He goes to the sea most days, now that it cannot so easily come to him.
His hearing is going, in one of life’s endless little cruelties, but he still knows about the whispers that press hot like branding irons against his ears. That crazy old man, they say, children bent in half and tottering around in imitation of him like he really is some withered old thing. His hair has gone white and his knees are making him pay for an ill-advised youth spent swinging around in the rigging, but his back is still straight and his gaze is still keen. Most days he can even make the walk without a cane, although he knows better than to try when the winter storms start brewing up. He has years left in him yet.
He stands for a time before the wall of books that is the closest thing to a proper library that he can fit in his small cottage, gauging his own mood. Milton or Shakespeare or Donne? Chaucer maybe, that is always a favorite, although the knowledge that Canterbury Tales had been left unfinished aches like a sore tooth in the mind of his audience. Beowulf? Illiad? Odyssey is either a favorite or abhorred depending on unknowable factors, so he avoids it anymore.
Today, this day, he picks out a book of poetry by Puritan woman from when the States had been the Colonies. He skims through the pages over breakfast, careful not to spill tea or smear jam onto the pages, and marks with scraps of paper the ones he likes best. Then he packs lunch, takes his cane- winter is mild here, but wet, and slow to release its hold- and walks out of his house and towards the shore.
The fishermen are returned home, passing their wares to the sellers who will haul it to the fishmarket; a longboats’ worth of civilians are arguing with a crewman about luggage left aboard the packet boat that had dropped anchor in the bay sometime the night before. He is mostly ignored as he walks along the wharf. One of the passengers hesitates to watch him pass by, and he knows the harbormaster will already be telling her just a local, madam, no harm in him, he reads to the ocean nearly every day, and she in turn will be demanding to know what’s to be done to retrieve her valise, she cannot be expected to live even a day without it, and he will be forgotten. He has seen it a thousand times before, and god willing, he will see it a thousand times again.
The harbor ends in a rough tumble of rocky beach that juts out in a natural jetty, cutting deep into the bay. He follows the path along this, and sits at the tip of the rocky finger, settling on a rock he is long-familiar with for just this purpose. He hooks his cane above him, removes his boots and sets them and his satchel up there too. The water licks at the soles of his feet but the tide is still coming in; it will be halfway up his shins before it is done.
He looks up, and there is a flicker of light different to the glow of the sun on the water, something in the water moving contrary to the tide. He smiles.
“Poetry today,” he says, showing the book to the water. The water, such as it is, has no objections, and settles patiently at his feet.
He clears his throat, and remembers to cant his voice softer than his ears tell him is necessary, and begins to read-
“Sometime now past in the Autumnal Tide
When Phoebus wanted but one hour to bed,
The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,
Were gilded o’re by his rich golden head.”
- and as he reads, in the pauses between stanzas when he catches his breath, he closes his eyes, and he remembers.
They dropped the nets over the side on the fifth day of windless drifting, after the third night in a row when a man among them was taken.
Jason, a big man but young and spry enough to clamber around the rigging like a proper monkey, and therefore sent up the main mast to check on a snare in the ropes, watched the process from aloft with an unhappy frown. Their bosun had seen the last man fall victim the previous night, and had been telling them about how the man had jumped overboard without cause until the captain and the quartermaster pulled him aside for a private talk. And now here they were, tying barrels emptied of freight to the nets and tossing them out to drift, to fan the nets wide off the sides of the ship like the wings of a particularly ungainly bird, and hoping it would snare- something. Hoping whatever it snared could be dealt with.
Whatever was out there- if there was a whatever out there, half the crew still thought the bosun sun-touched- it had convinced three strong, solid men to jump unprovoked off a sound ship. Jason rather doubted their ability to deal with whatever they pulled in.
“You’re not happy,” one of the other riggers, a stern Dutch man with a strict Dutch name, said to him. It was not a question, but Jason answered it anyway.
“No,” he said, looking up and away. From up here he had a fine vantage point with absolutely nothing to look at- just scorching blue sky and shimmering blue water, a single shoal of wispy clouds scuttling high overhead, the wind that carried them cruelly stirring the ship’s sails but not filling them. If all the crew stood on the deck and blew with all their breath, the canvas would stir more than the wind was doing itself.
They were not panicking, not yet. This stretch of water was not known for the doldrums, and they had another week’s worth of fresh water, twice that if they rationed soon. Plenty of time for the wind to find them again. They were not panicking, save for when dawn came and another man was gone.
Jason looked away towards the east where the horizon was already limned with thick gold. Only late afternoon, but the sun would set soon enough, the day gone by in a haze of fear and trepidation and busywork to keep idle hands from panicking. Then he paused and leaned forward. The Dutch man was staring downwards as well, frowning at the water, but he was looking too far stern to be watching the nets.
“See something?” Jason asked, trying for joking- of course you don’t, there’s nothing to see, there’s nothing out there, just cold empty water and maybe a shark or two- but the man just frowned and shook his head.
“Nothing but a shipful of fools,” he said.
Then the quartermaster was yelling up the mast at them, and Jason got back to work.
It happened just before dawn.
The men had pulled straws, even the bravest among them humbled by this mysterious form of attack, and none of the night watch were alone. Jason had pulled starboard, second watch, and a carpenter’s mate as a partner. The man’s habit of grabbing for the pistol tucked into his belt as though to assure himself it was still there had honestly worried Jason more than whatever could possibly be in the water, and he kept as much distance as the idiot would allow between them. There was nothing- not a splash of water, not a whisper of wind.
Then came third watch, and Jason was jolted awake suddenly, and took a moment to pull his wits about him. There were men moving about the berth around him, and yelling and feet pounding on the deck above him, and something thumping against the outside hull, and Jason rolled out of his hammock and staggered to his feet and headed for the stairs.
“They have it,” the Dutchman told him, two steps ahead of Jason and already looking in high spirits for whatever fight they were to face. Then they were up on deck, and he saw a stretch of net draped across the planking and a violently squirming shape within it.
They were going to lose this fight, Jason realized instantly. Only one of the three barrels had been pulled onboard, the main bulk of the net still over the railing and pulling as a heavy counterweight against the men trying to haul the net onto the ship. The deck was wet and footing was precarious, and the men were tired and hungry, and then there was the creature itself- its body flashing almost blue in the moonlight, finned tail snapping around with tremendous strength, things that looked almost like human hands with wicked claws instead of nails ripping open whatever it could reach. It did not seem to be tangled in the net so much as it was clinging to it, as though it were smart enough to realize that the net’s weight would pull it right back overboard if only the men would stop dragging on it. Jason hesitated in the doorway, watching the struggle as men pulled on the ropes and the thing tried to beat them away.
Then the first man died.
It happened quickly, a single slash of the thing’s tail and the man’s head lolled back, throat gaping open, his eyes already going glassy and fixed as his lifeless body fell. The next staggered away with a grunt, arms wrapped around his middle, but he collapsed to his knees before anyone could reach him, then down onto the deck properly, and in the moonline Jason could see the pool of blood spreading rapidly.
“Pull it tight!” the bosun yelled, and the creature shrieked in counterpoint and flailed again, and the net sagged further as someone else yelled in pain- screamed in pain, really, an animal noise, and the bloodsmell on the air grew thicker-
Two of the barrels were still overboard. It was heavy enough, all someone needed to do was cut a few ropes.
Jason darted in, slipped behind the bosun and caught the rope tying the net to the mast and took his knife to it. It was searope, heavy and thick and well-weathered, but it had been slashed at by the creature and was already halfway cut, and getting it started was the hardest part anyway. The line snapped and the net sagged, part of it slipping right back over the railing. The creature had killed both men pulling on the line connected to the barrel they had managed to pull on board, so Jason ducked around for the third line.
He had just made it to the rope when it caught him, a brilliant silvery flash of sensation ripping up his left arm. For a moment he felt nothing, just the numbness that preceded a great amount of pain, and he kept moving, set his knife to the line. His left hand was slow to respond and somehow looked the wrong color. Blood, black in the moonlight. He turned his arm to look, and felt the first embers of pain ignite.
It had laid his arm open to the bone in four deep, gouging lines.
