by E. A. Blevins
When the aquarium began to fix up the tank across from Neve’s for a new attraction, things got a lot livelier. There were workers coming and going, not just the patrons who came to see a real live mermaid.
Neve remembered her time in the ocean vaguely, like a faded dream. She recalled that the water tasted different, more full of life and promise, and remembered the feel of being surrounded by her own kind, parents and siblings crowding close to keep warm at night, and then a net and air and too much sunlight and men speaking a language she didn’t know.
She remembered being a frightened child when she came to her warm tank and the humans staring at her through the glass, the thick crowds eventually dwindling until she saw only parents with their children, and regular aquarium attendees, and the occasional large group of children with a harried adult scolding them as they pounded on the glass to make Neve pay attention to them.
When Neve was in the mood, she did tricks for the children. She liked the way it made them laugh.
But she wasn’t always in the mood. Some days, she hid in her cave, a tiny fake rock structure the aquarium had given her so she could have some privacy. It was the only place she could be alone and not on display.
She hid in there for a week, weeping, after she laid her first egg and the humans stole it from her.
She’d been frightened when her belly began to swell, but she eventually recognized the symptoms from her mother and older sisters. Having the large, soft, amber–skinned sack of fluid in her little cave had been both terrifying and exciting. She’d petted it gently, ignoring the scent of blood in the water, and smiled at the memory of how her mother used to curl around every new egg as if it were precious.
So when the humans sent divers to invade her cave and take the egg, she’d fought with all the spindly strength of her adolescent body. Her tail gave her leverage in the water, and she defended her precious prize and made them retreat.
But they’d put something in her food that evening to make her sleepy, and when she woke the egg had disappeared.
It hadn’t been a fertilized egg. Neve knew enough about the matter to understand that it hadn’t been a baby they’d stolen, but it had been hers, personal and private, and its theft lacerated her heart.
It continued to hurt. Every year in the spring, her belly grew until she laid her egg in the privacy of her little cave, and every year the humans took it from her. She learned to be docile while the divers came, ever since the second year when they’d accidentally pierced her egg’s protective skin during the struggle. Neve had had to watch in horror as her egg’s fluids dissipated into the water around them, turning the egg into nothing more than a deflated sack.
She’d fallen into a deep depression after that, unable to do more than sleep and cry for months, barely eating. She eventually pulled herself out of it, knowing she’d die if she continued as she was, and made a promise to herself: she would return to the ocean one day. No matter what it took, she would get away from these awful humans and return to her family.
They took her from the tank sometimes and bound her on a metal bed that rolled and took her to a sterile room with a human who poked and prodded her, unwrapping her breasts briefly to examine them, making her feel ashamed even as she recalled that her mother and sisters had never hidden their breasts. It was a human affectation.
Neve didn’t like any of it, not the examination, not the needles, and not how her body felt too heavy out of the water, but she hated it more when they did it in the spring, when her belly was swelling. They took her out to examine her multiple times, then, and Neve turned her head away and cried.
A tall, gnarled old man always oversaw these events, obviously in charge, and Neve hated him most of all. His cold eyes made her want to squirm away and hide. When he visited her tank, she did hide. He would stare balefully through the glass when she peeked out, but eventually he left. Sometimes he stayed longer, sometimes just for a moment. Sometimes he appeared as part of the crowds, and sometimes he appeared at night, after the aquarium patrons had all gone.
But it wasn’t all bad. The children still laughed when she did tricks for them, and she had a friend.
He’d started two years ago and had taught her how to say his name, among other human words like “fish” and “hair” and “snorkel.” And “Sandover.” That was the name of the horrible old man who stared at her.
A new attraction meant that Sandover might not come to stare at her as much, and Neve felt hopeful.
It would also give her something to look at. Judging by the size of the tank and the extensive renovations being done, the exhibit would be something large and impressive. She did extra flips for the children, using the excess energy her curiosity had given her.
And then the exhibit was finished, they filled it and tested the water, and one day after hours they brought him.
He was clearly sedated when they slid him into the water of his new tank. Neve pressed her hands against her glass, swimming higher to get a better look. Her first impression was of tentacles, eight of them, all ebony black and at least as long as she was. They started thick at his waist and ended with bluntly tapered tips.
The second impression was of pale skin and a muscled chest, larger and broader than the average human or the vague memories Neve had of mermen.
