Gabriel doesn't get out much. It'd be a running joke, if he knew enough other sirens to keep a joke running-- but the only friends he tolerates are as sedentary as he is. Old Torbjorn's lived in the same rock formation for going on eighty years, building up his runs and warrens for his family stone by stone. The angelfish in the southern reef have been farming its seaweeds and lichens since before Gabriel was born.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t embrace change, though. In moderation.
It’s in the chill season-- not that it’s chill here, but the water temperature dips just a little, the, angle of the sun is a little different at its peak-- and he wakes up one morning with his lower arms in a maze of fitful tangles and general discontent pumping sluggishly through his veins.
He crawls out of his grotto, upper body sliding through the narrow entrance first, voluminous lower body spilling out arm by arm as he takes stock. Everything’s the same as he left it, his garden in the same precise piles and spirals he built so carefully. Usually that’s reassuring. Today…
Today it’s time for a change of scene.
He wonders if it’s how migratory sirens feel when it’s time to move-- if that’s why they can’t seem to stay put, season by season. If this is the feeling that drives them across fathoms and fathoms of ocean.
Him? Doesn’t have a migratory bone in him. Doesn’t have many bones at all, in fact-- his lower body is a smooth muscular mass of strong arms and smooth mantle that flows up to join his ribs. Well adapted to the reef, not to trans-oceanic trips.
But he doesn’t have to migrate. When he wants a change of scene… he makes it.
He drifts down to the garden and starts pulling the rock structures apart, sorting shells and stone and glass and detritus in neat heaps to take inventory before he starts again.
The collection he’s normally so proud of seems sparse today. It needs… more. Something. A shock of shape or color.
There’s a wide bay toward the sunrise side of the islands with good pickings. It’s not cut off by a cliff like his reef-- it’s wide and sandy above the waterline, like humans like. The ocean bed drops off not far from the shoreline, though-- and the waves there are rough and strong exactly like humans don’t like. So: they come to sun-bask and play at the water, maybe gawp at turtles, and unless they’re unusually good swimmers for the species they get thrown around in the surf and drop all kinds of interesting things. He doesn’t go there often-- he avoids humans like the plague they are-- but he’s guaranteed a few new treasures if he makes the trip today.
His feeling of discontent chases him, though, as he leaves his reef behind and jets his way through the shallows. Even before he gets to the bay, he knows something’s different. There’s a low roar like thunder, incongruous during this season and this weather. There’s a strange taste in the waves. There’s a flavor of fine grit he hasn't tasted since he was young and exploratory, first looking for a place of his own. He doesn't remember where, but he remembers the sensation of it clinging to his gills, the bitter flavor that coated everything he touched. It first it's just a whiff-- but it gets stronger as he nears the wide bay. The water's stirred up like there's been a storm, but there hasn’t been a storm nearby for weeks.
The noise gets louder the closer he gets, and the water’s so dark he has to feel his way-- he hits a pile of rocks he doesn’t remember, starts to crawl carefully along it, looking for the end. And looking. Ten armspans and he hasn’t found a break in the strangely regular surface. It’s incredibly unnerving, every is boulder the same size, the same prickling-coarse texture. Fifteen armspans, twenty, and he’s had enough.
He creeps up the pile of rock and steels himself. He lets the color of the murky water run through his skin, going gray-brown from the tips of his lower arms to his scalp. It takes a second, and then he’s invisible against the murk except for the whites of his eyes and the black shock of hair that flattens onto his head as he lifts his head out of the water.
The noise is worse up here and the thin air stinks the way the water does, bitter and choking. The light feels jagged against his drying eyes, and his pupils narrow as he takes in the scene.
The humans are building something. They’ve piled rocks into a wide unnatural breakwater. Every rock has the same spiny shape, the same gray texture-- how they found or made them is a question he’ll deal with later. He can see one of their contraptions-- spitting inky smoke into the air, roaring like thunder. It moves ponderously, gathering and dumping debris from a pile into the water, extending the breakwater out across the bay. No more rough surf for the idiot humans.
...and there will be more humans. Further up the shore, he can see that the land-forest has been cut back to leave more open dry space, and rising up where the greenery use to be is a shape Gabe’s seen once before, when he was smaller. The first time he tasted the bitter grit that wafts off of human construction.
They’re building one of their wooden reefs. It’s just a skeleton now, but it will be gleaming like a clamshell soon, and humans will come crowding in like shrimp to shit.
He plunges back into the water, crawls arm over arm down to the bottom of the rock wall and pushes off it hard, jetting away toward the sunset-side of the island and his safe reef. The bitter taste stays with him long after the disturbed water is out of sight and the roar of human machines has faded to nothing.
The unease doesn’t fade until he’s back in his own little cove. The water is clear and sweet and the sandy flour ripples with afternoon light over the reef, his garden, his grotto.
The urge to make a change is long gone. He’s had enough ‘change’ for the next few seasons.
He settles into the garden with relief and turns his attention and all ten arms to putting it back the way it was.
The warm season starts and Gabriel has almost entirely put the disaster in the bay out of his mind-- makes a mental note not to visit and settles back in, trusting in the cliff above and the unfriendly currents to keep humans and their floating hulks away from him, at least.
He does maybe too good a job of ignoring it; he never stops to think what it might mean, a change that big. Not until he hears the distant song of another siren, calling out a greeting that puts his skin into defensive spikes until he realizes it wasn’t for him. A second voice answers back.
At least fifteen years he’s lived in the reef-- he was half grown and unorganized when he settled here, there were a couple seasons where he didn’t keep track of the time. Fifteen years since he started counting, and however much more before that, and he’s never had visitors from the open sea.
He peers out of the grotto, head and shoulders, and sees a cluster of dark shapes-- dark small blobs that resolve into long bodies as they converge, clustering up and greeting each other loudly enough that he can make out scraps of conversation.
That's not just a few visiting sirens; that's a whole chorus, shrieking and chatting to each other in staccato clicks that echo off the reef around him.
Gabriel retreats into his grotto a little deeper, wrapping himself in his skirt. He concentrates on the rock around him, feels his skin tingling in response as it floods green-gray-black.
They can’t mean to stay here. It’s… unthinkable. This reef isn’t anyone’s meeting ground, that’s one of the reasons he chose it. Maybe if he gives them some time, they’ll fuck off.
He’s going to need a nap before he deals with this nonsense anyway; he packs himself as deep into the grotto as he can, swaddles himself in his arms to shut out the noise, and settles defiantly into sleep.
He doesn’t know how long he naps. Not long; the light outside hasn’t changed texture too much, and he still feels groggy. He stays still and quiet, trying to figure out what woke him.
Shells rattle over each other, and a high voice calls out, and his suckers clamp onto the wall with a deathgrip.
Someone is in his damn garden.
“Ooh, there’s a little cave, here,” the higher voice chirps.
“Tracer, be careful,” a deeper one answers. “You don’t know what’s in there.”
“All right, all right, worry-wart,” the first siren laughs, just before the light from the entrance is blocked by a slim body. Gabriel slams his eyes shut and melts further back into the wall, skin bunching into a close approximation of seaweed clinging to stone.
He hears the little siren grunt as she wriggles in. He curses his broad shoulders-- the rest of his massive body can fit through anything the size of his skull, but he had to leave the door wide enough to get his shoulders through, and now some stranger is in his damn grotto. He can feel the currents stirring as she swishes back and forth, picking up rocks and cooing over the anemones and slowly wandering starfish that share the space with him.
“Come on, old man! Give her a try, you can fit in if you’re careful,” she calls back out through the entrance.
“You ever seen a moray bite, kiddo?”
“Oh, there’s nothing in here,” she says. “I’ve looked all over. It’s little reefy crabs and some seaweed is all!”
It feels like an eternity, breathing slowly, water barely trickling over his gills, before she leaves. Even after he’s heard her wriggle back out the gap he keeps his eyes shut for a ten-count before he opens his eyes.
He hears shells rattling again outside, and his outrage overwhelms his anxiety, driving him toward the entrance, where he can peer out from camouflage at his visitors. Two of them. ‘Tracer’-- slim and reflective, only two arms and a straight wedged tail. Dark hair, big dark eyes, skin pale and reflective as her scales.
The other… not as old as Gabriel was expecting from the dig. He’s bigger, a muscular blue hulk shot with streaks of gold that seems particularly concentrated in his hair. His shoulders are almost as broad as Gabriel’s own, his scale-less tail tapering down to a graceful crescent fin.
"Something’s had an appetite" the smaller siren chirps, shooting from point to point in a silver-sided blur, poking at bits of his garden. "It's so clean! Ooh, will you look at this?" She picks up an abalone shell. "Pretty, isn't it?"
