbands as a gift; they had been a trade, a transaction, and that’s ultimately why they’re both here.

Andrew’s clearly not going to be the one to initiate conversation, so Neil bites the bullet. “I want to know about your powers. Your magic.”

Andrew’s tail ceases its idle swishing, and he turns his head slowly to look at Neil. “That’s nice,” Andrew says, and follows up with absolutely nothing else.

Neil’s lips part, and he feels his brow begin to furrow in his growing confusion. “You… Didn’t you ask what I wanted in return for the armbands?”

“I did,” Andrew nods, the picture of nonchalance, “and you asked for me to meet you here again today,” he sweeps out a hand to gesture vaguely between Neil and himself, “which I’ve done.”

Neil wonders if all merpeople are this difficult. “In what world is that a fair trade?” Neil asks, only half rhetorically.

“In yours, apparently,” replies Andrew.

“Alright,” Neil bites out in frustration, then switches tactics. “Let’s trade something else, then. You answer my questions and I’ll answer yours.” It’s a bit of a wager on Neil’s part, as Neil can’t imagine Andrew having much reason to be even remotely curious about Neil.

Andrew’s tail fin slaps against the surface of the water, an irate action betraying his otherwise inscrutable countenance. “You’re so full of shit,” Andrew growls. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t just eat you and be done with it.”

“You said it yourself: I’m full of shit,” is Neil’s immediate reply. “That can’t be appetizing.”

Andrew pins Neil with a look so dark and unimpressed it’s near comical. Neil’s not interested in becoming fish bait though, so he wisely lets the conversation die. Neil’s already put his offer on the table, and he surmises pushing Andrew wouldn’t work in his favor like it had with Kevin.

The two lapse back into silence, letting the undying roar of the tide fill the space. Neil’s somewhat taken aback by how calm he feels, when logically he knows sitting only a few feet away from Andrew, a natural predator, should leave him feeling anything but. Neil thinks it might have something to do with the location — although it may be a beach, it’s so completely disconnected from civilization that Neil thinks that even the FBI would struggle finding him here. There are few things in this world Neil appreciates more than a good hiding spot.

Even though Neil had decided not to push any further, it’s still a surprise when Andrew is the one to eventually disrupt the silence.

“Obviously, there’s healing,” Andrew begins, and Neil’s head snaps up to look at him. “It’s not my specialty; what I did for Kevin is about as good as it gets for me. There’s coercion, some transmutation—”

“Coercion?” Neil interrupts, “Like manipulation? Can you influence someone's dreams?”

Andrew peers skeptically at Neil like Neil had said something completely strange. “… No,” He says slowly. “I meant singing. You know, to lure moronic humans to their watery deaths. Though clearly that’s an unnecessary measure for you.”

Neil internally deflates at Andrew’s denial of having anything to do with the sudden trend in Neil’s dreams. “You don’t seem like the singing type,” Neil remarks.

“I’m not,” Andrew says with finality, bringing an end of that particular line of questioning.

Neil leans back again, as he had unconsciously turned his body towards Andrew when he had started speaking. Neil thinks over Andrew’s response, how he had said healing wasn’t his specialty, and it explains the state Andrew had been in after repairing Kevin’s hand, explains those few frustrated moments it had taken Andrew before that smokey gold magic had risen up between joined hands.

It won’t do Neil any good to underestimate Andrew, not when Andrew practically radiates controlled and dangerous capability, but Neil infers magic in general not to be the merman’s forte, and he wonders if that’s a result of Andrew being held in captivity all his life — of not living in the sea with others of his kind, where he belongs.

He takes to watching Andrew’s tail make patterns in the water that disappear as soon as they’re drawn, sea foam swept into nebulous shapes. He’s just noticed the two notches in one of Andrew’s tail fins, one smaller and older looking and another much larger directly above it, when Andrew’s tail flicks up in a flash of movement and splashes saltwater into Neil’s face.

Neil sputters and presses his palms flat against his eyelids as if that would do anything to relieve his stinging corneas.

“My eyes are up here,” Andrew drawls.

And Neil’s never had that saying thrown at him before in his life; his mother’s heavy-handed methods to discouraging wandering eyes during his adolescence had seen to it. Neil hadn’t meant anything perverse by looking back then, and he certainly hadn’t meant anything by it now, but he feels that fearful, familiar shame wedge itself in his throat regardless. “You know better,” his mother’s stern voice-over plays in his head, and the memory of her hand striking him over and over again is somehow sharper than the salt in his eyes.

He does know better. Neil’s long since broken the habit of staring at girls; to the point where he remembers a boy, who Neil had shared a pre-calculus class with back in high school, had once asked Neil why he never looked at any of their female classmates, tone hush and gaze puzzlingly hopeful.

It’s not like Neil doesn’t have working eyes, he notices when someone’s conventionally attractive or when something’s visually appealing, but even if Neil catches himself looking from time to time, not once has he ever found himself wanting to do something about it. Neil knows that’s not commonly the case for men his age though, and that his intentions, or lack thereof, are all too easy to misinterpret.

But even if Neil’s mother had mostly broken him out of the habit of staring, she had never prepared him for something like this, something like Andrew, and Neil thinks that anyone would stare. Not that Andrew is filmstar beautiful like Allison or as well-groomed as Kevin, but, well, he’s a merman. Most people don’t see those very often.

Andrew probably knows this, knows that Neil hadn’t been looking at him like that, but Neil’s incessant staring had clearly irritated Andrew, or had even made him uncomfortable, so Neil rubs a hand down his damp face and looks up at Andrew with slightly red eyes and offers a sheepish, “… Sorry.”

Andrew flicks a clawed hand in the air, clearly uncaring of Neil’s apology. “You another lab coat? I don’t recognize you.”

It takes Neil a moment for his brain to get back on track, but, right, Neil had asked Andrew his question and now Andrew is asking Neil his. Andrew’s curiosity, his cooperation, is a surprise, but it’s not the worst thing he could have asked Neil, and for that Neil is grateful.

“No,” he replies, “I just clean; I’m a janitor. I only started working at the facility a few months ago. Do you― Is that why you almost drowned me? Because you thought I was a researcher?”

Andrew narrows his eyes. “I pulled you in as a warning. I didn’t know if you were a threat to Kevin, and my deal with him hadn’t been completed yet. I assumed nearly killing you would have been enough to scare you off, but I’m starting to realize my mistake.”

“To Kevin?” Neil says, incredulous. “You were only worried I’d do something to Kevin? Not to you?”

Andrew makes a low-pitched, inhuman clicking noise at the back of his throat, menacing enough that Neil feels the muscles in his body going rigid at the sound of it, all fight or flight. “You’re asking out of turn,” Andrew warns, then slips himself back into the ocean. “Enough.”

Neil instantly pulls his legs out of the water once he realizes Andrew is getting back in. Andrew dips briefly underwater, tail slapping at the surface, but pops his head up to look back at Neil only seconds later.

