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Blood in the Water

Chapter Text

It was a brilliant afternoon beneath the waves of the great ocean kingdom of Atlantica.  No matter where you looked, tessellated light flickered amongst the coral in a mind-boggling kaleidoscope of colours while countless fish darted back and forth, dancing to the rhythm of the sea.  Everything was a riot of sound and movement, dazzling the senses with the sheer vibrancy of it all, but it was the song which drew it all together, ringing from almost a hundred throats.

“The seaweed is always greener in somebody else's lake.” 

It was an ancient song, harkening back to a time of legends, a time of wild magic and adventure that touched each and every citizen of not only Atlantica, but the Coral Sea specifically.  This song was in their blood, their spirit, and there was no denying its joyous call.

As it had long ago, the reef itself created a perfect backdrop to the glorious festivities taking place within its sheltering beds of coral and weeds.  Unable to help themselves, its many residents had gathered together, their voices raised in joyous song, buoyed by the sheer pleasure of simply being alive and free beneath the waves.

“You dream about going up there, but that is a big mistake”

A school of brilliant angelfish giggled in delight as they darted past some fan coral, changing direction several times.  They danced among the dappled fronds of seaweed, kicking up a cloud of detritus and sending several shy little shrimp fry flying from their hiding places.

“Just look at the world around you, right here on the ocean floor.”

With tiny fins fluttering, the diminutive decapods swirled around for a few moments, brushing past a large crab who pranced around, claws raised up to the dancing and twirling chorus of marine life.  His voice was by far the loudest and it echoed clearly across the reef as he playfully snapped at the drifting shrimp catching one and pulling it close.  Dancing out a complicated rhythm, he stared into the eyes of the confused creature and smiled warmly while gesturing grandly with one of his large pincers. 

“Such wonderful things surround you, What more is you lookin' for?”  He crooned with a wide grin before releasing his erstwhile dance partner, allowing it to dart back into the safety of the coral.  Unbothered by the reticence of the smaller crustacean, the crab spread his claws wide and drew in a deep breath of the beautiful briny water before bellowing out the chorus with a level of gusto which belied his small form. 

“Under the sea, Under the sea!  Darling it's better, Down where it's wetter, Take it from meeeeee.”  Spinning around, he lifted up off the sea floor for a moment while schools of brilliantly coloured fry swirled and twisted around him, joining in the much loved chorus until their voices echoed off of the reef, causing several startled anemones to pull their long drifting tentacles back into their protective tubes. 

The celebrants were so distracted that none of them noticed how more and more of the anemones were pulling into their tight crevices and crannies.  They didn’t pay any attention to the elegant tube worms pulling themselves tightly into their long tubes or notice the silent shadows drifting silently into their midst on long undulating tails. 

“Up on the shore they work all day, Out in the sun they slave away, While we dev-” The crab’s voice rose to a shriek as he was snatched up by sharp, dark grey claws, leaving only a small cloud of swirling dirt in his wake.

Suddenly aware of the danger amongst them, the rest of the marine chorus scattered in an instantaneous explosion of colour and movement designed to dazzle and confuse any hunting predator.  Their efforts, while effective, had came far too late and the lethal forms continued to lazily drift past, not even pausing to take note of the disturbance they’d caused. 

“Ugh, I hate that song.” Azul muttered under his breath as he glided across the seafloor.  Ebony black tentacles gently trailing over the edges of the coral, each one endlessly studying and examining whatever was in their grasp, seeming to move with a mind of its own, but bearing a mesmerizing and boneless grace. 

Silvery blue eyes as cold as glacial ice slid across the now abandoned reef while a thin smile tugged at his lips.  Reaching out a grey skinned hand, he deftly plucked up a colourful bit of shell, admiring the symmetrical ripples along its edges for a moment before gently tucking it into the bag he wore slung over his slender shoulders before continuing on his way.

Between the darkness of his tentacles, the smooth grey of his flesh and the shimmering paleness of his hair, he could easily be mistaken for one of the ever-shifting shadows brought to life and given form.  He was a darkness summoned into conflict with the light of their song, and worse, this darkness didn’t travel alone.

“A rather harsh critique indeed.”  One of the long gliding shadows slid forward, his teal body undulated with the current as he twisted slowly around a large coral branch, winking a brilliantly golden eye playfully at the tiny shrimp he could see huddling together deep within it’s protective branches.  “It’s a classic.”

“Yeah Azul.”  The third member of the deadly school snickered as he wiggled the screaming crab in his hands back and forth, watching the claws flailing wildly before reaching out with a dark-skinned hand.  A perfect mirror image to the other lurking eel, right down to the heterochromic eyes, the only thing differentiating the two was this one’s manic grin of delight as he deftly plucked one of the crustacean’s legs off.  Without pause, the teal skinned eel mer popped the wriggling appendage into his mouth, crunching loudly.

“I thought Azul was all about the classics.”  Sharp teeth cut easily through the shell and he giggled softly before playfully poking the petrified shellfish between the eyestalks.  “Shush little crabby, be a good snack.”  The giggles became full fledged laughter as another leg was torn off, following the fate of the previous appendage as the eel enjoyed some incomprehensible inner joke. 

“PLEASE!!! PLEASE LET ME GO!!!”  The small crustacean begged shamelessly, his claws waving back and forth frantically as he watched his precious limbs being crushed between sharp and unforgiving teeth.  “I’ll give you anything you want!!”

“But I already have everything I want little Crabby.”  The more manic eel twin popped another leg into his mouth, crunching down on it loudly while his snack continued to scream and beg.  The other two mer watched with only mild interest, not at all disturbed by the cruel game being played out. 

“I have Jade and Azul to keep me from becoming bored and we’re about to go on an exciting adventure on land!  Just like that mermaid princess in that old story!  Do you think you can offer me anything like that little Crabby?”  He paused in his chewing to look over at his twin who’d drifted away from the coral and was swimming in lazy circles, enjoying the rare feel of the sun on his skin. 

“Hey Jade, do you think we’ll meet a prince?”  The circling twin didn’t pause or even glance over at his brother as he continued to circle around, moving from the shadows to the light and studying the differences between the two.  The warmth was so different than the cold depths they usually called home and he found it to be quite fascinating.

“We met one already Floyd.”  He murmured in response, proving that he was still listening to his companions.  “Prince Rielle?”  Unsurprisingly, he was met with a blank and somewhat bemused look before Floyd resumed amusing himself by tearing another leg off the still screaming crab.  “The school trip to the Atlantica Memorial Museum?  Everyone made a huge deal out of it because he knew that brat Nimoe?”

“Him?  He was boring, all he did was talk a lot about how great he was, then teased that fat little octopus until he inked.  Dull dull dull.”  With each repetition of the word, he tore off another leg, letting them drift around his head, utterly ignored.

“I agree Floyd.”  Azul growled, his eyes narrowing as his tentacles twisted tightly around each other.  “He was a foul and loathsome pile of chum, so wrapped up in his own self importance that he never once managed to grasp the fact that the Royal Family have become nothing more than empty figureheads, not even worthy of lip service let alone the grandiose delusions he insisted on perpetuating.”

“Oooh, Azul is mad if he’s using all the big fancy words.  So grandiose.”  Floyd snickered.  “Who cares what he thought.  He’s boring and you’re here with us.  Have a leg!”  One of the severed limbs was plucked up and handed over to the octo mer who coiled a tentacle around it, accepting the gift of both words and food.

“Agreed.”  Jade nodded and smiled at his companions as he swam over, coiling around them both, his long tail trailing over their bodies teasingly.  “Titles handed down to you with no effort of your own are empty things, and he was nothing but a hollow little boy filled with equally empty ambitions.  Everything we have, we’ve earned… one way or another.”  This time, the smile had a flash of fang behind it and Floyd tittered softly at his brother.  “Invitations to Night Raven College are rarely given, especially so deep in the ocean.  For all three of us to get one?  Unheard of, but hardly undeserved.  It seems that we’re not the only ones to find our little octopus to be interesting.”  He paused for a moment to glance over at his brother and sighed softly in irritation. 

“Floyd, stop playing with the crab, his screaming is going to attract sharks.  Either eat him or let him go.”

Huffing softly, Floyd looked at his brother, then the crab who was now little more than a shivering, clawed shell.

“What do you think little Crabby?”  He gave his victim a couple of playful shakes to get him to stop shrieking for a moment.  “Should I let you go or eat you?”

“Please!  Please for the love of Poseidon, let me go!”  Olive and golden eyes studied the trembling creature for a long moment as the eel appeared to think about it.  Giving the crab another mischievous poke, he grinned widely, baring a mouthful of sharp teeth.  “Awww too bad little Crabby, this is what you get for being so tasty!”  Letting you go isn’t half as fun as eating you.”  Popping the crustacean in his mouth, he crunched down mercilessly, little flecks of shell floating around his head.

“Ack!  Thade!  Thade he’th god ‘y tongue!”

Biting back another sigh, Jade reached over and pulled the now severed claw off his brother’s tongue.  Splitting it neatly in half; he gave a piece to Azul, keeping the other for himself, taking a moment to pull the soft meat out of the shell before taking a bite.

“He’s right you know.”  He admitted after chewing for a few thoughtful moments before tossing the now empty pincer remains over his shoulder.  “That crab really was tasty.” 

Though Azul refrained from comment, he certainly didn’t argue.  Unlike the twins, he plucked a thick blade of rather succulent looking seaweed and took a moment to wrap the meat in a little pocket of greenery before nibbling at it delicately.

Knowing better than to tease their friend over his determination to have a balanced meal, even while wandering through the reef, the twins allowed him a few moments of peace.  Well, Jade granted him a few moments of peace, Floyd amused himself by swimming around them in lopsided circles, his long tongue dangling out of his mouth as he tried to check it for damage.

Deciding to leave his brother to his own devices for the moment, Jade waited until Azul had finished his snack before speaking once more. 

“So, I was wondering.”  He began, keeping his tone light despite the curiosity eating him alive like a hungry lamprey.  “Night Raven College is landbound and amulets that let merfolk travel on land are both expensive and rare.  The Mirror didn’t say anything about how we were going to get there, did it?”

“Well, there’s got to be a way.”  Floyd stated as he drifted by, seeming to have forgotten about his tongue for the moment.  “If those other algae heads could make it, then it can’t be that hard to figure out… right?  Oh oh!  We can make a deal with a Sea Witch!  Azul, will you be our Sea Witch?  You can have my voice for those feetsy thingies the land humans use.”

“You’re not going to… ugh, Azul, don’t take his voice.”  Shaking his head, Jade flashed his companion a gentle smile which belied the warning in his eyes, not that the octopus had any intention of trapping either of the twins in a contract.  Some deals could all too easily come back and bite you, with those two, it would be rather literally. 

“The Mirror promised a potion that would allow us to live as humans on land.”  Always the master storyteller, he paused for effect, allowing the tension to build, adding impact to his next statement.  “This was of course in exchange for following various school rules.”  A sly smirk tugged at his lips and the eels both snickered in amusement.

“Rules aren’t for people like us.”  Floyd scoffed, rolling his eyes as he took a moment to chase a foolish little clownfish who’d strayed too far from the sheltering coral.  “Dull dull dull.  But Azul has already figured a way around that, haven’t you?”

The swipes he took at the fish were more playful than a serious attempt at hunting and the small creature quickly vanished beneath the gently swaying boughs where it remained hidden, staring at them with huge eyes from the safety of the shadows.

In lieu of replying, Azul simply reached into a padded pouch in his bag and pulled out three vials filled with a deep purple liquid.  Both eels drifted closer, their strange eyes lighting up with fascination as they stared at the displayed treasure.

“Would we be heading towards the shallows if I didn’t have a way to get around their attempts to leash us?”  He chuckled softly.  “We’ll make our own rules as always.  The Sea Witch bowed to no king, and we’d be rather shoddy imitations if we willingly grovelled before a mere headmaster.”

“True true.”  Jade nodded his head in thoughtful agreement.  “Though I doubt the other students from Atlantica will take well to us flaunting such boldness.”

“I’m hardly worried about them.”  Azul’s smirk grew wider as he tucked the vials back into their padded pocket, not wanting to risk them becoming damaged, or worse, Floyd snatching one and drinking it so far from the surface.  “Everyone has a weakness, we merely need to find it and exploit… I mean help them overcome it.”

“Ooooh, lots of contracts.”  Floyd purred gleefully, giving his shoulder a little squeeze of anticipation.  “Jade and I will get to take care of the anemones who try to break them right?”  He sounded so hopeful.  “There’s always someone who thinks they can get away with it.”

“Sad isn’t it?  People have no honour these days, always wanting something for nothing.”  The octopus sighed in mock sadness, giving his head a slow shake. 

“Very sad.”

“Breaks the heart.”  The eels agreed, their smiles growing wider and rather toothier.

“Azul is brilliant at potions.”  Floyd poked the sack of treasures with interest, causing Azul to gently push him away with a few tentacles and pull the bag protectively against his body.  “Soon we’ll be walking on land just like in the stories!  But wait… Azul… how will we breathe?  Will this potion give us those inflaty thingies too?  Like the whales have?”

“Of course.”  Despite his haughty tone, Azul couldn’t help but glance somewhat guiltily off to the side, his cheeks darkening slightly.  “That’s why we’re heading for the shallows.  The potion will quickly exchange our gills for lungs, and as fascinating as those are, they’re hardly compatible with a watery environment.  The pressure alone would crush them in seconds.”

“And how many test subjects did it take before Azul figured that out about the lungs?”  Floyd floated closer, his grin growing wider.

“More than I would like to admit.”  Azul’s reply was carefully measured but unrepentant.  He was under no illusions that great discoveries often required great sacrifice and his ability to crack the code on the complicated potion had been one of the greatest achievements of his young life.  The first of many to come as far as he was concerned.  Still, it had taken him a distressingly long period of time to realize why his subjects had kept dying moments after he’d administered the potion.  Worse was having to hide all the bodies.  Granted, his mother was rather pleased with how well her kelp beds were flourishing lately.

It said a great deal about the trust the twins had in him as they didn’t question him as to how well the potion would work, or if there were any side effects.  If Azul said it would work, that was good enough for them, though he wasn’t about to kid himself into believing that the risk wasn’t part of the attraction for them.  As much as he enjoyed playing the more cautious game, especially when compared to the other two, even he had to admit that there was a certain sort of addictive thrill to it.  Pitting his mind against the laws of physics, against his own genetics, altering his own body to suit his whim… but wasn’t that what he’d been doing one way or another for years?

Gone was the shy little chubby octopus who’d hidden from the taunts of others in a tiny pot; in his place was a proud, cunning and powerful budding sorcerer.  His childhood bullies now lined up to trade him the most precious pieces of themselves for new and little perfect lives inspired by their own inner conceits.

Hadn’t he even pushed himself to unlock his unique magic years before anyone had ever thought it possible?  What was reality to him?  Nothing but a toy, utterly malleable in his tentacles and all the more so when the greed of another was involved.  With every softly whispered entreaty, every bargain struck, and every contract signed, he grew stronger.

“A whole new world; new customs, new knowledge, new plants and creatures…”  Jade murmured thoughtfully, looking up at the way the sun danced along the surface of the waves far above their heads.  “I can’t wait to explore it.”

“Heh, and Azul can’t wait to rule it.”  Floyd cut in with a smirk, though no one denied the truth behind his words.

“What of you Floyd?  Are you looking forward to this adventure?”  Silvery blue eyes studied the eel who simply shrugged nonchalantly.

“Meh, I don’t really care where I am.  So long as I’m with Jade and Azul I won’t be bored.”

“Rather high praise coming from you Floyd.”

“Not really.  Interesting things seem to happen around my favourite little octopus. See? Even right now, we have sharks following us.  Isn’t that fun?  Should we fight them?  I wonder if I can squeeze a shark until it breaks.”

Stiffening in horror, Azul spun around, scanning the vast space around them for any sign of the sleek predators while his tentacles immediately began to feel around for any crevasse large enough to tuck himself into.  Gritting his teeth, he pulled the long twisting limbs back to him, using them to balance himself in order to properly cast some defensive spells. 

He’d had enough of being a coward, of hiding and inking in terror whenever life grew too hard or dangerous.  If he was going to become a great Sea Witch, then it was time he started acting like one!  Ugh… of all the times to grow a damn spine.

“They’re surrounding us.”  Jade murmured softly into his ear, his much keener eyesight spotting the deadly beasts despite all the cover the reef provided.  “We can lead them away from you if you wish, but I wouldn’t recommend a fight.  Numbers are on their side and our spells will only make them frenzy.”

“I’m not beginning this journey by swimming away and hiding.”  Azul’s eyes narrowed as he pulled his bag a little more tightly against his side.  Still, Jade had a point.  Sharks were lethal, especially once they were worked up.  They had to either confound them and slip away, or utterly brutalize them to the point that they were unable to pursue.

“YAY, no more little pot for Azul!”  Floyd cheered loudly, not seeming at all worried with their possible approaching death.  “Though technically, this journey is ending.”  He added thoughtfully as he studied the huge and hungry shapes.  “Bye bye ocean, hello dry land.  Sort of fitting, right?  Aren’t mammals all born in blood?  Jade, can we be born in blood?  It sounds fun.”

“It sounds like a delightful idea Floyd.”

He must be spending too much time around the twins because he felt a vicious smile tug at his own lips as he reached a hand into his sac one more time.

“Gentlemen, let’s make our exit a memorable one, shall we?”

Chapter Text

“You have something planned don’t you.”  Jade’s presence was a firm shield at his back, allowing Azul to draw in a deep and bracing breath, calming his mind as his pale eyes studied the approaching predators.  “Something delightfully nefarious perhaps?”

 “Nefarious?  You wound me deeply.”  His smile widened a tad, flashing shining white teeth which were woefully unimpressive compared to those of his companions.  “This is something brilliant.”

Reaching into his satchel, he felt around for a rounded bottle with a stopper shaped like shark’s tooth.  Palming it into his hand, he closed his eyes for a moment, wishing he could slow the furious beating of his heart. 

Positioned as they were, only the twins could see what he held in his hand, but neither understood what he was up to.  That was alright.  They didn’t need to understand.  All they needed to do was follow his orders.

“Is that blood?”  Floyd asked curiously as he noted the thick crimson liquid held within.  “Pretty sure bleeding is a bad idea, but if Azul wants to be eaten by the little fishies…”

“Haaaaaalfbreeds.”  A singsong voice floated through the water, high pitched and taunting.  “Scared little halfbreeds, swimming too far from home.”  Several cruel giggles erupted around them at the words as the sharks continued to glide ever closer in their tightening circle. 

“Awww huddled together, so cute!”

“So tasty looking.”

“Heh, surf and turf!  Get it?  ‘Cause they can’t figure out what they are?”  More tittering laughter filled the water around them, and as the huge predators drew closer, they could make out the long thin shapes trailing along the shark’s lean bodies.

“Fucking remoras.”  Floyd growled, his eyes narrowing as he flexed his claws.  “Oh no!  The shit eaters are teasing us!  I’m sooo scared!”  His voice rose as he happily threw the taunts back at the vile fish.  “I’ll give you something to suck on!”

“…was that truly necessary Floyd?”  Jade glanced over at his brother who simply shrugged, hardly concerned with social standards.

“Our friends are going to tear you apart little halfbreeds.”  One of the remora’s spat out, drawing out a chorus of anticipatory giggles from its fellows.  “And we’re going to watch and laugh while you scream and beg.”

“Which one will die first do you think?”

“Oh the octopus. So many plump little legs to chew on, he looks soft and sweet.”

Ignoring their taunts, Azul instead studied the ever-tightening circle, watching the largest and boldest of the sharks.  She’d be the one to try for the first bite and the others would follow suit.  Once blood was drawn, there’d be no way to stop the frenzy and with numbers so heavily skewed against them, not even the famed ferocity of the Leech brothers could save them.

Confident in their victory, the sharks continued to draw closer, weaving around each other with lazy waves of their tails, their open maws bristling with hundreds of razor-sharp teeth.  Beneath them, the remora’s grinned widely in anticipation, their mad little eyes wide and eager.

“Take a deep breath boys.”  Azul murmured softly through clenched teeth as he glared icily at the deadly fish and their taunting little friends.  It said an impressive amount regarding the trust the two eels had in him as neither one murmured a word of question regarding his plan.  Instead, he felt the slight shift in the water as they both drew in oxygen rich water through their gills.

Holding the shark’s hungry stare, he pressed his fingertip against the point of the shark tooth stopper and felt the sharp prick of it cutting his flesh. 

A ripple of electricity seemed to cut through the water and he could see the exact instant that the sharks smelled his blood.  Their eyes went blank, their already crude minds utterly consumed by a wild hunger which drove away any thought aside from all consuming HUNGER.  They practically vibrated with need, every single one of their incredible senses locked on Azul’s fingertip, leaving them blind to everything else as they charged.

“Stop breathing and swim up!”  He commanded softly to his friends, giving them half a second to react as he took his own deep breath before sealing his gills tightly. 

A quick flick of his thumb uncorked the vial, releasing the pressurized contents in a chill rush of crimson, creating a bloody cloud around them and obscuring their forms as they shot upwards as fast as their various tails would allow them.

While Azul wouldn’t ever be mistaken for anywhere near the fastest swimmer in the sea, he was more than capable of short surges of speed with controlled bursts of water forced through his body.  While hideously embarrassing as far as he was concerned, easily on par with inking, it could occasionally serve him well in certain situations.  This one for example.

He shot easily past the twins for a few seconds, moving quickly enough that a small trail of crimson water seemed to be pulled along with him before quickly dissipating.  Stars danced in front of his eyes as his body struggled against the intense pressure it suddenly found itself under and he could feel the strain on his heart warning him of the physical toll. 

On the plus side, it’s not as if he could draw in any more water with his gills pressed tightly shut, so his sprint, while impressive was short lived.  On the down side, he wasn’t exactly sure what the minimal safe distance was, so despite the pain quickly taking over his body, he forced his tentacles to stretch out and snap shut, propelling himself even further away from the carnage he’d just unleashed in their wake.

It got harder and harder to move forward with every pump of his tentacles, but two strong hands grabbed onto his arms while powerful twin tails undulated rapidly, whipping up a rather impressive wake as the two eels dragged him into the somewhat dubious shelter of the reef.

He had no idea if it was safe to stop, but the twins both seemed to have decided that they’d gone far enough for the moment.  Ducking behind a rather large barnacle and coral encrusted pile of rocks, they took a moment to all catch their breaths.

Never had water tasted so good and Azul drew in deep gillful’s of it, feeling every single one of his tentacles tingle and ache in protest of the sudden sprint.  Exercise and Azul had never been grand companions, he most definitely preferred a more sedate glide across the ocean floor than anything like this.  Still… he was alive to grumble about it, which really was the important thing.

Naturally, the much more athletic Leech brothers didn’t seem to be at all bothered by racing around, dragging Azul’s chubby little tentacle’d ass behind them with their gills sealed shut.  To them, it was likely nothing more than a fun stroll, and he couldn’t help but feel a little jealous of their easy athleticism. 

“Oh Jade… Azul is amazing!”  Floyd murmured in absolute awe as he stared over the edge of the coral, his mismatched eyes wide with absolute delight.  “Azul is the best Sea Witch Ever!” 

Surprisingly, rather than join his brother, Jade instead grabbed onto Azul’s injured finger, holding it tightly in his grip while focusing for a moment, his eyes tightly closed in concentration.  There was a sort of itching around the wound and then a sharp tug which went straight to the bone, causing the young octopus to gasp loudly then grit his teeth as he experienced the pain of the injury ten fold.

While the twins both possessed a natural healing talent, like everything else in the deep ocean, it was not without a cost, either to the healer, or the one being healed.  The fact that Azul was experiencing the sharp pain of his wound closing warned him that while Jade’s face was its usual placid mask of serenity, he was far from happy.

“I had to get their attention.”  Azul explained softly.  “This was the easiest way to ensure I had all of them.”

“Next time have Floyd or I bleed.  We’re much faster than you are, and you nearly killed yourself with that sprint.  I can feel your heart still struggling.”  He replied coolly, releasing the now healed finger and placing his dark hands on Azul’s bare chest.  Long slender fingers spread wide, the deep grey webbing stretching tightly between them, touching as much flesh as possible.

“My heart is fine, I don’t nee-AAAARGH!”  His protests were interrupted by the electric burn that tore through his chest, reminding him of the time he’d grabbed onto an irritable electric eel in his youth.  It was probably related to the bastard in front of him! 

“Of course it’s fine, that’s why this doesn’t hurt hmm?”  Jade’s tone was almost sweet sounding, though Azul knew him well enough to hear the cold rage beneath.  “Your heart can’t beat when you use propulsion like that.”  He continued.  “You should have let Floyd and I grab onto you and pull you away.”

The pain, though mind meltingly intense at first quickly faded away to a gentle pulse beneath Jade’s fingertips as the damaged and strained tissues repaired themselves, allowing Azul to breathe more easily and the tingling in his extremities was all but gone. 

Opening his eyes, he looked up into that mix of olive green and shining gold, staring into his, silently daring him to continue to argue.  As if reflecting the no doubt dark thoughts sliding through the eel’s mind, Azul could feel the warning prick of sharp claws against his skin.  It wasn’t enough to break his skin, but it certainly got the point across.  He wasn’t allowed to hurt himself.  That was their job, as per their age-old agreement.

“There wasn’t time.”  He did his best to explain.  “We needed to get out of there as fast as possible.”

“Azul is right Jade, you’ve got to see this!  They’re falling apart!”  Those accusing eyes widened slightly and with a flick of his powerful tail, Jade joined his brother on the edge of the rock, looking back at the carnage they’d left behind.

“Deepest Abyss…”  Jade breathed in awe as his mind struggled to comprehend what he was seeing.  Carnage wasn’t perhaps a descriptive enough word for what he looking at, but despite his rather large vocabulary, nothing else seemed to really do it justice.

What had initially been a crimson cloud of mysterious potion was now a so drenched in blood and gore that it had turned black.  Chunks of unidentified meat swirled in the churning water as the sharks fought against an enemy that tore them apart from the inside out.  Unable to understand what was happening, they tore at anything that came near; be it the other sharks, the remora or even themselves.

They should have heard screaming from the sheer amount of damage being caused.  While the sharks were naturally mute, the remora certainly weren’t, but the entire massacre was absolutely eerily silent.  Their voices ripped away as thoroughly as their flesh.

“What was that potion?”  Jade found himself asking softly, unable to tear his eyes away from the nightmarish scene.  He’d thought that he’d seen the worst the ocean could throw at its denizens.  Sickness, starvation, the all encompassing icy darkness of the Northern Reef in winter… even the countless predators who stalked the chill waters, endlessly hunting the unwary and weak.  But this… this was on a whole new level.

“Impressive isn’t it?”  There was no disguising the pride Azul was taking in this unleashed monstrosity and without even looking, Jade new his companion was smiling that strange near manic smile he’d occasionally indulge in when savouring a particularly delicious victory.  Just hearing it in that smug voice made his heart beat a little faster in response.  He’d always appreciated a strong predator, and this little octopus never ceased to surprise him.

“It attacks the soft tissue in the gills, dissolving them almost instantly and then getting into the blood.  From there it moves through the body, tearing them apart from the inside out.”  Pausing for a moment, he admired the bloodbath he’d unleashed.  He’d only tested this in tiny doses on small fish he’d caught, but the plan had always been to use this as a quick… if somewhat dangerous way to escape sharks.  Anything to avoid inking.

“Sharks are terrible at holding their breath.”  Azul continued, savouring the moment.  “Some can do it, but they need to close their mouth and their gills to do so.  Most never figure out how.”

“You got them to frenzy so that all their mouths were open, and they wouldn’t think to close them.”  Jade concluded, watching a severed fin drift down to the now gore covered ocean floor while smaller chunks floated merrily about. 

Their little school might have eaten one crab, but the other creatures of the reef would feast well for the next while on the carcasses.  The entire ecosystem here would flourish for some time on this bounty.

With a single vicious stroke, Azul had given this reef a gift beyond measure.  If the twins weren’t already more than half convinced that their unusual friend was the second coming of the Sea Witch, this proved it.

Squealing loudly in delight, Floyd grabbed onto Azul and hugged him tightly, spinning them both around so quickly that the octopus’ tentacles fanned out rather artfully around them.

“Azul is amazing!”  He cheered in delight.  “That was so much fun to see!  I mean, sure I didn’t get to tear them apart, but this!”  Pausing his spinning for a moment, he drank in the crimson massacre.  “This is even better!”

“He could have melted our gills.”  Jade pointed out matter-of-factly.

“But he didn’t!”  Floyd grinned widely, giving Azul another tight hug, causing the octopus to try to wriggle free.  It said a great deal about Floyd’s strength of grip that he managed to hold onto the naturally slick mer.

“Ugh!  Let me go!”  Azul protested loudly as he struggled to escape without hurting himself.  “We need to get to the shore remember?  You want legs right?”

“Nah, right now I’m having fun hugging Azul!”

“Let me go!  I’ll bite you!”

“I’ll bite you back.”

“Jade, Help me!”

 

***

“Are you sure you don’t want me to heal you Floyd?”  Jade murmured to his brother who was happily humming some tuneless song while he corkscrewed through the water next to them.  Next to them, Azul skulked along the ocean floor, rubbing his shoulder, convinced that he could still feel phantom pains from his own newly gained set of toothmarks.

“Naaaah, I’m good.”

“Do you really want more sharks to come around.”

“Depends, does Azul have more of those potions?  I want to watch this time!”  The surly octopus didn’t bother answering, though he did clutch his satchel a little closer to his body.

“I believe that was a no.”  Jade replied for him, a cheerful smile on his lips as he swam between the two of them, keeping the peace.  “Do you know how far away the shore is?”  It was a rather painfully obvious change in topic, but easily overlooked judging by the look of relief on Azul’s face.

“The map I found said that it’s another day’s swim south east.  That should put us on the edge of a small island.  There aren’t any human settlements there, so we should be safe enough while we figure out how to walk and breathe.”

“Do you think it will take long to learn?  It can’t be much harder than swimming can it?”  None of them had ever so much as seen the surface before, let alone walked on land.  The desire to leave the sea for the dry world far up above wasn’t something which came naturally to the mer race and the three of them were no exception.  Exploring dark caves and mysterious chasms were more their speed, and from what Jade had heard in his studies, the surface was huge, like the open ocean, only with this brilliant ball floating overhead like a crazed puffer fish, and it burned hotter than any deep ocean vent.

Instead of scales, the surface-dwelling creatures were covered in a strange moss called “fur” or “feathers”.  He wasn’t quite sure what the difference between the two was.  The humans on the other hand had neither.  Their skin was supposed to be sort of similar to a mer's, only lacking the protective mucus which helped to insulate them and protect their skin from abrasions.

They sounded like freakish creatures, half mer, half… something alien.  As if some cruel curse had taken their tail and sliced it neatly down the middle, leaving two halves forever separated, then forced to use them individually to move.  Their lower halves were lacking any protective scales, leaving them weak and vulnerable as well, forcing them to drape some sort of seaweed around themselves for protection. 

It all sounded insane to him and he was positive that their teachers were likely messing up the details, but as rare as it was for merfolk to leave the ocean depths, it was even rarer for them to return. 

Of the few who did, they were loathe to share their knowledge, and for good reason.  Knowledge was power, and only a fool would freely part with it.  The risk in sacrificing everything for a quest to leave the comforting embrace of the ocean turned away most adventuresome and aspiring oceanic sorcerers, but it had had the opposite fact on their little trio.  To them, it was a challenge to be taken up, a hurdle to pass… no, not pass.  They’d never be satisfied with simply passing a challenge.  They would conquer this world, through magic, force and guile.  Thankfully, these three traits were specialties of their little school and there was little doubt in their minds that they would be unstoppable. 

Chapter Text

               As usual, Jade went from deeply asleep to awake and alert in an instant, his mind instantly analyzing his surroundings for anything out of place.  It didn’t matter that he knew without a doubt that they were safely hidden behind a veritable wall of spells; old instincts weren’t so easily set aside, especially when they could all too easily be the only thing standing between them and a sudden yet messy demise.

They lay there, curled up so tightly in a mass of limbs that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.  Teal and aquamarine coils were tangled up in tentacles of deepest abyssal black; all of them enmeshed so hopelessly together that should an emergency have arisen; they’d never be able to extricate themselves in time to deal with it.

Not that they’d had much of a choice.  The cave Floyd’s spell had found them was small, tiny even by their standards, forcing them to sleep so tightly together that other mer would have gone mad from the prolonged contact.  Knowing his brother, their temporary shelter had been chosen specifically because of that very thing.  Not that any of them minded.  The brothers had always been far closer to each other than their society deemed to be “natural” and Azul adored small spaces, the smaller the better. 

Despite the aloof masks he always donned in his waking hours, in sleep, the prim and proper octopus was a master level cuddler, something the eels were more than happy to take full advantage of.  The feel of those nimble tentacles holding him tightly was comforting, especially when combined with the powerful tail of his brother.  It made him feel far more protected than any mere cave walls ever could.

Though no light penetrated their temporary shelter, Jade knew that it was still a little too early rise, but he was far too keyed up to even think about going back to sleep.  How could he?  This was their last day in the ocean for Neptune knew how long.  In a few hours, their beautiful bodies would be twisted and contorted into new and alien shapes, allowing them to walk on dry land as humans.

A shiver ran down his long spine at the very thought of what was to come, and the tip of his tale twitched, causing the other two to awaken.  Like him, they were both instantly alert, their senses straining to test the wards Azul had set at the mouth of the cave to keep any predators from attempting to enter. 

Moving just enough to reach over and lightly stroke their coiled tails and tentacles soothingly, he allowed himself a soft smile as he felt them both relax under his touch.  No words were needed, they all knew each other too well for such necessities.

“Are you chewing on my tentacle!?”  Azul snapped angrily, shattering the blissful silence as he tried to jerk the bound limb back.

“S’not my fault that you’re so tasty Azul.”  Floyd grumbled sleepily, tightening his grip around the other two and trying to burrow beneath them both.

“Get that out of your mouth!”

“No.  I licked it.  It’s mine.”

“I’m not negotiating with you, you grouper.  Spit it out!”

Aaaand it looked like they were getting up.  Jade allowed himself a fond smile of amusement as he listened to them bicker while Azul did his best to try to extricate himself from the knot they’d become.

Giving his hand a small twist, he dispelled his own contributions to their little temporary nest, allowing the cooling charms to fade away.  While the warm water was interesting for all its newness, Jade much preferred the icy temperatures of the darkest depths and he knew the others felt the same.  There was something so vital and energizing about the cold water and how it chilled the blood.  While it made other creatures slow and sluggish, hoarding their precious energy like misers, it invigorated the mer of the Northern Reef.  Granted, from what he’d gathered from his studies, they were all sort of considered to be abnormalities.

“I don’t see why we can’t take the potions now and get it over with.”  Floyd grumbled, drawing Jade’s attention back to the argument at hand.

“I’m not giving you the potion when we’re in this little cave.”  Azul was sounding more than a tad annoyed and he could hear Floyd huff loudly.  It was easy to picture him rolling his eyes.

“Not here in this cave, once we got out.”

“Remember our conversation yesterday about the pressure crushing your lungs?”

“Nope!”  His brother was obviously baiting the octopus, always eager to pull a reaction out of their normally stoic companion, and quick to take advantage of the fact that his prey couldn’t simply swim away this time, at least not without a fight.

“Ugh, you’re being deliberately obtuse!”

“Yup!”

“Gentlemen.”  Jade gave his own impressive tail a warning squeeze, ensuring he had both of their attention.  “Rather than snapping at each other like excited clownfish, perhaps we should take advantage of the hour and begin the final portion of our journey?  The sooner we reach this… beach, the sooner we can learn to walk.”

That seemed to work as both of his companions settled down enough for them to begin to work out how to extract themselves from each other, a feat which required no small bit of focus and certainly wasn’t helped by the feel of slick flesh sliding against each other.

One by one, they slid out of their little cave and looked around, the twins breathing in deeply, scenting the water for any hint of hidden predator while Azul waited for their signal to emerge.  Only once it was safe did he slip out, his long tentacles reaching out in all directions, deftly plucking up the carefully smoothed and rounded stones he’d so painstakingly etched protective runes on.  With each one taken out of the circle, the familiar and comforting hum of magic along their skin faded.  It always left them feeling a little bereft and empty, urging them all to cast another spell, just a small cantrip, anything to keep that sizzle of energy alive.

That, Azul had explained years ago when their abilities were first manifesting, was the greatest danger of magic; the addiction.  It was a Hunger that could easily take you over if you were weak willed and foolish enough, draining your energy bit by bit like a parasite until it consumed not only you, but those around you.

Runes helped to avoid the worst of it, but they took forever to make and were far too tedious for Floyd to bother with, but both Azul and Jade saw the near limitless uses for them, so long as one had the forethought to plan ahead for a situation. 

Floyd brushed against him gently, pulling him out of his introspection and a glance of warning reminded Jade that their minds were supposed to be on the perimeter or their cave rather than on old lessons and musings.  Flashing his brother a smile, grateful for his rare moment of discretion, Jade looked over at Azul, seeing that he was just finishing fastening up his satchel and hadn’t noticed the lapse.

“Let’s go let’s go.”  Floyd was instantly swimming in tight circles around them, trying to herd them into motion and repeatedly chanting those words, as if that might somehow magically make them go faster.  Both Azul and Jade shared twin looks of exasperation but found themselves hurrying despite themselves.  Floyd’s excitement was infectious, reminding them that by the end of the day, they’d be part of a whole new world.

There was renewed energy in their swimming despite forgoing breakfast, save for a few clams Azul’s skilled tentacles scooped up for them to eat en route as they raced towards their destination.

 

 

 

The closer they got to their goal, the more the ceiling of their world seemed to lower.  For the first time, they could see the surface, a gleaming sheet of glistening light which seemed to be in constant motion.  It was a tad unnerving to say the least, the awareness of constant movement up above and the fee of the vibrations of the waves against their sensitive skin. 

Everything was so different here, the plants, the fish, even the ground.  Gone were the vast stretches of coral reef which had previously seemed endless to their young eyes, leaving them all feeling woefully exposed.  This feeling was made even worse by awareness of just how little room there was to maneuver should any trouble arise.

The worst by far were the whale-like creatures.  They raced across the surface at incredible speed, shattering the calm of the shallows with a roar that sent everyone scattering and left them all gaping like groupers as they tore past.  Not even the twins boldness withstood the onslaught of the first few to tear across the surface, roaring loudly enough to make their entire bodies shake.  Granted, after the first few passe them without so much as pausing, they quickly realized that whatever these creatures were, they had no interest in the three young mers hiding below.

Floyd was, as always, the first to get over his initial shock and attempt to approach the strange creatures, the end result being him being spun around wildly in the creature’s massive wake.

“These fish are insane!”  The eel laughed in delight, trying to chase after the next one they saw, but he succeeded in only getting blasted back, his body spinning out of control as he struggled to right himself.  “Azul, Jade, have either of you ever seen fish like this!?”  He continued to spin around wildly, enjoying the feeling of wildly flailing for balance while the other two continued to stare with wide nervous eyes. 

“That ain’t a fish son.”  An old stingray glanced up at them from where it had hidden itself in the sand, only its eyes visible.  “Those are humans.  Best be avoiding them if you can.”  For added emphasis, he gave one of his fins a lift, showing them the strange shining hooked tooth embedded in the skin.

“Liar.”  Floyd righted himself and swam over, a frown tugging at his lips as he flexed his claws.  “We’re not stupid.  Humans have split tails, and they’re slow in the water… and not so fat.”  Sensing a possible source of information, Jade joined his brother’s side and smiled warmly at the ray.

“My apologies, we’ve been swimming hard all day and these waters are unknown to us.  You said those are humans?”  Floyd shot his brother a look of exasperation, clearly wanting to argue that this wasn’t at all what they’d been told in school, but he refused to argue with Jade in front of others.

At the presence of the second predator, the ray seemed to suddenly realize that speaking up might not have been in his best interest and the tip of his tail rose up in warning, displaying the sharp barb. 

Rather than taking offense at the threat display, Jade instead smiled widely, taking care to keep his sharp teeth covered. 

“Have no fear little ray, I give you my word that neither my brother nor I will do you harm.  We’re simply curious.  That truly is a strange tooth.” He murmured softly, shifting just enough to present his side to the ray, pleased to see Floyd doing the same.  The less aggressive positions seemed to relax the fish, allowing him to lower the tail slightly.  “It looks rather painful as well.  Without hands, it must be difficult to remove such a thing, and the local fish all look too small to help.”  As he spoke, he drifted closer and slowly extended his hand, giving his clawed fingers a little wiggle to demonstrate their dexterity.  “Perhaps an arrangement could be made?”

That certainly caught the ray’s attention and it nodded eagerly.

“It’s a human tooth.”  He explained eagerly, causing the twins to glance at each other in confusion.  They’d known that humans were strange freakish things, but to have fangs like that?  Perhaps they were more dangerous than they’d thought.  “They can take their teeth out and dangle them into the water, hidden inside delicious pieces of meat.” 

“They’re anglers?”  Floyd now looked thoroughly confused and both of them updated their mental images of the humans, adding long angler lures to their faces, along with thin hooked teeth.

“Yeah, they look all tasty, but the instant you take a bite, they have you.  Yank you out of the water before you can blink!  You’re never seen again.”  The ray was clearly warming to his horrific tale and leaned a little closer to the eels.  “They even have long tentacles that they reach down with, snapping up every fish they can reach and dragging their screaming little bodies out of the water.  Once you’re caught, there’s no escape.  I’ve seen em try to bite their way out, but the humans, they feel no pain at all.” 

By now, both twins were looking skeptical.  There was no way these monsters were the humans they were supposed to pretend to be.  In all of their ancient stories, the humans looked half mer.  Sure they were strange and ugly below the waist, like mer had been turned upside down and their head cut off, which… granted was a rather horrific image that left many young fry terrified to tears, but this thing being described sounded like something from the deep trenches.

“It’s true, it’s true!” The ray protested.  “I told you about the humans, now you remove the tooth!”  He gave his fin a pointed wiggle for emphasis, but the eels shook their heads.

“That doesn’t sound true at all.”  Floyd muttered.  “He’s probably been eating bad algae or something.”

“I don’t eat algae!”

“I’m afraid that we don’t believe that tale, we might not be from this area, but it sounds much too farfetched.”  Jade explained with an apologetic smile.  “Perhaps… if you told us of a safe cove where these humans didn’t exist?  Surely a ray would know of such things.  I believe we could remove the tooth for such information, though if it proves false…”

“We’ll come back and put that tooth through your eye.”  Floyd finished with a rather vicious tooth filled smile.

“I wouldn’t lie to the merfolk!”  The ray replied, staring at them both with wide eyes.  “I remember the old tales!  Once there was a colony here, long long ago before the humans came.  They protected us, kept us safe from the sharks and jellies!  We have many stories!”  Again, skeptical looks were exchanged as neither brother could imagine mer wanting to live in such warm shallow waters.

“What happened to them?  There’s no sign of any mer colony within days of here.”

“Sickness.”  He stated, then fluttered his fins when the twins both backed off warily.  “No no!  It was the algae they farmed.  Red tides were bad for a few years, contaminated the algae, made the water all but unlivable for everyone.  The Mer moved to deeper waters to avoid it, leaving their villages behind.  We never heard from them again and figured that they’d found new islands to protect.  The humans began arriving a short while later… so the stories go.”

“And the cove?”  Jade pressed, rather pleased with how foolishly verbose the ray was being.  Either he was truly ignorant to the ways of the deep ocean, or that tooth was far more painful than it appeared.  He couldn’t imagine anyone giving away so much information so freely.

“Yes yes! The cove is where the old mer village used to be!  Swim towards the lee side of the island, you’ll see the shoals first.  It’s rocky around the edges but turns to smooth sand once you’re past them.  The village of course is gone, reclaimed by the waves and water, but the humans never go there.  No one goes there anymore.  They say the cove is cursed!”

“Oh? And what do you know about the curse?”

“Nothing much I’m afraid.  The fry dare each other to swim to the edge of the village but you know fry… silly little things.  Now about this hook?”  The ray gave its fin another little flap.  “I’ve answered your questions, and I hope that perhaps you’ll be staying?  Settling in perhaps?  We could use the merfolk back here in these waters once more, bring things back to the way they should be.”

“Of course, a deal is a deal.”  Jade replied smoothly as he carefully swam forward and studied the tooth, noting how it was barbed on one end.  It was the strangest tooth he’d ever seen, good for piercing and holding the prey, but useless for chewing and tearing, unlike his own lovely mouthful of blades.  “Hold still.”  He warned.  “I’m going to push it all the way through.  If I try to pull it out the way it came, it will cause even more damage.”

Giving the ray a moment to settle himself, he reached out and took hold of the tooth.  With deft movements, he began to carefully slide it through the thick flesh of the ray.  The tooth was smoother than any fang he’d ever felt and harder than a shell.  It shone too, like a well polished pearl, rather lovely in its own lethal way and he took care to ensure that its rather wicked point didn’t find its way into the delicate webbing between his fingers.

In moment’s, the tooth slid free and the ray gave his fins an experimental flutter, lifting fully out of the sand for a moment. 

“Oh thank you!  Thank you so m-”  A long tentacle took advantage of his exposure to wrap around his tail, pinning the barb before two other long limbs coiled around its wide body.  The ray struggled valiantly to free itself, but the countless suckers latched onto him, holding him in the lethal grip as the rest of Azul slid into view.

“B…but… your word!”  The ray gasped out weakly, its eyes staring at the two eels who continued to smile down at him.

“Ah, but they aren’t harming you at all.”  The octopus purred softly as he pulled a long thin knife from his satchel.  “In fact, they won’t touch a single little scale on your body.  At least not until after your dead.”  He added, tightening his grip and smiling as he felt delicate cartilage begin to give way.  “But you see, we haven’t had breakfast yet, and after all that swimming, we’re all dreadfully hungry.”

Chapter Text

               “Is this it?”  Jade looked around at the rather barren sandy cove, utterly unimpressed with the location.  Azul didn’t look any more thrilled than he did though Floyd seemed insistent on poking every sand dollar he could find, trying to make them do something interesting.

               “Lee of the island just past the shoals.”  Azul replied, his eyes narrowing as he leaned back against an old stone marker which, judging by the ancient pictographs etched into it, was a signpost for the abandoned village.  It was so primitive that neither of them could read it and Azul had announced that it was either the name of the village, or a portent of doom.  Either way, it wasn’t impressive in the least.

               “I expected a little… I don’t know… more from an ancient cursed mer village.  At least a few skeletons or something.”  Jade huffed softly, brushing his long dark forelock from his face, annoyed with the constantly shifting current in the shallow waters. 

               “Hmph.”  Azul couldn’t sound anymore contemptuous if he tried.  “If they were too weak to protect themselves from a bad algae bloom then they certainly weren’t strong enough to cast a curse of any lasting worth.  I can’t feel anything, can you?”  Pale blue eyes glanced in his direction, as if daring him to contradict the little encyclopedia magica.  It caused the edges of his lips to tug into a slight smile, enjoying the boldness of the smaller mer.  Granted, Azul was by far the better mage out of all of them, if he couldn’t feel any trace of magic, then there likely never had been so much as a cantrip cast in these waters.

               “Sooooo we’re in the shallows now.”  Floyd swam by on his back, his arms tucked behind his head like a pillow while his dorsal fin etched swirling patterns through the soft sand.  “Can we take the potion?  I wanna check out these leggy things.”

               “How about we look around first.”  Jade cautioned, motioning towards a large rock which broke the surface of the water, conveniently situated in the center of the cove.  It would provide a little bit of cover, just in case those strange humans from earlier were nearby.  Following his gaze, the others looked up as the swirling, frothing surface and the strange world which lay beyond.  Breaking through that barrier would change everything and they would be swimming in the wake of that princess from long ago.  This was a deep and solemn moment, one to be savoured and-

               “Last one to the top of the rock is a fat halibut!”  Floyd yelled, racing past them and launching himself out of the water, grabbing onto the slick sides of the rock with claws fully extended and tail lashing back and forth for balance.

               “Dammit Floyd!”  Jade snapped, trying to grab at his brother’s tail and haul him back down to the safety of the water, but Azul simply sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.

               “Well, he’s not dead yet… so there’s likely no humans in the area.”

               “We don’t even know if we can breathe up there!”

               “I’m sure he’ll let us know when he passes out.”  Azul flashed Jade a bit of a smile and began to climb up the rock in a much more sedate manner, his long tentacles finding purchases that even the sharp claws of the twins couldn’t reach.  “But I’m not about to let him get all the glory.”

               Still swearing softly under his breath, Jade reached up and grabbed onto the slick stone and began to haul himself up after his companions.

               The feel of his head breaching the surface was strange, rather like a gauzy tail sliding across his flesh as the water fell away, leaving him blinking his eyes in an effort to clear his vision.  Reaching up, he carefully brushed his hair from his face and couldn’t keep from a sharp gasp as he stared at the brilliant world around him.

               The sand was a shining white which burned itself into his eyes, creating a thick carpet reaching up from the oceans floor and into the strangest coral formations he’d ever seen.  They stood impossibly tall and straight, hmm, maybe they were more like tube worms clustered around a vent, each one crowned with the delicate fronds of an anemone.  Surrounding them on the ground, strange seaweed swayed back and forth in the strange dry current which moved all around them.

               Everything was so bright and so clear that it made his eyes ache the longer he looked at it.  There was so much green, the endless variations broken up by brilliant flashes of colours of smaller anemone like creatures gathered around the base of the worm stalks.

               Most staggering of all was when he looked up.  Surrounding them all was endless blue, the same shade as Azul’s eyes, so much so that it made him feel as if his companion had somehow become massive and was about to swallow him whole.  In the center of all that blue was … well, he wasn’t sure what he was seeing, it hurt to look at it, burning his eyes painfully and forcing him to look away before he could even sort out the shape.

               “It hurts to breathe.”  Floyd muttered, his voice already sounding rough and dry as he glanced down from his perch up above his brother.  His gills were open wide and straining, the edges fluttering as they tried to drink in any moisture they could.  “Why does everything hurt!?  My eyes, my gills…. Even my skin doesn’t feel right.”

               Now that he’d mentioned it, Jade was aware of an unpleasant heat on his skin, his natural mucus provided some protection, but it was growing unnaturally dry, causing him to itch unpleasantly. 

               Rather than drop back into the soothing comfort of the water, he instead clung tighter to the rock, refusing to be the first one to retreat.  Instead, he glanced over at Azul, curious as to the reaction of the more cautious of their trio, only to find him gaping open mouthed at the view.  Pure awe was etched across his face and Jade was positive that he likely didn’t even notice any of the physical discomforts ailing them all.

               “The Surface.”  The young octopus breathed softly, turning his head to grin so brilliantly at Jade that it made the eels breath catch.  He’d never seen his companion look so utterly unguarded, so full of wonder that it stripped him of all of his careful masks, honed from years of pain and rejection.  It both made Jade want to tear apart each and every one of the fools who’d ever caused the young mer pain, while also pulling that soft slender body into his arms and dragging him down into a nice dark cave.  “We did it Jade.”

               A long tentacle removed itself from the rock and slid around his tail, giving it a firm squeeze, making Jade dig his claws a little deeper into the rock as he looked into that bottomless blue gaze.

               “I never had any doubt.”  He replied, flashing a warm smile of his own before turning to stare back at the strange tube worms.  “Do you think it’s safe?  I don’t recognize anything here.”

               “I don’t see any humans.”  Floyd announced loudly enough to ensure that any humans who might be within earshot would hear them.  “Let’s take the potion now.  It hurts like this and I want to explore!”  The end of his tail splashed them both annoyingly several times before he launched himself back into the water with the same lack of subtlety he’d shown in leaving it.

               By unspoken agreement, the two remaining mer slid much more sedately back into the water, taking deep, glorious breaths of the water, feeling it sooth their dried gills.

               “I’m not sure about the burning feeling.”  Jade spoke up before anyone could say anything.  “Is that normal?  I don’t remember reading about it hurting my skin like that.”  As he spoke, he idly swatted at Floyd who was swimming around them in tight eager circles like an overexcited fry, kicking up enough sand to make the water murky and dull.  “Will your potion make that stop?”

               Glancing up at the surface and clutching his satchel tightly to his chest, Azul chewed on the edge of his bottom lip as he mentally reviewed every step of his brewing process, comparing them to his studies.

               “That burning wasn’t mentioned in any of our legends or stories, but I think it’s from that bright thing that was up high… I think… that’s the Sun.  It burns hotter than any volcanic vent, so that’s likely what we’re feeling.  If the humans live around it all the time, they must have skin strong enough to tolerate the heat.  We’re just not used to it.  Everything is so warm here.”

               “Ugh, you guys could talk forever about stuff that doesn’t matter.  If Azul’s potion will make us human then we’ll be human enough to not be bothered.  The humans from earlier were swimming around fine, and the Princess in the stories didn’t have any problems, so don’t worry about it.  Besides, if it doesn’t work, we’ll just go back into the water.”

               “It doesn’t work that way Floyd.”  Azul shot back.  “If we take this, we’ll be in human bodies for a week, then we’ll have to take another dose or revert back to our natural forms.  Once we’re up on the surface, I can tweak it a little more for our personal tastes, but for now, it’s a basic potion.”  That seemed to get the manic mer’s attention and he practically pounced on the octopus.

               “You can tailor it!?  I can be a designer human!?!?”  His eyes were so wide that his golden eye seemed to glow with a light of its own.  “You’re the best Azul!  C’mon, let’s do this!  You two will hum and haw about the details for hours if I let you.  Let’s just do it!  Either Azul’s potion works or not.  We won’t know until we try.”

               “He does have a point.”  Jade sighed, reaching out and snagging his brother’s hand before he could begin swimming around like a maniac again.  “We’ll nibble at this like minnows for the whole day and it won’t change a thing.  Your potions have never let us down before, we have a clear beach and a deadline.  There’s no merit to waiting.”             

               He watched as a moment of indecision crossed that lovely grey skinned face and he pondered just how many of Azul’s test subjects hadn’t survived their transformation long enough to drown.  None of them were under the illusion that it would be painless or pleasant.  This wasn’t some pretty little story watered down for fry.  Azul had explained in great detail how their bones would break and their skin split apart.  It would be agonizing, but then again, so were most things worth pursuing.  Suffering was part of life, part of learning, and the twins had endured more than their share of pain in their short lives.  What was a little more, especially for such a great gain?

               Taking another deep and bracing breath, Azul reached into his satchel and carefully retrieved the three vials of deep purple potion.  One was handed to each of them with a silent solemnity.  For once, even Floyd was subdued as he studied the potion with avid interest.

               “So much power in such a little bottle.”  He murmured softly to himself then flashed them all a smile, holding out his hand in a salute.  “To a whole new world.”

               “To walking on legs.”  Jade added, clinking his vail to his brothers before glancing over at Azul, waiting for him to join their toast.  The young octopus studied them both for a moment before raising his own vial and lightly tapping it to those of the eels.

               “To conquering it all together.”  He added as they all popped the small corks from the vials and brought the thick liquid to their lips.  None of them so much as hesitated in swallowing it down.

               It was likely the vilest thing that Jade had ever ingested, and that included the time he’d eaten a sea cucumber on a dare.  What started off as a brackish tasting liquid was quickly met with undertones of rotting seaweed, rancid shellfish and a rather sickeningly sweet aftertaste which clung mercilessly to his tongue.  The combination made him want to vomit and he couldn’t help but shoot Azul a sharp look of betrayal.  Honestly, his family ran the most prestigious restaurant in Atlantica, the least he could do was make his potions taste a little better!

               Floyd was gagging loudly and even Azul looked more than a little sick as he wiped at his mouth with a tentacle, using the motion to hide his own gag as he struggled to keep the foul concoction down.

               All in all, he gave the potion a 1 out of 10 on the taste meter, and he’d go lower if he could.  Judging by the looks of the other two, they were in full agreement of his rather scathing review.

               “Ugh, what did you do Azul, shit in this and call it a potion!?”  Floyd groaned as he pressed his hands against his stomach, his long tail curling around his body.  “I think I’m gonna puke…”

               “Don’t you dare!”  Azul shot back.  “I only have the one potion for you!”  For a moment, it looked like Floyd was going to tell him what he could do with his precious potions, but the words froze in his throat as he stiffened and took another deep breath, pressing his hands even more firmly against his stomach.

               Before Jade could ask what was wrong, he felt his innards cramp tightly, as if his guts were twisting themselves into knots.  The pain then quickly spread through his body, tightening his muscles painfully as he mimicked his brother in coiling up as tightly as possible, attempting to relieve the sensation.

               If anything, the pain grew even worse as raw agony burned along his nerves, causing his entire body to shake and spasm as the potion coursed through him, buoyed by his bloodstream and reaching into even the smallest capillary.  He could feel cells twisting and altering themselves, his heart pounding wildly with strain as it pumped boiling blood through his veins.

               His last coherent thought was to dimly wonder if Azul had somehow mixed up the vials and given them that potion he’d used on the sharks.  Surely tearing himself apart with his own teeth and claws couldn’t hurt nearly as much! 

Struggling from the overload, his brain began to lose time.  The world seemed to strobe around him as he struggled to hold onto what was happening, why he was hurting, even who he was.  Dimly he could hear screaming… it sounded like Floyd, but it just as easily been his own throat tearing itself apart as he struggled to give voice to his agony

               The pain, already beyond enduring drew a white-hot line which seared down his back as his dorsal fins withered away, drawing in tightly against his spine and melting into the skin beneath.  Moments later, the spines along his forearms followed suit, sliding beneath rippling skin which felt like it was being sheared away once inch at a time. 

A sudden brutal twist in his throat was followed by a wet crack as the pharyngeal jaws deep within his throat snapped apart, the strong slender bones dissolving into his body, being used as much needed nutrients during this storm of change.  Coughing up blood, he began to claw at his own face as he felt his teeth shifting in their sockets, blunting, thickening and becoming little more than useless stones behind his lips… But the worst was yet to come.

               In hindsight, he should have expected it, but in their combined arrogance, they’d thought that they’d known pain, that horror was little more than a mild amusement for them.  Nothing could have truly prepared him for the raw, unfettered agony which tore down the length of his tail, threatening to disembowel him in one clean stroke, spilling his organs into the too hot water around him.

Unable to help himself, he stared uncomprehendingly as his long and gorgeous tail began to twist and wither.  The smooth slick skin wrinkled and shriveled down to barely a quarter of its previous size while his beautiful sharp fins which trailed down its length wilted like aging seaweed, melting into his now mottled looking skin. 

Throwing his head back, he shrieked as new bones began to form, piercing his shifting muscles ruthlessly and he tried to claw at his tail with now blunted nails set in pale weak looking fingers.  He’d never seen anything so weak and ugly and had it not been for the new surge of agony, he might have tried to bite them off in his madness.

               The sharp tear of splitting skin echoed through his ears with horrifying finality, his mind, already overwhelmed was convinced that death was only moments away.  At this point, he would have welcomed it and the respite it would have granted.  Instead of the much hoped for numbness, he was granted the horror of seeing his beautiful tail bulge one final time before a searing white hot pain shot through its length as the skin split in a crimson wash of blood.

               Unable to stop himself, he kicked out viciously, his tail moving in strange new ways.  Uncoordinated, weak and still cramping hard enough to tear newly formed muscles, he spun around in the bloody water, unable to tell up from down.  He couldn’t see his companions, could barely make out anything with his enfeebled senses and then, the pain hit his chest.

               One by one, his gills sealed over, melting into pale white flesh which more resembled the corpse of an old long dead fish than proper skin.  His breathing became laboured, then stopped altogether was the water grew thicker, filling up a chest no longer designed to contain it.  

               Newly formed instincts deep in his brain screamed at him for air and his hands clawed helplessly at the water, trying to find purchase, but without the fine webbing between his fingers, or the long fin down the length of his body, he had no idea how to swim.  For the first time in his life since his hatching, he felt utterly helpless.

               It was only by pure luck and the grace of the sea itself that he found himself washed towards the shore, and as if on their own volition, his fingers dug into the soft sand, his arms hauling his broken and ruined body forward while his shattered tail kicked and thrashed uselessly behind him.

               His mouth opened wide and he struggled to breathe in the life-giving air even as his body began to convulse, forcing the swallowed water from his newborn lungs.  Foul and brackish tasting water mingled with vomit as it streamed from his mouth and nose.  Retching until his entire body shuddered, he collapsed into the filthy sand, sobbing loudly and without shame as he struggled to survive for those first few moments in his new form… then… mercifully, there was darkness.

 

 

               The first thing Jade was aware of was sound, the gentle crashing of the surf on sand, the screams of gulls high overhead, the gentle rustle of that strange dry current moving through the giant worm stalks.

He had no idea how much time had passed.  Minutes, hours… it didn’t really matter in the end.  The only important thing was that he was alive, and he ached.  Everything seemed to pulse with a low dull pain from the tips of his hair down to his tail.   The only blessing, small as it was, was that it lacked either the immediacy of a new injury or the disembodied numbness of a grave wound.

“Neptune’s scaly balls.”  He groaned, spitting out a mouthful of rather foul-tasting sludge form his mouth, then froze as he realized that the shape of his tongue was wrong.  Everything felt different, even his voice didn’t sound quite right.   

Moments later, the fractured memory of what he’d just endured replayed itself through his mind and his entire body shuddered in response.  Ugh, he was never going to go through that again.  Azul would have to tie him down, pry his jaws open and force that foul concoction down his throat if he thought that Jade was ever going to blindly take a potion again!  Nothing was worth enduring that.  Not walking on land, not grand adventures or even learning magic!   In fact, as soon as he felt like he could move without puking up ever major internal organ still left in his body, he was going to punch Azul right in the face.

His potion sucked.  The surface sucked and that strange sour taste in his mouth sucked!  Everything felt so heavy, even breathing was an effort!

Laying there, unmoving, he took another few breaths, then frowned as he realize that his chest was rising and falling in a strange way.  Dry air passed over his lips and down his throat.  There wasn’t the comforting cool rush of water filling him, bringing with it, hundreds of scents and tastes.  Instead, there was only this dryness that left him aching with every inhalation.

“Did it work?  Are we human, or are we dead?”  Floyd groaned from just behind him.  “Pretty sure I’m dead… I feel dead.”  There was a long pause where he could hear his brother take a deep and laboured breath.  “Death is stupid.”

Like his own voice, Floyd didn’t quite sound the same, there was a … well… a breathiness to it that it lacked in the water, adding to the whole alien feeling of this entire endeavor.  Despite this, hearing it gave him hope and with a supreme act of will, he turned his head to see exactly what changes that damnable potion had wrought.   

The movement was more easily planned than executed and it took several moments for him to get his neck to work properly.  Ugh, his head felt so heavy and the dry sand tickled his nose rather unpleasantly.  Still, after a few moments of effort, he was greeted with a blurry shape sprawled out next to him, long limbs half buried in the sand.

At first, he wasn’t sure it was his brother.  Even as his eyes adjusted to a world without the ever-present filter of water, he could tell that things had certainly changed.

Gone was the beautiful teal and aquamarine skin.  No dark and feral stripes framed those achingly familiar eyes, adding to their already unnatural intensity.  Instead, there was a uniformly coloured face, made softer by the lack of predatory markings.  The shape of Floyd’s ears had changed as well.  Where there had once been sharply elegant fins were now soft and round flaps of skin, more like those Azul sported than what was familiar.  He seemed smaller too.  Sleek powerful muscles still covered his body, but without the fins and stripes… without the countershading, he just looked so… unremarkable.  At least his hair was still familiar, that beautiful mix of teal and aquamarine with the single lock of black, now matted and filthy from the sand.

A golden eye fluttered open, the pupil contracting sharply to little more than a pinprick as it adjusted to the light around them, struggling to focus on Jade.  When it finally did, a smile tugged at those familiar lips.

“That… that wasn’t fun at all.”  Floyd murmured, his voice barely audible as the golden eye fluttered closed once more.  “Don’t tell Azul I screamed.  He’ll never let me live it down.”

Unable to help himself, Jade grit his teeth and forced his arm to move, sliding across the coarse sand so that his weak and withered looking hand could reach out and gently touch his brother, taking comfort in the feel of his body.

“Your warm.”  Floyd murmured blearily.  “And dry… don’t like it.”

“I don’t like it either.”  Jade gave his arm a light squeeze, worried that doing it any harder might damage that frail looking skin.   “But I think it worked.”

“Course it worked.  Azul made it.  Fuck Azul.  I’m gonna bite him.”  Dammit, Azul!  Where was he?

As if reading his mind, Floyd’s eyes opened once again and both brothers struggled to try to sit up.  It took several tries to manage the simple movement, and Jade couldn’t help but wonder if it was because of their new musculature, or simply sheer exhaustion from what they’d just endured.  Likely a mix of both.

Neither of them uttered a word of complaint as they forced their bodies to obey their rather formidable will, and as one, they both breathed a sigh of relief as they saw the pale body half in and half out of the surf, a small crab crawling across his pale back.

Like himself, Jade could see the gentle rise and fall of Azul’s chest and took a deep breath of his own, trying to familiarize himself with the sensation of filling himself with the dry air.  While his body adjusted, he took the time to look over their bodies.  Now that the pain was fading, as well as the panic, his natural curiosity was rising to the fore.

As with Floyd and himself, Azul has lost his natural grey and black colouration, becoming even paler than the brothers.  It seemed to add to his image of fragility and Jade couldn’t help but smile at how thin and small the octopus looked without the huge spread of his tentacles taking up space.  Instead of the eight long dexterous limbs, he had in their place, two pale thin … legs?  Yes, he was positive they were called legs.  They were as slender as the rest of him, long and straight, joining beneath two delicately rounded muscles which arched smoothly into the familiar lines of his hips.

Those seemed to be the only real changes to Azul, though he was positive that the octopus would spend hours in front of a mirror, agonizing over every little detail of his body.  For all his apparent confidence, he was the most body conscious mer Jade had ever met.  He’d be furious if he didn’t meet some mental idea of perfection, and the twins would be forced to endure his endless fretting.

While much more laid back about their own appearance, it wasn’t any less shocking to look down at himself and see long limbs almost identical to Azul’s.  At least both he and Floyd appeared to be more heavily muscled as well as much larger in size than their companion, something he was perfectly comfortable with.

It was odd, seeing what amounted to three tails dangling from his hips…wait, three?   Two were long and straight, bending about halfway down, then sporting fat little fins… er… feet, which were tipped with five smaller limbs on each.  The problem was that in between his legs was a much smaller leg, boneless and floppy, it dangled down in a rather unimpressive manner, causing Jade to frown in concern.  Was it an organ that hadn’t made the transformation properly?  Was this going to cause a problem?  Ugh, Azul was going to bitch about this endlessly if he had the same problem.  A quick glance at Floyd showed that he was experiencing the same issue as himself.  Maybe he could tuck it in…

Carefully taking hold of the offending organ and bracing himself for pain, he was pleasantly surprised to find that it didn’t hurt at all, well, it didn’t until he gave it an experimental squeeze.  Alright… it was sensitive.  It also didn’t seem to have a place to go.  In fact, it looked like it did belong outside his body.  Well… that was fucked up.   Their classes never covered this.

Annoyed, he huffed loudly and glared at the offending body part before his eyes widened in understanding.  Oh… OH!  Humans carried their reproductive organs on the outside!?  Well… that was stupid.  It could get damaged so easily that way.  It could get caught on things!  Were humans insane?  He was rapidly beginning to believe that they might have finally bitten off more than they could chew.

“Ugh, I feel so heavy!”  Floyd flopped back onto the sand with a groan.  “I’m dry and heavy and I don’t understand this body.  My teeth are gone Jade.  How can I bite anything with these teeth!”  Pulling his lips back hard enough to likely hurt, he displayed his unimpressive jaws to his brother.  “I’m not a zebra eel Jade!”

“You’re not any sort of eel right now.”  Jade corrected him with far more calmness than he was feeling.  “You’re a human.”  Despite himself, he ran his tongue over his own set of teeth and struggled to hide an accompanying wince.  It was even worse when he realized that his second jaws were missing as well.  It was mortifying being so physically weak! 

“We’re human.”  Azul’s soft voice drifted across the sand towards them, full of that familiar smug superiority of a successful stunt.  Glancing over in his direction, Jade saw that the young octopus was laying there, examining his hands, turning them this way and that.  It’s not like there was much change as far as he was concerned, they were just paler, it’s not as if he lost claws, or webbing.

