Shine: Cleanup

Shine

This bonus short story was a commissioned work from a reader.
Thank you for your support!


Emily was having a lot of difficulties, and only one of them was trying to explain the concept of Garfield to the attractive merman currently watching her with rapt attention. There was also the difficulty of trying to explain landline phones, and novelty landline phones, and how a novelty landline phone ended up in the ocean.

It didn’t help that she didn’t know the answer to that last question.

“Where did you find this?” she asked finally, instead of explaining anything.

Drago pointed down the coast, toward a sliver of beach barely visible from the end of the pier. The land curled outward there in a thin crescent, walled in by thick forests and high cliffs.

That raised more questions than it answered.

“Was there anything else around it?” she asked, frowning at Garfield’s bright orange face. Garfield smirked back. His pupils and some of his stripes had been worn away by time and sand and saltwater. If he’d been bigger he might have looked sphinx-like.

“More of these,” Drago said, tapping the plastic with one of his nails.

More of them?” she asked, and he nodded. “How many more?”

He considered the question. “32,” he said. It was more confident and specific than she’d anticipated.

“… maybe you should show me.”

⚓⚓⚓

There were 32 Garfield phones scattered across the sand of the beach. They’d built up like driftwood, deposited by the tide.

“This is…” Emily wrung out her skirt as she turned, surveying the landscape. “Creepy,” she decided.

“Creepy,” Drago repeated, not quite but almost a question. She could see him chewing silently on the word.

“Isn’t it?” she asked.

“For me, a little,” he said eventually. He picked up a Garfield close to the water to examine it. “For you?”

Yeah,” she said. It felt like it should be obvious, if he felt the same way about it. “Why are there so many?” she asked, spreading out her arms. “How did they get here?”

Drago shrugged, his weight resting on his tail in the shallow water. “Your things get everywhere,” he said, setting the phone back into the sand.

“They do not,” she said, defensive, before realizing that he probably didn’t mean her. It was a collective ‘your’, a human ‘your’. She looked at the beach. “This isn’t normal,” she said lamely. “For us.”

“No?”

“No,” she said, twisting and wringing out her braid. “It’s… stuff like this is supposed to be in buildings.” But of course he wouldn’t know that, when he usually only saw whatever fell into the ocean. Shipwrecks and plastic islands as the natural state of human detritus. “We should pick these up,” she said. “We can take them back to the lighthouse and get rid of them.”

Drago looked along the length of the beach, only some of which he could reach from the water. Then he nodded, and pushed himself backward with his arms to disappear into the sea.

“You’d better be coming back,” she warned the air he left behind. Then she trudged through the sand, toes sinking into it as she picked up Garfields and set them into a pile. Birds were singing, the breeze was cool, and the waves lapped gently against the beach. And she was picking up plastic phones that looked like the lasagna cat.

If her father were here he’d probably be monologuing about corporate pollution. He’d know exactly what to do with all these Garfields. Once she figured out how to get all this to him.

Drago emerged back onto the beach with a splash, a net in one hand.

“Oh! You brought a bag!” He basked, triumphant, in the sound of her pleased surprise. He started to scoop what Garfields he could reach into the netting, as Emily herded her pile toward it. “We’re making good progress!” she said, because the pile looked very impressive to her.

“Yes,” he agreed. “Should I get the others, also?”

She froze. “What others?”

“Below,” he said.

She almost asked how many were underwater that she couldn’t see, but refrained. If the number was higher than 32, she didn’t actually want to know. “Let’s see how much room is left in the net after we’re done with these, first,” she said, gesturing to the Garfields still sitting in the sand. “Why do you think they’re creepy?” she asked, adding another phone to the net.

“Not very,” he said instead of answering.

“I’m not saying you’re scared,” she assured him, assuming that was the problem. “I’m just wondering what this looks like to you, I guess.”

Drago pulled himself sideways with his arms and tail to reach another Garfield. “Signs,” he said finally. “Trails. Reminders that they are there, might still be here. Warnings.” He reached for her, and she realized she’d been shrinking in on herself. She tried to relax, and bent to take his offered hand.

“Sorry,” she said, which wasn’t what she meant, but whatever better word there was wasn’t one she had.

“I’m not scared,” he reminded her, pressing a kiss to her knuckles. He smiled with a show of teeth, and her heart skipped. “You’re not scary.”

“I could be scary! If I wanted.”

“Yes,” he agreed, tugging her hand to pull her closer, until she gave up and knelt in the sand. “I like this better.” He caught her mouth in a quick kiss, and while ordinarily she might have felt deprived, this time the Garfields were watching. “You will keep these?” he asked, gesturing to the phones.

“Oh, heck no,” she said. “Dad’ll probably make some kind of horrifying robot out of them, I don’t really know.”

Drago nodded, making it more obvious than usual that he didn’t understand half of what she said. “Good. I don’t trust him.” He pointed at the impassive, worn-away face of a plastic cat.

“You have good instincts.”

Tip the Author

Shine: Chapter Fifteen

Previous Chapter Table of Contents

The Radiant Shimmering Of Sunlight’s Reflection From Beneath The Waves had fucked up.

He was not entirely clear on how, exactly, he had fucked up. But he was very certain he had fucked up.

Things had been going very well, he thought. Coral had liked her gifts, and accepted them as her due (eventually). She hadn’t seemed to mind too terribly much that he couldn’t tell her where he’d been. The thought of another lover did not even seem to occur to her, which either said good things about their relationship or bad things about his charm. They’d had sex.

Slightly awkward, horizontal, sandy sex.

But it was still sex.

She seemed to like it.

He definitely liked it.

She’d maybe seemed a little nervous afterward, but he couldn’t blame her for that. He was pretty nervous, too. Maybe for different reasons, but, still.

It had all been going great until that morning. When he must have said something wrong. Very, very wrong.

She hadn’t told him that he’d said anything wrong. Quite the opposite. She’d said she was tired, not feeling well. Needed to sleep.

His grasp of her language may not have been perfect, but that didn’t change the fact that body language was a thing. He wasn’t an idiot. She’d been upset. And now he was going to have to try to find a gift suitable for accompanying an apology, while he replayed the conversation in his mind to find the moment that he’d fucked up.

As he approached the little home he’d made, he stopped suddenly in the doorway. His tongue darted out to taste the water, let it hit the more sensitive receptors in the back.

Someone was in his home.

He growled, his fins all pinned flat as he prowled inside. He tasted the water again, listened intently for the slightest sound. They were still in there, whoever they were. He opened some of the little wooden doors, one at a time, until someone came darting out.

They were fast.

He was faster.

He pinned them to the wall, his talons tearing open the flimsy wood and embedding into it, and his fins all flared with a snarling hiss that bared all his teeth. They gave an immediate low whine of surrender, which was almost unfortunate. He was still angry. He didn’t want to play nice. He put away his teeth, let his fins fall, but didn’t let them go.

Small, almost as small as a person could get, his hand could hold them by the waist without any strain at all. He could snap their little arms with two fingers. A curling tail and fins like leaves, braid wrapped around their head and run through with a particular kind of rope.

Southern Valley Green Song Clan, if he had to guess. Didn’t have to guess that it was a scout. He knew a scout when he saw one.

«I should eat you,» he informed them with a snarl. «Two bites, and no one would miss you.»

«You’re as charming as your reputation, Poison Tail.»

He shouldn’t have, but he hissed again. He was pleased in a very unkind way when they flinched. «You’re trespassing.»

«I saw no clan markers,» they said, as if they had not known exactly what they were doing.

«I’m working on it,» he said, but even that was an admission, he could see the gleam in their eye. He should have said nothing, should have just ordered them to leave.

«My deepest apologies,» they said immediately, clasping their hands together before he could stop them. «The Sway Of Leaves That Will Not Break of the Southern Valley Green Song Clan humbly requests passage through the territory of—what clan, exactly?»

«The Radiant Shimmering Of Sunlight’s Reflection From Beneath The Waves of the clan yet to be named must mournfully refuse this request on the grounds of go fuck yourself.»

«You know,» Leaves said, «the songs they sing about you might be nicer if you’d give an interview once in a while.»

«We both know that’s not true.»

Leaves clicked. «It was worth a try. Do you at least want to tell me what this is?» The curl of their tail rose higher, and on one of their fins they held the little flower token he’d been keeping hidden.

Radiant hissed again before he could stop himself, snatched it back away and nearly crushed Leaves’ ribs in his infuriated grip. They gave another distressed whine as a bubble of air escaped them, and Radiant let them go entirely. «This is a gift,» he snarled, holding it tight in his hand.

«My deepest apologies,» they said, and they meant it even less than they had before. «I certainly would never have touched it if I’d thought it was a token.» They cocked their head to the side. «But you wore no token in the arena—it would have been in all the songs by now, if you had. Is the one you’re courting as shameful as that?»

«She is no one’s business,» he said, but even that was a victory for the little scout.

«But everyone will be so curious to know who she is, getting courted by Poison and making a clan too close to shore.»

«Not too close to shore for you.»

«Only me,» they said, preening. «It’s a wonderful favor you’ve done me, ensuring I’ll be the only scout, that our clan will have all the first songs. If you tell me nice things, I would tell them those, too.»

Radiant always stayed too close to shore. It was the only reason he’d found Coral, that day, sinking to the bottom where she didn’t belong. It was usually safer—he’d rather risk monsters than scouts. But he also did not usually stay in one place for long, was usually harder to find.

Leaves perched on a nearby surface, no longer even pretending to be frightened or respectful. They were a coward, and would flee at the slightest provocation; of this, Radiant had no doubt. They put their chin in their hands, looking very amused. «This lady of yours, is she why Truth Of A Cold Current nearly bested you?» They dragged a finger down the side of their face. «All the songs have been wondering why you’ve lost your edge.»

«I have lost nothing, and he is a dolphin.»

«Can we quote you on that?»

«No. He got lucky, but I still won. He won’t get lucky again.»

«He says he’ll win next time.»

«There won’t be a next time. I’m retiring.» That was an impulsive decision. He had been planning to wait. But having this obnoxious little scout intrude on a space that he wanted to be safe was trying his patience.

They clicked. «You couldn’t possibly.»

«I can, I will, I have.»

«Everyone will think—»

«I don’t care. Let them sing what they will.» It had never much mattered what he did, regardless. He might as well just do what he wanted. «Leave, now, before I change my mind and tear off your head. If I see you again, I won’t be this nice.»

«If—»

Radiant let his fins all flare again, roared as much as hissed; Leaves darted away, and Radiant watched them go. He did not follow, but did continue to watch them flee until he was satisfied that they were going back to their clan.

Today had officially gone completely to shit.

He curled up petulantly inside his little home, though doing so didn’t make him feel better. He opened his hand to look at the little flower in his palm, running his thumb over it.

It wasn’t that he had anything to hide, necessarily. He just knew that Coral didn’t actually know, or care, what wearing her token would have meant. And he hadn’t told her. It just seemed better to keep it somewhere safe, when it was so small and so delicate. When he didn’t want anyone making assumptions about it. About her.

Any assumption they could have made would have been better than the truth, of course. If he thought about it too long, he’d think it was a little pathetic, that he would court a monster.

Even if she was a cute monster.

A very small and soft and kind monster.

Who was probably still upset about whatever it was he’d done.

He’d been trying very hard to do things the right way, more for his own benefit than for hers. It was important to him that he know he’d done things right, that he was capable of doing things right. To know that he wasn’t the problem. He had also, he realized now, deliberately avoided explaining certain things to her. He’d told himself that it was probably fine, that she probably got the basic idea, but really he just didn’t want to risk that she’d reject him.

He really was kind of pathetic.

This morning. He could remember exactly how she sat on the pier, how happy she’d looked and the slender lock of hair that had fallen loose from her braid. He could remember all the words, even though some of them were just meaningless collections of sound to him, even though he only understood about half of what she said when she put those words in that order so quickly. Friends. Friend, noun. One attached to another by affection or esteem. One that is not hostile. A favored companion. A clan of her own, or something like it, not formalized. He thought ‘Sofia’ was a name sound. Her people’s names were just sounds, signifying nothing but themselves.

Italian. From Italy. That meant nothing to him. Sailor. That he understood, sort of. These were the things she told her clan so they didn’t wonder who was trying to steal her away. He’d teased her about it, and—

Yes, that was where he’d gone wrong. ‘Liar’. That word, exactly. A good liar. It hadn’t occurred to him that it might be a particularly offensive word. Liar, a person who tells lies. Lie, to make an untrue statement. Those weren’t so bad, were they?

Maybe it was different for them. Maybe there were implications, or maybe there were nicer words he did not know. Maybe it was a horrible insult. It hadn’t even occurred to him that it might be. It was a talent, wasn’t it?

He couldn’t even get compliments right.

Hopefully he’d do better at apologies.

⚓⚓⚓

“Drago!”

He couldn’t tell if that was the good kind of high-pitched yelling of his name, or the bad kind.

He was going to assume the good kind.

Optimism was important.

“I brought you a gift,” he said. At a loss for other options, he’d gone out hunting and killed the biggest thing he could find. No one was ever unhappy to get food. She ate fish sometimes. All signs pointed to this being the best possible idea.

“I can see that,” she said, wide-eyed. “Drago, how… how will I get this in my house?”

… shit.

