Mornings are slow in Ten’s cave.
Ten’s never been fond of working so early in the day, especially when his line of work involves gleaning fortunes from flighty currents, totally-legal-definitely-not-dark magic, and collecting souls from contracts gone sour for his candles (while caves carved into the sides of sheer cliffs are a popular and cost-effective real estate choice for most sea-dwellers, they’re a little lacking in natural lighting. To each their own, but Ten personally finds curses much easier to cast when his workspace is lit by some bright soul candlelight). The lingering aura of particularly strong curses tend to affect the taste of food and drink, and while Ten may be a debatably evil sea witch, he draws the line at drinking bitter coffee.
So, when not one but two people burst in through the vine-covered entrance to his cave before his coffee finished brewing, completely ignoring the stone CLOSED sign that hangs above it, Ten is reasonably upset. Dive-underwater-and-spill-your-coffee upset. Make-your-coffee-mug-explode upset. Curse-the-first-person-you-see upset.
When the bubbles clear, an annoyed Kunhang is revealed in all of his glory, covered from head to toe by fifty very confused crabs.
As angry as Ten may be, seeing the swirling, humanoid presence of water that is his friend-slash-business partner teeming with crustaceans is pretty damn funny.
With superhuman self-control that came from years of listening to crying mer sell their souls for a ticket to a concert that was fated in the tides to be cancelled, Ten resists the urge to laugh, choosing instead to look down on the sea spirit with an expression of cold fury. “It is seven in the morning,” he begins.
Kunhang, to absolutely no one’s surprise, ignores Ten’s anger. “It’s an emergency!”
Ten raises an eyebrow. “So?”
The sea spirit doesn’t say anything, the currents shifting to his will to reveal what looks like a human curled up on himself, his head surrounded by a bubble of air. “I felt him collapse on the shore just now, he looks pretty bad.”
“I don’t know if you’ve forgotten, but I’m supposed to be an evil sea witch, not a magical babysitter,” Ten interrupts before he can continue, scrutinising his nails without a barnacle of concern. “I appreciate our years of collaboration, I really do, but-”
“Which is why you should help this boy,” Kunhang insistently presses on. “Come on, Ten, I let you divine the future from my currents for nothing.”
Ten sighs frustratedly. “See-”
“Great! Thanks, bye!” Kunhang shoves the human in his arms, his form dissipating into the water and leaving Ten behind as quickly as he came.
“Get back here!” Ten yells after him, hurling some choice expletives at the water spirit that had probably manifested halfway to the other side of the world by then, laughing as Ten’s insults trickle into his ears like the squawk of a distant seagull. “See if I don’t throw this human back where he came from!”
With a frustrated wave of his hand, the crabs hurtle out of the cave, and Ten takes a proper look at the human in his hands.
Ten may not be the most familiar with the ins and outs of human biology, but even he knows most humans don’t tend to grow quite as large as some mer do. This one, however, was skinny by human terms; his bones poking out sharply and making his legs seem like twigs.
“Do you expect me to mother this boy?” Ten grumbles to the waves as he resurfaces, frowning down at the human’s curled form. In the cheerful soul candlelight, the human seems to be bruised, even beaten, and as Ten tries to pry his arms off his head and get him into a more comfortable position, he finds the human fighting back despite being unconscious; whatever raw resolve left in him trying to protect himself as much as he can.
Something about that action makes Ten’s stomach curl in on itself. It’s that feeling and nothing else that’s the reason why Ten extends his tendrils of dark magic out to lay him gently on Ten’s bed, draining the water out of his clothes so that he could get warm. Not kindness or softness or whatever word Kunhang would use, Ten tells himself. Not even pity.
The thought of Kunhang does still annoy him, Ten thinks as he pieces his mug together with a wave of his hand and starts brewing more coffee. As much as Ten still wants to chase him down and crack his head open (which would be impossible, but whatever) for saddling him, a sea witch, with a human to babysit, Kunhang has been a helpful business collaborator for many years — fortune telling is a lovely addition to his bag of tricks — and sorting this human out wouldn’t be such a big deal.
It’s not because he doesn’t have the heart to toss this defenceless human out to the sharks, or even send the poor human back to whatever that had brought him to that state, definitely not. Ten is evil.
But Ten is also somewhat reasonable, which is why he’ll only send the human back after he’s done with all the day’s work. Convenience and not wanting to awaken an unconscious human is the only conceivable reason why, he convinces himself as he sets a pot on the stove.
When the human awakes, he does so slowly, taking his time to inch back to consciousness. By then, almost half a day has passed, and Ten had just finished granting a mer the “legs for days” that she’d asked for (that’ll turn back to fins at night, which isn’t really Ten’s problem) when the human stirs.
He doesn’t make a sound, but Ten senses it, all but booting the lingering mer from his cave and heading to the stove.
“Where- where am I?” the human finally asks as Ten’s ladling soup into a bowl. The human’s voice is soft and cracks as he speaks, eyes sunken into his face, and Ten wants nothing more than to condemn any creature that dared to hurt him to the bottom of an underwater volcano.
