Water, is taught by thirst;
Land, by the oceans passed;
Transport, by throe;
Peace, by its battles told;
Love, by memorial mould;
Birds, by the snow.
“There’s a star in the sky and a star in the sea, oh!”
The sea ripples around Hawke as she floats on her back, lazy kicks with every songbeat propelling her further away from the ocean into the calm water of her secret lagoon. She lifts one hand to shield her eyes from the sun, seawater dripping cold to her cheeks—and the brilliant, cloudless sky abruptly slides away behind the black stone of the grotto’s overhang, a sharp line to cut the warm sunlight into cool blue shadow.
“And a star in your eye and a starlight in me, oh!”
The song echoes off the stone, bouncing back at her in faint discordance from all sides, and Hawke grins. And a star in your eye—and a star in your eye— “And a star in your eye,” she adds, warbling a harmony to her own voice, and flips over to tread water in the deepest part of the lagoon. “Have you been waiting long?”
“Not so long,” says Fenris, a faint smile on his face. “Though I see you were in no hurry regardless.”
“I hurry when it matters,” Hawke says, and must dodge the spray as his tail skims along the surface to splash her. The second splash catches her on the backstroke, though, his iridescent black scales glinting in the reflections thrown back by the water, and Hawke sputters salt. Her shove at his tail is mostly show—ten feet of sleek, dense muscle, as shoveable as mountain stone—but he relents, the powerful paired fins at its tip sinking again below the surface as she swims to the grotto’s far edge where the stone flattens out into a broad ledge. “Thank you ever so kindly. Perhaps I wasn’t interested in getting wet today—had you considered that?”
His low, rusty laugh is almost lost behind the rush of water as she heaves herself out of the pool. It’s a rare sound, rarer still when she’s deliberately tried to provoke it, and Hawke turns her head away to hide the smile as she pads over on bare feet to her box. The tarnished iron catches with a raucous squeal as she lifts the lid—much less pleasant in the reverberation than her tuneless singing—and she bends to rifle through the treasures there: bits of shell and wooden flotsam she thinks is pretty, a handful of lumpy pearls, a red polished disc the size of her palm with veins of gold shot through edge to edge, until—there. A little vial no bigger than her thumb slung on a leather thong, stoppered in cork and wax, its contents glinting ruby red through the glass. This she takes, along with the short spear she plucks from the wall and slides into its narrow sheath along her right thigh.
“Just in case,” she says aloud, and turns on her heel. “And where do we go today?”
“A few choices.” Fenris looks at her, his green eyes just a touch too large, just a touch too keen with the water’s reflection, to be human. He shifts so that he may rest his forearms on the lip of the ledge she stands on, long wet white hair draping over his bare shoulders. His tail extends in a dark, sinuous ripple behind him. “Depending on your interest,” he adds, and the rumble of his voice dances in the air. The water undulates gently as he moves, no froth, no broken wave, and here and there the silver marks burnt into his skin glint with echoed sunlight. He has told her of his master’s cruelty, the compulsion he feels even now to return to him and serve.
That does not change the fact that here, thin silver light gleaming through olive-dark skin, the blue-green of the lagoon around him and the hot cloudless sky at the grotto’s mouth behind, he is beautiful.
Annoyed, Hawke drops the leather thong around her neck. The vial comes to rest at her sternum, just above the worked oilcloth that securely bands her breasts; the band is made of the same fabric as the tight-laced trousers that cut off mid-thigh, hand-sewn by Bethany once the linen shirts had come home shredded one too many times, once the knee-length leathers had grown stiff and ruined with salt. “I hate it when you’re smug.”
His eyes gleam. “Then perhaps I should move on. No need to go to such trouble if you are not interested in the journey.”
“Ass,” she says, lip curled, and walks unceremoniously off the ledge back into the wide pool.
She’s gone to no trouble to contain the splash, and indeed when she surfaces again he is spluttering, wiping seawater from his mouth. One lock of white hair has fallen in his eyes during the recoil; she flips it back with the rest, then tousles the white mass until he scowls. White teeth glitter in the shadow, sharper than any human’s, and Hawke laughs. “Come on, then,” she says, the rise of anticipation drawing her more strongly than her irritation with every passing moment. “Show me!”
She’s never felt as close to flying as when she swims with Fenris. For shorter distances, for the little pools and rock hollows near the waterside town where her family lives, she will often swim alongside him under her own power, though he mocks her for her slowness and she swims even more slowly than she needs, just for the spite of it. But for these, the journeys that span islets in whole, when there are long stretches with no land in any direction as far as she can see—
Fenris surfaces, and Hawke lifts her head to catch a breath. Then—down again into the shallow blue shining, her arms locked around his chest from behind, his hands tight on her wrists, her chin on his branded shoulder and an endless rush in her ears. Sunlight spins down around them in long ropes of gold; Fenris strafes through them with a speed she could never hope to match, not in her wildest dreams. The muscles of his back and shoulders work in effortless strength, his dark tail cutting powerful swathes through the sea behind them; white foam streams from his paired fins with every stroke, from her shoulders where they curve around his, from the ends of his pale hair where it tangles with her black.