“Didn’t doubt you for a moment.”  Jade replied with his usual smoothness, or at least he’d tried to.  There was likely enough of an edge to his voice to catch the other’s attention because Azul immediately began to struggle to turn himself around, wanting to see the fruits of his labours.

It was odd seeing Azul’s eyes on such a pale face, it made them seem more vibrant, yet warmer than the usual glacial ice he’d grown so fond of.  While still matching the blue of the air up above them, there was a softness that hadn’t been there before.  It made Jade wonder if his own had changed in some small way.

While he stared into his companions eyes, those shining blue orbs traced their gaze across his own body, studying him as intently as he did his precious books and scrolls, ensuring that the eels were as flawlessly humans as promised, and judging by the look he received, the potion had been a complete success.

“Remind me to tweak the potion so it hurts less in the future.”  Azul stated in a surprisingly matter of fact voice, sounding as if he was adjusting to the physical changes much more easily than the twins.  Hardly surprising really considering how much the octopus seemed to hate his form, no matter how perfect the twins insisted it was.

“Noted, and yes… that was…”  He moistened his lips with his tongue, searching for the correct word to articulate the screaming raw agony that had reduced his world to pure madness.  “Most unpleasant.”

Floyd snorted at his choice of words and tossed some sand at him.

“It sucked.  Fix it.  And next time I want teeth!  I don’t like not having teeth!  And I want my claws back.  I can handle not having a tail or my fins, but I need those!”

“You have teeth Floyd.  Those are the proper teeth for humans.”

“They’re stupid.  Humans are stupid.  You said you could make us designer humans.  I want that.”  They both knew the look on his face well enough.  This wasn’t going to be a passing fancy he forgot about the instant something else caught his attention.  He was going to fixate on this with the stubbornness of a barnacle.

“One problem at a time Floyd.”  Azul replied, smoothly dodging any promises he’d be forced to keep.  “Have either of you tried walking yet?”  He was met by two somewhat guilty stares.  For all their talk of walking, neither twin had honestly felt quite up to it.  Rather than looking at all disappointed, Azul instead grinned at them both widely.  “Then we’ll do it together.”

Seeing that smile, that fire ignite behind those achingly blue eyes, Jade felt his confidence return tenfold and beside him, Floyd chuckled in delight, holding his head a little higher.  Together they would conquer the world.  One step at a time.

 

              

Chapter Text

               “Jade… the seagulls are laughing at us.”  Floyd growled through his teeth as he glared at the noisy birds which had all flocked to the large rock and were staring at them.  Neither Jade nor Azul paid him any mind, they were both too busy trying to figure out how to get their legs to work properly, a task much easier said than done. 

               In theory, it should have been easy, instinctual even.  If their lungs knew how to work, then shouldn’t their legs know what to do?  They appeared to be strong enough to support their weight and were muscled in the right places… at least he assumed they were.  Now that the pain of their transformation had faded to a memory best not ever recalled, they should be able to move around properly rather than flopping around on the sand like injured fish.

Hmph… Floyd was right, those stupid birds were laughing at them.  And what sort of name was Seagull anyway?  Were there land gulls and air gulls?  Was there some sort of distinction?  Sure, he could picture that if they required the differentiation between the other species, but to use “Sea” as the descriptor?  Azul had said that humans had named them.  Humans were clearly not the most brilliant of creatures.

Falling over yet again, Jade grit his teeth and did his best to resist the impulse to punch the sand.  It wouldn’t accomplish anything satisfying and all he’d really do is further abrade his already abused knuckles.  Ugh, another point against humans; their skin was far too fragile.  As an eel, he’d had a protective layer of mucus which allowed him to slide effortlessly through sharp coral tunnels without getting so much as a scratch.  This thin dry human skin was already raw and sore from his repeated falls, turning a strange irritated looking red which wasn’t at all comfortable.

Not one to give up easily, Jade still found himself wondering if perhaps they’d finally bitten off more than they could chew.  The very idea of standing was utterly alien to them.  Nothing in the ocean walked on two legs.  An octopus could sort of come close; but judging by how the prone form of Azul was currently glaring resentfully at the rather impressive dent he’d just made in the sand, not all octopi had this ability.  Aside from that, their legs looked nothing like tentacles, rendering the entire comparison moot. 

“Ugh.”  Azul muttered under his breath; the words barely audible over the loud squawking of the laughing birds.  “It shouldn’t be this hard!  We’re smarter than this!  It makes no sense that we’re failing!”

“I believe that perhaps the problem is muscle memory?”  Jade grunted, struggling to get back up onto his knees, doing his best to ignore the chafed skin or how the sand shifted alarmingly under him.  “It likely is the sort of thing learned through observation and mimicry rather than instinct.  Having never so much as seen a human, let alone studied how one walks, we’re at somewhat of a disadvantage.”

“I thought it would just come naturally, like swimming did for us.”  Azul huffed rather petulantly into the sand, sending several grains into the air for a moment before taking a deep breath and pulling his legs back in, preparing to make another attempt.  “What sort of creature is born without any sort of mobility?  It would be helpless.  How are humans not extinct?”

Honestly, Jade had no answer to the question, though he was rather sure it was rhetorical and not requiring his input.  None of it made any sense to him, but there was no way he was going to admit failure, especially in front of the other two.

“Hey Azul.”  Floyd was leaning back, his arms braced behind him while he idly piled up sand into a little hill with his feet.  His mismatched eyes staring intently at his legs, then the birds.  “Their legs bend the other way.  Did your potion make our legs backwards?”  He pointed at the gulls for emphasis and Jade couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow, torn between hoping that the reason for his failure was so simple, and dreading being trapped in a twisted up body.

“The potion was perfect!” Azul snapped; his voice full of indignation.  “I have Never brewed a bad potion!”

“There was that time you made Floyd pink and spotted.”

“That was an experimentation, not a completed potion.  It doesn’t count!”

“He glowed for a week.”

“I liked being pink Azul.  It was fun!”

“Thank you, Floyd.”  The octopus shot Jade a smug smile, snatching at the nebulous victory.  It was hard to resist rolling his eyes, but somehow, he managed.

“This walking thing can’t be that hard.”  Floyd continued, still studying the birds with rapt fascination.  “Those guys figured it out.  We just need to put the flat parts down on the ground and get the rest of our bodies go on top.”  He playfully tapped his feet against the sand a few times in demonstration, flattening his little hill.

“Great, how about you ask them how they learned.”  Azul grumbled under his breath, likely not intending for either of them to hear, but Floyd grinned back at him and shrugged.

“I tried that, but I don’t think they speak mermish.  I can’t understand anything they’re saying.  I wonder if they’re foreign.”

“Or.”  Jade hazarded.  “Humans can’t understand creatures of the sea?”

“Wait… we can’t speak fish?”  Floyd spun around to stare at Azul in horror.  “You broke our brains!?”

“I did NOT break your brain!”

“Then why can’t I understand the gulls?”

“You didn’t even know what a bird was until twenty minutes ago!”

               Yup, they were going to die out here; a trio of idiots who let ambition get ahead of them and those stupid birds were going to devour their carcasses.

               “Well, you’re not even trying to walk Floyd!”  Azul hissed back at the errant eel, his eyes narrowing dangerously.  “I didn’t slave over that stupid potion so you could just sit there like an idiot.”  As always, the insult was completely wasted on his brother who didn’t even acknowledge the barb.  Instead, Floyd simply grinned widely at him, then returned to staring at the birds and gave a few loud squawks.  It certainly didn’t help that several of the gulls flapped their wings at him, hopping up and down on the rock before diving into the water.

               “So help me, if he’s actually talking to them, I’m going to drown him.”

               “He’s only doing it to annoy you.”  Jade smiled at the frustrated octopus.  “You have the most amusing reactions to his baiting, especially when you’re frustrated.”

               “I’m not frustrated!  I just don’t like feeling…”  Azul’s voice trailed off into little more than a whisper, his face looking both sad and introspective for a moment before twisting into a look of utter disgust.  “Ugh!  Work you stupid legs!”

               Jade watched in silence as Azul struggled back onto his knees, then braced his hands down onto the sand before bringing one leg cautiously forward, placing his weight down on the foot.  For a moment, it almost looked like he’d figured it out, but then with a squawk that sounded remarkably like the gulls, he fell over onto his side.  Refusing to be defeated, he was immediately rolling back onto his knees, trying the same motions, only this time, with the other leg.

               “There’s got to be a trick to this!”  Determination burned in his eyes, making them shine like an angler’s lure and Jade found himself smiling.  Azul never shone as brilliantly as he did when struggling against defeat.  That fierce personality always seemed to rise, ready to devour anything that stood in his way.  Just seeing it seething behind those delicate features made him shiver in anticipation.  They’d all seen the chaos and devastation that his companion was capable of when properly motivated, how he’d plow through anything in his way in order to reach his goal, whether it was the utter destruction of someone who’d mocked him, or simply mastering a new body.  There was no doubt in his mind, that one way or another, Azul would be walking by sunset, and them along with him.

               Still, that didn’t mean it would be an easy journey, and once again, he was treated to the sight of Azul falling over backwards with a snarl of rage.

               Turning away from the spectacle, he studied his brother.  Normally Floyd was the most volatile of the group, but he seemed to be rather happily moving his arms up and down, mimicking the movements of the birds.

Most people never truly understood Floyd’s strange brilliance let alone appreciated it.  What others saw as errant flights of fancy, Jade and Azul saw as moments of pure inspiration.  Granted, the timing likely wasn’t going to be appreciated by one rather irate octopus, and Azul’s patience had been pushed far enough today.

               “Perhaps you should learn to walk before you try flying?”  He kept his tone gentle, wanting to guide his brother back to the task at hand without sending him into one of his sullen sulks.

               “Don’t see why.”  Floyd muttered in return, his arms still moving up and down and his voice was dreamy and detached, as if he was deep in thought.  “It looks a lot like swimming.  They’re just weird looking rays.”  Unsure of where his brother’s mind was going, Jade simply watched and waited.  He was a patient predator, and sooner or later, he’d have his answer. 

               Knowing that simply sitting there, watching his brother play with the birds, would no doubt cause Azul’s ire to turn on him, he resumed his efforts in standing, this time trying to splay his legs, seeing if perhaps a wider base was what was needed for stability.  It worked rather well for Azul when he was casting, perhaps it would in this case as well.

Unfortunately, that was not the case and Jade tumbled over onto his rump, failing at accomplishing anything other than getting sand in some rather uncomfortable places.

Perhaps choosing a deserted beach hadn’t been their wisest course of action.   If there had been humans nearby, perhaps Azul could have tricked one into trading their ability to walk.  Once he’d figured it out, it would be simple enough to teach the other two the trick.

               A loud splash pulled his attention away from his little daydream and he spun around just in time to see Floyd flopping gracelessly across the sand into the water while Azul all but tumbled over himself, grabbing onto his ankle and trying to pull him back. 

               “Floyd, you idiot!  You can’t breathe water anymore!”  For a moment, all Jade could do was stare in horror as Floyd’s head disappeared beneath the waves.  Another push from his powerful arms dragged his upper body into the water, hauling poor Azul along with him. 

               Too stubborn to let go, the slender youth was dragged by the much larger and stronger eel towards their certain doom.  Seeing those heels digging into the wet sand in a futile attempt to fend off the inevitable snapped Jade out of his shock and he lunged forward, trying to get his stupid legs to do something constructive rather than flop around uselessly, slowing him down.

               “Floyd! What are you doing!?”  He screamed in horror, dragging himself across the coarse sand, not even noticing how it scratched at his tender human skin.  All that mattered was reaching his brother and Azul before it was too late.

Habit caused him to try to bend his legs from side to side, attempting to undulate his body the way he did when swimming, but this new body wasn’t jointed properly.  Pain shot down the length of his spine as it twisted in painful and unnatural ways, costing him precious seconds that he didn’t have.  Up ahead, he saw Azul’s pale ankle disappear into the water.  There were a few frantic splashes, a muffled and sputtering cry, then nothing. 

With a shriek of desperation, he clawed at the sand, knowing in his heart that he wasn’t going to make it in time but determined to try, even if it killed him. 

               “Jade!  Jade you’ve got to try this!”  His brother’s laughter tinged voice drifted over the waves, accompanied by Azul’s rather emphatic swearing.  Just hearing it caused him to pause, a look of shock on his face as he stared intently at the water, wondering if his mind had either snapped, or the potions had somehow reversed themselves, returning them to their natural forms.

               Propping himself up with trembling arms, Jade craned his neck to try to see what was happening, and rather than be greeted with the sight of his brother’s familiar mer form, he saw a pale and all too human head bobbing in the water as Floyd floated on his back, limbs spread wide as he bobbed playfully on the waves. 

               “Look!  I’m a ray!”

               “You’re a suicidal idiot!”  Azul hissed, then was silenced with a wave splashed rather deliberately into his face.

               “Nope.  I’m brilliant and you know it.”  Floyd returned with a pleased smile, then pointed at the swimming birds.  “Look at how they float on the water, their legs dangling down.  I bet we can do that too.  Figure out this whole standing thing while the water holds us up.  We sort of did stuff like that with our tails before, so why not now?  That way we can get used to it.”  If ever there was proof of Floyd’s brilliance, this was it. 

While they’d been prepared to struggle futilely for hours, injuring and exhausting themselves in order to achieve their goal, he’d simply found a different way entirely and achieved what would most likely be a stunning success in far less time.

               Floating next to him, Azul simply stared at Floyd for a long moment in undisguised shock, then with careful movements, his arms spread out wide for balance, he shifted his weight, letting his body drop down until the flat bottoms of his feet rested on the floor of the ocean.

               Hesitantly, he edged one foot out in front of the other, swaying slightly, but kept upright by the water, just like Floyd stated.  Another careful step, another success.  It didn’t matter that he was wobbling badly or having to swish his arms back and forth through the water.  He was walking! 

               An absolutely radiant smile lit up Azul’s face, making the sun seem pale in comparison, and this time, that beautiful light was aimed at Floyd, who preened visibly in response.

 “You’re brilliant!”  Azul declared, hugely impressed with this new strategy.  “This can get our muscles used to the motion and teach us balance without risking us hurting ourselves by falling over constantly!”  Another step was taken, his smile growing even wider at his success.

               Now that he was over his shock, and never one to be left behind, especially in trying something new, Jade dragged himself forward.  He had to endure a few waves slapping him in the face before he reached enough depth for his body to become buoyant, but it felt good to have the water press against him once more, though now it seemed to feel a little cooler against his skin.  Were humans more sensitive to temperature as well?  Strange creatures.

Of course, exploring the oddities of his new form took second place compared to mastering the skill of walking.  Like the others, he loathed the very idea of defeat, and there was no way he was going to be beaten by his own woefully unequipped anatomy! 

Speaking of lacking, without either his fins, or the webbing between his fingers, swimming was much more difficult than he’d ever imagined, and he wasn’t even going to begin to think about how much he suddenly missed his tail.  He’d never moved so slowly and gracelessly in his life!  It was a good thing that only his companions could see him make such a humiliating attempt.  While he’d never been much for pride, this was still a brutal blow, and it came coupled with the sense of weakness that he loathed. 

               By the time he finally splashed his way awkwardly over to water deep enough to support his height, Azul was already walking with some level of confidence, actually lifting up his feet with each step rather than shuffling them along the ocean floor.

Not to be outdone, Jade allowed his legs to drop down, surreptitiously studying the movements of the octopus and mimicking him.  His arms were spread out on either side, gently swaying back and forth, reminding him of the way a ray’s fins propelled them through the water.  How about that.  Floyd had been right.

The feel of the sand beneath his feet was strange in an oddly pleasant sort of way.  It scratched the tender bottoms of his feet, but also seemed to cushion them as well as they sank down into the muck.  The feel of the grains sliding between his toes, causing them to spread, made him pause and lift his foot to study it.  So… toes could move sideways a little as well as up and down… interesting! 

               “This isn’t so bad.”  He found himself murmuring, a smile tugging at his lips as he watched Azul carefully place one foot in front of the other, wobbling precariously a few times but managing to keep his balance rather impressively.

Still buoyed by the rare approval of the notoriously reticent octopus, Floyd was as always, pushing his limits.  Rather than simply walking with one foot in front of the other, he’d opted for more daring and playful movements; hopping from one foot to the next, changing direction and even, after a wide sweep of his arms helped turn him around, walking backwards.   

               “This is fun!”  His brother laughed, taking a moment to splash them both before diving into the water and managing to kick his legs as if they were a dolphin’s tail, propelling himself through the water with some level of grace.  It wasn’t even a shadow of their natural sinuous speed, but it was a far cry from what either of the other two could do.

               “Show off.”  He muttered, earning a soft chuckle of amusement from Azul.

               “I swear, he’s a damn natural at anything he tries, so long as he’s not thinking about it.”

               “He just likes impressing you.”  Jade replied, then was greeted with the odd sight of Azul’s cheeks growing a strange sort of pink.  Odd, was that a human blush?  Why was it… pink?  He’d never seen Azul with anything other than a rather monochromatic colouring, and he had to admit that it looked rather striking on the young octopus.

               “Well… I’m impressed.”  He admitted, then glanced slyly over at Jade, those brilliant blue eyes of his gleaming with challenge.  “Think we’re ready to try this on land?”  Unable to help himself, Jade found himself smiling back. 

               “Floyd, come on, let’s try walking properly now.”  He called out, holding out a hand for his brother to take while he grabbed onto Alzu’s with the other.  “Together right?”  Both nodded their heads, a determined look on their faces.

               Moving together, they carefully took one step, then another, edging themselves towards the shore.  Little by little, the security of the water fell away, requiring more and more of their balance as their legs took their weight.  It was the first time he’d ever really given thought as to how heavy his body was, and judging by the look on Floyd’s face, this was a new concern for him as well.  If Azul was having any problem, he hid it well behind his usual stoic mask, though his knees did seem to be bending more than they should. 

               It was rather quickly revealed that walking on wet and shifting sand wasn’t the easiest challenge, especially seeing as how they were all so new to this and Jade found his feet attempting to slide over to face other directions, throwing off his already precarious balance. 

               Gritting his teeth in determination, Azul continued to walk forward, his grip on the brothers hands surprisingly strong as he walked stiffly, trying to lock his knees to keep them from bending too much, resulting in him swaying to the left and right rather alarmingly with every step.

               Jade’s foot slipped a little too far to the side and he stumbled on his next step.  Trying to right himself, he tugged a little too hard on Floyd’s hand, yanking him off his center right as an ill-timed wave hit the backs of their legs. 

               Try as they might, the combination of it all was too much and Jade’s already sliding foot completed its journey off to the side, tripping Azul who still refused to relinquish his death grip.  The octopus fell, dragging the other two down with him as he performed a rather spectacular faceplant into the sand.  Jade landed on top of him, knocking the air out of his lungs and Floyd topped the pile, flopping onto Jade’s back in a way which felt a tad too convenient to be natural, then slid off onto the sand.

               For a moment, they all lay there, sprawled on the ground, utterly dumbfounded at how difficult this seemingly simple task had become.  The silence was broken by a soft snicker, followed by a chuckle which naturally grew into rather loud and raucous laughter as Floyd rolled over onto his back, clutching at his stomach.   Never able to resist joining in his brother’s merriment, Jade found himself following his twin’s example.  Rolling off the somewhat flattened form of Azul, he threw his head back and laughed louder than he had in recent memory.  The sound was loud, unrestrained, and seemed to chase away all the stress, the concern, and the difficulties of their long journey to this alien shore.  It cleansed him right down to his soul and he reveled in the freedom it granted.

               Taking a few moments to extricate himself from the Azul shaped dent he’d carved into the sand with his face, the octopus brushed a lock of sandy hair from his face and spit out a few mouthfuls of dirt before staring at the two eels as if they’d lost their collective mind. 

They’d failed!  They’d fallen, quite literally flat on their faces!  How could they be laughing?  The three of them must look like idiots laying there in the dirt, filthy, exhausted, and utterly stymied by what should have been the simplest of tasks.

The sheer ridiculousness of it all boggled his mind, but despite himself, he felt the corner of his mouth twitch traitorously.  Before he could stop himself, a soft snicker slipped past his lips, followed by what a generous person could call a chuckle.

Mortified, he did his best to swallow it down, but it was too late, the twins merely laughed even louder.  Floyd even went so far as to reach over and grab onto Azul’s arm, tugging him forward so that he sprawled across their laps gracelessly. 

In this ignoble position, it was impossible to appear at all stoic or aloof, especially when Jade pointed to the rather perfect impression of his face which had been left behind in the sand.  Neptune’s balls, you could actually make out his expression of shock in the dent! 

               Finally surrendering to the inevitable, Azul closed his eyes and laughed along with them, shaking his head in fond exasperation.  For several long moments, the sounds of merriment were the only thing heard over the ocean surf before finally dying down.

               “…but seriously, if anyone asks, we walked perfectly the first time.  Got it?”

               “Yes Azul.”

Chapter Text

The sun was nearing the edge of the horizon and the shadows growing long across the beach, but Floyd was still going strong.  Having mastered (in his opinion) walking, he was now focusing on chasing after the many gulls which seemed to have made this little cove their home.  Though he was having little to no success, spending more time tripping over his own feet than even coming close to catching one of the elusive birds, it didn’t seem to be slowing him down at all.

Feeling that they were being the wiser of the trio, Jade and Azul had called a break for themselves nearly an hour before and were enjoying the coolness of the shade as they rested their rather aching limbs after the day’s exertions.  It also didn’t hurt that it kept them out of the range of the chaos caused by Floyd and the gulls, because at this point, it was hard to tell exactly who was chasing who.

Having always considered himself to be rather fit, Jade was more than a little surprised to realize just how unaccustomed this new body of his was to this sort of exercise.  True, it did make a certain strange sort of sense; after all, they’d spent their lives basically weightless, swimming through the water gracefully.  Now, they were on land; moving in strange new ways with their heavy and ungainly bodies, every step jarred their spines, leaving all their weight on the rather small surface area of their feet.  This didn’t seem like an ideal arrangement at all and he couldn’t help but wonder if they were somehow doing it wrong.

Speaking of feet, Azul’s were currently propped up on his lap and he was carefully rubbing the many aches and pains away while the octopus happily prattled on, utterly enthralled with this new body of his.  More than willing to endure its many short comings in favour of what he no doubt perceived to be incredible gains.

“It’s really rather simple when you think about it.”  Azul was explaining to his somewhat captive audience as he poked at the sand with two of his long fingers, mimicking the movement of their steps.  “I mean, basically it’s just controlled falling and catching yourself over and over again- ah!”  A loud groan of pleasure cut off his explanation as Jade gently stroked along the arch of his foot, causing his toes to spread rather intriguingly.  “Right there!  It really hurts right there.” 

Nodding his head slightly, Jade gently released a little of his healing magic, soothing the delicate muscles and tendons, easing away the bruises and many little abrasions left by coarse sand on tender skin.  It still felt so strange to feel warm dry flesh beneath his hands.  Azul had always been cool and slick, much like themselves.  This… this was rather nice though, and judging by his companion’s reactions, the feeling was shared.

“So, you’re saying then that humans are really just trying not to fall on their faces constantly as they move?”  It was hard to keep from chuckling softly.  How could such creatures not only survive, but flourish?  Honestly, it boggled the mind.

“I know, right?” 

“But they are the undisputed rulers of the land… how?  They have no claws or fangs, they’re pathetically weak and easily injured.”  He gave his own rather impressive collection of bruises a dark glare before a gentle yet insistent prod from Azul’s foot reminded him of his priorities and he resumed rubbing the stiffness away while his companion sighed in bliss.

“Mmmm, that’s the question isn’t it?”  Azul purred, his eyes appearing to drift closed, though Jade could still see the glimmer of that brilliant blue beneath silver lashes and knew that the octopus was studying him surreptitiously.

“What power do they have?  What hidden and precious skill makes them so powerful?  The Princess gave away everything to become one, and even the Great Sea Witch fell before them.”  The gentle smile on Jade’s face widened, showing a mouthful of rather unimpressive teeth in what would have been a rather predatory grin had he been back in his proper form.

“Ah, I see now.”  He chuckled softly, working out another kink in Azul’s foot with his fingers.  They were fascinating appendages and Jade was more than happy to use this time to thoroughly examine these feet things.  Such thin skin, so many delicate bones, even the little blunt claws on the tips of each toe looked fragile.  Perhaps it was simply the fact that this foot belonged to Azul?  He always did appear to be the more delicate of the three, so long as no one looked into those dangerously brilliant eyes and saw the mind behind them.

“You never cease to impress me with your ambition.”  As expected, the statement was met with a look of such innocence that it was almost comical.

“Me?  I merely wish to learn.”

“Mhmmm?” 

“The pursuit of education is a noble one.”

“There’s nothing noble about any of us.”  Jade leaned back against one of the tube worms that Azul insisted were called trees… creatures more like rigid seaweed than anything else they had in the ocean.  “We’re monsters and freaks.”  He gave Azul’s foot a gentle squeeze, his fingertip tracing along the gentle rounded tip of the flat claw that tipped it.  “That’s a good thing.  Who wants to be some boring normal person?  One day, little fry will pretend to be us, they’ll play games where they are the Sea Witch who walked on two legs, and his loyal eel companions.”

“Loyal?  Hmph, save that foolishness for the anemones.  This is a mutually beneficial agreement.  That holds much more weight than some silly archaic ideal.”  There was no need to say anything regarding that.  All three of them were in total agreement, so instead, he opted for watching Floyd continue to chase the birds happily until he tripped over his feet one final time and just lay there in a sprawl of limbs in the sand laughing.

“You didn’t manage to catch us our dinner.”  Azul murmured lazily, motioning for Jade to rub his other foot. 

“M’too tired now.”  Floyd replied, his voice muffled by the sand piled up around his face.  “You do it.”

“If you hadn’t wasted all your energy chasing those noisy things, we could be eating by now.”

“Don’t see you doing anything constructive.”  The fallen eel turned his head just enough to stare at Azul with one golden eye which gleamed with amusement and Jade couldn’t help but sigh.  The baiting game had begun once again, round two million, three hundred and fifty-four thousand three hundred and twenty five… or was it six?  Dammit, he’d lost count.  Honestly, those two needed to find a better way to entertain themselves.  Something… quieter.

“When will we use the Mirror?”  Jade quickly asked, attempting to diffuse the next round of squabbling before they truly got started.  No matter how entertaining it was, he was hungry, tired and unsure about the wisdom of being so exposed with the coming night.  Though they really hadn’t explored this beach, there didn’t seem to be any handy caves within reach for them to curl up in.  Human or not, there was no way he was lowering his guard out here and he knew the others felt the same.  “Was there a deadline?”

“We cast the spell when the moon rises.  That will summon the Mirror.”

“Great…so… one question.”

“What’s a moon?”  Floyd asked before Jade could finish and both eels stared at Azul expectantly.  He was the one who’d obsessively studied the surface world and knew about things like seagulls and trees.

“What’s the moon?  Of all the asinine and witless questions…”

“You have no idea, do you?”

“…not a clue.”  Azul admitted with a loud huff of irritation.  “Any information regarding the surface was vague at best.  I had to use some of my best blackmail material to get what paltry bits I could.”  Floyd’s eye narrowed slightly and he pulled himself up into a sitting position, staring at Azul in a mixture of irritation and awe.

“Wait… you used good blackmail to learn that those big tubeworms were called trees and those stupid rays are called seagulls, but you didn’t learn what a moon was when we need to see it rise to get the spell to work?”

“It’s not like I was spoiled for choices.”  Azul protested, pulling his feet out of Jade’s hands and sitting up as well.  “I gathered up every bit of information I could!  I even went to that stupid Atlantica Memorial Museum to see if I could glean anything from that garbage they call treasures!”

“Hey, do NOT insult the dinglehopper collection!”

“At any rate, it can’t be that hard to figure out.  We’re all brilliant… in our own ways.”  Azul added under his breath, shooting a sullen glare at Floyd.  “How hard can it be?”

“Did you hear that Jade?  He called me brilliant.”

“Twice in one day, that’s a new record.”

“Hey, focus you two.  We need to figure out what a moon is, preferably before it gets too dark or else we’ll be spending the night out here, and we’re rather ill equipped to fight off predators in this form.”  Jade chose not to point out that it was the bickering of the other two which had gotten them off track in the first place.  He knew a pointless hunt when he saw one.  Instead, he reached out to grasp onto one of the nearby trees and used it to help brace himself as he carefully rose to his feet, rather pleased to see that he barely wobbled this time.

“I take it by that statement that you’re not confident in your runes?”

“You’re correct.  They were designed to work in water and ward against oceanic predators.  I have no idea how effective they’ll be on land, if at all.  That’s a risk I’d rather not take.”  Ever practical, the eel twins both nodded and looked around. 

Deciding to follow Jade’s example, Floyd stood up, making the other two more than a little envious of how easily he managed it, but then again, he’d always been a quick study of anything physical.  Together, the two eels used their greater height to their best advantage and looked around, hoping to find some clue that might help them.  Azul on the other hand searched the ground, studying stones and plants for their quarry. 

Noticing a small crab scuttling under a large rock, he crawled over and bent down and smiled his best “you can totally trust me not to devour you” smile.

“Good evening little crab.”  It didn’t seem to fall for his peaceful entreaty and took several little steps back, brandishing its little pincers in warning.  “I have no ill intent.”  He assured it in a gentle tone of voice.  “We’re looking for something called a moon.  Seeing as how you do spend part of your life on land, I don’t suppose you would happen to know what one is or where to find it?”  Again, no answer.

“We can’t understand sea creatures in this form, remember?”  Jade pointed out with a surprisingly straight face, though Floyd did snicker rather loudly as Azul cursed under his breath.

“When I retailor the transformation potions, remind me to ensure that we’re not so handicapped in the future.  This is ridiculous.”  He snarled and snapped out with his hand, grabbing onto the crab and smacking it soundly against the rock before tossing it to Floyd.  “Here, have a snack.”

Catching the little treat, Floyd bit into it, only to have the somewhat damaged shell still manage to withstand his teeth.  Undaunted, he tried to bite it a few more times only to be met with similar failure.  

“Don’t forget the teeth.”  Grumbling softly, he began to pry the soft meat out of the shell, rather put out that he wasn’t going to enjoy the crunchiness of his treat.  “And claws.”  He added around a mouthful of crabmeat, then after a moment of thought, pointed at his crotch.  “And this dangly thing.  It’s creepy looking.”

“I’m rather sure you need that.”  Azul replied without bothering to look over to see what was being pointed at.  “I can’t alter the potion too much or it won’t be effective at all.  Besides, we do need to pass as humans if we’re ever going to figure out what makes them so powerful, that’s the point of this whole plan.”

“It is?  I thought you were doing this so you could learn their magic.  I mean, if they’ve conquered so much of the land, it’s got to be impressive and powerful, and Azul loves powerful things.  That’s why he hangs out with us.”  Floyd allowed himself a knowing little smile as he slurped the last of the meat out of the small claw.  “It’s easy enough for you to steal whatever talent or ability they might have that makes them so special as a race, but their magic…”  He trailed off, leaving the rather weighted observation hanging in the air between them.

“Indeed.”  Azul admitted.  “It will take time, care, and quite a bit of finesse.”

“Ugh, boooring.”  Floyd groaned, letting his head loll back lazily as he tossed the remains of the shell onto the sand.

“And when that fails, you can beat them half to death.”  Azul continued smoothly without missing a beat, causing the eel to grin widely.

“Yay!!!  I’ll squeeze them till their eyes pop out!... Wait, only half to death?”

“Of course.  Corpses want for nothing.  It’s the living who are eternally greedy.”  There was really no need to add to a comment such as that, and fully aware that Azul always preferred to have the final word, the twins exchanged eager smiles with each other.  Let Azul grab for power and glory, neither terribly interested either of the eels.  What mattered to them was that whichever way this turned out, it was bound to be interesting.  Azul might be all about the goal, but to them, the journey was the true reward, and for their next step on it, they needed to find this elusive moon.

 

 

“Down it goes.”  Floyd murmured softly as he stood there at the tide line, the waves lapping softly at his feet as he watched the brilliant ball of light sink beneath the distant waves.  With its descent, the ever-lengthening shadows rose to dominance around them, surrounding them in darkness.  Not that they minded the lack of light, in fact, to eyes used to the deep depths of the ocean, it was more of a relief than anything, but the problem lay in what might be hunting just out of sight.  There were far too many things on the surface that they simply didn’t know about and couldn’t properly anticipate.  What with their now frail and unfamiliar bodies, that left them all in a rather dangerous position.  “Do you think that it’s really going into the sea?”

“Of course not.” Azul replied absently, sitting down in the sand and rifling through his sac, arranging a few of his precious potions as he took stock of his possessions.  Frowning, he glanced over at Jade, silently warning him that they were ill prepared for spending the night without shelter.  What had begun their trip as a rather impressive collection had been whittled down over their travels to a few last resort potions, rather similar to the one used on the sharks, and the octopus was rather hesitant to use them on land.

“I suppose we could use our magic?”  Jade suggested with a shrug, aiming for nonchalance, and falling somewhat short. 

“I’m rather hesitant to do that when we’re still unsure of how our spells will be affected by this new environment.”  Blue eyes narrowed thoughtfully as Azul stared down at his hands, loathing the lack of control he had over his situation, and himself.  For years, his magic had been something he could count on no matter what, but now the rules had been rewritten, and this was hardly the time or place to experiment. 

“You weren’t complaining when Jade healed your feet.”  Floyd wandered over and sat down gracelessly on the sand in front of the potions, reaching out a hand to pick up one of the bottles.  “That was magic and it worked out fine.  He grinned at the octopus playfully and was met with a frown of mild annoyance in return.

“Healing magic is a very personal form of magic, all of our other spells are more of an environmental nature.”

“So use water spells, there’s lots of water around us.”  Floyd gave the bottle an experimental shake as he spoke, amused by the sparkling bubbles that appeared in the bright blue liquid.

“But we’re not IN the water.”  Azul calmly explained, reaching forward to take the bottle back, only to have Floyd hold his hand up higher, lifting it out of reach and giving it a slightly more vigorous shake.  “Even if we did step into the water to cast, I don’t know if the fact that our lungs are full of air will alter the magic.  We need to study all the variables involved.”

“So why aren’t we?”  The potion in the bottle was beginning to bubble rather impressively now.

“Because if something goes wrong, we won’t be able to make it stop.”  Jade cut in, neatly plucking the bottle out of his brother’s hands before its contents were agitated enough to cause an explosion or some other calamity.  Handing it back to Azul with his usual gentle smile, he sat down and leaned against his brother, forcing him to use his hands to brace against their combined weight rather than grab for anything else.  Azul was quick to take advantage of the offered distraction and tucked the precious bottles back into their sac and safely out of reach.  “It’s best to keep our experimentation for when there are people around who can stop bursts of wild magic.”

Letting out a rather loud and much put-upon huff of irritation Floyd sat quietly for nearly a whole two minutes while Azul organized the contents of his bag.  Ensuring his potions were tucked well away, but leaving out a small mirror, the shell he’d collected the other day, and a delicate looking, yet rather sharp knife.

“Oh!  Is Azul going to make a potion?”

“No, They’re the ingredients for the ritual.  We’re running out of time to find this moon thing, and I’d prefer to have everything ready before hand.” 

“So Azul can do his magic but I can’t do mine?”  Floyd shot an accusing look at his brother who merely shrugged unhelpfully.

“The Mirror won’t come to us if we’re in the ocean, so this ritual will let it know that we’re here on land now.  And before you ask, no, it’s not the same as casting spells.”

“I know, I know Jade, I’m not a guppy.”  Floyd didn’t look at all placated by the explanation, and he rolled his eyes rather dramatically.  “Unique Magic comes straight from our own personal magic cores and is a conduit between our innermost selves and the energy around us.  Spell magic is merely shaping that natural energy with our will, while rituals are utilizing physical objects to create sympathetic links between the magic and the intended goal.  Azul only said that a bazillion times.”

“So, what part are you failing to grasp?”  The somewhat annoyed sounding octopus asked as he motioned for Jade to get up and fill the shells basin with fresh seawater.

“The part where we’re going to do surface magic!”

“It’s not surface magic.  It’s ritual magic.”

“On the surface!”

“Its…. Ugh, fine, it’s surface magic.  Honestly Floyd, we went over this before we left Atlantica.”

“Yeah… but I wasn’t listening!”

“Ah yes, I seem to remember you said, and I quote “I’ll deal with that boring hand waving when the time comes, but right now, I need to poke that jellyfish.”  Which I will remind you, didn’t take kindly to being bothered and stung your arm badly enough that you couldn’t use it for a day.  Not the most auspicious beginning for our journey.”

“Yeaaaah, but it was really squishy.”  Utterly unabashed with his past actions, Floyd grinned fondly at the memory.  “Then Jade threw that boiling spell at it and we had a great dinner!”

“It really was rather delicious.”  The other eel admitted with the same absence of guilt as his brother as he returned with the shell full of water.  “This is to symbolize the ocean, correct?  So that the ritual acts the way it should?”

Taking the reagent, Azul nodded his head and motioned the other two over while he picked up the knife with his other hand.  With quick and efficient motions, he made a shallow cut in the pads of their index fingers, then paused for a moment, staring at his blood.

“Red?”  He murmured softly to himself, watching the fat drop roll it’s way down the length of his finger.  Yes, it made sense; his blood was blue due to it being copper based while most other creatures had red, iron based blood.  Still, it was one thing to know something was going to happen, but another to see it, and witnessing such a deep and fundamental change to his body was even more unsettling than losing his tentacles.

“Hey!  We match now!”  Floyd grinned, darting forward and swiping at the drop of blood with his tongue before Azul could pull away.  “Hmmm, you taste different.”  He mused thoughtfully, rolling the blood around in his mouth.  “Not as tasty as you do as an octopus, but still delicious.”

“Thank you, Floyd.  That’s what I was aiming for with my spell.  Deliciousness.”  Giving his finger another squeeze to bring forth more blood, he held it over the shell, allowing a single drop to spill into the water, turning it a rather pretty pink as it diffused.  “Now you two, we need the Mirror to recognize all of us.”

“Hmm, our blood didn’t change colour.  We do taste different though.”  Floyd mused as he licked at his blood, then leaned over and tasted Jade’s.  “Tasty, but Azul still tastes the best.”

“Azul is right.  We’re warm blooded now, that might cause an issue.”  His brother stated rather than commenting on the taste comparison.  Holding out his hand, he allowed a drop to fall into the water before sucking on the wound himself, savouring the unusual taste.  Alright, his brother wasn’t wrong, it was rather delicious, making him wonder if all humans tasted this intriguing.

Following his example, Floyd obediently bled into the water as well, watching as the drops all mingled together for a moment before Azul set it down on the mirrors shining surface. 

“So… now what?”  He asked after they’d all spent a minute or so watching the blood swirl around the water in a rather mundane fashion.  “No boom?  Not gateway?  It’s not even sparkling?  This is boring magic Azul.”

“Until we have the moon, it’s nothing but blood and water.  That’s the catalyst.”

“It’s a stupid catalyst Azul.”

“Gentlemen.”

“Oh I deeply apologize that the spell which will open up a gateway to a grand destiny for us and allow us the grasp the power to conquer not only the ocean but the land itself isn’t flashy enough for you.”

“Admit it, you want to see it sparkle too.”

“Gentlemen…”

“Unlike some, I can appreciate the subtle nature of magic and don’t require a bloody musical number to accompany my casting!”

“That was one time!  Once!  And even you enjoyed it.”

“SHUT UP!”  The very fact that the normally stoic Jade had not only raised his voice but flat out yelled at them both brought utter silence to the beach as both of the bickering mer stopped and stared at him with wide eyes.  Realizing how utterly out of character the outburst was, Jade took a moment to straighten his already perfectly coiffed hair and then pointed out across the water.  “I believe that the moon has made an appearance.”

Following the direction of his hand, Floyd and Azul looked towards the ocean and both gasped loudly in surprise.  Slowly rising out of farthest reaches of the ocean was a huge glowing white globe of shining light. Looking rather like a massive pearl, its surface was mottled with darkened blueish spots, hinting at unfathomably deep chasms, made more beautiful for all its hinted flaws.

As it slowly rose over the horizon, they began to grasp the sheer size of the celestial object.  While impossibly far away, it appeared to be larger than the sun and its cool silvery slight slid across the waves, bringing with it, the soft hum of power.

It sang along their nerves like the siren songs of legend, calling them to them with mysterious promises of power.  Never had they seen anything so serene and beautiful in their lives.  It left them speechless as they watched a path of silver reach across the waves towards them.

“Ok, now the spell is cool.”  Floyd murmured, his voice distant and filled with awe as he stared unblinking at the light, drawn like a fish to an angler’s lure. 

Pulling his eyes away from the sight, Jade turned to Azul and reached out a hand, gently twining his companions long curling silvery white forelock around his finger.

“It’s the same colour as your hair.”  He murmured softly, admiring how the now pale octopus practically glowed in its light.  For someone who’d always considered his colouring to be drab and ugly, it seemed that he simply needed the right environment to shine.  Not that he’d ever admit that out loud, though he did enjoy how Azul’s cheeks darkened once again as those lovely sky-blue eyes glanced away from him, down to the mirror and shell.

“Yes… well… ahem…The spell!  Yes that is most likely the moon, it couldn’t be anything else.”  He babbled softly to himself, his hands fussing with the mirror for a moment, ensuring the reflective surface caught the silvery light of the moon, making it glow rather beautifully. 

Taking a moment to chew somewhat nervously on his bottom lip, he then poured the contents of the shell onto the mirrors glass, causing the light to ripple softly in response.  That gentle tingle of magic grew around them, making the fine hairs on the backs of their necks to stand on end as building power shivered across their skin.

Without needing any instructions, the three mer joined hands, grasping each other tightly as the light within the mirror grew brighter, seeming to outshine the moon which had given it power. 

“Lovely and noble flower of evil.”  They all spoke, reciting the words they’d heard in the dreams which had started this journey.  “Truly the most beautiful of all.  Mirror Mirror on the wall,”  The phrases seemed nonsensical to them, random and disjointed sentences, but they knew better than to question, especially as the light within the mirror flared brilliantly enough to cast its own shadows behind them, burning away the darkness.  “We heard the call of the Dark Mirror, Guide us for as long as our hearts desire.” 

The light in the mirror swirled in a tight whirlpool of light for a moment, then suddenly turned an eerie and bottomless black, reflecting nothing.  Then, a hint of movement within its depths.  A hand.  Pale, clawed and thin, it reached out through the nothingness within the mirror’s frame towards them, beckoning. 

As one, and without hesitation, they reached out together, grasping onto the cold palm.  Loud gasps tore themselves from their lips as a sizzle of raw magic coursed through them, freezing the newly warmed blood in their veins.  Their very breath was stolen from their lungs as the beach, the waves, the very world around them seemed to fade into impenetrable shadows.

Long, cadaverous fingers curled around their hands and even had they wanted to; it was impossible to let go.  Helplessly, they watched as long tendrils slid forward like some nightmarish caricature of Azul’s tentacles, only these were colder, stronger, and far more deadly.  Wrapping around the youths, they coiled about their trapped forms with slow, almost languid grace; then, without warning, tightened viciously and dragged them into the mirror.

In less time than an eyeblink, the beach was once again deserted.  The three mer youths, the satchel, even the mirror had vanished without a trace, leaving only the cold moonlight shining down.  In the distance, one could faintly hear the sound of a horse drawn carriage retreating into the night.

Chapter Text

 

 

Show me your darkness.  Show me your ambition, your rage, your desires.  You’ve taken my hand, now let me see your truest self so I may know you as one of my own.

 

Azul dreamed.  As always, it was never the pleasant moments his unconscious mind showed him.  Never the thrilling victories, the satisfying moments where he’d looked down on an enemy brought low, begging for the mercy he would never give.  No, it was always the same dream.  Humiliating, horrifying and as always, welling up from that deeply buried part of his soul where dark tentacles coiled tightly around a crying child.

No matter how deeply he hid the truth beneath lies and illusions, it always bubbled up to the surface, and no matter how hard he tried to not hear the taunts, they still echoed through his mind as they had so many times in the waking world.

 

Not far from the bustling center of the grand city of Atlantica, where the coral shone brilliantly with reflected light and the water seemed to sing with vitality, a little octopus rushed as quickly as his thick little tentacles could drag him across the ocean floor.  He raced past shining shops, past gleaming fountains and statues of fanciful legends from days long past. 

His frantic pace caused him to trip over his own limbs several times, sending the terrified child tumbling wildly, careening off coral sculptures and knocking aside a startled school of brightly coloured fish before righting himself.  Panting hard, he spun around, huge blue eyes staring wide as he sought a place to hide, any sort of shelter would do.

There was no solace in the bright lights of the shopping district and his parent’s restaurant was much too far away to reach.  Any desperate looks given to those passing by earned him nothing but a curled lip and a flip of a fin as they swam past.  His problem wasn’t their problem after all, and no one had time to spare for a chubby little octopus. 

Cruel laughter echoed through the water, spurring him into motion once more as he raced blindly away, too scared to even remember where he was let alone any of his usual hiding places. 

Stupid!  Stupid stupid!  He’d known better than to linger at the statue of the Sea Witch!  Worse, he’d done it alone, like some stupid guppy!  Jade and Floyd would laugh at him if they saw him now, tell him that if he insisted on acting like prey, he’d be treated like it.  But… but he’d wanted to look at her.  So strong!  So beautiful!  So… so like him with her long sleek tentacles where a tail should be.  Just looking at her, reading the plaque beneath, extoling her strength, her cunning and her power, it always gave him hope that one day… just maybe, he’d find that sort of acceptance too. 

He’d gone there too often, made a habit of it and that had made him easy to ambush.  Now he was going to pay the price, and there was no one who would save him from his pursuers as they closed in, flanking him as they cut off his escape. 

“Please!  Just leave me alone!”  He yelled over his shoulder, wishing fervently that he’d joined the two eels when they’d suggested exploring past the reef into the deeper water.  No matter how much he’d wanted to go and explore, to see new things and feel the delicious chill of the water beyond the reef, his parents had expressly stated he wasn’t allowed to go.  Fitting in meant obeying, even when you didn’t want to.  It meant following the rules no matter how much they were against him and doing his best to fit in.  Mer as young as he was didn’t go beyond the reef and they certainly didn’t head into deep water.  There were predators there, strange creatures with twisted bodies and devious minds who’d swallow up little mer like him in one bite without even thinking about it.  This naturally was an irresistible lure to the trouble loving eels, but Azul… he’d behaved and stayed behind, and now he found himself alone in a world where being isolated was extremely dangerous. 

“Awww how cute, he’s trying to get away.”

“Look at him crawl, even crabs are more graceful.”

“Doesn’t he want to play with us?  Come on Azul, it will be fun!”  Voices laughed with cruel delight from all around him and out of nowhere, a tail swung out, striking him in the side.  The force of the blow sent him rolling into a patch of sharp coral hard enough that even the thick mucus covering his black tentacles couldn’t protect him.  Blue blood drifted up from a gash across two of his limbs as Azul struggled to face his attackers, trying to focus enough to cast a defensive spell, but the blow had disoriented him and they closed in too quickly.   

“Yeah, we need a ball, and you’re the perfect shape for it!”  Laughter surrounded him as the figures closed in.  He didn’t even see the next tail strike, but it sent him even deeper into the school.  There was just enough time to wrap his tentacles around himself, attempting to absorb the worst of the impact, but he could feel the deep bruises already forming.  Please let them just hit my tentacles!  He thought to himself.  Having to see the aftermath of these beatings was almost as bad as the initial assault.  Worse than that were the inevitable uncomprehending looks from his parents; how they’d try to explain his injuries away to each other as just rough play and childish clumsiness, unable to admit the depth of his suffering.   

It was humiliating and always left him feeling so alone and powerless; almost as much as the cruel taunts and blows which rained down on him as he was knocked around like a toy.  An empty and unfeeling thing, there for nothing more than the amusement of others. 

“Ugh, look at that, he’s crying again.”  Someone sneered, pulling hard at his hair before shoving him away.

“Disgusting.  He’s ruining the water!”  Another voice, another vicious tail strike followed by cruel laughter as the gathering mer children warmed to their game. 

“He’s like a disease, ruining everything he touches with those slimy tentacles.  It’s so gross.”

“Yeah, we should cut them off.  He’s got so many that I doubt anyone would notice.”

“Yeah!  Cut them off!”

“Cut ‘em off!”  The others picked up the bloodthirsty chant while dozens of hands grabbed at his slick limbs, trying to keep their grip and pull them away from his body.  No!  They couldn’t be serious could they!?  Every other time they’d just been content to beat him down, and leave him to crawl home like some seaslug, or if the eel twins were nearby, they’d just keep their torments to softly whispered taunts, repeated over and over until he was trembling with the effort of keeping from inking. 

The laughter grew crueler, more predatory as nails dug into his skin, leaving more thin trails of blue around him.  Frantic now, he gave up trying to protect himself from damage and focused on trying to get away, but they held tight, their eyes blazing with vicious glee.

“Grab something sharp!”

“Get away from me!”

“Keep him still!”

“HEEEELP!”

“Ugh, he’s inking on me!”  Delighting in their bloodthirsty game, more of the young mer joined he swarm, pressing in until Azul couldn’t move at all, pinning him down as he sobbed in terror, trying to think of any way to survive this nightmare.

He should have joined the twins.  He should have broken the rules!

“Please!  Please sto-”  He was cut off by a sharp slap to the face which left him stunned, his head ringing in pain.  Blinking his eyes, trying to see through the sudden spots dancing in his vision, barely able to make out a long shining red tail, the fin sleek and gauzy.  A low groan of defeat slipped past his lips as he recognized the ringleader of this little school of sharks.

Nimoe.  The bane of his existence. 

Blinking several times, he stared up into pitiless green eyes, doing his best not to look at the cruel sneer which tugged at soft lips, turning a lovely young face into something twisted and ugly.  The already vicious expression turned even crueler as the crimson mer reached out, snatching a handful of long flowing hair the colour of seafoam.  Giving the head it was unfortunately attached to a sharp shake, he laughed loudly.  There was nothing warm or caring in the sound and it chilled Azul’s already cold blood. 

“Look at this pathetic freak.  He’s not even real merfolk.”  Several of them chuckled as Nimoe sneered down at the smaller form, his expression one of utter viciousness as those wide blue eyes rimmed with inky black tears stared into his.  “Thinks he’s the Sea Witch does he?  What an insult!”

“Please… please just let me go.  I wasn’t doing anything.”  Azul whimpered softly, trying desperately to keep his voice steady despite choking on his terror.  Inky tears continued to darken the water around him and he could feel himself trembling in their grasp.  “I was just going home.”

“Home?  Freaks like you don’t have a home.  Not here.”  He gave the hair another tug then grinned over at his friends.  “I bet his parents are sorry they ever took him in.  Imagine, raising an ugly slimy freak like this!”

“Bet they planned to cook him up.  That’s why he’s so fat!”  Another voice from the school called out as more laughter rippled through their ranks.  The hands gripping his trembling tentacles gave a few more brutal pulls, making Azul yelp in pain.  For a moment, he tried to renew his struggles, but that only caused more pain.  All he could do was hang there, powerless in their grip, unable to cast even the weakest of cantrips.

“Hah, you’re probably right.  Is that it?”  Nimue laughed, tugging the octopus forward by his hair so their faces were mere inches apart.  “Is that why you’re so fat?  Say it.  Say that they’re fattening you up, that they’re just going to eat you.”  Big blue eyes squeezed shut as Azul tried to shake his head free.  He hated these games, hated all of them!  Why couldn’t they just leave him alone!?  Why were they always picking on him?

“Hah, that’s why those two freaky eels hang around him.  Just waiting for a chance to take a bite!”

“Several bites by the size of him.”

“No!  Leave me alone!”  In a desperate bid for freedom, he wrenched one of his arms nearly out of its socket and tried to call up the magic inside himself, the way he’d read about in the books.  Unfortunately, casting, especially at such a basic level required concentration and a clear mind.  Two things he most certainly didn’t have at this moment and he wasn’t able to call forth so much as a bubble in his defense.

For a moment, Nimoe and his cronies just stared at him, eyes widening in surprise at this little act of defiance, then narrowing dangerously.

“Did you just try to cast a spell, you pathetic flatworm?”  He snarled, tightening his grip on that lock of hair and giving it a vicious shake, nearly tearing it out of Azul’s scalp.  “You really think you’re the next Sea Witch do you?  Ugh, You’re beyond pathetic, there’s not even words that describe how useless you are, you ugly fat little blowfish!”  Another vicious shake rattled his skull and this time, he could actually feel his hair starting to pull out, taking his skin with it, but Nimoe wasn’t done, not by a long shot.

“Awww you gonna cry some more?  Why don’t you cast another spell Sea Witch?  Why don’t you call up your minions to protect you?  Why don’t you use your tail to swim away freak?  Oh yeah, you haven’t got one!  You’ve got nothing!”

“LEAVE ME ALONE!”  Azul screamed, hoping someone would hear the noise and come over, wishing that an adult would intervene, but they never did.  Why should they?  He wasn’t one of them, not really.  Different, ugly, deformed.  He’d never fit in no matter what he did.  It was stupid to keep trying, but he wanted so badly to belong, to be validated in some way by them.

The fingers holding his hair tangled viciously around the pale locks and his head was yanked back once more, forcing him to stare into Nimue’s eyes. 

The hatred and petty cruelty in their depths sucked his breath away and for the life of him, he simply didn’t understand why.  He’d never done anything to the other mer, to any of them, but all they had to do was look at him to hate him.  For as long as he could remember, he’d stayed out of their way, didn’t look at them directly and did his best to be as unobtrusive as possible, but they still singled him out, still hated him with an almost instinctual fervor.

“It’s insulting that you think you’re one of us.”  Nimoe hissed hatefully, lips pulling back from shining white teeth, in an expression that was in no way sane.  “You’ll never be one of us no matter what you do, you disgusting little bottom feeder!”  The others laughed in vicious glee, tugging at his tentacles once again, trying to pull them free of his soft little body.  The pain was intense and he tried to struggle against them, to draw in his limbs, but they were pulled tightly away from his body.  While he did enjoy a certain level of elasticity with his tentacles, there were limits, and he’d gone well beyond that.  Any minute now, his skin would begin to tear.

“We could pull these ugly things off.”  The boy continued cruelly, his voice unnervingly calm in comparison to Azul’s frantic screams and the sheer animalistic cruelty of the scene.  He sounded as if he was having nothing more than a pleasant conversation with a friend.  “Nah, then you’d just roll around like the fat little ball you are and be twice as irritating… but this…”

Giving Azul’s hair another sharp tug, his smile grew wider, toothier while his voice grew even softer as he twisted the much abused lock into Azul’s view. 

“A freak like you shouldn’t have something so nice.  Look at it, so long and shiny… like seafoam.”  He rolled it between his fingers, admiring the way it seemed to almost reflect the colours around it, shimmering in a way that no one else’s hair did. 

Realization filled him and Azul felt his heart catch in his throat as terror screamed through him.  He had no idea what the larger youth was going to do, but he knew that he didn’t want to be on the receiving end of it.  Hadn’t he suffered enough!?  No… Nimoe had gone off the deep end, there was something far worse than mere cruelty in his eyes and it scared the smaller octopus more than the threat of any beating.

“Please… just let me go… Don’t do this.”  He pleaded, trying to appeal to any sort of reason in the other mer even as he attempted to cringe back, but the others tightened their grip on him, twisting his tentacles into painful knots.    

“I bet you’re really proud of this hair aren’t you?  It’s really the only part of you that isn’t all ugly and twisted.  But bottom feeders don’t get to have nice things, and long hair is really only for proper merfolk.”  For a moment, he didn’t even understand the words, they were so beyond the pale, too horrible for his young mind to even comprehend, but that ignorance only lasted for a few short blissful seconds before his world came crashing down around him. 

“Yeah!  Cut is hair!”

“Tear it out!”

“NO!!!  Please no!!!”    He was blubbering now, any hint of pride or rebellion wiped clean from his mind in his blind panic.  They couldn’t do this!  Hair was a vital part of a mer’s identity, just as much as their tail.  Wasn’t he already handicapped enough by only having one of the two?  Those long and beautiful locks were the only beautiful part of him, the only thing about himself that gave him pride.  Every morning, his mother would carefully brush it out singing old and beautiful songs while her long fingers deftly plaited it into intricate braids that shimmered when he moved and drew the eye away from his ugly tentacles.

With every movement, no matter how subtle, it would pick up all the colours around him as if it was spun crystal rather than hair, giving colour to his normally dark and monochromatic body.  No!  He couldn’t lose it!

“Hold him still.”  Nimoe snapped as he produced a pair of scissors from behind his back with his free hand, the hand he’d kept out of sight through his whole ordeal.  The bastard had been planning this from the start!  This whole ambush had been nothing but the warm up for this barbaric climax.   

Screaming loudly, Azul tried to pull back, his limbs fueled with renewed vigor, but he’d never been the strongest mer, far from it, and against so many opponents, he could only hang there helplessly while with one deft movement, Nimoe snipped off a long lock of Azul’s prized hair and held it up for everyone to see. 

The sharp sound of the shell scissors slicing through his precious hair was by far, the most horrible sound he’d ever heard, but the sight of that beautiful silvery lock dangling there in front of his face, separated from him forever was more than he could take. 

With a laugh, Nimoe released his prize, letting it drift away on the gentle current and Azul watched with horrified eyes as the strands slowly floated away from each other, twisting and drifting with heartrending elegance, finally free from his ugliness.

With an enraged scream, he went wild, thrashing madly against his captors, twisting his tentacles in their hands, biting, scratching.  It didn’t matter how much he hurt himself, or them, so long as he got away from his tormentors with his precious treasure intact.  His hair was all he had!  It was the only thing about him that was worthwhile, and they were ruining it! 

Swearing softly at the sudden surge of violence, Nimoe began to cut quickly.  Another snip, another beautiful shimmering lock of hair slowly swirling around in their wake, drifting about like the foam it resembled while the mer around him laughed in delight.

“Take more!”

“Shave him bald!”

“Ha!  Now he’s ugly all over!”  His screaming couldn’t drown out the voices, nor could it muffle the horrible sounds of those shears as they cut away such a vital piece of himself.  The water around him grew darker and darker as the tears poured from his eyes, but the shining strands of his hair still shone, almost mocking him with their beauty as they floated around him. 

By the time they finally released him, he was nothing more than a trembling ball surrounded by shifting inky darkness and for the first time ever, he was grateful for it, because it hid how ugly he was from the rest of the world.  There wasn’t anymore fight left in him, why should there be when they’d taken away the one thing he valued?  He wanted nothing more than to hide in the darkness of his tears until the world forgot that he even existed. 

In their cruelty, his tormentors wouldn’t even grant him that much and with a sharp tug on his already much abused tentacles, they dragged him out of his little cloud and into the full view of the others, letting them see what they’d done in all it’s glory. 

For a brief moment, the gravity of what they’d done seemed to hit them and they all floated there, shocked into silence at their own viciousness.  Countless eyes stared down at the young mer they’d reduced to nothing more than a sobbing ball of quivering sorrow.  Several of them glanced nervously at each other, the fun of their game drifting away with the long strands of hair.  Had they gone too far? 

Then, Nimue pointed his finger at the small form and laughed loudly.  Emboldened by the sound, the others smiled once more, following suit.

“Ha!  He looks like a blobfish!  I told you!”

“You’re right!  So ugly!”

“Please… please just leave me alone…”  Azul’s voice was barely audible over the jeering, his tentacles knotted so tightly together that he couldn’t move even if he wanted to.  Trembling violently in shock, all he could do was say the same word over and over again like a mantra, his mind trapped in a terrible loop of the last few minutes.  “please…. please…”  The shining strands of hair were already drifting away on the gentle currents of the deep reef, lost forever.  Unable to lose this last part of himself, he dared to reach out and grasp one of the gleaming pale locks.

Moment’s before he could reach it, the hard smack of a crimson tail striking him sent him tumbling end over end as the mer children laughed at him in cruel delight.

“Pathetic.”

“Go back to whatever trench you crawled out of and die.”

“Disgusting freak.  Now not even his parents will want him.”

“They shouldn’t.  Nobody else does.”  Another tail strike, more laughter surrounding him, echoing through his mind, buoyed by their hatred and contempt. 

Deep inside the young octopus, something dark stirred.  Twisted tentacles as black as night coiled around his heart, squeezing gently.  As cold as they were, there was a certain comfort in their touch, a strength within them that they promised to share, if only he’d open himself to it.

Poor unfortunate soul.  They seemed to whisper.  There is nothing wrong with you.  You’re perfect, exactly as you should be.  They simply fear what they don’t understand, and that fear is your weapon, their weakness your strength.  It was foolish of them to hand you so many tools so readily.

It was a beautiful voice, a much yearned for connection with someone, something that would empathize with his pain, but one he wasn’t capable of understanding… not yet.  For now, they were simply soft murmurs deep inside his soul, granting what comfort they could in an uncaring world.

 

His tormentors had left, he wasn’t sure when, but the feeling of threat still remained, keeping him curled up tightly in a little ball, longing for the security of a cave, of walls, of something solid around him, keeping him safe from the prying eyes of others.  His tentacles remained wrapped tightly around him, trembling as they waited for the next strike, the next heart-rending taunt. 

Even now, he could feel the gentle wake of others swimming past.  People who hadn’t lifted so much as a fin to help him earlier didn’t even give pause to his obvious suffering.  It didn’t matter that he was just a child or in need of aid.  He was too different, too alien to appeal to their already selfish natures.  

“Ugly little thing.”  Someone murmured softly as they swam by, the sound of their voice making him cringe back even further.

“Don’t be cruel, it can’t help what it looks like… though honestly, it should be left at the edges of the Atlantica for the sharks.”

“It’s ruining the water for proper merfolk.” 

….

…..

They were right.  All of them were right.  He didn’t belong.  He was a freak, a reject.  Ugly, stupid and weak.  He didn’t deserve to live, let along be called a mer.  His parents should never have picked him up when they’d found him, should never have taken him home and called him their own.   They’d given him a stupid hopeless dream, one which he’d never truly be part of, and he was suffering for it.

With a sob, he unfurled his tentacles, snapping them out then pulling them in sharply, propelling himself through the water in small bursts of speed.  It was exhausting and he couldn’t keep it up for long, but the idea of crawling away across the bottom of the sea like the disgusting failure they called him was simply too much to take.

At least finding his way back home was easy, he’d done it countless times while blinded by tears.  As always, it was empty, his parents were both busy at their restaurant, living their own lives, being respected, and loved… being accepted.  He was nothing but a blight on them and they’d be better off without him in their lives!

Without even thinking about it, he slipped around the beautiful home, heading to the brightly coloured and meticulously tended coral reef and kelp beds which his parents adored.  Everyone loved it, always complimenting the shape and colour of the coral, the delicate taste of the kelp.  None of them ever noticed the small pot tucked off to the side in the shadows, half buried in the silt and forgotten.  It didn’t look big enough for a half grown fry, let along someone as large as he was, but his aching tentacles easily slipped in, twisting and curling around each other as they pulled the rest of his body into the dark depths.

It was tight and difficult to breathe deeply, but he’d always found it soothing.  No one could hurt him in his pot, he was safe from the grabbing hands and cruel blades of the others.  They couldn’t see him, couldn’t taunt him.  The world wouldn’t have to look at him and he could pretend that he didn’t exist.

 

“Azuuuul”  A voice called out to him, filled with playful invitation and he could hear mischievous giggles drift through the water, heading closer on softly swishing tails.

“Azul, stop sulking and come play with us!  We found a wreck!  You gotta see it!  A real wreck!”

“There was even bones and stuff inside! I bet it was a human!”

“Pretty sure it was a seal Floyd.”

“But it was dead and all rotten and that makes it cool!  C’mon Azul!  We can poke it!”

“…Azul?”  The voices drifted closer and he could hear the edge of concern in Jade’s tones.  Not wanting their teasing, or worse, their pity, he pulled himself back even more tightly into his pot and closed his eyes, wishing that they’d go away.  It’s not like they really cared, the others were right.  The twins only hung out with him because they liked to play with their food.  He was nothing but a joke to them.

“We know you’re in there Azul, we can see the ink.  Why are ya inking?”  Floyd knocked on the top of the pot, then poked his head into the entrance, his face blocking out any of the light save for the telltale glow of his golden eye.  “Either you come out and play, or I’m gonna squeeze in there with you.”

Though a playful smile pulled at his lips, displaying a mouthful of sharp teeth, Azul simply curled up even tighter, clenching his eyes shut and trying to will them both away.

“Floyd…”  Jade’s voice was soft and gentle.  “I don’t think he wants to be bothered right now.”  There was a long pause as Floyd turned to look behind him, then a ripple of water as the young eel backed away from the pot.

“We’ll come back later, ok Azul?  Don’t sulk too long, we wanna go back and play at the wreck.”  He warned.  Giving his tail another playful flip, the two eels retreated, leaving nothing but silence in their wake. 

Even the eels had deserted him.  Well good.  They didn’t need him.  No one needed him.  Weak and useless thing…  He just… he wished that they’d tried a little harder to pretend to be there.  It was a lie… he knew that.  But at least it was a lie that felt good for a little bit, and right now, he’d take even that over the pain crushing him from the inside out.

Another fat inky tear slid out between his silvery lashes as he buried his head in his tentacles and sobbed softly in the darkness of his pot.

 

He had no idea how long he hid there, doing his best to not exist to the rest of the world, but it was long enough for his tentacles to feel stiff and to grow all to aware of the many abrasions he’d endured.  They’d have to be tended to or he’d end up with all manner of little parasites nibbling at him. 

Taking as deep a breath as his confines would allow, he slowly began slipping out of his pot, pausing only to give a quick glance around himself, ensuring that he was alone.  Without meaning to, his hand reached up to feel the sheared off mess which had once been his long and beautiful hair.  Rather than be greeted with the familiar silken length which had always brought him comfort, his fingers met the short stubble which no doubt stood up like an irate pufferfish’s spines.

Unable to stifle a broken sob, he sank down to the ground and covered his face once more with his tentacles.  How could he face his parents?  How could he face anyone?  Everyone hated him.  It didn’t matter what he did, they’d never accept him, never allow him to belong.  It didn’t even matter if he died.  In fact, they’d all prefer it!  Maybe those people had been right, he should just go to the edge of Atlantica and keep swimming.  If he was lucky, something would eat him and this suffering would be over.

“Oh, you cut your hair.”  A bright voice cut through the water behind him, causing the startled octopus to squeak in a rather unimpressive manner and spin around, reacting before he could even recognize the speaker.   After all he’d been through today, not even the handful of spells he knew came to mind.  Another failure, more proof of how useless he was. 

Two golden eyes watched him from the shadows and as they shifted, he could make out the two eels, coiled up around each other on top of the pot watching him with their mismatched gazes.  By the looks of it, they’d been there for some time, in fact, they likely hadn’t left in the first place.  Choosing to wait him out like a patient predator at the mouth of a den.

“I… I cut it.”  Azul blurted out before he could stop himself.  His trembling voice and the ink still rimming his eyes belied his words and the twins didn’t even bother to hide the skeptical glance they shared with each other.  Rather than calling him on it, they simply slid off the pot and drifted towards him, lithe bodies still twining around each other, their eyes locked on his.

“I can’t say much for the rough job.”  Jade idly tapped his chin with a clawed fingertip as they circled around the miserable octopus.  “It doesn’t frame your face properly, it needs to be shaped, don’t you think Floyd?” 

“That’s easy enough to fix.”  The other eel shrugged thoughtfully as he and his brother slid apart in order to both flank and circle Azul, examining him from all sides and not at all concerned by the feel of magic prickling along their skin in warning.  “It’s actually a good idea though.  Long hair is so stupid.  It just gets in the way when you’re hunting, and its always getting caught on things.”  His face split into a wide toothy smile as he grinned at his twin.  “Hey, let’s cut our hair too!”

“Yes,.”  Jade agreed, nodded his head.  Though much more subdued, his smile was no less serious.  “Let’s.  We can style Azul’s as well.  Honestly Azul, you shouldn’t try to cut hair on your own.  It’s impossible to get it right, but thankfully, we’re here to help and we’ll make it look much better.”

“I’ll do it!”  Floyd’s swimming picked up the pace as he raced around them excitedly.  “Your parents aren’t home yet are they?  We’ll surprise them!”

