It was like watching a dog chase a bird. The bird would hang out and let the dog wear it like a decoration wherever he went. Bother and groom the bird whenever available, but when he gets too much, the bird will peck and fly away.
“El?” Phillips looked down and felt a little disturb in seeing their blank-faced smithy. “What are you doing up in the crow's nest?”
“I'm hiding from the captain.” El said easily enough. “He's been... clingy lately and I really need to finish my projects.”
That made the shipwright wince, it wasn't something that any of the crew would like to hear when they were rooting for their captain. It was actually a sight to see their captain skirt chasing, finally see him go after the finer pleasures the human body can give.
A much more pleasant chase than him chasing and hunting down Cyclops, dragons, and other giant monsters.
“I'm sure the captain means well, he wouldn't mess with your projects while you're working either.” Philips climbed over the wooden rails. “He didn't seem he's been messing with them before.”
The captain was too conscious with El, the whole ship was very conscious with El's work. Nobody dared to mess with El's work, not after someone messed with his tools. The overall experience was made worse when he lashed out on accident.
The birdy was territorial. It shouldn't have been a surprise really, but El was too nice for his own good. But that mean bone was hidden away under an endless amount of patience that could only be worked around by surprising him.
Or having the people in his territory threatened.
“He doesn't, it's just...” El looked down and fiddled with his hands. “It's not something I want him to see. It's-” El looked up and gave Philips an evaluating look. “It's for his birthday.”
“Really?!” The shipwright clasped his hand over his mouth at how loud he was. “Really?” He crouched in with a lowered voice with excitement lacing his tone. “What you making him?”
“I- I'm-” El blinked frazzled at Philips' change in demeanor. “Sorry, it's a secret but-” He eyed Philips contemplating a thought. “Do you think you can get the others to help distract him? At least for the next week?”
“The captain's birthday is next week!” Philips nearly yelled again. “I'll have to recruit Johnson and maybe tell Snap to get scurvy again.”
“What? No!” El's face turned horrified. “No! I just got him to eat an orange everyday!”
“Oh, he'll be fine!” Philips jumped up determined. “It's for the captain after all!”
“The captain dragged the three of you through the mud after Snap got scurvy the last time!” El scowled. “Then he made me shove oranges down on all of y'all's throat until it stuck!”
El's accent came through a little heavy and Philiphs put his head down in shame. An instinctual thing now that he and his fellow shipwrights developed when El scolds them. Just from that one incident after being beat down, El's scoldings seemed infinitely more terrifying.
It was a mothering that they all submitted to because El was still the nicest person in all of the underworld. The others jeer and make fun of them for it but-
It was only a matter of time before the rest of the crew falls under it.
El sighed and rubbed his temples. “Please don't cause trouble, just- just keep him busy? I don't need him coming into my room complaining about what you did.” He looked up with a slight regretful expression. “Please don't give him a reason to.”
Philips lit up. “Don't worry about it, El! We'll make sure the captain gets the best surprise! I'm sure we can bribe the cook too!”
“Nothing serious, swear!” Philips said shaking his head. “Just a small dose of something to get him sleepy!”
“That's not even better!” El balked. “Just- just set something on fire, or w-wait, no! I take that back!”
“Nope!” Philips was already climbing down the ropes. “I'm getting Johnson and Kipper!”
“K-kipper?” El's distress was heard even as Philips was halfway down the ropes. “There's no way Johnson would let Kipper anywhere near fire!”
“Not without good reason!”
“What could possibly a good enough reason for that?!”
The captain's love life for one. Philips knows that Johnson would be the first one to push on the captain's relationships or lack there of. It wasn't much of an issue when he was so invested in finding a cure, but after Mia was freed, it was routine to hear Johnson to bring it up.
To at least relieve that stress than chasing and hunting Cyclops, dragons, and other giant monsters.
It wasn't too hard to distract the captain, fire most certainly did help but it was the effort from mostly Johnson that the captain was kept busy. Little tedious stuff that Johnson was able to manipulate whether it be setting the ship's course a little off on the maps or fiddle with the numbers in the books.
Any sort of foul play, even if it was honest mistakes in adding and subtracting wrong, it will get the captain's nose hounding.
Days easily went by with him auditing the books. That moment of peace surprised even El to where it actually made him concern. It took quite a bit of assurance to get El to stop worrying as much or else the captain might go back bothering El again.
Although, Johnson does feel bad for unnecessarily making the captain pull the multiple all nighters that he did. The past few days had him combing through his hair as much as he was combing through the books.
