Erik was on a mission.
That was how he thought of it, in any case. Either that, or he was intensely pursuing his preferred hobby. Raven called it an 'obsession', but what did she know?
"You need help," she said flatly.
Erik resolutely ignored her, perched on a small rock by the shoreline. His eyes were trained intently on the tiny burrows peppering the sand. The sun had just set, so any moment -
"No, really. This is stalking."
"Be quiet," he muttered. "If it troubles you this much, you're welcome to return to the reef."
Raven huffed, but remained where she was. She meant well, as he had grown to grudgingly admit, but Erik had long decided that the advice of any crab that preferred to look like a god damn anemone was not to be trusted. No self-respecting crustacean would even dream of covering themselves with coral polyps.
"It's no trouble for me," she continued, much to his annoyance. "I'm worried about you. Anybody could see you on that rock. What if a seagull gets you?"
"Seagulls are primitive creatures," Erik responded dismissively. "I'll dive back into the water before they're close."
"Says everybody who gets eaten," Raven replied promptly. Erik chose to ignore this, mostly because she was unfortunately right. Then again, she had seaweed hanging off her shell.
Raven, unfortunately, wasn't quite done.
"You know," she continued, "if you really have to keep stalking him, you could at least be a little less obvious. Here - "
She reached up, anemone tentacles swaying in the current, and plucked a generous amount of sea grass off her shell.
"Here. They'll just think you're a piece of moss. Works every time."
Erik eyed the sea grass with an impressive amount of disdain. "Decorator crabs," he said stubbornly, "are a shame to our kind. We shouldn't have to hide."
"Decorator crabs," Raven retorted, "sit silently and watch as the rest of you scuttle away whenever a gull approaches."
"It doesn't matter," Erik said sullenly, returning his gaze to the shoreline. "Crab and proud."
Raven bristled in annoyance, and returned the sea grass to her shell. "You're a lousy hypocrite. You use your shell to hide from Charles all the time."
"It isn't even your shell. You stole it, like all you hermit crabs do."
"Yes you did. You took it from Shaw. Everybody recognises that shell."
"At least this is my shell - "
Erik took off in a scuttling run, diving back beneath the waves and heading to the shore. He could hear Raven shouting in protest by the rocks, warning that she wouldn't be stupid enough to follow him - this was expected, of course. Her camouflage, shielding her from the eyes of the most dangerous predators, was next to useless away from the colourful reefs.
He remembered the other decorator crab that was caught by some humans, and spent a week trying to get glitter and sequins out of his shell. It made Erik shudder.
The decorator crabs could solve their own problems. Erik, after all, had never pretended to understand them. At the moment, he had more important things on his claws.
The chilly sea breeze washed over him as Erik reached the shoreline. He immediately retreated into his shell, waiting.
This is stalking, Raven's voice echoed in his head. Privately, Erik might be inclined to agree - though to his credit, it was very skilful stalking. For weeks, he had been coming up to the shore, and the object of his fascination (Fascination, he told himself, not affection) hadn't suspected a thing.
He was actually quite proud of it. Raven wasn't the only master of disguise around here, and he didn't need to do ridiculous things like walk around with an anemone hat. He had even gotten the other crab's name. Charles, he had heard him called. Charles.
Speaking of which.
The shell on the shore twitched briefly, as a small crab emerged from a deep burrow - it paused cautiously, checking for predators, before deeming the beach safe for exploration. A ghost crab, Raven had told him. Strange, pale little things that came out at night, with large eyes that made them look annoyingly naive and most certainly not adorable. Seagull bait, really - it was no wonder Charles didn't dare look for food in the day.
Charles liked coquina clams, Erik had noticed. He had considered finding a few and leaving them by Charles' burrow, but that might raise suspicion. Subterfuge was key, if Erik was to continue his stal - observations.
The little crab scampered out of his sight. Carefully, Erik emerged from his shell, surreptitiously trailing after his target. Shore crabs, he thought with a sigh, as Charles tripped over twigs and circled around pebbles. If there was anything he understood less than decorator crabs, it was them. How could anybody stand living in the sand, trampled by those homo sapiens every other day -
Charles paused abruptly, and Erik instantly retreated back into his shell, settling innocuously into the sand. He peeked through a crack as Charles froze in place, looking around the beach with clear alarm.
"Who's there?" he called, and Erik resisted an urge to snort. Indeed, a potential predator would announce its presence simply because its prey had asked.
Charles was lucky that the only thing following him was Erik.
