Growing Tides

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Poker Face

As Gale settled into her hammock, she uttered one, last, pitiful sniffle. She made it as loud as she could while not too overbearing. It was a tough task to do with a straight face, but she didn’t need to keep that anymore. Roe had passed her and settled into her hammock, allowing her to break her “grieving misery”, smirking at her own feat. It was lost to a dramatic sigh, turned into a yawn before it completely escaped, reaching its intended target.

She saw how Ella had squirmed when she started the water works, saw the empathy and sympathy pass over her gaze even when trying so hard to act as though she didn’t. That’s the problem with Cephamorians: they never know their true feelings, never see all the shades in their eyes. Hers were especially telling; she had blue and a touch of green in them, even if tinged with red. Best of all, she now knew what Ella’s weakness was. It’ll only be a matter of time before that back-alley special accepts her “apology” and they start fresh, as friends. Then she will find that perfect piece of information.

It was only fair, after all. Ella had used it against her, already. Not only that, but she had slipped. “After we are done, the captain is all yours.” Which meant she did have feelings for him; to explicitly state that she didn’t care meant she actually did. Oh, how foolish Ella was. How naive not to understand the Game or its many pieces. Setting up a false pretense to be her friend? That was obviously a pawn, while the knight in back slowly made its way along, getting in place to topple her rook or bishop so that her own bishop could move in and counter her queen. One by one, the pieces shall fall, hers into place while Ella’s into ruin, and she will have her king. It was simply a shame she had to play a game of checkers on the side to combat Roe, but at least that simple excuse of a fish was too busy sucking on the pieces to realize she already lost.

She tittered, little more than small huffs, sounding like stifled sobs as she drifted off to sleep, and in her dreams she was back home. The best kind of lies are those that ebb along the truth; she did miss her tiny shell. She did miss her sister and mother and even father when he wasn’t away. He wasn’t home this time when Tarjen had made port; it was for the best, since he would have tried to stop her. He never wanted her to live the same life as him, but it was in her blood, and in her heart.

But that didn’t stop her heart from yearning for that tiny shell. She yearned to be before the blazing pearl in the caged fireplace, freshly prepared and lit by her mother. Even in her thirties, she was such a beautiful woman. Unlike other Itchyomen, her teeth were permanently bared, blue lips torn away a long time ago, but she had gems fused onto them, purples, greens, and reds both clashing with her soft green belly yet complementing the rest of her coating of thick, jagged, golden scale. It really did seem like a coat, her arms, chest, belly, and even legs untouched by the golden down. It hung off her back, running alongside her fins before fusing with her sweeping, taper-thin tail. The three fins back there matched the gems, and had four tips each, with the exception of the middle having seven along its emerald hide. It always seemed to drape, too, and always over her right shoulder, as she hunched and watched Gale and her sister play chess. Her sister was almost a perfect copy of her mother, save for her tail, the taper gone for a thick, stubby crescent, ending in red and seafoam green. She, also, wasn’t allowed to put gems on her teeth --not yet, or at least since Gale left port.

Her heart twinged a bit at that thought. How much would change by the time she returned home? Would her little Hale be so little anymore? Would she still be fussing over her fins, trying to make sure they stayed even along her back, or would she have decided to rebel and have them pierced, fused, or even clipped? What kind of person would her sister be? Would she be like this girl in her dream, fidgeting on the red-and-blue striped rug in the center of the living room, waiting for her big sister to make a move on the soft yellow board? Would she give the same, disdainful look at the pile of dead soldiers on her sister’s side while hers was barren save for a couple pawns? How about her outbursts; would she cry for mum as Gale made her move and took her queen, forcing her into checkmate for the eighth time in a row, always ending the same no matter how much Gale tried to avoid it? And then would her mother demand her to take it easy on little Haley?

“I always do,” she mumbled, truly sniffling this time. “It’s not my fault. I swear.”

She took a deep breath, and yawned again, shivering a little as a cold tear rolled down her cheek. She hugged herself, feeling even smaller in that hammock, and drifted back into that memory. For as long as she would have it. The edges were already starting to blot out, the colors of the yellow shell a pale gold --which lead to another thought, one that sunk right into her gut: would her sister, or even her mother, remember her.

