There was a man in his bathtub.
Aster paused in the act of pulling off his t-shirt to stare at the man in his bathtub.
The man in his bathtub had a tail.
"…What," Aster said.
The man in his bathtub with a tail smiled. His teeth were very white, and his eyes were very blue, and the tip of his tongue was very pink where it was just visible between those very white teeth, and it was only the wintry color palette of this odd person that distracted Aster from the tail. He was an artist: colors were his thing. It was all very legit.
"Guh," he said, absently.
The Smile widened.
"Hi," said Man in the Bathtub With a Tail. "I hope I'm not imposing."
Aster blinked about seventeen times. "You have a tail," he pointed out.
"Yes," Man in the Bathtub With a Tail agreed, amiably. "You have legs. They're very nice."
Aster glanced down at himself. He had come straight from painting on the beach, a decidedly sweaty (if rewarding) experience, and had started losing his clothes as soon as he stepped inside the apartment he'd rented for this two-week vacation to the shore. The pants were, if he remembered correctly, on top of the TV. All he was wearing were a pair of boxers.
He blushed. Then he wondered why he was blushing. He wasn't the naked intruder lounging in another man's tub! With a tail!
"Shut up," he grumbled. "I was gonna take a shower. What the hell are you doing in my bathtub?"
Man in the Bathtub With a Tail shrugged. "I was dry and hot and needed a place to cool off. Your bathtub is nice and big."
It was. It was a very nice bathtub. That still didn't explain why a man with a tail was occupying it. Speaking of which.
"So… you're a. What. Mermaid?"
That provoked a sputter. "Wh-what? Do I look like a girl to you?" The Smile disappeared, in favor of an equally fascinating (uh, artistically, that was) frown. "Merman, thanks. Merman. My name's Jack."
Jack the Merman stuck out a hand. Aster slowly reached out and took it, because what the hell. "Uh. I'm Aster. You – are a hallucination."
"No," Jack said, smirking. "I'm a merman. I can see how you'd get the two confused, though."
"A very vivid hallucination," Aster conceded, staring at their shaking hands. Jack's palm was warm and damp, and felt entirely real. "But I only came back from the beach because I had a really bad headache. I bet this is heatstroke. You are heatstroke."
"I'm really not." Jack laughed, splashing his tail a little. "If I were, then what happened to all your chocolate-covered coffee beans?"
"My-?" Aster blinked. Then he left the bathroom and rushed to the kitchenette. Sure enough, his tin of chocolate-covered coffee beans was gone. He returned to the bathroom, fuming.
Those were his favorite treat. How dare the merman.
"I don't care if you're a hallucination or a merman or a bloody rock lobster, no one touches my chocolate-covered coffee beans!" Aster tackled the merman in his bathtub.
Because it seemed to be the thing to do.
The merman did seem surprised, but not nearly as terrified as he ought to be. Instead, he just laughed and splashed his tail, seemingly completely unconcerned by the several hundred pounds of raging Australian crouching over him and shaking him violently by the shoulders.
"Whoa," he said, voice jittery from being shaken back and forth. "Yo-u rea-lly like th-ose, d-on't you?"
"What've you done with them?! Where are my coffee beans?" Aster shouted, then kind of collapsed into the water and sobbed a little because he was losing his mind and he didn't want to be that particular artist cliche. Jack patted him on the back.
"Hey, hey, it's okay."
"No it is very bloody not," Aster mumbled back, but sighed and sat up a little. He was all wet now, straddling a mythological creature in his bathtub while wearing only a pair of boxers. Why was this happening to him.
...At least Jack was comfortable to straddle. His skin was very smooth and pale and it looked like it would taste very good if Aster should happen to lick it for any reason. His scales were nice and shiny, a darkish blue color dusted with almost-shimmering flecks of white that looked cold but were actually warm and smooth to the touch. His hair was white, though his eyebrows were dark. The colors all worked very well together, and he had excellent bone structure. Aster sort of desperately wanted to get his sketchbook and set to work.
He also sort of really wanted to lick Jack's chest, but tried to ignore that.
"How did you even get in here?" Aster moaned, shoulders slumping. He didn't bother to stop straddling Jack. The merman was just a hallucination anyway; it didn't matter. And as a hallucination, it also shouldn't matter, but – "You have a tail. This apartment is five blocks from the ocean. And on the third floor. And locked."
