Rating/Warnings: PG-13? non-graphic mention of mermen eating people.
Summary: Merman Juri saves Shintarou's life, and somehow they end up together even though Shintarou can only visit on summer vacation and Juri's friends are dangerous sirens.
AN: Merman AU! This was supposed to be about Hokuto turning human because he likes Kouchi and Juri/Shintarou's flashback took over the entire fic until it was 8k of nothing but them. I haven't even started Hokuto's part, fml. oops? I cannot remember why Midori and I have been bullshitting in chat about mermen for like 3 weeks now, but she says it has to do with sexy mermen pictures on tumblr. Then I did seahorse research since the dudes keep live babies in a real womb thing and we decided that's why mermen have bellybuttons. honestly it's been a strange couple weeks.
Whatever Floats Your Boat
Sometimes Taiga wondered exactly what he'd done to deserve these friends. Something awful in a past life, maybe.
"Is there seriously no other rock in the entire ocean you could sit on besides that one?" Taiga demanded. Jesse only grinned at him from his neighboring rock, sunbathing lazily, his long shimmering tail trailing off the edge and just barely into the water. "Jesse! I'm trying to work here!"
"Aw, don't get your tail in a knot," Jesse said, flapping his hand as if shooing off a seagull. "When we sing together it's way easier to get sailors over here. You should be thanking me for helping you out."
"You don't even want to eat them!" Taiga snapped, giving an irritated toss of his hair.
Jesse leered. "I like eating them all right. And you can have them when I'm done, I don't mind."
"Not that kind of eating!" Taiga said in exasperation. He wrinkled his nose. "As if I'd want to eat something you've already had your mouth all over, ew. You're a disgrace to sirens everywhere."
"But I'm a sexy disgrace."
"Uuugh." Taiga turned to the other side of his rock, where Juri was clinging to the edge. Submerged up to his chest, Juri had his arms folded and his cheek pillowed on them. "And you. Are you still moping around over your little human friend?"
"He was supposed to be back weeks ago." Juri heaved a sigh. "He said summer's start! What's taking him so long?"
"You can't trust humans, stupid. You should just eat them," Taiga scolded. Contrary to his brusque words, Taiga's hand found its way into Juri's hair, smoothing it back where the breeze was tugging damp strands of it into flyaways. Juri tilted his head into the touch.
"Shin-chan isn't like that," he insisted. "He'll turn up eventually."
"I've been meaning to ask," Jesse spoke up. "Why would you tell him to meet you here? The rock with the deadly siren on it?"
"So no other humans would be hanging around, obviously. And it isn't like Taiga would eat him."
"Speaking of things you've had your mouth all over…" Jesse teased. Taiga flipped some water at Jesse with his tail and gave Juri's hair a yank.
Honestly, how did he end up with these guys?
"Almost there," Shintarou reported, pausing in his rowing to wipe sweat off his forehead. He glanced at the shoreline off portside, double-checking the landmarks Juri had taught him. "You aren't scared, right?"
"Gosh, no," Kouchi said dryly. "I'm in a tiny rowboat on my way to the lair of the bloodthirsty sirens I've been told scary bedtime stories about for only my entire life."
"One rock is hardly a lair," Shintarou pointed out. Suddenly he perked up as if listening, and in the quiet of him not rowing Kouchi heard it too after a second. It was like a snatch of haunting song, carried to them on the ocean breeze. "I think that's Jesse! See, you're in luck. Jesse doesn't even eat the sailors."
"He's singing, though, right?" Kouchi pointed out. "If he doesn't eat them, why catch them?"
"He plays with them." Shintarou's cheeks turned a little pink even under the start of his summer tan. "You know, like—"
"I get it, I get it."
The song was easier to hear as Shintarou rowed them closer, making goosebumps rise on Kouchi's arms. He opened his mouth to tell Shintarou that they should turn around, that this was a terrible idea, but then he just…didn't. Soon Kouchi found himself leaning in the direction they were rowing, even when the rock and figures he had been worried about just minutes ago came into view and grew larger and larger.
Kouchi snapped out of it when the singing stopped abruptly, realizing with a racing heart that he'd been leaning so far over the side to see that he'd been about to go head over heels into the water. He reached for Shintarou's shoulder to tell him this was crazy, they had to go back, but just then Shintarou really did go over the side of the boat. He hit the water like a cannonball, half soaking Kouchi, and to Kouchi's distress began swimming right towards the siren.
Or sirens, Kouchi realized. They were even more stunning than he'd been warned, with long hair streaming down their backs and iridescent fishtails glimmering in the late afternoon sunlight, one bright red, the other a darker bronze. The red-tailed merman was waving at them happily, the other one on the rocks looking much less amused, and a third one was heading straight for Shintarou, cutting through the water like a shark about to attack.
"Shin!" Kouchi called in panic. To his horror, the third merman struck Shintarou dead-on, dragging him below the waves. "Shintarou!"
A second later, to Kouchi's utter confusion, both of them popped back up again, laughing and clinging to each other, Shintarou spluttering as Juri turned them around in little circles.
"Quit it, quit it!" Shintarou called, still laughing. "I'm getting dizzy!"
"You were gone AGES," Juri yelled, right in Shintarou's face, which only made him laugh harder. "Like a million years! What took so long?!"
"I told you I would be," Shintarou protested, sticking out one arm to drag in the water to try and slow their spinning. The other was still locked around Juri's back. "Being an apprentice takes a while! It would have been longer but one of the island shipwrights was desperate for some help so he hired me even though he'll have to finish my training himself. I'm not even in a guild yet."
