Sea of Quanta - grabdog - 崩坏:星穹铁道 (2024)

Chapter 1: Homecoming

Chapter Text

Astral Cove looked just the same as when he left it, and Dan Heng wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. The placid beach town sprawled out before him, sandwiched between rolling hills, sandstone cliffs and the perpetual lap of the ocean tide. Even with tourist season in full swing, the place hung as though frozen in time.

The place he was renting was on the east side of town, only a few blocks from the beach and a mile or so from the main boardwalk. Further from the boardwalk would have been preferable— less bustle— but the price was right, even if he’d have to have a couple of roommates.

Dan Heng hiked his backpack up further over his shoulder and made his way down the balcony hallway of the apartment complex. 305, 305, 305… ah. He knocked tentatively on the door. Thirty seconds passed and no one answered; frowning, he checked his phone. He’d texted Luka, one of the new roommates, his ETA, and the guy had given it a thumbs up. Did that count as confirmation? Had he forgotten? Would it be rude to call him? Or, was that actually the polite thing to do?

Luckily Dan Heng didn’t have to choose. Someone shouted in greeting from. Below and he looked over the balcony to see a young man with bright red hair on the floor below. He was grinning and waving wildly.

Dan Heng forced a small smile and raised a hand back. “Hey. Luka?”

“Yeah— that’s me! Sorry, dude— just getting back from the gym! Gimme a sec—” and with that, the red-haired guy disappeared down the hallway. There was the sound of pounding in the stairwell, and moments later he pushed through the stairwell door, panting.

Dan Heng blinked. “Oh— sorry, you didn’t need to rush.”

“Hey, no worries man! I’m the one who’s late.” The guy, Luka, did indeed look like he’d just walked out of the gym; he was wearing a damp tank top, running shorts and lifting shoes and his forehead glistened with sweat. Luka’s left arm, he realized, was prosthetic. He hadn’t noticed it in the pictures when he’d Facebook stalked him.

“One sec.” Luka fished a key out of his pocket and squeezed past Dan Heng to unlock the apartment. Dan Heng stifled a gag— he definitely smelled like he’d been at the gym.

“Well, home sweet home…”

Dan Heng followed Luka in, taking in the place. It looked pretty similar to the pictures, albeit far messier; random clothes and empty takeout containers were strewn across the living room and the carpet and couch were matted with little tufts of animal hair.

“Sorry it’s kinda messy right now,” Luka said, playing with his hair absently. He tossed his gym bag down and gestured Dan Heng down the hallway, shoes still on. Dan Heng, who had been about to take off his sneakers, decided against it. He didn’t like the look of this carpet.

The living room connected to a small kitchen, then to a short hallway with doors to the three bedrooms as well as a single bathroom. Luka pushed open the door to the second room on the left, the one across from the bathroom. “This is you. Settle in, okay? We should go get beers or something when Arlan’s home, yeah?”

Dan Heng carefully set his backpack down, still looking into the empty room. “Yeah, sure. That sounds good.”

Luka grinned. “Sweet! He’s usually back from the Marine Center at like 7. I’ll knock on your door, okay?”

“Sure. I mean, I might go into town.”

“That’s fine, I’ll text you then.” Luka smiled again and Dan Heng found himself returning the smile. Something about this guy’s sincerity was infectious. Luka handed him a set of apartment keys, then gently closed the door. “Nice to meet you, roomie!”

Alone again, Dan Heng slumped down against the wall next to his backpack. After a moment of inspecting the carpet, he kicked off his shoes as well. The room was barren save for an old dresser in the corner, a thin twin mattress held up on cinderblocks, and a large stain on the carpet.

“Home sweet home,” he said to himself, sighing. “Good to see you too, Astral Cove.”

With several hours left before nightfall, Dan Heng decided to go into town to grab some necessities. He’d sold most of his stuff when he left his apartment in Providence; the idea of hauling a crappy Ikea mattress and desk across the country had sounded about as appealing as getting a tooth pulled. It probably would have been just as expensive as buying everything again, anyway.

He’d try to get everything used if he could— there’d been a couple of Craigslist furniture postings that looked promising— but for things like bath towels and blankets, it probably wasn’t worth the risk. There was a horror story back from university about a kid who got a hand-me-down comforter and ended up with one of those parasites that lay eggs under your skin. It was probably fake, sure, but just… yeah. Dan Heng was perfectly happy without a parasite, thank you very much.

Astral Cove’s shopping strip looked just the same as he remembered it, from the kitschy souvenir stores and saltwater taffy shops to the overpriced vintage and consignment depots. At the end of the strip was a large chain supermarket that served most of the area— it was one of those hybrid stores that had handcrafted candy and baked goods in the front and cheap cleaning supplies in the back. And, most importantly, bath towels.

The bell rang as Dan Heng pushed through the glass doors, grabbing a shopping basket and making his way towards the back. There was a young, dark-haired woman working at the front register who looked vaguely familiar. She watched him enter blankly before a look of recognition crossed her face. “Yo, did you go to Astral High?”

“Yeah,” Dan Heng said reluctantly. He forced a smile. So much for going incognito. The girl looked vaguely familiar; maybe they’d had a class together or something. She looked around his age or a few years older; tall, with ratty hair and an intense expression in her violet eyes. If not for the bright green apron and grocery store polo, she wouldn’t have looked out of place on the cover of an 80s rock album.

“Cool, cool.” She blew a bubble of gum and popped it loudly. “Never technically graduated myself, but you know how it is. Hey, if you’re in town, come check out my band. We’re playing a show this weekend, there’ll be buttloads of Astral alums.”

She handed him a flyer and he folded it up into his pocket. “We’ll see you there?” She asked, giving him a pointed look.

Dan Heng quickly shuffled off. He’d known plenty of kids from high school were still around in Astral Cove-- plenty of small family businesses and tourist industry jobs— but for some reason it hadn’t hit him until now that he’d almost certainly be running into people he knew. Once again, he was struck with that strange feeling that Astral Cove hadn’t changed— that it was frozen just as he’d left it, people and all.

He put a pair of bath towels (extra savings with member card!) into his basket and continued down the aisle. Astral Cove may not have changed… but had he?

By the time he got back to the apartment, the sun was hanging low in the sky. The temperature had dropped too, and a brisk wind now grazed the tops of the trees lining the beachside streets. He’d taken the long way back and followed the walking and bike path that paralleled the main beach drag, winding up and around the sand dunes and following the curve of the surf. The water shown gold in the diffuse sun, beautiful and imposing, just as he remembered it. Like a giant sleeping beast, waves calm and gentle and inviting, all the way until they pulled you under and took the breath from your lungs.

The ocean had always scared Dan Heng. It was too big, too unknowable for his practical brain to accept. He wanted things to be quantifiable and describable, and the ocean was anything but. It defied description just as it defied emotion. How could something be so beautiful and entrancing and yet so terrible? How could it be the stuff of nightmares— his nightmares— and yet draw him towards it in mind, body and soul?

The dreams— nightmares— had been stronger recently. They were always the same— each time, he found himself speeding through the water as if strapped to a torpedo, seaweed and fish flashing past him, his body insubstantial as if a part of the waves. There was something chasing him, a form as insubstantial as himself but larger, longer, faster. Sharper. In the nightmare he starts to lose control and falls over himself in the water. He tumbles, like a bag caught in a hurricane, until suddenly he gets his bearings and realizes he is face to face with the massive gaping jaws of... well, something. That was the point where he woke up, usually in a cold sweat.

Dan Heng couldn’t dismiss the possibility that the dreams were why he was back in Astral Cove, or at least part of the reason— along with the need for a location to hunker down and work on his second short story collection. It was like the ocean had infected his brain, a little worm that whispered into his soul, an itch he couldn’t scratch no matter how hard he tried. In every way that it was indescribable, he wanted to describe it. He wanted to figure out the end of the nightmare. Because once he could put his demons into words, surely they wouldn’t haunt him anymore. The theme of his collection, he’d told his publishers, was water. And if nothing else, Astral Cove had water.

The living room was empty when he got back to the apartment but the lights were on. A half-eaten reheated pizza sat lopsided on the stovetop, grease sinking into its cardboard container. Dan Heng found a relatively clear spot on the left side of the fridge and arranged his meager supply of groceries. It was clear that neither Luka nor the other roommate, Arlan, cooked much; the fridge was mostly taken up by various takeout containers, energy drinks and sugar-free Gatorade.

Once he got back to his room, he shut the door quietly and set about unpacking the few items he’d brought along with the supplies from the trip to the supermarket. Once his clothes were folded in the dresser and new sheets put on the bed, he picked up his towel and toiletries to find a place for them in the bathroom. In the hallway, he saw that one of the other bedroom doors was shut and the light was on inside. He could hear Luka shouting at someone, then the unmistakable sound of someone jamming a video game controller. Sighing, Dan Heng made a mental note to pick up earplugs the next time he was in town.

For a brief moment Dan Heng considered trying to write, then quickly dismissed the thought. There would be plenty of time to write going forward, and he’d had a long day. Plus, Arlan would be home soon according to Luka. He was looking forward to getting food—or was it beers?— with his new roommates, if for no other reason than to take his mind off of the strange and vaguely unpleasant sense of deja-vu that had been following him since he arrived.

Instead, he took a shower. Standing under the hot water, he massaged his scalp and tried to let his muscles relax. When he was done drying off, he wrapped his new towel (extra savings with member card!) around his waist and opened the bathroom door to come face-to-face with a relieved Luka.

“Oh thank god— I really gotta go!” He dashed into the bathroom and slammed the door, leaving behind a dazed Dan Heng.

Dan Heng knocked on the door hesitantly. “Sorry— just ask next time, I can get out quicker.”

The toilet flushed and Luka let out a massive sigh from behind the door. “No problem, roomie. I just got spoiled cause Arlan and Erik were at work all the time.” The sink turned off and the Luka opened the door. “Hey dude, you gonna get dressed?”

Dan Heng glanced down at his towel. “Uh, yeah. Are we meeting Arlan?”

“Yeah, at the Trailblazer. You saw the text, didn’t you? sh*t, I hope I didn’t get the wrong number— that’d be really awkward.”

“No, I probably did, just haven’t checked my phone.” Dan Heng nodded back at his room. “Gimme five minutes?”

“Yeah, totally. Take your time, bro.”

After toweling off his hair and getting dressed, Dan Heng clicked on his phone. Sure enough, he’d gotten a handful of messages from Luka and an unknown number with a profile picture of a little white dog— presumably Arlan. It definitely explained all of the white animal hair laying around.

The Trailblaze Cafe was a beach-side place a couple of blocks away. Dan Heng actually recognized the spot, though when he’d lived there it’d been a surf shop. At some point over the last few years it must have gotten new ownership, and whoever owned the place now was taking full advantage of the prime location. The place was spacious and hip, with vintage couches and kitschy 50’s style beach posters on the wall along with local band posters and advertisem*nts. There was a large deck with tables and chairs set out, as well as a small elevated stage where a group was playing live music.

Luka led them up the steps and squirmed past a guy with a pitcher of beer. The inside was dimly lit and had been converted to more of a bar environment now that it was getting later. A tan guy with white hair waved at them from a booth in the corner, and Luka excitedly led Dan Heng to join him.

“Arlan,” the guy said when they sat, thrusting out a hand with a flat expression

Dan Heng accepted the shake. “Nice to meet you,” he said, smiling awkwardly. Arlan’s face remained stony.

“Sorry, Arlan’s just shy,” Luka joked, winking at the two of them. “Aren’t ya, Arlan? Don’t worry, Dan Heng, he’s a real softy inside.”

“Hmph.” Arlan looked to his side and Dan Heng realized with a start that there was a little white dog sitting on the booth next to him. The dog looked back at Dan Heng and grinned a big doggy smile.

“Hi,” Dan Heng said to the dog. It gave a little yip and put its paws on the table, tail wagging. Arlan looked between the two of them and his eyes narrowed.

“Peppy likes you,” he said, somewhere between a statement and a question. He looked at the little dog one more time. When he turned back to Dan Heng his expression had softened. “Well that’s good, then. Peppy likes you.”

Luka let out a loud laugh next to him, breaking the odd tension. “Congrats roomie, guess you pass the Peppy test. I’d say this calls for celebration.”

They grabbed some menus from the front and Dan Heng quickly realized how hungry he was. It was standard beach town fare— fish and chips, burgers, sandwiches and the like, along with some colorfully named appetizers and specials (what in the hell was a Luofu Tri Tip?). After some consideration, he decided on a turkey burger. Luka also got a burger, and Arlan chose an eggplant sandwich, and they got a pitcher of beer and parm fries for the table. It was counter service, and Dan Heng insisted on going up to put in the order. To be perfectly honest, he just needed a second away from the other two. People were draining.

There was only one person ahead of him at the counter and he waited, tapping a foot until it was his turn. A young woman about his age was at the register, tall with long gray hair and droopy eyes.

“So what’d’you want?” she asked when he came up, giving him a once-over.

“Umm, I’m ordering for my table so it’s a couple of things. We’re gonna start with the parm fries...” He continued, rattling off the order as well as the request from Arlan for an extra bowl (for Peppy, of course).

“Okay. Is that all?”

“Yeah. Do you know about how long it’ll be?” The smell of food had seriously set off Dan Heng’s appetite, and his stomach was starting to cramp.

“Do you know how long it’ll be?”

He blinked. “Excuse me?”

She smiled placidly.


“Here’s your number.” She pushed a table number across the counter and he took it, still confused.

Back at the table, Luka and Arlan were giggling about something. When he slipped back into the booth, they gave him a look and started cracking up again.

Dan Heng frowned. “Is there something on my face?”

Luka snorted again. “I see you met Stelle.”

“Who, the girl at the counter?” He glanced back at where the young woman was taking another order. “She was, umm…”

“Strange.” Arlan filled in. “Peppy likes her, though.”

“We all have theories about her, see,” Luka explained. “She just showed up in town one day and, like, no one knows a thing about her. Where did she come from? Where does she live? What is up with her and trashcans? No one has any idea.”

Dan Heng kept his mouth shut. He remembered what it was like living in a small town like Astral Cove. Everyone knew everyone, and when there was someone out of the norm— well, everyone knew that too. It was hard to keep secrets in a place like this.

The conversation quickly moved on, and Dan Heng soon found himself having a genuinely good time. It only got better when the food came, and the roommates quickly fell into a contented silence as they devoured their meals. For a moment, he felt almost… normal. Relaxed was the word, maybe. With his stomach full and laughter around him along with the gentle haze of alcohol, he felt like any other guy in any other town, just existing.

His reverie, however, was soon broken. “DAN HENG!?” a familiar voice all-but screamed and, in a blur of pink hair, there was March. She slammed her palms on the table, eyes so wide they seemed ready to pop out.

Dan Heng’s jaw had dropped open and he forced it to close. “M-march!”

“WHAT THE f*ck?” She slammed her hands on the table again, causing the pitcher to slosh beer onto the table. Peppy jumped to all fours and let out a shrill bark, causing Arlan to shush him.

“Yo, March!” Luka laughed. “sh*t, you know this guy?”

“Do I… do I KNOW THIS GUY?” March shook her head like a wet dog, pink strands falling over her forehead. “What the f*ck, Luka? Why didn’t you tell me he was in town? I mean— wait, what am I saying, what the f*ck Dan Heng!?” She punched him in the shoulder, not lightly. “How long have you been back for?”

“In my defense, I literally met him today,” Luka muttered.

Dan Heng just watched the interaction, gaping and frozen between wanting to tackle March in a hug and race out of the door as quickly as possible. He’d known he’d run into March eventually— he’d known, of course he’d known when he accepted the job at the Herta Institute.

He should have been prepared for the interaction, but he just… wasn’t. He’d gotten too good at not thinking about March since he’d left Astral Cove. Thinking about her was complicated, and it hurt in ways that he could barely understand, but not thinking about her was easy. It was so, so easy.

Except that now March was here in the flesh, her eyes blazing with excitement and confusion and hurt, boring into him like an arrow And here he was, frozen with his mouth hanging open like a frog.

He shut his mouth. “March, I…” His voice cracked and he stopped.

She continued to stare, her big eyes growing damp. “Oh, f*ck you Dan Heng!” she cried, then promptly pulled him into a bear hug. He froze again, rigid, until his body gave way and he sunk into her hug, letting her bury her head in his shoulder.

“You asshole,” she laughed when they pulled away. Her eyes were red with tears, and Dan Heng knew his probably were too. “I should’ve known you’d do this. Come back home quietly, like if you don’t say anything no one will notice and no one will care. It’s so like you.”

“Maybe,” he said, grabbing a fry and dipping it in ketchup. “Sorry.”

“Oh, you’re good. Big dummy.” She punched him again, lighter this time, then pushed into the seat next to him.

Luka squeled from where he’d been shoved against the wall. “Umm, I feel like I’m missing something here? So you guys know each other?”

Dan Heng nodded. “We went to school together.”

“Oh please. Went to school together? Luka, we are what you’d call childhood best friends.” March ruffled his hair to make her point, ignoring his protests. “There’s no denying it, Dan Heng. Don’t even try.”

“I’m not trying,” Dan Heng said, raising his hands. “You’re right. I’m just… I’m sorry, March. I’m an asshole. I should’ve told you I was moving back.”

“Wait, moving back!?” March gave him a once-over. “You’re kidding me, right? I assumed you were here to visit...”

He shrugged.

Now it was her jaw’s turn to drop. “Oh my GOD! You’re, like… you’re back-back! You’re BACK!? Wait… That’s incredible! Oh my god— wait, that’s like, so amazing! So you must be… wait, oh my god, that’s it. You’re setting your next story collection out here!”

“I— well, I actually got a job at the library over at the Herta Center, but— yeah, actually. You know about my, uh, my collections?”

“Well obviously, dummy! I’m your best friend! I read your first one right when it came out— was on the pre-order list, actually. My favorite story is the one with the lovers finding each other across space and time— And So—”

‘“—The Wind Blows,” Dan Heng finished. His face was growing warm. “Wow. I, umm. Thanks.”

March shrugged. “Nothing to thank me for.”

“Still. Thanks.”

“So this is a happy reunion and all, but, uh, would you guys mind scooting over?” Luka peeked from the side. “It’s a little cramped back here.”

March rolled her eyes and climbed out of the booth, pulling Dan Heng by the sleeve. “Sorry,” Dan Heng mumbled. Luka just gave him a grin and, much to Dan Heng’s horror, a huge wink.

“Well boys— hope you don’t mind if I borrow your— your… wait, how do you all know each other again?”

“We’re roommates,” said Arlan stonily.

“Well, I hope you don’t mind I borrow your roommate for a little bit. You’re in luck— I was gonna try to rope one of you into this, but now you’re released. C’mon, Dan Heng,” March said, tugging him after her.

“Wait— March, roped into what?” Dan Heng protested meekly, looking back over his shoulder to see Luka making kissy faces at him.

“What do you think? An adventure.” She pulled him towards register and then, to his surprise, past the counter and through a door into a back room.

The room was brightly lit compared to the dim cafe and Dan Heng blinked as his eyes adjusted. It appeared to be some sort of store room and office, with a small desk and a ledger as well as racks of supplies.

“Well look who the cat dragged in.” The grey-haired girl from the register was slouched back in a folding chair. She lifted a hand. “Yo.”

March looked between them and squealed excitedly. “Oh my god, you guys know each other?” She clasped her hands together.

“Parm fries for the table, two pitcher IPAs, quarter pound turkey burger on sesame hold the onions, side salad, double cheeseburger on sesame with extra hot sauce, add bacon, side salad, eggplant panini with extra miso spread, side of home hash. And a bowl for the dog.” She eyed him. “That was it, right?”

He nodded blankly.

“Oh. You took his order.” March looked disappointed for all of two seconds before lighting again. “Well that’s okay! I’m sure you’ll be best friends too once the night’s over.”

“Sorry— March, can I…” Dan Heng pulled her to the side. “What is this? What’s happening tonight?”

“I already told you, an adventure. Which you, by the way, have officially been roped into.”

“An adventure,” the gray-haired girl agreed. What was her name— Stelle? As if reading his mind, she tapped him on the shoulder and stuck out a hand. “I’m Stelle. You’re March’s friend.”

March nodded enthusiastically. “And I’m Stelle’s friend!”

“Pity friend,” Stelle corrected.

“What— no I’m not—”

“Himeko felt bad for me and forced March to be my friend,” Stelle explained, ignoring the other girl’s protests. “It’s like a really sh*tty meet cute.”

“Well— okay, maybe that’s how it started, but then I found out that you’re awesome and I’d definitely want to be your friend anyway.”

Stelle shrugged. “Sure.”

Dan Heng looked between the two of them, trying to follow. Himeko was March’s older sister, but why would she care about Stelle making friends?

“Oh, you don’t know about the Trailblazer!” March exclaimed, sensing his confusion. “It’s Himeko’s place. She bought the building when Coastal Surf shut down a few years ago and made it hers and… yeah.” She spread her arms. “Pretty amazing, huh? And you know how Himeko… soon as Stelle started working here, she just had to put on her big sister hat again and make sure everyone was happy.”

“Is she here right now?” Dan Heng asked, half expecting the red-headed woman to appear from the door at any second. He hadn’t seen her in years, but Himeko had raised him just as much as she’d raised March.

“She’s off on Fridays.”

Stelle frowned. “I don’t think that applies when you own the place.”

“It so does! Just because you’re your own boss doesn’t mean you’re slacking off all the time. Trust me, I know.”

“But… you could slack off. Like, if you wanted to.”

“Sure, if you want your engagement to fall by like 50%.” March sighed. “Seriously, I took a few weeks off last winter and I go back and, bam! Like ten thousand unsubscribes. People need that constant stream of content, you know? Content, content, content. Like little piranhas.” She made little biting mouths with her hands for emphasis.

Dan Heng watched the two bicker and tried to ignore the sinking feeling in his stomach. The fact that March had apparently recruited him for on of her adventures had not slipped his mind. If growing up with her was any indication, March’s adventures were generally Very Bad Ideas that ranged from stupid to irresponsible to downright dangerous. She’d always justified them by arguing that it was better to do dumb stuff with other people, else she’d end up doing it impulsively on her own and get into actual trouble. Which meant that, historically, Dan Heng was the one making sure no one died.

Even if he’d maybe sort of been avoiding her, Dan Heng had no intention of letting March get hurt. And Stelle, well… he’d do what he could for her, too.

Chapter 2: Photoshoot


In which a poorly-thought out photoshoot leads to unforeseen consequences.


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

March’s big adventure ended up being a trip to an island off the coast to do a photoshoot for her social media. She had a whole plan with each photo carefully thought out and the timing listed next to each. Clearly she’d been planning to recruit at least one other person, because once they got to the docks she handed Dan Heng a big camera and a stack of paper with all of the shots written down:

** March’s Moon Shoot **
8pm- Meet at dock
8:15 (AT THE LATEST) - leave for Mara Island!!
Moonrise shots (9pm-10pm)
•moon rising over ocean (wide lens)
⁃moon only
⁃me from behind looking at moon
•toes in sand~ (me + maybe someone but not Stelle sorry your toes are not great :) but ily )
•something with shells???
Shadowssss (10pm-11pm)
•like tree shadows or something
•light sticks??
•thirst trap (tbd)
Full moon baby!! (11pm-midnight)
•idk yet but something fun (witchy??)
•ocean reflection
•moon reflecting in sunglasses

“It’s comprehensive,” Stelle said, watching him read. She had her own copy of the plan tucked under an arm, along with a wooden baseball bat.

“Yeah. I’m actually kinda impressed. This is way more organized than the March I remember.” The March he remembered would also have never been on her hands and knees reaching under a boat— which was exactly what she was currently doing. “Umm, are you sure that’s a good idea?” he called, taking a step forward.

“I’m fine!” She yelled back, her voice muffled. “Just gotta jam this in— here.” There was a loud noise and she shuffled back up, dusting off her knees. “There’s, like, a leak on the side or something so I was just checking on it.”

Yeah, he did not like the sound of that. Dan Heng looked closer at the boat; it was one of those semi-inflatable ones that people used for scuba diving. “March, are you sure this thing is safe?

“Dunno. Sampo said it is.” Stelle shrugged. “And if it’s not, I’ll find him and beat him up.”

“Yeah, might be hard to do that if the boat, you know, sinks. And we drown.”

“Ugh, you guys, it’ll be fine!” March groaned. “The boat is definitely safe, because it’s definitely patched, and I definitely just checked that it’s definitely not leaking. Just get in, okay? We’re already three minutes past schedule.”

Stelle shrugged and climbed in, followed closely behind by March. Dan Heng hesitated, watching the boat sway ominously under their weight.

Looking back, this was the time when he could have turned around. Really, it was the time when he should have turned around.

But then March gave him the biggest, poutiest expression he’d ever seen and he once again accepted that no, he couldn’t say no to her. Stelle held his hand for balance as he climbed in and shakily took a seat. With a roar of the engine, the boat lurched forward and together they sped into the darkening ocean.

“Okay… okay… yeah, okay. These are good, Dan Heng!” March handed the camera back to Dan Heng, nodding in approval. Feeling his face grow hot, he was suddenly very glad that it was the middle of the night.

“So onto the next set?” Stelle asked. She had her phone flashlight on and was squinting at the plan. “Full moon… baby?”

“Full moon, baby!” March agreed, letting out a little ‘whoop’. “I wanna find a really good spot for this one. What do you guys think of up there?”

Dan Heng followed her gaze up the shadowy cliffs in the center of the island. “Maybe not, sorry March. Doesn’t seem like a great idea to go climbing when it’s pitch black out.”

March made a little disappointed noise. “Well, what do you think Stelle?”

Stelle shrugged. “Dunno. You’d probably get a good shot if you went above the tree line.”

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking! Like, imagine the moon right above you and the trees below you, and then the ocean below that— that’d be so cool.” March made a camera with her fingers and closed an eye. “Oh my god, wait— that’ll be literally perfect.”

Dan Heng shook his head. “Wait— March, seriously. It’s the middle of the night! Don’t go climbing up a— up a friggin’ volcano in the middle of the night!:

Her eyes widened. “Wait— it’s a volcano!? Ugh, that’s even cooler. Well now we definitely have to go.”

“I think it’s volcanic, but— March. Wait, March!” He watched, dumbfounded as March made a beeline for the trees, followed behind by Stelle.

“Guys— wait!” Realizing he was already being left behind, Dan Heng let out a groan and jogged after them, March’s camera swinging from its strap around his neck. “Please, guys. Can you not see what a terrible idea this is?”

“But that’s why you’re here!” March flashed a grin back at him and dear god she just had to be charming, didn’t she. “You’re gonna keep us safe, aren’t you? Huh, Dan Dan?”

“That’s not the point! Don’t go doing dangerous stuff just cause I’m around.”

“Would you rather she do it when you’re not around?” Stelle asked flatly.

Dan Heng opened his mouth, then closed it. “Look,” he said finally, “the point here is that you shouldn’t do dangerous stuff in general. March. March.”

“What?” March whined. She’d gotten further ahead of them and stood on the edge of the treeline, dancing impatiently in the sand. “Come on come on come onnnn! The moon’s gonna be up soon, I’m gonna miss the shot!”

“March— wait—”

It was too late. March had already melted into the trees. Stelle glanced back absently. “Come on, pretty boy.”

“P-pretty boy!?” he sputtered, but then Stelle was gone too and with a frustrated growl Dan Heng followed them into the darkness.

Even with all of their phone flashlights on, the interior of the island was treacherous at best. Stelle stumbled almost immediately and skinned her knee pretty badly, though she insisted she was fine. March did remarkably well, picking her way carefully over logs and through brush. Dan Heng found himself watching her so intently for any sign of tripping that he himself stumbled more than a couple of times. Nothing serious, thank god— though it was only a matter of time before someone ended up with a sprained ankle.

The path soon started climbing upward. As they got higher the trees started clearing out, and with the bright moon lighting the way Dan Heng started feeling ever so slightly better. They’d get up to the top, and March would get her photos, and then they’d get back down (somehow) and— well, that’d be it. One skinned knee was an acceptable casualty for the trip. He’d just have to remember to bring his first aid kid next time.

Yeah. He was feeling good.

And then the ground gave way underneath him and he was falling.

Dan Heng tumbled down the hole, grabbing frantically to the rock to try to slow his fall. Digging his feet into the sand, he managed to get some control back just as the drop got shallower, depositing him on his butt in a large cave. Hearing his friends’ voices echoing down the tunnel, he frantically scrambled back to the mouth of the hole and looked up. The drop wasn’t vertical, but it wasn’t much better than it— there was no way in hell he was climbing back up that thing.

“I’m fine!” He called up. Then, after realizing he had no confidence in March not doing something stupid, added: “Don’t come down!”

“Too late!” Stelle called down. A half second later came the unmistakable sound of someone falling, and then March spilled out into the cave at his feet.

“You’re okay!” She hugged his ankles in relief.

“I told you not to come down!” He hissed. “What if we’re trapped down here? Stelle, DON’T YOU DARE COME DOWN—”

He was interrupted by an echoey whoop and he quickly dragged March backwards. Just in time, in fact, and a split second later Stelle was deposited in a tangled heap in front of them. She looked up at him with those droopy eyes, pushing her hair away from her face. “What?”

Dan Heng just shook his head. “Rule number one of adventuring, March. Don’t follow people down mysterious holes.”

“I thought rule number one was ‘don’t eat yellow snow’?”

“Yeah, when we were eight!”

“What’s wrong with yellow snow?” Stelle asked.

Dan Heng ignored her. “Look, we might be stuck here! Unless there’s another entrance, and I’m not sure there is.”

March gazed up at the hole, shadows crossing her face. “sh*t. Okay, yeah, maybe following you down wasn’t the best idea.”

Feeling the anxiety coursing through him, Dan Heng closed his eyes and let out a breath. His eyes ached from lack of sleep and everything was itchy from the sand, and Stelle’s knee was still bleeding, and they were possibly trapped, but that didn’t matter right now. No use waiting around, right? If they were actually trapped, he wanted to know sooner rather than later.

The cave was larger than he’d realized, with high rock walls and strange formations hanging from the ceiling. Further ahead the rock gave way to a shimmering pool of water, its surface illuminated in the glow of the moon. Which meant...

“Guys, this way!” He waved them towards the pool; sure enough, the ceiling opened up to expose the night sky far above.

“You want to climb up there?” Stelle asked, squinting at the opening.

“Don’t think so. Even if we managed to get to the chute, the rock looks pretty slippery. No hand holds.” March bit her lip. Her eyes were shiny in the moonlight. “You guys... I-I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have dragged you to this stupid island.”

Stelle gave her a small smile and put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay, March. You gotta die somewhere, right?”

“No one’s dying, okay?” Dan Heng said. He crouched down next to the pool, inspecting the gentle lull of the surface. “Look here. Waves.”

March let out a big sniff. “Yeah, so?”

“Waves means it’s connected to the ocean. There’s some kind of current, which means that there’s a way out.”

“So we’re swimming out?” Stelle asked.

“I—” Dan Heng paused, his stomach suddenly dropping. The water leered at him from the pool, dark and infinite, as if daring him to jump into its waves. Daring him to brave the unknowable depths— and god, who even knew how deep down the pool went. He let out a tiny whimper, then quickly shoved a hand over his mouth.

“Oh, Dan Heng,” March said softly. She knelt next to him and laid her cheek on his shoulder. Her touch only made his pulse race quicker.

“You’re afraid of water?” Stelle asked

“A little,” Dan Heng said, rubbing his forehead. “It’s fine, though. I can swim. I mean— you guys know how to swim, right?”

They both nodded. “I can go in first to check it out,” Stelle offered. Without waiting for a response, she set her camera down and cannonballed into the pool, clothes and all. March shrieked in surprise and Dan Heng scrambled back to protect his camera. A second later, Stelle’s wet head appeared above the surface. She had a massive grin on her face. “Good news, guys.”

March’s eyes widened. “There’s a way out?”

“Yeah. Right on the other side.” She gestured to where the pool backed up against the wall of the cave. “It’s a big opening, too. I can see coral right on the other side so I think it connects to the open ocean.”

“Oh hell yeah!” March grabbed Dan Heng’s hand and raised it in the air triumphantly.

Despite the good news, he couldn’t kick a strange sense of dread. He gave her a meek smile, trying to push the feeling down. “So much for your photoshoot.”

“Nah, it’s fine. I got most of the pictures anyway. Let’s get this stuff packed up, yeah?”

Dan Heng pulled out the three waterproof bags they’d brought from where they’d been unceremoniously stuffed in his back pocket. The two of them carefully packed away the two cameras as well as their cell phones and shoes while Stelle treaded water and watched them. Once the equipment was well-sealed, March tossed the bags to Stelle and dipped a foot into the water. Her eyes widened. “It’s warm!”

“Maybe it’s volcanic?” Stelle asked. She backstroked, making room for March, then the two looked up at Dan Heng expectantly.

Steeling himself, he forced himself to the edge and peered down. “Is it deep?”

March looked at Stelle, who shrugged. “Like ten feet, maybe?”

“Ten feet. Okay.” He got down on his butt and scooted to the edge, dropping his feet in. The water rippled around his ankles, as if trying to draw him in deeper. March was right— it was warm, or at least warmer than the ocean water outside.

March brought her fist down on the water, splashing him.


She giggled. “Come onnnn, Dan Heng!”

“Yeah, hurry up pretty boy or we’ll leave you behind.”

Dan Heng let out a breath. “You are both menaces,” he grumbled, then shoved himself into the pool.

The water closed briefly over his head before he got back to the surface, gasping for air. March giggled again. “Aww, you look like Peppy after a bath!”

“So like a wet dog?” He forced his breathing to steady, letting his body take over to tread water.

“Hey, it’s not an insult. You know I love dogs.”

“And cats, and bunnies, and pigeons, and possibly-rabid seals…”

“That was one time!” March threw up her hands then yelped as her head sunk under the surface. “Oh don’t you laugh, Dan Heng!”

He let out another snort. “Sorry, sorry.”

“Anyway, it’s not like it was actually rabid. Animal control even managed to save it, remember? It ended up at the Herta Center— actually, I wonder if it’s still there. We should go visit and see. Seals live pretty long, I bet it’s still there. Oh— maybe I’ll even make a post about it!” March grinned. “What’d’you think, Stelle? Post about rescued seal?”

Stelle, whose back was turned to them, didn’t answer. Her head was cast in a soft glow. “Stelle?” Dan Heng asked tentatively, the feeling of dread quickly intensifying.

“Look,” she said quietly. They treaded over to her and followed her gaze up through the open ceiling over the pool.

The moon hung directly over them, round and full and immense, like an over-ripe fruit ready to burst in a shower of ethereal light. Dan Heng’s mind went blank as he gazed up, mesmerized. For a moment, the world seemed to fade around him. It was as if the moonlight was reaching down to touch him, suspending him in its caress-- as if the water around him had become imbued with some great lunar soul. There was no divide between air and water, between heaven and earth, between his body and the overwhelming light.

Somewhat let out a little sighing noise and he blinked back to awareness. He was in water— in the pool, in the cave— and the water was rising. Rising— rising!? Bubbles floated up from the surface in an endless stream, each glowing like a tiny full moon.

Like a bubble blower, he thought absently. Then promptly started to panic. “Whatthef*ck whatthef*ck whatthef*ck!?”

Around him, his friends were still locked in some sort of trance. March floated half on her back, her eyes wide and gaze glued to the moon. Bubbles rose around her, pushing up against her back and causing tiny waves in the water around her.

Stelle suddenly sneezed loudly and blinked back to reality. She looked around, confused, and swatted at a couple of bubbles. “Whoa,” she said, then saw Dan Heng watching her. “What did you do?”

“Not me!” Dan Heng forced out. He was still trying desperately to control his breathing. “March is—”

“Yo, MARCH!” Stelle tossed one of the waterproof bags at her; it fell into the water with a loud splash. March shook her head and blinked rapidly.

“Uh… UH…” She looked around her with eyes wide. “What’s happening!? Wait, sh*t— should I try to get a picture of this!?”

March scrambled for the waterproof bag but then, just as quickly as it’d started, the light started to fade. The last bubbles rose and disappeared and then— just like that— the water was still again. “Dammit! I almost had it!”

“That’s okay, we’ll just come back again,” Stelle reasoned

“Or, alternatively, we get the hell out of here and never come back again. Ever,” Dan Heng said, a little louder than he’d intended. He had no idea what just happened but he did not like it one bit. It had felt a little too familiar, and honestly? That terrified him.

Luckily, March and Stelle were equally ready to leave the creepy cave. The taller girl led the way first, followed by Dan Heng and finally March. He’d tried to go last, but they’d insisted on the order.

Dan Heng’s head soon broke the surface and he blinked at the sting of saltwater. Stelle treaded next to him, and a second later March popped up as well with the waterproof bags. Suddenly exhausted, the three of them made their way around to the beach and started the treck back towards their boat.

They were about a half mile away when the sound of sirens pierced the air. A boat with red flashing lights emerged from the dark. There was a tall figure at the helm holding a megaphone.

“The water police,” Dan Heng and March said at the same time, then glanced at each other. They were more than familiar with the coastal police from various run-ins growing up.

Stelle co*cked her head. “Are we in trouble?”

As if to answer her question, a man’s voice blared out over the megaphone: “ATTENTION! ATTENTION! THIS IS THE WATER POLICE! ARE YOU AWARE THAT THIS IS AN UNREGISTERED BOAT?”

March coughed loudly. “Excuse me?”

“I’m gonna kill Sampo,” Stelle stated.

“It was unregistered!?” Dan Heng squealed. Well that… didn’t not make sense. “How much did you get it for again?”

“50 bucks a day,” March groaned. “Which apparently was a huge ripoff!”

“I’m gonna kill him,” Stelle said again.

“No one’s killing anyone! Look— I’m sure it’s all a misunderstanding.” Dan Heng jogged towards the water police boat, shielding his eyes from the headlights. “Umm, excuse me?”

“YES WHAT IS—WAIT.” The officer clicked off the megaphone. “Sorry. Yes, hello. Sir. Are you aware you’re with an unregistered boat?”

“We didn’t realize— sorry, could you turn down those headlights? Thanks. We were renting the boat for the day and had no idea it wasn’t unregistered.”

“Yeah, we’re not the owners!” March added, splashing through the water to join him.

Stelle squinted up at the boat. “Gepard?”

The officer squinted back. “Oh sh*t— I mean, oh shoot, Stelle?”

“Hey Stelle,” a woman’s voice said. Dan Heng jumped in surprise as another head poked up from the boat, this one belonging to a dark haired young woman with enormous round glasses.

“Ahh— Pela!” March clapped her hands together excitedly. “Oh my god— can I just say, I love your guys’s new single!”

“Thanks,” the second officer, Pela, said. Her tone made it very clear she did not want to get into this while on the job. “So, you guys rented that thing? Do you know who owns it?”

“Sampo,” Stelle growled. “Gonna kill him.”

The tall officer, Gepard, let out a groan. “Again…”

“What, is this guy renting out illegal boats all the time?” Dan Heng asked. He was feeling rather smug about his accurate assessment of the boat as, pardon his French, a piece of sh*t.

