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The tank was bustling with life that day, both inside and out. While it, admittedly, wasn’t a very uncommon sight, something about it felt different. Perhaps it was the ominous message he received, urging him to hurry to work as soon as he was able. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that it was his brother who called him, someone who wasn’t inclined to bother him with ordinary trivialities. No matter the reason, he was beginning to feel restless.

Before his curiosity could get the best of him, Marco grabbed his backpack and strode into the changing room, shoving his stuff into a locker as he began to undress. He was still in uniform, having come straight from his other job, and didn’t want to chance ruining his clothes. So, folding the uniform neatly and placing it on the locker shelf, he retrieved an old button-down shirt and pair of capris. There were a few tears and stains of unknown origin from his days working there that he shrugged off, pulling them onto his body.

After locking his belongings away, the blond headed back out into the back observation area. He had barely opened the door when his eyes widened. Three of his co-workers hurried to the large chamber across the room but whatever they were carrying was having none of it; it writhed and squirmed, struggling against the three sets of arms trying so desperately to keep it in place.

At first all that he caught was the large tail trailing behind the group, held just above the ground so that it didn’t rub against the floor. Golds, reds and browns met his eyes in a strange yet oddly charming mix. With its size and markings, he could see why everyone was in such a frenzy. What he didn’t understand was why they were transporting it in the open air. Aside from the obvious reasons, wouldn’t that cause unnecessary stress on the poor thing? Being thrown into some bizarre, unnatural body of water was bad enough.

And then he saw it, just a glimpse throughout the creature’s thrashing, meeting his eyes for only a moment: an arm.

A human arm.

Before he could even shut the locker room door they were gone, off to the platform to deposit their most recent finding. But before they vanished completely, he could hear the creature’s strange hiss threatening them, warning them . Even in such a state, it didn’t seem to understand that it wasn’t in charge.

He stepped towards the tank as the three men turned the corner, his interest piqued, when a voice brought him to his senses.

“Marco, buddy!” greeted the cheery voice, all too familiar as it met the blond’s ears. His head snapped around to see a grinning redhead and he deflated, a little at ease when a hand arrived on his shoulder. “I thought today was your day off.”

“It was, yoi,” he replied, eyes scrolling back to where he last saw that fish… thing… before his co-workers carried it away. “I got called in—said they needed someone who didn’t mind getting bit.”

Now I see why…

His friend laughed. “So you saw it, huh?” he questioned, “The mer-person… thing.”

When Marco met his eyes with confusion, he simply shrugged. Thatch wasn’t exactly an expert on fish. Sure he worked in an aquarium, but his main job was as the head cook at the adjoining restaurant. He would help out when asked but didn’t hold any specialized knowledge on marine life.

Refocusing his thoughts, the blond remembered what he saw. “So that was really…?” He let silence speak for itself, watching the grin fall from the other’s face.

“Yeah,” the cook confirmed in a less playful tone. “Some fishermen brought it in this morning. It was pretty badly hurt. Apparently they found the thing in their net during their haul earlier today.”

“I’m impressed they didn’t try to sell it.”

Thatch snorted, “Same.” He removed his hand from Marco’s shoulder, gesturing for him to follow as he headed closer to the tank. “Nobody knew what to do; the thing’s a fish but looks part human, so how do you treat it?”

He could just imagine everyone gathering around in a panic, thinking of how best to help a creature they didn’t even understand. They couldn’t let something like that die, though, could they? After all, a mermaid—or was it a man?—was the stuff of legends. Other than a few hundred unconfirmed sightings, they were creatures that didn’t actually exist. While fascinating, it was also intimidating. How should one go about caring for something that wasn’t supposed to be real?

“They managed to stop the bleeding while it was unconscious and it looks like it’ll recover, but we can’t just let it go like that, you know?”

“Yeah,” he grunted in response, “I know.”

As the pair approached the tank, a loud splash echoed throughout the room. Their eyes latched onto the figure descending into the crystal-clear water, its vivid colours muted by the tinted glass separating it from the outside world.

Marco hurried closer, his hand pressed against the glass as he watched the fish swim frantically along the edges of the tank, searching for a way to escape—to get away from its captors. As it sped past, he caught a glimpse of the large gash running along its tail. Blue eyes narrowed on it, the creature hitting itself against the wall of the tank as it panicked. He bit his lip.

Not bothering to say anything to Thatch, the blond dashed around the cylindrical room to the steps that led up to the deck, climbing hurriedly. He spotted the three from earlier staring into the water below, distraught expressions shared between them as they thought of what to do. He pushed them aside, feet clanking against the metal platform as he neared the water’s edge.

That damn fish was going to open its wound if it didn’t stop.

“Oi,” he called to the staff, not bothering to look their way, “can you get everyone to clear out of the observation area? The last thing this thing needs is an audience, yoi.”

Hesitantly they nodded, muttering confirmation as they clambered down the steps.

Finally alone, Marco stared hard at the fish zipping around in a frenzy, impressed with its speed yet cursing it all the same. He wasn’t sure of its level of intelligence or the instincts it based its actions off of; all he knew was that that thing was scared and needed to calm down before it hurt itself further. But how could he stop it? He was a bit panicked himself, and for all his years working there he couldn’t seem to bring his years of experience to the forefront of his mind.

Taking the time to think things through was pointless, he decided, and instead of sitting there he leaned forward, dipping his hand into the clear liquid up to his knuckles, flicking his wrist to create a small ripple.

…What the hell was he doing?

Despite his internal doubts, the creature came to a sudden halt, snapping to look towards the small movement on the surface. Marco paused, finally having a chance to note some of its features. It was eerie, seeing such a human-like torso attached to the tail of a fish. The body wasn’t toned to the extent his was and, having an absence of knowledge of the creature’s anatomy, he wasn’t quite sure whether it was male or female. Its chest was flat and it looked masculine, for the most part, but he couldn’t know for sure if it was built that way because of its species or because of its sex. For all he knew, merpeople—or whatever they were called—were indistinguishable in appearance. And despite the body shape, it held a sleekness to it that made it seem more feminine than he first realised.

Marco’s train of thought was derailed when the fish suddenly bolted towards him. He instinctively pulled his hand to safety, sighing in relief when a pair of powerful jaws clamped down on the space where his poor appendage had just been. While he didn’t normally mind getting bitten, they knew nothing about that thing; it could have been venomous. He didn’t really feel like dying just yet.

Looking below the surface, he saw the fish glowering at him. While he still wasn’t sure of its level of intelligence, he’d already deemed it the most… expressive aquatic animal he’d encountered over the years. Still, it stopped its self-mutilation so he wasn’t going to complain.

Heaving a sigh, the blond sat back on the platform, staring into the rippling water at the waiting fish. It had human-like hair, deep black strands that rolled with the waves. Its skin surprised him most though; expected pale, it actually held a sun-kissed tan, cheeks splattered lightly with freckles. How the hell did a fish get freckles?

Weighing that against the other oddities of the situation, he decided not to question it.

As the seconds ticked by, the creature continued to stare at him expectantly. With those intense, grey eyes never leaving him, he felt compelled to break the unsettling quiet.

“Stay calm, yoi,” he commanded, mentally reprimanding himself for talking to a fish. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

Silence was his only reply as the creature waded just below the surface.

“If you keep thrashing around that wound’s going to open,” he stated, pointing to the gash on its tail. “Try to stay put.”

When he received no response for a second time he sighed again, running his dry hand through the tuff of blond atop his head. Perhaps seeing a mermaid—man?—was causing him to lose touch with reality. Maybe he should demand a damn pay raise for putting up with it.

Suddenly he jumped, feeling something wet touch his toes. His head snapped forward to see a webbed hand reaching out hesitantly, the skin slick with tank water as its clawed fingers lightly brushed the pads of his feet.

The creature had propped itself up with its left arm, lifting itself just enough to reach Marco’s nearest limb. He felt the urge to pull away, feeling the smooth yet unfamiliar fingers wrapping around his largest toe, but resisted. Glare washed from its face, the fish seemed to be nothing more than curious. It was calm now and since he wasn’t in the water he could get away easily, so where was the harm?

Crouching, the blond watched as the creature poked and prodded his foot, examining one of his nails. It didn’t look so dangerous. He wondered where it came from. Nothing like it had been brought to that aquarium before, or any other for all he knew. He heard the stories—knew of the legends that had been told of sirens and mermaids targeting sailors out at sea—but never did he expect to see one in person. Until only twenty minutes ago they were nothing more than fairy tales.

With so few people ever spotting one in person, they would be good at hiding, right? Then why was that one there? How had it been so easily caught by the unsuspecting fishermen who brought it there?

Marco’s eyes widened when he felt a slick hand wrap around his ankle and before it could get a good grip he pulled away, hurrying to his feet. He stared with slightly enlarged eyes as the creature’s face went from shocked to irate before it dove deeper into the tank, circling the walls in a far less destructive fashion than before, leaving Marco to contemplate what just happened.

…Did it just try to pull him under?

 


 

Now that he’d had time to mull it over, Marco realised that he probably should have turned of the lights instead of trying to confront the fish head on. Well… mistakes happen?

He and Thatch stood atop the deck overlooking the tank, peering down at their unnamed creature as it investigated the objects floating along the surface. It hadn’t taken them long to realise that the fish, unlike most others, could feel boredom. That in itself was impressive, at least for the lower intelligence lifeforms they kept there,  but it seemed the toys Izo had thrown in only minutes before were quickly tossed aside as nothing of interest, the creature turning to glare at them, insulted by how they underestimated it.

The corners of the blond’s mouth curved into a smirk as he watched. Whatever it was, it certainly had personality.

“What does it eat?” Thatch asked as he leaned forward on the rail, a bored look on his face. The redhead wasn’t too fond of the days when the restaurant was closed; he seemed almost lost, having no one to cook for. Though it was his own choice to come in, as he liked to assist with upkeep in his kitchen and would usually pester his old friend, he always complained.

“How should I know?”

“You’ve spent the most time with it.”

“Two hours isn’t that long, yoi.”

Silence fell as the fish splashed about, hitting the inflated beach ball that had been floating around. Apparently it irritated the creature, invading its territory as it was.

Seeing as a few hours had passed, they were sure that the creature was probably feeling a bit hungry. It was only natural; it’d been swimming around almost non-stop since its arrival. That was sure to burn up a lot of energy. The only problem, then, was that they had no idea what to feed it.

“…Is it a carnivore?”

Marco sighed. “I don’t know, Thatch.”

“Then find out!”

“How?”

“Check its teeth or something.”

The blond pulled his eyes away from the water to send a dull glare his friend’s way. “It’s probably venomous, yoi. See the spines?”

“Its teeth are probably safe. Probably,” he repeated, failing miserably to sate Marco’s nerves. No, the teeth more than likely weren’t safe.

“I don’t feel like taking that chance.”

After a moment the redhead groaned, pushing off the rail to reach towards the ceiling and stretch. “You’re the phoenix; you’d be fine ,” he assured, heading towards the stairs.

As Marco listened to the clattering of his co-worker’s steps as they trailed off, he crouched on deck and looked back at the fish, his mind not really there. Thatch had a point; they needed to find out what that thing ate sometime soon. A proper diet would speed up recovery. It wasn’t like they could observe one in the wild though—

He let out a grunt when something slammed into his head, remaining still as the object bounced onto the platform and rolled to the edge. He immediately recognised it as the ball the creature had been moving around and, looking past it, spotted those eerie grey eyes staring at him from across the tank. Its gaze wasn’t as heated as before, holding nothing more than simple curiosity—or, well, that’s what it looked like. Far be it for a human to assume what a fish thinks.

After looking between the fish and the ball, Marco decided to humor it and tossed the object back, watching the water ripple as the creature sped towards it, leaving small waves in its wake. To his surprise, the mer-person-creature—he really needed a better name for it—pushed its torso out of the water to catch the toy, descending once more into the depths before turning to him, blinking quizzically.

What was going through its head?

With nothing else to do and a renewed interest in their new inhabitant, Marco dipped his hand inside the tank just as he had earlier--because apparently he was a slow learner--and beckoned the creature towards him. It readily complied and before it had a chance to try something like last time he pulled away. Displeasure showed on its face but he ignored it; he wasn’t about to let a possibly venomous fish take a chunk out of his hand.

Thatch’s words echoed through his mind and he furrowed his brow, earning nothing but confusion from the other.

“Can you open your mouth for me?” he asked, inwardly sighing. First he talked to the creature, and now he was making a request? He had to be losing his grip on reality. Maybe he could try looking for Crocus later, see if he could help with Marco’s, in his own opinion, very obvious psychosis.

His jaw went slack when the creature listened.

Now, he’d realised hours ago that the recent addition to the tank was smarter than other aquatic life. It wasn’t too hard to see the way it seemed to analyse its surroundings, not unlike a human, but to think it understood…

No, he had to be overestimating it. The fish had shown no signs of language comprehension up until then.

Still…

With the fish’s mouth gaping open like it was, Marco decided to just go with it. He reached out, cautious, but pulled back when it began to hiss in warning. “I’m not going to hurt you, yoi,” he assured with a bit of a groan.

After a moment the fish settled, allowing its jaw to go slack once more. Again, Marco chanced a touch. That time, while it tensed, the mer-creature didn’t resist and allowed his fingers to run along its skin. The feeling was sleek to the touch, cold, but not completely unlike his own as he gently guided its head to face upward, peering into its mouth. He was pleasantly surprised to see that its teeth were similar to a human’s, the only differences being the large canines and more rigid incisors.

The blond breathed a sigh of relief, allowing his hands to fall to his sides. Feeding it other fish would be fine. Hell, if its digestive system was as similar to a human’s as its mouth, they could pretty much feed it anything they ate—provided they did so in small, precautionary amounts...

When he spotted those grey eyes still on him, blinking, he wasn’t really sure what to do. So, he did the only think he could think of.

“Thanks.”

Somehow the mer-whatever seemed to take his word of gratitude for permission as it swam nearer, pressing itself against the platform and reaching up to grab Marco’s wrist. He allowed the action, simply watching as the appendage was pulled nearer to its body. It splayed his fingers, feeling the dips and grooves that were not present on its own before pressing their palms together. Marco stayed silent as the creature observed their pressed hands, noting that one was webbed and the other was not.

With such a level of comprehension on its face, the blond had to wonder just how human that fish really was.

 


 

With a heave, Marco dropped a bucket onto the platform’s surface. Within it was an assortment of various foods given to the larger life forms they took care of in the aquarium. He wasn’t sure what their little guest would prefer so he brought a bit of everything.

