The Radiant Shimmering Of Sunlight’s Reflection From Beneath The Waves had fucked up.
He was not entirely clear on how, exactly, he had fucked up. But he was very certain he had fucked up.
Things had been going very well, he thought. Coral had liked her gifts, and accepted them as her due (eventually). She hadn’t seemed to mind too terribly much that he couldn’t tell her where he’d been. The thought of another lover did not even seem to occur to her, which either said good things about their relationship or bad things about his charm. They’d had sex.
Slightly awkward, horizontal, sandy sex.
But it was still sex.
She seemed to like it.
He definitely liked it.
She’d maybe seemed a little nervous afterward, but he couldn’t blame her for that. He was pretty nervous, too. Maybe for different reasons, but, still.
It had all been going great until that morning. When he must have said something wrong. Very, very wrong.
She hadn’t told him that he’d said anything wrong. Quite the opposite. She’d said she was tired, not feeling well. Needed to sleep.
His grasp of her language may not have been perfect, but that didn’t change the fact that body language was a thing. He wasn’t an idiot. She’d been upset. And now he was going to have to try to find a gift suitable for accompanying an apology, while he replayed the conversation in his mind to find the moment that he’d fucked up.
As he approached the little home he’d made, he stopped suddenly in the doorway. His tongue darted out to taste the water, let it hit the more sensitive receptors in the back.
Someone was in his home.
He growled, his fins all pinned flat as he prowled inside. He tasted the water again, listened intently for the slightest sound. They were still in there, whoever they were. He opened some of the little wooden doors, one at a time, until someone came darting out.
They were fast.
He was faster.
He pinned them to the wall, his talons tearing open the flimsy wood and embedding into it, and his fins all flared with a snarling hiss that bared all his teeth. They gave an immediate low whine of surrender, which was almost unfortunate. He was still angry. He didn’t want to play nice. He put away his teeth, let his fins fall, but didn’t let them go.
Small, almost as small as a person could get, his hand could hold them by the waist without any strain at all. He could snap their little arms with two fingers. A curling tail and fins like leaves, braid wrapped around their head and run through with a particular kind of rope.
Southern Valley Green Song Clan, if he had to guess. Didn’t have to guess that it was a scout. He knew a scout when he saw one.
«I should eat you,» he informed them with a snarl. «Two bites, and no one would miss you.»
«You’re as charming as your reputation, Poison Tail.»
He shouldn’t have, but he hissed again. He was pleased in a very unkind way when they flinched. «You’re trespassing.»
«I saw no clan markers,» they said, as if they had not known exactly what they were doing.
«I’m working on it,» he said, but even that was an admission, he could see the gleam in their eye. He should have said nothing, should have just ordered them to leave.
«My deepest apologies,» they said immediately, clasping their hands together before he could stop them. «The Sway Of Leaves That Will Not Break of the Southern Valley Green Song Clan humbly requests passage through the territory of—what clan, exactly?»
«The Radiant Shimmering Of Sunlight’s Reflection From Beneath The Waves of the clan yet to be named must mournfully refuse this request on the grounds of go fuck yourself.»
«You know,» Leaves said, «the songs they sing about you might be nicer if you’d give an interview once in a while.»
«We both know that’s not true.»
Leaves clicked. «It was worth a try. Do you at least want to tell me what this is?» The curl of their tail rose higher, and on one of their fins they held the little flower token he’d been keeping hidden.
Radiant hissed again before he could stop himself, snatched it back away and nearly crushed Leaves’ ribs in his infuriated grip. They gave another distressed whine as a bubble of air escaped them, and Radiant let them go entirely. «This is a gift,» he snarled, holding it tight in his hand.
«My deepest apologies,» they said, and they meant it even less than they had before. «I certainly would never have touched it if I’d thought it was a token.» They cocked their head to the side. «But you wore no token in the arena—it would have been in all the songs by now, if you had. Is the one you’re courting as shameful as that?»
«She is no one’s business,» he said, but even that was a victory for the little scout.
«But everyone will be so curious to know who she is, getting courted by Poison and making a clan too close to shore.»
«Not too close to shore for you.»
«Only me,» they said, preening. «It’s a wonderful favor you’ve done me, ensuring I’ll be the only scout, that our clan will have all the first songs. If you tell me nice things, I would tell them those, too.»