“You’re in my cave,” Ten says, manifesting his dark magic into shadowy octopus-esque limbs to grab things from his shelves as he makes his way to the human. “The sea took pity on you and brought you here. You’ll be safe,” he adds, noting the human’s disbelieving gaze.
“So... I’m not dead?” he asks, his eyes widening with wonder.
“Not unless I want you to be,” Ten confirms, sitting gently on the side of the bed, far enough from the human for him to feel comfortable. “I’m Ten, and you are?”
He doesn’t add the sea witch to the end of his introduction, because he thinks the human’s had more than enough shock for one day.
“Yangyang,” he hesitantly says. “I am- was- I mean, I’m human, I guess.”
The way Yangyang says human, like it’s something foreign and unfamiliar to his tongue, sends wave after wave of questions into Ten’s mind. Taking a deep breath, he ignores them all.
“Nice to meet you, Yangyang,” he says instead, rustling through the things he’d brought with him. “Your body took quite a beating, so I’d rest up if I were you. I have here some warm soup and a washcloth you can wipe your face with. If you need anything, call me.”
Yangyang holds the bowl with shaking hands, peeping at its contents before taking a tentative sip. He drifts off moments after, sinking back into sleep once more, and Ten sighs as he resigns himself to spending the night on his extra bed of kelp in the corner.
Yangyang awakens again the next day in the middle of the morning before any customers had arrived, just in time to watch Ten prepare for the day’s work. Ten can feel Yangyang’s eyes on his back as he stands at his workstation, coaxing a spare voice he’d kept in a jar into a seashell necklace for a tone-deaf siren coming later that day who desperately wanted to sing.
As Ten manages to bribe the voice into the shell with a drop of honey, Yangyang speaks up.
“Ten, you’re a sea witch, aren’t you?”
Ten sets the necklace down onto the table. “Yes. Does that bother you?”
“Not at all!” Yangyang hurriedly replies, shrinking back and pulling his knees to his chest defensively. “It’s just- I- nevermind.”
Ten sighs, closing the empty jar and reaching for another. “You know what sea witches do, right?”
Yangyang pales slightly. “Uh, dark magic?”
“Not really, but close. I know a few witches who refuse to use even the tiniest bit of dark magic. Wasted talent, I call it.” Ten laughs, mostly to himself. “Sea witches are more like djinn than you think. We give people exactly what they want as long as they ask. With payment, of course.”
“But I heard-”
“We really do mean to help most of the time! If it’s a badly worded request, though, we really can’t help ourselves,” Ten clarifies with a nod towards the many soul candles that illuminate the cave. “But that isn’t the point! The point is, I can help you, if you need it. Don’t cut yourself off and just ask.”
“Okay.” Yangyang says. And then, a moment later, “thank you.”
“It’s no problem,” Ten responds, turning back to the voice, which still squirms wildly in the shell, squeaking the entire time.
But the barnacle that plagues his mind for the rest of the morning is Yangyang, and the words that he hadn’t said.
It’s only when Ten has closed for the day with a few new contracts (and candles) sitting proudly on his table like trophies does Yangyang finally speak up. Ten had noticed him wake up a while ago, but let him sit in silence, contemplating. Finally, pulling himself together, he calls out to Ten. “Can I talk to you? About what happened?”
“Of course,” Ten replies, handing the last of the bottles he was reshelving to the shadowy limbs extending from his back and resting at the edge of the water, dangling his feet in it. “I’m all ears.”
“Okay.” Yangyang takes a deep breath as if trying to ground himself. “Alright. Ten, is it possible to mend a selkie’s coat?”
Ten looks at him with horror. “Don’t tell me you-”
“I didn’t!” Yangyang immediately clarifies, burying his face into his knees. “I didn’t, but they- they...”
He unclenches his fist, revealing a tiny, torn scrap of fur that gleams enticingly in the candlelight.
Ten’s mouth drops open with realisation, the floodgates opened before he could say anything. Yangyang’s words pour out like a stream, strong but soft, and tinged with pain.
“I was just in town with my sisters when I met this guy. He was everything I’d ever dreamed of. Tall, handsome. I hadn’t really dated before, so I figured, why not?” His voice trembles as he continues. “At first, he was kind. So sweet. But when he found out what I am- what I was, he got angry.” Yangyang smiles a tiny, watery smile, but his next words are laced with venom. “Selkie aren’t meant to be male. That’s what he said.”
The sea witch stands up, fists clenched. How could he, no, how dare-
“He called all his friends and got all of them to beat me. He dragged me out in the middle of the night. He,” Yangyang’s voice that had started stronger died down to barely above a whisper. “he ripped my coat to shreds.”
For a moment, Ten is stunned. A selkie’s coat is not just their sealskin, but a manifestation of all their magic and power they shed to walk on the ground as a human. Not only is it borderline impossible to destroy, it also signifies their identity as a selkie. The fact that this person had made Yangyang hate his identity and himself enough for its indestructibility to waver...
