When Arthur took the throne of Atlantis, Orm expected punishment.
He understood that his halfbreed half-brother would have been entirely within his rights to kill him; for example, it would have been perfectly agreeable under Atlantean law if he'd been sacrificed to the Trench, as Orm's father had sacrificed their mother. He shouldn't have been surprised when his death didn't come, but the fact was that even after Arthur had spared him following his loss in ritual combat, mercy still came as a surprise. He would not have been merciful himself had their positions been reversed; perhaps that was the reason it caught him so off guard.
Arthur didn't kill him. That does not mean, however, that Orm's actions have gone unpunished.
In the throne room where he'd once held his brother in chains, Orm found himself chained up in turn. He's not Arthur's match for raw strength - he has both self-esteem and self-awareness enough that he can admit that without any sense of shame - and pulling at the chains like some kind of captured beast would have been several levels beneath his dignity. He knelt of his own free will in the requisite spot at the requisite time and allowed the guards to chain him. It satisfied his sense of honor that he wasn't put to it by force.
He was stripped to the waist just as Arthur had been, with his belt slung low enough to expose the upper edge of the dark scales that trailed down from his navel. While the Fishermen have evolved to embrace the differences the Fall brought to them, Atlanteans have made those differences taboo; they act as if the surface-dwellers' physiology, from which their own diverged centuries ago, is an ideal they should aspire to, or at the very least like their divergent parts should be a kind of shameful, titillating secret. Frankly, Orm doesn't understand it any more now than he did then. Of course, that didn't make his exposure any more comfortable, or any less embarrassing.
Arthur came closer, down from the throne that was flanked by Mera and Atlanna, holding Atlan's golden trident in his hand. It would perhaps have been easier if Orm had felt more jealous of him for having it, but that level of enthusiasm just wouldn't come. He'd been defeated fairly and honor demanded he pay the price; in spite of everything he knew about his brother, at that point he still expected death. As he knelt there at the foot of the throne he'd used to sit on, and that had been his father's before him, he thought about how their traditions called for it, like they called for the chains, like they called for the hundreds-strong audience. He just should have also expected that Arthur would find a loophole.
"So, do you have anyone who'll vouch for you or have you pissed off everyone in the sea as well as out of it?" Arthur asked. He dropped into a crouch in front of him so they were almost eye to eye and much too close for comfort. "I've gotta say, little brother, you don't seem a whole lot like Miss Atlantean Congeniality. You have any friends down here or are they all henchfish?"
Orm narrowed his eyes. "What are you asking me?" he replied, though he suspected that he understood. Arthur wasn't asking if he'd be mourned when they put him to death. He had something else in mind entirely.
"You know what he's asking," their mother said, from beside the throne. "He doesn't want you dead any more than you wanted me to die."
"You know what I'm asking," Arthur said, lowly, as he looked him in the eye. "I don't want to kill you." Then he rose to his feet, and then he rose up higher, spiralling up into the center of the room. He spread his arms wide and asked all the hundreds who were watching them, "Will anyone here take responsibility for him?"
He turned to the throne. "Mom?" Arthur asked.
"It can't be me," she replied. "It can't be any kind of family relation."
"It can't me me, either," he replied, and the look on his face said he was at least somewhat grateful for that. "It has to be somebody of equal birth."
She put her hands on her hips. She winced and shook her head. It was likely quite fortunate that she didn't put her thoughts about it into words.
Silence stretched. And when Orm had given up that hope he'd never expected to have in the first place (who else was there besides Mera, or the Brine Princess whose father he'd killed for the sake of his war), and when he began to imagine his descent to the Trench (his mother had survived it so perhaps there was a chance that he could, too?), Arthur called, "Will anyone have him?" and a voice from the hundreds called back, "I will."
King Nereus came down, trident in hand. He stood next to Orm in his garish Xebellian green armor that looked so wholly out of place there in the throne room of Atlantis, a reminder of how different their peoples were.
"I'll have him," Nereus said.
