Almost four centuries ago, humans had the privilege to see other humanoid creatures, but rather than accepting the others, humans thought they were simply mutated humans, or mindless beasts. However, history had proven that humans were the monsters, and those that they called monsters were the victims. After the almost complete extinction of the Avians at the hands of humans that spanned both Americas, all other humanoids went into hiding. The surviving Avians went into the mountains, attacking and killing any human who would be foolish enough to attempt to climb, or when the fancy flying machines were created, caused them to crash, which led to humans calling the mountains treacherous. Other land-bound creatures like Centaurs and Were-beasts fled into the forests, keeping their territories out of human hands by any means possible.
Aquatic humanoids like the Mer-folk and Selkies and Sirens were pushed further down into seas and oceans, until it was rare for them to see the light of the sun. Elders of each species warned that the light would bring humans, and the humans would capture any foolish creature for torture, or worse.
Katie grew up in a small village, where she knew every Mer and Siren by name and tail, and where everyone unfortunately knew her. She knew she was known as the Menace, causing trouble since she was born, clumsy and curious about the big, black inky world around her. Even her family could not contain her thirst for knowledge of what lay above and beyond the village perimeter.
“You can’t. You’re not old enough to visit the city,” her mother would tell her.
“You can’t. Humans lay beyond here, just waiting for a stupid Mermaid to leave all by herself,” her brother would warn constantly.
“Not yet. You’ll understand when you’re older,” her father would try to reassure her.
The excuses continued even as she reached maturity at 18, and not stopping when she turned 21 migrations old, although Katie could now willingly ignore them.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Romelle asked fearfully, having accompanied her friend as they followed after a school of fish, Katie curious about their sudden disappearances in large amounts around the village. “We’re awfully far out from even the hunting packs.”
“Oh, don’t be such a little guppy,” Katie chided her friend. She was the only one who was all talk and no action, which suited the green-tail just fine. “We’re only just outside the hunting zone, which means we won’t be disturbed to observe.”
“But, Katie…” Romelle protested to no avail, Katie already had her sights on the fish. “Ugh, if we’re going to observe, then can you at least stop startling the poor things. They probably think you’re a shark or whale come to eat them alive.”
Katie giggled, her first set of eyelids closing gleefully, and she pushed her hair back from obscuring her vision, quickly tying a lock of hair around the rest so it would stay behind her. “I don’t sound anything like a shark or whale, and these dumbies know that. They know we’re Mer-folk so they think we’re hunters. Best way to show we aren’t is to go up to them and show them we mean no harm.”
Even when she turned away from her friend, Katie could hear the eyeroll Romelle gave.
“Fine, fine. Whatever. But remember we still have our duties to attend to. Elder Coran said he had some big news and wanted us all to be done for the day to tell us.”
“Yeah, yeah, but that’s not for currents. Now would you shut up so we can watch these dummies, and then we’ll go back and do our boring duties. Just one current of observing and then we can go.” Katie promised, turning to face Romelle and grabbed her hands in their way of a solemn vow. Both mermaids were touch-resistant, particularly Katie, so when she initiated any sort of physical contact with friends or family, she was being very serious. She understood Romelle’s fears, so by taking her hands, she was acknowledging and trying to come up with a compromise that would satisfy both.
“Okay, fine,” Romelle squeezed the younger Mermaid’s hands before letting go, and the two went back to Katie’s mission.
The current went by almost too quickly for Katie, and she grew restless of simply observing halfway through, slowly approaching the school, her curiosity palpable in the water surrounding them. She was happy when they accepted her and soon took her in as a large, friendly fish like them, even though Romelle stayed behind, out of reach of the school.
It was as she was playing with some of the fish, watching how they spun and almost danced in Katie’s hair when suddenly something came at the school, including her, without warning. Romelle and Katie screeched in unison, but as Katie tried to get away from whatever had hit her, something wrapped around her tail, and it was now pulling up, pulling up much faster than either mermaid could react.
“Katie!” Romelle screeched, frozen in place even as Katie stretched to her full length in an attempt to reach her.
“Romelle!” Katie yelped as she was fully entrapped in some sort of mesh together with a good portion of the school. “Romelle! Help! Help me!”
If Romelle had replied to her screeching pleas, the green-tail couldn’t hear it as she was brought up, up to something bright and almost sparkly, to her utter horror. She was being brought up to the Surface, where Humans ruled and dictated, and the very thought almost stopped her heart on the spot.
“No, no no no!” She begged, pulling at the mesh that trapped her and the other fish from escaping, but it was much stronger than she was. She cursed her weak nature. She was sure even young guppies or Romelle or Keith could break out easily of the mesh – if Romelle wouldn’t freeze like she had watching Katie, that was.
Her throat burned with fear and terror, as pressure built up behind her eyes, and a sob ripped from her mouth. She didn’t want to die, but she had gone too far from help, so even if her teal-tail friend tried to get assistance, she would already be human-food.
The light of the Surface grew brighter and brighter, until Katie was sure she had lost her vision forever when she felt something freezing touch her skin and scales. She gasped only to not be able to breathe through her gills, along with the other fish in the net with her.
With nothing else to do, the green-tail screeched, the strangest sensation of weight pushing her uncomfortably down against the mesh and further tangling her tail horribly.
Weird noises came to her ears and her eyes adjusted a bit to see dimly around her. Mer-folk with two deformed tails each were on a weird mud-coloured cove, skittering around the top of the cove that she was being brought to.
It took Katie several bubbles to realize that they were Humans and not Mer-folk with weird tails when they had her laid down on the weird cove and surround her. They shouted at her in a language that hurt her ears, but she couldn’t understand a thing. She raised her hands to ward them away, her tail slapping the cove even when it started to hurt and tighten the mesh around her, all the while struggling to breathe. A small part of her mind remembered an old history lesson where Mer-folk were once able to breathe both above the Surface and below, but she couldn’t tell how she would be able to, if she lived long enough to attempt it.
Hands grabbed at her arms and upper body, pushing them down to the cove top and tried to stop her from struggling. It only made her screech louder wordlessly, the sound painful to her own ears, and flop until she was sure she was going to be covered in bruises if she made it out of this encounter alive.
During the struggle, a hand went to her mouth and nose, while other hands came to the gills along her sides and she really couldn’t breathe now. The stress and fear were too much, and Katie’s last sight was of blue above, bright and terrifying.
Lance yawned as he scanned his identification card at the entrance, really wishing the barrier would lift faster so he could park and get some much needed coffee. He had slept in just long enough to have no time to brew his own and getting some at the drive-thru would have made him late. At least if he was in the building, Iverson – or more likely Shiro and Hunk – wouldn’t be able to scold him for tardiness.
When the barrier lifted, after what felt like an eternity, Lance quickly got to his spot, almost forgetting to lock his car in his single-minded focus for the one thing that would keep him awake when the sun hadn’t even risen to a gray dawn.
When Lance had started out this job as a marine biologist, he had thought it would be a relatively easy job with a reasonable time schedule. For the most part it was.
Until last night when his division got a message to say that they were to arrive at work before even the fish would be awake, that something very important was arriving that only his division would be allowed to have clearance for.
The thoughts of the day before barely nudged at his attention, if only for him to curse Iverson for forcing him to go to sleep as soon as he had gotten home the day before so he could attempt to wake up in time for the new schedule.
Not that it mattered anyway, he found, as he stepped into the break room, where some god was clearly smiling down upon Lance in the form of a still steaming pot of coffee.
He zoomed to the counter, his arms reaching without looking for a mug, and began making his coffee, adding a couple spoonful’s of sugar and a small amount of creamer so he could enjoy the normally bitter hot drink, not noticing if anyone else was there.
“Damn, man.” A familiar voice chuckled off to the side as a hand clasped Lance’s shoulder warmly. “Not even a wave back, you really are a zombie before you have that stuff.”
Lance struggled not to shriek and drop his much needed coffee, the yelp strangled in his throat. “Hunk you sonuvabitchdon’tdothat!”
Hunk’s chuckle turned into a low belly laugh, and he patted Lance’s shoulder. “I waved, dude. You didn’t even hear me say I had a feeling you hadn’t had time to make some at home.”
