by Aosora Hikaru (青空ヒカル)
illustrated by Iseya Misu (伊勢谷 美寿)
Kiran always made time for fishing on the weekends. After a long week of cubicle work and numbers and math, he always looked forward to the placid waters of Lake Huron just outside Harrisville, Michigan. His catches were rare and that was fine; he only wanted the solitude and quiet and ability to stop thinking.
This weekend had started like any other. Kiran had driven out to the small cabin his family owned near the lake on Friday night after work and set out with his pole in hand early Saturday morning, just before the sun rose. This was the best time of day — the sky lit up with pinks and oranges, the air smelled damp and clean, and there wasn’t a single soul to be seen. It was just him, the lake, and the silence.
He caught nothing on Saturday, which suited him just fine. He spent all morning and part of the afternoon out there, throwing his line and reeling it back in at intervals with no real purpose behind it. It was the motion that soothed.
Sunday was much the same. Set out at dawn, fish the morning away, enjoy the silence as long as he could before he was joined at the lake by others. The day was broken up by his lunch as it always was, and Kiran mulled over how much longer he could stay before he’d have to head back to his home just outside Detroit in Novi and prepare for the week ahead. He could get a few more hours of fishing in, at least.
He had more luck in the afternoon and threw every fish back. He didn’t want to cart it the three hours back south, and he had long since stopped bringing a cooler up on these trips. There was no point; he didn’t even enjoy cleaning out the fish, anyway.
Kiran had just started to doze off when his fishing pole nearly flew out of his hands. He started awake, flailing for a moment to get a good grip on the pole again. The sun was shining bright, nearly blinding him as it reflected off Lake Huron, and he squinted to try to see what could be out there. He’d never caught anything quite this vigorous before, and to be honest, he wasn’t even sure there should have been anything this strong in the lake. He scrambled to grab his pocket knife, but before he could get it out and open, the line snapped anyway.
So he waited, frozen, silent, staring out over the waters. What could have snagged his line like that? He held his breath, fearful that even that sound could disturb whatever lurked in the depths. Every legend he’d ever heard of fantastic sea creatures went through his mind, even as the rational part of his brain tried to deny them all. This was a lake, after all… a massive lake, but a lake nonetheless.
His lungs began to burn from holding his breath, and so deciding he was safe, Kiran let it out in a low sigh. He picked up his pole and bent to fold his chair when an unfamiliar voice caught his attention.
“Hey! Hey, over here!”
Kiran snapped his head up and scanned the area around the lake shore. He was the last one out fishing since it had grown so late in the afternoon, but nobody had come out of their lakefront cabins to investigate Kiran’s apparent bout of insanity. This surprised him, considering how much of a commotion his line snapping had made. He shook his head and set to folding up his chair again. “Just the wind,” he muttered.
“No, no, over here!” the voice called again, and Kiran was sure he imagined it, for the voice came from behind him… in the lake.
Without turning around, he said, “What do you want?”
The voice had quickly taken on a note of desperation. “For you to save me. I’m in danger.”
This had to be an elaborate trick. Someone must have taken notice of the line snapping and how quickly after Kiran started packing up, and now they had to be preying on Kiran, trying to distract him and freak him out. “I’m not falling for it,” he said, turning to catch the culprit in the act.
At first, Kiran didn’t see anyone, and he was convinced that he was going insane. Alpena, he remembered, was only about half an hour north of Harrisville, and there were over a hundred ships sunk in Thunder Bay there. A paranoid idea crossed his mind — what if this were a ghost? He shook his head quickly to clear the thought; there wasn’t any possible way he was experiencing anything supernatural.
He was definitely imagining things, at the very least, and needed to make it stop. Maybe he could ask his boss for a few days off — not to be spent here, since obviously it wasn’t helping matters any — and try to persuade his brain of the need to reflect reality. Really, he’d been working too hard anyway, and he was in sore need of a vacation.
“Down here,” the voice whispered, and Kiran dropped his gaze.
There in the water was a face. The skin was gray and Kiran had to swallow his scream, sure he’d happened upon a drowned body. “Oh, God,” he whispered. His hands shaking, he went to draw his phone out of his pocket to call 911 when the face spoke again.
“Listen, you have to help me.”
“Yes, I am definitely insane,” Kiran murmured to himself, thumb hovering over the green call button. Now he had a choice: call, or don’t. If he called, he was at risk of simply being completely insane with hallucinations or an entirely too convincing dream. If he didn’t, he ran the risk of this body sinking back to the bottom of Lake Huron, possibly never to be seen again.
The face canted to the side before popping up out of the waves entirely, dark hair plastered to the sides of (his? its?) the head. “Are you all right?”
Kiran knew his eyes bulged, that his mouth fell open now, unable to speak. They stared at each other while Kiran worked his mouth in an attempt to force out the words. “What… who… I…”
“Humans really are dense,” the face — head — said, and Kiran could hardly believe his eyes as the thing in front of him turned to survey the beach before pulling itself out of the water. The top half was mostly human aside from the gray skin with white across the chest and stomach, but a long, smooth, muscular tail started just under where its ribs should have been and extended past where legs should have ended.
“Dreaming… I have to be dreaming. This is insane. I can’t believe this is happening.” Kiran stepped back, fishing pole in one hand, phone still undialed in the other. The chair he could replace or come back for later; he needed to get away from the situation now.
The creature pulled itself forward by its arms, and Kiran recoiled in horror. He was positive he’d had nightmares to this effect before, and he was either going completely off the deep end or he was having one again right now. “Please,” it said again. “I need to stay with you. I’m in danger.”
That particular comment, repeated again, gave Kiran pause. “Danger? Danger from what? The people here fishing?”
It rolled its eyes. “Please, you really think your pathetic hooks can hurt me?”
“I caught you,” Kiran said.
“No, I yanked on the line to get your attention. I have no idea how those lures even work to catch you any fish; they’re obviously fake.” Again it rolled its eyes, and then pushed its hair out of its face. “No, there are other Mer down there who want me dead.”
Kiran blinked at this thing laying on the sand in front of him. How had nobody noticed this creature talking to him yet? Why wasn’t anyone else panicking about this?
The only logical conclusion was that this was a figment of his imagination. A complete fabrication by an overactive yet under-stimulated mind. He was hallucinating or dreaming, he had to be. It was the only way any of this made sense.
Why his brain would conjure this up was another question entirely.
“Want you dead?” he asked. Maybe if he played along his brain would give up the fantasy and he could wake up and go on with his life. “What could you have possibly done to make that happen?”
“It’s a very long story,” it said, and Kiran could hear its patience wearing thin. “Not one I particularly want to elaborate on, especially not sitting out here on the shore in the open.”
“Yes, I was wondering why nobody else was freaking out about a thing crawling out of the lake and talking to someone,” Kiran muttered.
The creature canted its head to the side again with a soft smile on its face. “I told you humans were dense. Listen, are you going to help me or no? I’m kind of really exposed here.”
“I don’t live here,” Kiran said. “I don’t live anywhere near here, actually. So you can’t stay with me.”
“Sure I can,” it said. “You could put me in that thing you humans are always putting yourself and all your things in — that thing that moves? — and take me with you.”
“How could I even take care of you?” Kiran decided it was best to gloss over the creature’s lack of knowledge about human transportation and consider more important things at hand. He didn’t even have a fish bowl, much less an aquarium large enough to house this thing.
The creature looked back over its shoulder toward the lake, then back at Kiran. “I don’t know. I’m sure we can figure it out — can we go, or no?”
Kiran was torn. Either he could embrace the absolute insanity of this situation — and hopefully wake up from whatever dream he was having — or he could walk away and apparently, according to this thing, condemn it to death. Could he live with that on his conscience? Even if it was, in fact, a dream, would this be one of those situations where he would awaken feeling sick, knowing even in his subconscious he’d doomed something to suffer?
The more he weighed this choice, the tighter the knot in his stomach grew. At length, he heaved a heavy sigh and jerked his head back toward the cabin. “Fine. Let’s go.” He prayed under his breath to any deity who would listen that nobody would walk out of their cabins and see this situation in which he’d found himself.
It didn’t occur to Kiran to ask whether or not the creature could make it until they were at the stairs leading up to his cabin. He climbed them and turned around to find the creature struggling to pull itself up using only its arms.
“Oh. Give me a minute,” Kiran said. He opened the door to the cabin and set his pole inside, then came back out to see if the creature needed his help. It had managed to get itself halfway up the stairs, but had to stop from exhaustion, gasping for breath. Kiran hooked his arms under the creature’s own, grunting with exertion as he dragged it the rest of the way up the stairs.
“That’s much harder on dry land,” the creature said with a breathless laugh.
“Can you even breathe this air?” Kiran said.
The creature nodded. “I can breathe both here and under the water. Give me a bit; I’ll be fine after I rest.”
Kiran shifted uncomfortably. “All right. We have to leave soon, if you’re going to come with me–” he hesitated. He knew nothing about this thing he’d just dragged into his cabin, and here he was considering driving it three hours south to Novi. “Wait.”
It looked up at Kiran, wide eyes blinking. “Yes?”
“I don’t know anything about you. What are you?”
With a sigh, the creature shook its head. “I’m sure you know. Humans have legends of the merpeople.”
