While her surviving crew cling to flotsam and struggle to salvage a few longboats, the Arusian merchant ship burns.
Keith turns and looks back at the wreckage once or twice, eyeing the smoke that billows off of the sea like some dark spectre. Things had quickly gotten out of hand, as they so often do among a crew of kill-mongering pirates.
While his men drain a barrel of rum and sift through chests of pilfered loot, Keith steers the Songbird out into open water, letting the sloop get lost in the rolling waves and settling dusk. That rising column of soot and ash marks the horizon like a smudge of charcoal—a beacon to any roving ships of the Empire or the Coalition who might come looking to investigate.
Once he is satisfied that they’ve made it safely away, into the cover of the nighttime darkness sweeping over the sea, Keith entrusts the wheel to Rolo and strides down to the main deck to take stock of their haul.
There is a fair share already set aside for him, but even that is more than Keith wants or needs. He’s not one for spending gold on drink or company while they sit in port. He doesn’t like clutter in his cabin, either. While the crew watches on like greasy-beaked vultures, Keith cherrypicks a few pieces that catch his eye—a new pair of boots close to his size, a pretty letter-opener, a fine pistol, and a fat purse of gold to cover the Songbird’s future repairs—and leaves everything else behind.
“Divy the rest up amongst yourselves,” he says once he’s done, a round of approving nods and cheers rising as he throws a small chest of coins and silver candlesticks back into the crew’s pile.
“To Captain Keith!” one of the older hands cries out, cup spilling over as he raises it high.
They’re in good spirits, the crew. Drunk on rum and victory. Pleased with their captain’s generosity. Content to continue deferring to him.
“To Captain Keith!”
The cry is echoed on three dozen sets of lips, and even after a year, the mantle still doesn’t sit quite right. Captain. A title Keith had never asked for, nor particularly wanted, but had fallen to him nonetheless. It’s a dangerous thing, being captain to these men, on this ship, upon these seas.
But if Keith keeps the Songbird and her crew moving like the sleek-bodied sharks under the waves, there’s less trouble. And so long as the pockets of his inherited crew remain weighty with coin, and the galley filled with food and liquor, he can sleep with both eyes closed.
Gone are the days of making meager pickings off of local traders and taking the schooners of lesser nobles for ransom. Under Keith’s capable hand, the Songbird’s crew has gotten a taste for greater and grander prey—foreign merchant clippers laden with gold, whalers hauling barrels of oil, and the heavy trading brigs of the Coalition and the Empire alike. And Keith cannot deny the heady thrill of outmaneuvering ships two or three times the Songbird’s tonnage, or in seeing their pedigreed captains aghast as all their marines and mounted cannon fail to buckle one lone pirate sloop.
While his men laugh and make plans for how to spend their coin when they next find port, Keith sets a watch shift and begs off to the privacy of his cabin, which is downright palatial compared to the simple hammock he’d slept in for his first six years at sea. His current quarters are the coziest home he’s ever known, even if it’s only been a year.
A plush, intricately woven rug from a Taujeerian brig covers the worst of the blood stains seeped into the floorboards—a remnant of the previous captain, whose goodwill with the crew had suddenly run short. His bed, built into the starboard wall, is soft with stolen silks and fine cottons. Clothesline stretches haphazardly from wall to wall, his socks and breeches still damp where they hang.
Keith ducks under the line, lights lanterns one by one, and then throws open the windows at the back of his cabin, letting the nighttime breeze carry in the clean, comforting smell of salt and sea. He strips down to his shirt and breeches before bending over a basin of rainwater, washing his face and hands clean of black powder and smoke and dried blood—none of it his, this time.
Even with the door to his cabin closed and latched tight, the sound of the crew’s raucous celebration carries. There’s assurance in it, though. Keith keeps one ear trained on the drunken singing and shouts while he props his bare feet up on his battered desk and leafs through the scavenged leather journal he’s repurposed into a sketchbook.
He hums to himself while drawing fanciful things by lantern light, thinking of the stories his father had often told him before bed—when he wasn’t away at sea, that is, leaving Keith to the care of a neighborhood woman who would mind others’ children for a few pence per week. Mermaids and hippocampi with gleaming scales. The slithery tentacles of a kraken around a mizzenmast. Sea nymphs and feathery sirens, wet-haired where they emerge from pools of dark graphite and charcoal.
And when the lantern oil burns low and the celebration above deck has died to a murmur, Keith stows his sketchbook away and drops into his bed, charting tomorrow’s course behind closed eyelids.
The Songbird might be a small ship, but Keith wields the sloop’s flightiness like a blade, like a rapier.
She cuts clean through the waves as Keith circles his lumbering prey—a brig easily twice their size, the pale blue and white of the Coalition flag on full display—with both hands deftly spinning the Songbird’s wheel. They might only have a dozen cannon aboard, but slipping in close to strike at point-blank range lets Keith’s crew rip right through the brig’s stout hull.
The struggle is violent, but brief. The merchant ship’s captain and crew fight to the last, but they’re not swordsmen or sharpshooters. And once the Songbird’s hold is filled with their spoils, Keith steers clear of the brig as it’s slowly drawn under the waves, the groaning of the wood almost like the mournful song of some leviathan.
It’s a good bounty—enough to see them through another month’s travel to some lawless port where they can fence whatever they can’t put to use.
Keith’s spirits are almost as high as his boisterous crew’s. There’s a freedom unlike any other in being on the open sea, his hand at the helm. The sun is high and the skies are clear. A salt-flecked breeze toys with the locks of hair that have come loose from the tie at his nape. It’s almost idyllic enough to goad Keith into joining in on the sea shanty that the crew have started up while they sweep the decks clean, the sounds of song and sea reminding him of childhood visits to the docks on his father’s heels.
Almost. But as much as the words move him, Keith knows better. Nothing good has ever come from other people hearing his voice raised to sing.
A shadow on the horizon catches his eye, sighted well before any of the men on watch take notice. Keith wanders to the taffrail and pulls the lead eyepiece from its place at his hip, near his dagger.
The ship is still far off, but he can make out a few details. It’s an old frigate, larger than Keith’s sloop but still nowhere near the size of a proper ship-of-the-line. The colors of the Coalition Navy fly at her mast and a trim of reddish-orange runs the length of the ship.
“The Calypso,” Rolo reads out through his own lead eyepiece, and sure enough there is a lovely bust of the famous nymph herself at the bow.
Her aim is the Songbird, unmistakably. And while the Calypso ought to be slow, old and outdated as she is, Keith can’t help but notice that she’s slowly, steadily gaining on them.
“Is that a Coalition man-of-war?” Rolo asks somewhere beside him, thus far the only other crewman aboard to have noticed their distant shadow. “Looks like someone’s taken notice of our work.”
Without the eyepiece, the Calypso sits small and unassuming in the distance. Keith shields his eyes from the sun as he stares out over the glimmering waves, as curious as he is perturbed. The Songbird has never been tailed before, much less by a full-fledged warship.
“We could take her, Captain,” Rolo murmurs, eyeing him sidelong.
Keith doesn’t doubt it. He’s outmaneuvered ships thrice the Calypso’s size and half of it, and his crew is nothing if not vicious when it comes to blows.
“Not much value to be had in military ships,” he decides, weighing the aging frigate against the wealth of their usual targets. The Navy isn’t known for transporting silver bullion or spices worth pillaging, and it’s not as though the Songbird is running short on food, rum, or anything else. They can’t carry any additional cannon shot, either. “Not enough to make it worth the trouble of a fight.”
Rolo grunts, not quite in full agreement but unwilling to challenge his captain, either. “So… your orders?”
Keith turns back to the helm, the dark, well-worn leather of his fingerless gloves protecting his palms as he grips the wooden spokes of the wheel. “Have the men loose the sails. I’m taking us through that chain of islands we laid anchor in a fortnight ago.”
Rolo stares a moment longer than he should, brow furrowed under the grey-tan scarf wrapped around his head. But if he has doubts, he seems to think better of voicing them. His footfalls grow fainter as he treads down to the quarterdeck, relaying Keith’s orders to the crewmen in the rigging, all of whom have by now sighted the Coalition Navy frigate giving distant chase.
With full sails, Keith steers them toward a long ring of coral islands, bright and beautiful where they rise from the surrounding sea. The crew gathers along the railing as they get close, peering over the sides and into the water; there’s a gathering silence as they glance from the treacherous, hidden reefs lurking below to the man-of-war trailing behind them to Keith, who has eyes only for the sea ahead.
The Kuiper Atoll and its reefs are still largely uncharted, as far as Keith knows, but he needs no map to guide him through its perils. It’s instinct that lets him read the rise and fall of the sea, a gut feeling telling him to steer the ship just so. His father’s love of the ocean, perhaps, passed down into his blood.
With Keith’s handling, the sloop effortlessly glides through reef-fraught waters where the lumbering Coalition frigate would be hard-pressed to follow. And if the Calypso does take the longer, safer way around, they’ll lose precious hours in the process—and the Songbird, too.
With a comfortable distance and several jagged coral reefs between them, Keith finally turns to look back.
The Calypso is still well beyond the firing range of even long cannons, though the gap between them has narrowed. Already she seems to be slowing, aware of the dangerous waters that lay ahead if she is to maintain her pursuit.
Keith draws his lead eyepiece up once more, scanning the deck. The crew must number in the hundreds: seamen and sailors, marines with muskets and bayonet, royal Coalition officers in crisp blue uniform coats.
It’s the officers that Keith studies the closest, taking measure of the Calypso’s command as they run to and fro. They’re all cut of the same cloth—wellborn nobles sent to fine academies, born and raised with every privilege. Keith hunts through them, upper lip giving a faint curl, until he lands on a figure near the stern, blue-coated and sporting a captain’s bicorne hat.
He’s too far to make out a great deal of detail, but Keith can tell the Calypso’s captain is tall, well-fed, and dark of hair. That imposing silhouette—broad-shouldered under the peak of his bicorne, all white and navy blue—lingers in his mind’s eye long after the Songbird slips around the far side of an isle and loses her pursuer completely.
Not more than a week passes before Keith lays eyes on the Calypso again, the wind at her back as she chances upon the Songbird in the middle of a raid.
Keith is standing on the deck of a captive merchant ship, his crew scattered as they hunt through personal quarters and carrying holds, only half-finished hauling loot over to their waiting sloop.
He swears, turns on his heel, and calls out, “Take what you can carry and get back to the Songbird! Spread the word!”
The surviving merchant crew, currently bound and lashed to the mainmast and rails, begin to fidget at the sight of the pirates and their captain withdrawing.
Keith pays them little more than a sideways glance. He has chests and crates of loot to hastily move onto his ship, a crew to gather up again, preparations to be made—and only so much time in which to do it with the Calypso racing their way. “Raise the anchor! And keep moving, quickly!”
It’s anxiously slow going, moving what supplies they can across the narrow planks that join the two ships. Gold coins spill over and plunk into the water; a bolt of silk tumbles from Letch’s arms and falls in shortly after, bobbing in the murky waves.
Keith paces the gangway, equally frustrated watching his crew’s sloppy work and the ever-growing shape of the Calypso. “I want you ready to drop sail as soon as I give the word,” he orders, knowing minutes might make the difference in making a clean escape. “Ready the cannon, but hold for my word.”
His new boots snap hard against sun-dry wood as he storms up to the quarterdeck, taking the stairs two at a time. At the moment, they’re more or less dead in the water, having left their sails tied and anchor dropped while they ventured back and forth between ships. They’re at a decided disadvantage if Keith can’t get them clear of this damned merchant chipper and gain some speed.
While the last of the loot is carried over, he draws out his lead eyepiece and peers through it.
The Calypso is practically bearing down on them. Marines stand ready at the railing and in the rigging of the sails, their long muskets glinting in the sunlight. Her crew is a-stir, some drumbeat no doubt urging them all to their battle stations. And though Keith cannot see the Coalition captain amid all the flurry, he can picture his figure just as clearly as he’d sighted him in their last encounter.
Keith’s frustration is fever-pitch by the time they draw the boarding planks down and prepare to make way. “Drop those sails and bring me a shortbow,” he calls out, simmering as the dark barrels of the long cannon perched on the Calypso’s bow loom closer, clearer.
Keith dips an arrow into a pail of heated pitch left over from some last-minute repairs to the deck. With the first third of the shaft coated in tar-like ooze, he knocks it and leans toward a few of his crewmen. “One of you, give me a light.”
It’s Janka who fumbles for a lit lantern from below deck, holding it close to the tip of the arrow. It bursts into crackling flame, feeding brightly on the pitch. Its color flares bright even as Keith looses the bow and sends it shooting over the merchant clipper.
The arrow pierces its foresail, leaving a narrow hole that smokes before it conflagrates. The flames spread outward and upward in short order, devouring canvas and eating up the rigging that spans to the other sails, too.
Keith exhales heavily through his nose, a taut coil of anger and anxiety within him slowly unspooling. The blaze ensures the Coalition Navy will be obligated to stop and give aid rather than chase the Songbird further out to sea. It’ll be enough distraction to give them an out, but… it’s a closer thing than Keith would like.
As the sloop quickly picks up speed, the winds at their back carrying the scent of fresh ash and splitting wood, he turns to look back. The Calypso slows and her crew rushes to help the merchants tied up aboard clipper before the ship is consumed in flames, as he’d expected. And there on the stern, not yet sparing a glance for the beleaguered merchants, is the Calypso’s captain.
It’s the closest yet that Keith has seen him, and been seen by him. With a lead piece held up before his eye, the Coalition captain studies him just as intently—until Keith and the Songbird once again slip away.
They cross paths with the Calypso again in the Balmera Sea, although the Songbird is quickly forgotten when a cutter from the Imperial Galra fleet sails into view, Keith swiftly turning south while the two navy captains trade cannonfire. War still takes precedence over bringing pirates to justice, it seems.
Keith is grateful, if annoyed at the thought of that captain still roaming the same seas as him.
Barely two weeks pass before the Calypso comes upon Keith again. He spies her sails while pursuing a whaling ship worth its weight in oil, the Coalition frigate closing in quick enough that a few of her cannon shots sink into the water not forty feet shy of the Songbird.
Keith is forced to abandon his hunt for the whaler, taking flight before they can be caught. The breeze and the current remain in his ship’s favor, and his gunners fire a few parting shots toward the Calypso before they outrace the frigate entirely. They all fall shy of their intended target, to Keith’s simmering disappointment.
And he’s tempted—only for a moment—to wrap his hands around the spokes of the wheel and turn the Songbird around. To charge the Calypso head on. To fill the sides of her hull with craterous cannon shots and let his pirate cohort deal with the forty, fifty, sixty marines that must be stationed aboard, muskets at the ready. To find the Calypso ’s smug captain and put a blade through his ribs, staring him down one last time.
But there is more than his life and smarting pride at stake. There is the cost of taking such a heavily armed ship, a toll to be paid even if they are victorious. The Songbird’s crew have followed him this long only because he has not yet led them astray, and taking a ship of the Coalition navy promises no riches—only bloodshed and military rations.
Keith is an expert at evading damn-near anyone on the high seas, but the Calypso… she’s a blight he can’t quite shake. Her captain has it out for him, to be certain. The cursed frigate appears on the horizon again and again, trailing Keith like a prowling lioness chasing away a would-be scavenger.
It thwarts their raids. It keeps them away from port.
The crew begins to grow surly. Keith’s frustrations mount. Whenever he’s able to close his eyes for a few hours of sleep, it’s with the thought of the Calypso’s captain still simmering his blood.
That man. That arrogant nobleman, born with a silver spoon, who dares to pursue the Songbird so doggedly—Keith dreams of cornering him, ruining his wretched ship, and tying a cannonball to that man’s feet before dropping him into the sea. And when he wakes, that low lying anger begins to boil again, even without a sighting of their very determined ghost.
