The dark waters of the Unterzee churned slowly, signalling an approaching storm. Shiro looked out past the green tide through his window, twirling a quill between his fingers. His captain's quarters shook slightly from the upset waves, and his various trinkets and peculiarities shuddered in response. He had sent his first mate, Keith, on a very important mission over a week ago. Although Keith was incredibly skilled with both the blade and agility, Shiro couldn't help but worry. He placed the quill down and grasped a large cup from his desk, bringing it to his lips. The extremely strong scent of earth and mint burnt his nose and mouth, but he swallowed it anyway. A tincture from his cook and diviner, Hunk. It was designed to soothe his frequent episodes of stress and anxiety. Running a ship in the Unterzee isn't easy, and Shiro needed to keep his cool.
A frantic knocking at his door caused Shiro to quickly sit up and respond with a loud,
Hunk burst in, his large brimmed hat askew and covered in seawater, no doubt from the storm brewing outside. He adjusted himself for a brief instant before he resumed speaking.
"Keith is back! We're bringing him up in the dinghy now!"
Shiro stood up without a word and ran out the door, almost toppling Hunk in the process. The storm was definitely picking up strength now. Shiro could see the huge thunderheads rolling towards them ever so slowly. He strode to his men who were attempting to haul the small dinghy out of the water, but little progress was being made.
"Come on, men, pull!"
Shiro said as he grabbed one of the ropes and gave an almighty pull, bringing the the dinghy up to the ship with every tug. As the small boat became flush with the ship's edge, he could see Keith bracing against the side to keep from falling into the water. His weight was placed on a large burlap sack on the boat's floor, making his balance even more unsteady.
"Hurry up, Shiro! I haven't got all day!"
He yelled, his voice quieted by the wind.
"I'm hurrying, Keith! Patience!"
One more tug and a few twists of the rope and the dinghy was secured.
"Be careful with the cargo! It's a bit... feisty."
Keith said as he stepped on the ship and gestured at the bag, which appeared to be squirming. Shiro brought Keith close and began talking to him in a hushed whisper.
"Did you get what I asked?"
"What do you think, dumbass?"
Keith whispered back, not breaking eye contact with the bag as if he was afraid it would stand up and walk into the sea. He held up his arm, showing Shiro a very large but seemingly thin scratch that ran from his forearm to his wrist.
"But he gave me a very nasty scratch, he did."
Shiro was a bit confused.
"What, I bet you wanted a pretty lady, huh?"
His voice was no longer a hushed whisper.
"Captain's a bit horny, huh? Wanted a nice dinner date with a merrow, right?"
Some of the men snickered as they handled the squirming bag onto the deck, causing Shiro to blush ever so slightly.
"I just thought... they were all female?"
"I was very clear on the gender ratio of merrow, captain."
Hunk had appeared behind the two men, as if my by magic (which, given that it was Hunk, was very possible).
"Although most merrow are female, males do exist. However, they usually hide in undersea caves while the females hunt. It's strange that Keith was able to catch one so easily."
Keith whirled on Hunk in an instant.
"It. Was not. Easy."
He hissed, making Shiro step between the two. Keith turned away again, knowing Shiro wouldn't let him skin the diviner alive.
"I had to track that bastard for three days straight, and then when I finally caught up to him, well..."
He nodded to the gash on his arm. Hunk lightly touched the scratch, ignoring Keith's snarl.
"Remind me to give you a salve for that, merrow infections are not pleasant."
Keith rolled his eyes but said nothing. He walked to the bag and placed a booted foot on it, causing the squirming to stop.
"Well, what are waiting for? Let me show you our new friend."
He deftly untied the bag and rolled it forward, sending someone tumbling out of it. The creature looked like a thin boy, around Keith's age. He had long brown hair that was tousled and matted, and large bits of seaweed and coral stuck out of it in many directions. His skin was incredibly pale, and patches of it were covered in light blue scales. His wrists and ankles were secured with large manacles and chains, and he was clothed in very simple cotton peasant clothing. He blinked many times, as if to clear his vision, and looked around in panic. The gill-like slits on his neck began flaring, and his deep blue eyes searched the ship quickly, as if looking for an exit. Keith began talking, ignoring the merrow in front of him.
"Isn't he a beauty? Look at those scales. Worth every hour I spent sitting in fetid water. It was kind of hard to get clothes on him, but-"
Upon hearing Keith's voice, the merrow's ears lowered and he spun around, hissing and snarling. He seemed to remember his experience with the first mate.
Keith said, pulling a knife from the holster on his back and pointing it at the boy.
"Don't make me do something you'll regret."
The merrow turned back, looking at Hunk and Shiro. The rest of the deck crew returned to their business, not deeming the creature a threat.
Shiro said, looking at Hunk.
"How do I...?"
Hunk started, realizing he was needed.
"Oh, yes! Grab him by the gills, but be very gentle. He's probably extremely fragile right now."
Shiro unsteadily walked to the boy, who backed up as much as he could without provoking Keith. A loud hiss and the baring of his large incisors made Shiro look at Hunk for directions.
"Just grab him, captain. The gills are too sensitive for him to put up a fight."
He dove at the merrow, who managed to rip his captain's jacket before hooking his fingers underneath his gills. Instantly, the hissing stopped and a loud choking sound replaced it. The creature grasped at Shiro's hands, trying to pry his hands off the gills. He slowly rose, lifting the boy with him, who continued to sputter and and struggle.
"Okay, that's great captain! Let's get him to the alchemy room immediately."
Shiro marched the boy in front of him, following Hunk down the aft of the ship and through a flight of stairs to the alchemy room. Keith followed, curious to see the fruits of his labor. Once they reached the room, Hunk immediately began concocting a potion, throwing various herbs and items into the large pot in the center of the room. He paused and waved frantically at Shiro.
"You can let him go now, Captain!"
Shiro had become immune to the spluttering sounds from the merrow, and he quickly released him in realization.
The merrow dropped to the ground and massaged his gills, glaring at the captain.
"You don't have to apologize to him, he can't understand you."
Keith said, walking down the flight of steps.
Hunk said, stirring his concoction with a large spoon.
"He understood you just fine. Merrow speak English."
He lifted the spoon out of the pot, examining the frothing contents.
"But unfortunately, they have difficulty speaking out of the water. It mostly sounds like hisses and bubbles."
As if on cue, the merrow hissed from the floor.
"Yes, yes, we know."
Hunk said matter-of-factly. He tipped the spoon into a glass vial and stepped to the boy on the floor, holding it to his face.
"Drink up, now. It'll help with the soreness. And you'll be able to talk easier here on the ship."
The boy stared at the vial with distrust until Shiro nudged him with his boot.
Another loud snarl and the boy begrudgingly sipped from the potion, but stopped when he recoiled from the bitter taste. Another nudge from Shiro, harder this time.
"All of it, now."
As the merrow was trapped between Shiro's legs, he had no choice but to finish the potion. A loud cough signalled that he was done, and Shiro knelt down to the merrow's level.
"Now... are you ready to speak?"
A smaller cough came from the boy, then he spoke with a raspy, yet melodic voice.
"You're going to stay here until you decide to be more cooperative, understand?"
Shiro said, standing over the merrow's body which had been mercilessly chained down to the floorboards of the ship. The harsh metal tethers all over his body made him look sad and pathetic, like a fly trapped by a spider. His breathing was bit ragged from the struggle he had put up a few minutes ago. Shiro walked in front of the merrow, his large boots thumping heavily against the wood. He slowly pulled out a weapon out from beneath his captain's jacket, an ornate cutlass, decorated with purple jewels and sharpened until it looked like it could cut air itself. He gently placed the tip underneath the merrow, forcing his captive to look at him.
He smirked, knowing that the aquatic human was completely at his mercy. The merrow bared his teeth, snarling loudly. The loud roar of the waves made it seem weak by comparison.
"My name is Lance!"
He struggled against the chains, but he got nothing but a creak from the floorboards. In his thrashing, he nicked himself against Shiro's sword, eliciting a laugh from the captain.
"Be careful, 'Lance'. You'll cut yourself."
He said his name derisively, as if he didn't really believe the merrow had a name. Keith chuckled behind him, and a loud feminine voice come from up in the crow's nest.
"Storm's coming, captain! And it's a big one!"
Shiro called up before looking back at his captive.
"Hear that? A storm's coming through. Maybe we'll leave you here on the deck until you develop a more pleasant attitude, yeah?"
Lance grinned, once again showing off his insanely sharp teeth.
"I'll kill you all while you sleep."
He growled, obviously undeterred by the storm. Shiro huffed in mock disappoint.
"I thought so."
He turned around, yelling to his crew.
"Everyone, get to your quarters! We've got a big one on the horizon! That means you, Pidge!"
A loud groan came from the crow's nest, then a limber figure quickly scampered down the various ropes to the deck. A lithe figure dressed in plain clothes composed herself before the compaining began.
"Do I have to, Shiro?"
Her long hair was tied up in a bun, and her body was incredibly toned from being up in the crow's nest all day.
"Yes, Pidge. Yes you do. That storm could literally kill you."
She sighed loudly and rolled her eyes, before noticing Lance chained up on the deck.
"Um... who's this?"
She nudged him lightly with her foot, causing him to snap at her like a wild animal.
"Don't touch me! I'll kill you!"
She crossed her arms, unimpressed.
"Not very pleasant, is he?"
Shiro gestured to his victim.
"This is the merrow I sent Keith to capture. He's been pretty unruly, but I'm sure a stay on the deck will soften him up."
Pidge inhaled a bit.
"You're going to wash him? But... don't we use that to kill mutineers?"
Shiro tapped his sword against the chains.
"Normally. But he's a merrow, they don't kill easy. Besides..."
He looked Lance dead in the eye.
"He loves the water. Don'cha, Lance?"
Lance pulled lightly, put the chains did not give. Shiro waved his hands, signalling his crew.
"Alright, everyone! Down below!"
As if on cue, thunder began roaring in the distance and the slightest drops of rain pattered onto the deck.
"Let me go!"
He pulled and tugged, but the chains didn't give an inch. As the crew meandered past him to get to safety down below, Keith stopped in front of the merrow and grinned.
"You have no idea what you're in for, fish."
He lightly smacked Lance's face, eliciting a snapping bite before venturing belowdeck.
Meanwhile belowdeck, everyone was getting ready for bed as the storm rolled in.The soft orange glow of the lanterns and the quiet talk was in contrast to the violent scene
outside. Shiro passed Hunk's room, poking his head in.
"Hey, Hunk? I need you to do me a captain's favor."
Hunk looked up from his book, a large spell tome with 'Squids to Squazits; A Cephalopod Guide' emblazoned on the front, and greeted his captain.
"Hello, Captain! How can I help you!"
Shiro stepped inside, shrugging off his jacket.
"I'm washing our friend upstairs. He's been... angry."
Hunk rolled his eyes, returning to his book.
"I imagine, seeing as how we're technically kidnapping a sentient being. I'll follow whatever you do captain, but you know my stance on these things."
"I know, Hunk. You've always been an animal lover. We only need him to get through the channel. You know how the legend goes."
A louder sigh and the book closed.
"He's not an animal, Captain. But I digress. What did you need me to do?"
"Well, the washing..."
Hunk's eyes widened.
"You want me to keep an eye on him and make sure the storm doesn't kill him, is that it? I thought it was strange you were willing to throw away your prize so quickly-"
Shiro interrupted his diviner before he went on a tangent.
"Yes, yes. It was a bluff. The problem is I'm fairly certain Keith would willingly kill the merrow. He's chained up on deck, the waves will throw him around, chains will hurt him, the whole thing."
A loud thunder clap boomed over head, and the ship rocked violently. The storm had begun. As if to emphasize it, a bloodcurdling scream was heard from the deck.
