The ship was in good condition as wrecks went, its hull mostly intact and only covered with a single layer of barnacles and algae. It lay at a jagged angle against a spur of rock, masts pointing off toward a distant patch of the ocean's surface, each pole draped with the tattered remains of sails and flags.
Seafin Cuttlebert pumped his tail and sped alongside the curved wooden surface, looking for breaches.
You had to be careful, with human ships. Mostly they were fascinating in a good way, but they also had some dodgy habits that you had to look out for. Like the small entrances on the sides of some ships' rooms. Humans tended to line them with glass — well, Seafin's Terra-Surfaceologist Friend swore it was a kind of glass — but it wasn't frosty and round-edged at all, it was almost invisible, and sharp enough to cut yourself on. Even if an entrance looked merman-sized, you had to check closely to make sure it was safe.
He found an entrance that was definitely too small for him to get inside safely...but large enough to admit his best friend. "Swimmy!" yelled Seafin. "Get over here! I need you!"
"I'm coming!" said Swimmy Fallon, paddling Seafin's way with all four flippers working. "You go too fast when you get excited, you know that."
"Well, whatever's in this room is very exciting! Probably. We won't know until you look."
Seafin's Best Turtle Friend rolled his eyes, but paddled up to the entrance, sized it up, and wriggled his way in. Unscathed, even after a bit of sharp surface-glass scraped against his shell.
It was dazzlingly bright this close to the surface. Seafin had to get as close as possible to the ship, cup his hands around his face with the webbed fingers spread wide to block out as much sunlight as possible, and wait for his eyes to adjust.
As usual, Swimmy didn't disappoint. One by one, he brought things up to the outside for Seafin's inspection: a series of round flat ceramic things with blue flowers painted around the edges, a beautiful medallion with fine detailed markings, and a square wooden frame with an image of two humans printed in the middle.
"Aren't they beautiful?" gushed Seafin, leaning back against the hull and studying the image in the dazzling light. "Look at the soft things they're wearing!" He'd memorized all the human words he could find for them — sleeves, lapels, creases, lace — though he wasn't always sure what they referred to (which part was the "waist", anyway?). "And since air doesn't weigh cloth down like water does, it hardly slows them down at all!"
Swimmy joined him, unimpressed. "I know. You point that out every time you find clothing. Or, in this case, pictures of clothing."
"You just don't know how to appreciate fine things," huffed Seafin. He went back to gazing at the picture. "Humans would be fine even without the clothes, I bet."
"I think they look weird," said Swimmy. "Their fingers are too long."
"They just look long because they aren't webbed," Seafin informed him. "And you're in no place to judge, Fallon. You probably think they'd look better with shells."
Swimmy frowned. "What are you talking about? Anyone would look better with a shell!"
It was a lonely job, being the local community's foremost (well, only) Terra-Surfaceologist. Most people thought Eel Seagrasse Tideson was eccentric at best, and a few polyps short of a reef at worst.
He sure was lucky he had a friend like Seafin!
Not only was Seafin happy to hang out with Dr. Tideson, he was always ready to help when the scientist made obvious errors. Strange for such a brilliant mind to screw up in simple ways at times. For example: "You may be right, Eel, the humans may call these plates, but they're obviously no good for holding food. A strong air-current would push the food right off the sides."
"Well, as I've tried to tell you, Seafin," said Dr. Tideson, "air is less dense than water, which is also the reason that clothes...."
"Oh! Speaking of clothes!" interrupted Seafin. "Check out this awesome thing I found!"
"Hey, um, it was me who found it," put in Swimmy. He'd accompanied Stephen to Dr. Tideson's grotto, but he wasn't as eager to talk about human stuff, so he was more inclined to hang back and admire some of the coral arrangements.
Dr. Tideson accepted the picture in the frame, looked sharply at it, then put the "plates" on a shelf out of the way. "I have to thank you both, then, for finding it and for bringing it to me," he said seriously. "This is an impressive specimen. A fixed image of how humans appear in their natural habitat! I wonder how they arranged to get it so accurate?"
"Obviously they had a really good artist," said Seafin. "How else?"
But the scientist had already gone off on one of his improbable tangents, thinking out loud about the kind of chemical analyses he'd want to run, and how to keep the image as intact as possible. He paced in a loose circle through the water, his scales with their dappled gold-orange-black pattern sparkling as they caught the light.
Seafin's scales never got that kind of sparkle. Not that he was jealous, of course. His own mottled steel-blue tone was very professional, and he felt the touch of purple and white on his tail fin added just the right amount of flair. (He didn't know what his dorsal fin looked like, but people told him it was basically the same pattern, and he believed them, because it would be so embarrassing if they didn't match.)