Days pass without a glimpse of the Calypso’s now-familiar sails and colors. And then a week. And then Keith sees the cursed ship no more, as suddenly as a squall can blow through and leave clear, periwinkle blue skies in its wake.
He still thinks of her captain, though, whether he’s walking the deck on watch at night or standing over the wheel. Strange to think that a man he’s never met, never known—some noble’s son who’d never look twice at him on land—might be doing the same, bitterly remembering the pirate he’d let slip away. If he still lives, anyway.
Four months pass and the reaping is good. Keith continues skirting around the fleets of the Coalition and the Empire alike, nimbly plundering the trade route with nary a glimpse of the Calypso to set his temper roiling. The Songbird is fresh off of another raid—a stubborn merchant vessel Keith had left to burn to the waterline—when a strong, sleek bow suddenly appears around the cliffside of a nearby isle, much too close for comfort.
For a heartbeat, Keith takes it for the Calypso, back to relentlessly hound them once again.
But he blinks, and it’s clear this is a different beast. It’s a Coalition ship-of-the-line, all clean, modern lines and fresh sails. It’s painted smoke-grey and trimmed in midnight black, with a snarling, three-headed wolf carved upon its bow. Keith counts two gun-decks and at least sixty canon.
“Kerberos,” Rolo murmurs beside him, squinting behind his eyepiece. “She’s new.”
And although this is the first time Keith has laid eyes on the Kerberos, he immediately recognizes the way it angles toward him, gliding smoothly through choppy waves—and the captain standing on its quarterdeck, lead drawn as he stares Keith down, too.
“It’s the Calypso ’s captain,” Keith grates out, having long thought he’d seen the last of him.
This time, there is no choice but a fight, and Keith is spoiling for it. He rouses the whole crew and has them make ready their pistols, their muskets, the cannon and gunpowder bombs. The Kerberos may be heavier and faster than the Calypso, but it’s still a fourth-rate ship; Keith knows all the steps to dance around those.
But even as Keith brings his ship into firing range, he can sense that something is different—not so much with the Kerberos as with the man who commands her.
It’s as if the Coalition captain halfway anticipates Keith’s every move. Usually, the Songbird can dive in and strike first, unleashing a full battery before their prey can even properly aim their cannons; here, the Kerberos is prepared for them at every angle, too deftly managed to be outmaneuvered at any turn.
And when they line up broadside for an exchange of cannonfire, it’s devastating.
At least twenty guns send heavy, iron cannonballs hurtling across the Songbird’s deck, easily outmatching the small sloop’s meager six cannons. Keith barely has time to drop to the floorboards as the plumes of white smoke waft from the gunports along the Kerberos’ port side.
The high-pitched whistle of incoming fire gives way to the awful shriek of splintering wood. The mizzenmast cracks clean in two, ropes snapping as it topples down across the deck. The ship groans as direct hits pierce the hull. And above Keith, the wooden wheel of the helm explodes in a burst of cedar shards.
His gloved fingers bury into the messy waves of his own hair as he shields himself, curled up small to avoid the deadly crash of cannonshot around him. Before the battery even ends, the screams of the wounded rise and resonate in the smoke-tinged air.
Ears still ringing, Keith pushes himself up to his feet and draws his flintlock pistol from his hip. There is no hope for the Songbird now—not with one of her sails toppled and the ship’s steerage shot out. But there is no hope in standing down, either. Capture means execution, even if the Coalition bothers going through the motions of a trial beforehand.
And if Keith stands and fights, there’s at least a chance he can take the Kerberos’ captain down to the bottom of the sea with him.
While the Songbird flounders, practically dead in the water, the Kerberos draws in close enough to board. Marine sharpshooters up in her rigging rain down musketfire on the pirate ship, picking off Keith’s crew two or three at a time.
Keith can’t reach the musketeers, but he can take aim at the seamen and soldiers swinging over to board his ship. He eyes one of the closer Coalition marines, taking careful aim; with a flare of sparks and smoke, the flintlock fires and a lead shot catches the soldier right in the flank, collapsing him onto the deck.
As Keith sees the barrel of a rifle swivel in his direction, he curses and scrambles behind cover. Wood cracks and splinters from another volley, and the sharp thuds of musket shots follow Keith until he slips below deck, out of line of sight. So much for facing off with the Kerberos’ captain—he’d be peppered full of lead before he took two steps in the man’s direction.
There’s no less chaos below deck. Bodies—and pieces of bodies—are strewn across the cannons of the gun deck. Blood and seaspray make the stairs slick. Daylight shines in through holes in the deck above, while the horizon can be glimpsed through the damage to the hull.
Keith can feel eyes on him. Glares, from the rest of the crew who’d slithered down here to escape the barrage of gunfire. They lurk in the shadows with sharpened swords and bayonets, ready to make their final stand; Keith is half expecting to be pierced through the back as he traces the familiar path to the captain’s quarters, his dark gaze lowered.
The ship under him groans, already listing as it takes on water. There is a hole the size of a platter in the wall of his cabin, and his bed is smashed to smithereens. Loose papers blow around the room, tossed by the sea breeze as it drifts in. A number of his finer paintings lie on the floor, the canvases riddled with splintered wood.
It doesn’t matter, now. In minutes or hours, the home he’d made for himself will be swallowed up by the ever-hungry sea—and Keith along with it.
It’s a better fate than being hauled back to shore and killed there instead, interred in some mass grave for criminals, landlocked forever.
He turns back to the door and waits, knuckles blanching as he grips his sword tight. There is a distant clash of steel as they’re boarded, Coalition soldiers fighting their way below deck. It’s an inevitability, at this point. Every pirate aboard will be put to the sword or left to drown or clapped in irons, and all mean death just as certainly.
Guttural screams give way to muted thuds, and then heavy footfalls. Keith swallows, the red scarf knotted around his neck feeling unduly tight, and waits.
He expects the glint of drawn steel and the crisp blue of a Coalition uniform coat. He does not expect to see the figure that darkens the doorway— a man of unusual height and imposing shoulder-width, the gold-braiding and embroidery on his coat marking him as a navy captain.
“Captain Takashi Shirogane. I’ve been waiting to make your acquaintance for quite some time.”
It’s been nearly a year since this man first appeared on Keith’s horizon, and it seems the last few months have ravaged the proud captain who once stood on the brightly trimmed deck of the Calypso.
His hair isn’t all dark anymore. A slash of white runs through it, just above his widow’s peak, with a snowy fringe falling across his damp brow; and gone is the military-style ponytail at his nape, his hair shorn so close that it barely covers the tips of his ears. A dark, freshly healed scar crosses the bridge of his nose, cheek-to-cheek. And, most noticeably, the navy captain’s right sleeve hangs limp and empty, pinned up at his side to keep from flapping in the howling sea breeze.
“I thought maybe you’d died,” Keith says, his voice witheringly dry.
“Almost,” Shirogane answers, the ghost of a cordial smile on his lips. “We have a name for you, in the service, but I expect it isn’t the one your parents chose. What am I to call you?”
“Keith.” Not that it matters, truly, so close to the end. Even awash with resentment and fury and mortal fear, Keith wonders why such a pedigreed man cares to know his name.
“Keith. Your ship is lost and your crew is either dead or dying,” Shirogane reminds him. The Songbird gives a lurch under their feet, as if echoing the sentiment. “But you can still live, if you surrender.”
So he can sit in a wood-barred cell and starve. So he can idle and wither in the darkness. So he can be dragged into port and hanged in front of a crowd, his body left upon some wall for days to warn children of the fate that awaits all pirates.
“I’d rather go down swinging,” Keith decides, lunging swiftly at the captain.
His sword meets the steel edge of Shirogane’s cutlass, the thrust aimed at the man’s heart cleanly turned aside. Pity.
Keith draws back, but only for half a heartbeat. He lashes out again, seeking to plunge his blade into flesh and bury it between bone, lancing somewhere through the captain’s ribcage.
But Shirogane weaves out of the way just before the blow lands, as smooth as the ripple of scales underwater. He advances just as calmly, the long, wicked sweeps of his cutlass forcing Keith back one step, and then another, until his shoulders brush the planks of a bookshelf.
He dives under Shirogane’s next strike, tumbling across the ruined floor before springing back to his feet, little wooden splinters sticking in the leather palms of his gloves. He huffs out a sharp breath, as the towering captain immediately turns on his heel, already swinging his blade down in an overhand strike that threatens to cleave into his shoulder.
With a wince, Keith manages to deflect it. The sheer force of the blow jolts the weapon in his hand and reverberates through his bones, down into the marrow.
Shirogane fights well, even missing an arm. Better than Keith expected of a man born into privilege, spared every cruel lesson on killing in desperation and fighting dirty just to live. From the sheer breadth of his frame and how thickly it’s plied with muscle, it’s clear that Shirogane never lacked for good meat, fresh water, or bread that wasn’t cut with sawdust. And for all his recent injuries, he still moves with an infuriatingly languid confidence—the kind Keith recognizes from a childhood of being expected to make way for his so-called betters—and holds himself self-assuredly, even at rest.
And one-handed or not, the Captain’s reach is perilously long. The strength he sinks into every swing would be enough to dig deep through flesh and sever narrow bones. But it’s his focus that unnerves Keith the most—stark and unflinching, as fixed on Keith as the North Star is in the sky. He’d spent months chasing Keith thousands of miles, down the coast and across the seas; it only makes sense that he’d be just as relentless in his pursuit now.
They trade blows once, twice, and then again, still feeling each other out for weaknesses. And perhaps Keith is overeager to end this fight when he whirls and brings up his sword in a backhanded slice, hoping to dig deeply into Shirogane’s defenseless right flank.
It’s as though the navy captain can hear his very intentions, though. He whips around to meet Keith’s strike with one of his own, his blade catching against Keith’s at just the wrong angle.
The force of the blow jars the sword loose from Keith’s hand and sends it rattling across the floorboards, well out of reach. Without missing a breath, Keith draws the dagger from his hip, the lavender-tinged silver flashing with every strike.
Shirogane might be surprisingly nimble for his size, but he has to tire eventually. Keith dances around the small cabin with him, striking at the captain’s wrist, at the crook of his elbow, at the soft belly somewhere under that fine, gold-studded uniform. He’s deftly parried at every turn, Shirogane’s swordwork as bluntly efficient as anything Keith has seen on the lawless stress of renegade port towns.
Usually, fine gentlemen officers aren’t quite so well-prepared to stand toe-to-toe with him. Keith ducks low and aims for one of Shirogane’s upper thighs, hoping to find purchase along that inner seam, to bite deep into the artery that will bleed a man dry just as surely as a slice to the throat.
Shirogane turns the blade of his cutlass downward and blocks the jut of Keith’s dagger like he’s fending off a viper strike. His sides heave with panted breath. “That’s a bit of a low blow, don’t you think?”
“Wasn’t going after your family jewels,” Keith assures, already moving into another whipcord-quick lunge.
His blade falls just shy of carving its way into Shirogane’s abdomen. Keith curses and tosses the dagger into his other hand, before the man can wheel on him again, and swings up hard and fast enough to finally take Shirogane by surprise.
The short blade plunges into the thick muscle of Shirogane’s right shoulder, slowing only as the tip scrapes over bone. The man groans through gritted teeth, his brows knitted tight at the lancing pain and the bloom of deep, dark crimson that wets through his uniform coat. His cutlass falls to the floor, forgotten somewhere alongside Keith’s sword. And for the briefest moment, Keith is certain he’s gained the upper hand.
A sudden, bare-fisted blow to his gut chases all the breath right out of him; Keith barely has time to double over before that same fist hooks him under the jaw, snapping his head back so sharply that he sees stars bloom across the ceiling. He stumbles a step backward, but Shirogane is already closing the gap between them, a cool fury writ across his features as he rips the dagger from his own flesh and casts it aside.
There’s a hiss of steel dragging out of its sheath as Shirogane draws the shortsword at his hip, the blade clenched in hand as he lunges forward, all mass and momentum. He knocks Keith back against the wood-slatted wall and then surges in with his left arm carried defensively before him, sword raised high.
And Keith—trapped against a splintered wall with no weapon and spotty vision—has nowhere to go.
The length of the shortsword rushes toward him, head-on, flashing silver before Keith’s very eyes. They flutter shut the moment before he’s run through, trusting the tempered steel will make short work of him.
A metallic thunk lands directly beside Keith’s ear. No piercing blade runs through his skull, but there is a rather powerful forearm braced across his throat, pinning him tight against the wall.
Out of the corner of one eye, he spies the shortsword that might have killed him. Instead, it’s buried into cedar planking—although close enough to Keith’s face to discourage much movement.
“Last offer,” Shirogane whispers, a ragged edge to his words. The heat of his breath ghosts across Keith’s cheek and up the shell of his ear. His eyes—like grey iron, melted down and ready for casting—glint in the cabin’s dust-filtered light. “Surrender. I know you’re no fool.”
“I’d be a fool to trust the word of some royal lapdog who wants to ferry me to my own execution,” Keith hisses through clenched teeth, lip curled up to show his canines. He squirms against the pressure laid across his throat. “I’d rather die aboard my ship than be executed on shore.”
A beat of silence follows, as heavy and still as the doldrums. The pleading parts of Shirogane’s expression wither into something grim and resigned, the thinned line of his lips settling deeper into place. Keith swallows down every uncertain, unseemly emotion that threatens to well up out of him, determined to lay bare no part of himself.
“Captain,” a voice at the door interrupts—another officer, soot-smudged and blood-stained, his flaxen hair unruly where it’s slipped from the tie of his ribbon. His gaze darts repeatedly to Keith, still bodily pressed into the cabin wall with enough force to keep the toes of his boots an inch off the ground. “We must disembark before she starts to slip under.”
A resonant wail rises from somewhere below, deeper in the Songbird’s hull—seawater filling the bilge, timbers groaning at the pressure they were never meant to bear.
Shirogane sighs. Despite the ship already beginning to buckle underneath them, he seems reluctant to break from Keith just yet. Voice drawn low and weary, he faces Keith once more and says, “I am a firm believer in second chances. I would caution you against rejecting this one.”
Keith’s first instinct is to bite back, to spit on the hollow offer and seal his own fate. His second is to wonder why this Takashi Shirogane is so determined to spare him.
“Unless you truly do believe your place is rotting at the bottom of the sea, with the likes of this crew,” Shirogane adds, a question hanging in those thinly whispered words.
Keith matches Shirogane’s steady stare with an unflinching look of his own.
No. No. No. Keith had never asked to be the keeper of a perpetually hungering beast, bound to keep his crew fed lest they tire of him and mutiny. That had been a means to an end—the freedom he found in charting his own course, and the comfort of a place to make his own.
The resolved set of Keith’s mouth softens, jaw unclenching. He sags back against the planks of the wall, relenting to the steady press of the captain’s forearm. “I surrender.”
Shirogane blinks, a little sigh trailing out between parted lips. If Keith didn’t know better, he’d say the captain was pleasantly surprised. Possibly even relieved.
“Mr. Holt. If you would,” Shirogane says with all the tone of a commanding officer, gesturing at Keith as he draws back just enough to let the captured pirate breathe freely.
Keith bristles as irons are clamped around his wrists, regret seizing him like a bad night tremor. He glances back over his shoulder as he’s summarily led from the cabin, gaze lingering on the bloodied dagger lying amid cedar splinters and strewn paper at Shirogane’s feet. He half considers asking to turn back for the blade, and then thinks better of it—he’d rather it be lost to the sea than taken for some minor nobility’s prize.
Keith is brusquely tugged along by a chain attached to the manacles, Mr. Holt clearly anxious to flee the sinking ship. Along the way topside, Keith steps over the bodies of his former crew—Nolan, Letch, Rolo—many of them still sluggishly bleeding out.
Keith walks the narrow plank that connects the Songbird to the Kerberos, well aware of a hundred sets of eyes boring into him. Stepping onto the Coalition frigate feels like setting foot on alien soil, intruding in a foreign land where he is already well-hated.
