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Other Crabs Cannot Be Trusted

Chapter Text

Erik was on a mission.

That was how he thought of it, in any case. Either that, or he was intensely pursuing his preferred hobby. Raven called it an 'obsession', but what did she know?

"You need help," she said flatly.

Erik resolutely ignored her, perched on a small rock by the shoreline. His eyes were trained intently on the tiny burrows peppering the sand. The sun had just set, so any moment -

"No, really. This is stalking."

"Be quiet," he muttered. "If it troubles you this much, you're welcome to return to the reef."

Raven huffed, but remained where she was. She meant well, as he had grown to grudgingly admit, but Erik had long decided that the advice of any crab that preferred to look like a god damn anemone was not to be trusted. No self-respecting crustacean would even dream of covering themselves with coral polyps.

"It's no trouble for me," she continued, much to his annoyance. "I'm worried about you. Anybody could see you on that rock. What if a seagull gets you?"

"Seagulls are primitive creatures," Erik responded dismissively. "I'll dive back into the water before they're close."

"Says everybody who gets eaten," Raven replied promptly. Erik chose to ignore this, mostly because she was unfortunately right. Then again, she had seaweed hanging off her shell.

Raven, unfortunately, wasn't quite done.

"You know," she continued, "if you really have to keep stalking him, you could at least be a little less obvious. Here - "

She reached up, anemone tentacles swaying in the current, and plucked a generous amount of sea grass off her shell.

"Here. They'll just think you're a piece of moss. Works every time."

Erik eyed the sea grass with an impressive amount of disdain. "Decorator crabs," he said stubbornly, "are a shame to our kind. We shouldn't have to hide."

"Decorator crabs," Raven retorted, "sit silently and watch as the rest of you scuttle away whenever a gull approaches."

"It doesn't matter," Erik said sullenly, returning his gaze to the shoreline. "Crab and proud."

Raven bristled in annoyance, and returned the sea grass to her shell. "You're a lousy hypocrite. You use your shell to hide from Charles all the time."

"That's different."

"It isn't even your shell. You stole it, like all you hermit crabs do."

"Did not."

"Yes you did. You took it from Shaw. Everybody recognises that shell."

"Shut up."

"At least this is my shell - "

Erik took off in a scuttling run, diving back beneath the waves and heading to the shore. He could hear Raven shouting in protest by the rocks, warning that she wouldn't be stupid enough to follow him - this was expected, of course. Her camouflage, shielding her from the eyes of the most dangerous predators, was next to useless away from the colourful reefs.

He remembered the other decorator crab that was caught by some humans, and spent a week trying to get glitter and sequins out of his shell. It made Erik shudder.

The decorator crabs could solve their own problems. Erik, after all, had never pretended to understand them. At the moment, he had more important things on his claws.

The chilly sea breeze washed over him as Erik reached the shoreline. He immediately retreated into his shell, waiting.

This is stalking, Raven's voice echoed in his head. Privately, Erik might be inclined to agree - though to his credit, it was very skilful stalking. For weeks, he had been coming up to the shore, and the object of his fascination (Fascination, he told himself, not affection) hadn't suspected a thing.

He was actually quite proud of it. Raven wasn't the only master of disguise around here, and he didn't need to do ridiculous things like walk around with an anemone hat. He had even gotten the other crab's name. Charles, he had heard him called. Charles.

Speaking of which.

The shell on the shore twitched briefly, as a small crab emerged from a deep burrow - it paused cautiously, checking for predators, before deeming the beach safe for exploration. A ghost crab, Raven had told him. Strange, pale little things that came out at night, with large eyes that made them look annoyingly naive and most certainly not adorable. Seagull bait, really - it was no wonder Charles didn't dare look for food in the day.

Charles liked coquina clams, Erik had noticed. He had considered finding a few and leaving them by Charles' burrow, but that might raise suspicion. Subterfuge was key, if Erik was to continue his stal - observations.

The little crab scampered out of his sight. Carefully, Erik emerged from his shell, surreptitiously trailing after his target. Shore crabs, he thought with a sigh, as Charles tripped over twigs and circled around pebbles. If there was anything he understood less than decorator crabs, it was them. How could anybody stand living in the sand, trampled by those homo sapiens every other day -

Charles paused abruptly, and Erik instantly retreated back into his shell, settling innocuously into the sand. He peeked through a crack as Charles froze in place, looking around the beach with clear alarm.

"Who's there?" he called, and Erik resisted an urge to snort. Indeed, a potential predator would announce its presence simply because its prey had asked.

Charles was lucky that the only thing following him was Erik.

That was another reason why Erik taken to following Charles, of course. The little ghost crab was painfully naive, and it was only a matter of time before a seagull got him. Or a fox. Or a raccoon. Naturally, it was up to Erik to ensure his fellow crab remained safe and sound. 

(Back at the reef, he had entertained several fantasies of heroically saving Charles from a number of wildlife threats, snapping his claws threateningly at nothing in particular. Raven had said he was delusional when she had seen him, but as always, decorator crabs were not to be trusted.)

Charles had apparently decided that he had been mistaken. He set off once again along the sand, heading for his usual rock pool - clams again for dinner, it seemed. Honestly, the crab was addicted.

Not that Erik knew much about addictions. 

***

Most nights turned out like this. Erik would perch on his rock at sunset, and Raven would berate him. He would travel to the shore, following and protecting Charles as the ghost crab hunted his dinner. Erik had fiercely pinched a small gull that had been eyeing Charles hungrily, once. It had flown off with a squawk, and he had felt immensely pleased with himself.

