Eighteen, One

Part One: Playing Pretend Never Lasts


Author's Note: I'm taking a risk with this chapter. It's exceedingly long and has a lot of stuff in it so I've split it into two parts, it's also written in a different style from my usual. I had one song I listened to for the duration of the brainstorming, writing, posing, picture taking, and editing (aka every step), so if you want the full effect that I got entrenched with, toss it on a loop and go! 




Trigger Warning: Child abuse/negligence, teenage sexual themes, blood and violence.



34 Years Earlier

They say bad memories stay with you longer than good ones. I think I heard someone say it once, or maybe it was in one of those waterlogged books I found in my safe place. I don’t have many good memories, so I guess it makes sense. Maybe I had them and just forgot? That would be ideal.


Yes, I think I’d like to believe that I have a lot of good memories I just can’t recall… Something that keeps me warm when the stone floor seems to suck all the warmth from my body; something that takes the weight off the shackles that clang around my ankles.
Why can’t I think of them though? Why can’t I remember them? It doesn’t feel fair. They say people can recall good memories with a positive smell or some kind of trigger, but all I can remember is the day they killed my mother.


They dragged her out and made me watch.
She was inadequate. She just wasn’t good enough for Calypso’s army of the chained. They couldn’t have weak soldiers.


They fed her to the cursed, who snarled as they tore onto her flesh while she screamed.
The man who held me there, who made me look, gently pet my head while I watched. What else could I do? I was nine.
I couldn’t turn away, I’d be punished. Not that I even had the energy to - no, all I could do was stare. I couldn’t even cry. I wanted to, gods did I want to. I just wanted my mother back.
She screamed for a lot longer than I thought she would, but I guess every second was amplified.


“What do you think, little soldier? What do you think of what happened to this woman?” The voice of the man petting me was a million miles away.
I hated it. I hated them. I wanted to retch. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to hit, to bite, to claw and scratch and fight and hurt them back. I wanted to fall to my knees and sob. I wanted to throw myself at the once-human creatures that gnawed on my mother’s flesh.


I wanted so many things, but one thing overrode all else.
I don’t want to die.
So I swallow back a million desires and crush the remainder of my childhood beneath my words.


“She deserved it.”
Maybe that’s why I wasn’t allowed to remember happy memories. Maybe I never deserved them in the first place.

<>

26 Years Earlier

“Juliana! Wake up, already!”


I’ve been awake, but I’m laying in my bed thinking of the dreamless lullaby I hear in my sleep. The hauntingly beautiful voice has been comforting me night after night for the past year, though it’s not in any language I’ve heard of... Lately I’ve taken to laying in my bed straining to hear any faint echoes of it that no one else seems to be aware of.


My bed. Nami’s only waking me up because she’s jealous she doesn’t have one. She didn’t earn one.
I did.
I sold my goddamned soul for this, so I sure as hell was going to enjoy it.
I learned that day my mother died that the only way to live was to be the best, so I was. The commanders would say ‘jump’ and I would jump higher than anyone else. The commanders would say ‘swim’ and I would swim farther and faster.


All of the officials said I was gifted - part of the experiments they did on my mother while she was pregnant paid off. The alchemists said my voice was a testament to our race - that I was exactly what they wanted. The gift of the Sirens were voices that could take over someone’s mind and make them think and do things we desire. We had many other gifts, like shapeshifting and incantations, but our voice control was what we were meant to be known for, and mine was the best.
Because of that, I was allowed more.


Beds, food, clothes… but most importantly…
Freedom.
It let me out to see the world - including the islands I’d come to know well. Plus it doubled as practice for my swimming.
My position was never assured, there was always someone who threatened to take it. To become the new favorite. They nearly had a few times, too. I may have one of the strongest voices, but I needed to be balanced in the other arts too. That was much harder than it seemed.
Supposedly all the experiments being done on pregnant women and infants was to bring out the “inherent skills” in us, but we all knew better. There was a race that existed long before the Goddess Calypso took over for her reign, and she hoped to recreate them as they wouldn’t fall in line to follow her. She eradicated them for their insubordination, same as anyone else who didn’t fall in line.