That was another reason why Erik taken to following Charles, of course. The little ghost crab was painfully naive, and it was only a matter of time before a seagull got him. Or a fox. Or a raccoon. Naturally, it was up to Erik to ensure his fellow crab remained safe and sound.
(Back at the reef, he had entertained several fantasies of heroically saving Charles from a number of wildlife threats, snapping his claws threateningly at nothing in particular. Raven had said he was delusional when she had seen him, but as always, decorator crabs were not to be trusted.)
Charles had apparently decided that he had been mistaken. He set off once again along the sand, heading for his usual rock pool - clams again for dinner, it seemed. Honestly, the crab was addicted.
Not that Erik knew much about addictions.
Most nights turned out like this. Erik would perch on his rock at sunset, and Raven would berate him. He would travel to the shore, following and protecting Charles as the ghost crab hunted his dinner. Erik had fiercely pinched a small gull that had been eyeing Charles hungrily, once. It had flown off with a squawk, and he had felt immensely pleased with himself.
He was happy with his routine, no matter what Raven said. As a matter of fact, he would have been happy to stick to his usual routine for tonight. It seemed, however, that wouldn't be the case.
Erik narrowed his eyes as Charles stumbled to a stop, cheerfully greeting a suspiciously hairy newcomer. Charles was talking to another crab. Erik didn't like this at all.
The other crab wasn't particularly large - about Charles' size, perhaps a bit larger. Carefully, Erik retreated once again into his shell, and inched along the sand towards the pair - the newcomer was a bristly crab, one of those strange folk with fur all over their shells, like a mammal. From what he could hear, the bristly crab was named 'Hank'.
Erik decided he didn't like that name. He disliked it more with each passing second Hank kept talking to Charles.
Then again, Charles seemed rather agitated about something - perhaps Hank was upsetting him. Erik hoped so. At least then he had an excuse to snap at the crab's furry legs.
"I think I'm being haunted," Charles was saying. A bit ironic, Erik thought, considering he was a ghost crab.
"Er," Hank responded uncertainly. "Why would you say that?"
"It's rather silly, I suppose," Charles continued, waving his claws in distress. "But I think I'm being haunted by a shell."
"A shell," Hank repeated slowly.
"I know, I know," Charles said miserably. He scuttled nervously in a circle. "It doesn't make any sense. But for weeks, I'm absolutely certain this...shell has been following me. I can't seem to escape it."
"There are plenty of shells on the beach," Hank pointed out dubiously, indicating a nearby cowry. Erik felt mildly insulted - cowries were for sluggish sea snails; his shell was far superior.
"Not like this one," Charles responded in a low voice. "It's larger than what we usually encounter. Not to mention it's an odd colour - red and purple, I'd say. Hardly something from around these parts, wouldn't you say?"
Hank's interest had been perked. The bristly crab looked contemplative.
"No, I don't think it is. You could always examine it the next time you see it."
"I don't know," Charles murmured worriedly. "I was afraid it'd have one of those venomous harpoons."
Yes, yes. Not that Erik would ever poison Charles.
"Those are cone snails, Charles," Hank responded immediately. "You of all crabs should know; you're an expert on the marine life of the area."
"I suppose you're right," Charles sighed, much to Erik's horror. "I was simply being irrational - it's unnerving, you know, to be haunted by a large purple shell."
It was then that Erik decided he hated Hank with a passion, and the fact that Charles clearly liked him did not help in the slightest. Following Charles was going to be a far more difficult endeavour now. Perhaps he ought to take a leaf out of Raven's book.
Out of the question, Erik decided firmly as Charles bid the other crab farewell. Even under the threat of discovery, his pride would not allow him to roll in sand and pebbles to blend in with the beach. The shell he had taken from Shaw might be flashy, but it certainly made a statement.
Stealth, Erik repeated to himself silently, creeping along the sand as Charles continued towards the rock pool. I am a shell. I am the sand. I am the beach. All this was making him feel monumentally silly, actually. Skulking along and pretending to be one with the surroundings was more of Raven's area - Erik defended his territory on the reef with dramatic displays of aggression and dominance, and he was rather good at it. He had, after all, fought viciously over his current shell against Shaw, and won.
The last he heard, Shaw had been captured by a human child for a pet. The child had named him Sebastian. This gave Erik a deep sense of satisfaction.
Distant noises shook Erik from his reverie. Charles had reached his favourite rock pool, evidently - the tell-tale sounds of cracking clam shells and tiny splashes drifted from beyond the rocks. Perfect. Under the cover of dark and the complex pool formations, Charles was bound to miss him, especially when preoccupied with his meal. Cheered by the thought, Erik emerged from his shell and ducked into the shelter of a suitable rock.
