There was no such thing as lazy in the ocean. That was what Red believed. It was too cutthroat and dangerous for any creature to last long without giving it their all.
That being said, the occasional workaround was a good way to save energy for more important things. Few creatures in the ocean were near intelligent enough to even consider the idea, but Red was a mer, so he had the blessing and curse of brains on his side.
In fact, as a meroctopus, he had more than enough smarts to build a simple trap or two. He’d been using them for a few weeks now to catch fish and bottom-feeders for easy food. Not having to spend much energy hunting meant he had some left over to ward off predators. It made his life safer.
And that was important, because meroctopus lived alone. He didn’t have anybody to rely on if he got hurt fighting over territory with another predator.
But, because of his use of traps, Red discovered that there was such a thing as a lazy ocean creature. It was another mer; this one, a mermaid.
It was odd to see for several reasons. First, it was half skeleton. Red could count the number of times he’d seen a creature that shared that trait with him on his fingers. Second, it was just lying on top of his trap net in the sunny water, picking out the crabs caught in it to munch on.
The sight of his food being stolen made Red mad.
“Um, excuse you,” he growled, his shadow casting over the little blue mer. It turned around, and the lights in its eye sockets shrunk. A placating smile stretched across its skull. Red could see that it was intimidated, but he thought it could have been more afraid. After all, Red was large even among meroctopuses, and this one was small even for a mermaid. The size difference was approaching four times. If Red got a hold of this thing, it didn’t stand a chance.
“That ain’t your trap, pal.”
“Sorry. Was it yours?” The little mer took enough distance that at least it wasn’t laying on the net anymore. “I thought it was one humans had abandoned. My bad.”
Red grunted. He wanted to be irritated that the tiny blue fish wasn’t trying harder to apologize when he was clearly the superior predator, but the damn thing had an annoyingly soothing voice, and it calmed him down.
“Well, can’t do a thing about it now. Ya already ate ‘em.”
The skeleton mermaid seemed to realize it’d been forgiven, but it gave an apologetic chuckle anyway.
“Thanks for not throwing up a big fuss. My name’s Sans, by the way.”
Red grunted again in acknowledgment and went to work setting the trap up again for another use. The mermaid swam a little closer to watch and made a throat-clearing noise. “Uh, what about your name?”
“Huh? Oh. Red.”
Sans gave him an approving smile, but Red found it irritating. Fine, meroctopuses had better mechanical smarts than social smarts, unlike mermaids. The fuck was Sans rubbing it in for?
“What pronouns do you use, Red?” Sans asked with masterful politeness. “I use male pronouns.”
“Same,” he muttered, finished with the trap.
It appeared his antisocial nature was starting to cause Sans a little trouble with coming up with something else to say. Unfortunately, Red had something on his mind.
“You go around stealing from other people’s traps often?”
“Well, when I find one,” he shrugged. “Hunting things myself is, eh, effort. I’d rather not.”
Red snorted. “Yeah, I can tell.”
This midget mermaid was really an unusual sight. Like other skeleton mer, he had a layer of echo-flesh starting at the bottom of his rib cage and stretching out into his tail. The brilliant cyan color was really beautiful to look at (even Red thought so), but you could see Sans’s lazy habits by the way the concentrated magic was bloated a little where his abdomen would be.
Blubber in ocean mammals existed to keep them warm in cooler waters, but Sans was just chubby from eating too much and not swimming enough. Never in his life had Red seen an ocean creature with enough leisure to put on excess mass.
Without thinking too hard about it, he reached out and poked Sans’s belly. The ecto-flesh squished softly under his phalanges. “Maybe you oughta lay off a little. Something’s gonna make a nice snack outa ya.”
Sans blushed and chuckled a little. “I’m faster than I look. M’not too worried.”
Was that why he didn’t run when Red showed up? He had confidence in escaping? Finally something Red could respect. Just being pretty wasn’t quite enough to survive down here.
“What about you?” Sans asked. “Isn’t it a little dangerous for you to be in water this shallow?”
He wasn’t talking about the environment. He was talking about other mer. Meroctopuses were territorial, solitary, and often aggressive. There was a good chance a school of mermaids would decide to just wipe him out if they saw him. But, at the thought, Red just grinned.
“I’m stronger than I look,” he said in a cocky tone. “M’not worried.”
Sans chuckled and relented when his words were thrown back at him.
“Hey, as an apology for stealing your food, how about I show you a good place to catch fish?”