Lunch had arrived and he flopped down with his back to the rail, casually opening the paper bag he held in his other hand. Normally no one would bat an eye at leaving one of their specimens alone for a few hours, but considering the rarity of their current finding, as well as the fact that it had arms, the staff was on edge. What, did they think that it was going to drag itself out of the aquarium? But, just to put their nerves to rest, Marco volunteered to take care of it during its stay. Someone else would have to take over tomorrow when his shift at his other job started, though.

As expected, the creature burst through the water’s surface with little delay, sifting through the bucket as though searching for some hidden treasure before pulling out a particularly large variety of fish. It looked satisfied, ready to dive back under and have its fill, when it spotted the sandwich Marco had retrieved from his paper bag. Instantly the fish was forgotten on the platform deck as it swam to the edge and propped itself up with its elbows, staring.

And staring.

And staring.

Marco blinked. “What?”

In response to his question, the merperson reached out, holding a splayed hand in anticipation.

The blond turned from the fish to the sandwich and back again, pulling his mouth taut as he shook his head. “This is my lunch. Yours is there, yoi.”

But still it stared, eyes unblinking.

Eventually he sighed, moving to rip off a quarter of his sandwich to hand to the creature. It retracted its arm instantly, sniffing the bread as it studied the strange new food before turning back to Marco.

“That’s all you’re getting. I don’t need you getting sick.” There was no telling that it was actually okay to feed that creature the contents of the sandwich but, well… he would just have to keep an eye on it.

Despite how eager it was to be given a piece, it didn’t eat, almost hesitant as it waited for Marco to take his bite first. When he did it followed suit, deciding that it was better to eat it above water than below. It took its first taste, an analysing expression on its face that quickly turned to shocked realisation. Immediately it snapped its head Marco’s way, bombarding him with silent questions.

He smirked. “Never eaten something like that before?” Of course it hadn’t. It was a fish; sandwiches weren’t exactly easy to come by in the middle of the ocea—

His jaw went slack when he saw it hesitantly shake its head, responding to his question in a way that he couldn’t possibly deny. The merperson didn’t seem to notice, having returned to eating, but he remained completely still. The blond’s shock was only broken when he felt the bread in his hand start to slip from the grasp of his fingertips and he recollected himself, still trying to get a grip on what he just saw.

Sure, the stories he’d grown up with depicted mermaids and sirens as sentient beings with intelligence comparable to that of humans. They were shown to be dangerous yet beautiful creatures of the sea, capable of driving men to the brink of insanity, and in many fables were said to be able to communicate with sailors, converse with them.  But that’s all he thought they were—tales built on the imaginings of people long ago.

Then again, not all legends are born in the minds of men.

Had it understood everything he said all along?

Never being one to dwell on new discoveries, Marco’s mind was quick to recover and he accepted the information, taking another bite out of his sandwich as he stared absently at the deck. Come to think of it, he’d skipped breakfast; his protesting stomach reminded him of that.

“We don’t have this where I come from,” mumbled an unfamiliar voice offhandedly as they ate.

The blond’s eyes doubled, no longer retaining their usual tired facade as he slowly moved to face the source of the statement, watching as the fish continued to eye the newfound meal in its hands—fins?

…It just spoke.

At first the creature remained oblivious to the blond’s unabashed gawking, too busy taste-testing the sandwich to notice. But as it shoved the last of the bread into its mouth its eyes flickered up, hovering over Marco before tensing with slight unease and diving to the depths of the tank, leaving its human caretaker alone to try to quell the frenzied thoughts speeding through his mind.

It spoke. Not only did it speak but it knew English.

…He was going to need to lie down for a while. A long while.

 


 

 

Even stoics find themselves in over their heads once in a while. After meeting a talking fish and wrestling with a bout of insomnia the previous night, Marco woke to find that he’d drifted off while still at the aquarium, lulled to sleep by the almost perfect quiet, broken only by the movements of the fish as it glided through the waters. It hadn’t surfaced once after eating and the lack of stimulation caused his exhaustion to catch up with him, his lids weighing down over his sight. At first he was sure that he could stave off sleep, at least for a while, but only now had something roused him—he wasn’t sure what—and he realised that he had dozed off at some point.

Groaning as the overhead lights blinded his still-tired eyes, the blond felt the aches and pains in his back, a definite result of the awkward posture he took while asleep. Still disoriented, he felt around, trying to get his bearings even while his vision was still bleary and out of focus. The first thought that came to mind was that he had to hurry to clean freshwater tank #5 before he had to go home, not remembering that Haruta mentioned taking over for him for the day. But then his hand met something wet and immediately the sensation alarmed him. Blue eyes bolted open to see unending grey staring back.

About five seconds passed before those curious orbs doubled in size, almost fearful, and the creature flung its torso back into the water, diving as far down as it could go. The sight startled him but his visual reaction was nonexistent, still too out of it to properly show his emotions. Internally the day’s memories flooded back and he recalled what had been brought to their aquarium, the touching and sandwich and especially the communication.

Dropping his forehead into his palm, Marco sighed.

From between his fingers, the blond could spot a figure just beneath the tank’s surface. It watched him, observed him with both interest and hesitation. He supposed he should be thankful that it didn’t try to drag him under while he was out, as creatures of its kind were so prone to do in the old stories.

With that same hand sliding down his face to rest against his mouth and chin, he thought. That thing knew what he was saying. It understood . So if he were to speak to it then it would be able to reply, right? He didn’t imagine their little exchange earlier, did he? And he noticed that, at some point, it had taken just as much of an interest in him as he did in it. Sure it showed moot curiosity in the morning when they first encountered one another, grabbing at his feet like it did, but something had changed since then. The fact that it watched him as he slept, while a bit unnerving, also proved that. It didn’t seem to mean any harm and he was getting tired of playing guessing games, so why not confront the issue head-on? He wanted to learn about it—to find out more about what it really was and where it came from.

Just before he moved to open his mouth, he was reminded of the wetness he felt on the arm that still hung at his side. The blond observed it for a moment, coming to realise that it didn’t feel like the residue from his little guest splashing around. It was too neat, like a handprint.

Bright blue irises lifted to the sea creature less than two metres away. “Oi,” he called, watching as it tensed, “come here.”

At first it didn’t move. After enough silent prompting, however, it swam forward. Marco took that chance to memorise its features further. The spines on its back hung limp, oddly enough. He had thought that they acted similar to the spines on a lionfish, but those remained rigid indefinitely. It almost reminded him of the way a puffer fish inflated when it felt threatened, or how an animal’s fur would stand on end in much the same situation. Were that the case, he was thankful it was more comfortable than when it first woke. The shorter spines on its forearms seemed to act in much the same way; he assumed they took the place of pectoral fins and held venom just like the rest.

The merperson waded through the water as it looked up at him, waiting for him to speak. Marco wouldn’t admit it aloud but he was a bit nervous, confronting it so boldly for the first time.

He swallowed. “You understand me, right? You know what I’m saying?”

At first it didn’t react and his heart almost sank, an embarrassed heat rising to his cheeks. When he saw the slow nod it replied with, he felt himself breathe a sigh of relief. Deciding not to let the opportunity pass, he folded his legs and got ready to attempt his first real conversation with it.

But he wasn’t the one who spoke.

“What happened?” the fish questioned quietly, hesitantly. When Marco returned its question with a quizzical stare, it nodded to his legs. He still didn’t understand. “It… looks like it hurt.”

The blond blinked, taken aback by the statement as he tried to figure out just what the hell the creature that really shouldn’t be able to talk was referring to. But when he saw those grey eyes glance worriedly at his legs, it started to become clear. And he laughed.

The creature became flustered, not expecting a reaction like that, but Marco couldn’t help it; that whole situation was too absurd not to be funny. He was speaking to a half-human, half-fish creature casually like it was an everyday occurrence and the poor thing was so lost that it actually thought something was wrong with him.

“Nothing happened yoi,” he explained once his laughter settled, a small grin still playing on his lips. “I’m not the same as you.” It actually thought that his ‘tail’ had been split in half. He would never get over that.

The fish wasn’t deterred by his laughter, though, and simply furrowed its brow. “...Is something wrong with you? You’re all squishy and… deformed.” The last word was uttered quietly in an attempt not to insult the other.

Marco did his best to hold in another chuckle. “I’m human.”

It blinked, testing the word out for itself. “Human…”

“You’ve never seen one?” the blond inquired, growing more comfortable with the situation after the fish’s amusing confusion.

The creature shook its head almost bashfully, reaching for his foot in much the same way it did during their first encounter earlier in the day. It furrowed its brow when met not with the fleshy skin it remembered but the hardness of the blond’s steel-toed boot. Giving a few short tugs, it pouted when it found that the material was still firmly attached. Apparently the covering of his foot displeased it.

“What is this?”

“A shoe,” he replied simply.

“Shoe?” it echoed in a tone that showed its distaste for the object. Still it studied it, pulling at the laces before moving up his leg, taking the fabric of his capris between its fingertips. It did the same to the hem of his shirt, feeling them simultaneously. “This things?”

Marco raised an eyebrow at the odd grammatical error but didn’t question it, supposing that he should be grateful it somehow knew English at all. The fact that it could speak was enough of a blessing, but communicating in his native tongue was very fortunate. With his luck, he was surprised it didn’t know Russian instead.

“These,” he corrected, hoping the creature would catch on from the intonation used, “are clothes.”

“Clothes?” it repeated with a head tilt. “Why do they cover you?”

He pulled his mouth taut. That… was actually a pretty hard question to answer. He could go with the whole ‘societal norm’ type thing, but would it understand? He didn’t feel like risking it. Explaining things was fine, but he’d rather avoid anything that might lead to a headache. “They keep me warm, yoi.”

“Warm?” It raised an eyebrow, releasing his shirt and pant-leg to place a hand on his forearm, matching the wet spot he felt earlier perfectly. So that’s what it was from. “But you already…”

Again there was awkwardness to his speech, but it was outweighed by how cold he noticed the creature’s touch was.

“Like I said,” he started, “I’m not like you.”

It hummed in thought as it played with the digits of his fingers, pulling them every which way as it studied.

“Say,” Marco began, deciding that was as good a chance as any to bring up something that was bothering him. Its eyes flickered from his arm to his face, waiting curiously as it softly noised its attention. “Are you male or female?”

It huffed, brows furrowing as though it were offended before pulling away from him. “Male!” it shouted brokenly. “Obviously!”

The blond offered an apologetic smile. That was his first guess, yes, but… he couldn’t really be sure. Many fish were hard or even impossible to distinguish externally, and he rather be certain than left the dark. “Sorry. I’ve never seen one of you before.” I didn’t even think you existed.

Again it— he —huffed, folding his arms across his torso, looking somewhat more human-like than before. “Females have swollen chests,” he stated.

Marco blinked. “You mean breasts?”

“Is that what you call them?” The fish shrugged, arms once more falling to its side as it dipped down lower until it was barely poking out of the water, face softening. “Well, haven’t seen one ‘a you either, so… it okay.”

The errors he was making were odd. It didn’t sound like simple broken English, more like… he was carelessly forgetting to apply grammar rules—like he knew but didn’t put in the effort.

When he noticed the blond’s staring he avoided eye contact, looking into the depths of the tank. “…My brother mentioned you,” he said, “land-fish.”

Marco couldn’t help but chuckle. Was that their name for them? “Land-fish?”

“Human!” the fish suddenly shouted in a demanding voice, “I want another of those soft food things!”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s a sandwich, yoi. And I don’t have any more so just eat what you have.”

The creature puffed out his cheeks in displeasure but went to the bucket anyways, sulking as he searched for something else. He certainly was an amusing oddity. Marco would have to remember to bring him something tomorrow, to make up for being stuck in an empty tank for so long.

 


 

 

The shift at his other job ran overtime—though he shouldn’t have been surprised since that wasn’t exactly a rare occurrence—and by the time he made it to the aquarium it was already nightfall. His coworkers had laughed, wondering what his rush was and all he could say was that they had a rare fish that needed constant attention. If only they knew…

He went through the front entrance—it was quicker with where he’d parked the car—and strode past the dispersing crowd as open viewing hours came to an end, leaving visitors to file out towards their cars to head home for the night. Marco didn’t pay them much mind, heading quickly into the staff-only section at the back.

Immediately a head of pompadour hair was there to greet him.

“Marco, buddy! What took ‘ya?” Thatch asked, swinging an arm around the blond’s shoulders. He didn’t wait for a reply. “That thing talks . It actually said something to me.”

Raising an amused eyebrow, he decided not to tell the redhead that he already knew it was able to speak—or that it had conversed with him quite a bit the day before. It seemed his friend had a pretty good time watching over their guest. “Oh?”

“Yeah! It asked where the ‘spiky human’ was. I think it meant you.”

Marco stopped, glaring dully at his friend. Even the fish was making fun of his hairstyle now?

“Hey, wasn’t me this time.”

He rolled his eyes before continuing his trek down the hall. “And? Did he behave well, yoi?”

“W-well…”

Thatch hesitated. That was never good. “What happened?”

The redhead deflated, releasing his friend to rub his neck as they walked alongside one another. Then he sighed. “They wanted to take it out of the tank—to make sure it hadn’t wrecked the stitches, you know? But the damn thing kept hissing at everyone, so they didn’t want to risk it. You were right--damn fish is venomous.”

Well he’d figured out that much; he may not have been a marine biologist or anything special but he’d worked there long enough to recognise certain key traits for what they were. If the presence of the spines wasn’t warning enough, the flamboyant colours of its tail and fins certainly were. And with as much venom as it presumably carried, it could be lethal.

Marco groaned, massaging his temple as he felt the onset of a persistent headache. “I’ll take care of it, yoi. Just make sure everyone’s ready.”

 


 

 

To be honest, when Marco said he would take care of it, he didn’t think the fish would hiss at him , too. But there he was, snarling at the blond from the middle of the tank at the simple mention of being removed. He hadn’t even been given a chance to explain.

“Would you stop already?” he snapped, deciding ten minutes was all he could handle of that aggravating sound. “We’re trying to help you, yoi!”

The merman snorted, disbelief on his face even as he quieted. “You want me to go out,” he stated, “to go somewhere I can’t move . Why I should trust you?”

Again with the random errors, but when put that way he did have a point. They may have spoken, but he was in his element—in the water. If he wanted to, even in such a small space he could swim away. And what reason did he have to give them free reign over what happened to him? What gave them the right to take away his security?

Marco released a heavy breath, relaxing his muscles as he plopped down on the edge of the platform, removing his shoes to dip his feet into the water. Immediately the other’s face softened and he cautiously came over to stare curiously at the legs dipping into the clear liquid. Grey eyes glanced at the human’s face, as though asking for permission, and Marco nodded.

Webbed fingers caressed his ankles as the fish continued its examination from when they first met, acting almost as a comfort, and the blond began pondering. “What do I need to do for you to let us help?”