The deck is eerily quiet, even as Shirogane returns to his ship and checks in with each of his officers in turn.
Eight royal Coalition soldiers are laid out upon the floorboards, eyes empty as they stare skyward. Eight dead is the price of slaying the Songbird ’s crew and taking him alive; Keith is a little sore that the toll is so low, so uneven. It’s a stark and bitter loss.
The Kerberos’ dead will no doubt be mourned and wept over. They will be rendered their last rites and read passages for the dead. They will be stitched up in their hammocks and given a proper burial at sea.
Not so for the Songbird and the bodies she still holds.
With his boots planted firmly upon the Kerberos’ deck, Keith stands apart from the gathered crew, bound in iron and chain, and watches as the ship he’d called home for the last seven years succumbs to the waves and the inexorable pull of the deep.
The brig is far from comfortable, but Keith could do much worse.
His cell is clean. There is a blanket to cover himself with when nighttime’s chill creeps into the berthing deck. He is given three fair, square meals a day, which is far more than he’d expected, and plenty of ale to drink.
It’s a far cry from the comfort of his captain’s cabin, though, or even a simple hammock. He lies on the wooden bench that serves as a bed and stares at the creaking timbers of the ceiling, steadfastly ignoring the radiating ache from his jaw and the slight twinge along his ribs that comes with every breath.
Takashi Shirogane pays him a visit the day after the Songbird’s sinking. His officer’s coat is worn draped over his shoulders; heavy bandaging peeks out from under its collar, bound tight over the wound Keith’s dagger had left him. Two marines hover in the narrow doorway to the brig, keeping a careful eye on their captain.
“Mr. Keith,” Shirogane greets, as he stands at rest before Keith’s cell. His fine boots have been scrubbed clean of blood and wet gunpowder; the breeches and tapered waistcoat he wears are a crisp linen white, untouched by the stains of battle. “Did I knock any teeth loose?”
Keith sits up and works his sore jaw again, prodding at his molars with his tongue. “No.”
“You’re lucky, then,” Shirogane says, giving him a rueful smile. His shoulders drop a quarter inch, relaxing slightly even as the nearby marines stiffen at Keith’s lack of respect. “Are you comfortable?”
Keith keeps his expression stony and his voice dry. “As comfortable as anyone can be, under lock and key.”
“Good. Now,” Shirogane says, stepping closer to the stout, wooden bars of Keith’s cell, “I was hoping to learn a bit more about you.”
“About me?” Keith questions, as puzzled as he is mistrustful. “Like what? I never stashed buried treasure on any island, if that’s what you’re hoping for,” he snorts.
“Nothing of the sort. I am a curious man, is all. Pages and pages of my personal journal are dedicated to you,” he says, the slightest twist of wryness to his faint smile, “and yet I know next to nothing about the infamous captain of the Songbird. You made quite the name for yourself in no time at all.”
Keith grunts under his breath, gaze drifting to the greyed wood of his cell’s walls. Pages and pages. Good to know that he plagued Shirogane’s thoughts in turn. “Well, that means nothing now. There is no Songbird, and I am no captain.”
Silence trickles into the space that follows his words. Keith likes it that way—curt and final, hopefully inviting no more questions.
“It is rather remarkable for someone so young and informally learned to have commanded a whole crew,” Shirogane says, softer. “And to outfox two warring navies all the while. Who taught you to helm a ship? To read the currents?”
“No one.” Keith is in no mood to talk with his jaw still smarting. He crosses his arms and redoubles his efforts to stare at the wall, pointedly ignoring the quiet, prying look from the Kerberos’ captain.
A sigh reaches Keith’s ears, short and soft as it is.
“Very well, Mr. Keith. I will leave you to your rest, then,” Shirogane says, not sounding vexed in the slightest by the brush-off.
But he’s nothing if not persistent, Keith reminds himself.
“Is there a bounty on my head?” Keith calls out as the captain turns to go. “Some vengeful Altean countess or Arusian baron who wants me delivered alive?”
Shirogane halts mid-step, brow slightly furrowed as he looks back over his shoulder. “Not to my knowledge, no.”
Then he takes his leave, the two marines disappearing with him. And aside from a lone guard stationed by the door, Keith is left to himself.
It gives him ample time to think.
Keith has nothing left to his name—no ship, no crew, no coin. Not even his sheafs of drawings nor the dagger left to him by his mother, by way of his father. Even freedom eludes him.
But he’d acquiesced to the offer of surrender with one hope in mind: escape. He’s always been nimble and quick and scrawny enough to slip out of most bindings. Once they reach port, he’ll find a distraction—or make one himself—and take the opportunity to flee. He can lay low. Find a new ship, with a captain and crew he can tolerate. Take to the seas once more.
Or, if he can find a way to pick the lock on the door unseen, perhaps he could slip away once they’re close to shore. He could swim, if they weren’t too far out. He’s always been a strong swimmer. Or maybe he could steal a longboat and row, if the night watch could be silenced…
Keith marks the time by the regular changing of the guard. Nine shifts after his capture, he snaps awake from an uncomfortable nap.
The ship rocks underneath him with the uncomfortable, familiar pitch of sailing through storm-churned waters. But that’s the least of it—somewhere deeper in the berthing deck, the brittle rattle of a snare drum sounds, calling the soldiers to their stations. Shouted orders echo their way back to the brig. Boots pound across the hard oak above him. And as a peal of timber-shaking thunder dies to a purr, Keith can make out another uncomfortably familiar sound.
As the Kerberos rocks against the waves, the wooden bench in Keith’s cell begins to slide across the floor, and him along with it. He scrambles to the cell door and holds fast, cheek pressed against the wooden bars for better line of sight.
“Hey, you! Uncage me!” Keith calls out to the guard, who is braced within the doorway and fighting the sway of the ship. “Just until this passes. If she starts taking on water—”
A shrieking crash overhead drowns out anything Keith might’ve said next. A cannonball tearing across the deck, if he had to guess.
If the guard hears him, he doesn’t give any sign. Too busy praying under his breath and trying to stay upright as the sea tosses the ship to and fro with all the care of a spoilt child. Keith hangs his head and breathes deep, letting the worryingly strong scent of cold seawater wash out the rest of his thoughts.
Outside, the storm and the battle both rage on. The ship underneath him shudders as heavy cannonfire connects, and groans like a dying beast as her hull crashes into wind-whipped waves. Thunder shakes the very air around them. And amid the cacophony of crewmen and soldiers shouting to one another, Keith overhears a voice just beyond the brig’s entry.
“—at once—the Red Shrike, immediately,” some frantic soldier says, pitch and volume both rising. “—his orders, not to be—faster, damn you! Here, just give it—”
A marine suddenly slides into view of Keith’s cell, a small ring of keys clutched in hand. He’s drenched head to toe, utter misery etched in every line around his weary blue eyes. He slings his musket back over his shoulder and works the key into the padlock, scowling murderously at Keith the whole time.
Keith wonders if this marine was one of the ones up in the rigging the day the Songbird sank.
The Red Shrike. Is that what they call me?
He’d heard the name whispered behind him once or twice in port, but Keith had never imagined the moniker was in widespread use.
“Come on, you,” the marine snaps as soon as the door swings open, grabbing Keith by the front of his stain-splattered shirt and wrenching him out. “Captain Shirogane wants you on the quarterdeck. Try anything funny and I’ll shoot you in the gut myself.”
“With wet powder?” Keith asks, eyeing the rainwater dripping from both the musket on his shoulder and the pistol at his hip.
The marine’s lips thin even as his cheeks puff with a little huff of anger. A tinge of furious red lights over his cheeks. “Just move,” he bites out, shoving Keith’s shoulder and pushing him forward.
Keith goes without protest. He’s out of the brig, at least, and free to swim for his life if it comes to that.
The berth deck is chaos. Crewmen push past him carrying wounded on stretchers. The cannoneers fire in volleys that leave Keith’s ears ringing. Rain and seawater pour in from the hatches that lead topside, making the planks below deck treacherously slick.
Keith braces himself as he treads up the narrow stairs and emerges from the hatch, wind ripping at his clothing and icy rain pelting across his skin. The sky above them is like a mirror of the angry sea—dark and roiling, the clouds undulating with currents of air that would see them all dashed to pieces. The waves are white-capped and frothy, twenty-some feet high at their peaks.
And, in the distance, are two Imperial ships-of-the-line. Large ones. First- or second-rate, easily.
Keith’s stomach drops down to the soles of his soaked feet. A prod at his back sets him moving again, clinging to rigging and railing as he clambers up to the quarterdeck, trying to move with the natural sway of the ship.
“Mr. Keith!” Takashi Shirogane greets, shouting to make himself heard over the storm. His hat is gone. His waistcoat and shirt are soaked through, the fine cotton thoroughly stuck to his skin. Rain pours off of his soaked hair and runs down his brow, over the scar across his nose, and runs rivulets down his lips. “I am afraid I have a favor to ask of you.”
Keith can only stare, dumbfounded, at the gentleman captain who stands before him, his single hand gripped tight around a spoke of the wheel.
“Take the helm, if you would,” Shirogane says, expression utterly serious. “I cannot steer quite as well as I used to, and our acting helmsman is currently on the surgeon’s table.”
“Me?” Keith questions even as he surges forward and grips the wheel, grunting at how much it fights his every move.
“You.” Shirogane trades his grip on the helm for one on Keith’s shoulder. The lurch of the ship sends them skidding, holding tight to the wheel and one another as seawater spills across the deck. His mouth hovers right at Keith’s ear as he says, “There is no one more capable of steering us out of this hell than you. I trust you’d rather not drown?”
“Not today,” Keith says, gritting his teeth as he forces the wheel to move to his liking.
“Good! Now, the Ulippa Atoll is three points off the bow,” Shirogane continues, raising his arm and extending it out in front of Keith to point the way. He is close to Keith—by necessity, Keith knows, given the tumult of the storm—but every slip of their boots over the slick deck shifts him closer, plastered against Keith’s back. “I can make sure we sink the ship on the starboard side. Can you lose the other in the Ulippan reefs?”
Keith nods, certain of it. He’s sailed these waters before. He knows the shoals, knows the reefs, knows where the currents want to take them.
A faint, relieved sigh catches in the shell of Keith’s ear, barely audible under the heavy sheets of rainfall and the surging sea. A chill courses down his spine at the nearness of it.
“I thought as much. Lance Corporal McClain, make sure Mr. Keith doesn’t get washed overboard!”
With that, Captain Shirogane draws back, steadies himself, and carefully makes his way from the quarterdeck to the nearest hatch, disappearing into the gundeck.
McClain—the marine, looking no less miserable as he holds fast to the railing—glares at Keith, like it’s his fault he’s been ordered to stand atop the quarterdeck in the middle of a stormy sea battle.
Keith ignores him.
All confounding circumstances aside, he’s been entrusted with the Kerberos and all the souls upon it. Keith has no intention of letting her sink, whether by cannonfire or toppling waves—he is, after all, one of the unfortunates standing on her deck.
He grunts with the effort it takes to get the wheel turning as he likes, moving the ship’s rudder just so. The Kerberos is considerably bigger and heavier than the Songbird ever was, and there’s precious little time to adjust.
Seawater erupts in a violent spray each time the bow breaks into a cresting wave; icy water spills across the upper deck, sweeping away anything that isn’t lashed down. Wind howls through the ropes of the rigging and whips at the bundled-up sails, itching to tear the canvas to shreds. There are dim, distant flickers of fiery magenta each time the Imperial cruisers fire off another cannon volley, followed by the ominous whistle of incoming iron.
And through it all, Keith manages to carve a path through the chaos, driving the Kerberos against the waves to line her up sidelong with one Imperial cruiser.
It is brutal work. His fingers go numb around the spokes of the helm, palms blistering against the waterlogged leather of his gloves. He stands steadfast against every buffet of wind and shrieking near-miss of cannonfire, clutching tight to the wheel every time the ship tips and lurches.
Under his feet, in the gundeck below, the rows of cannon fire off in neat, well-timed volleys. They’re well-placed, too. Even from here, Keith can hear the crash of iron through wood.
The stern is battered with at least a dozen strikes, blowing out the rudder entirely. One lucky shot cracks clean through the mizzenmast, sending it toppling backward across the cruiser’s quarterdeck. The rigging securing it to the other masts snaps taut, frays, pulls at the timbers until they groan like a dying beast.
Pushed by wind and pulled by gravity, the cruiser’s mizzen tips overboard and into the stewing sea. Its topgallant sail unfurls in the water, quickly becoming a sea-anchor that threatens to capsize the whole vessel. Rudderless and hamstrung by its own mizzenmast, the Imperial cruiser lists and sways, veering into a dangerous lean that sends the hands on deck skidding overboard.
The Kerberos sends off one more merciless volley, piercing through the ship’s exposed hull while she struggles just to stay upright. The Imperial cruiser would’ve sank anyway, in all likelihood, but it seems Captain Shirogane likes to be thorough.
There is still one ship left to contend with, and Keith is determined to make good on his promise to outpace it. And this? This part comes natural to him, even amid the howling of a frigid squall and its whitecaps.
There is still a current underneath all the tumult. Keith leans the Kerberos into it, trusting the waters to take him exactly where he wants to go. Instinct guides his hands as they dance across the spokes of the wheel, careful to keep just out of the cruiser’s effective range.
The narrow gap between them grows, at first by a sliver and then by leaps and bounds.
Keith knows the reef-studded shoals that fringe this atoll—and not just from navigating these waters before, or studying the aged maps he’d inherited when the mantle of captain fell to him. It’s something innate. Something he’d assumed everyone felt, until he saw the bones of long-wrecked ships littering reefs and shorelines, and heard the whispers of awe when he effortlessly avoided the same fate.
Keith’s fingers ache as he weaves the Kerberos through unseen shoals, mindful of her larger, deeper frame. The storm hasn’t abated one bit, and there isn’t one inch of him that isn’t soaked and shivering.
“You… did it,” McClain says, somewhere behind him.
Keith glances back over his shoulder, hunting for the silhouette of the remaining Imperial cruiser; it sits small and distant, shrouded in a grey haze of rainfall where it ceased its pursuit.
Keith sighs and briefly lets his forehead rest against the back of his hand, atop the helm.
“You actually did it,” McClain says, closer this time. He moves to grip the railing in front of Keith, squinting at him through the rain still running down his face. “You—how did—I can’t believe you actually did it,” he murmurs again, dumbfounded.
“Wasn’t in the mood to drown today,” is all Keith replies, wearily taking the Kerberos through the rest of the Ulippa Atoll’s deadly reefs.
Within a quarter hour, the thickness of the storm abates. Fragments of blue sky appear along the fringes of the swirling storm clouds. And, for a little while, Keith is able to enjoy the feeling of standing at the helm of a ship once more, free to move as he pleases.
But he’s unsurprised when two water-logged marines march up the quarterdeck to retrieve him, trailed by an officer who glumly takes the helm, looking nervous even as Keith assures them that they’re clear of all the atoll’s worst.
Under better circumstances, Keith would fight off the hands that hook around his arms, gripping him tight as they lead him down the steps from the quarterdeck. Exhaustion has the better of him, though. Right now, he’d welcome that too-short bench in his cell and the thin woolen blanket it came with.
But they don’t even take him down the hatch to the berth deck, though—much less the cargo deck and its dark, lightless little brig. Instead, the marines make a hard turn and guide Keith through the officer’s quarters, where young lords and ladies gawk as he files past, and into the hall just outside the captain’s quarters.
“You’re to wait here,” one of the marines says as they open the cabin door and shove him in. “Captain’s orders.”
Keith stares at the two of them as the door draws shut, utterly confused. There is a dull, metallic click as a key turns in the lock, followed by the receding of footsteps.
