The watery depths would have been crushing to surface dwellers and the sunlight never touched the creatures that called these waters home. But the lack of something that he'd rarely seen didn't bother Leonard. He was exploring the waters of his world alone for the first time. He had reached the age where he was considered an adult and unmated adults were encouraged to leave their birth pods to travel, learn and, hopefully, eventually meet up with another of their kind to start their own pods.
The sad truth was that the odds were against him. The reasons why were unknown, but there were far fewer pods than there had been. In the time of his father's father's father, pods had been numerous enough that territorial disputes were common. Now they were so few that Leonard had only seen two pods outside of his birth pod within his lifespan. Still, the words of his father's mother had given him hope. She had assured him that he would know his new home when he found it.
Small areas among his markings glowed with a blue-ish light of their own in the dark water, but the glow faded as he swam upward into the brighter and warmer waters above. He wasn't going up far, just far enough to reach the waters where the tasty seaweeds that he preferred to eat grew. He found an area with thick growth and settled in to eat, casting the occasional curious glance upward without the slightest desire to actually enter those waters.
From the day he had taken his first independent swim, he had been warned never to venture too high and he had no intentions of doing so now. His parents had often repeated the warning that the upper waters were nothing but disease and danger wrapped in light and noise. All of his intentions were cast aside when a cry of distress reached him. A baby whale from the sounds of it.
Unable to ignore the plaintive cry, he swam upward, wincing as he entered brighter and warmer waters than he'd ever swum in before. He had to take a few minutes to adjust, but then he saw the small whale struggling inside of some odd substance than reminded him slightly of a tangle of weeds, but obviously whatever it was had to be much stronger or the whale would have freed itself. Moving up to the side of the whale, Leonard grabbed hold of a section of the substance and pulled against it. He didn't realize until the trap was sprung that the young whale was the bait.
Something jerked around him and scooped him out of the water - Leonard had never had so much as a finger out of the water before in his life. The brightness and the queer sensation of air hitting his flesh was disorienting. Before he had a chance to get his bearings, he was unceremoniously dumped into a holding tank and the lid was shut and locked above him.
The taste of the water was disgusting and unlike anything Leonard had ever encountered before. The only light was from his own bioluminescence, but he found it didn't matter much as there was nothing to see in the small enclosure. Without warning, the water began to slosh and Leonard had to work to keep himself from being beaten against the sides. Never having seen a ship before, he had no way of knowing the that sloshing meant that the ship was now moving - taking him far from everyone and everything he had ever known.
Time was impossible to keep track of - Leonard's body was used to responding to the feeling of the water and the tug of the tides, but none of that touched the hold filled with stale water.
Whoever or whatever his captors were, they apparently had experience in keeping sea dwellers alive. Some device periodically caused bubbles to ripple through the water and breathing was always easier during those times. The largest problem was food. Very little of what they tossed in was edible to him as they seemed to assume he ate flesh, but there were enough plants mixed in to keep him alive, if not thriving.
By the time the hatch was opened wide again, Leonard was too weak and lethargic to fight against being pulled out. Every rib in his torso stood out clearly and the blues of his markings and scales were dull, not that he could notice it for himself. The light blinded him after so long in the enclosed hold.
Before he could fully comprehend what was happening, he had been dumped again, but this time into a sizable tank with clear sides. As his vision cleared, he found to his disgust that he had apparently been put on display by the land dwellers. Then the sight of another display nearby made him glad there was little on his stomach. There were several bodies of others of his kind along with merfolk from pods he'd never seen. All were obviously dead, but somehow preserved and posed in a mockery of how they looked when they were alive.
A noise from the side drew his attention and he watched in dismay as the thing that had brought him to this place left again. The cry he emitted was forlorn, sounding like a cross between seal and whale to any that had ever heard those animals before. Leonard was further taken aback as the crowds staring at him applauded at the sound as if he'd performed a trick.
His days quickly became monotonous. The only improvement was that who was keeping him captive now knew more about what he could eat, but even so, it was never fresh and always slightly rotted by the time it was given to him and Leonard was never given enough to ever feel full. The tank had a constant flow of water taken directly from the nearby ocean, but the openings would have been too small for him to fit through even if there weren't bars blocking them. A tent blocked the direct sunlight from his tank to protect his skin, but the brightness of day still stung his eyes.