All Azul could do was stare at them both dumbfounded.  While their hair might not have been as pampered as his own, it was still lovely, even if they did keep it in a thick aquamarine braid down each of their backs, the single feral looking stripe of black left loose on both of them, drifting gently in the water around them.

Before he could react, they were pulling him towards the house, both already eagerly chatting about various styles they could try.  Floyd seemed to be in favour of cutting it all off save for a single strip in the middle, like another dorsal fin, while Jade seemed to prefer something more conservative.

“What do you think Azul?”  They both turned to him and asked at once, their mismatched eyes bright and eager… and where the hell had Floyd gotten a hold of his mother’s scissors?

“I… um…”  He could feel his cheeks darkening under their scrutiny and suddenly longed once more for the comfort of his pot.  The twins always left him feeling a little off balance and he never quite knew how to handle their strange, mercurial moods.

“How about we surprise you?”  Jade smiled at him happily.  “Don’t worry, it can’t be that hard, and Floyd is really good at cutting things!”  Things were happening too fast, making Azul’s head spin.  He had no idea how to escape this riptide he’d been caught in, but there was no stopping the eels when they got an idea into their heads.  Before he knew it, Floyd was already cutting his hair, humming and clicking happily while he snipped at Azul’s ruined locks.  Each snip of the scissors caused his tentacles to twist nervously and he closed his eyes tightly to avoid seeing even more hair floating around him.  Why was he letting them do this?  Well… they couldn’t make him look more hideous, and if this really was some sort of trick… it’s not like he’d be around long enough to have to deal with it.  The deep ocean wasn’t that far away, from there, he could lose himself in its vastness and no one would ever tease him again.

As if his deepening mental spiral had been heard, a tail gently twined around his tentacles, giving them something other than themselves to grip.  Confused by the gentle touch, Azul cracked an eye open enough to see Jade smiling at him encouragingly.

“You’ve some bad cuts on your tentacles.”  His clawed fingertips stroked near one of the worst of the wounds, surprisingly tender.  “They should be tended to.  Do you mind if I take care of that while Floyd works on your hair?  We don’t want to attract sharks after all.”  He smiled at the joke, everyone knew that no sharks went anywhere near Atlantica proper.  Not if they wanted to live.

Numbly, Azul nodded his head and watched as Jade placed a deceptively gentle hand on the deepest wound.  There was a slight tingle along the length of his tentacle before it centered around the tear, followed by a strange warmth and growing tightness as the flesh began to pull together. 

It wasn’t often that Jade used his magic, he was still learning and more often than not, hurt himself whenever he performed the slightest healing.  Judging by the tension in his long body and the look of utter concentration on his face, this was one of those times.   Azul wanted to pull the limb away, but knew better than to move.  He’d seen what happened when Jade’s healing spells went wrong, and he really didn’t want to lose a tentacle.   

“T…thank you.”  He murmured, giving the eel an almost shy smile as he tried to understand what the two of them were up to.  These weren’t the acts of someone just after an amusing meal or a toy to torment.  Maybe they were playing a deeper game, building up his trust to make the betrayal that much more delicious?  No… that didn’t feel right.  This… this was something else.

“I didn’t know your hair was so curly!”  Floyd proclaimed happily as he snipped away, seemingly oblivious to Azul’s mental confusion.  “You couldn’t tell when it was long, but it’s really nice!”  He continued to prattle on excitedly.  “Oh!  I have an idea!”  The scissors continued to snip away merrily as the water around them shimmered with bits of silver hair.  It looked almost deceptively magical and Azul felt a little light of hope glimmer in his heart, but clamped down on it quickly.  No… they didn’t care.  It was just a game to them.  Everything was a game.

“And you can’t look at yourself until we’re all done.”  Floyd grinned as he finished with a flourish of snips, then slid around his brother next, scissors brandished like a weapon.  “No cheating!”  There was just enough warning in his tone that Azul, still off balance, merely nodded his head in mute acceptance, still clinging tightly to Jade’s tail as he watched the other twin neatly snip off the long braid without a moment’s hesitation.

It was impossible to keep his eyes from widening in shock as he saw the long length of aquamarine hair fall free and drift away.  They were doing it… really doing it!  Merfolk didn’t cut their hair, not willingly, and certainly never that short.  Why would they do something like this?  It made no sense at all!

Despite his denial of what he was seeing, more and more hair fell away while Azul felt his breath catch in his gills as he saw just how short Jade’s hair had become.  Little more than a finger length remained of his once long hair, save for his dark stripe, which in a twisted bit of rebellion, Floyd kept long, fully aware of how much others scoffed at those markings. 

With a wide grin, he handed the scissors to Jade, who also didn’t waste any time in slicing off his brother’s braid, somehow managing to cut the correct amount to create an almost perfect replica of his own hair.  Yes, it was a tad rougher than his own, but Floyd seemed happy enough with it.

“Perfect!”  The brothers proclaimed as they turned to stare at each other, visibly pleased with their efforts.  Their grins nearly split their faces in half, then grew impossibly wider as they turned to face Azul.

“Come on and look!  What are you waiting for!”  As one, they herded Azul towards a mirror so he could see the final results and at first, he didn’t even recognize the stunned face in the reflection.  He looked so different from how he saw himself.  For so long, he’d tried so hard to avoid looking at his reflection, hating how round and soft he was.  Just seeing that squishy body and stunted tentacles always brought inky tears of shame to his eyes and was why his mother always did his hair for him, so he could, for a few minutes, pretend to be beautiful.  He could imagine a beautiful lean body, a single shining tail of brilliant colour, coupled with luminous skin.  Now… staring at the soft miserable looking figure in the mirror, it was all thrown back into his face.  His round dark grey face.  They were right.  He really did look like a blobfish.

Dark ink drifted around his eyes once more and he tensed his tentacles, preparing to swim away, but two pairs of strong hands gently squeezed his shoulders.  The warning prick of claws keeping him still more than the pressure alone ever could.

“Look harder.”  Floyd instructed, leaning forward to whisper into his ear.  What was there to see!?  He was a freak!  He was a blobfish… no, not even that because he wasn’t even a proper fish, not even part of one!  All he had was his freakishly fat tentacles, his ugly dull skin and his short hair which stood up in soft curls around him, save for the long lone lock which curled delicately down past his chin… just like the brothers.

Gasping, he leaned closer, studying the lone piece of hair, then spun around to stare at the twins, not understanding.

“They’re idiots.”  Jade stated flatly, something dangerous passing through his eyes for a moment before his usual smiling mask slipped back into place.  “Blind idiots who can’t see what we see.”

“But that’s alright.”  Floyd continued for him.  “Because we don’t feel like sharing.  You’re ours.  We belong together.”  Leaning forward a little further, he brushed his cheek across Azul’s, Jade mirroring the motion with the other cheek while the stunned octopus stared at them with wide eyes.

Deep inside his chest, that little flare of hope brightened, sunk its tender fangs into his heart and held tightly.  Did they mean it?  Where they really offering what he thought they were?

“You’re not ugly and you’re not a freak.”  Jade continued where Floyd had left off.  “You’re just not from here, where the water is bright and warm, where there too much food and not enough danger.”  His clawed fingertips stroked through Azul’s newly shorn hair gently, tugging lightly on that curling lock of hair, ensuring that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t forget about it and the link it represented.  “You’re like us, from deeper, darker waters.  They’d never survive a minute down there because they’ll never understand that true power lies in the darkness, on the edge of the Abyss where the monsters live.”  Both their smiles widened, displaying their sharp fangs.  It wasn’t the first time that Azul was made terrifyingly aware of just how different the eel brothers were from every other mer in the Atlantica. 

There were rumours about their family, terrifying things that no one dared to whisper when there was so much as a shadow nearby.  He’d always scoffed at such silly stories, but for a moment, looking into their alien eyes, he couldn’t quite repress a bit of a shiver.

“You’re like us Azul, you’re from the same darkness that birthed us.  You’re one of the monsters that terrify little fry in the reefs.”  Floyd purred, the edge of a chuckle in his voice as his eyes gleamed.  “We might all be small now, but we’ll grow, just watch.  You’ll grow with us Azul, and then, when we’re big enough, we’ll gobble them all up!”  He gave a playful little snap of those lethal teeth and giggled menacingly.

Was that true?  Was he like them?  While he truly doubted that he was from the deeper layers of the ocean, it did feel good to feel that sense of camaraderie with someone, and really, there was a certain strange connection he felt with the two unusual eels.

“Stop thinking so much and enjoy the moment.”  Floyd lightly nipped his ear, giving his cheek another rub with his own and for a few precious seconds, Azul allowed himself to simply close his eyes, enjoying the gentle touch and the closeness they were offering.  For however fleeting this feeling was, it felt good, it gave him strength, and deep inside, the dark tentacles around his heart twisted a little tighter while the softly whispering voice grew a little clearer. 

Slowly pulling away, he smiled at the twins.  While he might not have their razor-sharp teeth, the look was no less menacing.  The mer of Atlantica shunned him, called him a freak and a monster… well… maybe they were right.  Maybe that’s what he really was, but… he didn’t have to be alone did he?  The darkness didn’t have to be so empty, not for creatures like them.

“I’m going to make them pay for all of this.”  He stated softly.  There was power in his words, a strange sort of weight, the sort one might expect from great vows being taken, as if somewhere in the deepest and most uncharted depths of the ocean, something had taken note.  “They all think that they’re so special, but I’m going to strip it all away from them, one piece at a time until they have nothing, ARE nothing!  I’m going to take it all away and then smile at their suffering, the way they smiled at mine.”

“Good.”  Jade replied looking as cool and controlled as ever, though the cruel light in his eyes burned brilliantly, making his golden eye glow eerily.  At his side, Floyd flashed them both a wild shark’s grin, made all the more menacing by his eager giggles.

“And we’ll help!”

“WHAT IN NEPTUNE’S NAME DID YOU THREE DO!?!”  Azul’s mother’s shriek cut their moment of evil glee short as it was both loud and piercing enough to shatter glass. 

“crap”

“Bye Azul!”  There was a sharp swirl of water, then both twins were out the window and gone before anyone could so much as blink.  Azul sat there in the middle of the room, surrounded by freshly shorn hair swirling almost playfully around him while his parents stared down at him in a rather terrifying combination of abject horror and raw fury.

Newfound confidence and vows of dark revenge aside, his pot was suddenly looking pretty damn good.

Chapter Text

Dire Crowley was having such a good day.  The preparations for this year’s Entrance Ceremony had gone smoothly and it looked like there was going to be a good crop of students to fill out the ranks of the first years.  One by one, they filed in from the Gates; their bodies clad in the simple novice ceremonial robes, hoods drooping over their faces, casting their youthful features into shadow.  As dark as they might be, you could still always make out their eyes.  Wide and fearful, yet filled with unbridled wonder as they looked around themselves in awe. 

Granted, Night Raven College was certainly worthy of such reverence, even in Crowley’s most humble opinion.  Magic radiated from its very stones, the very air pulsed with potential, whispering promises of power to eager ears. 

Even more inspiring was the Hall of Mirrors itself; the very heart of the college.  Wreathed in perpetual shadow even on the brightest of day despite the impressive windows and magical sconces which floated in the air above everyone’s head.  No matter where you looked, the eye was inevitably drawn to the focus of the room, the Mirror of Darkness.

Huge and imposing, it hung in the very center of the room, radiating a cold dark power truly worthy of its name.  Granted, in his opinion, the floating coffins certainly didn’t hurt in lending the air of dread and suspense but then again, he’d always had a flair for the dramatic.

For now, the Mirror was black as pitch, reflecting nothing within its elaborate frame, and he caught more than one student eyeing it warily, no doubt feeling its cold and seductive pull. 

He always enjoyed watching the newcomers, seeing which ones felt the pull the strongest and who merely gave it a simple glance, considering it to be simply another decoration.  So far, he’d caught several of the newcomers pausing and staring at it, their own magic flaring instinctively in response to the ancient artifact.  Some were of course brighter than others, warranting closer looks and while their features were hidden beneath their hoods, the Headamaster knew that he’d have no problem identifying their power in the future. 

Behind him, Vargas stalked around the newest additions to the college as they entered, herding them together into a tight group with all the enthusiasm of a wolf harrying its prey.  Not that he wasn’t a rather intimidating sight, with his towering height and impressive muscles all but bulging at the seams of his ceremonial robes.  It was hardly surprising that the newcomers all stared at him fearfully.  The professor was rather talented when it came to looming.  Honestly, Crowley half expected the man to growl or some other testosterone fueled nonsense.

As expected, there were no friendly overtures from the either the second or third-year students, though Crowley did notice a few of them watching surreptitiously, trying to identify friends or family within the nervous group.  Granted, it was pointless to waste the effort in investing in someone who might be chosen to go into another dorm, and none of the students here were interested in poor investments.  Perhaps it was a tad short sighted on the part of these children, but there was little he could do about it.  Selfish natures abounded here, and even within the dorms themselves, the students barely tolerated each other.  Unity and the spirit of cooperation weren’t traits the Mirror of Darkness sought out in prospective students.  Here, it was all about power and how one wielded it. 

This couldn’t be any better displayed in seeing how the various dorms had chosen to present themselves to their prospective additions.  Diasomnia clustered together in the darkest corners of the room, visible as little more than shifting shadows and gleaming eyes while the students of Pomefiore had all arranged themselves elegantly by the window, taking advantage of the soft glowing moonlight to present an image of ethereal beauty. 

In direct contrast, Savanaclaw lounged about wherever they chose, claiming their immediate area as their own and snapping rather sharp teeth at anyone who dared step too close.  Ignihyde on the other hand seemed to be completely ignoring the proceedings and… were they playing on their phones?  Honestly, kids these days.  No respect for the sanctity of ceremony.

The Heartslabyul were talking quietly amongst themselves, not bothering to hide their interest in the newcomers, as were the students of Octavinelle and Scarabia, the latter two shooting each other looks of open challenge, always ready to turn everything into a contest between themselves.

“Line up puppies, single file and try not to be underfoot.  You!  Heel!”  The sharp crack of a riding crop caused more than one student to stiffen as Divus Crewel stalked into the room, being trailed by a rather cowed looking group of first years, no doubt freshly awakened.  Another crack of his crop striking leather clad gloves in warning when they dared to pause, noticing not only the Mirror of Darkness, but the other assembled students gathered round. 

“Ugh, must you put me in charge of the little puppies?”  He snarled softly at Crowley as he strode past.  “They insist on being constantly underfoot and I’m sure one of them pissed on the rug.”  The Headmaster really hoped he was being metaphorical.  It was sometimes hard to tell with the Potions Master.  “I swear, this lot is worse than the last.”  He continued, his pale silvery blue eyes sweeping across the room, daring anyone to step so much as a toe out of line.  “Kingscholar, wake up!”  The man’s sharp voice cut easily across the droning murmur of the assembled students.  “Is that the sort of image you want to project for your dorm!?” 

It was nearly impossible to keep a stern look on his face and for possibly the thousandth time, Crowley was thankful for his rather grand mask as it allowed him to hide his snicker as the Dorm Head of Savanaclaw flipped the instructor a rather lazy two fingered salute.

“I swear, if that pup fails another year, I’m going to have him stuffed and mounted as a warning to others.”

“And break Vargas’ heart?”  Crowley smiled, glancing over at the teacher.  “That’s his best student, and our most promising Magift player aside from Draconia.”

“Speaking of, I don’t see Draconia anywhere.” 

“What?  Of course he’s here, he’s…”  Crowley glanced over in the direction of the Diasmonia students seeking a rather tall and unmistakable horned youth.  As if sensing the sudden awareness in their direction, Vanrouge, the Vice Dorm Leader looked over and gave a rather apologetic shrug.

“Did you not send him the notice sir?”

“I… er… shit.”

“Indeed sir.”  Now it was Crewel’s turn to smirk.  “You’re much too lenient with these puppies.  You should let me beat them into shape.  Proper obedience is what all little dogs require, or else they grow up to be useless curs who piddle on the rug.  Speaking of, you’ll want to get someone to clean that up.” 

Dammit.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Trein chose that moment to stride in, his robes swirling rather impressively behind him and a look of tension on his face.  For the normally stoic teacher to be displaying so much emotion, let alone obviously hurrying, there must be some sort of emergency at the Gate and Crowley felt the first stirrings of nervousness deep down inside. 

No.  Nononono.  The Entrance Ceremony was supposed to go off without a hitch.  He’d planned for this, kept those arrogant little brats calling themselves Dorm Leaders in line and by all that was dark and evil, he was going to have a quiet and uneventful year!

“Do excuse me sir.”  Even in the face of what was no doubt a dire emergency, Trein waited to be acknowledged, showing a fanatical level of discipline which had been instilled in him from his years within Heartslabyul.  Doing his best to withhold a pained sigh and resisting the urge to massage his already throbbing temples, Crowley inclined his head slightly, inviting the man to continue, even while pretending that his hand wasn’t tightening alarmingly on the handle of his staff, causing the fine wood to creak softly.

“There seems to be a problem with one of the Gates.”  Well… that wasn’t good.  It had been nearly a century since one of them had had an issue worth worrying about.  With luck, it was only jammed.  While embarrassing, it at least wouldn’t be a worst-case scenario.

Rather than simply asking, Crowley did his best to hold onto what control he could and merely raised an eyebrow.  While the gesture couldn’t be seen due to his mask, Trein seemed to sense the invitation to continue.  Instead of speaking, he swallowed somewhat nervously and glanced back the way he’d come.

“I… it’s best if you come with me.”  For a moment, all Crowley could do was stare at the man, trying to figure out if he’d either gone insane, or was intentionally trying to drive him mad with worry.  Still, he’d never seen the professor quite so out of sorts and before he realized what he was doing, he was following Trein out of the Hall of Mirrors and down the short hallway leading to the Gates.

“Oh I have got to see this.”  Crewel grinned, following close at his heels, drawn to the blossoming drama like a dog to a bone.  “Vargas, keep the pups in line.”

“You’re not my boss you overdressed peacock!”

“Vargas, keep the pups…er.. students where they are.”

“Yes sir.”

They were all insane and out to get him.  That was the only possible explanation.  Crowley grumbled to himself as he followed the professor, noticing that the doors to the Gate were closed.  Well, that was ominous.  They were always kept wide open for the Entrance Ceremony, it saved time and effort rather than opening and closing the damn things behind every group.  What in the name of Darkness was going on?

“The problem sir, is one of the Gates.”  Trein began, choosing his words with delicate care, as if attempting to not upset the Headmaster, a failed strategy at this point.

“Yes, I’d gathered that.  Is the student alright?”  If they had some novice turned inside out again, there was going to be hell to pay.

“Well, you see, three Gates were sent to a rather isolated beach in the south islands of Pyroxene”

“Yes yes, There were three rather fascinating magical signatures in the area.”  Why did everyone have to make things into a huge drama?  This was hardly helping his already abused nerves.  “What’s the problem?”

“Well sir… you see… only one Gate returned.”

“What?!  Impossible!”  He sputtered, reaching angrily for the door.  “I swear, if the Royal Sword Academy poached them, I’m going to put a curse on Headmaster Walters, truce be damned!”

“No.  No sir, that’s not the problem.”  Taking a deep and calming breath, Crowley shot a rather cool glare at the professor.

“Well?  Out with it man.  What am I about to walk into?  Do I need to put on wellies?”  Behind him, Crewel nearly choked on a laugh he was trying to restrain.  Honestly, the well coiffed sadist was enjoying his suffering!

“No, no, not at all.  You see… they all seemed to have taken the same Gate.”

“The same Gate… that’s impossible.”  Crowley grumbled, now more than ever convinced that perhaps the professor was perhaps growing a little too old for the strain of his position.  Perhaps it was time to give the man a long vacation.

“I assure you sir, they managed it.”  Trein stated as the Headmaster strode through the door, only to stop short a moment later as he stared at the solitary coffin.  It floated there in the center of the room, the lid opened wide, displaying the three young men who were curled so tightly around each other that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.

Not for the first time tonight, Crowley was grateful for the fact that the mask he wore covered most of his face because it was impossible to hide the look of shock.  All he could do was stare, his mind trying to sort out what he was seeing and trying desperately to make sense of how in the name of all the Founders that this happened.

“And they’re naked.”  Trein finished, stating the most painfully obvious observation that Crowley had ever had the misfortune to hear.

“…yes… yes they are.”  He found himself murmuring in agreement like an idiot, unable to tear his eyes away from the sleeping forms, still under the Gate’s spell.

“Well.”  Crewel stated with far more amusement than the other teachers felt.  “This will be an interesting year.”  Reaching into his fur coat, he pulled out a silver flask and uncapped it.  Taking a long sip, he then handed it wordlessly over to Crowley who for once, didn’t have the heart… or wherewithal to berate him for drinking so openly, especially in front of students… naked students.

Without looking, he took the flask from his hand, indulging in a rather deep and bracing drink of his own.  Coughing as the alcohol seared his throat, convincing him that Crewel’s taste in alcohol was as appalling as his taste in fashion, he handed the flask back, still staring at the sight before him and trying to figure out why the gods of darkness had chosen to be so cruel.

He’d been having such a good day…

Chapter Text

“They’re naked.”  Upon hearing that unfortunate statement yet again, Crowley pulled his gaze away from the awkward, albeit rather unexpected sight of his newest students to glare at the history teacher.  Poor Trein, normally so stoic and unflappable still appeared to be rather gobsmacked by the whole ordeal.  Not that the headmaster could blame him.  This wasn’t the sort of thing one expected during an Entrance Ceremony, even at a school like Night Raven College.  Still, he couldn’t quite keep from biting out a rather terse response.

“Yes, thank you Trein, I can see that.”  Unfortunately, the other member of his faculty bearing witness to this rather shocking scene seemed to have no vested interest in fixing the situation.  “Crewel, for the love of the Founders, put that flask away and find their robes or something.”  He snapped, feeling his frown darkening behind his mask.  Ignoring the warning in Crowley’s voice, the other professor took another sip from his flask before handing it to Trein, not looking guilty in the least.

“How in the name of Darkness did they all manage to fit in there?”  Crewel continued to stare at the strange tableau, tilting his head somewhat to the side, like a dog attempting to solve a puzzle.  Trein on the other hand eyed the flask as if it were some sort of possibly venomous serpent, making no move to ingest the caustic combination of toxins that the potions master called alcohol.  Giving it an experimental sniff, he shuddered then quickly handed it back, looking a tad paler than before.

Pinching the bridge of his nose through the mask, all Crowley could do was shake his head, feeling a rather nasty migraine beginning behind his eyes.  Honestly, he kept those two with him to make his life easier, but it was rapidly becoming obvious that they were both conspiring against him. 

“I can assure you, I don’t want to know.”  He muttered under his breath.  So help them if he found out that this was merely some elaborate stunt designed to drive him mad….

“Well I do.”  Crewel continued, placing one hand on his hip while his other tapped the tip of his riding crop against his highly polished boot.  “There should be no possible way for those three to fit in there, but they’ve managed.  The contortions alone…  I bet those two are even taller than Vargas.  He’s going to hate that.”

“I doubt he’ll care, so long as they’re good at sports.”  All Crewel could do was stare at the two professors, his mouth opening and closing a few times silently as he tried to grasp when exactly he’d lost all control over the situation.  Why were they even having this conversation?  This was clearly an emergency… but… looking back at the rather explicit sight of his three newest students, he found that couldn’t stop staring.  It was rather like a train wreck… only… with much more skin.

“Good physique too, what do you think Trein, Savanaclaw?”

“With an entrance like this?  Diasmonia is where I’d put my madol.  They seem to specialize in causing headaches wherever they go.  Not to mention the skill and sheer power required to override the Gate… imagine, three people in one coffin.  Unheard of.”

Finally tearing his gaze away from the mentally scarring sight in front of him, Crawley spun around, his cloak flaring rather impressive as he drew upon every inch of height he had in order to look down on the two professors.  Lesser men would… and had many a time, cringed back from his smoldering golden eyes, when narrowed in such an ominous manner.  However, after years of teaching a legion of future dark wizards and sorcerers, each one bringing their own brand of madness to the school, these two had become impervious to all but the most blatant threats to their lives.

Trein seemed to have finally schooled his face back into its usual aloof mask of disinterest, meeting the headmaster’s glare with an impassive stare of his own.  Crewel, on the other hand, merely smirked in response, before taking a rather pointed sip from his flask, practically daring Crowley to do something about it.

That was it… he was going to strangle them both and dump their ungrateful corpses in the Savanaclaw dorm.  No one would ever question it!   Dammit… no… he needed them to teach the little monsters and keep them in line.  It was moments like this when he truly lamented no longer being able to line the main street with the severed heads of those who’d failed him.  Stupid “kinder gentler less blatantly evil public image” that the Board of Governors was endorsing.

“Ugh, would one of you get their robes?”  He finally snapped.  “And put that flask away!  Here you are, standing around doing nothing but gossiping when we have naked students here!”

“Is that what we’re focusing on sir?”  A well shaped eyebrow was artfully inclined in the headmaster’s direction, though Crewel did finally tuck the flask into one of the many hidden pockets in his jacket before turning away.  “Such confusing priorities.”  Hands hidden beneath his cloak, Crowley made little choking motions, but it wasn’t nearly as satisfying as the real thing.  Best if he simply focused on the main problem at hand… after all, it wasn’t as if it was going to fix itself, and it had all the potential of becoming so much worse.

“If word got out about this… their parents…”  Crowley murmured to himself, his mind starting to spin just trying to contemplate the social disaster this could cause.  The scandal, the loss of prestige… they’d have their funding pulled for sure!  The horror of it all was mindboggling!

“Still… twins.”  Crewel gave a low and somewhat innuendo laden whistle.  “That pretty little one certainly knows how to pick them.  Hope he’s got good stamina.”   No one would ever suspect him of murder… he could come up with a decent alibi… 

Noticing the dark looks from both his compatriots, the potions professor sighed loudly and rolled his eyes.

“Oh, like either of you were never sixteen?”  He paused for a moment, taking in the age of one and agelessness of the other.  “Ah, forget it.”

“The Headmaster is correct.”  Trein stated in rather stiff and uncompromising tones.  “This could cause quite the scandal.”  Ah, finally!  Trein was on his side!  HA!  Take that!  Smirking in Crewel’s direction, he couldn’t quite keep from puffing his chest out slightly, savouring his small victory.  Rather than look at all impressed, Crewel simply gave his leather gloved hand an indolent wave.

“You need to relax Crowley, it’s hardly the worst stunt that students have pulled here.”  Oh Darkness… he was right… and this was only the first day… not even the first day!  They hadn’t even made it through the opening ceremonies!

“…I was having such a good day…”

 

Not too far away from the bickering adults, there was a soft moan from the vicinity of the coffin, a gentle flexing of spell numbed limbs as life began to flow through them once more.  Bit by bit, the Gate’s magic, woven around the slumbering students began to unravel, allowing awareness to enter their minds as the waking world began to exert its influence.

Something was wrong… no, not wrong, different.  A life in the depths of the ocean, not to mention nearly a month of hard travel through the wilds beyond the reefs had instilled in Azul an instinctive wariness for sudden change and as his dream faded away into the mists of memory, his mind grabbed hold of awareness with all of his formidable stubborn will, waking him up in an instant. 

Rather than leaping into action, he instead carefully cracked open an eyelid, taking in his surroundings before deciding how to act.  Ignorance led to death after all, and Azul had always loathed those foolish enough to commit to action without all the facts. 

The last lingering traces of the spell still pulled at him, addling his normally razor sharp mind and causing disjointed images to flit randomly through his thoughts as if seeking to fill in the gaps of missing time into his memory.

A huge shining pearl rising out of the depths of the ocean, bathing everything around it with silver light.  Shimmering strands of hair floating around him, the same colour as the moon, but filling him with horror rather than wonder.  The feel of alien magic wrapping around him, sliding through his body, and the odd awareness that Floyd was chewing on his fingers.  A voice whispering to him, familiar and as soothing as it was terrifying.  The sensation of moving, as if in some strange current, spiraling around and around…only to wake up in this unfamiliar cave. 

That hand!  They’d take the hand in the mirror and it had accepted them, pulling them into what felt like the chill of the deepest depths of an abyssal trench, freezing the newly heated blood in his veins as it pulled him into darkness.  He could feel the deep bruises on his arms from where the twins had held onto him, refusing to let go even as they were buffeted and shaken by the spell which had tried to pull them apart time and time again. 

A small smile of triumph tugged at his lips as he risked a quick glance over at their slumbering forms, feeling their strong limbs wrapped around him, their bodies bracketing him between them.  It was deeply reassuring, feeling their breaths mingling in the small and almost crushing space.  Rather than being claustrophobic, it made him feel safe and protected despite how unfamiliar the still strange warmth of their bodies was.

They’d swum united against the entire world for most of their lives and it would take more than a spell, no matter how strange to separate them now.  Granted, he could do with perhaps a little bit of separation… he grimaced slightly as he carefully extracted his fingers from Floyd’s mouth.  Ugh, they felt utterly disgusting and oddly wrinkly. 

 Honestly, they were going to have to have a long talk about trying to devour him in their sleep.

Of course, that problem was going to have to wait for a moment as they seemed to have much more pressing matters to attend to, such as, where exactly were they? 

A covert glance around through silver lashes showed him that he was in a cave of some sort, though it was the strangest sort of cave he’d ever seen in his life.  Everything was so straight and uniform, with hard angles, creating a jarring sense of artificiality.  After a lifetime of carefully sculpted coral and shell homes or natural occurring grottos, it made him deeply unsettled.  The colours were all dark greys and blacks with the odd gleam of gold catching the eye, creating unnatural shadows everywhere.  At least the darkness was comforting on some level and was a vast improvement over the brilliance of the beach and its blazing sun. 

Floating all around them were strange objects, boxes of some sort, wide at one end and narrowed at the other with a lid designed to swing shut.  Hmm, what he’d initially taken to be a rather shallow cave that they’d tucked themselves into appeared to be rather similar in structure. 

More interesting than anything else was the constant hum of power surrounding them, saturating the very air to such a degree that he could taste it on his tongue and feel it gathering in his lungs as he breathed.  Everything seemed to radiate it, even the box they were in, though it was rather difficult to sort it out from the near cacophony of alien energy, rather like trying to hear a whisper in a crowd.  All of it was so different from the vibrant always shifting magic which surrounded them in the sea.  Constantly ebbing and flowing with the currents and tides, it felt like the pulse of the world.  This?  This was a strange constant, layer built upon layer until it saturated everything, threatening to overload his senses with all the different flavours and textures.

His head was spinning, though he wasn’t sure if it was from the hum of power, residue from the mirror’s spell, or the glorious realization that the ritual had been a success!

He’d done it!  The little stupid octopus that everyone had always shoved around and mocked had managed to travel to Night Raven College!  Sheer delighted giddiness filled him and he wanted so badly to swim around the room, spinning just for the sheer thrill of it as he basked in is unbridled victory!

Unable to quite contain himself, a shiver ran through his body, instantly waking up his companions.  Like him, they remained perfectly still until they could ascertain their immediate safety.  Heterochromatic gazes darted back and forth beneath turquoise lashes, taking in every detail with quick efficiently and he could tell that they’d come to the same conclusion as he had when they each gave him a slight squeeze of reassurance, eyes sparkling in excitement.

Problem two solved.  They were on a roll with this!  Granted, the next issue proved to be a bit of a challenge as all of them glanced covertly towards the far end of the room where three figures stood together, babbling amongst themselves in a rather agitated fashion.  Their words were nothing but rather harsh sounding gibberish to voices long accustomed to the soothing and melodious language of the oceans denizens and it was more than a tad annoying to realize that he couldn’t understand a single word they said. 

Even the patterns made no sense, it was like nothing he’d ever heard before, and judging by the blank looks on the faces of the twins, they were just as confused as he was. 

“Are those supposed to be humans?”  Floyd murmured softly, ensuring that his voice didn’t carry.  It was a talent the twins had excelled at in school, enabling them to completely ignore a lesson yet never once get caught, and they used that skill to its full advantage now.  “That one looks more like one mated with a goblin shark.”  The accompanying soft snicker was more felt than heard and Azul just knew that the twisted eel was no doubt picturing such a disgusting mating.  EW!  Now he was picturing it!

“Thanks.  I’m never getting that out of my head.”  Azul grumbled, carefully reaching for his satchel with slow smooth graceful movements designed to not attract attention.  His eyes never shifted from watching the humans, ensuring that they were still too wrapped up in each other to notice him. 

As much as he hated to admit it, Floyd was right.  The loudest of the humans did have a face resembling a goblin shark; all narrow and angled with a huge protruding snout.  Not happy with merely resembling the shark, this one must have had truly perverse ancestors because it was also covered in strange spiny protrusions, rather like a black lionfish.  What an odd lineage, though he supposed that if he really thought about it, there were some rather odd combinations the deeper one strayed in the ocean.  Perhaps it was the same on land? 

Had humans cross bred themselves with other creatures to become stronger and more diverse?  Was that their special power?  Could their lessons in school have been so hideously wrong?  Granted, he’d expected a certain level of cultural ignorance seeing as how rarely their worlds came into contact, and how hidden away any useful knowledge was, even in this day and age.  Still, this seemed to be something that someone might have noted down… even perhaps theorized about?  Ugh, were all their scholars idiots?

To make matters even murkier, there was a second human who’d clearly been crossed with something like an anemone, though unlike the normally brightly hued actiniaria, this one was all black and white, much like his own true form.  Its monochromatic tendrils covered most of its body, hiding its form from head to foot and even its hair bore the same colouration.  Was it a camouflage?  If so, why were its hands and throat bright red?  Was it toxic or venomous?  How and why would anything want to mate with an anemone?  Were humans that insane?

At least the third one looked more or less how he’d expected; Tall, straight backed and its head topped with tightly bound stone-grey hair.  While this one was clearly the elder, from watching its interactions with the other two, he could see that it wasn’t the leader of the group. 

“Why are they making so much noise?”  Floyd grumbled softly in Azul’s ear, his breath tickling the fine hairs on his neck.  “Blah blah blah… makes me wanna squeeze ‘em just for some peace and quiet.”

“Don’t strangle the humans.  We need them, remember?”  Jade finally spoke up, studying the sounds they were making with rapt intensity, determined to understand their language, or at the very least learn why they all seemed so agitated.  Despite how correct Jade was, Floyd didn’t look at all convinced and still glared at the humans as if they were offending him on some basic level by being so utterly incomprehensible.

“Blah blah blah, why don’t they use real words?  Have they got brain worms?” 

“They’re just speaking the human language.”  Azul murmured, wondering why he was even bothering to explain this when Floyd was most likely just ignoring everything he said anyway.  A sharp jab in his ribs warned him that this in fact wasn’t the case and he risked a glance over, seeing mismatched eyes glaring at him in utter annoyance.

“We can’t talk to fish AND we can’t talk to humans!?  That was the worst potion ever Azul!”  Everyone was a critic.  It’s not as if Floyd could brew anything better.  He’d likely end up turning them all into jellies, and the bastard would probably think it was hilarious.

“It was a first attempt.”  Azul shot back, unwilling to sit back quietly while his hard work was viciously maligned.  “I said I’d refine it for the next batch.”  While he spoke, his hand slowly slid into the satchel and deftly felt around.  The familiar shapes of the various vials and bottles ensured that he didn’t need to see what he was touching to know what it was, and in short order, he located his prize. 

“They’d feel any spells we try to cast.”  Jade warned, his eyes narrowing thoughtfully.  “All three are powerful sorcerers, but the goblin shark… he’s by far the most dangerous.”

“Heh, now you’re all calling him that.”  Floyd giggled softly in delight.  “Besides, we don’t need spells.  We have Azul and he’s got a plan.  That’s his evil plan smirk.”

“I’m not smirking.”  Azul replied, doing his best to wipe the smile off his face, but gave up in short order, he was simply too pleased with how everything was going to fight with Floyd.  Instead, he slowly raised the vial to his lips and deftly popping the rounded stopper. 

“Will this one turn us inside out too?  That wasn’t fun at all and I still have weird dangly bits you know.”

“No, Floyd.  It won’t.  I promise.”  He really hoped it didn’t.  Yet again, this was another of his first attempts.  In his defense, it wasn’t as if he’d had much opportunity to test it prior to their trip and he only had the one vial to split between the three of them.  Seeing as how everything in the ocean spoke a common language, brewing multiple batches hadn’t seemed like a necessity, until they’d learned how limited human vocabulary was.  Stupid creatures, unable to speak to all the surface animals of their world.  It seemed to be rather counterproductive when compared to the sheer versatility of Mermish.  Still, he was confident in the effectiveness of his potion… in theory.

Before he could second guess himself, he took a quick sip of the foul-tasting concoction, forcing himself to swallow it no matter how badly it burned his tongue.  Giving the twins a pointed look, he pressed a fingertip to his lips, demanding silence, then passed the potion to Jade.

Familiar with such games, the eels both smiled and Jade brought the vial to his lips, swallowing a mouthful of the strange viscus blue liquid and grimacing at the foul taste before handing it to his brother. 

Floyd took a moment to stare at it distrustfully, having noticed the looks of disgust on both their faces, but not one to ever be left out, he finished off the vial in one large gulp… then very nearly regurgitated the contents on the other two.

By some small miracle, the moody eel stayed silent, withholding a no doubt scathing critique of the taste and texture, though he did shoot Azul a look of utter betrayal.  Again, Azul pressed his finger to his lips, then pointed towards the arguing humans. 

The potion was a simple one, allowing them to understand the first language they heard, but it could easily be ruined if Floyd blurted out some nonsense or other regarding it tasting like rotting clam innards… which lamentably had been a rather prominent ingredient.

Little by little, the strange vocalizations of the humans began to make sense as the potion rewrote certain pathways in their brains, allowing them to not only recognize, but understand the various patterns in those grunting and screeching sounds which filled the room.  It was rather thoughtful of the humans to be having such an animated conversation as the veritable plethora of words helped move the spell along, etching the rhythms and pacing of each sound into their ears until they began to notice repetitions and inflections which changed with surprising subtlety.

It was rather disconcerting at first, as much-repeated words seemed to pop clearly into their minds from amongst the gibberish, such as “Naked”, and “Lawsuit”.  Neither word made much sense to them on their own as they had no real context behind it, but they continued to listen intently.  Soon, entire sentences were translating themselves for the mer and Azul couldn’t help but chuckle softly at his flawless victory.  Hah!  Take that land dwellers!

“That tasted like old hagfish slime, Azul.”  Floyd hissed after what had to be a new record for silence.  “My mouth even burns like after I eat them.”  Alright, that was profoundly disgusting, and he really wasn’t going to even ask why Floyd would willingly eat such a repulsive thing.  Granted, the slime was indeed one of the binding agents he’d used, but at least he’d taken the time to make it palatable… somewhat.
               “So then, how are we going to proceed?”  Jade asked, deciding that if his brother could speak without being snapped at, then enough time had passed for the language to properly take root.  “We need to learn about this world, but these three seem rather upset about something.  Did we make a mistake in the ritual?  It sounds like we did something unexpected.”

“Hmph, stupid humans, not understanding why we’re in one box.  Don’t they understand that we come as a set?”

“I don’t believe they do Floyd”  Jade replied, amusement colouring his tone and Azul didn’t need to see his face to know that he was smiling that subtle, vicious smile that always made a rather delightful shiver run down his spine.

“Too bad for them.”  Both eels chuckled softly and while Azul desperately wanted to join in on the sinister snickering, he had another job to do.

“Indeed it is.”  He agreed, slipping Jade the now empty vial to hide in the satchel, then slowly sat up, catching the attention of the humans as effectively as if he’d yelled. 

For a long moment, absolute silence reigned supreme, then the goblin shark rushed over, seeming to look everywhere but directly at them, his agitation rising exponentially, and it oddly coincided with a distinct reddening of his cheeks.  Could humans change colour as well?  It was frustrating how did they know so little about these creatures?  When he became an all-powerful Sea Witch, he was going to ensure that the schools of Atlantica put some serious effort into updating their curriculum, because this was rapidly becoming rather unacceptable.

“Ah good!  You’re awake!  How are you feeling?  No pain?  No dizziness?  No missing internal organs?”  That last bit made Azul pause for a moment and give the man a rather confused look…wait, was he sure this was a human male?  How was he supposed to tell with all the seaweed draping their bodies?  Was it rude to simply assume?  He knew that for some odd reason, the students for Night Raven College were all male, but did the same hold true for the staff?   What was the difference between male and female humans?  Sexual dimorphism was rather common in the sea, but he had no idea if it held true on land. 

Perhaps it was best to simply plead ignorance and hope that most of their confusion was due to the lingering effects of the spell?  It was believable enough, but he’d have to be careful not to overplay his hand.

Plastering his sweetest, most innocent expression onto his face and offering a tentative smile, he opened his eyes as wide as possible, hoping to appear as guileless as possible.  To add to the nonconfrontational effect, Azul also kept his head tilted slightly down, angling his body away from the humans.  It was the least aggressive position he knew of, and while such a submissive stance galled him, he was rewarded in seeing the humans seem to marginally relax.  Good, they could understand simple body language, some things did indeed translate across species barriers.   

“I… I’m sorry if we caused trouble.”  His voice was soft, subdued and with the lightest of stutters but was careful not to lay it on too thickly.  Not out of any concern for the human seeing through the ruse, but he didn’t trust Floyd not to burst out laughing. 

It turned his stomach to speak like this as it brought up far too many memories of his childhood, but the humans seemed to like it and smiled at him widely in response.

For a moment, he felt a flash of panic as he saw their teeth, but quickly reminded himself that baring blunt teeth such as theirs would hardly be seen as anything but the most laughable of threats.  With that in mind, he forced himself to relax and smiled back, keeping his own teeth covered… just in case. 

“Oh not at all!  Not at all.  You merely had a … most unusual arrival.  But that’s alright, Nothing is the matter here.  Everything is normal!”  Goblin shark grinned in an almost manic fashion, sounding an awful lot as if he were trying to convince himself of this rather than any of them.  “But.”  He added, seeming to calm somewhat and look at them a little closer, those strange golden glowing eyes of his almost matching those of the twins.  “We’ve never had three students arrive through a single Gate.”  As he spoke, he idly tapped his chin with a hard, shining claw tip.  The way its hard surface reflected the dim light of the room reminded him an awful lot of the tooth they’d pulled out of the ray a day ago.  These creatures just got stranger and stranger.

As the human prattled on in an almost nonsensical way, Azul couldn’t help but think that perhaps they’d severely overestimated these odd creatures.  Sure, they were strange and physically formidable, but they couldn’t truly be so stupid, could they?  No… obviously, they were playing the three mer just as the mer were doing in return.  Each group feeling out the other, testing them in the eternal dance of predator and prey, only here, the battle was mental rather than physical.  They couldn’t risk underestimating their opponents or dropping their guard for even a moment.

Rather than let his suspicions show on his face, he instead glanced over at his companions, as if seeking reassurance, then back at the goblin shark, his eyes still almost comically wide.

“Is it going to be a problem sir?”

“No!  Not at all.  Everything is fine!  In fact, you’re the last ones to arrive… thank the Founders.”  The goblin shark added under his breath before that fake smile was once more plastered on his face. 

“We just need to get you into your robes and to the Hall of Mirrors and then we can put all of… this behind us.”  That false smile widened as he motioned with those strange shining claws towards the box they were in, further confusing the three mer as to what the actual problem was.  Was having three people in one box bad?  He’d thought that humans were social creatures.  Surely this should be seen as a favourable event.  Nothing about them made sense!   At least one thing was clear, the humans wanted them to leave their little shelter.

Nodding their heads in understanding, the three mer youths shared encouraging looks with each other, then Azul carefully detangled himself from the other two and stepped out of the box and stood on shaking legs.  While he looked as wobbly as a newborn foal to the humans, he couldn’t help but feel a warm surge of pride at how well he was doing.  Look at him!  Standing as if he’d been doing it all his life!

“So, we’re not going to ask why they’re naked?”  The striped anemone looking human drawled, tossing each of the youths a bundle of rolled up and woven seaweed.

“We most certainly are Not.”  Goblin shark hissed under his breath.  “Don’t exacerbate things!”

Catching the seaweed in the air, Floyd neatly tossed it back at the anemone.

“No thanks, I’m not hungry.”  He stated, then began working on untangling himself from his brother as nonchalantly as possible.  “It looks like it tastes terrible and I still have hagfish slime in my mouth.  Bleagh.”

“Er… what my companion means to say is that we’re sure it’s delicious… but… we’d much prefer getting to this Hall of Mirrors.”  Azul did his best to clarify while eyeing his own roll of seaweed in confusion.  It was huge and didn’t look at all edible, but most cultures tended to use food as sort of common ground, and it was important to blend in.  Raising it to his mouth, he took a bite, silently praying that it wasn’t going to be too fattening.

Ugh, it was absolutely tasteless, and the texture was atrocious!  While he might not have followed in his parents wake, he certainly he been around food long enough to know when something was utterly inedible… and… why were they staring at him like that?  Maybe… maybe it wasn’t food? 

Glancing around warily, he saw the gobsmacked expressions on the faces of the humans and groaned inwardly.  This wasn’t food.  Lovely.  Now they all thought that the three of them were insane.  Well, they’d likely be right in Floyd’s case, but he was perfectly mentally balanced!

With a horrible feeling of inevitability, he shifted his grip on the roll, allowing it to unfurl, revealing a shape that was sort of similar to the strange materials the humans had draped themselves with.  Ah… of course.  Personal adornments.  Naturally, a culture as primitive as the humans would choose to decorate themselves to show social rank or some such thing.  Well, this was more than a little embarrassing, but in his defense, this was rather outside his realm of expertise.  Trinkets were never the sort of thing that interested him unless there was some magic imbued into it.  To him, power mattered far more than some silly little decoration.  After all, shiny baubles weren’t going to make him look any less of a freak. 

Not even the twins bothered with such things beyond the matching earring they wore, but those were battle trophies, carved from the bones and scales of Shariss, the rather vicious sturgeon who’d thought that he was too large and far too powerful to need to worry about two half-grown eels and their octopus companion.  He’d been the first one to attempt to break a contract with Azul and had been made into a very public lesson for all.  The sharks just beyond the reef had been in a frenzy for nearly a week from the blood alone.   

 The humans were still staring at him in horrified fascination, their minds most likely trying to sort out this new level of strangeness and he couldn’t risk them sending him away.  They needed to be here, to learn and grow as sorcerers so he could become a Sea Witch!

Plastering a wide smile on his face in an attempt to hide how his cheeks were burning from embarrassment, Azul glanced at the Goblin shark, then down at the seaweed adornments.

“Ah.. yes… so… “

“Our deepest apologies.”  Jade cut in, his voice sounding like salvation in the rapidly degenerating series of events.  “It seems that perhaps the ritual did cause some confusion… three people in one Gate… it was a great strain.”  Gently pressing his fingertips to his forehead, he breathed out a gentle if somewhat weary sigh.  Floyd, lacking any such subtlety simply flopped over, nearly falling out of the box.

“Must be a mistake on your end.”  He groaned loudly and Azul noticed the three humans exchange nervous glances with each other.  “We should talk to our parents…”

“No!  no that’s not necessary.”  The Goblin shark practically yelled, his smile every bit as false as Azul’s.  “It was a rather draining spell.  No doubt you’re merely confused and will require a day or so to adjust… there’s no need to worry your parents.  We have the very best medical facilities in the land.”

“If… if you’re sure.”  Azul returned the smile, rather intrigued with where this little tete a tete was going to take them.  Despite their nervous demeanor, there was something about the humans, the Goblins shark specifically which warned him not to take any of this at face value.  No matter, that was how he preferred things anyway, and he’d have been sorely disappointed to have found the faculty here to be anything less than brilliantly conniving individuals.  It would be a great delight to pit his wits against theirs over the next three years.

“Of course I’m sure.  Now then, welcome to Night Raven College.  I’m Headmaster Dire Crowley, this is Professor Crewel and Professor Trein.  He motioned to the anemone and the elder respectively.  “Please, put on your uniforms and come with us.  The Entrance Ceremony is ready to begin!”  With a grand gesture, he motioned towards the door, but the three mer were didn’t hear him.  Instead, they were back to staring at the strange seaweed rolls in their hands, trying to figure out how this would work.  Each of them knew that there was likely some special way to wrap them around themselves, but neither of them had ever worn, let alone seen clothing before today, and the elaborate trappings of the professors were of little help to them. 

It was more than a tad embarrassing to try to sort this out with the weight of the humans eyes on them, but Azul dutifully turned the item this way and that, noticing that it seemed to unfold and had two strange sort of holes in it along with a floppy piece on the end.  Honestly, it looked as if someone had peeled the flesh off of a ray, and that was more than a tad disconcerting.  At least neither Jade nor Floyd seemed to be figuring it out either, that soothed his bruised ego to some degree, but it didn’t do anything towards helping their problem.

“Ugh, this is taking forever.”  The one named Crewel rolled his eyes, stepping forward and reaching out before freezing as all three of the mer stiffened, the twins actually hissing softly in warning. 

“HEEL!”  He snapped in a voice which seemed to reverberate through the room, and it was accompanied by the sharp crack of the crop, causing everyone in the room to jump, including the other professors.   Those pale eyes of his narrowed dangerously and he leaned forward, fixing an icy glare on each twin, daring them to so much as twitch the wrong way.  “I will NOT suffer a little puppy to bare its fangs at me.”  He growled softly, his voice every bit as threatening as a possibly toxic human/anemone could be.  Once the twins both backed off, he turned to fix that cold glare on Azul who was unable to quite stop a soft squeak from escaping his traitorous lips.  “You are all going to stand there like a good pups while I put the robes on you, and then you will walk with me to the ceremony where you WILL stand before the Mirror of Darkness and learn your place in this school.  If any of you so much as attempt to snap at me again…”  Another sharp crack of the crop caused the three of them to jump. 

Azul was well and properly cowed by the blatant threat of violence, backing off quickly and deciding to merely wait and watch while he reassessed the situation.  Jade studied the man warily, eyeing him the way one would a bit of prey which just showed you its lethal spines, while Floyd on the other hand stared at the anemone in awe, delighted with the aggressive display and no doubt eager to see how far he could push them all.

There was no need to know what a puppy was, or why this strange human seemed to think they were ones.  The threat was real enough and none of them were truly ready to respond in kind, no matter how much one of them might want to.  Only an idiot poked a lionfish once it spread its spines.   

Satisfied that his charges were now fully cowed, the professor plucked the cloth out of Azul’s hands and motioned for him to spread his arms.  Still somewhat in shock over the sheer noise and openness of the threat, the young octopus complied immediately.

“We don’t have shoes on hand.  Normally the students simply wrap the robes over their own uniforms, so once you are assigned your dorms, head directly there.  Your luggage will appear in your chosen room.”  Crewel stated brusquely as he slid the odd material over Azul’s arms, then began to wrap it snugly around his body.  It was the most uncomfortable feeling he’d ever had the misfortune to endure and he decided instantly that he hated how it squeezed him far more intimately than Floyd in even his cuddliest of moods.  The weight of it pressed down on his shoulders and he didn’t like how it pulled against his skin, like it was a soft, scratchy shell waiting to be shed.

“Stop pulling at it!”  A sharp tug on the cloth nearly knocked him off balance and caused Floyd to growl deep in his throat, his hands opening and closing as he took half a step forward before Jade’s hand on his shoulder brought him up short.  Neither twin looked at all happy with the manhandling of their little octopus and upon noting their reaction, Crewel gave a tight little smile.   “Rather protective of you, aren’t they?”  He asked, hardly sounding concerned in the least.

“Very much so.”  Azul replied, seeing no reason to deny it after that little display, though relieved that the two had managed to control themselves to some degree.  An attack on one was an attack on all, and none of them were inclined to tolerate such an affront, even now.

“Well, this is going to make for a fun year.  Do keep in mind that puppies aren’t allowed to duel each other with magic on the school grounds, save it for the magift field or be prepared to be sent home so fast that your head will be spinning.” 

Though Azul nodded his head, pretending to know what this strange magift thing was, he knew that both Jade and Floyd would be making it a priority to investigate.  He on the other hand would be making it one of his priorities to understand each and every strange rule this college had.  Let it not be said that their group had ever been caught in breach of the law. 

As the twins parents had been all to happy to point out, every law had a loophole, one merely had to find it and exploit it, but ensure that in doing so, they remained blameless.  If innocence couldn’t be guaranteed, then they had best take pains to guarantee that enforcing the law would be far too costly for those in charge.  Azul had always envied the twins for having such practical parents… parents who understood them.  Unlike his own, who were still convinced that one day he’d run his own restaurant, following in the family business like a good little fry. 

While he’d been drifting mentally, Crewel had been finishing up with his robes and Azul glanced down at himself, not recognizing his cloth draped form at all.  Smooth pale skin and lean muscles had all been completely covered by coarse black material which hung right down to the floor so that only the tips of his toes poked out beneath.  How was he supposed to walk in this thing?  His legs would get all tangled up and he couldn’t see where he was going to be putting his feet!  Angrily, he tugged at it again, trying to loosen it a little even as the professor finished tying some strange sort of long pliable length of cloth around his waist, cinching it tightly enough to make him gasp.

“Now now, none of that.”  Crowley spoke up with a brightly false smile.  “You need to be properly attired for the ceremony.  It’s unnatural enough for you to appear here naked as you did, but we simply can’t allow you to wander about unclothed.  It would be… uncivilized.” 

Azul immediately swallowed what he originally wanted to say, but couldn’t resist giving the cloth another ill tempered and rebellious tug.

“Of course.”  He grumbled, shrugging his shoulders in an attempt to make it stop chafing his skin.  “This is simply… coarse.”  Hopefully that was vague enough to explain his discomfort, and it wasn’t a lie either.  It was so itchy and uncomfortable that he knew he’d go insane if he was expected to wear this for any length of time.  Was this some sort of hazing ritual or were they all merely sadists?  At this point, anything was possible and the one thing he knew without a doubt was that Floyd was going to throw an absolute fit over wearing it. 

“Ah, of course of course, a young gentleman of fine breeding.  Have no fear.  The novice robes are always a tad coarse.  I like to say that it shows humility at one’s entrance.”  Crowley assured him with a wide tooth filled grin that still set Azul on edge.  “The ceremonial robes for the other years are a much finer material.  Why, the Dorm Leaders even have silk!”   While he had no idea what this silk material was, the delight behind the Headmaster’s voice made it clear that one way or another he was going to have these silk robe things by year’s end, no matter who he had to destroy in the process.

“NO!  I don’t wanna wear the weird seaweed skin!”  Floyd whined loudly, stepping awkwardly back when Crewel tried to approach to clothe him.  “It looks itchy and ugly and I’m not hiding myself under it!”

Oh of all the annoying, ill timed moments for him to have a childish burst of temper.  Azul spared Jade a weighted glare, silently ordering his companion to control his brother, but thankfully, the eel was already moving to intercept Floyd who was now racing towards the closed door, still bare of the rather restraining garments.

“FREE!”  He yelled out defiantly.  “I’m free!!”  Snarling something under his breath, Crewel reached into his jacket, producing an odd-looking object topped with a rather lovely purple gem.   The item hummed with an impressive amount of constrained power, causing Azul to draw in a sharp breath, ready to yell out a warning to the twins.

“Look out!”  The tingling of magic turned into a sharp flare of power.  A bright burst of light flew towards the errant eel, but all he did was laugh as the spell missed its intended target, hitting the wall next to Floyd instead.  Swearing loudly, Crewel lunged for the naked youth who’d by now made it to the door and was trying to figure out how to open it.  Before he could escape and cause even more havoc, Jade slammed into him in what might have been a rather impressive tackle, or more likely, was the twins simply tripping over each other.  Either way, the two of them ended up sprawled together in a rather awkward pile of long limbs and foul language.

“Play along with them!”  Jade hissed softly into his struggling twin’s ear.  “It’s the only way we’re going to learn surface magic!”

“But… I don’t wanna cover myself with that.  Look at how Azul is tugging at it.  It looks itchy.”

“It most likely is.”  Jade couldn’t exactly argue that fact when Azul was standing there, the perfect picture of utter misery, wrapped in the heavy itchy folds, his slender body all but obscured from sight.   However, they were in the human world, and would have to play by their rules… for now.  “Are you really going to be defeated by the first challenge?”

“….no.”  Floyd muttered grumpily after a rather long pause.

“Then let’s not end the game so quickly.  Besides, it would make Azul happy, and a happy Azul is a fun Azul, right?”  A golden eye glared up at him sullenly from beneath the dark forelock, then Floyd heaved a rather heavy sigh, as if he’d just been asked to endure some incredible hardship out of the goodness of his heart.

“Fine fine, but this whole thing had better not be boring, or I’m gonna start squeezing people.”  He mumbled, still laying beneath Jade like a long dead fish, all the struggle seeming to have left him in one fell swoop as he capitulated to his brother’s will.

The sharp sound of a hard-soled boot on stone made Jade look up to see Crewel standing over them, robes in hand and jeweled pen in the other.  He didn’t look either amused or impressed by this little farce and judging by the way his thumb was stroking the handle on his crop, the next time he struck something with it, it wouldn’t be his glove.

“Are you two going to get dressed or do we have to bring Vargas in here to wrestle the robes onto you?”  While neither brother knew was a Vargas was, judging by the tone, it wouldn’t be a fun experience for anyone.

“Leave me alone.  I’m dead.”  Floyd mumbled from where he lay on the floor, looking as if he wanted nothing more than to sink into the stones and vanish rather than play along.  “Just a dead little fishy.” 

“My deepest apologies.”  Jade smiled up at the irate human, his expression perfectly mirroring Azul’s earlier look of sweet innocence even as he gave his twin a sharp jab in the ribs with his knuckle under the guise of rising to his feet.  Floyd yelped in response, sitting up with rather impressive speed and snapping his teeth in Jade’s direction.  It was amazing how far less threatening that action was without his mouthful of fangs and Jade couldn’t resist a gentle chuckle at his sibling’s expense.

“My brother is simply nervous and suffering some confusion from our journey.”  He explained smoothly, as if running around buck naked was perfectly normal for all of them.  “We’ll be more than happy to drape ourselves in these… er… fine wraps.”  The human didn’t look convinced, but the one calling himself Crowley smiled widely and clapped his hands together in victory while Professor Trein stepped forward with Jade’s robe, holding it out to him

“Excellent!”  The Headmaster continued, determined to act as if everything was still moving according to plan.  Jade had to admire the man’s tenacity.  All of their previous teachers had usually thrown their hands up by this point and simply left the twins to their own devices, choosing to focus on less troublesome students.  “Up we go then.  Let’s get you dressed, sorted into your dorms, and out of our hair… I mean, comfortable in your new homes!” 

“Yes yes, hurry up puppies, I have better things to do than stare at your naked asses.”  Crewel tossed the cast-off garment back at Floyd, shooting him a look that just dared him to try to throw it back again.  Judging by the look his twin was giving the thing, it was a rather distinct possibility, but Jade placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, giving it a light squeeze.  Glancing over at him, Floyd sighed heavily once more.

“Yeah yeah, I got it.  I’m putting it on.  See?”  He dropped the cloth over his head, the robe hanging haphazardly from his shoulders. 

“Properly Floyd.”  Jade encouraged him, then demonstrated by carefully sliding his arms through the large holes and trying to fold the rest of it around his body.  Ugh, he could see why Azul kept tugging at it.  It clung and rubbed rather uncomfortably, and without his slime or thick skin, it quickly began to become irritating.  Still, he wasn’t going to create such a poor impression on their first day, so quickly fastened the long length of weed around his waist, holding it closed as he’d seen done with Azul.

A quick glance over at his brother showed that Floyd had made no efforts at all to fix himself.  Hardly surprised with the reticence of his twin, rather than wasting both time and energy in a pointless argument, he simply stepped over and began to make the proper adjustments.  Making no attempt to help at all, Floyd simply kept all his limbs as limp as possible, whining pitiably under his breath.  It was a rather pathetic display, but at least he wasn’t fighting Jade on this and was still standing.  He’d take his victories where he could.

“Excellent!”  Crowley clapped his hands together sharply, drawing everyone’s attention back to him as he stood there in the center of the room, acting as if everything was perfectly under control.  Either the man was delusional, utterly oblivious, or messing with all of them.  At this point, Jade wasn’t sure which.  “Now then, let’s join your peers and begin your journey through Night Raven College and the mysteries beyond!”

Both Azul and Jade practically lit up at his words, their curiosity burning in their eyes, though Floyd muttered something unintelligible under his breath, still tugging at his sleeves irritably.  As one, they all followed the Headmaster out of the Gate room and towards the Hall of Mirrors. 

Taking smaller steps, Trein and Crewel deliberately lagged behind.  They watched the carefully placed feet of their newest students, noting how the three of them seemed to drift together, sharing constant yet subtle touches.

“My spell shouldn’t have missed.”  Crewel murmured softly to the other teacher, his eyes narrowed with suspicion.  “My spells never miss.”

“Indeed.  These are most unusual students.  They bear watching.”

“Hmph, that goes for most of the puppies in this oversized kennel.”  Idly tapping his crop against his boot, Crewel began to follow the small procession, Trein matching his long-legged stride with ease.

“So… a Trinity?  I don’t think we’ve ever had one here in the history of this school.”  Trein stated in his soft, even voice, sounding thoughtful, and perhaps a tad intrigued over this newest development.

“You teach history for a living.  Shouldn’t you know this for sure?”

“This isn’t exactly a common occurrence.  I’ll have to research the issue.  There’s more than a century of records to sort through after all, and not all of my predecessors took detailed notes regarding the student body.”

“Lovely, stymied by shoddy record keeping.  Story of my life.”  Crewel groused peevishly.  Trein refrained from comment and continued to walk, noting how the smallest of the trio wobbled, seeming to almost trip for no reason, but the other two quickly caught him, lending him a subtle support. 

More interestingly, neither teacher could ignore how the magic seemed to flow freely through the three of them, rather like the swirling current of a river, a perfect give and take that was utterly unheard of.  To have sorcerers, especially ones so young be so intimately open with each other, they were either absolute idiots, or there was far more going on than met the eye.  The two of them shared a rather weighted look with each other, both knowing what the other had seen.

“Do you think Crowley has noticed?”

“Of course he has, that overgrown buzzard.”  Crewel chuckled elegantly, a slight smirk tugging at his lips.  “The question is, if he’s going to do anything about it, or simply watch, wait, and see if they prove to be as dangerous as I suspect.  Even puppies have teeth after all.”

Chapter Text

In the space of a few minutes, Azul went from not having seen any human in his life, to seeing three, to standing there in a doorway, eyes wide while his jaw hung open and slack as he stared at far too many humans to count.  Yes, he’d known in some abstract way that this was a school which catered to the creatures and that there would be a large number of them… but knowing and truly seeing it for himself were two vastly different things.

They were like a school of lanternfish, clustered together in a way which had to be unnatural for any creature that valued its sanity.  Merfolk might live communally, clustering together for protection against the ever-present dangers of the ocean, but they were all intrinsically selfish creatures, and placed a high value on personal space and freedoms.  As such, even their greatest city, Atlantica was a massive and sprawling monstrosity ensuring that everyone was properly spaced out, with homes tucked away in hidden reefs and grottos.  There was the illusion of privacy, even if it was just another lie among so many others.

The only ones who utterly ignored the need for space were the fry, and for many merfolk, they were little more than a nuisance.  Too many were born every year and too few adults cared enough to bother keeping an eye on the tiny creatures.  Their small bodies got into everything as they drifted about at the mercy of the currents, often floating away from the protection of the cities and into dangerous waters where they were never seen again.  Most never survived to see their schooling days, when instinct would draw them all together and they could be more easily guarded by the adults. 

It had been how Azul had ended up with his own family, having been found hidden beneath some errant pieces of coral they’d been harvesting.  Too small to be out on his own, too terrified to move, and very obviously much too far from home.  Having only recently lost their own little collection of fry to the ravages of the sea, they’d taken in the strange little mer, raising him as their own rather than turning away and letting nature take it’s course.

This crowd of unfamiliar strangers reminded him of the first time he’d joined a school.  Dragged there by his excited parents, eager to show off their chubby little child who hadn’t understood just how different he was from the other little merlings. 

Just remembering how cold he’d felt inside when he’d swum into the grotto and all those heads had turned towards him.  How wide and innocent eyes had all studied him critically from his head down to his many, many long tentacles, spread wide and drifting gently on the currents.   One by one, those little eyes had narrowed, deep disgust that none of them were old enough to understand had risen inside the little merlings as they instinctively recognized the alien among them.  Bewildered by the rejection, little Azul had floated there, his wide smile fading as his chubby little tentacles slowly curled up beneath him.  Turning around, he’d looked for his parents, but their comforting presence was already gone.  He was alone, and he would stay that way for a very long time.

 

For the second time in his life, he stood there, facing a wall of strangers, and while he had no tentacles, he could feel his body attempting to become smaller, to hide away and let their eyes drift elsewhere for easier prey.  It certainly didn’t help that every single one of them was clad in identical hooded robes, covering their bodies and turning them into shapeless masses, bereft of any sort of individuality save for their eyes.  Hundreds of eyes shining from the shadows of those hoods… watching them.  It was like reliving a nightmare and he could feel his confidence wavering.

A strong hand rested on his shoulder, giving it a firm and reassuring squeeze while someone else lightly pressed against his side, leaning forward to rest their head on his other shoulder. 

“They look sort of funny like that don’t they?”  Floyd mused idly, his lips level with Azul’s ear.  “Nothing but black lumps and big eyes.  Sort of like a bunch of scared clams who forgot their shells.  It’s making me hungry.”

The mental image of a giant Floyd floating around, picking up handfuls of the robed masses and shoving them into his mouth made Azul snicker despite himself. 

“Azul has always eaten the stupid clams with us.  Don’t see why you should stop now.”  Tilting his head slightly, he brushed his cheek against Floyd’s, sharing a grateful smile with the eel.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Get moving or I’ll make your dreams a living hell.”  Crewel grumbled irritably, walking past them and making shooing motions with his hands.  “Go stand with the other puppies and stay out of trouble while the Headmaster goes over a few more things with the Dorm Leaders.”  He seemed to be motioning them towards the rest of the rather nervous looking robed youths all clustered tightly together, a huge human stalking back and forth around them, ensuring they didn’t wander away.

Like Professor Trein, he almost appeared to be what they’d expected humans to look like, but they’d never seen one so… swollen before.  Every muscle on his body looked ready to burst and Azul shuddered to think of what sort of strange illness he had to cause such unnatural bulging.

“Hey Divus, is that the last of them?”  The human called out from across the room, his voice booming so loudly than most of the new students all visibly flinched in pain from the sudden sound.  Azul could hear Crewel mutter something under his breath but couldn’t make out what it was.  Professor Trein seemed to understand though, or else was familiar enough with such exchanges as to be able to guess because he gave Professor Crewel a warning look.

“We’re surrounded by students.  Do mind your tongue.”  With that dire warning, the elder professor walked away, heading towards the Headmaster, pausing only to softly snap something at a tall youth wearing rather fine gold trimmed robes who appeared to be asleep against one of the pillars.

Watching his companion desert him, the edge of Crewel’s mouth curled up in a rather harsh sneer as he turned towards the new approaching human who seemed to grow even larger the closer he got.  While he was still shorter than the twins, he easily outweighed both together… a few times over.

“Obviously they are the last or we wouldn’t be starting the ceremony, now would we?”  Crewel snapped out irritably as the bulky human stopped and stared at the trio, his eyes looking them up and down before widening slightly.

“Are they na-”

“I would suggest you direct your questions to the Headmaster.”  The potions professor cut him off before he could finish his observation, already moving to join Trein at the Headmaster’s side.  “I’ve endured all the stupid I can for the day and simply can’t suffer your mouth flapping at this time.” 

If the words were intended to wound, they had the opposite effect and rather than backing away like any sane individual, the huge human instead grinned fondly at the sharp-tongued anemone.

“Come on Divus, why do you always have to be so mean all the time… Hey you!  Don’t poke the Mirror of Darkness!”

“Ah, Vargus, meet Floyd.  He’s your problem now.”  Crewel chuckled evilly and quickly walked towards the Headmaster, eager to be free of at least one headache.

It was at about this moment that Azul realized Floyd was no longer at his side.  Both he and Jade turned around and stared in horror as they saw their erstwhile companion standing in front of a giant gilded mirror which floated on its own in the middle of the room.  Reflecting nothing but fathomless darkness, the chill of pure dark power radiated out of it like a fount, and in front of the hallowed artifact which could only be the fabled Mirror of Darkness, was Floyd, happily poking at the seemingly liquid darkness within the ornate frame and giggling with mad delight. 