He was happy with his routine, no matter what Raven said. As a matter of fact, he would have been happy to stick to his usual routine for tonight. It seemed, however, that wouldn't be the case.

Erik narrowed his eyes as Charles stumbled to a stop, cheerfully greeting a suspiciously hairy newcomer. Charles was talking to another crab. Erik didn't like this at all.

The other crab wasn't particularly large - about Charles' size, perhaps a bit larger. Carefully, Erik retreated once again into his shell, and inched along the sand towards the pair - the newcomer was a bristly crab, one of those strange folk with fur all over their shells, like a mammal. From what he could hear, the bristly crab was named 'Hank'.

Erik decided he didn't like that name. He disliked it more with each passing second Hank kept talking to Charles.

Then again, Charles seemed rather agitated about something - perhaps Hank was upsetting him. Erik hoped so. At least then he had an excuse to snap at the crab's furry legs.

"I think I'm being haunted," Charles was saying. A bit ironic, Erik thought, considering he was a ghost crab. 

"Er," Hank responded uncertainly. "Why would you say that?"

"It's rather silly, I suppose," Charles continued, waving his claws in distress. "But I think I'm being haunted by a shell."

...Oops.

"A shell," Hank repeated slowly.

"I know, I know," Charles said miserably. He scuttled nervously in a circle. "It doesn't make any sense. But for weeks, I'm absolutely certain this...shell has been following me. I can't seem to escape it."

"There are plenty of shells on the beach," Hank pointed out dubiously, indicating a nearby cowry. Erik felt mildly insulted - cowries were for sluggish sea snails; his shell was far superior.

"Not like this one," Charles responded in a low voice. "It's larger than what we usually encounter. Not to mention it's an odd colour - red and purple, I'd say. Hardly something from around these parts, wouldn't you say?"

Hank's interest had been perked. The bristly crab looked contemplative. 

"No, I don't think it is. You could always examine it the next time you see it."

God, no.

"I don't know," Charles murmured worriedly. "I was afraid it'd have one of those venomous harpoons."

Yes, yes. Not that Erik would ever poison Charles.

"Those are cone snails, Charles," Hank responded immediately. "You of all crabs should know; you're an expert on the marine life of the area."

Damn it.

"I suppose you're right," Charles sighed, much to Erik's horror. "I was simply being irrational - it's unnerving, you know, to be haunted by a large purple shell."

It was then that Erik decided he hated Hank with a passion, and the fact that Charles clearly liked him did not help in the slightest. Following Charles was going to be a far more difficult endeavour now. Perhaps he ought to take a leaf out of Raven's book. 

Out of the question, Erik decided firmly as Charles bid the other crab farewell. Even under the threat of discovery, his pride would not allow him to roll in sand and pebbles to blend in with the beach. The shell he had taken from Shaw might be flashy, but it certainly made a statement.

Stealth, Erik repeated to himself silently, creeping along the sand as Charles continued towards the rock pool. I am a shell. I am the sand. I am the beach. All this was making him feel monumentally silly, actually. Skulking along and pretending to be one with the surroundings was more of Raven's area - Erik defended his territory on the reef with dramatic displays of aggression and dominance, and he was rather good at it. He had, after all, fought viciously over his current shell against Shaw, and won.

The last he heard, Shaw had been captured by a human child for a pet. The child had named him Sebastian. This gave Erik a deep sense of satisfaction.

Distant noises shook Erik from his reverie. Charles had reached his favourite rock pool, evidently - the tell-tale sounds of cracking clam shells and tiny splashes drifted from beyond the rocks. Perfect. Under the cover of dark and the complex pool formations, Charles was bound to miss him, especially when preoccupied with his meal. Cheered by the thought, Erik emerged from his shell and ducked into the shelter of a suitable rock.

A very peculiar face glared balefully out from the darkness.

"Fuck off, Lehnsherr," the mantis shrimp said rudely.

Erik's pincers twitched in annoyance. The mantis shrimps were distant cousins, but if it were up to him, he'd prefer believing that Logan was a completely different species entirely. He didn't see why that would be so unreasonable - the things didn't even have the decency to have proper pincers, they had javelins for appendages. Erik had once watched Logan spear a passing squid with a lightning-fast movement, and had promptly decided that, much like decorator crabs, mantis shrimps were not to be trusted.

"No," Erik said, with equal rudeness. "I have business here tonight. Go back to your  burrow."

"Go back to your reef," Logan growled in response. "This place has good squid. Clams, too."

Erik felt his vision start to whiten in rage. Those were Charles' clams.

"You can't hunt here," Erik snarled, emerging more fully from his shell, and rearing up to fill the cavern. "It's a wide ocean, and your lot eat anything."

"Speak for yourself," Logan responded lazily. He stretched out his claws, and Erik eyed the barbed tips warily. "You ate a peanut butter sandwich the humans left on the shore, two weeks ago."

"Did not," Erik said at once.

"You did. I saw you, bub."

He had, of course. If there was one thing Erik could say for the humans, it was that their food was delicious. 

Grudgingly admitting defeat, Erik temporarily settled back into his shell - an act of graciousness, of course; he didn't want to start a fight with Charles so close by. The way Logan was starting to raise his claws threateningly might have something to do with it too, however. With a scowl, Erik backed out of the crevice.

At least Logan didn't seem to have any interest in Charles. If that had been the case, Erik would simply have had to destroy him, javelins or not. 