“I thought for sure Kevin would have cued you in on my history, but you’re clueless,” Andrew says lowly, “No, I’m not worried you’d do something to me, because if you ever so much as touch me I’ll skin you alive with my teeth and line the seafloor with your entrails.”

… Eloquent.

Neil’s so put off by the sudden hostility that he can’t even think of forming a reply, but it doesn’t matter anyway, as Andrew’s sinking under again and leaving Neil alone at the surface. Neil’s doubtful Andrew will be resurfacing again, not after throwing out a warning like that, and stands up to leave himself, grabbing his shoes.

Neil doesn’t think him getting ahead of himself and asking out of turn had been the sole reason Andrew had snapped at him, but it had probably been the tipping point. Andrew’s spectrum of expression throughout the entire encounter had only ranged from nothingness to irritability, but it was the most Neil had heard Andrew speak yet, and he doesn’t think Andrew voluntarily interacting with him is anything to trivialize.

Then again, Andrew might have just been putting up with Neil to fulfill the exchange for the armbands. Andrew apparently takes his deals very seriously, if he had attacked Neil not to warn Neil away from Andrew himself, but to warn Neil away from Kevin — all because Neil causing harm to Kevin may have jeopardized Andrew’s ability to uphold his end of the bargain.

It’s… intense, and Andrew taking his word so seriously is entirely foreign to Neil, who has always lied more often than told the truth. Neil avoids making promises, and the promises he’s forced to make more often than not end up empty.

But Neil doesn’t have to live that way, not anymore. He has a choice now, he reminds himself, and for once his mother’s voice-over has nothing to say to that.

Matt catches Neil just as he’s changed out of his work uniform for the day. Recently, Matt’s been scheduled for later shifts at the facility, so Neil hasn’t seen the other man around as much as he had during his first few months of work. There’s a pretty significant age gap between Neil and the other janitors employed, all of which are adult men, so Neil’s only ever really been comfortable with speaking to Matt on friendly terms.

Still, Neil hadn’t expected how much he’d miss talking to Matt, and he feels the corners of his lips tugging up in reflection of Matt’s wide-mouthed grin.

“Neil, buddy!” Matt says, like he’s really that ecstatic over getting the chance to talk to Neil of all people. “It’s been a while. My schedule should be back to normal starting next week though, since I’ve been filling in for Henry while he recovers from his hip surgery.”

“Oh,” replies Neil, “I’m… glad to hear it.”

“Such enthusiasm!” Matt laughs as he drapes an arm over Neil’s shoulders, which really must look ridiculous, given their height difference. “It’s fine; I know you missed me, you don’t have to say it.”

Neil huffs, slightly amused, and easily slips out from underneath Matt’s arm. “Sure.”

“You’re looking better though. You had me worried for a while there, man,” Matt says, leaning up against the dark grey lockers the facility allows its personnel to store their belongings in during the day. The lockers, however, don’t actually have locks, and Neil remembers how hard it had been for him to leave his clothes in there when he had first gotten the job. “You been sleeping alright?” Matt asks, ever compassionate.

It reminds Neil of what Allison had told him, how Matt had apparently been worried enough about Neil to tell someone else about it, and Neil feels strange all over again, unused to having people actually care about his well-being.

“I’m fine,” Neil assures Matt, “I’ve just been having these…” He pauses then, an idea suddenly forming in his mind. Kevin had told Neil that Andrew had been a well-kept secret even among facility personnel, but Matt has had this job for over two years now, and Neil wonders just how guarded of a secret Andrew really was. Not to mention that Matt seems to be on speaking-terms with just about anyone who’s ever stepped into the building; janitors clearly aren’t supposed to be privy to top-secret information, but if there was anyone else who knew aside from Neil, Neil’s money would be on Matt. “―dreams, recently.”

“Dreams?” is Matt’s predictable reply.

“Yeah,” Neil nods, then watches Matt’s face carefully for what he’s about to say next. “About the ocean, and… a mermaid.”

Matt’s face goes slack in surprise for half a beat, and for a moment Neil is sure that he knows, but then Matt’s grinning almost wolfishly down at Neil, which… isn’t quite the right reaction.

“A mermaid,” Matt repeats. Neil nods slowly in affirmation, somewhat wary, and at that Matt throws his head back and lets out a booming laugh that bounces off the lockers around them. Neil is decidedly lost.

“I thought―” simpers Matt, trying to reign in his laughter. “I thought that maybe you just had really specific taste, but this is too much. Working here’s starting to get to you, huh? So what’s she like, this fish girl of your dreams?”

Oh. Of course.

“Bye, Matt,” Neil says flatly, turning away once he realizes he’s being teased. Matt clearly doesn’t know about Andrew, and although deflecting the topic like that would have been a decent strategy, Neil seriously doubts Matt’s that proficient of a liar.

“No, wait! Come back!” Matt shouts after him. “I’m sorry, I won’t laugh!”

“Shouldn’t you clock in? Your shift started five minutes ago,” Neil throws over his shoulder, and he hears Matt’s frantic “Shit,” just as the door closes behind him.

It’s been a week since Neil’s seen Andrew last, and Neil doesn’t really know where to go from here. He’s run out of excuses to return to the cove, and him and Andrew hadn’t exactly left off on the best of terms. Not that Andrew had really forbade Neil from coming back, but it’s clear that if Neil makes so much as one wrong move around the merman then he’s as good as dead. Neil would have nothing to gain from trying to recapture or expose Andrew, but there’s no way Andrew could know that or even believe Neil if Neil had told him.

Andrew had implied that he didn’t see Neil as a physical threat, but there’s still a lot of damage Neil could do before Andrew could ever get his claws on him, and Neil’s starting to think he’s not the only one being reckless in this situation.

Neil spots Kevin as he’s walking down the corridor leading to one of the building’s back exits, and Neil is approaching him before he even realizes he has something to say.

“Kevin―” Neil starts.

“I don’t have the time, Neil,” is Kevin’s curt dismissal, waving a hand at Neil like he’s shooing away some pest. Neil won’t be so easily deterred though, and he swiftly grabs hold of Kevin’s elbow, effectively bringing the other man’s stride to a halt.

“It’s about Andrew,” Neil says, “I went to go see him again, and―”

“You what?” Kevin chokes, then looks around frantically to insure that they’re alone like he had the day Neil had confronted Kevin in the break room. Neil wryly wonders how many times they’re going to have to do this. Once Kevin sees that they’re alone, Kevin crowds Neil against the wall and hisses down at him. “What is wrong with you? You’re going to get yourself killed.”

“I know,” placates Neil, releasing Kevin’s arm now that Neil obviously has his attention. “I know, I just… He said something about you cueing me in on his past, so I―”

“He talked to you?” Kevin gapes.

“Would you stop interrupting me?” Neil snaps. “I just want to know what he did. Is that why he was on that medication?”

Kevin sighs through his nose and rubs at his left hand, a nervous habit he hasn’t broken out of yet, and may never. The functionality of Kevin’s left hand may have been restored, but the visual and psychological damage is still there, and the dry taunt of Andrew’s “I can’t do anything about scarring,” echoes in Neil’s mind. Neil idly wonders how Kevin’s explained his sudden dexterity to his peers, if he has at all.