 “Oooooh, so cold!”  He all but squealed in glee as the darkness rippled unnaturally under his finger, then clinging to it when withdrawn.  “Jade!  You gotta try this!” 

Professor Vargus just stood there, not quite comprehending what he was seeing or why it was even happening.  Shock clearly had won over outrage, but it was easy to tell that this wouldn’t last for long.  Realizing that something had to be done quickly, Jade and Azul hastened to the other eel’s side, quickly herding him away from the mirror. 

“My apologies for this.”  Jade flashed the huge man… and the Mirror a polite smile, ignoring how his brother squirmed like the eel he was, trying to get back to his newest toy.  Thankfully, both he and Azul, being all too familiar with Floyd herding, each took an arm and kept a tight grip.

“It was so cold!  And tingly!”  Floyd announced, then sniffed curiously at his finger, his face practically lighting up.  “Oooh even my finger smells tingly!  Smell it Jade!” 

“I wasn’t aware that they allowed idiots into the College.”  A snide voice muttered from the crowd of new first years, not even bothering to lower their voice.  “But I suppose that someone has to be the bottom end of the bell curve.”

All three immediately froze, their heads whipping around to fix their eyes on the speaker, singling him out with predatory focus as those nearby wisely took a step or two back.  This wasn’t their fight, and they had no interest in standing against anyone as large as the twins. 

The speaker clearly hadn’t thought that he’d be alone in dealing with the consequences of his actions and was a little late in realizing that he was now standing in the center of a rather large empty circle.  Looking up… then up a little more, he met the pair of icy cold mismatched eyes staring into his.

Unlike the twins, this young human wasn’t impressive at all in appearance and while he was distracted with the obvious threat, Azul got a good look at his face.  Young and soft were his first impressions.  This was a human who’d never had to truly fight for anything or endured any true hardship in life.  His cheeks were soft from regular meals, his lips well formed and plump, though curled into a rapidly fading sneer of superiority.   Large brown eyes were framed by dark lashes, and the pupil within grew wider and wider as something deep in the boy’s brain finally began to register some ancient understanding of danger. 

Though the twins might wear the forms of humans, they were both still every inch a predator, and this was never more true than now as they both drew in deep breaths, memorizing the scent of their prey’s magic.  Even amongst the cacophony of so many different magical signatures, the eel’s brains were still wired for smell and Azul knew that while they might be handicapped in tracking it, they certainly wouldn’t forget it. 

He watched as the boy’s skin grew several shades paler than before, but before the youth could break and run, the twins both turned away, as if no longer interested in their prey.  Familiar with the game, Azul moved with them, matching their stride as they returned to their previous spot by the edge of the crowd, making no attempt to join the others, preferring to watch from the outside like the hunters they were. 

The offending youth took several long and deep breaths as he watched them leave, practically trembling in relief before giving his head a sharp shake.  His face hardened as he did his best to convince himself that it had all just been a mind game.  Nothing more than a stupid power play that he’d fallen for… well, almost.

“Freaks.”  He hissed softly in their direction before crossing his arms over his chest and glancing around at the others who were still keeping some distance.  “What?  They’re just freaky assholes.  Don’t even know why they’re in the school if they can’t follow the rules.”

“I don’t remember reading anything about not poking the Mirror of Darkness.”  A tall and rather well-built youth glanced over at his words.  His voice was low and bearing a slightly melodic accent, while shining eyes which appeared initially to be a beautiful purple with a strange silver sheen woven through eyed him levelly.  A few stray strands of long silvery hair framed his delicate looking face, practically shining despite the shadows of the hood.  “Perhaps I should look into it.”  He mused idly.  “Until then however, I admire his bravery.  It hadn’t even crossed my mind to try such a daring action.”

“Daring?  How about stupid?  What sort of idiot pokes the Mirror of Darkness?  I mean just look at him.  Big as a tree and with that dumb grin on his face?  I bet he hasn’t got two braincells to rub together.”  The sneer had returned to the dark eyed boy’s lips while the youth with the shimmering eyes glanced over at the twins who appeared to be softly arguing with the smaller member of their group.  The one who’d poked the mirror looking amused and not apologetic in the least.

“My old man taught me that you shouldn’t allow first impressions to rule your mind.”  The silver haired youth murmured thoughtfully before turning his attention back to the boy.  “They’re often incorrect and will lead you down terrible paths.” 

“Oh come on.”  The boy argued, waving a hand in the direction of the trio, now thoroughly convinced that he hadn’t been utterly cowed by them mere moments ago.  “The moron is obviously going to just be another stupid Savanaclaw jock.  All muscle and no mind.  You know the type, right?” 

“Are you asking if I know a fool when I see him?”  The youth sighed sadly, shaking his head in disappointment.  “Yes, I believe I do know a fool.” 

“And you might not wish to insult the proud dorm of Savanaclaw.”  A third voice spoke up, dripping with menace and bearing the softest hint of a growl.  “Especially when someone from the Afterglow Savanna is standing right behind you.”  The boy spun around with a rather strangled squeak, coming face to face with a less than impressed beastman.  While they were roughly the same height and build, the newcomer to the conversation exuded a rather impressive menace which was no doubt helped by the low growl still rumbling in the depths of his throat.

Large triangle ears distorted the shape of his hood, giving the impression of horns beneath the coarse fabric and piercing blue eyes watched from beneath the shadows of the cowl.  There was something savage and hungry in their lambent glow as he studied the boy for a moment before a slow smile spread across his face, revealing a mouthful of rather sharp teeth. 

“Funny thing about Hyenas.” The newcomer continued, his bright eyes narrowing as those large ears flattened.  “We’re not too picky about what we eat, but our favourite meal is idiot.”  Lunging forward, his sharp teeth snapped together loudly enough to cause several nearby eavesdroppers to flinch and draw back nervously.

His previous bluster long gone and withered away, the arrogant brown eyed boy squeaked loudly in terror then spun around on his heel.  Knocking several of his peers aside, he raced away, keening in terror as he tried to put as much distance between himself and his newest attacker.    

Rather than pursuing the terrified boy, the young hyena remained in place, happily rocking back and forth on his heels, snickering loudly in smug amusement, those brilliant blue eyes practically sparkling in delight and mischief.  Glancing at the shimmery eyed youth, his grin turned rather cocky and he flashed him a rather jaunty salute. 

“Well, as first impressions go, that jackass isn’t doing well at all.  Whatever dorm he’s in, they’re gonna tear him apart.”  Some more soft snickering echoed up from the depths of his hood before he shrugged nonchalantly, pulling his hood back just enough to reveal a rather youthful, almost boyish face which contrasted oddly with the rather worldly weight behind his eyes.  “Sorry for butting in there, but I just couldn’t stand back and let someone talk trash about my Prince and my future dorm.”  There was a hint of defiance behind his words, as if he were daring the other youth to say something disparaging or condescending.  Instead, the silver haired youth favoured him with an almost shy smile, tilting his head slightly in a show of respect that was as outdated as it was gentile.

“No need to apologize.  I know well the burden of protecting one’s liege and I’m pleased to meet another so honour bound.”  The almost formal sounding cadence to the youth’s words caused the beastman to blink several times in confusion as he cocked his head to the side, re-evaluating his initial impression of this new companion.

“Er… yeah… back at ya an all that.”  Glancing over at where the idiot had pushed his way through the crowd, his ears swiveled back and forth beneath his hood for a moment before he turned back to the taller youth and smiled once again.  “S’cool to meet someone who’ll stand up for the little guy.” 

Both paused at that statement, slight frowns furrowing their brows as they each looked over in the direction of the rather towering figure who’d been the focus of the confrontation, still utterly oblivious to the short-lived drama he’d caused.  The beastman gave a low whistle and chuckled in amusement over the irony of his words.

“Well, you know what I mean.  Damn, wonder what that guy’s been eating.  I ain’t never seen a human that tall, even Mr. Muscle over there looks like a kid standing next to him.” 

“You could always just go over and talk to him.”  The other youth smiled.  “There’s no rules stating that we’re not allowed to interact with each other.”  The young beastman seemed to consider this for a moment, then shrugged noncommittally. 

“Yeah, but if he ends up in another dorm then what’s the point?  Just means that he’s gonna be a pain in my ass later.  Besides, I got a feeling that I’d rather not be on his radar… any of their radar.  There’s something hella freaky about them, like their bodies don’t fit right or something.”  Bright blue eyes continued to study the trio thoughtfully for a moment before shrugging.  Despite the idiot’s words, he was rather sure they wouldn’t be in Savanaclaw, ergo, they would be someone else’s problem. 

Turning back to the rather overly eloquent youth he was chatting with, he grinned widely once again.

“Speaking of hella freaky, I’m Ruggie.  Ruggie Bucchi.  Future proud member of Savanaclaw!”  His bold proclamation earned him a raised silvery eyebrow and wry smile.

“You sound rather confident of that.”

“I’d like to think I was confident about my name.  Been answering to it all my life ya know.”  It was hard not to chuckle when presented with that wide shameless grin over the bad joke, and the other boy didn’t try to fight it, laughing softly along with him.

“Besides, you see these ears?  Ears like this just scream Savanaclaw.”  Pulling back the hood slightly, he displayed the large furry ears proudly. “It’s been my dream to join them!  Survival of the fittest right?  And ain’t no one as fit as a big, dumb, Savanaclaw jock.”

“Are there no beastmen in other houses?”  The shining eyed youth sounded honestly intrigued and Ruggie had to think for a moment on that one.  “Maybe.”  He shrugged thoughtfully.  “Probably just herbivores or bird types I suppose.”  He shrugged, hardly bothered.  “Just like I’m sure we get the odd human who makes the cut.  Course, they’d have to be crazy to wanna live around people who’d just as soon eat them.  I heard Prince Leona ain’t too big on humans.  No offense.”

“None taken, I’m from the Valley of Thorns.  Humans tend to be in the minority there.  A not overly well-regarded minority.”  The youth smiled somewhat enigmatically.  “But I’ve found that at times, it pays to be underestimated, and humans have proven time and time again to be rather surprising.”   That proclamation earned him a low whistle of appreciation from Ruggie.

“Daaaamn, Like, crazy evil fae and dragons and monsters Valley of Torns?  Badass!”

“They’re hardly crazy… merely… unpredictable at times.”

“Unpredictable… mindbogglingly terrifying… tomato tomahto yadda yadda… dammit, now I’m hungry.”  Sighing heavily, Ruggie rubbed his rather empty belly and glanced around for the Headmaster.  “You think they’re gonna start this thing soon?  I heard that the dorms are all throwing welcoming parties, and parties mean food.  I was too excited to eat before coming here and I have no clue how long I was asleep in that damn box thingy.”

“Likely only a few hours, I’m sure you’ll survive.”

“I suppose if it gets bad, I can always eat an idiot or two.  Thin the herd a little.  Oh, hey, I didn’t ask, what Dorm are you hoping for?” 
               “Is it not obvious?”  The youth smiled, tilting his chin in the direction of the hidden Diasmonia students.  Ruggie felt his ears droop slightly in disappointment. 

“Seriously?”  He whined.  “Why?  You seem so nice and you know… approachable.  I’m pretty sure those guys eat people.”

“Oh?  And wasn’t that what you were threatening to do mere moments ago?”

“Well… yeah, but that doesn’t count.  That’s just pecking order shit… and… it’s cute when I do it.  Them?  Not so much.”  Unable to help himself, Ruggie felt his gaze drawn over to the deepest shadows in the room, noting the gleam of many eyes watching from the darkness.  He could feel his fur standing on end and his tail tuck itself tightly between his legs as he noticed that every single one of those eyes seemed to be staring right at him.  Creepy, way too fucking creepy for him to handle.

“Everyone I know and care about calls that dorm home.”  The youth continued, smiling warmly at the darkness and giving those sinister figures a happy if somewhat discreet wave of his hand.  Damned if Ruggie wasn’t positive that he saw one of them return the gesture.  “It’s where I belong.  Besides, I can’t properly protect my liege if I’m in another dorm now can I?” 

There really was no arguing with that sort of logic, especially when he looked over to the side and saw the tall regal figure of Prince Leona himself lounging against the wall, the cowl pulled low over his face to no doubt hide his deadly stare from those around him, allowing him to size up any possible prey without drawing attention.  Dammit, he was so excited that he was squirming like a pup!

“Yeah, I suppose not.”  He stated.  If this strange kid felt even half of the hero worship he did, he certainly couldn’t fault him for wanting to join those creepy ass bastards, especially if he had already grown up in that freaky land where your greatest nightmare could at any given moment knock on your front door and ask for a cup of sugar or souls or something equally wacked out.  Ugh, it made him shiver just thinking about it!

“It’s a shame that we likely will not be under the same roof.”  The youth stated, sounding honestly saddened by the statement, as if they’d somehow achieved some sort of bond during this brief exchange.  The very thought of it made Ruggie perk up his ears in mind confusion.  “You seem to be a rather decent sort Mr. Bucchi.”

“Mr?  Hahahaha!  I ain’t Mr. anything.  Just Ruggie works.  Actually, I don’t even know your name.  You got a name, or shall I refer to you as Mr. Future Terrifying Bastard?”

“Silver.”  He nodded his head, waiting for the rest of it, but it seemed like his companion had said all he was going to on the subject.  

“No last name huh?  I mean… I was joking about the whole bastard thing… shit, I’m sorry man…”  Not that being a bastard meant much in the Afterglow Savannah, but he’d heard that humans tended to get weirded out about shit like that… he was willing to bet those crazy ass faeries were even worse.

“No offense is taken.”  Silver flashed him a warm and open smile.  “It’s simply the name I was given when I was found.  I’ve never felt the need for anything more.”

“You know, it sorta sucks that you’re gonna be in another dorm.  I kinda like you, and I never thought I’d ever say that about a human.”

“I rather enjoy your company as well.  You’ve proven to be more interesting than your usual big dumb jock.”

“Well… you know, short, sneaky and full of surprises works rather well too.  Anyway, I’m gonna go and scare that loudmouth asshole a few more times for fun before they start this whole dog and pony show.  It was nice meeting you Silver, and I look forward to kicking your spooky Diasmonia ass in Magift.”

Silver met his grin with one of his own and nodded his head in acceptance of the challenge.

“Until we meet on the field of battle then.”

 

“What part of blending in did you fail to understand?”  Azul hissed at Floyd, his gaze darting around to take note of how many people were currently staring at them.  The answer was… a lot.  Far more than he was comfortable with at this particular moment.  Worse, Floyd simply yawned and shrugged, completely unbothered by the whole ordeal.

“Meh, blending in is boring, and it’s obvious that we won’t no matter how hard we try, so we should just stand out on our own terms.  You know, like at home.”  His words struck the octopus deeply and Azul’s next reprimand died on his lips as he stared up at the much taller eel.  “I mean, you tried and tried right?”  He continued, glancing lazily around at the crowd, flashing the eavesdroppers a wide grin that was still surprisingly menacing despite the blunted teeth.  “Look how that turned out.  Their rules won’t work for us.  We’re from a different layer of the ocean and they’ll know we don’t belong, just like they always do.  So let’s use the weapons they give us.”

“He does have a point.”  Jade all but purred as he leaned against his brother, his eyes idly drifting over the crowd for easy marks and finding a rather surprising number of prospective playthings.  So many people eyeing each other suspiciously, so much greed and envy, so much raw want.  They’d have a field day once they were settled in.

“I know…”  Azul begrudgingly agreed, his eyes already narrowing thoughtfully as his duplicitous mind began sorting out all the pros and cons in this strategy.  Jade was more than happy to leave him to it.  Such focus on tiny details were one of Azul’s strengths and he often found little things the twins might miss in their eagerness for the hunt. 

“Ugh, your thinking is giving me a headache.”  Floyd grumbled more to himself than anyone else.  “I’m gonna go poke some more stuff and see what swims out.”  Brushing against them affectionately, he wandered off into the crowd as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

“He’s in a good mood today.  I was worried that he was going to starting biting people after that stunt in the other room.”  Azul muttered softly, causing Jade to smile in amusement.

“Floyd was just doing what we both wanted to do and you know it.”  The other twin stated, favouring his brother with a fond smile before turning to the octopus.  “You’re still tugging at your robe by the way.”  There might have been a small bit of satisfaction to be had in how quickly Azul dropped his hands, taking a moment to glare sullenly at the floor.

“Well… it’s itchy.”

For a long moment, the two of them stood in companionable silence, watching Floyd happily wander up to complete strangers and start chatting, hardly caring if they talked back or not, so long as he was amused by the interaction.  No mention was made of what Azul was going to decide.  Jade was content to wait, fully confident in the tactical brilliance of his companion and willing to follow whichever interesting path he led them down.  Instead, he idly mused about how exactly their transformation might have altered the octopus’ thinking patterns.  After all, like the cephalopod he drew his ancestry from, his brain wasn’t merely confined to his head, but had been spread all across his body, most notably in his long tentacles, enabling them to act completely independently from the rest of his body.  Watching him write several spells out at once had always fascinated him and he’d happily spent hours watching them twist and weave through the water.

Had his brains shrunk down to fit solely in his skull, or had those sections merely withered away with his other appendages?  Asking was of course out of the question, but it did make things even more interesting.  What other things had changed in their bodies?  While the exterior alteration were blindingly obvious, what about the internal ones?  Feeling hot blood pumping through his veins was certainly an interesting sensation, though he wasn’t impressed with how slow and weak he felt compared to his usual physical prowess.  Even more annoying was the loss of his phalangeal jaws.  It made eating much more complicated as these human teeth simply weren’t made for tearing through meat the way he was used to.  In all honesty, he couldn’t wait for Azul to come up with a more tailor-made potion for them all.  In fact, the sooner, the better.

“I agree with Floyd.”  Azul spoke up, catching Jade’s attention immediately, though they both continued to watch the crowd.  “While I don’t believe we should simply throw caution to the wind and treat this exactly like home, I do believe that we should embrace our… eccentricities.  If you expect to see an oddity, and are presented with it often enough, it becomes a norm and is more easily overlooked than something unexpected.”  An interesting strategy for an octopus to propose.  Azul was rather excellent at being unnoticed when he wished to be, and his instincts were certainly well honed in that regard.  To propose something so… out in the open was shocking and appealed to Jade’s sense of humour.  There was no doubt that Floyd would gladly go along with it with every ounce of enthusiasm in his overgrown body.

“So, we desensitize them.”  He stated and was rewarded with that deliciously evil smile from the slender little demon at his side, then his mind skipped onto another track and he saw the true genius behind it.  There were endless levels to all of Azul’s plans and uncovering them had always been one of his favourite pastimes.

“You’re using a grouper to hunt.”  The smile grew wider and more devious despite those round and all too innocent eyes which stared up at him sweetly, as if a wicked thought had never ever darkened that vicious mind.

“Indeed I am…little grouper.”

“Little?”  Jade raised an eyebrow, chuckling softly.

“We’re never going to be able to get Floyd to act in a way which doesn’t attract attention.”  Azul shrugged nonchalantly, having long ago accepted that inevitability and was more than able to turn it into a strength.  “And you stand out with your sheer height and physical presence.  The two of you will keep everyone off balance well enough without even trying.”

“And when they swim into the coral, our little eel will grab them?”

“Floyd will love it, admit it.”

“Indeed he will, and seeing as how we’ve already made rather remarkable headway in making spectacles out of ourselves I suppose we should accept the inevitable.”  It was impossible not to sound thoroughly amused and he allowed a smile to tug at his lips as he tilted his body slightly, pressing against Azul’s shoulder.  The feeling of coarse material between their bare flesh was jarring and unnatural.  He couldn’t wait until they were in their new dorms so they could shed these itchy things and be comfortable again. 

“You can smell it, can’t you?”  Azul murmured softly, leaning against him, sliding his hand beneath the wrap in Jade’s robe to stroke across the bare flesh of his side, causing the eel to sigh softly in pleasure at the comforting touch.  Jade felt himself relaxing a little as those familiar fingers brushed across his skin and that smooth voice caressed his ears as it whispered plots and schemes.  “There’s so much need here.  So much twisted desire and jealousy, everyone wanting what another has… willing to do anything to take it… willing to sacrifice anything for the quick victory.”

“Mmm the air is thick with it.”

“I want you two to be personable.  No one knows us here, so it’s perfect.”  They all knew the game well enough to not need further instructions.  Jade and Floyd would be the lures, Azul would be the jaws of the angler.  It was their favourite game and while he couldn’t wait to play, he knew that these were uncharted waters.  They’d have to take their time to ensure they dangled the perfect bait. 

Everything was so different here on the surface.  Jade had always considered himself to be rather worldly as far as merfolk were concerned.  He and Floyd had often joined their parents on trips down to the Twilight and Midnight zones of the ocean, braving the countless dangers of the lightless depths that would leave the light loving merfolk too terrified to move.  They’d seen countless settlements which made up the sprawling expanse of Atlantica and explored the hazardous glacial caves of the northern waters with Azul at their side.  Through it all, they’d met hundreds of strange creatures, some benign, others terrifying even by the eel’s standards. 

These humans carried themselves like the common fish, everything laid out in the open, so trusting in their safety and ignorance, believing that their fledgling magic set them apart because they could cast a few cantrips.  As Azul had said, they practically screamed out their needs to the eel, begging them to sweep in and lead them to the benevolent Sea Witch who would grant their each and every dream… for a small price.

While the fools were plentiful, it was wise to not forget about the other predators that swam in these waters.  He could see them here and there throughout the crowd.  Their faces were guarded, their magic much more honed and their eyes were just as watchful as his own.  Still, not even they were immune to petty jealousies and desires.  Quite the contrary, it merely required a little more effort to coax them out of their little caves.  These were rich hunting grounds indeed and he had no doubt that by the end of their education here at Night Raven College, they’ll have discovered that secret which made the humans so powerful, and taken it for their own.

As if drawn by his own predatory thoughts, Jade found his shoulder stiffening slightly and his lips tightening as he felt someone’s attention turn in his direction.  They were good, an experienced hunter who knew how to study their prey without alerting them to their scrutiny.  It was only due to Jade’s experience of living in the hazardous depths, where sensing the intentions of others often meant the difference between life and death, that he noticed anything at all.  Even then, it was more the focus of magic which had initially tipped him off.  Someone had activated a sensory enhancement spell and was trying to listen in on their little conversation.  How adorable.

“You seem to have made a friend.”  Azul stated, his hand giving a small, almost negligent wave as he called up a small charm, scattering the focus of their audience, preventing them from hearing them properly.  It was such a simple and subtle spell, wrapping the ambient noise more tightly around them.  Most wouldn’t even know that the spell had been cast, but Jade had no doubt that their curious interloper would realize what had happened, and taken the warning for what it was.

“And you just ensured his continued attention.”  Though there was a tone of mock disapproval in his voice, Jade couldn’t help but smile, eager to see how this little hunt would progress.  “Who was it?”  There was no way that Azul would make such a bold move without having already identified the threat and taken its measure.

“One of the second years by the window, standing with those bathing in the moonlight though he’s in the shadows.  His magic has a hunger to it, but also a sense of patience.  He’s used it to hunt and kill before.”  

“Ah, and now he wants to hunt us?”  It was impossible to keep the smile of anticipation off of his face so he hid it by nuzzling Azul lightly, his touch teasing and gentle while his words earned him a light chuckle.  “Ambitious.”

“How nice that you’ve found a new toy already.  Do try to keep this one in one piece for a while.  He might prove useful.”

“Mmm I’ll see what I can do.”  Jade murmured noncommittally before glancing out of the corner of his eye towards the darkened corner where his quarry hid.  The sense of scrutiny had passed, but he wasn’t fooled by the lack of attention.  Azul’s spell had shielded them, but Floyd was away from the other two, and Jade felt a protective twinge of irritation at the thought of someone daring to size up his twin.

Unable to help himself, he glanced over in Floyd’s direction and saw him happily chatting with a rather furious looking robed figure barely larger than a merling.

“Oh dear, I believe Floyd is about to get bitten.”  Azul observed dryly, making no immediate move to head over and protect the errant eel, leaving Jade to roll his eyes as he reluctantly pulled away from the octopus.  Standing out might be an inevitability, but there was no reason to openly provoke attention… at least not anymore than they already had.

“I’ll go rescue him.” 

“No need to rush you know, he’d probably enjoy it.”

“And judging by that shade of crimson the human is turning.  It’s likely toxic.”

“Dare I dream?”  Jade chose to ignore the snark and cut neatly through the crowd, Azul trailing lazily in his wake.  Noticing their approach, Floyd looked over at them and grinned from ear to ear, waving his arm for their attention.

“Jade!  Azul!  Look!  They come in mini!”  He gleefully announced, causing many nearby humans to snicker rather loudly.  The diminutive human he was currently towering over however glared wrathfully up at him, slate grey eyes as smoldering as a volcanic vent and his skin was turning an even more alarming shade of crimson.  Could humans do that?

Age old instincts which warned of the sudden onset of bright colours made the other two mer hasten their approach, ready to pull Floyd back from danger.

“I am NOT mini!”  The small human snarled, his little hands curled tightly into fists.  “You’re merely freakishly tall!”  He looked as if he was at the end of his patience, an expression rather common with anyone having to deal with Floyd for any length of time.  It was a feeling Azul knew quite well, but rather than feel any sympathy for the diminutive human, all he felt was relief that it wasn’t him this time dealing with the foolishness. 

“Can I keep him Azul!?”  Ah, it seems he’d spoken too soon and now it was back to being his problem.

“I AM NOT A PET!”  For someone so small, they certainly had rather impressive lung power and Azul couldn’t help but wince at the sheer volume even as he noticed several nearby students take a few steps back.  Did they know something he didn’t?  Was the human about to explode? 

“But you could be.”  Floyd grinned, reaching out to pet the small human on the top of his hood, but Jade caught his hand and gently pulled it back, shooting Azul a look which clearly said Fix this.  Without a word, he quickly began herding his brother away from the rather volatile… and possibly combustible human, leaving Azul to clean up the mess.

All too familiar with the routine, Azul entered the blast zone and plastered his best fake smile on his face as he looked down at the diminutive ball of fury.

“I do apologize for my companion.”  His words died in is throat as he felt the wave of heat surround him, prickling at his skin in warning.  This young human had power.  A LOT of power.  It made the air sizzle in around him and Azul had to fight to keep from grinning greedily at the little wellspring of magic.  No wonder he’d caught Floyd’s interest.  The exuberant eel always did seem drawn to the most dangerous thing in the area.

Without even thinking about it, Azul’s fake conciliatory smile shifted into one which was much more genuine, and he willed himself to relax, not wanting to set this lovely little gift from Poseidon off unintentionally. 

“Floyd meant no harm, he’s just rather excitable.”  He explained, keeping his voice pitched low and soothing without being overtly obvious about it.  “He tends to gravitate towards the most interesting person in the room, and that unfortunately happened to be you.” 

While the little human didn’t appear to be at all mollified, the alarming colour of his face did begin to fade somewhat, hinting at a possible return to its normal colour. 

“Your attempts at flattery are noted.”  The human huffed coldly, his eyes bright with suspicion and simmering anger.  “However, there is a certain level of decorum which one should always observe during solemn rituals such as this.”

“Solemn?  I admit, there is a certain weight to all of this, but I’d hardly call it that.  Did someone die when I wasn’t looking?”

“Not yet…”  The small youth muttered under his breath, casting another glare in Floyd’s retreating direction.  “But that is beside the point.”  He continued, raising his voice once more, indignation filling its depths.  “One cannot act as if this were an unbirthday party, this is a sacred ritual which will decide the course of our education for the next three years!  Our Dorms will define us and those around us.  They reflect our values, our strengths and our ambitions.  How could you not take it seriously?”

Taken somewhat aback by the near fanaticism behind the statement, Azul merely stared at the youth for a long moment.  As far as he’d learned through his studies, the Dorms chosen for them merely were guides, places where like could blend with like in a comfortable environment.  They were hardly a rigid set of values laid out by the Founders… more like… guidelines.  Granted, saying that likely would only infuriate this little ball of blind devotion.

“It’s all about discipline.”  The human continued fervently, his eyes shining with passion as he spoke.  “Rule Number 451 of the Queen of Hearts dictates that one must always act with the utmost respect and decorum at all times.  Except during croquet, then it’s no holds barred.”  Ah, now it made sense, the little human was insane.  Well, after years of dealing with Floyd, this should be simple enough to navigate.

“In that I can agree with your Noble Queen.”  Azul smiled.  “Without respect and decorum, we are nothing but fools wandering about.  A certain level of discipline is to be expected, especially when wielding magic, or else it will eat you alive.”  His own unique magic was a perfect example of that, and he always had to be on his guard, chaining it carefully beneath a mountain of rules, lest he lose himself to its greedy hunger.

It seemed that he’d said the correct combination of words because the small human brightened visibly and nodded his head, a look of relief spreading across his pretty boyish face at the realization that there were others here who understood his views.

“Exactly!”  He exclaimed in delight, suddenly looking like a youthful and excited child of 16 rather than an old and dour man trapped in a young body.  “Discipline is at the heart of everything!  The instant you grow lax with it, everything begins to unravel.  First, it’s skipping assignments, then it’s missing classes and failing tests.  Before you know it, you’ve been expelled and your future is forever tarnished!  Everything in life requires discipline, from how we dress, how we study and even how we eat.”  That last statement caused Azul to wince slightly as he couldn’t help but remember the chubby useless little thing he’d once been and how hard he’d struggled to gain the sleek figure he now enjoyed.  Floyd used to tease him about dieting the hard way when he could just as easily make a deal with some fool for their slender, toned body and be done with it.  He didn’t understand how easily such a thing could be lost once more without proper maintenance and care.  Both eels had strong metabolisms, burning off the food they ate with ease.  Neither of them had ever experienced what it was like to struggle just to swim, to hear the laughter of others as they pulled at your tentacles until you could feel flesh beginning to tear…

“Yes.”  Azul murmured softly, glancing away from the boy for a moment in order to compose himself once more.  “It is truly a great and powerful virtue which must be maintained vigilantly.”

“Hmph, it’s about time someone agrees with me.  Che’nya keeps insisting that I need to loosen up and relax, enjoy life as if comes rather than fretting over the details, but what does he know.”  The human scoffed, crossing his arms over his chest angrily.  “Sometimes I don’t know how we became friends.  He’s nothing but trouble.”  Not knowing who this new person was, or precisely what a friend was, Azul simply nodded his head, encouraging the other boy to keep speaking.  “I mean, look at them all!”  The boy’s voice turned harsh as he gestured with one hand towards a large group of robed second and third years who were lounging against the wall in somewhat lackadaisical rows.  “The Queen of Hearts would be absolutely apoplectic over the state of her House.  Lounging around in public, looking half asleep and talking amongst themselves at such an important ceremony.  They should be standing at attention with no less than two feet between them.  Look at that tall one over there!  His top button isn’t even fastened beneath his robes!”

 Azul glanced over, unsure who exactly was being singled out for the small one’s wrath, but impressed nonetheless by his devotion to his cause, even if it was a tad… alright, a lot overblown.  Floyd had indeed found a rather interesting catch.  So much anger, so much pride… the poor unfortunate soul, he was practically begging for Azul’s help.

“And are we not also standing around and talking amongst ourselves?”  Azul couldn’t help but ask, earning himself a rather murderous glare before the boy turned away, muttering softly.

“Dammit, it must be contagious or something.” 

“If you prefer, look at it more as you educating a peer.”  He smiled helpfully at the rather torn youth.  “Is that not a worthy cause?” 

“Yes… I suppose, but there’s no excuse for breaking the rules.  Rule number 1 of the Queen of Hearts.”

“And by your statements, you’re hoping to be chosen for Heartslabyul dorm?”  As if that wasn’t blindingly obvious, the boy practically screamed it.  Honestly, he’d never met anyone so uptight in his life.

“I WILL join it.”  He was corrected primly.  “Wishing has nothing to do with it.  Only fools sit back and hope that fortune will bring them their dreams.  Powerful Sorcerers and Queens MAKE their will happen.”  This human was so absolutely fascinating that Azul couldn’t help but find himself liking him.  There was so much pride, ambition and drive bottled up in that boy that he was likely going to explode one day.  Pity that he had no understanding of even the simplest forms of subterfuge.   His honest and straightforward nature went totally against Azul’s personal tastes. 

“Strong words, they speak well towards your quest for discipline.”

“And we’re back to flattery?”  Large grey eyes narrowed in suspicion.    “I can’t help but find myself wondering what your interest in me is.  It’s not as if we know each other.”

“A problem easily remedied.”  Azul smiled widely, keeping the expression friendly and devoid of any visible ulterior motive.  “I’m Azul Ashengrotto, and it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”  For several seconds, those innocent eyes stared at him, trying to understand what possible motive he might have.  Rather than glancing away, Azul simply widened his smile and held the gaze, confident in his mask. 

“Riddle Rosehearts.”  The boy said at long last, his tone implying that he expected the name to be recognized on some level.  A momentary flash of confusion flitted across his face when he was met by Azul’s blank stare.   “You haven’t heard of my mot-”

“Oh!  Are we actually allowed to introduce ourselves?”  Whatever he’d been about to ask was interrupted as another robed figure practically hopped into their midst, bubbling with excitement and staring at them both with wide garnet red eyes set in warm golden-brown skin.  “That’s great!  I’ve been so bored having to just stick with only talking to Jamil.  HEY JAMIL!  WE’RE ALLOWED TO TALK TO PEOPLE!”  He yelled across the crowd of robed first years, making Azul wince and Riddle swear softly under his breath. 

Both Azul and Riddle stared at the newcomer in a perfect mix of shock and horror.  One unable to handle the sheer lack of decorum in the over exuberant greeting while the other struggled to grasp the utter lack of subtlety in the greeting.

“I thought we were all supposed to be all spooky and mysterious.  Ugh, how boring right?  Hey, your hair is almost the same colour as mine!”  His hand flew out, pointing straight at Azul’s face, causing the startled mer to take half a step back, his hands rising up to pull his hood down lower over his face, suddenly feeling rather uncomfortably exposed despite the wide and joyous grin on the strange youth.  “I wonder if we’re related.  Nah, you’re so pale.  Both of you are!  I never even knew that people could be so pale before I got here.  Jamil says that I’m too sheltered.  That’s why I’m here though, to learn about the world!” 

Whatever Azul did, he had to make sure that this chattering buffoon never EVER met Floyd.  The resulting cosmic implosion of sheer foolishness would doom them all!  Either that or Floyd would strangle him within thirty seconds just to shut up his inane babble.

There was the faintest hint of a pause as the boy threw his arms out wide, as if to encompass the world he so grandly spoke of, nearly poking out the eye of one bystander and knocking the hood off of another.  Neither seemed to register with the newcomer and Azul drew in a breath, hoping to perhaps politely back out of this rather unwanted interaction, but the garnet eyed imbecile continued to prattle on, barely even pausing for breath.

“I was originally supposed to go to the Royal Sword Academy.”  He seemed to be utterly oblivious to the growing looks of horror on the faces of the other two youths.  “It’s quite well reputed and they were practically crawling over themselves for my application, but I couldn’t leave poor Jamil, he wouldn’t know what to do without me.  Oh, did you know that you’re not wearing shoes?”

It took a few moments before Azul’s spinning mind warned him that he was being addressed and noticing the that the loud human was staring rather pointedly at his toes which were peeking out from the bottom of his robe, stark and pale against the black stone of the floor.

“I… er… yes?”  Azul had no clue what the yappy boy was talking about, but figured that it likely referred to some other sort of drapery or accessory for feet.  Next to him, Riddle also glanced down, then flashed him a look of confusion.

“Why aren’t you wearing boots?”  The bemused redhead asked rather than beating a retreat while he had the chance.  Glancing between the two of them, Azul scrambled mentally for an answer that could sound halfway feasible.

“Well… I find that it’s much more comfortable to go without.”  He replied, doing his best to sound as if this sort of thing was perfectly normal and desperately hoped that he was correct about it being some sort of foot covering they were referring to.  “Avoiding boots allows me to properly feel the power sleeping within the stones beneath my feet.  It creates a conduit, allowing the magic in the room to flow into my body, unimpeded by artificial drapings.”

Riddle gave him a somewhat incredulous look, rather sure that if that were a thing, he’d have read a study published on it somewhere.  Garnet eyes however widened so much that they were practically round, and he leaned forward, making a soft squealing sound reminiscent of a dolphin who’d just acquired a rather impressive hernia.

“That’s SO AWSOME!”  He gushed with such open honestly that it was actually rather embarrassing, and Azul tried to tug his hood even lower, pondering the merits of casting another subtle distraction spell.  “I have to try it!”  The boy immediately lifted up his robes, showing that he was wearing yet another set of garments beneath, though these ones at least were somewhat loosely shaped like his legs.

“What are you doing?”  Riddle hissed, reaching out and trying to pull the boy’s robes back into proper place.  “You simply cannot undress like that during the Entrance Ceremony!”  He sounded utterly scandalized and the boy froze, those huge guileless eyes growing even wider.

“I can’t?”

“NO!  It’s against the… well… I don’t know if there is actually any rule against it, but there should be!”  Riddle’s cheeks were growing a brilliant crimson once more and he turned to Azul, silently demanding that he back him up on this.

“Riddle is right.” Azul replied smoothly, eager to put a stop to this foolishness before it went too far.  Too many faces were already turning in their direction and he could see the huge swollen human glaring in their direction from where he stood, Jade and Floyd next to him… neither looking overly thrilled over their placement.  “We obtained special permission from the Headmaster to dress as we have.”  Not a complete lie, the goblin shark had been the one to give them these robes, stating that they were adequate.  “If you removed your shoes, it would no doubt cause some level of commotion, and this is a most important ceremony for us.  We should do all we can to ensure it proceeds smoothly.”  The grateful look Riddle shot him was worth every bit of crestfallen pout he received from the noisy human.  Honestly, how did this little imbecile end up in a school as prestigious as Night Raven College?  Either this boy had more in common with Floyd than he thought, and was secretly brilliant beneath the complete lack of social skills, or his parents had given the school a rather impressive bribe.  At this moment, Azul was leaning heavily towards the bribe theory. 

“But… isn’t the floor cold?”  The boy looked down at the floor and Azul’s bare feet once more, his pale brows furrowing in concern.  “I mean, it’s stone right?  And stone is so cold, especially here in this country.”  His whole body gave a rather exaggerated shiver, leaving Azul once again, utterly baffled.  As far as he was concerned, it was still rather uncomfortably warm, made more so by his robes keeping him cocooned in his own body heat rather than letting it be properly dispelled.

“I honestly haven’t noticed.”  Azul managed a somewhat nonchalant shrug.  “The cold never bothered me anyway.”  Glancing around, he looked back at the twins, silently demanding that they come and help him, but the burly professor standing guard over them flashed them both a warning glare.  All Jade could do was smile and shrug, though truth be told, he didn’t look all that put out over not swimming to the rescue.  Bastard.

“You’re lucky.  I’ll never get used to it.”  The little fool continued to prattle on happily, even as both Azul and Riddle began to inch away, only to find him following along with them.  “In the Land of the Hot Sands, it’s very warm… Oh, I suppose you sort of figured that out from the name.  Ha!  I never really thought about it like that.

Anyway, there’s a dorm here, Scarabia, and it’s styled after the Land of the Hot Sands!  They’ve even tried to keep the traditional designs of the palaces of the Sultans of legend!  I can’t wait to see them, even if they do make me a little homesick.  Jamil told me all about it and I was so jealous that he’d get to stay at home even while he was in school… well, sort of.  There’s even a desert and oases and everything!  You’re going to have to come see it!  We’ll host a big dinner and a parade and it will be wonderful!”

“Perhaps, Master Kalim, you shouldn’t be inviting strangers over to Scarabia until you’ve formally entered the dorm?  I would also advise that you speak to the Dorm Leader as well prior to organizing parades.  They might take offense and you don’t wish to create the wrong impression.”  A softly spoken figure stepped up to the wide-eyed chattering nightmare and Azul could see warm brown skin and cold dark grey eyes beneath the hood, glaring at them with open suspicion.  Darkest Depths!  Salvation!  This had to be the previously mentioned Jamil.  Never had Azul been so grateful to see a human, nor had he ever felt so much pain on behalf of another.  To have to listen to such inanities day in and day out.  He’d go mad. 

“Is this yours?”  Riddle asked tersely, gesturing towards the overly excited youth, disdain dripping from his every word.  Azul had to admit, while this Riddle could be as tactless as Floyd on a bad day, at least he was quick to regain his footing.

“On no!”  Kalim giggled in absolute delight.  “Jamil belongs to me.  He’s my servant and my best friend!  His family has served mine for generations!”

“Indeed Master Kalim, but perhaps you should rein in some of your… exuberance?”  Jamil took a deep bracing breath, looking for all the world like a man seeking to hold onto his inner calm while endeavoring to stop his erstwhile companion from spilling all of their secrets to complete strangers.  So this is what he and Jade looked like when trying to contain their third.  Well, he hoped he never sounded quite as exasperated as this Jamil fellow did.

“Wait, you’re a servant?”  Riddle’s lip curled slightly at that, causing Azul to arch an eyebrow in curiosity at the unfamiliar term, especially when coupled with the rather visible disdain.

Instead of backing down at the open show of derision, Jamil met those wide grey eyes calmly, as if he were already bored with the conversation and such emotional displays were beneath him.  In his place, Kalim was the one who took the most offence, stepping up to Riddle and glaring down at him indignantly.  The expression of vapid delight which had, up until now filled his face fell away, leaving a rather stern mask of disapproval in its place. 

“His family are the highest level of servants!  They’re honoured and respected for their service to my family and he’s my best friend in the whole world!”  Several heads turned at the sound of the raised voices and Azul continued to try to keep his hood pulled down low, not wishing to play any part in this little farce. 

Floyd was right, they were doomed to stick out and draw attention to themselves no matter what they did.  It was as if chaos followed in their wake, trying to upset all his carefully plotted plans.   

“Indeed.”  Jamil agreed, his voice still perfectly calm and level despite what must have been a rather grievous insult judging by Kalim’s reaction.  “It’s my honour and duty to serve the house of Al-Asim.”  A gentle smile touched his lips as he bowed politely to his fiery companion who huffed loudly at Riddle, then grinned broadly at his companion.

“Ah, forgive me.  I had no idea you hailed from such a noble lineage.”  Riddle honestly sounded contrite and then even went so far as to lower his upper body, placing himself in a position of great weakness.  There was a sort of sense of ritual in the action and Azul couldn’t help but stare once more in confusion as Riddle gave him a rather pointed look, subtly motioning for him to mimic the strange gesture.  Was this a thing?  Was he expected to take part in this strange groveling ritual?  Yeah, that wasn’t happening.  He’d fought hard for every scrap of pride he had, and there was no way that he was going to act as if he’d just been beaten in battle because of a simple name.

Rather than abase himself, he chose to embrace his inner Floyd and simply gave his head the slightest of nods.

“A pleasure to meet you.”  There was no reason to be rude after all, but there were limits to manners and some lines weren’t going to be crossed no matter how much Jamil glared at him for his “lack of respect.”  Thankfully, Kalim didn’t appear to be at all bothered by this and instead once again threw his arms out wide, as if expecting to embrace them.

“It’s great to meet you guys as well!  I’m sure we’ll all be great friends!”

“Sire… they likely won’t be members of the Scarabia dorm.”  Jamil’s words of caution fell on deaf ears as Kalim was had already taken off on yet another joyous rant.

“That’s alright if they end up elsewhere.  I want to meet lots of people, not just people like me!  And you two are so different from everyone else I know!  Oh! And your friends are really cool too Azul!  Imagine!  Poking the Mirror of Darkness!  He’s so brave!  Are they twins?  They look a lot alike and they’re both so tall!  Hey, Riddle, maybe they can help you get taller too!  Then you can join the basketball team!  I’m not any good at that, but I was hoping to play in Magift, Night Raven College is really good at it, even if they’ve never beaten the Royal Sword Academy.  Lots of their players go pro!  I watched Leona and Malleus play last year on Magicam and it was AMAZING!!!  They’re both so good!  I wanna be that good but Jamil says that I lack focus, so I’m gonna work on it.  That’s why I wanted to enroll in the same school as him.  I almost didn’t make it though.  He enrolled months ago and I found out almost too late!  I got my application in just before the deadline!”

He was speaking so rapidly and using so many words that made no sense that Azul could barely follow what was being said.  All he could do was nod his head and hope to escape from this nightmare before his head exploded.

“I don’t think he’s even pausing for breath.”  Riddle murmured, his face full of horrified fascination.  “He must be some sort of monster…”  Again, Azul nodded his head, unable to come up with any other sort of response as he drowned in the veritable wall of sound.  His head was practically spinning over how much information was just being so freely given.  No, not given, all but thrown at him.  Evidently Jamil thought so as well because he gently laid a hand on Kalim’s arm, causing the youth to stop for a moment and look at him in confusion.

“I believe the ceremony is about to start.”

“Oh!  How exciting!”  Taking full advantage of his sudden distraction, both Azul and Riddle quickly ducked away, pulling their hoods low over their faces to help lose the noisy beast in the crowd of other similarly hooded youths .  So focused on his escape, Azul nearly tripped over Riddle when the boy came to a sudden stop.

“Wait… did he insult my height?!”

“If you turn around, he’ll start talking again.”  Azul warned and felt a rather strong surge of relief in how Riddle paled at the thought.

“Good point.

 

“Gentlemen!  I welcome you all to Night Raven College, the preeminent school for aspiring sorcerers in all the lands.”  Crowley spread his arms wide, the edges of his cloak flaring around him impressively as the lights in the room flared, illuminating him in a sickly green glow of fae fire. 

As intended, everyone fell immediately silent, their eyes riveted on the Headmaster, and the ominous black mirror floating behind him.

“You’ve come here at the behest of the Mirror of Darkness, heeding the call of your ambition, your intellect and your will power.   Within these walls, you will learn to harness the power within you, that which raises you above the masses and sets you on the path of the Founders.  All students who have called this fine institution their home have risen to greatness, but how far your rise is depends on you.”

Azul couldn’t help but grin at the words, his excitement rising as he leaned forward, practically feeling all of that glorious power flowing into him, being harnessed by his will.  Yes… the forbidden secrets of the surface would soon be his.  He could almost taste it!  At his side, Jade and Floyd wore matching smiles, their golden eyes gleaming hungrily in the darkness of the room.

“Knowledge and experience are only part of the tools we offer here.”  The Headmaster continued, fully aware of the growing sense of anticipation in the newcomers.  The same greed, the same burning desire to prove themselves.   He couldn’t wait to watch them all grow into beings of power… or burn up in the attempt.

“Just as important in teaching you are your peers.  Your Dorm is a part of your heart and soul.  Its tenets shall speak to your own values and its strengths will be your strengths. There, you shall find allies to aid you in your goals, and enemies ready to tear you down. 

“Heartslabyul, Savanaclaw, Octavinelle, Scarabia, Pomefiore, Ignihyde, Diasmonia.  These seven sacred schools of the Founders are the pillars of ambition and power.  Embrace their virtues, welcome their strengths into your hearts and know that they will guide you for as long as your heart desires.  Only once you join their ranks will you be given your Jeweled Pens.  These will aid you in focusing your magic and giving it form.  Guard it well, for it shall become a piece of your very soul and a link to your magical Core.

“Now I call upon you who have answered its call, to stand before the Mirror of Darkness and allow it to see once more into your soul.”

“Oh!  Memememe!”  Floyd waved his hand excitedly, already striding forward, Jade and Azul following close at his heels, though it was impossible to tell if they were chasing him, or simply taking advantage of the space he created in his wake.

“Anything to make you someone else’s problem.”  Crowley muttered softly to himself before plastering a wide smile on his face and stepping back, allowing the aquamarine haired menace to approach.  “Just don’t poke it.”  He warned in a somewhat louder voice.

“Nah, I already did that.”  Ugh, this boy was going to be the death of him, he just knew it.

Floyd might have said something else, but the mirror seemed to choose this moment to burst into life.  Brilliant emerald green fae fire flared within the once dark frame, threatening to blind anyone who looked at it too closely and the overwhelming sense of magic filled the air, thick enough to be physically tangible.  Several of the more sensitive students shivered in response, taking a respectful step back from this menacing power.  The three troublemakers?  They stared at it with widening eyes, their faces filled with naked and inhuman hunger.

Before the Headmaster could become too discomfited by what he’d just seen in their suddenly inhuman eyes, a man’s face appeared in the heart of the flames.  Stern and cold, it was more of a porcelain mask than a full visage and it glared at the youth before it with empty eye sockets.  The elaborate abyssal black designs framing those depthless eyes seemed to enhance the void within, causing those who met its empty gaze to feel as if they were falling into its bottomless depths.

Staring intently into the mismatched eyes of the youth before it, the face seemed to frown almost thoughtfully as the sense of power and menace grew.

“STATE THY NAME.”  It was a voice you felt as much as heard, and it seemed to echo within the minds of all who listened, causing many to shiver in instinctual dread.  One student even let out an unfortunate whimper, but the tall and exotic looking youth standing boldly in front of the mirror merely grinned widely, leaning forward slightly.  Anticipation radiated off him as he prepared himself for the grand test which would reveal the innermost workings of his soul.

“Floyd… Floyd Leech.”  He stated the name like a challenge, his golden eye gleaming brightly against the growing darkness within the mirror’s frame.

“FLOYD LEECH, THE SHAPE OF THY SOUL IS OCTAVINELLE”

“Um… okay?”  The tall youth blinked and gave the mirror a curious look, clearly having expected a little… well… more.  “Cool?”  Shrugging slightly, he turned to look at the other two and shrugged, not understanding what he was supposed to do next.  “I thought I was gonna have to fight a monster or something… that was… sorta boring.”

Someone in the crowd at the far end of the room let out a sharp laugh but it was silenced too quickly for anyone to pinpoint its location.  Crowley was pretty sure it was Crewel, but had no way of proving it.  Still, he did take a moment to shoot the professor a look of warning.

A tall dark eyed youth dressed in black silk robes edged in elaborate gold patterns stalked forward towards the newest member of his dorm and motioned for Floyd to join him.  Rather than obey, the rather stubborn youth simply turned back to the mirror.

“Hey Mirror, they’re coming with me to this Octavinelle place, and since you’re not going to do anything fun like throw monsters at us, we’re just gonna go ok?” 

“You do NOT give the Mirror of Darkness orders!”  The Dorm head of Octavinelle hissed softly.  “Now get over with the rest of your dorm and stop embarrassing us!”  Not looking the least bit impressed, Floyd simply looked down at the youth, his face a perfect picture of ultimate boredom.  It caused the third year to pause for a moment, unsure of how exactly to proceed in the face of such utter apathy from a first year.

“Go away little fishie.  The Mirror is big enough to fight its own battles.”  Making a little shooing motion with his hand, Floyd then turned away from the dorm leader to watch Jade approach the mirror confidently.  Moving as if there wasn’t a single doubt in his head as to where he was going to end up, he met the mirror’s stare with his own unblinking eyes.

“STATE THY NAME”

“Jade Leech.”

“JADE LEECH, THE SHAPE OF THY SOUL IS OCTAVINELLE.”  The look on the youths face said “of course” as clearly as if it had been his voice, and like his brother, he ignored the less than subtle motions of the Dorm Leader to join the rest of them, stepping aside only enough to allow Azul to approach the mirror.

“Both of you get over here or I’ll have you cleaning the common room for a week!”  The Dorm leader hissed a little louder, doing his best to not attract attention, and failing miserably.

“Give it a rest Glaucous.”  Leona grumbled from where he was leaning against the pillar, cowl still pulled low over his face.  “All you’re doing to proving to everyone how little control you actually have over your little puppets.”

“Fuck off Leona.”  The Octavinelle Dorm Leader snarled under his breath.  “You stick to your little petting zoo.  I’ll run my dorm how I want.”

“Hmph, stupid herbivore.  At least my pack comes when I call.”  A mocking smirk was visible from beneath the hood.

“Oh my, are we misbehaving already?”  Jade smiled in his twin’s direction, earning a giggle from the other eel.

“Yeah, looks like it.  What to do, what to do.  Ah well, the little fishie will figure out soon enough that Azul is much more interesting than he is.”

Smiling at the playfully baiting words, Azul glanced over at his companions who both flashed him encouraging grins.  He was so desperately eager to take this first step into the world of true magic, yet inwardly deeply terrified that the Mirror of Darkness might choose to separate them.  What if his soul matched a different dorm?  Was it permanent?  Could he transfer, or was he stuck in the  current the ancient artifact chose to toss him into? 

Reaching up, he lightly stroked his thumb over the deep bruises on his arms left by the twins.  They’d clung to him so tightly when the Mirror of Darkness had grabbed them with its spell.  Even then, it had been unable to separate them and he wasn’t about to let it succeed now.

No… worrying about it was pointless.  He’d never in his life depended on luck or fate to get where he wanted.  If it dared to try to separate them, he’d find a way to rejoin them, no matter the cost or who he had to sacrifice to achieve his goal.

Looking up, he stared into the depths of the Mirror, flashing it an utterly ruthless smile, daring it to do its worst even as his thumb pressed hard into the bruise.  The pain helped center him, remind him of his goal and how he… no, how THEY were going to achieve it.

The pain seemed to fade as a familiar icy chill slid through his veins and he could almost feel dark and shadowy tentacles sliding around his heart, squeezing him possessively and pulling him close.  He felt protected and comforted by both the presence and the pain, the two mingling together perfectly inside him as he stared into the darkness of the Mirror.

Ah my poor unfortunate soul, so lost, so hungry.  Let me show you the way to power.  Let me show you the true glory in the darkness of the Abyss.

“STATE THY NAME.”  He could feel the voice resonate inside him, making his very bones vibrate with the sheer force of the Mirror’s power.  Once again, he felt the tantalizing shiver of excitement course through him as the darkness inside him sought to drink it in, claiming it for his own.  It was only through sheer force of will that he held it at bay.

“Azul Ashengrotto.”  His lips tingled from the sheer amount of magic saturating the air and his head began to spin.  It was so hard to focus on those empty eyes, they seemed to be pulling him closer, breathing him in even as dark tendrils reached out, sliding over him, tasting his own personal power, sampling his unique magic and the mind which guided it. 

“AZUL ASHENGROTTO, THE SHAPE OF THY SOUL IS OCTAVINELLE”  Anything more was lost to the cheering of his two companions as Jade reached out, catching him around the waist and pulling him close so the eel could rest his chin on the top of Azul’s head.  Before the octopus could playfully shove him away, Floyd tackled them both, sending all three to the ground in an untidy sprawl of robes and tangled limbs.

It was certainly not one of the most dignified entrances the college had ever seen, but it was an honest one, and likely one of the very few times anyone was able to say such a thing about the three of them.

 

Chapter Text

The next hour was a rather mindless and dull blur of having to stand there and do nothing while name after name was called by the mirror, each robed youth being sent to one house or another.  Azul did allow himself a small smile to see that Riddle did indeed end up sent to Heartslabyul, while that chattering monster and his much tormented keeper both were sentenced to Scarabia.  It was hard to not breathe a rather heartfelt sigh of relief to see that both he and Riddle had been spared from his foolishness for the next three years.  As for poor Jamil… well, if he truly wished, accidents could always be arranged… for a price.

By the time the final name was called, he was pretty sure that Floyd was asleep on his feet, his head resting on Jade’s shoulder, forcing his twin to carefully prop him up or risk them both falling over.  For once, Azul couldn’t even be annoyed with him as he himself was visibly swaying on his feet.  The pain in his legs and lower back was incredible, and he was rather sure that his feet were only a few more droning names away from starting to bleed due to standing on the rough stone floor.

Little by little, the crowd around them grew as more first years were sent to Octavinelle, and it was getting rather uncomfortable having so many strangers so close to him.  For years, he’d only really shared his close personal space with Floyd and Jade, even his parents kept a polite distance for the most part. 

While he had deeply missed those peaceful mornings where his mother had brushed out his hair, singing her ancient songs, or when his father had chatted with him while preparing some new dish to stuff him with, he felt more at ease with the twins.  They understood him, and he them.  They saw the darkness in each other’s hearts, the pride, the ambition, the cruel otherness.  It called to each of them with almost instinctive clarity, and while he knew that the eels were dangerous and could easily kill him if they chose to do so, he was confident in his safety.

These humans?  He felt no kinship with them.  They were no different than the countless mer he’d grown up with.  Soft and spoiled by sunlight warmed waters, lost in their precious illusions of superiority even as their world crumbled and decayed around them.

“Octavinelle!”  Their Dorm Leader’s voice rang out over their ranks and Azul wasn’t the only one who jumped at the sudden sound.  Next to him, Floyd grumbled and continued to drool shamelessly on Jade’s shoulder until Azul jabbed him with a sharp elbow in his side.

“Wake up.”  He hissed softly, earning a rather bleary look from beneath the hood.  Their dorm leader continued to drone on about something or other, but none of them were really listening.

“This is so boooring.”  Floyd whined softly, leaning more of his weight on Jade who looked about ready to fall over.  “Why is this magic so boring?”

“It will be much more exciting when we get to our dorm.”  Jade assured him, giving his twin a gentle push to encourage him to hold his own weight.

“Good.  I wanna take this seaweed off.  It’s itchy.  I don’t like being itchy.”  As much as he wanted to argue just for the sake or arguing, Azul couldn’t quite resist giving his arm a little scratch.  His whole body felt like it was developing a rash and he didn’t like it anymore than the others.  How did the humans stand it?

“I’ll heal you when we get our rooms.”  Jade flashed Azul a slight smile, having noticed him shifting his weight from one foot to another, wincing slightly each time.  It was hard not to look grateful over the offer and he nodded his head in acceptance.

“Thanks.  I had no idea that these things could ache so badly.  I’m about to fall over.”

“Hey, I can heal you too Azul.”  Floyd grinned mischievously, causing the octopus to blanche in horror.  He had no doubt that the eel would find some way to take revenge on the various unpleasant potions he’d ingested in the past twenty-four hours.  Noticing the look, Jade stepped between them, wrapping his arms around both their waists in what likely looked like a rather friendly embrace, but held them both pressed tightly against him, preventing escape.

“No fighting right now.  We’re all exhausted and sore.  Besides, we still need to get our pens, remember?”  That certainly shut them both up and they allowed Jade to steer them along with the group as they began to file out of the Hall of Mirrors.

Azul would have liked to have been able to say that everything was firmly locked in his memory of that first trip through the Octavinelle mirror, but by then, he was so exhausted that he could have walked into a wall and not cared one bit.  Still, there was no ignoring the sudden rush of cool damp air and the sound of current brushing against stone.

The three of them froze in their tracks, exhaustion forgotten as they stared at the huge windows lining the hallway, within each one was a familiar sight that they’d been thoroughly convinced they wouldn’t be laying eyes on for the next three years.  The ocean surrounded them, thick colourful coral reefs framed the edges of the windows, filled with brightly coloured fish who darted in and out of their jagged and labyrinthine depths.  While the water was dark, the sun having set hours ago, carefully placed spotlights kept various features forever highlighted, and the light loving fish clustered happily around them, enjoying their endless days.

A sudden and rather surprising wave of homesickness filled Azul for a moment before being mercilessly crushed down to nothing.  He’d fought too hard to get here, there was no way he was going to be some sentimental fool!  Not now, not ever!

Giggling in delight, Floyd hopped over to the window and pressed himself against it, tapping at the strange invisible barrier which kept the water at bay.  A few curious fish swam over to stare at him, but if they were saying anything, their human ears were unable to tell.

“As you’ve all guessed, Octavinelle lies deep beneath the waves of the island.”  Their Dorm Leader was speaking in a voice full of self importance, clearly enjoying the looks of awe from the gathered first years.  He stood on a small box, adding another foot to his height, allowing him to look down on everyone but the twins.  With his hood finally thrown back, they could make out the thin hard lines of his pale skinned face offset by long, bluish grey hair which was pulled back in a neat tail, hanging over his shoulder.  Eyes a few shades darker than his hair surveyed the assembled students coldly.  “We have the best views out of the entire school and we take advantage of it every chance we can.”   

Several of the older students chuckled as he motioned towards the windows and the reefs beyond with an ornate staff, carved to look like it was topped by an elegant octopus, the mantle formed out of a huge diamond which reflected the pale light of the reef’s spotlights, making the hallway sparkle around him.

“To get to the various sections of the dorm, you’ll have to travel through several glass hallways.  Have no fear, the glass is thick and properly enspelled to keep the pressure at bay.  For those of you who want to explore the reef more closely, there is a wet room that will allow you access to the ocean beyond, but before you can head out into the deep blue, you need to pass a scuba test or prove that you have mastered the appropriate spells for water breathing.

The ocean is a dangerous place and we’ve lost a few students over the years to not being properly prepared for the many hazards it holds.”

“We can swim and still study?”  Jade murmured in awe, his usual mask of benign amusement slipping just long enough for Azul to see the pure wonder on his face.  It appeared that he wasn’t the only one to miss the depths.

“I’m Glaucous Fulvous, your Dorm Leader.  Your Vice Dorm Leader is Mikado Sary.  We’re responsible for you lot and if you have any problems, you come to us for guidance and solutions.  If you cause any problems, our dealings will be much less pleasant.  I trust that I don’t need to elaborate on the details.”  He gave the twins a rather dark glare of warning which neither seemed to be at all bothered by.  “Octavinelle consistently has the highest grades in this school and I expect that trend to continue.  Failing marks won’t be tolerated and I won’t have anyone make this dorm look lazy or foolish.” 

Another warning look at the twins, though this time a few people were snickering, likely already realizing that it was going to be a lost cause.  At least Jade was sort of pretending to pay attention.  Floyd was still trying to have a conversation with the fish, but at least it kept him out of trouble. 

“As first years, you’ll all be expected to run errands for your seniors, to cook the food for the dorm and tidy.  Lunch is offered at the school cafeteria, but breakfast and dinner are your responsibility.”  The Dorm Leader continued.  “You’ll follow any orders given and listen to the advice of your seniors.  If you cause problems, believe me, I’ll hear about it.

“There is to be no magical dueling in the school, if you want to fuck someone up with your spells, join the Magic shift club.  Otherwise, focus on your schoolwork.  The better your grades, the more rewards you’ll receive here in the dorm.  We reward success and punish failure, is that clear to everyone?”

Azul felt his face darkening the more the loudmouth fool spoke.  There was more to this than mere grades.  Sure, that was important, but how did that honour the Sea Witch?  Any dorm could focus on their marks without difficulty, that wasn’t what he believed set Octavinelle apart from the others and by the looks of it, the twins agreed with him.

Floyd had even stopped playing with the fish in order to glance over his shoulder at the Dorm Leader, waiting to hear something inspiring, or at least halfway interesting.  When nothing was forthcoming, he grumbled and stepped over to Azul’s side.

“He’s boring.  I don’t like him and I’m sorta feeling insulted by how he’s being all blah blah about marks when it’s supposed to be all about schemes.  How long until we can eat him?”    A cruel smile tugged at Azul’s lips as he watched the blowhard babble on for a few more agonizing minutes.

“Not yet.  We can still use him.  Just because he’s lost his way doesn’t mean that we have.  If he can’t run this dorm properly, then we’ll take it away from him.  There’s more than one way to give away something precious after all.”  That earned him a low and somewhat menacing chuckle from the eel and he felt the weight of a chin being rested on the top of his head.

“You’re the best Azul.  You always have the most fun ideas.”  Rather than shake off the extra weight, Azul leaned back against him, comforted by the solid presence against his spine.

“Then, once we’ve taken what we want, we’ll devour the idiot.  Let them think he got lost in the coral.”

“The most fun ideas.”

 

 

“What the fuck is this!?  Do you want to die?”  Floyd snarled in rage, his lips pulled back to bare his all too human teeth as he faced off against the Vice Dorm Leader.  Mikado Sary, it turned out, was a rather bland looking fellow with short sandy brown hair and softly rounded cheeks despite his rail thin body.  Currently, he was staring up at the towering first year who’d backed him into the corner and was currently looming over him in a way which could only be called threatening.

“Er… w-what seems to be the p-problem?”  The third year stuttered, his eyes darting back and forth, trying to look for some path of escape that wouldn’t involve opening himself up for attack.

“The problem is that you gave me this stupid little weed that says that I’ve got to sleep in some room on the other side of the building from my brother.”  The eel hissed, his golden eye glowing dangerously.  “And I know that you didn’t mean for that to happen, cause I’m pretty sure you don’t wanna die.”  The snarl dissolved into a saccharine sweet smile that was no less menacing as he leaned a little closer.  “Do you want to die little fishy?”

“Th… the rooming assignments are decided by lot!”  Mikado blurted out, holding up a hat still half full of numbers written on thin slips of paper.  “It’s all chance!”

“Then there’s a good chance that you’re about to see if your face fits through that wall over there.”  Floyd’s smile never wavered for a moment.  “I’m willing to bet that it will.”

Off to the side, not looking at all put out by the display of violence, Jade and Azul glanced at their own little slips of paper, noting the numbers written on them and comparing them to the map conveniently pinned to the notice board, noting that they would be several doors down from each other, while Floyd had been assigned the next hall over; a fact he was mildly objecting to.

“We should likely stop this before he does actually kill the guppy.”  Jade murmured, earning a slight nod from Azul.  “I’ll calm him down, you sort this out?”  Both shared anticipatory smiles before heading to their assigned targets, ready for the games to begin.

Having no doubt that Jade could if not calm his brother, at least lessen the amount of damage, Azul strode over to one of the nearby third years and smiled politely.  Though the older boy had been staring at the altercation in horrified fascination, he still jumped when Azul stepped up to him, his blue eyes looking far more like liquid silver in the dim, blue filtered light of the hallway, causing them to shine ominously.

“Out of the rooms A3, A7 and A15, which is the nicest and offers the best view?”  While he purposefully skipped over any pleasantries, he kept his tone as polite and reasonable as Floyd’s was not. 

“Wha?”  And here he’d thought that Octavinelle was one of the Dorms most noted for their intelligence.  Clearly that didn’t extend towards language comprehension.

“Which of those rooms is superior?”  He clarified, offering the upperclassman a bright smile.  “Or is there no discernable difference?  Judging by the shape of this building, each room is going to be somewhat varied in appearance.  Which is the superior room?”  The older youth glanced at Azul, then at the confrontation taking place a short distance away, where Jade had managed to convince Floyd to not use the Vice Dorm Leader’s head for aggressive remodeling.  Granted, Floyd had yet to back off, so there was still a rather high chance of blood being spilled at the slightest provocation.

“Or am I mistaken, and you do not particularly care for your second in command?”  He continued smoothly, his smile never wavering for a second.

“Wha?”  Oh, Neptune help him.  He’d found the human equivalent of a sea cucumber.  Any minute now, it was going to shit out its organs and try to sneak away.  Actually… that might very well distract Floyd for a moment or two.

“Um, A15 is a corner room.”  A nearby second year tentatively spoke up.  “Those are usually nicer and 15 has a nice view of the reef… it was my room last year.”  Azul flashed him a beaming smile.

“Excellent.  Thank you so much for your assistance, you’ve been most helpful.”  The second year nodded his head, still looking rather unsure about the whole situation.  “Um… he’s not gonna actually hurt Mikado is he?”

“Of course not.”  Azul’s smile grew wider, the half truth sliding easily from his tongue as he glanced down at his own slip of paper bearing the desired room number.  There was little need to continue violence now that he had the information he wanted.

Turning to face the rest of the still stunned hallway, he cast a simple spell to enhance volume, raised his hand and snapped his fingers.  The sharp sound echoed through the hallway, reverberating off the glass windows, causing several people to jump.  One rather short first year actually fell over into a dead faint, unable to see, he’d convinced himself that Floyd truly had driven the older youth through the wall.

One by one, heads turned towards Azul who continued to smile warmly at everyone, perfectly comfortable with the spotlight so long as he was in charge of the situation.

“Now then, this issue is rather easily solved.  Has anyone been assigned the other half of Room A15?”  He held up his own slip of paper and stared at the other first years, noting how each and every one of them quickly checked their own assignments.

Within ten seconds, a trembling hand was hesitantly raised.

“I…I have it.”

“Ah, excellent.  Now then, which room would you prefer?  A3 or A7?”  Azul asked, striding over to his newest victim, rather pleased that he was keeping his balance so well despite the screaming ache in his legs.  At least the exhaustion had faded with the prospect of a hunt, it filled his limbs with renewed vigor, and he savoured every moment of it.

