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What the Water gave us

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"Careful, Pidge." 
Keith tried not to squirm as the girl's fingers traveled down his ankle and grazed the sensitive sole of his foot. Those fingers ended in sharp, pointed nails and were webbed in between, but so far she had been exceedingly gentle with him, aware of the damage she could do if she wasn't careful.

"I've never seen a human up so close." She replied, then frowned. "Well... Not a live one. Drowned humans are.. scary, and they can't answer questions."
Keith shivered and let her twist his foot around in her lap, inspecting the skin and the sprinkling of hair along his leg and ankle.

She traced a circle around his ankle joint, then all four fingers pressed gently on the top of his foot, feeling between the bones underneath his skin and sliding down the length of his foot to his toes. Her flat face twisted into a small pout and her yellow eyes were focused as she tweaked his big toe between her index and thumb, spreading it away from its siblings and rotating it gently.

"What are these?" She asked, moving onto the next toe to do the same. 
"Toes." Keith said promptly, and her face brightened as she put a human word to an image. She was a clever little thing, he couldn't deny her that. From what he could gather, she spent quite a bit of time watching families on the beach and on boats, listening to them speak and piecing together the words little by little. She'd even watched fishermen working, if her wide vocabulary of curses were anything to go by.

"Oh! I know that word. I hear them say 'don't let the fish nibble your toes!'... What are they for?" She wiggled his little toe and Keith cocked his head, grinned and flexed them all, then made them wriggle as independently of each other as possible, watching her eyes widen in shock and delight.
"Toes? They're for balance, I think."

"Oh- for walking on land? And you swim with these too? Or, try to swim."
"I can swim pretty well, actually." Keith said, and Pidge laughed.

"For a human, maybe. These things are nothing like my fins. So small and lumpy."
"Your fins are very pretty."
Pidge beamed and the caudal fins in question broke the surface of the shallow water to flick droplets up into the sunlight. She seemed to like whenever he complimented her, whether it was on her tail or her grasp of the human tongue, it would make her bare her sharp teeth, toss her hair and flutter her fins with pride.

There were other fins embellishing the length of her long scaled tail -dorsal and ventral, if the books Keith had checked out from the library were accurate to mermaids as well as fish- but curled in the pools of their little cove, he couldn't really see them. He could make out a shimmer of bronze and green that rippled and warped as the water moved to lap at the rocks, but most of it was underwater.

At first glance, anyone from a distance might think they were just a boy and a girl, hiding out in a cove by the sea and chatting away the hours. Keith perched on flat rocks that walled off the deepest of the rock pools, letting his feet dangle in the cool water. Pidge could probably have hoisted herself up to join him, but preferred to sit in the water. 

From the waist up she looked like a girl with a thick mop of heavy waist length hair, until you noticed the speckled patches of dirty gold scales on her shoulders and arms. 
There was a scattering of them along her hairline- her hair a thick damp tangle with various braids, sea glass and fauna woven through the locks that hung over her back and generally covered up her bare chest. 
Not that Keith was a prude, but it had been a little distracting at first that his new friend wore nothing at all and, once assured that he would not harm her, had no sense of personal space. 

Her face was slightly flatter than a human's- she didn't use her nose in the same way Keith did- but it was her eyes that were most captivating. Dark amber and almost cat-like, it was a little unnerving how she gazed at everything with those golden eyes, determined to see, to find, to learn. 

Of course if someone were to somehow ignore all these signs, there was no mistaking or ignoring the gills that fluttered, blood red along her neck and down her collarbone. When he'd spotted her in this cave they now spent their time together in, his first panicked thought was that he'd come across a murder victim, a poor girl whose throat was slashed and left to wash up in the shallow pools after the storm the previous night. 

The real injury had been the fishing net wrapped around and cutting into the lower half of her long tail, hidden in the water. 

On the first weak splash in the shallows, Keith had panicked again. At his strangled cry it had awoken and begun to keen and thrash in an attempt to get away, showering him with salt water and churning up clouds of red in the pools, gold scales fluttering in the water like some kind of sick confetti. 

When it began to scream louder, blood curdlingly pitched and punctuated by strange clicks his head had spun. The bright blue net was bound around the tail tightly like the string around a joint of beef, and somewhere in Keith's mind he'd managed to put together enough thoughts to realize that, no matter what this creature was, it was in pain and he needed to help. 

