It's not that she's a foreigner that catches your attention. No, that's mundane, they've had exchange students before and while it's interesting, it's not interesting enough for you.
It's not that she claims to be a cursed mermaid that catches your attention. No, while that's decidedly weird, your school has always been wall to wall of weird and you've grown accustomed to weirdness.
It's the ugly snippets of black and blue you see when she turns her head and her collar falls just so, or when she slides stiffly into her seat and her skirt lifts only enough.
She has skin as pretty as the goldenrod you're so awfully allergic to, but someone keeps splashing it with bruises and welts.
You know what that's like.
She hides her limp with the fantasy of a witch's spell while you hide yours with long strides and fading into the background noise.
You notice her. The dullness in her eyes is even more jaded than your own reflection and she spins stories to distance herself while you read them for distraction. Her lips pull tighter when she walks up the stairs and she grips the railing harder than anyone. She wears long sleeves when the weather is warm and she's always the last person to emerge from the locker room when it's time for gym.
You notice her, but you don't think she notices you. You put in effort not to be noticed, she tries so hard to be noticed that everyone else misses the important parts.
But her life is none of your business. Violence's violets blooming on her flesh have no more to do with you than the cluster crawling under your shirt have to do with her.
It is none of your business and it is not your place to do anything. Not your place to judge, not your place to comment, not your place to try and save her. Her situation is certainly just as complicated as yours. You have empathy for her and your own injuries twinge when you catch sight of hers, but that empathy also means you know your place.
There is a part of you that wants to approach her. You feel this tug, this thread of familiarity.
You are fake. You wear masks over your masks and seal plastic in all your cracks. No one knows you. Sometimes you don't even know you, but you do know that even if you are fake, your pain is very, very real.
Your very, very real pain is something she knows even if she doesn't know that she knows.
And so you approach her.
It's the end of the day and students flood the halls, all eager to get home. She lags behind simply because she isn't as fast as the crowd.
She doesn't seem to hear you, so you reach out and catch a swatch of her sleeve.
She glances back, eyes as dark as coffee grounds glinting as they look you over.
"I know you're struggling in History. If you want help, I'd be happy to tutor you."
Mokuzu breathes a soft huff and those dry lips press together in what might be exasperation. "Human history is nothing like mermaid history. Human history is full of war. Mermaids swim from sea to sea without bothering each other."
"Mermaids aren't real," you murmur.
"How can you say that? You're talking to me, aren't you?"
"You're not a mermaid. Don't you think you're a little too old for pretending?"
"Shows what you know." She takes her sleeve back and gives you a reproachful glower. "You're never too old to pretend and I don't even have to because I am a real mermaid."
You don't know how to reply to that. Half of her is excruciatingly on point, the other half is too bizarre for someone as practical as you to grasp. Approaching her was a bad idea.
It's Mokuzu who approaches you next time.
You're trying to be discreet when you feed the stray tabby occupying Sweet Amoris's shrubbery. Animals aren't allowed on the property, Kiki and specimens for science classes are exceptions.
You're not discreet enough and she follows you, plops right down on the grass as you fill the cat's bowl and strokes it under its chin.
"Candy bullets can't pierce anything," she coyly declares out of nowhere.
"What?" You give her a dubious look.
"It's something my friend told me." Her eyes trace you. "I didn't get it the first time she said so, either. But then I did. She was only ever interested in bullets. You kind of remind me of her."
"Yep. You're good with animals." She exhales softly and taps the toes of her shoes together. "I think you're a bullet too, even though you don't seem like one. You look like a guy with sugar in his veins, but I bet that's just misdirection, huh, Nathaniel?"
You press your lips together and lean back on your hands. She's wearing strawberry printed thigh-high socks. It might just be the way she's sitting, knees up, but they're loose enough to droop down to her shins and showcase the knuckle-shaped splotches.
"No one's ever said anything like that to me before," you tell her.
"No one's ever looked at me the way you do," she says.
"How do I look at you?"
