When she woke up this morning, Sameen Shaw was not prepared for her life to change so drastically. That was the point of throwing away her job, her dangerous life in the city, to come to this part of the world, wasn’t it? She was absolutely not, capital N, O, T, looking for adventure of any kind. That’s the whole bloody point.
It started out innocently enough, as all things do. Shaw got up like clockwork before dawn, checked on the chickens at the back of her hut, and then rose to haul her nets into her small boat. The other fishermen prefer catching squid at the witching hour, but Shaw came here to be alone, and she isn’t interested in small talk. They learn quickly, and leave her alone. She does her fishing after they have retired, but before the sun rises. Squid don’t like the sun.
There’s three boats still missing from the beach, but Shaw didn’t really pay it much mind.
But when she paddles out to sea, her old military training kicks in, and she notices quite a ruckus. The waves are choppy, this close to monsoon, but that is to be expected. What is unexpected, is the shouting she can hear in the far distance. In the quiet of the village and sea, every sound travels for miles. She frowns and heads toward it.
The sounds are getting louder when she feels her boat rock to one side harshly, and something bumps into the bottom of the left side. This is it, Shaw thinks: ex-military, the once feared shadow assassin of the United States Government, and she’s about to be eaten by a shark.
But then Shaw hears a very human gasp, and she scrambles to the side of the boat, peering into the water. She is wholly unprepared for the sight that greets her. A woman, struggling against a large net, is thrashing wildly against her boat, fingernails trying to grasp at the wood.
Instinct drives her, and she clambers to pull the woman free from the net. She almost topples over- Okay, yup, she’s toppling over.
The choppy water hits her and noise drowns out, the eerie loudness of the sea swallowing her. She flails for a moment, fighting to find her bearings. When she manages to next open her eyes, Shaw thinks she might have already drowned, and is in the afterlife.
A mermaid. There is a mermaid in front of her.
Shimmering green, blue, red, pink scales cover a magnificent tail twice the length of the mermaid’s torso. It- she, definitely a she, Shaw thinks hazily- was completely tangled up in a large net.
The mermaid thrashes more, the net trapping her in place, and there’s blood in the water. Shaw swims with great difficulty toward the mermaid, the waves knocking them both about, and fumbles blindly under her boot. Her fingers close around the handle of the back up switchback she keeps, and she flicks it open.
The glint of the smooth blade catches the light, and the mermaid suddenly starts hissing and slapping her tail harder against the net. Shaw’s clothes feel heavy, but she kicks harder in the water, closing her other hand onto the net. The mermaid tries to shake Shaw off violently, and Shaw kicks her in retaliation.
Then, when she has the chance, Shaw reaches up with the knife, even as the mermaid bites down onto her other hand. Pain burns through her as she cuts through the rope, but she doesn’t stop. She nicks one square of the lattice of the net, and then another, until the hole Shaw made is big enough for the mermaid to swat her to one side and forcefully swim out.
Shaw feels lightheaded, and her vision drowsy. She kicks to try to get to the surface, but her clothes are so heavy, and the rough waves knock her back twice. Her thoughts blur together, the sea dark and compressing.
Well, Shaw thinks, at least it wasn’t a shark. But even as she starts to black out, she catches sight of glittering scales, of a woman’s elegant bare torso.
The last things she sees are light, hazel brown eyes.
Shaw chokes into life in the scorching sun, spluttering and spitting out water. She heaves, coughing. Her body aches, and it takes a while to gain her bearings. The smell of salt is heavy in the air. There’s a slight rocking motion. Boat. She’s on her boat. She coughs again, and spits. And then she startles and rush backward.
There is a naked woman on her boat, back facing her, lying on her side. Shaw fumbles as she tries to remember. There was shouting. There was a mermaid.
There is no doubt, that said mermaid, is currently lying on her boat, naked, without a tail. Shaw opens and closes her mouth. She was so sure that it was a mermaid. She’s gone mad with the heat, she thinks. What a cliché, for her to being a fisherman, and have fisherman dreams. Mermaid, indeed. She scolds herself, and takes a breath. She scans the boat.
Thankfully, both oars were locked to their handles. Shaw didn’t have friends here who would be worried if she went missing, so she’d made the effort to rope the oars around their handles. In the event that she dropped them, she’d be able to reel them back in.