"The first wave is always the hardest. Those chains must really be hurting him..."
Hunk said, lost in thought.
"But... don't you think it'd be better if Keith did this?"
Shiro's eyebrows went up in shock.
"Keith? I just told you-"
Hunk held up a hand.
"We all know Keith is emotionally stunted. Maybe he could learn a thing or too from being forced to do something he doesn't want to do."
Shiro thought about it.
"It would be a nice... trust exercise."
"I'm reading. This book is really good."
The ship rocked in the other direction and a second scream was heard, this one sounding incredibly inhuman, like a mix between a howl and violin screech.
"Ah yes, the siren scream. They use it when they're panicking."
Hunk waved his hands at Shiro.
"Go on, then. Get Keith to do it. Let's see that first mate style."
Shiro turned to leave, a little confused as to watch just happened. But as he was leaving the room, he walked right into Keith, who had been eavesdropping.
"Speak of the devil."
He said, dusting himself off. Keith looked a little mortified at being caught. He was usually much more sneaky than this.
"Yeah, fine. I'm going. But I'm getting more dinner share tonight."
"Okay, sure. But please don't kill him."
Keith smirked, his inhumanly sharp teeth glinting in the low light.
"I worked this hard to catch him, I'm not letting him go that easy."
So if you didn't get it, 'washing' is when Shiro and his crew chain someone up to the deck during a storm and the violent rocking of the boat combined with the chains causes lots of physical trauma. Poor Lance D:
Chapter 3: Washed: Part 2
Keith stood at the doorway to the deck. Rain and thunder flew all around him, with lightning cracking down in the distance. In the center, by the mast, was Lance. The chains were still tight around his body, but he had been thrown down by the force of the boat's rocking and the metal had cut and constricted his skin. He long brown hair, normally simply tousled, was now hanging down, obscuring his face. He shook from pain and continued to pull against the restraints as the boat rocked again, sending him flying before the chains painfully caught him and slammed him back onto the deck. Another bonechilling scream came from him as Keith braced himself against the doorway for balance. Keith waited for a lull in the storm before walking up to the captured merrow.
He asked, yelling to be heard over the rain. Lance looked up, and Keith was shocked by just how pathetic he looked with his face contorted in pain and sadness.
"I'll... kill you."
He gasped. The steel binding him had bruised and cut him, and he trembled in rage and pain. Keith knelt down, gingerly moving a lock of Lance's hair behind his ear.
"I'm afraid we both know that's not going to happen."
Lance breathed heavily, focusing through the bruises and cuts.
"Why do this? To me?"
He fell onto the deck, already exhausted. The rain continued pouring on his body.
"I know it's hard for you to understand, fish. But we need you for safe passage through the channel."
Keith stood, seeming to tower over the crumpled body of the merrow.
"If we don't have a merrow, the monsters will take us to the bottom of the zee. You understand. And also..."
He pulled out his knife, rotating it between his fingers.
"I hate you."
Lance leaned forward, against the ship's rock.
He spat, flecks of blood splattering on the deck.
He cried, almost laughing from the absurdity of the situation.
"You don't need me! Stupid human!"
Keith slammed his fist into the merrow's chest, causing him to cough violently.
"Yeah, but you're the one that got caught."
Lance wheezed before he spoke again.
"This is why I don't trust humans..."
He flopped down onto his side again, looking broken.
"Hate them... all of them..."
He continued quietly, his voice fading. Keith smirked, but then stopped when he saw the pool of blood spreading beneath Lance.
"Wait! Don't do that!"
He scrambled, lifting Lance up, trying to find the source of the blood. It seemed to be flowing from nowhere.
"Stupid... now you don't even have me..."
He mumbled, losing consciousness.
"Wait! Hang on!"
Shiro would never trust Keith again if he let this merrow die. He quickly reached for the chains, trying to unhook them from each other and free Lance to assess his wounds.
"Hold on, fish. You're not getting out of this!"
He released him from the first layer of chains, still trying to figure out where the blood was coming from. But just as he finished the last set of chains, a bony hand connected with his throat and sent him backward. As if nothing had happened, Lance leapt up, his gills flaring. Blood dripped from his chest, but Keith saw no wound.
He croaked, trying to recover from being punched in the throat. But without pause, Lance ran at Keith with a yell, deftly striking him again in the stomach. His hands were hard and sharp, and Keith felt something pop inside him.
He fell over, the rain pouring down on top of him. Lance stepped on his chest before he could get up, and help up his right hand. Lightning cracked, and his form was outlined in light. His teeth were bared and his gills were fully extended, showing their vibrant reds and blues. The patches of scales on his skins now glowed brightly, shimmering in the dark night sky. Keith noticed that his wrists and ankles were now sporting long, sail-like fin protrusion that had been hidden until now.
"Who's the dumb animal, now!?"
He flicked his wrist, unsheathing very long and sharp claws. Keith struggled against the foot, but it seemed like the merrow was much stronger in the rain than he had been during the day. Lance brought his hand back, preparing to deliver the final blow to Keith's throat. But just as he slashed his claws down to end Keith, a loud banging sound resonated through the deck. Keith was suddenly being crushed by the weight of the merrow under him, and he heard a singsongy voice above him.
"Didn't expect that one, did he?"
It was Pidge, freshly descended from the crow's nest and with a large cannonball in both hands. Lance had been knocked out from the impact, his gills and fins slowly retracting back to their original positions.
"Let's get this fishy guy to Hunk. I may have overdid it a bit."
Keith barely heard her. He shrugged Lance off of him, feeling his throat. If Pidge hadn't saved him, he'd be dead right now. Maybe this merrow had more to offer than he thought.
"Fake blood pouch."
Hunk said, prodding Lance's still body on the table.
"Like how octopi and squids have ink, you know? He used it to deceive you. The rain water must've given him an edge."
Keith stared at the slowly breathing boy on the table. His calm form hide the animalistic rage he saw on the deck earlier.
"Merrow can store water in their body to augment their muscles and bones. Yes, if Pidge wasn't there you'd be dead and the merrow would be halfway across the zee by now."
Hunk continued, examining Lance's wounds.
"Thankfully, our resourceful crowmaster didn't hit anything important. But in the future we need to keep this merrow in his own room, under lock and key."
"It was a bad idea to wash him in the first place."
He said. Then he looked at Keith.
"I shouldn't have put you in that kind of danger."
Keith scoffed, embarassed to be receiving any kind of attention.
"I caught him before. I could've dealt with him."
Shiro shook his head.
"No, Keith. I can't lose any more of my crewmembers."
"I said no!"
Shiro yelled, suddenly. Everyone in the room started and looked to him in shock. Lance's form stirred feebly on the table. Shiro was breathing heavily through his nose. A nerve had been touched.
"Keith. My office. Now."
He said through his teeth.
Chapter 4: Similar Concepts
"You need to calm down."
Shiro said, his face angry.
"This merrow is a tough customer. The legends were right about his... tenacity."
He continued as Keith pouted.
"I could've taken him! He's just a fish-"
"He's not just a fish!"
Shiro yelled. Keith shrunk away, instantly cowed by Shiro's sudden increase in volume.
"Whatever you think this thing is obviously incorrect because he almost killed you."
He said, breathing hard from his outburst.
"And if you died..."
He trailed off, although his thought was clear. There was a brief moment of silence in the captain's quarters. The ornate instruments and bedroom quarters shivered in response to the waves.The slight rocking of the boat punctuated the pause before Shiro quickly grabbed Keith and brought him into a crushing embrace, looping him in with his left arm.
He gasped, being crushed by the sudden affection.
The squeezing didn't stop as Shiro continued hugging his first mate.
"I just love you so much..."
He whispered, ignoring the struggling of the smaller boy.
"But you're hurting me."
Shiro released him, unapologetic as Keith rubbed his shoulders and recovered from the one-armed bear hug.
"It's been awhile since you did that- mmph!"
Keith was silenced by Shiro's lips pressing hard into his. The warmth of the taller man instantly relaxed the normally tense first mate as he reciprocated the intensity. Slowly, they drew apart, leaving Keith incoherent for a brief moment.
"Been awhile since we did that, too?"
Keith nodded vigorously, red blush extending from his neck to his cheeks. Then without a word, Shiro picked up the smaller boy and carried him effortlessly to the lavish bed located in the corner of the office. He tossed the first mate onto the plush covers before shedding his captain's jacket.
"Wait, Shiro! Right now?"
Keith stammered, shocked at how fast this was happening. The captain shrugged off his undershirt, revealing his toned physique. He pressed down onto Keith again, lightly nibbling and kissing his neck. Keith giggled softly and lifted up his own shirt, enjoying the sensation as Shiro pushed him down onto the bed and began biting his chest and shoulders.
The captain interrupted the first mate.
"Just enjoy this."
Keith nodded, leaning back to offer more skin to his captain. Shiro continued biting and sucking, rubbing himself against Keith's crotch, eliciting small moans from the boy. But just as they were about to commit further, a loud knock sounded from the door.
Hunk's voice came from the other side. Shiro sighed heavily, and flopped onto the smaller boy under him in frustration, causing Keith to yell muffled obscenites.
"What is it, Hunk?"
"We've got a problem!"
"He hasn't... always been that color, has he?"
Pidge wondered aloud, looking at the merrow confined in his jail cell. Lance was pacing back and forth, his gills periodically flaring. But the colors were all wrong, showing muted yellows and greys. The sails on his wrists and ankles were out now, but they dragged on the floor instead of their usual resplendent posture. His skin was a sickly gray pallor rather than it's usually glowing white, and his scales no longer shimmered and had taken on a dull transparency.
"He's only been awake for an hour and he's changed that much."
Hunk said, trying to keep from panicking.
"I don't know what's happening! And he won't tell me!"
To reiterate his point, Lance hissed to show his malcontent at the situation. Shiro grabbed the bars and spoke.
"What is wrong with you, merrow?"
He asked, watching as the merrow sat on the small bed in the cell.
"Wouldn't you like to know, human?"
"So you can keep me locked up forever, right?"
Shiro slammed his hand against the bars.
"I'll keep you here as long as I please."
Lance chuckled, his voice sounding more watery than ever.
"You'll find that I won't be around much longer."
"I don't like the sound of that."
Shiro continued talking, his voice getting louder.
"If you don't tell us what's wrong, you'll die!"
Lance rushed to the bars, his face inches from the captains. His gills flared right in front of Shiro's eyes, their kaleidoscopic patterns muted and dull.
"I'd rather die than stay with you one more minute."
He spat, meaning every word.
"Well, we're not going to let you die."
Shiro said, at a loss for words. He'd never dealt with a merrow before, so bluffing was his only option. Another soft laugh came from Lance.
"It must be awful, captain."
He said sardonically.
"Not being in control? That must really-"
He stopped talking suddenly, gasping for air for a brief instant, then he continued, his voice raspy.
"That must really feel terrible."
He sat back on the the bed, drained of energy. He laid down as Shiro resumed talking.
"You'd rather die than tell us what's wrong?"
Shiro breathed in harshly, keeping himself from murdering Lance right there, and strode off without another word.
"Wait, Captain! I have some potions we could use..."
Hunk's voice trailed off as he followed Shiro. Pidge and Keith continued staring at the merrow, who looked weaker and weaker by the second.
"He looks rough, Keith. All that work, for nothing."
Pidge shook her head.
"What a waste."
She walked away, no doubt to climb back up into the crow's nest. But Keith stayed, thinking hard.
"Oh look, the red one. Here to fall for another one of my traps."
"You're going to die."
Keith said simply. Lance rolled over to look the ceiling. His gills flared and fell, as if they didn't have the energy to retract again.
