‘You have go, you can’t stay here.’ Linette’s voice was salt-sore and cracking. She looked around the boat. ‘No one will say anything, but you have to go now.’
‘And that’s just it then.’ Timothy spat bitterly. ‘It doesn’t matter what I’ve done. I still get shunted off at the first opportunity.’
‘That isn’t fair.’ Linette growled, but her eyes were glistening with tears. ‘You know if things were different, if there was anything at all-’
‘Then just let me stay! You know I can help!’
‘You’re weak on two legs.’ Linette reminded him. ‘They’re going to try and burn the ship. Last time your tail nearly burned Timothy. You would be trapped forever!’
‘And that’s my risk to take!’
‘It isn’t and you know that. You know these sailors. Do you think that any of them would stay on a ship with a trapped mer?’
‘They don’t seem to have a problem with it now!’
‘Because you’re not stuck here!’ Linette shouted, ‘You act like we don’t know who you are!’
‘Apparently you don’t.’ Timothy growled.
‘Or maybe you’ve forgotten!’ Linette shot back ‘You are the prince of this sea! Your people know where you are! Do you think they would let us go if something happened to you?’
‘I would explain it to them!’ But Timothy could feel the foundations of his arguments slipping from underneath him.
‘Timothy, you have to leave now!’ Tears were starting to run freely down her face, but Linette ignored them. ‘Nothing can happen to you!’
‘Because you’re too afraid of what-if’s.’ Timothy hissed, bitterly.
‘No.’ Linette said, reaching out as if to brush her hand along Timothy’s face, but she pulled it back at the moment, hovering, so close, but not touching. ‘Timothy, I can’t-’ Linette swallowed. ‘You are…you are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in this world. I can’t bear to see you hurt.’
Timothy leaned into hand that Linette held in the air, reached up and trapped it there with his own. ‘So you’d rather see the last of me, then believe me when I speak.’
‘I do believe you.’ Linette said gruffly. ‘You’re more capable than anyone else on this ship. More than me. But you can’t stay here.’ She pulled her hand away from Timothy, and reached for the bag near her hip. She opened the top and took out the skin. The iridescent, shimmering skin of Timothy’s tail.
‘Don’t give this back to me.’ Timothy said, taking a step back. ‘I don’t want it.’
Linette clenched her jaw shut so she didn’t scream in frustration. She pointed to the masts on the horizon that were steadily getting closer. She leaned forward and brought her voice down to a whisper ‘Do you think we’re going to win, Timothy? We’re some of the last. There’s only so much running a person can do.’
Timothy stared. Never before had he heard Linette speak with anything other than the utmost confidence about their future prospects. It was true that the navies were growing, and every time they hit a port there were new tales of pirates being found and ‘brought to justice’. Linette had always spoken as if it would never happen to them, and Timothy had believed. Timothy had let himself get caught up in the joyful fantasy, the life of creaking wood, and new sights. A life of following the stars on clear nights, tucked up against Linette’s side.
‘You don’t believe that.’ Timothy said, but he was shaken.
Linette shook her head. ‘I promised you once. I told you I would never lie to you.’
‘Lie to me now Linette, tell me you’re not planning to die today.’
Linette grinned, dark and feral. ‘A pirate plans to die every day, Timothy, you of all people should know that. The sea is a cruel mistress, after all.’
‘Linette…’ Timothy didn’t know what to say.
Linette took the skin and thrust it into Timothy’s chest. Timothy’s arms came up automatically to hold it. ‘Timothy.’ Linette’s voice was soft, and incongruent with the bright, shining sun and the noise of the crew preparing the ship for a fight. ‘Timothy. I love you. You need to leave.’