Arthur raised his brows. "You will?" he asked. Orm might have vaguely resented his skeptical tone.
Nereus looked down at Orm. His gaze trailed over the scales that led down beneath Orm's belt; Orm felt a flush of heat spring up in his cheeks and a flare of something correspondingly hot inside his chest, or somewhere awkwardly lower than that. The corners of Nereus' lips curled slightly.
"Yes, I will," King Nereus said. "I'll take him back to Xebel."
Vulko said the few required official words to seal the pact, but Orm has to admit he barely heard them. He looked at Mera, and his mother, and his brother, and he couldn't see a trace that any of them had expected this. He looked up at Nereus, standing there at his side, tall and still and faintly imposing, with his red hair shifting around the metal of his crown. Atlanteans usually kept their hair neat; Xebellians usually kept theirs loose. Orm clenched his jaw. He tried not to consider what other differences he'd find between their societies, once he belonged to Nereus. That was what this was: Atlantis has few prisons, Atlantean law shows little mercy, and making Nereus his legal custodian, giving his life to him instead of the Trench...well, that rid Atlantis of the problem completely. There would be no blood on the new king's hands.
When Vulko stopped speaking, the guards unlocked his chains. His mother hugged him, and she smiled, and she said something about love that he hoped he could reciprocate. His brother nodded to him solemnly and Orm just winced at him in response. Mera ignored him, and he would have liked to have felt more regret for the dissolution of their engagement.
And then, without further ado, he went with Nereus to Xebel.
They left him alone for six days.
They left him alone, that was, except for a series of curious members of palace staff who brought him food and a small stack of Xebellian books to help him pass the time. He turned his back when they came inside, or at least he did for the first few days, before his weariness at the situation overcame his cultural self-consciousness. He was still stripped to the waist with no additional clothing available to cover himself - he'd left everything he'd ever owned in Atlantis, and Nereus had given him nothing on his arrival there. Frankly, he hadn't expected him to. What he had done - claiming him, taking him with him - had been much more than he'd expected by itself.
He wasn't uncomfortable there. It wasn't his suite in the Atlantean palace where he'd grown up but it wasn't a cell, either, and he'd lived and worked and slept in worse conditions with the army of Atlantis. He knew the doors weren't locked, though he hadn't tried them himself. He could have swum through either one of them, explored the palace, left the palace, but he didn't leave. There seemed to be very little point in doing so, given his situation; any status and standing in society he now had was drawn directly from Nereus of Xebel, who had claimed responsibility for him. His brother likely believed he'd saved him, and he supposed in a way he had been saved; he still had his life, yes, but that wasn't to say his life was still completely his own. In vouching for him, in taking responsibility for him, Nereus had bound Orm to him almost inextricably. He would be legally responsible for everything Orm did in life from that point forward. He couldn't fathom why he'd done it. Orm certainly wouldn't have done it for him.
On the seventh day, Nereus brought him food himself. When he entered the room, Orm tucked his hands behind his back to keep from using them to cover himself up. If he was going to belong to this man, he would not allow himself to feel ashamed.
"You haven't left the room," Nereus said.
"No," he replied.
"Did I tell you not to?"
"Do you think you're a prisoner here?"
"Then what do you think you are?"
Orm pushed away from the floor where he'd been sitting and he drifted closer through the water. He stopped himself with a slow wave of both arms and watched Nereus' hair shift with the motion.
"I'm property," he said, as sure of that fact as he'd ever been of anything before.
Nereus laughed out loud and shook his head. He turned and left. He glanced back at him over his shoulder, and he left the food. He was right to; eventually, Orm did have to eat.
The following day, Nereus came back. Orm rose.
"You haven't left the room," Nereus said.
"No," Orm replied. "Not since the last time you asked."
"Why is that?"
Orm turned away from him. He shrugged. "Where would I go?" he said.
Nereus chuckled. Orm felt the movement in the water as he came close. He felt Nereus' hands settle at his hips, then squeeze.