Kiran blinked, and then shook his head in disbelief. It was so obvious, but hadn’t even occurred to him. He could probably blame his ignorance on the shock of it all. “I can’t believe it.”
“I wouldn’t lie about that,” it said, gesturing to its long gray tail. To Kiran’s eyes, it seemed reminiscent of a dolphin’s tail. “My name is Xrythiykar.”
“Your name is what?”
Kiran shook his head again. “I can’t say that. I’m going to call you… I don’t know… Jim. Or Jane, I guess, if you’re a girl. I don’t know.”
The creature shrugged. “Jim will be fine, if it makes it easier for you. Is there anything else you needed to know?”
“Yeah. Why were you in danger?”
Jim shook his head, long dark hair sliding forward and back over his shoulders. “I really can’t tell you that.”
Kiran crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the wall. “So I have no idea why you’re on the run. You could be a murderer for all I know.”
“I assure you I am not wanted for any violent crimes,” Jim said. “You won’t be in any danger with me.”
A long silence stretched while Kiran stared Jim down. “Fine.” He hesitated, then decided manners were still important, even with mythical creatures. “My name is Kiran Joshi. I have to work tomorrow, so I guess I can’t delay this any longer. Will you be okay in my car for a few hours? You won’t, er, dry out or anything?”
“I would prefer to have some water with me, but I should survive,” Jim said. “I have a better chance of survival with you than I do there in the lake, at any rate.”
“So, like… a bucket?” Kiran shrugged helplessly. “A bucket and a cloth? Be careful in my car. I don’t want the water to spill.”
“I’ll be careful, I swear it.” Jim inclined his head in a half-bow. “Do you require any assistance from me?”
“Not… really?” Again, Kiran gave a helpless shrug. “I just have to pack up my car and… find a bucket for you, I guess.”
The drive home from Harrisville to Novi was mostly unremarkable, considering Kiran had a merman in the back seat of his car. It had been quite the task to arrange everything — he had to dig out a tarp to lay across the back seat before helping Jim up into it, with a bucket and sponge perched in an uncomfortably precarious position on the seat next to his tail.
“All right,” Kiran said as he put his car into park, “we’re home.” He drew a deep breath and tried to scan the grassy area in front of him, the only thing separating his assigned parking under the carport from his apartment.
This covered parking spot was always well worth it in the winter, but now, in the summer on a pleasant Sunday night, he hated it. All his neighbors were home, and the sun wasn’t down yet. How would he smuggle a damn merman into his apartment without anyone noticing?
Jim broke into his thoughts. “Where will I stay? Do you have a place for me?”
“I’m not sure.” It was the truth. Even disregarding the need to smuggle Jim into his apartment, Kiran had no earthly idea where he was going to keep him once he got him inside the place. He couldn’t very well ask for advice; who would know where to store a mythical creature in a small, one-bedroom apartment? It was, Kiran supposed, best to start with the basics. “You’ll need water…”
A memory came flooding back to him, of the time he decided he wanted to keep a turtle as a child. It had stayed in the backyard, living in a pond, until winter came and the pond froze. At that point, he’d taken over the second bathroom and kept the turtle in its bathtub. His mother had been furious, but Kiran had begged and pleaded until she’d agreed to allow the turtle to live there. Every winter, he’d put the turtle in the second bathroom, and every winter his mother’s patience grew thinner and thinner. She’d never been so happy as when the turtle finally passed away, though that was only something she’d admitted to Kiran later.
Allowing Jim to stay in the bathtub was the solution, unfortunately. He only had one bathroom, so he’d have to kick Jim out every morning or shower in the gym at his office. At least now that he lived on his own he wouldn’t have to face his mother’s wrath. In the end, he had no choice: it was the only place Jim could stay, if he wanted to be comfortable… or even survive. “I have an idea.”
It took quite a lot of work and a gentle hand to get Jim out of the car and on the way into the apartment, and Kiran tried his best to move Jim along quickly. Somehow, miraculously, none of Kiran’s neighbors had noticed the creature dragging itself behind him. Of course Kiran knew eventually his luck would run out, but he figured that was something he wouldn’t worry about until he had to move Jim again. Maybe a wheelchair with a blanket over Jim’s lap would help, but nothing could hide that gray skin. He supposed he could put a sweater and a large floppy hat on Jim, but that would be too obvious in the summer…
At least this apartment was on the ground floor, unlike how Jim had to drag himself up the stairs back at the cabin. Kiran was glad to not have to help again, since it meant he could keep an eye out for nosy neighbors better. Once they were inside, Jim raised an eyebrow. “And where did your idea have me staying?”
“The bathroom,” Kiran nodded down the hall toward the room. “I was thinking we’d set you up in the bathtub so you had water.”
“Will this inconvenience you?”
Kiran stopped and drew a breath. “Honestly? Yes, it would be inconvenient. I won’t be able to bathe while you’re in there. I won’t have any privacy while I use the toilet, either.”
Jim weighed this for a moment. “I could wait outside while you bathed or relieved yourself.”
“I can’t have you get out of the bathtub just for me to use the bathroom. We’ll see about me bathing, but we’ll work something out for my need to pee or whatever.” Kiran shrugged. He took a moment to consider how generous an offer that was from Jim, then started down the hall to the bathroom.
Jim followed behind, and Kiran tried to ignore the wet sound of his tail moving across the wood floor.
Kiran didn’t sleep very well that night, plagued by dreams and nightmares ranging from the absurdity of the situation all the way to the potential horror of having the stuff of legend living in the room next to where he slept. When he woke up he wasn’t even sure he hadn’t imagined that last day. Maybe he’d just driven home and had a very long, very detailed dream? He wasn’t normally in the habit of forgetting a drive such as the lengthy one from Harrisville all the way to Novi, but there had to be a first time for everything.
He’d nearly convinced himself that he’d made the whole thing up before he opened the bathroom door. Half-asleep still, he stumbled in to the bathroom and lifted the toilet seat. When he got into position to relieve himself and started to relax, Jim decided to speak.
“Are you sure you don’t need me to leave?”
Kiran let out a scream and jumped, yanking his pajamas back up around his waist. No, he absolutely hadn’t imagined any of yesterday’s fantastical events.
Jim canted his head to the side. “Did I startle you? I’m sorry.” He paused for a moment, then grinned. “I was enjoying the view anyway.”
“No, I just… I need…” Kiran struggled to string the words together to articulate what he wanted to say that early in the morning: he didn’t need Jim to leave, he just needed to pee, he didn’t appreciate being startled right as he was about to start, and he really needed to go now. He started to pull his pants back down, then remembered what Jim had said at the end, and reached out to yank the shower curtain closed. He ignored Jim’s shout of surprise and subsequent questions, and turned back to the toilet.
He’d shower at the office today, he decided. A run on the treadmill there would help clear his head anyway, and he sorely needed to have his head cleared.
When he could spare the brainpower later that morning, he tried to piece together how the weekend had gone. How did he end up with a mythical creature living in his bathtub, anyway? He’d just wanted to fish. Not even to catch anything, but just to have the relaxing repetition of cast-reel-cast-reel.
Jim had said that someone wanted him dead. Who, and why? Was this simply a case of a bigger fish, meaning Kiran had somehow gotten himself involved in a simple food chain dispute, or was this something more sinister?
Was Kiran himself in danger now?
And besides, did Jim hit on him this morning?
He scowled at the computer and jabbed his finger at the keyboard a few times in frustration. This was all just too confusing now. This was the stuff of fairy tales, not the life of some entry-level accounting monkey at a corporation too big for anyone outside of his department to even know his face, much less his name.
When he got home that night there were puddles waiting for him on the floor of his kitchen, and his socks found wet spots in the rugs. He cursed under his breath and yanked them off, then headed to his bedroom to dispose of them in his laundry hamper. On the way down the hall he noted the bathroom door, which he’d left open when he left for work that morning, was shut tight. When he came out of the bedroom he stood in front of it, considering whether or not he really wanted to go in there before he had to, considering Jim’s comment this morning. After a few minutes of contemplation, he swallowed his irritation and knocked. “Are you still in there?”
On the other side of the door there came a frantic bit of splashing, then Jim called out, “Yes, I’m here!”
“I’m coming in,” Kiran said, then opened the door. He had no idea what would greet him on the opposite side of the door, and he closed his eyes before stepping through into the room.
The splashing had stopped, though, and so Kiran cautiously opened his eyes and looked around him. Jim sat in the tub, his fin draped over the side and slowly dripping into a small puddle on the floor. Kiran groaned and ripped the towel off the rack on the wall, then began to sop up the water.
Jim leaned up and peered over the edge at Kiran. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize I’d made a mess.”
“You made more than just this, to be honest,” Kiran said as he stood to wring out the towel in the sink. “If you want to get out of the tub tomorrow, I can set up some extra towels in here so you can dry off before you move around.”
Jim looked embarrassed, as much as he could with that face that wasn’t quite human. “I apologize. I’ll be sure to clean up after myself in the future.”
“I appreciate it.” Kiran hung the towel back up over the rack. “Don’t feel bad, though. You didn’t realize it, right? I’m sure you didn’t make a mess maliciously.”