Keith stands in the middle of Captain Shirogane’s quarters, dripping a small pond onto the polished floors, at a loss for what to do.
He shrugs off his red-dyed jacket and wrings out his hair, to start, tired of being sopping wet. Then he empties the water from his boots out the stern windows, marvelling at how calmly the sea now lays. Those storm clouds sit on the horizon now, just a distant blur. And the smell of rain gives way to the familiar salt-tang of a sunny late afternoon, warm and welcome.
Keith paces slowly around the fine room, taking in everything he can. Books and papers litter the floor, sent flying from their shelves during the storm. He picks up maps and charts and returns them to their tables. He sets right several astrolabes and sextants that have toppled over and rolled across the desk, along with a number of other astronomical instruments he doesn’t recognize. And, at last, he finds a few clean, neatly folded rags with which he can dry himself off.
Keith is still squeezing the water from the ends of his hair, shirtless, when a key turns in the lock and the door opens.
“Mr. Keith, I—oh. Pardon my intrusion.”
Keith has never before been shy of stripping or washing—hard to be prudish when he’s spent his whole life in close quarters with four-to six-dozen other men and women—but the slight, softly shocked parting of Shirogane’s lips makes him reconsider. He is, after all, treating the captain’s private quarters like it’s his own.
“I was drenched,” Keith says in his own defense, giving his hair another wring. If he’s going to be flogged, he might as well finish drying off first.
But Shirogane looks far from outraged or offended at Keith making himself comfortable. His expression is mostly weary, likely from the battle, and after the shock fades, a subtle amusement settles in.
“I imagine so.” Shirogane closes the door behind him and moves to join Keith at the small dining table currently set up in the middle of the room. He lays a stack of dry, laundered clothing within Keith’s reach. “I had the acting quartermaster locate some spare clothing that might do for you. I realize the color is probably not to your tastes, but…”
But it’s blessedly dry, and these clothes smell of soap and saltwater rather than sweat and gunpowder.
“I… I’d take anything clean, at this point,” Keith admits, impulsively reaching out to thumb the soft linen in shades of cream, khaki, and sun-faded blue. Then he thinks better of sullying them with his touch, his dirtied, blood-smeared fingers curling as he withdraws.
“You’re welcome to use my washroom to clean up, first,” the captain says, nodding to the narrow room that offshoots from the cabin. “Take your time.”
Keith does, if only to help settle his shifting thoughts.
He has long grown accustomed to mistrust and mistreatment. He can weather it like a bad storm. He can recognize it, close himself to it, thicken his skin against it. But this?
He leans over the water basin and scrubs himself clean, indulging in the scent of the captain’s soap. It’s fragrant—cedar or cypress, maybe, with a touch of something like lemon. It stings a little against the open blisters and slices across Keith’s hands, but in a medicinal sort of way. And it cuts cleanly through a week’s worth of sweat and grime, leaving Keith’s skin soft and supple and pleasantly scented.
While he works the lather through his hair, Keith’s thoughts turn again to the man sitting just a few yards from him, on the other side of the door.
The one who’d convinced him to surrender to save his own life. The one who’d given him the helm to his own ship in the direst of moments. The one who’d praised his skill and banked on it. And then brought him fresh clothes.
They’re a little large on him, and a little loose. Keith doesn’t mind it.
He steps out of the washroom in the new linen trousers and flowy, cotton shirt, feeling refreshed. He leaves his soiled clothing in a bucket by the door, atop some old wash rags.
Captain Shirogane still sits at the table, blinking as he’s startled from his thoughts by Keith’s return. He smiles—reflexively, maybe, because it doesn’t quite reach his eyes this time—and motions for Keith to sit with him once more.
He looks just as worn out as Keith does. And dirtier. A sweep of wet gunpowder has dried along his brow. Blood flecks the white of his collar, like a bit of arterial spray caught him. His clothes are still damp, as is his hair, and it’s difficult for Keith to reconcile this very human man with the one he’d once only known from a distance, standing proud atop the Calypso as he chased the Songbird from merchant to whaler.
“So,” Keith says, groaning as he settles down into the chair, “does the entirety of the Coalition navy know me as the Red Shrike?”
“It is certainly one nickname for you, yes,” Captain Shirogane says, the bleak edges fading from his smile. “I think the Songbird inspired that. You had such a reputation, but we didn’t have a proper name to call you, so…”
“In your journal,” Keith continues, idly picking at a stubborn splinter still lodged in the fleshy pad of his thumb, “do you write of me as the Red Shrike?”
“A few times,” the captain says, leaning back in his chair and sighing. “I had a different name for you, though.”
Keith glances up, curious.
Captain Shirogane’s breath hitches, hesitant despite his smile. “Eurybia’s Star,” he sighs a moment after, looking slightly sheepish. “The sea always seems to work in your favor. I thought it might only make sense, if you had her favor somehow.”
“Eurybia,” Keith repeats, head tilting.
“An ancient goddess. Her realm was mastery of the seas. Something you seem to have in spades,” Captain Shirogane says, his grey-eyed stare roving over Keith’s bemused expression. He studies Keith like he’s a fine painting with endless detail, trying to commit it all to memory.
“Is that why you gave me the helm?” Keith questions, inwardly shying from the way the captain looks at him—intensely, but without spite or condescension or any of the things that Keith knows well. “I doubt many navy captains would allow a lowly, throat-slitting pirate to steer their command.”
“I doubt very many navy captains would’ve survived such a wicked storm, then. Much less with two Imperial ships giving chase.”
That’s true enough.
“You’re not half bad yourself,” Keith says, recalling how many times this very man had followed him like a blight, finding him time and again in the wide expanse of the sea. “You vexed me for months. You were my undoing, Captain Shirogane.”
Shirogane has no reply for that. His stare finally lowers, avoiding Keith’s eyes in light of the reminder—and how strange that is, coming from a man who is no stranger to arresting or executing pirates. And then his head cocks gently to one side. “Are your hands injured?”
Keith looks down at his open palms, raw and red from the saltwater and the rubbing of his gloves. “Blistered. Been a long time since they’ve done that,” he murmurs, more than a little peeved.
Captain Shirogane holds out his hand, two fingers gesturing for Keith’s. “Here, let’s have a look.”
For a moment, Keith just stares at him. This is the same man who put his crew to the sword and threw him in the brig. The same man who, bound by the Coalition’s maritime laws, is ferrying him to an execution in port.
And then, tentatively, he extends one hand, and then the other.
Shirogane peers down at the two palms laid there on the table, the skin worn and split and reddened from gripping splintered railing. His own fingertips brush featherlight against Keith’s, encouraging them to lay flat while he looks over the damage.
And then he rises and rummages through a nearby drawer, fishing out a bottle of rum and a thick pad of cotton bandaging.
“We have a good physician aboard—Dr. Holt, as you’ll doubtlessly meet him—but he’s currently up to his elbows in grievously wounded men. This ought to keep anything from spoiling in the meantime,” Captain Shirogane says as he lightly dabs at Keith’s hands with a rum-soaked cloth.
It stings, but it’s nothing that Keith can’t stand. And it’s a mild, negligible pain compared to the strange kindness of someone else tending his wounds, however small they might be.
“I like your soap,” Keith comments, wincing as Shirogane manages to pull free that one last splinter. “Smells like a forest.”
“I’m glad you enjoy the scent. It’s made with hinoki oil. My mother always sends me enough to last a year,” he says, smiling. “I, ah, notice that you took the liberty of picking up the mess around my quarters. Thank you.”
“I had nothing else to do while I waited. I didn’t read anything of yours, if you’re worried about it. Can’t read, so…” Keith trails off.
“No such worry crossed my mind,” is all Shirogane tells him, still gingerly dabbing at his hands.
He wraps each of Keith’s hands in clean cotton gauze, more careful with him than Keith has ever been with himself. The bindings are nice and snug, too—surprisingly so, for being done one-handed.
“Thanks.” Keith gives his hands a testing little flex as soon as the captain pulls away. He’ll heal in short order, and hopefully without any hint of infection.
“It’s a small repayment, Mr. Keith, considering your service to the Kerberos and her crew. And to myself.”
“Just Keith will do. No one has ever called me mister-anything.”
“If that’s your preference,” Captain Shirogane says, taking the correction in stride. “Keith.”
A silence ensues. Keith wouldn’t call it comfortable, but it isn’t… it isn’t unpleasant, either. As the minutes slowly crawl by, filled only by the bustle of the young officers down the hall and the calls of gulls trailing behind the ship, Keith sighs.
“When will your marines be back to haul me down to the brig?”
Captain Shirogane’s smile is soft. His wind-chapped lips part, drawing in a half-breath before he speaks. “That is entirely up to you, actually. The way I see it, Mr—ah, Keith,” he corrects, “we have two courses of action. There is the one you are familiar with, which entails a trial in the nearest Coalition court.”
“Followed by an afternoon hanging in the village square,” Keith tacks on, nodding. “Yeah, I’m familiar. What’s my other choice?”
Shirogane clears his throat. “You are a very capable fighter and a natural at the helm. If I were to have my say, you would join my crew.”
Keith laughs. His jaw aches worse for it, but he can’t hold back the biting, bitter sound. “I’m a pirate. I stabbed you a week ago, or maybe less. It hasn’t even healed yet, has it?”
“Not quite. That’s beside the point, though.” Captain Shirogane leans over to a side drawer and pulls out two squat glasses. They clink as they’re set on the table, right between them, and he wastes no time filling them both with rum.
Keith downs half his rum in one swig. “Is that why you were so damned set on getting me to yield to you? So you could recruit me into the Coalition?”
“Partially. I’d be a fool not to want someone as fierce as you fighting under our banner,” Shirogane says, his dark eyes narrowing. “It is a war, after all. You’ve seen firsthand how harrowing it can be. And I am not above doing the unorthodox if it helps keep my crew alive.”
Keith can’t fault him for that. It’s more honest—more real, more desperate—than he’d expected from someone of such social standing and rank.
“And… I admire the way you sail, Keith. Hated the way you put it to use, but it would be an egregious lie to say that I didn’t feel a spark of excitement watching you do it.”
“Watching me pillage your merchant ships?”
“I did not enjoy fishing drowning sailors and waterlogged corpses out of the flotsam you left behind, no,” Shirogane says, the pitch of his voice dropping to something low and laced with warning. “But the way you’d take flight and outmaneuver every other ship on the water? That was always a sight to see.”
“And here I thought you were chasing me because I was a scourge to you. One you were determined to vanquish.”
A muffled sound of amusement starts and stops behind the sealed lips of Shirogane’s slight smile. “I was determined to confront you before anyone else could, I suppose.”
Before another captain could catch the Songbird and see its every last pirate hanged—Keith included. Keith mulls on that as he drinks, glad for the warmth of the rum in his belly.
“Would the Navy Board even allow it?” he chances to ask, still not quite daring to believe the outlandish optimism of the offer.
“I have the connections to ensure they will.” Spoken with the plain confidence of a man who has bent the system to his favor before.
“Would the crew even accept me? Stomach me?” Keith stares into the dark liquor swirling at the bottom of his glass.
Captain Shirogane exhales through his nose, his sigh chest-deep. “I lost eight good soldiers and sailors taking the Songbird. Another twelve today, and Dr. Holt expects two or three more to pass overnight. The crew will learn to stomach you, Keith, and to respect you. Hell, possibly even to like you. Knowing Mr. McClain, tales of your masterful seamanship are probably being spread from bow to stern already.”
Keith snorts into his glass as he polishes off the last of the rum. He drags his finger around the rim, thoughtful. “And you? You’d trust me here on your ship,” Keith says, squinting as he tries to read every little shift of Shirogane’s expression, “wandering loose while you sleep?”
“Hm. How deeply do you begrudge me for the Songbird?” Shirogane asks, more curiosity than apprehension in the little tilt of his head.
It occurs to Keith that the man might be too inquisitive for his own good.
“She was mine,” Keith murmurs, still mournful for all that he’s lost—his home, his dagger, his ability to roam the seas as he pleased. “I came of age on that ship. I made it my own. It was all I had, after my father went and died. That and my mother’s dagger, and now even that’s gone, too.”
Keith blinks at the note of recognition and realization in that one little utterance. The rum’s slowed him a little. He stirs in his seat as Shirogane retreats to a locked drawer behind his beautifully carved desk, unlatching it with a click.
The captain returns with a bundle of ribbon-wrapped silk in hand, the fabric all grey and white and gold in a pattern like honeycomb. He gently lays it in the middle of the table, well within Keith’s reach.
“It seemed like a unique weapon. Meaningful, probably. I made sure to retrieve it before we departed,” Captain Shirogane says, carefully unfolding the silk scarf to reveal the familiar sight of Keith’s dagger snug in its sheath.
“I thought—I’d hoped to return it to you, at some point. Once I was reasonably assured that it wouldn’t immediately be turned against me,” he says, the words almost playful, but the glimmer of warning in his dark eyes reminds Keith of the sore jaw he’d endured for days. “Or anyone else aboard.”
And Keith only has eyes for his dagger, lying there on a bed of fine silk, well and safely kept. He reaches out, glancing up at Shirogane for any objection, and brushes his bandage-wrapped fingers over its hilt. It slips free of the sheath with the utmost ease, silent as a fog bank. “I thought it was lost forever.”
The weight of it feels just right in his hand. His fingers curl around the woven leather of the dagger’s grip, comforted to hold it again; he rolls his wrist and watches as the mellowing rays of dusk glint off of the blade.
“How deeply do you begrudge me for stabbing you?” Keith wonders.
Captain Shirogane smiles. “I’d be a bit more surly if you’d gone for my good arm,” he says, winning the smallest of laughs from Keith. “As it is, I hold no hard feelings for you. I can’t say with certainty that I’d have acted much differently, given your position.”
Not the admission Keith had expected. There is an evenness in the way the Kerberos’ captain speaks to him. With him. It doesn’t feel like a noble-blooded, high-ranking dog of the Coalition condescending to a criminal, the way Keith had expected. Strange, that he would find sympathy here, of all places, and in a man who by all rights could’ve strung him up in the rigging for the fight Keith had given him.
“You’re more forgiving than I would be,” Keith says, eyeing the bottle of fine rum where it sits between them. Even at his poorest, he’d had his reputation—quick to anger, quick to blows, quick to make men twice his size regret crossing him—and at times, it had made all the difference between life and death.
Shirogane hums. “I have the leeway to be forgiving.”
Keith runs his thumb along the worn, salt-softened leather of the sheath in his hand, eyes fixed on his lap. He can still hardly believe it’s here rather than at the bottom of the sea, alongside the broken Songbird.
“I think you belong on the sea,” Shirogane sighs, his gaze turning from Keith and out the stern windows, where dusk is already blooming along the distant horizon. “Not on a gallows. If you would stay—if you would swear an oath to serve—then I can ensure you remain here.”
“Not much of a choice, is it?” Keith asks. Imprisonment and death await him on land, while Shirogane offers him some degree of freedom at sea.
“No,” Captain Shirogane agrees, and not unkindly. “But I’ll still leave it to you.”
Keith would have to be a fool to turn down such an offer, and he didn’t survive this long without the wits to occasionally swallow his pride. He can keep his head low again, for a time. He can wait until this too-trusting man inevitably drops his guard—probably within the month. He can jump ship as soon as they’re anchored in some port bay, or steal a longboat in the night and glide away unseen.
“Alright, Captain,” Keith decides, giving Shirogane the barest nod. “Just do me the favor of stationing me well apart from that marine, McClain.”
“Not a big enough ship to avoid that, unfortunately, even if I wanted to,” Captain Shirogane says, cracking a smile. He reaches for the rum and pours again, just as generous as before. “I think the crew will grow on you. Eventually.”
Eventually. Keith doesn’t plan on being around long enough for eventually to take root, but he can stomach almost anything for the time being. The warm, smooth burn of Captain Shirogane’s rum doesn’t hurt, either.
