Sallan had always thought eelpouts were the ugliest fish, but they were the most lucrative night catch during the harshest seasons. While winter never left the queendom of Exalted, some months were less snowy and frigid than others. Most low-income residents made their living by fishing or trading. Centaurs tended to fall in the trading camp more than fishing, but Sallan had always enjoyed discovering wriggling treasure while sailing on a boat capable of crushing ice.
Close to sunrise, Sallan pulled in his net and prayed to the ocean goddess for a miracle. Mermaids who’d give him gemstones for releasing them. A map to a pirate’s legacy. A narwhal with a strand of singing oyster pearls wrapped around their horn.
Instead, eelpouts thrashed about in Sallan’s boat. Ugly, ugly fish. There wasn’t even a full net.
He returned to the shore with his meager haul. The sun peeked behind the gray clouds as he entered his home.
Walter greeted Sallan, the inside of their ice-covered house thick with the smell of slightly burnt grilled cod. The rugged human had been born with many talents. Cooking was not one of them. Sallan couldn’t cook at all, so he was content with whatever Walter grilled as long as it didn’t kill him.
“You’re right on time,” Walter said as he kissed the centaur on the chin. “How did you do out there?”
“Only forty damned eelpouts.”
“Rough night. No worries, love. I’ll be heading out after breakfast.” Walter motioned for Sallan to take his spot at the table.
“I’ll go with you.”
Walter set a plate of food before Sallan with a generous side of butter and bread. Humans loved butter. At least, this one did. He used it in everything. Everything.
“You should get some sleep,” Walter said. “You’ve been going out on the boat far too frequently lately.”
“I’ll just go with you for the morning. I can sleep during the afternoon.”
Then go back out at midnight and catch more eelpouts alone. Rinse and repeat. Sallan had to catch the highest-priced fish since his vessel required more upkeep than other ships. Not to mention he had been secretly saving up to go on a trip with his husband.
Walter and Sallan had been married for a few years now, and Walter was spending less time tending to the nets underwater and more time staring at the families on other ships. Neither of the men had seriously talked about expanding their own family, but Sallan could tell the conversation would happen soon. He wanted to be able to say “let’s get one right now” when Walter voiced his desire.
It would make the most sense for the couple to travel down to the tiny island of Azmar and ask the Wishing Well for a child. The Wishing Well only provided human children, but Sallan supposed it didn’t matter to him what form their child took. The baby could have Walter’s pale complexion and deep blue eyes or Sallan’s dark skin and bald head. As long as they weren’t an eelpout.
Sallan was so tired of the constant fishing. But it’d be worth it to make Walter happy. And himself, he supposed. Not that he had ever really thought much about becoming a father. It didn’t matter a lot to him.
Maybe their child would grow up to be a chef. Or a fisherman like their fathers. Pride swelled through Sallan and erased all the fatigue in his muscles at the thought of having someone he could pass his fishing skills to. They could make feather fishing lure bracelets together while they waited for a haul on the sea.
“What’s on your mind?” Walter asked with his mouth full.
Sallan set his fork down and stared at the furniture in the kitchen. They would need a new chair to accommodate a baby. One end of their table was higher for Sallan to stand at while Walter sat comfortably on his side. Where would the baby sit?
Wow. They would need more than a chair, wouldn’t they? A tiny thing with chubby arms and legs couldn’t sleep in their hybrid bed with them. What did baby humans sleep in? Hammocks? Humans had such thin skin, too, the baby would need a bunch of fur coats tailored to their size.
Supplies to build furniture and make clothes wouldn’t come cheap. They would need more money than Sallan had initially realized. He’d need to start going out earlier at night, catch more fish. How much longer could Walter possibly stand to go without having a child?
When the couple reached the pier, two small centaurs and a human girl about their same age galloped in front of Sallan and Walter’s boat, catching snowflakes with their tongues. They were young enough to still be amazed by stuff that fell from the sky every day. Their curious minds mystified Sallan, but he kind of loved looking at them.
