Happy belated New Year, everyone! I'm finally getting around to posting some fics from previous years from my Ao3. Here's hoping that 2023 is way better than the hellhole that the past few years have turned out to be. I'm sure we're all ready for a year where people aren't ridiculously selfish, dumb, and generally just hostile. Here's keeping our fingers crossed!

This is my No.6 Secret Santa 2021 gift to Eyp. Eyp, I hope you enjoy this fic! The concept just flowed so well that I couldn't help but keep writing and writing. The word count kept growing, and I could have kept going with it forever, to be honest. Like several of my other fics, I'll probably extend this fic outward later on once the rest of my projects have been completed.

Hope you're all staying safe and well! Here's to an amazing New Year!


"The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever."

— Jacques Cousteau

"Here's your turbo," Safu declared, sitting down opposite Shion at the booth. They were at their favorite café on the other side of Kronos, perched at one of the large window-seats overlooking the bay.

It was one of Shion's favorite places, simply for its amazing view of the ocean. The sapphire blue waves lapped against the edge of the pier, the shush-shush sound of the ocean sending comforting prickles down his spine. During the early morning hours, the sunlight glistened across the smooth surface, the pale blue sky streaked with pale pinks and vibrant oranges.

"Oh," Shion said in surprise as Safu slid the green foam cup across the table toward him. "Thank you. I ordered a decaf, though."

"I canceled it. You looked like you could use the caffeine."

Shion exhaled through his nose, knowing it wouldn't do him any good to argue. He thanked Safu, popped back the heat-saver from the plastic cover, then took a hesitant sip of the coffee. Safu had doused it with enough creamer and granulated sugar to keep the bitter bite of the espresso from stinging his tongue, but Shion could still feel the caffeine buzzing through him.

"Speaking of caffeine," Safu said, taking a sip of her own coffee. Having been friends for as long as they had, Shion knew that Safu took her coffee as black as the night sky in the middle of the city, devoid of stars due to the constant streaks of artificial lighting. Shion's nose wrinkled just thinking about it. He'd never been able to get past the bitterness of the coffee beans. "You might want to bring one to go once you finish that one. Don't you have the new wave of summer interns starting today?"

Shion exhaled, all traces of his previous good mood fluttering out the door. "Don't remind me."

Summers were a difficult time for the West Block Aquarium and, more importantly, its staff. Kronos was a buzzing tourist town, and the summer months brought about college students, wealthy benefactors, and worst of all, summer interns.

"Poor thing," Safu remarked, taking another sip of her coffee. "Well, maybe it won't be so bad. Who knows? The interns this year could be… delightful."

They both shuddered in unison. Shion and Safu had been friends since they were little—Grade 1, to be exact, after Safu got in trouble for punching two boys in the face who called Shion "girly" for his pretty white hair—and both had gone on to pursue careers where interns came and went through a constant revolving door.

Though Shion had obtained full-time employment as a pseudo marine biologist at the West Block Aquarium, Safu had went on to pursue a medical degree working alongside children. Her talent rested with biology (of the mammalian variety, not the aquatic), but despite the clear differences in their professions, Shion and Safu shared one similar headache: summer interns.

"So, how's your mom doing?" Safu asked.

"She's all right," Shion replied. "Just getting ready for the summer rush. Tourists and all that."

"She's a saint." Safu lifted her coffee cup with a solemn expression. "I don't know how I would have gotten through my undergraduate without the croissants she sent in her care packages."

Shion huffed out a laugh and took another sip of his coffee. He could already feel the caffeine working its way through his veins.

He allowed a bit of silence to fall around him, the only reprieve he'd get today. As soon as he left for work in an hour, his day would be consumed with learning the group dynamic in this summer's early wave of interns, squeezing work in between answering questions for the flood of customers arriving for the first day of the summer season, and banging his head against the glass walls of the tanks he was in charge of maintaining.

Shion felt something soft rest on top of his head. He glanced up to see Safu tapping her fingers against his temple, softly going, "pomf" to herself.

He leaned back out of reach, fighting back a smile. "What are you doing?"

"Trying to figure out where I can purchase a brush strong enough to tame that mop of yours." Safu took her hand back, flashing a smile. "It's such a pretty color, and it's a shame it just sticks up all over the place."

"Well, it's not my fault. I spend most of the time in the water. It's hard to find a shampoo that can handle all that water damage."

"Damage?" Safu reached out again and patted Shion on the top of the head. "This isn't damage. You are the only person alive who can spend seventy-five percent of their life in water and come out with hair this soft."

"Stop it," Shion said, but it was light-hearted. His hair had always been a point of conflict in his life. Since the moment he was born—sporting snowy hair and bright ruby eyes—Shion had always fought off rude stares and invasive questions. His mother had helped him construct several convincing lies to help discourage people from continuing to pester him. These lies had ranged from childhood illness in Grades 1 through 4, and then expensive dye jobs during his time as a teenager. Shion had never liked the thought of dyeing his hair, but lying to folks that his bizarre hair and eye color were the results of a bottle of Manic Panic and colored contacts kept them from prying and discovering the truth.

Though, even if Shion did break down and tell people the truth—that his father was a merperson who'd seduced his human mother years ago before splitting without a trace, leaving her with a hybrid son whose hair and eyes and ability to breathe underwater were his only connection to his heritage—he doubted anyone would ever believe him.

Except for Safu.

When Shion finally broke down and told Safu the truth, she'd taken the information with a smile. Coming to terms that there were other creatures dwelling in her world came simply. Safu remarked that new species were being discovered all the time. Of course it made sense that there could be merpeople. The ocean hadn't been completely explored, after all.

Sometimes Shion wondered why a relationship with Safu had never occurred to him. She was a beautiful girl, and always had been; petite with straight brown hair that fell to her shoulders (she'd let it grow out in recent years), dark eyes that saw everything, and a friendly smile that invited people to let their guard down. More than that, Safu was amazingly kind… to the people she liked. She never judged anyone unless they gave her a reason to assume they were judging her, and she was fiercely protective of her friends.

When they were teenagers, Safu had expressed feelings for Shion that he hadn't been able to reciprocate. Maybe it was because Safu was accustomed to rejection, or maybe it was because she was just a wonderful, loving person, but Shion's gentle apology in his inability to return her feelings hadn't stopped her from remaining his best friend.

And when Shion came staggering home one night and called her, squealing with excitement that he'd found someone like him—someone from the sea—Safu had squealed and gushed with him.

Shion shook the thought away before he could dwell on it. Remembering the summers he spent between the ages of sixteen and nineteen were painful for him. He'd formed a romance with a boy from the sea, a boy Shion could picture himself spending the rest of his life with, and then, without explanation or reason, he'd simply vanished into thin air. Zip. Poof. Gone. As if he'd never been there in the first place.

"Hey, Shion. Earth to Shion."

He looked up. "Huh?"

Safu took one look at his face, and instantly, she knew. "Thinking about Nezumi again?"

Hearing his name sent a knife through Shion's heart. "No," he said, but the lie was pointless. He'd never been any good at telling lies to Safu.

