This was written for the prompt, "Amber". It's a sequel to "Beautiful", and yet another time I surprised myself with what I wrote. I'd been planning to write something about robots.
Inspiration, it seems, is an odd and fickle thing.
I'm also pleased to announce that I'm now 4/4 on guys bleeding. This is the kind of thing that amuses me.
I would like to thank everyone who chooses to read this very much. And once again, I hope you enjoy it.
mermaidbia: this one's for you. And also with much love to my sister, for her rough- and final-draft edits. This would have sucked without her.
"Hi, Jak," Gavin said. "What have you got for me today?"
Jak smiled despite himself, because Gavin hadn't even looked up from the tablet in his hands, which most likely showed exactly why Jak was there. But that's what Gavin always said, whenever Jak came to his office. What have you got for me today? As if Jak were there delivering something instead of being a patient. It was like Gavin had never managed to memorize more than that one line.
"Hey, Doc," Jak said. He wondered if his smile looked as tired as he felt. His voice sounded rough as hell, but there was a good reason for that. "Been better."
"I can see that," Gavin said, nodding down at the tablet. He put it on the counter next to the sterilizer and the plastic jars full of artificial skin, then pressed the button on the sterilizer to start it running. "Can you get your shirt off, or should I call a nurse?"
Does it hurt too much, is what Gavin meant, but Jak just said, "It's fine," and started tugging on the bottom of his turtleneck. He waited until the spray finally stopped hissing out of the sterilizer--it would've burned something fierce otherwise--then slowly pulled his shirt off. It hurt like hell as it moved over his neck, but he was prepared for that and didn't do anything more embarrassing than hiss in pain.
"Is it worse than the last time, do you think?" Gavin asked as he pulled his hands out of the coating thing. Jak had no idea what it was really called, but it left a smooth, warm film over Gavin's hands. "It didn't say on your chart." Gavin turned finally and looked at Jak's throat, then sucked in a small, sympathetic breath.
"Yeah, I think it's worse," Jak said. He had his hands gripped tight around the too-mushy cushion on the examination table, partly because he was cold without the sweater, but mostly because he hated being exposed like this.
"Tilt your head, please," Gavin said. His matter-of-factness helped a little. Jak couldn't keep from making a small noise when Gavin pulled the bandage off his gills. The ones on the left side of his neck had been red and swollen for days, and they'd been seeping yellow puss when Jak got up that morning.
"Sorry!" Gavin said. He quickly dropped the stained gauze down the disposal. "I'm sure it hurts, but I need to see…." Jak closed his eyes and clenched his jaw as Gavin prodded and examined, finding out how bad the infection was this time, how deep it went into Jak's specialized airway. Gavin was gentle as ever, but Jak had sweat on his forehead and running down his back by the time Gavin finished all the same.
"I'm going to clean it and use a laser, which should get rid of the bacteria, but I'm also prescribing antibiotics to be on the safe side," Gavin said.
Jak nodded, because it still hurt a little too much to speak. He held his gills closed as tightly as he could while Gavin used the sterilizer again.
"You know, there's a new fitness center opening up around the corner from here. They're going to have an Olympic-sized pool," Gavin said. His voice had that pathetically-fake conversational tone again, the one he used when he felt like he had to give advice.
"Too many people," Jak retorted automatically. He had his eyes closed to ride through the new round of pain as Gavin started cleaning his gills. He was imagining water, blue and clear. He could practically feel it sliding cool over his tongue, through his gills as he breathed. He could almost taste the salt.
His gills convulsed in automatic reflex as he thought about breathing, and Jak grunted at how much worse it suddenly hurt before Gavin whipped his hands back.
"Sorry," Jak said.
"Not a problem," Gavin said. "I'm afraid there's some bleeding, though, from the abrading." He smiled in a quick flicker Jak could see out of the corner of his eye. "The laser will take care of it."
"Thanks," Jak said. He could feel the slow, warm trickle of the blood down the side of his neck. It itched, and he gripped the padding more tightly so he wouldn't scratch. Gavin wiped the blood away a second later.
"People who have been altered one way or another are fairly common now," Gavin said out of nowhere. He rubbed his eyebrow with the back of one hand. The plastic coating made it shine in the light. "I doubt anyone at the fitness center would care if you had gills or not." He smiled. "The lead singer of Janni's favorite band has a tail."