“I want one.”
It had been Sallan who voiced that, quietly, almost lost in a gust of wind.
But Walter had heard. “A child?”
“Me too.” Walter took Sallan’s hand and squeezed it. “Let’s make it happen. Together. No more solitary fishing trips.”
It only took a month to get the home ready for the baby. Sallan had accidentally slipped the news to, well, almost everyone he encountered. The human neighbors and regulars at the market gifted the hopeful father hand-me-downs for clothes, furniture, and toys. This allowed Sallan to spend more money on arranging their trip to Azmar.
The centaurs helped too. Some swung by with child-rearing books; others brought tools and repaired anything slightly less than perfect in the house. A few taught Walter and Sallan how to prepare the powdered milk their child would need. Apparently humans were not born with a full set of teeth and had to drink out of special apparatuses.
One human neighbor brought her infant over for the couple to hold. Sallan stressed the importance of Walter learning how to properly cradle a baby since chances were good the Azmarians’ ship wouldn’t be able to accommodate the centaur. Walter might have to go alone to get their child. It would hurt to see Walter leave, but at least he would come back with a new member of their family.
Not that Sallan dared to voice his worry. Walter kept insisting they would be together for every step of getting their child. How could Sallan burst the dreamer’s bubble?
The Azmarians arrived on the first day of spring, ready to trade their runes and pigments.
Sallan and Walter collected their belongings and hurried to the port. In the last minute before they left their house, Sallan put on his lucky blue feather fishing lure bracelet. He reckoned he could use all the help he could get.
The Azmarians’ large ship almost didn’t suit the short, muscular, gray-skinned people. But Sallan was relieved to see it when they reached the dock.
It was big enough for him.
“You’re the first centaur I’ve ever taken to Azmar,” the captain said as she took Sallan’s money. “You know the Wishing Well has only ever produced human children, right?”
“I’ve got nothing against humans. Obviously.” Sallan rested his hand on Walter’s shoulder.
She raised an eyebrow. “You like them bearded, eh?”
“I like this one.”
Walter laughed. “Thanks. I like you, too.”
The captain shrugged. “Humans all look the same to me. Some just have more hair than others.”
“Aren’t you a human too?” Sallan asked.
“Gross! No. I’m an Azmarian. Ugh. That saying is true.”
“What saying?” Walter asked, grinning.
“Not all assholes are centaurs, but all centaurs are assholes.”
Panic thundered through Sallan, down to his hooves. What if she refused to take him now? Or Walter?
Walter chuckled. “We say that up here, too.”
“What?” Sallan looked at him. “I’ve never heard that.”
“Of course you haven’t. You’re too tall to hear human whispers. Don’t worry, love, you’re the kind of asshole I adore. Oblivious.”
“I am not.”
The captain wagged her finger. “Are you two going to be like this the whole time? Hurry up. I’ve got a strict schedule to keep.”
We’re really going to Azmar.
Sallan’s legs shook as he boarded the vessel. The next time he saw this blanket of white, he would be a father. He silently prayed to the ocean goddess for a safe journey.
“How are you so calm?” Sallan asked Walter as the ship set sail and their home grew distant.
“What’s to be nervous about? We’ve been out to sea lots of times.”
“No, I mean…”
“I have you. I am a pillar so long as you are here.” Walter adjusted the hood of his fur coat and leaned in close to Sallan, protecting his face from the wind. “I think the only thing we need to be worried about right now is deciding on a name for the child.”
“A name?” Sallan wrapped an arm around Walter’s shoulders and hugged him close. “What are human naming traditions?”
“I think we just pick whatever name we like best. Like Cameron or Ash.”
“Such a vague tradition. Centaurs are more rigid. We combine three letters from each guardian. Like Salter or Wallen. Longer names for those with more guardians.”
Walter fiddled with the clasp of Sallan’s cloak.
“What goes best with my last name?”
