“A drowning man is not troubled by rain.”
There were stories, of course. Shiro had grown up with them, just like every other avian child: A bird at sea is a bird lost forever. It was worse than being grounded; because once you touched the water, you never came back. They all had that fear trained into them, first with nursery rhymes, and then at the Garrison – what to do to keep your wings dry, to land on earth, on rock: better break your bones than drown.
It was a well-founded fear. And even in his desperation, it makes Shiro falter – the rain and storm roaring above the ship, the water a black mess of crashing sound. He was frozen, bones locked tight, screaming in dread. The salt burned the cuts in his lip, the wind lashing at his skin. Behind him, someone shouted in the midst of a flare of fire; the ship rocks to the side with the hungry crest of the sea.
It had been so long since he last flown. He couldn’t fly. Not anymore. Shiro risked a glance back, hand on the rail of the ship. The ship rocks again, and his captors slip – stumbling. Then someone shoots at him – and the bullet clips the arch of his wing in a spray of blood.
The water was slick on his skin, cold on his feathers.
It wasn’t as if they were forbidden to go to the surface.
“Can you stop nagging,” said Lance, swimming around the long shadow of a rock towards the glow of the moon, “There’s no law against hanging around up top. It’s not illegal.”
Hunk swam just behind him. Lance wasn’t sure how his friend was able to make such disapproving hand gestures while swimming so fast. Some innate, undiscovered talent, clearly.
“You’re right, it’s not illegal for merfolk to go up to the surface,” said Hank, “so you know. I’d be fine! But it is illegal for you to go to the surface without telling anyone.”
Lance made a rude sign over his shoulder.
“Eh, whatever,” he said, “I told you didn’t I?”
“That doesn’t count!” sand Hunk, exasperated. “Your mom is going to kill me if she finds out. Again.”
“Psshht,” said Lance, “Mom loves you. What can she do to you anyway?”
“Uh,” said Hunk, “She’s the Queen so she can do whatever she wants, obviously!”
But Lance had stopped listening – he could hear the storm more clearly now, the soothing thrum of rain hitting the sea, the waves swooshing and buffeting them even at this depth. He had to sweep his tail constantly to stay near Hunk, even as they circled closer to the surface.
Lance gave a few more hard swipes with his tail, propelling from the hips until he finally broke the surface with a splash. Lance gasped, taking air through his nose and mouth rather than his gills – the sudden absence of water making the air bite cold. It was so much brighter up here, even under a heavy storm. Hands steadying himself against the rock, Lance pulled himself up above the water level. There was something aglow in the near distance – a red yellow glow.
Excitement ignited at the base of his spine.
“It’s a ship!” he shouted, splashing Hunk who had just emerged beside his elbow. “Look! Look – it’s a big one. Haha, it’s totally going to sink, what is it doing out here.”
“Why are you so bloodthirsty,” said Hunk peering at the ship and narrowly avoiding Lances’ jabbing hand, “Could just be sailors. Fishing. For fish. How long are we going to hang around because I’m hungry.”
Lance frowned at his friend.
“That is not a fishing vessel,” he said, “It’s military. Galran. I’d recognise that hull and the shape of that dumb canon anywhere.”
“You know my eyesight isn’t as good as yours,” Hunk complained, “Not up here.”
The ship seemed to be moving eastwards – or trying to. It was sailing perilously close to the rocks.
“C’mon, let’s go take a closer look!” said Lance, and dived off the rock and back into the water. He barely acknowledged Hunk’s annoyed yell and propelled himself forwards, back deeper through the water where the rocks were further apart, squeezing himself through a short cut and scraping his fin on the barnacles clinging to the other side. He wanted to swim under the ship, maybe see a few sailors up close. Maybe prank them.
The water flowed fast and thrilling through his gills as Lance swam; his heart thumping with excitement.
He loved storms.
Lance swam slower as he neared the ship, arching his back to look upwards at its small shadow on the water. It was being tossed in between the rise and fall of the water, like a small toy on the breath of a huge beast. Lance grinned with all his teeth at the thought – there was no love lost between Galrans and the merfolk.