Oh, he thought, distant and vaguely curious as the coldness of shock settled into his flesh and raised goosebumps along his sweating skin. He looked away, and the creature looked back. His knife was still set against the rope. The creature looked at it, then back to Jason, and the clawed hand that had been reaching to slash him open again retreated. Jason grabbed the rope with his left hand, though it felt strengthless and clumsy, and sawed away with the knife in his right.
The rope severed and Jason fell without its tension to lean against. The deck beneath him was slick with blood and seawater and his left arm was agony from fingertips to shoulder. He looked up in enough time to see the last of the net sliding over the railing, then gone, with a mighty splash from the water beyond as the creature, whatever it had been, returned to its home.
Jason laid his head down on the deck and closed his eyes, listening to the other men yelling and feeling the pounding of their feet through the planks, and remembered wide blue eyes in a terribly human face.
With the chaos, the death, the blood and the moonlight, no one really got a good look at the thing in the net. All they knew was that it had sharp teeth and sharp claws and a barbed tail it could snap around fast as a striking snake, and it used those to cut the lines holding the net and pulled itself over the railing and back into the sea. Three men died that night, and two more in the days after from fevers in the blood, and seven were injured badly enough to be taken off-duty, even though the wind picked up the very next day and they were under full sail by noon. Jason was weak with blood loss and was assigned light duty, and no one was the wiser about his part in the creature’s escape.
No one- except.
He woke up when he hit the water.
Hit the water and went under immediately, because there was a heavy wet weight draped over him. Jason fought it, pushed at it, but his head pounded with white agony and his lungs burned already and the clinging weight refused to let go of him. He pushed away instead, swimming awkwardly with limbs that were not coordinated properly yet. Three strokes, and his hand felt wood and he pulled himself up around it.
He broke surface and took a deep ragged breath and for a moment the desperate drag of sweet air in his lungs was all that existed in the world. Then the air split with a roar, and he flinched. Cannon fire? No, there were no pirates in these waters, the Royal Navy had hunted them to the brink of extinction. Thunder.
He looked up and saw only ugly blue-grey-black, but there was a shape- the ship?- that loomed over him like it was about to topple over onto him before it rolled away. Then lightning flickered and lit up the sky and he could see the jagged break at the base of the mizzenmast, the way it had fallen forward and lay tangled in the mainmast’s lines and shrouds. The mizzen topsail was draped into the water, and it was that which had weighed Jason down.
Then the ship pitched again, rolled against the angle of the mizzenmast’s topsail yard that was dug into the water and that Jason was clinging to, and there was a groan of wood before the mainmast gave a mighty crack and began to lean.
Jason had enough time to see the body of the mizzenmast itself begin to fall towards him, the yard he was holding onto acting as a pivot that drove the whole thing into the ocean. Then a wave drove him under, and he let it, didn’t fight when the mizzenmast hit the water and sank instantly, sails billowing out around it like a lady’s gown swirled around her feet as she danced. He let it pull him down until the sucking pressure stopped dragging at him, then kicked his way back to the surface.
The ship was closer now, blotting out the stormy sky. Jason considered swimming for it, thought about his odds of making it back onboard, the odds of the ship surviving the storm that had already crippled her. Then another wave hammered him, shoving him back under, and he inhaled a mouthful of seawater. He fought it, surfaced again and coughed out the water and managed half an inhale before he was under again. Without the yard to anchor himself he was at the mercy of the storm-rough ocean.
He fought the waves, but there was nowhere to go and his head was hurting even more than before as drowning added its own throbbing beat. His eyes, squeezed shut against the salt water, opened one last time as he breathed water. He was tired and sore and his limbs were so heavy-
Something touched his leg. He thought shark and jerked away. He thought sail when the touch grazed light as silk up his body. He thought ghost when he recognized it as a hand. He turned his head but there was nothing but a wash of grey, black eating at his vision. The hand touched his head where it hurt, then his left arm where the creature in the nets had ripped at him months ago.
Then he was breathing again, and vomiting seawater from his lungs. There was a strong arm around him and sharp breath in his ear and the smell of fish heavy in the air. He grabbed at the hand resting flat against his chest and felt slippery cool skin and wickedly sharp claws.
Another wave crested over them, drove Jason away from his rescuer, and the black- only just beginning to retreat- returned in a rush. He had no strength to do more than drift slowly downward.
His last memory was of a hand, cool and clawed, grasping his.
He retired from sailing after the storm. He would have had to even if he hadn’t chosen it- it took him weeks to shake off the worryingly wet cough gotten from breathing too much water, and weeks more for his head to stop swimming when he moved too fast.
When he could finally stand without getting sick, when he could walk any real distance without losing his breath, he got a new job in the port, a carpenter. His salary mostly went to books, the first he had the space to keep as his own instead of borrowing and returning once he’d read it. There was something to be said about life on dry land. He reconnected with a few of the crew that had also survived the storm- the cripppled shell of the ship had washed up on the beach a mile or so away from where Jason had awoken with no memory on how he had gotten there. Most of them had taken to a life on land as well.
From the first moment he could, even despite the doctor warning him that the wet air would not help his lungs, he walked to the shore every day and stood at the water and stared out at the ocean. He felt- he felt- he could not say what he felt. Just that there was something there, watching him, aware of him.
He set the fingers of his right arm to the scars on his left, nails fitting perfectly against the lines carved into his skin, and remembered the same touch from another hand.
Winter was bitterly cold and prone to massive amounts of snow in the northern states. When spring broke, it felt like a true victory, a success hard fought and well earned, and summer was a true glory instead of the hot smelly slog their former motherland viewed it as. Jason, born as he was to these climes, still marveled in the warmth and the sunshine, and one particularly fine July day, he decided to take his book with him down to the shore instead of staying cooped up in the small room he’d rented.
The dock he found was old and dilapidated, planking rotted through and treacherous underfoot, one whole stanchion collapsed into the water and giving the dock a sharp twist near the end. It had been years since anyone had used it for its original purpose, so it was there Jason went to be near the water yet away from people. He sat as far out as he dared go and braced the book- one of Shakespeare’s kingly works, less popular perhaps than some of his others but still worth reading in Jason’s opinion- on his knee and chased the light as the sun sank towards the horizon.
It was getting dark, late enough that he would have to go home soon for light to keep reading by if nothing else, when that prickle of awareness raised the fine hairs on the back of his neck again. He looked up and around, but the dock was abandoned as always. He cleared his throat and read a passage aloud to himself, soothing his nerves with the sound of his own voice. And the water-
There was something in the water, Jason realized. He thought about big blue eyes and sharp claws, and dared to lean over just far enough to look. Nothing, of course- nothing he could see.
“Hello,” he said dubiously. Did the patch of water he was looking at swirl at that, contrary to the gentle push of the tide? Hard to say. He looked at the book in his hands, then showed it to the water.
“Know much about English aristocracy?” he asked, feeling foolish but also somehow right. He looked at the book again. “You’re not missing much. I don’t know how much of this is true and how much of it was Shakespeare playing it up for the audience, but by all accounts, Richard was not a good king.”
“Ah well,” Jason said with a sigh. No great loss if he were going mad. Some would say it was understandable, perhaps even inevitable, after the storm.
He closed the book and stood up and made it three steps towards land before the water splashed, sloshing up high enough to wet the boards of the dock. He stared at it- it could have been a rogue wave, it could have been his own weight shifting the rotting dock enough to disturb the water, it could have been anything- but.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” he promised calmly.
When he started walking again, there was no splash, and he did not look back no matter how heavily the gaze on his back weighed on him.
He came back the next day, and the one after that, and then it was habit. He chose better reading material, first poetry, then short stories. That sense of being watched came and went, like the attention span of a child being forced to engage in something they found boring, and Jason tailored his reading habits accordingly. Then rain forced him inside for a week in late August, and when he finally made it out to the dock again, his audience was unwavering.
August wore into September, then October, and the rains returned and winter started creeping in around the edges. There was frost on the dock some mornings and Jason had to wear heavier and heavier coats. He was starting to attract attention from the people working on the functional docks as well- what had been an understandable habit of enjoying the nice weather was now a suspicious one.
“It’s getting too cold for this,” he said one afternoon. His breath sketched itself onto the air in a small puff. It would snow soon, and Jason couldn’t risk his health for this, whatever this was. For all he knew, he explained to the presence in the water, he truly was mad, just in such a harmless way that no one had seen fit to tell him or interfere with him.
