Doing What They Do

by Aoime Kouchou (あおいめこうちょう)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/174188.html)

Kunday had finally had enough of his beach-crawling. His hide was covered with rock-bruises, he was bored beyond understanding, and his strained air-lungs made his chest tighter then it should have been. He had picked the wrong duty-station yet again.

He had spent days wandering between the beach and the water, pretending to be the lookout for the lazy sirens that pocked the coast. He felt more like a voyeur then an actual lifeguard.

“See the surface, Mentor said. The sirens need you, Mentor said. It’ll do you some good… my gills!” Habit kept his clicks soft so as not to betray his position. He had to be out of sight whenever he could afford it. His duty did not include fornicating with the Maa’rish warriors who invaded the beach.

As he pushed his coils over a discarded crab shell, he lifted his binoculars to scan the coastline. Not far from the crashing tide, he caught sight of a Maa’rish’s thickly striped backside. The black rocks around him made it impossible to mistake the paleness of his brown skin and black stripes. Beneath the warrior was another Pond’ique, like Kunday, their fingers digging into the warrior’s shoulders. If the Pond’ique had not wanted to be beneath the warrior, he would have been implementing the scream that had given the beach-going Pond’iques their name – siren.

Kunday put down his binoculars and continued along the beach in silence. It was good to see that yet another siren was enjoying the company of a warrior instead of suffering it. There were very few reports of nonconsensual sex between a Maa’rish and a Pond’ique, but it didn’t mean they weren’t possible. It was the reason Pond’ique like Kunday roamed across the beach to ensure the safety of siren and warrior alike.

Maa’rish hardly needed any protection Kunday could offer. They were well-known for their military prowess, and were often called upon by other planets to serve in military disputes. Their most famous attribute was the strength of their rage, which they called the rat’demlou. While under its sway, a single Maa’rish warrior could kill countless opponents and never tire.

However, the rat’demlou exacted a dangerous price against the Maa’rish. There were few that could control its arrival, the force of its fury or whom the rat’demlou struck. When they fell, a warrior could not tell their allies, their lovers or their foes apart. All were tested until the rat’demlou left the warrior or he was slain.

With some of the scars Kunday had seen, it was hard to understand how such warriors could still be alive. Kunday had never met one warrior who wasn’t proud to tell stories of the battles he’d won or the fa’ithe he’d taken. Some brought their fa’ithe with them, but most came alone to be calmed by the sea.

There was a very ancient Pond’ique story that tried to explain the sea’s power over the Maa’rish. In the version that Kunday had heard, a young shell-herder slithered across the beach for crabs when he discovered what appeared to be a dead body. The Pond’iques back then had known there were beings on the surface, but they stayed away from the others species. The shell-herder had not been afraid of a dead body and so went closer to see if it would be good food for the crabs he tended.

When the shell-herder moved closer, the body struggled to sit up and introduced himself. He was a hero of his clan, some stories said, and had been attacked by bandits. He had defeated them, but the rat’demlou had left him too tired to travel to a town. So, he had sought to rally his strength by the shore of the sea. The shell-herder helped the hero tend his wounds until the hero was strong enough to leave. The shell-herder asked many questions of the hero, for he was as curious to know about the surface. As the days passed, they became very close in a short span of time.

Finally, the shell-herder asked the hero why he’d traveled so far north. There were better beaches far to the south that were covered with sand instead of stones and crabs. The hero simply said that he’d come to see the thing that ate and was never full. He said that, though the sea was a tremendous force of nature, he took great pleasure in contemplating how he could defeat it. Every battle he won within his mind pleased him more and more.

In some versions of the story, the shell-herder and the hero laid together until the shell-herder became fat with eggs. The hero was amazed that their couplings bore so much fruit. And when the shell-herder’s eggs hatched, he was the one amazed that his fry were not Pond’ique like him.

Kunday didn’t like thinking about the golden eggs his people produced for the Maa’rish. He rarely saw them, for the bubble-nests were nowhere near his dormitory or the beach. Sirens were the ones that had them, not lifeguards like him. He was only there to make sure nothing happened to upset the delicate balance between land and sea. He was more likely to pick a fight with a crab then he was a warrior, still, there was always a chance.

He scanned the beach again and watched a very shy siren tap the shoulder of a very muscular, shirtless warrior. The two of them were talking, for Kunday could see their mouths moving. All Pond’iques were required to be fluent in Maa’taan if they wanted to see the surface. Kunday kept watching them for any signs of hostility. The siren’s cheek-markings were flushed, making them seem a brighter yellow then the rest of his lateral markings. Something the warrior said was making them brighten even more. The siren’s words were probably the cause of the warrior’s smile.

When the warrior held up his hands, the siren slithered his way atop the warrior’s lap. The warrior pulled his arms around the siren to nuzzle and kiss whatever the siren would allow. Kunday let the binoculars down with a heavy sigh. For but a few moments, he wondered if he should finally just submit his name to the next siren admission lists. It wasn’t like he had time to find a mate any other way. It would be nice to be embraced, just for a little bit.

The distant sound of boots cracking the rocks sent him slithering towards the surf. If he was ever caught by any warrior, he would have to play the part of a siren if he liked it or not. It was part of the several thousand rules that made up the Pond’ique’s exchange. The less the Maa’rish knew, the better Pond’ique markets faired, for their entire economy thrived on the Maa’rish’s support. For every egg produced and mewling hatched, the Maa’rish gave several thousands of dollars to the siren and to the dai’shine – the organizations which cared for Pond’ique-produced offspring. The Pond’iques saved the Maa’rish government billions by doing naturally what took expensive laboratories several days of hard work.

As soon as Kunday’s coils touched the cold sea-water, he instinctively flattened the whole of his body across the water’s surface. He had no legs to kick behind him, but instead possessed a long, serpentine tail to whip through the tide. At the end of his tail was a crescent-shaped fin to allow him more maneuverability beneath the water’s surface.

His body took care of itself without any need for his prompting. The gills that slashed the barrel of his torso relaxed to filter water for him to breathe. At the presence of water cradling his body, flaps of skin sealed his nostrils to keep the saltwater from entering in to his breathing passages. With his gills free to move and breathe, the redness that coloured his sides dissipated back into the flat grey of his natural skin tone. His triplet of lateral markings slowly returned to their natural lemon-yellow hue. The short, curved dorsal fin – tucked between his shoulder blades – tore a wake through the waves.

When he was out of the shallows, he turned around to face the beach. His tail streamed behind him to keep him from completely succumbing to the pull of the current. He reached for the belt strapped against his wet-suit to recover his binoculars.

The warrior had not seen him, nor was the warrior scanning the surface of the sea for him. Instead, the warrior paced the length of the beach until he found a place to sit.

When compared to a Pond’ique, a Maa’rish was a very large and usually well-muscled individual. Some, like the warrior sitting on the beach, exemplified the ideal when trapped within the confines of his battle-dress uniform. The uniform-trousers were covered with blue, black and white camouflage, which marked him as a member of the space-forces.

Kunday could not see any hint of insignia, ribbons or rank on the warrior’s overshirt. Most warriors who walked across the beach wore their battle-dress uniforms either out of habit or to show off their status in the military; it was strange to see a warrior without those decorations. How would he boast to a passing siren without any evidence to back up his claim?

The warrior’s hair was loose and allowed to hang down the back of his neck. Kunday did not like the look of that as a Maa’rish without a braid was like a Pond’ique without a tail fin. The warrior was either abandoning tradition or too lazy to care for himself. When the wind blew the warrior’s hair away from his face, Kunday saw the straps of an eyepatch lashed around the warrior’s head. The warrior cared for his scars but not his hair. He spat in the face of one tradition only to honor another.

If a warrior could help it, he did not restore the body part a fa’ithe or an opponent had stolen from him. A warrior’s scars were a visual testament to the strength of the one who gave them. Eyes were one of the most common body parts lost, then arms and ears. Kunday had seen one or two warriors without feet or missing a leg. One unfortunate warrior visited the beach after only just having a new nose grafted to his face.

The warrior was probably a new arrival and would likely be content to spend some time alone. Sometimes, a warrior would seek out company. Other times, company would seek him out, either in the form of another warrior or a siren. Kunday could only hope that, whoever joined their circle to the one-eyed warrior’s, nothing spiraled out of control. He strapped his binoculars back to his belt and swam down the shoreline. It was time for his swim-break anyway.

*

The one-eyed warrior was sitting in the same place when Kunday returned to his duties the next day. And the day after. The only thing that seemed to change as the rains washed across the beach were the warrior’s hair and uniform. As the days passed him by, the warrior shed pieces of his uniform until all that remained was the undershirt and trousers he wore on the fifth day. He steadfastly remained clothed throughout the rest of the weekend.

Kunday had to applaud the one-eyed warrior, for he’d seen no others who would withstand both the elements and the sirens. Many warriors gave themselves up the moment they reached the beach. They shed their clothes or let the sirens do it for them. A few days of crashing waves, succulent dining and exquisite company made sure that the warrior left calmer and more satisfied then he’d ever be again. The clans paid handsomely to see their warriors treated well.

On his third round, following the crags and boulders along the tide-line, Kunday wondered if the one-eyed warrior was waiting for someone. It wasn’t unusual for a warrior to choose a single siren over the multitude that claimed the black-rock beach. Rare, but not unusual; it would certainly be a nice change, if that was the case. Perhaps the warrior would become a regular and maybe help some lucky siren settle down into a more nurturing role.

Being a siren was not a bad job if one enjoyed the work. Sirens were often intelligent or athletic and most were using the money they earned to pay for a higher education or for some luxury or another. Some went on to do other things, like teaching or travel into outer space. Most of them shared some kind of interest in the Maa’rish, which was something Kunday could understand. He too was curious about the Maa’rish’s culture and its warriors.

However, he couldn’t understand the rest. Sirens used their bodies to entice whatever warrior came their way. Some sirens waited for the warriors to come to them, but most went out of their way to lure the warriors to the shoreline. It wasn’t like their attentions weren’t desired, nor were their duties any less important than his. If not for them, there would be no need for him to slither across the rocks. Sometimes, though, he noticed that the sirens paid some warriors less attention than others.

