Bones made their way off shore eventually.
Some of their friends liked the marrow at the center. But Manami only liked the soft flesh of fish, and stole bones away when no one else would look. It was too much trouble to deaden and sharpen teeth. A tiny space within coral and sun became something of a home, decorated by bones and what trinkets they found to give away. Shells decorated their hair. Round rocks they found that others would fancy, to draw them in - fish and peers alike, for food or favor. And things always washed up within reach otherwise.
"What are you doing."
The question of food rose to their mind, drawing their attention away from the glitter below. Manami glanced from the shelf, away from the knick-knacks that filled the tiny pool, to a human floating above water.
Disappointment made them lose track. Nothing they could eat. But their eyes fell to what he sat within. "Ooo. What's that?"
The human stared down at them, wide eyes and the concept of a thought falling out his half-open mouth. Manami wasn't familiar with things out of water, but that expression was one plenty of fellows gave them below.
"It's a boat," he finally said, breaking contact - they couldn't read that expression, warm brown skin mixing with sweat and scarlet. "A boat, you know, that thing people use to get around? Escape deserted islands?"
"Oh! You mean those floating things that crash with all the toys inside." Manami laid their arms out over the warm rock, feeling the sun burn their back dry. It made it easier to breathe - fresh and salty all at the same time. "Did yours break, then?"
"What?" He almost fell overboard slamming his hands down, floundering with the force of waves rocking the barebones boat. "I built this." The stranger dragged himself up. "Captain Teshima Junta's first sea-worthy vessel." Though he grinned, Manami knew the expression well. People died more than often enough out here. Desperation was nothing new. "I'm scouting. So, what's a fish like you doing up here?"
Manami grimaced. They caught his subtle jolt, and remembered their own teeth. So instead, they smiled, full view - "I'm not a fish."
"What. Are you offended?" He chuckled. "It's not like mermaids should even speak my language."
Types like this weren't rare. Manami kept on their petulant smile. "Dolphins aren't fish."
"Close enough," he shrugged.
They glanced at his boat, and the driftwood barely held together by sheet metal. It would fall apart at the seams. He'd drown. Sharks would come up for the main course and they'd pick through the remains.
"If you say so," they murmured.
Manami pulled themself up on their rock. Looked out over the endless ocean. Glanced to the tiny rock in their hand, sparkling with water inside.
"How'd you find that so far out here?" Over their shoulder. He was still there. "I'd have thought a snow globe would break."
"Excuse me," they said -
"Teshima," he provided in a quick interruption.
Manami stared. A captain like Arakita complained about. "Yes." Forcing an uncomfortable silence, they went on, "What's a snow globe?"
His eyes lingered on it, til they scraped it along their teeth, blank stare in return. "Something made for sentimentality," he said. "People fill it with water and glitter and shake it up. See all that white stuff? That's like snow."
They rolled the orb between their hands - almost seeing what he meant. The thing standing in the middle became lost in a storm of silver. It looked like schools of fish fleeting through, running and swallowing up every hint of light.
"Snow," they said.
"Yeah, that cold stuff that falls from the sky when whatever fish gods you've got are mad at you, right?"
They knew what precipitation was. "Yeah," Manami said. "I guess so." Water pushed sun against their gray skin, calling them back. In a short wave, they said, "Good luck."
Diving down below, there wasn't much fun about stories with such an obvious outcome.
Humans would lose themselves, sometimes.
It wasn't any interest of Manami's, but new people did mean new things. That was something to see. They couldn't travel too far out, held in place by season and nature, but each new boat brought hints of a curious world.
They could never leave, but problems like these were a matter of acceptance.
Manami watched a small boat aimlessly float through empty waters to bounce helpless against an island. They swam through, closer to shore than most could otherwise - not many liked the burn of sun like they did. Out of water like escaping a tomb, air slamming through and making their heart buzz, there was nothing they wanted more than that single moment.
Relishing it, and pausing, leaning their face against the salty broken boards of the boat - Manami pulled themself back to reality, and the unfortunate facts of the situation.
"On that island." Manami pointed toward something they knew in their gut was there. Regardless of whether they could climb to see it with their own eyes. "There are probably things inside."
Teshima stood up on his vessel, wavering with the waters, to squint toward what they'd pointed at. "Have you ever heard of sirens?"
They tilted their head.
"Singers and story spinners who sit upon rocks to draw unfortunate sailors," he muttered. "Right till they crash into rocks and meet their demise."