Safu clicked her tongue. When Nezumi stopped showing up at the beach, Safu had been furious. She ranted and raved for months about him, furious that he could break Shion's heart like that. When the next summer came and he still didn't show up, Safu's anger cooled into concern. When another year passed, she and Shion mutually agreed that something awful must have happened to Nezumi and tried to mourn.

"Do you want to talk about it," she said gently, "or change the subject?"

"Change the subject, please."

"Of course." Safu took a deep breath, composing her thoughts, and then she said, somewhat loudly, "Well, it won't be so bad, right? How long do summer internships last at the aquarium, again?"

"Three months," Shion said, grateful for the change in topic. He took all the pent-up feelings he still had toward Nezumi, even now, and shoved them to the side. If they festered there and turned into a cancerous tumor, he'd deal with it when that time came.

"Ugh, lucky. Our internships last six months."

"Aren't all of your interns medical students, though?" Shion stole a brief glance out the window. He wondered if he would catch a familiar flash of black and silver, and then promptly scolded himself for daring to hope.

"Yes, and most of them are lovely. But then you have those ones." Safu rolled her eyes, and Shion instantly knew which ones she meant.

The children of wealthy parents whose only major contribution to the field was that they spent a lot of money and therefore expected that their children could sail through the program without any effort. Shion had dealt with plenty of those types, too, working at the aquarium. Wealthy donors often assumed a nice dosage of cash would land their children a high-paying, low-effort job once they finished their degree program. Shion lost count of the number of arguments he and other coworkers had had with interns whose ultimate defense was the phrase: "Do you have any idea who my parents are?"

"Maybe this year will be different," Shion said, not at all confident. He'd been working full-time at the West Block Aquarium for two years, since he turned twenty-two, and not once had a summer internship term been "different".

"It could be," Safu replied solemnly. She and Shion shared a mutual nod, and then smiled.

With traffic, it was a forty-minute drive across downtown Kronos, and another three minutes to find a halfway decent parking space in front of the West Block Aquarium that didn't result in Shion needing to sprint across the parking lot like a lunatic in order to clock in on time.

Shion smoothed his hands through his hair, pressing the tangled locks down against his skull. They bounced back up as he dropped his hands to his sides, and he gave up trying to look presentable.

His white hair, no matter how smooth or messy it was, always attracted attention from the college interns the aquarium employed. Most of them thankfully assumed it was just a dye job—an expensive, extremely thorough dye job, but a dye job nonetheless—but it elicited more than a few stares every year.

Shion scanned his ID badge at the employee entrance and ducked inside. He let the heavy metal door bang shut behind him, sighing as he stepped into the foyer of the employee lounge, cooled by the strong air conditioning unit Rikiga had installed. He tossed his empty coffee cup into the trash can, briefly considering using the Keurig to make himself another cup.

"Hey, Shion."

Shion turned and spotted his coworker, Yamase, sitting at one of the little brown tables. He clutched a travel mug of tea—Yamase never liked drinking coffee, remarking that no matter how much creamer and sugar he doused it with, he could still taste the "disgusting bean water"—and he looked utterly exhausted.

Shion's stomach plummeted. "Interns?"

"Interns," Yamase agreed bitterly.

Shion huffed out a breath and went to the Keurig. "Please tell me there's at least a few halfway decent ones."

He prided himself on being an optimist—it was one of his best qualities, according to his mom, Safu, and everyone else he'd ever talked to, and Shion was pretty certain it was the primary reason Rikiga had given him the job in the first place—but something about summer interns made even someone with Shion's extensive threshold for patience eager for the workday to end.

"Rikiga's already deep into his cup," Yamase explained, rolling his eyes. "Big surprise. Anyway, I've only met the first few, and supposedly, we've got two others starting tomorrow."

"So, what exactly are we dealing with?" Shion popped a K-cup into the machine and hit brew. He shoved a paper cup beneath the dispenser and listened to the whir of the machine as the water heated up.

Yamase took a deep sip of his tea. "Well, there's a girl who's just started her second year at the community college who thinks she wants to go into marine biology. Kudos and all that, but she's already expecting that we'll hire her once she graduates since she's interning with us."

"Oh, dear."

"Yeah," Yamase groaned. "You know how that's gonna go. I wonder if we'll have the parents down here again. You remember that?"

Shion shuddered. "How could I forget?" He could still hear the shrill sound of the woman's voice as she shrieked at Rikiga in the lobby about why he'd rejected her daughter's application for full-time employment after she'd "slaved away all summer at this dirty, stinking place, and for what?" Never mind that Shion had found her in the employee lounge multiple times during her shift, sneaking alcohol and trying to steal merchandise from the gift shop when she thought no one was looking.

"Maybe she'll be a good fit," Shion said, a little too hopefully.

"She bounces when she talks," Yamase said drily.

"Excuse me?"

"Like full on hops on her heels." Yamase gave a small demonstration, bouncing twice in his chair before widening his eyes and giving Shion a blank, dead stare. "She also talks like this." He raised his voice up at the end, almost as if he were asking a question. "With an upward inflection at the end of it. As if she has no idea what she's doing here."

"That is so creepy," Shion shuddered. "Please stop."

"You think that's creepy. Try listening to her do it." Yamase sighed and took a deep gulp from his travel mug. "The lights are definitely on, but no one's been home for years."

Shion pinched the bridge of his nose. Wonderful. Just what the aquarium needed. He plucked his cup from the Keurig and dumped a healthy heaping of sugar and creamer packets into the cup.

"The new hire for the gift shop's hot, though," Yamase said.

Shion raised an eyebrow. "Oh?"

"Don't worry—he's our age," Yamase assured. "I checked. Not in college, as far as I can tell. Just looking for some extra cash at a part-time job or something. And you know I'm not really into guys, but dang, something about this guy just… I don't know. Just wait until you see him." Yamase exhaled. "It's his eyes, man."

Shion huffed out a laugh and took a sip of his coffee. After the turbo Safu had ordered for him, it felt watered down and weak, but Shion savored the buzz of caffeine.

"He must be something, then," Shion said, "if you've noticed him."

"You have no idea. You're single, right? Maybe you have a shot."

Shion clicked his tongue. "You sound like Safu."

"Well, maybe you should start listening to us!" Yamase tipped his head back and finished off the last of his tea. "Maybe we should strong-arm your mother into it. I'm sure that'd make you start looking."

Shion couldn't help but smile. He'd tried dating during his undergraduate, and it hadn't worked. All the men he went out with made snide comments about his hair—"Do the carpets match the drapes? Ha ha, just kidding. Unless…?"—or thought his fascination with sea life bordered on obsessive. Shion wouldn't have felt comfortable letting them know the truth: that his "obsession" with sea life stemmed from the fact that he came from the same place.

And besides, none of them had made him feel the way Nezumi had.

Not only did Nezumi come from the ocean—Shion could picture the black and blue scales on his long, elegant tail perfectly, like obsidian and sapphires, and his beautiful silver eyes, like the edge of a blade in the sunlight—he never thought Shion's ramblings were bizarre. He laughed at him, sure, but it was good-natured and beautiful, like the chiming of bells. He could swim faster and deeper than Shion, and he brought him pretty shells and oysters containing pearls from the bottom of the sea where Shion couldn't swim without raising more than a few eyebrows.