“Umm, well, it’s more than that…” Gepard trailed off, then firmed his jaw. “Sorry folks. We really can’t be talking about an active case with civilians.”

Dan Heng shrugged. “No problem. Think you could give us a lift back to town, though?” There was no way in hell he was getting on that boat again.

Gepard nodded, eyes wide. “Oh, yes, most definitely. Why don’t you all climb in and we’ll get the illegal skipper hooked up to tow back to shore.” He helped them up one by one, Dan Heng last.

“You guys go for a swim or something?” Pela asked, giving them a once over. All three of them were soaked head to toe, clothes and all.

“Cave diving!” March chirped back.

The boat roared to motion and Dan Heng leaned back against the bench, closing his eyes. He was beyond tired— it must have been 2 am at this point, and that wasn’t adjusting for the three hours of jet lag. It was hard to believe that that morning he’d been getting off a plane and arriving in Astral Cove.

It really was amazing what a run-in with March could lead to— but what was even more amazing was how, no matter what happened, they always found a way out of it. They always ended up fine.

Oh how wrong he was.


Stay tuned. Mermaids coming REAL soon.

Chapter 3: Metamorphosis


In which Dan Heng decides that complete denial is always the best approach.


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

That night, Dan Heng dreamt of water. The dream started familiarly— the ocean enveloped him, current racing past him like he was a rock in a stream. The world glowed with lunar light, as if the water itself had been converted to liquid moonlight. He felt free, unbound, limitless. His body melted into the water and suddenly it didn’t move around him, it moved through him. He raced along with the current, formless and yet so entirely whole.

He became aware, suddenly, that there was something chasing him. It snapped its maw and gnashed teeth as long as he was tall. Dan Heng willed the current to go faster and carry him away from the beast, but no matter how hard he tried it remained on his heels, a hair’s breadth away from devouring him. He realized, with dawning horror, that he could never outrun it. The beast was a part of the current just as much as he was. Wherever the water went, he would go. And so would the beast.

He clawed desperately at the water, trying to reach the surface, but found that he had no hands to claw with and no arms to drag him to air. His eyes widened and he opened his mouth and screamed, but all that came out was a stream of glowing bubbles.

Dan Heng’s eyes snapped open and he shot up in bed, breathing heavily. He grabbed at his bedsheets and tried to ground himself. He was safe. He was here, on land, in his bed, in his apartment— except it didn’t really feel like his apartment yet, and it didn’t really feel like his bed yet. Laying back, he winced at the sweat-damp sheets but ignored it. Overhead, the white-painted drywall was chipped in places. The ceiling fan turned slowly, letting out a soft clicking with each rotation.

He felt, for lack of a better word, sh*tty. His head throbbed and his entire body felt dry, like a squeezed-out sponge. Maybe he didn’t drink enough water yesterday? It could be hard to drink enough on travel days, plus he’d had a few beers with the new roommates. And then there was the island. Dan Heng groaned as his mind flashed with images from the night before. Each memory was tinged with anxiety-- climbing into a clearly unsafe boat; watching March and that girl, Stelle, disappear into the forest; falling down a literal hole in the ground and truly believing he was trapped; the water police and the whole ordeal to get back to town…

And then there was the pool in the cave. Something had happened in there that he couldn’t explain, almost like the moon had hypnotized them or something. He remembered snapping back to reality and seeing March next to him, eyes glazed, completely transfixed. And then the pool had started bubbling, and the bubbles had started raising, and then it had ended and they’d swum out to the beach.

Had any of that really happened? They’d definitely gone to the island, there was no doubting that (especially given the amount of sand in his hair), but the pool? Maybe there was a fungus in the cave that made them hallucinate, or gasses from the volcanic activity, or… or something. Anything. Had March and Stelle even experienced the same thing as him? Had he just made it all up?

Dan Heng pulled out his phone and scrolled through his messages. March had started a group text with him and a number he didn’t recognize— probably Stelle— and sent over a bunch of photos from the night before. Mostly group selfies of varying quality, plus a variety of very March texts (copious emojis, not much substance). Nothing pool related, that was for sure.

It was already well past 10AM so Dan Heng chugged the rest of his water bottle, plugged in his phone to charge, and grabbed his towel for the bathroom. Unfortunately, said bathroom was currently occupied; steam rose from under the door and tinny pop music blasted out along with the sound of the shower. The chorus hit and Luka’s voice started belting out lyrics.

Dan Heng had to go to the bathroom rather badly and considered knocking to see if Luka would let him in, then dismissed the idea when he realized there was no way in hell the guy would hear him. Resigned to waiting, Dan Heng slung his towel over his shoulder and wandered into the small kitchen.

He was immediately met with the smell of eggs. Arlan looked up from the frying pan at him. There was a pink apron around his waist and Peppy stared at his feet with intense concentration, waiting in canine desperation for food scraps to drop. “Morning. You want eggs?”

“I think Peppy does.”

Arlan glanced down at his dog. “Peppy is always very hopeful that the food’s for him. It usually isn’t.”

“Well, he is a dog.” Dan Heng sat in a kitchen chair and held down his hand for the Peppy to come over. The little white dog perked up and trotted over. A quick sniff later, he must have realized that Dan Heng did not have food for him as he spun around and returned promptly to his station at Arlan’s feet.

Arlan pushed a pile of eggs onto his plate, already loaded up with toast and fruit. “There’s extra if you want any,” he said, then sat down across the table with his fruit.

“Thanks, I might take you up on that. Just wanna shower first.”

“Hmm.” Arlan took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. “Luka’ll be out soon. He only has one song left.”

Dan Heng raised an eyebrow. “Does he have a shower playlist or something?”

Arlan nodded. “Oh yeah. Good thing is, you can always tell when he’ll be done. Bad thing is, the playlist is over 30 minutes long.”


“Yeah, it’s pretty annoying, not gonna lie. Don’t tell him I said that, though. Have fun with March last night?”

“I guess? She wanted me to help her with a photoshoot thing. We took a boat out to one of the little islands near the coast and were there til past midnight, but then the boat ended up being un-registered and the water police showed up and… yeah. It was a whole thing.”

“Well better you than me.” Arlan took a sip of orange juice. “March is always trying to drag one of us into her schemes. Since Stelle showed up it’s mostly been her, but sometimes she’ll try to bring someone else along too. Asta won’t do it anymore after that whole thing with the sewer, so it’s basically me or Luka. Or you, now!” He looked up brightly.

“Wait— what happened with Asta and the sewer?” Dan Heng knew Asta from high school; she’d been in their larger friend group, and from all the photos of her and March together on social media he assumed they were hanging out a lot these days.

“Sorry, Asta swore me to secrecy.” Arlan made a zipping motion over his mouth. “Ask March.”

“Oh, come on man, you can’t just mention a sewer incident and not—”

“Nope.” He made crossed his arms and looked down at his dog. “Not telling, are we Peppy? No we aren’t. No we aren’t! Oh, I bet you want to play disc later, don’t you?”

The little dog let out an excited yip and began wagging his tail, trotting at Arlan’s heels as he got up to since off his plate. “See you later,” Arlan said, heading to the doorway. He clipped a leash onto Peppy’s harness, slipped into a pair of sandals, and then he was gone.

It was a Saturday and Dan Heng couldn’t imagine Arlan had work, but they were definitely not at the level of roommates-slash-friends where he could just ask where the other guy was headed. Resigned to curiosity, Dan Heng pulled out his phone and scrolled through the news until the pop music in the background ended abruptly.

A door opened in the hallway and Luka waltzed out, a towel wrapped around his waist and hair dripping. “All yours, dude!” He called into the kitchen, then went into his room and slammed the door. From behind the door came the muffled sound of singing.

“Thanks,” Dan Heng called down the hallway, not particularly caring if Luka heard. He slipped into the bathroom and shut the door. The fan was on and most of the steam had cleared out, though the air smelled strongly of Axe Body Spray. “At least use Old Spice, man,” he muttered to himself, hanging up his towel on an empty hook.

Usually he’d prefer to undress before getting into the bathroom, but the thought hadn’t occurred to him this morning. Luckily, his clothes were gross enough from the night before that he didn’t feel bad leaving them in a crumpled heap in the corner. Should wash my sheets too, he thought to himself, wincing as he ran a hand through his hair. Really, he should have showered before going to bed but it’d been almost 3 in the morning and who had time for that, honestly?

Dan Heng grabbed the bar of soap he’d bought the day before and pushed on the bath faucet. The water spewed a few times before settling into a pounding stream. He flipped the switch to the shower, then checked the temperature of the water. Sure enough, it was still hot from Luka’s marathon shower right before.

Please don’t run out of hot water, he prayed silently, stepping carefully into the tub. He’d just finished pulling the shower curtain closed when a strange sensation came over him.

It felt like pins and needles but softer, somehow— as if the pins were made up of little cotton balls and the needles made up of q-tips. The sensation started at his toes and crawled up his legs, past his knees, up his thighs and stomach. And then, as soon as it crested his head, it slammed into him with a force that knocked the breath out of his lungs. Dan Heng’s eyes widened as his body convulsed in on itself and his vision blurred. It didn’t hurt, per se, but for a horrible instant it felt like his body had dissolved and was rearranging itself like putty, flesh pushed into shapes that didn’t make sense—

And then it was over just as quickly as it’d started. Dan Heng barely had time to blink before his body lost the ability to stand and he collapsed roughly agains the edge of the tub, water pounding down on him from the shower head.

“f*ck— Ouch.” He’d tried to brace his fall and had only succeeded in banging an elbow against the soap dish, leaving what was sure to be a nasty bruise.

“You okay?” Luka’s voice shouted through the wall, muffled.

“Yeah!” Dan Heng called back, “I’m—“ He stopped. Choked. Because something was very, very, very wrong with his body.

His legs were gone, first of all. Just… gone. Nowhere to be seen. No knees, no feet, no toes— because there was something else attached to him right where his legs were supposed to be. A long, scaly appendage like a fish tail.

“Whatthef*ck,” he whispered, head buzzing with oncoming panic. The tail was long, way longer than his legs would have been, and curled around itself several times to fit into the tub. It was covered in shimmering scales that ranged from ivory and mint to brilliant jade; light and dark colored scales swirled together, forming iridescent stripes. At the end of the tail was a frilly, arrow-shaped fin, and a dorsal fan traveled down the backside of the tail before merging into the fin. Two smaller fins also sprouted from the sides near the top of the tail, right where his hips were supposed to be.

Dan Heng started to pull away from the tail but froze as it moved along with his body. Panic rising, he tried to kick out of it but couldn’t— there was nothing to kick with, and when he tried to move his legs the little fins on his hips flapped frantically and oh god this tail was attached to him it was his f*cking tail.

His stomach clenched and the tail jerked, sinewy muscles rippling down the sides. With horror, he realized he could feel the tail against the sides of the bathtub. Feel it, like it was a part of his body and his brain was picking up the signals coming from it and—

Oh god, he thought. I’m a f*cking mermaid.

“You sure you’re okay in there?” Luka’s voice came again.

“Yes,” he yelled back, trying to sound as calm as possible. He must have succeeded, because the act of speaking seemed so normal that it left him dazed— hearing his own voice while staring at the tail somehow cemented it firmly into reality. He knew what dreams felt like, and this was no dream.

Which meant he had to deal with it.

There was a knock on the door and Dan Heng jumped in surprise, causing the end of the tail to flick up and swat a bottle of shampoo off the side of the tub. He froze, staring at the door knob. It was locked— he could see it was locked— but what if the lock was broken, or Luka had a key, or—

“Hey dude, I’m headed out,” Luka said. He sounded hesitant— most likely weirded out from all the crashing and banging coming from the bathroom. “Lemme know if you need anything, okay?”

There wasn’t much Dan Heng could do about that, so he said that yes, he’d let Luka know, and waited in silence until the front door had slammed shut. When it did, he let out the breath he’d been holding and prepared himself for the matter at hand.

The shower head had been running this whole time, spilling lukewarm water on his head, and Dan Heng decided that turning off the faucet was as good a way to start as any. The matter proved more difficult than expected due to his compromised position in the tub. He was mostly on his back, with his shoulders propped up against the front edge of the tub and the long tail curled up in the remaining space like a wet snake. The slippery tub combined with the weight of the tail had left him somewhat stuck.

Cautiously, he searched for the muscles that controlled the tail. They were easy to find— too easy to find, like his brain had rewired itself to accommodate for the appendage. After a few tries, he was able to start unwinding the tail and stretching it out over the edge of the tub. When enough weight had been displaced, he scooted up on his elbows and managed to hoist his upper body back upright to turn off the faucet.

The stream of water stopped, leaving the bathroom silent save for the steady drip of water and the hum of the overhead fan. Dan Heng’s tail fell languidly over the edge of the bathtub and, if he just looked at the tail and nothing else, it was almost beautiful. Like some great, sleeping sea serpent.

Now that he was in a less compromised position, he finally inspected himself. The tail was attached seamlessly to his body right around his pelvis; the scales rippled up past his belly button and were speckled across his chest and shoulders. For all the weirdness, it looked strangely natural. After patting around his head and face, he was relieved to see that everything shoulders and higher seemed normal. Well, felt normal. He’d definitely want to check in the mirror later.

The mirror. Oh god— how was he supposed to get to the mirror? He couldn’t stand up— how was he supposed to even leave the bathroom!? Was he stuck like this? Why had it happened? Why now? Did he do something? Had he pissed of a witch and gotten cursed? Did witches even exist? Mermaids apparently did, because—

Because he was one. He was a f*cking mermaid. Or was it merman? Dan Heng groaned and put his head in his hands. His hair was still gritty with sand, and he brushed through it as best he could and let the grains fall onto his chest.

Merman or not, nothing was going to happen with him sulking in a bathtub. After a few failed attempts, he managed to maneuver his body onto the side so he could pull himself over the rim of the tub and plop unceremoniously onto the floor. With no other idea about how to proceed, he scooted over to the wall and grabbed his towel from the hook. If he was going to have to drag himself back to his room, he at least didn’t want to get the carpet wet.

Because he was apparently a goddamn MERMAID—

Clearing his head as best he could (because no, panicking wouldn’t do any good here) Dan Heng went about the motions of drying off. He ruffled the towel through his hair until it stopped dripping, then started drying off his chest and upper body. When he got to the tail he paused for a split second before forcing himself to keep moving. After learning quickly that rubbing the scales in the wrong was quite uncomfortable he resigned himself to patting the tail down gently.

He’d gotten about halfway down (though maybe it was less— this thing was long) when the strange tingling sensation from before came back. He watched this time, wide-eyed as the feeling spread up his body and intensified and his body dissolved— literally dissolved— into water for a split second before solidifying back into flesh.

His legs were back.

Dan Heng didn’t know whether to cry, or scream, or laugh. Instead of choosing, he just climbed to his feet and wobbled out of the bathroom and back to his room, buck naked. When he got there, he shut the door and lay face-down on his bed. “What the f*ck,” he said, voice muffled by the pillow. He suddenly felt exhausted, like he’d just run a race or finished a big test. Or, you know, had the most stressful bathing experience of his life.

His headache was gone at least. That was something. Maybe he really had just been dehydrated.

Before long, he drifted off to a blissfully dreamless sleep.

The Trailblazer Cafe was busy but not too busy— despite it being a Saturday, it was also the odd hours after the brunch / lunch crowed but before dinner and post-dinner drinks. The building had two main rooms, one with the bar (currently closed) and booths that Dan Heng had sat in with his roommates, and one off to the side that was more of a traditional “cafe” setting, with tables to work at and a dedicated coffee and pastry section. Though he hadn’t noticed the room the night before, a quick Yelp searched insisted that the Trailblazer Cafe was one of the best coffee shops to work from in Astral Cove.

After waking from his nap, Dan Heng packed his laptop and water bottle in his backpack and headed out. His stomach rumbled when he passed the kitchen; he still hadn’t eaten anything yet and it looked like Luka had finished off whatever eggs Arlan left in the frying pan. Luckily he had a granola bar left over from the airplane and munched on it as he walked over to the Trailblazer.

The thought had not left him, of course, that just that morning he had temporarily transformed into a merman. He had absolutely no idea why, and the more he allowed himself to think about it the more he started to panic with encroaching existential terror (because yes, his reality had been fundamentally altered only a few hours earlier).

He’d decided it must have been some sort of kafkaesque oddity, like Gregor Samsa waking up as a man-sized co*ckroach in The Metamorphosis. The absurdity of it all was very confusing, and as he chewed on his granola bar he considered if he wanted to laugh or scream. He’d taken a class on absurdist literature back in school; he’d enjoyed it then, but after the morning’s events found himself mulling over it almost nonstop.

Accepting that the world was an irrational place, Dan Heng decided that the best play was to hope that it wouldn’t happen again and go on with his life. If nothing else, the bathtub incident (as he’d taken to calling it in his mind) could at least serve for good inspiration for his collection. Hell, he was feeling inspired already.

The cafe portion of the Trailblazer Cafe was busier than the bar area; an older couple were sipping tea in the corner and a group of high schoolers had their textbooks laid out on one of the communal tables (though most of them seemed to be goofing off or on their phones). There were also a few folks working on laptops. That was good. He wouldn’t be the only one.

And of course, there was Stelle standing behind the cafe counter.

“Yo,” she said when he came up to order. She had bags under her eyes but seemed alert, wired even.

“Hey. This place is nice,” Dan Heng said, squinting up at the menu. It was a little late in the day for coffee, but then again his headache was coming back and a little caffeine could probably kick it. He ended up ordering a latte and grabbing a chocolate croissant as well; Stelle tossed the croissant into the bag and handed it to him, letting him know the drink would be ready in a few minutes.

“So how’re you doing?” she said as he was leaving to find a table.

“Fine, I guess. Are there any outlets in the outside area?”

Stelle shrugged and kept on staring at him.

“I’ll take that as a no,” he muttered, then went to look for a table while well aware of her eyes on his back. Though the outdoor seating looked nice, Dan Heng needed an outlet so he set up at a single table next to the far wall.

Stelle arrived a few minutes later with his drink. He smiled and gave a quick nod when she put it down, then turned back to his screen. She stayed hovering by his table, though and once again he felt her eyes watching him.

“What’s up?” he said finally, slipping his headphones off one of his ears. Maybe she wanted to chat more? He supposed that the whole island thing probably made them, you know, ‘friends’. Was he being too cold?

“You like the foam art?” she asked.

Dan Heng squinted at the top of his latte. There was some sort of blobby image drawn in the foam. “Yeah, it’s cool. Abstract. I like it.”

“It’s a fish,” Stelle said, frowning. “I guess it didn’t turn out that well. I thought you’d like it. Cause it’s a fish.”

“Oh! Oh, yeah, okay. I think I see it.” (He didn’t). “Thanks, Stelle.”

“No problem.” She cracked a small smile and looked at him for a moment longer before finally heading back to the counter.

Thoroughly confused by the interaction, Dan Heng decided once again that the universe was irrational and slipped his headphones back on. He was starting to feel better— much better, in fact. Like his body was light and airy.

A little later, Dan Heng felt the need to stretch his legs and decided it was a good time to throw out the empty paper bag that had once housed his chocolate croissant. He stood up from the table, careful not to trip over his computer charger. He didn’t feel great about leaving his laptop on the table, but from a quick glance around the Trailblazer he couldn’t imagine there was much risk for it being stolen right now.

There was a trashcan near the front, next to a hallway that lead to the bar part of the cafe. He headed towards it, passing by another cafe customer who had just tossed something— a grey-haired young woman with three spiraling ponytails. He couldn’t help but glance back after her; she looked familiar— maybe they’d crossed over in high school or something.

When he looked forward again, there was a person hunched over the trashcan. They had an arm stuck in it all the way to the shoulder and seemed to be rifling around for something. The person let out a little grunt and leaned in further and Dan Heng realized with dawning horror that it was Stelle.

Not knowing what to do, he just stood there and waited for her to leave. Surely she’d just dropped something in there by accident and was just trying to retrieve it.

She didn’t leave. After a minute had passed, he cleared his throat loudly.

“One sec,” Stelle said, her words garbled by the trash can. The whole can wobbled precariously and then she pushed herself up, looking vaguely irritated. She had a napkin stuck in her hair. “Oh, hey.”

Dan Heng blinked and said, “Hey.” He pushed carefully past her and dropped his paper bag into the can. “Find anything good in there?”

“Not really. Day shifts aren’t great, though. The real treasures are during the night shifts.” She shrugged. “Worth a try!”

He stared.

“At least there wasn’t anything wet in there,” Stelle continued. Her face fell. “Wow, yeah. That would’ve been bad. Maybe I need to rethink this.”

“Maybe!” He laughed nervously, then made a beeline back to his table. The universe is irrational, he repeated to himself as he slipped on his headphones. The universe is irrational. The universe is irrational. You were a merman this morning and Stelle is way weirder than you realized but it’s okay it’s totally fine because the universe is irrational.

A little later, Dan Heng was once again pulled from his concentration when there was a loud crashing noise. He jerked up to see that not one but three coffee cups had been knocked off the high schoolers’ table, causing them to shatter and splatter coffee across the floor. There was some sort of argument going on between the high schoolers and the older couple; the man was standing and looked very upset while his wife tried to calm him down. It looked like the spilled coffee had splashed all over her handbag.

And then there was Stelle, standing a little ways from the puddle and looking shocked. She had a bundle of rags in her arms and reticently tossed them towards the spill. They landed in a haphazard pile.

Now the elderly man turned his attention to her and started yelling; Dan Heng still had his headphones on and couldn’t quite make out the words, but they certainly weren’t good. Stelle looked overwhelmed and took a few steps back. The sight of this guy harassing his friend— even if she was a brand new friend, and a very strange one at that— made Dan Heng’s blood boil.

Setting his face, he pushed away from the table and was about to head over when another man ran up from the employee back room. The new man was tall and had a sharp, silver fox sort of a look. He carefully stepped between Stelle and the angry customer, crossing his arms. He said something curtly to Stelle, and she nodded and left towards the employee backroom.

Dan Heng let out a sigh of relief. This must be her manager or something. Thank god he didn’t leave her out there to be harassed.

He tried to work for a few minutes but couldn’t get his concentration back. Seeing Stelle get yelled at had shaken him, and he doubted he’d get anything else done today. He’d made good progress though, all things considered. During the week he’d have to be at the Herta Center, so he’d have to get comfortable with spending his Saturdays and Sundays on his story collection.

Just as he was closing up his laptop, Stelle sat down heavily across from him. She’d taken off her apron and had a bag slung over her shoulder. “Yo,” she said, slumping back into the chair.

“You okay?” Dan Heng said, slipping his laptop into his backpack. “I saw what happened, that guy was being an asshole.”

“Yeah.” She sighed. “Kinda sucks, but it’s not like I was gonna get near that spill.”

“You were literally digging through a trashcan earlier.”

Stelle rolled her eyes. “You know that’s different, Dan Heng, the trashcan looked dry. But it’s cool. Mr. Yang’s letting me clock out early. Says he’ll pay me for the full shift, too.”

“That’s good.” Mr. Yang must have been her manager, the silver fox guy. “So you’re off now.”

“Yeah.” She glanced furtively from side to side, then beckoned him closer. There was a sly smile on her face. “So, what’d’you say we go bug March?”

“About what?”

“Oh, you know.” Stelle waggled her eyebrows suggestively, though Dan Heng couldn’t imagine what she was suggesting. “She hasn’t responded to any texts today. I’ll bet you she’s still asleep.”

“Oh my god, she still sleeps in this late?” Dan Heng remembered that March was notorious for being semi-nocturnal during high school. It’d been kind of impressive at the time, but now that they were in their 20s it felt a little sad.

Stelle ignored his question and let out a little giggle. “She’s gonna freak out. Oh my god, she’s gonna freak out. I can’t wait. Heh.”

Now starting to feel vaguely concerned about whatever Stelle had in store, Dan Heng agreed to go along with her to March’s house. Whatever it was, surely he could help to at least contain some fallout, right?

March, it turned out, still lived in the house she’d grown up in. It was one the nicer side of town, two stories with a spacious lawn and a traditional Cape Cod style. Dan Heng remembered how it’d fallen into disrepair for a bit, right after her parents died and she’d been living with her aunt and uncle. When Himeko was old enough to be her legal guardian, they’d finally moved back in and fixed it right back up.

Stelle rang the doorbell once, then twice more rapidly. “I’m coming!” A voice shouted, followed by the sound of footsteps. A second later, the door swung open to reveal a breathless Himeko. “Stelle! How are you?”

Before Stelle could answer, Himeko’s gaze drifted past her to Dan Heng. Her eyes widened. “Dan Heng!?”

“Hey,” he said, lifting a hand.

“Don’t you ‘hey’ me!” She jumped down the steps and, before he could protest, pulled Dan Heng into a massive bear hug. “Oh, it’s so good to see you! March didn’t tell me you were back!”

“Well, I just got back yesterday,” Dan Heng said, leaving out the part about him never telling March.
Himeko released him from the hug and held him at arm’s length, looking him up and down. Dan Heng squirmed, but only a little. He couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t excited to see Himeko too. With the amount of time he’d spent at their house growing up, she’d raised him just as much as she’d raised March.

When she was satisfied that yes, Dan Heng was indeed there, Himeko ushered him and Stelle into the house. “March is still sleeping,” she said, heading into the kitchen. She had a laptop and a stack of papers and notebooks strewn across the table. “I’m just doing some accounting for the Cafe— oh! Dan Heng, did March tell you? I opened a little place down on the west side, the Trailblazer Cafe.”

“I’ve been there twice already, that’s where I met Stelle. The place is awesome.”

Himeko beamed. “Oh, it’s alright. And where are my manners— can I offer either of you a cup of coffee? I just made a fresh pot.” She gestured at the overflowing pot on the counter, which seemed to be sitting in a puddle of its own spillage.

“No,” Stelle said sharply. She took a step back.

Dan Heng gave her an amused look. Had she already been exposed to the horror that was Himeko’s coffee? “I’m okay too,” he said. “It’s getting late.”

“Well why don’t you bring a cup up for March, then? It’ll help her wake up.” Himeko pulled a mug down and poured until the coffee was dripping down the sides. She picked it up and held it towards them, unaware of the coffee sloshing down the sides. “Here— Stelle, take this will you?”

Stelle’s eyes widened and she took another step back, then promptly turned on her heel and sprinted out of the kitchen and towards the stairs.

Himeko blinked in confusion. “I’d better go check on her,” Dan Heng mumbled, then waved apologetically and headed up the stairs after his friend. It was for the better— he didn’t want to get any nearer to Himeko’s poison brew than he had to.

Dan Heng found Stelle waiting outside of March’s closed door. She had a stupid grin on her face. “You ready?” she whispered when he approached, stifling her giggle. “Oh my god— this is gonna be incredible.”

“Waking her up?”

“How do you want to tell her? Should we just, like, dump a cup of water on her and run out? Would that be too mean?”

Dan Heng stared. He was starting to feel slightly concerned that something was wrong with Stelle. “What are you talking about” he asked slowly.

“Oh! You’re totally right, we could just play dumb. Or one of us plays dumb. Or— what if we splash you out here, and then I drag you into the room screaming that you’ve been replaced by an alien? Actually, no. That’ll freak her out. She’ll totally believe it. Hmm.” Stelle tapped her chin thoughtfully. “What’d’you think, Dan Heng? I don’t want to freak her out but, I mean, when is an opportunity like this gonna come again?”

Now very concerned about Stelle’s grasp on reality, Dan Heng tried to keep his voice level. “Stelle, I think maybe you should sit down.”

“What? Why?”

“Let’s go downstairs together, okay?” Himeko would know what to do. She knew Stelle better than him— maybe she was missing her meds, or had been triggered by something, or…

“Wait. What the f*ck, Dan Heng.” Stelle said loudly, all traces of furtiveness gone from her voice. “Do you not know?”


“Don’t you ‘Stelle’ me, sir! This is so not cool!” She stamped her foot like a small child. “I can’t tell if you’re playing dumb or if you’re actually just dumb. Do you not wash your hands after you go to the bathroom!?”

“Of course I do!” he hissed, glancing back at the staircase.

“So have you just, like, not taken a piss all day?”

“What the hell kind of a question is that?”

“A relevant one!”

“Well maybe I’m just dehydrated as f*ck from yesterday, okay? Geez.” He hadn’t, in fact, used the bathroom since before the strange incident that morning.

The strange incident.

When he’d tried to take a shower and had instead turned into a fish person.

His stomach dropped.

“Wait... Stelle, did you—”

Before he could finish, the door in front of them swung open to reveal a very sleepy March. She was wearing an oversized t-shirt and her pink hair was disheveled. There was an eye mask on her head. “Oh. Hey guys,” she yawned.

They froze and glanced at each other. Stelle’s eyes were wide and frantic, and Dan Heng realized with dawning horror that oh god something was seriously wrong.

Without saying a word, Stelle grabbed his arm and pushed the three of them back into March’s room. She shut the door, then stomped over to the window and pulled open the blinds.

March squinted against the light. “Stelle, what’re you doing?”

Dan Heng just shook his head, eyes wide. Stelle jumped down from the bed and grabbed a water bottle off the top of the dresser. She unscrewed the cap and he watched, as if it was happening in slow motion, as she took two steps over and threw the contents at him.

“Oh, ha ha, very funny,” he said, pulling the front of his now soaking wet shirt. March rolled her eyes, clearly unamused. Stelle, however, just stared at him with a stupid grin. Her back was to the wall and she looked like she was trying very hard not to crack up.

And then it happened. An all too familiar tingling sensation rose up his body, from his toes to his legs and up from there. He looked down in horror as his body dissolved into water. For a moment, the world blacked out and it felt like his flesh had turned to putty. And then, just like that, his vision cleared and he tumbled face-first onto March’s carpet.


And now the fun begins! Enjoy, y'all.

Chapter 4: Underwater


In which March has a very uncomfortable interaction with her sister


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

March stared down at Dan Heng, her mouth hanging open. He just hid his head in his hands and stared at the carpet. This was easy, given he was currently sprawled out on his stomach.

“Y-y-you— you’re—” March finally stuttered. “A m-mermaid. A. A f*cking MERMAID!?”

“I thought it was a one time thing,” Dan Heng mumbled, as if that explained it. He looked up at Stelle with pleading eyes, shuddering at the sight of his long green tail coiling around the room. “Is it cause of the water?”

“Takes about ten seconds, but yeah. Even a single drop will do it. Sorry, man! I thought you knew— I made you a fish in your latte and everything.” Stelle shrugged. “Wow, you must have thought I just really liked fish or something! Hah!”

March rubbed her eyes and blinked at Dan Heng, then rubbed them again. “Oh my god. Ohmygodohmygod. Why is Dan Heng a mermaid.”

“Touched water,” Stelle said.

“Got wet,” Dan Heng said.

March shook her head. “Okay, not gonna lie, but that’s kinda hot.”

“That’s hot,” Stelle agreed. Then, after a moment— “Can you get pregnant?”

Dan Heng coughed loudly. “Excuse me!?”

“I mean, if you’re a mermaid now—”


March raised her hand. Dan Heng sighed. “Yes, March?”

“Well, male seahorses can get pregnant.”

“Can we please drop it with the pregnant thing!? I’m already freaking out enough here.”

“Oh.” March frowned. “This is a new thing?”

“Yes— I mean, I don’t know! It happened once this morning and apparently isn’t a one time thing which is kinda making my brain hurt and I—I don’t—” Feeling his panic rising, he forced himself to stop and took a deep breath.

March kneeled down next to him and co*cked her head. “Don’t worry, Dan Heng. You’re still Dan Heng, even if you’re a fish person now. Plus, your tail is super pretty. But I, uh… I gotta ask one thing. What happened to your shirt?”

Dan Heng glanced down at himself and, upon realizing his clothes had disappeared, scrambled up in alarm. “What the f*ck?” He said, wrapping his arms protectively around his chest.

“Oh yeah, it all goes away when you transform.”

They both looked at Stelle, who was still standing in the corner. “What?” she asked. “It does.”

“And you know that. Because you’re a mermaid too.” Dan Heng groaned, flopping back onto his side. “Oh my god. We’re all mermaids.”

“You’re a mermaid, Stelle?” March gasped, excitement spreading across her face. “Ooh— I bet you’re so cool looking! What color is your tail? Wait, wait— lemme guess. Uhh… blue. No wait— yellow. Orange?”

Stelle blinked innocently.

“Okay, fine, don’t tell us! I’ll just hang out with my brand new mermaid best friend, Dan Heng.” March ruffled his hair. “Eww. Why is your hair wet?”

Dan Heng barely had time to register that yes, his entire body was wet for some reason, when March let out a little yelp and jerked back. A split second later her body dissolved into water, and a split second after that the water re-solidified back into March.

March with a fish tail. Hers wasn’t quite as long as Dan Heng’s, but what it lacked in length it made up for in frills. Feather-like spines and fins sprouted along the sides and back, like some kind of fancy tropical fish. They shimmered in translucent blue and pink to match the scales dappling the rest of the tail. Like Dan Heng, she had two smaller fins sprouting from her hips which he was now certain were the vestiges of their legs. Also like Dan Heng, she was shirtless— though scales traveled up her torso and across her chest, covering anything she might be worried about.

She’d been kneeling when she transformed, and now tumbled forward onto Dan Heng, sending the two of them to the ground in a pile of limbs and scales.

“What,” said March, her voice muffled.

“Oh boy,” said Dan Heng.

“I told you,” said Stelle.

“March, I have coffee for you,” said Himeko. Before they could react, the door had swung open and Himeko was standing there with a dripping mug of coffee in her hand.

She stared at them.

They stared back.

“Well okay then,” Himeko said, then promptly shut the door. They listened in shock as her footsteps led her away and down the stairs.

No one seemed to want to break the silence, so eventually Stelle just said “huh,” and threw a blanket at the two of them. “Dry off and you’ll change back.”

That… made sense, in a weird sort of way. Dan Heng carefully patted down his body while March lay next to him in shocked silence, transfixed by the tail now attached to her body.

Dan Heng felt the familiar tingling and sighed in relief as his body changed to water and quickly morphed into his human form. A quick check told him that his clothes were back and he was perfectly dry. Not wanting to risk getting wet again, he quickly backed away from March and joined Stelle against the far wall.

They watched as March waggled her fins and unfurled the various spines and frills. When she figured out how to move the tail, she laughed in amazement and lifted it up towards her face. It was actually quite adorable, like watching a puppy play with a new toy.

Stelle clearly thought so too. “Well at least someone’s happy about this,” she said, watching their friend affectionately.

“That’s March for you. She’s nothing if not adaptable.”

“She’s always been like this?”

Dan Heng nodded. “Pretty much. I think she learned it early. Going through the stuff that she did as a kid, with her parents and everything… she had all the excuses in the world to lash out, or get depressed, or whatever. But she just… didn’t. She always found a way to smile, even when life tried its best to tear her down.”

Stelle didn’t say anything, but he could tell she was thinking. Connecting the dots between the March she knew now and the March that had been. And now, apparently, the March that was half fish.

When March had her legs back, the three decided to head over to the Trailblazer to discuss the recent developments. They passed by Himeko on the way out; the red-haired woman just smiled and let March know she’d be out later, making absolutely no mention of what she’d seen in the room. And then, to Dan Heng’s horror, she caught his eye and winked. (He decided it was probably best to ignore that.)

The baselines were established quickly. As of today, the three of them were merpeople, or at least part-time merpeople. Upon contact with water they had approximately ten seconds before they transformed into said merpeople. According to Stelle, it wasn’t just water either; she’d had a run in with the soda machine at the beginning of her shift that triggered the transformation all the same.

Their evening passed mostly without incident, until March left for the bathroom and, a few minutes later, Dan Heng and Stelle received a text from her that simply read, HELP. She’d forgotten about the whole “touch water and turn into fish” thing and had tried to wash her hands. It was a single-person bathroom, thank god, but after she’d successfully gotten her legs back none of them felt particularly inclined to stay out in public much longer. Every glass of water, soda can, bottle of beer was suddenly a hazard.

When he finally made it home, Dan Heng felt like he’d been hit by a bus. His body ached and his mind felt sluggish. Even his stomach felt off. After (very carefully) brushing his teeth, he collapsed into bed and sunk into the bare mattress, clothes still on. When he woke up the next morning, he realized he hadn’t even taken off his coat from the night before.

March woke up confused. She was often confused, in fact, and for a variety of reasons. Right now she was confused about:

Dan Heng’s sudden return,
Why Adobe Lightroom kept on glitching,
What was going on with Asta and Arlan (where they a thing??)
If it was sh*tty to accept a brand sponsorship if said brand had questionable labor practices (she was leaning towards yes)
The whole Stelle trashcan deal,

And, last but not least,

The fact that she was, as of yesterday, a mermaid.

“At least I’m a cute mermaid,” she said to herself, staring up at the ceiling. The little glow-in-the-dark stars had long since burned out, but they were a relic of her childhood and she liked them. Even without the glow, the outline of the stars made her feel protected. Safe. Like they were always watching over her, no matter where in the world she was.

After pawing for her phone on the nightstand, she clicked on the display and squinted at the time. 5:45 AM— no wonder it was still dark out. Usually when she woke up this early she went right back to sleep, but for some reason she felt wide awake. Wired, even. With a sigh, March opened up one of her social apps and started on the backlog of messages she’d failed to respond to yesterday. It wasn’t counting sheep, but it usually did just fine at putting her to sleep.

Like, like, like, star eyes emoji, like, fire emoji… She stopped and scrolled back. Frowned. Eww. Block and report.

It took her about five minutes to lose interest, her thoughts wandering with a lack of direction that seemed at odds with the energy coursing through her. She kicked her legs absently agains the blankets, then sighed and forced herself up, swinging her knees over the side of the bed.

Wonder if I’m still a mermaid, she thought, poking at her thighs. It had all felt incredibly surreal at first, when Stelle and Dan Heng woke her up with the weirdest surprise in the world and less than ten minutes later she was face-first on her carpet with a pink fish tail. For better or worse, said surreal ness had quickly been replaced by frantic disbelief and then, after she accidentally transformed in the bathroom at the Trailblazer, mundane irritation. What was she supposed to do, just carry around hand sanitizer everywhere? And what about all those swimsuits she still had to do photoshoots in?

March pulled out her phone and opened the group chat she’d started with Stelle and Dan Heng. Then, after a moment, she closed it and opened up her thread with just Dan Heng. The last message in it was from over a year ago, a picture that March sent of the construction at their old high school. She’d never gotten a response.

Dan Heng was… what was Dan Heng? Besides, apparently, also a fish person? There was a time in her life when she knew him better than anyone else, better than she knew herself even. When she trusted him with everything, from catching her if she fell off a rock trying to get the perfect angle to keeping her deepest fears and greatest triumphs. He’d been everything, and then suddenly, he just… was. Dan Heng, her friend from high school. Dan Heng, that kid she grew up with who moved away. Who took longer and longer to return calls, whose words became more clipped each time they spoke until they simply didn’t speak anymore.

The light flicked on in the hallway and she heard the shuffling sound of Himeko’s slippers against the carpet, followed by the bathroom door slamming shut. Resigning herself to the fact that she wasn’t going to get any more sleep that morning, March sighed and flicked on her bedroom light as well. At least she wouldn’t be the only person up.

