Title: Gold and Honey
Author: Sita Loire
Summary: A simple fisherman saves a merman from a net. Slash ensues.
Somewhere there was the most beautiful sound.
Ceytah could feel the water getting colder against his skin, but he kept swimming, low in the coral, and following the music notes that were calling him. He could feel them physically. A pull at his insides, they were easy to follow.
Soon Ceytah found a large, jagged section of cracked rock that echoed with the melody. The sand had mostly worn away from the crack, and with a little brushing he squeezed through the opening easily. The sound was louder here. Ceytah looked around. He was in a small, nearly circular chamber of water. It wasn't very deep; he could see dim light up above. That was indeed where the sound was coming from. Ceytah surfaced, and came into a symphony of pure floating sound.
He could immediately see the source. There were three mortals standing on the shore, only a few feet away, and one of them was blowing into a pink and gold shell. The notes it formed stung Ceytah sweetly, as though they were plucking concordant strings inside of him. He tipped his silvery head. The mortals froze, and the sound stopped.
"It really came," one of them said. They were young even in mortal years, not much beyond childhood. They didn't acknowledge him further, and yet they had called him here. The shell still thrummed with vibration from the tallest boy's mouth. Drawn, Ceytah moved closer and lifted himself partway onto the rock at their feet. His long wet hair plastered itself to his bare upper body as he regarded them with curious amethyst eyes. Humans almost never dared to call on them. These three were brave, or foolish, and Ceytah wanted to know which. But then the mortals broke apart. The tallest boy had a dangerous expression in his eyes.
"Grab it," he shouted. Ceytah's startled mind reeled, translated, and then reared him back in alarm. He flicked his tail to backflip into the water, but before he could, a net landed over his head. He couldn't fight free. He could only scream a warning to any brothers and sisters that might have been following him.
There it was again.
Daryl straightened up and scanned the horizon, shielding his weather-beaten brow with one hand, but there was still no sign of anything amiss. The road to town was as quiet as ever. There were only a few small dust storms swirling along the dirt path. He couldn't see far, though; the clouds overhead were heavy and dark, and electricity was already starting to crackle in the sky to the east. The storm would be on top of him soon.
The screeching sound came again, shrill and inhuman. Inhuman… Daryl frowned and turned, looking over the hill toward the water below, and when the sound rose once more he was certain. It was down there. He broke into a run and grabbed his shotgun from the woodpile next to the house, barely cresting the hill before he saw them. There were three kids from town by the edge of the dammed-off cove. They were wrestling with a net.
"Hey!" Daryl shouted, cocking his gun and firing two warning shots at the sky. Thunder echoed in the distance. The kids screamed, scattered and ran, but not before Daryl caught sight of the writhing creature in the net. They'd caught a mermaid somehow, and from its violent thrashing, the mermaid wasn't too happy about it.
"Goddamn kids," he muttered to himself, shouldering the gun and moving down to the water's edge. The cove had been completely enclosed from the ocean beyond, as far as he knew; a hole must have opened up beneath the surface for the mermaid to get through. It was still screeching and flailing against the shore. The closer Daryl got, the more its squall was piercing his eardrums. The quicker he got it back in the water, the better.
"All right now, enough of that," he hollered over the mermaid, setting his gun down and grabbing hold of the net. The thing was heavy; its tail was probably pure muscle, and its squirming wasn't helping matters. Still, Daryl managed to drag it back into the water, and when he produced a knife the mermaid froze completely beneath him. Daryl caught its wide, frightened eyes for a minute, then cut the net open. Damn kids. Ruining a good net, too.
For a few seconds, the mermaid held perfectly still—long enough for Daryl to see that it wasn't a mermaid at all, but a merman. Its bare chest was completely flat. Then it gave a hard flick of its tail and vanished seamlessly into the water. Daryl watched for a minute, and the top of the thing's pale head emerged from the center of the cove—nothing but big eyes and the bridge of a nose. It was a pretty thing, even as merfolk went. It floated there and watched Daryl. The conch shell the kids had called it with was lying on the ground. Daryl lifted his foot to stomp on it, hard, and the merman vanished beneath the water again.
Thunder echoed overhead, much louder this time. The storm was coming in. Daryl quickly gathered up the remnants of the net and went home.
The lure of the conch shell had worn off shortly, but Ceytah's curiosity about the human that had saved him hadn't eased at all in the two weeks that followed. Every day he'd gone back to the cove and watched him from its midst, constantly on edge that the mortal youth would return, but too drawn by his savior to resist. He hadn't bothered to hide himself. Still, the human paid him no attention.
There had always been fishtales about merfolk befriending humans who treated them well and gave them highly coveted gifts of sparkling jewels—the kind they only ever found in shipwrecks and on drowned mortals. But in real life, humans were always murderous cretins. They made livings out of the sea's destruction… Merfolk didn't trust them. This human, however, hadn't taken the opportunity to murder Ceytah. He hadn't even tried to hurt him. He'd set him free. And now he was ignoring him.
Today Ceytah had moved closer and closer, intent on getting the human to take notice of him. He'd gotten daringly near the beach and draped himself over one of the rocks that jutted out of the shallow water. The mortal hadn't so much as peeked from his home. Ceytah was getting impatient, and overhead, the sky was darkening. It was storm season. All week he'd been careful, leaving before the waters got too tumultuous, but now there were choppy waves lapping angrily at the base of his rock, and Ceytah finally tore his pale jealous eyes from the human's house and noticed the weather that had blown in. It was time to go home. Another failed trip.
Disappointed, Ceytah dove down into the shallow depths of the cove. At the cracked rock, though, he paused with his hand against the opening. He could feel an icy jet of water circulating—there was more pull than there should have been. Ceytah moved forward uncertainly, but pulled back again quickly as he realized. The storms had drawn a whirlpool from the depths outside the cove, a big one. Ceytah wouldn't be able to break through it without extreme effort. Disappointed anew, he pulled back into the cove. The water was darkening rapidly as the light from the sky overhead vanished. Ceytah gave a strong flick of his tail to go investigate.