They’d swum with dolphins like this. A pod of more than a dozen, curious at this two-legged interloper clutched leech-like to the back of one of their own; but Fenris had put his hand on her hand and shown her how to touch their bottle noses in a way that did not harm them, and then one had leapt into the air and another followed, and with barely time for a breath Fenris had caught her up and they had been off with them, racing through waves that broke around them on every leap, surrounded on all sides by intelligent black eyes and the chattering clicks of their laughter.
He'd shown her whales, some barely longer than himself, curious and playful; some so great they were little more than the shadow of a mountain beneath the sea to her human eyes. Shown her the coves where sea lions went to nest so that their barks nearly deafened her, and beaches at the base of great rocks where the sand had been burned black as coal and ran glittering through her fingers. Shown her the way the stars burst through the clouds at night after a storm…
They break the surface with a spray of foam, and Hawke sucks down a startled breath. How long—her lungs burn, every draw of air glorious. She doesn’t even realize they’ve stopped until Fenris’s silent laughter ripples through her chest.
Then he is untangling them both, his callused hands peeling off her stiffened grip, turning in the water until she can see the rhythmic widening of the thin paired slits on either side of his neck as he breathes. Not even winded, even after the length of the journey. Ass. “We’re here,” he says, and smiles again—the crooked one, only one corner of his mouth lifting, as if he has only just remembered how it ought to go. “Hawke?”
“Fine,” she says, and seawater flicks from the end of her tight black braid as she shakes her head to clear it. One dark eyebrow lifts in question; she shades her eyes instead to survey this new horizon. A coast far to their right, not familiar to her, but with the telltale lines of chimney-smoke and the sharp brown cuts of manmade dwellings dotting the rise of its hill. One lone tower lifts a little above the rest, a bronze gleam at its cap denoting the Chantry spire. South Harbor, perhaps, or Grey Warden’s Landing. She doesn’t know how far they’ve gone.
The rest is sea and a rocky shore. “Here, where? Are you to drown me at last, you handsome devil?”
He flushes, as he always does when she is brazen, and coughs into his hand. “Another time, perhaps.”
“Hawke,” he begs, and she throws her head back into the water and laughs. “Don’t tempt me.”
“I live for nothing but,” she tells the bright sky, then relents. “Show me what we’re here for, then. I’m all yours.”
He shakes his head, eyes narrowed, but the anticipatory gladness in his face stills the words in her mouth. Without another word he drops smoothly beneath the waves; Hawke hesitates, then sucks in a deep breath and follows him down.
It takes a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the sting of salt, and then—
Oh, she breathes, and a thousand bubbles fountain up around her.
A reef. A reef, a riot of color everywhere she looks—scarlet coral grown as large as she; anemones, pearly white and pink; great rafts of seaweed so green it turns the water bluer around it. Sea grass and algae, turning the ocean floor into something soft-green and alive; vivid purple sponges and other plants she can’t even begin to name, shining, spread as far as she can see like an upturned chest of jewels. And everywhere between them fish, uncountable, schools of smaller anchovies that glint like silver coins on every turn, and the bright lemon-yellow of butterfly fish as large as her fist, and the orange and white stripes of littler fins that dart into the seaweed as her shadow passes overhead.
Larger fish too, groupers as long as her arm, stately and sedate as they make their green way along the ocean floor; cuttlefish with alien pupils and short stubbed tentacles that flare flowerlike behind them as they swim. Something a little larger rises from their passing, round and many-armed—an octopus—which flashes a sapphire blue before turning and going another way. Fenris catches her wrist, tugs gently; she meets his glance through the water, knows she is wide-eyed and does not care. He smiles, unshadowed, and his gills widen as he takes both her arms in his and pulls her down to meet the reef.
She knows not to touch, knows this is a haven for more than what she can see. Fenris swims beside her sometimes, sometimes below her on his back, the silver marks that dive down his ribs and below his navel glinting with each muscular stroke of his tail, tugging her along so that she can see the secret places of the reef without disturbing them. Here, a pool of fish all red as rubies flit into the hollows of an orange coral, then peek out again one by one; here, a flounder with gold scales shivers up from the seabed in a cloud of silt, only to settle once more when they pass by, too large to be eaten.
She has never seen—never—
But she’s gone too long without breathing, and all at once her last gasp cascades out into the bubbles around her. Fenris twists upright, lithe and laughing at her through the sea, then with one flick of his tail he drags them both upwards toward the day. Her first breath is inelegant, choking; her second is little better, throttled by joy and an inescapable laughter of her own. Her braid has fallen almost completely loose, the knot of the leather tie dangling forlornly.
“Fenris,” she says as he surfaces at last, still smiling, and before she can doubt herself she throws both arms around his damp neck. “It’s beautiful. Fenris, it’s—ha! Amazing! I’ve never seen anything like it!”
He’d gone stiff as a board at her first touch; now he bends, just slightly, and presses a hesitant hand to the small of her back, just above the band of her shortened trousers. This close she can feel the pulse of strength as he flicks his tail beneath the waves to keep them both aloft, the brush of cool smooth scales over her bare legs as she treads water. “You—approve, then.”