"I have no idea what you're talking about, but you're back!" Juri hummed happily as Shintarou agreed, yes, he was, palming the back of Juri's head to smooth his mess of wavy hair down.
"Are you still using weird corals to curl this? It's curly enough. Oh! And I have a present." Shintarou shuffled around, trying to dig in his pocket without sinking. "I made you a new necklace out of—"
"Hey, that stuff's for later," Juri interrupted quickly, glancing around as if just remembering Jesse, Taiga, and Kouchi were all watching them. "You know, when it's just us."
"Oh right," Shintarou chuckled. He looked a tiny bit embarrassed when he glanced up at Kouchi. "This is my friend, Kouchi. He's a fisherman! We met on the mainland but he lives here, and I'm staying with him for a bit until I can find my own place."
"He's cute," Jesse leaned over to whisper loudly to Taiga. Taiga blew a raspberry to say what he thought about him.
"You can't eat him, Jesse," Shintarou said sternly. "Either kind of eating."
Kouchi was wondering whether to ask questions or to never ask any questions again when something went THUNK against the side of the boat, making it rock. Kouchi glanced around and after a second spotted a clump of fishing nets alongside the boat that definitely hadn't been there a minute ago.
"Sorry!" came a muffled voice, startling Kouchi. There was another thump as the bundle whacked into the boat again. "Ow! Somebody help me, I can't see a thing!"
Cautiously, Kouchi shifted closer to that side of the boat and reached down to touch the mess cautiously. What he had thought were strands of slick, dark seaweed was actually hair, wound all up in the netting. After looking the knot over, Kouchi began tugging at the edges of it with his hands, loosening it until he could at least push it back far enough to uncover the face of whoever was stuck under there.
"Hey, quit squirming," Kouchi warned. "You're making it worse. Aha, here we—"
Kouchi found a pair of huge, dark eyes blinking up at him and froze, his task forgotten. It was another merman, glossy black hair framing his cheeks cutely even with the ends still tangled, pink lips a round O of surprise. He wasn't nearly as pale as Taiga, or as skinny as Juri or Jesse, his face and shoulders cutely rounded, and when he offered Kouchi a shy, sweet smile, Kouchi could only stare, wide-eyed.
"Hey, Kouchi gets a wish for freeing him, right?" Shintarou called over.
"That's genies, you boob," Juri answered. "Hoku, what are you doing?"
"I got stuck, obviously!" Hokuto turned from Kouchi to pout at Juri. "You assholes are no help, by the way." He turned back to Kouchi. "How'd you get here? Taiga doesn't seem to be eating you, so not the usual way."
"I…" Kouchi found himself tongue-tied. He realized he was lifting a hand to touch Hokuto's hair again and curled it into a fist, pressing it into his lap.
"Shintarou brought him," Taiga said, sounding bored. "Instead of his manners, apparently. Would you two get a room?"
Shintarou tried to shrink against Taiga's rock, where Juri had him pressed against it for a long kiss, as he realized that everyone was staring at them. He shoved at Juri a little, but Juri only curled up against him without an iota of shame, head tucked in against Shintarou's shoulder.
"No one said you had to watch," Juri said, sticking his tongue out.
"Can I watch?" Jesse asked, tail curling up in interest.
"THAT'S IT," Taiga announced. "EVERYBODY GET AWAY FROM MY ROCK RIGHT NOW."
Looking at Taiga's expression, Kouchi absolutely believed that he ate people all the time. But when he shot a nervous glance at Shintarou, Shintarou seemed pretty relaxed about it as he pushed away from the rock with Juri still firmly attached to him.
"He won't eat you, don't worry," Hokuto spoke up, seeing Kouchi's expression. "That's why Shin-chan brought you out here, to say you're off-limits."
"Right, yeah, that," Shintarou confirmed, still mostly distracted by Juri's roaming hands and forcible cuddling. "Kouchi fishes close to shore and doesn't come out this far usually anyway, but just in case." Shintarou poked Juri's cheek. "Sure wasn't like I meant to show up out here the first time."
"How did you get here?" Kouchi asked. "I've lived on the island my whole life and never seen any merfolk."
"You're not supposed to see us," Taiga commented. He gave Juri the side-eye. "We're supposed to avoid being seen by humans unless we're about to eat your stupid faces anyway."
"Rules, shmules," Juri said. "Although I might have let you eat him if I'd have known it would take this idiot five years to make me a proper necklace already."
This was how it started, with Juri napping in the sun and getting pushed farther into shore than he should have, and with Shintarou being washed out to sea farther than he should have. Juri shouldn't have even been on the surface where he might get spotted, old enough at 14 to know better, but he liked the way the waves swept him up and down. 12-year-old Shintarou should have known better than to roughhouse with his brother on the deck of the boat since he could barely swim, but that never stopped him either.
It was the splashing that woke Juri up out of his doze, and he only went to investigate because it sounded like a panicked fish flopping around and Juri was hungry. But instead of an easy snack, there was Shintarou, trying to keep himself afloat with a clumsy stroke that was half treading water and half dog paddle, and obviously just wearing himself out.
"You're not a fish," Juri said. Shintarou's terrible swimming splashed Juri in the face as he swam closer to investigate. "Stop that."
"I can't stop it! I'm drowning!" Shintarou snapped, which made Juri laugh because if he were drowning he probably wouldn't be able to argue.
