“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.
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.”