If Vaughn had a gold piece for every time Rhys told him “This is gonna work, I promise! We’ll be rich and able to start our own colony!” he’d be the richest seafolk alive. Having been Rhys’s closest friend and most trusted confidant for several years now, he’d heard and played part in many of his bro’s schemes and plans to get everything they deserved, namely getting away from Hyperion. As they were both native to different regions, and had moved to the Oceanic Colony Hyperion, neither would be acceptable as leaders and lawmakers. Vaughn, himself, was from a smaller Fresh Water Settlement, his parents scorning him for wanting more than their familial prestige in the small call he grew up around. Rhys had come from an average call, not too big, not too little. Just enough to know he was smarter than average, but not so much that he was cocky about it. Well. Not too cocky.
“All these morons, Vaughn. One of these days, we’re gonna leave them behind in the stale water while we riiiiiide the currents on out.”
Vaughn grinned, adjusting the decorative coral he’d placed on his forearm. A tiny feeder bobbed away from the movement, landing instead on Rhys’s impressive armor he’d found some rotations ago. It covered his right arm from shoulder to fingertip, and one never saw him without it. In a way, Vaughn was a little envious. He wished he had the guts to stand out quite so much, but then that would draw attention to himself and leave him huddled under a growth as the others of the Conference hurled nasty words and painful jabs from their spears. He had had enough of that. He felt his back hunching over as his friend drew closer.
Rhys was certainly a sight, Vaughn would happily admit. Beautiful, long tail, blue fins floating beneath him. Ethereal with his glowing red stripes down the length of his scales, with one brown and one blue glowing eye that Rhys was extremely proud of, though he’d had no hand in its creation. Rhys was everything Vaughn wished he could be. Good with words, oozing charm, Rhys could get just about anything he, or the Colony, needed. The rest that he couldn’t get his hands on, they turned to their other partner in crime, Yvette.
Sleek and covered in beautiful pink moss, Yvette was smooth and quick witted. Dark hair twisted into delicate spirals, she was a sight to behold. Her fins, pelvic and tail alike, were a brilliant orange, while her scales were a dark charcoal gray. She was well maintained, and never caught looking less than optimal. She was also incredibly intimidating when she needed to be. Vaughn eyed her fists while memories of being able to watch those fists in action puttered through his mind. It was a good day when one of his friends could help him out of a tight spot.
That wasn’t to say Vaughn didn’t have his own good qualities. His loyalty was forever rewarded by his companions. What he lacked in looks or charm he was given intelligence with numbers, and had found something of a fateful career in the Colony’s Treasury. If one or two (or ten or twenty) went missing here there, and he and his friends were seen with new foods or fin rings, then no one thought anything of it. They were all employed within the Colony’s mainstay and were likely handsomely paid for their services.
“Vaughn, I’m hungry,” Yvette said, bumping her tail against his lightly. He scratched at his arm as he looked at her nonchalantly.
“And I have no money.”
He sighed and nodded, tugging at the small netted bag he’d made from trash he’d found a mile or so out. He handed her a coin and she grinned, slipping it under a fish fin she’d bought, shaped into a bracelet. Rhys smiled at them both before motioning his head to the Colony.
“We’re gonna get away from here soon,” he said, a surety to his voice that Vaughn was used to hearing at this point. “And we’re gonna be filthy rich when we do it. Right Vaughn?”
He nodded to his friend, indulging him with his thoughts even though they both knew Vaughn was terrified of being caught with more than what he’d already taken.
Of course, the theft had turned out easier than they’d thought it would be. Months later, and the three were well on their way to anywhere else, barnacled boxes strapped to their backs, loaded with all the riches they could fit in them. For days, they swam, only stopping when in need of rest or food breaks, sure that if they stopped for any significant time, the Colony’s guards would catch up. Finally, they reached a cavern, small in size, but big enough for the three of them to rest for a couple days safely out of sight. They broke the water’s surface, taking turns unstrapping and upheaving their booty onto the cold rocky floor. After a moment, they all turned to each other and laughed. Bright, loud guffaws that echoed in the space, their faces turning red with the exertion of facial muscles and gasping breaths.
“What the actual fuck?”
