Ryan/Brendon, 14,500 words, R for themes not scenes
Warning: mermaid!AU. Fuzzy timelines.
You can't always get what you want - unless you fish it out of the ocean.
a/n: A hundred years of thanks to murklins for thoroughly beta'ing this not only once, but twice. Someone give the girl a cookie.
(She can also take credit for the location of the fic. I've never been to Oregon, but I have been to Bundoran. Draw what conclusions you will.)
Disclaimer: mermaids don't exist. Neither does Ryan Ross.
Ryan had gone on vacation with Spencer's family every year that Ryan could remember, including some where plastic spades and water-wings were a big feature. Spencer's dad was originally from Oregon, and the beach house there had been in his family for generations. It looked it, too: all faded clapboard, weathered shingles and a crooked chimney stack.
Ryan didn't see it that way, though. Instead, he saw the endless hours of fun he and Spencer had there, fighting super villians or being world-famous rockstars. He saw the open fireplace that was the most perfect spot in the world to toast marshmallows. He saw the wonky shingle from when he'd dared Spencer to climb the roof - which he'd done, predictably, and fallen, also predictably. Fortunately he'd fallen into a bush, spraining his wrist instead of breaking his neck. Spencer's mom had been equally furious at both of them: there'd been a ban on hot chocolate for a week. Ironically, it was the first time Ryan felt truly accepted into the Smith family.
The seaside town was called Seaside, which, when Ryan thought about it, was astronomically lame. On the other hand, he could have navigated his way to the dinky arcades and the beat-up funfair with his eyes closed. His affection for the place ran deep. Still, as entertainment for teenage boys, it was wearing thin. That was the main reason Spencer's dad had taken it upon himself to teach Ryan and Spencer how to fish.
Ryan pretty much failed outright at fishing, while Spencer was all flailing arms and utter shock when his hook made contact - usually with fronds of seaweed in disguise. All the same, their primary destination each day was a sheltered cove discovered by Spencer's father in the summers of his own youth. One of the best spots, a smooth flat stone, boasted his initials - inside a heart with another set that did not belong to Spencer's mom.
After a few days, Jim claimed they'd 'got the hang of it', which was an outright lie. But Ryan knew Jim didn't like to intrude: he was very definitely a hands-off dad, and he believed kids should be left alone to do their own thing. He even got his wife to agree with him - most of the time.
The cove was cupped on either side by a harsh fall of rocks. They were the main reason it deterred more casual or less curious holidaymakers. Ryan preferred it that way, although he still followed in Spencer's wake in the evenings, when the lure of the arcades drew him away from the itchy solitude of the beach. They were a bit old for rides, and Ryan didn't approve of the brassy-eyed girls who made eyes at Spencer. Surprisingly, Spencer did not agree.
A week into the vacation: Spencer's freckles came out in full force and Ryan slowly ripened from a dusty pink to a dull brown. One afternoon they weren't doing much more than lazing on the beach. A late-night horror movie session with Spencer's littlest sister weighed down their eyelids.
Spencer soon gave up the pretence of fishing in favour of a nap. Ryan occasionally flicked his line into the water. He half-thought they'd die of shock if he caught anything. Ryan knew he could never kill a fish. Jim had taught Spencer how, but Spencer took spiders out of bathtubs in cups.
The thrill on the line jolted Ryan out of a doze. Spencer made a spluttering sleep noise. Ryan had time to notice that Spencer's nose was burned bright red before the line hummed again, and Ryan's instinct grabbed the tiller and reeled it in.
"Heavy," grunted Ryan. "Spencer, wake up. Help."
"What?" mumbled Spencer. "'s seaweed. Leave it alone."
"It's bigger than seaweed."
"So it's seaweed and other seaweed," insisted Spencer, eyes still closed.
Ryan slid off the rock and into ankle-deep water. He tugged the tiller until his arms tingled with strain. God, he thought wildly, I've accidentally caught a whale -
An immense splashing momentarily blinded him. He dropped the rod to wipe the salt from his eyes and when his vision was clear again, the first thing it showed was a half-naked guy coughing on to the sand.
At first Ryan didn't link the two events correctly. "Where did you - what -"
"Don't tell me, it's a dead body," said Spencer. He sat up and yelped. "It is a dead body! Jesus Christ, Ryan."
"I didn't do it," Ryan defended himself. He looked back at the guy - wow, completely naked, actually - and noticed he was bleeding. "Or, well ... you can't kill someone with a fish hook, right?"
"Not unless you're in the Mafia." Spencer plished through the water to Ryan, and they both stared down. The boy was rubbing his face frantically. Aside from the wow naked part, which was kind of distracting Ryan a lot, he had masses of dark brown hair slithering around his ears and pale, almost greenish skin. The blood oozing from his shoulder was more blue than red (deoxygenated, whispered a part of Ryan's brain held captive to biology class). And he stunk of fish.
