written and illustrated by staringatsuns
He should have been dead.
Tracking down a ship with a wealthy nobleman aboard and luring the poor fool overboard – any merperson was capable of it and Theo was certainly no exception. Land-dwellers would mourn, but no one questioned it if a young man was lured overboard and showed up on the beaches afterward. Most often they were found dead, but sometimes, when the humans deemed their terrifying ocean merciful, they were discovered wandering the sands alive, if never quite the same for their encounter.
Either way, Theo would really prefer this stupid young noble dead.
Theo’s hand closed around a hefty water-worn stone, the edges digging into the thin membranes between his fingers, sand grating against skin more used to picking up sensitive water currents than dragging coils over rocky shores in the morning sun. He could salvage this (as if Theo had ever let himself doubt that he could); a well-aimed swing was all it would take, and once he took what he needed for his spell, all that remained would be to properly leave the body to sink for good below the waves and take his rightfully-stolen place right in the middle of human affairs, which was so much subtler than summoning tempests to sink merchant ships…
The body below him coughed, so suddenly and shockingly reminding Theo that it wasn’t dead that the merman dropped the rock he’d intended to use as a weapon. It thudded heavy against the human’s chest, making him cough again. His eyes flashed open (brilliant brown and warm against the bluish pallor of sea-chilled skin, Theo couldn’t help but notice) and fell shut, but the stuttered, weak rise and fall of the human’s chest did nothing to dispel the impression of death.
He had to do it now or he’d never have a better chance. Already, that stupid, half-drowned human was starting to wake, choking and groaning into the sand as he struggled to sit up on shaky limbs. Immediately, Theo felt the release of illusory magic flow over him, as comforting as slipping into water. By the time his would-be victim turned to him with a mostly dry set of lungs, the cloaking spell had already done its work. To the human’s eyes, he looked like any other man now.
It was painfully simple magic, born out of instinct instead of skill, but it was suffocating, like a too-tight skin. In any other situation, Theo would later berate himself; the work was positively shoddy by his own standards, but it would stand for the present time, and he wasn’t the least bit worried of being found out no matter how hard the human tried to focus on him. Magic was what he was drawn to, what he clung to when the pressure bore down on him. It suited him far more than the barbarity of smashing heads in with rocks.
“You–” The human coughed as he floundered, spitting seawater all over the front of his once-fine shirt.
Theo took his chance to settle a light hand on the human’s back, flashing a very normal smile full of very blunt human teeth, nothing at all like the fish-hunting fangs he was used to, his expression the perfectly calculated amounts of just pleased enough and relief. It came to him as easy as his magic when he finally spoke: “Take your time. I found you in the shallows. You’re quite lucky.”
The human blinked at him, his head tilted like a seal’s. Perhaps he was trying to study him, or attempting to put a place to Theo’s strange accent. After a minute (every second of which Theo wondered a little more desperately if it was too late to grab another rock), he sat back against Theo’s hand. He made an absent grab at the sand and pebbles, letting them run through his fingers in the sort of way that, Theo assumed, was attributed to the human inability to grasp the fact he was, in fact, on dry land.
“I- I guess I am,” he croaked out, with the sort of smile no near-drowning victim should ever wear.
His name was James or, to be more accurate to what had to have been the tenth time Theo had heard it, “Jimmy” to those close to him. The fact that the young human was naive enough to automatically assume that anyone had honestly rescued him instead of coming to any of the roundabout conclusions Theo would have jumped to if he had been in the same situation (that whoever had found him was either trying to loot him, clean his body off the sands, or, much more accurately, conspiring to kill him) was almost charming. Naive as this Jimmy was, though, Theo hadn’t found in himself the mental fortitude to leave the human to wander the coast back to his home alone.
Most of that had to do with the family crest he’d first seen stamped on the inside leather of Jimmy’s pocket compass. And the metal crest emblazoned on the metal buckles of his boots. And of course on the signet ring strung under his shirt from a gold chain around his neck.
When a member of the wealthy and highly enterprising Campbell family offered a reward and honor-bound debt for saving his life, you didn’t turn it down. In Theo’s opinion, it was only fair payment for all that time he’d spent luring Jimmy overboard in the first place: a perfect excuse to scope out the family and court and gain some profit before quickly relieving Jimmy of the role altogether.
What else could he do? Lord knew this trusting, bright-eyed, and sunny-blond human wouldn’t even know what to do with the Campbell estate once he inherited it.
“They’ll be thrilled enough, the whole ink-stained brown-nosing lot of them, if they can look up from their treaties or whatever for as long as it’ll take…oh? Theo?”
It wasn’t his name, but rather the distinct lack of prattling on in that dark cabin that snapped Theo from his mental accounting. The past several days of traveling had been by foot and in the back of one generous farmer’s hay cart, all the while accompanied by Jimmy’s constant attempts to strike up a sort of camaraderie, which Theo found so utterly human but entertained nonetheless, doing his best to make his roundabout small talk seem more like fisherman villager shyness than what it really was. As soon as they’d reached a town and discovered that it was home to a stop on the newly completed train line, however, Jimmy had excitedly flashed his family crest in order to earn them free passage on the crowded overnight train. The conductor had even made sure there was a private bunk to spare for the Campbell son.
One too-small single bunk. That Jimmy had insisted they share.
“Hrm?” Theo shifted the few centimeters he could further away.
“You haven’t said a word for hours.”
It was only dedication to the role that kept Theo from scoffing outright. What a thrill, to know the charms of comfortable silence were completely unknown to his traveling companion.
“Ah. That,” he falsely pondered. “Well, there hasn’t been very much to say.”
Normally, someone would take it as opportunity to end the conversation there, but no, not Jimmy. If anything, he looked affronted that Theo wasn’t talking his ear off.
“Not much to say? Theo, you– I– Look. You found me, rescued me. We’re riding the newest train line for the main city. That’s something!”
The noise Theo made was mostly noncommittal. It was something, all right. Something utterly too hot and dry for his liking, and he was pretty certain that the shining example of the kingdom’s technological advancement, bought and engineered thanks to the Campbell family’s iron mines, currently hosted bugs in its seats. That would explain his discomfort, besides the last-ditch glamour he’d magically held in place despite almost being at his wits’ end. What he wouldn’t give for a dip in the waves, or even a piddling little tidal pool.
“Ah, it is… something,” he said, meaning, if Jimmy’s connections hadn’t gotten them a free ride, it was something he would have been happy to avoid entirely.
Jimmy picked up on Theo’s disinterest and, brow furrowed, decided to prod the hornet’s nest a little harder. “No offense, I just thought it’d come as more of a surprise.”
“In its own way,” Theo carefully replied, in the sort of tone that suggested the surprise was all Jimmy’s.
Behind Theo’s back, the young man stifled a frown. “All right then. What about you? We’ve been traveling together for days now and I hardly know more than your name.”
“There really isn’t much to say.”
“Now, that can’t possibly be true.”
Theo rolled onto his side to glance over his shoulder at Jimmy, who was looking surprisingly unimpressed. “We don’t all live such exciting lives as you do,” Theo said, softening the blow with a smile he hoped came off as sincere and self-depreciating.
“Your family?” Jimmy pressed, making it clear he wasn’t going to back down, as unfortunate as Theo might have found the prospect.
“They… aren’t in the picture, so to say.” In short: an ocean away, completely unaware of the name Theo had made for himself, which was just as well; his mother would only fret herself to death.
“…Oh. Well. Your home?”
“…Your work, then?” Jimmy finally settled. The dim lighting caught the way Theo’s eyebrows arched and Jimmy could practically hear it already: Really? You want to ask that? You know what work is?
When Theo didn’t answer that last one, Jimmy lapsed into beautiful, blessed silence that Theo would have been willing to soak in, if only it hadn’t been for that infernal endless shifting and fidgeting in such tight quarters.
The alternative wasn’t much better, as he found out when he eventually woke hours later. Apparently when Jimmy stopped flailing around in bed, it only meant he’d wound himself around whoever or whatever happened to be unfortunate enough to share the space with him. Theo was sure he’d seen octopi with looser deathtraps than the arm wrapped around his shoulders. Forget how Theo had found him on that beach; asleep on a bunk that was far more comfortable than a jostling hay cart, Jimmy well and truly was dead to the world.
Why, oh why, Theo bemoaned to himself, hadn’t he just cracked that rock down when he’d had the chance? For a minute he pondered carrying out the deed just as well with the scratchy travel pillow pressed over the human’s face – he could already picture it now, tossing the body off the side of the tracks and descending the platform alone in Jimmy’s skin – but begrudgingly shoved it aside when he took into account the finer details of how to secure the privacy needed to carry out the magic properly.
The only things working in Jimmy’s favor was that when compared to an actual octopus, Jimmy wasn’t disgustingly cold and clammy – quite the opposite, which of course Theo felt fit to blame for his own oversleeping – and the man’s arms were lacking in skin-tearing suckers.
But that was about it.
The Campbell family had a long and carefully recorded history, filled with generations of nobility with impressive titles and land marrying other nobility with impressive titles and land, all of it sitting atop one of the largest sources of iron ore in the kingdom.
To be frank, it showed.
Jimmy’s arrival had started a bureaucratic whirlwind and it wasn’t long before they were whisked to the gleaming manor house perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking lush gardens on one side and the city’s main port and coast guard headquarters on the other. As Jimmy had explained it, his father had never been fond of the country manor of his grandparents, which served as a decent enough summer home, and so the family had stayed. They were led through stately hallways and past tasteful antiques that Jimmy didn’t blink at and sent Theo into a fit of mental accounting yet again.
When their guide paused outside one of a heavy wooden doors on the first floor, Jimmy charged right on ahead without a second thought, pausing only when the family servant rested a hand on Theo’s chest, cutting the entourage short with a none-too-polite: “If you don’t mind, sir, no further.”
“Now wait a minute, here!” Jimmy turned on his heel at the family servant, his fingers still reluctant to part from the heavy brass doorknob, because just why should his company be questioned in his own home? “He’s a guest!”
The servant leveled the sort of look at the young Campbell that told despite his years of utterly faithful service, some things did, in fact, go higher than family name. “No disrespect, sir, but I believe that the matter at hand is far more pressing.”
“What matter? It’s nothing that can’t–”
“The matter of the last news anyone heard of you was your falling overboard during a storm, sir.” The servant cleared his throat with a sound that very much resembled choking at the look Jimmy gave him, in hopes that Jimmy would realize just how recently everyone had thought him dead.
Apparently the implications of an inheriting son of a noble family’s washing overboard at sea didn’t seem to impress Jimmy all that much, because he was already straightening his shoulders the same way he had when an inn clerk had dared to tell Jimmy to either take whatever hay bale they could get in the stable, or he knew just where Jimmy could stuff his proper manners and personal tabs and his family crest. Back then, Theo had let Jimmy run his course in the interest of studying what made Jimmy tick; now he stepped back from the door and the hand on his chest of his own accord, just in time to cut Jimmy short of trying to argue again.
“It won’t be any trouble.” Again came that smile, the one he had spent the past few days traveling with Jimmy perfecting into the right blend of humility and patience, “Take care of what you need to. ”
Jimmy wasn’t happy when he finally turned and marched into the room to meet his family, and the hallway seemed awful quiet for the loss, but Theo didn’t waste a second thought on it. The manservant looked away to his post with a barely-contained sniff and Theo did the same. He was really more interested in taking his time to better admire the wide wooden hallways that reflected sunlight, the brass and crystal chandeliers overhead that attempted to recall fishermen’s nets, the oil portraits of Campbells past (boring) hung in gilded frames, the salvaged figurehead (even for humans, vulgar) and curated globe and astrolabe (nothing too special, he had anonymously sold off dozens within his first few shipwrecks, and nearly half a dozen more littered his cave); he did it all with that humble wide-eyed look on his face, looking too humanly and stupidly awestruck to possibly be judging the taste of the Campbell estate.
It was annoying mental work that was interrupted by the rising tones of a discussion through the wall (undoubtedly Jimmy), and even more annoying to pretend he was as oblivious to it as the servant stationed outside the door. From the room adjacent, Theo heard Jimmy’s voice reach some sort of crescendo, some more muted muttering, and then hurried footsteps towards the door.
By the time the door swung open again with Jimmy all but hanging on the knob, his hair mussed from running a hand through it in frustration, Theo had timed his short pacing to slip right back into place, as if he’d never strayed.
Upon seeing that his guest hadn’t been shooed off, or even bothered by the wait, Jimmy visibly relaxed. He smiled a little in apology.
“Now that that’s all settled… Let’s get this taken care of like we meant to, right?”
Theo had been expecting an anteroom of sorts, nothing spectacular but at least professional and serviceable. Instead, the room he was admitted into looked like a library. Once one got past the hustle of various accountants and advisors busy at work keeping track of the iron mines’ and estate’s finances, it was easy to see the resemblance between Jimmy and the man behind the most ornate desk – that was, if there happened to be a walrus somewhere in Jimmy’s family line, to explain the mustache his father sported.
It was a little harder to see the similarities between Jimmy and the fashionably dressed young woman working at a desk next to his father. Not despite her shining and coiffed blonde locks, or the similar high cheekbones and fine-boned nose, but rather the way she stood straight and poised where Jimmy tended to slouch. Her eyes were the same warm shade of golden brown, though sharp as a hook as they swept over the pair of them and then again over Theo. For the first time, Theo wondered if maybe his spell would be enough to keep a human duped.
Jimmy leapt right into introductions, hands clasped behind his back and his words clipped at the ends like a properly-trained seaman, now that he was in front of his father and a room full of the same ink-stained paper-pushers he’d complained about on the train. “Father, Ellie– Eleanor. As I’d been saying, Theo here has been a help every step of the way. I doubt I would have made it to land alive without him. Or back home.”
Not entirely true. There was always the slim chance that Jimmy might have been washed ashore in one piece and face-up so he didn’t suffocate into the wet sand. Maybe even a few fishermen’s children from the ramshackle cabins dotting the coast could have found him in time to do more than poke Jimmy’s waterlogged corpse with a stick. What Theo doubted was the Campbell heir’s ability to make it a mile down the road without being robbed and left for dead, as trusting as he was, or running out of money.
There was also the niggling fact that James Campbell wouldn’t have been swept out to sea at all, if not for Theo. But, the merman reasoned, what the Campbells didn’t know couldn’t hurt them.
When Theo gave a look that flew from Jimmy (with his infuriatingly friendly nod back), up to the head of the estate and eventually to the sister – Eleanor – he wasn’t entirely faking his discomfort so much as giving it a slightly different face. He cleared his throat in a way that he hoped came across as feeling cornered and intimidated by the bourgeoisie as opposed to cornered by a young woman that looked like she’d taken it upon herself to ferret out dozens of those looking to play on her brother’s trusting nature.