“If you’re asking if Andrew had been on mood stabilizers, then you’re correct, although… they hadn’t so much stabilized him as they had kept him suspended in a euphoric high. I suppose they made him more… tolerant, but he was still a difficult subject to work with,” Kevin bites out the word ‘tolerant’ like it leaves a bad taste in his mouth, no doubt remembering Andrew’s use of the term in reference to Kevin himself. Neil’s admittedly having trouble picturing Andrew being ‘euphoric’ or anything even remotely close to it. “Andrew had already been on the medication when I transferred here and was assigned to him last year. It had been administered to him after the… Proust and Spear incident.”

Neil squints curiously up at him. “The what?”

Kevin looks a bit sick. “Before I took over, Cass Spear had been the primary researcher assigned to Andrew, as she had been the one to rescue him over twenty years ago. Cass’ son and fellow researcher, Drake Spear, had helped oversee Andrew’s care, as well as his former physician Dr. Proust.”

Neil had known Andrew had been kept in the facility for most of his life, but having 'over twenty years' stated so plainly like that is a little staggering. Neil thinks of the ten years he had spent in his father’s house in Baltimore, then of the thirteen he had spent on the run, and wonders if it’s some sort cosmic joke that the only person Neil’s ever come across who might have had a life as difficult and drawn-out as his own wasn’t even human.

“A year and a half ago, Andrew flew into a rage during an examination and attacked both Drake Spear and Dr. Proust. He―” Kevin’s voice breaks, and he has to take a moment to collect himself. “He killed them. It was… They had been found with their eyes gouged out and throats torn into, Andrew in a catatonic state.”

Kevin obviously hadn’t been there, but the man looks so shaken just recounting the incident that Neil can only assume that there had been photographic evidence, maybe even surveillance videos.

“Cass had been devastated over the loss of her only son and left her job here to transfer to a facility in California. Multiple researchers who had known the details of the incident had left just to avoid being reassigned to Andrew. There had even been discussion of euthanization, but Dr. Dobson stepped in and volunteered to be Andrew’s new primary physician, suggesting the mood stabilizers as an alternative.”

Neil is briefly furious that apparently no one had thought of simply releasing Andrew in favor of killing him, but then Neil remembers Kevin saying Dr. Dobson had assisted in Andrew’s escape, and perhaps that had been the ultimate intention behind the compromise of medication.

“I transferred here a few months later; at the time I had been desperate for work and I had experience dealing with merpeople, so I didn’t have much trouble getting assigned to him,” Kevin concludes, somehow looking older now than he had at the beginning of the conversation.

It’s a lot to unpack, and the two men stand there in heavy silence for a long while. Neil had had his suspicions, but they had been vague, and couldn’t have ever been enough to prepare him for the reality of the situation. He supposes that he should feel horrified by what Andrew’s done, and Neil’s nowhere even close to knowing how Andrew’s mind works, but he’s learned enough to know that Andrew does nothing without purpose.

Mostly, Neil is shocked by the guilt he feels.

Andrew had sneered at Neil for being clueless, had initially assumed that Neil had already known all of this, but somehow Neil still feels guilty for not hearing the story from Andrew himself. Kevin’s given Neil details Andrew couldn’t have, but Neil’s sure Andrew’s side of the story is vastly different, not in terms of events but rather the reasons behind them. Kevin’s fear of Andrew stems from the unknown, unable to comprehend Andrew suddenly lashing out after years of compliance beyond emotional volatility. Neil knows that there has to be more to the story, he just isn’t quite sure what.

More surprising is how unsettled Neil is by the imbalance that the information has created. Neil had already known far more about Andrew than Andrew had known about Neil, and normally that’s how Neil prefers it ― how Neil has always needed it to be ― but this has tipped the scales too far in Neil’s favor.

Andrew probably doesn’t even care to know about Neil, is probably used to strangers knowing his business, like the scars on his torso he has no choice but to display. But still. It bothers Neil. It bothers Neil that he’s drawn to Andrew because he views Andrew as an equal, someone who Neil knows the world has been equally, if not more, unkind to, and the only hint Andrew has to the same revelation are the scars visible on Neil’s hands and face.

Neil’s never wanted to be known before, and he’s nearly dizzy with the sudden desire for it.

“I give up on telling you to stay away, clearly you won’t listen to reason,” Kevin says, and Neil almost startles at his voice, bringing Neil out of his near-epiphany. “Just… have caution. The janitorial department is short-staffed as it is.”

“I’ll…” Neil licks his suddenly dry lips, “I’ll be careful.”

Kevin gives Neil one last scrutinizing look, clearly unconvinced, but breaks away from his position hovering over Neil and departs with a vague hum, leaving Neil to stand alone in the corridor.

Neil lets out a tremendous sigh he hadn’t known he’d been holding, then moves to exit the building.

He debates all afternoon whether or not he should return to the cove, but finds himself unable to bypass it when he comes up to it during his afternoon run. His runs have been creeping later and later into the day in an attempt to avoid the heat of the sun, so the sky’s already turning pinkish in color by the time he’s reached the rocks.

At this point Neil’s nearly twice as fast at climbing around the cliffside than he had been the first few times around, and he considers adding rock-climbing to that list of hobbies he could but probably will never pick up.

Neil wastes no time cutting straight over to the cove’s opposite side and crouching down at his spot on the rocks. The fact that he’s begun to think of it as ‘his spot’ should be concerning, but Neil’s already decided to continue coming here for as long as Andrew lets him.

Neil looks down at his exposed knees for a moment, then, feeling brave, takes off his running shoes and slips his legs into the water. He’s still unsure just how deep it is, but Neil’s not exactly eager to be getting back in any time soon. It already feels a little momentous just letting himself be so near something’s he’s avoided, something he’s hated, ever since his mother died, so, for now, it’s enough.

He adds swimming to the list of not-so-potential hobbies anyway.

Neil spends the next fifteen or so minutes watching the sun’s vibrant but sluggish descent in the sky and keeping a close eye on the sea. For once, he actually sees Andrew coming, but he’s somewhat doubtful that there’ll ever be a day he doesn’t seize up at the sight of a dorsal fin perforating the water’s surface before he realizes it’s Andrew.

Andrew visibly slows down once he enters the fishbowl shape of the cove, gliding around the curve of it, and pulls up next to Neil’s perch. Again, Andrew only surfaces enough to allow his hair and eyes to be visible, and he flicks a cool look up at Neil before glancing over at Neil’s legs in the water like they’ve done something to offend him.

“Hi,” Neil eventually offers.

Andrew squints at him, then rises up until his shoulders crest the waves. Neil notices that the bridge of Andrew’s nose is peeling a bit, and is briefly amused by the fact that even merpeople can sunburn.

“It’s been a week,” is all Andrew says.

Neil blinks. “Oh… Yeah. Sorry? I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to come back.”

