Zhao Wen opened the door with a smile and immediately went over to the big tank that was standing in the middle of the laboratory. “Mei Ling, do you know what day is today?” He leaned forward, the tip of his nose only a hair’s breadth away from the glass.
The mermaid or — as he preferred to call it — the merman inside swam over and put his hands on the glass, tilting his head. “What day?” He furrowed his brows but had to shake his head in response. “I don’t know. What day is it?”
Zhao Wen smiled and then pointed at the merman’s nose. “It’s the anniversary of the day you came to us.”
Mei Ling turned in the water, his emerald-green hair describing a sparkling arc, trying to understand what that meant. “Is that like Xiao Xin’s birthday? She said that was the day she came into the world.”
Zhao Wen shook his head. “It’s still three months until your birthday. A birthday is the day when you’re born. The day when you came to us, you were still a little egg.”
Mei Ling nodded as if he had understood. “So it’s the day Zhao Wen got my egg.”
Zhao Wen laughed. “Not quite since I wasn’t here yet when that happened. You do know I only became part of the project when you were already quite big, don’t you? But your egg was delivered to the laboratory on this day all those years ago. That’s what it means. It’s a day we ought to celebrate!”
Mei Ling swam back to the glass, his blue eyes sparkling. “Celebrate? Does that mean I get presents like on my birthday?”
Zhao Wen nodded, a bit amused that Mei Ling would catch onto this that fast. “Sure. So what do you want?”
“Anything?” Mei Ling raised a hand and touched his lips, probably thinking about asking for something delicious to eat.
Zhao Wen gave another nod. “Anything you want. Something nice to eat or something you want to do, something I should bring for your tank … You can take a moment to think about it.”
Mei Ling turned for another few rounds as if that would help him think before he returned to the glass. “If it can be anything, I want you to scrub my tail.”
Zhao Wen raised his brows. “Scrub your tail? Isn’t scrubbing day tomorrow already?”
Mei Ling pursed his lips. “You said anything.”
Zhao Wen raised his hands in defeat and went to get everything he needed. “That’s what you want. So I guess we’ll just scrub your tail a day earlier this week.”
Mei Ling wildly shook his head when he returned, his brows scrunched up tightly. “No! You said I could wish for something I’d get for my anniversary. And I want you to scrub my tail. That doesn’t mean you can just skimp on this week’s scrub day.”
Zhao Wen raised his brows. This little merman was actually quite difficult to deal with. Well, he obviously loved having somebody scrub his tail so he probably shouldn’t be surprised. If he could get in another scrub, he would definitely take it. Thus he could only smile and motion for Mei Ling to get over to the slide.
The merman rushed over and slid down, landing in the shallow basin next to it. This one was just big enough for him to lie down so that he was completely submerged in the water while it also had a long platform peaking out at the side where he could place his tail so that the researchers or one of their robots could scrub it.
Normally, the ones to do this kind of job were the assistants since mermen often disliked technical gadgets and would get overly cautious when they got close. But since Zhao Wen had become part of the laboratory, he was doing this himself.
Raising a mermaid in captivity was extremely hard. The ones who were brought in after they were born would die with a possibility of almost 98 percent. And even the ones that did live would often show abnormal behavior or even become gravely sick. It was only the ones like Mei Ling that had been brought in as an egg and hatched in the laboratory that would be able to grow up safely. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy to find a mermaid egg. Thus there really weren’t many specimens around.
With the chances being so low, Zhao Wen was immensely grateful that he was able to work with Mei Ling. Since the little merman liked it so much when his tail got scrubbed, he would naturally do that for him. Cultivating good feelings between them was also helpful for his research. After all, there were a lot of things that would need the merman’s cooperation.
Zhao Wen put down the trunk with the utensils and sat down next to the basin. He took out a brush and gave Mei Ling a smile. “Ready?”
Mei Ling smiled back. “Ready!” He flipped his tail, splashing some of the water on the ground of the laboratory.
Zhao Wen laughed, dipped the brush in the water and then started to scrub the tail with it. The merman leaned back and narrowed his eyes in pleasure, watching as Zhao Wen made sure that he scrubbed each and every scale. He couldn’t help but shake his fin a few more times.
Zhao Wen was doing this much better than those other people. He really scrubbed everything and not just once but even several times, making sure that his beautiful blue scales would shimmer in the light. Sometimes, he would even clean the gaps between the scales, making them settle across his body much more smoothly afterward. It was such a nice feeling to glide through the water afterward. In other words … Zhao Wen was the best!