"Mermen can't drown!" Juri dove under the water with a flip of his tail to see if this moron had his fins tangled in some seaweed or what, only to discover that there weren't any fins at all. Popping back up, he found Shintarou staring back at him with an equal amount of surprise, forgetting to paddle in his shock.
And then he nearly did drown, because his mouth was hanging open when he went under.
Juri wasn't sure why he helped, grabbing Shintarou's wrist to yank him back to the surface before he'd really thought about what he was doing. He used his grip to pull Shintarou against his back, and Shintarou wrapped arms around his neck gratefully as he coughed up seawater. As Juri looked around for a rock to swim towards, he could feel the muscles of Shintarou's arms trembling; he wondered how long Shintarou had been out here before Juri had bumped into him.
"You've sure got a lot of hair back here," Shintarou commented when his coughing stopped. Juri could feel him moving his face around until he found a comfortable position. Half in the water, Shintarou seemed to weigh nothing at all once he stopped struggling, but his grip around Juri's neck was tight.
Not that Shintarou would know it until much later, but it was Taiga's rock that Juri helped shove him up on, or the rock that he would pick eventually. The rock was low to the water, easy enough for Juri to push himself up onto to sit beside Shintarou, flat enough that Shintarou wasn't likely to fall off of it, and wide enough that both of them could sit on it side by side since Juri was skinny and Shintarou so small.
Shintarou pulled his legs up and wrapped his arms around his knees, like he didn't want even his feet to dangle in the water. He looked smaller hunched up as Juri looked him over. Shintarou looked right back, glaring from under the hair still dripping water in his eyes.
"Are you scared?" Juri asked. Shintarou shook his head, which seemed like a pretty big lie since it was warm in the sun but Shintarou was shivering. "Merfolk eat things like you. Don't you know? Didn't your parents warn you? No one from the island comes out here."
"I'm not from an island," Shintarou finally spoke up. "My family's on vacation and I fell off our boat. And if you were gonna eat me, why bother saving me?"
"Hmph," Juri said, slightly annoyed that this little kid didn't seem that intimidated by him. He poked at Shintarou's toes on the rock. "These are weird."
"Shut up, you don't even have toes!" Shintarou said, pulling them in tighter against himself. "Who are you? Do you have a name?"
"Don't be dumb, of course I have a name. I'm Juri. What about you? And why can't you swim? Are you an idiot, falling off a boat when you can't swim?"
"I'm not an idiot!" Shintarou bristled. "I'm Shintarou! And I already said, my parents took us on vacation, so it's not like I had a choice or something. There's no water where I live so it doesn't matter if I can swim."
"How can there be no water where you live?" Juri tilted his head. "Is it like a really big island or something?"
"No! It's a city!" Shintarou's fierce look faded when Juri just stared at him blankly. "Well…I guess technically it's on a big island, yeah." Shintarou reached over to cautiously poke at the scales just below Juri's waist. "These are weird too." When Juri didn't push Shintarou away, he put his hand flat to the scales, touching more of them. "You could teach me to swim."
"I doubt it, with these weird things." Juri poked at Shintarou's feet again, and this time Shintarou didn't pull away. For a few minutes both of them were quiet, poking at each other. "Anyway, you're too tired, your arms are still shaking."
"What about tomorrow?" Shintarou asked. "Will you teach me tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow?" Juri looked even more confused than when Shintarou had mentioned cities. Then he started laughing. "You really aren't scared, are you?"
"Of you? Why?" Shintarou looked down at where Juri's hand was circling his ankle. "I don't have any friends here, so it's boring. Oh, will you get in trouble? You said you're supposed to eat me."
Juri grinned; he couldn't help it when this guy was so weird and useless and funny. "Nah, rules shmules. It'll be a secret just between us. We'll just have to pick somewhere closer to shore to meet since you're so useless. And here."
Shintarou watched curiously as Juri bent down to find a scale that was a little loose halfway down his tail. It wasn't quite loose enough to shed, so it stung when he snapped it off, but only for a second. He pushed the scale into Shintarou's hand and Shintarou examined it, shimmering blue-green in the sunlight.
"In case some other merman tries to eat you," Juri explained. "Show them that and tell them that they'd better not. Or say you know my brother, Koki. That'll really confuse them."
"Thanks!" Shintarou dug around in his pockets, looking thoughtful, then pulled a metal circle out of his pocket. It was bronze, almost the color of Taiga's tail, and had a small hole in the middle. Juri had seen other circles like it before; Jesse had a small collection of them from out of sailors' pockets.
"What's that?" Juri asked. Shintarou found a tangle of string in his other pocket and beamed at Juri proudly. "What are you doing?"
"It's a coin. You gave me something, I should give you something." Shintarou tied the string through the hole in the middle of the coin, and then tied the ends of the string together. He leaned over and dropped the necklace over Juri's head. "There! Since you don't have pockets."
Juri was too stunned to say anything for a minute. The metal was still warm from Shintarou's hands where it rested against Juri's skin and Juri stuttered out a thank you. Since Shintarou hadn't even known menfolk existed until an hour ago, Juri knew there was no way he was aware that he'd just asked Juri to marry him, but that didn't stop his heart from skipping a couple beats.
Juri opened his mouth to explain it to Shintarou, but then just…didn't. Shintarou was busy chattering away about finding his parents and meeting Juri again tomorrow. By the time Juri got a word in edgewise, it seemed weird to go the whole way back to the topic of the necklace, so Juri decided to keep it to himself until it came up again.