"Hopelessly. Like you don't know if your heart's too empty or too full."
You lower your head. Her life is not your business. Her experiences, no matter how similar, are not your business. Something prickles in your chest. You swallow and you find yourself asking anyway. "Mokuzu...Who beats you?"
A cruel smile breaks her face. "You're a bullet after all."
You forget to take the garbage out. It might even be Mokuzu who's preoccupied you, not that it's an excuse.
There is no excuse. There's never an excuse and your father never needs excuses anymore anyway.
So you end up with his screams razing your eardrums again, his fists knocking the breath from your lungs while your mother sips her wine in the other room. You can't help wondering what Mokuzu's doing tonight.
Shimmery gray boarders your vision and then you're doubled over, panting erratically. His belt buckle strikes your legs like a cobra, fierce, fiery bites over and over, and they shake but you do not fall. You no longer give him that satisfaction and depriving him of such makes you feel almost good in a very ugly way that you have to embrace if want to keep your ability to keep standing.
When the first droplet of sweat breaks out on his forehead and slips right down the furiously pulsing vein on his temple, you do not miss it. You zero in on it like you're the predator and smirk as the last strike of the night opens a hole in your calf.
That smirk drives him insane. That furious vein jumps even faster, more droplets roll across his contorted, beet red face. You're blasted in the face with not another blow, but a riptide of curses that is the closest thing you'll get to a 'goodnight.'
You might leave a bit of blood on the floor as you shuffle back to your room, but most of it just dries on your skin. You crawl into your bed and the blanket is a little stifling, but it's the only comfort you're going to get so you cocoon yourself in it anyway and quietly throb into the dark.
You can't help wondering if Mokuzu's doing the same thing.
You can't help wondering why.
Sometimes you think you know why...But you really don't. You're an outlet for his stress, probably, but there's no reason you should be that when you're supposed to be his child. You've been done giving him the benefit of the doubt for awhile now.
But what about Mokuzu?
Why is she abused (god, fuck that word)? Is she an outlet for stress? Is she a specific target for someone's hatred? Is she just the unfortunate victim of choice for a naturally violent sadist?
Why a mermaid?
Why the hell does she want to be a mermaid, of all things?
You just happen to be there when Amber hits Mokuzu.
You're on your way to find Melody because she left her purse in the council room, when you catch when happens out of the corner of your eye. Mokuzu is having trouble getting the cap off her bottled water and doesn't seem to hear Amber coming up. Amber's eyes are glued to her phone as she walks, and before you can call out, Mokuzu finally wrenches the cap free just as Amber bumps her.
Your sister's face twists in horror and mortification as both she and her phone are sprayed.
"Hey!" She slaps Mokuzu so hard she falls against the lockers. "You just ruined my brand new phone, you idiot! And my shirt!" With an affronted cry, she raises her hand to slap her again and this time you are fast enough, you dive over and grab her by the wrist.
"Back off," you demand. "It was an accident and you're not supposed to have your phone out at school in the first place!"
Amber huffs petulantly, mouth opening and closing as she searches for an argument she didn't think she'd have to have. She rarely ever has to answer for her ridiculous, petty behavior.
"Well she should have been paying attention," she snaps finally and yanks her wrist free. "Unbelievable! This is the second time some moron at this school broke my phone!" She throws her hands in the air and purposely shoves Mokuzu with her shoulder as she stomps away.
You're inclined to drag her back and rebuke her for throwing such a tantrum, it probably wasn't even enough water to damage her phone, but the sight of Mokuzu has you frozen in place.
She's still flopped against the lockers like a dead fish, waiting to be hit again. Her eyes are blank, her body is completely slack, her cheek swells pink with your sister's handprint.
You have to look down to the rise and fall of her chest just to confirm she's still alive.
"Sorry about her," you murmur eventually. "Do you want some ice?"
Mokuzu peels herself off the lockers and shakes her head.
"Are you okay?" you ask, voice dropped just an octave lower. Unsettled vines coil around your ribs.
