Mesmerizing. There was only one word Lu Han could use, and it was mesmerizing. Not only the spectacle before him, but the entire early evening atmosphere. Golden streaks of the setting sun etched against the horizon, shadows on the ground, the muted greens of palm fronds overhead, and of course the reflections of blue. The waves were soft today, sloshing gently on the beach, wetting Lu Han’s bare feet. He’d rolled his pants up, but still his legs were soaked up to his thighs. One of the first things he’d had to get used to about island living was, it was no use trying to stay dry.
He licked his lips, eyes darting around in every direction except where he was supposed to be looking.
Minseok’s voice was soft, playful almost.
“Hm?” Lu Han forced himself to focus. Minseok was laying on the ground, reclining on the sand.
It wasn’t the first time he’d seen the man in his merman form, but it was the first time they’d been together alone like this since Lu Han arrived at the facility. By now, Minseok and his sea green hair was familiar. As were the lines of his face, the color of his eyes, the slope of his nose. The curve of Minseok’s neck was as haunting now as it was in Lu Han’s dreams.
He’d never meant to fall for a merman.
Then again, barely a month ago he hadn’t known they existed.
“Lu Han,” Minseok said again. “You know you can touch me, right?”
Lu Han swallowed down a whimper, schooling his face into the most professional demeanor he could manage. They were supposed to be learning about each other. Minseok was the foremost science researcher on the island, a human man by day, and now Lu Han’s colleague. They’d been assigned each other’s partner. But he was also something else, something too special for words.
“I… I know.” Pleased he hadn’t stuttered too badly, Lu Han took a step forward and crouched beside the merman.
A warm wave brushed upon the sand, wetting Minseok’s body before retreating back into the ocean. Every scale of the merman’s body gleamed brightly for a moment. Minseok smiled at Lu Han’s hesitation.
“Pelvic fin, anal fin, caudal fin,” Minseok began to demonstrate, using his own hand as a pointer. He turned on his side and named a few others. “Dorsal, and as you can see, they’re a minimal construction, not like your typical fish anatomy, but they do help us maneuver in the water. Of course, having the upper body strength like yourself, and all the ingrained flexibility… that helps quite a bit.”
Minseok flexed his bare chest muscles with a small smile, and Lu Han immediately looked away.
Continuing on, Minseok because to trace his hand again the scales at his hip. “These are the most sensitive scales. Most of the scales you’ll see inside the facility have fallen from one of these three areas.”
He pointed to a set of blue green scales on the right side of his hip. They were oddly discolored, their hews not as bright as the rest. “Here, you’ll want to feel them to see what I mean.”
Lu Han swallowed heavily as he inched nearer on his knees. Minseok looked so... expectant. His smile was closed, but crooked, the beginnings of a smirk taking root as Lu Han extended his arm.
The scales were soft against his fingertip, unlike the heavier, thicker ones that covered Minseok everywhere else from hip to tail fin.
“How long until they fall off?” Lu Han asked, knowing he was supposed to remain scientific about this.
Minseok pondered a moment. “A week if left alone? Less than that if I work on them. They get itchy after a while. Also if they come into contact with any rough surface, that works them off quicker. Let’s say I climbed a rock formation in this state. The friction would ease them off sooner.”
“And underneath?” Lu Han was still feeling the molting scales, too mesmerized to take his hand away and too embarrassed to look anywhere else.
“New ones will grow. It takes a while until they’re full sized, but since this a relatively small area, the skin underneath is still strong enough to form a protective barrier.”
“And it doesn’t hurt?”
Minseok shook his head. “Think of it like fingernails. They grow no matter what, and unless something happens to pry them off unnaturally, they don’t hurt when you clip them.
Minseok’s own fingernails were buried in the sand behind him, his torso propped up by his arms. There was more muscle there, his biceps elegantly defined and while Lu Han was by no means underdeveloped in the muscular department, he couldn’t help but admire Minseok’s physique.
“Hey, Lu Han?”
Something about Minseok’s tone of voice caused Lu Han to pause, his heart stuttering in his chest.
“Huh?” he squeaked, daring finally to meet the merman’s gaze.
“Your fingers… they tickle.”
Instantly Lu Han pulled his hand away, belatedly realizing that they’d strayed a little too high: above the ridge line of the smallest scales, where the merman half blended with the man.
With his fourth and fifth fingers, he’d been absently caressing Minseok’s bare skin.
The merman chuckled, not unkindly, but Lu Han’s face burned with shame. “S-sorry,” he muttered, and quickly sat back on his heels. He stumbled, fell butt first into the sand, and squawked unhappily. Minseok’s crooked smile remained in place, and he didn’t speak again until Lu Han was back on his feet, still crouching but with enough room between them that it didn’t feel like an invasion of Minseok’s personal space.
In Lu Han’s first week working at the facility, he’d already been subjected to showering with his colleagues, Minseok included. Back then he’d barely glanced at the nude form of what he thought was another human, stifling his admiration, and sealing it away as an inappropriate thought.
However, this was different. This was not some random moment Lu Han could pretend wasn’t important, and Minseok was no longer a stranger. He was a merman Lu Han had been learning from for over a month, a familiar body he’d stood elbow to elbow with in the lab. A man who had been possibly, subtly flirting with Lu Han for at least half that time.
“Hey now, you look like you’re about to pass out. I did give you permission touch, remember?”
With most of the others, Minseok was cordial and professional to the point of indifference. He worked well with everybody but did not overly socialize.
With Lu Han though… well, their personality test results did claim they were compatible.
But compatible for what? Lu Han had been under the impression it was just an extensive work-related survey to ensure the people working here didn’t drive each other mad. And none of the other merman Lu Han had so far met had anything but the most platonic relationships with the humans they worked closest to. For instance Yixing and Jongdae, or Sehun and Yifan.
