The extent of Spencer's bad mood became clear the following morning, when he refused to go to the cove.
"I don't get it," said Ryan. He had one hand on his iPod, where there was a brand-new playlist called 'Brendon's Downfall.' "What did you fight about? Which dangerous sea creature to torment next?"
Spencer sucked in a breath. "I think you should talk to Brendon."
"Please, could you be more vague?" asked Ryan. "Because your specificity is just killing me."
"Ask him about his pearl," said Spencer. "I'm going to a movie with Jenny."
Ryan knew better than to argue with that tone of voice. His footsteps dragged a little as he climbed down to the cove, searching for and instantly finding a dark head among the waves. Spencer's doom-laden words cast a pall over the otherwise bright, sunny day.
"No Jon?" asked Ryan, as he pulled off his shorts.
Brendon shook his head. His expression was guarded. "He had some family obligations to, you know. Oblige. Over in the east colony."
That set Ryan to thinking. For all he knew, Spencer had been treated to squid brunches with fifty of Jon's closest friends and family every day, but Ryan had never met a third mermaid. He'd avoided the subject for a while, afraid Brendon and Jon were the last of their kind or something as equally tragic and fatal to casual conversation. However, one day Brendon mentioned 'my brother' and 'my friend Shane' in the same five minutes, reassuring Ryan that Brendon wasn't going the way of the dinosaurs (although he did wonder if mermaids could reproduce homosexually).
He slid into the water - easily, now: he barely noticed the darting cold, or the brief rash of goosebumps. His gill fluttered against the water in a way that Ryan guessed would be arousing, if properly done.
Brendon's gills were on either side of his neck, just under his ears. Once, Ryan had touched them by accident - going to thump Brendon's head for some remark or other. Instead of protesting, Brendon's eyes had fluttered closed and he made a sound that was very close to a moan. He was almost embarrassed by it - as embarrassed as Brendon got about anything - and Ryan had been careful to stay away from his neck ever since.
They swum aimlessly for a while. Spencer's advice weighed on Ryan's mind. Brendon seemed equally preoccupied. It wasn't like him to be this silent, so eventually Ryan blurted: "Pearls."
"Ah." Brendon's smile was very thin. "Spencer told you."
"Spencer told me nothing," said Ryan. "Except to ask you about the pearls. So I'm asking."
Brendon reached up and touched the slight swell of Ryan's cheek. "The obvious part? Is that they allow you to breathe underwater and understand what I'm saying. Sort of like an mini-oceanwalker."
"Funnily enough, I'd figured out that much already," said Ryan. "What's the catch? Because I'm guessing there's a catch. Spencer doesn't get his bitchface on for nothing."
Brendon chewed his lip. Ryan really wished he wouldn't; it was insanely distracting. It wasn't like Ryan didn't already obsess enough about Brendon's mouth, the kissing of. And Brendon just went on handing him live ammunition for his fantasies.
Despite this, Ryan could see that Brendon was upset. His voice was subdued when he said, "You asked me once why I didn't have a fishtail."
Ryan nodded. "Yeah, I didn't get that it was, like, a mortal insult to your ancestry -" He abruptly shut up when Brendon's fingers touched his lips. He hoped the cold water would filter out his blush.
"This is hard for me to say," said Brendon, "and I figure you're going to be plenty mad afterwards, so just - let me finish?" He didn't take his hand away until Ryan nodded. "Okay." Brendon took a deep breath. "My ancestry is kind of the point. Oceanwalkers look a lot like humans. A lot of us don't like it, but it's true. The only real difference is that we can survive underwater, and you can't."
Brendon rubbed his nose. Ryan didn't miss the way the water shimmered for a moment, catching the tiny scales he'd shed. "Every oceanwalker makes one pearl in their lifetime. I guess at some point we figured out how from, whatever. Oysters. If you saw our nests - where we sleep - anyway. You don't keep your own pearl. You give it away, and get someone else's in return. It's called 'sharing the breath.' Because, right, pearls are how we breathed down here too, originally. Maybe. No one's quite sure - the written records don't go back that far."
Ryan opened his mouth, curious about mermaid language. Brendon held up a hand with a pleading expression, and Ryan shut it again.
Brendon's voice got progressively jerkier. "So, you share your breath with someone by giving them your pearl. The kissing ritual? And, um, you're kind of pledged to them? For - you know. Forever."
"Spencer was right," said Ryan, "we did get accidentally married!"
"Basically," said Brendon, "yeah." His expression was one of pure anguish. "I'm sorry. Spencer was furious when he found out - and so was Jon. I pretty much forced Jon to do it so Spencer could come underwater with us. I mean, Jon liked Spencer and all, but maybe not that much. And it's not like I explained it to you, either. Jon warned me that it was a bad idea but I really wanted to get to know you properly -"
"What do you mean?" asked Ryan. "Why did you -"
Brendon spoke quickly, running his words together. "When you were younger, you and Spencer spent hours learning how to skim stones across the water."