"I didn't want to live here anyway..."
He said quietly. Then he rolled over again.
Keith locked eyes with the merrow, who's voice was suddenly serious again.
"I have a dying wish."
Keith rolled his eyes.
"What? You want lobster? One last bucket of seawater?"
Lance ignored the first mate and said,
"The cove where you took me from. Remember that?"
"Yeah, of course. I was there for weeks. You were hard to find-"
"Describe it to me."
Keith's body tensed.
He asked slowly, wondering where the merrow was going with this.
"...I want to remember."
Lance said quietly.
He trailed off as he voice choked for a brief instant. Keith knew he was trying to look strong, but he saw right through that.
"You're scared, aren't you?"
Keith asked, more of a statement than a question. Lance nodded, not talking for fear of showing more of his fear.
"I'll help you remember."
Keith said, placing his head against the bars.
"If you tell me where you're from."
Lance was quiet again, as if thinking. Then he began speaking, almost as if Keith wasn't there.
"That cove you took me from wasn't really my home. I can't remember where I'm from originally..."
He rolled over again, pressing his hands against the cold floor.
"Mom was a merrow, dad was human."
Keith gasped quietly.
"Yes, yes. There's lots of things you don't know."
Lance said, still quiet.
"I lived on land for a while... somewhere near Carnelian, I think. I can't remember. But one day, mom stopped coming inland to visit us."
He sat up and put his own head against the wall, as if to distract himself from what he was saying.
"Dad never liked me. Thought I was disgusting. Everyone in our town knew I wasn't fully human. The only reason he kept me around was because of mom."
His gills retracted finally, as if they just got the message.
"But merrow biology is weird. The mothers don't stay to raise the kids. Mom tried, she really did, but..."
He looked up at the small window leading to the outside.
"The zee called to her. She had to go. I understood... it called to me too."
He reached up for the porthole, grasping its ledge.
"Dad had an affair with another woman after mom stopped visiting. When my half-brother was born, he had everything he wanted. Perfect family, perfect house. He didn't need me anymore."
He released the ledge, falling back onto the bed.
"I tried to stay on land, find a job. But they always found me. They wanted to erase their mistake. If I was alive, my dad would always be ashamed of that time with mom. And the zee was becoming unbearable..."
Keith sat down, enthralled by Lance's retelling.
"One day, I had to go back. I searched for mom for a while, but I gave up when I realized she probably didn't want to be found. I was far away from everyone I knew. So I swam until I found that cove and I learned how to hunt. I had been living alone since then."
He looked at Keith and his gills flared out with anger once more.
"Until you showed up. You stalked me and followed me. Watched me until you knew when to strike."
Keith looked at the ground, feeling slightly ashamed. Now that he knew the story behind his prey, he felt the tiniest sliver of empathy.
"You took me from my new home and chained me up on a ship. For what? Nothing but children's tales of monsters and myths."
He sighed and laid an arm across his head.
"But maybe this is the end I deserve. Humans have their lives, merrows have theirs. I don't fit into this world anyway, I think."
He finished quietly. Keith looked up, trying to ignore the shine of Lance's tears as they crawled from beneath the arm covering his eyes.
"There was nothing here for me after all."
"Nothing. There never was anything."
He laughed softly, accepting the finality of what he was saying. Keith watched him until he stopped laughing, then spoke.
"That's not true."
He said, his strong voice juxtaposing Lance's whispers.
"My dad didn't like me either, but... for different reasons."
His voice went quieter, as if he didn't want anyone on the ship to hear.
"Dad was a king."
He continued, causing Lance to snort.
"How does the son of a king end up on a pirate ship?"
Keith looked at the ground again.
"Mom wasn't a queen. She was a courtesan. I lived with dad for awhile, but eventually he had enough of me and mom."
Lance sat up, his tears drying.
"One day, dad decided to have us executed. Mom went first."
Keith said, his own voice shaking now.
"But before they could do me, Shiro and his crew decided to storm the town square. That gave me enough time to escape."
Small tears fell and dried on the wood flooring.
"Shiro found me after it was over. Said he saw what happened. 'Any thief is welcome on my ship', he said, but he knew what the execution was really about."
He scratched at the wood planks, also distracting himself from what he was saying.
"He was trying to make me feel better, obviously."
He looked at the ceiling.
"He made me feel like I was worth something, not just a king's bastard son. He taught me how to fight, how to sail..."
"How to catch merrows."
Lance said bitterly.
"How to love."
Keith finished, causing Lance's eyes to widen.
Lance looked at the ground, embarassed.
"I wish I felt the same as you do. But being as it is, I hate all of you."
Keith stood up.
"But you don't have to die, Lance."
"Don't use my name. You just want to keep me alive for your stupid journey."
Keith reached for the key on the wall.
"At first, it was like that. And I still hate you. But I know you don't want to die."
Lance stood up, backing against the wall.
"What are you doing?"
He asked, looking around for an exit.
"You fought me so hard that night because you wanted to live. That kind of feeling doesn't change in 24 hours."
He twisted the key into the lock and opened the door. He stepped into the cell and closed the door behind him.
"I'm going to make you remember that feeling."
Keith drew his knife, flicking it between his fingers. Lance snarled, moving his body left and right, trying to find a way around Keith.
"Fight me, Lance. Fight me or I'll kill you."
Lance stared at Keith, ceasing his movements. Then he stood up, his claws slowly extending.
"Fine. You win. I don't want to die."
He crouched, preparing to engage Keith head-on.
"But I don't want to live either."
Then he dashed at Keith, faster than thought. Keith closed his eyes, startled by the sudden movement. But instead of an impact, he heard a sickening thud. When he opened them, he saw his knife impaled inside Lance's chest, who began sagging almost instantly.
Keith breathed, horrified at what just happened. Blood dripped slowly from his knife, his body shaking from the spectacle in front of him.
Lance whispered, then he fell backward, pulling himself free of the knife with a loud squelch. His body hit the floor of the cell. His gills and sails extended fully, the death throes of a merrow. Keith immediately ran out of the cell, screaming for Hunk, for anyone to come help him. Lance just laid on the floor, smiling softly as the darkness took him.
Chapter 5: North
When Lance opened his eyes, he was floating. His long brown hair floated up towards a light, and fish of every color swam around him. He was in the water, but how? He was sure Keith's knife would've killed him. Maybe this was where merrows went when they died. Floating forever in the zee surrounded by fish and light sounded pretty good to Lance. He laid back underneath the water, closing his eyes and letting the refreshing cold of the zee relax him. He could stay like this forever. But then suddenly he felt strings cutting into his body, lifting him up towards the light. He gasped, bubbles shooting out of his mouth. He struggled, thrashing and pulling against the ropes, but eventually he breached the surface into the bright light. He lightly banged into the side of a ship. The ship he had just been on. But he was cold. So cold.
"You picked a really bad time to wake up, buddy."
Keith was there, but he was wearing warm furs and pelts. The white trim on his collar fluttered in the snowy wind. Lance lay still, not knowing what to say or think. His fins drew in close reflexively, trying to keep warm. Snow was already accumulating on his prone form. He slowly felt his stomach. The knife wound was gone.
"What... is the meaning of this?" He said slowly, trying to reacustom his mouth to speaking. "I thought... I died."
Keith laughed, but there was no humor in it. "Yeah, so did we. But Pidge knows a little more about your species than she was letting on. A quick dip in the Zee and you were good as new." Then his eyebrows screwed up in thought. "Well, not quick. You've been out for a month."
"A... a month?"
"Yes. We're already in the North Tundra."
"The... North Tundra?" Lance was still trying to wrap his head around his situation. "So... I'm still... here."
Keith nodded. "We're getting to the Geode. And if we need to dunk you again, we will." He said firmly.
Lance rolled over, feeling the snow on his chest. "Is that... so?"
Keith didn't like the merrow's tone, but he said nothing.
"Keith!" Pidge rushed over, her own furs falling onto Lance's body. "I told you to tell me when he woke up immediately!!" She yelled, pinching Lance's sails between her thumb and index finger. "He's already too cold... I told you, when he's not in the water he is much more sensitive to temperature!" She tossed a thick bear shaw on top of him. She continued feeling him, hooking a finger inside his right gill and feeling the soft inside. "He's not even striating anymore... Here, help me get him below deck." She began lifting him, and Keith hefted him easily on top his shoulder.
Lance lay on the hardwood floor, still stiff from the cold. He stared blankly at the fire in front of him. He was still here.
"Idiot! Stupid!" Pidge shouted, smacking Keith on the forehead with a wooden spoon. "What did I say? He's cold-blooded! We can't bring him back if he freezes to death, moron!"
Keith held up his hands, trying to defend himself from the wood onslaught. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"
"Ugh!" Pidge pinched the bridge of her nose. Her woolen shawl shook slightly as she sighed. Then she directed her attention to the merrow on the floor. "How are you feeling? Are you feeling better?"
Lance did not break his fire-stare. "I feel... tired."
"That will pass. You need to heat up. Keith, watch him. And don't mess it up this time! I'm going to tell the captain what's happening." And with that, she disappeared up the stairs and closed the door behind her. A moment passed, then Lance heard the thud of Keith sitting next to him.
"So..." He said, awkwardly rubbing the back of his head. "I'm glad you're back."
Lance rolled slightly, angling his body towards the heat. "I'm not."
Keith laughed again. "Yeah, I bet. I thought we had a heart-to-heart. It'd suck if... you know."
Lance's eyes flicked to Keith for a moment, then returned to the fire. "Forgive me if I'm not very receptive right now. I can't move my fins."
"Yeah, sorry about that too."
The silence that followed was punctuated by the crackling fire. Then, Keith spoke again.
"Did you dream?"
Lance's eyes moved to him again, this time holding the gaze. "What a strange question." Then they moved back to the fire. "No."
His wrist fins opened slightly, a signal that the fire was doing its job.
"Well, we're almost halfway to the Geode. I don't know if that helps you-"
"It doesn't." Lance's body unfurled from his fetal position a bit. "And I find it strange you'd tell me that."
Keith looked away. "Well, after our talk... I decided that it'd be in everyone's benefit if we worked together."
The fins quickly unfurled, then returned to their closed position. Keith looked back. "And... I'm sorry we've treated you so badly. We, uh... don't really get many merrows, you know?"
Lance rolled over completely, exposing his chest and stomach to the fire. Keith immediately averted his gaze, attributing the sudden warmth in his face to the fire.
"So we're not gonna keep you here. No restraints, no weapons, nothing. Instead, you'll get a cut of the treasure. Lance unfurled all of his fins, letting them bask in the fires warmth. Keith was amazed by the blue kaleidoscope patterns that were amplified by the firelight.
"I've got no need for treasure. I live in a cave, remember? What's keeping me from leaving right now?"
"I thought about that. And I have another offer." Keith turned his body back, looking directly at Lance. "I'll help you find your mother."
All of the fins snapped back instantly.
"...what kind of game are you playing?" Lance's voice was colder than the wind outside.
"I know what it's like to lose my family, Lance. I'll help you find her. No games."
The merrow's eyes drilled into Keith's. "I will think about it. And if you're playing with me, I will make you regret it, Keith."
He said Keith's name with so much venom in his voice he thought he'd be poisoned right there.
Lance stood on deck of his own will for the first time, wrapped in many layers of warm furs. The snow swirled around him as he gazed out to the glaciers and ice floes.
"You like it?" Keith walked up next to him, his own pelts fluttering in the wind. The ship creaked against errant blocks of ice floating past.
"I've never been this far north before. Is it always... frozen?"
"Beautiful." Lance gripped the railing. "It's always like this here. That's... amazing."
Keith chuckled. "What, you like ice or something?"