"You really don't understand this at all, do you," he said. What he said clearly was a statement, not a question, and then he left again. Orm could still feel the ghost of a touch of warm hands at his hips.
The following day, Nereus came back. Orm didn't rise - he stayed where he was, floating by the ceiling, though ceiling seemed hardly the word for it. Atlantean structures even now still follow the architecture of Old Atlantis before the Fall, with floors and staircases and a strict sense of spatial orientation; Xebel follows an entirely different design, with their orientations relative to the ocean floor often twisting from one room to the next. So far below the surface, it didn't seem to matter if the next room was accessed vertically instead of horizontally. While Atlantean ships used a broadly similar design for the sake of saving space, he couldn't help but feel a whole palace on that scale could take a little getting used to.
Nereus shifted to face him, kicking off the floor and looking up from underneath.
"You haven't left the room," he said.
Orm's mouth twisted wryly. "I'm not dressed for company," he replied, and waved one hand at the scales over his abdomen.
"Oh," Nereus said. He glanced down, obviously, and then looked back up at Orm's face. "I hadn't noticed."
"Yes, you had."
He smiled. "Yes, I had," he admitted. Then he detached the flowing cape from around his shoulders and let it float, then he pulled off the skin-tight green shirt he was wearing underneath that. He floated closer, held it out and handed it to him. "Wear this," he said, and Orm's gaze went down, almost inevitably, over Nereus' bare chest. Graying red hair gave way to jewel-green scales that glinted gold as pirates' coins when he moved in the light - they started so much higher than Orm's, right in the center of his chest, smaller than his, and they looked harder, like scale mail running in a thin line down to his navel where their color deepened and darkened as they flared out and disappeared underneath his belt.
"Are you leaving like that?" Orm asked, surprised, when Nereus turned to leave with his cloak gathered over one arm.
He turned back. "Because of this?" he said, trailing one fingertip down the scales over his chest, right down to the waist of his pants that he gave a sharp twang. Orm's gaze followed Nereus' hand. His own chest felt tight. "I'm the king here. Do you really think anyone's going to say anything to me about it?"
Orm had to admit he had a point. As king in Atlantis, he could have swum naked to the throne room daily and no one would have said a thing. Except Vulko, of course, which perhaps spoke volumes about the people with whom he'd chosen to surround himself.
The following day, Orm put on the shirt. It was fractionally warmer there in Xebel than Atlantis, and he didn't need the shirt for warmth, but he didn't have rebellion enough inside him to remain half-clothed. The sleeves were too long, so he turned them up. The hem was too long, so he tucked it in. The shoulders were almost too broad but at least the green didn't look too out of place against Atlantean black, though he knew he'd never pass as Xebellian. He knows he never will, not entirely.
"You haven't left the room," Nereus said, when he arrived.
"You can't tell me you're not dressed this time."
Orm smoothed the fabric of the shirt over his stomach, down to where the scales lay underneath. "No, I can't," he replied. He watched Nereus' gaze as it followed his fingers and then flicked back up to his face again. He came closer. He reached out. Orm's hands clenched into fists as Nereus' spread wide over his clothed abdomen. His thumbs stroked the margins of his scales through the fabric of his borrowed shirt and Orm wanted him to stop, but he didn't want him to stop.
"It looks good on you," Nereus said. His hands moved to bracket Orm's waist, his hold firm.
"It looks passable on me," Orm replied. "Green really isn't my color."
Nereus lifted his hands and pushed away. He shrugged, with his arms spread out wide. "You'll get used to it," he said. "Or else I guess you'll never leave the room. And you know, that would be a shame."
Two days later, Nereus brought him a shirt that fit. He took off the one he was wearing while the king was floating there in front of him, scales and all, and he pulled the new one on instead. Nereus smiled. He seemed pleased, even if the gold-green tone of it made Orm's blue eyes and blond hair seem even more completely out of place.
Three days later, Nereus brought him matching pants and a pair of boots. Orm said, "I'd rather keep my own," but Nereus left them, weighted down under a book of Xebellian folklore. That differed, too, he found when he read it. Even their myths had a different twist in the tale.