“I’ll come back tomorrow, but that’s it,” he said, and he thought until next year but didn’t say it, didn’t want to give the thought life only for it to die slowly if summer returned and his friend in the water didn’t.
It snowed that night, just a single crisp layer that glittered blindingly bright in the sunlight and melted quickly enough, but it was a harbinger. Jason went out onto the dock without a book. He stared out at the water for a time, then sighed and turned away- just a mad fool, there were saying about him, cracked his head open in a storm-wrecked ship and was never quite right after that-
There was a splash, bigger than any before. He turned back fast but saw nothing, just water frothing from being disturbed, and a small pile of rocks on the dock where there had been nothing moments ago.
He went over to the pile and nudged them with the toe of his boot, then crouched down as best he could on the unsteady, snow-slicked wood. Not rocks, he saw when he picked one up. Oysters. They were cracked open already and no good to eat, but Jason looked them over all the same. Its shell had curious marks on it, narrow little streaks near the openings where the grime and barnacles and algae had been scratched away, like something with claws had pried the stubborn thing open to check for something inside.
A curious sort of clarity settled over Jason as he snapped the two shells apart and poked at the slime of the recently deceased creature, already knowing what he would find. He curled his fingers shut on the round smooth thing that slipped into his palm and looked around, as though anyone was watching- as though anyone would know. Then he opened his hand again and looked.
The pearl was not high quality, oblong and not nearly a perfect sphere, a dull cream instead of proper white. But it alone would pay for his room for a year, and there were three more oysters in the small pile.
Jason picked up the oysters and stood up straight and stared out at the water as he had so many times before, feeling as he had so many times before the singular awareness of being watched. He looked down at the oysters in one hand, all clawed open, and the pearl in the other.
Not so mad after all.
For all his faults, Jason Peter Todd was a clever man. He had both feet flat on the ground and his head kept down out of the clouds, he was keen-eyed and sharper than people felt befitted a former street rat. He understood, with the experienced understanding that he was always one of the smartest men in the room even if he didn’t flaunt it, that most people went through life with a very narrow, publicly approved view of what was and wasn’t possible, and would deny the latter even when it was standing right in front of them.
Jason Peter Todd had scars on his left arm and a small fortune in pearls that said there was something impossible in the ocean, and he wasn’t wasting time denying it.
His first move was to reach out to the other survivors of the stormwreck. Most of his old crewmates had settled onto other ships and were inconveniently out of contact, but the Dutchman who had worked in the rigging with him crewed on fishing boats that went out and came in daily in a city four days’ travel to the south, and responded immediately to Jason’s letter with an invitation to visit.
Then he went looking for a good book.
“Do you ever think about that night?” the Dutchman asked the last night Jason was there. His name was Vanderlinde, and he had received Jason well as a host, had offered him company when he might want it and peace when he didn’t, had showed him around the city but had not dragged him on a full tour. He was lonely, Jason realized somewhere around ten hours into the visit. Lonely and desperate for someone to talk to who cared about more than just fish and small town life.
“The storm?” Jason asked, intentionally misunderstanding. He had been waiting ten days for Vanderlinde to bring the subject up. Asking about it himself would shine too bright a light on it, lead to the wrong questions being asked.
Vanderlinde gave him a patient look, like he knew what Jason was trying to do. “The night with the creature in the nets,” he said, and jabbed a hand across the table, prodding Jason’s left arm. “The thing that gave you that.”
Jason rubbed his thumb against his sleeve over the scars. He shook his head a little and said nothing- let Vanderlinde assume the shock of the injury impared his memories, it would be for the best.
“What a beast that was,” the man said. “Bloodthirtiest thing I’ve ever seen.” He leaned back in his chair, trying to catch the barkeep’s eye. They were in the tavern, shoring up for Jason’s long trip the following day, which apparently would go better for him if he were hungover for it. That particular piece of logic didn’t track for Jason, so he was going easy on the liquor.
“We were in its territory,” he said despite himself, and shrugged when Vandlerlinde looked at him. “When a wolf takes a sheep, it’s not because the wolf is evil.”
“No, but when a wolf takes a child, we kill it,” Vanderlinde pointed out. “That thing was hunting us as a wolf would. Worse than a wolf, for it knew we could not reach it in its lair.”
Jason took a sip of ale and looked away, thinking of strong hands pulling him towards the surface of a storm-churned sea, of a pile of pearl-bearing oysters left on a dock. “What do you think it was?” he asked, when he could trust his mouth not to betray him.
“A siren,” Vanderlinde said, and Jason looked at him in sharp surprise. “The bosun said he heard singing that night before we netted it, when it took our man. Have you heard the stories?”
“Yes,” Jason said. There was a book in his bag that he had purchased at the bookshop in a city nearby, actually, which was why he had been caught so off-guard by the word siren- to hear it twice, from such different sources- perhaps there was actual validity to it? “I was told they don’t exist. A sea-tale, from seamen who drank too much salt water.”
“What else could it have been?” Vanderlinde asked, which, well. That was the exact same thought Jason had had about it, so he supposed he couldn’t blame the man for rushing to judgment. He shrugged and drained the last of his ale in one large gulp.
“So what do we do about it?” he said.
“Celebrate surviving it,” Vanderlinde said on a dark laugh, gesturing towards Jason’s arm again. “You more than me. And stay away from the deep waters.”
Stay away from the deep waters, Jason thought, and remembered the dock, and ordered another ale.
There was someone in his room.
He came home at close to midnight, exhausted and sore from his travels, and he opened the door to a muffled thump and the sound of sharp inhales, as though the other person was trying not to sneeze. For a moment Jason went very still, travel bag dangling from his fingertips where he had been about to drop it in the doorway. The intruder had to know, had to have heard the door open, had to know they themselves weren’t being particularly subtle.
“Who’s there,” he snapped, not a question but a demand. He dropped the bag and detoured around the main room to the fireplace and grabbed a sweeper. The noise had come from his bedroom, the only other room in his living quarters, and he approached the door with his weapon held shoulder-high and ready to strike. “There’s no way out of there, so you might as well cooperate,” he said.
There was another noise, a wooden sliding sound, and then cold air- Jason realized, and swore, and leapt forward to yank the bedroom door open. It was too late. The room was empty, the window standing open.
Jason was too broad-shouldered to even think about following, but he poked his head through the window anyway, looking up and down the street. There- someone was running, staggering more rather, nonetheless making decent time down the street. He ducked back inside and darted back out the front door and taking the sharp corner around the building in the direction his intruder had gone. They were heading at first for the docks, he thought to try to lose him among the stalls and warehouses on the wharf. Then they turned sharply where the path divided, and he realized.
They were heading for the old dock, the one where Jason had spent the summer reading to the siren.
He put on a fresh burst of speed, fast gaining ground despite the intruder’s head start. Still the person was ahead when their bare feet hit the wood of the dock, which groaned under their weight, and Jason burst through cover of overgrown bushes, merely twigs with no leaves now- and took something hard and heavy straight to the face.
It knocked him off his stride, knocked him back, flailing gracelessly as he stumbled. Whatever-it-was fell heavily to the ground and Jason blinked in shock, already feeling his nose start to swell. He looked down at the object on the ground, the thing that the intruder had seen fit to steal from his rooms.
It was a book.
Jason jerked back into motion, stepping over the book and onto the dock, but there was nothing, only choppy waves where the water had been disturbed. He went back to the book and picked it up- Shakespeare, one of the first ones he had read out here on the dock.
We were in its territory, he had said to Vanderlinde, so sure of himself- it had rescued him, had sought him out afterwards, had rewarded him pearls for a summer’s companionship. He had thought it- not harmless really, but not evil, either. He’d not thought it capable of that, honestly. Only men had the capacity for evil. He’d thought this thing a clever animal.
He spared the ink-black water one more long look before he turned to go back home and read that book on sirens.
He knew better than to take it as written truth, which was well enough, because the book said things that contradicted what he had seen so far, and sometimes even things said in its own pages.