She stares at the woman for a while, wondering if she should wake her.
The woman is injured. There is blood on the boat.
Perhaps she was a friend of the fishermen she heard shouting last night, and they had been trying to find her. She’ll sort that out later, Shaw tells herself. She’d best be getting back to shore first.
It’s past mid-afternoon when Shaw gets back to the village, and the village is mostly empty. The fishermen who fish at night would be asleep, and those that prefer the day catching are out at sea, so Shaw carries the woman back to her hut first. She takes great care in trying to preserve the woman’s modesty, in case someone does see them.
Only when Shaw’s placed the mermaid on the floor, does she examine her injuries. Her right foot is twisted at an angle, and there is a deep gash on her right thigh and smaller abrasions on the calf connected to it. Shaw inspects the gash. Harpoon, most likely. Ripped through quite a fair bit of muscle too. She gets a blanket, and drapes it over the woman without thinking much into it.
Shaw digs through her drawers, and finds some old antibiotics, and bandages. She might have come to a village, but it doesn’t mean she can’t have a first aid kit. People here die from flus, you know.
Shaw had placed the woman to lie on her left side, so that her wounds face upwards, easier for Shaw to do her work. It’s when she presses a rag dipped in disinfectant that the woman jolts awake, an elbow catching Shaw in the chest. She grunts, and the woman kicks and struggles to get up, and falls down as she makes a high pitched noise in pain. They both stare at her ankle, red and twisted.
“Stop that, I’m trying to help,” Shaw says, attempting to calm the kicking and snarling woman. The woman looks defiantly at her then, and Shaw sees recognition slowly creep into her eyes.
The woman stops fighting, but doesn’t relax. Her body is taut with tension and poised to spring and run any moment, but she watches Shaw intently as Shaw bandages her thigh, and construct a makeshift cast for her ankle.
She makes hissing noises when Shaw uses disinfectant, and Shaw has to assure her that she isn’t trying to maim her. She also refuses to take the antibiotics. Well, that was a long-shot anyway, Shaw thinks, considering how menacing she looks with a needle in her hand.
“Fine, let your wound rot,” Shaw huffs after the fourth attempt, the woman finally knocking the syringe out of her hand. They stare angrily into each other’s eyes for a long time.
The woman is very, very handsome. She’s got sharp eyes, a well-defined nose, and lips just the right shade of pink. Even as she’s wounded, her face does not betray the state of her injuries. She has long brown hair, long dried since they’ve emerged from the sea, and her skin is alabaster white, almost like she’s never been in the sun. Her limbs are long and elegant, her figure pneumatic. It’s only when Shaw realizes that she is staring at the woman’s body, and the woman is watching very closely, that Shaw jumps up, putting her things away.
When she turns back from her drawers, she is greeted with an odd sight.
The woman has, very carefully placed the blanket Shaw gave her over her legs, completely covering them, leaving her torso bare.
When Shaw goes into the heart of the village later, she contemplates asking if anyone’s lost a friend. But there is something off about the atmosphere, and the fishermen are all talking in hushed voices.
Shaw thinks of the woman’s odd actions to cover her legs, and her absence of modesty toward her breasts. She thinks if she were a friend of a fisherman, she wouldn’t be naked at sea, unless their intentions toward her were not quite so friendly.
So she exchanges coin for herbs at the village healer, and gets fodder for chicken feed, and doesn’t speak a word else to anyone.
Shaw’s starting to think the mermaid wasn’t a dream after all.
When Shaw enters her hut much later, it is a mess. The woman has unfurled her bandages, thrown it haphazardly around her room, and is trying to push her foot back in place. She is not so successful at stifling her whimpers of pain. Alarmed, Shaw makes to move closer, then switches direction halfway and reaches for a large oversized shirt that she considers pyjamas.
Shaw flings it at the woman.
“Look, I am going to help you, but first put on the shirt. This is,” Shaw pauses, looking for the right word. “Inappropriate.”
The woman glares at her stubbornly, and Shaw crosses the distance in three steps, grabbing the shirt herself and trying to put it on the woman. She snatches it out of Shaw’s hands, then, and they have another staring match before Shaw sighs exasperatedly.
