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Raman scattering

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If there was one thing Slaine knew, it was that he had fucked up. And that this wasn’t one of his usual fuck ups, oh no. This was major and quite possibly irreversible.

He was stranded alone and injured in unfamiliar waters. He could probably be done in by a passing pufferfish at this point.

 

 

 

Slaine's pod had been migrating with the sperm whales, like they did every year. This year they left the arctic waters with an elderly bull, who didn’t mind the company of their small pod of merfolk. Slaine didn’t understand everything the bull told them as they dove in the deeps, but the stories always got nastier the closer the sounds of passing ships far up on the surface got.

The merfolk could never dive quite as deep or as long as the sperm whale did, but they stayed together nonetheless. Some of the more talented ones could go on hunts to the midnight zone with the whale, coming back up with stories of giant leviathans. Most of the pod stayed in the dim levels between the twilight and midnight zones however, only seeing a short glimpse of sunlight when they rose up with the bull to catch their breath, before descending back into the darkness.

Slaine had been diving near the surface that day, observing the rapidly worsening weather above the surface. The rest of the pod was already almost a hundred meters below him, but Slaine felt curious of the howling sounds of the wind and didn’t hurry back down. He loved feeling the waves rolling above him, sometimes holding his hand up and almost breaking the surface. Though he needed to go up every hour or so to breathe, there were strict rules in the pod to never linger near the surface. When sleeping they could hold their breath for a few hours easily, and that was exactly what they did whenever they came close to ships. It was rare since the pod stayed clear of any coasts, but one could never know. Not much was passed down about the creatures living on land, but none of it was good. So they stayed hidden.

The world above was completely different from the one below. The bright lights, the noises, all the movement had Slaine captivated.

Though his pod spent most of its time in the deeps, and hunted even deeper, Slaine had always had a fascination with the world above. Most of what he had seen in his lifetime was the sky, and now it was darkening rapidly. The blond peered at it through the rising and falling of the waves and wondered what caused the thundering sounds that seemed to vibrate their way to everything around.

The pod was now far off somewhere to his left, Slaine listened carefully. He could hear the elderly bull clicking his stories to anyone who listened. Not that many had a choice, the old bull could be heard from miles and miles away: sperm whales weren’t exactly known to be quiet. Slaine didn’t have a mutual language with the whale, and many of the intricacies of the bull’s language escaped him still, but it was doable by using some common whistles and clicks.

Slaine was just about to pop above the surface for one last gulp of fresh air when he felt something entering his sonar bubble from behind, fast. It was big.

Jerking back barely in time to face the intruder all Slaine saw was a flash of white before his shoulder was caught between giant jaws. He was slammed above the surface on impact, flopping uselessly in the air. Not a second later he had the air painfully forced out of his lungs as he crashed back underwater. Slaine faintly tasted his blood spreading in the water, and only half a second later the pain crashed down on him. His whole left side was engulfed in splitting pain that made his ears ring.

Slaine was staring down at the snout of a shark as he screamed, scrambling with his right arm to rip himself off. He felt his pod stir in the distance, but the sensation was cut short. Through the hot, white pain he remembered he was holding a spear. The shark started to drag him down to drown him, shaking him, trying to make him breathe in water. Slaine couldn’t even shout anymore, all his world focused into the burning pressure pulling him down.

The eyes, Slaine heard a voice in his mind, the eyes and the gills. He had been told it a million times as a calf and yet it took an eternity to remember when actually needed. Blinded by the blood spreading around him the blond was lucky his right hand was already clasped around his spear. Slaine started hitting and stabbing at random, screaming and sending sonars for some hope of stunning the shark. They were twisting and turning deeper, leaving a cloud of diluted red behind them. Finally he hit his target and the shark let go with a jolt. It dragged Slaine along for a few meters before the young merman willed his hand to let go of the spear, now penetrating the shark’s skull through its left eye socket.

For a few seconds Slaine drifted in and out of consciousness before flipping his tail couple times and sliding back towards the surface. The ringing in his ears made everything muffled. He hardly felt anything other than his heart trying to pump its way out of his chest. Slaine broke through the surface, heaving and coughing and suddenly crashing underwater by some invisible force once again. He tried again but was crashed under again.

Thinking was hard. Slaine needed to get away before anything else tasted his blood in the water. He couldn’t escape to the safety of his pod yet though, not while bleeding. He would just attract more predators and one elderly sperm whale, while big, wouldn’t be a deterrent enough. Sharks they could handle as pod, but if there were any orcas nearby, they would surely be decimated.

Somehow his overfocused mind felt immensely confused by the whole scenario. The weather above the surface had turned into something vicious. Slaine tried to fill his empty lungs again to escape the storm to the calm of the deeps, but he simply couldn’t catch a breath. He was tumbling and turning, being ripped this and that way by the waves until he couldn’t tell up from down or left from right anymore. Slaine was pushed back under, rolling under the surface, feeling like his left arm would surely be ripped off this time, the sea finishing what the shark couldn’t. He could barely stay conscious. Slaine was sure he was still around where he had been attacked, but he couldn’t hear the old bull over the rumble in the skies and the downpour hitting the storming sea. He was blinking in and out of darkness again-

 

 

 

-Slaine slowly opened his eyes to the calm sea. There was a feeling of dissonance somewhere in his head. Something was not right, but he couldn’t focus on anything. He could feel that his left side was a painful mess, but he didn’t dare to check it. The water tasted foreign to Slaine and for the life of him, he couldn’t remember when and where he fell asleep. He was floating on the surface with a couple of seagulls circling above him. In a distance there were many more. The water was warmer than he was used to. Everything felt off.

In a haze he turned and dipped under the surface. The warm water was making his head feel like it was filled with seaweed. With his sonar he could feel small fish all around him in the rocky shallows, a few schools of bigger fish and a kelp forest out a bit further. Ripples reflected on a soft sand bed below him. Slaine was too close to the shore for his liking, closer than he had ever been in his life in fact, so he quickly limped towards the deeper and cooler waters to clear his head.

The memory of the shark attack came back so suddenly and vividly it felt like being bit all over again. With trembling hands Slaine checked his wounds to the best of his abilities. Rows of angry toothmarks along his left shoulder and arms, rake marks where the teeth had dragged as the shark had tried to get a better hold of Slaine and failed. Ripped flesh that made him want to gag even though it wasn’t bleeding anymore. There was no knowing in what state his back was. Trying to move his left arm hurt everywhere, but also somewhere deep in his shoulder. The initial bite wound was bad, but nothing Slaine couldn’t survive. He’d seen merfolk with worse scars. The deeper pain had him more worried.

Slaine looked around and sang a pitiful call to his pod. There was no answer. He couldn’t hear any whales either. He was supposed to stay in hearing distance at all times. He had been at hearing distance just a while ago.

However long ago that while ago was.

After a few more calls the full weight of his situation started to dawn on Slaine, and it chilled him to the core. Franticly he started swimming toward the deep, then back again, calling with whistles and sending his sonar as far as he could in hopes of feeling something familiar.

No answer. Nothing.

The water tasted foreign and was much too warm for him. Slaine felt a current around him. Could a current carry him so far away? He swam up and breached the water just enough to take a look of his surroundings above the surface. There was an island in the distance. He didn’t recognise it. From the taste of the water he could gather that he wasn’t close to any longer coastline though. Just how long had he been floating unconscious? How had he not been eaten while asleep?

Slaine stopped. He had been more interested in observing the weather than he had been being aware of his surroundings, in keeping his back safe. And now he had no idea where he was, what do, how to get to his pod or even back to their route if he now had to catch up alone.

He didn’t even know the route of the old bull to begin with, getting back on it would be complete guesswork.

Slaine had fucked up big time.

He was stranded in unfamiliar waters, alone and unarmed. He’d lost his spear to the shark. In his woven bag he had a spare spearhead that didn’t do any good for him without a handle, and a small bundle of rope. It wasn’t much, but Slaine could fish and forage while planning his next move. Brain switching to a more analytical and detached mode, Slaine knew he should keep moving to avoid any further danger especially now that he was hurt and alone. He knew what had to be done.

It was easier said than done though.

Slaine shook himself, trying to rid his head of the looming possibilities. This wasn’t the situation to think long term: if he didn’t make it the next few hours and days there wasn’t going to be any long term. He checked his surroundings, started clicking steadily to get a constant sonar of his surroundings and forced himself to move on.

He was near a reef. Slaine could feel the current feeding it around him, it was weak in the shallows, but would be dangerous in open sea. He couldn’t swim against it injured, so his best bet was to work with it; either swim with it or cross it. The closeness of a reef was evident all around him, there was life everywhere. There were schools of fish passing by, different kinds of seaweed growing from the seafloor, covering the rocks and floating around.

The kelp forest gave Slaine ample hunting grounds, but he wasn’t exactly in the shape for chase with his injury. With a spear he could've easily caught fish, but onehandedly and alone it was nearly impossible even when he tried to hunt by ambush. He simply couldn’t move fast or sharply enough without risking worsening his injuries.

Frustrated and hungry, Slaine surfaced for air. He quickly dove down again, moving in the shadows of bigger rocks close to the bottom. He was constantly clicking, but the lack of any response made him nervous. He tried to whistle a few times but didn’t dare anymore after that. The silence felt oppressive.

Near the surface a shark lazily swam by. Slaine froze. It was a small one, probably feeding on the fish at the reef. It was way too small to harm him, but the fact that there were sharks nearby didn’t help Slaine’s growing anxiety.

After a couple more hours and no progress in fishing, Slaine gave up and opted to collecting seaweed. It wouldn’t satisfy his hunger like fish did, but it had to do. He stuffed his bag, and even found clams. Opening them was a struggle though. Moving his left arm made it painful. Slaine attempted to at least hold the clam with his left hand to open it with the spearhead but couldn’t muster the strength to hold a grip. Desperate, he picked a rock and tried to crack the stubborn shell against the seafloor to no avail. There wasn’t enough force behind his strikes.

It was pathetic, really. Frustrated, Slaine threw the clam away.

Slaine floated close to the surface for a while, watching seagulls through the waves and constantly checking the waters below. It felt like something under his skin itched. He started blowing bubbles out of frustration. Slaine felt restless and unable to act at the same time.

He needed to get back on their migration route. Slaine wasn’t exactly sure where it was compared to his current location but he came to the conclusion that crossing the current would probably be his best option. He was sure he could come up with the next plan once he got back to the open ocean.

Without stalling for any longer Slaine rushed away from the shallows. He just needed to move on, and then he would surely find the right direction somehow. Even if he had to go all the way alone. Slaine had migrated almost 20 times now, he would know when he was close. He just needed to stay calm, take care of himself, move on and get used to the silence echoing around him. For now, he would follow the current and then slowly cross it.

 

 

 

If the shallows felt uncomfortable, the open ocean was almost worse in all its familiarity. Now his sonar only caught an occasional school of fish, when before there was life bustling all around him. The blond was getting more paranoid every fish he sensed. The wounds on his shoulder stung and the whole arm felt wrong and painful, hot and cold flowing down from his shoulder in waves. He had a feeling that something there had been severely misplaced, but Slaine didn’t know how to fix it so he tried his best to not think about it.

The current around Slaine was getting stronger. It was carrying colder water rising from the deeps and had lots of tiny specks and baby fish. Slaine basked briefly in the rich water letting it cool his wounds.

Seemingly out of nowhere a huge creature slowly entered his sonar. Slaine turned and sang a hopeful greeting, but it wasn’t a whale. After a few seconds he could see it swimming below him; a whale shark, mouth wide open collecting plankton. It was followed by many other fish seeking safety in its size and numbers, much like Slaine’s own pod did with whales. A painful pang clenched his chest. Slaine would have probably joined in with the mixed group if the whale shark wasn’t crossing the current in the wrong direction. Instead he watched the giant go towards the reef, swallowed his disappointment and continued on.

Slaine had a feeling something else had heard his greeting, he could almost feel something bustling further ahead. He popped up for a breath and saw a glimpse of birds circling far off in the distance. Something was happening there. He was curious by nature and it would be on his way anyway. It would be dangerous, but open ocean was dangerous by default, Slaine was no stranger to that.

For a second some rational part of Slaine almost regretted not joining the whale shark, that way he could’ve just hitched a lift from it for a while and got some rest. Instead as aching as his body was from the attack, he raced to see what was happening.

The gulls circling ahead could mean there was a ship. That wouldn’t be good. Just in case he dove deeper, almost all the way to the twilight zone, and propelled himself forward with renewed determination, paying no mind to his left arm protesting every movement. As he slowly slid up to the site almost an hour later, all that remained were a few gulls swimming on the surface and a scattered cloud of scales slowly floating around.

The scene was somewhat surreal in its quietness, but not unfamiliar. Slaine collected a few scales for a quick taste test. Mackerel. He looked around at the empty ocean surrounding him. There had been a school of mackerel here, and it had been completely destroyed. He tested the reach of his sonar and caught a big fish, probably a tuna, further ahead. He would not be able to kill and eat a tuna alone, let alone in his current state. Adult tunas were massive and moved in large schools. Most likely they were what ate the mackerels.

There was a beginning of a plan forming in a corner of Slaine’ mind, and for him it was enough to act on. He moved his bag to his left side so that he could rest his left arm on it while swimming. If he was fast enough to catch up and join the school of tuna, he might be able to catch fish with them. Or more likely, scavenge what remained. There was safety in numbers too, and there sure was plenty of numbers in schools of tuna.

 

 

 

Slaine lost count of time, and before he knew it the sun had set and the darkness from the deeps was creeping to the surface levels he now swam in. He couldn’t rely on his eyes as much anymore, so he tightened his sonar around him and then extended it to reach as far as he could. The darkness felt familiar and good. With the darkness however, there were also many creatures rising from their deep dwellings to the richer levels of water to feed. This was a dangerous time, with many hunters roaming about. Slaine was used to being one of them, catching the rising fish and squid with his pod, but now he didn’t have the safety of his pod to safe guard him. Despite feeling tired and achy, he too rose closer to the surface and did his best to hasten his pace.

 

 

 

The sky was already starting to glow with the first rays of morning sun when Slaine reached the tail of the tuna school. He had been hearing and tasting them closer and closer over the past hours, barely struggling to keep the pace to reach them. Now Slaine could finally see them.

They were swimming furiously, yellow fins catching the morning light, and didn’t seem to mind Slaine at all. Then again, why should they; they were a school of adults all right, most about two meters in length, some even bigger. He had only caught juvenile tuna with his pod before, so the fact that the adults dwarfed him like that came as a bit of a surprise.

Slaine joined the school, whistling hellos around and barely getting glances back. He didn’t mind though, he was already feeling ecstatic. It was easier to swim in the school, the blond noted. The tuna ploughed through the water relentlessly, and it almost felt like he was just sliding in their tracks. It was easy to keep up with the school now that he was in their slipstream. Slaine moved deeper into the school revelling in feeling them moving all around him whenever he let out bursts of sonar. It wasn’t quite like swimming with his pod, the lack of chatter was deafening to his ears, but it was a million times better than being alone.

Slaine was just starting to fall in sync with the tuna when he faintly felt someone reaching toward him with a sonar of their own. The tuna slowed down and started to circle around in groups. Slaine felt the sonar again and rushed forward whistling and forgetting all the aches he had accumulated. It wasn’t one of his people, the sonar felt different. He didn’t recognise the whistles he could now hear either. Once he was in range to let out his own sonars, he noticed that it wasn’t just one. It was about twenty.

The yellowfin tunas were following a pod of dolphins.

Slaine swam in happy circles, clicking and whistling hellos once again. The dolphins didn’t understand him, but they didn’t take him as a threat either. He was approached by a couple of curious juveniles, quickly making way for an adult that was scanning him carefully with its sonar. Slaine stayed still, clicking excitedly, scanning the dolphins in turn.

They were a pod of 23 dolphins his size, mostly adults but also a few juveniles and two calves, sticking closely to their mothers. They had a similar colouration to Slaine; blueish grey sides, dark grey back and white bellies. They lacked his greyish blonde mop of hair though. Each examined him in turns, sometimes bumping playfully into his good side.

Slaine didn’t have that much experience with dolphins, his pod usually travelled in deeper levels with the whales and spent less time close to the surface. Unsure of the protocol he pulled a piece of seaweed from his bag as a makeshift gift, and in less than ten minutes after meeting the pod of dolphins he was already playing tag with them. They tossed the seaweed around, catching it with their fins and dropping it for others to catch. They were a playful and noisy bunch, and Slaine felt right at home, laughing and feeling all the tension and fear melt away.

As they started making their way once again, the dolphins stuck close to the surface, sometimes breaching it. Observing from below Slaine learned quickly that they needed to breathe a lot more frequently than he did, so he too made way to swim with them near the surface. The tunas were staying close behind them. Apparently they had some sort of bond with the dolphins.

It wasn’t long until the travelling turned into yet another play. In displays that amazed Slaine, the dolphins jumped above the waves, spinning and twisting before crashing back under, all the while whistling their signatures. He had seen humpbacks feed before, breaching the surface. His pod tended to retreat deeper during those times, and the sperm whales they followed prefered the dark deeps as well anyway. What he hadn’t seen before was jumping just for fun like that. He wondered what the elders would have to say to something risky like that.

“Hello!”

“Hello!”

“Hello!”

Confused, Slaine wondered what the juveniles were up to. After some more jumps and excited coaxing it dawned to him, and he laughed.

The dolphins were whistling their own signatures all the time, so they must’ve thought he was telling them his name when he had first greeted them. The juveniles copied his laughter in mockery and jumped once again. Slaine called them by their signature whistles, and by the time the juveniles joined him again it was clear that they were trying to coax him into jumping as well. Slaine wasn’t sure how to feel about it. It wasn’t allowed in his pod. Anything to do with the surface wasn’t allowed, besides from the necessary evil of having to breathe. He wasn’t in the shape for such feats anyway.

There was noone to see him here though. He wanted to, but his shoulder hurt pretty badly. Maybe if he landed on his right side he could do it.

It didn’t take long for Slaine to muster up his courage and go for the first jump. He dove a bit deeper and accompanied by cheers of “hello”, he breached the surface. The one second his body was weightless and surrounded by air and wind and all the blue of the sky and the ocean combined seemed to stretch forever. In that one brief moment he saw further ahead of him than he ever had, ever could in water. And all that he saw was blue. The moment was gone before it even had started, and Slaine crushed to the water face first, white pain exploding in his shoulder. He stumbled for a few meters before getting his sight back and pushing the pain down. A couple of adults carefully inspected him, lightly touching his throbbing left shoulder with their noses.

 

 

 

 

When the night fell Slaine dove down to the lower levels with the pod to hunt. He didn’t dare to stay down alone though, so he had to get used to surfacing every ten minutes or so as the dolphins breathed. It was strange at first, he was used to longer dives, but even with shorter dives there definitely was strength in numbers. Slaine didn’t like freeloading but was grateful to be taken into the pod for now. He swallowed his pride and took what was offered, be it an occasional shrimp to go with his diet of seaweed or holding one of the dolphins’ fin and sleep for a little while hitching a ride.

 

 

 

He needed to get better soon so he could properly join the hunts. Slaine was having fun with the pod, but at the same time he was getting thinner and tired faster. He started running out of seaweed after a week of careful rationing. There was no plan B for food. For now, he was lucky he had run across the dolphin pod and gained their friendship.

Cuddling close to them, listening to their chatter and joining in their play was more than Slaine could’ve hoped for, though. He needed this closeness. Even though the dolphins had mostly switched to common whistles and clicks and he could now communicate with them, he missed having actual conversations. He had never been the most sociable or liked person in his pod of merfolk, but at their core they were social creatures. It was in Slaine’s nature to crave that contact.

 

 

 

They had been travelling together for almost two weeks hunting, playing around and teasing the tuna that followed the pod as usual, when the whole atmosphere started changing. There was a distant rumble. At first Slaine thought it was a thunder again, but when he glanced up, all he saw on the other side of the waves was clear sky. It didn’t make sense. The juvenile dolphins still played and goofed around, but the mothers held their calves a bit closer and the adults called the pod closer together. They hastened their pace.

In an hour it was clear the rumble was following them. It was steady behind the school of tuna. It only took a few minutes longer for the source of the disturbance to enter Slaine’ sonar.

Ships. And not just one, at least five of them. Slaine felt a shiver in his spine that radiated into his aching left arm. The answer in his mind was immediate and deeply rooted: he should dive deeper, deep enough that there was no risk for him being detected. But the dolphins needed to stay close to the surface, they couldn’t dive for that long or deep. Diving now would mean leaving the pod.

Slaine needed to face the uncomfortable truth. He couldn’t possibly survive on his own.

Despite his instincts crying otherwise, Slaine decided to stay with the dolphins. Apparently, the tuna had reached a similar conclusion, as they were chased forward by the boats, now reaching the pod and around their sides. The tuna made everything feel more frantic mostly by messing with Slaine’s ability to track the ships; his vision and sonar were getting cluttered by the tuna all around him.

In an attempt to avoid the hustle Slaine dove under the dolphin pod and did his best to keep his sonar on the ships. There were three smaller ones that seemed quite agile and had started to separate from their pod of ships. The dolphins stuck even closer together and even the juveniles seemed to start taking the situation seriously. As one they started swimming even faster, and Slaine was starting to have trouble to keep up with the pace.

The three faster boats, size of a small whale, were gaining on them, two from both sides and one chasing from behind, manoeuvring them and the tuna into an ever-tightening formation. There were two other ships, one a little bigger than the small boats and another bigger than any whale Slaine had ever seen. He couldn’t follow them through the glimpses he got through the tuna, and soon he couldn’t feel even the small ones. He was twisting and turning guided only by some group instinct with the school of fish he was now surrounded by, the dolphins staying above him, trying to navigate their way through the ships and boats all around them.

Through his confusion and anxiety, Slaine suddenly noticed he was swimming on autopilot in tight circles with the school of tuna, not really moving forward anymore. He glanced above and saw the dolphins huddling skin to skin. He whistled questions but didn’t get any answers he understood. Something was pulling the school closer together, he felt the steady rumble of the ships all around him. They were now circling them. He couldn’t understand why the tuna stayed, but then again, he was still there too, caught in the mass hysteria. He should’ve been half way to the bottom of the sea by now, Slaine’s rational side nagged at him.

“Hello!”

“Hello!”

“Hello!”

Through the panicking tuna he could hear the pod calling for him. It was hard to hear or navigate, the tunas were getting more and more packed together, and Slaine was starting to experience first-hand just how much muscle there was in a tuna; a hit from its tail or a push from its side could really hurt and send him tumbling. He was starting to feel claustrophobic. The only way he could escape the chaos at this point was was either up or down and neither was a viable option.

“Hello!”

He got a bit closer to the surface, just close enough to see the ships swaying: three small white ones, a little bigger orange one and a huge dark blue one. When he got high enough to recognise why they weren’t moving his heart froze with dread.

They were surrounded by a net. But it was not like the small weighed ones his people used when hunting schools of fish. This one was big enough to surround a school of thousands of adult tunas. Taking a glance below confirmed a sinking fear that crossed Slaine’s mind. The tuna were being gathered in a net that was closed at the bottom. There was no way to dive deeper.

Slaine felt unbelievably tiny and vulnerable. No wonder his people were scared of the ships and the creatures they carried. No wonder their tales of merfolk too curious of the surface always ended badly. No wonder the old bull told angry tales of the ships.

Slaine hardly had time to process anything around him when a shift in the movement of the panicked tuna threw everything off balance again. They were rising higher and bumping into him and each other once again. The net was being dragged and changing its shape into a tube. He looked above him, to the floaters keeping the net up. He could see glimpses of the dolphins moving towards the blue ship pulling the net at the end of the corridor of floaters.

Slaine’ eyes widened when he scanned the ships. There was a small section of the net being kept open by the blue and the orange ships pushing the floaters down. The dolphin pod was escaping through there. Slaine’ heart skipped. He could get out too, that’s why they had been calling for him. His excitement was short-lived, though. He would have to pass right between the ships and probably breach the surface while getting over the floaters. The land creatures would see him.

Slaine chew at his lip anxiously. His heart was beating way too fast. The dolphins were almost out, and the orange ship was starting to slowly move away, releasing the floaters. He had to get out now, seen or not seen. Jumping over them later would draw even more attention. The tiny opening was his best option.

With a couple of powerful strokes of his tail Slaine rapidly neared the surface, navigating around the frenzied tuna, getting a fair few hits in the process. Just as the last one of the dolphins slipped out, he braced himself, aimed for the opening and speeded towards it as fast as he could. The orange ship was already releasing the floaters as he slipped over the net without breaching the surface. For a brief second he tasted the free waters once again-

-he had suddenly all the air pushed out of him in a stream of bubbles that changed into airy chokes as all the water disappeared. He was yanked back by his bag strap and raised above the surface, coughing from the force of the sudden pull. Disoriented and fighting to breathe, he looked around. There was shouting somewhere above him, but right now all he needed to know was clear pretty much right away; the floaters had been released just as Slaine was crossing them, and they had caught his bag. He was left tangled to the line of floaters, dangling in the air, almost completely out of water. The young merman franticly struggled to free his bag, but in his awkward position it was near impossible. The strap lifted him up from his left armpit and around his chest, and to slip through he would have to worm his way out of it and leave it behind. Which would have been no problem if it was his right arm the strap was stuck under. But it wasn’t, it had to be his left arm, the one that had just barely started to heal.

Panic rising and a weird, high sound overwhelming him, Slaine took a look at the two ships towering over him. On the blue one, there were creatures that had features strikingly similar to him, gaping and shouting. He glanced at the orange ship just in time to see a figure lean to the handrail, looking winded but weirdly separated from the rest of faces ogling down at him. Perhaps it was the fact that the red eyed creature wasn’t shouting, pointing or gesturing wildly like the others; it was just watching, as if having just seen a deep-sea jellyfish with all its colourful lights for the first time.

If Slaine had felt vulnerable in the net, stuck here, halfway out of it, he was absolutely exposed and helpless.

In a panicked frenzy, he struggled to get his arm free. Somewhere in his brain he knew it hurt, but he didn’t feel it until a deafening series of cracks from his shoulder echoed in his skull. Suddenly seeing only white, Slaine blacked out and slipped underwater. On pure instinct he started flapping his tail, heading somewhere, anywhere.

Chapter Text

Everything was jumbled together after that. Swimming, suddenly waking up without actually having fallen asleep, diving deeper, correcting the course (what course?) then waking again, always just swimming.

 

 

 

There was a distant sound of rumbling, though it might not have been real. Slaine saw a dream of swimming in the sky with the seagulls. The dream continued even after he opened his eyes. Somewhere in the pit of his stomach Slaine felt a sense of absolute dread.

 

 

 

Slaine felt dizzy and cold. He had dived too deep. He tried to reverse the spiral he had been swimming in, but it felt impossible.

 

 

 

A splitting headache tore through Slaine’s consciousness. He was rising too rapidly again. The realisation triggered some sort of instinct: on its own, his body steadied its ascend.

 

 

 

The first thing Slaine started to register was a dull pain radiating in pulses from his left shoulder. Now it definitely was broken, he had heard the cracks clearly enough. His whole left side was dragging and making keeping his course straight a struggle. He was constantly spiralling to the left.

 

 

 

It took a little while longer to notice that the water temperature kept fluctuating. He was diving and surfacing, diving deep and then surfacing rapidly again. He needed to steady his dives.

Which brought Slaine to his third observation: he was moving forward. Had been for who knew how long. His whole frame felt weak and shaky from the exertion, but he couldn’t will his body to stop even if he wanted it to. It was going through the movements on its own, and Slaine was pretty certain that if he managed to stop, he would never have the energy to start moving again.

 

 

 

Slaine’s fourth realization was that he was alone. The pod of spinner dolphins was gone.

Intellectually he knew he felt devasted by his renewed loss, but the emotion didn’t quite reach him yet. Somehow nothing of his current situation did.

It took some more time to notice his bag was gone forever. With the bag gone also the seaweed he had collected and so carefully rationed was lost.

 

 

 

After a while he recognised the rumbling following him in the distance. A ship.

 

 

 

Gradually Slaine’s pace got slower and the rumbling got steadily closer. If he had had enough energy left, Slaine would have panicked all over again. Now he just felt drained dry.

The taste of the sea was changing around him. He was getting closer to a coast again. Running on instinct he sluggishly turned towards it.

 

 

 

Slaine wasn’t sure what he was searching for until he found it. The warmer water was bothering him again, but for once in his life he was lucky: what he had tasted was a small island with a coastline of harsh currents and rugged rock-formations. As far as Slaine’s tired mind remembered, the ships he briefly saw and felt with his sonar were like big, heavy, floating rocks. They didn’t fit through the crevices where Slaine could fit, they didn’t bend or twist their bodies like he could his own.

