To get the merman into the shower’s cubicle was a task much more difficult than the fucking itself. Once Paul managed to detangle himself from the merman, it took him all the effort he could muster to push him forward into their bathroom; he wouldn’t insist on it so hard but Richard’s belly and legs were stained and if the merman wanted to wake up fresh, he needed to wash his ass. And the rest of his body too. Paul closed the glass door behind them and turned the knobs, letting them be showered by a warm stream from above.
Thankfully, once the merman felt the water on his skin he became more alive, maybe even too alive for Paul’s tired taste. At least he didn’t need to stress himself with his own body, Richard washed his hair and then his own, cursing a bit when the shampoo got into his eyes. Paul chuckled and raised his arms to sweep away any foam from Richard’s face, kissing his wet lips once he got rid of the shampoo. He then helped the merman with the shower gel, gently letting his fingers disappear between the merman’s cheeks and even lower to his thighs.
“Oh, stop it,” Paul mumbled when he was kneeling in front of Richard, taking care of the rest of his thighs and crotch. As he brushed over his flaccid dick he immediately felt it twitch, bumping into his fingers. He flicked it off and stood up, covering himself in a generous amount of the gel as well, not prolonging their unplanned showering. Once they were both clean, Paul threw a towel at Richard and wrapped his around his waist and walked back into the bedroom towards the bed.
“Dry yourself up, I’m gonna change the sheets. Well, as much as I can.” He winked at the smirking merman and started stripping the bed of its soiled sheets.
Richard didn’t rush anywhere, he slowly dried the water from his hair, getting back to his opened window to let the cold breeze from outside to cool him down. He dragged the towel across his face and down his torso, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness outside. He could still faintly hear the music from the bar, though having their hotel at the outskirts of the city, the only thing that could be heard was the rhythmic beat of the drums and bass. The beach in front of their room was completely abandoned, with not a single soul present. The sea was a bit wilder, the wind kept combing the waves over each other, throwing the water onto the beach much further than usual; the water itself was black as the darkest ink, reflecting only the artificial lights of the city and nothing more.
“We’ll have to share a blanket, but that shouldn’t be a problem, right?” Paul asked from behind, disturbing Richard’s staring into nothingness. “Hello? Something caught your eye?” Paul joked as he got closer and wrapped their bodies in the clean blanket, cocooning Richard into a warm hug.
“Y-yeah.” Paul perked up in alarm at Richard’s whisper. “Look over there, someone’s swimming there.”
“At this time of the night? In this weather?” Paul focused onto the sea, trying to find the person Richard was pointing on.
“I think that’s someone from my school.” Richard suddenly freed himself from the hug and started searching for his swimming trunks.
“What? What would they be doing here? Richard, that’s stupid.” Paul nervously laughed and turned around to watch the merman put on his clothes. “Richard, I can’t see anybody in there, you’re probably just tired.”
“You just don’t know where to look. The waves break repeatedly, at irregular places. And the breaks appear in a line of someone swimming; you can even see the shine from the scales if you focus on the right place!” Richard put on his spare shirt, leaving the room with a quick kiss on Paul’s cheek. “I’ll be back, I swear!”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, where did the energy come from.” Paul annoyingly looked at the freshly made bed and groaned, going to the dresser as well. Once he realized that the merman will try to get as close as he can in the water, he sped up his tempo; the idiot could barely swim and would drown before he could find his supposed schoolmate.
Five minutes later, he was running around the hotel towards the beach, desperately trying to find the merman. He got across the sandy strip in a matter of seconds, his tempo quickening when he saw Richard already in the cold water to his waist. He cursed, took off his shirt and sandals and waddled into it too, hating the nipping around his shins. He barely got the water above his knees when he heard hushed shouts and saw that Richard had his arm extended to him with his palm raised up, signalling him to stop in his advances. He didn’t like letting Richard in the deeper water alone, but by the urgency in the merman’s gestures, he stopped nonetheless and watched him in worry.
Richard was hurriedly talking to someone. Paul couldn’t still see who it was, but then heard a female voice answering back, the language nothing like anything he yet heard from the merman. It was melodic and colourful, just a tiny step away from turning into singing itself. And then after a minute or so, he saw a tail hitting the water surface, before disappearing below it, only to reappear right in front of Richard with the owner herself.