Lance looked down. "It's strange to think of a place so different from my own. My waters are warm, full of green. This place is not."
Keith cocked his head. He was speaking in riddles.
"You like poetry?"
"My mother read me some when I was young. I didn't know what they were back then." He laughed, the first time Keith heard genuine laughter from the merrow.
"I thought they were just really strange stories."
They both stood in silence. Until Lance tilted his head to the ice. "Do you hear it?"
"The ice is moving."
Keith listened, but heard nothing. "No, I don't."
"Listen harder. It's there."
Keith strained, not wanting to look stupid. But sure enough, he heard it. A quiet groan, but mixed with the sound of tinkling glass. "It's so quiet...", he whispered, still wanting to hear it.
"You'll hear a lot of things if you listen."
"Really? Like what?"
"Like when a human looks at your frozen body and blushes. You'll hear the blood rush to his cheeks."
Keith made a sound and looked away, now truly embarrassed. "You, uh... heard that?"
"Saw it mostly. I'm joking about hearing it."
Lance looked at Keith.
"I've thought about it, and..."
The wind whistled by.
"I want you to help me find her. So I'll play along."
Keith smiled. "I'm glad."
"But I still hate you. Just a little less now."
"I still hate you too."
There was no warmth in either of the other's words, but the hostility had lesseed a bit.
"So... your first instinct was to throw my body into the Zee? Did you know that the water would heal me?"
Keith looked away awkwardly. This was becoming a habit of his. "Well, I assumed that if you were dead... that's where you'd want to be if... when... you know."
Lance said nothing as he continued looking at the frozen landscape in front of him, although his gills opened ever so slightly. Then, there was another loud groan.
"Wow, that must have been a big glacier."
"...that was my stomach."
Chapter 6: Luminous
Lance didn't know how he got here. He lay on his back in the dark room, feeling the sway of the zee rock the large boat in was on. His sails were spread full mast over the sheets, enjoying a moment to relax. He sighed, examining his wrist fins. He ran his right hand over his left sail, searching for any rips or tears. He was relieved to find none. He did the same to the other fin, and found nothing as well. He breathed in relief.
He pulled his knees to his chest, waving his hands gently over the other fins on his ankles.
"What are you doing?"
Lance jumped, the sails snapping shut in an instant. Keith stood in the doorway, leaning against it casually. Lance hissed quietly, angry at the intrusion. "Don't you know how to knock?"
"Door was open. Don't you know how to lock?" Keith responded, copying Lance's venomous tone, laughing at his own humor.
"Can I have just a few moments of time to myself?" Lance said, ignoring Keith completely. The venom remained in his voice. "Or do you love me that much?"
"No and no." Keith replied, stepping into the room without warning. Lance recoiled, pulling the blankets around himself, as it to shield him from the pirate.
"Relax. I'm not gonna hurt you. We had this talk a few hours ago." He said, searching a nearby drawer. "Just looking for some bits and pieces."
Lance's eyes narrowed, the fins on his neck extending ever so slightly and angling themselves at Keith. "Lying is not a good look on you."
Keith swore under his breath. "Is there anything those stupid fins can't do?"
Lance smirked at his small victory. "Basically anything I haven't tried yet." Then he relaxed a bit, letting his legs fall from his chest. "So why are you really here?" He asked, starting to examine his fins again.
Keith didn't answer for a time, still pretending to root around in the drawer.
"Ugh." Lance rolled his eyes. "Intrusive and rude. You really are a charmer." Keith threw a pair of socks at the merrow, who caught it deftly. He rolled his eyes, poking through the fabric with a short claw. "They say only brutes speak with violence."
"Do you ever stop talking?" Keith asked, closing the drawer with a loud bang. Then he walked over to the bed, looming over the smaller boy.
Lance shrank a bit, slotting himself into the corner of his bed. His sardonic grin had dissapeared, replaced with an expression of anticipation. "Y'know, for someone who hates merrows you really like to look at me a lot."
"Yeah, I do." Keith said simply.
Lance blushed, hating that his own insults were being used against him. "Please go."
"Nah." Keith said, his turn to smile.
"What do you want, human?" Lance asked, using the informal term as a weapon. "You're acting like an idiot-"
Keith dove in an instant, quickly entangling Lance in his own blankets and pinning him to the bed. The merrow struggled, claws contained in the soft fabric. His fins opened completely, sprayed with splashes of red and orange in an effort to scare Keith off.
"There they are..." Keith whispered, oblivious to the panicking Lance underneath him. "That's what I wanted."
"Get. Off. Of. Me." Lance breathed through clench teeth. "Whatever happened to not hurting me?"
"This is not hurting you." Keith said, entranced by the kaleidoscopic colors of the sails.
Lance stopped struggling. He was right, this wasn't hurting him. But he didn't like this one bit.
"Why are you doing this?" Lance asked, breathing hard from his struggling. Keith pretended not to hear, still staring at the fins. "Hey, you!" Keith still ignored him. "Keith!"
"There we go." Keith said matter-of-factly. Then he pushed, placing an uncomfortable weight on Lance's chest. "Don't call me 'human' again." He growled, leaning in to Lance's face. Lance's eyes scanned Keith's face, taking note of the flushed tint and slight sweat.
"...what are you doing, Keith?" Lance repeated, more insistent this time.
"I like you a lot, Lance. We have a lot in common." A hand reached out, lightly touching a glowing sail. "So beautiful..."
"Do not touch that." Lance said, stammering and blushing. "It's not for you to touch- mm!" Lance was silenced as Keith slammed his mouth into his, roughly kissing the merrow trapped beneath him. He kept kissing for a moment before he pulled away, nibbling at Lance's lip as he did so.
Keith saw the expression Lance was giving him and the romance of the moment quickly turned to fear. The sails had morphed from soft oranges to neon purples and greens, with lights dotting all down Lance's neck and chest. His eyes had become pure black, with glowing purple dots where his pupils would've have been. He resembled an anglerfish more than the beautiful creature he usually did.
"Get. Off." Came a deep, watery voice.
Keith did not need to be told twice. He leapt off the covers with a gasp, and retreated to the center of the room. But when Lance sat up, the sails returned to their original color before snapping back into his body. The dots disappeared, and his eyes rolled back into the original color. Then he stood, confronting the unnerved Keith.
"If you want that kind of attention from me, you need to earn it. And trust me, you have a long ways to go." His fins flicked out, a flash of bright red, as if mocking Keith. "If you try that again I will make you regret it."
Chapter 7: The Dawn Machine
"I don't like this." Pidge whispered, looking off into the deep green distance. "We haven't encountered a zee creature in awhile... we're due for a visit." Electricity crackled beneath the surface of the zee on the horizon, signalling a brewing electrical storm. She pulled on a rope slung over the side of the ship, hauling up a small bucket of zeewater. She hefted it onto the deck, the green liquid slopping onto the wood. She dipped a hand into it, cupping a small sample of the water into the air. "Yeah, nothing's here." She released her grip, allowing the water to drop back into the bucket. "It just doesn't make any sense." She pinched the bridge of her nose. The lack of an answer was visibly bothering here.
Shiro held a map in the salty air. "The map doesn't say anything about any hazards..." He turned the map, trying to get a better angle on his position."
"Shiro, we're in an uncharted part." Keith said, leaning over his captain and tapping the lower corner of the map. "There's no information on this at all!"
"I know that, Keith. We had to go this path because of our 'friend', remember?" Shiro said, tainting the word with poison.
Keith rolled his eyes. "Hating him isn't going to make him help us." He turned away from the wind, drawing his fur coat around him. "It's cold." He whispered, breathing mist into the air.
"Better check on your friend, Keith. He's cold-blooded." Pidge said absentmindedly, more focused on her water samples than the first mate standing behind her. "Make sure he's warm, and stuff."
Keith rolled his eyes. "I would, but... uh... we had a falling out last night." He instantly felt Shiro's eyes lock onto the back of his neck and realized he had made a mistake.
"You were in his room? Alone?" Shiro asked, mock concern filling his throat. "May I ask... why?"
Keith gulped. "Um... I just wanted to talk?" He said nervously. "Turns out he's very temperamental. He flashed these crazy colors at me. It was freaky."
Pidge nodded, still engrossed in her work. "Deepzee defense. Merrows only do that when their personal space is encroached upon." Then she froze and slowly looked up, her eyes locking onto Keith's neck as well. "Keith... were you-"
"No!" Keith exclaimed, whirling around to see the tranquil fury of Shiro and the confused curiosity of Pidge. "It's not like that!" He searched Shiro's face desperately for a sign of leniency, but found none.
"I'm not happy, Keith." Shiro growled. "At. All."
"Although I'm curious how far you got before he flashed." Pidge added, returning back to her water pail.
Keith blushed. He was in deep trouble. Very deep. Shiro's eyes narrowed in annoyance.
"Pidge... go downstairs." He said.
"NOW." His voice echoed across the Zee, scaring Pidge and her pail into the lower deck, water sloshing messily as she bolted to the stairs.
After moment of silence, Shiro's eyes moved away from Keith and to the helm of the ship.
"So, this is how you show gratitude, huh?" Shiro said quietly.
"No, Shiro. I promise, he's not-"
"Shut up." The captain growled. "You pathetic ingrate." He stepped forward, Keith instinctually flinching away and matching his steps backward.
"Shiro... please..." He stammered, pressing against the wall of the wheelhouse. "I didn't mean-"
"Mean to what? Hurt me? Don't be cliche." Shiro stopped an inch from Keith's face. "I've killed people for far less than this, Keith. You can't hurt me." Then he turned away, walking back to the centersail. Keith breathed a sigh of relief. He had expected to not escape this unscathed. "But for your sake, I wouldn't do it again." The finality of Shiro's words sent chills down his spine. "Unless..." Shiro paused, a sudden thought taking him. "Maybe if our friend had a... stronger connection to our crew he'd be more willing to participate." He ran a gloved hand down the wood of the mast. "I'm less than pleased with you, Keith. But maybe if you improve morale in the merrow department, you'd be forgiven."
Keith nodded slowly. He understood what his captain meant. "I will, Shiro. I'm sorry." The last part was tinged with sadness.
Shiro said nothing for a moment. Then his voice rang out again. "Go check on him."
"Hey, Lance?" Keith said, careful to knock this time. He did not want to risk another anglerfish incident. "Can I come in?"
"Yes." Lance's voice was calm.
Keith stepped in, seeing Lance sat at the vanity, picking various bits of zee debris out of his hair. A small grunt and pull resulted in a twig being removed from his brown locks.
"Ugh." He rolled his eyes, tossing it behind him in digust.
Keith smirked, amused. "What are you doing?"
"Grooming. Haven't been able to since I got on this God-forsaken ship." He pulled a small shell out, tossing it behind him as well. "It's disgusting. There were barnacles on my back sail. Had to scratch against the wall." He pointed to the wall in quest, bringing several large gouges in the wood to his attention.
"Oh my God, Shiro is gonna kill you." Keith whispered in awe at the huge rends in the priceless wood.
Lance shrugged. "Don't care. If I'm gonna be here, I'm gonna make myself comfortable." He returned to his preening.
Keith sighed. "Look... I want to apologize for last night. I shouldn't have-"
"No, you shouldn't have." Lance's sails folded out ever-so-slightly. Keith was starting to realize those meant trouble.
"You can put the fins away, Lance." Keith said, exasperated.
"Oh what, did I scare you?"
Keith looked the mirror and saw Lance grinning at him, rows of sharp teeth very clearly visible in the sharp glass. He had to keep reminding himself he was dealing with the same apex predator that almost killed him in the rain a few days ago.
"Yes, actually. You did. I didn't know merrow's could go all deepzee like that." He leaned against the doorway. "It was startling, to say the least."