Jim shook his head. “No, the last thing I’d want to do is make you upset.” He leaned forward, resting his arms on the side of the tub and perching his chin on his forearms. With a small grin, he said, “It would likely mean I’d see less of you.”
Kiran froze for a moment, then shook his head. He didn’t know what Jim meant by that. “I’m going to go. Let me know if you need anything from me.” He went to leave the bathroom and looked back over his shoulder in time to see Jim make a face that looked remarkably like a pout.
It continued in a similar vein for the next few days — Kiran would stumble into the bathroom in a haze in the morning, Jim would comment on something related to Kiran’s body (usually about how strange it must be to have legs, or how nice Kiran’s stomach looked, though once he got more lewd than that before Kiran yanked the shower curtain closed again), and Kiran would leave the bathroom confused and unsure as to how he felt about the whole thing. In the evening Kiran would come home and inevitably come across a puddle or two Jim had missed, but he knew Jim was trying so he didn’t make a fuss about it.
It was still exhausting, to have to clean up after him, to have to tolerate Jim living in his bathroom, to have to wake up earlier than usual to shower at work every morning. Coworkers had begun to notice the sudden uptick in Kiran’s exercise and had remarked on it, and Kiran was running out of reasons as to why he’d started to care so much about himself when in the past he’d sworn up and down that he hated to run on treadmills and would never start.
As this went on, Kiran started to consider when he could possibly take Jim back up to the lake. He didn’t want to take any time off of work to make it happen, but he saw no need to delay it any further than the coming weekend. He resolved to talk to Jim about it in the morning, and let him know that he could not extend the hospitality any farther than one week. He’d get his bathroom and his privacy back, he wouldn’t have to run on the treadmill any more, and he’d have a story he would never, ever be able to tell another soul as long as he lived.
That next morning, Kiran laid in bed for a few extra minutes after his alarm sounded. He couldn’t expect to have a reasonable and coherent talk with Jim if he was still half-asleep, after all, and he needed to have his wits about him before facing Jim possibly trying to ruffle his feathers. As he spent time waking up and watching the sun streaming in the windows, Kiran tried to mentally plot the chart of the conversation. Once he was satisfied with his plan, he got out of bed and pulled on his lounge pants.
The bathroom door was closed again, so Kiran knocked before opening the door. “Jim?”
Again there was a large amount of splashing, then Jim said, “Come in.”
Kiran stepped into the bathroom and shoved his hands into his pockets. “So I’ve been thinking.”
“What have you been thinking about?” Jim sat up, his tail sliding down the wall with a sickening sound. He’d started keeping it up against the wall so the water ran down the walls into the tub, which Kiran appreciated. He didn’t have enough quarters to wash towels frequently enough to clean up after Jim even without the constant dripping just outside the tub.
Kiran cleared his throat and shook his head to try to facilitate forgetting that sound. “About you going back home, to the lake.”
“I can’t,” Jim said. “I can’t yet.”
“Well, yes,” Kiran said and nodded, shifting his hands in his pockets as he shrugged. “I can’t take you back right now anyway. I mean this weekend.”
Jim opened his mouth to speak, then sighed and closed his mouth. “I understand. I suppose I could have you leave me in a different area than where you found me. It would make it easier to hide.”
Kiran furrowed his brow. “What do you mean, hide?”
Jim shook his head. “Don’t concern yourself with it. When are we going to go back?”
“I think we’ll leave Saturday morning.” It took a moment for Kiran to realize that the reason Jim looked confused was because he didn’t understand what Kiran had said, possibly because he didn’t know what day it was. He cleared his throat and tried again. “We’ll leave in three days.”
“Three days. All right.” Jim nodded and leaned forward to splash some water over his fin with gentle motions. “I’ll do my best to not be too much more of a burden before we leave.”
Kiran frowned at Jim’s behavior. He was much quieter this morning; he hadn’t even tried to hit on Kiran yet this morning. “Did you need something? I can make sure you’re set up before I leave for work today.”
Jim looked uncomfortable, then frowned. “I said, I don’t want to be a burden.”
“You wouldn’t be a burden,” Kiran sighed. “You’ve been a guest since I brought you home. I’m supposed to take care of your needs, and I’ve quite honestly done a terrible job of that so far. So what do you need?”
Jim chewed his lower lip for a moment — somewhat terrifying for Kiran to watch, as he hadn’t noticed those teeth before, looking much more razor-sharp than his own — and then sighed. “I was hoping to find something to eat.”
“Oh no.” Kiran’s stomach dropped to his knees. How could he forget to feed Jim? He wouldn’t forget to feed anyone else he was keeping at his house, how could he forget about Jim, especially for two days? “What sorts of things do you even eat?”
As soon as it came out of his mouth Kiran felt very stupid, which was compounded by the look of exasperation on Jim’s face. “I live in a lake. What do you think I eat?”
Kiran nodded, and felt his cheeks flush. “Of course, of course. Fish.”
“I couldn’t find any. I’m sorry for the mess I always left.”
“I have… canned tuna, I think.” Kiran frowned. “It’s better than nothing, I suppose. I could go to the store…”
Jim shook his head. “No, that should be fine, I think. I don’t want to impose.”
Kiran scrubbed a hand down his face. “You aren’t imposing!” His voice echoed in the small space, and Jim flinched.
They each stayed quiet then, and after a few minutes Kiran shifted uncomfortably. “I’m sorry. I’ll get you the tuna.” He stepped out and went to the kitchen, noted that there were only a couple cans of tuna left, and dumped one out into a bowl for Jim. He stuck a fork into it then brought the bowl into the bathroom and handed it to Jim.
“Thank you,” Jim said as he accepted the bowl. He picked up the fork and, his brow furrowed, peered at it, then set it aside and proceeded to scoop up the tuna with his hands.
Kiran took the fork back and went to drop it into the kitchen sink, then finished getting ready for work. He figured the talk had gone as well as it could, and he hoped that the food would cheer Jim up a bit.
Another long run on the treadmill, another unsatisfying lukewarm shower in the office locker room. Kiran truly could not wait to have his own bathroom back, even though he’d promised Jim that he wouldn’t force him to go back until Saturday. He could just count down the days until then.
As he worked, he couldn’t stop thinking about Jim, and how quiet he had been that morning. It wasn’t like him, Kiran thought — at least not like the Jim Kiran had seen on Monday morning. Maybe it was just hunger. Once again a wave of guilt hit Kiran, and he sighed. He wasn’t entirely sure how he could have forgotten that Jim was unfamiliar with his apartment, and even more unfamiliar with life on dry land.
He tried to ignore that sick feeling in his stomach and worked alone the rest of the day. He stopped at the grocery store on the way home and picked up food, not only for himself but a few more cans of tuna — and a couple of salmon — for Jim’s sake. He stood in the aisle, staring at the options, contemplating picking up a can of sardines as well before deciding against it; if Jim didn’t eat it that would mean he would be stuck with an entire can of sardines and goodness knows he wouldn’t touch the stuff. In the end, he decided what he got would be plenty.
“I’m home,” Kiran called without thinking as he walked in, and he froze as he realized what he’d done. Three days, just three days of having Jim in his bathtub, and he was already changing his routines. He hoped the neighbors hadn’t heard — as far as they knew he was still alone in his apartment.
Jim didn’t respond, and Kiran deposited the grocery bags in the kitchen before heading down the hall toward the bathroom. Jim had left the door open that day and Kiran was first surprised that Jim hadn’t answered, but when he poked his head in he saw why. Jim was reclined in the bathtub, his head pillowed on the edge, fast asleep. It was obvious he had been sleeping for several hours and thus hadn’t dunked his head in that time, because the dark hair that was usually slicked down to the sides of his skull hung loose around his head in gentle waves. His face was relaxed, a serene expression smoothing his features into something familiar but not; it was as if Kiran were being given a glimpse into Jim’s past, from before he had figured taking his chances with a fisherman was better than whatever faced him there in the depths of Lake Huron.
Kiran leaned against the doorframe with a small smile, his arms crossed over his chest, as he simply watched Jim sleep there in the water. Before long, Jim started to stir, but Kiran was too lost in his thoughts to notice immediately. As a result, he yelped when Jim spoke.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” Kiran managed to ask, once he’d caught his breath after the scare.
“I asked why you were watching me,” Jim repeated.
Kiran hesitated. “I… I’m not sure.”
Jim furrowed his brow, then dipped below the water and smoothed his hair back with both hands as he surfaced. Much like Kiran’s inability to explain why he had watched Jim as he slept, he found himself unable to articulate why he felt so saddened by the loss of the waves in Jim’s hair.
“So are you home from your work, then?” Jim said, as though he were grasping for straws to reduce the level of discomfort any way he could.
Kiran nodded, then gasped. “Oh! I got you some more fish. More of the tuna, but I also got some salmon as well.” He stepped backwards, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “I could go get you some. I’m sure you’re hungry.”
Jim nodded as well, his motion slower with thought. “Yes, that sounds good. Are you all right?”
“Yeah… yeah!” Kiran nodded again. He wasn’t sure why he felt flustered; was it because he was watching Jim sleep, or was it only because he’d gotten caught doing it? Why had he watched Jim sleep? Why couldn’t he have just left the bathroom once he realized Jim was sleeping there, giving him the privacy that Kiran himself craved so much? Kiran gave a soft sigh and stepped back again. “I’ll go get you some salmon this time.” With that, he turned on his heel and left Jim alone.
