If Chin knew that Steve is hanging around the Shallows, he'd have some calm and pointed words about lurking in unsafe places. Steve isn't lurking, though. He's waiting for someone.
He's not going to get himself beached, either. He keeps safely on the ocean side of the flat but massive rock so that even if the current tries to sweep him along and carry him out of the water, it would find the way blocked.
A movement above him makes him look up, tail twitching as the sun is briefly blocked out.
"How do you call the creatures above the water," he asked Mamo once, careful to keep his voice casual, "the ones that glide around with their...?"
He made a flapping motion with his hands and Mamo clicked amusement at him but supplied the words.
"With their wings," he said, "and what they do is called flying, and what they are is called birds."
Steve's Bird lands on the rock, wings as golden as his hair and as blue as his eyes glinting in the sun. He shakes them, once, and then he folds them behind his back and kneels on the damp stone.
"You're late," Steve says, his face as close to the surface as he can manage without meeting the air.
Bird makes his own strange noises at him, left hand drawing circles into the air as he kneels down and dips his right hand into the water. Steve smiles, unaccountably happy, and reaches back.
Their fingers tangle, Steve's smooth and dotted with scales, Bird's rougher and partly covered with fine feathers. Bird's fingers are tipped with sharp-looking talons, but he doesn't draw blood as he runs his thumb lightly across the webbing between Steve's thumb and forefinger. His hand is warm. Steve sighs and lets his little finger trail along Bird's.
They should never have met. They don't understand each other's language. Steve can't breathe outside the ocean. Bird can't get into the water, waterlogged wings dragging him down and taking ages to dry. Steve knows this because he spent a memorable evening dragging him, splashing and flailing, to the safety of the Shallows, unaware that even after his hands let go of Bird, his mind would be unable to do the same.
Steve's mind is a sad, lonely idiot.
"Hey," he says and tugs at the hand in his, "come down here a moment."
Bird doesn't budge.
Steve tugs again, harder this time.
"Please," he adds, knowing Bird has no idea what he's saying.
His expression must speak for him because Bird squawks insistently, but he lets himself be pulled down until he lies down flat on the rock, all the while looking at Steve like he's seriously questioning Steve's mental capacity.
"Yeah, I know," Steve says. He reaches his left hand out of the water, his right still clasping Bird's fingers, and carefully touches the top curve of Bird's golden-blue wing. Something like awe fills him at the warmth beneath his palm, the softness tickling his fingertips. He sucks in a deep breath of water and digs his fingers into the feathers, just a little, just to feel them and to know he can take the memory back with him into the cool depths of his home.
Bird lets out a quiet chirp and tilts his head, a strange expression on his face. Then he leans down further still, fingers clenching around Steve's as he cups his free hand around the back of Steve's neck, his mouth suddenly close enough to kiss the water and then...
Steve shudders as their lips touch, his fins twitching as warmth spreads through him like a gently rising tide. He thinks he makes a broken noise somewhere between his gills and his ribcage, but his world has narrowed down on the heat of Bird's lips, the softness of their touch.
There aren't many soft things in the ocean.
One of the waves is a little higher than expected. Bird pulls back with a cough and a sputter, eyes wide like this wasn’t where he saw his day going. Steve can relate.
"Wait," he says as Bird makes a flailing motion at the sky, and, "wait," as Bird pulls his hand free.
But Bird doesn't understand him, never will, and all Steve can do is watch as Bird takes off, taking Steve's heart with him.
He can't be in love with someone he never really talked to. Right? He's merfolk. Bird's a... bird. They could never...
And the thing is, he doesn't know anything about Bird. Maybe Bird's an asshole. Who just falls into the water like that?
He doesn't even know Bird's name.
Kawika says, "Look, are you sure about this? It's going to give you legs, but they're going to hurt. Like reaching into the Reef and right into a moray."
"I'm sure," Steve says, clutching the small shell and bringing it to his mouth.
Kawika's gentle hand on his arm stops him.
"This is going to turn you into a lung breather," he says, voice kind. "Maybe you should get to the Shallows first."