The book said sirens were bloodthirsty, killed for fun when they found easy enough prey. It said they were stupid like sharks but then said they were cunning like foxes. It said they ate fish, plucked them from nets and off lines, and said they ate human flesh. It said they could taste blood in the water for miles, and would hunt those that escaped their clutches once. It said they could sing a song so sweet a man would walk out into the ocean and willingly drown himself for the chance to hear it twice.
It said nothing about sirens rescuing men from stormwrecked ships, or listening raptly to stories and poems and plays about obscure English kings, or leaving pearls. It gave no hint whatsoever that what Jason suspected was true, that sirens could somehow- but no. He wasn’t going down that road until he had more than a suspicion.
He put the book away one spring evening, when the snow was mostly all melted and the early plants were turning tender leaves towards the sun. It had told him nothing he had not already heard while drinking in the berth with the other sailors. He went down to the dock instead, the first time since that night he had chased his thief out there, stood as far out on it as he dared and watched. He waited an hour, then went home to bed, and went out again the next night.
It happened on the fifth night, and somehow he had known it would be that night, had felt the certainty of it in his bones. He came to the dock as usual, and felt that familiar old awareness, that pull towards the ocean, and he briefly wondered if it was the sirensong that so called to him. He had never heard it sing, but then, what good would such a seductive song do if the victim realized it was being used?
The water churned minutes before he was to give up for the night, and Jason knelt down, hands carefully tucked in so nothing could leap from the water and grab at him.
“It’s all right,” he said calmly. “I won’t hurt you.”
A pale hand, fingers capped in wickedly sharp claws, rose up from the water and grasped at the edge of the dock. Jason stood and stepped back to make room, and the siren rose up from the water.
The book had hand-drawn pictures of its idea of sirens, fearsome fangs and claws and fat graceless fish tails, gills carved like gaping wounds over their ribs, hair like tangled seaweed and eyes black as charcoal in faces that were barely recognizable as human-inspired. The creature that came up from the water that evening had some resemblance to that horror, but in soft-edged ways, like the difference between a skinned and mounted wolf caught forever in a snarl and a living wolf just going about its business and only showing its teeth when it must.
Its- his?- their face was mostly human, nose very flat against the cheeks and eyes unnaturally large and round, presumably to better see in the dark underwater. The hair was wet-black, shining almost blue in the moonlight, falling in long wet clumps down their back. There were gills, but they were discreet little lines on the neck. The claws Jason was acquainted with, and sharp teeth glinted through parted lips. The body as a whole was sleek and long like a dolphin’s, with a layer of fat where organs needed protecting but far from the grotesque mockery in the book. Sunless-pale human skin faded into the dark grey of the tail near the ribs, shiny with water but dull underneath, like a shark’s sandpaper hide, and Jason wondered if it would tear at his fingers if he touched it-
The siren was on the dock, half the tail still in the water and elbows braced on the dock to keep them up, and reached for Jason with one hand. Jason, having himself been reaching to touch that inhuman skin, flinched back at the motion, and the siren jerked away as well, slipping off the dock and disappearing back underwater in the blink of an eye.
“No, no,” Jason said hurriedly, scrambling forward and reaching out again. There was one hand still above water, braced on the dock’s supporting post, and Jason reached for it and stopped a breath away. He knew that the siren was watching him. They both waited for the other to make that final move.
It occurred to Jason, for the first time, that the siren was likely just as curious about him as he was them. The siren had saved him from the storm, certainly- but he had freed it from the net, and that must have been equally as out-of-character for the siren’s understanding of human behavior. The pearls- but he had spent a summer reading to the ocean- trading favors, sharing pieces of their lives.
The pale hand shifted, fingers curling down- claws turning inwards, a fist as a sign of peace instead of a threat- and slid upwards. Jason dared to move forward that last little bit, leaning out over the water, so easy to overbalance and drag in, and brushed the very tips of his fingers against the back of the siren’s hand.
On some level, deep as his bones, he was waiting for the siren’s hand to reverse itself, snap around and snatch his wrist and yank him over into the water. It had been a long game, but the siren would have finally won. He somehow was surprised when it didn’t happen, when the hand under his slowly uncurled so long fingers, careful of the claws, could brush against his.
“You there!” a voice called from shore, and Jason startled badly. Thankfully his mistrust in the siren meant he had been prepared to leap back, and he did so then, landing on his rear on the dock with a sharp oomph. He lunged forward again immediately, but of course the siren was gone.
There were footsteps on the dock, and then hands on Jason’s shoulder, dragging him back away from the water. “What are you doing, boy?” the man demanded. “Are you drunk?”
“No, I,” Jason began, and realized there was no way to finish that. He closed his mouth and looked away, peering into the dark water, hoping to see a flash of pale skin below the surface.
“Come on,” the man ordered, dragging on Jason’s arm to pull him away from the water and down the dock towards land. “Not a safe place to be, especially at night, this is how you stupid kids drown-”
Jason let himself be manhandled to shore, looking back all the while, hoping the siren understood that this was not his fault.
He would be back again tomorrow.
The dock was not closed off the next day, as Jason had feared, but there was no sign of the siren when he came out to the end of it. He lingered anyway, watching the water- rough with a spring storm somewhere beyond the horizon- and hoping against hope. Then there was a loud splash, a clapping noise like when a playful dolphin slapped the surface of the water with their tail, and Jason turned to look behind him.
A moment later, he was running back to shore.
The siren had come up in the shallow water beside the dock, sheltered from passerby view by the bulk of the rotting wood. They waited until Jason had climbed down and splashed knee-deep into the water, then pulled themself up onto the sand until they had left the water entirely.
“What are you doing, don’t-” Jason began, forgetting himself and reaching out to touch the siren and earning a sharp hiss for his trouble. The siren swatted his hands away- careful, so careful of the claws, but maintaining the point of distance- then hunched over on the sand, arms trembling and hands clenching at the sand and tail thrashing. The dorsal fin looked like a dolphin’s with its flat horizontal flukes, but it was barbed at the base and the outer curve of the fins had jagged teeth-looking edges, and Jason remembered this thing laying open a man’s throat, another man’s gut, as easy as drawing a warm knife through butter.
Then the skin near the siren’s waist began to peel up and the entire tail sloughed off.
Jason swore and darted in despite the warning, despite the very clear pain the siren was in. The flesh of the tail clung to his fingers like some dead wet thing but it lifted up easily, weighing nothing compared to what Jason had thought it would, and it peeled apart like wet bread to reveal-
There were legs underneath, human legs.
The siren caught at Jason’s arm, using him for balance as the legs folded up awkwardly under his- and the siren was definitely male- body. Then Jason realized the hand had no claws, and looked to see for sure. No claws, no webbing between the fingers. The eyes were still startlingly blue but the face was a proper human face with a proper nose. The gills were closed up to faint lines on the neck, like old scars. The tongue was bright pink and felt conscientiously around flat teeth. The siren kicked with its feet and pulled on Jason’s arm and pushed itself away from the weight of its shed tail.
“Human,” Jason said, because it was. “You can transform into a human.”
The siren huffed out a sharp breath- he remembered that sound from the intruder in his room last winter- and said, “hoo-man. Human.”
“Human, yes,” Jason agreed distractedly. Human, and naked and wet and cold, already shivering in the early spring coolness. Jason hurriedly removed his coat, regretfully pushing the siren’s hand off his arm only for it to return as soon as he had his coat off, and wrapped it around the siren’s shoulders as best he could.
“Are you all right,” Jason said nonsensically, then finally thought to look around him for witnesses. The sky was heavy and dark with low-hanging clouds and sunset was early and fast this time of year. No one was loitering outside in this weather.
“Human. Yes.” The siren planted his feet under him and pushed upwards and immediately tipped forward into the sand, his grip on Jason’s arm dragging him down as well. Much stronger than he looked, Jason thought dazedly. So only human on the surface, still very much the siren underneath.
Another attempt at standing, this time with both of them working at it, ended with the siren on surprisingly steady feet- but then, he had done this before, hadn’t he. He was shorter than Jason by a little and narrower in the shoulder by a lot, and the coat hung down to mid-thigh on him. Not long enough to risk him walking in the street, not until it was properly dark and even if someone should chance a look out the window there would be no light for them to see anything. Thankfully, the siren seemed uninclined to actually go anywhere, and instead clung to Jason and looked around with interest.
