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.