Swapping between murmuring low in the hopes that he might calm it and clamping his mouth shut to stop the taste of salt from hitting his tongue as it splashed him again, he'd crouched low and crawled through the rocks and sand until he could lay a palm on the writhing tail, feeling scales and muscles twisting frantically against his skin. 

There had been no way to work his knife under the taut netting without hurting its already raw tail, but luckily the blade was sharp enough that with gentle sawing motions with the tip, one by one he could snap the netting, feeling nauseous when the blue had come away stained dark. 

Partway through the third string, the creature seemed to realize that he was helping- or had felt the relief of loosening bonds- and had stopped shrieking and fallen still, one golden eye peering out from under a wet sheet of rust colored hair. He'd met that eye with his and felt giddy with disbelief- it was looking at him, with intelligence in its shrouded face.

When the last part of the netting fell away, Keith had bundled it up to toss up onto the rocks in the cove, not wanting a repeat performance with another poor sea animal.

The tail was still twitching, now freed fins rippling feebly back and forth and the scales shimmered from gold to green and back again. Keith had run a hand gently down the scales, avoiding the welts the net had left, unsure if he should do anything else- go into town to find some disinfectant? Salt water was the original disinfectant and this... being was currently surrounded by it. 
At his touch she had whined and clicked again, and Keith had stared up the tail, where the scales faded out to silvery pale skin, a pair of human arms and a face with quivering scared lips and two eyes bright with apprehension.

"Hello." He'd said quietly, trying to keep his voice calm, the way you did with a frightened animal.

"Hello." The creature had whispered back, and Keith had fallen backwards onto his ass in the water.

*

The marks on her tail were healing nicely- some would be barely noticeable soon as the scales grew back, but others might leave some scarring. Keith was a little afraid to ask after he'd caught her picking glumly at the tattered edge of a fin. 

Pidge stroked a line up the center of the sole of his foot and he yelped and kicked out instinctively, twisting at the tickling sensation. 
"Sorry," he gasped at her hurt expression, "That tickled- no, wait it's OK." He added when she sank into the shallows with a pout, folding her arms in the sand and blowing bubbles in the water like a child. "You just took me by surprise, that's all- look, I brought you some more books to look at."

He'd said the magic words; as he turned where he sat to grab his backpack there was a small splash as she hefted herself up the rocks with her arms, dragging her tail further onto land to peer over his shoulder. 

Pidge was enamored with books- the first few nights after he found her the storm had raged around the bay, stirring the sea and staining it black and purple. She had remained huddled in the cove, refusing to talk anymore as she nursed her wounds, hissing at him when he tried to get too near to her torn fins. 

Wondering how best to help her, he'd taken a walk into the town library and checked out as many books on marine life as he could carry, hoping to find something, anything to help him treat her lacerations.

It had been the big ice breaker, when she saw him poring over a particularly large text on veterinary practices she'd uncurled herself to watch as he turned the pages, and inch by inch she'd shuffled closer until she was near enough that she could have turned the pages herself.

Then the questions had come. Why did the books she'd find on the seafloor look so wrinkled, the ink smeared and paper disintegrating? What was paper? What was his name? What kind of human was he? 

Her grasp on the human language was basic but impressive to Keith, considering she was self-taught, and speaking with her only gave her more fodder, more words to turn over in her mouth and experiment with, more context to the phrases she already knew. 

She could also read, to an extent- time spent watching humans on the beaches had helped her to recognize letters and certain words- and getting hold of the books had set her off improving even further. 
It had taken several very careful explanations before she'd conceded that she couldn't keep the books, that they didn't belong to Keith and would have return to something called a 'library'.

With the veterinary texts had come more questions. Why can't humans breathe underwater? How exactly do they breathe air? Do they have blowholes like dolphins? He'd dredged up his memories of science lessons and tried to explain the concept of mammals, oxygen and blood to her and when he'd gestured to his chest where his lungs were, she'd lunged for him. 

When he'd opened his eyes again her cheek was pressed to his chest, hands on his sides, feeling his rib cage rise and fall with each breath and dampening his shirt. He was unable to see her from this angle, but could feel her concentration, the way she held herself to him, head moving with his chest.

"You have a heart too!" She'd announced with glee, pressing closer to listen and he hoped she didn't pick up on how it was suddenly beating much faster.