He needed to get this straightened out, so no more watching Jim while he slept. He would only go into the bathroom to pee and to give Jim the canned fish. There would be no more of these confusing feelings. Just three more days of this, and then Kiran would take Jim back to the lake and everything would be back to normal.
He’d have to find a new fishing spot, Kiran decided. He couldn’t deal with this happening to him again.
That night Jim changed the water in the tub. Kiran was fairly sure Jim had done it at least daily while he was there, but he hadn’t heard Jim go through the process before then. He felt guilty for making Jim do it alone, like he should offer to help, but then he recalled his confused and conflicted feelings from earlier that afternoon and decided against it. Pretending to sleep was a better option, and he rolled over to try to ignore the periodic loud splashes and something that sounded remarkably like Jim slipping in an empty tub.
He didn’t even mention to Jim the next morning the noises he’d overheard the night before, but he did note Jim’s stiff movements at the waist. He decided Jim deserved salmon again, and that he was deserving of a lovely treat that night.
“I’ll be a little late home tonight,” Kiran said as he handed Jim the bowl of salmon. “So don’t worry if I’m not home by the time you expect.”
“I’m not sure when to expect you.” Jim took the salmon, perplexed. “Have you been coming home at the same time each night?”
Kiran shrugged. “I’ve been getting home at roughly the same time, yes. Don’t worry about tonight, though. I think you’ll understand why later.”
Jim still looked completely baffled, but he nodded and began to eat the contents of the bowl Kiran had handed him. Kiran noted that his hair was dry again, and those dark waves again framed Jim’s face in a flattering — and distracting — way. He forced himself to look away though, because if he wouldn’t allow himself to watch Jim sleep he surely shouldn’t allow himself to watch Jim eat.
Besides, it hadn’t grown any less unsettling to watch Jim eat canned fish with his bare hands.
Work dragged on again, and it took every ounce of Kiran’s willpower to not spend his work hours searching the internet for the perfect place to stop by after work, since living in Novi afforded him a wide selection of Japanese cuisine. By the time five o’clock arrived Kiran was practically bursting at the seams, and he hurried out of the office which much more urgency than he ever had before that day.
For the second night in a row he announced himself at the door and he silently kicked himself for forgetting about the neighbors again, though tonight Jim responded. The anxiety melted away at Jim’s voice, and Kiran couldn’t help but grin as he walked down the hall toward it, bearing a white plastic bag with “THANK YOU” emblazoned upon it.
Jim didn’t look any less confused than he had that morning when Kiran had announced that he planned to do something after work, and his furrowed brow grew deeper when Kiran tore open the bag and held out a styrofoam container for him to take. “What is this?”
“It’s called sushi,” Kiran said as he perched on the closed toilet lid to open his own box. “It’s fish… and other stuff. It’s Japanese.”
Jim peered at the container before venturing to open it, and once he did he stared down at the rolls neatly arranged in front of him. “This doesn’t look like the fish you’ve been feeding me.”
Kiran shook his head while he chewed one of his own pieces, then made sure to swallow before he spoke. “No, this is better. Much better.”
“It doesn’t look like the fish I ate in the lake, either,” Jim said.
“Well, no,” Kiran admitted. “This is sliced and rolled with nori and rice.”
Jim studied the rolls then picked up a slice and began to unroll it.
“Ah, no!” Kiran shook his head and picked up another of his own pieces with his chopsticks. “You’re supposed to eat it whole.”
“I don’t know what this is, or if I can even eat it,” Jim said as he delicately picked the rice off of the nori, “So I don’t think I should try to.” Once he’d cleaned the rice off, he popped the raw tuna and nori into his mouth at once, and Kiran couldn’t possibly have mistaken the look of joy that spread across his face.
Once again Kiran felt guilt about how well he’d been caring for his guest — obviously canned fish was barely edible to Jim, and yet that was almost all Kiran had been feeding the poor thing. Add that to being confined to this bathtub and left alone for hours at a time each day, and Jim was likely miserable.
Next time, Kiran decided, he would feed Jim sashimi.
Friday morning Jim seemed like he’d perked up, judging by how he let his eyes linger on Kiran when he’d come in to relieve himself first thing that morning. Jim didn’t say anything, but the corners of his mouth pulled up just enough to let Kiran know what thoughts lingered.
Kiran tried to be offended by Jim’s ogling, like he had been earlier in the week, but he couldn’t quite muster it. Maybe Jim was simply curious, and didn’t have a good way to phrase it. Maybe he’d always observed humans as they visited the lake and had always longed to talk about it but had never had a chance.
Or maybe he was, in fact, attracted to Kiran.
As soon as that thought crossed his mind Kiran scoffed. There was no way. Jim was merely trying to ruffle his feathers, to get a rise out of him. Now that Kiran was feeding him, Jim had the energy to tease again. That was all. He’d turn it around on Jim later tonight, after he got home from work and finished dinner.
Of course, having a plan for the night made the day drag on slower than even the day before had, and once again as soon as he could leave the office he did. He stopped on his way home and this time purchased only sashimi for Jim, and made sure that he did not delay his arrival home so as not to ruin the fish.
“I’m home,” Kiran called out once again, and to his delight Jim answered again. He stopped first to give Jim the sashimi and took a moment to enjoy the relief clear on Jim’s face that he not only was he continuing to receive better fish than he had before, he didn’t even have to eat around the rice to enjoy it this time. With Jim’s dinner taken care of Kiran went back into the kitchen to prepare and eat his own dinner. He’d need the energy to have this planned talk with Jim, after all, as much as he wanted to just go into the bathroom and begin.
The closer he grew to finishing his meal the more anxious Kiran became, though he wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t like he was going to ask Jim anything hard. Just… turn the tables on him. Maybe also try to get Jim to admit why he was running away from a Great Lake.
Kiran took the time to wash his dishes to clear his head, meticulously drying each plate and piece of silverware before putting them away instead of leaving them on the drying rack. He stared around his spotless kitchen and drew a sigh. There was nothing else left to do. He had run out of excuses. It was time to go talk.
He rapped on the door frame and Jim looked up, his body frozen with the final piece of sashimi dangling from his fingertips above his lips. With his chin tipped back his neck was long and slender and reminded Kiran of a swan more than the man Jim half-resembled.
“I just wanted to chat for a minute,” Kiran said. “You don’t have to stop eating on my behalf.” As much as he willed his brain to ignore it, he couldn’t help but watch Jim’s every move — those thin fingers, moving much more gracefully than any human’s Kiran had ever seen; those full lips plucking the fish out from between thumb and forefinger; the way he closed his eyes in pleasure at the first taste of that final morsel. Even after a full order of the stuff, Jim still took the time to enjoy every bite.
“What did you want to discuss?” Jim asked as he set aside the empty box. “I know we are leaving in the morning so I can go back home, but what else is there to talk about?”
Kiran fidgeted with the hem of his shirt for a moment in an attempt to find the words. “I’m curious.”
Jim shifted to lean on the edge of the bathtub, his forearms crossed over each other, the edge of his tail resting at the opposite end of the tub. “What are you curious about? I’m not sure what knowledge I have that you wouldn’t.”
“I’ve noticed you act… differently toward me,” Kiran said, “when you’re in a better mood. You seem to tease me.”
Jim laughed, then rested his chin on his crossed arms, eyes crinkling with a wide smile. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“Well… yes. But you flirt.”
“Don’t you?” Jim raised his eyebrows but otherwise kept still, his chin still there on his arms.
Kiran blinked and stammered. This wasn’t how he wanted this talk to go. Besides, he hadn’t been flirting… had he?
“I’ve noticed how you’ve watched me,” Jim said, keeping his voice soft. “I would prefer to believe it’s because you find me attractive, and not because you’re overly fascinated with or disturbed by how different I am.”
There was that pang of guilt again. Jim deserved so much better than what Kiran had been giving, with how he’d acted just as he suspected of Jim without realizing it. “I feel much the same about how you’ve acted,” Kiran said, just as quietly.
Jim let that hang in the air for a few minutes. The silence stretched on longer than Kiran was comfortable with, and just before he decided to break it, Jim spoke. “So I believe, then, that we have established a mutual attraction. Have we not?”
“I suppose so,” Kiran murmured.
“That can’t have been everything.”
Kiran shook his head. “No. How… What’s it like, having a tail instead of legs?”
“It is very inconvenient here, but quite the boon in the water,” Jim said, that smirk back on his lips. “Here I am trapped, and confined to a vessel I can’t even stretch out in. I imagine this is somewhat how it feels to be a fish caught for a fish tank.”
Kiran nearly asked how Jim knew what a fish tank was, but decided not to press that issue. He leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Tell me what it’s like in the water.”
Jim took a moment to ponder this, furrowing his brow in thought as he shifted to rest his cheek on his arms instead. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and said, “It’s freedom. Nothing can hold you back. Nothing can slow you down or stop you. When you get far enough out from shore you cut through the waves, water stretching out around you like infinity. It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had.”
By the time Jim had stopped speaking the initially reverent tone had taken on a bittersweet sadness, and Kiran’s guilt gnawed at his stomach. “You must be miserable here with me. I’m so sorry.”