“Richard?” He stood still, hoping he won’t scare the mermaid off.
Richard whipped his head to him and smiled, holding the woman with one hand and gesturing for him to get closer with the other. Paul slowly moved forward, letting the cold water engulf him, till he stood next to Richard. The water was splashing against his torso with the wind throwing droplets of the salt water into his face.
“Ah hello.” Paul shyly greeted, immediately huddling to Richard for warmth.
“Hello Paul.” The mermaid briefly smiled at him, her face turning into a serious one in a second.
When Richard saw Paul’s confused face, he chuckled and leant down, whispering into his ear, “She’s one of the girls that Till saved, remember?”
“Oh. Oh! Yeah, now I remember!” PauL relaxed a bit, leaning into Richard’s shoulder. “What’s up? And more importantly, how did you find us?”
“We were actually looking for you, my Mate and I,” she said, her eyes frantic and all over Richard, “holy hell, what had happened to you, Richard?”
“What do you mean?” The merman asked, genuinely confused.
“You’ve got legs! How?!” She switched back to that singsong-y language.
“Ah.” Richard’s smile faltered, quickly trying to come up with a sensible lie. He had Maria’s warnings burned into his head; he did not want to risk anyone’s life at all. At least Doom told him the truth when he promised not to tell anyone, she seemed clueless about his new status. And being younger than him meant that the elders thankfully kept much more information from her and her Mate.
“How did that happen? Were you cursed? Is it the elders fault?” She continued, not giving him any space for an answer.
“No, no, no.” Richard raised his hands to calm her down, stopping her ongoing questions. “It’s, y’know, because I decided that Paul’s my Mate. So this happened some time ago. Nothing more, I swear. Is this why you were trying to find me?”
Richard was glad when she looked like she had accepted his gullible lie as the truth; he had no strength to come up with more sensible lies to tell her. But seeing she did not probe deeper into it and only nodded to herself to close up that chapter, he immediately knew that something more severe was about to come. And he was right.
“We can’t find him, Richard. We knew he spend a lot of his time at the fishery with you, to look after you but he was not there. A couple of us started to look for him, in case he got abducted.”
Once again, Richard could feel his heart stop. He wasn’t afraid of Doom getting abducted, he had no doubt the merman was careful and strong enough to evade any danger; the only thing that could subconsciously draw him in were the caves.
“Are you sure he just didn’t go hunting or something?” Richard stumbled over the words, his own hold on Paul getting tense.
Said man was confusingly switching his gaze from the mermaid to Richard, trying to decipher what they were talking about; the mentioning of his name and their hurried and strained tones made him unnerved. He certainly did not expect the mood to change so quickly, he felt his own stomach to clench in suspense as he waited for the two of them to finish talking.
“Our people went to check all the usual places and he was not there. And since he was spending so much time with you, we thought you’d know. But you weren’t there either.” She moved her hands about pointing towards the open sea and to all the other directions around them. “And then I find you like this, with legs, on the dryland. Seriously, are you okay?”
“I’m fine, you don’t have to worry about me.” He leaned to Paul for a second and nuzzled his hair with his cheek, letting Paul’s scent calm him down a bit. “I couldn’t be happier. I can look for Doom too, I have a few guesses where he could be.”
“You know where he could be? We could meet there and-“
“No, we can’t.” Richard stopped her, the image of more mermaids lost in the caves absolutely terrified him. “It’s not necessary, okay? Just go and stay near the fishery, you know you can trust Paul and Till, they won’t hurt you.”
“Are you sure?” she asked, laying her hand on his shoulder to stroke it.
“Yes, just stay near the fishery. Now go, before any other humans can see you.”
“Good luck.” She took a deep breath and nodded, sparing one last smile for Paul before disappearing into the inky water, back into the depths.
There was a moment where both men stood in the dark together in the water, the coldness numbing their skin all over. Only after a few more seconds Paul quickly shook his head and looked up at Richard, who was nibbling his bottom lip in worry. He may have not understood what they were talking about, but he could easily deduce from their tones and Richard’s new mood that it was nothing good.
“Did something happen?” He turned to face the merman, putting both of his hands on Richard shoulders to rub small circles on them.