Gabriel starts to creep out of the entrance of the grotto, arm over arm, torn between staying in hiding and driving these intruders away from his lair. His torso flexes as he sucks water into his siphon; slow and steady until his abdomen is swollen with the pressure to make a fast getaway or a fast attack. Neither of the other sirens seems to have noticed the oddly mobile mass of seaweed watching them; Tracer’s too caught up rifling through his things and the other is too busy trying to get her to stop.
"Tracer," the blue-finned siren sighs. "Put it down. You don't know what-- or who-- lives around here."
"Oh, it's just someone's leftovers, that's all."
"This is too regular. Too ... well kept. I think this is someone's home."
"I looked all over! Nobody here now--"
Gabriel clenches his siphon and boils out of the entrance on the jet of water and the strength of his arms, skirt flaring wide as he pounces.
The little siren shrieks and recoils into her friend before diving behind his back and streaking back toward the rest of the chorus.
The larger one hangs frozen for a second, tail tense and arms rigid in a defensive pose. The bones of his arms are oddly defined-- there's a sharp edge visible through the skin, thrust out by a series of unfamiliar muscles. His eyes are shockingly blue-- like sunlight blazing through the surface at the peak of the day.
Gabriel matches his stare, eyes wide, talons ready, neck flexing to ready his venom glands. His skin is as black as ink, lower arms spread wide and skirt puffed to make him look bigger.
Then the invader's mouth turns up, and his arms relax, and his chest and muscular shoulders start to quake with motion. A second later he's spluttering out little giggles, high pitched and at odds with the size of his chest.
It's more infectious than it has any right to be and Gabriel finds himself staring, and then almost smiling back. In the face of the other siren’s ease he feels the flush of red-interest up his skin washing away the threat display-- the guy’s crazy.
Gabriel would like to know more about that.
"Shit!" gasps the blue siren, shaking out his wrists. The muscles of his arms relax and the sharp edge of bone vanishes like it was never there. He blinks a few times, and now his eyes are wan and watery blue, sunlight seen from deep water, without whatever trick of the light was making them so intense. "You sure know how to make an entrance."
"You sure don't know how to get off my lawn," Gabriel says flatly, and that sets the blue siren off again. He laughs hard enough to send him rolling in the water, arms around his stomach as if it hurts. Gabriel cackles sharply at the sight of it, his own humor sneaking up on him as he watches the other siren wallowing like a manatee. Two of his lower arms slip up unconsciously to coil under his chin and over his mouth
"I'm so-- I'm so sorry about Tracer--" the blue siren is at least trying to be polite, but his mouth cracks into a wide smile, showing a row of blunt little teeth. "I wish I could have seen her face! I wish I could have seen mine!"
Gabriel settles proprietarily into the garden and starts putting the scattered shells and bones back into place.
"Hers was better. Know why?"
"Further away." He jabs a talon at the rest of the chorus, makes a little fluttering motion with his hands to sweep the siren away. Shoo, shoo.
"You're a real dick, huh?" the blue siren asks, eyes as wide as his smile, two points of diffuse light. "Just an entire whale's penis worth of antisocial attitude."
"You're in my lair."
"Fair. That's fair," the blue siren says, raising his hands pacifying. "I'll tell the chorus to steer clear. Sorry, we usually group up at the big bay on the sunrise side, but..."
"The humans," Gabriel realizes, sagging into himself. Of course; human interference will be driving all the migrators out of their way. This chorus might be just the first group of stragglers who comes to crash the party. Halfway around the damn island and they’re still ruining his life.
"We won't be here long-- just long enough to set rendezvous and scatter. We'll be out of your skirt soon." The other siren’s vivid smile is fading a bit. “I really am sorry. We didn’t know where else to go.”
Of course they didn’t. He knows that, he knows that this is a setback that’s shattered hundreds of years of migratory tradition. Of course they’re loud and relieved to be meeting up. He has no right to throw them out; it’s not as if he could take them in a territorial fight, and this isn’t a breeding ground or a sacred place or anything like that.
It’s just his home, is all.
"Just... don't leave a mess and don't touch the garden."
"Understood. ...I really am sorry. Let me know if there's anything I can do to make it up to you-?"
"You can leave."
The blue siren nods. He shoots Gabriel a bow and a wryer smile before turning and shooting off toward the others with a tail-stroke so powerful it stirs Gabriel's' hair.
These invaders cannot leave soon enough.
They don't leave soon enough.
They stay less than ten days, but ten days is more than enough for them to pick the reef almost bare, scaring away the fish that they don't eat and decimating his carefully rationed stock of shellfish. Some of the others go out hunting in the day, come back with food to share, so it isn’t a complete wreck of the reef, but it’s bad. The bold blue one is one of the foragers-- the only one stupid enough to trespass on Gabriel's lair with an invitation to join the general feast, calling him to join in the catch.
Gabriel inks him and vanishes, flattening into the sand deeper in the cove and flooding his skin with the feeling of sandy gray-yellow. The blue siren looks for him for a while-- even runs his hands carefully over the rock nearby-- but he's looking in the wrong place, and he finally gives up and leaves.
He doesn’t want to join the invaders. He doesn’t have the right to throw them out but that doesn’t mean he likes them. Resentfully, he hides away, keeping out of sight, sleeping when he can and fretfully re-arranging the grotto when he can’t.
He subsists on small catches and spite until his stomach drives him out-- there might be better food closer to shore, but there are humans closer to shore, so he risks the open ocean, sneaking away early in the morning when his unwelcome guests are still mostly asleep.
The light dims as he moves across the bottom, as he leaves the shoreline behind him and the surface rises and rises, higher and higher over his head. He doesn't like it. He knows it's not rational, not entirely-- most things bigger than him are stupider than him, and his venom could give a full-grown orca second thoughts-- but an old small part of him feels like prey, crawling along the sand with no cover in sight.
He ranges far out into the water, feeling for a current that will draw prey to him, a cold fast stream of water. He settles nearby, tucking into the sand and camouflaging-- still feels wide exposed, but he digs himself into the sand bit by bit and slowly relaxes.
A shadow crosses him-- he looks up into a glittering cloud, swelling and bulging lazily in the current. Fat skipjacks-- his stomach clenches in anticipation. They're fast bastards, but they're also stupid and somewhat indiscriminately predatious, ideal for a little fishing. He flattens against the sand, nestling his torso in, and sticks a lower arm out as far as he can. It takes some mental gymnastics to darken just the curling tip of his arm, keep the rest of himself comfortably camouflaged-- the kind of thing he can do as long as he doesn't think too hard about it.
Down here, you little bastards. Down here . He bobbles the tip of his arm, waving it like a curious little sand eel or a much smaller octopus.
A few silver bodies split from the shoal, dip halfway down toward the sandy floor, and then bob up again warily.
No easy wins this evening-- he'll play the long game. He always does. Maybe come nightfall he'll get lucky and a few foraging lobsters will trip over him.
He settles back to watch the shoal shifting hypnotically over itself. He sees the bigger shape come drifting in, excruciatingly slowly, like it's being pulled on the current--
The stupid blue siren. He slips into the shoal with a subtlety Gabriel would never have given him credit for, hangs among the fish almost motionless for a few moments.
And then something happens that Gabriel doesn't quite catch-- there's a blur of movement, the sound of bones cracking, and the shoal roils up and scatters in all directions from the blue siren, who's sitting perfectly still again. He's squared up now, bony blades bulging under the skin of his forearms. There are a half dozen dead or dying tuna within his arm’s reach, starting to sink toward the sand below.
His eyes are vibrantly blue, so blue Gabriel can see it from his hiding place.
There's something captivating in his intense stillness, in his victorious smirk. Gabriel feels his skin thrumming with fascination, looks down in horror as he blooms into a deep red-black in the low light, a crisp outline of octopodal siren against the sand. It's just a second before he gets his skin under control and his hearts all slowed down, but it's enough to make him--
Furious. He'll go with furious.
Safely sand-colored again, he pushes off the ocean floor, jetting slowly up behind the blue siren, who's distracted by gathering up his catch. Careless, careless; his own fault if he's too sloppy and lets someone steal his scraps, and one of Gabriel's lower arms is already curling up into the water for the body of a fish as it drops toward him.
The blue siren whirls on him and lunges-- he feels the rush of water against his temple. He has his claws up in the next second, but the blue siren is still again, expression all surprise now. He has his arm outstretched, his forearm an inch away from Gabriel's temple.
The blue siren blinks several times, shaking his head, and when he withdraws his arm the bladed edge is already hidden and his eyes are their usual surface-water gray blue.
"We have to stop meeting like this." The blue siren gives him a sheepish grin.
"I'd been baiting that damn shoal for half an hour." Gabriel puffs a jet of water into his stomach, pushing him back. "Is 'in the way' just your natural habitat, or what?"
The other siren grimaces. "It's been said of me, yeah."
"Bet it has," Gabriel grumbles.
"Make it up to you?" the siren swims cautiously closer, holding out two skipjack by their fat tails.
"Already got one." Gabriel waves his pilfered fish.