"Oh," Manami said. "Is that why you're out here?"
He didn't answer their question. "How big is the boat."
Tools and toys were laid out across the beach. Manami stared from behind a distant rock.
It was a promise of another world. There was so much oddity made, unnecessary and absurd, and stories for every new toy. Most of it didn't make sense. Silvered wares and devices clipped together with thin wire, like coral torn down to its barest bones. He dropped long sharp teeth, knives and swords and useless blunt tools as he liked to call them. Pearls and rotten fish and endless dry goods that swelled the moment water touched and dragged them away. Use wasn't a question. But they didn't dislike that. Such treats looked as nice as anything down below. Teshima fumbled through his cataloging, cursing as his skin speckled and peeled. He had sailed for two days before hitting a shore that Manami could swim to in as many hours.
On the beach, a stick stood straight out of the sand, long thread bobbing into the water. It pricked their finger when they'd touched it, without much response. This close to shore, there wasn't much worth eating, but there was plenty to see. As he tore through the sandbound ship, Manami picked through tide pools and watched without a word.
Water no longer reached the boat's body. Though treasures tossed over the furthest helm were swallowed up with gleeful fervor by the ocean below, the ship remained out of reach. If Manami dragged themself further up the beach, they could peel the barnacles and dried seaweed off - they could steal away the best items speckling sand that Teshima threw outside in single-minded search. But it was almost uncouth. They stuck to their private vigil and peered out from the water's edge throughout the night.
"Are you scared now?" echoed out after another hour stuck in lucid sleep.
Manami sank back into the water to swim closer, rising only enough to see.
"Thought you sent me out here to get something done, but you're just circling like a vulture! Ever heard of those?"
They didn't respond.
"Guess you don't know how to use that tongue anymore, do you!"
Teshima fell at the water's edge, sitting with those legs out, fire set behind him. They couldn't touch it. It seemed a shame not to.
"Some birds drag up old criminals to take them up to a perch or mountain. Talons dig right into 'em, like razor blades, no matter how heavy their sins are. Wind transforming into something greater," he yelled. "Peck out their organs to make sure they pay for what they've done. Sometimes they take their eyes and leave them there to rot."
"I wouldn't do that," Manami called back. "That's a waste. Everyone would yell at me."
"Oh, right," he laughed. "So you'd just toss me down to let all your friends argue about who gets what? A liver for a shark, eyes for a squid, a bit of flesh for all those ravenous ghosts to rip apart?"
They shrugged. "Humans don't taste very good. I wouldn't know."
Teshima fell back into the sand, laughing till nothing more came out. The ocean's static hung in their ears. Embers cracked beyond him, faint burns sticking to their ears. Manami tested the distance - wet webbed fingers landing on his warm ankle. There were many things they could do.
But they didn't care much for what others wanted.
It wasn't a bad trade. Where there were still stories to catch like pooling blood, they wouldn't push for the end too quick. Manami had been offered worse below. He could die on his own time.
Every moment Teshima was awake, he spoke.
Far on the distance, they could see him kicking through water, yelling and laughing at fish he'd long since scared off. Manami could balance over rocks, cracking open shells like others had taught them to do. They didn't often have the patience for it, but small clams and crabs hidden in smaller pools were easy to find if they were waiting.
When fish would wander too close in how carefully they held themself though - that was a nice break. Dolphins were supposed to work together. But it didn't matter much if they wandered off on their own. Not when their home was a mish-mash of creatures and the dead hovering together below the ocean, waiting for what fell from above to weave themselves into.
Some days, they caught him staring as they ripped flesh from bone. Fish held in their mouth, they could still smile and wave. Teshima would turn away and climb back into his boat, and they would wonder how long it had been since he last ate.
He wouldn't ask for help and they would not offer to give it.
"There are stories about beautiful women at sea," he muttered one day, slouched against what he called the hull of the ship. "If you laugh along with them, they'll kill you."
"Why's that?" Manami asked.
"Guess they don't like a good joke," he said.
Gestures and theatricism burned low. A week ago, he would have never voluntarily sat within reach. A week ago, he'd bothered with the ring of leaves around his head. Now all he had was an ever-parched mouth.
"Or maybe your type is the kind to steal something important and ask for gold in return." He sniffled, and laughed. "Gold for gold. You know what that means, don't you?"