It was a surprise her father ever remembered them, being out on tour five, six months at a time. In fact, looking back... she remembered which ship he had gotten work on, the Leviathan, and had heard it was coming home at last. It had been two years, the longest he had ever been away... and the look on his face as he stepped off the deck and saw her was blank. For a moment, Gale thought it was shock, but now?

Was this a mistake? She thought, but shook her head. No... No, it wasn’t. I know this was right. I know I am meant to be with the captain. I will never forget them. Ever.

But will they forget her... She didn’t remember, didn’t dream for the rest of the night. Come morn, she had to wipe away her misery and wear her best smile again. A mask for the anger, the ire, and the fear behind her eyes, because, unlike Ella, she could hide her true emotions.

Though that didn’t mean she didn’t let some slip through.

She grumbled as she made her way to the storerooms. Ella and Roe were already there, if her ears didn’t deceive her. They had been talking, most likely conspiring, lost as she thundered through the rowing hall. Ella hummed instead, making Gale’s brow twitch, her teeth grind a bit, settling as best as they could, matching her stomps as she approached. She had a bit of parchment on a clipboard, engraved with the handwriting the captain’s no less, and a bit of charcoal in the other hand, marking it, sullying it as Roe grunted and moved crates and barrels.

Gale cleared her throat behind Ella... She cleared it again, a touch louder, hoping Ella heard it that time over her humming, growing louder, the scratching of the charcoal on the page, and the light scraping inside the room, itself. Gale raised on her tiptoes to look over her shoulder, and saw Ruu was also in there, aiding Roe in opening boxes. He eased their contents out, held them aloft for Ella to see, and only put them back when Ella nodded, sullying the list alongside, and Roe and Ruu moved onto the next.

They didn’t even pay Gale any mind. Instead, his clacking steps slamming harder on the timbers, Roe’s grunts rose as she jerked harder on the boxes, and Ella’s hums became almost true song with each time Gale cleared her throat. By the fortieth, however, Ella pretended to jump, and slowly turned around.

“Oh my. You sound absolutely dreadful,” she said, pretending to sound concerned. Condescending would have been a compliment to the tone she truly used, and her eyes were edged with red. “Maybe you should go lie down. I’ll tell the captain-”

“I’m fine. Thank you for your concern.” Gale said. She was still smiling, though her cheeks burned from it. Keeping it was the easy part; making the sides not tremble, though? She rubbed her head, letting it go as she creased her lips, seeming to get serious. “So what are we doing today?”

“Really? Nothing. We got everything done last night, and, with such a small crew, we only need to do it every... four days? Seven, tops.”

“Great! That means we’ll have more time to talk.”

“Oh. Uh. About that. I sort of agreed to hang out with Ruu today-”

“And I have plans with the captain,” Roe added, practically roaring as she pulled the final box into the light from the hallway. “I wanted to ask him more about my Ma... Da’s memory isn’t the best on the matter nowadays, but I am hoping Captain Tarjen remembers some snippets from his time sailing with him.”

“You don’t remember your mother at all?” Gale said, her heart sinking a touch.

“Of course not. She left when I was but a wee minnow. Da loved her to bits, though. Never yearned for another woman, no matter how much I pushed him to. Dark Ones know he needs someone in that shell with him, and I can’t be there all the time.” She sighed, grunting as she pushed the crate back, opened and cataloged as she explained, and sat on it. “Really, it was Fate he met her at all.”

“Why is that?” Ella said.

“Because Da never cared for other Itchyomen. Why date somebody who won’t remember special events? After a year, it’ll be like dating a complete stranger, anyways.”

“Then how did your father remember her after all this time?” Gale said, letting a bit more of her true self through than she truly wanted. She wanted- no needed to know.

Gale scoffed, shaking her head. “No idea. Terrahn affinity, perhaps?”

“Your mother was a child of clay?” Ella said.

“That she was... heh... Da always said I got my looks from her, but you can hardly tell with all of this scale and these teeth.” She chuckled, shaking her head, and sighed. “Really, I guess I should be thanking her. Because I’m not a pure blood, my memory is far better than the average Itchyoman. I’m not as... simple as a full-blood, if you will.” She hopped off the crate, stretching, groaning as she cracked her knuckles. “Sadly, it’ll be some time before I do. The good captain went back to bed for a touch.”