Himeko’s eyes widened when March shuffled into the kitchen a half hour later. She hadn’t meant to take so long, but she also hadn’t meant to step in the puddle Himeko left on the bathroom floor after her morning shower. The incident had, if nothing else, confirmed that she was indeed still a mermaid. Yay.

“Well good morning, sis,” Himeko said with barely contained surprise. She put down her coffee and gave March a sly smile. “Someone’s up early.”

“Yeah, like 12 hours early.” March caught her sister’s gaze then quickly turned away, suddenly self conscious of the fact that she’d had a fish tail only minutes prior. A fish tail which Himeko had seen the night before when she’d walked in on her and Dan Heng unceremoniously flopping around on the floor. March could distinctly remember the look of confusion on her sister’s face, even the foul-smelling mug of coffee in her hands.

God, should she say something? The three of them had decided unanimously to keep their whole fish thing a secret, but certainly Himeko didn’t count, right? And she’d already seen, so she extra didn’t count.

But she hadn’t said anything. Why hadn’t Himeko said anything? Was March supposed to say something first? What was the etiquette for this? Was there etiquette for this? Maybe she’d just make Stelle do it— or even better, Dan Heng—

March forced a smile, trying to ignore the warmth in her cheeks. “Umm, so about last night…”

To her surprise, Himeko let out a burst of laughter. “Oh March, honey, you really don’t have to talk about it. I get it.”

“I— you do?”

“Believe it or not, your big sister was actually young once, too.” Himeko let out another chuckle and took a swig of her coffee.

March blinked, taking in the words. What did being young have to do with having a fish tail? Was turning into a mermaid some sort of coming-of-age thing in Astral Cove that no one had ever bothered to tell her about it? Was— was Himeko also—

“Just stay safe, okay?” Himeko continued. “You know you can talk to me about these things, if you need advice or whatever. You know that, right March?”

“Himeko, I...” She paused, struggling to find the words. Did Himeko really understand what was happening? It almost seemed too good to be true. “Thanks, I guess? Umm, it’s all still pretty weird…”

“Oh, no judgement here.” Himeko raised her hands. “Seriously. I’ve been around town, March. I’ve seen it all. What you and your friends have going on is nothing. I mean— god, who am I to even talk about this stuff with my baby sister? I’m just happy that you’re exploring your options and staying safe— you are staying safe, right?”

“Yes? Well, I’m sure it’ll be safer now that Dan Heng is around. That’s kind of his thing.”

“Sure it is,” Himeko said. She waggled her eyebrows. “I always liked that boy, you know. I’m glad you’re out having fun with him again.”

Before March could ask any more questions— like what the hell was going on with the whole fish tail thing, and how did they make it stop, and where had Himeko learned about it all— her older sister declared it was time for her morning shift and set to getting her things together for work.

Once the front door slammed, March opened up her texts again and navigated back to the group chat. Still feeling rather dazed from the interaction, she typed out a quick message:

(06:58) March: Umm so super weird but Himeko knows about the whole mermaid thing and maybe has deets!? Plz help me grill her laterrrrr
(06:58) Stelle: omg
(06:58) Stelle: wait my performance review is today
(06:58) Stelle: she’s gotta go easy on me, right?

March winced.

(06:59) March: please still try your best *pleading emoji*
(06:59) March: also are we still on to check out Mara island again later? I wanna try to get this thing reversed asap lol
(07:00) March: ideally by Saturday bc asta’s party

She clicked off her phone and set it face down on the table. What a friggin’ pain. Half of her brand was basically that she lived in a beach town— and now she couldn’t get even the teensiest bit wet without falling flat on her face. And not only that— her clothes disappeared too, so she couldn’t even show off the cute swim tops she’d gotten!

At least the Mara Island shoot turned out well. Those photos would last her a little bit, even if upcoming shoots had to be put on hold until the whole fish thing was figured out.

Sighing, March grabbed her coffee and made her way back up to her room to start editing photos.

The first big mistake March made that day was going to a hot yoga class. Her favorite instructor at the studio had switched to only teaching morning classes, so it seemed like the perfect way to take advantage of her unfortunately early wake up time. Plus, the studio was pretty close to the place she was meeting Asta for lunch.

The class itself was great, no complaints there; Luocha took them through a series of spinal twists and inversions that left her drenched in sweat and thoroughly satisfied. The problem emerged after the class when she realized that no, using the studio showers was absolutely not an option, and yes, she would in fact be forced to put on an extremely cute outfit over her disgustingly sweaty body in order to leave and not be arrested for indecent exposure.

Luckily, Asta was a good friend. She even commented on how much she liked March’s new hairstyle, making no mention of the fact that it was clearly slicked back by sweat. “You can pull it off,” she said, shrugging, when March tried to argue with her. “It’s, like, fit girl chic.”

March considered it. “Umm, that’s actually really cute! That’d make the best blog post— ’five ways to stay cute, even when you’re gross’.” She closed an eye and framed her fingers into a camera. “Wanna do a shoot with me? We can get matching yoga sets and get all sweaty and do our hair.”

Asta made a face. “Fine. But only if you do something for me.”

“Asta, what won’t I do for you?”

Her friend found the straw to her iced tea and took a long sip, watching March’s face. “Well first of all, you promise to tell me when your secret crush is back in town!”

March’s eyes widened. “Oh-- Dan Heng! Oh my god, I did forget to tell you— I’m so sorry! I literally just learned he was back, like, two days ago!” And yesterday she’d had bigger fish to fry, no pun intended. “Also he is not my secret crush.”

“You know how I learned he was back?” Asta leaned in. “I had to reference something in the archives this morning and I badge in and he’s standing there. I literally screamed, like I’m not even kidding, a security guard had to come over!”

“I am so sorry, Asta,” March groaned. “You know how I found out he was back? I was at the Trailblazer for a thing and there he was, sitting in a booth with Luka and Arlan and eating French fries. They’re roommates.”

“Oh, I know, trust me. I gave Arlan a mouthful too, but in his defense he didn’t actually know who he was. But you— you, March! You have no excuse!” Asta punched her lightly. “You gotta tell me these things immediately. I mean, we have to strategize.”

March’s cheeks flushed. “No we don’t.”

“Umm, yes we do. That guy ghosted you for the last five years and now he has the balls to show up on your doorstep and beg for forgiveness? Nah uh. No way.”

“I don’t think he’s begging for forgiveness… and plus, it’s not like we were a thing or whatever.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You were literally a thing. You hooked up all summer after graduation.”

“Yeah, but it was like— it was just a thing, you know? A fun thing,” March corrected quickly. “Not, like, a serious thing.”

Asta shrugged. “A thing’s a thing. Ghosting is ghosting. And no one gets the right to ghost you, March. You’re a serious catch.”

March was struck by a sudden image of herself trapped in fish net, pink tail and all, but she pushed it aside. Asta was sweet, but she was seriously overestimating her. She liked her life well enough, but being a 23 year old small-time influencer didn’t exactly jive with her idea of a catch. A catch was someone like Bronya, who’d already risen to the top of her architecture firm. Or Pela— cute, smart, and really who didn’t love a woman in uniform? Or, god, Asta— talk about cute and smart, not to mention her impeccable style (and the fact that her family was loaded).

But none of that was relevant, because Asta was misreading the situation. What happened between her and Dan Heng that summer was fun. It was just… fun. Fun and hormones and post-graduation giddiness. Nothing more, nothing less.

And so what if they never talked about it? So what if it was never the same afterwards? It baffled her that you could be so close to someone— so emotionally, physically, intimately close one moment, and then complete strangers the next. Like a vast ocean had opened between you and them, erasing everything but the memory of closeness, the illusion of a fleeting moment in time, stretched out across infinite waves.

“I feel bad,” she said quietly, swirling the straw in her iced coffee. “Do you think it was my fault?”

“What, him ghosting you?”

“The distance. Maybe it was me that drove away. I mean— was I using him back then? He’s so sweet and we were so close and I just— did I use him?”

“I mean, there’s literally a whole genre of movies about how bad friends-with-benefits arrangements are. People always catch the feels.”

“I know, I know.” March put her head in her hands and massaged her scalp, still oily from the yoga class. “I’m sh*tty. I took advantage of our friendship and I used him, and I broke his heart. And now he’s back and the first thing I do is jump him and make him go to this stupid island with me and now we’re all stupid fish and I can’t stupid shower at the stupid yoga studio.”


“Nothing, nothing!”

Asta gave her a look, then shrugged. “Look, catching the feels isn’t a one-sided thing, March.”

“Life isn’t a movie, Asta,” March retorted. “It doesn’t always work like that.”

The real question was— did she want it to?

Soon, Asta had to head back to the Herta Center for work and March was left with a few hours to kill before she met back up with Stelle and Dan Heng. The plan was to head back to Mara Island and check out that weird pool again (ideally reversing whatever magic shenanigans had occurred), though beyond that the itinerary was shaky at best. They didn’t have a boat, that was for sure— and when March had remarked as such the night before, Stelle had given her A Look, reminding the group that they were mermaids.

“We’ll swim. Duh,” she’d said. Dan Heng had immediately looked away— poor guy hated the water, always had— but even March didn’t feel very excited by the prospect. She loved the beach, the waves, the salty smell that tinged the air, but the ocean itself had never been her cup of tea. As far as she could tell, it was:

1. Deep
2. Dark
3. Dangerous
4. Kind of stinky
5. Probably full of sharks, and
6. Made your skin dry out

Even now, the thought made her shudder. Get yourself together, March thought to herself, gaze tracking over the long stretch of beach that spanned out from the boardwalk. The waves rolled gently against the sand, crawling up towards her before falling away with the tide as if to say, come on, come play!

And, well… the water did look a little inviting. She was still sticky and gross from the hot yoga class, and the sun was high overhead, baking down on her shoulders and warming the pavement under her sandals. Surely a quick dip wouldn’t hurt, right? She’d just cool off for a bit, then be good to go. Plus, it was probably a good idea to test out the tail in the water before totally failing when they tried to swim later.

March glanced up and down the beach to confirm there was no one around, then slipped off her sandals and jumped the short rope fence separating the boardwalk from the beach. The sand burned under her feet and she hissed in pain, hopping from one foot to the other as she quickly tossed her sandals, bag, and sunglasses under a pile of driftwood. Though it felt weird to leave her clothes on to swim, there was no point in taking them off when they were just going to disappear the second she transformed.

Letting out a quick breath, March dashed down the beach and splashed her way into the water. The waves were refreshingly cold against her ankles and she grinned, suddenly excited. She made it thigh deep before the timer ran out and a now-familiar tingling sensation swept up her body. The ground gave way and she found herself plunging belly-first into the surf.

Without even thinking about it, she pumped her newly formed tail and torpedoed towards the open ocean. It was exhilarating— like being strapped to a rocket but with no fear that you’d crash, no loss of control— just pure, unadulterated power.

March shot through the water, eyes wide with awe as she swam through schools of fish and over bizarre anemones and crabs half-buried in the sand. Somehow, she could see perfectly well despite the salt water. It wasn’t until she found herself in a kelp forest that she realized that she hadn’t gone up to breath a single time since getting in the water.

Suddenly overcome by panic, she pointed herself towards the surface and started darting upward. In her haste, she failed to account for the kelp and quickly found herself wrapped in several long, slimy strands.

Oh f*ck oh f*ck oh f*ck— she thought, heart pounding. It was like she’d suddenly remembered her breath, and now it was back with a vengence. Lungs empty and burning, she clawed at the kelp but only managed to get herself more tied up.

Suddenly, something tore at the kelp and pulled it away from her body. Finally free, March pumped her tail a single time and shot up to the surface so fast she breached the water like a dolphin, sucking in a massive breath before belly-flopping back down into the waves.

Panting, March pulled her head back up and sucked in breath after breath. Just when her adrenaline was getting under control, a wet head popped out of the water right in front of her.

“EEP!” March shrieked in surprise. Then, squinting, “Stelle!?”

“Yo.” The other girl raised a hand to wave, then promptly bobbed back underwater. “Oops,” she said, surfacing again. “Forgot you need your hands to float.”

“W-what are you doing out here?” March sputtered.

Stelle shrugged. “Saving your ass, apparently. What kind of a mermaid gets stuck in kelp? I mean, seriously.”

“I was drowning, okay? It’s not like I chose to get stuck in kelp.”

“You can’t drown, March,” Stelle said skeptically. “You have gills.”

“What,” March said. She mimicked Stelle and patted the side of her ribcage, finding a row of delicate slits. “Oh. Eww. I did not need to know that.”

“Hey, could be worse! You could have big fish lips like me.” Stelle crossed her eyes and puckered her lips in a crude imitation of a fish. “Botch bout, Barch! Boooooo!”

“Stop it!” March laughed, ducking to the side and splashing Stelle. “Stop! I mean it!”

“Booooooo-ooo-oh, you’re no fun.” Stelle’s face returned to normal. “So why’re you out here again?”

“Uh, maybe cause I’m a mermaid and I wanted to swim? Why are you out here? Didn’t you have a performance review or something?”

“Yeah, and I aced it. Aren’t you supposed to be out, like, influencing someone?”

“I’m brainstorming new content,” March said, not that she’d considered it until that exact moment. Being half-fish did open up a whole new world of underwater photography. The angles, the colors, the subjects, the lighting— even thinking about it made her giddy. “Say cheese!” she said, holding her fingers into a picture frame and ducking underwater.

Stelle bobbed under with her, mousey hair forming a halo around her head. March’s eyes widened as she took in her friend’s mermaid form for the first time. Her tail was a rich inky black, streaked and speckled with gold and orange that seemed to glow with incandescent light. Streamlined fins cut out from the sides and back, leading to an arrow-like fluke tipped with gold. Scales traveled up her torso like freckles, covering her chest, and smaller fins formed two short ridges along her back.

Stelle’s face blushed with embarrassment and she made a face, then curled into a ball with her back to March. March darted under her and tugged at her friend’s arm, pulling her back up to the surface. “Stop. You look so cool.”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. You, uh. Also look very cool.”

“I think the proper word is cute,” March said, flipping her hair. Because said hair was soaking wet, it ended up as more of a flop. She curved her own tail up to look at it, falling backwards from the weight and drifting under the surface. And you know what? She was cute. Her tail was perfect— pink and baby blue, shimmery and pearlescent, with pretty frills and fins that floated elegantly in the water.

She looked up to see Stelle holding up her fingers like a camera. Say cheese, she mouthed. March rolled her eyes but grinned anyway, dashing forward and tackling Stelle before grabbing her arm and tugging her deeper into the water.

They explored Astral Cove’s underwater landscape until the sunlight far overhead began to dim, casting the surface in yellow and gold. “I’ll have to do a golden hour shoot,” March said when they surfaced a little ways from the shore. “You can be in it— your tail is gonna look so cool.”

“It’s okay. I’d rather not get kidnapped and dissected for science.”

“I mean, I don’t have to post it.”

“Still photographic evidence.”

March rolled her eyes. “It’ll be fine, we’ll just say you’re into that fake mermaid thing. They made a Netflix series about it, remember?”

Stelle gave her a look. “How about this— if you convince Dan Heng to be in your photoshoot, I’ll do it too. IF.”

“What? Lame. He hates being in photos even when he has legs. I’m serious— you should see our yearbook photos. He was in like five different clubs and looks so uncomfortable in all of the pictures.”

“Lemme guess— band, chess, jazz band, soccer, EEP!” Stelle ducked under water, leaving behind a confused March. Then she saw the crest of the approaching boat, painted blue and silver for the water police, and ducked under too.

They watched, hearts beating, as the shadow of the boat passed overhead. Only when it was safely far away did they surface again, and quickly decided it was time to cut their losses and rejoin human society.

Even from the ocean it was easy to tell that the boardwalk was starting to bustle with the evening crowd. Luckily, Stelle had found a secluded spot about halfway between the main boardwalk and the smaller beachfront where the Trailblazer was located.

March beached herself rather ungracefully, followed by Stelle. Showing a shocking amount of foresight, the latter had stashed a pile of towels behind a rock and the two burrito-ed themselves until they had their legs back.

“Oh sh*t,” March said, patting at her pockets. “I left my stuff at the boardwalk— by Salt & Sand, me and Asta got lunch there. Oh!” She felt her hair and let out a sigh of relief. It felt clean as could be, quite dissimilar from the sweaty state it’d been in when she’d transformed. “I did hot yoga before,” she explained when Stelle gave her a weird look.

“Sushang?” she asked, naming their favorite evening teacher.

“Luocha. Yes, he did have his shirt off, why do you ask?”

“Ugh. I can’t believe you didn’t invite me.” Stelle hopped up the rocks at the edge of the alcove and stepped over the rope fence onto the sidewalk. She grabbed March’s hand, helping her over. “Sure hope your stuff isn’t stolen.”

March’s eyes widened in dawning horror and she stumbled past Stelle, sprinting in the direction of the boardwalk.


The bit where March and Stelle ask Dan Heng if he can get pregnant is directly taken from this amazing comic by @froagie on twitter which is just *chef's kiss*

Chapter 5: Freeze


In which Dan Heng starts a new job and our three heroes take a return trip to Mara Island

Chapter Text

Dan Heng’s second full day of being a mermaid was also, unfortunately, his first day of work at the Herta Marine Center. A large and well-endowed research institution, the Herta had received quite a bit of press in the last few years over its marine conservation program. In addition to the science labs and marine life rehabilitation facilities, it even had two whole floors devoted to public advocacy and outreach. Airy and modern, the Herta was all glass atriums and fresh ocean breeze from its location in the north of the cove.

Truly pictaresque, more than anyone could ever ask for when it came to job location— except that Dan Heng didn’t get to see any of that. As the Herta’s new archivist, he’d be spending the majority of his time in the building’s sub-sub basem*nt where its stacks were housed. Even the building manager who’d given him his key had seemed eager to leave.

Dan Heng spent the first half of the day attempting to connect to the Herta employee internet. The archives were dark and musty, so much so that they almost seemed like a caricature— the old, academic library where one could get lost between the labyrinthine shelves. He set up at check-outs desk, slinging his backpack down under the table. That morning, he’d stuffed it with everything he could think of for a trip to Mara Island later: a small compass, notebook and pencil, a disposable camera, latex gloves and a bunch of small plastic containers from the corner store. He figured they would suffice if they wanted to bring back any samples.

After his twentieth error message, he decided to cut his losses and just get help from IT on the first floor. Stretching his legs would do him some good, too. Before locking up the archives, he grabbed an empty book cart as well as the list of overdue books. Nothing like introducing yourself to new coworkers with a reminder that they had a late fee.

While the Herta’s elevators were mostly sleek and modern, only one of them actually went all the way to the archives and it seemed at least a century old. Unfortunately, he couldn’t very well take the book cart up the stairs. As the elevator creaked its way up, Dan Heng was left with his thoughts for the first time that day. Dealing with login issues sucked, sure, but at least it was a good distraction from the life-altering facts he’d been slapped in the face with only a day prior.

Don’t feel like a mermaid, he thought, staring blankly down at his legs. His body felt perfectly normal, perfectly human, and that’s what made it all even harder to comprehend. When he’d woken up that morning, there’d been a part of him— a small part, sure, but a part— that held onto hope that his little issue had resolved itself. When he locked the door to the bathroom and ran the faucet, he stared at it for far too long, hanging onto that delicious droplet of hope.

Heart pounding, he’d put his hand under the faucet and quickly crouched to the ground. Just in case. He waited like that for the longest ten seconds of his life, and as the seconds ticked the hope grew and grew... And then in an instant, his body dissolved and he tipped onto the floor, legs gone and tail coiled across the bathroom tile like a weird, wet snake.

This new reality was somehow both terrifying and forgattble, entirely normal until it suddenly wasn’t. He was still Dan Heng, and now he was also sometimes a mermaid. And that was f*cking unnerving.

When he got to the IT department, the guy at the desk took 30 seconds at Dan Heng’s work laptop before he shut it and declared it irrevocably broken. “We’ll have to issue you a new one,” he said, rubbing his nose and sounding deeply uninterested. “Should be in by tomorrow morning. You got other stuff to do?”

“Sure. You got any late library books?”

The IT guy did not, in fact, have any late library books. He looked almost offended at the suggestion, and Dan Heng quickly made his leave.

Luckily, the other Herta departments he made his rounds to were more friendly. It seemed as though the old archivist who retired had been a bit of a jokester, and the book cart rounds must have been a thing, because researchers and staff smiled broadly whenever he walked in and, on more than one occasion made jokes about trains.

“Choo choo!”

“Watch out, here comes the late train!”

Dan Heng just laughed awkwardly at the comments and tried to play along. By the time he finished the first three floors of research labs, he’d collected a moderate supply of books on his cart.

In addition to labs, the fourth floor was home to the visitor center and atrium, a massive glass dome that protruded out over the ocean on pillars. As the elevator doors opened and Dan Heng stepped out, he eyed the space warily. The atrium was echoey and airy with the glass doors open wide to let visitors onto the balcony. The crash of waves filled the room along with the smell of saltwater. A group of elementary schoolers sprinted across the floor, much to the behest of their chaperone, and other visitors mulled around the edges or browsed the gift shop.

Without even realizing it, Dan Heng stepped away from his cart and into the atrium. The air felt so stuffy all of the sudden, like the old locker rooms back in high school. All he wanted to do was step out onto the balcony, into the open air, onto the ledge, and dive.

“Dan Heng?”

The voice shocked him out of his stupor and he froze, setting his foot back down mid-step.

“You okay, man?” The voice said. He turned around to see Arlan, Peppy at his feet. Arlan had on his security uniform and, adorably, Peppy was wearing a matching doggy jacket.

“I’m fine,” Dan Heng muttered. He rubbed his forehead, trying to get the image out of his mind— of perching on the edge of the balcony and diving head-first into the waves, the water beautifully refreshing against his scales— no, stop it. STOP.

“You don’t look fine,” Arlan stated. He put a hand on his shoulder. “You’re pale. Let’s sit down, okay? I’ll get you some orange juice.”

“I’m honestly fine,” Dan Heng said. His head was buzzing, his thoughts dissonant. The more he tried to push down the intense longing for the ocean, the stronger that longing became. Maybe this was what it felt like to be possessed— not that he believed in possession or anything, but hell, if mermaids were real, why not ghosts too?

Pushing the thoughts aside, Dan Heng made his way back to the cart. Arlan looked at him skeptically but let him go, kneeling next to Peppy to scratch his head. Dan Heng could almost feel his roommates eyes trained on him as he wheeled the cart across the atrium.

Rather than taking the long hallway along the viewing deck, Dan Heng swerved a quick right and swiped his card at the nondescript door leading to the lab facilities. As soon as the door shut behind him, he let out a sigh of relief. The roaring of the waves, the scent of salt, the water’s indescribable pull— suddenly muted. Managable. A whisper, rather than a scream.

Well f*ck, Dan Heng thought. He pushed the cart down the brightly-lit hallway, focusing on the sound of his footsteps. The sterile smell of isopropyl alcohol and polyurethane. The squeak of the cart wheels— he’d have to find something to oil them with. He could do that. Anything to hold the creeping sense of dread at bay.

When he finished the floor, he stopped in front of the elevator and pulled out his phone. He’d messaged March and Stelle earlier that morning, just checking in and making sure nothing bad had happened. Still no response. He typed out another quick message, then slipped the phone back into his pocket and pressed the button for the elevator. They were fine. They were all fine.

The rest of the day passed without incident. For all of the drinking fountains and emergency eye-wash stations and open bottles and literal ocean spray, Dan Heng managed to stay entirely dry— albeit quite thirsty. By the time he finished with the book cart, it was nearing 5pm and employees were starting their evening pilgrimage back to the parking lot.

After heading back to the archives to get his backpack, Dan Heng locked up and made his way to the ground floor. Arlan was at the security desk talking to a familiar-looking girl with strawberry blond hair. When Arlan nodded at him, the girl turned around and her eyes widened in recognition. She smiled broadly and waved him over.

As much as he wanted to ignore them and leave, Dan Heng also preferred not to have his new roommate think he was an asshole. So, forcing on his friendliest smile, he made his way over to the security desk.

“Hey! Dan Heng, right?” The girl offered her hand to shake. “You probably don’t remember me— I’m Asta, I went to Astral High with you. Me and March are buddies.”

“Ah, yeah. Good to see you.” So it was Asta. He knew March and her were good friends these days. “I just started here today. I’m down in the archives.”

“Yes, March told me! Well I’ll definitely be seeing a lot of you, then— there’s a ton of literature review I have to do for my new project.”

“Cool,” Dan Heng said. Then, because it seemed like the right question: “What do you study?”

Asta’s eyes lit up. “Microbiology, historically, and marine chemistry— but I’ve been branching out into anthropology and ecosystem reconstruction recently. That’s what my new project is on, marine anthropology. I want to model how the regional ecosystem has been altered by human behavior since the start of the Holocene.”

Dan Heng blinked, suddenly feeling quite unqualified for his new job. “Cool. Yeah, I’m sure we can find something in the archives to help.”

“Oh my gosh, amazing. It’s gonna be great to have you here. Hey, tell March I say hi, okay?”

“Umm, sure,” Dan Heng said, frowning as he turned away. He was going to meet March and Stelle in a little bit to figure out the mermaid stuff. But— surely Asta didn’t know about all that, right? Pulling out his phone, he scanned over the group chat for any message about Asta. Nothing since that morning, and still no responses to his texts.

Occupied as he was by this, he failed to prepare himself for the second he stepped out of the Herta Center building and was hit by a blast of fresh, ocean air. The sensation stopped him in his tracks, quite literally, and the guy behind him stumbled to avoid colliding.

Dan Heng barely noticed. It was as if the land’s volume had been turned down to a whisper, and the ocean cranked up until it was rattling the speakers. He could feel the water, right there on the other side of the parking lot; crashing against the sandstone cliff, reaching for him, calling for him. Shaking his head, Dan Heng forced the sensation down and started in the direction of the bus stop. It was like trudging through quicksand, each step a battle against something far stronger than he was.

Luckily, it seemed that proximity was the biggest variable here. The further he got from the coast, the weaker the pull got, and by the time he was on the bus it had been turned down to a reasonable, though still irritating, volume.

Dan Heng put his backpack on his lap and pulled out his phone, opening up the group chat with March and Stelle. Still not a single response to his texts. Stomach sinking, he glanced around the bus and, after a moment’s hesitations, clicked the phone icon next to March’s name.

It rang once, twice, three times, four, then switched to voicemail. Hi, this is March Murata! Sorry I missed you— please leave a message and I’ll see what I can do.

He groaned and hung up, then clicked the phone number he knew to be Stelle’s. He hadn’t actually made a contact for her yet, and quickly typed in her name. He had no idea what her last name is, so he just wrote The Trailblazer and left it at that. Then he called her.

The phone rang once. Twice. On the third ring, she picked up: “Yo.”

A wave of relief washed over him. “Thank god— are you okay?”

“Yeah?” Then, muffled: “It’s Dan Heng.”

“Is March with you?” He asked quickly— and, apparently, loudly. The person across from him on the bus glared before returning to their phone. He ignored them. “Stelle— is March—”

“Yeah, she’s here. You wanna talk to her?”

“What? No, I just wanted to make sure you guys were safe—”

“I’m gonna put you on speaker.” The phone clicked.

“Dan Heng?” March’s voice said, chipper as always. “What’s up? You okay?”

“I—I’m fine,” he said, suddenly feeling quite silly. “Sorry. I just— no one responded to my texts and I just wanted to make sure nothing had happened.”

“Aww, Dan Heng cares about us!”

“What would have happened?” Stelle asked. She sounded genuinely curious.

“I don’t know, like…” Dan Heng lowered his voice. “Look, I’m on the bus so I don’t want to say it. But if our little problem got exposed, that wouldn’t be good. I think we should be checking in with each other, to make sure everyone is safe.”

“Why? What would you even do if something happened?” Stelle deadpanned. “Oh no, I fell into the dolphin tank at Seaworld! Save me, Dan Heng! Great, now we have two merpeople in a dolphin tank.”

“Can you please just respond to me texts?” he said loudly, once again eliciting a glare from the person across from him. He didn’t have a right to be so annoyed— Stelle was entirely correct, and he knew it. He wasn’t supposed to be the victim. He was supposed to be the helper, the guard, the protector. How could he protect March against an affliction that he too was suffering from? Any situation that was dangerous for her was equally dangerous for him. All he could do was prevent her from getting into the situation in the first place, but he’d failed at that already. He’d let her fall into that cave, let her tread water in the strange pool while moonlight poured in from above.

Somehow, he now had the task of keeping March away from water. Potentially forever.

Everything bad that happened from here on out— that was on him.

Dan Heng was already at the Trailblazer when March and Stelle got there, sitting at one of the patio tables with his laptop open. With his black button-down and slacks, he must’ve come right from work. He looked up when they approached, and March’s stomach jumped at the dark bags under his eyes. She knew he was stressed— the phone call had been easy proof of that— but seeing his just made her feel guilty.

“You doing okay?” March asked, putting a hand on her shoulder as she sat down.“Can I get you anything?” She had no idea what she’d get him, but it seemed like a nice thing to offer.

Dan Heng shrugged. “I’m fine.” He did sound convincing, but his haggard look betrayed him.

“I’m getting a beer,” Stelle said flatly. “You guys want anything?”

“Yeah— get a pitcher, maybe? And some chips and guac?” March asked.

“Sure. Dan Heng?”

“Pitcher’s good,” he said. After Stelle had disappeared inside, he shifted his laptop screen so March could see. On it was a satellite map of Astral Cove with a handful of pins and annotations. “I think we should be able to get to Mara Island quicker if we launch from the Herta Center,” he explained, indicating the pin at the north end of the cove.

March traced the path he’d mapped across the water, leading to a flag icon on the south-east corner of what she could only assume to be Mara Island. Really, it looked like a bunch of trees and some brown splotches that must have been the cone of the volcano. “Is that where the pool is?” She asked.

“I think so. See, this is where we landed the other night… and I’m pretty sure we walked along this beach to get back. I remember the weird rocks.” He pointed at a jumble of grey on the satellite image. “It’ll take fifty minutes to get there, give or take. If we leave soon, we should be able to get back before nine.”

“Yeah, that’ll take fifteen. Tops.” They looked up to see Stelle standing by the table. She tossed down the tray of chips and, more carefully, set down the pitcher of beer. She’d wrapped the handle in a jumble of napkins, and condensation trickled down the sides.

Dan Heng stared at the pitcher, looking rather queasy. “Actually, I’m good.”

“So you’re never gonna drink something cold, ever again?” Stelle tossed a massive handful of napkins onto the center of the table and sat down, then poured herself a glass.

March was also not feeling great about the condensation, but she did want to drink the beer. Carefully, she wrapped her own glass in napkins and took the pitcher from Stelle. While she poured, Dan Heng angled his laptop towards Stelle and showed her the map.

“Yeah, fifteen minutes,” she said again, then took a sip of her beer. “Maybe ten if we really book it. No rush.”

“You don’t know that,” Dan Heng said.

Stelle looked at March. “What’d’you think? We can go pretty fast, right?”

“Yeah, definitely.” She considered her afternoon in the water, the sensation of speeding through the open ocean like a torpedo, the immense freedom of it all. Honestly, she couldn’t wait to jump back in. “I’m not great at estimating times, but it’d definitely be fast. Way less than fifty minutes or whatever.”

Dan Heng frowned, then his eyes widened in realization. “Oh. No. Absolutely not.” He shook his head, then resolutely grabbed a wad of napkins and wrapped them around the glass of beer they’d poured for him. He took one long sip, then set it back down. “You want to swim there. Bad idea.”

“What, you wanted to take a boat?” Stelle snorted. “Dude. We’re mermaids.”

“We are humans,” Dan Heng stated. “Just because we have this thing— this problem— doesn’t mean we can go off and do reckless sh*t.”

Stelle rolled her eyes and grabbed the pitcher, topping off her glass. “Sorry to break it to you, but last I heard humans don’t have fish tails and the ability to breath underwater.”

“But you don’t know that!” Dan Heng insisted. “You’re just— you’re guessing. For all we know, the tail could be completely useless. We could jump into the water and get dragged to the bottom by the weight of the thing, and— and drown. This isn’t a game, okay!?”

March glanced at Stelle with concern, but the other girl looked more irritated than anything. Dan Heng’s words, the way he gripped the table, the dark spots under his eyes— they made her sad. Sure, this tail thing wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t all bad either. The exhilaration she’d felt that afternoon in the water had been like nothing she’d experienced before in her life. She knew Stelle felt the same, even if the other girl hadn’t outright said as much. She could see it in her friend’s eyes, the flush in her cheeks, the unabashed wonder in her smile.

All she wanted was for Dan Heng to feel that joy too. She wanted to share it with him. “Dan Heng,” she said, then rested a hand on his arm. “It’s really okay. We don’t drown. We can— we can swim! I mean, the word swim doesn’t even do it justice. It’s like flying. You’re just… totally free. Totally powerful. It’s nothing like swimming as a human.”

Stelle nodded in agreement. “Plus you get gills. That part’s kinda gross, though.”

“But, it also means you can breath underwater. Dan Heng, you can’t drown. We can’t drown. There’s really nothing to be worried about.” She smiled hopefully.

Dan Heng just looked pale. “So you guys already did it. You went in the ocean.”

March bit her lip. “Sorry. We should have waited for you. It’s just— I did this hot yoga class and I was really sweaty and the water was just there, and, you know…”

He shook his head. “I can’t believe it. That was stupid, March! You didn’t know what would happen! You didn’t know that you wouldn’t drown, but you just went in anyway. You risked everything!”

“Hey, leave her alone!” Stelle growled. She’d leaned forward in her chair, shoulders tense. “I went in the water too, okay? In fact, I did it first. And I’m sorry that I actually trust people to make decisions for themselves, but you have no right to call March stupid. I mean— who are you, even? Some guy that ghosted her for years and then shows up and pretends he knows her. Calls her stupid. Your control issues don’t give you the right to treat her like that.”

March sighed. “Stelle, it’s not like that…”

“Isn’t it?” She retorted. Then, to Dan Heng: “What, cat got your tongue?”

Dan Heng looked like he’d been slapped in the face. “I… I’m sorry. March— I’m an asshole.”

“You’re fine. Really.”

“I’m not. It’s— it’s not fine.” Dan Heng rubbed at his temples. She could see him focusing on his breathing, the way he used to in high school before a big test. “You’re not stupid, March. I mean— you know that. And I have no right to call you stupid. I’m just— god, I’m scared.” He looked up and his eyes were wet with tears.

March felt like her heart was being torn in two. “Dan Heng…”

“I don’t know what’s happening to us,” he continued, his voice growing stronger. “I don’t understand it. I feel like there’s something inside me. Changing me. All day at the Herta Center, it was like there was this voice in my head screaming at me to jump off the balcony, into the water. That’s not me. That’s— it’s something else. It’s in me. I just want it to go away.”

“Sounds like you should probably just jump off the balcony.” Stelle shrugged. The anger had mostly left her voice, though she still seemed peeved. “You wouldn’t deny your stomach food, would you? So don’t deny the tail its water.”

March nodded, thinking back to the way the waves had seemed to call to her earlier. “She’s right. It’s like— the more you deny it, the worse it’ll get. I felt way better after we went for our swim. I bet you will too.”

“I don’t want to,” he said quietly. “Please don’t go back in the ocean, March. Don’t make me follow you.”

“No one’s forcing you to do anything,” Stelle interjected. “If you want to mope around, fine. You do you. I, for one, am looking forward to a nice swim out to Mara Island tonight. Would you care to join me, March?” She stood up from the table and held out her hand.

“I…” March looked at Dan Heng pleadingly. “Please come with us. Please. Look, I’m weirded out too. I don’t— I don’t like not knowing what’s happening to us. It majorly sucks. And checking out the island again might not give us the answers we’re looking for, but doing nothing definitely won’t give us answers. So we have to at least try, right?”

She accepted Stelle’s hand and stood up, then offered hers to Dan Heng. After a long moment, he let out a sigh and shut his laptop. “Fine.”

“Yes!” She squealed, clapping her hands. “We got Dan Heng!”

“We got Dan Heng,” Stella deadpanned.

“Yeah, yeah, you got me.” Dan Heng grabbed his backpack and pushed away from the table. His mouth was set in a firm line. He gestured down at the empty pitcher. “Do we have to buss this, or…”

“Someone’ll get it,” Stelle said. She winked at March. “Soooo, where’re we diving in again? You had a spot, right Dan Heng?”

He nodded. The distant expression was starting to leave, replaced by a certain sharpness that came over him when he had a task at hand. “We can go to the Herta Center. It’ll be easy to navigate from there— the island is pretty much due-west.”

March couldn’t help but smile. This was the Dan Heng she knew— and she couldn’t wait to show him the ocean.

As much as March wanted to jump in the ocean right there at the Trailblazer, she stayed quiet. Instead, the three of them walked along lit beachside path towards the Herta Center. It was a beautiful night, warm and balmy with a crisp scent in the air, and Astral Cove was bustling with people. The summer tourist rush was mostly over, but tourist season never really ended here. School trips, weekend getaways, and even extended stays from out-of-towners were common throughout the year.

Luckily, the crowds seemed to be keeping Dan Heng distracted from their impending swim. He eyed each group carefully, scanning for open drinks and pulling March to keep a wide berth. He was a bit like a dog, she considered. One of those herding dogs, like the ones Himeko’s ex-girlfriend trained. People would bring them in saying they were completely neurotic; hyper, out of control, chewing up the furniture left and right. According to Kafka, they were really just bored. Dogs like that needed a job. They were bred to work, to like work, and if they had nothing to do they became unmoored. Anything could be a job— fetching the ball, playing frisbee, finding hidden treats, obedience, anything.

Or, in Dan Heng’s case, trying to keep the group corralled. Because said group included Stelle, this meant pulling her forcibly away from trashcans and storefronts. At one point they lost her and realized she’d ran down onto the beach and was looking at some discarded kelp.

“Are you insane,” Dan Heng had hissed, dragging her back to the path. “Why would you go closer to the water?”

It was, Stelle had tried to explain, a weird looking thing of kelp. This explanation was clearly not sufficient for Dan Heng, who spent the rest of the walk with his eyes firmly trained on her.

“Good boy,” March said, and ruffled his hair. He glared at her and kept on walking.

The lights were still on at the Herta Center when they got close. “Are they still open?” March asked.

“Not for visitors,” Dan Heng said. He stopped, taking in the sight. His knuckles were white on his backpack straps. “It’s probably researchers working late.”

“Oh! Do you think Asta’s here? I’m gonna text her.” March pulled out her phone and had just opened the messaging app when someone snatched it out of her hands. “Dan Hengggg,” she whined, only to look up and see Stelle holding her phone.

“C’mon, March. Bad idea,” Stelle said. “Right, Dan Heng?”

Dan Heng nodded, looking rather baffled.

“Geez, I just want to say hi to Asta. But fine, I won’t.” March took her phone back and stuffed it in her pocket.

Dan Heng gave her an odd look. “You haven’t— told Asta, right?”

