Joey scratched the thick stubble on his cheeks and looked out over the choppy, roiling water. The sky was getting dark, clouds blotting out the late afternoon sun, and he didn't need to see the instruments to know that the storm was coming in fast.
He swore softly to himself as he pressed his thumb against a greasy green button to activate the winch, hauling the net in. They were already being hit by the first rains and had maybe an hour to get out of the area, probably less. They'd picked up the oncoming storm a while ago, but all indications had been that it wouldn't hit until after dark.
"Nick!" he called, hoping Nick would hear it without him having to go inside to find him. Guy was probably in the head again, with the Playboy he kept in his locker. "Nick, we're heading out."
The net was coming in painfully slowly, gears squeaking and cables grinding. Waves slapped over the side of the boat and Joey could feel the wind picking up, even through his thick boots and coat.
"I was checking the weather readings," said Nick as he emerged out onto the deck. "That's coming in fast. She's a real mother, we don't want to be caught in her if we don't have to be."
"Tell me about it," said Joey, letting the cable slide through his fingers. "I've got this under control, there's hardly anything. The net was barely out there long enough to catch weeds. As soon as it's in, I need you to get us to the cove on the other side of Ilha do Anjo to wait this out. The storm's right in our path home."
Nick didn't hesitate to head for the wheelhouse, steady as ever on his sea legs, to prepare for a rocky ride to the island. The Briahna Joely would take them in safely, though; Joey'd trusted her with his life more than once and she'd never let him down.
As the reel pulled the net up, he saw a bigger catch than he could have hoped for. He was pleased until he heard faint cries coming from somewhere in the netting, almost drowned out by the wind. Cries that sounded human.
"Oh fuck," he breathed. "Meu Deus, what's in there?" He could barely hear the sound of his own voice over the wind, which had begun gusting around him, whipping water up onto the deck. Once the net was hauled up over the fish hold upper hatch, he unfurled it, letting the whole load slide down.
Peering into the hold he could see the head and shoulders of a young man sticking out of the sea of fish, just out of his reach. "Help me," he gasped out. "They're dying all around me!"
Joey didn't waste any more time thinking about how someone could possibly have gotten trapped in his net, and dashed across the boat to get a rope. "Nick, head out!" he called as he went, and felt the jolt as Nick took the boat from trawling speed to cruising speed, heading toward the island, trying to outrun the worst of the storm.
"Grab the rope," said Joey, shaking it urgently. "Grab the rope and I'll get you out." He'd swear the man was crying, wetness streaming down his cheeks, but it was possible it was just seawater. Hell, for all Joey knew, he'd be crying too after just being scooped out of the ocean and dumped in a pile of fish. "Just grab it."
The man finally lifted his arms and grabbed hold, and Joey started hauling him up, hand over hand. The ship rocked and lurched around them, but Joey trusted the wheel to Nick, who'd been on boats practically since he could stand up.
Joey almost dropped him halfway up, when his full body emerged from the pile and Joey could see that while the top half of his body was all man, head, shoulders and abs, the rest of his body was all sea creature. It was only the helpless look on his face that kept Joey focused on the task of hauling him up.
When he hit the deck, Joey only watched him long enough to make sure he was okay, then let go of the rope and hurried to seal up the fish hold with the rest of the catch inside. Now that it was in, he wasn't going to lose it to the storm. He stowed the net and made sure nothing else was loose on deck, and only then did Joey turn back to the creature he'd rescued from the net.
He hadn't uttered a word, hadn't made any sound that Joey could hear. He'd just discarded the rope and flopped closer to the edge of the boat, staring in dismay at the rough seas, at the rocky outcropping that Nick was expertly circling.
"I need to go home," he said finally, in oddly accented English, but he made no move to slip past the railing and get off the boat.
Joey was struck speechless, staring at him. This was possibly the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. Wet hair flowed to his shoulders, a strand of seaweed caught in it, and his skin was bare to the waist. He was bare everywhere else, too, but it wasn't skin anymore, it was scales that looked soft and smooth, running right down to the tip of his tail that he flipped as he waited on the deck. And his face -- high cheekbones and pink lips and the bluest eyes Joey could remember seeing.