The next day, Juri was sure Shintarou wouldn't show up, either because he'd come to his senses about hanging out with dangerous sea creatures, or because his parents would have some well-founded concerns about Shintarou plus water. But Shintarou was waiting at the spot they'd picked, one on the beach of the island this time, kicking his feet dubiously in the water. He lit up when he saw Juri, waving vigorously.
"Hey, you're wearing it!" Shintarou grinned harder when he noticed the coin still hanging around Juri's neck.
"Yeah," Juri said. He should have said then too, but again he just didn't. "Yeah, why wouldn't I?"
Taiga and Jesse gave Juri a hard time about wearing it around, but Juri ignored them. Hokuto only grinned every time one of the others brought it up.
"You want to say something about it?" he asked Hokuto, crossing his arms. "Go on, bring it."
"Nah." Hokuto leaned in to take a better look at Juri's necklace, then kissed Juri's cheek quickly. "But you should probably tell him what it's for so he'll know to get you a nicer one next time."
Juri made a grab for Hokuto, but Hokuto darted away, laughing the whole time Juri chased him across the ocean bottom, weaving in and out of coral reefs and sending fish scattering in all directions.
Shintarou spent nearly every day that summer with Juri. Shintarou tried to teach Juri about humans and where he lived, even though none of it made much sense to Juri since he kept insisting there was no ocean there. Juri showed Shintarou all the best places around the island, taught him to dive for seashells and how to eat fish that Shintarou had never seen before.
"Sushi will seem awful boring at home now," Shintarou laughed by summer's end. He was dark from the sun and could swim almost half as fast as Juri, which was pretty good for a human, and sometimes he made Juri's heart skip for reasons that had nothing to do with his terrible necklace. "Hey…so we're leaving tomorrow. But I'll come back next summer, I promise."
"Whatever," Juri grumbled, dropping the rest of his fish into the water, suddenly not hungry. He'd known Shintarou wasn't going to stay forever, but he still didn't want to talk about it.
"Don't be mad," Shintarou coaxed, nudging Juri's shoulder with his own. "I can't help it. But next summer I'll be here longer, okay? I'll come straight here instead of spending half of it on my parents' dumb boat. Only…how will I find you?"
"Like you'll be super hard to find, idiot," Juri muttered. He leaned over to kiss Shintarou's cheek suddenly, then dove into the water quick enough that there was a barely a ripple left behind as he swam away. No matter how fast he swam, though, the memory of Shintarou's shocked face, wide brown eyes and mouth a perfect O, stayed right in front of his eyes.
Winter around the island wasn't much different than summer, just a bit cooler and more prone to storms, but it felt like it lasted ages to Juri. Usually Juri could be found wrestling or roughhousing with Jesse or his brothers, but that winter he spent more than half his time lying on his back next on the rock he'd sat with Shintarou after he'd saved him. Taiga was eventually the one who started sitting on the rock beside him, not asking him any dumb questions like the others, but only stroking Juri's hair on and off. Sometimes Taiga sang, practicing for when he was strong enough to actually kill anybody he happened to attract. Juri liked Taiga's singing; he just tried not to think too hard about the second part.
"You can't eat Shin-chan, okay?" Juri finally said. He didn't care much if Taiga ate whoever else.
"He looks like he'd taste gross anyway," Taiga said casually. Juri hummed as Taiga twisted his finger in one of Juri's curls. "I'm totally claiming this rock, by the way."
Juri had had his doubts, but sure enough when the spring storms were over, Shintarou turned back up again, as promised. He was taller and paler and totally out of practice, if the way he was clinging to Taiga's rock shakily was any indication, but his grin was still the same.
"Like really," Taiga said, leaning over the edge of the rock to raise his eyebrow. He nudged at Shintarou's scrabbling fingers with the end of his tail, casually pushing him off despite Shintarou's whines to quit it. "Who would want to eat this guy?"
Juri whooped and hugged Shintarou tightly, the excited flipping of his tail twirling them in a tight circle. "You're back! You really came back!"
"Okay, okay!" Shintarou said, holding out his arms to try and slow Juri's dizzying whirl. He grinned even wider when he noticed Juri's necklace. "You're still wearing it?"
"Yeah, of course," Juri said. He saw Taiga open his mouth and gave him a sharp look over Shintarou's shoulder. Taiga rolled his eyes and shrugged. "C'mon, leave this guy alone. He's no fun."
Juri expected Shintarou to say something about his good-bye kiss, but Shintarou acted like everything was normal. After a couple days, Juri decided he wouldn't bring it up either, if it had been no big deal for Shintarou. It wasn't until more than a week had gone by until Shintarou finally mentioned it.
"So you kissed me," Shintarou said for absolutely no reason, making Juri fumble the fish he'd just grabbed. He splashed some water at Shintarou with his suddenly empty hands.
"Yeah? So?" Juri felt combative for some reason he didn't understand, Shintarou's easy grin getting under his skin. "Don't just leer at me, weirdo. Why did you wait so long to say something?"
Shintarou shrugged. "Was waiting to see if you'd do it again."
"Nope!" Juri bluffed. He crossed his arms and glared to the side. "I'm definitely not supposed to kiss stupid humans. You're not nearly cute enough for me to break the rules."
"Rules schmules," Shintarou said, suddenly very close, and Juri's mouth dropped open when Shintarou kissed his cheek this time. He darted away like a fish when Juri grabbed at him, giggling as he swam out to deeper farther from the shore. Juri could still outswim Shintarou twice over, but the chase was fun anyway, Shintarou diving unexpectedly, somehow elusive every time Juri made a grab for him. But the time Shintarou gave up and stretched out to float on his back, chest heaving, Juri was a little out of breath himself.