"Maybe he was drowning," said Spencer. "You did that, though. Look." He pointed and, sure enough, Ryan's fish-hook was embedded in the boy's bicep. Ryan felt a sickly twist of guilt.
"I'll get the first-aid kit," said Spencer. "Thank God for Mom's overprotective tendencies. You go see if he's okay."
"Me?" Ryan hunched his shoulders. "Remember Tracey McGill? You made me ask if she was okay and she punched me in the nose."
"You had just dumped her," Spencer pointed out, with implacable logic. "And you maimed this kid, so yes. You."
Spencer gave him a little push. Ryan stumbled and tried to make it seem on purpose as he crouched down. The boy had been following their exchange with interest and he smiled up at Ryan as Ryan edged nearer. Ryan smiled back, a little overwhelmed by the warmth of his expression.
"I'm sorry," said Ryan. "It was - I didn't mean - you're not a fish." It came out slightly more accusing than Ryan intended. "Um. Does it hurt?"
The boy put his head on one side with an inquiring expression. He opened his mouth, but all that came out were gargling noises. Ryan startled backwards and sat flat on his ass in the water. The gargling was higher pitched this time, accompanied by another heart-blasting smile - oh. Ryan flushed. The boy was laughing at him.
"Here." Spencer waded back in with an armful of bandaids, antiseptic lotion and for, some reason, bugspray. "What's his name?"
"I don't know," said Ryan. Spencer huffed.
"Typical." He squatted beside the boy, who obligingly turned another smile on him. Ryan felt a dart of annoyance at the boy's free and easy ways. "My name's Spencer, what's yours?"
"Arkblug," said the boy.
"Okay, Arkblug, I'm Spencer, and that's Ryan. Ryan's going to patch you up, since it was his fault in the first place."
The boy nodded. Ryan was torn between amusement and despair, but at least the kid understood them.
He took an alcohol swab from Spencer and wiped it gingerly across the wound. The boy hissed. Spencer patted his shoulder, earning himself another smile. Ryan eased the hook out, glad to see that no gush of blood followed. He cleaned it up as best he could with the antiseptic lotion, and then painstakingly placed a bandaid over the cut. It was a Superman one.
"That's good," said Spencer. "You should probably go to the doctor, though, and get a tetanus shot. Those hooks are as rusty as anything."
"Tokkmah scraple," said the boy.
"Oh - he's foreign. Oops." Spencer crinkled his forehead. "Tu avez infirmaire?"
"I don't think he's French," said Ryan, as the boy's face screwed up with unmistakable glee.
"You took Spanish, didn't you? Try Spanish."
The boy shook his head with another bubble of laughter. He waved his hand at Ryan, who came closer. The boy nodded encouragingly until Ryan was in the water beside him. He placed a cold hand on Ryan's cheek, leaned in, and kissed him. On the mouth, a cool-warm pinch.
"That's very friendly," said Spencer in the background. "Maybe he's Norwegian?"
Icy lips sent a shiver through Ryan, skittering down his spine and curling his toes. The boy's tongue was a gentle weight in Ryan's mouth for an instant before he pulled away - grinning, now. Then he waved and dove back into the ocean. His arms cleaved the waves as they watched: Ryan with stunned longing, Spencer with professional appreciation.
"He sure can hold his breath," said Spencer, as the boy dived. Ryan's mouth still felt numb. When he moved his tongue to speak, he realised why. There was something in there.
"Yerk!" spluttered Ryan. He retched into his hands. A perfect, round pearl stared back at him, like a great milky eye.
"Hey, that's weird," said Spencer. "He didn't come up again."
By unspoken consent, they left their fishing rods behind when they went to the cove the next morning.
"A smuggler," suggested Ryan, as they scrambled over the rocks. He hardly noticed the barnacle grazes for once.
"A naked smuggler who can't speak English?" Spencer sounded unduly sceptical, Ryan thought.
"Well, yeah. It's a disguise, don't you get it? He swims back to his, his boat -"
"His hidden submarine," said Spencer.
"Look, he could be. That's all I'm saying."
"He could also be a pirate, but I don't think it's true," said Spencer. "Maybe he's training for the Olympics."
"Last I checked athletes didn't compete in their birthday suits."
Spencer choked. "Did you seriously just say birthday suits?"
"What?" Ryan blushed. It wasn't a phrase he'd normally use - or ever had before, actually - but that didn't make it less valid. "What did you want me to say? Bare-assed naked?"