As Yangyang began to sob, Ten has already made his way to Yangyang and wrapped his arms around him. “You poor thing,” Ten whispers to the shaking mop of hair. “I’m so, so sorry.” The selkie only buries his head in Ten’s shoulder and cries harder, and Ten the master of darkness, Ten the twisted sea witch, Ten the master of everything evil, lets him.
As Ten wrangles with a particularly difficult demand (a waterproof saxophone that could play underwater) the next morning, Yangyang clears his throat. “Ten?”
“Yeah?” Ten isn’t really paying attention, focusing more on tweaking the spell for it to only play Careless Whisper and nothing else. It’s a juvenile joke, but the customer hadn’t specified what the saxophone could play, and Ten wouldn’t be a sea witch if he didn’t exploit the hell out of that loophole.
“Do you have anything to eat?”
Ten glances at his empty countertop. “Anything you want?”
“Anything?” Yangyang doesn’t respond, clearly mulling it over.
“Yes, anything,” Ten says, before realising that he probably wouldn’t choose something he liked if he thought it would bother Ten. “You know what, screw that. What’s your favourite food?”
“Pancakes,” Yangyang immediately says. Ten doesn’t notice the tiny, microscopic smile creeping up his face.
“Pancakes it is, then,” Ten says, getting up from his chair. As interesting as the saxophone was, it could wait.
A few days later, Yangyang sits at the edge of the water, wrestling with a crab using a thick piece of sea grass while Ten watches, amused.
After a bit of pulling, the crab gets annoyed and snaps the makeshift rope in half, scuttling away with as much attitude as a crab could muster.
“Spoilsport!” Yangyang boos the crab’s receding figure, giggling as it stares at him for a moment, clearly annoyed, before disappearing into a crack.
Yangyang’s been looking much happier after he let everything out to Ten that night. His hollow cheeks are a little more filled out, and his bruises have faded completely — Ten’s medical magic was so quick that he probably could’ve pursued a career in healing if it wasn’t done with the help of dark magic.
“Hey, Ten?” Yangyang asks, and Ten realises with a start that he’d been staring at the wave-etched grooves in the wall for quite a while. “You said that it was in your whole sea witch thing to help people, right?”
“Well, kind of.”
“If it isn’t too much of a bother, do you mind...”
When two shadows creep into the night, cloaked in both darkness and the smoky aura of dark magic, the town doesn’t stir.
(Not that it even would be able to — whatever human or creature that considered the town home was placed under a sleeping spell so potent that even the most spell-resistant centaurs wouldn’t even stir for a few more hours at least.)
“Is this it?” Ten asks Yangyang as they near the house Yangyang had described to him. Quaint and dainty, it peeks out from behind bushes of blooming flowers and a picturesque little gate that’s there more for decoration than actual security.
The sight of it makes Ten sick to the stomach.
“Yes,” Yangyang whispers back. Despite regaining most of his confidence in the past few days of staying with Ten, the mere sight of the town in the distance was enough to make him shrink back into his shell, even with Ten beside him. “This is it.”
Ten pulls a box of matches out of his pocket and strikes one against the side, watching the flame flare magenta. “Are you ready?”
Under the silver moonlight, Yangyang’s face is stoic. “Yes.”
Taking the match from him, Yangyang jumps over the fence and strides to the front door, letting his sea-soaked clothes drip on the pristine WELCOME mat. He says something inaudible, whisked away by the strength of the sea breeze, and drops it.
Any self-respecting magic user would curse whoever that wronged them with horrible things — pain, illness, eternal credit card debt — but Ten couldn’t give a flying fish about what anyone else thought. It’s his magic, and if a little magical midnight arson makes Yangyang happy, then who is he to question it?
“Done?” Ten asks as Yangyang makes his way over to him, firmly turning his back to the house as the entire thing catches fire like a piece of dry tinder, bursting with a glowing blaze.
Yangyang nods, and for the first time since Kunhang had brought him to the cave, Ten saw his entire face lit up in a real, happy smile that shone brighter than the fire.
Ten thinks it looks good on him.
“I don’t want to spend another minute here.” Yangyang announces as they walk down the empty streets. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Where should we go?” Ten can name a thousand spots in the sea that are brilliant at this time of the night, but it’s Yangyang that matters the most to him tonight.
Yangyang taps his chin. “We could go see my sisters, they probably were worried sick. I doubt any of them are awake right now, though,” he adds, flashing Ten an apologetic grin.
Ten simply shrugs. “Then we’ll wake them.”
Yangyang’s grin stretches wider. “You’re really nice for a sea witch, you know.”
Ten pinches Yangyang’s pierced earlobe. “I’ll have you know that I’m an evil sea witch who makes candles out of souls-”
“And pieced my sealskin back together, which I didn’t even know was possible,” Yangyang interrupts, pretending to count off his fingers. “And made pancakes when I mentioned that they were my favourite food, and took me to light an asshole’s house on fire.”
“No more pancakes, then?” Ten nonchalantly responds, which makes Yangyang do a complete 180°, announcing just how evil and horrible Ten the sea witch is until even Ten can’t stand it anymore.
Climbing down onto the beach, they wade into the water, Ten’s arm around Yangyang, as the town glows with the dying light of a house burning to ashes.