“Approve?” She draws back, incredulous. “Fenris, this is the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen. I thought there was nothing here. These towns—” she gestures impatiently at the distant shore— “—these—brown—hateful—and then there was this here, the whole time?”
He knows her family’s history by now, knows how far the magic whispering through her family’s blood has chased them. Knows what she hates and what she hates, and what she—loves—
“Fenris,” she says again, and thumbs the same white lock of hair back behind the tapered point of his ear. His callused fingers press hard into her skin. “Thank you.”
His breath catches in a quick motion, and his green eyes take on the peculiar shine she has only seen a handful of times. His jaw tenses, sharp and angular; he drags in air he does not need and says, “Hawke—”
They both sense the danger at the same moment.
A breeze whispers across her neck, suddenly cold; clouds gather together overhead, darker than they ought to be. A bite in the air like iron—
Fenris snaps below the surface without a word. Hawke sucks in a breath and dives after him; it’s still bright enough to see across the reef, even for her, but a thick film has sheathed over Fenris’s eyes to turn them an alien, pearly white, only the barest hint of green still filtering through when he turns back to look at her. A line of long, thin spines has begun to unfurl along his backbone, along the length of his tail, more dangerous than she has ever seen him. She pulls the short spear from its sheath along her thigh, her heart abruptly in her throat.
The fish have vanished into the reef, not a single sign of life from a sea that had been teeming with it only moments before. Even the coral seems dimmer than it was. An unfocused danger, no direction she can find; she spins in place underwater, her hair floating around her in a black cloud as she scans for anything—anything—
A hard clamp on her upper arm. She thrashes, barely managing to keep her breath—but it is Fenris, his face inches from hers, sharp teeth bared and dangerous, his nacred eyes boring lidlessly into her own.
Danarius, he says, his underwater speech at once unintelligible and clear as day. This is his magic. Something is coming. We must go.
Which way? she mouths, eager to agree, and his grip tenses as he turns—
The creature that slams them apart is so fast she doesn’t even realize it’s struck her before it’s gone. For several seconds the world spins in a dizzy crush of froth and bubbles, air escaping her in great plumes; she kicks wildly and manages to right herself, but she doesn’t know—and Fenris is gone—
Teeth. White, sharp, rows upon rows—enormous head—grey and white and too big, too big—she rolls sideways just in time to get a glancing scrape across her shoulder instead. The tail strikes her hard as it passes, thrusting her another dozen feet deeper into the ocean; from this distance she can finally see the shape of the thing, and her blood freezes in way that has nothing to do with the chill of the water’s depth.
A shark. Impossibly huge, its shadow over her like a great ship between her and the sunlit surface. A white belly, small black eyes, a tail broader from tip to tip than she is long. So fast—it turns a tight circle, snub nose searching, searching—then its lipless mouth recenters on her—on the little trail of blood from her scraped shoulder. One flick of its massive tail and it’s charging, so fast—
Hawke grips the short spear, swivels in the water so that her strike will have the least resistance. There’s magic in your blood when you need it, says her father; and yet there’s no answer in her icy veins, nothing beyond the textured wood of her spear. Laughably inadequate, but she won’t die here without fighting for it—
A black blur tears down from her right, and the shark slams off course into a fall of green seaweed. The last of her air rushes free in shock.
Fenris, all his spines raised, the paired fins at his hips and tailtip flared wide, the lyrium gleaming like stripes of daylight along his dark skin, down the length of his black scales. His fingers are crooked dangerously, every muscle in his back tensed like steel, his tail frothing the water like a panther on the hunt. The shark floats still a moment, stunned; Fenris turns his head over his shoulder without losing sight of the creature and shouts, Go!
She goes. Racing towards the surface, towards the sunlight that still shafts placidly down around her, her hopeless human feet kicking as fast as she can; she surfaces, sucks down air, and without hesitation dives once more.
The shark is alive again. So impossibly fast for its size—but Fenris is faster, and as it charges he flicks out of the way with a flash from his marks like lightning. It’s not like a fistfight on dry land—these are apex predators in their prime element, and the moment one of them circles out of the fight the other follows. Fenris dives so low his belly scrapes the reef’s coral; the shark races after, maw open, and only inches keep Fenris’s tail from the snap of its teeth. Up again—left—a quick flash back to the right—now Fenris is behind the chase, weaving after it as it flashes through the reef; now the shark catches his trail again near the sea’s surface, an endless hunt—
Another lightning-flash and Fenris looms above it, one arm spread and his hand glowing so white she can hardly bear to look at him. The shark writhes, caught in the same deadly light, but as Fenris strikes it flits forward, just out of grasp, cutting another narrow circle until it can engage him once more.
There is nothing Hawke can do. They are beyond her skill, seen only moments of tableau between the lunges; Fenris sleek and swift, his fins tucked close as he darts behind its twisting mouth; the heavy broad grey shape like a cannon, straight and strong and so effortlessly deadly; Fenris in the moment before a strike, fins spread now, spines straight, the sunlight through the water above him throwing broad gold shafts around his shadow.