Still, worse than the gnawing hunger and the brightness was the people. From the time the sun rose until the moon was high overhead, there was almost never a moment when he wasn't being stared at and there was nothing in the tank to take sanctuary behind. The land dwellers were all around, but he knew that they viewed him as he viewed fish and crabs. He'd never known such intense loneliness.
In the dark of night when he was finally truly alone, Leonard would give out the call that his parents had taught him - the song of the lost ones. He knew he was far from any pod that recognized the song, but being able to give voice to his feelings without the land dwellers being around gave him some small measure of comfort. Tonight, the paler disc that he now knew to be called the moon was out and fully round. He didn't look directly at it, but rather at the reflection of it on the open water - so very near but so impossible far - as he sang.
The full moon always made Jim feel like he could leap out of the water and touch it. As usual, he was ignoring all the cautions his elders had tried to drill in him. But he really didn't see how they could fault him. What was a full moon for if not to race alongside of the dolphins underneath it?
The two dolphins he was playing with were old friends that he had known since they were calves. They raced each other, played tag and other games until all three needed to take a break. They were close enough to see the shoreline in the distance as they slowed to a lazy swim. Jim's golden scales took on a silvery glow in the moonlight and he flipped to expose his stomach to the moon so he could admire the play of light over his tail.
Now that it was quiet, all three stilled as they heard a sound none of them had heard before - a song that was more of a lament. Jim didn't know what the words meant, but the emotion behind them tugged at his heart. They also puzzled him. The seas were calm, the weather delightful and the moon full. How could anyone be so sorrowful on a night like this?
Despite his cavalier seeming ways, Jim was very aware of the dangers that the land dwellers and their ships represented. His own father had been killed by them after he'd angered them by breaking one of their traps and freeing Jim's mother. She had been unable to save herself due to being in the process of giving birth to Jim - he had entered the world as his father was leaving it.
He had no intentions of letting the land dwellers get too close to him, but his curiosity wouldn't let him leave without seeing what creature was singing. Diving down, Jim hugged the bottom until he judged he was close. Then he gradually came to the surface, keeping a close eye out for traps.
Breaking the surface, his mouth dropped open in shock. It was a merman - but not a mer variety that he'd ever seen before. All the merfolk he'd ever seen had tails as bright as his golden one - bright yellows, reds, purples, oranges, greens and, yes, blue - but bright blues. Not the dark blue of the merman up on the wooden structure.
Jim had always loved the night sky and he decided that this beautiful mer's coloration was his favorite shade of the evening sky. The condition of him worried Jim though once he looked closer. The unknown male was practically nothing but fin and bones. Quickly, he swam around the area, spotting both the intake where the water was drawn into the tank and the outtake as well.
There was still plenty of night left, so Jim swam quickly to an area where seaweed grew thick and lush. Gathering enough for a good meal, he swam back with the harvest in his arms and positioned himself by the intake. Then carefully, he pulled free one long strand for the bunch and let the water pull it into the tank.
Leonard almost missed it when the strand came into his tank - and then he almost lost it to the outtake hole before he recovered from his surprise enough to grab it. The taste of it was different than the seaweed that he was used to, but not different in a bad way. He knew he should probably try to save some for another time, but Leonard was so hungry that it was quickly devoured.
He was shocked to see another strand coming in, but grabbed hold of it as well. The seaweed was fresh, not the slimy trash that he'd been surviving off of. This time, he ate it slower, able to enjoy the taste of his food for the first time since his capture. Curiosity drew him to the side of the tank the intake was on and he pressed against the clear surface to try to get a better look.
At first, he thought the moonlight was playing tricks on his eyes and he longed to be able to look at the water without having the barrier of clear material in the way. But then he saw the flash of gold again.
As if feeling the eyes on him, Jim surfaced and made eye contact with the blue-scaled mer. Flashing him a smile, he held up another strand of seaweed before diving to send it through the intake.
