“This was not my best plan.” Natalya looked around the barn. “There should be a farm truck.”
“If there is…” Greg shook his head. “It’s parked elsewhere.” He shrugged. “There is a tractor.”
“Yeah, the plan kind of depended on not attracting attention.” She ran her hands through her dark hair. “If they get cops or military or anything like that after us, we are so incredibly fucked. They will stick is in Gitmo and him in a goldfish bowl.”
Adele pointed. “There is a wagon there. That might be easier than Greg carrying me. Not so good for my dignity, but it won’t tire him as fast and we can take…” She blinked as there was a sudden flash of light. “Greg?”
“Huh.” Greg shrugged. “The welding torch works.” He turned it off again, then turned toward the creature. “Alright. I can get the collar off you. But you have to trust me, and I cannot emphasis enough that you have to stay completely, completely, completely fucking still, don’t move don’t even breath, okay?” The creature stared at him. “Nat, grab me a couple of those burlap sacks over there and soak them in the water barrel.”
“Greg…” Adele shook her head.
“As long as the collar is on him, they are tracking us. They are on their way here already.” Natalya sighed. “It’s get the collar off him, or point him toward a river and wish him luck and…”
“No. We can’t do that to him.” Adele shook her head. “Even if they don’t capture him again he’s miles from the ocean and…”
Natalya nodded. Then she started soaking the bags.
Yalathanil remained still as they pushed some of the soaking cloth between his neck and the collar. It made the collar uncomfortably tight, but they seemed to think it would protect him. Greg could wield fire, fire he believed hot enough to cut the collar. Yalathanil was skeptical, but he’d seen too much in the past year to not give this a chance.
The female with darker fringe sat next to him, and took her hands in his. It took him a moment to realize she was trying to comfort him. “Okay. Hold still now.” She gave a grimace. Fire ignited. Greg put some kind of shield over his own face as he approached. “Okay, look at me now. Don’t look at the fire.”
Steam rose from the sacks. It was hot, and uncomfortable, but he made himself stay still. With the collar gone, he had more options. And if danger was coming… He squeezed the female’s hands back, sending a little biofeedback to her. The male had clearly understood, as he’d released Yalathanil and was removing the collar. Once it was off, he could do his part.
“Shit. Greg, hurry.” The female with lighter fringe shifted. He wasn’t certain why she didn’t use her legs. They treated her with honor, but she did not appear to be in command. If anything, it was the female with darker fringe that led. It was confusing. “Greg, there are lights.”
“Almost done.” Greg’s voice was tight.
And a heartbeat later, Yalathanil felt the collar fall away.
Adele tried to crawl back as the men entered the barn. They were carrying guns. The one in the lead was the handler. “Well, now…” Edward smirked. “What have we here?” He gestured to the others. “Kneecap anyone that doesn’t come quiet —”
Behind her, the creature stood. The guns the men held started to come up and then…
Her eyes went wide as the creature roared, picked up the snow plow attachment that sat next to the tractor, and flung it at the men. It hit with enough force to kill at least two of them on impact, and the other three were clearly not going anywhere soon. “Holy fucking shit…” Greg was staring.
“Oh,” Adele gasped. “What the…”
“Uh…” Natalya swallowed. “Okay. Okay. Well, they had to get here in a vehicle so, uh…”
“Oh…” Adele stared at the twitching and wounded men. “Yeah, that’s, uh…” She looked up at where Greg was staring, his jaw hanging open. “Greg?” She indicated her useless legs. “Little help here?”
“Right.” He bent to pick her up.
It was a little embarrassing. He’d done his stint in the Navy, but the girls had taken seeing five men smashed to bits by a snow plow a lot more calmly than he had. He was still trying to get his breathing back under control.
“Alright, I’m just going to say it.” Natalya shrugged from where she was driving the jeep. “That was kind of awesome.”
“Those guys never knew what hit them.” Adele shook her head. “Honestly, I’m a little confused about what hit them.”
The creature was sitting calmly in the backseat next to him. He couldn’t help but feel the creature was just a little bit pleased with himself. Greg looked down at his feet. Natalya had a clearer head. She’d told him to grab a couple guns, and he had. Then he’d dialed 911 and left the phone next to Edward, who was still capable of speech, before following the others to the jeep. “You’ve started heading west?”