Just as winter had felt twice as long as usual, summer seemed over much more quickly for Juri. The last day of vacation, Shintarou brought Juri a new string for his necklace since the old one was fraying from wear and salt water. Juri was in too much of a sulk to talk much, so Shintarou filled the silence with stories of his family and dog and school. Juri still didn't get much of it, but he understood the way Shintarou's mouth drew up in a tense line when he talked about school especially. He'd started a new one in the spring, apparently.
"Middle school is harder, though," Shintarou said. "And most of my friends picked another school, so it's kind of lonely still. I'm not that good at making friends."
"Can't you just stay here then?" Juri knew he was being unreasonable, but he couldn't seem to help it. Shintarou finished tying off the string, the coin securely fastened again, and dropped it over Juri's head. Juri pouted at him. "Don't you want to?"
"Someday," Shintarou promised seriously. He ran his hand behind Juri's neck to tug his hair up out of the necklace, making Juri shiver at the warm graze of his fingers. "Wouldn't you get sick of me, though?"
"Try it and see," Juri grumbled. Shintarou leaned in to kiss Juri's cheek, and Juri turned his head to catch Shintarou's mouth instead. It was awkward, both of their eyes open, but everything about Shintarou was awkward, and for some reason Juri found all of it cute.
The cycle repeated itself each year, Shintarou showing up pale and lazy just when the days were getting hottest, leaving with skin brown from the sun and muscles lean from swimming. One summer Shintarou was suddenly so tall that Juri barely recognized him, his voice deep in a way that made Juri's skin buzz underneath weirdly.
"What the hell," Juri complained, holding their palms flat together. His own fingers were long and thin, but next to Shintarou's hand, Juri's suddenly seemed small. "Quit growing so much! You're giving me a complex."
"I can't help it!" Shintarou protested. He poked Juri in the cheek. "And you're one to talk. Who said you could get so pretty?"
"Whatever," Juri said, flustered by Shintarou's bluntness. He tugged his hand away. "You probably say shit like that to all the girls at your school thing."
"I don't!" The way Shintarou laughed about it, hard, made one knot in Juri's stomach ease, and another one draw tighter. "They don't care about me anyway. But even if they did…"
Shintarou's fingers were warm against Juri's scales suddenly, drawing a light line down the top side of Juri's tail. Juri looked up from Shintarou's fingers to his eyes and felt like he'd been in the sun way too long instead of barely ten minutes.
"They're not really my type," Shintarou finished. "You know?"
That summer Juri didn't wait until Shintarou was leaving to kiss him again, and Taiga finally came to the end of his patience and broke the news to Shintarou about what mermen wearing necklaces meant. It was quickly followed by a confusing discussion of human/merfolk sex parts between Jesse, Shintarou, and Hokuto that made Juri wish intensely that he could drown in the ocean.
"Quit being a baby," Taiga told Juri, reaching down to thwack his head where he was lurking just at the water's surface. "You're the one who needs to know about parts."
"WHOA WHOA," Jesse bellowed. Hokuto and Shintarou were monopolizing his usual rock, so he was squished onto Taiga's, much to Taiga's annoyance. "You're telling me those sailors we've been catching are DUDES?!"
"Uh." Shintarou looked down at himself where he was still holding his swim trunks out. Hokuto was still looking too. "Yeah? Human dudes have dicks, yeah. What'd you call them again?"
"Ovipositors," Hokuto said. "Although good luck getting yours inside anybody's pouch, damn."
"Ehh, whatever," Jesse decided, flopping down to his normal lazy rock position. "If there's another kind of you weirdos, we don't see them out here. Plus then Taiga'll eat them so no worries about them spreading rumors about gay mermen."
"I keep telling you, I'm not eating anything you've had all up in your—"
"And only girls have them?" Shintarou seemed to be chewing on that still. He nudged Juri's shoulder with the foot he had dangling in the water. "You really don't have one?"
"Of course not!" Juri lifted his head just enough out of the water to say. "Where did you think I was hiding it?"
"I don't know!" Shintarou, who hadn't blushed during the entirety of Jesse's dubious explanations, now went pink all across his nose. "Down there in your…stuff, I don't know. Wait, did Hokuto just say you had a pouch? For what?"
"For having kids, stupid!" Juri all but shouted, completely flustered with this entire situation. "Why do you keep going back to your dumb school when they sure don't seem to teach you anything useful?!"
"Like seahorses." Hokuto patted Shintarou's shoulder gently, since Shintarou seemed frozen in shock, eyes wide. "It's not just us. Did you think we laid eggs on the beach like sea turtles?"
"Amazingly I think that would be less weird," Shintarou said faintly. He poked Juri with his foot again. "So…where is it?"
"Okay, kiddos," Taiga said abruptly. "This sounds like an alone time problem, so shoo~! Go on, play safe."
"Have fun~," Jesse added, flipping his tail suggestively.
"Come on, you guyssss," Shintarou whined, but Hokuto helped Taiga shove him into the water with a splash. When he bobbed to the surface, he informed Juri that his friends were all jerks. Juri retorted icily that that was Shintarou got for showing his ovipositor to anybody who asked.
Fortunately the cliff side of the island had plenty of small caves to hide out in, well-explored by Juri and Shintarou in previous summers. Any one of them was a good place for privacy, so long as they had the sense to know when the tide was coming in. Shintarou tried to coax Juri out of being mad by saying he wouldn't let those other guys touch his junk.