Jokes on them, I suppose, as if any of them are still alive they’ve been banished to the wastes of the world. I was one of the closest to their make. I could manipulate the sounds and make orders that some of the top tiers of Calypso’s circles couldn’t resist.
Beside that, I also had one of the best singing voices, which made my incantations travel farther with more power. I just liked singing for fun. It was comforting when I felt alone. My mother used to sing to me, but she’s gone now. There was no one to defend me from those who would seek my position through any means possible - and many did seek.
I had to be careful what I ate now, as poison was considered fair game.



Some of the others tried to mess up my voice that way once and I nearly lost everything because of it.
The commanders dangled me over the Cursed for an hour and a half to punish me for it.
Never again.
No one was safe here - they made sure we knew it. We were all expendable.
Just like my mother.


That’s why I found my islands - my safe place. It was just off the grid enough and perfectly well hidden… and for once, it was mine and no one else’s.


Well, ok, I think someone once lived there.
Or perhaps they still do, as from time to time it seems like something new crops up in there or worse, they rearrange things from the way I’m certain I left it.


I always fix it back before I leave, just to remind them to invest in a door.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

Have you ever heard a song so foreign yet so beautiful that it moved you? I didn’t even know the words to it, but I heard it often. I learned fairly quickly that I was one of the only ones who could hear it too.


My mother had been thrilled and was planning the seran bonding ceremony. It was easier to let her have at it then try to tell her I hadn’t yet met anyone who would be on my frequency. For all I know it was just me losing it while I stare at the walls of these stupid caves and rocks.


‘Hadrian.’
Oh Essence, here we go again. I keep my back to the regal figure behind me, pretending I’m simply not tuned into the thoughts he’s projecting at me. In fact, that might not be a bad idea at all, except I can’t escape his thoughts.
‘Hadrian…’ Another warning.


If the king wants to speak to you, you’ll hear it like it or not.
‘Sire.’ I project it back at him. He hates it when I use that term for him.
‘Why must you keep leaving the safe area? What are you looking for out there?’
Oh, I don’t know, perhaps something besides this horrible cave we’ve been confined to? I look away from him and roll my eyes, but I already know he knows I did it. I really must be losing it if I’m willing to challenge the king.


‘It’s not safe out there, you know what happens when we leave. We lost Valhana two years ago, do you not remember that?’
I knew his game, but I couldn’t bend, bringing up another of our fallen people didn't help. ‘I’m not going to wait around and rot in here, I can only stare at these rocks for so long before I lose my mind!’ I knew I needed to watch my tone. Many had warned me that it might get me killed one day if I wasn’t careful. Including the authoritative figure that just heard my outburst.


‘The people need you here, Hadrian.’ The voice echoed off the walls of my head and I dreaded knowing that there was quite a few people in the vicinity who were receiving this same lecture by proxy of being on the same frequency.
‘They’ve got you, they don’t need me! Why could they possibl-’
‘They need their prince!’


This set my jaw tightly, but I knew I couldn’t speak back. I’d already pushed the limits enough for the day.
I could feel my mother stepping into the room, likely to double down on the same talk my father was trying… yet she surprised me.


‘Let him go, Lehnal.’ I chanced this look at her, given she was allowing me to hear her words to my father. She wanted me to hear this. Being allowed in on private conversations between my parents was usually enlightening, if a bit boring at times. ‘If there’s something out there he needs to find to feel whole… then he won’t find it here.’
I could feel my father protesting, but I wasn’t allowed in on that part of the conversation. All they had to do was switch to their own frequency - the one they shared as serans.


My mother had given me her blessing, but it wouldn’t be a real blessing until my father gave it, too. I tried to look at him hopefully and he finally… finally relented.
He couldn’t give me his words, but he nodded, and that was enough for me.
‘Please don't forget to come back to us every now and then, my son.’ My mother pleaded as she reached for me.


I nodded. I could do that. This wasn't permanent.
I just couldn’t stay here all the time. I couldn’t watch people rot in these caves. I just couldn’t do it. We were tired and scared; meanwhile, all of these people looked at me like I was some kind of hero… but I’m not. We’ve been scattered to the edges of this bloody world and there’s nothing we can do about it.