“What? No way! And honestly, I’m a little hurt that you’d even think that.” She crossed her arms. “We agreed not to tell anyone. This is our secret. The way I see it, we’re all on equal footing here. I’m not gonna go around spilling the beans unless we all agree on it— and then it’s not really spilling the beans, anyways.”

“Sorry. I just…” He looked past her, towards the cliff separating them from the water. “It’s nothing. I trust you, March. I’m being paranoid.”

March huffed, satisfied. “Soooo… can I text Asta, then?”

“No!” Stelle and Dan Heng shouted at the same time. Then, Stelle: “Randomly appearing at your friend’s workplace at night then immediately disappearing into the ocean is not a great look, March.”

“Yeah, I’d rather not get the water police called on us.” Dan Heng shouldered his backpack. Even in the darkness, his face looked pale. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… can we please get on with it? The longer we stand here, the more I’m gonna feel like puking.”

That was good enough for March. The three of them made their way to the cliff side, the Herta Center looming over them. Despite the signs warning them of “danger” and “watch your footing” and “strong currents”, March knew as well as any Astral High alumnus that those were more suggestions than anything. Getting down to the beach was entirely possible— if you knew where to look.

Dan Heng was the one who found the rope ladder first and he waved them over. One by one, they made their way down the ladder— about fifteen feet— then jumped the final five to a large boulder covered in graffiti. The water was close, now— it roared in March’s ears, overwhelming and enticing all the same. They picked their way down the rocks and finally jumped out onto the beach. The cliff face loomed over them, blocking out any view from above.

The tide was coming in, having already wetted the sand under March’s feet. The water hadn’t gotten through her shoes yet, but it was only a matter of time. She pulled off her sweater and tossed it up onto the rocks next to Dan Heng, along with her phone. Stelle did the same with her coat.

“You coming?” she said, loudly over the crashing waves.

Dan Heng nodded. He looked paler than ever and was crouched on the rocks, sleeves pulled up over his hands. “I, umm. I brought a compass and some containers to take samples back and stuff, but… my backpack isn’t waterproof.” Said backpack was currently in a sad heap by his feet.

“Oh, yeah. Look in my coat pocket,” Stelle said.

Dan Heng did as he was told, rifling around until he pulled out a handful of plastic bags. He pulled them apart, face wrinkling in disgust. “Why does this smell like garbage.”

“Uh, cause I got them from the garbage. Duh. What do you think I was doing when we were walking here?”

March gave her friend a look. “Eww. Stelle, we’ve talked about this.”

“Okay, fine, let’s not wrap up Dan Heng’s stuff in something waterproof. I’m sorry that I actually thought ahead.”

Dan Heng narrowed his eyes. “Wait, how did you know I was bringing stuff?”

“Cause I went through your backpack, duh.”

“What!? When!?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Yes it does!”

“Don’t worry about it.”

March clapped her hands sharply. “Okay, okay! Children! Dan Heng, just put your stuff in the plastic. Stelle, please don’t go through people’s stuff without their permission. Now can we please get going? Cause my shoes are getting real wet and I don’t think I have a lot of time. Actually, scratch that. No time.”

Sure enough, the rising tide had sent a wave splashing over her sneakers, soaking her feet and ankles in a shock of cold. Stelle looked down at her own equally-wet legs, shrugged, and started plowing her way into the surf. March started to follow her then looked back at Dan Heng, who was still perched on the rock. “Please come,” she said. Then, feeling the transformation begin, she took a final few steps into the water and plunged in just as her body dissolved into its new shape.

The first thing she noticed was that the ice-cold water was now bearable. It was still cold— she knew it was cold and she could feel the temperature just fine. It just… didn’t bother her. Like her range of comfortable temperatures had now expanded to include the nighttime Pacific waters. The feeling of the sand scraping against her tail made her nervous, so she used her arms and then her tail to propel herself to a more reasonable depth.

March shook wet hair from her face and looked back at the rocks. To her relief, Dan Heng was hastily tying the plastic bags together, his half-empty backpack tossed to the side. “Hurry up!” She yelled, cupping her hands.

Stelle’s head popped up next to her. “So, what’d’you think the chances are that he chickens out?”

“Hey! Don’t say that. You’re gonna jinx it,” March said. Then: “Like 30%, maybe.”

“Huh. I’d say 60-40.”

“You willing to put money on it?”

“Ten bucks.”



“Deal.” Stelle offered her hand and they shook. “Dan Heng! Maybe you should just turn around! We’ll be fine!”

“Don’t listen to her! We’re not gonna be fine! We’re gonna do something really stupid!” March flopped back in the water and began splashing frantically. “Ahh! Ahh!”

“She’s faking it!” Stelle yelled.

“Ahh! Save me! Dan Heng! Save me!” March stopped flailing just enough to peek back at the rocks. Dan Heng was now standing on the edge with a horrified look on his face. He yelled something that she couldn’t make out, then launched off the rocks into waist-deep water.

“Hah!” March squealed, holding her fingers up to frame the photo. “Told ya so.”

“That was mean,” Stelle grumbled.

Back by the beach, Dan Heng was plowing his way towards them with the plastic bag floating alongside. She watched as his eyes widened and he tumbled face-first into the waves.

March ducked her head under, delighted. Even in the dark water, she could see perfectly well. Where Dan Heng had been, there was now a cloud of sand and dirt. The water thrashed and she could make out flashes of green scales. Seconds went by but the dirt cloud just got bigger, the thrashing more violent. She didn’t understand— why wasn’t Dan Heng...?

“He’s freaking out,” she heard Stelle say from the surface, then the other girl darted under water and tugged at her wrist.

“f*ck,” March said, releasing a stream of bubbles, then dashed with Stelle towards their friend. As they got closer, she could feel his distress-- it soured the water, making her pulse quicken and her scales shiver.

March started to slow, but Stelle sped up— with one strong beat of her tail, she ran head-long into the cloud and tackled Dan Heng. March hastened to catch up as they tumbled through the water, a blur of black and green scales. Instead of entailing, however, they seemed to get more entwined. Tails and fins thrashed violently and the water echoed with clicks and chirps that she could somehow read as aggressive. Horrified, she watched as her friends clawed at each other and barreled into the open water.

“STOP!” she shouted at the top of her lungs— but once again all that came out was a stream of bubbles. Releasing more bubbles in frustration, she darted after them. If she got close, she could grab someone— something— try to pull them apart. They were just— they were confused, that was all. That had to be it, right? Or they were trying to pull a prank on her. Yeah. Dan Heng was getting back at her for pretending to need help, by attacking Stelle. Totally.

The water stung with the sharp taste of blood and a cloud of red billowed from the thrashing bodies of her friends. For just a moment they separated, green scales to the left and gold to the left. Seeing her chance, March sped towards them. She was fueled by pure adrenaline at this point. No plan, no idea what was happening. All she knew was that she had to stop this.

Two heads turned towards her, as if in slow motion, and she raised her hands in front of her. Something jolted in her body, a freezing energy that traveled up from her gut and down her arms. Instinctively, she twisted her wrists and moved her fingers and guided the energy, leading it through the gap between her friends.

An earsplitting CRACK rang through the water. Where there had been water separating Dan Heng and Stelle only seconds before, there was now a towering wall of ice. Everyone just… froze. No pun intended. Stelle had her arms wrapped around her torso; her ribcage had been sliced and was releasing a steady stream of blood. She looked different— her pupils were dilated like round black moons, and the gold fins that ran along her back and sides were fanned open.

Stelle mouthed something at March and shook her head, then gestured urgently across the ice wall at Dan Heng. March’s stomach dropped. Like Stelle, his pupils were dilated and the accessory fins on his body had fanned open in an aggressive display. He looked like some great sea dragon, his long serpentine tail coiled in an endless spiral. He pawed at his head in confusion and March realized the plastic bag was still wrapped around his wrist. Suddenly, he didn’t look scary— he looked sad and confused.

March swam towards him, ignoring Stelle’s alarmed look. Dan Heng had begun to curl in on himself, fins pressed back against his sides. Tentatively, March reached out a hand and placed it on his shoulder. He whipped around, fins starting to raise, then blinked in confusion. Shook his head once. Twice. Then opened his mouth and spoke. All that came out was a string of bubbles, but she could read his lips just fine. March?

Relief flooded her body and she grinned, nodding vigorously. Dan Heng rubbed his eyes, like he’d just woken up from a long sleep.

Black scales flashed behind her and she turned to see Stelle, still cupping her side. The other girl’s fins were also lowered and she looked almost normal again— or, at least as normal as one could be when they were a mermaid. The blood was gone, though March could see a pink gash hidden under her hands. When Dan Heng saw Stelle his eyes widened in horror and he released another stream of bubbles.

Stelle shot up to the surface and March quickly followed, tugging Dan Heng along with her.

“Iamsosososososorry—” Dan Heng sputtered as soon as his head broke the surface. He spat out saltwater. “I am so sorry Stelle, I am so sorry—”

“Umm, yeah. What the f*ck.” Stelle combed strands of mousey hair out of her face. She looked haggard. “You attacked me!”

Dan Heng whimpered. “I don’t remember— I swear, I just-- it’s all a blur. Are you okay? Did I hurt you?”

“ ‘m fine,” Stelle said. She twisted around, showing the slice on her ribcage. “You got me pretty bad, but it’s mostly healed. I’m sorry— you were freaking out and I tried to get you to calm down and I guess I startled you, and— I don’t know. It was weird, like something else took over. I remember it all, but I wasn’t really in control, you know? Once you started coming at me, I just… freaked.”

“You guys looked really scary,” March said quietly. The two looked at her, confused. “Your fins were all flared up,” she explained. “Like… well, I don’t know how to do it. But you looked like big angry fish. And your eyes got weird.”

“What the f*ck,” Stelle said. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself again, bobbing in the water. “What the actual f*ck. We’re supposed to be mermaids, not, like— freaky sea monsters. I just want to swim around and, I dunno, look for pirate treasure or something. Whatever mermaids do. This sucks.”

“It’s okay,” Dan Heng said. He shook his head, staring at the water. “It’s okay. You’ll be fine. I think we just— it was this animal thing, you know? Like a mer-person instinct. When I transformed, I think I started panicking. I mean, I know I started panicking— I thought I was going to drown. And then something hit me and that other part just took control. It was trying to protect me, and then Stelle— your other part was trying to protect you, too. That’s all that happened. That’s it.”

“You’re not supposed to be more calm about this than me,” Stelle muttered.

“Don’t jinx it!” March chided. Honestly, she was also a little weirded out by how sensible Dan Heng was being. Thirty minutes ago, he’d been holding back fear-puke. Now they were in the middle of the cove, in the dark, treading over the endless black of the ocean. Dan Heng had, in his own words, maybe had a panic attack and then gone feral on their friend.

To his credit, Dan Heng agreed. “I’m kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he said. “I have nightmares about treading water in the middle of the ocean like this, but now it’s actually happening and I just feel… fine.”

“Like I said, you gotta feed the tail.” Stelle’s eyes glinted, reflecting in the starlight. “Hey, look. Your bag. Get the compass.”

Dan Heng nodded and carefully retrieved the small compass, looping the string around his neck, then re-sealed the plastic. “So. Mara Island?”

It wasn’t until they reached the island that March remembered something very important. With the help of Dan Heng’s compass, they’d been able to navigate their way to the southern face of the island easily. Despite it being tucked away in a maze of rocks and coral, they were also able to find the passageway to the cave without a problem.

“Ice!” March shouted suddenly. She was halfway out of the moon pool at this point, her upper body covered in sand and her tail still mostly submerged.

“What,” Dan Heng said, flicking his tail fin and spraying her with water. He and Stelle were already on the bank and had positioned themselves on opposite sides for maximum drying potential.

“What,” Stelle agreed. And then: “Oh sh*t, ICE!”

“Yeah, ice!!” March scrambled the rest of the way up, using her tail to help with the last few inches. She rolled onto her back with a satisfied sigh, making sure to splash Dan Heng in the process. He growled indignantly.

Stelle had a mischievous look on her face. “Yo. You, like— you straight up froze the water.”

“Yeah, I think I did! I totally forgot about it cause of the whole ‘my friends are trying to kill each other’ thing, but like… I did that.”

“Dude. Dude.”

“I know!!”

Dan Heng looked between them, confused. “Sorry, what are we talking about?”

“Uh, how March created a wall of ice so we’d stop fighting?”

“She did?” Dan Heng said. And then: “Oh sh*t, you did that!?”

March nodded again, grinning. “It was so cool— I felt this surge of energy, and I just shoved my hands forward and twisted them…” She demonstrated, moving her hands and wrists in the way she remembered. To her surprise, freezing energy burst through her body.


“Ah!” Dan Heng yelped, slapping frantically at his tail. The scales her hands had been angled at were now covered in a shiny layer of ice, as if all the water on them had instantly frozen.

“Ohmygodi’msosorry—” March yelped, pulling her hands back. Dan Heng thumped his tail hard against the cave floor and the ice shattered.

“I see,” he said. “Ice.”

“Come on!” Stelle groaned. She had her hands raised and was twisting them like March, her face scrunched up in concentration. “Come… on!” Nothing happened. “March, show me.”

March grinned and raised her hands again, this time careful to point them at a spot on the ground. The freezing energy was easy to find this time, and she channeled it as best she could. Sure enough, the water on the floor froze over. “Oh, this is cool,” she laughed.

After several more attempts by Stelle as well as a few from Dan Heng, they quickly established that only March could freeze things. “Well this sucks,” Stelle muttered. “I want a superpower.”

“I’m sure you’ll get one too…” March winced. She felt a bit guilty, which really didn’t make sense. Why should she feel guilty that she had a cool ice power? She should own that sh*t.

Stelle scowled down at her hands. “If it isn’t super-hearing I’m gonna be pissed.”

“Why super-hearing?” Dan Heng asked.

“Uh, so I can eavesdrop on people. Duh.”

He blinked. “Really? That’s your number one goal?”

“Well it’s better than being able to make ice cubes.”

“Hey!” March shouted. “Those are my ice cubes you’re talking about here!”

“And they’re very nice ice cubes, March, don’t worry—” Stelle paused. “Actually, hold that thought,” she said, and then a split second later dissolved into water and reformed fully human.

“Great— start collecting samples, will you? Maybe some of the sand to start?” Dan Heng called, then turned to March. “You know, I would’ve been dry by now if you hadn’t splashed me.”

“Want me to ice you again?”

“Please don’t.”

She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

Dan Heng transformed back a few minutes later, and instantly scrambled away from her. “Oh f*ck. f*ck. f*ck me,” he said, voice strained.

“You okay?” Stelle called from deeper in the cave.

“Y-yeah, I just— f*ck. So you know how I’ve been, like, not freaking out this whole time?”

March nodded slowly. She didn’t like where this was going.

“So, yeah— it kind of all hit me just now. My heart is racing. f*ck.” He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his temples, breath coming in raspy and quick.

“Oh, Dan Heng…” March desperately wanted to give him a hug, but given that she was still in mer-form that probably wasn’t a great idea.

Stelle had returned to the chamber and she set down her stack of samples. “It’s cause you’re human,” she said slowly. “The other body— it knows how to be in the water, how to have a tail and all that stuff. I felt it too when I changed back, just a little bit— like all that stress from earlier was just flooding back in.”

“Ugh. Well that’s one mystery solved.” Dan Heng stood up shakily; his breathing had steadied but he still looked pale. “Stelle, what’ve you collected so far?”

“Sand, some dirt. A chunk of limestone with goop on it. I figure we can get the moon pool water when we leave.”

“The pool did that bubbling thing the other night,” March offered. “Remember? It was— I dunno, I think it was connected to the moon or something. That was right when it was overhead.”

Dan Heng glanced at his watch. “Should be around midnight tonight. I guess we can stay and see if it happens again, but… I don’t know, you guys. I feel like there’s no magic in the air tonight. Wow, I can’t believe I just said that. Like, totally unironically.”

“So what would your superpower be, Phil Collins?” Stelle deadpanned.


“Hey! You can’t steal mine!”

“Ah!” March yelped in surprise as a shiver ran over her body and she dissolved back to human. She hopped to her feet quickly and stretched, stumbling just a little as feeling returned to her legs. “Well alright then! What’s the plan?”

“Samples. Photos. Observations. Here, March—” Dan Heng tossed her the disposable camera which she caught with a grin. “Twenty shots. Choose wisely.”

March, who had been scoping out the place since they arrived, was way ahead of him. Some day, she’d do the most dreamy mermaid photoshoot.

Despite the three of them searching through the cave and even making their way back up to the surface, nothing overly suspicious turned up. Eventually it got late enough that they decided to just wait it out until midnight, to see if anything happened to the moon pool again. As Dan Heng had said, however, the magic just wasn’t in the air, and the water stayed disappointingly placid.

It was almost 2am by the time March was back home, laying in her bed and staring up at the ceiling. The little glowing stars stared back at her. As much as she knew she should have felt scared, like Dan Heng, or even just disappointed, she was buzzing. Like she’d told Dan Heng, the lack of resolution gained from the return trip to the island was still a resolution in its own way.

Whatever this was, it didn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon— and it didn’t seem to be limited to growing fish tails. Even laying in bed in the darkness, fully human, March could still feel the strange freezing energy swirling inside of her. For so long she’d been just her, just March— sure, she took nice photos and got ‘likes’ sometimes, and yeah her outfits were pretty cute, but who was she beyond that? A screw-up. A liability. She’d barely finished high school (and probably wouldn’t have if not for Dan Heng’s help). She was still living with her sister. She didn’t have a real job, or passions, or talents. Even the photos she took were nothing compared to what other people posted.

But now? Now it was different.

Now she was different. And she wouldn’t let this chance slip her by.

Chapter 6: Fish Finder


In which March decides on a new career path, Dan Heng fixes his bike and discoveries are made


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

March spent the remainder of the week getting increasingly hyped. For the first time in a long time, she felt good. It was warm out, the air was fresh, the trees were green, and the ocean was oh so very inviting. It was technically almost fall, but as always Astral Cove had missed the memo completely.

And March had it all worked out. She was going to become an environmental influencer— and not just any old one at that. No, she, March Murata, was going to become the number one environmental influencer on the planet. She’d always loved conservation and environmental science— hell, she even wanted to be an environmental scientist for most of her childhood. Growing up in Astral Cove, you couldn’t not care— especially as the effects of human action on the ocean appeared before your very own eyes.

It wasn’t that she ever gave up on the dream, just that… well, school really wasn’t for her. Unlike Dan Heng, she could never focus properly. If she thought a subject was interesting, she’d do pretty well, at least for a little bit… until she got distracted or forgot there was a test or just failed miserably at studying. By the end of high school, just getting a passing grade was all she could wish for.

That was also around the same time that she started taking her photography more seriously. She’d even saved up her money from summer jobs to purchase a nice camera and she spent most of her free time either staging shoots or watching Youtube videos about staging shoots. The summer after graduating, she’d even convinced Dan Heng to model in some of her photos. How she managed to accomplish such a feat was still a mystery to her.

Posting photos online ended up being what paid the bills, so over time that’s what March started doing. She tailored her content towards what people liked, and she liked the whole influencing thing (the brand deals were pretty sweet), but in the process she’d kind of lost the passion.

But everything was different now. Now, she could expose people to a world most of them would never see. She could explore aspects of photography she never could have dreamed of, engage with subjects more challenging than anything she’d captured in the past. She would take the magic of the ocean back to the surface. She would show people why it mattered.

That also meant she’d probably have to study up on conservation. Unfortunately, ‘studying up’ had never been her forte. When she mentioned this to Himeko, her sister had looked at her thoughtfully.

“I would tell you to read a book, but we both know that’s not going to happen.”

“Gee, thanks for reminding me,” March muttered, fidgeting with her phone case. She’d stopped by The Trailblazer for lunch with Stelle and had managed to corner her sister in the back office. In fact, it had been Stelle who’d remarked that March needed to learn more about conservation (though she’d had absolutely no advice on how exactly to do so.)

“Maybe videos? Or an online course? I know lots of people are taking those these days,” Himeko said.

“I guess I could try? I dunno… those usually cost money, right?”

Himeko nodded. “Sorry I can’t help you pay, but you know how it is with the business. Maybe you could pick up a few more sponsorships? Those pay well, right?”

“Yeah, but... it’s not that easy. I’m not so sure about the brands I’ve been getting offers from recently.” One in particular had rubbed her the wrong way; they made cute swimwear and on the surface seemed perfect, but when she did some research she found that the company was under investigation for a ton of workers rights violations. It made her feel icky.

“You could pick up a second job if you want,” Himeko said. “A few hours at the Trailblazer? We’d love to have you, you know that.”

“What about working at the Herta?” A man’s voice said. March spun around to see Mr. Yang, the Trailblazer’s general manager. Mr. Yang was a little older, maybe in his 50’s, with salt-and-pepper hair and a handsome face that gave him a strong silver fox vibe. Not, as Stelle had insisted, a DILF. She’d gotten quite upset when March used the term, presumably because she had to report to him every day.

“Hey, Mr. Yang,” March smiled. He nodded curtly, handing a stack of papers to Himeko.

“I suppose you heard my sister’s dilemma then, Welt?” Himeko leaned back in her chair and started rifling through the papers.

“Yes. Ms. March wishes to do environmental advocacy, but feels she lacks the appropriate expertise,” Mr. Yang stated. He always talked like a professor, which March felt really added to the DILF—sorry, silver fox vibe. “Hence, my recommendation. Working at the Herta Center could provide you with some exposure to the field, and maybe even introduce you to important people that could help you on your journey.”

“That’s… actually a pretty good idea.” March hummed to herself. Asta, Arlan and now Dan Heng all worked there. But they had marketable skills. She had… a great personality? “I don’t think I’m really qualified for anything, though.”

“Gift shop,” Himeko suggested, “or maybe the visitor’s center? You could do tours— they do tours, right?”

“Ohmygod— do you think I could do aquarium tours? Like, look at baby seals all day?”

“Well I’m sure leading tours involves more than that, but I’m sure you could.” Mr. Yang nodded again at the two of them and returned to the door. “Good luck, Ms. March. I’m sure Himeko will keep me updated. Oh— and March?”


“Please be careful,” Mr. Yang stated, then walked out and shut the door quietly behind him.

“Oh my god, I’m not that clumsy,” March fake-groaned. She didn’t even try to hide the smile on her face.

“You’re a fan of Welt’s idea, then?” Himeko asked. “I say go for it. I think you’d have a lot of fun working there. And honestly, March, they’d be lucky to have you.”

“Thanks,” March said, feeling her cheeks grow warm. Even after all these years, her sister’s approval was still the best feeling in the entire world. Speaking of her sister— a week had passed since Himeko first walked in on them in mer-form, and she’d made no mention of it since their stilted conversation the morning after. March had been putting off grilling her— mostly because she was still baffled as to how to broach the topic— but feeling a surge of bravery, she set her face and turned back to the desk.

“So, about that thing.”

“Hmm?” Himeko looked up. “Working at the Herta?”

“No, the other thing. The, uh. The tail thing.”

Himeko’s eyes widened. “Oh! Umm--” she hurriedly stacked her papers and set them to the side, giving March her full attention. “Yes, of course. Here— would you like to sit?”

March obliged and perched on the edge of the folding chair across from the desk. She looked down at her lap, fiddling nervously. “Yeah. Thanks. So, umm, this thing… like… what is it?”

“What is it?” Himeko frowned. “Well, I’m not sure. That’s up to you and your friends to decide, no? But I just want you to know— it’s normal. You’re at that age where people explore things like this.”

“They do?” Was turning into a mermaid some right-of-passage she’d totally missed the memo for?

“Well, yes. Sure. It’s a strange time, but, well— it’s all a bit magical, isn’t it? Oh gosh, you must feel so awkward hearing your big sister talk about this. I’m so glad you trusted me enough to bring this up, March. Really.”

“No problem.” March frowned. Magical was certainly a fitting term. “So, does it, like… go away?”

“Hmm. I’m not sure how to answer that. You’ll just… you’ll get more experience, and you’ll figure out what sticks and what doesn’t. March, I hate to say this, but have you tried looking online? There are whole communities devoted to this kind of stuff.”

“There are!?” March’s eyes widened. “Cause that’s, like, the first thing we did and none of us found anything. And Dan Heng is looking through the Herta archives too but he hasn’t found anything super relevant either, and I even asked Asta— like, on the down-low of course, I wasn’t specific— and she’s never heard of it either!”

Himeko gave her an odd look. “March… sorry, I’m a bit confused. Dan Heng was searching the archives…?”

“Yeah— for, you know, mermaid stuff, and anything about the island and the moon pool and, like, these freaky ice powers which are actually pretty awesome, but— well, you know!”

“Oh gosh. Okay.” Himeko crossed her arms. “March, I think this might be a little out of my purview. I can— I just want you to know that exploring your sexuality is normal. And you can always talk to me about it, and about how to stay safe and all that, but gosh. It sounds like you have a pretty elaborate fantasy going here, and that’s fine, but you sound pretty distressed, and—”

“Sorry, what?” March cut in. “Sexuality— no, Himeko, this is about the tail!”

“I know, just... have you considered talking to a therapist?”

“A therapist!? Himeko, I told you, this isn’t—” She cut herself off, realization slamming into her like a punch in the gut. Red hot embarrassment swarmed through her body. “Holy sh*t. You think— oh my god. You think I’m talking about a sex thing.”


“Oh my god. Oh my god.” March stood up so quickly that the folding chair tumbled down behind her. She had never been more mortified in her life. “I gotta go,” she managed, then grabbed her bag and stumbled out of the office,

(13:02) March: she thinks its sex stuff
(13:02) March: like mermaid roleplay sex stuff
(13:05) Dan Heng: ??
(13:06) March: Himeko
(13:06) March: i thought she knew abt the mermaid stuff but NO pretty sure she thinks we’re in a mermaid sex throuple :( plz kill me
(13:08) March: like a fish f*cking sex throuple
(13:10) Dan Heng: oh no :(

Dan Heng carefully set down his phone, memories of Himeko’s wink burning into his mind. He felt like he was going to be sick.

“You okay, man?” Arlan asked from across the table.

“Yeah— fine. Sorry.” He forked another bite of his lunch to prove that he was, indeed, fine. His stomach growled unhappily but he ignored it. “You were saying?”

“Oh right! The trespassing thing.” Arlan leaned in, lowering his voice. “Okay, so I’m technically not supposed to share this, but— Peppy, no!” He looked down in horror as his dog scarfed down the rest of his sandwich in a single bite. The little dog co*cked his head, his front paws firmly planted on the table.

Dan Heng snorted. “I told you, keeping him on your lap while you eat is a bad idea!”

“But he looked so comfy.” Arlan sighed and scratched Peppy’s ears. “You know I could never stay mad at you. No I couldn’t!”

“You want some of my food? I’m probably not gonna finish.” Dan Heng pushed his plate forward. The text from March had almost completely eliminated his appetite, and Arlan was just so dang self-sacrificing that imagining him go hungry was almost physically painful. It had only taken a week of being roommates for Dan Heng’s protective urges to go into overdrive— go figure.

“…I guess. Thanks.” Arlan took the plate and began begrudgingly munching on the fries. Peppy watched intently from his lap.

“So the camera thing?”

“Yeah!” Arlan took a swig out of his cup, causing the water to splash dangerously close to the rim. “Well, I was reviewing the security footage from the last few days and someone has been trespassing on the grounds at night. You sure you’re okay?”

“Yes,” Dan Heng said quickly, keeping a careful eye on the water. “So this is, uh, this is new? Just the last few days?” He was well aware that March, Stelle and himself had big-time trespassed on their return trip to Mara island.

“Well the cameras start catching the trespasser, oh, five days ago? Around 1AM every morning, someone has been climbing down the cliffs on the south side of the grounds. Weirdest thing is, the cameras never catch them coming back up. They just climb down there and vanish, until the next night of course.”

“Creepy. So you can’t tell who it is?”

Arlan shrugged. “The footage is grainy. And it’s probably fine, it’s just weird, you know? Like a ghost or something.”

“It’s probably just some kid,” he offered, more to convince himself as anything else. “When I was at Astral High, people would hang around the cliffs to smoke weed and stuff.”

“Oh, I know. We see them on the security footage all the time. Thing is, the high schoolers don’t disappear. They don’t sit there, smoke, and then vanish into thin— PEPPY, NO!”

It was too late. Peppy leapt for the fries, his claws scrabbling on the table as he tried to get purchase. As Arlan’s hands wrapped around him, he lunged one last time and swiped the cup of water. It skidded away, contents spilling across the table.

Dan Heng pushed away from the table, toppling his chair as he jumped to his feet. The water dripped harmlessly onto the ground, right where he’d been sitting. The relief was short-lived, however, when he looked down and realized that somehow, in the haste of getting away, his sleeve had gotten wet.

Arlan hadn’t seemed to notice yet, occupied as he was with gently chastising his dog. “Peppy, you can’t just— Dan Heng, you okay man?”

Dan Heng didn’t have time to respond. He didn’t have time to do much, in fact, except throw a non-denominational prayer into the ether and sprint towards the unisex bathroom. Apparently his prayer was answered because the bathroom was miraculously unoccupied. He barreled through the door and slammed it behind him, his hand still on the lock when the transformation rolled over him and he fell to the ground.

“Stupid useless tail,” he grumbled to himself, glancing up to double check that the door was indeed locked. His left elbow hurt from the fall, no doubt adding to the multitude of bruises he’d accumulated since getting zapped by the moon pool.

Outside, someone knocked on the door. “Dan Heng?” Arlan called.

“I’m fine,” he croaked back.

As if Arlan could be convinced. “You don’t sound fine.”

“Food poisoning!” He laughed awkwardly. “You know how it is. Umm. Actually, I could use a little privacy.”

A pause, then: “Okay. Feel better, dude.”

Dan Heng let out the breath he’d been holding and deflated against the floor, then immediately regretted it. The Herta bathrooms were usually very clean, but no amount of lemon-scented cleaning products could mask the residual stink. Especially when your nose was a millimeter away from the ground.

It took him over fifteen minutes to get his legs back, via a long process of jumping for paper towels and then meticulously laying them over his tail. Said tail had collected some grime from behind the toilet, and when he transformed back he was disgusted to see it had transferred to his ankles. After scrubbing away the toilet gunk as best he could, Dan Heng doused his hands in hand sanitizer for the tenth time and climbed to his feet, still shaky.

In the mirror, he fiddled with his hair until he looked semi-presentable and collected himself. Just another day with the world’s sh*ttiest superpower. Not for the first time recently, Dan Heng wondered what his life had possibly come to.

After work, Dan Heng unlocked his bike from outside the Herta. He’d picked up the bike that weekend from Craigslist; it was old but in good working order, though the chain was a bit rusty. Given the nice weather, he set the coordinates for the town’s bicycle repair shop in his phone and started the ride.

Cat Scratch Bikes was in the same neighborhood March lived in, a little ways from their old high school. Dan Heng remembered the location, though it must have been under new ownership as the place’s punk cat-themed branding had definitely not been there when he was a kid.

A bell chimed over the door as he opened it, stepping into what could only be described as a machine junkie’s heaven. Gears, bike wheels and metal parts covered every surface, hanging from the walls and ceiling like junkyard icicles. The air rang with the sound of heavy machine tools and punk music playing from somewhere in the back.

Dan Heng picked his way up to the counter and, after a moment’s searching, rang the bell that had been hiding behind a stack of CDs.

“Coming!” a voice called from the back. Something loud clanged and the music shut off, then the door swung open and woman stepped through. She was wearing coveralls and rubber gloves, and her face was smudged with grease. “Hello hello! Welcome to Cat Scratch. How can I help you?”

“Hi. Umm, I think I need a new bike chain.”

“Well that’s certainly doable. Do you know the model?”

“Shoot, I should have written it down. I just got it this weekend. It’s parked outside though, I can go check.”

“I got you,” the woman said cheerfully. She came around the side of the desk and gestured him to follow her outside. “I’m Serval, by the way. I’d shake your hand, but I don’t think you want bike grease everywhere.”

“Nice to meet you. Dan Heng.”

When they got outside, Serval crouched next to his bike and jabbed at the chain with a multitool. “It actually doesn’t look bad,” she said, eyes still fixed on the chain. “You sure you want a replacement? I bet we could WD-40 this thing up and get it good as new.”

“I mean, yeah, that’d be great if we could save it.”

“Great. One sec.” She went back into the shop and reappeared a minute later with a toolbox. “Stand back, I don’t want you breathing this stuff in.”

Dan Heng did as he was told and watched as Serval put on a mask and began working away at the chain. He pulled out his phone and checked his texts; the group chat with Stelle and March had exploded with what he could only assume was more details about how Himeko thought they all had mermaid fetishes. He didn’t get far before Serval called him over again.

“You should be good,” she said, pulling down her mask. The bike chain did look good; the rust was all-but gone and when she spun the pedals it moved effortlessly. “This is a good looking bike you have here. Where’re you storing it?”

“Probably in my room? I’m in an apartment—”

“Oh, great. Good. Just wanted to make sure you weren’t keeping it outside. Moisture will cut years off a chain’s lifespan, easy, especially with all the salt we’ve got here in the Cove. Keep this bad boy dry and you’ll be a-shooing.”

“Definitely,” Dan Heng agreed. Given that riding a wet bike would quickly leave him unable to ride said bike due to no longer having legs, this wouldn’t be a problem. “Thanks so much, this is awesome. How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing.” Serval wiped her hands on her coveralls and stood up, grabbing the toolbox. “Just keep good care of your bike here and be sure to let us know if you need anything. It’s amazing how many folks just give up on their bikes the instant something goes wrong, so I love seeing young people such as yourself being proactive with maintenance.”

Dan Heng ended up buying a can of WD-40 anyway, much to Serval’s delight. She even showed him how she’d fixed up the chain so he could do it himself in the future. Before he left, he noticed a poster hanging in the window that looked oddly familiar. It was an ad for some local band that was playing in a few weeks at none other than the Trailblazer.

“That’s my band, Mechanical Fever. You interested in going?”

Dan Heng turned around. “Yeah— hey, do you play with some girl who works at the general store? I think she gave me a poster when I just moved here.”

“Ah, you’re probably talking about Seele. She’s our bassist. Good kid, amazing on the strings, though I wish she had a little more ambition. Keep on telling her to come work here but she hasn’t taken me up on it yet.”

“I’ll try to make it,” Dan Heng said, pulling out his phone and snapping a shot of the poster. He was at the Trailblazer so much anyway, he’d’ve probably ended up at the show without even trying.

The ride home from the bike shop was considerably smoother than the ride there had been. By the time Dan Heng got home, his stomach was growling and he wasted no time wheeling his bike into his room and setting down his things before heading for the kitchen. Luka was playing some racing game in the living room and the air rang with the sound of screeching tires.

The fridge was disparagingly empty, so Dan Heng resigned himself to eating a banana and checking his texts in an effort to put off making a decision about dinner.

(13:02) March: she thinks its sex stuff
(13:02) March: like mermaid roleplay sex stuff
(13:05) Dan Heng: ??
(13:06) March: Himeko
(13:06) March: i thought she knew abt the mermaid stuff but NO pretty sure she thinks we’re in a mermaid sex throuple :( plz kill me
(13:08) March: like a fish f*cking sex throuple
(13:08) March: im not even shaming it like u can be into whatever u want but like WOW
(13:08) March: a hit and a miss
(13:10) Dan Heng: oh no :(

(16:55) Stelle: why did u have to tell me this
(16:56) Stelle: we are talking about MY BOSS
(16:56) Stelle: march why
(17:10) March: ok i am truly sorry but also plz remember that this is mY SISTER
(17:10) March: who i happen to LIVE wiTH
(17:11) March: speaking of
(17:11) March: rlly trying not to go home rn does anyone want to hang out
(17:12) Stelle: i have evening shift :( u can come to Trailblazer?
(17:12) March: dats ok i want to be in a truly no-himeko zone
(17:15) March: Dan henggggg
(17:15) March: can i come over :)

(17:29) March: dan dan dannnnn :)
(17:32) March: ok fine don’t respond imma go for a swim
(18:58) March: ok dan heng im just gonna go over to your place bc I went home and himeko was there and I just cANt

Dan Heng read the last message again, then looked at the time. It was ten-past seven. A second later, the doorbell rang. Right on cue.

“Got it!” Luka yelled from the living room. The game paused and Dan Heng heard the door open. “Oh, hey March. What’s up?”

“Hey Luka! I’m just here to see Dan Heng.”

Dan Heng quickly swallowed his last bite of banana and headed into the living room. March stood in the entry way, backpack slung over her shoulder and a brown takeout bag in her arms. Her cheeks were rosy and right away he could smell the ocean on her skin. Her eyes lit up when she saw him and she waved. “Dan Heng! Did you see my text?”

“Yeah, just now. Sorry. I was at the bike shop. Here—” He took the takeout bag from her arms, stomach growling at the smell of food.

“Hope you haven’t eaten!” March kicked off her shoes and waltzed into the living room. “Ooh, watcha playin’?”

“Turbo Legacies IX. This one isn’t great for multiplayer, but I have Mario Kart and stuff if you wanna join!”

“Umm, yes please.” March hopped over the back of the couch and plopped down next to Luka, grabbing a spare controller. “Dan Heng, I got your favorite from Xianzhou, I think it’s on the bottom. Help yourself!”

Dan Heng didn’t need to be told twice. Sure enough, his favorite spicy noodles were in the brown takeout box under March’s stir fry. Xianzhou Alliance had been his favorite restaurant when he lived here, mostly because it was the closest to his family’s cooking that he could get in town. Grabbing a pair of chopsticks from the drawer, he distributed some of the noodles into a bowl and headed into the living room.

March and Luka were currently picking characters and Luka quickly added a third player and tossed Dan Heng a set of controllers. “Hah!” March laughed, selecting Bowser just as Dan Heng was starting to move his curser.

“Lame.” Dan Heng squinted at the screen, trying to choose someone in lieu of his favorite evil turtle dog thing. “I don’t remember any of these characters.”

“Yeah, this is the newest game. It just came out a few months ago,” Luka said. He’d selected Daisy immediately and was currently choosing between to motorbikes. “King Boo handles pretty similar to Bowser if you pick the right car.”

Dan Heng shrugged and selected the character, following Luka’s instructions to pick a car that looked like a haunted house with giant wheels.

They played through two heats, Dan Heng slurping up noodles in between, until March declared that she was too hungry and made her way back to the kitchen.

“Thanks for getting this,” Dan Heng said as he poured the rest of the noodles into the bowl.

“Still as good as you remember?

“Definitely. Nothing else hits like that Sichuan spice.”

“That’s the numbing one, right?” March made a face. “Only thing I’ll never mooch off of is Dan Heng’s spicy noodles. In fact, I think you get it just so I won’t mooch.”

“You got me,” he deadpanned, taking the now-empty takeout box to the trash. “Bowls are left of the sink.”

“Thanks.” March spooned out her own food, then grabbed a few paper towels from the roll. In the background came the sound of gunfire, followed by Luka yelling at someone to cover him. She winced. “Hey, wanna eat in your room?”

“Oh absolutely.” Dan Heng led her down the hall to his door, clicking it softly behind them. Suddenly it was just them, and he felt unbearably awkward.