It was like his problem with the first strand. Leonard nearly lost it because he was so shocked at the appearance of the other mer. A golden mer was a thing of legend where he was from, far from the reality of the dark blue, green and black scales found among the mer in the pods of his home. He managed to catch the strand, then swam back to the side and watched to see if the golden male appeared again.
Jim broke the surface again and took another long look at the thing the blue mer was imprisoned in. He realized he couldn't send more food through - there wasn't even a tiny place were anything could be hidden. Then a splashing and chattering from nearby drew his attention. It was his dolphin friends warning him that the sky was starting to lighten. As much as he hated the thought of leaving the blue mer alone, he knew he couldn't be in these waters safely during the daylight hours. He gave a wave and then disappeared beneath the surface again before heading out to the deeper waters.
Still holding onto the seaweed, Leonard continued to look at the last place he'd seen the golden one for many minutes before finally starting to eat again. Seeing another mer so close without being able to talk to or touch him made the loneliness more intense, but also offered him a glimmer of hope. Between that and real food in his stomach, Leonard managed to get some sleep. His dreams were filled with that smile and the flashes of golden scales.
Sleep didn't come to Jim that night. As his dolphin friends watched in concern, he swam in lazy circles as he thought. One thing he knew for certain was that the life of a mer in land dweller hands was bound to lead to death. His mother had explained it to him as their greed. They could do as they pleased on the land, but they weren't happy with that. They also wanted mastery of air and water, envying those that had it to the point of killing them. And, she pointed out, never once taking into account that the masters of the air did not fare well on land or water nor did the creatures of water seek to master air and land. No, only the land dwellers wanted it all for themselves and if they could not get it, they would take it from those that had it.
He had wondered about her words. How could anyone take the water from them? But wasn't that exactly what they had done to the blue mer? He was in water, but not enough to do more than swim in a tight circle. Even worse, he could see what he was being denied. Jim couldn't miss seeing the longing in those strangely colored expressive eyes.
The more he thought about it, the more determined he became. He was going to find a way to free the trapped bony mer. Jim smiled to himself. He didn't know the mer's name, but for now, he'd call him Bones.
From the distance, Jim's mother watched the obvious agitation of her only son. Finally, Ona couldn't stand it any longer and went swimming over to him. Her scales were also golden, but a paler gold than her son who had taken the brighter gold coloration after his father. Since he was swimming in circles, catching up to him wasn't difficult.
"Jim? What ails you? Are you feeling the bad weather that Chris says is coming?"
Flipping his tail to shift his direction, Jim turned to face his mother.
"Bad weather? When?"
"A day. Perhaps two, but no more than that. You know Chris is always right about these things. We will all need to keep to the deep water during the storm."
"I don't have much time then. I've got to get him out."
Reaching out to touch Jim's shoulder, Ona frowned.
"What are you talking about? Get who out?"
As his mother's frown deepened, Jim realized he hadn't explained anything. He quickly told her about hearing the song and the sad captive mer he'd found. To Jim's dismay, she didn't seem concerned about the other mer at all. In fact, she seemed cross at him for even mentioning the other mer.
"He sounds like a Northern mer - they are different from us, Jim. Leave him be. For all you know, he's working with the land dwellers and is trying to lure you into a trap."
Her words stunned Jim, but it was her next words that angered him.
"I forbid you to go anywhere near that strange mer again."
Jim snapped at her.
"You were in a trap yourself once. Did you like it so much that you'd condemn another mer to one?"
Angered herself, Ona lost her temper and struck Jim, one of her sharp nails leaving a mark on his face and drawing blood. She drew back immediately, ashamed of what she'd done.
"Jim . . . I . . ."
She found herself speaking to herself and all she saw of Jim was the flash of his flukes as he swiftly swam away from her. Not knowing where else to turn, Ona swam back as quickly as she could to find Chris.
Jim swam hard and fast, angry and hurt, but determined. His mother was wrong. She hadn't heard the sound of Bones' song. She hadn't looked into those eyes. Fine. He didn't need her permission. He would find a way to rescue Bones. The storm might give him an opening.