Coral was very small. This fish was very large. He couldn’t carry it for her up there. He hadn’t considered that. He was still balanced on the end of the pier using his arms, because there wasn’t really any room for him to sit. Also, if things went really wrong, he might just want to fall into the water and hide.

For a while.

Like forever.

This might soon count as going really wrong.

“I can cut it for you?” he offered.

“O… okay. I guess that would work. That’s… goodness, I really hope that isn’t endangered.”

“It was in danger. Then it was dead.”

“That’s not—well, you’re not wrong.”

“It is an apology gift,” he said, because he wanted to try being clearer about this sort of thing. “Do you accept?”

She frowned, a little twist of her mouth and a furrow of her brow. “You don’t need to apologize,” she said, seeming confused.

“I upset you.”

“Oh. That wasn’t your fault, really—”

“I am still sorry.”

“I… accept. Yes. I accept your apology, and your… swordfish?” His relief was palpable, enough that he fell back into the water for a celebratory spin.

He got a little excited sometimes.

Radiant was going to pull himself back up, but Coral started to come down along the rocks toward the water. Which was probably for the best, since his arms were getting tired. He’d had a busy day. She was wearing her bathing suit again, which made him happy; that usually meant she was planning to come into the water with him. She sat down, and he immediately rested his hands on her knees, his chin on his hands. She smiled and stroked his hair, and he purred.

“I’m sorry about earlier,” she said, and he clicked.

“Why?”

“I shouldn’t have been so… I don’t know. I was being really silly about it. I should have known better, you didn’t mean anything by it—”

“Sorry is for the one who does the hurting,” he said, and she bit her lip.

“You’re too sweet,” she said.

He thought this was one of those times when sweet meant nice. “Yes,” he agreed, and she giggled. “But not for this.” Suddenly she bent down to kiss his forehead, and he tried to look unperturbed even as he felt his face grow hot.

“See, I—okay, I had this ex-boyfriend, right? And he was kind of a huge jerk. At the time I thought he was just really… reasonable? He was really good at being reasonable, all the time. It wasn’t like we had fights. I’d just get really upset and then I’d feel like I was being crazy because he was being so reasonable and I was freaking out…”

“Anyway, I’m… you were right, earlier, I kind of am a really good liar. It’s not like I lie about big things, or important things, or whatever. Just sometimes it makes things a lot easier to tell people what they need to hear to not freak out. You know? Also my family’s kind of weird in a way that made it useful. But my ex, he was really into honesty. Like, everything honesty. No secrets, ever. Which sounds nice, but I didn’t really like it, and I felt like I was the jerk for not liking it.”

“He had this thing, too, where there always needed to be a reason for everything. I couldn’t just not want to do a thing, there always had to be a reason, but if I told him a reason he’d find reasons why I was wrong, and it was just… I don’t usually lie that much! I just started lying about stupid things, coming up with fake reasons he couldn’t argue with. He’d always act so hurt that I was lying to him, but it was like I couldn’t win. If I told him I didn’t want to go to his stupid dinner party, or if I didn’t act excited enough about his stupid dinner party—it was like I had to be really happy to do whatever he wanted, or else he’d be miserable and I’d feel bad.”

“I know that wasn’t what you meant, though. When you said it. I just didn’t want you to think I was freaking out, except I was, but it wasn’t because of you. Does that make sense?”

That was a lot of words with a lot of context he did not have. Usually he was content just to listen, when she did this sort of thing, but this seemed important.

“There was someone,” he began cautiously, and she nodded. “He hurt you, but acted hurt. You did bad things you did not like, because they did not hurt. Yes?”

“That’s… about right, yeah.”

“I hurt you when I should not have, because you have not healed yet.”

“You’re making it sound much worse than it really is,” she said, and he clicked.

“What happened is what happened.” She stroked his hair again, and he nuzzled at her hand. “This person is gone now?”

“Mostly, yeah. He’s not supposed to come around me anymore.”

“Do you want me to hurt him?”

She laughed, and the sound made him smile. “Oh, wow, he would—no, that’s okay. He’s not worth it.”

He didn’t anticipate the way that answer made him feel, something indescribable and difficult to pinpoint. Elated, maybe.

Loved.

“Swim with me?” he asked.

She smiled, and he wanted her down where he could kiss her. “If you’re not worried I’ll slow you down,” she said.

“Never.”

The Radiant Shimmering Of Sunlight’s Reflection From Beneath The Waves was, on occasion, not a complete fuck-up.

Previous Chapter Tip the Author

Shine: Chapter Fourteen

Previous Chapter Table of Contents Next Chapter

In retrospect, wearing a white dress to see her merman boyfriend was not a good idea.

It was a great idea.

Because though Drago was dubious overall on the idea of clothes, he still seemed to appreciate the way she looked with her dress clinging transparent to her skin. The pretty lace of her bra wasn’t meant to leave anything to the imagination, so she might as well have not been wearing anything at all.

But the fact that she was made it kind of fun.

She was sitting up to her waist in the water, the waves making her dress billow around her thighs as she watched Drago swim. She’d tried to join him briefly, but she just wasn’t used to being out in the water while wearing… pretty things. Circlets and necklaces and everything else, she couldn’t rid herself of the anxiety that she’d ruin them, that they’d fall into the murky deep and be lost forever. Even though that made no sense. They were clearly made to be worn underwater.

Maybe she’d get used to it. She didn’t know how often Drago would expect her to wear them, or if he’d expect her to wear them at all. She should probably ask. Or maybe he thought she already knew? Maybe the fact that she didn’t know what she was accepting invalidated her acceptance.

It was probably fine. She’d wear them on special occasions, like any other boyfriend gift. Totally fine. It probably didn’t mean anything that important.

When he decided to join her in the shallows, he wasted no time, sliding immediately between her knees. It was abrupt enough that she squeaked, startled, nearly falling back away from him. He hummed something, his fins flaring, and she swallowed a nervous lump in her throat.

“I, uh. Thank you again. For the… these.” ‘The jewelry’, she was going to say, but she’d faltered. She wasn’t sure why.

He cocked his head to the side, and his expression made her nervous. “You should not thank me,” he said finally.

That definitely wasn’t ominous at all. “I shouldn’t?”

“For you to thank me for these is rude.”

This was not the best conversation to have when he was between her legs. “It is? I’m sorry!”

“You did not know.” He seemed very forgiving about it, at least.

“Why, um. Why is it rude, exactly?” His fins were still all flared out. She wasn’t quite sure what that meant. He’d decided to rest his hands on her legs, and it was very… evocative. Which was a very rude train of thought, when he’d been nothing but sweet.

It wouldn’t even work, anyway, with those teeth. Right? Right.

He considered this question, or else he considered exactly how to phrase his answer. Maybe it was one of those things that was difficult to translate. “Thanks are for favors,” he said finally, “or things that are… extra. Not for things that are yours. Things you deserve.”

Her hand went to the necklace. “So if I thank you for this,” she asked, “then it’s like I’m saying I don’t deserve it?”

“Yes.”

“Which is rude because…?”

He hummed as he seemed again to search for the right words. Then he pressed a hand to his chest. “It insults my taste. My judgment. Suggests that I have been foolish.”

“Oh! That would be rude, I don’t want to do that.”

“Yes.” He rested his hand on her knee, watching her. Behind him, his tail swayed in that suspiciously catlike way it sometimes did. Predatory. “I want to take your clothes off.”

“Oh.” Her eyes went very wide. At least he was honest. And her mind wasn’t just in the gutter for no reason. “Okay.”

He tilted his head in a different direction that it had been. The gesture always made him look so much more… inhuman. “Okay?” he asked, clearly looking for more clarity than that.

“I would like that very much,” she said, so he could not possibly mistake her meaning. It felt like he hadn’t touched her in weeks, in months; she’d been thinking about it ever since, and when she hadn’t known where he was it made her miserable.

“Good.” His hands slid beneath beneath her dress first, tugged at her panties; she lifted her hips so that he could pull them away, already half-breathless with anticipation. She sat up just enough that she could peel off her dress, pull it over her head and toss it aside.

Carefully, though. She wanted it to land on the rocks, not float out to sea. It was a nice dress.

She’d nearly pulled her necklace off, but thankfully it fell back down around her neck. She checked that she hadn’t ruined her hair, that the circlet was still in place.

“I want to kiss you,” he said as she reached behind herself to unhook her bra, pulling it off her arms with remarkable speed. It hadn’t taken long for her to get very comfortable with the idea of skinnydipping. It was her damn house, after all. She giggled, bit her lip and nearly leaned forward. “Not there.”

She froze.

“You want to…?” She was definitely turning very, very red. He nodded, but his grin made her very anxious for entirely new reasons. “But your…” She gestured to her mouth. “Your teeth?”

He frowned. “Maybe not kiss,” he conceded. “My teeth will stay far away, I promise.”

“Oh.” She tried not to look too terribly anxious. She didn’t want to offend him. “But, I mean. Even if it’s just your tongue, that’s still. Really close? It seems like?” She kept imagining herself doing something with her hips and hitting him in the face. And teeth.

Drago furrowed his brow and scratched at the back of his head. Clearly, he had not anticipated this level of resistance to the idea. Experimentally, he stuck out his tongue, like he was trying to measure the distance.

Emily shrieked and covered her mouth too late to smother it.

He retracted it immediately, recoiled in displeased surprise and rubbed at one of his ears while humming. “What?” He pointed at his mouth. “Was that rude?”

“That was… that was something alright.” Tongues were not meant to be that long. Why was his tongue so long? “How long have you been able to do that?” she demanded.

He was getting more confused by the second, his fins finally falling back against his skin. “Al… ways?”

“It’s never done that before!” She would have noticed. She definitely would have noticed. He had licked her before, she was sure that he had, and it had never felt anything like that.

“I… did not need it? Is this a problem?”

She covered her mouth again. This was the opposite of a problem. And that made it a problem. She shook her head. “You can just go ahead,” she said, and her voice was a tiny squeak behind her hand. “I’m sure you know what you’re doing, you can just go ahead and, uh. Kiss whatever you want.”

Drago looked very suspicious. Slowly, he moved closer to her, as if worried that she’d scream again if he let his guard down. And then he—

“Oooh my gosh.” Emily covered her face with her hands entirely, fell back because if she watched him she was going to just die. Long, slow licks to test the waters, and her fingers curled to press hard against her mouth, her eyes shut. She thought that if she screamed again he might get a little irritated about it; but that was definitely his tongue sliding inside of her, he was purring and she could feel it and her toes curled into the sand. Back out to draw well-placed circles, back inside her again, again and again and was it really that obvious how well it was working?

Had he done this before? He had to have done this before. Right?

Ariel must have been really disappointed after the wedding.

Her eyes opened when he stopped and the purring faded, and he was above her, watching her face. As best he could, anyway, with her hands covering half of it. “Are you okay?”

Her hands slid away from her mouth, fingers trailing down her chin. “You stopped,” she said, sounding slightly betrayed. His mouth split in a grin, and he lowered himself enough to kiss her.

His tongue really didn’t feel like it was the same one as before. Where was he even hiding the rest of it?

“I want…” He hesitated, hummed as he tried to find the words he wanted. She really needed to find him a dictionary with sexy words in it. He gave up in favor of looking pointedly down at both of their hips. Her eyes followed his gaze.

“Oh goodness yes that’s wow hi why is everything bigger than I remember?”

“Okay?” he asked.

“Well, uh, for future reference what you want to ask is…” ‘Do you want to have sex’ sounded so clinical, though. ‘Make love’? Ew, absolutely not. And she didn’t want to start teaching him swear words. Emily wasn’t religious, but ‘taught a merman to say fuck’ felt like it would get her sent right to hell. “You know, I think you can just ask to touch me and see where things go from there?”

“You seem less than okay.”

“Oh no I’m doing great I just, well, you’re very large, is the thing.” That made him grin, proving that the male ego was a universal constant.

He bent to nuzzle at her neck, the brush of sharp teeth against her racing pulse. “I will never hurt you,” he said, his voice a low rumble.

“If you’re sure we’ll fit,” she said, breathless, but she was clearly dubious about the prospect. He was so tall, after all, insofar as that could be the right word. And he didn’t have legs, and it really seemed like it had the potential to get very awkward if—

Just like that he was using a hand to lift her hips, catching her mouth with his again. “We will fit,” he said, and she couldn’t tell if that was a growl or a purr. Maybe it was both. She felt him start to push inside of her, and she gasped, took his face in her hands to kiss him again and smother the sound.

He was moving very slow, which was all well and good for being considerate, but Emily had never been terribly patient. Even when it was in her best interest. She rolled her hips, pulling his cock deeper inside her and making him purr louder. He was humming something again, and by now she had simply resigned herself to the fact that Drago probably liked to talk dirty and she would never be able to understand any of it.

It was still nice to think that she’d stolen away his ability to string words together in English.

He was stretching her open and filling her up, so very much of him on top of her and inside her and overwhelming all her senses. Every single ridge was felt in perfect clarity, and she could probably count them if she tried, if she was still sensible enough to count. She could feel the way he purred all the way to her core, and though she couldn’t quite wrap her legs around his tail, her knees held him anyway.

That fin down his back could be terribly inconvenient sometimes.