Everything was silent, the ripples in the water the only sound as both thought. He felt the fingers that had moved to his toe tighten their grip, a contemplative look on the merman’s face.

“…Can you show me?”

“Hm?” Marco raised an eyebrow.

It swallowed. “I want to see what humans are.”

“What do you—” Before he could finish he felt a pair of strong hands grab his wrists, pulling him swiftly. His body followed the quick movement and he found himself being swallowed by the water, dragged deeper and deeper as the freckled face in front of him remained impassive. He panicked, wriggling his arms to try to shake the iron grip holding him down. It didn’t help; despite his slender appearance, the merman had more strength than Marco in the water. He didn’t seem to notice the human’s struggles, either, as his eyes scrolled down to the other’s neck and chest with analysing focus.

Webbed thumbs absently circled against his skin as the merman’s mouth cracked into a slight smile. But Marco was losing air fast, having had no chance to take a proper breath, and wasn’t in the mood for the creature’s wondering exploration. He jerked his arms again, finally catching the other’s attention, and the fish’s eyes scrolled back to his face with a puzzled look. The release of air bubbles finally seemed to get through to him and he released his grip, allowing Marco to hurriedly swim upwards.

The human broke through the surface, gasping as his depraved lungs filled with air. He hadn’t expected that . When the fish rose to meet him above water, a worried expression on his face, Marco assumed he hadn’t realised humans’ need for air. He stated previously that he had never seen one before. And with that look he was getting… he couldn’t be mad.

“I-I didn’t…” he stuttered, voice breaking in a panic as he scanned the blond’s face.

Marco sighed. “It’s fine, yoi. Just don’t do it again.”

“I won’t!” he assured.

Seeing the creature’s unease hadn’t left, he gave the other a soft smile, giving silent permission for him to continue what he wanted to do. The merman’s shoulders were quick to deflate with relief and he dove under again. Marco could feel hands run along his side, from his chest to just below his knee as the fish felt the dips and grooves of his muscle. It was kind of relaxing; for a moment he forgot he was alone in a tank with a very fast, venomous fish, and he soaked up the moment.

He felt the brush of clawed fingertips trail behind him, running across his shoulders and back before he saw the fish swim back into his line of sight, peering up at him from within the water with a grin.

He couldn’t help but smile back.

Watching as the merman looked up and down his body, Marco jerked back when he saw him reaching out for a certain area below his waist, slapping the appendage away. The freckled man blinked at him, utterly befuddled, bursting through the surface so that he was at eye-level. Questioning eyes focused on him, waiting.

“You don’t touch there, yoi.”

“Why?”

“You just don’t,” he replied firmly, not enthused about having a conversation like that with the oblivious male, albeit of a different species.

“Does it hurt?”

He blinked. “What? No, yoi.”

“But you have a lump there!” he exclaimed worriedly. “Like a tu… tu…”

The human shook his head with a sigh. “It’s not a tumor.”

“It’s not?”

“No.”

“But it—”

“It’s just something human males have, yoi. It’s how we breed.” As he thought about it more, he started to wonder how a fish even knew what a tumor was. It didn’t seem like a very necessary word out at sea.

The merman’s head-tilt showed his confusion. “But how do—”

Marco slapped his hand over the boy’s lips, pulling his mouth taut. He really didn’t want to get into that with a fully-grown man… fish. “That’s enough; you’ve had your fun.” He felt like he was talking to a toddler, especially with the way that face sleek with water sagged into a pout. There were more important things to do—like get that horrible gash looked over. “Can you trust me now?”

His face looked younger as he nodded slowly, hesitantly grabbing Marco’s hand to lead him back to the platform. The blond hefted himself up, turning back around only to see the fish’s arms outstretched in waiting. It wanted him to carry it? “The others are going to come to—”

“NO!”

Blue eyes widened as he saw the slight trembling of the fish—the person’s limbs. He was taking a really big step, huh? Putting his life in the hands of a stranger…

His face softened and he bent down, leaning forward to allow the youth to wrap his arms around the elder’s neck. The spines on his back were slightly raised, nerves shot. “Stay calm,” he whispered into the finned ear by his lips, “it’ll be okay. I won’t let anything happen to you, yoi.”

His soothing words seemed to be enough, causing venomous tips to fall limp against his back, and Marco took the torso into his arms, hoisting him out of the water. He was heavier than first presumed, most of his weight in that long tail of his, but the blond wasn’t weak and managed to hold him bridal-style as he descended down the platform’s steps.

Thatch was standing just outside the room in the observation area, completely baffled when he saw the creature in his friend’s arms. “You actually did it,” he sputtered.

Marco paused for a moment, slightly turning his head. “You thought I wouldn’t?”

“W-well…” The redhead rubbed the back of his neck before shaking the question off, grinning at the fish. “Hey, there,” he greeted, speaking to him as though he were a child. In truth he couldn’t be blamed for that, especially with the suddenly very bashful and nervous expression the merman now wore.

The youth clutched tighter to Marco, burying his head in the crook of the blond’s neck as though to hide from the stranger. The human picked up on that instantly and gave him a firm, reassuring squeeze around his shoulders.

“Don’t get too close,” he warned his friend, “he’s scared, yoi.”

Realisation washed over the cook’s face. “Ah, right. Sorry.”

He looked down at the merman who, in turn, looked up to see him smiling gently. “You’re okay. I promise.”

Holding tighter still to his human support, he nodded. “I know.”

 


 

 

They had done the best they could to fashion a decently-sized examination table with what they had, but that was all it was: a table. They didn’t have the proper equipment to treat and look after humanoid lifeforms so they had to make do with what was available. Marco understood that. Even still, he was apprehensive about setting the fish down on the hard surface. They’d covered the metal table with all manner of cloths and cushions they could find but in an aquarium that wasn’t much; they’d stolen some pillows and blankets from the staff lounge and that was about all. Well, at least they tried.

The freckled boy looked up at him, blinking curiously as the blond stared back, holding the fish fast against his chest. He knew he had to let go, but he wanted to be sure of something first. “You’ll be alright out of water for a while longer?”

The creature glanced at the others in the room—they’d been informed of his ability to communicate but hadn’t witnessed it—and nodded. Marco still wasn’t convinced and it seemed the one in his arms noticed as he added, “I sunbathe all the time.”

Well, that explained the freckles.

With a heavy sigh the blond lowered the merman onto the surface, careful not to startle him as he noticed the venomous spines twitch with anxiety. But when he was released his iron grip around the elder’s neck remained strong. Marco didn’t yank away, feeling the tense fear in the muscles of the arms enveloping him, keeping him in place.

His co-workers had been whispering at the side, astounded by the fish’s speech, when Selma stepped forward, hands covered with surgical gloves. “Thank you, Marco. You can go now—”

“NO!” the youth protested, eyes screwed tightly shut as he squeezed the blond, having deemed him safe only a short while to go. Marco couldn’t really blame him; as he said, he couldn’t move freely on the surface. After taking such a huge step already, how could they further remove him from his comfort zone?

With pleading eyes from an almost-stranger never leaving him, he exchanged looks with Selma, hoping she was in a good mood. As it turned out she was, hefting a groan before nodding in approval, causing the blond to deflate and push the fish away. Grey met blue and he stared almost brokenly at the elder as though he was faced with the deepest of betrayals before a rough, calloused hand found its way to a webbed appendage. Instantly the fish latched on and pulled his arm closer, hugging it to his chest like a security blanket.

Satisfied, Marco nodded to the staff in waiting and they neared. He could feel sharp nails claw at his forearm as the boy’s eyes wandered around the room, settling on the faces of the approaching humans. The blond reached up with his free hand to pat the other’s head in reassurance, hearing him swallow in anxiety.

“…Will it hurt?” he barely whispered.

A smile curled his lips and he shook his head. “It won’t. They’re just going to run some tests, yoi.”

“Tests?”

“They’re going to make sure you’re okay.”

The dark-haired youth nodded, eyes fixed to the gloved hands now roaming his tail, wincing as they travelled near the gash. He was too focused on it—needed to relax, to get his mind on something else. Over the next few moments Marco decided to make easing his worries his primary objective and struggled to think of something to say.

“It’s not scary,” he stated, running the fingers of his free hand through the sopping-wet, black strands atop the boy’s head. “Just think of it as showing them what a merman is, yoi.”

He loosened his grip slightly, realisation entering his eyes.  “…Like you showed me humans?” He waited for a nod. “What’s a merman?”

“You,” the blond replied simply.

“Oh.” He seemed to contemplate that for a moment, his focus now completely severed from what was being done to his tail as he furrowed his brow. “But I’m Ace.”

Marco blinked, a bit taken aback by that. He could see from his periphery that everyone else had stopped, heads snapping up to hear it. So he had a name, huh? To be honest, the worker hadn’t expected that. He didn’t expect him to be named already, as he lived in the ocean. Maybe he should have, considering everything else Ace had surprised him with before, but he really hadn’t. That was why he never asked.

“So that’s your name, yoi?”

The fish nodded. “Yours?”

“Marco,” he answered, feeling as slightly damp fingers loosened around his arm.

“Marco…” His voice faded contemplatively before he turned to the others as they worked, silently asking his question.

“That’s Selma,” the blond began, pointing to each as he named them off, “and over there’s Thatch. He took care of you while I was gone.”

“I remember,” he said with calmness to his voice, something that hadn’t been present before.

“His name’s Izo and hers is Syn. They started working here a little after I did.”

Ace hummed in understanding. Suddenly his tail twitched, flinging from Selma’s grasp as her fingers brushed his wound. Marco managed to calm him, whispering soothing words into his ear that coaxed him into letting his lower half lay flat once more. They pressed on, the process repeating a few more times before Ace’s nerves settled. As he watched them fix a few broken stitches Marco resigned to treat him once everything was over. He deserved it.

 


 

 

Ace seemed to like the tank. Marco had worried that it was too empty, too artificial for a creature of his intellect, but the boy didn’t seem to mind or even notice. At least… not yet . He was too focused on asking questions and observing humans. It was cute, the way he’d taken an interest in them like he did. But really that could go both ways; everyone who was in that room helping patch up the gash on his tail became enamoured with him. Of course, once the rest of the staff got wind of his ability to speak they wanted to see him, too. But Selma advised against him meeting everyone, thankfully enough. She warned that it may be too much too fast—that it wasn’t good to overstimulate a deadly animal as large and intelligent as him. Marco seconded that motion; he didn’t feel like being impaled by a venomous spine.

They had done a little more examination after patching up his stitches, mostly x-rays and the like to learn more about his insides. The blond had been given the okay to feed him more human food so when he broke for lunch, leaving Ace in the tank by himself, he pondered what to get him as a reward for his good behaviour. Really, he felt like he was talking about one of his little brothers--the fish was certainly bratty enough for it.

He could always rely on Thatch. After hearing his dilemma he’d cooked a variety of fish, claiming that it was seafood so it wouldn’t be too unfamiliar to the boy, but being cooked would make it a new experience. And, well, Thatch being a fantastic chef didn’t hurt, either.

Looking into the tank from the viewing area, Marco felt his chest constrict. He’d been gone no more than forty minutes but… where was Ace? Eyes darting around the water he picked up his pace, his stride quickened into a jog as he climbed the stairs to the viewing platform. Lying on deck was the merman, his arms sprawled out at his sides, the end of his tailfin dipping into the tank, eyes closed. He heaved a sigh.

“Oi,” he called, alerting the other to his presence. Grey eyes flung open and his head snapped to the side, a smile splitting freckled cheeks when he saw who it was.

“Marco!” he exclaimed, propping himself up on his elbows. The blond took a seat beside him. “You were gone for a while, so I took a nap.”

It wasn’t even an hour , but he didn’t say anything. He could see how being alone in a place like that could get boring fast. “You always sleep on land, yoi?”

“I dun’ have to,” he stated in that strange way of his, “but I like it. The light’s warm.”

So that was it. Maybe that was why Ace seemed to like touch so much; the body heat kept the chill off his body. Even if he could and did live in the cold, he didn’t have to prefer it. “I got you something.”

Those curious eyes of his lit up and he sniffed the air, immediately snatching the Styrofoam container from the human’s hands.

“Careful,” Marco cautioned as he fiddled with the opening, “it’s hot.”

“Hot?” the boy echoed, his tailfin swishing about absently as he finally opened the object in his hands. At first he stared a little disappointedly at the seafood inside, as though expecting something more exotic, but a webbed hand lifted to hover atop the meal, catching the steam with its palm. “…It’s warm.”

“It’s cooked,” the blond corrected, holding out a knife and fork. Ace didn’t know what to do with them but still set down the container on his tail to take them. His fingertips ran along the edges as he turned the utensils, studying them. “You use those to eat, yoi.”

It wasn’t long before Marco noticed the trouble the boy had sitting up. He couldn’t help the upward curve of his lips as he watched Ace try to maneuver against his anatomy, finding himself subconsciously helping by wrapping a hand around the youth’s shoulders and pushing him up into a sitting position. Ace looked up at him, blinking quizzically before breaking out into a grin.

“I have trouble getting up,” he confessed sheepishly, leaning comfortably against the touch as he investigated the utensils more thoroughly.

“You’re not made for it, yoi.” Still, the boy seemed to be able to sit fine once up; it was getting into that position that proved a challenge. He didn’t pull away, though, his arm circling the merman’s back even when he was comfortably seated. He seemed to like the warmth, so why take that away?

After a few hilariously incorrect attempts, Ace managed to figure out how to use the fork and knife. He wore a look of triumph as he managed to cut into one of the fish, sniffing it carefully before placing the small bite in his mouth. The effect was instant, a soft noise passing his lips in approval of the taste. But he didn’t want to take the time to cut it up, dropping the fork into the container to grab his meal with his hand, but Marco was quick to slap the offending appendage away. Ace gave him a look of hurt, as though he’d just handed him over to a lab to be dissected.

“It’s hot; you’ll hurt yourself,” he chided, reminding himself of a scolding parent.

A flash of realisation crossed the youth’s face as he turned to look at the meal, pulling his mouth taut. After a minute of silent debate he once more picked up his fork and cut into the steaming fish in the container, shoving it into his mouth. He repeated the movement several times, chewing carefully to savor the taste.

Marco smiled. “Is it good?”

Ace beamed up at him with a look of wonder as he nodded. “I’ve never had this. It good.”

It’s good.”

It’s . Right. Got it.” So it seemed he’d noticed the blond’s attempts at correcting him. “Land fi— humans have good food.”

“Beats what you usually eat, yoi?”

Ace grinned. “Definitely.”