"Just in case you change your mind," Nereus said, as he made his way back to the door. His suit was jewel-green that day, just like the scales Orm had seen on him, and when he left Orm pressed his back to that door and he pulled up his shirt and he traced the outline of his own silver-black scales with his fingertips, nails against skin and pads against scales. As his hand strayed lower, following the trail that led down to his cock, he wondered if Nereus' scales felt anything like his own did. He guessed he had too much time on his hands if that was the kind of thought that occupied his mind since the loss of his throne.
Six days later, Nereus brought more books. Three days after that, he brought him a cloak that he didn't wear. Five after that, he brought him a trident. There was barely enough room there to swing it, but the motion did keep him busy. It was the most familiar thing about the place in which he'd found himself.
Then, four days later, Nereus came to him empty-handed.
"You haven't left the room," he said. His tone was no longer light. He sounded frustrated.
"No," Orm replied. He had the trident he'd been given in his hands; it would have been so simple to run Nereus through with it, but what little honor he had left came directly from the Xebellian king's claim on him.
"You should," Nereus said, and he took Orm's jaw in one big hand, squeezing there with his thumb and forefinger. The proximity, and the intimacy, made Orm's face feel warm and his muscles tense. "You know, I won't keep coming back here like some kind of unwelcome suitor."
"I didn't ask you to come," Orm said.
"No, you didn't."
"I didn't ask you to bring me here."
"No, you didn't."
"So why did you?"
Nereus mouth twisted into something almost more sneer than smile. "I thought you'd prefer Xebel to death," he said, and he pushed him away from him with that hand at his jaw, making him rock back. "Foolishly, as it turns out."
"I don't understand."
"Of course you don't." Nereus turned for the door and glanced back once he reached it. "You Atlanteans think you're the only ones who remember the old ways," he said. "You're not. And there are things you've apparently forgotten."
As Nereus left, Orm suspected he really didn't understand what was happening at all. All he knew was they were both dissatisfied.
Nereus didn't return the following day, or the day after that. He didn't return at all in the following week, or ten days, thirteen days. Orm finished his borrowed books and added them to the growing collection on the room's previously empty shelf. He practiced with his borrowed trident, and he wore his borrowed shirt, and he lived his bland and borrowed life.
Nereus didn't return, just as he'd said he wouldn't, and Orm didn't try to deny to himself that he regretted that. He didn't try to pretend to himself that he didn't think about him every once in a while, and his jewel-green scales.
On the sixteenth day, he left the room. On the sixteenth night, more precisely, he left the room. The corridors were empty but not unlike a labyrinth, doors leading this way and that, up and down and left and right, forward, back, like an architectural puzzle he didn't have the time to solve, except that he supposed he did now that his nights were empty. He had no idea where he was going, and there was no one there to ask. The palace was sleeping. Somehow that made it simpler for him to explore, knowing no one was there to know it.
On the seventeenth night, he found the kitchens. He found the huge palace doors. He found the armory and Mera's quarters that she'd left behind, and the cavernous Xebellian throne room, with its ranks of coral benches and its twin thrones inlaid with gold. He'd been there before, once or twice, when his father was still living; he remembered nothing of the palace's landmarks as they lay in relation to each other, but he had begun to piece it together in his mind.
On the eighteenth night, he found Nereus' chambers. The doors were unguarded; perhaps they only anticipated threats would come from the outside and as he stood there, his palms pressed flat against the bright gold doors, he wondered if he was actually a threat to the king at all in his present state. He didn't have to wonder for long, because he'd left his borrowed trident in his borrowed room. He had no designs on Nereus' life.
He opened the doors just wide enough to slip inside and there was Nereus, not sleeping but kneeling on the room's stone floor. Orm's eyes went wide in the shadows by the door. The king was naked. He had one hand wrapped around his cock. And the bright green scales Orm had seen before darkened there, grew smaller, finer, turning deep coral pink at the tip and gold over the inside of both thighs. He felt his own cock throb as he wondered how those scales would feel against hand, or his tongue. He turned and left. Somehow, though he really couldn't say how, he didn't touch himself until he'd found his way back to his own room.