She didn’t know what creature this man was, but he was not mer.
Her final impression was a glimpse of longish dark hair before he dragged himself into the false cavern he’d been given—larger, she noted grumpily, than her own cave.
He didn’t come out for several days, even through the grand opening of his exhibit. Their keepers dropped fish into his tank for the crowds, and Neve watched the humans gasp in delight as a tentacle extended to grab the food and draw it into the dark recesses of his hiding place.
He did not, however, exit, and Neve tried to draw the pressure from him by putting extra energy and smiles into her own show. The disappointed crowds turned to her, and she did her best to entertain them.
But she didn’t do it for the humans.
She did it for pity. She remembered her first weeks in the aquarium, the shock of her new tiny prison, but she had been a child, young enough to adapt.
From what she had seen, he was not a child. Not in the least.
She couldn’t imagine how difficult this was for him.
He kept out of sight for a week, even sabotaging a light their keepers had tried to place so visitors could look into his cavern, but one evening she saw him slinking around the edges of his tank, testing it. She couldn’t see him well, and she didn’t want to intrude, but she couldn’t help staring at the odd way he moved, tentacles working without tangling, carrying him along in a slithering sort of fashion.
He saw her watching and glared at her through all that inky hair. Neve took in his dark eyes before he disappeared into his cavern again.
She saw him every now and then after that, always at night when no one else was around, and he never tried to interact with her. Still, he was something new, something to break up the monotony, and he seemed to put up with Neve watching him.
Neve knew when spring arrived, because her abdomen began to gently swell and the aquarium took her for her examinations daily. She felt the other exhibit’s attention on her as she accepted help out of her tank, and then she was in the above place where the humans moved on platforms between deep pools of water. She let them fasten her onto the rolling bed, and Wynn put his brown hand on her shoulder as they pushed her to the sterile room where they would poke and prod her and Sandover would stare.
Wynn taught her the new exhibit’s name, “Kol,” and Neve ran it thoughtfully over her tongue.
By the time she returned to her tank, she was exhausted. She ignored Kol, who watched her from the mouth of his cave, and retreated into her own to rest. On the interior wall of her cave, marks filled the walls. She had neat little dots, divots she’d made every day since her arrival when the lights shut off for the night, but they ended when the first circle began.
Neve traced her fingers over the circles, six of them under her rows and rows of dots. They had been her way of marking time since that horrible spring when she lost her first egg to the humans. Since then, she’d memorialized every egg with a circle on her wall, her private pain scratched onto her living space as it was on her heart.
It was worse, somehow, with him watching. She felt more violated by her examinations, more pained at the thought of what would happen. Her spirits always sank low at this time of year, but now with those dark eyes watching it all from deep inside Kol’s cavern, her despair took on fresh depths.
When she felt the egg drop, ready, she retreated to her cave until the pain and the labor of pushing it out left her weak and exhausted, the water of her cave stained with blood.
She lay curled around her prize until the lights dimmed, the signal for dinner and the end of visitors, and remained until the diver arrived. Then she half–swam, half–crawled from her cave to just outside the entrance. The diver gathered her egg, careful not to damage it, and Neve watched, anguished, until he handed it to someone up above, and it disappeared.
Like all the others.
Neve crumpled against the sand beneath her and began to drag herself back inside, but a motion out of the corner of her eye caught her attention.
In front of her tank stood Sandover. She hadn’t even seen him there, though it wasn’t the first time he’d chosen to watch as his people collected her egg.
But this time he wasn’t looking at her.
Kol had a single hand pressed against the glass at the front of his tank, his tentacles twitching and eyes burning into Neve with an expression she couldn’t quite define.
Neve turned away, unable to bear anyone seeing her like this, and retreated to mourn in private.
Kol watched the mermaid more carefully after the humans broke her heart. Over the handful of weeks he’d been across from her, he’d seen her smile, watched the way she’d danced for the human children, and dismissed her. She’d seemed so happy, so content to be a captive, the opposite of his blinding rage and thirst for revenge.
Now, however, he saw that she wasn’t complacent so much as resigned. Her look when she’d met his eyes had been hollow, as if the humans had drained her of everything she had to give.
It surprised him to realize that he would have killed that diver given the chance, and not just because he wanted to kill every human who kept him prisoner. He wanted to kill the man for her, for the atrocity performed against her, because no woman should have to endure what she’d just been forced to endure.