During their summer interactions as teenagers, Shion had never been able to convince Nezumi to come onto the shore. He knew it was possible—his own father had done it years ago—but whenever he asked, Nezumi quickly changed the subject.

Shion's heart ached, his eyes stinging. The last time he saw Nezumi, they had been eighteen years old. He could still feel the brush of Nezumi's lips against his own, tasting of saltwater. Shion could have kissed him forever.

Shion quickly shook the thoughts away. He couldn't afford to get caught up on thoughts of Nezumi anymore. He needed to focus on the new interns and aquarium employees.

Yamase rose and rinsed his travel mug in the sink. The dark blue of his janitor's uniform stood out against the stark gray walls of the employee lounge. "Well, count yourself lucky you don't have to deal with most of the interns. You spend most of your time in Number Six. I'm the one who's gotta spend the whole day trapped in the gift shop."

Shion cracked a smile. Number Six was the main tank in the direct center of the aquarium, the first major exhibit available as soon as customers walked through the door. Shion's primary job was to jump into the tank every couple of hours, toss smelt and other dead things at the bigger fish, ensure that the pH levels were safe, and make sure the sand tigers didn't bully the nurse sharks. Shion never would have pegged sharks to have some weird social hierarchy, but it was there. He'd lost count of the times he'd had to chase away the sand tiger with the blunt snout (who he'd affectionally nicknamed Snubby) from the large nurse shark (Nurse Anne) with the chunk bitten out of her dorsal fin.

Number Six was also known to Yamase and the other janitors as the BFT: the Big Fucking Tank. Shion didn't like calling it that, but he supposed when the janitors spent most of their shift spraying Windex on the glass and wiping away fingerprints and saliva—seriously, did little kids lick everything?—it made sense they would come to hate it.

The majority of the interns and summer hires started out as cashiers in the gift shop. During his dips in Number Six, Shion could spot the little alcove through the glass, watching as the interns in their bright green tee-shirts displaying the West Block Aquarium logo fumbled through each transaction.

"I wonder if the wannabee marine biologist will try to jump in the tank with you," Yamase said, eyeing Shion in his periphery. "She doesn't seem thrilled about the idea of starting as a cashier."

"They all start out as cashiers," Shion replied, taking another sip of his coffee. It had already begun to go cold. "She shouldn't expect special treatment. Retail work can be humbling."

"Is it twisted that I love watching the rich kids get screamed at by entitled jerks?" Yamase's dark eyes flashed as he turned to face Shion. "Like, I know retail's rough and all, but some of these kids are so fucking bratty, and seeing the looks on their faces when they realize that no one cares about how much money they have just warms my heart."

Shion shook his head. "You're awful," he said, but he couldn't help the smile that spread across his face.

"Yup, and you're equally as awful. I know you enjoy it, too." Yamase put his travel mug back into the cupboard where the rest of the employees kept their spare mugs. "Well, I need to get out there and make sure the place is ready for opening. Finish up your coffee. You're gonna need it. You know they're probably gonna ask about the hair."

"And the eyes," Shion sighed. "They always do."

"You could dye it."

"Safu would literally kill me."

Yamase rolled his eyes. "She might, but wouldn't it be better than dealing with another wave of 'wait, they let marine biologists dye their hair? Can you wear contacts underwater? Duuuuude.'"

Shion fought back a shudder. Too many times he'd had to deflect questions surrounding his odd hair color and the piercing shade of his irises. Albinism was a rare trait in humans, and Shion's skin wasn't nearly pale enough to pass for it. The odd red marking on his skin—scaled, if people looked close enough, which Shion never let anyone do—definitely shattered the illusion. Shion had hoped people would have a bit of common decency and not ask such invasive questions, but he was often disappointed. Almost every summer, someone cornered him in the break room and demanded to know why his hair was so white, what made his eyes red, how many bleaches did it take to achieve that color, did people think he was less professional because he looked like he was cosplaying all the time?

Sometimes Shion wondered if he should joke that he was a merman. Well, half a merman, anyway.

As soon as the thought crossed his mind, he could hear Nezumi's voice snap, "Child of the Sea! Not merman. That's a human word." His mood instantly darkened, and Shion shook his head.

"Child of the Sea" was the preferred term in the underwater community, or so Shion had been told. Only human beings used words like "mermaid" and "merman". Despite the wave of sorrow that Shion felt whenever the thought of Nezumi came rushing back, he couldn't help the small flicker of warmth that kindled itself in his heart.

"Well," Yamase sighed. "I'm heading back. Rip the Band-Aid off."

"All right."

"See you in a few," Yamase replied with a wave, ducking out into the hallway. "Good luck!"

Shion exhaled and took another sip of his cool coffee. Summer interns. At least he had a reprieve from them when he dove into the tank. He took a few moments to sip his coffee, reveling in the silence he knew would soon be broken. Ah, well. It was only eight-thirty in the morning. Seven o'clock would come soon enough.

Shion finished his coffee, pulled on his white lab coat, and trotted out to the main foyer. The West Block Aquarium opened at ten o'clock on the dot—despite his active drinking and usual forgetfulness, Rikiga was oddly punctual—and the first hour would be spent preparing for the shift and greeting the interns and summer help.

Shion plastered a big smile on his face and tried to be positive. Summer interns were frustrating, but he had to remember that he was once in their shoes, too. Several years ago, he'd been a bright-eyed intern working at this same aquarium. Ignoring his obvious one-up over the other interns—primarily the fact that he could breathe underwater (secretly, of course) and understood ocean life in a way that astounded his professors and quickly moved him through his undergraduate degree with flying colors—he'd enjoyed working alongside other interns.

As he hurried toward the main foyer, stationed direction in front of Number Six, he couldn't help but marvel at the decorations welcoming the new wave of summer customers. Bright plastic statues of sea lions and talking starfish lined the floors, gesturing toward the hallways and announcing exhibits. Neat signs with fun facts and information about the exhibit inhabitants sat in front of glass cages, and the sound of rushing water sounded like music to Shion's ears.

Shion trotted almost everywhere. His colleagues joked that he was always in a hurry. Shion didn't know if it was because he moved faster in the water than on land, even without the function of a tail, but he couldn't help it. He jogged everywhere he went: meetings, feedings, the break room. Sometimes he worried he looked ridiculous—a young man in a white lab coat with obviously dyed hair (ha) jogging like a toddler through the aquarium—but if he did, no one commented one way or the other about it.

The four-story tank, illuminated with bright LED lights at the base and on each conjoining floor, wrapping upward in a slanted ramp like a makeshift spiral staircase, rose into view as Shion stepped out into the main exhibit. The brightly-colored tropical fish swam lazily through the teal water, their dark eyes staring blankly out at Shion as he approached the two individuals standing near the door, awaiting his arrival.

Shion swallowed the wave of frustration that surged inside him, caging it behind his clenched teeth as he kept the smile plastered on his face His colleagues had left him to deal with the new interns on his own.

Ha ha, funny.