His hand left her hip, let her hold herself against him as he moved his hands along her arms instead. Both hands laced his fingers with hers, pressed her hands into the sand and pinned her to the ground. Then he started to thrust, shallow motions of his tail that still made her cry out as his cock moved inside her. Barely thrusts at all, but it felt like so much more than it was, her whole body moving with his.

Scales against her thighs, still trying so very hard to be gentle, to be sweet. Would he even know what she meant if she asked for more? For harder? She moved as if to kiss him, but instead she turned her head, nipped at the skin of his shoulder. The effect was immediate, that was a definite growl as he gave a sudden hard thrust, almost certainly involuntary. She cried out louder, gripped his hands tighter, rocked her hips and tried to make him do it again. He didn’t need much encouraging, and this time he pulled out further before thrusting back in, made her back arch and her head tilt backward. It didn’t matter which way he moved, which way she moved; he hit all the right spots either way, and she could feel it all the way to her fingertips.

Growling still, and it sounded so much more aggressive than before, but somehow that made it better. She was feeling a little aggressive herself. She was so close now, so agonizingly close, and maybe he could sense it in the way that her whole body started to go taut and her legs straightened. He bent his head and ran his tongue over her throat, and she had no idea why that was what did it, forced all the air out of her lungs and turned her scream and her groans into gasping things. He was still holding her down, still moving, and every beat of her heart felt like a burst of sensation all through her.

He couldn’t possibly keep going, she couldn’t possibly keep going, she couldn’t possibly take even a second more—but he did, and she did, and her second climax was quiet and shaking as it moved all through her. She went almost limp, her legs and her back and her arms in the sand. He bowed his head, shut his eyes, and she could feel it, the moment he came. Twitching muscles all filling her with heat, and she mewled helplessly, squirmed beneath him. Not that it was a bad feeling, not that she didn’t like it; there was just so much, like she was too overwhelmed to control herself.

He kissed her, all his sweetness and affection in his lips against hers, the happiest little song filling her ears. She sighed as he pulled away, untangled his body from hers. If they’d been having sex in a bed, she might have rolled over and gone to sleep. How was she even supposed to walk back to the lighthouse?

Drago tapped one of her legs. “You kick,” he said, and he looked terribly amused about it. She stuck her tongue out at him, but when he emulated the gesture it was much more impressive. Then he looked hesitant. “I need to swim,” he told her, like he was asking her permission. Even merfolk probably considered it rude to go running off right after sex. “I will be right back.”

“That’s okay,” she assured him, patting his arm.

He smiled, took her hand and lifted it so he could kiss it. She was still wearing his bracelets, his necklace; she was almost scared to check the state of her hair. “Mine now,” he said, and with that he pushed himself back out into the water.

He was just so cute, she couldn’t even stand it.

She looked at her bracelet thoughtfully, ran her fingers over it. A thought was itching at the back of her brain, tracing the shapes along it. Very nice gifts, a very formal acceptance. Very good sex.

Mine now.

She sat straight up, quick as a shot.

“… did I just get fish-married?”

Previous Chapter Tip the Author Next Chapter

Shine: Chapter Thirteen

Previous Chapter Table of Contents Next Chapter

It was three interminable days before Emily saw Drago again. She’d nearly managed to convince herself that he’d never come back, that he never even existed, when a telltale flash of sunlight reflecting off scales snapped her out of her pity-party. Immediately she was pulling clothes out of her closet, throwing skirts everywhere in her quest to find the cutest one, braiding her hair and trying to change at the same time.

She briefly braided her hair around the sleeve of the white sundress she’d decided on.

When she finally darted out of the house to meet him, she thought she might burst. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so excited to see someone.

He pulled himself up out of the water before she’d reached the end of the pier, and she stopped short with a gasp.

Drago,” she said finally, running quickly to his side, falling hard to her knees in her haste to get a better look at him. There was a cut along the side of his face, and without thinking she put her fingers on his jaw to turn his head and get a better look. He hummed, but it didn’t sound like he was in pain. Her eyes locked with his for the first time, and her examination of his injury came to a screeching halt as her heart leapt into her throat.

He was even prettier than she’d remembered. She’d remembered him as handsome, of course, as impossibly attractive. But remembering was different from looking him in the eye, seeing those bright blue circles of color amidst black, the thick fringe of his eyelashes and the way his stripes accentuated his cheekbones. Even the mark on his face didn’t diminish from it, just made him look sharp and delicate like cut glass.

And, god, the way he looked at her. Like he was going to eat her alive. She’d forgotten that, too, just how hungry he looked when he saw her, the thrill it sent up her spine to see that look in his eye.

He saw her falter, and suddenly he claimed her mouth with his own, pulled her close to him so that her arms were trapped between them. Her sound of surprise was brief and muffled, splaying her fingers out over his chest and quickly lost in the taste of him. Salt and copper and wild things, darkness and sweetness and the ever-present threat of his teeth. The sharp points of them sometimes grazed her tongue, never enough to break skin but enough to make her shiver. He purred, and she felt it right down to her toes.

When he finally pulled away she gasped for air, clung to him by the shoulders. “I…” She struggled for words. “I missed you,” she managed, which felt like a considerable understatement.

“I missed you,” he repeated, and she couldn’t explain how happy it made her to hear him say it.

“Where were you?” she asked, “What happened? Did someone hurt you?” She traced a fingertip along the skin near the cut, far enough and soft enough that she didn’t think it would hurt. One of his hands caught hers, and he brought it to his mouth to kiss her knuckles.

“I am not hurt,” he assured her, though clearly they had different definitions of hurt. “I was…” He hummed something as he searched for the word. “Busy.”

“Busy?” She couldn’t help a frown. Happy as she was to see him, it had worried her not to know where he’d been, when he’d come back. And now she still wouldn’t know. He didn’t owe her an explanation, and she didn’t want to pry, and yet. “Can you tell me with what?”

The corner of his mouth tilted ruefully. “No,” he said, and it felt somehow like a rejection. “I am disobeying many rules, Emily,” he said by way of explanation, choosing his words carefully. “That does not mean I will disobey all the rules.”

“Whose rules?” she asked, even though she ought to have been satisfied with that. She regretted it as soon as she said it, but Drago didn’t look irritated with her. He only shook his head.

“I share myself with you. No one but myself.” He kissed her hand again. “Understand?”

She nodded, though she wasn’t happy about it. It made sense, and she didn’t want him doing anything that might endanger their relationship. Her mind was wandering despite that, trying to piece together a puzzle with no edges. He had been gone, and he couldn’t tell her where, because someone made rules about that kind of thing. There was someone with enough authority to make rules. He kept armor in a tiny shipwreck, and what could only be some kind of weapon. They looked very nice. They looked like they’d been made by someone very good at it.

Maybe she could just turn on The Little Mermaid and ask him which parts were wrong.

“I brought gifts,” he said, interrupting the downward spiral of her logical processes.

“You… did?”

His tail, which had been trailing down into the water, curled upward; a loop of rope rested on it, like he’d been caught in an especially ineffective net. He reached down, pulling it upward and away from his tail. It was indeed attached to a net, though not like any she’d seen, a very strange weave to it that made the pattern foreign.

She thought, unbidden, of Santa and his magic sack of presents.

Untying the top of it—what kind of knot even was that? Where had he learned all these complicated knots?—he reached inside, and pulled out first a shell.

‘Shell’ did not really do it justice. This was nothing like the little polished cowries they sold in gift shops, the bits of white found on the beach. This was an enormous iridescent spiral, as big as her head and as brilliant as a gemstone, shining even brighter from being wet. Her eyes went round, and Drago looked pleased.

“I told you,” he reminded her. “I got you a better one.”

“Drago,” she breathed, more than a little awestruck. “You—oh, you didn’t have to do that for me.”

His expression turned a bit wary. “You do not accept?”

The way he phrased the question, in conjunction with his concern, brought her up short. Was this a matter of merfolk etiquette? Would rejecting his gift be unpardonably rude? Would it suggest she didn’t like him, or appreciate the trouble he’d gone through?

She hadn’t considered any of those things when she’d given him her cell phone charm. Somehow, upon meeting a handsome and naked man who was a fish from the waist down, her first thought had not been to differing cultural norms.

“I accept,” she reassured him, and she could see his immediate relief. She took the shell gingerly in her hands, terrified that she was going to break it. She didn’t even want to contemplate what that might mean. “It’s beautiful. Thank you, Drago.”

“You will put it with the others?” he asked.

“I will put it right front and center,” she declared, “so it will be the first thing that everyone sees.”

This was the correct answer, and he sat straighter, looking very proud of himself. Then he reached back into his net.

“There’s more?” she asked, surprised.

“Of course. Close your eyes.”

Emily hesitated, finally set the enormous shell at a safe distance on the wooden pier so she wouldn’t have to worry about dropping it into the water. Then she closed her eyes, hands resting in her lap as she tried not to look too excited. This turned to an alarmed squeak when Drago picked her up, pulled her into his lap. Still, she kept her eyes jammed shut, determined not to ruin whatever surprise he’d brought her.

He ran his hands along her arm, and she found herself shivering at his touch, the heightened awareness of not being able to see him. She could feel his scales against her legs, the water clinging to his skin soaking through her dress. Something cold wrapped around one wrist, and then the other; next around her neck, and she tried to visualize the shape of it from how it felt. Some kind of necklace, surely, something heavy and large that ended at her collarbones. It had to be a necklace, didn’t it?

Then his hands were in her hair, and it took all her willpower not to open her eyes, not to lean into his touch and forget all about gifts. Large and gentle fingers combed through it, took out her braid so she could feel that way it fell around her shoulders. Then he did… something?

She couldn’t tell what he was doing. It involved a lot of running his hands over her hair, picking up strands and letting them fall, tugging gently on it in places. “What are you doing?” she asked, even knowing it was supposed to be a surprise.

“Patience,” he said, and she squirmed in his lap, clearly anything but. She huffed and she wiggled and she did everything short of actually opening her eyes, as if that would somehow convince him to let her see before he was done. “There,” he said, when it felt like it had been entirely too long.

“I can open my eyes now?”

“You can.”

She looked first out at the water, blinking away the extra sunshine. Then she looked down at her arms, because those would be the easiest for her to see. Bracelets, as she’d suspected, but prettier even than she’d imagined. She couldn’t tell what they were made of, only that they looked like wood while being entirely too reflective and hard to be any wood she’d ever heard of. Bangles, inlaid all through with something like mother of pearl, intricate designs set into the material so perfectly that she could not imagine how they’d been made. Tessellated patterns that formed shapes like flowers, except that it couldn’t be flowers, could it? Maybe anemones, or whatever it was they may have had that looked like flowers.

Her hand went to her necklace, lifted it away from herself so she could look at it. It was a delicate chain of silver, but the pendant at the end of it matched the bracelets he’d given her. On this, the complex geometric shapes were three-dimensional; she didn’t think she’d ever seen anything so intricate. It looked like it ought to have been impossible to carve without the whole thing collapsing in on itself.

“Drago,” she breathed, “they’re beautiful.” Then she leaned forward to look down at the water, to try and see herself reflected and figure out what exactly he’d done to her hair.

Even looking at it reflected, she could not quite figure out what he’d done. Arranged it and twisted it somehow, and she didn’t know how it all stayed while still looking so loose, but he’d done it to hold a circlet in her hair. The whole thing was a matched set, and though all of it must have come from beneath the waves, she thought she looked like some sort of forest fairy princess.

Maybe he knew fairies. Would it be rude to ask him if he knew fairies? She’d always assumed fairies weren’t real, but she’d thought the same thing about mermaids.

“Do I look pretty?” she asked as she turned to face him, because he couldn’t have known what they would look like once they were on her.

“Always,” he said, and she blushed. “You accept them?”

“Of course!” she said, looking down at the bracelets again. “Were these… expensive?” He cocked his head to the side, and she tried to think of a better word to use. She didn’t actually know if he understood the concept of expensive. If he understood currency, for that matter. If they had fish capitalism where he was from. “Were they hard to get?”

“Yes.” The tilt of his head and the roll of his shoulders suggested that this was a point of pride, that he was almost offended that she might have thought otherwise.

“Is that… how you got this?” She touched his cheek to indicate the angry slash along his skin.

He shook his head. “This was a mistake,” he said, though that still didn’t tell her as much as she wanted about what had happened to him. It looked too clean to have been an animal, but he didn’t seem like the type to accidentally cut himself. He tapped one of her bracelets. “These are not for mistakes.”

She looked down at them again, trying to parse his words to better understand the meaning behind them. It was hard, when there was so much context she didn’t have and he wouldn’t give her. “What are they for?”

Drago took his time considering the question, mulling it over. She couldn’t tell if he was even going to answer. Then he grinned, all sharp teeth and satisfaction. “The best.”

“And you’re the best?”

He didn’t hesitate this time. “Always.”

Previous Chapter Tip the Author Next Chapter

Shine: Chapter Twelve

Previous Chapter Table of Contents Next Chapter

Drago was not at the pier in the morning. That wasn’t unusual; sometimes she didn’t see him until later in the day. Maybe he was out fishing, or… doing whatever else it was that he did, when he was not with her. Expecting his entire life to revolve around her would be selfish.

It let her get a lot of work done, which she couldn’t complain about. The internet was slow, but it worked well enough. She found herself thinking that it might be preferable for Drago to always be busy in the morning; it did wonders for her productivity. If she kept this up, she’d be able to pay off her parents in… thirty years. A mere thirty years.

