Shine: Chapter Five

Emily parked further down the narrow road, not trusting herself not to drive into the ocean in the dark. Her bikini was underneath an old dress—not cute, but something she didn’t mind leaving behind for a while.

The night was clear, the moon hanging heavy and the stars brighter than they were in the city. She walked to the end of the pier, looked out at the reflection of the moon on the water. It felt almost unreasonably bright for the hour.

“Hello?” she called out toward the water. The sound of graceful movement, faint splashes of water against skin. Drago emerged from the waves near her feet. His eyes looked darker in the night, stripes on his skin like shadows carved into him. He looked more alien than he did in the light. Scales reflected moonlight in small points like stars.

“Clothes?” he asked, snapping her out of her reverie. She flushed, realizing that she’d been staring.

“I didn’t forget,” she said. She reached behind herself for the zipper, trying not to feel self-conscious. She didn’t know why it was so tempting to ask him to turn around. He’d seen her in her bikini before. There was something different about it, anyway, having him watch her while she took off her dress.

Armor, he’d said. Maybe that would help, thinking about it like that. Taking off her armor, and not… getting more naked. While he watched.

Emily unzipped her dress and took her time pulling it down off her arms, wiggling the waist past her hips, trying to ignore him while she set it on top of a post. She stepped out of her shoes and finally ventured a glance in his direction. It was hard to interpret his expression, with so many shadows in the way. Maybe there was nothing to interpret.

He held out his arms for her. “Am I supposed to jump?” she asked.

“I will catch you,” he said.

She hesitated. “What if I hurt you?”

You hurt me?” he repeated, rumbling.

“I’m heavier than I look!” she warned defensively. “And I kick sometimes. Accidentally. At… bad times…” She trailed off, clearing her throat as he continued to laugh with his arms outstretched.

“I remember,” he said.

“You…? Oh.” Had she kicked him, that first time, when he’d rescued her? It was a marvel he’d helped her at all, then, if she’d been blacked out and flailing. Slowly, she lowered herself to sit on the edge of the wood, inching her way forward. When she finally started to fall, Drago caught her by the hips, lifting her suddenly and without warning above his head. Emily yelped, curling her legs and grasping involuntarily at his wrists.

“Not that heavy,” he said, before lowering her into the water, hands still on her.

“You could have hurt yourself,” she scolded anyway, heart racing, trying to ignore the thrill of being held aloft like she was weightless.

“You did not hurt me,” he assured her, his lips a soft curve as he brushed his thumb along the line of her jaw.

“Good,” she said heatedly, leaning into his touch.

“And I did not hurt you,” he added.

“Of course you didn’t,” she said, trying to figure out what to do with her hands besides touch him. He made it very difficult.

“Of course?” he asked with a raise of his eyebrows.

“You’re… harmless,” she said, awkwardly patting his chest. “Like a puppy.”

“Harmless,” he repeated, and she could not tell if there was irony in the way he grinned, baring sharp shark’s teeth. They’d been drifting away from shore, his tail brushing against her legs and feeling sometimes like he was wrapping it around her before changing his mind. “Explain puppy,” he said.

“Um. A… baby dog?” He waited. “Except you don’t know… hm. A land… seal? No, more like an otter. Otters are in the water, right? They’re the ones with the fur? And they lay on their backs and they keep a favorite rock for smashing things open and hold things on their bellies…”

He was rumbling again, and she could feel the vibrations of it against her skin where they touched. Drago hummed a word, and maybe it was the one he used for the animal in question. “Otter,” he repeated. “You think I am an otter?”

“A baby otter,” she corrected, and he laughed again, pulling her closer and pressing a kiss to her cheek—and then her jaw, her neck, down to her shoulder. He leaned back, in the process pulling her on top of him, his tail trailing behind them and pushing them forward. She found herself straddling his waist, pressing her palms against his chest to steady herself.

Just for balance. It was just the most secure way to arrange herself, was all.

“I am so small and helpless,” he said, and she giggled.

“Maybe not small,” she conceded.

“No?”

“But very helpless,” she insisted. “Luckily, you have me to protect you.” She rolled back her shoulders and puffed out her chest to try and look tough. She then decided that this was the worst possible thing to have done while wearing a bikini and riding a person.

Drago rested his hands on her legs at his sides, fingers curling around the bend in her knees. “I have you?” he asked, his voice as gentle as his smile. Immediately she was blushing again, trying not to look him in the eye—but that just meant that she ended up looking at his chest, which did not solve the blushing problem.

“What did you want to show me?” she asked, trying to change the subject.

“Patience,” he said, patting her leg.

She looked back toward the now-distant shore. “You couldn’t show me patience on land?” she asked. He narrowed his eyes at her, and this time it was her turn to feign wide-eyed innocence.

“No,” he said, and she couldn’t tell if he was answering the question or rejecting it entirely. The water started to get shallow again, an area that was almost-but-not-quite an island. Maybe it had been an island, once. Now it was only shallow water, a few stray boulders peeking out from among the waves. Maybe this was what the lighthouse had been for. They would be easy to miss, even on a clear night like this. Was she imagining the shape of something like a boat under the water?

Hopefully.

Drago looked thoughtfully from a few of the larger rocks to Emily and back. “You need to swim,” he told her.

“O-oh? Okay…” Slowly she slid off of him and into the water, leaving him free to use his arms to pull himself out. His tail curled around her as he moved, as if he did not entirely trust her not to sink like a stone. She’d barely been floating on her own for a minute before he reached down, hand wrapping entirely around one of her forearms to pick her up.

Emily was feeling a lot like a sack of potatoes.

When he’d finished maneuvering the both of them to his satisfaction, she was sitting in his lap—a bit stiffly, not comfortable enough with the situation to relax back against him. It wasn’t a cold night, but the water on her skin from her brief swim gave her a chill.

“See?” he said.

She didn’t, at first. She looked over her shoulder at him, but his eyes were at the sky, and so she followed.

The moon looked enormous. She’d thought that the stars had looked brighter by the lighthouse, but that was nothing compared to this. It was dark enough here that she could see the pale arm of the Milky Way overhead, the depths of color in a cloudless sky that had looked black. She forgot all about her discomfort, leaned back to press her back against his chest and look up.

“It’s beautiful,” she breathed.

Drago’s arms wrapped around her, but didn’t hold her, hands tracing a shape in the air as he hummed. “There are silent words,” he said, “for silent ones.” His hands cupped hers, not quite holding them, encouraging them to make the same curving shape that he had. “Moon,” he said this time instead of humming.

“Moon?” Emily tried to repeat the motion once he’d let her go.

