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Deep Breath

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They say sailors are a superstitious lot, tied too strictly to baseless rituals and arbitrary traditions.

Maria doesn't disagree that they are, not necessarily, but nor does she blame those who hold to those superstitions.  When a person ties their livelihood to the sea, they must tie themselves to something else as well or risk madness.  It is a protection, from the constant fear of falling prey to the whims of a force greater than any human, a sea so vast, so deep, that the lives of one, of ten, of thousands, mean less than nothing at all.  Even if the superstitions do nothing on their own, it is a powerful thing, a belief that can embolden a man to face madness.  Maria has known the seas since she was a child, and grown up with them as one of her closest companions.  Though her crew calls her captain, she knows very well that the title offers her no more deference from the ocean than it would to a single raindrop.

And life, it can change faster than the winds, capricious as the sea's moods and fickle besides.

Maria knows very well that the sea has secrets that are not meant for the eyes of humankind, has taken to heart the unspoken contract between flesh and nature to keep her distance, though she may be privy to glimpses of its darker side.  Shadows lurking in the depths, mists taking shapes of their own in the dawn light, islands of no material she has ever seen that vanish, never to be found again.  Forms of not-quite-humans, vanishing into the shimmering water from a distance, leaving a haunting echo of a song behind.

She knows the fate of those who pry too deeply.  And as the bubbles escape from her mouth, warping the traitorously bright sun even further as they ripple through the water, she realizes that she is about to join them in it.

She struggles fruitlessly as she reaches down, tries to grab the weight tied around her ankle and free herself, but she is sinking fast and the weight of the ocean is already crushing too heavily on her chest, the blur of the sun dissolving into a darker and darker blue.

And as the dark closes around her vision, she knows enough to stop her fight, to give herself to the sea in the dues it demands, that she has always known she may very well have to pay.

The last thing she knows is an eerie song ringing through her skull, echoing around her and filling her to her core as everything goes black.

When she wakes, it is to an ache in her head, a burning in her lungs, and an emptiness in her heart.

Her cheek rests on fine sand; she knows the feeling far too well to be unable to recognize it, even with her eyes sealed shut by salt, her body weighed down by sorrow.

The water laps at her legs, gentle and warm.  She has, it seems, been spared.  Whatever the whim the sea has in doing so, who is she to protest?

Her body, of course, feels differently: spared she may have been, but even in its mercy, the ocean is not gentle, and her aching muscles, raw skin, and pounding head shriek in protest as she drags herself to her feet.

Walking is a challenge, and there doesn’t seem to be an inch of her body that isn’t covered with sand, salt, or both.  She finally settles for dipping her hand in the surf, rinsing her sleeve, and wiping her eyes.  The salt stings, as does the sun, as does her throat.

Water, she thinks, a lone thread making itself known above exhaustion.  I need water.

She shuffles forward, past the surf line, drenched boots kicking in the sand.  It’s a miracle that she hasn’t lost them, she thinks dully, though they’re about all she has left.

The ocean roars behind her, rhythmically and steadily, a reminder of its unchanging nature, her insignificance in the face of it all.  Everything she had done, and here she is, reduced to this, betrayed by her crew, a failure of a captain, nothing more now than a ragged, half-dead castaway—

No.

She will not give into despair.  She has been given this gift, a gift of life, and she will not squander it.

Water.

Though a trek through some of her sanctuary-prison doesn’t yield an immediate source of fresh water, the sudden rumble of thunder from surprisingly nearby has her snapping to attention, finding hollowed rocks and large leaves to build a water collector.  The sky turns dark in a way that would have shocked her, had she not spent more of her life on the ocean than on land.  It’s always a thrill, to see the way the clouds churn and swirl, and she does have to admit that there is a draw to seeing it somewhere she knows won’t turn into a storm that leaves her ship capsized.

When the sky finally does break, she tilts her head back, letting it clean away the salt, the sand, the tears she will never admit to having shed.  She lifts her hands as the dirt drips free from them, cupping them and letting the water pool before she leans forward and takes a sip.  It’s warm and there’s a scant handful of it, but she has never tasted anything so delicious.

But the water, wonderful as it is, brings with it sensations that her near-delirious state had masked, reignites the aching in every bone in her body, awakes a gnawing in her stomach, and—above all else—leaves her breathless with grief.