Putting his racing heart aside, Lance gave his best friend a tired glare over the mug, grumbling into the slowly cooling liquid as he took a sip. He made complaints he knew neither one of them could understand before Hunk’s overall sunshine-y self took over the empty room. Seriously, how was he so chipper at almost four o’clock in the morning? It was almost an affront how much of a morning person he was.
“Been here for about half-hour, think only Iverson was here before me. Oh, besides the skeleton crew, of course. Got to see Casey sleeping peacefully. For an angry seal, she’s almost angelic when she’s asleep,” Hunk went on with an easy tone, washing over Lance like waves, and they chuckled at the idea of the little menace not having a constant snarl or distrustful look.
“Maybe she’s finally warming up to her home now,” Lance shrugged as he took a big gulp. “What about Bits and Bitty?”
“Bitty was wide awake but holding Bits’ hand so they didn’t drift too far in their pool.” Hunk answered. “And before you ask, Kaltenecker seemed to have been exploring her new enclosure with enthusiasm. Much better than that cramped temporary housing she spent way too long in.”
“Good. She was showing signs of extreme stress last time I saw her.” The manatee had been at the site for almost a year and only within the past week had she been moved out of the small pool that was meant to hold much smaller sea creatures for a while and larger creatures only for a very short period of time. Lance had lobbied for her to be moved for months. He had noticed her behaviour was very depressed, but there had been no place to house the large sea-cow comfortably. “She deserves that happiness.”
“Yeah, she does,” Hunk hummed in agreement before he turned to check the time. “Oh hey, that meeting should be about to start, we should definitely get there before Iverson skins us alive.”
Lance groaned and quickly downed the rest of his still warm coffee. He smacked his lips and sighed loudly in contentment at the taste before following his best friend out of the break room.
The room where the meeting was taking place in was one of the smaller areas, more like an office that no one actually called an office. Lance’s division was small, just a handful of people, and Hunk and Shiro normally aligning their schedules to match his so Lance wouldn’t die of boredom – that and the first month when no one supervised him, Lance had almost caused a mutiny among his group, even though he wasn’t the leader.
Today, however, only he and Shay seemed to be in the meeting with Hunk, Shiro, and Iverson. The young woman gave a small wave to the two as they entered the room before she went back to her notebook, reading or writing some passage for work probably. Lance waved back, looking over at Hunk with a questioning expression that asked where the rest of the group was, only to receive a shrug in response.
“Good, everyone’s here,” Iverson started once Lance and Hunk took their seats beside Shay.
“Wait, sir, what about-” Shay began, but Shiro cut her off politely.
“The others won’t be needed this time. They all seemed pretty relieved about the correction in their schedules. And the less people that know, the better it is for everyone.”
Well, that wasn’t cryptic at all. The three young adults looked between themselves in confusion.
“So what is this?” Hunk asked. “What’s this about?”
“We’re getting to that, Garrett,” Iverson snapped, looking down at his watch and the door as if he was waiting for something, and was very impatient about it too. “They’ll be here any minute now, anyhow.”
“This is a very special ‘mission,’ I guess you could say,” Shiro provided helpful info now. “We’ll be getting an extremely, uh, unique creature from some baffled fishermen, and the existence of the creature has to stay between us and those same fishermen.”
“What, did they find the Loch Ness Monster?” Lance joked, leaning back into his seat as the coffee finally started to give him the energy he would need for the day. “And why us? Why in the middle of the night?”
“Again, the less people who know about all this, the easier everything will be for us,” Shiro said. “It’s hard to explain without them here, so we’ll answer that in a bit.”
“Is this like a government thing that they don’t want the public to know about?” Shay questioned in her soft, gravelly voice, that always sounded as if she had some sand in her throat.
“Sort of,” Shiro answered.
“Probably,” Iverson grumbled, shaking his head. “But we needed you all because you were all the best for the job.”
“What about our previous stuff? Bitty trusts me more than the others,” Lance frowned.
“You’ll still be working on them, but not as frequently. That is, unless you want to work longer hours for less money, which we can’t actually do with a good conscience. This, until it’s time we can send it along or something, will take priority over all your other work.”
“But the biggest reason we chose all of you is because you have all shown to be the tightest lips, and we cannot let others know about what’s going on,” Shiro said as a knock on the door brought the room’s attention away from the front.
“Ah, that must be Derek.” Iverson stood up and opened the door to reveal a sun-warmed man about Shiro’s age who looked dead on his feet.
The two shook hands, and Derek was mumbling something Lance couldn’t decipher, but his boss looked to their little group and waved them to follow.
He, Hunk and Shay stayed together as they followed Iverson, Shiro and the fisherman out and towards one of the loading docks. The gray dawn was coming up now, dim light showing the morning fog starting to rise, and at the furthest loading dock stood a small group of fishers and a large tarped up thing.
“Terrifying thing. Almost blasted the whole crew deaf. Never heard anything like it,” Derek’s voice carried over to the three young adults. “Some of the crew had to get to the hospital as soon as we got to docks, and I’m thinking we all should because I still hear that thing’s screech.”
“Thank you for bringing it here. You did the right thing,” Iverson said as they approached the crew and tarped thing. “Can we see it before we bring that tank inside?”
“Sure, sure. Yeah. It’s damned creepy, though,” One of the crewmembers said as she and Derek grabbed an edge of the tarp each. “It’s like a damned fairy tale, but horrifying.”
Now Lance was really intrigued by whatever the thing was, and he and Shay approached the covered thing as the fishermen lifted the tarp.
A shocked hush fell over the group as Lance and the others saw the tail that was almost as long as he was tall. Muted in colour yet still a beautiful forest green, with scales trailing up until it met what looked eerily similar to fair human skin, freckles dusting the entire body, with gills around the ribs on the sides, and-
Wow, those were boobs, oh god. Lance had to pull his eyes away from the chest and the weightless boobs that looked so soft and squishy, so he went from gawking at the creature’s boobs to their eyes.
They glowed a bright, warm honey colour, wide, and almost frantically searching around their environment. Their teeth were exposed, sharper than human teeth, and what Lance could only understand as an actual, living breathing mermaid snarled in their direction inside the tube-like transport tank.
She had been at her full height when the tarp had come up, but had quickly curled up at the bottom, fear and some other emotion Lance couldn’t place evident on her face.
It took him about three long seconds of staring at the mermaid’s face until he noticed how she seemed to be breathing, or trying to. Her body was shaking like she was either hyperventilating or panting, and Lance realized the signs all at once.
“Oh my god, she’s a deep-sea! Get her to a pressurized tank! She can’t survive like this!” he shouted, turning away from the honest to everything sacred mermaid to shake Hunk frantically.
A couple other fishers were pulled into assistance as Hunk directed them to move the tank into the building properly, heading down towards the deep-sea corridor.
“How could you possibly know what kind of thing that was?” Derek asked as they followed the tank.
“She couldn’t breathe properly, and her eyes literally glow.” Lance shook his head. “I’m surprised she didn’t die on the way here, how long was she in that tank?”
“That thing was with us for only under a week. Didn’t do much the entire time, and we thought sometimes that it had died.”
Internally, Lance was cursing the fisherman, but he just shook his head again. “She’s lucky she didn’t die out at sea. But seriously, she’s legit glowing with her eyes, that’s probably the only way she could see, you know, like anglerfish or flashlight fish?”
“Mister, we don’t really try to keep fish alive on our boat,” Derek deadpanned as the tank was brought into one of the rooms. “We keep them fresh, we’re not equipped to keep many fish actually alive.”
Despite wanting to argue with the man, Lance stopped as they entered behind the group to see the tank tip over the large, pressurized tank. The mermaid made some noises as if in protest as she slid out into the larger tank, and her head broke the surface for a brief second where she shouted in pure panic that caused the fishermen to flinch.
However, once she was fully in the water, her demeanour changed. The mermaid relaxed, and drifted slowly down to the floor, her chest – Lance would forever deny he was staring at her chest – heaving as if getting proper breath, and her gills flared. She still looked terrified but she no longer appeared to be suffering and dying, so he counted that as a partial win.