"It would have been slightly cooler." Spencer slid down the last few feet of sea grass, still snickering.
Ryan frowned as he followed, pretending it was over Spencer's remark. It was actually more like a swirl of anticipation. What if the boy was there? What if he wasn't? Was there a good reason for him to come back, aside from a potential enjoyment in getting mauled by strangers?
"Huh. No one around," said Spencer. He shaded his eyes as he stared out over the blinding glitter. Ryan planted his sunglasses firmly behind his ears before he did the same. In his pocket, he rolled the pearl between his fingers, trying to ignore the sudden rush of disappointment.
"Swam off to break the world record, apparently," said Ryan.
"Shut up, you just wanted him to kiss you again."
Ryan's cheeks heated. "I do not."
"Yeah, you do. You liked it, your eyes were all crazy after."
"They - you shut up." Spencer laughed. Ryan pushed him into a dune. That was fine until Spencer pursed his lips.
"I didn't say anything," protested Spencer.
"Yeah, well." Ryan gave Spencer a half-hearted shove before rolling on to his back in the sand. The truth was, he didn't want Spencer to realise how much he liked boy-kissing in general - preferred it to girl-kissing, even. Spencer had once refused to debate the con side of legalising gay marriage in class, but that was because Spencer was awesome in general. Ryan didn't want to cross the final frontier of his awesomeness.
"It's not every day a boy gives you a big ol' pearl, though," said Spencer. "It's like a fairytale. You're probably married now."
"That happens in science-fiction, not fairytales," said Ryan.
"Hmm." Spencer buried his toes in sand. "What do you think of Mandy?"
"Who's - oh, the blonde one." Ryan wrinkled his nose, then remembered to check Spencer's face. Spencer was staring out to sea again. "Well, she's kind of - I mean. Do you like h -"
"Look!" Spencer jumped up. Two white shapes cut through the waves, smoothly splitting the foam. Spencer rolled up his baggy shorts and waded into the water, waving. Ryan followed more sedately. Honestly, anyone would think Spencer was the one who'd got kissed.
It was the boy, flashing through the waves. Ryan wasn't sure what he'd thought - albino dolphins? - but the relief was still overpowering. There was another boy with him, lagging behind a little. He rolled on his back a lot and let the waves carry him onwards.
"Must be his Olympic swimming coach," said Ryan.
"Let it drop, will you?" said Spencer. "Maybe we can figure out a way to ask them. Babelfish or something."
Ryan felt a little shy by the time he could make out the boy's face, grinning widely. He edged behind Spencer, who was throwing his arms around like he was guiding in an airplane.
"Hi," said Spencer. The boy burbled back. "So you're okay now?" The boy showed his arm. Ryan gaped: the skin was smooth and whole. Not a mark remained to show where the hook had torn the skin.
Spencer continued talking, carrying on an entirely one-sided conversation with the earnest-looking boy and his friend, who occasionally interjected a hand gesture from his practically horizontal position. They were dressed alike - in other words, in nothing at all.
"Can you speak English?" snapped Ryan at length. "I know you can understand me. Us."
"Sorry," said Spencer. "Ryan gets crabby when he's ignored."
"Oh, is that what you were doing?"
"Really crabby," said Spencer, nodding solemnly.
The boy looked thoughtful. He bobbed around beside Ryan and stood up, water pouring from his skin. Ryan feigned a deep interest in the sky, but Spencer's snort said he wasn't fooled. Fortunately, Ryan was the only person in the world who spoke fluent Spencer.
The boy patted Ryan on the shoulder. Ryan wanted to cuttingly point out that his shirt was now all wet, but the boy's eyes stopped him. They were a rich, deep brown - for some reason, Ryan had expected a sea colour: blue or green or grey.
Keeping his hand where it was, the boy mimed putting something in his mouth. Ryan shrugged his confusion. The boy's brows wrinkled. He leaned in, salt-breath gusting against Ryan's skin. He pecked him on the lips, then spat into the water. The other boy stopped lolling about and stood up too, looking worried.
"Oh - the pearl." Ryan fished hurriedly in his pocket, not-accidentally jolting the boy's hand off his arm. "Here. It's fine, I didn't do anything to it."
The boy shook his head. He took the pearl, put it to his lips, and handed it back to Ryan. Ryan copied the movement uncertainly. The boy's fingers wrapped around his wrist and pushed gently. Ryan opened his mouth and the pearl slid inside, settling softly against his cheek. It didn't feel as unpleasant as it should have. Ryan ran his tongue over it: it tasted of brine.
"That's better," said a voice that definitely wasn't Spencer's. "Seriously, dude. I thought I'd have to do an interpretive dance next."
