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?”
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.”
“Yes! Yes, I am very… good. Okay.”
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…?”
“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.”
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.
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.