A soft chirp of delight shook Erik out of his thoughts. The clams were delicious tonight, judging by how pleased Charles sounded - Erik clambered around the rock formation, peering out into the pool within. Against the darkened surface of the volcanic rock, Charles' white carapace was painfully obvious - it made Erik a little nervous. He'd have to work extra hard to chase off any lurking gulls, if Charles decided to keep this up.

"You're back."

Erik jerked, nearly startled back into his shell, but thankfully managed to keep his composure. He turned, glaring at the bright red crab perched on a nearby rock. Honestly, all he asked for was some quality time with Charles - or, at least, quality time with himself, watching Charles. Was that so much to ask for?

"It's getting sad," the red crab continued. 

"Go away, Azazel," Erik muttered. Under different circumstances, he quite enjoyed the crab's company, but tonight, he could only wish him elsewhere. Christmas Island, maybe. Erik was fairly certain that was where the red crabs were supposed to be - he hadn't the faintest idea what Azazel was doing all the way where, but most of them had decided not to question a bright red crab thrice their size.

Erik knew perfectly well that Azazel's preferred diet was flowers. It was a mark of their friendship that he hadn't told anyone.

"You can't keep doing this for the rest of the year," Azazel said matter-of-factly. "And when the ghost crab mating season comes along, you'll only be more unbearable."

Erik had no idea what Azazel was implying, of course.

"Look," the red crab continued, clearly exasperated. He waves a pincer at the tallest outcropping of rocks. "There's a big cluster of clams near the top. The little ghost crab never tries for them on his own - too small, yes?"

Erik stared at him blankly. Azazel sighed.

"Go get them for him, and talk to him."

Oh. Now, that sounded like an idea. 

With muttered thanks, Erik quickly set off along the outcropping, scuttling across the dips and bumps of the rock formations. It was strange, that Charles had never even attempted the clam cluster - now that Erik had noticed it, it did look like quite the meal. Then again, scaling all these rough surfaces was quite the bother - perhaps Charles was too delicate for this terrain. Well, no matter - Erik would gladly gather all the clams Charles wanted, if he were allowed.

"Don't!" 

Erik froze in his tracks. He looked down. The ghost crab was looking up at him fearfully, waving his little pincers.

Charles had noticed him.

"You can't climb that," Charles was saying, "the humans lay their fishing equipment there. It's covered in nets and hooks - you'll be caught."

Erik wasn't processing the words very well - he felt curiously light-headed. "I'll be fine," he responded gruffly, hoping he sounded confident and devil-may-care. 

"No, you really won't," Charles called, visibly distressed. "I know the clams look marvellous, but please, my friend - you'll dry out." 

So it was dangerous, then. No matter - Erik flirted with danger on a daily basis. More importantly, once he obtained the clams, Charles was certain to be impressed.

Erik had always prided himself on his ability to ignore pleading (though he carefully avoided looking at Charles' wide eyes, just in case). He turned towards the rocky outcropping and scuttled cautiously along a ledge - apparently, Charles was right. His leg snagged in a tangled net, and he jerked it free with a chirp of annoyance. 

"I told you so," Charles called from below. The ghost crab seemed to be doing a little dance of nervousness.

"It's just a net," Erik answered brusquely.

"You're about to lean into a hook."

"Am not."

"You are, actually. Look to your left."

Erik did. There was a hook. Apparently, ghost crabs were more trustworthy than other types of crabs. He made a mental note of this useful information.

Still, this did little to dissuade Erik from his goal - if Charles was superior to other crabs, then letting him down was simply out of the question. Frankly, Erik was rather disappointed in himself for allowing their first meeting to go this way. Ideally, it would have started with him traversing the rock formations with spectacular grace and poise, leaping from ledge to ledge, after which he would gather the clams and present them graciously to Charles - who would, naturally, be endlessly grateful and impressed by his skilful moves. 

Perhaps there would have been a bit of swooning involved. Not that Erik cared. Charles just seemed the type.

Lost in his fantasies, Erik found himself stumbling dangerously into a yet another tangle of fishing lines. What happened next was something he would never be entirely certain of - vaguely, he would remember struggling to regain his balance, and a exasperated 'Oh, for god's sake' from somewhere below followed by an impossible blur at the edge of his vision - and then he was tipping over the edges of the rock, legs scrabbling wildly for purchase before toppling unceremoniously into the rock pool.

Falling was one of a hermit crab's worst fears. Erik had been caught by a human, once, to his eternal shame - in his desperate bid to escape, he nearly fallen a full three feet, had he not gripped the human's hand in terror at the land moment. As satisfying as the human's shrieks had been, it wasn't an experience he wished to repeat. 

"I warned you," said Charles, floating by on an empty plastic dish. 

Erik scowled, dragging himself out of the water. He slumped petulantly on the dry surface, and frowned as the little ghost crab drifts by.

"I had the situation perfectly under control," he informed Charles sternly. "I didn't need your help." Especially if help involved knocking him off into the rock pool.

"Oh, don't kid yourself," Charles hopped off the dish onto the rock. "You would have been caught by a hook or net, and then you'd have dried out in the low tide."

"You don't know that," Erik protested, before realising he was talking to Charles. Charles.

He had a sudden and powerful urge to hide in his shell.

A knock on the side of his shell made him jump, backing away to stare at Charles warily. The ghost crab looked at him with new-found recognition, a claw still raised.

