Written by TriangleDelta
"…and that's about it, you're dismissed." The tall hawk nodded at the assembled players, and they started to disperse from him, heading to put away basketballs and go to the locker rooms. After a moment, though, he called, "Desdemona, a moment please."
Desdemona blinked, caught by surprise, and turned to face the coach. She had been headed for the door, where she normally waited for Braydon and Mary after practices while the two of them got changed. She hesitated a long moment before walking back towards the hawk.
"What's up, coach?"
The hawk kept looking down at his clipboard for a few moments, and then glanced up at her. "I just wanted to let you know that your improvement over this past year has been… well, remarkable, really."
Desdemona felt her tail give a hard lash behind her, and she grinned at the hawk. "Thanks, coach. I've been working my as-" The hawk raised an eyebrow, and Desdemona cleared her throat before continuing. "I've been working my tail off."
"Well it shows. About the conversation we had at the end of the season last year, have you given any thought to asking your parents about transferring schools?"
The perch took a deep breath. "Yeah, I don't think they'll be alright with it." She'd learned, over the past year and a half, that the short, simple lies were the easiest to tell, and the easiest to maintain.
"Are you sure? I would love to have you on the team, and not just because I'd love to coach a student who's as tall as I am." He laughed at that, and Desdemona forced herself to laugh along. "I could always speak to your parents for you, if you need help making the case."
"No." Desdemona flinched internally at how sharply she'd responded. She pressed on, though, and said, "Look, coach, I really appreciate you letting me come and practice with you guys, but I don't think me being on the team itself is ever going to happen."
"Why are they so against it?"
"They just…" She floundered, not speaking for a few agonizingly long seconds as she tried to come up with an answer to that. "I dunno. It's complicated."
The coach opened his beak to respond, but was cut off as Braydon's voice called from over by the entrance to the locker rooms. "Desi, are you good to g- oh, sorry coach, didn't mean to interrupt."
"No, that's alright!" Desdemona called over her shoulder to the otter. She turned back to the coach, and spoke hurriedly. "Sorry, have to run. Thanks for the talk, coach!" Then she turned, and walked away as quickly as she could without looking like she was running away. The entire time, she was sure that he was going to call after her, but she made it back over to Braydon without any interruptions.
She grabbed her jacket and boots from the bleacher by the door, conscious of Braydon's eyes on her. As they made their way out of the gym, the otter raised an eyebrow over at her. "You alright?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine." She took a few deep breaths to calm her nerves, then glanced over to him. "So we're still on for tomorrow, right?"
"Yeah, it's going to be awesome!" Braydon had his hands shoved firmly into his pockets. The two of them made their way out the doors, and were immediately buffeted by whipping wind and snow. The two of them ran awkwardly through the parking lot, their hands shoved into their pockets and their heads ducked. After Braydon got the doors to his parents' car unlocked, the two of them ducked into it. Desdemona was already shivering and numb from the brief exposure - her scales didn't offer the same protection as Braydon's fur. The otter in question started talking again, as though there hadn't been a break. "You think any of your band mates are going to come?"
"Hell no," Desdemona muttered. Braydon turned the heat on, and Desdemona immediately shoved her numb fingers over the air vents. She shuddered, and muttered, "I have no idea how you fucking walkers survive up here all winter."
"How about you teach me to breathe underwater, and then I'll teach you how to retain, like, any body heat?" The otter snorted, and then put the car into drive and pulled out of the lot. As he fiddled at the stereo with one hand, he spoke. "That sucks, though. I was really hoping to finally meet some of them. You guys could've competed."
"Yeah, well. Maybe next year." Desdemona turned her gaze out the passenger-side window, and watched as the dirty snowbanks rolled by. She had told Simon, Emmet and Max about the battle of the bands. It was easier to tell the truth about what she was doing that even than to lie, especially when she knew that none of them would come. Simon could barely breathe out of water, Emmet was a homebody to a flaw, and Max didn't want anything to do with the surface. Hell, she'd even told her parents about what she was doing that night… just not quite about all of it.