The silence rung louder than the captain flipping through the pages of the current month's reports. Eyes narrowed carefully skimming through the inked pages of where foul play could happen.
Johnson jumped when the captain slammed shut the book he was currently handling before turning his eyes to him.
“Am I being tricked?” He swiveled on his chair to fully face Johnson. “I'm being tricked, aren't I?”
Johnson took a second to think about it before shrugging. “It's for your birthday.”
“Oh- For the love of-!” The captain gave a frustrated sigh before smacking his hand on the books. “A waste of my time, Johnson!”
“For good reason, captain. It's a surprise for a reason.”
The captain gave a frightening glare, something that Johnson knows that nothing won't come of it. He's known the captain too long, their past too intermingled to where it still brings shame to him.
That he couldn't soften the blows and averted his eyes to keep his head.
That if he stepped up and used his strength, maybe there would've been less blood on his hands.
So he stands ever loyal, guilt driving it at the beginning but after years of standing senior to the entire crew, he's hardened his fears into something else. First being a dedication before actually turning into an undying servant. The rest of them that escaped along with them were similar too, but Johnson likes to think he was better.
After all, he was the first-mate. The captain came up to him and wanted him to be his right hand. Entrusted him with the crew when he was away.
The captain himself works too hard for them, too practical and efficient to splurge.
“The whole ship is out of its mind.” The captain deadpanned. “It's not even my real birthday, just threw a dart at a calendar and called it good.” He raked his hand through his hair. “And what makes this year any different?”
“Well, your pearl for one.” Johnson gave a raised eyebrow. “It's not everyday we see you struggle with attracting a pretty face.”
“I ain't struggling.” The captain looked even more ferocious. “And that ain't nobody's business but mine.”
“Of course, but once you and your pearl settle down, it will be our business to keep you both happy.” Johnson said as a matter of fact. “It's none too hard to keep El happy, but you're the one that's tough to sell to.”
“That still doesn't explain why everyone's losing their minds over my birthday. Or the stupid tricks.” The captain eyed Johnson suspiciously. “Did the bets change or something?”
“Nothing like that, the pot's too big for it to change like that.” He then gave a considering thought. “Your pearl's the one that wanted to distract you.”
“El? But why would he- Wait, no, I actually do know.” Erik slouched and tossed his feet up on the desk. “He's probably freaked out at the fact that I never told him about it.”
Johnson blinked at that. “You never told him?”
“Of course not!” He groaned. “There was no time for that while traveling on the mainland. And you've seen how El is with making shit. How do you think he was while he was still learning and finding all sorts of recipes through our journey? Half my stuff came from him!”
As exasperated as he sounded, he also had a fond smile on him. Something that Johnson hasn't seen until after he came back with his sister.
It was a startling transformation, from the scrawny kid to the cold steel that he still has, that warmth was all but lost. Not until he's gotten back his little sister at the very least.
And he had, only he still long for something back at the mainland. Eyes always drifting, always favoured going to certain areas.
He kept tight-lipped about it all though, not even Mia was able to wrangle those stories out of him. Not the ones he held close anyways.
“Your pearl is something if he's got you scrambling like you are.” Johnson smiled. “I can only imagine what he was like with what he's shown us so far.”
“He's outrageous even now. Used spells to help make his stuff, it aggravated the shit out of one of the spellcasters we were traveling with.” The captain smirked. “He can make the biggest explosions and set a whole forest of fire in one spell but he still prefers setting his own sword on fire in battle”
“It's a shame that he doesn't like battling.”
“He only got good because he had to, spent way too long being pressured with no other options given to him.” The captain leaned further back into his chair. “Too much of a free bird to be told what to do now, or unless he wants to do them. With how many times he's wandered off, I'm actually surprised he didn't wander off permanently.”
So lost in his memories, it wasn't the first time that the captain wouldn't stop talking about El ever since he stole his hood and cloak. That there was someone so in sync with the captain that it was more of a surprise that they weren't secret lovers.
Admiration was something immediate that Johnson picked up from the captain. Fondness was an instant second before he realized just as fast that the cold steel was easily melted with El around.
Love was a fleeting thing, too fleeting with who they are.
But the captain had an equal, a fierce thing that wouldn't hold him back and mostly too gentle and too carefree that would never stand in his way.
He wanted to secure that for the captain.
“Free bird seems right.” Johnson mused. “Though, I think you left before he could fly back to you. He'd probably would've joined up sooner.”
“Heh, that's a nice thought.” The captain looked up with a wry smile. “But I think it's better this way.”
