It was three interminable days before Emily saw Drago again. She’d nearly managed to convince herself that he’d never come back, that he never even existed, when a telltale flash of sunlight reflecting off scales snapped her out of her pity-party. Immediately she was pulling clothes out of her closet, throwing skirts everywhere in her quest to find the cutest one, braiding her hair and trying to change at the same time.
She briefly braided her hair around the sleeve of the white sundress she’d decided on.
When she finally darted out of the house to meet him, she thought she might burst. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so excited to see someone.
He pulled himself up out of the water before she’d reached the end of the pier, and she stopped short with a gasp.
“Drago,” she said finally, running quickly to his side, falling hard to her knees in her haste to get a better look at him. There was a cut along the side of his face, and without thinking she put her fingers on his jaw to turn his head and get a better look. He hummed, but it didn’t sound like he was in pain. Her eyes locked with his for the first time, and her examination of his injury came to a screeching halt as her heart leapt into her throat.
He was even prettier than she’d remembered. She’d remembered him as handsome, of course, as impossibly attractive. But remembering was different from looking him in the eye, seeing those bright blue circles of color amidst black, the thick fringe of his eyelashes and the way his stripes accentuated his cheekbones. Even the mark on his face didn’t diminish from it, just made him look sharp and delicate like cut glass.
And, god, the way he looked at her. Like he was going to eat her alive. She’d forgotten that, too, just how hungry he looked when he saw her, the thrill it sent up her spine to see that look in his eye.
He saw her falter, and suddenly he claimed her mouth with his own, pulled her close to him so that her arms were trapped between them. Her sound of surprise was brief and muffled, splaying her fingers out over his chest and quickly lost in the taste of him. Salt and copper and wild things, darkness and sweetness and the ever-present threat of his teeth. The sharp points of them sometimes grazed her tongue, never enough to break skin but enough to make her shiver. He purred, and she felt it right down to her toes.
When he finally pulled away she gasped for air, clung to him by the shoulders. “I…” She struggled for words. “I missed you,” she managed, which felt like a considerable understatement.
“I missed you,” he repeated, and she couldn’t explain how happy it made her to hear him say it.
“Where were you?” she asked, “What happened? Did someone hurt you?” She traced a fingertip along the skin near the cut, far enough and soft enough that she didn’t think it would hurt. One of his hands caught hers, and he brought it to his mouth to kiss her knuckles.
“I am not hurt,” he assured her, though clearly they had different definitions of hurt. “I was…” He hummed something as he searched for the word. “Busy.”
“Busy?” She couldn’t help a frown. Happy as she was to see him, it had worried her not to know where he’d been, when he’d come back. And now she still wouldn’t know. He didn’t owe her an explanation, and she didn’t want to pry, and yet. “Can you tell me with what?”
The corner of his mouth tilted ruefully. “No,” he said, and it felt somehow like a rejection. “I am disobeying many rules, Emily,” he said by way of explanation, choosing his words carefully. “That does not mean I will disobey all the rules.”
“Whose rules?” she asked, even though she ought to have been satisfied with that. She regretted it as soon as she said it, but Drago didn’t look irritated with her. He only shook his head.
“I share myself with you. No one but myself.” He kissed her hand again. “Understand?”
She nodded, though she wasn’t happy about it. It made sense, and she didn’t want him doing anything that might endanger their relationship. Her mind was wandering despite that, trying to piece together a puzzle with no edges. He had been gone, and he couldn’t tell her where, because someone made rules about that kind of thing. There was someone with enough authority to make rules. He kept armor in a tiny shipwreck, and what could only be some kind of weapon. They looked very nice. They looked like they’d been made by someone very good at it.
Maybe she could just turn on The Little Mermaid and ask him which parts were wrong.
“I brought gifts,” he said, interrupting the downward spiral of her logical processes.
His tail, which had been trailing down into the water, curled upward; a loop of rope rested on it, like he’d been caught in an especially ineffective net. He reached down, pulling it upward and away from his tail. It was indeed attached to a net, though not like any she’d seen, a very strange weave to it that made the pattern foreign.
She thought, unbidden, of Santa and his magic sack of presents.
Untying the top of it—what kind of knot even was that? Where had he learned all these complicated knots?—he reached inside, and pulled out first a shell.
‘Shell’ did not really do it justice. This was nothing like the little polished cowries they sold in gift shops, the bits of white found on the beach. This was an enormous iridescent spiral, as big as her head and as brilliant as a gemstone, shining even brighter from being wet. Her eyes went round, and Drago looked pleased.
“I told you,” he reminded her. “I got you a better one.”
“Drago,” she breathed, more than a little awestruck. “You—oh, you didn’t have to do that for me.”
His expression turned a bit wary. “You do not accept?”
The way he phrased the question, in conjunction with his concern, brought her up short. Was this a matter of merfolk etiquette? Would rejecting his gift be unpardonably rude? Would it suggest she didn’t like him, or appreciate the trouble he’d gone through?