And he did all that and more. With the help of his sonar Slaine fought through the currents that tried to smash him against the rocks, he threaded through the mazes of pillars and arches, he navigated his way closer to the land than he had ever dared to go before. After some contemplation he decided on a calm shallow pool that was deep enough for him to rest upright and still stay hidden under the waves thanks to his colouration. After a hasty inspection, he settled himself by a large rock formation, intent on waiting until the ship would give up. He didn’t like being right next to the land, a sandy beach rising from the sea not 15 meters away from his safe harbour, but the ship couldn’t possibly follow him that far into the rocks.

Satisfied with his hiding place, Slaine filled his lungs with precious air and lowered himself to a crevice by the bottom of a big boulder. He had hardly closed his eyes when he had already fallen asleep.

 

 

 

“-tobesomewherehere!”

“Evenifitis,it’stoodangeroustosenddivers.”

“I’vedivedincurrentsbefore!SohasRayet!”

“NowayinhellI’mdivinghere.”

“Andneitherareyou,Inko.That’sfinal.”

“Aaw,butwe’resoclose!I’vealwayswantedto-“

“Theamountofpictures,videoandrecordingssofararemorethanwecould’veeverhopedfor.”

There were strange sounds originating from across the pool where Slaine laid hidden by the side of the boulder, pulling him from his sleep that had done nothing to soothe his aching body. From the amount of air he still had it must have been barely an hour since he fell asleep. When active, he usually needed to breach the surface once every hour, but he was able to tripple that time when in rest. He would need to breathe sooner now, though. He was too weak to be conservative with his air.

Carefully, Slaine opened his eyes.

“-followingitforsuchalongperioditispossibleithasbarelysoughtarefugeforawhile.Consideringitwaswithapodofspinnerdolphins,wecandeduceit’slifestyleisrathersimiliar,travellingbetweencoastalregions.”

“See,evenInahothinksweshouldsearch!”

“Ididn’tsaythat.Imerelypointedout-“

There were five land creatures on the shore, standing. Despite the too warm water, Slaine felt his veins freeze over. He hadn’t considered this a possibility.

He was still hidden in the rocks, but the creatures had unknowingly came way, way too close to just stumbling into him. Slaine barely stopped himself from trying to retreat further back into the rocks lining his pool, but he held his place only because he knew he was already backed into a corner. Through the ripples Slaine couldn’t tell much more about the creatures, other than that they were apparently arguing.

“-closetotheshipsincaseitdecidestomakeitselfknown.We’wealreadygatheredmoredatathanmorstresearchersdoduringtheirwholecareer.”

“…Fine.”

For his relief, the land creatures started slowly moving on, chattering amongst themselves and none the wiser of his presence. As the sounds started to grow more distant, Slaine allowed himself to relax a fraction. He stretched his good arm carefully, avoiding creating any small currents that could be visible on the surface. Even the small movement was enough to make him feel lightheaded. The pool was too shallow to stretch himself completely, tail and all, but luckily it was protected enough from the currents to cumulate some algae on the rocks, Slaine noted. His belly twitched hopefully.

Starving and anxious, he carefully peeked from his hiding place to make sure it was safe to-

One of the creatures had stayed behind. One of them had stayed, and Slaine had been too busy following the other ones’ chatter to notice. It had seen Slaine stretching too, and now its eyes were boring through the ripples into his own blue orbs, effectively freezing the merman in his tracks.

“Nao!Areyoucoming?”

The creature turned its head towards the distant call, but kept its eyes locked on Slaine. There were two or three seconds of silent deliberation before the creature spoke.

“TellMagbaredgeI’mgoingtorequireachair.”

“What?Whatdoyoumeanyouneedachairofallthings?”

“Icantellfurtherinformationlater,butfornowit’sparamountthatIstaybehind.”

“Thatdoesn’tmakeany-“

“Iwillonlyneedanhour,maybetwo.GotellMagberedgetokeeptheenginerunning,Yuki.”

The feeling of dread that had made a nest in Slaine’s stomach started to creep its way back up through his whole system. Nothing good ever came of land, nor its creatures, he knew it, yet he was face to face with one again. He wanted nothing more than to swim back to the open sea, but he could hear the ship rumbling where he had entered his maze, ready to chase, most likely. Not to mention the creature staring at him just ten meters away, standing still.

Still and silent, like an orca about to hunt whale.

Slaine had no idea what these creatures were capable of. Could it bounce him from that distance? Some fish could. Slaine was injured and starved, he couldn’t fight a sea cucumber and win if he tried, let alone a land creature his size. Keeping the eye contact he slowly backed deeper into his corner, the red eyes of the creature following his every move. Soon more sounds filled the beach again.

“Goingtotan,Inaho?Didn’tthinkyouwerethetype.”

Something was brought to the creature, which Slaine now realized was the same one he had seen on the orange ship. The creature took the contraption, placed it close to the water across from Slaine and sat down, eyes never leaving him. The others tried to see what the creature from the orange ship was seeing, but they apparently couldn’t make out Slaine from the rocks as long as he stayed completely still. Like he should’ve stayed in the first place. Finally, after a short conversation they left, leaving just the one sitting creature, which Slaine decided to name Orange.

From then on, absolutely nothing happened for an hour.

Slaine’s insides were curling with anxiety and uncertainty, but the creature just sat silently without making a move, keeping his eyes on Slaine. The blond didn’t dare to make a move either. To escape the pool, he would have to swim right by where Orange had made himself comfortable. He didn’t have the strength to fight the currents so soon again anyway, so he was stuck in this uncomfortable stalemate.

It was ridiculous. The whole situation was utterly ridiculous. If the old sperm whale bull was there to see this, Slaine would’ve never heard the end of it.

It clearly was a waiting game, but for what, Slaine couldn’t understand. He needed air desperately, but he had managed to keep calm and lower his heart rate enough to hold on for the hour or so Orange sat on the beach.

Suddenly the creature broke its stare, stood up, put something on its ear and started speaking while walking away.

Slaine was dumbfounded. He heard Orange getting further and further away. He looked and listened carefully for any other creatures. All he could hear were distant waves crashing and seagulls calling. Slaine felt hopefull with the possibility. Orange gave up whatever game he had been playing!

There were other sounds coming towards the beach again, but they were far enough to give Slaine ample time to slip away. He breached the surface and drank heavy gulps of air before achingly heading towards the exit of his pool.

Except that the exit wasn’t there anymore.

His heart dropped painfully when Slaine realised that his escape route wasn’t the only thing that was gone. The sea was gone.

Darting from one corner of his small pool to the other he peeked over all the rocks he could. The sea was gone, and his pool was even shallower than he remembered. When did it get so shallow? The sea couldn’t be gone. How could the sea be gone? He had never been this close to land before, but surely it was impossible for the sea to just be gone!

Before he noticed, he was whistling it all out loud, circling and rambling. But even the sounds he made were wrong, they were bouncing back at him from the rocks and boulders and ringing in his own ears instead of travelling far and reaching someone who could answer his questions.

“Whatthehell,youcan’tevenseeanythinginthere.”

“Therereallyissomethingthough,it’smakingaruckus!”

Slaine stopped in his tracks. In his frantic circling he had moved sand everywhere and now he couldn’t see anymore. Not that it mattered to him, he had his sonar. The creatures were on the land though, and not seeing there made him even more nervous. Slaine continued swimming to calm himself. He was truly trapped now.

“It’lltakeawhileforthesandtosettle,butImustadmit,yourplansdowork,unconventionalastheyare,Kaizukajunior.”

“Ihaveanameofmyown,captain.Anditwasmerelythemostreasonableapproachconsideringitsstate.Thoughit’ssomewhatsurprising…”

“Yeah,Ididn’tthinkit’dworkeither,butit’samazingitdid!Igettoseeamermaidthatkstoyou,Inaho!”

“No,itwasexpectablefortheplantowork.Butwhydidittrapitself?Surelyitwouldbefamiliarwithtides.”

Slaine didn’t care to listen to the creature’s gibberish. The sand was settling, and he was tired. He had escaped death at least two or three times already since getting lost anyway, and that alone was a miracle. He was bound to run out of luck eventually.

The water was now so shallow he had to lay on his stomach on the sand bed to stay fully submerged. In his own earlier panic, he had made the water overflow from the pool. There was no comfortable position for his shoulder. One of the creatures stepped into the shallow pool and took a step towards him, disturbing the waters and sending shock waves down Slaine’s spine.

It was amazing, really. How could the nearing creature – Orange, now that he could see it through the ripples and settling sand – support its weight in the air like that? When Slaine got stuck to the floaters he could hardly struggle with his free arm, his torso had been too heavy to move, let alone his tail. Orange knelt a good two meters away from him. Far too close for comfort, but not close enough to hit with his tail. Slaine started hissing and clicking as an empty threat, his last attempt at appearing capable of defending himself.

“Shesoundslikeanangryhedgehog”, one of the smaller creatures on the land commented.

“Ithinkit’sahe.”, another one said.

“Areyousure?”

Slaine didn’t care. He looked carefully at Orange instead, who was now closer than ever. All the creatures were covered with colourful woven seaweed, which was strange, but not as strange their appearances were otherwise. Looking at Orange Slaine saw arms and hands, fingers lacking claws and webbing, but otherwise like his own, shoulders and torso like his. A head with features arranged like his, only with a taller nose compared to his flatter, more streamlined one. The ears were different too, he noted, eyes a little smaller, but then again, the surface had plenty of light. The brunette had a weird, fleshy pink colouring instead of the cool greyish blue shades of Slaine’s own skin.

All in all, fascinating, Slaine noted dully, feeling resigned.

Orange scooted a little closer. Slaine could hit him now. Would hit him if he had the energy.

“Itseemslikeajuvenile,thoughI’veonlyeverseenpicturesbefore,soIcouldbewrong.”

“Noonehasseenmorethanpicturesinover60years,Kaizukajunior.Continue.”

“AsIsaid,Idohaveaname,captainMagberedge”, Orange answered, calmly looking Slaine up and down.

“Iwouldpreferitwasused.It’sinjuredandseemsmalnourished.Probablydehydratedaswell.Icanseescarsfromapossiblesharkattack.Itappearstoberecent.AsIsuspected,thewholeleftside,theleftarmespecially,arebadlyinjured.”

It was a strange language indeed. Slaine busied himself listening to it. There were some sounds that Slaine used too, but mostly it was all foreign to him. No clicks, no whistles. They would never be heard speaking like that underwater. There was a heavy silence on the beach. It made him nervous. The land creatures had successfully hunted him down. Why didn’t they eat him already?

“..Willitsurviveinthewild?”, the tall creature was pinching the bridge of her nose.

“No.”, was the immediate answer from Orange. “Itsincoherrentswimmingpatternsduringthelastfewdayswereprobablyduetoshock,butIdon’tbelieveitwilllastanotherweek.”

Another silence. Slaine was starting to run out of air again. His earlier ruckus has costed him a lot. Eyeing Orange, who seemed to realise something was about to happen, Slaine slowly moved his good arm so that he could lift himself. Orange stood up and took a step back.

“What,whatisitNao?”, a clearly worried voice from the shore.

“Nothing,Yuki,just-“

Slaine breached the surface slowly, exhaled and breathed deeply before lowering his head back underwater.

“-justabreath.Thatconfirmsthemammalpart.”

Orange settled back next to Slaine, a little bit closer this time. Slaine clicked again, but somehow it only caused some giggling in the small creatures on the shore. Orange didn’t seem too bothered by the warning, which was unsettling on its own.

“IsecondInaho.” Slaine flinched and turned his head toward the rocks surrounding his pool. A redhaired creature had sneaked there without him noticing. He felt another one taking a step into the pool. “It’salreadyhalfdead.”

“Idon’tliketheimplications,butIagreewithyoutwo.”, the tall woman spoke once again, but Slaine couldn’t focus on listening anymore. He was busy keeping a better track on all the creatures.

“Thismeansthatthegoalofthisexpeditionhasjustchanged.Kaizukajunior,Rayet,Inko.Stayhere.IneedtocontactHäkkinenonthisone.”, most of the creatures started leaving, but Orange, Red and one of the small ones stayed. Slaine felt anxious, and with no outlet it was just building inside. The land creatures were like orcas, they played with their pray, he thought bitterly. Maybe the two tall ones were adults and these three were calves being taught to hunt. The thought made a chill run down his spine. Orcas could be cruel.

“Poorthing.”

“It’snature,Inko.Youshouldknowbynow.”

“Still.”

 

 

 

It took a long while for the other land creatures to return. Having gotten somewhat used to the presence of the three who stayed behind Slaine felt crowded again. There were new, bigger ones too. If Slaine had had the energy he would have scooted further away. Not that it would’ve done any good. The two big ones brought a new contraption to his pool, way too close for comfort. He flinched away when they tried to approach him. Orange stayed still and calm next to him. Slaine could feel his eyes study him.

There was gibberish all around him. The ones closest to him were talking in hushed tones, cooing, toying with him, Slaine was sure. He hissed back, getting agitated. He had already resigned himself to his fate, but now his panic was rising once again. Why couldn’t they just get it over with?

Before he knew it, there were land creatures on each side of him, manhandling him, pushing, pulling, lifting, and there was nothing Slaine could do about it. His throat was closing as he trashed in blind panic once again. He was going to die, it was going to happen now, he was going to die.

There was more gibberish from all sides, a few distressed high sounds, reassurances, cooing and the monotone voice of Orange. None of it made any sense, nothing had made any sense since the night he was attacked by the shark. Slaine wanted to get away from the too warm water, from the creatures, the tuna, even from the dolphins. He wanted his pod, he wanted the old sperm whale bull with his angry stories from the times that had passed decades ago, he wanted the calm deeps and the darkness that governed there.

Slaine was franticly babbling but the sounds he made felt even weirder and more wrong than in the pool, they didn’t vibrate through the air like they did in the water. He couldn’t hear their echoes, so he tried sonar. It made no difference. He was dangling in the air surrounded by the land creatures. His body felt so heavy he could hardly breathe. He tried holding his breath like when diving, but the air was forced out by the invisible pressure pushing on his chest. He had never felt out of breath like this, and it was terrifying.

“Itcan’tbreathe!”, a distressed sound from the little one.

“Itprobablyhascollapsibleribcage,likeadolphinorawhale.Itshouldn’tbeatoobigaproblemaslongaswe’refastenough.”, one of the bigger ones spoke. Its voice was lower than the other ones. The big ones might be males, Slaine thought, feeling disoriented.

“Mostbeachedwhalesdieofdehydration,drowningorapsphyxiation.”, Slaine recognised Orange speaking from somewhere near his head. The creatures were carrying him along the shore. He could hear the sea in the distance. There were curious gulls circling above him. Circling above their next meal once the land creatures were done with him, Slaine’s mind chimed in. He struggled to silence the thought.

“Sotheysuffocate.”, Red spoke.

“Inaho!You’renothelping!Ishedying?”, the small one shouted somewhere.

“No,itdoesn’thavethebodymassofawhale.It’sboneswon’tcollapseunderit’sownweight.Mostlikely.”

“Mostlikely!?”

“It’sexperiencingdistressthatcontributetotheasphyxiation.Fromthelevelofasphyxiationit’sshowingit’sclearit’sprobablyusedfordeepandlongdives,andinthatcasethebonestructurehasdevelopedwithouttheneedtosupportthebodylikeonground,sincethewaterpressure-“

The calm monotone with which Orange was talking his gibberish was somewhat soothing to Slaine’s lightheaded mind. He didn’t fight the creatures any more, his panic had been pushed aside by the sheer exertion it was to breathe. How were the seagulls able to swim in the air, when it was this heavy?

A few minutes, hours or maybe days passed, it didn’t really matter. Slaine was lowered onto a rocking surface, then after a while lifted higher than he had ever jumped with the dolphins before. There was water underneath him, he could see it from the corner of his eye, but he didn’t have the strength to roll over and fall into it. In a blink the water was gone again, and he was once again being carried and lifted, until suddenly he was sliding down the thing he had been laid on, tumbling, falling and then finally splashing into water.

Slaine stayed limp for a second, then another, but he felt immediately better in the water. His left shoulder hurt, it had hit the water in a bad angle. It didn’t matter though, he was back in the sea! As he breached the surface and gasped a glorious lungful of air, there was collective gasp and murmuring around him.

Looking around he could see he was dropped somewhere enclosed, a weird white cave, surrounded by the humans from before, now gawking at him. Slaine tried to gain some distance, but his back hit a wall where there shouldn’t have been one. Confused, he felt around with sonar. The clicks bounced around him like he had never experienced before, even worse than in the shallow pool he had hid in previously. Those echoes had been distorted by the rocks, but the smooth walls around him didn’t do that. Instead the sonars bounced off of them, reflected back at another wall that sent the sonars bouncing off to yet another wall. It felt like someone was stirring the water in the tank in ten different ways at the same time. Slaine could feel the whole space constantly reflecting back at him while at the same time nothing stayed in focus.

It was disorienting and made him nauseous.

Relying on his sight and touch alone, Slaine carefully inspected around the space. There was an invisible wall in all directions except up.

Anger flaring up at his short-lived hope Slaine threw his tail against the strange walls with all the strength he could muster. He was weakened, but seeing the creatures flinch back at his show of defiance was still rewarding. He hissed just for a good measure and started pacing the tank in small circles to get some release for his built-up tension and hopefully disperse the echoes. Moving hurt and each flip of his flukes was exhausting, but it was better than cowering now that he was already exposed on all sides.

His earlier sonars bounced around him, useless to help explain what was going on and where he was.

There was a hushed conversation, some rustling Slaine felt too overwhelmed to respond to, and people climbing out of the cave leaving him and two others behind. Orange, Slaine noted, and one of the big ones were conversing from across the room from him. They came a bit closer, something Slaine wilfully ignored despite his nerves, each pointing and talking, eyes never leaving him. Finally, at least the big one left, leaving only him and Orange. There seemed to be some sort of agreement reached between the creatures.

It wasn’t exactly reassuring. Slaine swam in tighter circles.

Orange fiddled with a large container on the other side of the cave, not paying Slaine any mind. Save for a couple smaller empty tanks, a few chairs, containers and a table by the wall, the cave was rather bare. After some fumbling Orange turned with something in his hands. Suddenly Slaine was again painfully aware of the empty ache of his stomach. Orange was holding a piece of yellowfin tuna, hardly the size of two mouthfuls, clearly showing it to Slaine. It might’ve been another game, another trap, but Slaine couldn’t help himself from stilling and staring as Orange took a step after careful step towards his tank. Slaine let out a sound he meant as a warning, but it came out more as a whine.

Orange was now closer than ever, just outside of the invisible wall. Movements slow and predictable the brunette climbed up to the top of the tank, just as slowly as Slaine lowered himself to the bottom of it. Holding the eye contact Orange let the tuna drop into the tank, which was filled with its taste almost immediately. Slaine could hardly keep himself from pouncing the fish part on impact. He willed his body to wait, trembling with anticipation until Orange climbed down and backed far enough.

Still holding himself back Slaine carefully inspected the piece of tuna. It wasn’t completely fresh but hadn’t been dead for longer than a few days either. Not that Slaine cared too much even if it was already dead, he wasted no more time in burying his fangs into it and gulping it down in one bite.

There was some rustling around, Orange was moving around the outside of the tank. Slaine hissed in warning, but it didn’t seem like the land creature was interested in getting his fish back.

Instead Orange moved around for a while fumbling with what looked like a large sheet of seaweed. After a bit of trial and error Orange seemed satisfied with his sheet and began setting it up around the tank, little by little covering Slaine in darkness. The blond didn’t care enough to protest Orange being so close to the tank. The darkness felt safer than the white, artificial cave anyway.

He was deceiving himself, of course. Covering under a blanket didn’t change his bizarre situation one bit. But it did make him feel slightly less nervous, and at this point Slaine was ready to grab onto anything that felt the least bit reassuring.

 

 

 

Slaine didn’t remember falling asleep when he jolted awake. For good half a second everything felt alright, like he had been drowsing in the deeps while the rest of the pod kept watch. Then he tasted the staling seawater and felt the faint rumbling vibrating all around him, reflecting on the walls of the tank.

Carefully, Slaine slid up for a breath. There were people in the cave outside of his hiding place, he could hear them chatting. Three, maybe four land creatures. He slowly lowered himself back underwater. He could hear sounds from further above and around the white cave. Slaine pushed the implications out of his mind. Getting lost in his own helplessness would do no good. He just needed to stay aware and above the situation, not be tricked into covering again, and more than anything, not think too much. There was just one goal, the original goal: to return to his pod.

“FormetotreatthewoundsIwouldneedtosedateit.Istillthinkit’soutofquestion.”

“Itneedstohaveatleasttheragularcheckupsdone.” The one speaking was probably the matriarch of the land creature’s pod. Slaine remembered her from the beach. “Weshould’vetakenourtimeonthebeach.”

“Thetidewasalreadycomingbackin,wedidtherightthing.”

“Howaboutthetankonthesterndeck?Wewon’tbeusingitthistrip.”, a little one spoke up.

“It’stoorisky.It'srightbythereiling.”

Slaine heard Orange say something in his monotone. He understood nothing of the conversation, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was getting back to the sea. To get back on his migration route he needed to get his health back up, and to do that he needed to eat and heal. Slaine felt anxiety grip around his heart, but he pushed the feeling away to the best of his abilities. It was getting harder to fool himself, but he might as well try, because the alternative…

“-butwhyitalwayshastobeyou!Nao,youcanletotherstakecareofthingssometimes,youknow!”

There was an argument brewing. Slaine hadn’t been listening before, but now he strained to will his ears to understand the foreign sounds. Just in case he sank to the bottom of the tank. Anger couldn’t be a good sign.

“Ihavestudiedthemostforthis.BesidesI’mnotdoingitalone,InkoanddoctorYagaraiareinamuchmoreimportantrolethanIam.”

“Still!”

Someone was arguing with Orange. Or more likely, at Orange, since it didn’t seem to bother the brunette one bit. The matriarch was quick to dissolve the situation, Slaine blew out a few bubbles and let himself relax. As much as he could with his aching body anyway.

“…notimelikethepresent.It’lltakeaweektoreachtheCenter,sothere’syourdeadline.Now,everyone,enoughchit-chattingforawhile,backtowork!”

The weird meeting seemed to be over. Slaine circled his tank. He had barely enough space to turn, his sides touching the walls at every turn. He opted to spiralling the small space up and down instead.

Light pouring into his small drop of sea pulled Slaine from his thoughts. Alarmed, he clicked and backed away. Some of the sheet covering his tank was pulled away. There were three creatures left in the white cave still. One of the little ones, a big one and Orange. They seemed to have gathered around something the brunette held in his hands.

“Ithoughtthedolphinswereactingweird!Maybethat’swhy.” The little one seemed excited. “ItwasthefirsttimeI’dheardpatternslikethat,too!”

“It’salsothekindofbehaviourwehavealreadywitnessed.Icantestthehypothesisrightaway.”

Slaine paced nervously, keeping his eyes on Orange. The little one he could take (probably), the big one seemed to have a soft disposition (as long as he kept his distance), but Orange was harder to read. Besides the brunette had cornered him once already.

Something was exchanged between the little one and Orange. Slaine glanced at the big one. He was watching Slaine with a hard to read expression that somehow made him feel nostalgic. There was a short silence-

“Hello.”

Slaine whipped his head back to meet Orange’s eyes, staring at him from across the white cave.

“Ohmygod.Doitagain,Inaho!Again!”

Keeping his eye contact, Orange inhaled, placed something shiny on his mouth and-

“Hello.”

Slaine’s mind was racing into thousand different directions, but he couldn’t follow any of them. Nothing made any sense. Feeling out of breath, he did what he had been taught to do as a calf. He answered when called.

“…Hello.”

The cave positively exploded. Or well, the little one did.

“Itwasasignature!Itwasasignature!Ohmygod,Inaho,thespinnerswererepeatingasignature!”

Realising he had just spoken with a land creature and alarmed by the little one’s excitement Slaine leaned further away from the creatures. The little one was babbling and speaking to a small box, the big one seemed taken back but calm, and Orange… There was no knowing what was running in his mind, but he held the shiny thing tightly in his hands as he observed Slaine’s confusion.

“Hello.”, Orange whistled again and sat down, crossing his tails. Slaine briefly wondered how weird it must have been to control not one but two tails.

Things seemed to calm down in the cave after that. The big one and the small one came a bit too close for comfort, talking in their odd sounds, emerged on drawing small symbols all the while Orange sat on the floor whistling “hello” every now and again and making notes of his own. Slaine didn’t bother to answer again. It became clear by the third “hello” that Orange had no idea what he was saying.

It was pathetic.

It wasn’t long until it became infuriating.

The last words spoken to him that Slaine had understood had been the dolphins calling for him, coaxing him out of the tuna net. He hadn’t heard or seen them since. The land creatures truly were like orcas; they played with their food. Orange was playing some game again, taunting him. Slaine liked it less and less by the second.

“Hello.”

He slammed his tail to the side of the tank again, causing the little one to jump in the corner of his vision. Water poured out from the sides of the tank from his sudden movements. Orange’s eyes widened with surprise. There was nothing dignified in what Slaine shouted at the brunette after that, and even the land creatures seemed to understand that much.

Hastily getting up from the floor Orange whistled again. It was a different whistle, a flat monotone. A meaningless sound to everyone in the room.

Slaine blew bubbles in frustration but stopped his tantrum. He started turning in sharp circles instead. Exerting his body so much hurt, but he was too annoyed to care. His shows of power had had some effect so far, at least. The three creatures were conversing and not bothering him anymore.

“Hello.”

Oh, they were just asking for it.

With a sharp hiss Slaine turned back to the creatures only to be met by the monotone whistle again. He scowled at Orange who repeated the whistle, then handed the shiny thing to the small one. The small one whistled too, a different note with a little jump at the end. A cheery tone despite her expression betraying the earlier scare she had had. The object moved on to the big one, who too whistled another tone, a start to a playful melody.

If these were common whistles among their pod, Slaine didn’t recognise one them.

“Hello.”

The land creatures repeated their whistles. Slaine’s tail was twitching as he understood. Those were not common whistles, they were signatures.

They were trying to communicate their names.

Suddenly Slaine felt nervous and angry at the prospect. It felt forbidden. Surely there was a reason his pod always hid deeper when they heard ships passing above. Reason for the hatred the old bull carried with him. Slaine had already gotten his own proof of that. He didn’t want any more.

But still, he was stuck. There was no way around the fact that the land creatures had him exactly where they wanted him, and Slaine could do nothing about it. As much as he wanted to ward the thoughts away for just a little while longer, the realities he was faced with started to sink in. There wasn’t really any choice anymore, no deeps to dive into, no direction to swim to, no rocks to hide in.

What Slaine had was a tank of staling seawater.

“…Hello.”, he whistled back. Apparently that was his name again.

Holding eye contact with each of the creatures Slaine greeted them with the signatures they had given themselves. The little one was positively beaming again, hardly letting Slaine finish before she started talking excitedly. The big one was more reserved, with a troubled look which quickly morphed into a warm smile when he turned to the little one. Orange was harder to read.

Slaine didn’t care enough to try too hard.

“Hello.”, Orange whistled again, gaining Slaine’s attention back to him. The call was followed by a high, sharp whistle and Orange shoving him a piece of tuna. A cut off tail of a small juvenile yellowfin. Slaine scoffed inwardly. He didn’t need to be taught like a calf.

“Orange, tuna, Hello.”, Slaine demanded on a whim, partly just to see how the creatures would react to a full sentence. As full as he could produce in their language yet, anyway. Orange seemed taken back a little at least, Slaine noted proudly. It took a couple of seconds for the others, but they seemed to get it too.

Slaine didn’t care for the other one’s reactions, though. Orange wasted no time in approaching the tank with the tuna tail. Slaine was fairly sure he knew what was going on this time around, but he sank to the bottom of the tank anyway, just in case.

“Hello tuna.”, Orange whistled once again before dropping the tail in.

“I’m not tuna, but okay.”, Slaine couldn’t keep an amused smile from sneaking to his face. Orange stared at him like a curious pufferfish from the top of the tank. “Yeah, yeah, thank you. For the tuna anyway.”

Slaine grabbed the tuna, and in a test of boundaries flipped his tail sharply enough to cause the water on the surface to splash on Orange’s stupid face. It wouldn’t have been half as hilarious if the brunette didn’t just stay put on his ladder staring into a void, dripping wet.

“He’saplayfuloneforsure.”, the big one seemed amused, at least. The little one was laughing. Slaine too blew a burst of bubbles to hide the anxiety he was feeling over the possibility of overstepping some boundary he didn’t know existed. There was no retaliation on Orange’s part, however, only a calm glance that spoke much more than anything else the creature had managed to do or say so far. Not that it was implyinng much on his intellect, considering Orange had just called Slaine a tuna.