Luckily, March didn’t. “Wow, you really need to decorate,” she said nonchalantly, then plopped down on the carpet and leaned against the bare wall. “Oh, cool! When’d you get a bike?”

“This weekend,” Dan Heng said, sitting down against the opposite wall. “The weather’s so nice I figured I might as well use it instead of taking the bus to work. I just got the chain fixed today.”

“I feel like when the weather stays nice this late into Fall, we always get hit by a cold spell or a storm or something,” March said through a bite of stir fry. “Remember that year it snowed?”

He did; they’d been in middle school and a bizarre November storm had left them with a light white dusting. For a bunch of kids on the West Coast, it was basically the most exciting day of their lives. “Didn’t we try to make a snowman?”

“Yeah. Key word is tried. Himeko still reminds me about it to this day. Calls it ‘shorty’.” March took another bite, chewing thoughtfully. “Well, who knows? Maybe we’ll get snow again this year. Or at least a really big storm.”

“Yeah,” Dan Heng said, then promptly sputtered. “Oh sh*t. Oh sh*t.”

March frowned. “You okay?”

“March. A storm.”

She blinked. Then: “Oh sh*t. Oh, we’re gonna be so f*cked.”

“Like— oh my god, what will we do when it rains!? Umbrellas are great but they are not gonna cut it for mermaid protection. Wow. f*ck.”

March looked queasy. “Call in sick, I guess?”

“f*ck.” Dan Heng grabbed his water bottle and chugged. “Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

“Good thing it doesn’t rain much here. I mean— god, imagine if we lived in Seattle?”

“Or, alternatively, let’s not.”

They ate in silence for a moment before March perked up again. “Oh! I have an activity.” She zipped open her backpack and pulled out a laptop in a pink case. “Wanna help me with my resume?”


“Amazing.” She scooted to his side of the room and leaned on the wall next to him. Dan Heng was struck by their sudden proximity, only inches from each other. She smelled like saltwater and vanilla. “So you’re not gonna ask me why I’m working on my resume, huh.”

“Why’re you working on your resume, March?”

“I’m glad you asked!” she chirped. “I want to work at the Herta.”

“You do?”

“Yes, in the gift shop or the visitor’s center or the aquarium. Mr. Yang— that’s Himeko’s general manager— he said it could be good exposure for me to learn more about conservation stuff. Oh yeah— I told you I want to start rebranding towards environmental activism, right?”

“No, you didn’t, but— that’s awesome, March!” Dan Heng couldn’t help smiling at the joy radiating from her, and she beamed back at him. He remembered how March had always been interested in conservation; all of her school projects always ended up being about the ocean. There was the lemonade stand she made in business class to raise money for an ocean charity, or the science fair entry about coral reef degradation, or the history project about overfishing, or even the giant papier-mâché whale she made in fifth grade art class.

March pulled up her resume and handed the laptop to Dan Heng so he could look it over. Sighing, he saved a new version. “So there are some issues. I can definitely do copy-editing, but I think we need to work on the structural stuff first. Is that okay?”

“Duh. Please take my garbage resume and turn it into gold, oh mighty Dan Heng, lest Stelle finds it in the bottom of a dumpster. Oh! Maybe that’s your power!”


“Turning garbage into gold. Like how I have the ice powers.”

“I don’t think that’s my power,” he said, eyes still trained on the screen. As far as he was concerned, he was completely powerless, thank you very much. Save for the whole get-wet-grow-tail thing, of course.

“You’re right, it’d be something cooler.” March slid down the wall until her back was on the carpet and clicked on her phone. She played with it absently while Dan Heng edited.

He’d managed to get halfway through the top section when she looked up at him and chirped, “What about water-bending?”


“Water-bending. What about water-bending?”

Dan Heng sighed, pulling his gaze away from the screen. March stared up at him, the overhead light reflecting in her blue eyes. “What about it?”

“You power. What if it’s water-bending?”

“Again. I don’t have a power. And I’m not exactly looking for one.”

“Why not?” she whined. “You don’t want a special magical power, all to yourself? I’m really digging the ice thing. When it gets too hot I can make the air around me colder. Plus I can make iced coffee whenever I want. It’s very convenient.”

“You aren’t making iced coffee in front of people, are you?”

“No. Duh. I’m not stupid.” She kicked her heels on the carpet in boredom. “So, what about water-bending? That’d be a cool power.”

“I’m partial to earth-bending myself.”

“Dan Henngggg! Take me seriously!” She punched him lightly in the side and he sighed, closing the laptop.

“Fine, March, yes. Water-bending is cool. Why would I possibly have that power, though?”

“Dunno. I mean— my power is freezing stuff, which is kind of water related. So maybe we all have water-related powers. We are mermaids, after all. That’s kinda our whole jam.”

“Ask Stelle.”

“Dan Heng, just try it. Please? Pretty please?”

Figuring it would end sooner if he just humored her, Dan Heng said: “Fine.” Then, “What am I supposed to do again?”

March yipped in excitement and her eyes scanned the room, landing on his water bottle. “Here. Here here here. Try this.” She snapped open the lid and held it out.

Dan Heng raised a hand tentatively in front of him. “I feel stupid,” he said.

“You have to focus!”

He grunted and narrowed his eyes, once again feeling very silly.

“No, not like that— you just look like you’re trying to poop.”

Dan Heng dropped his hand. “Yeah, I’m done with this.”

“What? No— Dan Heng, you have to try!”

“I am trying!” he growled, leaning back in annoyance. “Look, even if I did have some power, I don’t know how I’m supposed to activate it. Your power didn’t activate until you were super stressed out, right? You made that ice wall to get me and Stelle to stop fighting.” He shuddered at the memory. Had he been human when it all happened, he was sure it would haunt him even more than it currently did. Being in mer-form had somehow tempered his anxiety just enough to leave the whole incident as an unpleasant memory rather than something traumatic.

March perked up. “Oh, good idea!” She said, then promptly squirted the water bottle in his direction.

In that moment, all that Dan Heng could think about was March’s computer sitting on his lap. Without even thinking, he pulled the laptop to the side and waved at oncoming stream of water with his hand, as if to push it away.

To his surprise and March’s utter delight, he was completely successful. The water veered at a right angle, landing on his mattress instead. “What the f*ck,” he said blankly.

“Oh, I knew it!” March shouted. “Hah! Water-bender Dan Heng! I told ya so! Here— say cheese!”

Dan Heng hurriedly held up a peace sign as March flashed her phone and snapped a photo. “Uh, so I have no idea how I did that.”

“Who cares? Cause you totally did. You gotta try again— here!” She gestured at the water bottle, the remaining contents of which were soaking into a wet spot on the carpet between them.

He inched away nervously. “Yo, way to make my bedroom a hazard zone.”

“Yeah, sorry. Didn’t really think that one through. But try to use your powers, yeah? I bet you can, like, pull all the water out.”

Dan Heng held out a hand again and focused again, trying to remember the strange energy that had coursed through his body when he’d “pushed” the water. To his amazement, the same rippling power blossomed out of his chest and ran down his arm, forming an invisible connection to the wet spot on the ground. It was like he could feel the water particles. Carefully, he guided them out of the carpet fibers and formed a small bubble, holding it hovering an inch above the ground. “Uh, what do I do now?”

“Here!” March pulled her empty bowl over and set it on the ground. The bubble wobbled as Dan Heng moved it slowly towards the bowl; the process was weirdly draining. By the time he’d managed to raise it up over the lip, he was at his limit; The bubble burst, leaving behind a puddle of stir-fry water at the bottom of the bowl.

March clapped her hands excitedly. “Oh, incredible! That was so cool! Water-bender Dan Heng! C’mon, admit it, that was cool.”

“Okay, yeah, it was cool,” Dan Heng agreed. He felt jittery from the aftereffects of the magic, not to mention exhausted. “Look, if we’re gonna finish this resume, you can’t make me do that again.”

“It’s tiring, right? The first time I did it I was so amped on adrenaline I didn’t notice, but when I tried the next day I got so sleepy. It gets better if you keep on practicing, though, I promise.”

“Fine. But not tonight.”

“Not tonight,” March agreed. She scooted up next to him again and pulled out her phone while Dan Heng opened the laptop again. They worked for a while, the silence only broken by March’s occasional giggle when she saw something funny online.

“Here,” Dan Heng said finally. He nudged her with his elbow. “I think I did what I could.”

March pushed herself up and took the laptop, eyes scanning the screen. “Oh my god, Dan Heng, this is amazing! Wait— how did you know I was shift lead as a lifeguard?”

He shrugged. “Cause you talked non-stop about it. You have to put these details in, March. It’s all good stuff. You should be proud of your accomplishments.”

“It isn’t much. I mean— great, I was shift lead at the swim club over the summer. yay. You have a friggin’ Master’s degree and Asta’s out there discovering, I dunno, ancient civilizations or something—”

“And you were shift lead,” he finished. “Not to mention that you’ve run your own successful business from the ground up.”

“What, my accounts?”

“I could never do something like that. Do you know how hard it was for me to let people read my short stories, let alone publish them? I always get embarrassed. You— you make art and you put it out there. It’s admirable.”

“Hmph. Gonna make me blush.”

“It’s true!”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” she mumbled.

Once again, silence fell over them and Dan Heng became distinctly aware of her presence next to him. He looked over at her as she played with her hands absently. She glanced up at him, then quickly looked away again and shut the laptop. “Thanks Dan Heng,” she said, voice back to its normal tenor. “Really. I appreciate it.”

“No problem.” He couldn’t tell if he was relieved or disappointed that the moment was over. Probably a little of each.

They chatted a little more, but after a string of shared yawns it became clear that it was time to leave. March insisted she’d be fine going home, but Dan Heng offered her the couch anyway. “Himeko’s probably in bed already,” she insisted.

He thanked her again for the food and saw her to the door, standing there for a moment when it clicked shut. “Have fun?” Luka asked from the hallway. He was in his towel and his hair dripped from the shower.

“We were working on her resume,” Dan Heng said. Then: “It’s not what you think.”

“O-kay, man. Sure.” Luka waggled his eyebrows suggestively then turned back to his room, surely leaving wet drips in his wake. Sighing, Dan Heng pulled on his shoes. No way was he risking that.

Now that March was gone, the exhaustion was hitting him hard. After confirming that Luka was done in the bathroom, Dan Heng grabbed his own towel and slipped in. Keeping the towel over his hand, he carefully pushed the stopper on the tub and turned on the wet faucet, letting it fill with steamy water.

It was amazing how complex something as simple as “getting clean” had become. Even undressing had its own nuances; Dan Heng was careful to fold his clothes and place them on the corner of the counter where he was certain they’d stay dry. Picking up wet clothes as soon as he’d finally lost the tail was about the biggest mood killer there was. He even had to be careful getting into the tub, as his tail took up considerably more volume than his legs and could easily cause the water to spill over.

When the tub was about half-full, he turned off the faucet and stepped into the water, quickly sitting down for minimal transformation splash-back. The whole process still freaked him out, so he closed his eyes and focused on his breathing as he waited it to be through.

Ten seconds passed and, like clockwork, his body shuddered involuntarily and melted into its other form. Dan Heng reached his arms overhead and stretched, feeling the muscles that ran through his core and down his tail. The relief was minimal as he had to curl his tail up pretty tightly to fit it in the tub, or risk spilling water everywhere. Still, it was better than nothing.

After scrubbing himself down as best he could, Dan Heng leaned back and allowed his head to drift under the warm surface. The water echoed with the ambient sounds of the apartment— creaking pipes, the laundry machine, even Luka’s singing a few rooms over.

He let his eyes close and let the air out of his lungs in a stream of bubbles. Almost instantly, his sides tickled as the gills opened up and started working. It was, he considered absently, pretty amazing how quickly he’d gotten used to breathing with gills. If he thought too much about it it did freak him out, especially when he had his legs, but in this form… it just felt normal. This new body knew more about itself than he did, certainly. Package deal! Mermaid tail AND eons of ancestral memory!

And water-bending, he thought, watching the light distort through the bath. He raised his fingers and inspected them, as if there would be some sign of the magic left behind. They looked perfectly normal, of course— which was another bizarre part of this whole mermaid thing. If he looked at certain parts of himself in isolation, he could almost convince himself he was human. It almost would’ve been easier if the transformation changed him completely, into some monster bearing little resemblance to his human form. But no— he just got to be himself but also a fish. Hell, he could probably pass as human if he covered up the fins on his torso.

Someone knocked on the door loudly and Dan Heng jolted up in surprise, managing to keep his tail in control just enough to avoid splashing. “Yeah?” he called, glancing at the door to quadruple check it was locked.

“You almost done in there?” Arlan’s voice called. “I really gotta go.”

“Yeah— sorry! One sec.” Dan Heng pulled the stopper from the tub and rubbed his eyes.

“Please hurry.”

“Yep, just finishing up. Can you give me five minutes?”

“Not really? Can you just let me in? I promise I won’t look, I’ll cover my eyes.” The door handle rattled.

“Sorry, I promise I’ll be quick!” Dan Heng groaned and heaved himself over the side of the tub. Luckily, he’d set up his towel in advance and he brought his upper body down as his tail remained draped in the water. Like all things recently, drying off brought with it its own specific techniques and risks.

With the threat of Arlan forcing his way in, Dan Heng ended up using his powers to help dry off by coalescing the water into little bubbles and bringing them over to the sink. Unfortunately, he’d only made it about halfway down his tail before his hands started shaking with exhaustion.

Still, it helped. He got his legs back in under ten minutes, a new record for him, and as soon as he clicked the bathroom lock Arlan shoved in and dove for the toilet.

“Sorry man,” Dan Heng said, to which Arlan grunted as way of reply. He stumbled into the hallway, hands trembling so hard he could barely hold his towel on. When he made it to his room, he kicked the door shut and clicked off the lights before tumbling face-down onto his mattress.

Sleep came almost immediately, lapping on the edge of his consciousness like gentle waves. In fact, Dan Heng drifted off so quickly that he barely noticed the wet patch on his mattress, left over from when he’d diverted the water stream early. He barely noticed when he transformed again, his tail spilling out from under the quilt and stretching across the floor like a snake.

He certainly didn’t notice when a little white muzzle pushed his door open and Peppy trotted in with a bone, curling up at the foot of his bed to chew.


Not a ton of Stelle in this chapter, but don't worry, I haven't forgotten about her. Hope you enjoyed!

Chapter 7: Secrets


In which Dan Heng has a rude awakening, and March makes an important decision


**Content warning for panic attack

Chapter Text

Dan Heng woke up a few minutes before his alarm, feeling incredibly well-rested. He still hadn’t gotten drapes for his window, and outside the sun was cutting through the crisp gray morning. He rolled onto his back and stretched, relishing the feeling of the sun on his face.

His side hit something dense and before he could react, said thing made a little yipping sound and scrambled towards his face. “Wha— Peppy?” Dan Heng mumbled, squinting as the little dog licked his face. “Peppy! Hey buddy— hey! Good morning! Where’s your dad, huh?” He held the dog back gently and scratched behind his ears. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate Peppy’s presence— who would say no to waking up to dog kisses— but he usually kept his door shut at night. Maybe it didn’t click correctly.

He pushed himself onto his elbows, absently wondering if dog kisses contained enough water to really count, you know? Huh, he thought, staring blearily down at his tail. Guess so.

And then: What the f*ck!? Because sure enough, there was his tail, sprawled across the room in all its weird, scaly glory. Even worse, the door to his room was wide open and the lights in the hallway were on.

Oh f*ck oh f*ck oh f*ck, he thought frantically and scrambled off his mattress, then did his best to army-crawl towards the door. Peppy began yipping again and spinning in circles, his tail wagging excitedly. Dan Heng made it a few feet on his elbows before remembering that he, too, had a tail, and he tensed his muscles to swing it heavily at the door.

Any relief he felt was quickly replaced with horror as the door slammed into someone’s foot, bouncing back open to reveal Luka holding a baseball bat. They made eye contact and Luka lifted the bat higher, face blank with shock.

“Stay back!” Luka shouted, his voice trembling.

Dan Heng blinked. This was a dream. This had to be a dream, right? “I—“

Luka clenched the bat tighter. “I said stay back!” He looked almost crazed, with his pupils dilated and his hair still messy from sleep.

“Peppy?” Arlan’s voice said from down the hall, followed by the sound of footsteps. Dan Heng watched, frozen, as Arlan appeared in the doorway, a taser clenched in his right hand. “Peppy! Peppy, c’mere boy!”

Peppy let out a little bark and wagged his tail. The dog’s fur brushed against Dan Heng’s scales and that small touch was enough to jolt him out of his shock. His heart started pounding. This was real.

“Shut it!” Luka cut in, even though he hadn’t said anything. “Don’t move. Let the dog go.”

Dan Heng hazarded another glance at Peppy. The little dog had retrieved a bone from somewhere and was currently going to town on it, seemingly oblivious to the confrontation. “I didn’t do anything,” he managed to croak out, only to be cut off once again by Luka.

“Shut up. Don’t say anything, j-just— let the dog go, and tell us what you did to Dan Heng. Now!”

“I’m Dan Heng,” he laughed desperately. It was almost ludicrous, if you really thought about it; that he’d thought he could hide what had happened, that he thought he could stay safe, that he could keep his friends safe. Even his mer-form didn’t keep him from feeling that overpowering sense of dread, the dread that had haunted him since returning to Astral Cove, coalescing into resignation. It was happening. This was it.

“Tell us what you did to him!” Luka took a step forward. He was standing taller now, his grip on the bat even more solid. “Tell us, or I swear I will take this bat and—”

“Luka,” Arlan hissed. The taser hung limply from his hand. “Luka, wait. What if it’s him?”

Dan Heng’s stomach clenched. Luka, on the other hand, started to look pale: “What?” he said softly.

“What if it’s— what if it’s him, what if it’s Dan Heng?”

“It is,” Dan Heng offered meekly.

“What are you talking about?” Luka growled. He shook his head, then looked frantically between his two roommates. “That’s— that’s a monster. Something ate Dan Heng, and now—”

“I think it’s just him,” Arlan said quietly. His eyes were trained on Peppy with piercing intensity. “It’s— Luka, I think Dan Heng might just be. Like. A mermaid or something. Cause Peppy isn’t scared at all. Peppy is a smart dog, and he isn’t scared at all.”

Luka shook his head in frustration again, the grip on the bat loosening. “What the f*ck. What the actual f*ck.”

“For what it’s worth, I agree,” Dan Heng mumbled.

“Prove it. Prove you’re Dan Heng.” Luka glanced at Arlan. “Umm— what’s something only Dan Heng would know?”

“I don’t know, dude! I met him like a week ago! Didn’t you go to high school with him?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t know him—”

Dan Heng watched in a daze as the two argued. He wished they’d just get on with it and call the cops or whatever.

“— okay, here.” Luka turned to face Dan Heng and crossed his arms. “Your nick name in high school. What was it?”

Dan Heng winced. “Please don’t make me say it. Cold Dragon Young.”

“Oh sh*t,” Luka said. His eyes widened. “You are Dan Heng. What the f*ck.”

“Like I said, I agree.”

Arlan looked confused. “Why was that your nickname?”

“Don’t ask me,” Dan Heng muttered. And then, because he couldn’t hold it in any longer— “Can we just cut the crap? Just— smash me with the bat, or call the police or scientists or whatever. I won’t stop you.”

To his surprise, Luka looked horrified. “Why would we do that!?”

He laughed again, starting to feel manic. “Dude, you’re holding a bat and threatening to hit me! And I’m clearly a monster—” he gestured down at his body, the long serpentine tail that coiled around the room, the spiny fins on his sides that had started to fan open as his adrenaline rose. Suddenly, all he needed was to get away, he needed to get to the water—

And then, just like that, he lurched forward involuntarily and his body dissolved. When he reformed, his legs were back.

Peppy let out a little yelp of surprise and sniffed him, then apparently deemed the situation acceptable because he quickly settled back down and got back to gnawing on the bone. Unfortunately for Dan Heng, with his human form came an overpowering surge of stress. It hit him like a punch to the gut and he keeled over, squeezing his eyes shut. Breathe. Breathe.

A hand touched his shoulder lightly and he jolted, breath starting to come out in quick gasps. “Hey, hey,” Arlan’s voice said, quiet, tone even. “It’s okay. You’re okay. Can you slow down your breathing for me?”

Slowing down his breathing sounded so ridiculously impossible at this point that he actually choked out a laugh. The air was getting heavier around him, the world darkening, as if he had been transported to the depths of the ocean. Not the ocean as he’d experienced it recently— the ocean of his nightmares, where threats lurked on all sides and he had no wall to back against, no bed to hide under.

Dan Heng knew what this was. Usually when he got to this point, he could at least reason with himself— that logically, everything was okay. That his panic just had to run its course, that a return to baseline was inevitable. But that wasn’t true anymore. That wasn’t true. There was no baseline. No return.

“—can you hear me? Dan Heng?” Arlan, hand still rested on Dan Heng’s shoulder. “Hey man. Hey. You’re okay. Can you look at me? Dan Heng?”

Somehow the words managed to reach him and he jerked his head in response, blinked past tears to see his roommate. A new feeling was starting to creep in now. Shame. He wanted to hide his face but forced himself to keep his head up.

“Good. Okay, good job.” Arlan squeezed his shoulder comfortingly. “Can you do something else for me?” He gently lifted Dan Heng’s hand and placed it on his wrist. “Can you squeeze my wrist?”

Dan Heng knew what he was doing. Arlan must have had some training, because he was following textbook protocol for ‘my friend’s having a panic attack’. He forced his breath to slow, big rasping inhales and exhales, and did as he was told. Squeeze. Release. Squeeze. Release. Focus on the sensation, on Arlan’s voice. Slowly the world started to brighten. The water got shallower.

As his mind started regaining the ability to form coherent thoughts, realization dawned on him. His roommates were still here. They were helping him. They’d seen that he was a monster, and they were still helping him.

He lost track of time— he always did when this happened— but eventually Dan Heng surfaced. “I’m so sorry,” he said quietly, then let go of Arlan’s wrist. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“You’re good, man. Hey. You’re safe, okay? We’re not gonna give you up to the authorities or whatever. We’re not gonna hurt you. I promise.” Arlan was watching him cautiously, probably unsure of if Dan Heng was actually in the clear. “Hey, Luka?” he called without looking away, “Bring us some water and food, okay? Crackers or something.”

Luka, Dan Heng realized, was still standing in the doorway. The bat was leaning against the wall and his roommate’s posture was stiff, his eyes wide. Luka nodded wordlessly and hurried away down the hall, leaving just Arlan.

And Peppy, of course. The little dog seemed to decide that this was the exact right moment to barf. He did so all over the carpet, regurgitating little bits of chew. Dan Heng reached for his towel on autopilot but when he looked back, the barf was gone.

“Too late,” Arlan said. His lips twitched upwards. “He ate it.”

“Oh,” Dan Heng said, then surprised himself by letting out a strangled laugh. “That’s really gross.”

“Yeah, Peppy’s a gross little dude.” Arlan was smiling now. He caught Dan Heng’s eye as if willing him to smile too. “We love him, but he’s gross.”

“Well he is a dog,” Dan Heng said. He laughed again and this time allowed it to happen. The world was getting brighter. His body and mind were exhausted, but as long as there was light he could deal with it.

Peppy looked at them, co*cked his head, then burped. And suddenly the two were cracking up, big belly laughs that made his gut ache and his cheeks grow sore from smiling.

“What happened?” Luka had returned to the doorway, water bottle in one hand and a box of rice crackers in the other. He looked concerned.

“Nothing,” Arlan giggled. “Peppy ate his barf.”

Luka’s eyes widened. “Again!? Peppy, I’m disappointed in you man! I thought we talked about this.”

“This happens a lot?” Dan Heng managed.

“Unfortunately.” Arlan waved Luka over and he kneeled next to them, setting the crackers on the ground.

“Here,” Luka said, holding out the water bottle. Dan Heng jolted back immediately, heart starting to race again. In front of him, the water bottle dripped with condensation.

Luka watched in confusion but Arlan quickly scurried over to him. “Hey, hey, you’re okay.”

Dan Heng squeezed his eyes shut, shook his head. “Sorry, sorry, I— I’m sorry. I can’t touch it.” No use keeping that part hidden any longer, right? “The water. It’s wet.”

“Yeah, it’s water…” Luka said slowly. He flashed Arlan a concerned look. “You… don’t want the water?”

“It’ll make me change,” Dan Heng said quickly. There. Secret out, bandaid officially ripped off. “If I get wet, I turn into…” He trailed off, not wanting to say it. He suddenly felt so exposed. Embarrassed. “Yeah. What you saw earlier.”

Arlan was nodding along slowly, his violet eyes unreadable. “And to change back, you…”

“Dry off,” Dan Heng finished. He shivered and glanced back at his bed. “I guess my mattress was wet when I went to sleep last night.”

Luka cackled. “Yo, that sucks, dude! So you can’t, like, wash your hands or anything?”

“Hand sanitizer.”

“sh*t.” Luka shook his head. He looked baffled. “No wonder you were freaking out! God, I would have had an aneurysm by now if I was in your place!”

“How long has this been going on?” Arlan asked.

“Not long.” Even with the secret out, Dan Heng wasn’t keen on explaining all the details— the magic pool and all of that. “I’d… rather not talk about it. But it’s new.”

Arlan nodded, then suddenly jolted upright. “Oh my god. Yesterday, at lunch— Peppy spilled the water! You ran away to the bathroom and— oh my god. You transformed.”


“Dan Heng, I am so sorry! I can’t believe I was so careless— I mean, god, if you had changed in the middle of the Herta Center cafeteria? Scientists would literally be fighting each other to get a chance to study you. Oh, that’s not good. Not good.”

As he was still coming down from his own panic, Dan Heng was absolutely not ready to deal with Arlan’s worrying. He grabbed the crackers. “It’s fine. I mean, you’re both right. It majorly sucks, and it’s also kinda cool sometimes. Umm. I think I’m doing good, now. Can I have a second by myself? To, like, eat. These crackers.” He didn’t have much of an appetite, but it seemed like a good excuse.

Arlan nodded profusely and scrambled away, scooping up Peppy in one arm and grabbing Luka’s wrist with the other. The door shut behind them and, just like that, Dan Heng was alone again.

“f*ck,” he said quietly to himself, then pulled out his phone and opened the group chat.

(07:22) Dan Heng: So I f*cked up
(07:22) Dan Heng: like majorly
(07:22) Dan Heng: there’s technically an explanation but long story short my roommates know
(07:23) Dan Heng: i am so sorry. doing damage control. will keep u updated. I am cautiously optimistic it will be ok.

As much as Dan Heng wanted to sneak out of the apartment via fire escape and never face his roommates again, he forced himself to get dressed and, after carefully pulling back the quilt so his mattress could dry, went out to face his fate.

And was met with the sizzling smell of pancakes. Luka was at the stove, spatula in hand, and was in the process of spooning batter into the pan when Dan Heng walked into the kitchen. Luka saw him, froze, then quickly turned back to his pancakes.

“He’s stress-cooking,” Arlan explained. He was sitting at the table with a cup of coffee, scrolling on his phone. Peppy was at his feet devouring kibble. “Before big matches, me and Eric— our old roommate— would buy a bunch of ingredients and just, you know, leave them out. See what would happen.”

“Don’t complain. You love my pancakes.” Luka skidded a heaping plate over to Arlan, then turned to Dan Heng. “Blueberry or chocolate? Or— do you, like, eat human food?”

“Blueberry please.” He pulled up a chair and sat down carefully, not knowing what to say. With Arlan across the table, austere, and Luka stress-cooking, he felt like he was a teenager who stayed out too late, met by his disappointed parents, still up and demanding an explanation. Not that he’d ever had the experience himself, but it was still a vibe.

“So,” Dan Heng said, just as Arlan said, “so.”

“You first, please,” Dan Heng said quickly.

Arlan pushed his pancakes with a fork. “I—so this is a new thing? How long has it been going on? You don’t have to answer that if you don’t want,” he added.

“It’s fine. It’s only been a week or so. Like this, I mean.” Unwilling to say the word mermaid or merman or merperson or mer-whatever himself, he let it hang in the air. The moment started to draw on for longer than he wanted, and luckily Luka decided that was the right time to slap a plate of pancakes down in front of him.


“Sure,” Dan Heng said blankly, then: “thanks.”

“No prob,” Luka grunted, turning to the fridge. A second later he sat down as well and, after a generous dousing of syrup, began aggressively cutting into his own pancake stack. “So,” he said through a mouthful of food, “what happened, you got cursed or something?”

“Maybe? I actually don’t know. It just sorta happened.”

“Right around when you moved here,” Arlan filled in, Dan Heng nodding along. Concern crossed Arlan’s face. “Is it painful? When you... you know, change?”

Dan Heng shook his head. “It definitely feels weird though. Umm.” Luka was staring at him with wide eyes. “Yes?”

“Do you think you could defeat a shark?”

He paused, forkful of pancakes halfway to his mouth. “Uh.”

“Luka, what kind of a question is that?” Arlan hissed.

Luka shrugged. “I’m just saying, if Dan Heng can turn into a freaky fish monster, I bet he could defeat a shark.”

“I— probably?” Dan Heng hadn’t considered it, but after seeing the damage he’d done to Stelle it seemed plausible. “I’m not, like, going around looking for sharks to fight.”

Luka slammed his hands on the table, causing his glass of water to wobble. “Yo! If our beach ever gets Jaws-ed, we’d have it covered.”

Dan Heng scooted back, eyeing the water warily. “I don’t think I could defeat Jaws.”

“You don’t know ’til you try!” Luka frowned suddenly. “Hey, this curse thing— you’re not gonna transfer it to us, are you? Cause fighting sharks sounds cool and all, but I dunno about the rest. You said you can’t touch water at all, right? That sounds super annoying.”

“Trust me, it is,” Dan Heng agreed. “I wouldn’t worry about it transferring, though. I think this was really a ‘you had to be there’ type of a thing. We fell into a magic pool with the full moon overhead,” he added when Arlan gave him an inquisitive look.

“Wait, we?” Arlan asked.

Dan Heng swore silently to himself. “Uh, I mean, me. I can be so clumsy, hah…”

“Oh sh*t— was this at March’s photoshoot thing?” Luka exclaimed. “Wait, is March a fish person too!?”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I mean no. I mean— yeah, it was at the photoshoot. March knows about it, she was there when it happened.” Not not true.

“Does anyone else know?” Arlan said.

“Umm, just Stelle. She was also there.” Again, Dan Heng figured it wasn’t a full-out lie; they did indeed know about his affliction. “Look, you guys have to keep this a secret, okay? I’m still pretty freaked out myself, and I’d really rather not get dissected for science or, like, end up on the news or something.”

“You have our word,” Luka said solemnly, Arlan nodding next to him. “No way in hell am I letting my roomie get dissected. And trust me, if any scientists come knocking, I’ll introduce them to these bad boys.” He raised his fists threateningly, prosthetic hand clenched tight.

“Violence probably won’t be necessary,” Dan Heng mumbled.

“Dude, are you serious? These scientists can get ravenous— I mean, have you seen Arlan’s girlfriend—”

“Not my girlfriend,” Arlan cut in. “Also, how dare you!”

“What? You can’t say Asta isn’t ravenous, I mean, have you seen her with a textbook?”

“She does enjoy textbooks,” Dan Heng offered, eager to change the topic. Asta’s thirst for knowledge had been on full display during her trips to the archives over the last few days. “So you guys are dating?”

“No!” Arlan insisted again, his cheeks turning bright red. “You know what? I have to go to work.” He pushed away from the table and picked up his plate. “Dan Heng, you done? I’ll wash it for you.”

“Thanks,” Dan Heng said sheepishly. “I’ve been using gloves, but—”

“It’s fine.” Arlan picked up his plate and began shoveling scraps into the compost with his back to them.

Luka just snickered and leaned back. “Hey man,” he said when Arlan had left, “if you ever do fight a shark, please invite me.”

Dan Heng insisted that yes, he would absolutely invite Luka to any planned shark fight, then excused himself as well.

When Arlan knocked on his door to reassure him that he’d made sure the floor was entirely dry after his shower, Dan Heng decided there were some advantages to having his roommates in the know. Honestly, it was really only a matter of time before they found out, what with the tiny apartment and single shared bathroom. And, though it’d only been a week, he liked Arlan and Luka. Arlan was a complete sweetie, and Luka was deeply loyal when you got through the himbo of it all.

It had been, March figured, only a matter of time before Dan Heng’s roommates found out about the tail. That apartment was tiny, and with three dudes sharing a single bathroom? Yeah. It was only a matter of time.

Unfortunately, Stelle felt differently— or at least, March assumed that was the reason her friend seemed so off today. When they walked to their lunchtime yoga class together, she wrung her hands and pulled at her hair and didn’t stop at a single trashcan on the path. Under any other circ*mstance March would have been proud of her friend for that last bit, but now it just seemed wrong.

Worse still, when March tried to get Stelle to talk about it she just froze up. “I don’t see why you’re so freaked out,” March muttered under her breath while they shoved their things into the cubbies at the yoga studio. “We can trust Arlan and Luka, okay? It’ll be fine.”

Stelle just grunted in response and grabbed her yoga mat, heading into the dimly-lit studio. March hurried after her and quickly found her friend setting up her mat in the corner. The room swirled with humid heat-- she could already tell this class was going to be destructive.

“Welcome, March,” a soothing voice said. She turned to see Luocha, the yoga-teacher-slash-greek-god who was leading the class.

“Hey,” March chirped. In addition to being almost unbearably hot, Luocha was also an incredible instructor. Hopefully Stelle would feel better afterwards.

“I was already telling your friend, but we’ll be doing some inversions at the end of class. Please feel free to use the wall.” March thanked him and Luocha smiled, revealing his perfect movie-star teeth, before moving on to the next group.

March unrolled her mat next to Stelle, who was warming up with some downward dogs. “I always suck at inversions,” she said. Again, Stelle just grunted in response. March sighed and sat back on her heels, beginning to stretch out her wrists. The heat beat in on them, suddenly feeling more oppressive than anything. “Hey, are you mad at me?” she asked finally.

Before she could get an answer, Luocha turned up the music and called the class to order, leading them into guided breathing. March closed her eyes and tried to follow along. Stelle would be fine, she told herself. Dan Heng would be fine. We’ll all be fine.

Luckily, Luocha was a great distraction. Within a few minutes March was fully in, all thoughts of friends and secrets wiped from her mind. The class was top-notch, go figure. Luocha led them through a series of flowing poses that reminded her of swimming, each position an intuitive continuation of the last and yet something entirely unique, entirely its own. She quickly became drenched in sweat and laid down her towel, the effort to keep herself from slipping taking as much as concentration as the poses themselves.

By the time they got to the final poses and savasana, March felt amazing. She dearly hoped her friend did too; Stelle had seemed to be getting pretty into the inversions, so that had to be a good sign. In fact, Stelle always got really into inversions; her sun salutations were clumsy as all hell but she could hold a handstand like no one’s business. March had quickly chalked it up to yet another of Stelle’s odd quirks, though she was a bit envious of this one.

“Good class, huh?” March said when they were back in the lobby. They were both still drenched in sweat, unfortunately unable to follow the rest of the class to the locker rooms and showers.

“It was fine,” Stelle said flatly. She flicked a strand of hair out of her face, unwittingly spraying March with sweat. March winced but ignored it, instead putting on her best smile. Stelle did look a little more alive than she had before class.

March caught her eye. “Hey— are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Stelle pulled her oversized t-shirt back on and nodded at the door. “Let’s get out of here.”

March pulled her own shirt back on and grabbed the rest of her stuff into her bag, hurrying after Stelle. They walked in silence away from the studio, savoring the fresh air against their skin, and turned a right at the corner towards the beachside path. They stopped at the rope fence separating them from the sand and March looked out at the gentle waves. They looked awfully inviting. “Did you still want to rinse off?” she asked Stelle, nodding out at the water.

“Yeah, sure.” Stelle glanced at her phone for the time. “You down to swim to the Trailblazer? My shift starts in thirty so I won’t have time if not.”

March nodded excitedly. It wasn’t like she had anywhere else to be; she’d already dropped her resume off at the Herta that morning and could manage her socials later. Being a mermaid had really fixed her sleep schedule, believe it or not.

The two of them hopped the rope fence and trotted towards the docks, only about a quarter of a mile north. The docks themselves were a terrible launching-off point, but they’d found a rocky alcove just south that was well-protected from the eyes of passerby’s.

Stelle stuffed her work clothes into the waterproof backpack they’d found at the outlet mall over the weekend. There’d only been two in stock and March gave the other one to Dan Heng; she had plenty of bags already and certainly some of them had to be waterproof. Sure enough, she’d found a pink Hello Kitty bag deep in her closet that had passed the dunk test with flying colors.

With their things tucked away, they raced each other into the water and dove towards the open ocean. March grinned as the water streamed past her skin and newly-formed tail, relishing in the refreshing sensation. The two of them swam in companionable silence, tracing a wide perimeter around the cove and enjoying the underwater scenery.

They surfaced a little ways south of the Trailblazer and headed to a protected spot on the beach. Stelle pulled herself out of the water first, laying out in the sun while March lulled in the shallow waves.

“You still good on time?” March asked.

Stelle shook her hair like a wet dog. “Yeah, should be okay. Hey, toss me one of those towels, will you”

March obliged, shimmying her way to the rocks where they’d started stashing a pile of beach towels. She threw a blue flowery one at her friend but it unfurled in mid-air, falling down into the surf. Quickly, she darted out her hand and froze the water beneath the towel.

“I will never get used to that,” Stelle stated. She grabbed the towel and started to pat down her tail. “Where’re our powers, huh?”

“Oh! Wait, did I not tell you? Dan Heng got his power.”

Stelle froze. “Excuse me?”

“Get this— he can water-bend. Like Katara! It’s so cool.”


“Yeah, you know, from Avatar? Avatar: The Last Airbender? The tv show!? You’re kidding me, you’ve never seen it?”

“I didn’t really have TV growing up,” Stelle said. “Ah— here we go.” Her body dissolved into water and morphed into her human form, sweaty yoga clothes and all. She jumped up onto the rocks and pulled her work clothes out of the backpack, setting them carefully on a dry spot. “Hey, can you make sure these don’t get wet?”

“Sure.” March watched Stelle’s clothes, bored, as her friend started to undress. “Hey— is something wrong?”

Stelle paused, halfway through pulling on her pants. “Uh, no? Why?”

“I dunno. It’s probably nothing.” March traced her finger in the sand, then looked up again. “It’s just, you’ve seemed really off today. Like, why are you so upset about the thing with Dan Heng’s roommates? I swear it’s gonna be fine, they’re really nice guys.”

Stelle stomped her foot into a shoe, crushing the heel. “It’s fine, okay? Don’t worry about it.”

“It doesn’t sound like it’s fine.”

“It’s just…” Stelle trailed off, then finally turned around. Her face was stony. “I really don’t want something bad to happen to you guys, okay? I don’t think I could ever forgive myself if something did, I mean— I know Mr. Yang says its just a bubble, but like— you guys saved me—”

She stopped suddenly and turned away. March just felt confused. “Sorry, what was that about bubbles?”