"What - what is that thing?" Ryan touched the slight bulge in his cheek. The boy's eyes tracked the movement and he smiled.
"It's my pearl," he said, which was one of the most singularly unenlightening explanations Ryan had ever heard.
"Hey, you can understand him now?" complained Spencer. "No fair."
"I can translate, jackass," said Ryan.
Spencer made a face. "You sound like him. Gooble gooble gark. Dammit, Ryan."
"So that would be the bad side-effect," said the boy. "But - Jon?"
The other boy ambled through the choppy waves. Ryan had time to appreciate how unbothered the boy and this Jon guy were with their own nakedness as they held a whispered conclave. Spencer, looking sulky, plucked at Ryan's sleeve. Ryan put his arm around Spencer's shoulders and Spencer tucked his face into Ryan's neck. Ryan absent-mindedly smoothed Spencer's flyaway fringe as he watched Jon and the boy argue.
Spencer poked Ryan in the side, making him yelp. Spencer grinned and Jon looked over. With a great sigh, he shrugged at the boy. Jon could shrug with intent.
Glee all over his face, the boy waded back through the water. "Jon says he'll give Spencer his pearl. But only on condition that Spencer is okay with the ritual. I told him of course, we've been watching you for ages now so we know, but I guess humans can be weird -"
"What's he saying?" complained Spencer.
"Wait," said Ryan, "humans?"
"Oh, um." The boy looked sheepish. "I can explain later."
"Going at things tail before fin, as usual," said Jon. "You should have explained first."
"It's a little hard to translate into sign-language," said the boy.
"Ryan?" said Jon. "You are Ryan, and that's -" his eyes slid across to Spencer's cross pink face "- uh, that's."
"Spencer," supplied the boy. "Remember, the one you -"
"Yes, yes," said Jon hurriedly. "Do you think he'd be okay with me kissing him? To give him my pearl?"
"If that's what you have to do," said Ryan, "and hurry up, or he'll sulk even longer."
"Are you sure?" stressed Jon.
"You heard the man," said the boy.
Jon squared his shoulders and put a hand on either side of Spencer's face. Spencer's startled gaze flicked to Ryan, who nodded. To Ryan's surprise, Spencer smiled and closed his eyes.
The kiss lasted the merest second. When Spencer started coughing, Jon shook his head and put his fingers over Spencer's lips. Spencer obediently stilled. Ryan could see his tongue moving, tucking the pearl away safely.
"Are you okay? Sorry about the - the kiss, it was the only way," said Jon.
"Don't worry about it." Spencer stuck out his hand. Jon eyed it oddly. "I'm Spencer."
"I know. I mean - I'm Jon. What are you doing?"
"Trying to shake your hand," said Spencer. He grabbed Jon's hand and pumped it before going to the boy. "Are you going to introduce us, Ryan?"
"I don't know his name," said Ryan. Spencer sent him a very long-suffering look.
"I'm Brendon," said the boy, "and I should probably tell you who we are. We're not -"
"Olympic swimmers?" said Ryan snidely.
"Or smugglers?" flashed Spencer.
"- human," finished Brendon. He and Jon exchanged glances. "We're seafolk. Oceanwalkers."
"I've never heard of them," said Ryan. "Is that another word for deep-sea divers?"
"No," said Brendon, "it's another word for mermaid."
"I'll drown," said Ryan.
"Not when I'm with you," said Brendon - with very little impatience, given that it was the fourth time. "You'll be totally safe. I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die. Why would I let you drown?"
"Oh, I don't know." Ryan eyed the vast expanse of really deep ocean with giddy terror. "Maybe because I stuck a hook in you?"
"Humans do strange things, but I'm pretty sure you're not all barbarians. Statistically speaking," said Brendon. "I mean, I get it. It was an accident. I don't blame you for it."
"C'mon," said Spencer. "We'll never get another opportunity like this."
"You could say the same thing about dying in a fire," muttered Ryan, but he sighed and said to Brendon, "Fine. Fine. But if I drown, I'll never forgive you."
"Good thing it's not a possibility, then," said Brendon cheerfully, not sounding remotely fazed. "Okay, first you have to take off your fins."
"Our what?" said Spencer. Ryan, slightly quicker off the mark, shuttered his eyes and said, "Oh no."
"You can't go deep with those things weighing you down," said Jon. "You're the one who's so worried about drowning."
"Oh, you mean our clothes," said Spencer.
"Humans don't swim naked," said Ryan stiffly.
"Yes they do - we've seen them. Further down the beach," said Brendon. Spencer choked. "I get it now why some folk say humans are descended from walruses. Pregnant ones."
"Nudists - don't count," said Ryan, even more stiffly.