"...and it occurs to me that I am rambling," said Dr. Tideson, catching himself. "My apologies. I'll investigate this more later. Seafin, is there anything else you wanted to talk about?" He eyed the golden medallion, now worn on a chain around Seafin's neck. "Did you find that recently too?"
"You can't have it!" exclaimed Seafin, closing his hands over it. "Not this one! It's my new trophy. I'm keeping it!"
"All right, all right," said the scientist, waving for Seafin to calm down. "I swear, I won't steal it from you. May I borrow it for a minute, though? Just to see?"
Seafin glared, just so Dr. Tideson knew he was being watched and not to try any funny business, but slipped the chain over his head and held it out.
"Fascinating," murmured Dr. Tideson, turning the disc over in his hands, then holding it flat and turning it slowly in a circle. "The markings are human letters, of course — if only I had some idea of what they meant in this context. And this arrow, it's mechanical, it seems to always point in the same direction no matter how you turn it...I wonder how it's powered?"
"It has a power supply?" said Seafin, straightening to attention. "Give it back before you run it down!"
"All right, all right." Dr. Tideson handed it back. "This might be the first time you've brought in something that's stumped me, Seafin. The only thing I can think of right now is that it might be a child's toy."
"Sounds about right," piped up Swimmy.
"You hush," snapped Seafin, before turning eagerly back to the scientist. "Let's talk more about clothes. Do you think they have differently-shaped sleeves on the back for their dorsals?"
"No, no, Seafin...humans don't have dorsals at all. I'm sure I've mentioned that before."
"Now that's just crazy talk." Seafin looped the medallion safely back around his neck. "I know they don't need webbed hands because of something to do with them being too dense, but it can't be stable, walking around on legs with nothing but air to hold you up. If they didn't have dorsal fins, how could they balance?"
"What are you talking about? I'm sure I have enough in my balance to cover that."
Jon couldn't pin down exactly when it had happened, but at some point in the past couple of years his act had gotten...popular. So he no longer had a constant tally in the back of his head of how much money was left in his bank account. He just knew he should be enough.
The mustachioed teller didn't even bother to look at his record book again. "I assure you, Mr. Stewart, there's no mistake. Your accounts have most definitely been frozen. It's a royal order and everything."
"What the hell," said Jon. He eyed the man's nameplate. "Listen, Mister, uh, Hodgman, there is no way anyone in the royal family cares that much about me."
Hodgman eyed him owlishly from behind too-large glasses. "Are you the same Mr. Stewart who did a set last week satirizing the government's huge backlog in providing aid to shipwreck victims?"
"Well," said Hodgman, perfectly deadpan, "I imagine they might care about that."
With only enough coin in his pockets to cover dinner, and not many leftovers in his cupboard, Jon was almost relieved when the royal carriage showed up at his door. Whether they handed over his money or just threw him in jail, at least he'd wouldn't starve.
The carriage was accompanied by half a dozen guards, which seemed like overkill. No matter how subversive Jon had been branded, he was still a weedy guy who mostly wrote jokes for a living.
Then he got ushered into the carriage, saw who was already in there, and wondered why there weren't more people with spears around. "Y-Your Highness!"
"Hi there!" said Princess Olivia. "Don't freak out, okay? I'm not here to lock you up or anything. I like you."
"Uh, that's good," stammered Jon. "By 'like' you don't mean...like like, do you?" Not that being courted by royalty wouldn't have its perks, but the princess was only about fourteen.
"God, no," said Olivia. "No offense. Here's the thing. You're in trouble with my family, right? And you're going to need a new source of non-freezable income...maybe a generous and influential patron? Well...." She flashed him an elfish grin. "Here I am!"
"You want me to be a court comedian," said Jon in disbelief. It was a cushy job, but it came with terms and restrictions, and if he struck everything unacceptable from his act, well, he wouldn't have much of an act left.
Olivia shrugged, rustling the folds of her gold-threaded scarlet gown, which probably cost more than Jon's apartment. "I mostly just want you to keep being funny. And I understand being starving puts a dent in that kind of thing."
Jon shivered. "You think they'd make sure I starve?"
"Hey, I'm not saying anything," said the princess. "But if I was saying something, it would probably be a thing like...do you really want to take that chance?"
Visiting the wreck again, Seafin finally found a mermaid-sized way into the labyrinth of rooms.
Some of them had wooden doors hanging open, so you could go in and out from the main passage. Others had frames that looked similar to the doors, but with slabs of wood that couldn't be pulled open. Maybe they were decorative fake doors? But without any real ones, how did you get in? Human aesthetics sure were weird.
He leaned through one of the real doors...and pulled up short when he caught a flash of movement at the side of the room.
It wasn't flowing-in-the-current movement, but the deliberate motion of another mermaid! Was someone trying to scoop Seafin on his discoveries? Should Seafin challenge the intruder to a fight? But what if they had poisonous spines? He was too young to die!