"Are you... okay?" Joey said finally, loudly, to be heard over the wind. "Are you injured?"
The man turned to face him abruptly, ripping his eyes away from the ocean. "You need to take me home," he demanded.
"I can't," said Joey, looking helplessly at the waves. "The storm..."
"I'm a much better swimmer than you," the man said, looking smug, the only expression other than panic and desperation that Joey had seen on him.
"The current is too strong here," Joey said, though. "You'd be dashed against the rocks. I just rescued you once, I'm not sure I'll be able to do it again."
"Rescued?" said the man. "Rescued from my home?"
"Rescued from... the hold," Joey stammered. A vicious wave washed over the side of the boat and Joey skidded halfway across the deck. The man, he noticed, had no trouble just riding it out. "We need to wait the storm out. I'll return you as soon as it passes, I promise."
Another look into those blue eyes, though, and Joey knew it would be hard to keep that promise. Hard to let this creature just slip away from him. The man turned back toward the sea again and looked like he might just slip off the boat right where they were, but the rocks were close and the boat was moving at a fair rate. Joey didn't think he was going anywhere.
"I need to help Nick," he said, backing away. "Don't go anywhere." Then, once he'd finally torn his eyes away, he set about helping Nick get them to the cove.
* * *
The wind was lighter, the waters calmer, but even so it wasn't pleasant weather on the sheltered side of the island. They'd just secured the anchor and powered down the engines when the skies opened up with not just rain but great chunks of hail.
Joey rushed back to where he'd left the man -- the merman, he supposed, though he was having trouble applying that word to an actual being -- and found him shrinking down with his arms over his head, trying to protect himself.
"Come on," he said, and without thinking it through any further, he scooped him up in his arms and took him inside, into the galley where he could stretch out along the floor. The boat swayed and Joey slumped against the narrow countertop.
"I had ice rocks from the sky hit me once before," said the man suddenly, rolling onto his side and propping his head up on his elbow. Looking far more comfortable in his surroundings than Joey could have expected him to be. "I was hiding from my brother, lying on a rock near the shore, and the sky was dark and water was falling but it was fine until the ice rocks came."
"Hail puts a damper on just about anything," agreed Joey cautiously, shivering as he dripped into a puddle on the floor. "What did you do?"
"I just went home," he said, shrugging. "Who are you, and why am I here?"
"I'm... I'm Joey," he said, straightening up again because it just seemed more polite. "And you're here by accident, I swear it, we were just hauling in the catch and there you were."
"I am not a fish," the man huffed indignantly, and Joey almost laughed with relief at the reaction. "I'm not your catch."
"It was an accident," Joey assured him. "Honest. It's never happened before. It's... are you... what's your name?"
The man thought about it for a moment, then smiled at Joey, just a little. "You can call me JC," he said. "I don't think I'd like to hear you try to pronounce my full name. And you need to be more careful when you hunt near my home. I could have been killed! My family could have been killed! I've seen your nets before, you know..."
"I'm not the only person who... hunts, in this area," said Joey. "And I'm sorry, I'll try to be more careful with my nets." He didn't know quite how he was supposed to do that, though. "You weren't hurt, right?"
"I am unhurt," JC assured him, running his hand over his flat stomach, then over his scales. They looked just as brilliant when they weren't wet, catching the light and reflecting rainbows of colour. "So far."
"Oh," said Joey softly. "Oh, JC, no, no. I don't mean to hurt you, I only brought you in here to keep you safe."
JC looked mildly suspicious, but he nodded. "I know," he said finally. "I could have gotten away otherwise, though I didn't expect you to carry me in here. You'll have to carry me out again, you know. I'll be very angry if you don't."
"I will," Joey swore. "I will." He took in JC's body all over again, feeling a bit guilty that he was checking him out so blatantly, but it didn't seem quite the same as looking at a nude body. He leaned forward almost without thinking, swaying with the motion of the boat, and plucked the seaweed from JC's hair.
Nick chose that moment to shove the sliding partition aside and emerge from the berth area, changed into dry clothing, nearly tripping over JC's tail.
"Sacra Maria!" he said, and jumped back. "What the...?"
"Nick," said Joey sharply as JC's eyes narrowed. "This is JC. He's our guest."