"My god," he said in wonderment, "you're the shell that's been following me. Of course. A hermit crab. I ought to have known, really, there's little else it could have been..."

"I haven't been following anyone," Erik lied. "It must be your imagination."

Charles threw him a look of profound patronisation, and inched up to Erik's shell once again, raising a pincer to scratch at it lightly. Erik twitched.

"Were you bought at a store?" Charles asked.

"Excuse me?" Erik exclaimed, temper flaring up immediately. He jerked away, death-glare returning in full force. It seemed to have no effect on Charles whatsoever. "Bought at a store - how dare you - I have never been owned by anybody, let alone a human - "

He spat out the last word, and the rest of the sentence was lost in incoherent gurgles of rage. Charles looked at him, perplexed.

"I'm very sorry," he said carefully, "it's simply that - well, you have a painted shell. Only the store-bought hermit crabs ever have painted shells; the humans find it endearing, I believe..."

"My shell is not painted," Erik objected. Charles was obviously delusional - his shell was a perfectly natural red and purple. "I won it from another, fair and square."

Charles' expression cleared up immediately. "Well, that explains it," he said brightly, "the original owner of the shell must have come from the store. You really ought to find a new one, though - the paint can be harmful, if the humans weren't careful. It isn't good for you at all."

"Nonsense," Erik said flatly, turning away. "My shell is mine."

A soft tutting noise. Charles sidled up to Erik, regarding him curiously. He seemed to be contemplating something - as for what, Erik hadn't any idea. As adorab - lovel - interesting as Charles seemed, Erik had come to realise that he was clearly deranged.

Nobody was perfect, he supposed.

“Well, if that’s all,” Charles was saying, “I think I’ll leave, if it’s all the same to you.”

“What?” Erik sputtered, taken aback. Charles regarded him with a deeply pitying look.

“It’s a little late,” he explained, “dawn will break in an hour or so. It isn’t safe for me to be out in the day.”

Ah, yes. Of course. Charles was fragile and precious, and had to be protected. Erik could understand that.

He was about to inform Charles that he’d be escorting him home, except the ghost crab was already at the other end of the rock pool. Erik hadn’t even seen him move.

“Do visit me sometime,” Charles beamed. “You know where I live, of course.”

And with that, the ghost crab vanished across the sand, leaving Erik feeling extremely confused.

***

It was several days after before Erik decided Charles had a tendency to ruin things. He was struggling to reconcile this with his earlier conclusion that Charles was perfect.

"It's just a lovely shell, painted or not,” Charles was saying, “I'm fairly certain it's a 'shark eye' shell."

Erik had liked the sound of that. Even he would admit that sharks were the fiercest predators of the ocean, and it was only fitting that his shell came from the eyes of sharks.

"It's a type of sea snail."

"What," Erik said, as a question.

"They're quite groovy, really," Charles babbled on, oblivious to Erik's ire. "Neverita duplicata. They're a kind of predatory moon snail with the loveliest spiral shells. They feed on bivalves, mostly, by drilling through - "

"My shell," Erik interrupted, "is not from a snail."

Charles pauses, glancing at Erik. He looked rather put out.

"There's nothing wrong with using a snail shell. Most shells suitable for hermit crab use come from them, actually. I know they don't seem to be the brightest of marine life, but they've evolved rather marvellously."

"Snails are dull creatures," Erik said flatly. "My shell had to come from a shark. Why else would it be called a 'shark eye' shell?"

"The central apex of the spiral is often a pleasant dark blue, and the paler whorls around it apparently reminded people of a shark's eye," Charles explained. "I'm a ghost crab, but I'm not dead, am I?"

Charles, dead. The thought made Erik go horribly cold inside.

"Don't talk about things like that," he muttered, turning away once again. 

Charles ignored this, opting instead to prattle on about his chosen topic.

“Though there’s really nothing to worry about, you know. I might be small and lacking in any obvious defence mechanism whatsoever, but I’d be very surprised if anything on this beach could get the better of me.”

“...Oh?” Erik questioned, vaguely interested.

“Oh, yes,” Charles said, leaning forward precariously. Erik resisted the urge to prop him back up. “I don’t just blend in, you see – I’m also very fast.”

He took off down the beach at a blinding speed. This wasn’t entirely surprising, considering how suspiciously quick Charles had reached the other end of the rock pool. To Erik’s alarm, however, Charles raised two pairs of legs off the sand in mid-run, scuttling forward on his remaining pairs – almost like a human. When he swerves a full circle back to his starting point, Erik is looking at him in abject horror.

“What,” he demanded hoarsely, “the hell was that?”

“A special ability of my fellows and I.” Charles looked unreasonably pleased, settling comfortably into a sand pile. He wiggled, forming the grains into tiny mounds.

“Our gait alters to accommodate great speeds - it’s been well-documented by the humans, you know. Some of us,” he added proudly, “can run at speeds of fourteen kilometres per hour - “

“You run,” Erik interrupted angrily, “almost like a human. Worst of all, you allow them to study you. Have you no pride?”

Charles blinked. It was most certainly not endearing, Erik thought.

“We really have nothing to fear from them, you know – I’m too small for a meal, and you’re not even edible. The humans around these parts aren’t so bad.”

“Humans,” Erik said heatedly, “are scum. We crabs are far superior.”

There was a long silence. Charles was staring at Erik with an unreadable expression, which was starting to make him very nervous.

“You’re not even a crab,” the ghost crab finally said.

“What,” said Erik.