Once things were settled, Lance, Shay, and Hunk all individually turned to the fishers and their bosses with a questioning expression each.
“As you can see, this is why we’re keeping this under wraps.” Shiro said, gesturing to the darkened tank. “You all know those old stories. Half-fish and half-human creatures, who brought good luck or death to sailors.” He ran a hand through his hair, bemused. “Turns out they’re real.”
“We got in talks with some government lady who said they wanted some tests done before they wanted to tell people,” Derek started.
“We are to observe and note everything we learn about this creature,” Iverson continued. “Stories have all sorts of falsehoods, and the Minister of Science Advancement wants us to weed out the truths from the falsehoods. Think you can help?” He looked between the three young adults each as they paused, looked between one another, and nodded resolutely. “Good. But remember, none of this is allowed to leave this building, this very room, these people only . We are the only ones who can talk about this creature’s existence until the Minister says we’re allowed to go public with our knowledge.”
“Do we need to sign a contract or something?” Hunk asked.
“Yes. It’ll only confirm your silence about knowing this mermaid is here, until the contract becomes void,” Shiro explained.
The others continued to speak, but Lance slowly drifted from the conversation, finding himself looking back into the tank, in the dim, dark light where the mermaid rested on the floor of the tank. Her eyes were closed, squeezed shut. Lance could almost see a pained frown when her hands flew up to her face, now obscured from view. He noticed scale-patches running up her arms, as well as the frilled ears that peeked out between the floating brown hair.
Something about her body language, or what he would have to assume was similar body language as humans, spoke of pain and fear and sorrow that tugged at Lance’s heartstrings. He reached out to place his hand on the glass, careful not to tap on it as he did. He wasn’t sure why he felt the need to do so, but he felt like he was trying to help.
To simply say Katie was terrified would barely begin to scratch the surface of her feelings as she lay at the bottom of the cage, her throat burning as sobs threatened to shake her entire body apart.
She was alone, she knew that for a fact. There was no sound outside her cage, no lights on outside except a couple small, blinking ones, and she saw no humans watching her through the thick glass. She wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn’t escape and all the sounds got caught in her throat, already roughened from her time screaming in pain in the other cage the humans had put her in.
She took a deep, shuddering breath, relieved for the pressure around her. The other cage had had no pressure to the point it felt like with every breath she had taken, her insides would implode. When they had switched her into her current cage, Katie had dimly thought she was finally safe. While she could finally breathe properly, she knew she was anything but.
Her final thought was the current that swept her away, and the distressed sobs that finally escaped her throat.
“I just want to go home.” She curled up, arms wrapping around her tail and squeezing herself smaller, both sets of lids shut to the horror she found herself in. “I don’t want to die.”
Katie winced at how quickly her voice came back to her, as if she were in a small cave. She squeezed herself even smaller, trying to disappear. She felt like she was a hair away from losing her mind in fear, having no idea what the Humans would do to her. But she knew it was not going to be anything pleasant for her, and she had an inkling she was not going to be released while she was still alive.
The distorted sound of something happening outside her cage brought Katie’s sobs to an abrupt halt, her body tensing as she looked over to the glass, squinting to see what was going on.
It was one of the younger men from before, the one who would watch her when the unfamiliar woman was gone. Both constantly held something in their arms where they would take some stick-like thing and move across it.
Katie couldn’t find it in her to like the woman. She was too silent, always watching her and doing whatever it was Humans did.
The man, however, did more than stare at her. He seemed to try to communicate with her, even though his language made no sense to her and much louder than any whale she had heard in passing. He was animated, moving his arms in grand gestures – some gestures she thought she understood – and his façade of emotions plain on his face. He acted like a guppy despite appearing as old as Keith. She couldn’t tell how similar humans and Mer-folk were to one another, besides their upper bodies looking similar in shape, but humans wore weird, loose armour all the time.
The human pointed to himself, then held up some dark armour, and then left, all the while speaking in that incomprehensible language that it faded further and further away from where she was in the water.
Katie stretched once the human was away, swimming in circles due to the cramped feeling of her cage. While she knew she could escape if she tried, she wasn’t sure if she would survive long enough to find a water source with the right pressure for her to be able to breathe, so she kept herself in the cage. But she refused to tell the humans anything when they seemed curious.
At least not anything extra. She did sort of appreciate the fact they gave her food that she could eat when she showed a preference towards the fish and not the fish-food. It was a bit of a relief to know the humans were not going to kill her right away.
Katie felt something different in the water before feeling an unfamiliar current slip around her arms. She jumped in fright, turning towards the disturbance to see the human wearing the dark armour from before sink into the water.
The human wore some weird sort of headpieces. Something like glass covered his eyes, and a dark thing was in his mouth, connected to something on his back, his facial features almost completely obscured. His eyes had the same bright colours of intrigue she knew she possessed.
He waved in greeting – it was one of the only things Katie could understand in the human language – before lowering his arms to his sides.
Katie frowned at the display, but approached cautiously, keeping her whole tail behind her in case the human tried something. The cage was smaller now that another creature was taking a good part of the water, so she reached the human’s front with a single movement of her tail. Her eyes flitted from one part of the human to another.
The human didn’t move once. In fact, he did nothing but blow bubbles out of his mouth every so often. It was as if he was saying that she could trust him, that he wouldn’t harm her.
Taking a chance, and with her curiosity burning, Katie approached until she was very close to the human, pulling her hair back and using a lock of hair to tie it behind her. When she was done, she reached out and felt the armour on the arm. It felt unnaturally smooth, but almost squishy. With her head tilted to one side, Katie poked at the material again, her mouth opening.
“What is this stuff?” she questioned quietly, jumping back at the flood of bubbles escaping the human’s mouth… Was he laughing?
The look of amusement was evident in the human’s eyes and she huffed, crossing her arms and looking away from him.
The human laughed again and reached out to touch Katie’s shoulder, moving it back sluggishly when her head snapped back to glare at him. Instead, he swept both arms wide, leaving his torso open – or looking like he was asking for a hug, she couldn’t figure out which.
Still glaring at the human, Katie slowly let her curiosity take her again, and as long as the human did not move against her, she grew more bold.
Within bubbles, she was swimming around the human as he moved towards the middle of the cage, every step deliberate, watching for Katie’s reactions. She spoke in a quiet tone, although he didn’t seem to understand a single word she said.
“This doesn’t feel natural, if you’re trying to copy fish you don’t even have scales.” She poked at the human’s stomach and when she looked up at his face, she saw the amusement returned to his eyes, even if he tilted his head slowly.
She shook her head and swam in close circles around him before she finally let the burning question in her mind come to the forefront. With a single flick of her tail, she swept around the human’s not-tails, wrapped in the same armour as the rest of him.
She poked and prodded at the not-tails, but she paused at the strange bubbles that leave the human’s mouth, shocked when his hands move hers away from reaching close to the split in his not-tails. She glared at him, yanking her hands back from his touch, and frowned at the place he wouldn’t let her investigate. His only response was shaking his head and hands horizontally. Katie wondered why he wasn’t okay with touching specific areas, unless that area was like her own tail. Maybe only friends and family are allowed to touch there? She thought. But what is it that he doesn’t let strangers touch?
She huffed, crossing her arms over her chest, and swam around the human’s not-tails. She only uncrossed her arms when she wanted to take a closer look at the ends of his limbs. Where fins were supposed to be, they looked like weird, elongated hands. Or maybe they were paws? Elder Coran talked about knowing creatures he called bears from when he was a guppy, which had things called paws and claws. He said they looked like hands but they weren’t, not really. Maybe humans had them too, Katie thought, trying to make sense of the land creature.
Suddenly, a noise made the water vibrate, so loud it put a whale’s call to shame, and Katie grabbed her ears in pain, shrinking away from the human in the water with her. She let out a scream to try to counter the vibrations, but they overwhelmed her senses easily, a deep, low, painful booming sound coming from the direction of the glass. Katie barely saw the human also cover the sides of his head where his ears would be under the top armour, before he was moving on his not-tails out of the cage.
