“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.
“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.”
“We’re not—I’m giving you 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.
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.” 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.”
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.