"Yeah, but two more makes us even." He nods to the three fish clamped under his other arm. "Halfsies."
"Aren't you generous?"
"Aren't I just?" the blue siren bats his eyes. "Come on, we both know I owe you one."
"You owe me a lot more than one, you and your damn chorus," Gabriel mutters, but takes the fish daintily in two more arms.
"Name a number, gorgeous, I've got all season."
The blue siren winks at him, and this time Gabriel's prepared enough to stop the red-interest halfway up his body and flush it right back out.
"...I love it when you do that."
Gabriel glowers at the entranced expression on the other siren's face. "I don't do it for your benefit."
He lashes an empty lower arm around the blue siren's hips, dragging him close into range of his upper arms. He sets the sharp point of his thumb against the other man's broad chest, just in the center of the ribcage. "I do it to sleep. To hide. To hunt ." He lets the keratinous edge dig in just a little.
His rival's eyes are vibrantly blue again, but he's grinning. He puffs his pectorals out, creating a valley with Gabe's thumb nestled in the center. It's an absolutely ridiculous little mating display and Gabriel's skin is crawling with the effort of keeping a nice mottled gray-disinterest.
"Oh, you don't have to go to the trouble. Every one knows what an easy... catch I am."
Gabriel scoffs at him, replacing the sharp edge of the thumb with the palm of his hand and giving the other siren a shove. It doesn't quite work as desired: his lower arm is reluctant to untangle from around the blue siren's broad hips. The wayward limb lingers there, cups flexing, tasting his scales and the skin of his back. The blue siren's body is taut-- warm, but cooling slowly to match the water.
Gabriel grits his teeth again and concentrates on pulling his arm away, creating an embarrassing chorus of little pops as his cups cling. The blue siren looks down at the delicate lines of red circles left on his skin, lips parting, and Gabriel knows he’s going to say something-- unacceptable.
"You're lucky I don't eat anything that talks. You're tasty, tasty meat," he blusters, flicking his hand up to knock the other siren's jaw shut.
The blue siren rubs his chin thoughtfully-- checking for a bruise, maybe, but he doesn’t look angry about it. He’s smiling at Gabriel again, even. "I hunt this time of the afternoon most days. If you're not out here, I'll come drop off your share. You just let me know when I've worked off the debt, gorgeous."
"My name is Gabriel," he snaps, and then his eyes widen with the magnitude of his mistake. Oh, he told the clinging barnacle his name, he's never scraping him off now...
The other siren beams at him. "Jack."
"Do I look like I care?"
Jack looks him up and down, a question in his eyes.
Gabriel realizes he's vibrant red from the roots of his hair to the tips of his lower arms. He swallows deeply and hits Jack with a more targeted jet of water from his siphon, knocking him sideways and sending Gabriel a few arms’ lengths toward safety.
He glares at Jack, daring him to follow, but Jack skims backward a little, waving, before he takes off into the dim water at speed. Gabriel watches him vanish in the murk, and then jets straight back to the reef.
In the safety of his grotto he devours the fish with enthusiasm-- oily, bloody, delicious fish. There's not an intact skeleton between them-- if their skulls haven't been caved in their spine is broken or their ribs are in splinters. Jack packs a hell of a punch, he has to grudgingly admit. He’s never tangled with a swordfish-- they’re a little too big and a little too happy to eat squid-- but he’s seen the damage they can do even to fish their own size. Jack’s no weaker than his simpler cousins.
In fact, he’s turning out to be an intriguingly dangerous person. Gabriel isn’t sure what he thinks about that. If he wants to think about that.
He gives the fishbones a perfunctory cleaning and throws the remains onto the general bone pile. If he put them in the garden, Jack might think he appreciated the gesture, and the last thing Gabriel wants is to encourage him.
Gabriel basks in the midday quiet; he's got a full belly and nothing much to do. He's indulged in several uninterrupted naps. Now, as the incoming tide lifts the surface higher over him he slumps out lazy and smug into his garden to rearrange things, lower arms sifting through the collection with minimal input from his brain. He soaks in the warm quiet of the reef, the only sound the waves rolling onto the distant shore and the soft click and clatter of stone and bone under him.
He sees last night's remnants on the bone pile and pauses.
He hadn't realized how much his hunger had fed his bad temper until now. He may have been just a tiny, tiny bit rude.
Hospitality is a deep thing. The chorus would have been in the wrong not to extend it, like Gabriel would have been wrong to chase them away in the first place. It was rude of Jack to push the issue, but it wasn't exactly the height of manners to ink in his face when he was trying to do the right thing. It’s clearer now without hunger shredding his nerves and the first surprise of visitors making his skin crawl.
Gabriel picks up one of the fish skeletons, turning it over-- the skull is caved in on itself, but one of the ring-shaped eyebones is intact. He extracts it from the rest of the splintered bone. He wasn't careful about eating-- the grooves of his tongue criss-cross it at random angles, very unappealing. Holding the bone daintily, he gives it more careful licking, rasping it smooth into a gleaming white ring. He could just slip his smallest finger through it without breaking it, but it's too fragile for much wear. He'll just... keep this one. Just one.
He puts the single bone with his collection of circular things, rearranging other eye-bones and drilled shells until he likes the look of it all. It's a small change, but a good one.
He should do something with the day. Maybe go see what kind of interesting trash the chorus left behind. Migratory sirens don't have a collector's eye-- probably left a lot of interesting shells and bits to sort through. He hopes they weren't too tidy with their food, either. Their debris is going to be what draws the usual animal inhabitants of the reef back, lures the bottom-feeders and scavengers in so he has something to snack on while he waits for the mussel beds to replenish.
He should go out… hmm, but first he might rearrange the circular things again.
Just move a few things around.
He's midway through a complete overhaul of the whole shoreward side of his garden when a formal click echoes to him-- he looks up, scanning the water with a frown until he sees Jack clear on the other side of the cove, enough room for a whale between them.
He clicks the other siren over-- Jack approaches slowly, holding up a bouquet of wriggling silver in each hand. His expression is oddly reserved, considering that he was all but flashing mating colors yesterday.
Gabriel crooks a finger, wagging the sharp talon at him. "I'm not going to ink you again."
"Good to hear it."
"Come on, mighty hunter. Show me how many anchovies you bravely punched in the face."
Jack's face breaks into a wry smile, a curve like the sunlight makes on the ocean floor, and Gabriel smirks back. He feels the first flush of red trickling up over content-pale-yellow, making lazy lacy patterns on his skirt.
"Hey, I had to catch these little bastards one at a time."
"What a battle."
"I like anchovies." Jack drifts within arm's reach. Well; Gabriel's lower arms, anyway-- he stretches out and plucks one of the stunned fish out of Jack's grip with a curled tendril, popping it into his mouth and swallowing contentedly.
"I like them too. Come on. Settle in. Eat with me."
"I ate my own share earlier, but if you don't mind."
Gabriel waves a few arms-- one upper, two lower-- at an empty patch of sand. "Settle in. I cleaned up my house and found my manners today."
"I feel like I should--"
"I owe you an apology," Jack says, a beat ahead of him.
They stare at each other for a beat.
"We really have to stop doing that," Gabriel sighs.
"At least you didn't bare claws at me today."
"Day's young," he says cheerfully, snagging two anchovies with his suckers. He passes one back up his lower arm so that he can grab it with his fingers and prods Jack in the chin with the other.
Jack goes gamely for it, sucks the fish in whole as soon as Gabriel releases it. He can feel the suction against the tip of his arm as that barrel chest swells, sharp and inescapable. Jack doesn't even bother with those blunt little teeth, just swallows the fish down, and it makes his throat bob in a way that makes Gabriel's skin a little more vibrant.
"I don't think you tasted it."
"It's an anchovy. They're delicious. I just take it as a fact."
Gabriel snorts, popping his own fish into his mouth, cracking its skull under his teeth and flaying the skin off the bone with his tongue. He makes a bit of a show of it, exaggerated noises of appreciation, and Jack watches him with a hesitant smile.
He spits out the skeleton, white and clean, and Jack's eyes widen. "...wow, how did you--"
He can see Jack swallowing down a response, his face and torso flushing briefly and his gills puffing once. His eyes go bluer as his cheeks go redder.
Red is an interest-color one way or another for most sirens, even if they can’t display it properly. Gabriel appreciates that universality.
"Spit it out before it eats your tongue," he says with a smile.
"I came here to apologize for the mating dances, not make it worse," Jack says, shaking his head firmly.
"Mmm, the flirting’s cuter when I'm not hungry." He plucks another sardine from the bouquet and sucks it clean, leaving the skull intact this time just to show that he can. "...but my tongue does have teeth on it, so whatever you're daydreaming about, don’t."
"Still intrigued," Jack says, looking worryingly like he is. His eyes widen, he goes a little redder, and he tries to cover his face. Almost smacks himself with a fistful of sardines in the process. "Ah, shit. I'm sorry, I don't-- always have a good gauge on where charming stops and abrasive starts."