“You’re not actually a crab,” Charles bristled, visibly irritated. “Hermit crabs are from the infraorder Anomura, while true crabs – like myself – are from Brachyura. You’re more closely related to the squat lobsters, though there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Erik’s head was spinning. “That can’t be true.”

 “I have ten visible limbs and you don’t,” Charles said, which was really rather excessive, in Erik’s opinion.

He couldn’t remember a time where he was more upset. Erik turned away, and scuttled silently towards the rocky outcroppings that led out into the sea (which was another thing Charles had recently ruined: apparently, living in volcanic rocks that dropped off into a reef was insufficient to be considered a reef crab.  Erik had been winning that argument until Charles pointed out he could neither swim nor breathe underwater). It took extreme willpower to ignore Charles’ chirps of distress and called apologies, but Erik was angry enough to manage.

He would return to his reef, he decided, and never speak to Charles again. And that would be the end of that.

Chapter Text

Erik forgets that he’s angry at Charles when Tony Stark arrives on the beach.

“Explain. Now,” he barked, advancing on Hank threateningly. The bristly crab quivered in fright. This combined with the fur (‘Setae’, Charles had corrected) already covering his body made him seem even fuzzier than usual.

(An occupational hazard of knowing Charles was that Erik had been required to meet every single one of his friends. Thus far, Hank had been the most bearable, mainly because he was willing to provide inside information on Charles when properly intimidated.)

“Er,” Hank said, sinking nervously into the sand. Erik took the opportunity to loom over him menacingly.  “It’s nothing to worry about, sir.  He arrived yesterday morning – I’ve no idea how or why; Charles tells me that his kind should be in the Galapagos islan –“

“Is this Stark,” Erik snarled, “talking to Charles?”

Hank paused, faced with a dilemma: he could lie, and possibly have his legs pinched off when Erik found out the truth, or he could tell the truth, and possibly have his legs pinched off in Erik’s rage.

He selected the option of running very fast in the opposite direction, leaving Erik to shout threats of dismemberment into the distance.

Erik gave a loud chirp of frustration, snapping his pincers violently in the air. He’d been doing that a lot, lately – even Raven had been giving him a wide berth, recognising the clear signs of a furious hermit crab.

Thus far, he had only collected the most rudimentary of useful information: less than a week after his resolution to wash his claws of Charles, a new crab had come to the beach – Tony Stark, a rock crab of colours so flashy they were visually offensive. Erik thought Azazel had been lying when he spoke of a more brightly-colour crustacean than either of them in town, but one look at the red, gold, and light blue blur zipping through the rocks – his rocks – was enough to convince him.

That would have been enough to turn Erik’s mood foul, even without Tony taking a shine to Charles. Apparently, they found each other intellectually stimulating.

Erik wasn’t certain what that implied, but he did not like the sound of it.

The entire affair was leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. Even his shell felt heavier than usual. None of this was helping the main, salient problem: he had to win Charles back.  One couldn’t approach this flippantly, and so, Erik devised a cunning plan:

  1. Re-establish self in Charles’ favour.
  2. Destroy Tony Stark.
  3. Woo Charles with an endless stream of shells, pearls and shiny stones so that he will never notice Tony Stark had abruptly vanished.

Failure was not an option. He even vetted his ideas with Raven, who had given him a long look and a deadpanned ‘Are you actually insane?’ – which, of course, was a green light for the plan, since decorator crabs were not to be trusted.

The weekend was spent scouring the beach around the corner, sealed off by rocks and the ocean – few creatures visited it, but Erik was very familiar with it. More importantly, he was familiar with the fact that humans found the journey to the beach exceedingly difficult, and hence the shells were safe from their pilfering – a veritable treasure trove for a crab looking for a gift.

Raven came near the surface when he returned. “Well, you do have good taste after all,” she remarked with obvious surprise. Erik decided he would feel insulted another time.

He stood in the shallow water, proudly displaying his prize. A shining tiger cowry sat at his feet – a massive, rounded shell coloured in a cream-to-amber gradient, speckled with dark brown spots and a golden streak running through the middle.

“Charles,” he declared confidently, “will love it. I will be back in his good graces, and he will forget Tony Stark ever existed.”

“It’s really nice,” Raven admitted, eyeing the shell appraisingly. “But maybe it’ll look a little better if you added some –“

No.”

Raven left in a huff, sending a twinge of guilt through Erik’s exoskeleton. He could deal with Raven’s annoyance later, however – for now, he had a ghost crab to win over. More specifically, a ghost crab that he would promptly promote from merely ‘a’ ghost crab to ‘his’ ghost crab.

They were obviously meant to be together, after all. Erik didn’t see why that was such a difficult observation for Charles to make.

Cheered by the thought, Erik hoisted the cowry up in his claws and made his way towards the beach. Fortunately, it was nearing nightfall – not only would Charles be awake, the masses of humans that had been gathering would have retreated. This beach had always been relatively undisturbed, which of course, had changed once a rare red-gold-and-blue crab had decided to appear. Now, homo sapiens were coming to the beach in droves, leaving plastic wrappers and tin cans in their wake, picking up sea life and crushing crab burrows. Even Logan had retreated into deeper waters with a gruff ‘Nope’ on the third day of being prodded at with sticks – all because the dull mammals wanted a glimpse of a gaudy eyesore.

Worst of all, Stark actually seemed to enjoy the attention. Erik had seen him gleefully dancing in between the crowds of spectators, deftly evading capture as his admirers ‘ooh’ed and ‘aah’ed. It was the most irritating thing Erik had ever seen.