"What about that time you went skinny-dipping with Morgan Chen?" said Spencer, batting his eyes innocently. "Does that count?"
Ryan glared at him, the effect of which was somewhat dimmed by his wraparound shades. It didn't matter, though; he'd already lost. "Face that way," he told Brendon, who, looking bewildered, obeyed.
Ryan had seen Spencer naked before. He hadn't made a study of it - that way lay madness - but there were no surprises. He knew Spencer was as embarrassed by his slight pudginess as Ryan was about his stick-thin frame - and both were completely at odds with the lithe bodies of the mermaids. To distract himself, Ryan neatly folded up his clothes and hid them behind a dune. Spencer bundled his into the same place and stood with his hands wrapped around his middle, staring at the ground.
"Can we look yet?" asked Brendon, peeking anyway. He took his laced fingers away from his eyes and smirked. "I don't know what you were so worried about. It looks perfectly adequate to me."
"Huh," muttered Ryan. Prickly heat stormed his face.
Jon sighed. "Tell the human what you're talking about."
Brendon's face went wide. It was the ultimate 'who me?' expression. "Of course they know I'm only talking about their gills."
Spencer made a wet gurgling noise. Ryan looked down at his stomach and gasped. "I have a hole in me. I have a hole in me!" He turned an accusing glare on Brendon. "How is this 'totally safe'?"
"Uh, if you take 'totally safe' to mean 'my head will not explode underwater'," said Brendon, in a 'duh' voice.
"Oh." Ryan poked his gill. It ran just beside his bellybutton, a gaping red wound-like feature that, Ryan was relieved to discover, didn't hurt at all. "I guess you guys have them too, right?"
"Why, Ryan." Brendon blew him a coquettish kiss. "Are you asking to see my gills?"
"I can see enough already," said Ryan. His eyes inadvertently slid southwards. A slapping noise alerted him to his slip: Jon had clamped a hand over Brendon's mouth. Brendon sent Jon a deeply injured look before turning back to Ryan.
"We'll be your guides," he said. He held out his hand as Ryan waded into the water, clenching his teeth against the cold shock. "As long as you're with us, you won't be in any danger." Jon snorted. "Well, not much," Brendon amended.
"That fills me with confidence," said Ryan, but he let Brendon tangle their fingers together. Jon did the same with Spencer.
"Are you ready?" whispered Brendon.
"No," said Ryan. "Yes. Wait - you remember about the no-drowning part, right?"
"I remember everything about you, Ryan," said Brendon, which struck Ryan as an odd thing to say. He didn't have time to question it, however, because Brendon dove and Ryan followed, pulled under into the impossible blue.
"I like this cave," said Ryan. "It's a good cave. There are no sharks in this cave."
When Brendon sighed, it came out as a stream of bubbles. It was basically hilarious and a good enough reason to make Brendon sigh, quite apart from the grinning man-eating shark issue.
"It wasn't going to touch you," he said. "Anyway, sharks are carnivores. All they'd get from you is bones."
"Do you have a signed treaty to that effect?"
"What's a treaty?"
"It's a thing that makes sharks promise to go far far away, like say Antarctica, and never bother potential prey again," said Ryan. "Maybe with some compulsory dental work thrown in."
Brendon just rolled his eyes and ran his toes along the coral. Little fronds opened up in his wake.
"I didn't know it could do that," said Ryan. He copied Brendon, but the coral remained resolutely motionless. "Oh, because it can't."
"Probably not for humans," said Brendon. "But then again, you have a habit of ripping it up and killing it and stuff. Better safe than sorry, I guess."
Ryan thought of the pink and white coral that decorated his father's kitchen windowsill, and winced.
"So what do you think?" Brendon playfully flipped around in the water. There was no such thing as 'sitting' down here, Ryan discovered, although he was doing his best to try. "Worth the risk of drowning?"
"And the brush with shiny-toothed death?" Ryan sucked in a breath - thanks to Brendon and his pearl, the water just felt like fog - and blew it out again. A cloud of phosphorescent bubbles swarmed his face. "Yes," he said quietly.
Brendon seemed to hear all he didn't say, for he squeezed Ryan's fingers and smiled. Ryan was growing perilously attached to that smile. He barely registered Brendon's nakedness any longer, despite the fact that it was literally in his face, but each new smile stopped his heart. Ryan was irritated at himself. Star-crossed lovers were one thing, but at least they were the same species. Ryan wasn't sure what Brendon was - aside from very good at hiding his existence from National Geographic.
"So explain to me why you don't have a fishtail," said Ryan.
"I don't know," said Brendon, "maybe because I'm not a fish?"
"Yes, but you are a mermaid."