It wasn't hard to wonder why El asked Bench specifically to help with this kind of thing. He was adept in his craft and it was actually really nice of El to actually talk to one of them before messing with the ship's interior.
Let alone the inside of the captain's quarters.
But despite the initial worrying that left Bench a little anxious, El's request for his help wasn't a difficult one. It was just a simple thing that El could've done himself, courtesy being the main reason why El approached him at all.
And the fact that between him and the other two shipwrights, he can keep his mouth shut.
Apparently, El can still pull surprises that can even put Bench in a state of awe as well.
“Is something the matter?” Philips bumped shoulders with him. “It's not like you to be in a daze.”
“...You know about Heliodor's famous Red Orb, right?”
“Hmm? Who doesn't?” Philips slid a drink in front of him. “Though there's some wild rumours about it though, that a thief stole it. They say they got it back but no one's seen it in years since then. Says that it's under tight security but it makes you wonder if they really got it back.”
Bench wanted to scream.
“Really. Do they know who it was?”
“Nah, the thief apparently had a hood up. The rumours also say that the thief escaped the dungeons too, I say that they're trying to save face.” Philips laughed. “You know the rumours as well as I do, that nobody escapes those dungeons.”
Those rumours about the thief, Bench couldn't help but wonder if that's the reason why El was in hiding. But then, it didn't really make sense on why he would steal the orb. Or gather the full set.
Was he coerced to? And when did he do it?
Maybe during the time when Erdwin's Lantern fell and that monster was born from it. It was certainly a good time for all thieves to run about. Only they all focused on stockpiling to survive. A loaf of bread was more valuable than the gold that it was worth.
But the whole set was being given away, each orb from both standing and fallen kingdoms. Each orb so famous that even the Silver Orb was a coveted treasure after is was lost decades ago.
Seeing an added sixth orb with the same radiance as the rest nearly made Bench faint.
“Bench? Bench!” Philips shook a Bench's shoulders. “You're really worrying me here, do you need to go back to the ship?”
“No.” Bench sighed. “I'm just- no, I think I just need to drink more. My day's been a little ridiculous.”
“Which included the Red Orb because...?”
“I didn't realized it was missing in the first place until.... recently. I just wanted to know since you're good with the rumour mills.”
“Ha! You got that right!” Philips grinned wildly. “But enough of that, it's the captain's birthday! And besides, the real treasure you should be looking out for is the pot! I can feel my pockets running deep tonight!”
And even though he didn't sound sure of the boasting, Bench really does believe that this might actually be Philips' night.
They were back at Lonalulu like Johnson wanted, already long preplanned even with the protest from the captain. There were no surprise parties within the crew but they can sure as hell drag the captain to celebrate them. Or at least Johnson can.
This time El came sliding in with his usual sunny smiles with Mia not too far behind him. His appearance was a little ruffled but Bench could blame that on the atmosphere along with the alcohol. But that dark splatter on his cheek was little out of place. Maybe it was sword oil?
“Geez, can you sound any more excited?” Mia rolled her eyes before smirking. “Though we definitely had enough excitement for tonight.”
“Mia.” El chided. “Nothing happened.”
The cackle Mia gave didn't convince any of them.
“So, what's up, El?” Philips rounded on continuing the conversation. “Got kicked back again?”
El frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Yeah, he did.” Mia huffed. “I swear, we should've just anchored at the Zwaarsdrust region and just partied there. If Lonalulu didn't know how to party, I would've robbed them all a long time ago.”
“What? Erik already did with your help apparently.”
El looked up and sighed and it was them Bench squinted at the true colour of whatever splatter that was on El's cheek. The low lights at the bars didn't help but he's been in the business long enough to know what exactly that was.
“Is that- is that blood?”
It swirled another set of questions on what kind of man El was.
“It sure is!” Mia roared in laughter as if she was holding it in while El furiously wiped his cheek. “Tossed some poor sod into the sea after punching him in the face. I was going to stab him and just let him rot in some bushes but this guy made sure the whole body was gone.”
“I didn't kill him!” El protested. “And I threw him in the shallows, not like he'll drown.”
“But you've definitely made him bleed.” Mia cackled. “Broke his nose all bloody and it won't be long before the local predators come out. Both land and sea.”
“That...” El bit his lip. “That's not my problem.”
“But why?” Philips gaped. “What was the reason?”
“What else?” Mia sneered. “He was going to crash the party with some friends. El here just made a fine example with him.”
“Why do you have to say it like that?” El squirmed. “And I still doubt he'll die with his friends around.”
“The same friends that turned tail?” Mia scoffed. “I would hold my breath on that.”