They pulled up to the beach, and Desdemona hopped out of the car. She walked at a quick pace down along the icy path to the change rooms, then stopped and glanced over her shoulder. She waited, shivering and counting out her breaths as Braydon's car pulled out of the parking lot and drove away. She waited a few moments more, and then instead of going to the lockers, she turned and headed for the porta-potties that were arranged just next to them. She had to give the door a hard yank to get it open - a thin layer of ice had sealed it shut.
She cursed as she finally got inside and closed the door behind her. It wasn't any warmer in the small booth, but at least there wasn't any wind. She took a few deep breaths, and then started pulling her clothes off. She was delicate and careful with her jacket - it was a beautiful dark purple thing that she'd had to save up months of allowance to afford. Admittedly, she'd had to buy one a couple sizes too large for her, so that it would fit her broadening shoulders and expanding arm muscles, but it still looked good. Much like most of her clothing purchases over the past year and a half, she'd gotten Mary to help her. It was easy enough to explain away - she'd told the duck that she wasn't used to buying walker clothing, which was true enough, and she needed help. Mary had been invaluable in helping Desdemona build up the small wardrobe of clothing she now kept.
After she'd finished stripping down to just her swimsuit and boots, she bundled all of her clothing up in her arms. She took a few deep breaths, and clenched her eyes shut. Then, she opened the door, and barked out a sharp, "Jesusfuckingchrist!" as the wind and the snow hit her. She ran full tilt from the porta-pottie into the locker rooms, and ducked her way in through the door. The heat lamps gave off a low, unhealthy hum as she wandered through the rows of lockers. There were a few others there - people on their way down to the water or up to the shore, and none of them looking remotely happy about the weather or the occasional gusts of cool air that made their way in through the cracks in the walls.
With her clothing bundled like that, it was impossible to tell what she was carrying. She walked past the locker that her parents paid for, the one that she barely used anymore, and instead headed a couple more rows down, to one that she'd bought for herself. She pulled it open, and then got her clothes into it as quickly as she could, feeling conscious of the fact that anybody could come around the corner and see the women's clothing in the locker. She kicked off her boots, and shoved them in the bottom, before closing the door and locking it.
She headed back over to the door, and took one more steadying breath. Then, she opened the door, and ran for the water, trying desperately to not slip on the ice. Up ahead, there was a huge hole cut into the frozen surface of the lake, from the shore out about thirty feet. There were heat lamps set out along the path, but with the wind they made almost no difference.
Desdemona splashed through the shallows, and then as soon as the water was deep enough, she dove forward. Her entire body came alive with cold as it hit the water, and then her legs and tail thrashed, pulling her deeper. She pushed forward as hard as she could, keeping flush to the bottom of the lake. The light around her changed as she passed beneath the ice; the natural light faded and grew dim, and was replaced by the glowing of the underwater lamps that were set up close to the shore during winter. Soon the insulated warmth of the lake's bed was surrounding her, and Desdemona felt the chill beginning to fade from her bones..
At last, she stopped swimming, and hung in place. Desdemona closed her eyes, and focused on her breathing, and on relaxing her gills to breathe through them again. She hung in place until the echoing sounds of the deep water caught up to her, and her breath was coming easier.
Desmond sighed, and then started forward again. He had to be quick if he was going to make it home in time for dinner. Of course, he could always just lie and tell his parents that he and Glitterbendz had just been practicing late, but… he preferred when he didn't have to.
The next night, Desmond swam back up to the surface after dinner with his parents. He surfaced, and started that mad dash up the walkway through the freezing cold towards the locker rooms. He wasn't able to pause and refocus his breathing until he was safely inside the lockers.
Once she had her gills under control, Desdemona straightened her back, and fetched her clothes. She was surprised to hear somebody else there, a few rows down, and a bit annoyed. She'd learned from her few visits to the surface on weekend nights that it was rare for people to be using the lockers this late. She'd hoped to be able to get changed without having to go to the porta-potty again.
