On the morning of his third day as a human, Seacil decided to make Carlos breakfast.
He'd never tried human cooking before, but there were detailed directions on the side of the box of "corn muffin mix", and between the fridge and the sparse cupboards he found containers with all the ingredients it mentioned. How hard could it be? It didn't even call for any kelp. Or kelp by-products.
He did have to resist the urge to add extra salt. It improved the taste of water, and everything else, as far as Seacil was concerned, but Carlos was used to low levels of salinity — what a great science word, huh? — and might not appreciate the improvisation.
Seacil hummed to himself as he mixed the ingredients together. Over the past few days he'd learned so much about Carlos! Not only was there the salt thing, there was the mussed-hair-in-the-mornings thing, and the self-consciousness Carlos always carried under the surface but could shed if he was engrossed in explaining something, and the way his beautiful eyes lit up when he made a discovery, and the fact that when he was in the lab he always wore these important-looking white coats.
Granted, some of the discoveries were less enrapturing than others (was it really necessary for him to chew quite that loudly?). But Seacil loved him all the more because of and/or in spite of every detail.
And Carlos definitely seemed to like Seacil so far, too. Sure, the deadline for a kiss was coming up fast, but Seacil had a good feeling about it. Especially if he got these muffins right.
Carlos only made coffee for one that morning. He would have (reluctantly) brewed more if Cecil had asked, but thankfully Cecil seemed content with orange juice. (With a generous helping of sugar. That had to be sugar, right?)
The caffeine was just starting to kick in when the oven beeped.
"I got it!" exclaimed Cecil, jumping to his feet. Today he was in one of Carlos' green-and-beige flannel shirts, over khaki shorts. His own clothes were supposed to arrive some time this evening, and Carlos wondered if they'd all be as weird as the rope-and-canvas ensemble, and whether they would make Cecil look as good as he did now....
He realized, too late to stop it, that Cecil was about to take the muffin tray out of the oven bare-handed.
The tray fell back onto the rack with a clang as Cecil let it go, crying out and shaking his hand in the air. Carlos was up in an instant, dashing to the sink. "Cecil, over here!" he said, hitting the water on and flicking his hand under the faucet to make sure it was running cool. "Get some cold water on it, come here."
Cecil stumbled over to join him: shaking, breathing hard, too panicked to respond. Without thinking about it, Carlos took his wrist, guiding his fingers into the stream. The searing metal had left angry red blotches on his skin, largest on his thumb and up the side of his index finger.
"What were you thinking?" demanded Carlos. "We have oven mitts in the drawer. You didn't have to burn yourself."
"I...I didn't...." Cecil swallowed. "I've never been burned before."
Carlos wondered briefly if Cecil's culture had some kind of taboo against stoves. "Well, you got lucky. It's only first-degree. I'll show you how to wrap it up, and if you go easy on it for a while it should heal fine."
"Are you sure?" asked Cecil faintly.
"I'm a chemist, remember? We know our way around burns."
Once Cecil seemed steady enough to hold his hand in place unaided, Carlos went to get the first aid kit, switching off the oven along the way. The cool water kept down any swelling, and it didn't look like Cecil's skin was blistering, but it couldn't hurt to protect the area for a while. He ended up wrapping a light layer of sterile gauze around each burn, distracting Cecil from the pain by pointing out some souvenirs of his own mishaps.
"This one was a burn too," he said of the darkened, slightly tight patch of skin on the inside of his forearm. "Got splashed with some chemicals in the lab sophomore year. I was wearing gloves, but as you can see, they only went up so high. And then there's these." He opened his other hand to point out a couple of whitish lines: two on different fingers, one across his palm. "Sliced myself open on a shattered Erlenmeyer flask. The long one needed stitches."
"Wow," said Cecil, in his deep, solemn voice. "I never knew science could be so hazardous." He ran one non-burned finger over the line that crossed Carlos' hand.
Carlos drew back in a hurry, closing his hand into a fist to keep it from doing something terribly unprofessional. "Well, now you know!" he stammered. "Sorry, I guess this gets in the way of your whole 'perfect Carlos' image...."
He'd tried to say it lightly, but Cecil didn't let him get away with it. "Not at all!" he exclaimed, pale eyes widening in earnest. "Carlos — sweet, modest Carlos — if anything, your rugged devotion to the cause of science makes you more perfect than ever."
Carlos was in so much trouble. "S-speaking of science! I should, ah, get back to that. Promptly! So much to study, so little time!"
Cecil's face fell. "Don't you want one of these muffins first?"
