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dappled is the light, long are the shadows

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Jaskier shifted his tail again and swore as pain rippled through him, making his head spin.  He bared his teeth at the net of twine and silver thread hopelessly tangled around the lower half of his tail, the strands digging into his flesh and burning him, the lead weights dragging him down.  He’d tear at the awful stuff with his hands and claws in a heartbeat regardless of the fresh injuries that would give him if not for the stab wound in his gut where one of the fucking hunters had caught him with a spear.  It wasn’t overly deep but it was ragged and still bleeding and Jaskier couldn’t really afford to lose much more blood before he started getting in real trouble.

Tucked away as he was in the relative safety of a lagoon with a thin but high bar of sand and rock keeping the ocean at bay, Jaskier was unlikely to come across any other creatures that might give him trouble.  No, the biggest danger to him now was blood loss and starvation.  The lagoon was replete with colourful fish and wriggly eels, sure, but Jaskier needed to be able to catch them to eat them and the longer this cursed net stayed on him, the less likely his chances of making it through the next moon cycle were.  Even foraging for shiny shellfish required him to move and right this very moment, he didn’t have the energy to do more than lie curled up in this tiny cave and glare balefully up at the flickering surface shot through with pale dawn light.

Moody, in considerable pain, and feeling very sorry for himself, Jaskier whiled away the next few hours clearing his impromptu shelter of any life other than himself – and by that he meant eating it.  The wound in his belly stopped bleeding at some point but the relief from that was countered by the fact that his tail was going numb.  He couldn’t feel his fin at all by midday, the thin flukes drifting limply in the gentle current.

Should have brought Essi with me, he thought, watching the passing marine life with listless eyes.

Too bad his friend was heavy with her first pup and uninterested in leaving the hot spring she’d chosen to be her birthing place a couple of islands to the south in the archipelago.  A sharp pang of grief echoed in Jaskier’s chest at the thought of not living to see the birth.  He wasn’t ordinarily one to take such a bleak view on things but gods, the prospect of getting his tail free was only growing more and more daunting and he was so very tired...

A school of tiny red yellow not far from the mouth of the cave suddenly scattered in response to nothing at all and Jaskier’s instincts screamed to life.  Attention sharpening, he flared his nostrils and extended his tongue to catch some trace of whatever had sent the fish fleeing.

Heat and musk, bitter and subtly sweet.

Jaskier’s eyes opened wide and he pushed himself up on his hands, elbows bent to keep as much weight off his tail as possible.  He knew that scent, though he’d never smelled it so strong, so close before.  He knew the danger it heralded.

A smudged shadow appeared in the blue distance, drawing nearer, and every living creature between it and Jaskier abruptly had somewhere else to be.  Jaskier fervently wished that he too could make himself scarce.  The shadow coalesced into a massive merman and adrenaline pounded through Jaskier’s blood, flushing the edges of his scales and his fins with aggressive colour, soft blue giving way to dark red.  He barred his teeth, pulse kicking up a notch, but refrained from hissing, unwilling to pre-emptively piss off the new arrival.

The merman slowed his approach, coming to a halt several surprisingly courteous tail-lengths from the mouth of the cave.  Mermen were not known for being polite or diplomatic or anything like subtle – no, they were brutish and single-minded and not to be trusted even during the mating season.  They usually resembled some gods-awful combination of an anglerfish and a rock troll too, which was another deterrent against going anywhere near them, but this merman bore a startling resemblance to mermaids, with smooth blue-grey skin where it wasn’t covered in opalescent scales and a face that, while rough-hewn, was distinctly human.  He even had hair, the silvery stuff thinner and less active than Jaskier’s antenna-like strands.

A half-breed, Jaskier realised distantly.  The thought did not incite him to lower his guard one bit.  A merman was a merman, no matter how pretty.

‘Mermaid,’ the merman rumbled, his yellow eyes pinned on Jaskier’s tense form with a predator’s focus.

‘Mer,’ Jaskier corrected swiftly, despite the hiss of instincts ordering him to shut up.  His voice, ordinarily considered deep by other mermaids, suddenly sounded light as a fairy’s.  ‘Not mermaid.’  He might have the body of the fairer half of their species but he wasn’t female.

The merman cocked his head, his immense tail shifting lazily through the water to keep him in place.  He grunted in acknowledgement and, with every appearance of someone making an enormous effort, asked, ‘Are you trapped?’

Jaskier stared, the sharp edge of his automatic fear flattening into confusion as the question left him floundering.  ‘Yes,’ he replied, for lack of a reason not to.  An attempt to move his tail was immediately met with a furious burst of pain and he stiffened, biting back a whimper.  ‘Hunters,’ he explained a little raggedly.