I refuse to sit in this cave and wait for death to come like everyone else seems resigned to.
I might die, but I want to at least live before I do.

<>

I adopted these islands not far from the caves. It was far enough that I got my space, but it put me just on the outskirts of a very dangerous territory.


It was far enough away from the impostor queen who took over the islands that were once ours, but that wasn’t a guarantee that I wouldn’t be found. My people were safe in the caves and alcoves we had found so long ago; our magic kept us hidden, and that infuriated the fake queen who sought to kill us off.
Good, I hope she chokes on it.
Chokes and dies on a goddamn fish bone.


No, these islands likely weren’t safe to stay on, yet I was still attached to them.
They were mine, and no one else’s.
Well, except for someone who'd move my stuff.
They never took anything! Not that the stuff I collected was even worth taking, but seriously? Who shows up on a random island and rearranges things?
Yet just as I think it, there’s movement in my hut.


I hunch down into the water.
They’re human.
Human’s always make such a racket, and this one was no exception.
Wait… are they… moving my things?
I clench my fists and prepare to move out of my hiding spot in the water, yet I get yanked down under with a deafening sound.



It takes me a minute to adjust to the noise suddenly in my head, and I grasp my head trying to silence it. Essence almighty, they're even louder than the rumors claimed!
After a bit of adjusting, I start to recognize the music. That same melody I hear often that no one else does. I’d often try to repeat it back before I’d sleep, thinking it was something in my subconscious trying to give me directions, but it never yielded anything, as if it had been a song of my people it didn't yield any magical benefit that I noticed. It also wasn’t in any language I had ever heard.
Despite this, it had never been this loud before.
I squinted up towards the shack again and it clicked.


What?
No.
Absolutely no way.
There’s no way she’s able to sing on my frequency! She’s not even Hallë!
No! She cannot be tapped into my head! Essence, why?



Yet she stopped, and I suddenly noticed the absence. Is my head always this quiet?
She was looking around, her face was skeptical and I slunk deeper into the water.


She was just a child, yet her magical aura reeked of the usurper queen.
I should turn around.


I should go back.
Ok, so maybe she wasn’t exactly a child. She was definitely at least a year or two younger than me and human.
Can't forget that.
I kept turning it over in my head. She was definitely not Hallë… she was rolling in the magical energy of that grimy bitch who killed my people…


And she was somehow on my frequency.
How else could I hear her in my head so clearly?
I finally yank my eyes from her with some difficulty and make my slow descent back into the depths.






I choose denial.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

I had finally made it sixteen annual cycles and my position was practically solidified. No one could swim faster than me, no one could fight better than me, and no one could give stronger commands than me. My shape-shifting was rubbish but it gave me room to improve: room I planned to take to truly solidify my position.


As a favored warrior of Calypso, I would be excluded from all “skirmishes” or otherwise deadly situations.
My last skirmish two years ago had nearly resulted in my death.


I can tell she’s planning for another round of skirmishes soon just because she’s increased the number of children being bred in the past 10 years.
I don’t really follow the politics of it - I show up where I’m told and I kill who I’m told. There’s nothing else to it.


Even if it did give me horrible waking nightmares.
No one needed to know that.
No one did.


They could go on thinking I was a soulless creature from the depths - at least I’d be alive. I wanted to stay that way.
And so long as they weren’t using me to breed, I could enjoy my time in peace. I’m more valuable to them on the warfront than I am laid up in bed pushing out children.
I know this won’t last forever, though. Soon they’ll deem me as fit to start having children in Calypso’s name.


When the thoughts got too bad I’d head out for the islands. It was just easier to be alone, regardless of what time of day it was. I never needed to worry about what was in the water either… nothing was scarier than I was.
But who has time for a conscience? Consciences get you killed.


So that’s why I was headed there today. One of the commanders made a comment about how I was developing beautifully. My 'birthing hips' especially.
I performed my tasks and took my leave.
I can’t express the peace I find when I feel the sand from these islands under my feet.


“Home sweet hut,” I murmured to the lonely shed.
‘Hey, that’s MY hut, stupid!’
I froze halfway up the shore - realizing I’m not alone.
Suddenly I wasn’t feeling like the scariest thing out here.


