Compatible

A short story featuring: Human x Merman Romance, Asexuality, Misunderstandings, Non-sexual Intimacy, Cultural Differences, Forbidden Love, Urban Fantasy. Rated 15+ for discussions about relationships and sexuality. No explicit content.


Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Author’s Note: This story was originally published in February 2019 and has been edited, extended, and updated as of February 2022.


Annabel crossed the bridge over the canal, narrowly avoiding the splash from a couple of merboys wrestling in the water. Lacuboys, not merboys, she corrected herself. A lifetime of pop culture was hard to ignore – and it was impossible to tell the difference just by looking, no matter what Kyo said.

It was rare to see lacu so far into town. There was not a single street that wasn’t lined with a canal or river, but lacu preferred to stay far from humans. These particular lacu looked midway to maturity. No doubt they were going through a rebellious phase.

Kyo, not bothered by the icy water, dipped his head under and veered towards the boys. His spiny dorsal fin cut a trail behind him. One of the boys spotted him approaching and let out a trill. There was a moment of stillness as the wrestling ceased. Kyo was the oldest, and the boys’ faces grew tense. Kyo fluttered his ear fins, a gesture Annabel recognised as friendly. A silence followed – or, at least, that was how it appeared. In actuality, the majority of the conversation was carried by electrical pulses. Something Annabel’s limited human perspective would never be able to grasp. She averted her gaze, turning to the line of shops along the bank.

In one of the shop windows, a sign said ‘50% OFF VALENTINE’S GIFTS.’ The sill was decorated with a collection of red hearts and rose petals. Was it really that time of year already?

Water sloshed onto the pavement as Kyo folded his arms on the curb. “That was not present the last time we came here,” he said, “What is its meaning?”

Just as Annabel couldn’t speak in electrical pulses, Kyo didn’t have the vocal structure to allow him to speak any human language. Luckily, lacu could make some vocalizations – enough for two linguists from Lund University to cobble together what was, quite possibly, the smallest and most frustrating lexicon to ever exist. Even the matter of how to address each other had taken weeks to figure out. Kyo was a name she’d suggested, which he said was agreeable. He seemed to refer to her by a series of soft chitters and ear wiggles, something she trusted wasn’t an insult.

Being such a young language, Wopobi had few speakers – and most were politicians. It was stilted, formal, and contentious. It wasn’t designed for intimacy.

How, then, could she begin to explain Valentine’s Day?

Valentine’s Day being, for her, just another day. Valentine’s Day, like the romance it celebrated, was for other people. Annabel, who had never dated, never kissed anyone, and would die happily on the coast with Kyo by her side, was as asexual as they come.

She chuckled. Of course I’d be the one settled with explaining this.

“It’s a recognition of…” she rubbed her lips together, “…attentiveness. An annual event to show appreciation for partners. It’s to do with human propagation.”

She winced. Let’s face it. It isn’t possible to explain love in a language created to arrange fishing laws.

Droplets rained onto the pavement as Kyo gestured at the window. “There’s one of my kind. Why?”

He was pointing at a card with a picture of a mermaid clasping a heart-shaped shell. The caption read ‘We mermaid for each other.’

Annabel pulled a face. No surprise, the popularity of the once assumed mythical creature had boomed since lacu came out of hiding twenty years ago. So far, scientists had identified two species – one preferring freshwater and the other saltwater. The word lacu came about to identify the freshwater race. Annabel wasn’t the first to point out that ‘lacu’ and ‘mer’ both originated from words meaning lake, so the distinction wasn’t particularly accurate. Of course, when most people think of a mermaid, they picture a red-haired beauty who lives under the sea. The distinction was necessary, even if the word lacu was still relatively unknown.

Annabel couldn’t help but imagine that when humans and lacu first met, someone decided it was a good idea to show them this modern image of a mermaid. The lacu saw this, shook their heads, and said no, not us, we live in lakes. Still, the cultural stereotype prevailed.

She explained the caption on the card the best she could.

Kyo wrinkled his nose. “Mermaid… Humans don’t know the difference.” He widened his eyes, nodding at her. “You know the difference. Merfolk are…”

“Salty,” she said in English. “Merfolk are salty.”

Kyo squirmed with silent laughter.