She had no qualms about touching him and he'd had very little time to get used to this. After a comment on her rows of very sharp teeth they'd discussed the diets of her people and of humans, and the next thing he'd known there was a pair of fingers in his mouth, poking at his much flatter teeth. 

In return she'd let him see and touch the webbing between her fingers, told him how her sharp nails were for catching and dispatching prey. He'd started bringing more books- dictionaries, fairy tales, science workbooks, all meant to answer her questions.

Today it had been his feet, and he was glad he'd thought to look in the children's section of the library. 
He'd found similar to his own old school books about biology, but the ones aimed at younger children had far bigger pictures and simpler diagrams. He'd brought both, figuring with the speed she learned at she'd soon graduate from grade school to senior text books. 

He grabbed the towel from the other pocket of his backpack and helped her dry her hands, then spread the towel over what would be her lap so she could rest the book on it without getting it damp.

"Fascinating," She purred as he flipped to a page with a diagram of how breathing and circulation worked in humans. He grinned- 'fascinating' was a new word for Pidge and she was taking great delight in using it whenever possible.

"Your lungs look like this?" She pointed to the little pink person splashed on the page, boldly lined organs laid out and labeled and Keith nodded. 
"Not as cartoonish, but pretty much." 
She trilled in response and carried on perusing the pages, occasionally asking him to read out an unfamiliar word, or turning to prod and poke at parts of his body.

"Humans cannot see at night?" She asked, frowning at a diagram of an eyeball and he shrugged.
"Not as well as some animals and stuff." He wasn't surprised when she leaned up to peer into his face, though he couldn't help glancing down at her fingers, but thankfully for once she didn't seem adamant on poking him.

"You have pretty eyes." She said thoughtfully. "Like a stormy night-" At Keith's cough and heated face she seemed to realise what she was saying and pulled back with a huff and flutter of her gills. "For a human, I mean."

She looked confused, and Keith felt confused at her words and actions, so he turned back to the bag and pulled out the other books that had caught his eye among the tiny brightly coloured beanbags in the children's corner.

"I brought you this too- I thought you might get a kick out of it." He passed her the book, and her frustrated expression was replaced with one of curiosity.
"...Kick?"

"Like you'd find it amusing- never mind." He watched as she traced a finger over the golden embossed title 'The Little Mermaid', before opening it up. The words were a little bigger and simple, meant for small children, and every other page was taken up with an illustration that Pidge spent several minutes gazing at. 

"You draw us like humans." She grumbled, and Keith cocked his head. 
"Well, you do look human- on top."
"We do not!"  She glared up at him, scandalized as she stared him up and down, curling her lip at- whatever she was looking at on him. 

OK, so as Keith looked at the soft watercolor maiden on the page - streams of neat blonde hair, large sad blue eyes and a modest bodice laced with pearls - and back up to the wild girl with yellow sclerae, clawed hands and arms just a little longer in proportion than was normal and definitely at least one shark's tooth at the end of a beaded braid, maybe he could agree that she didn't look quite human.

"Alright- maybe not." He admitted, and as she looked back down and turned the page he couldn't help but think that there was something far more fiercely beautiful about the one in front of him than any pretty picture of a mermaid princess he'd seen prior.

She laughed as she looked at the next illustration. "He looks like you."
"What?" Keith looked at the image of the human Prince standing on a boat. 
"Black hair, blue eyes."

"Hmn. He's way more buff than me." When she looked at him questioningly, he shrugged. "I'm skinny. Underfed. Scrawny."
"Under...fed... You do not have enough food?"

Keith paused. He was doing much better since Kolivan -an old friend of his father's- had taken him on as an apprentice at the garage. At least now he had a small but regular wage, a place to sleep at night, and Kolivan and the other men at the garage seemed to be competing over who had the most excuses as to why they had surplus food every week. Someone's husband had cooked way too much lasagna that Wednesday, the cafe had given them an extra sandwich, Antok had been gifted a cake but he didn't like red velvet. All were excuses to allow Keith to accept the food without feeling awkward or trying to pay them back; a game they seemed to take very seriously. 

Regular food and a job fetching and carrying and occasionally helping to fix the trucks had built him a little muscle, but he was still somewhat small and skinny for his nineteen years.