Radiant always stayed too close to shore. It was the only reason he’d found Coral, that day, sinking to the bottom where she didn’t belong. It was usually safer—he’d rather risk monsters than scouts. But he also did not usually stay in one place for long, was usually harder to find.
Leaves perched on a nearby surface, no longer even pretending to be frightened or respectful. They were a coward, and would flee at the slightest provocation; of this, Radiant had no doubt. They put their chin in their hands, looking very amused. «This lady of yours, is she why Truth Of A Cold Current nearly bested you?» They dragged a finger down the side of their face. «All the songs have been wondering why you’ve lost your edge.»
«I have lost nothing, and he is a dolphin.»
«Can we quote you on that?»
«No. He got lucky, but I still won. He won’t get lucky again.»
«He says he’ll win next time.»
«There won’t be a next time. I’m retiring.» That was an impulsive decision. He had been planning to wait. But having this obnoxious little scout intrude on a space that he wanted to be safe was trying his patience.
They clicked. «You couldn’t possibly.»
«I can, I will, I have.»
«Everyone will think—»
«I don’t care. Let them sing what they will.» It had never much mattered what he did, regardless. He might as well just do what he wanted. «Leave, now, before I change my mind and tear off your head. If I see you again, I won’t be this nice.»
Radiant let his fins all flare again, roared as much as hissed; Leaves darted away, and Radiant watched them go. He did not follow, but did continue to watch them flee until he was satisfied that they were going back to their clan.
Today had officially gone completely to shit.
He curled up petulantly inside his little home, though doing so didn’t make him feel better. He opened his hand to look at the little flower in his palm, running his thumb over it.
It wasn’t that he had anything to hide, necessarily. He just knew that Coral didn’t actually know, or care, what wearing her token would have meant. And he hadn’t told her. It just seemed better to keep it somewhere safe, when it was so small and so delicate. When he didn’t want anyone making assumptions about it. About her.
Any assumption they could have made would have been better than the truth, of course. If he thought about it too long, he’d think it was a little pathetic, that he would court a monster.
Even if she was a cute monster.
A very small and soft and kind monster.
Who was probably still upset about whatever it was he’d done.
He’d been trying very hard to do things the right way, more for his own benefit than for hers. It was important to him that he know he’d done things right, that he was capable of doing things right. To know that he wasn’t the problem. He had also, he realized now, deliberately avoided explaining certain things to her. He’d told himself that it was probably fine, that she probably got the basic idea, but really he just didn’t want to risk that she’d reject him.
He really was kind of pathetic.
This morning. He could remember exactly how she sat on the pier, how happy she’d looked and the slender lock of hair that had fallen loose from her braid. He could remember all the words, even though some of them were just meaningless collections of sound to him, even though he only understood about half of what she said when she put those words in that order so quickly. Friends. Friend, noun. One attached to another by affection or esteem. One that is not hostile. A favored companion. A clan of her own, or something like it, not formalized. He thought ‘Sofia’ was a name sound. Her people’s names were just sounds, signifying nothing but themselves.
Italian. From Italy. That meant nothing to him. Sailor. That he understood, sort of. These were the things she told her clan so they didn’t wonder who was trying to steal her away. He’d teased her about it, and—
Yes, that was where he’d gone wrong. ‘Liar’. That word, exactly. A good liar. It hadn’t occurred to him that it might be a particularly offensive word. Liar, a person who tells lies. Lie, to make an untrue statement. Those weren’t so bad, were they?
Maybe it was different for them. Maybe there were implications, or maybe there were nicer words he did not know. Maybe it was a horrible insult. It hadn’t even occurred to him that it might be. It was a talent, wasn’t it?
He couldn’t even get compliments right.
Hopefully he’d do better at apologies.
He couldn’t tell if that was the good kind of high-pitched yelling of his name, or the bad kind.
He was going to assume the good kind.
Optimism was important.
“I brought you a gift,” he said. At a loss for other options, he’d gone out hunting and killed the biggest thing he could find. No one was ever unhappy to get food. She ate fish sometimes. All signs pointed to this being the best possible idea.
“I can see that,” she said, wide-eyed. “Drago, how… how will I get this in my house?”