As Seafin was stalled with indecision, bobbing lightly in place, a familiar turtle silhouette appeared outside the glass-lined outer exit. "Hey, Seafin, I don't like the look of this weather. I really think...."
"Swimmy, look out!" yelled Seafin, and launched himself forward. If the intruder did have poisonous spines, Swimmy's shell would be a handy makeshift shield.
"What? What is it?" said Swimmy as Seafin pulled him into the room.
"There's someone else here!" exclaimed Seafin, and twirled to face the source of the motion.
Sure enough, the intruder was a merman. A complete stranger, though his body was patterned similar to Seafin's. No spines to be seen, thankfully, though he looked plenty hostile: glaring at Seafin from the next room, which was visible through an oval hole in the wall.
In a surprising coincidence, the intruder was also holding a turtle.
"This is my wreck!" Seafin informed him. "I found it. I have dibs! If you back off now, I'll be generous and let you go quietly."
The intruder tried to talk over him, but wasn't loud enough. Seafin pumped his tail a couple of times, surging forward. Instead of being properly intimidated and backing off, the intruder did the same.
"Hang on a minute," said Swimmy. "I think that's us!"
"What are you talking about?" demanded Seafin. "We're right here. Those two are over there."
"Yeah, but the merman looks exactly like you," his friend insisted. "And he moves exactly when you move. I bet the turtle's the same way. Watch."
Swimmy waved his right flipper. The intruding turtle waved his left at the same time.
"And the turtle looks just like me, right?"
"I don't know," admitted Seafin. "All sea turtles look the same to me."
But what if Swimmy was right? Seafin paddled the rest of the way to the opening in the wall, feeling less afraid now that the intruder looked curious rather than hostile, and held up his hand. Sure enough, the other merman did the same...and when it looked like their fingers were touching, all Seafin could feel was a flat, smooth surface.
"You're right, Swimmy!" he exclaimed, running his hand over the cool plane. "It's a picture! A moving picture of us!"
It was a revelation. Seafin had never seen his own face before, and now he knew firsthand that his steel-blue complexion looked pretty good. Strong jaw. Handsome features. He smoothed back the forest of smooth sea-anemone tentacles that covered his scalp (Dr. Tideson claimed they had evolved as a form of camouflage, but Seafin knew they had been created that way in the image of Poseidon), and tilted his head at different angles, admiring his profile.
And could he...? Seafin twisted his torso and craned his neck. Yes! He could see his dorsal fin! Not to brag, but it was pretty big, and sure enough, the pattern was exactly like his tail fin. It was awesome.
"Okay, so we're safe," said Swimmy, trying to sound nonchalant, though Seafin could tell he was admiring his own image too. "We have got to take this to Dr. Tideson. He'll love it."
"Hah! He'll just break it into pieces to figure out how the humans get the images inside," scoffed Seafin. "This is a priceless work of art. We can't let him get his science on it! It's staying right here."
"And this line has absolutely got to go."
Jon winced as his high-strung new adviser struck through a joke about the mermaid statue in the harbor. "What's wrong with that line? It's not about the royal family. It's not even about anything real!"
They were meeting in the main room of Jon's new royal-employee suite, which was so luxurious he felt like he needed to apologize to someone just for standing in it. Sun streamed through high windows overlooking the coastline, which was a great view, no question, but Jon would gladly trade it for his old apartment's "building next door" vista.
Heck, he even would have preferred to be down on the beach itself. And with Jon's issues about the ocean, that was saying something.
"Mermaids may not be real, but the statue is," John Oliver reminded him. "And it's a purchase that the royal family feels was an excellent investment. Treating it as a source of vulgar comedy is simply not on."
Jon folded his arms on the desktop so his forehead would have something soft to hit. "Fine. Cut it," he said, voice muffled by the dark wood.
He'd been proud of that joke. And if it was crude, it was only in the service of the pointed commentary he was trying to make. (You had to admit, a human-style bustline was more likely to show up in a sculptor's fantasies than on a real marine mammal.) Jon had left a ton of less-classy material on the cutting-room floor before even trying to get it past the censors.
This job was going to be the death of him.
"I don't think it's safe here, Seafin."
Seafin put a finger in front of his Best Turtle Friend's mouth, shushing him. "Not now, Swimmy. I'm looking at myself."
He was back at his favorite wreck, the one with the magic moving picture. A storm was moving in topside; the sea around them was starting to churn, and the sunlight was muted to a non-blinding level. But Seafin figured they had plenty of time before things got bad.
"That storm's moving in fast," protested Swimmy.
Seafin was preoccupied striking another pose, admiring the way his trophy-medallion brought out his eyes. "Don't be such a scaredy-catfish. We have plenty of time."
Unconvinced, Swimmy paddled over to the exit to take another look. "Listen, Seafin, you can stay as long as you want...but I'm going home."
