Isidro stood to the side, laughing his heart out as he watched a fish slip out of Serpico’s hand. The blond man danced around himself trying to retake hold of it, bending forward and to the sides while the fish wriggled and wreathed out of his grip.
Before the fish could return to the water, a spear like a lightning bolt pierced through it, tossing it a few feet away from Serpico, who stood at the edge of the lake, puzzled, his hands still making grabby movements, eyes fixated on the fish still wiggling on the spear.
Two pairs of eyes shot upward to see Isma, standing atop a rock, tall and confident and smiling. “How many times will I have to teach you, Serpie?” she drawled in a playful tone, tilting her head at them and chucking her other spear over her shoulder.
Serpico scratched the top of his head in an apologetic manner. “I’m sorry.”
“No worries!” Isma said, hopping off the rock and making her way towards them. “I’m here to help now.”
Isidro sprinted towards the taller girl and threw a casual arm around her. “Shouldn’t you be with Schierke right now?”
Isma pouted and gave him a helpless shrug. “She shooed me away, said I was distracting her.”
The redheaded boy nodded in understanding. “Yeah, she would do that.”
Isma seemed to instantly forget the matter with the other girl as she perked up and her eyes surveyed the other two. “How many fish did you catch?”
Serpico and Isidro exchanged awkward glances, the latter pressing his lips and avoiding her gaze, while the former chuckled and wiped his hands on his trousers.
Serpico left the two kids at the lake to go search for Schierke. He knew where she was, the green lock of hair around his finger has established a connection, and yet Serpico did not seek her immediately. A part of him recognized that desperate need for aloneness, for quiet, for a time where the mind is left to wander and question all that surrounds it. He shared that need with her, and he suspected they all did, to an extent, but only she, the youngest among them, tried to smother it, tried to deny herself that serenity of spending a moment by herself, without the others. She was dutiful to a fault, too concerned with making others like her, consumed by the need to be good at all times, to be useful, to be present in moments of need; in their situation, any moment could be a moment of need. For her, idling by herself was no longer an option.
The more time passed with all of them wearing her green locks of hair around their fingers, the closer and clearer their thoughts had become to each other. It was disconcerting, for him, especially, and so he had spent an inordinate amount of time disconnecting himself from the link they shared. He didn’t remove the hair -that would have roused inquiries he was unwilling to answer- but he’d learned how to lock his mind, how to cage it, keep his most inner thoughts foggy to whomever chose to peek inside. Only in moments of danger, only in the heat of battle, did he open his mind entirely, so they wouldn’t lose the fight, so they wouldn’t lose one another.
Serpico couldn’t afford that.
Above him, columns of lights descended to the earth, and he passed between them, extending his hand towards the particles of dust that floated in the threads of yellow glow, swaying his hand among them, disturbing their formations, feeling the warmth seep into his skin. Serpico stopped between two pillars of light, and inhaled the scents of the forest around him.
Schierke was somewhere nearby.
He opened his mind to her, revealed a little corner of it, to let her know that he was close, to ask if his company was welcomed, despite knowing that she wouldn’t turn him down even if she didn’t desire his presence.
The answer came after a couple of minutes, and in his mind’s eye, Serpico could see which branch she was occupying, on which tree, and what she was seeing, but she kept her emotions concealed. Serpico thought it fair enough, he could accept this deal, and began making his way towards her.
On one of the thickest, most lush trees he’d seen as of yet, sat Schierke, resting her back against the trunk and dangling one leg over the branch.
“You always know how to find the best trees, Schierke.” he commented, still poised where he stood at the foot of the tree, one hand behind his back, out of habit.
The little girl smiled, but it was lukewarm and forced. “I suppose,”
“See anything weird?”
She shook her head and shifted her eyes to a place he couldn’t see. “No, nothing. I planted the golems around us, as far as I could go. If danger approached I’ll know about it.”
