The Gift

Notes: For the AU challenge. For , who invented the concept of mer!fic and who hopefully won't be disappointed with my take on it…

It was Dom who found the conch shell, but it was Billy who discovered its secret.

They had a long weekend off and gone down to the South Island for some surfing. Just the two of them, because everyone else was either working or had family from back home visiting. But truth be told, neither one of them had tried very hard to convince the others to come along. They'd been filming apart for several weeks and had been surprised by how much they had missed spending time together.

They spent the first day on the beach, surfing until they could hardly move their legs anymore and were so cold that not even the surprisingly strong winter sun could warm them up again. Then they headed back up to their cabin, which was on a high cliff right above the beach. Dom was the first in the shower, slamming the door shut right in Billy's face. But although the hot water felt wonderful, Dom was careful not to use up the whole supply, and when he emerged, toweling his short hair furiously, he found Billy putting down the phone.

"Ordered fish and chips in the village. They said it'll be ready in 20 minutes. You can go pick it up while I shower, mate."

Dom grinned wryly, knowing that this was Billy's revenge. Since he was hungry, too, he didn't mind too much, grabbing a bottle of chilled beer that Billy had set out for him on his way out the door. The village was only ten minutes walk away, and Dom decided impulsively to take the detour along the beach instead of waiting at the fish and chips shop.

It was getting dark, the sun gone, the first stars appearing in the dark blue sky and a full moon casting a silver glow over everything. It gave plenty of light, and Dom walked along the shore barefoot, looking out onto the shining waves and the line of the horizon. He felt relaxed, at peace, a feeling he had never really known before coming to New Zealand. In his mind he saw himself, ten, twenty years older, in a house on a beach just like this, waiting for Billy to come home.

The thought stopped him short and he cast a glance back, at where the light of their cabin could be seen twinkling on top of the cliffs. He wasn't quite sure when Billy had become an integral part of his plans for the future, but it just felt… right. Smiling to himself, Dom continued on, still thinking of the man that had become such an important part of his life. One day Dom wouldn't stop at friendly hugs and would kiss those beautiful, bow-shaped lips, sealing the bond between them. But there was no rush, no reason to hurry things along.

Still smiling, Dom started to turn away from the shoreline towards the path leading up to the village. Just then a white glint caught his eye as an especially big wave crashed on the shore, depositing something on the beach. Curious, Dom went closer, keeping a careful eye on the incoming tide, and leaned down to pick up the object. It was a large conch shell, almost as big as Dom's head, its swirls and curves reflecting the moonlight beautifully. It was a breathtaking sight, and Dom kept looking at the conch as he turned his back on the sea, completely fascinated.

When he returned to the cabin with fish, kumara chips and pineapple patty, he proudly showed his find to Billy, who was equally intrigued. They placed the conch on the windowsill and then proceeded to eat the mountains of food Dom had brought along, sharing jokes and laughter as always when they were together.

In the morning, much earlier than he normally would, Dom woke from a dream of sunlight breaking through a roof of water, and when he padded out into the living room on bare feet, he found Billy sitting on the sofa, gazing thoughtfully at the conch that was still resting on the windowsill, shining in the early morning sun. Hearing Dom approach, Billy looked up, and Dom was struck by the color of his eyes, which reminded him of his dream for some reason.

"Hey, you," Billy said softly, smiling up at him warmly. "Sleep well?"

Dom sat down next to him, turning until he could rest his legs comfortably on Billy's lap. "Yes, I did – although I had this strange dream."

Billy nodded, his hands coming up to stroke Dom's feet softly. He probably didn't even realize it, and Dom forced himself to lie still, not wanting Billy to stop his ministrations.

"I had a dream, too," Billy finally said, breaking the comfortable silence between them. They were not silent often, but this morning it felt right to just sit there, together, and look at the conch, whose swirls seemed to move, pulling them in, hypnotize them, until there was nothing else that mattered.

"You were in it. We were… not swimming, really – it was more as if we were floating, in this world of blue and green. Strange. But very… nice. Sensual, if you will."

Billy was still caressing Dom's feet, but his eyes were far away. Something was going on, something neither Dom nor Billy understood, although Dom had the feeling that Billy had an instinctive understanding of what was happening. After all, he seemed to remember much more of their dream – because it seemed obvious that they had shared this dream. It should have seemed strange, maybe even frightening, but Dom couldn't bring himself to worry. Not when everything was so beautiful – the conch, the sunlight, the sea stretching as far as they could see. Even Billy.

Billy had never seemed quite as beautiful to Dom, which was saying a lot. And the gentle touch of his hands was beginning to weave a spell around them, relaxing and exciting Dom at the same time. He sat up slowly, stretching his body languidly as he watched his own right hand move toward Billy's face as if it didn't belong to him at all. He touched the familiar face gently, tracing the downy cheek with two fingers, and Billy looked away from the conch, his eyes a brilliant green as he smiled softly.

"Come on, let's go down to the beach."

Dom just nodded and stood up, willing to follow Billy just about anywhere. Billy offered him a hand, taking the conch in the other, and Dom took it happily, holding on tightly as they walked down the cliff path. No one else was on the beach at this time, and the black, volcanic sand was still cool enough to walk barefoot. When they reached the waterline, Billy let go of Dom's hand, but smiled reassuringly when Dom started to protest.

"I'm just going to return the conch to its home. Don't worry, Dom."

Then, ignoring the fact that he was wearing only his pajama bottoms instead of a wetsuit, Billy started walking into the water, apparently oblivious to the cold. He held the conch in both hands now, and as the water reached his waist he stopped, lifted it high above his head, as if trying to catch the sunlight with it, and then lowered it slowly beneath the water.