"Fine!" snapped Seafin. "Who needs you? I can have plenty of fun by myself!"
And he went back to the complex problem of how to hold his face. Which angle made him look most distinguished? Clearly, this called for serious research. Research that he was perfectly capable of doing alone, thank you very much.
"Don't look so panicky! You can do this," said Olivia.
"I wouldn't be so sure if I were you," said Jon, eyeing the gangplank and willing himself not to have a heart attack before this thing even started.
He had plenty of material. After what felt like endless hours with John Oliver at the editing table, he'd come up with a respectable set in time for the princess' birthday party. But there was a reason his pre-court-employment comedy was so hard on the lack of oceanfaring safety regulations, okay? So why did Olivia have to hold this on a boat?
Okay, maybe Seafin wasn't doing so well without Swimmy after all.
Handsome as his image was, it couldn't distract him from the creeping feeling of being all alone in a vast and uncaring ocean. Clinging to his medallion, he swam through the corridors and out the top of the ship, where he twirled in circles looking for some sign of his friend.
Nothing. He'd been left too far behind.
Before Seafin could take off after his friend, though, a slow-moving shadow rippled along the ocean floor toward him, blotting out the remaining surface-light as it passed over his form. A ship! A real, up-in-the-air ship, holding real live humans!
It was the one thing that could have drawn Seafin's attention no matter what.
Instead of following Swimmy towards home, he soared through the currents, heading up.
Jon spent most of the party sitting in a corner, shaking hands with the occasional person who came over to say hello, and trying not to throw up.
For the first time, he couldn't wait to do his new court-approved set. His problem wasn't physical seasickness, after all; it was a mental thing, a fear thing, and standup drew enough of his attention that it might be able to take his mind off the panic.
It was late in the evening, so when Jon thought he saw shadows gathering on the horizon, he tried to convince himself that was just the paranoia talking. With so little light in the sky to begin with, how would he be able to see storm clouds?
As soon as it got dark enough that nobody would spot him if he stuck to the shadows, Seafin pulled himself up a few feet to peek through the railings and see what was happening on deck.
The ship was an unusual shape, with a big deck at the stern that was lower than the rest of it, barely above water level. Maybe it had been built for humans who were fascinated by the ocean and wanted to be as close to it as possible? That would also explain why it was moving so slowly. Most ships were in a hurry to get from one point of land to another; this one just wanted to meander around and appreciate the sights.
If only it weren't for the Stay Hidden From Humans So They Won't Come After Us With Spears Act, Seafin could have showed these people where the real underwater sights were.
As it was, he stayed back and contented himself with watching as the humans milled around. The low deck was definitely where the action was, and it was awesome. There was music! And dancing! Not normal dancing, because they were all stuck on a single flat plane rather than being able to weave around each other in three dimensions...but it turned out there were some really neat things you could do if you were working with two legs instead of a tail, which almost made up for it.
Seafin was mesmerized.
All at once the music came to an end, and most of the humans got in a half-circle to watch a single human with long flowing hair do tricks. There was something to do with a hat, and a fuzzy land-creature with big ears that kicked, and lots of multicolored scarves. It was hard for Seafin to find an angle where he could catch every detail, but he was fascinated all the same. A new kind of human magic! He bet even the Terra-Surfaceologist didn't know about this one!
The human sorcerer left when the rest of the humans started making noise by banging their hands together. Maybe it was an insult, or maybe it was just the human's cue to leave. Seafin almost wished he had Dr. Tideson around to ask. If you wanted to get an exciting scoop before anybody else, you had to have some idea of what you were looking at.
When another human came up to take the stage, Seafin was confused at first. This one — who had a longer face than Seafin was used to, and short dark hair that was streaked with grey above the ears — didn't do anything with hats. It didn't play music, either. All it did was talk. This was less than useless for a viewer who didn't speak Humanish.
But the audience listened, and laughed, and slowly the truth dawned on Seafin. The human was somebody important. Somebody the rest of them admired, respected, were eager to listen to.
It might even be a prince! (Or a princess? It was hard to figure out the sexes of a species who insisted on covering everything up.) True, it was dressed more shabbily than Seafin would expect from a prince(ss), but maybe human taste in clothing wasn't as advanced as his own. Or maybe the logic was that a prince(ss) had the right to wear whatever it wanted.
Even when yet another human took over the center of attention, Seafin didn't bother to watch what it was doing. He was still following the important talking human, starry-eyed.
Those were definitely storm clouds.
And Jon was approximately the least-important person on the boat. Which meant that approximately everyone but him was getting under cover first.
When water began falling out of the sky, Seafin ducked back under the surface. Being surrounded by water was normal; getting hit in the face with it at high speeds was not.
He stuck with the ship, though. He was really interested to see what it did....