Aboard the Kerberos, under Shiro's wing, Keith comes into his own.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
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.
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.”
“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?”
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.
The song Keith sings is a portion of Dragon Age's "She of the Highwaymen Repents," with a little tweaking.
As always, you can find me here on twitter!
In the aftermath, Keith wakes and searches for Shiro.
there is more violence in this chapter! and minor character death
The voices around him are muffled, as if he’s still trapped underwater—or perhaps they are, calling out to him from under the waves.
Cool water laps at the soles of his feet and spills around his ankles, tendrils of seafoam clinging to his skin. Wet sand cradles him. A hand cups around his face and pushes back his damp, tangled hair.
“Shiro?” he murmurs, his dry lips splitting as they’re put to use.
Shiro had washed his hair, once, after Lance accidentally spilled half a lantern’s worth of oil down on him from the crow’s nest. It could be his palm sitting warm on Keith’s chilled skin, and his fingers brushing aside the strands of hair still clinging to his damp skin.
“Keith! Keith. Keith, it’s us! You’re alive. I don’t know how, but you’re alive.”
Keith’s eyes crack open by a sliver and the sun above blinds him. Groaning, he blinks until Pidge’s grime-streaked face swims into focus; Hunk hovers just a foot further behind, wringing his hands.
His whole body aches, every muscle and tendon in agony as he forces himself to sit up, foamy water pooling around his calves. Nearby, more refuse from Kerberos lays strewn across the beach—personal effects, crates of rope and splintered planks, heaps of wet cloth cast up like dead kelp.
The ship herself sits capsized in the island’s natural bay, caught fast on a jutting rise of volcanic stone. It’s a pitiful sight, the home he has known for years now suddenly upended. Gone. It tugs Keith’s heartstrings into knots, but not more than—
“Shiro,” he murmurs again, looking hopefully to Hunk and Pidge. Keith knows, however much his stomach twists and drops at the thought, that Shiro is long gone from his grasp. He isn’t ready to face it yet, though, much less tell the others. “Have you seen him? Did he wash up, too? Is he…”
Hunk’s gaze slides to the side, avoiding Keith’s eyes. His waistcoat is spotted with crimson and his sleeves stained up to their elbows, and Keith guesses the casualties from the strike must be dire. “None of us have found any sign of the captain yet.”
With a deep, dispirited sigh, Pidge adds, “Come on, Keith. Let’s get you to my father so he can give you a look over.”
It takes three days for a merchant ship to happen upon them, drawn in by the black smoke of the pitch they’ve been burning day and night.
It’s lucky that the Kerberos was only a couple of days out of port when they set anchor that fateful night. It’s lucky that they were stranded right along an oft-used trade route rather than some uncharted island. It’s lucky that many of the ship’s supplies washed ashore with the survivors, keeping them sheltered and well-fed while they waited.
For Keith, though, who had spent those three days pacing up and down the shore, frantic with the thought of what Sendak might be doing to Shiro at this very moment, whatever fortune smiled on them is of little comfort. Too much time has been lost already, and every additional hour of travel grates at his wafer-thin patience like a blade over a whetstone.
Keith dutifully helps bury the dead and ferry the injured to their savior merchant ship. When he boards it himself, all he has to his name are his dagger and the gloves Shiro gifted him—and Shiro’s violin, too, its waterlogged case having washed ashore not far from where he first woke. Keith doubts if it can be made to play again, but…
It’s important to Shiro. Precious. A gift from his mother, passed down from her grandmother, and so Keith will keep it safe in the meantime, until he can find Shiro and bring him home.
It takes another four days to sail back to port, and Keith spends the whole voyage curled in on himself in a hammock, feeling like a powderkeg awaiting a spark. His eyes are raw and red-rimmed. He can’t bring himself to eat, even when Hunk brings him broth and threatens to spoonfeed him. At night, he tussles with obsessive thoughts of sneaking above deck and taking the wheel—the merchant ship sails too goddamn slow for his sanity, and Keith knows he could push her faster—or outright stealing a longboat and rowing out to sea.
But that would be madness. Foolishness. Without a ship of his own, the only way Keith can chase Shiro down and save him is with the might of the navy alongside him, and reckless impulsivity will only get him locked in a stockade somewhere, of no help to Shiro at all. He knows this.
Matt and Lance take turns keeping vigil over him anyway, as if afraid that he might jump ship at any moment.
And when Keith’s cold, paralyzing despondency abates long enough to let him lapse into half an hour of restless sleep, he dreams—of the risen Songbird carrying him to Shiro with full sails, of hunting Sendak like a phantom ship haunts the living, of ripping apart the Purification’s hull with his bare hands, if he has to.
The seaside city bustles all around Keith, who stands at the docks and once more seriously contemplates commandeering one of the ships sitting in port. It would be damn near impossible to pull off, but after waiting so long for the admiralty’s response, Keith is itching for it.
Because the longer they delay action, whether to seek and recover Shiro or to offer a generous ransom for him, the likelier and likelier it is that Sendak will have—
Keith can’t bring himself to pursue that line of thought. Time and again it makes him dizzy with rage, his stomach turning itself into corkscrews. His hands clench tight, their knuckles blanching bone-white as Keith forces himself back into a state of willfully, stubbornly-kept patience.
Shiro is alive.
He is. He must be, Keith reminds himself, both because he cannot fathom any existence that isn’t shared with Shiro and because the Galra are too opportunistic to slaughter a prime bargaining chip like the renowned Captain Takashi Shirogane, the champion of the Coalition Navy. But even if Shiro’s life is deemed too valuable to waste on a blood grudge, there is no reason to think that Sendak won’t find some other way to sate his personal desire for vengeance.
Before Keith’s thoughts can spiral back down that same dismal path, swift, direct footsteps across the sun-stained planks pull his attention back to the here and now. He spies Lieutenant Matt Holt from the corner of his eye and straightens up, nerves buzzing at the terrifying promise of news.
“When are we leaving?” he asks, rushing to meet Matt Holt more than halfway. “Did the queen issue a ransom for him? She’s so fond of Shiro,” Keith babbles out, thinking of all the times Shiro had told him about the hunting parties and masked balls he’d attended in her company when he was younger. “She would pay any sum of gold for his safe return! I know it.”
Matt’s mouth parts, a hesitant, hopeless little sigh slipping out. He meets Keith’s pressing stare with a weary look that doesn’t lack for compassion. “If the Galra cared to exchange him for gold, then yes, the queen certainly would.”
There is a dim resignation in the way Matt says it. And as he gives a thick swallow and stares at Keith, quietly imploring him to understand, Keith finally does: the Galrea Empire won’t ask for a ransom, and neither would they accept one.
They won’t give Shiro back so easily, if at all. They have a golden goose of a prisoner—a beloved friend of the Altean queen, who is surely suffering just knowing Shiro is at the mercy of the same people who once razed her kingdom, and a dreadfully accomplished navy captain in his own right. The Galra will ask instead for things that would truly bleed Queen Allura to give: embattled territory, trade routes, broken blockades, returns of prisoners who had committed heinous crimes against the Coalition and her people. They will keep Shiro just to lord his captivity over her, to cause her anguish no matter what she chooses.
“Does the admiralty have a lead on where Sendak might be, then? Where the Purification was last sighted?” Keith asks, following close on Matt’s heels as the lieutenant turns and walks toward a shady, empty stretch of dock. No negotiated trade for Shiro’s freedom means that the navy will have to forcibly take him back. “The longer we wait, the more likely it is he’ll be transferred to Beta Traz. We have to hunt down Sendak before that happens, or else it will be ten times harder to free him—”
“Admiral Sanda won’t hear it, Keith,” Matt interrupts, a hand squeezing bruisingly tight around Keith’s shoulder, shaking him slightly. “And all of the admiralty is with her. Even the queen cannot sway them.”
For a split second, Keith reels. Matt’s words wash over him once, twice, and then again. And if it were him, the Red Shrike, who’d been captured, he’d understand the admiralty’s unwillingness to stage a rescue. But it’s Takashi Shirogane who is at stake—a much-loved captain with a loyal crew, a noble bloodline, and perhaps the most impressive victory record in naval history.
“But… we have to bring him back,” Keith says, the words dumbstruck and weak. His shoulders slump as all the weight of the realization crashes over him. “They wouldn’t leave him in the hands of the Galra! Of Sendak! They wouldn’t…”
But Matt’s stony expression and the thin rim of red around his eyes says, yes, they would and they are, and all Keith can think is that he had gotten much too comfortable in his navy uniform, stepping to the beat of their drum. Lax. Lazy. Too trusting, if he ever bought for a moment that the people sitting at the top give a lick about anyone toiling under them—even a beacon like Shiro, born of the right stock and blessed with all the right connections.
Keith’s blood boils, fumes, threatens to steam him from the inside out.
“So, you’re giving up?” he accuses Matt, a hiss sliding through the narrow gaps of his clenched teeth. He advances with fire in his eyes, spitting venom. “After everything he’s done for you and me and everyone else, you’re going to fuck off and—”
“Keith! Rein yourself in,” Matt whispers in his lieutenant tone, leaning in close enough to shock Keith’s eyes wide open. “The only ones giving up around here are the admiralty. They’ll say it’s a damned shame, what happened to Shiro. They’ll publically honor him and mourn him. They won’t chase him to the gates of hell, though.”
They won’t. They won’t. Frustrated tears sting at the corners of Keith’s eyes, unwilling to be blinked away. Anger and absolute futility wage a total war inside of him, making his stomach shrivel and his heart ache, and Keith wonders if any part of him will be left whole after the wracking emotion passes.
“But I suspect you would,” Matt continues, his eyebrows lifting.
“If I still had a ship,” Keith grits out, hating how helpless he feels. If he still had his Songbird, he’d be pursuing Sendak already, night and day; he’d be burning down any vessel that dared cross his path along the way, too.
“That’s what I figured.” Despite the tiredness written around Matt’s eyes, he smiles. From his breast pocket he fishes out a wax-sealed envelope and a weighty leather satchel, passing both to Keith. “This comes courtesy of a certain royal who would very much like Shiro safely returned, though her own hands are tied.”
As his arms are filled, Keith’s heart begins to lift again.
“Now, to give chase with a ship of the Coalition navy, you’d have to get the whole crew to mutiny—which is probably why they went to great pains to divvy up the Kerberos’ seamen across a dozen new stations and assignments, myself included,” Matt explains, giving Keith a rueful half-smile. “So, she passed along her recommendation of a captain and crew who might be suitable to hire out for such a perilous, time-sensitive mission. Of course, you’re also free to assemble a team of your own making, if you’d rather.”
Keith would, truthfully, but time is short and Shiro’s life hangs in the balance.
He rips open the envelope and finds it reads, Lotor, captain of the Sincline. The rest of the perfumed, finely pressed paper suggests various ports where Lotor might be found, given recent reports. One such place isn’t too far up the coast, in a lawless little Unilu inlet.
In all his time as a pirate, Keith had never once crossed paths with Lotor at sea or in port, but the fallen prince’s story had understandably traveled far and wide—Emperor Zarkon’s only son, disgraced and exiled, who turned to piracy and preyed solely upon his father’s own fleet. Keith can surmise why Allura would suggest such a man to him as a makeshift ally in this dangerous pursuit.
Within the accompanying satchel, Keith spies the glimmer of silver and gold minted into thin bars, stacked atop each other to the tune of a considerable fortune. He blinks. Then he swallows, stuffs the letter and the gold into the bag slung over his shoulder, and pushes Shiro’s water-warped violin case into Matt’s hands.
“Hold onto this for me, until I’m able to bring him back,” Keith says, his voice wavering. “Keep it safe.”
Matt nods, the surprised part of his lips soon settling into a grim little line.
Keith’s fingers linger on the intricately carved mahogany, not quite ready to let go of this last little piece of Shiro he’s been able to carry around with him. But he has a mission, now, and the means to carry it out.
And Shiro needs him.
Keith takes passage on a ship destined for the nearest favored port of the pirate prince, hoping the timing will be right; he can’t afford to spend weeks hopping from one seaside city to another while Shiro is held prisoner in enemy hands.
The moment he disembarks, he starts searching the names of the ships moored along the docks, his heartbeat ringing in his ears. There are crafts from Empire and Coalition territories alike, here, and pirate banners of all stripes. Keith still recognizes many of them, though it’s been years since he set foot anywhere this lawless.
And then he sees it, moored on a dock halfway across the bay: the Sincline.
Just a few hands are milling about the deck, loading and unloading, and so Keith sets off toward the seedy, bustling port city that lies ahead, the rowdy cheers of its streets drifting over the darkening waves.
He steps quickly through streets lined in freshly lit lanterns, peering into taverns and bars along the way. He ignores the calls of street vendors and fences looking to buy stolen goods, sharply rebuking any that get too pushy and slow him down. A few drunks eventually point Keith to a gaudy inn at the far end of town when he asks if they’ve seen Lotor or his crew around, and Keith soldiers toward it with his head lowered and his shoulders hunched forward.
It turns out the imperial prince is easy to spot in a crowd. At a gambling table set up in the back of the inn, he sits at the center of a flattering crowd of men and women, a languid picture of royalty despite his one-time fall from grace. A silky curtain of white hair spills down over his shoulders, bright against the cool brown of his skin; his chin rests against the curled fingers of his left hand as he watches the others at the table roll for a pile of gold and gems, a half-smile struck across his lips.
And Keith doesn’t bother with any niceties as he forces his way through the crowd, pushing aside the figures encircling the betting table in the hopes of getting Lotor’s attention.
It works. The boisterous voices in the crowded room lower to a murmur, all eyes on this new-coming intruder. Lotor’s attention slides to him, a displeased little curl to his lips; then his chilly expression shifts in a blink, more intrigued than annoyed.
Suddenly, Keith finds himself eye to eye with a woman with dark, jaw-length hair and a pointed face. She places herself squarely between Keith and his line of sight on Lotor, pointedly eyeing the dagger and sword both worn on Keith’s hip. A thin Galran accent trails off of her every word as she asks, “And who are you to interrupt His Highness’s game, exactly?”
“Acxa, it’s fine. Let him through,” Lotor calls out from behind her.
Acxa’s glare doesn’t wane as she takes a half-step to the side and allows Keith to brusquely shoulder past, the rest of the crowd giving her plenty of breathing room.
Lotor’s chin lifts as Keith comes to stand straight across from him, those hands wrapped in Shiro’s gloves resting on the gilded edges of the table, heedless of the gold coins and trinkets piled up along its borders. He squints, a delicate crease between his brows as he studies the man who’d stormed in and ruined the partying mood.
“Keith, isn’t it?” Lotor asks, a satisfied little flicker of recognition moving across his otherwise still features. “The one who let the Coalition clip his wings and turn him into a dog of the navy. Although, considering where we currently are… are you perhaps back to going by the Red Shrike?”
“No. Just Keith.” The moniker had never been his choice, anyway, and those days are long gone, even if he is turning back to his pirate ways, in a sense. Keith ignores the rest of Lotor’s thrown barbs and bites out a short, “Let’s talk.”
Lotor’s eyebrows lift, surprised by the sudden demand. His pleasant smile belies the sharpness of his voice as he asks, “Do we have business together?”
Under the watchful eyes of Acxa and Lotor’s other loyal guards, Keith draws out six or seven of the gold bars he’d tucked away in his jacket and tosses them onto the table, the precious metal clinking as it tumbles toward Lotor.
The prince looks down at the thin bars of Altean-minted gold, his head cocked.
“I have more than enough to afford your attention,” Keith assures him.
Curious, Lotor picks up one of the golden bars and flips it between his fingers, his smile slowly returning. He looks from the Keith to the offering on the table and then back again. “Very well. Let’s speak in private, shall we?”