He swam closer – glancing behind him for a sign of Hunk. His friend didn’t seem to be around, and Lance made an annoyed bubble with his mouth. Maybe Hunk had decided to go home without him. It was nearly supper time. Shrugging, Lance twisted his tail and swam further into the shadow of the ship, letting himself float upwards.
He could see a huge steel anchor: the chains were thicker than Lances’ arm, so there would be no casting them adrift today. He pulled at one of the metal gaps anyway, tugging hard. He jammed the hilt of his knife there – but it was too new. Lance patted the chain.
“Next time,” he said, tucking the knife back on the woven loop that sat over his shoulder and hip, “Next time.”
He followed the chain up to the bottom of the ship. It was huge – they always looked ginormous from this angle – and Lance pressed a curious hand to the thing. Most of the ships were still wooden, but the Galran had started plating the bottom with metal to stop Merfolk from tampering and sinking their vessels. This one had crudely beaten metal armour, thin but sturdy. The rivets stood out like knobs on a spine, and Lance followed them languidly as he swam, tail brushing against the ship. It was smooth against his scales; asides from crusted rust and various sea shells that had made their home there.
Lance was chipping away at a gap in the plating, absently humming to himself, when something in his peripheral vision made him pause. He turned, head cocked. Something had fallen into the water with a big splash. It was a sizeable smudge, moving and churning up bubbles. It wasn’t sinking all that fast, so it wasn’t cargo, and –
Lance’s eyes widened.
It was a person!
Abandoning his task, he propelled himself away from the bottom of the ship and towards the struggling form. It was the wrong shape for a Galra, too short… but also the wrong size for a human. He whipped his tail back, pushing himself through the rough water. He tried to stay deep enough to be out of sight of the fire glow – he didn’t want to be spotted, or get too close if…
Lance froze, hand still clutching his blade. He was close enough to see why the figure cast such a strange shape in the water. It was neither human nor Galran.
He had wings.
“Oh no,” Lance breathed, swimming closer. He fumbled his knife, trying to put it away, and within seconds was close enough to touch. Given the tales, Lance had half a mind to turn tail and swim off to safety. But something kept him there.
The avian was still struggling, disoriented and sluggish. Its wings were half spread in the water, buffeted hard by the ocean. Lance could smell the sharp tang of blood, fresh and hot. It made his teeth come out, and he pulled in a few long draws of water through his gills to calm himself.
“Hello?” he said, reaching out. The Avian twisted in the water, trying to look at him. It was making a lot of bubbles. “Hey – can you – do you need help back onto the ship? Hello?”
It had a pale face and dark hair. A broad chest and two legs, just like the humans. Its wings dark too, dwarfing them both with the span of it. A gush of bubbles escaped the Avian, his eyes were wide and panicky. They stared at eachother in the water for a moment, before the avian made an aborted movement, jerking away from Lance. All of a sudden, he went loose limbed.
Belatedly, Lance recalled that Avians couldn’t swim. Like, At all.
“Oh shit,” he said, grabbing the figure underneath his armpits, “Oh shit – no, please don’t die. Please don’t die.”
He was a lot heavier than Lance anticipated, but it was fine, Lance was a ace swimmer, the best. He propelled himself hard with strong strokes with his tail, hauling the avian close so he could hook both arms underneath his armpits, with the wings facing out. They were heavy and dragging and hard to manoeuvre, but Lance swam as hard as he could towards the surface of the water.
“Come on,” he muttered to himself, There!
With a heaving gasp, he pulled the Avian’s head free of the waves, trying vainly to prop him up on his shoulder so that its head would be above the water. It was hard with the rain and the churning waves – Lance had to keep sweeping his tail in tight fast strokes to keep his torso out of the water. The Avian’s wings were waterlogged, like limbs tied to the weed – and they kept going under the waves.