“I like to think it isn’t so unusual to stop and help in that situation, Sir, Miss. In all honesty, Jimmy was more than generous. It was my pleasure.”
Eleanor smiled, radiantly even, but it didn’t seem to reach her eyes. Those were focused directly on Theo, and past that flawlessly political face he could get the general message: I bet it was your pleasure, on my brother’s tab and what else could you be looking for if you followed him all the way back home. Instead, she replied, “And I’m grateful you brought my brother back in one piece.”
“You give me too much credit. He takes care of himself, I was just traveling company.” Theo gave the faintest nod towards Jimmy, who cleared his throat and tipped his chin a touch higher towards his sister. Theo could have sworn he heard a faint chuckle hidden behind a cough from their father, which Ellie had to have picked up on as well, because the way she tilted her head back at her brother was actually stern. The Campbell siblings’ silent disagreement did nothing to stop Theo from (not-so-)innocently adding, “I hope I haven’t caused any problems.”
There was a terse few moments of quiet from the two, one where Eleanor seemed to converse just what she thought about the new guest in the most polite and diplomatic flit of eyelashes Theo had ever seen, which in turn was completely steamrolled by the way Jimmy unclasped one hand from behind his back to give Theo’s shoulder a friendly pat. “Ridiculous, of course you haven’t. In fact, before I introduced you proper, I cleared up my guest room for you to stay. For a while.”
Theo didn’t need to see Eleanor to understand that however long Jimmy thought ‘a while’ meant, it had better be short. Instead he ducked his head low with a hand over where his heart was supposed to be had he been human. “I can’t thank you enough.”
“You never need to. We’ll be happy to arrange for your travels home, as well, should the time come.”
If he had been anyone else – commoner, noble, diplomat, anything that wasn’t able to skirt around the rules with magic like he could –he had no doubt she would be the one to decide just when he’d be leaving as well.
Their leave from the study was quick, Jimmy walking two paces ahead with his chin held high and his back ramrod-straight in the sort of way that Theo wasn’t sure was a sailor’s training or pride. He supposed it didn’t matter, either, so long as it kept Jimmy moving – and, maybe more amazingly, it kept things quiet.
In fact the entire manor hall seemed quiet, and quieter still as Jimmy led him around a corner, deeper into the manor. It was a subtle change, not in the architecture but the decorating: the gilded frames and bright brass fixtures gave way to something a little more… not humble, but personal. Somewhere along the way, painted seascapes had given way to the odd taxidermied game bird posed under glass cloche, the curtains thrown wide to showcase the many large, paneled windows that opened up the manor to the horizon. Not slowing his pace, Jimmy started to lead Theo up another staircase, this one smaller and tidier
“So that,” Jimmy began, tearing Theo’s attention away from studying the narrow yards that separated the manor from the edge of the cliff. It wasn’t as if that high chin or squared shoulders had changed since leaving the main wing of the manor, but there was uneasiness in the air that Theo picked up on like blood in the water.
“It’s fine.” In any other situation he’d be pouncing on Jimmy’s perceived weaknesses. He was an opportunist at heart but he wasn’t stupid: stuck in a shoddy glamour with too-small skin, over a week since he’d truly been in any body of water at all, in the middle of a dry summer no less.
“But,” Jimmy turned then, all wide brown eyes filled with the sort of sincerity that had Theo mentally squirming at how the human man was looking to be taken advantage of. “Ellie’s always been a bit stuffy, you see. She means well.”
Stuffy wasn’t how Theo would put it. More like devastatingly attentive.
“And we’ve had a long trip. Anything you need, at all–”
“A bath.” It slipped out harsher than Theo had intended. He paused, meeting Jimmy with wide eyes of his own before clearing his throat and averting his look, careful to reel himself back in. Sinking ships was far less messy, he was starting to realize, but he would not ruin this before it had really begun. “Someplace to take a bath with some room would be more than generous.”
Campbell bounced back quick enough. “Everything in my quarters is yours. Granted, I understand if you don’t want to use my en-suite or the guest shower, but… I think I might be able to find you a suitable replacement.”
Jimmy’s idea of a suitable replacement meant being lead on a trip through the manor’s tiny side stair for servants, then further still until the polished hardwood floors had shifted to more modest stone that echoed underfoot and where even the house help were scarce. It was a thick wooden door in a quiet, tucked-away place, obviously forgotten due to being labeled dated in the midst of renovations from years before. Theo slipped into his standby patient hint of a smile whenever Jimmy looked back at him, although it stuck at him worse than his last-minute human glamour had since their meeting on the beach.
The faint smell of salt wafted out from the cracks around the hinges, and underneath the overpowering smell of something molding on the immediate other side of the door, Theo was certain he smelled it: ocean, a pathway to the outside. There were no stagnant basement-tidal pools for the Campbells, no.
“The old ocean pool,” Jimmy offered him, with a faint knock at the oak door with the back of one knuckle. “But it’s just that, you know. There is gas, but no heating, or plumbing–”
“Ah, just like home then.” He watched Jimmy’s turning the sticking handle with rapt attention, the fact he was so close to the only real relief he’d come across in ages staring right back at him on the other side of that door making him antsy, and could only hope Jimmy didn’t notice the way he was ready to crawl out of his own skin. (Whether Jimmy did or not wasn’t entirely clear, but the human returned the feeling with a smile much too alike the one from the beach a week ago. At least someone was convinced they did something right.) There was the promise of sending someone down to lead Theo to his guest bedroom when he was done, and then Theo was left on the other side of the door with only the flickering gas lamp at the top of the stair for light.
Theo just stood there for the longest time: eyes shut, he breathed in a deep lungful of moist, briny air and held it before allowing himself to breathe back out. A second breath and then a third, as Jimmy’s footsteps faded away on the other side of the door. Once he was certain he was finally alone, he moved.
The soft noise of water lapping against stone drew him down the steps, enough of a call to him that he left the light fixtures untouched as he descended. The taste of ocean sat heavy on his tongue. He licked the moisture from his lips and swallowed, and shivered under the confines of his own magic. When he opened his eyes again at the foot of the stairs it was to utter blackness of underwater caves and deep water.
Just like home, indeed.
Theo barely spared the moment to hang the jacket (donated in the Campbell name during a colder night on their trip) on another of the unlit gas lamp fixtures bolted to the plastered walls; it was only with the most severe self-control that he padded over to the stairwell leading into the pool instead of rushing to relieve himself of his straightjacket of a disguise. But days-old and thrown up in a panic to begin with, the glamour gave no resistance the very instant it met the seawater.
It fell apart at the surface in little holes and tears of fresh relief, sloughing off in layers until the legs he’d walked miles on for all of his trouble merged back to his long eel’s tail that whipped in the shallow water of the steps and tipped into the deep end. Needle fangs pressed against the backs of his lips again. He couldn’t help indulging in his lazy lap around the bath, then came to drift just below the surface of the water to appreciate the sound of a weak current in his ears and how the water passing through his gills carried with it every taste and smell around him.
“Swear on my life, never putting myself through that again,” he started to himself, before breaking it off in a frustrated hiss and snap of teeth. Because he would have to get back up again, would have to magic himself up another pair of legs and breathe dry air in through lungs.
And then he’d have to go back to mingle with the same human that had so inconveniently failed to drown the first time around. Not doing so would mean giving up on the Campbell heir and his inheritance, and Theo had already put in far more energy into all of this to sign everything off without anything to show for it. He took a certain pride in his work.
The tide had gone out again by the time Theo dragged himself out of the water. This time when he climbed the steps and shut the heavy door behind him, he did so with senses that hadn’t needed the added lamp light… only to come face-to-face with a manservant that had been sent down with a change of clothing and now puttered about in confusion at the clean outfit Theo had seemed to pull from thin air (quite literally so, or the illusion of it). A no-nonsense look paired with the mention of returning Jimmy’s jacket had the manservant jumping to attention to lead Theo back – taking the longer route up the main staircases, he couldn’t help noticing – and Theo followed silently until the décor had once again shifted to the taxidermy Jimmy had lead him past.
“–We’ve set aside is satisfactory. Dinner is being served in an hour, but I’m afraid the young sir has said he wasn’t attending on account of retiring for the night,” the manservant went on, with the sort of nervousness that had bored Theo into ignoring him in the first place. Until that last bit.
“Really.” He stood by, polite as ever, as the manservant came to a stop by one of the paneled doors and rattled a key in the lock. “I don’t suppose you could tell me what room he is, ah, retiring to?”
“I don’t–” A wary look up at him had Theo giving the jacket draped on his arm a little wave. The result was an immediate dropping of the guest room key into Theo’s outstretched palm. “His private rooms are around the corner and the first door on the left.”
Theo gave the manservant a smile that, in retrospect, came across as a little too alien. “Much obliged.”
He hadn’t needed to ask. Dulled as his senses still were while under his re-woven disguise, he sniffed out and made for Jimmy, moving with a new fluidity through the halls. It was nothing like cutting through water, of course, but he’d take it any day over the strangling shell he’d arrived in.
The first knock went unanswered, and so did the second, until Theo very quietly called out, “Jimmy?”
He would have figured for the door to maybe crack open, or some sort of half-asleep mumbling back; the door’s swinging wide to Jimmy with his hair still damp from the showers and sticking up every which way, the collar of his nightshirt sticking to his skin, wasn’t exactly what Theo expected. The thought of composing himself a little better barely crossed his mind before Jimmy interrupted.
“Dinner’s downstairs, if you’re looking for it. I’m sure you got the invitation.”
“Thank you, but I don’t think it quite fits me. Maybe in time.” He trailed off with a subtle shrug. “It’s all very different, I’ve noticed, isn’t it? Isolating and smothering all at once,” Theo clarified when Jimmy cocked his head a little.
Not entirely to his surprise, the Campbell heir cracked a grin right back at him. It was the cast of Jimmy’s gaze, however, the crinkle at the corner of his eyes, which had Theo pausing once again.
Jimmy stood back, revealing the warm-lit sitting area complete with comfortable chairs and shelves of books whose spines looked unashamedly political (and therefore, unashamedly unread), and Theo could have sworn he saw Jimmy’s energy surge back right before his eyes. “Come in. I’ll see what they can sneak us up from the kitchens.”
Three days. Three days he’d been a guest of the Campbell estate, and treated to all of the privileges it entailed, all because he had taken a favored spot in the Campbell son’s shadow.
Two nights of carefully acted-out family dinners that left him with the most intimate knowledge of the many ways a proper lady like Eleanor could silently hint ‘I’m on to you’ while her brother tried to sneak in whatever joke he could. Three days of accompanying Jimmy as he found anything he could do to avoid the nexus of accountants and clerks (ink-stained busybodies, and pushy at that, as Jimmy had complained so many times), where the fine-tuned mechanics of the manor’s treasury ticked. None of it brought Theo any closer to them than he’d been upon first taking step inside the estate
Worse, Jimmy was good at avoiding the actual work of making sure the cogs of his estate kept turning. More than once, Theo considered leaving Jimmy to maintaining his channel pilot cutter moored at the family’s small private dock. Somehow that never seemed to happen. It did mean that on the evening of the third day, when Jimmy had looked up from fine-tuning the boat’s tiller to suggest that they go inside and drag Eleanor away for a smaller supper in the sunroom instead of another long night at the formal dining table, Theo was almost eager. Let Eleanor throw the eye of suspicion on him; at least he’d have snuck his (illusionary) foot in the door of where he intended to be in the first place.
Convincing Eleanor away was another story. Theo had hidden himself in plain sight at the edge of the office’s activity, finding it enough good reason to again crack open the book he had borrowed from Jimmy’s shelves. Why it had sat untouched by Jimmy wasn’t much of a mystery.
Nose in a book, however, and he was ignored by everyone, distant enough on a window seat for conversations to rise loud enough for him to hear, text swimming on the page in a way that made attempting to actually read a chore that ached through his eyes to his head. No risk of distraction there, so long as he didn’t count Jimmy sitting close enough to brush shoulders and radiating heat at Theo’s back.
Theo had already filtered out the siblings’ familiar pattern with each other. All he had to do was nod and trade looks and turn the half-read pages accordingly.
It worked marvelously, until the moment Theo realized the weight at his side had shifted completely. The huff at breath at his ear was an unnecessary hint; Theo felt the pulse in Jimmy’s neck hovering by his ear more than saw him. He glanced over anyways, his surprise not entirely an act when he caught Jimmy studying how he was reading.
“Wh–” But Jimmy only made a quiet ‘huh’ sound in reply before he was up on his feet, making a beeline through the desks. There was the sound of papers fluttering in his wake.
“Campbell, young master, I really must–”
“Just a few minutes, Locrine!”
“But–” More fluttering, the scrape and shut of a desk drawer.
“Just a few minutes. Relax, you’ll get these back.”
How could Theo have expected Jimmy to return with a present to toss in Theo’s lap? Theo grabbed and fumbled it, then found his grip on the frames and slowly unfolded the wire earpieces. His thumb brushed over the glass circle lenses, and he looked back up.
The look he gave was apparently worse than any squint from before, and it made Jimmy laugh behind a mock cough. “Don’t worry, Theo. They’re reading glasses; I’m not ruining the man’s life. Now.” A grin. “Try them before you make yourself blind.”
“I–” he narrowed his eyes in study of the lenses, distantly catching patches of text that seemed to turn instantly clear in the glass, before slowly slipping them on.
It was phenomenal. Better than he’d ever seen, and the pressure behind his eyes from before was gone. The words didn’t run and blur together. He could even catch the sharp edge of the horizon out the window and clearly make out Jimmy’s features despite the shadows the window paneling cast on him.
His expression must have said it all. Jimmy broke out in an actual laugh that even Eleanor’s raised eyebrows and sigh couldn’t temper. “I thought so. You looked like everything was in fine print. …Although if those help, maybe you really are blind.”
“Wait here, but wha–”
“Thank me later,” he said, right before calling out towards the put-upon clerk he’d pilfered his ‘gift’ from. “Yes, Locrine, you’ll get them back. Yes, today. Now see here–” Jimmy gave a snort at his own pun. “Tonight, by tonight.”
He dropped right back into his spot at Theo’s shoulder, back to convincing Eleanor away from her work, something that was only managed when there was a promise in place to return Locrine’s glasses back to him as soon as she stepped away from her desk.
There was a pair of frames, all clean and shining tortoiseshell and gold, on the windowsill by the guest room bed by the time Theo came back from his nightly trip to the baths.
Theo had already slipped away from his room late in the morning of the fourth day when he felt the tap of a hand on his shoulder. He whipped his head around, mentally cursing out his dulled senses and humans in general, leaving him looking the wrong way when Jimmy’s hand had already started to trail across his shoulders.