“Fine, then put it on yourself.” The woman continues to glare, but eventually puts it on, but keeps the blanket over the legs. The shirt reaches down to mid-thigh, and Shaw is relieved. Shaw lets the woman continue her campaign of glaring, and moves to clean up the mess. She picks up the bandages, grumbling to no one.
“Do you know how hard it is to get gauze out here? You’ve cost me a lot of money.” She rolls up the bandages, wondering if there are any clean parts to be salvaged.
“Not that it matters, since I’m not going back to the city,” Shaw mutters.
“And you’ve destroyed the splint for your ankle, and now where are we going to find something to cast your foot?” Shaw makes another aggravated noise. “You don’t even speak English, do you? I am going to kill something-”
That was rather careless of her, because the woman growls and makes to get up again and Shaw has to calm her down, shouting, “not you! I’m not trying to hurt you!”
It is a long time before the woman relaxes, and she watches Shaw clean the room with gauging eyes.
“I know your tongue.”
It is the way the woman speaks these words, her voice sounding so alien wrapping around the syllables, as though she was trying it out for the first time, that makes Shaw finally sigh. The woman is trying to look at her own mouth now, and is moving her tongue and teeth in testing motions.
“You’re really a mermaid, aren’t you? I didn’t- this isn’t just some weird dream, is it?”
The woman stares back impassively, and then jerks her head in what appears to be an attempt at a nod.
“I was a doctor,” When the mermaid blinks blankly at her, Shaw tries again, “Physician, healer.” Shaw gestures, waving her hands, not knowing how to explain. “I fix wounds.”
The mermaid quirks up a lip and relieve her of her trouble.
This time, when Shaw re-bandages her thigh, and uses what remains of the wood as a splint for her foot, the mermaid does not resist.
Shaw has had a rather trying day, by all accounts, so it’s only when night falls that she has time to care about her own wound. Her hut is not very spacious, and she has nowhere else to put the mermaid, so she makes the mermaid rest in her bed. It’s better anyway, than letting the mermaid lie on the floor in the middle of her hut, blocking her way.
Shaw rests on the wall near the mermaid’s feet, so that she can monitor her and react if need be, the entrance to the hut on the left. It’s an old military habit, to be aware of position. Only then, does she inspect her own knuckles, the ones that the mermaid had clamped on the night before. She stretches and shakes her fingers. She doesn’t think anything is broken.
The mermaid is watching her.
Shaw makes exaggerated movements to disinfect, clean and bandage her knuckles, and then injecting the antibiotics into her arm, to demonstrate that it is normal.
She tries to administer a shot to the mermaid again, but the mermaid is stubborn. Shaw’s getting really irritated. It’s good medicine. But she doesn’t force the issue.
Two days later, Shaw takes a bicycle and cycles to the supply store, to buy medicinal herbs- the organic stuff. She figures that the mermaid will be less unwilling if the medicine is made of plants.
She catches the mermaid looking through her things when she comes back, and snatches a bunch of letters out of the mermaid’s grasp.
The mermaid points to the repeated scribble of the addressee and looks at Shaw.
The mermaid jabs the repeated words harder.
“That’s my name. Sameen. Shaw.”
“Shaw,” she says, testing it out on her lips, and sounds almost incredulous, “you inscribe your name on these flimsy things?”
It occurs to Shaw, that the mermaid has never seen paper. Shaw ignores her. She takes out the herbs and arranges it neatly in front of her, in between them.
She grinds them to a nice, juicy pulp with a small mortar and pestle, in front of the mermaid, letting her see. Then she approaches the mermaid, and moves to apply the paste to her calf, to the multitude of scratches that didn’t warrant a bandage. The mermaid jerks her leg away.
“Your wound will fester,” Shaw barks testily, “if you do not accept the medicine.” The mermaid scoffs.
“You will die,” Shaw warns, frustrated with the lack of cooperation.
“Then it is my fate, human.”
“You really want death so much? Then I should have let the other fishermen take you.”
“At least then I would have died with dignity,” the mermaid snaps, angered, her hair crackling with static. Before Shaw can respond, the mermaid carries on her tirade, seeming to release her pent up anger all at once. “Instead of here, reduced to this. I have lost my tail, being trapped in your lair for three days and three nights. I-, Mighty Poseidon save me, I have legs!”