Sallan mulled over it. He had briefly forgotten humans had a second name. Taffy. Salter Taffy. No. Wait. That sounded too much like saltwater taffy. He couldn’t do that to his child.
What name went with Taffy?
Good thing they had two weeks to figure something out.
Neither Sallan nor Walter had ever traveled south before, nor had they ever experienced such a fast vessel either. The Azmarian ship put sailfish and marlins to shame with its speed. Islands passed by them like colorful blurs.
Visually, it was stunning to admire snowless mountains along the horizon and rainbows of trees when the ship docked somewhere. But the increasing heat didn’t mesh well with them, and the Azmarians’ vegan diet - while delicious - left the burly Exalted citizens unsatisfied. Eventually, they packed away their heavy clothes into Sallan’s saddlebag and acquired dried squidfish and beef jerky at port to snack on.
The grueling heat and small meals would be worth it. Sallan would swim in a volcano filled with molten gold for Little Mona or Shory or Teznor.
There were so many names to choose from.
After a fortnight, the ship neared a tiny, lush island. Technically two, according to the captain. Azmar was the shape of a full moon with a river dividing it in half. The Azmarians lived underground on one half of the island, and the forest sprites lived topside on the other half.
“Is the Wishing Well also underground?” Sallan asked.
He was alone with the captain. Walter slept below deck, blissfully unaware of how close morning was. Sallan envied him. It was probably cooler down there.
“Yes,” the captain said. “You have to take a tunnel to reach the Well.”
A tunnel. The captain had said before she had never taken a centaur to Azmar. Would the tunnel be big enough for Sallan?
He supposed it didn’t matter as long as Walter could meet the Wishing Well and make the request. They would only be apart for a little bit. Sallan could wait on the surface for him.
Even though his heart longed to be there by Walter’s side for every step of the greatest adventure of their life. Holding Walter’s hand. Watching his scruffy face light up as he hugged their child for the first time. Witnessing a miracle.
Several Azmarians greeted the ship as it arrived. All of them were just as buff as the sea crew. Were they born with those muscles? Where did they get that much protein in their diet to amass such pythons?
It was easier to focus on the Azmarians’ fitness regime than it was to consider the tunnel waiting for them.
Hot, sticky sweat dripped down Sallan’s neck as the official guest ambassadors escorted the Exalted couple through the muggy forest. Breathing was uncomfortable. But it would all be worth it very soon.
Sure enough, once the group reached the entrance to the underground village, it became obvious Sallan would not be able to fit his broad frame through the rocky tunnel. Only Sallan and the captain stopped, allowing the others to go ahead. It took a few seconds before Walter turned around. He smiled at the centaur.
“What are you waiting for?” he asked.
“Go on without me,” Sallan replied, his voice fading with each word.
“Are you too hot? I can wait,” Walter said. “Let’s go to the river and cool down.”
The captain cleared her voiced. “He’s our first centaur. We have not had to accommodate such a large guest before.”
“I can’t fit through the tunnel,” Sallan translated.
The glee on Walter’s flushed face disappeared. “What do we do?”
“You go on without me. I’ll wait here for you.”
“We have to do this together.” Walter grabbed Sallan’s hand. “We’ve done everything else together. This is our child we’re wishing for.”
“I wish I could be there too.” Sallan kissed Walter’s hand and let go of it. “But I’m fine here.”
If the Wishing Well could grant other kinds of wishes, Sallan wished he could erase the memory of his husband’s crestfallen face. That would still require getting through the damned tunnel though.
The captain waved good-bye to the centaur and slipped into the tunnel, dragging Walter with her. Sallan kept his gaze trained on Walter until he disappeared and almost broke his heart.
Sallan had known it would hurt to let Walter go ahead, but he didn’t realize it would be hard to stand.
He found a patch of grass close by relatively free of debris from the trees and took a seat. His stomach had melted into a liquid. He could hear it slosh around inside of him every time he took a breath.