Her ship is gone.  It had been more than her livelihood: it had been her life, an escape from drudgery and monotony, and her crew—she had thought her crew was like a family.  She is truly free when on the ocean, the horizon spanning before her.

But now that is taken from her, ripped from her hands by greed and dishonor.  She should have known, should have trusted the small voice in the back of her head that had told her not to take the shipment of expensive spices, rarities worth more than their weight in gold.  Should have taken heed of the gleams in the eyes of her crew, the murmured whispers that left her slightly uncomfortable, but she had been so, so honored, to be chosen as trustworthy enough to transport.

And she had paid for it, paid for her own pride with a rough grip and a knife to her throat and hands tied behind her back as she plummeted towards the water—

The weights, she thinks suddenly, as her hands drop to her sides, water rolling down them.  And the rope around her wrists.  They’re gone.  How?

Her sanctuary-prison is small, a brief trip in the rain to circle it, and when she comes to the beach where she first woke, her heart sinks.  She follows it again, just a little longer, and finally flops to the ground when the rain lets up, settling down on a cove overlooking a drop-off into the water, reaching down to pull her sodden shoes from her feet.

A splash and a gasp from below her, and she turns quickly, suddenly alert—

And her mouth drops open.

Another woman stares back at her, chin lifted proudly, watching Maria with an intent expression of confusion on her lovely face as she removes the boots.  Her head is fully out of the water, her blonde hair slicked down her head and shoulders…

Her very bare shoulders, Maria realizes, confused; is she wearing anything?

And, more importantly, how has she gotten here?

She shifts forward, peering at her, meeting her unafraid, almost hostile gaze with what she hopes is ease.

“Hello!” she calls, lifting a hand amiably.  “Did you fall?  Can I help you up?”

The woman simply stares at her, and Maria notices that her eyes are a wine red.

“Did you cut them off?”

The question takes Maria by surprise, as does the curtness with which it is asked.  The meaning, however, escapes Maria entirely.

“Cut what off?” she finally asks, a little cautious.

The woman points at the boot in Maria’s hand.  “Or were you injured, when you fell in?  And you lost your feet that way.”

A puzzled frown forms on her face, and Maria is struck with how… enchanting it is.  Even perturbed, the woman has something otherworldly about her that draws Maria in, almost as if she is being beckoned by some otherworldly faerie.

She shakes herself.

“My shoes?”  Maria holds up one, then extends a foot to show that it is bare.  “No, I took them off.”  Is this some wild island girl, living barefoot and naked among the trees?  How does she survive without water?  Or, perhaps, Maria is not as far from other humans as she had first thought.

“So they come off,” the woman murmurs, eyes narrowing almost craftily, with a clever spark of interest.  “Your… shoes.”

“Yes.  Do you not…”  Maria trails off as the woman’s words from earlier flit back through her mind.

“How do you know that I fell?” she asks, voice hushed.  “Who are you?”  Maria… Maria has heard tales of sailors rescued from shipwrecks and drowning…

“Riza,” the woman says evenly.  “I know because I saw you fall.  I brought you here.”

Maria sits in stunned silence for a few moments at the matter-of-fact revelation.  She had merely thought she had been spared on a whim of luck; it seems instead that it is much more.

“You are… different,” Riza continues, watching Maria carefully.  “Like me.  Like us.”  Her eyes flick down to Maria’s legs.  “Mostly.”

Mostly.  Mostly, if it weren’t for… Maria’s legs.  And Riza is nearly submerged in the water, not a stitch of clothing in sight and heedless of that fact.

Maria knows what she is thinking, but she’s not sure she can believe it.

“What do you look like?” she finally manages to ask, voice shaking.

Riza shoots her a cautious look, but apparently deems her trustworthy, as after a moment, she leans back to float on the top of the water.

She is radiant, Maria thinks reverently, even more radiant than she had first appeared.  Her pale golden hair fans out around her head in a soft, watery halo, the red of her intelligent eyes unsettling in the sun.  Her torso is completely nude, a sculpture of a perfect form, and Riza watches her without shame as Maria, face reddening at the sight, has to quickly look away.  Somehow, gawping with blatant admiration when Riza stares back so defiantly seems so… uncouth.