“Much better,” he said, and she bit her lip, equal parts pleased and embarrassed. Pleased at his praise, and embarrassed that it felt so patronizing.

“I’m sorry I can’t sing,” she said, and he made a disapproving clicking sound.

“Do not be sorry,” he said. “Not everyone can. Here—my name.” He arced and twisted his hand again, his fingers splayed and sweeping this time, and she mimicked the gesture. He hummed something unfamiliar, too long to be a single word.

“Was that good?” she asked, trying to look over her shoulder at him again.

“Very good,” he said, and the way he said it made her wonder what it was he’d said when he’d known she couldn’t understand him. “I made one for you,” he said, “like you did for me.” Drago hummed again, and she turned her attention back to his hands, the way he rolled his knuckles and turned his wrists. He repeated both, and she tried to memorize the sound of it, the name he’d chosen for her.

“That means Emily?”

“It means you,” he corrected. “It is… coral?” He gently tugged her braid, his knuckles brushing against her skin. “Like your hair.” Then he pressed a kiss to the top of her head.

“That’s…” Emily swallowed the lump that had made its way into her throat, averting her gaze back to the sky. The beautiful, glorious sky. “That’s so sweet,” she managed finally.

He bent to the side, trying to see her face. “I hurt you?”

“No!” She rubbed vigorously at her eyes with the heels of her hands. “This is happy. These are happy… sad sounds. This is just… I think this is the best date I’ve ever been on.” She giggled.

He returned to his more comfortable position, resting his chin on top of her head. His forearms wound their way around her waist, and she wasn’t quite sure what she should do with her own arms. “Date,” he repeated, and it was like she could hear him looking up the dictionary definition in his mind. “Romantic,” he said, instead of repeating the whole thing. She knew that he knew the definition, but she was never sure when he knew what things meant. Knowing the definition of a dog was very different from knowing about dogs. “You go on many dates?”

Emily giggled again, this time nervous. “Not really?” she said. “Not lately, I mean. If you’re worried about… competition?” It was hard not to sound amused at the thought. Somehow she couldn’t reconcile all of these things into something cohesive, the fact that he was showing her the stars and singing her name and kissing her with surprising enthusiasm. All of those facts in a void, she was able to accept. But trying to arrange them into some kind of cohesive whole, one where he was legitimately vying for her affections—it simply didn’t work.

“Competition is fine,” Drago said, and for a moment she thought he was saying that he didn’t care. It hurt more than she would have thought. Then he nuzzled at her hair. “I will win,” he finished, sounding both serious and certain. She found herself smiling, and her fingers traced the shape of the stripes along his arms, followed them to the spiny fins along the backs of them.

“You sound very sure of yourself,” she pointed out.

“I am big,” he said, and she snorted. “And pretty.” He flared out one of the fins on his arms, and when she put her hand against one side of it she could see it on the other.

“True,” she murmured, gently running a fingertip along one of the spines. He nuzzled suddenly and fiercely against her neck, purring. “And you need me to protect you,” she reminded him, “because you’re so helpless.”

“Yes,” he agreed against her skin, “I need you.” Then he started humming, and it felt a lot like cheating when he did that. She hoped that whatever it was that he was saying was flattering.

“Teach me more words?” she asked, gesturing his name in the air again. Immediately he obliged, guiding her hands and murmuring in her ear.

She wished she could stay there forever. She wished she could take him home.

She wished home felt as much like home as this did.

Shine: Chapter Four

Emily went to the lighthouse every day for a week. She continued to wear prettier things than she should have, but she was better about keeping her distance.

He didn’t ask for a kiss again.

She couldn’t decide if she was disappointed.

Things went much faster when she figured out that he knew what an alphabet was—he carved strange shapes in sand and hummed the songs they spelled. She continued to be completely unable to repeat after him. But she taught him the shapes of letters and the sounds they made, and she brought him a dictionary. And then another dictionary, after the first one was too wet to use, along with a radio meant to be used in the shower.

The more he learned to say, the less he spoke. Or maybe it was just that he figured out how little he actually needed to say, when he could watch and wait and Emily would stumble to fill the silence.

She wasn’t a very good teacher. She knew that she wasn’t. Good teachers did not send people on their way with a basic lesson in phonics and a dictionary. English just wasn’t her specialty. She could speak it, in theory. She had a vague understanding that something existed called a past participle. That was about where her knowledge ended. She didn’t know a whole lot about the ocean, either, except that it was pretty and she liked it. Very few of her skillsets were turning out to be relevant to mermen.

Maybe someday Drago would need her to show him how to perform multiple regression analyses between variable sets with nonlinear relationships. She could explain alpha values. It would be magical.

She missed a day when work got hectic, unable to tear herself away from her computer for the time it would take to make the drive. By the time she thought to wonder if he’d waited for her, it was dark and she was exhausted, and it wasn’t going to do anyone any good if she went driving on the side of a cliff.

She was still very anxious the next time she pulled up to the worn out old lighthouse, as if he’d assume the worst and leave for good.

He wouldn’t, would he?

Things would be so much easier if fish had cell phones.

There was a faint sound from underneath the pier, and she followed it, making her way with care down the rocks that lead to the ocean. “Drago?”

He was sprawled out on his back in the shallow water, resting on the sand and listening to the news. It sounded extremely boring. She couldn’t tell how much of it he understood. He tilted his head back to look at her, and she waved. Still watching her, he turned the radio off, but said nothing.

“I’m glad you like it,” she said, trying not to stare at… him. In general. “The radio, I mean. I wasn’t sure you would.” He stretched out his arms, his tail curling and uncurling, silent except for the water that lapped against his skin. “I’m sorry I didn’t make it yesterday. Here, I mean. Work got crazy and I was just really busy and by the time I had any time I was so tired I just couldn’t do anything.” She spread her arms helplessly, then let them fall to her sides.

His tail twisted as he rolled onto his stomach, a stray lock of hair falling in front of his eyes. He pointed slightly to her left. “I am done with that,” he said. She turned to look, and found that he’d tucked the little dictionary between a boulder and the wood of the pier. Her brow furrowed.

“You’re… done? With the dictionary?” He nodded. She took it down to look at it, the pages wrinkled and curled with water damage. “That isn’t really how dictionaries work.

“No?”

“You keep it,” she explained, “and when you hear a new word, or read one, you can look it up.”

He narrowed his eyes. “I am done with it,” he repeated, slower.

“I know you went through it,” she said, “but you’re not going to remember all of it.” He cocked his head to the side. The little flower dangled over his shoulder. “You might want to look up the things you forget.” He shook his head, and she sighed. “Here,” she said, opening up the book to a random page, “what if you need to know what… compendious means?”