“My father’s calling, needs some extra hands on deck in the office before everyone loses their minds over there,” Jimmy continued from over Theo’s other shoulder. The expression that Jimmy shot him looked grim and forced into place. “Don’t leave me to suffer it alone.”
Theo paused, his mind filtering the best response, and when it came he brought the corners of his lips up in the faintest hint of a smile he could, teasing without any malice or ill will. His own hand came up to discreetly try to shoo Jimmy’s hand off of him under guise of a comforting pat. “That’s the last thing I would do.”
“Good man.” Jimmy’s hand dug in and gave Theo’s shoulder a friendly shake that carried through his whole body, and Jimmy was off – but not before waving after him as if he expected Theo to fall into line behind him like one of his fellow sailors.
Once Theo took a breath and succeeded in keeping his bristling at the arrogance below the surface where it belonged, that was exactly what he did.
If the offices had been a hotbed of activity before, now it was in panic mode. There was hardly a moment to spare to peer at the disarray of paperwork or menagerie of panicky staff. The one cursory look Theo managed to try to make sense of the room, one of the clerks nearly elbowed him in the head, trying to pass by. A move Jimmy ducked aside effortlessly and had Theo hating his lack of grace on land once again.
“Father, you call– Ah! Ellie!” Jimmy’s smile slipped as Eleanor closed in on them both. Compared to her steely eyes, Jimmy’s was the look of prey uncertain to bolt. “Come on, what’s that look for?”
She descended upon them, a hand with deceptively manicured nails digging ever-so-lady-like at each of their elbows and guiding Jimmy and Theo into a pocket of almost-calm in the clamor. “Don’t distract him. I brought you down here.”
“What?! Oh, no, no, this is what you like doing, Ellie. Not me.”
Theo could almost empathize with the sharp look Eleanor shot her brother; Lord knew if it wasn’t because his current situation required him to play nice, he would have found a use for it several times a day.
“We’re being audited, Jimmy. The mines, our investments in the rail, the house, everything.”
Jimmy got the tone but obviously not the message. Faced with silence from her brother, Eleanor leaned in, her eyes gone dark in how serious she was. “We’ve gotten a private letter from one of the Capitol’s auditors that they’re coming to turn over every stone–”
“Because they think you’ve been committing fraud,” Theo finished, dropping the look of surprise for something a little more resigned.
The word fraud snapped Jimmy out of his distaste of all things financial, the change immediate: stiff shoulders, stiffer jaw, and a mood that reflected in the dark shadows near his eyes. “Nonsense! What bull is that, that they think we’re hiding?”
“More like stealing, actually,” Theo slipped in, the comment made with the full expectation of ruffling those golden feathers of Jimmy’s.
Eleanor’s hand on her brother’s arm had him cutting himself off with a bitter huff, and Theo managed to look honest in his concern when the Campbell siblings’ eyes passed over him.
“It’s time, that’s the issue,” Eleanor spoke, calm and all business all at once. “Normally we’d have weeks to prepare, it takes that long to travel.”
Oh, Theo knew. And most of it spent curled in cramped quarters with his rescuee.
“But now we have a few days. They’re taking a new train in. So you, Jimmy,” Eleanor leaned in, taking her brother’s hands in hers, looking for all the world a distressed maiden caught in a tower of tax code and financial loopholes. “You need to be around, by father’s side. For moral support.”
Jimmy came to a slow nod and, while he would never be fooled into thinking his sister was helpless, returned her hold with a gentle squeeze of his own. And then the tender moment was gone, the void of it filled with bravado. “I think I can do more than moral support.”
Not more than a day in, and it became readily apparent that moral support was, in fact, the only thing Jimmy had going for him when sat in a group of accountants and tax lawyers trying to explain to him what Eleanor did every day. But he was a stellar motivator (Theo was motivated to keep quiet and look sufficiently busy with a book), excellent at keeping up spirits and earning an easy laugh from the tense workers that clustered in the room.
Theo did his part staying to the side and watching, always watching, with the same feigned look of captured wonder he had been so careful with the first day he’d been forced to wait in the hall. He faded at Jimmy’s elbow with wide, dark eyes – any one of the staff wouldn’t have thought twice to label it star-struck, and more than a few had shared smirks about the enraptured wayward boy the young master Campbell had brought with him to the city.
It was harmless enough that it passed over Jimmy’s head when he was so absorbed in the thick stack of transportation tax policy opened to Section Tb.0131 in front of him right now.
“Let me tell you, the rail’s changed everything,” one of the accountants started, pointed finger following the bill’s lines of text a little too excitably, right before he turned Theo’s way. “Imagine your hometown out there – well, I bet you’ve never seen anything like the rail yard, but if you want to grow, thrive even! It’ll change that. I’ve been to those little villages, in school long enough to read, maybe, then out to climb rigging. But with this you can cut the time to get the catch to market and–”
“That’s great, Locrine,” Jimmy broke in with a mild wave. He cradled his forehead in his other hand. “Now tell me how this translates to this… this mess here.”
‘This mess’ was a snaking spreadsheet of numbers that resembled the same rails that crisscrossed the county and had been so extolled moments before, where the numbers fluctuated in a mosaic of black and red ink.
“Ah, of course, of course. Now, operation has been funded through a national tax credit and–”
And that was it. Done. That was as far as the clerk got before Jimmy’s eyes got that distant, faraway look of a man who had most definitely checked out. Theo could tell as much from his spot a few feet from Jimmy’s elbow. Still, Locrine kept going, unaware.
Jimmy all but jumped to life at the hand that reached from behind him to trail a neat finger down the rows of numbers. “It’s such a jumble, though. It shouldn’t fluctuate so much if that’s how it’s funded, unless every township lobbied for a different credit amount?”
Both Locrine and Jimmy stared at Theo, the latter after glancing back and forth from the numbers. Theo willed himself to look as innocent as possible, fighting the shrewdness out of his expression. It only made Locrine run an appraising eye over Theo. “I say, not what I expected.”
“It’s just needlessly confusing. There’s already a system in place securing the trade rates and safety for your ocean routes, which are more dangerous and take tariffs into account. I don’t see why it isn’t applied in place here, as a bare minimum, as opposed to changing rates every half year thanks to whatever other credit deal it was slipped into.” Theo paused, all but edging Jimmy out of the seat as he pressed closer to the ledger to make sense of it. The books weren’t foreign to him; he’d salvaged plenty from his own shipwrecks (what better to keep record and make sure he’d recover all of what he was due), although the lines of numbers were no piles of gold.
“…Tell me where you found your guest, young master Campbell.”
Theo froze at the words, all too aware of the way his own magic clung to his skin. How it refracted in the corners of his vision as it made him seem everything he wasn’t: warm-blooded, personable, not dying to solve the problem by snapping out with those teeth of his or whipping up a squall. His mind jolted to a stop, and all too quickly Theo started to piece together his possible excuses.
He never got the chance as Locrine continued to talk with a shy almost-smile. “He’s certainly much better with numbers than you’d expect from someone who stumbled in from the middle of nowhere.”
Jimmy had lit upon Theo with a look that was far too thoughtful and which Theo didn’t like, no matter if it was true suspicion and deduction over the past two weeks brewing or something less threatening. “…Yes he is. You know, it’s such an uncanny, natural knack for it.”
He could wait just long enough to be taken, Theo guessed. Not fight, no, he didn’t want anyone getting their wits about them to fight back, and once they started hauling him away he could pull on his magic to confuse them and lead his captors the long way until he was tossed out the side door. Theo’s hand rose from the ledger, and while he looked confused as to what Jimmy and the accountant were getting at, he wasn’t nearly so slow below the surface; already, his magic tingled in his veins and buzzed in his ears.
“Theo, you shrinking violet, you. All that modesty, when you could have been doing this for me for days!” The thud on Theo’s back rattled his hasty plans right out of mind. For the briefest moment his surprise was real, more so when that offending arm moved up to loop around his shoulders in that overly-familiar way of Jimmy’s. It was past the point of just a friendly pat and still the arm didn’t move and Theo was caught tight against Jimmy, his body warm against Theo’s cold-blooded side.
“Please, Jimmy, that’s not what I intended. I’m a guest, I don’t want to overstep my bounds–”
“Now, listen here …you,” Jimmy grinned in hushed tones, lacking a surname for his rescuer. “Exactly how employed are you back home, doing…?”
“…Salvage.” It was one way to put it. Sort of.
“There you go! But, you’re good at this, Theo,” Jimmy urged. Just shy of admitting Theo was even a touch better at this whole accounting business, a miracle in a room filled with employees and family. He gave another pat to Theo’s chest. “I’m offering you a job. You don’t need to be polite over it.”
“You’d be doing me a favor,” Jimmy cut in. He eyed the books of numbers like they were vicious animals and he were the under-armed hunter.
Theo followed the line of Jimmy’s gaze. He quickly wet his lips, his glamour buzzing on his skin. “If, if you insist, but I’m not so…”
The laugh was short, triumphant, and right in Theo’s ear. “Fantastic! I’ll leave you to it then. Ah, Locrine, get him settled in, I’ll catch up on my schedule now that we have this all taken care of.”
Locrine smiled back at Jimmy, one of relief. Theo felt about ready to join him – no one could be a houseguest forever. If he looked a little more pleased than relieved, and a little more smug than both, than who would think twice about it?
Except one impeccable young woman, watching her brother leave the room of crowded bodies and scratching pens.
With a full house of staff working under the tight, if efficient, watch of Eleanor, things were going at a quick pace. To be honest, Theo didn’t find the day’s work much different from his own housekeeping (with the added bonus that recorded numbers in a logbook and the nature of an estate’s funds was far less physical; no prying away sailor’s corpses or finding isolated caves to store it away after) and ended at whatever hour Jimmy inevitably swung by to convince Eleanor and Theo both that they had to eat. His nights were spent soaking in the sea bath down below, the door alarmed with magic to give him ample warning to duck under the surface.
And in the midst of all this stress, Theo thrived. The accountants grew tired for their families and trudged home one by one at the end of the day, and Theo’s eyes would harden in that particular little way of his – sensing weakness in the school – before he soon found some way to edge in on their work. He was always, always watching: absorbing more than he dared to show, and even then only in tiny glimpses, if at all. As little seemed to escape Theo as it did Eleanor.
He hadn’t meant to create habits for himself like a houseguest that had overstayed his welcome. Yet the one morning he awoke and found no breakfast trolley set outside his door with his usual plate of kipper, the disruption was enough to send him stalking right for the kitchen.
He didn’t get far. The butler’s boy darted across foyer at the other end of the hall, luggage in tow. Theo was after him, jaw set to keep from letting out the annoyed hiss that’d almost escaped him.
Theo strained to listen through the shut doors of the office, but the heavy wood muffled the conversation on the other side too well for his ears. He broke away with a derisive snort and paced, pausing only to check his reflection in a foyer mirror.
Too awake and put-together for the occasion, perfect for his usual morning appearances but not for the required sleep-bruised eyes that the day called for. He raked his fingers through his hair to muss it something closer to what Jimmy always woke up with and undid the top button of his collar. Took one dry breath to collect himself.
When he entered the room, it was with the studied lack of grace of a man stumbling to an emergency. The siblings were the first ones to glance over at him. Frustration was evident on Jimmy’s face (he obviously hadn’t been up for long, and it looked like he’d just tossed on his shirt from yesterday) and even had made its way to Eleanor. Blonde curls had fallen from a pin that had been tucked behind her ear in haste. A few more steps had the attention of a clerk, but the mustachioed head of the family and one of his managers were locked in conversation with the new arrival.
“A little early,” he murmured to the siblings. Jimmy nodded with the sort of wry look that told he’d rather be anywhere else – and wouldn’t Theo help him with that immediately, please? Eleanor’s mouth straightened from its frown, only for her to grit her teeth as only a polite lady could when the cluster halfway across the room broke from quiet conversation.
It was the auditor that spoke loud enough to echo off the high ceilings. “The earlier the better, I always say. But, my, I’m dreadfully sorry if I’ve tossed your home upside down.”
He seemed to slide into view rather than stepped, only because he was a shade away from being slight enough to be considered the sort of waif that flit about. A hand was at his collarbone where he fidgeted with his bowtie. “I thought I’d get myself settled in before the rest of you all started pouring in. So sorry if I’ve thrown your routine off.”
The auditor’s smile seemed the only thing that wasn’t washed out in the drab morning light, and it seemed to pass through everyone else that made the man up, leaving even the Campbell’s father off-kilter. Until it lit upon Theo. Then it widened, all crooked corners and too-white teeth.
It was familiar and unsettling, but for the life of him Theo couldn’t remember just where he’d seen it, the rest of the man’s face too forgettable to place.
The auditor tapped the hat in his hand idly against his leg, watery eyes moving from one face to another as he thought. “Goodness, why don’t I go have a cup of tea and breakfast, get out everyone’s hair for a while?” He gave a deferential nod to the siblings as he slid by, leaving Theo unable to shake the feeling like he’d just been snubbed. “Let you all organize and get your staff up to speed, and then I’ll meet up to run through things before lunch?”
Only after the office doors had silently fallen shut again and Jimmy nudged an elbow at his side, did Theo wrinkle his nose at the familiar smell left in the room.
To be fair, after such a long time apart, it was difficult to recognize Freddie when he wasn’t sucking the life out of everything in the room.
It wasn’t until after an hour of driving the room to exhaustion – a predator nipping at the edges of a school already caught against the current – and after Freddie had slipped from the room, that Theo had anything of an honest chance to piece together what the day had brought.
He didn’t like it, this circling around at the edges of each other’s space. This didn’t suit them at all and he’d never liked to share–
“Esquire Frederick Johnson would like to have a word with you.” The luncheon maid had to repeat it once more and clarify the name a third time before it finally sunk in. And when it did?
Freddie had taken the entire identity of course. Name, face, and of course papers, rank, and privileges. It sent a little rush behind Theo’s eyes and had his gut twisting. Of course Freddie would; Freddie likely planned smaller and things hadn’t gone wrong end up for him. It was everything he should have done, right from the start, instead of setting his eyes on the biggest meal right away.
Theo was all but hissing when he paused at the French doors of the little sunroom Freddie had chosen to take his lunch at, quiet and private and facing the trim gardens right before they dropped over the cliff. The false auditor caught Theo out of the corner of his eye before he ducked his head in thanks to the server who had brought him his plate.
Theo took his seat across the table with his head held high. There was no greeting, just a stalemate with Freddie’s unnerving smile.
And maybe it was petty of him, but he waited until Freddie had raised his spoon and committed to a bite of his chowder, rather without leaving Freddie room to answer. “I thought we agreed I shouldn’t find you again. You… do remember, don’t you?”
Freddie coughed on the rich soup and took a hasty sip of wine to wash it down, before pulling a face. “Ah, goodness, what a waste, rushing me like that. Ugh.”