Too strong. The water surged, and the force of it caught his attempt to surface and flung him beyond the waters entirely. The beach rushed up beneath him. Ceytah landed hard and stayed still, dazed and staring at the black clouds that had gathered over the nearly purple sky. The rain had started.
The weather had been too uncertain for work today, so Daryl had secured his boats and stayed in, restless before the cheerful flickering light of the fire in his dark cabin. He'd never been good at relaxing or even being inside; he liked to be out. He liked to be using his hands. He'd tried to occupy himself with some whittling he'd been working on since winter. The light was too uncertain for him to entirely commit himself, and when he heard the horrible screech rise over the sounds of the storm, he was on his eager feet before he'd recognized it.
The merman had been out lurking in the center of the cove for weeks, and he was sure he'd felt its eyes on him, but Daryl had no time to babysit a fishman. Still, he'd found himself on the watch for any town kids hanging about. They must have returned now… Damned fools, to be out in this weather. Daryl was half-annoyed and yet half-grateful to be interrupted from the gloomy evening ahead of him, but when he opened his door and had it ripped from his fingers by the wind outside, there was no one in sight.
Had he imagined the sound? A trick of the wind, maybe… But no, there, there was a flicker of movement on the dark beach, and as lightning crashed overhead Daryl could plainly see the silvery white hair of the merman light up as though he'd been struck. The wind tossed another flash of that shrill cry his way again, and Daryl started running across the sand, ignoring the torrential rain that soaked him the second he stepped through his door. The hill rose in front of him, and for a long moment he couldn't see the merman.
Ceytah couldn't breathe. He'd floundered wildly on the sand, but his tail was heavy and useless on land. The storm was choking off the oxygen in the air, and his nerves were alight with panic. The water had spat him out. Spat him. Why? He couldn't breathe…
Just as his pale skin took on a greenish tinge, a bone-rattling gasp shook his entire body, and then air moved through him again. Ceytah settled peacefully against the soaked ground and closed his eyes. His tail felt strangely weightless.
"How in the—hell—" Daryl came to a stop at the top of the hill, staring down its descent in pure bewilderment as the wind whipped his sandy brown hair into his face. He'd been completely certain that he'd seen the merman from before, tail and all—but the body down there was human. It had legs. But… no, that was the same long silver hair. Slowly he started moving again, picking his way down the wet, slippery slope with his eyes on the unmoving figure on the ground. Something wasn't right. Daryl approached warily and came to a stop beside the body. Lightning flashed again, illuminating the other's face. The rain had subsided for the moment.
Confused, he knelt down and touched his fingers to the body's cold shoulder. It was a man—but those features—there was no way. That beauty wasn't human. It was the merman from before, Daryl was sure of it. Beneath him the man opened his eyes and then reared back in terror, his bare legs flicking as if they were a solid entity. Daryl didn't miss the baffled expression that moved over his perfect features. He'd expected a tail as well.
He couldn't throw him back in the water now. He reached down and gave the merman's knee a gentle prod with two fingers, studiously ignoring the other's nudity beneath his reams of pale hair.
"Why did you keep coming back?" Daryl murmured, looking up to meet the creature's wide, scared eyes and shaking his head. "You did this to yourself. I don't know how, but you did." The merman stayed mute. Daryl knew they could speak; he'd lived by the sea all his life, and this was far from his first experience with the merfolk. But this didn't seem like the time to press the matter. Even in the dim lighting Daryl could see the other's lower lip trembling, and his face was wet with tears as much as rain.
"You…" The merman said slowly. His voice was soft, not overly deep, but discernibly male. He shivered and looked down at his new legs. Daryl exhaled heavily and stood up again.
"Let's get you inside for now," he said gruffly. "That storm's about to hit, and hard." The merman hesitated, then nodded. He floundered a bit in place, but didn't move, and after a minute of waiting patiently Daryl realized. Legs would be totally foreign to him. As thunder cracked directly overhead, Daryl grunted awkwardly and leaned down to slip his arm beneath the merman's slender legs. He felt half-frozen. The other went rigid in his arms, but Daryl ignored it and scooped him up. He was a lot lighter than he had been with the tail. Then, slowly, a thin white arm wound itself around his neck. Daryl took that for assent.
Ceytah held still and passively let the mortal carry him into his house, his mind strangely blank as he looked down at the foreign sight of bare legs. Being held in someone's arms was a little closer to the sensation of being supported by the ocean, but he still felt weighted down and uncoordinated, and his long hair was unexpectedly heavy. And he'd never been so close to a mortal for so long before.
The human set him down on something warm and soft and busied himself in the room, putting a log on the fire and locking the little wooden doors he had on all the windows. Ceytah turned his head and looked dazedly over his perch. This was softer than even anemone beds. Tentatively he stretched out a hand and put his fingers on the warm cushion, patting it, but then suddenly the human was beside him again and a thick material came down over his head. He'd trapped him!? Fear knotted in his stomach like a chunk of glacier, and Ceytah screeched and flailed unsteadily.
His lack of practice with the balance of his new legs tipped him over onto his back against the cushions. They were too soft and yielding for him to get any leverage. Then suddenly he could see again, and the mortal was pulling his arm through material. It wasn't a net…?
Ceytah looked down and blinked. This was mortal clothing. A sweater, they called it. Bemused he brought his hands up, touching his fingertips very gently to the warm, heavy fabric. It was too large; the mortal had covered him to halfway down the thighs of the legs he had now, as if it were a woman's dress. The human was drawing handfuls of Ceytah's wet hair out from under the sweater, letting it drop loosely against his back.