"Give me those before you hurt yourself." Gabriel tuts and loops the end of an arm twice around the sardines in his right hand. "And. Like I said. The less hungry I am, the more charming you are."
"You're trying to trick me into feeding you more."
"Is it working?"
"It absolutely is." Jack offers the other fistful of fish. "I ate during the hunt. These are all for you."
"Wow, you're cuter already." He tucks the first handful under his skirt, big central suckers tugging at them, tasting their rich oily skin, snags the second handful with the same arm.
Jack grins at him. "Any requests for tomorrow?"
"Hmm." Gabriel steeples his hands under his chin. "Impress me."
"...I can do that."
"See you tomorrow, Jack." He tips a tendril up at the faint yellow dot of the sun, far above. "This time."
"Same time, same place." Jack dips his head solemnly.
Jack's late the next day. As the texture of the light bends past midday, Gabriel catches himself shooting glances back toward the grotto. He's picked some of the cove clean of the merfolks' debris-- arranged some in baiting piles for the fish and foraging crabs, taken the prettier bits of bone and detritus for his own. Normally he'd be enraptured by picking through things, but he catches himself actually wanting to see Jack again.
And the bastard's late.
He's considering going back on the whole hospitality thing and just being irritated at him again, just for making him feel at loose ends this way. Idiot siren, he doesn’t actually want company, he’s just gotten used to Jack showing up, that’s all.
He tells himself he won't give him a second thought-- then after another half an hour of idly turning over the same sand, has to admit he's not paying attention to what he's done, and returns to the grotto to wait. He passes the time by constructing imaginary counters to Jack's inevitable excuses, whatever they are. Got distracted. Went out too far. Was chasing a fish 'this big', something like that.
It wears down to evening. The hypothetical arguments have long lost their luster and he’s resorted to rearranging the rockpiles inside when hears a distant click and whistle, another formal request for entry to his territory.
He gives Jack a few minutes to stew before he responds with his own short whistle and a warning talon snap, coming out to sit on the reef with his upper arms folded and his lower arms curled into neat judgmental spirals.
Jack's silhouette, off in the seaward murk, looks... different. Bulkier. He's moving slowly, and there's a flash of worry that the idiot got himself hurt--
--and then the silhouette resolves and he can see Jack ploughing doggedly through the water. His gills stripe his torso red as they flare with effort, chest heaving to supplement the waterflow, and his arm is buried up to the wrist in the gills of a tuna wider around the ribs than he is. It's the biggest Gabriel's ever seen; those big bluish ones don't come up to the shallows, especially not when they’ve gotten that size.
Jack's eyes are a little wild when he finally reaches Gabe’s lair and lets go of the thing. It's still fresh enough to settle to the seabed.
Jack gestures at the setting sun, forms words with no water behind them. Tries again, voice reedy. "Took longer to bring it back than I thought. ...you have to share this one, Gabriel, I couldn't outswim an anemone right now and my arm's going numb."
Gabriel stares at him. At the fish. At him. He's got a healthy appetite, but it'd take three of him to finish that monster in one sitting.
"...I can take a chunk to go," Jack says meekly.
"No. No, you dumbass-- come on, eat before you go belly up." Gabriel takes a few steps and reaches out to wrap a lower arm around his wrist, tugging him closer. What he thought was a shadow is soft under his suckers, too soft, blood too near the surface. He realizes it's a bruise and shifts his grip quickly. "You haven't eaten all day? What the hell happened to your arm?"
"It didn't go down in the first strike. Tried to take a couple bites out of me."
This isn't one of the big fish with teeth, but he's used his own limbs as bait enough to know that even the little ones can clamp down hard. "So you kept hitting it."
"Yeah. It's only my arm, it'll be fine tomorrow."
"You hunt with your arms, what if it's broken?" he frets, wrapping more suckers around Jack to haul him close, feeling for breaks and bruises carefully with four careful arm-tips.
Jack stares at the dark tendrils curled around his arms, and swallows water convulsively. “It, uh, it heals fast. The bone. The bones heal fast."
"It heals fast, he says. He punches things to death and he might starve if he can’t but it's okay, he heals fast ."
"...but you're impressed, right?"
"Yes, yes, I'm very impressed, don't do this again, okay? Not alone." Satisfied that there’s nothing immediately wrong, Gabriel releases Jack’s arm slowly, tendrils uncoiling a little reluctantly.
Jack looks toward the deeps, weighing a question. "You want to come with?” He cuts himself off immediately. “No-- forgot, you don't like leaving the reef."
"...I'll hate it less if I have someone to watch my back. Make sure something bigger than me doesn't take a bite. Unless you think I can't keep up?"
"No, I'd love to hunt with you," Jack says. "That'd be... it'd be great." He stares at Gabriel as if he can’t quite believe it, a little smile dawning on his face. “That’d be really great.”
"Good. Now. If you're not going to eat--"
He turns himself to the feast in front of them, carving out a bite with the sharp edges of his thumbs. It’s fresh and good in his mouth-- he rips out another clawful, another, another. Jack drifts to eat off the meat by tail, working his own bloody pieces out with his teeth and his un-clawed fingers, but Gabriel can see he's struggling, favoring his bruised arm.
He carves off another chunk and passes it to Jack, waving it in front of him temptingly until he reaches out slowly and takes it, shooting Gabriel a look of surprise. Gabriel waits patiently for him to realize he’s allowed to eat it and do so: once Jack is fed, he tears out a bite for himself. Then another for Jack, another for him-- alternating bites until Jack has enough strength back to really rip in, his hunger taking over. Between them they put away more than half of the massive fish.
They're both smeared with blood and littered with scales by the time they're done. Gabriel hasn’t felt this full this since he was half this size and had less than half as much stomach. Jack's still picking slowly at the tuna as Gabriel settles back to digest, skin sleepy and pale.
"...if you're wondering," he says, watching Jack savor a bit of meat. "...You're pretty charming right now. I’d go as far as ‘adorable’."
Jack makes a rude gesture, but his eyes sparkle.
"Be careful if you eat from the head. I'm going to clean the skull up and put it in the garden tomorrow."
With the tuna's blood bright on his skin and his own blood rising to the surface, Jack looks like he's flashing full interest-red. It looks good on him. Gabe’s stomach twists with conflict-- to get closer, or to get away from him, face or flee the feeling Jack stirs up in him.
He goes with the instinct to retreat, folding himself back into the grotto lower-arms first.
“I can go,” Jack offers quietly.
No. No, that’s not what Gabriel wants at all.
“Stay here. Sleep. It’s safe, it’ll be fine.”
Jack nods seriously.
The heavy meal settles into his gut; drags him down into sleep as soon as he shuts his eyes. He expected having company to make it harder-- it’s the opposite instead. Something about Jack’s bulk just outside makes it easier to let go and drift.
He wakes up every few hours, glancing at the angle of the light before sliding back under, reassured by the shadow outside, a familiar silhouette thrown across the garden floor.
A few hours before dawn he wakes up a little more thoroughly, crawling half-awake to the entrance of the grotto. Jack is silent and still, hanging in the water with his eyes closed, his gills fluttering slightly as he sleeps. The faint moonlight from the surface just barely lights up the silver blue of his scales, makes his upper body and his hair pale as wave-polished shell.
He’s close enough to touch, and as he thinks that a dark shadow wraps around Jack's silver wrist and Gabriel tastes his skin. His arms do their own thing when he’s distracted, or sleep-addled, and Gabriel can’t quite muster the concentration to let go before Jack notices.
Jack's eyes open abruptly, and he gives a little jerk before he sees what's grabbed him.
"M'not going anywhere," he mumbles.
Gabriel mutters an apology back, unwrapping his truant arm, tucking it back in with the rest of the mass. Jack sinks a little closer to the grotto's entrance, moaning softly as the motion shifts his distended belly. His eyes shut and his breathing evens again.
Gabriel watches him for a bit before settling in for another nap.
When he wakes up again to the light of dawn, he's snuggled up against the doorway of the grotto with two arms out, twined all the way around Jack’s bicep to his shoulder. As they stir against him he blinks, gives Gabriel a soft little smile that stops the apology on his tongue.
"You going back out?" Gabriel asks, unwrapping his arms and gathering them under him.
Jack shakes his head slowly. "Too full. I'm not going to the deep water. What are you doing today?"
"Clean up. Arrange the garden. Try to bait some shellfish back. If I'm feeling really brave, I'll take the rest of dinner to the next cove over. There's a siren that makes lobster traps. I've been meaning to restock."
"Is it dangerous?"
Gabriel snorts. "No. I just don't like being social. Neither does he."
"If only you knew someone who could be social for you," Jack says, face a mask of faux-contemplation. He stretches out, aligning his spine, and makes a little puffing sound as he rubs his gut.