"How else do you think I hunt at night? With a gun?" Lance said sardonically, rolling his eyes as he plucked another branch out of his hair. "Besides, I can make any color I want. Surely your diviner friend told you that."
"You mean Pidge? No. She's still reading up on your kind."
Lance smirked again, his neck fins folding out. Bright red splotches colored them, with the left having them in the shape of a 'D' and 'U', and the right 'M' and 'B'.
It took Keith a moment to get the joke. "Oh haha, really funny! What, you can spell with them too?"
Lance nodded, humming a happy tune just to get under Keith's skin. "I'm just a step ahead of you, is all."
Keith was infuriated at Lance's smugness. Then he remembered something Pidge had told him.
"Y'know, merrow fin soup is very popular in the Southern Carbuncle islands."
Lance stopped humming and the fins retracted. His expression soured but he continued grooming himself.
"You really know how to kill the mood, don't you?" All mirth from his voice was gone.
"So you can dish it out, but you can't take it?" Keith responded.
"This is why we can never work, Keith. Reminding someone that people eat their species is the worst way to get me to like you. But I suppose someone of your background wouldn't understand social cues, huh?"
The ball was back in Keith's court, but he had nothing to say in response to the harsh words.
Lance broke the silence.
"Did you need something or do you just want to make soup out of me? Because I'm a little busy."
Keith just remembered why he was here. "Oh, right. Uh... it's cold up on deck, so I was wondering if you were cold? We have extra furs if you are."
Lance stopped grooming and turned, actually paying attention to Keith when he spoke.
"Um... it's actually really hot in here." He said, folding out a wrist sail. "See?" Sure enough, the color of the webbed skin was pleasant orange.
Now that Lance mentioned it, Keith was starting to heat up quite a bit in his heavy fur coat. Now he just looked stupid.
"That's a poor excuse just to see me." Lance said, turning back to his mirror. "I'm flattered." There was no happiness in his voice.
"Well, maybe it's warm down here because of the kitchens-"
Then a burst of light flooded down the stairway behind Keith, making Lance's eyes widen as Keith stopped mid-sentence. The light faded just as fast as it arrived. Without saying another word, both of them ran up the stairs onto the deck.
Shiro, Pidge, and Hunk stood on the deck, staring off at something Lance and Keith couldn't see.
"Shiro, what was that?" Keith asked. But he got no answer. All three of them just kept staring, mumbling something Keith couldn't quite hear. "Shiro? Pidge?" Keith waved his hands in front of them, but still got no response. He was breathing hard, panic starting to set it.
"...what is this?" Lance asked, drawing away from the frozen trio. "What are they doing?"
"I don't know!" Keith screamed. Then a light burst onto the horizon, making Keith and Lance shield their eyes as it faded away. Shiro, Hunk, and Pidge burst into motion, raising their hands and exclaiming in unison;
"PRAISE THE SUN!" Then they were silent again.
"I'm going to guess that that is causing the problem." Lance said quietly, pointing to the source of the light. Two immense red circles, far larger than any boat or ship, spun around slowly in the zee. A faint clanking noise could be heard, and more enormous rings rotated into the sky at the center of the two. A luminous ball of light was located in the middle of the whole mess. Heat radiated out of the star in the center, explaining the heat.
"Is that... some sort of zeecreature?" Keith stammered, anxious to fix his friends.
"It's not any zeecreature I've seen." Lance said. "It looks... like a machine."
Then the rings spun faster, and the light burst forth again.
"PRAISE THE SUN!" The three cheered, again going silent immediately after.
"They're hypnotized..." Keith said, walking around them as if that would help.
Lance rolled his eyes. "Obviously. Let's move them down to the deck or something?"
Keith nodded. "Maybe if we keep them away from the light they'll stop acting like this." He reached to touch Shiro shoulder, but the instant he made contact the captain spun, wrenching Keith's arm behind his back.
"You will bear witness as well..." He droned, forcing Keith up and towards the machine. "Praise with us, brother!"
Keith struggled against Shiro's grip. "Lance! Do something- ugh!" Shiro slammed Keith onto the railing of the boat. Hunk and Pidge each grabbed an eyelid, forcing it open. The rings began spinning, a signal that the light was arriving again.
Lance backed away completely, shying from the scene he was witnessing.
"Lance, help me!"
Lance's eyes darted around, looking for anything he could use as a weapon. But before he could grab anything, the light cascaded around the ship.
PRAISE THE SUN!" Yelled everyone but Lance. Then Keith stood up, joining his brainwashed friends as he waited for another false sunrise to arrive.
"Keith?" Lance walked close, careful not to touch him and join the others. He waved a hand. No response. The boat was steering itself, guided by an invisible current. The silence was deafening.
The creak of the boat told Lance it was still moving, but the waves were rougher, as if a storm was coming. Lance looked at Keith again, who stood ramrod stiff as he stared into the horizon.
I could leave right now. Lance thought. They couldn't stop me.
Lance dug through the drawers in his room, searching for any items he could take with him. A book, some pens, a compass. He threw them all onto the foor. These things would just weigh him down. A flash of light came from the deck, followed by a faint "PRAISE THE SUN!". Lance rolled his eyes.
He grabbed a length of netting he had found, perfect for catching food, and began bundling his other treasures in it. So far he had collected a map, some rope, a small dagger (probably Keith's), and various cuts of meat. He had everything he needed. He slung the net onto his back and trotted up the stairs happily.
The crew still stood there, worshipping the red and black gear-shaped machine that had them in it's thrall. Another flash of light. "PRAISE THE SUN!"
This was getting old very quickly. Lance pushed the door to the deck open, and gasped in shock. The machine was much closer than it had been before. The ship was moving towards in at an alarming clip, seemingly being drawn in by suction. The two rings still rotated, ominious metal teeth meshing into each other, visible even from this distance due to their massive size.
So that's what it does. Lance thought, tying the net together. A strange machine that hypnotizes crews and then eats them. Only in the zee.
He stepped up onto the railing of the deck, preparing to dive into the welcoming green waters of the zee. But just as he was about to take the leap, he felt a twinge of guilt.
"We have a lot in common." Keith's voice sounded in his head.
"So beautiful..." He remembered the first mate's touch on his sail.
"No." Lance said outloud, as if to convince himself. "They deserve this."
"I'll help you find her. If you want."
Lance staggered, falling onto the railing. He gripped it hard, as if climbing down from his diving spot meant something. He turned and looked at the monstrous machine, now concerningly close. The black metal gears churned up the waters as it devoured everything.
"They hurt me... just leave them." Lance said again, standing back up to dive.
"Ugh!" Lance threw the net back onto the deck, clawing large scores in the railing as he very reluctantly released his grip. He ran up to the wheelhouse, grabbing onto the large wheel and attempted to turn it. It held fast, the currents overpowering Lance's own muscle.
"Damnnit, turn!" He heaved, but only succeeded in adjusting the course a bit. He pulled again, but found no more gain. He jumped down onto the deck, panicking as if sought some way to save the crew from their horrific fate.
"PRAISE THE SUN!"
"Stop saying that!" Lance looked around Keith, as if he could chuck him into the Zee to snap some sense into him. The machine was only a block away now.
"Keith, wake up!" Lance said, puffing his lips and spitting ink all over the firstmate. He got no respone. Lance spotted a large piece of oarwood and hefted it bodily, cracking Keith in the knees with it. Not enough to break them, but definitely enough to get his attention. Yet, he got none.
"Keith, you're going to die!" Lance screamed over the roaring waters, the gears too close to dodge now. "You need to dive! Now!"
"PRAISE THE SUN!"
"Stop it!" Lance was truly panicking now. Soon, it would be too late for him to escape with his own life. "Keith, you promised you'd help my find her! You can't do that if you're dead!" Tears were starting to form, spilling over onto his cheeks. The gears loomed over them.
"PRAISE THE SUN!"
It was too late now. Lance turned, running full force back to the edge of the deck, foregoing his net of treasures. He perched, prepared to dive and leave Keith behind. He turned looking at the still-hypnotized firstmate.
Lance closed his eyes, but just as he was about to jump, the ship stopped moving. The sudden lack of forward momentum sent him tumbling onto the deck for a second time. The mesmerized crew also fell, except for Keith, who was prone on the floor from Lance's wooden assault.
"What?" Lance yelled, confused as to what was happening. The gears continued spinning, but could not gain purchase on the wood of the ship. Then, the ship started slowly moving back. Lance stood up, running to the other side and peering into the water. He could make out an indistinct shape and a dim light underneath the boat.
"...a Lifeberg?" He whispered.
A low groaning came from the creature as it hefted the ship, carrying it against the current. Lance looked at the gears. They were shrinking away as the Lifeberg carried the ship far faster than the current could carry them.
Soon, the horizon was dark again. No more light shone in the green abyss.
Lance collapsed onto the deck. He breathed deep, wiping the tears off on his wrists.
"...Lance? Why are you on the floor?" Pidge was the first to snap from her reverie. "Are you okay?"
Lance said nothing. His chance to escape was gone.
"Why do my knees hurt?" Keith asked, wincing and rubbing his legs.
Lance chuckled quietly. But before he could say why, the creature carrying the ship emerged, an enormous mountain bursting out of the water. It bobbed gently, turning and drifting peacefully along it's own course.
"What!?" Hunk yelled, pointing at the Lifeberg.
"Wow, a Lifeberg!" Pidge exclaimed. "Why was it underneath us?"
"My legs really hurt!" Keith cried, oblivious to Lifeberg and Lance as he began to recount the experience he had just had.
Chapter 8: Night Swimming 1
Keith slept alone that night. He lay in his soft bed, various ornaments and trinkets jingling lightly as the boat swayed. Usually he shared a bed with the captain, but given his current standing with Shiro...
Better not risk it.
He tossed and turned. The rock of the boat typically served as a lullaby, but he was particularly restless. Lance had told them all about the fake sun-machine that had almost consumed the entire ship while the crew had been hypnotized. It was a very quick, almost minimal explanation before the merrow disappeared back into his room. He had been spending an awful lot of time secluded in the lower decks.
He couldn't sleep. He threw the covers off of himself, quietly tip-toeing up the stairs so as to not wake anyone else. He stepped onto the deck and into the cold night air. The Zee was very different at night, distant calls of various zeecreatures echoing into the green-black horizon. Bright streaks of purple and green dashed beneath the surface, illuminating the unknowable depths of the primordial water. Electricity sparked, intertwining with the colors.
The Zee was incredibly dangerous, Keith knew that. In fact, he counted himself lucky to not have been devoured by a Neither or Jillyfleur. Some creatures didn't even bother with the formality of staying in the water, opting instead to board the boat quickly and escape back into the black abyss with their prey.
It was an unnatural place. Keith missed the above, where things made sense. There at least humans had a fighting chance against the beasts of the sea. Here, there was no such luck. But Keith had chosen this life for himself when he became part of Shiro's crew.
Keith heard a loud moan across the Zee. Another twisted creature looking for a meal. Keith's mind immediately turned to Lance. How could a creature so humanoid and so coherent come from this place? It defied all expectations.
Then he remembered the flash of green and purple, the dark eyes piercing into his very soul. Lance was from this place just as much as the Lorn-Flukes, the Lifebergs, the Bound Sharks. He didn't like the thought that such a graceful and, dare he say it, attractive person could call this place their home.
"Is that really what you think?" Lance asked. Keith did not move. He had known he was behind him for quite some time. Lance's sails were fully extended, as if to capture the salty air and electricty of the Zee. They had no doubt picked up on Keith's feelings. "In a way, you're right."
Lance took his place next to Keith, placing his own arms on the railings. "This is my home. And I will be returning to it once we finish our respective missions."