“Um… it doesn’t matter…”  The boy’s eyes grew wider at Azul’s approach and he took a nervous step back, looking ready to bolt.

“Now now, there’s no reason to be afraid.”  Azul’s smile grew a fraction wider.  “Is this not the Dorm which honours the Sea Witch?   Would it not be an act of compassion to trade your room for another so that a pair of twins could remain with their beloved other half?  I’m sure that such kindness would not go unrewarded and would set you firmly upon the path of our Glorious Founder.”  Stopping in front of the boy, he held out his hand for the slip of paper, his eyes never left the frantic seaweed green gaze of the poor unfortunate soul.

“Um… it’s ok.  Just… don’t hurt me?”  The paper was quickly dropped into his hand and Azul smiled widely, unable to resist showing a flash of teeth.

“Done.”  He stated and turned away, rather disappointed by the lack of bargaining skills in these humans.  Still, their loss was his gain and he headed towards the brothers and their still pinned prey, handing them the matching slips of paper.  “I believe you’ve just been upgraded.” 

“Awww, does that mean I can’t put him through a wall now?”  Floyd calmed instantly and sounded rather disappointed, though he did take a step back, his arms falling to his sides.  Rather than taking the safe retreat when it was offered, the round-faced Vice Dorm Leader did his beast to stand up straight, the hat they’d pulled the slips out of clutched tightly to his chest.

“But… but you can’t just trade rooms like that…”  He sputtered, wise eyes staring at all three of them, one after another, unsure of who to settle on.  Favouring the youth with a patient smile, Azul took the unwanted room slips from the eels.

“I hadn’t heard any rules stating that we can’t.  It’s a simple deal after all, a room for a room and the problem is already solved.”  Dropping one unwanted slip of paper back into the hat, he turned back to the other first-year who’d made the trade.  “I apologize, I haven’t asked your name.”

“It… it’s Carmine.”

“Thank you for your cooperation Carmine, you have your own private room in repayment.”

“But… but your room!”  Mikado moved to reach out to grab onto Azul’s shoulder but a rather sharp hiss of warning from Floyd caused him to freeze in his tracks.  Glancing over his shoulder, Azul flashed him a charming grin.

“I’ll be sharing a room with them.  None of us require a great deal of space and we’re comfortable with the close quarters.”  Several of the other students murmured amongst themselves but the three mer continued to watch their upperclassman, their eyes never wavering.

“But… but it’s… unprecedented.”

“Success is based on adaptation.” 

“So’s survival.”  Floyd muttered, his eyes narrowing in warning, causing the older youth to swallow audibly.  No one so much as blinked and after several long seconds, it was obvious when the older boy’s resolve broke.  Sagging against the wall, he sighed loudly, hanging his head.

“Fine, take your room.  It’s not worth fighting over, but Dorm Leader Glaucous is going to be furious with this.”

“That’s a pity.  If anything, you should be congratulated.  You solved a potentially explosive situation with a simple bargain and all parties involved are happy with the resolution.  You are happy aren’t you Carmine?”

“Oh yes!  A room of my own?  This is awesome!”

“Floyd, Jade?  Are you both pleased with the results?”

“Of course Azul.”

“… I kinda wanted to put him through the wall to be honest…”  Azul’s eyes narrowed at Floyd who snickered loudly.  “Fine fine, yeah, I’m happy.  I don’t wanna be away from Jade.”

“There we go.  What a skilled diplomat you are.  You truly are an asset to Octavinelle.”  All three turned their wide smiles onto the Vice Dorm Leader who finally seemed to realize that there wasn’t any way to get out of this without looking absolutely petty.

“Fine fine.”  Running his fingers through his hair, he finally took a rather exaggerated step back, hoping to get out of the rather impressive reach of the Leech twins.  “Glaucous will be back any minute with the pens…”

If he’d been hoping to distract his aggressors, luck had finally turned his way.  All three pairs of eyes lit up with naked avarice and their heads turned in perfect synchronism to look down the hallway the Dorm Leader had gone down. 

Only an idiot would remain in such a dangerous position, and the Mikado Sary, despite being somewhat wrong footed with this whole altercation, was certainly not an idiot.  He quickly slipped away to stand with the other third years, finding some measure of confidence in their numbers, though he did make a point of noting to himself that none had come to bail him out during that whole ordeal.

“That was so awesome!”  Carmine grinned at the mer, his eyes wide with awe.  “And when you snapped your fingers… that was magic wasn’t it?  I can’t believe you used controlled magic like that!”  Now it was the trio’s turn to all look confused and they shared blank looks with each other before looking back at the delighted human.

“I think this one’s broken.”  Floyd loudly whispered to Jade.  “He doesn’t think we can do magic.”

“Oh no, not that.  I mean, everyone here can do magic or else we wouldn’t be here.  But that controlled?  If I tried that, I’d probably have popped everyone’s eardrums, or broken the glass with the shockwave and drowned us all, or snapped my finger bones!”  With every worst-case scenario presented, Floyd’s eyes grew wider until he finally squealed and grabbed onto the rather startled human, hugging him tightly.

“I like this one!  Let’s keep him!”

“Help!?  C… Can’t can’t breathe!”

“Don’t care!”

“Floyd, if you strangle your classmate, he won’t be able to show you how to do all those fun things.”  Jade warned gently, causing his twin to pause, mid squeeze and then gently lower the gasping boy to the ground, favouring him with a gentle pat on the head.

“You’re gonna show me how to do all those fun things.  If you don’t, I’ll squeeze you again, ok?”  The threat was said with such a happy expression on his face that anyone who didn’t know Floyd well would likely think that he was teasing, unless they looked into that gleaming golden eye and saw that he was very deadly serious.

Lacking such finer instincts, Carmine smiled somewhat nervously and nodded his head.

“Um… sure?  But that’s just all uncontrolled stuff.  That’s why we’re here, to learn how to refine our magic.” 

“Yeah yeah, that sounds really boring… wait….”  Heterochromatic eyes widening, Floyd spun around to glare at Azul accusingly.  “You used magic!”  Bending down so that their faces were level, he poked the octopus firmly in the chest.  “Twice.  You said we couldn’t cast spells here because they could go wild.  You could have blown us up!”  Azul had been really hoping that Floyd wouldn’t have put that together quite so quickly… or publicly, but there really was no point in arguing what was blindingly obvious.

“Yes, I could have.”  He admitted without a shred of guilt.  Taking a moment to ponder that, Floyd pulled back slightly, his arms crossing over his chest, one long finger thoughtfully tapping against his bicep.

“Ok.  But I get to blow up one thing and you can’t get mad at me.”

“No deal.  I got us all a room together.  We’re even.”

“Jaaaade.”  Thankfully, Jade was saved from having to choose sides by the arrival of their Dorm Leader, bearing a rather lovely carved box decorated in what looked like gilded seashells, the centermost being a rather large snail shell, much like the one reputed to have belonged to the Sea Witch. 

Noting the shell, the twins both turned to grin at Azul, noticing how his lips tightened slightly but he held his silence.  They’d both endured rather long lectures on how the symbol of the Sea Witch wasn’t in fact a snail shell at all.  The very idea of thinking that the home of a boring and brainless creature who’s only value was in how delicious it was, was the symbol of the most powerful being ever to rise from the depths of the ocean was beyond insulting.  Azul’s room back in Atlantica had been covered in pictures and samples of various shells, comparing them to the ones in the oldest drawings of the Sea Witch at the height of her power. 

They’d both called it obsessive, neither caring overly much about the aesthetics of a simple shell, but to Azul, it went deeper than that.  Magic, like bargains was all about understanding; it was about the details, the fine points, and to ignore even the most obscure of them was to fail at truly grasping the full potential of the power within.

Case and point; Only a surface-dwelling idiot would buy into that stupid shell belief.  It was blindingly obvious to Azul that the iconic shell was one belonging to the ancient cephalopods, far back when the oceans were even more savage than now, when monsters from the deep ruled supreme.  The ancient octopus had been practically untouchable.  Slow moving, but immune to all but the most vicious bite, they’d been apex predators in their own right, predating the much younger race of merfolk, or even the fish which they’d evolved from.  While the cephalopods had lost their shells over the countless millennia, they’d survived against all odds, adapting and thriving when most other life had died off.

The Sea Witch had always taken such pride in her heritage, in her differences from the other merfolk.  She’d brandished it as a banner against her detractors, and her symbol would have reflected that as well, highlighted her alien ancestry… their shared ancestry.

“When you’re ruling this Dorm, you can change the shell.”  Jade murmured softly to him.

“Not likely… but when I rule the ocean as the new Sea Witch, you can guarantee that I’ll fix this gross error.”  He replied tersely, though even this old grudge couldn’t completely sully his delight in what was to come. 

Their jeweled pens.  He’d read about magical foci for years and had always longed to earn one of his own.  Only the most powerful of sorcerers could make them, the gems themselves were mined in the deep tunnels of some sort of creature called dwarves, and these beasts were fiercely protective of their treasures.  Only the bravest, most clever magic users could gather them safely and even then, they still required expert gem cutters to shape the raw stone.

One day he hoped to be able to make his own, but for now, he’d take what was offered, eager to feel all the previously untapped magic within his body finally flow free.  Ugh, he was practically salivating at the thought, but at least he wasn’t the only one.  All the first years were staring like sharks eyeing a wounded whale, waiting for the first drop of blood to be shed before rushing in and taking what was theirs.

“Gentlemen.”  Glaucous stated, his voice full of self importance as he looked out over the eager first years, drinking in their undivided attention.  “In my hands, I hold your future.  Within this box are your jeweled pens, the focus for your magic.  Your pen is not a tool, it’s an extension of yourself and your magic.  It will help amplify your spells, give them focus and hone your control.  It will protect you from most of the dangers of blot and can even be used as a meditative focus.  Treat it with respect, never let it out of your sight and never ever lend it to another.  Its jewel will attune itself to your magic and your magic only.  If another were to attempt to use it, it would backfire into a dangerous burst of wild magic.”

“Coooool.”  Azul groaned softly and he elbowed Floyd sharply in the ribs, warning him to be silent, but Glaucous had heard him and glared in their direction.

“No!  Not cool!  Is that Floyd?”

“Nope!”

“If I catch you giving your pen to anyone, I’ll take it away and report you to the Headmaster.  Is that clear?”

“Ugh, he’s worse than you with rules Azul.  Fine fine, stop bitching already.”  Though Glaucous shot him a look of death, the eel had already chosen to ignore him in favour of staring at the box in his hands.

“I’ll be calling you up one at a time alphabetically, so don’t crowd.  Once you have your pen, please join the upperclassmen.  Only when everyone has their pen will we begin the festivities, so the smoother this goes, the sooner we can eat.”  That last bit seemed to be aimed at one individual in particular… who was still pointedly ignoring the Dorm Leader.  “Arylide Jeune”

A tall thin youth with dull yellowy blond hair stepped forward with a wide grin on his face which grew as the ornate box was opened up, revealing two rows of elegant looking fountain pens, each tipped with a large diamond on the cap, resting in an ornate silver setting.  Each one of them radiated a rich pure power, cleansed of any magical signature and ready to be wielded by their owners.

“Choose your pen.”  Glaucous stated, a proud smile on his face.  It didn’t take more than a moment for the boy to do so, his trembling hand reaching out and grabbing the one furthest to the left.  Hugging it tightly to his chest, he grinned widely and practically skipped over to the waiting upperclassmen who all patted him on the shoulder in welcome.

“Azul Ashengrotto”   A shiver of excitement went through his body as he stepped forward, his eyes locked on his prize, feeling the pens practically calling to him with seductive voices.  “Choose your pen.”

He barely heard the words.  They didn’t matter.  The only thing he cared about was right in front of him, and closing his eyes, he held out his hand, focusing on the soothing magic flowing around the jeweled pens, swirling like a gentle ocean current.  The magic slid over his bare fingers, the touch light and almost teasing, bringing a smile to his lips as he savoured the sensation.

To the right, there was a stronger current, the magic cooler than the others, reminding him of something familiar… something forgotten in the depths of his mind, wanting to be remembered. 

Reaching down, he felt a sharp tingle in his fingertips, as if something had been out of joint and only now fallen into place.  The magical currents swirling around his hands seemed to ripple and flow faster, their path smoother, the water deeper.  A soft sigh of pleasure slid from his lips and his eyes fluttered open as he stared down into the many faceted diamond which would become a part of him for the rest of his life. 

From the many facets on its surface, dozens of Azuls stared back at him, each one of them bearing a wide and eager grin.

“It’s perfect.”  He breathed softly in awe, his many reflections repeating the words back at him as the magic flowed so perfectly through his veins.

Chapter Text

It was the first party Azul had ever been invited to… alright, technically he hadn’t been so much invited as sort of included by default.  The cold and cynical part of his mind scoffed at the idea, not letting him forget that these people didn’t know who he was and didn’t care.  It was just part of the procedure and not any personal welcome being extended to him.  The other tiny little and oft neglected part of himself was swimming in tight circles screaming in excitement.  The reasons didn’t matter after all, it still counted as an invitation! 

At least he wasn’t the only one to be of two opinions, like him, the twins also looked somewhat out of their element.  While they hadn’t been social pariahs on Azul’s level, people hadn’t exactly gone out of their way to include the rather unpredictable eels.  What with their propensity for violence and chaos, most chose to keep a healthy distance whenever possible, especially after one “unfortunate incident”.  No loss as far as Azul was concerned.  From what he’d heard, it had been a stupid party anyway. 

All things considered, he figured that he’d still had it better in that regard than the twins.  It was one thing to simply not be invited to parties and generally be ignored, it was totally different to have to sit there and smile when the party thrown in your honour turned out to be nothing more than an excuse for political power plays.   It had helped ease the resentment he’d felt over never having made the guest list, knowing that the twins had had no input at all as to who was invited.  All they could do was simply smile and accept fancy gifts intended to please their parents from countless strangers. 

All too used to being nothing but pawns in political games, neither of them really cared enough to cause an issue.  They’d smile, say what was expected of them, then slip away at the earliest opportunity to go and spend time with Azul who was most definitely NOT sulking over having not been invited… again. 

All three of them were fish out of water in the most literal fashion possible, unable to quite wrap their heads around the feeling of welcome that permeated the room.  It felt like a trap, it had to be.  Any minute now, they’d see the fangs and claws, hear the cruel taunts and cold glares.  Just thinking about it made Azul’s breath catch in his throat and his heart beat frantically, telling him to go and hide before they noticed him, to duck behind the twins and let them tear a bloody swath through their enemies. 

Instead, they continued to stand there staring, unsure of how to even begin to approach the situation.  The twins were waiting to take their cue from Azul.  As for Azul… he was on the verge of a panic attack and tugged his hood down lower over his face, hoping to be granted some anonymity.  Not that that was likely considering how insanely tall the twins flanking him were, or how they were the only ones with their hoods still up at this point.

The soft looking redhead who’d originally traded his room noticed them and grinned widely, waving them over to join him and a handful of other first years clustered around a large bowl of electric blue liquid with little… Azul was pretty sure those were illusionary fish, swimming in it.

Yeah, it was obviously a trap and the bait was set.  They were all waiting for the stupid octopus to swim into it like he always had in his youth, so desperate to belong that he’d been willing to take any risk to feel even a few moments of camaraderie. 

No.  He wasn’t that pathetic little creature anymore.  Let them find some other poor soul to torment.  He’d learned his lessons years ago and had no interest in repeating them. 

Features settling into a mask of disdain, he turned away, more than ready to head to their room and hide himself away until the halls were empty enough to safely explore without running into anyone. 

A strong hand settled gently on his shoulder, bringing him up short and preventing his escape.  Looking up, he saw Jade smiling down at him.  Reaching into his hood with his free hand, he gently stroked long fingers across Azul’s cheek before twirling that one long lock of moonlight white hair around his fingertip.

“None of that.”  Jade’s voice was soft and gentle, his usually placid smile holding the faintest teasing edge.    “New world, new rules, new beginning, remember?”  It was hard to bite back a sneering rebuttal.  Of course, things like that were easy for Jade to say.  It’s not as if anyone had ever dared to insult either of the twins until ink fell from their eyes or tried to tear them apart just to hear them scream.  Everyone had always minded themselves around the Leech twins unless they had a death wish. 

Even though Azul kept his thoughts locked behind a carefully constructed mask, the brothers knew him better than that, and before he could shake Jade loose, Floyd dove in, scooping the startled octopus up in his arms and lifted him easily up off the floor.  

“No more octopus pots remember?”  He announced, giving Azul’s cheek a playful nuzzle, and no matter how much he kicked and struggled, there was no breaking Floyd’s iron grip.  Jade, the bastard simply smiled at his suffering and then strode confidently alongside them towards the group of rather bemused humans.

“Let me go or I’ll bite you!”

“So?  Azul has teeny teeth, and they’re even teenier now.”  The truth hurt, and what was worse was that in his human form, he didn’t even have venomous saliva to back up his threats… not that the twins hadn’t long ago developed an immunity.

“Azul!  Come on and try some of the food!”  The red head… what was his name?  Ah yes, Carmine, smiled at them invitingly, beckoning them over once more.  “It’s delicious!”

“Mmm not as delicious as Azul.”  Floyd purred in his ear, favouring his throat with a playful nip which would have drawn blood in their other forms, but now left little more than a bruise.  The feel of teeth against such a sensitive and vulnerable area should have kicked his instincts into overdrive, but instead, he felt a sharp, almost pleasurable tingle travel through the length of his body.  The sensation was alien enough that he stopped struggling for a moment, trying to figure out what in the name of the Sea Witch had just happened, and why for that matter did he feel so warm suddenly?

In his distraction, he didn’t even notice the raised eyebrows of awkward coughs in reaction to Floyd’s statement.  Thankfully, no one chose to comment on it as the rather temperamental eel deposited his prize in front of the group, using his own body to block any path of escape.

“Now, don’t go slinking off.  Be nice and have fun.  We’re here, we made it, you can take over the world tomorrow.”  It might have sounded like a warm and comforting little pep talk if the bastard hadn’t been happily patting him on top of the head as he spoke.

“Oh is that the plan?”  One of the youths spoke up, a rather pretty looking boy with close cropped bright purple hair paired with deep grey eyes.  “It’s good to have goals, but I think you’re going to have to wait in line.  There seems to be quite a few people planning on ruling it before you do.”

“Yeah, but our Azul is gonna actually pull it off.”  Floyd stated boldly, flashing Azul a wide and honest grin.  “He’s brilliant, and he’ll tell you all about how brilliant he is if you give him a chance.”  It was pointless to tell him to shut up, in fact, doing so would likely only encourage him.  Experience had long ago taught him that ignoring Floyd was the best way to make him wander off in search of more entertaining prey.

“Oh!  Yeah, manners and stuff.  I keep forgetting that.  I’m Floyd, and that’s my brother Jade and this is Azul.  Careful, he bites.”

“Cool, are you guys twins?”  The purple headed youth asked, then seemed to realize what a stupid question that was and hung his head, his cheeks turning a brilliant pink.  “Ignore me… I’m an idiot and will now quietly drown myself with punch.”  He announced before taking a rather long drink of the strange blue liquid in his cup.  The little fish swimming inside it seeming to grow smaller and smaller as the liquid vanished.  Azul had to admit, it was an amusing little illusion.

“Gentlemen, we need to be asking the important questions here.  Most specifically, did you guys have that all planned out to screw with the Vice Dorm Leader?”  A lean and sharp featured redhead grinned at them, as if sharing in some grand joke as he sipped at his own drink.  “That was awesome by the way, how you managed to get permission to totally shack up.  Gotta say, I’m jealous.”  As he spoke, his bright blue eyes traced over the twins one after another and he let out a low whistle of appreciation.  “Really jealous.”

Unsure of quite how to react to that, the twins shared a mildly confused glance with each other then shrugged while Azul did his best to wriggle out of Floyd’s still rock-solid grip around him.

“Don’t be.”  He grumbled petulantly.  “Floyd’s a pain in the ass.”

“Mmmm I bet he is.”  Alright, that brought him up short.  Azul had no idea how to react to that sort of comment and was rather sure that they were having totally different conversations.  Instead of digging himself further into the sand, he decided to focus on something he had a hope of understanding and made a small gesture to the odd liquid.

“What’s that?”  It didn’t look like any potion he recognized, but then again, he wasn’t nearly so arrogant as to believe that he knew every potion there was.  Maybe they were waterier here on the surface?  It made sense in a way, as they wouldn’t have to worry about it mixing with the ocean and becoming hopelessly diluted. 

It seemed that his question had earned himself several conspiratorial grins from the other first years and they tightened their circle around the trio, casting a few wary glances over their shoulders for any seniors who might overhear.  If any did, they didn’t care enough to put a stop to whatever mischief they were engaging in.

“Just some punch…”  A shorter blond with a rather prominent forehead snickered and winked at them in an exaggerated fashion.  “With some extra flavouring.”  Glancing around in a way which practically screamed “I’m up to something”, the boy pulled aside the edge of his robe, showing a metal flask, much like the one Professor Crewel sported, though far less ornate. 

It didn’t take much of a leap of logic to realize that the boy was referring to some sort of banned substance, likely a mild relaxant or hallucinogenic, and while none of the mer were familiar with the concept of actually drinking something recreationally, they certainly understood the pursuit of altered mental states.  After all, there wasn’t a mer out there who hadn’t heard about the various kelps which could induce rather euphoric episodes.  There was even the possibility that they themselves had indulged themselves once or twice.  Those forays into pharmaceutical fun had unfortunately also been followed by the rather eye-opening lessons of “Why we never chew Blue Twilight kelp and then try out new spells.”  And the even more terrifying “Why we don’t let Floyd clean up our mystical messes even if it seems like a good idea at the time.”

In their defense, that particular reef had been old and ugly even before they’d manage to dissolve it into frothing neon bubbles that glowed for three days solid and sang rather scandalous musical numbers for some time after that.  It had become quite the tourist attraction for many of the mer their age, one which the three had made it a point to forever avoid.  As for the unfortunate whale they’d ended up accidentally physically splicing with a giant squid… mistakes were made, lessons were learned, and their alibis were thankfully never questioned.

“You want some?”  The mischievous blond asked them with a surprisingly welcoming grin.  “I’m Sage by the way, Sage Feuille.  If you need any contraband, you let me know.  My older brother is a third year in Pomefiore and he gets stuff slipped onto campus all the time.”

“Seriously?  He’s so lucky.  I heard that Vil Schoenheit is a second year there.  He’s so gorgeous!  I could just lick every inch of that gorgeous body for hours!”  The lean redhead drawled.  “I was president of his fan club in my middle school and I’ve collected every picture every taken of him.”

“Oh yeah?”  Sage smirked, his brows seeming to bounce on that large forehead.  “How much would you pay for one of his used face cream tins?  My brother nabs them and sells them on magicam for drinking money.  I bet I could get you one… for a price.”

“Seriously?  I would suck your dick right here and now for that!”

“Ugh… hard pass.  I deal in madols only.  Let’s say…. Twenty thousand?”

“Done!”

“What… no bargaining?  No haggling?”

“President of his fan club.  Do not underestimate my obsession Sage.”

“Um… ok… noted.”

“That was weird.  Humans are weird.”  Floyd murmured softly into Azul’s ear, staring at the exchange in baffled fascination.  For once, all Azul could do was nod like an empty-headed guppy.  He had no idea what any of them were talking about, but one thing he did know for sure was that he was going to have to teach these little fry how to make a proper deal… after he owned them in mind body and soul.

“Sooo speaking of sucking dick, how long have you three been a thing?”  The redhead leered in their direction, putting Azul back on his guard even as Carmine rolled his eyes.  “Don’t hold out on us, we want all the juicy details.”   Judging by the shocked looks from the other youths, this particular human was asking them something improper, though for the life of him, Azul had no idea how.  Not enjoying the feeling of swimming in chummed water and looking desperately for metaphorical sharks, he was honestly surprised when Carmine spoke up in his defense.

“Seriously Rosso, no one was talking about sucking dick but you.”  The boy turned to smile somewhat nervously up at Floyd.  “He’s just being an ass, please don’t put him through a wall.”

“Whatever.”  A dismissing hand was waved in Carmine’s direction, while Rosso continued to prove that he had no survival instinct to speak of as he grinned first at Azul, then Floyd.  Jade it seemed, had wisely taken his leave while everyone was distracted and was speaking to a few second years.  Damn him.  “So?  Dish!”

“Oh we’ve been together for a while now!”  Floyd grinned happily, not caring that he was obviously missing out on some rather heavy innuendo.  Giving Azul another playful squeeze and nearly fusing his ribs together in the process, the eel rested his chin once more on top of Azul’s head.  “Jade and I saw him and decided that he was so cute that we had to have him!”

“But enough about us!”  Azul interrupted the overexcited eel before he could so something even more embarrassing like talk about how squishy he’d been, or how shy and stupid and slow…  Floyd pressed down a little harder with his chin, warning Azul away from any bouts of self pity with a surprising amount of discretion.  “What are your thoughts on the school?  Is there a class you’re looking forward to?”  In hindsight, that wasn’t the best question to ask, as it opened the proverbial conversational floodgates, leaving them trapped for hours on aching feet and exhausted bodies.

After so many years of longing for a chance to finally be invited to a party, now that he’d made it, Azul well and truly only wanted to leave.

 

 

“Ugh.”  Azul groaned as he entered their assigned room, stripping his robes off before he’d even fully made it through the doorway.  Everything ached from the tips of his toes to the last curl of his hair.  He hadn’t even known that hair could hurt until now. 

Where normally, he’d have taken a moment or two to enjoy the view, or even smirk at how he’d managed to manipulate getting all three of them put into this room, he could honestly say that he didn’t care.  All that mattered was hobbling over to that large soft looking rectangular piece of furniture and falling on it.  At this point, it could be solid rock and he wouldn’t care, so long as it got him off his feet.

Barely making it in time, his legs gave out close enough to the bed that he fell face first onto it with a loud groan, deeply relieved that it truly was as soft as it looked.  “Everything hurts and I don’t think that I’ve ever talked so much in my life.  Why do humans have to talk to much?”  He mumbled into the sheets, not caring if the other two could understand him or not.

“Poor Azul.”  Floyd cooed playfully at him.  “First he’s angry that no one likes him, now he’s annoyed that everyone wants to know him.”  Rather than attempting to unfasten his robes, Floyd simply pulled them over his head and left them on the floor on top of Azul’s, then gave both garments a kick of disdain before flopping happily onto the bed next to Azul.  Almost immediately, he began to writhe around on the covers, enjoying a full body scratch that the octopus had to admit, did look rather luxuriously indulgent.

“Hardly surprising if you’re half as sore as I am.”  Jade murmured, taking the time to properly remove his own robes and then fold them into a neat square, just as they’d been initially presented to them.  He even went so far as to pick up the two discarded robes and repeat the process, making no comment as to the normally fastidious octopus leaving a mess. 

Grumbling softly as Floyd’s exuberant squirming caused him to be elbowed several times, Azul peeked his head up just enough for shining blue eyes to be seen over the rumpled sheets.  While Jade was familiar with the indulgent dramatics of their octopus companion, he had to admit that Azul looked very much done in.  In fact, he was rather surprised that the smaller mer had lasted as long as he had. 

“Just shut up and let Floyd gnaw my legs off.  You can grow me new ones that don’t hurt as much.” 

“That wasn’t a serious request Floyd.”  Jade cautioned his brother who’d grinned in absolute delight at that comment, earning himself a pout from both of his companions.

“No it wasn’t.  I bet it would hurt less.”  Azul was back to mumbling into the sheets, looking so pathetically adorable that Jade couldn’t help but chuckle as he sat down on the edge of the bed and gently prodded the poor little martyr into rolling over.  “Are my feet bleeding?  I’m rather sure they’re bleeding.  How do the humans stand it?”  Azul continued to whine softly as he did as he was bid, then allowed Jade to carefully pick up and examine his feet.

For all the amusing dramatics, Jade couldn’t help but wince in sympathy at the damage done to the soft soles of those delicate feet.  The skin was raw, badly inflamed, and he could feel the muscles already cramping beneath his hands.  It was rather impressive that he’d made it as far as the bed, but there was no way that Jade was going to let him know that.  Handling Azul required a delicate balance of patient indulgence and playful prodding to keep him functioning at his best.  Of course, they would hardly be getting optimal octopus when he’d all but crippled himself on his first night.  Honestly, for someone so physically weak in comparison to the twins, he certainly seemed to ignore his limits.  Granted, that was one of very features which drew the eels to him in the first place.

“You’re not bleeding.”  Jade informed him with a patient smile, gently tracing a fingertip across the arch of Azul’s foot, endlessly fascinated with the shape of the delicate limb.  “But it was close.  The flesh is raw and badly bruised, there’s a lot of fluid buildup under the skin as well.”  When the octopus tried to pull his foot away with a soft hiss, Jade simply tightened his grip, ignoring the indignant look shot in his direction.

Floyd watched them both in fascinated silence from where he lay on his back on the bed, enjoying the power play between the two, curious to see who was going to win this round.  So far, Jade was in the lead as Azul was simply too tired to put up a good fight, but the little octopus was known for always having some surprise hidden in his tentacles, so it wasn’t wise to count him out just yet. 

“I suppose it’s to be expected.”  Jade continued, still enjoying his slow perusal of the lovely little limb, admiring how he could see faint blue veins beneath the thin pale skin and how vividly it contrasted with the brilliant red soles.  “From what I can gather through my observations, humans counter this problem by wearing foot coverings.  We’d be wise to invest in some.  After all the effort you went through to make the potion giving us legs, it would be a shame if we couldn’t walk.” 

Narrowing his eyes, Azul gave Jade the win this time, and simply sighed heavily as he resigned himself to holding still.  Besides, in his mind, it wasn’t exactly a loss.  Jade’s hand felt surprisingly good against his aching skin, making it feel rather pleasantly warm, which was rather unexpected.  Normally he hated heat as much as the twins did, preferring the cool and comforting darkness over the sunlight… but this… this felt nice.

He’d almost drifted off to sleep, lulled by the feel of healing magic slowly seeping into his aching limbs and the tendril light touches of those skillful fingers stroking his skin, but Floyd put a quick stop to that by flopping over onto Azul’s stomach, driving precious oxygen out of his lungs with his sudden weight.

“Ugh, more wrappings?”  His head bobbed back and forth as he stared imploringly at first Azul, then Jade, then back to Azul.  “I don’t wanna wear anything on my feet, especially if it’s as itchy as that last thing.  My feet are just fine and if I wrap myself up anymore, I won’t be able to move.  I’ll just end up falling over and flopping everywhere.  Don’t make me be floppy.”

“F…Floyd… you’re… heavy!”  Azul gasped, trying to shove the crushing weight off him, but all he managed to succeed in doing was shift the much larger youth over enough to at least enable his lungs to inflate once more. 

“Am not… you’re just so squishy and comfy.  Are you sure that I can’t eat your legs?”  Rolling over onto his stomach, he began playfully nibbling at Azul’s thigh, earning himself a hand in the face as he was again pushed away.

“Yes I’m sure!  Now stop it!  That feels weird!”  Azul pushed at him again, only succeeding in having Floyd snap at his fingers.

“Awww, does our little octopus not like getting nibbled on now?”

“Floyd, leave him alone, he’s tired and sore.  Perhaps he’ll play with you once he’s had some rest?”  Jade smiled benignly down at his twin as if he himself wasn’t still holding Azul’s foot hostage.  Granted, at least he was being healed, and thankfully, though he huffed petulantly, Floyd rolled over onto his back.  While he was still using Azul as a pillow, he’d thankfully moved just enough to allow his lungs to remain inflated.

“Is that helping?”  Though one of Jade’s hands continue to hold his foot, the other began to slide up along his calf, soothing cramped muscles with every touch of his fingers until Azul was moaning softly in lazy pleasure.  He wasn’t sure if it was simply the cessation of the pain, or the delicious healing warmth flowing through his muscles, but he was unable to keep the sound from escaping his lips, earning curious looks from the two eels.  “I shall take that as a yes.”  Jade smirked in amusement, sending another burst of healing energy into the damaged limb.

Realizing that he was being ignored, Floyd studied them both for several minutes before grinning slyly at Azul. 

“Hey Azul, don’t you think that Jade was very rude, ignoring us at the party?”  His voice was soft and playful, his grin full of teeth.  It only grew wider when Azul cracked open an eyelid to study the eel in question even as he reached down, stroking his own long fingers through Floyd’s hair, earning himself a delighted murmling sound of pleasure. 

“Yes, I had noticed that.”  Vibrant blue eyes studied Jade through a screen of silver lashes as he lazily drawled out the words, giving Jade a playful poke with his foot.  “Sooo, What did you learn from the second years?  Anything useful?”  

In no hurry to answer, Jade instead merely continued his careful ministrations, dexterous fingers slowly working out the bruises from the inflamed flesh, soothing the aching muscles and gently increasing the blood flow.  The fact that he was thoroughly enjoying every soft hiss and each pulse of healing power elicited from the octopus was simply a delightful bonus.  Besides, he knew that the lovely silver haired youth wasn’t going to be distracted from his prey.  For all his playful whining, the octopus was worse than a shark on the scent trail of blood when on the hunt for information. 

“Quite a bit actually.”  He finally admitted with a soft smile, enjoying the soft gasp which slipped past Azul’s lips when he found a particularly sore spot.  “These humans are terrible at keeping secrets and are far too free with all sorts of valuable information.  I barely had to work for it at all.”  While he spoke, his fingers dug into the elegant arch of Azul’s foot, making the octopus wriggle slightly in response, earning a curious look from Floyd who seemed rather entranced by the sounds and movements.  “It’s almost disappointing.”  He sighed in mock sorrow.  “I was hoping for more of a hunt.” 

Beneath his hands, Azul purred happily, his eyes drifting shut once more as Jade’s hands slid up higher along his leg, the healing energy making his blood hum and his heart beat a little faster. 

“But all information has worth in its own way, even when cheaply given.” 

“Mmm, it’s the little tidbits people drop without even realizing which often prove to be the most valuable.  Little pearls within the heart of the oyster.”  The smile Azul shot them was full of smug delight as he leaned up slightly in anticipation, his fingers tightening in Floyd’s hair, earning a pleased moan from the captive eel.  “Tell me.” 

It was impossible not to admire how those cruel eyes lit up with wicked anticipation, sharp as an eel’s fang and just as vicious.  Unable to help himself, Jade leaned forward and nuzzled his evil little octopus’ cheek, receiving a sharp nip on his earlobe in response.

“Such impatience.”

“Such impertinence.”

“Ugh, just tell him already Jade.”  Floyd cut in, reaching up and grabbing onto his brothers long black lock of hair and tugging him down within range of his own teeth, snickering when he jerked back just in time to avoid a rather nasty nip to his throat.

“Oh?  The two of you are keeping secrets from me now?”

“Nah, Azul just has a terrible sense of smell.”  Floyd gave Jade’s hair another playful tug even as he shot Azul a look of sweet innocence.  “Really, really terrible.”  Giggling happily at the dark looks he was shot from the other two, he resumed nibbling along Azul’s thigh, enjoying prodding his two favourite people.

Shaking his head in mild exasperation, Jade flashed his brother a sweet smile which caused the other eel to freeze warily mid nip.

“What he’s saying… rather badly I might add, is that there are several mer-kin in the dorm.” 

“Ow ow ow Azul!... Azul, hair!”  Floyd whined loudly as Azul now sat all the way up, his tight grip on Floyd’s hair causing him to mash the eels face into the sheets.  He didn’t know which of the eels to glare at first for holding out on him with this important information.

“Relax Azul.”

“Relax?  How can I relax when there’s other merfolk out there!  The bastards, I bet they were watching us fumble through that mess, laughing at us behind their smiles…”

“Um… Azul?  You’re mushing me.  I can’t breathe…”  Releasing the captive Floyd with a disgusted sound, Azul made to get up off the bed, exhaustion be damned.  Flashing each other a meaningful glance, the twins nodded at each other, then as one, they moved to pin the irate octopus back down onto the bed.

“I said mer-KIN, not merfolk.”  Jade clarified, keeping his hands away from any possibly snapping teeth… just in case. 

“Impossible.  Kin are just a story made up to scare fry!”

“Meh, they’re not so scary.  More gross than anything.”

Jade and Azul matched stares, their wills clashing against each other while Floyd simply waited to see how it would end this time.  Everyone beneath the waves knew the story of mer-kin, creatures born of magically enhanced unions between potion disguised merfolk and unknowing humans.  Creatures doomed to forever walk the surface, feeling the call of the depths, but never able to reach them.  Just thinking about it made Floyd shudder in disgust.  He couldn’t imagine how horrible it would be to be born in the wrong body, trapped forever away from where you knew you truly wanted to be.  Sure, these leg and feet things were sort of fascinating, but his tail was by far the superior limb.

“I suppose it would make sense as to why Octavinelle is beneath the waves.”  Azul murmured to himself thoughtfully, his mind already turning, working out how to benefit from this.  “These poor unfortunate souls would be longing for the reefs and most comfortable seeing the sea out their windows.  How many do you figure are Kin?”

“We figure that nearly half are mer-kin, though most are so diluted that it’s hard to tell.  We weren’t sure until we reached the dorm.  You can smell it everywhere.”  Jade spoke for them both while Floyd simply let his head bob up and down in agreement, content to butt in at his leisure.  “Most likely great grandparents at best, some much more distant than that.”

“But that boring guppy Glaucous, he’s about a quarter.”  Floyd grinned savagely.  “It must drive him crazy, being so close to the water but not having a proper tail.  He’ll never be part of the ocean, just a stupid human bobbing around on the waves till a big fishy comes by and chomps him up… then he really will be a part of it all… as poop… then as phytoplankton… then as all the little hungry fishies… sort of a circle of life… thingy.”  Twirling his finger in the air as he spoke, Floyd couldn’t quite resist giving a little playful giggle.

“Does he know what we are?”  Ignoring the one brother, leaving him to his nonsense, Azul focused his attention on Jade who shook his head. 

“If he did, he’s superb at hiding it.”  His tone left little doubt to his assessment and Azul didn’t doubt him for a moment.  All three of them were masters at the subtleties of body language, but Jade was truly brilliant at reading it.

“Anyone else we need to look out for in that regard?”

“He’s the big fish… so to speak.”  Jade smiled, showing the edges of his teeth, his eyes glittering and dangerous.  “He also tends to travel with a little school of his own, some of the larger boys from second and third year.  A few mentioned that he would likely try to recruit Floyd and I as additional muscle.” 

Chuckling in amusement at the idea of either of the twins working for someone other than him, Azul wasn’t at all worried.

“And what does that dear boy have to worry about to require his own little army?”  He asked, long lashes fluttering as they drifted closed once more, letting Jade’s hands resume their work.  “It seems a tad… overdone for a simple dorm leader.”

“I’m not sure.”  Jade admitted after a long, thoughtful pause.  “The senior students grew rather tight lipped regarding the details, but I’m confident that we’ll learn soon enough.  Secrets are like plankton here, drifting freely on the current.”

“Well, I’m not taking orders from some stupid human.”  Floyd stated firmly, his eyes narrowing in contempt.  “Or some creepy Kin.  I only listed to Jade and Azul…. Sometimes.”  He added with a playful grin.  “So you need to get that human potion fixed fast Azul.  “Once we’re designer humans, we can have so much fun!”  His voice rose into a delighted squeal as he bounced a little bit on the bed in excitement.  Pausing in surprise at the springing sensation, he laughed even louder then gave a more forceful bounce, well on his way to becoming distracted once more… and nearly knocking Azul off the bed in the process.  “Ooooh, I like this!”

“Ugh, Floyd, if you’re going to do that, go to one of the other sleeping areas!”  Azul snapped, motioning towards the two other beds in the room, too tired to deal with his companion’s antics.

“Don’t wanna.” Bounce bounce bounce.  It was giving Azul a headache and aggravating his already brittle temper.  He was one more bounce away from attempting to strangle the much stronger eel when Jade gently reached over and placed his hand on Floyd’s shoulder, stilling him.

“You’re just overtired Floyd, so are you Azul.  We’re all exhausted and should sleep.  We’re likely going to have an even longer day tomorrow.  There’s a half day of orientation for classes, then something called Club Registration.  The second years were talking about it.”

“We get clubs!?!?”

“I’m sure it was merely metaphorical Floyd.”  Jade’s smile was full of patience as he gave his brother a little push, laying him down on the bed, then turned to Azul.  Flashing him a look with made it obvious that he expected the octopus to follow suit, more importantly, to do so without argument.  Said octopus considered being rebellious for half a heartbeat, but then a huge yawn forced his mouth open wide, forcing him to quickly cover it with his hand, his cheeks flushing with heat once more as the gaping mouth certainly caught the attention of the twins.

“You still have more secrets to share.”  He mumbled somewhat grudgingly, noting that neither twin denied it.

“I do.”  Jade admitted, laying on the bed and pulling Azul down with him, setting the smaller mer between the two of them, his favourite position to sleep in.  “But we’re much too tired to deal with such things.  Best to examine it all with a clear head.”

“Mmm.”  Azul could already feel his eyelids growing heavy as the weight of the day pressed down on them.  They’d accomplished so much in such a short period of time.  Just this morning they’d been swimming in the ocean as merfolk, then they’d become human, learned to walk, performed a ritual to take them to Night Raven College and joined the Octavinelle dorm.  Perhaps Jade was right, it was best to study new information with a clear head rather than muddy the waters with fatigue.

Snuggling against the two eels, he smiled as he felt them wrap their long limbs around him, trapping the three of them in a surprisingly comfortable embrace despite the lack of entwining tails.

“…You never finished healing me.”  Azul mumbled into Jade’s chest, already feeling Floyd’s breathing deepening against the back of his neck.  His head was gently jostled as his pillow bounced softly in laughter and he felt fingers stroking through his hair, further relaxing him.

“You could always heal yourself you know.”

“Mmmm, not as much fun.”  He mumbled into warm dry skin, pulling Floyd’s arm a little more tightly around himself and snuggling deeper into the comfort of their embrace.

“Agreed.”  The words were no more than a whisper, but they still made Azul smile as he drifted off into sleep, lulled by the sound of the current outside their window, and the gentle breathing of his companions.

Chapter Text

               It was the unfamiliar surroundings which woke Jade up more than anything.  The three of them, all being distantly related to ambush predators, had always possessed a rather strong sense of special awareness, and right now, Jade’s was telling him that the space they were in was much too large to be properly secure for sleep.

               As always, he took several long seconds to carefully examine the area with his sense of smell, breathing in the familiar scents of Azul and Jade coupled with the strange undertones of “other” which he was still struggling to equate with their new human bodies.  

               This time there was neither the maddening throb of magic nor the chattering of humans overwhelming his senses with unfamiliar scents and feelings.  Now, there was only silence, filled with the comforting awareness of his brother and Azul, just as it should be.  At least the hint of the sea still clung to them, hidden underneath the warm dry flesh and intriguing salty red blood. 

               A gentle smile tugged at his lips as he opened his eyes, drinking in the sight of the two most precious points of light in his life, both twining around him as well as their new bodies could manage.  While it wasn’t as perfect as he was used to, he certainly wasn’t going to complain.  After all, they’d made it.  Achieved the impossible.  Most importantly, they’d done it together.

Smiling down at their slumbering forms, Jade couldn’t help but ponder innocent and harmless they both looked, especially now that Floyd had exchanged fangs and fins for soft pale flesh which looked oh so easy to tear apart.  Azul in contrast had always looked this delicate, but that was part of his strength.  People always underestimated him, seeing the Leech twins as the true threat… until they got a taste of the dark power seething within that small form, and the even darker ambition.

               Reaching out a hand, he gently brushed his fingertips across pale dry cheeks and was rewarded with a small sound of contentment as the little octopus snuggled even more tightly against his body, as if trying to burrow beneath him.  It was adorable really, and no one could blame him for leaning forward for a moment, nuzzling that soft head of moonlight bright hair, breathing in the delicious scent of the ocean trapped within it.

               Azul must have been truly exhausted to still be so deeply asleep as to allow Jade such liberties, not that he was complaining.  It was so rare to ever see his companion to unguarded.  However, his movements hadn’t gone wholly unnoticed.  Feeling eyes on him, he glanced up and saw Floyd watching him over those shining curls, laughter dancing in the depths of his eyes.

               “No regrets?”  He asked his twin in a soft voice, long fingers still stroking through that too soft hair, marveling at how much more sensitive to touch his skin was.  Everything seemed to send pleasant little tingles along his nerves, and he couldn’t resist indulging himself for these few peaceful moments. 

               As if sensing his thoughts, Floyd wrapped his arm a little more tightly around Azul’s waist, resting his chin on the slender youth’s shoulder.  With his other hand, he reached out and gently stroked his fingers through Jade’s hair, the tips of his nails lightly scratching sensitive scalp, making him shiver slightly in pleasure.

               “Regrets are excuses for people who can’t own up to their choices.”  Floyd drawled lazily, favouring that tender flesh with a playfully light nibble, then giggling softly as Azul squirmed against them both in his sleep.  “They’re for losers who lack commitment.  I said I’d follow Azul so long as he stayed interesting, and I’ll stick to that.”  A smile tugged at his lips, showing the edges of teeth.  “Do you doubt me?”  The nails dug into his scalp in playful warning, daring his brother to bite back and escalate the game.

               “Doubt is for those who lack faith in their choices.”  Jade replied easily, pleased to see that Floyd was in a mood to play a little.  He’d been worried that the strange surroundings might upset his rather mercurial brother.

               “Yeah, around and around in stupid little circles.”  Floyd continued blithely, a grin tugging at his lips.  “Doubt, regret… weak words for weak people.  Speaking of weak.  I really don’t like these bodies.”  His smile faded somewhat as he spoke, and he released Jade’s hair with a slight huff of annoyance.  “So soft and useless.  We’re no better than the Mer-kin like this.”

“Now now Floyd, that’s rather harsh don’t you think?”  While there was gentle reproach in his words, his tone was one of amusement.  “They can’t help how they are, in fact, once we adjust to being around them, I’m sure it will open up countless opportunities for us.  After all, isn’t it our duty as full blooded mer to help our wayward cousins?”

“Ugh, They’re not my cousins.  I don’t even like our real cousins let alone some merfolk wannabes.  They’re going to be so annoying.  Waaah I want a tail.  Waaaah I want to breathe water.  Waaaah I want to talk to fish, Aaaah why is that shark eating me?  Hmph, Losers.”

“Oh I do hope so.  That’s three contracts right there for our lovely little Azul to play with, and you know that he’ll make those multiply quickly enough.”

“Yeah yeah I know… just so long as Azul makes fixing this human potion a priority.  I’m worried he’ll get wrapped up in pretending to be one of them.  He likes his body too much.  Don’t know why.  I think that the tentacles were pretty cool, and I like his dark skin better.  It made him look like a pretty shadow come to life.  This?  This is too delicate for Azul.   Ugh, but octopus like to hide and blend in, yeah?  Silly Azul, still trying even after so much time.” 

Sharing a fond look with each other, the twins glanced down at the slumbering youth, all too aware of his desperate desire to fit in, to meet some strange psychological need that the twins simply didn’t understand.

“It’s not like octopus are social creatures.  He’s only doing it cause he’s stubborn and wants to prove all those stupid merlings at school wrong.”

               “Most likely.”  Jade observed thoughtfully, his fingers stilled their stroking of the soft hair and instead slid down to the pale column of his throat, feeling the smooth even pulse beating there, so close to the surface.  Delicate indeed.  These bodies were designed to be broken.  “But the humans seem to like him so far.”

               “Hmph.  Only because he’s pretty, even if he doesn’t see it.  Besides, the humans are stupid and gullible so we should enjoy the easy hunting while we can.  They’ll catch on eventually, and we’ll need as many as we can get in our debt for Azul to pull off all his plans.” 

               All Jade could do was nod his head thoughtfully.  That’s what it all came down to in the end, Azul’s plans.  Not that either twin doubted his ability to see them through, but it was their job to make it as easy as possible.  Having so many Mer-kin in the dorm was a mixed blessing and would have to be approached carefully if they wanted to use them to their full potential.  Granted, that was certainly one thing their little octopus excelled at, finding, and exploiting the full potential of a situation.

               “We’ll have to be careful.”  He murmured, still staring at that shining hair in fascination, loving how it seemed to pick up the shifting colours of the water outside their window. 

               “Hmm?  You felt it too huh?”  Their eyes met and a thoughtful look passed across Floyd’s face as he gave their little octopus another gentle squeeze, burying his face into the soft skin where Azul’s shoulder met his neck and taking a deep breath, savouring it.  “That coldness, like the Abyssal Trenches.”

Just the word made Jade shudder slightly as memories of that deep impenetrable darkness rose in the back of his mind.  Freezing waters, crushing pressure and the nothingness beneath them… worse was the knowledge that it wasn’t empty at all, but rather filled with twisted vicious creatures that made even the eels seem tame in comparison. 

“Remember when Dad took us to the edge that one time?”  Floyd’s voice faded into silence as both contemplated the terror of that trip. 

He and Floyd had floated there at the brink, staring down into the nothingness, trying desperately to pretend that they didn’t see the odd flickering light in the depths, calling them towards death… or worse.  Both had been so terrified that their father would order them to swim down into that all devouring darkness, to prove themselves in some stupid test.  Father had always loved those and had few cares regarding who he subjected to them.

               “Indeed… How could I forget?”  There was an odd tightness to Jade’s voice and for once, he was the first to look away, choosing instead to admire the lovely profile of the youth in his arms, so delicate and deadly.  Was Azul really from those depths?  Had he drifted up on the current like his parents thought?  Had faces just like his been watching from down there, tentacles reaching up to grab onto them and pull them into nothingness?  It made his heart speed up just thinking about it. 

“He wanted to teach us that we weren’t the biggest scariest fish in the sea.”  At least that’s what their father had said, but the twins were both in agreement that he’d just enjoyed seeing the two of them scared out of their minds.  Still, it had been a valuable lesson in its own terrifying way.  If they hadn’t seen it, felt it… they might not have recognized the shadow of it in that terrified little octopus they’d met so long ago.

“Dad was just being an asshole.”  Floyd scoffed, his jaw tightening for a moment in old anger, but it faded quickly.  “I like Azul better.  He’s the fun scary, and he’s ours.”

“Indeed he is Floyd.”  Jade agreed.  He was about to say more but noticed the slight telltale flutter of shining lashes warning that their lovely little Sea Witch was about to wake up.  Flashing Jade a wicked grin, Floyd began to nuzzle Azul’s slender throat, nibbling playfully at the tender skin and earning a soft moan in return as the pale form pinned between them arched his back in a rather elegant stretch.  A slender hand reached out, batting at Floyd’s face, but there was no force behind it and the playful eel was hardly dissuaded.

“Mmmm, Floyd, stop chewing on me.”  Azul murmured softly, wiggling in a most delightful manner against them, even as his cheeks took on a rather eye-catching rose sheen which immediately caught Jade’s eye.  “If you’re that hungry, go out and hunt something.”

“Why hunt when I have a tasty little octopus right here?”

“Ugh, I swear that one day I’m going to cover myself in blowfish toxin and see how much you like chewing on that.”  Sharp blue eyes finally opened and silvery brows furrowed in confusion while the mind behind them struggled to sort out exactly where they were.  Jade could see the exact moment that the connection was made because those beautiful eyes lit up and he sat up so fast that he ended up shouldering Floyd in the nose hard enough to send him reeling back.

“We’re on land!”

“Ow my nose!”

“Well, technically, we’re on a bed.”  Jade playfully teased the eager young octopus, a smile tugged at his lips as he found Azul’s enthusiasm to be more than a tad infectious.  “A bed under the water more specifically, but yes, you got us to the surface and then to the college.”  The smile his answer received put the burning sun to shame and no one could really blame him for taking a moment to drink it all in.  After all, Azul was normally so guarded with his true emotions that to see something so uninhibited was a rare treasure indeed. 

“And our pens!?” 

“On the desk.”  Jade assured him.  “You both just dropped them with your robes last night.  Such carelessness.”  He chided them gently, but there was no heat behind it.  The fact that any of them had made it to their room was a small miracle in and of itself. 

“Meh, we knew that Jade would keep them safe.”  Floyd shrugged, not looking at all concerned, while Azul appeared to be horrified that he’d made such a terrible lapse in judgement.  Choosing to ignore the former and address the concern of the latter, Jade reached out and took hold of Azul’s foot once again.

“You were exhausted, and in pain.”

“That’s no excuse.  The Sea Witch would never have let such a weakness cause her to misplace a valuable magical artifact, let alone one intrinsically tied to her.”  Azul shot back angrily, though the target of said anger was aimed inwards rather than at either of the eels.  At least he didn’t try to pull his foot out of Jade’s grasp.

“The Sea Witch was an ancient sorceress, you’re a sixteen-year-old octopus.  Let yourself grow into greatness.”  Smiling playfully, Jade tugged at the largest of Azul’s toes.  “Besides, I was keeping an eye on them.  That IS why you keep us around isn’t it?  To mind the little details while you’re busy conquering the world?”

“And to beat stuff up and scare the guppies.”  Floyd amended.  “Don’t forget about that!” 

It didn’t look like Azul was at all mollified by their little inspirational speech and he gave them both a rather skeptical look.

“You were just as sore and tired as I was, but you still managed to not only keep track of our pens, but to clean up after the two of us.”  He shot back sullenly.

“We heal faster than you do naturally.”  Jade’s hands began to skillfully massage the lovely little foot as he spoke, working out the minute cramps and bruising his healing had missed last night.  “Besides, we’re physically stronger and tougher than you are, so we’re built to handle a little more pain.”

It likely wasn’t the best choice of words because Floyd was immediately in between them, a wide grin splitting his face in half. 

“Yeah, we’re not as fragile as little tiny Azu-OW!”  He was cut off in mid taunt as Azul’s free foot shot out, catching the eel rather soundly in the stomach, sending him falling back off the bed where he landed heavily on the floor.  Not even bothering to hide his smirk, Azul looked over at Jade and sighed dramatically.

“I suppose you’re right.”  That smooth voice was so smug that Jade could feel it on his skin.  “That did hurt my fragile little foot.”  Lifting the offending foot, he wiggled his toes playfully and held it out for Jade’s inspection. 

Rolling his eyes in amusement, Jade leaned back a little, ensuring that he wasn’t going to be in the middle of any retaliatory strikes.  Even now, he could see Floyd slinking along the side of the bed, staying below Azul’s line of sight. 

Pretending ignorance, he instead enjoyed his last few moments of peacefully studying the dainty foot in his hand.  Sadly, it wasn’t more than a second or two before Floyd launched himself up over the edge of the bed at the reclining octopus.  His grand and lethal pounce was foiled however by a pillow smacking him rather soundly in the face.  It was a rather impressive hit considering the bad angle, and it sent Floyd off course just enough that he landed on the bed next to Azul rather than on top of him. 

Laughing in delight at the new game, Floyd grabbed at the pillow, trying to pull it away, only to learn that despite the change in forms, Azul still had one hell of a grip when he wanted to. 

Realizing that he wasn’t going to be able to pry his prize loose, the much larger eel chose a new tactic and attacked Azul’s arms themselves.  Grabbing onto those slender wrists, he used his vastly superior strength to pin them to the bed on either side of Azul’s head then straddled the slender form.

“Hmmm, looks like I win.”  He grinned down at the trapped body beneath him, their faces only inches apart.  “Now what should I take as my prize?”  Giggling softly, he closed the distance between them, tracing his tongue along Azul’s cheek playfully and then nibbling on one of those round and delicate little ears.  “Perhaps breakfast in bed?”

Jade watched as Azul seemed to tense up, his entire body turning a brilliant pink, but judging by how his breath had hitched so delicately, Jade was rather positive that the emotion currently flooding the bound octopus wasn’t fear… quite the opposite actually. 

Still, ages of evolution had instilled the knowledge in all ocean dwelling creatures that the sudden onset of bright colours as a sure sign of impending danger, but Floyd was much too close, and far too occupied to notice.  Before Jade could give any sort of warning to his twin, Azul bucked his hips up sharply and twisted his body around.  In the small bit of space this movement created, his slender knee collided hard against Floyd’s groin with a smack which was just as much felt as heard.

Everything seemed to stand still, a horrible moment in time held suspended so that each and every painful detail could be seen in all its terrible glory. 

Never in all of his life had he ever seen Floyd’s face go so perfectly slack, empty of all emotion.  It was as if he’d been drained of everything in his shock.  Then, the already pale skin went even more lifeless, taking on a strange greyish hue which didn’t seem at all healthy no matter what body they were in. 

Mismatched eyes were saucer wide, staring blankly into space as his brain struggled to grasp what exactly had just happened.  Then, his mouth opened as he tried to speak, but instead of his usually melodic voice, all that came out was a strange broken sounding whine. 

Both Azul and Jade stared at him in absolute shock, neither having any idea what exactly had happened to cause this strange effect.  The shock quickly turned to horror when Floyd fell over onto his side, drawing his knees up tightly against his chest and clutching his groin as that terrible keening sound continued to fill the room, growing impossibly higher and more distressed as the normally unflappable eel shuddered, struggling to even draw breath into his body. 

“Darkest Abyss!”  Azul squeaked, twisting around quickly and reaching out to try to help Floyd, but receiving only a strangled snarl in return.  Frantic, the octopus looked at the equally stunned Jade.  “I didn’t mean to!”  He cried out, as if he was fully expecting to be attacked for this.  “There’s no way I could have hurt him!  He’s twice my size and I’m not that strong!” 

Feeling just as lost as Azul, Jade inched carefully over to his twin, making sure to stay in his line of sight as he did so, though for the life of him, he had no idea if Floyd even saw him.  It was a risk to approach any closer, but seeing as how their teeth were next to useless and they both lacked any claws or crushing coils, Jade decided to risk it.

“There’s no blood.”  Azul murmured from just over his shoulder, his mind already analyzing the incident from every angle possible.  “And there’s no residue of magic anywhere, so the hit wasn’t amplified, and I don’t sense any poison…” 

“Talk to us Floyd.”  Jade kept his voice as soothing as possible, no small feat considering the panic currently filling him at the sight of his twin in pain.  If it had been anyone other than Azul, they’d be dead right now, their bones shattered to dust for daring to lay a hand on Floyd.  Having seen the altercation with his own eyes, he knew that none of it made any sense.  “Can you heal this?” 

“…kill me.”  The tormented eel gasped out, his voice little more than a tortured squeak as he fought for breath.  His body was still curled up in a tight little ball and his colour was returning, though now it had gone to the other end of the spectrum, becoming a rather livid crimson which Jade was quickly learning meant a heightened state of agitation.  At least he was speaking and responding… that was a good sign.

By silent agreement, Azul and Jade reached out their hands, resting them on Floyd’s trembling shoulders and he’d be lying if he didn’t admit to a small flush of relief that the contact didn’t spark an attack.  Granted, there was still time for that. 

Despite the risks, the two of them opened themselves up to the magic flowing through them all and focused on healing his body, both breathing a sigh of relief as Floyd’s magic accepted theirs, drinking in their power.

It had always been so easy to heal each other, the magic flowed like a gentle current between them, eagerly pooling in their hands and sliding through their bodies.  Being up on the surface didn’t seem to have affected it at all and in seconds they could feel themselves opening up to Floyd’s pain.

The agony was so intense, that Jade was half convinced that it was backlash, but it lacked that sharp brackishness that always flavoured twisted magic.  Instead, this was more akin to having his tail split in half once more, only rather than sliding down his legs from his groin, it seemed to be localized in one spot, throbbing agonizingly in time with his heartbeat and threatening to steal the air from his lungs.

A loud grunt of pain slipped past his lips and next to him, he could hear Azul gasp sharply, his body stiffening as he struggled to not pull away despite sharing in the suffering.

At least the pain shared was pain thirded, and as their nerves sought to balance out the sudden influx of new sensation, they could feel Floyd relaxing under their hands, drawing in breath much more easily than before.  Little by little, the tight ball he’d tucked himself into loosened and they could once again see his face.  The features were screwed up in a grimace of pain, but lacked that shocked vacancy from before.

Refusing to stop the flow of magic between them until it had all been eased away, the two grit their teeth and held their focus, releasing it minutes later when Floyd finally let out a long and rather drawn-out sigh, his muscles going lax as he unfolded into a limp sprawl on the bed.

“Are you alright?”  Azul asked, sounding rather tentative and no doubt expecting to be either chewed out, or chewed on by a furious eel. possibly both.  While normally he would have been openly gloating over winning such an easy victory over the physically superior Leech brother, he seemed positively contrite.  Granted, it was one thing to leave a few playful bruises or bite wounds, quite another to cause that level of pain in an ally. 

“I believe we found a rather terrible weakness in the human body.”  Jade mused out loud after several long seconds of silence had passed.  Unsurprisingly, his observation earned himself a rather heated glare from Floyd.

“No shit.”  He growled.  “I think you broke my dangly thing!  I knew that thing was trouble!”  Perhaps it wasn’t the best choice of words as it did take away the possible gravity of the situation, but Floyd was always going to Floyd, so as usual, Jade simply went along with it.

“Well, at least you weren’t planning on breeding this season.”  He assured him gently, reaching out to give his brother a reassuring pat on the shoulder, then quickly snatching his hand back as Floyd snapped at hit irritably.

“Ugh, I hate fry!  Don’t even joke about that Jade!  Can’t you see that I was horribly injured!?  By the way Azul, that was a totally badass hit, but if you ever do that again, I’m gonna squeeze you till your head pops off.”

“Noted, and I do appreciate the warning.”  While Floyd seemed to be bouncing back well enough from his earlier agony, Azul still appeared to be somewhat in shock over the whole ordeal, which only seemed to egg the eel on.

“And I will reiterate that human bodies are stupid and make no sense.  Azul, add this to the list of stupid human things you need to fix with that new potion, or I’ll bite you.” 

“Hardly much motivation.  You’ll bite me anyway.”

“Yeah… but this time I’ll do it hard.”  Jade felt himself relax a little as he watched the two bicker playfully with each other.  Every time he thought that he’d figured out these strange bodies, they seemed to throw another surprise their way.  One would figure that such a great weakness would be something that the humans would have attempted to take into account in their daily lives.  How could they wander around leaving such a sensitive organ fully exposed to the world and its many dangers?  Were they simply fearless?  Had their nerves become deadened to such pain as they grew older, or were they simply insane?  Perhaps they enjoyed the pain and saw it as some sort of show of strength to be able to endure it?  He had so many questions, and no one to ask.

As if following along his own train of thought, Azul glanced down at the pale floppy organs dangling between their own legs and frowned thoughtfully.   Reaching out a hand, he took hold of Jade’s length and began to examine it, turning it one way, then the other, trying to figure out what exactly made it so vulnerable to attack.

“Odd that humans would keep something so vulnerable out in the open.”  Azul murmured, leaning a little closer and seemingly oblivious to how Jade suddenly stiffened, his breath catching in his throat as he stared down at his curious companion with widening eyes.

 “It’s so soft, you’d think that they’d have formed some sort of exoskeleton, or at least tucked it up into a body cavity like the cetaceans.”

“Yeah, well those guys are all sort of messed in the head if you ask me.”  Floyd grumbled, giving his own member a bit of a poke then wincing as he realized that it was still rather tender.  “I mean, why live in the ocean if you’re gonna insist on breathing air like some moron?  Can’t they just commit to one thing?”

As much as Jade would have liked to have added something to the conversation, he was too busy staring at Azul to form any coherent words, let alone string them together in a comprehensible sentence.  Those warm hands of his felt amazing against his skin and his already sensitive flesh seemed to be growing even more so with every movement of those inquiring fingers. 

Pleasurable sensations seemed to radiate from every point of contact, rippling along his nerves in the most fascinating way as it made his skin shiver.  More interestingly, it all seemed to pool together just below his belly, becoming a delicious and molten pool of heat that made him want to squirm uncontrollably. 

A gentle squeeze made him gasp softly, forcing him to bite his lip in order to keep quiet, and while Azul either didn’t notice, or didn’t care, Floyd certainly did.  Deciding that watching this little show was much more fascinating than poking at his own sore genitals, Floyd leaned closer, smirking as he saw the effect it was having on Jade.

“Imagine carrying your reproductive organs on the outside.”  Azul chuckled softly as he slid his hands lower, examining the smooth sack of warm malleable flesh hidden beneath the shaft.  Another soft sound slipped past Jade’s lips as he struggled to keep his hips still, but the urge to press against that touch, to feel more of those skilled fingers stroking across his flesh was growing with every passing second. 
               “Yeah, just imagine that Jade.”  Floyd smirked at him, thoroughly enjoying the torture written across his brother’s face.

These strange sensations were too new to ignore no matter how hard Jade tried.  His head was growing dizzy, his breathing sped up and he could feel the skin around his shaft tightening as it began to grow engorged from Azul’s ministrations.  What was worse, the firmer it grew, the more sensitive his flesh became.  It was a vicious cycle of sensation and Jade couldn’t figure out if he wanted it to stop, or desperately wanted to see where it all led.   

Realizing that the flesh in his hands was in fact growing larger and firmer with every passing second, Azul blinked in surprise, his mouth forming a perfect little “oh!” which was matched only by how wide his eyes were.

“This is fascinating!  Are you seeing this?!”

“Yup.  Pretty sure you’re killing Jade.”  Floyd replied, giving the rapidly darkening flesh a poke with his finger and then looking up at his brother.  “You’re making the funniest faces Jade.”  He giggled in amusement, causing Azul to pause his examination for a moment to look up at his research subject in concern.

“Are you alright?” 

“FINE!!!  I’m… I’m fine…”  The words burst out of Jade’s mouth far too loudly for his usually subdued nature and he struggled for a little of his vaunted self control.  The urge to grab onto Azul’s hand and make him keep touching him was almost overpowering and he couldn’t quite keep his hips from jerking slightly, seemingly on their own volition, starved for more sensation.  “I just… it’s…. it’s rather sensitive.”  His voice sounded so strained that had his body not been practically humming with pleasure, he’d have been convinced that he was in agony and trying to hide it. 

“Wow… Jade’s dangly thing got big.”  Floyd added in his own helpful flavour commentary.  “And it’s changing colours, just like Azul’s face when I nibble him!”  A wide grin tugged at his lips as he flashed his brother a sly smirk.  “Maybe Jade’s the one who wants to breed this season.”  He snickered cruelly, happily turning his brother’s teasing back onto him.  “Is Jade wanting to make some fry?  Awww we could fill the hallways with the little things, really freak everyone out.”

“I’m not… I don’t want… ugh!”  His arguments were quickly silenced by Azul renewing those tormenting touches.  Always one to enjoy taking advantage of any given situation, and likely claiming revenge over Jade’s playing with his feet, the octopus appeared to be savouring the tables being turned in his favour.

“Jaaaade wants to maaaate.”  Floyd giggled loudly, thoroughly enjoying his new game, but his taunts fell on deaf ears as the pleasure continued to build inside Jade’s body, making that pool of heat grow even more intense, wrenching several desperate whimpers out of him in the process. 

This was so far beyond anything he’d ever experienced before in his life.  The pleasure, the heat, the sheer delirious need that tore through him, filling him with urges that he had no idea how to even begin to interpret.  All he could do was shudder in response to the mounting pleasure, his head lolling back as he gasped loudly for air, riding out this wave of … well… whatever it was that was building up inside of him.

He’d never felt anything like this before, hadn’t even believed that anything that felt this good could even exist!

Enjoying the rare chance to torment this particular twin, Azul wasn’t about to be so easily dissuaded and continued to stroke and tease the rapidly warming flesh, utterly intrigued with its size and firmness as well as how insanely sensitive it appeared to be if Jade’s reaction was any indication.  What with his head lolling back and his eyes fluttering closed.  Those gasping lips were almost slack, but his hips rocked forward, pressing himself into Azul’s hand as if they had a mind of their own and the pace was growing more frantic with every passing second.

“I think he’s gonna explode.”  Floyd breathed in absolute awe as he watched the show, unsure of which one of the two was more interesting to watch, so his head simply bobbed back and forth, trying to ensure that he didn’t miss a thing.  It was all so exciting, and if he’d still had his tail, he’d be swimming around them both in tight circles, watching from every possible angle. 

By now, Jade was completely under the power of his bodies need, his hips thrusting back and forth, pressing himself into Azul’s hands with a sort of frantic and erratic energy that left the young octopus in awe.  His own body was tingling with pleasure, growing with every gasp and twitch until he could feel his own flesh beginning to harden in response.