And truly, it can only hold Maria’s attention for a moment, as there is another distraction.  As her eyes slide where Riza’s hipbones would be, they are met with a long, shimmering tail, light spots glimmering on the scales through the crystal clear water.  Maria isn’t quite sure exactly what color it is: on first glance it seems to be white, a pristine and beautiful color, but when Riza flexes to stay afloat, the color shifts, opalescent scales instead reflecting a vibrant blue.  A pearl, she thinks; Riza is like a pearl, a rare ocean jewel, flecks of gold streaking in places throughout.

They’re true, then, the stories of half-women, half-fish, rising from the ocean to—do many things, the stories say.  One man will swear he has been saved from drowning after a shipwreck; the next will swear he is the only survivor of his entire ship after a singing temptress led the crew to drowning.

“So you… you help us.  Humans.”  Her voice is uncertain, but her words hopeful.

Riza watches, tilting her head, watching her carefully, and then—

“No.”

Maria pulls back slightly.  “No?  You helped me, though, when I…”

“You’re different.”  Riza flips back to an upright position, then forward, swimming towards Maria.  “The others…”  She frowns slightly again, then, “Many of the others, they have… hair on their faces, or…”  She shakes her head.  “You feel different.”

Hair—oh.  Oh.  It makes sense, when she thinks about it; she rarely meets other women who are crew on a ship, and she has never met another captain.

…Former captain.

“They’re men.”  She shifts a little closer to the edge of the cove.  “The ones—many of the men have hair on their faces.”

“You’re not a man.”

“No.”  Maria has to suppress a chuckle.  “I’m a woman.”

Riza nods solemnly.  “So I helped you when I saw you fall.”

The decision seems simple enough to Riza; Maria isn’t sure she understands, but instead of asking, her next words slip free of her mouth without intending for them to.

“I didn’t fall.”

Riza straightens, and the water must be deep at the drop, as she’s now close enough for Maria to touch.

When she speaks, Maria sees two more rows of teeth, razor sharp and sharklike, but her gaze is intent and sincere.

“Tell me.”

The words fall out, and with them, the tears, the rage at being betrayed, at being turned on by those she had trusted.

A soft voice asks her about her ship, and she seizes onto the question, tongue spinning a story, a story of a young girl who wanted more and stepped onto a ship and never looked back, who chased the horizon, who felt more at home with the ocean spray on her face than she ever had anywhere else, who had striven to reach a point where she could be her own master, pursue what she loved.

And when she finally looks up, breath and words spent, Riza’s deep red gaze is locked on her.  Those eyes seem to be burning with hatred for her, and Maria feels both relief and matching anger in equal rushes.

“They took it from you.”

“They did,” Maria whispers back.  “They did, and I—I hate them for it,” she hisses.  “I almost wish they had killed me—“

Riza pulls back slightly, and when Maria sees her expression, she settles herself.

“But I don’t.  I’m here, and I’m… alive.  Thank you,” she breathes.

For a moment, she wonders if mermaids kiss.

Riza doesn’t seem to dissuade this notion, and when the two of them lean in, Maria can smell the ocean on her, the salt, and it’s the same sharpness that the wind blows into her face when she stands at the stern.  And she feels envy for Riza, to have that freedom that Maria has always longed for, with nothing in her way.

And when she tilts her head, eyes starting to drift closed, Riza’s doing the same—

A gasp, and Riza pulls away.  Maria blinks, feeling as if her world has spun to the side again.

“I can’t.  Not yet.”  Riza pushes herself from the cove, out of Maria’s reach, and hesitates.

“Wait here.”

And then she is gone.

When Riza returns, the sun has just vanished, its dying rays having been drowned out by the horizon that grows more untouchable with every moment.

And when the golden head, darker in the waning light, finally crests the surface of the cove’s water, Maria’s heart sings with relief.

“You’re back.”  She can’t stop herself from saying it; the fear had gnawed on her, over the hours, that the one person—if she was one?—left to Maria had gone, never to return.

“This way,” Riza says without preamble, turning and flipping her tail as she swims slowly out into the ocean.

“Wait!” Maria cries, stumbling after her into the surf.  “How far?  Humans can only swim for so long.  I won’t be able to follow.”

Riza pauses, then lifts an arm to point, as if mapping out an invisible line in Maria’s path.  Without another word, she continues.