As he watched the boy eat, Marco had to smile. He’d never seen someone get so excited over such a simple meal before. It only made him want to give Ace more foods to try, more things to experience. He had to mentally stop himself from preparing to spoil the fish; there would only be so much time before his wounds were healed. And then…

Ace finished his meal, setting the container and utensils off to the side as he stared into the water with a look of deep thought that felt wrong on his face. He swallowed, soaking in the silence before turning grey eyes to meet blue. “Why… am I here?”

Marco blinked. “Hmm?” He thought the reason was obvious.

“Are you keeping me?” he asked, eyes darting to the wall of clear glass surrounding the room, settling on the visible part of a small tank in the hall, “Like them?”

The blond followed his eyes to the fish then returned to his freckled face, offering a sympathetic smile. It was natural for him to be so on edge, so worried. Were it any other aquarium, maybe they would have kept him, or sold him. In a comforting gesture he patted the boy’s head, feeling the soft, partially-dry strands of hair beneath his fingers.

“We’re not like that here,” he assured, hoping Ace could hear the sincerity in his voice. The last thing he wanted was to worry the poor thing. “You’re here because you’re hurt, yoi. We’ll let you go when you’re healed.”

“No lie?” he asked awkwardly, the hints of a smile peeking through his worry.

“No lie,” he confirmed with a nod.

A grin broke out across his face and he leaned further into the arm around his back. It seemed he was starting to trust the human a little more. “Good. I want to see my brothers again.”

Brothers? “How many do you have, yoi?”

His expression softened, a distant look in his eyes as he stared at the reds and browns of his tail, “Two: Sabo and Luffy.”

The conversation faded into silence and he was sure not to ask anything else. Judging by Ace’s expression, it wasn’t a comfortable topic for him. He wouldn’t press.

 


 

 

Marco was very well aware of just how antisocial his new friend could be. It hadn’t really occurred to him the first few days, as it was only natural for Ace to be wary of people, being thrust into the unfamiliar world of humans and forced out of the comfort of his ocean, but when days passed and none of that unease subsided, the blond slowly started to understand.

He was the only one Ace would trust.

There may have been many reasons for that, really, and it wasn’t like he knew the boy well enough to say for certain what those reasons were. Maybe it was because he was the first one to try to get close to the merman. Perhaps it was because he’d been teaching Ace things, and giving him food. No matter what it was that did it, they’d formed a connection.

The only problem to that was that Marco worked two jobs, and less hours than everyone else. Regardless of what he or the fish wanted, others would need to step in and assist. He had the next two days off away from the aquarium, and worked one of those days at his other placement, so it was best to get to fixing Ace’s little problem as soon as possible. They hadn’t yet tested the venom in those intimidating spines of his, but he didn’t really feel like finding out just how dangerous they were--not if it meant one of his coworkers getting hurt in the process.

Thatch seemed like the perfect candidate. He was friendly, very sociable, and their little friend had spent some time with him already. They’d spoken, so that had to mean he at least wasn’t too wary of him. Marco sat a bit aways on the platform, his back against the rail as he watched his old friend lower himself to the edge to speak with Ace. Ace, for the most part, was showing visible discomfort, the spines on his back twitching anxiously as he stared up at the large, tall redheaded human--and okay, maybe Izo would have made a better choice because of his less intimidating stature, but Izo wasn’t there right then so they’d had to make do.

Marco wasn’t exactly optimistic at the moment. The way those grey eyes were glancing past his coworker shone with slowly-building panic, pleading with him to get closer, to allow Ace to use him as a shield, and it was hard to resist. This was going to be a long, long session, and Ace’s apprehension wasn’t going to make it any easier.

The cook offered a lopsided grin, his hand extending towards the merman automatically. “Heya. Remember me, Ace?”

Ace’s attention was torn from him to eye the lesser known man, and Marco guessed that they hadn’t gotten that close to one another yet. It took him a few moments before he grabbed the appendage, fingers slick with water as he ran his claws lightly along the skin, testing it before jerking his hands back and pulling it to his face, leading Thatch to yelp it surprise. That wasn’t exactly what he’d been going for, but he didn’t seem to mind. “‘Course. You’re the one with the weird growth coming outta your head. Umm…”

“Thatch,” he supplied with an indignant snort--Marco held back a laugh, knowing that he wasn’t really bothered by it. “And it’s not a growth , ya damned brat. It’s a hairstyle and it’s sexy . Like Travolta in Grease .”

“You’re the only one who thinks so, yoi,” the blond chimed with a snicker, earning a dull glare from his old friend.

“You’re one to talk, Pineapple-head.”

He shut up at that, and narrowed his eyes when he caught the curious glint in Ace’s eyes. The boy was looking between them with mild fascination, his grip on Thatch’s hand loosening ever so slightly as he quietly mimicked the words he just heard. “Pi’yapple… head?”

Immediately Thatch’s face lit up, and Marco rubbed his temple with a knowing groan as the other turned back to the fish with a stretching smirk. “Pineapple. It’s this big, tropical fruit, yeah? Really juicy, and acidic. And spiky .”

At the mention of that word Ace’s eyes snapped to the blond, looking very much like he just made a horrible discovery, the corners of his mouth slowly curling upward into a grin.

Marco had made another discovery about Ace: he could be a right bastard when he wanted to be. And that never showed more than right then, with that cocky glint shining through his stare. He didn’t like the look of that.

“S’you’re a fruit, Pi’yapple-man?”

And so it began.

“No, no, no,” Thatch interrupted, shaking his head with feigned disappointment. “ Pine apple. With an ‘n’.”

“Pi’yapple,” he repeated with a nod of understanding.

“Where are you getting the ‘y’ from?! Pine. PINE .”

Ace frowned in confusion, “Pine.”

“Right, good! Now: pineapple .”

He grinned, brimming with confidence, “Pi’yapple.”

Immediately Thatch deflated with a dramatized sigh, rubbing his forehead. Ace didn’t seem to get it, though. No, the merman’s expression quickly morphed into one of concern, and he tightly gripped the edge of the platform, sharp claws leaving gouges in the wood. “Ah? What’s wrong?”

Thatch waved him off, “Nothing, nothing. We’ll just--oi! Careful,” he cautioned, reaching out the moment he spotted the fish trying to climb his way out of the water. Ace jerked back with a small noise, his grip on the platform lost and his tail running along the edge as he fell back to the surface with a hiss of pain.

Marco immediately headed over, his eyes narrowed on a small, dispersing spot of dark water--blood? But before he could get there, Thatch had already gripped the boy’s wrist, starting to pull him towards closer even as the thrashing started.

“O-oi,” Thatch started, his tone unsteady with concern, “you alright? Open your stitches?”

Ace clawed at the hand, the panic growing as flailed--Marco knew that he didn’t like to be touched, not so suddenly and not by someone he’d hardly interacted with--and he quickly made to intervene, latching onto Thatch’s wrist and immediately causing Ace’s release--but the boy was still moving wildly, trying to get away from them both--

Marco winced when he felt a sharp, burning pain to the back of his hand.

He pulled back, lips pressed together as he stared at the deep puncture wound left behind from Ace’s bout of panic. The pain was quick to begin spreading, and a slight rise visible around it, and he carefully observed.

The other two had gone still, both staring his way with wide eyes. From his periphery he could see Thatch’s head snap to the fish, Ace guiltily flinching back and looking away. “...The spines? H-hey, Marco, we should get you looked at--”

“I didn’t mean to!” Ace defended, voice cracking with anxiety as he swam back. “I-I just--”

“It’s alright, yoi.”

“I was--”

“It’s alright ,” Marco repeated forcefully, heaving a sigh as he broke the merman from his hurried defence, raising his hair for the others to see. “It’s from your nails. Just a scratch, see?”

Both leaned in, staring. And staring. And finally Thatch slumped back against the rail, a hand running through his hair as he released a heavy breath. “Well that’s a relief. Don’t need you dyin’ on me or something.”

“We don’t even know if it’s deadly venom, yoi…”

Or something ,” he repeated with an eyeroll, as if to say that he fully realised that. “Ace, be more careful, would ya?”

“You just grabbed me ! Out of nowhere !”

“I thought you were hurt!” the cook defended, pausing a moment to look him over. “...Are you?”

Ace’s head snapped downward and he ran a webbed hand across his tail, shaking his head. Whatever bit he bled seemed to have stopped, fortunately. “Nu-uh. Even if I was, you shouldn’t just grab me like that!”

Both of you be more careful, yoi,” Marco interrupted, arms folded across his chest. It could have gone far worse, but even still, he wasn’t impressed. This whole ‘getting Ace comfortable around other people’ thing was proving to be more of a challenge than he’d expected, and that was, well… rather annoying.

“Shut up, Pineapple!”

Thatch grinned. “Hey, you got it that time! Good job!”

This was indeed going to be a very, very long session.

 


 

Marco felt anxious being away from the aquarium for two days. They were his days off, and he admittedly needed the rest--working two jobs took a lot out of him--but he didn’t get much of a chance to relax, his mind constantly falling back to thoughts of his new buddy. Thatch and Izo assured him that they were perfectly able to take care of him while the blond was gone, and that Ace would be fine without him, but that did little to quell his unending worries.

He had to work at his other job in the afternoon, but it was only a three hour shift, fortunately enough, so he still had quite a bit of energy by the time the evening rolled around and he was to begin working at the aquarium. It was close to closing time, too, and the boss had given him permission to stay with their little scientific anomaly after finishing his duties maintaining some of the tanks, so that’s just what he did.

Marco hadn’t wasted any time in getting straight to work. He didn’t even bother to greet the merman beforehand, completing all of his other duties before so much as thinking of visiting the holding tank. It took an additional three hours, taking him well past closing time, but he managed to get everything done in record time.

After changing into something more comfortable--and less wet--the blond found himself stepping into the observation room just before the tank. Thatch was walking down the steps when their eyes met, and the redhead’s face broke out into a large grin as he headed over.

“‘Bout time you got here!” he exclaimed, clapping the blond on the shoulder.

He furrowed his brow. “I was working, yoi. You know that.”

“Yeah, but…” The man’s voice faded as he rubbed the back of his neck and turned away. “The fish is depressed--hasn’t really spoken since last night.”

That was worrying. Once he got used to the whole thing, Ace was pretty talkative. He was sure to ask whatever questions came to mind, push for explanations if he didn’t understand.

“I think he misses you.”

Marco blinked, his mouth slightly ajar as he was pulled from his thoughts to stare quizzically at his co-worker. But he wasn’t given anything else as Thatch hurried away, having finished for the night, so instead of asking he just went to see for himself, ascending the stairs until he reached the top of the platform. Ace was lying there on his side, his back to the human as he remained perfectly still.

For a moment the blond did nothing more than observe the way the merman’s tailfin absently splashed the water, the tip still mostly submerged as it swished about, acting as the only sign the boy was awake. Then he stepped over, receiving little reaction from the other until he quietly sat next to him. Ace’s ear twitched at the minute sounds he made and the fish rolled over onto his back with a look of disinterest. When grey irises settled on him, though, they widened and the youth immediately scrambled to sit up, failing miserably until Marco went to help him with a light chuckle. But as he did so the younger flung himself into the human’s chest, wrapping slick arms around his torso and squeezing lightly.

“Marco!” the youth exclaimed, eyes screwed tightly shut. “Marco Marco Marco!”

He was tense at first but slowly eased into it, allowing his arms to fall on the smaller man’s shoulders. So Thatch was right. The thought made him smile and the sentiment filled him with warmth, enough to fight off the persistent chill emanating from the other’s body.

Eventually Ace pulled away, looking up at him with those large, grey eyes of his, his mouth pulled taut as he fisted the fabric of the human’s shirt. “Where were you?”

“At home,” he answered simply.

“Home?”

“Yeah,” he grunted, allowing the boy to use his arm as support, his position too unbalanced for him to remain upright on his own. “I don’t live here, yoi. I had the last two days off.”

Brows furrowed, Ace tilted his head. “Off of what?”

He sighed. He really didn’t want to explain about work and jobs, so he didn’t make any sort of move to respond. The youth caught the hint and didn’t press, instead moving onto a related topic.

“I miss you.”

Missed.

Missed you.”

His smile stretched and he used his free hand to pat Ace on the head, rewarding his efforts. Hearing him say that was… comforting, in one way or another. “I was only gone two days, yoi.”

At that the fish’s face sagged into a displeased pout. “It felt like forever.”

“Did Thatch and Izo take good care of you?”

The youth nodded, heaving a sigh that contradicted his response. He didn’t look too satisfied with their care. “The one with the big hair gave me lots of warm foods and the pretty one kept me company.”

He raised an eyebrow, “But?”

“But they’re not you,” he stated simply, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world, and suddenly Marco wanted to hold him close. Ace was… really starting to feel like a brother. “And it’s so boring in here. There’s nothing to do.”

The blond was afraid of that. He knew a creature of Ace’s intellect would need more stimulation than an empty tank could give him, even with all the people in the world to talk to. An idea popped into his head, but he wouldn’t be able to do it right now. He’d have to wait--to somehow find what he needed. Perhaps Selma could help him out. If he recalled correctly, she knew a man by the name of Trafalgar Law…

 


 

Before his plan could be set into motion, Marco unfortunately had to find other, far simpler ways to keep his little friend entertained. And simpler in this case did not equate to better. Ace was smart. He may have acted naive but that was because he, well, he was . He didn’t know about the surface world. Hell, he didn’t even know what humans were called. Land-fish. He’d said that they were land-fish and Marco would never get over that. And birds? When those were brought up, Ace bestowed upon them the oh-so-accurate title of ‘sky demons’, going on to very animatedly explain how they would swoop down from the sky to steal his food, and would often torment him when he stayed above water to sunbathe as he was so prone to do when he napped--and Ace napped a lot . No wonder he had so many freckles…

Currently the pair was keeping occupied by tossing a beachball back and forth. It wasn’t the most complex of games, not by any means, but currently they were waiting for Izo to get back with something that would be able to keep the merman’s attention, so it did what it had to do.

The ball flew over his head and Marco side, looking to his friend in the water who was wearing a sheepish grin and rubbing the back of his neck. “Uh… oops?”

He rolled his eyes and got up, walk towards the back of the platform and down the steps which the toy had rolled down, picking it up. Thatch was currently in a suit setting something up at the bottom of the tank. The redhead hadn’t mentioned what the hell it was, and he’d never asked, figuring that, so long as he got the old man’s permission, it didn’t really matter.

Marco ascended the stairs and tossed the ball back to Ace only for it to hit the fish square in the face, leaving him in mild surprise and Marco smirking. “Payback for the other day, yoi.”

“Oi!” Ace huffed, throwing it back as hard as he could. It was no secret that the boy’s aim was absolutely horrid, and as always it missed it’s target completely.

This time it bumped into an unsuspecting man with painted red lips.