“Hey,” Lance shouted into the Avian’s ear. He would have slapped him except both his hands were occupied. “Hey! Wake up! Do you need to go back to the ship?”
No answer. The Avian was limp in his arms, face slack against Lance’s neck. He could feel the warmth of the skin – unnaturally warm – against his gills. He shivered, hoisting the body as high as he could. He got a mouthful of wet feathers for his trouble.
“Argh,” he spluttered, “Hunk? HUNK!”
What was an avian doing aboard a Galran ship? Lance looked from the ship, then to the dark outline fo the cliffs. On one hand, the ship was this avian’s best bet for survival. Lance had never met an Avian up close before, but he was pretty sure they didn’t have gills, or nostrils on the side of their heads. Which mean that this one wasn’t breathing properly.
“God you’re heavy,” he complained, hands slipping on the clothing. He hooked a wrist under the shoulder of a wing and tried to let the avian lie on top of him while he floated. A wave crashed over the both of them, and they went back down again. “Shit, what do I do. Come on, wake up!”
Lance gave the ship one more look – and then began towing his cargo towards the cliffs.
Given the war, it wasn’t likely that this Avian was having fun on that ship anyway. And plus, Lance would have to get real close to Galrans if this avian was to be returned up top – which meant risking his own tail. No thanks.
Lance gritted his teeth.
It was hard trying to swim half out of the water – his back was going to be sore tomorrow. His tail hit rock and Lance hissed, but kept going, trying his best to keep the Avian above water. Despite the sea, his skin was warm against Lance. He wondered if all Avians ran hot like this.
Lance was so preoccupied with his multitasking that he failed to notice an incoming shadow from above, until something sharp and metallic swiped him on his exposed shoulder.
Lance gave a screech of pain, instinctively arching his hip to dive back deeper into the safety of the water – but before he could, he felt the whip of a rope, or thin spun metal – it stung and would have wrapped itself like a garotte around his throat had Lance not twisted himself in the water. As it was, the thing wrapped itself around his hurt arm and pulled taut, cutting into flesh.
Lance shouted, barely keeping a hold on the Avian with his other arm. His back hit rock, and then suddenly there was someone above him, blocking out all the light from the moon. That someone was shouting, blade in one hand, garrotte in the other.
“Let him go you filthy fish!”
Lance hissed with all his teeth, spitting and twisting with confusion and pain but mostly bloody fury.
“What the hell!” he screamed at the newcomer, “Get this off me! What are you doing? Who are you?”
“I’ll drive this through your skull if you don’t let him go!”
It was another avian; miraculously still air borne despite the lashing rain and wind. He was very close to the water, wings flapping in huge great strokes to keep himself aloft. The water reflected off some kind of shimmery armour. He looked like an avenging angel statue that all got their wings chopped off and destroyed during the war.
“I’m trying save this dumb bird,” Lance shouted, “Hello! He can’t swim and neither can you.”
“I’m not going to ask again,” said the avian, pulling on the garrotte. Lance jerked forwards with the force of it, the pain making him hiss again. He wanted to throw a dagger at this man, but had no free hands. He felt like his shoulder was going to be pulled right out of its socket.
At the back of his mind, he wondered if this was what fish felt like at the end of a hook – and shuddered at the metaphor.
“You let go or I’ll drown the both of you,” said Lance, patience and good humour leaking away. His arm was bleeding. The avian was bleeding. His tail was probably losing a few scales. Between the two of them, they were probably attracting all the sharks in the neighbourhood.
The garrotte didn’t loosen.
“You’re two seconds away from falling into the sea anyway,” said Lance, “And once in, you know you’re not getting out. You lot can’t swim for shit.”
“Why would a Mer try to save one of us?” shouted the avian, who was turning out to be a real douchebag, “Why should I trust you?”
“Good question!” Lance shouted back, “Maybe I should just let your friend become shark food!”
The avian was trying to grab onto his friend, but he couldn’t get close enough without losing flight, and the downed avian was far too heavy to lift. The reality of this seemed to strike him with renewed desperation.