Timothy didn’t try to hold back the tears that were burning in his eyes. He stepped forward and kissed Linette ferociously, wishing that it was enough, wishing that anything could be different. He pressed his tongue in, trying to memorize the taste of Linette’s mouth, sea salt and stale grog. The chapped feeling of Linette’s lips against his. The quiet, desperate noise that Linette made when Timothy would tug on her hair. Timothy held them together, trying to drink it all in, trying to exist in that moment forever. His lungs were burning, but he didn’t let go until he started to feel dizzy. He ran his hand down Linette’s face. ‘I don’t want to go.’
Linette blinked, as if that would somehow stop her tears. ‘You know it’s the only way.’
Timothy felt as though his chest was cracking open. He took a step back. ‘Give us a smile, then, M’Lady!’ His voice was cracking, but he said it anyway. ‘You almost look like you’re having a bad day!’
Linette choked out a laugh, and smiled as best she could. ‘You would know, you daft mermaid.’
Timothy couldn’t take anymore. He ran to the side of the ship and leapt, knowing that the ocean’s embrace would welcome him.
Timothy had left the ship, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave the waters. Linette had been right. Cannons tore through the hull of the ship as if it were made of soggy paper. Fighting had broken out, there had been fire, masts cracked and fell into the ocean. Timothy tried his best to keep track of the action above the water, but he couldn’t in his mermaid form; not so soon after transforming. If he tried to spend too much time above the water in his current state, he could permanently damage his gills.
He did see when Linette’s ship started to sink. When a final round had been fired, even though she was already on her way down.
Everything that Timothy had known for the past seven years, gone in a matter of minutes. He couldn’t help himself, he swam towards the sinking ship.
It had been his home for so long. He couldn’t simply watch her go down. He swam in through the gaping wound in her side. There was so little left. The ocean was greedy and she was pulling out as much as she could, sucking in trinkets and tools and signs of life, pulling out anything she could reach.
It was dangerous to be swimming into a ship wreck. Anything could shift, he could easily be trapped, and left helpless and alone at the bottom of the sea. Still, Timothy swam on. Beams were crashing down all around him, huge barrels came out of nowhere to tumble into the depths of the sea.
Timothy swam up the stairs to what used to be the deck, and that was when he saw it. Floating, and chained to the wheel of the ship.
Timothy swam frantically over, checking for any signs of life. Linette wasn’t breathing, didn’t respond, when Timothy opened her eyes. In desperation, Timothy checked for a pulse.
He found one.
The ship was still sinking, pulling them both down.
But Timothy was of the sea. Even though he’d spent in the air, even though Linette had been correct in calling the sea a cruel mistress… None of it mattered.
Timothy was of the sea, and even though it had been in a different way, Linette had been of the sea too. And that would be enough.
Timothy closed his eyes and focused, throwing his awareness out. He could feel every push of the tide, every drifting fleck of coastal sand. He could feel the movement of every tiny, invisible fish, could feel the songs of the whales; could hear the heartbeat of the man in front of him.
Timothy swam forward and once again brought their mouths together. This time, he was dragging Linette with him. There would be no more mourning. This wasn’t about the end of anything. This was a new beginning, all of the life that they were going to build together. This was the honest promise of a world that couldn’t be cut short, a life where there was no fear of white sails on the horizon. Linette would get to learn the true meaning that came from exploring the endless depths of the ocean.
Linette’s body was jerking around him, but Timothy held on, pushing forward with everything that he had. Every golden moment between them, the sparkling giddy laughter that they had shared with no witness except the moon. The feel of Linette teaching Timothy how to use his legs, the feeling of calloused hands keeping him steady as he stumbled across the room. The warm steady heat of Linette’s body in their bed. The electric bliss that they’d found in each other.
Through it all, was Linette’s heartbeat. Where it had started soft and thready, now, when Timothy closed his eyes and focused on it, he could hear that it was beating in sync with his own.
Finally, Timothy pulled back. Linette blinked up at him in wonder and confusion.
With a wild grin, Timothy released her from her chains and took her hand. It would be a lot to get used to, but they had forever to do it.
They swam away from the wreckage of what used to be the ship, two shimmering tails flashing in the murky ocean light.