He blinked at her. She would not be swayed. “You want me to tell you what compendious means?” he asked, finally.

When he put it like that, it sounded stupid. “Yes,” she said anyway, lifting her chin and attempting to look authoritative.

“Compendious,” he said. “Adjective. Marked by brief expression of a comprehensive matter. Concise and comprehensive. See also: comprehensive. Adverb: compendiously. Noun: compendiousness. Usage: her compendious knowledge. A compendious summary.”

Emily looked at the dictionary definition, and then at Drago. He waited. “You were… supposed to put it in your own words…” She huffed, shutting the dictionary and putting her fists on her hips. “Did you memorize the dictionary?” she demanded.

He considered the question. “I read the dictionary,” he said.

“That is not how this is supposed to work,” she said, stomping one foot for emphasis. The rock on which she was balanced was slippery, however, and so she very nearly fell over for her trouble, dictionary falling in the water with a splash. She caught herself, but not before Drago had managed to make it to her side, looking perfectly ready to catch her. Her surprise nearly tipped her over again.

It turned out that when he wanted to, he could almost stand. He curled his tail just-so, bent it and balanced, and for a moment she was reminded that he was very large. But only for a moment, and then he sat back in the water, looking wary. Like clumsiness was something she did deliberately to inconvenience him.

“Are you seriously one of those people that can remember everything?” she asked, feeling defeated.

“You cannot?” he asked in return.

“No!” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t even remember what compendious means, and you just told me.” She pursed her lips, somewhere between thoughtfulness and petulance. “Maybe it’s all the omega-3s. I think those are supposed to be good for your brain. Right? And fish have a lot of those.”

He nodded encouragingly, but she was not convinced that he believed that.

She huffed again, crouching down to sit precariously and resting her chin on her knees. There was a chill at the small of her back where her shirt did not quite meet her shorts. “I don’t get you,” she said.

“No?”

“No.” She bit her lip. “The thing is,” she said, “I am awesome. I am smart, and I’m funny, and I’m fashionable, and super cute.” He nodded. “But you don’t even know what clothes are, and humor doesn’t really translate, and you don’t care about knowing how to calculate Pearson’s bivariate correlation coefficient. Which is fair, because neither do I, most of the time. So I guess I just don’t… know why you’re here. When I can’t say a word of your language or hold my breath for longer than a minute or even remember half the words of my own language.”

He leaned a little closer to her. “Why are you here?” he asked.

She snorted. “Because you’re a merman and you’re magical and this is the most interesting thing that has ever happened in my whole life.”

He pulled himself close enough that he could lay out again, resting on his side with his tail curling around her rock, his head propped up on one hand. He gestured with a finger to the stripes along his cheekbones. “You know what these mean?”

She hesitated. “Do those mean something?”

He tapped the fins at his pelvis. “These, do you know what they are?” She turned slightly pink, and shook her head vigorously. He tugged at the slender braid in his hair. “This?”

“I think we have established that there are a lot of things I don’t know,” she said, not feeling even remotely better.

“You did not need to know,” he said, “to come back.”

“Oh.”

“You are not less magical because you make bad jokes.”

“Hey!” Immediately her indignation had him rumbling with laughter. She adjusted her position so that she sat cross-legged, wiggling to try and find a position where stone did not dig into awkward places. “My jokes are great. If you knew what a bagel was, you would have thought it was hilarious.” He shook his head. “You think I’m magical?” He shrugged. “No, no, no takebacks. You said it, basically. You think I’m magical.”

“Hm.” Drago raked a hand through his hair. “Clothes.”

“What?”

“Clothes,” he repeated. “They are armor. Being seen the wrong way hurts you. That is why it is only okay if you take it off. Yes?”

She gnawed at her lower lip. “You’re not… wrong…”

He nodded, apparently taking this as an affirmation of his understanding. “Did I hurt you?” he asked.

“What?” she said again. “Why would—no, of course not.” He nodded again, but she was unsatisfied with this. “When did you think you hurt me?” He tapped a finger against his mouth. “Oh.” She reddened. “That… no. Your teeth aren’t that sharp. I don’t think.” He watched her silently. “I know I maybe haven’t been as hands-on? Since then? I’m not frightened of you, if that’s what you’re worried about.” Still he said nothing. “I just didn’t want you to get the wrong idea. Or I didn’t want to get the wrong idea. Since I don’t really know what that means? Maybe kissing means something different. For… merfolk.”

“Means,” he repeated, halfway to a question.

“Not that it has to mean anything,” she added.

He sat up, and leaned across her lap to press a kiss to her cheek. She shivered, turned her head; once again his mouth caught hers, and this time she leaned into him, wanting more than he gave. He purred the way he had before, but when she caught his lower lip in her teeth he let out a shuddering breath, his hands on her knees to brace himself. The purr grew louder, lower; she felt it down to her toes.

Maybe it meant exactly what she thought it meant.

“Come back tonight,” he said against her lips, and her eyes widened. “Bring your swimming clothes.”

“Bathing suit,” she corrected automatically.

“Bathing suit,” he repeated. “I will show you something.”

“Will there be more kissing?” she asked hopefully.

Kissing her again was not technically an answer. She was not complaining.

Shine: Chapter Three

The beach was crowded. Which she maybe should have expected, when it was a sunny weekend instead of a cloudy weekday. But this didn’t seem terribly conducive to convincing a merman to come ashore and say hello. Not unless she wanted to share him.

(She didn’t want to share him.)

She drove a little further along the coast, past the rocky area where she’d been before—even that was home to a few wayward teens. The road turned back into the city, and she tapped her fingers against the steering wheel in irritation. She took the first right out of town, reasoning that as long as she stayed on the roads closest to the water, she’d find… something. Eventually.

Driving further, past worn-down neighborhoods and trailer parks, she started to worry that she had gone too far astray. Would he even be anywhere near here? What if he’d stayed near the rocks from before? What if he was just passing through, and was miles away by now?

That kind of pessimism wasn’t going to get her anywhere. It wasn’t going to hurt her to look, even if he was gone.

She was well past the city, into the stretch of road that most people preferred to avoid driving. A cliff wall to the left, and a straight shot down into the ocean on the right. She had a vague notion that the only thing still holding the road up were the roots of the trees still growing out of the rocky cliff-face, thick trunks that looked too heavy for the angle of the earth.

It was very pretty, in the sort of way that would get her killed if she took any time at all to admire it.

She slowed the car down as she glimpsed a landmark of interest through the trees. A lighthouse? There weren’t any signs, but it seemed like there was a gravel road, so she turned onto it. It couldn’t hurt to look.

Assuming the road didn’t collapse out underneath her. Which it honestly sounded like it might.