As he approached the two interns—a young woman with vibrant pink hair (clearly a dye job, and a rather inexpensive one, at that, if the blond roots at the top were any indication) and a young man with dark hair yanked back into a ponytail, both dressed in the bright green West Block Aquarium staff shirt—the girl broke away from the tank and came sprinting up toward Shion.

"Oh, hi!" she shrieked, her voice piercing through the vacant walls of the aquarium. It carried, so sharp and sudden that Shion felt as if a knife had been drilled into his ear.

He flinched—the other intern did, too—and jerked to a halt.

"You must be Shion, right? Mr. Rikiga mentioned you'd be stopping by!" The girl clapped her hands, as if the idea of meeting Shion was too exciting to be contained inside her little body. "I'm so excited to be working with you! My name's Miyamoto Emi, but my friends call me Emi-chan. Oh, darn, can I call you Shion, or is that too informal? Gosh, this is so exciting!"

Shion gawked down at the girl, unsure of what to say. She looked about twenty years old, short in a way that was noticeable even to someone like Shion. He wasn't very tall, himself—he rose to a respectable five-feet-seven-inches—and this girl rose to the middle of his chest. She tipped her head back to look into his face, her dark brown eyes wide with excitement, and yep, there was the bouncing Yamase had mentioned. With each syllable that left her mouth, she rose an inch off the ground and then came down hard on her heels. She wore a pair of black flip-flops (definitely not regulation, according to the employee handbook, which Rikiga definitely didn't enforce), and the rubber soles thumped rhythmically on the solid tile floor.

"Mr. Rikiga said you were a marine biologist," Emi went on. "That must be so exciting. I've wanted to be a marine biologist since I was a little girl. I've always loved turtles, and I just wanna be able to work with them. Oh, wow!" Her eyes widened further—how was that possible?—and she stared at Shion's white hair.

His stomach plummeted.

"Your hair—" she said, a shriek building in her throat. Shion could see it. Her shoulders quaked beneath the force of it, her whole body unable to contain the sheer joy that came from seeing Shion's pristine white hair coupled with his lab coat. "Where do you get your hair done? Do you do it yourself? My friend Mariko did my hair"—she grabbed a lock of her own pink hair and shoved it toward Shion—"but it doesn't look nearly as good as yours does!"

"Um, thank you." Shion gave her a wobbly smile. This was a new development. Sometimes the interns were cold and stand-offish, and sometimes they were uninterested in the position.

This, however? This was new.

Shion felt his head spinning as he tried to focus on the girl bouncing in front of him. He glanced over her shoulder, seeking out the second intern. The young man was staring at Emi as if she'd just exploded and scattered across the foyer in an array of glitter. His hair framed his face, long and pulled into a high ponytail. He had a narrow, pale face, and Shion wondered briefly if this was the young man Yamase had mentioned back in the break room. He squinted over Emi's head—where did she get the energy to keep bouncing like this?—examining the young man's face to see what about him Yamase had been so taken by.

The young man was tall and thin, his hair a dark shade of black that Shion suspected would look blue in certain lighting. Even with the fluorescent bulbs in the aquarium itself, he could pick out the few pale gray strands and blue bits that made the young man's hair beautiful rather than plain. His skin was far too pale for the lime-green of the staff shirt, and it made him look sickly and washed out.

He lifted his head to give Shion a look that clearly read 'Poor you', and Shion managed to get a good look at his eyes.

It's his eyes, man.

Two bright silver coins stared back at Shion, narrowed in a way that Shion recognized as someone trying to figure out where they recognized someone from. His stomach twisted. Flecks of blue and white danced behind a pale of solid silver glass, shifting depending on his mood. When he was happy, they were vibrant and luminous. When he was aggravated, they darkened like the sky over a stormy sea. Shion had seen them in almost every variant, and he stood there, dumbstruck, as the young man stared into his face, too—taking in his bright red irises, the red marking wrapped around his throat, and his vibrant white hair—and finally, finally recognized him.

His jaw dropped. It was an almost comical look, but he managed to make it look beautiful. He unfolded his arms from across his chest, letting them fall limply at his sides.

"Shion?" he said.

His voice. His voice. Shion could still hear it in his memories. The peals of laughter, the shouts whenever they argued, the gentle songs he sang. All of it came flooding back in a crushing wave that made Shion feel as if he were drowning. His lungs were designed to pull oxygen both on land and beneath the surface. Shion would never know how it felt to drown in earnest—but standing across from Nezumi, the boy he'd fallen in love with in his youth, the boy who'd claimed his first kiss, the boy who'd left one day and never come back, Shion wondered if this was how it felt to have all the air knocked out of him once and for all.

Emi's bright smile never left her face, but her eyes widened. "Oh, my gosh. Do you know two each other?" She looked over her shoulder at the young man—at Nezumi—and clapped her hands. "That's so exciting!"

"Um," Shion said, taking a trembling step backward. The room around him crushed inward, the air tight and thick. He swallowed once, finding it difficult to breathe. "Yes, um…"

Nezumi's shocked expression shifted into concern, and Shion felt himself edging toward a full-on breakdown. Shards of glass punched through his stomach, heat and pain radiating through each pulse point in his body until it was all he could feel. He couldn't sense the solid tiles beneath his feet or the air conditioner churning above his head. His vision tunneled, blocking out everything except the young man standing in front of him—standing! On legs!—in his ridiculous staff tee shirt and his khaki pants, looking every bit like the beautiful, otherworldly creature he was once he stepped into the ocean.

"Ah, w-well," Shion managed, the words heavy as stones on his tongue. "W-welcome to the West Block Aquarium. So nice to be working with you both. Um, I have to, ah, feed the fish in the BFT now. Ah, I mean, in Number Six. The big tank behind you. Yup, that's Number Six. I'm sure Mr. Rikiga will tell you all about it as part of the tour."

"Shion," Nezumi said, and his voice was equally as wobbly. He took a step forward, and panic surged through Shion's body like an injection of ice water.

"Goodbye!" Shion spun on his heel and fled back toward the break room. There was an elevator in the far back, reserved for employee usage and available for customers with physical disabilities, and if Shion input the code into the panel, it would go to the floor linking to the observatory room for Number Six. It wasn't available to the public, reserved for marine biologists like Shion to record the pH balances of the tank and the weights of each animal.

His shoes smacked against the tile as he hurried toward the hallway leading to the elevator. The twisting halls that stretched past the rooms dedicated to shells and the horseshoe crab touch tank—popular with the children and high school customers—and Shion rounded them quickly, searching desperately for the signs leading to the elevator.

"Shion, wait!"

Shion whirled and saw Nezumi hurrying up the ramp toward him. He stumbled a bit as he ran, as if he'd been sitting down for a long time and his legs hadn't quite adjusted to movement. The fluorescent lights caught against the strands of his hair, and the lime green of the staff shirt clashed horribly with his khaki pants and pale skin.

He looked ridiculous. He looked amazing. He looked—


"You're alive," Shion said, his voice sounding stupid in his ears.