I waded back in deeper, eyeing the horizon.
‘Wait! You heard that?' 
... but there wasn't spoken sound with the words. It was filtering straight into my head somehow.
It certainly wasn’t my voice nor my thoughts. I gathered all the bravery I could muster and set my glare for the dark waters of the horizon. “Show yourself!”


‘Nah, I’d rather not. Besides, you’re the one trespassing on MY islands.’ It was a strange, magical echo in that made my neck hairs stand on end.
I clenched my fist, my breath caught in my throat but I wouldn’t let it show. “Coward!”
Yet as soon as the words left my lips I could see his eyes rising up from the water - blue and piercing. He rose with such grace and fluidity that he could’ve been the water itself.


‘I am no coward!’
As my eyes adjusted to the form that stood before me, I resisted the urge to slink back and away. Part of me tugged on my bravery, begging me to cower and run - but I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t let this boy scare me.
I opened my mouth to speak when a flurry of strange-sounding words fell through my head as he gestured to me. Were they supposed to mean something?


I doubled over, gripping my ears. It was the same eerie, musical voice but speaking another language entirely. It was so loud it could've deafened me. What language is that?!
All the sudden it stopped and went radio silent in my head. My breathing even felt loud.
‘Can you understand me now?’ It was softer this time, his voice was adjusted and clear - almost more intimate.
I crossed my arms trying to hide my earlier panic, “unfortunately.”
‘I guess I’ll just have to talk to you on my frequency, since you can’t understand the civilized tongue.’
“That’s rich, considering you’re not even talking at all.” I emphasized. What was all this talk of frequencies?


This made the anger on his face intensify, yet he seemed to restrain himself. ‘As I was saying… this is MY hut!’ He gestured to the building behind us.
I spared a glance back at it, then met his gaze again with a smirk. “Well that explains why it’s so run down. Suits you.”


He took a menacing step forward and my eyes widened as I immediately recoiled back a step. He noticed the change and his face shifted from anger to confusion before finally settling on amusement that made me grit my own teeth. ‘You’re just a frightened, little girl, aren’t you?’
“Speak for yourself.” I say with venom in my voice.


The boy recoiled, but for a seemingly different reason as his face twitched with pain and he gingerly rubbed one of his ears with a finger. ‘Why are you on my frequency?’ He spoke it accusingly like I should even understand what that meant.
“I’m not on your stupid frequency! Whatever that even means!” I put an indignant hand on my hip.
‘Uh, yeah, you are.’ His piercing blue eyes rolled in annoyance. He was different.


His skin was blue and scaly. Not in the ways I’d seen some of Calypso’s servants. He wasn’t one of them, I’d know it for sure. I mean… surely I’d know it, right? Is he one of Ambar’s? There’s a part of me that knows killing him and taking his body back would most likely make me look extremely good to the masters, but...
I just couldn’t do it.
This was my safe place. I came here to get away from killing and politics.


“I don’t give a… a damn about your frequency. If you dislike it so much, maybe you should find a different one and leave me alone!”
His look of annoyance persisted, ‘I almost forgot how stupid humans were.’ It was hardly audible, but still very clear that he wanted me to hear it.
“Oh piss off.” I murmur back, and we were at a stalemate. Part of me wanted to defy him and continue walking into the hut. It was late. I was tired. He was just a boy who was all bark and no bite…


But if he wasn’t…?
I couldn’t take that chance.
‘What’s your name?’
Oh, now he wanted to play friendly with me? Forget it. “What’s your name?” I spat right back.
He took in a long breath and I knew I had annoyed him. ‘I asked you first.’
“And I’m asking you now.” I wouldn’t bend on this.


He took a step forward and I instinctively recoiled back a step, my heart nearly jumping out of my chest. I don’t want to die.
Again confusion crossed his face, this time without amusement following it. ‘Look, seriously, I’m not going to hurt you - if I wanted to I would’ve already.’
“And I’m supposed to believe that?” The emotions in my voice betrayed me.