Jack smiled. He didn't seem to mind being straddled at all. In fact, he'd let his hands drop to Aster's hips, and his thumbs were rubbing gently against the artist's bare, wet skin. "I came up through the drain."
"The – pig's arse!"
Aster glared viciously down at the merman. "I don't bloody believe you, that's what. The drain is two inches wide!"
Jack snickered. "Merman magic?"
Aster almost scoffed, but then again it was just as reasonable as any of the rest of this (read: not at all). Still, he couldn't suppress the sarcasm. "So you, what, drank a potion? Wished on a star? Made a deal with an octopus?"
Jack rolled his eyes. "This isn't Alice In Wonderland. Or Pinocchio. And especially not The Little Mermaid."
Ah. So mermen watched Disney, then. Good to know.
"Well, okay, maybe it's sorta The Little Mermaid," Jack admitted. His thumbs hooked just under the waistband of Aster's boxers, as though he might slip them off at any moment. "But with no evil witches. And I clearly have my voice. And I never hang out with flounders."
"Then how are you Ariel at all?" Aster asked, pretending not to notice the fondling he was undergoing. Also, he pretended not to realize that his hands were resting flat on Jack's chest, and he was leaning forward slightly towards the merman's face. No, he was very focused on this conversation he wasn't having with a merman in his bathtub who was completely hallucinatory.
"I'm Ariel in that I was watching you from the water when you were on the beach earlier," Jack smirked. "I'm also Ariel in that I want to jump your bones – though that part didn't exactly make the director's cut."
Aster did not shiver, because hallucinations don't make perfectly sane people with just a bit of heatstroke shiver. "How did you know which bathtub to aim for? I doubt the sewer had a big blinking sign: 'E. Aster Bunnymund vacationing here, hallucinations head on in!'"
Jack snorted. "Uh, nope. Definitely none of that. Actually, first I tried to go for that whole siren thing, you know, beckoning you into the water for some nookie, but no dice. Guess you were too strong-willed for me, or whatever. Maybe I'm just out of practice."
Aster sucked in a breath as Jack tugged him a little closer, blunt nails digging into his sides a bit. Then he sucked in a breath for entirely different reasons. "Wait – you're the reason I kept wanting to dive into the bloody surf? You're the reason for my bloody awful headache?!"
Jack's grin hitched. Just a little. Maybe because of the way Aster was looming over him with a bloodthirsty look on his face. "Uh, sorry? Jeez. If it was working, then why didn't you just go for a swim? What's the big problem here?"
"I can't swim!" Aster hissed menacingly. "I hate the ocean!"
Far from being appropriately cowed, Jack just laughed. "Then why on earth did you go on vacation to the beach?"
Aster glowered at him. He really was angry. He was. His head had ached all morning because of this galah!
Except, Jack's laugh was very nice. And his eyes, now that Aster was leaning in closer, really were such a shade of blue, and his messy white hair was just asking for a hand to thread through it, and Aster felt this weird urge to nip at his nose for some reason, and –
"You're not using any weird siren stuff on me now, are you?" he asked in alarm, pulling back. "How does that even work?"
"No, I gave up on all that. It's nothing so terrible, anyway, just kind of gives you the urge to listen to me. It's not all-powerful or anything – before, you were obviously able to resist, and I was giving it all I got." Jack paused. "Why do you ask?"
Aster did not blush, he did not, he did not, and Jack's lips curved up in the wickedest smirk he'd ever seen.
"Oh. No, sorry, that's just my natural charm."
"Shut up," Aster snapped. "I'm not attracted to you!"
"Really? Darn," –and, oh, that just wasn't fair.
"Stop pouting at me!"
"But I went to all this effort," Jack complained, fingers inching up Aster's back with every word, pulling forward, tugging him closer, "and now you don't even like me, it's just horriblmpph."
Aster was fairly certain his hallucination had not meant to say 'horriblmpph'. That wasn't even a real word. However, Jack really had no choice, seeing as Aster's mouth was interfering in his attempts to form words, by way of kissing him vigorously. Aster wasn't sure why his mouth had decided to interrupt Jack in such a way, except that the merman was being a little shit and deserved to be interrupted, but he had to admit this was a fairly enjoyable method of shutting stray hallucinations up.