She grabbed her clothes, and then made the quick, freezing run outside. Soon, she was dressed and standing just outside of the locker room; close enough to get some of the heat from the lamps, but far enough for her to see the parking lot. She was just going to go check the time in the locker room when the door opened, and a voice spoke.
Desdemona rounded on her heel, and was halfway through muttering, "What the hell are you doing here?" before she realized that she was looking Simon in the face.
Simon. Simon was on land, looking at her. She was in a fucking skirt, and Simon was looking at her.
There was a very long moment where the two of them just stared at each other, Desdemona with her mouth hanging open, and Simon with an eyeridge raised. At length, he nodded at her.
"So... what's with the skirt, dude?"
Desdemona cleared her throat. For a second, she felt like she couldn't breathe. Then,
"Uh... I mean, y'know. Figured I would try it out on land. Figure it would make a good costume for Glitterbendz, y'know?" Desmond hated how his voice sounded on land, when he wasn't trying to soften it. It had that timbre that the water normally muted. He kept his face straight, though, as he kept meeting Simon's gaze.
"Right, right." There were a few long, awkward moments while the two just stood there, taking each other in. Simon's winter coat looked way too thin, and he was shivering in the cool wind. He kept looking at Desmond expectantly, though, his eyes wide and waiting. At last, he inclined his head and asked, "Well?"
"Well what?" It came out sharper and more defensive than Desmond would have liked.
"Aren't you going to ask why I'm here?"
"Uh... why're you here?"
"Because I learned how to breathe out of water!" The other perch beamed at Desmond, a huge smile on his face. "I mean, not as good as you do, and not enough to, y'know, go full-time walker, but still!"
"That's, uh... that's great, man!" Desmond forced the words out. He was excited for his friend, but also: why now? Of all the damn times...
"Thanks! So I figured I would go to the battle of the bands with you."
"Oh." He took a deep breath. "Great."
Before he could think of anything more to say to that, there was a honk from up by the parking lot. Desmond and Simon turned, and Desmond's heart sank as he recognized Braydon's car up top, its lights shining down towards them.
"Aw hey, is that your ride?"
"Uh, yeah, but uh, maybe you should..." Simon was already off, headed up the beach. Desmond meant to yell after him, but after Simon left the range of the heat lamps, he started running.
Desmond stared for a long moment, his heart in his throat. Then, he gulped audibly, and took off after him. "Hey, Simon, maybe this isn't a great idea! You should probably..."
But Simon was already at the car. He headed for the backseat, and Desmond watched him pull open the door and hop in. Desmond tried to not panic too much as he slipped into the passenger seat. Just play it cool, Desi, just play it cool...
"Hey, name's Simon." Simon was leaning forward from the backseat and offering a hand.
"Aw, sweet, Desi's told me about you. You're the singer and guitar player, right? I'm Braydon." The otter shook the other perch's hand.
Simon didn't react to the small variation on the name. Desmond- Desdemona? - kept watching them, trying to come up with something, anything to say that might make them stop talking to each other.
"Yeah, that's me." Simon sat back, and Braydon pulled out of the parking lot. Desmond was just sitting back in his seat, staring straight forward out the partially frosted windshield and wishing he was anywhere else. "How do you two know each other? Des is kinda mysterious about all the surface stuff."
"Heh, what's wrong Desi, you ashamed of all your 'walker' friends?" Desdemona normally would've punched Braydon in the arm and called him an idiot for that, but she was too busy panicking to react. The otter went on. "Nah, Desi and I play basketball together."
"Wait, you play basketball?" Desmond knew he should say something. He had to say something to get this situation under control, but he just couldn't think of anything.
"Wait, you didn't know?" Braydon was laughing. "Frick, you really are mysterious, Desi! Yeah, she's one of the best players I've ever met."
"Uh, you mean-"
"Yeah, well, that's the big secret, man!" Desmond was keenly aware of how loud his voice was as he cut Simon off. "I've been learning how to play basketball."