Keith shoulders through the packed crowd to follow Lotor as he rises and leaves the gaming hall, flanked on either side by Galran women of intimidating presence. The guards station themselves outside of the heavy door that Lotor leads him through, leaving the two of them alone in a finely appointed suite with plush, mismatched furniture and luxurious clothing strewn about.
Keith sees no point in wasting time.
“You were recommended to me,” he immediately announces, handing Lotor the letter bearing Queen Allura’s handwriting.
It was left unsigned, but the note’s flowing script sparks an instant flicker of recognition in the disgraced Galran prince. He lifts the perfumed paper to his nose, pensive as he breathes in the faint smell of roses and juniberry; as if assured of the letter’s veracity, Lotor sighs and reads it once more, his thumb stroking along the letter’s scalloped edges.
Keith dumps a small mountain of gold and silver over the nearby divan, hoping it will further tempt Lotor to agree to his terms. By comparison, though, the prince seems far more taken with the sparse little letter.
“And what exactly are you hoping to hire my crew for?” Lotor asks after a moment, finally tearing his eyes away from the queen’s handwriting.
“A personal favor to Her Majesty,” Keith answers, tactfully drawing on what little background Matt had given him before they’d parted ways—that Lotor and Queen Allura knew each other as children, before war spilled over between their kingdoms, and the prince had never lost his fondness for her. “To hunt down a ship of the Imperial fleet with immediate urgency.”
“And sink her?” Lotor questions, for the first time looking doubtful—looking for the catch, probably, since it is well known that he has a great passion for plundering and sinking his former Empire’s ships.
“No. Not—not right away, at least. I need to rescue a prisoner from her brig, first,” Keith explains, his own nerves making his hands tremble around the satchel still holding half the gold. If Lotor denies him here, he really will have to steal a ship and press its crew to serve him. “I don’t care what you do to the Purification after, but not one cannon shot can touch her while he is still on board.”
“Ah,” Lotor sighs, content to have found the tricky stipulation he’d been expecting. He relaxes a hair as he peers down at Allura’s letter, then at the gold and silver, and then back to Keith. “That is a markedly more difficult endeavor, then. Tracking an Imperial ship at sea, sneaking aboard undetected, locating a captive, breaking him free, and escaping unharmed?” he muses aloud. “Hm. Those are not winning odds.”
Keith’s jaw clenches, and so do his fists. If he thought fighting could sway Lotor to do his bidding, he would in a heartbeat; as it is, he thinks he might have to beg and promise away years of his own life in service instead.
“But this is quite a lot of gold, and I happen to have a vested, personal interest in seeing Sendak driven to the bottom of the sea,” Lotor murmurs, the lengthy nails of his fingers strumming against the nearby table.
Keith pauses in the middle of worrying his chapped lower lip, gaze darting up to Lotor. “You know him?”
“Quite well, unfortunately. He was always one of my father’s favorites, and Sendak made sure I was very aware of it,” Lotor drawls, a shade of something murderously dark creeping into his otherwise pleasant expression. “If he went through the trouble of taking your man alive, I am afraid you will be quite lucky to retrieve him in one piece.”
“Sendak will be lucky if I find Shiro in one piece,” Keith corrects, feeling fire and brimstone in his blood. “Anything less and I’m taking it out of his hide.”
That’s not quite true, though. Keith means to kill Sendak, regardless of Shiro’s state when he finds him. Preferably in the most devastating manner possible, although he knows better than to be picky about it.
Lotor’s smile is as sharp and canny as the rest of his features, and under any other circumstances, Keith would never grant him even an ounce of trust. Under that polite, cultured veneer lies a man just as willing to wade neck-deep into bloodshed as Keith is, and just as practiced at it. All the fine breeding and trappings of wealth in the world cannot disguise what Lotor is at heart—a murderous pirate, much the same as Keith, who primarily trades in vengeance and grudges.
“I think we can do business after all, Keith,” Lotor decides, already reaching for a bottle of champagne left sitting on one of the room’s mahogany tables. Even his softest grin somehow manages to be hungry and sharklike. “And I think we are going to get along.”
The Sincline moves fast, but Keith is certain he could sail her faster.
Acxa glowers at him from behind the helm when he suggests as much, and Lotor swiftly steers Keith away from the quarterdeck before his sailing master makes good on her cold-blooded threats to ‘swab Keith across the deck and then let Zethrid wring him out to dry.’
Over the following days, Keith is tense and agitated from sunrise to moonset. He eats in ravenous fits or not at all, depending on whether anger or mournfulness grips him. Sleep rarely comes to him for more than an hour or two at a time, and not just because he is the lone newcomer on an unfamiliar ship, both his life and Shiro’s hanging in the care of strangers bound to him only by gold and a disgraced prince’s word.
He has surprisingly few issues with Lotor’s crew, overall. Keith knows his quick temper and bitter moods are not their fault, even if this awareness does nothing to curb his misery; Lotor’s surprisingly disciplined pirates seem to warily understand, giving Keith a generous berth whenever he stalks his way around the deck, knuckles bone white as he resists the urge to seize the ship for himself and pursue Shiro more fiercely.
“Come drink with us,” Ezor says to him on the fourth morning of their departure from port, peering at him upside down from the rigging, her legs wound through the heavy, hempen ropes like a carnival acrobat. “All the sulking in the world won’t help us find Sendak any faster, you know. You need to sleep, at least.”
Keith… can’t argue her second point. He has to be ready to act if and when they find the Purification, and at the moment he is practically dead on his feet. The alcohol might help put him down for the night, at least, and force his anxious mind to let his body rest.
So, with his shoulders squared and a tired scowl plastered on his lips, Keith follows Ezor’s bouncing steps to the open air of the upper deck, where several dozen people have gathered with bottles of rum and mugs of beer in hand, laughing and singing under the stars.
For lack of any better company, Keith fills himself a cup and gravitates toward Lotor’s side, deciding to press his luck and urge the prince to let him guide the Sincline to Sendak’s ship. He can’t take the wheel himself—no one but Shiro would ever trust him to do such a thing in such short order—but he can at least try to point the way. Try to do something other than mill endlessly about this ship, utterly useless as he waits for word of a sighting that may never come.
“It’s been three days already,” he mutters, just loud enough for Lotor to hear him over the rousing shanty the rest of the crew is belting out. “We can’t keep wasting time when it comes to finding Shi—Captain Shirogane.”
“I have us shadowing a frequent channel for Imperial cruisers, Keith,” Lotor tells him for the fourth or fifth time. “Our current course offers us the best odds of crossing paths with the Purification on its way to or from Naxela, Feyiv, or Daibazaal. Or are you capable of divining your precious captain’s location at will?”
“No,” Keith answers, his voice hoarse. He sips at his rum just to wet his lips. “But… I have a feeling.”
“A feeling,” Lotor repeats, his head tipping back as he lets out a short, sharp laugh. “Almost ten years I have spent hunting down the emperor’s armada, learning all the best places to strike them, and you think we ought to throw out all my planning to chase—” he pauses, his stare sliding to Keith before the rest of his head lazily turns in his direction—“a feeling.”
“A powerful feeling,” Keith amends, hissing the low words between his teeth. He lets his eyes slip shut, drawing on the shallow well of patience he’d made for himself over the seasons spent by Shiro’s side as he wills himself not to spoil his best chance at finding Shiro. “A meaningful one. I might not have sailed as many years as you, nor felled as many Imperial ships, but I have a strong sense of the sea, too.”
Lotor scoffs. “I was recommended to you for my expertise, was I not?”
“And our overlapping interests,” Keith murmurs. His hands wind tighter around the half-filled cup in his hands; frustrated, he throws back a long swig, jaw stiffening as the rum burns a fiery trail down his throat. “Look, I can’t explain it to your satisfaction, but I can find him faster than we will on our current course. I know it.”
Maybe it’s the hard liquor in Lotor’s stomach that does it, but the prince heaves out a long sigh and swaggers up the stairs to the quarter deck, beckoning Keith to follow.
Acxa still stands at her post, unmoved by the choruses of sea shanties and peals of half-drunken laughter wafting up from the main deck. Her sharp gaze pierces the both of them in turn before settling questioningly on Lotor, her much-respected captain.
“Fine,” Lotor continues to Keith, waving an arm in the direction of the helm. “It is your man and your gold hanging in the balance—or Allura’s, rather, that she entrusted to you. Even if you sail us in circles for the next six days, I will still get the other half of what I am owed and she cannot hold me at fault. So knock yourself out.”
“Y-Your Highness,” Acxa snaps out, astonishment writ across her stern, pretty features. “What are you saying?”
Keith ignores her, along with Lotor’s attempt to assuage his most loyal follower’s outrage. He closes his eyes and breathes deep and thinks of Shiro. In his mind, he reaches out—through sea waves and salt air, and hopes to find some answering flicker of presence.
At first, there is nothing. Keith’s brows pinch, troubled at the empty feeling that settles over him. And then he wonders what the hell he’d been expecting. It’s not as though his soul is tethered to Shiro’s, after all. They stand separated by leagues and leagues, as good as a world apart, and Keith isn’t really blessed by any goddess of the sea, no matter what a certain starry-eyed captain had once fancifully mused in his private journal.
As he thinks of Shiro anew—the brightness of his smile, the depths of his eyes, the affection that rolls off of him like the fragrant island flowers Shiro would carry back on board to brighten his cabin—a little twitch runs up Keith’s fingertips, like they’re missing the spokes of the wheel under them. A gentle billow of wind folds around him, lifting the loose ends of his hair and ghosting over his skin, as close as a whisper. It feels like an answer.
“South-southeast,” Keith says, an even, certain calm overtaking the thin, fraying desperation that’s gripped his voice for days. The tension bleeds out of his stiffly set shoulders and clenched hands. His eyes open again, and Keith senses what he cannot see—a glimmer lost somewhere in the distance, beyond the horizon, like a fallen star. A beacon meant for him alone.
“This is a farce, Lotor,” Acxa grits out, exasperated with the both of them. “A folly. You cannot seriously be considering indulging him in this!”
But Lotor merely stares at Keith, his expression pinched with a mix of puzzlement and shrewd doubt.
“Just do as he says, Acxa. Let our esteemed guest set the course,” Lotor rules before immediately taking another swig from his glass. He meets Keith’s gaze and gives him an accommodating, faintly grim smile. “Let us hope, for your very dear captain’s sake, that your gut inclination outweighs all my better sense.”
Acxa is the first to quietly murmur a shocked apology to Keith when they glimpse the Purification less than two days later—a mere speck on the horizon, deliberately kept distant enough that Sendak won’t realize he’s being tailed.
Lotor’s crew abruptly crackles with excited gossip and speculation. Many have their own grievances with the Empire, Keith has noticed, and all hold a great deal of loyalty to its one-time prince; they are keenly thrilled by the prospect of finally bringing down Sendak, too.
And it goes beyond that, now, of course. Plenty of the crew had overheard Keith’s willful talk of a gut feeling he needed to chase, laughing to themselves about it the morning after when they thought Keith was out of earshot. Now, the crew whispers amongst themselves more speculatively, looking askance at Keith whenever he passes. Red Shrike is murmured behind his back more than once, along with sea witch and seer, and Keith nearly rolls his eyes. He would’ve, probably, if he weren’t already so full of gratitude and relief at the thought of having Sendak within striking distance and Shiro’s rescue close at hand.
As they distantly trail the Purification, Keith thrums with energy. If he were still the man he was two years ago, he would be raging like a wildfire right now, charging ahead at full tilt. As it is, Keith is tempered enough to rein himself in—for a short while, anyway, well aware that his best chance of saving Shiro will come if they bide their time a touch longer.
“Tonight, then,” Keith tells Lotor as soon as he is invited into the captain’s cabin, only the shade of a question in his eyes. He can wait no longer to pull Shiro from Sendak’s clutches. “There will barely be any moonlight at all for them to spot us by. It could be our last chance for a clean strike before they make the approach to Beta Traz.”
Lotor nods where he sits leaned against his desk, a glass of white wine already in his hands. “Tonight. And how exactly do you want us to go about this business of rescuing Mr. Shirogane?”
Keith exhales heavily through his nose. Ideally, he wants as little interference from Lotor and his crew as possible—less chance of someone slipping up and making his own mission harder. “No engagement until Shiro is free and clear of the Purification. We douse every light and silence every bell, and after nightfall, Acxa can bring us closer to firing range. I’ll take a longboat the rest of the way to the Purification by myself, kill Sendak, free Shiro, and beat a hasty escape before the whole ship is roused. You swoop in to pierce her hull and sink her, and we’ll rendezvous with you once the battle is done.”
Above the rim of his wine glass, Lotor’s eyebrows lift. “Kill Sendak?” he asks, licking his lips as he sets his drink down on his desk. “Better to avoid him and focus on finding Shirogane. The man has all the cruelty of my father and twice his muscle. You do not want to go toe-to-toe with him, I promise. Better to let him drown with the rest.”
“Shiro is my first and foremost concern, always,” Keith tells Lotor, matter-of-fact. “But yes, if I cross paths with Sendak, I will not let him live. I will sleep easier —Shiro will sleep easier—with the certainty that he is dead.”
“Very well. It is your business, in the end. I will make sure you have a longboat outfitted with anything you might possibly need and do my best to assist you.” Lotor frowns and primly crosses his arms, a slender finger tapping along his bicep. “And what are we to do if your efforts go awry?”
“If you should perish along the way,” Lotor says, shrugging his shoulders. “If you should become trapped within the bowels of the Purification yourself, thrown into the brig beside your Shiro. What then?”
Keith hadn’t considered it. Saving Shiro is a must. He cannot fathom any thread woven into his future where he fails to bring him back. “There’s no reason to worry about that. I would break every bone in my body if it meant saving him. And I won’t die before he’s safe.”
Lotor sighs and rubs at one temple. For a moment, he looks annoyed enough to argue such a foolishly sentimental answer to a question of strategic contingencies; then his peeved expression smoothes into one of begrudging acceptance.
“If it were anyone else making such sensational claims, I would dismiss them out of hand. With you, I am increasingly inclined to believe.” He considers Keith for a moment, looking for all the world like he wishes he didn’t lend so much credence to those bold vows. “There is something strange about you, Keith.”
Inwardly, Keith is thrown by the sudden admission. Outwardly, all he can do is agree. “Aye. A pirate of ill-repute risking it all for the navy captain who sank his ship and took him captive. I have heard many times that it’s a difficult turn of events to fathom—”
“Not that,” Lotor cuts in, gracing him with a cool smile. “Although, yes, I find your devotion to the man who snatched away everything you had made of yourself to be quite unusual as well. I mean that you, Keith, are strange. In your way of being.”
At Keith’s growing frown and the deepening furrow between his brows, Lotor clears his throat and continues.
“I grew up around the occult, you know. After my mother’s death, my father turned to advisors who claimed to know fortunes and spellcraft, each of them promising him conquest and victory. And I thought most of it to be absolute codswallop, of course, but…” Lotor trails off, his gaze distant and his posture shifting uncomfortably. “There were instances where I did wonder if maybe there was something unfolding beyond my understanding. Some force I did not recognize.”
“I felt that way again when you stood there and picked a direction to chase, and now it has led us right to the Purification.” A stilted silence follows. Lotor picks up his wine and drinks again, then peers into the glass like he wishes it were something stronger. “I am a man of science, first and foremost, like my mother before me. But I will be damned if there is not something unnatural about the way you work.”
“Unnatural?” Keith questions, beginning to bristle where he stands. “I am only as I have ever been.”
“I mean it in the least offensive terms,” Lotor says, doing his part to look charmingly reassuring. “Do you truly not feel some inkling of it as well? I heard so many rumors of you during your days as the Red Shrike. At the time, I took it for superstitious gossip, but it seems there is more truth to the chatter than I had realized.”