"Mm, sometimes it was hard to get enough food."
"I can bring you food." Pidge said quickly, looking up at him earnestly. "It will be easy. As much as you need."

"You don't need to, Pidge." Keith protested. "I can't eat raw fish anyway- I'd need to cook it."
"Cook it? With fire? You can do that here?"

Keith glanced towards the back of the cove. It had been his hideout, his thinking spot for many months, and there was a sandy pit that was usually relatively dry. He knew how to build a fire, how to prepare and cook various meats and vegetables. He could always bring up one of those little portable barbecue trays, he supposed.

"Yeah, I could probably cook it here."
"I would like to see that. Very much." Pidge's eyes were glimmering, brimming with thinly veiled excitement.

"Later?"
"Yes, later. First, I will finish this book, and then I will bring you food and you will cook for me." She said all this with a great air of imperiousness and Keith couldn't help but grin as she continued to read, thumbing the pages delicately and petting the illustrations, stroking along the paint strokes of the prince's hair with one long nail.





"She turned into a human?" Pidge gaped at the words on the page, and then furrowed her face up. "How? Why?"

"It's just a story." Keith said, "But... I think she wanted to meet the human?"
"I met you just fine, and I didn't need legs." She huffed. "And you helped me from a storm."

"I was hardly gonna leave you like that." Keith grunted as he eyed the fading crosses imprinted into her tail. "So, you're not going to be trading your fins for feet any time soon?"
"Why would I do that?" Pidge twisted where she sat to glare at Keith's legs. "Why would I want such short, lumpy, hairy legs?"

"I don't think you would have as much hair as me- never mind." He shrugged at her pursed lips, not wanting to go into genetics and hair colours right now.

The longer Pidge read from the book, the more Keith worried that maybe this wasn't his best idea. She stared for a long time at the final few images, re-reading the words to herself and slumping further forwards.

"She left her family behind." She mumbled, "I don't understand, why would she do that?"
It took Keith a moment to realize she was expecting an answer from him and he blanched.

"I don't know." He said, "I never really thought about this story much. I guess... If you're not happy, or you're lonely, you'd be willing to leave everything behind and look for happiness somewhere else."

"She had sisters!" Pidge cried, "She had a family, look!" She turned the pages back as quickly as she could, creasing a couple before she found the page she wanted, holding it up and jabbing her finger into the painting of a ring of mermaid sisters. "A father, a grandmother, sisters- if I ever left my brother to be with a human- I could never-" 

"You're with me right now." Keith said gently, taking the book from her and smoothing the pages down, letting it rest on his lap.
"That's different. Tonight I will go back to him. As I did last night. I couldn't leave my family forever. I couldn't."

"Nobody is saying you must, Pidge. It's just a story. It wasn't real. Well..." Keith cocked his head. He'd always thought it was a story, same as the existence of mermaids, but well... Now one was sitting right next to him, flexing her fingers and twitching her tail in distress. "I don't think it was."

"I don't like this story." Pidge mumbled, and Keith closed it, thumbing over the raised texture of the cover.
"Sorry Pidge." He sighed, casting around for something to distract her. "You have a brother?"

"Yes." She smiled a little as she played with the towel in her lap. "We are very close and I love him very much. Do you have a brother? Or sisters?"
"No," He replied. "I was an only child."
"Oh... Your mother and father?"

"My dad died, when I was nine." Keith said quietly. "He didn't talk about my mom much; I don't remember her." 
If he closed his eyes tight, he could bring up memories. Eating breakfast in the kitchen, his father gazing wistfully at the sea line through of the window with his chin in his hand. The smell of smoke that clung to his uniform when he brought it home. Blue eyes that crinkled when he smiled. An itchy, too-big suit to wear to a funeral and strangers patting his head and clucking in sympathy. 

"Then who... took care of you? When you were a pup?"

Pup? Oh... child.

"I went into a Home." He said, turning a little so he could face her better. Normally he'd turn away, hide himself and grunt his answers or avoid answering at all. Pidge liked to see his face, to follow his lips and expressions as he spoke to help herself gather context, and Pidge... Her sad and confused expression didn't feel like the usual patronizing, aggravating pity other humans loaded him with. Sure she was sassy, and liked to make fun of his human proportions and shortcomings as far as water went, but she wasn't deliberately unkind. She might not understand, but he felt safe talking to her. Safer than talking with most other humans.