Jak smiled a little in return. He'd heard of that band, and they were exactly the kind of thing a nine-year old would like. "It's not the stares," he said, though yes, it was very much that, just not all of it. "It's the water--the disinfectant's like breathing poison." He made a face. "And even if they use it, it can't kill everything. And breathing the water all those people have used…." The thought of it made him want to puke, and he shuddered.
"I use the bath, sometimes," Jak added a moment later, quietly. It wasn't the same.
"I see," Gavin said. He finished cleaning Jak's gills out with gauze and topical antiseptic, and now they felt scraped raw. "I'm using the laser now." At least the laser barely hurt. Jak could practically feel the bacteria sizzle and explode as Gavin ran it over the slits. It was great. "You might want to do that more often, then," Gavin said. "Pushing water through your gills will keep the bacteria from having the opportunity to propagate."
"Yeah," Jak said. Except the bathtub in his apartment was tiny, so little room for him and the water that he always felt like he was going to choke. Most of the time it just wasn't worth it.
"I dream about the sea, sometimes," Jak said, surprising himself. Gavin looked up sharply, but his wide eyes were only confused and kind. They were a very dark green, the color of an ocean. "I don't know if it's…." Jak grimaced, feeling like an idiot, but he said it anyway. "I don't know if it's because of the alterations, you know? Like, it got put into my head, or something." He sighed, opening his gills wider to give Gavin better access as he ran the laser light over them. "I told you my parents wanted me to be a competitive swimmer, right? Marathons."
"Mmm," Gavin agreed absently. "Almost finished."
"Great," Jak said. "Well, they changed the rules when I was eighteen. Remember that? You're not allowed to compete if you're altered anymore. Except for the special games which nobody gives a damn about."
"Susy and I watch them," Gavin said. "You should try out."
"No," Jak said. Gavin had pulled the laser away, so Jak could finally shake his head. "It's too late." The gills on his left side were itching again. His fingers twitched with how much he wanted to rub them. "I'm not good enough anymore, if I ever was. I quit going to meets when it was official I'd never get to the Olympics. I mean, what was the point, after that?" He took a breath. "What was the point?"
"I'm surprised you didn't mind training in water used by other people," Gavin said mildly. Jak watched as he tossed the laser in the disposal, then did the hand-cleaning and covering thing all over again. "The pools couldn't have been any cleaner then than they are now." He opened a drawer and got out a wad of gauze and skin tape.
Jak shrugged. "It didn't seem like such a big deal then." He did his best not to wince as Gavin put the bandage over his gills.
"I see," Gavin said. He stripped the film off his fingers one last time, flexed them a bit then leaned against the counter, linking his hands over his stomach. "Do you think that maybe you find public swimming pools…unappealing because you don't train in them anymore?"
"How the hell should I know?" Jak scowled, bristling. "I just…." He scrubbed a hand through his hair. "I hate people sometimes, you know? The unaltered ones. They're always fucking staring, or asking questions." He made his voice falsetto, mimicking, pretended to point. "Does this hurt? What does it feel like to breathe through them? Is anything else about you like a fish?" He sneered at the memory. "Like I'm a god-damned science project."
"I'm sure that must be unpleasant," Gavin murmured.
"No kidding." Jak smirked. "Want to hear something funny? I never told you this. Know why I really dropped out of college, Gav? Why I became a prison guard?"
Gavin stared at him. "You told me it was because you couldn't afford med school."
Jak shook his head. His smile was thin and tight as a wire. "Nope." He laughed, though there was nothing genuine about it. "It's because turtlenecks are part of the required uniform. No one had to see what I was."
"I didn't know that," Gavin said. He paused. "I'm not sure why you're telling me this now."
Jak shrugged. He couldn't get his smile to feel real. "I don’t know," he said. "Maybe because my gills keep getting infected, since I don't use them. Maybe because I turned twenty-eight last month and I hate my fucking job and I'm living maybe fifteen minutes from the ocean, and I don't--" He cut himself off because his throat had gone tight, and he'd feel like an asshole if he broke down in front of Gavin, of all people. Nice, friendly, reasonable, successful Gavin, who was standing there listening with such sympathy and patience that Jak kind of wanted to smash his teeth in.