His eyes narrow, studying Keith more intently. Lotor’s head tilts, and Keith thinks he sees a cold shadow of Shiro’s brilliant curiosity in those vibrantly blue eyes—wonder without the glow of admiration behind it, all fascination unbridled by soft looks and caring thoughts.
“There is something extraordinary about you,” Lotor decides, his intense, prying gaze finally flitting away from Keith. “I wish I understood it.”
Hah. Little chance of that, given that Keith barely understands it himself.
Years at sea have shown Keith that few, if any, can sail the way he can. Others don’t listen to the waves and hear the tides’ will, nor feel the kiss of sunny salt air and know a storm brews beyond the horizon. It is strange, the way he can carve a path through perilous reefs on instinct alone, dancing around the splintered carcasses of less fortunate ships.
His life has been marked by these quiet curiosities, he supposes. The dagger left from a mother he had never met, its blade keener than any whetstone could ever achieve and marked with a faint, unrecognizable inscription. His lonely, empty childhood, bereft of that sense of belonging in the company of other people. The unsettling, frightening reactions to his singing—barring his father and Shiro, of course. And, perhaps more than anything else, there is his preternatural luck upon the waves.
Keith’s mouth thins into a firm line. He has nothing to say that will sate Lotor’s curiosity, and no interest in doing so besides.
“Tonight,” Keith reminds the prince as he turns on his heel and heads for the door, knowing he needs time to dwell on the task at hand. “I’ll go make myself ready.”
The longboat settles quietly into the lapping waves, its faint outline nearly swallowed up in the moonless dark. Keith clambers down the rope ladder lashed to the side of the ship and settles down, feeling around himself for the oars. Above, a handful of Lotor’s crew murmur their wishes for his good luck and a safe voyage. The captain himself merely stares down at Keith from the railing, expression unreadable, and then sweeps away to make the Sincline ready for the imminent assault.
Alone in the longboat, Keith starts rowing with quick, powerful strokes, his eyes fixed on the receding shape of the Sincline.
Not a single lantern nor candle is lit aboard the ship. Any polished metal or glass that might catch the wan light of the slivered moon, the sprawling stars, or the distant flashes of lightning crackling along the horizon has already been covered in burlap or black shoe polish. The crew still lingering along the railing watches Keith depart in utter silence, their inky silhouettes quickly fading into the all-consuming dark of the night.
And Keith rows, and rows, and rows. It is a fair distance between the Purification and the Sincline, which lies in wait just out of the Imperial cruiser’s range, and he is only one man. The black waters under his little longboat seem to buoy him along, though, giving way gracefully as his oars cut into the waves, helping him to race toward Shiro before Sendak’s crew realizes they’re not alone in this stretch of open sea, and before the storm he now sees billowing in the distance whips its way here, too.
There is no time to waste. Shiro needs him, and Keith needs Shiro safe and well in his arms.
Keith rows as close to the Purification’s lumbering, creaking form as he dares. Her sails are drawn, tied up tight for the night so that the ship doesn’t drift off course. A few watchmen along the railings seem to have noticed the distantly rising storm on the horizon and are busily trying to gauge whether their ship lays in its path.
Keith is grateful for their distraction.
Letting out a silent sigh, he peels off his gloves and leaves them in the longboat, along with the crimson coat he’d taken to wearing once the navy made it clear that without Shiro standing behind him, they had no desire to tolerate his presence at all. He strips off his boots, too, and sets them neatly on the boat’s floor; his pistol and long, heavy sword are left beside them. With just his mother’s dagger secure on his hip, Keith hoists himself over the side of the longboat and slips silently into the water.
He swims the final distance to the Purification’s stern, gliding just under the inky surface of the water as often as he can. The sea around him is pitch black and endlessly vast, its depths a void and Keith a mere speck flitting along its borders. The salt water is cool enough to make him shiver, leeching at his heat and bogging down the fabric of his clothing.
Keith dives under the surface once more, holding his breath and hoping no night watchmen happens to look over the railing and spy the ripples of his movement. The sea around him is deafening, already astir from the storm building to the west, and the groans of the Purification’s wood and iron reverberate through the water like a beast rumbling in its sleep.
Once within the ship’s umbral shadow, the crown of Keith’s head slowly rises out of the water—just to his eyes, first, peering up to make sure he is unseen, and then he lifts his chin and allows himself a measured breath.
His ribbon slipped loose at some point, that red silk lost somewhere in the waves behind him. Keith’s hair pools around him in a dark, sleek curtain, inkier than the water around him. It plasters to his skin like sheets of seaweed as he rises up out of the ocean, his blunt nails scrabbling for purchase along the Purification’s slimy, slippery timbers.
It is after midnight. The ship is quiet, aside from the occasional whistles and calls of the crew above deck, keeping watch on the lightning that sparks in the distance. Keith pulls out his dagger and delicately sinks it into the wood of the hull, in the sealed crevices between slats of oak, and inchingly hauls himself up the sheer side of the ship’s stern.
Above him is the window to the captain’s cabin, sitting unlatched and open. Keith chances to reach his hand up for the sill, praying that Sendak is either asleep or roaming elsewhere aboard the ship, and holds his breath as he heaves himself up and into the roomy quarters.
The pads of his bare, trembling feet settle on dry wood and the plush weave of an Imperial rug. Cold saltwater runs down Keith in rivulets, his hair and soaked clothes dripping. It pools under him and slowly starts to leak through the cracks in the floorboards. He must look a terrifying, half-drowned mess, like some water wraith risen to drag others down to the bottom of the sea.
Keith even feels like a water wraith, dripping with grim purpose and conviction. Especially as his gaze settles on the other figure standing in the darkened cabin—a broad, hulking silhouette that he can barely separate from the shadows yet recognizes in an instant.
Sendak. He looms there half-dressed, his scarred, sun-scorched skin bare from the waist up. A mane of beard and dark, unruly hair frames his severe, square-jawed face. A gilded eyepatch still covers his right eye—the one he’d lost in the same engagement that took Shiro’s right arm. His other eye is opened wide, taking in the sight of the slight, drenched man who just crawled in through his window.
Keith’s sides still heave from the exertion of scaling the Purification’s water-soaked hull, but it is murderous intent that drives him to pant like a cornered animal . His fingers tighten around the grip of the dagger in his hands, every drop of his blood alive and abuzz with the need to kill before Shiro suffers even one more indignity.
Keith expects Sendak to roar out for aid, to alert the marines, the crew, the masked, cloaked druid that always accompanies any Imperial ship. Instead, Sendak’s astonished expression turns, and for a moment Keith would almost think it admiring.
“You,” Sendak whispers, a cruel smile stretching across his lips, baring sharp canines. He doesn’t raise his voice or even give the slightest hint that he finds Keith’s intrusion a grave cause for concern. “You’re here for him, are you? Too late, I think. He’s less resilient than I’d taken him for, which hasn’t made for much in the way of entertainment.”
Sendak takes up a sword lying across the nearby table and lumbers toward him, his remaining eye alight with a cruel flicker of excitement. He makes lazy slashes through the air as he advances, passing just shy of meeting flesh as Keith dances backward. There is an arrogance to the way Sendak moves, a swagger—perhaps because Keith is less than half his size and armed with only a dagger. Or perhaps because he thinks to take Keith alive, if possible, and eke from him whatever sadistic pleasure he felt Shiro had denied him.
And though Keith is weary and shivering, ferocity ignites within him like a lightning strike to kindling, all his pent-up rage finding an outlet at last.
He surges toward Sendak like the fluid crack of a whip, ducking under the deadly sweep of the long sword before springing up like a wolf lunging toward a bared throat. It’s been a long time since Keith has fought as desperately as this—barefoot and barely armed, set against someone who easily dwarfs him, and he almost feels like a wiry half-child on the streets again.
Sendak reacts just quickly enough to turn his blade down toward Keith, aiming for his throat. It’s a near miss—Keith twists his head in the nick of time, and the sword’s edge catches him along the jaw instead. The blade scrapes jarringly over bone before sliding up along his cheek, slipping away just before reaching his right eye.
Keith never slows, gritting his teeth through the glass-sharp sting as he throws himself toward the behemoth of a man. Once in close, he grabs Sendak’s outstretched swordarm, wrenching his wrist around until the bones within pop and the sword falls from his hand. Before Sendak can cry out, Keith swings his other hand around with venomous strength and drives his dagger into firm, heavily muscled flesh.
The blade sinks into the base of Sendak’s throat, its honed, piercing tip backed with enough force to sever through sternum and spine. Blood burbles out at once, thick and warm where it laps against Keith’s wrist and courses down his forearm.
At last, Sendak tries to call out for his own, all pride cast aside, but all that issues from his mouth is a wet sputter, little flecks of spittle and foamy blood dotting his lips. His burly hands tear violently at Keith, nails raking over his slick skin, trying desperately to twist his arm or wring his neck. But Keith stands his ground as unflinchingly as a reaper, unrelenting until the last furious, disbelieving hiss dies on Sendak’s tongue and his one remaining eye goes vacant and unfocused.
And then Keith carefully, carefully bears his heavy body to the floor of the cabin, wary of making any further sound. He takes a moment to steady his breathing, staring at the cooling body on the floor as it bleeds out onto that fine, handwoven rug. Necessity demanded he kill Sendak quickly and cleanly and silently, and it irks Keith to know that Shiro’s tormentor got off easier than he deserved.
But he needs to move on, and quickly.
Keith’s cold, damp feet pad along the wooden floors of the unfamiliar ship. Outside of the cabin, all is still quiet. Keith pauses, listens, and then steals through the dark, cramped halls and down narrow stairs, clinging to the deepest shadows. With his back pressed to the wall, Keith holds his breath as one of the crew on the middle watch ambles past, yawning. Then he’s off again, darting his way deeper into the Purification’s hold, where the brig most likely lay.
Sure enough, he sights a narrow compartment lined with stout wooden bars ahead. Across from the brig, an Imperial marine idles, half-asleep on his feet.
Keith makes devastatingly quick work of him, driving his dagger deep into the guard’s throat to choke off any sound that might slip out. Wild, fearful eyes fix on him, mouth opened wide in shock; the guard is younger than Keith, barely grown into the uniform he wears, and once upon a time that wouldn’t have bothered Keith at all.
Years at Shiro’s side have softened some of his blunter edges, though, in this way and many more. Keith doesn’t flinch away from the dying guard’s last little gasps, watching until he’s certain there is no more threat. Then he wrenches the blade back out, lets the guard’s limp form crumple to the floor, and turns away.
Within the tiny, barred prison lies a body curled up on its side, facing one of the brig’s solid walls. Keith’s heart burns in his chest at the sight of Shiro drawn in on himself so pitifully, his skin sallow under mottled bruises and his sides fluttering with shallow breath. He whispers out Shiro’s name, wanting to reassure him that someone finally came to rescue him, that he isn’t alone anymore, that he’ll be safe soon.
Shiro doesn’t move.
Keith grabs hold of the bars and gives them a testing tug. He bypasses the lock completely and instead jams his dagger into the hinges that hold the door in place, trusting the blade he’s carried since he was a child not to snap at the strain. The metal gives a low groan as it is forcibly bent out of shape; then it pops, the hinge separating completely.
Keith’s hands shake as he works on the next hinge. Without a thought to who might hear, he wrenches the door aside and falls to his knees beside Shiro, turning him over. His hand moves to cup one sunken cheek, frightened to find that Shiro is even colder than he is.
He hooks an arm around Shiro’s middle and heaves him up, supporting all of his captain’s weight against his own narrow, trembling frame. As the ship gives a sudden lurch, Keith’s bare feet slip in the growing pool of blood just outside the brig’s door; he recovers, stepping carefully around the body and maneuvering Shiro over it, too. The halls of the Purification are tight and woefully unfamiliar, forcing Keith to angle himself and Shiro just to pass through them together. The occasional pitching of the ship doesn’t help matters, either.
Keith abandons most pretense of stealth. All he cares about at this point—all he hopes to accomplish, really—is to make it topside with Shiro unharmed, to somehow get him off of the Purification, to safely ferry him away before all hell breaks loose. And they very nearly make it out unseen.
Keith is just peeking out through the companionway, preparing to make a break for it, when a bell begins to toll and the officer on duty relays their orders. The decks below Keith and Shiro come alive with voices and groans, the weary sailors forced to brace for bad weather; the watchmen stationed on the upper deck bustle about, lashing down everything loose and battening down the hatches.
And so Keith has no choice but to hoist Shiro up over his shoulder and bolt, dashing up the last few stairs and hurrying past the scattered, preoccupied nighttime watch. Heads turn toward him, but the Imperial sailors are stunned enough that precious seconds slip by before they lurch into motion again, giving chase.
Keith can only hope that Acxa and Lotor are watching from a distance as he makes a messy, hasty retreat across the Purification’s gangways.
The deck alights with more lanterns and watchfires as the nighttime crew realizes the enemy is in their midst, absconding with their prized prisoner. Keith senses the whole ship rousing under him, booted feet thudding over wooden planks and cries of confusion coalescing into angry, terrified calls to their battle posts.
He remains of a singular mind, though, rushing toward a stretch of unguarded railing as quickly as he can with Shiro’s weight draped over him. And at the very edge of the Purification’s bounds, teetering on the brink of a long fall into a choppy sea, Keith winds his arms tight around Shiro, cinching himself to the unconscious man. Before an approaching Imperial marine can reach them with a frantic, sweeping slash of his sword, Keith tips himself and Shiro over the railing and off the side of the ship, plummeting into the ocean waiting below.
His back hits the water first, just as he’d hoped. Shiro’s weight bears him down deeper, the both of them briefly suspended under the waves, a rush of bubbles rising around them. Above, Keith hears the muffled crack of cannon shot and a flare of golden light as bright as sunrise. When he rises to the surface once more, his legs kicking frantically and his left arm wound tight around Shiro’s ribs, it is to an all-out barrage of cannonfire.
The Purification’s bow is burning, those wood-carven flames now engulfed by ones that climb the ropes up to the foremast and lick red and gold all over the furled sails. Already, the Galran cannoneers are answering with a volley twice as strong, the number of their guns greatly outnumbering the Sincline. The surprise of the attack has left them wildly out of sorts, though, and the lack of a captain to guide them is a further disadvantage.
Several of the Sincline’s incoming cannon shots land in the water just a few yards shy of Keith and Shiro, and Keith starts swimming with renewed vigor. It’s a struggle to keep his own chin above the swelling waves, their tips already turning white-capped from the wind; keeping Shiro’s head above water, too, is even trickier.
The sea and the sky are still blindingly dark, only punctuated by the flash of lightning or the glare of the flames devouring up the Purification’s timbers. Once Keith orients himself amid the chaos, it is clear that his longboat has drifted from where he left it. He kicks his legs harder, striking out further from the bitterly embroiled Imperial cruiser.
As lightning crackles closer and closer, Keith finally catches a much-needed glimpse of the small boat in the distance, being tossed about on the rising waves. With his mouth filled with seawater and his limbs heavy as lead, he surges toward it, fighting through the wind and water that keep buffering him back. And when his hand at last reaches the edge of the longboat, gripping so tight that his nails sink into the painted wood, it takes all of Keith’s remaining strength to draw Shiro up and push him into the boat, first. Keith clings limply to the side of the longboat after, letting himself be pushed and pulled by the waves that rock against him; breathing hard, it takes him one, two, three, four attempts to heave himself up and out of the ocean, tumbling into the longboat and landing in a heap beside Shiro.
He blinks, staring up. A web of lightning crawls its way across the sky, briefly illuminating dark, roiling clouds that seem to stretch for miles, blotting out the crescent moon and all the stars. Pops of cannon fire ring distantly over the waves, sounding further away than Keith would’ve guessed. His cheek stings horribly with every breath. His body aches with exhaustion. He strains to lift his head, peering over the side of the longboat, and finds the flashes of burning light from the Sincline’s cannon barrels are as small and fleeting as fireflies.