“Uh— bubble baths. Yeah, Mr. Yang has been taking a lot of bubble baths lately and hogging up the bathroom so I’m just annoyed about it. You know how it is.” Stelle tucked her bangs behind her ear, trying to look casual.

“Eww, why do you know so much about Mr. Yang’s bubble baths?” March’s eyes widened. “Oh my god, Stelle, are you guys, like— you know—”

Stelle coughed loudly. “Umm, no. Absolutely not. Dude, he’s like my uncle.”

“No he’s not.”

“He literally is,” Stelle said. She gave March a weird look. “You know I live with him, right?”

“You live with Mr. Yang. Like, Trailblazer general manager Mr. Yang. DILF Mr. Ya—”

“Never call him that again, will you?” Stelle said sharply. “He’s, like, my uncle.”

“Oh sh*t.” March shook her head, feeling more confused than ever. “So you literally live with Mr. Yang because he is literally your uncle. What the f*ck. How have I never heard this before?”

Stelle shrugged. “Never came up, I guess. Hey, I gotta get to my shift— see you later, okay? And seriously, you’re totally fine. I’m just having a weird day.”

March watched her friend climb out of the alcove and disappear towards the sidewalk. How had she never known that Stelle lived with Mr. Yang? They’d been friends for, god, how long now— at least 6 months, since she’d moved there in the spring. And now that she thought about it, Mr. Yang did start at the Trailblazer at around the same time as Stelle. It didn’t not make sense, but it didn’t leave her feeling particularly settled either. Really, it just made her feel like a crappy friend.

Given that she hadn’t even started drying off, March rolled her way back into the water and dived underneath the surface. Thoughts were swirling in her head, and none of them were particularly happy.

She swam with no particular direction in mind, letting her body move on autopilot. As the water streamed past her, memories of her friendship with Stelle floated through her mind— of their first meeting outside of Himeko’s office, of the first time she saw her digging through a trashcan, of the necklace Stelle had gifted her for her birthday, made of salvaged bottle caps and sea glass. Garbage isn’t a scientific definition, it’s a label, Stelle had explained with passion. It’s arbitrary. I’m just choosing not to use that label.

March had taken the gift graciously but never ended up wearing it, worried that she’d be judged. It didn’t really fit her normal style, you know? The necklace had ended up in one of her desk drawers, untouched behind a jumble of post-it notes and an old calculator.

Who was she to consider Stelle one of her best friends if all she ever did was take from her? She just took and took and took— Stelle’s time, Stelle’s energy, Stelle’s handmade gifts, with never a single thing to give in return. When was the last time she’d listened to Stelle pour out her troubles, helped her carry any sort of emotional burden? Or the last time she’d stayed up all night to help her complete some stupid photoshoot? Hell, the entire reason Stelle was in this predicament in the first place was because March had dragged her out to Mara Island, expecting everything and giving nothing.

March careened across the ocean floor, belly almost scraping the sand and rocks as she dodged coral and rode the deep currents. She was so caught up in her thoughts that she barely noticed the SPLASH overhead, or the dark shape plummeting into the water.

She rolled absently, gazing up at the surface to see what was there. The shadow of a boat hovered far above, which was normal enough— but what wasn’t normal was the tiny human figure thrashing in the water next to it.

March’s stomach jolted and she fanned her fins to slow down, then darted up closer. As the shape got bigger, she could see it was a man— fully clothed and seemingly terrified as he clawed for the surface, pulled down by the heavy gear around his waist. She watched from a safe distance for a moment, unsure of what to do. Surely someone else would help him, right?

Sure enough, a life preserver fell into the water next to him. She watched as the man grasped for it and missed entirely, instead sinking deeper from the surface. His movements were starting to slow now, and March realized with a sudden clarity that she was watching this person drown.

And secret be damned, she was not letting that happen on her watch. In a rush of adrenaline, March darted up towards the figure with her arms outstretched. She barreled into him and grabbed his arm, pumping her tail desperately towards the surface. Talk about dead weight! As she struggled up, she glanced down at his face and felt her stomach drop when she realized who it was.

“GEPARD!” A voice screamed from the boat, muffled through the water. March’s heart beat faster, because if this was Gepard, then that had to be Pela. Gepard and Pela, two Astral Cove natives who happened to know exactly who she was.

Out of instinct, March tensed her auxiliary fins and fanned them out as wide as possible, hoping they would at least help hide who she was. An instant later she burst to the surface, Gepard wrapped tightly in her arms.

Pela was leaning over the side of the boat, letting out panicked breaths. When she saw March and Gepard, her eyes widened. “Geppie!” She gasped.

March pawed at her hair with one hand, making sure it was covering her face, and quickly brought Gepard over to the side of the boat. She kept him stable as Pela reached down and grabbed his arms, then ducked under and boosted him up from beneath to help her get him onto the boat.

She popped her head up one last time, just to make sure he was safely out of the water. Sure enough, Pela had propped him up on his knees and was currently slapping his back to help him cough up water. Pela scanned the water and she caught site of March. Her eyes widened. “Wait—“

March took that as her cue to leave.

Chapter 8: AMA


In which March runs into a colleague and Dan Heng meets his match


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Chapter Text


In the days following Gepard’s rescue, March felt like she was holding her breath. Any hour, any second, she’d hear flashing sirens and turn around to see Gepard pushing his way out of a cop car, pointing, shouting— it was her! Doors would slam, she’d be blindfolded, dragged away, shoved in the back of an unmarked white van. That Friday, the day it happened, March was so anxious that she even skipped Asta’s party (much to her friend’s disappointment).

As the weekend wore on, however, March found her worry easing. First of all, if anyone was going to take her away it probably would have happened by now. And second of all, she had a wonderful new distraction to keep herself occupied: an underwater camera she’d picked up first thing Saturday morning.

The thing was huge and bulky and she loved it. No interchangeable lenses, unfortunately— apparently that was a big issue with waterproof things— but the lens it came outfitted with was high quality and all-purpose enough that it wouldn’t cause any problems. As soon as she got it, she made a beeline from the second-hand store to the coast and, as soon as she found a secluded spot on the beach, jumped in.

March tested out her new camera for hours, making her way around the cove as she tried different settings and subjects. She felt giddy, more happy than she’d been in a long time. Every photo she took, every subject she captured was its own story waiting to be told. And this wasn’t just the story of coral or kelp or fish— it the story of the ocean and the miasma of life that depended on it to survive. It suddenly felt incredibly important that she do it justice.

Eventually her stomach started to growl and she forced her way back to land, beaching at the alcove by the Trailblazer and burrito-ing herself until her legs came back.

It was mid-afternoon at that point and the lunch rush was long gone. Himeko was at the front counter of the cafe area, her back to the door. When March poked her, she jumped in surprise.

“Oh, March. It’s just you.” Himeko laughed and put a hand over her heart. “You have to be careful, sis, I’m getting old.”

“You really aren’t, my dear,” said a familiar voice. March poked her head around to see Mr. Yang behind the counter wearing a Trailblazer apron.

“Hey, Mr. Yang!”

“Hello, Ms. March. Tell me, did you decide to apply to the Herta Center?”

March nodded vigorously. The energy from her swim was still coursing through her, hunger be damned. “Dan Heng helped me with my resume. I’m gonna drop it off on Monday, right when they open! Oh— Dan Heng is my friend from school. Have you met him?”

Mr. Yang glanced at Himeko. “Not yet, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about him.”

“Yeah, he’s cool.” March shuffled her feet. “Well, I’m feeling really good about the job and this underwater photography thing. I even got a new camera, it’s really cool!” She hoisted up the device to show them. “It’s totally waterproof. Second-hand, but in great condition.”

Himeko frowned. “Be sure you get a wet suit before you get too far into the water, okay? You know how cold it gets. And always make sure you have a buddy with you.”

“Obviously,” March said. She didn’t love lying to Himeko, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped.

March didn’t always get free food at the Trailblazer, but the chances went way up when her sister was there. Sure enough, Himeko offered March’s lunch on the house and she eagerly ordered, taking a seat by the window.

A few minutes later, Stelle sauntered out from the backroom and plopped down into the chair across from March. “Yo. Mr. Yang said you were here. I’m on break.”

March grinned. “Stelle, look what I got!” She plopped the camera onto the table. “I just spent, like four hours taking photos out in the cove. It’s awesome.”

Stelle picked up the camera and inspected it. “Whoa. I wanna try.”

“Totally. You should come out with me later! I’m, like, obsessed. I don’t think it’ll be great at night, though, so we’ll have to go when it’s light out.”

“You could bring a flashlight or something.”

“Oh! Wait, that’d be so cool!” March’s eyes widened as she imagined the possibilities— eerie shadows, spotlights revealing flashes of the endless ocean depths. “I bet I could do something really scary for Halloween.”

“Yeah,” Stelle said. Then: “Hey, random question, have you seen any whales?”

March blinked. “Whales?”

“Yeah, you know. Giant things that kinda look like fish but aren’t?”

“I know what a whale is,” she retorted. “I mean, yeah, I’ve seen whales before. I’ve lived here my whole life, you end up seeing just about every sea creature if you stick around long enough.”

“But, like, recently?”

March lowered her voice. “You mean since we’ve been, like, water affiliated?

“Yeah, sure.”

It did seem like she ought to have seen a whale by now, but when March tried to remember, nothing came up. “Huh. I don’t think I’ve seen one. At least, not in the last week. Wait—” She pulled out her phone and clicked open the camera roll, frantically scrolling backward to find the moon photoshoot. “Oh my god. Oh my god. Stelle!”

“You okay?”

March nodded excitedly, already clicking open the group chat. “Stelle, it’s Saturday! It’s our one-week anniversary since we got zapped!” She quickly typed up a message:

(15:45) March: HAPPY 1 WEEK FISH ANNIVERSERYY!!!!! :balloon: :balloon:

“It’s only been a week,” Stelle said blankly. She looked down at her phone, which had buzzed with March’s incoming message. “Oh my god. It’s only been a week.”

“I know! Pretty crazy, right? And to think, seven days ago we were all still a bunch of schlubby land-dwellers. Oh— thank you!” March clapped her hands excitedly as Mr. Yang set down her sandwich.

“Enjoy,” he said, then turned to Stelle. “Please remember to feed Pom Pom tonight. I will be out until late.”

“Yes, Mr. Yang,” Stelle deadpanned.

When Mr. Yang was gone, March let out the giggle she’d been desperately holding in. “Oh my god, you do live with him!”

Stelle grinned. “What, you thought I was lying? I’m almost offended. I would never come up with a lie that lame. ‘Oh, I live with this dude who’s, like, my uncle. Psych!’”

“Who’s Pom Pom?”

“Our, like, dog.”

“You have a dog!?”

“Sort of?” Stelle shrugged. “Mr. Yang has a hot date tonight so I gotta get back and feed ‘em. Pom Pom gets really cranky when they’re hungry.”

“A hot date!? Stelle, you can’t just throw these things on me! I’m just here trying to eat my sandwich and now I learn that, not only do you have a dog, Mr. Yang has a hot date!? You’re killing me.”

Stelle smirked. “Dude, you think you’re curious? Think about how I feel. Trust me, I will get all of the juicy details that I possibly can.”

“Good,” March stated. She held out her hand and they shook on it.

Stelle’s break soon ended and, with no one else to talk to, March finally managed to scarf down her sandwich.

March spent the remainder of the weekend either in the water taking photos or thinking about being in the water taking photos. Stelle had Sunday off and March was more than happy for the company; her friend had a pretty good eye, it turned out, and together the two scoped out potential shots and ideas for photo series.

As much as she tried to drag Dan Heng out with them, he seemed to have any number of excuses at hand— he was working on his writing, he had to go get groceries, he was taking a nap. March knew Dan Heng— he never took naps!

“He’s fine,” Stelle had insisted when March brought it up. “He’s probably just being weird ‘cause it’s our fish-versery.”

March had grumbled something about their fish-versary actually being yesterday, but she knew Stelle was probably right. And it wasn’t like he was MIA in the group chat or anything— in fact, he seemed far more active than usual. Like he was bored or something.

It only took one weekend with his roommates in the know for Dan Heng to realize that he was the most annoying person in the world. It was astonishing, really, that March had put up with his bullsh*t for this long. He’d just never realized it before; how irritating it was to have someone constantly fretting over your whereabouts, assuming you were always on the verge of making an incredibly stupid decision, every second of every minute of every hour of every day.

Enter Arlan. Dan Heng liked Arlan. He still liked Arlan. What he hadn’t realized, until his roommates walked in on him with a fish tail, was that Arlan and him were extremely similar people, in one very specific way.

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” Arlan said from the kitchen.

Dan Heng rubbed his forehead, trying to ward off the oncoming headache. “Okay,” he said. “I hear you, but I’m telling you it’s fine.”

The kettle clicked on. “Green or black tea?” Arlan asked. And then, before Dan Heng could respond: “The ocean isn’t a safe place. You of all people should know that.”

They’d only met a week ago and Dan Heng knew Arlan couldn’t possibly know about his Dad— hardly anyone did, save March and Himeko and a few school counselors— but the comment made him bristle anyway. Arlan was right— he did know that the ocean was f*cking horrifying, but he also knew that if he didn’t swim soon he was going to lose his mind.

Dan Heng shouldn’t have brought it up in the first place, really. He’d been avoiding the topic of swimming all weekend but as of Monday morning was too antsy to ignore it. It was clear from the get go that Arlan was deeply uncomfortable with his roommate’s condition, and in a way that almost exactly mirrored Dan Heng’s own unease. Given how poorly Dan Heng’d reacted when he first realized March and Stelle had gone in the ocean, he really should have expected Arlan’s response.

From the kitchen, Arlan let out an irritated noise. “Luka!” he shouted down the hallway, “Rule 4!”

Dan Heng turned around and watched over the back of the couch as Luka emerged from the bathroom, towel wrapped around his waist and hair still dripping.

“And now Rule 2!” Arlan snapped.

“Oh, sh*t.” Luka looked down at the now-damp carpet. “Sorry, Dan Heng! I’ll put down a towel!”

“No problem,” Dan Heng called back. Arlan had drafted a list of house rules to minimize the chance of Dan Heng fishing out by accident. Already, his two roommates had gone out of their way to reduce risks and for that he was truly appreciative— even if it could be a bit much. Getting fished in the hallway wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t like it was the end of the world now that his secret was out in the open.

In the kitchen, Arlan had pulled Luka to the open fridge and was reprimanding him for leaving his water bottle inside— this was apparently Rule 4. “I like it cold,” Luka protested weakly. He grabbed the water bottle which was, sure enough, wet with condensation. “Sorry, Dan Heng!”

“It’s really fine,” Dan Heng mumbled. As much as he appreciated the effort, the rules seemed like a lot of fuss for his roommates to worry about. He’d learned fast how to avoid water, and at least the apartment was a safe space. The stakes were low here, and yet Arlan acted like they were life and death. And now Luka was apologizing to him, as if he was the one who’d written up the rules.

At this point he’d had enough. Striding past his roommates, he grabbed a mug from the cabinet and tore open a green tea bag.

“Let me,” Arlan said quickly. He dove for the kettle but Dan Heng got to it first and began pouring hot water into his mug.

“Dude, he’s an adult. Let him pour his own water,” Luka said. He leaned against the counter, still in his towel.

Arlan gave Luka a dirty look but stepped back anyway. “I know that. I’m just trying—”

“Since Friday you’ve been on Dan Heng’s case constantly,” Luka cut in. “Yell at me all you want for dripping water— seriously, yell at me, I want to be a good roommate— but you gotta let the poor guy make his tea.”

The two continued to bicker while Dan Heng listened, his eyes firmly trained on the steeping tea. He felt like he was listening to two competing halves of his own personality arguing with each other, which was just making him feel more pissy.

The tea was still too hot to drink but Dan Heng couldn’t stand another second in that kitchen. He grabbed his mug and stalked past Luka and Arlan, and when he got to his room he closed the door firmly behind him.

Dan Heng closed his eyes and let out a frustrated groan. To his surprise, he was met with a yip in response. He opened his eyes to see Peppy looking up at him from the bed. The little dog co*cked his head, tongue lolling out.

“It’s not you,” Dan Heng insisted. He pulled off his sleeping t-shirt and tossed it to the side, reaching into the closet for a collared shirt. “It’s just been a lot, you know,” he continued, beginning to button the shirt. “Like, I finally start to feel comfortable with this whole fish thing, and suddenly everyone’s freaking out again and I’m over here just trying to not freak out 24/7.”

Peppy watched with beady eyes as he kicked off his shorts and hopped into a pair of jeans. “You know what yesterday was?” he asked the dog. “Our one-week anniversary of getting zapped. I think March totally forgot until then, but I sure didn’t. I even got up yesterday thinking, huh. Maybe this was just a one-week thing. Like a seven-day flu or something. And next week I just know I’m gonna think huh, maybe this was just a two-week thing. I’m a f*cking idiot.”

“You talking to me?” Luka shouted from the hall.

“Just Peppy,” Dan Heng called back. He glanced at the little dog, who had begun meditatively licking his front left foot. “This is between you and me, got it?”

Rather than responding, Peppy simply belched and continued to lick.

When Monday finally rolled around, March woke up stoked. Himeko was already at work by the time she got up, and she took advantage of her sister’s absence by blasting music in the bathroom and singing at the top of her lungs while she lounged in the tub, tail and all. She, March Murata, was about to apply to a job. It seemed so lame on the surface, but no— this wasn’t just a job. Even if she got rejected, today marked a new beginning: of her finally following her passions and making something of her life.

Though she’d planned to get to the Herta Center right when it opened, March spent way too long picking out her outfit and ended up rolling in around lunchtime. Himeko had let her take the car today but that ended up being a mistake; the lot was almost full, and she circled for 20 minutes before finally finding a place to park the old Volvo.

When the doors to the elevator opened and she finally stepped out onto the fifth floor mezzanine, the place was bustling with visitors and researchers alike; in fact, the line to the cafeteria wrapped around the room and down an adjacent hallway. Kids screamed and chased each other among tables, chaperones pulled out their hair, mothers rocked babies, scientists stared intensely at research papers as they tried to eat their lunches as fast as possible.

Aware of the numerous uncovered beverages, March carefully picked her way across the atrium to the large visitor’s center. Here, visitors could purchase day passes to the aquarium, sign up for memberships, go on tours or attend lectures, and browse the gift shop. Said gift shop had always been her favorite— it overflowed with colorful books and plushies of every sea animal you could imagine.

There was a short line and March slotted herself in, rocking on her feet impatiently and trying her best not to crinkle her resume. When she reached the front, a glamorous-looking woman greeted her.

“Hello, miss. How can I help you today?”

“Hey! Umm.” March paused, suddenly unsure of what to say. “Sorry, this is kinda a weird question, but… do you have any job openings?”

The woman seemed genuinely surprised and her manicured eyebrows raised for a split second before she set her face again. The woman scanned March up and down, then called over her shoulder: “Hey, Qingque! Be a dear and cover for me, alright?”

A brown-haired girl hurried to take her place, flashing March a quick smile before waving on the next guest. March hurried to the side of the booth and the woman stepped out, looking her up and down again. “Well now. You’re interested in working for us, then. I’m Tingyun.” She held out her hand and March shook it eagerly.

“March Murata! Pleasure to meet you.”

“The pleasure’s mine,” the woman, Tingyun, said. She smiled a charming, movie-star smile. “What types of positions are you interested in, Miss Murata?”

“Anything! I mean— I would love to be an associate at the visitor’s center, or even lead tours. It’d be an honor to get to work here at the Herta. I’m from Astral Cove and I’ve always admired what you do here.”

“Why only apply now, then?”

March bit her lip. “I guess it just feels like the right time. Like I’m finally ready. Oh!” She shoved her resume forward. “Here.”

Tingyun took the paper, looking amused. She scanned it. “Lifeguard Team Lead, huh? Very impressive. And it says here you’re a freelance… content creator?”

“Yes— well, I’ve mostly made my living through content. Like, social media and stuff.” March trailed off, unsure of how familiar Tingyun was with the concept of influencers. “Which is also why I want to work here. I think that if I can learn more about the ocean and conservation, I can really use my platform for good.”

“Is that so.” Tingyun spent another moment looking at the resume, then nodded. “Thank you, March. I’ll have to speak with my team, but I think we may have some positions you’d do well in.”

“Oh!” March’s mouth dropped open and she quickly shut it. Had it really been that easy? “Oh my gosh, thank you Ms. Tingyun! That’s incredible! I mean— umm, I’ll wait to hear back?”

Tingyun nodded again, her eyes gleaming with humor. “Yes, why don’t you?”

“Yeah! Sure. Umm, thank you! Thanks so much!” Before she could run her mouth anymore, March hurried away. Her heart was racing with adrenaline and she realized she was grinning from ear to ear.

When she got back to the main cafeteria area, there was somehow even more commotion than before. One specific person seemed to be causing the bulk of said commotion— a tall red-headed girl, about March’s age, vaguely familiar, and currently standing on a table and filming with her phone.

“Yo yo yo, fam! This is Little Gui here at the world renowned Herta Center, investigating our newest mystery, voted on by the Little Gui Legion— is there a mermaid in Astral Cove? And is this prestigious scientific institution actually hiding something? As always, if you want to join the Legion, remember to like, subscribe, share, and check out my shop, link in bio!”

And just like that, March’s excitement vanished. She watched from the side of the cafeteria as a small crowd gathered around the girl, trying to place where she’d seen her before. Finally she gave up and pulled out her phone to search up ‘Little Gui’.

Her stomach fell. Of course that’s who it was— Little Gui, internet celebrity and shock artist who’d amassed a disgustingly large following after a certain video involving a sledgehammer went viral.


March squealed in surprise and spun around to see Dan Heng, rubbing his head sheepishly. “You!”

“Sorry,” he said, not looking particularly sorry. “So you dropped off your resume?”

“Yeah! I think it went pretty well, Ms. Tingyun— the lady I talked to— she said there might be a position.”

Dan Heng grinned. “March, that’s awesome!”

March tried to smile back, but it came out as more of a grimace. “Totally. Except as soon as I walk out, I see…” she trailed off, gesturing at the scene in front of them. Little Gui had jumped down from the table and was currently interviewing/streaming a group of researchers who seemed less than enthused.

“Yeah, it’s rough. She tried to do this big stunt in the aquarium earlier but Arlan and his team kicked her out. Apparently the penguins were getting very stressed out.”

“Dear lord,” March shuddered. Across the way, Little Gui was now doing some kind of choreographed dance and trying to get a group of researchers to join in. “We might both be content creators, but I’d like to think I have a little class.”

“I guess it gets the views…” Dan Heng trailed off. He squinted at the scene, a look of confusion crossing his face. “What is she doing?”

It was an excellent question. Little Gui’s dance seemed to be getting increasingly strange, and she now had her legs zipped together and was hopping around like a pogo stick. “Oh my god, is she trying to be a mermaid!?”

“Well if that’s what a mermaid looks like to her, I think we’re in the clear,” Dan Heng said. He didn’t sound convinced.

March sighed. “Yeah. Not great. I’ve seen this girl’s videos— she’s pretty persistent. As long as she gets engagement, I’ll bet you she keeps on chasing this mermaid thing. And as a fellow influencer I do respect the hustle, but… I mean, c’mon. You had to pick mermaids? In Astral Cove of all places?”

The two watched as Little Gui meandered through the cafeteria, talking the entire time as she streamed from her phone. March had no reason to stick around, and Dan Heng probably had to get back to whatever he did all day in the archives, and yet they couldn’t look away. Maybe it was some risk-seeking fascination, a dancing-with-danger type of thing as this internet celebrity yapped about trying to find mermaids while unknowingly mere feet away from said mermaids. Or, alternatively, they were just idiots.

Eventually Little Gui wandered down the hallway towards the bathroom and March decided it was probably time to head home.

“Me and Stelle are gonna go do some more photography later, if you want to join,” March said as they walked towards the elevator. “We might already be out but you can totally meet us when you get off work.”

“Oh man, maybe. I’d love to, I’ll just have to lose Arlan first.”

March winced. “That bad, huh?”

“It’s fine,” he said slowly, as if picking out his words very carefully. “I mean, I get why he’s worried about me. I would be worried about me too, if I was him.”

“What do you mean, would be worried?” March teased.

He gave her a look. “How about this, then. If it’d just been you and Stelle who got zapped, and I was in the position Arlan’s in now, I would be the most annoying human being on the entire planet. Just completely insufferable.”

“Again— what do you mean, would be?” March giggled. Dan Heng’s glare sharpened and she put up her hands in defeat. “Okay, okay, I’ll admit it, you could be way worse. This is, like, mid-tier annoying Dan Heng. Like forty-percent annoying.”

He rolled his eyes. “Trust me, if it weren’t for the tail I’d be at ninety, full stop.”

They got to the elevators just as the doors shut. March pressed the ‘down’ button and stepped back, playing with her hair idly. “Well, if you wanna join us later we’ll probably be in the kelp forest. I won’t have my phone on me for obvious reasons.”

“Oh my god, is that Say~Cheese~!?”

March froze— Say~Cheese~ was her social media handle. Dan Heng glanced behind them and swore.

There was a tall, red-haired girl standing at the end of the hall, a manic look in her eyes. Little Gui waved excitedly at March, who raised her hand hesitantly.

“You know her?” Dan Heng hissed as Little Gui approached them.

“No! I mean, I think we’ve dm’d—”

“Oh my god. Oh my god! Say~Cheese~, it totally is you! Ahh, you’re just as cute in real life. It’s me— Little Gui! You know, Little Gui’s Legion?”

March plastered on her most charming smile. “Little Gui! Oh my god!” She held out her arms and they hugged, March desperately trying to match the other girl’s excitement. “I’m such a fan! What are you doing in Astral Cove?”

“It’s a secret,” Little Gui said. She frowned. “Actually, it’s not a secret at all ‘cause I just live streamed it… oh well! Basically, I’m mermaid hunting.”

Dan Heng flinched; he’d been quietly observing the entire interaction and, as of this point, Little Gui still hadn’t seemed to have noticed him. March was happy to keep it that way, so she put on her best ‘surprised’ face. “Mermaids!? No way. I mean—” she lowered her voice. “You got a stunt planned or something?”

Little Gui winked. “An artist never reveals her secrets. But I think this is the real deal, okay? Like, I’m not some crazy conspiracy theorist or anything— I only investigate legit stuff.”

Given that Little Gui’s channel consisted almost entirely of stupid dares and investigating urban legends, this seemed certifiably false. “You seriously think mermaids are legit?” March asked, trying to sound both skeptical and disinterested at the same time.

Sure enough, Little Gui scrambled. “It’s legit, okay? Influencer to influencer, I’m telling you! Here— gimme your number, okay? I wanna send you something.” She pulled out her phone and handed it to March, who typed in her contact. A second later, her own phone buzzed and she pulled it out.

There was a new message with two images attached, sent from an unregistered number that was presumably Little Gui. March glanced back at Dan Heng— still watching and still completely unnoticed— and tapped open the first image.

It was a screenshot of a post in a message board, dated from that weekend. The title of the post: “A mermaid saved me from drowning, AMA”

On last week I was saved from drowning by a mermaid. Before anyone asks, I am a healthy 28Y male, working in law enforcement, no history of prior conditions besides high school sports injuries and anxiety (managed).

I was in a skipper (boat) with my colleague P (28F) at the time for work. Pacific coast, low tide, mild waters. Leaned too far backward, fell into the water. Yes, I can swim, but I was wearing four utility belts at the time and the weight pulled me down.

I don’t realize that at first, of course, so I try to tread water but I just keep on sinking. Not sure if you’ve ever been close to drowning before, but it’s really scary. Your body starts freaking out and suddenly I’m flailing and panicking. I remember having this moment of clarity, like, wow. I’m about to die.

And then suddenly there’s these arms around my waist and I’m rising up towards the surface, I open my eyes and I see her. A mermaid. She looks away, like she’s shy or something, and then pushes me up to the surface and onto the boat. I think nothing of it, I’m half conscious as it is. But then, later, P asks me if I saw what saved me and I realize it wasn’t a hallucination. A mermaid saved me and we both saw it.


edit: added a picture of the mermaid (not an artist)

March zoomed in on the picture, feeling numb. It was an extremely poorly-drawn picture of what she could only assume was a mermaid— specifically, a pink-haired mermaid that was quite obviously her.

Sea of Quanta - grabdog - 崩坏:星穹铁道 (1)

Behind her, Dan Heng let out a little choking sound. March didn’t know whether to burst into tears or laughter.

“I know, crazy right?” Little Gui reached down and swiped March’s phone to the next picture. Another screenshot, this one of a comment on the message board:

OP’s colleague here, 28 (F), was also on boat, etc. I can vouch fully for OP. We have known each other since high school and have been partners for most of our careers. OP is not making this sh*t up. A mermaid saved him from drowning. I saw her (they?) very clearly. She (they?) did not want to be photographed and swam away as soon as she (they?) realized I was looking.

@bgfotts-demon: only weed, never on the job. OP is totally dry
@68YY6fan: did not hear any singing
@skaterrrrrr: FWIW I did not approve of the 4 utility belts lol

Here’s my interpretation of the mermaid btw…

The attached picture was far better drawn but also quite bizarre; she looked a bit like a heroine in a shoujo manga or something.

Sea of Quanta - grabdog - 崩坏:星穹铁道 (2)

“This one’s way better,” Little Gui said, zooming in on the picture. “Wait— oh my god, she kinda looks like you! Ugh, so cute. I wish I had a mermaid doppelgänger. Hey, you!“ She motioned to Dan Heng. “Doesn’t this picture look like her?”

Dan Heng blinked, seemingly surprised at suddenly being noticed. He looked at the screen blankly. “Uh, like March?”

“He’s with me,” March said quickly. Little Gui had already lost interest, however, and was back on her own phone.

“Yo, Say~Cheese~, we gotta do a collab or something while I”m here,” Little Gui said, her eyes still trained on her phone. “I’ll text you, yeah?”

“I— sure. Okay. Bye!” March grabbed Dan Heng’s wrist and made a beeline for a stairwell. No way was she waiting for an elevator a second longer.

When they got to the ground floor, March told Dan Heng everything. She didn’t have much of a choice; the pictures from Little Gui weren’t a splitting image of her or anything, but they did depict a pink-haired, pink-tailed mermaid. She was a pink-haired, pink-tailed mermaid. It wasn’t rocket science.

To her surprise, Dan Heng wasn’t mad. “Dude, you saved someone. You’re a hero.”

“Yeah, but now we have that stupid influencer on our tails…” March trailed off.

He gave her an odd look. “March, you know what the alternative is, right? It’s that you didn’t save Gepard. He probably would have died. But he didn’t— he’s alive because of you. The rest is superficial. We can deal with it.”

Dan Heng never got to go for his swim. When he left work on Monday, a few hours after seeing March and running into that influencer person, Arlan was waiting for him at the security station.

He could’ve just gotten on his bike and rode away as quickly as possible, skidded to a halt at some vacant beach and hid his bike behind a rock and sprinted into the water, never looking back. Technically, he could have. He was even planning to, until Arlan looked at him with the most earnest, pleading expression he’d ever seen. And then he had to take the bus home with his roommate. Not doing so would have been like kicking a puppy, or a kitten, or some other small cute thing.

And so Dan Heng rode the bus home with Arlan, leaving his bike at the Herta to ride home the following day. His stomach clenched in knots as the bus veered left outside of the Herta, sending them further and further from the beach.

He wasn’t feeling particularly chatty, and Arlan quickly caught on, giving up on conversation and turning his attention to Peppy instead. If there was one silver lining, it was that Arlan hadn’t seemed to have heard Little Gui yapping about mermaids. Dan Heng was still processing it himself, along with the fact that March had saved Gepard Landau from drowning. She was a good person.

Dan Heng leaned his forehead against the window, watching trees pass by. The antsy feeling in his body had just gotten worse over the course of the day, becoming increasingly distracting as he attempted to fidget his non-existent tail. Unfortunately, this mostly took the form of him wiggling his butt in his chair while his brain got confused and thought he had an extra seven feet of vertebrate attached to his spine.

“Are you okay?” Arlan was giving him a concerned look, and even Peppy looked a bit confused.

Dan Heng groaned. “Was I scooting around or something?”

“Kind of. You looked like Peppy when he had to get his anal glands expressed.”

“f*ck me,” Dan Heng groaned, slumping down into the bus seat. His knees hit the seat in front of him and he let out a lackluster, “ow.”

Arlan left him alone after that, but the look of concern remained. When they were about five minutes from home, he suddenly reached over Dan Heng and pulled the “Stop Requested” cord hanging above the window.

Dan Heng glanced up. “This isn’t our stop…”

Arlan just stood up, Peppy tucked under an arm. “C’mon,” he said flatly. The bus jolted into park and the doors slid open. Dan Heng realized with a start that he was about to get left behind. He quickly clamored after his roommate, sliding through the doors just before they shut.

They’d gotten off at one of the awkward half-stops between adjoining neighborhoods, the kinds that people only used if they were trying to get to a specific hiking trail or beach— or because they read the bus route wrong.

“Good job, Peppy!” Arlan exclaimed. He’d set Peppy down and the little dog was doing his business in the grass.

The fresh air had brought with it the smell of the ocean and Dan Heng tapped his foot restlessly, watching Arlan tie off the poop bag. “Arlan—“

“Hey,” Arlan cut in. He caught Dan Heng’s eye, then looked away. “I’m sorry.”

Dan Heng tilted his head— Arlan looked unreasonably dejected. “It’s fine, dude, it’s just a wrong stop. We can get home in 20 minutes, easy.”

“No, I mean— I’m sorry. For being such a weirdo about your whole thing.” Arlan gestured vaguely. “Luka’s right, I’ve been totally unreasonable all weekend. You’re already dealing with this freaky, life altering sh*t, and suddenly I come in and insist that you’re doing it wrong.”

“There’s no manual for this,” Dan Heng said quietly.

Arlan shook his head. “You should’ve just told me off— like, you have no reason to put up with my bullsh*t. We’ve only known each other for a week—”

“But you’re my friend,” Dan Heng cut in. “And I get it. The freaking out. I mean, you saw me on Friday, after…” He trailed off, not wanting to dwell on the panic he’d experienced after changing back that morning. Not his finest moment, for sure.

Peppy had wandered to the end of his leash to sniff at a bush, and Arlan looked down to watch his dog. His expression was stony as ever. As the moment dragged on, Dan Heng started to feel increasingly uncomfortable— was it because he’d said they were friends? Did Arlan not view him that way? It also didn’t help that the breeze had started to pick up, filling the air with the scent of the ocean, so close he could hear the sound of waves on the shores.

Finally, Arlan turned back to Dan Heng. “So I was thinking— I think I’ll just walk Peppy home. Let him stretch his legs, you know?”

Made sense— they were only a short walk from the apartment, probably not worth waiting for another bus. “Great,” Dan Heng stated; he’d had enough of this interaction and was ready to move along. When he started down the sidewalk, however, Arlan didn’t move.


“We’re near the water,” Arlan said flatly. Under his serious expression, he also looked quite uncomfortable.

“Thanks for the reminder.”

Arlan glanced down at Peppy again. “I… how do I say this? I am going to walk home. You are welcome to come with me. If you want. Do you want to walk home? Because I don’t think you do.”

Dan Heng blinked. Then: “Oh.” His eyes widened and he glanced to their left, where the beach was just visible beyond the street. “Wait, seriously?”

“Like I said— I’ve been an asshole. Just— do your thing, okay? I’m not gonna stop you. I don’t want to stop you.” His lips turned up in a shy smile. “You’re my friend, after all.”

Dan Heng grinned. Suddenly, all that anxiety and stress that had been building up in him formed into something else— pure, unadulterated excitement. He hopped from foot to foot. “Okay. Okay— umm, I’ll see you later then?”

“See you,” Arlan said, his smile growing until it matched Dan Heng’s. And then, without another word, he spun on his heel and started walking down the sidewalk, Peppy in lockstep.

It took Dan Heng thirty seconds to sprint to the waterline, and ten seconds later he was swimming.

It was awesome.

Chapter 9: Balance Beam


March and Asta go to a party


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

March was having a great week. She got the job, first of all. Tingyun from the visitor’s center called her the day after she dropped off her resume, asking her to come in for a final interview (which she insisted was mostly a formality) and to go over her schedule.

And just like that, it was set— 20 hours a week, with full days on Wednesdays and Thursdays and a half-day on Friday. She even managed to get the weekend off, though Tingyun said she’d be expected to pick up shifts now and then if needed. Being a tour guide was a no-go for new hires, unfortunately, but if she did well for the first few months she could start training for it as well.

With only a week until the job started, March took advantage of every second she had left to work on her new socials and edit photos. She even forced herself to stay out of the water— or, out of the water with her camera at the very least. In only a few days, she and Stelle had taken almost a thousand photos and she’d barely gotten through a hundred.

On Saturday morning, she met Asta at the Trailblazer to do some work together. Even with her heap of unedited photos, March had nothing on her friend when it came to workload— Asta was up against a hard deadline to submit her research paper to some journal, and she was stressed.

“Maybe you should slow down…”

Asta looked up from her fourth cup of black coffee, strawberry hair forming a frizzy halo around her head. “I’ve been up for over 24 hours and my paper is due at noon. This is me slowing down.” She angled her coffee towards March. “See? I put milk in it. That makes it less strong.”

March wasn’t sure a single drop of milk did much to water the coffee down— the liquid in Asta’s cup was no latte— but she let it slide. Asta had seemed off all week, less chatty than normal, and if coffee was what would pull her friend through then coffee is what she’d have.

“Just promise me you’ll nap after this, yeah?”

“Duh.” Asta rubbed her temples. “I’m almost done, I just— I need to read over it a few more times. I know I’ve missed something. The Archeo Review is super selective, even a single typo or misformatted citation is enough to get your paper rejected.”

“You’re going to be fine,” March insisted. She knew absolutely nothing about Asta’s research, but cheerleading was well within her pay grade. “And even if something does go wrong— which it won’t, by the way— you’re still gonna be fine. You’re still gonna do awesome research and make big discoveries and have an impeccable fashion sense, and you’re still gonna be my best friend.”

Asta rolled her eyes but smiled anyway— that exhausted, sleep-deprived smile unique to all-nighters and bad hangovers. She scooted her chair around next to March. “Show me what you’re working on, yeah?”

“Sure!” March angled her laptop screen so Asta could see. She’d been in Adobe Lightroom organizing her files; they covered the screen in a patchwork of colorful thumbnails. “I took a butt load of photos this weekend and I’m trying to sort through them.”

Asta squinted at the screen and leaned in closer. She double clicked on one of the pictures, blowing it up— a dappled blue photo of a jellyfish she’d taken in the kelp forest. Not her best— it’d been from when she was playing around with the focus last week.

“March, this is incredible,” Asta said softly. “You took this? It’s, like— this is National Geographic level, March.”

“It’s okay,” March said sheepishly.

Asta ignored her, completely transfixed by the screen. She clicked slowly through the pictures— another shot of the jellyfish, golden light shining through the kelp, some fun high-contrast ones that made it seem like you were looking into in a funhouse mirror. March just waited awkwardly; she was used to sharing her photos, but usually they were a bit more curated than this.