Like the one-eyed warrior. Or the new warrior with private’s bars on his coat, who was wetting his feet in a tide pool. Not a single siren was to be seen anywhere near them. One of Kunday’s many tasks was to see why such warriors were not being tended to properly.

He stayed out of sight of both warriors as he followed the rocky coast-line down to the black sands. The shore hooked around the waves, which had given the beach its Maa’rish name: Dsh’larthanei, or the Black Cutlass. The edge of the Cutlass took the constant pounding of the waves, which had reduced the boulders and rocks to little more than dark-coloured sand. It was the best place to lay back, for the black sand was smooth and kept warm by the sun.

Kunday found the largest mob of sirens, tucked against the bowed niche between the blade and the rocky beach. Many of the sirens were swimming or cleaning off the warriors’ musk. Several beach-supervisors were also there, soothing their dried skin by lounging in the shallows. There were no lookouts or decoys to stop him from slithering across the rocks and into the water. He, like any other Pond’ique had right to submerge himself while on duty to prevent drying out.

Sirens freely swam up to hug him, stroke his shoulder, or rub their tail-fins against his. They were all covered with the same grey skin he had, but the colour and thickness of their lateral stripes differed from siren to siren. One siren, who wore his hair long enough to brush against his dorsal fin, circled Kunday.

“Look who’s here!” The long-haired siren touched his palms to Kunday’s chest, as was the traditional greeting.

“Sundou, you didn’t dry out too much, did you?” Kunday touched the long-haired siren’s chest to return the gesture.

“No, no. Iishae and D’leitei made sure of that.” Sundou patted his belly, just above his sheath. “I’m sure to take this time. They were too good to me.”

Be it nature or circumstance, not all sirens took to the seed the warriors gave them. Because of this, sirens were given standard salary wages. Those that bore golden, Maa’rish-infected eggs were given a bonus, no matter if the eggs hatched or not. That way, no one forced themselves into the position of siren for the money or worried over lifeless eggs.

Another siren swam up to Kunday to pull his hand against their belly. The two of them chittered and cooed before the other siren shared his words. “I want some of your luck too, Kunday. My mewling will need it.”

“Aw, Kourii, you don’t need any luck. You just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll have an egg to give the dai’shine. Don’t worry.” Kunday gave his brightest smile as he stroked Kourii’s flat belly. There was some silly myth around that touching lifeguards brought good luck to future mewlings.

Kourii cooed as he slowly sank beneath the waves. The slice of his dorsal fin and its resulting ripple betrayed his desire to return to the beach. It wasn’t considered rude in Pond’ique society to appear, and then disappear before a conversation properly ended. Conversations, as well as souls, continued on from the first breath to the very last, for everything in life was circular. A conversation was begun, followed through, then ended so a new conversation could be taken up. A fry hatched from an egg, went through the different spirals of life, only to die so another fry could take their place.

Kunday turned his attentions back to Sundou. “Say, maybe you could tell me something?”

“If I can.” Sundou always seemed to have the best smiles after he’d left the shore. “I’ve been rather busy. I really want to have a gold egg this time. Just to say that I have.”

“There are two warriors beneath the cliffs that I don’t think anyone’s noticed. You know why that is?”

“Two?” Sundou cocked his head to the side, “I knew that sour-faced warrior was up there, but he’s been about as friendly as a shark’s skin.”

Kunday immediately perked up, “He hasn’t been mistreating anyone, has he?”

If the one-eyed warrior had been, then Kunday would have to take statements from the mistreated parties. The lodging authorities would have to be informed so that they could remove the warrior before something serious happened. Not all warriors wanted to keep their fight with the sea locked within their heads. Some wanted to take out their frustrations on weaker, unprepared beings. Kunday wasn’t stupid enough to think he could take on a warrior by himself but he was not afraid to protect a siren.

Sundou waved his hand, “Oh no! He was terribly kind to me when I talked to him. But I think he wasn’t very interested in company at the moment. All he did was look at the water. He never spared me a single glance.”

Such things were difficult to believe for Kunday had seen Sundou dance for many a warrior and none had been able to put off his charms. A swish of the tail, a twist of the hips, and the warriors were hooked before they ever realized it. Kunday trilled out confused clicks before he looked at Sundou again.

“But he didn’t hurt you. Right?”

“Not that one,” Sundou made a soft coo as he sighed. “He was very gentle. He has a nice voice.”

One of the beach supervisors glided his way towards Kunday and Sundou. There were streaks of pale white though out his short mane – testament to the many years he’d served. The sea would not let his body loose the grace or muscle he’d honed first as a siren, then as a lifeguard. Age had faded the stripes at his sides into a dull salmon pink. “Kunday? Did I hear right? Is there a warrior hurting sirens on the beach?”

Kunday shook his head, “No, Master Medai. No one’s been hurt. I was just concerned because I saw these two warriors by the cliffs. A young private and a spacer with an eye-patch. It didn’t look like any one had gone to see them, so I came here to ask why.”

More sirens paddled their way into the conversation. One with thick red stripes down his sides waved his hand for attention. “I saw the one-eyed warrior, but not the private. The one-eyed one seemed sad for some reason, so I left him alone.”

“Me too,” another siren with fat, yellow stripes and glossy grey hair spoke up. “I tried to talk to him but he didn’t say much. He was very polite to me, though.”

One of the elder sirens – a Pond’ique with blue stripes and a proven track record of producing viable eggs – said his piece. “I don’t think the one-eyed warrior is here for mewlings. I think there’s something wrong with his head.”

Medai turned his attention to the blue-striped siren. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I’ve seen a few other warriors like him. They just look out at the water, day in and day out. Sometimes, they don’t leave.” The blue-striped siren bowed his head to mutter, “At least, not in a good way.”

That wasn’t something any of them wanted to hear. Several sirens swam away to leave the topic behind them. It was better for them to imagine the Maa’rish as the heroes they enjoyed rather than the compulsive fighters that the Maa’rish truly were. While blood and death were not strangers to the Pond’ique world, they were best kept out of the minds of those who wanted to spend their days wrapped around their eggs.

Medai rubbed his hand over Kunday’s shoulder. “Kunday, could you keep an eye on this warrior? If he is capable of such things…”

Kunday could only nod at the beach supervisor’s unfinished thoughts. It would be a bad sign for them to have a warrior do the unthinkable to himself. Circle-breakers – be they murderers or suicide victims – did not find rest in the afterlife. Some even went on to haunt the hearts and minds of others so more circles could be broken. It was a horrible thought, especially around sirens and unhatched eggs.

Kunday pressed his hand against his own belly to protect the eggs sleeping within his body. “I’ll keep an eye on him.”

*

Kunday spent the rest of the evening reading about Maa’rish rituals and philosophies regarding suicide. There were very few times when ritualized suicide was called for, as the Maa’rish believed that living warriors were preferable to dead ones. When a warrior did something inexcusable, they were expected to throw themselves into battle to clear up the wrong they had done with the blood of righteous opponents.

However, if what they had done was so inexcusable that battle could not bring honor back to themselves, their bonded partner, or their clan, then there was no choice but to atone. Many of the suicide rituals did not end in the victim’s death. Most of them, Kunday discovered, involved killing the victim’s name or ritualized scarification to distance the warrior from the deeds performed. Though the rituals varied, they still shared the element of a priest, bonded partner, or clan-leader cutting the warrior’s flesh to let out the “bad blood” or to “release the warrior’s name from his spirit.” When the warrior had bled enough, the wound was cauterized and the warrior given a new name.

If the warrior had wronged the clan, he left them to join a new one. If he had dishonored his bonded partner, the union was annulled. If a temple was involved, the warrior would be denied entrance but allowed to join another temple if he desired. The state did not accept suicide for any wrongs done against it. Neither did the king. For them, there was no option left but a dual against a judge.

Since there didn’t seem to be anyone chasing after the one-eyed warrior, Kunday figured the problem must stem from one of the first three. He hadn’t seen any religious markings on the warrior, so he cast that option aside. The warriors that came to his beach were usually supported by their clans, for the lodgings could become rather expensive.

The way Kunday figured, the warrior had most likely wronged his bonded partner in some horrible way. And, in their separation, the warrior’s clan had sent him to the beach to be calmed. Maybe the warrior would do the clan a favor by begetting a mewling with a siren. Or, maybe the warrior had been forced from his bonded partner to beget mewlings with a siren instead of adopting one to raise with his partner. That could be plausible, given how the warrior had dismissed the sirens instead of succumbing to their wiles.

Kunday spent the next day, wondering if the one-eyed warrior was capable of killing himself. He deviated from his usual patrol route so he could pass by the one-eyed warrior more often. Every time he saw the warrior, he breathed out a sigh of relief. The next day and the day after resulted in more of the same, until Kunday’s sighs became silent smiles. Kunday took his swimming breaks near the one-eyed warrior to keep watch over him.

It was eerie in a way, to be so close to a being that didn’t acknowledge his existence. Kunday knew, deep inside his mind, that the warrior saw him. The warrior probably knew the moment Kunday was near. He simply chose to ignore Kunday for whatever reason. Perhaps the other sirens were right and the warrior was there simply to be soothed by the crash of the waves.

Kunday tested that theory by creeping closer to the warrior. He performed simple swimming exercises like spy-hopping and wave-curling to catch the warrior’s eye. Several times, he thought he felt the warrior’s attention upon him, only to look and see the warrior turn his head towards the sea.

It was a cheap form of attention, but he could explain it away if a beach supervisor or siren caught him at it. He wasn’t doing anything but keeping his body fit for duty. And, since he was told to keep an eye on the one-eyed warrior, what better place to exercise then where he could watch the warrior at the same time? He wasn’t breaking any rules that he knew of.

More days passed and the one-eyed warrior did nothing. So Kunday attempted to appeal to the warrior’s belly instead. He hunted several varieties of fish to gut and clean on the edge of the beach. He wrapped the meat in seaweed and left it whenever the warrior left his seat. Maa’rish, like Pond’iques, could eat their meat raw if they chose to. It gave Kunday a bit of pride to see the warrior devour whatever he’d left. It had to be a sign that the warrior was not as suicidal as he seemed.