Fantastic.

Emily ate lunch sitting on the pier, but Drago was nowhere to be found. Which was still, she assured herself, fine. Who knew what kinds of errands he’d been ignoring in order to spend time with her? Maybe he’d let himself get behind. She understood the feeling. He was probably just taking care of the merman equivalent of spring cleaning. Maybe he was starting some kind of farm. A coral farm. He was giving up his hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of a personal agricultural revolution.

It was not until she was watching the sun set over the ocean that Emily admitted to herself that it might not be fine. It was less than fine. It may even, if she was honest, have been a problem.

It wasn’t as if Emily had never found herself bereft of a boyfriend once the man in question got what he wanted. It happened more often than she’d like to admit. But… that was after sex. Tab-A-into-Slot-B style sex.

Maybe Slot C. Once or twice.

The idea that a merman had been using her for slightly-confused handjobs made no sense whatsoever.

And if he was, wouldn’t he want more of them? At least?

She wouldn’t be happy about that, but she’d be willing to settle for it. Probably.

She considered trying to swim out to the little boat that seemed to be his home. She had all her equipment ready still. Except that it was dark, and her sense of direction was awful, and what if she got lost and even Drago couldn’t find her?

Sofia would spend the rest of her life trying to find a mysterious Italian sailor in order to enact her vengeance.

Emily shut her eyes, and tried to focus on her breathing.

Calm. She had to project calm. She had to be calm. She’d gone a day without coming to see him before, hadn’t she? It was unfair to expect that he’d never do the same. She was just being unreasonable. She was just being impatient. She was expecting too much, too soon. She didn’t want to be clingy. She didn’t want to be controlling. He’d come back when he came back, and he wouldn’t owe her an explanation when he did.

She opened her eyes. The ocean was still dark, still empty.

She didn’t feel better.

⚓⚓⚓

Thursday, in keeping with the tradition of Thursdays, was the worst day of Emily’s entire life.

Not just because she still had not seen the slightest sign of her boyfriend, who she could not contact and in whose absence she was languishing. Though that was, all on its own, awful. How had any relationship survived before the invention of cell phones? Of any phone? Of the telegram, at least? Emily could never have been a pioneer’s wife, dependent upon letters from the frontier. He’d get two days out in his covered wagon, and Emily would convince herself that they’d never been married at all. He was never going to send back for her. She would be alone, forever, with their thirteen consumptive pox-ridden children.

Not having thirteen consumptive pox-ridden children did not count as a silver lining.

No, what made Thursday truly awful was what she saw instead of her boyfriend during one of her many longing glances out the window.

Blonde. Blindingly, brilliantly blonde. Expertly tousled, impossibly perfect blonde.

Like any sensible person, she responded to this sight by crawling under her covers to pretend she wasn’t home.

He knocked anyway. He continued, undeterred, to knock. He knocked so often that she wondered how he hadn’t hurt his hand yet. She hoped he’d hurt his hand. She hoped he knocked his stupid knuckles raw.

“Emily!” he called, and she tried cover her ears with a pillow. It looked suspiciously like she was trying to smother herself. “I know you’re here, Emily! You left your purse in your car!”

Hell. Why couldn’t he have just driven off the pier? That was practically what the pier was for.

“Don’t be childish, Emily! I’ll only come back tomorrow!”

God. What a persistent asshole.

“How did you find my house, Robbie?” she shouted instead of making any motion toward the door.

“Your parents bought this property from the state! It’s public record!”

God. What a creep. She considered telling him that he was being creepy, but discarded the thought almost immediately. There wasn’t any point. Her life would never be long enough to make time for that argument.

“Would you please come down here so I can stop yelling?”

With a huff, Emily tossed her covers aside. She made no effort to fix the state of dishevelment she’d fallen into trying to avoid this, and stomped rather than walked down the stairs.

When she opened the door, it was only the smallest crack, not bothering to unlatch the chain lock. “What do you want, Robbie?”

“Were you sleeping?” he asked, looking perky as ever, all blue-eyed and chin-dimpled, frowning as he looked at the state of her hair.

“No,” she snapped, resisting the self-conscious temptation to smooth her hair down. She didn’t care if her hair was messed up. She didn’t care what she looked like. If he hadn’t shown up at her house like a creep, she wouldn’t have had to hide in bed.

“I don’t know why you’re lying when you clearly have bedhead.”

God. This was the worst part, in a situation made of nothing but bad parts. She could be completely and totally honest, and it still wasn’t good enough for him. Even now, even after she’d already dumped him, he still showed up to pass judgment on her.

“Fine. You caught me. Happy now? Go away.” She tried to shut the door, but he caught it and held it open; she recoiled from his hand and all but hissed.

Lord knew how he’d react if she had. Drago was clearly a bad influence. It would serve Robbie right if she slammed his hand in the door.

“Why are you trying to turn this into a fight?” he asked, sounding genuinely baffled and faintly hurt. Those puppy-dog eyes weren’t fooling her, though. They’d done this song and dance too many times before.

“Why are you here?” she countered, rather than try to dispute his characterization of her.

“I wanted to make sure you were okay,” he said, running a hand through his hair, leaving it just as perfect as it had been before. “I was worried about you.”

What?” If he expected her to be touched by this gesture, he was very, very wrong. “We’re not together anymore, Robbie. You don’t get to worry about me, and you don’t get to check up on me.”

“And you don’t get to tell me what to do,” he finished, and of course he’d try to make her sound like the unreasonable one. “You can’t make me stop caring about you, Emily.”

“I don’t care if you care about me,” she said. “Just care about me from a distance instead of acting like a stalker.”

“That’s unfair and you know it,” he said, planting his hands on his hips in irritation. “I’m not hiding in your bushes, I’m not following you around—stopping by your house to check on you hardly makes me a serial killer.”

She never said serial killer. And hiding in the bushes was not a necessary aspect of stalking. She kept those arguments to herself, tempting though it was to point out that he was being disingenuous.

Calm. Deep breaths. She needed to radiate calm.

“I’m fine,” she said, “as you can see. In the future, just assume that I’m fine. Okay?”

“You don’t look fine to me,” he said, utterly destroying her calm. “You look like a mess. You moved into a lighthouse and you’re dating some kind of violent foreigner, none of that seems fine.”

What?” The longer the conversation went on, the more awkward it felt to have the door still mostly-closed, view impeded by the door chain. But she wanted it to be awkward, because the alternative was falling into a familiar extended conversation about her ex-boyfriend’s opinions about her life. “He’s not—my boyfriend is none of your business. How do you even know about him?”

She was fairly certain she’d blocked him on everything. Her friends had at the very least unfriended him.

“Gus keeps all his posts public.”

“You’re creeping Gus’s newsfeed to keep tabs on me?” she asked, incredulous. He had to realize how creepy that was. Right?

“No,” he said, “I check his newsfeed to see what he’s posted. He’s a funny guy. He posts interesting links. It’s not my fault if he posts publicly about what you apparently consider to be private business. And I don’t appreciate you trying to turn everything I do in some kind of evidence that I’m a bad person. It doesn’t make me a bad person to want to be sure you’re safe.”

Calm. Radiating calm. The calmest.

“I moved into a home of my own,” she said, words carefully measured. “I have a new boyfriend, and he’s very nice. Just because I didn’t take the time to dress up when I didn’t know you’d be coming over doesn’t mean I’m a mess. And I don’t appreciate that you won’t listen to me when I ask you to leave.”

There. Completely reasonable. Reasonable, and calm.

Robbie sighed. He looked convincingly contrite. “I’m sorry,” he said, and even though she was sure he meant it she was equally sure that he wasn’t. Not really. “I just worry about you,” he said, as if it was any better of an explanation than when he’d said it before. “It’s just hard to believe you when you say that you’re fine, you know?”

And the calm was once again ruined. “I don’t know,” she bristled.

“It’s not an insult, you just—”

“Robbie,” she interrupted. “Just shut up before you say something stupid, okay?” He opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off. “You think I’m a liar. I get it. You think I’m a lying liar who lies, so you stick your nose all up in my business, and that’s why I dumped you. And even though I dumped you, you still find out where I live to show up at my house and tell me I’m a liar, again. But I dumped you, and I got a new boyfriend who actually trusts me, and you don’t get to try and ruin that just because you don’t like taking no for an answer.”

His eternally placid expression had slowly given way to something stormier, scowling in a way that made him look on the verge of a tantrum. He jabbed a finger toward her, and if it had gone a little farther she might have slammed it in the door. “You dumped me,” he said, “because I’m the only person who calls you on your bullshit, and you don’t want to grow up. You want to do freelance jobs and let your parents buy you weird houses and date scumbags who make you look like you have your shit together by comparison.” He straightened, running his hand through his hair, fixing the line of his shirt.

“I’m going inside, Robbie,” she told him quietly. “Please don’t come back here again.”

“I still love you,” he said, and the statement made her stomach twist where it used to make her heart skip. “I know what you’re like, and I know all your problems, and I still love you,” he said, louder as she closed the door on him and locked it.

“One of these days you’re going to realize that!” he called through the door.

Emily didn’t go back upstairs until she heard his car pull away.

Previous Chapter Tip the Author Next Chapter

Shine: Chapter Eleven

Previous Chapter Table of Contents Next Chapter

“Thanks for staying last night,” Emily said, toes digging into the sand. She hadn’t gone in the water, but she wore her bikini anyway as a precautionary measure. They didn’t really have a beach, not enough sand and not enough room, but there were sandy areas beneath the rocks that sometimes sufficed at low tide. It was enough for Drago to sprawl out, anyway, and it reminded her of a cat sunning himself. Or maybe he was just enjoying no longer being trapped in the cramped bathtub.

It really was a very large bathtub. He was just larger, was all.

“I like you,” he said, as if that fact spoke for itself. He’d been very understanding about the whole thing, even though she knew she could be a handful when she was drunk.

“I like you, too,” she said, and he smiled. He was resting on his stomach, arms curled beneath his head, giving her a spectacular view of his back. And his back was spectacular. Slowly she inched closer to him, adjusting her legs to kneel beside him; he watched her lazily, unmoving except for the idle sway of the fin at the end of his tail. “Can I?” she asked, hands hesitating as they hovered above his skin. He hummed an affirmation, and she ran her fingers over a stripe along his ribs. He continued to hum, and she narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “What are you saying?”

So like a cat, but his grin was wolfish, full of shark’s teeth. “Hard to translate,” he said, and she was not sure that she believed him.

“Was it something nice?” she pressed, hands sliding higher to feel the edges of his shoulderblades and the valley of his spine. Touching him in earnest made her realize that his skin was not as rough here as she’d expected; she hadn’t noticed that, before. Not like his forearms, not like his scales.

I think so,” he said, which was both reassuring and intriguing. Her hands slid lower, to the transitory space between skin and scales. He moved without urgency to rise on his arms, prop his head on a hand so that he could see her better. He flared out the fin and the spines along the back of his tail, and she blinked in surprise.

“Goodness,” she said, letting her hands leave him briefly before tentatively touching one of his spines. Large, like the rest of him, and even if she splayed out her fingers they could not come near to spanning the length or the width of it. “You can feel it?” she asked, because she really couldn’t tell. The spines seemed like bone and the fins were so thin that she could not imagine where he hid things like blood and nerve endings. He hummed another affirmation, something soft in his expression as he watched her examination of him. “Does it feel good?”

“It does not hurt,” he said noncommittally. Which, she supposed, meant it also didn’t feel particularly nice. Nerve endings, but maybe not many. She ran her hand along his scales, instead, and he gave a sudden noisy purr that almost startled her.

“Good?” she teased, well aware of the answer.

“Maybe a little,” he said, as if he were not even then rumbling faintly. She ran her hands lower and then higher, harder and then gentler, trying to pinpoint what made him purr the loudest. She wondered what it must feel like to have scales, if they felt numb or sensitive or itchy. She rolled her fingers firm along the scales beside his fin, and he did not just purr but shivered. When she let him go he rolled sideways, took her by the wrist to pull her closer. She giggled as she kissed him, delighted by the thought that she could drive him even half as crazy as he drove her. She laced her fingers with his, and that always pleased him, made him kiss her more fiercely as her palm pressed to his.

Her other hand ran along his chest, down along his musculature until she could feel scales again. His mouth left hers, fingers untangled as he reached suddenly for the hand that wandered. “Ah—no.” He said it more like a warning than a request, gently trying to coax her hand away.

“No?” Her brow furrowed in confusion, though she didn’t try to touch him without his permission. “Would I hurt you?”

The sound he made was neither a rumble nor a purr, and she couldn’t quite place it. “Not—not hurt, no,” he said, a faint flush darkening the skin around his stripes.

… huh.

She looked down between them, pulling away to see him better. Now that she was looking—really looking, no longer embarrassed to be caught—she could see the faint line through his scales, an easily overlooked seam. It was not as high as she might have expected, nearer to the middle of his lap, but she still did not think she was mistaking what it was.

Did that mean he was actually…?

Her eyes met his again, her hands hovering between them. “Can I?” she asked again, and though he hesitated he took his hands away. This time both her hands slid lower, brushed her fingertips gently along the edge. His fingers dug into the sand as his fins flared outward, his purr a loud and rolling thing. She felt emboldened enough to try stroking him outright, but pulled her hands away when it… moved.