Nick was staring, his mouth wide open, his still-damp hair sticking out in spikes all over his head. "Da told me stories," he said finally, "but I never really believed him. Until now. Wow."
JC's look visibly softened and the ends of his tail began swaying again. In his head, Joey thought of it like a puppy wagging its tail, but he decided that would be unwise to say aloud.
"Of course," Nick went on, the drain of tension visible in his posture. "Da only talked about the beautiful girls."
"But instead we met a beautiful boy," said Joey before he could think twice and keep the words from spilling out. Nick snorted, but JC smiled again. "I have... just so many question," he went on. "Do you mind?"
"I don't seem to be going anywhere," said JC.
"I need to..." Nick pointed toward the other side of the galley, and squeezed past. "I'm gonna check things, Joey, make sure everything's all right. She's tough girl, but..."
Joey should have been doing it himself, but Nick could do it just as well and seemed to get the idea that Joey was pretty happy where he was, sopping clothing and all. "Thanks, Nick," he said, and waited for Nick to disappear for the wheelhouse before turning back to JC. "So do you... are you all right here? Do you need me to wet you down or something?" And didn't that spark a few completely inappropriate thoughts.
"I'm fine," JC said, running a hand lazily over his scales again. Obviously having no clue the effect it had on Joey. "I'll let you know when I need anything. I do like sunning myself; I can be dry for some time before it will harm me."
"Good to know," murmured Joey, and wished he could touch those scales, too, feel if they were as soft and smooth as they looked.
"While I may wish to be wet," said JC, "I think that you probably don't. Go get dry. I'm not going anywhere and you're... it makes strange sounds, when you move."
Joey was squeaking every time he shifted his weight; he barely noticed, but it was probably grating to someone who wasn't used to it. And he was shifting a lot.
"Okay, but I'll bring in a bucket of water for you before I do," he said, shivering just at the thought of going out there again. From the motion of the boat, the storm outside was still going strong. He'd have to ask Nick how long it looked like it was going to hold out for. "No sense putting on dry clothes just to get wet again."
* * *
When Joey came back inside and put the pail down, Nick grabbed him by the collar and tugged him up into the wheelhouse, pulling the partition closed.
"What the hell, Fatone?"
"Nick!" said Joey, shaking his hand off. "What are you talking about?"
"That... JC!" he said. "What's he doing in here? What are you doing, Joey?"
"Having a hallucination, I think," said Joey, and he couldn't help but grin as he scratched at his beard again. "Can you believe it? I think I must've hit my head on the deck while getting the catch in, and I'll wake up any moment now."
"Or you're getting hypothermia," said Nick, cuffing Joey's head but then feeling his forehead briefly. "Though even if you are, there's still going to be a mermaid out there when you come out of it."
"He's not exactly a maid," said Joey.
"That's not exactly the point."
"I know, I know." Joey ran his hand over his face to get the last of the water that dripped from his beard and his eyelashes. "I pulled him up in the net, Nick. I don't know what else to tell you. He's... he's waiting for me. I have to go."
Nick caught his arm. "Joey, I know that look on your face. Don't do this. Don't be stupid. You guys can't..."
"I'm not," said Joey, yet he couldn't get JC off his mind. Not the fact that he was a creature of legend, but his face, his eyes, his smile. Like no one Joey had known. "Nick, I know, I'm not. When the storm passes, I'll take him back out on deck and he'll go. He'll leave."
"You could take him up now," Nick reminded him, a reminder that Joey neither needed nor wanted. "There's no reason to wait out the storm here."
"I don't want to take any chances."
"You don't want to let him go," said Nick. "It's like... that story. About the -- what are they called -- sirens? They put a spell on you and you'd follow them anywhere. Even if it meant ruining your life."
"Nick, come on, you're being melodramatic..."
"How do you know? An hour ago you would've said mermaids are a kids story."
"Okay," he admitted. "I may be exaggerating a little. But still... Joey, I know you. Don't fall for someone you can't have."
"I won't," Joey promised him, and feared he already had.
* * *
It was well past nightfall when the storm blew itself out completely, the clouds drifting off and the stars emerging in the sky above them. There was nothing like a night-time sky when there was no ambient light to ruin the effect. Joey carried JC back out and they sat together on the deck. It was a lot more comfortable now that the seas were calm and Joey was in a thick sweater and jeans, instead of hipwaders and a drenched coat.