The waves have carried them well away from the warring ships, and Keith fumbles through the heavy canvas bag at the bottom of the longboat, shoving aside skins of water and linen bandages to find a signal flare. Relieved, he fumbles the accompanying flint half a dozen times before the fuse ignites, a plume of smoke bursting out as red sparks arc high and burn bright.
The signal seems to go unnoticed, the Sincline either too distant to see it or too busy pummeling the Purification . and Keith slumps back in the longboat, at a loss for what else to do. To be left adrift in such a small boat on a storm-wracked night is likely doom, but fighting the waves to paddle closer to two warring ships is no safer.
The Sincline and the Purification keep circling each other, firing off brutal volleys even as they begin to pitch to and fro atop the windswept seas. Neither ship is willing to relent—neither can, in all likelihood, without the other striking a mortal blow, as neither mercy nor quarter is ever given between Lotor and the Empire—and Keith can only watch as the rising waves soon block out his view and the howling wind deafens even the sound of the cannons.
The longboat rocks back and forth, tugged this way and that by the gathering storm. With one last look back toward their only hope of rescue, Keith grits his teeth and unrolls the heavy, oiled canvas belted to the longboat’s stern. He draws it over himself and Shiro for protection from the rain that will hit them at any moment, tying the cover down before the gusting winds can rip it away.
Within a minute, deafening sheets of rain pelt the canvas stretched above them, cold water dripping in along its edges. Wind rattles at their flimsy cover, fraying the material and loosening Keith’s hastily-tied knots. And, helpless to do anything else, Keith sinks down into the belly of the longboat beside Shiro and holds him close, hoping it will be enough.
At some point the bleak terror of being tossed about on treacherous, hungry waves gives way to exhaustion, and Keith passes out. By the time he wakes, the longboat is in calm waters and brilliant sunlight beats down on the white canvas still tied down above them.
Keith’s stomach plummets as everything from the night before comes racing back to the forefront of his mind: Shiro’s pitiful state in the brig, his utter lack of response, his being subjected to the same frigid waters as Keith. Terrified, Keith rushes to turn and check Shiro, letting out a held breath when he finds the man’s chest still rising, his pulse still racing in his veins. Then he sits up and starts untying the knots along the boat’s edges, loosening the cover that had sheltered them from the worst of the storm.
The sun looms high overhead, and not a cloud hangs in the sky. In every direction all around them is nothing but flat, shimmering sea.
And amid it all, Keith feels as battered as a tavern floor. Bruises run from his throat down to the soles of his bare feet. Cuts and scratches he had shaken off now sting with every movement. His cheek throbs, the slice Sendak had carved into him still sluggishly dripping with blood.
Keith closes his eyes, refusing to let the hopelessness of the situation make him crumble. Shiro still needs him—needs him to be strong—and he has heard tales of castaway sailors surviving worse.
He rummages in the satchel that accompanies the longboat, taking his time to sift through everything Lotor had seen fit to prepare him with. Inside, Keith finds one more flare and another piece of flint; two skins of water and wine; a sparse infirmary kit, complete with bandages, soap, laudanum, oil, and a few herbal tinctures; then linens, a compass, extra gunpowder, and a length of rope with a curved hook for grappling.
Keith kind of wishes he’d known about that last one sooner, although he’s not sure it would’ve made his efforts on the Purification much easier.
After downing a few mouthfuls of water, he peels off his damp shirt and hangs it over the side of the boat to dry. Then, after some contemplation, Keith does the same for Shiro.
His fingers move with delicate purpose, working to unlace Shiro’s tattered, blood-stained shirt without touching his chest any more than he ought to. He gently slips it off of Shiro’s limp form, openly staring at the skin that is suddenly laid bare.
In the depth of the night and the rush of the rescue, Keith had never gotten a good look at Shiro, aside from confirming that none of his remaining limbs had gone missing and that his heart was still beating. Now, all he can do is look.
There’s hardly an inch of him left untouched. Shiro’s sunburnt skin is crisscrossed with pale lines—places where the ropes must’ve laid as he was tied up and left to scorch under the unforgiving sun, Keith guesses. Bruises and welts ring his ribcage, lace his wrists, discolor his slightly swollen face. Drips of dried, flaking blood cling to his flanks; when Keith gently rolls him to one side, he finds an ugly, raw mess of lash marks across Shiro’s back. A few even stretch up over his shoulders and around to his chest, where the whip must’ve curled around and bit in deep.
And under all the myriad wounds freshly laid into Shiro, Keith finds one that is almost two years old. Familiar, too, if rarely seen—much less this close, for this long, without any worries of Shiro catching him staring.
Gingerly, his fingertips trace the raised, discolored line embedded in Shiro’s shoulder, where his mother’s dagger once bit deep. Of all the marks that litter Shiro’s body, this one alone belongs to Keith. It came by his hand. It was violently born of their first meeting, inseparably linked to the occasion. And it reminds Keith of a time that now feels as distant as the faintest stars—when he had looked at this man and desired him dead, thinking Captain Shirogane even more of a scourge than the rest of his peers in the navy.
The memory hardly feels real sometimes. Less real than the seam of scar tissue under his fingers, anyway, and more like the moments in waking after a dream, when his every sense is vague and muddled. If Keith could meet himself at that time, in that moment… well, they’d brawl. That’s for certain.
Keith rests the back of his hand over Shiro’s forehead and finds him feverish. He doubts it’s from the heat alone—Sendak had complained about Shiro’s lack of resilience, and all Keith can think of is that terrible sickness that had nearly claimed Shiro months prior.
Carefully, he trickles a tiny bit of water into Shiro’s dry mouth, tipping his head to one side to make sure he doesn’t choke on a single drop. Then he arranges Shiro as comfortably as he can, sliding the bundled linens under Shiro’s head as a makeshift pillow.
Keith digs his fingers into the wound tincture and does his best to dab it over Shiro’s open wounds—the whip lashes, the jagged scrapes from being dragged along the wood of the deck, the bruised split down the center of his lip. Lastly, he fixes the canvas to make sure Shiro has shade while he rests.
And then, lost and alone in the vastness of the sea, he doesn’t know what else to do.
Pointless as it might be, Keith tries his best to navigate them toward a better chance of survival.
That had been what Shiro entrusted to him, hadn’t it? Naming Keith his sailing master, asking him to chart their course and steer the Kerberos through it. The little longboat is pitiful by comparison, but Keith takes his duty no less seriously for it.
By day, he catches fish, eats them raw, and dozes next to Shiro, forever listening for the reedy rasp of his shallow breaths. By night, he picks up the oars and orients himself under the stars, pushing them in the direction surest to carry them back to one Coalition kingdom or another. Eventually. Maybe.
And when his arms at last grow too bonelessly weary to keep rowing across the open sea, Keith clumsily lies down in the bottom of the boat alongside Shiro and stares up into the sky.
He wishes they could speak again, at least. All of this would be infinitely easier to endure if Shiro was present to gentle his spiraling thoughts with a word, or to laugh and make light of their plight, or to lay a hand on Keith’s shoulder and assure him that all would be well. Instead, there is only the constant lapping of gentle waves, the rush of air, and the faint movement of slumbering breath from where Shiro lays blanketed under Keith’s crimson jacket, his skin pale and his lips cracked.
Keith wants to plaster himself to Shiro’s side, to bury his face against that broad shoulder and sleep without worries. He wants to curl around Shiro like a shell, strong enough to protect him from even the elements. He wants to see Shiro’s eyes, a multitude of warmth behind the steeled grey of his irises, and his smile, too. He wants to hear Shiro’s voice again, at least once.
Most of all, he wants Shiro to know that he is not alone and never will be again.
A light rain scatters over them the next day, for which Keith is grateful. He stores away enough water to last them a few more days, hopefully, and the cloud cover gives them a welcome respite from the sun. He also takes the opportunity to tenderly wash Shiro’s bruise-mottled skin and blood-caked hair, which is already turning more white than black.
The day after, a withering sun greets them again. It’s almost oppressive enough to make Keith long for the frigid north, where he had sometimes woken with speckled ice in his hair and a light frost on his lips. Where he had watched Shiro stick his tongue to an icicle on a dare from Matt, laughing until he realized how firmly he was affixed to the ice. Where Keith had been invited to sit with Shiro on his bed, tucked against his side, and found himself wanting far more.
By their fifth day stranded at sea, Keith’s hope has waned gossamer thin.
It is entirely possible, he slowly and reluctantly realizes, that he drew Shiro out of Sendak’s clutches only to watch him die.
Once, not so long ago, Keith had promised to stand between Shiro and death at any cost. He had sworn to protect his captain’s life and boasted wildly of his own devotion. Now, he can only sit by Shiro’s side and ruminate on all the ways he has failed to uphold this simple promise. The only promise that matters, really—one made to the only person who matters.
And underneath the vast tides of disappointment and self-loathing at work within himself, Keith feels a cavernous sense of regret.
Selfish regret, he thinks. A mourning for all that he feels for Shiro but had never spoken aloud, plainly; a longing for what could have been, on the infinitesimal chance that Shiro would have answered his love in kind.
Because Keith loves this man, and has for some time. Longer than he knew what to call it, unfamiliar as the feeling was. Long enough to know for certain even before he’d lost Shiro, at some point reluctantly aware that his loyalty went well beyond that of a sailor to his captain. A hundred fears big and small had kept him from ever giving voice to the truth of it, though.
Shiro occupies a social status several rungs above Keith, after all, and would not be blamed for giving him a swift, kind rejection. He is as beautifully carved as the classical statues that the gentry fawn over, and alive with a warmth that draws people to him like moths to the only flame for miles; Keith knows himself to be a wiry, stubborn weed, prone to choking out anything in his way. Shiro is clever and well-learned, while Keith still has to keep reference books handy to parse through the tomes from Shiro’s library. And then there’s all the risk that comes of a captain being caught in an illicit relationship with a subordinate.
Still. All the things that had restrained Keith’s heart then feel petty and pitiful now, the both of them meandering toward death practically arm-in-arm.
Keith wishes he had been bold enough to confess himself to Shiro, ugly and messy as the aftermath might’ve been. He wishes he had kissed Shiro on one of the many occasions they were alone together in his cabin, huddled close together to read by the light of the same oil lamp. He wishes he’d abandoned all caution and pressed himself into Shiro while they sat on his bed; that he’d laid Shiro back on that mattress and chased away every inch of space between them, leaving no doubt as to how thoroughly he wants the man.
Maybe they could have run away together—Keith would like to think so. The navy deserves Shiro even less than Keith himself does, honestly, and Shiro’s family is no better. They could have sailed wherever they wanted, under their own flag. Maybe found some middle road between open piracy and stepping to the orders of the admiralty.
That’s what Keith thinks of as he lowers himself down beside a weakened, slumbering Shiro and closes his eyes. Even without sight, his hand finds Shiro’s cheek at once, cupping gently over it and cradling his captain’s head. He could say it now, he thinks, for whatever it might still be worth. And if Shiro hears it and wakes only to chide him for how they can never be, then all the better.
I love you. I have loved you longer than I even knew. And I would sooner die with you than live without you.
The words sit perfectly formed on Keith’s tongue, born from his heart and felt in every atom of his being. But at the last moment, huddled so close to the brutalized body of the man he loves, he falters. His parched mouth withers even drier, while his eyes find some hidden reserves of water and well with bitter, stinging tears that Keith allows to fall as they may.
Holding back a sob that will only open the floodgates to more, he presses his nose into the coarse, disheveled strands of Shiro’s loose hair, missing the familiar smell of hinoki and the faintly floral oil Shiro sometimes rubbed through his locks. His lips brush the crest of one striking cheekbone, then graze higher; Keith kisses softly against Shiro’s temple, the satisfaction in the simple gesture outweighing the guilty little twist in the recesses of his heart.
He kisses Shiro again, along his brow. After, Keith tastes sweat and salt on his lips.
Gingerly, he presses close enough to the faint warmth of Shiro’s skin, tangling himself around the man as much as he dares. And then he hums.
It’s a grating, uneven sound at first, given how dry his throat and tongue are. Keith eventually finds the right pitch, though, and the tone gradually mellows into one that is almost sweet. In a drowsy stupor from the baking sun and the long days of deprivation, his hums turn to mumblings from songs and shanties he’s heard over the years, haphazardly stringing together whatever lines that come to mind. Crooning softly into Shiro’s ear, Keith finds it easier than giving voice to his own words.
“The heavy hours are almost past, that part my love and me. My longing eyes may hope at last, their only wish to see. Take those lips away that so sweetly were forsworn and those eyes the break of day, lights that do mislead the morn. But my kisses bring again, seals of love though sealed in vain.”
The longer he sings, the stronger his voice becomes; the lighter he feels, too, and not only for having gone days without a decent meal. Keith thinks of Shiro and anything that reminds him of the man—tavern songs, romantic poems he’d read through while exploring Shiro’s library, rhymes about how to read the stars and their constellations—and weaves it all together into a rambling, winding confession in verse. If Shiro hears any of it, though, he cannot tell.
“The nymph that undoes me is fair and kind, no less than a wonder by nature designed. He’s the grief of my heart, the joy of my eye, and the cause of a flame that can never die,” Keith sings into the tangled crown of Shiro’s hair, his voice slowing to a honeyed drawl as weariness creeps up on him again. He has no idea how much time has passed, but the sun isn’t perched quite as high in the sky and the current now carries them in a different direction. “The cause of a flame that can never die.”
Keith is halfway to nodding off when he hears the water around the boat swirl with a sudden, soft disturbance. It’s not at all like the passing movement of a fish or a curious shark, both of which he’s become quite familiar with. Neither is it the usual stirring of the tides.
A faint thrill of alarm sinks into Keith’s bones. He grabs his dagger, rips it from its sheath, and sits straight up. Poised to strike, his strong, sinewy arms raised and the blade gripped firmly in both hands, he stares wide-eyed into the water beside the boat.
There, peering up from the gentle waves, is a woman staring back at him just as intently.
Keith almost mistakes her for part of the sea, at first. Her translucent skin shifts like water, purplish pigment swirling up along her cheeks; her hair is richly dark like kelp, constantly billowing and swaying under the surface. Her eyes are even more striking—cool, violet irises backed by golden, faintly glowing sclera, like light catching in seafoam. She looks like she is made of the stuff of the depths and murky water itself, and it is as if she could dissolve into it again at any moment.
But it becomes clear that she is very, truly solid as she reaches up and curls her slim fingers over the side of the boat’s hull, a set of long, claw-tipped nails sinking into the painted wood.
Keith tenses bowstring-taut, ready to drive his blade down into her wrist before she can threaten Shiro, when her voice stops him cold.
“My dagger,” she says, drawing herself closer to the longboat—closer to Keith, rising halfway up out of the water as she clings to its hull. Her voice is light and breathy with something like amazement. “You still carry it?”
He bristles at the insinuation that lies behind the words, leaning protectively over Shiro and brandishing the blade. “This dagger belonged to my mother, not—not you—”
“Keith,” she murmurs, patiently imploring even as Keith’s eyes grow wide and round at the familiar use of his name. With her expression so mournfully gentle, she looks less like some haunting sea wraith or a witch out of a sailor’s tale. “How you’ve grown.”
Keith’s lips part, surprise overtaking him. He looks sidelong at the dagger in his hand, its edge perpetually keen and the faint inscription along its hilt unreadable to him even after all of Shiro’s language lessons.
“This is yours?” Then, breathing raggedly as he stares at her and hunts for glimmers of himself, he says, “How could you be my mother? She—she died when I was still an infant. And she wasn’t…”
A sea nymph? Some beautiful creature of the deep? Keith had not even one memory of her, truthfully, and his father had rarely ever spoken of the woman he’d loved after she’d gone.
“I heard your singing,” she responds, folding her hands along the edge of the boat’s rim and then resting her cheek atop them. “With that voice, you could only be the son of a siren.”