A low growl poured out of the merman’s chest, his clawed fingers flexing and his upper lip curling, revealing wicked fangs far more lethal than any mermaid’s.  Jaskier flinched back, pulse spiking as he waited for the merman to lash out in anger at him.  In an unprecedented display of self-control, however, the merman did nothing at all, though the growling didn’t stop.

‘I would have rent them skull to groin,’ he gritted out, and yes, that a bit was more expected of a merman.

‘Not all of us can fend off six armed humans at once,’ Jaskier snapped, taking the merman’s words as a critique – then he gulped, remembering exactly who he was talking to.

Apparently not done with acting oddly, the merman only huffed and a ripple passed through his body, starting with a sharp flick of his shoulders that rolled down his spine and tail to his fin.  It was an action Jaskier recognised, one he himself did when he was frustrated and couldn’t release his pent-up irritation.  The merman’s flukes twitched and he drifted a little closer, stopping when a startled yip clawed its way up Jaskier’s throat.

‘I can help,’ the merman offered, tossing his head towards Jaskier’s tail.

True alarm spiked once more and Jaskier tried to drag himself further into his tiny shelter but was quickly forced to give up when agony ripped through him.  A pained whine escaped him and he couldn’t even feel embarrassed, collapsing on his side and digging his claws into the hard-packed sand beneath him.  The merman rumbled, the sound only vaguely menacing, and bent forward slightly, as though preparing to reach into the cave and haul Jaskier out.  A thousand warnings from the mermaids who’d raised him as a pup echoed in his head and Jaskier hissed fiercely up at the looming merman, ready to bloody him if he made good on the implicit threat.

‘Let me help, dammit,’ the merman barked, tension coiling in his powerful body.

Jaskier outright snarled at that, the sound catching low and rough in his chest, and the merman snapped his teeth in response.  Part of Jaskier registered that this wretched brute was being infinitely more patient than he’d ever heard tell of, but that part was small and drowned out by clamouring instincts that urged him away, away, away.

‘I won’t hurt you, little mer.'

‘Then why are you here?’ Jaskier spat.  ‘What do you want?’

There could only be one answer.  There was always only one answer.

Yellow eyes flared and the merman’s ear-fins flicked out, silver-grey like the rest of him.  ‘I caught your scent in the ocean,’ he replied gruffly.  ‘Blood.  Pain.  Fear.  Couldn’t even hunt, the stink was so strong.’

Alright, mermen might have superior senses to mermaids but that was ridiculous.  This lagoon was hardly small and it should’ve easily contained all trace of his scent.

Jaskier must have conveyed his confusion somehow because the merman rolled his shoulders again and muttered, ‘Triton blood,’ which explained the less than hideous countenance at least.

Tritons were the male equivalent of naiads, powerful male ocean spirits, and they were considerably less aggressive than mermen, but Jaskier remained cautious, all too aware of how utterly vulnerable he was right now.  ‘And why did you follow it?’ he asked, his tone missing stern and landing closer to desperate.

The merman scowled, teeth flashing in light, clearly agitated, but his next words were painstakingly enunciated.  ‘A little mer should not smell of fear and pain.’

Jaskier’s breath caught in his throat and not just because the blistering burn of the silver was crawling further up his tail.

‘I can help,’ the merman repeated.

‘I’ll die if I cannot heal,’ Jaskier blurted, the delicate fins on his arms fluttering anxiously, his threat display lessening.  ‘And I need to eat to heal.’

This time, he didn’t recoil as the merman shifted fractionally closer.  ‘I will hunt for you.  Let me help, little mer.’

Jaskier’s eyes drifted shut and it was more of a struggle than he’d like to admit to reopen them.  He stared into sunshine eyes and could find no shadows to be wary of.  Either he chose to trust the merman completely or he did not, there would be no going back from this decision.  Instinctively, he tried to move his tail again, unused to keeping himself so motionless, only to have the resulting wave of agony rip a shrill mewl from him, the kind a distressed pup might make.

A growl, faint but none the less intimidating for it, rumbled through the tranquil water, the merman’s muscles bunching beneath his skin.

There wasn’t really a choice anymore.

‘Please,’ Jaskier choked out, thready and broken.  ‘Help me.’

In a flash of silver scales, the merman closed the distance between them, coiling his powerful tail on the sand as he braced his arms on either side of Jaskier’s limp flukes.  Up this close, his bulk was even more impressive, his broad shoulders practically blocking the mouth of the small cave and his eyes glowed in the relative gloom.