It changes all at once. Fenris catches a sharp strike down its ribs on one side with his glowing hand, deep enough blood streaks into the water as the shark tears away; but he turns wrong, turns left instead of right, and the shark’s massive tail slams down on his unprotected head in one mighty blow.
Fenris coughs, his filmy eyes rolling back in his head, and then every limb goes limp in the water. He does not move again.
The shark senses it. Hawke can see the moment it realizes, the instant it gathers itself for the final charge across the still, silent reef. It opens its mouth, dull white teeth, row upon row upon row—
“Hey!” she shouts into the sea, the word garbled with the escape of her air, and thrusts her short spear above her head. “Hey, here! Here!”
It stops, more quickly than anything so big has a right to. The head swings up, searching for her. Searching—magic in your blood—
She surfaces, snatches one last breath, and dives. It’s already coming, tail beating behind it, soaring up towards her like death incarnate, and she has one shot, only one, her mother’s voice in her head telling her to aim for the—
She misses its eye. The spear-tip glances off bone and cartilage instead, skidding down its massive head and over its gills. She has time for one perfect, crystal shit! in her mind, one clear burning glance to Fenris still floating dark and unmoving in the water, his eyes closed, his callused hands relaxed and open to the sky as the ocean gently eddies around him—
You approve, then. A low, hesitant laugh, as if he had forgotten how it felt.
There is magic in your blood…
The spear-tip catches.
Hawke opens her eyes. It’s caught the edge of a wound—the wound Fenris had opened earlier, she realizes; and all at once the spear grows hot in her hands, and the water hotter still around her—so hot it almost boils, and the shark’s skin begins to crack and peel. She doesn’t know what’s happening, doesn’t try to understand; she kicks twice in the water to twist herself higher and then she shoves, every muscle in her arms driving forward hard as she can. There’s an instant of resistance before the skin gives way, the spear-tip suddenly a surgeon’s knife; it slices through the end of the wound Fenris had already made and drags another foot farther, two feet, three, before the haft shatters and the shark peels away from her, writhing in the water like a gutted flounder.
Hawke kicks back, her lungs burning. The shark twists on itself, thrashes away from the agony; blood and fine flesh drift upwards in its wake like chum. Something seethes in the water, some unseen tension the same as the dark magic they’d felt before grown ready to snap. She lets the broken haft float away; even from here she can see the glint of steel still embedded in the shark’s side as it struggles away from her, jerks, flails again.
She surfaces only long enough to snatch a breath, her chest on fire, then strokes as quickly as she can to Fenris’s side. Not dead, thank the Maker—his eyes flicker, his fingers twitch when she grips his wrists and pulls. Come on, she wills him silently, even as she kicks them both away from the reef with useless human feet. Come on, you stubborn fool—
No hope for it. She fumbles for the vial still floating at her throat, yanks the cork out with her teeth, and sucks the precious potion into her own mouth before crushing her lips against Fenris’s. He gets as much saltwater as elfroot—not that it matters for him—but it’s all she has, and if the shark recovers before he does there’s nothing—there’s nothing else she can do—
His waking shudders through them both, as violent as the blow that’d sent him out in the first place. He yanks away, twisting in the water like an eel, his fins flared and fingers crooked and every line of lyrium alight. His eyes are still filmy white, violent and wild; then he sees her, sees her, and Fenris—stops.
Hawke, he says, dazed. The film gives way over his eyes, opalescence yielding to the green she loves better. The marks along his throat flicker, then go out. Hawke…
The shark behind them thrashes again, breaking the surface of the sea. Even muffled, it’s loud enough to cut through Fenris’s stupor; he shakes his head roughly, then flicks himself backwards until he can see the shark still writhing not a dozen yards away. Blood streams in a red cloud from its side, a clarion call to the other predators that still live in these waters. Hawke grips his shoulder; he jerks to face her, still dazed.
We have to go, she mouths. Fenris. We have to go.
Hawke, he says again; then all at once his last vestiges of confusion clear like a cloud blown apart by the sea winds. Hold on, he tells her, jaw tight as iron, and then he snatches her against him by her waist, and they are gone.
How stupid, Hawke thinks. She’d thought she’d known what it meant to fly.
Now she knows every swim before this had only been a meander. Now she knows what Fenris is truly capable of when he needs it, one arm steel-banded around her waist, the other clamped to the back of her head, holding her so tight against his chest she cannot move. There is nothing soft left in him; every muscle in his body thrums whipcord tight, lyrium-light pulsing with every powerful beat of his tail, the water battering so hard against the top of her head it hurts. He surfaces now and again so she can breathe, sharp quick things as much spume as air, thin gasps of silence before he drags her back into the sea’s roar.
She can see nothing through the froth, her eyes squeezed shut, any sense of upwards utterly gone. Can hear nothing over the towering crash of water; can feel nothing but Fenris’s hand, clenched painfully in her hair, and the rapidfire drumming of someone’s heart against her ribs. She can’t even tell if it’s her own.