Not that Orange knew it himself, but small victories were to be relished, as petty as they were.

They were communicating. Despite his reservations Slaine recognised it as a good thing. It meant that he wasn’t in any imminent danger as long as he kept himself vigilant.

“…Intellectualcreaturessareoftenalsoplayful.Crowsforexample-"

“Inaho, getdownfromthere,youlookridiculous.”, the little one giggled. Slaine had heard her repeat the word Inaho often. Orange responded before Slaine could finish his thought.

“WhatIlooklikedoesn’tmatter.AsIwassaying,crowsandalsodolphinsforexample…”

Maybe it was a signature? Slaine tried to silently mouth the word, but the movements felt foreign. He didn’t know how to make an n -sound without clicking.

 

 

 

The big one and the little one were leaving the white cave as Slaine directed his focus back to his surroundings. Orange stood near the tank drying his hair and observing the young merman thoughtfully. Slaine was pretty sure his name among the creatures was Inaho. The little one might’ve been Inko, and of the big one he couldn’t decide on yet, there were too many variations.

What a weird language the land dwellers had, with sounds that hardly carried even on air and would surely be lost at sea. The sounds were foreign, all on a narrow set of frequencies. Slaine had no idea how to make half of them, but it didn’t seem as complicated as the language the sperm whales spoke. Slaine could sing with most whales, so he would just need to see how far he could get with commons and figure out the rest from there.

Idly playing with the tail fin of the tuna, all that was now left of his meal, Slaine too observed Orange and went over whatever information he had so far. It was clear that the land creatures had pods with matriarchs and some sort of internal structure. They could move freely on land, they breathed air, had a culture and a language. They had tools more complicated than the ones merfolk needed. They preferred being dry over being vet. They had taken him off the sea, put him in a tank of invisible walls in a white artificial cave and then given him a piece of a dead fish. They acted like orcas in many ways but differed greatly in others.

Then again, orcas went for the whale calves, seals and others with more substantial blubber, not for the merfolk. Slaine’s kind was too bony for their taste. He had even heard of some of his kind migrating with pods of transient orca. Maybe it was the same for the land creatures? His pod was once approached in the arctic by a playful juvenile orca, quickly chased off by the sperm whales who didn’t care for it. Maybe the land creatures were just curious too?

Orange was closer to the tank now, holding his hand to the invisible wall. In no other animal had Slaine ever seen a hand like the ones his people had. Yet here was one right in front of him, with fingers and opposable thumbs, just like his. If the land creatures were curious of him, so was Slaine’s own curiosity of them stirring.

“Hello”, Orange greeted him. Slaine met the steady gaze of the brunette’s red eyes.

“Hello, Orange.”, he greeted back, tilting his head to the side. There wasn’t really anything else either of them could say that the other would understand. Orange seemed to mull over something in his head.

“Hello.”, Orange whistled, looking intently at Slaine. There were questions Slaine wanted to ask, but he stayed quiet so as to not complicate the interaction, instead waiting for what was coming up. He felt somewhat sleepy now that he had a full belly again.

“Orange.”, the brunette now pointed at himself, eyes willing Slaine to understand something. The young merman pinched his brow in confusion.

“Tuna.”, Orange pointed at the fin Slaine was holding. So they were going over basic vocabulary now?

Orange pointed past Slaine with a pregnant silence. Slaine checked behind him, but there was nothing. There was a question hanging in the silence though, but he didn’t get it.

“Hello”, Orange called him again, first pointing past the blond and then holding his own shoulder before pointing past Slaine again.

Slaine lifted his hand to his broken shoulder, even the light touch sending shockwaves down his spine. Suddenly he felt incredibly weak in front of the land creature. Orange was pointing at his injured left arm. They had noticed it. Of course they had, despite Slaine’s best efforts to hide his limp and the fact that he could barely move the arm anymore. The bitemark had started to heal but the rest of his shoulder was covered in dark blotches, some from bruising, the more painful ones from internal bleeding caused by the fracture tearing through the surrounding tissues.

“Hello.”, Orange insisted.

Slaine clicked angrily at the brunette, but there was no real force behind it. His arm was busted, Slaine knew that much, and he didn’t need reminders on the matter. In his pod he could have healed it in peace, but with the additional fracture from the net and continual stress on it after, he wasn’t sure if it could heal properly anymore.

So, hurt he hissed and clicked at Orange to leave it alone.

Which Orange of course chose to not understand.

Instead he presented something in front of Slaine, a thin dark rectangle of sorts. In it there was a shark. An image of a great white breaching with most of its body out of water, an unfortunate seal pup in its jaws. Slaine could feel all the colour escaping from his face and his body turning cold. He hadn’t seen the shark that night clearly enough to identify its species, but then again, he was attacked from behind and under just like a great white would do.

He had been thrown out of the sea by the shark much like the terrified pup in the image. How could Orange know? Surely it wasn’t just a guess.

Blue eyes wide, Slaine raised his focus back to Orange, who made no attempt to hide his staring. He wasn’t sure what he was feeling, if anything. The eyes and the gills, a desperate memory echoed in Slaine’s mind, but the feeling didn’t reach him. An old teaching, one of the first ones he had ever been taught and yet it had taken him so long to remember when needed. The eyes and the gills.

There was another picture in the rectangle now, and it took a while for Slaine to recognise himself in it. It was his left side, lying on something white, dotted with drying sand. He had had no way of knowing how much worse the bruising looked like on his back, nor how his shoulder was hanging in an unnatural position. The angry toothmarks of the initial shark attack and the rake marks from when Slaine started fighting back ripped through the dark blotches.

The initial bite was one thing, but his cumulated injuries were a completely different story. Slaine had been limping for weeks now, surviving on seaweed and the dolphins’ charity, barely prolonging the inevitable. Even if he still had his pod for support, injury of this kind would’ve been bad news.

He wouldn’t be able to heal from this.

He was going to die.

“Hello.”

Orange was like a rock in a storm and feeling lightheaded Slaine laid his hand where the land creature had held his against the wall. He was going to die. It might not be by a shark, not by a net, not by being beached or even by the land creatures. It wasn’t going to be that fast or merciful.

“Hello!”

Sharp sounds bouncing around him pulled Slaine from his mind. Orange was knocking on the wall, demanding his attention. Slaine breached up for a gulp of air and sank back down feeling shaky and tired, humouring the creature.

“Hello, big one.”, Orange whistled.

“I’m not the big one. The big one is the big one but he’s not here.”, Slaine dismissed, not understanding what Orange was babbling about. How could the brunette even babble nonsense when all he knew were a handful of signatures and one invented word, none of them particularly useful or important.

“Hello, big one.”, Orange repeated, pointing at Slaine’s shoulder. “Hello, tuna.”

“…So the big one, my shoulder something and I get tuna?”, Slaine interpreted, bewildered. What the hell was going on? He was too tired for this.

“Hello, tuna.”, Orange repeated, satisfied as if they had just reached an agreement over something. He turned to walk away from the tank.

“Oh, no you don’t!”, Slaine whistled after Orange. “What do you mean ‘my shoulder the big one’, or whatever?”

That was the moment the big one himself decided to walk in. He took a look at Slaine and then turned to Orange with a sigh.

“Ithoughtyouweresupposedtokeephimcalm.”, there was some humour mixed in with the concern in the big one’s voice.

“Iexplainedwhat’sgoingtohappen,butIdon’tthinkhetookitverywell.”, Orange seemed puzzled.

“Idon’tthinkhegotitatall,tobehonest.” The big one was covered in white seaweed. Slaine had never seen white seaweed before. There was a bag of shiny tools, and another creature covered in white came in.

“We’veestablishedhimasaconscious,thinkingbeingwithacomplexunderstandingoflanguage.Imadesuretobeclear.”, Orange seemed awfully certain of himself.

There were more creatures coming into the white cave. Slaine recognised Inko and the matriarch of their pod but couldn’t decide for the others. Some of the voices he recognised from the beach. He was getting agitated and disoriented again. What was happening?

“You’reusuallynotexactlyclear, Inaho.” Red was there too, looking as impassive as ever.

“Everyone,settle.”, the matriarch seemed to be giving orders, and the room quieted down, all eyes on her. Slaine too couldn’t help himself from hanging onto her words, as little sense as they made to him. Somehow the sounds felt muffled. Orange scooted back next to his tank, having now covered his hands in something. The lights in the cave were too bright.

“Thisisn’ttheidealsituation,butwe’llhavetodowithwhatwe’vegot. Doctoryagarai willhavethefinalsayonthismatter,we’rehereonlyfortheheavylifting-”

Slaine wasn’t sure what happened, but while listening the rising and falling of the matriarch’s voice he was limply sinking to the bottom of the tank and then suddenly being pulled up again. He gulped in a breath of fresh air on instinct as he breached the surface, his head lulling to the side. There was a sharp pain shooting from his shoulder as the arm was disturbed. From a distance he could hear whimpering. It took a while for Slaine to realise he was the one making the pitiful sounds.

“Carefulwiththeleftside!”

“Iknow.”, Orange’s voice was coming from right by his ear, the brunette’s strained breath tangling itself in his damp hair. The creatures weren’t wearing seaweed, the material felt different, Slaine realised as his head hung against Orange’s shoulder. There were others too, climbing the side of the tank like crabs, but Slaine couldn’t recognise them.

In one moment he was laying beached on dry ground again, half covered with wet clothes and surrounded by hushed talking. He should’ve been terrified, but he wasn’t. He was just tired. Breathing was laborious, but it didn't feel impossible this time.

 

 

 

The next moment he had been turned over, there was some pain, but it was far away. There was a crack, followed by a pop, gibberish muttered under breath from above him. Water pouring over his tail, his arms being moved this and that way, someone fiddling with his flukes, feeling along his dorsal ridge and a faint taste of blood in the air.

 

 

 

A hazy memory of being turned again, his mouth being held open, uncomfortable light in his eyes.

 

 

 

Trying to move his tail to no avail. Someone wiping his face. Blinking in and out of darkness.

 

 

 

Diving into the midnight zone with the bull, Slaine listened to him click away his stories. Slaine’s father had been skilled with mending wounds. The bull told Slaine that his father had once, long ago, pulled a harpoon out of his back.

 

 

 

It had been the first and the last thing he ever had heard about his birth pod.

 

 

 

Slaine could taste the tuna in the air. It was disgusting.

He had barely registered his own nausea when he was already vomiting. The ground underneath him vibrated almost painfully from the steps around him. Someone turned his head to the side so he wouldn’t choke, another one poured water over his drying face, washing away the sick.

Slaine was heaving painfully to get every last piece of the tuna tail he had eaten out. There was something wrong with it. The tuna must've been rotten. A weight was holding him back from doubling over on the ground, and Slaine felt too drained and painful to fight it. His left side and arm felt raw and disturbed. He tried bucking the one straddling him off with his tail, but his movements were too uncoordinated to be effective.

“Hey,hey,shhh,it’sallright,it’sallright-”

There was strained cooing above him, but Slaine didn’t listen to it. He was too busy calling for his pod and the old bull. He even threw in a call for the dolphins, just in case any were nearby.

“Hello.”

The mundane greeting cut violently through Slaine’s wailing and the rising distress of the land creatures all around him.

“Hello.”

Lifting his head was taxing, but even more so was seeing Orange sitting right by his side, whistling. Someone was holding him to the ground as Doctoryagarai, or whatever the hell the big one was called, strapped Slaine’s shoulder in place. Slaine could feel his dry skin cracking where water hadn’t been poured over in a while.

The tuna had been a game after all, Slaine thought dispassionately.

“Hello, tuna.” Orange seemed a bit on edge, like he had just realised a mistake and was trying to patch it up.

Slaine scoffed and turned his head away.

Chapter Text

Slaine’s stomach stayed as empty as ever after that. He either swam in mindless circles, his sides touching the walls at every turn, or stayed completely still, snoozing vertically. Any time there was a piece of tuna dropped in, sometimes followed with cooing of “Hello” and “tuna”, he threw the nasty piece of meat out of his tank.

There must’ve been something wrong with the tail.

Slaine couldn’t otherwise explain how it all had happened. How he had lost the strength to move his own body, how his own mind had failed him in its drowsiness.

And what had followed.

Slaine shook himself. He had gotten lax in his hunger and exhaustion, and he couldn’t let that happen again. For a brief moment he had let himself relax and shown his vulnerability to Orange. Their attempt at conversation had given much needed relief for Slaine. He had felt a connection for a moment.

Now he doubted that.

Whatever had happened Slaine tried to shut out of his mind. There was nothing he could do about it anyway. It was for the best to just forget it ever happened. Just like everything else going on in the cave. Slaine was only faintly aware that there were land creatures coming and going, speaking and sometimes whistling to him.

The woven bag Slaine had left behind tangled on the floater now rested on the table across the cave, it’s insides carefully separated and displayed. The spearhead made out of a stingray’s tail spike, a short bundle of rope and the leftover seaweed were all painfully examined by Orange and a few others. Somehow that corner of the white cave had quickly become a workshop, where two or three creatures had brought different types of seaweed and were apparently fascinated with weaving their own bags, comparing techniques and taking notes. Which was fair enough, Slaine supposed dryly.

Doctoryagarai spent half of his time fussing around the tank and the rest arguing with people who didn’t do much listening. Frustration was seeping off the man and making Slaine think twice about his earlier assessment of him. Orange was the anger’s first target, before Doctoryagarai moved on to the outside of the white cave where Slaine could still follow the sounds of his determined steps. Distancing himself mentally from the white cave, Slaine started to build a map of his surroundings in his mind with the man’s steps as a guide.

There were three layers that he could distinct between, himself being kept in the bottom layer. Doctoryagarai and most of the other steps Slaine could feel were concentrated on the layer above him. Around him was the layer from where most of the constant rumbling vibrating through the tank appeared to originate from. There were occasional sounds, but most of the creatures aside from Orange and a few others stayed on the upper levels.

He didn't know how to feel about the fact that he was surrounded by so many but only ever saw a few of the creatures. Maybe it was just the way their pod worked?

 

 

 

Someone had been knocking on the tank’s wall, probably trying to get Slaine’s attention since he didn’t respond to whistles anymore. The knocks were bouncing around him, a loop of relentless reflections hitting him from all sides as if he was swimming in a tank of mirrors. He didn’t care for what he saw in them.

Slaine felt worse for the wear, but at least his left side wasn’t dragging as much anymore. His shoulder was bound into the correct position, much like a member of his own pod might’ve done. The material was weird, a single grey sleeve wrapped tightly around his upper arm and shoulder, covering also some of his upper back and chest, tying off somewhere on his backside where he couldn’t reach even when he tried. The constraining feeling was uncomfortable, but Slaine begrudgingly recognised it for what it most likely was: help.

Which was exactly what made it all so troubling.

Being lost and alone, chased, trapped, tired, confused, tricked, feeling frantic, terrified and disoriented in the face of what he believed was a certain death…

And all of that resulted with a glorified sling on his arm and a promise of dead fish. And apparently also some sort of merfolk-inspired craft-club on the side.

All because he had been too damn occupied with the sky instead of keeping up with his pod.

To say that the young merman was emotionally drained would’ve been the understatement of the century. He wanted nothing more than to lock his healthy arm around the old sperm whale bull’s pectoral fin and fall asleep being tolled between the deep, cool layers of the ocean. Slaine would’ve happily dived with him to the deepest drenches of the midnight zone to see the leviathans for himself.

Anything to not have Orange right outside of the invisible wall, trying to offer him his spoiled tuna, looking even more stoic than usual.

Slaine had wilfully refused any further contact with the brunette, and the message was finally starting to sink into Orange’s thick skull.

 

 

 

Inko was the first one to do it, Slaine was pretty sure. An intruding object was dropped into his tank. It wasn’t tuna, or anything else edible, that much Slaine could feel on impact. Inborn curiosity guiding him, Slaine caught the palm sized object before it could sink to the bottom. He turned it around and was surprised to see himself looking back. It was a small mirror, size and shape of a shell, but the nacre was the most reflective one he had ever seen.

Fascinated, Slaine turned the object around in his hands. It wasn’t a shell, and the nacre wasn’t really nacre, he realised as he knocked it with his claws and tried its weight. He inspected the object thoroughly and with the help of the mirror checked his strapped shoulder before finding a secure corner to keep it safe.

The next day there was another object, this time from Doctoryagarai. Slaine hissed as the man approached his tank. Despite that he eagerly inspected what was given. He had seen the contraption around the man’s neck often, a long narrow rope with three heads.

After that the bottom of Slaine’s tank started to fill with all different kinds of trinkets visiting creatures decided to throw in. He studied them all in great detail, organised and reorganised them whenever a new one fell in. It wasn’t a behaviour he was used to: he had only ever had what he could carry himself. His species wasn’t one to make permanent nests. It gave Slaine something to busy himself with, nonetheless.

Orange stayed out of the cave for longer and longer periods, until a complete day passed without his silent presence.

 

 

 

Slaine was bored out of his mind. The trinkets he had been given laid organised around the tank’s corners. He ended up picking a few of them and balancing them on his flukes, dropping and catching them again, remembering how he had played with the dolphins. Tossing around alone didn’t hold his interest for long, though. With nothing else to do, Slaine started popping up and down in the tank, breaching every few minutes.

With the curtains down and alone, there was nothing else to occupy his time with. He didn’t miss the creatures per se, but having at least someone around was way better than the utter uselessness Slaine felt alone.

In a week his pod could already be a thousand kilometres away. Slaine felt restless when he let himself face the fact. He was going to have to migrate alone, there was no reaching them anymore, even if he got out of the tank and knew the route the old bull was taking.

Slaine blew out bubbles. There was only so much sleeping he could do, so he ended up just spinning in mindless circles or popping up and down in the tank when nothing else was going on. In his restlessness Slaine bumped into the walls, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose.

 

 

 

Slaine spent most of the next day just floating, his body sore from swimming repeatedly into the walls the previous night. He sank to the bottom of the tank if someone came too close, but that only happened a couple of times, mainly when Doctoryagarai made his rounds. There were people in the cave with him all day, but they didn’t bother him and stayed at a respectable distance.

Which was nice.

It was also lonely.

 

 

 

There was a commotion right outside of the white cave that caught Slaine’s interest. He could hear running steps and cheers followed by stern voices. Moments later, a group of people spilled in, gleaming with anticipation. There was a new creature being paraded, a young blond male with an unrestrained smile. He was holding a bucket of sorts, balancing the water inside, and followed closely by Inko and another little one Slaine rarely saw, all excited. Orange came in last, focusing on Slaine as soon as he entered.

Slaine didn’t hide his disapproval of Orange but was too curious of the new arrivals to completely shut them out either. So instead he fiddled with his trinkets, keeping his ears primed on their gibberish. It might’ve not made sense, but at least he could listen for the emotions.

“I don’tthinkit’sagoodidea.Ifanything,myinvolvementwillonlyendangerthewhole…”

“Aw,shutit, Inaho. Ofcourseit’llbe you! There’snomeaningtoitifit’smeor Inko!”, the young blonde male seemed enthusiastic, as he pushed the bucket into Orange’s arms. Slaine could already see where this was going, and he didn’t appreciate it. Orange looked carefully up from the bucket, turning his gaze to Slaine. Slaine hissed in answer.

“I really-“

“Goon, Inaho! Itwas your ideaanyway,sohebetterappreciateit!”

Apparently, Orange didn’t want anything to do with what was going on. Slaine didn’t know whether he should be glad or anxious about the prospect. The brunette argued some more, but Slaine watched as the other creatures finally pushed him into climbing the side of his tank while they grinned. Glaring at them all Slaine sank to the bottom, anxiously waiting for whatever was coming this time.

Orange tipped the bucket over, and the taste of fresh water filled Slaine’s senses. It didn’t taste the same as the waters surrounding the island he had been beached on or any of the currents he had travelled before. Slaine couldn’t focus on that though, because as the fresh water mingled into the tank’s stale seawater, new life was exploding out of the bucket, shooting in this and that direction, casting shadows in his sonar before he even realized they were there.

Three new lives, to be exact. Some sort of perch, Slaine could feel their shape, were released into the tank and were now exploring its boundaries in a tight formation. Dumbfounded and still as a rock, Slaine followed the perch circling as they established their new grounds.

How long had it been since the last time Slaine had eaten a full meal? He’d puked out the tuna Orange gave him before and refused any more of the rotten meat. He had been given an occasional shrimp or squid by the dolphins, between that he had only had seaweed. His last actual meal must’ve been when Slaine had last hunted with his pod almost a month ago.

Slaine wasn’t a creature evolved to forage food from a shallow seabed or scavenge what others had left behind. It wasn’t in his nature, and moreover, it wasn’t enough to sustain him, which was more than evident in his current malnourished state. He was a deep-diving predator and his life depended on his ability to actively hunt, now more than ever since he was without a pod.

He couldn’t hunt, though. Not with half of his body dragging him down. He couldn’t trust the dead fish Orange tried to give him either.

But the perch in his tank were very much alive and very much trapped just like him. If there ever was an easy target, this was it. Slaine was pretty sure with the volume of the tank he could even just simply stun the fish with a burst of his sonar, much like the sperm whales did to some of their prey.

Slaine didn’t care about the land creatures gawking at him anymore. He didn’t care if it was another game. The fish seemed healthy enough.

A wild smile growing on his face, Slaine bounced and chased the fish in teasing circles, just enjoying feeling their movements in his sonar. Despite the small tank it was the first time in a month he felt fully like himself. The chase felt good and familiar, even though he ran into the walls at every turn. The poor creatures swam for their lives, joining and separating, franticly searching for an escape route that Slaine knew didn’t exist. He could feel sympathy for them, but there was no pity when he snatched one with his healthy arm and wasted no time in sinking his fangs into the still very much alive and kicking fish.

“Well…ugh,thatwentbetterthananticipated.”, Slaine lifted his gaze, mouth full of half dead fish, to the new creature who was blatantly staring with an expression conflicted somewhere between feeling joy or being grossed out. Inko was cheering, and Orange was once again emerged in his rectangle.

“Soprettymuchlikeadolphinhehastroubleadjustingtofeedingondeadfish.”, Inko gleamed at him. Orange shrugged. The two surviving perch circled nervously the tank’s walls, huddled side by side. Slaine clicked softly to follow their movements. He was satisfied with just the one for the time being. “Suchanobviousthing,andnobodyrealizes.”

The land creatures seemed pretty happy with themselves.

“I doubtitwasjustthefish.”, Orange barely lifted his focus from the rectangle as he fetched a chair and sat down next to the tank.

“Backtowatchduty, I see.”, the new human had a teasing tone.

“I wasconcernedofanegativeresponsestomypresense,but I appeartohavemisjudged.” Without a glance to Slaine, Orange settled down like he had never left.

 

 

 

They had spent an hour alone in somewhat comfortable silence, Orange glued to his rectangle and Slaine carefully keeping watch on the land creature, already bored again but too suspicious of Orange to do anything about it. The two perches were snuggling in his hair whenever he stayed still. They were busy cleaning his scalp, their simple fish-brains having already forgotten their more unfortunate friend.

The brunette had dropped into the tank a long black line, with one end attached to a metallic cylinder-thing submerged in the water and the other end stuck to his gadget. Yet another line threaded from the rectangle to Orange’s ears.

At first, Slaine had tried to investigate the new thing but Orange was quick to pull it away. When Slaine had huffed and decided to lay down on the bottom instead, Orange had slowly lowered the cylinder back down again.

That meant war.

With a stroke of his tail Slaine lunged himself almost out of the tank as he grabbed the cylinder with his good hand. Taken aback, Orange nearly fell backwards on the steep ladder he was standing on before being yanked back by the line he was holding. The brunette doubled down, dangling half in the tank for a good second before he managed to push himself up.

His upper half soaking wet, Orange tried to pull the line to retrieve his precious tube. Which wasn’t going to happen, as far as Slaine was considered. He bit down on the thing for a taste test.

“Hello! No!Don’tbreakit!”

As Orange was busy holding onto the line and repeating a new whistle (one that Slaine could easily deduce meant “no”, but decided to not understand), Slaine was prodding the cylinder to find out what was so special about it. That was when a woman holding a long stick burst into the cave.

“Don’t you darehurtasingle-“

“Yuki, plugthemic!”

The woman stopped in her tracks as she saw what had now pretty much become a tug of war. “Nao, I saw you getpulledinfromthecontrolroom-“

“Hewasafterthemic.Plugitintomytablet!”

With a look that screamed “we’re going to have a conversation” the woman – Yuki, if Slaine had heard correctly – put down her stick and picked up the end of the cord, sticking it to the rectangle Orange always had with him. She got it in on her third try.

The cave was instantly filled with a cacophony of turbulent sounds that took everyone by surprise.

“Whatthehell, Nao!?”, Yuki was holding her ears. Slaine too let out a startled whine that for his surprise echoed in the room with the rest of his clicks meant for inspecting the cylinder. He let go of the thing like it was searing hot.

“Theheadphones.They’reonmychair.”, Now that Slaine had let go, Orange too let go of the line and rushed to silent his gadget. “Itwasabitlouderthan I anticipated…”

“Abit? I ‘llhavetinnitusfortherestofmylife.”

“Yes,thereweresomequitehighnotes. I ‘llneedtoconvertthefilelatertoproperlyseethehighertfrequences.”

Yuki huffed at Orange, picked up her stick and pointed its bristly end at Slaine.

“Neverscaremelikethatagain!”

“Whydo you haveabroom?”

“Uh.”, Yuki turned to Orange. The brunette was looking at her dispassionately, half of his focus already on the wavy patterns running on his tablet, wet hair sticking to his face. “…Nevermindthat.Justbecareful, Nao.”

“Ofcourse.”

Slaine had watched the interaction carefully. He tilted his head and the perch followed the movement softly, nestled in his hair again. The more he observed the creatures, the more familiar their dynamics appeared to him. They acted like any other pod.

Once Yuki had left, Slaine gingerly inspected the cylinder again. Orange had left it in the tank, floating half a meter below surface. As he poked it with his claw Slaine could see Orange flinch in his chair, holding his ears. Slaine hit the thing with his flukes just to make sure. That had Orange flying up from his seat.

Not wanting to waste a good game where he, for once, wasn’t on the receiving end, Slaine started doing surprise attacks at the mic. He’d casually swim by only to smack it. After laying still he’d suddenly whistle a random word loudly, preferably with a high note, but not too high for the land creature's ears. For the first three times he was rewarded with Orange flinching. After that the game evolved.

Orange had caught onto his tell, but what it was, Slaine didn’t know himself. Every time he tried to get the brunette off guard, Orange had already taken his headphones off only to put them back on after the attack. After a couple more botched attempts, they spent their time in a tense silence, Orange sitting still as a rock and Slaine swimming around in slow, calculating laps. They were sizing each other up, waiting for the other one to slip up.

There were no slip ups, however, so at some point they both just relaxed. Orange focused back into his studies and for Slaine, boredom descended on him once again.

 

 

 

The cylinder stayed in his tank even when Orange was not in the cave. Slaine suspiciously prodded it from time to time with his sonar, but nothing happened. He half expected for his voice to boom around the cave again, so he gingerly tried a few songs: one a common call, another one the call his pod used. Slaine even tried mimicking a few of the sound he heard the creatures repeat. He couldn’t do the consonants properly and ended up clicking most of them.

Slaine was mumbling to himself in a way that he didn’t usually do. It helped to ease some of the echoing in the tank to fill it with new sounds, though.

It also filled time.

 

 

 

Slaine ate one of the two remaining perches after a two day fast, much to the relief of everyone and even more so to Doctoryagarai.

Inko had been frequenting Slaine’s cave, talking animatedly to Orange. She would point and move around, speak with her body about as much as with her mouth. Sometimes she whistled, but not to Slaine, instead to Orange. She appeared to be teaching him. Slaine followed her intently, trying his best to figure out what was being taught. The whistles made him think it had to have something to do with him, but all of them were simple one note sounds and meant absolutely nothing to him.

Orange spent most of his time close to the tank again, reading and writing almost feverishly. For the most part Slaine just ignored him, but when he had once peeked at Orange’s rectangle he had seen tiny little spinner dolphins, jumping and racing each other. Other times Slaine could hear all different kinds of calls and whistles. At first he was confused about where they were coming from, but he soon realised that Orange’s gadget truly could also speak on command.

A bell echoed through the space, sending Inko away from the white cave with a good bye wave and a smile to Slaine. Slaine too raised his hand to mirror the gesture. Orange’s shuffling in the background to collect his things halted for a second before continuing. With another laugh, Inko was gone.

“Hello, Orange.”