‘I can tear the net off,’ he said, surprisingly soft-voiced, ‘but it will hurt.’

Jaskier grunted, well aware of this.

When he gave no further response, the merman stretched out an arm and gripped Jaskier’s hip firmly, eliciting a startled hiss of pain from the mer, and his other hand hovered over the first tightly wound strand digging into Jaskier’s scales.  His gaze flicked up, seeking confirmation.  Jaskier bared his teeth, swallowing back a whimper and daring the merman to continue.

So he dug his claws under the silver-laced thread and pulled and Jaskier’s entire body went into spasm as agony whited out his mind and he screamed.

 

 

 

By the time the net had been reduced to a handful of shreds on the sand, the water was once more thick with the stench of Jaskier’s blood and he was barely conscious.  Some of the blood was from the stab wound, the thin clotted skin over it having torn while he writhed.

Dimly, he was aware of the merman’s hands on him, pulling him through the water, a guttural croon thrumming between them.  Jaskier barely flinched when he felt the merman lick over his injuries, the stinging sensation giving way to a slight tingling as the numbing properties of mer saliva kicked in.  After that, there was an extended moment where Jaskier felt himself set adrift, cradled in the lagoon’s cool embrace, but he barely had time to summon up the effort to be worried when the merman’s presence returned, wrapping around him in an overwhelming blur of heat-danger-bitter-safe.  More saliva over his wounds and Jaskier heard the echo of a whine rattling in his own throat, a pitiful protest.  The comforting croon started up again, buzzing through his head and humming in his bones.

There was a whisper of pressure at his mouth and Jaskier scented fresh blood that was not his own, that was prey and distantly realised the merman was trying to feed him.  But when Jaskier parted his lips, the morsel that was placed in his mouth was large and tough and he did not have the strength to chew it into a more manageable consistency.  The muscles in his jaw and neck throbbed angrily when he tried to grind down with his teeth, every bit as exhausted as the rest of him.

‘You must eat, little mer,’ the merman rumbled overhead, butting his chin against Jaskier’s temple in light chastisement.

Jaskier wrinkled his nose and let his head roll to one side.

The croon segued into a soft growl and Jaskier’s instincts bucked in alarm, plucking a pained gasp from him as his body tensed.  The threatening sound immediately gentled and he relaxed, feeling a breath of relief when the unwieldy mouthful of fish was taken from his mouth.  A quiet, authoritative bark had Jaskier reflexively turning his head back up and then a mouth pressed firmly against his, the accompanying hum a request for entry.  Puzzled, he parted his lips again and gave an ungainly squeak when a foreign tongue pushed something into –

Oh.

The merman was feeding him.

An involuntary purr started in Jaskier’s chest as he accepted the mashed up food, swallowing it easily and sighing contentedly against the merman’s mouth.  The action called up hazy memories from when Jaskier was a pup and his teeth had not grown through and the mermaids in his pod had fed him.  The recollections evoked strong feelings of safety and warmth in him, a welcome respite from the pain that persisted under the partial saliva-induced numbness.  The merman hummed approvingly as Jaskier happily accepted more food, continuing until his belly was full and a little strength had returned to his body.

Only then opening his eyes, Jaskier blinked a couple of times till everything stopped wobbling.  The quality of light coming through the water was considerably more golden, implying sunset could not be too far off, and the merman’s silver hair was limned in white fire by the sun’s touch.  He held Jaskier closer to the shallows of the lagoon, the mer half draped on the fine sand and half propped up against the merman’s shoulder, a steep wall of craggy rock visible when Jaskier tipped his head back.

‘Better, little mer?’

Maybe Jaskier was still delirious and he couldn’t trust any of his senses but he could have sworn that was tenderness lacing the merman’s rough voice.  Surely impossible, and yet... perhaps not as impossible as Jaskier might once have thought.  He warbled softly in an affirmative reply, falling back on the less sophisticated, more natural means of communication.  Strange, that the merman should be the one using a language that merfolk had taught themselves centuries ago, while Jaskier used their instinctive birth-tongue.

‘Good.  You must rest now,’ the merman muttered, his tone lilting up in the beginning of a question.

Jaskier absolutely agreed and he answered the implied question by nestling deeper into the merman’s secure embrace and tucking his head in the crook of his neck, enjoying the faintly ticklish sensations of long silvery hair over his face.  The merman had been true to his word, not harming Jaskier but going above and beyond to help him.  Jaskier didn’t even know his name.  Not content to let that oversight carry on any longer, Jaskier made a very specific combination of rolling trills in the back of his throat that formed a request to know, to be allowed close enough for the trust that came with such knowing.  It was not a question lightly asked and certainly not to a merman.