Annabel shook her head, bemused. Sometimes she wondered if the sound of English amused him more than the pun.

***

Arriving at the docks meant parting ways, if just for a few minutes. Annabel walked along the towpath towards her yacht and Kyo swam out of the harbour to wait for her in more open waters. There weren’t as many boats coming in and out as there was in summer, but Kyo enjoyed a routine, and that included avoiding chaotic sailors.

As she was untying her boat, she got a text from her mother, Can you get milk while you’re in town? x

About to go out on the lake, she replied, Will pick up when I get back x

A bit COLD for sailing, isn’t it!

I’m wrapped up warm.

She put her phone away and set off. Once she cleared the harbour, it only took a few minutes to spot a familiar blue dorsal fin sailing alongside her. Every so often, he leaped from the water. She liked to think he was doing it just so he could look at her. Each time, despite the bite of the cold on her cheeks, everything inside her went warm.

***

“Oh, that’s a beauty!” Annabel gasped as Kyo passed her a bluegill through the yacht railing. It’s nearly 10 inches long! Show off! Realizing she’d used English, she quickly switched languages, “Many thanks. I appreciate.”

Kyo’s ears flapped. “A boon equal to my debt?”

“Your debt is gone long ago,” Annabel replied. She will always be glad Kyo decided to steal fish from her, though she did miss having an excuse to buy new hooks.

She walked up the deck to the bow, where she liked to prep the fish. She scraped off the scales and removed the head, guts, tail and fins. She tossed these to Kyo and smiled as he dipped under the water’s surface to eat. His tail lolled side to side, catching the sun.

This particular spot on the lake was nestled behind a cluster of islands and only accessible by sailing through a tangled growth of plants. Sailors didn’t come this way because the plants made it impossible to see how shallow the water was and didn’t want to risk damaging their boats or becoming moored – especially when there were tales of some less than kind lacu. Kyo had guided Annabel here shortly after they became friends. Though Annabel’s was the only yacht on the lake, they weren’t alone. There was a ripple in the distance, and Kyo’s lolling tail suddenly shot down into the murky depths. She leaned over the railing for a better look.

Moments passed. The lake’s surface became still – and then that stillness shattered as Kyo burst from the water. He was holding another lacu in a headlock.

It was another male. Unlike Kyo, this male had murky green skin and spiked fins on his ears, back, and the tip of his tail. Kyo was a soft blue with white speckles, his fins were rounder, and though he was the larger of the two, everything about the other lacu seemed harsher. Annabel wasn’t sure who was the oldest.

They wrestled for a moment, sending waves that rocked the yacht.

“Steady on!” Annabel said, laughing.

It was only when she heard a snarl that she realized they weren’t wrestling like the boys in the canal. They were fighting.

Annabel grabbed her fish scaler before her common sense caught up. She clutched it by her head like she was waiting to bat. She didn’t have a plan. If Kyo got hurt, she’d – well, she’d bonk that lacu on the head to start! Then she’d run over him with her boat.

Kyo shoved the lacu back, bared his fangs, and shrieked. The lacu went still, but didn’t back off. He glanced at her, ear fins pulled back.

Oh, that’s not a friendly face.

Kyo made a sharp, popping shout, pulling the lacu’s attention back to him. Finally, the lacu dropped his gaze and dove under the water. Kyo dove after him.

Annabel dropped the scaler and lurched forwards. The water rippled, but she couldn’t see anything through the murk. She squeezed the railing, not daring to look away. It was several minutes before Kyo returned.

“Are you injured?” Annabel looked him over as he approached, trying to find streaks of blood.

“No.”

“Why did they do that?”

“They felt that you were encroaching.”

She glanced at the horizon again, but there was no sign of anyone else. “Am I?”

Kyo didn’t answer for a moment. He pressed his palm against the hull, spreading his webbed fingers. “It has been many annuals since humans came through here. This place belongs to my kind.”

“Oh.” Annabel curled her fingers tight around the railing. Often, their friendship was a source of pride. Look at the two of them, different yet close. Yet, there will always be a barrier between them, as heavy and as real as the railing that kept her on her boat.

Kyo’s eyes lifted to meet hers. “You watch me. Why?”

Her cheeks went hot, and she quickly looked away. She’d been staring too long. “We’re very different.”