Ryan stared. The summer he was ten, he and Spencer had spent most of the vacation competing to achieve the highest number of hops. But how did Brendon -?
"I never quite understood it," Brendon mused. "It seemed so pointless. I mean, the stones just sank! I even swam over to look at one when you were gone. There was nothing special about them that I could see. And, two years ago, you kissed Spencer on the mouth."
"I never did," said Ryan, the denial so perfect and complete he nearly believed it himself.
Spencer had been fifteen and desperate to know what it was like. Ryan didn't want to be Spencer's first kiss - thought it was a big deal, to be saved for someone special - but Spencer had more pragmatism in his little toe than Ryan would accumulate in a lifetime. Spencer's argument was that the special someone deserved an experienced kisser. The only benefit Ryan gleaned from the whole exercise was a certainty that he'd never feel that way for Spencer, if kissing him was anything to go by.
"And when you came back this year," continued Brendon, "you did manage to catch a fish once, but you pretended you didn't and unhooked it when Spencer wasn't looking."
"You've been watching us!" accused Ryan. Brendon nodded. "Dude, that's kind of creepy."
"What would you have done?" said Brendon dryly. "Swum up and said, hey, I'm a mermaid! Wanna make out?"
"Well, better that than - wait, you want to make out?"
"It was hypothetical," said Brendon, going bright pink.
"Okay," said Ryan. Silence reigned until Ryan's mouth ran away from his brain. "I think we should, though. Make out. Since we're apparently married and all. Hey, next time, think about telling your prospective husband first."
"There's a thought," said Brendon. "The ideal time is right after he's cut you up with a hook but also right before he knows how to speak your language."
"You kissed me that first day," said Ryan, feeling suddenly shy. "A bit more of that and I would have got a clue."
"Oh?" Brendon stopped jiggling around in the water. "That would have made you a-okay about marrying me?"
"I dunno," said Ryan. "I dunno 'cause you didn't ... keep. Kissing me."
Brendon's eyes roamed Ryan's face. He seemed to be leaning forward, although it could just have been the currents. "I - no! Wait. Aren't you mad?"
"About you not kissing me?" said Ryan stupidly.
"No - er, maybe. No! About me not telling you about the sharing of breath."
"It meant I could come here," said Ryan, "right?"
"Minus all your internal organs imploding, yeah. Why?"
"It meant I could come here," said Ryan, "with you." His heart crashed against his ribcage. He met Brendon's eyes, feeling a skin-tightening, breath-stealing shock of nerves.
"Not mad, then?"
"Just checking," said Brendon. His teeth worried his bottom lip again, but it seemed like he was holding back a smile.
"Hey, I, um. I really like you." Ryan's voice shook. "I mean, I really like you."
"I've loved you since I was twelve years old," said Brendon. "I think I win."
"But you first saw me when I was ten," said Ryan.
"Back then it was only a crush," explained Brendon. Ryan smiled, a long slow smile, all uncertainty gone. Brendon dipped his head, still chewing on his bottom lip. Ryan really, really needed to do something about that.
His hands shook slightly as he reached for Brendon's shoulders and pulled him closer. It was an odd sensation: purling through the water, never remaining in the same place, endlessly moving. Yet for all that, his mouth found Brendon's with perfect ease and clung on. He pushed his tongue against Brendon's lower lip, soothing the bitten flesh; it fell open at Brendon's sigh.
Brendon's arms wound about Ryan's neck. His hair floated through Ryan's fingers, but Brendon still purred with contentment at the touch. His lips were too cold and too smooth, but his tongue, as it tentatively curled against Ryan's, was rough and warm. On impulse, Ryan stroked his fingers along Brendon's gills. Brendon shuddered and kissed him harder, plunging his tongue into Ryan's mouth and leaving him breathless.
"Do all mermaids kiss like you?" whispered Ryan.
"I don't know," said Brendon. "You were my first."
"Oh," said Ryan, shocked and pleased. His own voice to Spencer floated across his mind - make it someone special. So it means something. Then Brendon leaned forward again, smiling, and Ryan forgot everything else in the world.
Brendon pressed his smile to Ryan's mouth. His kiss was firmer this time, his tongue surer as it parted Ryan's lips and licked inside. Ryan closed his eyes and sunk into the sensation. The last thing he remembered was the sudden burst of cold as the pearl was dislodged from his cheek.
Ryan reassembled a memory of the next few hours from the accounts given to him by others. He could never be entirely certain what belonged solely to his own recollection of the event, with the exception of one thing: the scorching agony of his throat. He later realised this was from the efforts his body made to drag any little bit of oxygen into his lungs as he drowned.
His mind felt sketchy when he woke up. He reached out instinctively for Brendon. He got Spencer instead: Spencer who was fast asleep face down on Ryan's knees. Ryan's left foot had gone dead from the weight. Ryan wriggled his toes back to life and woke up Spencer in the process.