“Yeah,” the merman whispered, finally moving his eyes from the horizon to Paul, “We have to get out of here. Now.”
“Doom went to the caves.”
Paul barely had any time to ask any questions. The merman stormed out of the water and in a couple of quick strides he disappeared inside the hotel, not waiting for the other man. And when Paul caught up with him, half of his clothes was already packed (meaning carelessly stuffed into their bags, with Richard stuffing their toiletries on top of the mess). Paul was too tired to argue with the merman, his mind still tried to make sense of Doom trying his luck and going for the caves as well. After all, he didn’t have a proper reason like Richard did. A row of Goosebumps ran down his neck when he remembered the old woman’s warning. No matter how strong one’s mind can be, once the secret is revealed, they will follow. These words together with Richard’s panicked running around gave Paul completely clear signals of the situation’s severity. He managed to help with the final packing and with a final look over the room they left it and went for their car.
Even though they were geographically closer to the caves than if they had to travel from the fishery, it would take them almost about the same time to get there; the road was squeezing through valleys and rocks, sometimes disappearing into a tunnel, sometimes emerging onto a bridge over a chasm. A beautiful scenery for a daytime travel but for fast driving after a midnight it was a nightmare. As they final got onto this main road snaking around the island, Paul finally let out a deep breath and loosened the grip on the steering wheel, letting his eyes linger on Richard for a moment. The merman was barely moving, his eyes glued towards the darkness in front of them, his mouth cupped by his arm which he rested by his elbow on the car door.
“Shouldn’t I call Till first? He could know more. Maybe Doom’s there with him somewhere.”
“He went to the caves,” Richard mumbled, his eyes still not moving and not acknowledging Paul’s question.
“I’m gonna call him,” sighed Paul and put his phone on a speaker, calling his friend. Three long rings and the man thankfully answered.
“Hey Till, I know it’s late but is Doom there with you?” Paul asked, trying to cover his nervousness with a soft laugh.
“Uh, no? He returned to his school like every night, yeah?”
Paul could see and hear how Richard closed his eyes and sharply inhaled. He hated that their fears were coming true, it all started to click together. He had hoped that the other merman would have enough sense to avoid the place, but it sounded like they had no such luck like that. He tried to keep his poker-face to support Richard, but deep inside he was trying to hold onto any hope he had left that the merman did not get lured into the caves and got himself hurt. He would not be able to look Richard in the eyes again; if they didn’t have the radio on on that fateful day, none of this would’ve happened.
“Well,” Paul laughed, his tone now full of panic, “One of the girls visited us and they can’t find him either. And by the information we got, he probably swam to the caves.”
There was a pregnant pause. “What?! Why?”
“It’s what the granny had told us when we returned the diary. She recognized that Richard is not human and then gave us some advices.” Paul looked once again at the merman. “Look, we’re already on our way there and it’d be wonderful if you could get there too.”
“Okay, okay. I can do that. I’ll take the boat, it should be a bit quicker. Though the sea might still be a bit stormy.”
“Stormy? Why?” Paul asked, finally seeing from the corner of his eyes Richard move. The merman jerked his head towards the phone, glaring at it instead.
“There was a storm not long ago, it barely missed you guys, if you were in the north.”
“Oh God dammit!” Paul cursed, speeding up on the abandoned road.
“So,” Till drawled out the word, “Should I really go? I’m not really into midnight racing across the sea.”
“Yes! God! Meet us there, please.” Paul’s voice turned desperate. “We need to help him.”
“Fine, okay.” Till tried to sound as soothing as possible. “I’ll meet you guys there. See you soon.”
“Thank you.” Paul ended the call and with a deep sigh relaxed (or at least tried to do so) into his seat. He kept quiet and let his thoughts run wild. He hoped he would have an uninterrupted week or two just for himself and the merman, but it looked like it wasn’t something that the higher powers had prepared for him. Paul wasn’t a religious man just for the reason that if any all-powerful being existed, he would have strangled it by now. And by looking over at his lover, he was sure that Richard had similar thoughts. The merman forcefully rubbed at his eyes and ruffled his hair, letting out a loud growl of frustration out.
“Fucking hell! Why does this have to happen to me?” The merman hissed, letting out a couple of colourful curses in his own language right after.