No matter. As soon as Charles was his once again, Erik would make certain that Tony Stark and the humans were ancient history. As for how, the details would be sorted out in due time.

Erik heaved a sigh as he finally reached the burrow, and set the cowry carefully by the entrance. He leaned into the darkened hole, calling loudly for Charles.

There was no answer.

Strange, thought Erik, but there was little cause for worry. Charles did start hunting earlier on days when he was particularly hungry – he had a handful of specific dining spots, and would be easy enough to find.

Given that he wasn’t visiting Stark, of course, but Erik would save that thought for when he wanted to murder some crab in cold blood.

***

By midnight, Erik was nearly out of his mind with worry.

Searching the rock pools had left Erik crestfallen and empty-clawed, but there was always the possibility that Charles was visiting a friend. He was forced to grudgingly admit that perhaps Charles was with Tony after all – perhaps something good could come out of this, however. If planned correctly, he could possibly win Charles back and push Stark off a rock into a deep part of the ocean all in one night.

Charles would have to be looking the other way, of course. Somehow, Erik doubted he would approve.

In a completely coincidental, non-threatening manner, it just so happened that Erik knew where Tony Stark lived. If Charles is there, Erik decided, lugging the cowry along, I will ask for a private word, present him with his gift, and dispose of Stark while Charles’ back is turned. If he is not, I will inquire as to his whereabouts, and keep the exchange brief and professional.

Things did not go as planned.

“For me?” Tony exclaimed with an exaggerated gasp, as Erik approached the brightly-coloured crab.

“No,” said Erik flatly. He scowled, and set the cowry down by the rocks. “What have you done with Charles?”

“I don’t kiss and tell, Lehnsherr,” Tony responded, skirting nimbly around the rocks. Erik had never hated anybody so much in his life.

“Tell me,” he hissed, raising his claws threateningly, “where he is.”

Stark might have a hard carapace, but Erik had particularly strong pincers. The other crab seemed to be considering this, eyeing Erik’s claws warily.

“I haven’t seen him all day,” Tony answered. “Lost him, have you?” he added snidely.

It took a supreme amount of effort not to throw the cowry at his head. Erik settled for one of his trademarked death glares (Stark, unfortunately, merely looked smug in response) and haughtily turning away, picking the shell up and scuttling in the opposite direction.

Consulting with Stark had proven to be useless, as Erik expected. It made sense, considering that Stark himself was largely useless. The fact remained, however, that Erik was back to square one, without the faintest idea where Charles was or if he was safe. The thought was extremely discouraging.

It was then when Erik noticed a clam shell inching slowly across the rocks. 

He raised a pincer, and brought it heavily down on the clam shell with a sharp ‘crack’. The shell gave an undignified squawk.

“Cassidy,” he said shortly. “Where is Charles?”

The clam shell quivered, lifting slightly, and a small crab peeked out from under it. He squirmed, attempting to extricate himself from the weight of Erik’s claw, and failed.

“Let me go,” Sean pleaded, looking immensely guilty. “There wasn’t anything I could do!”

“Yeah, Erik,” a voice called from a rock above the two. Erik glanced up in alarm – a small fiddler crab sat on a high ledge, massive claw resting on the rock surface. “Neither of us could do shit about it, so lay off. At least we’re trying.”

Erik fixed Alex with a stony stare, pointedly keeping Sean under his claw. Alex met his gaze defiantly. He had met the two when Charles had happily introduced him to all his ‘students’ – Sean, a rather twitchy shellback crab with a clam shell attached to his back, and Alex, a mouthy fiddler crab that was quick to pinch when riled. Under normal circumstances, he found a lot in common with the latter, but the former’s obvious fear of him was just too easy (and fun) to exploit.

“I suggest,” Erik said smoothly, pressing more firmly on the clam shell, “that you tell me exactly what happened.”

“Or what?” Alex shot back instinctively, to Sean’s protests.

“Or I’ll shove him off a rock.”

“He won’t be hurt if he falls on his back,” Alex snorted. “That’s why he carries that stupid shell.”

 “Not,” Erik said calmly, “if he falls into the sea.”

There was a silence. Everybody knew that Sean couldn’t swim. The shellback crab swallowed audibly.

“We were going to tell you anyway,” he said meekly, “we just didn’t know how to do it without you murdering us.”

“Congratulations,” Erik said. “Thus far, you’re still alive. Now, explain.”

Alex and Sean glanced at each other, and the fiddler crab cautiously hopped down from his ledge. “Charles was taken by the humans,” Alex said, confirming Erik’s worst fears. “There’ve been a lot of them on the beach these days. Some kid was here pretty late and saw him – then she took him away in a bucket.”

“We tried to get him back,” Sean cut in, “but, you know...we’re just crabs. We think we know where the Prof is, but the two of us don’t really stand a chance against the humans. Sir,” he added hastily.

“We’ll see about that,” Erik responded ominously. He lifted his claw off the clam shell, much to Sean’s relief. “The two of you will tell me where Charles was taken. I’ll have him back by tonight.”

“No offense,” Alex said, before Sean could stop him, “but I don’t think you stand a chance against them either, man. Maybe that Logan guy could – or that new guy, Star – “

Be quiet,” Erik snarled, immediately shutting Alex up. “Do not underestimate me, Summers.  I will be doing this my way.”

And with that, he stalked off with the shell in his claws, leaving the two to exchange worried glances.