"Oh, thank God," whispered Spencer. He looked like he'd taken red pencil to his eyelids; it took a minute for Ryan to realise he'd been crying. "What happened? Brendon was so upset he couldn't speak. As soon as we got you to the surface Jon took him away. Thank god I went down to find you - Brendon couldn't get you out of the water on his own - it was so bad, Ryan."
Ryan rubbed his temples, trying to remember. "I don't know. One minute I was - with Brendon." He didn't want to tell Spencer about the kiss until he was sure it had actually happened, and wasn't just a figment of his imagination. "The next, I'm here. Where is here, incidentally?"
"The hospital. You never woke up, Ryan. You never woke up, not in the ambulance or in the ER -" Spencer took a torn breath. Ryan grabbed for his hand and squeezed it. "Mom called your dad."
"Is he coming here?" Ryan couldn't separate the longing from the dread. Spencer bit his lip.
"I don't know. Mom said he seemed pretty out of it. She's going to try again tomorrow morning." Spencer checked his watch. "This morning, actually."
"Please don't tell me you slept here all night. You might have done irrevocable damage to your cervical spine."
"You're such a douche, and I mean that in a loving way. Of course I stayed here. I thought you were going to -" Spencer broke off. "Anyway," he said briskly, after a minute. "It's a bit early for breakfast, but there's a vending machine down the hall. Do you want anything?"
Ryan touched his throat. The low-burn ache flared into full awareness. "Unless it's liquid anaesthetic, no. God, I feel like I just ate razorblades."
"You were ... you were pretty far down when you lost consciousness, Brendon said. It took him a while to get you back up."
"Jesus, Brendon," said Ryan. "You've got to go, Spence, you've got to tell him I'm all right."
"I'm not leaving you," said Spencer stubbornly.
"Please," said Ryan, a word he rarely used. "It's important."
"Okay - but not until Mom gets here. No! She'll think it's funny if I leave before then, and she'll send me home anyway. Or do you really want to tell her everything we've been doing lately?"
"I think that would be a seriously shitty idea, actually," said Ryan.
"Good to know," said Spencer. A burr of voices in the hall made him turn his head. He jumped off the bed and opened the door. "Mom! He's awake!"
"Thank the Lord," said Olivia fervently, entering with Jim on her trail. "Thank the Lord. Spencer James Smith, you look tuckered out. You get right home and into bed, you hear? No arguments."
"Okay, Mom," said Spencer dutifully. He pulled Ryan into a brief, sharp-boned hug, whispering, "I'll tell him," before he left.
"How do you feel, honey?" asked Olivia. She brushed the hair off Ryan's forehead. "I just about dropped when Spencer came hollering that you'd drowned. I thought you knew better than to swim out beyond your depth?"
"Okay. I'm okay," said Ryan. "My throat's bad, but I'm..."
"Okay?" supplied Jim, with a smile.
"We just want you to know," said Olivia, with fierce tenderness, "that we understand. We don't mind. You and Spencer have always been like brothers - you're my second son, in a way. Whatever you choose to do is fine by us."
"Uh ... thanks?" Ryan wracked his brain. Nothing in Spencer's manner suggested he'd let slip the truth about the mermaids, even inadvertently.
"There's an organisation we can join, isn't there?" said Jim. "Flag something. They give you car stickers." He sounded inordinately gleeful.
"Do you mean Greenpeace?" Ryan was seriously confused now.
"No. Jim's got it backways and upside down, as usual. It's Parents and Friends..." Olivia's voice dropped "... of Lesbians and Gays."
"PFLAG?" repeated Ryan. "But - Spencer's not gay!" He's only kissed one boy, and it doesn't count because it was me, said the overly precise part of his brain. Ryan clamped his lips shut before it took control of his speech centre.
"It's okay," said Olivia. "I mean, you two were - you had no clothes on."
"Oh," said Ryan, "that." That meant Spencer had jumped in to save him. Ryan guessed he'd stripped off entirely out of habit - nudity wasn't exactly part of the lifesaving course at the Y.
"Buttons, too, I understand," said Jim.
"It's not what you think," said Ryan, starting to blush. "That is - me, I'm not sure. I mean, I think I might be. Gay. Or bisexual. But Spencer's - we were just - skinny-dipping. Nothing else. Really nothing else."
"Skinny-dipping," repeated Olivia. She sounded a little disappointed.
"Yeah," said Ryan. "Spencer is like a brother to me. That's all."
"Well -" Olivia rallied. "- that's fine, too, of course. And you know Spencer will always support you."
"I know," said Ryan. Spencer was the one certainty in his life - the one thing that made up for all the rest.
"Shucks," said Jim. "I was looking forward to getting a sticker."
"You still can," said Ryan. "I mean, it's for parents and friends." As soon as he'd said it, he worried that he'd overstepped the mark. "Though, that is - you don't have to."