Andrew stares up at Neil for a long while like he’s looking for something, and Neil’s unsure if Andrew’s found it or not when he eventually leans back in the water with a huff of a sigh. “I’m not doing this today,” he says, “be here tomorrow afternoon. You owe me two answers.”

Neil’s so taken aback by the implication of Andrew’s words ― that Andrew had apparently been awaiting Neil’s return so that they could continue their back and forth exchange of information ― that he nearly forgets to nod his compliance.

“And bring food,” Andrew adds as an afterthought, “something sweet.”

Andrew’s vanished under the surface before Neil can even fully process the demand, and he spends another minute or two watching the water knock gently up against his legs in vague wonderment. A pair of seagulls cry out overhead.

Something sweet, Neil thinks, and then, absurdly, he almost feels like laughing.

Chapter Text

The following day, Neil stops by the small convenience store located between his apartment complex and the cove. Neil had walked there directly from work, and he can’t help the quiet sigh he lets out as he’s hit by the building’s air conditioning when he steps through the automated entrance.

Neil’s only been in the store once before, and he gives his surroundings a customary sweep as he advances further, taking note of the woman struggling with the card reader at the checkout and the employee behind the counter talking her through it with a friendly smile but tired eyes. Neither of them seem to take much notice of Neil as he slips into the food aisle.

Neil stares unthinkingly at the store’s admittedly impressive assortment of bagged candy for a long moment before he realizes that he’s in a bit of a predicament.

Really, 'something sweet' can mean anything from chocolate cake to a stick of gum to fruit, and Neil’s unsure of what would and wouldn’t agree with Andrew’s physiology. He’s still a little surprised that Andrew eats anything other than meat or fish.

Neil exits the aisle and makes his way over to the store’s bakery display case. It’s already half past noon, but the donuts still seem reasonably fresh despite their dwindled number, so Neil grabs a plastic baggie and fishes out three of the remaining five of them. It’s probably not the wisest of choices, but Neil sees no use in overthinking it, as he figures if Andrew doesn’t like the donuts he’ll just throw them back in Neil’s face anyway.

The woman with the card malfunction is gone by the time Neil approaches the checkout back at the front of the store. The employee behind the counter is a dark-haired girl who’s probably a year or two younger than Neil, and she looks up at him with a practiced smile when he sets the bag of donuts down between them. She opens her mouth to greet him, but the smile slips off her face once they make eye contact, and Neil watches as she presumably takes in his scarred appearance before she hastily looks down to enter in his purchase.

“Did you ― find everything okay today, sir?” She asks, her voice stilted and her face a bit pink. Neil feels a little bad for scaring the poor girl and puts some effort into making his affirmative, “Yeah, thanks,” sound at least halfway cordial.

He’s not sure if he’s succeeded, however, because she glances back up at him for half a second before ducking her head down again to look at her screen, cheeks now completely flushed. Neil assumes she’s embarrassed by her obvious reaction, as she’s clearly just trying to do her job and be polite, and silently hands her a five dollar bill once she’s stammered out his total.

Curiously, she continues to sneak brief glances at his face as she hands him back his change and then again when she slips the smaller baggie into a larger one and asks if he wants a receipt, so Neil’s quick to thank her and decline, grabbing the plastic bag and stepping away from the counter. The girl calls out an awkward, “Thank you, come again!” after him, and for both their sakes Neil hopes he won’t.

The brief interaction leaves Neil feeling tense and generally uncomfortable with the reminder that he inhabits a physical form that other people can perceive and interact with. He hates that he’s been conditioned to notice whenever someone’s looking at him, but what’s worse is that even if Neil can tell when someone’s staring, he can very rarely understand why.

Neil can’t remember the last time that he really looked at himself. Embarrassingly enough, he thinks it might have been back when he threw out contacts. Neil’s really only used to catching glimpses of his reflection when he stands at his bathroom sink, either washing his hands, brushing his teeth, or peering at the blurry impression of himself after he’s stepped out of the shower and the steam has fogged up the glass.

He’s unsure if the scars on his face have lessened any in the severeness of their appearance — the cuts and burns on his hands certainly haven’t — but he runs his fingers along the jagged, raised ridges of them often enough to know the answer without having to look.

What really concerns Neil, however, is his hair. Checking his roots used to be an almost religious practice for him, but Neil hasn’t done so since he was relocated here months ago. He’s noticed how long his hair’s gotten, but Neil’s always liked the feeling of it touching his face and having the thickness of it frame the back of his nape. He remembers how his father had kept his hair neat and business-like, how he had always made sure that Neil’s was just as orderly, so letting it grow out into a tousled mess had always felt liberating, even now.

The natural color of his hair, however, isn’t something that he can just grow out of — quite the opposite, in fact — and Neil dreads to wonder how many people have already caught a glimpse of auburn roots peeking through the dyed brown.

Neil really needs a new head, mentally and physically, and at this point Neil’s more afraid to die than he’s ever been, if only because he knows that if there’s an afterlife his mother will be waiting there to haul him over the coals.

Andrew’s settled on the rocks again when Neil enters the cove, and the sight of him there has all thoughts of convenience store employees and appearances abdicated from Neil’s mind, and Neil thinks that might be some sort of magic too.

Neil walks out onto the rocks and sits closer to Andrew than he’s previously dared to, setting the plastic bag down between them. Andrew’s eyes are closed, taking in the warmth of the summer sun like a pet lizard basking under a lamp, cold-blooded and drawn to the heat. Though his face is relaxed, Andrew’s body language suggests an alertness to Neil’s presence, and his tail half dipped into the water is completely still.

Removing his shoes and socks, Neil slips his legs into the water before reaching over to open the bag of donuts, leaving it in neutral territory on the stone between them. The rustling of plastic finally prompts Andrew to open his eyes, and he stares at Neil for half a beat before looking down at the donuts dispassionately like he hadn’t been the one to ask for them.

“I wasn’t exactly sure what you wanted, so I just got donuts,” Neil supplies, plucking the plain, glazed one for himself. Neil doesn’t really care for pastries, but he takes a bite of out of it anyway, especially since he doubts Andrew will take any strange food that Neil offers without Neil trying it first. He chews, then swallows, “ever had them?”

Andrew doesn’t reply, just studies the selection for a few moments longer before picking out the donut with chocolate icing and rainbow sprinkles. Neil finds it a little surreal, seeing something as normal and innocuous as a chocolate donut being pinched between scaled black claws. Andrew holds up the treat consideringly, then squints back over to assess how Neil handles and eats his, inadvertently answering Neil’s question.

Neil half expects Andrew to pop the entire thing in his mouth and swallow it whole, or maybe just nibble at it, but instead Andrew begins to tear the donut up into small pieces like a picky child, icing and glaze quickly coating his fingers.

Andrew stuffs the first piece in his mouth, looks up in thought as he chews and swallows, blinks, then continues his strange way of eating without a word, albeit now with a bit more vigor.

Neil considers that positive enough reception.