It was still a struggle to connect this sunny El to a tag of a criminal. It took actual effort to remember the fact that El did have a greater fighting prowess than nearly all the crew. The the lucky few including Snap was able to bear witness to that.
Then there was Bench's internal dilemma about the fact that El was in possession of all of the orbs including the ones that were lost and one that was never been seen.
Then there was the fact that El did someone in just moments before arriving to their table.
“Anyways-” El's voice became stressed. “I actually wanted to ask you something, Bench.”
“What is it?”
“Since you helped me with my present to the captain, I was wondering if you wanted to come to the reveal.”
“Wait, what?!” Philips looked at Bench betrayed. “You know what El's been working on and you didn't tell me?!”
“It's a recent thing and El will kill me if I said anything.”
“I'll be there.” Bench continued. “I'm assuming Mia and Johnson will be there?”
“Damn right I am!” Mia sent a pointed look towards El. “Remember our deal?”
“I-” El silently whimpered. “Why are you like this?”
“It's for your own good.”
Bench had no idea that they were talking about, but he feels like he has to agree with Mia.
Mia couldn't believe what she's seeing, she was the one to set the deal but she didn't think El would actually pull through.
But then, her past boasting about stealing the Red Orb was coming back with five others. A passing daydream to make life a little brighter.
Erik was one lucky bastard.
The orbs were fashioned on a metal, hexagon frame hanging from the ceiling. Sat neatly at each point of the frame in their circular slots, snug to where it won't fall at during turbulent waves or a storm, but easily taken out if needed. They lit up the room in a soft, glimmering glow of colours by the latent light from the Rainbough. The cast off branch was stuck hanging on a short chain from the center acting as the flame in a lantern.
And if Mia squints hard enough, she could see little symbols on the metal underneath the orbs that she could see. Heliodor's twin-headed eagle under the Red Orb, a clam shell under the Green Orb, the Snifleheim's crest with the Blue Orb. It's no wonder El needed Erik distracted for days if this is what he was working on.
“You turned all of the kingdoms' treasures into a fancy chandelier.” The captain whispered in awe. “You made the Rainbough into a light fixture.”
Even with his back turned to her, Mia could feel the slow forming grin. Something that Mia long knew from growing up with Erik, when he's got something too good to share.
“You don't have much light in here.” El said a little embarrassed. “And with this much paper and wood, you're going to burn the whole room down if a candle gets knocked down.”
Erik whirled around and there was a dark gleam that glimmered in the colours of the orbs. An intent that was poorly hidden even with the wide mouth grin directed to El. It made the taller man looked down and shift his feet, stood his ground regardless even as Erik practically stalked up.
She couldn't believe that it really was going to happen. That El actually followed through with her demands because he was still too shy to kiss Erik on his own. That he's giving up these precious treasures to seduce Erik with.
“You turned Erdrea's greatest treasures into a chandelier.” Erik reiterated. “For me.”
“I-” El flushed at his words. “It's not like they were doing anything else than just sitting in my bag.”
There were so many questions that Mia has. Like why were they in El's bag in the first place?
“I'm not giving them back.”
“I'm giving them to you, aren't I?”
It was just unbelievable that all of that is just being handed over. As a birthday present.
“No matter who comes knocking, I ain't giving up any treasure on this ship, El.”
“I already figured that, captain.” El smiled wryly. “Proved that to me quickly after we met.”
Every word that they trade, Erik didn't stop until the distance between them was almost too close. It made Mia wonder how El could get all bashful-like when he finds being inches away from kissing Erik normal. When he was all too comfortable in having Erik's hands on his waist.
Even more baffling that El leaned into the hand that traveled through his hair.
Too intimate to not be lovers.
“I'm never going to give you up, El.”
The distance was snapped closed, lips met parted, another victory for the Wolf.
Mia could only watch on with disgust at how sappy this turned out to be.
“Come on now.” Johnson whispered as he nudged both her and Bench. “Let's leave them to it.”
“I still can't believe I help put that in.” Bench muttered.
“I can't believe El and Erik are still holding back on me.” Mia growled. “Did you see his face? He wasn't surprised at all! I bet he knew El had those orbs!”
“I honestly wouldn't be surprised.” Bench looked tired now before dragging his feet to the exit. “Maybe he really did steal them. And it was just for this too.” He gave a loud audible sigh. “I just can't figure him out.”
Johnson and Mia exchanged concerned glances. “What's gotten into him?”
She didn't get an answer to that when a loud thud and a suggestive gasp was heard.
They both departed swiftly.