"Swimmy!" exclaimed Seafin. "You came back! Jealous of all the fun I've been having, huh?"
"Seafin, it's really not safe," pleaded Swimmy, paddling along a few dozen meters below. "You can study cool human stuff some other time, okay? Just come back with me now. Please? I don't want to lose my Best Mermaid Friend!"
Seafin wavered. "Well, when you put it like that...."
Over his head, the keel of the ship yawed dramatically to one side...and there was a meaningful splash.
"Never mind!" exclaimed Seafin. "Stay right there, Best Turtle Friend. I've got a human to catch!"
Jon flailed and thrashed, already soaked, clothes heavy with salt water. He tried to kick off his shoes, but that was about all he could pull off. Rain pelted him in the face; lightning flashed across the sky. He didn't want to die, he didn't want to die, he didn't —
Granted, it would solve a lot of his problems, but he still didn't —
A wave twice his height bowled him over, and the question was briefly taken out of his hands.
The figure struggling at the surface turned out to be the important, pretty human Seafin had been watching!
Talk about luck, right?
Seafin swooped up underneath the human and wrapped his arms around it, hefting it out of the water. He should probably get it back to the boat, right? But with the deck up in the air, it wasn't like he could swim to it. And even if he could get up there, the human didn't look like it could be left there safely. It would probably just fall off again!
It would be safer on land, Seafin decided. Land was where it belonged.
Pumping his tail, he plowed through the waves, trying to remember to keep the human's head facing away from them.
Consciousness was not on good terms with Jon, here. It would drop in without any warning, say hi, take a look around, then breeze back out.
He was either being dragged through the ocean by somebody, or he was having a really good hallucination.
Some unknown span of dreamlike time later, he was landing on his back with a thump, on a surface of heavy, wet sand and poky crushed shells. The rain had moved past the shore, though he could still hear it out over the water; a cold wave rushed up over his legs, then drained away. He coughed up seawater and opened bleary eyes.
A dim figure was leaning over him, plucking with interest at his wet shirt.
In the darkness, Jon's perception of color was all weird. But he could see shapes well enough, especially when the figure turned just as a flash of lightning arced across the sky, casting its outline in a stark silhouette.
It had a fin.
And its waist tapered into a set of rain-glistening curves that looked really weird for legs, but would make a lot more sense if it had a tail.
Dear gods, Jon had been rescued by a mermaid.
The figure moved on to getting a feel of his waistband, and, okay, heroic rescue or not, there was a limit to how much Jon would put up with having his pants investigated by someone he had just met. He shifted his hips to the side and batted the wandering hand out away.
The mermaid jumped, and clapped said hand over Jon's eyes. It was webbed. Also, wet and slippery, and smelled like fish.
Jon held perfectly still. Another wave washed over them, chilling most of his legs and halfway up his right side.
Slowly, cautiously, the mermaid lifted its hand. Its face was barely a foot from Jon's now; the golden pendant on the necklace-thing it was wearing rested on Jon's chest. Their eyes locked.
"Thanks," croaked Jon.
This time, the mermaid covered his mouth, while putting a finger to its lips in a frantic shushing gesture. Jon nodded and mirrored the gesture, as well as he could with all that mer-hand in the way. Inch by inch the mermaid let him go and scooted backward, watching like it was afraid he would follow it, before diving into the surf and disappearing under the foam.
So of course Seafin is dazzled, here. He's just rescued a Very Important Human, which he should probably get some kind of prize for, and also, that human was kind of cute? Clearly this is not the time to consult with his friend Swimmy, or get advice from Dr. Tideson; this is the time for solo impulse decisions.
Which is how he ends up in the grotto of the Sea Lawyer, a large and pointy merman by the name of Trevor Puffer. Everything in here glows an eerie green, as Trevor explains that, oh, Seafin wants to go spend some time on the surface? He has a spell for that. Seafin wants to understand Humanish for the duration. He has a spell for that too, yes. All Seafin has to do is make a Pact with him.
Or, better yet...a Super Pact.
(There's a clamshell on a shelf of rock nearby, which silently assures Seafin that Super Pacts are great. It is wearing glasses. Its name: Clam Rove.)
Seafin makes the deal. Trevor takes his beloved fancy necklace, gives him a brand new silhouette and a three-day deadline, and sends him surfaceward.
Princess Olivia's birthday yacht wasn't the only boat caught in the storm, and the kingdom is really trying to put on a good PR face about the shipwreck scandal, so a bunch of people get taken in and treated for shock and hypothermia and so on. Seafin gets himself swept up with storm victims — he was naked and disoriented on the beach, he's obviously been through something — and taken to this royal clinic.
Jon's there too, in surprisingly good shape for someone who nearly drowned.