One of her arms is crushed awkwardly between them; the other she’s somehow wrapped around the back of his neck—hold on. For all she can tell, Fenris has become the last real thing in the world.
Odd, then, that she should feel so safe.
She doesn’t know how much time passes before they eventually slow, before the buffeting of waves against her skull begins to ease and she can drag her eyes open against the rushing ocean. His grip still has not eased; fair enough, as hers hasn’t either, and she doesn’t bother trying until he surfaces in earnest. It’s a clumsy thing as she tries to breathe without preparation, her lungs hot as coals, choking on saltwater until Fenris manages to turn her back against his chest, holding her head above water as he carries them the last few minutes of their journey.
She knows these skies at least. Knows these beaches, the rocky cove, the stone cliffs that give way on the eastern wall to a little lagoon; knows the grotto that hides behind it for no eyes but their own. Fenris still has one hand around her waist; she grips his wrist in as much reassurance as she can give as he makes the last turn out of the sea. He looks at her once, his eyes very green even through the sluicing water that separates them, and then they pass together into the cool shadow of the grotto.
Somehow they fumble their way apart; somehow she finds the bare rock of the ledge at the grotto’s far wall. She has no strength to leverage herself out of the water; she clings to the lip instead, her forehead pressed to cold stone.
In the corner of her eye Fenris has done the same, his face buried in his crossed arms on the ledge. His sides heave with every fast, shallow breath, ribs expanding impossibly wide before narrowing again on the exhale. A swimmer’s back, she thinks stupidly, lean with strength and lined every muscular curve with lyrium. And her, a human in oilcloth swimming clothes, pretending…
He’s wounded, too. A dozen shallow cuts down one arm; a glorious bruise blossoming at the base of his spine, right above where the tapered line of his black scales begins. One place near his hip has had the scales torn away by an errant bite, baring the pale, bleeding flesh beneath. Nothing fatal.
He’ll live. He’ll live, and so will she.
Damn, Hawke thinks, and laughs into her hand. Of all the impossible, unlikely—she laughs again, letting her head fall back into the water, and stares up at the black stone ceiling of the grotto. The water’s reflection dances there, blue-green light rippling across the craggy rock; she slaps one hand across the pool’s surface and watches the ripples shudder, the sound of the smack echoing back over her until it dies.
“Something amuses you?” Fenris, decidedly unamused. Exhausted, too, in a way she’s never heard from him before.
He’s barely moved, only tilted his head enough that one green eye can glare at her from his folded arms. He still gasps for breath, and the sight of it eases her hectic laughter, just a little. “No,” she says, and then, “Yes. I suppose. I hadn’t imagined fighting a shark when drafting my morning agenda, is all.”
He snorts; then his gaze sharpens on her all at once, precise as the moment they’d first sensed the danger at the reef. “You’re hurt.”
His mouth twists as he pushes away from the wall, swimming towards her with the same unconscious elegance he’d shown the first time he’d come to her grotto, when he’d had a barbed hook the size of a fist embedded in his shoulder and she’d feared little more than villager gossip. She’s not afraid now, though, can hardly imagine that she was once at all, as he braces one hand on the wall beside her and cups her shoulder with the other. Four profound gashes there across the top, not all the way deep to the bone but not far from it either.
She’d rather watch him instead. “It doesn’t hurt.”
“It will,” he says sourly.
“Bethany will stitch it up. It’ll be fine, Fenris. How’s your head?”
He closes his eyes, pained. This close she can see the fine texture of his skin, so close to her own and just different enough to matter. His nose is still long, the bridge proud and straight between his eyes, his brows dark and full and pinched together miserably. High cheekbones; long black lashes in stark contrast to his bone-white hair. A full mouth, now tight with fear, and thin white brands tracing down his chin to the column of his throat. “I should never have taken you there.”
“Not this,” Hawke says sharply, and though it takes a reluctant assist from Fenris she at last manages to lever herself out of the pool. The tie has long vanished from her hair, and it clings damply to her neck, catches on the seams of her breastband and pulls. Her legs, rubbery with exhaustion, will not hold her; she knee-walks instead to her wooden chest and pulls out a packet of white cloths and a tin of thick, aseptic-smelling cream. “Don’t even think about finishing that thought, Fenris.”
“You might have been killed.”
“I might have been killed stepping off the back stoop this morning,” she snaps, and slaps the elfroot paste onto her own shoulder harder than she means to. “Shit. Ouch. Don’t you say another word.”
“I knew Danarius was hunting me!” he shouts, and the walls throw back hunting me hunting me. “I knew it would be dangerous to enter his territory again. If I had not—” He cuts himself off abruptly and spins in the water, foam splashing over the ledge to dampen her bare feet. “I was a fool.”
“If you hadn’t what, Fenris?”
He looks at her then, green eyes shuttered, and a cold lump drops into the pit of her stomach. The lock of hair has fallen in his face again. “Goodbye, Hawke.”
And then without another word, he sinks into the water. Not even a ripple is left behind.