“Human,” he said again, in a voice that was rich and sing-songy and beautiful. He looked at Jason with his terribly blue eyes narrowed, studying him. Clawless fingers came up to trace over Jason’s face, brushing across his lips and down the line of his throat, and Jason caught the curious hand before it could tug at his shirt. It moved on to the coat around the siren’s shoulders instead, folding the lapel up and down, picking at a button like a crow pecking at a shiny thing.
“Human, oh Christ,” Jason murmured.
It was not too long before the siren returned to the water, driven there by his need, his skin turning patchy and rough and his lungs slowly giving out under the pressure of being newly vital. He pressed his whole body against Jason’s before he went, personal space apparently a purely human invention, and said, “again?”, which was the first word he had said that he had not already heard Jason use.
Then he left, and Jason sat on the beach until sunrise, and wondered.
Jason left the town where he was known that summer, sold the pearls to a traveling merchant and packed up what books he truly cared for and moved south and settled on the fringes of a quaint little village an hours’ walk from the desolate rocky beach. He took no job, content to let them wonder about him and his money, and instead devoted his days to the siren.
The siren had spent months listening to Jason read to him and knew the sound of words, even if the shape of them in his own mouth was foreign to him. Sometimes he sat with Jason on one of the bigger rocks on the beach and let him coax him through the words, stumbling over his f’s and p’s. Sometimes he walked the path through the scrub inland, at first slow and stumbling but quickly gaining confidence with each visit. Sometimes he let Jason talk him into wearing clothes, far more rarely shoes. Sometimes he did nothing but sit on a rock and let his attention wander. Sometimes Jason read to him again, the siren clinging so close that he could feel the unnaturally cool flesh under the sun-soaked skin.
Sometimes he did not come at all, and it took far too long for Jason to realize that those were the days it rained, the days he had not gone out onto the dock to read to the siren last summer.
Jason liked to think he approached the matter clinically enough. He made notes, wrote observations, did as much poking and prodding as the siren would allow. He wished he could have claimed that he came at it from a purely emotionless angle. Instead, he was insatiable curious and perhaps just a touch jealous- this creature was a predator, a born killer, and braver than Jason could ever know, happily and repeatedly subjecting himself to an alien world where he was left vulnerable in more ways than one. And also-
His skin tanned in the sun, since it was even odds on whether Jason could convince him to wear a shirt on the hot days. He burnished, not burned, and shone like gold in the sunlight, with hair black as pitch and eyes blue like the ocean. He was beautiful, and sometimes Jason ached with it.
He wished he could say he kept his emotions out of it, but there were moments when he looked at the siren, this killer seabeast under its false human skin, and thought, I think I have been waiting my whole life for you.
Their first summer- second summer, really, but this was the one would go down in Jason’s memory as their First Summer- faded into long cool nights and late sunrises and storms blowing from inland, time marching ever onward as it was wont to do. It became easier to convince the siren to wear clothes and harder to keep him on the beach, his ocean gaze turning more and more frequently up the path towards the village that Jason followed every day when he left.
Finally, after another discussion on the importance of footwear, Jason folded up the cloth he’d been using to clean the cuts on the siren’s feet- he preferred to suffer the pain than wear shoes- and said, “Did you want to come to the village with me?”
The siren quit poking at the edged rock that had so offended his bare foot and looked up sharply, his hair falling too-long into his eyes. “Other humans?” he asked.
“Yes,” Jason said. “You can’t tell them what you are. You would have to lie- tell a false thing.” He didn’t know how much the siren knew about lying, it had so far been a concept he had tried to avoid. The siren huffed a short breath, the way he did when he forgot to breathe with lungs and not gills.
“Can make them like me,” he said, and opened his mouth and-
The sound that came from his throat might technically be called singing, the same way the noise of the great whales was called singing. It was a very ocean sort of noise, pushing and pulling, evocative of deep dark places and echoing emptiness. It was breathtaking.
Jason only realized these things when it stopped, and he abruptly shook free of the cottony haze that had descended over his mind and realized he had approached the siren unknowingly, was even reaching out to touch.
That’s how he lured the men off the ship to their deaths, he told himself, and a cool chill slicked down his spine like ice water, and he stepped away.
“Don’t do that,” he said fiercely. “Don’t ever do that again, not unless it would kill you not to. You don’t play with people’s minds like that.”
The siren, who approached matters of ethics and morals from a very different angle than humans, frowned at that. “Bad?”
“Yes, bad. Very bad.” Jason rubbed his hand over his heart, as if to feel for himself that it was still beating properly. He turned it over in his mind for a moment- if he didn’t reinforce it, it would slide right off the siren’s slippery back- and finally hit on something. “You chose to be here? On land?” He asked, clarifying when the siren looked at him in confusion.
“Yes,” the siren said, tone questioning.
“Imagine-” bad start, he had no idea if sirens were even capable of imagining. “What if someone made you come here? Gave you no choice. Would you like that?”
It worked- the siren’s eyes went wide, then narrow, and his fingers flexed in that familiar way that meant they had sprouted claws. “No,” he said on a hiss.
“Then don’t do it to us.”
The siren hissed again and looked towards the water, and Jason felt something hard and cold within himself go soft at the edges. He didn’t want to scare the poor bastard off, after all.
“You’ll be fine,” he said gruffly. “I’ll be there.” Not that a creature with claws like that needed the hollow promise of a human’s protection. The siren brightened up anyway, looking carefully at Jason out of the corner of his eye as if to gage his mood and see if he were truly being forgiven.
“No singing,” he said, firmly enough to make it sound as though it were his idea. “But we can go to the village?”
“It’s a long walk,” Jason told him. “You’ll have to work up to it.”
“Want to go,” the siren said, looking up the path again. “No singing. I promise.”
Jason lifted his head and looked at him again, a long studying stare, but the siren was unrepentant. If he knew what a promise was, where he had heard of it, whether or not he was good for it- Jason couldn’t say. Probably Jason himself had read it to him, last summer before he realized he was trying to weave two cultures into one being.
“All right,” he agreed, and grinned sharply. “First thing we have to do, is you are going to have to start wearing shoes.”
The siren came into the village for the first time on a windy September evening, stumbling and swaying but determinedly walking on his own. He was wearing proper clothes, and had been shown how to tie his hair back, and was even wearing shoes- boots, technically, ones too big for him and therefore easy to slip out of, but any footwear at all was a victory. He stared around him with wide eyes, touching brick and cloth and wood and hay. A carriage and horse left standing outside a shop was endlessly fascinating to him, his fingers brushing back and forth along the horse’s hide while Jason held its headstall and whispered words of reassurance to the beast.
He was intrigued by color- the light rose of a woman’s shawl, the deep red of apples going to market, the yellow of a child’s hair. He liked the cool slide of polished stone under his fingers. He sneered at the scent of cooking meat but stood outside the bakery and breathed in the smell of baking bread for several minutes. He stepped out of his boots and walked barefoot through the soft grass, nothing at all like the sharp blades of the scrubgrass near the beach.
Several people watched them curiously, but few tried to talk to them, and Jason headed those off, physically inserting himself between the intruder and the siren and telling them that his cousin had been sick and was still recovering. It helped lend credence to his own story as well, why he had moved into a house outside the village and rarely came into town. There were questions, of course, and a couple of rough-looking seamen- Jason knew the breed, had once been one of them- who watched them with deep suspicion, but after the third or fourth time no one approached either of them.
The siren tired quickly- Jason had not considered what the rolling hills the path from the beach meandered over would do to new inexperienced legs- and although he was not showing the patchy skin or shortness of breath that necessitated his return to the water, Jason took him back anyway. It was a long walk, and returning alone in the dark had him watchful and tense.
The second time, when the siren tired out, Jason took him to his house for the night and returned him to the ocean the following day. And thus, a new tradition was born.
The letter came in early winter, when the siren had started staying three or four nights in a row and had even learned to perform basic chores, such as chopping wood and hanging laundry- he was not to be trusted with washing anything, as he would lose focus and play with the water instead, so he was relegated to drying. He had stayed at the house while Jason went into town and returned with winter vegetables and the letter.
“What is it?” the siren asked, immediately locking onto this new thing, crowding up behind Jason to peer over his shoulder, for all that he was shorter.