Nezumi stumbled to a stop a few steps in front of him. He was wearing heavy black combat boots (completely against regulation, since the soles weren't non-marking), and one pant leg of his cargo pants was tucked in while the other hung frustratingly loose around his ankle. "Yeah," he said, sounding equally as stupid and just as wonderful as Shion remembered. "Yeah, I'm alive."

"But—" Shion fumbled for something, anything, and came up short. "You—you vanished! You stopped coming to the beach."

Nezumi winced. "I know."

The prickles of cold were replaced with agitation that dug like thorns in his body. "I waited for you," he said, low and harsh. "Every day for months. Years. And you—you never came back."

Nezumi flinched back as if Shion had ripped one of the decorative plywood sea turtles off the wall and chucked it at him. "I know," he murmured. "I'm sorry."

"Sorry?" Shion barked out a laugh. "Five years of no contact—nothing—and now you show up here, at my work, to tell me you're sorry?"

"I didn't know you worked here," Nezumi said.

"Then why are you here? You sure as hell can't be a university student!"

Nezumi's silver eyes flashed in the vibrant LED lights. "I've never heard you swear before," he murmured wondrously, as if it was the most amazing thing in the world.

"Don't change the subject!" Shion growled. "Where the hell do you get off just—"

"I wanted to come back," Nezumi interjected. He didn't raise his voice (which only aggravated Shion further), and he kept his hands at his side. Shion couldn't help staring at each of his long, elegant fingers, remembering how they felt running over his cheek or brushing through his hair while they swam.

"Then why didn't you?" Shion's heart pounded in his chest, blood rushing through his ears. "You kissed me, said goodnight, and then you just vanished. For five years, Nezumi."

"I didn't mean to," Nezumi said, raising his voice just a little. Shion could hear it in his voice that he was struggling not to yell, that he didn't really have the right to yell. "Something happened, and as much as you meant to me, I couldn't just—"

Those words stabbed through Shion's chest like arrows. It'd taken Nezumi three years—three long, painful years—to finally say the words I love you. Shion hadn't held it against him. Nezumi didn't express his feelings through words. He translated them in his actions. Shion felt his love in the way he found ways to maintain physical contact when they were together. He felt Nezumi's love each time Nezumi brought him pretty shells from the deeper parts of the ocean floor.

Shion knew how much he meant to Nezumi. And as angry as he was at Nezumi's unexpected disappearance, the fact that he was here now must have meant something.

Shion opened his mouth to speak—to say what, he didn't know—and Emi came trotting down the hallway, huffing and puffing as if it'd taken all her energy to catch up with them.

"There—," she gasped dramatically, doubling over and pressing her hand against her chest. "There you two are! Why did you run away?"

Nezumi glanced over at her, and Shion took the opportunity to escape. "It's nothing. Nezumi's an old friend"—he didn't miss the way Nezumi flinched—"and things were… well, it's complicated. But this isn't the place for it."

Emi's dark brown eyes widened. "Ooh?" She looked at Shion, then at Nezumi, and then back. She clapped her hands together. "What's this? A secret romance?"

"The hell?" Nezumi muttered, despite everything.

"Emi," Shion said firmly, "now is neither the time nor the place. Now," he added, looking at the clock suspended from the wall. "I believe you two are due for orientation. Mr. Rikiga will be expecting you."

"Ooh, you're right! We don't wanna be late!" Emi spun on her heel and reached out for Nezumi's wrist. "Come on, uh, Nezumi, was it? Weird. We're gonna be late!"

Nezumi withdrew his wrist from Emi's reach and turned to look at Shion. "I'm out at noon," he said carefully. Shion's shoulders shot to his ears, the words slicing through him like a bullet. "Can we talk then?"

"I'm not free until after the aquarium closes," Shion replied. He didn't know why he said it, but it wouldn't do him any good to lie. Nezumi would probably figure out his schedule soon enough anyway.

"That's fine. How about I meet you here after work?" Nezumi lowered his voice so that Emi, already skipping back toward the main foyer, wouldn't overhear. "I get it if you tell me to fuck off, but… I'd like to explain myself."

"All right," Shion mumbled. "I'll meet you outside the employee entrance at seven-thirty."

"I'll be here," Nezumi said. There was so much strength and conviction in his voice that Shion couldn't help but meet his eye. The fluorescent lights caught in his irises as he repeated, slower, "I will be here, Shion."

"Sure," Shion whispered, and he watched as Nezumi turned and headed back toward the foyer. He seemed to stumble a bit, but even that seemed inhumanly graceful. Shion's heart ached as he watched him leave.

Eventually, his duties as a dedicated marine biologist convinced him to seek out the elevator, punch in the code to the Number Six observatory floor, and strip out of his lab coat, button-down, and slacks in favor of his West Block Aquarium scuba suit. Dark blue with lime green accents, it was Shion's least favorite piece of work equipment, simply for its pointlessness. He was a Child of the Sea—at least fifty percent of him was—and scuba gear was wasted on someone who could breathe underwater.

But he couldn't exactly drop into the forty-foot tank without his gear in front of tourists.

Shion struggled into his scuba suit, his heart hammering a thousand miles a minute. His hands shook as he zipped up his wetsuit, fumbling with the useless air tank (he could breathe underwater, damn it, but the tourists and the interns and his boss couldn't know that) and all the tubes in their proper place to pump oxygen uselessly into his lungs.

Shion sat on the edge of the top level of Number Six, his vision blurring red and gray. His bright yellow swim fins felt ridiculous and artificial—even though Shion had never been able to grow a tail of his own, his legs more than strong enough to propel him through the water—and his whole body buzzed with anxiety. He took a few deep breaths, trying to calm himself in a way that proved to be completely ineffective, and then he tumbled backward into Number Six.

Sinking down into the depths, Shion let the cold water collapse around him and smother the heat of embarrassment and anger and relief that churned inside him. He sank downward through a small school of colorful fish and past Trudgealong (a withered sea turtle with a no-nonsense attitude), squeezing his eyes closed behind the useless face mask and trying to breathe.


Nezumi's shocked face flashed behind his closed eyelids. His voice echoed in Shion's skull like a pissed off bee, and no matter how hard Shion fought it, he couldn't help but remember how it had felt to sink beneath the waves with Nezumi guiding him by the wrist, propelling them both along the coral reefs much more quickly than Shion could move on his own.

Shion shook away the thoughts and focused on eying the occupants of Number Six and taking mental notes on their overall health.

For the most part, the fish and assorted sharks looked decent. Shion could sense the increased buzz of excitement radiating from them; he couldn't "speak to fish", and Nezumi had confirmed that no Child of the Sea could. He could, however, sense when they were comfortable or agitated.

The fish in Number Six enjoyed the summer rush far more than the staff at the West Block Aquarium did. Snubby, for example, seemed to enjoy preening in front of children who remarked on his crooked teeth and blunt nose with loud shouts to their parents and pointing fingers. These were Snubby's point of pride, and he swam quickly around the tank to ensure everyone got a good look. If Snubby were a human or a Child of the Sea, Shion felt the two of them wouldn't get along very well. Fortunately, for both of them, Snubby couldn't talk.