She hid, mostly, for the week following the event, but Kol caught sight of her at feeding times. Sometimes she tossed a wan smile at the humans in front of her tank as she gathered her stunned, cold fish. Even in those moments, she seemed to be holding back tears through sheer force of will.
But eventually she eased back into her role as a pretty attraction for the humans, there to perform tricks for their amusement, and the dead seeped from her eyes.
It had been a month, perhaps, before she seemed herself again, and if he thought he saw pain lingering at the edges of her smile, perhaps he only imagined it because he wanted to. Twisted though it was, he didn’t want to be alone in his misery. Having a companion would… help.
He wished he could speak with her, ask her the questions burning his tongue. Why didn’t she fight when they came for her precious egg? How could she stand their cruelties, their mockery, their laughter, the way they treated her like a pet?
How long had she been here? From what part of the sea did she hail?
Did she even speak his language?
He didn’t get a chance to find out until they sedated him and wheeled his considerable bulk into a room he vaguely remembered from the handfuls of times he’d been brought here before. Like the other times, he couldn’t lift his limbs, his tentacles curling weakly in response to his effort, but also like the other times he felt the need to try.
And then his addled brain registered that she was there, strapped down beside him, and he slurred the words, “Who are you?”
Neve gave Kol her name, surprised and pleased that he didn’t speak some strange dialect, though he definitely had an unfamiliar accent.
“Neve,” he repeated. His eyes were glazed, and she knew from experience that they must have put something in his food to keep him calm. “What are you doing here?”
She thought he maybe meant the room, but she answered the broader question because, to be honest, she had no idea why she was there at the same time as him. “I live here.”
She knew. She had counted the dots on her walls more than once for want of anything better to do. “Thirteen years.”
His breath escaped him, and the fear which flashed across his face made her want to comfort him. She lifted an arm—they no longer bound her to restrain, only to keep her from accidentally rolling and falling—and touched his bicep.
“It’s okay. You’re okay,” she soothed. She didn’t know if her words were true, but he certainly wasn’t in any danger. She tried to convey this to him through touch, but his muddled mind had gone somewhere she couldn’t follow. He began to struggle against his bonds, harder this time, even the sedative unable to contain the desperation which rode him, and Neve bit her lip as the people around them stuck Kol with a needle.
His struggles slowed, then stopped, and his eyes slid closed.
“No pain,” said Wynn where he stood near her, lacing his fingers with hers as he used words she recognized. “Not hurt. Safe.”
Tears leaked from her eyes. She couldn’t help but be affected by Kol’s situation. That had been her, once, terrified and controlled instead of comforted. She wished she could speak to him properly, give him comfort instead of merely staring at him from her tank across the waterless human pathway.
Through it all, Sandover watched.
Three weeks later, Kol was prodding his cage for weaknesses, again, when a commotion made him look over at Neve’s tank. She’d been more expressive with him since he’d learned her name, waving at feeding time and sitting by the front of her tank to finger comb her hair and twist it into a braid to keep it from tangling. Kol, unable to help himself, moved to the front of his own tank at these times, allowing her presence to give him some sense of companionship as he ate.
Now, a diver dropped carefully to the sandy bottom of Neve’s tank, but he couldn’t see what was going on as Neve dropped her food and darted over, accepting something which the diver handed her gingerly.
When she turned, his lips parted.
She stared into the semitransparent amber skin, unable to take her eyes off of it even as she brought it to the front of her tank to show him.
Kol peered closely and saw something small and dark floating in the amber heart.
A baby in its larval stage.
They’d fertilized her egg.
Neve met his gaze and smiled, the expression equally turbulent and tender. It kept Kol from giving into the impulse to destroy his tank and hurl himself against the glass until it shattered. Instead, he retreated into his cavern.
They’d fertilized her egg. The humans. They’d fertilized it, as if they had the right, and now they gave it back to her like they hadn’t done anything wrong, like she should be grateful. He clenched his hands, his tentacles curling. He would rip the humans apart, stain the water and his tongue with their blood, and decorate his home with their bones.
It took him a long time to calm down enough to examine why he felt so betrayed, and the reason stunned him.
He loved her.
He wanted to fertilize her egg. This egg and every egg she ever had for the rest of her life.
That the humans had done so, with him trapped in this glass cage so close yet so far from the one he loved, was a grave insult.