How could Carlos fail to honor Cecil's rugged devotion to the cause of baking? "I'll have it in the office," he decided, popping a corn muffin out of the now-cooled tin and using a saucer to serve as a mini-plate. "Of course the lab is a no-food-or-drink zone! But I have to work on some spreadsheets. And check my email."
Seacil was walking on air. He was on top of the world. He was over the moon. He was, figuratively, all kinds of places involving extreme lightness and/or very high escape velocity.
He was literally in the kitchenette sprinkling extra salt on his muffin, but he was doing it with overwhelming joy.
It lasted until he went downstairs.
Carlos was waiting at the foot of the steps. His lab coat billowed out imposingly behind his legs. The light from the overhead fluorescents flashed in sharp lines over the lenses of his glasses. He wasn't smiling.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
Seacil stopped in his tracks, non-burned hand gripping the railing.
"The university got back to me," said Carlos. "They didn't send any Cecil Baldwin to join the project. They don't know of any Cecil Baldwins. They don't have any Baldwins on record at all."
"Oh," said Seacil.
"Tell me you're with another university." Carlos' hands were clenched into fists. "One that will recognize your name when I call them. Tell me you're here through Strexcorp, and if I look through the equipment rental agreement more closely I'll find the clause that said you might show up. Tell me something."
Mutely, Seacil shook his head.
"Because you didn't just latch on to me at random," continued Carlos. "You knew my name on sight. You knew which boat the project had been using. You know enough about hydroacoustics to be a genuine researcher, or at least to pass for one. So why here? Why with me?"
"I just wanted to see you!" Seacil had found his voice again, although how he was going to make it fix this was still an open question. "To spend time with you. To ask you things, and listen to your perfect caramel voice as you answered. I've wanted it since the day I first saw you."
"Then you could have asked me out for coffee!" cried Carlos. "Instead you put me through this whole charade! For two days and nights you've been working with my equipment, eating my food, wearing my clothes...."
Seacil grabbed the hem of his borrowed shirt, tugging it out of his waistband. "Do you want them back?"
"I want you to leave!"
"I could call the police," said Carlos. "But you did help with the audio equipment...and you baked...so I'll give you one chance. Plus the outfit. You can keep the outfit, okay? Just walk out of here, quietly, right now, and I'll agree to forget that any of this ever happened."
The next two genuine, university-sent researchers arrived later that afternoon. Both of them had ID. And suitcases. And brought their own lab coats.
Wei Ling was another chemist, looking to do some analysis involving the region's boron isotopes. Arnold was a hydrometeorologist, which in his case was a long way of saying that he studied ocean-born storms. Carlos had spent the past few hours rounding up the data and samples they could use, and placing last-minute orders for any new equipment they would need.
(At the station where Cecil had been set up, he found a copy of his own book, still open to the page on Baldwin's rules. So even Cecil's name had been a lie.)
"I should warn you, this area's been described as 'scientifically interesting', but it would be better described as 'scientifically impossible'," he said as he helped them get their luggage to their rooms. "Be prepared to get results you don't understand, and can't make sense of, and should be in mortal danger from."
"Oh, I get those all the time," said Wei Ling cheerfully. "That's why you test and re-test. Eventually the human error averages out."
"And storms are always dangerous," added Arnold. "As I'm sure you know by this point."
Carlos tried not to bang his head against the nearest wall. They would learn, he told himself. Give them a couple weeks.
(Even then, though, he probably wouldn't be able to talk to them as easily as he had to Cecil....)
"Speaking of which, very sorry to hear about your last team," said Wei Ling. "I hope it hasn't been too lonely out here. Hey, are those muffins?"
"No," said Carlos. "I mean, no, it hasn't been lonely. Yes, those are muffins. Help yourselves."
(Would Cecil be able to get something to eat tonight? Did he even have a place to go?)
Wei Ling went straight for a muffin. Arnold held back. "What are they made with? I'm gluten intolerant."
"I don't know," admitted Carlos. I didn't make them. "Let me see if I can find the box. I can tell you, though, you're going to have an easy time in the rest of this town. Can't seem to get wheat products for love or money."
(There was so much he didn't understand about Ocean Bluffs. Just like there was so much he didn't understand about Cecil. But with Cecil, if he'd asked, maybe he could have found out.)
He fished the box out of the recycling and handed it to Arnold. "Will you two excuse me for a while? I need to step out. There's something I have to check on."
(A scientist is endlessly curious, and never stops in the search for truth. That's the first thing a scientist is.)