"I'm not sending you on my errands." Gabe gives him a more subtle deadpan until Jack's looking uncertain. Cute on him. "What if you decide you like bothering him better and you don't come back?"
"...not very likely."
"You say that now. But I know you migratory types. People to irritate in every cove and every sea..."
"I promise to come back." Jack's uncertainty has melted into a wistful little smile. "If I'm wanted."
Gabriel wonders if he means not just today, but next migration season. Year after year.
No. That’s not what he means, he’s just flirting. Offering bait, luring something tasty. Gabriel’s not as easy a catch as Jack is, he tells himself. He's got standards. He takes his time. Jack’s probably the flighty type, heart shifting with the seasons.
"Let's just go together," he compromises. "I want to see the look on his face when he gets a load of you."
Jack’s monster catch is lighter sans half of its flesh and its head; they take turns pulling it along as they skirt the just of rock that breaks the tide and separates Gabe's reef from the Lindholme retreat. Jack looks appropriately delighted when he sees the hodgepodge warrens Torbjorn built made for his brood, waving to the little scuttling children that peak out of crevices at him and goggle through salvaged glass windows.
"Who's there?" the old builder himself booms, at Jack's polite click, scuttling out with his claw brandished. "Who the devil are you? ...Oh, you're with that one. Well, that's all right."
Gabriel laughs. "This is Jack. His chorus crashed my cove a few weeks back. They're gone now, though."
"I heard them come in. Lot of trouble. What's he still doing here? Late in the season, isn't it, wayfarer?" Torbjorn prods Jack, who shrugs.
"I'm meeting an old friend. Making new ones."
"Gabriel? Friends? Not likely."
"I'm hurt." Gabriel puts a hand and a few tendrils over his central heart. "we're friends, Torb."
Torbjorn considers that. "I see you once a season at most."
"Exactly. Just like we both like it."
"Right you are, my boy. What've you come here for?"
"I need more lobster pots. The reef's a little picked clean; I'll need to trap dinner for a while."
"And what'll you give me in return?"
Jack hefts the bulk of the tuna from behind his body-- the meat clinging to the bones breaks off in little particles that flavor the water with day-old fish. Old fish isn’t a taste Gabriel has ever acquired-- but for Torbjorn and his folk it's barely seasoned enough. They have a good system going.
Torbjorn whistles and snaps his claw. "Pretty thing! And good sturdy bones, too. Oh, that's fair, Gabriel. That's a fair trade." He gives Jack a shrewd look. "Your catch, was it? That's a fish too deep for our Gabriel."
"I owe him,” Jack says seriously. “My chorus is the reason the reef's so bare."
"I see. I'm sure that's the only reason." Torbjorn looks between them. "...Did I ever tell you how I courted my Inga?"
He has. Gabriel sighs. "You made a giant net to catch one of those big floating jellyfish for her, it was very dangerous and very romantic.”
"Big thing it was, big dangerous thing. Near twenty fathoms long those tentacles. But I spread my net in the open sea and when one blew in, I looped it in safe, towed it behind on a long, long line. Took it all the way home to her. So gratified she was, kept offering me bits of the vile thing-- ah, but she was lovely in her happiness."
Gabriel doesn't think Torbjorn has much business calling anyone else's diet 'vile'-- he's seen what the man does to herring. "And you lived happily ever after. How about those lobster pots?"
Torbjorn gives him a look like he's missing something-- but shakes his head and goes scuttling back into the warrens to bring out what he has for trade.
Gabriel gets six lobster pots and a favor when the deal's all done, and learns the name of the newest Lindholme-- this one a delicate, soft-limbed baby that takes after Inga, all dangerous blue feathery skin. Gabe lets it chase a tentacle at its slow drifting place, careful not to brush his body up against the baby's stinging tail.
Torbjorn's eldest daughter corners Jack to interrogate him about migration-- there's a girl who's going to break her father's heart. She’s built to be a reef dweller, but her heart is built to move, Gabriel thinks. Jack grins and gossips, but his hearts aren't in it. However many he has. Gabriel can tell, somehow, that those smiles are an effort for his friend.
Gabe finally steps in to chases Brigitte off, send her scuttling back to safety with some puff and a few hyperbolic threats, but it doesn't help. Jack retreats a little with one of the lobster pots. It's an unattractive but functional mass of bone and driftwood, held together with salvaged wire and cured seaweed--and Jack is looking at it like it might explode.
Gabriel isn’t sure what happened, between the easy morning and now, that has Jack so tangled up in himself. He tugs on a fin to snap him out of it.
"I swear the jellyfish gets bigger every time he tells this story," he whispers.
Jack cracks a smile for him, wan but real, and the world rights itself a little. "Yeah?"
"I've never seen one bigger than five fathoms, myself."
"I have. Not as big, as he's saying though." Jack flicks his tail up to point out one of the thin scars that decorate his body-- a long welt. "That one was almost ten fathoms. I didn't even see the bastard, the water was so murked up-- just felt the sting and backpedaled hard. Didn't know what had done it until I surfaced and saw the sail."
"And you learned to be careful, right?" Gabriel prods him.
"...no, not really."
Gabriel heaves a sigh so theatrical he gets his skirt involved, belling it out like he's a jellyfish himself.
"Um. You know that's not why I brought the tuna, right? Not this soon. Not--"
"Never mind." Jack looks… disappointed? Relieved.
Whatever's eating Jack, loading him down with lobsterpots and having him swim back at least distracts him. They set them out together, near the dropoff by Gabe's reef. Jack's never seen it done before; the tools fascinate him.
"It's a handy little thing. I don't know how you'd carry it around, but..."
"That's why you make a place to come back to." Gabriel shoots a proud look toward the grotto, the carefully arranged garden. "Instead of bouncing around like a startled brine shrimp."
"...I guess I didn't see the point. I like travelling. I meet my friends when I can and I see as much as I can so I have something to talk about."
"But you came back to the same cove every year, didn't you? Until the humans moved in?"
He shakes his head. "No. I’m not one of the old guard-- I’ve only been coming here for about five years. I jump from chorus to chorus. Sometimes I migrate alone."
"You? You, the easiest catch in the sea, you go it alone?"
"I have company most of the time." He shrugs with his whole body, his tail cutting an arc in the water. "Just... you know. I'm the kind you throw back after you catch me."
Gabriel makes an offended sound. "I don't 'throw things back'. That's quitter talk."
"Would you keep me, Gabe?" he murmurs, making a soft gulp out of Gabriel's name. "If you caught me? Or would you trade me for lobster pots when you got tired of me?"
It's a joke, but it isn't quite a joke. Jack’s face is too intent for this to just be wordplay, and Gabriel feels uncomfortably like he’s been missing some of the conversation. Without exactly meaning to one of Gabe's lower arms comes up to trace Jack's face, tugging his mouth up into a smile with the gentle grip of his suckers.
"You're too pretty to trade. I'd keep you in the garden. With the blue things, next to the flat, shiny things."
Jack chuckles, reaches up to brush Gabe’s arm off his face. Gabe twines the questing tendril around his fingers instead, and Jack surprises him by pressing their joined limbs against his cheek, nuzzling into the springy-soft skin of Gabe’s arm.
Gabriel isn’t an easy catch, he tells himself.
Jack’s known a lot of sirens in his time. He’s done this before. It’s… flattering that he likes Gabriel, but that’s not what Gabriel’s waiting for.
His central heart does a flip-flop and he tugs his tendril away from Jack’s grasp, tapping him on the nose to soften the sting-- he doesn’t want the guy to feel bad and try to stop flirting. It’s cute. Gabe likes it. And it’s just how Jack is, he said so himself.
“So.” His voice is too loud in the water. “Hungry again yet?”
Jack looks at the sun, rubs thoughtfully at his stomach. “I could eat. Don’t really have to for another day, but I could.”
“Well, we have to keep your strength up.” Gabe feels himself flushing red and dark. “Come hunt with me.”
“Okay.” Jack’s smile is wistful again. “Show me how it’s done, gorgeous.”
Gabriel smirks back, and doesn’t bother to correct him about the name this time.
Gabe’s hunted alone since he was the size of his mother’s fist-- a little soft blob of grasping arms and an upper body still soft with cartilage. It was with instruction-- out on the sandy sea-floor, hunting shrimp under her watchful gaze, or his father’s lazy supervision, alongside the other siblings that took after their mother. But it was solo hunting, practice for a life lived mostly alone.
By the time he left his parents’ territory for good, his armspan only a quarter of what it is now, he was an expert in surviving on his own, bringing down prey a time and a half his size and deterring predators bigger than that.
One afternoon with Jack, and it was like he’d been group-hunting all his life. A week of hunting with him, and it’s become a routine pressed under Gabriel’s very skin.