“Serves you right, eating that. You should know better, after everything I did for you,” Theo huffed.
The auditor tested another draw of his wine, swirling it in the stemmed glass before deciding better of it and reaching for his glass of water. He rubbed the pad of his thumb against the outer rim, inspecting the faint clouded glass behind the condensation. “You’re the last one to talk. I know you prefer yours a bit more raw, and far smarter besides–”
“What are you here for.” He couldn’t bring himself to make it a question instead of a demand.
“The same thing you are, I’m afraid. Wild coincidence, all this. Theo, my friend, I never thought you’d leave your cushy little cave. Don’t give me that look; this isn’t what I imagined at all. I’d hate to, ah, step on your toes, as they say.”
“Rubbish.” Freddie didn’t have an imaginative bone in his body; none of them did under the waves. Theo bristled in his seat across from him anyways. You couldn’t have the both of them preying on the same house at once, not after the same target. It would be overloading the territory just like back home: they’d both starve each other out, and kill off everything in between.
“Humor me.” It seemed Freddie was humoring himself just fine, content to run his finger around the rim of the glass until it sang. “But there is an issue, completely. And it’s between us. Honestly, I think you should hear me out.”
Where Theo leaned back in his chair, arms crossed and mouth shut, Freddie leaned in. “I have the advantage here over you, for once. And, stop there, Theo, but I really think it’d be best if you took the chance to clear out.”
It almost dragged a laugh out of him. It would have, despite the glint of a rectangular pupil in the eyes of that bland-forgettable face. It was all the warning he had before the water glass under Freddie’s hand wobbled and toppled over, splashing over the tabletop while Theo startled in his seat – too late – and into his lap. Freddie’s cloth napkin fluttered over to Theo’s side of the table and he snatched it out of the air with only the barest thought to his pride; at the moment, far more concerned with using it to hide where the water had soaked his thigh and grit his teeth when the air in his throat seemed so, so dry. He gave a weak little gasp and curled over in his seat, throat throbbing with the phantom pain of gills, and grasped at the napkin with one hand and the edge of the table with the other.
What little was pooled in the bottom of the glass on the table was too cloudy to have been just a dirty glass. His eyes darted from it to the little silver condiment plate with slices of lemon and salt and pepper shakers, the salt with a cap that was left half-unscrewed and almost empty.
The skin under Theo’s palm turned slick under the fabric of the napkin, his glamour fizzling at the edges of the spill, like acid etching into skin instead of coarse table sea salt mixed into a glass of water.
Freddie leaned down, meeting Theo’s eyes just over the top of the table. For a moment, and that was all it took, the familiar sharp features of the Freddie he knew seemed to peek through the bland human face. “Oh, my my, that’s terrible. Such a fragile state. You never would have dared this sort of risk before, you know.”
“Mr. Johnson, sir? You wanted a word?”
In over a week, Theo hadn’t been half as glad or as mortified to hear Eleanor. Eager for the reason to sneak away, and looking utterly pained, he pressed the napkin tight to the slick eel skin at his thigh and somehow dragged himself to his feet.
“Of course! That time already?” Freddie tore his eyes from watching him to make a show of checking his watch. Theo steadied himself against the table for a moment, leg going numb when he brushed by Eleanor with an ill-sounding excuse.
“Terrible. Something in the shellfish, I think. He can’t handle it. But me, miss, I could eat it for days.”
Eleanor watched Theo leave with raised brows. By the time she turned back to the auditor, it was with a smile that was determined to remain in place as elegantly as possible.
Keeping a glamour from flaking off in pieces around him had Theo looking ragged enough that not a word made it out of Jimmy’s mouth when the merman pushed past him in single-minded retreat. His nose was following the tang of salt air that leaked up from servant stairs and around basement doors, and he let himself get lost in tracking it just to have something comforting.
With the door to the baths shut behind him, however, all he had left to do with himself was seethe: at Freddie, at being so taken aback by some salt in a glass, at his own shortsightedness. It reared up in him with more force with every stumble on the steps, and again when he gave in to lighting the few lamps along the stairs, and at seeing his blunt soft human hands lit up with the tiny flame. The past few minutes glared up at him as messy as the eaten-away hole in his spell, flashing bits of eel skin up at him as he paused at the edge of the bath to strip what wasn’t an illusion from him: a small leather notebook and pencil, the glasses from his vest pocket and the vest itself, toeing out of the shoes he’d borrowed from Jimmy’s closet the night before when the human had dozed off in his chair.
Theo sank into the water with a hiss until he was deep enough in for the water to lap at his nose. He opened his mouth and the ocean rushed in, undoing his spell from the inside out. It unraveled around him like a sweater that had frayed too thin, and so he discarded the whole thing. When he hoisted himself up onto the bath edge, reached across the stone floor to retrieve the pocket notebook from the pile, he did so dragging the heavy eel tail behind him.
A heavy knock that echoed down the stairs had Theo scrambling to slip below the surface moments before the salt-rusted hinges squealed. When it fell shut again, the thud echoed in the water and Theo’s ears.
“Theo?” There was a tall, lanky blob that was unmistakably Jimmy wavering at the very edge of available lamplight and darkness, and coming closer to the edge of the water all the while, managing to look rather put out even through the distortion of rippling water above. The merman didn’t move from the tight crevice near the bottom of the shallow end that he’d wedged himself in.
“Waste of my time,” the human muttered, and Theo could pick up bits of distorted griping about being sent on a fruitless search by annoyed maids and damning Theo’s natural tendency to slip between the cracks. Every step Jimmy took towards the stairs had Theo edging more out of his hiding spot, eventually daring to let himself peek above the water’s surface until the ripples lapped at his eyes, careful to stay out of the dim range of light.
There was the skitter of something against the stone floor from under Jimmy’s feet and it echoed through the air like cannon fire to Theo’s ears. He was frozen, watching as the blurry outline of Jimmy, features lost in the shadows, paused to peer down. Maybe Theo might not have been able to see it, but he could hear the gears turn in Jimmy’s head as the man edged over to the wall near the pile Theo had left, fumbling for the lamp there. A glint of firelight off of glass lenses and mirrored in the puddles on the floor, and a softer shine from the notebook lying open at the edge of the bath.
There was no muttering or cursing then. He watched Jimmy go from the sunny young man he had shared train cars and late nights by the fire with, to trained sailor, all in the moment it took for Jimmy to run his fingers over the damp pages of the book left open face-up.
The light caught the blond of Jimmy’s hair, turned it into a halo that even Theo could make out. Recoiling from it, he turned and slipped back under with a strong surge from his tail that left the surface an unbroken whirl, his wake sending the surface reflections on the ceiling above in a crazy tangle of light that he never could have noticed, but Jimmy did.
He felt Jimmy’s yell above-water more than he heard the actual words. It didn’t matter; he was following the current that had to lead out to the ocean: an escape. Already he was piecing together an excuse: too far in the deep end and caught by the current, where he could ‘wash ashore’ just in time to be found by morning, showing up at the door wet and shivering and perfectly pitiable, just the sight to bundle up in bed with a warm drink and his story listened to—
There was a grate: a huge, heavy iron thing that left traces of rust under his claws when he tore at it in a writhing, sneering temper. It was sunk into the rock, he noticed upon closer inspection, and that kept him from further degrading himself by setting upon it with teeth and still getting nowhere.
Only one exit, then. He pushed off from the grate, made an angry loop along the rocky floor of the bath.
After weeks of time spent together, Theo would never have made the mistake of calling Jimmy patient. But this Jimmy was different from the man who had curled at his back in a train car. This one had lit the remaining gas lamps – Theo squinted up at the water’s amber surface – and, from what he could tell, was pacing the lip of the bath.
He curled towards the relative safety of what was left of the shadows, breaching up until his back and long spine twirled eddies in the tide, and listened.
“Theo! Theo, I swear to God, answer or I’m going in after you–” There was a strange sharpness to the voice halfway through. A change in focus that you wouldn’t notice unless you’d spent days with Jimmy as your only source of conversation, hadn’t heard Jimmy talk about his ship only hours before he washed over. Theo tried to place the human’s pacing by sound alone, but the baths sent every word, every shuffle and scuff, bouncing all over the place.
“There you are!”
Theo jumped and twisted, eyes wide at the man towering over him, blocking out the light. Somewhere mid-gape, instinct kicked in. Theo drew up, eyes wide, claws digging into stone, the dark shape of his tail breaking the surface in a monstrous arc to coil protectively around him.
Jimmy’s head snapped right to it, the exact moment Theo felt his plans falling apart. Every single one, as Jimmy bent down – slow as a hunter trying not to spook his prey – and slid what could only be a knife from his boot. He inched closer to the water, his free hand reaching out palm-up, fingers twitching in gesture for Theo to take it.
“Don’t… move until I tell you to.”
Theo remembered himself enough to keep his mouth shut as he boggled. No one dared flash teeth at a knife, and surely Jimmy had to be confused. What was he thinking?
Theo’s wrist was yanked towards the pool edge and Jimmy lunged forwards with the knife gleaming towards Theo’s coils, all in one smooth motion. He locked eyes with the human as he quickly came into focus – slit pupils and grey sclera to dark brown iris and the reflected glimmer of light – for what seemed the longest second before the blade sunk in.
Theo bellowed, hissed and shrunk in around himself, fingers scrabbling up Jimmy’s arm and shoulder. Jimmy jumped away from his own knife at the noise, stumbled and slipped over Theo’s thrashing tail, tried to follow the old advice of not losing grip of dry land and failed. The water frothed around them, Theo in no state of mind to use it to his advantage. Not when the knife in his tail jostled against the rocks but didn’t come loose.
As soon as Jimmy anchored himself against the stair railing in the shallow end, one arm caught around Theo and hoisted him up by the armpits. He kicked off the massive coils tangling his legs. It took two pulls and a growled curse from Theo to finally look.
It was a shame Theo had more important things to worry over – watching the adrenaline drain out of Jimmy would have been much more entertaining, otherwise.
The human jumped back so fast he dropped Theo. Free, the merman clung to the steps in place of Jimmy’s support; the air stung at his heaving gills and made the knife in his tail throb, narrowing Theo’s senses to only the wound and how to keep it out of the water, where it burned and stung from the salt.
It wasn’t until the tunnel vision had started to clear that he realized Jimmy had recovered, hovering just out of Theo’s reach, and even more: started talking. Of a sort. The words were spilling out of him without any thought, not a single one of them belonging to an actual complete sentence.
“You’re… Theo? Wait, no..?”
It had Theo glancing up from nursing his injured tail, at least. Jimmy’s nails dug into the floor, the only sign he’d ever thought of running from the inhuman guest in his basement.
“What are you?”
No answer. There might have been rolled eyes, all Theo could muster while reaching to remove the knife without turning his back on Jimmy. The young noble started a step back, but then paused, as if he’d thought better of it, and cautiously edged ever closer. He had moved out of the way of the light, and now it illuminated every twist of Theo’s form as he contorted in the shallows.
“…Do you want help?” That got Theo’s undivided attention. He uncurled, meeting Jimmy’s shadowed face with slit pupils.
He opened his mouth to speak – Jimmy stiffened and his hands curled into fists at the glint of Theo’s teeth – then shut it, kept his voice low and expressions subtle. “What.”
“I can take it out. If you come here,” Jimmy inched forwards, hand out for Theo to take and crawl out of the water with. It didn’t happen, and Jimmy bristled and patted the ground, like calling a dog. “Come on then–”
Theo’s gills flared in a way that very much said no. Jimmy frowned and inched forwards again.
“I won’t hurt you again, if you’re worried. It was… a mistake,” he said, plaintive. Apparently he read the tilt of Theo’s head as curiosity and not a sign of furious thinking, because why else would anyone go within snatching distance of a water-dwelling monster?
Obviously someone didn’t seem to care. “You’re like those old sailor stories, right,” he stated, not asked, and drew so close the water lapped at the toes of his boots. “They don’t stop talking about them. Women rescuing sailors, following them onto land. Mermaids.”
It would be so easy right then, so easy to grab that outstretched hand, or shirt, or throat, and overbalance Jimmy, pitch him into the water. Maybe he had a knife stuck in him, but Theo was sure he could ignore it long enough to hold the human’s head under the water. Weigh the body down with rocks at the bottom of the baths, left for the crabs to nibble him to anonymity, and walk up those stairs with Jimmy’s likeness. Everything back on track, his world righted.
Jimmy’s pulse pounded under the skin of his neck as the young man leaned over him with his guard down completely, a familiar rhythm Theo could pick out anywhere.
The first twinge almost triggered Theo to snap. Instead he dug his claws into the plaster and rock. Jimmy braced against his side, and in his hands the knife slid out as fast and smooth as it’d gone in.
Which didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. No, Theo did yowl, grabbing at the front of Jimmy’s shirt, lips curled back from his teeth and his tail thrashing in the water. When the pain had eased to a constant dull throb and he breathed out in relief, it whooshed out from both his gills and nose. He eased himself down to float in the water, still holding onto Jimmy’s shirt.
And still Jimmy never made it to the water. Another prime opportunity slipped away, he could later complain. Only the steps seemed comfortable enough to rest his upper torso on while he left his tail buoyant.
Jimmy himself had stumbled back from Theo and fallen on his rear, the ungraceful thump lost under the rattle of the knife falling to the floor. Theo watched it with wary eyes until Jimmy caught on and kicked it away in a burst of wisdom, where it skittered and collided with the abandoned pair of glasses.
“So…” Jimmy started after a while, voice calmer than the rapid jog to his leg. “Is that it? I pull the thorn out of the paw, you say everything’s even and leave?”
“You put it there.”
“To save you! I– you know, I thought–”
But Theo wasn’t listening. He’d coiled himself up, tucked up safe and sound to inspect his wound, feigning disinterest to avoid Jimmy’s eyes. “No.”
It was a very committed no. About what, specifically, Theo wasn’t any more sure than Jimmy.
Jimmy had insisted on human medical care for the tidy stab wound in Theo’s tail. Theo had insisted on utter secrecy (and was more than a little scandalized at the explanation of the “stitches” that Jimmy kept telling him was mandatory). Theo compromised with allowing the indignity of a bandage – convincing himself it was just right to make him as helpless as a fanged merman could be – and Jimmy’s word on the Campbell name and home that not a direct word about what Theo was would make it upstairs. No, not even to Eleanor.
And it was that clarification, he could see, that almost broke Jimmy’s heart. The man wasn’t the type to brag, but he had that quaint human habit of beaming at exciting news.
He was beaming still, when he walked Theo up to the guest room that night, when they bumped into each other that morning as Theo tried to discreetly leave his cleaned-off plate of kippers on the breakfast cart for a maid to whisk away, when Freddie had ten different people waste their afternoons tracking down tax documents that didn’t exist. And he beamed from the lip of the ocean bath when Theo surfaced after minutes below, startling the merman with company that hadn’t been there before. Worse of all, he was still left undrowned for all of the trouble.