Several sailor-appropriate curses on her breath, Maria staggers after her, ignoring the pull of the tide despite a wistful desire to give in in the back of her mind.  The sand is soft against her bare feet as they sink slightly with each step, and she eventually finds herself wading through knee-deep water, wary of when it will grow deeper.

But after some time, she realizes that the level has remained steady.  Pausing, she turns, and her island is a shockingly small sight in the distance, barely visible even with the light of the full moon.

“A shoal,” she breathes, turning back, eyes searching for the reassuring head of her guide.  Of course Riza would know of the ocean’s hidden pathways; though they do her no good, certainly, they prove quite useful to a legged creature such as Maria.

She quickens her pace, and Riza turns, a small, proud smile on her face.

Her red eyes look black in the moonlight, Maria notices, and they are beautiful.

The island forgotten behind her, Maria begins to see something else in front of her, and Riza pauses to point.

“Wait here.”

Maria freezes, and when she follows the line of Riza’s finger, she sees what Riza was warning her of: the shoal rises into sharp rocks some distance ahead, and when she tentatively puts a foot out, she feels the beginnings of stones beneath it.  The ocean floor, to each side, must be impossibly deep.

Impassable, then, in bare feet.  So why…

And then she truly looks around.

Riza’s head is no longer the only one out of the water.  Maria can see more dark forms that have risen from the depths—five, ten, maybe even more.  Though she is only close enough to see a few of the faces, they are every bit as uncanny and enchanting as Riza.

Well, perhaps not quite, but very close.

“They won’t hurt you,” Riza murmurs, though the emphasis on the last word sets Maria’s stomach fluttering.

And then Riza turns tail, swims over to the jagged rocks, and wraps her arms around one, hauling herself up onto one of the flatter stones.  Everything seems to settle into place, her knowledge fitting itself into one big picture as the other mermaids follow suit.

By the time Riza opens her mouth and begins to sing, Maria knows.

The song is alluring, of course, but not nearly as such as tales would tell—or, perhaps, it’s simply that, as Riza pointed out, she isn’t a man.  It’s a wonderful, wordless melody, haunting and entrancing, but nothing she would risk her ship over.  She knows better.  Or, did.

And yet, her crew doesn’t.  She isn’t surprised, not when the shape in the distance resolves into something more familiar, and as she hears echoing songs in the distance.  They have lured the ship here.  Riza has lured the ship there.  Maria will be here to witness its end, and…

And somehow, she is at peace with this.

More have joined in, now, sitting on the rocks, all harmonizing into a beautiful crescendo, and Riza slides off the rock to swim back over to Maria.

Maria pulls her eyes away, intending to wash her hands of this.  Greed has brought them there, and she will leave them to their fates.

“Will you come with us?”

Riza’s voice is soft in comparison to the rest, but Maria hears her over everything.  She turns, and Riza is watching her intently, lips parted.  Maria can see the rows of sharp teeth, knows what she is being asked.  Knows what will become of her if she accepts, knows that she can never return once this line is crossed.

But to have that freedom?  To trade in her life, which has always been a prison of some kind, for this?

The wood of the boat cracks against the rocks with a thundering roar, but Maria doesn’t flinch, not even slightly.  She can hear the splashes as men are knocked overboard, the cries of surprise turning into shrieks of horror as the mermaids converge on them, the ripping noises as—

Riza holds out her hand.

Maria takes it, and with a yank, she splashes into the water.  This is their first touch, she thinks dazedly, as Riza’s arms wrap around her, holding her up.

You can show us how to take off the shoes,” she hears the whispered voice say.

Maria sees teeth flash, and Riza’s face darts in—

Their lips meet, and Riza tastes of the ocean, of salt and spray and freedom, of bloody ends and new beginnings, and Maria lifts her hands to take her face and kiss back.

She closes her eyes as she feels the change take hold, her clothes dissolving, her legs straightening and stiffening as they press together.  Her mouth stings as she feels teeth form and take root, her feet—no longer feet, not with the way they are slowly thinning, elongate and spread.

And as she sucks in deep breath, a gasp that is no longer hampered by either water or air, she lifts her head from Riza’s hands and looks over Riza’s shoulder, at the foundering ship, the frantic shapes running around, trying to rescue the ones who have already fallen.

The singing begins again, and after listening for a few moments, she opens her mouth to join it.

The men will see her face, and they will know what they have done.  And then she will feed.