Tires crept along the narrow probably-a-road until she got closer to the lighthouse itself, the ground widening out to something more reasonable. From this distance the lighthouse was more obviously decrepit, all the glass in the windows either opaque with dust or broken, the wood a dim gray. She parked, slipping her fingers into the little self-defense cat on her keyring.

“Hello?” she called as she shut the car door behind her. “Lighthouse-keeper?” Quiet steps brought her to the door, which was not a door at all. An entryway, yes, but if there had ever been a door it had disappeared long ago. Blown off its hinges, maybe, dragged into the ocean. “Police?” she ventured, sticking only her head inside. The floor was covered in soil and leaves. “Other authority figures?” There was still no response. “Hobos?”

If there were hobos, they did not present themselves. And had left no evidence of their presence, furthermore.

She was alone. For now.

⚓⚓⚓

From the top of the lighthouse, there was no sign of any mermen. She wasn’t sure why she’d thought there would be.

There was a little pier past the lighthouse, though it was as rotted away as the lighthouse itself. Half of it was missing, but there was still enough to stand on. Assuming she didn’t mind balancing her way on single boards to make it to the spaces of wood still left. There was still no sign of any interesting marine life, but this seemed like a better place to keep an eye out.

She’d brought her bag, and lunch in case she were here a while. She tried to tell herself that she had not dressed up.

Her blouse had flowers embroidered in the collar, which was definitely not because he had seemed to like flowers. Her ombre maxi skirt had definitely not been chosen for tail-related reasons. The flower barrette in her braid…

… it was possible that she had dressed up, a little.

She stood at the end of the rickety wooden pier, and stared out at the ocean.

Now what?” she said, deflating. She’d sort of hoped that he’d just… show up. Somehow. It wasn’t like he had a name she could call. Or maybe he did, but she didn’t know what it was. Did mermen have names? She looked down at the keychain in her hand.

Right. Well. It would be noisy, anyway.

She blew with as much force as she could muster into the little silver whistle, until her own ears were ringing. She waited a few minutes before trying it again.

How long should she wait? How often should she whistle? Maybe every ten minutes, for an hour? But what if he didn’t recognize it? Or was out of range of where he could hear it?

Was she really going to have the patience for this?

She gave a slightly less forceful whistle, resigning herself to being—for at least a day—the crazy woman whistling near the cliffs.

A splash in the distance perked her up immediately. She blew on the whistle again, and this time she saw what she was pretty sure was a head come up from beneath the water. She started to wave, flailing both her arms wildly above her head.

If her smile got any bigger, it was going to split her face in two.

He dove beneath the water again, his tail arcing and splashing gracefully. When he re-emerged, it was near to the pier, and a thrill shot through her at the sight of him.

“Hi!” she said, slightly breathless. “Hello!”

“Hello,” he said back, and she nearly tipped over. He grinned at her wide-eyed expression, and did not hesitate to show teeth this time. “Hello,” he repeated.

“You can talk?” she asked, her voice pitched high with surprise. His voice was low when he let it leave his mouth instead of keeping it in his throat, a musical quality to it that carried. The sound of it seemed to echo in her ribcage.

He looked very pleased. “Okay.”

“Are you just repeating things I said yesterday?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Oh, wow. Okay.”

She covered her mouth with her hands, trying to stifle involuntary giggles as she turned red. “I don’t sound like that!” Even as she said that, she had to bite her lip to try and avoid saying any of them again.

“Okay,” he said again, with a shrug. She couldn’t figure out if he had any idea what he was saying. He cocked his head to the side as his eyes traveled down to her skirt, which did not help her blushing situation at all.

“Do you like it?” she asked, even though he could only barely understand three words. Still, she twirled to try and show it off, fabric billowing outward and fluttering around her calves until she came to a stop.

He looked distinctly pink between the stripes along his cheekbones, something softer around his eyes.

“Is that a yes?” she wondered, moving closer to the edge of the pier to sit.

“Wow,” he ventured, finally.

She giggled as she brought her legs up to cross them beneath her skirt, tugging the fabric beneath herself demurely. He frowned, reaching up from the water to tug at it. “Hey!” He stopped, but still looked displeased with the arrangement. “What? I can’t just sit here with my skirt all… messed up.” Not that it wasn’t getting messed up in another sense, wet and rotting wood against the fabric. “Here, how about this?” She uncrossed her legs, and let her calves and her skirt hang over the water. “Is this better?”

Immediately he was trying to get a better look at her skirt, running it between his fingers and humming curiously. He lifted it to try and look beneath it, and immediately she pushed it back down. “No,” she said.

He frowned. “No?”

“No.”

He scratched his head, then used his hands to gesture to her calves. “No?” he asked again, clearly puzzled. Which, she supposed, was fair. Her legs had been completely bare the day before, and she hadn’t minded his looking until he got into dangerous thigh territory.

With a sigh, she pulled her skirt a little higher, though kept it low enough to cover her lap. Then she gestured to her calves. “Okay. Now it’s okay.”

“Okay?” If anything, he was more baffled than he’d been before. He prodded her ankle experimentally. “Okay?”

“Yes, it’s fine,” she said, “it was just the looking up my skirt that I didn’t like.”

He did not understand that explanation well enough to be satisfied with it, but was at least no longer as displeased as he was when she hid her legs entirely. Even if it made her feel strangely self-conscious to have him looking at her legs so intently.

Thank goodness she’d shaved.

“Now that I know you can learn words,” she said, changing the subject, “maybe I can actually try to… teach you?” He looked up at her from where he was currently trying to figure out her ballet flats. “There’s a lot of stuff out there about teaching people English, I think.” She pulled her bag closer from where it rested on the pier, unzipping it to find her phone.

“Okay, learning English… hm. You don’t already speak Spanish. Or French. I guess I’ll have to look up stuff for kids?”

He looked at her phone, then back at her. “Okay?”

She sighed. “This one has flash cards, but they’re all farm animals. I don’t think you know what a cow is. What’s something you’d know?”

“No?” he asked, frowning.

“No, I mean—okay. You’re okay. Ignore me.” She bit her lip, thumb hovering over the screen as she tried to think of something. “Oh! Here, how about this.” She did an image search, selecting the first result and showing him the screen. “Dolphin. You know dolphins, right?”

He opened his mouth, and made a chirping, clicking sound. Immediately she started laughing, trying to cover her mouth.

“Not ‘do you speak dolphin’,” she giggled. “Dolphin. That’s what I call this. Dol. Phin. Dolphin.” He tilted his head back thoughtfully. Then he kept going backward, diving underwater. “Hey!” She leaned forward, holding her phone securely in her lap. “Did I say something wrong?”