The mermaid wails this last part with absolute lament and revulsion, gesturing wildly with her palms. Shaw blinks and automatically glances down at the mermaid’s long thin legs peeking out from the oversized shirt. Then Shaw tears her gaze immediately back upwards from pale alabaster skin, hairless and elegantly shaped, embarrassed by her ungainly staring. The mermaid does not notice, too embroiled was she in her own fury.
“Are you quite done?” Shaw says gruffly, and the mermaid puffs out her chest and stubbornly, deliberately turns away. Shaw purses her lips, and wedges herself closer to the bed, dragging her mortar with her on the floor. It makes croaking noises as it scraps the rocky surface of the ground.
“When you’re well,” Shaw deadpans, scooping up a generous amount of the grinded paste with her fingers, “you can smite all the humans with Poseidon’s trident all you want.”
The mermaid flinches at the flippant way Shaw speaks, and widens her eyes at her, indignant.
“Tis no laughing matter!” The mermaid exclaims, but Shaw smirks and barely manages not to laugh.
When Shaw takes the medicine and applies it on the mermaid’s calf, the mermaid hisses and twitches whenever it stings, but that is the last time she refuses Shaw’s help.
She even allows Shaw to remove her bandages, apply the herbs onto her thigh, and then rewrap them. Shaw thinks they are making progress.
“You look like me,” Shaw starts to say, and then regrets it instantly. The mermaid had been staring at her working hands intently, observing her pounding of the medicinal herbs, as has been their routine, for several nights now, but now snaps upward to look at her. Cringing, Shaw tries to salvage it, aware of how offensive that sounds.
“I don’t mean you look like me- I mean- I don’t-” Shaw fumbles- this was not coming out not the way she intended it to be.
“I know what you meant, human,” the mermaid says easily, cutting through Shaw’s blabber, clearly amused, before tilting her head in question. “Why should I not?”
“I don’t know. I thought, I don’t know, I thought maybe you’d-”
“-Look like a monster? Giant fangs, webbed fingers, claws for nails?” The mermaid supplies helpfully. Shaw starts to scowl, but it strikes her suddenly that the mermaid was teasing her, the nerve. Shaw resists the urge to stick out her tongue at the mermaid.
“Maybe bright green hair? Who knows what a seaweed diet does to your system,” Shaw grumbles instead.
The mermaid’s eyes widen for a fraction, possibly surprised, and then bursts out laughing. It is a twinkling sound, like wind chimes, high-pitched inflections that are lilting and light. It resonates tangibly inside of Shaw’s chest, as though it physically reached deep inside her, and Shaw is filled with the sudden absurdity that it did.
“Oh no, we only eat humans,” the mermaid says, eyes full of mirth, “and we only like them small, short and grumpy. Bonus points if they’re tanned and like fishing.”
Disconcerted with the mermaid’s playful tone, Shaw doesn’t find the appropriate response. Instead she refocuses her efforts with the mortar and pestle, and grinds her herbs harder, until the paste becomes a little too watery and limp.
The mermaid says nothing else, thankfully, and allows Shaw to apply the medicine onto her thigh again.
“You didn’t tell the others.” Shaw says nothing.
“About me,” the mermaid clarifies, “You didn’t inform your brethren.” Shaw snorts.
“They would have killed you.”
The mermaid is indiscernible for a long time. Shaw makes her way outside, and a travelling medicine-man stops by the village. Shaw barters one of her chickens away from more medicine. The mermaid is in the same exact position when she returns. Shaw frowns at her.
“You have saved my life,” the mermaid says, uncertainly, “and I owe you a great debt.” The mermaid switches from hesitation to an outright seductive tone. “Would you like treasure? There have been many ships led by your species, sunk to the bottom of the sea…”
Shaw frowns more, and one of the mermaid’s eyebrow twitches in amusement.
“Do not you, desire gold?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Shaw huffs, “I’m a fisherman in a village seven miles from the nearest supply store. Currency holds no weight here. What am I going to do with your gold?”
The mermaid’s eyes sparkle at her, seemingly taking enjoyment in Shaw’s brusqueness, and her dismissal of shipwreck treasure.