“Not so well-matched, unfortunately,” echoed Jongdae’s voice randomly inside Lu Han’s head. “It’ll work for now, but I’m headed out soon to find someone better suited for Yixing. And Sehun? Well, he’s a problem but I can’t deal with everything at once. Boss Choi wants us to find somebody for Yixing, priority. Hopefully within the year. At least now we’ve got you for Minseok…”
Lu Han glanced hesitantly back at the merman who was still peering at him with a curious expression. Him and Minseok? For what? For lab partners? Or…
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Uhm, what else did you want me to know?” Lu Han hoped his clinical tone would get this ‘demonstration’ back under wraps. Minseok nodded once, pursed his lips, and pointed out a few other markers on his body. Lu Han approached it like an exam, memorizing the facts, recording them to his mind, repeating Minseok’s words until eventually his brain swam with too much information and he zoned out entirely.
“Lu Han? Hey, is it too much? Should we slow down.”
“No! No, I’m good. Continue, sorry.”
But Minseok did not go on. While Lu Han waited awkwardly, the merman collapsed into the sand with a soft exhale, arms by his side, eyelids closing. A cool breeze fluttered through the air, and Lu Han shuddered everywhere he was wet. Minseok did not appear fazed, but with his eyes closed Lu Han was now free to stare at him unhindered.
As a human, Minseok’s body was lithe, his hips narrow but defined. As a merman, he was the same trim form, just sleeker, more colorful. He almost never transformed, that’s what Lu Han had been told. He preferred standing on two feet, blending in, fooling all the newcomers into believing he was the most normal of human beings. It had worked on Lu Han a little too well. By the time he realized Minseok was a merman, he had already fallen hard for what he soon realized was another species entirely. And the strangest thing about it was, Lu Han didn’t care
Mesmerizing, Lu Han thought once more. He curled his fingers, remembering the softness of Minseok’s skin, the cool angles of the greenish scales, the moisture that was part and parcel of his entire being.
Laid out like this, Minseok’s body seemed fit for display.
The merman grunted. Then he patted the sand beside him. “Let’s take a break. Aren’t you tired?”
No, Lu Han started to say. He wasn’t. But maybe Minseok was.
Unlike the merman, Lu Han had no natural affinity for laying in the sand. However, he did so as instructed, trying for all his might to find a comfortable spot. The moist sand instantly damped the rest of his clothes and the back of his head, several small rocks pressed into the small of his back. He kicked a log of driftwood away to make room for his legs, all of it in silence. He shut his eyes. Minseok waited until he was settled.
Then, without warning. “You know, I’m glad you came here.”
He heard Minseok rolling over, closer than he’d been, and though Lu Han was tempted, he did not open his eyes.
“Yeah? Me too.”
Lu Han winced. Even to his own ears, he did not sound convincing. Minseok laughed.
“You say that like this is still part of your job interview. You can relax, you know. You’re well and officially hired. Everybody likes you. I like you.”
To that Lu Han made no comment, too afraid to press the issue, to ask exactly how Minseok liked him. Perhaps he should have. Perhaps this was the moment to find out. He wasn’t exactly blind. Minseok had been friendly with him for a while now, sidling up to him when they were alone, touching him softly whenever they passed. Watching him darkly, and he didn’t care if Lu Han caught him staring.
He let the moment pass.
Minseok, seemed to let it.
“Any other questions for me while I’m like this?”
A damp, moist hand held Lu Han by the arm. Lu Han opened his eyes and blinked. “Uhm, I don’t know?”
Minseok chuckled. “I’ll take that as we’re done. Good, I can change then, if you don’t mind.”
Absentmindedly, Lu Han shook his head. “No? Go on. However you’re most comfortable.”
He’d asked once or twice, how exactly the mermen transformed from one body into another. Nobody had an answer for that, neither men nor mermen. It just happened, and none of their tests had yet confirmed how it could be possible.
“Great strength of mind” is how Minseok liked to joke. But it was also obvious that he personally did not enjoy it.
Lu Han looked away out of consideration, but he could not block his ears to the sounds of discomfort. The hand on his arm did not go away, Minseok holding onto his all through the change. As the first time Lu Han had been privy to this, he felt oddly elated. Knowing as he did that Minseok hated this, he was still beside Lu Han while it happened, admitting his vulnerability.
He waited, gaze straight up to canopy above, otherwise ignoring the writhing merman beside him. He swallowed thickly. Sweat wetted his brow. In just a moment Minseok would be....
A knee suddenly touched Lu Han against the damp of his thigh. The moving had stopped. Minseok was utterly still.
“Okay,” the merman huffed in relief. “That’s over.”
Still Lu Han didn’t look at him directly. “Need any help getting up?” he asked instead, trying to keep it light.
Minseok smacked him lightly across the forearm. “No.” Then, a few seconds later, “give me a minute.”
Except it took longer than that. Five minutes passed, then ten. The sun sunk deeper into the ocean, throwing out a brilliant array of orange and pink into the sky. On the other side of the world, a deep blue darkness seeped across the island.
Lu Han’s eyes grew heavy. He should not have been tired, yet sleep tugged at his consciousness. The wind changed direction, sending an even cooler wind across the two of them as they lay there in the sand.
“Cold,” said Minseok quietly, and he shivered. Lu Han had long grown used to the temperature, the front of his clothes already dried. Minseok, however, was naked. Nothing was more apparent when he rolled even closer, right into the curve of Lu Han’s side.
And nothing felt better when, just a little while after that, Minseok whispered a soft ‘May I?’ before kissing Lu Han on the cheek.