He popped back up, startling her. “Dolphin,” he said, slowly.

Immediately she clapped with glee. “That’s perfect!”

“Okay?” he asked. “Dolphin?”

“Yes! Okay! Good.” She gave him a thumbs-up, and he grinned. “What are some other…? Um.” She pressed a hand to her chest to gesture to herself. “Emily,” she said, trying to enunciate clearly. “My name is Emily. Emily.”

He dove backward under the water again, but it wasn’t unexpected, this time. It took more time before he came back up, and he hesitated. “Emily.”

A tingle shot its way up her spine, wrapped itself around her stomach and squeezed. “Oh.”

“Okay? Emily?”

“Yes! Yes, I am very… good. Okay.”

“Emily.”

She covered her cheeks to try and hide that she was blushing again. “We should find something else for you to say,” she said. “Um. If I’m Emily, then you’re…?” She gestured to him, but he didn’t seem to understand. She tried gesturing between them again. “I’m Emily, and you’re…?”

He hummed.

“Oh. I probably should have guessed. But I can’t really say that?” She attempted to hum the way that he had, and he immediately rumbled a laugh. “See?” He tried humming his name again, pressing his hand against his chest the way she’d done. Then he pointed at the little flower she’d given him, still in his hair. “Your name… means flower?” He hummed it again, pointed at her phone, and then her keyring. “Now I’m… does your name… mean shiny? Please tell me your name is not Shiny.”

Against her better judgment, she did a search for the word ‘shiny’, and showed him the results. Immediately, he pointed at the screen, and then at himself, tapping his sternum and humming.

“Oh my god.” She tried not to giggle, because that seemed offensive. “Okay, no, I can work with this. They have whole sites with names, right? So I’ll just look up… shiny? Shining? That’s… I can’t say these. Jewel? These are all girl names. Precious metal? Too specific. Precious… oh.”

She looked at him, then back at her phone.

“What do you think of Drago?” she asked. She gestured to him. “Drago? Drago. Emily, Drago.”

He furrowed his brow and tapped his chest. “Drago?” She nodded. “Drago. Okay.”

“We have names!” she said, celebratory. “What other words… you have a name, and hello, and no… what about yes? It’s sort of like okay.” She shook her head with a frown. “No.” Then she nodded, smiling. “Yes. Okay.”

He watched her repeat this a few times. “Yes,” he said finally, touching her ankle. Then he gestured to her skirt. “No.”

“Exactly! Ummm… happy!” She smiled again, using her fingers to trace the upward curve of her mouth. “Happy. No happy—sad.” Again the exaggerated frown, pulling it lower with her fingers.

He mulled this over for a moment. “Emily no sad,” he said finally. “Emily happy. Yes?”

She smiled. “Yes. I’m very happy, actually.”

He tapped his chest again. “Emily happy? Drago happy.”

“… oh.” She could have sworn she didn’t usually blush this much. “Thank you, Drago.” She cleared her throat, trying not to look too happy. “So… if I were learning to talk, what words would I want? What! Yes. What.”

How was she supposed to explain the concept of ‘what’?

She attempted to look confused as she tapped herself again. “What?” she asked, trying to make it obvious that she was asking a question. “Oh—Emily. Emily, is what.”

“What?”

She hesitated. “I can’t tell if you’re asking, or if you don’t know what you just said.”

He tugged at her skirt. “What?” he asked.

“Oh! So you do—wow, you catch on quick. Okay. Clothes. A skirt, actually, but—clothes. I think that’s the word you want. Clothes.”

“Clothes,” he repeated. Then he let her go, and grabbed at some of his hair to hold it out, pointing to it. “What?”

“Hair,” she said, and he nodded thoughtfully.

He pointed at the little flower in his hair. “Drago?” he asked.

“Is…? Oh. No, that’s not the same word. You mean a word for things like this?” She held up her phone case, pointing between it and the little flower. He nodded. “I think pretty is the word you want. Pretty.”

He paused to think before speaking. “Emily hair pretty.”

“Drago!” she protested, dissolving into giggles. “You can’t just learn words to try and… and flatter me.”

He raised his arm high enough out of the water to reach the edge of the pier, then gripped it in both hands and began to pull himself upward. She squeaked, gathering up her things and inching away so that water wouldn’t get on anything. Muscles moving beneath skin and scale, making it look effortless even though there was so very much of him. He paused at the top of the motion instead of sitting down, shoulder tilted a little nearer to her to better see her face. “Okay?” he asked. She nodded wordlessly. He narrowed his eyes, but nonetheless turned himself to sit beside her. He looked at his arm, then back at her. He raised an eyebrow. “Emily… happy?”

Immediately she averted her gaze, pretending to be much more interested in putting her phone away and finding her drink. “Honestly,” she huffed. “You’re just… terrible.” She pretended not to notice that he was leaning closer again, assuming that he was trying to see into her bag. Instead, his fingers went to the collar of her blouse.

“Pretty,” he said, almost directly into her ear. Emily shivered despite herself. “Cold?” he asked. She took a shaky breath.

“No. Not cold.” She pulled the small bottle of soda she’d brought with her out of her bag, struggling briefly with the cap. “Just thirsty.” She bit her lip. “So, so thirsty.” She rubbed at the bridge of her nose. “God, what is wrong with me.”

Drago tapped the bottle gently. “What?”

He was still sitting very close. “Soda,” she said. “You drink it. See?” Rather than drink it normally, she poured it into her mouth so that he could see what she was doing before swallowing. “You want to try?” She offered it to him.

He looked into the bottle suspiciously as he accepted, turning it around in his hands. Then he poured a very small amount on his tongue. Almost immediately he started sputtering, fins all flaring outward, and Emily took the bottle back before he could drop it. He rubbed his hand over his tongue. “No,” he said, pointing at the bottle. “No soda. No.” She’d been trying not to, but she snorted, and he scowled at her as she laughed.

He moved even closer suddenly, reached out to take her by the jaw so that he could try to look inside her mouth. She swatted him away, and he retreated, looking unsatisfied. “My teeth are fine, thank you,” she said, holding her hand in front of her mouth in self-defense. “We need to teach you about a little something called personal space.”

Drago was not mollified. “Drago sad soda,” he said, pointing at the bottle. She sighed.

“You don’t like it. Like. Emily likes soda. Drago… no likes. Soda.” She was the worst teacher of all time.

Still, he perked up a little. “Likes. Emily likes soda. Emily likes clothes?” He tugged at her sleeve for emphasis.

“Yes. I do, as a matter of fact.”

Drago nodded, pleased. “Drago likes… Emily hair. Drago likes Emily.”