He held up his hands with an infuriatingly charming smirk, ‘I’m not using my actual voice on you, so yes, I do expect you to believe me.’
It hit me then like a sack of squid. He’s not one of Ambar’s… he’s a Hallë.
‘Wait… you didn’t know?’
Wait… he heard my thoughts? I took a step back again, panic driving the motions. “A-Are you in m-my head?”


He stepped forward. ‘Um… no? Well ok maybe a little but only because YOU'RE the one on MY head… because YOU'RE on MY frequency, remember? So that's why I can hear whatever you project at me and… vice versa. Intentional or not.’
I took another step back, and he took another step forward.
‘Would you stop freaking out? I just want to know your name. Maybe I can figure out why we’re on the same frequency and we can both go on with our lives.’ He took another step forward and I was almost jumped out of the water.


“Juliana!” I recoiled from him as he was much closer, squeezing my eyes shut tight for whatever swing would come.
He stopped his approach at that, though he was already too close for comfort. I could feel the static between our bodies, but I kept my eyes shut tight - just like when I had to fight someone else.
Yes, I could pretend to be brave, but the thing about pretending was there was always a point when you had to stop.
‘See? That wasn’t so hard now, was it? I’m Hadrian.’


My eyes slowly flickered open, my heart pounding with adrenaline from the encounter. I could make out the lines on his skin now - the portions of scales on Hadrian’s blue-tinted canvas. I say nothing.
‘Why are you so jumpy? You talk like a predator but walk like prey.’
Something about him angered me. Maybe it was what he said… or maybe it was that he had his chance to kill me and he didn’t. Whatever it was made me glower. “I can show you a predator if that’s what you really want.”


He winced back again, his hand instinctively coming for his ears. ‘You don’t need to be so LOUD you know. Why are all humans so loud and grating?’
“Oh, I’m grating? You want to know what grating is? You’re in my head!” I snapped.
‘Haven’t you ever considered that YOU’RE in MY head? This might be hard to wrap your head around, Juliana, but humans aren’t the only ones in this world! Shocking… I know.’
He had moved to lean in and it sparked the panic in me… and I reacted.


There was a sharp crack as my palm collided with his cheek and we recoiled in opposite directions. No. No. No! I shouldn’t have-why did I do this-I don't want to die-
I hastily moved for the beach, not even daring to glance back. Maybe he’ll kill me fast and-
‘Alright, alright… I think I earned that one. You can calm down now.’ He rubbed his jaw tenderly. ‘Not a bad swipe… though you really should consider learning another trick that’s more distanced…’ 



“I’m not going to apologize,” I said hastily, looking back at him.
“No need to, princess.” He was smirking as he looked me over, yet when his eyes landed on my ankles his smirk faded.
I glanced down and saw what he did, making my face shift to disgust. “I don’t want your pity.”
‘What are they?’



“Shackles, duh.” I cross my arms again. “Who’s the stupid one now?”
‘I know, but why are you WEARING them?’ There was genuine confusion on his face.
It was my turned to be amused. “Because I’m a slave…?”
His face was distant and unreadable. ‘Oh.’


I sensed them before he did - some of the Goddess’s drones. He looked at me with wide-eyes, and I could almost tell he was concerned about me turning him in.
Was I? No. What would I gain from that? I hadn’t killed him yet, so clearly I was fraternizing. This was as dangerous for me as it was for him. “Quick, go off the far-side, I’ll distract them, just be fast.”
It took him a moment to register that I was helping him.


I tried to hurry him, “sometime today, unless you want to die and take me with you?”
He eyed me skeptically for only a second longer before wading a bit deeper and diving beneath the surface.


<>

I had honestly expected her to be lying, yet I had stuck around long enough to hear her start some long-winded human conversation in their foreign tongue, pointing them in the opposite direction.


I have no idea why I can understand her and no one else. I don’t speak the human tongue. I never have and I never will. Their words are grating, just like their voices - loud, obnoxious and lacking all rhythm. The fact that they even need to project their voices to be heard at all is telling of their intellect.


Yet Juliana could hear me in my own head. I knew I could hear her, but I didn't think she could hear me. I would've kept my mouth shut if I had known... yet when I tried to project my words to her as I would to speak to any other Hallë she had recoiled and heard nothing of what I said. It’s only when I’m in my own thoughts she seems to pick up on it. That's not going to be painfully annoying at all.