Brendon did a complicated twist with his feet and zipped round behind Ryan. He lifted a lock of Ryan's floating hair and blew bubbles in his ear as he said, "I don't see why that means I should have a tail. You better not be accusing my mom of sleeping with a manatee."
"But all the stories," protested Ryan. He felt a little squirmy at Brendon's proximity. Unfortunately, Ryan was nothing like a proficient swimmer at the best of times. Even when he wriggled away from Brendon, Brendon was quicker, and stuck his head under Ryan's arm to look up his nose.
"What stories? Stories about mermaids?" Brendon's eyes glimmered with excitement. "Do humans tell stories about us?"
"One human in particular," said Ryan, "Hans Christian Anderson. Then Disney riffed off him so they could butcher the story and make millions of dollars. Don't mermaids tell stories about humans, too?"
Brendon's bright, open expression snapped shut for a second. "Yes," he said shortly. "They're not exactly what you'd call nice, though." Ryan made another futile attempt to put some distance between them. The rapid brushes of skin-on-skin were making his breath catch, and that kind of thing was very obvious underwater. "Tell me a mermaid story, Ryan. Pretty please with an eel on top?"
"Okay, if you're that keen," said Ryan. "Although, eels, way to be disgusting."
"Eels are delicious!" protested Brendon. "I'll hunt you one later. Jon has the best trick for eating them: you slice off their heads and suck out the insides - hey, are you okay?"
"Gross," Ryan managed. He wondered if it were possible to get sick here: would it all just float upwards? They could play the 'guess what Ryan ate for lunch' game. Interestingly, that thought only made him feel worse. "Okay, um. The Little Mermaid. Once upon a time..."
"Little Mermaid?" interrupted Brendon. "Why little?"
"Because she was," said Ryan. "That was her name."
"Huh," said Brendon. "Even for a human, that's pretty crap. I figured out humans don't just call each other 'the fat human' and 'the human with the crazy hair' by the time I was five."
"Fine, you give her a name."
Brendon sucked in his lower lip. Ryan tried not to watch. Brendon had a very pretty mouth. Ryan knew that was the wrong word to use for a guy, but it was also true. At least in Brendon's case. He could also pull it into all sorts of shapes and that only made Ryan think Very Wrong Things.
"Angelica. And don't make her little. She's probably like me, you know, totally strong." Brendon flexed his bicep. His muscles were on the weedy side of weightlifting. Ryan couldn't contain his smirk, which brought out an answering frown on Brendon's face.
Hurriedly, Ryan said, "Hey, are those scales?" He poked Brendon's arm. There was a slight sheen there, a colour between silver and green, which hadn't been obvious topside.
For once, Brendon was the one who moved back. "That's my skin," he said, sounding defensive.
"Right," said Ryan. He looked down at his fingertips: they were lightly dusted with a silver shimmer. Brendon was staring off into the distance, seeming genuinely annoyed for the first time, so Ryan didn't push it. "So anyway, Angelica the big strong mermaid fell in love with a human prince." Brendon's back stiffened. "She saw him on the deck of a ship one night and that was a good enough reason, apparently. Because she was shallow. Or maybe kind of dumb." Belatedly, Ryan realised Brendon had probably never heard a fairytale before, and so wasn't familiar with the idiocy they enshrined. "Pretty much right away there was a storm and she saved his life - by dragging him up on to the nearest beach and giving him mouth-to-mouth."
"Mouth-to-mouth?" Brendon relaxed a little and cartwheeled in the water, watching Ryan.
"It's CPR," explained Ryan, "what you do when someone drowns ... oh."
"I know what drowning is." Brendon rolled his eyes. "So she put her mouth on his and, what? Gave him her pearl?"
"Not exactly," said Ryan. "In the version I know, he didn't spontaneously grow gills and hop into the ocean with her."
"Well, what then?" demanded Brendon. Ryan was glad he'd gone for the cliff notes version. Brendon clearly had the attention span of a demented seagull. It was a little bit cute, because for all his impatience, Brendon was still listening intently.
"She swam away," said Ryan, "and he fell in love with her as well in the whole two seconds he saw her. Only, he met a princess from the next kingdom and thought she was Angelica. They were both pretty stupid, actually, they would have been perfect for each other. Angelica wanted to become human so she could get the prince back, so she went to a seawitch who gave her legs in exchange for her voice. Which is where the whole 'fishtail' bit comes in. The story pretty much falls down if she had legs anyway."
"And in the end? What happens in the end?"
Ryan felt a little uncomfortable. Telling Brendon what really happened - even to a completely fictional character who'd never actually existed - would be like pulling a kitten's tail. "The prince marries the princess, and Angelica throws herself on the ocean and becomes foam. Only, in the Disney version, Angelica marries the prince. Because, I don' t know, it's unethical to make little kids cry."