Yet he’d never seen her so happy.
Over the next month, as the baby grew and Neve performed joyfully for the stupid humans and their terrible offspring, Kol could finally identify the feeling in his chest when he watched her as longing. He could acknowledge that his heart leapt a little when she smiled at him and ached when she went into her cave for the night, back to her egg and away from him.
Then, one day, Neve appeared at the glass of her tank several hours before usual, before the humans were even due to show up. She beat her hands against it to get his attention, and Kol’s chest constricted at the frantic look on her face. She was trying to yell something, but he couldn’t hear her. He pointed upward, and she nodded, both of them surfacing from their pools, though his had a locked metal grate over the top to keep him in. He pressed his ear against it and heard her shouting something about the baby.
Her panic fueled his, and he lunged and tore at the lock until he bent the grating enough to push his shoulders painfully through, the rest of him following much more easily. He felt the bloody lines that the metal gouged into his shoulders but ignored the pain, following Neve’s voice across the platforms until he found her.
She was even more beautiful up close, even distressed, and he had to force himself not to kiss her then and there.
Something was wrong with her baby. The thought sobered him, made him focus, and he slipped easily into her tank.
Her water was much warmer than his, kept at an almost tropical temperature. He dove, following her as she led him to her cave and inside. It was smaller than his, something he’d not thought about but was made painfully obvious as he tried to crowd in without bumping the egg.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, and it took Kol a moment for his brain to understand what his eyes told him.
The baby, half–formed but clearly outlined through the flexible shell of the egg, had eight slender tentacles sprouting from where its tail should have been.
“Until today, she’d kept herself curled into a ball. I didn’t know, Kol, I swear I didn’t know.”
He continued to stare. “It’s…”
“Yours,” she whispered. “They used… you.”
Kol didn’t understand why she sounded on the verge of tears. The baby was his. His seed, his child…
His head snapped up, and he met her eyes, the implications sinking in. “How did they get my seed?” But he knew. They must have taken it while he’d been unconscious, one of those times they’d dragged him to the above–water room for tests.
Neve burst into tears, and Kol wrapped his arms automatically around her, bringing her against his chest. She felt warm and soft and perfect. She fit.
He wanted to keep her there forever.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered again.
It was all she could seem to say, and so he tamped down on his feelings of violation and told her the truth. “I’m not.”
Neve tipped her face back to look up at Kol, startled. “What?”
His face, sharply angular, hardened. “I’ll kill them if I get the chance, but I’m not sorry.” His throat bobbed, and his eyes turned wild. “I want to have a baby with you.”
“Kol,” she breathed.
His jaw shifted, anger and worry and desire pooling in his expressive eyes, and he growled the words to her, clutching her against him as if she might swim away once they left his body. “I love you. I want you. I want to have children with you. I want to be your mate.”
With a flick of her tail, Neve surged upward and met his mouth with hers. “Yes,” she gasped, and then neither of them had enough breath to speak.
When the humans arrived a few hours later, Kol was back in his cell, though it had taken every ounce of his willpower to squeeze back in and sit like a docile little animal, playing dumb as they gathered around the bent grating and gestured at his new wounds. They knew he’d escaped, the evidence was written on his very body, but they didn’t punish him, only monitored his wounds and replaced the grate.
They couldn’t get a replacement that day, however, so when evening came he slipped out again to visit Neve and his child.
He stayed all night, and he showed Neve the many ways he could use his body to please her. She didn’t have an erogenous zone at the apex of her tentacles like a female of his kind, but she showed him where she liked to be touched and he happily obliged. At least both of their species liked to kiss, and it was highly erotic when Neve took one of his tentacles in her mouth and sucked lightly on the tip.
He may have whimpered, but fortunately no one was around to hear him.
And she was welcome to any noise he ever made, if only she’d keep kissing him and sucking on his appendages and beaming her pretty smiles at him.
Of course, the new grate arrived the next day, well after he’d returned like a good pet to his cage, and the humans installed it nervously. Their fear amused him—he’d have gladly drowned them if he hadn’t been concerned that they’d get him a prison he couldn’t escape. So he allowed himself to be caged and spent the next several nights pressing against the new grate, trying to bend it as he had the one before. Somehow, his need to hold Neve again outweighed his previous escape attempts, or the first successful escape taught him where to apply pressure, because three nights later he finally bent the grating and pulled himself back across to her tank.
