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1863 - France

The air is cold and wet when Nathaniel Wesninski steps out of the train car, father and mother directly ahead of him. There are puddles all around, and grey clouds over head threaten to open up at any second. It’s much like home. The winters in Poland could be very cold, very rainy, and very gray, though this past January has been more bloody than usual with the most recent uprising against Russia’s hold.

Nathaniel pulls his coat tighter as a breeze blows through, shivering and stepping out of the way of his family’s stewards as they set their luggage down on the Parisian streets. A carriage is waiting nearby, the coachman waiting patiently on the seat, dressed in much warmer clothes, a scarf, and a cap to cover his head and most of his shockingly blond hair.

Nathan sees this and sneers, calling out to him with an order to put the first of the newly deposited trunks in the back. The coachman doesn’t even look over, instead pulling his cap down over his eyes. Before Nathan can get any madder, Nathaniel picks up his trunk and takes it himself, sliding it into the storage rack on the back of the carriage.

The coachman watches him as he does it, but Nathaniel keeps his gaze lowered.

Most wouldn’t expect it of him – he’s from a rich family, Polish aristocrats who only left their home for the safety of France. Too many uprisings and revolutions have happened for Poland to still be safe, especially when Nathaniel knows his father has helped the Russians keep their control. If the people in their town were to find out, and really, it was more of a when than an if, Nathaniel and his parents would be in danger. Instead of letting that happen, they packed up and moved within three days, making it to France before January was even over.

The coachman hops down behind Nathaniel and comes over, ignoring how Nathan is spewing angry words about his laziness and disrespect. He hauls up Nathan’s trunk while Nathaniel takes his mothers, and when they get back to the carriage, gestures for Nathaniel to leave his on the ground.

Nathaniel sets it down gently, and the coachman, after a moment of pondering, opens the carriage door and offers his hand. Nathaniel, though he is surprised, takes it, letting the coachman help him into the carriage. His mother and father are still by the train, waiting for the rest of their luggage to be brought out to them, so they don’t see as the coachman stays at the door, watching Nathaniel curiously.

“Is there something else?” Nathaniel asks politely in French. He’s glad his mother had insisted on language lessons in his youth, otherwise his life would have become even more difficult than before. The man only shakes his head.

“Je ne parle pas Français” He says. I do not speak French.

Nathaniel takes a moment and ties to remember back to his geography lessons. “Sprichst du Deutsch?“ he tries instead. Do you speak German?

Understanding subtlety lights up his eyes and he nods. Nathaniel repeats his question. This time the coachman shakes his head once.

“You are… interesting,” he finally says, before closing the door to the carriage and returning to the trunks in the back.

After a short but bumpy ride to where they would be staying, Nathaniel is surprised when the coachman ignores his parents once again, only to help Nathaniel out. His parents are already halfway up the steps, but the coachman holds onto his hand until he turns to look at him.

“Teach me French and I’ll keep your father off your back,” he says, and Nathaniel is stunned to silence for a moment. He considers the offer once he has a hold on his surprise – the coachman is perceptive to have picked up on the tension between Nathaniel and his father, and he doesn’t seem to be afraid of him in the slightest. Teaching someone a language isn’t exactly what Nathaniel would call fun, but there’s really nothing else for him to do here, and to be perfectly honest, he’s a bit lonely. He never had friend back in Poland, and now that he’s in a new strange land, he feels more alone then ever. Nathaniel isn’t sure if he believes that this man will keep his promise per say – he doesn’t know him enough – but even if he doesn’t keep his end, Nathaniel will have still gained a little.

“What’s your name?” Nathaniel asks.

“Andrew,” the coachman replies.

“Nathaniel,” he says, then adds, “or… Neil. You could call me Neil too.”

Andrew finally drops Nathaniel’s hand and takes a step back. Nathaniel takes it for the dismissal it is and begins to follow after his parents. He only makes it a few steps before he’s turning around.