Not to mention she’d be speaking in my head almost in time with her foreign words aloud, but not always. It was strange, because all the words were foreign, but I understood them? Only when she spoke, though. I couldn’t understand a word of the other noisy humans she spoke to from the spot that I hid as she drew them away.
Why would she do that, anyways? Weren’t we enemies? Those human followers of the impostor queen would do anything to see us disemboweled across her court. All we wanted was our freedom - to not serve her as our master. She wouldn’t accept it.


So why didn’t Juliana kill me then?
She was an enigma, that’s for sure.
Did she honestly think I was going to attack her when I asked her name?
Well, she was a slave. Jumpiness is to be expected, I suppose. I’d heard of the usurper queen’s cruelty, but I’ll be honest in saying I thought it was mostly exaggerated.


My people had been wronged, of course, but what history is ever truly accurate? Juliana wore her bravado well - I almost believed it. Yet when I approached her…?


Please don’t kill me.
She begged me to not kill her. Only in her head, though. Was she aware that I could hear it? She had to be, surely. I did warn her she was on my frequency.
Yet something told me she didn’t believe it.
She was confusing, but even more so...
Why was she on my frequency?



I had to know.
It would be smarter to stay away, but something told me I wouldn’t be able to let this drop.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

If that boy were smart he would’ve stayed away from my islands.
Unfortunately for me, he wasn’t smart.


No, instead he always seemed to turn up exactly when I’d get there.
We tried ignoring each other, but it never lasted long. Especially not with him.
‘So why does the usurper want you to wear those things?’
“They’re all the rage, why do you think?”


‘They don’t even have chains on them, so for all I know they’re just decoration.’ He smirked.
I hated when he made that stupid face. I wanted to slap that smirk right off him each time, but I didn’t. I can exercise restraint, yet he seemed to know this and it only made him more smug.
“You have no idea what they do to us every night with these!” It was a half-truth. Really it was just a reminder of our status, but they weren’t afraid to chain us together or to the Cursed.
I’ve stayed alive while chained to a Cursed, but not many others have.


‘Hm, boohoo, such a sob story. Are you always this melodramatic?’ He nudged me with his elbow from where he stood.
I huffed and scowled at him, “are you always this much of an ass?”
‘Can’t say I know the term, princess, but based off your tone I’d say it’s an insult to which I’ll say of course!’ He quipped right back, unphased.
“Jerk, arrogant son-of-a-”


He recoiled, putting a finger in his ear and wiggling it a bit, ‘essence almighty, you have the most grating voice I’ve ever heard.’
“Oh, you think it’s grating now? I can be louder.” I pushed up into his face, trying to make my own voice sharper. I would show him grating.
‘So sadistic! I didn’t realize you were so into tormenting others, princess. Then again, that is what you humans do to get off, isn’t it?’


I hastily moved to shove him, making his torso rock back only slightly from my force as his smug face only grew. “Ugh! I hate you!”
‘Violent, too.’ He chided.
I was gritting my teeth. “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”
‘Yes, I more than heard you the first time, princess.’ He, again, feigned pain in his ears.
“WHY are you always here?! This is my place, not yours!” I hissed, this was no longer just a game to me. He was really getting under my skin, and my eyes burned from it.


I didn’t hate him anymore than I hated myself in that moment.
His face grew more stern with frustration. ‘Your place? I was here first! YOU’RE the one intruding on MY place!’
I mean… I guess he wasn’t wrong to some degree, but I didn’t want to admit it. No, I just couldn’t admit it. I couldn’t let someone else take another thing that I felt belonged to me. Nothing will ever be truly mine. I could taste blood in my mouth from biting on my cheek too hard, yet the tears still spilled down my cheeks.


I shoved him again in frustration for good measure - my eyes focused on the detailing on his chest. “I… I…” I had wanted to reiterate how much I hated him, but the tears had sapped that energy from me, and my palms balled up into fists on his chest. I squeezed my hands tighter and tighter as I searched for any kind of response that wouldn’t just be caving to his stupid sentiment, yet found none.