“Hey!” Paul said, his voice barely above a whisper, “We’re gonna be alright. Doom’s gonna be alright, don’t worry.” He let the steering wheel go with his right hand and rested it on Richard’s thigh to calm him down.
“How do you know that? You don’t know him! Or the place! What if something has already happened to him?” Richard inhaled sharply, his eyes not moving from the road in front of them. “It’s all my fucking fault. If I weren’t so reckless everything’d be fine. I’m a goddamn dis-“
“-Richard!” Paul let go of his attempt at sounding soothing. “None of this is your fault, okay? Stop blaming yourself. You cannot blame yourself for something that’s apparently innate for you and your people.”
“But if I weren’t so stupid and didn’t want him everywhere with me he wouldn’t know about it!”
When Paul heard Richard starting to hyperventilate, and curse, he made a quick stop at the side of the road, letting the engine run while he turned his entire upper body to the merman. They were both tense, but Richard’s panic began to grow into something dangerous as he kept nervously tugging at his skin, not stopping with cursing himself in all languages he knew.
“Hey,” Paul’s voice was strong and determined, “Look at me.” He took the merman’s face into his hands and turned him towards himself, waiting for his eye contact to continue.
“We’re on our way, there’s not much more we can do, okay? You worrying yourself to death won’t help us either.” Paul rested his brow against Richard’s, stroking the merman’s hair behind his ears. “Preserve your energy for the caves. Do it for me and Doom, please.”
He left a gentle kiss upon the merman’s lips and leaned back into his seat, letting his right hand rest over Richard’s and waited for the merman’s reaction. Said merman was trying to calm his breathing; his exhales were still hitched and his eyes frantic but at least his body was not twitching anymore and his hands exchanged his skin for the hem of his shirt.
“Okay,” the merman sighed, “Okay, I’ll try.” His head hit the car’s headrest as he closed his eyes to focus on his breathing. “Just drive, please.”
Paul didn’t verbally answer him. Squeezing his own hand one last time in support he let go and focused on the road again, pulling the car back on its track. They still had a couple of hours in front of them and if he was supposed to be focused on the driving, he needed all the quiet in the world for it- the quiet radio was enough to keep his mind in line and awake. Plus, he had to think over all the possible outcomes that they could arrive to. Is Doom really going to be there? Is he going to be alright? What if he really gets gravely hurt? Paul was afraid of Richard’s reaction to that, he prayed that Richard wouldn’t be one of those people that could die of grief; his own heart jumped at the terrifying thought. At best he hoped they won’t find him at all and all of it is just going to be one big false alarm.
Arriving in the middle of the night to the place felt like finding yourself in the middle of a horror movie. It was cold, the ground was wet and the moon barely shined through the scattered clouds in the sky. Paul parked the car in the same spot when he was there the last time; just a couple of meters away from the entrance with the headlights shining onto one of the rock slates. Once he took the car key out of the ignition, he looked at Richard who was in the process of detangling his body out of the seatbelt.
“Whoa, slow down.” Paul grabbed him by his arm and sat him back into his seat. “Let’s first call Till, okay?”
Richard didn’t answer him, he just sat back down and rigidly stared in front of himself at the artificially illuminated nature outside. A few moments later he could hear the beeping of Paul’s phone’s speaker.
“Yeah?!” Till shouted a moment later, his voice deafened by the sound of a running engine.
“We’re here, where are you?” Paul asked, watching the merman from the corner of his eye for any unexpected movement.
“I should be at the nearest beach in about ten minutes. At least according to the GPS,” Till shouted over the noise of the boat, “It’s just on the right side of the caves, it’s not gonna take me long!”
“Okay.” Paul nodded to himself and sparred Richard a quick glance. “Okay. I’ll meet you there. I hope you took some ropes with you.”
“Yeah I did.”
“Good. See you soon.” He didn’t wait for Till’s answer, instead, he opened his door and looked over at the merman who took it as a clue to get out as well.
“Richard, stay here please. I don’t know what the terrain looks like towards the beach.”
“It’ll be faster if I go alone, you can stay in the car, I’ll be right back.” Paul patted his thigh and stepped out, fishing out a flashlight out of the car’s door.
