Jensen's earliest memories of his father were of sitting on the man's lap on the deck of the Calypso, listening to the rumble of his voice as it mingled with the creak of the furled sails and the gentle lap of the sea against the ship's hull.
"This is my heartstone," his father had told him, his big, calloused hands cupping Jensen's much smaller ones carefully around the egg-sized rock. Like all heartstones, it was red like fire and shot through with striations of mottled gold that gleamed in the summer light. "It's the most important thing a sailor owns."
"Really?" Jensen had asked, awestruck by the beauty of the thing. "What does it do?"
"It keeps me safe while I'm at sea."
Jensen remembered finding that confusing. "How?" he'd asked, stroking his fingers along the heartstone's blood-warm surface. "You leave it here with mommy when you go away."
"That's exactly how. Listen to me carefully, Jensen," his father had said, his eyes serious and very green. "You must never go to sea unless you have someone special on land to protect your heartstone for you."
"Because the sea is a dangerous place, and it is resentful of any man who travels across it. A sailor who dies alone at sea loses his connection to the land, and his soul will be lost beneath the waves forever. But if someone you love keeps your heartstone close, then your soul will always find the way back to her."
"Like you and mommy?"
"Like me and mommy," his father had agreed. "And one day, you'll have someone you love as much as I love mommy. And then you'll never again need to have fear of the sea."
"But I'm not afraid of the sea," Jensen had said, with all the foolish honesty of a child.
And, for a single moment, Jensen's father had looked terribly sad. "I know," he'd said, running a heavy hand through Jensen's hair. "Myrnion help you."
Those grim words played in Jensen's head now, as he stood on the quay with his sea chest at his feet and his eyes fixed on the magnificent sight of the Calypso waiting for the rising tide. He'd seen her off on dozens of voyages over the years, but this would be the first time that he'd be doing so as a member of the crew, rather than as a spectator.
Just the thought made his pulse quicken.
"You ready for this?" a voice asked at his side, and Jensen turned to see his brother standing there with his own sea chest hefted under one arm.
"Born ready," Jensen said, which was the closest he could come to describing the desperation that had been crawling under his skin his entire life. He slanted a wry grin at Josh. "I'd better be, after all this time."
"And whose fault is it that you've had to wait so long?" Josh asked, good-humouredly.
A society obsessed with old-fashioned superstitions, Jensen was tempted to say, but he'd had this fight more than enough times in the past. And there was no point in prolonging it anymore. Not when he'd finally given in.
So Jensen just offered Josh a shrug and turned his attention back to the Calypso. After a lifetime of going aboard whenever she was in port, he knew every inch of her by heart, but he'd never tire of admiring such a beautiful ship.
Josh left him to his silence, and they stood for a time on the quay, each wrapped in their own thoughts. All too soon, the sound of footsteps behind them signaled the next step in the departure ritual.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jensen saw Josh turn away from the glint of the sun above the crow's nest with a broad smile. "And here they are now. The two most beautiful ladies across all the circle seas."
Josh's wife gave an unladylike snort. "If you believed that, you wouldn't be vanishing into the unknown for the better part of a season." She was smiling when Jensen reluctantly turned around as well, though, so he didn't put much stock in the complaint.
Neither, clearly, did Josh. "Ah, but it's the desire to see your beautiful face again that always makes sure I come back, Allison," he said, grinning.
Allison's eyes rolled. "Of course it is."
"Is it like looking into the future, do you think?" Danneel asked Jensen, as she drew to a stop at his elbow. The smile she turned his way was fond and a little melancholy.
Jensen didn't know what his own face was doing, but he doubted that he looked anywhere even close to melancholy.
"You kidding?" he asked, with forced levity. "Give it a few weeks and you'll forget all about me. Find someone much more handsome to affiance yourself to."
"Almost certainly," Danneel agreed, her eyes sparkling with mirth.
"You'll wonder what you were ever thinking, taking up with my sort," Jensen continued, as much for something to say as an attempt to delay what he knew had to come next.
A glance to the side showed that Josh's heartstone was now hanging around Allison's neck, their hands laced together on top of it, and their expressions tender. It was familiar enough a sight that Jensen hardly flinched.
He just wasn't looking forward to doing the same with his.
"Jensen?" Danneel prompted. A gentle reminder that he shouldn't have needed.
"Right. Yes." Bracing himself, Jensen reached for the chain that had hung constantly around his neck ever since he'd pledged himself to the merchant marine's guild as a youth. The gold veins in his heartstone glittered as he passed the chain carefully over Danneel's head. It settled against her breast like it belonged there.