“Oh. Oh! So that’s where your—oh.”

Drago definitely had a penis. That was definitely, unmistakably what that was. Even if it was a bit on the blue side. And the… stripey. Spirally. Ribbed. Side.

There were a lot of very large sides and there was a lot going on with all of them.

She reached out to touch him, as gentle as she could, scared to hurt him. She didn’t know why she was so worried that she would, except that the way it jutted out between the opening in his scales made it look so much more an organ. Something delicate, something dark.

“Emily,” he said, his voice a low growl, and she watched his face as her fingers wrapped around the length. He was watching her in turn, his eyes wide and his face flushed.

“Good?” she asked.

He opened his mouth, but the sounds that emerged the first time were not ones that she could understand, low guttural sounds. “Good,” he managed finally. Her grip tightened, and he thrust into her fingers with a growl. The ridged shape of him felt strange against her palm as she stroked him. When her hand slid down to the base of it, pressed against his scales, his entire body seemed to roll. His spine arched, hips bucked, tail curled.

“Oh, you really like that,” she said, unable to help the way she grinned. The way he moved had hair tumbling over his shoulders, and his every gasp for air was a purr, thrumming beneath her fingers. “You’re kind of at my mercy, huh?”

Again he struggled to say something that she would understand, sharp points of his teeth visible as his jaw worked. Her hand did not stop moving, and soon enough he’d given up, humming instead of grasping for words that did not come naturally to him. She remembered the way he’d touched her beneath the pier, gentle and persistent and demanding nothing. That was what she wanted to do for him, wanted to make him feel the way she’d felt. She wanted…

Well. It was one thing for an attractive man to tell her she was pretty. It was another to have him saying her name with his cock in her hand.

Emily moved lower so that she could straddle his tail, ignoring the discomfort of sand sticking to her knees. She had not let him go, but he seemed to have a moment of brief concern as she settled herself. The fins at his hips, she recalled, made straddling him a tricky business. “Don’t worry,” she said, as gently as she could. “I’ll be careful.”

He didn’t seem to have the focus necessary to protest, so he fell back, hair falling in curls against the sand as his chest rose and fell. She wondered if anyone else had touched him this way, other women beneath the sea. Or other anyone. Or just himself.

She didn’t think she was ready to go asking him about his masturbatory habits just yet, outdoor handjobs or no.

Her grip loosened, lightly stroking along the strange ridges with her fingertips, exploratory. It was sort of fascinating, how similar it was to anatomy she recognized while still being entirely distinct. Delicate stripes were darker near the base, grew lighter until they disappeared in the upward spiral of it. She ran her thumb over the head, and he hummed something that sounded oddly familiar in its tone. It reminded her, she realized, of cursing.

Maybe cursing sounded completely different in his language. She had a hunch it didn’t.

“I hope you’re saying nice things about me,” she said, a note of warning as her fingers wrapped around him again.

“Always,” he managed eventually, between groans and rumbling purrs of pleasure. His voice was strained in both languages, and she liked the way that it sounded.

Experimentally she leaned a little lower, a little closer. Her knees dug into the sand on either side of him, her breasts nearly touching his scales, and after a moment of deliberation she ventured a long and langourous lick.

He tasted… like skin, mostly. Skin, and the sea, saltwater and slick. She did not think it was a particularly deft or skillful maneuver, since she was just testing the waters, but Drago’s body rolled as he growled and the force of his rumbling had him practically vibrating in her hand. He rose up on his elbows again to look at her, his expression mingling incredulity and awe and desire. So she did it again, bottom to top with her tongue flat and wide, and she watched his face while she did it. He watched her in turn, an intensity in his gaze; his humming and even his purring had stopped, like he was holding his breath.

Emily couldn’t recall a single boyfriend who’d ever looked at her like that. Not even in high school, secret virgins feigning experience they did not have. Drago was guileless, free with his affections and his awe.

She thought that she might kind of love him for it.

Her lips wrapped around his shaft, slid lower as she sucked. His purring resumed full-force, growling and humming and thrumming as his claws dug into the sand, cock twitched and tail rocked. He was trying not to thrust, and it probably did not even occur to him that it might ever be acceptable to thrust into his lover’s mouth. His tail nonetheless curled up beneath her, scales sliding between her legs, and involuntarily she ground against the contact.

Until that moment, she hadn’t realized how aroused it had made her to touch him this way, to see him like this. She simply hadn’t thought of herself as that kind of person, if she thought about it at all. But the pressure of hard muscle between her legs was electric, shot straight through her and made her realize that she was enjoying herself.

She slid her mouth from his skin just long enough to speak, hand still wrapped around him. “I wish I could understand you,” she sighed, pouting shamelessly before she resumed her ministrations. His tail stayed curled, and she continued to grind against it; it really didn’t seem like it should have been as effective as it was. She knew better than to think that she could fit the whole of him in her mouth, so she kept her hand around him to follow the motion of her lips instead.

“You are amazing,” he translated, with no small amount of effort. It was her turn to hum happily, though she was not convinced that he could feel it in the grand scheme of things. Or that he could even hear her, when he was so noisy all on his own. “Beautiful,” he said, and she would have smiled if her mouth weren’t full. “Lovely, wonderful Emily.”

She couldn’t help it: the hand not on his cock slid between her legs, beneath fabric to press fingers more firmly against her clit. The friction of her lips against the ridges of his cock felt strange and yet satisfying, and arousal let her take him to the back of her throat, a sea of sensation suppressing her gag reflex.

She’d been so determined to watch him, to drink in every detail of his response to her touch. All that was forgotten in the face of her own pleasure, overwhelmed by everything that he was. Scales against her skin, muscles and sand, rolling drums of sound that filled her ears and that she could feel against her her tongue. His every unconscious motion seemed to ripple through her, aware of everything and wanting more.

Her mouth left him as her back arched away from him, the sudden tension of imminent climax, toes curling in sand and her mouth wide as she gasped for air. Her hand’s grip on his cock tightened, and much to her surprise he came alongside her. Or, rather. On her. She flinched even as fireworks shot from her brain to her nerve endings.

“Sorry,” he croaked, and she giggled at his chagrin, cracking one eye open but leaving the other shut as a precaution.

“Don’t be sorry,” she said, releasing him to try and wipe as much of the stickiness as she could from her skin. She opened both eyes carefully, eyelashes fluttering as she tested that nothing had gotten anywhere that it shouldn’t. Her fingers were a mess of white pearlescence, and without thinking she licked at it.

Yup. That sure was semen.

She didn’t know what she’d been expecting, honestly. Candy-flavored ejaculate seemed like it would be gilding the ribbed-for-her-pleasure lily.

Emily.” He sounded so scandalized that she started laughing again, then met his gaze quite deliberately when she did it again.

“You don’t like it?” she asked, feigning innocence.

He sighed, running a hand through his hair. His cock was receding back into his body, to disappear behind muscle and scale. “You are strange,” he said finally, and she laughed again.

“What! You don’t get to call me weird now, that’s rude.”

“I like you. And I like strange.”

“Hmm.” She looked down at herself, feeling stickier and messier than she actually was. She looked out past the sand. “Would it be weird to wash this off in the water? Or would that be gross?”

Drago raised an eyebrow. “That is where it usually goes,” he shrugged.

“Ew!” Emily made a face. “Drago! That’s not—people swim in there! You can’t just be jizzing into the sea, that’s terrible.” He sat upright then so that he could kiss her, no concern at all for what a mess she may have been. Then he grinned.

“Who will tell the whales?”

Previous Chapter Tip the Author Next Chapter

Shine: Chapter Ten

Previous Chapter Table of Contents Next Chapter

“I hate you so much right now.”

“What!” Emily froze with her bottle halfway to her mouth. “What did I do?”

Gus snorted. “I like how you’re not even trying to protest. You just accept that you fucked up, somehow.”

“Look at this fucking place,” Sofia said, spreading her arms and spinning around slowly. “You are so spoiled. Did you pay for any of this?”

Emily sipped at her beer to hide her embarrassment. “It was a loan,” she protested. “I’m going to pay them back.”

“Pay back your no interest, no collateral loan with no due date?” Sofia reminded her.

“Okay, you’re saying that like it makes me special, but, like—my parents would totally loan you money if you asked.”

“Enough money to buy and renovate some weird old abandoned barn or whatever?” Sofia asked, but she did not even wait for an answer to her question. “Shit, they totally would.”

“First national bank of O’Malley,” Gus suggested from where he was sitting on the counter. There were perfectly good chairs in Emily’s new kitchen, but Gus did not respect the opinions of furniture on how it was to be used. Emily was standing so as to avoid taking up valuable sitting space, even though the only person actually using a chair was Alex.

“It’s not like they’re rich,” Emily said.

“They’re pretty much rich,” Gus countered. “That’s why you don’t get housewarming gifts.”

I brought housewarming gifts,” Alex reminded them, holding up a beer bottle to remind them of their largess. “You’re all just rude.”

“This house is rude,” Sofia said. “I liked my apartment, and then I came over here, and now my place looks like a hovel. I live in a dumpster. I am swimming in garbage.”

“Your apartment is way nicer than this!” Emily said.

“Want to trade?” Sofia suggested immediately.

“No,” Emily said, almost before Sofia had finished speaking.

“Your apartment’s too far inland,” Alex said. “She’s got to be by the shore, so she can keep watch for Mantonio.”

Emily choked on her beer. “What?” she demanded, her face reddening as her friends laughed.

Mantonio,” Gus repeated, adopting an accent that sounded like the font on the cover of a romance novel.

“I don’t—what?” she demanded again.

“The Italian sailor that Sofia thinks is going to give you herpes,” Alex clarified.

Emily buried her face in her hands, nearly spilling pricey local lager on the new hardwood. “What did you tell them?”

“That you’re dating an Italian sailor and he’s going to give you herpes,” Sofia said.

“He is not,” Emily said, distraught and muffled by her hands.

“Also you’re being really mysterious about him,” Sofia added, “which means he’s probably awful and you know it.”

“He’s wonderful and his name is not…”

Mantonio,” Gus supplied helpfully.

“So what is his name?” asked Alex.

Emily hesitated.

“She won’t tell us,” Sofia said, “because then we’ll look him up and find out he’s a married ex-con.”

“He is not!” Emily insisted, which she knew her friends would not believe. Drago had seemed like such a good name when she’d picked it out, but actually having to tell it to other people revealed that was a bit… much.

“If you don’t give us a name we’re just going to keep calling him Mantonio,” Alex pointed out, which felt like blackmail.

“Ray,” Emily decided. “You can call him Ray.” That kind of worked, didn’t it? Ray could be short for Drago. It wasn’t even a lie.

“What kind of long-haired Italian sailor is named Ray?” Gus asked, making a face.

My kind,” Emily said, oddly defensive considering that only one of those words could accurately be said to describe the man with whom she was smitten.

“And how did you meet him?” Sofia prodded. Emily shifted uncomfortably where she stood, taking another sip of her beer as her friends waited.

“It was the day you didn’t want to go to the beach with me,” she said finally.

Sofia frowned. “Wasn’t there a storm that day?”

“You didn’t actually go to the beach, did you?” asked Alex, faintly concerned.

“Of course I did!” she said. “It was a beautiful day. Once… once the storm was over.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t drown,” Gus said, and immediately Sofia’s eyes widened at the look on Emily’s face.

“You almost drowned, didn’t you?” Sofia accused, pointing her beer at her. “You got swept out to sea and an Italian sailor caught you in his nets. Oh, honey.”

“That is the most Emily thing I have ever heard in my whole life,” Gus said with a shake of his head.

“There were no nets!” Emily protested.

“But you were rescued by a hunky Italian,” Alex said. Emily said nothing, tilting her head back to down the rest of her bottle.

“Does he have any traits besides hunky Italian?” Sofia asked.

“With long hair,” Gus reminded her.

“And who saved her life,” Alex added.

“More beer please,” Emily said, holding her empty bottle out toward Gus. He shook his head, but nonetheless opened a new bottle to hand her, trading it out for the old one. “He’s. Um. He really likes sushi.” Sort of. “He likes to sing.”

“A musician,” Gus said, exchanging a knowing look with Sofia.

“Not professionally!” Emily interrupted, which seemed like an important distinction. “He just likes to sing. And he’s an amateur astronomer.” She was quickly running out of things to say that were not ‘he is a merman’. Her mind grasped for more facts. He had cool armor and some kind of… spear? Thing? That might be hard to explain. Did using a spear count as a martial art? That was sort of like a martial art. Did she know any martial arts? “He’s into UFC!” she blurted, before faltering. “Or… whatever the… the thing. Is.”

Even Alex’s eyebrows shot up. “He’s into mixed martial arts?” they asked, incredulous.

“I think?” Maybe she should have picked something else. “He’s hard to understand, sometimes.”

“Oh my god.” Gus buried his face in his hands as Sofia tossed back her drink. “How huge is he?”

“Well, he’s… I guess he’s… uh.”

“He’s enormous,” Alex said, having apparently interpreted the shade of red her face was turning.

“You finally dump Robbie,” Sofia said, setting down her now-empty bottle, “and we let you out of our sight for one day, and you’re dating a stargazing musical Italian sailor who’s into cagefighting and rescuing women.”

When she put it like that, it sounded kind of ridiculous. Not compared to literal merman, but. Still.