For the barest instant, Hawke can’t believe what she’s just seen. And then like a colt on legs too new for standing, she throws herself forward to the pool’s edge and thrusts both hands into the water. He’ll be there—just a moment longer—she knows it, and if she can just reach—
She’s half in the water herself, her strength still too far gone to manage any sort of grace as she wiggles her way back onto the ledge proper, but she does not loosen the fist wrapped tightly in Fenris’s hair.
He’s got one hand wrapped around her wrist as he rises with her to breach the surface, spluttering inelegantly; she gives an accidental but particularly hard yank when her elbow slips, and he recoils as much as he can with a curse. “Fasta vass, Hawke!”
“How dare you!” she shouts, how dare you how dare. Her knuckles are white as his hair. “You wretched little eel. You try that again and I’ll spend the rest of my days screeching after you on every beach I can find.”
“I saved your life! I mean—yes—you saved mine too—and frankly a bit better—but you owe me an explanation after all this, and if you think—”
“—for one instant I’ll let you vanish like an unwanted tadpole you’ve got another think coming and I—”
“—swear by all the stars in the sky—what?”
His mouth is tight with pain, but the terrible shuttered look is gone. He’s clenched her hand so hard it hurts. “Let go. I will stay.”
His eyes narrow. “I swear.”
She lets go. He dips under the water and her heart instantly stutters to a halt, but it’s only to smooth the hair back away from his face again when he resurfaces, then gingerly touch the place where she grabbed him. “I’m sorry,” she says, almost meaning it.
He throws her a withering look, but does not attempt to flee. Carefully, she pushes herself off her stomach, then swings her feet around to dangle in the water once more. All the paste has rubbed off her shoulder, and as they stew together in this new silence, she cautiously reapplies a new layer over the deep cuts. Fenris watches without blinking.
“There,” she says when she is finished, loud in the quiet, and tightens the waxed lid to the tin again. “Bethany can see to it when I get home, and then we’ll be safe as houses.”
Disapproval pinches the corners of his eyes, but he does not argue. “As you say.”
“Fenris. Please talk to me.”
As close as she’s ever come to begging. His tail lashes back and forth beneath the pool’s surface in agitation, a slithering black shadow in the bright blue-green. “I knew,” he starts again, halting, staring over her shoulder at the far wall of the grotto. “I knew the reef was within the bounds of Danarius’s claimed territory. I knew he might be able to sense me if we came too close. I should never have taken you there. I would not have if…”
She can almost reach him from where she sits. He’s braced one elbow on the ledge again, sides no longer heaving like a horse. “So you began earlier,” she says, and shifts an inch or two closer. He does not notice, perhaps; he does not move away. “If you had not…?”
Fenris gives an explosive sigh, then meets her eyes in pained defiance. “If I had not been so preoccupied with pleasing you,” he snaps, and rakes a hand through his hair.
Her heart stops dead in her chest, then leaps forward a beat or three, more rapid than a rabbit’s. “I see.”
His lips twist. “So. All your stories are true. The hapless mer is charmed beyond all hope, and like a fool carries the human to her death.” He swivels in the water to lean back against the ledge and covers his face with one hand. His voice is so bitter it burns. “There. Let me go, Hawke; you have it all. Better to bear the pity from a distance.”
“Pity!” she says, and is glad that the word does not tremble. “Is that what you thought all this was? The dolphins, the whale? The reef? You thought I came along with you out of pity?”
He does not answer, but the hand comes away from his face. The bitterness is gone, vanished behind a blankness that is almost worse.
She sets her shoulders. “Fenris,” she says, Fenris Fenris. The lagoon ripples around his chest with some catch in his breathing, some arrested movement. “How long have we known each other? Tell me. How long?”
Now a light in the green, a faint shining she knows for hope. “Six months.”
“Six months, two weeks, and four days. Give or take a day.” The stone where she grips it is cold as ice. “And if you still haven’t figured out that I’ve been in love with you for nearly all of it, you’re an even greater fool than I thought.”
His eyes go wide; his lips part. She’d laugh if she didn’t feel so close to dying. “Hawke…” He pauses, swallows hard. “This is a joke.”
“Would I joke about something like this?”
“Yes,” he says tightly. “In fact, I believe you have. More than once.”
“Those were hints,” she offers, and because he has drawn closer, she lifts her hand, hesitates, and then smooths his hair away from his eyes. Not gentle—she’s not sure she knows how to be—but certainly more tender than she’s ever allowed herself before. “Subtle hints.”
His eyes flutter at her touch—intoxicating—and before she can second-guess herself, she slides her palm along his cheek, her fingertips into the soft, damp hair behind his tapered ear. He reaches up with one hand to cover hers; the other wraps around her ankle where it dangles in the water, unsure, unbelieving. “I had not thought you capable of subtlety.”
His voice has dropped so low it rumbles in the air, at once warm and rough as sand. Her stomach flutters worse than one of Carver’s kites. “I’m really not,” she admits, and because if the shark couldn’t kill her she’s fairly certain this won’t either, she leans down and kisses him.