"You're cold," he muttered gruffly. "Don't know whether you can get sick or not, but… My name's Daryl, by the way. Daryl Flint."
For a minute Ceytah was too enthralled with the sweater to answer. His skin felt so warm—he'd only felt this kind of warmth after he'd spent hours under the sunshine, human-watching. And the human still hadn't harmed him. Then he realized what the other had said.
"Daryl Flint," he repeated clearly, shaping the syllables in his mouth with care. Strange name, but it suited the mortal. After a minute he went back to studying the room, his brow wrinkling with confusion. Almost nothing in this room was known to him… Merfolk had a pretty extensive knowledge of the human world, but if it wasn't something they could see from the water and gossip about with one another later, they didn't often find out about it. Still, Ceytah was surprised at the amount of things that mortals could be hiding in their homes. The human cleared his throat loudly, and Ceytah turned his eyes back to him.
"What's happened here?" Daryl asked, gesturing at Ceytah's legs. Ceytah looked down at them again as well, pleating the long hem of the sweater between his fingers slowly. It gave him a jolt every time he saw legs where his tail should be. His stomach turned a bit. Then there was a curious rasping sound. Ceytah looked and saw Daryl rubbing his hand against his jaw, which was bristly with unshaven hair that Ceytah hadn't noticed before. Ceytah's eyes went wide with fascination even as Daryl spoke up again. "How do we fix it?"
"The warnings never explained how to turn it back," Ceytah answered, his eyes on the mortal's chin. Merfolk never grew facial hair—or body hair either, for that matter. He wanted to touch it. Carefully he eased himself forward again, trying to rock his momentum forward so he could stand up as the other was—but his legs seemed to have no interest in cooperating. How did humans do this? Frustrated, he put his hands against his bare thighs and rubbed them in a mix of consternation and curiosity about the new skin. They were smooth, so that was nothing new. He wanted to feel the hair. Daryl came and sat down on the side of the thing he'd set Ceytah down on, as if he knew how much Ceytah's fingers were itching to touch the stubble on his face.
"But you were warned, then?" Ceytah hardly heard him. He was reaching up as if magnetically drawn. The hair on the man's face was darker than the sun-bleached strands on his head; it was a deeper brown, peppered throughout with shiny gray. Already Ceytah could almost feel the bristly sensation on his fingertips. He'd forgotten that the weight of his tail wasn't there to stabilize him, though, and before he could get his hand up, he tipped over the man's lap instead. This was difficult. Ceytah had never been clumsy. He breathed out hard, feeling the back of his throat clog, and after a minute the mortal gave his shoulder an awkward pat.
"It's gonna take some getting used to, using those legs… Try not to get too comfortable with them, though. We've got to try to put you back somehow."
Ceytah felt a surge of hope. He tipped his head backward, not trying to lift himself off the other's thighs.
"Back… Yes. Please," he said plaintively if awkwardly phrased, fixing his eyes beseechingly on Daryl. This mortal seemed kinder than most, though he still wasn't convinced about his intentions. Daryl gave him a look in return that Ceytah couldn't entirely decipher.
"I don't know how to put you back." Daryl paused, glancing over toward the heavy wooden door they'd come in through. The sound of rain beating down on it had returned. "Not even going to try in this weather, neither... no use risking both our necks. But if you have legs, and can breathe outside of water, I guess you're gonna need to eat and drink like the rest of us. I can't much set a table, but I'll feed you with what I've got."
Slowly Ceytah put his hands down on Daryl's thighs and tried to figure out how to get upright again, giving a careful little push, and then a firmer one that finally got him sitting again. His head was spinning over the situation. And this room felt very hot. He looked over to the fire. He'd seen them from a distance, and heard much about them, but never felt one up close... It was as warm as the sun, too. Did humans like heat so much? Ceyta felt almost like he was cooking in his own skin, but it was oddly pleasant at the same time.
"You're very kind." He hesitated for a moment. "Are you truly a human?" Daryl laughed suddenly, which startled Ceytah. His expression was soft, which made the hard lines of his face rather more cheerful to look at. This Daryl wasn't strictly a handsome man. His bones were too strongly angled for that, and his sharp blue eyes were intimidating. He looked much nicer when he smiled.
"Are you truly a fish?" He returned, his eyebrows lifting with amusement. Ceytah drew in a soft, sharp breath, his expression finally showing something other than fear or curiosity: indignation. He reared back from Daryl a bit, this time remembering to put his hands behind him so he wouldn't overbalance.
"I am not a fish! I eat fish!" He exclaimed in a small burst of distaste, though his voice continued to sound as melodic as ever. The heat in the room had made his pale face flush a bit beneath his thick white hair. Daryl shook his head and stood up.
"You had yourself a tail, with scales and the like. You swam in the water. You're a fish… Were a fish… I don't know. But I'm glad to hear you eat it, because that's all I have." Before he could protest again, Daryl had bent down and picked him back up. Ceytah was too surprised to say a word as he carried him through to the tiny kitchen. Daryl set him down on a chair not nearly as soft as the other one had been.
"I'll make us something, and then I need to get to bed. I'll be up before the sun to get out on the water." He started to step away, but by this time Ceytah had recovered enough from the sudden movement. He caught Daryl by the wrists and pulled his hands firmly forward to press against the soft, muscled skin of his chest beneath the slipping neck of the outsized sweater the other had put on him.
"I am not a fish," he reiterated softly, trying to prove his point with the flesh. Daryl stared at him. His eyes had gotten a little wider. Ceytah supposed he had surprised him back. The silence stretched out, and the mortal's fingers stayed splayed over Ceytah's chest. Then Daryl pulled back and turned away without a word. He did something to a pan on top of a large cast-iron box. He hadn't disagreed again; Ceytah assumed this meant he'd made his point. He was no fish.