They wake; Jack does a lap of the cove, searching for troubles. Gabriel follows, slower, doing a more thorough one. They check the lobsterpots to see how much fish they’ll need to catch, and bicker happily about a hunting ground. Then they hunt, and eat, and talk, and Jack falls asleep in the water just outside the grotto, and they wake up and do it again.
Jack doesn’t object to reef hunting like he did once-- he’s getting a taste for the crunchy little things that can only be found among the rocks, now that he has a guide to them. It turns out that Jack adores clam and conch, now that he has someone to open them up for him. He can’t get through the shells himself, but Gabriel’s thumbs crush right in like a lesser octopus’ beak, he drills venom into the soft meat of the conches with his tongue so that the snail is paralyzed and Jack can rip them out without risking a sting. They’re careful about that at first-- Gabe’s venom is strong-- but Jack’s stomach is strong too, and he finds the taste intriguing.
“Tingly,” he admits, after his fifth or sixth one day. “Probably not thomething I thould eat all the time-” and he hears himself and makes a face.
“Did your tongue go numb?” Gabe gawks, then laughs at his sheepish face. He looks lucid, he’s not showing any other signs of being affected, he just sounds… absurd. “Okay, that’s enough for you!”
“It’th a nithe feeling!” Jack lisps, hands on his hips, and they fall into each other laughing at it a second later. It’s become second nature to be touching and touched by Jack, a lower arm or a hand wrapped around his tail, his arm, Jack’s hand on his shoulder or his tail brushing Gabriel’s waist.
Gabe’s tastes are changing too, though. There are so many fat open-sea fish to try-- and while Jack is more than capable of bringing them down alone, his favorite thing to do is herd and drive midsized fish away from the shoal, harassing them down toward Gabriel’s hiding place so he can watch Gabriel’s colors bloom as he pounces on them, scooping them into his skirt and crushing them or dispatching the bigger ones with a talon through the brain.
They bring down a few more monsters together, too-- it’s safer, with Jack hanging still nearby, Gabriel baiting a big hungry beast down with the wriggle of his arm until it’s close enough that they can pounce together. They feast on mahi mahi, and once a marlin-- more dangerous prey than either of them have ever tried alone. It’s faster than Gabe expects but so is Jack, parrying its slashing swordbill with strikes of his arms, bone clashing against bone until Gabriel can pierce and paralyze it.
“How do you do that?” Gabe marvels, as they’re swimming it back-- him clinging to Jack’s torso and dragging their catch, Jack powering through the water on a surge of triumphant energy.
“Don’t know,” he pants. “Head gets hot and things are slower when I’m hunting. I’m faster. Don’t know.”
“I love watching you do that,” Gabriel says, and then feels like he’s shown too much. But it’s okay; he’s only echoing what Jack said, a long time ago when they were only first meeting.
It’s become hard to say what hunting ground Gabriel prefers anymore. The reefs are fun, full of sweet, soft meat inside hard shells, but the open ocean means clinging to Jack’s back and boosting him along with siphon jets, both of them alive with the joy of speed. The open ocean means seeing Jack’s eyes going that burning blue and watching him move like lightning.
The night after they catch the marlin, Jack’s arms are striped with red. Healing quickly, as promised, but Gabriel still dotes over him when the main meal is done, working his sensitive lower arms over every inch of the bone to make sure it isn’t cracked, that none of the scrapes on his skin are too deep.
Jack flushes as he does it, tail churning the water in little directionless spurts. He likes being touched. He likes Gabriel holding him.
Gabriel tells himself, the way he does every time Jack shows a sign of his old mating displays, that he’s not such an easy catch himself. It’s hard to convince himself when his hearts feel like they’re fluttering inside him.
He tells himself he’s not going to just take the bait. That it’s too easy.
But another impulse in his mind offers back…
Why shouldn’t he, though?
Why the hell shouldn’t he take what’s so freely on offer? What’s he gaining by turning it away, over and over?
He can’t find a counter-argument anywhere. Only habit is keeping Jack at bay, and his habits have been changing so much these days. What’s one more little risk, barely a risk at all?
Gabe’s arms slip off of Jack’s arms, but don’t release him. One crawls down his body and curls around his waist, another snuggles around his tail just under the round swell of his gluteal muscles. Jack’s eyes widen, but he lets himself be towed in, caught in Gabriel’s embrace,
“You really should try a little harder to get away,” Gabriel says, mouth curling up. “Being an easy catch… it’s dangerous. Who knows what’ll get you in its grip.”
“Oh no.” He can feel Jack’s body starting to heat. His face is flushing. “Gosh. Help.”
Gabe reaches out, twines his fingers with Jack’s, lower arms all wrapping thick and possessive around the blue siren’s body. Up close he can see the change happen-- he drinks in every detail as Jack’s skin flushes and his eyes get bluer and bluer. Gabriel can feel the hunting-heat gathering in his chest and radiating off of his face.
“Gabe. You sure about this?” he murmurs.
“Yeah. Don’t tell me all those come-ons were false colours, Jack.” He hopes he sounds more confident than he feels. He was expecting Jack to just… go for it, and he doesn’t know what comes next.
Jack shakes his head, and looks at Gabriel like he’s seeing him for the first time, eyes soft and wide.
Then, slow as the tide he leans in close, pressing torso to torso, and very carefully, very politely, sets his mouth on Gabe’s.
It’s very kind of him to be slow, different sirens mate different ways, it’s good of him not to assume --
But the touch of his mouth against Gabriel’s makes his hearts pound. The feel of it is-- the warmth, the matching softness, it’s-- Gabe doesn’t want slow. He wants him now, he wants more of that now, and he drags Jack close, lips and nibbles against his mouth and after a second of surprise he lets Jack’s thin pointed tongue slide in against his own.
For a while that’s all he needs-- all he wants is to entangle and press mouth to mouth, muscle to muscle and meat to meat. There’s a world of new sensations in the kiss-- Jack’s tongue strokes so carefully over the radular edges of Gabriel’s, and it’s confusing and amazing and he has to keep himself from biting down or thrusting his own dangerous tongue back. Jack shocks him by sucking on it lightly, and his tongue sweeps inside Gabe’s mouth as if he’s looking for a drop of spice at the venom glands, and when Gabe is trembling and stunned from the sweet invasion he breaks off to kiss Gabriel’s neck.
It’s not a reprieve; Jack finds a patch of nerves he was unaware of that webs him with redblack alarm-interest, he didn’t know that was there. It tingles, spikes him with hungry heat. He wants more instantly.
He feels like Jack’s doing all the work, playing with him, but he’s not sure what to do. Jack does seem to like his tongue--Gabriel licks the other siren’s neck in return, a very light rasp that leaves the skin red and scraped and Jack suddenly writhing against him. He does it again and again, careful rasping licks down the column of his neck until Jack’s skin is raw and he makes an adorable squeaking sound, grabbing his face to kiss his mouth again and rough his lips against Gabe’s tongue.
They’re almost completely still in the water, a self-contained unit of powerful tail and entwining arms squirming against each other, hands on each other’s faces, backs, hair, tiny movements in a big ocean. So strangely motionless for all the motion inside them, between them, and Gabe is panting like he’s in a fight for his life.
There’s an urge stirring up in him, muscles in his left third-back arm working against themselves as the smoother skin along the suckerless tip swells and hardens. He wants. ...Fuck, what does he want, Jack’s torso doesn’t melt into a mantle. A pair of his lower arms surge up to quest and taste, but they find only smoothness along Jack’s hips. There are no folds of skin to penetrate and offer up his seed to, he doesn’t know how armless bony sirens mate.
He goes still in Jack’s arms-- his own lower arms curl nervously around themselves, except for the one happily engorging.
“What’s wrong?” Jack murmurs. Gabe can feel the effort he’s making to calm himself-- his whole body slows down but his gills are flushing water hard.
“I don’t know-” Gabriel can feel his skin prickling with rusty alarm-dismay patterns. He knows what he’d do if he were alone but he has no idea if that’s right, if that’s a thing you do with another person.. “I don’t know how to-- where to put--”
“...Gabe.” Jack’s voice is careful beneath the shake of his arousal. “Is this your first time with-”
“Yes.” He cuts him off before he can finish, because it doesn’t matter what Jack puts at the end of the sentence.
“Oh.” A soft breath, and Jack presses his blood-hot face into Gabe’s shoulder for a moment, a shiver running down him from the nape of his neck to his tailfin. “Oh. Oh, Gabe. Okay. Where’s your--” Jack’s hands run down his torso, looking for something in the folds of his skirt. He finds the edge of Gabe’s mantle, careful fingers stroking over his siphon with recognition, seeking past it into the vulnerable depths of Gabriel’s body. There’s no egg channel there, nothing to be stimulated into release, but there’s still pleasure in exploring those depths. More, when it’s not Gabe’s own sharp fingers. Jack’s are-- so soft, so blunt--
“Not there.” But he wraps his hand around Jack’s wrist to keep him from withdrawing. “It’s-- it’s this one,” he says a little lamely, curling his mating arm over his shoulder. The tip of it is swollen and smooth-- the little hole, usually invisible, is set off obscenely by the bulging tip.