Suddenly, their laughter died, dread replacing their mirth. Slowly, they each turned to face their company. Two humans, women, it seemed. Clad in jackets and pants, boots up to their knees, they watched in awe just as the seafolk watched them. A quick curse and a plop, and the boys could feel Yvette getting further and further away, the water she stirred lapping at their sides. Rhys kept his eyes on them, slowly reaching for the box closest to him before pulling it close and jetting as Yvette had done before him. Vaughn, however, was at a loss. Scared witless, he was frozen in the water, feeling sure his life was over. The guards hadn’t reached them, but he’d never taken into account he’d find surface dwellers. They were so uncommon in the ocean, he’d nearly forgotten about them entirely, which was ridiculous since he’d been raised in freshwater where villages had popped up like daisies on the land. He’d even eavesdropped on their conversations and learned their language as he was growing up (though he’d never been allowed to speak it).
The one with the hat slowly lowered herself to her hands and knees, crawling her way to the edge of the water, ignoring as the other called for her to come back. Still, Vaughn held his position, frozen as he was. He gulped and tried to find the right words to maybe scare her off, but none could form.
“Hey,” she said, voice low with a slight rasp to it. Her breathing seemed as labored as his.
His misused voice grated out a “Hi” before he flinched at the sound. Her eyes brightened, and her lips parted in a smile.
“You speak my language?”
Hesitantly, he nodded. He was breaking so many laws of the Conference and his Call right now. This was everything he was raised not to do. You are never to make contact with land dwellers, his Call had said. His Conference (“ugh”) had touted the same.
“Fiona, get away from there! He’s gonna try to pull you in!” The other was looking more and more irate as Fiona refused to move.
“Sasha, I’m not leaving! This is...this is amazing! Haven’t you ever wanted to see one in person?”
“Yeah sure, but from a distance!”
Fiona scoffed, seemingly eyeing him over. He felt his cheeks flush, and he moved a little to push himself further in the water to cool down. Fiona regarded him carefully as he did the same of her, eyes flitting to the other (“Sasha,” his mind provided).
“Where’s your Drowning,” Fiona asked.
His head tilted as he rolled the words over in his mind. He knew them separately, but together he didn’t understand the context.
“Your Drowning. You know. Your group? Were those two part of your Drowning?”
Vaughn took a moment to think it over before it dawned on him. His eyes were alight with knowledge of understanding.
“You mean my Call?”
She seemed stumped on the answer, before shrugging.
“We call it a Drowning, but sure.”
He nodded, “Yes. They were my Call.”
She nodded, satisfied in her rightness, but something bothered him.
“Why do you call it a Drowning?”
Sasha sneered and kicked a rock, causing him to duck away as it splashed beside him. His fingers curled into the rock near his box. Her hands on her hips, she shifted her weight to the other foot.
“Because you seafolk drown us when we see you and there’s never just one of you. The more there are, the more likely we never make it out alive.”
His head was pounding. A human with any kind of grudge was dangerous. A human with any grudge against him even more so, because it was not likely he could fight them off. Sasha took two steps closer, feet slapping on the wet rock, and he felt his instincts push him away and under the water. Heart bursting with adrenaline, he rushed away, speeding out of the cavern entrance. His gills moved double time to take in as much as he could until he felt he was at a safe distance. A touch to his left arm shocked him, causing him to spin around, hand splayed flat and slicing through the water, connecting with flesh. Rhys groaned, rubbing the soon to be bruised spot on his ribs.
“I’m glad you got away from there, buddy,” he said to Vaughn, looking him over for injuries. “I thought you’d be right behind me!”
“I was too scared to move! And one of them started coming after me, so I got out as quick as I could! She could have killed me, Rhys!”
Rhys slung an arm over Vaughn’s shoulder as Yvette watched them both, her arms tightly wrapped around her treasure.
“It’ll be okay, Vaughn. We’ve got the treasure still. We can just find a new place to lay low. Speaking of...where’s your box?”
Vaughn froze, nearly choking on a bubble. He’d left it behind. All those gems, all that gold, all that wealth. Rhys’s face aged as the implications of Vaughn’s silence settled on him.
“We can...we can wait a couple days--”
“They’ll steal it!” Yvette said loudly. Rhys turned to shush her before turning back to Vaughn.
“I...I mean they might. Steal it, I mean, but they might just...leave it. One of them seemed pretty afraid. Said we were known for drowning humans. That alone might keep it safe if they fear revenge.”
Rhys nodded, clapping his hand on Vaughn’s back.
“It’ll work out, Vaughn. Don’t worry!”
Ignoring the sickened feeling in his stomach, he nodded, knowing it would ease Rhys’s mind, while Yvette glowered at him knowingly. They took their time and found another alcove nearby, settling down with their two boxes, readying themselves for a restful sleep. Vaughn, however, sat awake, watching his two friends, tails tapping lightly together in their sleep, curled around the chests of treasure. His eyes moved to watch the still entrance, then back to them. After moments of silence and deliberation, he let out a low curse and slowly made his way out.