“Fine. But please hurry up.” Richard’s anxiety returned into his voice; even though they still had to make their way within, the place already had an effect on the merman. And having his friend possibly lost somewhere in there too didn’t help the situation either.
Paul nodded and closed the door, leaving the radio play for the merman. As he was turning away from the car he raised his hand as an afterthought and pressed a button on the car keys, locking the merman in the car. Just to be safe. He could theoretically open it from the inside but luckily, Richard didn’t know how to. And with that he started jogging back the way they had arrived, looking for any path that would lead down towards the shore. Though Paul’s own impatience didn’t give him that satisfaction; once he could hear the faint sound of Till’s boat he gave up and started walking straight towards the shore, carefully climbing over boulders, jumping over thorny bushes and evading any branches in his way. Once he was far enough to see through the trees towards the shore, he spotted Till’s boat and the lights it emitted onto the shore, drowning the lonely strip of pebbles in blinding light.
“Till!” He shouted once he ran out of the trees, not hearing the roaring sound of the engine anymore.
“Coming!” He could hear the other man’s voice coming from the boat. Right after that he spotted Till himself with a headlight on and a bunch of ropes thrown over his shoulders. Without any other doubts Till jumped into the water and swam towards the shore, meeting Paul not even a minute later.
“I swear if all of this is a giant prank I’m gonna drown the both of you.” Till tried to mask his own trepidation by keeping his voice calm and welcoming. He crawled out of the sea, automatically throwing one of the ropes onto his friend and embracing him in a hug. “Hey, it’s good to see you’re safe.”
“Yeah. We gotta hurry though. I’ve locked Richard in the car. I don’t want him to lose his mind in there.”
“Well, lead the way.” Till snickered, extending his arm towards the trees.
Returning back was a bit more difficult but not impossible; once Till understood that they just need to go up till they hit the road again, he took lead and managed to quickly and efficiently get them back towards the car. Richard was still sitting inside, with his arms crossed and his fingers drumming impatiently against his biceps. If the situation wasn’t so serious, Paul would let him sit there for a moment or two longer, just to see how much the merman would be able to take. But now, he jogged towards the passenger door and opened it with his keys, letting Richard out and closing the car behind him.
“That was very rude, y’know,” the merman said as he stretched his arms in the air.
“Yeah, sorry,” Paul mumbled as he tried to hide his disappearing smirk, “Let’s go, and let’s hope I still remember the way back.”
“I took a picture of the diary’s pages before you guys took it.” Till fished out a waterproof packet and took out his phone. “Just to be sure.”
“Thank you.” Richard gripped his shoulder in gratitude and followed Paul into the bushes towards the caves.
They agreed that Paul would go first, with Till’s phone in his hand with Richard Right behind, being belayed by Till from behind. It took only one fleeting look from Paul to Till for the bigger man to understand that he must watch over the merman; not only could he trip and fall in the dark, but he could also get swayed by the atmosphere within the cave system. They managed to abseil down quite quickly and thanks to Paul’s knowledge, the natural labyrinth didn’t look so scary anymore. Or at least as long as they stayed away from the many ponds and their skeleton-filled bottoms.
“Just one more turn and we’ll be there,” Paul whispered into the dark, waiting for the two men to catch up on him. Richard was becoming more and more anxious and at one point Till contemplated if he should tie the merman to himself just to be safe. Richard assured him multiple times that it’s not necessary, that he feels fine – although his frantic eyes skipping from one side to the other undermined any statement he made; he definitely didn’t look okay. And be it the place itself or just the worry over his friend; he started to look like he was moving his body on autopilot, his spirit wandering somewhere else.
Paul took yet another turn and disappeared behind a corner. The two other men caught up with him quickly, too quickly. Richard accidentally stumbled into the smaller man who had frozen in his place, his flashlight pointed in front of him into the spacious cavern at the end of the tunnel.
“Why did you st-“ Till’s voice died out behind them as he followed their gaze into the cone of the solitary light in front of them.
Just a couple of meters in front of them was the cave where Paul found Richard a coupe of days ago and now, there was another new body. Another human looking body, bruised all over, bleeding and unconscious. They could recognize those brown curls everywhere. And the face with its strong features hiding under them was unmistakable too.