“A letter. A message from an old friend.” Jason broke the seal and took out the letter, showing the siren the paper. He lost interest quickly enough after that- Jason had taught him his letters but reading was not his thing and likely never would be. Still, some perverse part of Jason, the part that picked at scabs and pressed at bruises, reared up and said with his voice, “You might have seen him, actually. He was on the ship with the nets.”
The siren made a noise in his throat, dismissive, and went to go poke at the fish stew bubbling in the firepit in spite of having been chased away from it three times already.
Vanderlinde’s message was short- Jason had sent him a letter informing him of his move, somehow loathe to abandon his last connection to his pre-siren life, and the letter was merely a confirmation. He had also invited Jason back out for another visit, his wording somehow seeming urgent. He wanted to discuss a job opportunity he had discovered, if Jason was willing to go back to sailing.
Jason read it twice, then looked over at the siren, who had just burned fingertip and tongue in trying to steal a taste and was now regarding the hot stew with the keen eyes of a puzzle-solver with a new puzzle. Ten months ago, before the siren had pulled himself out of the water for the first time, maybe. Three months ago, even, before he settled into spending more nights on land than he did in the water. Jason couldn’t leave him now, wouldn't. He had promised he would be here.
The siren turned that keen gaze turned back to him, his wounded finger curled down against his palm as if to hide it. He tilted his head, a very human gesture that he had picked up quickly enough.
“He wants me to go sailing again,” Jason said, and the siren-
The siren’s eyes went flat and dark, a hiss tearing out of his throat apparently by instinct, before he looked sharply away. When he looked back again, he had done a surprisingly good job at wrangling his expression into something distant and blank. “You are leaving?”
“No,” Jason said, too fast. “I said I would be here for you, remember?”
The siren relaxed and turned back to the stew again. Even in profile it was easy to see the icy mask melt away to something warmer.
“Besides,” Jason added, feeling put-out over his own foolhardiness- was the siren really the only thing he had of value in his life? the center of his world, the point on which everything in his life pivoted?- “I wasn’t having much luck as a sailor, what with you in the nets, then the storm and all. Bad luck.”
The siren tried for the stew again, skimming this time around the edges of the pot where the boiling action was least intense, and Jason let him learn another painful lesson from it. Whether or not their food should actually be cooked was their longest-standing argument, one they revisited often enough for it to be about petty stubbornness by this point.
Still, the mention of the storm raised another question. “How did you know, anyway?” he asked, and elaborated when he realized how nonsensical it was without context. “That I needed help, during the storm.”
The siren sucked on his second burned finger as he turned towards Jason. Right hand fitted to left arm, fingers pressed unerringly against four long scars. “Tasted your blood,” the siren said, then gestured towards his head, where Jason had been struck by some falling object or another that night before going overboard. “We watch for your ships in storms. Many ships sink. But I tasted your blood, and remembered the nets.”
“Oh,” Jason said, not knowing what else to say. It made a certain amount of sense- sharks hunted by bloodsmell, after all. But that a siren could identify a human by the taste of their blood was. Not the strangest thing sirens were capable of, honestly.
“Thank you for that,” he said, and the siren glanced over, unsure of the words, unaware of the ritual.
“The nets. Thank you?”
Jason snorted and smiled at the tone, then nodded. “You’re welcome. Stop burning yourself.”
The siren made a disgruntled noise and moved away from the stewpot, and Jason set the letter aside to consider it later. He wouldn’t leave, but he could at least be polite and appreciative of the offer. He did not have enough friends to scorn one, after all.
“Dinner yet?” the siren asked, hovering at his elbow, waiting impatiently. Jason sighed in capitulation and reached for the serving spoon.
He watched the siren burn himself some more on stew still too hot to eat, and ate his own at a more reasonable pace, and the letter sat on the corner of the table and was quietly forgotten.
“Why are you here,” Jason whispered into the darkness one night.
The siren had blown the last candle out an hour ago and sat now at the window, watching the world outside with avid interest even though it would be hours yet before anything was stirring. He lifted his head at the question, and Jason saw his midnight eyes shine like a cat’s in the moonlight.
“We walked together,” he said, confused, and Jason made a dismissive noise.
“Not here, in this house. Here, on land.”
The siren hummed a few bars of his glorious song, thinking not tempting, and Jason felt it shiver up his spine. “Wanted to see,” he decided on finally.
“Now you have seen,” Jason said.
“Want to see more.”
“Then leave,” Jason snapped, and wondered to himself why he was pushing, what he was hoping to achieve. Why he wanted to push away this creature when he was feeling- except that was it, wasn’t it? Best to chase him away now, when the parting will only feel like a broken bone, instead of tearing off a limb entirely.
Cool hands landed on his shoulders, and the siren slipped over Jason onto the mattress, curling his head onto Jason’s chest. Jason shifted immediately to accommodate him and wrapped an arm around him. Sirens, or at least this one, did not understand personal space, but did greatly appreciate physical contact, so Jason could indulge in the touch without guilt of taking advantage of a creature that did not understand human social mores.
“Home is cold,” he said into Jason’s neck, hands pressed against his skin to emphasize the difference in their body temperatures. “Lonely. Here I am warm.”
Jason pressed his hand against the siren’s lower back. He was mostly human in this form, only little flashes of his true nature showing through. The spine under Jason’s hand was purely human, no sharp sweeping rise of a dorsal fin.
“Lonely,” he echoed. “You don’t miss your family?”
“Gone a long time,” the siren said quietly. “No family, no mate.”
Jason spread his hand along the siren’s back, covering as much as he could. “You have been alone?”
“Not alone. Had others.” The siren hesitated, tilting his head as he did when he was trying to discern the proper order of words, when they were venturing outside the realm of everyday conversation and he had to actually think about what he wanted to say instead of sticking to rote. “With the ship, the nets.”
“When we first met,” Jason said, shifting his left arm to indicate the scars.
“Yes. Was not me, killing them.” The siren hissed, Jason feeling it on his neck more than hearing it. “They said, easy prey. I did not want to eat human but I did not want to be alone again.”
Jason closed his eyes against the darkness and thought of his own life, his mother dead and his father drunk, fleeing to the first ship that would take a boy as young as Jason had been, spending his life on the sea just waiting for something. He understood loneliness and the things you would do to escape it.
And how a single act of kindness- a knife cutting net ropes in the dark, a book read aloud instead of in silence, hands pulling a drowning body to the surface of the water- could change everything.
“You’re not alone anymore,” Jason said to the thing he had spent his life waiting for, and the siren huffed and pressed even tighter against him.
“I know,” he said, and pressed his shockingly cold fingertips under Jason’s chin and laughed when he cursed and jerked away. “Sleep now,” he ordered, tucking down tight again and ignoring Jason’s grumbles.
Except. “No mate?” he murmured. This was the first he’d heard of anything like that. Even the book, misinformed as it was, had mentioned nothing.
“No,” the siren said, quiet and forlorn, and something tore like rotten cloth in Jason’s chest. That was yearning, exquisite and agonising to hear.
“You mate for life?” he asked, keeping his voice steady.
“Yes. For life. For-” a shift, a noise. “You have a word, it means the same. Love?”
Jason laid in the dark and just breathed. For love. Sirens mated for love, or for whatever love their kind was capable of. Had he been asked hours ago, he would have laughed at the idea, but- love was not a concept he had explained to the siren. He had simply listened, had learned, had watched and compared and decided that yes. Whatever it was humans called love, sirens had it too.
“Do humans mate for life?” the siren asked, sounding uncertain.
“We try to,” Jason said, because it was not at all worth getting into how humans tended to tie marriage and politics and business together and leave love on the side of the road like an unwanted dog.
The siren hummed again, and settled down into him even more, and Jason stared at the ceiling in the dark and wondered.
It was, perhaps, inevitable after that conversation.
Something had taken the last wall down, broke through that last barrier in Jason’s own mind, and now he watched the siren with a sort of soft understanding, an awareness of what was happening and where it all was going. He brought fish up from the ocean with him, sometimes pearls, and vibrant pieces of seaglass that he laid along the windowsill to catch the sunlight. Jason himself bought a book on Greek gods and goddesses to read to the siren, who was so enraptured by new things, and a bolt of cloth dyed a deep rich purple that was never used to make anything but the siren loved the color of. He let the siren eat raw fish, and the siren would eat cooked fish with minimal complaining, and both knew the other was doing it for them.