Beneath the cool saltwater, the red marking wrapped around Shion's body chilled. These were the only "scales" Shion had on his body, and something about being in the water gave them a more aquatic appearance. The otherwise smooth red marking bristled and slotted with patterns, and if Shion ran his bare finger over it, it would feel bumpy and slick. The vibrant color made him wonder if this would be the color his tail would be if he could grow one in water. Sometimes he disliked not being able to grow one the way Nezumi and other Children of the Sea could, but Nezumi had never made him feel bad for it. In fact, Nezumi claimed, based on the stories he'd been told, Shion was lucky. The tradeoff for most Children of the Sea was that while they could grow tails in water, their legs were weak on land. Some of the most graceful Children of the Sea turned into complete klutzes on the surface.

As a teenager, Shion had laughed himself sick at the prospect of beautiful, elegant Nezumi being reduced to a tripping mess on the land. He often wondered if that was why Nezumi would never come up on land. Nezumi was a proud creature, and Shion often wondered if his pride could survive face-planting on the sand.

But now Nezumi was on land.

Shion shook his head. Don't think about it right now.

Shion bit down on the breathing apparatus stuffed in his mouth. Something deep inside him made him glance down to the foyer through the clear, teal water. Through the glass several floors down, Shion could see Emi and Nezumi standing in front of Rikiga. Shion watched his boss lazily drift his hand through the air, giving them both the same spiel he gave each intern at the beginning of their first shift. Emi continued to bounce on the balls of her feet, looking ready to explode into a thousand pieces. And Nezumi…

Nezumi looked up into the tank. His eyes met Shion's, even several stories down, and he lifted his hand to wave at him.

Shion didn't know what compelled him, but he lifted his gloved hand and waved back.

At fifteen past seven, when the aquarium had officially closed and the majority of the staff had clocked out and gone home, Shion stood outside the employee entrance, arms wrapped around himself in a desperate attempt to keep from falling apart.

Seven-thirty. Nezumi had promised to come back to the aquarium at seven-thirty and meet Shion at the employee entrance.

Shion eyed the cars zipping down the street on the opposite end of the empty parking lot. The West Block Aquarium emptied out pretty quick after the doors closed. None of the staff were eager to pull extra hours, and Rikiga didn't offer overtime. Shion was an exception—the only one on Rikiga's staff who was salary—and if Rikiga happened to spot his car still in the lot, it wouldn't have raised any eyebrows.

He leaned back against the brick wall, the warm stones heating the fabric of his lab coat. He didn't know why he bothered wearing it. Shion spent most of his time submerged in the tanks, but the lab coat made him feel normal. Human. He didn't mind being a hybrid, not at all, but it was lonely not having someone like him to confide in.

Shion flexed his fingers. He still remembered the day he and Nezumi met. Shion had been walking down the beach—because what else was a gainfully unemployed sixteen-year-old to do on a sunny summer day in a bustling tourist town—and growing anxious amidst the screaming toddlers and indifferent mothers in their floppy sunhats, Shion had sought out a place where he could dive underwater and go missing for a bit.

Diving under the waves and vanishing, however, wouldn't work with an audience. People stared at him because of his weird hair (even in a tourist town where teenagers dyeing their hair ridiculous colors was well within the norm), and if he went underwater and didn't resurface, he'd have the Coast Guard called on him in no time.

Climbing the rocks clustered on the left side of the beach and walking another mile from the main beach, Shion sought out a strip of soft white beach where he could sprint in and vanish. The broken pier attached to the boardwalk (abandoned for months after a nasty embezzling scandal leaked to the press) rose into view, and Shion's mood brightened.

He ducked beneath the pier, preparing to slip beneath the waves—and lo and behold, tangled in a net and cursing up a storm had been Nezumi.

A fisherman's net had tangled around him as he skimmed the bottom of the water, and Nezumi had managed to break the net from the boat (rightfully confusing the fishermen in the process, who must have assumed they'd wrangled a shark), but the tight coils had knotted around his fins. Unwilling to be a sitting duck for a bigger predator (believe it or not, Children of the Sea were not the top of the food chain), Nezumi had desperately sought a strip of beach where he could safely work on pulling the net off his tail.

Immediately springing into action, Shion had deftly untangled the knots, whispering to Nezumi that he'd have him free in no time. His mind buzzed with excitement—someone like him was sitting right there—but it didn't feel like an appropriate time to gush.

Nezumi, who'd growled at Shion when he first approached, went painfully still. His silver eyes, so beautiful and unlike anything Shion had ever seen before, watched each movement of his hands as he worked the net carefully off his fins. Shion fought his own urges to brush his fingers against the dark black and blue scales, jealous and enamored of something he should have had but didn't, and after a few minutes of careful working, he tossed the vicious net aside and said, brightly, "There! You're free."

"Much obliged," Nezumi muttered, and then, before Shion could blink, Nezumi's hand wrapped around his wrist and yanked him into the water.

The shock of the cool ocean made Shion gasp; that had probably been Nezumi's intention. With a few powerful flicks of his tail, Nezumi propelled them away from the shore, banking downward into the deeper ends of the shallows.

"You saved me, human," Nezumi's voice purred in his ear, sending goosebumps skittering down his bare arms. "So, I suppose it's only fair to reward you."

Drowning is a reward? Shion had thought. He'd opened his mouth to tell Nezumi that drowning wouldn't work on him, that he wasn't human—and Nezumi's mouth closed over his own.

Shion's eyes widened. Nezumi's mouth was cool, but his soft lips sent waves of warmth through each nerve ending in Shion's body. His eyes slid shut, the gentle shifts of the ocean waves rustling above his head. Tendrils of Nezumi's long, dark hair brushed against his cheeks. Shion fought the urge to reach his hands out and brush his fingers through it, wondering at how soft it would feel.

An eternity later, Nezumi drew back, his arms still wrapped around Shion's shoulders. Shion swallowed a mouthful of seawater and opened his eyes.

Nezumi's silver eyes hovered a few inches in front of his own. He looked down at Shion—still alive, still staring at him in wonder—and a muscle in his jaw twitched. "You…" he said slowly. "You're not drowning."

"I am not."

"You're… like me?"

"Yeah. Well, half, anyway."

"Oh," Nezumi said, and that had been the beginning of it all.

From the moment Shion laid eyes on Nezumi, he'd known there was something different about him. Not just because he had a tail and looked like a god, but because he wasn't like anyone else Shion had ever met in his life.

Nezumi had a vicious sense of humor. Nezumi was sarcastic and cold. He mocked Shion and poked fun at his wetsuit—black with bright red accents, because it made him feel at least somewhat attractive and it was comfortable—and he never understood how Shion could enjoy walking around on land when there was a whole ocean to explore.

But there was so much more to Nezumi than his sarcasm. He loved listening to stories. His laugh sounded like bells. He sang songs when he and Shion were alone, and he knocked Safu off her surfboard as a joke until she kicked him in the shoulder and tried to wrestle him underwater, both of them shrieking with laughter.


He lifted his head, startled from his memories, and spotted Nezumi hurrying across the parking lot.

