Twenty-seven

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When the kettle finally boils, Reece's arm is stretching back over and he pours the hot water into the cup, causing a cloud of steam to brush against my cheeks.

"A little cream and sugar," he continues, stirring the contents of the cup with a spoon before stepping aside.

I turn and look at him, both of us silent as we take each other in. He's the only one who can do that. Who can look at me like he's not seeing a genetically engineered mermaid, but a real person.

"I don't think I can do this," I say, fixing my gaze on a smudge on the wall. "I can't survive out here in the real world, Reece. I don't know how to do anything."

"What do you think you've been doing, if not surviving?" Reece wants to know, staring down with a thick eyebrow arched. "You're the reason you made it out of Marine World. You wanted to be free, so you made it happen. You've been doing nothing but surviving. Who cares if you can't make a cup of coffee?"

He leans in closer, his eyes flitting to my lips for a moment before finding my own eyes once more. Whenever he looks at me, it is as if he sees me. Not the me he wants me to be, or the me that I could be, but the girl I am right now in this moment. I find myself leaning in closer, unsure of what it is I'm doing but knowing it feels right to do it.

A knock on the door breaks through the silence, forcing the pair of us apart before Reece grabs his gun and turns toward the front door.

"Move behind the bed," he orders, and I slink away from the table and dart across the room, ducking behind the side of the bed.

He inches toward the door as my heart thuds louder, so loud that I'm certain whoever is on the other side of the door can hear it. He opens the door a slither before opening it further, a sign that whoever is on the other side of the door hasn't been identified as a threat.

"Hey," chirps a familiar, nasally voice I recognize as the guy from the front desk. "I just remembered I forgot to tell you checkout is at ten."

After muttering something to the boy, Reece closes the door and rests his gun on the bedside table, giving me a weary look that mirrors how I feel inside.

This is how it is going to be now, us always being on edge, always looking over our shoulder or being afraid of a knock or a sound, because this is the price I–we–have paid for my freedom.

"What happens now?" I ask, because I don't think I can take running any longer without knowing what's next, or else it will feel like I never made it off that treadmill.

Reece flops onto the bed and for the first time, I notice the dark circles that have begun to form underneath his eyes. "First thing in the morning, we'll head toward the cabin. For now, why don't you take a shower and eat something?"

I nod, heading into the bathroom before taking out my contacts and stepping into the shower. By the time I come out, Reece is shirtless and fast asleep on top of the bed covers, causing something in my chest to tighten.

He looks peaceful now that his face is relaxed, no sign of agitation or worry plaguing his features. His breathing is soft, the way Crystal's used to be, and the familiar sound offers me an inkling of comfort through the dark.

Still, the thought of sleeping next to a man has me frozen in position, and even though I know he isn't Jackson, I can't squash the terror making its way through my system.

The cool air blowing in from the vents makes me shiver and slowly, I crawl into the space beside him, holding my breath as I stare at the silhouette of his chest. He twitches and I freeze, watching him turn on his side.

Through the dark, I'm able to make out the outline of a drawing on his shoulder blade, some kind of bird with its wings spread mid-flight. I study it for a moment, unable to help but feel somewhat relieved at having him next to me.

As the night stretches on and I've yet to fall asleep, I find myself inching closer and closer, until finally his warm body is pressed against mine.

A/N

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