What happened next, Dom was never sure he had truly seen. After all, the whole morning had felt like a dream – but seeing Billy suddenly disappear beneath the waves, as if his legs gave out, only to see him appear again a moment later in deeper water, shook Dom out of his entranced state. But it was most definitely Billy there, laughing as if the most delightful thing had just happened. He was still holding the conch in his hands – but where his legs used to be, he now sported a fish tail, greenish scales reflecting the sunlight as he propelled himself towards Dom with strong strokes.

"Come on, Dom – don't just stand there!" Billy called to him, still laughing. Dom shook his head, unsure which one of them had lost his mind: He for seeing Billy with a fish tail or Billy for apparently not seeing that anything was wrong.

Then Billy had reached him, riding a great wave towards the beach as if he was surfing. Except that he didn't have a board, and before Dom could stop staring and stand back, the wave had grabbed him and pulled him out into the sea. He swallowed cold water and felt panic rise in him – but then Billy's hands were there, holding him, the conch shell digging into his back as he was lifted up towards the sunlight. Billy's head appeared next to him, still smiling. Gasping for air Dom started treading water, trying hard not to think of the feel of slippery, silky fish scale against his bare legs.

"No reason to be afraid, Dom – just take the conch, so it can be free again." Billy pressed the wet, glittering shell into his hands, and Dom took it without thinking, captivated once more by the way it seemed to capture the sunlight in its swirls. Then a wave came, and Dom went under again, taking the conch with him. This time, however, before he could start panicking, he felt himself change.

It was sudden, between one breath and the next. His legs disappeared, a blue-grey fish tail taking their place, and oxygen stopped being a priority as he felt gills open at his sides. He had not noticed them on Billy before, because he had been too distracted by the tail, but now, when he opened his eyes under water, he saw them clearly, moving as Billy swam circles around him, watching him intently, making sure he was fine.

And Dom was fine, much to his surprise. More than that, even, he now could understand exactly why Billy had been so exhilarated. He felt wonderful – warm and safe, the water having lost all of its bite, cradling him comfortably as he propelled himself through it with strong strokes of his tail. He angled upwards, towards the rays of the sun and recognized the image from his dream just as he broke through the surface.

As soon as he reached the air, he could feel himself start to breathe normally, and when Billy followed him a moment later, he couldn't help the loud, carefree laugh bubbling up inside of him. Billy grinned at him and they just floated there for a moment, looking at each other, sharing the moment's happiness.

"Wow…" Dom finally gasped, still riding high on the adrenaline of the change. "This is… Billy, this is unbelievable! How did you know?"

Billy shrugged. "I'm not sure. After you showed me the conch, I couldn't stop thinking about it when I went to bed. Then I dreamed, like I told you – and when I woke up, I just knew that we had to return the conch to its home. It belongs here, Dom, in the sea, and not on our windowsill. I think this is its way of saying thanks. And, Dom…" Billy stopped talking abruptly, his eyes shining with emotion. He slowly swam closer to Dom, until their tails touched with every movement.

Dom's breath caught as hot sparks raced through his body with each touch. Without thinking he reached out and pulled Billy even closer with his free hand, the other one still holding onto the conch. They sank under the waves again, tail to tail, body to body, and Dom captured Billy's lips with his own, feeling him respond in kind. They were floating, warm and secure, kissing and tasting one another, moving through the water slowly, dreamlike, as they explored each other.

It might have been five minutes or five hours, Dom couldn't say, completely lost in Billy and the sea that held them safely. Finally, they pulled apart, slowly, dazedly, looking at each other in wonder. Billy took Dom's hand and held it tightly, a mirror of his earlier gesture, as they slowly became aware of their surroundings again. They were far away from the shore now, in darker, deeper waters, but they weren't afraid.

Gesturing toward a black rock, almost a mountain, reaching towards the surface, Billy led them on. Dom followed willingly, knowing without words that this was their goal. There was a cave at the side of the rock, just big enough for them to squeeze through. Inside, light fell through an opening far, far up, and corals and other strange sea creatures adorned the walls, transforming the cave into a fairy tale. Holding hands tightly, they swam upwards slowly, their tails brushing every now and then, causing them to smile and share a look.

Finally, Dom saw what they had been looking for – a small platform in one wall, with an empty spot just the size of the conch that was bathed in sunlight. Carefully, referentially, Dom laid down the conch, his fingers gliding over the swirls and curves of it one last time. He watched Billy do the same, the look on his face almost sad. Pulling him away from the conch, Dom kissed him again, feeling him curve into his touch. When they separated, Billy was smiling.

It took them a while to swim back. But they weren't in a hurry anyway, stopping to kiss or play catch every now and then, enjoying the magical gift the conch had made them. Both of them knew that it would be all over when they reached the beach again, and both of them were reluctant to go back to their two-legged existence. But Dom was not seriously tempted to remain in the sea forever – as wonderful as this experience was, he knew he would miss so many things about living on land. And there were some things he wanted to do with Billy that absolutely required a normal human body…

The thought made him smile happily, and although Billy couldn't know what was on his mind, he smiled back, squeezing his hand. Then they breached the surface for the last time, seeing the beach stretching in front of them. The change happened just as abruptly as before, tails and gills disappearing and leaving them shivering in the sudden cold as their feet clumsily looked for purchase in the wet sand.

Looking over at Billy, who was watching the waves break on the beach with a quiet longing in his eyes, Dom wasn't sure whether Billy wouldn't have liked to stay in the sea forever, if it hadn't been for Dom. But at the same time, through the tight grip of their linked fingers, Dom knew with absolutely certainty that Billy would follow him wherever he went, just as Dom had followed him into the water.

It was Dom who found the conch, but it was Billy who discovered its secret. Together they had returned it, finding each other in the process. And maybe that was the true gift.