Only when he was gone did the vibrations finally stop, but her ears hurt and her vision was unclear. She curled in a tight ball, her tailfin covering her head entirely, even though she knew it wouldn’t do much against the pain.
Lance was furious as he clambered out of tank, yanking his goggles and rebreather off his face. “Didn’t aquariums ever tell you to not knock on the fucking glass?!” he shouted, pulling the hood of the wetsuit off his head.
“And didn’t aquariums ever tell you we’re not supposed to swim with the fishes if we don’t know they are violent or not?” Hunk retorted in a lighter tone.
Lance sighed, his anger causing his heart to hammer. The mermaid was finally opening up! They had been establishing trust! And Hunk had to do something stupid like that! “I’m allowed to if it’s to learn more about a species we all grew up believing was mythical, Hunk!”
Hunk gave a noncommittal grunt. “Alright, I’m sorry. I just needed to get your attention. You’ve been in there for, like, almost two hours. We have a meeting in ten minutes, remember?”
Lance groaned, fully out of the water now and he headed to the nearby changing room that was just off to the side of the room. “Secret meeting or normal meeting?” he called as he changed into his dry work clothes with only a hint of annoyance still in his tone.
He sighed, pulling his shirt over his head. There were a crap-ton of better ways to inform Lance he had to get out of the water rather than knocking on the glass like some idiot. It was horrible to the sea life, and just a dick move from someone who worked with animals all day. Lance stopped his thoughts there, letting it go for the moment. He shouldn’t get so worked up over what Hunk did, but the sight of the mermaid recoiling in pain, hiding herself at the bottom of the tank just about broke his heart. They had been bonding, and even if she was curious about his junk – or maybe she was just curious about legs, it wasn’t like she had any herself – she understood boundaries. She was definitely intelligent enough to understand him, and she even looked like she had been trying to speak to him when she had moved her lips in weird ways. This was more information than he and Shay had been able to put together since they had started less than a week ago. Maybe it could help with the meeting, he thought, ruffling his hair while heading back into the main room.
Hunk looked sheepish, a bucket of the mermaid’s food in his hands. “You wanna apologize to the mermaid?”
“You should be the one apologizing, but yes. She might feel better with food.” Lance took the bucket, headed up to entrance he had just climbed out of and dropped the fish into the water. Stepping back down, he peered through the glass to see the mermaid. She didn’t look to be in too much pain anymore, but she barely shifted as the fish sunk to the bottom of the tank.
He sighed, laying his hand against the glass for a moment before walking to the door for the meeting.
The two men were quiet while walking through the corridor towards the meeting room. Lance had to guess Hunk was finally feeling bad for how he got Lance’s attention in the tank, but his thoughts were more concerned with the mermaid. They reached the room before he realized it.
“Oh good, you finally got here,” Iverson barked, jerking his head to the seats for the men to take. “We can get started then.”
“Have we made any progress with the creature?” Shiro asked, sitting up near the front, a couple seats away from Shay.
Hunk sat down next to his girlfriend while Lance sat opposite them.
Shay shook her head. “I haven’t found anything new outside the mermaid’s dietary needs. The moment anyone enters and, until they leave, she just,” she shook her head, moving her hands like she was trying to grasp the words physically, “doesn’t do anything. I think she’s guarded against us.”
“I think Lance can tell us more, he went swimming with the creature,” Hunk provided helpfully, and the others all simultaneously turned to Lance.
“Why would you go into the water with that thing?” Iverson demanded, slamming his hands down on the table and leaning forward. “It could have killed you! We know nothing about it!”
“We haven’t gotten anything new from her just by observing, sir!” Lance protested, remembering the mermaid’s face softening in curiosity while she had been swimming around him. “She’s likely scared by everything, and staring at her like we’ve been doing isn’t exactly helping!”
He took a deep breath and spoke again, shutting his eyes to think how it felt in the water.
“She’s a curious creature. When you don’t do anything potentially threatening, she’s like a child exploring their backyard for the first time.” He opened his eyes just as his brain supplied a super clear vision of the mermaid’s face, her glowing eyes curious and her features soft. “If we allow her to interact with us, we could establish a connection! She’s smart! We’re just frightening her because I’m pretty sure we just kidnapped her from her home.”
His words rang in the following silence. Hunk and Shay looked at Lance with varying expressions of surprise, but their bosses were harder to read. Shiro had his face impossibly neutral, but he was gazing at Lance intently enough to make him fidget uncomfortably. Iverson simply looked angry but it was more rare to see him not, so Lance found it impossible to tell how he was actually feeling.
He licked his lips and breathed deeply through his nose, waiting for anyone else to speak, to respond to what he had just said.
Shiro and Iverson shared a look and a nod before the younger boss turned his attention back to Lance.
“Okay, Lance,” He said. “You and Shay will be allowed to interact with the mermaid. But-” He pressed when Lance’s face split into a wide, relieved smile, “Neither of you should be completely alone in the room when you go in. With Hunk busy throughout the day, he’ll only be called in when he’s not busy, so myself or Iverson will come in from time to time to check up on you two more frequently.”
Lance nodded, barely listening as he planned what they could try next to gain the mermaid’s trust. Maybe find a common method of communication? He thought. If they could figure something out, he’d be able to ask her all kinds of questions to really get to know the mythical creatures his grandfather used to tell stories about when he and his siblings were young.
And maybe he could find out if she had a name. Simply thinking of her as The Mermaid felt wrong. A creature as curious as her had to have a name, even if it might sound foreign.
Iverson called the end of the meeting, and Lance practically sprinted back to his post, only to deflate when he saw that the curled form of the mermaid hadn’t changed since he had left.
1 week later
Katie found herself relaxing when the human man came into the room. He treated her like a Mer, not like a potentially dangerous fish like the human woman did. She caught herself pressing against the glass, actually eager for their language lessons.
The two had figured out quickly that they had a similar alphabet, after the man began playing around with a writing board, showing her familiar letters. It had been something that shocked the human more than her, surprisingly. Human grammar was backwards, but with some way to communicate, Katie began to hope maybe she would be allowed to leave. Maybe if they knew she was as intelligent as them, they wouldn’t try to experiment on her or dissect her like the Elders had warned.
The man came in with his writing board in the crook of his arm, and his face brightened as he noticed her peering out at him. He waved, and scribbled on the board.
Despite herself, Katie smiled softly in reply, not showing her teeth in the expression. Showing teeth was a warning, and she no longer felt threatened by the man. In comparison to him, she couldn’t tell what the true objectives of the others that tried communicating with her were.
‘Realized never greet self.’ She puzzled through what the man wrote, showing her his messy scrawl. ‘Name Lance. Name you?’
Katie clicked her tongue. “Lance?” She rolled the weird name in her mouth, tasting it. She wondered if all human names were so weird sounding.
She couldn’t focus on his name much longer, when he finished with the human alphabet. It was how Katie was able to communicate with him, albeit slower than it took a starfish to migrate. He would point to each letter until she nodded, when he would then write it out under the alphabet.
First K, then A, T, I, and finally E. She shook her head when he pointed again at the first letter in the list, letting him know the word was done.
She watched him move his lips, evidently trying out her own name like she had his. He had a curious expression on his face that lit it up in surprise and he seemed to laugh, doubling over. She frowned and crossed her arms over her chest, turning her back to the glass, and swam further into the cage.
By the time she had peeked over her shoulder at him, he had stopped laughing and looked harried, waving his hands frantically.
‘Sorry!’ He wrote quickly. ‘Name Katie pretty. Nice. Like.’
Heat bloomed from her chest, and Katie looked away again, putting a hand over her heart.
It pounded faster than normal. She hoped she wasn’t getting ill. Let me get sick when I’m back home, not in a place where no one will be able to help me.
‘What topic today?’ was written on the board under the alphabet when she looked back over. Lance had his seat and lounged on it rather comfortably.
Looking at the letters, all Katie could think of was her father teaching her how to read and write in the sand. The thought clenched her heart painfully. Are they still worried about me? She thought. Do they all believe I’m still alive? Do they think I’m dead?