"But I want to," said Jim, taking his wife's hand and grinning. "In fact, I'll get two."
Almost an entire week passed before Ryan could return to the beach. He was kept in for observation, first by the hospital, then by Olivia. Olivia decided that the sea was a threat Ryan would do better to avoid. He had to take Jim aside for a private chat before she'd agree to even let him go down to the arcades again. It wasn't enough; Ryan needed to see Brendon. Spencer was wholly supportive of this plan. "I'm getting sick of the things you whisper in your sleep," he said. "You need to say them to him. Or take a cold shower."
But Spencer didn't want to lie to his mother. He simply wore her down until she let them return to the secret beach, albeit loaded down with lifejackets. "Promise me you'll wear them if you go far out," she begged. Ryan promised. It was down he intended to go, not out.
The sky and sea were clear blue mirrors of each other, and just as flat and empty. For some stupid reason, Ryan had expected Brendon to be there already. "How are we going to find him?" he asked, as if Spencer would know.
Spencer shrugged. "We wait, I guess."
They waited for a long time, not talking much. Ryan was tensely aware of every ripple of every wave, hope rising that it would break over Brendon's head, and falling with the crash of foam. The sun was stretching long pink fingers across the water before a dark head finally appeared, far out. Ryan jumped to his feet and ran into the water. "Brendon! Over here, Brendon!"
"Ryan, your lifejacket!" cried Spencer.
Ryan waded into the water up to his waist. It took Brendon a long time to reach him - or maybe it just felt that way, when every breath was a century's torture of anticipation. Objectively, Brendon looked haggard: his eyes heavily lidded, purple smears tattooed beneath them, and his full mouth drawn into a taut bow. But all Ryan could think was how happy he was to see Brendon. He put his arms around Brendon and hugged him tight. After a moment, Brendon's arms came around his back. They held each other silently until the sun retreated from the sky and Spencer started making pointed scuffling noises in the sand.
Ryan kissed Brendon's neck and drew back. There was something wrong: the skin felt smooth when it should have been rough and serrated around his gills. Brendon's eyes were glassy.
"Don't be sad," said Ryan. What he meant was how can you be sad when I'm not, but he didn't know how to voice it.
"They banished me, Ryan," said Brendon hollowly. "They took my pearl. I told them I just wanted to be closer to them - to you - and they said I could get as close as I wanted." He felt his cheek with dull amazement. "Is this what tears feel like? They're so ... strange."
"How could they do that? Why would they do that? You saved my life!"
"I wouldn't have needed to if I hadn't brought you there in the first place," murmured Brendon. "That's what they said. That's what they said and they were right. I as good as killed you."
"I'm alive." Ryan grabbed Brendon's wrist and forced his hand up over his heart. Surely Brendon couldn't help but feel how strongly it beat just because he was near. "You saved me. I'll save you. I'll take care of you."
"I have to leave the sea," said Brendon. "Tonight. Or they'll come and tie me to a rock and light the fires around me, and there'll be nothing left for even the gulls to find."
"Then c'mon," said Ryan. He started to grow scared. Brendon's words were bad enough, but the look on his face was worse. Ryan tugged Brendon's hand, stepping backwards into the shallows.
"Ryan," said Brendon, "I don't know how to walk."
Ryan gulped back whatever words his brain threw at him. He put his hand around Brendon's waist and tucked Brendon's arm over his neck. Brendon stumbled along, dragging his feet like flippers. He was gasping before they even made the beach, little shallow breaths like he was trying to hold in the pain.
"Spencer!" yelled Ryan. "Help me!"
"What are you doing?" Spencer splashed into the water. "He can't leave the ocean. Right, Brendon? You can't leave the ocean?"
"He's leaving it now," said Ryan. A look of major apprehension flickered across Spencer's face, but to his credit he didn't say a word. He lifted Brendon's other arm and muttered, "That's it. Put your foot down. Now the other one."
Brendon put both feet on the wet sand and hissed. His brows wrenched together in the deepest scowl Ryan had ever seen on his face.
"What's wrong?" said Ryan.
"The sand," whispered Brendon. "It burns."
Ryan and Spencer exchanged confused looks over Brendon's back. Between them, Brendon hunched and slithered into a crouch. "Everything's so hard. So sharp."
Ryan stepped on to the beach and it hit him: the difference between the soft, shifting sand in the water and the dry, packed sand on the beach. And he'd been walking on his soles all his life.
"Oh, Brendon," he sighed. He wrapped his arms around the shaking boy. Brendon winced as the fabric of Ryan's shirt shifted over his skin, raising red marks.
"This," said Spencer, with a tone of ominous portent, "was such a bad idea."
Between Spencer's sweatshirt, and the sacrifice of Ryan's dignity by walking the pier in his boxers while Brendon took his jeans, they got Brendon home with a semblance of decorum. He shivered uncontrollably the whole way. Ryan soon gave up whispering encouragement in his ear in favour of concentrating on the task at hand: pulling Brendon along without hurting him more than he already was.