Daryl worked at a long surface and then the iron box in silence for awhile. Ceytah listened to the spattering sounds and busied himself with petting his hands over the mysterious fabric of the sweater again and again. He could think of nothing to compare it to—there was nothing in the sea that felt at all the same. The sea… He searched his head, but no forgotten information about the warnings came to mind. How was this ordeal reversed? Surely once he'd heard a legend of some sort…
Under his ministrations a thread worked loose from the sweater. He examined that for awhile, and then after a bit Daryl came over and set a plate of something down on the table. Ceytah stopped mid-scrutiny to stare at it. That looked like the insides of a fish, and smelled something like it—but it was different. Solid and flaky and—warm. It wasn't wet at all. Daryl sat down in a chair across from Ceytah.
"What's your name?" he asked suddenly. The words rang in the air after the lengthy silence.
"Ceytalicimasicahnta'shh." Ceytah said distractedly, his attention completely absorbed in discovering what this new version of a more familiar food was. He took his hands off the sweater and gave the fish a hard poke with a fingertip in confusion, then looked up to see Daryl staring at him as if he'd grown a second head.
"Ceyta—li—no, I caught Ceytah. I'm sorry. We're gonna have to call you that till you're back with your fish—er, merfolk." The human speared a piece of the food with a fork and put it in his mouth. "It's rude to poke at a poor man's offering. Go on, eat."
Ceytah picked up his own fork and turned it in his fingers, looking at the way it caught the light from the candles, then tentatively gave his plate a poke with it. Some of the food came away on the tines, and he raised it to his mouth to take a nibble off the end. It was unspeakably strange to be dining with a mortal. And with forks! His family would never believe this. The food moved over his tongue. It was strangely warm and not at all slippery… He wasn't sure he liked it. Another warm thing. Ceytah swallowed uncertainly. Across the table, the mortal was watching him, and Ceytah looked at him expectantly.
"What is it?"
The merman's hair was starting to curl around his face as it dried, and even Daryl, a fisherman with no real time for beauty, couldn't help marveling at the perfection of his features again. The androgyny of this Ceytah was beyond description; he looked like the loveliest woman alive, without actually being overly feminine. Even in Daryl's bulky sweater he looked as slender and delicate as a glass figurine.
"It's cod," he told him, taking another bite for himself, then lifting his glass and swallowing some of the watered down wine he'd put out. "Caught it myself."
"Cod? But—" Ceytah stopped.
"You eat it raw in the waters, probably. Tastes a bit better to humans like this."
"This is cod... But there are no scales. No tail. The eyes—those are the best part." Ceytah took another bite off his fork. "It is… better than I expected, though. Humans like everything, everything warm, don't they?" Daryl watched Ceytah's long, slender fingers vanish beneath the table and surmised that he was touching the sweater again. He seemed rather taken by the sweater.
"Humans can't live without heat," Daryl pointed out. He drank from his glass again, and saw the merman's large eyes zero in on the wine he had put in front of him as well. "It's wine. Try some."
"We never drink. I've always wanted to try," Ceytah said, his face surprisingly animated as he lifted the glass with both hands and brought it close to his lips. He sniffed, then carefully took a little sip, his eyes growing round as he swallowed it. Daryl couldn't help chuckling. This man looked grown up enough, but his curious mannerisms came across as very childlike. He wondered how old he was.
"How is it?"
"Oh. It is sour!" Ceytah remarked, peering down into his cup with interest. "Do you like this?"
"Yes. I'd like it better if I didn't have to water it down, but times are tough right now." Daryl took the last bite of fish, chewing as he watched the merman thoughtfully. This was almost too surreal… After all these years of seeing them in the ocean, now he had a merman sitting here at his kitchen table. It was so outlandish it was almost laughable. "When the storm's over, we best go find another shell, see if we can call a friend of yours or something—see if they know how to fix this."
The merman nodded, his wavy hair shimmering in the candlelight as his head moved. Did the merfolk fall in love? Daryl wondered if he had a woman somewhere, missing him. He tried to picture what a fish romance would look like. Across from him Ceytah looked suddenly speculative, putting the glass down and giving Daryl a scrutinizing look from beneath his lowered eyelashes.
"Why is it you've saved me twice now, Daryl Flint?"
"Why is it you keep getting yourself into trouble?" Daryl rebutted, standing up and setting the dishes in the sink, then raising his eyebrows at Ceytah. Now was a hell of a time for the other to get suspicious of him. "Your kind isn't supposed to mess with humans. If I wasn't home, those kids would have nailed your carcass to a board and showed you off in town." The merman flinched slightly, his pale eyes glimmering, but he didn't look satisfied by Daryl's response.
"That is not an answer," he said, quietly but firmly. "Humans are not kind. They do not save merfolk. But you have saved me... And fed me. And clothed me." He touched his fingers to the chest of the sweater. Daryl saw him stroke the material a little, and despite the circumstances he couldn't suppress a small smile. It was kind of endearing that he kept petting the damned thing like a cat.
"I wouldn't call you clothed. We need to get you some pants, you can't walk around here like that." Daryl didn't have anything that would fit this man's slender form. He massaged his hand over his jaw, trying to figure out something acceptable.
"Mortals are so strange and prudish. Why do you dislike my body?" Ceytah inquired genially enough, taking another sip from his glass. The wine tasted rather better this time. Across from him the mortal looked exasperated.
"You don't understand the customs here. I don't make the rules… You need clothes. I just don't know where I'll get them from." Daryl rubbed his hand against his facial hair again, reminding Ceytah how much he'd wanted to touch it earlier. He was still suspicious. His curiosity, though, was stronger.
Cautiously Ceytah got up onto his feet, dismissing the man's questioning glance, and waited till he could stand steadily on them. How strange to have all one's weight on the bottom… His thoughts slid longingly to the ease of using his fins, but right now he had feet he had to learn to use. He slid his hands across the table and helped himself along, till he could totter over to the man a bit awkwardly. Merfolk were graceful as a rule, but legs were a new thing entirely.