Serpico offered her a smile, and he hoped she found it genuine; he was almost never sure about the authenticity of his smiles or gestures, but he knew that she was one impressive witch. He wondered if the smile conveyed that well. “You’re always excellent at taking care of us.”
Schierke’s head turned to him, and she instantly pulled her hat to hide a growing blush of embarrassment. “I try my best. Master Flora was much better.”
“No doubt you’ll catch up one day.” he said, strolling towards a nearby stone to rest on it.
She said nothing to that, opting to draw her knees towards her chest and shrink upon herself. Serpico chose to look away, feeling like he was an intruder, wondering if he made a good choice by seeking her. He could still back away, but her question stopped him from standing up and leaving.
“Serpico, do you miss your home?”
He hummed, placing a hand under his chin, pretending to think hard about it. “I suppose, sometimes.” he lied. “I miss sleeping in a bed!”
His cheerful tone did nothing to ease the strong clasp she had about herself, it seemed to make her shrink even farther into her own body.
“I miss my home, too.”
Silence buried the last echoes of her answer, and Serpico knew she wasn’t going to say more. Perhaps she regretted her attempt at trying to establish a connection between the two of them, perhaps she truly had nothing more to say, perhaps that sentence was simply something she needed to voice.
Whether she was aware of it or not, the two of them did have a connection, and it had little to do with the strand of hair Serpico had wrapped around his finger. She and him were similar, in more ways than one, and he had took note of them early on in their companionship. Nevertheless, he couldn’t ascertain whether she had any real interest in knowing them, and Serpico doubted she thought of him all that much, anyway. They weren’t the closest, but they certainly weren’t indifferent to each other, either. There was a shared sense of respect and camaraderie, and he knew that above all similarities they could share, these were the most important. Besides, he wasn’t someone any person would like to share things in common with. Maybe it was better if Schierke saw little to nothing of herself in him. Certainly, that should remain the case.
Serpico stood up, and extended his hand towards her, even though he knew the gesture was wholly performative and unnecessary. “What about we go back to the camp? I’m sure Isidro and Isma have plenty of fish by now.”
Schierke looked down at him and smiled. “Alright,” she hopped down, and to his surprise, linked her arm with his. “Isma kept talking while I planted the golems, she was hindering my spellcasting.”
He chuckled, and walked beside his little companion. “Yeah, she would do that.”
“You know, Serpico?” Isidro shouted at him, even though they were pretty close. “I find you a worthy opponent!”
“Oh my, you flatter me, sir.” and he bent down in a mock bow, but it was performed with his usual perfection.
The two of them continued walking, carrying the heaviest load of fish, while Isma and Schierke had disappeared ahead of them.
“Is it true?” Isidro murmured. “That you almost beat Guts?” his voice was hushed in a conspiratorial tone, as if he was asking about something forbidden.
Serpico hummed. “Is that what you’ve heard?”
“That’s what everybody’s heard.”
Isidro stopped. “We should train together.” he twirled a small knife between his fingers, to further demonstrate his point.
“Why is that?” Serpico asked, still finding himself impressed with the boy’s deft hands. “I thought you had your usual training routine with Guts.”
“I do, but if I train with both of you, I will become much stronger.” Isidro hopped over a rock, and was about to lose balance under the weight of his load, but found his ground and stood straight again, flashing Serpico a triumphant grin. “See, we’re both very agile.”
Serpico smiled. “Of course.”
“Don’t make fun of me.”
“I would never.”
“So,” Isidro pouted, emitting the usual bratty attitude with his pose and the way he gazed at others. “Are you gonna train with me?”
Something about the boy’s thin legs, or perhaps his desire to be of use, to be important, reminded Serpico of a past self that had almost succumbed to a snow grave, but was dragged by force. None of it was his choice; he hadn’t wanted to live then, but he looked at Isidro and doubted his memories, wondered if that was ever true.
He and Isidro had started the same; quite alone, two boys with smart hands, unsure hands, hands quicker than their heartbeats. Something gnawed at them, incessantly, a small angry monster that was supposed to protect them, but had caused them pain.
