Charles is, to his knowledge, the last of his kind.
Perhaps not the very last, for the oceans are wide, and even telepathy as strong as his can only reach so far. Perhaps there are others. But it is nothing like the stories that the whales sing, of thriving kingdoms and flourishing societies, of treasures beyond imagining and art beyond description. Of others like him, and more.
If only, he thinks sometimes.
The whales do not sing of loss, of loneliness, of emptiness, the things that Charles knows.
And then one day, he feels the shock-ripple of power as strong as his own. He's heading for the source before he can think, gleeful with the exultation that he is finally not alone, and he's probing with his mind as he goes. What he gets is mostly emotion, a seething dark morass of hatred and anger and vicious triumph and half-healed mental wounds.
Beneath that, there is a name, and a strange feel to the power: it deals with metal, a substance unique to humans, more or less unknown in whale songs. Then again, humans have been invading the water more and more, with weapons and vehicles and machines all made of metal, so perhaps it is only natural for powers to adapt as the environment adapts.
And then Charles gets there, and he freezes for a moment in shock, because this mind he has touched, this incredible power, this Erik, is human.
But possible or not, he can't deny the evidence of his own mind, of everything he feels and sees: a human, black-skinned (a wetsuit; he picks up the image and concept from the stranger's mind), hands and power and mind all straining towards a metal ship, trying to call it back to him, to destroy it. He doesn't have anything to brace against, nor the right sort of body to hold himself in place in the water, so instead of pulling the ship to him he is pulling himself to the ship.
It is a glorious sight, a glorious feeling, and Charles almost stops to admire it. Almost. But humans are not built to survive underwater without protection. He can feel the way this human's lungs burn with a need for air that is only slightly less powerful than his need to kill.
If he stays down here, he will die.
And inexplicably, Charles cares.
He shouldn't; he knows this. Humans are Other, humans are The Enemy, humans are killers and cruel uncaring creatures. Humans that die to the sea belong to the sea, and it is not the place of any sea-dweller to interfere. Erik is human. Charles doesn't doubt that for a hearbeat, even with the evidence of the power that sings through Erik's body. He is human, and it does not matter if one more human dies, because there will always be more to replace those lost.
He also doesn't care. Even before he's finished deciding to help, he finds himself swimming towards Erik, wrapping his body around the human and straining against the force of his power. //Don't,// he says into Erik's mind, as clearly as he can manage. //Please. You can't. You'll drown.//
The reaction is wordless -- as strong as Erik's emotions are to Charles, they are just emotions, not true telepathy. Surprise, alarm, anger, and then a careful indifference as he turns his attention back to the metal ship. Charles is vividly aware of his determination to kill, regardless of the cost.
Charles also knows that the cost will be Erik's death, and that regardless of what he does the submarine will get away this time.
//Let go,// he pleads into Erik's mind. //I know what this means to you, but you're going to die. Please--//
Erik stops struggling against him. Charles isn't sure how much is the influence of what he said and how much is his human body rebelling at not having air to breathe. But regardless of the why, he isn't being dragged forward, and Charles is able to drag both of them up and back, heading for the surface, and calling desperately for the sea witch as he does.
"You are impossible," Raven complains, but at Charles's look she sighs and gestures with one hand out flat, and the water under Erik's limp form stills and hardens. "It isn't your place to save humans."
//He's not just human,// Charles says. //He's different.// He shows her the image-feeling of Erik lifting metal with his mind, human metal, and using it against other humans.
"Hm." Raven folds her arms on the solid water and pillows her head on them, regarding Erik with curiosity in her golden eyes.
//Please,// Charles says, //I would consider it a favor if you--//
Raven's bitter laugh interrupts him. "You call me to help a human and then ask for favors? I don't think so. Saving him is favor enough. For the rest, the human can speak on his own terms."
It doesn't take long for Erik to wake, retching up sea water and coughing. Charles pushes himself partway up onto the solid area of water, reaching out to help, but Erik just swats his hand away. "Don't--" His voice is hoarser than Charles expects, possibly coarsened by salt water. Charles can feel him reaching out with his power, seeking metal; there is none, of course, and Erik's mind blazes up with a wild, terrified, desperate rage.
Charles doesn't try to reach for him again, but he projects safety into Erik's mind. //Calm your mind.//
"What," Erik says, staring at Charles. "How do you do that?"
//You have your tricks,// Charles says, bouncing back his memory of Erik reaching for metal. //I have mine. Calm down. Please. You're safe, I promise you that.//
Erik looks skeptical. "What happened?"
Charles looks at Raven, but she offers no help. With a mental shrug he tells Erik what he saw. Erik sits up, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes as he listens. When Charles admits that the metal ship (submarine; Erik's mind supplies the word for him) got away, Erik's mind blazes up again with frustrated rage. //failed,// flickers across his mind. //so close. failed.// "Goddammit," he says aloud.
"We can help you."
"How?" Erik looks at Charles again, and for the first time his gaze takes in all of Charles; but after the first flicker of shock passes from him, he looks more curious than horrified. "You-- you're not--"
Charles smiles. //Human? No.// He is rather proud of his looks, actually, and of the elegant blue-black fan of his tail that flutters and flashes in the shifting muted light of the sea.