Her eyes darted side to side at his answer and he knew she was thinking, sorting through her vocabulary for a match on what the words meant, so he elaborated.
"It's like a... building. And kids like me- with no family, they put us in the Home and take care of us until we're older."

"But you were loved at this... Home, right?" Her eyes were bright, fixed on him and pressing. She was wearing that same earnest expression as when she thought he didn't have enough food. This wasn't a conversation he could distract her from with books or watches or other human trinkets. 
He could lie maybe- tell her yes, that he was cared for. That he was never cold, or hungry or lonely. But Pidge wasn't a fool; she would see right through any falsehoods he tried to tell. He blew a puff of air through his lips.

"No. It wasn't a nice place to grow up."

A cool hand touched his cheek and Pidge was twisting closer, her other hand on his leg for balance. He didn't know if mermaids could cry, but she looked as though she could right now.
"If you had been born to the sea..." She trailed off, shaking her head slightly. "You would never have been alone. My mother would never leave a pup to fend for itself. You would have been loved." 

"It's not all bad, now. I have Kolivan." 
"Kolivan?" She rolled the word around her mouth, testing and repeating it to herself.

"Yeah, he's looking out for me." He told her a little of the workshop Kolivan owned in town, a Mechanics where they mostly fixed up trucks and bikes, and tourists' cars. Of the little attic space above Kolivan's office, now kitted out with a small but soft bed, a set of drawers and a simple desk and chair. It wasn't a lot- it was all Kolivan could give him and much, much more than Keith could ever have asked of him, but it was comfortable.

"And Kolivan... loves you?"
Keith huffed a laugh as he thought of Kolivan's gruff unsmiling face, unlit cigarette between his teeth as he reached out an oil-smudged hand for Keith to pass him a wrench. He wasn't exactly the affectionate type, but Keith had learned to read the sentiments that came in all the unspoken ways.

"Yeah. He does."
"I'm glad." Pidge smiled, fiddling with a beaded braid that hung over her shoulder. His leg was brushing against her tail, smooth scales cool and still slightly damp against his skin. 

Was he really sitting here, pouring his heart out to a creature he'd thought only existed in storybooks and movies a week prior? 
Maybe he'd gotten lost in the storm, banged his head and was now just conjuring Pidge up in his mind, though he wasn't sure he had the imagination to dream up such a being.

He looked out over the sea, calm today and glittering like a jewel in the sunlight. Gulls were flying overhead and it all seemed so.. normal. Sitting with a mermaid, discussing science and sharing stories felt like something that could easily become part of his routine. Whatever it was that had pulled him to the cove that night as the wind whipped and the ocean threatened to pull in any hapless soul that strayed to close, whatever had called him down there he felt strangely grateful.

Next to him, Pidge patted his leg and slid smoothly into the pool below with barely a splash.
"I," She announced, "am going to hunt. You will build a fire."

"How long will you be?" He leaned forward as she glided out towards the opening, top of her head still visible for now. Pidge turned to face him, smiling with a row of deadly teeth.
"I am very fast."

"I'll need to get some stuff to start a fire, so take your time." He called back, and she laughed before disappearing with a deliberately elegant splash of pale gold fins.

*

He'd contemplated building an honest-to-god campfire, but the idea of his father's face if he were there to see put him off. Instead he'd dug around in the storage rooms of the garage until he found the little metal disposable grills and placed one carefully in his backpack. They were old, gathering dust in the back of the shelves amongst piles of scrap metal and old gadgets. He'd been reassured that as long as he was careful, he was free to use anything he found out back.

The afternoon was starting to turn orange, long shadows casting over the boardwalk and so he'd made a quick stop by his room to roll up and stuff into his bag one of the many blankets piled on his bed. He'd been keeping a small bar of chocolate in his desk drawer and after contemplating it for a moment, added that to the bag too. Surely a nibble wouldn't hurt her, and she was bringing him dinner after all.

The grill lit pretty easily despite its age, and he watched the coals glow as they warmed through. He brought the tray as close to the mouth the cove as possible, mindful of the smoke, spread the blanket over the rocks and waited.

"That smells horrible." 
Pidge was back, wrinkling her face before submerging up to her eyes again, peering suspiciously at the smoking tin.
Keith scrambled to the ends of the rock, lying flat on his stomach with his head hanging over the edge.