Kyo stared at her, deep black eyes unreadable.

Moving away from the railing, she tidied up her fish knife and walked towards the cabin. It was time to head back, before any more unfriendly lacu turned up.

She was startled by the roar of tumbling water. Kyo hoisted himself onto the stern, taking half the lake onto the deck with him. Annabel jumped as the cold spray hit her but laughed as Kyo struggled to get on board. He wriggled, his tail anchoring him, and bared his teeth with effort.

“I hope you perform better when you go to propagate.” She cringed a second later, hoping the joke would land, embarrassed for making it in the first place. As part of her college’s Culture Awareness curriculum, she’d learnt that lacu reproduce by broadcast spawning. Every season, they crawl onto land and leave gametes in small pools. While she was amazed by the revelation that this was the evolutionary reason lacu had arms, everyone else was giggling over the complete unsexiness of the whole process.

“It’s easier…to negotiate…a riverbank.”

She reached out, “Aid?”

He clasped her hand. She startled. Cold, wet, webbed fingers – that much she expected – but his skin was soft and slick like silk and his hand nearly slipped from hers. She grabbed his shoulder. His muscle jumped under her fingers, but the rest of him seemed to freeze.

“Kyo?”

He blinked. “Continue.”

She nodded and pulled. At last, he flopped onto the deck like an overgrown slug. He looked up at her, eyelids partway lowered, breathing hard.

“Silly fish,” she said. He’s adorable.

Maybe she could stay a little longer.

She nudged his tail with her toes, “Make space for me.”

He shifted an inch.

She huffed and lay down next to him. The water on the deck quickly soaked into her clothes, and she shuddered. The late winter sun was struggling with the transition to spring. Yesterday’s ice had melted, the sunlight was warm, but the wind stung. Kyo’s arms came around her chest, and his tail coiled around her legs. It wasn’t warm, at first, but it was pleasant. She felt prickles under her skin. She breathed in, slowly, and out again. She could stay like this forever. Lulled by the swaying of the yacht, she drifted in and out of slumber.

She was startled awake when Kyo’s fingers brushed the shell of her ear.

“Incomplete,” he murmured, “Very agreeable.”

She smirked. “Incomplete?”

He flinched. She felt every muscle tighten. He mustn’t have realised she was awake.

“No fins or scales,” he clarified after a pause, “feels incomplete, yet compelling.”

She couldn’t help but grin, and she squeezed his hand. He felt much drier than he had minutes ago. She shifted, feeling his tail with the end of her foot. Kyo’s breath hitched. She ran her foot up and down and felt dry scales flaking off.

“You’re drying out.”

“Yes.”

“You need to return.”

He clicked unhappily.

“Go.”

He tucked his nose into her hair, “No!”

Looks like she’ll be doing this herself.

She untangled his arms from her waist and went below deck. She changed into her swim costume, only pausing to look at herself in the mirror, catching herself thinking about what she’d look like with fins on her ears – an impossible, childish fantasy.

When she returned to the deck, Kyo was resting on his forearms, looking at her. She stepped over him and climbed down the steps at the back of the stern. The cold water sent a jolt up her body. She braced herself and pushed off the stern, swimming backwards. Moments later, Kyo slid into the water and was next to her.

He bared his teeth. “You swim like you’re close to death.”

She laughed.

The concern didn’t leave his expression. He held her by the waist and, floundering, she grasped his shoulders. She flexed her fingers, unsure. If anyone saw them like this…

She spotted his sunburnt skin and focused on that. “You’re hurt. Why did you come onto the boat?”

He watched her hands.

Goosebumps rose on her arms as she massaged water up and down his chest. She couldn’t suppress her shivers.

“You’re cold,” he replied, “Why did you come into the water?”

Guess we’re both idiots.

“Come.” He held her tight and pushed towards the boat. When she was back onboard, wrapped in a towel with a heater turned to full, he swam in figure of eights just below the water’s surface. The sunlight made his tail glitter.

She thought about his touch on her ear, his arms around her waist, and how perfect and wonderful life would be if she could have that any day and every day.

I think I love you. She tucked her face into her towel. Damn her stupid heart. Lacu don’t have romantic partners. If she ever told him – if it was possible to find the right words – he wouldn’t understand.