It was still far too early for Jim to get too near the surface without fear of being seen, so he returned to swimming in lazy circles and thinking over ways to help Bones. He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn't even realize that Chris was near before the powerful older mer grabbed hold of his arm and jerked him to a stop. He didn't look angry at Jim, but he did look annoyed.
"Jim, you know how Ona feels about you getting so close to land. And you know from the stories of the Elders that not all other mer can be trusted. Especially the cold water mers."
Jerking his arm out of Chris' grasp, Jim pointed upward.
"There are land dwellers around, so be careful - but go take a look at Bones. If you can meet my eyes after seeing him and tell me that you honestly believe that he's trying to help trap me? I'll go away and never return. But I don't believe I'll be going anywhere."
There was no doubt about Jim's sincerity and his conviction made Chris wonder if maybe Ona was wrong herself. Knowing there was only one way to tell, Chris gave Jim a nod.
"Fine - I'll go look at this Bones of yours. Promise that you'll wait here for me?"
"Like I said - I'm not going anywhere."
Glad for once that his silvery tail would look like the light of the rising moon on the water to the land dwellers, Chris carefully surfaced. He'd never admit it to Jim, but Chris had been every bit as brazen as Jim in his youth and had picked up on the languages the air breathers used. What he heard wasn't good.
"The weather's starting to look bad. If we kill the mer now, won't the taxidermist still be able to preserve him up nice?"
"No, you idiot. If a man doesn't know his work, a mer's ruined within an hour. They lose all the color out of their scales and markings not long after they die - that man paid his gold for that mer looking like he does now. You want to hand all those coins back to him?"
The younger man grumbled, but shook his head.
"Then be sensible. Old Nero knows how to keep the color from leaching away and that's a secret he guards close. That old tank's stood strong for many a storm before this. The mer will be fine, but we need to get the other mer pieces inside and batten down our shop. Come on."
Waiting until the men were further away, Chris moved to get a better look at the captive. One thing seemed obvious - the mer knew what his fate was going to be - his eyes were focused on one of the dead mers on display. And now that he thought he was alone, Leonard began to sing again.
As the sound reached him, Jim trembled. There might be things he wasn't sure of, but he was sure that nothing could make a sound like that without feeling it. The utter desolation of it made him want to grab the blue mer and comfort him. He saw Chris swimming back down to him and stilled, waiting expectantly. He was surprised when Chris grabbed his arm again and started to drag him along.
"Come on, Jim. We're going . . ."
Jerking back, Jim shook his head.
"No! I'm not leaving Bones!"
Chris looked back into the bright blue eyes.
"We aren't leaving him. We're going to get help and get him out of that tank before they kill him."
Jim's mouth dropped open and Chris found he was the one being pulled for a moment until Jim realized he didn't know where they were going. Smirking, Chris took the lead with Jim literally right on his tail.
The gathering clouds had covered the moon before Chris started to let out a call of his own. Jim's favorite companions might be dolphins, but Chris had long been friends with an orca and the black and white behemoth soon answered his call. Jim had heard tales of the orca from Chris, but had never laid eyes on it before. As the sheer size of the orca registered, Jim began to smile. Something that large could surely shove that tank off of the dock and once it was in the water, they'd be able to free Bones.
As Chris moved closer to the orca, Jim held back and found his attention was more and more on Chris. He knew, of course, that the silver mer was a hero among his people, but that was for deeds done before Jim was born. Now he was seeing the mer that the stories were told about. The strong, determined mer that let nothing stand in his way once he'd made up his mind. Jim felt a swell of pride as he watched his foster father and slipped to swim alongside Chris as the three of them headed back toward the dock.
When they got closer, the orca heard - and understood - Leonard's song. Making the answering call, the orca sped up. Chris was surprised, but picked up his speed to keep up. Jim was struggling to keep pace, but he wasn't about to fall behind.
The orca's call came to Leonard through the intake. Even knowing he couldn't possibly see it, Leonard pressed against the side of the tank and looked over the water - now black from refelecting the storm clouds. Lightning was already flashing and making seeing anything even more difficult. He called back to the orca to let it know he'd heard it and then began swimming in tight circles in his tank. He'd never been above water in a storm and it was making him anxious.