"That's smoke. It comes with fire, I'm afraid." He said to the pair of amber eyes looking up at him. She contemplated him for a minute more before rising back up, hefting a bag woven of seaweed and what looked like strips of sailcloth over her head. Keith retrieved it, grunting at the weight and sat back. The bag was bulging with half a dozen large fish, motionless and gleaming silver in the late afternoon light.

"I don't know how much humans eat." Pidge admitted. "Is it enough?"
"More than enough." Keith grinned. "I'll only eat one."

"One?" Pidge's eyes widened, and she frowned. "OK then. I will eat the others."
"All five?" Keith asked, sitting back to retrieve his knife as she nodded. He remembered how to clean a fish from trips with his dad. He sat over the edge of the rocks, holding one of the fish over the water and started by raking the scales off, Pidge pulling herself up to rest her chin on her arms and watch with interest. 

"That isn't a very big fire." Pidge said as Keith worked, looking over at the barbecue where a few flames still flickered around the coals. 
"I can't really make a big one here." Keith said. "I'm best off doing that on the beach, and you can't come too close then."

"I've seen fires on the beach." Pidge rolled her face so that her cheek rested on her arms instead. "From far away. They're not orange like this one."
"Those will be driftwood fires." Keith looked up to check on the barbecue. "The wood soaks up the salt from the sea water, and when it burns, the sodium turns the fire different colors."
"Fascinating." 

Keith chuckled. "I'll find you some chemistry books tomorrow. You actually shouldn't burn driftwood. The smoke is toxic. Poison." He added when she pulled a face. "Even worse than this smoke."

"If it's poison, why do it?"
Keith shrugged. "Maybe they don't care. Or don't know. My dad was a firefighter, he was pretty gung-ho on fire safety."
"He fought fire?" Pidge craned her neck to look the smoking tin skeptically.
"Fire in the wrong place is dangerous. It was his job to stop fire from hurting people." Until he'd gotten hurt. Keith put the thought from his mind and instead put his energy into cleaning up the fish.

Pidge nodded thoughtfully as Keith lifted up the fish to inspect his work. "Should I take the bones out?" 
"Give it to me." Pidge held out a webbed hand and he passed her the fish. With a flick of her other hand she slit the fish's belly open, scooped out the contents and with another flash, had a small skeleton hooked around one claw. 

"Amazing." He grinned as she returned the fish with a smirk on her face.  "OK, here, now let's cook it." 
He let her watch as he scored the fish along its sides and then laid it carefully on the grill. 

"I should have brought some seasonings..." Keith muttered as the smoke fluttered around the fish. Pidge was peering over the rocks, not getting too close, the fin on her back twitching nervously whenever the smoke blew towards her. Eventually she relaxed enough to start asking questions. He patiently answered what are seasonings, why exactly he was cooking the fish, if she could eat raw fish why couldn't he, how long will it take to cook? 


"I think it's done." Keith prodded the meat on the grill. His eyes were watering a bit from the smoke, and Pidge had kept ducking her head under the water to clear her own eyes out. 
He fumbled inside his bag for the paper towels and fork, then rolled the fish over onto a thick wad of towels. Using his cupped hands he gathered water to throw on the grill and it hissed, steaming and making Pidge splash backwards into the water in alarm. She didn't return until Keith had poured a third handful of water and the hissing and steaming had abated.

Pidge was wide eyed as he ate, gaze following the fork as he cut and stabbed chunks of the fish to bring up to his mouth.
"You eat so weird." She laughed, and when he glared at her she just bared her teeth back at him. 
"Well how do you eat?" He shot back, cutting another piece off. Pidge retrieved another fish from her little woven bag, repeated her earlier motions to debone it, and then bit straight into the flesh, scales and all. He watched, open mouthed, completely forgetting about the fish in his own mouth as she finished off the entire thing in a couple of quick, large bites.

She repeated this for the rest of the fish before Keith could even finish his own and he stared at her as she dunked her head under the water to wash her face. 
"How- how often do you need to eat like that?"
"Hmm, every few quintants? If the catch is small, I need to eat again sooner. My brother's mate can eat three times what I do." Pidge hummed, then looked at the leftovers on his lap. "How often do you eat?"
"A few times a day- quintant- but, not as much at once."