“I never said I was miserable,” Jim said. “I am far from it, in fact.”
“I don’t see how lying in a cramped bathtub could possibly compare to swimming in Lake Huron.”
“You aren’t in the lake,” Jim said, his face completely serious.
This talk had looped back to something deeper again with that declaration. In an attempt to get it under control again, Kiran said, “You have known me all of five days, Jim.”
Jim opened his mouth to speak but stopped and snapped it shut again. He dropped his gaze and shrugged. “I suppose you’re right.”
The guilt which had drowned Kiran before was replaced by concern, with a flush of curiosity. Again he could feel the mood shifting out of his control, but he didn’t care anymore. “What were you going to say?” he asked, his voice so quiet he could scarcely hear it himself.
“I’ve been… ” Jim trailed off, mumbling into his arms. Under that dark gray skin Kiran could catch the hints of a blush, which only made him want to know what Jim had said even more.
“You’ve been what?”
Jim looked away, the flush definitely obvious now, and Kiran sighed.
This silence stretched on as well, more like a stalemate than a break in conversation, and Kiran knew he wouldn’t be the one to fill it again. At length, Jim spoke again, clearer and louder this time. “I’ve watched you. While you’re by the lake, that is. You fish, but you take nothing home. You throw everything back.” He let out a soft laugh. “You’re ruining it for the others, you know. The fish all know you’re the only one who tosses back, and they avoid the others if they can. It still hurts them to be caught by you, but they at least know they won’t die by your hand.”
Kiran blinked and sat back again. “How long have you been watching me?”
“A few years now… long enough to know you’re not the only one who stays in that cabin and you don’t come there when the weather turns cold.”
“Yes, my family owns that cabin, but I probably go up much more often than my parents do.”
“Now, you tell me something,” Jim said. “What is it like to have a family?”
Kiran frowned. “You don’t have families?”
“Not in the same sense as you do, no.” Jim straightened up enough to shift his arms, this time letting one trail outside of the tub to touch the tiled floor below it. “I had a mother and still have a father, but we’re expected to fend for ourselves much earlier in life than it appears you do.”
“Do you ever talk to your family?”
Jim hesitated, then shook his head. “I’m sorry. I know I’m the one who brought it up, but I’d rather not discuss this right now.”
Kiran’s curiosity still raged within him, and he had so many questions he wanted — needed — to know the answer to, but he let it go. He opened his mouth to ask Jim another question, but froze when Jim pressed his fingertips to Kiran’s lips. The skin was impossibly soft and smooth there against his mouth, and even after five days in Kiran’s bathtub he could still catch a slight smell of the lake on Jim’s skin. He raised his eyebrows in question but did not try to speak around Jim’s fingers.
“I would prefer to do something else,” Jim said as he dropped his fingers from Kiran’s lips again. “That is, if you don’t mind.”
Kiran shrugged in an attempt to affect carelessness and not at all appear as though he couldn’t stop thinking about the feel of Jim’s fingers. “I suppose that depends on what you’d rather do.”
Jim hesitated again before he spoke, as though he weighed his words carefully before speaking. “I’m curious about you, and… about your body.”
Kiran nearly choked on air with that remark. “What do you mean, curious about my body?”
With another of his smirks, Jim gestured to his lower half, then to Kiran himself. “We are very different, you and I. I am curious as to what you look like under all of that. How it feels… how it’s different.”
So this was what this was leading up to, all of those flirts and comments from Jim. It was going to peak with Kiran naked here in the bathroom, if he agreed. He was tempted to say no, he truly was, but his own need for knowledge and the growing need for pleasure was more urgent than his desire for privacy. He would have to play along to get his own satisfaction. Before he even realized he’d started speaking, he was already halfway through the comment. “I think that’s fair, considering you’ve been naked the entire time I’ve known you.”
“Is there nothing you’re curious about?”
Kiran let out a short laugh as he stood up to pull his shirt over his head again. “Oh, there’s plenty I’m curious about. My answers will come with time, I’m sure.” He reached down to unbutton his jeans, but stopped when Jim closed his hands over Kiran’s.
“Please,” Jim said, and nothing more.
Kiran nodded and dropped his hands to allow Jim to open them. Was he curious about the clothing, too, or just how Kiran looked under them? More importantly, he realized, why was he okay with letting this creature touch him like this?
He was careful to shove aside that thought. He could deal with this later. If he wanted to enjoy this last night with someone he was admittedly quite attracted to, this was his only opportunity. He turned his attention back to what Jim was doing, and fought back a small smile at how Jim struggled with the button. “Do you need any help?”
Jim sighed and looked up at Kiran, frustration clear on his face. “This, and nothing else, please.”
“I can do that,” Kiran said, and unbuttoned his jeans before dropping his hands back down to his sides. “Don’t worry about it. You didn’t grow up with these like I did.”
“Well, no,” Jim admitted, “but you would think with how much time I’ve spent watching humans I’d have grasped their concept by now.” He studied the button and the corresponding hole for a few moments before nodding to himself and reaching for the zipper. He took his time as he pulled it down, and Kiran could not help but smile at how the amazement on Jim’s face grew each moment as the zipper went down. As Jim’s hands grazed over the front of Kiran’s jeans, his body responded, and it actually surprised Kiran how quickly he grew hard as a result of even that slight stimulation. Jim glanced up at Kiran when he realized what had happened, a wide grin spreading over his face. “You enjoy this.”
Kiran let out a soft laugh. “I enjoy the wind if it blows right. It really doesn’t take much to get a man hard, Jim.”
“It doesn’t?” Kiran wasn’t sure he didn’t imagine a small hint of disappointment in Jim’s voice.
“Not that this isn’t nice,” Kiran added. “Because it is.”
Jim smiled to himself as he tugged Kiran’s jeans down and took a moment to slide his hand over Kiran’s erection again. When the involuntary groan slipped out, Jim’s smile grew bigger again, and he started to move his hand with more intent. “I don’t know if I’m willing to settle for merely ‘nice,’ Kiran.”
“Well, you’re definitely on the right track,” Kiran muttered.
It was easy to lose himself in the movements of Jim’s hand over his underwear, and just as he started to lose his patience enough to beg Jim to move past them to the skin underneath, Jim did so himself unprompted. He let his head fall back, his eyes closed, attempting to keep his breathing measured as Jim explored. Those soft, smooth fingers of his moved over the length of Kiran’s cock, so different from the way anyone else had ever touched him before now. It certainly felt nothing like this when he touched himself.
Before long, Jim wrapped his hand around Kiran’s cock, and somehow he just knew the way Kiran liked to be touched. He kept the pace slow, almost torturously slow, and curled his hand just so around the head of Kiran’s cock each time he brought it up to the tip. He paused in his stroking to rub his thumb along the slit and made a soft curious noise.
At that sound, Kiran opened his eyes to look down at Jim, just in time to see Jim’s thumb slip into his mouth. When Jim closed his eyes, savoring the taste of Kiran as he’d savored the sashimi earlier, Kiran said, “Did you enjoy that, then?”
“It tastes salty.” Jim smiled and took Kiran back in hand again, still keeping that slow pace. “I did enjoy it, very much.”
“I wouldn’t be opposed to you tasting it… more directly,” Kiran said as his eyes drifted closed. A single coherent thought crossed his mind again — what Jim’s teeth looked like, sharp for tearing fish apart, nothing that he’d likely want anywhere near his cock. “Not that what you’re doing isn’t good enough or anything,” he added hastily.
Jim made a soft thoughtful sound and murmured, “No, of course,” and then there was a second gentle hand in the mix fondling Kiran’s sack. The touches, while pleasurable, still had an exploratory feel to them; however, Jim somehow managed to make them feel better than Kiran had felt from another individual in as long as he could remember.
The longer Kiran let it go on, the weaker his knees grew, and with a gasp he reached down to take Jim’s wrists in his hands. “I need to sit down, please… or else I’ll fall over.”
“Are you all right?” Jim asked.
Kiran shook his head. “Yes, I’m fine. It just feels too good.”
He glanced behind him to make sure he could sit safely, but Jim grasped his wrist in return. “I have a better idea.” He tugged on Jim’s wrist and gestured to the tub. “It’ll have to happen in here. I’m not comfortable doing this anywhere else.”
Kiran raised his eyebrows and looked down at the tub, then back at Jim. “I’m not sure what you have planned, here. Or to be honest, if I’ll even fit in there with you.”
Jim grinned and pulled Kiran in for a kiss. Kiran sighed against Jim’s lips, savoring the first kiss they’d shared. He tasted of fish, but not in an unpleasant way — fresh, and reminiscent of the air that would blow off the lake in the early morning before the sun rose above the horizon. When they broke apart, Kiran had to take a moment to gather his wits again. Jim smiled and pushed Kiran’s hair back from his face with a gentle hand. “I believe you will. I want to feel you against me.”
Now, to Kiran’s eyes it didn’t appear Jim was at all aroused, though he knew he didn’t exactly have experience with the body of a merman. Would Jim even have a cock? How would this work, anyway? Kiran opened and closed his mouth a few times. He had been thinking too hard, here, and his own erection had begun to flag.
Kiran shook his head to bring him out of the thoughts, then cleared his throat. “I don’t know how… um, how this will work. Do you… is there a… um, I can’t tell if you’re enjoying this.”