Jack’s eyes widen. “ Oh. ”
“What do you-- where do you-?”
Jack guides one of his forward arms down to his belly, down a little further, pressing the skin until it parts. Gabriel sneaks just the suckered tip of his arm in, exploring delicately.
--something fat and warm nudges back against him, in time with Jack’s gasp, and starts to push back out the slit. He tastes a different quality of salt through his skin, something bitter but oddly intriguing. Jack’s own mating limb is fat and hard, much shorter than Gabriel’s arm, but the texture is so much the same, this one intimate part of Jack’s body so much like Gabriel’s own that it makes him a little dizzy.
“That’s my cock,” Jack breathes. “It’s. Sensitive. Be careful-- that’s perfect,” he groans, as Gabe wraps another coil around it.
“So what do we do?”
“What don’t we do?” Jack murmurs, and then shudders as little suckers pull softly at the delicate flesh, working it up and down the engorged shaft. He slides his hand out of Gabe’s mantle to wrap his arms around his back and Gabe only misses it a little. “We do anything we want. But...oh fuck, oh fuck that’s-- that’s very nice, keep doing that.”
Gabe snuggles close again-- Jack’s slit isn’t far from the fold of his mantle, and he tucks the tip of Jack’s limb into him to fill the emptiness he left, twining the meat of his arm around the exposed shaft until he’s completely bound up in Gabriel, protected and possessed.
Jack makes a stunned noise, eyes crossing, mouth gaping open like an eel. Oh, Gabriel likes that in a way he’s not ready to deal with. It makes him feel… dangerous.
Gabriel’s mating arm slides between them, off instinct and half-formed thought. Jack grabs it, hand moving faster than his brain--he catches it like a fish, stares at it for a second before giving it a tentative stroke.
It’s nothing like Gabriel’s own occasional masturbation. Nothing like one limb thrusting leisurely into another-- Jack’s touch is foreign and urgent and fast. He groans, and Jack strokes with more certainty, guiding the swollen end of his arm into the valley of his pectorals, flexing to give it a channel of muscle to slip back and forth through.
Gabe feels his whole body pulse in one muscular rut, arms crushing down around Jack so hard he’s afraid it’s hurt-- but Jack’s sounds aren’t hurt at all. He’s never been touched like this. He’s not sure how it could be any better even if Jack had a mantle to slide into, if anything could be better than his sure hand and his willing body.
Then Jack lowers his head and guides the tip of the mating arm to his lips.
Gabriel’s thoughts stutter to a stop, and the inside of his head is just wave noise as Jack suckles softly at the tip -- and then opens his jaw wide.
His chest swells with the inhalation of water, and Gabe feels the current drag past his sensitive flesh before the suction catches it and he’s swallowed down Jack’s throat, the whole mating tip and the arm after it. Gabe pushes deeper before he can stop himself, so far that Jack has to strain his jaw to keep his teeth from digging into the width of it.
This is going too fast. It’s all-- too-- too vulnerable, Jack’s too vulnerable and he damn sure is, it feels too raw and impossible to have his mating arm halfway into Jack’s guts but Jack is making a muffled crooning noise around him, wiggling his tongue into one of the thick suckers halfway up Gabe’s arm. The sucker closes around it in a parody of a kiss and he feels Jack’s cock surge in the coils of his arm, twitch and bounce excitedly.
“Are you okay?” he whispers, afraid to move-- but he can’t stop the little motion of his arm convulsing around Jack’s cock, urging it into Gabe’s body with slow constricting pulses, can’t stop the suckers gripping and releasing against Jack’s body, marking him with Gabe’s tracks.
Jack nods. His face is flushed and his bright eyes are lidded and he looks strangely calm, so blissful when Gabriel feels so frantic and directionless.
He can feel seed working up his mating arm-- stupid body unaware and uncaring that the receptive hole he’s found is infertile. It doesn’t care that Gabe is frightened, feels like he might shake apart. His arm just wants to penetrate and breed and shove Gabriel’s seed so deep into Jack he’s more bloated than even before--
It surges through him, hot and needful and unstoppable. He makes a croaking noise, tries to warn Jack, and Jack just nods for him and bobs his head another inch along his arm.
Gabriel crushes him close and pants with the feeling of being consumed and penetrated at the same time. Jack’s calmness breaks when the first packet of seed settles into his stomach-- he thrashes in Gabe’s arms, slippery and strong and fucking his cock through Gabe’s grip desperately. One hand is buried in Gabriel’s hair, the other raking ineffective little scratches across his back. Gabriel returns the caress with his talons-- leaving deeper scratches despite his care. The need isn’t stopping. He’s not done, he still feels wild and powerful and Jack isn’t full yet.
Jack is half enveloped in the webbing of his skirt, lower body almost consumed. It’s too much, Gabe’s claws leave scratches everywhere they touch, but Jack loves it, Jack invites it, Jack arches in his grip and scrabbles to keep him close with just his two insufficient arms and the clamp of his throat. He humps through Gabe’s grasp and into his body with none of the there-and-done grace Gabe was expecting from a streamlined siren like him; he’s disheveled and as wild as Gabriel, needy and eager. There’s a heady stink of mating signals in the water, their desperation weeping out of them both, their need surrounding them.
Gabe feels it inside his body when Jack comes-- the rush of thin, spreading seed trapped warm inside him. He plays with Jack like he plays with his own arm, milking more pleasure out of him until Jack keens and scrapes Gabe’s arm warningly with his teeth.
“I’m not. There’s more” Gabriel can’t remember how to make words. “I need to.”
Jack tips his head back and opens his throat a little more, rubbing at Gabe’s mating arm, massaging it lightly to coax more seed up its length-- too light, Gabe clasps his hands over Jack and shows him the deep pressure he needs, both of them stimulating his arm together as Jack’s throat works around that so-sensitive tip.
Jack shudders in his grip like he’s as desperate for the release as Gabriel is-- his eyes shut in bliss when Gabriel helplessly pulses another thick packet of seed directly into his guts, alive with the need to fill and mate. Perfect. For a moment, it’s all perfect.
Then all at once he’s exhausted. His mating arm shrinks back into itself, just an arm again as he pulls it from Jack’s eager mouth. Jack’s little panting sounds are nothing but disappointment when the soft tip finally slips all the way out, and it sends a tug of confusion through Gabe-- the mating is done but he wants to go again despite the complete lack of energy.
Jack’s own cock is going flaccid and tender in his grip, and he helps tuck it back into the slit as it retreats-- Jack reaches down to pet the arm that pleasured him, pull it away from too-sensitive anatomy.
“Um,” Gabe murmurs. As the wild urges ebb he feels… caught out, exposed, and his skin is going smooth and silver-blue, blending into the nearest thing it can find. Which is Jack.
“...that was really. That was pretty great,” Jack says softly, running his hands softly over Gabe’s upper arms. “You were pretty great.” His voice is raspy and rough: Gabe did that to him, and there’s a little tangle of pride and guilt in his chest about it.
And for a second the pride is dominant-- Jack’s gotten around so much, but Gabriel was still new to him.
But there’s an undertow that swallows up the pride, drags him back to cold, deep reality. This was a sea change for him, an eruption in the depths, the kind that builds islands. It was everything. What was it to Jack? Just another night’s hunt? He feels vulnerable, out of balance. He clings to Jack sullenly, and Jack holds him the best he can with just two arms.
“Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Gabriel growls into his neck.
“...gorgeous, you don’t sound okay.” Jack heaves a sigh that swells his whole barrel chest. “I’m sorry. I went too fast again. I always…” His fingers find Gabe’s hair, petting so gently over the abused skin, soothing the lingering ache where he pulled it. “I wanted to do it right for you, Gabe.”
“Said I’m fine.”
If he doesn’t think about it, he is. If he just… is, like some brainless fish, if he just exists in Jack’s arms and wrapped around his body, he’s perfectly happy.
Just can’t think about it.
He’s never been good at not thinking.
He unwraps himself convulsively, and sinking down and pulling himself over to the entrance of his grotto.
“I’m fine, you don’t need to humor me just because I’m new at it,” he spits, and Jack’s eyes widen. He lunges to catch Gabriel’s wrist before he can retreat all the way into the rock.
“Gabriel!” He lets go as soon as he’s got him, before the grip can read as a threat. “Gorgeous, I’m not humoring you. I swear.” He trails his fingers feather-light over Gabe’s arm. “Do you need to be alone for a while? I’ll be here if you want me.”
Jack’s said that before, too. He’s serious now, though, not a trace of playfulness on his angular face.
“I want you,” Gabe admits. “But it’s done. What else is there?”
“...there can be a lot,” Jack says quietly. “That’s not everyone’s style, but I like it. Being together afterwards.” He offers his hands, and Gabe sighs and takes them, lets Jack pull him back out into the open.