The two sit and eat, letting the sound of the sea and the squawking of jealous seagulls above fill the silence between them. Neil finishes his donut by the time Andrew’s half way through his second, salted caramel, and Neil already feels a little bit sick from all the sugar as well as from watching Andrew tear through two like it was nothing. Neil ponders the average caloric intake for merpeople, and the thought reminds him of Kevin.

“You’d tell me if I was poisoning your delicate merman constitution by giving you those, wouldn’t you?” Neil asks, not really expecting an answer.

Andrew raises an unimpressed eyebrow, presumably at Neil’s inane choice of describing anything pertaining to Andrew as delicate. “Not a chance,” he eventually replies, meticulously licking the sweet off his fingers now having finished.

“Kevin would kill me,” Neil says wryly.

Andrew’s gills flare. “Kevin can get in line.”

That surprises a bark of laughter out of Neil, and his hand immediately flies up to press harshly against his lips and suppress the grin there. Andrew has no idea how a line of people waiting and wanting to kill Neil really isn’t all that far from the truth.

Andrew looks blankly at Neil’s hand covering his mouth just long enough to make Neil feel self-conscious, but eventually leans back against the rocks, eyes slipping closed once more.

Neil lowers his hand back down to his lap. “Do all merpeople have a sweet tooth or did someone help you acquire a taste for it?”

Andrew cracks open one eye and rolls his head in Neil’s direction, actually looking somewhat annoyed. “Again. It’s my turn to ask questions.”

“Then ask,” Neil says, tone serious.

Andrew, of course, doesn’t pull any punches. “You can start by telling me about these ouches of yours,” he prompts, tapping a clawed finger to his cheek like he had when he told Neil that he couldn’t heal scarring.

Really, Neil had been completely expecting the question, had known that there would be no way Andrew wouldn’t use his turn to ask about it, but it still feels a little like the rug’s been pulled out from underneath him.

The story of how Neil Josten had gotten his scars is so far untold yet heavily rehearsed. Unfortunately, the damage is too incriminating to write off with an “I tripped,” so the official story is that Neil had fallen in with a street gang when he was seventeen and had only cut ties years later after what had been done to his face. Neil finds a morbid sort of humor in the cover; only in Neil’s life could him being an ex-gang member be easier to swallow than the reality.

The thing is, giving that story to Andrew would be pointless.

Andrew doesn’t know who Nathan Wesninski is. Andrew has no way of taking the information and using it to hurt Neil, nor does the knowledge put Andrew himself in any sort of danger. Telling Andrew these things wouldn’t be like telling Matt or Allison or Kevin, but it wouldn’t be like telling a stranger or a therapist or a brick wall either.

Andrew isn’t human, but he’s not a monster, either — not to Neil — so Neil wants to trust him.

He’s watching Neil now, both eyes open and gaze steady and intent. The sunlight’s hitting the side of Andrew’s face in such a way that one hazel eye is lit up golden and the other is covered in cool shade. His hair is completely dry for once, fluffy blond curls reflecting the light like a halo, and Neil kind of wants to look at him forever, so he looks down at his submerged feet instead.

“My father did this,” Neil begins, quietly but hopefully still loud enough to make out over the tide. “Well, actually, a woman who worked for my father did this, to my hands and face, but ultimately it was him.”

“He wanted to kill you,” Andrew says undoubtedly.

“He — Yes. That was his job, killing people. My mother took me and ran when I was ten, and he killed her when I was eighteen. He caught me five years later, about half a year ago, that’s when I got these,” Neil gestures vaguely at his face. “I thought… Well, I thought that I was going to die.”

“And yet here you are, being an impossible pest instead,” is Andrew’s unaffected reply, but Neil can hear the hidden question, can tell Andrew’s listening carefully to every word Neil says.

“Yeah,” huffs Neil bitterly, “here I am. There was a raid and my uncle, my mother’s brother, executed him right there in front of me.”

Neil hears Andrew shift, the slight movement causing the water to knock against his tail, but Neil keeps his gaze squarely on his legs, not yet ready to look up. “So your uncle? You’re with him now?”

“No,” Neil shakes head, “my mother and my uncle are from another crime family, and I just wanted to be done with it all. I let myself be taken in by the FBI for protection and they relocated me here to keep an eye on me. Now… well, you know, I clean.”

Neil feels hollow inside, a cold, vague sort of panic washing over him now that’s he’s said his piece. He had decided to tell Andrew the truth, had wanted to tell Andrew the truth, but now that he’s spoken the words aloud he’s being hit with the realization that he can never take it back. It feels like it’s the first time he’s ever talked about any of this with someone, even though he had given several FBI agents far more detailed recounts.

Although, Neil supposes he had given those recounts in the aftermath of horrific trauma, and at the time dredging up even negative emotions had been difficult. It’s weird to think about that time of his life now, as it had only happened a few months back, but things have changed so dramatically for Neil in such a short period of time that it feels so much longer ago.

He doesn’t realize how quiet it’s been until Andrew’s low voice cuts through his budding anxiety. “You’re alone?”

Neil looks up at Andrew’s face in muted alarm; the question surprises him somehow, especially coming from Andrew.

“Yes,” Neil says, voice strange and small, “I’m alone.”

Andrew blinks back at him, and that growingly-familiar blankness is like a soothing balm on Neil’s disquiet. There’s no concern or pity in his gaze, nor is there any judgement or horror. Andrew had simply listened to Neil, had understood, and Neil thinks that’s probably more than he could have ever asked for.

Neil can’t help fearing rejection, yet overt displays of sympathy and comfort are foreign concepts to him that he never knows how to accept — not over something like this. Andrew had given him neither, and Neil feels something like gratitude pool in his stomach.

Some of that emotion must have shown on Neil’s face, because Andrew’s tailfin crests the water’s surface just to harshly slap down on it again — an irritated tell Neil has come to recognize — and he finally looks away.

Neil studies Andrew’s profile, the sunburnt and peeling bridge of his nose. “Any more questions?”

“For now, just one,” Andrew replies, looking out towards the watery horizon. “Are there more?”

It’s vague, and Neil could easily pretend not to know what Andrew’s asking for, but somehow he does. Neil’s gaze drops to Andrew’s exposed chest and the thick surgery scar that runs down his sternum. He remembers the guilt he had felt after learning about Andrew’s past from Kevin, how he had thought it unfair that Andrew had no choice but to display the scars on his torso while Neil kept his hidden away.

He can’t show Andrew, couldn’t stomach it, but he can let him know.

“A whole lifetime’s worth,” responds Neil, something sad and secretive pulling up at his lips.

Andrew turns to him slowly. He looks directly into Neil’s eyes for a moment, but then seems to get caught on his mouth. The unusual attention makes Neil’s throat go dry, and he swallows at the feeling, unsure if that feeling is good or bad, only knowing that it’s new.

Following the movement of Neil’s throat, Andrew looks down at Neil’s dark grey sweatshirt. His gaze is so pointed that for a brief moment of blind panic Neil thinks Andrew can see his scars straight through the fabric.