“So this is what you’ve been doing every night,” it’d begun, with Jimmy checking the progress of his knife’s damage and Theo pointedly looking up at the ceiling he couldn’t see, even with all the lights Jimmy had turned on.
“I enjoy the quiet when I can. Staying like I do all day it’s… I expected different.”
“They’re legs, Theo. What did you expect they’d do for you that they don’t already?” Those hands slowed and came to a stop, the tape of the half-peeled bandage prickling at Theo’s skin, when Theo couldn’t help but snort. “You must’ve heard from someone who’d done it before, right?”
The way he looked over and slowly blinked slit eyes was definitely not like a human, Theo knew. And Jimmy didn’t avoid the look nor stare back. “Not really, not anymore.”
He waited until Jimmy broke away first to finish up and pull the dressings snug. “…We tend to enjoy not being stabbed.”
“I said I was sorry!”
Theo did not smile at the way Jimmy turned towards him only to fumble and start when the flat edge of his tail slapped against the surface of the water. Really.
Freddie had wanted to go over the Campbell family’s investment portfolio with a fine-toothed comb again; Eleanor had shooed Theo out the door before the sun went down for the sole reason that she had noticed, rather quickly, that when both Freddie and him were in the same room together for longer than a few hours, something seemed to hang in the air that made everything go wrong and left everyone skittish. If anyone had asked him, it was the exact opposite of surprising. Mackerel reacted the same way to them.
What Theo hadn’t expected was to see Jimmy before dinner, and certainly not sitting and waiting on the steps for him just on the other side of the door. “This is new.”
Jimmy shrugged, and lit every lamp as he followed on the way down. “It’s an entire house and there’s still nowhere to hide up there. I don’t even want to sit at the table with– Oh.”
Theo blinked at the interruption, midway through toeing off his shoes (no longer borrowed) and shucking off his jacket, but Jimmy had busied himself again with a particularly fiddly lamp on the wall that left him with his back to Theo. The few clothes were left in a tidy pile on the floor with the glasses carefully perched on top; by the time Jimmy deemed there enough light, Theo was already up to his waist in the water and discarding lukewarm human skin and at least half an outfit in sheets of water to reveal the whipcord body underneath.
“…That’s how it works?” The young man had been watching like it was a natural phenomenon. The instant Theo looked over and decided not to disappear from view, Jimmy sat right down at the edge of the water and craned his neck out even further. “That’s incredible, you know.”
Theo drifted closer with a smirk that was just a bit too smug. A fin broke the surface within Jimmy’s reach, but he sat still with the sort of tension that said he wanted to touch but didn’t dare.
“You do know.” He eventually caught on, snorting a laugh to himself while Theo passed just out of reach.
When he surfaced again it was on Jimmy’s other side and silent enough that the young man jumped when Theo spoke. “It doesn’t take much, anyone could. But some take it more seriously and put some effort into actually learning how to work some finesse into things.”
“Is that what you did?” Jimmy leaned back from the water as soon as he said it, his hands scuffing against the floor now that Theo had come up to the lip of the water. It was funny, how his sharp breath and stuttered heart had him sounding almost as embarrassed as the first time he’d tried to apologize for the knife, and with no idea that Theo couldn’t make out much more than lit-up blurs.
“I had a teacher,” he interrupted. “Lot of good they did for me.”
When the cut was cleaned and wrapped up tight again, Theo didn’t duck out from under Jimmy’s hands at the first chance to inspect it, letting him have the rare few moments to study; but he darted back out of reach again before Jimmy could get used to the idea, out of principle.
They got in a routine. Every day Jimmy would try not to look so surprised that the wound knit together much faster than it should have, and Theo would try not to be so surprised that he still had company despite the fact he tried to make himself the least interesting magical creature in the world with all his number-crunching and enjoyment of the driest reading material in the manor.
“So.” Jimmy’s voice trailed off and he shifted against the damp floor, drew a knee up to his chest and rested his folded hands and chin on top.
Theo didn’t look up from where he was inspecting the fading line of the healed-over knife wound midway down his tail. Like he’d thought, the stitches had been unnecessary. “…So?”
“This, um, this explains everything then, right?”
One black eye glanced over at that.
“Define ‘everything’.” But already his ribs seemed too tight for him, already suspecting he knew – that Jimmy had caught on, had realized that no fairy tale appeared by chance on a stormy night to save men from drowning, pull him ashore and follow him home out of sheer good grace.
Jimmy fidgeted. It was as hard to see as ever for Theo, except the quiet scrape of a boot heel and rustle of clothing sounded thunderous to someone ready to flee from a man that had already stabbed him once.
“The, the mermaid thing. It’s what you do, right? Lure sailors off with some song or something.”
Oh. Oh good. He covered the rush of panic by trying to judge if his injury would scar or not. “No, no that’s not magic, that’s plain stupid.”
It looked as if something deep down had just clicked in Jimmy’s head. “But we’ve had sailors who went over–”
“Then they’re stupid.”
Mourning over cabin mates wouldn’t make it not true, but for a creature so sentimental as a human – they named their boats, Jimmy too, and talked about them as if they were family or lovers – any sailor gone overboard would be missed the same no matter how stupid the cause. However the human race had managed to thrive was a miracle in and of itself, if they were dying off of reasons that were wholly imaginary.
Theo knew that look, though, sort of. Frustrated over something (at who, who knew; the last he’d seen it was when the Coast Guard’s Chief Petty Officer had refused to call Jimmy by name instead of “Young Master Campbell”) that he couldn’t say out right.
“I suppose when a lie is told often enough, it does develop a speck of truth in it over time,” Theo said, offhand as ever while still inspecting his tail, eyes off Jimmy to save the human the embarrassment of being watched like a puzzle for what he’d do next. And Jimmy was so expressive, even for a human, that it was fascinating to watch. “Once you believe there’s a mermaid there to lure you over, anyone who thinks it’s true is prone to jump in to avoid what’s inevitable.”
Unsurprisingly, Jimmy made a noise that didn’t seem convinced.
“There’s no innate magical reason that men jump overboard when they see one of us or hear a few bars of song. And that’s a fact.” He paused, tilted his head in thought. “Unless you honestly want to apply the label of magic to simple superstition–”
Jimmy cut him off with a sharp wave of the hand. “That’s fine, stop there. You don’t hypnotize anyone. I’ve got it.”
Theo eased back on an elbow, teeth carefully hidden behind his lips. “Well if you insist.”
“There, uh, there is that other one, too.” It rushed out of Jimmy after a minute’s awkward silence of more fidgeting, only this time he didn’t dare look up from his boots. “You might have heard it, I don’t know, it’s… well, short of it is, if you catch one and, um, then you can live for ages.”
He knew of it. And kill it, those avoided words, hung over Jimmy’s head.
“That’s more ridiculous than the magic singing,” he lied.
It was Jimmy that approached Theo first, grabbing him by the arm and all but dragging him out of the office doors and down a hallway right from under Eleanor and Freddie’s watchful noses; and it was Jimmy that decided the lonely corner between two stuffed animal heads (both with hair as tawny-gold as Jimmy’s but impossible for Theo to identify nonetheless) and a floor-to-ceiling pane of windows was a private enough spot for serious discussion. In reality, it was only suitable so long as any passerby were too polite to eavesdrop.
Eavesdroppers that Jimmy didn’t bother to look for, too focused on leaning into Theo’s shoulder. “I swear he has it out for you and it gets worse every day.”
“You think that? Because I’m sure that was your inheritance I was sorting through.” As far as anyone had seen, Freddie had it out for anyone with a pulse. He had it out for bank accounts and trust funds, for clerks that panicked at the sight of him after over a week of time-wasting red herrings, for Eleanor that didn’t let a minute of it slip by without noticing, for the Campbell father for having a lawyer on hand just in case. In the list, Theo had seen the list of priorities with himself much lower, seeing as by taking care of all the rest he was taken care of as well. And Freddie did so like tightening his grip before going in.
Jimmy wasn’t going to be swayed. For a moment it looked like he would be, but he brushed it off with a shake of his head. “That’s normal – kind of. Ellie told me it was. Yours is strange, it’s personal.”
When Theo rolled his eyes and stepped aside from the corner, Jimmy grabbed onto his elbow again, and just as quickly let go with an almost-sorry, but it didn’t stop him. “You’ve met him before?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. He’s not the kind you–”
“You remember. Yes. But!” He pointed his finger practically in Theo’s nose. Probably what he saw as intimidating but what Theo would have been tempted to snap right off in his jaws if it’d been anyone else or happened to him two weeks earlier. “You know him. I bet you do.”
Theo’s eyes sharpened, his back straightened, and immediately he could read what was running across Jimmy’s face: that the man had been right, was vindicated to ask in the first place. As soon as Theo muttered that terse, “He’s less real than me,” the realization that Jimmy had likely gotten in over his head crossed his face, too.
“He’s like you, isn’t he?”
A nod. It took a while to come, Theo convinced himself it was because someone had to double check for company before admitting those sorts of things. Jimmy sucked in a breath and paused with brows furrowed.
“He needs to go,” Theo pushed and that seemed to decide it.
“Ellie needs to know, then,” Jimmy decided. “All of it, you too.”
Theo let out a noise that was likely not entirely human. Jimmy didn’t budge at it, holding firm: “She needs to. I’ll figure out a place to–”
A blink. “Uh, well, no of course.”
“And who’s watching your bedroom door?”
“You worry too much, you know. Leave it to me, Theo.”
Which should have been all the explanation Theo would ever need to understand why he’d been crammed on board a ship before breakfast the next day.
Over the first few days of his stay, the pilot cutter – Callista, Jimmy had insisted while Theo had rolled his eyes at that old sentimental human tradition of naming yet another boat – had become as familiar to Theo as the nooks and crannies of the floor of the bath. Above deck, that was. Below was familiar and private to Jimmy alone, and more so than even the young man’s own bedroom, Theo realized.
It was snug quarters to fit everything that humans had in their home into a space that was barely eleven feet wide by thirty feet long, but they’d managed: a small corner made into a kitchenette, a dining nook that doubled as a chart table, a washroom with barely enough room to stand, and – the only real luxury – a bed tucked in the most forward part of the quarters that was easily much smaller than the one Jimmy had in his room but was still too big for a single man. Unlike the big manor on the top of the cliff, everything was clean simple lines and utilitarian materials against the curved white-painted wood walls and warm wood accents.
Theo found below-deck to be perfectly comfortable; the proportions reminded him of his own cave below the water. He made himself right at home at the table, took his time flipping through a shelf of adventure novels and dismantled navy-issue pistol parts as he strained his ears to hear Jimmy coax his sister aboard.
He still jumped and fumbled when the new little steam engine roared to life to taxi them away from the manor’s dock. Theo made out a muffled comment from Eleanor above deck, asking Jimmy if he looked so pleased because he’d been expecting the restored ship to go up in flames from that engine before ever making it to the open ocean, and then the rest of their conversation was drowned out by the engine and churning water.
He’d become so used to the purr of the engine that he actually paused and lifted his head to listen when it eventually switched off and the snap of a sail and creaking waxed wood were all the noises the ship made. Once more the Campbell siblings’ conversation could be made out (Jimmy promising that this was really about the situation with the estate, really, he swore so, he wasn’t dragging Eleanor away and leaving their father alone for the sake of a day-long trip around the cape, although hadn’t she missed this? And Eleanor trying to explain to Jimmy in as gentle a manner as only she could that if he’d thought today was the best day for an ocean picnic lunch for old time’s sake, well, God only help him). Theo half-listened, far too busy studying the map clipped down to the table at the bottom of the pile.
There was the manor and town, marked out on one side, and there was the rail traced in red wax pencil, and so on, further north where the trail ended with a circled little beach near a fishing village.
“Hey. Theo? Theo!” Jimmy’s beckoning whisper, and Theo had half a mind to make Jimmy wait another minute more.
He tore himself away from studying the dotted ink line that marked the trading route of the schooner he’d washed Jimmy overboard from and climbed up the ladder. He balked at the offered hand that appeared inches from his nose at first, Jimmy offering to help him from the cockpit to the deck proper, but finally took it under the self-imposed condition he didn’t dare look into the full power of Jimmy’s pleased beaming when he did.
Eleanor, thank goodness for Eleanor, she had the grace not to look too surprised at Theo’s appearance above deck when he ducked around the rigging. She was the picture of elegance sitting atop deck on a navy-striped blanket. A wide-brimmed hat sat atop her braided hair, the ocean reflecting blue on her silk blouse and the parasol that shaded her from the early-noon sun. But she did tilt her head (so much like her brother in that moment) at them both with those sharp eyes the moment that Theo felt Jimmy clap a hand on his shoulder.
“You wanted to tell me something,” she finally said, slow and even, and Theo tried not to let himself get riled up over the feeling of being studied so.
“Right! So, like I was saying Ellie, this is important, and you need to trust me on this–”
She nodded. “Tell me something important,” she repeated. “With company.”
Theo breathed out heavily through his nose, half-raising a hand to chest height at her concerns. “I know, I know, not ideal, but–”
He felt the lurch of vertigo more than he felt the push itself, and he’d already hit the water before he realized what Jimmy had done. Theo let himself sink while his glamour undid itself, glaring up at the black shape of the ship’s hull against the sunlight-dappled surface. He dared a thoughtful look out at the clear green of the open ocean surrounding him (no grate in his way now), then squinted and shot out a clawed hand to snatch up the glimmer of gold and glass sinking past his nose. Out came the closest thing to a sigh he could manage underwater, and Theo twisted and looped his way right back up, glasses in hand.
“You,” he spat out, doing his best to ignore the way Jimmy’s look of almost-worry lit up into a confident grin again when he bobbed up at the side of the boat. With a full-body surge of his tail, Theo reared up enough to grab onto the bulwark of the ship, hoisting himself up and over while both Campbell siblings watched. Once safe, he let the glasses drop from his hand and skid to the edge of Eleanor’s blanket – she picked them up in her free hand, looking down at them with her eyebrows furrowed in quick glances before turning back to compare them to the merman not five feet from her – and got to work pulling his soaked jacket off.
“If you had given me a moment, I’d have been more than happy to help with your dramatic reveal.”
Jimmy didn’t look too impressed with Theo’s tone. Seeing Theo in actual sunlight, where the light caught out the faintest bronze speckles in his tail, however, had him moving nearer – where Theo tossed his jacket into Jimmy’s chest with a wet slap.
“Are you mad I ruined your clothes? I thought it was all, you know,” he wiggled his fingers a little in the unspoken sign for magic before draping the jacket over the boom to dry. “Honestly it’s impossible for me to tell.”