A very peculiar face glared balefully out from the darkness.
"Fuck off, Lehnsherr," the mantis shrimp said rudely.
Erik's pincers twitched in annoyance. The mantis shrimps were distant cousins, but if it were up to him, he'd prefer believing that Logan was a completely different species entirely. He didn't see why that would be so unreasonable - the things didn't even have the decency to have proper pincers, they had javelins for appendages. Erik had once watched Logan spear a passing squid with a lightning-fast movement, and had promptly decided that, much like decorator crabs, mantis shrimps were not to be trusted.
"No," Erik said, with equal rudeness. "I have business here tonight. Go back to your burrow."
"Go back to your reef," Logan growled in response. "This place has good squid. Clams, too."
Erik felt his vision start to whiten in rage. Those were Charles' clams.
"You can't hunt here," Erik snarled, emerging more fully from his shell, and rearing up to fill the cavern. "It's a wide ocean, and your lot eat anything."
"Speak for yourself," Logan responded lazily. He stretched out his claws, and Erik eyed the barbed tips warily. "You ate a peanut butter sandwich the humans left on the shore, two weeks ago."
"Did not," Erik said at once.
"You did. I saw you, bub."
He had, of course. If there was one thing Erik could say for the humans, it was that their food was delicious.
Grudgingly admitting defeat, Erik temporarily settled back into his shell - an act of graciousness, of course; he didn't want to start a fight with Charles so close by. The way Logan was starting to raise his claws threateningly might have something to do with it too, however. With a scowl, Erik backed out of the crevice.
At least Logan didn't seem to have any interest in Charles. If that had been the case, Erik would simply have had to destroy him, javelins or not.
A soft chirp of delight shook Erik out of his thoughts. The clams were delicious tonight, judging by how pleased Charles sounded - Erik clambered around the rock formation, peering out into the pool within. Against the darkened surface of the volcanic rock, Charles' white carapace was painfully obvious - it made Erik a little nervous. He'd have to work extra hard to chase off any lurking gulls, if Charles decided to keep this up.
Erik jerked, nearly startled back into his shell, but thankfully managed to keep his composure. He turned, glaring at the bright red crab perched on a nearby rock. Honestly, all he asked for was some quality time with Charles - or, at least, quality time with himself, watching Charles. Was that so much to ask for?
"It's getting sad," the red crab continued.
"Go away, Azazel," Erik muttered. Under different circumstances, he quite enjoyed the crab's company, but tonight, he could only wish him elsewhere. Christmas Island, maybe. Erik was fairly certain that was where the red crabs were supposed to be - he hadn't the faintest idea what Azazel was doing all the way where, but most of them had decided not to question a bright red crab thrice their size.
Erik knew perfectly well that Azazel's preferred diet was flowers. It was a mark of their friendship that he hadn't told anyone.
"You can't keep doing this for the rest of the year," Azazel said matter-of-factly. "And when the ghost crab mating season comes along, you'll only be more unbearable."
Erik had no idea what Azazel was implying, of course.
"Look," the red crab continued, clearly exasperated. He waves a pincer at the tallest outcropping of rocks. "There's a big cluster of clams near the top. The little ghost crab never tries for them on his own - too small, yes?"
Erik stared at him blankly. Azazel sighed.
"Go get them for him, and talk to him."
Oh. Now, that sounded like an idea.
With muttered thanks, Erik quickly set off along the outcropping, scuttling across the dips and bumps of the rock formations. It was strange, that Charles had never even attempted the clam cluster - now that Erik had noticed it, it did look like quite the meal. Then again, scaling all these rough surfaces was quite the bother - perhaps Charles was too delicate for this terrain. Well, no matter - Erik would gladly gather all the clams Charles wanted, if he were allowed.
Erik froze in his tracks. He looked down. The ghost crab was looking up at him fearfully, waving his little pincers.
Charles had noticed him.
"You can't climb that," Charles was saying, "the humans lay their fishing equipment there. It's covered in nets and hooks - you'll be caught."
Erik wasn't processing the words very well - he felt curiously light-headed. "I'll be fine," he responded gruffly, hoping he sounded confident and devil-may-care.
"No, you really won't," Charles called, visibly distressed. "I know the clams look marvellous, but please, my friend - you'll dry out."
So it was dangerous, then. No matter - Erik flirted with danger on a daily basis. More importantly, once he obtained the clams, Charles was certain to be impressed.