Even that simple exchange soon lost its glamour. Kunday wasn’t any closer to discovering why the warrior was sending the sirens away or why he wasn’t taking care of himself. Kunday spent his patrols wondering how to introduce himself to the warrior. If he did break the barrier between them then he would have to pretend to be a siren. Would that really matter if the warrior was not accepting sirens? He would probably treat Kunday like he treated the others, which would lead to little more than a few moments of dryness for Kunday.

He watched how sirens greeted warriors they knew and those they didn’t. Several were clustered around the private who’d showed up after the one-eyed warrior had. Either his vigor had attracted them or it was the sound of his laughter; Kunday could hear it echoing off the cliffs.

When he delivered his report to the beach-supervisor, Kunday was cleared for interaction with the one-eyed warrior. He was also asked to visit the infirmary for the usual health exams sirens were given. He doubted he would get much farther than a casual greeting, but orders were orders.

Kunday used his break-time to confront the warrior. He hid his utility belt and wet-suit beneath a boulder so he could seem more like a siren. At first, he performed his exercises so as not to seem like he was deviating from his routine. He steadily grew closer and closer to the shallows, slowing down his exercises so as not to splash the warrior accidentally. While most Pond’iques enjoyed a cooling splash, Maa’rish didn’t take well to becoming wet against their will.

The warrior’s attention seemed to deviate from the horizon to Kunday’s tail-fin. The tide pushed Kunday across the rocks as if he were little more than driftwood. Just enough water spilled over his gills to keep them damp. He willed his nostrils open to supplement what his gills could not fill. He pushed his hair away from his face and looked up to the warrior.

“Why don’t you ever come put your feet in the surf? The water’s not that cold.” It wasn’t the articulate Maa’rish poetry he’d studied as a fry, but it was something.

The warrior cocked his head to the side, as if to consider Kunday with his exposed eye. He must have liked something about Kunday, or what he’d said, for the warrior gave a crooked sort of smile. “No. It is not the cold that keeps me away.”

“Well, I hope it’s not because of me. I’m not terribly territorial. And there is a lot of water out here.”

“There seems plenty for you and your people to share.”

“We’d like to think so,” which was very much the truth. Anyone could discover such things if they would only brave the sea. Kunday politely followed Maa’rish tradition by clasping his fist as he bowed. “My name is Kunday. What’s yours?”

“Renzai,” was all the warrior grunted. He either did not have a clan, or did not adhere to the traditional standard of sharing his name with his clan.

“That’s a nice name,” if he was translating it in his mind correctly.

The flat tone of Renzai’s voice made it hard for Kunday to distinguish the emphasis of the growls. That emphasis meant the difference between his roar is thunder and his fart is tragic. Kunday wondered if the name really fit Renzai or if it had been an empty title thrown upon Renzai’s shoulders by some unknown official. If his roar truly did sound like thunder, Kunday had yet to hear it.

Renzai’s voice was deep enough to be hidden by the shush of the waves. The other warriors Kunday had watched had all been so horribly loud. It was refreshing to see one as quiet and as reserved as Renzai was. In all the time they’d been talking, he had yet to move towards Kunday, flirt, or do any of the countless annoying things most other warriors did.

Kunday pulled himself away from the surf to slither towards Renzai. He kept the tip of his tail curled up so the hook of his tail-fin didn’t rake through the rocks. “Is it too much to ask what you do? Or should I just slink away like all the others did?”

“Do what you like,” Renzai muttered to the sea.

And Kunday did. He slithered his way to Renzai’s side and curled his coils around Renzai. He could feel much of Renzai’s body tense as he eased his head atop Renzai’s lap. He wanted to see what Renzai saw while pretending to be the siren he was not. “So what exactly do you do? When you first came here, I saw you were in uniform. Are you part of the space force?”

Renzai leaned away from Kunday. “Who said you could just climb all over me like this?”

“You said I could do what I wanted. Or did I not hear you right?” Kunday took a small measure of pleasure from the flush shadowing Renzai’s cheeks. The sirens couldn’t break through Renzai’s facade, but he could.

“Shit,” Renzai forced himself to relax. “Give a Pondie an inch…”

Kunday looked over to Renzai and smiled, despite his comment. “What? You’re going to give me an inch too? What am I ever going to do with one?”

The corners of Renzai’s lips curled, but only slightly. His hand moved from his lap to cover Kunday’s shoulder. He wasn’t shoving Kunday away, but he wasn’t holding Kunday down either. “You’re wet.”

“Gee, I wonder why…”

Renzai poked Kunday’s shoulder. “Don’t be a smart-ass.”

Kunday reached over to poke Renzai’s kneecap. “Then don’t encourage me to be one.”

The sun felt so warm and the company so pleasant that Kunday lost track of time. They spoke of inconsequential things like the weather and the trade markets. Breathing became so much of a chore that Kunday’s lateral gills attempted to gather what his nose could not. His sides burned from his gills’ exertions. His skin was so dry that he found himself rubbing his coils to keep from scratching. He didn’t realize how tired and weak he’d become until he tried to struggle as he was lifted off the ground.

Renzai had to be very strong for he didn’t seem to strain as he carried Kunday out to the water. He waded out to the edge of the shallows, where the tides pushed against his chest. He held onto Kunday until the chill of the water soothed the redness out of Kunday’s skin. Kunday had to brave a glance to Renzai’s eye before he was allowed out of Renzai’s hold.

Renzai dipped his hands within the water to pour it over Kunday’s head. “You should stay out here. I’m not worth drying out over.”

Kunday took hold of his wrists before they could escape his reach. “What if I think you are?”

“You don’t know who I am.” Renzai pulled away from Kunday’s grasp.

“You don’t know me either. I guess that makes us even.” Kunday slowly eased himself out of the water so he could embrace Renzai. He unintentionally drove Renzai to either return the gesture or be pushed into the sea with him. It was an awkward hold, for neither of them knew exactly where they should touch each other. It wasn’t the mystical experience Kunday had read about, but the longer they stayed together, the better it felt. “I’m going to come back.”

Renzai’s hand seemed stuck on the curve of Kunday’s dorsal fin. His hand followed the curve over and over again as if he were trying to push something into Kunday’s skin. “You don’t have to.”

“I want to.” He truly and honestly did; not just for duty’s sake, but to be close to the strange culture he’d studied for so many years. “I just want some company and I thought you looked lonely. We don’t have to do anything if you want. Sometimes I just want to stare out at the water too.”

“Then do as you like.” Renzai gently pushed Kunday towards the sea. “But you are wasting your time.”

Kunday wanted to argue. He wanted to push Renzai’s hair away so he could stare at the eye-patch and the scars that coursed beneath. He slid down beneath the waves instead until his dorsal fin marked where he was. He would be back and they would talk more. They didn’t have to do any more than that.

*

Kunday discovered that if he reversed his patrol routes, he could spend the early part of the morning and the end of the afternoon with Renzai. He had to balance his time between the surface and the water or he would cause Renzai to worry. When Renzai was upset, his cheeks became so flushed that his scars would redden. His uncovered eye would brighten to a shade of blood red that frightened Kunday. Those were the times when Kunday would duck down against Renzai’s lap and hug Renzai’s legs.

It was strange. Though there were times when Renzai frightened him, he still found comfort in Renzai’s touch. He liked pretending he didn’t feel Renzai looking at him. He liked hearing Renzai’s voice almost as much as he liked feeling Renzai’s hand on his shoulder. He hoped the feeling was mutual, but he wasn’t certain.

Renzai never shoved him away, nor did he ever tell Kunday to leave him alone. Renzai sat on the beach when the rains smeared across the landscape or when the sun baked the rocks. Kunday could count on him being in the exact same place, day after day, just like Kunday could count on the tides tickling the shore.

That was why it came as such a shock to him when Renzai was not on the beach when he arrived on duty. Kunday had planned on trying to lure Renzai out into the water by coiling his wet tail around Renzai’s ankles. It would have been one of the better tests to see how comfortable Renzai was with him. Few, if any Maa’rish enjoyed having their arch-nemises spilled upon them; a few Pond’ique scholars theorized that being splashed reminded them that the sea was one of the forces of nature and something they could never defeat. Kunday figured that the Maa’rish just didn’t enjoy getting wet.

He spent the first hour of the first day, combing the beach for any sign of Renzai’s passing. After he asked a few unengaged warriors if they’d seen Renzai, Kunday forced himself to return to his duties. No one had seen Renzai that morning, or that afternoon. They didn’t see him the day after, or the day that followed that.

Kunday did his best to put his work ahead of all else. He stopped going to the dormitory to sleep. He made a nest of sorts in the rook of an undersea cave beneath the cliffs. He slithered across the shore before the sun was in the sky and left when the moon was at its zenith. The more he patrolled the shore, the more Maa’rish faces he could see. He pestered the sirens until they swam away rather than endure his circle. Before the week was up, every siren that traveled the beach knew Renzai’s name and basic description.

And still, Kunday was not satisfied. When he wasn’t on the beach, he was slithering across the shadows of the cliffs. The tide-pools provided him with enough moisture to search for hours. More days passed, and he never found a body. The sirens did not talk to him and the beach-supervisors were threatening him with a write-up if he didn’t calm down. His friends among the sirens did their best to calm him down with words or treats, but they weren’t enough. They weren’t Renzai.

One afternoon, when the sun’s light was cresting the trees, Kunday watched as a pack of warriors walked away from the sea. He’d never spoken to any of them for fear of breaking the laws. They’d keep him off the beach then, and he’d never see Renzai again.

Kunday pressed his hands against the blackened sand and heaved his chest out of the surf. His tail thudded against the sand to startle crabs and unsettle minnows. There was nothing behind him but a great expanse of cold salt water. The one he wanted was outside, in the place filled with air and earth. So, he would enter that world – if it would have him or not – and find Renzai.