He reached the human at last, letting himself tumble against him just a bit in the final stretch, and reaching both arms slightly upward so he could pat at either of the other's cheeks. Daryl gave him a confused look. He'd caught him carefully around the waist, and the bare legs Daryl had been going on about were pressed to the front of the mortal's thighs, but Ceytah paid no attention. Merfolk didn't care about nudity, and Ceytah cared even less about human customs.
Daryl's face, though, went hot and red beneath his fingers, and he opened his mouth without speaking. Ceytah pressed on his cheeks lightly in fascination. What caused this reaction? He jumped a little as the man cleared his throat, but quickly moved his fingertips down to feel over the vibrating protrusion on his throat instead. There was even stubble there. It felt sharp and raspy, as though it could cut his skin. It was so different from the sweater. Different, too, from the flaky fish, and from the soft thing he'd sat on in the other room. Life on land seemed overwhelming—there were so many textures.
"What are you doing?" Daryl asked in an alarmingly gruff tone. Ceytah's confidence flickered, but recovered.
"No human I've kissed has ever had hair here," Ceytah explained. He moved his fingers again, stroking Daryl's skin gently. It didn't cut him after all. The man made a strangled noise.
"Humans always want to kiss us. Surely you know," Ceytah said, surprised. The man's skin had broken out into chilled little bumps, and he moved his gaze along Daryl's arms curiously, sending his touch along them right afterward. What were those? Then he smiled, his eyes lighting up as he glanced up to the human. "Now you look like a fish," he laughed, pleased. Being around a mortal for more than a minute here or there was surprisingly pleasant. Ceytah had forgotten to be afraid. He gave Daryl's wrists a little squeeze of affection.
"If you can walk around so well, I think you can get yourself upstairs for bed," Daryl muttered, avoiding Ceytah's eyes. That wasn't much of a response. Ceytah frowned, but the mortal was pulling away from him and gesturing toward a very narrow staircase set along the back wall. "Go on, then."
"Upstairs?" Ceytah repeated warily, glancing up into the dark hall. The human was blowing out the candles in the kitchen, and the shadows grew even deeper. He felt dizzy from the sour drink he'd been given. Then Daryl was behind him. Ceytah stumbled forward in surprise. "Oh, you frightened me."
"I'm sorry. Can you make it up?" Daryl held up the candle, throwing the steps into flickering relief. Ceytah took an uncertain step and grasped the railing.
"I'll try," he said slowly. The human was immediately behind him. "Legs are odd things."
"Unpredictable, too," Daryl agreed. He stepped up behind Ceytah, and held a hand lightly to the small of his back when he wobbled. "You're all right. Keep on." Ceytah didn't, though. He turned and surveyed the dark first floor of the other's home over Daryl's head, his expression dimming as he sighed softly.
"I feel sorry for you humans. So enclosed…" He trailed off and gave Daryl's cheek a sudden little stroke. Daryl snorted and swatted lightly at the back of the other's thigh, which made the merman suck in his breath with a wide-eyed little look. Daryl shook his head back.
"Rather be enclosed than dodging sharks at bedtime, boy. C'mon, enough pity, up you go."
The merman moved very slowly, completely uncertain on his new legs. By the time they reached the top Daryl had long since been wishing he had simply carried him, but the other had to learn sometime and they did eventually make it up. Ceytah walked carefully down the short hallway in front of him. His posture was rather stiff and he seemed a little on edge, but Daryl couldn't help marveling at the grace with which he stepped. Even on two legs, Ceytah moved like he was floating. He lifted the candle as the merman stopped in the doorway of Daryl's bedroom, and then the other gasped and hurried forward as fast as his new legs would take him. Daryl didn't realize he was going for the bed till he started stroking his hands blissfully over the top once he'd reached it.
"Oh, I've heard story after story of human beds," Ceytah exclaimed breathlessly. Daryl bit his lip and set the candle down in one of the holders along the wall. This was going to be a long night, wasn't it? Ceytah had very cautiously sat himself down, and managed not to tip over when the mattress swayed beneath him. "Ahh, it's so soft…"
Daryl started unbuttoning his shirt, trying not to feel improper, and also not to look too closely at the merman on his bed. At this moment he looked a little too alluring, even for a male. Daryl wasn't sure how to pass this night. The loveseat downstairs was far too short to sleep on. It was looking like the floor for him.
"How do your folk sleep?" He asked Ceytah, trying to distract himself from the damp night ahead. The merman was rolling around now, hitching the covers along with him. He looked purely happy for the first time since Daryl had initially laid eyes on him. He stopped to look up at him, and Daryl couldn't help smiling at how mussed his fair hair had gotten.
"There are ambelone beds that are soft, but not like this... We twine there."
"Twine?" Daryl echoed. It was hard to resent the merman for taking over the bed so entirely. The happiness on his face made him fairly glow. Daryl set his shirt aside and sat down on the edge of the mattress, unable to keep up his pretense that he wasn't watching the other man. "I don't follow."
Ceytah nodded and sat himself up with care. He took Daryl's hand. Bemused, Daryl let him tug him down against the bed, and then the merman twisted his legs around his, fast as lightning, pressing his chest to Daryl's. Daryl felt a hot, awkward sensation on the back of his neck.
"Oh, it's hard to do like this… But this is the best I can do to copy it," Ceytah explained. "Twining."
"I… see." Daryl had to stop and clear his throat, his voice came out sounding so cracked and uncomfortable. Were merfolk so touchy-feely? In the water they seemed to have a lot more mystique than this boy's affectionate existence suggested. The flush rose further up his neck as he had a thought. "You, uh… you sleep like this with your lover?"