Lance waved the board to catch her attention, and her thoughts snapped back to the present. He looked worried, his brows furrowed together and a small frown curling his lips. He turned the board to face him again and carefully wrote more before turning it back around for her to read.
‘Miss something? Home? ’ A lump caught in her throat as she nodded, clasping her hands over her chest and twirled to wrap her tail around herself.
“I miss them so much…” She murmured to herself, knowing the human couldn’t understand her.
Lance looked into the cage when Katie glanced over at him, his expression deep in thought before he stood up. He wrote the letters ‘BRB’ – whatever that meant – before leaving quickly, surprising her. She pushed herself to the glass and touched a hand and her forehead against it briefly.
“I just want to go home,” she whispered, turning around and drifting further into the cage.
“What are our goals with the mermaid, Shiro?” Lance asked at lunch, cornering his boss in his office. He could have tried having this conversation with Iverson, but… no, he would not try to have this conversation with Iverson, even on one of his good days. Shiro was less prickly.
“What do you mean? We’ve been told to observe it and-”
Lance shook his head, cutting Shiro off. “No, I mean, long-term goals. What’s gonna happen to her?” He pressed.
Shiro ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “I. I’m not completely sure. We don’t have enough information about the mermaid to have a further goal in mind.”
“Are we gonna keep her indefinitely?”
His boss looked at him with a sigh, putting his sandwich down that he had been trying to eat since Lance entered the office. “Why are you asking?”
The soft glow of Katie’s eyes flashed to mind, full of longing. “Are we gonna put her back when we have enough data?”
“I don’t know, Lance. At this moment, it seems uncertain. Iverson got in contact with the city’s branch of Science Advancement Ministry, and by the way he’s been complaining, they want the mermaid to be completely examined, including autopsy.”
Lance lurched, grabbing Shiro’s desk to keep upright in surprise. “They’re gonna kill her?!”
Shiro’s only response was a helpless gesture with his hands. “This is the first mythological creature we really have found and kept, Lance. Even I’m curious about what lies under the mermaid’s surface. I’d rather it was dead already, to make it more humane, but I don’t think the Ministry really cares. Not in the name of ‘science,’” he quoted with his fingers, shrugging and shaking his head.
“But she’s sentient! That’s like…” Lance shuddered at the thought of Katie laying on lab slab, lifeless. “They want us to murder her? What about-”
The words got stuck in his throat, realizing it probably wasn’t the best to blurt out that the mermaid wanted to see her family again. Worst-case scenario: the Ministry would use the information to search for them and would use them all for various experiments… Thoughts of his own family, or close friends like Hunk in the same situation as the scenario made Lance’s stomach knot painfully.
“What do you want us to do, Lance?” Shiro’s exasperation was palpable. “We only have one mythological creature, and the barest knowledge of its intelligence. They might wait for it to die and then dissect it, or they’ll kill it themselves. We don’t have any say in this, this is higher than us.”
Lance again tasted the word ‘family’ but couldn’t say it. With a growl, Lance turned on his heel and stormed out, heading right back to Katie’s tank. If any of his colleagues called out to him, in question or in greeting, he heard nothing until he entered the quiet, locked area of Katie’s tank, the soft noises of the filtration and electronics beeping the only things making sound.
He threw himself into his seat, and leaned forward, propping his elbows up on his thighs. He dragged his hands over his face and sighed, gazing into the tank where the young mermaid looked as dejected as he felt.
“What are we gonna do…” He muttered.
Lance had become distant since Katie indirectly said she was homesick. He had a pained look about him, watching her with less enthusiasm than before. She wondered what had happened when he left. He hadn’t answered her when she tried to physically ask him what happened.
His reactions worried and scared her, and he wouldn’t speak with her anymore.
The others that she saw hadn’t changed the way they interacted with her. The older two would watch her without ever interacting with her, same with the large human man – Katie believed his name was Hunk based on a previous lesson with Lance where he mentioned the name in connection with the man who looked over the blinking lights and her cage rather than her – and the woman was awkward in speaking with her, often doing yes/no questions through the writing board.
It had been a few meals since Katie and Lance’s last actual conversation and the woman was in the room, settling into her seat with the board resting on her thigh.
Before she could start writing anything, however, Katie waved her arms quickly. The woman looked at her curiously – or what Katie could only assume was curious, she couldn’t read the human’s face as well as she could with Lance – as she pointed around. It took a couple different gestures to get her question right, but she finally settled on copying Lance’s familiar smirk and extending her forefinger and thumb, pointing the forefinger at the human woman, before she understood.
‘Lance?’ She wrote.
Katie nodded quickly, trying to emote her concern properly – her mother always said reading her was like reading a shut clam – while the woman wrote on the board.
‘Not in’ there was a word she could not understand, “ today ,” ‘Said sick. Think lying. Been weird for’ another word she could not understand, “ days .”
Katie frowned, but neither continued the conversation. Until, of course, the woman had a sudden realization.
She scrawled on the board and turned it back to Katie.
‘How you know name Lance? He tell?’ She asked.
She answered with another nod, but instead of continuing, the woman cocked her head to the side, a hard-to-read expression but Katie thought she understood the curious look in her eyes. There were no more questions asked, and about a current later, the woman was up and leaving the room, same time as always. But this time, Katie had no Lance to speak to after the awkwardness that was the woman.
Lance couldn’t bring himself to see Katie be hurt by scientists, he realized. He thought taking a couple days off to think and rationalize, he could lessen the guilt he felt when thinking about Katie out of the water, lifeless.
But all it really did was make him sick to his stomach, worried for Katie’s life.
So here he was, waiting for the gate to lift once again, the light fading for the evening. He had no plan in mind, flying by the seat of his pants, but he had to get Katie out before it was too late.
He tapped anxiously on the steering wheel while the gate lifted, thinking up various ideas on how to get a six-foot mermaid out of her stationary tank, through the halls, and into his car undetected. As he drove into the parking lot towards his designated spot, he found a few flaws in his plan, mostly pertaining to Katie’s health and if she could even survive out of pressurized water.
“God damnit, Lance, think. ” He growled to himself, and slapped the steering wheel like it would help. “She’ll die if I’m careless and she’ll die if I do nothing.”
Lance parked and shut off the engine, staring blankly out the front windshield, steeling his resolve. If he was actually going to go through with this, he couldn’t back out once he opened his car door.
Before he could second-guess himself, Lance undid his seatbelt and got out of the car. For now, he had to pretend he was on his way for a shift. Shay never took evening or graveyard shifts, and Lance was almost positive no one he knew or who knew him would be working or roaming the halls.
He walked with purpose until he reached Katie’s room, only to freeze solid at the figure working on the tank, their face turning at the sound of the door opening.
“Lance?” Hunk raised an eyebrow at the man with a deer-in-headlights look. “Aren’t you only supposed to come in tomorrow morning?”
Hunk fully turned around, wiping his hands on a small rag. He must have been working on the pipes for Katie’s tank, to make sure the water flow was steady and consistent. “Uh, Lance?”
“Uhh.” Lance finally replies, hastily leaning against the doorframe. “Nooothing?”
Behind Hunk’s head, Lance saw glowing eyes gazing right at him. Katie’s face appeared close to the glass, looking at Lance with enough confusion for him to understand her completely.
“Dude.” Hunk deadpanned. “What are you doing here?”
“They’re planning on killing her, Hunk.” The words were blurted before he could stop himself. “They want to dissect her before she’s actually dead.”
Hunk furrowed his brows, his gaze to the floor in thought. “Oh.”
Lance fidgeted from foot to foot, glancing from Hunk to Katie. The mermaid had her hands pressed against the glass, and he wondered if she understood what he was talking about, if she knew what her fate would be if he wouldn’t try to bring her back home.
Hunk hadn’t moved from where he had been working, looking troubled in his thoughts. Lance couldn’t stand it anymore and headed further into the room, the door clicking shut behind him. He mostly ignored Hunk as he grabbed the whiteboard and marker, before quickly writing ‘I’m getting you out of here. I’m bringing you back home.’
Hunk looked up to see the message for Katie and his eyes widened. “Woah, what are you talking about dude?”