They admired the baby first, of course they did, it was theirs and Kol couldn’t get enough of it. Neve had called it “she” but confessed to that being just a guess, and Kol pulled her into his arms and kissed her because they’d talked enough about the baby and Neve deserved to be kissed.
They spoke of many things that night, all the things they hadn’t had time to discuss during his last visits. He asked all his burning questions and listened to her answers. He learned how she’d fought for her first two eggs to disastrous results, how she only barely remembered her family, and how she’d made a friend among their captors.
He told her of his home in the deep, below where mermaids preferred to swim. He admitted to having met a few of her kind. His people were not unheard of in the sea, but they mostly kept to themselves in the colder, darker waters. Merfolk enjoyed warmth and light too much to visit often.
His capture had been his own fault, and he told her of that, too. She stroked his arm through the tale, and it kept him from unleashing his rage inside her tiny cave with its odd markings and their fragile child.
She explained the markings to him, and he had to leave the cave before he accidentally hurt her.
Neve followed and took his hand, ignoring the sand his tentacles stirred in his agitation, and waited patiently until the rage curled back into a doze in his black heart.
He whispered how much he wanted to kill the old man who watched them, and Neve whispered back a name, Sandover, and how afraid the gnarled creature made her. Kol folded her in his arms, winding two of his tentacles around her for good measure, and swore he’d protect her.
And so the next few months went. Their child grew, proved Neve’s intuition correct by developing female, and they named her Ani, after Kol’s mother.
Kol destroyed more new grates until the aquarium gave up on replacing them, and he continued to visit Neve and Ani. Some nights he kissed her, others he spoke with her, most he did both, but always Kol returned to his glass cage before the first human arrived for the day.
Everything seemed to be going so well.
So of course it had to be an illusion.
When Neve’s baby was almost ready to hatch, Wynn appeared at the top of her tank with a strained expression. He didn’t smile when she rose to greet him and spoke quickly, slowing only when she furrowed her brow at him in confusion.
Neve knew enough human words to make sense of what Wynn told her.
The aquarium was going to take her baby away.
Wynn went on, glancing hurriedly over his shoulder for anyone who might overhear even though he’d sought her after hours when no one should be around.
They’d tried to sell Neve’s other eggs, the unfertilized ones, for… breeding, she didn’t know that word, but no one wanted them. Every aquarium had mermaids, they were common, but Kol was rare. Special. Sandover used him to fertilize Neve’s egg, hoping for a baby that looked like Kol, and now Ani would be taken away for having that same specialness.
She also learned that Wynn was part of a group of humans who believed merfolk shouldn’t be in aquariums, that they should have… rights? “Freedom,” he explained, and Neve knew that word, too, and it nearly brought her to tears. She nodded enthusiastically, and Wynn continued.
His friends would arrive later that night, and Neve was to take Ani and go with them.
“Kol,” she said softly, tugging at Wynn’s sleeve.
He winced. “I can’t.” When she frowned at him, he explained, “Danger.”
It took more words for Neve to understand that Wynn thought Kol was too dangerous to escape with them, that he would attack Wynn’s friends and hurt them if they tried. She knew from her conversations with Kol that he had killed five humans before they’d sufficiently subdued him for this place. He spoke of it with pride, a glint in his eye that said he’d do it again.
Neve poured every ounce of determination into her glare as she met Wynn’s brown eyes and told him, “Freedom.”
He winced again, but it was capitulation. Neve felt triumph bloom in her chest as he nodded. “You help,” he ordered, and Neve nodded eagerly.
“Help,” she repeated. “Help Ani, help Kol.” She covered Wynn’s hand with her own and smiled up at him. “Friends.”
He smiled back. “Friends.”
But Wynn did not return that night, and neither did Kol. Neve saw her mate struggling with a new grate on his tank, surprising after being allowed so much freedom. She wondered if it had something to do with Sandover’s plan to steal Ani, or why Wynn’s friends hadn’t arrived.
She saw Wynn at feeding time the next morning and surfaced to say hello, a question in her eyes.
He knelt, handing her a fish, and murmured low enough that his coworkers wouldn’t overhear where they tossed food to the other aquarium exhibits. Wynn kept his words sparse, but Neve understood him.
Sandover was preparing for Ani’s birth, and he’d trapped Kol because he knew. The horrible old monster knew Kol had been visiting Neve in her tank, that they’d shared intimate touches, and that Kol would never allow them to take Ani without a fight.