“That was a yes, by the way. I’ll teach you French, and any other language you want to learn if I already know it. Just…” Nathaniel shrugs. He can speak six languages yet still can’t put his thoughts into words.

Andrew understands anyway, so Nathaniel once again follows after his parents, leaving Andrew to carry the luggage.

Chapter Text

Interviewer: Can you remain still please? We’re about to begin. [pause] Polygraph for CIA admission. A few questions for control. Your name is Andrew Minyard?

Minyard: Yes.

I: You are 25 years old?

M: Yes.

I: You reside in South Carolina?

M: Columbia. Yes.

I: You speak six languages?

M: Yes.

I: Okay then, now I’m going to ask you some personal questions. You told us in your vetting interview that you’ve never had a serious relationship, but your last ‘fling’ ended two years ago.

M: Yes

I: You met abroad.

M: No.

I: Did you love her?

M: No. I tolerated him.

I: The sex was good?

M: Adequate.

I: It ended badly?

M: No worse than any other.

I: Did that bother you?

M: After three weeks, he left me in the middle of the night with a cryptic note and a $50 bar tab. What bothered me most was losing the $50.

I: We are looking for a yes or a no.

[Huff of laughter]

M: Can you repeat the question?

I: The question is this: If you join the CIA, will you be able to separate your work from your personal life?

M: Yes. I will.


 

Andrew doesn’t know what he hates more – the fact that he has to lie as a part of his job, or the fact that he has to live close to Aaron’s wife.

Nicky had gone back to Erik in Germany after graduation, and Aaron had become a doctor, married Katelyn, and had two kids. Andrew had been scouted to play professionally, but there really was nothing to keep him doing it, so instead Andrew had enrolled in CIA training. Being pulled out early comes as no surprise – he’s the top of his class, far outranking any of his classmates. The only problem with being sent to Langley is that he’d had to move.

The house in Columbia wasn’t anything important to Andrew, though Nicky refused to sell it, so Andrew was forced to move into his brother’s guest house, a lavish and completely unnecessary addition to the already profligate home Aaron and Katelyn lived in. Andrew hates being so close to her, though his twin nieces aren’t as bad. They at least understand how to smuggle candy to him.

An agency car picks him up for his first day, dropping him off at the gate to let him through security. A man tries to talk to him, but Andrew just ignores him as he walks in. Getting his badge is time consuming and tedious; fingerprints are recorded, a retinal scan is uploaded, and his picture is taken multiple times until the perfect one is chosen. After, Andrew is sworn in under oath, and then finally, sent on his way.

The elevator thankfully doesn’t play music as it ascends. Andrew doesn’t know if he could handle that every day. When the doors finally slides open, a harsh green light blinds Andrew for a second, before relocating to the floor.

“Andrew Minyard?” the man with the green laser pointer asks, standing up and looking straight over Andrew’s head as he talks. He has a shock of red hair on his head, and the bluest eyes Andrew has ever seen. The most striking feature about him though are the marks on his face. On the man’s right cheek are three vertical scars, the middle one rising high enough to go through one eye and eyebrow above. On the other cheek is a mess of burn tissue, extending in a circle along the cheekbone. Half of this eyebrow is burned away.

“Yes,” Andrew says.

“Neil Josten, tech ops, and your friendly neighborhood cruise director. Walk with me.”

Neil turns away down a hallway, the green laser scanning the floor, a digital cane to keep him from tripping over anyone. He talks as he walks, unprompted as he explains the gist of everything.

“Fifty percent of the agency has five years’ experience or less. You’re not special for being the new guy, so keep up. Second chances are rare around here. You’ll find that besides that, it’s a weird place to work. Polygraphs every year, no cell phones aloud inside the building, no dating foreigners. In fact, the CIA highly encourages dating within the agency. Keeps things in the circle of trust. It’s like Club Med, but without the free drinks.”

Pity. Andrew would’ve loved free drinks.

On the other hand, being encouraged to keep it within the agency? Andrew looks at Neil’s face again as they come around a curve. Neil points out the food court, but Andrew’s still trying to catch another glimpse of blue, blue eyes.