Still, one did have to breathe (well, he did at least, mermen might not need to). Aster pulled back eventually (after several admittedly less than half-hearted attempts), with a loud smacking sound because Jack was awful.
"Well, that was easy," the merman sighed. If it weren't for the slightly breathless, dreamy quality to his voice, Aster would've smacked him for calling him 'easy.' "Still, no objections here. Shall we get on with the program?"
And he reached for Aster's boxers and, "Whoa, Nellie. Hold up."
"What nooow?" Jack whined, squirming impatiently, tail wiggling underneath Aster, which was really very distracting except that it was also kind of the main problem.
"You are a hallucination! I'm not having sex with a hallucination!"
"What, so making out with one is okay?"
"No, I, I mean – that's not – I'm not having sex with a hallucination!"
"Come on, Aster," Jack purred. "If I am a hallucination, it's not like anyone has to know. It would just be like a really weird type of masturbating. And if I'm not a hallucination, you get to bang a merman." He used his tail to splash playfully at Aster's face. "Don't tell me you've never wanted to bang a merman."
"I – you're awful." Aster swallowed hard. He couldn't believe he was even contemplating this. "You're… It's not even possible. You don't have the right…"
"Equipment?" Jack asked. "Oh, that's no problem."
The next second, the long blue tail was gone, and Aster was slipping further into the water, his legs tangling with Jack's legs, Jack's very slippery and wet and very naked legs, which attached to his hips and between which there was most certainly all the necessary equipment indeed.
"Any more objections?" Jack asked, grinding up and Aster most definitely did not let his eyes flutter closed like a swooning girl. Nor did he moan like a porn star.
Oh, what the hell. It was just a hallucination.
Aster woke the next morning with his hallucinatory merman draped all over him, drooling on his neck. They'd migrated to the bed at some point, so at least he wasn't sleeping in a tub, but he was still sore in all sorts of unmentionable places.
"I can't believe I had sex with a hallucination," he groaned.
"Three times," Jack pointed out, suddenly no longer drooling on Aster's neck, and oh yes he was such a little shit because if he hadn't been asleep, then why the blazes was he drooling on Aster at all?
It was at this point that Aster realized he might be certifiably insane. "Aah!" he shouted.
"Aah! What!" Jack shouted back, sitting up in wide-eyed alarm. "What is it!"
"Wha– oh." Jack sighed, and ran his fingers through his hair. Dry, it was even messier, sticking up in all sorts of crazy directions. It wasn't fair what that did to Aster's pulse. "I'm a real boy, okay?"
"Stop with the Disney," Aster ordered. "And prove it."
Jack sighed, yawned, and then stood up. Without making a single move to hide his love-bitten, sex-haired nudity, he wandered over to Aster's balcony, opened the curtain, and stepped outside.
Aster stared, cursed, leaped to his feet, tripped, cursed again, struggled into some clothes, and finally followed.
Jack was leaning against the wall that separated the balcony from the neighbor's balcony, chatting with said neighbor.
"–it down next time," the tall, dark man with a British accent said, scowling. "It's hard enough to hear Sandy as it is, without your caterwauling disrupting us."
Next to him, a short, plump blond man waved his hand with a smile, as if to say, 'no, it's no problem.'
"Sure thing," Jack said. "I just got here, it was kinda a special occasion, ya know?"
"Sounded very special indeed!" A loud, heavily Russian-accented voice boomed. Aster spun around to see his neighbors on the other side: a large, bearded man with his arm around a tiny woman who seemed to have dyed her hair every possible color plus a few more. "Sounded so special you put us in mood for some special time of our own!"
The woman hit him lightly on the bicep, giggling. "Hush, North! Don't tell them that!"
He just laughed even louder. "If you two wish to join us for special times, door is always open!"
"Uh," Aster said, horrified. "Jack. Get back in here and put on some clothes."
"Ooh, someone's jealous~!" The woman sang.
"I don't see why," The Brit sneered. "Obnoxious and noisy really isn't my type."
"But look at his strong jaw! Lean muscles! Makes me want to nibble!" The terrifying Russian exclaimed, gesturing at Jack, who seemed weirdly flattered instead of horrified, as he ought to be.