"And I don't think any of that's going to change," Jak said.
Gavin didn't say anything for awhile. He rubbed his nose with the side of his hand. "There's a lot more tolerance for altered people these days," he said.
"Yeah," Jak said wearily. "You told me. Rock stars with tails."
"Look," Gavin said. "I know--I know it's not the same, all right? But life is…" He pressed his lips together, closed his eyes for a second, as if thinking hurt. "I've always been awful at this." He took a deep breath. "The thing is, everyone is trapped, in one way or another." He gestured around at the nice, tidy examination room. "Do you think this is what I dreamed about when we were in school? That I'd end up a family practitioner dealing with runny noses and earaches, and…and, I don't know, wing malformations all day long?" Jak blinked--there was real anger in Gavin's voice. "I wanted to be the head of the ER at a big city hospital, for God's sake!" Gavin went on. "But there were no local hospitals looking, and Susy didn't want to move to another city. And then we decided to have a kid…." He spread his hands. "And so, here I am.
"Everyone dreams of things they can't have, Jak," Gavin said quietly. "It's just not always the ocean."
"You can go to a beach anytime you want," Jak said. It was dumb thing to say, but Gavin got it anyway.
"So could you," he said. "You just have to do it."
"Maybe." Jak said. He gave Gavin a lopsided smile. "Hey, can I put my shirt back on? It's freezing in here."
"Oh! Of course," Gavin said. "Go right ahead. Sorry." He pursed his lips. "You know, Jak," he said carefully, "if you think you might want to…talk to someone…."
Jak stared at him until Gavin turned away. Gavin's skin was pale enough for Jak to see that he was blushing, and Jak got a perverse hit of satisfaction from that, that he had embarrassed him.
"I don't," Jak said. He yanked his turtleneck on, placing it carefully over the new bandage. He was relieved when he was covered again, hidden. "Thanks, Gav. See you around." He slid off the table.
"Anytime," Gavin said. He sounded unhappy, for some reason. "Um, hey…do you want to come for dinner Saturday?" he asked all of a sudden. "Janni will be home from school, and I know she'd love to see you."
Jak stopped by the door. "Sorry," he said, not much caring how his voice sounded. "I'm going to be busy."
He didn't need Gavin's pity. He didn't need anything.
Jak yanked open his car door and got in. He needed to get back to work, but instead of starting the ignition he just sat there, staring out the windshield at the bleak grey of the parking lot. The color reminded him of the birdman, back at the prison--grey dirt, grey color underneath. Grey on everything.
His gills started to itch again. The ones under the bandage first, and then both of them, and then suddenly it was like he was going to suffocate if he didn't get his sweater off, off, off right that second; if he didn't find water.
He ignored it, instead taking great gulps of air through his gritted teeth. He had lungs--normal, human lungs like everyone else. He was breathing. He was fine.
He had to tell the car to start twice before it recognized his voice and actually did.
He drove to the ocean, to the beach he used to go to when he was a kid. The parking lot next to the sand was empty this time of year. The lifeguard towers were unused, guarding nothing, their wood faded by the salt and wind.
Jak got out of the car and just stood there. He watched the waves roll in, crush themselves against the indifferent sand. The water was rough today. He tried to remember if a storm was coming in.
Jak closed his eyes, breathed in the scent of salt and animals, alive and dead, that was always present here. He thought about taking his shirt off, taking the gauze off his neck, walking into the water. It would be cold, but he didn't mind that. Cold water had never bothered him.
He thought about taking the ocean into his mouth, into his body, pushing the water over his tongue. The salt would sting as it slid over his gills--he remembered that--and the oxygen would be cold like the water, sharp as winter until the heat from his own body warmed it again.
He would swim out and out and out, until the sand, the city, was a line in the distance, until it was nothing at all. And he would breathe. He would finally be breathing.
Another car pulled up, startling him. The two doors opened, releasing a woman in a green jogging suit and spilling a noisy, clumsy dog out onto the concrete.
The dog galloped across the parking lot to the sand the instant it was free of the car, running right up to the water. The woman saw Jak and smiled before she ran after her dog, laughing.
Jak got into his car, started it, and drove away.