"What are we going to tell Mom?" asked Spencer, as their beach house came into sight.
Ryan hadn't thought they needed to tell her anything. He had vague notions of Brendon sleeping in his bed - bringing Brendon meals on the sly. Spencer read his mind in the annoyingly uncanny way he had, for he said, "She's going to notice that there's an extra boy in the house. Remember how she found Herman after only two hours? And he was a hamster. Small. Hideable."
"Will she be mad, do you think?"
"Not at us," said Spencer carefully. "But honestly? I don't expect her to be thrilled. She used to vet everyone I ever had sleep over - called their parents and practically demanded a CV."
"She never did that to me," said Ryan.
"You're different," said Spencer. "Besides, you live down the road. Where are we gonna say Brendon's from? The second star to the right?"
"I am here, you know," said Brendon. His voice was little and defeated. "I don't want to bother your parents. Can't I sleep on the beach? Humans do that sometimes."
"Yeah, with sleeping bags and torches and bags of s'mores," said Spencer. He hoisted Brendon over a bump. "You're as weak as a kitten. When's the last time you ate?"
"I didn't feel like hunting since ..." Brendon gulped "... since Ryan nearly drowned."
"Jesus, that's like - five days," said Spencer. "How are you even walking?"
"Well, he's kind of not," said Ryan, as he nudged Brendon's leg into motion. For some reason, Spencer glared at him.
The porch light snapped on at their approach. Olivia's shadow appeared in the bright square before she wrenched open the flyscreen. "This is not the way to stop me worrying," she said, striding out. "Disappearing all day without even calling - who's this?"
"It's a long story," said Spencer. "He's our friend Brendon, and his parents threw him out today."
"Oh, my." Olivia's eyebrows shot up. "May I ask why?"
"It's not drugs or anything," said Spencer. "They had a fight over, um, religious stuff. He's got nowhere to go, Mom, and it's cold."
"It's eighty degrees out," said Olivia dryly. All the same, she hustled Spencer aside and helped Brendon into a cane chair. "You look practically consumptive - Brandon, was it?"
"Brendon," said Brendon. He flashed her a low-watt version of his normal happy smile. "I'm very sorry to intrude. I really didn't know where else to go."
"You can leave all the explaining until after you've had a rest." Olivia settled the chenille throw over Brendon's shoulders. "Ryan, why don't you fix some hot chocolate? And you -" she collared her son. "- will help me make up the spare bed in your room."
"Why does Ryan always get the easy jobs?" complained Spencer.
"Because no one wants hot chocolate that's congealed solid?" suggested Ryan.
"I might make you an apple-pie bed while I'm at it," said Spencer thoughtfully. Olivia poked him.
"You. Linen closet. Now."
Ryan lingered behind the others. Brendon was staring out into the gathering dark. Ryan didn't have to look to know Brendon was facing in the direction of the sea.
"Hey," he said softly. Brendon glanced up. His eyes were dull and he dropped them after a second. Ryan rubbed his shoulder, an awkward gesture that was halfway between a pat and a caress. "We'll figure something out."
Brendon said nothing. Ryan waited a moment longer, then slipped inside.
Spencer cornered Ryan in the delicate moment when he was blending chocolate powder and milk for the perfect finished consistency.
"I'm telling them the truth," he said baldly.
"Okay," said Ryan, highly distracted. It was only when he came around, a tray filled with mugs in his hands, that he realised what it was he'd agreed to. He hurried into the living room.
Spencer had clearly just finished regaling his parents with the news that they were harbouring a mermaid. Olivia, as expected, looked concerned for her son's sanity. Jim - well, that was interesting, thought Ryan. Jim was a man who did manly things, most of them involving sheds and drills. He was the last person Ryan would expect to swallow a story like this, much less look intrigued by it.
"Come to think of it, there were always rumours around this area," said Jim. "I remember when I was a kid, listening to the old men on the docks. They'd boast of the strange things they'd seen late at night, out on the water. Mermaids were the least of it, let me tell you, but they did come up a lot."
"Spencer has sunstroke," said Olivia. "That's the only explanation for this - ridiculous cock and bull story. What's the deal with this kid? Is he a drug dealer?"
"Yeah, he was hoping to make a bomb off you and Dad," said Spencer. "You're exactly the kind of clients who'd hit him up for crack. He's a mermaid, Mom. That's it."
"Are you in on this too?" Olivia asked Ryan. He set down the tray, trying not to meet her eyes.
"It's true," he mumbled. "I accidentally hooked him one day - I thought he was a fish."
Jim guffawed in delight. Olivia sighed. "Fine. Fine. The kid's a mermaid. But if the place is crawling with narcs by this time tomorrow, I for one will not be surprised."
"I'll get Brendon," said Ryan. He slipped off as the conversation degenerated into another round of 'he is' versus 'he can't be', with Spencer and Jim squaring off against Olivia.