"My lover?" Ceytah laughed, a remarkably silvery sound. It suited him. "No. We all sleep like this, all twined together."
"Oh." Daryl felt a little better. He laid still and tried uncomfortably not to breathe onto the merman's face, watching as the other's eyelids grew instantly heavy, then closed entirely. Did the mere position stimulate sleep for him? Even as he watched Ceytah reached back and drew a thick handful of his hair over them both like a blanket. It smelled salty. Ceytah tucked his arm around Daryl and he froze awkwardly beneath it. Where did he put his hands? He hadn't even taken his clothes off…
"Haahnasaiisii," Ceytah said very softly in Merish. His tone suggested it was a good night of some kind. His breathing evened out, and Daryl was left completely wrapped in the merman's embrace, on top of the covers with his arms held stiffly at his sides. Well… damn.
Ceytah slept surprisingly well for being on land, not to mention without the brothers and sisters he'd twined with for all of his years, but he was still disappointed to see that it hadn't been a dream. As a few weak bars of light slipped through the cracks of the shutters and fell along his arm, he opened his eyes and found himself wrapped comfortably in Daryl Flint's arms. Daryl Flint. He glanced down, and still had legs. Perhaps today he would go back. There was no storm outside that he could feel.
Ceytah looked at the mortal. In sleep, Daryl looked very young. He stroked a fingertip over the other's facial hair, watching his expression for a moment. He was dreaming about a woman. Ceytah investigated this for a moment. He couldn't pick up particulars; there was no name, no real features to be seen. Even in sleep Daryl was guarded. This should have made Ceytah suspicious, and yet he felt the man was kind.
Tired of laying around and wanting to investigate the room, Ceytah turned away and sat up gently in Daryl's arms. His silvery white hair fell down around his hips. It startled him with how heavy it felt; he'd never realized how much it would weigh if dry. He lifted it over his shoulder and across his chest to take some of the strain off his roots. The light coming into the room was growing a bit stronger.
The human hadn't stirred, and Ceytah looked back down at him. In the sea, merfolk almost always awoke at the same time. It seemed strange that Daryl was still sleeping. The man gave a little noise in his sleep, and Ceytah touched his throat, stroking his fingertip against the protrusion lightly. It vibrated, like a conch shell. Ceytah remembered Daryl crushing the one the mortal boys had blown and shivered.
Daryl's breath was warm against him. He leaned down to put his ear above his mouth so he could listen to the sound of his breathing. Actually, the mortal smelled rather nice. Ceytah turned his head, giving his cheek a little sniff. The human's dream shifted, and Daryl turned his head far enough to nudge his lips against the corner of Ceytah's mouth. He paused in surprise. But Daryl slept on.
Ceytah's curiosity was aroused again.
He'd never kissed a mortal with facial hair… The scrape of it against his fingers alone had sent shivers down his spine, and now in the thin morning light, the growth was greater and Ceytah's face fairly ached to experience the same sensation his fingers had. He couldn't resist. Slowly he leaned down over the man, gingerly brushing their cheeks together a bit, then turning his head and touching his lips to the man's throat to see what the stubble felt like against his lips. It prickled painfully, but the sensation was somehow sweet. His body leaned against Daryl's and pressured him gently onto his back so Ceytah could stretch over top of him, and when he glanced up the human had opened his eyes and was staring at him blankly. Ceytah gazed back without a hint of guilt.
"How—" Daryl's voice sounded like his throat was full of mud. He coughed and tried again. "How long have you been awake?"
"I just woke up, and you smelled nice," Ceytah explained vaguely. He pursed his lips at the man's cheek, wondering whether the hair there felt the same as the hair beneath Daryl's chin, but the other pulled to the side and held him off with one arm.
"Okay, whoa, stop, enough of that. I know you aren't used to this, but uh—this—" Daryl sat up, still holding Ceytah back, and gave a sweeping gesture around himself with one hand. He looked like he was drawing a protective box around himself. "This is personal space. You're invading it—men don't invade each other's personal space here."
Ceytah sat back on his heels and frowned, his nose wrinkling. Personal space? Invading? More prudish human ideas.
"Only humans would consider affection and natural curiosity an invasion of space," he returned softly.
"Being affectionate isn't a problem—though why you're being affectionate with me is another question." Daryl let go of him and wiped his face, rubbing his fingers into his eyes. Ceytah sat still and watched without trying to touch him again.
"Why not?" He questioned Daryl plainly, still watching the man. He saw no reason his affection shouldn't be aimed at him. His eyes trailed down to the human's chest after a minute. He took a handful of his own hair and starting to stroke his fingers along it, twisting a few of the long curling strands around them. "You have a very closed-off soul."
"And what does that mean?" Daryl's own hair, much shorter and sandier in color than Ceytah's, was standing in all different directions from how he'd slept. He followed Ceytah's gaze. "What are you looking at?"
"Humans are so suspicious," Ceytah responded without answering. He laid down contently, turning his back to the mortal without fear. It didn't surprise him that Daryl would be so distrustful, living as he did amongst a race of murderous souls. It was only surprising that the other thought he was the one who ought to be cautious in this situation. He peeked back over his shoulder suddenly, catching the mortal staring at him. "Why do you live alone, Daryl Flint?"
This merman was strange, and seemed to be talking in riddles. It was too early for such nonsense. Daryl was getting a headache, and as Ceytah asked him such a sudden question he felt his stomach plunge uncontrollably.
"I work too long and too hard for a family." He had the uncomfortable feeling that Ceytah could see right through him. Over his shoulder, his eyes had fixed Daryl with an impossibly wise gaze. It was nothing like the childlike stare he'd had the evening before. How old was this merman? He didn't look at all surprised by Daryl's answer, which only intensified his discomfort.
"And you are never lonely?" Ceytah questioned, looking as though he already knew the answer to this as well. Daryl growled abruptly. He wasn't in the mood to talk about feelings, least of all with a fish.