Jim grinned, then tugged on Kiran’s hand again. “Please don’t worry about that. I assure you I’m enjoying this.” He slid his opposite hand down, taking Kiran’s cock in his grip again and stroking him back to full hardness. “I want you to enjoy it, too.”
Kiran surveyed the length of the tub again. He’d tried bathing with exes before, but they’d all had legs, and not a tail, and he wasn’t sure if that would make this endeavor go better or worse than previous attempts. “So you want me to get in there with you. On top of you?”
“Yes, that’s what I was thinking,” Jim said. “We… my, uh, people, and I… we make love this way.”
Kiran was half-tempted to ask if they always fucked in bathtubs, but decided now was not the time to be a smartass. He evaluated the tub again, and how Jim had his tail arranged, and drew a deep breath before stepping in to the tub. He had expected it to be chilly, an effect of the water standing in the tub, but to his surprise it was a tolerable temperature. Jim must have changed the water not long before he’d gotten home with dinner tonight.
It took a bit of work from both of them to arrange Kiran’s legs around Jim’s tail in a way as to make them both fit, but before long Kiran lay on top of Jim, chest to chest, looking him in the eye. Jim’s heartbeat, pounding there below his own, wasn’t so different, but the feel of Jim’s smooth, sleek body against him was completely foreign.
Even in the entirely alien feel of this, Kiran felt a thrill unlike any he’d ever felt. Coloring that thrill, though, was concern. “Are you sure you’re enjoying this?”
“Are you looking for… external confirmation?” Jim murmured as he cupped a hand to Kiran’s cheek. “Like yours?”
Kiran nodded. “I’m just worried that… that you’re going along with this because you feel like you have to, and I don’t want anyone to ever feel forced…”
Jim shushed him, brushing a thumb over Kiran’s lips. “You aren’t forcing me to do anything. If you remember, I started all of this.” He grinned, again with the odd and vaguely disconcerting teeth he had. “Trust me, I’m enjoying this.”
And then, before Kiran could say or ask anything else, Jim proved it. His cock pressed first against Kiran’s thigh, then slid up against Kiran’s own, long and smooth like the rest of him. A fleeting thought crossed Kiran’s mind, wondering where it came from as it hadn’t been visible before; however, as soon as he considered the thought it was gone, washed away in the feel of Jim hard against him. Jim pressed his body up against Kiran, and the feel of his cock slipping against Kiran’s made him bite back a gasp. Jim’s body was muscular and powerful, and when he pushed up against Kiran it was as though everything in his brain shut down. All he managed was a strangled, “Oh, God.”
Jim’s grin grew wider yet, and he rolled his body up against Kiran’s again as he murmured, “You like that, then?”
As he’d lost all capacity for words, Kiran forced out a nod and gripped the sides of the bathtub to ride the waves of Jim’s body as he pressed up against him. Their cocks stroked together under the water, rubbing against each other in the most wonderful way. Each movement of Jim’s body sent shockwaves through Kiran’s, and the feeling built both too much and not nearly quickly enough. His grip grew tighter on the sides of the tub, wordless moans beginning to tumble from his lips. He began to press down against Jim, rocking his own hips to meet each of Jim’s movements, his arms beginning to tremble from the effort.
“Relax,” Jim breathed into Kiran’s ear. He slowed the movements of his body enough to take Kiran’s arms and wrap them around his own neck, then spoke again. “Just relax. Enjoy this. Don’t try to do anything, just be.”
Kiran took a deep breath, clinging to Jim’s neck. After a moment he dropped his forehead to Jim’s chest and rolled his hips once more, barely managing to gather enough brainpower to whisper, “Please… more…”
The smile was audible in Jim’s voice. “More, then.”
His arms, strong yet gentle, wrapped around Kiran, holding him tight, and rolled his body again. Kiran let out another moan, his arms growing tighter yet around Jim’s neck, his thighs gripping the sides of Jim’s tail. Jim’s cock felt unlike any Kiran had seen or felt before and the way it stroked against his own was just different enough to be thrilling, yet familiar enough to be soothing. Somehow it stimulated that part just under the head of Kiran’s cock just in the right way. It would take a conscious effort on Kiran’s part to keep from coming, though the thought crossed his mind that if he came too quickly himself he could likely taste Jim.
That idea actually wasn’t all that unappealing, Kiran decided.
“You feel wonderful,” Jim murmured as he ran his hands over the length of Kiran’s back. “I’ve never felt anything like you before…”
Kiran shook his head. “Neither have I… God, this feels so amazing,” he gasped as he pressed down against Jim once more.
Jim made a soft noise and moved his body faster, his hands becoming more demanding in their movements, as though they attempted to claim Kiran more than simply feel him or try to soothe him. Jim’s breathing grew faster against Kiran’s ear and he could hear soft moans slipping out in Jim’s gasping breaths. It was obvious to Kiran now that Jim approached his peak just as quickly as he did. Somewhere in the depths of his mind he was aware of the absolute mess he and Jim were making, the movements of their bodies sloshing water all over the bathroom, but he really didn’t care at all.
“Kiran, I — Oh…!” Jim gripped Kiran tightly, his breath coming in desperate gasps, and then he let out a string of words in a language Kiran could not understand.
Before Kiran could respond his own body betrayed him, and he threw his head back and moaned low in his throat. He was hardly aware of Jim under him as his orgasm crashed over him like a wave breaking. He barely had the time to be embarrassed by the mess between them in the water or the indentations his nails had left in Jim’s skin before Jim himself went over the same edge. His face was contorted in an expression of rapture, his eyes squeezed closed as his back arched up as though someone had yanked on an invisible string tied to him.
They both laid there in the bathtub, their mixed emissions swirling in the water around them, completely silent. Kiran couldn’t tear his eyes away from Jim and simply watched as he breathed. He had a serene look, and Kiran watched in silence as he started to come back to himself.
“That was wonderful,” Jim said, once he had his wits about him again.
“It was,” Kiran answered. He wasn’t sure what else he had to say.
Jim stared down at the water for a few long minutes, then spoke without looking up at Kiran. “They wanted to kill me because I’m next in line for the throne.”
Kiran’s eyebrows shot up. He’d just had sex with a merman in his own bathtub, which was remarkable in its own right, but not just any merman: somehow Kiran had managed to catch one who was apparently a prince. “What brought that confession on?”
Jim looked up at Kiran, a smirk on his face. “I thought you wanted to know.”
“Well, I mean, yeah,” Kiran said. “I just thought that maybe we’d have a lead-in to this particular discussion.”
Jim smiled as he helped Kiran to sit upright. “I figured what we did was lead-in enough.”
“So that’s it,” Kiran said as he adjusted himself to straddle Jim’s tail in a more comfortable position. “They… who? Who wants to kill you for being next in line for the throne?”
“They are well-known for petty crime usually, mostly theft and extortion. If the general public knew what they were really up to they wouldn’t have let them run free. Nor would they, had it been known who they worked for.”
A mafia, Kiran thought; a goddamn merman mafia wants to kill him for his birthright. “Who did they work for?” Kiran asked, eyes wide. This had turned out to be bigger than he’d thought when he took Jim in initially. He wished Jim had told him this in the first place, but at the same time he knew he wouldn’t have believed the story. He needed to trust Jim first. Jim couldn’t have told him this before now.
“They worked with my uncle,” Jim said. “My father has been sick for some time, and I’m the only child he had. If I were to be… incapacitated, my uncle could step in and lead a country mourning the loss of two leaders instead of just one. It would be easier to manipulate them then.”
Kiran furrowed a brow. “So this is a group of people… of Mer who thought they had a way in to get the crown, and your existence ruined that for them?”
Jim gave Kiran a very sad smile, and nodded. “That’s exactly it.”
“I can’t believe you’re running away from a freaking mafia.”
“A what?” Jim canted his head to the side, his brow furrowed in confusion. “I’m not familiar with that term.”
“I’m sorry.” Kiran shook his head. “It’s like… a crime syndicate. Or a family of criminals.” He cupped a hand to Jim’s cheek. “How can you be sure you’ll be safe if you go back? Won’t they be angrier that you ran away?”
“My plan,” Jim said, “is to come back in secret, and gather support before I approach my uncle directly. I’ll need to re-enter the lake at a different place than I left it, unfortunately. If I have found favor with fate, my father will still be strong enough to help me counter my uncle. If I have not…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. If we’re done discussing this, do you need anything from me?”
Kiran shook his head. “No. Do you need anything from me?”
“Just for you to get a good night’s sleep so we make it back up to the lake safely tomorrow,” Jim said with a soft smile. “I’d hate for you to have rescued me from being murdered in the lake just to kill me in that contraption of yours on the way back.”
“I can try,” Kiran said, and leaned forward to kiss Jim again.
It had been a night of fitful sleep for Kiran. He felt guilty for leaving Jim alone there in the bathroom after what they’d done together, but the more rational part of him also knew that sleeping in the bathtub with Jim was a quick trip to a case of the chills and a feeling of uncomfortable cold he wouldn’t be able to shake for the entire rest of the day. Not a sensation he particularly wanted to enjoy the whole time driving up north.
So in the end he was warm, but not particularly well-rested.