Both froze and paled, and at Izo’s eyebrow twitch Ace quickly ducked beneath the water, as though it were a shield meant to defend him against the human’s wrath. But Izo just sighed, dabbing at the wet spot on his uniform with a towel he had slung over his shoulder and heading over.

“Did you bring it, yoi?” the blond asked as his coworker lowered himself onto the wood.

His response was to wave the device in front of him. “Right here, Marco dear. As though I’d forget… I’m not like that idiot,” he stated with a huff, pointing accusingly towards the water at the man still working at the bottom.

Marco smiled, “Thanks, yoi.”

“Anything for you, dear.”

With that, the blond beckoned Ace over. It took a bit of prodding--he’d bore witness to Izo’s temper the other day when Thatch had ruined his kimino when he came to say goodbye to them before heading home--but eventually complied, propping his torso up onto the platform with his arms. His gaze was immediately fixed to the rectangular device held between well-manicured fingers, and he cocked his head to the side. “What’s that? Human toy?”

Izo smiled, turning it on. “Something like that. Join us for a bit?”

His eyes scrolled past to the ball left forgotten by the stairs. “But the game…”

“Trust me, this will be a lot more fun.”

Ace considered it a moment before turning his attention to his blond companion, lips pressed firmly as he gave an affirming nod, raising his arms. Marco was quick to scoop him up out of the water and place him on the wood between himself and his coworker.

Ace sputtered as a towel was thrown onto his head, pulling it off and staring at it inquisitively.

“Dry yourself off,” Izo commanded, leaving no room for argument. “I’ll let you play with this, but I am not letting you give it water damage.”

“Isn’t it waterproof, yoi.”

Hush , Marco, that is not the point. Shut up.”

He rolled his eyes and instead helped Ace dry the more difficult areas around the spines and fins of his arms, and soon the merman was grasping the object firmly with both hands.

“...What is it?”

“It’s a tablet,” Izo supplied readily, though that gave the boy absolutely no hints at its purpose. “You can do plenty with it. For now, we’ll try games.”

“Games?” Ace echoed, furrowing his brow. “...I don’t think it’d bounce very well.”

Izo gasped, quickly yanking it away. “You are not playing ‘catch’ with my tablet!”

“Okay, okay!”

Eyeing the brat a moment longer, Izo handed the device back with clear reluctance, tapping on the screen a few times before pulling away. “Alright: you see that block right there? The one that’s falling?”

“Uh-huh.” Despite his unenthused reply, Ace’s eyes were alight with wonder as he stared at the screen. They avoid showing him many technologies out of fear of him breaking them--he managed to snap Marco’s cell phone in half the other day, and the blond was still a bit bitter. “It’s going to break when it hits the bottom…”

“No, Ace, the blocks don’t break,” Izo sighed with a roll of his eyes. “They’re going to be in different shapes, and you’re going to have to try to create lines of them without gaps. Alright?”

“Alright…”

“Just tap the screen to rotate, and drag your finger across to move it.”

Ace frowned, entering a state of deep concentration as he tapped one and the block turned until it was lying lengthwise, landing flat against the bottom of the window. He smiled in triumph as the second piece began to fall, dragging it quickly to the side. With the addition of the third the line was complete and all of the blocks within it vanished. “I did it!”

Izo chuckled, patting his head. “Yes you did. Good job. Now keep doing that until the round is over, alright?”

“I can do that!”

Marco smiled as his little friend became absorbed in the rather simple game--he was a little surprised at how fast the boy had picked it up--and when he was sure Ace wouldn’t notice he rose to his feet and leaned over the water, peering down inside it at Thatch who was, himself, rather involved in his task. Izo was quick to join him.

“What’s he doing down there?” the crossdresser asked, tilting his head and eyeing the cook as he worked.

To be honest, he wasn’t really sure, himself. He hadn’t been paying attention, too busy keeping Ace entertained to really observe, and it wasn’t like Thatch himself had said anything about it. He only had a guess. “I mentioned to him that Ace has been getting bored a lot lately, yoi.”

“Oh?” Izo raised a delicate eyebrow. “You think it’s something to keep him occupied, then?”

There was a nod. “I don’t want him to be stuck doing the same few things every day, yoi. I rather he get the chance to try new things before he leaves.”

His coworker hummed quietly to himself, eyes falling back to the water and the figure moving within its depths. “Have you been able to talk to that Trafalgar fellow?”

“Not yet,” he heaved a sigh. “He’s been away from work the past few days. Apparently he had an unexpected visitor. One of his coworkers offered to fill in for him until tomorrow. I should have a chance then.”

“Soon, then…”

Both twisted their bodies back around to face the merman as frustrated noises were muttered behind them. Ace’s face was scrunched up in displeasure and, peering at the screen, a clearly labeled ‘game over’ screen was there to meet his furiously tapping finger.

Finally he looked up at them with a frustrated whine. “It won’t let me play anymore…”

Smiling softly, Izo headed back over and sat beside him, leaning against his shoulder to look at the screen. “Is it giving you trouble, hm, Ace?” There was a weak not in response. “Alright, why don’t we try something else? How about a movie?”

Ace’s head lifted at that, and the upset washed from his face to be replaced with mild curiosity. “Is that another game?”

“No, no,” Izo laughed, “you just watch this one instead of playing. Want to try?”

A moment of thought passed between them before the fish nodded and handed the tablet back to his human friend, watching carefully as painted nails tapped lightly against the screen. Marco, for his part, knew that Ace would like whatever he was shown, provided it wasn’t too wordy, and was more upfront with its information.

Unfortunately, Izo was a big fan of sappy, romantic tragedies. This would not end well.

Sure enough, even without looking he could tell from the moment the opening music started playing that his guess was correct. He just hoped Ace wouldn’t get too bored. He seemed interested enough, if only because of the new technology, so there was hope at least…

He returned his attention to the tank. Thatch… well. He seemed to be having a few issues. From what he said before going down there he’d expected a quick job but, well, Thatch was a cook ; this wasn’t exactly his area of expertise.

Heaving a sigh, Marco left the room and quickly retreated to the lockers. He’d promised Ace another sandwich, and this time he actually made the boy his own. It was getting close to dinner--and actually his shift ended about an hour ago--so he thought, what better to do with his time than retrieve a few snacks for his little buddy? It beat sitting through one of those movies, at least.

Marco took his time. He decided to get changed into his normal clothes since, well, he’d be heading back to his place soon anyway, and if he got a little wet beforehand it wouldn’t be much of a problem. Not only that but, well, wasting time and leaving them alone for a bit… He hoped it would be good for Ace. The boy was still apprehensive around them, to an extent, but… it was improving. Slowly. Seeing the way Izo leaned against Ace without earning any sort of reacting was proof of that, even if it was in part due to the fascination he held with the tablet. That gave him hope.

Returning to the tank with a plastic container in hand, he ascended the stairs only to stop at the platform and blink at the pair curled next to one another against the rail. Ace was glaring at the screen, his lips pressed together. Did he hate romances that much?

“I don’t get it!” he exclaimed, leading Marco to sigh. Apparently he was right. “Why’d he have to leave?!”

He stared. What?

Izo had his head resting on the merman’s shoulder, dabbing at the corners of his eyes with a cloth. “He wanted to b-be free,” he hiccuped. “See the world… y-you know?”

“But--but he just left her! Just like that! Why couldn’t she go, too?”

“Sh-she didn’t want to go…”

“He didn’t ask ,” Ace pointed with a huff, arms across his chest. “They’re family , aren’t they? That’s what those rocks on their fingers meant, right? Humans have such weird customs…”

“They were married,” the crossdresser nodded.

“You don’t just--just abandon family. You can’t. You’re s’pposed to be there for each other. I don’t like that guy. Get his head bitten off for all I care…”

Marco stared, jaw slack as he watched the exchange with a mesh of confusion and amusement. Ace… had gotten into it, had he? Well, he certainly hadn’t expected that . But he didn’t dwell, crouching down in front of the merman and holding out the opened contain--

Ace snatched the sandwich away without a word and began his angry chewing.

Well then.

The wood creaked and water rippled, and blue orbs flitted over to the surface of the tank as Thatch pulled himself onto the platform and immediately wrapped in one of the spare towels they kept.

Marco raised an eyebrow. “Managed to get it to work, yoi?”

“Of course!” he grinned. “I’m handy.”

“Only after struggling.”

“Ah, what d’you know? You’d fail just as badly as I did!”

“The difference is that I don’t deny it,” he replied with a snort.

“Ace!” Thatch called, beckoning the fish over as he dug a remote out of his bag. He waited until the boy had dragged himself over to press a button, and suddenly the water was lit up in a purple hue. “Thought you could use a bit of a change of scenery. Sorry it’s not much, but I tried--”

Ace let out an audible gasp and quickly snatched the device out of Thatch’s hands, staring at it with large eyes, the sandwich hanging out of his mouth as he pressed another button. Suddenly the water was green, and he let out an excited noise--and really, why he was so excited Marco hadn’t a clue, but he’d learned a while ago that Ace wasn’t easy to understand. Take just now with the movie, for instance.

The merman removed his half-eaten snack from the corner of his mouth and grinned. “That great!”

That’s ,” Marco corrected lightly, though honestly Ace hadn’t been making mistakes like he used to, and he was tempted to let it slide.

That’s great,” he nodded, and then stared between the sandwich and blond as though he just noticed them. “Ah, thank you Marco! For the soft food stuffs.”

“Sandwich, Ace,” he stated.

“Whatever! I’ll call it what I want--you people have weird names for things!” Apparently deciding that the conversation was over and that he came out on top, his head snapped around to the cook, and his grin brightened. “Thanks, not-Marco!”

Thatch rolled his eyes, clearly unimpressed by his new, oh so carefully chosen nickname. Marco could hear Izo snickering behind them all. He reached out to ruffle Ace’s hair, earning not so much as a flinch. “Anytime, kid.”

 


 

 

“Again?” Ace asked with a look of perplexity across his face as he clung to the platform’s edge, his tail swishing about as he watched the humans with narrowed eyes. “But I already went. I don’t want to go again. There are too many of you land fish--it’s unnerving.”

Thatch chuckled, crossing his arms over his chest as he waited for the blond to work his magic and yet again persuade the fish into going along. Admittedly, Marco understood where he was coming from. He really did. It took a lot of courage to let himself be taken into a small room with a bunch of strangers poking and prodding him. But this time it wasn’t about that. No, this time he was sure Ace would like where they were going.

Lowering himself onto the edge of the platform, Marco reached over and patted his head, offering a soft, reassuring smile that had the quivering spines across his back falling limp. “We’re not going there, yoi,” he stated, watching as the fish’s head instantly perked up. “I thought I would show you around.”

“...Around?” Immediately grey orbs darted to the glass walls, to the room beyond them, and he let out a soft, contemplative hum. There was no hiding his curiosity but he remained unconvinced. “But… how? Aren’t I heavy? Wouldn’t you get tired?”

The blond chuckled, offering Ace his hand without an explanation. He took it, a testament to his growing trust that had warmth swelling in Marco’s chest, and he was hefted out of the water and into the human’s hands with a soft grunt. Yes, Ace was heavy--ridiculously so considering how lean he was--and thankfully he had Thatch there to spot him so that he didn’t overbalance on his way down the stairs.

They stepped out into the viewing room and the merman let out a curious noise when he was met with a lone chair, the spines on his back twitching at the abnormality.

He looked to Marco with questioning eyes. “What’s this?”

“A wheelchair,” he supplied, stopping just in front of it. “I need you to relax, yoi--you won’t be able to sit properly if you don’t. Don’t be scared.”

At that last word Ace gave an indignant huff, folding his arms across his chest. “I’m not scared ,” he defended, his stare never breaking away from the wheeled contraption, “but… is it safe?”

Thatch barked out a laugh, slapping the boy across his back and earning a warning hiss. “It’s fine , kid! Marc just wanted to think of a way to get you around. No need to be so suspicious.”

“Around?” Ace blinked up at the blond, head tilted in show of his obvious confusion, before allowing his body to settle and ease into Marco’s hold.

That was signal enough, and carefully Marco settled the youth into the wheelchair and smiled as Ace let out a fascinated noise, looking over the foreign object with great care. It was good to see him so interested in something. The past few days, everyone had noticed a decline in his enthusiasm. He’d started moping around the tank, and while he was quick to perk up when he had someone to talk to, they thought it unfair to keep him like that, especially when he had to stay there alone at night.

It was after hours. The aquarium was long since closed, even the stragglers having long since made their way out, and the staff had taken over. Apart from a few nightwatchmen and janitors, the place bare. Marco and Thatch had ended their shifts and asked the owner to stay later to try this out. After all, they couldn’t exactly make the attempt when the place was filled with visitors, could they? Ace almost panicked when there were just a select few people in the room with him, and that wasn’t to mention the reactions of whoever happened to see him. But this… this should be okay. It should work.

He never had a chance to explain the chair as Ace rolled himself forward with a triumphant noise, eagerly pushing until the front wheels bumped against the wall, a laugh escaping him.

He twisted his torso around to face the humans with a grin. “Did you see that? That was amazing . Can I do it again?”

Thatch let out a snort, stepping forward to turn the wheelchair and allow the fish his freedom yet again. It was only seconds before the boy settled back down and pushed forward with a laugh. “We thought you’d--”

“I can move around like you guys now! This is great .”

“--like it.” He shook his head and walked leisurely beside the merman, nodding for Marco to do the same. “Figured you’d be getting bored stuck in the tank all day.”

“I was. It was boring. People kept leaving and I had no one to talk to.”

“...Right. Well, that’s why we brought you this. Thought we might as well take you around the place, give you something to do.”

Marco smiled, walking along behind them as they conversed back and forth. As far as he knew, this was the most they’d said to one another. Ace was slow to warm up to people and, well, it was worrying when the boy only had him to speak comfortably with. It was obvious he was a rather social creature, even if at times he liked to drift along the bottom of the tank in solitude, and the fact that he was taken away from whoever he might have spoken to before, like those alleged brothers of his…

They needed to get him healed and back out into the ocean.

The trio passed out of the room and down the hall, Ace’s head snapping left and right to stare at everything they passed, more often than not stopping them and starting up a game of twenty questions until he was ready to advance, and eventually they reached a large set of doors. Thatch pushed them open and instantly they were met with a deep, blue hue. The walls were made of reinforced glass, peering into tanks all the way down each hall.

Ace stopped immediately, his eyes broadening as he took it all in, a stillness present that hadn’t been there before. It was quiet. There were no excited questions, no soft noises of wonder, just the sounds of the water.

A moment of composure and he was pushing himself towards the glass, the tiny squeal of the wheels breaking through the stillness as his body silhouetted against the the light beyond. A webbed palm pressed against it, grey orbs trained on a school of fish passing right in front of him. The humans looked between one another with concern, wondering if, perhaps, this was a bad idea after all. But Ace never showed any sign of distress, just remained there, watching, taking it all in.