Water. He needed water. The river was too far, though.
A tall, lanky human with pale skin and vivid red hair came running out of the tunnel after several minutes. The human, decked in some kind of shabby tunic, stopped in front of Sallan. His large green eyes sparkled as his mouth formed a perfect ‘O’.
He didn’t look like any of the Azmarians. Another visitor to the island seeking a child?
“Never seen a centaur before, I presume?” Sallan asked.
“No. You are amazing.” The human circled Sallan. “Have you ever seen a dragon before?”
“I have not.”
The human smiled and pointed to himself. “You have now!”
“You really can’t fit through the tunnel? Sallan, right? You can call me Dearth.”
Sallan stood up and hobbled to the entrance. If the tunnel were merely too short, he could easily duck his head low and trot carefully. But it was also too narrow for his wide shoulders.
“I see.” Dearth rubbed his chin. “We should fix that.”
“Even if the Azmarians started today, I imagine such a construction to widen the tunnel would take weeks, if not months.” Sallan swallowed, trying to get moisture in his dry throat. “How did you know about me? Why did you come out here?”
“Your husband came into the village crying. I’m not very good with my talents, but I generally don’t need magic to cheer people up.”
Walter? Crying? Sallan had never seen him cry. Not even when he broke his wrist
Now the centaur really wanted to be in the village. With his husband. Standing by his side as their family grows.
“Magic?” Sallan stared at the peculiar creature.
Was he actually a dragon? Could dragons shapeshift? Were they magical? There was a dragon that lived on a mountain in Exalted, but Sallan had never had any reason to learn anything about her.
“Hugs usually work for cheering folks up, but I guess they won’t in this instance. Unless you want one?” Dearth held his arms out.
“Uh. No thanks. I want to get to my husband.”
“Which means we need a bigger tunnel.” Dearth nodded. “All right. Let’s see what I can do.”
Before Sallan could react, Dearth slipped through the entrance of the village, leaving the centaur alone again.
Strange man. Dragon. Whatever.
His thirst grew to painful levels of need as Sallan waited for something to happen. It couldn’t be helped. He’d need to visit the river, even though it was out of sight from the tunnel. He hoped Walter wouldn’t come running out with their baby and find him missing. He’d only be gone for a little bit.
While scooping up cups of water in his hands, Sallan admired the tiny, sparkling creatures fluttering on the other side of the river. He had never seen forest sprites before. Exalted didn’t allow for many types of critters to inhabit the land. The occasional snow nymph or rabbit would pass through, but that was it. The icy ocean had more variety of life.
Would his child become an explorer and come home with stories of the wonders of the world?
He laid down on the riverbank and studied the forest sprites, his eyelids growing heavier with each moment. Perhaps resting here by a relatively cool spot for just a moment wouldn’t hurt…
“There you are!”
A burst of crimson and ivory greeted Sallan when he opened his eyes. Fog danced in his head, his body unwilling to move. He had been in a deep sleep. For how long?
“That’s me.” Dearth smiled and kneeled down next to Sallan. “So I have a problem.”
Sallan stared at him.
“In order to make the tunnel bigger, I need to get my mother out here. But she can’t leave the cave the way I can, which is through the village. She’s afraid of being seen by so many people. She really, really doesn’t like crowds or anything like that.”
“Your mother?” Sallan had thought he was awake, but now he wasn’t sure. He couldn’t understand anything gushing out of this dragon-thing’s mouth.
Dearth nodded. “She’s magical.”
“Do you mind making a bit more sense for this very confused outsider?” Sallan asked.
“My mother has magic. She also has anxiety and needs help getting to the surface.”
That made sense. Maybe. Sallan folded his arms across his chest.
“She’s a dragon, too?”
“Yes! My mother is excellent with her magic. Like. Really excellent. She’s able to manipulate earth.”
“Dragons can do that? Can you?”