Red raised an eyebrow curiously. He was confident this little guppy couldn’t do anything to hurt him, so he gave a nod. “Sure. Is it far?”
“‘Bout a thirty minute swim.”
“Alright. Lead the way.”
Sans wasn’t lying about being a fast swimmer. Even as big as red was and with his impressive burst speed, he had trouble keeping up. He didn’t doubt that Sans could escape him if he really wanted to.
The place Sans led him to was an old ship wreck turned coral reef. As expected, there were tons of tiny fish flitting about, and it would be easy to trap them in closed spaces. Red gave an appreciative nod.
Sans grinned and waved over his shoulder. “There’s a real good spot in the middle where they all pass through. I think it’d be the perfect spot for a trap.”
The pudgy mermaid flitted through a metal door to the inside of the ship, and Red curiously followed. Or, he attempted to. The human-made vessel was a little... space efficient? His rib cage was about the same width as the door, and it was a really tight squeeze.
Sans noticed he wasn’t being followed and doubled back. “And you told me to lay off the snacks,” he teased. “I thought octopuses were good at fitting into tight spaces?”
Red growled in response and pulled harder. Sans’s face morphed from amusement to shock as the rusted metal began to slowly warp. Once his ribs were past, his massive ecto-tentacles slid through easily. The hallway was cramped enough that nothing else would be able to swim past him, but Red had a natural fondness for places that were almost too small.
“You were sayin’?”
Sans laughed in surprise. “You... are really damn strong. Fuck.”
“Well, I don’t just sit on my tail all day getting fat off other people’s food,” he grinned back maliciously.
Sans shrugged. “Fair point. I am glad you managed to get in. The trip wouldn’t have been worth as much otherwise.”
Sans led Red through the narrow halls. Occasionally, their progress was slowed by a narrow doorway that needed to be taught a lesson. Red was getting just a little bit sick of it.
“This’d better be good, Sans.”
“It is, I promise.”
And it was. All the colorful little fish flitting about, careless in their supposed safety, looked like a veritable buffet to Red. He drooled a little.
“If you get a good catch, share it with me, huh buddy?”
Red scoffed. “Make your own damn traps. S’not that hard.”
“I mean, if you’re making them anyway, might as well share, right?”
Another scoff. They had just met. Why did this dumb little fish think he was entitled to Red’s catch?
“You kiddin’? Look at the size of me, pal. I ain’t got much room to share food.”
“That just means one or two little fish won’t make a difference, right?”
Red wanted to argue back, but the little blue mer made a good point. He was really damn convincing.
“Maybe I’ll think about it.”
Sans’s eyelights grew brighter at that. “Seriously? Wow, that never works.”
Red shrugged. “I don’t get to socialize much, and you’re decent company. ‘Sides, you’re right. One or two little fish ain’t much to me.”
The next day, Red had set up a new trap in the old shipwreck. He started seeing Sans around more and more, usually catching him raiding his traps. Occasionally, though, the grinning mer would approach him directly to strike up a conversation. Some days, Red was feeling social and would banter back. Other days, he mostly just listened. Sans seemed content to just lay in a sunny spot nearby and nap when their conversations died.
“You really think it’s safe to just let your guard down like that?”
Sans peeked one eye socket open and smirked. “I don’t think anyone’s gonna bother me with someone as big and scary as you around.” Red grunted in displeasure, and the little mer looked confused. “Uh, does it bother you if I nap?”
“No,” he barked gruffly.
“Then,” Sans obviously saw that his mood was off, “did what I said offend you?”
The question had Red thrown a little off. It... it did bother him. But why? He’d never really considered his own looks, though he had seen his reflection before. His red eyelights and sharp, triangular teeth were pretty scary, and the scrapes and cracks on his bones gave him an aggressive aura. His size definitely added to that effect. He sometimes made use of those to warn off more intelligent ocean creatures, securing territory and privacy.
But it somehow bothered him that his only chatting buddy thought he was scary.
“A bit,” he huffed.
Sans rolled onto his belly in the sand and looked up at Red with sincere eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”
Red perked up a bit. “Really? You, uh,” he hesitated, “you don’t think I’m scary?”
Sans laughed. “No, I think you’re scary.” He winked, “But I’m not scared of you. You’re a nice guy, Red.”
A soft, red, magical blush settled on his cheekbones, and he felt happy, but externally, he huffed. “You just think that ‘cause I feed you.”