They stopped at the sound of someone’s quietly clearing their throat. Jimmy and Theo both turned, and there was Eleanor with Theo’s glasses firmly in hand, trying not to stare too impolitely at the way half of Theo’s tail draped over the bulwark and trailed in the water. “Tell me that this is all of it.”
It took them until partway through the lunch Jimmy had in fact packed, Theo leaving the two for a private talk on their own, and half a glass of wine, before Eleanor considered herself put together enough to fold her parasol shut and place it far out of reach. For that, Theo found himself relaxing for the first time in her presence. Just in the first few minutes of conversation alone, he’d had the terrible feeling that the young lady was just a hair away from stuffing her parasol down his throat every time she caught a glimpse of his sharp teeth or slit pupils.
“I can’t say I wasn’t expecting something… different.” She’d returned his glasses in the meantime however, best manners put forwards as if it was every day she’d dined with her brother’s close merman friends. It was admirable.
Jimmy snorted around a bite of sandwich, motioning at Theo, who looked up from where he had been delicately fishing his claws around in a sea urchin he had found during his undersea jaunt from the boat. He paused with one of the little bright-yellow organs of the urchin pierced on a claw as Jimmy explained, “He didn’t want anyone to know.”
To her credit, Eleanor nodded and took a quick sip of wine. She tried so hard not to let her gaze gravitate past Theo’s face, like to the way he sprawled across the deck in a circle around their impromptu picnic. “Understandable.”
“And then we found out that there’s another one–”
“Another.” And a second sip of wine. Another robotic nod.
“I know! Small world, Theo knows him,” Jimmy continued. Eleanor’s head swiveled to Theo and he gave a modest shrug. Her head swiveled back, Jimmy kept talking. “And this guy, Ellie, he’s Frederick.”
“The auditor is a–” A lesser woman would have pointed at Theo by now.
“He’s not even really employed. Theo says he took the real one’s identity. Probably the stationary and seal for that letter we got, too.”
There was a silence broken only by flapping canvas and the boat creaking on the gentle waves, and in that silence Theo saw the information organizing itself in Eleanor’s head, saw the confusion and stress over the last two weeks condense and harden until it became this perfect shining gem of sheer anger that only broke past Eleanor’s impeccable manners in the form of a single hard inhale through her nose.
Her fingers tightened on the wine glass for just a fraction of a second and her eyes slid to Theo. Voice with an edge as sharp as Jimmy’s knife, she asked, “And you know him how?”
“Ah, we shared a teacher, actually.” He said it with a practiced blend of hesitance, well aware of how Eleanor, so much less trusting than her brother, would be the first to scrutinize him if she heard so much as a peep of a different story from elsewhere.
Not that she wasn’t scrutinizing him now. “And the first time anyone sees or hears about you–”
“Anyone from your harbor. Your family always dealt in mining iron, my teacher preferred focusing on whaling fleets. For personal reasons.”
It was supposed to be an attempt at putting the Campbell siblings at ease. If he’d been in their position, he’d have been suspicious of two old acquaintances showing up at the same time with the same sort of disguise.
It wasn’t really working.
Theo set aside the emptied sea urchin and folded his hands one atop the other, doing his best to make himself seem as out-of-depth and meek as Eleanor had seen him when in front of a sheet of numbers. “We interpreted some lessons differently.”
Theo could feel the way Jimmy leaned close enough to almost touch the stretch of Theo’s tail that looped inches behind his back and for once didn’t mind it, nor the way Eleanor turned those sharp eyes on the gesture before they settled on Theo.
“And how, exactly, would you best propose getting rid of him?”
This time when Theo dared let a glimpse of teeth show, Eleanor smiled right back at him from behind the rim of her wine glass.
Dinner together with the Campbells and Freddie was much easier in theory than in practice. Which was why Theo had agreed to it in the first place. That, and the fact that with both Campbell brother and sister in on things, there really wasn’t any place for him to hide away for another dinner without one or the other finding him.
There was nothing difficult, in theory, with toying with the food on his plate (salad, even less appealing than the kelp he’d resorted to when starving) or hiding some in his napkin to make it seem like he’d eaten more than he had. There was nothing difficult, in theory, with doing it all while the conversation kept the Campbell father distracted. In theory, Theo had managed it all before while traveling down the coast with a then-unawares Jimmy.
In practice, Freddie grinned at him from across the table. And, in practice, Freddie pointed out everything, and did it loudly and obviously in the form of good-natured teasing. The one moment Theo had to attempt to kick Freddie under the table without risk of being caught by the manor butler or the Campbell’s father himself, he took it and could have sworn that whatever he’d lashed out at seemed to lack a bone to make the kick actually hurt.
Now, faced with the main course and doing his best not to wrinkle his nose at it, not even Jimmy’s nod of commiseration helped. Beef Wellington, the butler had said, with potatoes gratin and braised greens. The smell made his stomach flip.
Both Freddie and the head of the family dug in (Freddie taking his time to grin at Theo from across the table while he chewed in obvious enjoyment), and Jimmy spared a look and shrug next to him.
Steeling himself, Theo began the task of separating the beef from the pastry crust. That, at least, he knew he’d be fine with.
“Goodness, is the food agreeing with you?”
Theo had been expecting it eventually, but still he closed his eyes and swallowed his third bite of food without tasting it. He’d had a brief burst of optimism that he could manage to wait dinner out while Eleanor and Freddie took up most of the conversation in what was turning out to be the most appropriately tasteful discussion about adjusted portfolio returns anyone had ever seen. Of course not.
“Quite.” He didn’t dare say anything else, not when Freddie was looking at his plate like that.
“You’re going to starve away at that rate,” Freddie pushed, and turned that smile on Jimmy and Eleanor’s father. “I’ve seen picky, but surely you’ve been feeding him while he’s here?”
“Generously,” Theo said, before anyone else could answer. Those eyes lit on him, and he couldn’t tell if it was the food or Freddie that made his stomach squirm. He paused in pushing around the food on his plate to spear a small bite of potato on his fork, lifting it to his mouth and chewing – the taste not immediately terrible, but something in it a reminder that it was so not meant for him – before he could be pushed to try them.
It was a game Freddie kept up. After a few bites of potato it was the same with the greens, which slid lifelessly down his throat after burning on his tongue with garlic and red pepper, and then bread dipped in the wellington’s gravy that sat heavy in his stomach. Jimmy had helpfully stolen more than a few bites off his plate when no one else was looking, but Theo still found himself glad he didn’t have a working gag reflex by the time dessert came by.
It was unassuming; a little glass filled with a cloud of chocolate mousse, no more than a few spoonfuls worth. One bite, it didn’t even touch his tongue, and his stomach rebelled.
Jimmy hoisted Theo’s weight more solidly onto his shoulder. “Are you sure you’re alright, Theo? You look a little green around the–”
“Incredible.” The word was tired and surprised and annoyed all at once, spoken around labored breathing, twice as withering as the look that was now solidly focused on the end of the hall, but it was enough to quiet Jimmy.
Thankfully, it wasn’t until they’d struggled into Jimmy’s room that he had time to speak again. But he made sure to settle Theo into one of the armchairs that made up the seating area in the room first, with the sort of genuine care that would have had Theo raising an eyebrow if he wasn’t so preoccupied with the way his gut was trying to turn itself inside-out. The merman didn’t bother swinging his feet up on the stool. Instead, he plain collapsed.
“What happened in there? You practically wilted at the table.” Hard realization struck, Jimmy’s eyes went from worry to little chips of steel in an instant. “My father, Ellie, are they fine with- was it poison or–”
“Just,” a slightly deeper furrowing of Theo’s brow was all that gave away his lurching stomach. “Just dinner. Freddie is a catalyst, don’t– don’t get me wrong. But I shouldn’t have worried so much about keeping up appearances…”
“So not… poison.”
“To you. I thought I could–” He broke off into a weak shooing hand gesture, made even weaker by the fact he was sinking lower in his seat all the while.
“You never do eat a full course meal with us, do you?” Jimmy’s eyes hadn’t softened, but now he squinted at Theo, head tilted just enough to give a decidedly seal-like expression. And Theo managed to quarter-roll his eyes around the painful gurgle his stomach gave.
“Because it’s an unpalatable mess. Tell me where I would have developed a taste for pastries and aged cheeses in an ocean trench.”
“You liked the beef enough, I thought.”
There was a change to Jimmy now, the immediate threat of magical poisons gone and now replaced by an uppity merman who hadn’t thought to stop before getting an upset stomach for all his paranoia of keeping discreet. Jimmy didn’t need to say a thing for Theo to see the jokes that were bubbling up in him.
But he did anyway. Of course.
“Is this how one stops a shark attack, too, invite it for a five-course Sunday supper?”
“Or is that how you stop a magician from cursing your house, instead?”
“And to maybe just… stop Freddie, I should invite him to a picnic lunch? What was it that did you in, the potatoes, the wine, dessert? I can have the kitchens set aside a mermaid-friendly menu like they do the dogs–” Jimmy trailed off, his grin faltering.
Theo mustered enough care outside of mentally berating the human diet to watch as Jimmy’s good cheer faded to a panicked white. “Are you done?” he rasped out. What he wouldn’t give for a place to sink into the water instead of dry, itchy, armchair linen.
“Chocolate mousse kills dogs.”
“And thankfully I’m not one,” Theo said, one hand moving to clutch at his churning stomach. He closed his eyes as something tried to surge up in his throat but burbled back down, his head lolled to rest against his propped-up arm.
To no one’s surprise, the explanation didn’t seem to comfort Jimmy in the least. On watching Jimmy make his third pass by in pacing, Theo tilted his head up enough to glare.
“Are you really sure you’ll be fine?” He asked. When Theo only furrowed his brows in what could have been thought, he continued: “If there’s anything that– oh!”
He stepped back just in time to avoid Theo’s tail, larger around than his own waist and with that long line of fins folded against itself like ruffles, stretching across his feet.
It seemed to help a bit: Theo let out a relieved sigh though mouth and gills, and loosened the death grip he had on the chair armrests. He had a moment to enjoy the peaceful relief with closed eyes before another pang in his stomach made him wince and curl up again.
Jimmy snapped out of his slack-jawed gape and stumbled more than once trying to step his way back over, his eyes too glued to Theo to figure out how to navigate the room. “That, it wasn’t what I meant but, okay.” He drew in a deep breath, straightened his shoulders. “Okay.”
And Theo could understand the hesitation. In the baths he always melted away into the watery shadows. That day on the boat the ocean was so big and endless that it was difficult to accurately judge him even when he could be measured against the pilot cutter’s side. But here in Jimmy’s generously sized bedroom he took over the space; he snaked around chairs, over footstools, curled up against the windowpanes and back again, his frilled tail tip twitching on a Turkish rug in time with his stomach.
Jimmy waited by one of those occupied footstools (what wasn’t occupied, really?). Theo could feel his warm hands hovering over his skin deep in his lateral lines, and then the human sucked in a determined breath like he was hyping himself up to stick his hand in a shark’s mouth and pushed the section of tail off with a gentle shove. It fell to the floor with a thud muffled by an area rug. Theo still didn’t budge or so much as flutter his eyelids, so Jimmy eased himself down. There was a pause where he grimaced at the sheen of eel slick left on the leather surface, although it apparently didn’t bother him enough to dare mention.
No matter how straight of a line Theo made of himself, or tender he was when he adjusted his seat, it felt like his insides had been stuffed with hooks and line and summarily tied in a knot. Caught up in wondering if, maybe, the chocolate mousse would kill him just like it could kill a dog, it was only when one of those warm human hands closed down on where his knees would be if he had them that Theo had been repeating his name,
“I think” –air escaped from his throat and the words croaked out– “that Freddie needs to be gone.”
“Theo, listen here. Can you–”
“As in tomorrow.”
Jimmy huffed, second hand joining the first and leaning in to better check if mermaids were naturally constantly damp or if they could sweat. “Theo, you can’t stay like this all night. Can’t you, um, condense yourself back?”
The merman blinked. Looking owlish still without his glasses. And his labored breathing died down as he thought, very deliberately, on if he could.
…And then, if he wanted to.
“No.” And he watched Jimmy watch his tail curl itself into knots.
Blissful peace while Jimmy squinted at Theo like the tangled rigging of his boat he’d eventually set to rights, and then Jimmy was up from the stool and at Theo’s side again, wrestling Theo’s arm over his shoulders as he had in the hall.
“Easy. I have an idea, I think.” He muttered it against Theo’s gills when his eyes opened and swiveled on him.
Whatever the idea, Theo didn’t bother needlessly pointing out Jimmy had far overestimated himself in carrying it out. Dragging Theo up to the room while he was under human disguise had been nothing difficult, especially when he’d helped by stumbling along. Leveraging Theo up now, where he was three times as long as Jimmy was tall and easily more than twice his weight, when he was too sick to do anything more than hang on as dead weight? That was a two-man chore.
Still Jimmy powered on, bracing himself against the doorframe of his master bath, and fumbled the handle, only keeping Theo from slumping onto the floor as the door swung in with the merman still braced against it by a panicked hug around the middle. Soon enough, Theo found himself balanced on the edge of a claw foot tub and, carefully as one could be with a creature that was half-eel, lowered in – meaning that somewhere in the middle and again at the end, those fingers slipped on him like a bar of soap.
Satisfied there’d be no concussion yet, Jimmy flitted away from wrangling Theo into place and soon there was a squeak beyond the high walls of the tub, then the first gush of water from the faucet just out of view.
It was hot, too hot. It prickled his skin, and he made a noise through his gills loud enough for Jimmy to stop dragging his tail into the room after him and appear over the rim of the tub above him: a worried, annoying sun.
“Shh, I’m trying to help here, you know.” He had the sleeves of his shirt rolled up to the elbows now as he leaned down and grabbed Theo’s hands in his own to pry those claws from their white-knuckled grip on the rim of the tub.
That touch burned against him hotter than the water, something made even more obvious as those hands slipped down his arms, tucking him neatly into the tub. Theo let him, eyes falling shut again while the water rose up to flutter in his gills before rising up above his ears.
“I wasn’t letting my temper get to me,” he finally said, unable to hear much of the dull scrape that was Jimmy dragging a stool to the side of the tub.
“Course not.” It was unconvinced even without the wavering echo the reply gained traveling through water. One of those rough, warm-blooded hands gave Theo’s shoulder a pat.
“But tomorrow. Just like we spoke with Eleanor. You tell her – I’ll be busy.”
Or he tried to say the last part, but the water had closed over his lips and then some. But that same water – a little metallic, not salty enough, but doable – pumped through his gills and already he felt the nausea begin to lift. As refreshing as a breeze from an open window when suffering from motion sickness.
He’d expected Jimmy to turn away then, or even leave. Not for him to prop his chin on one arm hanging onto the edge of the bathtub, the other moving from Theo’s shoulder to trace up Theo’s neck and wiggle in the rush of water pushed out by his gills.