"Like I want to touch your weird human thing," Juri blustered, not ready to drop his mood yet. He reached over to poke Shintarou's bellybutton, making him twitch in surprise. "What's this for, then?"
"Nothing?" Shintarou looked down at his bellybutton. "It's like where I was connected to my mom or something, it doesn't DO anything." He paused, looking over at Juri's navel. "Why? What's yours do?"
"Shut up about that," Juri said quickly. He hooked a finger in his necklace, making the coin dangle. "Now that you know, is it still okay that I'm wearing this?"
"You knew the whole time. Shouldn't I be asking you?" Shintarou tilted his head. "Why did you keep wearing it? All that time, you knew I didn't know what it meant. Was that really okay?"
"It sucks that you're a moron, but the rest of it's pretty okay," Juri answered, not exactly looking Shintarou in the eye. Shintarou shifted closer, until his leg was pressed up against the side of Juri's tail. "What?"
"You liked me that long ago?" Shintarou asked. "Diiiiiid you?" Juri huffed a sigh but nodded. "You did!" Shintarou grinned in delight.
"Don't look so proud of yourself," Juri told him, but he was starting to smile too, just a little. "Tanakas are famous for liking weird stuff."
"I'm not a stuff," Shintarou informed him. He used one hand to brush Juri's hair back, then pressed a kiss just in front of Juri's ear. "And I like you too. It doesn't mean nothing when a guy gives another guy jewelry, even for humans. So you'll have to keep wearing that thing until I get you a good one."
"Took you long enough," Juri said, leaning into Shintarou as Shintarou ran a warm hand up and down his side idly. "But you have to make it yourself! Those are the rules."
"Do you have to make me one?" Shintarou asked. He leaned back and Juri came with him, until Shintarou was stretched out on his back, Juri tucked neatly against his side. "How are all the girls at my school supposed to know they don't have a chance?"
"No, moron." Juri ran cool fingers over Shintarou's shoulder and across his collar bone, making him shiver. "Only the guy gets a necklace."
"I AM a guy," Shintarou insisted. "I told you, I am!"
"You just want to whip out your ovipositor again," Juri said coolly, then cracked up when Shintarou started spluttering.
That summer had a lot more kissing than swimming in it, and by the end of it both of them at least had a passing understanding of the other's parts. Juri still thought it was weird that human sex could be so short and abrupt, and Shintarou still asked every time if Juri was sure that all he wanted in return was just to be cuddled tightly and to have his hair stroked a certain way.
"I keep telling you, this is a sex thing," Juri said, curled up against Shintarou's side. Every few passes, Shintarou got the hair-stroking exactly right, sending a wave of shivers through Juri from head to fin. "Mmmh. The other stuff takes hours and hours, and anyway that's only for when you want kids."
Shintarou paused, making Juri grunt in dissatisfaction. "Like you can't do it by accident?"
"Nope." Juri butted his head up against Shintarou's palm until he went back to petting Juri's hair. "It's complicated. Your body temperature has to be higher and both merfolk have to really want to do it since it takes forever, like I said. If you haven't noticed we're kind of distractible."
"You don't seem to mind lying around with me, though," Shintarou pointed out. "It isn't like we've been here just ten minutes or something." Shintarou wasn't exactly sure how long they had been there, the cool shade of the half-flooded cave hiding the sun's movement, but it could have been a couple hours.
"Well, I like you. So it's different. Plus you're so warm." Juri rubbed his cheek against Shintarou's should with a low hum of satisfaction. "I said about the body temperature, yeah? So it's a turn-on, kind of like that." Juri snickered. "You're hot?"
Shintarou rolled his eyes and gave Juri's hair a tight scrunch, shivering a bit himself at the open-mouthed noise of pleasure that drew out of Juri. Shintarou didn't really get the whole thing, but privately he thought that if the kids would turn out as pretty as Juri, that might be something worth doing.
It also explained, at least to Shintarou, why mermen were constantly combing or braiding their hair. He tried to work up a little jealousy over the dozens of times he'd seen Jesse or Hokuto stroking Juri's hair, but Juri's cool fingers brushing over the curves of Shintarou's bicep made any ill will hard to maintain.
Juri didn't make Shintarou a necklace, but at the end of summer sent him home with a bracelet instead. It was made out of strands of Juri's hair, woven right around Shintarou's wrist so that the darker and lighter pieces made almost a wave pattern. Shintarou watched in interest the whole half-hour it took Juri to finish, but could barely follow the complicated, quick movements of Juri's fingers. Finally Juri tugged free a few of the tiniest scales from the very end of his tail and pushed them in so that they sat securely in the bracelet, shimmering here and there along it with flashes of blue and green.
"Wow," Shintarou said, holding up his wrist to twist it this way and that. "There isn't even an end anywhere!"
"That's so you can't take it off," Juri said. He poked Shintarou hard in the chest. "So any girls near you better know to keep their ovipositors to themselves!"
"You really don't have to worry about that," Shintarou chuckled, grabbing Juri's wrist and pulling him in for a thank you kiss. Juri wrapped arms around Shintarou's neck, and Shintarou squeezed him tightly. "Hey…"
"If I were here all the time…" Shintarou asked. "Do you think you'd get sick of me?"
Juri pushed himself up on one elbow to look at Shintarou's face. "What? Why?"
Shintarou fidgeted, reaching up to twirl one of Juri's curls around his finger and keeping his eyes there rather than meeting Juri's eyes. "No reason."