Something twinged deep inside Jensen at the thought.
Danneel smiled and brushed a gentle hand down his cheek. "I'll keep it safe for you," she promised. "You take care of yourself."
She was beautiful like this, Jensen realized, her hair shining in the early morning light and her eyes soft. He wished that it wasn't all wasted on him.
Not trusting his voice, Jensen settled for a short nod and his best attempt at a smile. It must have passed muster, because Danneel nodded and stretched up on her tiptoes to brush a kiss against his closed mouth.
"I'll watch for your return," she whispered, and Jensen kept his expression from slipping by sheer dint of will. He didn't want to think about returning already. Not when he was so desperate for the going. Returning was a worry for another day.
"I'll think of you," was all Jensen could find to offer. It was probably the truth, too, although not for any reason that he wanted Danneel to become aware of. "Be well."
"Jensen," Josh broke in, with uncharacteristically good timing. "It's time."
Jensen nodded and bent to collect his sea chest, losing the press of Danneel's hand with no small relief. She and Allison joined the other women further along the quay while Jensen and Josh went aboard the Calypso with the rest of the crew. Jensen kept his head down while he and Josh stowed their things below decks, not wanting to get caught with the wrong expression on his face. A certain amount of excitement was expected, of course, but it wasn't seemly to be too pleased about leaving hearth and home for the better part of a year.
It was easier to remain stoic once they got to the business of getting the Calypso ready to sail, although the giddy excitement kept bubbling up inside him at inappropriate times. He was so close.
Finally, it was time to depart, and Jensen joined Josh on the deck, half the population of the village to one side and the open mouth of the harbour to the other. He caught a glimpse of Danneel's fiery hair in the crowd and fought the urge to pretend he hadn't.
"It's hard the first time," Josh said. "Leaving her behind," he clarified, when Jensen blinked at him, confused.
"That's, I'm not-" Jensen started automatically, before realizing that there was no good way to end that sentence.
Josh, thank all that was sacred, misunderstood. "Hey, no need to get embarrassed. All the guys go through it. By Myrnion's bells, I missed Allison like a lost limb the first time I left port. So I know what you're going through. No need to suffer in silence."
"Right," Jensen managed. "Thanks. I, uh, think I'll be okay, though."
Josh grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. "You keep right on thinking that. I'll be here when you finally admit it."
Jensen gave him a weak smile and didn't even consider trying to explain why it was that he could be so certain that he wouldn't suffer for want of Danneel's presence. It would defeat the whole purpose of having proposed to her, after all. Besides, Jensen didn't want to be that cruel. Danneel, like the rest of the village, believed that Jensen had proposed because he was in love with her. And it was going to stay that way.
It wasn't at all fair to her, and Jensen knew that he'd feel guilty about it for the rest of his days, but neither was it fair that he had been refused a place on the Calypso - or any other ship - for want of a wife. Especially not when love for a woman wasn't something that Jensen seemed to be capable of.
All he'd ever wanted was a chance to sail the circle seas. And if marrying Danneel and letting her protect his heartstone every time he left port was the only way to do that, then so be it. Jensen had decided on his course.
He'd be a good husband, he promised himself, and Danneel would have everything it was in his power to give. She never need know that his love wasn't included on that list.
It was at once depressing and reassuring to see his future spool out in front of him. Eight months of every year spent at sea, and the rest of his hours spent pretending that his every sinew wasn't yearning desperately to return to the rolling deck and salt spray. A wife whose love for him was little better than a prison sentence. Children, probably, who'd grow up with the same distant awareness of him that he'd had of his own father. On and on, year after year, from now until his last breath.
Jensen firmed his jaw and turned away from the shore to face the glittering expanse of the ocean, feeling his heart swell at the sight. His to explore, finally. After a lifetime of waiting, he finally had his heart's desire.
His unhappy fate might be on the shore behind him, but his destiny lay ahead.
And it was worth it.
The truly ironic part was that Jensen would have been right about all of it, if not for the storm.
Myrnion of the Winds, it seemed, was not without a twisted sense of justice.
It hit them unexpectedly, not quite four months into their journey. The Calypso was three days out from the Cape of Adall, much too far for hope of rescue.
Jensen might never have been in a storm at sea before, but even he could tell it was a bad one. The waves towered to nearly the full height of their masts, and the rain was sheeting nearly sideways with the force of the wind. The crackle and flash of lightning was the only source of light, as any lantern got swamped by the waves almost as soon as it was hung.