Brendon hadn't moved. His cheeks were shiny-wet, but Ryan coughed and pretended not to see. "You should come in now," he said. "It's getting chilly. Plus, there's hot chocolate. I didn't let Spence anywhere near it."
Brendon took a deep breath, visibly steeling himself. "Help me?" he asked, putting out a hand. Ryan took it gladly. Brendon's skin was much warmer now, but still so smooth. This time Brendon took far more of his own weight. He shuffled to the door using tiny old-man steps, but he did it mostly without Ryan's help.
"That's much better," said Ryan. "Is it getting easier?"
"Sort of." Brendon frowned. "I keep expecting the ground to float away. I'm not used to putting my weight on things, you know?"
Ryan thought about mentioning how difficult it was to sit down underwater, but he thought it would provoke Brendon's homesickness. So he merely smiled and ushered Brendon through the door.
"So this is our mermaid," said Jim. "Hello, Brendon. I'm Jim, Spencer's dad." He put out his hand. Brendon stared at it. Ryan saw a sliver of doubt pass through Olivia's face.
"He can talk?" Jim whispered to Spencer, who nodded. "Ah. He just chooses not to." Louder, he added, "Here, have some hot chocolate. The Ross special, we call it."
"We do?" said Spencer.
Jim gave a discomforted chuckle and held out the mug to Brendon. "Careful!" said Ryan. He grabbed the handle just in time, as Brendon snatched his palms away.
"It's hot," he said, sounding hurt.
"Yeah - I'll have to warn you, next time. Be careful when you drink it."
Ryan took his own mug and sipped, slower than he usually would. He felt Brendon's eyes noting every move and copying them uncertainly. Ryan could tell when the liquid hit Brendon's tongue, for his eyes went wide. A second later, he spat the mouthful back into his mug and scrubbed at his tongue.
"Too hot?" said Ryan. Brendon nodded frantically.
Jim and Olivia were telegraphing each other parent-eyebrow Morse code. Ryan could guess the content. Spencer took Brendon's mug away from him.
"What?" he said, at Ryan's look. "He's not going to drink it. I finished mine already. You should take it as a compliment, Mr Ross Special."
"I think I'll take him to bed," said Ryan.
"In that case," said Spencer, reaching out, "I'm taking yours too."
Between his accident and Brendon's arrival, Ryan had days upon days to do nothing but think about their kiss. Spencer called it moping and once, when he was really irritated, pining. Ryan supposed there was a bit of both in his feelings, mainly because he'd worried about never seeing Brendon again. He didn't imagine for a second that Brendon would come to him this way, broken and hurt. Yet it was difficult to only feel compassion when Brendon was so close.
Exhausted, Brendon passed out on the spare bed before Ryan had time to explain the concept of pyjamas. Ryan sat beside him now, idly winding one of Brendon's curls around his fingers. For the most part, his hair had dried out straight and fine. But on the nape of his neck it exploded into tiny soft curls. They were driving Ryan a little bit insane.
Brendon breathed heavily in his sleep, lips pouched out. Ryan had already given into the temptation of pressing his mouth to them, for the barest split-second. He wasn't about to do it again, because it was creepy and wrong. All the same, he was very glad when Spencer ambled into the room.
"I did knock," he said, when Ryan jumped around, flushed with the guilt of his thoughts.
"He's asleep," said Ryan, for something to say.
"I'm never getting my sweatshirt back, am I?" Spencer sounded resigned. As half his clothes ended up in Ryan's wardrobe, and vice versa, Ryan didn't take this too seriously.
For a few minutes Ryan had the leisure of staring at Brendon some more, while Spencer wandered around getting ready for bed. Ryan was stroking Brendon's cheek when Spencer came to a halt beside him, concern digging grooves around his mouth.
"You can't keep him, you know," he said.
Ryan quickly stuck both hands in his pockets. "Don't be stupid," he said. "He's not a pet."
"No," agreed Spencer. "You're just treating him like one."
"That is not fair. I -" Ryan looked down at the sleeping face and felt his heart flutter.
"You're in love with him," said Spencer. "I get it, Jesus."
"Honestly," sighed Spencer, "did you think I didn't know? Even if you weren't so totally obvious with Brendon -"
"I was totally obvious with Brendon?"
"- I would still know. Because you're Ryan and I'm Spencer. That's it."
Ryan stared mutely at Spencer. Spencer seemed cross - but not angry. Or disgusted. Possibly Ryan should have trusted him more.
"But this won't work. Can't you see?" Spencer was more interested in Brendon than Ryan's big gay revelation. Although apparently it wasn't such a relevlation after all. "He can barely handle hot liquids. How's he going to go with knives and forks?"
"We can teach him," said Ryan stubbornly.
"Oh yeah?" Spencer planted his hands on his hips. "You gonna teach him to read English, too? Bring him up to high school standard in a month before - oh yeah! You go off to college! Without him!"