When he woke it was to a room lit by the filtered gray of pre-dawn, peering through the water before he remembered himself and pulled himself up.
The first thing he could see was the rest of himself strewn over the floor, the black shape of his tail broken up by towels lain along him. Sodden things that plopped about when he dared move muscles that finally didn’t cramp on him and that left puddles all over the navy-blue penny tile of the floor.
The second thing was the man propped up against the side of the tub in the most uncomfortable sleeping position that even Theo, with his whip of a spine, developed a sympathy crick in his neck.
When Jimmy woke up sputtering and pushing wet hair from his eyes, the first thing he saw was his own pair of shoes on someone else’s feet, and then a hand, magically without claws once again, offering to help him to his feet.
“I changed some of the water when you were sleeping. I figured…” The rest stretched into a yawn. There went one of those alien tilts of the head of Theo’s.
“Not that I’m keeping track.” Another yawn and wince as he sat up straight against the tub. “But I think you owe me.”
Theo paused. His hand wavered and then slipped into his jacket pocket – the clothing real or glamoured, only Theo knew.
“You didn’t see me this morning,” he finally said.
“You were right,” he hissed out from his corner. Freddie paused, mid-stride with one hand on the edge of the door to his room, and quickly eased it shut behind him. When he turned towards Theo he did it in a way that seemed far too boneless to be real, and his eyes dilated on Theo with a flash of those horizontal pupils.
“Theo, goodness. What’s wrong? You’re not still unwell?”
Theo grit his teeth, nose wrinkling at the smell of some buttery something-or-other and hot chocolate that still clung to Freddie. “Now, no. But I’ve had enough.”
“Do tell.” Freddie leaned against his door, and then inched closer, smiling in preparation for all the salacious details.
“You can keep this place, all of it. Take them for what they have.” He narrowed his eyes at Freddie, and then at the bright morning sun pouring into the hall. “I’m done trying to force myself into something that doesn’t fit.”
Freddie sighed, leaned in closer. “Now Theo, you’re being too hard on yourself. You gave it quite a good shot.”
“I’m being nothing but sincere. I mean, I told you from the beginning what was going to happen. But you got out of your cave and you got some sun. It’s commendable.” When Theo gave only a sharp exhale and hiss, Freddie’s smile widened. “So you’re off to crawl back into the sea, go back to doing things the old-fashioned way and sinking ships in storms?”
Freddie didn’t need anyone to actually answer to hold a conversation. He pulled back from Theo, hands clasped in front of him. “Don’t be sour about it, it worked fine for her for ages. We can’t all be clever enough to reinvent the wheel, as they’re so fond of saying.”
“It’s stupid and pointless.” He wasn’t even lying.
Freddie walked backwards from Theo like it was a dance. “No, no you’re right. And, my, the Campbell boy? What are you doing with him? Does he know or–”
“Keep him.” When Freddie nodded at him to elaborate, Theo growled. “Really, keep him. Go have a talk with him. He stabbed me.”
“No!” That grin was going to split Freddie’s face plain in half, he swore, but Freddie turned his back on Theo before he could see it actually happen. “That is just… I’m going to treasure that image.”
It looked like he was about to laugh his way out of the hall as well, and Theo pushed back a snarl with only partial success. He shouldered back farther into the corner, jaw set. “Go on, then. That’s all you’re going to get out of this.”
He wasn’t hiding much when he stalked the other way with his pride clawing at the inside of his chest. Even the knowledge that soon he’d have his hands washed of this mess, with a few small sacrifices on the Campbell’s part, wasn’t quite enough to get him to stop bristling.
When Jimmy passed along the news that Freddie had approached him, had offered a “listening ear” (Theo could practically hear the scoff in Jimmy’s voice through the handwriting) over his sudden departure, by means of a note left under the door leading below deck of the pilot cutter, Theo didn’t risk thinking things were going right. He’d learned.
But holed up in the ship’s cabin, there was nothing to do but think and think and overthink again. He’d listened to Jimmy step onboard while they both did their best to ignore the fact the other was only on the other side of a door. Jimmy hid away under pretense of escaping again from the manor’s problems just as before – especially now with no supposed draw of Theo to lure him out to the offices. Jimmy had mentioned feeling he was back in school passing notes, and Theo let him go on without interruption, not knowing what to write in response.
He couldn’t have been happier when sundown came. At least then he knew what was coming, no more trying to predict what Jimmy might tell him from the other side of a door. Jimmy hadn’t even had to look particularly forlorn, he’d mentioned in his last note, before Freddie went and invited himself into joining Jimmy at the hip under the guise of helping the young man cope. Dealing with Freddie was surprisingly uncomplicated: Theo wanted him gone, they were too close to each other’s range of prey, and if one failed at making one leave the other succeeded.
Freddie knew it was Theo waiting for him before he even stepped on the docks, Theo was sure. As if he’d ever let anyone think they’d scored a surprise on him. He moved over the deck in a whisper that barely registered and waited just out of reach of where Theo sat on the tiller. “Will you really miss me so much to leave a long goodbye? Ah, should I be touched?”
“I think you should hear me out,” Theo began.
“Theo, if you’re having second thoughts–”
“I think it’s best you took the chance to clear out. Freddie, they know.”
That smile didn’t disappear, but Freddie’s eyebrows crinkled and he tipped his head to better peer close at Theo, trying to pinpoint what was a tell even through a human glamour.
The gas light at the top of the cliff steps had come to life with its intermittent bursts of red and white, bright enough that even Theo could make it out. Even if he couldn’t see it himself, he knew the windows of the second floor of the manor were flickering alight one by one down the hall to Freddie’s room.
“They’re rifling through your room now, turning over everything you’ve faked. There’s not much protecting you.” His glamour slipped long enough for him to smile guilelessly with needlepoint teeth in an otherwise human face. It was the only outward thing he allowed to slip through that calm façade, as controlled as the furious current he’d called up around the ship and hidden below the surface of the water.
Freddie tipped his head the other way. His finger tapped at his chin and he let his eyes study Theo’s figure in the dark for signs of claws and tail. “Don’t be ridiculous, Theo. It’s just an act and they’re only human. If this face is found out, then I’ll only take a new one–”
A click from behind Freddie. Theo had been planning on that click, but still – the way it made Freddie freeze up, the way the kerosene lamp hanging from the boom lit up to throw Jimmy in flickering yellow light and make his pistol glisten – still it made his ribs feel too tight. Freddie tried to glance back and stopped when Jimmy pressed the muzzle into the back of his head, and Theo could swear he had never seen anything better in his life.
“You’ve gotten awfully good at twisting things around and taking what isn’t yours. Now they’re just giving things up to you. You didn’t even try to play that nice with me,” Freddie said. Finally he sounded something other than thrilled
“I’m not–” Jimmy started before he could stop himself, then narrowed his eyes. “Wait, you’re mad about what, a school-age grudge?”
The other merman tensed when Theo got to his feet, probably thinking which of the two of them would be the easiest to fake injury with before powering through, and Theo couldn’t blame him: he’d do the same.
“Is that what he told you?” Freddie spun slow on his heel, his smile stretching too wide to fit on that human face. “He can pretend well enough for you people, but playing teacher’s pet never did much good where we come from. It only makes things complicated.”
One step, two, and Freddie was well within that range Theo had warned Jimmy about. It was all Theo could do to not take that sharp breath of relief that Jimmy didn’t let on that he had any clue, that he disguised his edging back with the roll of the ship and adjustment of his grip on the navy-issue pistol.
Freddie stared down the barrel with that smile in place and a hand at his collarbone. “Tell me, do you think you inherit the house and title before your father’s dead, or after?”
“Bet he’s nowhere near half as bad as you,” Jimmy countered, but not without a moment of faltering where the muzzle of his pistol dropped those few millimeters, and Theo dared to split half his attention to eye Jimmy. “You killed that man, didn’t you? The real Johnson’s dead and you’re walking around in him like a suit.”
It was a mistake to take even half an eye off of Freddie; one second he was prowling at safe distance at the business end of a pistol, and a half-step and blurring of features later he was striking. Thick tentacles wrapped around Jimmy and stuck on fast with suckers; the gun twisted uselessly in a knot of flesh that bent Jimmy’s wrist back until it dangled from his fingertips.
Free from its disguise, Freddie’s face was the same sharp-boned fey Theo remembered, although a little more filled out from a stolen life with constant meals. He shone pale as a ghost next to Jimmy, his body rambling all over the deck and bulwark in every which way, hanging over the man’s shoulder for a better spot to threaten from.
“Now I’ve been wondering, Theo, where did you put the rest of her? I know you haven’t taken everything she left already.” One of those tentacles came up to point directly at Theo – but Jimmy’s eyes latched onto it instead, and Freddie’s smile twisted. “He did that too, you know.”
The limb had been obviously hacked off before; right where it tapered to be as thick around as Jimmy’s leg, and true as a starfish regrew arms or a lizard it’s tail, a slimmer tentacle had taken up growing from the ragged base. It glistened shiny and new from flesh torn up by teeth. The scarred semi-circle of a bite mark stared Jimmy right in the face.
“He won’t even argue it,” Freddie shrugged, all flounce at the glare Theo shot his way. But Theo didn’t dare hiss and bare his teeth like he wanted. That would be all Jimmy needed to look from Freddie to him, and compare.
“You came at me first, you’re lucky that’s all that got left behind.”
“Oh, Theo, no, I’m not mad still. There’s all the room for forgiveness.” A tentacle moved up Jimmy’s neck with the painful pop-stretch of skin and little red circle-shaped welts in its wake, to better curl around Jimmy’s jaw. Freddie tilted it up for display, obvious in how close he was to moving Jimmy’s mouth for him, same as a puppet. “We can share; there’s two of them, after all. Now, I understand if you’re partial to this one. It looks like you sunk your claws into him before I was even here.”
The dim flame from a kerosene lamp glimmered over those tentacles, Jimmy pulled in a taut arc in them. “But I’ll return your offer, you can take him. Then we’ll go on up and look all the world like James here visiting his dear sister for a spot of very bad news and–”
A thunderous crack. It left Theo reeling with the thought lightning had struck, but no: Jimmy’s pistol smoked from the muzzle and bounced to the deck where the recoil of that single shot had torn it from his hands. It would have been a shot to the core, if the target had been human.
Freddie staggered back with a hollow sound. Out of the knot of tentacles, one came up to press tight against the flow of dark sticky blood, and the rest of them tightened like a vise around Jimmy’s throat, leaving the young man to gasp and wheeze and choke.
It was all Theo needed. The wave he’d been calling up below the surface, since the very moment Freddie had stepped on deck, crashed up and over the side of the pilot cutter on a night where everything had been still as glass.
It tore at the suckers and ripped them from the surface, pushed him back until he reeled against the bulwark and had no option but to loosen that grip on Jimmy to better steady himself lest he be snatched up and dragged down to the harbor depths like the usual ship caught in one of Theo’s typhoons. The wave tore the legs out from Theo as well: throwing him to the deck, forcing him to brace himself by wrapping against the tiller as his glamour was torn to shreds.
There was that look from Freddie through the crashing wave, daring and desperate, ready for one last move – before he released the human aside for the wave to catch him up against the bulwark. A sickening crack sounded off and a sudden bloom of red from Jimmy’s forehead, and overboard he went.
Theo lunged after, into a cloud of ink so dense it clogged his nose and coated his gills until he choked. He surfaced again, the air burning the oily taste from his tongue, throat, lungs. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the ghost-gleam of white skin and a tentacle arching just below the surface and Theo dived back under.
…And kept going down. Nose burnt out, he trained his ears for the pulse he knew so well and followed the tug of his lateral lines as he drew closer to that weak putter of a human heartbeat. His arms shot out in the dark towards the still shape of a body that drifted on the current right out of his fingertips. On the second grab and fumble, he dug his claws into the shirt and pulled. The body hauled to his chest was already cold and getting colder; still, Theo headed for the surface again even though he knew that the beat of blood in those veins had slowed to a crawl. There was no way he’d drag Jimmy above in time with the air already crushed out of his lungs, but… But.
He came to a stop that sent his tail spiraling around Jimmy. One hand untangled from the young man’s shirt to slide up his neck, feeling for the beat of blood that was getting weaker all the time, up further to force his mouth open where no bubbles of air escaped. It was all the prompting he needed to bite into his own lip until blood drifted in the water around them.
It wasn’t the most graceful kiss; in fact, it could hardly be considered a kiss at all. Theo held Jimmy’s head in place and pushed forwards, not caring if he pricked himself on his own teeth so long as the copper tang of blood filled Jimmy’s mouth and made it past his tongue. With every second that ticked by, he tried not to think of what he’d do when he’d have to give up on it, let Jimmy sink back down and–
Jimmy choked into his mouth, arms instinctively scrambling to find some purchase in the water while his heart picked up its’ pumping again and he finally, finally opened his eyes to pitch-black ocean water that somehow didn’t sting his eyes, and the moonlit outline of Theo as he pulled away to give him room. He grabbed onto Theo’s arms, nose crinkled like he’d only been woken up from bed too early, until the burn in his throat left him gasping and water flooded his mouth.
Theo ducked in again mid-gasp with both hands cradling Jimmy’s head as he ran his tongue against Jimmy’s lips until all they could taste was blood and salt, and Jimmy stopped struggling now that the water moved down his nose as easily as air, that he could feel Theo moving around him without seeing or the actual touch on his skin.
The merman pulled free as quickly as he’d darted in in the first place, before he could catch the look of utter amazement that was working it’s way across Jimmy’s face. “There.” And then, “Come here.” And ,”That’s the only time I ever do this for you again.”
He sat next to Jimmy on the shore, webbed fingers heavy between the human’s shoulder blades as he coughed and spit out every drop of seawater from his lungs. Jimmy had started out strong, he always did, ready to walk out from the waves like nothing had happened.
For a moment Jimmy had looked at Theo like he dared a repeat of underwater; Theo could feel those brown eyes focused on his mouth, attentive at the way the merman licked away the trickle of blood from his lips with an almost-dainty swipe of his tongue. He’d gotten close, too close, Theo could feel his own magic buzzing under Jimmy’s skin when Jimmy grabbed onto his arm, leaned in, and… overbalanced to crash gracelessly into the sand as his body fought with him.
The switch from pulling oxygen from the water back to pulling it from the air wasn’t ever easy.
Tired and turned inside out from magic, he flopped onto the shore. Theo dragged him onto his back, his tail curling around to make a breaker against the tide.
“Th–” Jimmy choked on air and water. He leaned to the side, Theo’s hand at his nape as he spit the last of it up, and fell back into place with his arms tucked over his stomach. “Is that what it feels like? The whole…”
One hand weakly flopped out of the corner of Theo’s eye. He already knew, magic, it was the only word Jimmy never seemed to be able to carry through with.