"You name the stars, don't you?" said JC, his eyes still on the sky, leaning back on both his hands with his body stretched out long and lean. Joey could see the curve of muscles on his arms.
"Some of them," said Joey, reaching up towards the sky to trace a constellation with his finger. Orion, the first one he'd been able to find as a child. "How did you know?"
"I know some things," said JC, with a private smile. "We know things, about your world."
"Do you?" asked Joey. "Name the stars, I mean. Do you name the stars, too?"
JC shook his head, still staring up. "We don't see them often enough," he said. "It's not all of us that like to come close to the surface. It's not all of us that want anything to do with your world."
"But you do?"
"I like to experience new things," said JC with a contented sigh. "There's so much in the world to see and do. I'm an artist, you know."
"You're an..." began Joey, trying to imagine that, trying to imagine what kind of art could be made and preserved that far below the waves. "What do you do?"
"I make things," said JC. "I make... things. Things that I think are beautiful. Spires and arches and columns. I would show you if I could."
It was an unexpected invitation, and one that Joey wished he could take him up on. Because JC was so much more than his beauty -- silly and clever and talented -- and it with every little thing Joey learned, he knew it would be that much harder watch him go.
"Your home sounds beautiful," he chose to say finally. He could think of nothing else that wouldn't betray his desire. Nick had been right -- Joey should have encouraged JC to go as soon as they reached the cove. But then he would have missed out on a few hours of conversation -- and friendship -- that he would never forget.
JC finally looked away from the sky only to look wistfully at the water. "It is," he said. "It's time for me to go."
Joey tensed even though he'd been waiting for this moment. "I guess this is goodbye, then," he said awkwardly, standing up and shoving his hands in his pockets and rocking on his heels.
JC nodded, and looked back at him one last time. "It's been a pleasure getting to know you, Joey," he said. Then, with surprising grace, he slid to the edge of the boat and past the railing and dropped over the side.
Joey rushed to the railing, gripping it in both hands, and watched to see if JC would emerge again. He did, a short distance away, and looked back just once. With one hand he smoothed the hair away from his face; with the other he waved. Then the last thing Joey saw was the moonlight glinting off JC's tail before he disappeared beneath the waves.
* * *
Joey'd gotten a more decent chunk of change than he deserved from his catch, in large part because a lot of boats in the area hadn't managed to dodge the full fury of the storm and had come back empty-handed.
"Buy you a drink?" said Nick, slipping onto the stool next to him. "I seem to be suddenly solvent." Joey turned toward him to see Nick's broad grin. "The usual?"
Joey drained the drink he already had and nodded his head as he pushed the glass away. It wasn't until the next round was delivered that he spoke at all. A full day and a half had passed since arriving home, and everything still felt strange.
"Did it really happen?" he asked aloud, finally.
Nick nodded his head, and looked like he needed the drink as much as Joey did. "It really did happen," he said. "He really was on our boat that night."
"Would anyone believe us if we told them?"
"Not a soul," said Nick, and grinned again and shook his head like he couldn't quite believe it all. "Not only that, they'd give us shit for making up a story that wasn't about a fishy topless girl. Hell, I'm still disappointed we didn't end up with a fishy topless girl."
Joey chuckled into his beer. "If he was here right now, he'd be telling you how he's not a fish."
"Yeah, I bet," agreed Nick. "I bet. You still think about him a lot, huh?"
"What, don't you?" said Joey. "Nick, we had something amazing happen that night. Something extraordinary. Of course I'm still thinking about it, it's a hard thing to forget."
"Sure, I'm still thinking about it," said Nick, "but I don't think I'm thinking about him like you're thinking about him." He fell silent for a moment while he sipped his own drink; Joey just waited for it. "I warned you, Joey."
"I know, I know," Joey cut in immediately. "I know you did. I was there. I... I'll get over it, Nick. I always do."
Nick fell silent again, sipping his beer. "You always do," he agreed finally, nodding his head. "Okay. I'm just saying."
"You know what the bitch of it is?" said Joey, forcing a smile onto his face, for Nick's sake. "I can't even eat fish right now. Can't even look at it."