“Name me your price then, Shaw,” the mermaid says, now clearly grinning. It irritates Shaw.
“I live a quiet life at the beach. I fish and I sleep. Keep your... reward. I don't want anything.”
This seems to interest the mermaid, and she angles her head at Shaw contemplatively, her eyes trailing down Shaw’s lithe form and back up again several times. The scrutiny stretches for minutes, the mermaid’s cross-examination unhurried. Finally, Shaw crosses her arms in front of her defensively, huffing and looking away from the mermaid’s intensely twinkling eyes. Only then does the mermaid address her again.
“You have been kind toward me, Sameen Shaw, a concept I have not encountered in your kind in quite some time. It is troubling, that you will not request your fee. But I must repay this life-debt, so I will give you the most precious gift I can.”
Shaw makes to protest with a bothered wave of her hand, but the mermaid silences her with A Grave Look, before she closes her eyes and turn solemn.
“What do you know, Sameen Shaw, of true names?” The mermaid asks, but she doesn’t seem to be expecting a reply.
“I have been called many names over the years… Naiad, Melusine… Anahita- a personal favourite,” she purrs, the syllables curling around her tongue smoothly and teasingly, as though the words enjoyed being spoken as much as she did, speaking them. Shaw could feel magic in the air, as though the words were not quite so simple words, but that they held power, meaning pulled from the dips and curves of those choruses.
“I have been named Nerin, Siren, Devil Fish,” She says the last one with great scorn. Though her lips quirk up in a smirk, her eyes twitch, clearly annoyed with the injustice of having that associated with her. The air ripples with tension as her teeth click together. Her hair seemed to rise with static when she becomes agitated, and deflates when she calms.
“I have been shunned as one of the Dark creatures that were not granted passage onto Noah’s Ark,” she says, and her expression shifts into something softer then, as she soothes her hair down, looking out to the sea.
“And you call me, Mermaid,” she says quietly, inhaling effortlessly. Her eyes turn forgiving, filled with melancholy and longing the longer she gazes out to the beach.
“But from the goddess you call Atargatis herself, The Divine Beauty, she who gave birth to my mother, I was given the name Root,” she finishes, her long wavy hair seeming to curl and uncurl by itself, possessing its own will no matter the direction of the breeze. It seemed to shiver as her true name leaves her lips, excited and vibrating.
Her name invokes in Shaw a strange sense of heightenedness, of sudden grip over the mermaid in front of her. The colours of the mermaid’s hair twinkle brighter, her pale skin seeming to glow unearthly, ever so slightly. The skin on the mermaid’s legs suddenly shimmer when the sunlight falls on it in a specific angle, like fish scales, and all at once Shaw understood the gravity of the mermaid’s gift.
Shaw blinks, and the image is gone.
Surprised, and overcome with great humility, Shaw could only manage a stiff nod.
The mermaid- Root, she does not look back at Shaw, her attention now solely captivated by the steady coiling of the tide far out on the beach, and Shaw feels intrusive, as though she is witnessing something private. She gathers her small mortar of medicinal herbs, and leaves her mermaid to her musings.
She makes sure to pat down the straw at the hut’s entrance to block wandering eyes peeping in, wondering why she cares that Root ought not be disturbed.
Shaw catches Root doing weird things sometimes, like opening and closing her legs repeatedly. Mostly she sits with her legs pressed together, as though she still thinks of them as a tail.
Shaw has been feeding Root with vegetation on land, because she hasn’t had the time to go out to sea, and the summer monsoon season is dangerous to be venturing out anyway. Shaw’s had some rice and vegetable saved up, bought from the supply hut, and she has managed to tide them both over for now.
But one day when the sky is bright and the waves look gentler than usual, Shaw decides that its time for some protein. So she takes her boat out while Root is playing with her Rubik’s cube (Root is both delighted by Shaw’s mastery over it, and violently furious that she herself cannot figure it out. She insists Shaw is using magic, ‘a dastardly trick!’), and manages to bring back a net of small fishes. It is not the best catch, but hey, what’s a poor fisherman, but subject to the wind and tide?
Shaw hadn’t been one to give thought to uh, arbitrary details, so she’s not expecting it when she first presents Root with a proper grilled dinner, and Root gives her an affronted look, proceeding to critic Shaw’s cooking skills.