She tried to distract herself by fidgeting with her drink. “Yes, I think you’ve made that very clear,” she murmured.

“Emily likes Drago?” he asked, and her grip on the bottle tightened.

“I… well. I mean, I don’t mean that I… that we should… yes. I like you.”

“I like you,” he repeated.

This was crazy. She’d just met him, hadn’t she? They didn’t even speak the same language, and he was a fish from the waist down. She didn’t even know what he wanted. Or why. This was unhealthy behavior, was what this was.

“I should go,” she said, and he frowned.

“Go?” He pointed back toward land. “Emily go?”

“Yes, that’s—god, you learn fast. I’m sorry, I just… I’ll come back, okay? You’re just really overwhelming I think? I need space to think. I think. I don’t know what I need. I should go.” As she pulled her legs up to stand, he put his hand on her thigh to keep her from leaving. Her heart thudded against her ribs, and he tapped his cheek with one finger.

“Emily—you. You go.” He tapped his cheek again.

“I…? You want a goodbye kiss?”

“Goodbye kiss,” he repeated, though he let her go as he said it.

“I thought I was never going to see you again!” she explained. “That was special circumstances! I don’t just go around kissing people. No kiss.” She tried to sound authoritative.

“No kiss?” he repeated sadly. His eyes were wide, looking for all the world like a kicked puppy. If puppies had great big rippling biceps and killer abs.

“That’s cheating!” she protested. “You’re going to make me sad. Emily sad.”

Drago sad,” he countered, her ploy almost immediately backfiring. “Emily go, no kiss? Drago sad.” He was much better at this than she was.

“Fine,” she said. Emily leaned in quick to press her lips to his cheek, but he turned his head to catch her mouth with his. She should have pulled away immediately.

She didn’t.

His hands framed her face as he kissed her, and she shivered, a small sound against his mouth. He tasted like saltwater and skin, gentler than she would have expected if she’d thought to wonder. He purred, literally purred, and it thrummed straight through her like a rippling wave.

“Oh,” she said, when she could finally breathe.

“Wow,” he said, beaming as he leaned back to give her room.

“Yes. Wow.” She tried to get her bearings, nearly falling backward into the ocean when she tried to stand on unsteady legs. “I… I really should go.”

“You come back,” Drago said, and it was not a question.

“I haven’t decided yet,” she said, which was a lie.

Shine: Chapter Two

Emily jerked awake, stretching out sore limbs and letting out a long and involuntary groan.

Her impromptu pillow hummed.

“Oh!” She tipped over onto stone, legs sprawled sideways over his tail. “Yes, hello.”

He did not seem bothered by her skittishness, and yawned. He did not cover his mouth, and so she was treated to a clear view of teeth that looked like they had been designed to rip her throat out.

Maybe not her throat specifically, but the principle was the same.

“Wow. Okay. Um.” She was distracted from the matter of his teeth by his shoulders, rolling in a stretch that really—really—should not have been as appealing as it was. She was feeling very naked, suddenly.

When she tried to tug her bikini top a little higher, adjust it to reveal less, he leaned closer to try and see what she was doing. Immediately she splayed her hands over her cleavage to try and cover her chest entirely, turning red. “No,” she said firmly. “That is… private.”

She was definitely blushing. Had she been cold, before? Her face was on fire. He raised an eyebrow, and she crossed her arms over her chest and tried not to look petulant.

He looked down at himself, lifted one of the fins at his hip away from his scales, brushing against her ankle. He gestured to it, humming, then dropped it with a… shrug?

“That is completely different,” she said, assuming she got the gist. She slid a thumb beneath a shoulder strap of her top just long enough to snap it against her skin. “This is not a part of me!” she said, and though he watched with interest she did not think he understood. “And that,” she said, waving at his fin, “is not covering…” She faltered. “I don’t think it’s…?” She bit her lip. “I don’t actually know where…”

She did not realize that she was staring at his tail until he bent over, tilting his head to put it directly in the way of her eyeline. He made a clicking sound. Immediately she turned her head away, pulling her legs off of him and curling them close to herself in retreat.

“Oh my god.” She buried her face in her hands. “I wasn’t—no. I was staring into space! You were in the way.”

He made a low rumbling sound she hadn’t heard before, and when she cracked her fingers apart enough to look she realized he was laughing. His mouth curled in a toothless smile, and the sound was coming from somewhere in the middle of his chest. Her stomach flip-flopped, warmth wrapping itself around the base of her spine.

“This is so unfair,” she said, muffled by her palms. Her eyes drifted toward the entrance of the cave, where sunlight streamed inside without apparent obstacle. “I should…” Rather than finish the thought she dropped her hands away from her face, pulling her legs beneath her to rise to a crouch. She tried not to watch him watching her as she made her way toward the ocean.

“You see!” she said, waving her hands toward the cloudless sky, the sun reflecting off gentle waves. “I knew this was going to happen. It just took a little longer than I expected, was all.”

Her rescuer and volunteer-seatwarmer had joined her at the mouth of the cave, resting over the rocks on his stomach. It did not look particularly comfortable, but he rested his chin on one hand as he watched her look out at the water. There was nothing to look at but water, in fact. Leaning outward to look from side to side revealed that they were on the coast. Or, a coast. Hopefully the same coast as the one she’d left.

“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me which way to the beach?” she asked.

He continued to watch her in curious silence. Eventually, he hummed. If she had to guess, he was probably saying something like ‘I have no idea what you’re saying’. That’s what she’d be saying, anyway.

“Okay,” she sighed. “The beach gets rockier to the left, so I guess I’ll just… try going right?” As she moved out onto rocks half-submerged in water, he hummed in concern, rising up on his arms. “It’s fine,” she assured him. “I can swim! Really, I can. We met at a bad time for me, swimming-wise.” He did not look reassured. She tried to give him a thumbs-up, but that only confused him. She tried two thumbs-up and a smile, for emphasis.

After an awkward pause, he raised a single thumb towards her.

“I just taught a merman thumbs-up,” she said, mostly to herself. “I met a merman, and I taught him thumbs-up. That’s great. Good job, Emily.” At least it seemed to have distracted him from his concern about her swimming abilities.

As she started to lower herself into the water, he slid past her and plunged in, making her yelp with surprise. When his head came up above the water, she scowled at him. “Rude,” she accused.

He definitely understood her tone, if nothing else, because he splashed her.

“Hey!” She held up her hands in self-defense. “Okay, okay, I’m getting in already.” She grit her teeth as she pushed herself into the water.

When she got home, she was going to take the world’s hottest bath and drink the world’s hottest hot cocoa and wrap herself in twelve blankets.