Nick snorted, then gave Joey a sidelong glance. "You're serious?"
"As a heart attack," said Joey, and sighed and finished his beer. "I'll give it some time."
"Huh," said Nick, shaking his head in disbelief. "I guess that means we're not heading out again soon? I was planning on being on the water by the end of the week."
"I need a little time," admitted Joey, something he'd never said before. "Why don't you look up Dorough? I know he's back in town, and I don't think he's signed on with anyone. Take him out with you next time, till I'm up to it."
"Yeah," said Nick slowly. "Yeah, okay, I'll do that."
* * *
After a week, Joey was sure he was never going to get a normal night's sleep again. The first night, of course, he dropped right into his bed and crashed for hours, once the catch was in. But after that, his dreams made his sleep restless, and he woke each morning tired and disoriented.
And JC was in all of them. Of course he was. What else was Joey going to be thinking about? His dreams had formerly been populated by dancing fish and killer storms and half-naked boys, but these has all been demoted to bit players. JC on the boat, JC in the ocean, JC on the beach, JC in his home.
On the seventh night exactly, Joey gave in and switched on his lamp and got out of bed. He could see the coast from his living room window, could even watch the gentle waves come in. And so he got himself a hot drink and made himself comfortable in his recliner and sat there, watching it.
He couldn't see the island from there, it was somewhere beyond the horizon, far beyond where the light reached, but he knew it was out there and imagined what it must be looking like. He remembered exactly how the moon and stars reflected off the waters of the cove, making it glitter and sparkle.
This wasn't anything mystical or magical, it wasn't anything inexplicable. Joey had just gone and fallen in love with JC in their short time together, and there didn't seem to be anything he could do about it.
* * *
"It was good, to hear your voice again," said Nick, opening the door to let Joey into his apartment. "It's been almost two weeks, I was starting to get worried."
"I'm sorry, I should've at least called," said Joey, taking off his hat and smoothing his hair. "I was just..."
"I know what you were doing," said Nick, not making Joey explain. "Sit down. Do you want some coffee? I just put a pot on a few minutes ago."
"Sure, sure," said Joey, kicking off his boots, too, and sitting down in a yellow vinyl kitchen chair. "Sounds good. So how's Dorough been working out?"
"It's been good," said Nick cheerfully. "He's no you, of course, but he's a hard worker and we made a couple good hauls. And he lets me play some good, old-fashioned punk music when we're out on deck. I think he's looking for a bigger boat, though."
"That's too bad."
"Too bad?" said Nick, carrying the mugs to the table. "I figured that would be a good thing. He'd move on and you'd come back. That was the plan, right?"
"Right," said Joey. He'd thought it would be really hard to have this conversation, but from the look in Nick's eyes when he sat down at the table, he already had an idea where this was going. Yet the words got stuck in his throat anyway.
"Joey?" Nick prompted him after a few moments.
"Nick, I want to sell you my half of the Briahna Joely." There, it was out there.
Nick obviously hadn't anticipated that. "What?" he finally got out after a moment of shocked silence. "I thought you were going to say you were taking a break!"
"I'm sorry, Nick, I think I need more than that right now--" He didn't need to finish, though. Nick got it.
"You're going to try to find him, aren't you."
Joey nodded slowly, and sipped his steaming coffee to keep from having to justify himself right away. Nick didn't fill the silence, though. Nick knew him well enough to just wait him out. "I need to do this," he said finally. "I just need to do it."
"Estúpido," muttered Nick under his breath, shaking his head at him, but there was a bit of a fond smile on his face, too, Joey could see it. "Do you know what you're doing, Joey?"
"Do you think I'm nuts?"
"Always did," said Nick. "But not because of this. So... so what's your plan? What are you going to do?"
"The house is on the market," said Joey. "Fully furnished. You know folk around here'll jump at that, so many transients without a stick of wood to their name. Gonna get myself a nice sport boat, stock it up and head for Ilha do Anjo."
"And then what?"
"And then... I wait," said Joey with a helpless shrug. He couldn't imagine what more he could do than that -- he couldn't just search out the bottom of the sea like JC could come to the surface. He would just have to wait and hope. "Do you think he'll come?"