***

“You’re making us rescue your little ghost crab,” said Emma, thoroughly unimpressed.

Erik gave a start, and glared around the lot suspiciously. “How did you know that?” If they had known Charles had been taken, and done nothing

“You can stop that glaring, sugar,” Emma answered, looking painfully bored. “You’ve only been talking about him endlessly for weeks.”

Erik promptly graced her with the full force of his scowl. Emma twitched, colour instinctively fading from a brilliant, glittering white to a sandy grey.

Erik turned away from her, satisfied. “If you’re all done questioning me,” he said, “we have a mission to accomplish. Make haste.”

The group exchanged dubious glances, but scuttled across towards the rocks without protest. Most of them had been having a thoroughly peaceful night, until they received the message that their leader had requested their presence, which generally didn’t bode well. On the bright side, Erik had actually seemed to have thought his plan decently through, for once.

He nodded curtly at Angel once they reached the water’s edge. She dove into the waves, wing-like back legs propelling her body speedily through the water – but not before she gave him a look of thorough amusement. One of these days, Erik was going to have to sit everybody down and give them a long lecture about respect. Possibly emphasised with a lot of pinching.

It might matter a little less if he had Charles by his side, however.

A gentle splash heralded Angel’s return, with a very disgruntled decorator crab in tow. Raven settled on the coral below them, remaining cautiously under the surface.

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” she said.

“We,” Erik responded shortly, “are rescuing Charles.” He paused, allowing for a reaction, but Raven merely looked unsurprised. “Unfortunately, some of us,“ – he indicated Azazel and Janos – “are not entirely comfortable with crossing the sands.  Apparently they’re too easily noticed by the humans.”

“They’re right,” Raven said. “And you stick out like a sore thumb, too.”

“Be quiet and help them.”  

It took fifteen minutes of apologies and wheedling persuasion before Raven would comply. The fact that she seemed to have taken a shine to Azazel helped. Erik had a nagging feeling that this would become an Issue later, but then again, his life seemed to be a long string of Issues. Charles was one of the more pleasant ones, until he decided to ruin everything with information and kidnappings.

Truly, life was cruel.

“That,” Raven said, “should do it.”

Erik turned to observe her handiwork. He had to admit, he was impressed – the red of Azazel’s shell and Janos’ blue was almost complete obscured by sand, moss, and pebbles. A lone whelk had been attached to Azazel’s head. Neither of them looked very enthusiastic.

“Good work, Raven,” Erik praised – she smirked, and clambered away with a ‘Good luck’. “And now, if we’re all feeling a little more secure, we’d best get moving.”

The five crabs formed a line, uneasily inching across the rocks and sand in single file. Angel and Emma had flat-out refused to cover themselves with sand, but their muted colours were camouflage enough – the same could not, however, be said for Erik.

Erik marched purposefully onward at the head, eyes fixed on the beach beyond the shore. They passed Charles’ burrow, and the sight of the cowry now tucked into the entrance only renewed his determination.

“You’re spraying sand in my face,” Azazel muttered, as Erik gave a particularly vicious stomp.

“There.” Erik ground to a halt, the others stumbling into each other with vicious curses. In other circumstances, he’d be displeased by somebody smacking their face into his shell, but there was something far more preoccupying in sight – namely the large, glass tank that sat on the windowsill of the house before him.

“Charles?” he called tentatively.

No answer.

“He could be asleep,” Angel suggested quietly.

“Or dead,” Azazel added unnecessarily, and Erik briefly fantasised about luring him into a lobster trap.

“Charles can’t be dead,” Erik said flatly – because he couldn’t be, of course; that was absolutely incomprehensible. A world without Charles wasn’t much of a world at all, in Erik’s opinion. “We’ll have to find a way to climb onto the windowsill.”

He crossed the wooden boardwalk. A tall beach table – hip-high to a human, maybe – loomed up before him imposingly. No matter. He would gladly scale this mountain for his beloved – his only regret was that Charles wasn’t awake to watch him do it (and possibly respond with the appropriate swooning).

There was an overturned bucket next to the table, as well as chair and shelf. Perhaps it was the bucket used to steal Charles away. Erik gave the bucket a vindictive scratch, just in case.

Still, it might prove useful.

The other crabs stared in silence as Erik wrapped himself around a large coconut on the boardwalk, rolling it towards the bucket. The momentum brought him to the top, as planned, and he hopped onto plastic surface – then to the chair, to the shelf, up the pile of magazines on the shelf, and finally on to the table.

“Ha,” Erik said triumphantly.

“...That was actually quite inspired,” Emma admitted grudgingly. “The past few weeks have made me forget you’re not a complete fool.”

“We still have a problem, yes?” Azazel interrupted hastily, before Erik could retort. “Not all of us can climb like you. The smaller ones, especially.”

“Then stay there and keep watch,” Erik ordered, turning to consider the gap between the table and the windowsill. “This is something I must do alone.” The thought of being Charles’ sole hero had its appeal, after all.

A chorus of mutters greeted this proclamation – much of it sounded suspiciously like ‘why are we even here’.  A mindless question, of course – should the worst happen, and a battle with the humans had commenced, Erik would have needed the full support of his followers to emerge victorious. Fortunately, his obstacles at the moment extended to a large drop back to the wooden boardwalk at his feet.

Erik skidded to the side, picking up a large plastic submarine, and lodged it into the gap. It stuck fast, a makeshift bridge.