"I've got eggs for breakfast," he told him in a mutter, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and getting up. Now that he thought about it, he couldn't believe he'd let the merman spend the night in bed with him. He was a bloody siren. He stepped into yesterday's pants quickly, not looking at the other. "Come down when you're ready."
"Your lips touched mine," Ceytah said suddenly. Daryl already had his hand on the bedroom door. He froze, his fingers wrapped around the edge, slowly turning back to look at the other man. Ceytah was sitting up on the bed again, his depthless violet eyes watching Daryl closely.
"What?" His voice came out harsher than he'd intended. The merman cringed back, and the certainty of his expression dimmed a little. Daryl had frightened him. Belatedly he took in the way the other was sitting. He had his legs folded beneath him, his hands fisted docilely between his slender thighs and bunching the sweater down. It was… kind of cute. He looked like a child again, hiding beneath the masses of his hair.
"Your lips touched mine," Ceytah repeated himself in a small voice. "So you invaded my space first."
Daryl stared at him incredulously for a minute. But Ceytah didn't seem to be joking.
"At what point did I kiss you? I've been asleep. What was your mouth even doing near mine?" He still sounded angry, despite having taken notice of Ceytah's concerned posture. The other shrank into himself even further. Did he really think Daryl was going to suddenly come to blows with him, after keeping him in his bedroom all night?
"I was looking at your face hair," the merman said, even more quietly. Daryl relaxed slightly. "I didn't say 'kissed.'" Daryl considered this, then nodded. That was true, he hadn't. Daryl had jumped to his own conclusions. He took a breath, exhaling it slowly.
"Your kind doesn't have much hair, huh?" His gaze trailed along the merman's exposed skin, and then suddenly he grunted as his jaw twitched in realization. "I mean, not that I've been looking."
"None," Ceytah answered neutrally, touching his hair and eyebrows. "Only here and here." Daryl's abruptly awkward behavior drew his attention, and he unfolded his legs to stretch them out in front of him, putting his hand on one of his knees. "Did you mean here? I don't mind if you look."
"Uh…" Daryl didn't entirely know what to say to that. There probably wasn't proper etiquette for how to answer a merman inviting you to look upon him, and he had to admit that he really hadn't meant the other's legs. He kept hovering in the doorway, watching as Ceytah stroked his fingers absently against his own kneecap. "Yeah. Uh... How… old are you?"
"We don't age as humans do, we aren't mortal."
"But surely you must have some form of measuring time? Can't quite figure you out. You seem like a man sometimes, but others I'd swear you were just a boy."
"A boy?" Ceytah giggled, but didn't comment farther. Daryl felt awkward pressing it again. He let it drop for now. He felt abruptly annoyed with the other, and more annoyed with himself. Why was he interrogating this fishman like he was considering hiring him to work the boats with him? He wasn't exactly full of social graces at the best of times, and finding himself gawking at another man—a merman—didn't improve his temperament any.
"Come down when you're ready," he repeated himself crossly. The merman jumped slightly at the tone of his voice. Daryl watched the smile vanish from his face, and then Ceytah carefully slid off the bed and stood himself up. He looked frightened of Daryl once again. "Why d'you keep looking at me like that? I wouldn't have saved you just to hurt you in my own house."
"No." Ceytah hesitated, looking the mortal over. His hands came up and pressed to Daryl's chest, and Daryl watched as the merman gazed at his own fingers. He could feel his heartbeat drumming against the pressure. "You're a different kind of mortal. I can see your heart is good. But a human is a human, and humans will kill." Daryl's mouth went dry at the bluntness of the merman's words. His serious expression had aged his features far beyond boyhood.
"I won't," Daryl said. "Well, I'm a fisherman, I will. I do. But I've no interest in killing merfolk. You belong in the sea, I only mean to get you back there. No harm done." He matched Ceytah's tone and expression, and after a minute of searching his face curiously the merman suddenly smiled.
"Ah," he said lightly, apparently deciding to diverge from the subject altogether. His fingers relaxed on Daryl's chest and caressed it absently. "You'll be able to breathe underwater today."
"A human who doesn't know the legends?" Ceytah looked surprised again, but he was still smiling a bit. "A mer kiss will give you the ability to breathe below for a few hours—and you came close enough."
"We… We didn't kiss." Daryl felt the blush return, frying the skin below his shirt collar. He didn't miss the amused quirk in the other's lips.
"Close enough," Ceytah said again.
When Daryl opened the shutters in the kitchen, the air filled with the fresh scent off the ocean that only came after a rain. The sun had just begun to peek over the edge of the sea, far off in the horizon. Ceytah knew from two weeks of observation that this meant the human was getting a late start on his fishing, but the human cooked breakfast and sat down to eat it with Ceytah anyway. They ate mostly in silence. Still, the mortal didn't hurry off afterward.
"So I can breathe underwater," he said, leaning back in his chair. Ceytah was holding a spoon up to the light and watching the prisms that formed in its reflection as a sunbeam caught it, but he looked past it to the mortal and nodded. "I've heard your lot can lure sailors to their death, but you can give them life as well?"
"Yes," Ceytah answered simply.
"Have you done the luring, yourself?" Daryl looked faintly suspicious, but Ceytah didn't take offense. He laid the spoon down with a soft clatter and shook his head, jumping a bit as a few strands of his hair brushed unexpectedly against his bare knee.
"Mostly those are eastern merfolk. We can do it… But we leave humans alone. They're too dangerous." He thought of something suddenly, tucking the errant strands of hair back behind his ear unconsciously. "They always say humans are mesmerized by our looks. Do I look nice?"
"You do," Daryl answered promptly. He caught his tongue and hesitated visibly right afterward, and Ceytah saw his eyes shoot to the side as if someone might be standing in the doorway watching him. "Kind of a strange question to ask another man."