They'd offloaded the last of their heavy cargo of silks and vats of dye a week before at the market city of Ta'aldenn, and their now-empty hold offered no stabilizing weight against the pitch and roil of the waves.
Half-blinded by water, Jensen scrambled across the deck, feet skidding and sliding on the slick deck. He was soaked to the skin, and his palms were scraped raw from the effort of hauling on the sodden rigging ropes.
A hand landed heavily on his shoulder; Jensen's surprised jolt nearly sent his legs shooting right out from under him.
"We're taking on too much water!" the bos'n shouted, nearly in Jensen's ear. "Get below decks to help bail out the bilge!"
"Aye!" Jensen agreed, blinking hard through the rain as he set off. The rest of the crew were little more than dark smudges in the blue-black air, their pale faces sparking into view like drowned ghosts every time the lightning flashed. Jensen had no idea which one Josh was; he could only hope that he was safe.
Someone was hollering as Jensen neared the forecastle, but he couldn't hear the words over the deafening waves. Just the urgency. It was enough to make him falter, his steps slowing.
Too little too late.
Lightning cracked as Jensen rounded the foremast, highlighting the massive wall of water descending on their port side like something out of a nightmare.
"Ware to po-!" Jensen had time for, before the wave slammed into them. The entire ship heaved, frightened shouts rising up all over the deck as the crew clung tightly to anything they could get their hands on, trying to resist getting swept overboard.
Directly in the wave's path, Jensen had no such luxury.
Please no, he had time to think, in the split second before he was airborne, dragged along with the water as it sluiced off the ship and back down to the broiling ocean.
The shock of hitting the water knocked the breath out of his lungs and the fight out of his limbs. Dimly, Jensen was aware of the sound of shouts following him down into the icy water, but whether they were for him or for others who'd fallen overboard, he couldn't say. He sank into the ocean's embrace, swallowed beneath the waves between one panicked heartbeat and the next.
His paralysis didn't last for long. Desperately, Jensen struck out for the surface, his limbs cutting through the water at what felt like a snail's pace. Already, he could feel the need for air burning at the back of his throat. He couldn't stay submerged for much longer.
Something flashed in the darkness, light where there shouldn't have been any such thing.
Jensen paused in his frantic bid for the surface when another glimmer sped through the black water, his brain trying to puzzle out what he was seeing even as his lungs screamed for air.
It was a mistake.
A sudden eddy in the water sent him tumbling end over end through the darkness, upsetting his delicate sense of direction. By the time he'd regained control of his movements, Jensen had no idea which way was up. The thought sent a shiver down his spine.
If he chosen the wrong direction, he was as good as dead.
Depending on how far down he was, he might very well be as good as dead anyway.
There was more light in the water, this time a scant hand's breadth away from him. Jensen backpedaled automatically, but the lack of oxygen was taking its toll, and his movements were sluggish, uncoordinated.
What was unmistakably a hand wrapped around the back of Jensen's neck, and hope surged within him for the single heartbeat before a mouth crashed down against his. Jensen jerked in startled horror, thrashing weakly against the grip that the man - for it had to be a man; no woman had ever possessed lips trimmed round with the prickle of stubble - had on him, but he might as well have been fighting the ocean itself for all the difference it made.
Those thin, powerful lips set to work prising his mouth open, and Jensen shoved desperately at the solid chest pressing up against him. It accomplished nothing. Despair crawled into Jensen's heart as that insistent mouth finally succeeded in parting his lips and a tongue slipped between them to steal the last of his-
Jensen's lungs shuddered with unexpected relief, and he was helpless to hold back his desperate gasp as his captor - saviour? - kissed air directly into his mouth. It tasted thin and strangely wet, but Jensen couldn't have cared less. His frantic heartbeat slowed, body calming as it remembered what it was like to be able to breathe.
A second arm wrapped around his waist, neatly trapping Jensen's arms against that broad chest even as the grip around his neck firmed. Then they were moving, the man propelling them through the water at a frightening speed. He kept his lips pressed firmly to Jensen's the entire time, still breathing air into Jensen's lungs, even though he'd had no opportunity to take a breath of his own.
Jensen felt dizzy.
His eyes slid closed without his permission as lassitude crept through his limbs. The last thought in Jensen's head before unconsciousness took him was that they weren't heading for the surface.
Jensen woke up and almost wished he hadn't.
"Myrnion's bells," he groaned. His whole body ached like he'd spent a week manning the sails on his own, and he felt unusually warm. The air smelled strongly of the sea.
He sat up, a blanket falling from where it had been tucked around his shoulders to pool at his waist. His shirt was gone, he noticed vaguely, and he could see his boots lying discarded at his side.