"More than just play! You've gone from not knowing how to dribble the ball to having our coach trying to recruit you in… what? A year? Year and a half?"
Desdemona forced out a loud laugh. She was sure that she could feel Simon's eyes drilling into the back of her head, but she couldn't bring herself to look. Instead, she fiddled with the stereo, and put it onto the first station she found.
They drove the rest of the way mostly in silence, listening to talk radio. Braydon and Simon occasionally traded words, and Desdemona sat back and listened. She didn't have to jump in to interrupt anything, though, and she was happy for that. She was starting to hope that she might just get through this night as they pulled up to the 'venue.'
It was an old, abandoned grain elevator further up along the shore - away from the pedestrian beach or the 'ecotonal/translittoral zone,' as all the more recent signs called it. They'd passed by the main harbour where the more wealthy residents of Black Bay kept their sailboats or the occasional yacht, and now they were well into the industrial area of the shoreline. During the summer there would be enormous freighters here, but now, in the depths of January, it was just a series of tall, fenced off structures facing out onto the ice.
They drove past all of the maintained elevators, and eventually came across one where the barbed wire fences were drooping and several of the windows higher up had been smashed. There were already a good number of cars parked there, and there was an uncharacteristic glow emerging from the windows on the lower level.
Braydon parked the car, and the three of them got out. They shoved their hands into their pockets, and then walked hurriedly towards the doors. Desmond made sure to stick close to Braydon the whole way. He could feel Simon's eyes darting over to him, and knew that the other perch probably wanted to get him alone to speak. He didn't want to speak, though. He had no idea what the hell he was going to say.
They pushed open the doors, and stepped into the relative warmth. They were immediately met with a buzz of conversation and the hum of live amps. Most of the space had been cleared out in the centre, and that was where the majority of the crowd was gathered, many still wearing their coats or under layers. A few coats were hanging off of old bits of equipment that had been pushed to the edges of the space. There were about a dozen space heaters along the walls, but the majority of the heat seemed to be coming from the press of bodies.
Towards the back of the space, there was a cleared out area, where a few pallets had been used to make a short 'stage' of sorts. The amps were all plugged in there, and there were a number of techs working on getting instruments set up. A few people, clearly band members, were gathered back in that area and speaking with each other.
As soon as they entered, Braydon called over to a few people that he knew. One of them, a raccoon named Riley who was wearing at least three layers of hoodies, seemed to be in charge. There were quick introductions all around. Braydon turned to gesture at the two perch, and Desmond had to fight to keep his feet underneath himself as the otter said, "And Riley, this is Desdemona, and her friend Simon. She's that girl I was telling you about - that super rad basketball player who's in a band?"
"Nice!" The raccoon responded, reaching out a hand. Desdemona took it and shook. The entire time, she could feel Simon's eyes on her. "Desdemona?"
"Yeah." Desdemona kept her head low as she responded. "You can call me Desi."
"Sweet, and Simon?"
"Yeah, nice to meet you." Desdemona wasn't sure if she was actually hearing that hesitation in Simon's voice, or if she was imagining it. "This is a pretty sweet setup."
"Thanks, I've been working my ass off on it!" Riley laughed, then gestured to the crowd. "You guys go find some place to stand - we should be starting soonish."
Riley wandered off, and Braydon headed for the crowd. Desdemona went to follow him, but Simon's hand caught her wrist.
"Come on, I want to get a good spot." Desmond pulled away, and Simon let him go. Desmond kept his head low, and sank lower into his coat. He suddenly felt ridiculous standing there, towering above the crowd in a skirt and a winter coat that was clearly too big for him. He stayed close to Braydon as the otter made the rounds, talking with a few other people he knew. Simon seemed to have disappeared, and Desmond wasn't sure whether he should be nervous or happy.