“Uh.” Dearth looked up at the sky and rubbed the back of his neck. “I think if my mother met you, she’d help you.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Dearth jumped up and scampered further down the riverbank. Sallan rose to his hooves and followed, hating the way he sank in the mud slightly with each step. It was like a deep snow but with the ability to keep him trapped forever if he wasn’t careful.
Though he’d sink through the ground itself if it meant a way to get into the village.
Dearth pointed to a spot in the ugly river. “There’s an opening at the bottom here that leads directly to our cave. I think my mother could fit through it in her human form. However, I don’t have a way of bringing her up.”
Sallan couldn’t see anything from his current location. He waded into the cold water carefully. With his great weight and size, the river current wouldn’t knock him over so easily. He was also a strong swimmer. But there were creatures in the ocean that could end his life with one bite, and it was foolish to assume the river had no such danger.
The water was too murky to actually see anything but the outline of some rocks. One of Sallan’s forehooves slipped through something after a couple of minutes. He jerked back and stepped away from the hole.
“Yes, it’s right about there,” Dearth called. “I doubt you can fit through there, but try not to fall, just in case. The pool at the other side has to be avoided.”
“Your mother is down here?”
Sallan felt the edge of the hole with his hoof. The perimeter was significantly larger than he had expected. Not centaur-big, but it was definitely human-sized. It reminded him of a hole he used for ice fishing.
Well. Why couldn’t he fish her up?
Sallan returned to the riverbank. “I have an idea.”
Dearth broke into a smile. Cute kid. Was he a kid? He looked like an adult, but his personality needed some maturing.
“I’m going to get some rope and tie one end to my waist. I’ll lower it through the hole. If you tie the other end to your mother’s waist, I can pull her up. It’s not too far down, is it? I can’t imagine she could hold her breath forever.”
“Not too far at all!” Dearth clasped his hands together. “I’ll go ahead and get her ready. It will take me about an hour to get to the cave, okay?”
An hour. Would Walter wait another hour before making the wish? Why was he taking so long to make the wish in the first place? Did he already do it and was too busy playing with their child and cherishing all those precious first moments?
Goddess. Sallan wanted to be by his side more than anything right now.
He trekked back to the ship. A lone Azmarian guarded the vessel, her silver hair tied into adorable pigtails. Sallan wondered if his child would wear pigtails.
“I need some rope,” he said.
“There has to be some on board.”
“There is, but what are you going to do with it?”
“I’m going fishing.”
The guard stared at him, each passing second more uncomfortable than the last.
Sallan didn’t have time to be polite. He had an alleged-dragon with anxiety to meet, a husband to reunite with, and a child to wish for.
What a weird situation he had gotten into so suddenly.
“I’ll take it myself if I must. Move.”
“Hold your nuts, centaur. I’ll get you some.”
The Azmarian rolled her eyes and marched up the ramp. She returned after a few minutes with a bundle in her arms.
Sallan took the rope and wrapped it around the widest part of his torso, counting the number of times it looped around him. He estimated the rope to be about forty feet. Was that enough? Dearth had failed to mention the distance between his mother and the opening on the riverbank.
“Is this the longest you have?”
“Yes. Go ask the Wishing Well for more if your greedy heart isn’t happy with that. And make sure you return the rope when you’re done! You know how hard it is to make decent rope around here?”
“I’ll give it back. Thank you.”
Sallan returned to the riverbank and scouted the edge for a large, smooth rock to act as an anchor. Once he found the perfect specimen, he secured one end of the rope around it. It was a primitive tool, but it would do the job. It had to.
An hour had surely passed by now. Sallan waded into the promised spot on the river with the other end of the rope fastened to his waist. The weighted end of the rope was the heaviest yet lightest object he had ever carried in his hands.
There had never been a more important fishing trip in his life.
He wrapped most of his makeshift line around his arm and dropped the anchor into the water. Next, he kicked the rock until it slipped into the hole. Then, slowly, Sallan lowered the lure. The excruciating pace didn’t match the rapid beating of his heart in the least.