“Can you bring him to shore?” he asked, chest heaving with exertion.
Lance stared at him through the rain.
“Cut this noose,” he said.
Lightening lit up the cliffs behind them, illuminating the water for a brief second.
The avian threw his garrotte into the water. Lance was quick to pull it free from his arm, wincing. It hurt something awful where it had cut into his skin, but he took a deep breath through his mouth and hooked his arms around the unconscious avian again.
There was a heartbeat at least. He could feel it, throat to throat. Poor thing had no gills; no wonder it was panicking.
Cursing his own curiosity and cursing Hank’s absence, Lance pulled them forwards into the waves, swimming half on his back to keep the Avian above the water as best he could. He knew, without looking, that the other avian was following.
They sped through the storm, closer and closer to the cliffs.
Keith had not been the top of his flight class for nothing.
But even he was having trouble flying in what felt like a bloody monsoon. His entire chest and back felt like it was on fire, his breath coming in strained gasps. His hands were going numb and he wasn’t sure whether it was the exertion or the freezing rain.
Only the sheer adrenaline of finding Shiro after all these long months was keeping Keith airborne. He had a wingspan and genes that favoured agile, acrobatic flight – not sustained long distances. And whilst the slim taper of his wings helped him with the strong wind that was buffeting them left right and backwards, he also had to work five times harder just to stay level.
As it was, he could barely keep up with the merman who was slicing through the ocean like the shadow of a shark. Even with a fully downed avian in tow, that thing was fast. Keith reluctantly let some of his height drop as they neared the side of the cliff face; squinting through the rain. He could see Shiro’s pale face in the water, still like a corpse.
The merman led them a little way around the curve of the coast, keeping to the fringe of the cliffs. And then, between one beat of his wing and the next they were gone.
Keith cursed, tucking in one wing and dropping as close as he dared to the water.
They were gone. There was nothing but water and dark rock.
He should have never trusted a goddamn fish. Keith clutched his sword, feeling like his heart was about to thud right out of his ribs. He’d let it go. After finally finding Shiro, he’d let himself be tricked. Stupid, stupid, stupid! There was a noisy buzzing in his ears, screaming Shiro, Shiro, Shiro –
He was interrupted by a big splash, followed by a piercing sort of whistle. The merman was back, tail arching at a slitted entrance through the rocks that Keith had missed. He was being waved.
“Oi!,” it called, “You coming in or what?”
“I can’t breathe under water,” Keith shouted back, eyeing the dark entrance.
“Keep to your right!” said the Merman, who was still out of sight save for the shiny reflection of his tail fin, “There’s a ledge. Sort of. I don’t think it’s too deep. Hurry up, your friend is really heavy!”
Swearing under his breath, Keith sheathed his sword, swore some more and then took the leap of faith – he tucked his wings in and let himself drop the remaining few feet through the air.
His boots took most of the impact, and Keith scraped his gloves on the rock trying to stay upright. For an awful moment, he slipped and the water just kept coming, past his knees, and Keith thought – fantastic, now you’re both going to be fish food. But then he found his grip, and the water stopped; lapping forcefully around midriff. The bottom of his wings were getting completely soaked, but he couldn’t do much about that now – he shuffled along the edge of the rock, ducking his head and tucking his wings as tight as possible to himself.
After a few long moments of crawling and getting a faceful of seawater more than once, the space suddenly opened out. The sound of the ocean storm abruptly dimmed, to be replaced by the hollow echo of water lapping against rock, and the rasping sound of Keith’s own breathing. It was almost pitch black, but judging by the echoes, the cavern felt very, very big.
Ahead, just to his left, he could hear the sound of sluicing water and gentle splashing.
“You okay there, bird brain?” came the merman’s voice.
“Ye – aghh!”
Later, Keith would deny that he shrieked at all, but the sight of a pair of blue eyes glowing at him out of the water almost sent him tumbling back into the sea.
The eyes blinked.