Orange had learned to whistle the sounds on his own. He held his bag tight, pointed to himself, the door and lifted his hand for a wave much like Inko had done. The intention of the gesture was so painfully obvious that it would’ve been pathetic save for the serious look on Orange’s face. So, despite his better judgement, Slaine raised his hand and waved back.

Orange’s response was rather lacklustre. A wave of his hand, a small curl in the corner of his mouth, barely recognisable for a smile, and he was already out the door, leaving Slaine staring like an idiot.

It definitely must’ve been a carefully cultivated skill to be so annoying.

 

 

 

“Hello.”

It was Doctoryagarai who woke Slaine up from his daydream. All day the creatures had been packing their various crafting-projects in the white cave, cataloguing, comparing and constantly cross referencing with Slaine’s own meagre belongings. The cave had been bustling with people and noises, so Slaine was rather thankful when Orange had finally closed the curtains around his tank and let him rest in soothing darkness.

He was in the middle of just that, resting vertically upside down, his flukes almost breaching the surface when the man opened his curtains discreetly. The one remining perch had met its end only an hour earlier, and Slaine had saved its fins. It was rather nostalgic to examine them. As a calf he had liked play with fins.

“Hellothere.How’rewedoing?”, Doctoryagarai set down the bag he was carrying and started conversing in a calm manner. Slaine had noted that he didn’t much care if the blond understood him or not but was very careful to keep his tone pleasant and light around him. Slaine slowly slid upright, keeping his eyes on the man. He was the one who straddled on top of him when they gave him the rotten tuna and dragged him out of the tank. He was also the one who strapped his shoulder back in place after bending and popping it into the correct position, so maybe they were even. Slaine wasn’t sure just yet.

“You ’removingnormally, I see.Theshoulderseemstobesettledtoo.Could you -um-“, Doctoryagarai fumbled a little as he dug his whistle from his chest pocket.

“Hello, tuna.”

Slaine couldn’t help rolling his eyes. “I don’t want tuna.”

Doctoryagarai cocked his head, not understanding and clearly not having expected any answer to begin with.

“Okay.”, Slaine blew some frustrated bubbles, “Tuna. Hello. Doctoryagarai.” The man looked relieved at the familiar words but was careful to keep his demeanour calm and reassuring.

“Hello, shoulder.”

“Shoulder good.”, Slaine pointed his thumb up for emphasis. He had seen the land creatures do so when confirming a positive. A weird expression, but not the weirdest one he had seen so far. Doctoryagarai found it funny every time. Which was good, because that distracted him from the-

“Hello, shoulder.”, the creature repeated sternly, rolling his own shoulders for emphasis. “Shoulder, tuna.”

“I said I don’t want your tuna!”, Slaine snapped, but started moving his left arm from elbow down anyway, so that the man could see it better.

It hurt. It really hurt, all the way deep in his shoulder and skull. Doctoryagarai noticed it too and started fussing in his gibberish.

“Nononono,don’tmovetheelbow,justthattherestofthearmisgood.Fingersmovefine,good-“, the man turned around in a pirouette, “-would you turnforme?Please?No?Well,that’sfairenough I suppose.We’retheonesdoingthingsinthewrongorder.” He tried to peek at Slaine’s back, but that was way out of his comfort zone, so the young merman just kept turning with the man.

“We’regoingtohavetocheckiteventually, you know.”, Doctoryagarai smiled calmly as he wrote down his notes. He lifted his pen and pointed it at Slaine. “You maybestubbornand I maynotunderstandthefish-half,but I doknowathingortwoaboutbrokenshoulders.”

“It’snota’fish-half’.” At some point, Orange had sneaked into the now bare cave. Slaine shot him a glare. The brunette looked right back at him, unbothered. Slaine didn’t like surprises, especially when he couldn’t escape from them. “Accordingtowhatwehavediscoveredsofar,theonlythingheshareswithanyfishisahabitat.”

Doctoryagarai smiled fondly. “Andthat’swhy I ’mahuman-doctorinsteadofanaquaticveterinarian.Luckilourfriendherehasascapula,clavicleandhumerusinthesameplacesas you do.” Orange considered whatever was said for a while.

“We’rearrivinginanhour.Arethereanycomplications?”

Doctoryagarai gestured towards Slaine. “There’sonlysomuch I candobywatching.Everythingappearstobeinorder,thoughhe’sabittooeagertmovinghisarminmyopinion.It’sshovingsignsofstress. I thinkthebiggestproblem you ’regoingtohaveiskeeping him fromoverexertinghimself.”

Orange seemed to be in a thoughtful mood. Slaine tilted his head in confusion. There was something off about the land creature, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Before Slaine could analyse the situation further, more people started popping in.

“Allreadyonthedeck.”, it was Calm, the young man who had brought Slaine the perches few days ago. “What’re you guyslookingallgloomyabout?All’sgoingwell.”

Inko came in right on Calm’s heel. “Transportwillbeacriticalstep.Aftersuchabadfirstexperiencetheyusuallydon’tusuallytaketookindlytoit.”

Slaine zoned out. Doctoryagarai appeared to be done with checking on his sling, so nothing more of interest was likely to happen. The blond rested his forehead against the tank wall. The perch fins he had felt happy about just half an hour ago now rested on the bottom of the tank with the rest of his collected junk. Slaine closed his eyes for a moment and just listened. He could still hear the ghost of himself being dropped into the tank from a week ago among everything else bouncing around in endless loops. The tank was a damn echo-chamber full of foreign sounds that had become way too familiar to him.

Chapter Text

The rumbling had changed. At first, Slaine didn’t even notice it. He felt carefully around as the vibrations resonating around his tank came in shorter and shorter pulses until finally stopping completely. Slaine shifted with the water. He hadn’t even realised they had been moving until after they had come to a stop. Waves lapped at the edges of the tank, water trying to continue on even though its surroundings didn’t.

Slaine could hear the creatures hurrying around on the other levels, their hasty steps mingled together until a few of them headed towards the white cave. Slaine laid on the bottom watching four new faces enter in. They were carrying a big blue container into the cave. As curious as he was, Slaine was also somewhat nervous. There had been many changes in the cave with all the packing during the last two days. That all had resulted with him circling in the tank unsure of what was happening and unable to find relief for his stress. The men left him alone again soon enough, however. It didn’t take long for Slaine to get bored again and eventually fall asleep.

 

 

 

He had snoozed only for some twenty minutes when people started entering the cave again. Some of them he could recognise as members of the craft-club who had been especially interested in his belongings, others he didn’t remember ever seeing before. They were casually chatting and moving around the space, but like it was with Orange earlier, something was off about them. They didn’t crowd him like they usually did. They neither stared, nor wrote notes. They were taking too long glances at him and giving him too much space while still slowly approaching the tank.

It all sent Slaine’s instincts into a frenzy. This was hunting behaviour.

In the lack of an escape route, after a couple of anxious breaches and circles Slaine lowered himself to the bottom of the tank again where he waited, eyes wide and senses primed to whatever was coming. Two of the twelve or so people climbed the sides, still conversing and trying to radiate their false sense of security. They let down a dense net along the inside of one wall of the tank. After it reached the bottom, they started carefully manoeuvring it so that they could slide it under and around Slaine, people on the other side pulling the net with ropes.

Which Slaine was not going to let happen.

At first, he just pressed himself flush to the bottom, but the men were manoeuvring the net quite skilfully and though soft, the material wasn’t forgiving. So Slaine started pushing it away with his good arm. That tactic wasn’t effective for long when more people came to the net, not losing a single centimetre they gained while Slaine fought to keep the net from getting in between him and the tank floor.

In his final effort Slaine attacked the ropes pulling the net, clawing at them and trying to cut them by biting them. He had hardly launched his attack when with one swoop the net was pulled under him and tightened, leaving him laid on his stomach half out of the water on the top of the tank.

Slaine breathed in heavily, and noticed that while it was laborious, he wasn’t choking. To his surprise he wasn’t that panicked either, mainly just pissed. There was a familiar voice right by his left side, already opening the knot on his grey sleeve.

“Therakemarkshavestartedtohealnicelyontheirown.Nosignsofinfection.Shoulderisstillsetinitsplace.” Doctoryagarai was checking on his back, his palm pressed lightly between his shoulder blades. Slaine tried to scoot away, but his body felt too heavy in the air. Someone was touching his tail.

“You ‘reokay.”, Doctoryagarai had his soothing voice on again. Slaine wasn’t too convinced, especially since he could hear some stress in it. “I ‘mnotcomfortablewithadministeringallthevaccinesinonego.We’vealreadyhadonebadreaction.Tobehonest I ’drathernotadministereventhese.”

“It’sthecenterpolicyandcan’tbehelped,but I canhavesomeoneelsedoit.”

Slaine felt a little huff of air against the back of his neck. Doctoryagarai laughed humourlessly before pinching the blond lightly on his upper arm and tying the sleeve back on. “Noneedforthat. I justwantedtogetmythoughtsonrecord. He ‘sall yours now.”

With a soft pat to Slaine’s back, Doctoryagarai climbed down only to let strangers take his place. With a heave Slaine was lifted completely out of the water, dangling in the net like a log.

Slaine had stayed relatively calm. Until that point.

Seeing the dry floor underneath made him panic. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like it at all. The last time he had been forced on dry land flashed through Slaine’s mind. Hands moving his body around, opening his mouth, prodding and poking, turning and twisting. The sickening feeling of not being able to control any of it.

“No! Put me back!”, Slaine trashed to the best of his abilities, trying to slip back into the tank to no avail. He’d take the stale water to the hard floor any day. He’d even turn when the doctor asks him to or try to communicate with Orange again, if that was what it took.

“Hello, shoulder.”

Speak of the devil. Slaine could recognise the brunette whistling even though he couldn’t see him from where he was. He was being carried to the container that had been brought in earlier, Slaine realised with a sinking feeling.

“Hello, good.”

“Hello no good!”, Slaine screeched, making sure to use the “no” that Orange had used just the day before on him. Despite looking like a damn pufferfish, he knew by now that Orange wasn’t stupid. He’d recognise the word.

“Hello, good.”, Orange whistled, set in his way. “Shoulder.”

“I don’t care about the shoulder, just put me back! No good! No!”

Slaine was slowly lowered into the long container even as he fought it at every turn, flopping his tail to offset his carriers’ balance and trying to grab to the container’s sides. The container was just big enough for him: some two meters long and a little less than a meter wide. The sides weren’t even a meter tall. There was some water inside but not nearly enough to submerge him. As the men tied the net to the sides of the container, Slaine clicked franticly to get a feel of his new surroundings. The walls were some sort of thick plastic and dark blue in colour, but other than that, there wasn’t much to observe. He was just flopping uselessly on the bottom, his body supported mainly by the net instead of the water.

As Slaine strained his neck to see above, he could finally spot Orange by the side of the container.

“No good.”, he protested again, a bit too weak for his own liking. Orange didn’t even blink before answering.

“Hello good.”

 

 

 

At least the water was colder.

That was about the only positive Slaine could think of as the container was surrounded by even more people who all together just barely had the strength to lift it. The container had to be moved and lowered several times before Slaine could taste fresh air and hear the sea gulls again. The creatures were taking shifts in moving him, some blabbering in their gibberish, others in a concentrated silence.

It didn’t help that Slaine kept nervously flipping his tail, a couple of times almost causing everyone to drop him. Not knowing what was going on made him anxious and twitchy, and even though he realised that staying still was what would keep him from falling, it was hard to do with his racing heart rate and instincts screaming at him to act. Slaine couldn’t really see outside of the container even though it didn’t have a lid, he didn’t have the strength to lift his upper body enough in the air. What he was left with were the dark walls and the sounds and movements rippling through the shallow water lapping at his sides.

Slaine had been able to approximate where they were based on the steps he had been listening during the last week, but after they climbed out of the bottom layer the creatures headed towards uncharted territory and Slaine was soon lost again. The sounds were changing too. There was a crunch to the creature’s steps now and another deep rumble that they inched towards. He could hear the matriarch’s voice somewhere near it.

As he was set down again, a stream of water wet his damp hair. When Slaine turned his head to look up he saw Orange above him, pouring water over his back with a ladle. Slaine didn’t protest; it felt nice on his drying skin. Someone else was making sure his tail stayed wet.

There was too much going on around him to keep a track on everything, so before he knew it, Slaine was being moved again. This time it was different though, the container was moving smoothly on its own. None of the creatures that had been by the container’s sides were there anymore, which freaked Slaine out. He tried to lift himself to see if no-one really was there but could only strain his neck enough to see a sliver of the sky before it too was obscured. The whole container had been raised with thick ropes that slacked as he landed with a thud.

He had landed in another cave, this one dark, Slaine noted. Flopping back and forth in the container, trying to get a better understanding of his new surroundings, Slaine caught a glimpse of Orange. More people appeared around him again, most giddy with excitement. The container was pushed further in for a meter or two, but after that everyone seemed to be happy with the outcome and even a couple of cheers erupted in between the high fives they gave each other and the pats on Slaine’s back and tail.

Slaine couldn’t understand what about this outcome was so worthy of a celebration. It was bizarre. If anything, he felt stunned and a bit nauseous.

Orange was quick to appear by the container again.

“Hello good.”, he whistled, as if his point had been proven. Which was absurd, since Slaine didn’t even know what point Orange was proving in the first place. This wasn’t good. This was bad. He couldn’t see or feel what was going on around him, he didn’t even have enough water to properly move himself! His own earlier thrashing had disturbed his shoulder, and it was once again throbbing painfully.

Slaine didn’t care to validate Orange with an answer. Instead he slapped his flukes to the shallow water in a petty attempt at getting back at the creatures. His splash caused the opposite effect; a new cheer erupted in the cave accompanied with a few pats on his tail. Hissing under his breath Slaine pushed his face against the net to get at least it underwater. His skin was crawling and Orange pouring water over his head didn’t help in the least.

 

 

 

“It’sfreakyseeingthehumanhalflyingfacedowninthewater.”

“Yeah,makesmewanttolift him up.”

They were definitely moving now, and it was nowhere near as smooth as it had been before. Slaine could feel every turn, every acceleration and deceleration, even the texture of the ground they were passing over. He had never experienced something like it. At some point Slaine had turned himself on autopilot, just focusing on following the movements so he could remember the way back.

Memorizing the route was mostly instinctual, but he couldn’t help but doubt the information would ever be needed.

There were two or three people by the container’s side at all times, pouring water over him and talking in hushed voices. There was even ice now, Orange had emptied a big bag of small cubes of it into the warming water. The cold soothed Slaine’s nausea for a while, but it didn’t take long until he felt lightheaded and sick again. Because he was supported by the net, Slaine’s shoulder was forced into an awkward position. It was still throbbing from earlier too.

The pressure that had at first been uncomfortable was turning painful. Slaine tried to move to relieve some of it, but with the way the container was set up it was nearly impossible. After a couple minutes of useless twitching, the people around him started to realise something was wrong.

“Are you boredorisitsomethingelse?”, a young woman was talking to herself by his side. She ran her hand down his spine and dorsal ridge, all the way from the back of his neck to the flukes. “Spineisheldstraight. You ‘reholdingoutgreat.Justalittlemore.”

“Mightbejusttiredofbeingstill?”, another one offered. “Ormaybethenetisbotheringtherakemarks.”

“Hello?”, Orange had appeared in the corner of Slaine’s vision.

“Shoulder.”, Slaine squeezed out, feeling miserable. He could feel the unsaid “I told you so” in the air, but Orange just patiently moved to the right side of the container and gingerly placed his hands on the blond’ left side, warm palms flat to his skin.

“I needhelptolift him alittle.Theclavicleandthetopofthehumerusarefractured, He ‘sprobablyinabadposition.”

The others were quick to respond to Orange.

“The shoulder traumawasthatbad? I readinthereportitwasjustananteriordislocation.”

“Thatwaswrittenbeforewecouldexamine him.” Now all three were holding his left side, carefully avoiding the shoulder. “Thatmightnotbeallofthedamage,butitwasthebestdiagnosisourship’sdoctorcouldgiveunderthecircumstancesatthetime.”

“I see.Liftinginthree,two,one-“

As the creatures lifted him on his right side Slaine let out a sigh he hadn’t noticed he had been keeping in. He took a couple of deep breaths while most of the pain seeped away, leaving just a dull throb behind. He opened his eyes to see the creatures above him. Slaine could now better see into the dark cave too. Not that there was much to see, only the unfamiliar ceiling.

“He ‘sgotbigeyes.”, the one who had checked Slaine’s spine marvelled. Slaine stared back at her with his best Orange -imitation. She had dark eyes and her short black hair was a bit ruffled. Another one, that he now recognised as Inko's friend let out a giggle.

“Probablyanadaptationtoadarkerenvironment.”

“I ‘mloosinggrip.”

They carefully let Slaine lay on his stomach again. The black-haired woman walked briskly to Slaine’s tail, carefully lifting his flukes up. Slaine didn’t appreciate it, and let his feelings be known with a hiss. The woman lowered the flukes back down but didn’t let go.

“I wasthinkingaboutthat.Hisflukesarenotchlesslikeonabeakedwhale.”, she felt the straight edge of his flukes. “Andtheydivedeeperthananyothercetaceans.” Thankfully, she then let go of his tail. Slaine flipped it in protest, but nobody seemed to mind. Frustrated, Slaine buried his face in the net again and blew bubbles.

 

 

 

For the rest of the ride they lifted Slaine’s bad side from time to time. The longer he laid in the net, the more his shoulder bothered him. After each lift Orange positioned his left arm again. The amount of touches Slaine was getting from the creatures made his skin crawl, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it, so in his frustration he ended up just splashing the little water he had with his flukes. His nausea wasn’t passing either, so Slaine grew more impatient and irritable each minute that passed by.

In his boredom and nausea, he started chewing on the net. That was when Orange made his presence known again. Slaine didn’t even notice he was right next to him before he felt a light touch of a fingertip on his good shoulder.

“Shoulder.”

Slaine sighed internally but decided to take the bait and humour Orange.

“Yes, that’s a shoulder.”

The finger moved on to his left shoulder. Slaine braced himself but the touch stayed light as a feather. “Shoulder.”

“Yup, still a shoulder.”

Slaine could feel the touch on the back of his head next. He hesitated for a few seconds before answering. He knew what Orange wanted. He didn’t know if he should give it.

“…That’s a head. Head.”, he complied carefully, making sure his articulation was clear. It felt forbidden, but everything else about his situation was already wrong anyway, so why not teach just a few words to Orange? It might benefit him too.

“Hed.”

“No. Head.”

“Head.”

“Yes.” Slaine could feel Orange lightly tugging on a lock of his hair. “Hair. Don’t do that.”

“Hair.”, Orange repeated, still feeling the lock between his fingers. Slaine slapped his hand away. Unbothered, the brunette just moved on to the next body-part, lightly touching Slaine’s dorsal ridge, much like that of a grey whale’.

“Um, ridge?”

“Ridge.”

That went on for some time until they had gone through Slaine body-part per body-part, Orange pointing and Slaine telling him the word. The creature was quick to pick up the new words only after a couple of repeats and misspellings. He had a weird accent, but as far as Slaine had heard, the land creatures didn’t use whistles, so that was to be expected. They had just reached his flukes when Slaine felt the moving coming to a stop. When he strained his neck to see around him, he could see the two women working on the net, having already gathered it while Orange was distracting him.

Light spilled into the cave, and suddenly he was being lifted by the net again, the container left behind. Slaine barely had time to let out a startled whine when he was already gliding smoothly through the air as if the net was carrying itself. The ground beneath him changed in colour and texture, and he tried to feel it with his sonar without a second thought for the fact that his clicks didn’t work in the air. There were more people again, all wearing the same greenish clothes, some touching the net or pushing lightly on his sides to guide the movement. Slaine could hear water not too far away. He tried to stay wary, but ended up still twitching in the net, eager to swim again.

There was no hiding Slaine’s disappointment when he was lowered on the smooth ground instead, the sounds of water only three or four meters away. As the net slacked around him, Slaine too slumped against the ground. Two figures, both wearing blue approached him from both sides. He hissed at them, bitter at his false hope.

“Hello, good.” Orange sounded winded as he appeared behind one of the blue shirts. Slaine couldn’t help hissing at him too and slapping his flukes to the ground with a force that stung. The brunette took a careful step closer.

“Good. Doctoryagarai, good. Shoulder, arm, back.”

Slaine took a shuddering breath in. Was this why Orange suddenly wanted to know more words? Somehow he felt betrayed. Slaine was angry and also growing anxious with all the new people. He took a deep breath in to steady himself. He didn’t want to listen to Orange, but even if the blue shirts weren’t healers like Doctoryagarai, there wasn’t any real option. He needed the creatures to push him into the water, he couldn’t get there by himself. After a couple more frustrated slaps on the smooth pavement he gave in and stayed as still as he could.

“…Good.”, Slaine all but mumbled. Orange watched him closely for a few more seconds before slowly approaching and sitting down by his head. Slaine wasn’t surprised when he felt a light touch on his hair. He huffed and focused his mind on that touch instead of the ones checking on the rest of his body.

It might’ve been because there were two of them, but the blue shirts were thankfully fast. When Orange stood up, the people in green shirts were already holding onto the net. They started inching him forwards towards where he could hear the water. There was a slight slope for the last two meters, so they just let Slaine slowly slide down with the net.

Landing with a splash, Slaine felt a sudden sense of ease. He hadn’t even noticed how the travelling had wound him up. Instead of being weighed down, his body was light and even his mind felt less sluggish. He relished the feeling for a good second before ridding himself of the damn net, getting as far away from it as he could and taking in his new surroundings.

He was in a shallow round pool. The water tasted fresh, which was nice, but there was also something a bit off about it. Circling around he came to the conclusion that it was about five meters in diameter. His sonars bounced around the smooth yellow walls like they had in the tank, but unlike with the tank, not all of the walls were solid, Slaine noticed almost immediately. Looking through the ripples he could see people lining the sides of the pool, so he stashed the knowledge for later.

Even in the shallow pool Slaine couldn’t help but celebrate a little now that he could move again. He did a few breaches, almost jumping, just because he could. If there had been enough room and the pool had been deep enough, he would’ve tried to jump like he had seen the dolphins do, spinning wildly through the air. With the barely meter deep water it would’ve been a disaster however tempting it was to try.

Most of the people were gone in just a few minutes after fetching their net, but some stayed behind. Slaine paid them no mind, as he realised the pool was outside. There were some sort of structures and caves behind the creatures, but mostly the space was open and above him there was only sky. There were some leaves floating on the surface, wherever they had ended up in there from. Slaine curiously caught one of them. He ended up eating it.

 

 

 

He had been left blissfully alone for almost an hour when Slaine felt something enter the pool. He turned to see two tails, covered in rubbery green, hanging in the water. He lifted his head above the surface to see Orange sitting on the side of the pool in green overalls. There were few others standing some way off, but they were fussing around something other than Slaine, so he disregarded them. What interested him more was that Orange was eating something.

Curious, Slaine inched towards him, with just the top of his head poking out of the water. He didn’t dare to get too close. The brunette finished whatever it was he was eating before turning his gaze towards Slaine.

“Hello, tuna.”

Slaine could feel his stomach lurch at the word. He doubted he could ever enjoy tuna again.

“I’m not a tuna.”, he complained, but Orange was already digging in the bucked he had next to him, pulling out a small fish. Slaine tilted his head in confusion when the brunette lowered the silvery thing into the pool.

That wasn’t a tuna. That was a dead herring.

And that was exactly what Slaine said out loud to Orange too.

“Hello good, tuna.”, Orange insisted. Either Orange wasn’t as smart as he had given him credit for, or there was some sort of misunderstanding. Slaine listened Orange repeat the sharp, high pitch whistle again and there was no mistaking it; it meant tuna. Orange wiggled the herring in the water as if that could’ve made it appear any more alive.

It clicked in Slaine’s mind then that what he had thought had meant “tuna” had actually meant “fish” or “food” or maybe something completely different among those lines the whole time. The first food he had been given had just happened to be tuna. He plopped his head quickly underwater in embarrassment. How had he taken that for granted? And who the hell thinks it’s okay to start from abstractions when teaching a new language to someone? Embarrassed and now also pissed, Slaine dashed the last two meters to Orange only to rise up and spurt water all over his stupid face, grabbing the herring and splashing his flukes when turning back to the pool just to make sure the brunette was adequately drenched.

He swallowed the small fish whole out of spite.

Seeing Orange wet was about as hilarious as it had been the first time. Only the green overalls seemed to have survived dry, as Orange sat still for a while, looking into the distance, wet hair sticking to his face and neck. He gathered himself quickly enough and dropped completely into the pool, the water reaching almost to his waist. He grabbed the bucket but didn’t move further in.

“Hello, fish.”, he said patiently, while holding another herring in the water by its tail. Slaine paced a little and Orange gave him the time and space to do that. Besides the misunderstanding there was something else in what the brunette had said that bothered him. Orange said he was “good”, so he got a fish. Was that how this game worked? The herrings were small things, was he supposed to somehow earn every one of them?

Slaine swam in small circles that widened little by little as he gathered his courage. Finally, he swam by Orange and stretched his hand to catch the herring before quickly swimming away again. That continued for five or six herrings until Slaine stilled warily in front of Orange, a good meter away, taking one herring at a time from him. The brunette’s tails stayed still as a rock, and his other movements were slow and intentional. The whole exercise felt pointless especially since the fish were so small, but at the same time Slaine could only guess that Orange had his motives.

The bucket was emptied in no time, and Orange turned to leave. Slaine was left speechless when he saw how the brunette waded through the water to get back to the ledge. The creature was about as useless in water as Slaine was on land. All this time he had been on the edge and wary of Orange. He had been beached because of his uncertainty of the creature! Because he didn’t know what Orange was capable of, because he didn’t know if he had a fighting chance with him.

Orange pulled himself up and turned to give Slaine a wave. With half of his head poking out, Slaine lifted his hand in response, a reflex at this point. His mind was racing. He could’ve escaped on the island. Orange couldn’t possibly have caught him if he had just left.

Suddenly Slaine’s nausea was back tenfold.

Chapter Text

The realisation of how he had completely been his own undoing led to two very different consequences.

Firstly, Slaine threw up the herrings he had just eaten. The nausea he had been feeling all day culminated in one big pukefest that when once started, seemed impossible to stop. Lightheaded, he scrambled between heaves to get to the edge of the pool so he wouldn’t accidentally breathe in water and, of all things, drown. Without thinking Slaine pushed himself on the slope surrounding the pool before painfully retching again, most of the fish already long gone from his system. Someone – Orange, he could imagine, since the response was so fast, and he had been the closest – was holding onto his good arm to keep him from slipping back into the water. Slaine dry-heaved for a while even after there was nothing left in his stomach.

He panicked for a brief moment when he couldn’t stop retching. The bile that he was coughing up burned in his throat and nose, the sour taste overpowering in his mouth. Finally, Slaine managed to control his breathing again, and that seemed to be the key to ease the clenching in his stomach too.

As his heaving slowly eased and his world came back into focus piece by piece, Slaine could see the fuss that had exploded around him. Half a dozen creatures were already busy picking pieces of herring and the rest of the sick from the pool using nets at the end of long sticks. There were a couple people in the pool with green overalls, catching what others couldn’t. Slaine had half-beached himself on the slope, and there was someone covering him with wet clothes while another one did their best to mop the bile from around him.

It was disgusting.

Slaine was exhausted, enough so that when he tried to roll back into the water and wasn’t let to do that, he didn’t fight it and instead just laid still. He let the blue shirt do his checking, even turning his head for him when coaxed. After a few minutes the wet clothes were removed and Slaine was gently pushed back into the pool. To his relief, the water tasted already mostly clean. He could feel a small current that brought fresh water in and took the old water out, a major upgrade from the stale water in the tank. Slaine didn’t bother looking for the source just yet, though. Instead he simply floated face down, distantly listening to the conversation little ways away from the pool.

What Slaine mulled over in his mind was far more important than that though. Because after he dealt with the initial shock, the second consequence of his realisation was what soothed something deep inside of him that hadn’t been soothed in a long time.

Just like he was useless on land, the land creatures were useless and clumsy in water. Maybe that was why he was put first in the tank and now in this pool. Because in the ocean they couldn’t possibly have an advantage over him.

He was safe in the water.

He was safe.

 

 

 

The realisation that the creatures couldn’t get to him or hurt him in the water had lifted a big weight from Slaine’s shoulders. Enough so, that when the black-haired woman came to feed him in the early hours of the next morning, he swam almost straight to her. She seemed like a straightforward kind of a person and had spent most of the night by the pool anyway, so Slaine felt somewhat comfortable in his ability to predict her intentions.

She called him with a simple, single sharp whistle of “fish”, and started handing out the food. She didn’t wait for him to take it from her, instead letting go of the fish whenever Slaine was about to grab it. There was a kind of bluntness to her, something brought about by experience, no doubt.