He looked proudly at his fellows. They remained silent, clearly dumbstruck by his brilliance.

“Erik?” A voice called from across the gap. Erik froze in his tracks.

A soft, muffled sound of shifting sand, and a pair of large dark eyes peeked out from a burrow in the glass tank – followed by a familiar white carapace.

“Oh,” Charles said in delight, “you came to rescue me?”

“Of course I did, Charles,” said Erik, stepping onto the submarine, “I wouldn’t let those wretched humans take you away from me.”

“Do we really have to watch this,” said Angel.

“They’re not so bad, really,” Charles said, as Erik regarded the tank critically. It was lidless, which was good – but too heavy to tip over, and certainly too high for either of them to climb. “They don’t mean any harm – they’ve done their homework; the terrarium’s actually quite lovely, just the right amount of sand – but I thought I’d never see the beach again.”  

“Mmm,” Erik hummed distractedly. “We need to find a way to get you out.”

“Well, just drop something in,” Charles suggested. “If it gives me enough of a foothold, I ought to be able to climb out – if you’ll help me down, of course.”

Well, that sounded simple enough. Erik looked around the windowsill. A small, spiny cactus sat on the moonlight. No, that really wouldn’t do.

“I could climb on something higher, and drop in,” Erik muttered dubiously, “and you could stand on me to get out.”

“Then you’ll be stuck in the tank,” Charles pointed out. “I could never leave without you.”

So Charles wanted to be by his side. The thought sent an elated thrill right to the tips of Erik’s claws. He puffed up with pride, prepared to make a speech of utter devotion, only to be rudely interrupted by an unfamiliar voice.

“You could use your shell,” the voice said quietly.

Erik turned, and stared. Janos stared back up at him.

“It would solve your problems,” the blue porcelain crab added uncertainly.

“No,” Erik said, “I mean, yes. I simply, well – I didn’t know you could talk.”

“Ah,” said Janos.

“Could you just listen to him?” Emma groused, shivering. “It’s getting cold.”

It was a horrifying thought. Under normal circumstances, Erik would never part with his shell, come hell or high water. A general trait of a hermit crab was that they’d rather be torn apart than forced out of their shells – stubbornness was a widespread issue among them, it seemed. Normal circumstances, however, did not preclude having a wide-eyed Charles peering at him from beyond a glass wall.

He swallowed, and with great trepidation, eased out of his red-and-purple shell – the night-time chill made him feel especially naked and self-conscious. Hopefully, nothing would bite him. With a stretch of his claws, Erik tipped the shell into the tank, and watched as Charles clambered over it to freedom.

“Thank you, my friend – oh!” Charles fell onto the windowsill with a clack, much to Erik’s dismay. “No, I’m fine. It wasn’t much of a fall.” He straightened up, beaming. Erik’s legs felt rather wobbly. “I think we should leave before the humans wake up.”

“Of course,” Erik agreed, as Charles climbed cautiously onto his back. The journey down was far less distressing, save for the part where the other crabs were faced with a shell-less Erik.

“You’re all curled up,” Azazel remarked, staring. Erik twitched, turning to hide his coiled body. “Like a snail.”

“I am not a snail,” he said heatedly, only to be distracted by what appeared to be Charles thanking Janos. On the bright side, Janos seemed to be once again incapable of speech.

“Oh,” Charles said, tilting his head quizzically. “You’re shy.”

“In any case,” Erik interrupted, inserting himself pointedly between the two, “I think it’s best we all go home.”

Charles glanced at the beach in the distance. Even from here, they could hear the soft crash of waves on the shore.

“Yes,” Charles said. “Home sounds wonderful.”

***

Epilogue

“No matter,” Erik said thoughtfully. “I’ll convince Logan to take a few fingers off. They wouldn’t dare return.”

Erik.

“What?” 

While Erik was most certainly back in Charles’ good graces (“You were never out of them,” Charles had said, amused. “You were the one who stormed away, my friend.”), the humans hadn’t vacated the beach. Charles told him to be patient, that the amusement would die off, but Erik couldn’t help but be cynical – while Stark had long left the beach, it wasn’t long after before another strange crab had come to town. Apparently, the humans were almost as fascinated by Wade’s black-and-red carapace, if somewhat alarmed by the red fiddler’s ability to cheerfully rip off his arm without a care in the world. Erik had been perturbed by it too, to be honest, and had quietly decided that Wade Wilson was not to be trusted.

“It’s not as though the humans would ever listen. It’s the only way, Charles,” Erik was starting to mutter, when Charles scooted up alarming close, their legs nearly tangling together. The ghost crab regarded him with great amusement, before bumping the front of his mouth gently against Erik’s.

“What,” Erik said, as Charles continued to fill both his vision and his personal space.

“That was a kiss,” said Charles.

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“I’m not surprised. It’s a human thing,” Charles explained, and laughed as Erik immediately bristled in indignation.

Still, though. As far as human things went, that wasn’t so bad. This, however, changed nothing about the tendency of homo sapiens to ruin things – Erik had finally admitted that his previous shell had been less-than-completely-natural, but that was all in the past. His new shell had been gifted to him by Charles, and was therefore far superior.

“I never did thank you for the shell,” he said absently. “So – thank you, Charles. I can’t imagine how you dragged it all the way to our burrow.”

“Oh, it wasn’t me at all,” Charles responded cheerfully. “I had Tony find it. He picked it out – he has rather good taste, don’t you think?”

“What,” said Erik.

***