Jensen looked around.
He was in some kind of natural grotto, the pale stone walls worn smooth by centuries of patient water. The narrow stone ledge Jensen was sitting on ran alongside a large pool; he couldn't see any way out of the cave, although some of the deeper shadows had the promise of one. The overhead ceiling was low enough that he would probably have hit his head while standing upright; there was no way out there, either.
He didn't know where the light was coming from.
A flicker of movement caught his eye, and Jensen turned towards it.
A few feet away, right at the edge of the water, was a man. He was watching Jensen with an avid delight on his face. His eyes were the colour of the ocean at dawn, and his wet hair hung loose and limp around his face in a most ungentlemanly manner. He was shirtless as well, Jensen noted with a touch of hysteria, and the gentle lap of the water sent blue reflections rippling across acres of golden skin. Helplessly, Jensen's eyes traveled across the hills and valleys of the man's well-muscled arms, across his chest and down the precise planes of his stomach until he reached-
"Septem and Guilliard defend me!" Jensen swore, scooting backwards until his back fetched up against the wall of the grotto.
The man arched an eyebrow at him, looking completely unbothered by Jensen's panic.
Jensen could hardly spare a glance for the expression; all of his attention was focused on the fish tail that the man possessed instead of legs.
Spanning a length of at least four feet, the man's - merman's - tail was an unbelievable sight. Its scales were brightly burnished, their colour and hue reminding Jensen of thousands of gold coins that glinted and glimmered even in this dim light. The caudal fin was blue and strangely fanlike; Jensen had never seen any fish with a tail like that before. It looked powerful and strong and impossibly beautiful.
There was something vaguely familiar about the sparkle of those polished scales, but the thought slipped away before Jensen could get the shape of it.
"How are you feeling?" the merman asked, in what was absolutely not the King's English but was still, somehow, perfectly understandable. His voice was deep but gentle.
It did nothing to ease Jensen's frantically rabbiting heart. "W-who are you?" he demanded, in a voice that was far from demanding.
"Jared," the merman said. Or, at least, that was what it sounded like; Jensen figured that there had to be something lost in translation. What kind of name for a merman was Jared? "And you're Jensen."
"I-" Jensen faltered, surprised. "Yes. How did you know?"
Jared gave an enigmatic smile and said nothing.
Jensen had more important questions, anyway. "What happened? Where am I?"
"Your boat sank," Jared said. He waved an absent hand at the far wall. "Out there." He flashed a pleased - and distracting - smile. "I brought you here."
A memory of firm lips and steel-strong arms tumbled through Jensen's brain, and he felt his ears heat.
"I- thank you," he managed, because he was still a gentleman even if Jared was clearly a savage. "Um, may I ask why?"
Jared shrugged. The muscles in his chest and shoulders rippled with the movement. "You can't breathe underwater yet. This is a safe place to wait."
"Apologies, I meant why did you save m-" Jared's words abruptly caught up to him, and Jensen's next words were nearly a screech, "-what do you mean yet?"
Jared's eyebrow arched. "You needn't worry."
"I really rather think I do," Jensen said tartly.
It made Jared grin. Which made an irritating flash of warmth go through Jensen's belly. "Really. It's fine. You're going through the Change."
Oh, Jensen didn't like the sound of that.
"The Change," he repeated slowly.
"Change into what?"
Jared's tail flicked. "This."
By all the sainted spirits, this can't be happening.
"What?" This time, it came out as little more than a whisper.
"You are becoming like us. A keeper of the sea." Jared's pleased smile was a wide toothy thing. "Your fins are going to be beautiful."
With a slow, dawning horror, Jensen looked at the blanket covering his legs. Couldn't bring himself to touch it.
"And I get to keep you," Jared added, sounding proud. "Since I found you."
Jensen was going to be ill.
Jared's head cocked, his overlong hair sticking to his shoulders. "Is something wrong?"
Jensen's choked laugh had nothing of humour in it. "How would you like to be told that you're going to be turned into, into…" he swallowed hard, "a monster against your wishes?"
"Hey," Jared said, sounding offended. "You're lucky I was paying attention. You'd have drowned without me."
"Maybe I'd have preferred that," Jensen snapped.
"You wouldn't," Jared said, and Jensen glared at him, irked by the supreme confidence in Jared's voice. "And it doesn't matter anyway. Your connection to the land is gone. You belong to the sea now."
Jensen's blood ran cold.
"No. No, that's not- that's not possible! I gave my heartstone to Danneel!"