Sans shrugged. “It helps.”
Red pondered something. “Hey, if you’re really so lazy, why don’t you just get a mate? Have ‘em take care of you, hunt for you, all that?” Mermaids did that shit, right? Mate for life? Take care of each other?
Sans looked more tired than usual at that question. “There aren’t any other skeleton mer in my school. I get some protection and food from them, but no potential mates.” He chuckled. “Nobody’s gonna put up with my lazy tail and do all that for me if I’m not gonna carry their kids.”
Red paused. They were both skeleton mer (though different kinds), and Red was feeding and indirectly protecting Sans.
“Hold on, am I your fucking mate?! Are these chat-nap sessions some mermaid mating ritual?”
“What?” Sans looked thoroughly amused. “Do you think a mermaid and a meroctopus can produce offspring? You’ve got no reason to put up with me either, Red.”
Red was relieved he wasn’t being mated without realizing it. He was also slightly disappointed. Sans was tiny, but he was very pretty, and he made good company. Social, but not overbearing, with a nice voice and good sense of humor.
“Eh. I don’t wanna have kids anyway,” he found himself saying. Sans looked outright shocked by that.
“Uh, heheh, am I your mate? Considering the context, that sounded like a come-on.”
Red flushed, well, red, and stuttered. “T-that’s not—I didn’t mean it l-like that! Just meant that other meroctopuses are violent fuckin’ assholes.”
Sans shrugged, “Then I don’t blame you.”
A few more weeks went by like this, and Sans apparently couldn’t hold back his curiosity.
“Hey, Red, not that I don’t appreciate it, but why are we still doing this?”
The question confused Red. “What do you mean?”
“I figured you’d be tired of my mooching by now. Why are you still putting up with me?”
Red thought about it, and he was silent for several minutes, letting the sun wash over his bright red tentacles resting on the sand. “I guess I like your company?”
“Aren’t meroctopuses supposed to be asocial?”
Red chuckled. “Do I seem social to you?”
Sans thought back to all the times he’d tried to have a conversation with Red only for the big octopus just sit there and stare at him. He considered all the times the idiot couldn’t figure out how to respond and the conversation just died. All the times Sans just napped while Red sat beside him quietly.
“No. You fucking suck at it, actually.”
Red let out a short growl, offended by the remark, though unable to deny it. He didn’t say anything, and Sans realized it was up to him to continue things again.
“So if you don’t socialize, why do you like my company?”
Red thought long and hard before opening his mouth. “Dunno. I just like hearing you talk ‘n watching you sleep on the sand. You don’t expect me to be social all the time, and we can just chill together. ‘S nice. ‘S my speed.”
Red looked down and saw that Sans was blushing. He put his chin on his fist and tilted his skull slightly in confusion. “Sans? What's wrong? Did I say something weird?”
Sans snapped out of it and shook his head. “Um, n-no. You didn’t.” The small mer wrung his skeletal hands and stammered out a question. “H-hey, Red? Can I ask you something?”
Red furrowed his brow. “‘Course.”
“Would,” Sans hesitated. Red had never seen him this nervous and awkward before. “Would it annoy you if I spent more time with you?”
“Nah. You never get in my way when I’m doing stuff. If you’re bored, I don’t mind you tagging along with me wherever.”
Sans was blushing brightly again, and Red couldn’t understand why for the life of him.
“Wherever, huh? Even if I followed you back to your den?”
“‘S long as you don’t trash the place, that’s fine with me.”
Sans was silent after that. His face was flushed blue and he buried it in the sand. He didn’t move for so long that Red figured he was taking another nap. He stared openly. Staring was something he did even without thinking about it, but thankfully Sans didn’t seem to mind. Which was good, because Red liked looking at him. His blue scales and faintly glowing ecto-flesh were so pretty, and his white bones were so smooth and delicate-looking. Red even thought the extra weight looked cute on him; a badge he got from being the lazy food-thief Red loved.
Wait... loved? Nah, wrong word. Red didn’t know what love was, but this was something else. Friendship? He’d never had a friend. That was probably it. The idea that Red could fall in love with anyone was just silly, so he thoughtlessly brushed it off.
Sans didn’t follow Red to his den like he’d implied he would. Not that night, anyway. But a few days later, he did. He followed Red around all afternoon and perked up in nervous excitement when his eyelights settled on the deep, dark crevasse they were swimming toward.
“Hey, Red, is your den down there?”