He’d also tightened security around the aquarium so that Wynn had to find another way to sneak his friends inside.
“Tonight,” Wynn promised. Neve gazed up at him, her heart thumping hard in her chest when she felt the worry radiating off her friend.
“Kol,” she whispered, and Wynn winced.
“I’ll try,” he said, which was not a promise.
Neve knew that Ani took precedence. She loved Kol, but she would die if she lost her daughter. And perhaps she could persuade Wynn to rescue her mate after she and Ani were safe.
Wynn looked thoughtful as he gave her the rest of her fish, and Neve sank back into the water, smiling at the children who seemed much more interested in Kol’s escape attempts than anything Neve might do. That suited Neve just fine. It gave her a chance to curl around Ani in her little cave.
She’d scratched Ani’s egg onto her cave wall when they first took it away, thinking she would never see it again. Neve had debated what to do with the circle after they’d returned the fertilized egg to her, but it wasn’t until she and Kol had chosen a name for the baby that she’d carefully scratched that name inside the circle.
The result pleased her. Six empty eggs, and one filled with life. With Ani.
Neve wondered if they would put another mermaid in this tank after she disappeared. Probably. Neve thought for several hours about who might use this cave after her, about what she might want to say to the poor thing.
Neve took the small rock she’d sharpened over the years and scratched her message into the false stone wall, right in the middle of the blank space she had left.
She didn’t write any words, didn’t know how. Even scratching the word “Ani” had required Kol’s assistance. Instead, Neve made careful marks on the empty bit of cave until a tiny figure resolved beneath her scratching, a figure with a head and a long curl of hair and a mermaid tail. Next to the tiny self–portrait, Neve added another, larger figure with tentacles as eight long wavy lines. Then, between the two and touching each of their hands with the little lines Neve used for arms, she added tiny Ani with her eight little legs just like her father’s.
Neve spent the rest of the day anxiously watching Kol seek his freedom. She knew he wanted to be there when Ani hatched, that it would hurt him to miss it. She also knew that Sandover wanted him as far away from the baby as possible when it came time to steal her away. Wynn had warned Neve not to accept food from anyone but him, that they were going to sedate her when the time came, and she wondered if they planned to do the same to Kol.
She wished she could warn him. She’d send a message with Wynn, but his attempts at learning her language had been dismal at best, and Kol didn’t know any human words. She wished now that she’d spent less time kissing him and more time on practical things.
Neve stroked little Ani through the egg’s thinning membrane, able to make out individual features in the amber fluid. Tentacles like ink bunched all around her body, her arms curled against a tiny perfect chest. Dark lashes. Rosebud lips. Soon Ani would open her eyes, look up at her mother, and wiggle free.
Neve closed her own eyes, unable to bear the thought of losing her child. Why hadn’t she seen this betrayal coming? After everything the aquarium had done to her over the years, why had this possibility eluded her?
When the lights went off for the evening, Neve left her cave and began to circle, unable to contain her nervous energy as she waited for something to happen. Kol sat by the front of his tank, eating and watching her odd behavior.
He still didn’t know the danger they were in. Neve put a hand against the glass, pleading silently with him to stay alert, stay strong, stay awake. Help was on its way, it had to be, because if they lost their daughter Neve would never be okay again.
Sandover must have been satisfied with Kol’s new grate, because he only stopped between their tanks once to glance at Kol and then peer into Neve’s cave. He nodded to himself when he saw no change and shuffled off to be horrible somewhere else.
Neve flexed her fingers, wishing she could get them around his spindly human throat, drag him to the bottom of her tank, and slice his eyes out with her small sharp rock.
Kol gave her a speculative look, but Neve felt the pull to check on Ani.
When she returned from the cave and glanced upward, she saw a dark hand waving at her just beneath the water’s surface. She shot upward and broke through so fast that Wynn fell backward onto his rump.
Another time, Neve might have laughed, but now she looked at the people with him, three of them, and the strange tools they carried.
Neve met Wynn’s eyes. “Kol?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied, gesturing to a man who hurried toward Kol’s tank and did something to the lock on his grate so that it fell away when twisted.
Neve dropped back into the water. Kol hadn’t moved from his spot, watching her with a frown. He hadn’t noticed the humans breaking the lock on his grate.