It was strange, seeing him with a pair of legs rather than a long black tail, but at least he'd changed out of the vibrant green tee-shirt Rikiga insisted his staff members wear to be more visible. Shion had never been more grateful than the day he'd been given permission to wear whatever he wanted as long as he wore a lab coat over it during work hours. As the son of Rikiga's good friend (Crush, Safu insisted, and Shion gallantly ignored her), Shion received something akin to "special treatment" from Rikiga, though he never asked for it.

He was still wearing the cargo pants and black boots he'd been wearing earlier, but in place of the tee shirt was a black leather jacket that Shion had to admit looked stunning on him. It mixed well with his long, dark hair and piercing eyes; it was a wonder that he'd made it to the aquarium at all. How did he get through each day without a horde of people swarming around him?

Shion looked down at his cell phone. The screen flashed its white numbers, announcing seven-twenty-five. Shion's heart skipped a bit, and he tried to compose himself as Nezumi trotted up beside him.

"You're early," he said softly.

"Didn't want to risk being late," Nezumi replied. "You don't deserve that."

Shion huffed through his nose. "Let's go inside. We can talk there."

"OK," Nezumi mumbled.

Shion let them in the employee entrance. He shut the door behind them, then made a bee line for the elevator leading up to the observatory room near Number Six.

"Where are you going?" Nezumi called after him.

"Let's go to Number Six," Shion called back. "It'll be easier to talk if we don't worry about people walking in on us."

"The aquarium's closed, though." Nezumi caught up to him rather quickly. He strode beside Shion, his long legs easily keeping pace with Shion's brisk stride. "Who'd walk in?"

"Well, hopefully, no one. But you never know what employees have left things behind. So it'd be better not to be talking about… things where people could overhear."

"Good point," Nezumi murmured.

The elevator ride up to the observatory room was silent and awkward. Shion shifted from one foot to the other, and Nezumi lingered on the far end of the little room to give him space. Shion could feel those piercing silver eyes sliding toward him, then quickly darting away when Shion tried to look back. It sent prickles through his body, and he clenched his fists to focus on something else.

When the elevator dinged and signaled their arrival at the observatory, Nezumi stepped out of the room and half-jogged across the tile floor and toward the top of the tank. The lights had been dimmed, only a few bulbs bright and illuminating the dome. Nezumi quickly unzipped the black leather jacket and tossed it casually to the floor, revealing a long-sleeved yellow shirt beneath it.

"Nezumi?" Shion asked.

Nezumi didn't answer. He shucked off his shirt, and beneath it he wore a black sleeveless shirt that Shion suspected was meant to keep him from being bare-chested in the water.

"Um," Shion said, feeling his face heating up. "What exactly are you doing?"

"Proof," Nezumi called over his shoulder. He swooped down to undo his black boots, kicking them off into the corner beside Number Six's main pool.

"Proof of what?" Shion asked, but Nezumi didn't answer. He unbuttoned his pants, and Shion quickly looked away. His face burned, and only when he heard the sound of water splashing did he turn back.

Nezumi popped back up, grabbing the side of the tank and folding his arms on top of it. He rested his chin on his wrists and looked up at Shion. His silver eyes (exactly as Shion remembered, even years later) glittered in the fluorescent lights. His hair was still in a ponytail, several strands falling down over where his ears would be.

"Just wanted to make sure you knew it was really me," Nezumi said, and with a flick of his tail, he sent a few droplets of water raining down over Shion's head.

His tail.

Shion's heart stopped. When Shion met Nezumi, the first thing he'd noticed (after the eyes) had been his tail. Unlike the bright blues and greens of Disney and childhood picture books, Nezumi's tail was dark black and flecked with deep blue. The fins were wider and longer at the base, almost lace-like and elegant. Beneath the surface of the water, Shion couldn't seen what they looked like at the hips, but from his memory, he knew that the scales melded into flesh around his navel.

Shion crouched beside the tank, his stomach tightening. "Why now?"

Nezumi's tail sank back below the surface of the water. Shion could see it swaying idly back and forth, the way a human might churn their feet lazily to keep themselves afloat in calm seas.

Shion knew Nezumi's tail would be cold if he touched it. So would his skin. Nezumi was always cold. Not his personality, but—all right, sometimes his personality, too, but mostly his skin and tail were cool whenever Shion touched them. Even years later, he could remember the way it felt to smooth his hand over Nezumi's hip, counting the blue scales peppered throughout. Nezumi's tail reminded him of obsidian, black at first glance, with flecks of gray and purple and blue when it moved and the light shifted across it.

Nezumi's eyes lowered to the floor between them. A harsh silence fell around them, punctuated only by the buzzing of the lights overhead and the glug-glug of the industrial-sized water filter.

"I didn't mean to disappear for so long," Nezumi explained, and his voice held so much conviction that Shion didn't doubt him.

"You said that."

"When I went back, something… happened."

Shion raised an eyebrow.

Nezumi's fingers wove into his damp bangs, which were so long they fell over his left eye, and gave them a yank. Shion's heart clenched; he recognized it as an old habit Nezumi had when they were teenagers, something he did when he was nervous or uncomfortable. His nails were still pale and long, neat despite the distinct lack of access to quality salon service beneath the ocean's waves.

"A human found the town where I lived," he said quietly. "Under the ocean. When I wasn't visiting you at the beach."

Shion felt something clamp around his heart.

He knew what it meant if humans discovered the existence of the Children of the Sea. Humans, as much as Shion might have liked to believe otherwise, couldn't stand knowing that there were resources they hadn't been able to exploit. And the existence of merfolk would be a scientific miracle—enough that some greedy bastard would utilize it to try and earn millions.

"What happened?" Shion whispered. He hadn't recalled seeing any breaking news headlines about merfolk; he definitely would have seen something like that, unless the government came swooping in to silence it.

Nezumi's tail twitched under the water, clearly agitated. "Instead of running to the news," he said through his teeth, "this idiot decided to try and capture one of us and bring them to the shore as evidence. Needless to say, the rest of us didn't take kindly to that."

"I'd imagine not."

"But what we didn't count on," Nezumi said, his voice lowering, "was the oil." He rested his hand flat on the water's surface, letting it bounce gently beneath the water and then lifting it back up. "He emptied a container of oil into the water—not sure where he got it—and lit a match. I didn't know it was that flammable."

Shion listened as Nezumi explained how the flames had burned the Children of the Sea, who were unaccustomed to the sensation due to their inexperience with burning things. The oil doused them and made them sink below, unable to swim and avoid the flames. The water didn't seem to stop it, the sticky substance creating an odd shield that didn't mix well with the water, keeping the two materials separate from each other.

His heart ached at the thought of all the Children of the Sea who had suffered—according to Nezumi's whispered story, the whole town had gone down in flames. A decent chunk of them had managed to escape, Nezumi included, but the majority of them…

The majority of them had burned to death.

"I'm sorry," Shion whispered as Nezumi lapsed into uncomfortable silence. "Oh, Nezumi, I'm so sorry."

"I was so angry," Nezumi replied. "When I woke up and realized what had happened, I was so angry I couldn't think of anything else. I was hurt. I was scared. And I couldn't think of anything except how much I hated humans."