She could try, at least, couldn’t she? They were both on the same page about the ‘mermaids are salty’ pun. At least, she thought so.

It would mean a long, painful conversation, trying to choose the right words, hoping, praying he’d grasp her meaning – and that, somehow, he’d feel the same. And if he didn’t, dealing with the change in their relationship. The change had already happened, there was no stopping that. She would never be able to be the same way around him.

She flung the towel off her back and stood. Kyo must have been watching because he immediately surfaced.

“I need to go home,” she said.

He followed her. She got the feeling she was being escorted.

Just before they entered the harbour, Annabel cut off the engine and let the boat slow down. She waited until Kyo had noticed and watched as he approached.

“I will come back here after light ends,” she told him, “to see the stars.”

His dark eyes focused on her face, “I will come back as well.”

She nodded, trying to ignore the lodged feeling in her throat.

***

Annabel ran her errands in a thoughtless haze and before she realised time was passing it was already dark.

She sailed back into the lakes towards a quiet skerry, where she and Kyo first met. She didn’t want to risk going anywhere that might provoke another lacu attack. She wanted privacy. She sat with her legs between the railing, clasping a thermo of hot chocolate in gloved hands, and looked up at the stars.

Kyo announced his arrival with a cold, wet hand on her ankle.

She yelped.

“You weren’t looking,” he teased.

She tried shoving him with her foot, but he was much stronger than her and didn’t move. He clasped her ankle and kept it pressed to his chest. She squealed, trying to tug herself free, “You’re cold!”

He laughed silently, ears fluttering. She flushed, trying not to think about how taut Kyo’s pectorals were. She tugged her foot free – tugged so hard that her leg swung back and smacked the hull, “Ouch!”

Kyo’s eyes widened. He swam forward, closed his hand around her ankle again, and rubbed the sore spot with his thumb. Annabel felt warm tingles rush through her and just managed to resist curling her toes. Oh, God, she thought, I am never going to get through this evening.

“Kyo, I…”

“I brought you something,” he said, letting her go.

“Brought me something?”

He nodded.

Setting her thermo to one side, she reached down and let him press something hard into her palm. Whatever it was, she brought it through the railing onto the safety of the deck before she risked opening her fist. It was a stone, slick with algae and mud, and stinking of rotten, stagnant water.

Kyo beamed, “It has a likeness to the celebration display.”

It took her a second to realise he was talking about the Valentine’s Day decorations they saw that morning. The stone did look a little like a heart, albeit a crooked one.

“You’re right.” She glanced between him and the stone, unsure if Kyo just brought it to show her or if he intended for her to keep it. He couldn’t have meant it as a Valentine’s Day gift, could he? Until that morning, he hadn’t known what Valentine’s Day was.

Kyo noticed her uncertainty. His gaze flitted between her face and the stone, and he let out a soft popping sound. Her stomach clenched. The popping sound usually meant frustration or anger. He hadn’t used that sound towards her in an age.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I – I appreciate.” She closed her fist around the stone and tucked it into her jacket pocket.

The look on his face didn’t change. If anything, he looked more frustrated. His ears arched back.

“Have I upset you?”

“No,” he said gently, “I am attempting to express…” He hissed, shaking himself, “I cannot explain. The words are so inadequate – so…structured. Without emotion.”

I know the feeling. Annabel furrowed her brow. It wasn’t the first time either of them had struggled to express what they wanted. If she found the courage to tell him her feelings tonight, she couldn’t be sure she’d find the right way to say it. What was the Wopobi equivalent of I love you? There wasn’t one.

“I empathise,” she told him, “Don’t let it worry you.”

The look on his face told her that he was definitely going to let it worry him.

“Let’s enjoy ourselves. Look at the stars!” She motioned him to lie back before flopping onto the deck herself. She heard the water sloshing as he mimicked her position, his tail rising to the surface. She snuck a peak – the moonlight made him glow. “They are very…” Goddammit she couldn’t even say beautiful.

“Agreeable.”

Good enough. “Do you see the shapes they make?” She pointed, drawing an invisible line between the stars with her finger. Above their heads was the constellation Gemini. “Two people…” She clasped her hands together and showed them to Kyo, “…like this. We call it The Twins. Meaning the same.”

“But they are not the same.” He sounded bewildered. “The one on the right has a longer tail, with a fin that flicks up, see?”