Andrew opens his mouth like he means to say something, but his head suddenly shoots up to look out past the mouth of the cove so quickly that Neil’s half surprised his neck didn’t snap. Andrew makes that threatening, high-pitched clicking noise with his throat again, and his still-open mouth causes the sound to project and echo off rocks in clear warning.

“What?” Neil frowns.

“I’m going,” Andrew says, every line in his body gone rigid again; Neil hadn’t realized how relaxed Andrew had become until now. Neil can only assume that an unwanted intrusion would evoke this sort of reaction from Andrew, but the thought of seeing another merperson has Neil feeling curious despite himself.

Unfortunately, Andrew slips back into the ocean without further preamble. Neil keeps his legs in the water, kicking absently, but after an uneventful ten or so minutes he gives up on there being any more excitement for the day.

Which, Neil thinks, grabbing the nearly forgotten plastic bag and balling it up in his lap, is probably for the best, because he’s feeling a bit like a wrung-out sponge right now. Neil’s too used to keeping everything he thinks and feels inside of him, can’t imagine opening up to another person and feeling better for it, but even if it hadn’t been the easiest thing to do, Neil’s glad to have evened the score between himself and Andrew if nothing else.

Neil closes his eyes, leans back, and tries to sync his breathing with the ebb and flow of the tide.

When Neil slips into the cove the next day, it’s late afternoon and drizzling lightly. The ocean’s a dismal sight to see, dull grey and horizon near-imperceptible through the humid haze.

Neil isn’t planning on staying long, had debated dropping by at all, but he figured as long as the weather remained tame he could always go for a run after he’s indulged his innate desire to be an ‘impossible pest,’ as Andrew had so kindly phrased it.

But perhaps trying to make these meetings a daily occurrence is too excessive, because Neil eventually finds himself in a similar position as he had been in yesterday after Andrew had taken off, sitting on the rocks and waiting in vain.

Andrew’s never taken longer than ten minutes to appear before, so Neil’s pulling his legs out of the water and making to leave after long, understanding that Andrew has his own obligations and can’t be expected to drop everything just because Neil had decided to enter the cove on a whim. The rain, light as it was, has tapered off completely, and Neil supposes that it’s as good a time as any for a run.

Neil’s eyes are still watching the clouds when he hears a distant splash, which prompts his gaze to immediately swivel back to the swell of the sea before him. Neil scoots back to his spot closer to the edge to peer expectantly into the water, Andrew’s name already on his lips.

So Neil nearly swallows his tongue when the person who emerges directly in front of him isn’t Andrew at all, belting out an enthusiastic, “Hello!” in German, of all things, as they breach the surface.

Gaping, Neil reels back as the unknown merman pulls himself forward and up onto the rocks, dripping wet and sharp incisors flashing in what would otherwise be an affable grin. The merman has curly, dark brown hair that tumbles down to his narrow, tanned shoulders, and his claws and scales are a dark magenta color that vibrantly compliments his complexion.

When his tail breaks the surface, its length makes Andrew’s seem stubby in comparison, and his fins remind Neil of a betta fish, both in their rich purple color and and how they billow and flow like fine fabric. All in all, he’s much better suited to what Neil understands to be the conventional interpretation of a mermaid, whereas Andrew had been far more asperous and shark-like.

The merman makes a delighted trilling noise as he settles down more comfortably, practically sitting on top of a stunned Neil, and slips easily back into strangely-accented German.

“This is so exciting!” He laughs, giving Neil an obvious once-over. “I thought that Andrew had been spending an awful lot of time near the coast recently, so imagine my surprise when I followed him yesterday and saw him talking to a human!

The merman pauses for a beat, then amends, “Well, okay, actually, Andrew talking to anyone is impressive, but a human especially, and you’re not the same guy who helped him, either. He wasn’t very happy with me, but the fact that he threatened to gut me just for asking about you is interesting too, you know? Him and Aaron can be so dramatic sometimes. Oh, I’m Nicky, Andrew’s cousin, by the way. You are?”

Neil blinks.

The merman, Nicky, smiles expectantly at him, but his face falls tragically once he seems to realize something.

“You can’t understand me, can you? Shit.” Nicky wilts. “This is the only human language I know. I didn’t think this through—”

“I can understand you,” Neil assures him, his voice rough both with shock and the fact that he hasn’t spoken in German in quite some time. Neil occasionally reads articles and watches videos online in both French and German to insure he doesn’t lose his comprehension, but he hasn’t needed to speak in any language other than English in years. “Nicky, right? I’m Neil.”

It’s apparently Nicky’s turn to be shocked, because he stares wide-eyed at Neil, lips parted, before he quickly rebounds, trilling excitedly once more — and directly in Neil’s ear.

“Well, Neil, aren’t you just full of surprises?” says Nicky, pushing even further into Neil’s space. Neil eyes Nicky warily, leaning away, but he’s not expecting Nicky’s tail to lift completely out of the water and twine around the exposed skin of his legs, his tailfin brushing playfully against Neil’s feet. Neil startles badly at the sensation, and the feeling of wet, scaled muscle pressed up against him is decidedly strange, but when he twists to break free, Nicky’s hold only becomes more constricting. Neil tries not to panic as he looks down at his wiry legs so easily wrapped up by the strong length of Nicky’s tail.

“Can you—” Neil begins to protest.

Either completely oblivious or simply dismissive of Neil’s discomfort, Neil can’t really discern which, Nicky just laughs over him. “Hey, you know,” Nicky ducks down to more closely examine Neil’s face, “you’re pretty cute. No wonder Andrew’s keeping you all to himself. Maybe we’re related after all, if he’s gone and found himself a human lover.”

“What?” Neil pauses, his struggle to get Nicky off of him momentarily forgotten. What Nicky had just implied didn’t make any sense — Neil hardly thinks Andrew even considers him a friend. “We’re not like that.”

Nicky stares back at Neil placidly for a long moment, completely still, before he breaks out into another large, toothy grin. Neil flinches back at the sudden appearance of sharp teeth so close to his face, an uncomfortable reminder that he’s essentially being held captive by an apex predator of the ocean, as friendly as Nicky may seem.

A bit desperately, Neil wonders where Andrew is.

“I didn’t think so!” Nicky says proudly, as if he had just guessed the correct answer on a game show. “I’m something of an expert when it comes to these things. Aaron finding a mate was one thing — Oh, Aaron is Andrew’s brother by the way, he probably hasn’t told you anything about us, huh? — but Andrew?” Nicky chuckles nervously. “Well, there’s just no way, right? I can’t even imagine it, although I still don’t know what’s going on with that Renee girl…”

Nicky’s rapid-fire way of speaking is quickly wearing on Neil, and Neil’s still a little caught up on the fact that Andrew apparently has a family despite the fact that he’s spent majority of his life in captivity. Neil hasn’t seen or heard of this alleged brother, and Andrew and Nicky certainly don’t appear consanguineous — neither in appearance nor demeanor — but, then again, Neil supposes that many cousins don’t. Still, that particular train of thought brings one of Nicky’s earlier remarks to mind.