She was capable, and that made Slaine feel at ease. Even though her eyes shined with excitement when Slaine popped his head above the surface next to her, she just smiled carefully and handed him the next fish, always letting them go before the blond got too close. She was keeping a comfortable and safe distance for them both, something that Slaine hadn’t expected from her. She had been the one who hadn’t let go of his tail flukes even though he had clearly shown her that he didn’t like it, after all. Maybe that was because he had been in the container at the time and she hadn’t felt threatened.

Slaine tilted his head. Was he threatening to the land creatures?

The black-haired woman’s bluntness was completely different from Orange’s, which Slaine found perplexing. Orange was always pushing and intruding. He got close, settled down and stayed there quietly, leaving Slaine to deal with it. There was an urgency to his actions mixed in with a patience to wait for Slaine. No wonder he was confusing to the blond. There was no method to his madness, no consistency that could ground the interactions they had as far as Slaine could decipher. There was no reading what went on in the brunette’s mind. At the same time, Orange was the one who understood Slaine’s wants and needs the best and the least. He was brilliant in his own right, but the leaps he took threw Slaine off every time.

Perhaps it was a time for Slaine to take a leap of his own.

 

 

 

The next time Orange visited him was a day later. Little by little, Slaine was getting braver, swimming right by anyone who stayed near the edge. He was already familiar with every nook and cranny of his new, slightly bigger space. He’d spent the best part of that morning in front of the small opening that let new water in, letting it blow on his face and hair. Slaine would’ve rather investigated the two weak spots on the walls, but so far he hadn’t been left alone for long enough to do so.

When Orange stepped into the pool this time, Slaine didn’t cower or pace. He took a couple of seconds to calm his racing heart before gingerly heading towards the creature. His nerves couldn’t get the better of him now, he needed to regain some control. Even if it was just of the small, shallow pool.

Slaine didn’t go in circles. He headed straight to Orange, who once again carried a bucket with him. He didn’t stop a meter away from him either. Instead, Slaine swam right past Orange and in between him and the ledge, pushing the creature further into the pool. The brunette took a few clumsy steps forward, almost losing his balance from Slaine’s gentle push. He turned around to get back to the ledge but Slaine simply circled him slowly like a shark, blocking his path. The brunette tried to slip past him to the other side, but Slaine turned and pushed him further in with his tail instead. Orange tried again, but he was too slow in the water.

By now the young man who had been watching over him for the morning had called over two more creatures who paced along the sides of the pool. Slaine glanced nervously at them. He could feel the steps of more heading his way. If they saw him as a threat, would they try to overpower him? Slaine swallowed the anxiety trying to climb up his throat. He wasn’t being a threat, and he couldn’t go on speculating on every single movement the creatures made.

He was just simply setting some boundaries.

Orange stood very still near the centre of the pool. He was talking to the people on the side, nonchalant as ever, but Slaine could feel how tense his body was and how fast his heart was beating behind his deadpan exterior. He could almost taste the fight or flight -instinct running in the water surrounding the brunette, as if he was forcing his body to stay put.

In a way it upset Slaine.

After all, Orange was clearly safe and sound, the water was barely a meter deep and he had his green waterproof overalls on, so he wasn’t even going to get that wet. Overdramatic was what the creatures were. Yet the fear that Slaine felt in the water was true. Surely water couldn’t be that scary to him. This wasn’t his first time coming into the pool either. Confused, Slaine observed Orange while circling him slowly. The brunette was breathing quite heavily.

Actually, he was breathing all the time, now that Slaine paid attention to it. It was almost absurd, but as true as the fear in the water. At most, he could count only a few seconds between inhales. And one inhale of water could be all that it takes to drown, even for the merfolk.

A single inhale. Literally the reason Slaine had scrambled out of the pool just a day ago.

Slaine stilled in front of Orange and slowly let his head rise above the surface. The brunette looked back at him. Slaine could somewhat understand the wariness in his eyes now.

“Orange good.”, Slaine reassured. He watched as Orange froze for a moment before sighing deeply, forcing himself to loosen up. He lowered the bucket that he was still carrying so that it floated and pulled a small herring out of it. Orange offered the fish like he had the day before and Slaine got a bit closer to take it. The brunette probably didn’t even realise himself that he was holding his breath. Slaine could feel it though.

“Trywalkingwhilefeeding!”

“I don’tthink He ‘sgoingtolet me.”

Orange offered another herring and started inching towards the edge. Slaine moved to block him. After a few fishes Orange tried again, but Slaine simply slid in his way every time. He could feel the man tensing again, but ignored it in favour of eating slowly, inspecting every fish inside and out. His own nerves were most likely what had caused all the vomiting earlier, but he couldn’t be too careful. He was getting too sick too easily lately.

“Hello?”, came the question finally. Slaine popped above the surface again, but not before he finished gutting another herring. Orange looked at him in silence. He didn’t have the words to ask the questions Slaine could guess he was having. Slaine wasn’t going to baby him either.

After a short stare down Orange raised his hand and waved. Slaine couldn’t help but let a smile creep on his face. He waved gleefully in response. Orange turned slowly, keeping his wary eyes on Slaine, and waded his way to the edge of the pool where he was quickly pulled out by the others. He was winded, red eyes wide as he turned to look back at the pool. Slaine dove with a victorious splash of his flukes.

 

 

 

When Orange came around again a couple days later, he wasn’t allowed into the pool anymore. No one was.

 

 

 

There were people gathering some ways off his pool again. Slaine peeked over the edge to hear happy voices, cooing and splashing. He rested his chin on the edge for a while before the sun started drying his skin and he dived again.

 

 

 

Slaine spent most of his time either circling or floating. Already bored out of his mind again and getting annoyed when the creatures didn’t leave him alone to check the two weak spots, he bombarded the walls with sonars. It turned the pool into an echo-chamber that rivalled the tank, but by doing so he got a lot of information without drawing his minder’s attention. Slaine had to spend more time with his head above the surface to escape the noise, though, something that he would’ve never dared to do in the wild. He was greeted by different people almost every time he breached. There were dark suits accompanied by the green shirts, flashes of light and people sneaking closer to the edge of the pool only to be ushered back by the black-haired woman. Slaine had learned she was called ‘Kaoru’.

He was getting weirdly used to it all.

The two weak spots were gates, he was almost certain now. The hollow echoes indicated two doorways to underwater spaces, both bigger than his own pool. The doors were layered, there was the gate that laid flat to the pool’s wall and another one a little further away, but beyond that it was hard to feel. There were larger bodies of water though, that Slaine was sure of. Maybe even the sea. He was itching to find out more.

Slaine wasn’t so sure about what his objective was anymore, besides from wanting to get back into the deeps. There was no way he could catch up to his pod. Maybe he could find them again the next winter? Somehow in just a short span of time Slaine had gotten way closer to the old sperm whale bull than anyone in his own pod, and now that he wasn’t in imminent danger anymore, he didn’t find himself missing them too much. There had never been the kind of bond between them in the first place that could only be had in a family-group, and the absence of it was probably what had made him seek out the bull. Maybe he could try joining a pod of dolphins again? Or another whale?

Whatever it was, he craved company.

Slaine surfaced again. His ears rang and he was starting to feel lightheaded from all the noise. There was an older, rugged man who was already leaving the poolside, but turned on his heels when he saw Slaine. The man all but ran to the pool leaving the green shirt who was guiding him behind. He got all the way to the edge before the poor young man caught up. Startled by the sudden approach and the flashes from the man’s black box-tube-thing coming from way too close, Slaine pulled his head quickly down again. Without an escape-route to any deeper his mind turned in to defend-mode. With a quick turn of his body Slaine threw his tail above the water only to slam it down right in front of the man, the force of his display sending shockwaves through the pool.

A shriek erupted from the massive splash that was sure to thoroughly wet both the geezer and the green shirt. Slaine scurried to the safety of the other side of the pool just in time to witness two more green shirts escorting the shaken old man away. He was blabbering angrily and fuzzing with his box. Kaoru ran past them to the pool, nearly slipping on the now wet ground. Her tense demeanour eased when she saw Slaine. Somehow, he too felt a little better seeing a familiar face through the ripples. He raised his flukes a couple more times defiantly.

Orange came running not too far behind her. His hair was messy from the wind. With the two of them there, Slaine felt comfortable enough to surface again. He felt safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t come running at him or do something else equally stupid.

“Noharmdone,but we ‘llhavetobemorecarefull.”, Kaoru sighed to Orange. “They gocrazyforBat, he ‘snoteventhefirstonetodaytorunrighttothepool.”

Orange put down the bucket he was carrying, calm as ever. “His cameraisruined.”, he said with the tiniest bit of satisfaction. Kaoru let out a surprised snigger.

“Wellthere’satleastthat.”, she glanced approvingly at the brunette before gesturing towards Slaine. “Let’sgive him amoment.”

Orange kneeled down with a silent huff. Slaine watched as he dug through his bucket before scooting right by the edge, all the while Kaoru went around the pool, picking up stray leaves from the ground at a leisurely pace. The sudden calmness of it all was a stark contrast to the scare he had just had. Kaoru dropped one of the leaves intentionally in the pool, and Slaine quickly swam over to catch it with his flukes. He dropped it only to swim by again and catch it on his dorsal ridge this time.

The water settled, but even as Slaine started to feel at ease again there was something nagging at him. Orange had sat down right where the old man had scared him, if not closer, yet Slaine didn’t feel threatened by him. Kaoru was wondering around the pool, doing much of the same chores she did every day, but he didn’t feel the need to track her every movement. Just how much had he lowered his guards already to feel safe to have the two land creatures by the pool? It bothered him.

Was he becoming complacent?

Slaine shook himself. Surely he wasn’t. It was just that he had come to know the two. When his arm was healed, he would be busting out of the pool and never looking back.

If his arm healed.

 

 

 

Orange took a couple of minutes to just let the pool calm again with Slaine’s mind. Finally, he pulled out a fish from the bucket and called.

“Hello, fish.”

Slaine wasn’t particularly hungry but approached Orange anyway. If anything, he was secretly glad to have the distraction from his own troubling thoughts. He could do his inner searching later. As he reached for the small fish Orange was holding, he felt a light touch on his head. Slaine flinched back and slapped the intruding hand away.

“What the hell?”, he pouted while putting some distance between him and the brunette.

“Head, fish.” Orange said. He pulled out another small fish, this time a mackerel.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Slaine glared at him from the centre of the pool.

He could feel the sigh coming from the other side of the tank.

“Isnowreallythebesttime?Besides you don’t’justdoit’, Kaizuka.You needtoslowlyintroducethemtoit.Didn’t Amifumi tell you howtointroducehusbandry?”

“Withdolphins,but he ‘snotadolphin.Thefaster we moveonfomincidentslikethese,theless he needstodwellonthemeither.” Orange offered the mackerel to Slaine, who got a bit closer. He eyed the silvery thing warily before reaching to take it, only to have another soft pat on his head just as he grabbed the fish.

“Head, fish.”, Orange repeated. Slaine backed off, pacing a bit and ripping the mackerel to pieces before eating it bit by bit. He turned back to Orange.

“…Are you going to touch my head every time now?”

The only answer Slaine got was Orange’s deadpan expression as he offered another fish. Slaine blew a burst of bubbles. He didn’t need the fish, for once he wasn’t that hungry. The creatures kept him well fed, if nothing else. But he was curious, and his flustered annoyance was quickly turning into humour. The pool was cramped and boring anyway.

“Head?”, he pointed at his own head with a claw. Orange nodded. Slaine scoffed. “Why?”, he asked. Orange just blinked at the unfamiliar word. Slaine took a breath before approaching again, eyeing the brunette suspiciously. He stopped near Orange but not quite near enough to reach.

“Head, fish.”, Orange repeated. He lowered his free hand into the water. It was such a harmless hand with its soft, short nails and webless fingers. How did Orange hunt with hands like that?

Slaine looked up only to see the brunette staying absolutely still on the edge of the pool. He was tense again, and his hand was shaking just barely. Slaine huffed. With the tiniest adjustment of his tail the blond slid slowly closer, until his forehead touched softly Orange’s hand. The creature didn’t flinch or move, so Slaine let the touch last for a couple of seconds before lightly pushing on the wall with his good arm to back away.

He looked up, slightly embarrassed. Orange had the same look on his face as he had had the first time Slaine had seem him, leaning on the railing of the orange ship to see him dangling on the floaters. Slaine tilted his head expectantly.

“…Fish.”, Orange remembered and handed him a herring. Slaine ate it in one bite. Orange reached further into the pool with his hand. “Head.”

He really was going to do this every time. Slaine bent a bit, just enough to barely touch the outstretched fingers with the top of his head and played a little with the mackerel he got for it.

He ignored Orange when he called again. There was no real reason to continue when he got the message already, loud and clear. It was simple enough: let Orange touch his head and get a fish in return. So instead of humouring Orange any further, Slaine speeded around the pool in a circle before rising his head above the waves he made, enjoying them rush against him.

“Hello.”, Orange tried to gain focus back to himself. Slaine didn’t respond, already busy making a second set of waves. He could feel with his sonars the soft hand reaching stubbornly into the turbulent water.

“Hel-“

“Wave.”, Slaine said spontaneously as he breached again, cutting Orange off. The creatures didn’t understand him of course, sharing glances, so he speeded a couple times around the pool again before popping up next to the edge. “Wave!”, he tried to gesture at the waves he created.

There was no response for a few seconds.

“Weev?”, Orange tilted his head.

“Wave.”, Slaine corrected.

“Isitanewword?Maybeitmeans’water’?”, Kaoru offered. “…Or’diving’,or’play’?Or…” Orange put the fish he was holding back into the bucket. His eyebrows were pinched.

“There’retoomanypossibilities.” The brunette turned to Slaine, pointing at his own head. “Head.” He was confirming vocabulary again. Slaine raised his thumb in response. He could see Kaoru barely hiding a laugh behind the brunette. He didn’t understand what made the gesture so funny for the creatures when they themselves used it all the time.

“Arm.”, Orange held his own arm out for Slaine to see. Slaine raised his thumb again.

After a short hesitation over how to proceed, Orange whistled a nonsensical sound and patted the ground next to where he was sitting. He got up and walked to another spot, patted the ground again, this time with his foot, and repeated the whistle. Slaine nodded, a bit unsure. Orange probably meant ‘ground or ‘land’, not the action itself.

“Ground.”, Orange repeated for the third time, just to make sure his message was clear. He then kneeled by the pool and reached his hand into the water, splashing it a bit. He pulled his wet hand up and patted the ground again. “Ground.” He reached back into the pool and looked at Slaine expectantly.

“…Water.”, the blond supplied.

“Water.”, Orange repeated with a nod. “It’sdifferentfromthe ‘wave’. Itwouldbelogicaltocontrastlandwithwater,soit’ssafetoassumehejustsaid’water’.”, he turned to Kaoru.

“Sowhatwasthefirstonethen?It’sfascinating,butshouldn’t we leavethisstufftotheanthropologistsafterall,thisisn’t our field.”

Orange pressed his lips into a thin line. “Theone’sstudyingthecetaceanlanguagesaremainlymarinebiologists. He ‘samarinemammal,evenif he hashominidtraits.Thisisn’toutof my field.”

Kaoru looked at Orange thoughtfully for a moment. “…So, they betternotcomeinbetween you and your PhD.Sharingiscaring, you know.”

“I… didn’tmeantodisregardthat,ofcourcetherewillbeinterdisciplinarystudies.What I meantwasthat-“

“Water, wave.”, Slaine interrupted. He swam right to the edge where Orange and Kaoru were standing and cupped his hands. He couldn’t lift his left arm, so he turned to float on his back instead to show the two the water in his hands. “Water.”, he explained. Their eyes were wide, and they didn’t respond but Slaine went on, trying to get them to understand what a ‘wave’ was.

He leaned against the wall and started kicking with his tail. In no time the small pool was overflowing with waves, and Slaine popped his head up exclaiming “Waves!” and gesturing to the pool.

“Maybeit’saswim-thing.”

“Mightbe.Oraresultofswimming.Turbulance,maybe.”

They weren’t getting it, even though he tried to be clear. Slaine vented his frustration by blowing bubbles, and that gave him another idea. He pointed to himself. “Hello, bubbles.”

By now he had completely lost Kaoru, and Orange was about to fall off too. Slaine took a gulp of air, dipped his head underwater and blew a big burst of bubbles. He breached with a whistle of “bubbles”, which was about the most ridiculous thing he had ever done. A light appeared to switch on in at least Orange’s brains. The brunette got quickly up and rushed to the side before returning with something.

“Hey, I ‘mstilldrinkingthat!”, Kaoru protested, but Orange had already gotten what he wanted. After a wary glance to the blond, Orange lowered himself on his stomach, head hanging over the water. He put one end of a long stick in his mouth and lowered the other end underwater. Slaine could feel the stick was hollow and made out of metal the moment it hit the water.

After a short, sharp inhale Orange blew bubbles through the straw. He lifted his head to look at Slaine.

“Bubbles?”, Orange asked. Slaine sunk down and blew bubbles himself as an answer. He rose up with a glee and an explanation.

“Water, Hello, bubbles.”, he tried to get the concept across. Orange didn’t respond but he was listening intently, laying still. Slaine speeded around the pool again, rising more waves.

“Water, Hello, waves.”, he gestured to the pool again.

Finally, there was recognition in the brunette’s eyes at the word. “It’ssomethingthat he makesinwater. He makesbubbles,and he makes…waves.”

“He madewavesandwantedtoshowthemto us?”

“Itappearstobeso.”, Orange marvelled. His eyes were shining. “Oratleast he wanted us tounderstandwhat he wasdoing,andhowtosayit.It’sallonfilm,right?"

“Fromthreedifferentangles. You ‘llhavealottorewiev.”

“Waves.”, Orange confirmed and Slaine nodded enthusiastically.

They were creating a new language word by word, him and Orange. It was stupidly laborious but rewarding. Slaine basked in the sunlight that appeared behind a cloud. The pool was too small and shallow, the echoes were horrible and Slaine missed the deeps of the twilight and midnight zones, but in a weird way he almost liked it here. He got to enjoy the different weathers on the surface without fear of an attack from below. He’d be no match to anything that might lurk in deeper waters with just one working arm anyway.

As much as he wanted to deny it, Slaine was a social animal, and in the absence of other marine life he was starting to gravitate towards the two land creatures.

Chapter Text

The arctic sea was empty besides the distant desperate wail that ripped through it.

In the turbid, dark world where the melting fresh water and the salty seawater mixed together, there was the tiny figure of an exhausted merfolk calf leaning against the side of an iceberg.

Slaine didn’t dare to move let alone make a sound. A single click of sonar could be all that would lead the orcas his way.

They were playing with him, Slaine understood bitterly. While the adults were busy drowning the grey whale cow and her calf the juveniles had set about attacking the merfolk-pod, separating them. It was nothing but sport: practice for hunting seal.

Somehow the fact that he wouldn’t even be eaten, just killed and then tossed around for fun made it that much more terrifying.

Father had warned him from ever going under the ice sheet, and Slaine knew now why even the orcas hadn’t chased him this far in. In the maze of the icebergs he had yet to find an opening to catch his breath. Now it was too late; there was no way he could reach the open waters again anymore, and even if he did the orcas were there, waiting for him.

All that Slaine had left to do was to wait for his air to run out.

He couldn’t help it when desperate sobs rocked through his lithe body. The sticky, oily substance that normally protected his eyes overflowed and floated around him in thick droplets.

 

 

 

Slaine opened his eyes to a red sunset. He had slept floating on the surface, and it didn’t agree with him. Hazed, he reached to touch his chest. His skin felt sore all over. Even though the air was cooling down, the water in the pool was still uncomfortably warm. It had been sunny all day, after all.

If he had been able to dive deeper, he wouldn’t have burned himself in the sun.

Frustrated, Slaine slapped the surface with his flukes. There had been another group of people ogling at him and flashing their lights, and now that they were gone the silence was deafening. Even Kaoru wasn’t spending her nights by the pool anymore. Orange hadn’t visited for a few days either, the traitor. Was that why he was feeling lonely even in his dreams?

There were moments when he didn’t mind it at all. When he was working with a puzzle to get a piece of squid out of it or when Kaoru dropped in leaves for him to play with. Sometimes Orange spent a whole day with him, just sitting by the pool, writing on his tablet-thingy, and in a way that was nice too.

But those moments were always quickly over. He was fast at solving puzzles, Kaoru often wandered off to talk with her friends and sometimes Orange didn’t show up for days. And in those times Slaine felt like the walls of the pool were closing in on him. It was like the sea was disappearing again and he was left struggling on the shore. That was when he started bumping into the walls while circling mindlessly, floating still four hours on end and singing nonsense to fill the silence.

Nights Slaine liked more than days. He felt more at ease in the darkness than he did in the all-revealing daylight. Nights were usually the busiest time for his pod, as their deep-sea dwelling prey migrated to the higher, richer levels. Nights were for hunting.

But not in the pool. In the pool Slaine got fish three times a day, every day at the same time. He didn’t need to hunt for it, but he did have to work for it a bit sometimes. Whenever he did come, Orange would ask him to do the weirdest things: to let him touch his head or his tail, to show him his hand, to turn on his side. The most recent one was to blow bubbles. Out of boredom Slaine kept humouring him. Well, mainly out of boredom. Well, not really, but Slaine wasn’t about to admit to it.

He didn’t have anything better to do anyway.

 

 

 

When after a restless night Slaine heard the chatter of land creatures heading his way, he was expecting more strangers. He sucked in a big gulp of air and dove down, fully intent on lying still facing the bottom corner for the next three hours, being the most boring thing anyone had ever came to see. When the sounds got closer, however, he started to recognise them. There was the sing-song sound of Inko’ talking and Calm’s laughter. He could recognise the steps of Doctoryagarai and the matriarch. When he breached to take a curious look of his visitors, he could see Orange and Kaoru being in the centre of attention, bombarded with questions.

“Sothisiswhere you ‘vebeenholedupforthepastwoweeks?Thisiswhy you don’thaveaboyfriendyet, you know.”, the matriarch was teasing Kaoru. Inko saw Slaine peeking from the edge of the pool and it was like she was suddenly made out of pure nacre, shining so bright with excitement.

“There he is!Lookat you, Bat, you ‘vegainedweight!”, she hurried to the side of the pool, but not too close. Slaine retreated a little just in case anyway. “His faceisallroundnow!Waitasecond…” Inko placed the thin, long whistle that hanged around her neck into her mouth.

“Hello! Inko!” She whistled and laughed, a bit embarrassed. “I ’msorrybutthat’sall I remember.”

Slaine was overwhelmed but whistled the greeting bashfully back, nonetheless.

“Don’tgotooclose, he hasbeenactingterritoriallately.”, Kaoru warned. By her side the matriarch seemed impressed.

“He lookswaybetterwhen he ‘snothalfdead.Thescarsseemtough,though.How’sthehealiggoing?”

Doctoryagarai stepped forward, followed by Orange. The brunette glanced at Slaine. Somehow, he seemed a bit nervous. Slaine tilted his head, trying to drill into Orange’s mind, but the creature avoided further eye-contact.

As if that would stop Slaine from investigating this.

“Generally,abrokenshouldertakesaboutsixweekstoheal. His fracturesweredisplaced,however,andtheshoulderisunderconstantstress,soit’lltakesometimestilluntil he ‘sinworkingorder.”

“Hello, fish.”, Orange called as he kneeled down on the edge. “You cancomehere, doctor. He won’tattack us.” Slaine slid carefully closer to get his breakfast as Doctoryagarai kneeled equally carefully by Orange. “Are you certainaboutthat?”, he laughed nervously.

“Sofar he hasn’tactuallyharmedanyoneyet.”

“Inaho, do you reallyhavetosayitlikeit’sgoingtoeventuallyhappen!?”

“I ‘mbeingrealistic. He ‘sshovingsterreotypicalbehaviourandisclearlystressedbytheenvironment.Ofcourse he ‘llgetmorefrustratedthemore he heals.”, Orange handed a fish for Slaine. He ate it keeping a watchful eye on the doctor.

“Hello, head!”, the brunette called next. Slaine huffed. With one more wary glance to Doctoryagarai he bowed his head to let Orange touch it. Each call the creature inched his hand a little closer to the edge until Slaine was floating right by the two of them. It wasn’t even a fish for a touch anymore, it was just one continuous touch on the top of his head with Orange giving him a piece of fish every so often.

That was probably the whole point of the head-exercise, to target his movements, Slaine suddenly realised.

Doctoryagarai peered over the edge. “It’sdefinetilysettlednow.Looksabitstiff.Isthereanyway I couldtouchit?”

“…Probably.Give us amoment.”

Orange lifted his hand from the water and whistled “right side”. The blond looked up questioningly but turned for them anyway. Orange reached down to lightly touch his right arm, his soft hand warm to touch. It was surprising but Slaine allowed it. When he glanced up to get a read on Orange, he could see that somehow this was important. After his first careful test, the brunette took a light hold of his shoulder, nudging it a bit. Slaine would’ve slapped Orange’s hand away at that point if it wasn’t for his expression.

Orange had the most ridiculously serious expression Slaine had ever seen on anyone’s face. The brunette was damn near blowing steam out of his ears and going cross-eyed from concentration. It took every ounce of Slaine’s self-control to not burst out laughing at him.

Never mind the fact that he had intimidated Orange by trapping him in the pool before, his newfound apprehension of breaking Slaine’s boundaries was refreshing. He kept pushing them all the time still, of course, but Slaine was happy in the knowledge that he had scared some common sense into the creature’s thick head.

The disproportionate seriousness made sense a second later, though, when after giving Slaine another fish Orange whistled “left side”.

Suddenly feeling uncomfortable, Slaine looked first at Orange and then at Doctoryagarai. The healer wanted to take a look at his shoulder, and Orange had just shown him that it was safe, that much was clear to anybody.

That didn’t mean he liked it. With a splash of his flukes Slaine was gone from their grasp.

“Sothat’sa’no’then.”, Doctoryagarai sat down with a sigh.

“It’lltakeaminute.”, Orange said patiently, “He justneedstothinkitover.”

Slaine paced a little before surfacing again. It would be the best to just show them his arm and get it over with, but he couldn’t help being suspicious. If he didn’t do it, were they going to drag him out of the pool? The creatures didn’t seem to be affected by his distress as they continued their chatting.

“Ah,thatreminds me! He showed his bellyto us theotherday!”, Kaoru suddenly said. “Well, he probablydidn’tnoticeithimselfbut he camerightto us andjustturnedtofloaton his back!”

“What,is he adognow?”, Calm laughed. “Maybe you should’vegiven him bellyrubs.”

“Somedolphinsactuallylikeit.”, Inko chimed in, “I havethisoneinthepodwe’repreparingtomoveintoasea-penthat’salwaysbeggingforpetsandrubs. I ‘llmiss her.”

Orange sat cross-legged on the edge of the pool, not taking part in the conversation. After a while he dropped his hand into the water to gain Slaine’s attention again.

“Hello, left side!”

Slaine halted in is nervous pacing and glared at the creatures. “No”, he announced wilfully. That wasn’t the answer Orange wanted, and he could see it in the way he calmly set his jaw, ready to argue his case.

“Hello, left side no good, shoulder no good, arm no good. Hello no good. Doctoryagarai good.”, the brunette reasoned in an impressive litany of whistles that left the other creatures silent and staring.

“I don’t want to.”

“Hello no good. Shoulder-”

“Okay, I know alright!”, Slaine hissed, frustrated. “I know. It’s just that-”

That he was scared? That he was being reminded of the debilitating injury he tried his best to not think about? An injury that should’ve killed him, would’ve killed him if he wasn’t stuck here. That he was already placing so much trust on the brunette, a land creature, that it terrified him? That he actually felt safe enough to do what Orange was asking? Perhaps all of it, but there were no words he could say that would make his conflicting feelings understood.

“Hello, Doctoryagarai good.”, Orange insisted. Slaine scoffed. He already knew the healer was safe. He knew showing them his arm was safe. That even letting them touch his injury was most likely safe. He also knew that he didn’t like that he felt that way.

In the end, Slaine slid back to the creatures, turned on his side and let the healer do his checking. The man felt his arm and shoulder gingerly, carefully moving the elbow for a bit before sitting back.

“It’ssettledquitenicely,if I maysaysomyself.Thereissomecumulatedinjuryfromstressas I suspected,thatmakesaperfectrecoveryunlikely.Therewillbecomplications.”

Orange gave Slaine a fish with an additional ruffle to his hair. Slaine took the fish and pushed the hand away absentmindedly, relieved that Doctoryagarai was fast at his work. Orange seemed relieved at first too but was quick to divert his focus back to the healer.

“Whatkindofcomplicationsdo you mean?”