“Is he not feeling well?” Gale said, heart jumping back into her chest after sinking to her feet. It made her heels rise a touch off the planks, already turning to run through the rowing hall again and up the steps.

“Nah. He just got up earlier than usual. In fact, he was already on deck around the time you really passed out.”

“W-wha-how-”

“You snore so loud it makes gallothians jealous.” She lowered her arms, locked before her a moment as she yawned, smacking her lips as they thumped on her legs. “Anyways. I’m going to go grab a bit of fruit from the kitchen then take a nap myself. Who knew riding the waves would be so... relaxing.”

She was locked in another yawn, grumbling as she eased by Ella and pushed passed Gale, heading for the kitchen. As she said. Gale watched after a moment, making sure she wasn’t going to leap out a porthole or slip into the other storeroom or even pry the chimney of the oven away and slip up through that –an odd concept to be sure, but not out of the question. It was only as Ella tapped the clipboard hard with the charcoal that she tore her attention away and looked back the Cephamorian and Aceon still in the room.

“Well,” she said, clapping her hands, and gave Ella a big, goofy, totally not fake smile. “Looks like it’s the three of us. I don’t mind, really.”

She gave Ruu a thumbs up. His black beanstalks simply stared at her while his small claw gently weaved a small wave. Its edges just hit Ella, and she shook her head, the red growing in her eyes as she did, cooling though as she looked into Gale’s gaze once more.

“Say, isn’t this the perfect time for you to hang out with the captain?” She said. “I think I heard him stirring a moment ago. I didn’t tell Roe because she needs the rest. She’s still recovering... and you were rather late waking up this morning. Did you give him your report from yesterday?”

“Ah! Very good points. Yeah.” She chortled, and patted Ella’s “shoulder”, winking at her as she did. “Though your offer to hang out today was generous, I do have need to spend more time with the captain. Take care of her for me, will you, Ruu? Don’t you two get into too much trouble, eh?” She leaned in close. “Thanks.”

“Oh, don’t mention it.”

Gale continued to giggle as they both simply stared, glaring her down. She still felt their knives as she gallivanted across the rowing hall, still prickling at her legs as she climbed the stairs up to deck then practically leaped up to the captain’s quarters, unrelenting until she knocked on his door... seven times. Each round was harder than the last, the final one making it crack in its middle, but she finally heard him groan inside. The cot creaked before his feet slapped on the boards, closing in.

The door creaked open a touch, and she saw the slightly dark pink in his eyes seeing her, matching the blush in her cheeks.

“Yes, skipper?” He grumbled, lost to a yawn.

“Sorry, sir. Were you sleeping? I can always come back l-”

“What is it?”

“Well... may I come in?”

He gazed at her for a minute, the dark pink growing in his eyes, making her tremble as she fought not to squirm, then stepped back as he swung it open. He lumbered around, trudging to his desk, and sat on the other side, watching after her as she sauntered in. Her head always spun a little as she entered this room, simply... feeling him. He was in every nook and cranny, his presence even in the air, permeated with his scent. She always took so long to walk to the chair, but it was as if she was swimming in an ocean of him. And she was drowning in it.

“I’m sorry for waking you, sir,” she said, panting softly as she took her seat at last. “I, too, just got up. I had full intentions of waking sooner and helping Ella and Roe. She truly needs it; the girl has a lot of heart, but doesn’t really want to get her hands dirty. And Roe is still recovering... So... I put in a lot last night.”

“So I heard. Ella told me you were rather... zealous.”

“Truly? That’s such a wonderful way to put it.”

“Really? Because she told me that you preferred the term assiduous.”

Gale pursed her lip, cocked her head to the right, and pushed a finger to her mouth, humming.

“That doesn’t sound like me, sir. I don’t even know that word.”

Tarjen hummed, but rolled his wrist, the dark pink in his eyes starting to fade.

“Report, then.”

She giggled, and gripped both her knees, swaying side-to-side.

