The first inklings of trouble come from John’s “sources,” a vast, interconnected web of mer-folk and sea creatures, as well as his own well-developed sonar. It’s big and it’s troubling but there are citizens in danger and that means they’ve got a job. On go the intricate sashes created from scavenged materials that drop onto their cities and homes from the land-dwellers, each sash packed with more scavenged gear to help when their own arms and hands are not enough. Then, they’re off, five brothers and the young woman they’ve unofficially adopted as a sister.
John’s sources were right- what had been the faintest hint of rain was now a raging storm, and right in the middle of it was the low, bowed belly of a ship. Below lay a village of mer-folk, some of whom were huddled outside with their families, knowing the danger and fear a capsized land-person vessel meant.
“Civilians are priority.” That was Scott, the eldest brother and the one everyone deferred to. “Get them out of the range of danger. Vergil, Gordon, keep an eye out for falling debris.” The team split up, fanning out as Scott directed and gathering the frightened people out of harm’s way.
John glanced up as he fanned a group of civilians past, then swam over to where Scott was busy with another group. “They’ve given up on the ship,” he said in a low voice, pointing up at the smaller boats that were now dotting the surface. Scott nodded.
“We’re going to have debris,” he said, partially to himself. “Let the others know. Try to get as many people out of the area before the ship breaks up.” John raised his hands to his face with a deep breath, then he opened his mouth, relaying the message in a long stream of high-pitched whistles. The way his brothers’ and sister’s heads raised told him that they’d understood. The ship would break soon, and it would be their duty to make sure as few pieces of it landed within the village as possible.
Brawny, muscular Vergil, the strongest of the brothers, was the first to move once pieces started appearing, dotting the sea above them with dark spots. Gordon swam after his older brother, ready to lend his own strength to the cause. And that’s when something pale caught his eye. It wasn’t his first time seeing a land-person before, but it was normally one of the others who sprang into action to make sure they reached air. Gordon and Vergil usually were in charge of moving heavy debris. This time, however, Gordon was the only one in range, and the only one who had apparently seen anything.
He leaped into action, slicing through the water with all the speed he could gather, his eyes locked on the white figure falling towards the sea bed. As he approached, Gordon raised his arms, catching the person with ease and settling them across his shoulder, then surging upwards towards the surface. It seemed like forever before he breached the surface, gulping air into his lungs as he did, but it couldn’t have been more than a few moments. And then he realized how truly inexperienced he was at this. There were no lifeboats in sight, the ship seemed charred and was in the process of splintering into pieces, and even had there been boats nearby to retrieve the person, he was now head and shoulders out of the water and in clear violation of the “stay away from anyone who might learn of our existence, Gordon” clause of their agreement. (The agreement had indeed been that pointed, since even Gordon himself knew that he was far too friendly with anything that would listen to him for his own good.)
Scott. What would Scott do? Gordon frowned, thinking. Land-people need air to breathe. A clumsy arrangement in Gordon’s mind; mer-folk need oxygen, but were capable of separating it from water when needed, though breathing air was easier and felt less uncomfortable in all honesty. But to be completely unable to breathe underwater was unthinkable to him. That still didn’t change the fact that the person he’d rescued would need to breathe air, and unless he was going to hang about at the surface, treading water until they woke up or were found by a ship, Gordon had to find something out of the water to put them. Luckily, his eyes spotted a stretch of land close by. Re-settling the limp body in his arms, he began to swim for the sandy beach.
It took effort to pull the land-person up onto the beach, and it meant having to get fully out of the water himself, a task that felt somewhat weird and wrong. Not to mention the horrible feeling of the damp sand clinging tightly to the skin of his tail. Now that he wasn’t having to worry about what to do or getting swept under by a wave, Gordon turned his attention to the person on the sand.
He’d never seen a land-person up close before, and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. He knew they didn’t have tails, but instead had … legs, was it? and they covered their bodies with drape-y material that wasn’t actually a part of them. That, and the way they only breathed air was about the extent of it. He’d never expected he’d have to rescue one. And he’d never expected to discover that he found the woman he’d rescued attractive. No, scratch that. She was gorgeous. And she wasn’t breathing.
He flew into action. Her heart was still beating, and he knew she’d been breathing when they were on the surface, but they’d nearly gotten pulled back under shortly before reaching the beach. Had she been breathing as he pulled her up on the beach? He hadn’t been paying enough attention, and she was going to run out of time. He hesitated for a split second before covering her mouth with his own and breathing air into her lungs. Thankfully, even merfolk needed rescue breathing, though it was less useful than you’d expect. A few breaths later, her body jerked, and Gordon pulled back as she vomited sea-water onto the beach beside her, then sagged back onto the sand, barely conscious.
A relieved chuckle left Gordon’s throat, and he smiled. “It’s okay! You’re going to be all right,” he said, as much to reassure himself as her. “Everything’s gonna be fine, I promise.” The woman stirred slightly, her head drifting to look at him, and for a moment Gordon’s smile grew. Then, he realized just how much trouble he was surely in, and spun as quickly as he could on a nearly-useless tail and began pulling himself towards the water as quickly as his arms allowed. He was almost far enough in to swim when two things happened: movement further out in the ocean indicated his brothers and sister had figured out where he had gone and were now calling for him to answer; and unfamiliar voices were coming from further inland and getting closer. With one final glance at the woman on the sand, he dove into the water, the only part of him visible when the group of land-people stepped onto the beach being the end of his tail as it slipped into the ocean.
“Milady!” The nasally voice of her butler brought Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward out of the dazed half-consciousness she’d been in for the last few minutes. Her stomach was churning from having swallowed so much salt water, it felt like she couldn’t breathe deeply enough, a fact which her corset was not helping one bit, and her head hurt something fierce.
“Parker?” she asked, her voice raspy. She tried to sit up, and suddenly large, rough hands were helping her.
“Are you all right, Milady?” Parker’s face swung into view as he helped her sit up. The worry was etched clearly across his face, but it just seemed to make his already dour face look more gloomy than ever. “When the ship caught fire, I thought…”
“I believe I am all right,” Penelope said, though she didn’t exactly feel all right. She turned her gaze to the ocean ahead of her, painted the soft pinks and oranges of sunset. “Was there someone on the beach when you got here?”
Parker frowned. “No, milady. Just a pod of dolphins off the shore. I hear they’ve helped rescue people before, though.”
Penelope closed her eyes. She could have sworn she’d heard someone talking to her as she regained consciousness. It might have been her eyes playing tricks on her in the low light, but she would have laid money that the handsome face that had been so close to her and haloed in light was real.
She shook her head. “It’s nothing, Parker. I just thought I heard someone talking to me before you came.”
Parker took her hand and gently helped her stand. “Maybe it was a guardian angel.”
She smiled, thinking of the face in her memory. “Perhaps it was.” Then she frowned as she glanced down at her lacy white and pink dress, once so nice and elegant, now soggy with sea-water and covered in sand. “But I’m afraid my dress is ruined.” She sighed in exasperation. “I liked this one, too.”
From the protection of a rocky outcropping a figure watched the people on the beach until they disappeared up a road leading up a hill. Gordon slid back into the sea. She’d heard him! That should have filled him with dread, but instead he felt a wild thrill in his heart. She’d actually heard him! Scott would kill him if he knew. Gordon took one long final look at the shoreline, then dove underwater. He knew he’d never tell anyone about this. Or, at least about anything other than “I got her to shore and hid until people came.” Because what Scott didn’t know wasn’t about to hurt anyone.