A splash and a flash drew his attention closer and Leonard thought his heart would stop when the golden mer leapt out of the water again. He quickly swam to that side of the tank and pressed against the surface.
Seeing that he had the blue mer's attention, Jim surfaced and smiled. He wished there was a way to warn Bones exactly what was about to happen, but the best he could do was point toward the orca as it rose to the surface and blew.
Leonard barely dared to hope, but when he saw the orca and heard its' next call, he wished there was something he could brace against. A minute later, he was tumbling inside of the tank as the orca shoved it off of the dock with a single push. By the time he recovered his senses, Leonard watched as the golden mer was joined by a silver one. Between the three of them, the already weakened top was soon pried off and Leonard entered open waters again for the first time in weeks. Jim gave a cheer and was talking excitedly.
Finally free and now actually facing the golden and silver mers, Leonard felt grateful, embarrassed and slightly shy. Grateful because it was plain that they'd brought the orca there to free him. Embarrassed because he didn't know a word that the golden one was saying and, since he didn't know their language, Leonard couldn't thank them properly. Shy - well, shy because the golden mer was easily the most attractive mer that Leonard had ever seen.
A nudge from behind by the orca ended his staring and he turned to the great beast. At least he could thank it properly. Then he heard a familiar sound from the silver mer and smiled. They both knew orca. It was a very limited language, but at least they could communicate.
When he swam over to the other two mer, he found himself being wrapped in a hug by the golden one and found that the closeness didn't bother him a bit. The silver one laughed and motioned away from the docks. Leonard agreed - it was time to get away from land and into deeper waters.
Still being hugged by the golden one - who the silver one was calling Jim - Leonard gave a timid hug in return and, when Jim pulled back, Leonard smiled for the first time since his capture. Jim was smitten - he began to think of all the ways he could make that smile appear more often.
Leonard hesitated for a moment, then took hold of one of Jim's hands before starting to swim after the silver one. Jim clasped his hand in return. After a minute, Leonard used his free hand to touch himself.
Jim grinned and let his own free hand trail along the still-prominent ribs of the blue mer.
Chris laughed again and called back a translation to Leonard. The blue mer joined in with the laughter and Jim suddenly wanted to hear more of that as well. Then Leonard looked straight at Jim again and used his hand to brush against the side of Jim's face.
Smiling broadly, Jim began to think of everything he wanted to do. He wanted to take his Bones to the coves he knew where land dwellers didn't go and show him how to bask on the warm sands. He wanted to show him his treasures - the beautiful shells and pearls he had collected - and he was already thinking over which ones that would look best against the blue markings, planning to make him trinkets to wear like he enjoyed wearing himself sometimes. He wanted to run his fingers through the dark hair - run a hand along the blue scales. Most of all, Jim wanted to keep him close. He never wanted to see the sad and lonely look ever cross Bones' face again.
Almost as if he could sense the thoughts behind the smile, Leonard gave a light squeeze to the hand he was holding, then laughed again as the blue eyes lit up with pleasure at the gesture. The words of his father's mother came back to him. It seemed that he'd found his new home, his sanctuary, and it wasn't a place. It was Jim - the golden mer with bluer than blue eyes.
Chris had swum ahead to give his own thanks and say farewell to his orca friend. He watched the sleek black and white form disappear then turned to look at the two younger mer swimming toward him. Much as it bothered him to admit it, there was a very good chance Leonard would be rejected by their group - Ona had already wanted to reject him, sight unseen, even though her son's attachment had been unmistakable.
As he waited on the pair to catch up to him, Chris knew that driving away Leonard would equal driving away Jim. He had no doubts from watching them that they would, despite the barriers of culture and language, go off to form their own pod. A smile forming, he thought he might join them himself. He had been staying close to home too long and the wanderlust he'd left back when he was Jim's age came back to him like a siren's call.
Flipping around so that Leonard was protectively between the two, Chris felt the fatherly instincts he felt toward Jim expand to include Leonard as well. Reaching over to lay a protective hand on Leonard's shoulder, Chris was pleased to see that his overture wasn't rebuffed by Leonard and that Jim beamed over at him for the show of support.
Life under the waves had just gotten a bit more interesting.