“What did you mean earlier?” Neil asks him, openly curious. “About you being ‘related after all’ if Andrew had a human, uh…”

Neil doesn’t think he’s ever said the word ‘lover’ out loud before in his life and finds himself admittedly reluctant to do so now, but it’s apparently the million dollar question, because Nicky visibly perks up, sufficiently distracted from imagining Andrew in any sort of romantic entanglement.

“I’m glad you asked! It’s actually how I know the language, my mate is a human; I met him a few years back when I was traveling. He’s all the way across the ocean! Deutschland! His name is Erik,” Nicky beams.

That’s… not at all what Neil was expecting, but he finds his other inquiries momentarily shelved to digest this new and seemingly impossible information.

“… How does that work? Why were you in Germany?” asks Neil slowly, tone suitably skeptical.

“A little far, huh?” is Nicky’s response, smile turning wry in dejection. Neil has the growing suspicion that Nicky’s the type of person who feels the need to uphold a sense of cheer in all situations, which isn’t something Neil thinks he’ll ever really comprehend, especially when Nicky’s lopsided grin does nothing to make him look any happier.

“I wasn’t really expecting to meet anyone like Erik back then; I was a little lost, and I don’t just mean that in the literal sense.” Nicky looks down, absently brushing his fluttery tailfin against Neil’s feet again; Neil resists the urge to resume squirming. “My parents… well, let’s just say that they have a lot of ideas on who and what I should be. Not that me getting together with a human made things any better on that front — Hell, they won’t even talk to me now — but I thought that being on my own and seeing the world would be good for me. And it was! Erik… I really love him. He’s incredible.”

Neil’s ridiculously out of his element with this abrupt turn of conversation, and there’s a long and weighted moment of silence while he tries to think of something to say to move the discussion along without making a complete ass of himself.

“That’s… nice?” Well, so much for that.

Thankfully, Nicky just laughs, apparently undeterred by Neil’s lacking reply; although Neil supposes that if Nicky’s really related to someone like Andrew, then he might be used to not getting a response at all. “Yeah, it’s nice. Really nice. Erik said when I come back he’ll marry me.”

Neil can’t help making a show of eyeing Nicky’s tail and gills in askance. Nicky huffs.

“I know what you’re thinking, but we’re serious about this. Merpeople mate for life, you know!” Nicky says sternly, leaning into Neil’s face for emphasis. “I stayed over there for a couple of years after we met, and I came back to tell Aaron and my folks about him, but then Andrew showed up and, well, I couldn’t just leave that alone, especially when he was so sick. But now that he’s better I don’t think he really cares what I do, and Aaron has Katelyn so…” He shrugs, but it’s clear to Neil that he still holds some reservations over leaving.

“Okay,” Neil says slowly, trying not to feel overwhelmed by all the information that Nicky has so readily given up, “but how are you and Erik supposed to get married when you’re…” Neil waves his hand in a vague gesture at Nicky’s body.

Nicky’s smile turns decidedly sly, and there’s a peculiar gleam in his eyes that has Neil feeling as though he’s said or done something that he’ll soon regret.

“I’ll show you,” Nicky says simply.

And he shows him.

Not knowing what to expect, Neil stares dumbly at Nicky’s face until he catches movement in his peripheral. Neil quickly looks down, and there’s a heavy purple mist shrouding Nicky’s tail — and thus Neil’s legs by proximity. The mist glitters and curls beguilingly, but Neil can just make out the scales on Nicky’s tail shrinking and contracting, gradually changing in color to match his skin tone. Nicky’s pelvic fins seem to fold in on themselves, his claws begin to recede, and, most alarmingly, his tail slowly splits down the center.

If Neil’s being completely honest, it’s a little disgusting.

He looks up just in time to watch the gills along Nicky’s ribs flatten and smooth out; the ones on his neck following immediately thereafter. When Neil looks back down, the mist has already cleared, the transformation complete.

“Well? What do you think?” Nicky chirps, teeth now perfectly squared and dull. Neil’s momentarily stunned into speechlessness, but when Nicky throws an arm over Neil’s shoulders and adjusts himself to resume his position half in Neil’s lap, the barely-familiar sensation of skin on skin has his mind jump-starting.

“Change back,” Neil urges the now very naked merman-turned-quasi-human practically lounging on top of him. When Nicky just laughs, Neil moves to push him off, but Nicky’s still significantly larger than him, and the action only has him clinging tighter to Neil’s shoulders with a whine.

“Aww, Neil! Don’t be like that, come on,” Nicky attempts to placate, and Neil’s seriously considering punching him in the throat, but Nicky just takes Neil’s hand and calmly guides it to one of his newly-transformed legs. “Feel!”

Neil’s more than a little put out right now, but Nicky clearly doesn’t have any malicious intent, and Neil’s curiosity admittedly overrides his discomfort. Still, Neil keeps his hand resolutely where Nicky had placed it on his lower thigh, not at all eager to wander. Neil notes that the texture of the synthetic skin is actually pretty spot-on, and, if anything, the only flaw he can point out is that Nicky’s completely hairless legs are a little too immaculate.

He’s impressed despite himself, especially considering Nicky appears unfazed even after performing what has to be incredibly complex magic.

“Can you walk like this?” Neil eventually asks, looking back up at Nicky. “How long does it last?”

“I can do a lot more than just walk,” Nicky winks at him. “This spell took ages to perfect. At first I could only maintain this form for a couple of hours, but now I’m confident that I could stay like this for at least a week and a half — and even then, all I’d need is a day or two to recharge.”

“Oh,” Neil blinks. “So… what? You’re just going to pretend to live as a human?”

“That’s the idea,” says Nicky, nodding seriously. “I know it won’t be easy, but Erik and I have talked it over, and I’m willing to do anything to make this work. He’s told me that he’d still be with me even if I couldn’t live with him on land, but I don’t want him to be the only one making compromises.”

Neil levels Nicky a considering look. “But you’re holding off on returning just yet. Why? Andrew’s been sober for a while now.”

Nicky visibly deflates at that, and he brings a hand up to rub at the space where his gills would be on his neck.

“I know. It’s just — I was so young when Andrew was… taken, and he was even younger. When he appeared again he was so… out of it. He refused to tell us anything, then he started getting sick, and now it’s like he doesn’t care about anything at all. But still. He’s family.” Nicky sighs, then he shoots Neil another one of those sad smiles. “Merpeople are really social creatures, and even though I know he’s used to being alone at this point, he shouldn’t have to be.”

Humans are technically ‘social creatures’ as well, but Neil thinks that particular biological trait just serves to screw people over more than anything else.

“Andrew and Aaron barely speak to one another, and I’m pretty sure they’re both just waiting for me to pick up and go already, but I’d feel terrible leaving things as they are,” Nicky drops his hand down to cover Neil’s, still absently resting on Nicky’s leg; Neil startles all over again. “But maybe you can help me with that.” Nicky smiles, sure and slow.