“More than that,” he finally answered.
Theo could tell Jimmy was staring straight up, at least, but in the dark that was about all he could make out. He didn’t dare look closer to see Jimmy’s expression. So they lay in silence, nothing but Jimmy wheezing stubbornly for air and the gentle rush of waves.
Eventually there was a tugging at Theo’s wrist: Jimmy’s moving his hand to better pillow his head in the sand, but not letting go of Theo just yet. “You said… you said it passed on. Was that– that’s how you do it, isn’t it?”
“Ah.” Not with a bloody lip, though. Blood never lasted long enough. “…Yes.”
He let out a “huh,” falling into that lapse of quiet that he always did when thinking. Theo had the feeling that the grip on his wrist wasn’t one so much of laziness but a surprising burst of shrewdness for Jimmy, since he didn’t dare rip away from it and take off into the sea.
He’d helped Jimmy stumble up from the beach and to bed that night. Jimmy was brighter than given credit for, for all his trusting nature, and if he hadn’t put things together by the time he’d been delivered to his doorstep, Theo wasn’t willing to risk things wouldn’t fall into place for him once he’d had enough time to get some air to his brain and magic out of his blood.
And even though every notion of common sense he had told him to run right then and there, the second the door shut between them and he was out of Jimmy’s sight, he found himself still lingering in his guest room by morning. Then two mornings in a row after that. Yet he still hadn’t been evicted. He listened by the windows and door as news spread around the manor of the Capitol official who’d been a fraud and his escape into the night before he could be caught and turned in to the law. As the Campbell estate righted itself after the weeks of turmoil, and now with its inheriting son’s feet on land for once.
That third morning, he caught a glimpse of Jimmy marching right for the dock, and followed.
It wasn’t exactly that Jimmy was surprised when he looked up to see Theo standing at the foot of the cutter’s – Callista’s – gangplank. He’d hidden that not-so-subtle smile of his and motioned an invitation for Theo to come right on up, and it was only Theo’s stiff shoulders that kept Jimmy from offering an actual hand up as well. They taxied out of the harbor in that uneasy truce of a silence.
Or, tried to. They’d barely gone past the first line of buoys before Jimmy locked the tiller and ducked under the boom stand next to Theo, not quite touching but close enough to nudge a toe at his side. It earned a huff from the merman, who refused to act surprised even when Jimmy hovered over his shoulder with a hand at his back.
“I was starting to worry you’d taken off on me.”
That little chuckle under Jimmy’s breath had Theo pointedly looking straight out over the water. “Can’t imagine why. I was counting down the days until you chased me out of the house at knifepoint.”
“Theo…”Jimmy’s hand at his back trailed up until his fingers tickled at the hair at Theo’s nape, looking for the knot in Theo’s shoulders. “Well you sound like you’ve been hiding up there in a mood for days. Come off it.”
Meeting Jimmy with silence just had him raring to try again. “Don’t be stubborn, now.”
“Not stubborn. Realistic.” And caustic too, apparently. Jimmy’s hands flinched away from him at his tone, no flash of inhuman teeth needed.
At first he thought that would be the end of their little discussion. Jimmy had pulled away and settled to frown out at the horizon. It wouldn’t be a terrible point to part ways: a moody standoff with only the sound of waves and sail.
“I could have sworn that you were a lot nicer to me, once,” Jimmy finally piped up, ruining it all.
“I’m sure you’ll still get that from plenty of people. We’re a little past that, far as I’m concerned.”
Theo snorted at that. “Really. I dropped the act around you weeks ago, you know tha–”
He froze at the kiss. It was clumsy at the angle Jimmy had darted in at, almost a little naive for all that it was a quick peck that slipped from his lips. But it surprised him while Jimmy rested a heavy hand across his shoulders to make sure he didn’t budge.
“There’s no one close enough to see you. Are you sure you don’t want to..?” It wasn’t that the kiss had caught Theo so by surprise that he needed a hint (Jimmy’s finger-waggle shorthand for ‘magic’) to regain his composure. No, on the contrary, that was obviously Jimmy’s issue. Being able to step back from that kiss in one piece, with no hissing or claws shoved in his face, had obviously given Jimmy some sort of swelled head, because Theo couldn’t think of a single reason anyone would ask for it.
There was that moment of hesitation. Theo’s fingers gripped onto the rigging behind him like it was the only thing keeping him from falling overboard. When he didn’t move, Jimmy let out a dissatisfied breath and bent down enough their noses almost bumped together as he spoke. “What was that you just said, Theo? You dropped your act?”
The glamour fell away before Jimmy was even finished, taking three days’ worth of pent-up discomfort with it, and the young man stepped right over his tail like he was an old pro at it as it rolled out. Theo’s gills flared for salt air, pupils slits once again. He’d barely even begun to open his mouth to speak before Jimmy was grinning at him, and Theo’s eyebrows furrowed.
“What?” he snapped, all bristled fins and gills as Jimmy tried to get that smile under control. The end of his tail looped around and in between Jimmy’s ankles and he couldn’t help the warning hiss that rose up in his throat.
Jimmy braced a hand against the ship’s mast over Theo’s shoulder. All stupid, trusting, human bravado. “I didn’t think you were actually going to listen.”
And then he was licking his way carefully past Theo’s lips like he’d tried that night coming ashore, absolutely fearless in navigating needle-sharp fangs.
Jimmy’s hands were hot, but his mouth was hotter still, and when hands and tongue weren’t enough and Jimmy moved to straddle him with all that warm-blooded heat rolling off him like a furnace, Theo wanted nothing more but to pull it closer. He curled around Jimmy. Not just hands knotted in the man’s shirt collar, but his tail circling up Jimmy’s hips and rolling between his legs.
It was halfway through a kiss – kisses Theo soon learned he didn’t mind, once he realized they were incredibly better than when he’d tried to coax blood into Jimmy’s mouth – that Jimmy’s hands braced on his shoulders (so similar to all those familiar pats and friendly shakes there’d always been an excuse for those past weeks). It wasn’t much of a struggle, Theo reasoned; not until Jimmy leaned forwards enough into his own kisses that Theo slid down the mast to laying on his back on the deck and could barely find the leverage to do much of anything in return.
His tail, especially the coil around Jimmy’s middle, yanked tight on instinct. There was a moment where he felt ribs creak in protest.
“Theo…” If Jimmy was protesting of the accidental rough treatment or of just being held back, or just maybe the heave and roll of the tail he straddled, Theo couldn’t exactly tell which it was. Jimmy’s gaze dragged down Theo to where hips would have been not even minutes ago. That impatient, all-too-human frustration was obvious by the set of his jaw and huff as he leaned back in.
“Jimmy,” Theo replied, lips close to brushing but not quite close enough, to the point of irritating. He sprawled over the deck, all loose-limbed like he’d only previously dared to relax down in the baths, the controlled opposite to Jimmy’s tensed thighs pressing against either side of him. “And what do you suppose you’re doing?”
Jimmy’s pulse picked up enough Theo could feel it through his lateral lines. “I want this to be fair.”
“Fair,” came the deadpan.
“Yes, fair.” Those hands came searching back down his belly and sides, fingers pressing against bronze speckles on Theo’s darker skin, obviously the reason for the warmth pooling in his stomach. “Theo, help me here. I know you can’t be all fish.”
Instead Theo shifted around Jimmy in another pull and push of eel tail, which the man admirably covered up his surprise with an aristocratic snort. When his eyes squinted open again and Theo caught his own expression reflected back in them – eyes wide and black with the thinnest ring of gray sclera, like a shark on the hunt – Theo knew there wouldn’t be much believing him when he innocently said, “I don’t think this is unfair at all.”
“I swear, Theo, if you don’t stop being difficult and give me a hint…!”
“…I think it’d be a shame.” His fin shivered and dark, slick skin twitched under that warm touch. “Because it is your idea, but I think I’ve figured things out just fine.”
Jimmy tipped his head to his chest and cursed at that. Or maybe, possibly, at the way Theo’s tail tip had slipped over his clothed hip, pushed past the loosened buttons of his trousers and kept going until the flat fin cradled every inch of warmth it could. Maybe that had something to do with it, too.
Humans, Theo realized, could be just as flexible as any eel if given the chance. After all, who knew Jimmy could curve so exceptionally to meet the pressure of hands on his thighs while being constricted with a coil round his ribs; or how he could strive to kiss and let out shallow breaths against Theo’s lips even as he was restrained just too far out of reach to make it comfortable. Or the way he tilted his hips to escape that frilled tail tip, which was insistent but didn’t have enough friction to finish the job. No one could blame Theo for finding it all distracting.
“A-ah! What are you–!”
“Found it,” Jimmy beamed up at him. Somehow he looked so proud of himself, so utterly the noble victorious sailor, despite his flush that reached down to his rumpled collar and his heaving chest. He looked ridiculous, Theo wavered on telling him as much, and the words clenched behind fangs as Jimmy dared to curl fingers over skin that had ever seen dry air maybe once before in Theo’s life.
Jimmy’s palm felt rough and burned compared to when it had run over the rest of Theo – though not for lack of attempted gentleness. And through it all, Jimmy kept beaming.
“See, Theo,” Jimmy said, with another loose glide of his hand. He had to be feigning ignorance of the way Theo’s claws dug in to the deck and dragged up little curls of varnish. Even with his preoccupation with getting his trousers completely unbuttoned and working his way around Theo’s tail tip, all one-handed. And still talking, with those brown eyes that Theo couldn’t rip away from.
“I meant what I said before. Sure, be obtuse about it, but it’s the principle of the… thing…”
Everything paused. Jimmy’s glance down had only lasted a fraction of a moment, but Theo had caught it and it seemed to last for minutes, and so had Jimmy’s double-take. He felt himself bristle up all over again.
The smart thing to do was definitely not to rush in on a merman with your fingers tangling in his dark hair so he couldn’t back away and then kiss him. For Jimmy, it worked.
Jimmy shifted forwards until the only thing Theo could do was pry his hands from the deck and bury his claws in the folds of the young man’s shirt. And then it was that overwhelming human warmth smothering him all over again, with soft sounds gasping into his mouth. He hissed at the blunt nudge of Jimmy’s erection lining up against his own, already prepared for the drag of dry friction he knew would follow, but it was slick fin that wrapped around them and cradled in Jimmy’s grip; Theo started and the fingers in his hair tightened and kept him in place so he couldn’t chance a look, the same way Jimmy’s hand around them gave a shaky stroke before it steadied.
He didn’t last much longer, even with slippery skin and Jimmy’s precome easing the drag in the salty air. He shuddered with heaving gills as he came, tried to meet Jimmy’s kiss even as his arching back meant he fell short to nose below Jimmy’s jaw. Theo heard the paper-soft sound of his teeth opening and scraping over the pulse of Jimmy’s neck more than felt it, all restrained sharp edges against the young man’s jugular.
There was probably a talk to be had, that that was the moment that made Jimmy come undone, but it wasn’t a line of thought Theo could manage as he slumped to the deck. Instead he let his eyes fall half shut and watched Jimmy braced above him stroking them both through the aftershocks, until finally Jimmy’s energy and arms gave out, and he toppled over against Theo’s chest in a tangled pile of human limbs and merman tail.
“I heard you talking with Eleanor, yesterday,” Theo finally broke the silence, long after he’d regained the ability to hear anything other than pounding heartbeats, and only because the young man at his side had driven him to it by running Theo’s audal fin between his fingers for minutes. Jimmy struggled up to his elbows (about as far as he could get with half a merman bonelessly sprawled over him) just long enough to rest his chin against Theo’s ribs, barely avoiding the mess that had dried on Theo’s stomach.
“Ellie? Oh, about a contractor.” He shrugged, gargantuan effort it was. Theo squinted, pupils still in between his usual slits and the total black of a quarter-hour before, and Jimmy avoided his eyes with a guarded smile. “I thought it might be as good a time as ever to make some changes.”
More squinting, this time with furrowed eyebrows and gills that had clamped shut with all the poignancy of a held breath. “…Like?”
“Oh, maybe knocking out a linen closet or three for a fish tank.”
It might have been a question, but it sounded enough like a request for Theo to regret it. Before he could make up for it with one of his biting comments, Jimmy had already rolled over – although not nearly fast enough to completely hide his grin.
“I was thinking about putting a shark in it.”
He hadn’t meant to look as insulted as he was. But he did. Jimmy caught it out of the corner of his eye and laughed.
“You are a terrible human being,” Esq. Weever finished, over a threateningly sloshing glass of wine. It was not without a party-appropriate sneer.
There was utter quiet. From behind him, turned away in separate (exhausting) conversation that had turned hushed, Theo thought he heard a snort from Jimmy that sounded an awful lot like a muffled laugh. He didn’t dare look back to check, instead giving the guest before him as guileless a look as he could muster.
“Yes,” he agreed.
If it was a snort before, now it sounded like Jimmy was choking on his hors d’oeuvre – a perfect distraction. Politely, he excused himself and, taking Jimmy by the arm with one hand, and the other giving a solid thump between Jimmy’s shoulder blades, ducked them away before he risked having his dress shirt ruined by means of red wine thrown in his face.
It wasn’t until they’d hidden in a corner sheltered from view by an overlarge floral arrangement on one side and the door to the butler pantry and kitchens on the other that Jimmy managed to unclog his throat. “God, Theo! You can’t do that, Ellie will make it a nightmare for us.”
“But it is true, hm?” He gave the slightest tilt of his head, that look he knew Jimmy could never decide if it was innocent confusion over human society or Theo playing a very subtle, very convoluted game of making fun of humankind. Likely both, but more frequently the latter.
“Don’t you–” Jimmy paused to cough, trying to keep the smile off his face all the while. “Don’t you think you can get away with that forever. You’re not terrible.”
“I’ve yet to see anything but an upside to being a terrible human being, honestly. You seem to like it enough.”
“Theo.” No. Couldn’t keep the straight face. As stern as he sounded, Jimmy’s grin ruined the entire effect.
“Well one of has to be. So you” –he brushed crumbs from Jimmy’s lapel, smoothed a buttonhole that had pulled– “are nominated to apologize and put him to rights in the morning. He needs to think our counter-offer to him and the Bradlee Estate is not only the best he’s going to get, but us being generous. It isn’t, but, you know how it goes.”
A pause. There might have been a flicker of slit pupils. Mostly it was Theo deciding that the bow of Jimmy’s necktie just wasn’t symmetrical enough, which he fixed. “I can also guarantee you that the caviar he’s had snuck to his room will not sit well with him tonight.”
Jimmy caught himself and closed his mouth, taken aback at the suggestion he apologize or over Theo’s daring to order him around, who could tell exactly. “…You are terrible.”
“Yes,” Theo agreed.