There was a marriage in the village, one Jason had somehow been invited to- the siren’s mere presence forced him to socialize more, he’d actually tried to chat with the bookseller, who had scowled fiercely at him the entire time he was in the shop- and which he went to only because the whole village was involved. The siren would not be kept away, of course, nor did Jason try. He watched everything with his familiar fascination, and even coaxed Jason into joining the dances, bright sunny laugh in the air when his human-strong legs stumbled over the newness of dancing.
The bride and groom clearly loved each other, and that, the siren found most interesting. When the crowds parted just right he stared at them in open curiosity, although they were so wrapped up in their own world that they never even noticed. He was especially keen when they kissed, and Jason had to pull him away more than once, less someone else notice his staring and get concerned.
They went home after it was over, buzzed on good food and an evening full of laughter, Jason with just enough wine to give the world a pleasant haze. He stumbled into the house and lit a lamp and sat at the table with a drawn-out sigh, and looked up at the siren who stood in the doorway without moving. He was watching Jason with a strange look in his eyes, dark and deep as the ocean he had come from.
Jason thought of hands in a storm, seaglass on a windowsill. It was inevitable, really.
“Come here,” he said, holding out one hand, and the siren came over and dragged the other chair around to sit right in front of him.
Still, Jason hesitates, because- this is so very different, so unknown for them both- plunging into the dark water and hoping there will be a hand extended to pull them back to the surface at the other end of it. “Do you want this?” he asked. This is what I have to offer, and it might not be what you want, what you thought it was, it might not be good enough for you, it might be too different for you to make a life with it.
The siren looked at his lips and nodded.
The first kiss is short and chaste, a press of lips. The siren is cool as always, and it’s different enough that Jason cannot help but remember. He leaned back just enough to see the siren’s face, eyes heavy-lidded and dark, expression soft.
The second kiss was anything but. Jason opened his mouth to the siren, encouraged with a hand on the siren’s jaw that he do the same, and they kissed hungry as starved men. Jason’s tongue felt teeth, flat now- but he remembered needle tips capable of ripping fish apart, claws that left scars, fingers burnt on hot stew and oysters pried open to check for pearls- he buried his hand into the siren’s hair and pulled him closer, closer, until one or the other left their chair and they were pressed together from hips to lips.
When they finally broke apart, Jason rested his forehead to the siren’s and just breathed. The siren made a noise, a purring contented noise, and distractedly picked at Jason’s top button with his magpie-love of shininess.
“Like that,” he said.
“Yes,” Jason agreed. Flippancy did not seem appropriate just then.
“Love you,” the siren added, as calm as could be, and Jason breathed through it. He had expected it.
“Yes,” he said again, brushing his fingers through long coal-black hair, watching the tide in the siren’s ocean-blue eyes. If it were anyone else, another human, he would have balked. But for the siren- who mated for life, who did not lie, who was so straightforward and honest- “I love you too.”
The siren smiled sweetly, not understanding, of course, what a monumental thing that was. “Want this again,” he said, touching his fingers to Jason’s lips, and Jason laughed against them.
“Come here then,” he said, although the siren could not really get any closer, and the siren came to him once more.
There was something on him, a great weight on his shoulders, pushing him down into his bed, and Jason jerked awake with a hard flail that almost unseated his attacker. His first insane, sleep-drenched thought was the siren- but no, he had returned to the water last night. He had been loathe to leave, to abandon his new favorite past time of crawling into Jason’s lap at inopportune moments to kiss him for hours, but they had delayed it too long and his skin was rough and scaly and his breathing harsh and fast and Jason had had to fetch a horse and cart from the village because he didn’t have the strength to walk the whole way.
It was dark, no candles light and the bedroom fireplace burnt down to embers, but Jason caught a glimpse of a man bent over him, a face that almost looked like-
For a moment he hesitated, shocked, and then something struck him in the head and it went dark again.
He awoke the second time that night to the sound of a familiar voice and the even more familiar rocking of a small boat on the ocean. The moon burned as a sickly pale blot in the sky, and Jason stared at it until it had burned its twin onto his eyes. Then he shifted, testing the ropes tying his wrists together, and lifted his head.
“Evening, traitor,” Vanderlinde said calmly. Behind him- they were on a longboat, heading out to sea- was two men from town, including the bookseller that had been so disgusted with Jason’s very existence.
The siren. Jason shifted backwards, resting his shoulders against the prow of the small boat and scanning the men for a knife convenient for him to grab at. He didn’t know how much he had to bleed, but if the siren could find him in a storm-tossed ocean, then maybe-
“Traitor how? What is this about?” he asked as distraction.
Vanderlinde, in answer, tossed a small pouch at his feet. In the moonlight Jason could see something glinting dark and pearlescent. “Tell me, how much did it cost for you to betray your own crew?”
Jason looked at the pouch of pearls, at Vanderlinde’s stony face, at the men behind him, breath caught in the creeping realization that he was in a great deal of danger.
“You cut it free that night,” Vanderlinde accused.
“It was going to kill us,” Jason snapped back. Bound and outnumbered, certainly, but unbowed always. Worst case, he would not die scraping and lying and begging for his life. “As many of us as it could. And all of you were too blinded by revenge to see it.”
“So it paid you out of the goodness of its heart.” Vanderlinde shook his head. “I warned you about this thing, boy. I thought you weren’t listening, but you were already seduced-”
He had shifted away, turned away from Jason to demonstrate his false regret, and it was all the opening Jason needed. He braced his shoulders against the gunwale and brought one leg up and kicked as hard as he could, bare foot hitting Vanderlinde dead center of his chest. He folded backward with a breathless yell, something cracking under Jason’s heel. The two men behind Vanderlinde both lunging awkwardly around him, grabbing for Jason’s leg- but Jason wasn’t trying to slip off the boat.
Instead, he bit down hard into the side of his hand, hard enough to taste the bright burst of salty blood on his tongue, and flung his arms over the edge of the boat. There were hands on him, holding him down but not hauling him back, letting him bleed into the water.
And then there was a hand in his hair, and an explosion of pain again as his head bounced hard off the hull. He did not pass out that time, but the world went grey and fuzzy, and he came back to himself slowly.
“... absolute shit,” Vanderlinde was saying when Jason’s ears started parsing words from nonsense noise again.
“We should have killed him,” one of the other men said. He had seen them before, Jason remembered- this one and the bookseller both, they’d been around town, watching him, watching the siren. Angry and unhappy the entire time. They were manning the oars, Vanderlinde sitting now on Jason’s knees and poking tenderly at his own chest for broken ribs.
“We need him, for now,” he said. “A dead siren brings some money. A living siren brings a lot of money.” He noticed Jason looking at him and sneered, reaching over as if to hit him again. Jason pulled away as best he could, looked away.
Sitting on the water beyond the two me rowing was a schooner, sails furled and lights damped. A boat that small could have come much closer to shore, so they were trying to avoid someone’s- something’s- attention. If they took Jason up onto that boat, he was likely never leaving it again.
He should have risked it and jumped into the water while he had the chance, his odds were better then than they would ever be again. He should jump in now, actually. It was winter but the water would only feel cold for a moment, and it was dark but there was nothing dangerous in it. No sharks for miles, no biting fish. Just the water, deep and black and home-
The bookseller stood up, turned to face the water, and simply let himself fall forward into it. Jason watched him do this, feeling not shocked but vaguely envious. He shifted hopefully, seeing if Vanderlinde would budge enough to let him jump in as well, put his hands under him to lift himself up.
His bitten hand lit up with white-hot agony that burned through the fog in his mind, and suddenly he could hear it. The low, echoing tune of a siren’s song. Reality hit like cold water, and Jason jerked upwards and looked at the water, hoping to see a flash of tail, pale skin.
And Vanderlinde, with his newly broken ribs that were no doubt agonizing him, pushed him straight back down, then whipped around to clap a closed fist to the side of the other man’s head.
“Stop listening to it and signal the boat,” he ordered. The man looked at him, ear swelling from the blow. The siren song was still whispering through the air between them, and his eyes were hazy, his mind still half-gone. The bookseller was splashing a little but not aware yet, the cold water not enough to shock him awake.