“Good morning,” he said, as he knocked on the bathroom door. “I want to get going, before my neighbors wake up and question why I’m dragging you to my car.”
Jim nodded, and his red-rimmed eyes made him look just as bleary as Kiran felt. Obviously his attempt at sleeping hadn’t worked out well either. Kiran wasn’t sure if Jim could have coffee, but he sure as hell was going to offer it.
First, though, he had a matter to attend to. “Listen… I can’t use the office to shower today. Do you think I could… I’d make it quick.”
“Of course, yes,” Jim murmured. “Maybe I could eat while you bathed.”
That sounded like as good a plan as any, and Kiran went into the kitchen to prepare a bowl of the canned tuna for Jim while Jim took the time to drain the bathtub for Kiran’s use. Kiran took the opportunity while he was in the kitchen to prepare a few other things he’d need for the drive. He set out the large thermos he often used on these trips to Harrisville, filled with the hottest water he could coax the tap into giving up to warm it ahead of its use, and started a very large pot of coffee brewing. After that it was a simple matter to trade places with Jim in the kitchen on a few spread-out towels while Kiran bathed as quickly as he could.
When Kiran came into the kitchen after his shower to pour his coffee and eat a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and a couple of hard-boiled eggs, he found Jim leaning against one of the bottom cabinets. There on the floor, Jim stared off into nothing, the empty bowl on his lap.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Kiran leaned against the counter opposite Jim, cupping a mug of coffee in his hands.
Jim looked up and blinked. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t even see you come in. I must have been thinking far too hard.”
Kiran smiled and sipped the coffee. “That’s why I asked what you were thinking about. By the way, care for some coffee?”
“That’s what that means?” Jim blinked a few more times, then shook his head. “No, thank you. I’m thinking about a lot of things. What it will be like to go back to the lake after a week away. Where I’ll have you leave me so I can re-enter the lake safely. What I will do to rally allies to my cause. How I will handle the traitors working with my uncle.”
“That all?” Kiran asked over the rim of the mug.
Jim set the bowl aside and smiled up at Kiran. “And last night, what you and I shared. And, if I’m going to be honest…” He looked back down at his hands as his smile grew melancholy. “I was thinking about how much I’ll miss you.”
Kiran sighed into the coffee, using the mug to hide it. That was the answer he simultaneously had expected and dreaded. If he were to be honest with himself, though, he felt the same. “You know I’ll still come to the lake,” he said. “You told me you knew about me before I met you. You’ll know when I’m there.”
“I may be too busy to see you,” Jim whispered. “And it may be too dangerous for me to make myself known to you so we could meet.”
“Can’t we work out something?” Kiran frowned. “If we agreed to meet somewhere that isn’t my dock? We could do that, right? Maybe meet where you want me to drop you off today?”
Jim stayed silent a long while and Kiran could tell he was thinking again. After a long stretch of quiet, he spoke. “That may work. We’ll need to discuss on the way up there, I think. We’re wasting time.”
Kiran gave a begrudging nod, then did his best to drink the rest of his mug of coffee as quickly as possible without burning himself.
The sun was barely starting to peek above the horizon when Kiran took the necessary towels, bucket, and sponge out to his car. He was glad he lived in an apartment complex full of relatively young people, because their propensity for late nights meant they were unlikely to notice what he was up to that morning. With his frequent weekend fishing trips his early morning in itself wasn’t worthy of note, but the next load Kiran was about to take to his car — Jim himself — would be.
He never had tracked down a wheelchair. It would have made this much easier.
The tension in the air was palpable as Kiran half-escorted, half-dragged Jim to his car. All he had to do was get Jim inside without arousing suspicion from the neighbors. Once that was accomplished, it would be easy enough to gather the rest of the things he’d need for the drive up north. He was sure he didn’t breathe at all until Jim was situated in the back of the car, a couple pouches of tuna at hand, and the bucket and sponge within easy reach.
Kiran shut the door and exhaled hard, rolling his shoulders to try to relieve some of the tension the stress of relocating Jim had caused. He wouldn’t be so lucky next time, he was sure; he would need to make sure he parked in an isolated area to release Jim back into Lake Huron. Harrisville wouldn’t do, and neither would Alpena; there was very likely an ideal place elsewhere in Thunder Bay. He’d just have to find it.
It was easy enough after that to gather up the food he’d need for the trip along with the massive thermos of coffee, and then they were off to Harrisville. Kiran had to stop a few times to walk around and wake himself up, despite the inhuman amount of caffeine he’d ingested. He usually made this trip on Friday night after work, and he usually wasn’t nearly this tired. Part of him wished he had taken Jim up the night before, but he also knew they wouldn’t have shared what they did the night before if he had.
They were somewhere around Bay City, halfway to their destination, when Kiran spoke up about his tentative plans. “I was thinking about where it might be good to drop you off,” he said as he glanced into the rear-view mirror to make sure Jim had heard him.
Jim immediately sat up in the back seat and leaned against the back of Kiran’s chair. “Where was that?”
“Well, my family’s cabin is in Harrisville, and we’ve already agreed that where I live is not the place to drop you off again. About half an hour north of Harrisville is Alpena, and there’s no way I could get you into the lake in one of the most populated cities in northern Michigan.”
“I don’t understand any of that. We don’t call your cities by the same names you do.”
Kiran sighed, racking his brain for a different way to phrase this. “You know where all the shipwrecks are, not far from where my cabin is?”
Jim nodded. “Yes, I know where those are. Many of our reckless young spend time there dodging humans.”
“Good. That’s Thunder Bay, and Alpena sits on its northern shores.”
“Ah, I see now. All right. So if Al-pee-nah won’t work, then where are you thinking?”
Kiran sighed as he took an exit for a rest stop. He needed to walk around again, and hoped a vending machine would be stocked for another quick hit of caffeine. “I was thinking the southern part of Thunder Bay. Probably about halfway between Alpena and Harrisville… which is where my cabin is.”
“That seems as good a plan as any,” Jim said. “The shipwrecks give me a place to hide, as well, if necessary.”
“Good,” Kiran said again as he parked the car outside the rest stop’s building. “Give me a few minutes.”
Fortunately Kiran found a vending machine holding ice-cold pop, and after a quick restroom break he climbed back into his car with two bottles of the stuff. “Are you sure you don’t need anything?”
Jim shook his head. “No, I don’t. I just need you to get me home safely.”
Kiran opened and drained half of one of the pop bottles, then nodded. “Fair enough. Let’s go.”
The nature of the freeways meant Kiran had to drive to Alpena then turn around and go south, weaving through the city itself to reach the southern part of Thunder Bay. It was approaching lunchtime by the time they arrived, and for the second time that day he found himself questioning the timing of his trip. How was he going to get Jim out of his car and to the shore during the peak of the day? He couldn’t win no matter what — either his neighbors would have seen him loading Jim up in the middle of the afternoon, or tourists were going to see him unloading Jim into the lake. He couldn’t see a better solution.
“Are you having trouble?” Jim asked.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get you into the lake,” Kiran replied, his voice soft. “I’m so sorry. I brought you all the way up here just to have to give up.”
“You don’t have to give up,” Jim said. “We’ll find a way. I’m sure, if you get close enough to the lake, that I can sneak down to the shore.”
Kiran let his head fall back against the headrest as he sighed. “I can’t get the car close enough to the shore right now. I’m sorry.”
They sat there in silence, the car parked in a back corner of a parking lot bordering the lake. Behind him, he could hear Jim fidgeting with something, then the sound of water — he must have been using the sponge to keep his skin from growing too dry.
Finally, Jim presented an idea. “Why don’t we just wait until nightfall?”
It wasn’t an unreasonable plan; Kiran was only about twenty minutes away from his cabin and he could sleep there tonight after letting Jim go, then head back to Novi in the morning. “I’m not sure… We’ll have to sit here in the car all day. Won’t that be suspicious?”
“Only if you make it suspicious, right?” Jim leaned forward and drummed his fingers against the side of the front passenger seat. “Maybe we’ll have to spend a lot of time here, yes, but we could definitely leave for a while, right?”
“Where would we go?”
“You’ll need to eat. Leave me in the car. Maybe… give me something to cover up with.”
Kiran frowned. “I don’t know about this.”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“Well, no, but–”
Jim planted a hand on Kiran’s shoulder. “No, don’t give me any excuses. This is the only way it’ll work. We can’t delay this any more, Kiran. I need to get back down there to establish myself again, and you need to have your life back.”
Kiran sighed, then nodded. “All right, fine. Fine. I do need lunch. Let’s go find me a place to eat. There’s a blanket folded up under the passenger seat. You can hide under it, and I’ll leave the windows open a little so you don’t overheat.” He shook his head. “God, I’m treating you like a dog.”
“I don’t think you really have any other choice,” Jim said as Kiran started the car again.
Kiran must have asked Jim a thousand times if he was sure he’d be fine, and even while he was in the restaurant he kept glancing out the window at his car. Nobody lingered too long, and it turned out that all of his stress was for nothing; Jim was still safe and sound on the back seat when Kiran got back out to him. He didn’t drive back to the lake, not right away. He didn’t want to burn all of his gas, but he couldn’t risk lingering in one spot for too long, so he drove to a few different tourist traps and just sat in the parking lots.