“Everything is ship-shape at the moment. By my estimates, with such a minimum crew, we are good for at least five days... Ella, Roe, and Ruu just finished stock-”

“And did you?”

“Sir?”

He sighed, rubbing his “brow”. “You were in charge of cataloging the second storeroom.”

“I... I was? No one told me this!”

“That’s because we did it first,” Ella said, walking into the room. She handed the clipboard to Tarjen... and only then did she see that there wasn’t one piece of paper but two, one stacked on top of the other. “It was Roe’s idea. Our skipper worked hard last night, so we thought we’d return the favor. She did most of the work, after all.”

She made it sound so sincere, but Gale felt the backhand from that remark. She wanted to sneer, to retort, but instead kept a smile, chuckling at the Cephamorian beside her.

“You really are a life-saver, you know? It’s a shame this is your last tour. I’m going to miss someone as reliable, as trustworthy, as you.”

“You could learn a thing or two from her,” Captain Tarjen said. “Best deckhand I’ve ever had... Give Roe my regards.”

“I will. Once she wakes. She went back to bed.”

“For the best. She’s still recovering from the Cat... Guess you all are free for the rest of the day.” Ella nodded, and slowly wheeled around, leaving the room. Captain Tarjen waited for the door to close, then sighed, shaking his head. “And that’s the worst part of having such zeal on a ship with a small crew. The downtime is going to drive all of you mad.”

“What about you, captain?”

“Me? I like to write.”

“You do?”

“Why that tone?”

“Oh. Uh. It’s just... you don’t seem like the type... I mean, what do you write? Poetry? Prose?”

He huffed, the dark pink growing once more, and cupped his “hands” on the table.

“I simply write. I like to chronicle my adventures-”

“You must have written so much, then.”

The dark pink vanished from his eyes, replaced with a rotten yellow. The air in the room seemed to chill under his gaze as that wretched color started to swirl with black... dissipating as he took a deep breath.

“Why do you say that?” He said, his voice cold, bitter.

“I... I me...” She stammered, feeling really small, but she shook her head. “It’s... you’ve sailed a lot, haven’t you? You even crossed paths with the Dread Pirate Baro and lived. Someone like you, someone so... worldly must have gallivanted to some interesting places, seen unbelievable things, done so much... Am I wrong?”

Tarjen heaved a heavy sigh, and unclasped his “hands,” gripping his quill again.

“No. You are right. I have my fair share of adventures.”

“Really! Maybe you can tell me them. It’ll be a way to keep me from going mad.”

“Perhaps, but maybe not now. I’m busy with paperwork.”

Gale’s smile faded, the spark in her eyes dulled by that dismiss. She stood, and bowed her head to him, giggling softly.

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“It’s fine. If you hadn’t woke me, I would have had to do it later, with even less motivation, and I wouldn’t have had time to tell you any stor-”

He stopped, bolted to his feet, and stormed passed her out onto deck. Gale followed after, the question on her lips, taken as the sea before the ship, and even the prow and bow of the ship was simply gone, replaced by an ocean of fog. She stood in the doorway, the thick gray blanket already ankle-deep, but her eyes were on the front. It didn’t seem to swirl or billow or dissipate or even care if they were there, perfectly still even as the ship sliced through it.

“Go tell the others to get on the oars,” Tarjen said.

“Sir?”

“If that wall is anything to go by, there won’t be any wind inside. We’ll need to row.”

“But to what?”

“Just do what I tell you, skipper... Got it?”

She headed for the stairs long before she nodded in agreement, the power behind that voice making them stir against her volition yet in agreement before even halfway down. Though her legs felt like jelly after such a declaration, after feeling his power course through her, she had to remain focused. She had to do what he ordered her to do, which the crew was already downstairs.

They weren’t exactly happy to hear that they had to row again, but she did not care, for she was her captain’s messenger, his keeper, his voice. She was a part of him, and that thought finally swept her off her feet, right onto the stool behind the drums. She gripped those sticks so tight, her knuckles white, yet her hands still trembled so, and her beats were slowed compared to her fluttering heart. She would not let her emotions get the better of her, and so her face was locked into its stone mask once more, pounding away.

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