Sea birds screamed overhead as he slithered past boulders. He had no scales to help his coils grip the silt. His muscles had to clench and relax so that he could be propelled towards the stairs. The trail he left behind was as crooked as the wet curls of his hair. A siren, fleeing back to the cool of the sea, waved at him only to be ignored. Duty? Friends? They were the farthest things from Kunday’s mind.

Patches of dry beach grass sprang up in tufts and snarls along the farthest lip of the beach. Kunday swiped his hand across a patch he passed by; the narrow blades stung but did not break his skin. As he passed into the shadow of the trees, the rocks he slithered over became fuller and rougher on his skin. Several bruised his skin as he passed over them as if to remind him that he did not belong there. He was a being of the sea, chasing after a being of the earth, across an environment hostile to his well-being. He wondered if he could get workman’s compensation if he said he was completing the task the beach-supervisors gave him.

He had to pause at the foot of the steps to consider how he was going to proceed up them. The steps were wide enough for three warriors to walk abreast and were made of an artificial stone-mixture called concrete. It was said to be harder then the corals his kind cultivated for their homes. He leaned down to rub his hand across a stair’s pebbled surface. There looked to be small stones of different colours that broke from the flat grey surface. Were the stones meant to help with walking or were the Maa’rish determined to keep the Pond’iques from ascending the stairs? Was it really too difficult to ask for a lift or a ramp to accommodate him?

When warriors went up or down, they moved their feet independently of one another to reach the steps. Kunday did not have the luxury of two independent legs to do the same. He slithered over to the pipe-rail that bordered the steps and took hold of it. He first attempted to slither onto the step just as he slithered over high rocks, but he slid off the edge. He tried again, only to have the underside of his tail scratched by the rocks as he slid off.

“Fucking rocks.” He hissed out his pain as he reared back to check his tail. There was a hint of tender white against the grey of his underside, but no red to speak of. He swiped the flat of his tail-fin against the air. If he’d been in the water, he would have splashed the stairs. “You win this time, stairs…”

He slithered to the other side of the rail to attempt the same maneuver. The earth was much more pliable to his weight and the grass far softer then the stones had been. Still, he slid off the slope of the hill to slam against the stones. He pounded the flat of his tail-fin against the hill until his anger subsided. He was not going to let a stupid thing like gravity keep him from going where he wanted. He eyed the hill, then eyed the stairs again; it hit him when he looked back at the hill again. He was trying to accommodate the earth when he should have made the earth accommodate him.

He leaned down over the hill until the grass ticked his chest. He pressed his palms against the earth, then worked a coil beneath his belly. The end of his tail pressed against the rocks to act as a lever to keep him on the hill. As he stretched out his coils, his chest slid over the grass towards the summit of the hill. He was finally sliding in the right direction.

It was difficult for him to pick up speed, but due to his length, he was covering enough ground to compensate. He managed to slip past a group of noisy warriors descending the staircase without attracting their attention. He slid into the same wide slither that he performed when cruising across the surface of the sea. It was a little more strenuous, as he had to dig his coils into the ground rather than glide with the current, but that wasn’t enough to weaken him.

Or, at least, he didn’t let it bother him until he reached the crest of the hill. He had to squeeze between two short plants to slither onto a cement beach. Warriors of all different descriptions milled about, either speaking to one another or walking to some place or another. A short cliff covered in grass cast its shadow over the beach and the plants that bordered it. Kunday frowned at the different sets of stars that scarred the cliff. They led to other levels and other beaches – any of which could lead to Renzai.

Kunday took a moment to wipe away the dirt and leaves he’d collected. He unzipped the collar of his wet-suit so he could move around a little more comfortably. While his wet-suit had done a fine job keeping him moist on the way up, it was now dry enough to chafe his skin. After raking his fingers through his hair to push it away from his face, he slithered to the middle of the beach. He leaned back on his coils and tucked his thumb against the roof of his mouth.

The whistle that escaped his lips caused several nearby warriors to fall to their knees and cover their ears. The rest turned to face Kunday – some with claws bared or knives drawn.

“Thank you for your attention.” Kunday offered them all a wide smile. He didn’t have to speak very loud, for his voice carried over the warriors’ silence. “Perhaps you could help me. I’m looking for a warrior by the name of Renzai. He’s about,” he reared up on his tail to approximate Renzai’s height, “This tall. Has an eye-patch. Thick stripes. And I think he’s part of the space force. Oh, and he doesn’t talk or smile a lot. I think it’s because his face is broken. He was on the beach about two weeks ago. Had anyone here seen him?”

One of the warriors Kunday had deafened passed out onto the concrete.

“Oh, and this warrior needs medical attention. Him too,” Kunday flicked his tail fin at another warrior, who had blood pooling down his ears. He didn’t really mean it, but he just had to say, “Sorry,” to avoid an extra-species incident.

A warrior wearing a deep green army uniform stomped his way in front of Kunday. The left half of his head had been shaved to show off the stripes that covered his scalp. The rest of his flame-red hair was folded over to the side and collected into one thick braid. He wasn’t as impressive as Renzai, but he was a sizable catch. “Are you insane, Pondie?”

“My name is not Pondie. It’s Kunday, asshole.” Kunday snatched the warrior by the collar and pulled himself within a breath of the warrior’s nose. “I haven’t slept for a week. I had to kill my last dinner by myself and eat it raw – which was fucking nasty, by the way. I’m dry. I’m tired. And I don’t know if Renzai’s dead or alive. Now if you don’t have anything fucking nice to say, make way for someone who does. Or do I have to scream again to get some answers?”

The warrior shoved Kunday away and took several steps back. “Ancestors, no! Don’t fucking scream again!”

Another warrior, wearing a solid black uniform, dragged a pair of like-dressed warriors to the ones fallen across the concrete. The warrior crouched down next to a fallen warrior and pressed his forefingers against the fallen one’s throat. “Shit! Someone get a fucking tranqu down here! Fucking Pondie’s gone ra’dath!”

Kunday hissed down to the warrior in the black uniform. “I can still heeear you.”

While the black-uniformed warriors dealt with the fallen, another warrior in a desert battle-dress uniform stepped up to Kunday. The warrior was covered with spots rather than stripes and had three chevrons on his shoulder-bars and upper sleeves. Despite tradition, and the narrow shape of his face, he kept his hair short and spiked around his ears. The name Kadaath was embroidered above his breast pocket.

“You look like a fine upstanding warrior.” Kunday reared up to match Kadaath’s height. “Do you have something to say?”

“Master Kunday, is it?” At Kunday’s nod, Kadaath pressed his fist against his palm and bowed. He straightened his back too soon for Kunday to properly return the gesture. “I don’t know who you’re looking for. But they might be able to help you, up at the hotel.”

Kunday crossed his arms over his chest and sank down to his proper height. “You mean I have to swim up more earth? Fuck.”

“I’m sure someone from the hotel will be coming down with the emergency crews if you’d like to wait.”

“No, I can make it.” He patted Kadaath’s shoulder before turning to slither towards the stairs. He pointed up to the tallest of the staircases. “Is it this way?”

Kadaath nodded, “Yes.”

“You know, there are these things called ramps. They’re really fucking awesome.”

“It rains too much for ramps. And the hills are too steep.”

Kunday tucked his lower lip between his teeth and let out a shorter, softer whistle. Kadaath immediately pressed his hands against his ears in time for three other warriors to tackle him to the ground. They insulted his intelligence, rank, and rating; one asked if he wanted to make them all deaf. Kunday was half way to the stairs when he heard a snarl ripple across the concrete. He looked over his shoulder in time to see Kadaath’s punch send one of the attackers sliding against the ground. He’d wounded several warriors and caused one fight; his day was complete.

*

He exaggerated his slither as the sirens did to attract attention to their hips and backsides. Warriors did everything they could to get out of his way. Some even went to the trouble of covering their ears as he passed by. But when he reached the base of the stairs, he had to pause and once again consider how to ascend them. These stairs were just as rough as the others, but the steps were much wider and shorter than the ones before.

With his hand on the rail, he reared up high enough to press his tail against two stairs rather than one. When he felt himself begin to slide backwards, he reared again and surged up another step. It wasn’t the most comfortable way to travel, but he was still progressing and so refused to complain. He soon had the entire length of his tail inching over the steps, one at a time. He thought about spreading his upper body over the steps, as he had with the hill, but thought against it when his tail rubbed against a sharp edge. All he needed was a rock to slice open his wet-suit or scrape across his sheath. Any hint of blood would drive the warriors around him wild.

He passed by a pair of warriors who hugged the rail to give him room. They neither spoke to him nor offered him any answer to Renzai’s whereabouts, and were therefore too useless to bother speaking to.

He allowed them to stare at him and witness the power of a Pond’ique for themselves. Maybe then warriors like them would stop taking his kind for granted. Maybe they’d understand that the sirens on the beach had lives, desires and feelings as well – feelings that could be shattered by the carelessness of a single warrior. Others that passed him by sniffed the air behind him, as if trying to capture some of his essence within themselves. His logical mind recognized that they were trying to understand if the rat’demlou that drove them was also what was keeping him moving.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. He wasn’t following some invisible primal urge – he just could not keep still. Renzai had to be at the top of the stairs for that was the only place Kunday hadn’t checked yet! He could make it; Renzai might even be impressed by how far he’d gone. He would pay Kunday back for all the crying, the pain and the insanity with an embrace. Maybe he’d get Renzai to rub his hair. It always felt nice when he did. A kiss would be nice too.

The edge of the steps proved uncomfortable for his tail to slide across. He had to stop a few times to catch his breath. His nose wasn’t used to taking in so much cold air, nor were his lungs used to containing it. A warrior with spots flecked across his face asked Kunday if there was something the matter. Kunday waved away the warrior’s concern; he would be fine as soon as he found Renzai. He continued up the stairs before the warrior could stop him.

The shade of the trees cooled Kunday’s dry wet-suit, while his insides were flooded with heat. He tried to breathe through his mouth, only to choke of the air. How the hell did the Maa’rish do this every day? The cold, the wind, the ground – it all served to remind Kunday that he was not made to walk across the land.