“Don’t you deep ocean types just get it over with and part ways?”
“Don’t you clever multi-armed types do it at arm’s length?” Jack counters. “You know me. I don’t bother much with tradition.”
They float quietly for a while, hands clasped, and then Jack gives him a little tug. “There’s a beautiful sunset happening up there. Want to come up and watch with me?”
Gabe’s skin has gone sandy as the strong emotions work their way out ; It blooms with pale red lace now. “...how are your lungs?”
As it turns out, Jack’s lungs are good. Jack’s climbing abilities are… not. Gabe forgets how unwieldy armless sirens can get when they’re out of the water. It’s not exactly his element either, but he can navigate. As long as he doesn’t over-exert himself, he can stay above the surface almost indefinitely, or at least until he dries out.
Jack, on the other hand, only has the two relatively small arms to drag his whole bulk onto the rock-- it takes a few tries, and Gabriel has to pull him slowly out of the water to position him on the flat surface. He’s breathing so hard that Gabriel’s worried his air-lungs can’t handle it-- is almost on the verge of shoving him bodily back into the water to breathe properly-- but Jack shakes his head and squeezes his hand and slowly gets it under control.
He sags against Gabe.
“This was a terrible idea.” Gabriel’s voice sounds high and hissing above water-- it always surprises him when he hears it echoing in his own ears.
Jack’s is still deeper, but only by comparison. There’s a distinct rasp to it, even now that he’s breathing easily-- maybe it’s just something he always has. “This was a fantastic idea. Look at that,” he says, waving to the sunset. “I’ve never watched it from this high up.”
Six whole feet up a crest of rock is nothing, but Gabe can’t help but preen at showing his experienced companion something new again. Jack looks so genuinely enchanted by it that his doubts all fade; he loops his upper arm around Jack’s back. Adds a lower arm after a moment’s thought, just to help him stay upright, one around his tail… all right, Gabe’s feeling cuddly, he’ll admit it only in the privacy of his own mind.
Jack nestles into his hold like a goby into its den, showing absolutely no sign of minding at all, and together they watch the sunset burn across the sky, watch the reflection it flings across the surface. There are so many more colors up here, so many more reds in the clouds and across the horizon, and the gold tones wash over Jack’s drying skin and burnish it.
He catches himself staring-- and catches Jack staring back, in the next minute.
“See something you like?” Jack sounds almost absurdly shy, for what he’s just done to Gabriel.
Gabriel decides not to feed his ego. “Just looking at your battle scars,” he says primly. That’s not entirely untrue; the texture stands out more as Jack’s skin dries. If he’d been thinking they were pretty and that he wanted to taste them with his suckers to feel how the texture changed out of water, Jack doesn’t need to know it. “You really do get yourself in trouble, huh?”
“Just a few scratches.”
“This isn’t a scratch,” Gabriel says, tracing the back of his claw over a particularly deep tear. It stands out particularly harsh in the sharp above-water shadows. “Shark?”
“Fishhook,” Jack says casually.
“Fishhook? How big was this fishhook?” Gabe gapes.
Jack frees a hand from their embrace to measure it out from his chest and Gabriel squawks at him in disbelief.
“I’m not kidding! You should have seen the human who was using it. ...His name was ‘Mako’, though, so you aren’t all wrong.”
“You know his name?”
“Sure. He introduced himself while he was patching me up.”
“You talked to him?!” Gabriel would sacrifice an arm before he tried to make conversation with a human. Too inquisitive, too ready with nets or weapons, no thanks. Jack is-- he’s so stupid, he’s so stupid and he takes awful risks and Gabriel hates it sullenly.
“Seemed polite. He was hunting real swordfish, I wasn’t what he was after.” Jack laughs, bubbly and happy, as if the incident was just a little misunderstanding and not something that left him with a scar the size of Gabriel’s upper forearm. “That was -- way south of here, a long, long swim toward sunset. Beautiful reefs. Terrifying little jellyfish. Terrifying little octopuses, in the most gorgeous colors I’ve ever seen.”
“Dangerous and pretty. Your natural habitat.”
“It was all right. Something to see.” Jack chuckles. “Don’t really have a natural habitat, except for ‘in the way.’” A shadow passes over his face, but he’s all bright smiles again in a second. “What about yours?” Jack traces a mark over Gabriel’s face, one he barely remembers is there most days.
“Dolphin. I was smaller then, and I was what it was after.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack says, instantly appalled for him.
Gabrie smirks and clicks the talons on his hand. “So was it.”
That brings Jack’s smile right back, tinged with an admiration that sends a shy wash of stony-gray up and down Gabe’s body as if he can hide from someone he’s twined bodily around.
“It was nothing. Come on, what about this one?”
“Oh, that was my friend Rein-- well, we weren’t friends yet, I’d just joined his chorus. My current chorus! He didn’t know my silhouette, it was murky, he thought I was a shark stalking Tracer. Silly misunderstanding. We’re buddies now.”
“Do any of these stories not end with the words ‘and now we’re friends?’”
“I mean, sure! Plenty,” Jack defends himself, blushing red enough to show even in the sunset’s light. “...this one’s from a moray. And this one’s a jellyfish too. And this-- no, no, this one’s from a human named Jesse, that one’s on me, I startled him--”
“...are you friends now?”
Jack’s sheepish smile is all the answer he needs. Gabriel groans and pulls him closer, shutting him up with the weight of a lower arm over his mouth.
“You have to be more careful.”
Jack tugs his arm down, snuggling it into the crook of his shoulder and draping it comfortably over his pectorals, where it sticks. “Too much in the world to see to be ‘careful’.”
“You really are an explorer at heart, aren’t you?” It’s bittersweet. He’s thought about it, what might lie beyond the shallows and the home he’s built himself. Never for long, but he does wonder sometimes what it’s like. “Is that why you don’t have a chorus of your own? You just want to take off on your own?”
“Nah. Nah, it’s just… sometimes it happens. Sometimes things get complicated.” There’s a weight in Jack’s voice, like the air is running too thin and his body is suddenly too heavy, and Gabriel curls tighter around him. “...this is nice, though. The sunset. And spending the season here, it’s been… really nice. I’m glad my friend’s running late, I would hate to have missed this.”
“Yeah? You wouldn’t rather be out exploring?”
A quick headshake. “It gets a little old sometimes, not having someone to share it with. Not being able to tell somebody what you’ve seen.”
“You can tell me.”
Jack gives him a look that makes something in Gabriel’s chest expand.
“Okay,” he says softly, and as the sun chases down below the horizon, the sky going red to black to blue with stars, he does.
When they slip into the water hours later they’re both dried out but content. Gabriel can’t bring himself to let go, and Jack doesn’t ask him to. He’s almost limp in Gabriel’s grip, blinking sleepily and yawning. Gabriel sympathizes; the rush of breathing easy after staying in the air so long is like a sedative. He feels his skin going sleepy camouflage colours, grey-blue and smooth like Jack’s skin in the moonlight. He’ll hold Jack a little while longer, he thinks-- just a little while until Jack’s fully asleep, and then he’ll slide into the grotto...
He flickers awake in the night to check his surroundings, confused why his grotto wall is so smooth and so warm, and it hits him all over again, a rush of tired confusion and pleasure. He should go into the grotto, he thinks, but he’s safe here, safe as a silver mass over Jack’s sleeping bulk, and his eyes slide shut again.
They’re still twined together in the morning. Jack is already awake but seems content to just lie in Gabe’s grip, watching him with sleepy contentment.
“...you know, this was all worth it for such a soft bed. Like fine sand, and no sand fleas,” Gabe decides, finally unwrapping himself and dropping to the seabed. He feels a little self conscious about… well, everything that happened yesterday. He soothes his nerves by going over to the leftover marlin-- pulling it apart, extracting the more interesting bones carefully.
“You don’t have to have sex with me to sleep on me, Gabe,” Jack says. “I like it too, you know.”
“Can I talk you into sleeping in the grotto, though?” Gabriel’s eyes are fixed on the remains of their dinner, not ready to see a rejection on Jack’s face. “It’s a little weird waking up in the open.”
Gabriel braces himself.
“...is it big enough for us both?” Jack’s voice is hopeful. Jack wants to be convinced, or is that just Gabriel’s wishful thinking?
“It’s roomy on the inside, just the doorway is small,” he says quickly. “I’ll clear the opening a little to let you in easier.” He says it casually, as if it’s not complete uprooting of his life, as if the unforgiving squeeze of the entrance isn’t a part of his defenses.
But he would do it for Jack. To have Jack with him, he’ll unblock the entrance a little, let him in.
“Then I’d like that.”
He finally looks up, meets his eyes, and sees the happiness blooming over Jack’s face.
“I’ll help,” Jack offers, and Gabriel isn’t sure how to tell him that he already has. And that it scares him, just a little.