Maybe it’ll be worth it.

Chapter Text

The last thing Neil expected to find at Palmetto State University was his soulmate, especially when he was waiting for the last Fox to arrive. Allison Reynolds walked in after Seth had sat down, eyes roaming immediately over the group, and, when her eyes landed on Neil, she paused, debating whether he was worthy of whatever she was considering.

Finally, she said, “I’m going to sit with you,” and headed over to Neil’s small chair, sitting on the side and leaning against him. When her bare arm came around Neil’s shoulder, brushing against the back of his neck, everything changed.

Soulmates were a common thing. Everyone had one, and while it wasn’t common to have more, it also wasn’t rare enough to be undocumented. When they touched skin to skin, something just… clicked. There were no outward signs, and nothing really changed about each person individually, it was just a sense of, ‘Oh. It’s you. It was always going to be you.’

When Neil felt that, everything just… stopped.

It couldn’t be. He always knew that he was going to die before ever meeting his soulmate, and if he did somehow meet them beforehand, he was going to run and leave them behind, hoping that his father wouldn’t somehow find out and kill them. But here, he couldn’t run.

Well, he could, but that would mean he couldn’t play Exy anymore, and Neil desperately wanted to get as much of it as he could before leaving it behind forever.

Neil looked at Allison, who was shocked into stillness for only a moment, before turning to him with an almost predatory look. The room was quiet in curiosity, other than Seth, who fumed across the room. Neil looked at him quickly, then to Andrew. For once, Andrew wasn’t watching him with his thousand-yard stare – instead, he was watching Renee, who, when Neil looked over at her, was watching Allison and himself with her soft smile. Neil didn’t doubt that she had already figured it out.

Neil looked back to Allison, keeping his eyes locked on her face.

"I can move if you want to sit here," Neil finally said. It was better to just not bring it up. If Allison didn’t want to point it out to everyone, then Neil certainly wasn’t going to bring undue attention to himself any more than he already had.

"No,” Allison said, a smug and self-satisfied look on her face. It reminded Neil terrifyingly of Lola for a second, then the resemblance vanished as Allison slid even further into Neil’s lap, kicking off her heels and tucking her bare feet between Neil’s thigh and the armrest on the other side of the chair “This is fine."

Around them, Seth was sneering, Renee was still smiling, and Andrew had finally looked to Neil, his eyebrow slightly lifted in assessment. Wymack was waiting impatiently, and when Allison flicked her fingers in his direction and casually asked to hurry things up, he rolled his eyes.

“You’re the ones slowing this down," he said, stabbing a finger at Neil. "First order of business: Neil Josten, our new striker sub. Got anything to say?"

Neil shook his head once, more focused on keeping his hands far, far out of reach of Allison. He vaguely heard Wymack introducing her and Seth, then call for questions.

Seth spoke up, as Neil expected. He knew the older striker wouldn’t be happy to have a replacement, but this anger seemed to be stronger, more directly tied to how Allison was behaving around him. That would definitely need to be cleared up quickly, otherwise Neil might not get to play for the little time he already planned.

Neil didn’t come back to the conversation until Nicky spoke up. “The death threats were creative, though. Maybe this time they'll follow through and actually kill one of us. Let's vote. I nominate Seth."

Seth had just started to speak up with his own response, but Neil beat him to the punch. “Hey, knock it off,” he demanded, shooting Nicky a severe look before he even realized what he was doing. Seth cut himself off, surprised. On his lap, Allison looked at him a little closer, bringing one hand up to twirl her fingers through Neil’s hair.

It had been instinctual, Neil realized, to defend Seth. He was clearly important to Allison, even in the midst of their fight, and Neil had subconsciously wanted to help her, to help his soulmate, even if it meant defending someone who disliked him.

Neil sank a little lower into the chair at this realization. He could already tell the upcoming months would be the hardest of his life. As if she could sense his despair, Allison brought her other hand up and grabbed Neil’s, squeezing it once before nodding to Wymack to continue, ignoring Seth’s huff of anger.