“Why are you crouched like that,” said the merman. He was bobbing serenely – the water much stiller here without the waves – just shoulders above the water. His eyes had a strange, bioluminescent glow, which did not disappear when he blinked.
“Where’s Shiro,” Keith demanded, hand going for the hilt of his sword.
The merman cocked his head.
“What’s a shee-roh?” he asked, coming closer. Keith pressed his wings against the slimy rock. There wasn’t really anywhere to go. “…oh right, your friend? I put him down. You guys are really heavy, you know? How do you even get up into the air?”
Keith’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head.
“Put him down – we can’t breathe under water!”
The merman splashed him with his hands.
“Relaaax, I’m not stupid. I put him on dry rock. There’s bits of the cave that doesn’t get flooded, even in high tide, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know,” snapped Keith.
“Uh huh,” said the Merman. “Wait, hang on. I know what will help.”
And before Keith could say anything, the merman had dived back into the water in an arch of flesh and scales. His tail fin came up a breath later in a sweeping arc, splashing water all over Keith’s face.
“Goddamn!” said Keith. Ten more Keith’s echoed the curse back at him.
From the depths of the cavern, a voice floated back on the water:
“You gotta stop falling for that!”
“I fucking hate merfolk,” muttered Keith.
The merman didn’t leave him waiting for long; a few moments later there was a little blob of light streaking towards Keith. As it came closer, it illuminated what appeared to be a huge lake, water gleaming smooth for as far as the eye could see (which wasn’t very far: Avians didn’t have good night vision). The merman was holding some kind of crystal lamp, which emitted a blue glow. Belmeran crystal lamp. He wondered how a merman got a hold of something like that, but pushed it to the back of his mind.
The merman came right up to Keith, skin glistening with water. Held out the lamp.
“Here,” he said, “Be careful with this. It’s not mine. Pidge would kill me if you broke it.”
Keith stared at the hands holding the lamp. They were remarkably human looking hands; smooth skin, perhaps longer than average fingernails. The same number of knuckles; same number of fingers. But he could also see translucent webbing between the digits, and the faint shimmer of fine, tessellated scales on the soft side of the wrists. Those were not human hands.
Keith had never seen a merfolk this close up before. Usually no one lived to tell the tale.
He took the lamp.
The merman was staring at him, eyes big and curious. It had hair, just like Keith, and it wasn’t green like the stories, nor did it look anything like seaweed. It was brown and a bit spikey with salt. Then the merman smiled and Keith fought the urge to recoil at the sight of a mouthful of sharp, sharp teeth.
“You can walk around the whole edge,” said the merman, seemingly oblivious to the effect of his grin, “that bit is usually bigger in low tide, but. You should still be okay. Pidge has a dinghy but it’s down the way, I usually tow him in ‘cuase that’s faster, but you look like you’re gonna fall over any second. So just keep walking it’s not far.”
Keith eyed the rock warily, but straightened up properly. Transferring the lamp to his left hand, he kept his right on the rock face and inched forwards. His wings kept getting in the way, scraping the side of the rock-face.
The merman was still staring at him, floating lazily on his back.
“Is it hard to balance with those things? They’re huge. And not waterproof, apparently. What happens when it rains? Do you all just, drop out of the sky? Seems a bit dumb. Hey, I’ve never seen an Avian up close before. This is cool.”
Keith took another step; the metal shock-heel of his boots loud on the rock. The ledge was barely two hand-breadth’s wide. The water shone, inky black.
“…Do you want me to hold your hand or something?” asked the merman.
“Will you shut up!” said Keith.
Keith splashed his way across a shallow divot, uncaring of the water as they came in sight of Shiro. He was sprawled on a wide rock bed, wings splayed out. Keith put the lamp down with a clang (“Hey, be careful with that!”), dropping to his knees beside his fellow avian.
“Shiro,” said Keith, patting at his face, his neck – checking his pulse. He was breathing, thank god, even though it sounded laboured and watery. Keith shook Shiro by the shoulders.