They stepped up beside him, cautiously peering down to see the boy’s enamoured expression. He… didn’t look upset. No, no, he didn’t look upset at all. It was something else…

Thatch nodded to Marco, gesturing that he was going on ahead--likely to fix a few things up at the restaurant before their guest was ready to move on--and so the blond remained, contenting with watching the aquatic life before them.

“...Sabo would’ve liked to see this,” he murmured softly, causing blue eyes to flicker his way. “He always… liked seeing new things. Learning.”

A moment of pause and Marco was turning back, watching the light catch off the backs of the school as it ascended. “Is that so?” he questioned, just as soft in his intonation.

Ace gave a nod, pressing his face closer to the tank. “Learned about humans. Taught me ‘n Lu how to speak.” So that was it. But then, how did ‘Sabo’ learn if he was a merman, as well? “There was this… this place he would visit. He’d disappear, ‘n I’d take care ‘a Lu. I was a better hunter, so…”

Suddenly the blond started feeling unsettled by the constant use of past tense, speculations on what happened to this ‘Sabo’ flitting across his mind. But he was quiet, never interrupting as he folded his arms across his chest.

The soft upward curve of Ace’s lips had him perplexed. He thought Ace would find the topic upsetting, but there he was, smiling, fondly reminiscent. It was… a relief. “He liked humans--liked ‘em lots. He’d try to learn all he could about the land fish, ‘cause they were exotic, you know? Or, no, more like… we couldn’t get close to them, yeah? It was dangerous. But he… he still tried. No matter what.  Stupid brother…”

Marco frowned, not liking the implications of that. “You miss him,” he observed, noting the strain in that smile.

Ace let out a broken laugh, nodding as his tail flicked forward anxiously. “We hatch alone. Lu, ‘n Sabo… we found each other. They’re all I’ve ever known, and... “ He swallowed, finally prying his attention away from the tank, turning pleadingly to his blond companion. “Y-you’ll let me go, right? Back home? You’re not… not keeping me like them?”

Marco pulled his mouth taut. He crouched, wrapping his arm firmly around the youth’s shoulders and pulling him into a sideways hug, allowing it as sharp nails clung to his arm.

“L-Lu’s on his own right now…”

“You’ll see him again,” he assured, his voice leaving no room for argument. “Give it a week, maybe less. You’ll be healed enough to go. I told you before, right? We don’t plan on keeping you.”

The merman gave a shaky nod, shivering breaths giving way to calm, even inhales as he settled against the one holding him. “...It’s pretty,” he muttered softly. “Somehow it’s not the same…”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“‘M not… sure yet…” With a loud exhale, Ace grinned, backing away from the tank and starting down the hall. “Where’d the other one go? Thatch?”

He straightened his back, smiling as he followed after the freckled youth. “The restaurant. He’s setting a place for you, yoi. We’re going to eat before going back.”

At that, Ace’s stomach let out an accepting gurgle and he leaned forward, rounding the corner. “More food? ‘S it new stuff? I wanna try new stuff. You still haven’t given me another of the soft food things.”

“Sandwich,” he supplied. “I’ll bring you one tomorrow, alright?”

“Alright!” The grin only widened, Ace licking his lips as he allowed Marco to take over, grabbing the handles on the back of the wheelchair and pushing him into the restaurant.

Immediately a savoury scent wafted their noses, teasing them, and Ace’s excitement seemed to grow as he was set at a table, Marco taking a seat at the other side. Marco smiled, watching as his companion smoothed his hands over the surface of the table, moving to then fiddle with the utensils.

“It’ll be easier eating like this,” Ace murmured, fiddling with the pronged end of his fork. “Can we do this again? Tomorrow?”

Marco raised an eyebrow. Well, he was certainly eager. That was good, and it led him to nod without much thought. “I’ll ask Newgate about it, yoi.”

“Newgate?” the other echoed, tilting his head curiously. “What’s that?”

Who ,” he was quick to correct, turning his head to see his friend carrying two steaming trays out of the kitchen. As soon as Ace saw that, his interest in the topic withered and died, replaced with unending curiosity over the meal coming their way.

The trays were set down and the merman wasted no time in putting that fork to use, tearing into the meat and not even touching the side dishes as he let out soft, pleased noises at the tastes. It was comical, how mortified he looked when his plate was empty, the way he turned pleading eyes to the chef. Marco shrugged, pushing his portion over and watching as Ace gleefully continued devouring the human’s share, as well.

He did not mind. It was enough just watching, allowing his little friend to indulge in the new tastes and textures of the unfamiliar foods, knowing that once Ace left, he’d likely never get to experience that again. So he’d spoil the boy. He’d allow their guest to indulge, to try whatever he wished. Because one day soon, Ace would be gone. And he wanted to make the most of their time until then.

“Hey,” that excited voice pierced through his thoughts, “do a lot ‘a humans come here? I wanna see ‘em. A whole pack of humans… Is that what they’re called? Pack? Herd? No, no--crowd? Group? ...Tribe?”

As the fish continued to ramble, Marco pressed his hand to his chin in thought. Ace… wanted to see the aquarium during business hours? He knew how people would react if they saw such a strange creature, knew the buzz that would surround the poor boy, and the potential danger it would bring forth. He had long since been aware of that, but… but Ace wanted to see it. Ace wanted to see what humans were-- more than the one pulled into his tank.

And he would find a way. He would try. Somehow…

 


 

What Marco wanted most out of their short companionship was for his new friend to feel comfortable around more than just him. That proved a challenge, and the fish wasn’t half as trusting as he made himself out to be. Sure, others could visit. They could go see him in the tank, feed him and help keep an eye on the stitches. That was no problem, and for the most part the boy would allow it. But he was never comfortable . To Ace, they were just like Marco was on that first day--creatures to be curious about, but not to be trusted.

His feelings on the matter were justified, and the blond could not honestly say that he blamed him. Members of another species had confined him to this small body of water, to a place where there was no escape. No freedom. They’d captured and displayed aquatic life as a business practice, turned a profit from it, and put like that the whole thing sounded terrifying . To Ace? Well… he could see where those venomous spines would come in use.

He wanted that to change. He wanted the boy to feel safe, welcomed in that aquarium. And he didn’t want the kid to continue on thinking that they would never let him leave.

That night, he showed up to the holding tank as always, muted curiosity sparking when he spotted a pale, long-haired man seated behind his merman. Strands of stark-black hair dropped to the ground, caught only by an old, torn and tattered towel beneath the pair as thin, elegant hands straightened Ace’s head.

“Hold still,” called a soft voice, and the tailfin swishing about happily in the water halted.

Marco continued his slow ascent, watching as painted-red lips curled into a smile, one hand carding through the mess of hair as the other came up to snip away at it more with a set of barber shears. It soon dawned on him that Ace was… relaxed, fully and completely as Izo tended to him, and the blond stopped.

“So,” the man started, carefully eyeing the lengths of the strands, “Luffy, you said? Your brother?”

Ace grinned, staring across the tank with a look that was fondly reminiscent. “The youngest. We found him, took care ‘a him… But he’s so stupid sometimes!” He let out a snort, scratching absently at the deck, tilting his head only to earn a stern correction from the other. But he didn’t seem to mind, even at the harsh yank to his skull. “I take my eyes off him for one minute and he’s being hunted.”

Both workers’ eyes lifted to him then, interest piqued. Hunted? “Was that how you got hurt, yoi? Protecting him?”

Instantly the merman’s head snapped over to him, a wide grin splitting his face. But his usual exclamation of the human’s name stuck in his throat when he instead decided to focus on the question, his head tilting, much to Izo’s dismay. The task at hand left forgotten, he rolled himself over and blinked up at Marco with a hum of thought. “Well… yeah. Had to do something, right? My little brother was gonna be hurt. Sabo’d hate me forever if I let something happen to him.” He faced the deck with a sigh. “I hope he’s okay…”

Marco smiled, taking a seat amidst the others as Ace propped himself up with his elbows. “I’m sure he’s fine. Are you going to be able to find him when you get back out into open water?”

The curt nod he received was relief enough, and he was content to leave it at that.

“We have meet-up spots,” Ace stated with a smile, just to further back up his answer. “Ah, Marco, look! It doesn’t get in the way anymore!” A webbed hand ran through the now shortened mop of hair atop his head, his face lighting up in wonder. He supposed Ace never would have had a haircut before. A novel experience, perhaps?

“I can see that, yoi.” He turned to his coworker whose only answer was a tiny smile, dark eyes meeting his. Izo could be so amazing sometimes. The fact that he managed to gain Ace’s trust with such a menial task… “It looks good.”

The boy grinned before pushing himself off of the deck and back into the water, immediately diving straight to the bottom.

“Ah--I wasn’t finished!” Izo called, rolling his eyes when they were left alone and without response. “Pest… Anyway, how are things on your end?”

“Fine,” Marco chuckled, placing a container on the edge of the deck as he settled more comfortably next to the man, leaning over to watch as Ace rounded the tank. “Looks like someone has his energy back.”

Izo hefted a sigh, gathering and folding over the towel as he started to put away his things. “You were gone, and it’s not like the poor boy can go out for fresh air whenever he wants. Even I’d get a little stir-crazy after so long.”

Marco frowned with an acknowledging nod. Yes, he understood that, perhaps a little too well. Even he got a bit sick of the place from time to time, and he certainly wasn’t stuck there the way Ace was. It was understandable--completely. That was why he spent his breaks there, and he’d even started to visit on his days off. But there was only so much his visits could to. “...Thanks.”

“I didn’t to it for you,” Izo stated with a roll of his eyes, “I did it for him , Pineapple.”

He had to sigh at the nickname. “You, too?”

“Marco, if I make an observation I’m not one to deny it. You know this.”

Well, he did, yes. Izo was blunt--it was one of the most defining pieces of his character. But he never got that stupid resemblance they all said he had to that damned fruit…

Suddenly Ace burst through the surface of the water, sending a wave to wash over the pair, a shocked gasp escaping poor Izo as his clothes stuck to his skin, his hair lying flat. But the boy never seemed to notice his horror as he instantly clawed at the container with excitement, his face lighting up when he snatched away the sandwich from within. “You remembered!” There wasn’t a moment of thought before he was shoving it in his mouth.

“And you’d better run,” the blond remarked with a snort.

“Mm?” The sandwich already half-devoured, he looked over to see the barely-concealed furry in the tremble of Izo’s limbs. Instantly his skin turned a pallid white and he forced the rest of his meal into his mouth before diving back under. He hadn’t even questioned it.

Marco chuckled, watching as his coworker shook himself off and descended the stairs with a brooding mutter. “Ungrateful sushi…”

“That’s a good look for you, yoi.”

“Hush, Marco, or I’ll take this out on you instead.”

 


 

Marco was ready. He’d gone and prepped everything ahead of time and was now looking it all over with a careful eye. Admittedly he wasn’t very confident in this little plan of his but, well, it was what Ace wanted. He’d do everything in his power to give him that, and… it was about time for them to let their aquatic brother back out into the sea. Marco wanted to give him a proper send-off, something that would be memorable and fun . If everything went along properly,  then...

He heard more than saw Izo’s approach, still staring at the few items placed on the wheelchair seat  as the clacking of steel-toed boots came up from behind. His coworker leaned against the doorframe, arms folded over his chest as he observed with an air of indifference. “You’re really going through all this trouble?”

Pressing his lips together, Marco nodded. He refused to look up as his mind went over everything, a bit paranoid about checking over things he may have missed. Just one slip-up was all it took. “I want him to be happy.”

“Rather smitten, aren’t you?” Gazes locked then, a stillness passing between them before Izo heaved a sigh and approached, lightly gripping his shoulder. “Marco, hun, we work in an aquarium.”

“And?”

“And covering it all up like this is just going to look suspicious. Come on, I know you’re not stupid.”

Izo had a point. While he’d gone through every measure to assure each of Ace’s features would be carefully masked away from the sights of any curious onlookers, he knew it would all just draw more attention-- unwanted attention, the kind that provoked suspicion on otherwise calm passersby. But what could he do? He’d thought it over all that time but now was his last chance. He couldn’t afford to ponder it any longer. “Then what do you suggest, yoi?”

Painted lips curled into a grin, and Izo patted the blond on the back. “Don’t hide it, embrace it. He’s a merman at an aquarium--nothing says ‘gimmick’ quite like that does.”

Blue orbs flitted his way, shoulders slouching. He had a point.

Matching the smile with one of his own, Marco offered words of praise before getting behind the chair and pushing it towards the tank. Yes, this could work. It most definitely could, so long as he could get the brat to cooperate. Ace didn’t do well with commands, being far more defiant than he first appeared. Sure he’d listen if he agreed with the order, but if not? Well, the fish held a certain attraction to being in control, at times even selfish. He stole Marco’s lunches on plenty of occasions, so all food allowed in the room with him had to be safe for him to consume, and when he was asked to do something often times his response would be to dive to the bottom of the tank far out of reach. The more comfortable he got around them, the bolder his actions became.

That… wasn’t really a bad thing.

When he got to the observation room, he was amused to see it lit in a pinkish hue that emanated from the tank behind glass walls, the lights at the bottom in full effect, and as he walked the colours changed from pink to blue to yellow to green. Ace really liked that little thing they’d set up for him, didn’t he? That was good. That meant that they’d done something right.

That also meant that someone was there with him, as he wasn’t trusted with the remote unsupervised--he’d break it, most likely. He suspected it was Thatch, because it was always Thatch; they’d gotten close. Sure enough, when he left the wheelchair to ascend the steps to the platform, he heard loud, boisterous laughter that rang all too familiar.

“Easily amused as always,” Thatch stated, the grin clear through his tone of voice.

“Shut up!” Ace snorted, and as Marco stepped off the stairwell he spotted clawed fingers tapping away at the the buttons on the controller, the effect instant as the water’s hue changed in time with it. Well, they certainly were having fun.

The water lit a bright violet, and Ace pouted. “We need more colours. Can we get more? Red? I like red.”

Thatch rolled his eyes, wearing that ever-prominent shit-eating grin of his. “No point. You’ll be outta here soon, and it’s not like any o’ the fish who use this room after you will be able to use it.”

“O-oh…” The way his voice shook had Marco’s muscles clenching. There was hesitance. “Right… But still! Red’s nice, damn it.”

The cook snickered. “That your favourite colour?”

“No, I like orange.” And then they turned, finally catching the sounds of Marco’s footsteps. He didn’t wait for the usual greeting, the exclamation of his name or the hug that followed soon after, kneeling down in front of Ace with a smile. Thatch was already well aware of why he was there, so he didn’t have to bother explaining. Ace wasn’t, though, and tilted his head. “Marco?”