One turned aggression inwards, the other outwards.
Born in unwelcoming worlds, places that had no use for them, did not want them, people who thought them too much, or too little. They were never the perfect size never fit correctly anywhere, and maybe they still don’t, but here was more comfortable than elsewhere. They flourished in difficulty they flourished in distress, but the core was soft, dangerously soft. They saw themselves as protectors and guardians and those aren’t supposed to have broken hearts. They wanted to be wanted, and they were willing to annihilate themselves for it.
The guardian is not hurt is never hurt, except when he is.
“How about tomorrow?” Serpico suggested, struck with an odd desire to help the boy with his load, but deciding against it. Isidro would feel insulted no doubt. “Morning, same time as now, by the lake.”
“Hell yeah!” Isidro shot him a joyful grin.
Serpico nodded. “Alright then.”
Now that the boy had confirmation, he trotted faster towards the camp, leaving him behind. Serpico sighed.
That opportunistic little gremlin.
Her skin was chapped and her fingers quick as she slid a knife down the fish’s sides, severed scales splashing around like glittering water droplets. Hand steady, she ran the sharp blade through the fish, tail to gills, eyes unblinking like the dead creature before her, she removed the guts and tossed them aside, and then with one final move, brought down her knife, lopping off the head.
Serpico’s eyes traced her movements and technique with great interest, immersed in the speed at which she worked her way through the remaining fish, hardly recalling anyone ever working with such efficiency.
Fish were the last food he’d want to work with; they were slimy, smelled bad, and required precise cleaning, and as he observed their young companion taking care of their lunch, he knew exactly why she was the one tasked with handling matters of seafood.
He suppressed a shiver when a flying smatter of scales smacked against his cheek.
“You’re quite energetic today.” he commented, flicking the scales off his skin.
“Thank you!” Isma replied, scaling uninterrupted. “I’m trying to become quicker, because there are many of us and I never cleaned so many fish before.”
“Quicker than this?” he pointed to her hands, not working as fast, but still faster than he’d ever seen before.
She gave an enthusiastic nod. “My father was so fast, I could never match his speed.” she chuckled. “We used to compete against each other but I never won.”
Serpico suddenly thought about what sirens usually ate. The idea of a big human fish eating small normal fish was a little disconcerting, and he wondered if any human equivalent applied. When images of various apostles floated in his mind, he decided not to think about it.
“You’re very fast too, Serpico!” Isma said, and there was something quite endearing about the way she said it. “Did you learn that from your father too?”
He almost laughed, and instantly found it odd that that was his first, uncontrolled reaction to her question. And now that the man was brought up, Serpico realized that he never thought about him. His father never crossed his mind, perhaps because he never thought of him as a father. Lord Vandimion was Lord Vandimion and that was all there is to it, he had convinced himself of that much, at least.
“No,” he answered her, something in her unhinged sincerity compelling him to honesty. “He never really taught me anything.”
Isma finally glanced up, looking genuinely saddened. “Really?”
Serpico waved her off, feeling uncomfortable. “Oh that’s fine, there were many others who taught me many things, so I don’t think I really missed much.” he scratched the bridge of his nose. “He was always busy, so I don’t begrudge him.”
Surprisingly, that was true enough. He’d spent a long time unsure of his feelings towards the man, only to realize that he was unsure because there were no strong feelings of any kind. It wasn’t apathy, exactly, but Serpico wasn’t one to dig into his unknown emotions; he let them be, after all, they wouldn’t change anything. His input here had never mattered.
“Would you like to teach me?” he grabbed a fish by its tail, dangling it between them.
Isma’s eyes widened. “Are you sure about this?”
“I thought they grossed you out.”
Serpico hummed. “They still do, but what better way to get over it?”
Isma grinned. “Alright, and you teach me how to make stew.”
“With a lot of salt?”
“With a lot of salt.”