“I can’t let her stay here and be experimented on, man,” Lance shot back, looking around the room. There had to be something he could use to take her out of the tank without hurting her. “I just can’t.”
“How are you planning to get her back home?” Hunk asked, planting his hands on Lance’s shoulders to get him to stop moving.
Lance didn’t answer, his eyes still roaming the room, flickering to the little off-shoot where the changing area was.
“You… did have a plan when you came in here, right?” Lance snapped back to attention at Hunk’s question, both their eyes wide at the other. “Lance!”
“What! I just couldn’t stay around at home knowing what awaited her!”
“But you didn’t even have a plan! What, were you just going to wrap her in wet towels and have her in your car?” Hunk stared at Lance, shaking his head when Lance nodded hesitantly. “Dude! You’d have to break several speeding and traffic laws to get a deep-sea creature to the shore safely with a shoddy plan like that. We don’t even know if she can really handle no pressure, don’t you remember how she was having trouble in the tank the fishers had her in?”
“Well, do you have a better plan?” Lance retorted, crossing his arms over his chest, petulant.
“Yes, actually, if you’d give me time to really think.” Hunk let go of Lance to ponder, looking around the room, primarily at the tank where Katie was swimming in frantic circles, occasionally pressing her face and hands against the glass like she was trying to escape the tank.
Lance returned to writing on the whiteboard, trying to soothe the mermaid. ‘It’ll be okay, Katie. I’ll,’ he looked to Hunk briefly, ‘we’ll get you home.’
She read the words slowly, her eyes shining in the water. Lance thought she looked close to crying, and wondered if sea creatures had tear ducts, or the ability to cry if their home was primarily composed of water, salt water or not. She had her hands clasped over her chest, and when she looked into Lance’s face, he saw such raw hope that made his heart thunder.
“Don’t we have deep-sea mobile tanks?” Hunk’s question popped the moment that bubbled between Katie and Lance, and Lance jerked his head back as if the words shocked him back to life. “You could just take a transport truck and one of those tanks.”
Lance stared at Hunk for a good minute before whooping and wrapping his arms around as much of his best friend as he possibly could. “You’re a genius , Hunk! I could kiss you!”
“Yeah, yeah, praise me if this actually works.” Hunk replied, peeling Lance off of him. “C’mon, let’s find one of those tanks and get going.”
Lance nodded and wrote another ‘BRB’ to Katie before the two men left the room. Lance followed Hunk, since the handyman seemed to know where the mobile tanks were located better than Lance did – his mind had been blanking on anything since he had parked under a dozen minutes ago. The two were able to secure a tank without much trouble, and Hunk was sure to bring a dark tarp used to shield the light for those sensitive to it, like the mermaid or other deep-sea creatures, unused to even the soft light of dawn.
It was easy to get the skeleton crew to ignore them through the halls. Late night travels weren’t uncommon, and they weren’t really broadcast to every employee. Lance couldn’t count how many times he had seen tanks being moved for transport with no idea what was happening until he asked a colleague at lunch another day.
“Is it filled?” Lance asked as they wheeled the tank into Katie’s room, the glowing eyes staring at them through the dark water.
“No, we’re going to need to fill it before pressurizing and then put her in.” Hunk replied easily. “I’ll do a quick check over the controls and seals, then we can start filling this with water.”
“Right.” Lance nodded. He’d let Hunk handle that. It was his job, after all.
He walked over to pick up the whiteboard and sat in front of Katie’s tank, erasing his ‘brb’ to write out what was to happen so the mermaid wouldn’t freak out when they moved her from the stationary tank to the mobile one. It took a bit for her to understand, something lost in translation, if Lance had to guess, but when she finally nodded when he asked if she got it, Hunk was finished with the checks and had already grabbed a hose to fill the tank.
While Hunk worked on that, Lance worked on opening the stationary tank up, the lid needing to be unscrewed carefully to not break it completely. With Katie being so large, the two men couldn’t use the small head-sized opening they would use for the deep-sea fish they normally kept in there for monitoring, so they had to take the entire lid off. At least, Lance would start working on undoing the screws, until Hunk was finished with filling the tank.
“Oh. Right. We’ll need to pressurize the tank after we get the mermaid in the tank.” He said when he turned to see what Lance was working on. “She’ll be okay, maybe a minute of discomfort, right?”
“Yeah. She’ll be fine.” Lance agreed, hoping he was speaking the truth.
With Hunk helping Lance undo the top of the tank, they were done in under half an hour. They moved the mobile tank until it was right against the stationary before lifting the lid. Glowing amber eyes stared up at the two of them, large and apprehensive.
Lance reached down, his hand submerging in the water for Katie to take, a large smile on his face. He couldn’t let a single doubt he inwardly felt about the plan to appear on his face. He had to believe he could save Katie from being a lab test, a frog pinned to a table, belly up.
Smooth skin, like that of a manatee, in the form of a slender hand, clasped his, and tugged for a moment before Katie’s head broke the surface. She looked ever more apprehensive feeling air on her face, an involuntary gasp escaping her lips. The sound was higher than Lance had expected.
He shuffled before he helped pull Katie out of one tank, lifting her by the armpits since he couldn’t wrap his arms around her waist. She made more gasps, hisses, and squeaks for every second she was above water, but made no sound like the screech Lance had heard when the fishers had caught her.
“We’re gonna make sure you get back home, Katie.” He said in a soft tone, moving his hands from her humanoid part of her body to her fish-like tail, making sure she didn’t scrape it against a corner or lose any scales in the transfer. They felt like a snake’s, and Lance could feel the muscles underneath clench and release. He almost wanted to feel her fins but stopped himself.
He couldn’t tell if she could understand what he said, as she promptly slipped into the mobile tank with barely a ripple without answering him. He hoped she understood, but couldn’t dwell as he and Hunk worked on getting the pressure on, closing the lid tightly.
“Alright.” Hunk said as he took the tarp and spread it completely over the tank. “She’s all set. Let’s get her to transport.”
“Are you coming with us?” Lance asked, wetting his lips.
“No. I’m going to try to buy you as much time as I can. Make sure when anyone tries to follow, they’ll be too late.” Hunk smiled and clapped Lance on the shoulder. “Good luck, man.”
“Thanks, man.” Lance smiles back before he hugged his best friend. “And thanks for helping me come up with a better plan than I could ever have. I mean it.”
“Course. What are buds for?” Hunk laughed, and the two separated. “You wheel her, and I’ll guide.”
The two shared a nod, and out they went. They had a slow pace to not jolt the tank too much, but they made it to the transports in no time. A couple colleagues called out greetings and the two men greeted back as politely as they could.
Once they reached the loading docks, all Lance and Hunk had to do was find a currently-unused truck and begin loading up the mermaid. Lance couldn’t help but think of the last time he was in the loading docks where he had first seen Katie, at the furthest docking station. He couldn’t believe in under a month his world could have flipped from mundane to meeting a mythological creature to communicating with said creature to escaping with her to save her life. It was surreal, and yet, as Hunk handed him the keys to the truck he would be driving, he found it to be oh-so real.
“Good luck. I’ll buy you as much time as I can, long as no one actually starts looking for you immediately.” Hunk said with an air of finality. Lance wondered if it would be the last time he would see his best friend, as silly as the thought may be.
“Thanks. I’ll text you when I’m done.” Lance promised, clutching the keys tightly in his grasp.
Hunk was the first to leave, heading back inside the facility while Lance stood there, watching. He finally started to move when the door had shut behind his friend, walking to the driver’s side.
In no time, Lance was leaving his workplace behind, GPS heading for the nearest beach to the ocean.
Katie swam in circles, agitated. The travel was similar to when the humans who captured her took her to where she had been trapped for many meals. But instead of heading to a human dwelling, according to Lance, they were heading back home.
Her heart hammered, trying to escape her chest. It physically hurt how hopeful she was. She could practically taste home, the worried and relieved expressions of her village filling her mind. In a moment of weakness and hope, Katie found herself quietly crying. Her torment was almost over. She could go home. She could hug Romelle, Matt, her parents. Hell, she might hug Elder Coran at this point.
The thought of surprising the Elder with a tight embrace brought a cry-laugh out of her.