A warrior in a black business suit stood at the top of the stairs. His brown skin lacked the stripes or spots other warriors wore, which marked him as what the Maa’rish called a tranquilizer. Tranquilizers were known to be calmer warriors who were more interested in the arts outside of war – be it teaching, healing, or electronics. It was said that a tranquilizer’s hand was steadier, meaning he could manipulate things easier than a striped or spotted warrior could. If that was true, then Kunday had never seen it in practice as few tranquilizers traveled the beach.

The tranquilizer clasped his fist and bowed to Kunday. The braid that kept his hair bound slid over his shoulder. “I greet you, Master. How is it that we can help you?”

“I’m looking for a warrior by the name of Renzai.” Kunday pronounced Renzai’s name so that the thunder within the characters was emphasized rather than the roar. That way, there could be no mistake. He wanted the warrior, not a passing bout of flatulence.

The tranquilizer straightened his back. “I’m sorry but General Renzai is not in his room.”

General? But Renzai had never worn his rank on his uniform. Were they talking about the same warrior, or had the tranquilizer mistaken Renzai for someone else? “What? Where – ?”

“I called his office three days ago, and they reported that he’s currently visiting the capital.”

“The Lost City? He’s there?” The Lost City wasn’t that far away. It was on the same continent at least. And if Kunday could get a saline-band for his gills, he could probably travel up one of the rivers to reach it. There were fresh-water Pond’ique along the way; surely they’d be able to help him.

“No, that’s the ancestral capital. He’s in Susaid, in Mourteri.” That meant Renzai was deep into the interior of the continent, in the midst of the great Red Sands desert. Were he in a better state of mind, Kunday would have been able to recall how it had made its transformation from a fortress to a holy city, then to the new capital.

However, Kunday’s thoughts could not move past the fact that Renzai had traveled so far away. The capital might as well be on another planet! Why did the damned Maa’rish have to be so obsessed with deserts that they built everything important in them? They came from the jungle after all! Were they still trying to show the desert natives, the Ateimei, how ferocious they were?!

His hands trembled, but for what he did not know. “All that way…he went all the way into the desert? And he didn’t tell me? Why?”

The tranquilizer had the audacity to shrug. “I wasn’t on duty that night, but the night clerk reported that the general was ushered away by members of his clan. He told the clerk not to give his room to anyone else. He even took our spare keycard with him. No one has access to the room anymore except General Renzai.”

Kunday looked up to stare into the tranquilizer’s eyes. It angered him even more that the murky blue-green he saw inside them was not Renzai’s vivid red. “Why do you keep calling him that? His name is Renzai! Call him that!”

“That is his rank, Master Kunday. He’s a general for the space forces.”

“That’s not right.” A sudden crash of dizziness forced Kunday to bow his head. His hair was so dry that it didn’t cling to his skin anymore. “Renzai…my Renzai only wore his uniform for one day. He said it made him too hot.”

“Yes, I’ve seen him several times going without his uniform. But since this is a resort, not a duty station, every warrior present has the right to wear what they like.” The tranquilizer knelt down in front of Kunday. “Master, you don’t look well.”

Kunday pressed his hands against the tranquilizer’s shoulders. He wanted to look the tranquilizer in the eyes, but he couldn’t do that if he couldn’t stand still. “When…is he coming back…?”

“I don’t have that information.” The tranquilizer never looked away from Kunday’s stare. “Please, allow me to find someone to help take you back to the sea.”

“I’ll…fin-find,” he lost his struggle against gravity. As cold air rushed across his sides, his inflamed gills parted as much as his skin could allow them. Without water to circulate the air through his body, the air could not be contained. It wasn’t that he was suffocating, but rather he couldn’t take in the air fast enough to support his body’s needs. He parted his lips to gulp down what air he could as he pulled his arms over his chest. He didn’t have enough air to call out the name of the one he wanted most.

He could hear the warrior he’d been speaking with snarl out more words, but his mind wasn’t strong enough to make sense of them anymore. He wondered if bookplates felt the same way he did – struggling to compute their numbers and commands as water leaked into their cases and dampened their components. It was almost funny. He’d gotten so far only to end up getting talked to death by some tranquilizer staffer.

Just as a pair of massive shadows covered his back, Kunday pushed his hands against the stone steps. He managed to pull his upper body onto the next step before alien hands slid over his skin. More growls wiggled their way across his aural fins as he was lifted off the ground. Someone had both arms beneath his chest while another had his tail over a shoulder. Their growl-like purrs were soothing, but they sounded nothing like the thunder that Renzai could produce.

A third body followed close at hand, rubbing his back and sides as he was carried back down the stairwell. Voices rushed across his aural fins with noise he couldn’t make sense of as the dry wind stripped the last of his dampness away. He didn’t even have the strength to turn his head away from the gray blur far beneath him. He hardly noticed when the grayness turned into blackness, or when the steady rush of water against rocks was added to the ambient sounds that burned his aural fins.

The sensation of falling drove him into spending the last of his energy into writhing and hissing. He managed to roll onto his back and grab onto a thick arm as he was eased down into the coolness of the sea. The warriors held him still for their tranquil follower and another Pond’ique to massage their hands down Kunday’s sides. Kunday’s sides burned from all the strain his gills had suffered on land. Now that there was water circulating through them, their hard work was quickly becoming more then he needed. A hand closed over his mouth to keep him from swallowing water as well.

They had to hold in his screams for him or he would summon more warriors to his side. There were already too many sirens trying to circle him to catch a glimpse of him through the waves. They wanted to draw their circles close to his to steady him. He was so frantic that he was driving crabs away from the shore. No one noticed the tears streaming from the corners of his eyes. What was a trickle of salt water when he was writhing in it?

It took much longer than normal for his body to acclimate to breathing underwater. There was talk of doctors, asphyxiation, and damn fool selfishness; he turned his head often to watch Sundou and the tranquilizer move their lips. It was strange that the sounds they made didn’t seem to match their lip movements, as if he were watching a poorly synched flash-vid. He wasn’t sure if he needed to refresh his interweb browser or if his bookplate was trying to tell him something. No, wait. He wasn’t watching vids…

The tranquilizer gestured down to Kunday. “He is incredibly strong. He wouldn’t give up, even when he fell unconscious.”

“He’s a damn fool.” There was a splash to punctuate Sundou’s hiss. It sounded like the flat of a tail’s fin, striking the water. Sundou only did that when he was angry, but he didn’t look angry. If anything, he looked very sad. Kunday wondered if Sundou had lost another egg. “Chasing after someone who’s not even here.”

“It’s funny what fa’ithae will do for their maa’thonae.”

Sundou frown seemed accentuated by the weakening sunlight. “You don’t think they’ve actually bonded, do you?”

“Were he Maa’rish, I’d suspect it. But since he is not, I’m not certain.” The tranquilizer rolled his sleeve away from his watch, then crouched down to press his forefingers against Kunday’s throat to feel for a pulse. Sundou had to move the tranquilizer’s fingers above Kunday’s collarbone so he could find it. He stared at his watch as he spoke. “If nothing else, I hope General Renzai accepts what your clan-brother is offering. We should have more bonded to unite us.”

“Maybe, one day.” Sundou’s lips stopped moving too soon. He’d cut the sentence short on purpose, most likely to keep himself from delving into waters too dangerous to swim through. The greater circles had to be maintained.

Kunday stared up at the darkening sky. He didn’t have the strength or the desire to add to the conversation around him. He only wanted the chance to feel the waves support him as his heavy eyelids drooped closed. He was so tired of being in a world without Renzai in it.

*

Kunday shifted between states of consciousness and sleeping as the tide pulled him away and pushed him against the shore. When his eyes were open, he watched the black-shelled crabs scuttle between the rocks. They were divided between two noticeable groups: the males with their massive stoney claws and the females, who wielded two smaller, smoother claws. While the females dug their way between the rocks, the males crouched behind them. Anything that moved – be it another crab or the toss of the waves – caused the males to snap their stone claw in the aggressor’s general direction.

They were so like the Maa’rish that they amused Kunday. So angry, so quick to attack rather than flee; Kunday laid his cheek against the wet pebbles and watched two males catch each other by the claws. The bitter hissing noises they made were the roars of warriors. They were probably fighting for the chance to infect the female’s eggs to spread their genetics to the next generation. The one that crouched in front of the digging female managed to shove his rival several steps back. The edge of the rival’s shell knocked into the pebbles, causing them to slide out from under the crab’s legs.

It smacked against the ground, giving its opponent the chance to take hold of its stone claw. The chiton shell split apart under the attacker’s crush; without his claw, the rival was left to stumble back towards the sea.

The crab made it as far as Kunday’s elbow before he pounced upon it. It had no way to keep Kunday from digging his claws between the plates and popping them apart. The legs twitched, even as he ripped out mouthfuls of flesh from the shell. He slurped and snarled until there was nothing left but a mound of armor for the tide to lap away. The crabs never noticed when he took the weakest of them.

But the Maa’rish noticed when he tried to hunt for their strongest general. The shadow of one warrior or another stayed upon him throughout the heat of the day. When he was too tired to slink back to the shore, bucketfuls of water were drizzled across his skin to keep him wet. There were three warriors, as far as Kunday could figure. With them around, other warriors kept their distance.

Kunday didn’t care for them but he could not hate them either. He didn’t want them with him. They weren’t Renzai and they were kind enough not to remind him of that by speaking to him. However, if he should ever have a question or request, they all bowed down low to hear it. One told him that Renzai had been seen in an evening news broadcast, but he hadn’t remembered what for. Another told him that the mater revolved around politics that Kunday didn’t understand. The last of his guards told him not to worry for Renzai would be with him again very soon.

He tossed the last of the crab’s shells into the sea and spread himself across the rocks. When he found enough strength to pull himself out of the surf, he would go back up the stairs. They couldn’t keep him away. He would find Renzai. He needed to know, at least, that Renzai was still alive. Maa’rish lived such short lives. At any moment, they could go somewhere or do something that would cost them dearly. And they didn’t care. They welcomed it, just like the selfish beings they were.