Neve swam into her cave and gingerly took Ani into her arms, membrane and all, then carried her precious bundle out.
Kol sat up taller, his frown deepening, and Neve met his eyes and flicked her own up toward his grate.
He took the hint, and Neve swam to the top of her own tank. She handed Ani carefully, so carefully, to Wynn and allowed his friends to help pull her out of the water.
Kol lurked just below the surface of his grate, watching with narrowed eyes, and Neve beckoned him. His tentacles, which had been creeping toward the feet of their anxious saviors, withdrew so that he could lift the grate and squeeze himself out.
“This is my friend, Wynn,” she told Kol as Wynn handed Ani back to her. The relief that poured through her at this gesture overwhelmed her system. She had known this was a gamble, accepting Wynn’s help, that he and his friends could have planned all of this to take her daughter for themselves.
But if that were the case, they wouldn’t have freed Kol.
Wynn helped lift Neve into a chair with wheels, settling her tail awkwardly over footrests meant for humans. Neve held her fin helpfully out of the way so it wouldn’t drag beneath the device, and Wynn smiled at her.
Kol growled, and Wynn dropped the smile.
“Can he walk?” Wynn asked.
“Yes.” It would be slower, but Neve knew that her mate would fight if anyone tried to strap him into another human device. She held a hand out to Kol, and one of his tentacles wrapped briefly around her fingers. She explained the situation as best she could as Wynn took up station behind her rolling chair.
“They are here to help us escape. Sandover was going to take Ani away, and Wynn offered to help.”
Kol’s predatory body language did not ease, though he tensed at the news that Sandover planned to take Ani.
Neve nodded at Wynn that they could start moving, and he pushed her slowly, never outpacing Kol.
“I do not trust them,” Kol told her, his gaze moving between the humans.
“Good,” she said simply, cradling the heavy bundle their daughter made in her arms.
When Kol looked at her, she shrugged. “I trust Wynn, but I don’t know these others. If they have lied to him, we should be prepared.”
When Wynn pushed her out the building’s exit, fresh cold air made Neve shiver and curl tighter around Ani. Wynn’s friends hurried to a ramp and pulled open a pair of large doors.
“Safe,” Wynn whispered to her, pointing at the ramp and the dark cavern–like interior beyond.
Neve looked at him, but he seemed to be waiting for her signal. She set her jaw and nodded, and he began to push her forward.
A shout from behind them brought Neve’s attention to the door they’d just exited.
He held something in his hand, pointed it wildly in their direction, and the humans around her recoiled in fear as the old man ranted furiously at them. Neve hunched tighter over Ani, determined to kill him if he tried to touch her daughter. She didn’t know what he held and did not care.
Then she saw the shadows behind the old man move, the shadows he obviously hadn’t checked before he’d turned his back to them.
“The object in his hand,” Neve told Kol. “They are afraid of it.”
So it was the old man’s hand which Kol grabbed first, wrenching it to the side with a single tentacle and snapping the brittle bones. The old man screamed, and Kol slithered forward, a second tentacle rising to wrap around the old man’s neck and lift him off his feet, cutting off any further protests.
Kol examined his prize and then turned his gaze to Neve. “Do you want to kill him?”
She did. Desperately. But… “I have to hold the baby,” she replied, unable to set Ani down for anything, even revenge.
Kol nodded and slowly tightened his hold, crushing the old man’s neck by degrees. Neve savored the way Sandover’s eyes bulged and his face turned red, vindictive pleasure rolling over her for every egg and every indignity until the sounds of his bones popping made the light in his eyes go out.
Kol dropped him on the ground like so much filth and began to move past the corpse, but Neve chided him gently to clean up after himself. She nodded toward the aquarium door, and Kol obligingly shoved the body inside the building and shut the door on it.
Neve had to prompt Wynn to return to his task, and he pushed her rolling chair with shaking hands up the ramp and into the cave beyond.
The cave had a broad, short, barely hospitable tank bolted in place and dim lights that Wynn turned on once the doors shut behind them. It was almost easy for Neve to climb into the tank and settle Ani in a special sling Wynn had prepared. Neve wasn’t sure of the purpose of the sling until she felt the world move underneath her and the water shifted and sloshed over the rim of the tank. Ani would have rolled and slid around against the slick bottom of the tank if she had been set inside with nothing to secure her.