It took him a while to find it again, but as he broke the surface once more in the little cavern, he was sure he’d done the right thing. The one that had kicked the rock, Sasha, was sitting at the water’s edge as though she’d been waiting. In her hand, she held something that she seemed to be eating. After a long lick, she smacked her lips and grinned at him.
“Fi said you might come back. I told her she was crazy, but I guess I was wrong.”
Keeping his distance, he looked around the small room for his stolen prize. She kicked her toes out, sending water splashing over his head.
“We moved to hide it. Some jerkfaces decided to check this place out while you were gone, and Fi wouldn’t let them in. Fun fight,” she said, seemingly proud of the violence she likely incurred. Vaughn felt his tail twitch in the water, his nerves holding him from coming closer, but desperation keeping him from running altogether. Sasha grinned from her rocky perch, tongue darting out for another lick of her brightly colored treat.
“No friends?” Sasha tilted her head at the water, licking her lips to clean them of melted juice.
He shook his head slowly. He spent the next few minutes watching her cautiously, waiting for the moment she snapped and lashed out, however, she remained calm and collected. He might even say she was having fun by the way she was grinning at him.
“I promise not to make a fuss. The fight got all the energy out of me, and you seem pretty scared. I’m going to assume you won’t do anything, but know that if you try, I will end you.” She smiled, taking a quick bite of her snack. He shuddered and nodded, gulping his fear down as he stayed put. She watched him, shrugged, then reached behind her and offered something to him that looked similar to her snack, but green instead of blue. His eyes flitted between the two before he slowly made his way to her, hand slowly stretching out to snatch it quickly and pull back away from her.
His fingers pinched the bottom of what appeared to be a cut and trimmed stick, and the thing it held was...cold. Very cold. Vaugh’s fingertips touched the ice in awe. Humans were creative creatures, it seemed. He looked back up to Sasha, watching as she licked and sucked on the blue ice, smacking her lips before doing it again. Tentatively, he stuck the flat of his tongue against the side of the thing, suddenly struck by cold and incredibly sweet. He drew away in shock, blinking back up to Sasha before he continued to enjoy the food.
“It’s called a popsicle,” she told him, grinning at his sudden amazement at something so simple. Vaughn hummed and nodded, filing the information away for later. He’d have to tell the others about this. They’d love it.
He felt another splash hit his head, and he looked up to see Sasha frowning at him.
“Oh! Yeah, thanks. So if mine is a popsicle, what’s your’s?”
She seemed to take a moment to just look at him before grinning once more.
“Mine’s called a lemon.”
“Yeah. Lemon.” The grin on her face widened, seemingly in innocence.
“...Huh. That’s weird. I distinctly recall lemons being something entirely different.” He gave her a knowing look as she let the words sink in. She shrugged and quietly admitted defeat, and he couldn’t help the pride that made him smile, or straighten his back a bit more.
More footsteps thudded, coming closer. Sasha turned to greet the woman, while Vaughn watched her with interest. When she finally looked up and caught sight of him, her lips stretched into a smile.
“Hey, we thought you all had left.”
He nodded, licking at his popsicle. She came closer to the edge of rocks, settling down with her legs crossed.
“Did Sasha give you a hard time?”
He grinned, “She tried.”
She huffed a quiet laugh and looked to the other woman, who just ignored her in favor of the melting popsicle in her hand. He watched her look back to him, grinning as he continued to eat his snack.
“What’s your name?”
He paused for a moment, thinking it over, wondering how the noises his friends made when calling for him would translate to the human tongue. He spent a few more moments silently working his mouth around the noises that sounded appropriate before he responded as a question.
The girls looked to each other, then nodded, officially offering their names to him as well.
He returned after a couple hours of questions and answers between the three of them feeling...brighter. He felt braver. He felt smarter. He, the self-proclaimed coward, had stayed in the presence of a species he was only familiar with from a distance, never interacting personally with any others before.
The next few days were about the same. Wait til his friends were asleep, then leave quietly and chat with his new acquaintances for a bit before coming back to their temporary den.
He arrived one evening to find the two women grumbling and removing their clothes.
“What happened?” Vaughn swam to the edge, fingers curling over the rocks as he stared up at them.
Sasha is the first to glance his way, then glare down at her boots for a moment before she cursed and tossed it away from her.
“Another damn group of bandits, this time on the beach a half mile from here. If I never touch sand with my toes again, it’ll be too soon.”