"Weirdo," Juri accused. After he'd laid back down, chin tucked in against Shintarou's shoulder, he added, "Try it and see."
To Juri's surprise, Shintarou turned up next long before summer started. It was barely spring when Juri found him waiting on Taiga's rock, sweatshirt soaked through from the cloudburst that had just ended and shivering from the wind.
"Are you CRAZY?!" Juri demanded, angry from worry. It was only by chance he'd even been up near the surface. "How long have you been here?! You know we don't come up much during storm season! It could have been days! WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING?"
"B-because you w-won't let me a-answer between q-questions," Shintarou said through chattering teeth. His lopsided grin only infuriated Juri more, especially given the dark storm clouds already rolling back in over them. "I don't get a k-kiss for s-surprising you? G-get up here already."
"No! I'm the same temperature as the water, idiot, I'll make you even colder!" Juri looked up at the clouds, grimacing. "You know that's a storm, right? Even you can't be that dumb. Hurry up and you might make it back to the beach before some wave knocks you right off this flimsy thing." Juri whacked derisively at the side of Shintarou's little borrowed rowboat with his tail fins.
"No, I have to talk to you," Shintarou insisted, making Juri growl in frustration. "It's important."
The only place sheltered to talk during the storm was the caves. Juri could have gotten them there faster if Shintarou hadn't had the boat, but as it was he had no choice but to go at Shintarou's rowing pace, cursing under his breath the entire time at the increasing speed of the raindrops pelting them. It was only when they were safe inside with Shintarou settled on a rock ledge that Juri felt like he could draw a deep breath. He was mildly surprised to see Shintarou pull a plastic-wrapped bundle out of a bag that Juri hadn't noticed in the bottom of the boat. Inside it was another sweatshirt and a blanket, kept dry from the rain and waves by the plastic.
"See? I'm not totally useless," Shintarou said, stripping off his wet sweatshirt and dropping it in a sodden heap in the bottom of the boat. He tugged on the new sweatshirt, then wrapped half the blanket around his shoulders and held out the other half. "Come here already. I'll warm up quick enough. That's why you like me, remember?"
"It sure isn't because of your overwhelming sense of self-preservation," Juri said, but he pushed himself up out of the water. After a minute to let most of the water drip off, Juri slid in against Shintarou's side, careful to lift his soaked hair over to the outside of the blanket. "What's so important you had to sit on a man-eating siren's rock in the middle of a thunderstorm to tell me?"
"It's gonna sound like bad news," Shintarou warned. Under the blanket, his hand found Juri's and laced their fingers together. "I won't be here this summer."
"Shiiiiin," Juri whined.
"Shh, listen. I'm supposed to have one more year of high school, but instead I found an apprenticeship. It's…like a job? Where they train you. I'm going to learn to fix boats." Shintarou chuckled ruefully. "My parents are so mad at me right now. But you get it, right? This island is all fishermen and pearl divers and…lobsterers? Whatever you call those guys. So I'm gonna learn to fix boats, and then I'm gonna live here and fix these guys' boats."
"Here?" Juri echoed, then realization sank in. "You think you'll come back and…stay?"
"Yeah," Shintarou said. "That's the plan. I asked you before if you'd get sick of me if I were here all the time. Still think that's okay?"
"The idea of even being sick of you…" Juri had to laugh, reaching up with his free hand to pull Shintarou into a kiss. Shintarou tasted like salt and already was warm enough that Juri wanted to melt right into him. "Okay. Not like I have a choice, right? Just…don't take forever, okay?"
"Summer after this one, I think. I'll make it worth the wait," Shintarou promised.
Shintarou spent all the next year working as an apprentice. The work was hard, but it kept Shintarou too busy to mope at his summer spent alone. He wished he could send Juri letters or emails or something, but it couldn't be helped, so Shintarou focused on learning everything he could as quickly as he could, so that he could start working on his own as soon as possible.
It had taken a little longer than Shintarou had hoped, but like he'd told Juri, one of the shipwrights on the island had broken his wrist and desperately needed help to keep up with the busy summer season. He'd hired Shintarou, agreeing to finish the last of his training before he could officially join the guild, in exchange for a young pair of hands. It was hard work, starting as early in the morning as the fishermen did, but Shintarou found it satisfying. He'd even become good friends with the fisherman he'd been borrowing a room from, a guy named Kouchi who'd lived on the island all his life. It was only supposed to be until Shintarou saved up some money for a place of his own, but Kouchi was only a few years older than Shintarou and they got on well enough that Shintarou wasn't in a hurry. He decided he'd rather help out Kouchi with some money for rent than some stranger anyway.
A couple weeks had slipped by by the time Shintarou had a free afternoon to go try and find Juri. He'd bumped into Kouchi on his way home as well as he was leaving town, and on a whim Shintarou decided to invite Kouchi along. Better now than later, Shintarou figured. Kouchi usually set up his nets along the shoreline and so wasn't in too much danger of becoming one of Jesse's toys or Taiga's snacks, but better safe than sorry.
"Are you busy?" Shintarou asked, bumping up against Kouchi's arm like a dog trying to get its owner to go on a walk. "You're done for the day, right?"
"I suppose," Kouchi answered, pushing his wheelbarrow into Shintarou's hands since he seemed to have so much energy. It was empty anyway, all his fish sold. Kouchi adjusted the bundle of nets that needed repairing higher against his shoulder.