“Wake up. Come on, Shiro. It’s Keith. I’m here. You’re – “ he tried to pull Shiro up into his lap, off the cold stone – but only half managed. Shiros’ head lolled back into the crook of Keith’s elbow, and Keith felt like something was being pulled slowly, painfully out of his throat.
He pressed his cheek to Shiro’s cold one, trying to breathe normally. His eyes stung; with salt or tears… Keith squeezed them shut, wings coming up instinctively to cover them both. Distantly, he realised his hands were shaking.
There was the soft gurgle of water as the merman pulled himself up on the rock; chin resting on his folded hands.
“Is he going to be okay?”
“I… I don’t know,” said Keith, quietly. He looked down at Shiro; at the new scars on his face; the bruise swelling his eye and the wound that was still bleeding his feathers red. “Been looking for him for a long time. Thought he was dead. I can’t – he’s – “
Keith choked on the words, relief and disbelief making him feel sick and dizzy. The merman made a clicking-crooning noise at the back of his throat, a distinctly inhuman sound, but full of sympathy all the same. Keith finally looked up.
“Can we – is there anything to make a fire? He needs to get dry and get warm.”
At the word ‘fire’, the merman seemed to recoil a little into the water.
“Um, I don’t think so,” he said, “I might have some – dry stuff to help? I have lots of things in my collection!”
“…your collection?” said Keith.
Turned out, the merman was some kind of hoarder.
“Where did you get all this stuff?” said Keith, looking at the piles and piles of assorted knick knacks. Even just within the puddle of light from the lamp, he could see cutlery, silver and bronze plates and bowls, glass baubles, jewellery, ten telescopes in a neat row, a few odd pairs of boots, two chipped mirrors and trunks barely closed with linen, books, drawing implements and – gold coins? There was also a leather bundle of what looked like a collection of knives and throwing blades. They shone free of rust, well looked after.
“Did you steal all this?”
“Ships,” said the merman, “and it’s not stealing if it’s just floating around. Look in the brown chest, I think Pidge put all the fluffy stuff in there.”
Keith set the lamp down on a nearby trunk and opened the nearest brown-wooden chest. Inside were stacks of woollen blankets, kept miraculously dry by a thick cushion of purple-green moss that smelt faintly floral. He grabbed as many as he could carry.
“Do you have a name, or are you all Shiros,” said the merman, splashing idly, “I’m Lance, by the way. You didn’t ask, which – rude – given I saved your feathery asses and all, but that’s okay. I forgive you. I’m very forgiving. Because I’m awesome.”
“I’m Keith,” said Keith from behind a mountain of blankets. He hooked the lamp onto one wrist and they made their way back to where Shiro was still lying unconscious.
“What kind of name is Keef,” said Lance.
“Keith,” said Keith, “with a ‘th’. And for that matter, what kind of name is ‘Lance’?”
“A name that you humans can pronounce,” said Lance, “My full name is too hard to say apparently.” He made a complicated noise that was a combination of hissing clicks, ending in a shriek. Keith almost slipped over at the high-pitched noise.
“’Lance’ is fine,” he said hastily.
“Hrmpph,” said the merman.
In the end, Keith found the driest place he could on the rock and made a nest out of the blankets to provide as much insulation between the cold rock and Shiro as possible. Then he dragged Shiro across to it, taking off his shoes and wrapping Shiro’s feet in one of the blankets. Then Keith began the slow, arduous task of trying to drying Shiro’s feathers. Keith could feel the salt crusting his own wings, and it made him itch where it had dampened the soft down feathers close to his skin. He wish he could build a fire. But Shiro came first.
There was a loud slosh of water – and Keith turned just in time to see Lance pull himself out of the water in one, effortless heave. Suddenly, the merman was right there, peering curiously at Shiro, hair plastered to his forehead, scales gleaming. He was sitting on the rock. He was out of the water. Why was he out of the water? Keith was sitting in a giant sea cave with a merman who hadn’t drowned them yet.