There was an old saying: a circle spiraled fastest when fueled by the drug called love. He wasn’t sure if what he was sick with could even be called love. It was something, but he was too tired to understand it.

He had just enough energy to keep the crabs away from his arms. The tide steadily washed over his sides, giving his gills much needed water to circulate. His mind wandered here and there as he stared at the blackened rocks, pebbles and boulders around him. A few wayward dribbles of water pattered against his hair. He turned his head to see the grey clouds that had conquered the sky; there would be rain today, just as there had been rain yesterday. There was always rain because they were so far north. Renzai had said he’d come to Kunday’s beach because there was so much of it.

Something heavy, like footsteps, cracked against the rocks. The sound drove crabs to skitter into the surf and away from Kunday. Kunday was grateful; he just wanted someplace close to the surf where he could close his eyes for a few moments. But he was also on the beach and whoever was coming was probably mistaking him for a siren. He hated it, but that’s how things were. No one wanted him. Maybe not even Renzai.

All he could see of the warrior was the navy blue uniform the warrior was wearing. It was probably some new face, come down from the stars because he wanted to make mewlings with some damn siren. A few rounds on the beach and he’d head back to space or wherever. He’d fight and kill, and sooner or later he’d find someone who survived his fury. That was what Maa’rish really wanted: someone too strong for them to kill. Kunday dragged his coils out of the surf to wrap around himself. Maybe if the warrior saw him like that, the warrior would leave him alone.

He didn’t want some new face. He wanted Renzai’s. He wanted to feel like he was the last Pond’ique in the entire world. When he closed his eyes and felt Renzai stroke his hair, he could pretend that he had found someone to love him. He was the last, just as Renzai was, and together they could make a whole world all their own.

The crush of the bootsteps stopped short of where Kunday lay. He closed his eyes. Couldn’t the warrior see that he wanted to be left–

A voice as deep as the crashing waves growled not so far away from Kunday’s ears. “This is not your duty station, Ensign.”

“No, Gen – Senator, it is not. I was personally requested to stand guard over this one to ensure he does not cause harm to himself or others.”

“He has done so?”

“He is accused of wounding seven warriors, challenging another warrior, and inciting a large fight on the number five landing. He then proceeded to pass out on the master stairwell, leading to the hotel. Myself and Ensign Rishmael assisted Tranquilizer Miishrish in returning him to the sea. The three of us have been guarding him in shifts until his maa’thona could be reached.” It was the standard statement, spoken to any and all warriors who came sniffing around Kunday. The mention of a maa’thona seemed to require the warriors to offer witty returns before they shuffled on their way.

“And what is the name of his maa’thona?”

The deep rumble with which the warrior said maa’thona attracted Kunday’s attention. No other warrior had such a memorable voice. He knew the warrior, but he did not recognize the clothing the warrior wore. It was a flat black uniform, styled like the navy-blue one Renzai wore the first few days on the beach. However, both sleeves were embellished with large loops and coils of silver cording. The bands that encircled the cuffs of the warrior’s trousers were silver as well. Kunday could not see much of the warrior’s chest because of the elbow-length mantle that draped his shoulders.

His face though…it was too clean. There were no fly-away hairs to shadow it. The patch was different as well. There was a metal ring sewn into the leather, and studs peppering the straps that kept it against the warrior…no…

“Senator– ”

“Renzai!”

Kunday surged off the beach to grab hold of Renzai’s mantle. He stared into both the uncovered eye and the black patch. Why was Renzai in a uniform and not fatigues? Why was his hair pulled back into a braid? And what was that sweet smell that was covering Renzai’s normal musk? Kunday pulled the mantle away from Renzai’s chest, stared at the different ribbons it had hidden, then slammed his fist against Renzai’s scarred cheek.

The screams that tore through Kunday’s mouth had no equal in the language of the Maa’rish. Kunday demanded to know where Renzai had been, what had taken him so long to come back, and what were his intentions now that he’d returned. He didn’t care how many laws he’d broken by speaking his species’ language. He couldn’t think about anything, other than the fact he was finally staring at the warrior he’d been so worried for.

Somewhere between calling Renzai an idiot and demanding Renzai to prove who himself, Kunday’s strength gave out. He crashed against Renzai’s chest with the same force as a rushing wave. Even with half of Kunday’s weight pressed against Renzai’s body, Renzai didn’t even bother to shift his balance. A groan bled between Kunday’s lips as he felt hands slide up his hips. His eyes closed to the sound of pebbles shifting and shorebirds squawking.

Renzai’s voice sounded the same outside Kunday’s mind as it did inside it. “You and your brothers are hereby dismissed of your duties, Ensign. I have command of this station.”

“Aye, Senator. Thank you.” There was no malice or gratitude in the warrior’s words. He left the same way he’d come – with back straight and head held high against the coming rain. Kunday flicked his tail against the tide. It was about time the strange warrior took the hint, and if one of the others came, he would be rid of them himself.

Just because he had his head on Renzai’s shoulder did not mean he was pleased to have it there. Renzai still had crimes to answer for. Not understanding Kunday’s language was not an acceptable excuse either. Being a general or a senator – or whatever the hell he was – was not an excuse either! Kunday pushed himself off of Renzai’s chest to look Renzai in the eyes once more. His hisses came out in Maa’taan rather than Pond’ique.

“Where the fuck have you been? I was waiting for you! Where were you? Why did you leave without telling me?”

“I did not know I would be recovered so quickly. It was the middle of the night.” Renzai lifted his head and licked the blood away from his split lip. “You should not be so concerned about me. There are other brothers here who are starved for attention.”

“You fucking ass!” Kunday slammed his fist again against Renzai’s scarred cheek. His blow did little more than to ruffle Renzai’s hair, and so he followed it up by snatching Renzai’s collar once more as he rose to tower over Renzai. It was like standing on tip-toe, only a little painful because he was forcing the end of his tail to support all of his weight. “There is no one else! There won’t ever be anyone else! There’s just you!”

A hint of fang sparked beneath Renzai’s blackened lips. “Your fellows don’t seem to follow that ideal.”

“I’m not like them!”

He couldn’t come out and say that it was because he was not a siren, for that would break thousands of laws. He could not hint that there were differences between one Pond’ique and another. They had to all be the same to the Maa’rish or the old games would be in danger of ending. All Pond’iques had to be the same in all things, else warriors would begin to look for the differences. If the Maa’rish ever became disillusioned, or ever felt threatened, then the Great Circle that bound them to the Pond’iques would break. They wouldn’t see equals, they would see targets and all the secrets of the Pond’ique would be drudged up from the bottom of the depths.

Kunday bowed his head, his lips thinning into a frown. “Would you rather I pretended to be like one of the others?”

It wasn’t like he hadn’t endured the training. All lifeguards had to so they could slither across the surface. It was every Pond’ique’s duty to uphold the Great Circle.

Renzai didn’t stop staring at Kunday’s eyes. The ring of red colour that encircled Renzai’s pupil masked the orange glow that the morning shadows tried to lure to the surface. Thin and thick scars broke the square line of his jaw; several scars dove beneath the black wrappings that shadowed the right half of Renzai’s face.

Kunday couldn’t hold Renzai’s stare. He tried so hard to but it was as if Renzai had become a shark and was sizing Kunday up to make a meal of him. Kunday slowly sank down as his fingers tightened around Renzai’s collar. The sharp points of the silvered insignia stabbed Kunday’s palms. But when he tried to drop his head, Renzai snatched him by the chin to force the stare.

The lack of sleep and food was taking its toll upon Kunday. He pushed away Renzai’s hand only to drop against Renzai’s chest. He pounded his fist against Renzai’s shoulder over and over again, until he let loose a short screech against Renzai’s chest.

“Why are you here?! Renzai! Tell me!”

He was gently pushed away so Renzai could cover his eyes with one hand. Kunday shivered as he felt Renzai press against him. “Hush. Now. I am here now and I will stay with you for as long as I can. But tomorrow, I must leave you. I have my duty to– ”

Kunday shoved Renzai’s hand away. “What about me?! You’re just going to leave me here?!”

Something that tried to be a smile curled Renzai’s lips. He reached out to touch Kunday’s cheek, “Have you grown so attached to me?”

“What the fuck do you think?!” Kunday rushed forward to slam his hand against Renzai’s shoulder. Didn’t Renzai see, or was that damned eye-patch covering the wrong eye?! “I haven’t slept! I haven’t eaten! I thought you’d died!”

“Then I shall correct that,” Renzai easily scooped Kunday up off the rocks to carry him back to the sea.

The two of them sat in the surf for most of the day. Kunday fell unconscious the moment he was spread over Renzai’s lap. He missed seeing Renzai draw the bookplate out of his breast pocket, but he heard Renzai growl out orders to it. He could not understand what Renzai was saying because his mind stopped translating Maa’taan. When Kunday woke, the sun was in the middle of the sky and there were two plastic boxes on a rock behind Renzai’s back. Renzai’s coat, boots and socks had been cast behind the boxes.

Kunday was too sleepy to understand much, other than Renzai was beneath his fingers. He knew he didn’t want to see the sun move across the sky.

Renzai continued to stroke Kunday’s hair, even when Kunday sat up. “Will you take your lunch now, or will you sleep the night away as well?”

“Feed me,” Kunday couldn’t bring himself to care about food. Nothing else seemed to mater, save for the warmth of Renzai’s body. He leaned against Renzai’s shoulder, his tail winding its way against Renzai’s back. “Since you’re going to leave me…”

Renzai reached for Kunday instead of for the food. “Perhaps, if I thought there was someone who would wait for me, I might find some way of coming back here.”

And now Renzai was trying to be coy! When he was busy breaking Kunday’s heart, now was the time he decided to admit such feelings! Kunday angrily lashed his tail against the waves. “Why should you? If you can’t spend all your time with someone, why should that one waste his life waiting for you?”

“I have responsibilities, as I am sure that one has as well. I cannot be here every moment of every day. Nor can the one I desire remain by my side. The sea has a greater sway over him then I would ever have.”

“He can’t help what he is,” Kunday gathered up the hem of Renzai’s undershirt to toy with. His hands were just as nervous as he was.