“Shit… it’s contagious!”  Floyd laughed in delight, seeing Azul’s physical response as well as his own.  “Humans are so crazy!”  Alright, so this was finally a point in their favour, at least in his opinion, and he was more than curious as to where this all could go, because it certainly was exciting!  Far more so than simply spraying semen over some ugly eggs, because that was about as intriguing as just taking a piss.

The three of them were so wrapped up in this newest discovery that none of them noticed the knocking on the door, growing louder and louder until finally, whoever was on the other side grew desperate enough to burst in regardless of the dangers within.  By then, it was far, far too late. 

“Hey guys!  You need to hurry up and get ready or you’re going to be late for breakfa-HOLY SHIT!”   Carmine instantly regretted his choice to enter the room.  The others had warned him against intruding, reminding him of the size and volatility of the Leech twins, but he’d felt that he’d had a duty to his fellow first years, especially after Azul had scored him that sweet, sweet solo room.

Frozen in shock, all he could do was stare in utter mortification… and no small amount of awe as Jade threw his head back and howled in release, his whole body seeming to spasm violently as it erupted in new and exciting ways.  Unprepared for the rather… explosive results, Azul received the worst of it as hot semen covered his hands and chest in long liquid ropes.  Leaving the silver haired youth stunned and staring as it began to dribble down in sticky rivulets.

Too distracted to immediately notice the intruder, Carmine’s rather vocally impressive expletive certainly caught their attention.   He barely had enough time for his mind to flash through a lifetime of regrets, this one featuring most prominently as he felt the flare of wild magic build up in the air around him.

Still riding the blistering rush of his first orgasm, his mind clouded by the overload of unfamiliar hormones, Jade reacted purely on instinct, hurling an utterly uncontrolled spell at the intruder, and inadvertently fueling it with all the energy of his first sexual release.  The end result being a rather impressive fireball which roared through the room, sucking up all the available air before slamming into the wall hard enough to shake not only the room, but likely a good chunk of the dorm itself.  Even the magically reinforced windows rattled ominously in their frames, sending all the nearby fish scattering in terror.

Also reacting with impressive split-second timing, but thankfully more interested in taking prisoners than outright murder, Azul threw a spell of his own.  His intent had been to throw a water net, a simple enough spell which he’d used hundreds of times to hunt fast moving fish, only, for the first time ever, he wasn’t surrounded by the necessary element.  Lacking the liquid to draw upon, Azul’s magic worked with the next best thing and pinned the intruding first year to the floor with a milky looking net of rather sticky fluid. 

Carmine was dragged to the floor just as the fireball passed over his head, leaving only a few singed locks of hair in its wake.

Floyd… well, Floyd just watched the whole mess unfold with a look of absolute awe, rather sure that this was turning out to be the best day ever! 

“FUCK ME!  Jade just threw the sun at the guppy!”

“Shit shit shit, it’s all over the room!  It’s eating the walls!”

“Is this cum??!  Did you throw a cum net at me!?!?  OH MY GOD!”

“This is the BEST DAY EVER!!”

“Shut up Floyd and help me kill it!”

“I think Jade’s dead by the way.”

“DAMMIT!”

“It’s touching my skiiiin!”

“Shut up Carmine!  How do I stop this thing?!”

“OH MY GOD YOUR ROOM’S ON FIRE!”

“YES, WE NOTICED!  HOW DO WE STOP IT!?”

“WHY DID YOU THROW FIRE AT ME!?!”

“Better hurry, looks like it’s growing.”

“Shut up and help Floyd!”

“Nope, this is more fun!”

“Ugh!  Carmine, how do we kill this thing!?”

“Water!  Throw water at it!”

“Are you serious!?  Water?”

“WE’RE GONNA DIIIIE!”

Still lost in his euphoric post coital bliss, Jade was content to simply watch the chaos from the bed as Azul grabbed his pen off the nearby desk, conjuring up a rather impressive amount of water and flinging it at the strange creature.  It was actually rather pretty as far as wall devouring beasts went, and Jade was sort of sad to see it go, but it was making things rather uncomfortably hot and a little hard to breathe.

The fire hissed angrily as Azul threw the water at it, but as Carmine had yelled, it seemed to do the trick, somehow shrinking the strange beast even as it struggled to climb up onto the ceiling, still shimmering with the most fantastic colours.  Floyd was right, it did rather resemble the sun what with all those brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges.

Dimly, he wondered if he should be helping, but really, Azul seemed to have everything in hand, and he’d be lying if he said that he wasn’t enjoying watching the octopus take charge of the situation, throwing magic around with remarkable ease considering all of his earlier warnings.  Really, people didn’t give Azul enough credit with his castings.  Even in an alien environment, he was manipulating the energies around him with remarkable skill.  It brought a smile to his lips as he gave a rather contented sigh.

“That was totally like watching a sea cucumber shit out its guts!  I didn’t know you were part cucumber Jade.  Do it again!”  A rather thoroughly delighted Floyd broke into his happy musings as an annoying finger poked him several times before his twin flopped down next to him on the bed, still grinning ear to ear as he watched the show. 

“It’s no fair really.  Azul was a lot nicer to your dangly bits than to mine, AND you got to make an explosion.  That’s doubly not fair!”  He paused thoughtfully to admire the rampant chaos around him.  “Still exciting though.”  Barely listening, Jade simply nodded his head, still too lost in the pleasant lassitude of his body to care about his brother’s banter.

“Get this thing off me!”  Carmine was wailing, struggling against the sticky strands which continued to hold him pinned to the floor.  His normally sweet face was twisted into a look of absolute horror as his mind struggled to grasp the pure level of shit show he’d walked into. 

Seeing that the strange beast had been disintegrated by the sustained water attack, Azul gave his pen a little flick, sending the excess liquid back into the ocean on the other side of the window, then after a moment of thought, gave a second little wave in Carmine’s direction, dissolving the net away and leaving the boy with nothing worse than a slight singeing and severe emotional scarring.

“Hey Azul, more people are coming.”  Floyd called out from the bed, grin still fixed firmly in place.  “Want me to stop them?”

“Oh, NOW You decide to help?”  The octopus shot him a look of profound annoyance as he extended a hand, trying to help Carmine up to his feet.

“Not really.”  The eel admitted.  “I just wanted to throw magic around too.” 

“No, just stay there and don’t cause trouble.”  Azul snapped as he pointed his pen at the wall and focussed on trying to create a simple static illusion of an unburnt wall.  It didn’t help that he really hadn’t paid any attention to what the room had looked like last night… or this morning, so he opted for simply creating a blank and uncharred surface.  Hopefully that would work until they could get everything fixed.  As for Carmine’s new hairstyle, Azul simply tightened his grip on the boy’s hand and flashed in a rather tooth filled smile.

“Say nothing of this.”  He ordered in a soft voice, turning them both so they faced the door before releasing the human’s hand.  There was no need for threats, the boy looked rattled enough as it was. 

It was a surprise to absolutely no one when Glaucous was the first to stride boldly into the room as if he owned it.  Long bright blue hair had been washed and brushed, then draped elegantly over his shoulder, though his uniform was only partially buttoned, warning that they’d dragged him away form his morning routine.  His pen was out and held in an attack position, ready to take down anyone who dared stand in his way and he looked more than willing to do it.

Two larger third year students flanked him attentively, pens also at the ready while their eyes quickly scanned the room for any possible threats, pausing on the occupants, then doing double and triple takes as their brains struggled to grasp what they were seeing.

“..Um…”  One of them began, but Azul cut them off with a brilliant smile, immediately taking charge of the conversation with all of his usual manipulative grace.

“Good morning Dorm Leader Glaucous.”  Azul practically chirped, acting for all the world as if these newest guests were both welcomed and expected.  There was no hint of his growing irritation at having so many humans in his little sanctuary… no… humans and mer-kin.  Even worse.  Ugh, now that he knew what to look for, he could almost feel it flavouring the Dorm Leader’s personal energy, the faintest hint of the ocean, but diluted and pathetically weak, his goons had it as well, though even fainter.  “I’m terribly sorry if I bothered anyone, but you see, in my eagerness to begin the day, I’m afraid that I’d set my alarm spell rather loud.  I’m deeply shamed that I hadn’t truly appreciated your words of warning last night and these pens do indeed focus and amplify our magic quite a bit.  I’ll be sure to take proper precautions in the future so as to not cause any problems.”

It was difficult to hold the smile in place when all he wanted to do was sneer and back away from the weak blooded abominations in front of him, but he held his ground, pretending for all the world as if nothing was wrong.  Oddly enough, despite his friendly assurances, the Dorm Leader didn’t seem to be at all accommodating.  In fact, he simply stood there, staring at Azul, looking him up and down repeatedly with eyes which grew wider by the moment.

Ugh, this was likely a wrappings issue.  Everyone else seemed to be wearing a new set of them, these ones looking even more complicated than the ones from the previous night.  Just thinking about having to put more on made his skin itch.

“Why are you naked Ashengrotto?”  Honestly, ice was warmer than this fool’s tone and it was hard to keep from bristling in response.  Still, years of learning how to play his peers like a piano had taught him patience, as well as manners, something this Kin clearly had failed to grasp when entering the territory of another.  Honestly, were none of the lessons of the Sea Witch heeded here?  Maybe Riddle was onto something regarding lack of discipline.

“Well, I was hardly expecting guests at such an early hour.”  He flashed Glaucous a charming smile, as if this was all just one silly misunderstanding, but again, the Dorm Leader didn’t appear to be the least bit amused.  “Which I do understand was an error on my part and as I said, I do apologize if I caused any commotion.  It won’t happen again.”  Mostly because next time he intended to seal the damn door with wards to keep everyone out but the three of them.  Honestly, while he enjoyed small spaces, it was rapidly becoming far too crowded in here.

“Answer the question.”

“I wasn’t aware that proper attire was required when one slept?”  He added with a polite shrugging of his shoulders.  What was this Kin expecting, groveling for mercy?

“And the explosion?  Do you take me for a fool?”  Azul was rather sure that Glaucous really didn’t want an honest answer to either part of that question.

“I was rather exhausted last night after the lovely welcoming party, and was concerned that I might oversleep so I’d added an amplification spell to my alarm figuring that there was no way I’d sleep through it.”  Another wide and innocent smile with just a tad of self depreciation in to lend it authenticity.  “I suppose in that regard I was correct, as I did in fact wake up rather quickly, though it seems, not quickly enough.”

“Um… it’s true sir.”  Carmine added in a somewhat strained voice.  “We all heard him use an amplification spell last night when rooms were being assigned.  He’s really good at it!”  The boy practically meeped and did his best to slink behind Azul as those cold deep blue eyes focused on him.

“Ah yes, that debacle.”  Glaucous sneered, giving Azul another long and lingering look before glancing over at the bed and its two equally naked occupants.  “I can only imagine why you would have gone to such lengths to make a mockery of the good name of our Dorm.  This is a place of learning, not a brothel, though I suppose it’s always good to know who the school slut is.”

The two goons next to him snickered at that, flashing their own less than friendly looks in Azul’s direction.  While the octopus didn’t quite understand the meaning of the words, having no basis of comparison, he certainly understood the tone, as did the twins.

Hissing softly, Floyd began to slide off the bed, more than ready to tear limbs off of anyone who dared to try to insult His octopus.  While Jade continued to remain motionless, his lazy pose vanished instantly as tension coiled up in his limbs, ready to launch himself into battle with the slightest signal from Azul.

Undaunted by the growing threat from the room’s occupants, Glaucous continued to sneer at them all as if they were nothing more than irritating bottom feeders.

“You get this room straightened up Ashengrotto.”  He warned in a low voice which left no room for compromise.  “And put some damn clothes on you and your boyfriends.  I expect you slags in the kitchen cooking us our breakfast in ten minutes, or else I’ll find some other way for you to make it up to me.”  Once again, his eyes took a long lingering look at Azul’s body, his sneer twisting into a rather unpleasant smirk which made the octopus want nothing more than to lash out with his now nonexistent tentacles and slowly pull his limbs apart while he drowned. 

“Of course Dorm Leader.”  He replied smoothly instead of indulging in his little fantasy.

“And if there’s another disturbance, I’ll take it out on your hide.”  The smile on Azul’s face never wavered for a moment as Glaucous and his goons turned around and strode out, confident that the first years were utterly cowed.  He paused at the door and glanced at the illusion draped wall in mild confusion.  “…Isn’t there a shelf supposed to be there?”  He muttered softly to himself, then giving his head a shake, stepped out into the hallway, only to be greeted with a rather large crowd.  Drawn by the sound of the explosion, then the screaming, the other first years all but clogged up the hallway with their bodies, staring with wide eyes.

“Get out of my way!”  Glaucous snapped as his two goons began to forcefully clear a path, causing everyone to scramble or risk being shoved into the walls. 

Dodging around the senior students, Sage poked his head in through the open door, his eyes widening at the state of undress of the occupants, though he recovered quickly.

“You might wanna avoid him for the next little while.”  He warned them, glancing over his shoulder to note their progress down the hallway.  “He looked pretty pissed.”

“Of course, thank you for the warning.”  Azul smiled, still managing to hide his rather impressive rage with years of practice at emotional suppression.

“At least he remembered your name?  Um… that’s something right?”  Sage struggled to tear his gaze away from the sheer amount of flesh on display, looking distinctly uncomfortable with the situation.  “Um…look, we’ll cover for you in the kitchen, you guys just get dressed and come down as soon as possible ok?”  Feeling as if he’d said all he could regarding the situation, he gave his head a quick nod and then closed the door, sealing Carmine in with the mer.

For a full thirty seconds, there was nothing but silence.  Glancing nervously over at the others, Carmine swallowed nervously, not quite sure how to handle everything that had just happened.  He’d always thought that he’d had a rather open mind given most situations, but that… that went way off his weird shit o’ meter.

“So….”  He stated, attempting to sound casual, but wincing when he realized just how unnaturally loud he sounded in the silence of the room.  “That was a thing…that happened…”

“Yes.”  Azul replied, still staring at the closed door, his face a perfectly composed mask, save for the eyes which blazed with the fury of a thousand burning suns.  Then, as Carmine watched, even that emotion was quickly snuffed out as if someone flipped a switch and the lovely silver haired youth smiled warmly at him.  “I do apologize for the semen net.  I didn’t have a lot of options at the time.”

“Yeah… words I never expected to hear strung together.”  Carmine sighed, then looked down at his arms, shuddering at the memory of that sticky fluid pinning him down.  “I think I’m going to go and have a long bath… and change my uniform… and maybe curl up in a corner and cry for a bit.  Um… no offense… this was just… you know, a little unexpected.”  Laughing nervously, he looked around the room, desperately trying to not meet anyone’s eyes.  “I mean, who expects a semen net… am I right?!”

“You know what?  I’m gonna kill him.”  Floyd stated loudly as he hopped off the bed, grabbed his pen off the desk and began heading for the door, his golden eye glowing with a malevolent light.  “Nope… nope… gonna maim him THEN tear out his organs in alphabetical order, then stuff the empty cavity with lampreys, then boil it all up with some spices and eat him… healing him juuust enough to keep him alive through it all.  THEN I’ll kill him!”

“Now now Floyd, you can’t just go rushing off stuffing fellow students full of live lampreys and spices.”  Jade replied smoothly, catching his brother’s arm and holding him back, his smile just as pleasant looking as always, though like Floyd, there was something dangerous simmering behind that mismatched stare.  “We need to ensure we get the seasoning just right or else the whole thing is just a wasted meal.”

“Don’t care.  I want him to scream and beg and then scream some more.”  Carmine hoped they were joking.  He REALLY hoped they were joking, but something inside him warned that they likely weren’t.  Still, for some reason, he was still in the room with three possibly psychotic cannibal sorcerers.  Honestly, this really wasn’t quite how he’d pictured his first day at Night Raven College going.

“You three are weird.  Like, seriously weird.  I’m not sure if I like it, or I’m just absolutely terrified out of my mind.”  Carmine murmured.  “Maybe a bit of both…”  Looking over at Floyd, still naked and gripping his pen angrily in his hand, he swallowed loudly once more.  “Maybe a lot of both.”

Speaking up likely wasn’t the best decision he’d had today, and considering how that day was going, that was really saying something.  All three of the possible cannibals were staring at him, not even hiding how they were sizing him up and Carmine really was beginning to wish that he’d had his pen drawn already, because he was feeling an awful lot like a little minnow staring into the face of a tiger shark… make that three tiger sharks.

“On the contrary my dear Carmine.”  Azul purred, slinking over to him with the strangest and most utterly conniving smile on his face that the boy had ever seen.  “I believe that we’re about to become your very best friends in the whole world.”

“Oh… great…”  Carmine couldn’t help but take a slight step back.   Judging by how the three of them were smiling at him, he was rather sure that he wasn’t about to get a choice in this arrangement.  Not if he wanted to get out of this room alive.

Chapter Text

               “Are you afraid of us Carmine?”  Azul smiled, his teeth dazzling in the aquarium light and his eyes resembling the steel of a knife blade.  No one had any right to be so intimidating when they were stark naked, but somehow, Azul was pulling it off and Carmine couldn’t help but want to race out of the room as quickly as his legs could carry him.  Damn Sage for locking him in here.  Couldn’t he see that he was in trouble and needed some backup?

               “Um… sort of?”  There really was no point in lying and pretending to be brave, he was positive that they could hear the frantic beating of his heart as it smashed against his ribs.  “I mean… you did throw a fireball at me.”

               “If it helps, it was supposed to be boiling water.”  Jade replied from the bed, those strange eyes of his still watching Carmine the way a cat would with a rather fat looking mouse.  It was more than a tad unsettling to be on the receiving end of such a stare, and it certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that Floyd was now circling him slowly, drifting a little closer at the end of each rotation.

               Through it all, Azul continued to watch him, those eyes of his seeming to peel away Carmine’s skin and bone, staring straight into his soul.  It made him feel like he was the naked one in the room, and he deeply wished that he had something a little sturdier than his school uniform on.

               “It’s wise to be afraid, but this could be a rather beneficial turn of events for you, depending on the next few minutes.”  Those strange knife blade eyes continued to hold him trapped as they analyzed every breath, every twitch of an eyelash. Nothing escaped his notice and Carmine couldn’t help but try to take another step back, only to find the way blocked by Floyd.

               “Don’t swim away before you hear the offer little fishy.”  He cooed playfully, flashing Carmine a rather toothy smile.  “It’s a chance of a lifetime.”  Carmine had to bite back the retort that of course it was, seeing how his life had the very real possibility of ending in the next thirty seconds.  There was no need to encourage them after all.

               “Indeed it is.” Azul smiled and stepped closer, his own smile growing a little wider as the distance between them grew smaller.  “You have something we need, and we’re willing to bargain in return.”

               “I do?”  He squeaked, trying to not look like he was as terrified as he felt, but it was a failed effort, especially when Jade slunk off the bed and approached the group.  The way he moved was smooth and relaxed, the way a predator would when idly sizing up possible prey.  All of them moved like that, and somewhere deep inside Carmine’s hindbrain, he recognized that he was nothing more than a tiny little choice piece of meat about to be devoured.

               “We need information.”  Azul murmured, standing close enough that Carmine could feel the heat radiating off his body.

               “But we also need your silence.”  Floyd purred into his ear, his chin resting on one shoulder while a long and rather surprisingly strong arm draped over his other one, pinning him rather effectively.

               “We need it all willingly given.”  Jade finished, stepping up behind Azul and rubbing his cheek against the shorter, silver haired youth, the caress incredibly intimate, especially given what Carmine had walked in on minutes before.  It also certainly didn’t help make him feel any better when the tall youth then walked past his brother, brushing against him with a rather languid sort of grace before leaning casually against the wall by the window, watching them all.

               “We need someone we can trust here.”  Azul concluded, as though nothing unusual or creepily incestuous had just happened, his eyes never leaving Carmine’s.  “So, shall we make a deal?”

               “You guys almost set me on fire and I didn’t tell anyone.”  Carmine pointed out, his voice sounding much meeker and higher pitched than usual and he couldn’t help but squeak loudly when he felt Floyd’s teeth nibble playfully at his earlobe.  Oh Founders, he really hoped that they weren’t cannibals on top of everything else.

               “Boiled”

               “That’s really not helping!”  He snapped somewhat defensively, then took a deep breath, realizing that there was likely only one way he was getting out of this room alive, and antagonizing the three rather creepy people wasn’t going to even out his odds.

Taking a deep breath, he did his best to calm the rapid beating of his heart and stop the terrified shrieking in his brain.  Neither were going to help him in this situation.  He needed to approach this with a cool and rational mind.  Don’t think about jizz nets or fireballs.  Don’t think about the fact that they’re still naked, everything just dangling there for anyone to see…He was so screwed.

“Look, I like you guys… even if you scare the shit out of me.”  It was hard to keep his voice steady and he did his best to keep his gaze facing forward, doing his best to not think about how all three of them were armed with their pens and waaay too close for his comfort.  “I’m also not an idiot, so I’m willing to bet you guys aren’t human.” 

If anything, their smiles grew a tad wider, though for the life of him, Carmine wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. 

“Aaaand, you’re all trying to pretend that you are.  I get it, sort of.  Are you beastmen who just didn’t want to be jocks?  Fae?  You guys totally have that creepy I might eat you for kicks vibe thing going…”  He was babbling again but just couldn’t seem to stop.  “That’s fine, I’m not gonna judge you, but if we’re gonna be on the same page here, could you guys maybe please put clothes on first?  I mean, that’s fine that you’re are all into each other, but I’m not and would feel really a lot better if I wasn’t feeling like I was about to feature in some reeeally questionable Magicam movie”

               “Hmmm fishy is smarter than he looks.  Can we keep him Azul?”

               “Well that depends.”  Azul smiled and held out his hand.  Carmine could feel the shiver of magic in the air, judging by the way all the fine hairs on his body stood at attention, this was some form of Unique Magic, only it was colder and far more powerful than anything he’d ever encountered before. 

Unable to help himself, he clenched his eyes shut, absolutely convinced that he was about to die before he could draw his next breath, but… his lungs expanded and contracted without incident.  In fact, all he felt was the tickling of breath against his ear as Floyd continued to giggle.  Curious and more than a tad confused, Carmine opened his eyes. 

               Of all the things he’d expected to see, a rather beautiful golden scroll rolled up neatly in Azul’s dainty hand and tied off with a silken ribbon certainly wasn’t one of them.

               “We’re clearly both intelligent men.”  Azul all but purred, turning away and walking towards a nearby desk.  Capturing Carmine’s shoulders in his hands, Floyd guided him along behind the the silver haired youth while Jade simply watched, an enigmatic smile on his face.  “It’s growing increasingly obvious that bluffing our way through an unknown culture isn’t going to be as simple as previously thought.  As proven time and time again, no war is ever won without gathering information first, and alas, no plan ever survives the first encounter with the enemy.  Thankfully, we pride ourselves on our flexibility and adaptability.” 

The golden scroll was placed reverently on the desk and Carmine was rather pointedly sat down in the chair facing it.  Through it all, Azul continued to speak honeyed words, his smooth voice making everything seem so reasonable, even though Carmine wasn’t so sure about how he felt about the references to enemies, wars and plans.  This was a college, not a military campaign. 

“What we need is a guide, a local, familiar with the customs and cultures, willing to share their knowledge and experiences.”

“That would be you.”  Floyd gave him a happy pat on the head, his hand settling as a heavy weight on his skull.  It wasn’t hard to imagine those strong fingers tensing, crushing his poor little braincase with little effort.  How much force did it take to crush a skull?  He was certain that he’d seen a video on Magicam somewhere.

“Indeed it is.”  Azul replied cheerily, as if the boy in front of him wasn’t currently fearing for his life.  “Though it seems that you’re not appreciating what I’m offering.  How upsetting.”  A long slender finger tapped his chin in a thoughtful manner, the smile on his face never wavering for even a moment.  “Tell me my dear Carmine, what do you want most in the world?  Have no shame, we’re not here to judge.”

“Right now?”  It was impossible to keep his voice from squeaking, especially with the weight of Floyd’s hand on his head, his thumb idly stroking his temple as if to point out that it was the most fragile section of his skull, just begging to be crushed to powder.  “Right now, I sort of just want to get out of this room alive.”

“Well then, Let’s Make a Deal.”  At those words, the golden scroll seemed to shiver, the long silken ribbon wrapped around it unraveled, allowing the paper to unroll, revealing a pristine shining sheet of pure beaten gold. 

A pen also appeared in Azul’s hand, looking suspiciously like a perfectly intact skeleton of a fish, the bones stripped clean of flesh and muscle, yet still somehow bound together.  Most likely the poor thing didn’t dare fall apart.

“You will share with us your knowledge, telling us everything we wish to learn regarding the human world and its various cultures, laws and customs.  You will also keep our secrets.  In return, you will leave this room unharmed by our hands.”  As Azul spoke, elegant writing began to appear on the golden paper, glowing with a magical inner light.  The cursive was so ornate and filled with unnecessary flourishes that it appeared to almost be more decorative than functional.  This made it rather difficult to read, but Carmine could make out enough to know that the strange youth’s words were being magically transcribed.   

Only when he finished speaking did the writing stop, ending the final word with a wild embellishment that would make a professional calligrapher gasp at its complex beauty.  With an ever-growing smile, Azul presented Carmine with the bone pen, but rather than reaching for it, Carmine continued to stare at the glowing words, trying to translate the decorative scrawl into recognizable words.

While he wasn’t arrogant enough to think that he was the brightest out of the newly arrived first years, he’d still been chosen for Octavinelle for a reason.  The elegant and overblown cursive might be difficult to translate, but he could tell that more had been added in than Azul had dictated.

“It says here that if I break the contract, that I will give up my unique magic in restitution.”  Bright green eyes darkened in silent accusation.  “Firstly, that’s not even possible to take someone’s magic.  Secondly, I’ll more than happily give you my word that I’ll help you.”  Sighing softly, he did his best to relax, a rather difficult accomplishment considering Floyd’s hand was tightening slightly in warning. 

Taking a chance, Carmine ducked down quickly, slipping out of the taller boy’s grip and taking a cautious step back before raising his hands in a placating gesture.  It was hard not to notice how everyone in the room had tensed, their eyes narrowing and the expressions on their faces… well, they certainly weren’t as friendly as they’d been a few moments ago.

“I mean it.”  He continued, fully aware of what was on the line.  “I have nothing against you guys, and honestly, you’ve already done a lot for me.  I mean, I’m the only guy in Octavinelle aside from the Dorm Leader who has their own private room.  That’s totally badass and you wouldn’t believe how envious the other guys all are.  I’ve already had a bunch of really impressive offers for it. 

“Sharing something that’s common knowledge for the rest of us isn’t a big deal, and as for who… or what you are, that’s no one’s business but yours really.  I’m not a gossip, and honestly… pretty sure that anyone who spreads shit about you three are dead men.”  None of them seemed to be particularly moved by his little speech, in fact, Jade had stopped leaning casually against the window and was now looking more like he was planning to spring off it at a moments notice.

“Guys, I mean it.  I’m a total coward and am sooo not going to piss in your pool here.”

“You are asking us to trust you out of the goodness of our hearts?”  Jade asked, his voice still soft and unassuming, but there was something dark beneath it.  Suddenly that blithely tossed out comment regarding dead men wasn’t nearly as casual as he’d intended.

This time, he didn’t bother to hide his shiver, especially when he noticed how their nostrils were twitching, as if they could smell his terror.  That wasn’t a good sign, nope, not creepy at all.

“Trust is a rather high commodity item where we’re from.”  Azul stated, idly tracing the edge of his jaw with the skull of the little fish pen.  “And it’s the only one in which we don’t trade.”  Yeah… he wasn’t getting out of this room alive without signing that thing, that much was painfully obvious.  Still, it was sort of sad that they were so suspicious, especially when they held all the cards.  Guys their age shouldn’t be so jaded and broken.

Taking a deep breath, Carmine glanced at the contract with his glowing writing, then to Azul, understanding that he was the one calling the shots here, and out of the three of them, he was the most closed off.  He’d seen faces like that before and he could only imagine the pain and betrayals that mask was hiding.

He’d been warned that Night Raven College wasn’t for the faint, or noble of heart.  That he’d be challenged on every level and meet people and creatures unlike anything he’d imagined in his soft little provincial life.  Granted, he hadn’t been expecting to be bargaining for his life on his first full day.  He hadn’t even had breakfast yet!

“I’m not leaving this room without signing that am I.”  It wasn’t so much a question as a statement, but Azul’s fake smile never wavered for a moment.

“I would never be so crass as to threaten a fellow student.”

“I would.”  Floyd offered helpfully.  “Being crass is fun.  Almost as much fun as squeezing the life out of little fishies.”  Yup, threat accomplished.

“I’ll sign it.”  Carmine assured them, his eyes catching and holding Azul’s calculating gaze.  “But I want to amend it.”  That earned him a slightly raised eyebrow, but the other boy wasn’t refusing, so that was a good sign.  “My term isn’t that I’ll leave this room unharmed by your hands.”  The eyebrow rose a little more.  “In return for sharing my information and keeping your secrets, I want us to be friends.”

               “Friends?”  Jade asked softly, sounding out the word as if he was looking for some sort of context and coming up blank.  Carmine watched as the others shared looks of confusion with each other.  Alright, well now he could sort of understand why they had such a serious lack of trust in people, but what the hell?  Where were these three from that they didn’t know what a friend was?

               “Define Friend.”  Blue eyes as sharp as a razor blade stared at him intently, the fish skull resting against his cheek as the lovely youth leaned forward slightly, curiosity radiating from him in palpable waves. 

               The question made Carmine’s head spin as he stared at the three of them, trying to figure out how to explain a concept so simple, so instinctual that he’d never considered having to ever define it to someone else.  Yeah, these guys were definitely not human, that much was for sure.  Maybe space aliens?  He’d seen some conspiracy theory Magicam sites…  Oh man, he’d better not get probed.  He was too young and innocent for that!

               “Well… um…”  The tip of his tongue moistened his lips as he struggled to put it all into ideas they’d understand.  “You guys are friends… right?  People who care about each other?  Who help each other out, enjoy each other’s company and share an emotional bond?”  Again, more confused looks. 

               “We have an agreement.”  Azul stated.  “Our companionship is mutually beneficial.”  Yup, they were space aliens.  He was so getting probed.

Granted, those words might have held a little more water if Azul’s cheeks weren’t turning slightly pink even as he spoke.  Jade looked rather thoughtfully at the silver haired youth while Floyd popped back up behind Carmine and gave his head another little pat. 

               “Heeey, he IS pretty smart, he taught Azul a new word!”  Another pat, this one a tad harder.  “Not bad.  Azul is full of lots of words, I don’t know how his head doesn’t explode sometimes, but he loves learning new things.  See!  You’re helping us out already.”

               “Indeed, it is a new word, and an amusingly naïve concept.”  Azul replied thoughtfully.  Glancing down at the contract, the writing seemed to rearrange itself according to the new terms.  “Though a clever enough bargain, as by your definition, you’ve guaranteed yourself a level of protection from us as well as the implication of future aid.”

At least he didn’t sound upset by this, in fact, quite the opposite.  Yay?  Really, at this point, Carmine was willing to take any victory he could get.

“Well, you guys said that you’re planning on taking over the world, and I have to say that I wouldn’t mind going along for the ride.”  The attempt at levity was risky, but it earned him a chuckle of amusement from Floyd who thankfully stopped patting his head like a dog and instead returned to simply lurking in a quasi-menacing manner behind him.

               “You do realize that we’re not capable of emotional investments of such a degree.”  Jade stated, his eyes narrowing slightly while Floyd began to hum softly under his breath.  His voice was surprisingly melodic and seemed to add to the surreal quality of this entire interaction. 

               “Then fake it till you make it?”  Carmine flashed Jade a wide, if somewhat tremulous smile, doing his best to sound much more confident than he felt.  “Everyone here is only friends on the surface.  I get that, I really do.  At least you guys are honest about it with me, so I don’t really mind.  Besides, it means that I won’t have to watch my back all the time around you.”

               “He’s a clever fishy.”

               “Indeed he is.  Very well, I agree to this.  However, the clause still stands.  Should you lie to us or expose our secrets through action or deed, the contract will be considered broken and your unique magic will belong to me.” 

“It’s not that amazing a talent, but I meant what I said.  I keep my promises.”

“And I keep my contracts.  I find that they’re worth so much more than the words of others.”

Carmine wasn’t sure if that was an insult or not, but he chose to simply take it as a warning, likely the last one he was going to get. 

“You do this a lot don’t you?”  Rather than reply, Azul handed him the pen, the look on his face warned that should he refuse it a second time, a fireball and jizz net would be the least of today’s problems.  “Yeah… never mind, not my place to know.”  He answered for himself as he took the rather creepy pen from the possible space alien and repressed a slight shudder at the feel of the polished bone.  This had been used a lot.  He could feel the slight grooves worn into the bones from countless hands… countless idiots likely signing their lives and magic away.

Like those idiots before him, he signed his name on the bottom line, seeing the signature flare brilliantly for a moment, and most disturbingly, felt an answering shiver of icy cold deep inside his body.  Shit… that hadn’t been a bluff… that contract actually did do something.  Well, it’s not as if he’d planned on betraying the creepy cannibal space aliens.

The instant the light faded from his name, Azul snatched up the contract and rolled it up carefully, trying the silken cord around it with confident fingers, familiar with the action.  Yeah… not his first contract, not his first idiot…

“Excellent, now then, I believe that we’re going to be late if we continue to dawdle.”  Azul beamed at him, looking for all the world like his bosom buddy rather than the guy who now held Carmine’s magical essence in his hands.  “Would you be so kind as to explain this… robe thing to us?”  He gestured towards the school uniform he was wearing.  “I’m growing rather weary of being stared at as if I’m some sort of freak.”

“Yeah, and dangly bits.  Explain these little fuckers, cause I don’t like em!”  Floyd cut in, gesturing angrily at his crotch.  Oh Founders… he’d really bitten off more than he could chew this time.

Chapter Text

“You’re the best pet ever!”  Floyd squealed in delight as he stared down at his feet which were now encased in strange firm wrappings called shoes.  “Imagine!  Shells for your feet!  Look guys!  I’m a shellfish!  Oooh, and they’re so springy!  I could bounce off anything!”  As if to prove himself correct, he climbed up onto the bed and began hopping around, acting for all the world as if five minutes ago he hadn’t been threatening the lives of everyone in the room for merely even suggesting he put something on his feet.    It had taken all three of them, plus various spells to get him dressed and Azul still had the bite wounds to prove it.

“And these sock thingies!  I love the colours!  I can get them in any colour I want right?  Same with the shoes?”  His eyes were manic bright, and his smile threatened to split his face in half.  It was rare for Floyd to get this excited about something that didn’t involve copious amounts of bloodshed, but Azul simply couldn’t take the time to marvel at this turn of events as he could hear the mattress groaning in protest of the abuse.

In the two minutes since they’d taken their eyes off of him, he’d already managed to lose his tie and his immaculate uniform was now rumpled, the shirt untucked and several buttons on his vest had become unfastened, but at least he’d kept them on this time.  It had taken three attempts just to get this far.

“Get down from there you idiot.”  Azul chided him sharply as he stood in front of the room’s full-length mirror, tugging at the collar of his jacket while giving himself yet another critical once over.  The feeling that he’d fastened or tied something incorrectly wouldn’t go away, and ever the perfectionist, it was making him paranoid.  Worse, it was almost impossible to focus with Floyd mucking about behind him, filling up the room with noise and chaos like always. 

While Azul was used to the feeling of not being in control of any situation involving that particular eel twin, he’d long become accustomed to rigidly controlling his appearance.  Not a strand of hair was ever permitted to be out of place and he took almost fanatical care of himself.  Now, having the burden of these strange garments, plus their new physical forms left him feeling as if he was caught in an unknown current and had no idea what it was going to take him.  Ever cautious, it wasn’t a feeling he particularly enjoyed.

 “You’re going to break it.  Then we’ll have to pay for the damages.”  He shot the reflection of the bouncing twin a warning glare which was utterly ignored as usual.  If anything, Floyd was now bouncing higher just to annoy him.

“Who cares?  Azul worries too much.  There’s another bed over there if this one breaks.”  He continued to bounce around happily.  “Jade!  You need to try this!  I bet I can touch the ceiling.”

“Yes, with your skull if you keep that up.”  Azul muttered, giving his reflection one last discerning look and finally deciding that he was rather pleased with what he saw.  While the uniform still felt odd, obscuring the little details of his form, it was far softer than one he’d worn last night, fitting him more like a second skin than loosely draped itchy seaweed.  The dark colours reminded him of his own natural colouring, though the gold trim and blue embellishments seemed as if they’d been designed precisely for someone with his human colouration.

It also hadn’t escaped his notice that both Jade and Floyd had been shooting him curious looks since he’d put it on.  One half thoughtful appraisal, the other half hunger, one which had little to do with food but managed to make his heart quicken in his chest even as his cheeks grew pink.  No one had ever looked at him like that before, with desire shining in their eyes.  Not even the twins, or if they had, they’d been much more discreet about it. 

It was human hormones of course, likely caused by a mating cycle or some such nonsense, but still enjoyable to experience, even if it was a little distracting.  Alright, a lot distracting, but he really couldn’t find himself complaining.   

“You look amazing in that outfit Azul.  You all do.”  Carmine assured them from where he knelt on the floor, carefully demonstrating to Jade how to tie the laces so the shoes stayed on tight.  “I have to admit, I’m sort of jealous.  The vest clashes pretty badly with my hair.”

“You shouldn’t complain about having brightly coloured hair.”  Azul glanced over, a somewhat thin smile on his face as he straightened his tie for the tenth time.  “In our homeland, brighter colours are much sought after.  The paler or duller one’s colouring, the uglier they’re considered.”  It was impossible not to glance back at his pale reflection showing nearly white hair and light eyes set on a body covered in skin the same shade as the palest of corals.  Even in his true form, he was considered to be unworthy of a first glance let alone a second, easily fading into the shadows and forgotten.

Looking away, his eyes darkened.  Pity for them that this little shadow still had eyes and ears, still had ambition and wrath brewing inside of his twisted and deformed body.  It was almost amusing, a poetic sort of twist that while wearing the body of a human, he was considered to be appealing due to the very same qualities which had once cast him further away.

“Not everyone believed that you know.”  Floyd paused in his bouncing to look over at Azul.  “Me and Jade never did and our opinions are the only ones that matter.”  Looking rather pleased with himself, he resumed his bouncing, taking a great deal in satisfaction in how Azul’s cheeks grew even brighter. 

“You guys are really adorable, you know that right?”  Carmine grinned at them all, looking oddly proud with their interactions.  “Everyone I’ve ever met who’s our age and, in a relationship, all they care about is showing off and messing around.  You three though, it’s like… way deeper than that.  It’s… it’s like you’re partners.”

“We are.”  Jade looked up from struggling with the bow he was trying to tie.  He gave Carmine a curious look, unsure as to why this would be so noteworthy.

“Yeah, people say that, but what they usually mean is “Stepping stone.”  Like I said before, everyone is just using each other in one way or another.  You guys though, you really are working together.  You’re a team.”

“Well, yeah.”  Floyd cocked his head to the side as he bounced.  “Three minds, one goal.  Everyone always expected us to start biting at each other like sharks in a frenzy.  It’s funny when they find our teeth in their throats instead.”  The grin he flashed Carmine made the boy twitch somewhat nervously.  For some reason, he had the feeling that that comment wasn’t meant metaphorically.

 “Ugh, are you sure there’s no simpler way to ensure these things stay on?”  Jade glared down at his laces and the mess he’d made of the bow.  It didn’t look nearly as neat as Azul’s.

“I managed.”  Floyd smirked at his brother, then giggled when Jade snapped his teeth in his direction.  Rather than seeing it as a threat, he instead took it as an invitation and hopped off the bed, bouncing over to Jade’s side.  “It’s easy.  See?  These things are the eels, and they twine around each other like this.”  He demonstrated, having one lace slide over the other with a twist.  “Then, they coil up and twist around each other, then you tighten.  See?”  Releasing the laces, he flashed his brother a wide grin of triumph as Jade stared down at the now neatly knotted bow, the look on his face was one of incredulous disbelief.

“Eels twisting around each other.”  He stated as Floyd nodded his head excitedly. 

“Yup!  You and Azul always complicate things because you both think too much.  Make it fun.  Once you make it fun, it’s way easier to figure out.”

“He’s got us there.”  Azul chuckled softly, adjusting his jacket a little before turning to face the others.  Unable to contain his curiosity, he glanced down at the neatly tied bow, then at the rest of Floyd’s destroyed uniform.  “If only we could convince him to be as precise with the rest of his clothing.”

“Hey, I’m comfortable like this.  It was too tight all done up how you had it.”  Floyd shot back.  “I could take it all off again if you want and just go to class naked.”  Carmine shuddered at the thought, fully aware that the wild youth would do exactly that just for the amusement of everyone’s reaction.

“I’m pretty sure that’s against the school rules.”  He cautioned, earning himself a giggle and a pat on the head.

“Awww, the little fishy thinks that I care about rules.  He’s so cute!”

“While I do understand that culturally, clothing is expected, and given the fragility of the human body, rather necessary.”  Jade muttered as he struggled to mimic Floyd’s little trick with the eels.  “Is it truly necessary to wear so many layers?”  As if to demonstrate, he held up his hands which were currently covered in fine black leather gloves.  “I can barely feel anything through these.”

While he and his brother weren’t as sensitive to touch as Azul, it still left him feeling rather smothered.  After a lifetime of interpreting the slightest shifts in current against his skin, he felt as if he’d lost one of his senses.

Honestly, the whole clothing ritual was mind bogglingly complicated.  Knickers, socks, slacks, shoes, shirt, vest, jacket and gloves.  Each one having to be put on in a specific order, with their own unique way of being fastened.  He was desperately trying to commit it all to memory as quickly as possible, fully aware that Azul had managed to get it all right the first time and would be expecting him to keep up.  Refusing to fall behind in any sort of challenge, Jade returned to glaring at his shoes and the damnable eel laces.   

Although he wasn’t as eager to fully grasp this whole clothing idea as the other two, he had to admit that no matter how annoying tying them was, shoes were more than a little fascinating.  Not only did they sooth the pain in the soles of his feet, cushioning every step while providing support for the rest of the foot, but they were so shiny.  According to Carmine, they also came in a variety of colours and styles, too many to easily count.  It was rather like being able to change your tail on a whim.  While nothing could truly ever compare to the sleek power of his natural tail, there was a certain sort of thrill at being able to play with his appearance so easily.

In this, humans weren’t that different from merfolk.  Both wanted to be able to create a better physical appearance, be it playing with shapes, colours or shiny things which attracted the eye.  No wonder so many of their peers had found their way into Azul’s clutches.  Yes, there was a sort of addictive pleasure to it and like his brother, he looked forward to comparing different colours against himself, he wasn’t going to lose himself in it the way the humans seem to have.

Humans however were a lost cause.  One would think that the overly large and scratchy robes were adequate for covering one’s body, but that wasn’t enough for the humans.  In mute demonstration of this, there was a small room next to their bed for nothing more than storing a collection of what Carmine insisted were their school uniforms, along with another set of false skins called their dorm uniforms.  It seemed that it was expected that they shed their clothes regularly, as the second set was for when they were not in class.  Most would consider the third set of clothing to be more than enough, but no, for there were also clothes to wear to their physical education and sports training.  Most amusingly were a small set of tiny little pieces of cloth which looked suspiciously like their knickers, only these were intended for when they were swimming.  Imagine, wearing clothes when swimming?  It was enough to make Jade laugh!  There were even clothes for sleeping!  Ugh, he couldn’t imagine something less comfortable than trying to sleep wrapped up in cloth, unable to feel either his brother or Azul’s skin pressed against his own. 

For a species which seemed to laud their tightly knit community and interaction, they certainly enjoyed placing physical barriers between each other.  One might almost think that they were ashamed of their bodies, which was rather sad when you thought about it.  While humans might not be as sleek and streamlined as merfolk, not as varied in colour or form, they weren’t nearly as hideous as he’d feared. 

All in all, this whole idea of clothing was overdone, bordering on unhealthily obsessive and he couldn’t wait for the chance to take it all off at the end of the day.  Except the shoes.  Those were all sorts of brilliant and could stay.  The laces though could fuck right on off!

While the school was gracious enough to provide the mind-boggling array of clothing required for their education and personal interactions on school grounds, they were also expected to wear another set of clothing when either off the property, or not partaking in any school related activities.  Carmine had assured them that for this, the students provided their own outfits, displaying a wide range of preferences and colours, many showcasing the various regions they were from, as well as social standing.  Having come from a world where such… frivolities were unheard of, the trio was going to have to make do with their dorm uniforms until they could either beg, barter or steal clothing of their own.  He gave them a week before they had a full wardrobe full of fascinating looking outfits.  Less for Azul.

“Now, I don’t know about how it works where you guys are from, but humans sweat… a lot.  How much sort of depends on the human in question.”  Carmine was continuing their crash course in just how freakish the human body was.  It seemed that there was no end to the ongoing horror show which were their new bodies.  Just learning how they dealt with bodily waste was going to haunt Jade for many nights to come.  It was so barbaric and disgusting that Azul had already assured them all that he’d make a potion which would eliminate the need for such things, sparing them the horrors of defecating into what Floyd insisted were glorified octopus pots.  Honestly, how could they have not heard of the three shells?

“Oh oh oh!  What’s sweat!?”  It was hardly surprising that Floyd was thoroughly entertained by the unfolding body horror.  He’d even stopped his bouncing around the room order to listen more intently, which was good because Azul looked to be only two more bounces away from casting a sticking charm on him, or something much less wholesome.

“It’s our bodies way of cooling ourselves by releasing water through our pores.”  Confused, Floyd folded his legs beneath him, dropping heavily into a sitting position on the bed, causing the mattress to squeak ominously beneath him and making Azul hiss softly.

“What?  Why would we get rid of water?  You humans got something against water?”  His voice dropped slightly in pitch as his eyes narrowed, causing Carmine to take a quick step back, his eyes widening.

“No!  No I like water, but our bodies generate heat whenever we move, and mammals… which humans are, cool themselves by releasing water through our skin.  So we need to drink water regularly to keep from dehydrating, and bathe so that the bacteria in the sweat doesn’t make everything stink.  Believe me, at a boys school, you’ll find out really fast who bathes regularly and who just douses themselves with body spray.  Um… handy life hack.  Don’t douse yourself with body spray.  As first years, we’ll also be doing the laundry for the rest of the dorm, which is likely going to be a hall unto itself.  Try not to touch the socks… especially the crusty looking ones.”

“Laundry?”  Floyd still looked more than a little suspicious over this whole deal.  “What’s that and why?”

“Well… because we keep sweating when we sleep, and even more when we do other things in bed… like… um... you know…”  Carmine glanced over at the bed, his cheeks growing rather warm as he remembered what he’d inadvertently walked in on.  Unable to meet either of the three’s curious gazes, and not willing to put it all into words, he simply mimed jerking off using one hand, doing his best not to choke on his embarrassment.

“Are you alright?”  Jade asked, leaning forward, unsure of what the human was doing, and why he looked ready to crawl under a rock.  It was Azul who made the connection between the action and the meaning first.  His blue eyes widened slightly and he looked away, his own cheeks looking rather delightfully rosy.  Next was Floyd, who began to snicker something about sea cucumbers.

“Ugh, you know.”  Carmine gestured towards the bed.  “If you have sex.”  Oh…OH!  In Jade’s defense, he HAD been a tad distracted at the time.

“He means mating Jade.”  Floyd explained rather unhelpfully, thoroughly enjoying having his brother off balance.  “We’ll be taking lots of these baths then.  Human mating looked like lots of fun!  It’s my turn next by the way.”

“Yes, regarding that.”  Azul glanced over from where he was examining something which looked rather like a hairbrush a little too intently to be an honest perusal.  “How long is the human mating season?  The hormonal rush is… a tad distracting.”

“Mating Season?”  Carmine stared at them all in confusion, earning him a somewhat irritated look from the octopus.

“Yes, the mating season.  Elevated hormone levels, the desire to mate?  Not only are these… clothes causing a sense of physical arousal every time I move, but I see little need for such… nonconstructive thoughts to be distracting me when we should be focusing on our studies.”

“Oh… yeah.. about that.”  Carmine sighed, looking as if he’d rather discuss anything but this.  “The height of human mating season lasts for about another ten to fifteen years, then will slowly fade over… the rest of your life.” 

“WHAT!?”  Floyd fell off the bed with a rather impressive, wall shaking thump while the other two just stared at Carmine in an equal mix of shock and horror.

“Ten to fifteen years?”  Azul squeaked, his voice sounding rather strained as his cheeks darkened to something closer to red than pink.  It would have been adorable had Jade not been a hairs breadth from full blown panic himself.  He’d barely been alive for sixteen years and now he had to look forward to a lifetime of having the crotch of his pants squeezing his aching genitals whenever he looked at his companions?

“You get used to it after a while, but yeah… You’re sort of at the worst part right now.  Anything will set you off, and I mean anything.  Clothes, seeing your neighbour in a dress, a strong breeze… cheese.”

“Cheese?”

“Long and embarrassing story.  Forget I brought it up.  Just keep some napkins or some spare socks on hand and you’ll be fine.   Oh, and don’t be afraid to slip off the bathroom for a little… one on one time if you need.  Everyone does it.  But… er… don’t talk about it alright?  Talking about it is… weird.”  Taking a moment to shoot Floyd a weighted look, Carmine took a deep bracing breath, wondering how he’d managed to get himself into a mess like this.  “At least Night Raven College is all boys, so everyone else is in the same boat you are.”  He added with a shrug as he ran a hand nervously through his hair, then paused, noticing the blank and somewhat panicked looks he was receiving.  “Um… don’t your people have sex?”  These guys were the weirdest space aliens ever.

“Yes… but…not like that.”  Jade replied softly, his voice sounded rather strained as he felt his own cheeks growing hot as memories of searing pleasure rose up to the forefront of his mind.  It wasn’t the only thing to rise, and he shifted somewhat uncomfortably as his pants grew tighter.  Unable to block out the feeling of heat pooling in his guts or the way his skin shivered as if in anticipation of another mind shattering climax, all he could do was grit his teeth and try not to remember how Azul’s hand had felt as it squeezed and stroked him, how those blue eyes had burned with equal parts curiosity and hunger.  Hmm interesting, Carmine was right, it really didn’t take much to cause arousal.

“Are you going to explode again Jade?”  Floyd asked, poking at his crotch and ignoring the way his brother slapped at his hands.  “Cause if you are, Carmine said to use a sock… or Azul.  Did you want me to help?”  He added with a grin, reaching for Jade’s pants, only to be shoved him away a little more firmly.

“Mating season is in the early spring, when the waters warm up.”  Azul clarified for the human, doing his best to ignore the antics of the twins.  “It lasts usually about a week or so.  The adults get stupid and the rest of us just make ourselves scarce until sanity returns.  We’ve been too young to want to involve ourselves in it.”

“Mom and dad were hinting that we should take part in the next season.  They said that we’re almost old enough to at least fight in the challenges.”  Floyd grumbled, letting go of Jade’s waistband and stretching inelegantly, not looking interested in the topic in the least.  “As if.  It looks so stupid and pointless.  I was just gonna go play in the reefs while it happened.”

“Agreed.”  Jade nodded his head, not looking any more interested in the prospect than his brother.  Turning to Azul, Carmine shot him a curious look.

“What about you?”  Turning away from them all, Azul’s entire body suddenly radiated tension.

“It wasn’t an issue I was going to have to worry about.”  He shrugged stiffly pointedly looking away from them all.  “We’re wasting time if we wish to join the others in the kitchen for breakfast.”  With that, he walked towards the door, stumbling only slightly as he struggled to adjust to the shoes.  Seeing the dark look he shot them all, not even Floyd dared to tease him about his lack of grace, especially not when his pen was in his hand, the diamond gleaming menacingly.

Glancing over at the twins, Carmine opened his mouth to ask what was wrong, but Jade simply shook his head, moving to follow in the wake of the octopus.

“The agreement was that you would answer our questions, not the other way around.”

“Yeah, don’t upset Azul.  That’s my job.  Only I get to do that.  Now come on fishy, I’m hungry.  If I don’t get breakfast soon, I’m going to have to eat you.”  Deciding that this wasn’t a bluff he really wanted to call, Carmine simply nodded his head and followed meekly behind them, still wondering how exactly his morning had turned into this side show.

His day didn’t show any sign of improving because whatever they were expecting when they walked into the kitchen, this certainly wasn’t it.  What it was however, was Chaos.  Pure, undiluted chaos.  Honestly, at this point, none of them should have been at all surprised.

 

The four of them just stood there at the doorway, too shocked to do anything other than stare at the human hurricane that was tearing apart what had likely once been a rather neat and organized kitchen.  Now, people were racing about frantically, screaming at each other in a rather nonconstructive manner and while many of them were attempting to carry plates, full of what Azul could only assume… and despair was food, they dropped them more often than naught.  Granted, that might be considered a blessing considering that even though he’d been too exhausted to do more than just glance at the human food at the party last night, he knew that these dishes were far from being edible. 

               “Best. Day. Ever.”  Floyd murmured softly, watching the pure pandemonium, his head swinging back and forth so quickly that he was running a rather high risk of pulling a muscle in his neck.

               “Is… is this normal?”  Jade asked, glancing over at Carmine, who like them, was staring at the scene in utter horror.

               “No… Um… I don’t know?  It’s been that sort of day really.”

               “A best day.”  Floyd grinned, leaning over and patting the boy on the top of the head, a wide shark’s grin threatening to split his face in half.   “It’s your best day.”

               “Yes!  Yes sir… the Best day ever!”

               “Stop terrifying him Floyd.”  Azul snapped automatically, not really paying the two of them any mind.  He was too busy looking around the kitchen with a critical eye, mentally ticking off every disaster in the making currently unfolding in front of the.  Not only were the prep and cooking stations in utter disarray, but a small version of one of those fire creatures was currently making a nest in one of the pans on a cooking station.  While it was currently by everyone, he had no doubt that it would cause no end of trouble if left unchecked.  Even worse, there was already a nightmarishly large pile of ruined meals were filling up a waste receptacle and spilling out onto the floor.  Even as they watched, one student slipped on some of the spilled refuse, sliding into the boy ahead of him and causing the three plates in his hand to fall to the floor, shattering on impact.

               Having grown up around his parent’s restaurant, he knew what a well-run kitchen was supposed to look like, and it most certainly wasn’t this mess.  The sheer amount of waste alone was mind boggling, not to mention the stink of ill prepared food.  He didn’t have to be familiar with human cooking to know that nothing here was palatable.

“Dammit Relen, that was the first dish we actually had ready!  Ugh, we’re so beyond dead.”  A tall and rather frazzled looking youth with dark skin and even darker purple hair hauled the two downed boys up to their feet, giving the ruined plates a look of utter disgust even as he dumped his own plate of burned slop into the nearest bin.  “You heard Vice Dorm Leader Mikato, if we don’t impress them with breakfast, we’ll lose face with Dorm Leader Glaucous!”  Giving the boy a shove towards the cooking area, the dark youth seemed to notice the four newcomers standing there like idiots and his deep grey eyes narrowed.

“Took you guys long enough to get here.  Take these out to seat three!... I think!”   Before he could even react, Azul found himself with a rather unpalatable looking platter filled with a mixture of burnt and half cooked offerings thrust into his hands.  “Hurry!  They’re hungry!”

Taking one look at the inedible sacrifice to some dark god of food poisoning, Azul shook his head and tossed the mess into the nearest bin which was already half filled with some greasy congealed mess best left uncontemplated.  Striding further into the room, the twins moved to neatly flank him while Carmine trailed behind, not sure what exactly the odd trio had in mind, but willing to follow along anyway. 

Pointing his pen at the rather rapidly growing fire creature, Azul summoned some water from a nearby pot, dousing the little beast before it could become a problem, then looked around, his arms crossed over his chest.

               “Who’s in charge here?”  There was no need for an amplification spell, his sharp voice and obvious disdain carried easily over the frantic babble of the other students, causing everyone to freeze in their tracks.  It was hardly surprising when no one stepped forward to claim ownership of this madness, so rather than wasting precious time repeating himself, he turned to look at the dark-skinned youth who’d accosted him. 

“Answer.”  The tone of his voice demanded immediate attention and the look on Azul’s face made silence not an option.  The situation certainly wasn’t hurt by the two towering forms of the Leech brothers bracketing him like rather ominous bookends, or the fact that all of them were exuding nothing but cool confidence. 

               “Um… no one’s in charge.”  The darker youth explained, brushing long purple bangs out of his face, leaving a smear of grease in their wake.  “We’re all just sort of grabbing a dish an doing our best to make them, but we don’t even know what half of them are!   I’ve never even heard of a bavette steak!  Is it a breed of cow?” 

Standing this close, Azul could faintly smell the mer-kin in his blood and resisted curling his lip in distaste.  No, they’d need as many students under their thumb as possible to pull off all of his grand plans.  This was not a time for personal prejudices, not this early in the game, besides, as an outsider, he knew how grateful the rejected were when they finally found a place to truly belong.  These were nothing but poor unfortunate souls after all, and if he truly wanted to become the Benevolent Sea Witch, then he’d better learn how to smile and play nice… at least on the surface.

“They just tossed us in here.”  The violet haired kin continued, gesturing wildly with his arms as if trying to encompass the entire kitchen in the statement.  “The only instruction they gave us was to make their orders for breakfast, orders started appearing on the notepad!”  A rather frantic wave of his hands, this time towards a pad of paper which was growing even as they watched.  “Vice Dorm Leader Mikado said that if we failed at such a simple task, then we’d be shaming the Dorm and lowering our rank in their eyes!  My older brother went here, I know what that means and I don’t want to be kicked around by everyone!  But dammit, I’m a sorcerer!... I mean, at least I will be.  I don’t know how to cook!  I had servants for that sort of thing!”  The boy looked flustered nearly to the point of tears and he wasn’t the only one. 

As if by some hidden signal, all the other first years began voicing their objections and excuses as to why this had become an unmitigated disaster, no one wanting to take charge of the doomed operation.

               Ignoring their babbling, pale blue eyes scanned the kitchen, quickly studying the layout and the number of students crammed within.  So many lost little souls, reaching for any guiding hand they could find, desperate for salvation.  Azul couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity and his inner self squealed in absolute delight, mental tentacles spreading out wide as if to try to touch everything around him and seal this perfect moment into his memory forever.

               Raising a hand up into the air, the minimalistic gesture managed to gain complete silence as everyone leaned forward slightly, eager to hear what he had to say.  The desperate hope for a miracle plainly written across each and every one of their faces.

“Firstly, there’s too many people in there, you’re tripping over each other.”  He stated in a tone of voice which left no room for argument, his own face a perfect mask of professionalism.  “Which of you knows how to cook?”  He asked the assembled students, his eyes scanning them all one after another until two boys tentatively raised their hands, sharing nervous glances with each other. 

               “Um… I cooked for my family at home…”  The boy with light brown hair and orange eyes replied tentatively, as if he were embarrassed by the admission.  “There were a lot of us, and my parents had to work so it was up to me to get everyone fed.”

               “I… I really like to cook, it’s sort of a hobby.”  A boy with long seaweed green hair and emerald eyes answered with an attempt at a nonchalant shrug in order to hide a palpable sense of relief.

               “Are either of you any good at it?”  Both nodded their heads somewhat sheepishly, as if this skill was somehow shameful to admit to.  Ugh, Sea Witch save him from the arrogance of the elite.  “Good, you’ll be our chefs.”  He then turned to six other students at random.  “You lot, you’re on prep.”  He pointed to the appropriate station just in case they had no idea what that meant.  “Follow the cooks orders and keep calm.  I want you to focus on cutting, peeling and shelling.  Leave the seasoning to those two for now.” 

There was a thrill of satisfaction when he noticed the eight youths he’d singled out standing a little taller, looks of relief filling their faces as they accepted their assigned tasks.  Taking advantage of his momentum, he turned to the next group of students and frowned thoughtfully. 

“You lot, clean this place up quickly.  This kitchen is a health hazard, and someone is likely to get killed or end up serving a limb with the food, and I believe it’s safe to assume that human flesh isn’t on the menu.”  He ignored Floyd’s disappointed huff at that announcement and walked over to the pile of paper filled with what he could only assume were order tickets.  A quick glance was all he needed to know that there was no chance at all of them fulfilling even a fraction of the meals listed here.  The sheer length of each order alone was enough to warn him that their upperclassmen had demanded nothing but the most complicated dishes they could think of.  This was obviously some sort of stupid hazing game where the higher years bullied the younger, a power play in the simplest of forms.  Well then, let the games begin.

               Turning to the two chefs, he motioned them over, pleased to see them scrambling towards him, eager to obey someone showing leadership qualities.

               “What are your names?”  He asked, flashing them a warm and friendly smile, designed to generate a sense of camaraderie in others. 

“Alto.”  The brunet replied, a tentative smile tugging at his lips.

“Relen.”  Said the boy with the seaweed green hair.  The scent of kin clung to him, faint, but unmistakable.  The twins were right, Octavinelle was practically infested with them.  While the alien scent did make his skin crawl, he couldn’t deny the countless opportunities the situation practically threw at his feet.

“A pleasure to meet you.  I’m Azul, this is Floyd, Jade and Carmine.  I want you both to look over the ingredients we have on hand and come up with a breakfast menu.”  Both looked panicked at this, but he reached out and placed a firm hand on their shoulders, the way the twins often did with him when he got himself worked up over something.  “Don’t intimidate yourselves.  Keep it simple and with minimal ingredients, but not so simple that it looks as if we aren’t trying to impress.”  He could almost hear his parents gently bickering with each other over various menus to serve at brunch events for the elite of Atlantica.  Like him, they always had a plan for attacking any problem, as well as various other options to fall back on should something go awry.  What with the rather cutthroat competition and the ever-present threat of sabotage, fallback plans had all too often saved the day, giving the impression of flawless effort and superb presentation.

“You’ll likely need to show your preppers how to cut and prepare the ingredients, so start with something quick to prepare, but light. We want to stimulate their appetites for the main dish as well as buy us some time to prepare it without being too obvious.”  Both nodded their heads in understanding, though Relen cast a somewhat nervous look towards the door separating them from their tormentors.

               “But… but their requests?”

               “To the Abyssal Trench with their requests.”  Though his words were clipped, the serene smile of confidence never left his face, and he gave their shoulders a gentle squeeze before releasing them and stepping back.  “They can either eat well prepared food of our choice, or garbage thrown together in chaos.  Personally, I wouldn’t feed that mess to a remora I had a grudge against, and I certainly wouldn’t offer it to my upperclassmen.  We want to make a successful impression after all.”  Giving them both a little wave of his hands, he sent them scurrying on their ways, racing over to a small side room.  Judging by its placement, it was likely some sort of storage unit, designed to keep the food fresh.

               A quick glance around the kitchen showed that while he was busy with the chefs, the twins had swum in and taken charge of the rest of the mob.  Encouraging them all with a mixture of bullying and encouragement, they’d made rather impressive headway into getting the kitchen into some semblance of order.  The ruined food was now gone, the floors were clear and the countertops for the food prep were clean once more.  Everyone seemed to have tasks keeping them busy and Azul couldn’t help but give himself a little pat on the back.

               “Sage, Rosso.”  The two boys he’d met last night were busy sorting through the dishes, separating those which had been damaged in the chaos from those they’d keep serving on.  At the sound of their names, both looked up. 

“Grab two others and start pouring drinks… regular drinks.”  He added, remembering Sage’s delight in adding illicit substances to the “punch” last night.  “Give them three different options to choose from.  Something simple, something refreshing and something that will stimulate them.  Do they have that here?”

               “Hey, Ashengrotto.”  A rather large and heavyset boy with hair so brilliant pink that it would have made anemones jealous stood there, well within Azul’s personal space and looking down on him.  Twice Azul’s size and easily three times his weight, this youth looked like he was rather used to throwing his weight around to get what he wanted and was more than ready to do the same here.  If they were in the ocean, this would easily be interpreted as a prelude to attack, but up here on the surface, he wasn’t’ quite so sure.  Rather than responding with a blistering offensive spell that would remind everyone that he wasn’t to be messed with, Azul simply held his ground, looking up into those small eyes without flinching.  “Who put you in charge?”

               “I did.”  Meeting the boy’s glare with a cool look of his own, he was rewarded with seeing his opponent look somewhat thrown off balance.  No doubt he was used to using his size to his advantage, but after a lifetime of dealing with the Leech brothers, this human wasn’t at all impressive. 

Speaking of, the twins were both watching the confrontation out of the corners of their eyes, more than ready to jump in the instant Azul gave them a signal, and tear this human to shreds.  With a hand down by his side, he opened his fingers, holding them straight down, advising them to watch, but hold.

“Is it not within the Sea Witch’s mandate to aid the unfortunate?  Are you not some poor unfortunate soul, struggling with a task much too large for you to handle?”

               “You’re no Sea Witch.”

               “Not yet.”  Azul admitted with a smile, his lips pulling back to show all his teeth.  “But what I am is the son of two restauranteurs who run one of the most prestigious businesses in all the land.  I grew up bussing tables and helping manage the kitchens, so unless you are capable of doing a better job, I would suggest you join the others in cleaning so that we can get this moving in a proper manner.” 

               Those suspicious eyes narrowed even further, but a lot of the bluster seemed to have fled the other boy, revealing a first year just as overwhelmed by the rest of them.

               “You think you can pull this off?”

               “There’s not a doubt in my mind.”

               “They won’t like it.  They want to see us fail.”  It seemed that this rather large lug wasn’t as stupid as he looked and Azul nodded his head slightly in agreement with his assessment.  “They’ll come after you.”

               “They’ll find that I’m not such easy prey.”  He replied, making a slight cutting motion with his lowered hand, letting twins know that he had the situation well under control.

               “Alright, but… if you pull this off and they come after you, you let me know.  I’m not letting someone stick their neck out for me then get in shit for it.”  He stated flatly, his rather large hands balling into fists.  “It’s bad business.”

               “Understood, and you’re quite correct, it is indeed bad for business, as are a great many things here.”

               “Um… Hi?  We have juice and lemon tea.”  Sage cut in as delicately as possible, giving them both a nervous little wave of his hand.  “We’re also making some coffee, but it will take a few minutes to brew.”  Looking rather proud of himself, Sage motioned towards the other boys who were carefully pouring the drinks into various glasses shaped like little octopi.  Azul stared at them for a long moment, positive that his brow was twitching at how utterly tacky the things were.

               “Awww!”  Floyd cooe’d loudly, naturally seeing them the instant they were brought out.  Racing over, he picked up one of the glasses, admiring it with his usual demented glee before holding it up to show Azul.  “It’s so cute!  Look! The little tentacles make the handles!”  As if that wasn’t bad enough, it looked like you drank out of the poor things head.  Ugh, those cups were going to meet a horrible end, Azul would make sure of it.  “Hee, it looks like it’s staring at me while I drink… sorta like it’s judging me.  It must know you Azul.”  Yes, his eyebrow was definitely twitching.

               As usual, Jade swooped in with perfect timing, smiling fondly at his brother as he picked up a drink laden tray. 

“How about we help the others serve these drinks?”  Not waiting for an answer, Jade began to steer the others, Floyd included towards the door.  “The upperclassmen will be less likely to cause trouble around us than with smaller prey.” 

               “Oh, If they do, can I throw these drinks in their faces?”

               “No, it’s a waste of… whatever this is.”

               “Ugh, you’re as bad as Azul.”  Any further whining was cut off by the door closing behind them.

 

               They’d settled on a fruit dish to start, displaying various seasonal fruit from the college orchards cut into nice simple bite sized shapes and set into glass bowls.  The main dish was a seafood omelet, stuffed with fresh vegetables and crab meat.  While lightly seasoned and simple enough to prepare, Azul couldn’t help but watch with interest as the chefs put it all together.  Only the crab meat was at all recognizable to him, but he wasn’t worried, it would be simple enough to find someone skilled in cooking and “help” them in some manner.  Manufacturing need was but one of the many services he and the Leech brothers specialized in, and he knew that before the month was over, he’d be an expert chef.

               Despite their rough start and a few small stutters along the way, Azul had no complaints at all regarding the dedication of his peers.  While none of them had ever worked in a restaurant, they were determined to put their skills to the test and prove themselves to their leaders, and by the end, Azul couldn’t help but praise their efforts.