It had to have been a couple currents by her estimate when the vibrations finally stopped. Katie swam in circles again, touching the walls as if they would suddenly let her see out. Even if it were the bright light from before, she would suffer a few bubbles being blinded by it if it meant she would have a way home.
A dark hand slipped under the cover, and a bit of natural light shone through the small slit where the hand was, and suddenly Lance’s face peeked in, his eyes roaming Katie. He must be checking if she were okay. A burst of warmth expanded from her chest at the thought. She smiled softly and waved, to show him she was fine.
He smiled in return before pulling away, and she was left in complete darkness again.
Please, let me go free. She thought as she was moved again.
Katie waited a long time before the cover was fully removed to show a dark setting, and the glassy reflection of the water staring at her, tantalizing. She could dance like a dolphin if she had the room, her hands scrabbling to press through the glass towards her home. It called to her like nothing ever could. There was not another human around the sandy shore besides Lance who was holding the cover, rolling it up like kelp.
Once he was finished with the cover, he pushed her closer to the water until it was just a tail flick away. She barely noticed she was crying again until she felt her shoulders shudder. It was as if all the fears and dreads she had had since the net had caught her finally had a way to expel from her body, and once it was all out, she was weak and exhausted.
The top of the tank opened, and Katie looked up to see twinkling lights far above – stars, she idly realized – and Lance’s face looking down at her. He gestured her to come, and she did with a quick flick of her tail, breaking the surface of the water eagerly.
The cool air smelt of home and Katie couldn’t help but choke back a gasp, tears welling up again. She covered her mouth with a hand as the other went to Lance’s outstretched hand to be pulled out of the tank.
“I got you. I got you.” She blinked as she understood the human, his voice warm and… loving. “Let’s get you home.”
He picked her up carefully, wrapping an arm around her back and the other around her tail, careful of her gills as they flapped uselessly in the air.
It was several dozens of bubbles between Lance picking her up to him walking waist-deep into the water, Katie’s tail dipping into it. Unable to contain herself, she wriggled wildly until he dropped her into the water as she let out a high-pitched whoop. She swam to her full length, the boundaries no longer suffocating.
She breathed in the ocean water, closing her eyes to just… be in the moment, until she felt ripples come unnaturally from towards shore. Her eyes snapped open and she turned to see Lance moving back towards land. Without realizing what she was doing, but knowing she had to thank her saviour somehow, she swam to him in under a bubble, jumping a bit out of the water to wrap her arms around his neck.
Lance yelped and fell backwards into the water, his limbs flailing when his head went underwater.
“Thank you, Lance.” She said once underwater, before his head broke the surface again. She joined him, and with a shaky voice, repeated her words above the water. “Th-thank you, La-ance.”
He looked shocked at her words before nodding, smiling at her softly. Once he had his feet on the sand again, he cupped her cheek.
“You’re welcome. Katie.” He replied, saying her name for the second time and it shot through her heart like a pufferfish quill.
Something in her chest couldn’t stand how close the two were, and she surged up, shutting her eyes tight as her lips pressed against his hard. He gasped into her mouth but did not pull away. A bubble later, he was kissing her back with just as much pressure as she had, wrapping his arms around her – but mindful of her gills – to hold her close.
Katie flicked her tail idly, not thinking about it as they moved further from shore. She kept on her back as Lance wrapped his legs around her waist to stay with her, his hands moving from the sides of her torso to the sides of her face, brushing against her ears and through her hair. Neither opened their eyes as they kissed, a pocket of the world just for them.
Well, at least she kept her eyes shut until she noticed something glowing through both sets of eyelids.
She knew about love’s magic, when it came from Mer-folk or Avians or Centaurs and other creatures. It worked mysteriously, and not even Matt could explain what Katie saw if he had been there with her and Lance drifting from the shore.
Lance unwrapped his legs from Katie’s waist, the glow starting at his waist. His strange armour – clothes, she believed he told her once – stripped from his body. Where his legs had been, something brought them together, or maybe fused them together like another layer of skin. Smooth as a seal’s, with a fin somewhat similar to her father’s or brother’s, and
Yeah, those were gills forming along his ribs.
Lance pulled away from Katie in a panic, a pained gasp as he held his sides. She could only watch in confused panic. She had heard of Selkie origins, but as she had never met one before, she had thought they had died out, or became seals – she was never really sure what happened to them. But all signs pointed to what was happening to Lance was a mix of love’s magic and Selkie origins, and while Lance panicked, Katie couldn’t figure out what to do.
His clothes sunk into the water, and he was left with a smooth tail and gills proudly showing.
“Lance! Lance it’s okay!” She cried, finally approaching him once the transformation was complete, the glowing dimming to nothing. She cupped his face, getting him to look at her. “You’re okay.”
He was breathing raggedly, his chest heaving. “I, I am?” He looked down at himself, and seemed to only then realize he was fully submerged in deep water. “Oh my gods.”
“Yeah.” Katie couldn’t help but chuckle, leaning forward to kiss Lance on the forehead.
“Wh-how? How could thi-how could I…” He spun to check out his full tail. It was a bright blue, brighter than Romelle’s, with a teal-ish green fin. He bent forward and felt it, eyes lighting up in surprise. “It’s real! Holy fuck!”
Katie laughed again, when a familiar vibration travelled through the waters, even if it was so far away from here. Home called to her, tightening her chest painfully as she felt it.
She lit up, eyes snapping to meet Lance’s, who looked confused by the vibration. “You can come home with me!” She exclaimed.
“But… what about…?” Lance seemed to be at a loss for words.
“I think Selkies can return to land whenever they want to. You just have to shed your tail.” She pondered for a moment. “I’m… not sure how you shed your tail, though.”
Lance looked relieved, if bewildered as well. He nodded before he seemed to have a thought. “I’m gonna test it out, then. We have all night, after all.”
Katie cocked her head to the side. “Night?” The word was unfamiliar to her.
But Lance was already nearing the shore again, a little clumsy like a guppy, he used his arms to do most of the work.
Katie watched from a distance, the shore as scary as the humans who caught her. It didn’t take too long, most of it was Lance struggling to stand above the water, but he was soon able to shed his tail, like a second-skin. Without clothes, Katie could see what he hid, and immediately flushed with embarrassment, covering her face with her hands and sinking a bit into the water so no one could see her red-faced expression.
Lance was out of the water for a while before he slipped back in, in his tail again, and he looked around for Katie until he spotted her. By then, she had calmed down from feeling the embarrassment of not knowing he had his penis there, and why he had been so weird when she was first curiously looking at him. How was she supposed to know that was where human genitals were?! She internally berated herself.
“I had to contact Hunk to tell him… I wasn’t gonna be around for a while and to get the truck and my stuff. If I can freely go from being a fucking merman to a human, probably shouldn’t make it look like I disappeared off the surface of the Earth.” There were so many words Katie had little to no understanding what they meant, but she nodded, and he took her hand, squeezing it softly.
“Shall we go?”
Several Hours Later
Keith was the first one to see them, and the shock on his face was quickly hidden behind a look of anger and suspicion.
“What the fuck!” He shouted, his weapon drawn and the tip pointed at the two of them, though mostly towards Lance. “What the fuck?!”
“Keith!” Katie cried, putting a hand in front of Lance protectively. “I get nabbed for who-knows how long and you point a spear at the one who saved me? I should be the one shouting ‘what the fuck’ at you!”
The red-tail paused, relaxing the tension across his shoulders. “We thought… We thought you-”
“KATIE!” A teal-and-blonde blur swam at Katie and Lance at full speed, spinning the green-tail in so many circles she momentarily couldn’t tell what up was anymore.
Shoulders shook as Romelle curled around her friend, barely holding back loud sobs, words like ‘you’re alive’ mingling with gasping breaths.
“Aw, and here I was thinking you wouldn’t still be such a guppy.” Katie whispered, quiet enough for only Romelle to catch. The other mermaid sob-laughed, squeezing her tightly one last time before she let go.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, for everything.” Romelle let out in a rush, wiping her eyes with her knuckles. “I’m so, so sorry. I-” She broke off when she noticed the unknown Selkie.