Some humans would die of hunger. Others drinking from the ocean, as though it was poison. Manami shook their head. Every day that passed seemed another closing door. It was a little annoying to watch someone waste away.
"Right. Then I won't give you any ideas," he said.
"When do you plan to leave?" they asked, pleasant.
"Not too long now." His eyes were closed. "Just ... have to fix the rudder. Figure out how to push this back ... you wouldn't happen to know any rain bringers, would you? There are things that can do that ... it'd make it easier on me."
He wouldn't even ask for food to save himself. Only the impossible. "Of course," they said. "All kinds. They just need eyes for the center."
Teshima forced a laugh, almost inaudible. "Too bad ... I'm running low."
When he fell asleep, they dragged themself up the beach and stole away trinkets. The next morning, they waited for him to notice. But there was no question, no note. They watched him climb back inside the boat to clamber around in a dying haze.
People would lose themselves at sea.
Some found their way out. Others wouldn't.
Manami had come here a long time ago. So long that there was hardly a before at all. There was nowhere to return to now.
They sank among those who had always been there, those who seemed to know the sea, and those who called it home. Those who played their games close to their chest.
"You could leave," voices and familiarity. "All it takes is an equivalent trade."
Sometimes, sitting above water, they watched how he stared at them, and wondered how he imagined dying. If to him, it would come as being dragged below the waves. They considered it. Legs to take and stand on. Over and over.
But they didn't.
Manami knew some things were impossible. Even this far beyond the boundary.
There was no way to go back, again.
"Water monks," he said, one day.
They were picking through more that he'd thrown out of the ship. What he called diaries. Their wet fingers made ink melt and drain down the pages. Jewels and rotted food like bloated bodies run through on rocks below. Tattered clothing and chairs, pronged metal and spoons filled with holes.
"They're like the coming storm," Teshima went on. "I saw some today. Watching." He rubbed his eyes. Skin running thin from layer after layer of sand, his eyes were bloodshot and yellow. "People refuse to sail if they see them. Say they're just picking and choosing sailors to drown. But they're coming." He walked in circles. Kept on. "They could pull me free."
He was running out of words to barter.
"Is that so," Manami said. They stared at indecipherable writing. If he wasn't dying, they'd consider asking how to read.
"Soon," he said.
His mouth was bleeding. Not even fresh fish would help him at this point.
"Yes," they said. Manami was courteous. "Very soon."
He glanced down at them, and grinned. Scarlet stained his teeth. They returned it. The rock was nothing they hadn't seen coming. If Manami had predators, they'd have done the same thing.
Their head was falling off.
Manami rolled it back on. Salt. Sand filled their mouth. It was hard to breathe. They forced an eye open. Underwater, half of them had to be awake - some part of them, aware and alive, never truly resting. But the next breath was a knife, and they remembered what air was like. It wasn't such a bad trade-off, they thought, delirious and giggling.
"Thought I wouldn't figure you out?"
Their lids hardly moved, so dry. His silhouette blocked what little light remained in the night. Hours had passed. Hours, in a place that didn't have an ounce of time left. Held up out of the water, land-bound. They wondered if they'd shrivel into nothing and laughed again.
"Of course not, Teshima!" They played into with his lie, dancing along to one of those endless stories he told. "Just a little longer, and I would have had you. Congratulations on catching it."
The moon did him no favors. A fire could not keep him safe, or present. Teshima shook, every hint of warmth gone with the setting sun. They recognized it. Enough people above and below.
"Are you that hungry?" they murmured - dangerous excitement, despite how their tail thrashed through the heat. "Don't humans tell each other stories about this? There are better things to eat."
"Yes," he spat. "But I'm not an idiot. I don't believe in folk tales."
"After all you've told me?" They smiled, full and challenging.
"Yeah," he forced out. Uncharacteristically short.
They recognized his tool. Something he called a machete, dragging out trinkets from boats like they'd asked, listing out what everything was for his own sake - desperate to remember - have something to cling to. Coloring bleak realities with stories about mountains and fog that stole people away, birds that carried sinners off to suffer, the dangers of the ocean and creatures that lied.
Other tales were facts.
They knew what their blood could do to the living. Manami had learned long enough ago. But some people were going to die, regardless. They didn't mind endangering those. If they were the reality of old sailor's tales, present to punish fools who abandoned love and hope to the ocean - they would grin, wide and dangerous, and wait for Teshima to bring his fate upon himself.
The blade leveraged against their neck, it was more funny than not. Interesting, even.