“What did you do Shaw, strike it with lightning?”
“No,” Shaw frowns, “I smoked it over a fire.” Root curls her mouth in disgust and orders her to get the stinking pile of burnt flesh away. Shaw shrugs her off and digs into her hard-won meal. Shaw briefly considers punishing Root by asking Root to get her own dinner, but then Root looks over longingly every time Shaw takes a bite and makes pathetic whimpering noises in her direction. Root’s stomach also growls, very often and very loudly.
After she is done with her meal, making sure to make satisfied noises, she pointedly smirks over at Root, who attempts to cast her a disdainful look, and goes back outside the tent to her storage trunk. Shaw has only the stomach for two fishes, but her net had caught a fair amount more. She had thought to store it and keep it for the next few days, but oh well, better to have them fresh anyway. She doesn’t think about why she cares if her guest has fresh fish.
She grabs the biggest two (she doesn’t know why that matters either) by the caudal and goes back to the hut, and almost drops them in laughter at Root’s indignant and hungry stare. Shaw makes to present them to Root very slowly, fussing about and telling Root, no, no, let me get a plate, please, I insist- and Root is narrowing her eyes and baring her teeth and Shaw absolutely loves it.
And then when Shaw is close enough, and she hadn’t been expecting it honestly, her houseguest lunges for the nearer fish and swipes it clean out of Shaw’s grip. And then Shaw watches with fascination and she’ll admit, a little horror, as Root happily attacks her meal.
“Mollusks,” Root says with a mouth full of blood, and grins.
Root eats fish like an animal, Shaw finds out. She grips the end of the head and tail with both hands, and tears into the meat with a strong jaw, and sharp teeth. She’s never noticed before, because when Root smiles it doesn’t seem like her teeth are all that different…
Of course Root has dug her teeth into Shaw’s knuckles that one time, but suddenly, Shaw has a strange urge then, to touch Root’s teeth, to graze her fingers under them, to feel that primordial sharpness press into her fingertips.
Root eats both fish, spitting out the bones and parts that she does not want onto a bowl Shaw had placed beside the bed. And then she looks up at Shaw hopefully, but refuses to bend her pride to ask for more. She makes a show of cleaning and licking her fingers, preening and complimenting Shaw’s catch with batted eyelashes and shy smiles, and letting her gaze dart repeatedly out the entrance. Shaw wonders if that trick works on Root’s mermen suitors.
When it gets a little ludicrous, Shaw purses her lips and goes back out to fetch two more. Root has six before she decides that she is full.
“I have fed on day-old dead fish before,” Root says at the end, after Shaw gives her a basin to wash her fingers and mouth. Shaw throws her a cloth and forces her to clean up all the residual blood.
Shaw scrunches up her nose. Her whole hut smells like raw fish and blood and fish guts now.
“I have had worse,” Root says simply, stretching indolently and yawning, and that’s the worst compliment and thank-you Shaw has ever heard. She tries not to stare when Root’s shirt moves upward at her blatant stretching, smooth white skin coming into view.
“Barnacles!” Root curses, gritting her teeth and clamping her fingernails down on Shaw’s wrist. Shaw makes a pleased sound, a mocking scoff.
“Oh, don’t be a child. It doesn’t even look that bad anymore,” Shaw scolds lightly.
“Is that why you’ve taken it upon yourself to jab it harder than you used to?” Root shoots back. It was only a split second, but Shaw’s expression must have betrayed her because Root narrows her eyes at her shrewdly and her fingers tighten on Shaw when she tries to draw her hand back from Root’s thigh.
“So you have noticed,” Root says. Shaw opens and closes her mouth, but her throat suddenly feels dry. She has very carefully, not allowed herself down this line of conversation.
“You’re doing it on purpose?” Root asks disbelievingly, releasing her grip. Root schools her expression, switching from offended to curious. Then very lightly, she trails her fingers up Shaw’s arm- the arm that is supposed to be applying medicine, the arm that has frozen in place.
“Why, I wonder?” Root murmurs, more to herself than Shaw. Shaw attempts at a grunt, but nothing comes out of her mouth.
“You are afraid,” Root concludes, a perplexed expression on her face as she scrutinizes Shaw. “But not of me.”