“You’re right!”

“A human and a lacu.”

“Holding hands,” she added softly. She heard a splash. She sat up, heart in her throat. Was another lacu bothering them?

But Kyo was still there. No longer on his back, he was looking up at her, his hand stretched out. “Aid?”

She nodded. Getting to her feet, she reached for him and hoisted him onto the boat like she’d done that afternoon. She shifted back to give him space, but with an evil twist to his lip, he yanked her hand hard and had her lurching into him. She managed to steady herself with one palm on the deck, the other on his chest.

“You are a…” a cheeky twat. Not that there was a Wopobi version of that, so she settled for puffing out her cheeks, which she knew lacu did when they were playfully annoyed.

He kept hold of her hand as he coiled his tail more securely onto the boat. With his other hand, he dipped into her jacket pocket and fished out the heart-shaped stone. She shuddered.

He rubbed it with his fingers and scowled. “Can you explain the celebration to me?”

Maybe he had intended it to be a Valentine’s gift after all.

Annabel’s throat felt dry. “It’s, um,” She couldn’t remember what she’d told him last time. Her thoughts were pinned on that heart-shaped stone, on the feeling of him next to her, his hand around her fingers.

Should she begin with the holiday’s history? Not that she knew much of it. Something about a Saint? She’ll only confuse herself. What was Valentine’s Day, really, but an overly sentimental, overly commercialised, tired day – one that she never felt included in. One that, in recent years, was heavily criticised for those same reasons.

What she could explain was how Valentine’s Day was supposed to feel.

“It’s a recognition of a partnership,” she said. “A partnership beyond friendship.”

Kyo’s ears perked up. “To acknowledge your appreciation for them? That you are attentive of them?”

“Yes.”

“Then this,” he took both her hands, cupped them around the stone, and squeezed her tight, “for you.”

If only if were that simple. Tears were coming, and she blinked furiously. She hadn’t wanted to get emotional.

“Am I incorrect?”

Beyond friendship.”

He swallowed. Squeezed her hands again. “Beyond friendship. You and I, yes?”

He must think it was for special friends – unlikely friends. A friendship between a lacu and a human was as unlikely as it got. It was special. It was beyond friendship. Annabel would always be grateful for it. Just the thought of losing it hurt.

But it wouldn’t hurt nearly as much as watching Kyo bring her trinkets that screamed romance when he didn’t mean it that way.

She took a deep breath. “No.”

Kyo blinked. He looked at her, looked at their hands, and shook them. His ears drooped as she tugged free, leaving the stone with him.

God, he looks so hurt and confused.

He looked away from her, shifting his tail. If she didn’t say something he’d leave thinking that she didn’t value their friendship. She clasped his face. He startled.

“Kyo, I –”

It was like she was sixteen again, before she knew the word asexual, wondering why all her friends had thoughts and feelings she didn’t, and no way to explain herself.

I have to try!

“I want to be in your company always. I feel… lacking when I am without you, like… like –” She ran out of words. She tried again, “You make me happy, and I want nothing but happiness for you. When that lacu came and hurt you, I was so scared. I want you never to be hurt. I…” she sighed, dropping her head. “I wish we were compatible.”

“Compatible?”

“There aren’t words in this artificial language for what I want to say. If I were like you, if I were one of your kind, I could speak in pulses and smell and with my body, and we’d always be compatible. Never struggling. Never like this.”

If she were lacu, would she feel the same for him? Would they be friends, when their friendship was built on their mutual struggle to understand the other? Would she know to fall in love with him?

“You are attentive of me.” He grasped her wrists.

She looked up, blinking back tears.

“Everything you said, I feel too.” He cupped her hands around the stone again. “I am attentive of you. Beyond friendship.”

Oh. “Oh!”

He grinned. “Yes?”

“Yes!” She laughed, “Yes! Always.”

He wrapped his arm around her lower back and touched their foreheads together. “Ridiculous human.”

“Silly fish.”

He brushed a tear off her cheek, “You wished for compatibility. Perhaps we will always struggle, but I would never want you to be different to what you are.”

“I was wrong. The struggle makes us.” There so much she couldn’t express, but sometimes she seized the right words. Truthful, accurate, perfect words.

we are compatible

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