Erik had always prided himself on his ability to ignore pleading (though he carefully avoided looking at Charles' wide eyes, just in case). He turned towards the rocky outcropping and scuttled cautiously along a ledge - apparently, Charles was right. His leg snagged in a tangled net, and he jerked it free with a chirp of annoyance.
"I told you so," Charles called from below. The ghost crab seemed to be doing a little dance of nervousness.
"It's just a net," Erik answered brusquely.
"You're about to lean into a hook."
"You are, actually. Look to your left."
Erik did. There was a hook. Apparently, ghost crabs were more trustworthy than other types of crabs. He made a mental note of this useful information.
Still, this did little to dissuade Erik from his goal - if Charles was superior to other crabs, then letting him down was simply out of the question. Frankly, Erik was rather disappointed in himself for allowing their first meeting to go this way. Ideally, it would have started with him traversing the rock formations with spectacular grace and poise, leaping from ledge to ledge, after which he would gather the clams and present them graciously to Charles - who would, naturally, be endlessly grateful and impressed by his skilful moves.
Perhaps there would have been a bit of swooning involved. Not that Erik cared. Charles just seemed the type.
Lost in his fantasies, Erik found himself stumbling dangerously into a yet another tangle of fishing lines. What happened next was something he would never be entirely certain of - vaguely, he would remember struggling to regain his balance, and a exasperated 'Oh, for god's sake' from somewhere below followed by an impossible blur at the edge of his vision - and then he was tipping over the edges of the rock, legs scrabbling wildly for purchase before toppling unceremoniously into the rock pool.
Falling was one of a hermit crab's worst fears. Erik had been caught by a human, once, to his eternal shame - in his desperate bid to escape, he nearly fallen a full three feet, had he not gripped the human's hand in terror at the land moment. As satisfying as the human's shrieks had been, it wasn't an experience he wished to repeat.
"I warned you," said Charles, floating by on an empty plastic dish.
Erik scowled, dragging himself out of the water. He slumped petulantly on the dry surface, and frowned as the little ghost crab drifts by.
"I had the situation perfectly under control," he informed Charles sternly. "I didn't need your help." Especially if help involved knocking him off into the rock pool.
"Oh, don't kid yourself," Charles hopped off the dish onto the rock. "You would have been caught by a hook or net, and then you'd have dried out in the low tide."
"You don't know that," Erik protested, before realising he was talking to Charles. Charles.
He had a sudden and powerful urge to hide in his shell.
A knock on the side of his shell made him jump, backing away to stare at Charles warily. The ghost crab looked at him with new-found recognition, a claw still raised.
"My god," he said in wonderment, "you're the shell that's been following me. Of course. A hermit crab. I ought to have known, really, there's little else it could have been..."
"I haven't been following anyone," Erik lied. "It must be your imagination."
Charles threw him a look of profound patronisation, and inched up to Erik's shell once again, raising a pincer to scratch at it lightly. Erik twitched.
"Were you bought at a store?" Charles asked.
"Excuse me?" Erik exclaimed, temper flaring up immediately. He jerked away, death-glare returning in full force. It seemed to have no effect on Charles whatsoever. "Bought at a store - how dare you - I have never been owned by anybody, let alone a human - "
He spat out the last word, and the rest of the sentence was lost in incoherent gurgles of rage. Charles looked at him, perplexed.
"I'm very sorry," he said carefully, "it's simply that - well, you have a painted shell. Only the store-bought hermit crabs ever have painted shells; the humans find it endearing, I believe..."
"My shell is not painted," Erik objected. Charles was obviously delusional - his shell was a perfectly natural red and purple. "I won it from another, fair and square."
Charles' expression cleared up immediately. "Well, that explains it," he said brightly, "the original owner of the shell must have come from the store. You really ought to find a new one, though - the paint can be harmful, if the humans weren't careful. It isn't good for you at all."
"Nonsense," Erik said flatly, turning away. "My shell is mine."
A soft tutting noise. Charles sidled up to Erik, regarding him curiously. He seemed to be contemplating something - as for what, Erik hadn't any idea. As adorab - lovel - interesting as Charles seemed, Erik had come to realise that he was clearly deranged.
Nobody was perfect, he supposed.
“Well, if that’s all,” Charles was saying, “I think I’ll leave, if it’s all the same to you.”
“What?” Erik sputtered, taken aback. Charles regarded him with a deeply pitying look.
“It’s a little late,” he explained, “dawn will break in an hour or so. It isn’t safe for me to be out in the day.”