Clearly this merman understood the depth of the request, for he froze, arms tightening around Jaskier, and gills fluttering by the mer’s nose.

‘Geralt,’ he replied, even huskier than usual, and then he said his name again in their birth-tongue, a coarse sound with a barely present lilt at the tail of it.

Sternly ordering his limbs to cooperate, Jaskier lifted one webbed hand and placed it over Geralt’s heart, feeling the organ’s slow pulse under a firm layer of muscle and flesh.  He repeated Geralt’s name back to him, dragging out the lilt to soften the harshness a fraction.  Not enough to distort the name, just enough to gentle it.

Geralt shuddered in response and haltingly returned the question, the shapes of the necessary sounds so unfamiliar in his mouth that Jaskier wondered a little sadly if Geralt had ever had cause to voice them before.

‘Jaskier,’ he rasped hoarsely, and then in their birth-tongue, a much lighter name that clicked sharply towards the end.

Carefully shifting Jaskier’s head out from the crook of his neck, Geralt’s yellow gaze found the mer’s and he murmured the name with a care nigh on reverential and now it was Jaskier’s turn to shiver, claws pricking Geralt’s chest.  The intimacy of being known in such a way kindled a heady warmth in Jaskier’s blood and he forced his eyes wider, holding Geralt’s intent stare to convey his sincerity.

A throaty purr rumbled through Geralt’s chest and he cradled Jaskier more securely against him.  ‘There is a crevice in the rock with room enough for us both.’

An implicit offer.

Jaskier accepted it, digging his claws into Geralt’s flesh just a little and giving no indication that he had any interest in detaching himself in the near future.  Geralt hummed, pleased, and in a swirl of stirred up sand and flashing scales, they were moving up through the water.  Flickers of knife-sharp pain whispered over Jaskier’s tail and he breathed deeply, trying to ignore it as he kept his muscles loose and relaxed.

Even with Geralt moving slower to no doubt spare Jaskier what discomfort he could, it took them but a handful of heartbeats to reach the place the merman had spoken of.  The surface of the lagoon was barely an arm’s length away and Jaskier admired the colours he could see rippling across the sky before they disappeared behind rugged rock, Geralt cautiously manoeuvring them into the moss-covered cave.  It was not deep enough for their tails to comfortably fit inside so they let them overhang, Jaskier’s indigo flukes and at least the bottom fifth of Geralt’s tail drifting.  Jaskier wasn’t worried about the chances of human hunters spotting them – only the spectacularly stupid would attempt to catch two mer on the cusp of nightfall.

Geralt laid Jaskier on the soft carpet of sea grass and curved himself along the length of the mer’s side, taking care not to touch the cuts in Jaskier’s tail or the wound in his gut.  The position was blatantly protective but as with everything else the merman had done so far, it showed a level of restraint Jaskier would never have expected from him.

Still purring, Geralt nosed Jaskier’s temple, inhaling deeply.  Jaskier yelped, recoiling in surprise but stilling when Geralt flicked his tongue out to taste the delicate scales covering the mer’s jaw and neck.  The area was a very sensitive one and Jaskier stayed motionless, pulse fluttering anxiously as he waited to see what the oh-so-dangerous predator at his throat would do.  His rough purr never letting up, Geralt pressed the flat of his tongue to the scales, licking firmly.  Were this just about any other part of his body, Jaskier would think he was being bathed, but right now he was a bit distracted by the sudden rush of endorphins flooding through him.  His tense posture relaxed of its own volition, all traces of stress and pain smothered under a wave of dizzying warmth.

Jaskier made a soft noise, a nonverbal question about what the fuck Geralt was doing considerably less stern than he meant it to be.  Geralt simply purred louder, not ceasing in his ministrations until the mer had melted into something surely resembling a jellyfish.  The merman hummed, a little satisfied and a little smug, and Jaskier had the foggy realisation that the merman had known what his reaction to having those scales stimulated would be and had acted deliberately to bring it about.

He considered getting snarly over Geralt’s interference before grudgingly deciding against it – not only was Jaskier feeling very fuzzy and content now, but Geralt had not abused this knowledge he somehow possessed.  He had, once again, only attempted to help.

Such a strange merman, Jaskier thought to himself, allowing Geralt to wrap thickly muscled arms around his chest and hold him close.

Jaskier drifted off to sleep like that, lulled by the sense of comfort that came with this odd merman’s embrace, soothed by the rolling purr that hummed between them, and trusting Geralt to keep him safe as he had trusted no-one since he was a pup.