While they waited at the various locations, he and Jim discussed the plan for establishing his support for taking back his rightful place there among the other Mer. Kiran didn’t understand the politics, and he wasn’t sure any of the suggestions he’d given would help; however, he got the feeling that Jim just needed to talk through it and he was more than happy to be a sounding board.
Again Kiran stared out the window while he ate his dinner, watching his car closely in case anyone decided to get too curious about its contents. He felt like he couldn’t get back out there fast enough, and once he did they drove back over to that parking lot by the lake.
Now all they had to do was wait for the sun to set.
It was fully dark when Kiran startled awake. It took a minute to get his bearings again, since he woke up in a car, in the dark, in a completely unfamiliar area of northern Michigan. Once he’d pieced everything together again, he glanced down at his phone for the time: two in the morning.
“Hey,” he said, turning around to bat at Jim’s tail behind him. “Hey, wake up.”
Jim groaned, then his eyes snapped open and he sat up straight. “How long did we sleep?”
“Probably about six hours,” Kiran said as he scrubbed a hand down his face. “Come on. I don’t know how we managed to get away with sleeping that long, but we have to get moving.”
The parking lot was empty, aside from them, and that definitely soothed Kiran’s frayed nerves. He started the car again and pulled forward, positioning the car as close to the lake as he could. After he climbed out of the car he leaned against the door and took a deep breath, in hopes that the lake air would calm him further. He had just begun to slow his heart rate when Jim knocked on the window behind him, causing him to jump and undoing all the work he’d just put in to calm down.
“Sorry,” Kiran vaguely heard Jim say through the glass.
He shook out his shoulders once more, took a final deep breath, and turned to open the car door and start the long process of sneaking Jim down to the lakeshore.
It was harder than he’d expected it to be, with the rough slope from the parking lot to the shore. Jim’s lack of legs made him not as maneuverable as Kiran was, and it definitely took a lot of work to move him without a major incident. There were a few close calls where Kiran tripped while supporting Jim, one resulting in a tumble where thankfully neither of them were injured, but at long last they made it to the edge of the lake.
“Thank you,” Jim said, turning his face up to Kiran. “I can’t thank you enough for… for all of this. I was such an incredible burden to you this week.”
Kiran knew Jim spoke the truth. It had been a terrible inconvenience to save Jim, house him for a week, and bring him back to the lake without anyone discovering Kiran’s secret. If he were to be completely honest with himself, he still wasn’t entirely sure why he’d even agreed to taking Jim home in the first place. He chewed his lip for a moment, then shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Listen, I… I want to see you again, Kiran. Someday.” Jim picked at a few particles of sand stuck to the smooth skin of his tail. “I’ll come up with a signal. Something that lets you know it’s me.”
“Maybe I should come up with one for you,” Kiran said. “Tie a handkerchief at the end of my dock or something. A way to signal you that I’m at the cabin.”
Jim laughed, but the sound wasn’t as joyous as Kiran would have hoped. “I won’t be able to come up to your cabin, you know.”
Kiran nodded, then shrugged. “Right, but if you know I’m already up at the cabin, your signal won’t go unnoticed.”
“True…” Jim pulled his hair forward over his shoulder, raking his hands through it. It made Kiran sad watching him do it, knowing that this was likely the last time he’d get to enjoy those waves. Even if Jim kept his word — and Kiran wasn’t even positive he would since they were completely incompatible creatures — he’d have to stay in the lake, like he said. As he spoke again, Jim began to braid his hair, deft fingers flying through the motions. “Perhaps I could adorn the handkerchief with something. I’d find things in the lake, there’s plenty of items that have ended up in there from humans cluttering up the place.”
“Maybe,” Kiran agreed as he shoved his hands into his pockets and stared out over the lake. The moon was out, and the light cast an eerie glow over the water. It was such a surreal experience, and much like the first time he’d spoken to Jim on the shores of Lake Huron he had the uneasy feeling that he was dreaming the entire thing.
“I’d like to kiss you one more time,” Jim whispered.
“I’d like that too,” Kiran said, his voice barely even giving up the sound.
He bent to kiss Jim, and somehow this one kiss had more emotion buried in it than Kiran could have put words to even if he’d wanted to try. Jim thrust his hands up into Kiran’s hair, pressing his fingers against Kiran’s scalp as he slanted his mouth against Kiran’s. Kiran gripped Jim’s shoulders, not only as a way to touch him again but also as a way to keep his balance, bent precariously over on the sand as he was.
After a few long minutes when his legs started to shake, Jim pulled him down to his knees and he practically sobbed against Jim’s mouth from the combined relief of being closer and better-balanced. In the end he wasn’t sure how long he knelt there in the sand kissing him, but finally Kiran needed to break away just to catch his breath. They pressed their foreheads together then, each embracing the other, and Kiran felt his face pull into a hard grimace.
“Don’t forget about me,” he whispered, his voice thick.
“As long as you swear you won’t either,” Jim whispered back.
Kiran nodded, as that was all he could muster, then pressed one last kiss against Jim’s lips. “Go,” he managed.
Jim traced a hand along Kiran’s jaw, then drew a shaking breath and turned to climb down to the lake and swim away.
Kiran watched him until he couldn’t even see the ripples on the surface of the water anymore, then scrubbed his hands over his cheeks to dry them. With a shuddering breath he pulled himself to standing, dusted off his knees, and started the trek back to his car. With that nap he accidentally took earlier he wouldn’t even need to stop at the cabin, so it would be a simple matter of getting back to the 75 to drive back south toward Novi again.
His hands shook as he unlocked his front door on Sunday morning, and when he got to his bedroom he drew the drapes against the rising sun and crawled into bed.
It had been a long day of productive catch-and-release. Kiran stood up to stretch, then began the process of reeling in his lure. It had been a nearly a year since the week with Jim, and despite setting out a handkerchief at the end of the dock every weekend he’d come up, he still hadn’t seen or heard from him. It was enough to continue to make him question whether or not he hadn’t in actuality imagined the entire thing. It was surely fantastic enough to be the work of fiction.
It was too easy to reel the line in, Kiran realized, and once he neared the end he realized why: the lure was missing. He hadn’t had any bites all day, so he had no idea where the lure could have possibly gone. He cursed under his breath, then started to gather up the chair and his pole. After he put those away, he decided, he’d come back to pull the handkerchief in for the night. It had been distressing when a strong gust of wind blew it away overnight once, so he took it down each Saturday night and put it back up each Sunday morning.
When he got back to the dock and snuck underneath to retrieve the handkerchief, his breath caught in his throat. Hanging from the bottom corner was the lure he’d lost that day. Of course, since the lure was here it hadn’t ever been lost. He turned to glance over his shoulder, and broke into a wide grin when he looked down in the water to see that familiar gray face floating there.
“There you are!” Kiran said, overwhelmed with emotion. Relief, joy, a touch of frustration at how long it had been with no word… Kiran let each of them wash over him in turn. He scrubbed at his cheeks, then grinned.
Jim broke the surface and smiled at Kiran in return, his own abundance of emotion clearly visible on his face. “I am so sorry for making you wait. I always saw the handkerchief, but it was never the right time.”
Kiran pulled down the handkerchief and pushed it into his back pocket, then settled himself down on the shore under the dock. His pants grew wet from the lake, but he didn’t care. He had extra pairs in the cabin. Talking to Jim was more important. “What made this the right time, then?”
“Do you remember why I had to run away?” Jim said, leaning on his arms, his body stretched out just at the edge of the lake. His tail sat in the water, but his upper body was close enough for Kiran to touch.
So Kiran took advantage of that, reaching out to stroke a hand over Jim’s cheek. “Yes, I remember. You said that a group was trying to kill you so you couldn’t take over the throne.”
Jim nodded, a soft, sad smile on his face. “I spent several months discrediting them and my uncle. Unfortunately my father passed before he could see the true scope of what they’d wrought, but I am the rightful ruler now.” He closed his eyes and leaned into Kiran’s touch, his smile fading.
“Wow.” Kiran raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I’m sorry to hear about your father, though.”
“It was his time,” Jim whispered. “He isn’t suffering anymore.”
Kiran fell silent, his thumb still tracing along Jim’s cheekbone. Now that he finally had him again he couldn’t even find the words to talk with him about anything, even though with almost a full year gone by there was a lot to catch up on.
“So, then…” Jim said after a while, “How have you been doing?”
Kiran laughed, then leaned forward to kiss him. Jim tasted better than he’d remembered, possibly because now he’d been living where he was meant to be, eating the foods he was used to again, instead of sleeping in Kiran’s bathtub and eating canned tuna. He hoped that the kiss conveyed everything he couldn’t say.
Jim pulled Kiran closer and into the water with him, and they laid there in the shallows just enjoying each other’s company until Kiran finally found the words to break his silence. “I missed you.”
“I did, too,” Jim said. “I know I kept you waiting for a very long time, but I’m glad you waited for me.”
Kiran smiled, then shook his head. “My heart wouldn’t let me try to move on from this. I waited because I couldn’t have done anything but wait.”
The small smile on Jim’s face broke into a wide grin, and he kissed Kiran again. He was glad it was a Saturday, Kiran decided, because he knew they’d be out there in the shallows for a long time.