Shaw can feel every cell where Root’s fingers are touching her arm. Uncomfortable under Root’s intense gaze, Shaw drops her eyes downward to the fingers grazing just the surface of her skin, travelling up her forearm.
Root’s knuckles lift, and barely digging in, barely touching, her nails tickle Shaw’s arm as her fingers curl into a fist at the sensitive skin on the inside of her elbow. Shaw inhales, and notices for the first time that her breathing has gone quite shallow. She looks back at Root reflexively, to find Root staring at her with an unreadable expression on her face.
Embarrassed, and furious with herself and at Root, Shaw pulls away instantly. She lets the medicine thud rather unceremoniously on the floor, almost throwing it to hide the slight shaking of her hands.
“I trust you’re well enough to do it by yourself now,” Shaw snaps before making a hasty retreat. But when she returns later, Root simply offers her the small pot of medicine, and moves the sheets to prop up her thigh. When Shaw is done and makes to get up, Root touches her just once, on the arm, as an apology, and then turns away, pulling the covers up to her face.
Shaw stops trying to forcibly control her hands to be rigid. She lets them be gentle if they wish.
Shaw thought that Root would get bored, with the lack of activity available, but Root surprisingly handles immobility very well. She is content to stare out at the beach through the straw of her hut for long hours, and when Shaw gives her any new object, Root inspects it for an ungodly length of time.
Its only when Shaw gets irritated and makes to take it back that Root clings on tighter to it, bringing it away from Shaw’s grasp. And then she makes a snooty sound of thanks, which only serves to irritate Shaw even more.
Shaw teaches Root how to play poker cards and Root misses the point entirely. She holds no concept of winning and losing. When Shaw finally realizes after the eighth round that Root is letting her win, Root stares at her blankly and says, “um, didn’t you want to?”
It gets better when Shaw teaches her how to gamble, with fish. Winner take all, Shaw had said, and that definitely gets Root’s attention. But when dinner came they split the fishes anyway (Shaw always considered herself to have a huge appetite, but clearly, with fish, Root wins).
“You’re not like other fish hunting men,” Root says very suddenly one day, after a game of poker and dinner. Shaw grunts, shifting to sit on the bed beside Root to check on her leg as she does every night.
“It’s fish-er-men. And if you’re speaking of the fact that I wear different clothes, it’s because-”
“You’re new to the sea. The sea doesn’t sing in your blood. No,” Root says, leaning forward, “you were born far away from here.”
“I was. And hold still, I’m trying to get this right,” Shaw says, moving around Root’s ankle. It’s been a whole month now, since she and Root had settled into this strange domesticity. Shaw goes out for fish, or tends to the chickens, or run her errands. At night Shaw checks on her wounds, and sometimes they speak. Sometimes Shaw teaches Root things about the human world. It’s been a whole month, and Shaw thinks Root’s foot is healing. It is tender, but well on its way to recovery.
“You’ll be able to walk in another month,” Shaw says, satisfied, patting her foot and settling it down gently.
Her fingers trail up without conscious thought, touching the wounds on Root’s calf, and then further up to her thigh. She moves her fingers over the bandages lightly, and Shaw thinks she might have convinced herself she was still examining Root’s wounds.
Until she hears a tiny sound, a soft intake of breath, and Shaw looks up. Root is leaning back with her palms pressed to the bed, staring at her own leg, where Shaw’s fingers are still hovering above, and giving the strangest expression. Root looks like she wants to say something, but she doesn’t work it out of her mouth properly.
It’s a very peculiar look Root is examining her own leg with, like she was surprised and confused and excited all at the same time. Shaw has a sinking suspicion it has something to do with the fact that Root has never had human legs, and is not accustomed to the, shall we say, sensitivity.
Root’s eyes follow Shaw’s fingers as she trails them back down to her calf, and Shaw watches as her breathing turns slightly louder. Root’s eyes flick upwards to meet Shaw’s then, her brows furrowed, eyes hooded, her lips parted. Root’s face is a little pink, and Shaw cannot look away.
It is only when Shaw’s fingers reach their original point of her ankle that Root darts her eyes back down, her expression turning morose.
“And when,” Root asks quietly, “will I be able to swim?”