His wife (?) sighed wistfully, resting her elbows on the divider between the balconies. "And what a smile…"
On the other side, the short man looked Jack up and down, grinned, then gave him a double thumbs up. Aster began to realize that he was not insane: it was everyone. Everyone in the world was insane.
"Okay, okay, sheesh." Jack wandered back towards him. "Sorry guys, Bunny here's kinda a one-trick pony."
"Good riddance," sniffed Scornful Brit. His boyfriend (?) shrugged, smiled, and waved goodbye.
The terrifying couple on the other side waved goodbye as well, though their farewell was more scarring:
"Goodbye! Keep right on enjoying your vacation!"
"Door is always open!"
Aster slammed the balcony door behind Jack, locked it, then pulled the blinds shut for good measure. He slumped against the wall, heart pounding.
"See?" Jack shrugged, holding his arms out to either side. "Told you. I'm as real as they come."
"You– what– but– I imagined the tail?"
Jack smiled, flopped on the bed, and kicked his feet up in the air, waggling them about. Moments later, they melted together into a large blue tail. Aster squeaked.
Mercifully, Jack didn't comment on the squeak.
"So it's all… true? You – the siren thing, and the drain, and –" Aster stopped. Jack had let out a very suspicious snort. "…You didn't come through the drain."
Jack's mischievous grin could've split his face in two. He shook his head: "Um, actually I just followed you home yesterday – or, two days ago, I guess. When I saw you going home yesterday, I just put on my legs and got there first; you take forever getting your painting stuff together so it was easy to beat you here. The cleaning lady let me in."
"I figured you'd react better to a merman in your bathtub than you would to a human stranger who just broke into your house to have sex with you. And hey, I was right!"
"You think I reacted WELL?!"
Jack looked pointedly down at himself, rubbing absently at one of his hickeys. "Uh-huh."
Aster massaged his temples, fairly certain that this burgeoning headache was completely unrelated to siren things. "Fine." He took a deep breath. "FINE. So then what happened to my chocolate-covered coffee beans?"
Jack paused. "Oh. I, um, I thought you'd forgotten about that."
"How could I ever forget that!" Aster began to advance towards the bed.
"Uh. They're kind of bitter, and gross, and I didn't really like them so I just–" Jack stopped, paling. Aster felt a muscle in his jaw begin to twitch uncontrollably. "You know what, nevermind."
"What did you do?"
"Hey, look at me! I'm a merman!" Jack flopped backwards across the bed, apparently too panicked to transform his tail back into legs. "You totally banged a merman last night! Isn't that awesome? Isn't that cool–ahh, stay back!"
And so it was that Aster's two-week vacation to the shore (he liked painting the ocean, just not actually touching it) ended in True Love. With a merman. Who had stalked him, and probably thrown out his beloved coffee beans (he wouldn't admit to anything but Aster knew), and apparently had to be watered frequently or else he got all weak and whiny, and who had a disconcertingly comprehensive knowledge of Disney films.
His vacation also ended in his neighbors on one side smiling and scowling (respectively) at him in the hallway, and his neighbors on the other side leering and slipping notes with invitations to orgies under his door. And a cleaning lady who giggled and blushed every time she spotted them, until Jack finally caved and told the story of how he had, naked, approached Rosa and asked her to let him back into his boyfriend's room, citing some kinky sex game as the reason for the nudity.
"Why do you always have to be naked?" Aster had shouted.
"Not always," Jack pouted. "Just when I have a tail. And right after I change to legs. And, well, it's pretty convenient the rest of the time too."
Aster had to concede this point, and was in the middle of licking Jack's chest when his neighbors on both sides shouted at him.
"Keep it down, you heathens!"
"Louder! Cannot hear! …Or just come over!"
Aster groaned, burying his face into Jack's chest. His merman laughed, and ran gentle fingers through his hair, and Aster muttered about the insanity of the universe but still kind of liked it.
When he returned home, it was with a new pen-pal (Sandy was rather loquacious on paper), a new stalker in the form of frightening orgy-invitation postcards (he was convinced Jack had given them his address, he didn't have proof but who else would have?), and several canvases of merman portraits.
Also: a boyfriend. Because, well, what else was one to do when they found a merman in their tub, if not bring him home?