His heart stopped when he ran out of rope. There was nothing more he could give without untying the material from his waist. Would that extra few inches be enough? If it was, he wouldn’t have enough of a grip on the rope to safely reel Dearth’s mother back up.
Sallan waited for several minutes before deciding the water had gotten too cold for him. He needed to get back to the shore before he got sick. Baby humans didn’t have much of an immune system, from what he had read.
He started to twine the rope around his arm to reel it back in, but something resisted him.
Sweet goddess of the ocean. Sallan had a catch.
For the next minute, the only thing Sallan could hear was the sound of his heavy breathing. The thick, wet braided weave of fibers commanded his full attention. His throat tightened when he caught a glimpse of a pale, human-shaped figure.
He grabbed her hand and yanked her close to him. She clutched onto his shoulders, gasping for air. The woman was small and lithe. Was she really also a dragon?
Sallan lifted her into his arms and carried her to dry land. The dragon had long, brown hair and splashes of green and blue running down her face, like watercolor tattoos of some kind. No clothes. He regretting not having a towel for her as he set her down on a patch of dry grass.
She peered up at him curiously with her emerald eyes. “So this is what a centaur looks like.”
He smiled at her as he untied the rope from her waist. Her fingers grazed the fishing lure bracelet on his wrist. The feathers had lost most of their fluff from the dive into the river.
“This thing is lovely,” she said.
“Thank you. You know, I never imagined an underground-dwelling dragon would be so beautiful. I thought dragons lived on mountains?”
“You will keep my existence a secret, yes?”
“Of course. I doubt anyone would believe me if I tried to spread the word.”
The woman wrung her hair out, averting her gaze from Sallan. He watched her take in the nature surrounding them. Her expression was peaceful with her lips slightly parted in awe. When was the last time she had ever seen the sky?
“Let’s take care of the tunnel before my son gets here,” she said. “Show me where it is?”
“You don’t want Dearth to be here?”
“I don’t like an audience.”
He couldn’t argue with that logic.
They approached the entrance to the underground village. The woman pressed her ear against a slab of stone in the tunnel and nodded, as though she were listening to the rocks. Every now and then, she looked at the centaur and held her fingers out in the same way Walter did when he measured how much butter to put in a dish.
“Do you need my help with anything?” Sallan asked.
“No. You have already proven your worth.”
As she backed away from the tunnel, a tremor rumbled through the land. The earth quickly began to shake violently, and it caused Sallan to lose his balance. He fell over to his side and kept low, shielding his eyes from the flying debris.
When the earthquake stopped and the dust settled, Sallan stood up.
“Are you all right?” he asked the woman.
But she wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
However, the shape of the tunnel had changed. The entrance was larger in height and width. Sallan poked at the wall of the opening. The rocks didn’t budge. He tested the sturdiness of the structure with his fist next.
Solid. The tunnel had been shaped with pure magic.
Dearth emerged from the inside of the tunnel with a cheery expression on his face. “That was fast!”
“Was anyone in the village hurt?” Sallan asked. “That earthquake was massive.”
“No, we didn’t feel a thing.”
“Let’s go,” Dearth said. “Your husband still hasn’t made a wish!”
“But your mother’s gone.”
“She probably returned to the cave.”
You have already proven your worth echoed through Sallan.
There was something more to this mysterious dragon lady with magic than Sallan had initially realized.
For now, it probably didn’t matter.
Sallan followed Dearth through the passage. It was still a tight squeeze, requiring Sallan to keep his head low, but it worked. Enchanted runes lined the walls of the tunnel, illuminating the area greatly.
The passage opened up to a cave full of Azmarians and spiral rock buildings. Moss covered the ground with green runes dotting the patches for more light. The thick air smelled surprisingly floral and nutty, almost like olive oil.
“Where’s Walter?” Sallan asked.
“Right where you should be.”