               As the last dish was sent out, a cheer swept through the kitchen and many of the students rushed over to him, wide grins splitting their faces as they realized that they’d not only made it through this trial with their skin, and the kitchen intact, they’d turned it into a triumph.

               Amidst the back thumping and attempts at hugs which Azul really hoped were some sort of strange human bonding ritual and not an attack, everyone suddenly stiffened and backed away, looks of pure terror on their faces.  There was no need to look up to know that their illustrious Dorm Leader had entered into the kitchen, and likely didn’t look overly pleased by their success.

               Rather than pay the man any attention, Azul chose to instead focus on pulling out a notebook and jotting down a few details they’d need sorted for tomorrow’s meal.  A few of the bolder first years coughed politely to get his attention and the Leech brothers both snickered softly under their breaths, recognizing the power play for what it was.

               “Everyone performed well today.”  Azul addressed the group, ignoring the heat of the glare silently boring into the back of his neck.  “Alto, Relen, were you both comfortable cooking?”  The two nodded somewhat nervously, their eyes on the senior standing behind him rather than on Azul himself.  “Excellent.  I want you both to come up with a small menu for tomorrow, three items to choose from with three starters, don’t go crazy, I want us to still keep things simple for now.  Write down a list of any ingredients you believe you’ll need.  I’ll flesh out out a budget for us to work with and see about getting them ordered.  Dorm Leader Glaucous, are there regular deliveries made to the dorm or are we expected to gather the ingredients ourselves?”

               Offering a polite smile, he glanced over his shoulder towards their glowering leader, noticing the slight involuntary blinking which betrayed his surprise at having the question directed to him.  The older youth wasn’t alone; at his side was the Vice Dorm Leader as well as two new thugs lurking behind them and all of them looked like they were spoiling for a fight.

               “They’re delivered.  A list is sent in each night and deliveries arrive first thing in the morning in the pantry.”
               “Ah, excellent.  Thank you Dorm Leader Glaucous.”  Flashing the older youth a gracious smile, he turned back to the two chefs.  “Bring me the menus and ingredient lists by lunch today and I’ll get them ordered.”  He then turned to the other students.  “We’ll stay with the tasks you were assigned today.  You, you and you.”  He pointed to three students who’d proven to be rather decent at staying on task and following orders.  “You’ll take food and drink orders tomorrow.  Be quick, accurate and polite.  If anyone doesn’t like their task or wants to try something different, speak to me after service and we’ll see about switching around the roster a little so that everyone can try their hands at the various stations.  Once we’re all more familiar with how the kitchen runs, I’ll make up a schedule as we won’t require everyone on hand for breakfast.  Those not scheduled for service will be eating first, then washing dishes and cleaning after service so that the others will have a few minutes to eat breakfast before classes.  Any questions?”

               No one spoke up, they were still all too busy staring over his shoulder, waiting for Azul’s blatant challenge to be accepted.  As much as he pretended not to notice, Azul wasn’t much different in that regard.  Any minute now someone would say something.  Pride wouldn’t let it go unanswered.

               “Everyone, get out.  Ashengrotto, you stay.”  Glaucous didn’t disappoint, and the low growl of his voice sent the first years racing for the door, none of them wanting to earn their leader’s wrath.  The only ones to not move were the twins, and Carmine who was doing his best to hide behind their larger forms.  Despite their desertion, Azul doubted they went very far.  Most likely they were all clustered around the door, listening to see how it all turned out.

               “I said everyone get out.”  Glaucous repeated himself, only to be greeted with Floyd yawning in disinterest and leaning against Jade who simply stood there, a blank and polite smile on his face.  “Are you deaf?”

               “Nah, We heard you.”  Floyd shrugged.  “We just don’t care.”  Azul couldn’t quite keep from smiling slightly at the response.  It was times like that that he adored his companions utter lack of fucks.

               “Perhaps you’re forgetting who’s in charge here.”

               “What, of this?”  Floyd straightened up and glanced around at the kitchen, his expression so completely unimpressed that it said more than words ever could.  Not that Floyd wasn’t going to give the egocentric kin a piece of his mind just for the hell of it.  “Anyone can scare a bunch of first year fishies into a panic then lock them in a room to swim around in and make a mess.  That’s not leadership, it’s just stupid.  Were you really gonna eat the crap they were making when we got here?  I wouldn’t have eaten it, and I’ve eaten some pretty crazy things.  So, what was the point?”  He paused, giving the rather stunned Dorm Leader a long and rather speculative stare.  “You just wanted to feel like the big fish in a teeny little reef by scaring the guppies.  Boooring.  You’re boring Glaucous.  A dull bland little fish.”

               For several long seconds, Glaucous just stared at the Leech brother, his teeth clenched so tightly that Azul could actually see the muscles in his jaw twitching in response to the pressure.  Recognizing a pointless battle when he saw one, the Dorm Leader instead turned to glare at Azul, his dark blue eyes narrowing.

               “Ashengrotto, how is it that once again, I find you at the center of a problem?” 

“Problem sir?”  Azul asked with beautifully feigned innocence.  “Was something wrong with your meal?” 

“Damn right there was something wrong, you arrogant little slag!”  Mikado hissed through clenched teeth as he took an aggressive step forward, stopped only by the Dorm leader calmly blocking his advance with an outstretched hand.  “You don’t get to choose the menu or give orders.  You’re just a fucking little first year nothing.  No, you’re less than nothing because you couldn’t even follow simple orders.”

“Ah, do forgive my impertinence.”  Azul continued to smile his second-best customer service smile as he looked at the second in command.  “I was merely concerned when I saw the quality of the food about to be sent out and didn’t wish for my upperclassmen to begin their year with food poisoning.  While it wasn’t my place to step in and alter your plans, I was merely acting within the best interests of our Dorm as I saw it.  After all, sick students can’t learn properly, and if we can’t learn, our grades will fall.”

“So, your actions were purely altruistic.”  Glaucous stared at Azul through narrowed eyes and though his body language was still hostile, his tone had soothed somewhat.

“Of course Dorm Leader.”  He replied smoothly.  “Was it not our Benevolent Patron who toiled endlessly to ensure that those around her were always at their very best?  I merely seek to emulate her ideals to the best of my abilities.  Forgive me if I overstepped.”

“Well spoken, Ashengrotto.”  Nodding his head slightly, Glaucous favoured him with a smile that didn’t touch his eyes at all.  “But nothing is ever done without a price, or the expectation of reward; so, as such, you should be given something in exchange for your grant act of altruism.  Azul Ashengrotto, you’re now the kitchen manager.  I’ll expect your order list on my desk every day after class as well as the staff rotation and menus for the next day submitted for my approval.”

“It would be my pleasure sir.”

“What?  Glaucous, you can’t do that!  The Kitchen is mine!”  Mikado gasped, glaring at his superior in shocked outrage, only to be met with a cool look in return.

“Are you challenging me?”  The words were softly spoken but the threat within them was very real , causing the second in command to quickly back off, his hazel gaze lowering to the floor in obvious submission.

“Of course not Dorm Leader… I… I just think that it’s a little early to be giving a known troublemaker any sort of power.”  He mumbled softly, the words barely heard, though judging by the look of mild amusement on Glaucous’ face, he’d heard him well enough.

“Octavinelle is all about power and it’s there for the taking, should one be bold enough to make the attempt, and strong enough to hold onto it.  Let’s see what this little fish can do.”

“Thank you Dorm Leader Glaucous.  You are most benevolent and wise.”

“Oh I am indeed.”  The older youth smiled, the look reminding Azul of a shark’s expression moments before diving in for a kill.  Pity this shark didn’t quite realize what it was dealing with, and blood in the water could easily turn into a deadly trap.  “Eat your breakfast and get to class.  I won’t have the name of Octavinelle tarnished by our first years all being tardy.” 

Turning on his heel, he strode through the main door, taking his entourage with him, but not before Mikado shot Azul a look of pure death.  It wasn’t over with him, not by a long shot.

“Wow… he’s gonna come after you for sure.”  Carmine murmured, finally poking his head out from behind the Leech brothers.

“Eeeh?  You’re still here fishy?”

“Yeah… I totally had your back.  You know, in case they tried something.”

“And here I thought our agreement was that you couldn’t lie to us.”  Jade smiled slightly at the boy, the edges of his teeth visible through his lips.

“About the cultural information I gave you.”  Carmine flashed the twins a wide grin before looking over at Azul for confirmation.  “I can still lie about other stuff.  I mean… I totally had your back, no doubt about it.”  Amused by their pet’s antics, Azul allowed him to push at the boundaries of the contract.  Besides, he had more interesting prey in mind.

“I’m still gonna eat him.”  Floyd stated, glaring at the door the seniors had used.  “He’s up to something.”

“Of course he is.”  Jade agreed, watching the door as well, though he had a thoughtful look on his face.  “He certainly didn’t become leader based on his personality, or his understanding of the Virtues of the Sea Witch.”

“Indeed, indeed.”  Azul smiled, the thrill of the challenge already singing through his veins along with the sweetness of today’s victories.  “See Floyd?  I promised you that this would be fun.”

“You did, you did.  Azul always keeps his promises.”  Floyd grinned, his teeth gleaming menacingly.  “Every single one.”

Chapter Text

               As luck, or most likely, the faculty wanting to keep an eye on the three of them would have it, the trio were sharing a class together, having fallen under the designation of Class B.  Carmine, despite sulking and attempting to trade classes with another student, was in Class C, forcing him to abandon his breakfast a little earlier than the others in order to get to the other side of the campus for early morning Physical Education. 

Azul wished him the best, though was privately relieved that his day wasn’t starting off by forcing him to produce any of that sweat stuff.  Ugh, these bodies were as disgusting as they were fascinating.  Granted, it was rather annoying having to leave their little informant on all things human.  The idea of bluffing his way through the day was more than a little daunting, but if they kept a low profile, they should manage well enough… he hoped.

At least his day was going to begin with Introduction to Alchemy.  It was a class he was more than confident in excelling at, though there was a little trepidation in him regarding how Floyd would handle it.  Between himself and Jade, they should be able to keep him in line and the class from exploding… hypothetically.

With the kitchen clean, class schedule in hand, their bellies full and still riding high on his victory against their Dorm Leader, Azul felt that they were more than ready to face the day.  As with all his plans lately, that feeling didn’t seem to last long. 

No sooner had they stepped through the Octavinelle mirror, linking them to the rest of the school, they were brought to a sudden screeching halt as they came face to face with a veritable wall of humanity, all so closely packed together that it looked like a school of lanternfish being corralled by dolphin pods.

Sure, they’d all been fully aware of just how many students were attending this college, especially after having seen them all at the Entrance Ceremony.  Exhaustion, the whole newness of the situation and the fact that they’d all been a tad overwhelmed had kept them from realizing just how many humans were now surrounding them on a constant basis.  The near solid press of bodies caused a momentary flare of pure panic in Azul and he found himself longing for the tight, dark confines of his pot for completely different reasons than usual.

When he froze, the twins stopped moving as well, quickly picking up on his panic, they seamlessly shifted so that they were flanking him protectively, their bodies lightly brushing against his own, offering silent support.  The feel of clothed forms touching him was simply too new, too foreign to do anything more than add to his discomfort and to his shame, he knew that if he’d been in his natural form, the whole room would be filled with ink. 

“We can go back to our room if you need.”  Jade’s soft and supportive was perfectly pitched with just the right amount of goading to get Azul’s back up and he shot the taller eel a look of pure stubborn defiance.

Retreat!?!?  There wasn’t a chance in the freaking Abyssal Trench that he was going to back off at the very start of his glorious victory just because of a few humans… alright, a few hundred humans.  He was Azul Ashengrotto, the second coming of the Sea Witch!  He didn’t run away from anything!!  He was just… assessing the situation… from a distance.

               “Were there this many here last night?”  Jade mused thoughtfully as he glanced around the crowded Hall of Mirrors, looking a little put out himself at the thought of having all those bodies pressing against him.  The eels were used to always controlling who came close enough to attack, a position reserved solely for one sneaky little octopus.  This lack of personal space was… distressing. 

“I wasn’t counting.”  Floyd shrugged.  If he was at all bothered by the close proximity of the humans, he hid it better than the other two.  “Hey, why is everyone wearing different coloured vests?”  Frowning slightly, he fiddled with his own silvery blue vest then glanced at the other, more colourful varieties on display.  “Oh!  I like the red!”  He grinned, tugging at Jade’s arm and pointing towards a group of Heartlabyul students walking past.  “Can I have the red?”

               “No you can’t have the red.”  Azul pinched the bridge of his nose, just knowing that he was going to have a headache by the end of the day.  His day had been going so well too, everything falling so perfectly into place.  Ah, but he’d left out the Floyd factor.  How foolish of him.  There was always the Floyd factor, throwing that little bit of chaos into his most carefully laid plans.  All. The. Frigging. Time!

               “We’re Octavinelle students, therefore, our dorm colours are lavender and silver.”

               “But… I like red.”

The pout Floyd levelled in his direction served as an omen of dire things to come and even Azul had to reluctantly admit that he was hardly surprised when the eel pulled out his pen and aimed it at his vest.  Before anyone could even think of trying to stop him, there was a slight flare of magic, drawing the attention of several students around them, causing many to gasp in shock, their eyes widening in disbelief.

               “Well, now you’ve gone and done it.”  Azul sighed, shaking his head, doing his best to look disapproving when all he really wanted to do was chuckle at the spectacle in front of him.

               “It is a rather dashing.”  Jade admitted, earning himself an elbow in the side from Azul.

               “Don’t encourage him.”

               All the two of them could do was stare at Floyd who was now dressed in a wholly brilliant crimson uniform from his tie down to his shoes.  As expected, it clashed horribly with his hair and eyes, though unsurprisingly, Floyd couldn’t look happier.  Looking down at himself, Azul watched as he grinned in absolute delight and spun around, as if trying to somehow see more of himself, utterly forgetting that they were surrounded by a Hall of Friggin Mirrors!

               “THIS IS AWESOME!!!”

               “It’s certainly very red.”

               “Ugh, of all the colours Floyd, that looks horrible on you.”

               “Hey, I even got my shoes!  Check it out!”  Lifting his foot up proudly, Floyd nearly knocked himself over as he struggled for balance, somehow managing to forget for a moment that he’d only learned how to walk yesterday.  Ever attentive, Jade and Azul caught him before he could fall over, but it in no way dampened the youth’s enthusiasm.

“Get out of the way firsties.”  A Savanaclaw senior grumbled as a pair of them walked past the trio through a nearby mirror, roughly shouldering them out of the way.  “Stop blocking the damn mirrors.”  His shoulder hit Azul hard enough to send him reeling into Floyd who caught him neatly, twisting slightly to protect the smaller octopus with his own body as Jade stepped up, eyes narrowing dangerously.  “There’s always a bunch of bloody provincials in the batch, standing around gaping like bloody idiots.”

“Excuse me gentlemen.”  His voice was soft and polite, but there was something beneath it which demanded attention.  “Perhaps you should mind where you step.  It’s bad manners to simply shove someone out of your way.”  The two seniors froze in mid stride at the sound of his voice and slowly turned around, as if they hadn’t been expecting anyone to dare stand up to them.

“What did you say firstie?”  The one who’d shoved Azul growled, his eyes narrowing dangerously, dark rounded ears flattening in scruffy brown and black spotted hair.  Tall and study in stature, he was more than used to people simply moving out of his way without a fuss.

“Bloody Herbivores, thinking they run the place.”  The second, somewhat smaller boy sneered, large triangular ears mingled in with his messy tawny hair as they flattened against his scalp, while a long white tufted tail swung back and forth lazily behind him.  “There’s always one every year, just begging to be made into an example.”

Both growled softly in the backs of their throats, but rather than be at all intimidated by their posturing, Jade simply continued to smile politely, as if he were inviting them over for a nice cup of tea.  Knowing the more subdued Leech brother as well as they did, both Floyd and Azul stayed where they were, rather pleased with the lovely view they had of the unfolding show.

“Firstly.”  Jade stated, his voice taking on a rather professional lecturing tone which would have made any professor quite envious to hear.  “It’s unwise to make such rude assumptions regarding my feeding habits.  I assure you that I find great delight in devouring fresh bloody meat, preferably still attached to the bone of a living, thrashing, and screaming fool.”  Stepping closer, Jade’s voice dropped in volume so that only the Savanaclaw seniors could hear him clearly.  His normally bland and unassuming smile twisted as it spread across his face, showing his teeth in an obvious threat display even as his eyes narrowed dangerously.  “Secondly, I would advise you to apologize to us.  You see, you’re welcome to try to pick a fight with my brother or I.  We do so enjoy toying with our food.”  Leaning closer, he stepped well into their personal space, using his height to its full advantage in looking down at the two senior students.  “But if you ever lay a hand on Azul again, we will tear you apart piece by piece and force your friends to watch as we devour your pathetic carcass one bite at a time.” 

His voice never raised above its usual gentle tones, but there was no mistaking the threat in either his words, or his body language.  The two older students flinched visibly when he snapped his painfully dull teeth together, the sharp clack resounding in the suddenly quiet Hall of Mirrors.

“What the fuck?”  The one with the longer ears gasped out, his hand reaching for the magical pen resting in its breast pocket.  Before he could reach the golden jeweled weapon, a black gloved hand lashed out, catching his wrist and holding it in a rather surprisingly strong grip while mismatched eyes never so much as wavered in their cold appraising gaze.

“You don’t want to do that.  I believe there was a rule mentioned regarding using magic against another student.  It would be rather foolish of you to do so, especially in front of so many witnesses.”  His smile turned friendly even as his grip shifted slightly.  With a deceivingly gentle twist of his wrist, he pressed down with his hand, forcing the older student down to his knees with a pained cry as raw agony shot down the nerves of his arms.

“What the hell?  Let him go!”  The original antagonist stepped forward, then froze when he saw that cold predatory stare suddenly shift to focus on him.  Instincts rose to the fore, demanding an immediate retreat but pride kept him standing despite all logic.

“I believe an apology is in order.”  Jade continued, acting for all the world as if he didn’t have one youth already pinned to the floor by only his hand, whining softly like a beaten animal.  “We can hardly flourish educationally in such a hostile environment, don’t you think?”  Adding emphasis to his words, he pressed down just a little harder, causing the senior to cry out again in pain as he tried to sink down even lower, beads of sweat standing out across his brow as he trembled.  The sound of bones creaking rather ominously under intense pressure was clear for all to hear. 

“Like hell we’re going to apologize to a bunch of first year punks!”  They were brave words from the Savanaclaw student who was still standing, though his friend looked more than willing to capitulate.  Unmoved by the torment of his dorm mate, the remaining student drew his arm back, preparing to drive his first through Jade’s face, but a strong brown skinned hand caught his neatly in its grip, nearly lifting the youth off his feet.

“What the hell is going on here?”  A lazy voice growled softly.  Looking over, Jade noticed a third Savanaclaw student, this one older than all of them and nearly as tall as he and his brother.  His skin was a rich, warm brown and his handsome, aristocratic face was framed by long messy hair several shades darker than his skin and tied in simple braids on either side.  Piercing green eyes surveyed the scene with vague disinterest, and Jade could make out a long and rather old looking scar which cut neatly down the side of his face from his brow to his cheek. 

There was an unmistakable aura of authority which surrounded this near adult lion, coupled with the palpable hum of power which set the trio’s teeth on edge with its foreign flavour.  Hot and arid… Jade could almost feel it trying to dry out his skin just from proximity alone.

“Why are you making such a ruckus on the first damn day?  Ugh, I have better things to do than keep cubs in line.”

“Leona sir!”  The beastman dangling from his arm immediately stopped struggling and instead lifted his chin, baring his throat in total submission.  “These… these first years were giving us trouble!”

“Eh?  We were just standing here being all red and happy and you had to go and ruin my good mood.”  Floyd cut in, his own eyes narrowing dangerously as he reached over and gave his shoulder a squeeze.  “What kinda message is that sending to others?  That you’ve got nothing better to do than pick on little first years?”

The newcomers triangular ear twitched slightly as he looked the Leech brothers up and down, a skeptical look on his face.

“Little?”

“Yeah… well, we’re just sweet innocent little fishes taking in the sights.  Not causing a fuss… ah fuck it.  He pushed Azul.  You don’t push Azul.  He can’t help being all adorably small and squishy.”  Again, that ear twitched as those piercing green gaze flicked over towards the pale youth who was irritably brushing wrinkles out of his jacket.  While he didn’t look at all bothered by the torture taking place only a few feet away, he did shoot Floyd a dark look regarding being called adorable and squishy.

“You were the three causing trouble last night at the Entrance Ceremony.”

“Eh?  Were we?  I dunno, we were just being us.”  Floyd shrugged then grinned at the beast man.  “So are we gonna fight or what?”  Another ear twitched as the leonine youth glanced at the twins, then the slightly built silver haired youth they were obviously protecting.  There was something behind those pale blue eyes and mismatched gazes that made his fur bristle with an awareness that these three were at the top of a food chain much older than anything he’d ever encountered before. 

Unable to help himself, he drew in a deep breath.  His fur rose even higher as his tail stiffened.  Whatever these three were, they might look human, even smell it… but beneath the stink of herbivore, there was something else, a shadow of something utterly alien to Afterglow Savanna.  They were not at all what they seemed.  Rather than intrigue him, it only served to heighten his irritation.  Not his monkeys, so not his circus. Well, that wasn’t entirely correct.  Kofi and Kuno certainly were, and he would deal with them away from prying eyes, but Glaucous would just have to deal with his own problems for once.

“Ugh, this is tiresome.”  He grumbled, covering his disquiet with annoyance, and gave his tail an irritable flick.  “It’s also no time or place for a fight.  If you want to try to establish dominance with these cubs, come to Savanaclaw tonight after dinner and sort it out there.”  A dark glance at his downed dormmates made it rather ambiguous as to who exactly were the cubs in this scenario.  If these teal haired freaks really were first years, then he wasn’t going to go easy on members of his pack being so publicly defeated by them, especially over something so stupid.  Of course, there was also no way he was going to have any Savanaclaw apologize to the damn “All you can eat seafood buffet” that was Octavinelle.

Still smiling that infuriating smile, as if he wasn’t currently breaking the wrist of another student, Jade released his victim and stepped back, not looking winded in the least.  The defeated student crawled back behind Leona, using him for protection as he shakily rose to his feet, tail tucked snugly between his legs and damaged wrist clutched protectively against his chest.

“Why would we want to fill up our bellies when you’re so generously offering us dinner?”  Jade smiled at him and once again, Leona couldn’t quite quell that uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach.  One thing he knew for sure, these freaks weren’t bluffing.  The smell of blood surrounded them, staining both their bodies and their magic.    

“He’s not serious is he?”  Kofi practically whimpered, all the fight having been squeezed out of him, earning a curled lip from his leader.  “He smells serious.”

“Of course he’s serious, you mewling cub.”  Leona snapped irritably.  “Do you think I’d tolerate someone wasting my time otherwise?  Like I don’t have better things to do than watch minnows terrify kittens.  Ugh, how tiresome.”  Turning away, he insolently flicked his tail in the direction of the twins.  “Remember, after dinner at Savanaclaw.”  Glancing down at the two errant beastmen, his lips pulled back, displaying dangerously sharp incisors.  “Get up and get your tails to class.  I’ll deal with your stupidity later.”

 

Brilliant blue eyes watched the unfolding drama from the edge of the Octavinelle mirror, hidden from view by the crowd of bodies and further obscured by a subtle glamour which left them both unnoticed from all but the most prying of eyes.

“I told you those three were trouble.”  Mikado grumbled softly as he watched the Savanaclaw Dorm Leader stalk away, the two beastmen skulking along behind him, both looking thoroughly defeated.  “We’re lucky it was Savanaclaw and not one of the other dorms or we’d be having to answer for their actions.  Hmph, trust Kingscholar to just brush it all off.”

“Indeed.”  Glaucous murmured, a greedy smile tugging at his lips as he idly toyed with his pen, the diamond set within it gleaming prettily as it continued to hold them wrapped in a cocoon of magic.  “Their actions do indeed reflect upon us, and everyone just saw Savanaclaw tuck tail and run.”

“What?  Were we watching the same thing sir?  Kingscholar just challenged them to a fight, one that will no doubt break half a dozen rules if they get caught.”  Frowning, Mikado couldn’t help but think of all the paperwork those twins were going to cause with their inability to stay out of trouble.  It was only the first full day and he was already sick of their antics.  Them and their smug little pet.

If they’re caught.”  Black gloved fingers stroked the jewel lovingly, savouring the gentle hum of the magic within.  “But did you see his face?  Something about those twins upset him.”  Frowning, Mikado studied the retreating lion, unable to see anything different from his usual aloof arrogance.

“He looked pissed off, just like always.”  His answer was clearly not what Glaucous was looking for because it earned him a rather annoyed sigh.  

“Ugh, remind me why I made you my second in command again?”  There was no need to answer verbally, some things weren’t meant to be said where listening ears might hear, and it would be a shame to ruin his wonderfully airtight alibi’s.

“I want those two as part of my entourage.  They’ll be excellent enforcers… if they win.”  A rather conniving gleam appeared in his bright eyes as he watched the two twins speaking with their pretty little pet.  None of them appeared to be at all bothered by what had taken place, leading Glaucous to believe that this was but another notch in a long string of similar incidents.   “Just think of the publicity, Octavinelle standing up to Savanaclaw, it will turn the student dynamics in the school up on their heads.”

“Or cause us no end of trouble.”

“Oh hardly, they’re proven troublemakers after all, even before the Mirror sent them to us.  We can hardly be to blame if they continue to cause problems.”

“Exactly, we can’t control them.  When Floyd shoved me up against the wall, it felt like I’d been hit by a truck.  They’re stronger than they look, and they’re fucking crazy.  You can’t control crazy.”

“No, but you can control what crazy considers to be valuable, and they seem to hold their little slut in high regard.  Hmph, they must be getting something worthwhile out of him.”  Two pairs of eyes focused on the smaller, more delicate looking youth, neither giving voice to the odd sense of unease they felt when those pale sky blue eyes glanced over in their direction, seeming to find them with unerring skill before dismissing them with just the faintest hint of a knowing smirk.

“Ashengrotto is just as dangerous sir.  He’s the brains of the group.  That much is obvious.”  Mikado watched as black gloved hands stroked the diamond jewel one more time before clenching around it in a tight fist, cancelling the spell and bringing them to the awareness of those around them.

“Not for long Mikado, not for long.”

 

 

               “Well, it seems that dinner is taken care of for tonight.”  Jade smiled over at his brother who grinned widely, giving a little bounce of joy.

“Yay!  Fresh food!  I was getting tired of crab anyway.  Besides, eating isn’t any fun if I can’t hunt if first.”

“Don’t take it too far.  While I didn’t see a rule regarding devouring rival students, there was the implication that such things would be frowned upon.”  Azul cautioned them, pulling his attention away from the odd ripple of magic he could feel wrapped around two figures by the Octavinelle mirror.  It seemed they’d attracted a bit of an audience.  He couldn’t wait to see what came of it.

“You guys are joking right?  I hope you’re joking.”  A tall youth, likely a year or two older than them with short deep green hair the colour of fresh seaweed and golden yellow eyes flashed them a somewhat strained smile.  “Now, normally I do my best not to involve myself with inter dormitory politics, but… yeah… cannibalism is a nono.”

“Awwww.”  Floyd groaned loudly, flopping heavily against Azul and nearly sending them both to the floor.  “I never get to have fun.”

“Is it now?”  Jade turned to face the newcomer, his pleasant masklike smile still firmly in place.  “How sad.  It would have been a rather effective means of intimidation, but… if they don’t know that, then it still works in our favour.”

“I suppose so… in a sort of terrifying way.”  The youth adjusted his glasses somewhat nervously, looking distinctly uncomfortable.  “Are you sure you guys are in Octavinelle?  You sound more like Savanaclaw or Diasomnia.”  He glanced at their uniforms, noting the silver vests and matching ribbons, not to mention the diamond jewels in their pens.  It was likely safe to assume that the one dressed head to toe in crimson was also supposed to sport similar colours considering the Octavinelle crest was on his sleeve, stained just as red as the rest of him.

“Doesn’t Octavinelle defend themselves when needed?”  Azul glanced over at the youth as he struggled to shove Floyd off of him, the eel having decided to become dead weight.

“Not so much defend themselves as being more noted for shanking someone behind the potion storage room over some slight.  No offense intended, but Octavinelle isn’t noted for straight up honest fights.”

“No offence taken, I did ask after all.  Ugh, Floyd, if you don’t stand up, I’m dropping you!”

“Awww but Azul is so soft and squishy.”

“Ugh!  Stop hugging me so tightly!  You’re going to wrinkle my suit!”

“Do forgive the informality.  I am Jade Leech, that’s my brother Floyd, and our companion Azul Ashengrotto, all of the Octavinelle Dormatory.”  Jade smiled politely at the newcomer who judging by his attire was from the Heartlabyul dorm.  “It’s a pleasure to have a chance to speak with someone from another dormitory.”

“Is it?”  The green haired youth asked, sounding honestly intrigued.  “Most dorms tend to keep to themselves for the most part.  I’m Trey Clover.  Second year extraordinaire.  Purveyor of baked goods and sound advice… mostly.”

“Baked goods?”  Floyd paused in his struggles with Azul to glance over.  “What are baked goods?  Can I eat them?”  The question seemed to take Trey aback for a moment as he gave them all an odd look.

“Yes... that is the idea behind them.  How have you never indulged in the glory of fine cakes and tarts?  Are you health nuts?”

“Yes.”  Azul cut in quickly, flashing Floyd a look which all but screamed Shut Up.  “We’re on rather strict diets.  Feed the body what you feed the brain, and we can’t afford to fill our minds with anything unnecessary.”  Gasping loudly, Trey placed his hand over his heart as if deeply wounded.

“Gasp!  Say it’s not so!  Baked goods are always necessary, they’re a vital component for life and happiness.”  Smiling in jest, he adjusted his glasses and chuckled softly in amusement at these unusual students.  “You sound just like a friend of mine actually… hmmm on that note, it’s best if you turn that uniform back to normal.  If he see’s it, he’s likely to subject you all to a lecture that-”

               “That is entirely warranted.”  A younger and much more cultured voice spoke up, the words clipped with disapproval as a petite redhead strode forward, bright slate grey eyes flashing dangerously.  “Did you know that it’s against the school rules to impersonate the uniform of another dorm?”  The words were sharp as swords and aimed at Floyd who simply blinked at him blankly.

               “Nope.”

               “Where is your Dorm Leader?  He should be notified so that you can be properly reprimanded.”

               “Eh, the boneworm?  He’s avoiding me.”  Floyd grinned then stepped up to the diminutive redhead and looked waaay down.  “Can’t imagine why and don’t care.  But you came back!  Did you decide to be my teeny little pet?”

               “Ah shit.”  Trey motioned for Jade and Azul to take a step back as the small human’s face instantly turned a brilliant red.  The air seemed to crackle with power around him and the ruby in his pen flared with a warning glow as Riddle drew in a rather impressive lungful of air.

               “I AM NOT YOUR PET!  I AM RIDDLE ROSEHEARTS!  BORN OF ONE OF THE MOST INFLUENTIAL FAMILIES WITHIN THE ROSE KINGDOM AND THE MOST PROMISING SORCERER MY KINGDOM HAS SEEN IN OVER A CENTURY!  I’M THE SON OF THE VAUNTED LADY MILLICENT ROSEHEARTS AND I DEMAND TO BE TREATED WITH THE APPROPRIATE LEVEL OF RESPECT ACCORDED BY MY TITLES!” 

Even without the use of an amplification spell, his voice rang off the walls, creating a rather impressive echo in the ensuing dead silence of the Hall of Mirrors.  It was so quiet that no one with even a lick of common sense dared to so much as breathe lest they draw the wrath of Riddle Rosehearts.

               “Hi!  I’m Floyd!”

Chapter Text

“Riddle!  I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”  Trey stepped forward and reached out a tentative hand towards the fuming redhead, then clearly thought better of the action as the boy drew in another deep breath.  “Oh dear, look at the time!”  He tried again, this time in a much louder voice. “If we don’t leave now, we’ll surely be late, and we can’t do that on our first day.  Rule number-”

“25 of the Queen of Hearts, under no circumstances shall one allow themselves to be late for an important date.”  Riddle finished for him, shooting Floyd a look of pure loathing before making a show of straightening out the already pristine lapels of his jacket and giving the green haired youth a rather stiff nod of acknowledgement.  “Thank you Trey.” 

Taking a rather long and deep breath in an attempt to cool his rage, he then glanced over at Azul, making a point of ignoring Floyd entirely. 

“Azul, it’s a pleasure to see you once again.  Which class did you end up in?”

“I assure you, the pleasure is all mine.”  Azul returned with a smile, doing his best not to look as thoroughly amused as he felt.  “The three of us ended up in Class B, what of yourself?”

“How about that Riddle, you have friends already!”  Trey looked inordinately pleased with this as he beamed down at his much smaller dorm mate.  It seemed that the sentiment wasn’t shared because those large slate grey eyes flickered towards the three of them, lingering the longest on Floyd, who grinned and wiggled his fingers in a little wave.  It had been a long time since Azul had seen quite that much horror in someone’s face.

“We’re not friends.”  Riddle shot back quickly, sounding rather astoundingly defensive.  Not that the trio were at all put out, they’d only learned what the word meant an hour and a half ago and were all more than inclined to agree with that assessment.  “Azul is merely an acquaintance from last night’s ceremony, as you very well know.”  Grey eyes stared into gold, silently pleading with them to not make an issue of this.

“That’s how friendships start.”  Trey continued, far too pleased to be put off by a reluctant Riddle now that he was picking up a little bit of steam.  “And you’re in the same class!  I’m sure you’ll be able to help out each other with all sorts of assignments.  The teachers don’t seem to care much about dorms, so it’s rather common to partner us up with each other.”  His grin was as wide as it was warm and Azul couldn’t figure out if the green haired youth was making fun of them or feeling genuine affection for his diminutive companion, and by extension, them.

“I agree with Riddle, we’ve only just met and haven’t had a chance to draw up a contract or any sort regarding an ongoing relationship.”  He found himself murmuring cautiously, suddenly feeling as if he’d strayed into deep water without meaning to.  Judging by the look on Trey’s face, he’d said something wrong because he was receiving the strangest stare.

“Oh dear Founders, there’s two of them.”

“Hey!  I don’t draw up contracts!”  Riddle snapped at his senior who held up his hands defensively, the smile never leaving his face.

“You might as well have.  Remember the list of rules you gave to Che’nya and myself?”

“…the Riddle's Rules?”

“Yeah, those.”

“You broke most of them.”  Riddle grumbled sullenly, staring down at the floor, looking all too ready to begin pouting.

“That was mostly Che’nya’s fault and you know it.”  Trey’s smile grew warmer and fonder.  “Now come on.  I’ll show you lot where the Introduction to Alchemy is taught.  Professor Crewel doesn’t tolerate tardiness of any sort and if you’re more than a minute late, he’ll beat you to within an inch of your life.”

“Teachers can do that here?”  Jade asked, moving to walk alongside Trey, leaving Azul to flank Riddle while Floyd took up the rear.  “It sounds a tad… extreme.”

“Well, I’ve never seen it myself personally.” The green haired youth answered easily, information flowing as smoothly as his smiles.  “But I’ve heard about it.  There’s rumours all over campus about students he’s put in the Infirmary for beaking off at him.  One thing I do know for sure though is you don’t mess with him.  He’s a spiteful bitch and will make your class life a living hell.  I knew one student in my first year, Zhen.  He thought he was the second coming of the Beautiful Queen when it came to potions.  The idiot wasn’t even in Pomefiore… likely for the best, they’d have eaten him alive with that attitude… also, he was ugly as a pug.  Anyway, he started giving Professor Crewel attitude.  Poor idiot ended up being the test subject for every potion the class brewed that year.  He dropped out when we got to the poisons.”

“We get to brew poisons!?”  Floyd perked up from where he’d been idly staring at the strange human architecture, trying to sort out how anyone ever found their way through the straight angled hallways without impaling themselves on the corners.

“Yup, and they’re all strictly regulated, so don’t go trying to sneak any out for extra curricular use.  Professor Crewel gets even nastier if you do that.  If you absolutely, positively have to get your hands on something nasty though, talk to someone in Pomefiore, though you didn’t hear that from me.”

“Trey!”  Riddle stared at his friend, utterly mortified that rule breaking would be so blithely discussed, especially in his presence.

“What?  They’re Octavinelle, I’m sure they’ll be in the market for it at one point or another, and if they’re friends of yours, I’d rather keep them out of trouble.”

“That’s twice now that you’ve mentioned rather dishonourable dealings from our Dormatory.”  Jade mused thoughtfully as they walked.  “Is there something we should be aware of?”  Heterochromic eyes watched Trey through the veil of vibrant lashes, noting how the youth glanced nervously around them, as if expecting spies to be lurking behind each corner.

“Nothing I can really say, just don’t let your guard down… especially around your Dorm Leader… he’s a real piece of work.”

“Oh dear, that does sound like a problem.”  A slight smile tugged at Jade’s lips as he glanced back at Azul who was quietly comparing notes with Riddle regarding upcoming classes.  Not that his actions fooled either of the eels, they were well aware of the multi tasking skills of their companion.

“The Boneworm?”  Floyd chirped happily.  “That’s alright then.  He hates us already.”

“That was quick.  What did you do?”

“Oh!  It was fun!  First, I tried to put that remora of a Vice Dorm leader through the wall because he annoyed me and wouldn’t let us sleep together, then we miiight have let this fire thing loose in our room and I think he got all angry cause none of us were wearing our uniforms yet.  I bet it’s cause my dangly thing is bigger than his, cause he spent a lot of time staring at all of them with his eyebrow being all twitchy.  Then Azul saved all the first years from making a disaster out of breakfast and poisoning our seniors, so now he’s the Kitchen Manager… and I might have called the Boneworm boring and useless.”

“…oh… well… you’ve certainly been busy…. You summoned a fire elemental?”

“No idea, but it was all pretty and crackly.”

“What happened to discipline?”  Riddle glanced over at Azul who was currently gritting his teeth and glaring at Floyd over the edge of his notebook, doing his best to silence him with the power of his mind.

“I wish I knew.”  He growled in response, then sighed heavily, realizing that some level of damage control would have to be done.  “It was a series of rather unfortunate events involving not quite understanding the power in our pen crystals.”  He lied easily, doing his best to brush the various mishaps off as little more than precocious accidents.  “And it was hardly an elemental.  Merely a … small fire... thingy.”  His cheeks coloured slightly in embarrassment at being unable to properly explain the situation.

“Yeah, I can believe that.”  Trey murmured, coming rather unexpectedly to their rescue.  “It happens every year.  A few spells overloading.  Someone tries to light a candle and ends up blowing up their room, or summons a glass of water and floods the place.  It takes a while to sort out the balance between finesse and power, but hey, it says a lot about your potential if that’s happening.  I heard that Draconia blew out an entire wing in Diasomnia trying to swat a fly when he first got his pen.”  There was no judgement or mockery at all in his voice.  This utterly confused Azul who was so used to having any little mistake quickly pointed out and made into a weapon against him.  How was this human the total opposite of everything he’d ever come to expect in another sapient creature?  In fact, he sounded genuinely impressed with their tale of morning madness.

“No Floyd, you can’t blow a wing off of Octavinelle.  It would kill everyone.”  Azul covered his confusion expertly, reprimanding his companion more out of habit than anything.  He didn’t even have to look over his shoulder to know that his ambulatory headache had already opened his mouth to ask, though this did earn curious stares from the two Heartslabyul students.

“Kill everyone?”  Riddle asked, unable to keep his curiosity in check.  Jade nodded in response.

“It’s underwater, nestled in the center of a coral reef.”

“Wow.”  Trey sounded honestly impressed as he tried to envision it.  “I’ve never visited the other dorms in the school, and I’ve only seen a few pictures of reefs before, it must be beautiful.”

“Eh, it’s not bad.”  Floyd shrugged, tucking his hands into his newly discovered pockets and grinning as he made little flapping motions with his jacket, no doubt imitating a ray in his own mind.  “Home looks much cooler.”

“It does?  Where’s home for you guys?”

“Just northeast of the Pyroxene coast.”  Azul answered smoothly, shooting Floyd another warning look about giving away too much information.  “A few isolated islands out in the middle of the sea.  We… tend to be rather insular.”

“Indeed.”  Jade picked up where he left off, sighing fondly as if in memory.  “We grew up on the beaches and spent so much time swimming in the water, chasing fish among the coral.  The reefs there are so pristine, they are living works of art.”

“That sounds amazing!  Much more exciting than the Rose Kingdom.  Did you ever see any mermaids?  There’s legends of them all along the Pyroxene coast.”

“Oh, stories a plenty.”  Jade’s serene smile never so much as twitched.  “But one can never be too sure if what one see’s is real, or merely some trick of the mind.  Everyone I know has claimed to see one at least once, it’s merely a matter of if you choose to believe them or not.”

“Yeah, some of the people we know aren’t reliable at all.”  Floyd chimed in, still happily flapping his jacket.

“So, Riddle.”  Azul smiled widely at the boy next to him, feeling that it was more than wise to change the flow of the conversation to something a little less… stilted.  “How are you finding your new dorm?  Is it up to your expectations?”  He’d be lying if he said that he didn’t find the unmistakable flash of distaste on the boy’s face to be anything but deeply satisfying.

               “Disappointing.”  The mere tone of his voice said more than the word ever could, as did Trey’s accompanying wince.  “There is such a disregard for the finer points of the Rules of the Queen of Hearts.  Can you believe that most of the students only have a handful of them memorized?  Even the third years barely know a hundred of them!  We don’t even have lemon tea to drink because the Dorm Leader is allergic to citrus.  Can you believe that?  Citrus!”

               “There’s more than a hundred rules you have to follow?”  Jade spoke up, a look of shock on his face as he glanced between the two Heartslabyul students.  “Why so many?”

               “Yeah, rules are so boring.  Blah blah, don’t do this, don’t do that, stop biting me.  Azul likes the rules, but he’s weird and if you don’t go along with it, he gets all pouty and then doesn’t speak to you until you annoy him enough with something new that he forgets about the first thing he was mad about and yells at you about the new one… so ha!  I win!”

               Everyone stared at him for a long moment, unsure how to quite take that sort of odd logic, though Floyd did look rather pleased with himself.

               “Soooo, how did the three of you manage to all get into the same class?”  Trey asked, his voice dripping with curiosity.  “Normally they make it a point to break up any friendships they see, especially if it’s familial.  The faculty like to keep us off balance.”

               “Do they now?  How interesting.”  Jade mused thoughtfully, glancing over at Azul who matched his look with one of his own.  That was definitely something they were going to have to look into.  Any break in normal patterns warned of ulterior motives, and none of the trio liked to be manipulated.  That was their game, and they didn’t play well with others.

               “One can only assume that perhaps they felt it was easier to keep track of us if we were together.”  Azul replied with false nonchalance as he resumed looking down at his notes.  “And they’re likely hoping that together, we can keep an eye on this one.”  He motioned somewhat absently over his shoulder towards Floyd who leaned over and nuzzled Azul playfully.

               “You’d miss me if I wasn’t around.  Admit it.”

               “I can’t miss you if you don’t go away.”  Despite his words, he did in fact return the affectionate gesture before shoving Floyd off his shoulder, earning a somewhat bemused look from the two Heartslabyul students.

               “He’d miss me.”  Floyd assured them confidently, not at all put off by the push, a happy smile on his face.  “Azul thinks I’m brilliant.”

               “Look!  They’re here!  I told you that they’d be in our class!  Hi guys!  What luck huh?  We’re all in the same class together.  Oh hey, you guys are wearing shoes today, I guess you’ve already communed with all the energy you wanted to huh?  I tried walking around barefoot in the Hall of Mirrors last night and my toes turned blue it was so cold on the stones.  Jamil said that I wasn’t allowed to do it again because I might end up losing toes, and then I’d be all wobbly.  Hi!  I’m Kalim Al-Asim, I didn’t get a chance to say hi last night but you guys are pretty awesome and so tall!  Riddle wanted to know what you ate to get that big so he could grow up all tall too and join the basketball team.  Why are you all red?  I thought you got into Octavinelle, aren’t they all silvery and stuff?  It’s such a pretty colour and oooh, it really looks good on you Azul, um… not that the red isn’t a nice colour too, I’m all about equal chromatic opportunity”

               “Oh sweet Abyss.”  Azul murmured, grabbing onto Riddle’s shoulder and taking a step back, both their eyes growing in horror as the rest of their retinue came to a sudden halt, their way blocked by a rather loud obstacle dressed in what was clearly NOT a regulation uniform. 

               “It’s HIM!”  Riddle gasped out in horror.  “I thought we were avoiding him!  How did he find us!?”

               “I didn’t find you silly, it looks like we’re in the same class!”  Kalim grinned widely, holding up his class schedule which had a Class 1B written boldly across the top.  “Isn’t that amazing!  I get to start off the year already having friends!  Ha!  Jamil said that since no one knew me, I’d have to be quiet, but shows what he knows.  Hey, Jamil, aren’t you supposed to be good at Divination?” 

The only consideration towards the school uniform the youth seemed to have made was that he was wearing the deep maroon vest accorded to his dorm, and even that was hanging open and unfastened, leaving both Azul and Riddle twitching at the sight.  Instead of his black jacket, he wore a long billowy coat the colour of fine cream and made from some sort of material that looked insanely soft to touch.  His entire body glittered with golden jewelry which Azul couldn’t help but stare at, his greedy nature demanding that he somehow find a way to make it his.

               His pen was tucked haphazardly into a silken sash which hung loosely around his waist, the ends fastened together with a gorgeously bejeweled broach with matching tassels.  There was such an air of utter disregard for the way he was presenting himself, that had it not been for the fact that he was wearing a rather impressive fortune on his body, he’d have looked even more slovenly than Floyd.

               “Eeeh!  I like this guy!”  The aforementioned eel exclaimed, much to Azul’s horror.  “He’s so sparkly!”

               “And you’re so red!  Did you do it with a spell!?  Can you teach me?  I’m terrible at colour change spells, I tried once to alter the colour of my bedsheets and ended up with this mess that is apparently called plaid, which was pretty awesome, even if it did hurt my eyes if I stared at it too long.”

               “Kalim!”  The ever-harried Jamil came racing up behind him, carrying what looked like both their books for the morning’s classes and panting visibly.  “Sire… you can’t just go wandering off like that without an escort… or your books.   You forgot them in the common room.”  Like Kalim, Jamil wasn’t wearing the standard Night Raven College uniform either, though he’d at least made a few concessions.  While he wore the jacket and slacks, in place of his shirt and vest, he instead wore a warm thick looking red hoodie with black flames rising from beneath.  While also bedecked in golden jewelry, his choices were much more subdued, limiting them to golden beads woven into the intricate braids in his hair, creating a gleaming veil which caused Azul’s heart to jump into his throat. 

               Those long lovely locks looked so much like the one’s he’d once sported in his youth, full of intricate braids woven around each other creating the most beautiful patterns.  It must have taken hours to do and displayed not only an incredible attention to detail, but a precision which spoke of a brilliant mind. 

               It had been a long time since he’d given his own shorn locks any thought, having fully embraced his little rebellion against the status quo of the sea.  All it took was just one look at Jamil for Azul to feel a terrible surge of jealousy and a deep longing for those long-lost locks which had once floated around him like gleaming seafoam.

               “You’re squeezing a little hard.”  Riddle murmured, his voice tight with pain, causing Azul to realize that he still had that small shoulder trapped in his grip.

               “Ah, apologies… I… wasn’t expecting to see the loud thing again.”  With a somewhat strained smile, he released Riddle and took a slight step back, noting the curious looks the twins where shooting him, wondering if they were supposed to attack or let things play out once again.  It didn’t help that both of them looked far more amused than they had any right to be.

               “Think we can escape?”  Rubbing his shoulder, Riddle glanced around the hallway, trying to make note of all possible exits.  Unfortunately, there was a distressing lack of cover available to them, and a chameleon spell wouldn’t work with Kalim’s attention already firmly fixed on them.

               “Not likely… he’s seen us, and he likely tracks his prey by movement.”

               “Ha, you two are funny, you know that I can hear you right?”  Kalim grinned widely, pointing towards his jewel encrusted ears, bobbing his head back and forth to make the earrings jangle rather musically.  “But don’t worry, I’m not all big and scary.  You’re safe with me.”

               “Does he think-”

               “Ah, our deepest thanks.”  Azul neatly cut off Riddle and flashed him a warning look.  “It’s good to know that we’re under your benevolent protection.”  Kalim’s grin grew even wider and he threw open his arms, as if intending to hug them all, causing the twins to both stiffen, expecting an attack, while both Azul and Riddle took a pointed step backwards.  Trey and Jamil just watched the whole exchange from the sidelines, neither wanting to get involved.

               “Well… I need to get going to class.”  Clover finally announced, perhaps a tad more loudly than necessary as he made a point of adjusting his glasses.  “I have Ancient Runes now and can’t be late.”  Leaning over, he made a bit of a show of patting Riddle on the shoulder, though Azul heard him whisper in the boy’s ear.  “Go easy on them, and please, no decapitating anyone on your first day.”  Well then, that was good to know.  It seemed that the redhead’s temper was a tad more extreme than he’d first thought.

               Straightening up, Trey looked at the rest of them, his smile just as warm and welcome as it had been when he’d first approached them.

               “And you guys should all get going too.  Professor Crewel waits for no puppy.  Your class is that room over there.  Good luck!”  Waving his hand in their direction, he quickly retreated into the steady stream of students rushing through the hallway and was almost immediately swallowed up into the mass, leaving the rest of them on their own.

               “WE GET PUPPIES!?!?!”  Kalim’s squeal of delight was every bit as loud as it was annoying.

              

Chapter Text

“Ugh, this sucks.  He keeps droning on and on and there’s no puppies anywhere.”  Kalim groaned, his head resting on his desk as he stared at Professor Crewel who was reciting a rather long list of rules regarding what was expected in his classroom, both during studies and when brewing in the lab.  One would think that it would be interesting information, but somehow, it felt like an absolute ordeal, especially when the information was in their books and could be read over in a matter of moments.  “How can he have so many rules?”

               “It’s for your own safety.”  Riddle hissed at him under his breath, glaring over his shoulder at the slumped form as if it was an affront to his sensibilities.  He and Azul were dutifully writing down every single word written on the board as well as any additions the professor was adding in verbally.  Jade appeared to be paying attention, though was only copying down a condensed version of said rules.  Floyd was gnawing on his pen and tapping his feet in a rather distracting manner.  Azul had already kicked him once under the desk, but that had only caused him to change rhythm.

               “Oh oh!  Professor!”  Floyd suddenly sat up straight and held up his hand, waving it about in the air even as Azul groaned softly under his breath. 

               Though he was facing the board, everyone could see how Professor Crewel’s fingers tightened on his riding crop which was currently being used as a pointer.  This was the third time Floyd had chosen to amuse himself with a rather pointless question, and a few of the students in the back were beginning to take bets as to how long it was before the Professor threw something at him.  So far, the odds were highly in favour of him not surviving the class.

               “Yes Mr. Leech?”  The words were deadpanned and said with only the greatest reluctance.

               “So, If we need to wear our goggles and gloves when handling the Cerulean fire slugs, then… does that mean that we shouldn’t eat them either?”  They could hear the well-worn leather of the crop creak in protest as Crewels grip tightened on the handle.

               “That… would be correct Mr. Leech.”  He replied through gritted teeth.  “Just like the Acid Nettles, the Hell Slime and the Magma worm skin you have already asked about.  Stop trying to eat the damn ingredients you greedy puppy!”  Spinning around, he slammed the crop down on his desk hard enough to actually dent the wood.  Every single person in the class jumped and Kalim suddenly sat up straight, knocking several doodle filled pages to the floor.  “Shall I perhaps make an example out of you by demonstrating to the class what exactly these items will do to you when you put them in your mouth?  I can assure you that the effects are quite fascinating from a purely scientific point of view, though not as such by a humanitarian one.”

               “Is he trying to get himself killed?”  A silver haired boy sitting behind Azul leaned forward and whispered, daring the professor’s wrath.  “Because it does appear to be his end game.”

               “Oh man, this is fucking golden.”  A scruffy haired hyena youth in the seat next to him snickered, his large ears perked up as high as they could go.  Rather than reply, Azul simply sat back and smiled, fully aware of the game his companion was playing.  It was one of the reasons their teachers back in Atlantica made it a point to pretend that the Leech brothers simply didn’t exist.

               “Alright.”  Floyd shrugged nonchalantly and stood up, a happy if somewhat vacant looking smile on his face.  “But if you washed the Cerulean Fire slugs in a solution of vinegar and Black Desert Viper venom, it would render the caustic properties inert while still keeping their blood viable as an ingredient.  The Acid Nettles can be counteracted with salt being rubbed on them and while it will weaken them as ingredients, anything we’d be dealing with in first year won’t require their full concentration.  Hell Slime is only dangerous if it’s heated up beyond one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, so unless anyone is running a fever, it can be handled with bare hands, and Magma worms are really tasty if you pickle them first.  Azul knows how to make them.”

               “They upset your stomach because you keep eating too many.”  Jade murmured, amusement colouring his voice.

               “Totally worth it.”

               The professor was staring at Floyd as if he’d just grown another head, his eyes wide and staring as he tried to connect that statement with everything else he’d ever heard the boy say since his arrival. 

               “We… don’t cover neutralizing agents until second year.”  He murmured, his voice still sounding somewhat distant and shocked.  “Where did you learn this?”

               “Eh?  Oh, when I was little I wanted to learn how to poison my teachers and get away with it.  My mother got me a book on deadly exotic ingredients and I read it a few times.”

               “Our parents are firm believers in extra curricular education Professor.”  Jade smiled serenely, thoroughly enjoying the look on Crewel’s face as he tried to sort out if they were telling the truth or not.

               “And did your teachers have an unfortunate poisoning accident?”

               “Nah.”  Floyd sounded more than a tad annoyed at this and he spun his pen lazily around his fingers like a baton.  “A shark got him on a field trip when he was giving this big explanation on the different types of shells for our malacology class and wasn’t paying attention.  He screamed a lot and made the funniest faces.”  He giggled happily at the fond memory for a moment, then his smile quickly faded into a dark glower.  “We didn’t get to go on field trips after that… it sucked.”

               “That’s… that’s horrible!”  The silver haired boy gasped out and Floyd turned around, nodding his head emphatically, the pen still spinning neatly through his fingers.

               “I know right!  We had to spend the rest of the year in the stupid grotto right when things were getting interesting!”

               “No, I meant having to see your teacher… You know what?  Never mind.”  The boy shook his head and sighed, noticing the blank look on Floyd’s face and sensing a losing battle.  “Forgot where I was for a moment there.”

               “I had a teacher get bitten by a crocodile.” The hyena boy lifted a hand as he joined into the conversation, utterly ignoring the rapidly darkening frown on the professor’s face.  “We were learning all about the Circle of Life, and I guess that sort of made it a live demonstration.”  He looked over at Floyd and flashed him a playful grin.  “He survived though.”

               “Well that sucks.  Did your school trips get cancelled?”

               “Nah, but we weren’t allowed near that waterhole until King Farena had all the reptiles cleared out.”

               “All of them?”  Azul couldn’t help but involve himself in the conversation at this point.  “That seems a little extreme over the actions of one.  Besides, it was only hungry and acting upon it’s nature.”

               “Yeah, well, predators don’t like being reminded that sometimes the food chain bites them back.  Especially the apex ones.  Status quo and all that.”

               “Enough!”  The professor seemed to have recovered his wits and slammed his crop down on the desk once again.  “The puppies will stop their yapping and pay attention!  There will be no more talk of poisoning teachers or feeding them to wild animals!”  He glared at both Floyd and the hyena boy.  “You will all turn to page Twenty Six in your text regarding the proper Personal Protective Equipment.  I will NOT have students melt themselves during lab assignments!”

               In light of how the class was going, it was hardly surprising that Floyd’s hand immediately shot back up.  It was also hardly surprising that the professor chose to ignore it this time, no matter how much the eel waved it back and forth, then began bouncing in his seat.

               “Professor?”  Riddle raised his hand politely and received a nod to continue.  “Forgive me, but the way you phrased that… have you had students melt during lab assignments before?”

               “That would be privileged information Mr. Rosehearts, though I will remind you that your parents all signed waivers before your formal acceptance to this fine establishment.  But rest assured, Night Raven College has one of the best infirmaries on the planet and we are quite adept at replacing limbs for up to sixty five percent of the body.  Beyond that… well… It would be best if you avoid the Chilli Special at the cafeteria.”

               “What?!”  The silver haired youth blurted out in shock.  “But…I…I like chilli…”  He looked a tad green around the edges.

               “At least you found this out before lunch?”  The hyena murmured helpfully.

               “It’s a bluff… he’s just fucking with us.”  A Pomefiore student in the back stated, though he quickly sank down in his seat when those silver eyes flashed in his direction.

               “Good little dogs will always mind their language in my classroom.”  The Professor stated loudly.  “This is a World-Renowned Educational Facility.  I expect the Puppies boarded within to always keep that in mind, because those who can’t behave themselves will find themselves in obedience lessons.”  He glared at the seated students, just daring one of them to speak up and push their luck.  None did.  Even Floyd was quiet, though he looked more intrigued than petrified.

              

               That seemed to set the tone for the rest of the class, though thankfully, Floyd seemed to have gotten most of his trouble making out of his system quickly enough and settled down for the remainder of the class, allowing the rest of the lesson to continue.  Azul had to admit that despite it being painfully remedial to him, there were still a few interesting surprises regarding how brewing techniques would vary up on the surface as opposed to in the depths of the Coral Sea. 

Fire thing featured strongly in all of them, being the main item used to heat their cauldrons for proper brewing.  It also seemed that it wasn’t truly considered to be alive as he’d at first suspected, though personally, he did have some doubts as to that, but decided to amend his belief that if it was alive, it was at least not considered to be at all sentient.  Just another useful tool to add to his ever-growing arsenal.  It could consume all sorts of matter, including flesh as well as air and it either grew or shrank depending on the resources available.  It could even breed! Creating smaller baby fires which were capable of growing and breeding at an unprecedented rate.  Personally, he couldn’t wait to get back to the dorms and experiment a little on this fascinating beast… with the proper precautions of course.

               They also used something called Fresh Water, which he’d heard of before, but had never had the opportunity to study due to the whole problem with living in a saltwater environment.  It sounded fascinating, and seemed to be the most basic building block of all surface life which was rather sad considering it was often a much sought after commodity in some areas.  This water would also provide a base in many of their potions, especially in first year, though as their studies progressed, they would learn about new bases, as well as other more specialized forms of water used for advanced concoctions.

               By the end, he’d taken reams of notes, even more than Riddle who was a close second.  The two of them had rather quickly soothed the Professor’s ruffled feathers and earned their place at the top of the class thanks to their thoughtful questions and attentive attitudes, though one of the Pomefiore students, a dark-haired youth with a rather feminine demeanor named Uzuri, seemed determined to challenge them.  He shot the two of them several dark looks whenever they managed to earn the Professor’s praise, and did his best to attempt to one up them, which seemed to do little more than earn Crewel’s ire as he finally stopped the lesson and advised the youth that if he was going to attempt to claw his way to the top of the class, he would have to start thinking on his own and not merely parrot back the answers of other students.

               With that, sharing vicious smiles with each other, Azul and Riddle joined forces to ensure that Uzuri was quite effectively shut down whenever he dared to open his mouth.  Any attempt at arguing with one was met with a shared defense which seemed to amuse the twins immensely, as well as the professor, who seemed more than inclined to allow the intellectual bullying to continue.

               By the end of class, Azul felt rather refreshed and confident with his future here at Night Raven College, which should have warned him that once again, fate was simply setting him up for a grand fall, because their next class was History.  Specifically, Human history, though they’d failed to make that specification in the curriculum, something which he rather quickly found to be incredibly discriminatory.

               Considering that he’d only met his first human less than twenty-four hours ago and had minimal knowledge at best of the various kingdoms, let alone their histories, the class seemed to be perfectly set up to be an absolute nightmare.

               As with the Alchemy class, the room was set up in a simple amphitheater style with the teacher down below with his desk and board, while the rest of the students sat in a multilayered semicircle around him.  This ensured the best use of space and enabled everyone to have an excellent view of the board for their notes. 

               As before, Azul and Riddle chose the front row, Jade and Floyd sitting next to him.  The silver haired youth, who he’d learned was aptly named Silver sat immediately behind them with the Hyena boy, Ruggie at his side.  Uzuri had attempted to claim one of the front row seats but Jade had simply leaned over, placing his leg on the bench, flashing the boy a look of clear warning that his proximity wouldn’t ensure continued good health.

               Much to the relief of Azul and Riddle, the ever-noisy Kalim chose a seat in the back where he could doodle in his notebook without bothering anyone other than Jamil who seemed to be some sort of masochist, choosing the seat next to his “Master.”

               “Poor little fishie.”  Floyd softly murmured a few minutes into their lesson where Professor Trein was discussing something about a Pact of The Ten Kingdoms which seemed to have been the basis for the countries found upon their continent.  He’d heard about this in class back in Atlantica, as the Kingdom of the Coral Sea was apparently the newest members to sign on, several hundred years ago during the time of the Sea Witch.  While he was rather interested to hear the human perspective of this, he knew that Floyd would only grow more irritating if he didn’t find out what had caught his attention this time.

               It was times like this that Azul was deeply thankful for his own unique mental makeup which allowed him to continue to listen to the professor and take notes, while also focussing on Floyd’s newest bout of inanity.  There was no way he was going to risk his rise to power just because the damn eel was bored of sitting in one place for too long.

               “What are you talking about?”  He muttered, glancing around, only belatedly noticing a small brilliant red fish in a small bowl up on one of the shelves by the board.  It swum around rather irritably in its tiny little prison, with only some pebbles and a small piece of seaweed to break up the monotony of its life.

               “Wonder what it did to get shoved in there.”  A slight frown of concern marred the eels face as the two of them watched it swim in mindless circles.  “Must have been pretty bad.”

               It was an odd little thing, rather round in shape, with deep red scales and long, almost gauzy fins.  Its huge eyes seemed to take up most of the space on its head and Azul couldn’t imagine it surviving in any sort of depths.  The creature looked far too fragile, and that tail would be more of a hinderance than help.

               “I believe it’s a pet of the professor.”  It seemed safe to assume such, he hardly imagined that school policy would allow them to keep prisoners, and the creature didn’t look at all threatening… merely bored out of its little skull.

               “Whaaa?  Fish aren’t pets.”  He really didn’t trust the look on Floyd’s face. 

               “What about Nautilus and Fathom?”  He shot back, naming the two tiger sharks the Leech twin’s parents kept as pets, back up security systems, and babysitters for the twins. 

               “Well yeah… but they have room to move and hunt, that little guy can barely move.  Maybe he’s being saved for a snack?  He looks fat and tasty.”

               “If he’s a snack, he belongs to the professor, not your greedy gullet, and I doubt he’ll share.”

               “Still doesn’t seem right.  I mean, if you’re gonna eat a fish, then eat it, don’t just lock it up like that.”

               “What do you care?  I’ve seen you torture countless fish for fun.”

               “Yeah… but I feel bad for that one.”

               “Pay attention!”  Riddle hissed softly out of the side of his mouth.  “All lessons are important!”  Azul took a rather large amount of amusement in seeing how the little human shot an irritable glance at his paperwork, then choked softly as he realized that Azul’s notes were of a much higher quality than his own.  Ha!  Take that single brained biped!  Behold the superior species!

Still, he didn’t trust the way Floyd’s eyes kept darting towards the bowl of water and the prisoner trapped within.  He just knew that the eel was going to do something he was going to not only be pulled into, but regret every single minute of.

               Thankfully, Floyd seemed grow quiet after that, no doubt plotting some form of insanity, but it at least gave Azul a chance to read ahead in their book even as he jotted down the professor’s lecture, earning another soft choke from Riddle who was growing rather red in the face as he struggled to try to catch up to the rather ambitious octopus.  The race was on, and neither were willing to take second place.

It was a good thing that he’d taken such initiative because the history of the surface was quite a bit different from that of the sea.  Hardly a surprise really, but then again, what did you expect from a kingdom terrified of looking beyond their own watery borders?  Not that they didn’t have good reason for their insular behaviour, aside from the whole, not being able to breathe air problem.

As much as he hated to admit it, it was rather fascinating, and there was nothing Azul loved more than learning new information.  Well… maybe money and power, but knowledge was intrinsically tied into the other two, as you couldn’t achieve, or hold onto either of them without the first, so it all worked out in the end. 

Take this lesson for example.  He’d had no idea that the Pact of the Ten Kingdoms had originally been made up of merely two lands, specifically Pyroxene and the Rose Kingdom.  They’d joined forces after the uprising of the Demon Chernobog destroyed the Hundred Acre Woods and threatened the island of Neverland, which existed just south east of the two great countries, at the southern borders of the Coral Sea.  They’d rallied against the Valley of Thorns in what became known as the Oathbreaker’s War, plunging all the surrounding kingdoms into turmoil for over a hundred years. 

Even after the century long battle of “Light” against “Dark” had ended, in its wake came famine, sickness and a general sense of lawlessness which had plagued the kingdoms for some time afterwards.  However, the war had also given rise to many of the current schools of magic being used today, so in the eyes of a sorcerous college such as Night Raven, it was viewed as a boon rather than a detriment to humanity at large. 

As the little beastman Ruggie had mentioned, Apex predators never cared about what happened to the smaller creatures, so long as the status quo remained untouched.  Peasants suffered but sorcerers prospered in the new regime, so all was considered well with the land.  Hmph, it was a tale as old as time.

               Having long ago come to grips with this fact, it hardly bothered Azul’s tender sensibilities.  After all, he was a firm believer in survival of the fittest, and mundanes, be they human or mer, simply weren’t the most fit, so it hardly mattered what happened to them in the end.

Still, it was interesting to learn how such events which had rocked the Coral Sea so long ago had originally begun.  It really wasn’t spoken of much in Atlantica schools, they tended to focus on the rise of the Royal Family and what happened after Salacia the Red had appeared bearing the Trident of Neptune, uniting the colonies.

Being as curious as he was, Azul only knew of some of these surface events, but only because of a terrible spell which had been unleashed upon Neverland at the apex of the war.  It had been a brutal, truly malevolent spell which had obliterated all its native inhabitants and turning the island itself into a sort of magical black hole from which escape was all but impossible.  Each side of the war had naturally blamed the other and no one had been able to prove who’d been responsible for the genocide, it was still a bit of a sore point for any fan of history.

Rumour had it that the island itself had rather quickly been sealed away by Fae Magic to protect the surrounding countries from the effects of the blast and mystical fallout, but in the process, several nearby mer colonies had become trapped within its borders. 

               It had been a terrible loss for the Kingdom of the Coral Sea as colony populations, which had been already been quite small and scattered at the time, had been thrown into absolute anarchy.  Enter Salacia the Red, who’d led many grand, brave… and in his opinion, likely overblown battles.  She’d almost single handedly put an end to the fighting, driven back the Beasts of the Abyssal Layer with the power of her Trident, given to her by her lover Neptune.  After that, she’d united the colonies into one big happy coalition known as Atlantica.  For her efforts, she was then named the First Queen of Atlantica and had been the progenitor of the current Royal Family.  It was something the Royals never let anyone forgot about.  The propaganda of “You owe everything to us” was practically crammed down the throat of very merling the instant they entered the schooling grottos.

               While time had healed many of the wounds of surface war, the Veil separating Neverland from the rest of the continent eventually began to fray.  This allowed some travel to and from the strange and rather insular land, but the damage had already been done.  The mer colonies which had developed up in those isolated Neverland coves never attempted to rejoin Atlantica and were in fact rather hostile towards any overtures towards the very idea.  They’d grown rather xenophobic and flighty over the centuries, even by mer standards.  Even their minds had become twisted by the continued exposure to fae magic and inbreeding.

               Not that many attempts had been made to renew contact as the land itself did still tend to trap those within; plying them with dreams and fantasies made real, at least in their own minds.  Some powerful sorcerers were said to have managed to breach their borders and return with grand treasures and even more fantastical tales, but as with all such stories, Azul was still skeptical.