"Can I try it?" Pidge was pulling herself up further onto land and Keith stuck a leg out between her and the still warm barbecue. 
"Sure, just don't touch that, OK? I don't need you burning yourself." 
Pidge glanced at the tin and adjusted her course until she was laying alongside him, her head near his thigh. She ignored the fork he offered out to her and plucked a chunk of meat from the towel with a claw. 

She pulled a face as she chewed and Keith smirked.
"Not to your taste?"
Her lip curled as she shook her head, twisting to spit the rest out into the water. 
"Next time I'll bring some oil and salt and stuff like that. Make it properly. Maybe grill some vegetables too."

"I can bring you more food?" Pidge asked with a hopeful smile, and Keith nodded. 
"Sure. I brought you something else, too."
He pulled the chocolate from his bag and crossed his legs, paper towel and fork discarded as he slipped a finger under the paper wrapper and opened it up. He was used to feeling her gaze on him at this point, and he made a show of unwrapping the foil slowly, without tearing it. She watched every little movement like she was committing it to memory, like she'd be tested on it later. 
At the first glimpse of brown she cocked her head. Keith knew she watched beach goers a lot, and so she should technically have seen chocolate before, but how close she was willing to get he didn't know. 

"I'll just give you a little bit for now." Her eyes widened at the snapping sound of the chocolate, and he snapped it again into two small squares for him and her.
Pidge turned the tiny block over and over in her long fingers, and only when he'd popped his piece in his mouth did she mirror him. This time her face relaxed into a dreamy smile, her tail curling and she trilled, a soft chirrup that sounded in her throat.
"Good?" He grinned.
"Very. More please." When he paused to consider it, she repeated "Please."

"Here." He broke off another chunk, and then wrapped the rest up and stowed it away. Her eyes followed his bag and he shifted it a little more behind him. "You shouldn't eat too much of it."
She made a face but relented, savoring the second piece a little longer. 
As she sucked slowly on the chocolate she rolled over until she laid on her back, her head resting in his lap. 

Her eyes were half shut and Keith found the courage to pick up the end of a braid, stroking along the woven locks and turning the beads to catch the dying light. Yep, he counted two shark's teeth though her hair, holes carefully drilled into the tops and twine passed through to tie them into her hair. He opened his mouth to ask how she'd gotten them, how they'd put the holes in, but his words died in his throat when he saw her looking up at him sleepily.

"Thank you." She said softly.
"For what?" Keith found a lock of loose hair and began to pull the knots out. It felt soft despite the fact that she spent all her time in saltwater, it felt oddly different to human hair but he couldn't put his finger on how. She hummed again as he combed his fingers through her hair, a low clicking purr reverberating from behind her mouth. 

"For showing me human things. Books, food..." She curled the end of her tail out from where it trailed in the water and pointed lazily towards it and the shadow of her wounds. "For that. You're very kind."
Keith grunted and kept his eyes on his hands as he worked on a clumsy braid, avoiding looking at her face, or to where her hair was splayed out all around her, leaving her completely uncovered.
"Like I said, I couldn't leave you. You were in trouble. And I like bringing you stuff. I like talking to you." Keith didn't have many friends his own age, maybe that was why he'd gotten so attached so quickly to the girl, he wondered. He finished the braid and she reached up, touching his hand as she stroked the length of the plait, taking the end and bringing it around to her face so she could wind it around itself to tie it off.

Pidge sat up, feeling around under her mane of hair until she found what she was looking for, working a red piece of sea glass loose and into her palm.
"May I?" She held it up and he stared at her until she shook her head in exasperation and reached for his shoulders, turning him around until he was sitting with his back to her. Her nails were sharp but gentle as they sectioned off some of his hair behind his ear, running down his scalp repeatedly to get a smooth lock to play with. 

"Red is rare, on the seafloor." Pidge said as she started twisting small sections of his hair. "I don't find much of it, but it will look nice in your hair."
"Do all your family tie up their hair?" He asked, closing his eyes and willing himself to relax under her touch.
"Hmn, if we didn't it would get in our faces."
"And the beads and teeth and stuff?"
"They're pretty." She said simply. "When we find them, we clean them and put holes in them and wear them. My brother likes to find metal, and make them into decorations for his mate."

"Mate?"
"Yes, he was found alone and lost as a pup. My family took him in and a few deca-phoebs later when my brother and I hatched, we all grew up together and they fell in love."