It seemed that even though they were still strangers, Allison was willing to help him too, and that, Neil decided, wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it could’ve been. He thanked his lucky stars and listened back in to Wymack.

Chapter Text

Fairy tales tell, as their labels imply

Stories of magic, of creatures that fly,

With giants and dragons and ogres and elves

And inanimate objects that speak for themselves.

There's romance and danger and plotting of schemes

There's good guys and bad guys and some guys in-between.

A fairy tale also reveals some sort of truth,

The perils of choices we make in our youth.

But our story today is different in theme,

For our hero had no choice or so it would seem.

It starts with a fairy bestowing a spell.

This one's for a baby named Andrew of Frell.


 For as long as Andrew can remember, he’s been cursed.

His earliest memory, from when he was five and in school, had been of another child throwing taunts at a girl. The girl was staying quiet, retrained and pacifying, so Andrew walked up and pushed the other boy away. The boy immediately turned the scowl on Andrew and told him to bite him. Without hesitation, Andrew had reached out and grabbed the boy’s arm, obliging the command.

When the boy had run off screaming, Andrew had turned to leave, but the girl had stopped him. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m Renee.”

“Andrew.”

And from then on, they were friends. Andrew didn’t know yet why he had bit the other child, but as more and more occurrences happened like it, such as when he was unable to speak for a week because of someone yelling at him to shut up, or when his newest foster family gave him back to the orphanage after he had been told to steal from them by another child, or even worse, when Drake found out that he couldn’t say no, not if he phrased it a certain way, Andrew found himself almost clinging to Renee, to the one person who had never made him do anything.

Even Kevin, the household fairy who’d been with Andrew at every house, claiming that he served Andrew and Andrew’s blood only, had accidentally ordered him to do things throughout the years. He was the only person Andrew didn’t hate for doing it, because he stuck with Andrew no matter the consequences to himself.

Apparently, when Andrew was too young to remember, before he even was given his curse of obedience, an ogre looking for an easy meal had tried to eat Andrew, but Kevin had intervened, at great cost to himself. Kevin’s hand had been shattered by the ogre’s club in the fight, and ever since, he hadn’t been able to do magic with as much accuracy or skill as before.

And then, when Andrew didn’t think any of it could get worse, Cass remarried, bringing a new “father” into the picture, along with a new “sibling.” Andrew wondered if the new people would be just as bad as everyone else, or if, Fairies forbid, they would somehow be worse.

They pulled up in a yellow carriage, horses in front gleaming with sweat from the journey. The father stepped out first, tall and imposing as he took in the small house they lived in. Andrew thought it strange that he was moving here, rather than Cass, Drake, and him moving there, but he didn’t dare speak his curiosities aloud. Drake thankfully wasn’t there, was off fighting in the ogre wars, so Andrew didn’t have to worry about him while the new people moved in.

Behind the father, a woman only a year or two older than Andrew stepped out. Blonde as he was, they could’ve passed for blood siblings if it weren’t for how tall she was, especially in her highly impractical heels.

“Sir Reynolds,” Cass said, stepping forward with open arms, kissing her new husband once on each cheek before turning to the daughter. “And you must be Allison.” She hugged the girl briefly, then gestured an arm back at Andrew. “This is Andrew. I took him in when the orphanage wouldn’t take him back again, he’s quite sweet. My son is away however, off fighting those terrible ogres.”

Sir Reynolds nodded with an easy smile, then strode right by Andrew as if he didn’t exist. Which was fine, really. If Andrew couldn’t even be noticed, it was all the better for him.

Inside, things changed. While Sir Reynolds went off to talk with Cass, the previously quiet Allison took off like a whirlwind, throwing up posters and picking up every little trinket around to look at it closely, only to put them down in a random place, uncaring of the mess she was making.

“Is this hutch meant to be a closet?” she finally asked, turning to Andrew with an incredulous look. Without waiting for a response, she continued, “It’s pathetic. My clothes need more room than this.”