Doctoryagarai pinched the bridge of his nose. “Mainlyintherangeofmovements.Incaseslikethese,notbeingabletoliftthearmaboveone’sshoulderiscommon.If he wasahumanpatient, I ‘dprobablyadvisetoleavethedreamsofbeingabasketballplayerbehind.”

“Thatseriouslyaffects his mobilityandhuntingthough!”, Inko suddenly said. The worry in her voice alerted Slaine, who surfaced to see what the sudden fuss was about. The healer looked at him with a reassuring smile before turning to Inko.

“We cancombatthatwithphysiotherapyandexercisetoadegree.If he ‘suptoparticipatinginit,thatis.”

“Batwillbeuptoit.”, Orange announced. He was keeping an eye on Slaine as the merman sought out his face to understand what was being said. Orange offered no clues, but he didn’t seem nervous or distressed either, only determined. That made Slaine feel somewhat more confident. “He ‘salreadyimprovedalotinashorttime.Thebigger pool willbegoodfor him too.”

“Thelead-trainer-thingisgonnagoto his head,justsoyouknow,Bat.Remember, Inaho: withgreatpower-”, Calm snickered before getting a smack on his head from Inko.

“Asidefromanupsetstomach, he hasn’tdevelopedanyinfectionsorotherconditionsso we wereplanningonletting him intotheshow- pool alittleaheadofscheadule.Thequarantineandthesmall pool areclearlybadfor his mentalhealth. We havehoursoffootageof him justfloating,thatcan’tbenormal.”, Kaoru explained to the others. “It’salldecided, we ‘rejustwaitingfortheofficialapproval.”

“Isn’tthatgreat,Bat! You ’llgetthebiggest pool we have!”, Inko beamed. “I can’twait! I ’llhavetobring Rayet toonexttime!”

Slaine tilted his head, confused from all the rapidly changing emotions that were being displayed. Just what were they talking about? So far, he had figured out most of the personal pronouns by just listening but beyond that the language was still gibberish to his ears.

 

 

 

Somehow everyone seemed so happy and hopeful. While Slaine did enjoy seeing the familiar faces and interacting with them to a degree, he just couldn’t understand why. What was the purpose of all this? For how long was he going to be stuck here?

As the night fell once again, he waved good byes to the ones who had visited him. Orange stayed behind for a while longer, just sitting by the side of the pool, hanging his hand in the water and his mind travelling somewhere far away.

Slaine wished he could travel again too.

 

 

 

Just what the hell was he doing here.

Slaine circled the pool, feeling agitated. Nights left him with too much time to think. He was being helped, had been helped, but for help this was quite extreme. There had to be something else, some other motive. If it was simply about altruistically fixing his arm and shoulder, surely they could’ve just tied them up with their sleeve-thing and then left him be. He would’ve been fish food in a matter of hours if that had been the case, but it would’ve made more sense. Maybe the land creatures operated completely differently from his kind to begin with, and he shouldn’t make comparisons.

As Slaine pondered over it, a faint set of echoes entered his consciousness. He didn’t notice them at first, but it soon became obvious that he was indeed hearing something.

Inquisitive little chirps, shy and a little scared.

Blood rushing through his body in alert Slaine scanned his surroundings. The chirps weren’t coming from his pool, that much was certain. They did come from underwater though. He focused on the gates. The sounds were definitely coming from behind one of the two. There was no-one watching, so he swam right to one of them.

He wasn’t imagining it. There definitely was someone chirping. Slaine pressed his head against the gate to gather as much information as he could.

The gate was simple enough, a single layer of smooth metal. Behind it there was a short, narrow corridor. Beyond that another gate, this one not smooth like the one in his pool but barred. Beyond that a wider, deeper body of water. The sounds were coming from something a bit smaller than himself. It sounded young.

Slaine swam in anxious circles. Those were the kind of chirps a calf would make. A slightly distressed but nevertheless curious one, the type to become separated from its mother.

The type to rush under ice sheets even when told not to.

He could jump over the gate. He could. But he didn’t have a visual of the other side, he might just hurt himself or accidentally jump on land. There wasn’t enough room to properly jump in the pool in the first place. There wasn’t enough water for him to land safely either. He didn’t need to go to the other side anyway.

But he couldn’t exactly ignore it either. No one was answering the crying calf.

Slaine felt the gate more carefully with his sonar. There were hinges on one side and latches on the other. He couldn’t break the metal, but if he concentrated on the hinges, he might just manage to dislodge them.

A beginning of a plan was enough for Slaine. He could figure out the rest when he got to it. He took a deep breath before slamming his tail against the gate with a force that stung. It didn’t do much, but he could feel and hear the structure creaking. Encouraged, Slaine gathered a bit more strength behind his next strike by speeding around the pool before attacking again.

One of the two hinges gave, and Slaine could taste the water from the outside mingling into his pool. There was a calf on the other side, and it had started calling louder when it had heard him. A beluga whale calf, Slaine could now identify it.

After one more round around the pool he forced the other hinge to come undone as well and squeezed himself through the opening. In front of him was a corridor, about a meter wide and two meters long. On the other side of it there was a barred gate, and on the other side of the gate there was the beluga calf, popping up and down, chirping excitedly and rubbing its squishy melon against the bars.

Slaine hurried to the gate just as light suddenly poured into the water around him. He was momentarily blinded by it, but he could hear the calf loud and clear and continued relying on the sounds. The barred gate worked with the same mechanism as the smooth gate had. He didn’t have enough room to turn in the corridor and hit it with his tail, however. He was going to have to ram it head on.

“Stay back!”, he hastily whistled to the calf with commons. He didn’t have the time to be too careful. The first of many running steps were approaching. Had they heard the first gate break? If so, surely they couldn’t be this fast in response. As far as Slaine knew, the creatures slept during the night and were active only during the day. The calf was quick to retreat, and as it did, Slaine got a good look of it in his sonar. It was too small to be without its mother. Was it brought here too?

Blood suddenly boiling, Slaine rammed the gate, very nearly destroying his good shoulder too. That was when the first of the creatures made their appearance. It was Kaoru.

“Bat!Stopit!Calmdown!”, she shouted at him before ordering the other early arrivals. “MakesureSodstayssafe!”

Slaine rammed the barred gate again. He was going to have a splitting headache after this on top of potentially messing up his neck and shoulders, but he could feel the gate giving in just a little. Two people entered the pool where the calf was. From their echoes Slaine could tell the pool was not that much deeper than his own, but it was larger, maybe some 15 meters in diameter. With the increased volume of water Slaine was pushing it with the plan that he was hatching, but he needed more strength behind him. He had to ram the gate open before there were enough creatures to wrestle him away from it.

“Hello, no. Hello, no. Hello, no.”, Kaoru had finally found her whistle and started repeating the command. Luckily for her, ‘no’ was one of few words she had mastered so far, but unfortunately for her, Slaine had no intention of listening.

“Go behind the corner and put your head above the surface!”, Slaine whistled, hoping the calf was old enough to understand his instructions. He pushed himself back a little, made sure the calf was out of harms way, and started clicking.

As a calf, he had seen one of the adults in his adoptive pod put his hand on a sperm whale’s nose while it was hunting. The sonars had shattered the bones in his arm, and a few days later he was dead from an infection. Slaine wasn’t physically able to do something like that, especially in the sea. But in a pool with a way smaller volume of water to disperse the sounds, he could try to at least weaken the gate. Praying that the calf had his ears above the surface Slaine released his sonars and rammed head first into the bars in the sound’s wake.

For half a second there was nothing, he was simply floating in pure white.

Then, the headache ripped through his skull. Slaine curled in on himself and buried his head in his hands. The lights became unbearable. He distantly felt how the two green shirts who had come into the pool were scrambling to get out. Slaine curled a little tighter. He tasted blood in the water.

There was a soft nose digging its way through Slaine’s hands, insistently peeling him open limb by limb. Relief crashing into him like a wave, Slaine opened his arms for the creature and let it nestle itself against him. The calf was almost as long as he was, but Slaine could tell it was barely a year old, if that. He opened his eyes to see a grey beluga whale calf cooing contently, enjoying the closeness. It had lifted its head in time, Slaine noted with a sigh. He turned to float on his back so that the calf could breathe more easily.

The land creatures were stunned and disorganised. They were looming over the edges of the pool with their lights, unable or unwilling to act. One of the two that had been in the pool was crying. It was weirdly quiet otherwise, with only some murmurs and Kaoru’s disappointed glares.

Slaine couldn’t blame them. He was a mess too. He had a gash running across his hairline that was lazily bleeding into the pool, leaving behind a faint, dissolving trail. His left shoulder was disturbed and his right one bruised, not to mention the headache.

It was all worth it.

He snuggled the calf for a bit before gently sinking down and taking in his new surroundings. The calf followed him, a pectoral fin touching his tail much like a merfolk calf would hold onto their mother’s hair. The pool certainly was bigger and deeper than the previous one and considering the height of the edges it probably wasn’t even half full of water.

With purposefully slow and gentle movements, for both the calf’s and his own sake, Slaine turned to lay still on the centre of the pool.

“I’m Slaine. What’s your name?”, he asked the calf carefully, hopeful that she knew how to answer in commons. She tilted her head and looked unsure.

“…Human call me Sod.” She chirped after some hesitation, clearly imitating a foreign word and piecing unfamiliar sounds together. Her commons were clipped but that was to be expected from someone so young. Sod seemed to mirror Slaine in her confusion over their situation; she was looking at him with wide eyes devoid of fear, but it was clear she wasn’t sure how to act with a stranger. She was just a calf still though, and even in her uncertainty she felt safer huddled by Slaine’s side.

“’Human?’ What are humans?”

“Two-tails.”, she turned to breach quickly before diving back down to Slaine.

“The land creatures are ‘humans’?”

“Mom said. We went see humans.”, her voice was quickly becoming one of excitement as she warmed up to him.

Slaine was bewildered. Why would someone take their calf to see ‘humans’? Sod breached for a breath again and quickly dove past Slaine to pick up something from the bottom. She toothed on it for a few seconds before Slaine realised what it was.

“Sod, no, please don’t eat that.” Slaine took the metallic piece out of the calf’s mouth, and unsure of what to do with it he held onto it. Now that he felt around, he could tell that the floor was littered with pieces from the broken hinges. He carefully looked above the surface to see the creatures. They had mainly calmed down, but some were still pacing. Kaoru was by the ledge, so Slaine swam to her. He surfaced right in front of her, dropped the piece of metal in her feet and dived back down to get the rest before she could get half a word in.

Sod was quick to tail him again when he limped around the bottom, picking up the pieces. She was nuzzling her nose against his tail. Bashfulness soon forgotten she was starting to chatter like the little kid she was.

“Slaine merfolk! Sod never saw. Saw one time whale. Big whale! Mom say bowhead! Slaine fin like two-tail. Where pod? Sod pod big. One time saw bear! Slaine fin like swim bear! I saw! Mom say no close. Mom say molting rock good but Sod rock no-”

Slaine couldn’t help the laugh that escaped through his lips. The calf was probably stringing together just about every common whistle she knew. She mimicked his laugh in a true beluga-fashion before doing happy summersaults around the blond.

When Slaine surfaced to discard of the rest of the pieces he came face to face with Orange. He hadn’t heard the brunette anywhere among the earlier ruckus and flinched back from surprise.

Slaine couldn’t tell what the brunette was thinking, and he doubted Orange knew it himself. He seemed to bee teetering somewhere between bewilderment, relief, anger and concern, and since there was no way of knowing which emotion would come on top, Slaine made a quick escape back to the centre of the pool, Sod not missing a beat in following his every movement. He could feel her heart rate suddenly jump up, no doubt in response to his own reaction. Forcing himself to calm down in his post-adrenaline-rush anxiety, Slaine turned to face the calf again.

“Okay, Sod. We’re a pod now.”, he announced to the calf. Her eyes shined.

“We pod!”, she nodded enthusiastically, smiling like only a beluga can.

Slaine’s own smile was a bit too unsteady for his liking. “Sod, are there any other whales here?”

Sod tilted her head, confused.

“Here?”

“Yes, other whales. Here. Is your mother here?”

There was recognition in the calf’s eyes, but it died out soon. Instead she turned her focus towards the surface.

“Sod! Sod are you okay?Come!”, a young woman was nearly crying on the edge, the ends of her light brown pigtails floating in the water. Without another word to Slaine the calf turned around and rushed to the surface. In a record time she was already playing with the creature’s hair, squealing excitedly when the girl reached into the water to pet her open mouth. “I ‘msosorry! I ‘llnevertakeanotherbathroombreakagain!”

Slaine watched in horrified disbelief as the two played and cuddled, alternating between spraying each other with water and affectionately headbutting.

It didn’t make any sense.

What the hell was going on?

Sod turned around with a cheerful chirp. “Slaine! Nina here, Nina pod!”

“Nina… pod?”, Slaine repeated. The words didn’t feel real. Surely the calf was mixing up her whistles.

Having gathered himself, Orange stood near the girl, Nina, who was repeating what sounded like apologies to anyone who came close enough. His expression didn’t reveal anything as he sat down on the edge by her side, dropping his legs into the water, not paying any attention to Slaine. He wasn’t wearing the rubbery green overalls he usually did, having instead rolled his trousers up. The feet caught Sod’s attention right away and she dived to investigate them, chirping while carefully nosing and nudging around the toes.

Orange was faintly smiling at Sod despite himself and it was absurd.

Suddenly Slaine felt ashamed.

He wasn’t sure from where the feeling was coming from, but for a moment he wanted to just swim back to his small pool, close the gate behind him and stay there forever. His half-assed spur of the moment rescue mission had left him tired and aching and the one he was saving clearly didn’t need his help. Where were they supposed to go anyway? Slaine had somehow assumed the sea would be right outside of the gates because that had made sense in his head. Instead he just found himself in another pool. How was he supposed to know that; he had known nothing but the open ocean until last month!

Slaine was tired.

So, what he did was sink to the bottom of the pool and close his eyes.

 

 

 

When Slaine opened his eyes, the sea was different. Instead of the turbulent, misty waters he was surrounded by a serene calm.

It was like the currents had halted and time had stopped.

Slowly, as if an iceberg himself, the rostrum of a bowhead whale emerged from the darkness. Slaine watched in awe as the giant glided effortlessly by him, their eyes meeting for a brief moment.

In those eyes was the knowledge of a being that had lived the lifetimes of five or six of Slaine’s own kind. In the face of someone so eternal, the young merman felt lost.

His time hadn’t stopped, after all. In the midst of the sudden moment of tranquillity it was running out.

Chapter Text

Slaine stirred to the sensation of water lapping at his face. He was popping up and down on the surface uncomfortably, one side chafing against a wall. Irritated and achy all over, he reached behind himself to make whoever it was bothering him go away and let him get some more sleep.

“Alive? Slaine alive?”, he could hear Sod whining, clearly scared, somewhere below him. A careful set of clicks that tickled his back followed with the calf inspecting his rake marks. As soon as Sod stopped pushing him, the blond started sinking underwater again.

“What?” Slaine was still out of it. Why was Sod in his pool? Where did the bowhead whale go?

“No air!”, Sod started crying, headbutting him towards the surface again.

“Air?”, Slaine held his head. It felt like it was filled with sloshing seaweed. Under him the calf was getting frantic, crying and desperately trying to keep him afloat.

Ah.

Slaine turned carefully to Sod, trying and failing to reassure her. “I’m okay. See? I’m okay.”, he repeated for the both of them.

He was okay. He hurt all over, but he was okay. If he said it enough times, maybe it would become the truth.

He wasn’t sure what was going on anymore, if he ever had been in the first place. All he knew was that he was still alive somehow, stuck in a pool with a lone beluga calf. The land creatures – or humans, as Sod called them – that had them there were somewhere around the pool, no doubt. Slaine didn’t really want to think about them too much now.

“I don’t need air as often as you do, so I’m okay.” Slaine blew a bubble ring to show the calf that he really was not dying. Sod looked as the ring disassembled with disbelief and awe in her eyes, as if Slaine had just grown another tail. “I have another 20 minutes, easily.”, he offered with an unsteady smile before breaching for a breath anyway, the calf following his every movement.

God, his head hurt.

It was still night. Luckily most of the lights were already gone with the creatures, leaving only three looming figures by the darkened pool. Slaine could guess who they were, but he wasn’t ready to face any of them, so he just limped slowly around the pool trying to pull himself together. Sod fell back into following him soon enough, clinging to his side and suddenly interested in blowing bubbles herself.

Even if his sleep hadn’t been cut short, Slaine doubted he could’ve processed what had happened. For a brief moment it had felt like he had been on top of his situation, but then all semblance of common sense was gone again. He had lost his direction the moment Sod swam to Nina.

Which was something he couldn’t wrap his head around.

Sure, he had formed a sort of stalemate himself with one of the creatures, maybe two if he was stretching it, but that didn’t cancel out his mistrust of them. Granted, his prior knowledge wasn’t the most comprehensive one, given that he had seen an actual land creature for the first time only about a month ago. He hadn’t wanted to ever see one in the first place. After all, nothing good ever came of them.

Or that was what he had always been told. Slaine had come to know that the creatures were noisy and disrupting, yes, but also capable of more.

Things like help, care and play.

Slaine had thought about it before, but maybe they truly were like orcas after all. You could get along with them, even like them as long as you weren’t on the menu. Or resemble something on their menu. Or-

The analogy fell quickly apart in Slaine’s mind. There was no way he’d ever trust an orca, after all. Sod was young, she didn’t know any better. Slaine on the other hand had a bit too much experience. He couldn’t help being suspicious and untrusting. There was no way either of them could be unbiased.

He almost envied the calf’s ignorance.

Preparing himself, Slaine turned his gaze to the figures on the pool’s side. They weren’t paying any attention on him, however, too busy sulking among each other.

“Thefirstevermerman-rescue,frontpagenewsworldwide,andnowthis.”, Kaoru sighed. Slaine could still hear the disappointment in her voice, though he couldn’t tell what or who it was directed at anymore. “We werestupidtoletthepressinearly.Thewholeworldknows his facealready.”

“Itcouldn’thavebeenpredicted”, Orange said. His voice was steely. Slaine watched the brunette carefully. “Itwasn’tupto us.”

“I wish I playedwithBatmoreyesterday.Tired him out. I should’vestayedoutafterall.”

“Thishasneverbeendonebefore.”, Orange’s tone was off. “We didn’tknow.”

“I ‘msorrytoo.If I hadtakenmybreakfiveminuteslater I could’ve-“

“Nooneblames you, Nina.”, Kaoru’s eyes softened when she addressed the girl. Nina fiddled with her fingers before turning back towards the pool.

“Itcouldn’thavebeenpredicted”, Orange repeated. His eyes were somewhere far away. He wasn’t talking to Kaoru or Nina, Slaine realised.

Orange was comforting himself.

Slaine tilted his head in confusion. What reason would Orange have to look so serious or need comforting for? There was a painful tang in his chest that said it might have had something to do with him, but the blond silenced the thought as quickly as it had entered his mind. He had done nothing wrong, after all. There was no need to read so far into it.

“…Thebacklashisgoingto-“, Kaoru started, just to be cut off by the brunette.

“I ‘lldealwithit.” There was a sense of finality to Orange’s words. Kaoru didn’t try to argue with him. She mustered out a smile and a wave for Slaine before getting up. The blond meekly returned the gesture, somehow embarrassed having been caught staring. He didn’t like this feeling of shame that lingered around him. There was no reason for it.

He couldn’t have known better.

“I reallyhavetogetgoingnow.Thetransitionisgoingtobeabitmorejarringthan I hopedfor,butitcan’tbehelpedanymore.”, she sighed.

“Haveasafeflight!”, Nina offered. Orange stayed silent as he looked into the pool, following Slaine’s every movement with his eyes. It was unnerving.

 

 

 

Orange ended up staying by the poolside for the rest of the night and bringing him food that morning. He acted normal, but his tone was still off. In the end, Slaine ignored the brunette and the food he brought out of suspicion. He kept his distance when Doctoryagarai came running and stayed on the centre of the pool whenever the blue shirts were making their rounds along the edges. Which was more often than not. Luckily, he now had plenty of room to avoid the land creatures as much as he wanted.

Sod wasn’t doing any of that. She huddled by Slaine most of the time, but whenever someone new came by the pool she was the first one to greet them. When there was no one else to play with, she kept inspecting the blond’ head, blowing bubbles into his hair, bumping into him playfully and demanding him to show her more bubble rings. Which Slaine did, every time.

He hadn’t noticed it before, but Sod had strange scars on her dorsal ridge. Seven deep, clean cuts running side by side, one after another, a pattern way too clean to be regular rake marks or any other kind of scratches or scars that belugas often had. Slaine checked the cuts carefully when he managed to keep the calf silent and still for long enough. They were healed but recent. He tried asking about them, but Sod didn’t know how to answer.

Slaine doubted she even knew about them herself.

During the brief periods that he was left alone with Sod, Slaine spent inspecting the new pool. It wasn’t that different from the small one. It was round, smooth and boring, except in one major way: behind a large, barred gate there was a space that was at least 15 meters deep and almost three times as wide. Slaine couldn’t help it when he found his sonars escaping through the bars to feel the rocky formations that rose from the sandy bottom and lined most of the walls. It was another pool, he was certain from the lack of currents and the same, slightly weird taste of the water. He wasn’t going to let false hopes to get the better him again. It wasn’t comparable to the deeps, not even to the shallows. Still, even though he had just come bursting through two gates from a pool that had a diameter of just five meters, Slaine was already anxious to get out again.

Behind the gate of his small pool had been a bigger pool, and now he was already faced with another, yet bigger pool. Maybe if he just got through enough gates, he could eventually find his way to a space large enough to travel and migrate in, like he used to.

He wasn’t able to, though. Never mind the fact that he had nearly broken himself on the two small gates before, this big gate was way too tough for him, Slaine knew that much when the first echoes of his sonar returned. He briefly contemplated jumping over it, but even if he was in any condition to do so, it would mean leaving Sod behind. Belugas don’t jump, after all.

Not to mention that the last time he had tried to jump over things had ended disastrously.

In the end, what Slaine was left with was the gate mocking him, Sod happily blowing bubbles around him and Orange sulking somewhere in his peripheral vision, insistently trying to call him to eat.

 

 

 

Orange was nothing if not persistent.

While Nina played with Sod and fed her, the brunette tried every trick in his book to lure Slaine to him. It started with simple calls, followed by requests for whatever tricks and random, meaningless whistles. When Slaine ignored all of those, the creature stayed blissfully silent for a while.

Unfortunately, Orange couldn’t be ignored into silence for long.

From somewhere inside the walls a beluga call erupted, one that had Sod perk up and send answers around the pool. Slaine too was startled when the sounds started coming from underwater, looking around disoriented. The following calls were from another dialect, which just made everything that much more confusing. Slaine turned to Sod, lost. She didn’t answer for a while, too busy responding to the calls.

“They sing with me.”, the calf chased around the sounds with a far-away look in her eyes. Somehow it creeped Slaine out. “Every day.”

“Do you recognise them?”

Sod turned to Slaine with an expression that had Slaine sigh in relief. With just one look back to the merman the light returned to her eyes. “No. But they sing and I sing and we sing.”

“…Where are they?”, he asked, looking around. The way the chirps and clicks seemed to be everywhere at the same time was eerie. Sod considered it for a while.

“Not know. Not here.”, she finally said. After a quick inhale at the surface she pushed her melon into Slaine’s side. “But they sing. I sing. Slaine sing!”, she chattered in her sing-song voice while nudging the blond to the surface as well.

“What? No! I’m not singing to an empty pool!”, Slaine protested. Sod pouted in response but didn’t take no for an answer. Before she could say anything, however, a new voice filled the pool.

“Hello.”

The syllables were stretched, but it was an unmistakeable greeting. It didn’t sound like a beluga vocalisation either.

“Hello.”, Slaine answered before he could catch himself. A string of greetings followed the first one. It was a large group greeting an outsider, greeting him.

A whole pod of humpback whale cows and their young. Which didn’t make any sense. There was no way a single humpback would fit anywhere near them, let alone a pod. That didn’t stop Sod from mimicking Slaine and greeting every one of the callers. They weren’t just humpbacks anymore, either. Slaine could recognise at least a grey whale, a right whale, a sperm whale and a pilot whale amongst all the callers.

He turned his focus to Orange. The brunette was sitting by the edge of the pool, emerged in his rectangular tablet-thingy. There was no doubt in Slaine’s mind he was somehow responsible for the continuous string of ‘hellos’ that surrounded him and Sod before escaping through the gate to the bigger, deeper pool. He didn’t know how or why, but then again, there was a lot he didn’t understand about the creature.

Just as Slaine was about to surface to give a piece of his mind to Orange, Nina kneeled by his side. She seemed worried but with two or three words from Orange, her worries were eased. There must’ve been something interesting on the tablet, since Nina kept her eyes on it, an excited smile lighting up her whole face. Slaine tightened his hand into a fist by his chest.

First there had been shame and now there was envy.

Slaine felt abashed in the face of these emotions. He felt abashed regardless of them. He wasn’t sure if breaking through the gates had been the right thing to do. He was certain he wasn’t meant to do it. But if so, what were going to be the consequences? The uncertainty was killing him. If he knew the words, he could ask. But he didn’t know them.

There had been a moment of silent understanding between him and Orange at some point, Slaine thought. Somehow it reminded him of the ancient bowhead he had met in the Arctic so many years ago. There had been sympathy in its eyes.

Slaine didn’t know what to do anymore. So, in the end, he did nothing.

 

 

 

By nightfall Orange had had enough. While Nina was running errands the brunette suddenly got up and took off his shoes.

“Hello!”, he called, raising his voice to make sure he got the merman’s attention. He had it, alright, from the moment he had appeared by the pool the previous night all distraught. Slaine had an uneasy feeling about this all. He’d never seen Orange act like this before.

“Orange water, good?”, Orange asked, though it sounded more like an announcement. Slaine didn’t have enough time to answer anyway before Orange discarded the shoes, took a step forward and crashed into the pool.

Startled, Slaine flinched back as the brunette surfaced, gasping in shallow breaths of air. He seemed to be about as shocked as Slaine was, even though he was the one to jump in. After a few more deep inhales he straightened himself and started walking. If it could’ve even been called walking at that point, since the water reached all the way to his shoulders and he couldn’t take proper steps. He started kicking with his legs instead and using his arms in what was probably the least graceful display of swimming that Slaine had ever witnessed.

If he hadn’t been so shocked, he would’ve been laughing.

Sod certainly was. Unrestrained and laughing her heart out in delight, the calf dived under Orange on her back before bumping into him a few times, trying to make the creature chase her. The brunette wasn’t affected by Sod’s teasing though, so after a couple more passes she lost interest and started blowing bubble rings instead, something that she had obsessed over mastering since the early hours of that morning.

A few meters into the pool Orange lowered his feet so they touched the bottom again. Between shallow huffs he called Slaine. His heartrate was going at a wild pace and for a moment Slaine thought the creature would pass out. The blond hadn’t moved from his spot in the centre of the pool during the whole ordeal. It wasn’t like Orange could suddenly charge him in the water, after all. More than anything, though, he couldn’t bring himself to move away. He was already having a headache so figuring out what the hell Orange was up to this time was even more of a pain than usually. He hadn’t set any boundaries for this pool yet, but even so the creature was being incredibly stupid. He was intentionally making himself an easy target.

“Hello, head.”, Orange tried, his hand outstretched. Slaine narrowed his eyes. After a short stare down between them Sod made an appearance again, sneaking behind Orange. She charged around him with her mouth wide open in an attempt at looking scary. The brunette barely spared her a glance and Slaine stifled in a snicker. The calf turned to headbutt the blond instead. It caught some of his bruises, but Slaine laughed anyway.

“Human boring! Slaine boring!”, she exclaimed, blowing nearly all her air out of her blowhole in a tantrum. Slaine blew bubbles on her face in retaliation.

“Of course you won’t catch Orange off guard like that. He’s probably seen you scare Nina.”, Slaine breached to catch his breath with the calf.

“No way!” Sod clearly hadn’t thought of the possibility.

“Hello, head.”, Orange called again, his voice a bit strained. He had been watching the interaction carefully, still as a rock. Slaine furrowed his brows, finally recognising the weird, barely recognisable undertone that had been plaguing Orange’s voice: urgency. Now that he paid more attention, the brunette was shivering. Was he going to collapse or something?

Slaine slid carefully closer. Not quite close enough to touch, but Orange had his full attention again as he probed the creature with his sonar. His pulse was slowing down at least. His breathing was shallow still. Slaine tilted his head. It was curious, everything seemed to be fine, but something was obviously wrong.

Finally, Slaine came a little bit closer.