His mouth is warm. Warmer than she expects, strong with the taste of salt. More importantly, he’s leaned into her hand and his lips are firm and he is kissing her back—at least, he is for all of a half-second before he drags himself away. They stare at each other a moment in the grotto’s silence, breath heavy between them, and his eyes are so wide and green she could drown—
“Hawke,” he gasps, and with one powerful whip of his tail he surges from the water to kiss her. A rush of seawater floods over her legs; he’s let go of her ankle to cup the back of her head instead, the other arm bracing his weight on the stone ledge. She can count on one hand the number of times she’s seen this much of him out of the water—and then he tilts his head to better match her mouth and it doesn’t matter, none of it, because out of all the impossible moments in this day this, Fenris’s mouth on hers and his nose against her cheek, is the only one that counts.
She laughs against his lips, delighted, and before he can retreat she wraps both arms around his neck. He makes a startled, pleased noise and leans closer, his bare chest pressed against her throat to waist, his scaled hips bumping along her knees before she jostles out of the way. Her hands slip along his sea-slick back; lyrium flickers with every touch, little silverfish darts down the long lines of his body. He palms her cheek, brushes his thumb over her damp cheekbone between kisses; the lock of his hair has fallen into his face again and she kisses that too, noses it aside and lets her mouth trail after, soft kisses peppered down the side of his proud nose until she can suck gently on his full lower lip.
His breathing stutters, and he drops a few inches back into the pool before reaching up for her again. A new light in his eyes, the green nearly aglow; Hawke knows her grin is foolishness itself, but she doesn’t even try to hide it as she puts both palms on the stone ledge and pushes herself into the water.
Her wounded shoulder stings like fire in the salt, but Fenris’s astonished laugh rebounds around her. That alone is worth it all, every moment—and then he takes her face in his hands, gently, and lets the echoes fade to the sound of ripples lapping at her collarbones. Every now and then his tail brushes against her legs, the scales cool and smooth, as he sweeps it back and forth beneath the water.
“Hawke,” he says in something like wonder. She turns her head and kisses his palm; that thing in his eyes changes, grows deeper, and he pulls her back to his mouth.
So much for dry land. She’s done with it, done with the village gossip and her mother’s fretting and Carver’s constant complaints. There’s not a thing in the world she can’t bear now, if this is what the sea will keep for her when she’s finished.
She’s not even sure how long they’ve been here. It’s a meaningless thing to measure when Fenris keeps kissing her like this, like he might have starved without it, like a man with a sword pulled away from his throat at the last instant. Or, she thinks vaguely, as his teeth graze gently over her lip, the truth, which is that he has been so desperately lonely for so long he had not known what it meant to be loved.
Her foot slips on the sloped stone floor of the lagoon. She dips under the surface, already laughing; he follows and she should have expected it, should have realized how dangerous the intense, unbroken focus of a merman like Fenris might be. A ruthless smile, his hand sliding around her bare waist even as she loops her arms around his shoulders; she refuses to wait for the attack and kisses him first, his eyes going comically wide before he tilts his head and presses his mouth back to hers.
She’s lost direction again. Somehow they’ve twisted under the water between kisses, first the polished black floor and its fine layer of settled silt; then the sunlit ripples of the lagoon’s surface beyond the white cloud of his hair, the long curve of his tail as it sweeps by. Eventually her lungs begin to burn, even through the joy; eventually she kicks them both to the surface again, breaking through the foam with a gasp.
Her chest is so tight she can hardly breathe. Salt stings her eyes; her soaked hair clings to her cheeks. Fenris pushes it behind her ears and says roughly, “Are you well?”
His lips are swollen, his own cheeks flushed, and that tightness in her chest grows hot. “I’ve never even liked seafood,” she declares instead, and smothers her pleased smile when it surprises another out-of-practice laugh from Fenris. “All right. Trout, I’ll give you. Salmon when it’s fresh. Dace if it’s between me and starvation. But the rest…”
He laughs again, and she kisses the tip of his nose. “You are impossible.”
“You like me when I’m impossible.”
The color rushes from his cheeks to his throat, deepening the olive further. His thumb trails down her cheek, the line of her jaw. “Hawke…”
She lifts his chin with her first knuckle, dragging his eyes back to hers from where they’ve fallen again to her shoulder. Elfroot washed away once more, the burn subsiding to a dull, throbbing ache—she’ll have to apply the paste again before she leaves. Bethany’s face looms in her mind’s eye, already annoyed. “I’m fine,” she says softly, “and you never answered before. How’s your head?”
She laughs. “I’ve never heard a worse answer for a head wound in my life.”
“I—no, Hawke, I meant—”
“I know what you meant,” she says, and when he pulls her forehead to his lips she closes her eyes and lets him. And a star in your eye and a starlight in me, oh..
The sound is so out of place it takes Hawke a moment to realize what it is.
A voice. A woman’s voice. Not her own, but one she knows—
“Bethany,” Hawke says, stunned, and the silhouette at the entrance of the grotto puts both hands to her mouth.
Fenris disappears from her hold without a whisper of a ripple. A shadow beneath the surface, nothing more—Hawke lowers her empty arms into the water stupidly, scrambling for some explanation that won’t end with her being treated for a concussion of her own.