She looked around for a moment, then, with her gaze landing on Andrew, declared. “I’ll have to use yours.”

Andrew didn’t deign her outburst with a response.

Allison clearly wasn’t having it though. “Well come on,” she said. “Show it to me.”

Instantly, Andrew was turning and heading for his room, leaving a stunned Allision behind as he dutifully carried out her command. He ground his teeth together as he opened the closet door, eyes narrowed as she stepped into the room. She was watching him closely, a curious gleam in her eyes, before she looked away.

“It’s so… quaint.” She looked around the room one last time. “On second thought, I think I’ll make my own space work. Show me to my room.”

Andrew hated the expectant look she tossed his way. From just one action, she already suspected. Andrew didn’t want to listen, didn’t want her anywhere near him, especially once she found out that he couldn’t say no. He wanted to fight her, to fight the command. With all his being, he tried.

“Well, hurry up,” Allison said.

Andrew went.

Chapter Text

Neil thought he was used to solitude. Ever since his mother had died, then his father and his whole operation had crumbled in the wake of his testimony and cooperation with the FBI, Neil had been alone. Other than a cat or two that he sometimes tossed food to on his way home, Neil really only ever talked with his coworkers. 

They needed to talk, really, and to form relationships between them, because they were heading on a three year mission together to the moon. If there wasn't a strong relationship between them all, then any number of things could go wrong. For the most part, Neil liked his teammates, but he was a liar at heart, so it was easy to fake something that wasn't really there. 

Then they made it to the moon, set up base camp, and began to carry out their jobs. They all had tests to run and meteorites to collect, and before Neil realized it, the mission was halfway over. A year and a half, gone in a blink. It was just another piece of evidence to his familiarity with isolation.

And then the asteroid came.

What started out as a tiny speck in the black sky of space only took minutes to grow as it hurled toward them. It wasn't big, really, probably no bigger than Neil's arm all the way across, but it was devastating in its collision. It hit the ship, ripping it to shreds right in front of Neil's eyes. If he hadn't been outside when it happened, he would have been dead.

As it was, the other seven crew mates were still inside, eating breakfast before joining Neil outside. Neil found their bodies one by one, frozen solid and half buried in the debris that had been jostled around, finally settling in the aftermath.

He salvaged as much as he could - luckily, the ship hadn't exploded upon the collision, and many of the rooms were still sealed. The food was individually packaged, so other than what his crew mates had been eating at that moment, there was still enough food for the remaining  year and a half - now it could last seven times that, with only one person needing it. 

Neil went to the control room next, hoping that he would still be able to contact Earth and let them know what happened. 

He picked up the handheld radio and pressed the transmit button

"Hello? This is Neil Josten, calling in. I have an emergency up here."

What was even the protocol for calling back home? Neil was never the one reporting in. He did his job outside, came back, ate, did his daily exercises, and slept. It was always someone else who called in.

The line was static for a long time, but then a bored voice answered his distress signal.

"What."

"Hello? Who is this?'

"The custodian. What do you want."

Neil was shocked into silence for a moment. 

"Um. Where is everyone?"

"It's nighttime. Only a few people are here. The people supposed to be monitoring the room are in the bathroom hooking up."

Oh. Well then.

The voice on the other end repeated, "What do you want."

"I-" Neil's voice cracked. "I don't know what to do."

There was a distinctly mocking pause. 

"There was an accident. An asteroid. The rest of the crew is dead. The ship's unable to fly. I- I don't know what to do."

The voice did not return. Neil waited and waited, but the line remained static.

"Come back," he whispered. The sound was swallowed up by the dead air. Neil dropped the radio, letting it swing down until it brushed the ground, the cord the only thing holding it up.

An eternity later, the radio crackled, and a new voice came on. Neil lunged for the device, scrambling over himself so fast that he nearly fell over in his haste.

"This is Colonel Day, I'm in charge of this mission down here, can you explain the situation to me?"