March’s eyes wandered to the ribbon of photos at the bottom of the screen, showing the next handful to come. Kelp, kelp, kelp. Asta clicked again and a new picture entered the ribbon, one that was decidedly not of kelp.

March’s stomach jolted. She’d tried not to take too many shots containing her friends— probably best to avoid creating incriminating evidence of them being mermaids— but it’d been hard to avoid it entirely. Case and point, the photo in the ribbon— a rather unflattering shot of Stelle in all of her finned glory, most likely taken wile March was fiddling with the camera.

March quickly snatched the laptop back from Asta and shut it. “Umm— you need to get back to work, okay? You don’t wanna miss your deadline!”

Asta let out a little groan. “Yeah. Yeah, okay. Well, I want to see your pictures later, okay? They really are amazing.” She sighed and scooted her chair back, the legs screeching unpleasantly on the floor. “I’m just gonna read it one more time through. That’s it. Then I’m gonna submit it.”

“Perfect,” March said cheerfully, trying to hide how fast her heart was racing. Maybe it was a good thing Asta was so sleep deprived— if not, she’d probably have seen the photo of Stelle in the ribbon. Feeling like she needed to stretch her legs, March caught Asta’s attention. “Hey— I’m gonna go to the bathroom. I might get a croissant or something, you want anything?”

Asta blinked heavily and glanced into her cup. “Another coffee?”

“Fine, but I’m cutting you off after this.”

March left Asta at the table and headed to the unisex bathroom at the other end of the cafe. There was a sizable line, but March was willing to wait. She’d quickly learned that multi-stall bathrooms were exceptionally dangerous when you were one splash away from growing a tail.

She pulled out her phone to pass the time. Out of some sort of morbid curiosity, she searched up the influencer from the Herta that week. The account came up right away— LilGuiGuinevere.

Little Gui had been posting a lot, it turned out. Her last handful of photos were all tagged in Astral Cove— a selfie at the Herta, a selfie with some sort of swirly ice cream thing that must have been from the tourist downtown, a beach shot, another beach shot. March clicked on the most recent, a cute photo of Little Gui in a bikini, and sighed. Her own collection of swimwear would probably be gathering dust for the foreseeable future. Swimming with a tail was way better, obviously, but still. Cute swimwear.

March tapped the photo, hoping to see the brand tagged, but to her surprise a familiar name popped up. ShangshangOfficial had been tagged in the corner, probably as the photo-taker. ShangshangOfficial as in Sushang, March’s yoga instructor and former classmate. Were they friends or something? She was about to dive into Sushang’s account when someone tapped her on the shoulder.

She turned around to see Dan Heng, backpack slung over his shoulder. “Yo,” he said, raising a hand.

“Hi! You here to write or something?”

He nodded. “I’ve barely gotten anything done since moving here. I thought I’d have so much time to work on my collection, but. You know.”

March did, indeed, know. “Same, dude. I mean— I have like 900 photos to go through, it’s disgusting. Me and Asta are sitting by the window, you should join us.”

“Sure. I’ll probably put on my headphones, though.”

“Perfect! Asta has a paper due at noon so she’s in super focus mode. See you back there.” March turned back to the line, expecting Dan Heng to walk away. He didn’t. “Oh,” she giggled. “You gotta go too?”

He shifted uncomfortably. “Can’t really use the men’s restroom…”

“Oh trust me, I get it,” March said, still giggling. The door to the unisex bathroom clicked and swung open, and March dove to grab it before it closed, leaving Dan Heng alone in the hallway.

They pulled up another chair and Dan Heng joined the little group, the three of them glued to their laptops as they worked away in their own worlds. March did pretty well with her tasks, all things considered; she managed to make it through a good two hundred photos before her phone buzzed.

(10:08)Guinaifen: Yo, say cheese!! What r you up to tonight

It took her a second to realize who Guinaifen was, and she blinked in surprise.

(10:09)March: Omg lil gui~ hi!!
(10:09)March: no plans why?

March stared at the screen, feeling uneasy. She elbowed Dan Heng and slid the phone to him. When he ignored her, she elbowed him again.

“What?” Dan Heng complained, pulling off his headphones. He squinted down at the phone. “Who’s Guinaifen?”

“It’s Gui. From the other day.”

“Oh.” He gave her a look. “You shouldn’t have said don’t have plans, now you have to do whatever she invites you to.”

March grimaced— he was totally right. “I’m sure it’ll be fine,” she said. Then, seeing Asta glaring at them over the top of her laptop screen, mouthed sorry and scooted back to her spot. She even took the time to turn her phone on ‘do not disturb’ before flipping it face-down on the table. This was support-Asta time. Guinaifen could wait.

They continued to work quietly for another hour or so until Asta suddenly slammed her laptop shut and pushed it away from her. March checked the time— 11:55 on the dot. She grinned. “You’re done?”

Asta nodded, eyes wide. She looked shell shocked. “Holy sh*t. I don’t think I’ve ever cut it that close before.”

“Who cares? You’re done!” March clapped her hands excitedly. She still had over 500 photos left, but who cared? It was time to celebrate.

“Is it hot in here? I can’t tell if I’m overheating or under-heating,” Asta said. She was still staring blankly at her laptop.

Dan Heng took off his headphones carefully. “Umm, how long have you been awake for?”

Asta blinked. “What’s a day plus whatever the difference is between 6am and right now?” she mumbled. It was one of the more incoherent things March had ever heard her friend say, but luckily Dan Heng seemed to be following.

“Oh my god, you’ve been up since 6am yesterday? That’s, like, 30 hours. Asta, you have to get to sleep.”

“I know,” she whined. “Just— gimme a second, okay? I’ll call a ride. But let me bask in this for a second. I’ve been working on this paper for almost a year and now it’s just…” She wiggled her fingers. “Poof. All gone. Into the ether.”

“This was the migration patterns project, right?” Dan Heng asked. When she nodded, he continued: “So does that mean I can reshelf all those books you have on hold?”

That got Asta’s attention. “Dan Heng, you’d better not reshelf a single one of those books or I swear to god I will… I will… I’ll do something bad, okay? I’ll blast death metal right outside the archives.”

“Please don’t.”

March snickered. “Asta, let’s get you home, okay? Want me to call a ride or…”

“Nah, I got it.” Asta slumped back in her seat and pulled out her phone. A few seconds later it let out a chime. “Ride’ll be here in ten. Thanks, Eleanor in a red Honda Civic.”

March decided she’d probably head out too, and the two packed away their laptops. With a few minutes to spare before Asta’s ride, she pulled out her own phone. Her stomach jolted when she saw the notification— one new message from Guinaifen. She’d totally forgotten about the message from earlier.

(12:11)Guinaifen: Im holding a little get together tonight, u should totally come!!

Dan Heng glanced at her screen and gave her a questioning look. She winced dramatically.

“What?” Asta asked. She was watching them intently from across the table.


“Nothing my ass. Who texted you? Show me. March. March.”

Fine.” March slid the phone across the table and Asta grabbed it greedily. She tapped a few times, eyes scanning the screen.

“Oh my god. You have to go.” She looked up. “March, you’re going right?”


“You have to go.”

“You kinda have to go,” Dan Heng commented. Then, when March gave him a dirty look: “What? You said you have no plans. That’s the rule.”

March groaned. “Seriously?”

Dan Heng held back a laugh. “Just make sure to take a picture with Little Gui, it’ll be good for engagement. That’s what you call it, right? Engagement?”

“March,” Asta cut in, “I want to go. You have to go and take me. That’s literally all I want right now.”

“What about sleep?”

“I’ll take a nap first.” Asta looked at her pleadingly. “Please? Please please please?”

After a moment, March sighed. “Fine.”

Soon, Asta’s ride arrived and the two left the Trailblazer. The concept of a party had reinvigorated Asta and, as March watched her bounce into the red Honda Civic, she prayed that her friend wasn’t too excited to nap.

Asta came over to March’s place at 8pm, then after they finished getting ready together she called a ride to Guinaifen’s party. That was one of the great things about having an extremely wealthy friend— she paid, no questions asked.

Not that Asta’s wealth was the reason March was friends with her, of course. They’d gotten really close since Asta moved back after college, having rekindled their friendship in a yoga class— taught by mutual acquaintance Sushang, of all people.

Suddenly remembering the post from earlier, March tapped Asta on the shoulder. They were only a few blocks from the house party now and the streets outside were dark. “Check this out,” March said, pulling up the swimsuit photo Little Gui had posted. “Sushang is tagged, see?”

Asta clicked her tongue. “That bikini is really cute.”

“I know, but that’s not the point!” March tapped insistently on the screen. “See? This influencer girl is friends with Sushang. Like, yoga instructor Sushang.”

“They’re dating.”


Asta giggled. “You didn’t know? Sushang posts stories with them together all the time.”

“Oh my god. I had no idea.” March blinked, feeling truly dumbfounded. She couldn’t tell if this reflected well on Guinaifen or poorly on Sushang, because something wasn’t adding up here. “I guess they’re cute,” she said finally.

“They’re adorable. Couple goals, honestly.” The car pulled to a stop and Asta swung open the door, grabbing March’s wrist. “Girl, you have no idea how excited I am for this.”

Indeed, Asta had the sort of manic energy she only got when she was about to throw down hard— like, Luka’s 21st birthday hard. March could barely keep up with her when she got like this.

Up ahead, a large rental house was brightly lit and people crowded the lawn. Music pounded, a deep bass that reverberated through the ground like an earthquake. March gulped. This was way more people than she’d expected. Way more people.

Before she could dwell on it further, Asta tugged her wrist and she stumbled after her friend. Before long they were in the crowd.

“Oh my god, Say~Cheese~!”

March turned around just in time to see Little Gui before the other girl tackled her in a bear hug. “Ah, you came! I totally thought you were gonna ditch.”

“What? No way!” March said, trying to sound shocked.

“Yeah way! Seriously— you’re way too cool for this stuff, March. You do, like, quality content. I’m literally half sh*tposts at this point.” Guinaifen let out a laugh and threw her arm over March’s shoulder. “Here, I want you to meet some people.”

March glanced back as Guinaifen pulled her away, trying to catch Asta’s eye. Her friend just grinned and waved her on; she’d already managed to acquire a drink and seemed perfectly happy at the moment.

The inside of the house was somehow even louder and more cramped than the outside. March kept her arms pulled in close as Guinaifen maneuvered through the crowd, desperately praying that everyone’s drinks (70% ABV and lower) stayed far away.

The crowd thinned when they reached the stairs and Guinaifen led her to the second floor and down the hallway to a closed door. She flashed March a quick smile then cracked the door open. “Look who I found!”

Inside the room were three other girls, all around March’s age, lounging around on their laptops. The one on the bed was instantly recognizable— Sushang, the yoga teacher.

“Oh my god, March!” Sushang squealed. She jumped up and gave March a hug, then kissed Guinaifen on the cheek. “I’m so glad you came, Gui thought you weren’t gonna show!”

“Here I am,” March said meekly. The two other girls were still staring at her, neither looking nearly as excited as Sushang. One of them even looked downright concerned; her floppy green hair drooped like the ears of a forlorn dog and she peered up at March from under her bangs

“Hi. Huh Huo,” Green Hair said. “I mean— that’s my name. I’m Huo Huo. Umm.” She glanced at the other girl— petit, with a spiraling grey ponytail and a look of complete disinterest. “That’s Silver Wolf.”

March blinked. “That’s actually your name?”

“f*ck off,” Silver Wolf said dismissively. Then, ignoring the glares from her friends: “Gui, I’ve got a raid starting in five minutes. Can we get on with this?”

“Excuse me, who are you again?” Sushang deadpanned.

“On with what?” March cut in. There was a sinking feeling in her stomach. How could she have been so stupid, to get herself cornered by a literal mermaid hunter? If they knew— god, what would she do? Sprint away as fast as possible? Jump out a window? She squeezed her hands into fists, bracing for the worst.

Well…” Guinaifen turned to her and grinned. “We were thinking you might want to join the crew!”

Sushang clapped excitedly and Huo Huo even let out a half-hearted “Whoo.” March just blinked. “What?”

“You know, the crew! My crew. Little Gui’s crew?”

“Like… a collab?”

“Pretty much!” Guinaifen ruffled Sushang’s hair affectionately. “Shangshang here is the official Little Gui photographer slash videographer slash…”

“Producer,” Sushang offered.

“Slash producer slash girlfriend. And Huo Huo is our admin, she manages comments and emails and stuff.”

Huo Huo nodded. “That’s me.”

Guinaifen turned to Silver Wolf, who had put on a large pair of headphones and was aggressively smashing her keyboard. “Silver Wolf is one of our current collabs. I’m sure you’ve seen the content— can Little Gui share a room with infamous streamer Silver Wolf for 30 days and survive? It’s The Roommate Challenge From Hell!”

March looked at Guinaifen, then back at Silver Wolf, then back at Guinaifen. “And how’s that going?”

“She’s not dead yet!” Sushang chirped. On the bed, Silver Wolf let out a loud stream of expletives at the screen.

At this point, March was just confused. Guinaifen wanted to do a collab? It was as simple as that? She didn’t love the idea of spending more time with someone on the lookout for mermaids, but this was way better than she’d been expecting.

“I don’t think we’d do the roommate thing though, don’t worry,” Guinaifen was saying. “I was thinking something more like…” She looked up and gestured dramatically: “The Hunt Goes Local - Cute Girls Team Up in Astral Cove to Solve Mermaid Mystery. That’s good, right?”

Oh f*ck no, March thought. What she said, however, was: “I guess we are pretty cute!”

Guinaifen’s eyes brightened. “So you’re game?”

“I mean…” March trailed off. Huo Huo and Sushang were staring at her now too, waiting for her decision. Did she really want to join Guinaifen in her stupid mermaid hunt? Was that just putting undue risk on her and her friends?

Or, March considered, was this actually an opportunity? If she was on the team, she could help control the narrative. She could point them in all the wrong directions, make sure Little Gui didn’t get any closer to her and her friends— if she was on the team, she could make sure that Astral Cove’s ‘mermaid mystery’ was debunked, once and for all.

March grinned, feeling very proud of her cleverness. “I’m in!”

Everyone in the room cheered, March included.

And then they did shots.

March didn’t mean to get drunk, she really didn’t. It’s just, after you’ve taken a couple of shots, it suddenly becomes way harder to remember how many shots you’ve already taken.

And then there was the fact that Guinaifen’s crew was actually pretty fun. Guinaifen was an absolute riot, and March quickly realized that the personality she displayed on her social media wasn’t for show— that was literally her. Case and point, when she decided it was absolutely imparative to prove to her girlfriend that she could snort a shot of whiskey through her nostrils.

“You’re sure you want to livestream this?” Sushang asked, pointing the phone camera at Guinaifen. It appeared to be too late, as the little red “record” light was flashing on the screen. That was part of the premise of the videos— Sushang acting as the skeptical narrator behind the camera. “Cause I really don’t think you’re gonna make it. It’s gonna be embarrassing.”

Guinaifen waved her hand dismissively at the camera. She’d set up at the kitchen counter and had made some sort of contraption involving a shot glass full of whiskey, duct tape, and several straws.

“Is she always this fun?” March giggled from her spot next to Huo Huo. She’d already had quite a bit of alcohol at this point and was still hyper from the intense round of karaoke they’d just finished in the living room, which she’d made sure to video so she could send it to her friends.

“If ‘fun’ is the word you’re using, then… yes. I suppose she is always this fun.” Huo Huo’s lips twitched into a tiny smirk. “Be careful or she’ll drag you into one of her stunts.”

“Well maybe I want to be dragged into a stunt!”

“Be careful what you wish for, March,” Huo Huo said knowingly.

March giggled again and pulled out her phone, tapping open the group chat with her mer-friends:

(10:03) March: [video attachment of March drunkenly belting out Bad Blood by Taylor Swift]
(10:03) March: now who’s the star????
(10:10) Stelle: dang u actually have a pretty good voice
(10:10) Stelle: idk why I just thought you would sound like a troll lol

“Rude!”. She huffed at the screen in mock offense.

(10:14) March: hey that’s offensive to trolls they can have good voices too!!!!!
(10:14) Stelle: yo can I sneak into this party
(10:14) Stelle: Mr. Yang’s date is over and im dying lmao
(10:14) Stelle: they are on the couch whispering sweet nothings
(10:15) March: OMG YESSS~ :dancing emoji: come overrrrrr

March sent Stelle the address then clicked off her phone, grinning to herself. It was totally fine for her to invite people, now that she was part of the crew.

At the counter, meanwhile, Guinaifen was doing a whole show of sticking the straws up her nostrils and duct taping them in place. Sushang had moved in for a close-up and the camera was currently an inch away from Guinaifen’s nose: “You’re gonna have to make that tighter, babe, it’s not airtight.”

“What a dipsh*t,” a voice said from behind them. March turned to see Silver Wolf, laptop tucked under her arm. She looked just as unamused as ever. “You should’a gotten out of this circus while you had the chance.”

“Well why’d’you agree to do the collab thing then, huh?” March retorted, taking a swig of her hard seltzer. She was having a hard time remembering what, exactly, the nature of Silver Wolf and Guinaifen’s collab was. Something with sharing a bed?

“No idea.” Silver Wolf blew a pink bubblegum bubble, holding it for longer than seemed possible before letting it pop back into her mouth. “Worst choice of my life.”

“You’re lying,” March said, far louder than she’d intended to. She looked at Huo Huo for support, but the other girl just raised her hands in defense.

“Don’t ask me, I’m just the admin.”

“Well,” March continued, “I think that maybe Little Gui is actually pretty cool! I thought she was super annoying at first, but now she’s, like, funny annoying.

“Heh. Super annoying.” Silver Wolf grabbed March’s drink and tipped it back, chugging until the can was empty.


Silver Wolf crushed the can between her palms. “Newbie, go get me another drink, will you? Pomegranate flavor.”

March let out an indignant huff. “I’m not your servant!”

“I’ll get it,” Huo Huo cut in. The two watched as she rounded the scene at the counter and headed to the front door. Most of the party had been pushed back outside, though people came through the house to use the bathroom. Guinaifen probably didn’t want the rental to get trashed.

“I’m gonna sabotage her mermaid hunt,” March remembered. She swayed on her feet. “Gonna totally sabotage it. Totally ruin it.”

Silver Wolf popped another bubble. “Heh. Nice.”

March frowned. “You weren’t supposed to hear that. Forget I said that, please.”

At that exact moment, Guinaifen proceeded to snort an entire shot glass worth of whiskey up the two straws that had been duct taped to her nose. She sputtered loudly, flailed, then exhaled said whiskey back out of the straws, right at March and Silver Wolf.

The snot whiskey torpedoed towards them and March lifted her hands on instinct. Energy coursed through her and suddenly the whiskey was frozen solid; it fell to the ground in little pieces and skidded to a halt by their feet.

“I hope no one saw that,” March said loudly. She’d meant to think it, but she said it. Luckily, Guinaifen and Sushang were still completely distracted by the livestream. Silver Wolf, on the other hand, was just staring at the spot where the whisky had been. She blinked.

March poked her. “You didn’t see that, did you?”

Silver Wolf looked at March, then at the frozen whiskey, then back at March, then back at the frozen whiskey. She kicked it tentatively with the tip of her boot. “Yeah, sure,” she said finally, giving March an odd look before shrugging and turning back towards the stairs. “See ya later, losers.”

March trotted after Silver Wolf and poked her head up after her. “So you didn’t see anything?”

“No!” A voice shouted back.

“O-kay! Thanks!” March wandered back to the kitchen. Guinaifen had moved on to modifying her straw contraption, but March had lost interest. She made her way to the door and stepped out onto the crowded lawn, sighing as the crisp air cooled her face.

Realizing it’d been hours since she ditched Asta, March cupped her hands to her mouth and proceeded to call her friend’s name at the top of her lungs. A few people turned in her direction, but the music was blasting loud enough to mostly drown her out. Deciding that finding Asta would require some additional provisions, she continued to shout as she picked her way towards one of the drinks tables.

The table itself was surrounded but there was an open cooler next to it with a bunch of beers and seltzers. March was about to reach in and grab one before she froze, staring at the ice water the cans were floating in.

“I can’t do that,” she said, then looked at her hands. “I can’t do that.”

Someone shoved past her and grabbed a beer, splashing ice water on the ground in the process. March took a step back. She furrowed her eyebrows. “No. Bad idea.”

“Oh my god, March!” a familiar voice squealed. Before March could turn around, she was tackled in a bear hug.

“Asta!” March squirmed around and giggled, squeezing her friend back. The two of them rocked from side to side in drunken excitement. “I was looking for you!”

“And I have been located,” Asta said, flipping her hair dramatically. “Girl, you were in that house for ages!”

“Yeah— and get this, Gui wants to do a collab with me!”

“Oh, sh*t! No way!” Asta stooped down and picked a seltzer out of the cooler, offering it to March.

“I shouldn’t,” March said quickly, staring at the dripping can.

“You sure?”

She nodded. “You can pour me a shot, though.” Her friend obliged, and March downed the shot in one gulp. She coughed as the liquid burned her throat.

Asta cracked the tab on her seltzer and took a sip. “You have to tell me about this collab thing, okay? I want to hear everything. C’mon— I found a place that’s away from the music.” She grabbed March’s sleeve and pulled her away.

March followed her friend across the lawn and around the corner of the house; the alcohol had warmed her belly and now the sky swam above them like an great, black ocean. Her eyes widened as the back yard came into view. “No way, a pool!?

“Hell yeah.” Asta skipped over to the edge of the dark water and kicked off her shoes. “The water’s so cold it’ll even make you feel sober for a second!” She plopped down and dunked her feet in. “Whoo! Wow that’s cold. See?” Her voice grew solemn. “Instant sober.”

The water rippled, dim starlight reflecting on the surface. “There’s no moon tonight,” March said, not entirely sure how she knew— but she did, with some certainty. She held out her arms and tried to follow a line in the pavement, step over step; this proved to be astonishingly difficult. “Asta, it’s no fair!” she whined.


“How come you can get pool sober and I can’t?”

Asta rolled onto her back, feet still dipped in the water. She giggled and patted the ground next to her. “Sit by me!”

“I can’t!”

“C’mon! It’s not even that cold— one sec.” Asta paused, burped, then covered her mouth and giggled. “And I’m not even that sober, it’s just like— my feet are sober, you know?

“But I can’t even get sober feet!” March meandered over to the pool, still trying to balance on the line. Her head was buzzing, like she had fireflies trapped inside her skull. In a brief moment of clarity, she realized she was astonishingly drunk.

“Lane change!” she announced, then hopped to the tiled edge of the pool. Her arms waved as she caught her footing, then, step by step, she carefully teetered her way along the rim.

Asta was saying something but March had already stopped paying attention; she felt like a gymnast on a balance beam, all concentration. Something in her knew that it would be very bad if she fell in the water, though she couldn’t quite remember why. “I’ll just go to the end and back,” she decided.

A new voice said, “What the f*ck are you doing?”

“Gymnastics, obviously.” March lowered her arms and turned around. There was someone there who hadn’t been there earlier, standing in the shadow of the porch. “Oh. Stelle?”

“Stelle?” Asta elbowed herself up clumsily, squinting into the darkness. “Whoa. What are you doing here?”

Stelle stepped out into the porch light; she was wearing a yellow hoodie and had a beer can in her hand. The can was wrapped in napkins, which seemed like a thing that March was supposed to do too. She ignored Asta, her eyes trained entirely on March. “March, get over here,” she ordered.

“I’m just going to the end and back,” insisted March. Then she paused and lowered her arms. “Wait. That’s a bad idea, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Come over here.” Stelle glanced at Asta. “How drunk is she?”

Asta rolled languidly on the pavement. “Very,” she said drunkenly, then burped again.

“Oh my god. You’re both hammered.” Stelle rubbed her forehead, then carefully set her beer off to the side. “March, get away from the pool,” she said, sharper this time.

March cowered at the words. “You’re mad?”

“No, I’m not mad, I just don’t want to deal with what’ll happen if you fall into the pool. Which seems pretty likely at this point, no offense.”

“It isn’t that cold,” Asta said in a sing song voice. “I think Stelle’s just a chicken. Bock, bock bock! Chicken, Stelle.”
“Chicken Stelle!” March agreed, giggling, then chanted, “Chic-ken Stelle, Chic-ken Stelle.”

Asta joined in and clapped along: “Chic-ken Stelle, Chic-ken Stelle.”

Stelle seemed absolutely bewildered and she took a step towards the pool, hands raised, gaze shifting between March and the water. “March. March, seriously. Don’t do this.”

At this point March had forgotten what Stelle wanted her to not do. She was starting to feel quite dizzy, in fact, and above her the sky churned with angry waves. “Dunno,” she slurred, peering at the dark water. Her heart hurt. “Not supposed to be here.”

“It isn’t that cold!” Asta whined. She was still completely occupied with the fact that her feet were in the pool, and she started kicking at the water. “Someone has to join me! You have to, I found the pool so I own it and I say that you have to stick your feet in with me!”

Nausea was starting to swell in March’s stomach and she blinked heavily, holding the sides of her head. She didn’t like this anymore— why did she do this? Why did she drink so much she felt like this? She shouldn’t do this, she wasn’t supposed to do this, she wasn’t—

“You suck!” Asta groaned. March turned just in time to see her friend reach into the pool and splash a wave of water behind her— directly at Stelle. She watched, frozen, as Stelle jerked back and raised her hands in front of her face and something hissed— and then the water was gone and a cloud of steam floated in front of her.

“Oh sh*t!” Stelle laughed. She looked at her hands, wide-eyed, then back at the steam. “Hell yeah. March, did you see that!?”

“Boring! Boring!” Asta reached down to splash again and Stelle snapped back to attention, her eyes darting to March.

At this point, March was fully preoccupied by trying not to puke. Her body swayed and she whimpered, trying to find a fixed spot on the ground that wasn’t spinning like a carousel— why wouldn’t the world just stay still for a second? If she could just get away from the pool, she could puke in peace…

Asta let out a final cackle and sent a massive wave of chlorinated water right at March. She tried to dive away like she’d seen people do in action movies but, given her incredible state of intoxication, this plan failed miserably and all she succeeded in doing was rolling right off the ledge and into the pool.

The cold water hit like an explosion, burning across her skin and snapping her senses into panic mode. She flailed desperately, suddenly so aware of why she couldn’t touch water— that pesky little reason that’d escaped her all evening, like a nagging fly just out of the reach of your flyswatter. Adrenaline took over and she pawed at the surface, as if enough willpower could torpedo her out of the water and prevent it from happening altogether.

And then her body shuddered and the cold sunk into her, through her skin and her flesh and deep into her bones. At the same time, the nausea swelled in her gut, a great tidal wave of horribleness that rose up high and collided headlong into the creeping cold—

March sputtered to the surface, blinking. “What,” she said, looking around her-- at Stelle’s shocked face and Asta’s confusion and horror; her drunk friend was poised on the side of the pool, as if about to jump in after her in some sort of ill-advised rescue.

But March wasn’t drunk anymore. She was, in fact, painfully sober— her head had stopped pounding and her stomach felt fine and the world was completely still once again. It was as if transforming had wiped all traces of alcohol from her body.

Just to be sure, she tried moving her legs and instead felt the little fins on her hips kick pathetically. “f*ck,” she said to herself, and looked up at Stelle for help. Here she was, in the middle of a pool at a mermaid hunter’s party with her human friend right outside and absolutely no idea how to proceed.

“Hold tight, I’m coming to get you!” Asta shouted, shifting at the edge of the water. Stelle’s eyes widened and she dashed towards the other girl, gripping her wrist right before she jumped in. Asta wailed out, “No! We have to help March!”

“She’ll be fine,” Stelle hissed, trying to drag Asta back only for her to wiggle free and dash at the water again. This time, Stelle was too slow and Asta plunged off the side in a giant splash.

Asta could swim— March knew that Asta could swim, because they’d life-guarded at the same club in high school— but Asta was also incredibly drunk, and March wasn’t about to take any chances. And so, for the second time in as many weeks, she set about rescuing someone.

Sure enough, Asta was flailing frantically when March reached her; the fluffy jacket she’d been wearing was soaked, along with the rest of her clothes, giving her the appearance of a wet dog. March could see how much they weighed her down and, just for an instant, she marveled at how helpless humans were in the water— and that she had once been like that, too.

March quickly tugged Asta to the side of the pool, surfacing next to her friend as she coughed out water. “You’re okay,” she said, rubbing her back. “You’re okay, you’re okay.”

“March…” Asta pulled herself up a little higher on the ledge and let out another series of coughs. “‘m supposed to save you…”

“Too late,” March said grimly. She glanced up at Stelle who was approaching slowly, not sure if they needed help. She’s fine March mouthed.

Stelle nodded and looked around the dark yard. “I’ll keep watch,” she said, then headed towards the side of the house.

With her elbows hooked to the pool ledge and her gaze blank, Asta seemed shell-shocked. “We need to get you out,” March said resolutely. She could worry about herself when Asta was safe, but until then nothing else mattered. Wrapping her arms around Asta’s legs, she kicked her tail and hoisted the girl up and over the side of the pool, much to her protest.

“Cold,” Asta shivered, scrambling up to her hands and knees. She turned back towards the pool and in that moment, March realized she had two choices.

The first choice was that she could hide. The water was dark as all hell and even if the chlorine stung her scales and made her gills tingle, she wasn’t going to drown. She could hang out at the bottom of the pool, right in the deep end, until everyone had left and she could get out safely, without being caught. Stelle was even there, so she’d have someone to give her the all clear.

But Asta was also there— and even if she was drunk, she wasn’t so drunk as to forget that her friend was in the water. Stelle could try to convince her that March wasn’t there— that she’d already climbed out and left, that she’d never been there in the first place— but it almost certainly wouldn’t work. Asta was loyal, and she was persistent, and attempting to gaslight her seemed like a really sh*tty thing to do.

So that left the second option. If she got out now, she could start to dry off and then she could leave. If it seemed like she’d be exposed, she could even roll into a bush or something and get her legs back there. She could leave the party (which, March was realizing, had been a very bad idea to attend) and go home and then she’d be safe, and Stelle could also go home and she could also be safe.

And Asta would see her, and she’d know.

March imagined Dan Heng in her position, paralyzed in indecision— unable to leave the water but unable to hide either, pulled between two not-great choices until he didn’t have a choice anymore. She imagined Stelle, who’d probably ignore the two choices entirely and carve a new, far more chaotic option out for herself, like the KoolAid man breaking through a wall.

But March wasn’t Dan Heng, and March wasn’t Stelle. She knew she had to make a choice, and she knew she had to make it soon— and the more she thought about it, as she watched Asta crawling towards her in her drenched clothes, the more she realized there was only one option.

“Watch out,” March said, then, taking a deep breath, she kicked her tail and flopped up and out of the water, making it about three-quarters of the way. The rough pavement scraped at her belly but she forced herself to bear it and scrambled forward until the rest of her tail was on dry land.

Asta was staring at her now. Her face had gone pale, the normal flush vanished from her cheeks, and her eyes were so wide she looked like a fish. (Just like March!) Her lips parted, then closed, then parted again, as if she couldn’t figure out what to say.

“Asta,” March started. She raised a hand towards her friend but Asta jolted and she put it back down slowly. “Asta, it’s just me.”

“Y-you’re… y’you’re…” Asta gulped and tried again. “You’re her. You’re the— the mermaid. You’re the mermaid.”

“Surprise,” March said sullenly.

Asta shook her head in disbelief. “You’re the mermaid that saved Gepard. You saved— you saved me. You’re a mermaid. March— I don’t get it, you’re a mermaid!?

“Sometimes? It’s complicated.” March squinted into the darkness looking for Stelle The taller girl was standing sentry by the side of the house and she flashed March a thumbs up. Safe, for now, but she was not taking any more risks tonight. “Hey— I gotta dry off. I can’t have people see me like this. Did you see any towels around? For the pool?”

Asta blinked, then nodded. “There’s a hutch on the porch, I think it has towels and stuff in it.”

March let out a quick sigh of relief. “Amazing. Can you bring me, like… five? Or maybe six?” she called out as Asta pulled herself up and walked to the porch. Her legs were trembling but she seemed pretty lucid. Maybe she was like Dan Heng— just needed a job to do and she’d be fine.

A few seconds later, she returned with an armful of fluffy white towels. “What do you want me to do with—”

“Just throw ‘em on me,” March replied. She threw a towel around her shoulders then started patting her tail down.

Asta squatted down and watched her, transfixed. She moved closer to March’s tail, approaching it like you would a wild animal. March flapped the fin closest to her and Asta yelped, falling back on her butt.

“Sorry,” March giggled. “That was mean.”

“So it’s real.” Asta crawled back towards her, eyes still trained on the tail. “I can’t believe it— I mean, it shouldn’t be possible. It isn’t possible, but...”

“Ta-da! Here, you can touch it if you help dry me off.” March threw one of the towels at Asta, who caught it heavily. With wide eyes, she followed March’s lead and started patting down the scales.

Two sets of hands were better than one, and six towels were certainly better than the single beach towel March usually made do with. Within minutes, her skin prickled and her vision blurred and then she was on her butt on the pavement, fully clothed and bipedal once more.

Asta grabbed her hand and hoisted her up. Before March could say anything, Asta held her at arm’s length and looked her up and down with a scrutinizing eye. She straightened March’s shirt, tutted, straightened it again, then reached up and tucked a stray strand of hair back behind her ear. “There. That’s better.”

“Thanks, Mom,” March deadpanned.

“Hmph.” Asta crossed her arms and stepped back. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”

Biting her lip, March looked away. “Sorry.”

“Stop it. March— March, hey. Look at me.” Asta waited until March obliged, then continued. “March— you’re a mermaid. Like… holy sh*t. You’re a mermaid!”


“That’s, like, the coolest thing in the entire world! I mean— holy sh*t my best friend is a mermaid!? Like, what!?” Asta let out a manic laugh. “This might be the best day of my life, I mean— if mermaids are real, can you imagine how much about the world we don’t know!? How many discoveries there are out there! I’m not saying you’re a discovery or anything—”

March shrugged, mostly just relieved her friend wasn’t threatening to smash her with a baseball bat like Luka had. “It’s cool, I kinda am a discovery.”

Asta shook her head, eyes wide. “I can’t believe it. I mean— I wanna hear all about it, about being a mermaid— you have to tell me everything, okay? You promise you’ll tell me everything?”


“Okay, good. Cause I’m, like, really drunk, and also really tired because I only napped for two hours before the party and before that I was up for thirty— no, thirty-four hours and I think that I might be a tad bit delirious at this point. But don’t you worry, I’m not gonna forget about this!”

Asta grabbed March’s wrist and turned around resolutely, at which point she realized Stelle had been hovering there watching them. “Yo,” said Stelle. “You good.”

“Yeah. Thanks— I’m a f*cking idiot. Thanks for, you know. Trying to get me to stop being an idiot.”

Stelle shrugged. “It happens. Plus I found my power. You saw that, right?”

“Yeah!” March clapped her hands excitedly, remembering the cloud of steam. “It’s like mine, but opposite—”

“Stelle!” Asta cut in. “Stelle— you’re not gonna believe this, but-- did you know March is a mermaid?


Enjoy the chapter! It's longer than anticipated, but also not long enough to really split into two chapters.

Chapter 10: Archival


In which Dan Heng tries to remember who knows what secret


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

[Dan Heng’s chat with Stelle, March]
March: [renamed group chat to FishFriends]
March: ok so
March: just got off phone w gui and here’s what I know
March: 1 - we’re gonna do joint posts announcing the collab tonight and huohuo is helping me w my messaging bc im literally garbage~ shes actually great and is super down to weave in an environmental message
March: 2 - Tuesday we’re filming a bunch of bits with us going around town and interviewing ppl (w me as local guide, yay 🙃)
March: 3 - I start work wed 💃 and gui & silver wolf do their joint stream that day anyway so no mer stuff BUT on Friday after my half day at work we’re filming an ‘exclusive interview’ w Gepard/Pela and tbh I am slightly freaked out abt this
March: 4 - Gui wants to do a big “searching for mermaid”-type stream and get a boat and stuff. But prob not for another week so we have time to plan… but yeah basically that’s what I know
Stelle: hmm ok… thx march. At least we have time??
Stelle: I think the play is to find an alternative narrative, like, this is what they ACTUALLY saw in the water
Dan Heng: Agreed.
Dan Heng: I will do some thinking/research

Dan Heng clicked off his phone and placed it facedown on his desk, turning back to the old PC that the Herta used for inventory in the archives. It had to be older than he was— a big, thick thing that they only kept around because it could actually run the equally out-dated database software. Every hour, an update notification would pop up in the bottom right corner of the screen and Dan Heng had been taught from day one that he must never, ever click on it.

It was getting towards lunch time but he’d been pretty distracted all morning; he’d actually made some progress on his writing that weekend and even as Monday rolled around, his brain was having a hard time detaching from the ideas that had suddenly poured into his head like a leaky faucet. ‘Feast or famine’ had been how his grad school advisor described the creative process, and Dan Heng couldn’t agree more.

But, because he did technically have a job, Dan Heng shut his laptop, set it to the side, and pulled over the crusty mouse for the archives computer to pull up inventory. If he started re-shelving now, he could probably get a good chunk done before he got too hungry.

The archives managed to be both dense and empty at the same time; the space was large yet tightly packed with desks, carts, document tables, and shelves upon shelves of books and samples. Despite the high ceiling, it was always dim and the teetering stacks cast the spaces between them in perpetual shadow.

At any given time, Dan Heng usually had at least five or six researchers using the space for writing, reading, or sample viewing; when The Archaeo Review was accepting submissions last week, the number had gone up to almost twenty on the Friday before the deadline. He felt like he was in college again, watching students pulling all-nighters before finals— except that instead of twenty-year-olds, it was a bunch of very tired-looking marine research scientists.

Today was pretty quiet, sans a few regulars: the old pinniped biologist who smelled like cabbage, the guy with frizzy hair and Pulp Fiction decal on his laptop, the woman who checked out a geologic map of the Red Sea every morning and spent the next eight hours hunched over it.

Dan Heng had almost made it through the entire west arm of the archives before his stomach started growling. Hunger was great motivation, and he quickly re-shelfed the last few manuscripts before wheeling the cart back to his station near the entrance. To his surprise, there was a kid standing there with an older-looking guy who must have been his father.

Smiling politely, Dan Heng locked his cart and slipped back behind the desk. “Hello. Can I help you?”

“Yes, hello! My nephew is doing a project for school and wanted to look at some of your books.” The man placed two visitor badges on the counter. He had a shock of white hair pulled back in a ponytail; he must have gone prematurely gray, because he didn’t look that old. “They gave us these at the visitor’s center.”

Dan Heng scanned the two badges. “Yanqing?”

“That’s me,” the kid said without looking at them. He'd wandered away from the desk and was doing some sort of martial arts poses, totally in his own world. Reasonable— he couldn’t be older than thirteen.

“And I’m Jing Yuan,” the man added. With his half-lidded eyes and placid smile, he looked almost sleepy; Dan Heng wondered how long it’d take him to doze off in the archives’s low lighting.