He went back the next night and he watched him from the shadows just inside the door; he fled again before he could see him finish. He went back the night after that and he watched him again, pressing the heel of one hand to his old Atlantean pants and as he told himself what he was doing didn't matter. He was the king's by rights, after all, and who exactly would he tell who might care at all?
He went back the next night and the night after that, and he watched him, and he watched him closely. He watched him spread his knees and squeeze his green-scaled balls with one big hand. He watched him throw back his head as he came then swiped his semen from the water. He bit his own lip as he tried hard not to make a noise as his traitorous body responded precisely in kind.
Eight nights. Nine. He swam away each time before Nereus could notice him, or so he allowed himself to believe.
"Should I keep on pretending I don't know you're there?" Nereus asked, as he knelt there on the tenth night. He had his eyes closed, and his voice was low, but his tone was clear. Orm's heart thumped. He slipped out of the room before he could say anything he might regret. And he wondered, in his own room, if he should go back again at all. The next night, he didn't even ask himself the question; he just went back. Nereus, for his part, was waiting for him. It made sense; perhaps this was why he'd claimed him. He supposed that was something he could live with. Having a purpose, at least, even a purpose such as this, made sense to him.
He was kneeling, naked, but when Orm moved inside past the door, farther than he'd been before, Nereus stood and lingered there with his bare feet an inch or two from the stone beneath. Orm had never seen any other Xebellian man naked; he'd assumed they were just like the Atlanteans, only partially divergent from their ancestors, only partially divergent from the surface-dwellers, but as he watched Nereus' fingers tighten around his cock he saw the green scales there flush darker. He saw the slightly raised spine in the underside flush pink. He bit his lip and felt his own cock start to stiffen. Atlanteans tried to hide their differences; he wanted to know all about Nereus'.
He took off his clothes. It seemed the right thing to do and Nereus didn't try to stop him - he watched him, stroking himself idly as Orm stripped off his shirt and pulled off his boots, shucked his pants and let them drift there in the water. The water's currents inside Atlantean structures are so much more highly controlled; he's not sure he'll ever be used to the way that the flows shift so naturally inside rooms there in Xebel, like the outside follows them in. At least not entirely.
He stripped and he watched Nereus' gaze drift down over his chest, over his abdomen, down to his shimmering black scales. His own only reach the base of his cock before fading silver down over his thighs, fading back into skin - the few Atlantean men he'd experienced naked had been similar in pattern, a little more here, a little less there, more gray or more black or more opalescent, and he'd supposed that Xebellian's were like that, too, but he'd apparently been wrong on that score. Then, naked, he pushed forward, floated a handful of feet and stopped in front of Nereus. His pulse seemed quick in his veins. His cock was hard. This was not what he'd expected when he'd come to Xebel. He wasn't sure what he had.
When Nereus moved forward to meet him, what he also didn't expect was his fingers in his hair, and their mouths colliding. He didn't expect the way Nereus pulled him in flush against him, hard, his scaled cock pressing to his in a way that made his insides screw up tight. He groaned against Nereus' mouth before he thought to stop himself and Nereus chuckled, sucked his lip and pulled away just far enough to bite his jaw, and suck his neck, and grab his backside with both hands to grind against him tightly. He got one handful of Nereus' graying red hair and pushed the other hand between them both, the backs of his fingers grazing those deep green scales before they wrapped around his dick. The scales seemed to thicken at his touch, and seemed to harden, and as he stroked all he could think about was how they'd feel inside him.