“Yeah, they know we were heading south before. Hopefully they’ll assume we still are. We’ll ditch this jeep…” Natalya patted the steering wheel. “Get something clean, and then…” She exhaled. “They probably will watch your boat, but by that point, we’ll already be at the ocean and what are they going to do?” She rolled her eyes. “Accuse us of stealing their mermaid.”
“Yeah, that…” Natalya went still.
Greg’s head whipped around to stare at the creature. Adele also turned in her seat. “Uh…”
“My name.” The creature pointed at his own chest. His accent was very strange, but the words were understandable. “Yalathanil.”
“You can talk.” Greg was staring at him.
“Yes.” Yalathanil nodded.
“Oh my god.” Natalya was making their transportation move oddly as she bounced in the seat. “You can talk. He can talk. You can talk. He can talk. Oh my god. He can talk. You can —”
“Nat, road!” Adele’s voice was sharp.
“Sorry.” Natalya giggled as she got the transportation back under control. His new companions were resourceful. They’d acquired the transportation of the enemy forces with little effort. “Why haven’t you talked before?”
“Yeah, those guys back at the lab were obviously trying to make you.” Adele nodded.
“I did not like them.” Yalathanil shrugged. “They are enemy. You are friend.”
“Oh my god, that is so sweet.” Natalya nearly lost control of the transportation again.
Next to him, Greg was laughing. “You have no idea how much I wish I could see the look on Xue’s face when he learns about this.” He turned toward Yalathanil, then offered a hand. “Well, Yalathanil, it’s nice to really meet you and uh…” He shrugged. “Thanks for the thing with the smashing of the guys and…” He started laughing again before Yalathanil could touch his hand, and only the transportation’s restraint kept him from falling as he laughed helplessly.
“Great.” Adele made a smaller laughing sound. “We broke Greg.”
“Greg?” He reached out to gently stroke the man’s fringe. “Greg?”
“I’m okay.” Greg swallowed a couple times to get himself back under control. “The whole…” He took a deep breath then sat back up, then turned toward Yalathanil. “Sorry, I’m still struggling a little with the weirdness factor of all of this.”
“It is…” Yalathanil searched for the word. “Diffy-cold?”
“Difficult.” Adele provided the word.
“Yes.” Yalathanil nodded. “I learn your kind.” He caught hold of Greg’s fringe and played with it between two of his fingers. All of the handlers and the sick man had no or little fringe, but his new companions all had long and soft fringe. “Nicer ones have this.” He held up the fringe.
“Oh, brother…” Adele laughed. “It is so much more complicated than that…”
“Did you get hold of your dad?” Natalya raised an eyebrow at Adele, who had a cranky look on her face.
“Yes.” Adele sighed.
She blinked. “So, we have funds then for —”
“He said he’d arrange us plane tickets.” Adele folded her arms. Greg had purchased her a wheelchair from the local 24-hour pharmacy, but the thing was rickety looking at best. Now they were just trying to decide on phase 2, since their original phase 2 had gone to hell.
Natalya glanced at where Yalathanil was talking with Greg. With the hood up to cover his obviously inhuman features, Yalathanil could pass for normal. The moment anyone got a closer look at him, however, they were screwed. “We can’t take Yala on a plane.”
“I know, but what was I supposed to tell him, Nat?” Adele sighed. “We stole a fish-man?” She shook her head. “We didn’t rescue him just to turn him over to a government lab.”
“Alright, we…” Natalya blinked. A sheriff’s vehicle was pulling into the parking lot. “That’s probably going to be trouble.”
“They probably just stop in here.” Adele shook her head. “Why do you assume it will be trouble?”
“It’s been that kind of day.” Natalya sighed as she watched the sheriff get out and start walking toward Greg and Yalathanil.
Greg winced as the sheriff shined the flashlight at him. Yalathanil turned away from it, which he had to admit looked suspicious even if it was the right thing to do. He pasted a smile on his own face. “Good evening, Sheriff.”
“It’s morning.” The sheriff narrowed his eyes at Greg. “Three AM, to be precise.” He gave Yalathanil a suspicious look. “I need to see your IDs.”
“Yeah, uh…” Greg swallowed. It wasn’t unlikely Xue had contacts with the local law enforcement. Showing IDs would just end up in them getting arrested, and it would be Xue bailing them out. “We don’t have them on us right now.”
