Thirty-nine

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When I finally break the surface, Reece is watching me with a strange expression, leaving me to wonder if my display has only served to remind him of our differences.

"You ever wonder what all of those tests in the tank were for?" he asks after a moment of silence, his eyebrows furrowed in a way that tells me something is playing on his mind.

Memories of the tank come back to haunt me, leaving a tightness in my chest I fear will never truly leave me. I swirl my hand in the water before me, watching as my fingers create perfect ripples against the stillness.

"Marine World once told us they were to improve our performances," I say, forcing my eyes to meet his. "Are you getting in anytime soon?"

He pulls a face, his eyes flickering to the water before finding my own once more. "And get my clothes wet?"

I can't help but laugh. "The great mermaid rescuer," I say, giving him a playful splash, "afraid to get wet."

Clearly not one to be challenged, Reece gives me a dark look before pulling off his t-shirt and jumping in. He disappears under the water before resurfacing several seconds later, wiping the droplets from his face with a grin.

My heart jumps like it always does whenever he smiles, a feeling I can't quite control nor can I bring myself to dislike.

"Is it strange that I miss it sometimes?" I ask, glancing at the water before meeting his gaze. "Not just the water, but–" I take a deep breath, closing my eyes as I force myself to utter the words. "Marine World."

Through the dark, I feel him shift slightly beside me, his body radiating warmth in a way that both comforts and terrifies me.

"It was the only home you've ever known," he reminds me, his body so close I can feel his breath against my shoulder. "It would be strange if you didn't."

I slip behind him, taking in the bird drawing I'd spotted on his back that night in the motel. Hesitantly, I reach up and brush my fingers against his skin, tracing the outline of its wings.

"It's a bald eagle," Reece says, his muscles tense underneath my gentle touch. "The emblem of our country."

"What does it stand for?" I ask.

He slowly turns to face me, his body so close our noses almost touch. "Freedom," he says, his voice low and gruff. "Bravery. I got it in honor of my mother." He stops to carefully skim my face, his eyes suddenly laced with darkness. "She died when I was eleven."

I stare back for a moment, having no idea what it is I should do or say to comfort him. Losing Muriel and Crystal had felt like my world was imploding, and I understand now why Jason was so desperate to hold onto his son, no matter what the cost.

Reece is all he has left.

"I'm sorry," I say, noting the way the water droplets cling to his long, dark lashes. "I know what it's like to lose somebody you love."

Reece looks away for a moment, as if lost in his memories. "I want you to promise me something," he says, his voice so low it holds me in position.

"What?" I ask.

He finally looks at me. "That you'll stay behind."

Confused, my eyes dart back to his, taking in his serious expression with uncertainty.

"You going back is an unnecessary risk," he continues, his hand reaching out to cup the side of my face. "I can get them out without you. I'll bring them–"

"No."

He stops mid-sentence, dropping his hand before looking down at me with a familiar scowl. "No?"

I sigh. "Reece, I need to be there. If something went wrong–"

"If something went wrong you'd be in more danger than anyone," he says, his controlled composure slowly beginning to unravel. "Believe me when I tell you I will get them out, but I can't do it and worry about you at the same time."

I stare back at him, knowing that what he is asking of me is impossible, because what kind of person would I be if I refused to save them twice?

"I've already turned my back on them once," I say, feeling more determined than ever. "I won't do it again."

"If you go back there, you might not be walking back out," Reece warns, and I am about to protest when somebody clears their throat from the side of the pool.

"Uh, the pool's closed, folks," says a man not much older than me. He holds a stack of folded towels between his arms, his eyebrows quirked in disapproval.

"We were just leaving," Reece says, lifting himself over the ledge before grabbing his shirt. Then, with one last look in my direction, he storms off in the direction of the hotel.

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