Seafin makes himself friendly with Jon ASAP. He even still has his voice! The catch is, he can't speak Humanish — and Mermic basically sounds like dolphin chatter to human ears. Jon guesses by lip-reading that his name is "Stephen", which Seafin decides is close enough — and then has the bright idea to ask for pen and paper, so Seafin can communicate by writing.
The other catch is, Seafin doesn't know how alphabets work. Or pens. (He didn't listen much to Dr. Tideson's boring theories about ink flow in a gaseous environment.)
Jon tries to show him how to write their names. Seafin manages to copy the printing of letters all right, but it becomes clear pretty fast that he doesn't know any of his own, or really understand how they correspond to sound. At last Jon introduces him to the magic of stick figures.
By the end of the day, the official medical opinion is that Seafin is physically clear to go home but has some kind of mental disability. Jon isn't convinced about that last part (even though Seafin hasn't been able to get across where he lives, or what his last name is, or any kind of other identifying info). He probably just has voice problems...or got a knock on the head during the storm that gave him temporary aphasia...and it could always be he's homeless and never learned to write because this kingdom's school system is a mess.
Either way, he seems to understand Jon just fine. Even laughs at Jon's jokes. The one about the mermaid statue in the harbor has him cracking up for a minute straight.
Now, Olivia did a lot of freaking out when she realized Jon was missing, not to mention the rest of her family is afraid there'll be rumors they had him killed under the cover of it being a natural disaster, so for once Jon has a bit of leverage. He gets a week off, with pay. And he gets the royal family to take on Seafin as a charity case (and as a great story for the press) while they put out a missing-persons notice and hope somebody who knows him turns up.
Seafin doesn't hear Jon's actual negotiation/assurances with Olivia, so he keeps right on thinking Jon is a prince who personally pulled all these strings to take him in.
The charity-case deal comes with an allowance for Seafin to buy necessities, so they go shopping. And if Seafin was dazzled before, he is positively starstruck by the delights of tailored clothing.
(Jon discreetly notices that Seafin in a suit is very handsome, mmm.)
(And his enthusiasm for everything is really energizing, and he's even cute when he gets mad for completely inexplicable reasons, and he's still laughing at Jon's wisecracks and offering high-fives when Jon gets in a good zinger, and wow, his fascination with the nautical appliance store and the way he hangs on to Jon's every word when Jon explains how a compass works....)
(Shake it off, Stewart, you're the only person he has to count on right now, don't go making it weird.)
At some point Jon starts talking about his job, and Seafin is deeply confused, until the notebook comes out and the drawing starts and Jon realizes that's supposed to be a drawing of his head with a crown on it, and nope, no, he's not one of the royals, where did Seafin get that idea? Not from his extravagant fashion sense, that's for sure.
Seafin stays up late into that night, trying to figure out what to do now that his Prince Charming is confirmed in-person to be charming — and sweet and funny and sarcastic and intelligent, and always standing up for the little guy — but not so much with the prince part.
Day three. They go for an afternoon walk on the beach.
Jon stays back on the dunes, away from the water. They end up sitting in the sand and talking, with Jon opening up about how it's not just his near-drowning that's made him leery of the ocean: it's the fact that his parents died, years ago, when a ship went down.
Seafin holds his hand.
Then touches his face, all while making the most soulful expression possible.
Then goes for the kiss.
Nothing interrupts them. Jon's into it. Seafin too.
They go back to Jon's suite, and end up in Jon's bed, and Seafin learns a whole new range of things you can do with legs.
Seafin isn't sure the terms of the Super Pact will still be in effect, given that the person he kissed was not, as discussed, a prince. He keeps his eyes on the window all through sunset, while Jon curls against his back and nuzzles his neck and wraps an arm around him.
He still has legs by sunrise.
Jon has no idea what happened to put "Stephen" in such a joyful mood, but when it leads to such ebullient sex, who is he to complain?
A few days later, Jon is back at work and Seafin is hanging out on the beach, alone this time, when he spots the shell of a turtle in the water not far off.
He goes out to the end of a rocky outcrop, and calls his Best Turtle Friend's name.
Sure enough, it's a concerned Swimmy Fallon, with Eel Seagrasse Tideson in tow. Dr. Tideson is excited by all the research opportunities Seafin will have, but warns him that Super Pacts are notoriously powerful and uncontrolled. Seafin assures them that he's nailing this, and by the way, would Dr. Tideson like to know how compasses work? Because Seafin totally knows that now.
Also (pulling out his notebook, and turning to the page where Jon originally wrote his name), does Dr. Tideson's collection of human shipwreck artifacts have anything with these markings on it?
Seafin's friends promise to come back tomorrow with anything they find.
They don't turn up anything Jon-related right away, but apparently some of Dr. Tideson's junk is considered "antique" and "worth a lot of money" in human terms.