Nick was silent for a moment, which was a lot better than a flat "no", which Nick would have given him if he thought it was the truth. "I'm not saying he wanted to be caught," Nick said finally, "but do you think it was coincidence he was swimming so close to a boat? That he voluntarily stayed long after he could have demanded you let him go?"
Joey frowned and thought about that. "What are you saying?" he said finally. "That he wanted to meet me?"
"I'm just saying," said Nick, "that he came close to the surface once, when he saw a boat, knew men would be there. And if it happened once... no reason it couldn't happen again. I think... I'm pretty sure he wasn't far from home, when we met him."
Joey had gotten that idea, too, and so he just nodded his head. "So what do you say, Nick? She's a good boat, you know she is."
"I know she is," said Nick slowly. "And you know I'll take her. But if you ever want to come back, Joey, just say the word, okay? It's not going to be the same without you."
"Different doesn't mean worse," said Joey, but he knew he would miss Nick too. "And it's not like I'll be far away, you know. You damn well better come visit me sometimes."
"Yeah, well, ditto," said Nick, then chuckled. "Man, I can't believe you're gonna go out and stay on that rock. What are you gonna do? Camp? Sleep on your boat?"
"I'll do whatever it takes."
* * *
Joey made camp on the beach, high up beyond the tideline. The island was uninhabited, which took some getting used to. Joey had grown up with the crowds of people in his coastal fishing village, and Nick had always been with him on the boat. The only contact he had here was the gear on his boat and a portable radio that he brought with him. It only picked up AM stations; Joey was going to have to replace it next time he went to the mainland.
Two days and nights passed and he didn't see any signs of anyone, except the occasional boats passing in the distance. The island was too far from the mainland for most day-trippers to check out, too large to be bought up by someone wanting an ocean hideaway, too small to be used for any kind of development.
His father had brought the family here once, though, when Joey was young, back in a time that he barely remembered. They'd stayed for the afternoon on the beach in the cove, playing and enjoying the sun, and then had gone back to the mainland. Joey hadn't set foot on the island since then, though the cove had been a safe haven for him and his boat -- his former boat, he reminded himself -- many times.
On the afternoon of the third day, Joey saw a head pop up out of the waves, and dashed down the path on the cliff at full tilt, almost spraining his ankle on an exposed root. It wasn't JC, though, he could see that for certain when he reached the water's edge. Whatever -- no, whoever -- it was had short hair and a squarer face.
But it was someone, and that was a start, and Joey didn't even feel too disappointed when the merman slipped back beneath the waves again and disappeared.
It was hard, though, not to begin to lose hope a little when night fell and no one had returned to the cove. Not that man, not JC, not any other curious creatures.
It was a full moon that night, and Joey didn't even need his small fire to see by. He made himself a sandwich and sat on the beach, listening to his radio and watching the small waves come in. He guessed that it was almost midnight when a head popped above water again.
He was slower to leap to his feet this time, but the pull to see who it was, what he was doing there, was no less. He brushed the sand off his pants and walked steadily toward the water, leaving all his things behind. Whoever it was was getting closer this time, swimming toward the shore. Joey kept going when he reached the water, wading in to his calves, his thighs, his waist.
He recognized JC when he was still too far away to address, and just watched him as he swam closer. It was the eyes that Joey recognized first, those happy, dancing blue eyes that sparkled as much as the moonlit water did.
"You came back," said JC when they reached one another, and Joey couldn't think of anything to say, he just reached out and touched JC's cheek, his hair. "Why?"
"For you," Joey said, because that answer was easy. "I couldn't get you off my mind. I had to come back for you."
"And what are you going to do with me now that I'm here?" JC asked, reaching out himself, for the first time, and running his fingertips along Joey's beard. And smiling.
"I don't know," Joey admitted. "I just had to find you. I didn't think... I don't know. Be with you?"
"I was thinking about you, too," JC said after a moment. "You didn't use a net this time. I appreciate that. It makes me want to come back."
"I want you to come back," said Joey, grasping at everything that JC was offering him. "I want you to come back and come back and keep coming back to me for as long as... as long as forever."
"I don't know how to do this," said JC. "I don't know how to be with you."
"We'll find a way," said Joey, and he took JC's hand.