Lance had been keeping his distance from the reunion, a soft smile on his face, knowing he had done the right thing in saving Katie from the Ministry of Science Advancement and their unknown experiments.
“Who’s that?” Romelle asked in a strangely loud whisper, seeming unable to control her volume with her emotions high.
“Oh, this is…” Katie started, looking to Lance, and reached out for him. He approached once she had, taking her hand in his. “This is Lance. He’s… the one who saved me from the humans. He’s a Selkie.”
“Well, a human-turned-Selkie.” Lance clarified, eyeing Keith warily, expecting the weapon to be drawn once more after he had put it away when Romelle came blurring past. He shouldn’t have been surprised to see she was also wearing nothing to cover her breasts, but he had to keep his focus elsewhere on instinct.
“It’s a bit of a long story.” Katie said with a soft smile to her friends. “I think everyone will want to hear this? And I’d rather not tell it a million times over to everyone who sees us.”
“Right.” Keith said, looking past them to the darkness beyond before flicking his tail. “You guys go ahead and start collecting the others for that. I’m sure the others will be relieved to see you save and sound, Katie.”
“Thanks, Keith.” Katie replied with a bright, relaxed look. “I’m happy to be back, finally.”
Lance sat amidst an outcropping of rocks, bathing in the sun while Hunk spoke over the phone about his and Shay’s upcoming wedding. Lance felt bad he hadn’t been there for the proposal - it had been while he was still getting used to Katie’s village and swimming all the time with one tail rather than 2 legs, about a year ago - but he had promised the couple he would be there for the wedding.
“So have you thought about proposing to your little mermaid?” Hunk asked, and Lance nearly dropped his phone into the water.
“What?!” He spluttered.
Hunk’s laugh was tinny over the line. “Oh come on, Lance. It’s been over a year. Do they even have, like, a mating ritual?”
Lance was very relieved they weren’t Face-Timing at that moment, with his face burning up. “I, I don’t know! I haven’t asked!”
“Then ask! Since you left, I’ve heard nothing but ‘Katie this’ or ‘Katie that,’ like you two are already married.”
“And who do you suggest I ask?” Lance pressed.
“Maybe that Elder? Or Katie herself?” He could hear the eye-rolling Hunk was giving him. “Or, hey, any of the couples in that village? Aren’t her parents still living?”
“Right… Right.” Lance ran a free hand through his damp hair.
“Lance, it’s okay to get nervous about this kinda thing. I was so full of nerves, Shay had to propose, remember?” Hunk chuckled, then Lance could hear someone calling for his friend over the line. “Ah, my break’s almost over. When are you going to come back up?”
“In a couple days, I think. We have that tux appointment soon, right?”
“Mhm.” Hunk hummed. “By the time we see each other face-to-face, you better have asked someone about their mating rituals. I’ll hound you if you don’t, Lance, don’t test me.” He threatened jokingly, and the two laughed before Hunk finally hung up to get back to work.
The facility had to go through some changes after Lance’s escape with Katie. Hunk had told him that the conversation the team had with the Minister of Science Advancement had been chilly, and that was probably still an understatement. Iverson had been furious, and Shiro had been somewhat surprised - Lance guessed it was because he knew Lance had broke Katie out, their last conversation still on his mind - and Shay should have learned what happened from Hunk. They had given the information they had compiled, but without the physical body, and only a few photos taken of Katie, they couldn’t go public about their findings.
Lance shook his head, shutting his eyes briefly to enjoy the summer heat of the sun. Living so deep underwater where no one knew what the word ‘day’ meant made him grateful to be able to swim to the surface occasionally. He was still butting heads with the Elders, particularly Elder Coran, about encouraging the other mer-folk to explore higher, to experience the sun, or the moon.
He heaved a sigh and grabbed the plastic bag he used to seal his phone, and once he sealed it, he slipped into the water. It was heated thanks to the noon-day sun shining hard overhead. He kept a tight grip on the plastic bag as he swam down back to his new home. With his Selkie status, he was the only one allowed to leave the boundaries of the village, even if he was still adamant that they shouldn’t be afraid of humans. It was an uphill battle, but Lance was optimistic he could get a small group to visit the sun or moon with him one day.
As the water grew darker, he had to blink to quickly adjust his vision. He saw the village in no time, and smiled to Allura who was on watch. She smiled back after she recognized him.
“I heard Katie’s looking for you,” she called as he swam past. “She should be with Romelle or Keith if he’s off-duty.”
“Thanks!” He shot her a mock-salute before hurrying. It took a few minutes to find the red-tailed merman - Keith was the easiest to find with his tail being such a different colour from most of the other mer-folk.
Keith, Romelle, and Katie lounged around outside of Romelle’s rocky home, talking about something Lance couldn’t figure out since they stopped talking as soon as he reached earshot.
“Speak of the sea-devil.” Keith gave him a wry smile.
“What?” Lance retorted, hands on hips. “Were you all gossiping about me?”
“Maybe?” Romelle teased, wrapping an arm around Katie. “We should leave you two alone. ‘Kay byeeee!”
She and Keith pushed Katie towards Lance as they launched themselves into Romelle’s home, the teal-tailed mermaid’s hair waving in the water by the entrance to reveal her location easily.
“Uh, okay. You okay, Katie?” Lance took her arm on impulse, forgetting it was hard to trip in water.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” She grumbled, shooting a betrayed look at the home. “Just shocked I’m friends with traitors!” She called out the last word towards the two that left them.
“What were they on about?”
“They, uh…” Katie looked to Lance before looking away shyly. “They were curious about human customs, I guess. They thought I knew more about them, since, y’know, I’ve been with you for a while.”
Lance laughed. “Yeah, I wouldn’t say you saw, like, any of our customs. What were they curious about, I could tell them.”
“Uhm…” Katie mumbled the words.
“What?” Lance asked, his hand still on her arm.
“Uhm, we were, y’know, kinda curious about what humans did to find a partner?” Katie wouldn’t look at Lance as she spoke, playing with patch of scales on her arm.
Lance blinked at the question, before he laughed. He knew it was impossible for Hunk to get in contact with Katie’s friends, but the irony on the timing was not lost on him.
“Maybe we really are dumb.” He managed to say, wiping his eyes as if it would do anything surrounded by water. “I was actually gonna ask something similar to you. Well, on Hunk’s command, really.”
Katie cocked her head to the side, confused. “You were going to ask me about human customs?”
Lance laughed again and shook his head. “No! No, I was gonna ask about mer-folk, uh, m-dating customs.”
“Because, I, uh.” Lance looked a little lost on how to say it, knowing how close Katie’s friends were. “I wanna know how similar they are to human dating customs. Since Hunk’s getting married, I’m kinda, you know, curious about if you have weddings or something.”
Katie shook her head. She had an expression like she didn’t understand what Lance was saying, such as whenever he said ‘days’ or ‘nights.’
“Well, how about we compare notes?” Lance suggested. “You know, see what mer-folk and humans have in common. We already know we share a bit of the alphabet, and spelling, so what’s to say we don’t have more similarities?”
“That, ah, that sounds like fun.” Katie smiled, putting her hand over Lance’s. “We can talk over eating. I was supposed to eat here, but looks like she’s ditched me.” She gave a pointed look at the entrance of the teal-tailed mermaid, just as said homeowner’s hair ducked out of sight again with a giggle that travelled easily through the water.
“Ah, yeah. Yeah, we can do that.” Lance nodded, and it felt like his heart would beat out of his chest. He twisted his wrist to let go of her arm and take her hand instead. “C’mon, I’m starving.”
The two headed away from Romelle’s home, hands entwined. Looking out of the entrance, Keith and Romelle glanced at each other with amused expressions. They may not know human rituals, but they couldn’t believe it took the two over a migration to begin wooing each other. The two knew how obvious Katie had been around Lance, and had been surprised when she said they hadn’t become mates yet.
“Finally.” Romelle looked smug. “Look who lost the bet. Matt and you owe me and Allura extra portions for a week!”
Keith groaned but nodded. He was just relieved he wouldn’t have to see either Selkie or green-tail pine for one another any longer. It was a long time coming.