Instinctively, Keith went for his sword again – but stopped when Lance gave him a very unimpressed look.
“Seriously?” he said, lying down carelessly on his stomach and propping himself up on his elbows. “Seriously birdy? If I wanted to kill you, I’d have done it already. You’re two fluffy birds at sea. What are you gonna do. Fluff at me?”
“Get back – “ Keith tried.
“Oh wait,” said Lance, turning onto his side, “You’re too soggy to fluff right now.”
His tail stretched long and languid on the wet stones – it was longer than what Keith had imagined, tapering down and fanning out at the tail fin which was still swishing idly in the water. He didn’t seem at all bothered by the cold, which made sense – but his bare skin looked like Keith’s own skin. It melted into blue-silver scales somewhere around where the human waist would have been. The scales deepened in colour along the tail, and as he turned, Keith could see scales on the merman’s abdomen, shimmery and pale and soft looking. Curiosity mixed with something hot burned at the pit of Keith’s stomach.
His throat felt very dry, and he swallowed, hard.
It was probably all the salt water he had consumed in the last hour. Keith hated the sea.
He turned back to Shiro, pushing out his let wing and pressing a blanket hard to it. Running his fingers through the feathers, Keith could see that someone had done a cruel job of hacking at the flight feathers. They were uneven where they had been shorn off, and there was clusters of feathers that were clumped by dry blood. They clipped his wings, thought Keith furiously, anger rising like bile, they clipped his wings.
Pressing his fingers to one such hacked feather, Keith pulled it out with a practiced twist of the hand. The wing jerked in his grasp, but he pinned it down with one knee. Shiro did not wake.
“Hey!” Lance grabbed his sleeve, “What are you doing?!”
Keith wrenched his arm out of the merman’s grasp, startled. They stared at eachother, wide eyed.
“Helping,” said Keith. Without looking down, he pulled out another broken feather from Shiro’s wing. Lance visibly flinched, staring at the discarded feathers on the blanket and then back up at Keith.
“You’re hurting him,” he said, accusingly.
“Why do you care?” Keith shot back.
“I – you - !” spluttered Lance, “I saved him! I saved him first, he’s mine now.”
Keith narrowed his eyes.
“Know much about helping Avians recover, do you?”
Lance pouted at him, blue eyes glossy wet. Pouted. Keith reminded himself of the sharp, sharp fishy teeth behind those lips. He tugged Shiro more comfortably against him, so that the wing draped downwards across them both. Keith could hear his breathing better this way; it was reassuring.
“It’ll grow back faster if I pull them out,” he explained after a long moment of silence, “They – the Galrans cut our flight feathers like this so they don’t grow back properly. You have to pull them right out.”
“You can’t fly without them?” said Lance, patting the shape of Shiro’s feet with unbridled fascination.
“No,” said Keith. He resisted the urge to kick the merman right back into the water as Lance lifted Shiro’s right foot and squinted at the toes, face pressed right up close.
Keith could see the blue scales under Lance’s jaw, covering the soft part of his throat. The light was too dim, but he thought he could see gills there too, parallel slits of silver.
“How long does it take to grow back?” asked Lance.
“Do you ever shut up?”
“Hey, I just saved your lives! In return, you shredded my arm. You totally owe me some answers buddy.”
Keith swallowed his guilt as he looked at the aforementioned arm – it wasn’t shredded, but it was bloody; the garrotte having sunk into flesh; twisted and pulled. The skin was red and puffy, and he realised that the Lance had been actively keeping his weight off it.
“I’m… sorry,” said Keith, carding his fingers through Shiro’s feathers, “I thought you were trying to drown him.”
“Merfolk drown sailors for fun,” he said, “everyone knows that.”
Lance rolled his eyes. It was an uncomfortable thing to watch, given that they basically glowed in the dark.
“Right,” said Lance, “Merfolk are all barbaric monsters who sink ships for shits and giggles, right?”