Neil repeated everything to the new voice. There were a few moments of silence, then, "I'll bring this up to everyone and we will decide how to proceed. In the meantime, stay safe for now. Your duties are on hold."

Before Neil could thank him, the static returned. No one was transmitting.

"That's it?" Neil asked. "I'm stranded here alone and unable to get home and you tell me to stop working and stay safe and you'll talk to some people?"

"Relax," the first voice said. "Don't work yourself up. Day's already gone. He's going to talk to his superiors right now and figure out a way to get you home. You won't be stuck up there forever."

Neil found it slightly easier to breath, but not by much. As much as he loved being as far away from his father's influence, even after his death, he absolutely did not want to be the only living person on the entire planet. Or rather, moon. Just because he was used to being alone didn't mean he liked it. 

Besides, there was a difference between being alone in a city surrounded by people and being truly, completely isolated from literally everything and with no way to change it.

"Neil?" the voice asked. "Talk to me. Stay in your head, don't go away anywhere."

"I'm here."

"Good. Can you tell me what you still have?"

Neil nodded, then realized that of course the other man couldn't see him. "Yeah. I checked the food already, and I still have several years' worth. The electrolysis station is still functioning, so I won't run out of oxygen anytime soon as long as it keeps working. Water is fine for now, parts of the system are a bit damaged, but as long as I keep to only a few rooms on the ship and shut off the other spaces for life support, i'll have quite a bit of energy to keep it going. The gym is damaged, so I'll have to keep exercising on my own with makeshift stuff, but I'll manage. All of the space suits are still intact. I was the only one wearing it when..."

Neil trailed off, remembering the faces of his crew mates, frozen forever in death. At least for the next few days, that is, before the temperatures would begin to rise with the sun's appearance, and instead they would be cooked. Neil would have to move their bodies to a secure, sealed room. He couldn't leave them to be destroyed. They deserved a burial. Everyone did.

"Neil, come back."

"I'm here."

"You keep disappearing on me."

"Please don't leave me," Neil begged. He'd never done that before, not even when his father was hurting him as a child.

"Don't use that word and I won't."

Neil scrambled to figure out what word the man meant. There was really only one option.

"I won't. I promise. Just, don't leave me alone."

Over the line, Neil heard a sigh. "I won't be able to be here all the time. I'm the night custodian, and sometimes the room is not open to people under a certain security clearance. But, I will be here as often as I am able."

Neil close his eyes in relief. "Thank you. Can I ask you one thing?"

"Only one?"

Neil felt a smile tug at his lips. It was quite impressive, really, that this stranger was able to make Neil feel humor in such a stressful time.

"What's your name?"

"Andrew," the man answered.

Andrew, Neil mouthed to himself. It tasted of companionship.

Chapter Text

Andrew watched as the majority of the Raven’s crew fought and died in the waters of Whitecap bay. All around him, they were being latched onto with webs of seaweed, pulled over their net, and dragged into the deep to be torn to shreds for the mermaids to feast on. Captain Riko screamed from the shore, ordering the men to stay and fight them or die by his own sword. He needed a mermaid alive, or else soon he would be dead.

The prophecy was as common as is possible – a family member of his own blood would kill him within the week, and so, to prevent it from happening, Riko was searching for the Fountain of Youth. Andrew knew he was likely bringing about his own end, just as all the Kings in Greek tragedies had done in their attempts to thwart their fate.

Kevin, Riko’s brother in arms, was gone, sprinting his way up the lighthouse to do something insane. Andrew, who had no desire to even be here in the first place, did nothing. He just stood on the rocks at the bottom of the lighthouse getting his breath back from his dangerous swim to shore, watching as the crew of pirates who had overtaken his own ship and forced him to join them perished.

Something falling from the sky into the water caught his attention, and when it surfaced, Andrew recognized Kevin. The fool must’ve jumped from the lighthouse.