Braydon was good. He helped introduce Desmond to everybody, and blunted some of the crowd's questions about the over six foot tall fish. Everybody else there was a walker - it looked like Desmond and Simon were the only swimmers about. A few people greeted him with suspicion, but most of them seemed interested, or even excited to have them there.
Soundcheck was just finishing up, and the first band was taking the stage when Simon finally pushed through the crowd and wound up next to the two of them. He laughed as he stepped up. "One of the benefits of having a friend who's a basketball player is you can always find them in a crowd. Oh, right, Des, I signed us up."
Desmond blinked, and stared over at him. "Wait, wh-" but before he could finish the sentence, Braydon had leaned forward and was speaking over the crowd's buzz. "Wait, are you two going to play!?"
"Wouldn't be much of a battle of the bands if we didn't compete, would it?" Simon grinned and shrugged at the otter.
"Dude!" Braydon appeared to be too excited to notice the growing look of horror on Desmond's face. "This is awesome! Desi's never let me listen to any of your guys' stuff!"
"I mean, best to hear it live, right?" Simon laughed, then glanced back over to Desmond. "Riley said we should go and hang out at the back - I think we're the third group."
"But…" Desmond was just staring at him, unable to finish a thought. At last, he stammered out, "We don't even have frigging instruments!"
"One of the other bands said we could borrow a keyboard and a guitar. Come on, let's go."
With that, Simon grabbed Desmond's wrist, and started pulling him through the crowd. Braydon gave Desdemona one last thump on the back before they left. "Good luck!"
Then Simon was leading him through the crowd, tugging insistently. Eventually, they reached the back of the grain elevator, where the few other bands were gathered. It was only once they were alone that Desmond yanked hard, wrenching his wrist free of Simon's grip.
"What the hell, man?"
"I had to do something to make you talk to me." Simon was eying him with… Desmond didn't know. Reproach?
"But, like, without Max and Emmet to back us up?"
"We'll be fine."
"And I- like, I'm so out of practice, Simon!"
"Maybe if you showed up to practices more." The shorter perch raised an eyeridge at him, arms crossed. A moment later, though, his stance softened a bit. "Though… well, I guess I know why you've been missing them lately."
"I…" Desmond didn't have anything to say after that. He was just staring at Simon, his mouth hanging open a bit.
The two of them were silent, watching each other. A moment later, Riley's voice came through the amps, fuzzy and distorted, to announce the first act. Shortly afterwards, a trio of canines calling themselves Three Dog Bite filed up onto the stage, and started playing. It was loud and screechy, and exactly the type of thing that Desmond had come to listen to. He couldn't focus on it, though.
Finally, Simon sighed, and stepped closer. It wasn't an aggressive movement - it was just so that Desmond would hear him. "Des, talk to me."
Desmond - Desdemona - took a deep breath. Simon wasn't looking away, and his face was just so open, and at last she couldn't take it anymore.
She told him. It tumbled out, and she found herself speaking faster and faster as she went, explaining every detail - going to the court, how easily the lie had slipped off of her lips, and how everything had followed. Simon didn't look away the whole time, and he didn't interrupt.
At long last, Desmond ran out of breath, and just stood there staring at Simon. He felt like his heart was going to hammer out of his chest, but he couldn't look away from him.
When he felt like his breathing was back under control, he muttered, "Simon, please fucking say something."
Simon blinked, then said, "Oh, sorry. It's just… fuck, it's a surprise. I'm kinda still catching up."
"But you're not, like…?" Desmond drew the word out, not wanting to finish the sentence. Simon just stared at him for a bit, clearly not understanding. Then, his eyes widened, and he started speaking very quickly.
"Oh, Christ, no, Des. You're my best fucking friend. I don't ca-" He blinked, and stopped. "I mean no, I do care that this is important to you, but like, it doesn't mat- well, it sorta matters a lot, I guess, but, uh… Fuck, you know what I mean. I just wish you'd told me sooner."
Desmond let out a very long breath that he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "I dunno. I guess, like… hell, for a while it wasn't anything. By the time it started being something, I was already deep into it, and I didn't know how to tell anybody, so I… I dunno."