‘Juliana…?’
With a frustrated scream, I shoved off him and tore out of the hut. I wasn’t allowed to have anything! Nothing will ever truly be mine! That’s why I couldn’t just hate him. It didn’t matter how hard I worked, or the sacrifices I made, or the people I killed… nothing would ever be mine.
I could feel him coming up behind me, and it only made the tears spill out faster as I gritted my teeth in more frustration. “Piss off.” Yet my voice broke over the words. How pathetic. I’m fresh meat and he’s come to finish me off.



Yet the prick that Hadrian was - he sat down next to me in the sand, his eyes off in the distance. The coward wasn’t even going to kill me. No, instead he was making exaggerated faces as he tried to avoid looking at me, yet his gaze eventually tipped my way. ‘Would it help if you hit me again?’
I gritted my teeth harder and began to shift myself away from him. “Just… go away, Hadrian.”
I could feel him shifting restlessly behind my back, yet he wasn’t moving to get up. ‘Look… I’m…’ He exhaled, more restless shifting. ‘I’m sorry, ok?’



“What?” My voice was barely a whisper as I shifted to look back at him.
His face was pained, like what he’d said was the hardest thing he’d ever done. It probably had been. He looked minorly exasperated at my request before sighing and holding out his hands in front of him. ‘I said I’m sorry! I was being a… whatever you called it.’
“An ass?” I wiped my eyes with the non-sandy back of my hand.
He half rolled his eyes. ‘Yeah, that.’


I sniffed, yet stayed quiet. I didn’t want to tell him not to apologize because he was right. I think saying that would probably kill me. “Yeah, well…” I swallowed and tried to shove all the words at once, “I’msorryforshovingyou.”
Hadrian grinned at me and I scowled back. ‘I accept your apology.’
“You don’t need to drag this out, you know.”


‘Oh, but I do.’ He had leaned in closer, his shoulder rubbing up against mine.
I was tempted to shove him again, but I’d just forced out an apology for it that I didn’t want to have to repeat.
Silence fell on the both of us and we avoided each other’s stares. We were too close, but neither of us moved. Neither of us wanted to be the one to move, so we stayed, skin pressed to skin until Hadrian finally broke the silence, his gaze back on me.
‘So what if it it’s OUR place… instead?’


“As in… our… both of us?” I gestured between him and I and he nodded confirmation, his piercing blue eyes filled with a strangely silly look. After a minute I finally nodded back. “I guess I could do that.”
He snorted with a grin and a shake of his head. ‘You guess?’
“Well, so long as it’s mostly mine and some yours, then yes.” I nodded matter-of-factly.
Hadrian just kept shaking his head at me. ‘Whatever you say, princess.’

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Juliana came back frequently, yet I didn’t mind so much anymore.


She would sometimes tell me stories of what things were like with the usurper queen. I found her to be amusingly melodramatic. Everything was the end of the world, and she’d lay that on thick.
I called her out on it of course and she’d get frustrated with me. It was our amusing dance. She even asked about life for my people, though I was very cautious about what I told her.
Today she was late though, but I suppose the weather outside didn’t help.


I preferred days like today, and spread myself out along the damp sand from the rain.
It was quiet.
Too quiet.
I can’t believe I’m about to say that I miss her.


I might’ve dozed off once when I awoke to some thrashing sounds. I smirked to myself before getting up, carefully musing loudly to myself and hoping she might hear. ‘Bout time you got here-’
Only she was crawling up the beach, gasping for air.




‘Juliana? Juliana! What’s wrong?’ The waves hit my ankles as I pulled her out of the surf. She was groaning and grimacing. I couldn’t get a single coherent thought from her mind.
I moved my hand off of her as she settled onto her side on the sand, only my hand was stained red.
‘Juliana…’ I tried again, but all I could see was the way her shoulders shook.




After a moment, her eyes came open, glossy and pained, she looked at me weakly.
“It hurts.”

<>

The Cursed have toxins in their claws. The toxins were enough to kill someone unless you’d built up a resistance to it.


