Selyra could feel his anger and hurt and fear burning through his hot skin as easily as she could see the confusion on his face. Until today she had only known fire from stories, or from watching its dancing light on beaches from far away. Now she had felt its sharp, dry heat, and understood why her people feared it so. It was the very opposite of cool, pulsing, healing water. A natural enemy of water, just like humans were said to be a natural enemy of sea people.
The man looked at Selyra, with strange small eyes that closed every few seconds. He moved in jerks, his whole body a mass of angles and lines and sudden movements. She tried again to speak to him. "What is your name?"
He looked afraid or confused, but he could speak.
"Todd," he said.
"Todd." The name felt strange and short on her tongue, but somehow it fit him.
A horrible thought occured to her. What if Todd had a family on land? She could not steal him away. The seriousness of Selyra's actions began to press heavily on her. How could she be so foolish? She had to take him back to the shore where he belonged. Preferably before her father discovered what she had done.
"I will take you back to land, Todd," she told him solemnly. That was where he belonged.
He only nodded. She swam a little ways, and he followed, kicking and flapping his legs erratically. It would take days to reach the shore at this pace. "Stop," she said. Then she took his rough, thick hands in hers, floated above him, and thrust her tail, dragging him along beneath her. The speed flattened his hair against his head. He smiled, seeming to enjoy the ride.
Soon they were close enough to see a beach. Selyra asked him if he could swim the rest of the way. He thought he could. "You will have trouble breathing air for a few days, but soon your lungs will be back to normal," she told him.
Then she turned to leave him, ashamed of her brash actions, and sad that she could not spend more time with this mysterious human. She had so many questions for him. But she knew that she could not keep him prisoner.
"Wait," he called. Selyra stopped. He kicked himself towards her, and she had to smile at his funny way of moving.
"Can't I stay with you?" he asked simply. "This is the best dream I've ever had, and I don't want to wake up yet."
"Dream?" Selyra had heard of this happening. Humans spend the dark part of the day with their eyes closed in sleep, and sometimes saw things that were not real while they were sleeping. The few humans who had seen merpeople had assumed that they were not real, insisting that they must still be asleep. But what should she say? Should she encourage him to believe that she was not real? Maybe this would help protect her people from the danger she had put them in by saving his life.
"Right, well, if I'm not dreaming, how come I can breathe underwater?" He sucked in a lungful to prove his point.
"I performed a simple procedure which modified your lungs for taking the oxygen from water," she explained. "Our people have developed many talents beyond what you humans call 'medicine'."
"So there are more of you."
Selyra did not like where this was going. She knew she should leave. But she couldn't. She thought about killing him - death had been his destiny before she had intervened - but immediately dismissed the idea.
"And you also healed my cut-"
"On your forehead. Yes. And I repaired the damage to your lungs from the smoke, and some minor burns and bruises on your back."
"You are not asleep." Selyra was losing patience. He was much stupider than she had imagined. She turned to swim away, but stopped. She had to know. "Do you have a family? Above the surface?"
He kicked towards her, and she could not read his emotions. The firey confusion had left him, replaced by guilt and emptiness.
"No. My mom died last year, and my dad lives on the other side of the country. Haven't had a girlfriend in years. It's too much work to have ties when you live on a rig."
Selyra's curiosity and empathy toyed with her logic. She flicked her tail, getting close enough to take his hand again. She felt his severe longing mixed with cold apathy. He missed his mother, and hated his father. He had no emotion attached to his memories of the world above.
"There's nothing for me on land," he said simply.
Selyra's torn emotions were interrupted by a vision: her father was searching for her. She had to act fast.
"You don't belong here. I must go."
She turned tail and left without looking back, feeling his confused emotions dissolve as she swam further and further away.