“I have never thought anything less of him for that. But I knew this would happen if someone like him tried to involve himself with someone like me.” If he hadn’t been as close to Kunday’s aural fin as he was, Kunday might have missed the sound of his sniffing Kunday’s hair. That was a sign of something, but Kunday couldn’t remember what it was. He was too busy trying not to squirm as Renzai’s breath tickled his neck. “That is why I hoped he would find someone else to turn his attentions to. It was also why I sent the others away. But…I am still who I am. I still have hunger and need, just as other brothers do. And I have a particular fondness for the sea…”

“What if…this individual…told you that he was fond of you as well,” Kunday sat up and turned to face Renzai. “What if he was more than fond. What if he liked you? What would you say to him?”

“I would be very happy, but very sad at the same time.” Renzai looked more pleased than anything else. His smile was slanted to one side; Kunday wondered if it would have been a full smile if the muscles of Renzai’s face hadn’t been damaged by the scar. “I would tell him that I too have come to like him as well. But because of who I am, I cannot be the one he needs me to be. I am happy to have known him and to be soothed by him. However, I cannot make any promises to him.”

“I don’t want that!” Kunday didn’t have a collar to grab anymore, so his hands pounded against Renzai’s chest instead. “Why can’t you be with me?! What the hell is so important that you can’t do it here?!”

Renzai growled, but did not attempt to restrain Kunday. The growl was enough to make Kunday drop against his chest. Renzai’s growls slowly stuttered into purrs as he stroked Kunday’s hair. “I am dath’teimei of my clan. My duty to them comes before anything else in my life.”

Kunday covered his face with his hands and let out a shrill scream. “You can’t be! You’re too young to be a clan leader!”

If Renzai was dath’teimei, that meant he was untouchable. Clan leaders were both senator and general for the clans they ruled. From the moment they woke to the moment they died, their lives were bent around the well-being of the warriors they led. They were the ones who chose who came into the clan, how many mewlings the clan-houses would adopt, what jobs would be performed by what house and what force the clan sent into which battle. If the dath’teimei was not in the great council chambers of the Maa’thai senate, then he was within one of his clan’s houses somewhere across the face of Mathai.

Dath’teimei died regularly, and not of old age. Renzai must have killed the dath’teimei before him, either on the sands of an arena or…

The Renzai Kunday knew was not dishonorable! He would not have used dishonorable means to fight another warrior! Renzai was a good warrior!

Kunday knew he was crying and he knew how horrible a thing it was to do in the presence of a warrior, but he didn’t care anymore. Renzai was systematically tearing apart every hope Kunday had ever dreamed of. He dared to look Renzai in the eye, breaking yet another Maa’rish taboo. If nothing else, then maybe he could drive Renzai to the breaking point. It wouldn’t be a bad death, if it was Renzai doing the killing.

“Why?” was the only sound Renzai let slide between Kunday’s lips.

It happened so quickly, Kunday didn’t realize what was going on until his mouth was suddenly filled with Renzai’s tongue. Kunday instinctually grabbed onto Renzai’s shoulders until he began to understand. Renzai was kissing him. Passionately. Renzai never did anything passionately.

There were some things Kunday’s training had prepared him for. However, that training was forgotten the moment their kiss broke. He had tried many times to have romances with his own kind. The partners he’d chosen had all been very ideal mates but, for one reason or another, every one of them had fallen short of Kunday’s desires. He’d been prepared to give up. Some beings never found the partner they desired.

“You have a choice to make. Here. Now.” Renzai’s was so full of growls it sounded like gravel, tumbling down the cliffs. He crooked his finger beneath Kunday’s chin, “Be my fa’ithe or go back to the sea.”

Kunday’s shrill scream exploded between them. “Why should I?! You just said– ”

Renzai’s stare made Kunday close his mouth. There was something more going on than a simple declaration of intent. Kunday could see it taking shape within the red of Renzai’s eye, but he didn’t have enough experience with Maa’rish to know what it was. The more he watched the red of Renzai’s iris, the more it brightened. The cologne Renzai wore was becoming just a touch stronger, the focus shifting from sweetness to a palatable musk that Kunday had never taken in before. He liked it, but it instinctively frightened him at the same time.

If only he could figure out why it was so disturbing, he might have understood why Renzai had put it on in the first place. Kunday’s nose was not as developed as a Maa’rish’s, nor did Pond’iques depend on scent to search for prey. Their best senses were sight and hearing, which put them at a disadvantage when trying to decipher certain Maa’rish behaviors.

“If you were my fa’ithe, no power on this planet could keep me from being with you. Day. Night. You need only to call out for me and I will shatter mountains to be with you. Your presence alone has enabled me to calm down and plot a whole new course for my clan to take. I will not lie to you. There will be times when I cannot simply appear at your side. There will be times when my plane is late or business holds me over. However…”

Renzai enveloped Kunday in a powerful embrace. His whisper dribbled down into Kunday’s aural fin to wash Kunday’s spine with ice cold purrs.

“I want you. And if you desire it, I will do my best to make what we have work. That is, if you want to try.”

Kunday could only whimper as his better judgment was making a hasty retreat. “I barely know who you are…”

“Nor I you. But what I do know, I like very much.” He liked it so much that he was kissing the dampness out of Kunday’s skin. The crest of Kunday’s cheek was kissed, then followed to the root of his aural fin. “It’s surprising just how little most maa’thona know about their fa’ithe. But the right fa’ithe can make a maa’thona happier and stronger than any warrior alive.”

Kunday was having trouble breathing but he hadn’t dried out. Renzai had him trapped within an embrace he wasn’t wholly certain he wanted to be in. Was Renzai serious about what he was saying? “Do I make you happy?”

“You do.” Renzai bowed his head for a fraction of a moment, “I know I don’t show it very well…”

Kunday boldly touched his palms to Renzai’s cheeks and began pressing several kisses against Renzai’s lips. “That’s okay with me. It’d be weird if you were all excitable like I am. When I’m with you, I can calm down and just be me.”

“Being like you is a wonderful thing,” Renzai’s kisses dribbled down Kunday’s throat. “I want to learn more about you. What you like. What you don’t like. How to make you smile…”

The heavy puffs of breath made Kunday squirm, “Tickles!”

“See?” Renzai’s gravelly voice was rocked by a tumble of chuckles. “I’m learning more about you already.”

“Renzai…” The words fa’ithe and maa’thona awakened a memory within Kunday. The two words were linked to the rat’demlou, for they were what bonded warriors called one another. Fa’ithe received the maa’thona’s scent and seed. Renzai wanted him to be fa’ithe, which meant that their touching was going to lead to something more very soon. He looked up. “Is this really you, telling me all this? Or…is it…”

“The rat’demlou is giving me the strength to say such words to you.”

And Renzai’s kisses gave Kunday strength to return them. The tide splashed across Kunday’s side as if trying to tempt him back to the sea. Renzai held him strong against the pull, planting kisses and suckling skin wherever he could find purchase. Their balance shifted so Kunday could sit up tall. He wanted to feel Renzai against every part of his body. He needed to, for he might never have another chance again.

Kunday leaned back against Renzai’s shoulder, his dorsal fin notched against Renzai’s armpit. As kisses dribbled down his neck, Renzai’s hands coursed across the dips of his chest. He managed to catch one hand, luring it all the way to his lips for the palm to be kissed. The blackened pads had been smoothed with oils, but much of Renzai’s scent still emanated from them. Kunday wanted to be bathed in that scent. He needed to be. His own instincts were certain about that.

Renzai’s other hand swept across Kunday’s belly, hunting for the places that made Kunday shiver. His fingers went to the sensitive skin between Kunday’s gills to caress. Kunday weakly slapped his tail against the surf as Renzai’s name washed over his trembling lips.

“I seem to have found something,” Renzai tilted back Kunday’s head so he could nuzzle Kunday’s neck. His purr was barely a whisper beneath the splash of the tide. “I have desired for this for a very long time…”

Kunday clutched at Renzai’s thigh as he cried out Renzai’s name to the cliffs. The strongest being in the entire world was being so gentle with him. Renzai’s touches were so soft, they were like the puff of an opposing current for they glided against his skin, rather than tear or scrape. Kunday wasn’t half as gentle with his own self-pleasuring! He couldn’t wrap his mind around it. He could barely think about breathing, let alone…

He let out a sudden gasp as he felt Renzai’s hand slide across his thickening sheath. The tip was fondled first, then the edge followed down to the base, for Renzai to massage his fingertips into. Kunday bucked his hips into the touch as a hint of pink flesh peaked between the lips of his sheath. His shaft’s only purpose was sexual contact, which made it extra sensitive when free from its protective sheath. Kunday didn’t have much experience in using it; he was ashamed at how much Renzai had to stroke and fondle him just to lure a small fraction of it out.

Renzai purred as he laid Kunday across the rocks. He pulled bits of his uniform beneath Kunday’s head and shoulders, “I wish I had a more fitting bed for you.”

“Where better than the place where we first met?” Kunday lifted his hand to stroke Renzai’s clean cheek. “Are you just going to stare at me all day?”

A real and powerful laugh coursed past Renzai’s lips. He bent down to press several thousand kisses across Kunday’s lips, chest and belly. “I am having trouble understanding that you are not a dream.”

“I’m real,” was all Kunday could manage before his words became a sudden gasp for breath.

Renzai slid on top of him to spread damp kisses down his belly. The curves of his abs were explored, then the dips that led down to his sheath. Renzai’s hands rubbed the place where Kunday’s tail joined with his hips, leaving his sheath and shaft to be pleasured by Renzai’s kisses. Renzai knew more than anyone else Kunday had ever been with. The way he used his tongue and lips made it impossible for Kunday to do anything but cry out.

“Come, Fa’ithe,” Renzai buried his purrs deep within Kunday’s chest, “Let out your voice and come for me.”

Few fa’ithe could ever deny their maa’thona such a request. Kunday arched his back and cried out as his seed spilled across his belly. Habit and instinct drove Kunday to reach down between them and begin rubbing the slit beneath his sheath. He’d spilled and now it was time for the rest of him to be pleasured as well. He writhed and cried out until another hand slowly pushed his away.