Erik looks at Raven, as if seeing her for the first time. "And you," he says, "you're--" but he flounders into silence without finishing the sentence. Charles's mind supplies a burst of possible words: Different. Blue. Charles can pass for human from the waist up, more or less, but Raven has more of the ocean in her.
//I like him,// Charles says cheerfully, aiming the words at Raven but letting Erik overhear them. //Can we keep him?//
Raven rolls her eyes. "You know the rules, Charles."
//Yes, but he died in our waters...//
Erik's head whips around to give Charles a narrow-eyed stare. "I... died?"
Puzzled humans, Charles thinks with a mental grin, are rather adorable. But what he says is, //He is one of us. You saw that.//
"Hardly," Raven scoffs. "He's still human."
She holds out for a heartbeat or two before giving in with a sigh. "Fine," she says, and reaches out to put her hand on Erik's head. "Be still," she tells him sharply.
Without much warning, Erik's entire body ripples with blue spikes, and when they subside they leave behind something that is no longer human. The upper half approximates his human form, though his teeth seem sharper. There's a dorsal fin rising out of his spine and gills rippling on the sides of his neck, and when he spreads his fingers there is a translucent webbing stretching between them. And more drastically, his narrow hips blend seamlessly into the sleek grey lines of a shark's tail.
It is one of the most gorgeous things Charles has seen.
Erik runs one hand down his tail. "What--" he manages to say.
Raven just smiles at him. "The prey you seek," she says calmly, "is surrounded by water and ice. You need a way to get to them. Accept my gift, and use it to kill them."
//And the forfeit?// Charles asks, because he knows the rules too well. The sea demands a cost for everything, and Raven's gifts are no exception.
"He has three days," Raven says quietly. "If he fails, his life belongs to me."
Erik nods. "Done."
//Don't,// Charles tells Erik, too late, but Erik just looks at him, a complete lack of fear in his eyes.
"It's my life," he points out. "Not yours." He spreads one hand out, watching the flex of webbing. "Besides," he says, with a quirk of a smile in Raven's direction, "if I've died once already, I suspect my life is yours already."
Raven grins and doesn't deny it.
It takes two full days of swimming to reach the approximate area Raven had given them for a probable location of the submarine. Erik takes off at a decent clip, but he isn't perfectly adept at using a tail, so Charles has no trouble keeping up with him. Erik gives him a cross look and opens his mouth, but water isn't built for carrying human speech, and all that comes out is a low gurgle.
//Talk like this,// Charles suggests. //It's easier.//
The look Erik gives him is as sharp as broken coral, but he complies, awkwardly. //what are you doing.//
//I'm coming with you,// Charles says.
A flash of anger. //like hell you are. my fight.//
//I can help.//
//don't need your help.// Erik tries to swim faster, but Charles keeps pace effortlessly.
//Raven's gift will help you get there,// Charles points out, //but it is your own talent that you need for the kill. Your prey got away once--//
//not again.// Erik's mind blazes with anger. //won't let him.//
//Good,// Charles says. //Let me help.//
Erik stops swimming, letting himself coast for a moment as he twists to look at Charles. //don't get in my way,// he says finally, as close to a yes as Charles figures he'll get.
The water gets cold as they head north -- Charles much prefers warmer waters, but he doesn't voice any complaints, and Erik doesn't seem to notice -- and when they do find the ship, by virtue of Erik's ability to sense its metal in an otherwise sparsely populated area, it is nestled in ice.
Charles lets his own awareness flutter lightly against the submarine. There are four humans inside; to his surprise, one of them lets out a startled //What are you--?// before blocking him with a mental shield. Another human with powers? His pulse quickens, fear or excitement or both.
//Erik, now,// he says urgently. Erik gives him a startled look but raises both arms towards the ship, his fingers curling into claws and trembling with the force of his will. Acting on impulse, Charles comes up smoothly behind him, twines his tail around Erik's to anchor the two of them together, puts his hands on either side of Erik's head -- //Trust me,// he adds, even though he's never done anything like this and doesn't know for sure that it will work -- and taps into the power thrumming through Erik's mind and body, focusing it, sharpening it.
Erik gestures, and the submarine tears in half, the metal screaming in agony. His fists clench, and the broken halves crumple like fragile membranes. The front compresses with disturbing ease; the back resists and then explodes brightly, sending a shockwave of heated water washing over them.
There is silence, as much as the sea is ever silent, and Charles takes his hands away and breathes cool water. He is shaking with exhaustion, and it takes him a moment to realize that he never felt the deaths of the humans. At this range, that was impossible, unless-- unless--
He searches his memory, and swears quietly. //They aren't there.//
Erik stares at him without comprehension. //what?//
//They got out. I don't -- they had -- there was --// He forces himself to stop for a moment and collect his thoughts. //I couldn't read everything, but I saw who else was there. They had a teleporter.// He shares the rather vague impression he'd gotten of a man who could move instantly from one place to another, taking not just himself but any others he touched.
//impossible,// Erik seethes.