Steve feels about as smart as a sunfish.
"Thanks, Kawika," he says, meaning... well, everything.
"Currents keep you safe," Kawika says solemnly. Then he grins. "Well. Air currents, maybe."
Chin is waiting outside, arms crossed.
"Uh," Steve says.
"I'll accompany you to the Shallows," Chin tells him. His tone allows for no argument whatsoever. "See that you make it safely through."
Steve nods. They swim in silence for a while.
"You know it's going to turn you into a human," Chin says finally. "You won't be able to fly."
Steve thinks about soft feathers and warm lips and eyes that are as blue as sunlight cutting through water.
"It's not about the flying," he says.
"I'm not sure humans can learn to speak bird," Chin adds.
Steve shrugs. "I'll manage."
When they reach the Shallows, Steve turns around.
"Chin," he says, unsure of what he wants to say.
Chin shakes his head and pulls Steve into a hug, tilting his neck to bump their gills together.
"I'm going to miss you, brother," he says. "Currents keep you safe."
"And you," Steve replies, his throat tight. "May your fish be plenty."
"I'm not the one who has trouble catching fish," Chin says, gently bopping the side of Steve's head.
"Kono is better at it than you," Steve points out.
"Kono is better at it than anyone." Chin smiles. Then he flips himself around, long tail glittering in the ocean-filtered sun.
And with a few powerful strokes, he's gone.
The transformation, strangely, doesn't hurt a bit.
Trying to stand up, however, really does feel like he's reaching right into a moray.
Steve flails, manages to stay upright on wobbly legs for all of two heartbeats, and splashes back into the shallow water. He growls and slaps his palm down on the ocean surface, hard. It stings. His skin is pink and starting to prune, and the annoyed huff of breath still feels strange going down his throat.
He can't stop running his tongue along his blunt, human teeth.
He straightens his shoulders and tries again. Feet flat on the sandy ground. One hand on the rock for leverage. Push. Stand. Flail.
He lets out a wordless shout, frustration ripping through him like an unstoppable wave. This time, it's his fist that hits the water.
The splash is echoed somewhere closer to the shore.
Steve looks up.
Bird is standing with the water up to his calves, arms spread out to his sides like that might help him keep his balance. His hair looks golden as ever under the gently glowing sun, but his wings...
His wings are gone.
Steve swallows hard, unable to look away as Bird totters forward, one careful step after another, swaying slightly in the surf. He sinks to his knees next to where Steve is sitting, staring stupidly, in the surf.
"Danny," Bird croaks. "I'm... Hello."
Then he rolls his eyes, at himself or at Steve's mute sunfish impression, Steve has no idea. Bird... Danny?... reaches out, his fingers warm as ever as they curve around Steve's jaw. But the talons are gone, the skin is soft and pink like Steve's own, and the feathers have disappeared completely. Fine hairs grow in their place, and Steve wants to touch them.
Steve can touch them.
He reaches out to run his hand up Bird's arm, but before he can do more than rest his palm on Bird's skin, Bird's fingers tighten on Steve's jaw and his head is tipped back and, oh.
This kiss is nothing like the first. The touch of Bird's, Danny's, mouth to Steve's is slow, unhurried, like they have all the time in the world now. And they do, Steve realizes, they do, and he hums his elation against Danny's lips, licks up curiously against them, carries the salty taste of his own mouth into Danny's. Danny smiles and lets himself be tasted, sweet and strange and enough to get drunk on. Steve groans, helplessly addicted, his heart beating wildly in his chest as he leans forward, tries to get deeper, tries to get all of Danny and knows he'll never have enough.
His eyes feel strangely watery as he curls around Danny, so happy he feels overfull. Danny gave up his wings.
Danny gave up his wings for Steve.
Human breathing is complicated, so they have to break apart eventually, chests heaving as they grin at each other.
"Hello," Steve says dumbly, tongue feeling thick around words that have turned from clicks and whistles into clumsy human speech, "my name is Steve."
Bird, Danny, Danny, just kisses him again.