The view off the pier was stunning. Orange and purple clouds made a halo around the sun as it sank towards the horizon, casting a long gold column of light across the waves.
Seacil sat on the end of it, leaning on a crossbeam of the railing, his two legs sticking out and dangling over the edge. For as long as he still had them, it was as good a place as any to put them.
The water lapped against wooden columns below his feet, with an extra splash every so often when a multi-eyed angelfish jumped out. Old Merwoman Josie had been kind enough to send them over to check up on him. One had even flown up to the level of the pier and delivered a package, courtesy of Big Ray's; it was some small comfort that he knew he'd have sympathetic fins to lean on when he got back into town.
But only small comfort.
He'd lost. He'd had his chance, a perfectly good chance, and he'd blown it. And it wasn't like he could renew or redo the spell; it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, no matter how many eels he sacrificed. Not that Carlos would care to speak to him again, even if he managed to stay in human form for a year....
Seacil sat bolt upright. On the otherwise-empty pier behind him, the figure of Carlos stood silhouetted against the town skyline. His lab coat fluttered in the breeze off the sea.
"I've been trying to find you," said Carlos uncertainly. "I checked the Arby's, and down by the docks...I didn't know where else to look but here."
"Well," said Seacil, heart (figuratively) in his mouth. "Here I am."
"Here you are," echoed Carlos. "Do you have somewhere to go, after this?"
If Seacil lied, would Carlos invite him back to the lab? But no, Carlos deserved as much truth as Seacil could give him. "I guess...tonight I'm going home."
"I'm glad." Carlos came closer, hands stuffed in his pockets. "I was hoping you'd...is that sushi?"
Seacil glanced down at his remaining rolls of seaweed-wrapped fish. "A gift from Big Ray's."
"Haven't heard of that place."
"No one does a roll like Big Ray's," said Seacil. He was trying to use his advertising voice, but it came out more like a lament. "No one."
Carlos leaned against the railing a few feet down from him. Their shadows stretched endlessly back along the planks. "I want to understand you, Cecil," he said quietly. "It would be easy if you were something simple and...malevolent, but I've been trying to believe that, and I can't. You seem too pure. Too innocent. So where did you come from? Why did you do it? Help me understand."
"All I wanted was for you to like me." Seacil cupped one hand over the still-wrapped burns of the other. "I'm so sorry, dear Carlos. I can't tell you anything else."
Emotions you don't understand upon viewing the sunset was one of the things that could make the spell permanent. But Seacil understood his emotions all too well. Frustration. Regret. The pain of seeing his last hopes fade away. And love, deep as ever, burning him from the inside out.
"I do," said Carlos, almost without thinking about it.
Cecil's pearly eyes were hard to read, but somehow it seemed like the words only made him sadder.
"Like you. I do like you," Carlos clarified. "I don't trust you — not right now — but I wanted to think that maybe I could. That at least I had to give you one more chance to come clean."
And if Cecil's explanation was really, really good, Carlos just might ask him out for coffee.
Before responding, Cecil got to his feet and scanned the pier, then the white sand that stretched off from either side of it. "Nobody else here," he said, as if to himself. "All right. Stay with me, Carlos? It won't be much longer."
Carlos nodded. "How much longer to what?"
Instead of answering, Cecil started unbuttoning his (well, Carlos's) shirt.
Carlos willed himself not to start blushing. It wasn't like Cecil's bare torso was anything he hadn't seen before. And again, it wasn't as if Cecil was trying to seduce him into compliance; he was just methodically stripping, making a neat pile of the shirt, the sandals, the rolled-up gauze peeled from his hand, and, finally, the shorts.
If he'd started to take off the navy-blue boxers, Carlos would have said something. Definitely.
But that was the point when Cecil's breath hitched.
Carlos tensed, ready in spite of everything to catch him if he was having some kind of attack.
The last sliver of sun sank below the horizon.
And in the fading gold light Cecil's skin started to turn purple.
It wasn't that he was choking. He was taking steady gasps of air as the hue came in across his whole torso, turning it a mottled dark purple. The color flushed down his arms, where a bluish webbing was growing into place between the purpling fingers. His legs were buckling. His legs....
Not only were they bent at the knees, they were bent at places where legs weren't supposed to bend. They bulged; they twisted; they each split apart into three separate appendages, all swelling, ripping the seams of the boxers as his pelvis ballooned to accommodate six evenly-spaced limbs.
Six tentacles. Purple where they joined, shading almost to black as you went down, with pale undersides and two rows of even-paler lavender suckers running along each.