Coral was very small. This fish was very large. He couldn’t carry it for her up there. He hadn’t considered that. He was still balanced on the end of the pier using his arms, because there wasn’t really any room for him to sit. Also, if things went really wrong, he might just want to fall into the water and hide.
For a while.
This might soon count as going really wrong.
“I can cut it for you?” he offered.
“O… okay. I guess that would work. That’s… goodness, I really hope that isn’t endangered.”
“It was in danger. Then it was dead.”
“That’s not—well, you’re not wrong.”
“It is an apology gift,” he said, because he wanted to try being clearer about this sort of thing. “Do you accept?”
She frowned, a little twist of her mouth and a furrow of her brow. “You don’t need to apologize,” she said, seeming confused.
“I upset you.”
“Oh. That wasn’t your fault, really—”
“I am still sorry.”
“I… accept. Yes. I accept your apology, and your… swordfish?” His relief was palpable, enough that he fell back into the water for a celebratory spin.
He got a little excited sometimes.
Radiant was going to pull himself back up, but Coral started to come down along the rocks toward the water. Which was probably for the best, since his arms were getting tired. He’d had a busy day. She was wearing her bathing suit again, which made him happy; that usually meant she was planning to come into the water with him. She sat down, and he immediately rested his hands on her knees, his chin on his hands. She smiled and stroked his hair, and he purred.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” she said, and he clicked.
“I shouldn’t have been so… I don’t know. I was being really silly about it. I should have known better, you didn’t mean anything by it—”
“Sorry is for the one who does the hurting,” he said, and she bit her lip.
“You’re too sweet,” she said.
He thought this was one of those times when sweet meant nice. “Yes,” he agreed, and she giggled. “But not for this.” Suddenly she bent down to kiss his forehead, and he tried to look unperturbed even as he felt his face grow hot.
“See, I—okay, I had this ex-boyfriend, right? And he was kind of a huge jerk. At the time I thought he was just really… reasonable? He was really good at being reasonable, all the time. It wasn’t like we had fights. I’d just get really upset and then I’d feel like I was being crazy because he was being so reasonable and I was freaking out…”
“Anyway, I’m… you were right, earlier, I kind of am a really good liar. It’s not like I lie about big things, or important things, or whatever. Just sometimes it makes things a lot easier to tell people what they need to hear to not freak out. You know? Also my family’s kind of weird in a way that made it useful. But my ex, he was really into honesty. Like, everything honesty. No secrets, ever. Which sounds nice, but I didn’t really like it, and I felt like I was the jerk for not liking it.”
“He had this thing, too, where there always needed to be a reason for everything. I couldn’t just not want to do a thing, there always had to be a reason, but if I told him a reason he’d find reasons why I was wrong, and it was just… I don’t usually lie that much! I just started lying about stupid things, coming up with fake reasons he couldn’t argue with. He’d always act so hurt that I was lying to him, but it was like I couldn’t win. If I told him I didn’t want to go to his stupid dinner party, or if I didn’t act excited enough about his stupid dinner party—it was like I had to be really happy to do whatever he wanted, or else he’d be miserable and I’d feel bad.”
“I know that wasn’t what you meant, though. When you said it. I just didn’t want you to think I was freaking out, except I was, but it wasn’t because of you. Does that make sense?”
That was a lot of words with a lot of context he did not have. Usually he was content just to listen, when she did this sort of thing, but this seemed important.
“There was someone,” he began cautiously, and she nodded. “He hurt you, but acted hurt. You did bad things you did not like, because they did not hurt. Yes?”
“That’s… about right, yeah.”
“I hurt you when I should not have, because you have not healed yet.”
“You’re making it sound much worse than it really is,” she said, and he clicked.
“What happened is what happened.” She stroked his hair again, and he nuzzled at her hand. “This person is gone now?”
“Mostly, yeah. He’s not supposed to come around me anymore.”
“Do you want me to hurt him?”
She laughed, and the sound made him smile. “Oh, wow, he would—no, that’s okay. He’s not worth it.”
He didn’t anticipate the way that answer made him feel, something indescribable and difficult to pinpoint. Elated, maybe.
“Swim with me?” he asked.
She smiled, and he wanted her down where he could kiss her. “If you’re not worried I’ll slow you down,” she said.
The Radiant Shimmering Of Sunlight’s Reflection From Beneath The Waves was, on occasion, not a complete fuck-up.