Mei Ling leaned to the side, propping his elbows up on the rim of the basin and holding his chin, looking at the researcher in the white lab coat. His fin still waved around happily, making droplets of water fly around and attracting Zhao Wen’s gaze.
Mermaids instinctively waved their fin when they were happy. It always made a mess in the lab but he didn’t mind too much. Even though some people grumbled about it in the end, they only needed to have the robots go and clean it up. So wasn’t it much more important to have their little merman be happy? After all, it was much easier to deal with him when he was happy.
Zhao Wen put the brush back into the trunk and took out a sponge next. It was a sponge with two different sides, one being very soft and the other being much rougher. For scrubbing the tail, Mei Ling always liked him to use the rough side. Most likely, he didn’t feel too much when the soft side was used because the scales were too thick so the sensation couldn’t actually reach his nerves.
Thus he only used the soft side of the sponge around the hips where the scales were more sparse and went over into his skin. Even though the skin around there was a little tougher than on the rest of his body, he was still afraid that he’d hurt him accidentally if he used the rough side.
Zhao Wen started with the fin and slowly worked his way up in circles. He didn’t forget to add some agent that the laboratory had developed. It made the scales sparkle a little more just like Mei Ling liked it and also smelled like lilac. The scent wouldn’t stay on after Mei Ling entered the water again but he liked it so Zhao Wen had figured that he might as well do him the favor and have him smell like that for a while.
The agent also created a lot of bubbles that would sometimes float into the air. Right now, there were only small ones but Mei Ling was already eyeing them eagerly. Who knew if it was because there were sometimes bubbles underwater as well but this little merman just couldn’t help himself and always reached out to make them burst. Afterward, he’d giggle happily and then look at him to make some more bubbles for him.
Zhao Wen shook his head and continued to scrub. He hummed a tune from his hometown, making Mei Ling lean in closer. “What’s that song?”
Zhao Wen smiled. “A song that’s famous in my hometown.”
“Your hometown? Where is that? What’s the song about? And what is it famous for?”
Zhao Wen laughed. He didn’t even know where to begin answering all the questions of this little merman. “My hometown is on the southern coast. It’s a small place with only a few hundred people living there. There are a few diners — places where humans go to eat — and one of them had a stage where people from the town or guests that were currently staying could go up and perform.
“One day, a girl performed on that stage, singing this song. Everyone felt that it was very beautiful so they asked her about it. She said that her brother had written it for her because she told him she wanted to become a professional singer. He believed that she had the talent and was putting in enough effort to reach that goal so he gave her the song when she had saved up enough money to go to a bigger city and try to make her dream come true there.”
Zhao Wen paused, making Mei Ling reach out and tug at the sleeve of his lab coat. “What then? Did she become famous?”
Zhao Wen shook his head. “The song was very beautiful. In fact, it’s quite well-known today because one of the guests recorded it and then shared it with other people who shared it again and so on. Unfortunately, when the girl left that diner in the evening, she had an accident. She was gravely wounded and even when they brought her to a place where she could be treated, it didn’t help. She fell into a deep slumber and never woke up again.”
Mei Ling’s expression turned crestfallen. “That’s a very sad story.”
“Mn, it is. But on the other hand … she still had that one evening. That one evening where she felt like she could already grasp her dream. Maybe that is not too bad.”
Mei Ling nodded but he didn’t seem to quite understand. His expression still looked sad.
Zhao Wen continued to scrub his scales and then gave a smile. “Oh, and that song? It’s a love song. That pair of brother and sister were always arguing about love before. Other than music, she also longed to fall in love. Her brother thought she was an idiot for that and that she should rather focus on her music if she wanted to make it. He always said that you could love something you do just as much as a person.”
Mei Ling blinked his eyes. “Then who was right?”
“The sister, naturally. Loving a person and loving something you do can’t compare at all. He also understood that many years later. It’s quite funny because he was several years older than her. You would have thought he’d be able to realize sooner.”
Mei Ling flapped his tail again, already in a better mood. “It’s not about how old you are. Xiao Xin told me!”
“Mn. Xiao Xin taught you really well.” Zhao Wen turned the sponge and scrubbed the last few scales with the soft side.
Mei Ling’s fin flapped in delight. “She didn’t tell me what a recording is.”
“Oh, it’s …” Zhao Wen pondered how to explain. They did have access to the network in the laboratory but they normally didn’t use it. At the very least, not for any entertainment. But it would probably be fun for Mei Ling and since a happy merman was a good merman … “Let me show you.”