Shion frowned. Nezumi's dislike for humans wasn't new to him. And fortunately, Nezumi had never spat Shion's half-human heritage in his face. If anything, he seemed as fascinated by Shion's legs as Shion was about his tail. The only difference was that Nezumi could have had a pair of his own—he stubbornly chose not to—and Shion had never been able to pop a tail no matter how many (embarrassing) times he'd attempted.

"When I woke up, I didn't know where I was," Nezumi went on. "All I knew was that my back hurt and everyone else I knew was dead. For a while things were just… bad. I couldn't move, and when I tried, it just made me realize that there was a chance I was going to die, too, and I hated it. After a while, I could move, and I just left."

"Left?" Shion echoed.

"I couldn't stand being there," Nezumi said under his breath. "Everywhere I looked I could see all the people I knew, and then I remembered that because of one greedy fucking human, they were gone. We took him down with us—Sasori, I think, yanked him off the boat and drowned him—but it didn't feel like enough. It didn't matter that he was dead, too. It didn't matter that, miraculously, I'd survived whatever the hell he did to us. It just didn't matter."

Shion swallowed the lump in his throat. His eyes stung.

"I wanted to come back," Nezumi went on, his voice painfully soft. Shion had to strain to hear him. "I wanted to at least tell you why I was going. But every time I thought about going back to that place, something just made me leave. It's not an excuse, and I know it's not a good enough reason to make you think that I just abandoned you, but I couldn't—couldn't get past the anger. I hated everyone. I hated myself. I was so angry, and there was no coming back from it. And I didn't…" He waved his hands, agitated, the words slipping away from him. He huffed and said, "I didn't want to take it out on you. It's so fucking stupid, but I didn't want to shout at you and blame you, and I was so angry with humans that I knew I would. If I saw you then, I'd only see the human part of you and blame you for things you had nothing to do with. That's not fair. I know it's not. And I'm not asking you to forgive me. I wouldn't forgive me, either."

"Then why come back?" Shion whispered. He'd moved forward, almost like an instinct, and sat at the edge of the tank, a few inches from Nezumi's face. "Why come back at all?"

"Because I missed you," Nezumi whispered back, as strong and as sure as if he'd simply stated the color of the morning sky. "I missed you. When the anger cooled, you were all I could think about. I had no way of knowing if you were even still here, or if you'd even want to see me after I just left, but if there was a chance, I wanted to take it."

Shion's throat tightened. He swallowed around the lump that had lodged there and ordered himself not to cry. He was angry. He was supposed to be angry. And yet, beneath the anger was wave after wave of relief that Nezumi was alive.

"So… the aquarium?"

Nezumi shrugged. "It seemed like a good job for a Child of the Sea. I filled out the application and they called me back. I didn't know you were working here. But once I got a job and… established myself here, I wanted to find you."

"Established yourself?"

"I wanted a way to prove to you that I wanted to stay. If you told me to fuck off and never wanted to see me again, I would understand. But I wanted a way to prove to you that I intend to stay this time."

Shion's hands tightened around the lip of the tank. Emotions whirled inside him like a tsunami, and he felt as if he was caught in the middle of it, unable to surface. Stinging tears prickled at the backs of his eyes, and he forced back the urge to cry. Once he started, he knew he'd never stop. He scraped the back of his hand beneath his eyes, widening them just a bit to keep from crying.

He was still angry. Of course he was. But he couldn't imagine how badly it hurt. He couldn't imagine what he would have done if his mother's bakery burnt down, with her and Safu and everyone else he knew trapped inside.

He took a deep breath, feeling it catching inside his chest around the ball of anger and sorrow and raw fucking hope that'd nestled within.

"Where are you staying?" Shion murmured.

Nezumi perked up, but kept his voice steady as he answered, "A motel down on Seventh Street. By the boardwalk. You remember."

"I do." Shion pressed his lips together. "It's not too far from my house. What's your schedule?"

"I'm off tomorrow, but I think I'm working open to close on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The old man says hours will pick up some time, but he wasn't specific."

"Do you have a car?"

"Can't drive," Nezumi answered, much too quickly, and Shion couldn't help the laugh that cracked out of his throat. "I can barely walk—don't laugh at me. This is serious."

"I'm not laughing at you," Shion said, but his lips were tugging upward at the corners. He had to admit, despite everything that'd happened, it was pretty fucking funny. Nezumi—elegant, perfect, beautiful, wonderful Nezumi, whose every movement was the physical definition of grace—was clumsy on the land.

"Yes, you are," Nezumi groused, but when Shion stole a glance up into his face, he was smiling, too.

God, his smile.

Even after all these years, he was still as beautiful as the day Shion met him.

"Well," Shion said, and dammit, if his voice wobbled, Nezumi better not comment on it. "The boardwalk's on my way to the aquarium, and if you're working about the same schedule as me, I wouldn't mind picking you up and bringing you home."

Nezumi's eyes widened.

"I'm not ready to forgive you just yet," Shion explained. "You really hurt me. I understand why you left, but I wish you had just… I don't know, said something to me so I didn't think you were dead. I know that might be petty of me, given what happened, and I'm sorry for that."

"It's not petty," Nezumi assured. "I was an asshole."

"Yeah, but you almost died." Shion exhaled through his nose. "And I missed you, too."

Nezumi laughed; it crackled a bit at the edges, and Shion couldn't help it. He leaned forward, his arms reaching out—and miraculously, Nezumi reached back. Shion slid his arms around Nezumi's shoulders and rested his forehead against the crook of Nezumi's neck. He smelled like sea salt and an odd floral scent Shion had never been able to identify but could always remember. Despite being half fish, Nezumi never smelled like anything Shion would have expected.

Nezumi's arms tightened around his shoulders and squeezed back. "I really did miss you," he murmured against the top of Shion's head.

"I missed you, too," Shion said, and it was true. As angry and hurt as he was with Nezumi's sudden disappearance, nothing about that had changed. "I'm not ready to go back to the way things were, and I can't promise that I will be…"

"That's fine," Nezumi assured, burying his face in Shion's hair. "I'm just glad to be here, in whatever way you'll have me."

This was more emotion and honesty than Shion had ever gotten out of Nezumi about his feelings, and it felt as if a sudden, burning heat had cracked through the darkness in his heart. His memories of his summers spent as a teenager came flooding back to him, and all at once, he was back on the beach, stretched out on a scratchy beach blanket with Nezumi's arms wrapped around him. His tail rested over Shion's legs, comfortingly cool in the midsummer heat, and heavy in a way that reminded Shion of a weighted blanket.

Nothing about it was perfect. Shion knew this. The frustration and pain wouldn't disappear overnight, and just because Nezumi apologized didn't mean he was free and clear of blame. But for a few moments, wrapped in his arms, Shion understood that at least he was back and they could work through it together.

He sighed, pressed himself against Nezumi's cool, solid body, and reveled in the realization that yes, he was back. He was back, and he wanted to be here. The shush-shush of the water in Number Six fell around them, creating a comfortable mimicry of the waves that'd collapsed over Shion's head the day Nezumi hauled him into the ocean and tried to drown him. Shion closed his eyes, tightened his grip on Nezumi's shoulders, and for the first time in years, could finally breathe.

The End