A second later, the sky lit up and a giant crash of thunder made Andrew crouch in shock, hands covering his ears. Flaming debris began to fall around them, and a slick patch of burning oil snaked its way across the bay as the cauldron that once lit up the lighthouse toppled down. Mermaids everywhere screamed and fled as they burned, abandoning their hunt instead of finishing off their prey.

Andrew straightened and turned his back on the water, beginning to walk back to the beaches.

Something wrapped around his ankle and pulled him sharply off his feet. Instead of hitting the ground, the thing pulled him into the water, and the revolting feeling of hands on him took over his mind. He thrashed, trying to throw off the mermaid attacking him, just like he had minutes earlier out on the water.

His feet hit rocks, and the next moment his head was above the water again, back pressed to the ground. He rolled to his hands and knees and looked over to see what had dragged him to shore, because there wasn’t any way it would be a mermaid like he thought – they would have dragged him away from the shore, not on to it.

As he watched the thing flop about on in the shallows, desperately trying to head back to the depths of the cove, Andrew realized he wasn’t exactly wrong, per se – It wasn’t a mermaid; it was a merman.

The merman shuffled far enough back that it could move, then looked at Andrew, as if to make sure he was okay.

Andrew couldn’t help staring – he looked like he had come right off the pages of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, with red hair and the deepest blue eyes he had ever seen. The only difference was his tail – where the mermaids had green scales the color of seaweed, this merman’s scales shimmered an iridescent orange, the color of sunset on the water.

A net was thrown over the merman in the next second, and the peace between them was broken. The merman thrashed and howled, hissing and spitting as he turned and rolled and tried to escape, yet only succeeded and trapping himself further.

It took mere second to hoist the merman from the water and dump him into the glass tank brought along for this exact purpose, the netting cut aside and pulled out once they were far enough on the beach that the merman wouldn’t be able to flop to safety.

They began their trek further inland, the bulkier of the Raven’s crew carrying the merman. They passed through a river a few hours after the sun rises, and the merman pressed his hand to the glass and rolled over gently, his yearning for the water clear.

Another hour after that, the party stopped to rest. Andrew stayed at the edges of the group, wordlessly observing them as they rest and drink fresh water. The merman looked around as well, eyes hooded and breaths coming fast. The glass fogged up a little near his mouth. His head lolled a bit, and Andrew was struck with the realization that he was quietly suffocating. The oxygen in the water must’ve already run out, and the air was no substitute for a creature of the water.

Andrew approached the glass coffin and pulled a dagger. The crew members around him tensed as he jabbed the blade into the seam and twisted, until air rushed in and the merman rose to the crack, his mouth greedily sucking in air.

He watched Andrew after recovering, a curious look in his eyes, like he didn't quite understand Andrew. Andrew felt the same.

“Why did you save me?” he asked, not expecting an answer.

“Why did you?” the merman whispered back.

Hm. So it could talk and understand him. That was… interesting.

Kevin stood up and clapped his hands together. “Time to keep moving,” he announced, and Andrew rose from his spot at the merman’s side.

The kept moving, Kevin splitting off from the group an hour later to pick up a different required artifact. The path after became more treacherous, branches clogging the way and stones proving dangerous. On of the men carrying the merman tripped, sending the whole thing tumbling to the ground. It shattered, the water rushing everywhere, leaving the merman a flopping, drying out fish on the ground.

For a moment, Andrew was angry that the merman would die, suffocate on land among enemies. It was no way to go.

The merman sat up instead, curling protectively around himself as his tail melted away, replaced by two very human legs. He was shivering and scared, clearly distressed with everyone turning to stare at him. Andrew was unsettled. He understood what it was like to be gawked at, to have no control over your surroundings and be literally laid bare in front of threats.

He barely thought at all before pulling off his vest and shirt, helping the merman into the garment so that he could at least have the armor of clothes. He slid the vest back on himself, hating how exposed he now was, how his arms were laid bare without sleeves, but it couldn’t be helped.

Riko stepped closer. “You will walk,” he ordered, and after a beat, the merman wobbled to his feet, standing on them for likely the first time in his life. He took a hesitant step forward, then hit the ground hard as his knees buckled and ankles folded.