Dearth guided Sallan toward the Wishing Well. Every Azmarian they passed stopped in their tracks to gawk at Sallan and whisper to themselves. A centaur clopping through their village must have been a sight they never expected to see.
Tears blurred Sallan’s vision as the most beautiful human came into view. Walter was hunched over a simple stone well, his brown hair soaked in sweat. Golden statues of babies flanked either side of the structure.
“It’s so hot here, isn’t it?” Sallan asked.
Walter turned around and threw his arms around Sallan’s neck. Sallan squeezed him gently. It felt so damn good to hold Walter again, even though they had only been apart for a few hours.
“How did you get here?” Walter asked.
Sallan looked at Dearth. He had made a promise to his mother. But they hadn’t thought of an explanation for the tunnel’s sudden expansion.
“The Azmarians helped,” Dearth said.
“So did you.” Sallan rested a hand on Dearth’s shoulder. “Thank you. I hope our child will make friends as kind as you. Give your mother my regards.”
Dearth beamed at him and walked away, waving good-bye.
“His mother?” Walter blinked.
“Shouldn’t we focus on turning our family of two into three?”
Walter nodded and took Sallan’s hand. They stepped over to the opening of the well. A bucket dangled from the wooden arch overhead.
“We make a wish down here,” Walter said. “Then the Well will ask for something. We drop it in this bucket and lower it down.”
“How do we know if the Well granted our wish?”
Walter pointed to a bell attached to the rope. “Our captain said the bell will ring when there’s a child waiting for us.”
Both men took in a deep breath.
“I’m ready,” Sallan said.
Their fingers intertwined as they looked down the well.
“Esteemed Wishing Well, we are a couple from Exalted,” Walter rasped, his body trembling.
Sallan continued talking, his voice equally unstable. “We wish for a child who will love growing up in a place where winter never ends.”
He wondered what the Well would want. Hopefully it was an object they could obtain easily and quickly. A rock, a bundle of grass, a cup of water.
An echo rang through the structure.
“Bring me a bracelet made from blue feathers.”
The voice matched the person Sallan had fished from the river. He held up his wrist and stared at his lucky charm.
“Oh!” Walter sniffled, wiping his eyes. “How did the Well know?”
Sallan had a bigger secret to guard than he had first realized.
He dropped the bracelet into the bucket. Walter lowered the bucket carefully while Sallan channeled all of his hopes for the future. A happy life with his husband and his child was all he needed.
Walter held onto Sallan’s arm, staring at the bell. Sallan kept his gaze on the dark abyss below them. What sort of magic was happening down?
The purest, clearest chime sounded through the vicinity from the tiny bell.
“Oh!” Walter looked at Sallan. “You do it. My arms have turned into cooked noodles. What if I drop our child?”
Sallan stared at the rope, shaking everywhere. What if he messed up? It would be a loss too unbearable to deal with, nothing like a net with a huge haul breaking out on the boat.
Walter rested a hand on Sallan’s back and stood close to him. His presence centered the nervous fisherman.
This is why they had to make the wish together.
Sallan grabbed the rope. For the next minute, all he could see was the flimsy, frayed fibers in his grasp. When the bucket emerged from the well, fireworks exploded in Sallan’s chest.
They set the bucket on the edge of the well. A baby human wrapped in a blanket of grass stared at their surroundings curiously. He had light brown skin and dark eyes. He was the smallest human Sallan had ever seen.
So tiny. So perfect. Nothing like an eelpout.
Walter picked up the baby and cradled him in his arms. “Is this really our child?”
Sallan wrapped his arm around Walter’s shoulder and rested a hand on the baby’s warm chest. The little human looked directly at him. He could no longer fight back his tears.
“Hi, you, we’re your fathers,” Walter whispered, kissing the baby on the forehead. “We love you so much already, Salter.”
“Do you want a different name? I’ve honestly liked the name since you said it. I think it’s the perfect blend of both of us.”
It sounded much better now that Sallan had an adorable face to put to the name.
“Welcome to the family, Salter.”