Brendon pondered this for a whole five seconds. "I like the Disney version better," he declared.
"Yeah," said Ryan, "you would."
"Ryan!" Spencer's holler preceded him into the cave. He dragged Jon behind him, holding on by the fingertips. Jon looked a bit frazzled. Ryan had left them playing hide and seek with a manta ray - a manta ray. Even given Jon's blasé attitude to deadly sea creatures, that had to be exhausting.
"What's wrong? Did you tag a kraken?" said Ryan.
"Wow, no, but Jon said we can visit one tomorrow," said Spencer. "His friend Tom knows where they breed, isn't that cool?"
"Cool," said Ryan, "or, you know, insane and dangerous and also, insane."
"Anyway," continued Spencer, "it's nearly eight pm. I'm not sure, Jon tells time by the light filtration or something and they have twenty-six hour days, but I'm pretty sure we're late for dinner."
"Oh shit," said Ryan. Olivia was pretty easy-going as a rule, but she insisted that everyone be present at dinner and report to her if they were going out afterwards.
"How long will it take us to get back?" asked Spencer.
Ryan bit his lip, calculating. He couldn't be sure, but it had been at least an hour on the way down. Spencer kept stopping to marvel at schools of fish and old boots, though, so maybe -
"Don't worry," said Brendon. He grinned. "I know a shortcut."
Apparently, orca whales were the Formula One of the ocean. Ryan felt this was something Free Willy had never adequately conveyed.
Ryan broke the water with a pop and shook water out of his ears. A faint ringing persisted. It took him a minute to realise it was his cell.
He tried to run out of the water and across the sand, only to find his legs had turned into soggy twigs. He stumbled over to the dune and landed face-down, scrabbling for the phone. He gasped, "Hello?"
"Ryan! I was just about to give up on you," said Olivia. "Where are you two? You must be starving."
"Oh, er, we brought sandwiches," lied Ryan. They'd actually dined on seaweed and soft red flowers that grew on the ocean floor, none of which tasted as disgusting as Ryan suspected they did on land. "Sorry - we fell asleep."
"I hope you put sunscreen on," said Olivia. "And I expect to see you back here inside of ten minutes, understand?"
"Yes, Mo - Olivia," said Ryan. It wasn't the first time he'd slipped, but he still winced.
"Jim made your favourite," said Olivia, more gently. "Lamb stew."
"Great," said Ryan. "But, um, that's Spencer's favourite."
Olivia laughed. "We can't tell the two of you apart sometimes. In ten, Ryan." She hung up.
"Was that Mom?" said Spencer.
"No, Queen Elizabeth. But she sends her regards."
"She calls you more than me these days," complained Spencer.
"That is because you are her ungrateful child," said Ryan. "I'm just a visitor."
Spencer's glare was narrow and cool. "Don't be stupid. You're not 'just' a visitor, you know that."
Ryan actually did know that, but it didn't do to tempt fate. "Put your clothes on," he said. He threw a t-shirt at Spencer. Spencer had it over his head before Ryan realised it was his own. He didn't say anything, just pulled on Spencer's in its place.
Brendon and Jon were stretched out in the shallows when Spencer and Ryan came to say goodbye.
"That was amazing," Spencer said. "I've never been that close to a whale in my life."
"What a big eyes you have, Grandmama," muttered Ryan. He didn't care what Brendon said (laughing): the thing kept staring at him.
"The dolphins certainly liked Ryan," said Brendon. He had his hands propped on his chin, wet hair in his eyes. Under the sea, it billowed away from his face. He looked different, up here in the air. More - other.
"Yeah, they were - what's the word?" Spencer snickered. "Frolicking?"
"Is that what the kids are calling it nowadays?" Ryan scowled. "You don't want to know where one of them put its nose."
"I might be interested," Brendon volunteered. Ryan kicked water in his face, but he just laughed. "Hello? Mermaid?"
"We'll have to repay the favour," said Spencer. "We don't exactly have the most exciting beach house in the world, but there's TV and board games -"
"Board games, Spence?"
"You were pretty into Monopoly last night," countered Spencer. "I seem to remember accusations of embezzlement against the banker."
"But you always cheat!"
"Duh," said Spencer. "That's the point of being the banker."
Brendon's face closed down in on itself. "Thanks for the offer, but it's kind of - not possible."
"Is it because of the Monopoly? You don't have to play," said Spencer. "And I'll stop Ryan from making you. He just has a thing for hotels, it's a sickness."
"No, we -" Brendon coughed. "That is -"
"We can't leave the sea," said Jon matter-of-factly.