“What are you doing out here this time of night?” The sheriff flashed his light at Greg’s eyes.
“Just stretching our legs.”
He swallowed as the sheriff turned toward Yalathanil. “Who is your friend?”
“This is, uh…” Greg winced a little.
“Hey, you.” The sheriff narrowed his eyes, then shined the light at Yalathanil again. “Hey, I’m talking to you.”
“He, uh…” Greg shook his head. “He doesn’t speak English. He’s visiting.”
“Visiting?” The sheriff gave him a skeptical look. “From…?”
“He’s Dutch.” Greg moved between the sheriff and Yalathanil. “From Amsterdam?”
“Right.” The sheriff pushed past him. “And I’m the tooth fairy. Last thing we need is some thug messing with…” He grabbed Yalathanil’s hood and yanked it back.
“I…” Greg caught himself before he could finish with the words ‘can explain’. Yalathanil looked human. His skin tones were normal, the shape of his features human, his ears round, and he had hair, short and dark. He looked from the sheriff to Greg and raise an eyebrow. “Are we under arrest?”
The sheriff was staring at Yalathanil, clearly shocked. The guy must have been on Xue’s payroll, but Yalathanil looking human clearly hadn’t matched what information the guy’d been given. And since Natalya had wheeled Adele out of sight… The sheriff started shaking his head. “No. You two get moving. There is no loitering.”
“Yes, of course.” Greg nodded. “We’ll be on our way.”
“He’s Dutch?” Natalya stared at Greg.
“I panicked.” Greg shrugged, then rubbed his forehead. “We are fugitives with a merman. This is kind of new territory for me.”
“It amazes me anyone could mistake you for a criminal mastermind.” Natalya laughed softly. “Alright, so, since Yala looks human —”
“Yala?” Yalathanil blinked.
“Yeah, it’s…” She smiled. “It’s a nickname. Like I’m Natalya, but they call me Nat. And he’s actually Gregory, but everyone calls him Greg.” She tilted her head, and her voice became a little hesitant. “Is that okay?”
“Yala…” He repeated the name as though tasting it. Then he nodded. “And I am Dutch. From Amsterdam.”
“It would explain why he talks a little strangely, if anyone asks.” Adele shrugged. “Alright, now we just need to find a vehicle with a trunk that can fit the chair.”
“Why take chair?” Yalathanil gave Adele a curious look.
“Oh, uh…” Natalya glanced at her best friend, then back at Yalathanil. “A few years back, um…” She exhaled. “Alright, we learned about merfolk six years ago, when a big nasty one with tentacles attacked us. It threw Adele and broke her spine, then it came after me but…” Her voice broke a little.
Greg spoke up. “It dragged her brother, Viktor, into the water instead. That was the last we saw of him. Natalya started studying the ocean after that, wanting to find out what it…” He gave a small shrug. “Wanting to know what happened.”
Yalathanil was quiet, then he raised his head. He said an unfamiliar word, one Natalya wasn’t sure she could even pronounce, then kept speaking. “It takes your legs and your brother and…” He glanced at Adele. “You risk yourselves helping me anyway?”
“They were hurting you.” Adele smiled up at him. “It was the right thing to do.”
“Yes.” Yalathanil nodded. “Right thing.” He turned and grabbed hold of Greg’s arm, then pulled the swiss army knife out of Greg’s pocket before Greg could stop him.
“Don’t— ” Greg started to object when Yalathanil sliced open his own palm with the blade.
The merman silenced him with a look before going over to Adele and moving behind her. He pushed her forward a little, yanked her shirt up, then pressed the bleeding palm to the small of her back. “What are you…” Adele stared up at Natalya, her eyes wide.
“Hush.” Yala’s form shifted from human to amphibious, his eyes going the deep sharklike black. A membrane covered them as he kept his hand where it was, clearly concentrating. After a moment, he said something in his own language, sounding a little like a rush of water. Then he pulled his hand away, took a couple breaths, and turned human again. “Stand.”
“Yala, I don’t…” Adele shook her head.
He made an impatient noise, then grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the chair before Greg or Natalya could stop him. Adele stumbled forward a step and then…
Natalya’s hands went over her mouth as Adele’s face took on a shocked expression. And then, slowly and carefully…
Adele stood up.