He offered her his hands, but she swam past him instead. “I told you,” she said, “I can swim. I am a great swimmer!”

That may have been overstating things. Particularly when her limbs were all still sore from her previous misadventure. Still, her pride was hurting enough without his insistence on babying her like a toddler taking its first steps.

Another splash, the sound of him disappearing beneath the water. He came back up about five feet ahead of her, drifting backward so that he could watch her swim. That only made her more determined to prove that she knew what she was doing, and so she moved her limbs with greater intensity.

Yes. Yes. She was such a good swimmer. This was Olympic-level swimming, that was happening here. She couldn’t really check to see if he was impressed, but he should have been.

Her thigh cramped.

She yelped as she came to a sudden stop, falling back to float as she tried to rub her leg into submission. Her companion, who’d been swimming ahead of her, watched from a distance. Then he disappeared underwater again.

“Why can’t I just look cool for five minutes?”

She looked even less cool when he startled her by emerging only inches in front of her, nearly kicking him as a reflex. He gave her a click of disapproval, hummed as he took her wrists and turned. With his back to her, he draped her arms loosely over his shoulders, still humming. Then he waited.

“… fine. Fine. But only because I don’t know where I am, okay?” She pulled herself closer, trying not to press herself against him but with a lack of other options as her arms around him tightened. He was clicking again as his hands hooked beneath her knees, wrapping her legs around him for more security.

It sounded a lot like she was being lectured.

Then he started to swim in the same direction that she’d been going, slower than she knew he could and with both their heads safely above-water.

“I’m a grown woman, you know,” she said, and he hummed in response. “On land, I’m very graceful.” He hummed again. “If we were on a hiking trail, this would go very differently.” Another hum, and she had the distinct feeling that she was being patronized. She shut her mouth, and resisted the temptation to rest her head on his shoulder, watching the shore for anything familiar.

“Oh! There!” She pointed in the direction of a familiar outcropping of rock, the little cove where she’d hidden herself away from the lifeguard’s whistle. “I’m pretty sure that’s where I came from.” His eyes followed the line of her arm before changing direction, and she found herself gripping him a little tighter.

The end of this whole ridiculous ordeal was in sight. Which was… good. She would have clothes and be warm and be home. No one would ever have to know that she almost died. Except a merman. Who would stay here, in the ocean.

They probably couldn’t exchange phone numbers. Even if they could, they’d have to communicate exclusively in emoji.

He slowed as the water got shallow, and she let him go to drift away from him. “Thanks,” she said, standing up and letting her feet sink into the sand. He was still swimming, and it felt strange to be towering over him. “I’m just going to… um…” She walked slowly out of the water, and he watched her from the shallows. The waterproof tote she’d brought with her had held fast, sitting securely on a few rocks. Her towel took longer to find, having blown away to drape itself on some rocks. She pulled it down and looked it over.

“The rain washed it off!” she said, pleased. She held it up to show him. From his place in the water, he squinted at the designs of fish printed on the beach towel. It occurred to her that he did not actually have any real way to respond.

Slowly, he raised a thumb into the air.

She beamed despite herself, and gave him a thumbs-up of approval. Which was very silly, but anyway, she was happy that she was going to be able to dry her hair. And her everything else.

He drifted far enough on the beach that he could rest his elbows in the send, propping his chin on his palms. Waves lapped at his tail as he watched her towel herself down, returning to her bag to find her clothes.

She pulled a dress over her head, and sighed in relief. “I feel so much better,” she informed him. He cocked his head to the side. “Thank you again for… saving me? And helping me get home.” She slid on her sandals and put her bag on her shoulder, finding her sunglasses to rest them in her hair. Then she moved closer, and tried to crouch down to get more on his level.

Her dress was not long enough for crouching.

She gave up and sat down in the sand.

“I wish I had some way to repay you,” she said. Or something to remember him by, for that matter. Inspiration struck, and she dug through her bag for her phone.

A picture. Just for her. That would be basically harmless, right? She ignored the notifications for missed messages and calls as she opened up the camera.

He watched as she held up the phone, then sighed and lowered it again. “No,” she decided. “I shouldn’t. The government looks at all the phone stuff, right? Or I could get hacked, or something.” She tapped her fingers against the glittery floral case. “This is just going to have to be our secret,” she decided. “I’ve seen E.T. I know what’s up.”

He attempted to reach for her phone, but she pulled it away from him immediately. “Oh, no way, Mister Wet-Hands.” He pouted dramatically. “You don’t even know what this is!” she said. She looked at it. “Do you just like the case?” She looked at him thoughtfully. “Okay, maybe I can find you something.” She put her phone away, dug around until she found her keychain.

“Here, what about one of these?” she asked, showing it to him. Most of them were just keys, but there were a few cute nametags and things that he might like. He was slower in reaching out to touch it, watching her in case she tried to yank it away like she had the phone. The first thing he ran his fingers over was a silver whistle, and she raised her eyebrows.

“That one? Is that the one you want?” She thought she ought to make sure he knew what it was, so she lifted it to her lips and blew. He immediately recoiled, pressing his palms over his ears and rolling away from her. “I was just trying to show you!” she protested. He regarded her with wary suspicion until she released the whistle, and only then did he lower his arms and wiggle across the sand to return to her side.

“Okay, that’s no on the whistle. What about one of the others?”

He was more careful, this time, stopping when he found a little resin cherry blossom that she’d gotten out of a vending machine. “This one?” she asked. She brought it closer to herself so that she could remove it from the ring, handing the dainty flower to him. He looked at it closer, looking extra-tiny in his hand. He offered it back to her.

“No,” she said firmly, “that’s yours, now.” Her hands wrapped around his to curl his fingers around it and push it back towards him. He considered the little flower again. Then he stuck the metal loop in his mouth, and while he held it there he used his hands to separated a few locks of his hair from the mass of it. With surprisingly nimble fingers, he wound six strands together in a pattern like rope, stopping halfway through to take the keychain from his mouth and wind his hair around the metal. When he was done the flower hung near his shoulder, a tiny spot of pink against his hair.

He turned his head so that she could see the delicate braid better, and then—there was no mistaking it—waggled his eyebrows at her.

Immediately, she collapsed into giggles. She covered her mouth with her hands, feeling herself blush again. “Very handsome,” she assured him. “The most fashionable fish. Fishionable.” He hummed, preening.

Her smile faded as her phone buzzed again in her bag. Another text, probably worried about her. She really needed to get home and let everyone know she was okay.

“I’m going to try to come back tomorrow,” she decided, and he looked surprised by her sudden intensity. “I know you might not be here, but I’m going to try. Okay? So don’t think I’m just leaving you, or anything.”