Another thing humans will pay money for, Seafin realizes in the market one day, is pretty shells. Especially the kind any idiot can just pick up off the ground back where Seafin used to live!
And Jon is, like, some kind of expert, because he can tell Seafin all the details of exotic human inventions like pens and photography and glassblowing. Or if he can't explain them right off the bat, he can take Seafin to the library and find a book and relate all the details out of that. (Seafin is starting to get the hang of this ink-symbols-as-recording-device concept.)
A couple weeks of this, and it baffles Jon how Seafin keeps turning up valuable things. He doesn't go so far as to think his mysterious still-unidentified kinda-boyfriend is stealing, and obviously Seafin can't coast on the royal family's charity forever, so Jon wants to be happy for him; it's just weird, okay?
Seafin tries to explain that he's finding things at the beach, and takes Jon down to show him. Jon stands at the edge of the water while Seafin goes swimming; he goes in clearly empty-handed, and comes up with a glazed ceramic pot that turns out to be four hundred years old, from halfway around the world, and worth the equivalent of a month's rent at the place Jon used to live. Yowza.
The day Seafin comes up with a necklace engraved with Jon's mother's name, Jon's not ashamed to admit he does some crying.
And hey, if Seafin could rent an apartment of his own, Jon could technically still live in the employee quarters at the palace, while sleeping over more often than not.
...although Seafin sure prefers the palace, and makes that very clear.
It's a point of tension, but it never gets to the stage of being a real argument. Everything changes before it has the chance.
The morning is grey, the waters are choppy, and there's a general evacuation order in effect. Another storm is coming up the coast: not a brief squall this time, but a once-in-a-century hurricane.
The royals are out of here in a hot minute. Court adviser John Oliver, as Jon's supervisor, explains how the rest of this works: Jon can wait for all the higher-level court employees to make their way out and hope it isn't too late by the time a carriage finally has room for him, or he can go take his chances with public transportation.
Seafin doesn't understand the panic at first. Jon finally manages to get across to him that a storm like this will flood the city, swamping homes and businesses, and that nothing here is designed to be underwater for long. Sure, whatever survives might become priceless antiques after a hundred years of weathering, but that doesn't help all the people whose lives could be ruined now.
Next thing you know, Seafin is nowhere to be found.
Jon finally tracked Stephen down at the shore.
It was raining by now, wind whipping the waves into a frenzy. He was such a small figure there, silhouetted against the cold uncaring vastness of the ocean. Jon shouted his name, but Stephen either wasn't responding or didn't hear.
No matter how phobic Jon was of stormy seas, if he had to physically drag Stephen back to get him to safety, then so be it.
Stephen was actually in the water when Jon reached him, rushing foam up to his knees. "What are you doing?" yelled Jon, charging into the surf and grabbing him under the arms. "Are you crazy? Get out of there!"
"Jon!" barked Stephen, before yelling in that weird, unintelligible orca-squeal he still slipped into sometimes. Jon would swear it was a language, but he'd never been able to pull any meaning out of it, not even the equivalent of the handful of expressions Stephen had learned to imitate from English. He flailed, trying to shove Jon backwards. "Stop it! Go on, go!"
A wave broke directly in front of them, showering them with spray on top of the pouring rain already coming down on their heads. Jon shook wet hair out of his face. "I'm not leaving without you!"
Stephen groaned. "Stupid Jon...!"
They staggered backward up the shore, heels leaving pits in the sand. Stephen couldn't get out of Jon's grip, so he changed tactics, throwing himself into Jon's chest — they toppled backward — getting the full weight of an adult human to the lungs knocked the wind right out of Jon, and he lost track of doing anything but wheezing.
Stephen rolled away and knelt at his side, hands hovering over him, maybe trying to figure out whether it was safe to leave him alone and run....
The night lit up.
Not with lightning, or the clouds suddenly rolling back to reveal the moon. No, the light was bright green, and steady.
Jon struggled to sit up. Arcs of vivid green energy flowed over the ocean's surface, like St. Elmo's fire made liquid, smoothing a path through the storm.
Stephen clapped a hand over his eyes and pushed him back down.
"Cut that out!" gasped Jon, wrestling Stephen's hand away. "What is going on with you? What are — oh."
There was someone new in the waves, surrounded by a protective field of flowing green. Someone with spines, and dappled sunfish scales, and — though it was hard to tell, since this was the half below the water — what sure looked like a fish tail. He orca-screeched a question at Stephen.
And Stephen chattered a reply.
"You can talk to mermaids." Jon shivered, clinging to Stephen's wrist. "Is that how —"
Stephen turned to him, eyebrows furiously arched, and put a finger to his lips in a frantic shushing gesture.
Jon's eyes widened.
The mermaid in the water said something else, and a wave of green energy rippled outward, flowing right over Jon and Stephen. It tasted electric.