Mokuzu flashes you her teeth in a generic, cheerful simper. "Yeah. I should go back to class before I get in trouble, huh?"
"...Me too," you decide, feel the vines tighten.
You both go in your respective directions.
It's Sunday. You're walking to the library when something sails through the air and bonks you in the back of the head.
Startled, you whip around and see a water bottle at your feet. Mokuzu stands further down the sidewalk, beaming at you brightly. She's dressed in a pretty indigo dress fringed with lace. It billows about her knees as she unevenly saunters up to you, face as warm as sunny skies.
You pick up the water bottle and raise a brow. "You threw this at me?"
"I had to get you to turn around somehow." She runs her fingers though her short, messy tresses and says, "Take me to the beach, Nathaniel."
You pause, blinking rapidly. "Uh...It's not really warm enough for swimming."
"Not for you, but I'm a mermaid. And I haven't been here long enough to find the beach myself, so take me there." She claps her hands together like it's settled.
"Alright," you agree, still slightly bemused.
You walk with her to the beach even though you have books due back tonight, even though your parents are expecting you to return in no later than an hour.
"Do you miss Japan?"
"A little bit," Mokuzu says. "It's not like I said goodbye forever though. In a few years there's going to be a big storm and I'll go back to Japan with all the other mermaids to lay an egg...I do miss my friend, though."
"Your friend who likes bullets?"
"Yep. My dad decided to move suddenly, so I didn't get a chance to say goodbye to her at all."
"Why so sudden?"
Mokuzu looks up to the seagulls circling overhead. They're almost there. "Because he was reported to the police."
Your insides corkscrew and ice quietly coats your core. "Why?"
But you already know. Your bruises twitch to taunt you with this; you already know, you already know, you already know.
She clumsily lopes a few steps in front of you and walks with her arms stretched out like airplane wings. Her head tips back, her gaze pinning you in place.
"Have you ever loved anybody, Nathaniel?"
"Don't get technical," she tells you. "Love is love. There's all sorts of love in all shapes and sizes, but at the end of the day it's the same emotion. If you've ever loved anyone in any way, then you know that love is inescapable."
You feel a shockwave like she's shot you in the chest and stand agape, contradictions and analysis racing through your brain in sloppy thought-sewage. You can't quite grasp what your response is and suddenly the marred places of your flesh are screaming like she's set them alight. You just freeze up like a machine that made an error.
"Hey! I can see the beach!" Mokuzu drops her arms and comes back for you. She takes you by the hand and races down the hill to the shore below. The sand is grainy and damp, covered in seagull crap and litter. Forgotten sandals stick out of some dunes and scraps of dead seaweed give off a dank, rotten reek.
Mokuzu splashes right through the shallows with a big grin on her face. She spins around and the wind takes her skirt, more mottled skin peeking out to sting your eyes.
"Join me, Nathaniel," she breathes as she stops spinning. "It's not that bad. It'll be a little chilly for you since you're a human, but it won't hurt."
You scan the beach to be sure no one else is around. No, not a single soul in sight. You roll up your pants and the salty breeze licks your scabs. You unbutton your shirt and rest it on the driest part of the sand before you join her.
Mokuzu looks you up and down with sunless eyes and gently rests her tiny hands on your broken, unsightly, very sore skin.
"You're just as dirty as I am," she concludes in sorrowful heather, lightly skimming her hands along every eggplant imprint.
You're not sure what to say, so you don't.
She leans into you and softly presses her forehead against your collarbone.
"I should be mad at you," she mutters. "You're human and it's the humans that make me dirty. They're always polluting the water. But look at you, you're filthy. Did you trick me? Are you actually a mermaid, Nathaniel?"
"No. Just my father's punching bag."
"Is that a good book?" Mokuzu asks, peering over the cover.
"I've read better, but yes, it is."
"What's it about?"
"A female serial killer who preys on mothers with young children. She steals the children and keeps them in her basement."