Keith sighed quietly, still tracking the streaks of color and hearing the unearthly howls of the zeecreatures. "Doesn't it scare you? To be with... those things?"
Lance nodded. "It was a fight to survive every day. I'm very small compared to a lot of other zeecreatures. That's why I found my cave. I was safe there." There was a moment of silence. Shame hung on Keith's shoulders. "At least, I thought I was. Turns out zeecreatures weren't what I should've been worried about."
He laughed quietly, but there was little humor in it. "I'm still learning new things about this place every day. It changes so often. New things and obstacles form all the time. It's the water." He hung an arm over the deck, as if he could touch the glimmering liquid if he reached far enough. "It's amazing. My mother used to tell me it was God's tears. My dad was insistent it came from a hole to Hell at the zeefloor. But it's magical, for better or worse."
Keith stole a look at Lance, seeing a content expression on the merrow's face. "That thing that carried us from that machine... the Lifeberg. What are they?"
Lance's expression changed to one of wistfulness. "They're living mountains. Ageless, infinite. I think the above equivalent is... whales?"
"I know whales. They're very gentle."
"That's the thing, Lifebergs typically aren't. There's this enormous mouth at the bottom that they use to eat everything they see. But it saw something in this ship. That's a good sign."
Lance gazed at the water, the green reflecting in his blue eyes. His fins seemed to be reaching for it, begging to feel it's cool caress. "We're generating a lot of attention. I can feel it. That's not a good thing on the Zee."
"What do you mean?" Keith asked, cocking his head.
"The more scared, the more happy, the more you feel any emotion... it paints a huge target on your back. Why do you think I can sense everything you feel? The creatures here use it to find you."
Keith laughed. "Are you calling me prey?"
"No, but something else might." Lance drew his hand back from the water, almost reluctantly. "Have you heard of the Constant Companion?"
The tone Lance used sent chills down Keith's spine.
"No... what is that?"
Lance didn't speak for a moment, examining his reflection in the water. "It's something my mom used to tell me about. 'Never show them you're scared', she would say every time she'd come back from the Zee. 'You'll get a Constant Companion.'."
Keith's interest was piqued. "Is it like a cramp or something?" He joked, trying to goad Lance into laughing. But Lance did not laugh.
"It's a zeecreature that smells your fear. It's a spider. It will find you if you don't control your emotions. I check every night on this deck to see if one's tailing us."
Keith smiled evaporated faster than the speed of light.
"It's... a what?" He stammered, unable to believe his ears. "A-a spider? A giant spider?"
Lance nodded. "That's why I'm telling you this, Keith. There's alot of things in the water you don't know. And I don't want you to die." He smiled, a show of true happiness. "It would make me sad."
Keith laughed. "Well, if I start trailing a giant zeespider I will definitely let you know."
Lance laughed in turn, still looking into the water. More calls and howls came from the zee, music to Lance but nightmares to Keith.
"You're scared." Lance said quietly. "My sails are going crazy."
"Yeah... I don't like the zee. Not my favorite place."
Lance looked forward, then stepped back from the railing. Keith stared at him as he shed his coat and boots.
"Lance, what are you-"
Then the merrow dove over the side of boat, falling down the side and slipping effortlessly into the green water. Keith's mouth was open in shock.
"Lance!" He called into the zee. The merrow burst from the water, bubbles rising from the electric fluid.
"Come in, Keith!" Lance called, floating in the ocean as naturally as one would stand on land. "It's not bad, I promise!"
"Um... no thanks! I'm good!"
"Please?" Lance yelled up the boat, but Keith shook his head furiously.
"No! I'm don't like the zee!"
There was quiet, then a Lance spoke with a softer tone.
"I'll protect you."
Keith stopped shaking his head. His heart was pounding.
Keith slowly shrugged his furs off and placed his boots on the deck.
"Okay... here I come." He then tumbled off the side, splashing loudly into the water next to Lance. His world became dark and green, fluid rushing around his body. He couldn't see far in front of him, only the faint outline of Lance's pale legs. He rushed up to the surface, breaching with a loud gasp.
"Huh! Ugh!" He spat out the salty water. Lance giggled.
"See? Not that bad." Lance placed a hand on the ship, gripping the wooden side. He extended the other to Keith, who hesistated for an instant before grabbing it and hooking onto the wood as well.
"You'll get used to it." Lance had a different attitude in the water, full of mirth and life. His sails had extended to full mast, the colors glowing in the dark. "I needed this so bad..." He moaned, relaxing in the cool water. "I was so dry..."
Keith tried not to stare at the beautiful boy in front of him. If not for the cold water, he would've blushed intensely at the sight. Lance dipped his head under the water. Keith could still see the shimmering reds and yellows underneath the surface. Then he popped back up, gills fully open and draining water.
"Ah, yes..." He closed his eyes in ecstasy, his gills opening and closing with loud sucking sounds. He ducked back down, scooping up more water into his neck. "I feel so much better..."
Keith was amazed at the colorful spectacle. Lance's sails were displaying kaleidoscopic patterns, swirling from red to blue, and all other colors of the rainbow.
"You're happy, huh?" He asked, as if he needed to.
"Uh-huh..." Lance moaned, water cascading out of his gills and down his chest. "I missed the Zee so much..."
Keith was struck by a thought. While Lance was busy filling his gills again, he dove underneath, wanting to see the colors underwater.
Sure enough, they were even more glorious in their natural state. The electric water amplified their glow, channeling the colors in an aura around the merrow. Keith's eyes widened in amazement.
He looked around him while he still had oxygen, reluctant to wrench his eyes from Lance. He looked to the left and right, taking in the empty expanse of the dark Zee. Then he looked down.
All of his air disappeared in the bubbles that escaped with his panicked gasp. An enormous eye, easily bigger than shape, stared at Keith. It seemed to have noticed him, the large black pupil locking on to him. Terror set in immediately.
He burst out of the water, scrambling up the rutted sides of the ship in absolute panic. He scratched and clawed up over the railing, flopping onto the deck like a dead fish. He breathed hard, trying to clear his airways of the zeewater.
Lance silently followed him up the ladder, stepping gracefully onto the deck.
"What... was that?" Keith gasped, shaking and stammering.
"Don't know." Lance was calm, shaking water off his body. "Probably part of a Lorn or something. Best we don't know."
"I-... it-..." Keith stammered, almost scared past words.
"Keith, calm down." Lance knelt by the firstmate, a hand on his shoulder. "Do not. Let them know."
Keith breathed deep, steeling his trembling body. Slowly, the shaking passed.
Keith lay in his bed again. Lance had bid him a quick goodnight before retreating back to his room. He tossed and turned just as he had before his midnight excursion. But instead of restlessness keeping him up, it was a different feeling.
It was fear.
Chapter 9: Night Swimming 2
shiro u asshole
Lance however, was not able to sleep. Nocturnal by nature and lacking any real circadian rhythm, Lance lay in his room, just like he did every night. In truth, he had known the Lorn-Fluke had been there. He had known Keith would see it. He had known the firstmate would be terrified beyond words.
It was a show of power.
Although Keith did not realize it, Lance had been pulling the strings on his entire swim. It was not malicious intent, but rather a way to display control in the merrow's otherwise powerless situation. Keith may have his crew, his weapons, his captain. But Lance had the Zee. And nobody can fathom the creatures that lay beneath it's electric waves. Nobody but him.
The Constant Companion was a serious problem though. It was becoming evident the crew came from the surface. The only two that seemed to have a inkling of what was going on were Pidge and Hunk, and even their grasp on the Zee was loose at best, limited to word-of-mouth stories and their collective knowledge of Lance's biology. If they kept encountering zeebeasts like the Fluke their collective fear would attract even worse creatures, Constant Companions included.
Then there was the captain. Lance's sails had much difficulty picking up any kind of emotion from Shiro. That scent, the way he looked at Keith. It was obvious there was something between them, probably romantic. Yet Keith insisted on pursuing Lance. It defied explanation. Every time Lance felt a twinge of affection for the firstmate he remembered the fight they had in his cave, the one on the ship, the one in the cell. There was bad blood between them, that much was certain. But Keith seemed to have forgotten all of that in favor of trying to woo him.
"Ugh..." Lance sighed into the dark air. "Humans."
Lance sat up, laser green electricity coursing up his sails and neck. Shiro stood in the doorway, having opened it completely silently. Upon recognizing the captain, Lance's sails relaxed, but only a little bit.
"Don't any of you knock!?" Lance hissed, baring his fangs. "Or do you just like to scare me?"
Shiro chuckled with disdain. "I don't have to knock. This is my ship. You're laying on my bed. In my room."
Lance rolled his eyes. "What do you want? It's bad enough I have Keith sticking his nose in my-"
"Don't talk about Keith." Shiro growled, stepping into the room with impunity. "Get up."
"I said. Get. Up." The tone in Shiro's voice made Lance stand immediately, cowed into obedience.
"On the deck. Now."
"But I just-"
"If I have to repeat myself one more time, I will gut you like the fish you are." Shiro had drawn his sword. Lance's fins retreated completely, something they hadn't done since he had first been brought aboard.
"Tell me, merrow." Shiro said, looking into the Zee with Lance just as Keith had been an hour ago. "Did you think that was funny?"
Lance's eyes widened a bit. "What are you talk-"
"The Lorn-Fluke, you unbelievable moron. Did you think it was funny to do that to him?"
"N-no, I-" Lance stammered, grasping the rails tightly.
"Because I didn't think it was funny at all." The sword was still drawn, the purple blade glimmering in the night. He gently placed the tip under Lance's chin, tapping it lightly.
The merrow gulping, staring at the infinitely sharp blade.
"Keith is the only reason you are alive right now. I wanted to kill you the instant you decided to pull that stunt in the brig."
Lance's fins extended slightly, a show of defiance.
"You can't kill me. I'm the only one that knows how the Zee works. You would've died to that machine without me."
Shiro snorted, pressing the point a little deeper. "I'm not scared of death or the Zee, merrow. Put the fins away."
The fins did not move. In fact, they flared out even more, red coloration spreading slowly.
"It's not like I can control them when you've got a sword to my throat." He said through clenched teeth. "So maybe put away the sword and then we'll talk."
"Or how about I cut them off?" Faster than light, the blade rested on his right neck sail. Lance went completely still, fins included. The blade was slowly biting into it, but Lance was afraid to move for fear of cutting them off himself.
"Oh, now I've got your attention huh?" Shiro was smirking, the sword balanced lightly in his palm. He pulled the blade back, leaving a shallow cut in it's wake.
"Ah!" Lance collapsed, gripping the sail in his hands.
"Aw... they're so sensitive aren't they? Even a small cut causes so much pain..." Shiro kicked the merrow in the stomach, laying him flat on his back. "I know how to deal with your kind. I've been killing merrow for years." He placed a boot on the smaller boy's chest, trapping him against the hardwood.
"Keith is very important to me. I don't take kindly to you putting him in danger." Shiro pressed his foot, feeling the merrow's ribs groan.
"Ack! Stop!" Lance groaned, grabbing Shiro's ankle. "Please..."
"Maybe I'll kill you and feed you to the Lorn. How about that?" He pressed harder, enjoying the sight of Lance in pain. "How ironic, right?"
Lance's grip on the ankle tightened, but Shiro didn't care. "Keith is not who you should be afraid of, Lance." His name was laced with loathing. "That honor belongs to me." In one fluid motion he lifted the boot and delivered a swift kick, rolling Lance over and down the deck.
Shiro casually followed the body, placing his foot back on Lance as he arrived at his destination.
"Please... stop..." Lance rasped, like he always did when he was in distress.
"Are you going to be nice?" Shiro asked, much like a parent or caretaker would to a naughty child.