Shintarou grinned at him, face mischievous. Kouchi knew that look already, even though Shintarou had only been living with him for a couple weeks. "I've got the rest of the day off since we finished patching up that barge early. I'm gonna show you something amazing, okay? Well, somebody amazing, I guess. He's gonna be mad though because I'm late already."
That was how Kouchi had ended up leaning over the edge of a rowboat, with his hands full of Hokuto's hair, the long strands winding pleasantly around his wrists as he undid the last of the net tangle. Despite Shintarou's enthusiastic promises, it wasn't Shintarou's childhood friend that Kouchi found particularly amazing.
Shintarou grinned, watching with satisfaction from where Juri was still pinning him against the rock. Introducing his friends to each other was going much more smoothly than he'd expected.
"You have pretty gentle hands for a sailor," Hokuto commented, smiling at Kouchi like it was a joke just between them.
"I'm a fisherman, actually," Kouchi told him. He pulled the last bit of the net free and hauled the tangle into the boat so nobody else would get stuck in it again. He'd untangle it back at home and see if it was worth salvaging. "All finished." Without thinking, Kouchi reached over to smooth some of Hokuto's tangled hair back down against his head; Hokuto gave Kouchi another shy smile, eyelids lowering in pleasure.
Yup, Shintarou thought to himself. That guy was definitely a natural.
"Okay, okay!" Shintarou laughed, squirming from the tickle of Juri checking his pockets for his new necklace. "It's cute when you're impatient."
"You're not cute at all!" Juri laughed, slapping Shintarou's chest with a satisfying noise of skin on skin. "Hand it over, you."
The others had shooed Shintarou and Juri off to make up for lost time, Hokuto promising to get Kouchi back to shore safely and not to let Taiga nibble on him even a little. Or Jesse. Maybe especially Jesse. Shintarou just hoped they hadn't launched right into a merman sex explanation, for Kouchi's sake. It was better to lead up slowly to that kind of stuff, Shintarou thought from experience.
Meanwhile Juri had found them another rock out of sight from Taiga's, too impatient to get his necklace to go the whole way in to shore for the caves they usually lazed around in. Still laughing, Shintarou unsnapped one of the pockets on his cargo pants and pulled out a tight coil. When he shook it out, Juri could see it was strands of blue and clear fishing line, twisted together prettily. "It's nylon fishing line, so the salt water won't fray it. It should last a lot longer."
"Ohh. You really did make a nice one after all," Juri said, impressed.
"I didn't sing at the moon or anything, but I did start over about fourteen times." Shintarou looked unusually shy as he held it out for Juri to take. "Do you like it?" Juri kissed Shintarou's cheek in answer, making the anxious set of his mouth melt into a grin. "Wait, it's still missing something."
Juri tilted his head curiously as Shintarou reached over to hook two fingers in Juri's old necklace. The string was much the worse for wear since Shintarou hadn't been able to replace it for longer than usual, and it gave way after only one solid yank. With the string broken, Shintarou easily pulled it loose from around the coin. He paused before stringing it on the new necklace, rubbing the surface of it with his thumb, the metal tarnished and starting to pit from the salt water.
"I could get you a new one?" Shintarou asked. "I don't want merfolk talking about how I can't even make you a decent necklace."
"I like this one," Juri insisted, taking the coin from Shintarou and stringing it on the new necklace himself. "Reminds me of when you used to be cute."
"Jerk." Shintarou stuck his tongue out. "I quit school and moved to this island for you and everything. Is this the thanks I get?"
"Are you really staying?" Juri looked almost afraid to get his hopes up. "All winter? Forever?"
Shintarou took the necklace back from Juri's hands and put it over his head, careful to tug his hair free without catching or tangling it. "Yup. Like a barnacle."
For a beat they just stared at each other, before Juri burst out laughing. "Like a what? Ew!"
"Shut up, it sounded way more romantic in my head," Shintarou grumbled good-naturedly. "Barnacles are ocean things, you're an ocean thing, it totally made sense!"
"Moron." Juri threw arms around Shintarou's neck, humming happily when Shintarou wrapped arounds around Juri's back to squeeze him tightly. "Don't ever change."
"Well…I might not be done growing yet," Shintarou admitted; Juri told him to shut up already and just kiss him.
It was long past sundown by the time Juri was heading back out to sea. When Juri stopped by their usual spot on the way home, Jesse and Taiga were gone, but Hokuto was lounging around there, combing out his hair with a spiny starfish.
"You're back!" Hokuto grinned at Juri. He wiggled his eyebrows. "Have fun? Hey, c'mere. There's still a big mess in the back I can't get to."
Feeling amiable, Juri pushed himself up onto the rock, and Hokuto lifted up his hair to show where the tangle was. "Is this still from the net? Be more careful, you. I'm practically a married man, I can't be going around combing other people's hair left and right."
"Shh, I won't tell Shin-chan," Hokuto assured. Ignoring the silly starfish, Juri dug fingers into the center of the tangle, tugging strands free a few at a time and making Hokuto wriggle in pleasure. "Mmmm. So…hey."
"Humans." Hokuto turned his head to glance over his shoulder. "Yours seems cute. Are they all cute like that?"
Juri snorted softly, because clearly Hokuto wasn't asking about humans in general for no particular reason. Juri wondered if soon enough maybe he wouldn't be the only merman around here with a strange human fetish.
"Nah, most are terrible," Juri said. He didn't bother trying to hide his grin, since Hokuto couldn't see it anyway. The coin on his necklace felt cool against his skin, the metal glinting in the moonlight. "But some of them can be pretty fun, I guess."