Wynn and his friends, all but one of whom remained in the back with them, didn’t seem startled by the moving cave, though they blanched when Kol let out a growl of displeasure.
Neve beckoned her mate into the tank, and he joined her, his tentacles surrounding her and their daughter as he kept a wary eye on the humans. The water only covered Neve to her ribs, and the depth looked even more ridiculous with Kol’s height.
“Safe?” she asked Wynn, who immediately relaxed.
“Safe,” he said firmly.
Neve smiled. “Thank you.” Weary from her two sleepless nights, she lay down beside Ani, Kol’s soft appendages protecting her every time the cavern made the water roll to one side, keeping her head from bumping into the tank’s hard walls, and Neve was grateful for the warmth he provided. The water here felt too cold against her skin.
When she woke, she looked sleepily into a pair of small dark eyes staring straight back at her. It took Neve’s brain a moment to catch up, and she shot to a sitting position, tugging at Kol without looking at him.
He drew close, and they both hovered over Ani as Neve gently lifted her from the sling. She encouraged Kol to help her hold the egg in the water, his arms cradling hers where she cradled the baby.
Wynn and his friends crept forward but didn’t intrude, watching the little miracle they’d help keep safe as she wiggled and squirmed and squeezed her tiny tentacles through the membrane.
“There’s my girl,” Neve cooed, watching her baby curl a tentacle around Kol’s hand. “There you are. Come on, lovely. You can do it.”
Kol joined in, heaping praise on their baby as she eased the rest of the way out of her protective sac, her skin slippery with discarded fluids as she unfurled her little body and tested her legs against her parents’ limbs.
The cavern slowed slightly, but Neve ignored it, her heart too full to care that the three of them slid to one side, and she ignored it again when the cavern returned to its previous speed, sliding them the other way.
Little Ani slipped out of her parents’ arms and floundered in the water, trying to swim without tangling her tentacles.
“I wish I could show her,” Kol murmured, moving his appendages out of Ani’s way as she bumbled into and over them. He kept one near her at all times, ready to catch or redirect her if she got too close to the tank’s sides.
The humans made appropriately admiring noises, pointing and clutching at each other with wide smiles. Neve felt pride bloom in her chest at their attention, but nothing compared to the way Ani returned and burrowed into her arms before she went back to her swimming practice.
Wynn asked if he could touch Ani at one point, but he backed off when Neve bit her lip. She felt overprotective, and Neve appreciated that he didn’t press the issue.
Kol watched Ani, his expression both indulgent and smug. Neve knew he was aware of the humans watching them and more on edge than he seemed. If his instincts were anything like her own, he was ready to break their necks at the first hint of danger.
When Ani tired out and fell asleep on her mother with her little tentacles wrapped around Neve’s cuddling arms, Neve allowed herself to nap in the soft nest of Kol’s limbs, comforted by the knowledge that he would watch over them as they slept.
They spent a long time in that moving cave, and Neve nursed Ani when she woke. Kol put himself between her and the humans as she did, and she flushed with appreciation. He had never liked her breast coverings, calling them unnatural, but Neve chose to keep them on around the humans. She’d been trained to feel embarrassed about baring herself in front of them.
Wynn provided them with food, and they spent some time trying to decipher each other as he asked if Ani needed anything. Neve shook her head.
When the moving cave finally slowed to a ponderous stop, slip–sliding the little family to one side of the tank as Kol pillowed their motion as best he could, Wynn stood and grinned at them.
His friends waited for the moving cave to shudder and go silent before they opened the cave doors and lowered the ramp. Sunlight streamed in, making Neve blink and hold the sleeping Ani tighter against her, but the smell.
Oh, that briny scent spoke to her soul. Neve had forgotten it, having lived too long in the recycled water of the aquarium, but now it flooded her with memories so vivid tears sprang to her eyes. Her mother’s hands, her father’s shadow, the sway of the kelp forests and hiding from her siblings with barely contained giggles.
Kol wrapped himself around her, steadying her as the scent washed over them both. He breathed deep, his chest expanding against her, and his exhale took all of the tension and fury and fear with it, leaving him pliable and gentle against her.
“Freedom,” said Wynn from the bottom of the ramp, his feet disturbing lovely dunes of dry sand. His voice made Ani stir gently in Neve’s arms.
Neve lifted her face to the breeze and closed her eyes, her smile blooming slow and sweet. “Freedom.”