Lance nodded slowly. His cut sail was bleeding a very slow drip onto the floor. The cut was small but noticeable, and to Lance it hurt much more than the boot did.
"Looks like you made a mistake, huh?" Shiro goaded, waiting for a response. When he did get one, he pressed harder than ever before. "Huh!?"
"Yes..." Lance gasped.
"Then we understand each other." Shiro released his pressure, turning around and sheathing his sword. "Pick yourself up and go to bed." He stood at the entrance to the stairs, gesturing into the darkness. "Now."
Shaking, Lance slowly rose, clutching his ribs with one hand and his sail with the other. He limped quietly and shamefully to the door, glaring at Shiro the whole time.
"I hate you. I will kill you the instant I get off the ship." He whispered as he passed the captain.
"I doubt that." Shiro replied, still smiling. "Good night."
Chapter 10: Different Kinds of Meditation
The morning light burst through the windows of the ship, waking up Lance with it's intense heat. His fin burned slightly, a mark of the night before. Perhaps he should've let this ship be devoured by that machine.
No, he thought, shaking the notion out of his head. You made your choice.
"Breakfast!" Hunk called, his voice echoing down the stairs into each room on the lower deck. "It's Beloved bacon! Hurry before it's all gone!"
Pidge scrambled past Lance's room. The word bacon seemed to have rolled her into high gear. "Hurry, Lance! Wake up Keith, he always sleeps in."
Lance groaned, rolling off the bed. His chest was heavy. He needed another dip in the Zee, he was drying out very quickly. His sails drooped, still not entirely awake. He shambled slowly out the door and began his journey to Keith's room. He knocked on the door, but it opened at his touch.
Not even closed. Lance rolled his eyes. Seems like nobody on this ship valued privacy. But before Lance could call Keith's name, a strong smell of something burning offended his nostrils. Immediately, he was fully awake, his sails reaching full mast in record time. he coughed quietly, trying to wave the scent away. Curious, he walked through the room, passing a large bookcase full of thick tomes and glass instruments. He had never been in Keith's room before. It was much larger than his own room, and full of curious objects.
He passed around the shelf, coming upon a larger clearing covered with thick red rugs. Various chimes hung from the walls. A small bed was in the corner. Lance noticed it was located a far away from the porthole as possible. The burning smell was coming from a small pile of incense smoldering on a steel plate. Keith sat on the other side, cross-legged and with his eyes closed. He was whispering something.
"And may Stone watch over us... and may the Salt of the Zee purify our intentions... and may the Storm pass through our hearts..."
Lance stared, feeling a little guilty at having encroached upon this apparently private moment.
"Keith?" He interrupted quietly.
Keith's eyes opened, focusing slowly on Lance. Then he smiled. "Aren't you the one who's always complaining about people not knocking?"
Lance blushed furiously. "I, uh... the door was open."
The smile did not fade. "You said the exact same thing."
The blush became full, spreading to his fins. "I, uh. I'm sorry. Breakfast is ready."
He turned to leave.
"You can sit if you want. I'm almost done." Keith interrupted. Lance's curiosity was piqued.
"Are you sure?" He asked, turning back to the clearing.
Lance sat opposite of Keith, looking into the burning incense.
"You're, uh... religous?"
"I wasn't. Not until I started living on the Zee." His eyes were closed again. "I'm deathly afraid of what lives in it. But from my experience, there's always something watching."
Lance's head tilted. He had lived in the Zee his entire life and he'd never heard of a religion based on it.
"There used to be more of us on this ship, you know." Keith said,clasping his hands towards the incense. "Over time, we've lost alot of them to the Zee. But Shiro always had an ace up his sleeve."
Keith sighed a heavy sigh, blowing the smoke of the incense into the air.
"Now we're the only ones left. We have to be more careful than ever. Hence, the offerings."
He gestured to the incense. "If we keep the Gods of the Zee happy, we're less likely to become part of it ourselves."
"Do you really believe that?" Lance asked, before he realized how rude he sounded. "Oh, wait. I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"
"Yes, I do. I saw it." Keith interrupted, no sign of offense on his face. "We were out of food once. Stranded in the center of the Zee. We had lost so many to a particularly angry Triskelegant."
Lance wince. He knew of Triskelegants. Fearsome, three-mouthed creatures that were able to spin fast enough to create deadly whirlpools.
"We had resigned ourselves to death. But Shiro prayed. He offered something of his to Stone, the most benevolent goddess in the Zee. Something very valuable." Keith's voice was wavering, but he showed no signs of crying.
"She heard him. When we woke that morning, we were sure it would be our last. But a Beloved had beached itself on the deck. We had enough food to make it to a port. We survived, because she heard us. Because she took Shiro's sacrifice."
Lance was amazed. Beloved were dumb, docile creatures. But the idea of one killing itself on the ship was unthinkable.
"What... what did he offer?" Lance asked, afraid he was overstepping.
Keith's eyes opened as he locked them with Lance's.
"His right arm."
Lance's eyes widened. He had never noticed any missing limb... Shiro always wore heavy overcoats...
But he had used his left hand to cut his sail. And his left hand to hold him when he boarded the ship...
"But... how did I never-"
"He's very good at hiding it. It's like he never even needed it." Keith said, snuffing out the incense. "So, breakfast is ready? We should go eat before Pidge eats all of it."
Lance just stared dumbly at the dead ashes of the incense before slowly getting up.
"So goooood...." Pidge moaned around the juicy meat in her mouth. She was dribbling golden juice onto the table. "Hunk... have I ever told you I love you? Because I love you."
Hunk laughed as he ladled more of the brisket into the basin in the center of the table. "Please, you flatter me. If you boil anything for nine hours it becomes edible." He said, scooping a serving of meat onto Lance's plate. "You eat up especially, Lance. I added extra calcium just for you. Your sails have been looking a little pallid."
Lance poked the meat with his fork. "Thank you." He gingerly bit into it, savoring the warm flavor. "It's good..." He said, taking bigger bites.
"Beloved brisket is one of my specialities." Hunk replied, taking his own seat next to Shiro. The captain was calmly eating, but Lance could feel his eyes graze over him when he wasn't looking.
"So, we're almost out of the Great North. Right, Pidge?" Keith asked, chewing on his own brisket. "What's our course?"
"Well, since we're in uncharted waters I was wondering if our finned friend could help us out a bit." She replied, pointing at Lance with her fork. "We don't want another incident like that hungry machine, right?" She snorted, shoving more food into her mouth.
"What do you need me to do?" Lance asked, still eating his own food.
"I know we're somewhere in the Great North, but we don't have a point of reference or anything like that. Are you familiar with this area at all?"
Lance shook his head. "I usually don't leave my cave. I have no idea where we are."
Pidge hung her head sadly. "I guess that's that, then. We'll have to keep sailing until-"
"But I can help you." Lance interrupted, smiling mischievously.
"So... is this a normal merrow thing?" Hunk asked, looking up at the crow's nest. "He's been up there for five hours."
Pidge shrugged. "He didn't tell me much. Keith." She nudged the first mate next to her. "Go up there and check on him."
Keith climbed the rope ladder carefully, so as to not fall to his death on the wooded deck. He poked his head up through a hatch in the nest's floor.
"Hey, Lance? You doing okay up here?"
"Mm-hm." Lance mumbled, eyes closed and sails stretching fully out into the air. They had unfurled completely, giving the merrow a very bestial look. "Just... listening."
"Listening? With your sails?"
"Mm-hm." He tilted his head a little to the south, towards a sound only he could hear. "I'm picking up a lot of zeecreatures. Some Beloveds. No people." The sails pulsed, furling in momentarily before stretching back out again. "There's an island to the south. But it's very quiet. I don't think it's inhabited."
"Are you sure?" Keith asked.
"Positive." The sails rolled up, retreating back into their normal positions. "I would've picked it up sooner, but your captain felt the need to cut the left one."
Keith said nothing except for a quick "Thank you." Then he retreated back down the ladder.
"An island, huh? Remind me to read up more on merrows. I had no idea they could do so much with their sails." Pidge said, sketching a path on her map. "What do you think, Shiro?"
"I think the sooner we get there the sooner we know where we are. The Grand Geode is still far away." He replied, leaning back in his chair. "Chart a course immediately."
"Yes, captain." Pidge and Hunk left. As Keith turned to leave, Shiro interrupted him.
The door closed behind them as Shiro sat up in his chair.
"How are you? You seem... sad." He asked quietly.
Keith sighed. "I'm fine. I've just got a lot on my mind."
"Lance told me about some Zee things."
"Yeah, things. He told me about something called the Constant Companion. It's been bugging me."
Shiro nodded. "I'm familiar with those. Trust me, Keith. You've got nothing to fear. Companions or otherwise."
"Then I saw an eye-"
"Enough, Keith. Relax." Shiro purred, standing and walking to his bed on the other side of the room. "Join me tonight."
Keith stared, unsure. "Well, I shouldn't... I wanted to talk to Lance-"
"Why, so he can scare you again? That's all merrows do, Keith. They lie and trick. You can't trust anything he says." Shiro lay down on the bed. "If you want to talk to him, go ahead. I won't stop you. But I won't be watching this time if something bad happens."
Keith winced. "I know... I'll be careful."
Shiro's eyes narrowed. "And if he does anything to you..."
He pulled his knife out from under the blankets. "I really will cut his fins off."
Chapter 11: Visage
SO IT BEGINS
"Land ho!" Pidge shouted, careening down from the ropes surrounding her crow's nest. "And it is definitely inhabited."
She landed with a loud thump, straightening herself up and patting Lance on the back. "Looks like those big listeners of yours got one thing wrong."
Lance looked at the incoming island. Rolling hills dominated the landscape, with beautiful arches and pillars spreading from the beach into the valleys.
"It's very quiet. Quiet enough that I didn't hear any people." Lance responded, flexing his sails as if to prove a point.
Shiro roughly passed by the merrow, knocking him off balance a bit. "Let's hope they're just the self-reflective type and not trained assassins." He adjusted his coats. Lance's eyes locked on the empty space in the coat where his right arm would be.
There it is. He thought to himself.
"Hunk!" He called up the wheelhouse.
"Yes, captain?" Hunk was steering the ship, locked in a death embrace with the rowdy wheel.
"Prepare to dock immediately."
They had been hailed into the ornate pier by a small lighthouse. As the crew descended down the gangplank, they were greeted by many robed figures, some male, some female. All of them wore various styles of masks, ranging all the way from simple domino masks to complicated arrays of feathers and fur.
"Welcome, travelers. We do not receive many visitors here in the Zee." The tallest man approached, shaking hands with Shiro's left vigourosly. "We receive you happily!" His voice was soft, but full of mirth. The other figures flanking him bowed deeply.
"What is this place?" Shiro asked, skipping the plesantries.
"This is Visage! The isle of the Masked One!" The man swept his hands behind him, the robed people disbanding to walk back to village connecting to the pier. "The great and benevolent one! She who is known as Stone."
Lance's eyes widened. Shiro's face belied no shock.
"Then we're safe here." He said simply.
"Of course! I am Shru." The man opened his arms, smiling widely. "Stay as long as you like! But we do ask you observe our customs while you stay here."
"Customs?" Pidge asked, eyebrow raised.
"Yes! No face may go naked here on Visage. Come, follow me." Shru turned, stepping across the pier. The crew followed him, gaping in awe at the huge pillars and arches. They passed a fountain, fed a steady stream of water from the arch above. Many people were in the streets, painting and sculpting. But not a single person, man, woman, or child, was without a mask.
"Enter, please." Shru said, opening a curtain and gesturing to a doorway.
They filed in, entering the dark room. The walls were plush, and the air was thick with the scent of hookah. Masks hung from the ceiling, adorned the walls, filled the drawers in the back. Various mirrors covered the corners. Shru waved at them.