“Great, thanks. You’ll just need to make sure you’re wearing these.” Dan Heng returned the badges. “Can I help you find anything?”

“Yes— Yanqing, come over here.”

The kid, Yanqing, groaned and sloughed over. “What?”

“Why don’t you tell this nice man what you’re looking for?”

Yanqing scratched his nose. “Umm, stuff on cephalopods? Like, squids and stuff. It’s for my bio project.”

Dan Heng nodded, amused. “Well, we definitely have that here. Anything in particular, or….”

The kid stared.

“Okay, yeah. Maybe some encyclopedias to start.” He pulled up a few items in the inventory and wrote the call numbers down on an index card. “These are in the C wing, right next to the display case with the big shell.”

The kid’s dad nudged him and he groaned, then proceeded to pull out a pair of thick-rimmed glasses and shove them onto his face. “Thanks,” he said, grabbing the index card.

“No problem. Let me know if you need help with anything. If I’m not at my desk, I’m probably shelving but you can hunt me down or wait until I’m back.”

The kid grumbled and adjusted his glasses, then meandered towards the C wing. “Thanks,” the man said again, then nodded and followed his nephew. Dan Heng watched them thoughtfully; he didn’t remember anyone going to the Herta for projects when he’d been in school, but lots of kids in Astral Cove had parents that worked there so it probably happened from time to time.

Dan Heng’s stomach growled at him angrily and he sighed. He’d packed a lunch today but had planned to eat up in the atrium, where he could hear the ocean. Now that he was swimming every day, being near the water had become grounding rather than stress-inducing— a mini version of swimming’s anxiety-busting effects. God knew he needed it. He probably could’ve gone up and eaten a quick lunch, but given that this was his first time having non-center visitors, he decided it was probably best to stick around today.

That weekend, he’d finally gotten to the big Asian grocery the town over— something that he’d been looking forward to since moving back. Dan Heng actually enjoyed cooking quite a bit and, after picking up the essentials that weren’t at the local supermarket, he’d made massive batch of spicy fish and vegetable stir-fry for the week’s lunches.

After wiping down the condensation on the insulated container, he opened his lunch and used chopsticks to carefully removed the divide between the stir-fry and rice. Things like this were starting to become second nature— wiping down containers and cups, avoiding touching foods that were even the slightest bit liquid-y.

Dan Heng thumbed through his phone while he ate, pulling up the group chat.

Stelle: btw anything new w Asta?

March: lol WELL she certainly has questions even tho I told her literally everything I know already
March: except abt you guys obviously

March: she thinks its rlly funny that im doing the little gui thing but mostly just wants to do a bunch of experiments on me… lol yay
March: im like, do them on dan heng, he’d be down. Except not bc apparently IM THE ONLY MERMAID

Dan Heng snickered.

Dan Heng: welcome to my world
Dan Heng: Arlan’s always like, what if you go out and get ~lost~
Dan Heng: like he imagines me just totally by myself

Three dots appeared, followed by Stelle’s response:

Stelle: tbh im not even sure we CAN get lost
Stelle: bc I have never gotten lost swimming and I literally have gotten lost walking to the bus stop

Huh. Dan Heng hadn’t thought about it before, but he did always seem to know exactly where he was in the water. To be fair, he had a pretty good sense of direction and tried to pay attention to his surroundings— but still, the underwater landscape was totally new to them. It seemed like it should have been confusing, and it just. You know, wasn’t.

The thought made him quite uneasy, but he pushed it aside and gobbled down some rice for good measure. He was starting to realize that, if he just sat with the anxiety, it would eventually go away when he got in the water. The mer body stripped away stress, no matter how intense. Even when he got his legs back and the anxiety returned, it usually stayed dulled for a few hours; he’d found that if he went to bed soon after, he had no trouble falling asleep and the nightmares weren’t nearly as bad.

He’d even started staying out in the ocean after March and Stelle returned to the land, letting his aquatic body take over and move him effortlessly, mindlessly through the darkening water. Often it would lead him deep into the kelp forest, skimming the bottom and weaving through endless green strands that blocked out any remaining light from above.


Dan Heng looked up with a start to see the man from before, the one who’d come with his nephew. He swallowed his bite of food. “Excuse me?”

Your gaifan looks good,” the man said in Mandarin. At least, that’s what Dan Heng thought he said.

“Sorry, I don’t speak much,” he said, smiling awkwardly. “But, thanks.” Gaifan was basically stuff-over-rice, aka Dan Heng’s lunch.

“It smells good. Authentic. Not everyone uses those spices” The guy smiled his sleepy smile and leaned against the desk. “The smell wafted over to me and I really thought I was back in Chengdu for a second.”

“Ah, yeah. Well, my dad was from there.”

“Is that so?” Sleepy Guy said. He paused, then: “May I ask you an odd question?”

“I guess?” he said, dearly hoping said question had nothing to do with his minimal to non-existent grasp of Mandarin.

“Does your father live in the area? I haven’t met another Chengdu native in quite a while. As embarrassing as it is, I’d love to reminisce with a fellow ex-pat.”

“He did. Umm, he passed away when I was pretty young. My aunt used to live here but now she lives up north.” Dan Heng smiled weakly. “Sorry. Wish I could be of more help.”

The man’s eyes widened. “Please— you have nothing to apologize for. I’m the one who’s sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“It’s fine. Umm.” Dan Heng glanced at his half-eaten lunch. “Was there anything you needed help with?”

“No, no. I was just wandering…” He sighed dramatically. “Look at me, distracting the librarian. They should really rescind my guest badge.”

“Nah, you’re good. Not gonna lie, this is a pretty easy job,” Dan Heng said, now feeling bad about making the guy feel bad.

“Well in that case you should be relaxing with your easy job, not entertaining an old man such as myself. I should get back to Yanqing anyway; he has trouble focusing unless there’s someone next to him.” The man chuckled warmly. “Enjoy your lunch…”

“Dan Heng,” Dan Heng filled in quickly.

“Well, enjoy your lunch, Mr. Dan Heng.” The man said his name in a way that was just infantilizing enough for Dan Heng’s inner five-year-old to stamp his feet angrily. He watched as the man disappeared back into the C wing, his shock of white hair vanishing behind a shelf like the moon behind a cloud.

The kid, Yanqing, and his uncle Jing Yuan were back the next day— they arrived bright and early, Yanqing looking even more sulky than he had the day before. Dan Heng hadn’t re-shelved his books yet, luckily, and handed over the stack of encyclopedias from the cart.

“I’m home schooling him,” Jing Yuan explained, unprompted, as Yanqing dropped the heavy books onto a table with an echoey thud. He leaned his elbow on the desk, watching his nephew with the same sleepy eyes.

It felt like he wanted a response, so Dan Heng obliged: “Oh. Huh.”

Jing Yuan nodded slowly. “He was having a hard time in school, with the other kids. Parents shipped him off to live with me for a while— thought the fresh air would do him good.”

“The air is certainly fresh here.” Dan Heng said. He glanced at the PC screen awkwardly. “Umm—”

“I’ve been thinking about sending him to one of the local schools for extracurriculars, just so he can work on socializing,” Jing Yuan continued. “How are the schools around here, do you know?”

“They’re fine? Uh, I mean, Astral High has a pretty good science program cause so many families are associated with the Herta. Not great at sports, except crew— the women’s team went to states my junior year, which was cool.”

“Ah! An alum, I see. Say, crew is a team sport, right? You have to coordinate with everyone on the boat and all of that?”

“I think so?”

“Good, good.” Jing Yuan smiled lazily, eyes drifting over to the table where Yanqing was working. “My nephew is… indepenendent. He’s very competitive, and he has drive, but I wish he could understand that it doesn’t always have to be him against the world.”

“I bet he’d like crew, then,” Dan Heng offered. He honestly had no idea, and had avoided all water sports like the plague while in school. The thought of being out on the water in that tiny little boat still made his stomach clench-- which was just ridiculous, because the idea of actually being in the water had become quite appealing.

Jing Yuan finally stepped back from the desk, stretching his arms up and yawning like a lion woken from a satisfying nap. “Say, Dan Heng— you wouldn’t happen to still keep in touch with any of your coaches, would you? If it isn’t too much to ask, I’d love to get Yanqing an introduction.”

“Oh, sorry— I wasn’t on the crew team. I did track and field and, umm, tennis, but I don’t keep in touch with anyone.”

Jing Yuan raised an eyebrow. “Living in a place like this and yet no water sports? I envy you young folk— when I grew up, I’d have jumped on the chance to go to school somewhere like Astral Cove. I take every opportunity I can to get out and surf these days, but my back can’t take it like it used to.”

“I was afraid of water,” Dan Heng said, surprising himself— the words just seemed to slip out.

“And why’s that?”

“Umm. My dad.”

“But you’re not anymore? Afraid of water that is?”

“…not as much.” Dan Heng turned back to the PC screen, feeling quite embarassed. Something about this guy was making him lower his guards, say things he hadn’t meant to, and he was not a fan. He cleared his throat: “Umm— sorry I can’t be of more help. Please enjoy your stay in the archives.”

“Of course. Well, I do recommend you try surfing.” Jing Yuan smiled at him, seemingly oblivious to his discomfort, then wandered over to join Yanqing.

By the time lunchtime rolled around, Dan Heng made an executive decision that he’d be eating in the atrium. He was fairly certain that the two visitors were fine to be left alone— they seemed pretty self sufficient at this point, and Yanqing certainly had enough books to get through. Plus, he wanted to avoid another vaguely uncomfortable conversation with Jing Yuan if possible.

He’d wrapped his lunch container in a tea towel and then in a plastic grocery bag before sticking it in his backpack that morning.; still, he inspected the package closely for any hints of condensation before removing it. Lunch in hand, he stopped by Yanqing’s table and let the two visitors know he’d be back within an hour. As expected, Jing Yuan assured him they’d completely fine and, before he could accidentally revealed more personal details, Dan Heng rushed towards the door.

The fifth floor atrium was as airy as ever; diffuse light filled the room through the massive windows, filtered through a layer of fog that had settled over the ocean. Outside, the water and the sky almost seemed to blend together, only broken by the churning waves.

Despite the lunchtime commotion, Dan Heng felt the tension in his body lower the second he stepped into the room. The air smelled just the slightest bit salty, the waves audible if you really tried to listen past the echoey sound of countless conversations. Even that, he’d realized, was enough for his mer-brain to pick up on. And he wasn’t picky. He’d take what he could get at this point.

Finding the empty table closest to the windows, he put down his lunch and sat down, clicking on his phone to check the time. To his surprise, it looked like Arlan had added him to a group chat and it’d been extremely active since he last checked his phone.

[Dan Heng’s chat with Arlan, Luka, March, Stelle]
Arlan: [renamed group chat to SecurityDetail]
Arlan: Hi everyone. This is Arlan, Dan Heng’s roommate. As I’m sure you all know, our friend has a certain condition that makes certain situations very unsafe for him. In light of last night’s post from a specific “mermaid hunting” influencer, I think it’s wise if we begin to coordinate until this has all blown over.
Luka: oh dang good idea
Luka: hi everyone its luka
Luka: guessing the (999) number is spell?
Luka: *stelle
Stelle: yep hi luka
March: omgggg~ hi everyone!!! thank you Arlan u are too sweet!!!! We have to look out for our good friend danheng ✊🧜♂️🧜♂️
March: as u know i am working to sabotage gui from the inside. Still figuring out the story tho
Arlan: Good. We should be consistent with our story. Can you please keep tabs on where Little Gui is during the after work hours? Dan Heng needs to swim regularly so we will need to be careful about timing.
Luka: omg secret agent march
March: 💃das me
Stelle: lmao DH has to swim? like a fish? What a weirdo
March: Rude! Its not his fault he’s got a gross fish tail sometimes
Stelle: honestly I bet he gets lost all the time when he’s swimming
March: omg yes bc he’s all alone!!! Poor danheng :(
Stelle: And he’s never prepared for anything. I wish I knew more about fish people so I could help him, but I just really don’t know anything about his weird problems.

Arlan: Hi everyone. Gentle reminder that Dan Heng is also in this group chat.

Dan Heng clicked off his phone and set it face-down on the table. “Kill me,” he said, staring blankly out the atrium window. As much as he appreciated the sentiment from Arlan, there was just something so deeply stupid about enlisting two mermaids to help protect another mermaid from a mermaid hunter. Any plan to safeguard his secret inevitably involved safeguarding their secrets too— and a plan that didn’t take that into account just wasn’t a plan at all.

Putting it aside as an issue to think about later, he unboxed his lunch and started eating, gazing at the ocean idly through the glass walls. The water moved, hypnotic, pulling him in and leaving his mind gloriously blank.

He was almost done when a voice shouted, “Hey!”

Dan Heng blinked back to awareness; March’s friend Asta was standing in front of him, looking vaguely concerned. “Oh,” he said. “Hey Asta.”

Asta raised an eyebrow. “Can I sit?” When he nodded, she pulled out a chair sat across from him, crossing her legs. “Thanks. I wanted to talk to you about something. You got a sec?”

“Sure.” Dan Heng shoveled the last bit of lunch into his mouth and closed the lid, still chewing as he gave Asta his attention. He could spare a couple more minutes before heading back down to the archives— plus, he had a pretty strong hunch about what Asta wanted to talk about.

“So,” she said, leaning forward, “March said you know about her thing.”

Dan Heng smiled flatly— there it was. “Her water thing? Yeah. Pretty crazy, right?” They’d decided that the story with Asta was the same as the one with Arlan, except switched— that night on Mara Island, only March had fallen into the water.

“Oh my god, it really is!” Asta let out a long breath, shaking her head. “I mean, look— you’re a man of science, right?”


“Well, I mean, you work at the Herta, so I figured you must at least like science and all that. Cause March’s thing is— I mean, I don’t know what it is. Like, yeah, it totally looks like magic, but there’s gotta be rhyme and reason behind it, you know?”

Dan Heng nodded slowly, letting the words sink in. “I’d like to think there is. There are some rules, at least. March told you about them, I’m guessing?”

“Not sure I’d call them rules.” Asta counted on her fingers: “Water triggers the change, it takes about ten seconds to happen, and March can freeze sh*t with her mind. Those are observations at the very best, but certainly not rules. Like, has she ever actually timed how long she has after touching water? Looked for variance? Does the amount of water she comes in contact with influence the time to change at all? How long does the change itself take? Have you tried different liquids? Different pHs? What about ionic saturation? What about sea water versus fresh water, does that make any difference?”

Dan Heng pursed his lips, suddenly feeling quite inept; the most he’d done was sit in the bath with his phone timer on, waiting for his tail to appear out of thin air and knock Luka’s collection of Old Spice off the side of the tub. He’d certainly intended to do more experimentation, at least when it first happened, but now it all just felt so familiar. He even still had had those samples they’d taken from Mara Island in his room, untouched and ignored.

But still, it wasn’t like he wasn’t curious. In fact, Asta’s questions were getting him so curious he started tapping his fingers against the table out of excitement.

Asta giggled. “You totally want to be my science buddy. March said you’d get excited.”

“She knows me too well,” he said. Then: “I mean, I agree with you completely. I swear I had tons of ideas for experiments and stuff, but they just haven’t technically happened yet.”

“Hey, I get it!” Asta raised her hands. “I can only imagine how freaky this has all been for you and Stelle, since you guys were with her when it all happened.”

“I— yeah. Sure. Well, the good news is, we did get started on some stuff.” He clicked on his phone and pulled up the camera roll, ignoring the new messages in Arlan’s group chat. “Here— right after it happened, we went back to the island and collected a bunch of samples, in case there was something in the water or sand or whatever that could explain what happened to March.”

Asta took the phone and flicked through the photos he’d taken of the various sample containers, each meticulously labeled. “Oh, amazing. I can totally run these— probably a basic chemical analysis, then maybe an isotope study? The big mass spectrometer is always booked but I can probably get some time on the one in the Rogers Lab.”

“That’d be awesome,” Dan Heng said. He wasn’t entirely sure what she was talking about, but it sounded like the right direction. “I can bring them in tomorrow, if you want to stop by the archives and grab them. Or I can stop by your lab—”

“It’s cool, I’ll grab them!” Asta clapped her hands in excitement. “Oh, how fun! I can’t wait to see what’s in this stuff— March told me all about the cave and the weird pool of water, it’s nuts. How’d you guys get back to the island? Did you find another boat? Please don’t tell me you rented from Sampo again.”

“We found a different one,” Dan Heng said quickly, uncomfortable about lying. It felt so weird talking openly about the mermaid thing while also hiding the fact that the mermaid thing was his thing, too. Was this how March and Stelle felt talking to Arlan? Maybe not, given how much fun they seemed to be having in the group chat at his expense.

Asta had pulled out her phone and was typing notes rapidly. “If I can get the samples on the machine before noon we can have results by Thursday, cause Marjorie doesn’t work Fridays… I have a lab meeting at eleven but if I can get the samples from you by, oh, let’s say nine, I should be able to prep them before the meeting. Hmm.” She looked up. “You’re in at nine, right?”


“Good. Okay, yeah. This is good. This’ll work.” She switched off her phone and tucked it back into her pocket, then stood up. “I honestly have no idea what we’ll find, but even if it’s pretty unremarkable, I should still go back to that island for a few more samples. It’s not that I don’t trust you guys to collect good samples or anything, but… you know. Sample size and all that.”

Dan Heng’s lips twitched with a smile. “It’s cool, Asta. I completely accept that our samples might be terrible. Excuse me— that our samples are almost certainly terrible.” If she wanted to go do science for them, all the more power to her.

She scrunched up her face. “…yeah. Sorry. I mean, who knows? Maybe they’ll be great.”

“They won’t be. Stelle collected most of them.”

“Maybe Stelle’s actually a very neat and organized person,” Asta said. They made eye contact and burst into a fit of giggles, Asta still laughing as she waved goodbye and headed back across the atrium.

The samples were trash. As in, literal trash. When Dan Heng finally located the plastic bag they’d taken back from the island-- under a pile of dirty clothes, don’t judge— he opened it and immediately did a double take. Gone were the plastic lunch containers filled with dirt-- in their place, four empty cans of pinto beans, two plastic knives, an empty lunchbox-sized chocolate milk, and seven bottle caps.

“What the f*ck,” he said, then snapped a picture of the contents.

Dan Heng: [sent a photo]
Dan Heng: what the f*ck

He clicked off his phone, at which point it immediately started buzzing— incoming call from Stelle.

As soon as he answered, her voice crackled out of the speakers: “You found it!”

Dan Heng winced, holding the phone away from his ear. “Stelle, why is there a bag of garbage in my room?”

“You tell me, dude! I’ve been looking all over for that stuff.” She lowered her voice. “Hey— you haven’t been stealing my sh*t, have you?”

“You mean your literal garbage!?”

“Yeah, you know— sh*t, garbage, trash. Whatever you want to call it. Look, can I please get it back? I’m kinda desperate here— haven’t been able to do much dumpster diving since this whole fish thing started up, it’s way too risky. People throw away wet stuff all the time.”

“I—sure?” Dan Heng rubbed his temples, feeling a headache coming on. He had to pick his battles, and trying to understand Stelle’s trash fixation was not one of them right now. “Hey, do you think we may have switched bags or something? Cause I could’ve sworn this was a bag of samples from Mara Island, but it’s… you know, trash.”

“Oh sh*t. Yeah, we may have— I’m pretty sure I collected that stuff when we were walking to the Herta. I remember finding the bottle caps in an ashtray by the boardwalk.”

He breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay, great. So you have the samples, then? I need to get them to Asta so she can do some tests.”

There was a long pause, then: “Uh. So I might not.”


“It’s just, Mr. Yang’s been purging my collections recently and— hold on.” There was a dull noise as she set the phone down, then, more distant: “Mr. Yang!”

The sound of footsteps, then Mr. Yang’s muffled voice— Dan Heng couldn’t quite make out what he was saying.

“No…” Stelle’s voice said. “No… yeah… yeah, a bag of… like, dirt and stuff? Maybe some sand? No… yeah, for Dan Heng… okay… okay, yeah. Yeah. Thanks.” She picked the phone up. “So Mr. Yang threw them out.”

“f*ck,” said Dan Heng. He sat down heavily on the bed and rested his head on his palm. “I told Asta I’d get them to her by nine.”

“Sorry, dude. We can collect more this weekend? Or after work— I get off at ten, so that’s kinda late, but I’d still be down to go back to the island if you need to.”

“Honestly, I feel like at that point it’s best to just let Asta go herself. She’d probably collect way better stuff than we would, anyway.”

Stelle let out a little noise. “I… Dan Heng, I don’t think she should.”

“What’d’you mean?”

“That cave, the moon pool… it feels kinda special, you know? Like— if we couldn’t swim, I don’t know if we’d ever’ve been able to find it again.” She shuddered. “For some reason, the idea of Asta— or anyone, really— in there by themselves makes me really uncomfortable.”

Now that he thought about it, it did feel a bit wrong for a person— a human— to be in that cave. And plus, if the water had turned them into mermaids, who’s to say it wouldn’t do the same to the next person who stopped through? Swimming was fun and all, but this was still a curse and he wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

“Well she’s expecting the samples,” Dan Heng said finally. “I guess I could go back out and collect some more this morning? I just— I don’t want to show up empty handed, you know? I can text her and say I’m feeling sick or something, and bring her the stuff at noon. I think that delaying it further would just convince her to go to the island herself.”

“I’ll come,” Stelle stated. “My shift doesn’t start ’til one. Plus, I feel kinda bad about the whole Mr. Yang thing.”

To be fair, it wasn’t like containers of dirt really screamed “prized possession”.


Hope y'all enjoyed! Posting schedule is shifting to every other Friday for now, so stay tuned!

And if you have any ideas or theories or even just thoughts... please share! Your engagement with this story is half of what keeps me going :)

Chapter 11: Asking STRANGERS about REAL MERMAIDS!!!??


In which March has her first day of work and the origin's of Dan Heng's nickname are revealed


(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

All things considered, Guinaifen wasn’t nearly as bad as March thought she’d be. After the disastrous party the previous weekend, March had been all too prepared for a disastrous first week of their “official” collaboration— but by the time they finished filming for their first video, she was sold. She was on the Gui train.

The thing was, Guinaifen was fun. Like, really fun. She somehow managed to have zero shame and zero ego at the same time— totally fine with making a fool of herself, yet still possessing unwarranted confidence in every single decision she made. With Internet personalities like her, it was always safest to assume their actual personality, the one they wore when the cameras weren’t rolling, was completely different. Guinaifen’s just… wasn’t. She was actually that chaotic of a person, and March was kind of living for it.

The rest of the crew was fun, too; Sushang was great, obviously, and Huo Huo was actually super sarcastic when you got to know her. In fact, March’s only water incident since the party had occurred when Huo Huo said something so funny it made her snort lemonade out of her nose. The subsequent mad dash to reach the bathroom before she popped a tail sucked, of course, but honestly that was just her life at this point.

And so, it was with both excitement and reservation that March woke up Wednesday morning and got ready for her first day at the Herta, taking a quick bath before pulling on the polo they’d provided her and combing her hair into some form of presentable. The job was what she wanted, and it was what she needed— she was certain of that— but hanging out with Gui’s crew sure sounded more fun.

March sighed as she stared at herself in the bathroom mirror. I guess I look like an employee, she thought, scrunching up her face. What did an employee even look like? Boring? Like an adult? She was an adult, technically, even if she still lived at home and was about to start her first big-kid job since lifeguarding at fifteen. Even if she didn’t have an ounce of her sh*t together like adults were supposed to.

No, this was good. This was a big step for her, and not just any step. It was one step closer to her pursuing her dream. She was done watching from the sidelines, looking at people like Asta who were making a difference in the world and thinking that it could never be her. That she wasn’t smart enough or disciplined enough, that she was too excitable and immature-- that places like the Herta were for people who mattered, and she just didn’t.

But March was going to make sure that she mattered, and that what she did in the world mattered. ‘World’s-first-environmental-activisit-slash-mermaid’ definitely had a nice ring to it.

After only a few hours at the Herta, March both adored her new job found it unbearably boring.

Working at the visitor’s desk, interacting with guests— that part was fun. She could meet people, chat it up with strangers, crack jokes as she rang up their tickets and see if she could get even the grumpiest of them to smile.

And it wasn’t just school groups and hobbiests; the Herta also attracted a multitude of visiting researchers and marine science professionals, most of whom were more than willing to tell March about their work (at least until Tingyun gave her The Look and she had to keep the line moving). One scientist, a handsome woman with dark hair, even gave March her business card in case she wanted to chat more about her interests. March had thanked her profusely and tucked the business card away, giddy. Was this it? Was this networking?

Unfortunately, the visitor’s center worked on a rotation schedule— which meant that when March wasn’t working the visitor’s desk, she was assigned to one of a variety of deeply uninteresting tasks.

These included:
- Sorting guest badges
- Re-laminating guest badges
- Doing inventory in the gift shop
- Restocking items in the gift shop
- Folding volunteer shirts— apparently there was a right way and wrong way to do this, and after March had been folding for almost two hours, Tingyun informed her that she’d been doing it the Wrong Way.

Her coworker, a girl a few years older than her named Qingque, thought it was hilarious that March preferred the customer-facing jobs.

“I’d totally trade you,” she said without looking up from her phone, leaning back in the break room chair. It was the morning of March’s second day, and Qingque was trying to stretch her break out as long as possible before going to the visitor’s desk.

“I mean, I’m down.” March closed up the locker with her things and tucked the key into her back pocket. “Seriously. I’m in the stock room this morning.”

Qingque looked up from her phone, eyes wide. “Lucky! Dude, you can do whatever you want in there— I got my high score on Celestial Jades during a stock shift, actually.”

“So let’s trade?”

She scrunched up her face. “Can’t. You know how the shift schedules are printed out? They used to be written on the whiteboard, but me and Lynx kept on changing what we were assigned to. When Tingyun found out she was pissed, so now she gets here early and types them up before we have a chance to change them.”

Resigned to her fate, March headed through the gift shop to the stock room, switching on the too-dim light and staring dully at the stacks of boxes. After what felt like a million years, her lunch shift finally rolled around. March couldn’t get out of there faster; She plowed back out of the stock room, thrusting the door open and blinking in the bright light of the gift shop.

“Ow,” said a familiar voice. March’s eyes widened and she scrambled around to see Dan Heng, rubbing his shoulder where the door had apparently hit him.

“I’msosorry!” she squealed. “Are you okay— I didn’t realize you were there—”

“It’s fine,” Dan Heng said flatly. He was so hard to read sometimes, and March was starting to think he was angry until his lips twitched up in a small smile. “You probably shouldn’t be bursting through doors like that, though. Especially hidden ones.”

March winced, looking back at the stock room door; it did, indeed, blend in extremely well with the undersea mural that decorated the walls. “Fair,” she acquiesced. Then, remembering her two hours of customer service training: “Umm, did you need help finding something?”

“I found it,” Dan Heng stated.

“Oh, uh, good!”

He grinned fully this time. “I mean, I was looking for you. It’s lunch time. Are you on break?”

March clocked out, sent a quick text to Asta, then jogged to the cafeteria to grab some food. The line was short, thankfully, and with sandwich in hand she scanned the atrium for Dan Heng. He’d picked a table at the far end, right next to the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out on the ocean.

“Whoa,” she said, pressing her hands against the glass. It felt cold in the same way that the ocean felt cold— refreshing, safe, like being encased in a block of ice.

Dan Heng tapped her shoulder. “Careful. Condensation.”

“Oops,” March said sheepishly, pulling her hands away and wiping them on her pants for good measure. She sat down, keeping her eyes fixed out the window. The gray sea crashed below them, separated from their table by nothing more than the cold glass. “This spot is awesome. Do you eat here every day?”

“When I can. Sometimes it’s too busy so I eat in the archives.”

“Lame.” March unwrapped her sandwich, flattening out the paper to use as an impromptu plate. Turkey club— her favorite. Across the table, Dan Heng was carefully removing his lunch from the tea towel he’d wrapped it in. “Nice system.”

“Never too careful.” He opened the container and a delicious smell wafted across the table.

March’s eyes widened. “Ooh, can I try?”

Dan Heng paused, chopsticks halfway to his mouth. “I guess…”

“What do you mean, ‘I guess’?” She let out a hmph.

He shifted in his seat. “Well, this is kinda my favorite… I made it for myself, I didn’t really think I’d have to share…”

“Oh, come on!”

“And it takes such a long time to make, cause it’s such a specialty… you have to simmer the broth for 48 hours… so it really is a treat…”

March slammed her hands on the table. “Dan Heng! Please!?”

To her surprise, he just said: “sure,” and passed the dish over.

March inspected the food— a stir fry of some kind next to a packed compartment of white rice. It shined with chili oil and looked viciously spicy, but if Dan Heng had really spent that long on it, surely he wouldn’t ruin the taste with too much pepper.

She was completely wrong, and only seconds after the food hit her tongue, her entire mouth began burning as if lit on fire. She coughed and blinked away tears. “Ow. Ow ow.”

Across the table, Dan Heng looked like he was trying very hard not to laugh. “You okay?”

“‘M fine,” she managed, tongue hanging out; the burning had somehow gotten even worse, and also morphed into a specific kind of numbness she recognized from Dan Heng’s favorite dish at the Xianzhou restaurant. “W-ater. Need water. Jerk.”

Still snickering, Dan Heng handed her his water bottle. She grabbed it roughly and popped back the lid, downing half of it before coming up for air. To her horror, the burning only seemed stronger. “Dan Heng,” she whined, scrunching up her face. “Make it stop.”

To Dan Heng’s credit, he was starting to look concerned. “Oh man. Umm— milk? Do you have milk? Or dairy?”

“No, I have a turkey club!”

“Is there mayo in it!?”

“I don’t know!” March tore open her sandwich, sniffing back the mucus that was collecting in her nose. “f*ck me, it’s mustard.”

“Do they have it in the cafeteria? Like those little milk cartons—”

“Hey guys!”

The two spun around to see Asta heading towards their table. She pulled out a chair and plopped down next to March, seemingly oblivious to her pain. “And how’s my favorite mermaid?”

“Spicy,” March moaned. She glared at Dan Heng. “He’s trying to poison me.”

“Dan Heng! How dare you poison my mermaid best friend!” Then, to March: “Wait, are you okay?”

“She tried my food,” Dan Heng stated. His expression was back to the impassioned, stony look he had around people he didn’t know well.

The explanation was apparently more than enough for Asta, as she quickly dismissed March and placed a stack of papers on the table. “So, you guys, I have news.”

“You have milk?” March asked; the two ignored her entirely, and Dan Heng picked up the papers and leafed through them with interest.

“The results from the cave samples,” Asta explained as Dan Heng scanned the information. She had a barely contained grin on her face. “Bad news is, I have no idea why you’re a mermaid. Good news is…”

Dan Heng looked up from the papers, brow furrowed. “What the f*ck. Moon rocks?”

Asta smiled that manic smile she got when Doing Science. “Yeah, dude. Moon rocks. Whatever it is you guys found in that cave, it has lunar origins.”

“I’m gonna get some milk.” March stood up from the table, gaining nothing more than a distracted nod from her friends, and headed towards the cafeteria. Her eyes were still watering like crazy and her face was probably bright red at this point, but you know what? She was in pain, goddammit.

Arlan was walking with Peppy towards the tables and when she passed him, his eyes widened. “Are you okay?”

“Fine. ‘M fine. Need milk.” She wiped her nose and stumbled past him. Why did everything hurt so much? How did Dan Heng do it? Did he really eat this literal fire every day? Was he a dragon? He had to be a dragon. It was the only possible explanation.

Miraculously, the cafeteria was well stocked with milk boxes. March bought five and downed one right there at the register. It earned her some odd looks, but by god it worked; the milk wiped away the burning sensation, giving blissfully relief.

Content, March made her way back to the table. When she got there, she wasn’t particularly surprised to see that Arlan and Peppy had joined the group. “What’s up,” she said, setting down the milk boxes. Then: “Did I interrupt something?”

“No, no!” Asta said, just a little too chipper. Next to her, Arlan suddenly became very focused on scratching Peppy’s head.

March narrowed her eyes. “What happened?”

“Nothing happened! Now sit down.” Asta patted a chair, still far too chipper. “Are you feeling better? Did the milk help?”

March shrugged and sat down. “Yep! Thank god— you know, I think Dan Heng might be a dragon or something. Because that food is… wow. I mean, it tasted amazing, don’t get me wrong— like, seriously good, I didn’t realize you were such a good cook Dan Heng— but damn. That much spice has gotta do something to your esophagus over time, you know? Unless you’re a dragon.”

“Cold Dragon Young,” Arlan said humorously. “It all makes sense.”

Dan Heng groaned. “Please…”

“Wait, what’s that? Cold Dragon what?” Asta asked.

“It was Dan Heng’s nick name in high school,” March snickered. She used a wad of napkins to carefully open the next milk carton, then took a swig.

“Dear lord, why?”

“Excellent question,” Dan Heng deadpanned.

March counted on her fingers. “Well, he’s always got that cold expression… he’s clearly a dragon, as we just discussed… I guess the young part was probably referring to his cute lil’ baby cheeks. Look at those cute lil’ cheeks!”


Asta nodded seriously. “You do have cute baby cheeks, Dan Heng.”

“No I don’t.” Dan Heng looked at Arlan for support.

Arlan shrugged. “No comment.” On his lap, Peppy let out a little burp.

“See, Peppy agrees with me,” Dan Heng said quickly.

“Nah, I think he was agreeing with us,” March giggled. “Right Peppy? Doesn’t Dan Heng have the cutest wittle cheeks? I mean, not as cute as yours, of course, but a close second.”

“Please leave Peppy out of this,” Arlan said. He glanced at Asta, then quickly looked away.

As another awkward silence began, March’s patience finally waned. “Seriously, guys, what happened? Why’re you all being so weird?”

Asta and Arlan immediately looked at Dan Heng, who sighed. “Umm, Gui posted her video.”

“Ooh, really? That’s amazing…” March trailed off. “Wait, is it bad? Oh my god, how bad is it?”

Rather than answering, he slid his phone across the table.

(Video) Asking STRANGERS about REAL MERMAIDS!!!?? Mermaid hunting vlog
Posted yesterday, 3:59AM
Views: XXX
Likes: XXX

Gui: Yo yo yo, what is up fam? It’s your girl Lil Gui, here in Astral Cove with local legend March Murata, also known as Say Cheese—
March: Hey hey!
Gui: I’m gonna put all of her socials in the description, so be sure to check them out and give March some love! And don’t forget to like and subscribe—

Gui: Excuse me— Hey, you! Excuse me—
Man on bench, face blurred: What?
Gui: Do you think there are mermaids in Astral Cove?
Man on bench: No comment
Gui: I just have a few questions—
Man on bench: I said no comment!
[Stands up and moves towards camera]
Gui, under breath: Oh sh*t
[cut to Gui, close up]
Gui: So that guy over there— he told us to stop filming or he’d call the cops
March: Oops.
Gui: I’m just saying— he really didn’t want to talk about mermaids. Could be a coincidence, but I don’t know. Just saying. Did he have something to hide?
March: I think we were just annoying him
Gui: I’m just saying

Gui: And thanks again to Audible for sponsoring today’s video! Remember, smash that like button—

Gui: Excuse me, m’am? Can we ask you a few questions?
Woman: Sure, why not.
Gui: What’s your name and what are you up to in Astral Cove?
Woman: Natasha, I live here. I’m a physician at Jarilo Memorial.
Gui: Great—
Natasha: Oh, is that March?
March, blushing: Hey, Dr. Natasha
Natasha: So good to see you! Please check your email, I sent you a message about the urine test—
March, blushing: Uh—
Natasha: —and I believe you’re overdue for your Pap smear—
March, hiding face: Can we talk about it later!?
Gui, cutting in: So, Dr. Natasha, what do you think about the rumor that there are mermaids in Astral Cove?
Natasha: [laughs] I can’t say I was aware of a rumor, but I’m not sure I believe in mermaids. I’d have to see real proof.
Gui: Two Astral Cove residents testified that they were saved by a mermaid last week. Take a look. [Hands over phone with mermaid drawing on screen]
Natasha: Huh. [hands phone back] It looks a bit like you, March, don’t you think?
March, face still hidden: [inaudible]
Gui: Whoa, it totally does! Shang Shang— get a close up on this.
[video cuts to black screen. The two drawings of the mermaid from reddit post pop up, then slide to the side as an image of March (on the beach at sunset, taken from her Instagram) appears.]
Sushang: Hey, editor Sushang here— the close up didn’t really work, so I added the pictures here. That hot doctor’s right, it does look a lot like March Murata. Girl has some serious mermaid vibes, am I right?

Gui: So what’s the score? Are there mermaids in Astral Cove?
Sushang, off camera: Uh, four said maybe, five no, and five yes.
Gui: Well ‘maybe’ doesn’t mean ‘no’.
March: It’s not ‘yes’
Gui: So there you have it, folks! With a score of nine to five, Astral Cove doesn’t not have mermaids!
March: That’s not how it—

Gui: Tune in next time for part two of Lil Gui’s Mermaid Hunting Vlog! Until next time, fam, stay fresh, stay fun, and remember: never back down from a challenge! Lil’ Gui out.

March looked up from the video, feeling sick.

Super embarrassing about the urine test, right?” Asta said, laughing awkwardly. She glanced at Arlan, who nodded.

“Yeah. Pretty lame they didn’t cut that out. Umm.” Arlan let out a breath, then stood up and scooped Peppy under his arm. “Hey, I’ll, uh, I’ll text you guys later, yeah?”

“Totally,” Dan Heng said solemnly. They watched in silence as Arlan headed off. When he rounded the corner, Asta slumped dramatically in her chair.

“Oh thank god, he’s gone. I can’t believe you’ve been keeping this whole mermaid thing a secret, March, I seriously feel like I’m gonna spill the beans by accident.”

“Please don’t,” March stated. Her phone buzzed in her pocket but she ignored it.

“No duh. I’m kidding, okay? You’re my best friend, I’m not gonna go screaming to the heavens that you’re a fish person. Plus, it’s like the coolest thing ever. I want you all to myself.”


Asta shrugged. “I accept what I am.”

“Umm,” Dan Heng said. He reached across the table and grabbed his phone back. “March, I don’t think the video is as bad as it seems. Like— there’s no reason for anyone to actually make the leap that you are the mermaid.”

“Oh, totally,” Asta added. “Plus, you just have mermaid vibes. Like, as a person. It’s totally natural that if there was a mermaid out there, it’d kinda look like you.”

“Thanks guys. I’m sure it’ll be fine.” March frowned at her milk cartons, not at all convinced. Across the table, Dan Heng was staring blankly at his lunch; she could almost see the anxious gears cranking away in his mind. She wasn’t looking forward to the conversation they’d certainly be having later, where he’d remind her of what a bad idea it’d been to team up with Gui, that she was being careless, that she was putting all of them in danger.

Dan Heng must have felt her staring because he looked up, but she quickly averted her gaze. Not now. She could deal with it, but not now. Not when she had another three hours in the stock room ahead of her.



Thanks for sticking with me... Hope you enjoy the chapter!!! Please comment with your thoughts :)

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