“I told you, Andrew and I aren’t like that,” Neil reminds him, feeling his irritation renew.

“I believe you, I believe you!” Nicky laughs, patting Neil’s hand good-naturedly. “But it’s good to know that Andrew has at least one person who he voluntarily says more than two words at a time to. I really think—“

Nicky’s abruptly cut off by an ominous clicking noise in a familiar low tone, and both Neil and Nicky immediately look up to investigate the source. Neil’s not surprised to see Andrew’s pale blond head poking out of the water at the cove’s fishbowl center, but what he is surprised to see is the unusually expressive scowl on his face.

Nicky lets out a bright chirp next to him, which Neil assumes to be some sort of greeting, but Andrew stays stationary and completely silent, his hard gaze never leaving Neil.

Neil squints at him, desperately trying to understand why the image laid out before him is so wrong, but is quickly spared the effort as another blond head surfaces directly next to the other, sporting a far more familiar and blank countenance.

Neil blinks once, twice, then turns to glare at Nicky. “All that talking you did in last half hour, and you somehow failed to mention that Andrew and Aaron are identical twins?

“Oh shit, I didn’t?” replies Nicky.

This seems to spur Aaron into action, because he draws up and points an accusatory, clawed finger at Neil, quickly rattling out a series of irate clicks. It’s strange to look at him, and Neil finds that the longer he stares, the more obvious the discrepancy between the twins becomes.

Nicky chatters back at him, dropping his arm from Neil’s shoulder, but otherwise staying put. Neil observes the back-and-forth exchange like a surrealist tennis match, and belatedly realizes that it’s unlikely that Aaron understands human language; Andrew and Nicky both have rather unique circumstances.

Something tells Neil that he’s not missing much though, because Aaron’s been in his presence for all of two minutes and Neil can already tell he’s kind of a dick.

Neil glances over at Andrew, but he appears completely uninvolved in Nicky and Aaron’s ongoing squabble, and is instead staring fixedly at Neil’s lap.

Frowning, Neil looks down to see what’s caught Andrew’s attention, and immediately presses his lips together in mortification when he’s met with the sight of Nicky bare legs splayed out over his, Neil’s hand covered by Nicky’s own and still resting on Nicky’s thigh.

Nicky shrieks when Neil unceremoniously pushes him off his lap and into the ocean.

The three of them all look down, unconcerned, at the space where Nicky had hit the water, which eventually begins to bubble and glow a dim purple. The process of reverting back to his original form must be quicker than shifting into a new one, because it’s only moments later when Nicky’s head is breaking the surface, gills flaring.

Neil!” Nicky wails, betrayal evident. “What was that for?”

Neil runs a hand down his face and sighs, suddenly exhausted.

Aaron trills something sullen and undoubtedly derogatory, which has Nicky rolling his eyes and whipping around to face his cousins. Aaron and Nicky start up their bickering again, Andrew watching passively and Neil bemused.

Andrew’s gaze slides back to Neil, and Neil finds the pull of his eyes as insistent as the tide. The eye contact lasts for only a moment before Andrew’s returning his attention to his family, clicking lowly.

Aaron and Nicky immediately fall silent. Nicky’s back is to Neil, so Neil can’t make out his expression, but Aaron is currently leveling Andrew a completely bewildered a look. When Andrew says nothing more, Aaron peers over at Neil with clear detestation, then huffs dismissively, slinking off below the surface.

Andrew must have told them something essentially along the lines of ‘get lost,’ because Nicky warbles moodily at Andrew before twirling around to face Neil. “It was nice meeting you, Neil!” He smiles. “We’ll talk again soon, yeah?”

Neil gives him an awkward wave, not entirely convinced that they will. “Bye, Nicky.”

Nicky nods, apparently satisfied, then dives down, his vibrant tail flaring out behind him in a stylish exit.

With the sanctity of the cove restored, Neil tries to will himself to relax again, pulling his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms loosely around his ankles. Andrew gently propels forward, but makes no move to pull himself up onto the rocks once he reaches Neil.

“So,” Neil looks down at him, chin resting on his knees, “you have a family.”

It’s not a question, so Andrew says nothing. Instead, he tilts his head to the side, giving Neil a slow, careful perusal. “What did he do?” Andrew asks him, voice level.

Andrew wouldn’t ask if he didn’t care for the answer, and the realization affects Neil more than he’d like.

“Nothing,” Neil tells him, licking his lips. “Well, when we started talking he wrapped his tail around my legs and wouldn’t let go. He didn’t seem to think anything of it.”

Andrew nods once, slowly, like he had been expecting the answer. “They do that. When they talk to one another.” Between his pronoun usage and the disdainful tilt to his lips, Neil easily concludes that it’s not a convention Andrew indulges in.

It had been uncomfortable, but Neil feels somewhat better knowing that Nicky hadn’t meant to intimidate Neil — that it was how he had been cultured to display companionship. Neil can see it, almost; two merpeople coiled together, talking animatedly and giving each other their undivided attention. It fits the concept of ‘social creatures,’ although Neil still thinks Nicky would have benefited more from picking up on Neil’s displeasure.

“If he does it again, stick your grubby little fingers in his gills. You’re good at that.” Andrew quips dryly.

Neil bites down on his bottom lip to keep himself from smirking. It doesn’t work very well. “You remember that?”

“I forget nothing,” Andrew replies.

Not I remember everything, but I forget nothing. Neil recognizes the nuance between simply remembering something as opposed to being unable to forget it, and somehow he doesn’t think Andrew is just talking about the drowning attempt.

It shouldn’t be possible, how interested Neil is. It makes him feel frantic, like his ribcage is three sizes too small, if only because he knows things like this aren’t for people like Neil; things like exy and how Andrew offers up fragments of truth for him to consider, to see what colors they reflect when held up to the light. Neil’s never once held an exy racquet — the closest he’s ever managed is a wooden mop — and he’s starting to think he’s made a mistake by trying to hold onto Andrew’s secrets just because Andrew promised he’d hold onto Neil’s in return.

Knowing another is just as dangerous as allowing oneself to be known, but Neil’s mother could have told him that much.

“I should go,” Neil murmurs, and he thinks there must be weight to his words, an unusual resonance, because Andrew just looks at him, like if he stares hard enough Neil’s skin will melt right off the bone.

Neil pulls on his tennis shoes, then stands. He takes a few steps away from where he had been sitting, but turns to look back down at Andrew before he can go too far. “I’ll see you tomorrow?” Neil asks, though he knows he shouldn’t.

He can’t really bring himself to regret it though, not when the question seems to settle something in Andrew’s expression. Andrew nods silently at him, and Neil’s quick to turn back around so Andrew can’t see the way his lips tug upwards at the confirmation.

When Neil falls into bed some hours later, he dreams of running barefoot across the ocean’s surface. It’s exhilarating until it’s not, when he realizes that if he slows down he begins to sink, and if he were to ever stop, he’d drown.