He felt a tug on his hair as she tucked the end of his hair around and fed the loop through the hole in the bead to hold the braid in place. 
"All done." 
Keith sat forward, feeling at the braid that clung close to his scalp and traveled down behind his ear to his hairline. The beaded end hung just above the junction of his neck, half hidden by the rest of his loose hair.

"Now we're bonded mates." Pidge declared, and Keith felt the blood drain from his face, and then rush back in with full force.
"We're what?"

"You initiated decorating my hair. That's a mating ritual for my people. Then you accepted my gift in exchange, and we're bonded now."
"I didn't- no, wait-" Keith spluttered, and then caught sight of the way one side of her mouth curved upwards. "Pidge, you're joking, please tell me this is a joke." 

Her grin widened. "It is a 'joke'. Grooming is for many things. Family, good friends, and... mates, but not just mates." 
She began to laugh when he choked and glared at her. 
"Pidge! Damn it..." Keith sat back, a hand over his chest to steady the panicked beating of his heart.
"We're not mates, no." She was laughing harder, the look in her eyes devilish. "I just like seeing you turn red like that."

"You scared me." He grumbled, pulling the blanket he'd been sitting on up and round his shoulders. 
"Not too much?" She leaned forward to look up into his face, tugging at the blanket.
"How would I explain to Kolivan I accidentally married a woman who can't come up on land to meet him?"

"True," Pidge sighed, flopping back down to rest her chin on her hands in front of him. She looked a little sad, or maybe it was a trick of the quickly fading light. "I can't take you with me either."

"Speaking of, it's getting late." Keith said quietly, picking at a loose thread on his blanket. "I've got to work in the shop tomorrow morning."
"I wish I could see that." 
"I'll get you some books about engines, and chemistry too. When can you come back?" 

"Hmmn... Two quintants?" Pidge counted on webbed fingers. "I promised Hunk I would help him collect more metal."
"Hunk, is that your brother?" 
"No," she smiled. "He is part of our family, but we don't share blood. I can explain better another day. If you bring me that... Dictionary."

"I'll bring it." Keith promised, and Pidge nodded happily as she began the shuffle back into the water. Keith tugged his boots back on his feet and stowed his belongings back in his bag, but kept the blanket out, folding it in half and draping it around his shoulders as he followed Pidge along the edge of the rocks to the mouth of the cove. Right at the end he squatted down to look closer. In the dark her eyes reflected like an animal's, yellow and eerie.
"I'll see you in a couple of days?"
"I look forward to it. Goodnight, Keith."  Pidge promised, and disappeared into the depths in a cloud of rust coloured hair. Keith watched the water for a little while longer, but didn't see any flashes of bronze or any sort of movement that suggested where she was heading, so he stood back up and started on the walk back home.

*

"You smell like smoke."
Keith looked up from the tea he was pouring. Kolivan was looking through invoices at the workbench, his face and voice as impassive as ever.
"oh- yeah, I took one of the barbecues up to the beach. Hope that's alright."
"As long as you distinguished it properly." Kolivan grunted, then glanced up at him. "The beach, you said?"
"Yeah, the weather's been nice, it was my day off. Figured I'd get some sun." He gestured at his arms, still as pale as ever. Kolivan snorted, and then his eyes traveled up and a flicker of a frown passed over his features, twisting the scarred edge of his lip further.

"Is that where you found the sea glass? Did you go swimming?" 
Keith had been reaching for the sugar, and stopped. He'd almost forgotten about the knuckle sized orb tied into his hair. Felt its weight as he walked home, feeling comforted by it until he'd gotten lost in his few evening chores around the shop, sweeping the concrete floors of sand and dirt and carting tool boxes back to their storage units.

He could hardly claim he'd found it- a chip of red glass that had not only been worn smooth and round but also had a hole born through it? He shrugged. "A friend gave it to me."

"A friend. At the beach."
"Yeah."

Kolivan stacked the papers together, tapping them on the surface of the bench until they piled neatly, then stood up, pausing to linger on the braid through Keith's hair again.
"Be careful, Keith." He said. "Not everyone you meet down there is as they appear."
And with that, he turned and left the workshop, leaving Keith stood with one hand wrapped around his mug, the other lingering over the smooth red glass by his neck.

What was that supposed to mean?

 

*