"It doesn't have to be without him," said Ryan. Even as he said it, he felt a quiver of doubt.
"So you're going to drag him along to keggers when he can barely walk, and lectures when he can't read and write? Or maybe just keep him locked in your dorm for when you want to get off? You really should get a pet and abuse that. It'd be kinder."
"Why are you being such a dick?" shouted Ryan.
"Because I'm worried!" Spencer yelled back. "I'm worried about Brendon because he's a fully grown mermaid, not a fully grown human, and you don't seem to get the difference. And I'm worried about you because you're going to let him break your heart again."
"That - what?" Ryan stared at him.
"Remember when you dated Sandra Keller? You started going out two months before she moved to Ohio. Ohio, Ryan. You knew she was leaving and you did it anyway. You never know when to just walk away."
"This is different," said Ryan. "I didn't bring Brendon here. His family threw him out."
Spencer went quiet then, and for a foolish moment Ryan thought he'd won. Then:
"Your dad chucked you out, once."
"He was drunk!" Black boiled behind Ryan's eyes.
"No, he was mad," said Spencer. "I remember. I remember all the times he stuck out the AA for a couple weeks or months or whatever. That was one of them. And you were so shitty to him -" Ryan snarled and Spencer held out a placating hand. "Not without good reason - I know! But God, Ryan, he didn't know what to do with you. Cutting class and hanging out with those potheads from school. I wanted to deck you then. And do you remember what happened after that?"
"I went to your house," said Ryan slowly, "with a bunch of stuff in a bag, and my guitar..."
"And the next day, he came over," said Spencer relentlessly. "Fucking crying, he was so sorry. Drinking makes him do bad shit to you, but somewhere deep down he loves you a lot. And Brendon's family isn't like your dad at all. Jon told me. I bet they're really, seriously mad at him right now because they don't understand what he's trying to do. But tomorrow, they'll want him back. And you can't keep him here and not let them have him back. It's not fair."
At this last repetition, Spencer puffed to a halt. His face was red and his fringe was sticking to his sweaty forehead. He put his back to Ryan and finished changing, then got into his bunk without another word.
Ryan went to the door and turned out the light. He lay sleepless on his own bunk, facing Brendon's pale face, for a long time.
The rustle of clothing woke Ryan from a sticky slumber. Beer-coloured light filtered through the thin curtains, limning Spencer's arms as he tugged on a moderately fresh t-shirt. By now they'd worn everything at least once before, due to Olivia's refusal to do laundry on holiday. The reminder that their vacation was nearly over struck Ryan forcibly.
Spencer stared at Ryan for a good minute to see if he were awake or not. He'd done that his entire life, and it never failed to freak Ryan out and make him snap, "I'm awake, god." In retrospect, that was probably why Spencer did it.
"I'm going to the beach," said Spencer. He sounded determined but not happy. "I'm going to talk to Jon."
Ryan kept his mouth shut. After a minute, Spencer shrugged irritably and slammed out of the room.
During the next hour, Olivia popped her head in - Ryan feigned sleep - and Jenny thundered past, yelling something about pancakes. When he was sure they'd all left for a morning on the beach, Ryan got up and slid in beside Brendon. It took a few minutes to sort out his tangle of limbs, but soon Ryan's face was buried in the back of Brendon's neck. He breathed deep, smelling salt. He could see every delicate ridge and whorl in Brendon's skin, now that it was completely dry and flaking slightly. Ryan ran a finger down Brendon's jaw and released a fine mist of scales. Scales. No human had scales. Ryan pushed the thought aside.
He placed a tentative hand on Brendon's jutting hip, exposed between Spencer's sweatshirt and Ryan's too-large jeans. Brendon's stomach curved in sharply. Ryan had to restrain himself from following the hollow line. Brendon, sleeping, looked younger than he was, with one fist curled up under his flushed cheek.
He must have moved, because Brendon opened his eyes and yawned right into Ryan's face. His face relaxed into a lazy grin. "Hey. What are you doing -"
"Brendon?" said Ryan tentatively, as Brendon's eyes dimmed. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," said Brendon, too quickly. "Just - I just remembered. What happened." He curved up his arm to touch Ryan's cheek. "But you're here."
"Yeah," said Ryan. His heart began to skip beats.
He felt like a wind-up doll as he jerked down to kiss Brendon. Brendon lifted his neck to meet him. Ryan slid his hand underneath it to support Brendon's head, smoothing strands of hair between his fingers. He thought he could die from this, the warm skin and the soft hair and the hot seabreath. In turn, Brendon lifted his arms when Ryan tugged at his shirt and kissed like it was his last day on earth.
Twice, Ryan's phone beeped with an incoming message. Twice, Ryan ignored it in favour of pressing his mouth to Brendon's and finding how much longer he could survive on Brendon's air.