“So it’s time for this, is it?” Renzai’s fingers were larger and had a smoother rhythm then Kunday could ever keep. “I prayed for this moment. I have longed to feel what was inside you…”

Kunday slammed his tail into the water as the tender flesh of his slit was explored. Renzai rubbed the palest skin first, slowly drawing closer to the lips of the slit. His attention caused the lips to pucker just enough to allow a hint of the inner pink to show. Kunday had only ever felt his own hands down there, stroking the crease of his slit from end to end. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, his moans growing louder as a single finger pierced his slit.

It was in that moment that Kunday realized what was about to happen. Renzai was preparing him, the way he would have prepared another warrior or a siren. Renzai was going to…but! But Kunday wanted! And Renzai – but!

Kunday quickly grabbed Renzai’s arm. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what Renzai wanted to do, nor was he afraid of it. No one else had tried to get so close. The lovers he’d tried to have had all been satisfied with the usual. Just stroke and stroke until their seed spilled into the water. No piercing. No permanency. No one had even bothered to touch his slit, until Renzai.

The sirens had told him that, no matter if it was with Maa’rish or Pond’ique, the first time always hurt. He didn’t want it to. He didn’t want anything he and Renzai did to ever hurt. “Renzai, y-you…you’re the first…”

Renzai suddenly grew still. But that stillness gave way to the most gentle smile Kunday had ever seen cross Renzai’s lips.

“You have no idea how honored I am.” Renzai pressed kiss after kiss against Kunday’s cheeks. “I will never forget this moment, Fa’ithe. My only fa’ithe.”

Renzai continued to thrust his finger inside Kunday, gently at first. The wet slip of damp flesh grew louder as a second finger was carefully pushed into the slit. Kunday didn’t understand. How was he getting wet in such a place if there was no water to dampen him? Was it his own body’s doing? It had to be, but he couldn’t think of why his body would be doing such things. He couldn’t think of anything but the fact that Renzai was inside him.

The third finger was the toughest to take. Kunday knew the moment it pierced him because his muscles, already inflamed from the first two fingers, began to burn with pain. Tears welled in his eyes, but he forced himself to wipe them away. Crying was bad! Renzai didn’t like it. And if Renzai didn’t like it, then he’d leave Kunday again! Kunday couldn’t bear it if something he could not stop caused Renzai to leave him.

“Look at me.” Renzai’s purr lured Kunday’s eyes upon him, “Hush now. You are safe, Kunday.”

Kunday lifted both of his hands to caress Renzai’s cheeks. “You said my name. I thought you’d forgotten it.”

“How could I forget something so precious?” Renzai shifted his balance to push more kisses against Kunday’s lips. He finished pulling off his uniform pants with one hand. “I know it hurts now. But very soon, I will make that pain into pleasure. I promise you. We will be one.”

Maa’thona,” Kunday nearly screamed out the word as Renzai’s fingers left his body. With his slit stretched open, he felt so horribly empty. “No! Come back! Maa’thona!”

“Yes,” Renzai pushed both his hands and knees into the rocks as he lowered his hips against Kunday’s. “Yes, Fa’ithe. Just hold on…”

Kunday leaned back his head and tried to deaden his cry with his hand. Renzai slowly rubbed the tip of his shaft against the lips of Kunday’s slit. The gradual pressure, coursing from end to end, helped soften Kunday’s flesh even more. The tip was eased inside, where the slow thrusts helped push all of Renzai’s length inside. Kunday quickly bit down on his wrist to keep his scream from echoing off the cliffs.

It didn’t just hurt, it burned worse than any poison sting Kunday had ever imagined. The muscles inside him had never had to spread apart to accommodate anything bigger than a finger. A length like Renzai’s was just too much, too soon. The thrusts slowed down until all Kunday could feel was the pressure trapped inside of him. He slowly pulled his arm away from his mouth to whimper a weak, “Renzai!”

“Breath out very slowly.” Renzai swept his hand across Kunday’s cheek. The sound of his voice was a balm to every corner of Kunday’s being. “Calm down. Let your body get used to mine.”

When Kunday was soothed, Renzai began the careful task of bringing the pleasure back to Kunday’s body. The bridge of his nose was stroked, then the base of his neck and the skin between his gills. It didn’t take very long at all for the pressure and pain to transform into a strangely pleasurable sensation.

There was something Renzai was very close to touching that needed to be touched. All the pain had kept Kunday from sensing it, but as the pain was fading, Kunday could feel it trapped inside him. He needed it touched. He needed Renzai. All this stillness…it wasn’t giving him what he needed. He lashed his tail, inadvertently brushing his skin against Renzai’s buttocks. It earned him a stifled growl as Renzai bucked his hips.

Kunday did it again, just to feel Renzai jerk against him once more. Renzai lengthened his thrust, watching as Kunday writhed beneath him. Renzai had no idea how close he was to the place Kunday needed him. The deeper he thrust, the more the prickling sensation became something so pleasurable that it took Kunday’s breath away. His shaft was beginning to tighten again.

The exchange of push and thrust slowly begat a tentative pulse between their bodies. Kunday coiled his tail behind Renzai’s back to draw the two of them closer together. There was so little space between them that their bodies were what rubbed against Kunday’s shaft. Renzai plunged deeper and deeper with every breath as his kisses scored Kunday’s skin. Renzai’s kisses became wild things, more nips than anything else. They didn’t hurt because nothing hurt. Nothing would ever hurt Kunday again.

Kunday suddenly arched his back, his seed splashing between them as Renzai’s fangs broke his skin. Renzai kept snarling as his hard thrusts broke their rhythm. Kunday clung to him, until the thrusts stiffened. Renzai came with a roar so deep that it was like thunder, rushing across the cliffs. Kunday’s tail dropped into the surf; Renzai drooped across him, stroking his skin and lapping the beads of salt water from his shoulder.

“Mine,” Renzai sat up just enough to stare into Kunday’s eyes. Something else had him, for the red of his eye was as bright as the blood trickling down Kunday’s shoulder. “All mine! No one else, ever. Swear it.”

That was an easy promise to make. “I have only you, Maa’thona. Only you.”

Renzai led Kunday deeper into the shallows, where the waves lapped against their chests. Kunday wrapped his tail around Renzai’s leg as the spray dampened their skin. Renzai kept Kunday pressed against his chest to nuzzle at his leisure. Whatever was growing between them, Kunday hoped it would be just as wonderful as the stories had promised.

Kunday watched the sun begin to sink towards the horizon. He imagined a life where Renzai never had to leave the beach. They could have a house right on the coast, where Kunday could have surface-pipes that would lead him from the sea to the pools they’d keep throughout their house. He’d never have to worry about drying out just to be with Renzai. Maybe, with their combined income, they’d be able to afford a split waterbed so they could sleep together.

It would be so wonderful. He’d be sleeping on his half of the bed, comforted and safe beneath the water, when he’d feel the barest hint of Renzai’s hand slide down his back. He would look over and smile, and probably steal Renzai’s hand for nuzzling and bubble-kisses. Maybe he’d leave the water half to join Renzai on the mattress. Or maybe Renzai would join him and they would do things Pond’ique and Maa’rish rarely did beneath the water’s surface.

Kunday nuzzled Renzai’s shoulder as his thoughts faded with the sunlight. There was no telling if Renzai truly felt the same way as he did or if what they’d done would have any impact upon whatever relations might be between them. A subtle kind of fear was eating its way into Kunday’s chest. Kunday was very much an adult, and if they kept having their unprotected sex then there was a great chance that Renzai would wake one or several of the eggs trapped inside his body.

It was how his people had survived throughout the centuries. There were no females or males but a combination of the two, to ensure they continued to multiply as much as they could. A single pair could produce three to five fry in one mating. There was no telling how many eggs Renzai’s seed had reached, if any at all. And if they did, Kunday wondered if that would mean Renzai would want them, or if Renzai truly wanted him.

He looked up, his hand drawn to touch the radiating scars that cut Renzai’s cheek. The touch seemed enough to break the sea’s hold over Renzai and to lure his attention down to Kunday. Renzai leaned close to nuzzle, then to lap the salt of the sea off of Kunday’s cheek. Kunday turned to lean into the affection as Renzai’s hands slowly crept across his belly. He couldn’t help but look into Renzai’s half-lidded eye, despite all the Maa’rish cultural morays it broke.

Renzai stared back as a purr broke between his lips. Not a growl or a snarl, that should have come; Renzai was truly at peace.

“Renzai?” An answering grunt was all he heard. It was also all he needed to know that he had Renzai’s full attention. He led Renzai’s hand up to the middle of his chest where, beneath his skin, his heart was beating faster than it should have been. “What does this mean for us?”

“It means whatever you want it to mean.” Renzai’s voice was deeper than it had been. It must have taken him a great deal of thought and energy to say as much as he had.

Kunday understood and sat up so more of his body could be explored. It was he that had finally soothed and revitalized Renzai, not the sea or some siren. Maybe the circle of his life would begin to spiral in a better direction, if Renzai’s circle followed it. Kunday drew close enough to feel Renzai’s breath against his lips. “Will you stay with me for a little longer?”

Renzai nuzzled Kunday’s brow until his lips found the edge of an aural fin to nibble. “You will have me until the sun rises again.”

A moan passed between Kunday’s lips. He could tell that Renzai was more interested in his body’s pleasure than anything else. He reached up his hand to cover Renzai’s missing eye, only to have Renzai nuzzle his palm. The hint of a smile curling Renzai’s black lips was all Kunday had ever wanted to see. He sat up to lure Renzai’s lips towards his own. “You have an vid-mail address, don’t you? We could stay together that way. You could come… and… It doesn’t have to be goodbye forever, does it?”

Kiss after kiss drove Renzai’s words down Kunday’s mouth, “No. It does not, if you wish it…”

***
The author would like to thank his beta-readers, drowning_london and Ms. Furst. Thanks so much for making this the best story possible! Any information about the species involved in this story can be found at: http://gabrielsknife.livejournal.com/ .



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