He found out. Nereus pushed him up face-first against the nearest wall and Orm didn't even think about protesting that. He felt Nereus rub himself between his cheeks. He felt him brush his hole with the tips of his fingers. He felt him brush his hole with the tip of his cock. And when he slowly eased himself inside, his mouth pressed down to the back of Orm's shoulder, when he shifted his hips, all the perfect rounded edges of his thick green scales teased his rim with every stroke and made him shudder. Orm pressed his mouth to his arm to keep from groaning aloud and one of Nereus' big hands dipped down past his hip to stroke him. It didn't take much to finish him. He came, pulling tight around Nereus' length inside him. When Nereus came, too, he could feel the way he thickened even further in him. He'd never felt anything quite like it. He would have liked to have thought that was because he'd spent so long focusing his energies elsewhere, but he suspected that was Nereus.
They breathed. For a moment, all there was was breathing, with Nereus' hands at Orm's hips and his cock still pushed up to the hilt inside him. Nereus nuzzled the nape of his neck then pulled back, floated back, and when Orm turned, Nereus was smiling.
You left the room," Nereus said, raising his brows.
"You seemed to want it."
After a moment, Nereus' smile faded.
"You think this is why I brought you here," he said. And, like always, what he said wasn't a question.
"Isn't it?" Orm replied. He started to collect his clothes.
Nereus raked both hands through his loose red hair. "Not exactly," he replied. "Come tomorrow. In the morning. I think I'll have to make you understand." He turned away. He swam away. Orm didn't bother to dress; there was no one there in the corridors outside to see him pass.
Orm didn't see if he turned back again; he left before he could find out. And back in his room he asked himself again: what was he doing there in Xebel? He guessed perhaps he'd finally find out.
In the morning, he didn't wear the green pants. He didn't wear the green boots. He went to Nereus' chambers in his usual shining black, albeit with his borrowed green shirt. But, when he got there, Nereus wasn't there.
"You'll find him in the throne room, your highness," said the guard who was lingering at the door. He'd never seen a guard there before. It only made sense that Nereus had left him for direction. So he floated through the palace, down its winding corridors, through its twisted halls, and into Nereus' throne room. He was there, at the king's throne, in his crown, with his cloak, his trident resting there against his shoulder.
Forty petitioners turned to look. Five guards looked with them. So did Nereus. And, as Orm floated there, frowning, Nereus waved him closer. There was a space at his side, the second seat, the Xebellians' second royal throne; Orm's frown deepened as Nereus waved him to it. He sat. And, as the petitioners' audience continued, slowly he began to understand.
"I didn't bring you here as a prisoner," Nereus said, as he leaned close between audiences. "And I didn't bring you here as a slave." One hand closed on Orm's wrist. One hand found the back of his neck. "I know first hand what you're capable of when motivated. Why do you think I brought you here?"
Orm looked around the room. None of the Xebellians there seemed surprised by his appearance. The guard outside Nereus' door had called him your highness. And, all at once, Nereus' claim on him made sense. He's not used to surprise, but Nereus surprised him then as much as his brother had back in Atlantis.
"You brought me here to rule," he said. "You're responsible for everything I do."
Nereus laughed. "And you for everything I do," he replied. "If I fall, so do you. That's your motivation. By the gods, I thought you knew that."
He didn't know, but now he does. The fact is, when Nereus claimed him, he meant to give as much of himself as he took from Orm. The fact is, two kings are better than one. The fact is, they're stronger together.
Arthur didn't kill him. He should have known his awkward elder brother would find some kind of loophole to bend Atlantean law to his contrary will. He should have known Vulko, with his treasury of ancient knowledge, would find that loophole for him. And he should have known the Xebellians would have their own unique interpretation of that loophole, just like they always do.
The punishment he's received is nothing like he expected. And Nereus, for his part, never intended it as punishment at all. They don't intend to challenge Arthur's rule, but that doesn't mean they can't make Xebel stronger.
Biology is far from their kingdoms' only difference, but Orm's been learning to wear green and to leave his hair hanging loose. Nereus runs his fingers through it, tugs on it, as they make their way back to the quarters they share. He bends down by Orm's ear and he says, "We'll make a Xebellian of you yet."
He doesn't disagree.