“Hello,” she offers, feeble as tissue, and the grotto murmurs back hello, hello hello.
Bethany takes two jolting steps into the cave, following the narrow stone lip that lines its sides. It’s far enough inside the reflection from the pool throws light to her face again; her brown eyes are huge, trained on the place where Fenris vanished. Even from here Hawke can smell the fresh-baked bread from the basket tucked over one arm. So kind, she thinks wildly, and so very inconvenient—
“Bethany,” she says again, and her sister’s eyes snap to hers. She can see the racing thoughts, the pieces fitted together at last over six months of inconstant subterfuge: the swimming clothes, the visits to the lagoon at all hours, the little elfroot potions, the short spear. The inexplicable smiles after every storm.
Bethany steps closer, one hand knotted into her kerchief. She swallows, and says, “Not human?”
Hawke hesitates, then slowly shakes her head.
Bethany lets out a queer sob of a laugh. “Of course not.” She covers her eyes, takes several shallow breaths. “How—how long?”
“Six months.” And then, because it occurs to her this may not be what she means, “Perhaps half an hour?”
“Of course,” Bethany says again, and steadies herself on the wall. Without dropping into the pool she can go little further; Hawke swallows through a tight throat and makes a gesture below the surface. No movement at first; she gestures again, and slowly, like an eel uncoiling, the shadow of Fenris detaches from the wall.
He surfaces at her back. Not completely behind her, because even now his pride will not let him use her wholly as a shield, but neither does he emerge farther from the water than his eyes. Impossibly green in the shadow of the grotto, even half-hidden behind his soaked white hair. Impossibly dangerous.
“Oh,” breathes Bethany, just a trifle high. “Hello. How nice to meet you.”
“Fenris, this is my sister, Bethany. Bethany, this is…” Hawke waves between them lamely, unable to quite understand how it’s come to this. “This is Fenris.”
Hawke lifts an eyebrow, and reluctantly, Fenris emerges, rivulets tracing down his bare shoulders as they breach the surface. “Hello,” he says, voice stiff, and only because she knows him so well does Hawke hear the fear beneath it. She fumbles for his hand beneath the water, cannot find it, and settles for squeezing his arm.
“Real, then,” Bethany says, and leans back against the wall. The basket dangles from her elbow, forgotten. “I suppose no one else knows. Carver—certainly not. But not Father?”
“I considered it,” Hawke concedes, ignoring the look of betrayal Fenris throws her way. “If we’d had to leave, I would have told him then. But there was no reason…”
“Not worth the risk.”
She shrugs. Bethany has always been incisive; even as children, she had seen through the best walls Hawke could raise. Not surprising, then, that she is the first. Nor is she the worst for what Hawke considers. “Bethany, we need your help.”
“How?” her sister says at the same moment Fenris demands, “What?”
“There’s another mer hunting Fenris, a powerful one. I know you’ve read about things like this. We need to stop him, to kill him if we can.”
“What are you doing?” Fenris hisses. He’s found her hand underwater, grips it tight enough her knuckles crack. “Hawke, this is beyond foolish.”
“You like me when I’m foolish,” she retorts, but Bethany’s face has already creased in thought, her gaze gone to a middle distance beyond them both. “…Bethany?”
“I seem to recall—I’ll have to look. I read something, once.” Her eyes flicker as she smiles, focus returning to where Hawke treads water. “I’ll look, I promise you that. And don’t think I haven’t noticed your shoulder is a mess.”
Now Fenris moves forward, water sluicing in a shallow V around his chest. “Danarius is dangerous,” he says directly to Bethany. “I have told Hawke this more than once. Do not think because you walk on shore you are safe from his reach.”
“Well,” Bethany says, and there is the steely Hawke determination in her face, “that sounds like a challenge if I’ve ever heard one.”
Fenris twists to glare at Hawke. He must see the same thing in her own eyes; he throws his hands in the air and his tail surfaces with one frustrated splash. Bethany stares. “This is a hopeless endeavor.”
“Is it? If it gets you free of him?”
“There are some prices too high,” he snaps, and though he does not look at her wounded shoulder the sting pulses a dull, pounding red once more. “Some things I cannot lose.”
“Thank the Maker no one’s asking you to pay,” Hawke says staunchly, but softens as she cups his cheek. “There are some things I won’t lose, either.”
His jaw tightens, but he gives a short nod, and before she can feel too exposed by her sister’s smile she shifts to tousle his hair instead, the wet strands tangling around her fingers when she lets him go. He scowls, tries fruitlessly to flatten it again, and shakes his head.
Smiles, though, too, faint enough it’s nearly swallowed by the cool blue shadows, by the reflections that dance endlessly from the water’s surface. The thrown light trembles in his green eyes, over Bethany’s face where she waits at the grotto’s mouth, along the black lines of Fenris’s tail curving towards her under the water. A good light, full of possibility. A good smile, even with it so new. She’ll kiss it again, soon.
“So,” Hawke says, and claps her hands together in a white, wet spray. “Where do we start?”