"Why?" Ceytah asked. "If I were a mermaid, it would be different? That is what is strange."
"Well." Daryl's expression flickered slightly, but he gave his head a shake right afterward. "Well. If you were a mermaid…. It's different. There's just a certain, uh, unsavory group of men that compliment other men, you know?"
Ceytah didn't know. He had no idea what the other was talking about, actually. Ceytah saw no difference between himself and the mermaids, except that they had breasts. On the other side of the spectrum, he saw no great difference between the mortal men and women that sought out merfolk from time to time. Why humans had such strong distinctions between their genders made next to no sense to him.
"You are a nice looking human. Does saying that make me an unsavory man?" He questioned Daryl gently. It was fine with him if the mortal had his own beliefs. He was only trying to point out the triviality of it all as it seemed to him. Still, the human was starting to look frustrated with him again.
"It's different for you, all right? You look good. Let's just leave it at that—but honestly, if I had come across you like this I would've believed you were a woman." He ran his eyes across Ceytah. Ceytah touched at his chest automatically to protest, but reconsidered. He supposed that in this bulky sweater it would be difficult to tell. Human men looked far different from mermen.
"Thank you," he said at last.
"You're welcome." Daryl started stacking the dishes as Ceytah stood up and wandered over to the open window, peering out into the brightening day. "We'd better go try to hunt down a conch shell."
"You aren't fishing today?" The merman glanced over his shoulder. His face was backlit so completely by the window that Daryl could hardly make out his features, but he stopped and stared at him with his arms full of plates anyway.
"Don't you want to go home?"
"Well, yes… But—"
"But nothing. I won't get any work done, knowing you're rattling around in here by yourself being curious." Daryl chuckled at last, and the tension that had built in the kitchen seemed to dissolve a little. "You'd probably burn the place down.
"I wouldn't," Ceytah retorted automatically, looking stung.
"It's an expression. More or less." Daryl set the dishes in the sink, on top of the ones from last night. "I'll wash up later," he said, dusting his hands off over the basin. The merman had gone back to gazing out the window. Suddenly his back stiffened. Daryl saw his fingers tighten around handfuls of the sweater hem.
"Someone is coming."
"Really?" The window faced the road to town. Not many people came this far down the beach, and those who did were like the teenagers from before—only looking for trouble. Daryl stepped up behind the slender man and looked out over his head. Ceytah was fairly tall; the top of his head was on level with Daryl's chin. Noticing this made him realize how long it had been since he'd stood near anyone even remotely close to his own height.
"There," Ceytah pointed.
Daryl squinted. Then his thick eyebrows rose in disbelief as he recognized the three approaching figures.
"I think—I think it's my sister. No, Darla would have to be mad to travel during storm season. And with the kids…" He trailed off as the troop moved closer. It was definitely Darla. She stretched her arm up and started waving, and once the kids noticed, they started waving their arms madly in the air, too. They'd be upon them any second. Daryl looked down at Ceytah and panicked at the sight of his bare legs. The merman didn't notice; he looked delighted.
"Children are lovely, they're the only mortals we truly enjoy," he said, smiling.
"That's great, but what am I going to do with you? How do I explain a half-naked boy in my house?" Daryl's panic grew. Darla would believe him, but the kids would tell this story all over the county. He glanced back out the window and felt sick to his stomach as he saw the children running down the road toward the house. "Oh, damn…"
Daryl's distress was physically thickening the air. Ceytah didn't really understand the difficulty—humans had such strange concerns. But he was an empathetic merman, and his heart went out to the human as he looked so worried. He reached out and gave Daryl's arm a soothing stroke.
"I'll stay upstairs while they visit," he offered comfortably.
"You can't, they're from two towns over. They could be here for days. You can't stay upstairs like a dog." Daryl winced and started herding Ceytah toward the stairs, rushing him up them a little faster than Ceytah could really move. He hardly managed not to fall. "I'll explain to Darla. We'll have to come up with a story for the kids… Well, I'm sorry to say you look woman than man. They'll believe that, at least."
Daryl's thoughts were going faster than Ceytah could keep up, and so were his feet as the other rushed him into the bedroom. He sat down on the bed gratefully when they'd reached it.
"I'm to be a woman?" Confused, he looked up at Daryl as the other rushed around putting things into order. "But I have no breasts as women do. They won't be fooled."
"Not all women… Never mind that now. You look enough like a young girl. The only thing that makes sense is for us to be getting married—bit improper—have to do." Daryl stuffed a pillow into Ceytah's arms and looked around the room rather wildly, then nodded. "Wait here, all right?"
"Shouldn't I go down and greet them?" Ceytah hugged the pillow, a bit bewildered. What was he supposed to do with this? Perhaps there was some sort of custom for welcoming human relatives—giving them a pillow to wish them a comfortable stay, or something like that. Mortals did similar odd things in the name of tradition.
"Oh, no, no. Look, Darla's a nurse, she's seen naked men before—but don't spring it all on her at once. Just sit there, and hold still." Daryl pulled the pillow away from him and pushed it against Ceytah's lap instead, and he looked down at it, perplexed. "I've got to explain it all to her first. Maybe she'll have something you can wear…" There was an excited pounding at the door downstairs, and Daryl jumped slightly. He fixed Ceytah with another strong look. "Just wait here."
"All right," Ceytah agreed slowly. He drew his legs up and tucked them beneath himself, cross-legged, and put his hands on top of the pillow. Human legs were really very bendy and interesting. "I'm sorry to cause you so much trouble, Daryl Flint," he said sincerely.
Daryl paused in the doorway, feeling suddenly deeply unkind in his gruffness. Ceytah had offered to lurk upstairs like an unwanted intruder, and here Daryl was treating him like the worst kind of imposition. "It's fine," he said more gently. "I'll be back soon."