"Huh." Mokuzu blinks thoughtfully. "That's pretty creepy."
You slide the bookmark between the open pages and snap the book closed. "That's my main issue with it, actually. The suspense is being sacrificed for exploitive gory description. The buildup is much too weak and the foreshadowing isn't subtle at all."
She hums and takes a seat next to you. "You sound like a professional critic."
Your cheeks grow warm. "Hardly...I just read a lot."
"I read too, just not creepy things like that." Mokuzu rests her elbows on the tabletop and props her chin in her hands.
"You like fantasy, right?" You guess.
Her busted lips part in a smile. "Bingo, Detective. I love mythical places and magical people. It's all really cool stuff, y'know? One of my most favorite stories is about a floral girl and a bear girl. They want to be friends, but they're separated by the stars. A goddess appears and makes a deal with them. She'll let them climb her giant ladder to meet, but only if they do what she asks."
"That sounds interesting," you say. It's not really of your taste, you're much too rooted in the real world to enjoy something like that, but you can still appreciate a unique idea.
"I hate romances though," Mokuzu continues.
"I'm not fond of them either."
"They're all either phony or just plain stupid." She closes her eyes.
"I think you would be a good writer," you tell her. "You're creative."
"Yeah?" She opens her eyes again and for just a moment, her gaze rests on you as soft as a marshmallow. "I think I'll try it. I'll write about a girl who can disappear at will. It'll be magic and mystery can you can get into it too. It'll be full of bullets and my friend will want to read it too."
"What are you going to title it?"
Mokuzu bobs her head from side to side in consideration. "Hm. Don't know yet. But something flashy and not ironic in the least."
It comes to your attention that Mokuzu is completely deaf in her left ear. It's why she didn't hear you the first time you called out to her, it's why she didn't hear your sister.
She has a music player and only ever plugs in the right earbud.
Somehow you just know, you just fucking know that she was not born like that and a helpless, resigned rage boils your blood to an overflow. It is this that turns you into a hypocrite.
"You should call the police, Mokuzu."
She reclines back to the basement floor, coal black hair fanning behind her head as she raises a hand in the air, reaching for the ceiling.
"He's never going to stop hurting you and you don't deserve that."
"You think you have a right to tell me that?" she asks, voice as hazy and acrid as smoke. Her fingers curl into a fist and her hand drops back to her side.
And you don't. Of course you don't. "It's different."
"It's different," she repeats flatly.
"Yeah. I have my mom and my sister to worry about. And I could fight back." The latter is a puzzling, slimy kind of lie. You do indeed have the physical capability to fight back. At this point in your life, you're in fact bigger than your father. But the capability and the ability to use it are two very different things and you could never, ever, ever raise your hand to him.
You don't know why exactly, but you just can't. You can be passive aggressive and stand behind the shadow of tiny rebellions that make his capillaries pulsate at jet speed. You can be continuous beestings to agonize a bear and make him feel like you're hogging every drop of honey, but you could never hit him.
"Do you love your dad, Nathaniel?"
"We're not talking about me," you stress, your voice trembling. "We're talking about you. You can't live like this—"
"I can't live without him!" Mokuzu shouts as she snaps upright. She smacks her hand over her heart and digs her fingers in the fabric of her shirt like claws. "I love him! I love him more than anyone!"
"He doesn't love you," you protest. You're such a hypocrite but you're begging her anyway because you can't bear knowing she feels the kind of pain you do amplified tenfold.
"I know that, you idiot," she deflates and decays before you like a trampled bouquet. "How can you think I need you to tell me that? Just shut up, Nathaniel. Don't you dare ask me to do what you won't."
You lower your head and knit your fingers together. You're shambolic and you don't know what to do, and in some ways that might be a flavor you no longer taste, but right now it's not because as absently as you handle your own misfortunate hers lances through you like a tragedy.
But as with most tragedies, Mokuzu is a forgone conclusion.
"I'm sorry," you say. And you are, you're sorry for everything and then some.