//Not long ago, I'd have thought so too.//
Curiosity glints through the anger in Erik's expression. //what changed?//
//I found you.// Charles manages a half smile. //I promise you, I will do everything I possibly can to see this human brought to justice.//
Erik shakes his head. //my fight.//
//Not any more.// Charles takes Erik's face in his hands and kisses him, hard and possessive and somewhat regretful. //Tomorrow you belong to the sea witch. To Raven.//
Erik's face shifts into a look of utter despair that comes close to killing Charles. //what happens now?//
//You still have one day left.//
//nowhere to go,// Erik says bleakly.
//We can at least go to where it's warmer,// Charles pleads, unable to stop the wistfulness that creeps into his mental voice; Erik looks at him, and laughs despite himself, and Charles gives a slow smile. He blinks as something occurs to him. //And there may be another way...//
Raven comes the following day, but before she can even touch Erik, Charles tells her clearly, //I will pay his forfeit.//
She falters, staring at Charles with wide startled eyes. "What?"
"...what?" Erik echoes, sounding almost more startled than she is.
Charles ignores Erik, afraid that even a glance at the human would be enough to kill his courage. //There aren't any more like us, Raven, we've known that for a while, but now there are. There are people again, just not People of the Sea. The powers, they've all gone to... humans.//
"Like him," Raven says softly, realizing what he means.
//And others. I can't help down here, but up there I'd have a chance.// Up there. Out of the water. It scares him, a little, but excites him more, and he wouldn't be alone any more.
"You..." Raven looks from Charles to Erik and back again. "You would do that for him."
It isn't really a question, but Charles answers anyway. //I would.//
"But you'll die."
Charles dips his head in acknowledgment. Humans were short-lived, compared to life in the ocean; out of the water, his natural death would come several hundred years earlier than it would otherwise. But it's the life he wants, and if brevity is the cost for being with Erik, it is more than worth it.
Erik stares at the two of them and demands, "What on earth are you two talking about?"
//The forfeit requires a life.// It's not really a straight answer, and from the look that Raven gives Charles, he can tell she noticed.
"No," Erik says. "Dammit, Charles! You are not killing yourself on my account."
Charles' lips twitch in a wry quirk of a grin. //Who said anything about killing?// He turns to Raven. //Well?//
Raven is quite for a moment. "I'll miss you," she says finally.
//Always and forever.// Charles presses a kiss to her forehead. //Do it, then.//
She touches his forehead, with a sad sort of smile. The change washes over him in a wave of agony, jagged pain ripping through his body like he's being torn in two. He thrashes, barely aware of Raven pulling him and Erik to the surface -- which eases the burn in his lungs but does nothing for the rest of him -- and then to shore.
He wakes. Everything feels too heavy, too achy, to move, but then he becomes aware of Erik stirring beside him, and turning to look at him; there's a loud startled inhale. "Charles--"
//I'm all right.// He cracks his eyes open, squinting against the brightness of the sunlight. Erik rests one warm hand on his arm, then skims down Charles's body; he follows the motion with his eyes. His chest and arms are the same, but then the hips split into legs, gangly and awkward and human. //Hmm,// Charles says, a little bemused but not surprised. He can't resist adding, impishly, //Told you there was another way.//
Erik starts laughing, abrupt and hysterical. "We'll need clothes," he gasps out, like it's the source of all his amusement.
//Right.// Charles remembers, after a moment's thought; humans and their need for clothing! //Come on, then, help me to my feet.//
Still grinning, Erik hops up and offers a hand to Charles. It's his first time standing, and he's not prepared for any of it: not the uncertainty of his new legs, not the weird balance issues, not the way air (unlike water) feels like it isn't there. Certainly not the pain, cutting like fine razor blades into his flesh. Charles wobbles and then lets himself fall to hands and knees, half sobbing as he tries to recover.
//Again,// he says with desperate stubbornness, grip tightening against Erik as he pulls himself to his feet once more. This time he isn't taken by surprise, but he doesn't stay upright any longer than before; the pain alone is more than overwhelming. Even his hold on Erik isn't enough to keep him from crumpling back down.
"What's wrong?" Erik asks.
//I'm not quite sure. I've not actually done this before.// He puts a hand to his temple, searching for the familiar presence of the sea witch. //Raven?//
She's too far away to respond aloud, but he plucks the thoughts out of her head. //It is one of the costs,// and the thought is tinged with sadness. //A price our kind must pay if we are to live among them.//
//So it won't get better?// Charles asks, but there's no response, like she's too far away even for that. Charles lets his hand fall away, staring out at the unbroken horizon of the ocean.
"What is it?" Erik asks quietly, crouching beside him.
//I'm afraid I won't be doing much walking any time soon,// Charles admits. He tries to sound nonchalant, and fails miserably. //Possibly ever.//
There is a pause, and then Erik brushes wet hair back from Charles's forehead. "We'll manage," he promises. "Together." He takes Charles in his arms and stands; everything about him is warm and strong and impossibly right, and Charles takes a slow breath and slings one arm around Erik's neck to help ease the burden.
//Together. Yes.// He casts one last look over Erik's shoulder at the wide blue sea, and then resolutely turns his gaze landward.