"Then what are you waiting for?" they asked.
A sharper edge than teeth, carving up skin.
"I'm sick of their tragedies," he muttered.
Something tore in that instant of darkness. The next was light, and heat, and void, burning up through skin and bone and blood. Their teeth crashed together, sound and helplessness and shock, as their remaining arm flew up - to nothing.
Their hand burned.
No dark oil poured out of their wound. They stared beyond blindness, at the soot marking their palm, and back. Nothing kept them in place but the pain and every part of their body scrambling to escape internal fire. Sand and splinter coated their skin. They dragged themself forward through darkness, trying to find their vision.
Only soon enough for how flesh fell to the ground in strips.
They could hear, however faint - "Not the flesh." Hollow echoes. "Crack the bone." Halves carried away by the wind.
A knife driven into splintering bone. He scraped out marrow with the blade, and then with his teeth. Blood mixed together, acrid and wrong. His fingers burnt and bleeding worse - there was no sense but empty pain searing through, and anything was fine if it would stop him. They sank their teeth into his leg. He didn't kick them away. Instead, he stumbled back.
Manami hadn't realized they were on the boat.
Not till he fell, overboard, into bubbling black water. They stared over the edge. It shouldn't have been able to go so far. But they didn't give it pause - Manami dragged themself up, struggling with what little they had left, and threw themself over to follow.
It was theirs and he'd twisted it and they were furious, thrashing through with fire-closed wound.
Darkness overwhelmed everything, even using eyes too familiar with the overwhelming pressure. It wasn't that hard. Tendrils and smoke and bitter blood left too strong a trail. He sank as though dragged, as though there was nothing but down left to the world. Anyone would die like this. Anyone doing this to themself - they hated it, and tore through darkness with their teeth, blood spiraling up out of inadvertent wounds. Manami knew what a human smelled like - no matter how long it had been. And they knew what wasn't.
They didn't have claws. They didn't have scales or anything sharp beyond their mouth and hidden words. So they slapped him.
"Don't," they said. There were ways to speak, below. He wouldn't know them, and he wouldn't even hear this, water filling up their lungs. It had been years since the thought had stricken them - crushed as they were by the depths. "This isn't over!"
For every awful smell and for how water burned a weight to their chest, they were rising. Punishment or justice. They'd been down here too long to know the difference. Every tragedy led to rest at the sea's bed.
But they crashed against water worn rocks. All they could do was cough. Salt and blood and water leached out their eyes, their mouth, their lungs, till little more than air and foam. And they slept.
"Dolphin tastes terrible," he said.
"You dragged me up here to say that?" Manami picked at the rock, enough to flick a pebble at him.
The warm brown had been fading over the days. He looked more purple now. A little like one of those human corpses, a little not. But his eyes were no longer burst vessels of scarlet and yellow. His broken teeth were not soaked in his own blood, and. That was something.
"No," he said. "Not really."
They closed their eyes and leaned against their arm. "You should learn to speak properly ... you can't use this air all the time. You're not human anymore."
"Yeah." Something about legs and that many of them. He had more than before. Teshima wasn't the type to let go, apparently. "I know."
Manami didn't know how many hours or days passed, laying dead against the rocks. But they were still there, apparently. Both of them. They hadn't expected that much. Waking up to boiling water and shade in the form of the approximation of a former person. In degrees, they couldn't understand why he was still here, too.
"Are you going back home?"
"Don't really have one now, do I?" he managed.
Manami shrugged, not bothering to open their eyes. It was rare they could devote themself to much sleep. Always half-awake. This made it a little easier. It made up for their missing arm. It made up for sticking together.
"Maybe if they wanted to see me again," he said. "It'd be a hard trip."
"Impossible, even," they said.
"See? Perfect for me."
That earned him a quiet laugh. They hated that. He was right.
"I was just thinking. There are a lot of folk tales," Teshima said. And tapped their shoulder. They opened an eye, to how he leaned close, seaweed hanging in the curls of his hair. "Even a few about how to change back."
Manami stared. "Is that so?" Smiled, teeth to bare. "I thought you didn't believe in those."
"Hey," he said. "I need to hide at least part of my hand. I can't have you getting bored halfway through on land."
It was impossible.
It would take a miracle.
Manami could break down possibility into nothing with the crushing ocean.
But they said, "Sounds fun." And pressed a finger into his forehead, too close, too soon. "That's better than most of the stories you've been telling me."