I had, but it still hurt.
I was amazed I made it this far - to the islands.
Our islands.
I couldn’t stay in Siren’s Cove, I would be too easy of a target. With wounds like what happened to my back I’d be much better off in the ocean treading water than I would back in Siren’s Cove.


Guess my luck had run out for now.
It doesn’t matter how good you are - the masters like reminding the slaves that they’re in charge.
I had gotten too comfortable.
Too cocky.


Tears of pain spilled out onto the pillow that I gripped with my teeth as Hadrian applied a salve to my back.
‘I’m almost done.’ His voice is quieter in my head.
“Why are you doing this?” My voice breaks as I ask him. I needed to know why. No one had ever shown me this sort of kindness before - especially not someone who would normally be deemed my enemy.
‘You’re hurt.’


I sniffle and clutch my arms in closer. “My people have hurt your people for far longer.”
Hadrian’s voice hums in my head and I know he’s about to say something stupid. ‘Hm, it’s easier for me to hold my unending grudge against you if you’re alive, wouldn’t you say?’
I don’t laugh, and I’m no longer crying from the pain.
The tears that left my eyes were different, and I couldn’t speak anymore. I knew he could hear me though. You should kill me.


‘Why would I do that?’
It’s what everyone else would’ve done.
‘Guess I’m not ‘everyone else’ hm?’
I didn’t have an answer to that.



He dusted his hands off and stood. ‘I’m going to get you something to eat.’
“Hadrian?” I murmured his name and his footprints stopped. Thank you.
He didn’t have an response for that.


Hadrian nursed me back to health that day, all through the night, without a word of complaint.
I never realized someone could be so kind.

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You’ve met your seran, then?
Ever since my mother brought it up I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. A human cannot be my seran. And especially not…


Her!
Serans were meant to be for life. Once you find them, you stay with them until death takes you both - and should death take one first, the other must follow.
There’s no way she’s it! It’s meant to be the most intimate bond between two Hallë! Not humans! Humans are not capable of such deep bonds!


Yet my mother smelled it on me from the moment I returned to our hideaway the first day after meeting Juliana and now even my father is starting to let me off the hook for everything, thinking I’m chasing after my partner of life. It’s not true!
Just because she’s on my frequency and understands me when I speak with her despite us not sharing the same tongue doesn’t mean anything!


She’s infuriating and stubborn and only ever wants to fight with me!
Besides she belongs to that murderous usurper who destroyed everything!
No, my thoughts came to a screeching halt. I refuse to get upset over that. She never decided to be underneath the imposter queen. She wants to be there as much as we want to be here. I’ll never forget the day she washed up wounded because it’d be safer away from the hub of them than it would be in her own bed healing up.


Those chains that chafe her ankles… I hate them more than she does, I think. She speaks of monstrosities so casually sometimes it makes me want to retch.
I used to believe she was being dramatic - and believe me, she loves being dramatic - but it’s not in her over-the-top melodramatic speeches I hear of the injustices; it’s in the casual confusion at basic decency.


It’s in that she had never heard a real apology before in her life. It’s in that she had literally thought I’d come out to kill her when she couldn’t think of a comeback when we fought over claim to those islands. It’s in that in her most vulnerable state, she cried when she realized I wouldn’t hurt her.
It’s in every act of bravado she uses to hide the fear in her mind, the fear that says she can’t slip up, not even once.
Being in her head hurts me.


But now that I’m there, I don’t want to leave.
Having a seran is having someone who speaks to your soul. That’s what my mother told me when I was younger.
I never knew what that meant and I can pretend I don’t know now.


I can pretend I don’t lay awake in tense stasis until I hear her song from across the sea telling me she made it back.
I can pretend I sing for myself like I used to, and not because I’m hoping it’ll elicit a response that tells me she heard me too.



I can pretend that I’ve been collecting shells as a silly hobby for myself and not because she lights up when she sees them.
I can pretend I don’t think about her when I’m idling somewhere, that I don’t see her everywhere I turn.


I can pretend I’m not in love with her, but even I know I can’t pretend forever.

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Playlist
"Never Enough" by Loren Allred
"Let Me Down Slowly" by Alec Benjamin
"Turn Me to Stone" by Hidden Citizens
"Lovely" by Billie Eilish

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