Keith had offended him. He blamed the delirious exhaustion; and was suddenly keenly aware that, if he wanted to, Lance could drag both of them back into the water right now.
“I’ve never met one of your kind before,” said Keith, defensively.
Lance crossed his arms over his chest – and then winced as it reopened the wound on his hurt arm.
“Just because people are crappy sailors doesn’t mean that someone else is always to blame,” muttered Lance, “And plus. We don’t drown people for fun.”
He leaned close, face inches from Keith’s.
“We drown them for dinner.”
Lance grinned, showing all of his teeth. They were inhumanely sharp, and there seemed to be way too many of them, and was his jaw unhinging –
“Fuck,” said Keith, topping backwards into the wall. Shiro groaned as he was dropped unceremoniously back onto his blanket nest.
Lance cackled, his laughter bouncing off the cavern and water.
“Kidding!” he said, “but not kidding. I’ll eat you if you pull your knife on me again.”
Keith glared at him, chest heaving with adrenaline. There was something in his hind brain that screamed danger! danger! at the sight of fangs and water and scales. He couldn’t help it.
Lance’s grin faded a little at the expression of Keith’s face.
“Look, I don’t like eating chicken, okay?” he said after a long pause, “I’m not going to eat you. But it would be nice to get some gratitude, just sayin’.”
“Did you just call me a –“
“Keef,” said the merman, raising both eyebrows.
Keith slowly, deliberately, took his hand away from his sword. He let it clatter to the rocks beside him. Then he came back within arms reach, settling his hand back in Shiro’s feathers. It was an anchoring warmth. He sat down, pulling the blanket back over Shiro from where it had slipped off.
Lance tilted his head. The lamp-light made the scales under his chin glitter. He looked otherworldly.
Keith stared determinedly at Shiro’s face.
“Thank you for saving his life,” said Keith finally, not looking up. “We thought he had died months ago. Two others are still missing. Pretty sure they’re dead.”
Something cool touched his ankle, and Keith flinched – but it was only Lance. He had put his teeth away, thank god, and was looking sympathetic again.
“If Shiro’s alive, they might be too – right?” said Lance.
Keith shrugged. His entire body ached. He just wanted lie down next to Shiro, curl up between their wings and just sleep. He had been travelling for so many nights, flying under the cover of darkness to avoid being shot at.
Lance seemed to read his mind.
“You can rest, you know,” he said, “no ships ever sail this close to cliff. Too many rocks. Lots of wrecks. You’ll be safe.”
“They’ll know he’s missing,” said Keith, dully. He brushed the damp hair off Shiro’s face, pressing the back of his hand to Shiro’s forehead. His skin was clammy with cold.
“They probably think he drowned,” said Lance, helpfully, “Unless they saw you while you were trying to kill me. Flapping around. Screaming blue murder. That’s gratitude for you. Anyway. I can keep watch.”
Keith stared at him.
Lance huffed out an annoyed breath. He slapped his tail against the rock.
“Or not, whatever,” he said, “You don’t have to sleep. Stay up and become a corpse, what do I care. I’ll stick around and make sure your buddy doesn’t die.”
And with that, the merman pushed himself off the rock and slipped back into the water with hardly a splash.
Keith shrugged off his own soaked clothes and wrapped one of the blankets around himself, before doing the same to Shiro. No use dying of hypothermia at this stage. He swapped out the damp blanket for a dry one, and went back to patting down Shiro’s wing, methodically yanking out the broken flight feathers one by one.
The lamp glowed steadily at their side, never flickering.
He could hear the sound of water swishing; Lance swimming in the still lake. Presently, he began to hum, the sound echoing in the yawn of space; ghostly and hypnotic. There were no words, just a lilting tune, wistful and aimless. It was punctuated by the drip and soft splash of water, a repetitive melody that seemed to slow Keith’s heartbeat to a calm lull.
Sirens, he thought absently, siren song. He knew he should be more afraid, but …
Somewhere between the third and fifth verse, Keith fell asleep.