“Are we going to get to meet this guy?” Gus asked.

“He’s at sea most of the time,” Emily said.

“Emily. Emily.” Sofia approached her until their faces almost touched, taking her face in her hands. “Emily. Honey. Please don’t get murdered.”

Emily tried to take Sofia’s hands in comfort, but one of them still held a beer. She had to settle for clasping one wrist, instead, Sofia’s hands still on her face. “I’m not going to get murdered,” she said, trying to sound serious and solemn but sounding at least a little dismissive instead.

“Emily. Don’t. Don’t get murdered.”

“I’m not going to get murdered.”

“You’re living all alone in a lighthouse and dating a mysterious sailor. If you get murdered…”

“I’m not going to get murdered.”

“… the cops are gonna be like… what the fuck. Why did you think that was normal. And we’re gonna be like. She said he was hot.”

“She never actually said he was hot,” Gus pointed out.

“I feel like it’s a safe assumption,” Alex said.

“He’s really hot,” Emily assured the room, as if this was any assurance at all.

“Okay,” Sofia said, finally releasing Emily’s face to put her hands on her shoulders, “but, like. Think really hard, okay? Have there been any red flags. Any. Any at all.”

“Perfection counts as a red flag,” Alex said.

“Yes!” Sofia agreed, brown eyes ablaze with intensity. “He needs to have flaws. Real flaws. But not dangerous flaws. Like. Normal flaws. Does he drink milk straight out of the carton? Does he leave the empty toilet paper roll on the holder? Does he want you to call him daddy? Is he paleo?”

Emily did not think that any of those questions applied to Drago. Except maybe paleo, but eating mostly raw fish wasn’t actually a lifestyle choice for him. She couldn’t think of any real flaws, actually. He was sweet. He was hot. He was a merman. The only real problem she’d had with him was…

“I guess I still haven’t seen his dick,” she said thoughtfully.

Sofia released her at the same time as Emily clapped her hand over her mouth, wide-eyed in horror.

Alex was the first to start laughing.

“Oh my god, Emily,” Gus cackled. “That’s not—why is that a flaw!”

“That’s not what I meant!” Emily protested, trying to hide her face. Sofia had bent over with the force of her laughter, and was slowly beginning to tip over onto the floor, a gradual collapse as if she was deflating. “That’s not what I meant to say!”

“What do you think might be wrong with it!” Gus continued, Sofia reduced to silent shaking.

“I think you’ve had too much to drink,” Alex suggested, still snickering. Emily responded to this by opening a cupboard to retrieve one of her few groceries—a very large bottle of very cheap wine.

“I,” she declared, “need to be way more drunk.”

Sofia’s squeaking was barely audible from where she lay curled on the floor. “You’re so thirsty.”

⚓⚓⚓

“Drago!” On her knees at the end of the pier, Emily tried to lean further over the edge, nearly tipping into the water in the process. “Draaaaaaaago. Are you… are you… Draaago.”

She nearly fell into the water again when he emerged right in front of her, and he looked alarmed by the way she wobbled.

“Drago!” she said again, delighted.

“Emily?” he asked, uncertain.

“Here, come…” She patted aggressively at the wood beside her. “Come up here, I wanna… I wanna give you… show you. Show you a thing.” Drago narrowed his eyes, moonlight reflecting off his scales and his irises, circles of light in the darkness. “You’re so… wow.” She sighed, and finally Drago did as she had asked, pulling himself up onto the pier.

“Are you okay?” he asked, which was probably justified.

“Here,” she said, and she stood abruptly, wobbled and nearly tipped over again. Drago held out his hands as if to catch her or steady her, and his concern made her smile. “I brought—look what I brought!”

What she had brought was a desk chair. She had dragged it downstairs and wheeled it along the ground and to the end of the pier, and her difficulty in doing so when the chair was empty did not occur to her at all as a problem.

“Yes?” he said, both an affirmation and a question, looking from the furniture to Emily and back.

“Sit!” she said, patting the seat of the chair. When he made no move to do so, she spun it and then sat down. She did it a little too hard, and so the chair rolled back a foot before she leaned forward to catch herself. “Like this!” she said, before standing. She rolled the chair closer to him. “Sit,” she said again.

He pushed tentatively at the chair, but Emily held it still this time so that it did not roll away. He looked to her again, and when he finally pulled himself up into the faux-leather it seemed a gesture of great trust. He sat, twisting awkwardly to try and fit himself to the seat, his tail trailing down past the wheels and over the edge of the pier.

“Oh, no,” she sighed, “that won’t work at all.” She pulled the chair further away from the water and spun it around, reaching down to try and pick up the lower end of his tail. “All of you needs to be in the chair!” Her hands slid over his scales as they moved, and that they ended up where she wanted was mostly due to his own curling of it. He wound up sitting half-sideways, draped and coiled like a snake, and there was a distinct reddish tinge to his face.

“Are you blushing?” she asked, leaning closer to him and squinting. He leaned away, rubbing at his nose as if that would hide the evidence. “Is it…?” She ran her hands over his tail again, no higher than what she would consider to be his thighs. His fins flared out, and when his fingers dug into the armrests his claws poked holes into the material. “Oh, you like that,” she said breathlessly. “Oh, but—no. No, we’re not doing that yet.”

“Yet?”

“We’re not—I’m giving you a tour!”

“A tour?”

“Of the house!” She spun the chair again so that she was behind it, the better to push it toward land. “I’m gonna… I’m gonna show you my house. The house. Where I live. And my stuff. I wanna… show you. Like you showed me.”

“Are you okay?” he asked again, trying to look at her around the back of the chair. She was struggling to push it along the boards that made up the pier, face flush with both exertion and alcohol.

“You’re so heavy,” she whined. “We need to get you a… a special chair. You can push. Yourself. Like an… electric chair. No, that’s. That’s a different thing. I mean more like a… oh! They already make a thing. What’s the thing?”

“I do not know the thing,” he said carefully, his brow furrowed.

“A wheelchair!” she exclaimed, slamming a hand against the back of the chair and making him jump a little. “A wheelchair,” she said again, more sedate as she resumed their slow trek towards her front door. “Do they…? They make big wheelchairs. Right? For big guys. Like you.”

“You are acting strange,” he said, and she huffed.

She really hadn’t thought it was that obvious, but he seemed very worried.

“I might,” she admitted, “possibly, maybe, be a little bit drunk. Maybe.”

“Drunk,” he repeated, and again she could see him consulting his mental dictionary. “Alcohol?”

“Yeah,” she said, grinning despite herself.

“Explain?”

Maybe the dictionary definition of alcohol wasn’t very useful.

“It’s… um. You drink it, and you have fun? You’re more fun. Kind of. You act silly. You know? And then you’re… you’re drunk.”

He mulled this over as she struggled to make the little wheels of the desk chair roll over gravel. “I think I understand,” he said.

“Do you get drunk?” she asked.

“Maybe?” he said. “There is a fish.”

She giggled. “Like a… a booze fish. A liquor fish. Do you eat it?”

“No,” he said, “just chew.”

“What would happen if you ate it?”

“You would die.”

“Oh.” She frowned. “That’s not very fun. But if I chewed it I’d get drunk?”

“You?” He hesitated. “You might die.”

“I guess I’ll just stick to beer,” she decided. “We’re here!” She threw up her arms in triumph, spinning the chair around as she circled it to open the door. “Now you can see… house. House things. The bottom of the house. The chair won’t… stairs.” She pulled him over the threshold, and he craned his neck to look around them and then upward, all throughout the building.

“Big,” he observed.

“Yes.”

“Bright.”

“Yes.” She’d left all the lights on after her friends had left, mostly because she’d forgotten to turn them off. But now she was glad that she had.

“These are all yours?” he asked, looking over shelves and pictures hanging on the walls.

“Yeah,” she said, “I have a lot of stuff.” Except she didn’t, really. Not compared to most of the people she knew. It was just that Drago had so little. She steered the chair toward the reading nook tucked beneath the stairs, the seat beneath the window that looked out toward the ocean. “You can… you can read books! If you want. If. You come in. Sometimes. Or I can bring them. To you. If you see one you want to read.”

After much deliberation over the shelves, he reached out and picked up a seashell. It was a large cowrie, but it looked smaller in his hand. He used it to gesture to other bits of flotsam on the shelves, pretty shells and bits of polished stone that she’d bought at gift shops. “Who gave you these?” he asked.

“Those? Those… no. I got those.”

“Not gifts?”

“No.”

He nodded, setting the shell gently back where it had been. “I will get you better ones.” She giggled.

“Oh! I was going to—here, this is what I wanted to…” She steered him toward the first floors half-bath, which could have been a proper bathroom if she had not insisted on such an absurd tub.

Any bigger and it would have been a pool.

It took a minute for her to figure out that the chair would not fit with the both of them, and she huffed. “You have to… go. In. In the thing. In the room, and then in the. The tub. If you can?” She should have had more rails put in, clearly. She had not considered navigational factors.

Still, Drago uncurled himself from the chair, stretched out his tail and used it to balance himself on the floor before pulling himself into the tub. His tail trailed out of it, and he did not look like he understood why he was being made to sit in something so uncomfortable.

“Here, see?” Emily kicked the chair out of the way, sliding to somewhere in the middle of the entryway as she joined him in the bathroom. She turned the tap on, and Drago started, blinking at it. “It will—wait, I need to plug it, and—okay, see? This way it’s. More comfortable? Maybe? With water?”

He waited until it had filled a bit more to render his verdict. “Better,” he said, which was not a ringing endorsement.

“I thought…” She gnawed at her lip. “I thought maybe. You could stay with me? Tonight? Just. To try it. If you think you can sleep. In this.”

His eyebrows shot up. “Sleep?” She nodded. “I would sleep in this?” Another nod. “You would sleep with me?”

She giggled nervously. “It was a dumb idea.”

“How would we fit?”

“I thought—I’ll just show you.” She kicked off her shoes, wiggled out of her skirt as she reached beneath her shirt to unhook her bra. Drago cocked his head to the side as he watched her remove it without taking off her top, and if he had questions he did not voice them. The water was still running, the tub not yet full, and she carefully stepped in to join him. Her legs on either side of his tail, she knelt down in the tub, straddled his lap and tipped forward to wrap her arms around his shoulders. “Like this,” she sighed as she rested her head on his shoulder, delighting in his warmth.

“Oh.” Slowly, Drago wrapped his arms around her. “We would sleep like this?”

“If you want,” she said, her lids already feeling heavy. She was drunk. It had been a long and tiring day. The water was soothing, and he was warm.

He kissed her forehead. “I will try,” he decided. She gave the faucet a lazy kick, turning the water off with her foot. “You will not sink?”

“I hope not,” she yawned. She pulled at her hair tie before tossing it aside, raking fingers through her braid. With her eyes shut, she eventually felt Drago rake claws through her hair, points barely touching her scalp. He was humming, and though she didn’t understand what he was saying, it resonated through her body pressed against his.

She dreamt of the sea.

Previous Chapter Tip the Author Next Chapter

Shine: Chapter Nine

Previous Chapter Table of Contents Next Chapter

Radiant brought Coral back beneath the pier, the little shelter so recently rebuilt by the others above. “Don’t worry,” she said as she removed the device from her mouth, “no one else is here.” She slid the protection from her eyes, rubbing at them in their absence. “I gave everyone a day off, kinda. Not that I hired them…” She cleared her throat, and he smiled. “Thank you for showing me that. For showing me… you. It was… I mean… wow.” He smiled broader. “I’ll be right back, okay? Don’t go anywhere.”

He said nothing, because he did not think he needed to. He had enough practice by now to understand her, but he wasn’t confident enough in his grasp of the language to say more than was absolutely necessary. Gratuitous words were opportunities for mistakes he did not want to make.

She waved her fingers at him as she left, and he waved his back. He stayed in the shallow water rather than pulling himself up onto the pier, because he preferred it. It felt less exposed. He was not afraid of monsters, but land still felt unsafe to him. Perhaps, in time, he’d feel differently about it.

He watched her return anxiously, the way her feet navigated rocks and stones, balanced more often than not on only one of her legs. He could barely understand how she managed to stay upright on two of them. It was no wonder she seemed to fall so often, built the way she was.

His anxiety was rewarded when she lost her balance, sliding on a rock slick with saltwater. He pounced forward so that he could break her fall, wrapping his arms around her as she tumbled backward against him. He leaned back to hold her against his chest, looking down to be sure she hadn’t broken anything. Legs, in particular. Those seemed like they would be very easy to break.

“Umm.”

Her voice was not usually pitched that high. He looked at her face, but she was looking downward. He followed her gaze to his hands—or, in particular, the one hand holding her breast, nearly covering entirely the triangle of cloth. Immediately he released her, tried to rearrange the both of them so that she could sit in the water at a safe distance.

“Sorry,” he said, holding up his hands to show that he was not trying to touch her. That was an early rule she’d established, that clothes meant he wasn’t allowed to touch. Her face was turning pink, adjusting the strap that held the garment up, and he felt a vague sense of guilt about it—that he might have made her feel unsafe. He could not quite decipher her expression.

“You can touch me, sometimes,” she said, her voice light and airy, a little bit breathless. Water lapped at her calves and at her thighs. She wasn’t looking at his face, and he wasn’t sure what that meant. He tried to tilt his head into her eyeline to see her better.