He hummed a note of concern as he rose up on his arms, leaning closer to see her face better. Her tone seemed to worry him. Before she could change her mind, she pressed a quick kiss to his cheek and then scrambled to her feet to leave.

She was blushing again.

So was he, this time.

Shine: Chapter One

It was possible that her friends had been right about it being a bad day for the beach.

She’d been really sure, though, that the clouds would dissipate in the noonday sun. Plenty of gloomy mornings gave way to brighter days! Her weather app had said it would be sunny later, anyway. Just hers. Not any other weather apps. But that was ideal! It meant the beach would be free of the faint of heart, no crowds to contend with.

An empty beach with nothing but friends. Perfect.

Except, instead, it was just… an empty beach. A regular empty beach. With Emily, in her pretty new bathing suit, and no one to enjoy her first-day-of-summer playlist with her.

There was also a lifeguard. He was not as cute as lifeguards on television. Every time she got further than knee deep in the water, he’d go whistling at her to get back on the sand.

Honestly. It was just cloudy. There was maybe a slight breeze.

She probably should have just given up on the whole endeavor, but Emily was not the sort of person to be so easily dissuaded. Just because the weather was bad, and no one had showed up, and a seagull had ruined her towel—that didn’t mean she couldn’t have a fun day at the beach.

She just had to get out of sight of that lifeguard, was all. If she could just get a good swim in, this whole thing would be worth it.

⚓⚓⚓

It was possible that the lifeguard had been correct. Possibly. Maybe.

It was also possible that she’d accidentally been swimming out through a riptide, totally unaware that she was moving away from shore at three times the speed that she thought she was.

She was willing to accept that a minor—minor!—error in judgment had been made.

She was well out of the current, now, and so getting back to shore was just a matter of… swimming. Doing a lot of swimming. About a mile’s worth of swimming. Which was doable! Definitely doable, and definitely no reason for her to try to signal the lifeguard to tell him he was right.

Yes. This was fine. Everything was fine.

It started to rain.

But maybe the waves would help push her to shore faster…?

As water overwhelmed her, attempting to push her downward, Emily accepted that it might be time to swallow her pride. She lifted her arms to wave toward the lifeguard’s tower, and swallowed water instead.

⚓⚓⚓

When she woke up, she was coughing up saltwater, which tasted about as awful as it felt. The ground beneath her was hard, the sound of water against stone echoing in her ears, and something was…

… touching her legs?

She opened her eyes.

Someone. Someone was touching her legs. Doing so with much more intensity than really seemed called for, brow furrowed as his hands ran over her skin.

It was not until those hands started to go higher that it occurred to her that this was very, very strange. She shrieked, pulling her legs away, and he let her go. He looked very taken aback, actually—as if she were the weird one. He had the kind of eyebrows that, in conjunction with his cheekbones, made her wonder if she was the weird one.

Very regal features, for a shirtless man in a cave.

Why were they alone in a cave?

“Who are you?” she demanded, curling up to hug her legs against her chest.

He did not respond. Instead, he narrowed his eyes, leaning closer to squint at her mouth. It was very dark, was the thing, and the shadows were doing strange things to the color of his eyes.

“Excuse me,” she said, but he still did not make a sound. “Do you not speak English?” Maybe that was it. Maybe she had been rescued by a mysterious Italian lifeguard.

He hummed at her. Under other circumstances, she might think he was just humming generally; but he was humming very aggressively, and in her direction, and so she was forced to conclude that he was humming at her.

“I…” She faltered, a shiver down her spine. Just the cold, she told herself. The rain, the wind, the cold. All perfectly good reasons to shiver. “I don’t think I know that song.”

He made a clicking sound that seemed suspiciously irritated, and hummed at her again. He was leaning closer, and her eyes were not adjusting, his eyes still too dark, something she couldn’t see in the hair that fell down to his shoulders.

“I don’t know what you—”

She flinched as a crack of thunder reverberated through the little shelter. She opened her eyes in time to see lightning chase away the shadows of the cave. She shrieked again.

Black eyes. Or, no: blue eyes. But black, all black outside a ring of blue. Stripes on his skin and fins in his hair and scales, definitely scales, scales the color of his eyes. She could see them now that she knew what she was looking at, thrown into sharp relief as he recoiled from her scream, fins all flaring outward briefly before settling.

I’msorryIhavetogonowthanks.” She tried to stand before she knew quite what she was doing, jolting upright on shaky legs, ramming her head into the stone above with such force that it almost looked intentional. Her legs gave out again, seeing stars as she crumpled and pressed her hands to the top of her head. “Ow.”

He didn’t smell like a fish. She didn’t know what he smelled like. Salt, maybe. He was clicking again and moving her hands and sharp nails—talons?—were raking through her hair. She could see his tail, now, the way it curled beneath him to hold him upright, muscles moving beneath scales. So many scales, so much of him, translucent membranes draped and shimmering like silk.

She hiccuped with what might have been laughter. “You’re a mermaid. A… a merman? A man… maid. You’re a fish.” She was not shivering so much as shaking outright. “Did I die? You have to tell me if I died. Don’t tell the lifeguard, I don’t want to give him the satisfaction.”

Her head was throbbing, now, which was pretty sure did not happen to dead people.

Dying, maybe.

He put his hands on her upper arms and squeezed, let her go before doing it again. Trying to hold her still.

“That’s not how shivering works,” she informed him through chattering teeth. He frowned, and put two fingers beneath her chin to try and push her jaw shut. That also did not work, but did make her laugh, at least. He drew back, puzzled, but almost immediately tried it again. She smiled. He tried to imitate the expression, but sharp teeth had a bit of a different effect.

“I’m cold,” she tried to explain, as if it would mean anything to him. She rubbed her hands over her forearms, crossed her arms tight over her chest to try and maintain what little warmth she had. He cocked his head to the side to look at what she was doing, but that meant looking very intently at the general region of her chest, and so she tried to arrange her arms more demurely. He scratched his head, and she wondered if that meant the same thing for mermaids. Mermen. Fish.

He hummed again, then, one large arm wrapping around her to pull her suddenly on top of his tail and against his chest. She stiffened, wide-eyed, but he did not seem to notice. His arms wrapped around hers, and any protest she might have made died in the face of one simple fact: he was warm.

“Oh.” She swallowed a lump in her throat, still raw from saltwater. “Yes, this is actually very helpful, thank you.”

He rested his chin on the top of her head, and his hum resonated through his sternum and against her back. This time, her shiver was definitely not from the cold. She stared out at the stormy ocean, another lightning strike reflecting against the scales beneath her legs.

“I’m uninstalling that weather app.”