Vanderlinde said something probably very impolite in Dutch and leaned forward to grab the lamp himself. The second man stood at the same time, no doubt intending to jump off as the bookseller had, and the boat’s upset balance and Vanderlinde’s leaning gave Jason the opportunity he needed. He bucked his body hard, upsetting the boat’s delicate balance and knocking Vanderlinde forward onto his face. There was a splash as the second man hit the water but Jason paid it no mind. His hands were bound and Vanderlinde was still free and coming back up already, knife in hand.
Jason rolled forward and planted his shoulder into Vanderlinde’s chest, angling for the broken ribs, and the man collapsed backward with a shout. There was an answering yell from behind them, a flare of light as the crew of the schooner responded- Jason looked for a second before jerking his attention back-
The knife halted an inch from his face.
Vanderlinde’s expression was surprise and rage, and Jason saw the pale fingers under his chin, wrapped around his throat, only when they shifted to a better hold. His attention was mostly on the knife, the hand holding it, the arm beyond that, the needle-tipped claws cutting into the tender flesh of the human’s elbow.
The siren released its grip, and Vanderlinde’s arm dropped like a dead fish, tendon severed or bone shattered or both. He was breathing hard around the hand on his neck, siren strength keeping him still.
“You. Well?” The siren asked, looking at Jason, forming his words carefully around his sharp teeth.
“Yes,” Jason said. “Yes, thank you. That was-” he stopped there, not knowing what that was, and looked at the siren’s captive. Vanderlinde’s face was going purple with rage and possibly air loss.
“No killing,” the siren said, and loosened his grip. Vanderlinde took a deep whooping breath, bowing his head to cough and groaning when it jarred his ribs.
No killing. The first rule, the one Jason had reminded him of often, the one the siren had to know, had to recite a hundred times before Jason would bring him into the village. No killing.
A dead siren brings some money, a living siren brings a lot.
It was a choice, except it wasn’t much of a choice at all.
The knife went between Vanderlinde’s ribs smooth as butter. The man was dead before he even realized something had happened, heart pierced, blood spilling out of the corner of his mouth. The siren pulled at his deadweight and dragged his body overboard, then pulled himself back up to look at Jason with wide eyes.
“Sometimes killing is good,” Jason said, and smiled when the siren rolled his eyes, annoyed because of course the rules were ever-changing, open to interpretation, even the most important one was negotiable. It was familiar, this little by-play. Comforting, when he had a friend’s blood on his hands.
There was another yell, and Jason looked back to see the bookseller, free now of the siren’s spell, had reached the schooner and was being taken aboard. The other man wasn’t far behind. After that, they would come for them, especially now that blood had been spilled.
“I need to get back to land,” Jason said. “And then I need to leave, find someplace where no one knows me.”
And, because he had not asked last time-
“Will you come with me?”
The siren lowered himself back into the water so only his head showed, and smiled his pretty, toothy smile.
“Yes,” he said, and Jason stepped off the boat and fell into the siren’s arms and let him carry him back to shore.
They settled eventually in an old stone cottage far enough south to have a peach tree growing in the yard. It was set off the shore so that they could not see the water, but they could smell its sharp scent and hear its steady tidal heartbeat even inside. There was a town nearby, small and bustling because the siren liked people even if they were a danger to him, and they whispered of the two men living by the sea but never did anything more.
The siren had nothing, not even the clothes on his back, and Jason had had precious little time to pack after Vanderlinde, so they came to the cottage with enough clothes to last until they had the money to buy more, two handfuls of seaglass to arrange on a windowsill, and a single bag of books. Some Shakespeare, a Donne or two, a couple of poetry collections by local authors that Jason had picked up, a copy of Milton that had gotten waterlogged during their travels and would hopefully be replaced soon. The book on sirens, whose subject matter sneered at it and tossed it aside after Jason read some to him and showed him a few of the pictures.
“Wrong,” he said as he crawled into Jason’s lap, breathing the words against his lips. “You know that’s wrong.”
Jason hummed, and the siren trailed fingers up his throat to feel the vibration. “I’ll write one myself, a better one,” he offered, and the siren smiled and leaned into him to bear him down to the ground.
It was hours later, with candles lit and books sorted, when Jason looked over at his lover and said, “We need to figure out a name for you.”
The siren stretched, naked skin richly gold in the candlelight, magnificent and tempting. “I have a name,” he said, and made a noise in his throat that rose up as a trill. Jason sighed and looked over at him, expectant, and the siren smiled sharply.
“All right,” Jason said slowly, already vowing to himself that he would learn to say the siren’s true name- if the siren-as-human was able to produce that sound, then a born-as-human ought to be as well. “You need a human name.”
“I have that too,” the siren said. When Jason made a puzzled noise, he explained. “The wedding. They asked me my name, and I told them.”
The siren stretched again and rolled over and Jason had to avert his eyes because this was important and he needed to focus, and that was not going to happen if he let himself look. There was stirring, and a weight draped itself along his thigh, and the siren was laying beside him and half on top of him and trailing fingers across the books scattered in low piles around him.
“This,” he said, pulling out a copy of Shakespeare. He dropped the book into Jason’s lap and curled around him, head resting on Jason’s knee.
“This one?” Jason echoed, picking up the book. He had read this one to the siren, twice if he recalled, once very early on in the first summer. “This name? It’s hardly flattering, the entire play is about how he destroys everything he cares about.”
The siren blinked up at him, as if he did not understand why that applied to him personally. “It was the first. And I like how you say it.”
Well, then. Jason leaned forward to place a kiss on the siren’s forehead. “Very well,” he said, and set the book aside to make room for the siren, who sure enough slid over Jason’s thigh and into the cradle of his legs. Jason kissed him again, properly this time, and rested their foreheads together.
“We shall call you Richard.”
The tide has come in by the time Jason is done with his selection of poems, eddying and swirling around his calves. It will come almost up to his knees before it begins to retreat again.
The last poem had been small selections from a long and ponderous work about English royalty, to cleanse the palate of the theme of mortality in the other poems, and now Jason is wishing he had chosen something else. Milton, of which they have had several new copies since their journey south. Anything from Shakespeare is a favorite. Chaucer, for all Richard hates that it does not properly end. Ah, well, he has committed worse slights as a lover, and has been forgiven easily.
He is debating reciting something from memory when there is a touch to his leg, a clawed, webbed hand wrapping around his ankle. A question.
“Are you sure?” Jason asked. He has the strength for it still, but it wears on him, and Jason hates to see him in pain. The hand squeezes, claws prickling gently at his skin, and he nods and looks down towards the wharf. It is midday and bustling with activity, but no one is looking to him. They would see nothing even if they did look, for the rock he sits upon juts out and leaves a shallow niche on the far side that is blocked from view.
It is there Richard pulls himself up when Jason tells him they are in the clear, and it is there he sheds his siren tail. Jason unpacks the clothes he had brought, because he always hopes for this, and Richard is as steady on his feet as ever as he gets dressed. His hair is iron grey and his skin is lined and weather-worn from exposure to more sunlight than any three other sirens would ever see, and he has scars along his left side from a long-ago underwater battle, but his eyes are still shockingly blue, and he settles in at Jason’s side like he belongs exactly there. They share one kiss, daringly out in the open. Richard leans into Jason, careful, respectful of his knees, and Jason presses his face into his hair and says his true name in greeting, and his siren shivers a little.
One day, perhaps soon, perhaps years yet- the sea will take one of them, and will not give him back. But it will not be today, nor tomorrow, nor anytime soon, if Jason has any say in it.
“Come on,” he says, taking his bag and his book and his cane. Richard is steady beside him as they walk the rocky path down to the wharf, and they should be more careful, more aware of people like Vanderlinde. It feels freeing to walk among people, however, to be seen as nothing more than two harmless old men. No one looks twice, no one bothers to wonder where Richard came from, how one went up the path and now two come down. They are too focused on their own lives.
Jason waits until they are off the main road and heading out into the lolling hills surrounding the bustling little port before taking Richard’s hand, hooking their arms together. Richard leans into him again and presses another kiss right over Jason’s pulse point.
“Let’s go home,” he says, and they do.