“Sometimes?” was the question he settled on. The word was unclear, the context did not tell him when exactly it was that he was allowed to break this rule of hers.

Coral bit her lower lip, square white teeth pressing harmlessly against soft pink skin. It fascinated him to watch her do that.

What did they feel like?

How hard could she bite, before it would hurt?

Bad thoughts.

“On… special occasions?” She said it like a question, clarifying little. Words that he couldn’t decipher in that order, with this context. He raised an eyebrow, and waited, because sometimes it took her time to decide on the words she actually wanted. “You can ask,” she suggested. “I’ll tell you if it’s… um.” Her blush was deepening, face getting redder.

Radiant reached out and crooked a finger under her chin to tilt her face towards him, tired of trying to read her without being able to see her properly. Her flush was the one she sometimes had when he’d kissed her at length, her pupils wide circles of darkness in the paleness of her eyes.

It had taken a while to figure out that she did not purr. He’d just thought she was harder to please than he was.

“Do you want me to touch you?” he asked, and he tried not to sound as pleased by the prospect as he was, how badly he wanted her to want his touch.

He watched the muscles in her throat contract, the way her eyes still tried to avoid his. “Yes,” she said, the barest exhalation, and he purred despite himself, despite her hesitation, fins flaring. His tail moved closer to her, slid beneath her legs along the sand, hips kept at a distance even as he leaned closer to her. Her skin was soft and smooth against his scales, cool compared to his own.

“How?” he pressed, because he did not know how she would want to be touched. She could be picky about it, the way he touched her; he could wrap his arms around her without complaint, and yet sometimes when he touched her stomach she recoiled.

Most of the time when he touched her it was perfunctory, moving her to where he wanted her to be, trying not to think about the way she felt. Easier that way, to simply move people, when they did not listen to him and would not believe it was for their own good.

A bad habit. He shouldn’t have kept doing it with her. But she pushed him away when he overstepped his bounds, and she so rarely pushed him away.

“I… oh.” She made that chirping little fluting noise she made sometimes, which sometimes meant she was amused and sometimes meant she was nervous. He ran his fingertips over the outline of her collarbones, and the small sound she exhaled was new to him. She leaned back as he moved forward, until she was laying out beneath him. “Lower is… lower would be good.”

His fingers trailed lower, brushed along the edge of her clothing. Her hands caught his, and he thought he might have misinterpreted, until she guided him to press his palm to the curve of her breast much like before. His fingers curled, stroked along her skin through the fabric, careful of his claws. “Good?”

Her back arched, pressed against his touch as her hands ran along his forearms. She nodded, and he could not help but catch her mouth in a kiss, wanting to taste her. There was nothing else that tasted like her, soft and warm and oddly sweet. He ran his thumb over the peak that had stiffened against his touch, and though she didn’t purr, the sound she made had him purring loud enough for the both of them.

Her breath shuddered as their mouths separated, her hands returning to those straps at her shoulders. “This is—this—I can’t feel anything through this stupid thing,” she said as she pulled at it, as if he required any explanation. His hand trailed down to her stomach as he watched her, but she hesitated. Then she took a quick breath, pulled the top away from her in one quick motion. Delicate looking skin, impossibly soft, pink peaks pulled tight; even just her top had pressed lines into her flesh, and he traced his fingertip along them. She shivered, and he had learned to love it when she did that, when she trembled and could not seem to decide if she wanted more or less.

“I can touch now?” he asked, and she nodded quickly. He drew a cautious circle around her nipple, and he was immediately rewarded with a trembling mewling sound. He tried kissing the upper curve of her breast, and again her back arched, her fingers tangling in his hair. Her touch against his scalp drew a loud purr from him, and the feeling of it had her nearly pulling at his hair. He ran his tongue over her nipples, but when she arched her back he pulled away, not wanting to risk his teeth against such fragile skin.

She was squirming in the water beneath him, and he leaned back to see her better, the way her hips were shifting against the tail he’d propped beneath her legs.

«I have no idea what I’m doing,» he said, deliberately using the language she did not speak, «but I am very glad it’s working.»

“That’s cheating,” she accused weakly, and she was right.

“Your hands,” he said. “Show me what you want.”

Again she hesitated, and he stroked her hair. Her hand slid between her legs, beneath that last remaining scrap of fabric. She did something to make her back arch, her hips rise and fall.

That was not as informative as he’d been hoping.

Even if it did make him ache to watch her do it, make him want to pin her body against his.

But first he had to figure out what he’d do once he had her there.

He bent down to kiss her, but her mouth sought out his, pressed against his own harder and more fiercely than he ever would. She was not cautious, his lovely Coral, too brave for her own good. “Show me,” he repeated, and she gave a slight nod. Fabric slid away, down her thighs, and he did not expect the orange curls beneath her fingers. She bit her lip again as her knees spread apart, and a low growl of desire escaped him.

That certainly explained her insistence on keeping that area of her body covered.

It explained a lot of things, actually.

He thought of every time she had pressed her knees carefully together, every time she had not wanted to part her thighs, every time she had pulled her skirt lower.

Every time she had wrapped her legs around him to hold him close, every time it had made her blush to do it.

Things might have gone very differently if he’d known this sooner.

Pink, so much of her was pink, soft and small and pink. Her fingers slid along those pink folds, and he watched, fascinated, a quiet growl nigh-constant in his throat. «You’re so small,» he sang, resting a hand on the inside of her thigh. «I don’t want to hurt you, I don’t know how to not hurt you.» His hand moved higher, but he couldn’t use his fingertips the way she used hers, not with his claws the way they were. As her hand moved out of the way, he used the backs of his knuckles instead. He was surprised by how well it worked, grinding her hips against his hand.

“Drago,” she said, and the effect was not quite the same as if she’d been able to sing his name—but close enough, when he knew that she was calling for him.

“Emily,” he said in turn, and the sound of her name made her gasp for air as he touched her. He kissed her, her mouth and then her neck, wanting to feel the way her heart raced for him.

For him, for his touch, enjoying being touched by him as much as he enjoyed touching her. The hand not between her legs found one of hers, went around her wrist before lacing his fingers with hers. Palms pressed together, her hand pinned to the sand beneath the water, her grip on him tightening.

«I could touch you forever,» he sang, «I’ll touch you forever, if you let me. Lovely Coral, brave Coral. I want you to stay here with me, I want to touch you every day, I want to make you sing

He knew she couldn’t understand him, but she moved as if she did. He watched her gaze go distant, head tilting back to expose her throat as her body went taut. Water splashed against her skin, and he held his breath to better hear the way she cried out and gasped for air.

A strange, possessive pride filled him. He’d done that, brought her to climax with nothing more than his touch and a song she didn’t know.

“Drago?” she asked, dazed.

“Yes?” he asked.

“Were you… did you…?” She rose up on shaky arms as he leaned back to give her room, hands leaving her. He licked his fingers curiously, and she nearly fell back again.

Salty-sweet, and he wondered what she’d do if he kissed her there.

“Did you want to…?” She trailed off again, eyes falling to his tail before returning to his face.

“No,” he said, which was not exactly true.

He wanted to.

He wanted very badly.

Those legs of hers spread wide and wrapped around his tail, her hands in his, crying out for him.

He wanted, but there was no easy way to explain that. He didn’t know how it might translate, but in his language, ‘it might not fit’ had connotations.

Still, she looked almost disappointed by his answer. Pensive, maybe. He kissed her forehead. “Should I do it again?” he teased.

Her eyes widened. “Maybe… not… yet?” she stammered, and he laughed as he pulled her closer.

Previous Chapter Tip the Author Next Chapter

Shine: Chapter Eight

Previous Chapter Table of Contents Next Chapter

The Radiant Shimmering Of Sunlight’s Reflection From Beneath The Waves had never been afraid of monsters. That did not mean he was so short on sense as to go seeking them out. Particularly not when he could take a nap, instead.

Not that Radiant was lazy. There just wasn’t that much for him to do, if he wanted to stay close enough to shore to be found. Stinging Coral That Leaves The Reef was going to need to come and find him, the way she had the night before. Hopefully easier, this time, when it was bright enough for her eyes to see.

Radiant had observed them from afar, the people she had brought to shore to help her fix her shelter. There were… a lot of them. It seemed to him. Coral was the smallest of them, and it was no wonder she was bold if those were the kinds of people she spent her time around. They touched easily, sat beside one another and shared meals with words.

He wasn’t jealous, exactly.

It was a good thing he was pretty, or he didn’t think he’d have a whole lot to offer as a mate.

He woke with a lazy exhale, stretching out his arms and his jaw as saltwater cleared stale air from his mouth. He ran his hands through his hair to rub sleepily at his scalp, shake out any knots that the currents might have made. His tail, which had been wrapped around the trunk of a sunken tree to anchor himself, relaxed and unwrapped so that he could drift closer to the surface.

He only barely breached into the air, just enough that he could breathe as he rolled backward and dove back down.

He stopped halfway down to the seabed, catching the sound he now recognized as the device that let Coral breathe like she had gills. He turned in the water to face toward the shore, where she was slowly trying to swim deeper.

She wasn’t a bad swimmer. She just wasn’t built for it. At all. For someone meant to walk, maybe she was a good swimmer. It wasn’t as if he had a great deal of basis for comparison.

He joined her, because it was much faster than waiting for her to meet him. «Hello, lovely.» She did look lovely in the water, her hair bright and her curves curving more than they did above. She stopped the kicking of her legs as he kissed her forehead, trying not to smile too much at the way she looked with her face half-obscured. It made her eyes look strange, covered as they were, but he didn’t want to tease her for it. Better that than that she hurt herself.

… maybe he would still tease her a little. Later.

Radiant raised a thumb at her, tilted it sideways and shook it in a way that he hoped made it clear that he was asking a question. «Are you better now? Does the light help?» He still didn’t entirely understand what had happened the night before, except that she’d been frightened. The darkness and the depth, not built for it at all.

The fact that she’d figured out the word for ‘scared’ without his having to tell her was actually kind of impressive. Of course, it was also the word for ‘aroused’, so.

There’d been some brief confusion.

On his part.

Which was fine.

If disappointing.

But mostly fine.

Coral gave him two very sturdy thumbs toward the surface, which did not always mean that she was actually fine, but which always meant that she was determined.

He turned to offer her his back, tapping his shoulder. «Hold on and I’ll carry you.» He kept his fins flat as she gently wrapped her arms around him, but he waited. «You know we’re not going anywhere until you’ve got your legs secure,» he sang in warning.

It always seemed safer to him for her to hold on that way, so he didn’t know why she was always so hesitant. He liked it, anyway, when she finally made herself comfortable—soft skin pressed against his back, her chin on his shoulder. «Much better.»

The thing sticking out of her mouth made things a little awkward. He liked it better when she could rest her cheek against his skin.

That would just need to be a treat for when they were on the surface.

«I hope you actually like this,» he said, talking more to himself than to her. «I can never tell, with you.» She couldn’t respond, but one of her fingertips followed the shape of a stripe on his shoulder. «Careful,» he warned. «Keep that up and you’re going to give me the wrong idea.»

It was probably a good thing that she couldn’t understand him, in the end.

They came into view of what he’d wanted to show her, the rotting hull of a boat that had fallen to the ground. Her grip around him tightened, and so he stopped. «What’s wrong?» He tried to look at her over his shoulder, shaking a questioning hand at her again. One of the hands around him started to curl in an upward thumb of reassurance, but hesitated. He nudged her limbs to unwrap from him, turning so that he could see her better.

«Coral, lovely, what’s the matter? Can you show me?» He tried to stroke her jaw in a reassuring way, wishing that he could better see her face. It made it easier to understand her when he could see the way she furrowed her eyebrows, the way she smiled. She smiled often, wide and toothy things because her teeth could never be a threat, and the sight of it always pleased him inordinately, the way it never faded when he returned it.

She pointed toward the boat, then fluttered her hand over her chest the way she had the night before—then spread her palms, like a question.

«Is it scary?» he asked, though she wouldn’t be able to understand him to confirm it.

The alternative was that she was asking if they were going to be having sex in there.

He didn’t think she was asking that.

Probably.

The answer was ‘no’ either way, anyway.

Unless she was asking, in which case the answer was…

… still no, because that did not seem safe. For her. For a lot of reasons.

«It’s not scary,» he sang and shaped all at once, shaking his head for her. Still she seemed hesitant, but she reached out to take his arm anyway, nodding. He pressed his forehead to hers in reassurance. «Tell me if you change your mind, and I’ll take you home, okay?»

Radiant pulled her along, and the closer they came to the boat the tighter her grip on his arms became. If she’d had claws, it might have been dangerous. It seemed like she was looking for something, though he did not know what.

It had not occurred to him that the sight of this might be disturbing to Coral, to see something down there that belonged to her people. Would it bother him, to see something of his own people in the air where it did not belong? He lifted his arms so that he could kiss her knuckles, and though she relaxed, it was only slightly.

He opened the door to enter ahead of her, leaving her to follow only if she wanted. His tail trailed behind him, the boat only barely large enough inside to fit him comfortably once he was entirely within it.

The debris that had cluttered it was gone, now, replaced with various sundries that he’d placed inside to amuse himself. He was not a member of any clan, had never bothered trying to establish territory for himself before. It was not a home, not really—but it was a place to leave his things when he was not using them. Which was similar enough, in its way.