Orange wasted no time in reaching both his hands into the merman’s hair, feeling gingerly around his skull. Slaine was taken back by surprise, but he halted any protest he might have had when Orange lightly touched along the edges of the gash that run across his hairline. It was going to leave a scar. With a sigh, the brunette took another clumsy step closer and moved his focus onto Slaine’s right side, littered with bruises and thankfully nothing worse. Slaine felt like a calf again when the creature took a hold of his right wrist and gingerly tested through the joints in his arm: all in working order. Thankfully he didn’t touch the left side.

“Hewo, sh.”, Orange slurred through his teeth before turning and heading back to the pool’s edge. Or at least trying to, since his movements were so stiff that he wasn’t going anywhere. Instinctively Slaine reached out to take a hold of Orange’s elbow before the brunette could fall over. His teeth were chattering and on top of the shivers there were now tremors running up and down his body.

That wasn’t normal.

Orange’s whole body was tense, his breaths even shallower than before, but despite that his heart rate was still low.

Alarmed, Slaine grabbed a hold around the creature’s torso and pulled him the five meters to the edge so that he could get up, since clearly he was having a fit after all. He let go of Orange and swiftly retreated back to gain a little distance between the two of them before Orange could get up.

Except that he wasn’t getting up, Slaine noticed with a sinking feeling.

Orange stayed huddled by the edge where Slaine had left him, holding weakly onto the wall. He couldn’t get up on his own.

Slaine dived back to Orange, surfaced right next to him and peered over the edge. There was no-one there. Orange was shaking violently by now. Unsure of what else to do Slaine dived under Orange, reached his good arm around the land creature’s legs and started to lift him up. Orange almost fell backwards into the pool, but before he did so, Sod pushed him back to the right direction. With some struggle they managed to get Orange out of the pool, his wet clothes clinging to his body and pulling him down in weird angles.

Slaine was pushing the last of the brunette’s limbs onto dry land when he heard Nina running back to the pool.

“Ohmygod, Inaho!? Whathappened?” She was quick to take a hold of Orange’s clothes and drag him a little further from the edge. Slaine pushed himself up so he could see what was happening.

“…swimmedint’pool.”, Orange managed to slur from between his chattering teeth. Nina was already peeling his wet shirt away before replacing it with her own jacket. Orange’s arms refused to go into the sleeves, so she wrapped the jacket around him instead before covering him in a large, fluffy towel she grabbed from nearby.

“Withoutadrysuit?Were you pulledin?”

“…No, I- I wentinmyself.”

“Thewateriswhat,5°celciusatmost!”

“It’sonlybruises.”, Orange mumbled into the towel, “Batwasn’teatingso- Oh! I promised him afish.”

For some reason, Nina laughed. “Howlongwere you inthepool?”

“…Maybetenorfifteenminutes?Tenminutes.”, Orange seemed unsure. Worry returned to Nina’s eyes.

“Do you needadoctor? I reallyshouldcalladoctor,right?”

“No, I wouldn’tgethypothermiafromjusttenminutes.”

“Anormalhumanwould. I ‘mcallingthenurseover.”

During the hasty conversation Slaine had climbed a bit further out of the pool. He knew that land creatures weren’t supposed to dwell in water but was it really that bad? That they would just keel over and die if they weren’t wearing their rubbery clothes to keep the water away? Orange would’ve probably managed to drown himself in a matter of minutes if Slaine hadn’t lifted him out. The brunette turned his eyes to Slaine. They were still unfocused, but he was getting better every minute he spent huddled under the towel.

“Orange water no good.”, Slaine said to him. Somehow that pulled a dry chuckle out of the brunette. Slaine tilted his head, an annoyed pinch growing on his brow. Orange took in a shuddering breath.

“Hello land no good.”, he answered.

“Well, we’re not talking about me this time.”, Slaine said, ignoring the parallel that Orange pointed out and pulling himself a little further out of the pool just to spite the brunette. If he was going to act like a calf, Slaine was going to talk to him like he was one.

“You’re an idiot, you know that right? If you can’t be in the water, don’t come into the water, it's not that hard. You don’t see me rolling around on dry land.” Orange blinked, only understanding a word or two. “What would’ve happened if I wasn’t there? Sod’s not big enough to push you out on her own yet. What if Nina was somewhere further away?” The calf cheered in agreement behind Slaine. “The first rule: this pool is mine. The second rule: no dying in my pool!” Slaine ended his lecture just as two young men in blue shirts came running. He hissed at both of them for a good measure before dropping back down and swimming away, Sod cackling and splashing her flukes in his wake.

"Pool of Slaine! Of Sod pod!", Sod cheered while doing somersaults around the blond and spitting water towards the creatures at every breach. She seemed to be thoroughly entertained by the whole ordeal. Behind his exasperation there was a smile creeping its way to Slaine’s lips too. He couldn’t deny how much better he felt after just a little bit of clearing the air.

Chapter Text

Everything was grey. The sky, the pool and the droplets that travelled between the two before finally meeting the surface. What followed was a soothing pitter-patter that drowned all the other sounds underneath it and cradled Slaine. The merman floated on his back, his good hand lifted towards the sky, feeling the rain. He had never taken the time for truly observing something like it before. Weirdly, despite his still insistent headache, Slaine felt at ease. Like something that had been weighing him down had been resolved. He didn’t know exactly what it was, though.

There were new creatures roaming the big pool beyond the gate. They had been at it for some hours now and enough time had passed so that Slaine barely minded them anymore. The blond still kept his ears on them just in case, but the new creatures were far more interested in eating algae from the rock formations and sand than in him. He too would’ve probably forgotten about them if only it wasn’t for their sounds.

There was something not quite right in the way they sucked in water. No matter how much Slaine focused on the rain, the gasps and releases broke his concentration. Irritated, the blond sighed before sinking underwater again. Sod was by his side before he even reached the shallow bottom. She snuggled by his tail and chirped away as they swam in laps. Slaine still felt a bit stiff but moving seemed to help with his healing bruises.

“Nina held fluke.”, Sod preened. Even as Slaine threw glares toward the gasping creatures, he couldn’t help the upward twitch pulling his lips into a careful smile.

“I saw.”, he confirmed. He had just about attacked Nina for toying with the calf’s flukes too, but had halted before his charge. Both the calf and the “human”, as Sod insisted calling them, had been enjoying themselves. The reality of his situation had come back to Slaine like a jellyfish sting only a second later; to attack a land creature couldn’t possibly end well for him or Sod.

So, he forced himself to stay put and kept watch instead, taut and ready to pounce at any moment as the human gently pulled the light grey fluke out of the pool, did something, and then enthusiastically gave the calf a fish and plenty of kisses.

“Air is fun on fluke.”, Sod giggled. Slaine spiralled himself around Sod as they swam, and the calf followed his lead in no time, the two of them bumping lightly into each other every now and then. Sod knew to be careful with Slaine’s left side, a sliver of surprisingly mature consideration from the calf.

“It tingles, right? But too much air crackles.”

“Ti-guh-ree… What is cra-less?”

Slaine bumped into the calf playfully. He really should start relearning beluga chirps instead of making the calf use commons. “It feels nice for a moment and then it becomes too much. So be careful.”

“Ah.”, the calf answered lamely. Slaine glanced back at her weird tone just in time to get a face full of her squishy melon. The startled laugh Slaine let out surprised him, but he wasn’t one to back down when challenged. He chased the beluga around in erratic circles for three or four laps before he managed to capture the cackling calf in his arms. He could just barely reach around her anymore. Like any child, she was growing fast and for an animal of her size even a week’s difference could be impressive.

“Nina tiguh-, tinhre-“

“Tingles?”, Slaine offered the whistle. They were floating to the surface now, an impromptu game of tag replaced with gently playing with some loose leaves that the green shirts hadn’t picked out yet. Another unnatural gasp from beyond the gate fought for Slaine’s attention, but he wanted to listen to Sod more.

“That. Nina that. Never too much.”, the calf sang with surprising conviction. “Land too much. Nina good.”

Slaine pinched his brows. “But humans are of land.”, he couldn’t help arguing.

“Nina know Sod of water.”, Sod answered without a second thought.

Whatever Slaine was about to say was forgotten. For Sod, it was so simple that Slaine didn’t know whether the stumped frustration that suddenly bubbled somewhere in his chest was because of the calf’s naivety or his own wariness. Slaine supposed there was some worth in the mutual recognition Sod had so easily described, even though he couldn’t trust in it as much as the calf did. Humans knowing that he was a creature of the sea and water hadn’t stopped them from pulling him onto the land and into a shallow pen before, after all.

All the more reason for him to keep his eyes and ears open for the calf too.

“You sure like Nina, huh.”

“Nina then and now and always help. Nina pod.”

Sod was acting surprisingly sombre beneath her cheerfulness. Slaine turned to her again and snuggled close to the calf. He didn’t know what was wrong, but he could tell it was too much for a child. They floated quietly, Slaine laying on Sod’s dorsal ridge, careful to not obstruct her blowhole as she lifted him above surface and inhaled deeply. The air was cool to his wet skin. It did feel nice.

“We’re pod too.”, Slaine whistled to the beluga through the air, not caring that there were two or three green shirts cleaning the poolside that turned to stare. “I don’t like shores, but I’ll find you a good molting beach once we get out of here.”

“Can Nina come too?”

Slaine pet the calf’s back gently. “…Water is not good for Nina. We’ll go to the North and the Ice and meet lots of other belugas instead.”

Sod twitched, upset. “Why water no good?”

“Humans are of land, they break in water. You saw yesterday when Orange-“, Slaine was interrupted by a wild burst of giggles that threw him off Sod.

“Slaine weird!”, Sod managed in between her laughter.

“What?”, Slaine tried to act annoyed, but couldn’t hide his relief at the change in Sod’s mood.

“Humans in water lots! Sod swam with Nina before Slaine came!”

“What?” This time Slaine was getting genuinely confused.

Sod slid closer to the big gate. “Humans in water now.”

“…What?”

Sod pushed his melon against the bars of the gate and chirped a hello to the two gaspers that still roamed the far side of the big pool’s sandy bottom. One of the two-finned creatures started slowly rising to the surface and disappeared behind a rock-pillar. Its wheezing gasps followed by raspy releases of bubbles creeped Slaine out. Its movements were so out of place, its appearance like something out of the tales told about the leviathans of the deeps. The more he looked at them, the less Slaine liked them. Still, when feeling them with sonar Slaine could tell they were indeed human: their bodies felt the same, their heartbeats and breathing were the same, as were their movements and mannerisms.

Slaine didn’t have the time to ask questions before the pool filled with beluga chirps and whistles again, something that happened the same time every day, just as Sod had told him. Sod took off from the gate like always, chatting with the voices and leaving the merman to his thoughts and uncertainties.

 

 

 

Slaine had settled by the big gate, laying on the bottom of the pool, biting at his claws absentmindedly and watching the one still remaining gasper.

He had had a pretty good feel at human tails when he had broken out of his little pool and burst through the gate with the help of his sonar. No doubt the people that had jumped in that night had felt his sonar all the way in their bones. Bones that were so very open for any attack. He had dragged Orange out of the pool just yesterday. It had been a brief moment, but the creature had been nothing like he had ever held in his arms before. His skin had been thin, his bones light and his body without the dense protecting barrier of blubber that even Slaine’s kind had just under their skin, albeit in a lot thinner layer than most other deep-sea dwelling animals. It was no wonder the human had collapsed in the pool when just an accidental bump of Slaine’s tail could’ve been enough to break his bones.

Orange wasn’t of water. If anything, despite his stupid jump into the pool he didn’t even seem to like water that much. Slaine had seen him always covering himself from it.

Every time he pieced something together so that it made sense it all fell apart again.

In a burst of frustration and anger Slaine whacked his tail against the gate and hissed at the lone startled gasper. Stupid Orange and stupid land creatures with their creepy water-skins. He was going to get into the big pool eventually, find the next gate and be rid of them all.

For now, Slaine closed his eyes again and hoped to not dream of the orcas anymore.

 

 

 

Something stirred the water.

Slaine snapped awake and bombarded the pool with sonars. Everything returned back normally, except for the fact that there were two human tails in the pool. Sod, like the busybody she was, was already inspecting them. Careful to not show that he had been startled, Slaine turned slowly around and stretched himself in a show of nonchalance. It was Orange who sat on the edge of the pool wiggling his… whatever the things at the end of his fins were. Tiny fingers? Land creatures were weird. Sun had already set while Slaine slept, but the sky was still almost as orange as the ship Slaine had seen long ago.

“Hey! You ‘renotallowedin!” Slaine couldn’t see who was shouting at Orange, but the voice wasn’t pleasant. Curious, he sneaked a bit closer to it along the pool’s wall.

“I ‘mnotinthe pool.”

“Itdoesn’tmatter, your legsarandit’snotokay.”

“Therulesonlystatethatenteringthe pool isnotadvised. I havenotenteredthe pool ,andevenif I had,itwouldn’tbeforbidden,justdiscouraged.” Orange didn’t even look in the direction of the angry voice. Instead his eyes followed Slaine, attentive but not worried.

“You ‘renoteven- It’slikedealingwithafiveyearoldwith you!” The voice got closer to the edge, clearly agitated. Slaine’s eyes met with Orange’s and in that moment everything was simple and easy. Orange gave Slaine the slightest of nods.

In one swift movement Slaine twisted his body around and threw his flukes up, effectively throwing water on anyone within a five-meter radius. The surprised shriek that followed was more than worth it. Slaine threw himself back into the pool with an impish glee and celebrated with an additional slap of his flukes. Served him right, messing with his pool and his-

Slaine stopped dead in his tracks. Sod speeded around him in excitement, chirping non calf-appropriate whistles at the angry man with unmatched delight. Orange’s face didn’t reveal much, but he looked content. Suddenly too embarrassed to look the human in the eyes, the blond sank back to the bottom of the pool. Sod changed her tune to happy greetings. No doubt Nina had come back from her break.

“Ah, Inaho! Aren’t you supposedtoberestingtoday?”

“I haverestedforthedayalready.Itwasjustamildcaseofhypothermia.”

“Aw,cutthesass.Atleastweartheboots!”, Nina fussed around the brunette.

“It’sallright, I washedmyfeet.”

“You knowwhat I meant.”, the girl pouted under her breath. “You ‘llgetfrostbites.”

Orange didn’t answer, he looked on as the last gasper climbed out of the big pool instead. Slaine too lifted his head above the surface to see the man pulling a big tube-thing out of his mouth. He grimaced at the sight; it was disgusting and scary.

“I needtogetmytoleranceupevenif I useadrysuit.”, Orange said distantly before turning his focus on Nina. “Itwasthesamefor you too,right?”

“Belugasdon’trespectatrainerwho’sweaktothecold.”, she shrugged with a smile, downplaying herself.

Orange hummed thoughtfully. He wiggled his tails again, the movements a bit stiffer. Slaine could almost hear his body struggling to bring blood all the way to the tips of his tiny fins. The blond huffed. To him the water felt warm, but for the human with his thin skin and lack of insulation it clearly was a different story. He stalked to where Orange was sitting and turned to lie on his back with the now still tails above him. Someone clearly had to keep Orange alive since he couldn’t do it himself, and with that thought Slaine settled into monitoring the feet. Both humans stayed very quiet and still for a moment before carefully relaxing.

“He ‘secholocating.”, Orange said suddenly while peeking over the edge. Nina was crouched behind his shoulder, trying to see through the calm ripples as well. “Ittickles.”

“Doesitfeellikeadolphin?”

Orange seemed to be at a loss of words. “I- I ‘veneverhadadolphinfeelmewithsonar,so I ‘mnotsure. I ’llcheckthehydrophoneslater.”

“I ‘dguessit’sabitdifferent.” Nina sat back. “Oneofthegirlsgotastressfracturefromwhen Bat brokethegate. She saiditwasmorelikeaspermwhaleorsomething.Thatithithershinlikeabrick.”

“Spermwhaleshavealargespermacetiorgantoamplifytheirsounds.But Bat doesn’tappeartohaveanysortofmelon.Doesthesoundtravelandamplifythrough his bones?”, Orange was practically hanging over the edge at this point. Slaine stuck his tongue out in response. He’d seen Inko do it before. “We ‘llneedtogetx-raystooatsomepoint.”

“Thelistgetslongereverytime.”, Nina laughed.

Orange hadn’t been moving his tails in a while, Slaine noted. Slowly, he lifted his good arm up and poked the heel of one tail with his claw. Orange held his breath again. Emboldened, Slaine laid his palm flat against the sole and lifted it carefully. Even to his hand the foot felt cold. Orange offered no resistance as Slaine lifted first one and then the other tail out of the pool. He stilled in front of the two humans, his eyes peeking above the surface and his hair sticking to his face. Orange pulled his tails close to himself, absentmindedly rubbing warmth back into them as his focus was on the merman.

“Hello.”, he finally whistled. A bit lacklustre greeting considering, but it was the best the human could say, Slaine supposed.

“Hello.”, he answered back.

“Hello!”, Sod suddenly shouted from right next to Slaine’s ear making him jump. Slaine jumping startled Nina as well, even though she tried to nervously laugh it off right away.

“Feet funny! Lots of little-“, Sod started babbling just to have Slaine close his mouth with one hand and rub his melon with another. The calf squealed in excitement and took off in a fit of zoomies that had the pool overflowing and the humans taking a hasty step back from the edge.

Despite everything, Slaine laughed.

 

 

 

Something was going on. Slaine wasn’t sure what and why, but he could feel the anticipation in the air. The constant cleaning and the new faces that stalked the edges of the big pool were more than enough evidence for that. Nina was by the pool working with Sod more often than not, checking the calf’s mouth and eyes, playing with her and even teaching her new behaviours. Slaine watched with mixed feelings as Sod turned around, let out a whistle or lifted her dorsal fin for a fish. It felt wrong, but Slaine let it happen. He tried to remind himself that it was no different from letting Orange touch his head or shoulders. Slaine didn’t know whether that was a good thing or not.

Finally, what he had been nervously waiting, knowing that it had to happen soon, happened. Orange returned to the pool one day followed by Doctoryagarai. The healer was less apprehensive than he had been previously, this time even freely talking to Slaine in the playful manner he had used to talk when the merman had still been stuck in the tiny tank. Slaine briefly wandered what had changed but didn’t bother with it too much. It wasn’t like he could understand the gibberish that was cooed at him, after all.

What did pick his interest was how involved and busy everyone was. Everyone seemed eager to get Slaine checked up. The newfound calmness from the healer made it easier for Slaine to come to the humans when Orange eventually called him over. It was a standard thing, really. The only time Doctoryagarai let his nerves show was when he lightly felt around the merman’s head and Slaine shook his hands away. The man let out a good-natured “okay” and left his head and face alone. Similarly, he didn’t let them tamper with his flukes. Doctoryagarai likely meant no harm, but Slaine couldn’t risk his tail when he was still healing his shoulder.

Much like Nina did with Sod whenever the blue shirts gave the calf a check-up, Orange rested his hand lightly on the nape of Slaine’s neck. From seeing Sod do it before Slaine somewhat knew what was coming next, but the long thin tape being wrapped around his torso still caught him off guard.

Suddenly Slaine’s heart sank painfully, and he pushed away from the side of the pool with so much force that the other side of the pool overflowed. He gasped in a breath as soon as he could and dove back to the bottom of the pool. Sod was by his side not half a second later, Nina trying to call her back to their practice. Thankfully Doctoryagarai had let go of the tape and it was nowhere to be seen anymore. Slaine struggled to understand the sudden sense of dread that overcame him. He could taste vomit in his mouth.

The tape around his torso felt familiar. It had to have happened before. Orange whistled for him to come back and weirdly enough Slaine really wanted to go back, if only to distract himself from the memory that he couldn’t fully remember. He just couldn't bring himself to move just yet.

“It’sfine, I gotthemeasurements. He ‘sputonweightnicelyandevenbuiltupsomemuscle.”, Doctoryagarai said softly. He got up and dusted off his pants. “Ourresidentsyreniisaroundahealthyweightagain,atleastinhumanterms. I ‘llgogetacoffeeand we cancontinuethen,okay?”

Slaine laid on the floor his mind racing in million different directions. Was it when he passed out and Sod woke him up? Did it happen when he ate the bad tuna? Or even earlier, when he laid defenceless in the shallow pool and the sea disappeared? Slaine couldn’t string the memories together in an order that would’ve made sense.

Had something else he didn’t know about happened when he had been out of it?

There was a hand in the water that Slaine suddenly became aware of. Orange, no doubt, was the one disturbing the water. Seeing that he got the merman’s attention, the brunette whistled again.

“Hello, bubbles.”

Slaine barked out a surprised laugh. He didn’t think Orange had it in him to show emotional intelligence, but here they were, the human’s attempt at easing Slaine’s spiralling thoughts so painfully obvious that he wanted to cry. He had once marvelled about how similar their hands were, but all that had been buried under bad blood and misunderstandings long ago. It was a shame.

The least Slaine could do was to blow bubbles.

Orange made his next requests similarly easy: make a wave, touch the ground, come fetch a fish. When he asked Slaine to come back the next time, the merman didn’t even need to think about it.

“Are we allsettledhere?”

Orange lowered his hand carefully back onto Slaine’s nape. He hadn’t noticed the healer return. “Ready.”

“Noneedtobesotense.”, Doctoryagarai said with his sing-song voice after taking a sip from his cup. “We ’llbedoneinaminute. I ‘mreadyif you are.”

“Left shoulder, Hello.”, Orange whistled. Slaine threw Doctoryagarai a suspicious glare but didn’t bother protesting. Thankfully the taste of vomit was almost gone and the healer’s touch light when he felt around the shoulder.

“Yep,as I thought.” With his body turned towards Doctoryagarai it was easy for Slaine to keep watch on the humans. Though it was hard not to get embarrassed when Doctoryagarai met his eyes and smiled warmly, like he could somehow see through him. The healer gently pushed Slaine’s shoulder to turn him a little before starting to untie the ties of his grey sleeve. “Do I let him goandgiveitaminuteordo we pushonrightaway?”

“I ‘mnotsure.Justgive him somespaceonce you ‘redone.”

“Willdo.” The last of the ties was unfastened, the sleeve carefully pulled away and Dctoryagarai took a step back. Slaine’s whole arm was tingling, and the water against its bare skin felt almost foreign. He reached to touch his shoulder tentatively. It wasn’t sore anymore, but he knew trying to properly roll his shoulders or lift his left arm would still hurt.

“Hello, shoulder.”, Orange whistled. Slaine looked up to see him holding the grey sleeve. Curious, he reached with his good arm to take it, but Orange pulled it back a little, pointing at the cloth inquisitively instead.

“Sleeve.”, Slaine supplied without missing a beat. “At least I think that’s what it is.”

“Sleeve.”, Orange repeated. He lifted another, a bit darker piece of cloth from where it had rested on the ground the whole time the healer had been there. “Doctoryagarai Hello sleeve.”

“Another one?”, the blond pouted.

“Hello shoulder. Sleeve…”, Orange stumbled over his whistles, trying to form a sentence. Slaine rested his chin on the edge of the pool and let the human struggle for a bit. “Shoulder no sleeve no good. Sleeve…”

“Sleeve makes shoulder good?”

“Sleeve makes shoulder good.”, Orange repeated right away. “Good shoulder makes good Hello.”

Slaine giggled a bit and turned for the humans. Rather than fully trusting in Orange’s impenetrable logic of “good shoulder’s making good hellos”, he knew from feeling his shoulder that he still needed the sleeve for support. Orange gave the new sleeve to Doctoryagarai who was busy downing the rest of his drink.

“You ‘redone?It’slikelistengingtotwoconfusedcockatiels.”, the man laughed and set his cup down. Slaine adjusted himself a little so that the sleeve could be easily slipped on and the ties fastened.

“What is ‘sholdie’ and why it say hello?”, Sod asked from the other side of the pool. The calf was busy being distracted by Nina, but apparently had still listened in.

“Orange is just being silly.”, Slaine whistled back, glad to have the distraction himself. Orange’s eyes snapped between Sod and him, no doubt having recognised his nickname being used.

 

 

 

For a few days Orange had a weird fixation of sticking his bare feet into the pool. Usually Slaine let him be for a while before making him take his legs out. But that had been nothing compared to what he was watching transpiring in the big pool now.

Orange was wearing a black and white water-skin with all the noisy tubes and large cylinders attached to his back, ready to jump into the 15-meters deep pool. To say that Slaine was livid was an understatement. He didn’t like the gaspers or the water-skins they wore, and he most certainly didn’t like the idea of a corpse floating in the pool. Because that was what was going to happen if they let the stupid Orange go in. The brunette was weak to water and cold, after all.

Not a second later of Slaine pressing himself against the bars of the gate to see better, Orange jumped in. The brunette gasped in a shallow inhale followed by a burst of bubbles. After the first breath his rhythm steadied, he turned around and started calmly getting familiar with the pool. Slaine looked on in shock before managing to open his mouth.

“Are you stupid? No good, Orange and water, no good!”

Orange turned his attention around and finally towards the gate, as if he wasn’t sure where Slaine was. It was surreal how water could make humans’ movements sluggish while he had the same problem in air. When their eyes met, Orange seemed somewhat relieved.

“Orange, land now! No water!”, Slaine demanded. It didn’t go down as well as he had hoped: if anything, Orange’s expression melted into hidden amusement.

“Orange good.”, the human hummed in good humour and without another word turned a deaf ear to the rest of Slaine’s complaints. Frustrated and anxious, Slaine hissed at him. Had the gate not been in between them, he could’ve scared him again and made sure that he wouldn’t try something so stupid ever again.

Slaine paced by the gate as another gasper joined Orange. The two of them wandered around the pool ignoring Slaine and sometimes gesturing with their hands or waving at something behind the transparent wall on one side of the pool. Slaine’s heart was beating wildly as he followed their movements, but whenever they got closer to the gate to his pool he hid by the wall. He simply couldn’t get used to the water-skins and their creepy sounds.

It didn’t help that Orange’s black and white water-skin had the markings of an orca.

Still, Slaine kept his eyes away from the two divers even when Sod tried to get him to play with her. Orange was calm and clearly experienced, but the merman couldn’t help the pit in his stomach. He didn’t like it when things were out of his control.

He had been carrying a feeling of impending doom for months now.

Eventually, after what felt like hours, they got out of the pool to meet with people who had been waiting by the spot they surfaced. Slaine could make out a lot of thumbs up and excited voices. Thankfully Orange took off the contraction leaving only the orca-skin on and buried himself into a fluffy towel. The happy crowd dispersed after only a few minutes, and the gasper, now clear of his gear too, waved Orange goodbye. Slaine was relieved this particular activity was over and he could get up and breathe again.

That’s why, save for the gate, he would’ve happily drowned the damned human himself when Orange jumped back into the pool.

Slaine didn’t even have the time to feel worried this time when the brunette swam around the pool at a calm pace. Without his gear his dives were shallow and over in a matter of seconds. Slaine’s anger turned to bemusement quickly when there were no creepy sounds to distract him and he noted just how weird humans swam. Instead of fearing for Orange’s life he was quickly becoming curious instead, and the brunette noticed it too when he swam past the gate only to have Slaine follow his every movement, pressed flush against the bars. Orange swam past the gate a couple more times before inhaling deeply and diving to face his audience, still keeping a safe distance.

Slaine tilted his head from side to side as he tried to make sense of this all. By him Sod was mimicking his movements. The human on the other hand seemed confident in himself, as if he had figured something out, even though he looked ridiculous slowly waving his hands, trying to keep himself stable and still underwater. Orange rotated slowly around and surfaced again with a gasp for air. He pulled himself out of the water by the gate instead of the side of the pool where he had left his towel. In what seemed to be a completely impulsive decision, Orange walked the three steps to Slaine’s pool and dropped in without missing a beat.

For a second time in a week and despite his outburst the last time, Slaine scrambled back from the brunette that didn’t appear to have any regard for his own wellbeing. This time was different, however. There was no air knocked out of him, no fumbling steps in the cold water or even attempts at approaching either Slaine or Sod. He just calmly swam his stupid human-swim along one side of the pool before stopping and turning to float on his back.

“Good?”, Orange asked. Whatever the hell he meant with that was beyond Slaine. The merman paced a bit, but Orange wasn’t making any suspicious moves. He really was just floating there, completely defenceless, and it was throwing Slaine off. Sod didn’t need any encouragement to dive over and start harassing the human, but Slaine wasn’t reassured so easily. He had just recently started to feel okay with going to meet the human at the edge of the pool, but having him in the pool like this was still mostly uncharted territory.

“Orange good?”, he asked back. Maybe it was the orca-skin, but Orange didn’t seem so bothered by water anymore. The only one who was feeling bothered was Slaine.

“Good”, Orange confirmed. “Hello good?”