She pulled off her jacket, holding it away from her as she shook more miniscule debris from its folds. Fiona did the same, also following suit with her vest. Her usual hat was resting by the wall behind her, presumably where she had safely placed it before angrily pulling at her clothes. He spotted a stowaway, and called her over to him. Waving her even closer with his hand, he pulled himself out of the water, the furthest he had dared to leave it, and reached to her thigh. She tried to peek over her shoulder at what he was doing, but the angle just wouldn’t allow it, though it only took him a moment to give a soft “Ah ha!” and she felt something being pried off. Turning, she saw what he was holding: a little orange starfish that he promptly placed back in the water, near a little outcropping of rock a couple feet away. He returned to look up at her with a pleased smile, which she felt herself returning without intention. Sasha scoffed, turning to make her way behind a boulder. Moments later, a damp plop was heard as her shirt landed on the flat rock near the pool. Fiona groaned and moved to follow, tossing a wry grin to him before telling him to wait just a moment.
They grumbled and moved behind the rock, just out of view, followed by things getting quiet and then reluctant sighs.
“Uh huh?” A term he’d heard them use tons of times. It took a few tries to get the context down, but eventually he’d gotten the hang of it. Slang, it seemed, was not his strong suit just yet, in regards to human languages.
Fiona’s head popped out from behind the boulder, though the rest of her body stayed put.
“Your friend. The darker one. She was wearing a top, right?”
He frowned and nodded. What did that have to do with anything?
“So like...do merfolk have a sense of shame when it comes to nudity? Is that a thing that’s very under lock and key for you guys?”
“Not really. Not all merfolks wear things. They’re mostly just for decoration, if one should feel so inclined. Even I wear things sometimes...or I used to. Before I left it all behind to escape.”
Fiona seemed to glance down and bite her lip. “A shame…”
“Nothing. So, visible skin is not that big a deal to you right? Underwear covering things should be fine. We should be fine, Sasha.”
“I still don’t like it,” he heard the younger sister mutter.
“Well, I, for one, am not going to spend the rest of the night covered in sand like this. I’d prefer fresh water, but this is as close to a shower as we’re gonna get.”
A moment later, and she stepped out from behind the rock, proudly making her way to him in scraps of white fabric. Sasha followed after, though her arms were crossed over her chest. If he looked carefully, a red tint covered both their faces. They stepped carefully into the water, gasping and taking their time at the chill it caused before they settled for floating, gently paddling around in front of him.
The three chattered and laughed, long after the two women were pruny and shivering. He was sad to see them get out, doubly so to see them getting ready to settle down for the night. They had built a small fire, big enough for the two of them, but not so large as to make the small space uncomfortable. Blankets were wrapped around their shoulders, and they yawned, sleepy eyes shutting of their own accord. He quietly wished them a goodnight, and made his way back to the cave he’d started calling home with the other two friends of his life.
Another evening, another talk. This time, Sasha was out on a visit to a friend.
“She said a friend, but I know it was her ex.” Fiona grinned, looking a little sadly at the greenery in her hands. Silence stretched as she ran her fingers over the leaves, lost in her own mind.
“What are those?” He asked.
She turned to him, brows drawn close, before she scooted on her butt closer to the edge. He swam closer and closer until he could reach his hand out to touch them.
“S’called Lamb’s Ear.”
Vaughn was entranced at the softness. It wasn’t slippery, it wasn’t prickly. The land really did have a lot of different things he had no clue about. Fiona reached further back behind her, sitting back up and showing him the array of colors she had brought with her. His eyes flicked from her to the flowers before he made up his mind, and with a swift pull, he was up sitting on the rock by her side. His tail fin swished lazily in the water, stirring up little ripples and currents. His eyes were caught on the plants, and failed to see her eyes widen at the sight of his tail so close.
“Whoa,” they murmured together, startling each other out of their wondrous stupors. They glanced up at each other, smiled, then continued with their gazing. His fingers moved first, tips just brushing the multitude of petals she offered. Quietly, he asked what each of them were, eager to learn more about other things he’d missed out on. The flowers here looked nothing like the flowers near his home settlement. They were more vivid, one even seeming to glow from the inside out after Fiona grinned and moved to blow the candle out. His eyes then were caught on the sight of her blouse in the low light. Folds and creases, lines of thread where it had been mended time and again. The glow seemed to catch on the scars of her hands, which he hadn’t had a chance to see up close until this moment. He reached out a finger to trace one running from the back of her knuckles to the space between her thumb and forefinger.
She let out a soft breath when he pulled his hand away, eyes caught on his movement.
In the low light, they shared a similar, quiet smile.