Ryan held Brendon's hand in the dusk and lead him over the rocks. He gave a careful squeeze every time they came up against something that might stall Brendon: a large patch of seagrass, a handful of loose pebbles, a hulk of driftwood. Ryan could smell the sweat off his own skin. He thought he could tell Brendon's sharper scent mingled in with it. In an ideal world he'd never shower again, but Spencer would probably have some strong things to say about that.
Ryan had taken the long way round on purpose to delay the inevitable. Because of that, they rounded the spurs into the cove at an angle. The sea lay spread out below them. Ryan's murmur of shock was engulfed by Brendon's gasp.
"What -?" he said. Ryan pulled Brendon's fingers to his mouth and kissed them, fiercely. Brendon said nothing more.
The water was eerily still without a even a breeze to ruffle it. Yet it was not empty: scores of heads broke the surface, hair slicked to their skulls and spreading out across the surface. They hung almost motionless, barely paddling, but Ryan could feel each pair of dark eyes pierce his skin.
And they were singing. At first Ryan didn't realise, until he looked at their open mouths and wondered. Then he recognised the sound. It was the one trapped in every shell, the one that owned the air of every seaside town. They were the sound of the ocean.
Spencer was waiting on the rock carved by his father. Jon drifted nearby, the closest to the shore of all the oceanwalkers. Ranked behind him Ryan could see a line of people. Their resemblance to Brendon was marked and unmistakable, even without the tremble that shook Brendon's entire body at the sight of them.
Ryan stopped and put his hand on Brendon's jaw, trying not to think for the last time. Brendon looked sad and horror-struck equally, but Ryan couldn't kid himself that there wasn't relief waiting just behind.
He slid his mouth across Brendon's skin, from the tender patch under his ear that had made him cry out, to the sharp ridge of his eyebrow, and finally his mouth. Brendon kissed back slowly, learning him off by heart.
It ended like a tear. Ryan stared at the ground to hide the wetness under his eyelids, and missed the part where one of the mermaids threw something at Brendon. But he didn't miss the part where Brendon put a finger under his chin and lifted it.
"Before I go," he whispered, "you should have this back." He kissed Ryan again. A cool hard shape passed between his lips and - he coughed.
When Ryan saw the pearl, his eyes widened. "Are you kidding? No way. That's yours."
Amazingly, Brendon laughed. He threw his head back, opening wide the reborn, greenish slits in his skin.
"You're divorcing me already, Ryan Ross?" he said.
"What? No! I thought -"
"Jon was right," said Brendon. "He usually is. Good for him he's not stuck up about it or I'd have to eat his beard. I did all of this tail before fin. I should have brought you to meet my family on the very first day, so they wouldn't have to find out about you like it was some dirty secret."
"Parents on the first date?" said Ryan. "You really do take this whole marriage thing seriously."
"Dead. Serious," sad Brendon. He closed Ryan's fingers around the pearl. "Huh. You didn't think you'd get away that easily, did you?"
"I hoped not," whispered Ryan. "Oh god, I hoped not."
"I have to go back, now," said Brendon. "I mean, Spencer went to all this trouble and my parents don't look ready to skin me alive, which are both miracles, pretty much. But - you'll find me again. I'll find you." His voice dropped. "You have my pearl and my virtue now. There's no going back."
Ryan hugged Brendon then, knocking their bodies together. Brendon didn't seem to mind, from the way his hands clutched at Ryan's hoodie. He was laughing; but the laughs turned into gasps.
"What's wrong?" asked Ryan, frightened. Brendon sent him one last, beautiful, reassuring smile.
"Time to turn into foam," he said.
Brendon stripped off his clothes as he walked towards the water, singing. His was the deepest, darkest melody of all. He didn't stop when the waves hit his ankles, his knees, his waist. Only when his head disappeared did Ryan remember to breathe again. There was a faint glimmer in the water; bubbles popped. And yes, it did look a little like foam.
"You," Spencer pointed an accusing finger at Ryan, "are such an idiot."
"We would not have killed him," called a muscular young man from the group of Brendon's relations.
"Always so melodramatic, our Brendon," sighed a woman who had to be his mother, they looked so alike.
"I always knew he'd do something outrageous," grumbled an older, bearded man. "I never thought he'd go so far as to marry into humanity, though."
One by one, they sunk under the waves - still arguing amongst themselves. Jon was the last to leave. He ripped off a lazy salute to Spencer, who gave him a half-smile in return.
"Guess I'll be seeing you next summer," he said to Ryan.
"Yeah," said Spencer, "and maybe. Maybe me too."
Jon smiled and backrolled under the water. "What?" snapped Spencer, as Ryan's lips twitched. "Like you're the only one who's allowed to fall for the fish guy?"
"What?" said Ryan, all innocent. "Although, I'm just thinking, divorces can be so messy -"
This time, it was Spencer who pushed Ryan into a dune.
On a smooth flat rock, by the ocean:
Ryan loves Brendon - long live the carcrash hearts
Ryan eats babies
SJS IV + GS
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea