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Siren Call

Chapter Text

Keith swears an oath to the Coalition there in Captain Shirogane’s office, the words passing over his lips as hollowly as empty breath. Then he’s led to the nearby officers’ quarters, where a tiny, cramped room just wide enough to hang a hammock sits empty.

“It’s a tight fit,” Shirogane says, “but I think it might be safer to put you here rather than with the crew or the officers. Until tempers settle and old wounds scar over.”

Until it’s less likely that Keith will be strangled in his sleep and dropped overboard in the cover of darkness, the crew rebelling to finish what their captain had left undone.

“Got it.”

It is a tight fit, but Keith has no intention of complaining. He’s spent most of his life sleeping in a hammock, and there is a much-needed security in having three walls and a door around him, close as they are. Having his dagger again helps, too. He keeps the sheathed blade over his chest, hands folded atop it, and listens to the distorted sound of the captain’s voice on the other side of the wall, in the officers’ mess and sleeping quarters.

Telling them about the arrangement concerning the ship’s pirate prisoner, no doubt. Murmurs of conversation rise and fall like sea swells. Keith can only make out a few words here and there—exclamations, impassioned cries of damned pirate and bloody Shrike , and the low, smooth bark of Shirogane setting his officers back into line.

Keith’s heartbeat finally slows to its usual tempo as the voices die down and heavy footsteps recede. Somewhere above deck, the bells ring as the watch changes. The timbers creak and groan around him, as comforting as any lullaby he can imagine; Keith lets the sway of the ship quiet the anxiety that threatens to leave him gasping for breath like a drowned man, and then sleep comes.

Dawn comes, too, and sooner than he’d like.

The first order of business is the burial of the dead. Keith stands on the quarterdeck, set well away from the rest of the crew, with Lieutenant Holt hovering nearby.

Captain Shirogane’s voice carries as he leads the ship in prayer, and then recites the names of the dead, one-by-one. Those bodies bound in stitched-shut hammocks are reverently laid over the railing and into the sea, interred in the deep.

And Keith feels eyes on him all the while, even as Lieutenant Holt lays out their course, the weight of their stares hard and unforgiving.

Word of his new and unorthodox position aboard the Kerberos has certainly spread. The crew whispers behind his back whenever he crosses the deck to better gauge the ship’s course. In the wardroom, the officers and little lordlings eye him all throughout lunch, giving Keith no privacy even as he tucks himself small into a far corner. He catches snippets of his own name, or Shrike, and the rumblings of disbelief that he now walks among them.

It sets Keith on edge and leaves him ill-tempered, comforted only by the dagger hidden at his side in the waistband of his trousers. At times, he wonders if the brig might’ve been a kinder choice—a protection against those among the crew that spite him for lives lost or injuries sustained.

And mixed in with the mistrust and ingrained animosity of the Kerberos’ soldiers and crew is something else.

It takes Keith longer to pin down some of the lingering stares and hurried whispers. They’re less malicious and more… curious, he guesses, and it isn’t until a certain marine comes tromping up the starboard gangway to the helm that Keith puts it all together.


“Lance Corporal McClain,” the marine corrects, drawing himself up a few inches. He taps the barrel of the long musket slung over his shoulder. “Best shot in the Royal Marines. Show your respect.”

Keith yawns as he touches two fingers to his temple, miming the polite tipping of a hat that officers expect, and then gives the helm a quarter turn to keep the Kerberos sailing with the wind.

It’s unwise, probably, to push his luck any further than he’s already been granted, and Keith has no desire for a lashing. But the thought of bowing and scraping to anyone aboard this ship—even Shirogane—chafes like dried salt over tender skin.

The lance corporal sputters, indignant at the brush-off, and then purses his lips tight. He doesn’t call for Keith to be disciplined, though, whether by flogging or scrubbing decks on his hands and knees.

“You should be thanking me, if anything,” McClain does say, smarmy in tone. “I told the whole crew we would’ve been sunk yesterday if not for you. I gave them every single detail of how we salvaged the fight and saved the Kerberos from certain doom. They all know how you manned your post until you were trembling in your boots—with me bravely battling the elements right beside you, of course. You were the talk of the berthing deck and the wardroom, thanks to me.”

Keith drags out a heavy sigh, squinting under the midday sun. “Wonderful.”

They’re soon joined on the quarterdeck by a large, stout man in civilian’s dress that McClain calls Hunk and a scrawny slip of a midshipman—Pidge—that Keith almost mistakes for a cabin boy. While the three of them carry on together in a tight huddle, Keith sails and tries not to think of whether he’s the topic of conversation.

He also tries not to be visibly ill-at-ease when they approach him at the wheel, as gingerly as they might step around a wolf on a tether.

“So, you’re the Red Shrike,” Pidge says, sizing him up. “From the stories we heard in port, you were supposed to be taller than Captain Shirogane and twice as muscled.”

“And half sea-demon,” the man beside Pidge chimes in. He extends a hand for Keith to shake. “I’m Hunk, by the way. The captain’s steward. I cook for all the officers.”

“I suppose I have you to thank for lunch, then,” Keith says, tentatively returning the gesture out of gratitude for not being poisoned, at least. He holds back a wince as Hunk squeezes his slim, bandaged fingers.

“Oh. Apologies. I didn’t realize your hand was, uh—”

“It’s from him steering us out of that storm,” McClain chips in, eager to be the source of any story or rumor. “For hours he stood here in the wind and rain—and I was right beside him, of course, facing off against the elements and those Imperial swine—until he was trembling where he stood, hands still gripped around the spokes to steady himself. It’s a miracle neither of us caught our death of cold, honestly.”

“Truly miraculous,” Pidge agrees, leaning in to get a better look at his hands. Slim fingers adjust the finely made glasses perched on their nose. “You should probably have Dr. Holt take a look at those soon. It would be a shame to lose a finger or two to rot.”

Keith would agree, but he’s managed for years just fine without so much as a proper surgeon, much less a physician.

Eventually, Keith’s current company tires of his wary, monosyllabic responses to their further prying. McClain wanders off to walk the perimeter of the ship with another marine, while Hunk claps his hands together and says something about starting a salted pork stew for dinner. Pidge lingers the longest, eyeing him with concern, before venturing back below deck.

The rest of Keith’s shift at the helm is borderline pleasant. He may be caged on a Coalition ship with no friends and a great many enemies, but it isn’t a far cry from how he’s lived most of his life.

At least here, high on the quarterdeck, he’s surrounded by open air and sea. The wind toys with those locks of hair that always slip free of his hair ribbon, brushing his jaw and tickling along his ears. And something about the waves and endless tides always calls to him—the same draw his father must’ve felt, always gone at sea while Keith waited back on shore, ever a stranger to the people around him.

That first week aboard the Kerberos feels like daily walking a razor’s fine edge.

Obedience to the captain’s will keeps the crew in line, at least for the time being. But Keith has served on enough ships to know that even admiration of a beloved captain can wane thin; he knows that the simmering distrust half the crew holds for him will one day come to a head, a reckoning, and how events unfold from there is a messy uncertainty.

Keith tries to keep his head down and focus on the orders Holt relays to him daily, glad for any excuse to step behind the helm again. He only sees Captain Shirogane in passing, during the briefest of inspections on the quarterdeck.

Have your hands healed, Keith?

And how are you faring today?

How is she sailing, Keith? Anything I should be worried about?

Keith answers to the captain’s satisfaction and then Shirogane moves on, a soft curl to the corners of his mouth, to oversee other moving parts of his crew.

When it isn’t his shift to man the helm, Keith whiles away his time in the close confines of his assigned sleeping quarters, staring at his dagger and wondering what move to make next. He emerges only to wolf down his meals in the wardroom, waiting until most of the officers have already finished and left, or to wash up before bed.

And then he tries once more to sleep, well aware that his fragile position aboard the Kerberos remains delicate as ever, the minds of the Coalition crew so surely set against him.

The first time Keith spies an Imperial man-o-war off in the distance, two points off starboard and just shy of a fog bank, he sounds the alarm before the watch captain on shift has even raised his spyglass.

The crew carries word of the sighting across the deck and below it, their calls filling the misty, golden air of early dawn. A snare drum rattles out, drawing all the marines and soldiers to their posts. Captain Shirogane rises from the depths of the ship with them, hastily dressed—his hat askew, his uniform jacket draped over his shoulders, his waistcoat loose, and his shirt only half-buttoned.

Amid the flurrying activity of all hands making ready for engagement, Shirogane cuts a sharp, direct line straight to the helm. To Keith, whose heart beats quicker at the sight of him and his undone uniform.

There is a stark, stormy intensity to the grey of his eyes as he closes in, bounding up the steps and crossing the quarterdeck in long strides. And for how commanding a figure he cuts, Shirogane is still gentle-spoken as he calls out, “Good eye, Keith. There’s still a good bit of fog-cover we can use. Think you can catch up and take her?”

“Easily,” Keith answers, the Kerberos’ rudder changing angle as he gives the wheel a gentle turn; he thinks he can see a spot of shaving whip on the captain’s jaw, missed in his haste to dash up on deck, and finds it almost funny.

“Good,” Shirogane says, smiling well-pleased and slightly crooked. And at him —Keith. “Good. Get us in unseen, if you can, and lay us alongside at pistolshot. I’d prefer not to sink her outright when there might be some useful supplies onboard.”

Shirogane’s hand settles on Keith’s shoulder, those strong, deft fingers squeezing once before falling away. And while Keith’s hackles raise, more reflexive than anything else, the touch isn’t as unpleasant as he first takes it for.

Shirogane shouts as he strides from the quarterdeck, all comfortably-wielded authority. “Sharpshooters up to the top! That means you, too, Lance Corporal McClain. Engage at six bells. I want gunners aiming topside, at their masts and mizzen.”

Keith takes a deep breath and focuses on steering the Kerberos. The wind shifts behind them, filling their sails to a full billow, and the shimmering fog across the water provides a mask of cover as they slip closer and closer upon the Imperial ship.

It isn’t until they are within firing range that the Imperial man-o-war sounds the alarm, bells ringing furiously as drums signal the beat to quarters. And by then, it’s too late. The Kerberos glides a little quicker under Keith’s hand, surging in alongside the taller Imperial vessel. The marines hanging high in the rigging snipe into the Imperial crew with lead musketshot, while soldiers on deck fire pistols at close range.

And Captain Shirogane is right there among them, the wind catching the tails of his blue uniform coat, firing until the pistol in his left hand is empty. The air fills with white smoke and the smell of gunpowder, and under the deck, the gunners let loose a volley of cannon fire that rips into the Imperial ship’s upper decks, right through dozens of soldiers who’d bunched along the rails to fire back.

As far as naval battles go, it is short, bloody, and brutal. Keith has to admire that.

“We have them, Shiro!” Lieutenant Holt cries, his cutlass slicing across the chest of one of the few Imperial soldiers trying to swing over and board the Kerberos. “They’re on their last legs!”

In minutes, the last of the Imperials are either dead, dying, or kneeling down in surrender. White smoke hangs heavy over both ships, clouding Keith’s view, but he hunts for Captain Shirogane’s profile amid a hundred bodies crowded on the deck and catches small glimpses here and there.

Shirogane’s coat jacket sleeve is torn, and his fine hat missing. His short hair is damp with saltwater and tossed unruly by the ocean winds. He is sweaty and smudged with black powder, and blood stains his left cheek. And he is—well, he is an even more impressive sight than usual.

Later, after the quartermaster comes to relieve Keith of his post at the helm, he finds the mood aboard the Kerberos is decidedly different. Calmer. Cheerier. Keith initially chalks it up to the contentment that comes after a resounding victory, when pent-up aggression has been spent and bloodlust satiated, but as he’s singled out by the crew and roped into their festivities, he realizes there’s more to it.

“The man of the hour!” someone yells, and a dozen shouts rise in agreement. “Who would’ve thought a pirate could do us such favors?”

Ah. Keith doesn’t know what to say to that, or how to react to this sudden shift in regard—the same crew that wanted him strung up two weeks ago now hails him as some kind of hero.

“At least you were always a thorn in the side of the Empire, too,” one of the gunners says to Keith, raising a cup in his direction.

To Keith’s surprise, a number of the crew follow suit.

“And now Cap’n Shiro has the Red Shrike sailing for us,” someone deeper in the berth calls out, a handful of whoops and hollers following. “Those Imperial scum will never know what hit ‘em!”

A forecastle shanty starts up, dozens of discordant, off-pitch voices slowly melding into one mostly cohesive melody. It’s jaunty and jovial and though Keith doesn’t know the sea song’s name, he recognizes the tune and most of the words.

The crewmen nearest keep beckoning him to join in, singing louder in encouragement. But Keith keeps his lips pressed firmly shut and shakes off their efforts, content merely to listen.

His singing voice wins him nothing but trouble. Whether among cutthroat pirates or the lawful crews of the Coalition, the last thing Keith wants is unnecessary attention.

He lingers long enough to finish his weak ale and avoid the crew who’ve only just warmed to him. And then, with the quietest of retreats, he slips away from the forecastle and back topside, a raucous chorus of so merry, so merry, so merry are we, no matter who's laughing at sailors at sea growing fainter with every step.

The day has been long and strange. Keith stops in the wardroom to take a small meal of fish and rice porridge, washes up, and is halfway into his hammock when a knock at the door stops him short.

Captain Shirogane stands waiting for him just outside the door, stooped in the tight confines of the hall. “Keith. I apologize for interrupting you this late, but I was hoping we might speak for a moment. In my cabin.”

It’s not as though Keith can say no to the captain of the ship. He quietly slips his shirt back on and steps into his boots, leaving them unlaced for the short walk to the captain’s quarters.

It looks much the same as Keith last saw it, only every book and scrap of paper is neatly ordered and all the furniture placed just so.

“I heard the crew singing your praises earlier.”

“They’re a loud bunch,” Keith complains, though his words are weak and barbless. He’s tired. He has the wits to be grateful for the ship’s opinion of him changing like the winds, too. “It’s been a while since our last actual conversation. I thought you’d lost interest in me, maybe.”

“No,” Shirogane says, the wells of his eyes holding pinprick firelight from the nearby candles. His smile is soft and indulgent and the slightest bit disbelieving. “That wasn’t it at all, ever. However, I didn’t wish to give the crew any further reason to resent you, and favoritism—especially where it’s felt to be undeserved—from an officer will sometimes do that. I knew you would prove yourself in their eyes in no time at all, and any hovering on my part would only have hindered their acceptance of you.”

Keith chews that over and finds some sense in it. But it’s the unspoken reassurance of the captain’s interest that sticks with him like a splinter, tiny and impossible to ignore. “I assume you have a reason for fetching me out of my hammock and asking me here.”

Shirogane could have him whipped for such a presumptive remark, for so little respect, for speaking to him like an equal instead of his social better. But his eyes remain soft in the candlelight and his expression only shows some faint trace of amusement instead.

“It was partly to celebrate as well,” Captain Shirogane says, withdrawing two glasses and that same bottle of fine, rich rum from a desk drawer. “And to thank you. You were instrumental in a quick and efficient victory today. I won’t forget it.”

“Good.” Keith settles back in the chair opposite the captain and sips from his glass, appreciating the smoothness of its burn.

For a few minutes after, neither of them says anything more. Shirogane drinks and fills out his captain’s log. Keith drinks and watches him, wondering if the man always wrote with his left hand or whether he had to teach himself anew after losing an arm. The only sound in the cabin is the steady lapping of waves at the stern of the boat and the ringing of bells as the watch shift changes.

“You let some of the officers call you Shiro,” Keith murmurs, curiosity winning out over his preference for quiet.

“I have known some of the officers since I was a boy at the naval academy,” the captain answers without looking up from his log book.

“Why not Takashi, then?”

Shirogane winces, his quill pen leaving an ink blot where it pauses on the page.

“Because it makes me feel like I’m sitting through one of my father’s lectures again,” he sighs, low and almost grumbling. “My friends and confidants have always called me Shiro. It may not be my given name, but it is the one I am most comfortable hearing.”

Keith hadn’t expected the question to draw up discomfort. He flashes Shirogane a slight, sympathetic smile, moved by some softhearted pang that takes him by surprise. “The lectures were that bad, were they?”

Shirogane laughs, some good humor flooding back. “I have sat through fire and brimstone sermons that were more pleasant. But my family affairs can’t be of much interest to you,” he adds, expression disarmingly warm when he looks to Keith. “And the hour is late. I should get to matters that concern you directly.”


“Yes, you,” Captain Shirogane says, licking his fingers before leafing through a stack of papers on his polished desk. He plucks one free from the pile and pins it under a heavy paperweight, the quill pen in his hand once more.

Rich, dark ink spills across the paper in fine swoops and swirls, Shirogane frequently pausing to let the ink dry. Keith quietly puzzles at the script as it takes shape, utterly lost if the captain means for him to follow his written words.

“I am appointing you watch captain, in addition to your duties at the helm,” Shirogane says, resolute and unquestionable. “You will start with the middle watch, but in time you will be rotated through other watch shifts. Lieutenant Holt will hand down your orders, as he has been thus far.”

“Middle watch starts at midnight,” Keith drawls out, still in disbelief—at the dismal hour of his watch, yes, but at being entrusted with another post aboard the Kerberos, too. 

“So it does. I would make sure you enjoy a good night’s rest in your hammock tonight, then,” Captain Shirogane says, something very nearly sly behind his kind smile. “Your duties as watch captain will begin tomorrow.”

Weeks pass and Keith discovers he rather enjoys keeping the middle watch.

Most of the ship lies sleeping in the cabins or berth deck below, just two dozen officers and crew manning the ship through the deepest hours of night. It’s peaceful, having the walk of the upper deck with so few people around.

The breeze twists at loose strands of his hair and toys with the collar of his uniform, featherlight over his clavicles and along the hollow of his throat.

The rich fabric of his new navy overcoat offers welcome warmth, although the color doesn’t suit Keith at all. It strikes a good balance between function and form, though, offering enough give whenever Keith has to scale the rigging or throw himself down onto the deck to avoid a volley of musketfire. Whale-bone buttons and touches of golden embroidery mark Keith as an officer of the Kerberos —if only a warrant one, appointed at the captain’s whim, without the proper social status to achieve anything much higher.

It’s a remarkable gesture, though. Keith had never thought he’d be outfitted like an actual officer of the Coalition navy, even if he does perform all the duties of one. Nor did he think he’d really receive a salary, either, with his pay scaled to reflect his level of seaworthy experience.

But Takashi Shirogane has a way of getting what he wants, Keith supposes. Even when it places him at odds with the admiralty and the captains of other fleet vessels, who still eye Keith like he is a feral creature who might turn at any moment.

And perhaps part of the appeal of the middle watch is that Shirogane frequents it, too, by his own leisure.

“Captain,” Keith greets well before Shirogane reaches him where he leans against the taffrail along the bow. He can hear him coming most nights, depending on the wind and the lap of the waves. Other times it’s just a tingling, pinprick sense along Keith’s spine, knowing the other man is close.

“Keith,” is the faint, startled reply. “You… you always do that,” he says, a laugh as soft as seaspray slipping out after. “Are my footfalls so loud?”

“No,” Keith says, turning away from waves that are dark as ink and deeper than imagination can go. He eases back until black-stained wood presses against his spine, hands braced on the railing to either side of him. “You’re pretty light on your feet for a man of your size.”

And he is of a size. Half a foot taller than Keith and twice as wide, heavy with lean muscle. The span of his hand is wider than Keith’s, and his boots considerably larger. In all, Shirogane is… well, he’s certainly hard to ignore. Even the expertly-tailored confines of his off-white waistcoat and trousers seem to struggle to hold all of the man in at times, stretching taut over thighs that might be thicker than Keith’s ribcage.

“Ah. Thank you. I do what I can.” Captain Shirogane is still all personable charm, even at this late hour. He ambles closer, breathing deeply of the cool night air, and takes up a place by the rail, too. “I take it you’ve spied no imminent threats?”

Under the bright, pale light of the moon, the white in Shirogane’s hair is as starkly pronounced as exposed bone. His undress coat hangs open, those ivory buttons and silver epaulets drawing Keith’s eye. The scar across his nose is softer in the nighttime; the grey of his eyes is more like black, like smoke, like depths of water where no sensible man would dare swim.

His smile is warmer, though, somehow, the whole of it fixed on Keith and Keith alone.

“Nothing but clear skies and moonlit waves as far as the eye can see,” Keith answers, pleased to report such pleasant news. For a moment, he luxuriates in the calming roll of the ship across the waves and the smell of salted, deep-sea air. And then, “Have I ever told you how much I like the wolves of her figurehead?”

Keith leans his weight onto one elbow, peering at the three snarling wolf heads carven into the Kerberos’ bow. They are black-furred and golden-eyed, their bared fangs painted a bright, clean white. They’re fierce. Intimidating. They suit the ship—and her captain—perfectly well.

“When I was still a child, stuck on shore,” Keith haltingly says, so rarely moved to speak of himself to others, “I loved playing with dogs. If I wasn’t sitting at the harbor, waiting for my father’s ship to return, I was running up and down the alleyways with a pack of strays. Kerberos reminds me of them, I suppose. Dogs are one of the few things I do miss about being on land, after all.”

Shirogane hums, the note soft in its agreement. “I never got to have a dog of my own as a boy, but wolves were a common sight in the forests around the manor. I’d see a white wolf from my window, sometimes, when I was trying to look out at the stars.”

Keith looks up to the endless, expansive sky hanging above them, every inch of it crowded with stars. “Only wooden wolves out here, but at least the view is better on a boat than it is from a window.”

“It is,” the captain agrees, grinning, and he looks so young when he smiles like that. “You know, I was quite the amateur astronomer when I was a boy. I pored through books on the subject and took my own notes. I built my own telescope. I’d stay up all night charting the heavens, absolutely rapt, and then fall asleep during my tutor’s lessons the next day. Especially martial history.”

Keith snorts at the thought—a bold and invaluable captain like Takashi Shirogane snoring through lessons on warfare so he could stare at constellations instead. “Seems like you did well enough for yourself anyway, Captain.”

An amused sound slips out of Shirogane, low and pleasing to Keith’s twisting, fluttering gut.

“Well, I didn’t have much choice in the matter once I was at the naval academy,” he says a few moments later, voice sunken low as he looks out at the faint edge of the horizon. “And the war hasn’t made personal, scientific pursuits any easier.”

Keith hums along in vague agreement and tries to think back to a time when he might’ve aspired to something other than what he is. He’d always wanted to be out on the waves, like his father, and he had a knack for sailing, too—and piracy, as it turns out.

But during the long months when Keith was entrusted to whichever neighborhood caretaker agreed to have him, he would often take to a dark slate with a piece of chalk, drawing out dogs and cats and sea monsters from the stories his father told when he came home. He’d liked to study things, to capture their likeness, to carry them with him in the only lasting way he knew. And even as he grew older, he still loved to sketch, filling leatherbound notebooks with pictures instead of meaningless words. And he almost wonders if he could’ve lived a life treading down that path instead, or if the sea would’ve always called him to it.

“I’d rather have sailed the stars,” Shirogane sighs, mostly to himself; the wistfulness in it makes Keith wish such a thing could ever come to pass, if only for his captain’s sake. “But the sea is just as much a mystery, and often as awe-inspiring. And I can surely say there is nowhere better to view the heavens than the open ocean.”

Suspended between leagues of pitch black sea and a chasm of open sky, Keith can hardly pick an argument. He hasn’t scaled mountains or crossed deserts, true, but what could compare to everything the sea has and holds? All its monsters and unfathomable mysteries; the Kerberos and the Songbird and a thousand little worlds across a thousand ships; the man beside him, who surprises Keith in ways hidden reefs never could; his own father’s body and soul, long since dispersed into seafoam and saltspray.

“No,” Keith agrees, contented. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, leaning just a hair closer to Shirogane. “There really isn’t.”

“There’s a storm headed our way,” Keith says, just loud enough to interrupt whatever pointless, meandering story Lance McClain has been telling for the past quarter-hour. “I doubt we can avoid it.”

“What are you talking about? There isn’t a cloud in the sky!” McClain complains, lifting his hat to let the gentle breeze ruffle his hair. Aside, to Hunk and Pidge, he loudly whispers, “How does he do that? Witchcraft?”

It’s a smell in the air. A change in how the Kerberos handles, the ripples of some distant tumult felt even here, through the waves. It’s a gut sense Keith has learned to trust in, feeling more than he can fittingly put into words.

“Aye, I’m a witch,” Keith deadpans, still staring ahead. “So clear off of the upper deck before I turn you into a flounder and drop you overboard.”

McClain huffs in distaste and throws an arm around Hunk’s shoulders, steering him back toward the gangway.

“Don’t even jest about that,” Pidge warns as she passes by, following on Lance’s heels. “You know how superstitious seamen are.”

Oh, he knows it well.

Keith has seen crews dump gold into the sea if they believed a curse had come along with it; he’s witnessed them scapegoat their captains and sacrifice prisoners if they thought it would end a spate of bad luck. And he would be lying if he said he hadn’t picked up a few superstitions of his own after a life at sea.

Some had come from his father—to never change a ship’s name nor kill an albatross, which tattoos to bear for a safe journey, no bananas under any circumstances—and the rest Keith had picked up over the years. A little bit of bloodshed before leaving port usually made for lucrative raids. He always stepped aboard his ship with his right foot first. And once they set sail, he never looked back to shore.

Keith waves down to the quartermaster, shouting that he’ll need a couple of hours to rest before a brutal storm is upon them. They’re in calm, open waters for now—easy sailing, even for a relative novice. Once the waves turn frothy and white-capped, Keith will take the wheel again and see the Kerberos safely through the storm.

And though the afternoon skies are still a cheery, sunny blue, the crew scattered across the main deck heed his words like they came from an oracle.

Keith ducks his head as he advances down the tight, narrow hall that runs through the officers’ quarters, passing by his own little cigar box room. And he stops short at the door to the captain’s private quarters, remembering just in time that this is not the Songbird, not his ship, not his cabin to stride into as he pleases.

Keith raps against the fine oak door, sharp and a little more forceful than intended. “Captain?”

“Come in,” the muffled voice on the other side answers.

It’s not the first time Keith has interrupted Shiro in the midst of some other activity—weighing his little meteorites, fiddling with expensive glass lenses, shaving in front of a polished silver mirror—but it is the first time he’s seen his captain with a violin in his lap and a bow in his hand.

“Oh. You play?”

Shiro looks down at his right side, at the empty, hanging sleeve missing its usual neat tuck-and-pin. “Well. Not lately.”

“Right.” Keith tilts his head, considering the well-cared for violin. So frequently accustomed to Captain Shirogane deftly managing with one hand what others struggle to do with two, it’s almost surprising to see him struggle with something so mundane.

“I haven’t given up on it, though,” Shiro says as he bends to lay the violin back in its case, as delicate with it as he might be with blown glass. It looks like an old instrument, but well-loved; an heirloom, maybe. “Not yet.”

The corner of Keith’s mouth gives a slight tug. It’s hard not to admire the man’s persistence. “Have you tried a false arm before, Captain?”

“Not yet, no. But I would like to, now that the last sore on this stump has finally healed,” Shiro sighs, what little remains of his upper right arm moving within the loose, billowy sleeve of a white cotton shirt. “I’ve drawn up a number of designs for Dr. Holt to consider. Well, my best efforts at it, anyway.”

Keith moves to stand closer as his captain goes to his desk and retrieves a small stack of papers secured with a messily tied ribbon. Each one features some variant on a possible prosthetic—for polite dining, for wielding a weapon, for delicately pinching quill pens or violin bows. The accompanying drawings leave some detail to be desired.

“I’ve gotten much better at writing with my left hand, but drawing…” Shiro winces. “Well, it was never a great skill of mine.”

“I could try my hand at it sometime, if you’d like,” Keith offers. It’s been months since he’s had the time or the means to nurture his own artistic pursuits, and here is an opportunity to aid his captain, too. “I used to draw quite a lot.”

“Did you?” Shiro’s head cocks to one side, and under the keen interest in his voice lies something deeper, more pensive, and maybe the slightest bit remorseful. “I have an empty notebook you could keep,” he says, pointing to the nearest shelf so that Keith might have it. “It should be suitable for your artistic endeavors. It would also be useful for practicing your letters, should you wish to learn to read and write.”

“From who?” Keith asks, glancing up as he flips through the offered notebook’s blank, thickly pressed pages. “You?”

“If you find my company agreeable, certainly. If not, then I can name at least five officers who would be more than willing to teach you,” Captain Shirogane says.

Keith rests his hip against the sturdiness of his captain’s desk. “I always find your company agreeable.”

Shiro’s smile spreads as slowly as molasses moves. Not for the first time, Keith admires how it softens what might otherwise read as hard, unforgiving features—that solidly squared jaw; those high, sharp cheekbones; thick, dark brows set above eyes that turn nigh unreadable in the right light.

“I am glad to hear the feeling is mutual,” Shiro says, gaze dipping as he takes in the way Keith has made himself so comfortable against his desk, weight all cocked on one leg and leaned against the wood. “We’ll start your first lesson tomorrow, then.”

Something deep in Keith’s chest twitches, flutters at the thought. It’s not as though he lacks for excuses to visit his captain’s quarters, or to exchange words with him above deck, but…

“I’ll be here bright and early, then. And in the meantime, maybe you can tell me what all this says?” Keith questions, turning a page with a crudely sketched prosthetic arm and a violin bow toward Captain Shirogane. Scribbly handwriting fills the margins, a little smudged where the words had been touched before fully dry.

“Oh, those are just notes I thought might be helpful for Dr. Holt. Ideas for a viselike clamp, perhaps, or maybe a fixture of clay and rubber to help grip the bow?” Shiro’s brow furrows.

Keith gestures to the quill and inkwell left sitting on the desk after the captain’s most recent letter. Shiro immediately slides them closer, looking keenly interested as Keith picks up the quill and gets a feel for it.

The metal pen tip scratches lightly across the paper as Keith begins to draw, dark ink spilling over the page in swift, assured strokes. He glances up time and again, picturing an entirely new, manmade arm where Shiro’s is missing—padded leather straps to affix it to his shoulder, polished wood to fit snugly around the stump of his upper arm, and a finer version of the vise one might find in a carpenter’s workshop. It only takes a few minutes to sketch out. He'd have been done faster still if not for taking his sweet time considering how the end result would look on the man before him.

Keith turns the notebook around in his hands, showing the picture off to Shiro while the ink still glistens on the page. “Something like this?”

Shiro’s eyebrows raise considerably. Hesitantly, he reaches out and takes the bottom of the leatherbound book in hand, gently pulling it closer. “Keith, this is… well, leagues better than what I tried to draw, obviously. Amazing! You have a keen imagination and a fine eye for detail. I can hardly believe you drew this just now! Such a man of many talents.”

They’re pleasing, satisfying words. Or perhaps it’s less the words and more the mouth saying them. Maybe just the tone spilling out of those lips, warm and fond and rich with a sincerity Keith still isn’t used to hearing.

His skin heats his collar and along the curves of his spine, sweat prickling at his skin. The cabin feels stuffy all of a sudden, the air pressed a little too close.

“I’ll make you more like it. Better, even,” Keith says, clearing his throat and testing the dryness of the ink before he closes his new notebook. “And then maybe we can look for some suitable materials the next time we’re in port.”

“I would like that,” Shiro says, a broader curve to his smile.

And as Keith mirrors a smile back, soft and unthinking, a question drifts to the surface of his mind and lingers there—one he’s carried with him the whole time he’s been aboard the Kerberos, quietly wondering after the man who existed before Keith met him. 

“How did it happen?” he asks in a murmur, staring into the warm grey of his captain’s eyes for any sign of warning or misgiving. “Losing your arm. And the Calypso.”

“Very quickly,” Shiro sighs, leaning back in his chair. His gaze goes slightly unfocused, fixed on a spot a few inches shy of Keith. “Taken by surprise just a day out of a Balmeran port. A canon shot hit the base of the mizzen not a yard away from me. Flung splintered oak everywhere. Caught me across the face, in my thigh, and it shattered the bone in my arm. Pierced an artery, too, I think. Keeping the limb was too much of a risk. Dr. Holt amputated it in under a minute, then bandaged me up in two more. I was back topside not ten minutes after.”

It doesn’t shock Keith—Shiro hardly seems the type to let anything slow or dissuade him—but it’s a sobering tale to imagine.

“Not that it helped, much. We were more or less dead in the water by that point. Were it not for another Coalition frigate spotting us on their way into port and coming to our aid, we’d have been drowned or worse.”

Keith can feel his own frown deepen. “Pirate or Imperial? Did you sink her? Or are they still out there somewhere, patrolling?”

“Still out there,” Shiro sighs, a troubled little crease forming between his brows. “To my knowledge, anyway. There is always the hope that a whirlpool might open up beneath the Purification and take Sendak down to hell with it, though.”

“Sendak,” Keith repeats, committing the name to the deepest reservoirs of his memory. And the Purification —a blatantly Imperial name, fitting for the kind of conquests the Galra make. “Any idea what he looks like?”

“Big, ugly brute,” Shiro says, snorting in the most ungentlemanly manner. “Apparently he lost his right eye while assaulting my Calypso and is none too pleased about it.”

Keith’s chest puffs out as he sucks in a sharp, righteously petty breath. “Good. Glad he didn’t get away unscathed.”

Shiro only laughs, though, his eyes glinting under those uncommonly long eyelashes. ”I am as well.”

As near silence—for they will never be without the sounds of ocean waves and creaking timbers and muffled voices from the wardroom—creeps its way into the cabin, Keith finds himself wishing the air was filled with the music of Shiro playing his violin instead. And it’s strange that he should mourn the lack of something he’s never even heard, but he does

“I look forward to hearing you play one day.”

“That’s very optimistic of you,” Shiro answers, an almost shy little curl to his full lips. And then he sighs. “I look forward to it, too, someday. I always felt better after playing. Slept better, too. Nothing quite soothes away the day’s stress like good music.”

Keith taps his fingers against the thick notebook in his hands, fidgeting for lack of anything better to do. “I wish I could play something for you. Can’t say I ever learned an instrument, though.”

“You could sing, instead,” Shiro suggests, his tone lighter than usual—almost gingerly, if Keith had to put a name to the sound of it. And, as if realizing he is under quiet scrutiny, he clears his throat and adds, “That is, I never hear you singing shanties with the rest of the crew, nor with the young officers after meals.”

Keith stills where he stands, aside from an owlish blink as he lets the unexpected request wash over him. “I never would’ve imagined you’d take notice, Captain.”

Shirogane’s kind demeanor never changes—that easy smile and air of calm, the warmth of color in his cheeks—but a riveting sort of intensity stirs deep in the metalled grey of his eyes. When he speaks, it’s with quiet care. “I try to pay close attention.”

Keith’s first impulse is no, never. It’s been at least six or seven years since he last sang out loud to anyone at all, and he’d instantly regretted it even then, as heads swiveled toward his voice and picked him out of the crowd, their rapt fixation utterly terrifying to a scrawny boy of twelve or thirteen. His earlier memories of singing are just as unpleasant—too many eyes falling on him, too many people crowding toward him, too many strange looks from strange men and women.

But… it’s such a small request, and one Keith should easily be able to fulfill. And it’s Shiro who is asking it of him—the man who had spared his life and bargained on his behalf, who’d trusted Keith when he had all the reason in the world to walk him off a short plank.

Shiro deserves his trust, too. And, as Keith licks his salt-dry lips moist, he recognizes in himself that now-familiar hunger to please his captain. To impress him. To earn praise from the only person whose good opinion Keith has ever really cared for.

“Keith,” Shiro says, gentle with his particular way of understanding. “If my personal curiosity goes unsated, I’ll live. You can refuse me. I had just wondered…”

“I mean to do it,” Keith interrupts before Shiro can find his next words.

He thinks of songs he’s heard in lively inns and taverns in port cities, dismissing each one in turn. Until he remembers one sung back home, where his father hailed from, and its lilting, somber tune.

Keith’s first breath shakes, his voice thin as it fills the air of the captain’s cabin. “Gallows master, hold thy hand, hold it back awhile. Callous juror, let me stand, let me bear a smile.”

He holds his gaze on a knotted whorl of wood grain in the flooring, eyes downcast, half afraid to watch Shiro watching him. But every passing measure is a little more certain; the longer he sings, the more natural it feels. And the last time he felt this way was around his father, singing along with him by the hearth of their lonely, one-room shack by the sea.

“For comes my lover distant,” Keith almost sighs, the distantly familiar words moving through him of their own accord, “for comes my savior soon. I stand here most insistent, I will receive my boon.”

And there Keith pauses, hunting through his captain’s eyes and expression for any unsettling sign of change. But whatever his singing voice once attracted in droves is nowhere to be seen in Shiro. There is no leering smile for Keith to recoil from—no glazed, hungry-eyed stare, no inexplicable stupor, no hands reaching out for him.

...Which isn’t to say Shiro is disinterested, either.

His gaze travels Keith’s face with rapt attentiveness, paying him more mind in a single moment than others have in the whole of Keith’s life. He is leaned forward in his chair, pulled to the edge of his seat by the sound of Keith’s voice, but… nothing more drastic than that.

And for once, Keith finds himself wishing it were more. If there is anyone whose attention he wouldn’t mind receiving, it’s his captain.

“Your voice is lovely,” Shiro says, like that was the unspoken question he’d been seeking an answer to.

Keith clears his throat, a bout of nerves crashing over him like a wave out of the blue. “It’s fine, I guess.”

“I could listen to you for hours,” Shiro says, slumping back in his nicely upholstered chair. “Nevermind supper.”

Keith glances out the wide windows just behind Shiro, at the Kerberos’ stern. The sun is already dipping along the horizon, washing the skies with golds that fade into blue. There’s still ample time before the storm is due to meet them, and maybe they both deserve a few moments to relax.

Keith moves a neat stack of papers aside and settles himself on the edge of Shiro’s desk, pleased when the only reaction it garners is an indulgent smile. “Well, then. I think we have time for another song or two.”

Ice grips the rails like long, spindly witches’ fingers and weighs down the ropes in the rigging. It’s wintertime and they’ve been sent north—further north than Keith would’ve ever gone of his own volition—to protect the Coalition’s merchant ships from Imperial privateers.

Keith’s gloves aren’t made for this weather, and neither is he.

The wind and the wet air form ice faster than they can chip it away. Gusts buffet against Keith at every turn about the ship, the arctic air so cold and sharp that it steals his breath away. It causes frost to bloom on his lashes. It makes his blood run cold.

He steps nimbly across the gangway, surrounded by icicles that whistle as they break from the masts and plunge toward the deck. It’s easy to slip across the damp, frozen-over wood and take a tumble. Easier still with his toes numb and his feet iron-heavy, weary from his own constant shivering.

Keith slips below deck at the first opportunity, his teeth chattering together as he weaves his way through the crowded officers’ quarters and rummages through the sturdy new chest in his little room.

He’d bought it with his own salaried pay when they were last in a decent port, needing somewhere to store all the fine items he’s accumulated: sheafs of paper and fine charcoal, simple books to study, finely-milled soaps of his own, cinnamon candy, and spare outfits fitting his current rank.

His undress uniforms sit folded neatly to one side of the chest, most of them in need of some mending. His dress uniform hangs on the wall, pristine and carefully tended. Keith has only worn it on two distinct occasions, thus far—while walking around port towns in Shiro’s company, and while meeting with the officers of other Coalition vessels. 

Keith loves the former, avidly looking forward to any outing with Shiro, while the latter has only ever left him quietly seething.

What’s the point, Keith wonders each time he buttons up his fine uniform and polishes his dress boots, in trying to make himself presentable to gentlemen captains who would never see him as anything but an unruly cutthroat? Why stand at crisp military attention in regulation attire for men who would likely spit on him, if not for Shiro looming protectively at his side? Why endure their snide comments with clenched fists and a locked jaw when he could win their silence forever with a well-placed elbow to the throat?

Because of Shiro.

Always and forever Shiro, who had fought for him from the beginning and never ceased. Not even when it drew the ire of his fellow captains, appalled that he would recruit a pirate as notorious as the Red Shrike into his ranks. Disgusted that Shiro would appoint him an officer. Stricken that he would publicly refer to him by his given name, in a display of highly inappropriate familiarity.

Keith can recall more than one meeting in which the assembled officers’ voices had risen loud enough to hear even while stationed outside, their complaints memorable in how they’d made his blood simmer under his skin.

‘—a pillaging murderer, not some wayward boy in need of discipline—’

‘He deserved a swift drop from a gallows, Takashi, not an appointment to watch captain.’

‘--yet you invite him to think of himself as an officer, despite his lengthy criminal record.’

‘How do you even sleep at night, aboard your own ship, with the Red Shrike so near?’

Nothing they said was untrue. None of it. And even now, Keith can scarcely understand why Shiro ever showed him the immeasurable latitude he did. For all his doubts, though, Shiro’s swift rebuttals still ring in Keith’s ears, practically writ on the inside of his skull for how fastidiously he’s committed them to memory.

‘Keith is more capable than many midshipmen passing for lieutenant, and a trustworthy man besides. His seamanship is superior to that of academy-trained officers and with him at the helm, the Kerberos is now felling first- and second-rate imperial cruisers with twice our guns. If anything, his rank ought to be higher than watch captain, if we are to truly judge on merit—’ 

Shouts had drowned out the rest of Shiro’s words, then, before they could reach Keith’s ears on the other side of the wall. But he’d straightened his spine all the same, aglow under the stifling restriction of his dress coat.

And now Keith runs the back of a gloved, shivering hand down the expensive wool of his dress coat, thinking of how hard Shiro had fought to gain him this much: a permanent home aboard the Kerberos, a pardon for his crimes, and a comfortable living as an officer. And within the bounds of his command, Shiro offers him even more.

Few captains would ever have given Keith such free reign over their ship. Fewer still would sacrifice their personal time to give lessons in reading and writing.

With trembling fingers, Keith gathers up an armful of books, papers covered in dutifully-copied text, and a chalk-dusted writing slate.

The walk to Shiro’s cabin is blessedly brief, so familiar and well-trod that Keith could find his way in total darkness. He nudges the brass knob until the door pops open and then shoulders his way in, kicking it closed behind him.

The captain’s cabin is no less freezing than anywhere else on the ship, despite the little brazier of warm coals seated on the floor by Shiro’s desk. The window panes are opaque with swirls of frost, and Shiro himself sits at his desk with a white fur draped over his shoulders like some wild king of yore.

“Time for another lesson already?” Shiro asks, his breath coming out in misty puffs. He hurries to clear away numerous navigational maps and push aside the opened letters laid across his desk, making room. “You’re a quicker study than most of the boys and girls I knew at the academy.”

It takes effort to refrain from visibly preening at Shirogane’s praise. Considerable effort. And perhaps Keith doesn’t do as admire a job of it as he imagines, given how Shiro laughs under his breath as he rises from his chair. 

Shiro meets him halfway and lightens the burden in Keith’s arms, quickly glancing at each book title before stacking them neatly on the nearest shelf. “You finished all of these?”

“It took me ages,” Keith starts, embarrassed at how many times he’d had to consult the dictionary Shiro had gifted him, slowly slogging through dense maritime texts and ancient poetry, “but yes. All of them.”

Shiro’s delight radiates in his smile. Even with his skin paled by the sunless, wintry weather and his nose nipped cherry red from the cold, he’s that kind of handsome that begs the eye to linger.

His hair is brushed back, resting at his nape in a length of silk ribbon, only recently grown long enough to be worn in proper military style. Strands of white streak through his natural inky black, reminding Keith of whitecaps under moonlight—like seafoam glimmering against waters as dark as the night sky, and just as mesmerizing.

“Good! Good. Now let me see what you’ve been writing on your own.”

While Shiro leafs through the many pages upon which Keith had both copied passages and labored to write out his own thoughts, in his own words—about his recent watch shifts and missing warmer climates— Keith strolls around the cabin without any real aim.

Another small brazier warms a basin of water in the washroom, just keeping it from freezing over. Their most recent attempt at a violin-playing prosthetic rests on top of Shiro’s footlocker, beside a case of small tools for refining it. The captain’s bed is neatly made, its usual spread accompanied by a heavy winter quilt and another oversized wolf fur sent from the Shirogane estate.

Keith reaches out and brushes his hand over the pelt, lush fur springing up between his fingers. Were it anyone else’s, Keith might envy the warmth and comfort of a bed like this; with Shiro, he’s just content that the man has enough to keep the chill off.

“Very good, Keith,” Shiro murmurs where he stands beside the heavy desk, papers rustling as he lays them down. “You have shown remarkable improvement in just a few months. I don’t think I have much more left to teach you.”

“Really?” If there’s disappointment in the question, Keith can’t help it. He’s grown so used to these near-daily lessons with Shiro, spending lazy afternoons and late evenings huddled close together; he hadn’t even realized they might end so soon.

“Truly. Which means we can start on the basics of Galran next!” Shiro announces, visibly alight at the prospect of teaching him an unfamiliar language.

Keith relaxes, exhaling a chilly breath he’d unwittingly held in. These little tutoring sessions of theirs are such a reliable means of spending an hour or two with Shiro, even when his time is heavily taxed by the demands of his rank. More often than not, their lessons devolve into long conversations and drinking and late-night duets, if they can agree on the same song.

And there is a different quality to these hours spent together and unguarded, Shiro acting less as a captain and more as a studious man with a love of exploration. Smiles come more naturally to Keith here, within the familiar confines of Shiro’s personal quarters, than anywhere else on land or sea.

He wears a smile at this very moment, faint and fond and maybe a little bit enamored, too. Keith’s hips sway as he stalks his way back to Shiro and his letter-strewn desk, amused at how quickly the man has shifted track.

“And what will you teach me after that?” Keith idly wonders, curious about how long Shiro has been planning to give him a proper introduction to Galran.

Shiro hums as he rifles through his drawers and the nearby bookshelf, picking out heavy tomes titled in a sharp, jagged script. “I could teach you Old Altean, if you’d like. It doesn’t see much use outside of university lecture halls, but it is rather helpful if you’re interested in studying the sciences. And it also looks quite pretty on a page, in my opinion.”

“Not like Galran,” Keith mutters as Shiro drops a stack of dusty books on the desk, their covers engraved in symbols as wicked-looking as the empire that birthed them.

“No,” Shiro quietly agrees, giving a little shiver. “Not like it at all. But understanding your enemy is always advantageous.”

Keith grunts in agreement, his eyes drifting from the numerous and unreadable Galran tomes to the swooping, unfamiliar hand of a nearby letter. It’s written on noticeably fine paper and pressed with a seal in Altean blue—but that isn’t what catches Keith’s eye.

“Hm. This is my name,” Keith muses out loud, running a woolly-gloved finger over the flowing script that reads Keith Kogane.

“Ah. So it is,” Shiro says, plucking up the letter and its accompanying envelope before Keith can read any further. “I was planning on surprising you with it after supper, with a gift and a bottle of that awful cinnamon rum you like so much.”

“It makes me feel warm,” Keith grumbles, rolling his shoulders under the woolen padding of his heavy winter uniform coat.

“It burns like hellfire going down and all I can smell for days after is cinnamon. But nevermind that.” Shiro carefully unfolds the letter in his hands and presents it to Keith, the seal of the Navy Board prominently placed on the page. “It took long enough, but this is the official recognition of your appointment as watch captain in service aboard the HMS Kerberos. Congratulations, Keith.”

Awestruck, Keith reaches out for the letter and reads it himself, eyes passing slow and halting over every word. 

Shiro had issued him the rank almost a year ago, immediately granting him all the duties and benefits of an officer—at least aboard the Kerberos. He had spent every month since then stubbornly defending the move to his superiors, arguing a case for Keith’s worthiness, and now the admiralty and the Navy Board have finally conceded.

If Keith weren’t riveted in place by the chill in his limbs, he might swoon at the defiance of it, at Shiro digging in his heels on behalf of someone like himself . As it is, he just smiles and reads through the warrant for his promotion once more, warmed with vindication and no small amount of adoration for his captain.

But then a thought strikes him.

“Wait. If the admiralty is only now recognizing me as an officer,” Keith says, brow furrowing as he puzzles over the formal letter in his hands, “where has my salary been coming from all this time?”

It hadn’t occurred to Keith to ask at the time, back when he’d thought Shiro had his superiors’ blessing to bestow him a rank. He’d only learned later that the Navy Board utterly despised and resented the thought of him serving in any official capacity—not terribly surprising—but had thought nothing of the salary he’d been drawing.

Shiro hesitates only for a moment. “I had the purser pay you out of mine.”


It should’ve occurred to Keith sooner. Why would the Navy pay him in full while giving Shiro so much grief over his position on the Kerberos? His cheeks flush warm with embarrassment, hating that he blindly took silvers that came out of Shiro’s pocket, and yet…

“What? You deserve fair compensation for your work, just as any other man or woman here does,” Shiro says, giving Keith a stern look that dares him to argue. “And my finances are well enough in order that I could spare it without issue.”

Though he stands stockstill, Keith’s innards squirm with some strange union of discomfort and delight. An unseasonable heat sinks down under his skin, too, oozing between his ribs and dripping down to the pit of his stomach. It flutters in him like something dormant given fresh life, spurring Keith’s heart to a racing canter.

Another kind endeavor to add to the litany of Shiro’s thoughtful deeds. And if it came from anyone else, Keith would mistrust it as a ploy or as pity. But from Shiro…

Only good things come from Shiro.

“You’ve stuck your neck out for me so many times, Shiro. More than I am even aware of at present.” Keith delicately folds up the warrant letter and carefully places it back into its envelope, studying the broken wax seal on the outside. “I don’t know how I’m ever supposed to repay you.”

“You’ve saved my life and my ship on more than one occasion, Keith. There is no debt between us, as far as I am concerned.”

As Shiro gathers up the Galran books and sheafs of paper, Keith grapples with the easy way his captain says such things. Almost a year spent in Shiro’s company and Keith still can’t quite believe his staunchest ally is the very same man he once dreamed of drowning in seafoam gone pink with gore. The fondness Shiro shows for him simply should not be, given that their first meeting involved a pretty good stabbing, and Keith is forever perplexed by how little Shiro asks of him in return.

“I think the bed might keep us a little warmer tonight,” Shiro says, nudging the iron brazier across the floor until it rests beside the bed built into the starboard wall. He drops down onto the middle of the mattress, groaning, and sets the books beside him. “If you don’t mind.”

Keith nearly stammers in his hurry to reply. “Of course I don’t mind.”

He sheds his wool overcoat, all crusted in frozen seaspray and damp with the pervasive cold that lives in every corner of the ship, and settles gingerly near the foot of Shiro’s bed, uncertain in this brave new territory. It’s the first time in ages that he’s felt an actual mattress, all plush and down-stuffed, rather than his hanging hammock. And it is warmer, Keith thinks. Or maybe it’s just his proximity to Shiro and his own heightened nerves at sharing the same bed, even two feet apart.

“Here, why don’t you cover up,” Shiro says, grabbing the corner of his thickly padded, silk-lined quilt and casting it over Keith’s shoulders. He layers the dark wolf fur over top of it, making sure Keith is adequately covered.

Keith grasps the edges of the luxurious quilt and winds it tighter around himself. The little shiver that moves down his spine isn’t from the cold at all. “Thanks, Shiro.”

“No sense in either of us sitting here and freezing.” Shiro smiles in that comforting manner of his, shifting closer as he flips a heavy Galran tome open in his lap.

It looks like a volume on navigating the seas based on the stars, although there are details of constellations that Keith doesn’t recognize. Shiro points out individual characters in the text and sounds them out for Keith, letting him get a feel for the right pronunciation, how they look on a page, how they’re used.

The language sounds just the way Keith had remembered it in pirate port cities and among the handful of Galra who’d made up his old crew—harsh, guttural, with drawn vowels to break up hard consonants.

He edges closer to better see the next passage Shiro points out, the light of the lanterns in the cabin barely enough to stave off the gloomy darkness that hangs over these northern seas. His eyelids start to droop at the low, honeyed sound of Shiro’s voice; the quilt wrapped around Keith’s shoulders holds all his body heat close, warming him all the way through for the first time in two weeks.

And as Shiro leans in to show him some small accent mark that indicates a break Galran speech, Keith’s attention instead catches on the parting movement of those paled lips, suddenly deaf to every sound but the wracking thud of his own heart within his chest.

Shiro is close enough for Keith to see the faint coloring of the veins under his skin and to breathe in the featherlight scent of hinoki oil in his hair. He can feel the way the mattress dips under the weight of Shiro’s broad, muscled body, and the aura of heat that extends a scant inch or two from his skin.

It almost has the air of a dream about it, seeing Shiro like this.

Without thinking, Keith closes that meager three or four inch gap that separates them and leans himself into Shiro’s side, head resting heavily against his shoulder. It puts them flush against each other, thigh pressed to thigh, the well-stuffed mattress cradling them both in the same sunken little dip.

Shiro abruptly drops into silence, mid-sentence, and Keith tenses where he lay, all at once aware of what he’s done.

And then Shiro picks up right where he left off, lifting the book for Keith to better see at this new angle of his.

Relief rushes through Keith, relaxing the tension out of him down to the tips of his fingers and toes. He knows he’s fortunate that Shiro takes no offense at his overfamiliarity, nor his casual flouting of social norms. Any other captain would’ve had him flogged a dozen times over by now.

But Shiro is not like the rest of them. Like no one else at all, undoubtedly. Keith lets himself lean heavier into Shiro and does his best to listen intently—to ignore the guilty yearning that rumbles low in his belly like a leviathan beginning to rouse at the bottom of the sea—and mind the lesson at hand. 

And after several more minutes of patient explanations of Galran grammar, Shiro closes the tome and carefully sets it aside. “Have you fallen asleep on me?”

“No. No, of course not,” Keith says, immediately sitting up, his spine taut, and putting some semblance of appropriate distance back between them.

“Oh, good. I was worried I had bored you so much you nodded off,” Shiro mutters, breath frosting in the air as he puffs out a short laugh.

“You never bore me. It’s just the effect of being warm and comfortable for the first time in ages.” And the soothing nature of Shiro’s voice, he doesn’t say. His heat. The solidity of his shape, which Keith rarely gets to feel outside of their sparring sessions.

“I’m sorry for dragging you somewhere so miserable,” Shiro consoles as he fiddles with the edges of the fur draped around Keith, making sure it’s still closely wrapped around his shoulders. Then he seems to study him, pensive as he absently thumbs at the silvery-black fur.

“Could be worse,” Keith answers, pleased when it makes Shiro smile and tilt his head away.

“Keith,” Shiro says after a few more quiet moments, looking back to him with an air of growing seriousness. He licks across his rough, peeling lips, mulling over his next words before he speaks them. “How would you feel about being named master of this ship next?”

“Master?” Keith echoes, so blindsided that he can’t conjure any other response. A ship’s master is one of the highest naval ranks available to anyone of common blood, much on par with a lieutenant, and Keith… Keith had never even considered it to be within the realm of reality for him.

“Officially, we’ve been lacking one ever since Mr. Xi retired. And you’ve been performing the duties of a sailing master from the first day I put you at the helm. Truthfully, I should have named you master of the ship from the start, Keith. Watch captain was always a poor fit, given all that you do.”

And even attaining him such a low rank was an uphill slog for Shiro. Keith cannot imagine that the Navy Board would be willing to name him master of any ship, no matter how deftly Shiro brings his charms and his gentry connections and his sheer stubbornness to prevail upon them.

“I thought it would serve as a good stepping stone toward something greater,” Shiro continues, and Keith can at least follow his thinking. “If the admiralty can stomach a pirate of your renown becoming an officer at all, then they can accept your rising in the ranks, too. Now that you can read a page and write a letter, it should be easy enough for you to pass the necessary examinations.”

“Shiro.” Keith swallows down the emotion that rises in the back of his throat like bile before it can spill out on his tongue. “Shiro, I think it’s asking for too much. You don’t have to make any more waves on my account. I am happy enough being your watch captain.”

It is more than Keith ever expected when he began his new life on the Kerberos, and very likely more than he deserves. He would be content being just another soul under Shiro’s command, so long as he can stay by his captain’s side.

Shiro looks far from convinced, despite Keith’s sincerity.

“It is what is most fitting and fair for you, Keith,” he says, and the soft note of indignant righteousness in it is familiar by now. “It is the title you rightly deserve. And if something should happen to me, I would rest better knowing your position was secure and your living comfortable. You made a damn good pirate,” he adds, the corner of his mouth tugging up into a brief, uneven smile, “but I don’t want you left with no recourse but to turn back to it.”

If something should happen to Shiro?

The thought settles over Keith like a miasma. He has never felt seasickness—not since he was a child, perhaps, and too young to remember—but he imagines the queasy, unsettled feeling in his stomach to be something like it.  

“Nothing will happen to you, Shiro,” he croaks out, the denial coming like a reflex. It can’t. It can’t. Keith has no one else and he won’t be left alone and unanchored again.

Shiro sighs. “Keith.”

A futile, sorrowful anger wells out of the sickness in Keith’s gut, dreading the mere suggestion that Shiro might die before him or leave him by some other means. His jaw tightens into a cage around his tongue, holding back a tide of sharp, aching hurt until he calms enough to speak again. “I won’t allow it.”

Shiro meets Keith’s furious concern with a thin, slightly perplexed smile. His irises seem to go dark as coals, shadowed as he peers at Keith from under the cast of long lashes that sit even more pronounced upon half-lidded eyes. “You won’t allow it?”

“Is that not what I just said?” Keith snaps back, his temper getting the better of him. “I’ll let nothing take you from me—from us. Anywhere you go, willing or no, I’ll follow.”

Keith exhales sharply and realizes he is scarcely an inch from Shiro’s face now, their noses a hair’s breadth from brushing together. Dumbfounded at his own forwardness, he stares into Shiro’s widening eyes—and doesn’t think of drawing back.

No, it doesn’t cross his mind at all. Instead, Keith thinks of how simple it would be to bridge what little distance remains between them and put his chapped, winter-bitten lips on Shiro’s.

The thought is only shocking for a second. Less, maybe. Keith has never been so bold to let a notion this blatant run away with him while in Shiro’s company, but he’s… well, in the dark, swaying loneliness of his own cabin, he’s given himself over to vague dreams of a particular body against his own. Just a dozen times or so, though. Just when the memory of Shiro’s hand on his shoulder lingers with him, or the feel of his silky voice in Keith’s ear can’t be shaken.

They’re too close for Keith to bear out. His hands curl tightly in his lap, refraining from reaching out for Shiro the way he’d like to; if not for the dense, woolen barrier of his gloves, his nails would sink deep enough into his palms to leave reddened half-moons. He should draw back, apologize, excuse himself to his own quarters to wait for this heat to burn out of him.

He doesn’t want to, though.

“Keith.” Shiro murmurs the name, his eyes making the tiniest movements as he traces his way up and down Keith’s very near features. “I know I’ve asked a great deal of you, but I don’t expect you to throw your life away for mine. If something unfortunate were to befall me—”

“No, Shiro. Don’t,” Keith cuts in, his eyes squeezing tightly shut as he shakes his head, unwilling to hear anything else on the matter. In frustration, he draws back into himself, pulling away from Shiro. “I have no patience for talk of your dying or leaving or anything else. I refuse to think of it. Nothing afterward would matter to me. I won’t sail for anyone else but you.”

“Keith,” Shiro sighs, fond and deeply weary. His hand settles firmly on Keith’s shoulder, holding fast, an anchor to keep from drawing any further away. And then, slowly, Shiro’s hand smooths its way to Keith’s collar and up the side of his neck, fingers curling into the hair bunched at his nape. Shiro doesn’t pause until his palm is pressed to Keith’s cheek, cradling his worried head with care. “Don’t say such things.”

The touch leaves Keith shivering from his head down to the toes curled in his worn boots. Unable to help it, he leans into Shiro’s touch, his cheek rubbing into warmed-through deerskin. “It’s the truth, though.”

It’s what Keith does, continually pressing at his captain’s surprisingly lenient nature, hunting for that line in the sand that Shiro has never quite drawn.

And it seems that even this sort of blatant, presumptuous gesture is beyond Shiro’s reproach. The man says nothing to chasten or discourage Keith, or even to tease him for overstepping. Instead, strong fingers thread deeper into Keith’s hair, gently stroking locks loose from the red ribbon Keith had tied hours earlier, his fingers numb with cold.

“I don’t know what I ever did to win such fierce loyalty from you,” Shiro murmurs, a somber note to it. His gloved thumb trails lightly over Keith’s cheekbone. “I chased your Songbird to the bottom of the sea. I dragged you into a war you’d had no part of.”

The mention of the Songbird carries with it a pang of loss and longing, always. But it was never going to be Keith’s forever, as much as he might’ve wanted it, and he’d long since earned the ire of both factions in the war currently simmering across both land and sea. In terms of long-term prospects and fulfillment, Keith is certain he’s traded up.

“I’d be dead if not for you, Shiro. My devotion shouldn’t come as a surprise.”

“You have such a noble streak in you,” Shiro almost scoffs. To Keith’s great disappointment, the captain’s hand slowly slips free of Keith’s mussed, wavy hair and settles again in his own lap, curled into a loose fist. Then, in more pacifying tones, he says, “You know, I do not mention my own mortality to give you worry or grief. It’s simply an eventuality that must be accounted for.”

Keith takes a full moment to consider it.

“No,” he then flatly refuses, unfazed by Shiro’s renewed expression of disbelief. “If you can be stubborn enough to wear down the Navy Board on my behalf, then I can be stubborn enough to keep death and any of its associates from ever knocking at your door. They would have to fight me first, at least.”

There is a faint amazement to Shiro’s smile, which is once again warm enough to make Keith’s heart soften like wax left too long in the sun.

“You know, even from the beginning, you’ve almost always taken my orders without a peep of complaint,” Shiro says, his handsome brows giving a bemused little furrow. “I had very nearly forgotten just how obstinate you can be, when you wish it.”

If there’s any chastisement to be found in Shiro’s words, it’s undercut by the way he once again adjusts the dark fur draped over Keith’s shoulders, making sure he stays warm. 

“I’m only following my captain’s shining example.”

“And I’m just trying to be realistic, Keith. The tides can’t always be in our favor,” Shiro reminds him, as if the brutal scarring he carries around isn’t a glaring, ever-present testament to how quickly fortunes turn at sea.

Keith is willing to challenge that, though. To change it. To keep Shiro safe from whatever turns of fate lie ahead for them.

“They can be, though, with me at the helm.” And then he winks, pleased when it wins him an utterly astonished little lift of Shiro’s eyebrows. His voice comes out low and wintry dry and a little coy, even. “I’m Eurybia’s Star, remember? Her favorite.”

The nearby timbers shudder with a groan as waves push against the ship’s hull, her sudden sway a comfortable excuse to ease close to Shiro again. The brittle ice coating the nearby windows hisses and cracks, and beyond them the winds howl shrill enough to sound like a distant scream.

A blustery pink deepens over Shiro’s cheeks, and suddenly he’s skirting around Keith’s gaze. “You’ll never stop teasing me about that, will you?”

“No. Never. Has any one man ever so admired a lawless pirate?” Keith wonders, strangely satisfied to see Shiro’s blush deepen to a shade like watered down wine. “While everyone else called me that ghastly nickname, you made me sound like a prized diamond. Or a sea nymph. Or St. Elmo’s fire.”

“I still think it suits you better than being a shrike,” Shiro complains, but only softly. “And in my defense, I have yet to see anything that suggests you aren’t some kind of sea nymph or mysterious phenomenon,” he teases back. “Last I checked, most people cannot accurately gauge the depth of a harbor by sight alone or avoid sunken wreckage by gut feeling.”

“See?” Keith placidly agrees, finding Shiro’s exceedingly high opinion of him as endearing as it is overblown. “Blessed by a sea goddess. Which means I am uniquely equipped to protect you.”

“As your captain, it is my duty to protect you,” Shiro sternly reminds him, the knuckle of a crooked finger poking lightly into Keith’s wool-padded ribs. “But fine. Do as you will. I certainly could use the favor of one god or another.”

Keith smiles, feeling he’s won something here. Not that Shiro ever makes it hard for him to get what he wants, honestly.

“I, ah, still have that present for you,” Shiro says, abruptly rising from the bed. He crosses the room and returns with a small bottle of cinnamon rum and a velvet pouch in a deep, cool crimson. “But it’s not very seasonable, I’m afraid.”

It’s not the first present Shiro has given him, although those were always spur of the moment things, items that had caught Keith’s fancy in port but weren’t worth his limited coin—lengths of red silk hair ribbon, a watercolor set, compendiums of strange animals from far islands.

This gift carries a different sort of weight behind it, Keith thinks, glancing curiously up at Shiro as the pouch changes hands. Slowly, he undoes the lopsided bow and loosens its gold-thread cords, then carefully draws out its contents.

They’re gloves. Not thick, fur-trimmed ones for winter, unfortunately, but a beautiful pair nonetheless.

“I noticed the ones you normally wear while sailing were wearing through in the palms,” Shiro says. “This pair should last you years.”

The black deerskin is of surpassing quality, just like the pair Shiro wears, soft and supple and durable all at once. The stitching is immaculate. And inside, each glove is lined in buttery smooth silk stained a rich, dark red.

“They’re almost too fine to wear,” Keith says, smiling down at the gift. And as he looks up to Shiro, a lump rises in his throat and unshed tears well along his lower lashes.

“No, they’re just fine enough to suit you,” Shiro insists, his hand settling into its usual place on Keith’s shoulder. “Had I known at the time that we would soon be sent so far north, I would have put in an order for a thicker, warmer pair to match.”

Impatient, Keith slips his hands out of his winter gloves, flexes his bare fingers, and then dons the sleek new ones while Shiro watches. They glide on without a single snag, ending halfway up his forearm; the leather clings to his skin as perfectly as a coat of oil, dark and lustrous.

Keith marvels at how much more comfortably they fit than any of his previous pairs, always a smidge too large for his slender hands and prone to loose stitching from constant wear and heavy use. He could sleep in them, probably, as comfortable as they are. He probably will, honestly, for at least tonight.

“Shiro, these are beyond compare.”

“Then they’re a perfect match for their wearer.”

Keith stills in place, stare skirting up to meet Shiro’s once more. And Shiro just… watches him, absent of expectation, sporting a hopelessly endearing smile.

“So quick with your honeyed words,” Keith grumbles to himself as he pulls his woolen uniform gloves on over top of his new deerskin pair, hoping the chill has blanched his skin enough to dampen the worst of his blushing.

“What was that?” Shiro asks, as if he’d missed it. But the slight tilt of his head is so smug, his little smile so falsely coy—Keith knows him for a liar in an instant.

“You heard me,” he replies, prying the bottle of cinnamon rum from Shiro’s hands. Slowly, though, careful not to let it slip. Slow enough to hook his fingers under Shiro’s, to brush his palm and gently tease his grip around its glassy neck loose.

Damn the cold and these woolen gloves.

“Please fetch us some drinking glasses, Captain,” Keith says, insistent even as Shiro moans about how his whole cabin will reek of cinnamon long after Keith has gone. “I’m not drinking this alone.”


Lieutenant Holt approaches with his hat in hand, clutched to his chest, and a worried shine to his eyes.

Keith’s heart drops like a lead anchor. “Has he taken a turn for the worse?”

“No, no,” Matt assures at once, shaking his head so hurriedly that his hair starts to slip from its navy blue ribbon. He licks his dry lips and gives Keith a drawn, concerned look. “He’s the same as this morning, according to my father. No worse, but no better. Why don’t you return to his side, Keith? Sit a spell with him. We’re clear of the atoll now, and I can manage the ship so long as the sea stays calm.”

“Of course,” Keith says, turning the wheel over to Shiro’s lieutenant without a second thought.

He rushes down the steps and below deck, and the rest of the crew know well enough to make way when Keith is headed toward the captain’s cabin.

He doesn’t bother knocking at Shiro’s cabin door, and once inside, he gently pushes it shut and twists the lock.

The soles of Keith’s boots fall softly on the wooden floorboards. The air in the cabin is still. Stuffy. But if they open the windows, Shiro shivers at the slightest draft.

With a heavy puff of breath, Keith settles into the chair beside Shiro’s bed. His captain still sleeps, though it looks fitful at best.

He lays a hand across Shiro’s perspiration-dampened forehead, worrying over the fever that hasn’t yet broken. Keith checks Shiro’s pulse next, the pads of two fingers pressed to the vein in his wrist. And then he gauges the labored rise and fall of Shiro’s chest, trying to figure if it truly is no worse than it was this morning—if the rattling wheeze he breathes with is going to be the death of him.

And Keith practically writhes where he sits, at a loss for how to protect Shiro the way he’d promised. 

“You remember what I told you back when we were freezing our asses off in the northern seas?” Keith asks as he takes Shiro’s clammy hand in between his own, hoping the touch reaches through whatever fever-dream has such a tight grip on him. “No dying on my watch, Shiro. Do you hear me?”

Shiro does nothing but lie there, sunken down into the bed like a fixture of it. His skin is wan and pale, his eyes framed by bruise-dark bags. Fresh sweat is already beading across his brow again. Occasionally, he convulses with a shiver.

The weight of Shiro’s hand in his own ought to be more reassuring, Keith thinks. “I’m right here with you, so keep on fighting.”

He is sorely tempted to lean down and press a kiss to Shiro’s temple, against plastered hair and feverish skin; he nearly does, his lips hovering just shy of brushing Shiro before he withdraws and slumps back in his chair.

He wants Shiro to know he is cared for, and waited for, and expected to return. He wants to have as much time as he can by Shiro’s side, in case—

Just in case.

Keith yawns and whiles away the next two hours with a book from Shiro’s shelves propped open in one hand, often finding himself re-reading the same paragraphs; his other hand holds onto Shiro, hoping the touch comforts even through the fog of sickly slumber. He can feel his own focus slipping, slipping, slipping away, but there’s nothing to be done about it.

How can he rest, knowing Shiro lies in such a state? How can Keith leave his side, even in slumber, when Shiro could need him at any moment?

Later, Keith brews tea from the captain’s personal supply and watches Shiro while he drinks, wishing the familiar scent alone could rouse Shiro, restore him, return him to his usual form. He tinkers with Shiro’s newest prosthetic, hoping to have the fit just perfect for when he wakes up. Keith even takes out Shiro’s violin and plays what little he’s learned, because few things move Shiro quite like music.

And then, as the hour grows late, Keith sings.

Keeping his voice low enough for only Shiro to hear, he starts with sea shanties that he knows the man would recognize from years upon the waves—songs of love and loss and life at sea. And once Keith has exhausted those, he turns to melodies he knows by heart, although the words have long since left him. 

He strokes Shiro’s damp hair while he sings, pouring all his thoughts—his yearning to have Shiro back, to keep him safe, to see his eyes flutter open and his smile return—into every mournful, hopeful, longing note.

Within the hour, Shiro begins to stir under his hand.

Keith can hardly believe it at first, blinking to clear his eyes in case he is only imagining the soft groans issuing from Shiro’s lips and the change in his breathing. Then those grey eyes blearily creak open, unfocused as he squints up at the timbers overhead—and then at Keith, some measure of clarity sharpening his stare. 

“Shiro? Shiro! You’re awake,” he pours out, hand moving of its own accord to cup along Shiro’s jaw, gently turning his head to face him. “I—I’ll go call for Dr. Holt.”

“Keith? I heard you.” Wearily, Shiro shakes his head and raises his hand to cup over Keith’s, giving it a weak squeeze. “Wait. Stay. I need you here.”

Keith dithers there for a moment, torn. Shiro is undoubtedly in a fragile state, and in need of a trained physician’s touch, but… Keith doesn’t want to break from his side, even for a moment.

“Just a few minutes,” Shiro rasps, his throat likely as dry as his pale, cracked lips. The grip on Keith’s hand slackens; Shiro lays his arm back down on the bed, along his side, and sighs. “Then you can fetch him.”

Keith’s tight jaw slowly works itself loose enough to speak. He nods, wavering at first and then resolutely, his hands running down Shiro’s shoulders and over his chest, careless with concern. “How do you feel?”

“Like a half-drowned bilge rat.” The breath Shiro draws rattles around in his chest like the illness has hollowed him out. “What happened? How long have I been in bed?”

“Two days, after you collapsed at supper,” Keith says. “There were a few moments where you nearly seemed lucid, but… they were short-lived.”

Shiro stiffens under Keith’s hands, his whole body rigid where he lays. “I collapsed?”

Keith hums, the tiniest note of judgment trickling into his tone. “That’s right. You barely touched your meal, and then when you stood up, you toppled right over. It’s Dr. Holt’s opinion that for you to be so severely stricken, you must’ve been keeping your symptoms to yourself for quite. Some. Time.”

Keith pats against Shiro’s shoulder with every word—gentle enough to do him no harm, but firm enough to convey his thoughts on the matter. Shiro has the decency to look sheepish about it, at least.

“I’d thought you looked a little wan in the preceding days,” Keith adds, his annoyance turning inward. He should’ve said something —done something—but Shiro is always so adamant of his wellness, so reluctant to give others concern, so stubborn about keeping to his work schedule. “And you felt warmer than usual. Why didn’t you say anything?”

Shiro closes his eyes. “I thought I was just a little under the weather. Nothing worth whining to anyone about. Didn’t want you to worry, Keith—and you would’ve worried.”

“Well, that paid off handsomely,” Keith murmurs. “I was spared a great deal of worry when you suddenly had a fainting spell in the wardroom.”

Not to mention the deathly sleep that followed, Shiro burning up in his bed while he slumbered like death. It was nearly enough to drive Keith mad.

“I am sorry, Keith,” Shiro tells him in halting words. Guiltily, he meets Keith’s gaze before dropping it. “For not being entirely honest with you.”

“You push yourself too hard, Shiro.” Keith means to chastise him, but it comes out more affectionately exasperated than anything else. “Let me go get Dr. Holt now. And I’ll tell Hunk to fix you some broth.”

“No, no, that can wait. Stay with me,” Shiro says, as urgent as anyone can be after such dire, sickly confinement. “Tea would be nice, though.”

Keith sighs, rises, and fixes another small pot of tea right in Shiro’s cabin. When he returns to Shiro’s bedside, he finds the man fiddling with the locket around his neck—one Keith has only glimpsed a handful of times before, when the heat of navigating the equator called for shed jackets and unbuttoned shirts. And even then, he had been more interested in Shiro’s bare chest than in the silver chain and locket he wore.

It’s a very fine piece of jewelry, now that he has a chance to admire it—a wolf’s head detailed in silver, with white, pearly eyes.

“It’s pretty to look at,” Keith comments as he settles down and offers Shiro a cup of tea, nodding to the wolf’s head pinched between the man’s fingers. “Whose portrait is inside?”

Keith has long since concluded that Shiro has neither a wife nor lovers waiting for him back on shore, and he has never spoken much of family, either.

Shiro hums to himself, a thumb working to unlatch the locket. It swings open, revealing the tiny picture within, which he holds up for Keith to better see.

Keith’s brows pinch together, bemused. “You keep a locket with your own portrait inside? Shiro, that’s…”

Shiro’s wheeze sounds as though it was meant to be a laugh. “Not me. My brother.”

“Brother?” Keith takes a second look, but all he can think of is how much Shiro and his brother must resemble each other. Their noses are the same, their lips, their eyes—the only difference Keith can tell is that Shiro’s brother still has full black hair and unmarred skin. “Older or younger?”

“Younger, but only by a few minutes. We were born together.”

“A twin brother, then,” Keith muses, which does explain a great deal. “What’s his name?”

“Kuro,” Shiro answers, smiling above the rim of the teacup pressed to his lips. “My mother’s choice. My father named me.” After a moment, he adds, “After his grandfather, actually. It meant a great deal to my father, that name. He wanted it to go to his eldest son, who would inherit the family estate.”

The way Shiro says it gives Keith pause. “You’re to inherit your family’s estate?”

Shiro laughs again—or tries. It’s less dry this time, but no less wheezing. “No. No, I am not, which is likely why my father regrets naming me what he did.”

Inheritances. Keith can’t relate much to the politicking over them, considering the full sum of his own inheritance was the dagger that once belonged to the mother he’d never met. But neither can he understand why any parent would pass over a son like Shiro and then fault him for it. 

There is a long, stilted pause, and Keith belatedly realizes he might’ve spoken his sentiments out loud. To Shiro.

“Shiro, I didn’t mean to—” 

“Ah, it’s fine,” Shiro says, shifting where he lay, his mouth working while he searches for the right words.

“Well, this is regrettably relevant,” he starts, looking down at himself, weakly laid out under piled quilts and furs. “I was always a disappointingly sickly child, easily given to epileptic fits and weak spells. They often wondered if I would last to the age of ten or fifteen. My brother was hearty and hale, though, and our father… I think he felt the name was wasted on me, when I could barely live —let alone up to expectation.”

“That’s no fault of yours, Shiro,” Keith says, a hand smoothing over the blankets that cover Shiro’s middle. “And here you are, decades later, the strongest man I’ve ever known.”


“And your father is a damned fool,” Keith blurts out after, neither capable nor willing to stop himself. With any other man of Shiro’s class, it would be an insult worthy of keelhauling. “He’d better hope he never crosses my path.”

“It’s really not so bad,” Shiro is quick to respond. “The pressure of being his heir would have been far more stifling. As it is, my father’s concern for me extends only so far as to make sure I don’t embarrass the family name—”

“You made captain in the Royal Coalition Navy by twenty-four, Shiro! That’s unheard of,” Keith huffs out, his fingers clawing into Shiro’s blankets and twisting them tight in frustration. “What does that cur have to be embarrassed of? Your success?” 

“—it’s my poor brother you should pity,” Shiro rambles on, running roughshod over Keith’s attempt to give him praise. “Kuro has to deal with all of our father’s expectations, which is a burden I wouldn’t even wish upon Sendak, honestly.”

“I don’t pity you, Shiro.” Keith brushes back a sweaty lock of Shiro’s hair, fingertips brushing along the curve of his ear as he tucks it away. It’s grown out so much since the first time they properly met. “I’m infuriated on your behalf.”

Shiro manages a proper laugh, this time. He says nothing of Keith’s hand stroking along his brow, gently combing back his hair. “Infuriated?”

“Your father sounds like the kind of man I’d have pickpocketed when I was twelve. Maybe tripped him into a pile of horse dung, too.”

“Keith!” But Shiro’s poorly managed smile speaks volumes more than his half-hearted attempt at chastisement. He sighs, looking more at ease; even his breathing seems less labored. “It is complicated. Family, I mean.”

Keith shrugs, unsure of what to say. Family has always been a straightforward—if short-lived—matter to him. “Is that how you ended up in the navy? You got written out of the will? Here I always thought you must have joined up for love of kingdom and country.”

Shiro snorts. “No, no. Although I did become acquainted with Queen Allura and I do value the cause of the Coalition, I am afraid my early motives were not so noble.”

Keith drinks his own tea, letting it mellow his agitated nerves while he listens to Shiro speak.

“I spent a great deal of my childhood confined to a bed, and I lived for what little I could see through my window—the stars, mostly,” Shiro says, and it fits true to everything Keith has already come to know of him. “I memorized constellations and red essays upon our neighboring planets. My mother bought me my first astronomical instruments, and I dreamed of writing books about my own discoveries… but father refused to pay for me to attend a university for something he deemed frivolous. So, I joined the naval academy instead, as it would at least put several thousand leagues of ocean between us.”

Keith keeps his simmering displeasure to himself this time, not wanting to make Shiro dwell any longer on what is unmistakably a bitter piece of his past.

“Well. The navy was the clear winner, there,” Keith offers, winning himself another shying smile from Shiro. “And me, too. I’d be long beyond lost by now if I hadn’t run into you, Shiro. Captain.”

Shiro closes his eyes and gives a faint, amused little grunt. “So long since you’ve called me that while it’s just the two of us.”

“I like Shiro better,” Keith says, grateful to be among the number who can refer to him so informally, even if only within the privacy of the Kerberos. He refills Shiro’s tea and fluffs his pillow, making sure he’s comfortable.

“I do, too. Especially when it’s you saying it,” Shiro drowsily replies, his eyes fluttering shut as he lets himself sink down into the pumped pillow, much more at ease.

Keith isn’t all sure what to make of that, but it leaves his stomach astir with a feeling as light and airy as bubbling seafoam. He smooths out Shiro’s quilts and wipes the sweat from his brow once more. “I suppose I should go tell everyone you’re awake, hm?”

Shiro sighs, at last willing to let Keith part from him—if only for a moment. “I suppose so.”

“All I’m saying is that if you start addressing me as your ship’s master on our outings in port, your fellow officers from the royal academy are going to collectively combust,” Keith says, waving his half-drunk wine glass in Shiro’s direction. “Their outcry will be several magnitudes greater than it was when you were just angling for me to make watch captain. Are you truly prepared to go through all that headache again?”

The cabin is dim and rather quiet, the windows opened just a crack to let in the sound of lapping waves. They’ve anchored just offshore of a lonely little island for the night, and the lanterns hanging off the stern glow with the haze of a growing fog.

“Absolutely,” Shiro says, smiling brightly around a mouthful of potato, and Keith isn’t the least bit surprised anymore. When the cause feels right, this man is always spoiling for a fight. “Are you?”

Keith considers his own answer far less vital. The naval officers from the rest of the fleet have never much changed their opinions of or attitudes toward him anyway—it makes no difference whether Keith pisses them off more, honestly. It’s Shiro who will bear the brunt of the Navy Board’s ire, as always, and the snide comments from his noble peers. Keith only has to stand by his side and endure it.

“Well,” Keith says, poking apart his grilled squid as he pretends to ponder it. “You know, I’m happy to do anything that’ll make Captain Weiss so furious that he looks like he just swallowed a toad.”

Shiro shakes his head as he chews, steadfastly staring down at his plate, but he’s still smiling; Keith knows full well that the man sitting across from him shares some of his petty enjoyment in vexing the more highstrung captains. It doesn’t take much to make them steam, either—a mere off-handed remark from Keith about how Shiro had been the only captain skilled and brave enough to challenge the Songbird’s reign of terror at sea is usually enough to leave a wardroom of noblemen fuming.

“But I would be just as happy serving as your ship’s master without the rank or compensation to go with it,” Keith reminds him, knowing full well that Shiro’s mind is already set and that few men are as stubborn as his captain. “I don’t need their acknowledgment, nor their respect.”

Just yours goes unsaid.

“You do deserve them, though.” Shiro sighs, a trace of his frustration slipping out. “And some things can only be achieved through sheer force of will.”

“You would know, wouldn’t you?”

Shiro’s smile spreads into a grin. Finished with his meal, he settles back in his chair with his nearly empty wine glass.

“I have been known to be rather bullheaded until I get my way,” he concedes, a light dusting of warm color across his cheeks. It’s quite the understatement, in Keith’s experience. “So leave the wrangling of the Navy Board to me. Hopefully this time I can wear them down in less than a year.”

Keith can only smile, giving himself over to the warm and still-unfamiliar feeling of having someone else to rely on. Someone willing to defend him, to wage some battles on his behalf.

“I don’t say it often enough,” Keith murmurs as he pushes his own plate away, every speck of food eaten clean, “but I am unfathomably fortunate to have you.”

In whatever respect he has Shiro, that is. The man has long since grown to be more to Keith than a captain, or a friend, or a confidant. That he once considered Shiro an enemy seems to have been a lifetime ago, or further; by turns, Keith is amused and shamed that he ever wanted anything less than Shiro’s protection, his companionship, his…

That last word hitches, even in his mind.

Keith can no longer count all the times and ways he’s tested Shiro’s patience and affection for him; both seem to be boundless, but he still can’t help but hesitate at the thought of pushing too far.

“Not often enough?” Shiro asks, his eyebrows giving a disbelieving little lift. He rises, corking their half finished wine bottle and tucking it under his right arm. “I seem to recall hearing such words from you every other day, at least.”

“Not that often,” Keith scoffs, but his cheeks warm easily at the thought of all the things he lets slip around Shiro: I’m lucky to have you in my corner, I couldn’t ask for a better captain, I’m daily grateful to have been found by you.

“I think I might be luckier, of the two of us,” Shiro says, his hand fondly ruffling through Keith’s hair as he passes by on his way to return the wine to its shelf.

Keith grins, his eyes slipping shut at the warmth briefly settled at the crown of his head, a tingle running from his nape all the way down his spine as those calloused fingertips sink through his hair and trail over his scalp.

And then Shiro’s hand recedes, and Keith slowly opens his eyes, staring at the empty seat across the table while Shiro’s footfalls continue somewhere behind him. His skin is warm. His head feels airy light. And as he drags his teeth across his lower lip, Keith tries not to think of how he wishes he could wrap himself around Shiro like a kraken would a ship, never to let go.

With a sigh, Keith pushes himself up from his chair and slips his uniform jacket back on. He sweeps back the hair Shiro’s touch had shaken loose and wanders toward the door, deliberately crossing into Shiro’s path along the way.

“I’m going to go up top and make the rounds before I turn in for the night,” Keith says while he fixes his collar and smoothes out his waistcoat. “Is there anything else you’d like me to do, Captain? Anything I’ve missed?”

Shiro lets out a soft snort. “When do you ever let your duties slip, exactly? The Kerberos is about as much your ship as she is mine, at this point.”

Keith laughs.

“I mean it,” Shiro says, giving Keith’s shoulder a bump as he walks around him, toward his desk. He does a quarter turn to look back. “Just turn in early and rest well. You’ve earned it.”

“And what will you be doing?” Keith asks, his lips curling faintly at the warm, lingering effects of even a slight brush with the other man.

“I have a small mountain of reports to write and expenses to log,” Shiro answers, his smile turning grim in the blink of an eye.

Keith nods, more sympathetic to the plight of paperwork now that his duties as the ship’s master entail record-keeping of his own. “I can help, then, once I’m done checking things up top.”

“What did I just say?” Shiro asks, his voice taking a sterner, playfully sharp edge. “You’ve earned a good night’s sleep, especially after the close call you sailed us through earlier today. Go drink your awful cinnamon rum and have sweet dreams, Keith.”

Shiro nods for him to go on, but Keith stands firm, more than capable of quietly matching him for mulishness.

At Keith’s unblinking, unfazed stare, Shiro relents in short order. “Fine. If you find me passed out at this desk tomorrow morning, you may finish whatever reports I haven’t already drooled on. But tonight, I want you laid up in your hammock without a care. Captain’s orders.”

Keith grumbles under his breath. It’s so typical of Shiro, who commits himself to his work even to his own detriment, to use captain’s orders to keep Keith from doing anything similar.

“Fine,” Keith bites out, because he can’t very well disobey Shiro outright. “But once this lamp is out of oil,” he continues in low tones, leaning forward and tapping the glass of the nearest oil lamp sitting on Shiro’s desk, “you ought to be in bed as well. Master’s orders.”

Shiro’s mouth drops open slightly, perhaps never having thought Keith might use his newly bestowed title against him.

As Keith turns and takes his leave, he hears Shiro belatedly call out behind him, “You know I still outrank you, don't you? Keith? I could work straight through the night if I were so inclined!”

Keith smiles at the sheer willfulness of it as he weaves his way down the narrow confines of the officers’ quarters.

Once he’s made a turn about the deck, he’ll stop by Shiro’s cabin again anyway. Maybe he can coax the man into drinking with him rather than slogging through that pile of papers. Maybe he can convince Shiro to put it off until tomorrow, when they can sit down and tackle it together. Maybe they can sing and play music instead, and Keith can fall asleep on the floor of Shiro’s cabin again, content just to lie close enough to hear his captain’s slow, steady breathing through the night.

As soon as Keith emerges onto the deck, the damp night air swirling around him, all those warm thoughts melt away as easily as the fine sugar Shiro sometimes takes in his tea.

The fog that blankets this bay is so chokingly thick that Keith can see neither the Kerberos’ bow nor her stern. All three of the masts disappear into the moonlit haze that hangs over them. And the air is close—so close around Keith that it makes him uneasy, as if cool, ominous breath is bearing down on the back of his neck.

It’s far from the first time they’ve anchored in a bay like this, or been enveloped in heavy fog. Keith rarely pays such things much mind, but this… 

There is something he doesn’t like about it.

Keith is halfway up the stairs to the quarterdeck when he stops, listening. Below the idle chatter of the watch stationed along the deck—most notably Lance McClain, who grumbles loudly when he notices Keith has arrived—Keith thinks he can catch something just on the edge of his hearing.  

“Oh? Well, well, well, if it isn’t our Red Shrike. I thought you were too good to show up for first watch these days,” McClain grouses as soon as Keith is in earshot. “Shouldn’t you still be down in the captain’s cabin, making some godawful racket with that violin?”

“Shut your mouth, McClain, for one goddamned minute,” Keith hisses, his patience sapped dry in an instant. “Can’t you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

Something moving in the water, just beyond sight. Lumbering through the fog like a behemoth prowling for a kill. It makes Keith’s skin goose pimple, every hair along his nape raised like the hackles of a feral dog.

Keith’s heart beats against his ribcage like the sharp staccato of a snare drum calling the crew to combat, but the air above the Kerberos’ deck remains still and quiet—aside from a few marines near the bow, laughing amongst themselves.

“Go. Quiet. Them,” Keith tells Lance, doing barely more than mouthing the words. “Now.”

And for once, looking stricken, Lance doesn’t argue. He waves his arms as he crosses the deck toward his fellow marines, urging them to fall silent.

Long, tension-fraught minutes pass. Keith’s stern glare keeps the watch captain from ringing the bells that signal the hour. With a finger held to his lips, he signals for Pidge to go below deck and quietly call the crew and her captain to arms. To four other members of the crew, he nods to the heavy chain of the anchor currently tethering the ship in place. The sleeping officers must be alerted, too, and Shiro as well.

Especially Shiro, who is still sitting in his cabin with his nose buried in a stack of papers, unaware of whatever trap they’ve already wandered into.

Keith walks the starboard gangway of the Kerberos’ upper deck, warily listening to the waves. There is something here—he is certain of it, from the marrow in his bones down to the tightening pit of his stomach—but the fog is too thick to get any more than a whisper of where it is. He knows he isn’t mistaken, though the midshipmen standing near the porthole wear waxing expressions of doubt. He hasn’t roused the whole ship for no reason. His gut hasn’t led him astray.

In twos and threes, the crew silently appears above deck, rifles and pistols in hand. But there is no sign of Shiro yet—just Matt Holt, who rises up the stairs with a lantern in hand and steps toward Keith with a pinched, alarmed expression, his mouth already opened to speak. 

The burst of cannonfire is as shocking as a clap of thunder on a clear, sudden day. Violet-tinged explosions flare within the nighttime fog, the light and sound much too close—point-blank, almost, and there is barely time to draw a single breath before forge-hot iron is tearing into the Kerberos’ stern and ripping into her sails.

The deck erupts into noise all at once, soldiers and sailors alike shouting as they take up their posts and finish pulling up the anchor.

Keith scrambles for the helm, taking hold as the quartermaster drops down to the deck aside.

Now that Keith knows where their enemy lies, he can maneuver them through the fog. He can turn sharp, line the gunners up for a volley before the Imperial ship has a chance to disappear again—

But the wheel doesn’t turn for him. Even tugging on one of its spokes with both hands isn’t enough to make the helm budge, and Keith’s heart sinks as he realizes their rudder is likely blown to smithereens. Few are the times he’s been trapped like this, caught with no means of escape.

While Lieutenant Holt rallies the soldiers, Keith is of a singular mind and purpose. He wasn’t raised for this life, nor trained for it. Not even a year and a half under Shiro’s command can render Keith willing to stand and die for the Coalition in a nameless bay on some empty island, holding his post past the point of futility.

He shoulders through the marines and sailors, instead clawing his way down into the officers’ quarters, hoping to meet Shiro halfway. If he’s to die, it won’t be for some queen he’s never met three thousand miles from here—it will be for Shiro, and with Shiro, fighting right by his side.

But with every footstep deeper into the cramped hall of the officers’ quarters, Keith’s heart drops lower into his boots. Shiro would’ve come running before now. At the first barrage of canon, he’d have been topside, half-dressed even, with his cutlass in hand.

By the time Keith reaches his own narrow quarters, dread drips from him like summer’s sweat. He barrels past the officers’ pantry and throws open the door to the captain’s cabin, as he has hundreds of times now, and— 

It’s gone. Much of it, anyway. In taking out the rudder, a number of cannon shots found their way into the cabin, too, blowing out glass and carving out wide sections of wood. The flooring itself sits at an angle, its supports half-collapsed, the floorboards sloping out toward the dark sea.

Shiro’s desk is entirely missing, as are whole shelves of books and artifacts: his little meteorites and astrolabes; the polished lenses for one day assembling a proper telescope; the portraits and landscapes Keith had gifted him over the months, all framed by the ship’s carpenter. As is Shiro, whom Keith cannot find no matter how frantically he rakes through toppled shelving and shattered wood.

Streaks of fresh, crimson blood curve across the floorboards, toward the jaggedly torn hole at the Kerberos’ stern. Smears of it trail to the edge of the wood and then disappear, as if a bleeding Shiro had simply slid from the caved-in cabin and into the churning waters below.

Keith fears that he’ll look out into the waves and find Shiro there, ghostly pale against the black sea; a hundred drowned bodies he’s seen, but he can’t bear the thought of Shiro being in their number. And though Keith has never had cause to believe in the gods other pirates and sailors prayed to, he remembers Shiro’s blushing talk of Eurybia and hopes that if he does hold some kind of sway over anything at all, it can work in Shiro’s favor, too.

Another battery of cannon fire sounds around him, near and far, the two ships answering each other in quick succession. Keith pays it no mind, trembling as he edges across the sloping floor of the cabin. The wrecked floorboards groan under his boots as he leans over and searches the waves, desperate for any shred of Shiro.

Keith doesn’t see Shiro lying still in the water, eyes open and mouth parted under a film of cold water. He doesn’t see him clinging to flotsam, either, nor swimming around to the side of the ship.

Like a curtain parting, the fog ebbs just enough to give Keith a glimpse of the man he’s so desperate to see—limp as he’s heaved into a Galran longboat, fished from the sea by Imperial seamen and rowed back toward their vessel.

Keith’s heart couldn’t sink faster if it had been transmuted to lead and dropped overboard, doomed to plummet until it found rest at the bottom of the sea.

Without another consideration, he leaps from the wreckage of the cabin and dives into the ink-black waters, any thought of the Kerberos’ fate abandoned. It’s Shiro who needs him. Shiro, lost in the chaos of a one-sided battle. Shiro, caught in the hands of an enemy who utterly loathes him.

The nighttime sea shocks the warmth from Keith’s body. He shivers as he swims, frantically fighting against incoming waves and currents that threaten to tug him out into deeper waters. The fog closes in around him time and again, but Keith can tell the longboat isn’t far. It’s not out of reach. Shiro isn’t yet lost.

He keeps the thought at the forefront of his mind, like a litany. Shiro needs him. He’s not lost yet. Shiro needs him! 

Keith’s lungs burn like they’ve been doused in cheap rum, the sting doubling with every new breath. He chokes on mouthfuls of bitter saltwater and gasps through smoke-filled air, unwilling to turn back even as the exchange of heavy cannonfire drops off and the Kerberos’ agonized groans reverberate through the sea. He swims until he can barely hold his chin above the water, his flailing limbs numb to everything but the sheer will that keeps them moving.

Ahead of him, the fog swirls and breaks. A sharp bow pierces through it first, bearing a figurehead of hellish purple and gold flames; painted along its side is a line of blocky Galran script that reads Purification.

Panic grips Keith like an ironclad hand, crushing in its intensity.

A passing wave suddenly pushes him under, saltwater filling his nose and mouth, and by the time Keith claws his way back to the surface, the Purification is gliding on in eerie silence, having already felled her enemy and taken her prize.

Keith tries to give chase, but the same sea that has so often worked in his favor pushes him under, smothers him, beats him back toward the listing Kerberos and the island’s deserted shore. His last breath is spent crying out Shiro’s name, calling him back, pleading to whatever god takes mercy on sailors lost at sea—and then Keith is swept under the waves once more, his exhausted body cradled limply in the current, and all he knows is darkness.