Jensen hadn't truly believed his father's stories about heartstones in years, had thought them nothing more than sailors' superstitions blown to unreasonable proportions by the passage of time. Never in all his years would he have expected that there really was something in the ocean that they needed to protect themselves against.
The idea that heartstones didn't actually do anything had never been so painful before.
"Have the sailors been wrong all this time?" he asked, sounding as stricken as he felt. "Are the heartstones really nothing but rocks?"
Jared looked at him steadily. "They were not wrong."
That caught Jensen up short. "Wha-"
"You were the only sailor taken in tribute for the sea. The others were not ours to touch. Very few are, these days."
"But- why me?"
In answer, Jared heaved himself suddenly forward, so quickly that Jensen bashed his head against the rocks behind him when he tried to jerk away. He could feel every inch of himself trembling as Jared dragged himself bodily across the scant space between them, tail swaying behind him in a strangely graceful fashion. Up close, Jensen could see the red seam of gills along the sides of Jared's ribs, and the faintest hint of webbing between his fingers.
Jared reached out and laid one massive hand on Jensen's chest, directly over his heart. His skin was warmer than Jensen would have expected for a being that was half fish.
"Your heartstone may be on land," Jared said, serious and dark. "But you haven't put your heart in it. You carry it with you still. Your heart belongs to the sea."
"Oh," Jensen said in a small voice. Because that was probably the truest thing that anyone had ever said about him.
"And now," Jared continued. "Your heart belongs to me, too." His hand slid up to grab Jensen's chin and tilt him into a kiss that was as unlike the last one they'd shared as night was to day.
Before, Jared had been focused on sharing air without breaking the seal of their lips, which had been overwhelming enough. This time, Jared's lips were firm and demanding, never to the point of discomfort but clearly expecting to be obeyed. Jensen tried to gasp, to tear himself away, and Jared took immediate advantage: his tongue delved deep, claiming Jensen's mouth with broad sweeps that left no part of him untouched. Jensen was lost in seconds, drowning all over again in the confusing mix of sensations.
It was amazing. It was terrible.
Jensen whimpered low in his chest, a wretched, hopeless sound that made Jared rumble with obvious approval. Jared trapped Jensen's upper half between the cold wall and his own body as he took his own pleasure. His hand on Jensen's chin was at once a caress and a mark of ownership.
Jensen felt heat flaring in his stomach and was disgusted by his own weakness.
Jared ended the kiss unhurriedly, leaving Jensen breathless and scarlet-cheeked in a tangled mess of desire and horror. He stared at Jared, wide-eyed.
"You needn't worry," Jared said. His voice had deepened to the timbre of the surf crashing on the shore. A shiver skittered down Jensen's spine. "Once the Change is complete, the ocean is all you'll know. It will be better."
Jensen's heart thumped. "Will I remember my family?"
Jared looked confused. "Your what?"
Jensen had nothing to say to that.
Jared seemed to take his silence as a signal. "You need to eat. I'll get you something." He slithered away towards the surface of the water, and Jensen watched numbly as he slipped nimbly into the black water.
Jared's head resurfaced, bobbing like a seal's. His hair spread out in a dark fan around his shoulders, clinging wetly. Jensen couldn't deny that he was a beautiful sight. "Get some rest," Jared said, somewhere between commanding and gentle. "I'll be back soon."
The water rippled as Jared dove out of sight again, leaving Jensen alone with the silence.
He sat there for several long, heavy moments.
Somehow, Jensen found the courage to reach out with trembling fingers and tug away the blanket still covering his lower half.
And promptly swallowed a sob when he realized that he didn't have legs anymore. What was there instead couldn't be called a tail yet, lacking both scales and grace of form, but Jensen had no doubt that it would soon. Jared certainly seemed confident enough.
Don't think about Jared, he admonished himself. His lips were still tingling.
Instead, he thought of the life he was losing. It wasn't a particularly pleasant line of thinking.
He wondered if any of the crew had survived. If Josh had survived. How long Danneel would mourn him before finding a better man who was more deserving of her. Whether she'd keep his heartstone always, or if it would be returned to his mother to be cared for until everyone who'd ever known him was long dead.
Looking down at the fused length of skin that had once been his legs, Jensen wondered how long it would take before all of his humanity was stripped away, before he forgot everything of his life above the surface and knew instead only the fierce joy of loving the sea at Jared's side.
Somehow, he knew it would feel like no time at all.
And somewhere, beneath the fear turning his blood to ice, Jensen was ashamed to realize that what he truly felt was relieved.