“I cannot,” he said, staring at the leaves on the ground.

“Walk or die,” Riko said then, and one of his Raven’s pulled a sword carry out the threat.

Andrew hated that he already knew he would help. He crouched beside the merman, cursing himself in his head.

“Put your arms around me,” he said lowly. The merman hesitated, then slowly wrapped an arm around Andrew’s shoulders as Andrew scooped him up.

Andrew’s arms quickly grew tired from carrying someone nearly the same size as him, but there was no way he was going to give Riko the satisfaction of killing the merman, so he pushed on.

By nightfall, the group reached a group of pools set deep into the ground, surrounded by twisting trunks of mangroves. The merman tensed as he looked around, and Andrew understood why. In several pools, the skeletons of merpeople like him were tied by their hands, left dangling half in the water.

Before Andrew could do anything, the merman was ripped from his arms. Andrew tried to go after him, but three Ravens held on to him, preventing him from doing so.

Riko went on and on, talking about how he only needed one tear, and how he would gladly leave the merman to burn, dry out in the sun, half submerged in water but not enough to save his life. When that didn’t work, he turned to Andrew.

“Don’t think I didn’t notice the two of you. The merman saved you back at the bay, and you didn’t even attempt to fight him. Then all those stares, you carrying him? One might think you feel something for the creature.”

Andrew kept his face stone-cold. Riko hummed, then turned to the merman. “But does the creature feel something for you?”

Riko waited a moment, then burst out laughing. “It would seem he does. New plan then, beast. Give us the one tear we need, or I’ll kill have him killed.”

The merman looked in horror at Andrew, then back to Riko. Andrew willed him not to do it, but the merman’s face crumpled, his eyes shut tight. A vial was pressed to the corner of his eye and he tilted his head into it, letting one tear run into the glass.

Riko smiled, taking the tear and tucking it away in his pocket. He walked away from the group, tossing one last order over his shoulder to deal with both of them.

Andrew tried to fight, but a Raven drew their sword and cut his stomach, and the last thing he saw was the horrified face of the merman being tied like the rest of his kin.

Consciousness came back to him slowly, but as his vision cleared, Andrew realized it was nearly an hour after dawn. He reached down, pressing a tight hand to the wound still steadily dripping blood. He didn’t think it was even possible for him to have survived, but there it was. A miracle. Some luck he seemed to have – he got to live just long enough to die slowly and painfully, rather than passing in his sleep.

He pushed himself back to his knees and stood, holding onto the trees with a death grip as he went. He might be dying, but he wasn’t going to let the merman die too.

The merman was scaly when he finally found him – skin peeling all over as the sun dried him out. He seemed to be unconscious, but when Andrew finally collapsed next to him and shakily untied the knots holding the merman out of the water, his eyes fluttered open. He took only a moment to duck into the water before coming back up, his fingers trailing over the wound on Andrew’s stomach.

“I can heal that,” he said, leaving his finger in their place while looking into Andrew’s eyes. Andrew, for the first time in his life, didn’t mind the touch.

“Why would you? I’m the reason you almost died, the reason you were captured in the first place.”

The merman shook his head. “My choice. Now it’s yours. Come with me.”

“I don’t even know your name,” Andrew said.

The merman smiled. “Neil. What’s yours?”

“Andrew.”

Neil ducked back under the water for a second. It left his hair plastered to his forehead. Andrew refused to admit how it made something in him flutter.

“Come with me,” Neil whispered again, leaning in close enough that their lips almost touched. Andrew knew what Neil was asking – a mermaid’s kiss was said to allow sailors to breath underwater, give them gills and webbing to let them live like the merpeople themselves.

 Andrew thought of everything he left behind for a life on the seas. It wasn’t much. Even if everything the merman was offering was false, what did he have to lose? He would die anyway with this wound.

“Yes,” he said, and Neil closed the gap, kissing him for all he was worth, then he grabbed Andrew’s vest and pulled him into the deep.