"Take your pick. The mask you choose reveals the persona within. Choose with your heart and mind." Then he was gone, sweeping back through the curtain.
Everyone looked around awkwardly.
"Um..." Pidge said. "Well, let's get to it."
Hunk nodded, already rifling through a drawer full of white masks.
"This is strange." Keith said, batting at an ornate peacock mask hanging in front of him.
Shiro nodded. "Agreed. But we should respect these people." He walked to the wall, examining the selection of half-masks.
Lance was intrigued. He grabbed an orange mask, shaped like a sun and made from some sort of laquer. He hung it back up. That wasn't him.
"Found it!" Pidge jumped into the certain of the room, proudly wearing her mask. It was white, resembling an overlarge pair of glasses. She snorted. "Humorous and functional. I love it!" Then she left the room.
"Got mine." Hunk said, following her out. His choice was an orange half-mask with golden tinsel hanging from the sides. He exited as well.
"This is hard." Keith frowned, putting down yet another mask.
"Not that hard." Shiro had chosen his, a very simple black domino mask. "I'll met you outside." The curtain fluttered, leaving only Lance and Keith in the room.
"What are you gonna pick?" Keith asked.
Lance shrugged. "I don't know. None of these really stand out to me. Or as me. I guess that's what I should be looking for."
Keith knelt down, picking up a mask from the floor. "Maybe try this one." He held it up to Lance, who took it and looked at the front. It was blue and green, flecked with scales and iridescent.
"This is... nice." Lance said. He had to admit, he was liking this one a lot.
"You have to try it on first." Keith laughed.
"Oh right." Lance awkwardly placed the mask on his face, tying the blue silk behind his head. It seemed to be a good fit. "How do I look?"
"Amazing." Keith breathed. Then he gulped.
Lance's eyes widened. "Amazing?" The sails had emerged again, as they always did when Lance needed to read someone's feelings.
"Yeah. Really good."
Even in the dark Lance could see Keith's blush. And Lance was afraid his own face was beginning to return the favor.
"Thanks." He replied simply, not wanting to make the moment even more uncomfortable. A mask caught Lance's eye. He picked it up, showing it to Keith.
"Now your turn. You try this one." He said plainly, trying to hide his racing heart.
Keith took it, turning it over and looking at it. It was black and feathered, with red glints hidden in the mask material. It only covered the eyes, but a curved beak hooked down over the nose.
"How did I miss this one?" Keith asked dumbly, laughing and trying to diffuse the tension. He tyed it onto his face. "Do I look as good as you?"
Lance stared. There was no way this was happening. The dark was bad enough, but the mask just served to make Keith even more attractive. The allure of the feathers and black material made the firstmate cut a very handsome image. Lance wanted to touch him, just once. That couldn't hurt, right?
"Lance, your sails."
Lance was jolted out of his trance, looking down at his fins. They were reaching out for Keith, stretched to their limit and lit bright red. They had begun to glow in the dark.
"Oh, sorry." They snapped back into place. "They, uh... do that sometimes. When I'm, uh..." He trailed off. He just wanted to dive into the Zee and swim away from this incredibly attractive boy in front of him.
"Maybe you should listen to them." In the blink of an eye, Keith had crossed the distance between them and wrapped his arms around Lance's waist. His brought his mouth close to the merrow's ear.
"Before I continue, promise me you're not going to light up this time."
Lance's eyes were lidded in excitement.
Then Keith kissed him, pressing deep into the merrow. The masks interlocked perfectly, the feathers brushing against Lance's cheeks. For the first time since he met Keith, he kissed back. His sails flared out, reds and oranges pulsing through them. His entwined his fingers in Keith's hair as the firstmate disengaged, continuing to trail kisses down Lance's neck, paying special attention to his partner's gasps.
"Wait... they're outside, waiting for us..." Lance said quietly.
Keith pulled away completely. "You're right." He reluctantly released his hold.
"This is an amazing room..." Hunk said, examining the pillows and blankets on the bed. "But I prefer to sleep on the ship. All my stuff is on there."
"I agree." Pidge said, bouncing on her own bed. As per Visage's customs, they were still wearing their masks.
"I like the ship more, too. But we don't want to offend our hosts." Shiro said, laying down on his bed. He patted the spot next to him. "Keith?"
Keith slid in next to Shiro, entwining himself around the captain's body.
Lance watched as they began whispering to each other, no doubt confidential exchanges between a captain and his firstmate. He rolled his eyes, flopping onto his covers.
He needed more of Keith.
Chapter 12: Break the Fast
"Pass the sugar, please." Pidge said over her eggs. Keith slid the jar to her and resumed eating his own food.
They had woken to an uneventful morning. Shiro had left immediately to seek out his informant, leaving the crew alone with their roomservice breakfast.
"It's been a long time since we had actual cooked food..." Hunk said, popping a strip of bacon into his mouth. "Usually I just boil some random Zee creature and call it a day."
Pidge snorted. "Yeah, life on the Zee, huh?" She imitated a stereotypical pirate accent. "Yarrrg..."
Keith laughed a bit. "It's a good break, I'll admit that. This island is a bit strange, though." As if to emphasize his point, Keith tapped his feathered mask lightly with his fork.
"The mask thing? A little weird."
Hunk nodded. "Agreed. There is a certain allure to it, though. Sugar, please."
The jar was slid to Hunk, who poured a generous amount into his coffee. "And real coffee? not some dreg from the store barrels in the lower deck?" He took a sip, pinky out and lips pursed. "Does this make me royalty?"
Pidge grunted, laughing into her tea. She covered her mouth to keep the liquid from spilling out.
"Hunk, you're gonna make her choke!" Keith laughed, patting Pidge on the back.
The three crewmembers laughed, sharing more anecdotes and stories from their lives on the high Zees. Lance just watched, his sails slightly extended. They were enjoying the light, fun atmosphere. But Lance felt strange.
"And now we have a merrow?" Pidge said, bringing Lance back into reality. "Our ship is just a beautiful mess."
Hunk nodded. "Not many Zeeships can say that they have a merrow on board. Of their own will, anyway. Sugar, Lance?"
Lance shook his head. "No, thanks."
Hunk slid it to him slightly. "Are you sure? It's real!"
Lance smiled faintly. "I'm sure, thank you."
Pidge burped loudly, signalling her completion of the meal. "That was so good. Ugh..." She slumped in her seat. "I'm gonna go to the beach... Hunk, join me..." She absentmindedly pawed at Hunk, who shrugged.
"Sure, but I'm taking this bacon." He said, standing with bacon in hand.
"Take some for me, too. In fact, bring the plate."
They walked out of the room, each carrying a plate of bacon. Keith laughed as he watched them go.
"Those two... they're ridiculous." He said, poking an egg with his fork. "They drive Shiro crazy with their jokes. But it's good to have a sense of humor when you're on the Zee. You'll go insane otherwise."
Lance was mimicking Keith, poking his own egg in turn. He didn't really know what to do. They were alone in the guest room.
"Keith, maybe we should, uh... talk." Lance said, putting his fork down. "About our... moment."
Keith smiled, still in high cheers. "Yes, let's." He replied, his voice taking on a low purr.
Lance gulped. The way Keith was looking at him, combined with the mask... he was slipping again.
"Okay, before we continue... take off the mask." Lance said, trying to avert his eyes.
Keith shrugged, slipping the black feathery mask off and placing it on the table. Lance sighed, looking back at Keith now that the coast was clear.
But it wasn't.
Those red eyes pierced straight through him. The smile Keith was wearing was more effective than any mask, baring his sharp teeth. It vaguely reminded Lance of when he was first brought aboard. But this particular smile held no malice.
"What are we doing, Lance?" Keith asked, stirring his tea with a spoon.
"I don't know." Lance said, his sails shrinking away. "I don't think I should be feeling this way about you. I shouldn't even be here."
"But you are, right?" Keith said, tapping the spoon on the glass.
Lance nodded. "I should hate you. Part of me still does, I think."
Keith placed the spoon down, clasping his hands. "Lance, I know I did terrible things to you. There is no excuse." He seperated his hands, walking the right one across the table.
"But... that was before this. I was wrong." His hand stopped, resting lightly on Lance's. The merrow's sails flared out before retreating again, his face flushing red.
"We do have a lot in common..." Lance said, trying to focus.
"We are not law-abiding citizens, Lance. We live on the Zee. We tend to shoot first and ask questions later. But that was the wrong approach for you." Keith's grip on Lance's hand tightened.
Lance withdrew the hand, but there was an air of reluctance. "I... don't know. Shiro doesn't like me..."
"Shiro's just jealous." Keith said, replacing the hand. "He always is."
Lance pulled his hand away again. "Keith... ugh." He stood, turning away from the firstmate. "You can see how I have a lot of conflicting feelings, right?"
Keith stood as well, nodding. "I understand. But just give me a chance. I promise I'll make it up to you."
Then Lance felt Keith wrapping his arms around his waist, pulling him closer. Lance sighed, accepting the embrace.
"You're very touchy for a zeepirate." Lance said, turning to face Keith.
Keith smirked. "Pirates like to touch treasure. No suprise there."
Lance rolled his eyes, smiling. "You're a cliche, Keith."
Then Keith swung both of them onto the bed, rolling on top of Lance. The merrow giggled quietly.
"If we keep meeting like this, people are going to talk..."
"Let them talk..." Keith said, leaning down and biting Lance neck, careful to avoid the sensitive sails. His hand drifted down, slipping inside Lance's waistband and gently grabbing the merrow's manhood.
Lance moaned softly, arching his back into Keith's touch. He threw his arms over the firstmate, bringing him closer and kissing him deeply, biting at Keith's lip as they withdrew.
But before they could go any further, a loud voice interrupted them. "Enjoying yourselves?"
Shiro stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame nonchalantly. Keith immediately disengaged and flew off the bed, shrugging his shirt back on and brushing himself off.
Lance lay on the bed, still recovering from the heat of the moment.
"Save it, Keith. Thought you'd play while the cat's away, huh?" Shiro walked around the bed. Keith shyed away from him as he passed. Lance slowly sat up, pulling up his pants and trying to regain some sort of control.
"We're leaving." Shiro said gruffly, shrugging on his coat. "Pidge and Hunk are on the boat. Be there in five or be left behind." His tone was cold as ice.
Keith bowed his head. "Yes, captain."
Shiro's gaze focused on Lance. The purple eyes drilled into Lance's, but said nothing.
"It's good to be back on the ship, huh?" Pidge said, nudging Lance.
The ship had departed quickly from the dock. Shiro said his cursory goodbyes, then hustled his crew onto the ship and out to Zee. The island was almost out of view. Shiro had made explicit requests for Hunk to double-stoke the engines.
Lance shrugged. "It's alright, I guess."
Pidge laughed. "You are a closed book, Lance."
Lance didn't really hear her as she climbed back up into her crow's nest. He couldn't stop thinking about how his encounters with Keith were becoming more frequent.
Where is Keith, anyway?
Keith huffed, breathless. He lay on the bed, exhausted and flushed. Shiro rolled off of him, just as flustered as he was. Various bruises and scratches covered Keith's body, marks of their rough love-making.
Shiro lay on the otherside, hooking an arm around Keith and bringing him close. "You're mine, Keith." He said softly, whispering the words in Keith's ear. "You can fool around with that merrow as much as you want, but that doesn't change anything."
Keith closed his eyes. "I'm sorry, Shiro..."
"Nothing to be sorry about." Shiro responded. "I gave you permission. I hate that rotting fish, but I'd rather have help on this voyage. So fool away."
He leaned closer, his breath hot on Keith's ear. "But next time, lock the door."