Three

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My hands begin to feel clammy, and as I sit waiting for the unknown, waiting for that door to swing open and for somebody else to decide my fate, I tell myself over and over that I hate Crystal, that she's ruined all of our chances of ever escaping, but even as I think it, I know it isn't true.

I don't hate Crystal. I can't. She and the other mermaids are the only family I have, and to hate one of them would be to hate myself, because they are a part of my journey, a part of me, as I am a part of them. I know wherever Crystal is she'll be as terrified as I am, and I want nothing more than to wrap her in my arms and tell her that everything is going to be okay, even if I can't believe the words myself.

When I can't take it anymore, I dive into the freezing cold water, sinking to the bottom where I finally let myself cry. I stay under until my bursting lungs can no longer take it, and then I break the surface in time to see two men I recognize emerge through the door-Jackson and Rob.

The keepers.

I've long since learned that whenever I see these two men, something is wrong. They show up during the times one of us tries to hurt ourselves, or when we aren't performing the way they expect us to. They come when the darkness comes, and they try to take it away.

"Hey Aura," Jackson says, slowly moving towards the ledge of the pool, "how are you feeling?"

"Mertastic," I force myself to say, before the door swings open once again and two more men step inside. Both Rob and Jackson's heads swivel to face them, as if they hadn't been expecting company.

"They weren't joking about putting them under twenty-four-hour surveillance," Rob mutters, taking in the crisp black uniforms of the two men with uncertainty. "Do you really think this is necessary?"

"Somebody was just killed," the shorter of the men says in a hard voice, barely acknowledging me, for which I am grateful. "So yeah, this is necessary. My name is Jason, and I'm head of security. This is Reece." He nods at the tall, broad shouldered man next to him, who shares the same blue eyes and curly black hair. "We're here to get some answers from that." Now he nods his head towards me and I instantly feel my cheeks grow warm.

"Get her out of there," he commands, and both Jackson and Rob hoist me up roughly by my arms, their fingers digging into my tendons and causing me to wince in pain as they pull me from the water.

"Take off the tail, will you?" Jackson huffs to Rob with reddening cheeks. "It's adding about two hundred pounds to her."

Jackson holds me down by the shoulders, and when Rob runs his hand along the hem of my tail, I'm unable to stop myself from flinching at the unwelcome contact.

Reece notices. "Does it hurt her to get it off?" He asks, his voice deep and yet strangely warm, an unsettling contrast to the hardness of his icy blue eyes.

"It doesn't hurt," Jackson assures him, glancing over at me with a lopsided smile. "She probably just feels embarrassed."

"Why?" Reece wants to know, a thick eyebrow cocked. "I thought they couldn't feel the same as us."

Jackson glances over at Rob nervously. "They can feel," Rob says after a brief moment of silence. "Just like any animal can, but on a much lesser scale than humans."

"Less talking and more moving," Jason growls, and Rob tucks his hand under me, skimming his fingers at my narrow hips.

"There," he smiles, clicking something out of place before looking up at Jason. "We have to be careful with the tails. These things are expensive to make-"

"Wait," Reece barks, and the pair of them freeze. "Is she–what's under the tail?"

Rob looks confused for a moment before smirking. "Don't worry, she's wearing a swimsuit. Look, if you're worried about her modesty, don't be. She may look human," he says, regarding me with distaste, "but she's botched inside. More fish DNA than human and the brains to match."

He proceeds to pull down my tail and it slides off with ease, revealing a pair of long, brown legs, and I look down at them anxiously, wiggling my toes to check they're still working.

"Can you stand?" Jason demands to know, and I shakily try to get to my feet but stumble backwards a few steps and Reece catches me in his arms, peering down at me with concern.

"You all right?" He asks gruffly, his eyes skimming over my face. He's not looking at me like how the others are looking at me–like I can't understand or feel anything.

I know they don't care about me, they don't care how I feel or if I'm hurting-Muriel had told me as much. They only care about what the guests feel, whether I'm performing the way they want me to, but as Reece looks down at me, it's as if I'm more than what these people want me to be.

As if I'm more than I ever could be.

"She's used to using her tail most of the time," Jackson explains before I can respond, reaching down and picking up one of my feet before prodding it with a meaty finger. "She'll be fine."

Without another word, Reece scoops me up in his arms, causing every muscle in my body to tense at his close proximity. I'm used to Jackson and Rob prodding and poking me as if I'm an inanimate object, but this embrace that Reece has me in, it feels intimate, his skin warm against mine as he holds me bundled to his chest.

"Lead the way," Reece says gruffly, and then Rob rests his key card to the door and we head through it and down a long tunnel.

At the end of the tunnel and through a glass door is a white room with a table and chairs, and Reece lowers me into a chair before sitting opposite me with Jason by his side.

"What's going to happen to Crystal?" I can't stop myself from asking, even though I know I'm not supposed to speak unless asked a direct question. "When can I see her?"

I'm testing the waters, not that they know it. I need to know what they plan to do next, how much trouble Crystal is in and what it means for the rest of us.

It's Jackson who answers. "I'm not sure, Aura," he says in a low, soft voice, his eyes skimming over my face with what seems to be genuine concern, but I know it's not real. Jackson had me fooled once, made me believe he really cared about us, but I know the truth now. "That all depends on what you tell us next."

I swallow hard, realizing I now hold the key to Crystal's fate.

A/N
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