He reached out to ruffle the boy’s hair, wondering how many more times he would get to do that. “I’ve got some good news, yoi: we’re going to be able to let you go tomorrow.” Those words hung in the air, Ace’s mouth gaping slightly, and when the other made no move to interrupt he continued. “I thought I’d show you what humans are. If you want, yoi.”

Grey fixed him to that spot as the statement sunk in, before the fish broke out into the widest of grins. “The front? When the people are here?” He waited for a nod. “But--but I thought you said--”

“Hush,” he cut off, his smile softening when he saw the boy shiver with excitement. “Forget what I said. You can come with me, but only if you promise me one thing.”

“What?” he prodded. “What?”

“You can’t move your tail. Not even a bit. Alright?”

The bottled-up excitement seemed to fade with that, dark eyebrows furrowed in show of his confusion. Admittedly it was a bizarre-sounding request, one that he could understand perfectly well being hard to understand for a creature that was born and lived with a tail. But the way it moved could never be mistaken for legs. Costume makeup, contacts--they could easily explain away the other abnormalities of Ace’s appearance, but that? He wouldn’t risk it. And if Ace couldn’t guarantee him that, then he would call the whole thing off. His safety was more important.

After a long pause of reflective thought, that mouth of sharp teeth grinned at him, and Ace nodded. “I can do that. I can definitely do that. So can we--”

“And no hissing , either.”

With an exaggerated roll of his eyes and a long, annoyed string of groans, the merman gave an additional nod. “ Alright , so can we go now? Please? Are they here?”

“And no--”

Marco!

“--biting, scratching, or otherwise maiming the guests.”

“That’s a lot more than one thing, you stupid pineapple!”

The blond, amusement clear through the smirk on his face, accepted that answer for what he knew it to be and bent down to heft Ace into his arms. There was no brief tensing, no twitch of the spines and low, whiney hiss of uncertainty. There was just a pair of strong, damp arms wrapping around his neck, a head of inky black strands pressing against his collarbone. It had gotten so… commonplace, doing that. Just a daily part of their lives, one that neither ever thought about. He’d miss that.

Thatch seemed to catch the look on his face and their eyes met. He saw his friend’s concerns but brushed them off, showing just what he thought of the cook’s worries when he turned his back to him and descended the steps.

Curious grey orbs peered up at him, and he offered a smile. “Thatch isn’t coming?”

Marco shook his head. “Not yet. He’s needed in the kitchens, yoi. We’ll see him later in the day.”

“Oh. Okay.”

When the wheelchair came into sight, he caught the small, upward curl of Ace’s lips, the barely-there smile of anticipation. The boy stirred with excitement as he settled into the seat, his skills with it now far improved from that first trip around the aquarium. It took days of practice and of following Marco around as he cleaned, but he’d finally gotten the hang of making turns and going backwards. Thinking back to that first day when he undermined the fish’s intelligence, Marco could say that he was honestly embarrassed. Half the time he barely thought of Ace as a fish. He was just… a part of the family.

A part that would be sad to see go.

“Ready?” he questioned, just to be sure, and when those steely irises lifted to him he was met with nothing more than confidence and a cocky grin.

“Always.”

The blond matched the look, shoving an orange hat onto the brat’s head and earning a confused squeak as webbed fingers raised to press against the fabric of the rim. “Wear that. Don’t take it off.” Hiding at least some of his features would be okay, and the fact that the hat he was wearing could be bought at the gift shop certainly helped keep it inconspicuous.

Ace didn’t mind. The grin only widened further as he looked up at his companion with wonder, feeling out his new accessory excitedly. “Can--can I keep it?” he asked, the pads of his fingers sliding down the string hanging from it to settle on the frayed end. “I’ve never been clothed…”

Marco had to laugh, it didn’t matter the eyeroll it earned him. Well, it didn’t exactly clothe him in the way that Ace thought it did, but that didn’t really matter. “It’s not waterproof, yoi.”

“I don’t care! It’s mine now.” The finality in his voice left no room for argument and the subject was dropped as they started moving.

The human swung open the doors to the front of the aquarium, never missing the way his young charge’s breath hitched and shoulders tensed, causing him to worry about whether or not the merman was really ready for this. But the quivering spines were quick to settle, his rigid posture melting back into the wheelchair as he rolled forward through the entranceway, and he smiled. Eyes alight with wonder and unmasked fascination, Ace soaked in the casual atmosphere of the first room. The crowds were non-existent so early in the morning, it being a weekday right after opening. Most of the visitors were single groups, or young mothers and fathers with their children, and all-up it felt rather relaxing as they walked through the hall, people staring into tanks and seating themselves on the benches to converse.

The brat, for his part, was practically vibrating in his seat. Marco knew that to Ace this was a big deal. It wasn’t because there were strangers, it wasn’t because there were so many more than the small group he was used to seeing, but because it was something different . The humans he’d interacted with thus far worked there. They all had their roles and held special interest in his wellbeing. Those, well…

Those people were just going about their day. They didn’t have to care about Ace. It was about as natural an encounter as he could get.

The youth’s hands stopped, the wheelchair slowing to a halt, and Marco raised an eyebrow as he felt sharp claws poke his skin, his friend tugging at his sleeve and gesturing him close. He complied, bending low with his ear to Ace. “What is it?”

“Marco,” he stage-whispered, apparently yet to understand the concept of ‘keeping quiet’, “there are tiny humans .”

The blond blinked confusedly, and in response Ace pointed to two children sitting with their mother on one of the benches up ahead--and naturally Marco was quick to forcefully lower the arm before anyone noticed. “Kids, yoi.”

“They’re so tiny though…”

It wasn’t long before one of the children tugged on the other’s sleeve, and two sets of large eyes found their way to the merman, equal grins of excitement splitting their faces as they turned to their mother and tugged at her arm, their unabashed pointing not unlike Ace’s moments ago.

“...What are they doing?” Ace asked, a bit of unease in his voice. “Marco, Marco they’re looking over here… They’re coming--they’re coming over! What do I do?!”

“Hush,” the blond sighed, giving the fish’s shoulder a good squeeze. “You’ll be fine. Just don’t scare the poor things.”

The quiver of spines had Marco unnerved, and he momentarily debated about whether or not he should turn the wheelchair around and abort to the back before anyone noticed. But Ace was determined, and he had far more control than the human gave him credit for. With a large inhale, chest puffed out, he forced himself to calm and soon they were lying limp once more, just in time for the first child to reach his lap, wide eyes alight with fascination and excitement as the little girl pressed her forearms onto Ace’s tail, leaning heavily forward to grin at him. “Are you a real mermaid?”

Ace’s immediate reaction was to look up at Marco for guidance, his expression a confused mess of panic over what to say and insult for being referred to as his species’s female name; Marco had explained the difference to him a while back and while he’d mentioned that it was the more commonly used term, he still was not happy about it. But when the blond offered him no answer, fearing anything he said would sound odd to anyone who happened to overhear, the merman turned back to the girl and grinning. “‘Course I am. Mer man .”

Her whole face lit up and she squirmed, running her index finger along one of the patterned lines of his tail. “That so cool ! I wish I was a mermaid!”

Ace blinked at that, seeming to consider it a moment. “Maybe if you found a sea witch…” Oh great. Thatch had been telling him fairy tales again. Honestly, what was he to do with that man?

Soon the mother caught up, holding tightly to her youngest’s hand with an apologetic look on her face as she stopped in front of them. “Ah, sorry--the kids wanted a picture. May I?”

For a moment the look on Ace’s face remained blank, calculative, before something clicked and his mouth stretched into a broad grin. “No problem.”

Marco stepped out of the frame as the woman knelt, assuring that the two little brats clinging to the so-called mascot’s arms weren’t cut out of the picture. They’d told their aquatic friend about all sorts of different technologies, some of which he was already aware of-- bizarrely random ones like heart monitors and IVs that just made Marco further question why on Earth a sea creature who didn’t know what a desk lamp was knew about bloody tumors of all things--but admittedly hadn’t been able to show him much. There were limits to what they could bring in to work and, well, Ace had a habit of taking whatever new, shiny thing they brought to show him and diving to the depths of his tank with it. That meant no electronics without careful supervision, and most of the employees rarely found the will to bother at all. So Marco knew the moment his little friend heard ‘picture’ he would be all for it, if only to see what it looked like.

Ace blinked rapidly after the flash, momentarily stunned by the unfamiliar brightness before waving the small family off in a slight daze. “Marco,” he called quietly, still blinking as though he’d just suffered through a flash grenade assault, “I think… I think they tried to blind me.”

The blond simply rolled his eyes and gripped the handles at the back of the wheelchair, taking control as his young charge tried to regain his bearings, and pushing further down the hall. By then Ace had seen most of what the establishment had to offer, going so far as to help with the upkeep from time to time, so once they reached a fork in the hallway he veered to the left. The lighting turned dark momentarily before they stepped through a set of glass double doors and everything was lit with a soft bluish hue. The first, most noticeable thing was the crowd of people walking leisurely along, almost blocking the path entirely with their numbers, numerous voices echoing over the sound of some painfully slow piano ballad that was playing through the speakers. While he understood that it was supposed to be no more than a relaxing melody, it sounded more like dull elevator music. But well, it didn’t really matter when one could barely hear it over the sounds of the people.

They were surrounded by water. Just as its name dictated, that bath was a long, broad underwater tunnel, the connecting tank filled with local aquatic life that swam around and above them. With the way Ace looked around in wonder, it almost seemed like he’d never been out in the ocean, his focus not even on the scores of people. The tunnel had always been one of the more popular areas for visitors to congregate.

“Marco…” Ace grinned, pressing himself up against the acrylic wall and staring into it. “This is like what I see. Only not. ‘Cause, y’know, we’re breathing. And not swimming. Kind of a big difference there.”

Marco rolled his eyes, smiling as Ace pushed off the wall and turned to wheel himself towards the crowd, taking as much care as he could to soak it all up. He really looked to be enjoying himself. And just as Izo said, no one was questioning it. “It works both ways, yoi.”

The merman paused, blinking up at him. “Hm?”

“We’re curious about your world, too.

 


 

“Are you sure this is going to work, yoi?” Marco questioned, narrowed eyes set on the suspicious pool of water loaded into the back of the pickup. This wasn’t going to work. It was never going to work. As much as he wanted to trust that bastard, who was almost like a brother to him, he had some very clear, well-defined doubts about just how this was going to play out. And with good reason.

Thatch’s usual shit-eating grin did nothing to settle his concerns as he patted the side of the truck, his hand lingering lovingly over the smooth, shiny metal of his vehicle, confidence oozing from him in waves. Even if Marco didn’t believe this would go well, Thatch certainly did, and he had enough certainty to share between the two of them. “‘Course it will, Mark! C’mon, have a little faith in me, why don’t ya?”

“The last time I had faith in you was third grade when you set my hair on fire, yoi.”

The redhead pouted, rubbing his hand over his chin as he raised an eyebrow at his companion. “Never did grow back, did it? But c’mon, we were kids! Kids do things like that!”

“Kids do not set one another on fire. Not normally, yoi.”

“Shows what you know about kids.”

The blond rolled his eyes and left it at that, arms folded tightly over his chest as he stared at the pool. The sides were secured, but that didn’t mean Ace would be. The real reason Marco was so hellbent on questioning him was because, well… this was risky. They were doing it at night to avoid any wandering eyes, using Thatch’s oh so precious pickup instead of a company vehicle because it would raise less attention. But while he would much rather lay their little brother out across the back seats, they knew that Ace had a limit to how long he could stay out of water. When they got to shore the boat would need to be prepped so that they could release him further out--because letting him go there, where people worked daily, wasn’t exactly the most brilliant of ideas. So just in case, they thought they’d strap him down in a pool in the back and hope that all the water didn’t spill out of it whenever they made a bloody turn.

“...This is a bad idea,” he stated firmly, his lips pressed together as he spun around and made for the back entrance of the aquarium.

“Marco, buddy, it’s fine ! I promise! You’re little fish buddy’s going to be perfectly sa--”

The door closed behind him, cutting off his coworker’s words, and he let out a burdened sigh. This was going to be a long, long night--a difficult one at that. He certainly wasn’t looking forward to it. But those thoughts didn’t linger for long in his head as he made his way down the halls, the echo of his footsteps showing just how alone and isolated he was. The usual sounds of the tanks and ripples of water were there, making soft noises in the background, but all-up everything felt… still.

He came to the observation room again to find it lit a reddish hue, and he smiled weakly. While they were out in the front, Thatch had went and installed another light, per their fish’s humble request. And as he approached the door that led to the holding tank’s stairs the colours shifted, lingering more on that red than any of the others, constantly going back to it… Marco could only assume Thatch had given the boy the remote; he was most certainly alone up there.

The steps creaked under his weight until he was level with the merman, tail hanging limply in the water as his torso leaned against the rail, watching the water’s surface light with various colours. Marco could see the fin of his ear twitch, and the boy knew he was there but never seemed to acknowledge. It was… worrisome, and Marco found himself slipping down beside Ace on the platform.

It was quiet, the short click of the buttons changing the light the only break from the still and soft sounds of the water, before Ace sighed. “It was fun here,” he murmured. “There were so many people… I’ve never seen so many. Just me ‘n Lu… and Sabo.”

Marco glanced at him and then at the ceiling as he thought, knowing just what sort of dread the boy had to be feeling then. He felt it, too, in a sense. “You’ll get to see him again soon, yoi--that little brother of yours.”

“...Yeah,” Ace acknowledged, his voice cracking under the stress as his claws fiddled with the controller. “...But what if I don’t? What if… Lu’s not there?”

The blond pressed his lips together before sighing. He was afraid of this. Ace’s confidence was rivalled by none--on the surface. But when things became uncertain…

There was a long pause where Marco tried to think of what to say, how to reassure his friend, but he never got a chance. “...Sabo said he’d come back. He said it, and he promised, but he’s still gone. We kept waiting and waiting… and he’s probably dead.” He gave a bitter snort, looking down into his lap. “All that time and he probably never made it outta the water. Sabo, he said, he told me--’I want to see them. Really see them , Ace.’ But… here I am, and… he’s not here.”

“Ace…” Marco swallowed, wrapping an arm around the boy’s shoulders and pulling him in. “It’s alright, yoi. It’ll be okay. You don’t know that he’s dead. Maybe he’s… lost, and just having trouble finding his way back.”

“...I’m not stupid, Marco. I know what happened.” Ace sniffed, leaning into the touch as he glared at the platform. “...Could I stay here?”

Marco ran a hand through his hair, dreading the moment that Ace would ask that, and shook his head.