"But if you want to visit us again, you totally can," said Brendon. Jon opened his mouth, but Brendon continued in a rush, "There's no problem. Will you come tomorrow? Please?" He seemed to be speaking directly to Ryan.
"Sure, why not," said Ryan. Spencer gave Jon his ice-cream-and-Playstation grin.
Ryan shook his head. Still, he paused at the top of the rockfall while Spencer slip-slid ahead and looked back. He thought he could see a tiny white shape in the midst of the vast water. But it might just have been the moonlight.
For a while Spencer liked the sea more than Ryan did, but that was okay, because Ryan liked Brendon more than the sea. While Spencer and Jon travelled farther and farther afield in search of new wonders (Ryan called them 'perils') to delight Spencer's eyes, Brendon and Ryan spent most of their time in one of the night-speckled caves, talking. Their skin turned again, from sunblushed back to white. Olivia was pleased that they were using sunscreen so assiduously. Ryan asked Spencer about Mandy, once, and Spencer said, "Who's Mandy?"
Then, one day, something happened. Ryan came out of the water with Brendon as the last rays of the sun were stroking the horizon, to find Spencer already dressed and waiting for him. It was usually the other way around. Ryan had taken to bringing his iPod specifically so Brendon could listen to Fall Out Boy while they hung out on the surface. Of all things human, nothing fascinated Brendon as much as music. There were no such things as instruments in the oceanwalkers' world; Ryan supposed pianos found in old shipwrecks didn't exactly come with instruction manuals.
Ryan was secretly glad that Brendon shared his appreciation for Pete Wentz's lyrics, although Brendon would never know that; Ryan was always too busy preventing a fatal collision between his iPod and the ocean to ever tell him. Not that he would, anyway.
Ryan had been extolling the virtues of Modest Mouse for most of the day. Brendon loudly doubted them, but he was about as subtle as a typhoon. Ryan knew he just wanted to listen to Enema of the State again. They were still arguing when they broke the surface. It took a while for Spencer's bad mood to register with Ryan. He was more absorbed by Brendon than he liked to admit.
Spencer didn't say a word as Ryan said goodbye, promising to force Modest Mouse on Brendon tomorrow.
"Big words, Ross!" yelled Brendon. "You talk the talk, but can you swim the walk?"
"You're hilarious," said Ryan. His voice came out too warm, too much like he meant it.
"Love you too," said Brendon. He flicked water all over Ryan's shirt before diving under the water. It was a tradition, now, although Ryan never admitted that he liked it.
"What's up?" asked Ryan, after Spencer had maintained a stodgy silence for the whole walk home. "You get bit by a seasnake or something?" Spencer just shook his head.
Ryan didn't probe. There were too many other things to focus on: Brendon, and dinner, and Brendon, and hot chocolate afterwards, and Brendon. Ryan had two former girlfriends, but even during their very short relationships Ryan never spent this much time imagining conversations with them. This was mainly because he was more interested in getting into their pants. To be fair, they never had much to say - not about the things that really mattered, anyway. Like music.
It came as a shock when Spencer stood up after dinner and said to Olivia, "I'm going down to the arcades tonight, okay?"
"Sure, honey," said Olivia. She picked up Ryan's plate. "Are you going too?"
Ryan snapped shut his wide-open mouth. "Um. I guess?" He tried to read Spencer's face, but Spencer had carefully schooled it blank. He shrugged. "Yeah."
"Have fun," said Olivia. "Curfew at twelve."
"One," Jim mouthed behind her, slapping on an innocent face when Olivia turned around too quickly. Ryan tried not to give him away by smiling.
"Spence! Seriously, wait up. Spencer."
Spencer slowed his steps, but didn't look back. Ryan shivered. He'd raced out to catch up Spencer in flip-flops and shorts. The air by the ocean was always chilly at night. Spencer, on the other hand, was well prepared: he was wearing jeans, sneakers, a sweater.
"What the hell?" panted Ryan. He hung on to Spencer's shoulders, more to hold him back than because he needed to catch his breath. "Dude, what is wrong with you? What's with the sudden interest in Hicksville?"
Spencer shrugged off Ryan's hand. "It's Seaside," he said, "and I just feel like it, okay?"
"Did I do something to piss you off?" said Ryan. He hoped the answer wouldn't be 'ignoring me because of Brendon.' Even for Spencer, Ryan couldn't give Brendon up.
"No," said Spencer carefully, "you did nothing."
A light clicked on. "Oh. You had a fight with Jon?"
"Not a fight, exactly," said Spencer. "Are you coming? To the arcades?"
"Can I get a sweater?"
"You came out without -" Spencer shook his head. "Of course you did."
"You'll wait?" Ryan was already walking backwards. Spencer sighed.