Red grunted in affirmation. “You still gonna follow me?”
Sans’s pace slowed down slightly, and he looked a little sad. “Can I?”
“‘Course,” Red shrugged carelessly. He actually wanted him to. Sans was always the one sleeping when they were together, but Red wanted to try sleeping with him nearby—somewhere safe, not out in the open.
Sans eagerly followed Red down into the crevasse, little ecto-tail flicking. As they went deeper, though, his quick movements started to slow, and his rib cage heaved. The lights in his sockets swelled big and bright, but his expression was falling into panic.
“R-red?” he called in a choked voice.
“Hm?” Red looked over his shoulder and saw Sans floating in place, gasping for oxygen. “Holy shit! Sans, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he lied. “You still there? I can’t see anything. It’s too dark.”
Shit. Red had forgotten mermaids were built mainly for shallow water.
“I’m here,” he said, brushing a skeletal hand against Sans’s shoulder to prove it. Sans pressed into his touch, and Red gently curled his fingers. With both hands, he would be able to completely wrap around the other’s rib cage. He was so damn tiny.
“You really don’t look so good.”
“I’m fine, Red,” he insisted. “The water’s just a little heavy is all.”
“Maybe you should go home then. My den’s still a ways down.”
“But I want to see it,” he whined cutely. “I’ll admit, it’s hard to breathe here, but I’ll be fine if you carry me down.”
Red raised an eyebrow, though he knew Sans couldn’t see it. “You sure you ain’t just lazy?” Sans laughed and Red looked at him seriously. He intentionally made his eyelights brighter so the mermaid could see his face. “You sure you want me to bring you? S’not like you’ll be able to see much in the dark anyway.”
“I want to go, Red.”
Red shrugged and pulled the chubby little mer into a cradled hold, making sure his descent was slow and smooth. He kept a close eye out for predators and any negative changes in Sans’s appearance. Surprisingly, he did last to Red’s den, though he had a hard time catching his breath. Red continued to carry him so the poor blue fishy wouldn’t pass out from overexerting himself.
His den was just a cave in the cliff. The entrance was barely big enough for him, but the inside was more spacious. He’d carved it bigger over time, so there was room for spare food and a bed. Red set Sans on the bed of kelp, and he looked like he’d fall asleep on the spot.
Sans let out a faint chuckle. “It’s... kinda cold down here... huh?”
“Colder than the shallows, yeah. Are you too cold?”
“I could use some warmth,” He admitted.
“I can take you back up.”
“No,” Sans protested. “Just... hold me. Keep me... warm.”
Red hesitated, but wrapped a tentacle around Sans gently. He curled the appendage all around his tiny frame, and Sans sighed at the warmth. Red settled down onto the kelp bed and rested Sans on top of his rib cage. He was wrapped loosely enough that he wouldn’t have any additional trouble breathing.
“Red?” Sans’s voice came quietly.
“Yeah? You need to go back?”
“Nah. I was wondering if you could make your eyelights bright again.”
“I liked it.”
Red blushed and complied. Sans seemed to relax further upon being able to see again.
“You’re so gentle, Red,” Sans sighed. “I really like that about you.”
“M’not gentle all the time,” he muttered, thinking of his hunting, territory fights, and less-successful social interactions. “Just with you, really.”
Sans’s face lit up blue again, a happy grin on his face. He sighed. “I need to go back. I’ll pass out soon, and I don’t think sleeping here would be good for me.”
“Okay.” Red shifted and started carrying Sans back up. He felt disappointed, suddenly, but he couldn’t pinpoint why.
When they reached the shallows, Sans started to swim on his own again. Before leaving, he turned back around and blushed.
“That was nice, Red. You should come to my den next time.”
Red could feel himself nervously sweating, but the saltwater washed it away as soon as it formed. “You live with a school, right? I don’t think they’d appreciate someone like me showin’ up.”
“I would talk it over with them first to make sure you’d be safe.” He wrung his hands. “But, if you don’t want to see it in the first place, I guess I understand.”
Normally, Red would see no fucking point in visiting another monster’s den. It was dangerous, and he just didn’t care. But he found he was curious to see how Sans lived when he wasn’t following Red around.
“Talk to them first… then maybe.”
Sans’s face brightened, and he gave a bell-like laugh that warmed Red’s soul and cheekbones. He was gone a moment later—the little fish’s speed really was impressive—and Red returned to his den for the night.