“Why not?! You want me to, right?”

“It’s not that,” he muttered, facing away. While he’d miss the brat, it wasn’t enough for him to want to leave him stuck in that place. “You’re saying this on impulse, yoi--because you’re scared. You would regret it if you stayed.”

Ace hissed, his head snapping towards Marco. “I would not! I--”

“You would.” There was no question in his tone. “Your brother’s waiting for you, isn’t he? Would you rather leave him alone? You said it yourself: you only have each other.”

The sharp turn away and the way he bit his lip was telling enough that Marco struck a chord with him. He could see it in his eyes, the reluctant resignation as his breath shuddered in release, his hold on the controller going limp enough for the device to clatter out of his hands. Ace wrapped his arms around himself, and then closed his eyes, leaning against the blond for support. “...Fine, alright, I get it. You’ve made your point. Asshole pineapple.”

Marco rolled his eyes at the comment but never let it bother him. How many times had he heard that those past few days? So he allowed it when Ace twisted against him, slick, pale arms coming to wrap around his neck, sharp claws digging into his skin. As always, he lifted the boy without question, pulling a sopping wet tail into his arms as it flopped about, dripping water down his shirt and pants, and headed out.

He could feel Ace’s head press into the crook of his neck as he walked down the halls and to the back exit, a comfortable silence passing between them until the door was shoved open and Ace stared at his oh-so-reliable transport. Even for a fish knowing nothing about cars, one look at the way his face was scrunched up told them what he thought of this plan. Marco felt almost smug, having his charge feel the same way about it all.

“...Marco, I’m still young,” he stage whispered into the blond’s ear, “I don’t wanna die.”

“You’re not going to die ,” Thatch interrupted indignantly, his frown looking more like a pout. “Geez, what’s with you people? I know what I’m doing, alright?”

“That’s what you said when you added hot sauce to the old man’s dinner--to, what did you say? ‘Add a little flavour.’ Right.” Marco peered around the side of the truck to see that Izo had finally gotten there. He’d been running late--something about errands to run before setting off towards the shoreline. Long, black strands tied back into a ponytail, the man crouched low and secured one of the tie-down straps to the edge of the vehicle. That brought the pair a little relief; Izo was far more thorough and a million times more reliable than Thatch, no matter how much the redhead protested to the contrary. “And we all know how well that turned out.”

Thatch’s pout was prominent now as he scratched at the back of his head, clearly feeling remorse for that particular incident. “...Trial and error? I tried , and it… errored.”

Izo rolled his eyes, giving the strap one hard tug before nodding to himself. It was secure. “You should be ashamed to be a cook, you pompadour’d idiot. Couldn’t you have at least gotten a topper for this damn thing so that the poor boy wouldn’t be out in the cold?”

Thatch sputtered, at a loss for words, and when he turned pleading eyes to Marco to gain a little defence he received none. “Those--I don’t own one of those! What, was I supposed to buy one on such short notice?”

Yes !” At that harsh shut down the redhead wilted, sulking as he quietly slunk into the driver’s seat to wait, leaving Izo to huff after him, hands on his hips. “Honestly, that man… How are you feeling, Ace?”

Ace blinked, and then glanced nervously over at the pool in back of the truck, swallowing thickly. “...Nervous. Definitely nervous.”

At Izo’s reassuring smile, Marco felt the merman relax a bit in his arms. “Don’t worry too much; Marco’s going to stay in the back with you to make sure you’re alright.” This was news to him. “Just let him know if you’re uncomfortable, alright?”

A relieved smile washed over Ace’s face and he was led to nod. Well, Marco was fine with that. It wouldn’t be the first time he rode in back of a pickup, and at least this time he had good company.

“You about ready, Ace?”

Pools of grey flickered up at him with a nod of affirmation. With that, he stepped onto the back of the vehicle and lifted them both in, settling Ace down in the shallow pool. He dropped down against the side, maneuvering around all of the cables--the last thing he needed was for one to come loose.

The truck door slammed shut and they started rolling out of the parking lot, earning a long string of fascinated noises from Ace as they turned onto the road. “This is amazing ,” he exclaimed, tightly clutching at the side of the pool. “Marvelous, stupendous !”

Marco raised an amused eyebrow, focusing on the boy to help ignore the rather unpleasant wind chill blowing past. “Your vocabulary’s improved, yoi.”

Ace paused his moment of wonder to grin at the blond. “Whenever I got bored an’ you weren’t there, Izo’d stop by. He tried to teach me how to read, but… I didn’t get very far. So he taught me words instead. It was fun.”

“Is that so?” He smiled. Ace had become an ingrained part of all of their daily routines, not just his. “You’ve gotten better at speaking--fewer errors.”

“‘Course,” Ace snorted, watching the hills roll by. “Having so many people correct me all the time got annoying, so I stopped messing up.”

“I don’t think it works like th--”

“Ahh! Marco! What’s that?!”

Suddenly a clawed finger shot up and pointed past him, and he turned his head to follow it, his sights coming to rest on the vast ocean, sandy beaches giving way to rolling currents. But Marco instead fixed his gaze on the tiny flecks of light dotting the ripples in the water, moving to and fro as the waves lapped the shore. Against the stark-black sky and ocean contrasted a bright blue glow emitted from those tiny, far-off dots, blending together at a distance to create a soft veil of light across the sand. He could understand where the boy’s excitement stemmed from, even if the sight was one of normalcy for himself. It was beautiful, rather breathtaking to a first-time viewer, he supposed.

“Bioluminescent lights, yoi,” he supplied with a grin. “They’re created by marine microbes that--”

“I didn’t understand a word you just said but it’s amazing, Marco!” The poor fish looked about ready to fling himself at it. Well, it wouldn’t have been Ace’s first impulsive move to date. “Can we go see it? Before I go?”

The blond pressed his lips together, glancing through the rear window of the pickup, his eyes set on Thatch’s ever-impressive hairstyle peeking over the back of the driver’s seat. They were getting close to their turn… “We’ll see. If they think there’s time, I’ll bring you up there.”

Ace’s grin widened and he leaned over the pool to give Marco a nudge. “See, this is why you’re my favourite.”

The human just rolled his eyes at the remark, watching the sea in order to hide the slight tint of red to his cheeks. So easy to please. Honestly…

They made their turn and the truck came to a screeching halt near the water. Marco wasted no time in pulling his young charge out of the pool and hopping off the back, rolling his shoulders. His back thumped against the metal side of the vehicle the whole way there, leaving a dull aching in his shoulderblades. Needless to say it was unpleasant, and did little for his mood.

Thatch hopped out next with a wide, prideful smirk on his face. “See? I told ya it’d be fine. Honestly, you need to learn to trust me more.”

Marco glared dully at him. “Fire. Hair. Third grade.”

“That was one time ! Everything was fine this time, see?”

Izo slipped out the passenger-side door, an unimpressed frown to the red of his lips. “That’s only because I was here to make sure you didn’t mess anything up. Honestly, what would you boys do without me?”

Spotting the start of a long, unending back-and-forth on the horizon, Marco thought it best to intervene. Once they got at it, those two never stopped their squabbling. He heaved a sigh. “Ace wants to go see the shore, yoi. Could I bring him while you two set up here?”

The pair looked between the merman and each other before giving an easy nod. “Go right ahead.”

“Not like you’d be much help here. Go one--we got it covered.”

Marco snorted at that--he wasn’t sure if he should feel insulted--and gave them an appreciative nod. The bundle in his arms squirmed as they approached the sight, his tail swishing about eagerly, and Ace almost tried to pull out of Marco’s arms to get closer. Fortunately he seemed to manage a moment of hesitation and gave it a bit of thought.

They lowered onto the rocks at the beach, the merman making small noises of wonder as he leaned over its edge at the ocean roiled by the wind, shining brightly up at them. The grin he wore was meshed with awe, his eyes alight with curiosity. “Wow…” he muttered softly. “They’re like stars. Only, well. Not in the sky.”

“Offers a nice view, doesn’t it?” Marco commented, watching as the boy’s smokey-grey orbs lifted to the horizon.

“...Yeah. Definitely.”

Once his excitement died down, Ace pushed back to seat himself on the middle of the rock alongside his companion, content to do little more than listen to the rippling waves as they came and went. “...I’d like to show this to Lu one day.”

Marco snorted. “I can’t blame you for that. But you really should try to keep from populated areas--not all humans are kind.”

The merman curled in on himself, heaving a sigh. “...Yeah. Yeah, I know that. But you guys--” He turned to the human with a wide grin. “You guys are different. I mean, you have all those fish locked up, so maybe not really… but you helped me. So I can’t hate you for that. Still, I really want Lu to see this. It’s like looking up there are stars, and swimming… It’d feel like we were swimming in the sky.”

Marco smiled, reaching over to ruffle the boy’s hair, now a dried, frazzled mess from the wind--much to Ace’s displeasure as he bemoaned the action. “Just be sure to take care of yourself, yoi. And that little brother of yours. Siblings are irreplaceable.”

Ace paused in his desperate attempt to straighten his hair to blink at the blond, tilting his head. “Say…”

“Hm?”

“Are you ‘n Thatch brothers? Y’act like it…”

Marco laughed, shaking his head. What an amusing thought. “We’re not, yoi. We’ve known each other since we were kids, though. He’s as important to me as a brother, even if he’s an idiot.”

The boy hummed contemplatively, his tail falling limp over the rocks. “...So like us, then? Me ‘n Lu… and Sabo…” He released a long, heavy breath. “We didn’t know anyone else. The others… It’s so rare to meet one of our kind. We grow up on our own. But then Sabo, he--there was someone else, someone besides me. So we stayed together, and it was… god, it was just so much better . Being alone is the worst thing in the world.”

Marco understood where Ace was coming from. Really he did. Being alone was rough, and the more he thought, the more he started to understand just why Ace so impulsively asked to stay. That fear of returning to the ocean only for there to be no one waiting for him… Just how daunting did that feel? He had already lost one brother, and the fear of losing another…

A webbed hand gently slipped into his, and he gave it a firm squeeze, the pair exchanging soft smiles. “I’m glad you were the one taking care of me.”

Marco’s smile widened. “Who else would have?” he prodded with a nudge. “I think Thatch just might have set the tank on fire if we let him.”

“Don’t joke about that,” Ace shuddered. They lapsed into a short pause before the merman sighed, staring at his fin. “...I’m really gonna miss you, ya bastard pineapple.”

Marco snickered, leaning in to press a short kiss to the boy’s forehead and watching as pallid skin heated red with blush--something he’d never seen from Ace before. “I’ll miss you, too, brat.”

Ace’s jaw snapped shut and he gave a hurried nod. He fiddled with the sand that had blown atop the rock, absently keeping his hands busy until a distant call had both of them looking up, their sights settling on the vague pompadour shape of their cook’s head. The moment was forgotten and soon Ace was grinning, waving the approaching man over. “Y’ready?”

Thatch grinned, “Of course! We’ve been ready for a while--thought we’d give you some time for one of those sappy goodbyes. Y’coming, Marc?”

The blond rolled his eyes and waved Thatch off, staring out at the sea. “I’ll stay here, yoi. Your boat’s too small to fit all of us.”

The cook’s face set into a displeased frown. “Izo offered to stay behind…” And then he shrugged. “But alright. Come on, Ace. Let’s get you back in the water!”

He smiled as he watched them go, Ace glancing back with uncertainty every now and then, until he was left alone with nothing but the background noises of rolling waves to sooth him. Eventually he could see the boat drifting out, silhouetted by moonlight, and he followed it with his eyes as it slowly shrunk into the distance.

There he goes.

With a grunt he hefted himself up and began the short walk to the pickup, his feet dragging in the sand as he left the sea of lights behind.


 

Several weeks later found Marco back in his routine, grunting as he returned the cleaning products to the supply closet after finishing at the front. It was late, the aquarium having closed just over an hour ago, and he was exhausted. Thatch may have laughed and teased him about getting old, and he may have firmly denied that, but admittedly he’d grow sore after work everyday. Perhaps he just needed some more exercise--he hadn’t the time lately…

After disappearing into the changing rooms to switch out of his work clothes, now in need of a good washing, he stretched and grabbed his belongings from the locker. Some time had passed, but leaving so soon still felt… odd to him, in a way. He would have to push back the urge to head to the holding tank, a place he now so rarely visited, and instead pack up and head home. But today that urge was muted somewhat, his focus instead lying on the dinner that he was supposed to have with some of his coworkers to celebrate the aquarium’s seventh anniversary. He’d been working there since a short few months after it opened, and well… it was hard to believe so long had passed.

As he exited the changing room his eyes caught on a figure by one of the tanks, a man silhouetted by the lights from within staring into it fondly. Marco pressed his lips together, his eyes squinting to make the stranger out--the momentary thought that he just may be needing glasses crossing his mind--and he turned towards him suspiciously when he failed to force his eyes to focus. It was past visiting hours and even if it wasn’t, no one was allowed in the back except for his fellow employees. But when he made a move to step over, a firm grip to his shoulder had him stopping, and he glanced away only a moment to spot his redheaded companion.

“What’re you staring at? C’mon, buddy--the food’s going to be gone if you just keep standing there!”

“Right…” He hadn’t really been listening, lips curled downwards into a scowl. Eventually he raised a hand to point at the stranger. “Know who he is, yoi?”

Thatch scratched his head, raising an eyebrow. “Ah, yeah. Some kid here to talk to the old man. Izo’s gonna come for him when the boss is ready. Now, you comin’?”

Marco eyed the visitor curiously, shrugging off Thatch’s hand. “In a minute, yoi.” As his friend waved him off and slipped out of the room, Marco approached the tank, the boy’s eyes flickering to his only momentarily, and he could see an amused smile playing on his lips. “Is there something I can help you with?”

The man waved him off. “I’m fine, really. Just waiting. It’s… quite the place you’ve got here.”

“The largest aquarium in the country,” he mused, sizing the other up. He was dressed in a dark suit, and with such dim lighting it was hard to tell whether it was black or blue. His collar was pulled right up against his neck, a hat atop his head, and he looked… a little too formal for the old man’s usual company.

“Yes, well… it’s impressive. I’ll give you that.” The boy twisted around to face him, a large smile on his face as he held out his hand. “It’s a pleasure, I’m sure.”

Marco eyed the hand, his sight fixed to it as a strange abnormality caught his attention, before he eventually took it and gave a firm squeeze. “Marco.”

The smile morphed into a grin, and the boy opened his mouth to reply when Izo’s voice cut him off. “He’s ready for you now.”

“Ah, right. Thank you.” Tipping his hat Marco’s way, he hurried down the hall, the blond staring after him.

Marco flecked his hand, staring at it curiously and flexing his fingers at the strange feeling of it all.

Webbed fingers...