Coral poked her head in the door, looking cautiously in various directions. Whatever she was worried she might find, she did not; she came further inside, though she tried not to touch anything. Even with her face half-hidden as it was, he could see the way her eyes widened and eyebrows shot up as they fell on the polearm he’d hooked along some furniture. She pointed to it, and then to him; he laughed.

«Yes, that’s mine,» he sang with a nod. She came closer, her gaze still on the weapon. «Don’t look so nervous! Why would that make you nervous?» She reached out to gently touch one of the gauntlets he’d hung on the wall, then looked back at him. «Here, hand that to me.» He held out a hand in a universal gesture, and after a moment she handed them to him. «Now turn around,» he said, pointing to her and spinning his finger. She turned, but almost immediately tried to look back over her shoulder at him. «No looking!» he warned, covering his eyes briefly to demonstrate.

It was very hard not to get distracted by her legs. And her… not legs. The broad curve above her thighs, round as her hips.

Distracting.

He’d put most of his armor into one of the storage units on the wall, because it was harder to keep those parts from floating away. And the rest of it did not look quite so impressive on the wall.

It was a silly thing to want to show off to her. Rationally speaking, he was aware of that. She would not know what it meant or how he’d earned it, would not be impressed for any of the reasons that it was impressive.

If nothing else, it was pretty. Coral liked pretty.

«You can turn back around,» he called, and she turned slowly, as if giving him the opportunity to change his mind. Her eyes widened again at the sight of him, making a sound that did not carry but which left a stream of bubbles around the device in her mouth. «What do you think?» he asked, even though she could not really answer.

She used her hands to say his name, Radiant, an answer and a call, and his fins flared with an involuntary purr.

Which was not terribly comfortable, when he was wearing his armor.

He didn’t mind settling for pretty, if it made her look at him like that.

Previous Chapter Tip the Author Next Chapter

Shine: Chapter Seven

Previous Chapter Table of Contents Next Chapter

“So… you’re John’s sister?” Ian asked.

Emily had bought Chinese food for the guys now working on her lighthouse. House. House, that was incidentally also a lighthouse. She assumed her brother was paying them in something, but she still felt very awkward about the whole thing. Chinese food helped her feel better about the fact that she was not helping. There were a lot of very burly men running around, but Ian seemed to be the leader. The head burlyman. The alpha beefcake.

Knowing that he probably had some kind of relationship with her brother made this very awkward.

She nodded, because he’d asked right as she took a large bite of lo mein.

“You two don’t really… look alike.” He was trying not ask the obvious question, which was sort of charming.

“He’s my half-brother,” she explained once she’d swallowed.

“Okay, that’s—that makes sense.”

“He’s basically just my brother, though,” she said as she moved the noodles around, digging around bits of onion that she didn’t want. “It’s not, like… a thing. That he’s my half-brother.”

“No, I get that,” Ian said, enjoying his own broccoli beef. “Just, when he asked me if I could do a favor for his sister, I didn’t expect you to be so…”

“White?” she offered, and he snorted.

“I was going to say pale.”

She giggled. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m the awkward O’Malley.”

Ian chuckled. “It’s going to take more than that to out-awkward John.”

“Really?” She was genuinely surprised by this. “I always thought he was… I don’t know. Suave? With guys, I mean.”

The back of the hand he was using to hold chopsticks went to his mouth to smother a laugh. “Oh, god no.” He cupped his hands around his mouth to call towards someone sitting in the back of another truck eating fried rice. “Hey, Jeremy!” he called. “Do you think John is suave?”

Immediately the entire herd of hunks started to laugh.

Emily almost felt bad for her brother.

“Trust me,” Ian said, “you’re not the awkward O’Malley. You’re just the Emily O’Malley.” He frowned. “That’s kind of a tongue twister, isn’t it?”

“That’s Dad’s fault,” she huffed. “He wanted to name Johnny ‘Malcolm.'”

“Have you considered that he might be evil?” Ian suggested.

“Oh, he’s definitely evil. I’m basically half supervillain.”

Ian laughed. “That would explain a lot. He rules the suburbs, John gets the forests, you get the ocean.”

Emily exhaled a half-laugh as she set aside her empty box of noodles. “Dad gets the women, John gets the men, I get the… fish…” She coughed and tried to cover her expression as she trailed off.

“They do always say there’s plenty of fish in the sea,” Ian agreed, oblivious to Emily’s accidental admission.

“Right,” she agreed, unable to help herself. “Hunky fish with rock hard abs.”

“Don’t tell John that,” Ian warned. “You’ll give him ideas.”

“Oh, I wasn’t planning to.”

“I bet the diving around here really is great, though,” Ian said as he discarded his own container, and she was glad to get off the subject of unfairly attractive fish. “Deep, but not too deep—I’ve heard there’s some shipwrecks, too. Have you been?”

“Diving?” she asked for confirmation. “Not really. Not real diving, I mean. I’ve gone out a little, but I don’t really know anything about scuba… stuff.”

“Huh.” Ian looked out to the ocean, and Emily’s gaze followed, fearful despite knowing better that Drago might be visible. He wouldn’t do that, she was sure, but it was still a concern. As far as she knew, she was the only one he’d ever talked to—the only one he’d ever let see him.

And she wasn’t sure she wanted him to see her surrounded by a hunk herd, either.

That might give the wrong impression.

“With water like this, you could probably get away with just a respirator,” Ian said. She blinked. “An… oxygen respirator?” he attempted to clarify, gesturing around his face. Her face remained blank. He sighed, turned and cupped his hands again. “Jeremy! Would you just get over here, please?”

The slightly smaller man, though not by much, slid out of the truck to jog towards them. “What’s up?” he asked, hitching his thumbs in his jeans. He had sweet and sour sauce on his nose, and Emily wasn’t sure if she should say something.

“Do you have your respirator with you?” Ian asked.

“Uh.” Jeremy tilted his head back to think, running a hand over his bare scalp. “The new one’s with my boat, but the old one’s still in my truck, yeah.”

“You wanna let O’Malley borrow it?” Ian asked, nodding his head toward Emily. She was busy trying not to stare at the spot of fluorescent pink on Jeremy’s face.

“Uh.” Jeremy scratched awkwardly at his nose, frowned and looked at the sauce now on his hand. Then he shrugged and licked it off before speaking. “You can have it, if you want,” he told Emily, apparently unembarrassed by this incident. “You’re probably going to want to boil the mouthpiece, but it isn’t gross or anything.”

“You don’t have to do that!” Emily protested. “That’s way too nice!”

“Nah,” Jeremy said with a wave. “It’s not like I need it. John never lets me pay him back, anyway, so I’ll just treat this like it counts.”

It would be nice to be able to swim with Drago—properly, instead of paddling along the surface of the water until he grew impatient and started carrying her.

Not that being able to breathe underwater would make her swim faster. It would just feel a lot less silly to be pulled along underwater. Maybe she could see whatever it was he did while he was down there. For all she knew, he was some kind of merman insurance salesman.

… probably not.

“If you’re sure,” Emily said cautiously.

“It’s settled!” Ian declared, pleased. Then he whistled to get the attention of the rest of the men. “Back to work!” he announced, and his ability to project his voice was frankly impressive. “Let’s hurry up and get this short pier done so the lady has something to take a long walk off of.” He tossed a grin at Emily, and she stuck her tongue out at him, crossing her eyes. “Except you, Jeremy, you show her how to use the respirator. Give her something to do now that she’s out here with the fishes.”

She found herself hoping that Ian really was John’s boyfriend. Or his primary boyfriend, maybe. It would be a shame if her brother broke his heart.

… their family was kind of weird.

⚓⚓⚓

Emily boiled the mouthpiece of the oxygen respirator as she’d been instructed, and a quick trip to the store got her a cheap pair of goggles. And another bikini, while she was at it. Just having the one would get boring, wouldn’t it? The respirator wasn’t too bad, just two small cylinders coming out of either side of the mouthpiece. Certainly less unwieldy than a tank and a facemask. In theory, she could even take it out for short periods. If she needed to, for some reason.

Like kissing.

The goggles, though. She knew she was going to need them to see, but they looked really… dorky. She was not convinced that it was possible to look sexy in diving goggles. Maybe if she looked online, she could find some kind of cat-eye goggles. Big, wrap-around ones. With silver accents. That could be stylish, right?

In the meantime, she was just going to practice diving before Drago returned.

She shouldn’t have been doing this alone. He’d emphasized that repeatedly in her lessons. Lesson. The single attempt at a runthrough Jeremy had given her before pleading with her to attend actual classes. She didn’t know why he was so worried. It wasn’t like she was going to be jumping into the middle of the ocean. She was just swimming out a little—no further than she went with Drago, completely unequipped. If anything, this was safer than usual.

Safe. So safe.

Instead of jumping off the newly-repaired pier, she started out underneath it, toes carefully navigating over the stones in the twilight. Not having to worry that it might collapse on top of her was nice. The first time she submerged herself, she waited as long as she could before trying to breathe, all her instincts fighting against it. It didn’t feel quite the same as breathing air, but it did work—even if she could see herself growing tired of it very quickly.

Swimming a little further, a little deeper, she realized there was going to be a problem: she hadn’t brought a light. Even with the goggles, it was just too dark to see anything. And now that she was out there… alone… in the dark…

… the ocean was kind of scary, wasn’t it?

There were almost certainly no sharks in the water. Or krakens. Or sea monsters. Just some fish.

And one merman.

Definitely just the one merman, and not a lot of other mermen, secretly.

She was starting to feel like she should not have been out swimming alone.

Something grabbed her arm, and her scream nearly knocked the respirator right out of her mouth, an explosion of bubbles rising toward the surface. She pushed it back into her mouth in a panic, trying to get rid of the water that had seeped in so that she could breathe. Drago pressed his forehead to hers, leaving no question that it was him, not when his eyes were right in front of hers.

Was she imagining that they almost seemed to glow?

Trying to calm herself, she made the shape of his name in the water with her hands, almost against his chest. It was hard to recognize the sound he made, when everything sounded different in the water. Between them, he used his hands to say the name he’d given her, though she could hear him singing all the while.

Above the water, it was a hum—but down there it was a song. She could hear it better, the way it traveled through the water, hear the sound that it was supposed to be. She wished she understood it.

Suddenly he tapped a nail against her goggles, and his rumbling laugh was more familiar, sounded even deeper than it did before. Even underwater he was making her blush.

«I no see,» she tried to sign at him, her fingers feeling clumsy, wishing she’d learned more words during their nights together. He made it look so easy, learning how to speak all over again.

She could not understand everything that he signed back, singing all the while, but she thought he was saying that she could see him. Or maybe asking? She hadn’t figured out yet how one was meant to indicate a question.

At a loss, she gave him a thumbs-up.

He smiled, and took her gently by the wrists, moving backward and pulling her along. She let him lead her, her hands around his wrists in turn. Even if she couldn’t see much, she trusted him not to lead her astray. Her eyes were trying to adjust, but it was hard when the goggles themselves made everything seem so blurry, everything around them a haze of shapes.

Despite herself, despite her trust, she found her grip on him tightening.

Drago stopped, and inertia brought her closer to him, bumped her into his chest again as his tail brushed against her legs. His song was gentler as he brushed stray hair from her face, signing things like ‘good’ and ‘safe’ among other things she couldn’t recognize, didn’t remember.

She didn’t know how to sign for what she was feeling, so she just shook her head furiously, fluttered her hand against her sternum. He wrapped his arms around her and began to swim again, but this time in another direction; when they emerged from the water she pulled the respirator from her mouth with a desperate gasp for air.

“Are you okay?” he asked, running his thumb over her cheek, cupping her face in his hand.

“Sorry,” she said, and she slid her goggles into her hair, rubbed at her eyes with the heel of her palm. She told herself that the goggles had been leaking.

“Broken?” he asked, tapping the respirator.

“No, I just…” She tried to breathe deeper, clinging to his arms. When he held her closer she wrapped her legs around his waist, her arms around his shoulders, nuzzled into his hair. She thought that he felt tense before he started to stroke her back with his fingers. “It was just really dark,” she said, feeling silly. “It felt like it just went on forever, and suddenly I just wasn’t sure which way was up or how deep we were and I started thinking about how weird it felt to breathe and then I thought I couldn’t breathe and I thought I was going to suffocate and I just…” She swallowed thickly. “I guess I panicked? I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

“No apologies,” he said. “I was happy. Not careful enough. Your eyes are different.”

“I was being dumb,” she said. “We can try again.”

“No,” he said sternly, and he kissed her shoulder. “We wait for light. I want you to see.” They were moving slowly through the waves, gently enough that she almost didn’t notice it. She leaned back a little to see him better in the moonlight. He’d looked like this when they first met, half in shadow. But he’d looked frightening, then. Strange, a stranger. Now he felt so familiar, like she’d spent years memorizing his face.

Too fast. She was always too fast. She didn’t know how to slow down, how to be careful, how to be any other way. Didn’t know how to stop herself, didn’t know if she wanted to. How could this be anything but real?

It felt real.

As real as falling head-over-heels for a merman could feel.

“I care about you a lot,” she said suddenly, unbidden. It was not the most subtle approach.

He kissed her forehead. “I know.”

Previous Chapter Tip the Author Next Chapter