Now there was a question that threw Slaine for another loop. Orange was being very un-Orange-like. Too considerate, too easy to read, too open. It was like he had suddenly decided that Slaine wasn’t a threat at all and that it was a perfectly wise idea to drop into his territory. The merman scowled half-heartedly. With one swing of his tail he could easily shatter the human’s fragile ribcage, and Orange ignoring that was annoying. It was illogical to put oneself in danger.

But Slaine couldn’t deny that trust demanded trust in return.

“…No good, no no good.”, the blond finally answered, unsure. He had stilled in the middle of the pool, just the top of his head and eyes peeking out of the water again. Orange turned to meet his gaze.

“I guessthat’sasgoodasitgetsfornow. We ’llworkonit.”, the human said matter-of-factly before twisting his body around and diving again. Slaine followed him carefully. Once more, Orange was back on the surface in mere seconds and ready to climb out of the pool.

“Hello, head!”, Orange called as he opened the big container by the pool, one that Slaine knew to hold fish. He huffed, but returning back to some semblance of a routine came as a relief. He swam straight to the brunette to get his fish. Orange had his legs in the water again, but with the orca-skin on Slaine could feel no effects from the cold. Sod had already lost her interest. She was busy following a gull that circled around the buildings from where Orange and Nina always came from. No doubt it wanted a fish too.

After a soft pat on Slaine’s head Orange gave him the dead herring and sat back slightly. His face was pale, Slaine noted as he ripped the fish in half and stuffed it into his mouth. Perhaps because it was the one part of Orange that wasn’t protected by his water-skin. The human appeared to be in a thoughtful mood, his eyes slipping to the healing gash along Slaine’s hairline. Getting self-conscious, Slaine covered it with his hand.

“Tomorrow’sabigday.”, Orange sighed to him. Suddenly Slaine couldn’t read his emotions at all again.

Chapter Text

Slaine held onto the edge of the ice for dear life.

He coughed and spluttered, struggling to get the last of the water out of his windpipe. It felt like he was still drowning, even though his skin had long since dried and his eyelashes frozen over, sealing his eyes shut.

Finally, he managed to push the last drops out of his raw trachea and heave in a full, uninterrupted inhale. Too exhausted to try and reach his pod somewhere beyond the ice sheet that had almost been the death of him, Slaine slumped down breathing heavily.

The silence above the surface was deafening and made him feel even smaller than he already was. The treacherous opening in the ice could collapse in on itself and crush him before he could hear it. A white seal-killer that lived in the water and ice could be right by him and he couldn’t feel it coming. The bowhead whale could crush through the ice with its head again, and there would be nothing to warn him.

Even the cries of the grey whale cow and his scattered pod couldn’t be heard in the air.

Slaine needed to gather his strength so he could make the dive back to open waters. His rational side knew this, he could hear his father’s voice saying it in his head over and over. How many times had he been told to not go so far under the ice that he couldn’t make the dive back? How many times had he been warned of his curiosity, of his impulsivity? Slaine couldn’t help pressing his tiny hands into shaking fists, claws digging into his palms. More tears escaped his eyes, sticky against his skin like oil. The orcas had probably given up on trying to catch him already, but Slaine was still scared. This time he needed to be faster and smarter and braver and more agile and-

The ancient bowhead whale’s act of kindness for a lost merfolk calf wasn’t something to be mistaken for mercy.

 

 

 

Slaine and Sod both floated in the centre of the pool, glued to each other and too anxious to do anything about it. For the blond, that was just his everyday life nowadays (he could almost laugh at himself for admitting it), but for the calf to be so uncertain was out of character. Ever since the early hours of the morning everything had been different again, even more so than before. The pool echoed with distant, foreign sounds that had them both covering. Since breakfast both Orange and Nina, along with a few others, had been roaming the big pool’s edges, checking and waving, all dressed up in their water-skins. As the sun rose, more and more land creatures started appearing by the poolside, and even more so behind the big pool’s transparent wall that he could catch a glimpse of through the gate. The people caught Sod’s curiosity and pulled her from the anxious mind-set, but Slaine wasn’t as impressed. A suspiciously friendly female voice sounded over the crowd’s chattering every twenty minutes or so, always repeating the same words. Slaine was pretty sure he could repeat the whole long litany of weird syllables back to her by now.

“WelcometotheCetaceanCentre!Pleasedonotdisturbtheanimalsbyknockingontheglass,usingaflashin your cameraorshouting.Thebelugaenclousureisnowopentothepublic.Tolearnmoreaboutourcurrentinhabitantsandourwork,pleasejoinafreeguidedtourorvisitourwebsite,where you canfindtheprofilesandprogressreportsofallouranimals.If you wantmoredetailedupdatesonourpreviousinhabitantsandtheirlifenow,pleasejoinourmailinglistonanyinfodeskoronline.Haveapleasantday!”

“-aaea saaaah ay!”, Slaine finished in synch with the woman. Perfect. Why Nina was giggling was beyond him. Sod mimicked her laughter, no doubt wanting to join in on Slaine’s ongoing mission of making light of their uncertain situation. At least it worked on the calf.

“Fiveminutestogo.”

“Okay, I ‘llgothen.”, Nina wiped her eyes and headed to Orange, who had remained by the big pool the whole morning, micromanaging every little thing by the looks of the annoyed faces he caused wherever he went. She started laughing out loud again as she chatted to the brunette, showing him something on her small tablet-thingy. Even though seeing Orange’s careful barely-there smile had him interested, Slaine couldn’t pay too much attention to him.

Two green shirts rounded their way around the pool to either sides of the gate. Slaine felt all his focus narrow down to the other side of the structure blocking his way when he realised it was about to be finally opened. Blood rushed through his taut body, but he still had half a mind to reach his hand to lay on Sod’s side, urging silently for her to prepare too. The crowd beyond the transparent wall were all chanting in a rhythm that faded to the background as Slaine readied himself. Anxiety made way for the thrill of a hunt, even though there was no clear prey.

At the first crack of the gate Slaine was already on the other side of it. He speeded down the wall to the bottom of the 15 meters deep pool and skidded along the sand bed, avoiding the boulders scattered around it, leaving behind murky clouds before turning sharply and looping around a stone pillar. 30 meters across lengthwise, a little less than that in width, walls and the three pillars that reached from the bottom all the way to the surface all covered in rocks, save for the one, completely smooth wall that made sounds bounce around much like they had in the tank, Slaine’s sonars supplied. Thankfully with the other structures being uneven and having broken surfaces the reflections didn’t get too messed up. Without stopping the merman made quick laps around the pool and the pillars, enjoying being able dive deeper and faster than in a long time. It was like he could properly stretch himself for the first time in ages, and even the water felt clearer again. In his excitement, Slaine allowed himself a careful breach before diving down and then jumping again, this time properly with his whole body out of the water. It felt almost as good as it had in the open ocean with the spinners. Thankfully he managed to land on his good shoulder this time.

Satisfied with his first inspection, Slaine let himself fall back to the bottom. He landed softly on his back by two big boulders and turned his focus up. He hadn’t smiled in a long time, not really, and now his cheeks were already hurting from his wide grin. Sod was making herself familiar with the pool as well, though at a little less rapid pace than he had. The two of them had completely different approaches: where Slaine wanted to get a full picture first and focus on the details later, the calf was contently just moving from one funny shaped rock to another and testing one by one if she could fit them in her mouth. There must've been some logic in doing so for her, even though Slaine couldn't tell what it was. Far above him Slaine could see the moving silhouettes of the people by the edge of the pool. He couldn’t even make out who was who through the ripples and he was more than fine with that. Slaine already felt calmer than he had in months, now being able to truly put some distance between himself and the humans whenever he wanted.

That bliss didn’t last for long.

While Slaine had been basking in the deeper water, slowly burrowing himself into the sand like a flounder, Sod had almost right away found something new to entertain herself with. Slaine could feel her floating up and down against the one, smooth wall that spanned most of the big pool’s length. His curiosity piqued, the blond peaked from behind the boulder to see with his eyes what the calf was doing.

The last time he had felt his heart drop and all blood escape his face so suddenly had probably been when he had become tangled to the floater of the tuna net.

What Slaine was confronted with was a horde of humans that spanned across the whole 30 meters or so of the big, smooth, transparent wall. There were all shapes, sizes and colours, some little ones climbing on top of the bigger ones, others stretching their necks to see from behind one another. There were flailing and grabbling hands, clicking boxes, thankfully with fewer flashing lights this time, colourful clothes and so many faces that Slaine didn’t think he had ever seen that many of even his own kind. Behind the humans there was the looming figure of a large male orca.

Slaine had distantly been aware that they were there, but he hadn’t truly seen them before. They hadn’t appeared in his sonars even once.

In the midst of all that, Sod was playing with a small pod of human calves huddled close to the transparent wall, opening and closing her mouth suddenly to surprise them and make them squeal and dance.

Slaine froze. Some of the humans signalled to the others, and suddenly all the attention along the wall, besides for the few calves too busy playing, moved onto him. The merman shrunk under their gazes, unable to take his own eyes off of them, feeling too exposed to move even an inch. It was like he was a calf again, desperately wracking his brain to find the gap in the ice, a breathing hole that didn’t exist. Hands pressing against the wall, the land creatures were pushing into one another to get a better look-

“WelcometotheCetaceanCentre!Pleasedonotdisturbtheanimalsbyknockingontheglass,usingaflashin your cameraorshouting.Thebelugaenclousureisnowopentothepublic.Tolearnmoreaboutourcurrentinhabitantsandourwork,pleasejoinafreeguidedtourorvisitourwebsite-“

Slaine darted towards the surface on the backside of the pool with a sudden surge of power through his tail that had him scratch his flukes on the boulder. Heart pounding, he breached with a gasp and pressed his back against a pillar, catching his breath. He could hear distantly Sod asking what was wrong, but he didn’t bother answering when the calf didn’t insist. When he managed to calm down his breathing a little, Slaine lowered his head slowly back underwater and felt gingerly around the pool. His sonars returned peaceful and quiet, with only the beluga calf roaming the waters with him. It was a stark contrast to the bustling crowd that he now knew for certain waited on the other side. Slaine rose up again and took another shuddering deep breath before closing his eyes.

He was safe in the pool. His pool. There was nothing hunting him this time. He didn’t need to cover behind a pillar.

Slaine opened his eyes, still feeling a bit shaky. A few meters away from him beyond a shallow bay that connected to the main pool, he saw Orange and Nina carrying buckets to a big container. Both were wearing their orca-skin and a white and light grey water-skin respectively; Nina chatting and the brunette silently listening. Or maybe just spacing out, Slaine couldn’t really tell. Nevertheless, seeing the familiar, safe humans eased Slaine’s mind a bit. Enough so that he swam to the edge of the pool and stalked the two as they emptied their loads of half frozen fish and squid into the larger container. Nina threw him an amused look and Slaine ducked his head defensively back underwater. Orange turned to return the buckets and Nina started cleaning around the poolside. Slaine clearly wasn’t going to get anything out of the two, so bracing himself the merman slid back behind the pillar.

Carefully peaking from behind his hiding place Slaine started assessing the situation. There were the humans, yes, a lot of them, moving in and out of the window, some only taking a moment to follow Sod with their eyes before moving on, and others firmly planting themselves to the transparent wall in front of her. The only people that actually had access to the pool as far as he could tell were the people in green and blue shirts in addition to Nina and Orange who all worked above. Realistically, the new humans were about as big of a threat to him as the craft club that played with their seaweed in the white cave had been.

Or that's what Slaine tried his best to convince himself of.

They were interested in him and Sod, yes, but not actually able to do anything beyond watching. From his higher vantage point Slaine could also tell that the orca he had seen behind the people wasn’t real. It was painted on the wall along with a fully-grown beluga male and a narwhal next to a silhouette of a human male. He'd never actually seen all four of them at the same time, so the picture didn't make much sense to him.

Slaine tried to dive discreetly behind another pillar. From the get-go it was a futile attempt; as soon as he emerged from his hiding spot all eyes were on him again and heads turned to follow his route. It was unnerving. Having ruled the people behind the transparent wall a nonthreat he tried to not give them his attention, however. What else might be behind them was what interested him more now.

Slaine sneaked carefully around the pool, trying to find a good place to see beyond the crowd that apparently liked to move into the way whenever he found a good spot. He made sure to keep a safe distance from the wall, just in case.

From beyond the corner he could see a glimpse of another transparent wall and beyond it, more water with glimpses of jellyfish. Taken aback, he cocked his head from side to side, squinting his eyes to make sure he saw right since he couldn't rely in any other senses. Though his brain was stuttering to comprehend the magnitude in which a little glimpse of the human world could shake his life, now compressed into a space that barely had the room for a single sperm whale to turn around in, the implications were clear. He and Sod weren’t alone in their predicament.

It was overwhelming. After all, everything that had ever been above was air and sometimes ice, and below, stretching endlessly in every direction, was the ocean and its depths, his home free to travel as he pleased. Everything else was just scary tales sang during the merfolk’s long migrations between the Arctic and the Antarctic, or hearsay told by the various whales they travelled with. The closest anyone Slaine knew had ever come to what dwelled beyond the sea had been hearing the distant rumble of a ship as they dove deeper into the twilight zone for cover. For the sea to disappear and leave him behind to live in the small safe pockets, tended to by land creatures… It was all something Slaine couldn’t have imagined for himself even as a calf.

Yet here he was. Slaine twitched, the ever-present feeling of anxiety still hanging above him. He needed to own it. Like he had learned to own his tank, his small pool and then the bigger pool.

Before he could give himself the chance to overthink it, Slaine rounded his way into full display for anyone to see. Puffing his chest and hiding his nerves he swam slowly by the smooth wall, making sure everyone knew that it wasn’t worth their time to try messing with him. With the added length and power of his tail he was bigger and stronger than any of them, and behind him he had several hundred kilos worth of additional power in the form of the light grey beluga calf that was quickly overgrowing him.

If need ever be, drowning a human would be child’s play.

There were gasps and huffs and excited squeals and grabby hands against the wall, but none of them could touch him even if he was to swim with his skin pressed against the wall. His sonars showed only an empty, calm pool.

Looking at the crowd head on, Slaine noticed a familiar group with their big black boxes and flashes of light. He could swear there was even a familiar face or two. With a burst of vindictiveness, Slaine charged the group, spewing a litany of angry hisses and clicks, barely stopping in time to prevent himself from crashing face first into the wall. It was worth it; the three people who had stood at the front row fell back startled, causing one other behind them to fall too. He didn’t care of the reaction of rest of the human crowd, scoffing as he turned away sharply, beyond pleased with himself. So far, the flashing boxes that had once scared him in the small pool were pretty high in his list of things to destroy if he ever got the chance to.

Thrilled with his success, Slaine darted straight back to the surface, almost jumping straight out of the pool and onto the land. Caught off guard, Orange swung around, a long stick with thick grey kelp tied to one end held tightly in his hands. His eyes landed on Slaine’s, his shoulders relaxed, and he left out a huff before continuing mopping the floor.

Slaine paused. His thrilled smile faltered before a confused pinch made its way into his brows. After all, he didn’t have anything to say to Orange and no reason to come over in the first place. In his excitement he had just wanted to share the moment with one of his own.

The blond flinched when he felt a pat on the top of his head. It was Orange, crouching by the edge of the pool and looking down at him with a familiar unreadable expression. Slaine had left his guard down enough for the human to sneak up on him.

“Welldone.”, Orange said simply with a soft ruffle of Slaine’s hair before straightening himself and picking up the mop again. Something about the action filled Slaine with nostalgia. He didn’t know what the human had said, but it must’ve been something nice.

 

 

 

In the early hours of the morning Slaine woke to new sound. Well, one that he hadn’t heard so close by before anyway. It came from outside of the pool, so he didn’t bother hurrying. Instead Slaine blew out some bubbles in a lazy yawn as he stretched his right arm. He hadn’t dared to do anything with his left side for a long time and now it felt stiff, almost like it was locked in place. At least it wasn’t painful anymore and the new sleeve felt lighter and more comfortable than the previous one. Being able to sleep suspended vertically again instead of uncomfortably floating on the surface, drying blotches of his skin in the air, was a nice change. Such simple things, 30 minutes of sleep in a comfortable position, the ability to dive to safety and the room to move properly around in could make all the difference. His headache was finally subsiding too, and Slaine felt good.

After breaching for a breath Slaine turned to investigate what was going on. There were three people, all green shirts, wiping down the smooth wall with their sticks and rags. Slaine watched for a while the greasy handprints from yesterday being cleaned away before losing interest and roaming the sand bed instead. He picked at the boulders, trying to find loose rocks. He didn’t need them for anything, but it passed time. One of the boulders had a corroded side, and before he knew it, Slaine was fully invested in destroying it. He clawed, pushed and pulled to widen the cracks and loosen the pieces, kicking up sand around himself in his efforts. Sod nosed into his way for a couple of times, but for the most part she played with the cleaners. With more room to roam she was acting less clingy. Or maybe it was because everything was still new in this pool.

A familiar whistle tore through Slaine’s quest of destruction. One swing of his flukes was enough to climb the fifteen meters, and only a blink after the call the blond popped his head above the surface. Orange was wearing his waterproof overalls again, carrying a bucket of food. He settled by the entrance to the small, shallow bay and called Slaine over. By the other side of the bay Nina, dressed in her white water-skin, called Sod over. Slaine rested his head on the edge and watched as Nina gradually moved herself and Sod into the bay until they were completely in the shallow part of it. She jumped into the water that reached her thighs, patted playfully around Sod’s sides and blew another sharp call into her whistle as she climbed out of the water. Then, with exceedingly happy squeals that were clearly meant just to excite Sod, she trotted back to the entrance of the bay and started the process all over again.

Slaine pinched his nose in distaste. He had started to pick up on the way land creatures did things some time ago: Nina was introducing Sod to the bay and trying her best to make it a nice place for the calf, a place where she gets to eat and play. It was somewhat gross to witness but Sod clearly liked it. She was like a sponge, sucking in any and every little chance of interaction and play she could. Even as Slaine huffed disapprovingly there was a tiny painful tang inside him. When the calf entered the bay laughing and chirping again and the seven impossibly clean cuts on her dorsal ridge rose above the surface, Slaine turned away. He snatched a mackerel out of Orange’s hand with his ragged claws a bit more roughly than he had meant to and shoved the whole thing into his mouth.

“You shouldchew,it’sbetterfor your stomach.” Slaine gave Orange a sour glare. The human didn’t mind, instead sitting down and continuing with his gibberish. Slaine reached for the squid he offered next. “Though I supposeit’simpossibletosayforsurewhen we don’tevenknowwhatkindofadaptations your digestivesystemmighthave.”

Sod was putting in a lot of effort for her meal, though Slaine doubted she realised it herself. He, on the other hand, had one of his most easily earned feeds in a while, with only a call to eat and no further requests. Thankfully Orange was smart enough to not try to get him to enter the shallow bay and instead he was just showing him its entrance. Or maybe he wanted for Slaine to see that nothing bad was happening to Sod, so nothing bad would happen to him either. Whatever the reason, Slaine could appreciate Orange for at least having some tact, even if it came with an ulterior motive. The mental image of what could’ve been waiting for him on the surface, the brunette excitedly squealing and splashing like Nina, made him almost choke on his squid though.

“Evenif your stomachcandigestbigchunksofood, your pharynxisalmostidenticaltoahuman’s.Atleasttrychewing.”, Orange sighed.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever you say.”, Slaine dismissed, understanding that Orange was addressing him but getting nothing of what the human actually said. He could pick up a word here and there by now, mostly names and what he thought might be personal pronouns. Slaine gulped down the rest of the squid in one big bite and refused the next fish. With his belly full and his head resting on the edge of the pool as an anchor, he let his body float and mind wander. Orange sat by his head, still as a weathering cliff, for a long time before finally carefully getting up and leaving. There were humans gathering behind the smooth wall again, Slaine could hear their chatter and feel their hands on the wall. Somewhere below him, Sod roamed the sand bed, content from the playing for now.

Despite everything, or maybe because of it, Slaine felt weirdly calm. Maybe it just hadn’t fully registered for him yet. Maybe he was relieved.

The big pool didn’t have a gate.

 

 

 

With nothing but time in his hands, Slaine set his full mind, body and soul into destruction. It started with the one corroded boulder that he had somehow, over a week’s time, managed to tease into a shadow of its former imposing self. He quickly moved on to the three pillars, scouting them for weak spots after he realised that the rocky surface they had was not natural and had been completely constructed. From here and there, he managed to dislodge some rocks, but frustrated with his lack of progress he didn’t waste more than a couple of days working on them. Like he had with all the little things that the humans in the white cave had used to throw into his tank, Slaine started arranging the rocks that he had managed to cumulate so far. He gathered them into the round corners of the pool or balanced them on top of boulders. He started making stacks and landmarks and progressed into making shapes. He started simple with circles but soon he already tried to mimic the shape of the painted orca that loomed beyond the ever-flowing stream of people who came by to see his work.

By the end of the first week new items started appearing in the pool. First a floating ball, as big as Slaine’s head, with thick ropes tied around it. In between of Nina and Sod playing fetch with it, he unravelled the ropes and stashed the strings with his rocks. Other new contraptions were added every couple of days, but they didn’t interest Slaine for more than a few games of tag with the calf.

His first real distraction came when a group of four people in similar dark clothes settled by the smooth wall one afternoon. They caught Slaine’s fleeting attention, since usually humans didn’t give way for others, but this time a spot right by the wall was reserved for the quartet. He didn’t bother with the passing creatures, though he still kept his distance from the smooth wall. In fact, accepting that there were people staring from the other side of a wall had been way easier than accepting that there were people on the surface of the pool who could actually interact with the water.

When the first dark notes were drawn from the big instrument resting in between one of the four humans’ tails, Slaine held no reservations in sneaking closer to see and hear what was happening. The other three humans joined in with their smaller instruments and higher notes, and the song swelled and echoed around the pool in repeated patterns that shifted and changed effortlessly.

Curious, Sod bumped into Slaine’s side before turning towards the music. Holding onto her pectoral fin he too approached the final meters all the way to the smooth wall. He could see the faces around the players light up and the human calves’ eyes shining as most of them ran to the wall, smushing their hands and faces against it. There were small tablet-things pulled out and pointed, excited sounds and some shushing in response. Sod bobbed her head slightly offbeat to the song, her melon jiggling with her movements and her mouth wide open, as if she tried to suck in every little titbit of information and attention through her mouth. Slaine on the other hand was fully immersed in what the odd quartet was doing, trying to catch the patterns and understand the words that were being sung with the instruments. In an effort to hear the whole spectrum of sound better, he pressed his forehead into the wall to feel the vibrations closer, and closed his eyes.

It was something completely foreign, but familiar and soothing at the same time. Like meeting a species of whales whose songs he couldn’t quite understand yet. The soundscape of the instruments felt inviting, and as the chords echoed inside the pool, he could almost imagine the greeting coming from somewhere far below him.

The first song came to its conclusion faster than Slaine would’ve liked for it to, pulling him back into the pool with it. His eyes fluttered open to a small hand smeared across his face.

Slaine backed away with an angry hiss, and the calf that had been leaning against the wall cried out in fright as the adults chuckled. The kid scrambled behind his adult pod mate’s tails and the woman leaned down, reassuring the child. One scared calf made room for five more to pool to the spot where he had been, jumping and laughing, trying to provoke another scare. The adults were making their young join the other kids, pointing and gently pushing the more skittish ones. Slaine blew bubbles out of his nose and furrowed his brows. Was this fun to them? He turned slowly to head back to his rocks and strings, but not before making a pass on the kids and turning suddenly on them with a charge and a hiss that sent them scattering, screaming and laughing.

That was an interesting discovery.

The quartet started on their second song, and too distracted by the people to focus solely on the music anymore, Slaine turned to swim calm laps around the pool. He had a pattern that he had started to follow the previous evening; one calm stroke of his flukes all the way to the bottom of the pool, another one to the surface and an inhale. Two smaller strokes down and two up, another inhale. Slaine counted his strokes eyes closed, already feeling a bit lightheaded from all the air. The music felt soft on his skin.

 

 

 

“Still. Hello, fish, breathe.”

Slaine peeked out of the water but didn’t do what Orange wanted. These last few days the human had been calling for him and then asking for him to just float still on the surface for some minutes at a time. Slaine had been biding his time, waiting to see where this particular exercise would lead, and apparently Orange was finally ready to move on to the next phase of his ten-step program or whatever the hell he did to shape his requests to become more complicated little by little. This time there was a clear dome, wider than what Slaine’s arms could reach around, just a little way behind the brunette. Slaine didn’t trust it one bit, and for once, he could pick and choose his battles.

He dipped unceremoniously back underwater and flipped his flukes at the call that sounded after him. Instead of paying it any mind, he made his way to Sod, snuggled close to her and wrapped his right arm around her dorsal fin, letting her pull him again. Happy at the show affection, the calf sprinted into action, diving in happy somersaults before calming her pace and rubbing her head on Slaine’s. They cuddled for a while, all the while the call stubbornly repeated above them every once in a while. For a land creature, Orange’s control of the little number of whistles he had in his vocabulary was formidable, though they were flat and boring in their frequency. Slaine supposed it was the best Orange could do with his poor intake of air, his inhales so shallow that he could barely hold his breath for a minute.

“Orange calling.”, Sod pointed out the obvious. With Slaine in her tow, she swam right by the smooth wall, her belly almost grazing the sand and side gliding on the glass. There was a group of small kids running on the other side of the wall with them as they passed. Slaine pulled the calf’s fin to his chest and dug himself closer to her.

“I’ve done what he wants so far. He can wait a little.”

“But Orange pod.” Leaving the human hanging clearly bothered Sod. Slaine huffed, a bit irritated. The calf’s willingness to accept and include anybody and everybody irked him a bit.

“Humans aren’t pod, Sod. They’re… humans.”, Slaine sighed.

“They nice!”, the calf retaliated.

“…They can be.”, Slaine said patiently, biting back a more realistic answer. He busied himself tracing his fingers carefully along the dented scars on her back. Sod didn’t have any of the usual scratches or marks on her body. She probably hadn’t had the change to molt on a rocky shallow for even once in her life. “Where is your pod?”, Slaine asked before he caught himself.

Sod paused for a second.

“On beach.”, she answered simply.

Slaine didn’t understand, but he didn’t press her for more either. He laid his head to the crook of Sod’s neck and just stayed close.

“Hello!”, a sharp whistle pierced through their moment, making them both flinch.

Slaine hissed at the sudden sound but separated himself from the calf carefully, nonetheless. Sod seemed to feel a bit better than she did only a minute or two before at least. With a reassuring smile and a pet on her head, Slaine headed to the surface.

He broke through to the air the moment Orange was about to call again.

“You’re so damn persistent! What do you want?”, he snapped, taking the human by surprise. More than anything, Orange seemed surprised that Slaine actually showed up again. He pressed the small shiny stick that allowed his whistles to be clearer and sharper back against his mouth.

“Hello, come. Here, still.”

Slaine eyed him suspiciously. The clear dome had been moved far away from the pool. It was now far enough that he could slip away before it got anywhere near him again. There was just one question that he wished he could ask. One that he didn’t know how to communicate.

“Why?”, Slaine tried anyway. It had plagued him for months, from the very beginning. Why did he need to lie still for Orange? Why did he need to do any of this? What was the reason, what the land creatures wanted to accomplish?

Of course, Orange only squinted his eyes slightly, his gears turning so clearly in his search for the meaning for the whistle that Slaine could almost hear it. It was a frustrating disconnect, one that they both wanted to mend, but neither knew how to.

Slaine sighed. He wasn’t going to get an answer, and he knew it. He swam closer to the edge and turned around to float on his back.

“Hello still. This is what you wanted?”, Slaine said flatly. Orange looked bothered. It seemed like he wanted to talk, but in the end he didn’t even try to. Slaine didn’t know which was a more infuriating part of the human; his persistence to interact with the merman, or his inability to effectively do so whenever Slaine tried to collaborate with him.

“Hello, still.”, the brunette finally confirmed.

 

 

 

As far as Slaine could see, there was just the empty Arctic sea.

He could pick up the playful chattering of the orcas, already kilometres away. It was a good sign. If they had been still hunting, they would’ve all stayed silent. Slaine broke through the surface for a gasp of breath before sinking below again, heading to the comforting darkness of the deeps. The orcas were satisfied, but he didn’t dare to make a sound yet.

The carnage that had happened was clear all around him; the taste of diluted blood, the flecks of skin and blubber that he passed on his way down, the distant wails that repeated in his head.

The mother hadn’t been able to save her calf. The orcas had managed to drown him. Maybe even-

Slaine supressed the distressed whine that almost escaped him. His pod had to be down in the deeps somewhere. His father and the grey whale mother had to still be somewhere he could find. Slaine dived down as fast as his little body could manage.