The two of them were quiet for a bit, just standing there while the band played on and the other bands kept milling about.
"So… like, do you think this is, like…" Simon hesitated, and then nodded his head meaningfully at him.
Desmond took a few deep breaths. Nobody had ever actually asked him that; everybody knew him as either just Desmond or just Desdemona. He'd never had to deal with anybody who'd known him as both. He glanced down. "Yeah. I think- I know this is the real deal," she muttered.
"…so, like, does Braydon know?"
"Do your parents?"
"Fuck. Please stop trying to make me throw up right when we're about to get on stage."
"Sorry, sorry." The two were quiet for a bit after that. The first band was just finishing their last song when Simon asked, "So, like… should I stop calling you Desmond?"
"No," she responded reflexively. Then she stopped, and considered that. "Uh… well. Maybe when we aren't in the water. Or when we're alone."
"Alright." Simon nodded. "I can do that, Desdemona."
She wanted to say that it was a magical moment, the first time somebody from her life underwater called her that. In truth, the name was awkward coming off of Simon's lips - he was so used to calling her Desmond. On top of that, she wasn't used to hearing that name in his voice. But still, it was… nice. The two of them kept meeting each other's eyes for a few moments, and at last Desdemona shook her head.
"Alright, we need to come up with a fucking setlist, I guess?"
"Right! Let's find some glam rock or punk or metal songs to play… without a drummer or a bassist."
Desdemona raised an eyebrow at the dismayed look on Simon's face. "You know this is squarely your fault, right?"
"Yeah, yeah, desperate times and shit."
Ultimately, they cobbled together a short setlist that they were reasonably confident about. It was a couple covers, followed by one of their own songs. Once the second band finished, Riley got up on stage and introduced them. Simon and Desdemona stepped up onto the pallets, and were met by raucous cheers from the crowd. Simon gingerly picked up a well-worn guitar from a stand while Desdemona stepped up to the keyboard. She eyed it uneasily; she wasn't totally comfortable using somebody else's gear. She pressed a few keys down, and flicked through a couple of the effects while Simon leaned forward to his mic.
"Hey, nice to see everybody. I'm Simon, and this is Desdemona, and we're half of a band called Glitterbendz." He leaned back from the mic, and then grinned over at Desdemona. He called over so only she could hear him. "You ready to be absolute fucking trash?"
Desdemona leaned back from the mic in front of her keyboard, and grinned back at him. She cracked her fingers, and then muttered, "Let's lose this fucking contest."
She counted them in. She started playing, the first aggressive chords of Death From Above 1979's Turn It Out. Simon came in hard on the guitar, and shortly afterwards he started singing. It was loud and rough, and Desdemona backed him up on the particularly loud and aggressive lines.
From the first notes, she knew that they were awful - she wasn't practiced, and Simon was singing pitchy. Even worse than that, partway through the second verse, they both realized something: being able to breathe on land and being able to sing on land were two very different things. Simon was having to cut all of the long notes short, and that was throwing off his guitar playing. Desdemona started taking on more of the vocals as they went along, but she was no singer.
It was rough. It was awful. They swept from that train wreck right into My Chemical Romance's Welcome to the Black Parade, with Simon just gasping through the opening lines. Without drums or a bass to back them up, the music felt a bit hollow. Throughout it, though, drunken punks and metalheads bundled up in winter coats cheered for them, and a few of them even joined in to sing along. Eventually, Simon just turned the mic away from himself and towards the crowd, laughing breathlessly as they kept singing.
It came as a surprise to nobody when Glitterbendz came in last place that night. That wasn't what Desdemona remembered, though. She remembered yelling along to other bands, getting shoved around in the mosh pit, and dancing with Braydon and Simon. More than that, she remembered going to the locker room down by the beach at 3 in the morning, and Simon checking to make sure the coast was clear for her.
It was one of the best nights of Desdemona's life.