"You're the octopus," breathed Carlos.
(The sextopus? No, he still had both arms, which added up to eight limbs total.)
The full force of the transformation had passed. Cecil, relatively stable on curled tentacles that held him up to Carlos' height, offered Carlos a sad smile, in which Carlos saw the last physical change: flat human teeth morphing into the serrated points of a shark. "Is that what you thought I was?"
His voice. It was different now. Accented, almost burbly, as if spoken underwater. "And you're the one I heard!" exclaimed Carlos, stepping forward, trying to avoid treading on one of the slender, undulating ends of the tentacles. "You spoke underwater — you sang to me — that was you too, wasn't it? You saved my life!"
"How could I not?" asked Cecil. "It goes against all kinds of municipal secrecy laws — but it was you! Perfect Carlos — I fell in love with you the moment I first saw you." He paused. "Maybe not quite that fast. But I was definitely in love by the time I first saw your perfect hair."
"It's Seacil," said the octopus-merman, with what might have been a pout.
This time Carlos could hear the difference in pronunciation, even if he wasn't sure he could mimic it. "I wanted to see you too," he said instead. "If I'd known...this is magic, isn't it? The kind of spell where it has a built-in time limit, unless...?"
Seacil nodded. "Unless."
So Carlos stepped over the curve of a tentacle, cupped Seacil's face in his hands, and pressed a kiss to his lips.
Just one. Just softly. (He was wary about those teeth.)
He pulled back to find tears pooling in Seacil's eyes. "Sweet Carlos. You're too late."
Carlos set his jaw. "I wanted to do it anyway."
Of course Seacil went for a second kiss. How could he not? Stronger wills than his would have crumbled under that kind of temptation.
He wrapped his own hands around the curve of Carlos' skull, webbed fingers tangling as deeply as they could in that perfect thick dark hair, and looped a tentacle across the small of Carlos' back to hold him in place. That touch made Carlos jump, so Seacil resisted the urge to wrap every one of his limbs around the man's body.
"This doesn't have to be the end," panted Carlos between kisses. "We can still meet. I'll get another boat, bring it out on the water...you can come up to the surface, I'll show you what I'm working on...I can dive —"
"We can't," said Seacil. "I'm going to be in so much trouble already. Carlos, dear Carlos, this has to be it."
"Can I still come out there? Will you get in trouble if I keep studying your home?"
"No, that would be great! Please do. I'll be watching you every minute."
Carlos smoothed back one of Seacil's glossy black locks. "It's okay if it isn't every minute...."
"Oh, but it will be," said Seacil with confidence. "I'm a reporter. My job — assuming I still have it — is to know everything that goes on in our sleepy little community. Or, in your boat's case, above it." He kissed the line of Carlos' jaw. "You'll trust that I'm there, right? You won't be hurt that I can't show myself to you?"
"A scientist is self-reliant," began Carlos, then shook himself and started over. "I mean...yes, I'll trust you. Even though I'm going to miss you like crazy."
It was, at this point, the happiest thing Seacil could have hoped for.
Unwinding his limbs from Carlos was the hardest thing he'd ever done. "I have to go now," he said softly. "I'm sorry. I love you."
He clambered over the railing, careful not to crush it with his newly-restored full weight, and clung with dozens of suckers to the outermost edge of the platform. With Carlos still on the other side, he leaned back for one last kiss in the darkening twilight.
Then Seacil dove.
(And now...the weather.)
Carlos didn't know how long he stood there, watching the ocean deepen to black as a crescent moon sailed into view overhead.
He couldn't have known. There was no way. Especially with magic, of all the scientific impossibilities, at the heart of everything that had happened.
That didn't stop glass shards of regret from filling his chest.
It would have been so easy to avoid this. Between meeting Seacil and losing faith in him, there were so many moments when he could have gone for a kiss. If he'd given in to temptation once — just once! — then Seacil would be in his arms right now. Telling him everything. Helping him unravel the local mysteries that science couldn't even touch. Loving him.
"And I could have loved him back!" yelled Carlos into the gloom. "If I had just one more chance...!"
Useless. Hopeless. He was screaming impotently at an indifferent moon.
That was when the shadow fell across him.
It was towering, dark, and didn't seem to care that it was stretching in the wrong direction. When Carlos turned, he found it was being cast by an impossible wall of stone: rough to the touch and weathered, but carved with solemn patterns uneroded by age. Vaulted windows appeared high on its sides. Higher still, the top cut a crenellated silhouette into the starry sky.
THE BROWNSTONE SPIRE had found him.