"Is that better?" asked the mermaid, in what sounded like ordinary English.
Jon, cleverly, responded, "Whaaa?"
"He's usually more articulate than that," said Stephen apologetically.
Jon gaped at him. "Since when do you speak English?"
"I don't! I'm speaking the same Mermic I always have, and the Sea Lawyer here decided it would be a great idea to throw a Spell of Understanding at you now, instead of, oh, any time in the past three months."
"...You were totally that mermaid who saved me."
Stephen sighed. "Yes, but don't tell anyone. Otherwise you'll be in violation of the Stay Hidden From Humans So They Won't Come After Us With Spears Act, and the Mermican government will be legally authorized to throw you in prison, and none of their prisons are the kind you can breathe in. Trevor, was this necessary? This doesn't concern him!"
"Doesn't it?" asked the Sea Lawyer, whose name was apparently Trevor. "He's your True Love. He's involved."
Jon turned red. Stephen let out an inarticulate groan. "Fine."
"Here's the short version," said Trevor, and yes, finally, some explanation! "A while back, Seafin Cuttlebert entered into a Super Pact with me to turn human and spend time on land with you. The deal was that it would be permanent if he could get you to kiss him on a deadline. Which you did! Nicely done. Except now he wants to take the Cuttlebert Super Pact in a new direction."
"O-okay." Jon could roll with that. Especially since...True Love, wow. "What's the new direction?"
No answer. Stephen...Seafin?...was sulking, and Trevor only said, "Seafin...?"
"I'm giving up being human," said Seafin at last. "That part of the Super Pact has taken on so much value by now — what with how much I love mirrors, and clothes, and obviously you too — that if I cash in, it can stop the storm."
Oh. Oh, wow.
"Are you willing to sign off on this deal, Jon Stewart?" asked the Sea Lawyer, over a rumble of distant thunder.
Jon clasped Seafin's shoulder, fingers sinking into the soaked suit fabric. He didn't want to lose Seafin. But if he asked Seafin to stay, and the storm came...he wouldn't be able to live with himself, looking at the damage afterward.
"Is there any way I can get in on the Cuttlebert Super Pact?" asked Jon. "I don't have much, and obviously my relationship is already on the table here, but...well, the other most important thing I have is my dead mother's necklace, and...."
"That won't be enough to replace Seafin's part of the deal," said Trevor. "But that doesn't mean it's not valuable. What would you like in exchange?"
Talk about being put on the spot. Jon swiped water off of his face, trying to think. "Um...."
"You'd like to stay in touch with Seafin, right?" prompted Trevor.
"Of course. Gods, of course I do."
"Then you should know that the translation magic working on you is temporary, and the magic on him will be given up as part of the storm-stopping deal."
"Could you arrange to have those...not stop?"
"I have a spell for that, yes."
A thought struck Jon. "And we'd need me to be made an exception to the...the act, what was it called...?"
"The Stay Hidden From Humans So They Won't Come After Us With Spears Act," supplied Seafin.
"That's the one."
Trevor nodded. "I also have a spell for that."
"Wow, you are really well-prepared," said Jon admiringly.
Seafin pulled Jon into a cold, wet hug. "That's why he's the best."
The rain had already begun to taper off, the wind around them settling from a gale to a breeze, as Trevor declared, "The motion has been filed."
"So you saved the city, and probably the whole coast, but your boyfriend turned into a mermaid, and you want to borrow my yacht to visit him? Even though you're quitting as a court comedian because he's going to keep you in enough coral and pearls and antique gold coins to get you through any future financial hassles my family gives you?"
"That's a very succinct summary, yes, Olivia."
"Jon, that is the most romantic thing I've ever heard. Go for it."
Swimmy Fallon still doesn't really get what Seafin sees in human stuff, but as long as his Best Mermaid Friend is happy in this interspecies relationship, Swimmy is happy for him.
Eel Seagrasse Tyson hits it off with Jon right away. He's not under a spell to understand Jon's language the way Jon understands his, but he sets himself to the task of picking it up along with learning everything Jon can tell him about human culture and practices. And in the meantime, Seafin gets to feel very proud and important doing all the interpretation.
Jon's ocean phobia gets a lot milder knowing he has merpeople looking out for him, including one who can make a full-blown hurricane dissipate on command. He even gets up the nerve to go diving sometimes, where Seafin can teach him the moves of three-dimensional mermaid dances.
They work out other moves too. The positions are limited now that Seafin doesn't have legs to spread, but on the plus side, it turns out Jon has a serious kink for marine biology.
And they all live happily ever after, thanks to the unbeatable power of....
Okay, the note here says "good lawyers and unlimited amounts of untraceable campaign cash from anonymous donors."
But I'm pretty sure it meant to say "true love."
This story brought to you by Mermicans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.