Mokuzu scoots closer to you and puts her hand on your head. She ruffles her fingers through your hair and it's oddly soothing.
You could just sit there and let her do it all night.
But shortly the basement door swings open and shut again, and Castiel interrupts you with Lysander on his heels. He wrinkles his nose with a noise of discontent.
"Hey, get out of here. We've got practice."
Lysander gives him a tired look but you're too full to care. You stand up and take Mokuzu's hand. "We were going to go to the beach anyway, right?"
"Right." Her fingers tangle with yours and that crookedly bijou smile on her mouth feels like rain.
You finally get to see her house and it's bigger than you expected it to be, bigger than yours. Apparently her father was a successful actor in Japan back in his day. He's not home at the moment, and you're not sure if you're relieved or disappointed.
If he were here, you think you'd kill him. You know you'd hit him, at least. Mokuzu wouldn't want you to, but you would.
It's three stories high and pristine on the outside, cluttered and ignored on the inside. There are various things on the floor, some things broken, boxes everywhere.
"Do you want to see my room?" She asks, voice low as candlelight and hand extended.
You know what she's really asking. You consider. You've only had sex twice. Once with Melody, which was probably one of your worst decisions because she wanted more than that. Once with Kim which was for experimental purposes on her part and a kind of favor on yours, back when you were boxing partners and felt comfortable enough to agree to forget it.
You nod and place your hand in hers.
She leads you up the spiral staircase, across the beige carpeting and into her room. Her bedspread is too young for her, you think, decorated in rainbow polkadots.
But it's not her bedspread you're looking at when her dress falls to the floor. Her bra and panties follow suit and you see her in her entirety. Tiny teacup breasts, a narrow waist, petite behind and legs that look much too frail to hold up the weight of all those hideous, blotchy bruises razing her skin all over.
"I'm dirty," she sighs and steps forward, undoing your belt. You grip the hem of your shirt and pull it over your head, wincing as the movement rattles your battered ribs.
"And so are you," she breathes against your skin as her mouth brushes a welt on your shoulder. "So let's make each other dirtier."
"Yes," you agree and you ghost your palms gently along her multicolored sides as she unzips your pants.
She drops back to the bed and gazes up at you. "I just have two requests."
"Anything," you nod.
"You noticed the way I walk. My legs don't open as wide as they should because I hurt my hip when I was a baby. So be gentle, okay?"
You know that wasn't an accident either, but you nod without poisoning the mood. "Of course. What else?"
"Shut off the light."
You nod and turn off her lamp, climbing into bed with her.
You can't see in the dark but you can taste the tears on her lips. Inexperienced you may be, but you do your best to make her feel as good as you can, because no one else does. You kiss her palms, the insides of her wrists, all along every scratch and square of her pollution. You hold her tenderly and you follow her gasps with your fingers and follow up with your tongue.
Mokuzu is equally considerate. She draws her good leg around your waist to bring you closer, wraps up your own tired wounds in melty kisses and promises you that you matter in way she cups the back of your neck. She flicks her tongue in all the right ways and sets your skin ablaze and beyond the pleasure of it all, there is also a bay of great relief.
Because that's what you're both seeking, really. You're licking each other's wounds like animals and exchanging comfort because you care. You don't love her and she doesn't love you but you do care, and you do understand and it takes someone else with that kind of understanding to know what you need and make you feel fucking okay, if only for a little while.
You can't remember the last time you felt okay at all.
When you're done you hold each other for a bit, sweaty, sticky, too-hot skin and it's not very comfortable at all but it does make you feel even more okay. You grasp onto that and pull her even closer, the small swell of her breasts under your chin as her arms wind around you.
Everything is okay until for awhile but eventually she says, "You should go before my dad gets back."
You turn the light back on and you don't offer to stay and protect her because she was so perfectly on point, love is unescapable and she loves him with every beat of her dysfunctional, pitiable heart.
You're no better.
You dress quickly and offer her a strange, tentative smile. "Goodnight, Mokuzu."