She hadn’t considered any of those things when she’d given him her cell phone charm. Somehow, upon meeting a handsome and naked man who was a fish from the waist down, her first thought had not been to differing cultural norms.
“I accept,” she reassured him, and she could see his immediate relief. She took the shell gingerly in her hands, terrified that she was going to break it. She didn’t even want to contemplate what that might mean. “It’s beautiful. Thank you, Drago.”
“You will put it with the others?” he asked.
“I will put it right front and center,” she declared, “so it will be the first thing that everyone sees.”
This was the correct answer, and he sat straighter, looking very proud of himself. Then he reached back into his net.
“There’s more?” she asked, surprised.
“Of course. Close your eyes.”
Emily hesitated, finally set the enormous shell at a safe distance on the wooden pier so she wouldn’t have to worry about dropping it into the water. Then she closed her eyes, hands resting in her lap as she tried not to look too excited. This turned to an alarmed squeak when Drago picked her up, pulled her into his lap. Still, she kept her eyes jammed shut, determined not to ruin whatever surprise he’d brought her.
He ran his hands along her arm, and she found herself shivering at his touch, the heightened awareness of not being able to see him. She could feel his scales against her legs, the water clinging to his skin soaking through her dress. Something cold wrapped around one wrist, and then the other; next around her neck, and she tried to visualize the shape of it from how it felt. Some kind of necklace, surely, something heavy and large that ended at her collarbones. It had to be a necklace, didn’t it?
Then his hands were in her hair, and it took all her willpower not to open her eyes, not to lean into his touch and forget all about gifts. Large and gentle fingers combed through it, took out her braid so she could feel that way it fell around her shoulders. Then he did… something?
She couldn’t tell what he was doing. It involved a lot of running his hands over her hair, picking up strands and letting them fall, tugging gently on it in places. “What are you doing?” she asked, even knowing it was supposed to be a surprise.
“Patience,” he said, and she squirmed in his lap, clearly anything but. She huffed and she wiggled and she did everything short of actually opening her eyes, as if that would somehow convince him to let her see before he was done. “There,” he said, when it felt like it had been entirely too long.
“I can open my eyes now?”
She looked first out at the water, blinking away the extra sunshine. Then she looked down at her arms, because those would be the easiest for her to see. Bracelets, as she’d suspected, but prettier even than she’d imagined. She couldn’t tell what they were made of, only that they looked like wood while being entirely too reflective and hard to be any wood she’d ever heard of. Bangles, inlaid all through with something like mother of pearl, intricate designs set into the material so perfectly that she could not imagine how they’d been made. Tessellated patterns that formed shapes like flowers, except that it couldn’t be flowers, could it? Maybe anemones, or whatever it was they may have had that looked like flowers.
Her hand went to her necklace, lifted it away from herself so she could look at it. It was a delicate chain of silver, but the pendant at the end of it matched the bracelets he’d given her. On this, the complex geometric shapes were three-dimensional; she didn’t think she’d ever seen anything so intricate. It looked like it ought to have been impossible to carve without the whole thing collapsing in on itself.
“Drago,” she breathed, “they’re beautiful.” Then she leaned forward to look down at the water, to try and see herself reflected and figure out what exactly he’d done to her hair.
Even looking at it reflected, she could not quite figure out what he’d done. Arranged it and twisted it somehow, and she didn’t know how it all stayed while still looking so loose, but he’d done it to hold a circlet in her hair. The whole thing was a matched set, and though all of it must have come from beneath the waves, she thought she looked like some sort of forest fairy princess.
Maybe he knew fairies. Would it be rude to ask him if he knew fairies? She’d always assumed fairies weren’t real, but she’d thought the same thing about mermaids.
“Do I look pretty?” she asked as she turned to face him, because he couldn’t have known what they would look like once they were on her.
“Always,” he said, and she blushed. “You accept them?”
“Of course!” she said, looking down at the bracelets again. “Were these… expensive?” He cocked his head to the side, and she tried to think of a better word to use. She didn’t actually know if he understood the concept of expensive. If he understood currency, for that matter. If they had fish capitalism where he was from. “Were they hard to get?”
“Yes.” The tilt of his head and the roll of his shoulders suggested that this was a point of pride, that he was almost offended that she might have thought otherwise.
“Is that… how you got this?” She touched his cheek to indicate the angry slash along his skin.
He shook his head. “This was a mistake,” he said, though that still didn’t tell her as much as she wanted about what had happened to him. It looked too clean to have been an animal, but he didn’t seem like the type to accidentally cut himself. He tapped one of her bracelets. “These are not for mistakes.”
She looked down at them again, trying to parse his words to better understand the meaning behind them. It was hard, when there was so much context she didn’t have and he wouldn’t give her. “What are they for?”
Drago took his time considering the question, mulling it over. She couldn’t tell if he was even going to answer. Then he grinned, all sharp teeth and satisfaction. “The best.”
“And you’re the best?”
He didn’t hesitate this time. “Always.”