Zhao Wen put down the sponge — much to Mei Ling’s regret — and went to turn on the screen on the other side of the lab. He used his smart brain to connect to it and then opened one of the popular channels on the reel of the network’s entertainment page. A video appeared on the screen that showed a man singing and dancing.
Mei Ling tilted his head and watched while Zhao Wen got back to work and brushed the scales. “That doesn’t look like a girl.” Mei Ling finally came to this conclusion.
Zhao Wen looked up, mouth slightly agape. “No, that’s … that’s a man.”
“Then what about the recording of that girl? Can you show me that?” The man wasn’t bad but he liked the song Zhao Wen had hummed. It sounded much nicer.
Zhao Wen hesitated but finally gave a nod and searched for an old file that had been uploaded several years ago. Considering that it was one of only a few videos on the channel, it had indeed gotten a lot of views. But naturally, it couldn’t compare to the kind of popular channel from the home page.
The video started and Mei Ling watched intently. Finally hearing the words of the song, his fin flapped once before it lay still. Surprisingly, this was a sad love song. She was singing about falling in love with somebody but not daring to tell them. In the end, the person walked past them and they never saw each other again. What stunned him even more was her appearance though. “She looks a lot like you.”
He tilted his head in the other direction and looked at Zhao Wen. He hadn’t seen many humans so far. There were only Zhao Wen and Xiao Xin who came regularly and then a few ‘assistants’ that were changing every now and then. All of them looked more similar to each other than they looked to him but he had never seen two who looked so much alike like this girl and Zhao Wen.
The researcher smiled and reached over, tousling Mei Ling’s hair. “Seems like it. Now, what about your tail? Don’t you want me to scrub the back as well?”
Mei Ling flopped down again and obediently rolled over, once again narrowing his eyes in comfort when Zhao Wen scrubbed the other side of his tail. He couldn’t help but continue to think about that story though. “Xiao Xin told me that brothers and sisters are family. People you live together with.”
“Mn, for the most part, that’s true. Although families don’t always live together.”
Mei Ling blinked his eyes and looked over his shoulder. “Than what is a family?”
Zhao Wen paused and pondered the question. “Well, that’s … that could be the people you are related to. As in they have the same blood as you. Like your parents and other children of your parents or your own children. But they could also be a person you aren’t related to. For example, if you love somebody and then you marry them, that person is also your family.”
“I don’t think I understand.” Mei Ling furrowed his brows. “What about my family then?”
“That …” Zhao Wen hurriedly continued to scrub his tail. “I don’t know about that.” And he couldn’t help but feel a little guilty about that. While he loved his research, he was very clear that this research on mermaids was precisely what had robbed this little merman of his family. He didn’t have the heart to tell him that.
Mei Ling once again propped his chin up on his hands. “I don’t know my parents or my brothers and sisters and I don’t have children.”
Zhao Wen gave a low hum, hoping that he would leave the topic alone if he didn’t give much of a response.
Unfortunately, Mei Ling had other ideas. “Xiao Xin likes her family very much. What about you? Do you have a family? Do you like them?”
Zhao Wen paused and then turned the sponge again, once again scrubbing the last few scales with the soft side. “I had. But that was long ago. I loved them dearly though.”
Mei Ling watched him with an ignorant expression but finally, his face lit up. “So you don’t have a family now. Just like me. Actually, that’s great. Why don’t we become a family then?”
Zhao Wen almost dropped the sponge. “That …” Looking up into the little merman’s eyes, he couldn’t bring himself to shoot the idea down though. “Eh, I guess that’s what we should do.” He reached out and rubbed his head. “Anyway, I’ve finished scrubbing your tail. Do you want to get back into the tank? Your skin is going to become dry, otherwise.”
Mei Ling looked at his tail and his face lit up when he saw the sparkling scales. He already wanted to nod and do as he was told when he spotted something else in the trunk next to Zhao Wen. He turned around and grabbed it and then held it in front of Zhao Wen. “Why don’t you also brush my hair? After all, it’s my anniversary.”
“Didn’t I already scrub your tail for your anniversary?”
“Yes, but now it’s also the anniversary of us becoming a family. I want you to brush my hair for that anniversary.”
Zhao Wen shook his head with a laugh but still took the brush from him. “Alright then. But after that, you have to get back into the tank. It’s not good for your skin.”
“Mn.” Mei Ling didn’t mind and just turned his back to him, closing his eyes to enjoy the brush strokes.