Ah, yes. Of course. Charles was fragile and precious, and had to be protected. Erik could understand that.
He was about to inform Charles that he’d be escorting him home, except the ghost crab was already at the other end of the rock pool. Erik hadn’t even seen him move.
“Do visit me sometime,” Charles beamed. “You know where I live, of course.”
And with that, the ghost crab vanished across the sand, leaving Erik feeling extremely confused.
It was several days after before Erik decided Charles had a tendency to ruin things. He was struggling to reconcile this with his earlier conclusion that Charles was perfect.
"It's just a lovely shell, painted or not,” Charles was saying, “I'm fairly certain it's a 'shark eye' shell."
Erik had liked the sound of that. Even he would admit that sharks were the fiercest predators of the ocean, and it was only fitting that his shell came from the eyes of sharks.
"It's a type of sea snail."
"What," Erik said, as a question.
"They're quite groovy, really," Charles babbled on, oblivious to Erik's ire. "Neverita duplicata. They're a kind of predatory moon snail with the loveliest spiral shells. They feed on bivalves, mostly, by drilling through - "
"My shell," Erik interrupted, "is not from a snail."
Charles pauses, glancing at Erik. He looked rather put out.
"There's nothing wrong with using a snail shell. Most shells suitable for hermit crab use come from them, actually. I know they don't seem to be the brightest of marine life, but they've evolved rather marvellously."
"Snails are dull creatures," Erik said flatly. "My shell had to come from a shark. Why else would it be called a 'shark eye' shell?"
"The central apex of the spiral is often a pleasant dark blue, and the paler whorls around it apparently reminded people of a shark's eye," Charles explained. "I'm a ghost crab, but I'm not dead, am I?"
Charles, dead. The thought made Erik go horribly cold inside.
"Don't talk about things like that," he muttered, turning away once again.
Charles ignored this, opting instead to prattle on about his chosen topic.
“Though there’s really nothing to worry about, you know. I might be small and lacking in any obvious defence mechanism whatsoever, but I’d be very surprised if anything on this beach could get the better of me.”
“...Oh?” Erik questioned, vaguely interested.
“Oh, yes,” Charles said, leaning forward precariously. Erik resisted the urge to prop him back up. “I don’t just blend in, you see – I’m also very fast.”
He took off down the beach at a blinding speed. This wasn’t entirely surprising, considering how suspiciously quick Charles had reached the other end of the rock pool. To Erik’s alarm, however, Charles raised two pairs of legs off the sand in mid-run, scuttling forward on his remaining pairs – almost like a human. When he swerves a full circle back to his starting point, Erik is looking at him in abject horror.
“What,” he demanded hoarsely, “the hell was that?”
“A special ability of my fellows and I.” Charles looked unreasonably pleased, settling comfortably into a sand pile. He wiggled, forming the grains into tiny mounds.
“Our gait alters to accommodate great speeds - it’s been well-documented by the humans, you know. Some of us,” he added proudly, “can run at speeds of fourteen kilometres per hour - “
“You run,” Erik interrupted angrily, “almost like a human. Worst of all, you allow them to study you. Have you no pride?”
Charles blinked. It was most certainly not endearing, Erik thought.
“We really have nothing to fear from them, you know – I’m too small for a meal, and you’re not even edible. The humans around these parts aren’t so bad.”
“Humans,” Erik said heatedly, “are scum. We crabs are far superior.”
There was a long silence. Charles was staring at Erik with an unreadable expression, which was starting to make him very nervous.
“You’re not even a crab,” the ghost crab finally said.
“What,” said Erik.
“You’re not actually a crab,” Charles bristled, visibly irritated. “Hermit crabs are from the infraorder Anomura, while true crabs – like myself – are from Brachyura. You’re more closely related to the squat lobsters, though there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Erik’s head was spinning. “That can’t be true.”
“I have ten visible limbs and you don’t,” Charles said, which was really rather excessive, in Erik’s opinion.
He couldn’t remember a time where he was more upset. Erik turned away, and scuttled silently towards the rocky outcroppings that led out into the sea (which was another thing Charles had recently ruined: apparently, living in volcanic rocks that dropped off into a reef was insufficient to be considered a reef crab. Erik had been winning that argument until Charles pointed out he could neither swim nor breathe underwater). It took extreme willpower to ignore Charles’ chirps of distress and called apologies, but Erik was angry enough to manage.
He would return to his reef, he decided, and never speak to Charles again. And that would be the end of that.