               He’d have to make a point of seeing if he could cross reference any information with some of their more obscure lore when he returned home.  After all, according to mer history, all the tales from this time period were vicious and bloody, often used as a warning to ambitious merlings that the quest to tame magic was one fraught with danger, not just for one’s self, but for all of Atlantica.  It also carried the helpful threat that the surface world would always fuck things up for those in the sea, so it was best to stay well away from them, lest our numbers be shorn once again.  Only in following the wisdom of the Royal Family would Atlantica be kept safe and prosperous. 

Most listened to the dire warnings, those who didn’t… well, they went to Night Raven College.

               It seemed that he wasn’t the only one to know of other viewpoints regarding these dark times as he could occasionally hear soft sounds of disapproval coming from Silver.  How interesting, it seemed that the Valley of Thorns most likely had their own version of events which didn’t quite coincide with the college curriculum.  Azul made a note to ask him about it later.

               Knowledge after all was power.

               “I bet that’s Monstro.”  Oh what the fuck!?  Azul bit his lip to keep from saying that out loud and looked over at Floyd who was STILL staring at the stupid fish.  Taking one long deep breath in order to keep from crushing his precious notes in his hand, then another to ensure that his voice remained quiet and civil, Azul finally spoke.

               “Monstro was hundreds of feet long.  That fish is… barely five centimeters, ten if you include that stupid tail.”

               “Yeah, but this is a school of sorcerers, right?  They could easily have turned him into a teeeeeeny little fish and stuck him in a bowl.  You know, as a sort of trophy.”

               “Monstro hasn’t been seen in over a hundred years, Floyd.”

               “Exactly!  And how long has Night Raven College been around?  Hmm?”

               “Around a hundre…ugh dammit.”

               “See?  You know I’m right.  We have to help Monstro.”

               “It’s not… ugh!”  He was cursed, that had to be it.  Somehow, someone had managed to curse him without him being aware of it and he was doomed to forever be dragged into the schemes of crazy eels.

In a last, feeble attempt to bring some sanity to his life, he closed his eyes and focussed on the ebb and flow of the magic around them all, feeling the brilliant auras of his classmates, the cool familiar dark current which swirled between himself and the twins, as well as the ancient and ambient power of the school itself, surrounding them in a protective shield.

               Up at the front of the room, the professor shone with concentrated power, while he wasn’t the strongest light around, he was by far the most focused, his control honed through decades of intense study… but off to the side… up on the shelf, there was another spot of power which called to him.

               The Damn Fish.

               There were days when Azul truly hated his life.

              

Chapter Text

               “I can’t believe that both teachers gave us homework on the first day.  Who does that?”  Kalim whined dramatically as the group of them walked down the hallway.  More precisely, Azul walked down the hallway with Riddle and the twins in tow.  Silver and Ruggie seemed to have taken it upon themselves to tag along out of a mixture of curiosity and entertainment value while Kalim had naturally assumed he was invited as well, dragging poor Jamil along with him.  The latter was carrying both their books once more as the instant the bell had rung, the Al-Asim heir had been out of his seat and out the door, forgetting his belongings behind once more.

               “So… tell me again how this goldfish is actually the Great Whale Monstro?”  Silver was asking, sounding rather intrigued by the whole concept, and to Azul’s horror, not trying to talk Floyd out of it at all.

               “Gotta admit, if that old bag Professor Trein managed to beat him and shove him in a little fish bowl, he’s pretty badass as a sorcerer.  I mean, even we’ve heard of Monstro out in Afterglow Savanna, and we’re landlocked.”  Ruggie mused, his ears and tail perked up with interest.

               “Which is why this is pure hogwash.”  Riddle interjected hotly.  “Why would a sorcerer capable of such a feat be working as the Humanities professor at a school?  Even one as Prestigious as Night Raven College.  If he was that brilliant and powerful, he’d be running his own country.”

               “Unless they wish to keep Monstro’s defeat shrouded in secrecy.”  Jade spoke up thoughtfully, causing Azul to groan softly.  If he was getting into this foolishness, then there truly was no escape for him.  “After all, if word got out regarding a creature of such power being subdued and rendered into a weakened state, many villains and heroes would seek to capture him to use for their own means.  He would be not only a brilliant prize, but a powerful weapon in the right hands, or a bargaining chip.” 

               Alright, that was a terrifying thought.  Monstro had been a scourge of the Coral Sea for millennia.  A creature of absolute nightmarish legend, said to be able to scoop up entire settlements in a single bite, leaving nothing behind to prove they’d even existed.  Legend had it that the Royal Family had raised armies several times through the ages in an attempt to quell the beast, but each time, had been forced to retreat with heavy losses.  There was even a rumour that King Triton had approached the Sea Witch and asked for her benevolent intervention, but not even She had dared to tangle with that particular force of nature. 

               “But that doesn’t explain why Professor Trein would stay here after defeating such a beast.”  The diminutive redhead persisted.  “It seems so… pointless.”

               Azul tried to resist getting drawn into this meaningless prattle, he truly did, but the lure of displaying his own hard-won knowledge was simply too great and he was unable to resist the lure of joining in and being part of a real intellectual conversation.  He’d never really been in one like this, a relaxed free flowing forum of ideas, at least, he hadn’t before coming to Night Raven College.  His late-night plotting and brainstorming with the twins didn’t count. 

               “But Monstro isn’t a normal monster.”  Azul pointed out, pleased at how his words immediately drew in the attention of the others.  His inner octopus squealed in delight at being able to prove his brilliance.  “He’s an Oceanid.  A child of two Titans, specifically Oceanus and Tethys.  While most of the fabled Oceanids fell in the times of ancient legend, a few survived… mostly in the Abyssal Depths or other isolated pockets of the ocean.”

               “Oh oh oh, so in studying him, they’re studying the Titans!  That’s so cool!”  Floyd grinned widely, bouncing excitedly with every step, more than pleased over his grand discovery.

               “And in studying the Titans, they could learn to harness their unfathomable ancient power, possibly seeking some near divine power source, or possibly the resting place of a Titan themselves?”  Silver murmured, his shimmering eyes widening.  “My old man never mentioned anything about this…”

               “Ah, but would your old man be expecting the Great Monstro to be an itty, bitty goldfish?”  Floyd pointed out, mid bounce.  Rather than answering verbally, Silver simply nodded his head, conceding the argument.

               “I’m so lost.”  Ruggie shook his head.  “I don’t even know what a Titan is.  Is anyone else as lost as I am?”  Both Jamil and Kamil held up their hands.  Riddle looked like he wanted to deny every bit of this entire argument, but with a loud huff, he also held up his hand.  When Azul shot him a surprised look, he was met with a glare of utter defiance.

               “What?  I have studied all manner of practical and theoretical forms of magic, their histories, properties and  philosophies.  I’m also well versed in the politics of several countries, as well as their lore from their founding until present day, but this… why would anyone care about magics so old that they likely are no longer even compatible with the flow of energy of this world?”

               “Because energy, even magical energy never truly dies or fades away.”  Azul replied, warming to the topic.  “Just because the world has changed, the basic buildings blocks within it still exist.  The Titans were forces of nature, they were the essence of what made up the physical as well as metaphysical world which we now recognize. 

“It’s rather like how when you break down your own physical body into its most base components and DNA that you can trace similarities back through the ages, from modern humans and beastkin to the little furry things you share a lineage with, then back further to more lizard-like creatures, then back even further to fish, then single celled organisms.  It’s the same with magic.  Different schools, when picked and pulled apart show similarities with each other the further back you go until you finally reach a prime source.  With all of us, it was some single celled organisms, but with magic…”

               “With magic it was these Titans?”  Jamil cut in, his deep grey eyes widening.  “Is that even possible?”

               “So… the Professor has the source of all magic swimming around in a goldfish bowl?”  Kalim asked, sounding more than a little confused.  “AAAAH  It’s too much and it’s making my head hurt.”  He announced loudly.  “Well, if it’s been there for the last hundred years, then it must be safe, and it looked happy enough.  It even had a little plant to play with!”  Shrugging, he grinned at the others who were all staring at him with varying levels of shock on their faces.  “Personally, I’m more interested in the club presentations!  I wonder what fun activities they have!  Oh!  Jamil, if they have a cooking club, you should totally join!  He makes the best food you’ve ever tasted!  In fact, you should all come over and have some!  We can have a feast after we figure out what activities we want to do!”

               “Sire… it will take some time to cook for this many people. We’d also need to speak to Dorm Leader Sehra about inviting guests.”  Jamil smiled fondly at his master, though there was perhaps the fainted hint of frustration behind his words, not that anyone could blame him.  Azul would have gone ballistic and just eaten the fool long ago if he’d had to deal with such nonsense constantly.

               “I think… that we need to conduct more thorough research before we go racing around accusing professors of holding baby Titans prisoner.”  Riddle murmured, his tone carefully measured, as if he couldn’t believe that he was saying this.  “One must never make unfounded accusations.”

               “One of the Rules of the Queen of Hearts?”  Azul asked, rather sure he already knew the answer.

               “Yes, Rule fifty-seven actually.”  His defensive tone was somewhat mollified by Azul’s smile and nod.

               “A wise rule indeed.  I agree with Riddle, we can’t simply run off stealing the pets of professors, no matter how well intentioned we might be, to act in an uninformed manner would be not only foolish, it would bring trouble on all our dorms.”

               “Actually, pretty sure that Leona would find it kind of funny.”  Ruggie grinned, then thought about it for another moment.  “No… on second thought, it would piss him off cause then he’d have to deal with it.”

               “Soooo if I ATE the little fishie… would I then get the powers of a Titan?”  Floyd mused out loud, causing Azul to groan once again. 

               “He’s not a Titan, he’s an Oceanid, and if it actually IS Monstro and not some poor little fish, then in his death, he’d likely return to his natural form, meaning that you’d explode… and that’s NOT a good thing!”  He quickly added when he saw how Floyd lit up.

               “…oh… okay… Then can I join a cooking club with Jamil?  I wanna learn how to make food!”

               “YAY! The more food the better!”

               Azul was going to kill them all.

 

               “This… is not what I was expecting.”  Jade murmured softly to Azul as they stepped out onto the main street of the college and into what appeared to be a full-blown festival taking place.  The air was filled with enticing smells from a large cooking stall which was already displaying a rather large assortment of treats.  Baked, fried, grilled, sweet, and savoury.  It was a veritable feast laid out for all, and many students were already eagerly indulging, taking full advantage of the low-priced treats.

               The air was full of music which seemed to come from a temporary stage set up at the far end of the street, and they could all see the flashes of light, multi coloured smoke and the sizzle of lightning crackle through the air around it, drawing everyone’s attention to the performing band.

               Off to the side, behind the majestic statues of the Founders, there was a large outdoor lab set up, full of beakers, vials and test tubes, all bubbling with mysteriously coloured liquids and Jade recognized the tall green haired youth who’d spoken to them all that morning.  He was chatting with a handsome individual who appeared to be the same age, though he sported shoulder length blond hair and a rather ostentatious hat on his head which contrasted oddly with the lab goggles and long white coat they both wore.

               “I… thought this was club recruitment, not a festival.”  Azul marveled softly, his wide eyes drinking in the diverse activities, unsure of what to try first.  Not that Jade could blame him, he was feeling rather overwhelmed himself and drifted a little closer to the smaller octopus, brushing lightly against him.  It was a great comfort to feel Azul lean back slightly, a slender hand reaching out and sliding along his side, helping ground them both.

               Floyd in contrast was racing about, overstimulated, and determined to sample everything he could as quickly as possible.  It was hardly surprising that he was immediately drawn by the booth displaying various cooked food, immediately shoving a few treats into his mouth, a look of utter bliss on his face.

               “He does know that he has to pay for that… right?”  The little human Azul seemed to have taken a bit of a liking to, grumbled from off to their side, shooting his brother a look of disapproval which caused Jade’s lips to tighten slightly.  “Each club operates under a rather tight budget and selling some of their wares is how they bring in a little money.”

               “Of course he knows.”  Azul assured the boy smoothly, despite being just as aware as Jade, that Floyd would gleefully take what he wanted and damn the consequences if that was his mood at the time.  “We’re hardly thieves.”  Granted, that was a rather fine line.  Was it truly stealing if his brother convinced the rather nervous looking boy manning the booth that it was in his best interest to let him nab a few samples?

               “This is amazing!”  The beast boy Ruggie murmured, drinking it all in with evident relish while Silver simply watched in silence, quietly taking it all in with a surprising sort of stoicism for a youth his age.  “Mmm everything smells so good!”  Bright blue eyes studied the food stall for a long moment, then the hyena snickered softly to himself.  “I’ll be right back, don’t wander off too far.”  As he spoke, he began to edge away from the group, managing to be rather inconspicuous despite his large ears and bushy tail, his movement smooth and calculating as he eyed several of the passing students.  Smiling slightly, Jade made note of the fact that there seemed to be many breed of thieves here today.  It was a good thing that he held nothing of value on his person at this moment, but in the future, he’d be wise to mind the small Savanaclaw.

               “Oh, did you want to eat?” Kalim perked up, his grin wide and utterly unassuming.  “I’m pretty curious about those foods as well.  Hey Floyd!  Wait up!  I wanna try some stuff too!  Oooh what is that!?”  He someone managed to squeeze all of that into one breath while skipping over to the food stall, A horrified Jamil chasing after him.

               “Sire!  You can’t eat that!  We haven’t tested it for poisons!”

               “Nonsense.”  Kalim laughed, waving a hand in the direction of the stall.  “It would be totally silly to poison the whole stall just to get me.”

               “Eh?  Poison?”  Floyd paused, glancing down at the overly perky Scarabia student, a small tart poised at the edge of his lips.  “Why would someone poison this tasty tasty food?”

               “Oh?  Do you like it sir?”  The student manning the counter asked, his eyes nervously darting from the overly tall and menacing Floyd, to the much smaller but still just as worrisome with his talk of poisoning people, Kalim.  “I assure you that this food was prepared from scratch by our very own cooking club.  We guarantee only the best food in Night Raven College!”

               “See?”  Floyd grinned.  “The little fishie says it’s good.”  Popping the tart in his mouth, he chewed thoughtfully and then smiled.  “Ha!  Not dead.”  Licking his lips rather thoughtfully, his smile grew wider as he reached for another.  “Actually, that was REALLY good!  Jade, Azul!  You guys gotta try this!”

               “Um… sir… I really have to insist that you pay for some of this… we have to pay for ingredients after all…”  With every word, the boy seemed to shrink in on himself a little more, especially when Floyd’s smile faded  from his face and those mismatched eyes fixed on him.

               “Why you gotta ruin this moment huh?”  Leaning slightly over the counter and staring down at the much smaller student, the eel frowned.  “Here I was enjoying this wonderful food and you have to grumble and whine about cost.  Don’t you take pleasure in cooking?  Don’t you enjoy seeing people experience true happiness when sampling your work?  What kind of artist are you to be so stingy?”

               “The… the kind that has to p-pay for ingredients?”  The boy was one step away from wetting himself in pure terror when Kalim slapped a rather large and thick golden coin down onto the table.

               “Here you go!  Anyone who makes such amazing food should be rewarded!  And anyone who enjoyed eating their wonderful food should be able to!  That’s what makes life so much fun!”

               Off to the side, Jade heard Ruggie squeak rather loudly as he saw the sheer size of the coin as well as the buttery yellow glow from the warm afternoon sun shone down on its edges.

               “Dude!!  Seriously!?  Is that like… real!?”

               “Of course it’s real!”  Jamil snapped at him in irritation.  “Are you implying that my Master would be some sort of charlatan!?”  There was a surprising amount of venom behind the words and Ruggie quickly held up his hands, shaking his head.

               “No no!  I mean… shit man, I ain’t never seen a real gold coin before.  Madols sure… but… that’s pure gold!”

               “Never?”  Kalim turned to look at him, his garnet eyes wide and guileless.  “Oh that’s terrible.  Here, you can have one too.  Don’t worry, I have lots!”  With a happy smile, he tossed one over to the Hyena who caught it and stared down at the hunk of metal, his eyes wide, as if he was at this very moment doubting his sanity.

               Leaning forward slightly, Azul glanced at the coin, interest sparking in his eyes.  Jade could only sigh and shake his head.  Coins… it just had to be coins.  As if the little octopus didn’t already have a large enough collection back in his room at home.  He had the uncanny ability to home in on them whenever the three of them explored a new wreck, and would spend endless painstaking hours restoring them to shining brilliance.

               Not that Jade had anything against collecting things, and coins certainly had their uses, but only if one spent them.  Hoarding them like some deranged kraken accomplished nothing in the long run other than giving you a shiny pile of junk which was rather difficult to move in a hurry.

               “So… that little thing is worth a lot of treats… right?”  Floyd pointed at the coin, not sure why everyone was making such a big deal about it.  It was only money after all. 

               Still staring at it, the boy behind the booth nodded his head, already calculating the huge amount of ingredients the club would be able to afford with this.

               “Um… yeah… take what you want.”  He seemed to recover quickly and smiled welcomingly at them all.  “Thank you so much for your patronage!”

               “Awesome!”  The eager eel laughed in delight as he began to scoop up several tasty treats into his arms, even stuffing several into his mouth before turning around and wandering back to the group.  “Mrhp, rewer mommaf rrym mis!”  Seeing his brother so pleased put a smile on Jade’s face and he quickly placed his hand over Azul’s mouth to keep him from berating Floyd over attempting to eat with his mouth packed so full of food.

               Looking at the rest of them, Kalim grinned widely and waved them over.

               “Come and try something!  This is for all of us after all!”

               Stepping to the side to avoid being sprayed by random crumbs, Riddle eyed the stall with obvious longing, but held back, looking instead at Kalim with a thoughtful look on his face.

               “Why would you do this?”  He asked cautiously, likely suspecting, as Jade did, that there was some sort of ulterior motive.           

               Rather than look at all guilty or even upset over the hesitation, Kalim instead threw back his head and laughed in pure delight.

               “You’re my friends, and I want to see my friends happy!  The quickest way to happiness is with good food!  So please, eat up!  If I can’t bring you to a feast in Scarabia, the least I can do is provide one here.”

               “Well… at least it takes care of the poison testing.”  Jamil muttered softly under his breath, shooting Floyd’s stuffed mouth a somewhat disgusted look.  In a purely childish response, Floyd simply opened his mouth, displaying the rather impressive amount of heavily masticated food.  This had the desired result of causing Jamil to turn some rather impressive shades of green and backing off.

               Moving as if he was suspecting either some sort of trap, or for security to haul him off for stealing, Riddle inched forward, his large eyes fixed on a rather delicious looking tart just dripping with fruit.  It truly was a thing of beauty, though Jade had no clue why he was acting so paranoid.  Honestly, the boy was worse around food than Azul… speaking of…

               “You should try something.”  He bent down and murmured into the ear of his little octopus, gently removing his hand from his mouth, though he did take a moment to stroke his thumb over that smooth pale cheek, enjoying how it grew pink under his touch.  “It does look delicious.”

               “That’s hardly a reason to throw my meal plan into chaos.”  Azul retorted, as was to be expected.  “I’ve already eaten the allotted nutrients for breakfast, and lunch should be filled with high iron greens, along with something filled with potassium to help with a clear mind.  Choosing what club we join is a large commitment as it will take up a large amount of time and help in shaping our education-”  Sighing, Jade put his hand back on Azul’s mouth and bodily walked him over to the table.

               “Kalim has already kindly paid for your lunch, so it would be rather rude to not accept his most generous gift.  Now choose an item or two for your meal.”  Yes, he knew that he’d pay for this later, but it was worth it to see the annoyance sparking in those lovely eyes and feel slender muscles tensing, testing the strength of his grip.  Silly little octopus, he should know by now that he wasn’t letting go of his prey.

               “…Are you sure it’s alright?”  Riddle asked, still looking deeply nervous about the whole thing, to the point that his hand was trembling.  Perhaps Jamil was right, maybe poison was a more common issue than the three of them had suspected on the surface?  No… the others seemed to be comfortable enough with the arrangement.  Even Silver had walked up to the booth, glancing around with interest at the various treats. 

               With a soft smile, the Diasomnia student chose three rather delicious looking chocolates, then gave the others somewhat guilty looks.

               “They’re not all for me.”  He assured them, sounding honestly worried that they’d see him a glutton.  Not likely considering Floyd was still stuffing his face with gleeful abandon.  “I wanted to give one to my Old Man, and my Leige.  It seems unfair that I should eat when they are no doubt so busy with their own tasks and unable to indulge in such epicurean delights.”

               “Very noble of you.”  Jade smiled at him, and watched as Riddle paused, his fingers hovering over the tart which was so obviously beckoning him.

               “You’ve mentioned them both before.  Will you be shipping it to them?  I’m afraid the treat will no doubt go stale by then.  Fresh baked good are always best when… well… fresh.”

               “Oh, have no worries.”  Silver smiled, nibbling at his chocolate and sighing softly in pleasure.  “They’ll enjoy them while fresh.  If you will excuse me.  I’ll be right back.”  Bowing in a polite yet archaic fashion, he stepped back from the group and headed into the crowd.

               “Yeah, he’s figuring out that creepy and mysterious Diasomnia thing already.”  Ruggie mumbled, shaking his head in mild exasperation, his ears drooping somewhat before he turned back to Kalim.  “Look man, I appreciate this, I really do, but I can’t take this.”  Extending his hand, he attempted to return the coin.  “This is more money than I’ve seen in my whole life, but I won’t beg or take charity.  I mean, sure… I’m a scavenger, but there’s a difference between a few little trinkets or a free lunch or two, and this…I’d be in your debt.”

               “You’re not in my debt, silly.”  Kalim laughed and before Ruggie could mount a defense, the crazed human pulled him into a tight hug which left the beastman tense, his hair standing on end and his tail pointing straight up as if expecting a fight.  “You’re my friend.  Friend help each other out.  Besides, you liked the coin, and I like helping people have fun, so in accepting the coin, you’re making me feel good!”

               “But…”

               “Ugh, just take it.  He’d not going to accept it back.”  Jamil grumbled, sounding as if he’d been down this road many… many times before.

               “He’s not going to try to do that to us, is he?”  Azul mumbled in horror against Jade’s hand, pressing a little tighter against the eel who responded in kind by wrapping his arms more firmly around his octopus and flashing the strange human a warning look when he turned to them both, arms held open wide.

               “Sire, perhaps we should see some of the other booths?  You still haven’t chosen a club after all.”  Jamil came to the rescue, gently taking Kalim’s arm and guiding him away from the now bristling and much larger youth.  “Have you thought about what you want to look into?”

               “Oooo do they have ostrich racing?”

               “No sire… but I heard that Heartslabyul has flamingos.”

               “Hey!  No riding the flamingos!!  Rule number One Hundred and Thirty-Five of the Queen of Hearts!”

               “Dude!  You needed a rule for that?”  Ruggie grinned around the fried meat bun he’d swiped off the table, earning himself a dark look from Riddle, both for talking with his mouth full, and for asking pointless questions.

               “Well obviously.  We have one don’t we?”

               “Your dorm is fucked up.  Like seriously fucked up.”

               “Hey Azul, Jade!  I got this for you guys!  It’s delicious!”  Floyd grinned, holding out a little cup with an odd-looking fried ball inside.  “It’s fried!  Can you believe that it’s not that big a thing here?  The little scared guy says that they can fry just about anything we want!  It’s sooo good!  Remember when your parents made those fried lobster strips for us that one time when all three of us got the best marks?  I ate sooo many that I kept bobbing up and down for hours!” 

               “It was rather amusing, but I do remember that they were quite delicious.  I did love the sweet and sour flavour they imbued it with.  It was so sublime, but our cooks were never able to recreate it.  Your parents truly are culinary artists.”  Jade replied with a smile, taking one of the offered balls from the cup and sniffing at it.  There was the distinct scent of seafood within the many strange and unfamiliar scents.  Shrimp, a little crab and … oh dear.

               Delicately picking up the final fried ball, Azul sniffed at it curiously, looking quite torn.  Yes, he’d absolutely adored the rare delicacy when his parents had made it.  Oil was notoriously difficult to obtain and nearly impossible to cook with beneath the waves, but his parents had worked hard to master their skill.  Just thinking about that delicious treat, the crispy shell and soft tender meat inside made his mouth water… only… it wasn’t in his meal plan… but… Riddle was eating his tart, his large eyes darting back and forth nervously as if he expected to be beaten for the indulgence… so if everyone else was enjoying themselves, was it so wrong to allow himself this one treat?  He could always just eat greens tonight, perhaps a wrapped around a little bit of fresh fish?  That would balance out his diet and allow him this small lapse…

               Already knowing that he’d been defeated by temptation, he took a small nibbling bite, then gasped in pleasure at the rich variety of flavours.  There was a surprising complexity to the treat, the unfamiliar spices, the new textures, even the oil tasted different, but in a rather pleasant way, adding to the richness of it all.

               “See!  I knew Azul would like it!”  Floyd grinned widely as Azul took another, larger bite.  This one was filled with seafood and something rich and creamy which flowed over his tongue, making him almost sigh.  There were even little crispy bits which had a delightfully sharp taste that was unusual, but interesting.  The meat was rather tender, though somewhat unfamiliar and he chewed it thoughtfully, confused as he’d sampled just about every meat available in the ocean.  Another bite… Floyd’s grin was getting wider with every chew and he didn’t trust that look one bit.

               Though tender and delicate in flavour, the flesh was a tad rubbery, just enough to give his teeth a rather pleasant resistance.  Wait… no…it… it couldn’t be….

               With exaggerated care, he felt around his mouth with his tongue, finding the piece of meat in question and examining the edges of it.  Smooth in texture, almost suspiciously so, with the slightest circular ridge… then another…

               His head shot up as he glared murderously at Floyd who, unable to hold himself back, dissolved into wild laughter, clutching at his stomach and pointing.

               “Your face!!”  He laughed loudly.  “Oh Neptune, you should see your face!”

               “WHAT THE FUCK FLOYD!?”  He snarled, all decorum forgotten as he shoved his way out of Jade’s arms and stomped over to the offending eel, practically shaking in fury at the unrepentant eel.  “It’s not fucking funny!  It’s disgusting!” 

               “Eh?”  Ruggie glanced over, his ears perked up.  “Oh, is that Tokayaki?  That’s so delicious!”

               “Here, enjoy.”  Azul snarled viciously, shoving the food into Ruggie’s hand before favouring them all with one long fury filled glare before grabbing onto Riddles arm.  “Come on Riddle, let’s go looking at some other clubs.  This one has left a bad taste in my mouth.  As has the company.” 

The Heartslabyul student had little choice as Azul’s crushing grip held firm, forcing him to follow as the silvery haired youth turned on his heel and bulldozed his way through the crowd.  Any students in their way raced to escape the line of fire, easily sensing his rage and wisely wanting no part in it.

               Sniffing the half-eaten ball curiously, Ruggie shrugged and popped it into his mouth, chewing happily.  “Seriously, what’s the problem?  It’s delicious.” 

               “Azul has an… aversion to eating octopus.”  Jade replied with an empty smile, his eyes tracking the movement of his companion through the crowd, studying his path before turning to Floyd who was desperately trying to choke back his mirth.  “That was thoroughly in bad taste you know.  He’ll be furious.”

               “Oh so worth it though!!  C’mon, you know I’d never manage to pull that off back home.  Azul knows all the dishes too well!”

               “He’s also infamous for holding grudges, and you do sleep with him…”  That caused the laughter to die in Floyd’s throat as he suddenly seemed to realize the rather terrible danger he’d just put himself into.

               “So… I should go and make it up to him, yeah?”

               “The sooner the better.  I believe he’s headed over to what appears to be the Science Club.  There’s little doubt in my mind that he could easily concoct some sort of dire chemical vengeance before the Club registration ends.”

               “Ah shit!”  Realization painted itself across Floyd’s face.  His eyes widened in terror even as his smile died.  Scrambling to his feet, Floyd raced through the crowd after Azul, his treats forgotten.  Shaking his head slightly at the antics of his companions, Jade bent down and picked up a few of the choicest ones, tucking them neatly in his pocket for later before smiling at Ruggie who was staring at them all with wide eyes and lowered ears.

               “You guys are weird.  Like… seriously weird.”

               “Is that a problem?”

               “Depends.  Is Azul seriously going to try to take out Floyd?  Are they really a thing?  Is this normal for them?  I mean… the guy might be nuts, but I kinda like him.”

               “I’ve grown rather fond of my brother myself.  So then it is up to us to smooth things over.”

               “I dunno man, this sort of reeks of other people’s problems… I try to avoid shit like that.”

               “Ah, but you do enjoy being entertained, do you not?”

               “…yeah…”

               “And you’re intrigued as to how this will turn out.”

               “…Ugh, dammit.  Alright.  Let’s go.”  Ruggie sighed as if the weight of the world was crushing him.  He then paused for a moment, glanced back at the food laden table, snagged another meat filled pastry then nodded his head.  “Now I’m ready.”

              

Chapter Text

               “Azul!”  Riddle tugged at his arm, trying to slip free of the iron grip, unsure if he should be angry or worried, but rather certain that he was thoroughly confused as to what exactly had just happened.  “Azul, my wrist!”  Another tug caused a rather sharp pain to shoot up his arm and his gasp caused the taller youth to glance down at him, as if only now realizing that he was gripping his companion hard enough that Riddle’s fingers had already turned an impressive shade of crimson.

               “Ah, apologies.”  He replied in a soft voice, quickly releasing the trapped limb and looking abashed at having lost control over his temper as well as having forgotten just how fragile humans were.  “It wasn’t my intention to hurt you.”

               “Yes, I can see that.”  Carefully massaging his wrist in an effort to control the sudden flow of blood back into his poor hand, Riddle did his best to not try to picture just how badly his ivory pale skin was going to bruise.  “So… you’re angry, that much is obvious.”  The look those blue eyes shot him left the unvoiced no shit hanging in the air between them.  “And I can’t help but notice that we’re headed to the Science Club booth.”  Again, with the look.  “This leaves me to wonder if this perhaps a callback to what Trey had said earlier this morning regarding virulent poisons and Pomefiore, because if you’re planning to murder your boyfriend, I should warn you in advance that while I agree that he was being an utter ass, I can’t condone homicide.”

               “Of course I’m not going to murder him.”  Azul stated in a surprisingly matter of fact voice.  “Firstly, it would upset Jade, secondly, I still have a use for Floyd.”  Confused, all Riddle could do was continue to walk alongside him, equal parts concerned and confused at this logic.  “Thirdly, I have no idea how effective the poison would be on him and if he survived, he’d be forced to retaliate which would cause a rather pointless escalation between us.”

               “Those really aren’t exactly the reasons one should hold as to why you shouldn’t poison your significant other…”

               “Lastly, it’s a waste of effort when I can simply do nothing and leave him absolutely paranoid that I have in fact put the pieces in place for my vengeance.  He’s a rather terrifyingly imaginative individual.  I’m sure he can easily envision me doing some truly deplorable acts in the name of revenge against him.”

               “So… your revenge is to just do nothing?” 

               “Oh hardly.”

               “But you said…”

               “I will play upon his paranoia and allow him to remind himself every waking hour that while he might be larger and stronger, I’m far more vicious than he will ever be.”

               “I can’t help but think that perhaps you shouldn’t be telling me this?”

               “First you’re worried that I’m going to poison Floyd, now you’re concerned that I’m simply going to allow him to stew in his own juices?  You are a cruel one Riddle Rosehearts.”

               “What?!”  Riddle stopped in his tracks, staring at Azul in shock.  “That’s not what I meant!  You’re twisting my words!”

               “So you’re saying then that I should poison him?”

               “I… ugh!”  Growling in frustration, Riddle grabbed onto his arm, dragging him away from the Science club booth, even as Trey was raising his hand in greeting.  “Come with me.”

               “But… the Science Club is over there.  Did you want me to poison Floyd or not!?”  Well, now at least Riddle knew that Azul was just screwing with him.  Honestly, it was like dealing with Che’nya all over again, only a tad more possibly homicidal rather than annoyingly fluffy.  Hardly surprisingly given that they were at Night Raven College.

               “I’m going to show you how I get rid of stress.”

               “Apologies for being blunt, but from the few hours that I’ve known you, I don’t believe it’s at all successful.”

               “Look who’s talking, now silence and follow me.  I know just the club for us.”

               “But… I like science?”

               “And those around you no doubt enjoy surviving.  If you wish to join the Science club after you’ve calmed down, then that’s your choice, but I won’t have you do it while you’re still furious with Floyd.”

               “Another of your Queen’s rules?”
               “Riddle Rule number fifteen.  Friends don’t let friends commit felonies.”

               “And was this one of the rules your friends broke?  Ow… ow ow.”  For someone so small, Riddle certainly knew how to dig those little fingers into the soft meat on a person’s arm.  Knowing that if he didn’t comply and follow, he’d likely end up losing the use of several major muscle groups, Azul allowed himself to the led to the edge of the club festival to where there was a large grassy area filled with several of what he assumed were trees, though they bore little resemblance to the ones they’d found on the island.  These were thick and twisted, around each other with countless small yet broad green feathers and many bore rather large red globes which looked suspiciously like merfolk eggs. 

               The area was rather fragrant in a pleasant way, bearing a subtly sweet odour which seemed to emanate from the trees themselves, yet beneath that, there was something else… musky and rich.  He’d never smelled anything like it but couldn’t help but be fascinated by it as he sniffed the air, curious as to its origin.

               “What are you doing?”  Riddle shot him a rather curious glance when he noticed Azul’s head swiveling around and his nostrils flaring slightly with every breath.

“Apologies.”  The Octavinelle student ducked his head slightly in embarrassment at having his curiosity be noticed.  Did humans not smell things, or was this strange combination of scents so common that they had little interest in it?  Ugh, where in the name of the Sea Witch was Carmine!?  “There was merely an interesting scent in the air.”   

Their walk took them into the cover of the trees, the strange eggs were plentiful here, protected from predators by their green cover.  The feeling of having unwittingly walked into the nursery of some large animal made him more than a little nervous, but nothing burst out of the greenery to protect its unborn brood, so he figured that the trees were rather comfortable with their young being at risk.

The strange odour persisted the deeper into the trees they went.  Musky, with several subtle undertones he simply didn’t have the experience to recognize, he knew only that they were a living creature.  It wasn’t until they stepped around another cluster of trees and he believed that he found the source of the unfamiliar scent.

Of all the things he’d been expecting, this certainly wasn’t it and before he knew it, he was digging his heels into the ground, bringing them both to a rather sudden stop.

               “What in the name of the Abyssal Trench are those!”  He gasped, too shocked to even try to bluff his way out of his massive show of ignorance.

“What, the horses?”  Riddle shot him a curious glance, unsure of why all the blood had suddenly drained from his face.  “Haven’t you ever seen one before?”

“I… have been somewhat sheltered in some aspects… where we lived was… rather isolated… fish mostly.”  He mumbled, still staring at the massive creatures.  The size of small whales, each one easily weighing a tonne.  Their long wedge-shaped faces which vaguely resembled a hippocampus were set at the end of long flexible necks.  Barrel shaped bodies rippled with muscles beneath short almost velvety looking fur and they had no less than four long and powerful looking legs.  Each of these creature’s steps was easily as long as his own body length, and Azul knew that if one chose to attack, he’d never be able to outrun it.  In fact, he doubted that even Floyd could evade these beasts!  Worse, each one of those four feet were tipped with a single crescent shaped claw, which while not sharp looked strong enough to crush bone with ease. 

It looked as if someone had attempted to restrain the great beasts as there were straps of leather wrapped around their heads and bodies, but clearly the effort had been in vain and the monsters walked around freely, no doubt mocking their would-be captors.

“Wow… you’re not kidding, you really never have seen one before, have you.”  Riddles voice was far louder than Azul would have liked and while he was likely simply speaking at a conversational volume, Azul couldn’t help but flinch as several of the beasts glanced over at them.  Sharply pointed ears perked in their direction and several of their long-haired tails rose, flicking back and forth.  One golden cream coloured beast stomped their foot on the ground hard enough that he could actually feel the vibrations travelling through the earth.  Yeah… his bones were as good as crushed.  These had to be the surface world’s version of mantis shrimp, though what mad god of creation had decided to make them so large clearly needed to have their divine head examined!

“Shhh!”  Azul hissed softly, clinging tightly to Riddle’s arm.  “They heard you!”

“They’re perfectly safe Azul.  Honestly.”  Smirking in amusement, likely taking great delight in finally one upping the octopus, Riddle took hold of the clinging hand and dragged his terrified companion closer to what was no doubt certain death.

“If it’s perfectly safe, then why is it looking at me like that?”  He shot back, wanting to glare at the diminutive, little sadist, but refusing to take his eyes off the hulking beasts for even a moment.  Several of them were now staring, their ears flicking slightly.

“Oh I don’t know, perhaps because you’re acting oddly?”  Bending down, Riddle picked one of the tree egg things up off the ground, the thing was larger than his fist and as red as his hair.  It also seemed to be the source of that faint sweet scent rather than the trees themselves.

At this action, all of the horse creatures were now paying rapt attention to them and one of them began to walk over, each heavy footfall echoing against the ground ominously.  Despite Azul’s attempts to pull away, Riddle held firm, hardly fazed by the ominous creak of the leather restraints or the soft, almost laughing sound the creature made as it approached.

“This is Primrose.”  He stated confidently, smiling at the beast.  Lovely, it had a name.  At least the twins would be able to know who’d devoured their errant little octopus and seek revenge.  Well… they would if they weren’t likely deliberately giving him space to cool off.  Ugh, of all the stupid times for them to FINALLY respect his personal space!  Now he was going to get killed by some giant monster all because of Floyd’s stupid stunt!

NO… dammit no!  Wasn’t going to be that stupid scared little octopus anymore.  Hadn’t he promised himself that?  Wasn’t that why he’d mastered spell after spell?  Why he’d memorized countless wards and even developed his own Unique Magic?

Just this month alone, he’d faced down sharks in the open ocean.  He’d fought off a school of furious jellies and held his own against some particularly irate orca.  He was NOT going to cower in fear because of some overgrown fuzzy mantis shrimp no matter how many crushing feet it had!

Taking a deep breath, Azul drew himself up to his full height and stared at the approaching beast which paused in mid stride, sniffing the air cautiously, its constantly flicking ears flattening for a moment as it snorted.  Huge nostrils flared as if it was trying to catch his scent, but the air around them was moving in the wrong direction, making it difficult.

“Don’t worry, he’s very friendly.”  Riddle assured him, holding out the tree egg and smiling in encouragement.  “If you want to make friends quickly, offer him an apple.”  Right… the tree egg was called an apple… of course, that made perfect sense.

Refusing to let the smaller youth win at anything, especially a show of bravery, Azul cautiously bent down and picked up one of the apples off the ground.  It looked as if it should be slick like his true skin, but instead it was smooth and firm. 

Again, those ears swiveled forward then back, one of the horses snorted nervously at him before wandering over to Riddle and deftly plucked the apple out of his hands with surprisingly flexible lips.  Granted, the wet chewing sound didn’t relax Azul at all, and he stared at those strong jaw muscles bunching and flexing, making a mental note to add biting onto the list of hazards this creature presented.

“I board my own horse in the School Stables.”  Riddle continued, and Azul dutifully nodded his head even though he had no clue with that meant, his eyes remaining locked on those lethal hooves even as he inadvertently squeezed his own apple, the sticky juice within beginning to coat his fingers.  “His name is Vorpal, he’s a gorgeous blood bay gelding and I trained him myself.”  There was obvious pride in those words even as the huge beast in he was feeding butted its massive head into Riddle’s chest, sending him back a few steps.  Great, even the damn things head was strong.

Several more of the beasts were drawing closer, drawn by the chatter and the scent of the apples.  It was a veritable wall of death closing in and Azul drew in a deep breath, refusing to back down.  Raising his arm, he displayed the treat as boldly as he could, wishing desperately that he knew more about surface animals in order to be able to properly recognize their body language.  Were they curious?  Happy?  About to tear his head off? 

One of them drew close enough to finally get Azul’s scent.  It was a huge deep reddish brown beast with black legs and was tall enough that Azul likely wouldn’t be able to see over it’s back if he stood next to it.

This time the snort it made didn’t sound at all curious and it reared back slightly on its hind legs, pointed ears pressed tightly back against its skull.  Yeah… he didn’t need experience to know that that it was mad for some reason, and now well within striking distance.  Brilliant.  This was how he was going to die.

As if some unseen signal had been passed to the others, they all began to snort and paw at the ground aggressively even as they tossed their heads.  Azul could feel his heart skipping a few beats and his breath quicken in his throat.  This was the time a sensible octopus would be cutting his losses, inking like hell and finding a nice small hole to tuck himself into until the threat had passed.  Only, there was no hole, no ink and he was rapidly running out of options.

“What did you do?”  Riddle spun around, taking a step back and looking at the now terrified Azul with wide eyes.

“Nothing!”  He shot back.  “I just offered the stupid tree egg!”

“Well they’re freaked out!”

THEY’RE freaked out!?”  With his non apple bearing hand, Azul reached towards his pen, but Riddle caught his arm.

“Do NOT hurt the horses!”

“Are you serious!?  They’re about to attack!”

“Just… back away.  They likely just caught wind of something they don’t like.  Probably one of those Savanaclaw jerks skulking around or something.”  The hand on his arm tightened and Azul realized that despite his calm words, the small human was just as terrified as he was.  Not a good sign at all.

Another cautious step back, then another, the horses following them, stomping, and snorting in fury, determined to drive the two of them away, or kill them in the process. 

Then… it happened.  Azul’s heel caught on a root from one of the trees and still being somewhat wobbly on his feet, especially when he was far more focused on the looming stomping death, he fell, his hands reaching out for the only purchase they could find… Riddle. 

The two of them fell over backwards just as the lead horse let out a piercing scream of challenge.  Rising up to its full height, sharp hooves waving at the air, Azul was given a rather clear view of the fact that some psychotic madman had seen fit to go so far as to arm the damn things!  There were steel edges on those hooves!  What The Ever Bloody Fuck!!

Tearing his arm free from Riddle, he reached for his pen even as he saw those lethal hooves driving down at his head.  He wasn’t going to be in time, but like hell was he going to go down without a fight!  Dimly, he was aware of Riddle doing the same, but before either of them could reach their weapons, there was a surge of magic from behind them.

The leaves were torn off all of the nearby trees and sent spirally wildly through the air, clattering like a thousand shells falling against each other.  They formed a column of brilliant green which spun around the two of them, missing them by less than a hairs breadth before slamming into the horse’s belly and preventing the huge beast from dropping its weight onto their heads.

Those deadly hooves waved in the air less than an inch from Azul’s nose, spraying the two downed youths with soil and bits of crushed apple, before a huge form leaped over them both and slammed into the animal with bone jarring force.  The impact caused the beast to have the wind knocked out of it and it staggered back, bruised, confused, and utterly disoriented by the swirling leaves which continued to buffet it from all sides.

Strong hands gripped Azul’s shoulders, hauling him back up onto his feet and pulling him away from the battle taking place only a few feet away.  Jade’s familiar scent filled his nose and he’d be lying if he said that it didn’t fill him with a wild sense of relief, or that he didn’t cling to the eel as if his life depended on it.  Those comforting arms wrapped around him and he took a moment to bury his face into that strong shoulder, loathing how badly he was shaking, or that Jade could no doubt feel it, but unable to let go.  Dignity could just fuck right off at this moment.

“Holy shit.”  Ruggie murmured, eyes wide and ears perked as he helped Riddle to his feet, his own large blue eyes staring at the spectacle taking place in front of them as Floyd, pen still held up in the air guided the tightly packed leaves like a whip.  It swirled around the horses, slashing at the ground in front of their feet, driving them back one step at a time, keeping the herd at bay even as other students came racing over, drawn by the commotion.

“What happened!?!”  Demanded one student, who judging by his attire was part of the Horseback riding club.

“Did you just bodyslam a horse!?”  Kalim yelled out in awe, hot on the club member’s heels.  “This is the coolest school ever!”

“Sire, get back!  They might still attack!”  Jamil tried to grab onto Kalim’s overcoat, hoping to pull him back, away from imminent danger.

“You wanna try to pick on Azul!?”  Floyd was snarling at the horses, his eyes wide with fury.  “You wanna try to hurt him?!  You’re gonna have to go through me first, and I won’t play nice!”  The green whip cracked down onto the ground, panicking the horses even further, but leaving them nowhere to run.  “If you hurt one little hair on his head, I’m gonna squeeze you until you’re goo!”  The horses screamed in challenge, but undaunted, Floyd simply screamed back at them, not helping calm the situation in the least.

“I… I’m alright Jade.”  Azul murmured softly into his shoulder, still clinging tightly enough that the other youth would likely have some rather interesting bruises showing up later.  “I’m alright… Don’t… don’t hurt the stupid things… won’t win us… any favours.”  It was hard to speak what with his heart still feeling like it was lodged somewhere up in the vicinity of his throat, but even in pure panic, his mind refused to stop strategizing.  If these were beloved pets of the student body as Riddles actions implied, then hurting them for whatever reason would only make things more difficult in the future.  This had to be ended peacefully so that they could appear as the injured party.

“We thought we were about to lose you.”  Jade’s own grip was surprisingly tight and to Azul’s surprise, he could feel that he wasn’t the only one trembling.  “On our first day on the surface…”

“STOP Stop!  Don’t hurt them!”  The Riding club student tried to grab onto Floyd but a section of the leaves broke away from the group and slapped the student away, sending him to the ground.  “They’re just scared!”

“Yeah, well, they’re about to be mush!”  The student reached for his own pen, but to everyone’s shock, Jamil darted forward and knocked the purple jeweled pen from the boy’s hand before he could cast.

“Let’s not make matters even worse.  This is hardly the place for a duel.”

“But the horses!”

“Ashegrotto, call off your attack dog!”  The Scarabia student snapped in the direction of the two, still huddled tightly together.  “He’s not going to listen to anyone else!”

Seeming to realize that the silver haired youth was the key to keeping his precious herd alive, the club student dropped down onto his knees, ready to grovel shamelessly if that’s what it took.

“Please!  They’re just upset!  They likely caught wind of something.  There were some monsters that snuck in through the wards last week and tried to attack the herd.  We’d gotten rid of most of them, but one must have snuck back in.  Please, they were just scared!”

“What!?”  Jamil spun around, horror warring with outrage on his face.  “Why weren’t we informed about this!?  Sire, come along, you’re in danger.”  He held out his hand to Kalim who was utterly ignoring him in favour of watching Floyd battle the herd… and it appeared that he was winning.

“You can to it Floyd!”  He cheered loudly, pumping his fist in the air.  “Just don’t hurt them, Okay!?”

“Sire, I believe that he intends to obliterate them for their offence.  Now come along, it’s not safe here.  Ugh, your Father will be hearing of this!”

“Floyd, perhaps it’s best if you simply held them immobile without hurting them?”  Azul finally forced his mouth to resume working.  “These are treasured pets after all.”  He wasn’t sure if the enraged eel could even hear him over the horses and the spellwork, not to mention all the yelling from the other students.  Out of the corner of his eye, he could see several of them had even drawn their own pens, but wasn’t sure if they would be aiming at his companion, of the beasts he was battling.

“What the hell, you guys hear that?”  Ruggie’s ears began to twitch back and forth as he looked around, still hovering protectively over Riddle who was still getting over his shock over having been attacked.

It was impossible to hear anything at first, what with the absolute chaos which seemed to rule over the orchard, but through it all, Azul could feel a strange magic sliding between the trees towards them.  Unlike anything he’d ever felt before, it seemed to flow and glide through the trees, not quite like water current, but more like the dappled sunlight up above. There was a soothing warmth to it, a gentle pressure which reminded him acutely of the feel of Jade’s arms around him. 

Focusing more closely on it, he could almost hear the music it was woven into.  Magic woven into sound, flowing into them the instant they heard it, and even in his agitated state, Azul found that he wasn’t immune.  It calmed the shivering of his limbs; loosened adrenaline filled muscles and soothed the frantic beating of his heart. 

You’re safe, the music seemed to say.  There were no words to the strange magic saturated song, but it was something he understood deep down inside to his very soul.  You’re safe and happy.  The water is cool and dark here, there are plenty of places to hide, you are not alone.  Those you care for are with you and the danger has left.   Rest, relax and all will be well.” 

Drawing in a deep breath, he felt his punishing grip on Jade begin to relax and he melted against the larger body, moulding himself against Jade’s comfortably solid form as if he were tucking himself into every little nook and cranny in his body.

Dimly, he was aware that the screaming had stopped, as had the frantic thudding of hooves into the ground.  In fact, everything was perfectly silent save for the rising and falling of that beautiful voice which could now be heard floating around them all, warming them more completely than the afternoon sunbeams sliding through the trees.

Confused, he looked up over Jade’s shoulder, his gaze falling upon a rather unexpected scene.  The horses now stood there, their wild fury spent.  With heads hanging low, their long noses gently brushed the ground and their eyes were closed.  While he wasn’t entirely sure, they appeared to be sleeping, those massive bodies exhaling and inhaling at a gentle pace. 

Leaves were had up until a few moments ago, torn through the orchard as a lethal weapon now lay scattered thickly around them, a deep carpet of green.  At its center stood Floyd, his hands down at his side as he gently swayed back and forth, humming softly along with the music, looking perfectly at ease despite his earlier burst of violence.  A happy smile was spread across his face and a single broad leaf rested on the top of his head where it had fallen.

Even the other students which had appeared while he was clinging to Jade were leaning against each other, several were obviously asleep while others seemed to be pleasantly dazed.

A quick glance showed him that Riddle had escaped the initial attack unscathed, though like himself, was now relaxing.  He leaned against Ruggie who gave a rather wide yawn, showing off a set of surprisingly sharp and powerful looking teeth.  His large ears dropped slightly as he leaned against the smaller Heartlsabyul student, the two of them barely managing to prop each other up.

The singing grew louder and more distinct, until Azul could see movement flickering between the trees.  Frowning slightly in curiosity, he realized that it was a student who was walking towards them, silver shoulder length hair shining in the afternoon sunlight, at odds with the black and poison green uniform he wore. 

For some unknown reason, several small brightly coloured birds had settled on his shoulders, adding their own voices to the strange magic being woven across the orchard.

“Fucking Diasomnia.”  Ruggie muttered, not sounding at all upset.  “They always gotta make an entrance.”

“A most welcome entrance.”  Azul argued gently, unable to shake the strange sense of peace which filled him, unsure if he liked it, but strangely, lacking the desire to fight it.  “I have a feeling it was all about to end rather badly for all involved.”

“Yeah… but we would have had horse steak on the menu… I love horse steak.”

“One does not eat horses!”  Riddle grumbled, unable to bring himself into a properly indignant rage.

“Queens rule?”  Ruggie asked, a playful smirk on his face.

“No, common decency.” 

“Your culture maybe.  In mine, that’s dinner.”

“This is why Savanaclaw is banned from the Horseback Riding Club.”

The bickering fell silent as Silver walked up to them, his voice finally falling silent, though the pleasant lassitude brought about by his magic remained.  The birds perched on his shoulder made no move to fly away, seeming to be perfectly content, perched on his shoulders.  In fact, they even went so far as to fluff up their little feathers and glare at the humans, as if warning them not to dare lay a finger on their precious mount.

“Are you all hale and whole?”  The Diasomnia student asked, glancing around the chaos which surrounded them.  Meeting nothing but blank looks, he smiled at them slightly.  “Are you unharmed?”

“Why didn’t ya ask that in the first place?”  Ruggie grumbled, eyeing the birds with interest, then deciding that nope, the birds were likely fae tricks or something and he wasn’t hungry enough to risk that.  “Man, where were you like thirty seconds ago?  I thought I was gonna be splattered with brains.”

“My apologies.”  Silver ducked his head, sounding as if he truly meant it and was willing to take the blame for his late entrance.  “I was over by the sign-up booth when I heard the commotion.  I could feel the panic of the animals and felt that it would be more prudent to simply sing the entire area into peace.  Forgive my offense in forcing my magic upon you all, there wasn’t time for finesse.”

“No need to apologize.”  Azul smiled at the youth, genuinely relieved that it was someone he knew and not some stranger trying to subjugate their will.  “That… was a fascinating spell.”  That was putting it mildly.  He was all but salivating at the idea of possessing such an impressive magic.  It reminded him of tales he’d heard of Sirens, and their ability to control the minds and wills of others with their songs echoing off the waves.

“Thank you.”  Blushing slightly, Silver was about to offer the Octavinelle student his hand, then noticed how protectively Jade was holding him.  Choosing instead to take a polite step back, he then turned and began helping Ruggie and Riddle to their feet.  “It’s my Unique Magic, The Sleeping Kingdom.”  He continued, his cheeks colouring slightly.  “My old man says that it’s because I’m always napping so much that I’ve found a way to make it contagious.  But it’s not just for that, I can vary how powerful it is… this level just makes everyone calm.”

“A most fascinating power indeed.”  Jade murmured, taking a moment to note just how many students were in fact sound asleep despite the youth’s claims.

“Well… some people are affected a little more than others.  The stronger the will, the less of an effect it will have.”

“Hah, big bodies, itty bitty willpower.”  Floyd gloated as he strode over, plopping himself down in front of Azul and pulling both him and Jade into his arms, hugging them tightly.  Healing magic flowed freely from him, seeking out any injuries the two might have sustained and their own rose in response.  Azul could feel that in his battle, Floyd had cracked several ribs and dislocated his shoulder when he’d attacked the huge beast, and he pulled the injured eel closer, nuzzling the warm skin of his throat.

“Idiot.  Don’t go hurting yourself like that.”  He growled softly, favouring the soft skin with a warning nip, earning himself a chuckle in response.

“Always wanted to hit something that big.  And I FINALLY got to throw around magic!  Did you see what I did!?  That was so cool!  I was badass!”

“You could have been killed you idiot!”  Riddle hissed over at him, having heard his self congratulations.  Horses are dangerous when they’re agitated like that!”

“Oh?”  Floyd shot back, glancing over his shoulder at the offending human and not looking impressed in the least.  “Then why did you take our Azul to go poke around dangerous animals huh?  You trying to squish him?”  His eyes narrowed dangerously but Riddle refused to back down.

“Well they weren’t dangerous before something freaked them out.” 

Turning away from Riddle, Floyd looked back at Azul, nuzzling his cheek lightly until the gesture was returned.  He wasn’t sure if it was Silver’s spell of not, but holding the two eels in his arms made him feel better, more at peace and secure than before.

“That was a stupid stunt with the octopus.”  Floyd murmured into Azul’s ear.  “And I get it if you wanna poison me over it or hit me in the dangly thing again.”

“You’re going to make it up to me.”  Sky blue eyes locked on gold and olive, holding their earnest gaze.  “You’re going to sign up for the cooking club and you’re going to learn how to cook something so delicious for me that it makes up for that stupid stunt.  I don’t care how long it takes.”

Looking surprisingly chastised, Floyd nodded his head.  Remaining silent, Jade simply raised an eyebrow at the demand, fully aware that there was more behind the request, but wasn’t going to inquire until they were in private. 

“You’re also going to find out how to get these stains out of my uniform, and you’re going to keep it clean all week.  No slacking off, no passing the job off onto others.  You’ll learn this laundry thing and excel at it.”

“Awwww… but… ugh… Yes Azul.”  Floyd pouted, trying to look pathetic, but the octopus wouldn’t budge.

“Um… My apologies, but we should likely leave.”  Silver glanced around uncomfortably.  “Once I stop singing, the spell dissipates and if whatever upset the horses is still around, they might very well attack you again.”

“Can’t you just sing them to sleep again?”  Ruggie asked, giving the animals a wary look, making sure they were still soundly asleep.

“Yes… but I’m sure the faculty are on their way.  There were several rather powerful spells cast in quick succession.  I doubt they’ll take kindly to arriving in time to see me casting even more spells which influence the minds of so many of the student body.  I have no doubt that numerous students will object to such a manipulation, no matter the intent behind it.”  Taking a moment to look over at the down students in question, he gave a slight shrug.  “At least they will when they awaken.”

“Besides.” Azul murmured softly.  “If we just slip off, that will leave these fools to explain what happened.”  He motioned to the drowsy masses sprawled across the grass around them.  “If we’re unable to defend ourselves with the truth, they will no doubt take any chance they can to paint themselves as the heroes and us as the villains.”

“So sad.”  Jade murmured.

“So true.”  Floyd added with a sad sigh.

“Whaaaa?”  Kalim yawned, fighting to keep his eyes open.  “But… but we’re the good guys… right?”

“Of course Sire.”  Jamil quickly assured him.  “Now perhaps you should sleep a little?  I’ll carry you back to the dorm.”

“Mmmm can’t sleep… still need to sign up for a club…”  Kalim murmured, even as he stretched out, resting his head on Jamil’s lap and immediately began to snore softly.  Forced to stay where he was for the time being, the dark haired Scarabia student groaned under his breath and prepared to become part of the problem, at least as far as the faculty was concerned. 

“It’s hardly a matter of innocence or guilt.  It all depends on who paints the most convincing picture.”  Jade stated thoughtfully as he carefully lifted himself to his feet, and by default, Azul as well since the octopus was still clinging to him.  Even relaxed, Azul’s grip was nothing to scoff at.  “Besides, our wonderful Prefect will only use this against us.  I doubt he’s so easily forgiven us for breakfast… or our room… or Floyd trying to murder the Vice Prefect.”

“Awww, I was just … you know… practicing my debate skills.”  Floyd protested, still sounding somewhat sulky.  “It’s not my fault if his head is squishy…”

“How are you three not expelled yet?”  Jamil stared at them all, utterly aghast.

“You three are totally badass.”  Ruggie snickered.  “This is gonna be such an awesome year!  Oh hey, speaking of, are you guys still planning on sneaking into Savanaclaw to beat the shit out of those two seniors?”

Azul had been positive that Jamil couldn’t have looked anymore horrified, but he was proven wrong.  It was rather amusing to watch the youth try to subtly butt-crawl away from them while still pinned under Kalim’s dead weight.

“Do you doubt our abilities?”  Jade’s usual mask like smile was back as he looked at the hyena boy who only grinned wider.

“Dude, your brother just body slammed a pissed off horse.  I’m pretty sure you two will make mincemeat out of those two assholes.  Heh, how you both ended up in Octavinelle is beyond me.  You guys should be with us, kicking ass and taking names.”

“The Mirror of Darkness see’s what’s in the hearts of a student, not their muscles.”  Azul stated, helping Floyd to his feet and flashing the eel a curious look when he felt something solid and round slip into the palm of his hand under his glove.  Flashing him a secretive grin, Floyd made a show of dusting himself off, then reached into his jacket pocket.

“Here, I saved this for you.  It’s not octopus.”  He assured his companion.  “You missed lunch yeah?  That’s not healthy and it throws off your whole diet thingy if you skip a meal.”  In his hands was a rather savoury looking bun which had been wrapped in a napkin.  “I had one already, it’s really good even if I don’t recognize the meat.  It’s not fish, I know that much.  Look!  It even has green stuff!  I know you love green stuff.”  He pointed at the dark green ringlets of some sort of vegetation garnishing the top.

“It’s a steak bun.”  Ruggie stated, sniffing the air delicately.  “Those are delicious, and if you don’t want it, I’ll totally take it off your hands.”

Hugging the bun to his chest, Azul shot the greedy hyena a warning look.

“I’ve given you enough of my food.  This one is mine.”  His words cause Floyd to beam in pride.  With a joyous laugh, he pulled Azul into a tight hug, lifting him up off the ground and giving them both a little spin.

‘Yay!  Azul trusts me to feed him again!”

Chapter Text

               This, Floyd decided, truly was the best day ever.  Not only had he been thoroughly entertained to the point that he had no idea what to expect from one moment to the next, but he’d gotten to beat the crap out of huge land whales!  A whole pod of them!  Not to mention he’d gotten to look all badass in front of the humans and now he was standing here, holding Azul in his arms, all happy and forgiven while Jade paced in a tight circle around them, giving anyone who got too close cool looks of warning.

He adored protective Jade almost as much as clingy Azul, and right now he had both!  If he was any happier, he’d be picking Azul up and spinning around with him, but… that would likely made Azul drop his tasty meaty bun thing and Azul always got angry when someone interrupted his meals.  While angry Azul was also fun, Floyd had already pushed that line far enough today.  Now it was time for happy Azul, at least it was if he wanted to get his dangly thing played with when they got back to the room.  It had looked like a lot of fun judging by Jade’s reaction, and he wanted to see what he’d missed out on.

“I can’t believe this.”  The little mini human Azul seemed to have adopted grumbled, glancing around himself somewhat nervously and fidgeting with the hem of his jacket.  “I’ve never been in trouble before, especially at school.  What if they call our parents!  What if they give us detention…What if they expel us!  I can’t be expelled!  No Rosehearts has ever been expelled before!”

               “Eh?  What’cha whining about?”  Floyd glanced over in annoyance, knowing that Azul would be drawn in by the boy’s desperation, looking for some crack to worm himself in, seeking the tenderest meat under the shells everyone wore as a thin veneer of civility.  Normally it was fun to watch him do it and he’d often place bets with Jade on how the octopus’ latest victims would crack.  What they’d want, what they’d be willing to give… but right now he just wanted to snuggle Azul in peace.

He hadn’t been so angry and scared in a long time, but seeing his precious little octopus on the ground with that huge leggy whale thing towering over him, ready to smush him into paste… Just thinking about it made him shiver slightly and hug Azul just a little tighter.  Not that the silvery youth minded, he liked it when Floyd was clingy, even when he grumbled about it.  The eel knew that the touch, the closeness helped set all their instincts at ease, and right now, they all needed it.

None of them were used to being in the open like this, surrounded by so many people… no, not even people.  Humans and sort of humans.  With their strange customs, strange words, and ways of speaking.  What was worse was that he had no idea why they were all schooling around them.  Sure, they were all kind of fun in a weird “what will they do next” sort of way, and they took his Monstro theory seriously which was a mark in their favour, but they were too noisy and kept pulling Azul’s attention away from him and his brother where it belonged!

Placing his chin on top of those silken soft silver curls, he gave the octopus another hug and drew in a deep breath, still working on familiarizing himself with their new scents.  So close, but still so different from what it should be, it still left him feeling a little on edge.

As if sensing his discomfiture, Jade tightened his circle, tracing his fingertips across Floyd’s lower back as he brushed against them, glancing over to watch Azul nibble daintily on the meat bun before returning his attention to monitoring the others, especially the leggy whales, making sure none of them dared to so much as look at their little companion in a way they didn’t like. 

“I’m not whining.”  Ugh, the little thing was speaking again, his voice rising slightly in a way that just begged Floyd to poke at him, making him change to that bright red again.  If he annoyed him enough, would he puff up like a blowfish?  That would be fun!  Maybe he’d even ink!  Hmm would human ink burn his eyes and clog his gills like Azul’s?  Wait… no… humans didn’t ink.  He remembered that much from his super unfun classes at the grotto.  Ugh, how boring.

Pausing in his endless tense circling, Jade nuzzled Floyd, then Azul, his hands sliding over the collars on their jackets, stroking bare skin with his fingertips.  It wasn’t as good as feeling the entire length of his body pressed against him, promising protection and comfort, but it helped a little, causing the three of them to relax with little more with the touch.

The little fuzzy guy with the big ears… Ruggie stared at them curiously, his ears flicking back and forth like flippers while his fluffy little tail moved oddly.  It was unnerving, not being able to glance at someone and know exactly what they were thinking.  The three of them were experts at reading body language.  Jade was naturally the best at it, but it was always impossible to keep secrets from Jade.  He always knew what someone was thinking, whether they wanted him to or not.  Floyd and Azul weren’t far behind him however, though both took different strategies in peeling their victims out of their shells.

Azul talked to people, he’d play all nice and smiley, even when he wanted nothing better than to prick them with a little venom filled pin he liked to carry and leave them paralyzed out on the ocean floor for the blood worms to nibble on while he watched.   People always seemed to forget how much he hated them, that he remembered how much they’d hurt him and teased him so mercilessly over the years.  The idiots practically line up for the chance to tell him their woes, so silly and selfish, so lost in their own little worlds that they never realized that they’d swum into striking range. 

Now Floyd, Floyd didn’t have the patience of Azul.  It wasn’t fun to plot and plan for the days, weeks, or  once even years to tear someone apart.  Thankfully, he rarely had to.  People revealed the most interesting tidbits when they were terrified.  Telltale glances, turns of phrase, even the way they carried themselves revealed more than their stammered lies ever could, and Floyd was VERY good at terrifying people. 

These humans and… not quite humans were a different breed though.  Literally actually.  Hah!  Still, it made it annoying to not know what was going through their heads and why.  Personally, he was getting tired of the odd looks, the stares and even now, everyone was looking at them like they were doing something wrong and it was starting to piss him off!

Ruggie looked the least bothered by… whatever, and Floyd was pretty sure that the little guy was having fun, but there was a predatory quality to him that Floyd instinctively recognized and kept note of.  While he didn’t mind someone sizing him up, he was still a little high strung regarding Azul’s safety.  It didn’t matter that the octopus was more than capable of defending himself.  He’d almost been smushed, and that meant that he was going to be tucked away in the protective coils of the Leech twins until they were positive that the danger had passed.  The smaller mer was just going to have to sit there, eat his meaty bun and accept it!

Unable to quite help himself, he found his eyes roaming from one strange human to the next, trying to sort them into more familiar categories in order to help him understand them.  Yes, he knew that he didn’t have enough information to go on, but he’d learned long ago to trust his intuition.  It had rarely steered him wrong.

Riddle sort of reminded him of a mantis shrimp.  Small bodied and full of pretty colours but if you poked it, you’d find yourself with a broken finger or two.  Hmm… no, that didn’t quite fit.  Mantis shrimp were pissy all the time and you couldn’t ever have a decent conversation with one, not even when you were peeling its shell off to get at the tasty, tasty meat.  No, there was more to this little fishie, he’d just have to watch and find out… or better yet, watch Azul patiently lure him out of the coral and into their grasp.

Silver, he was definitely a jellyfish.  It was easy to see him just sort of gliding around with the tide.  He’d float there, all polite and quiet, just looking all pretty and shimmery, but then BLAM!  Those nearly invisible tendrils would touch you and you were fucked.  Sure, it seemed that his tentacles were his voice, but the image stuck in his mind and refused to go away.  Granted, the singing magic was pretty cool, and he knew that Azul would be doing his best to find a way to steal that power away. 

It was odd though.  Silver didn’t smell like merkin, but his singing was totally something a Siren would do!  Only, he wasn’t eating the people he’d knocked out, which was sort of anticlimactic, but likely a good thing since he was still feeling a little slow and groggy from that spell.

Jamil was just dull.  Dull dull dull dull.  Following that silly flitty Kalim around, acting like he didn’t have a mind of his own or any goals to speak of.  He’d rather die than live like that.  Sure, he and his brother followed Azul around, but that’s because he was fascinating in every possible way!  Kalim was just… loud and sparkly, though sort of funny in that way that a stupid fry was.  You could just sit there with your mouth open and they’d swim in to look at all your bright pointy teeth… then get devoured. 

Kalim actually did look pretty tasty, all soft and warm, full of tasty bloody meat.  While he doubted that Azul would be upset if he ate the loud yappy human, he had a feeling that it would only lead to future annoyance… and likely a belly ache. 

Out of everyone, he reminded Floyd the most of the mer back in Atlantica.  Off in their own little word, not noticing or caring about what they said or did, so long as they had fun… sure, he did that too, but he liked to think that he did it ironically.  Also… fuck you.

               “All I’m saying is that I, unlike others, simply take great pride in having a perfectly spotless educational record.”  Was the little fishie glaring at him?  He was totally glaring at him!  What?  Did he think that Floyd didn’t care about his education or boring stuff like that?  Well… alright, he might have a point, but he didn’t have to go and say it.  That was just rude!  Especially after he’d just saved them from the smushing.  “The very thought of having disciplinary action taken against me on my first full day of school here is… well it’s mortifying!”  Riddle continued, shooting the trio a series of odd looks as Jade nuzzled Floyd’s cheek, then nibbled his throat lightly as he no doubt sensed his twin’s dipping mood.  It helped, it helped a lot and he returned the gesture with a light bump with his forehead before resting his chin once more on top of Azul’s head.

               “Ha!  You’re funny.”  He laughed at the annoying little puffer fish, then grinned as Azul leaned back slightly against him, still more interested in listening and eating rather than interjecting, content to let Floyd play with his toys… for the moment.  “Azul said to wait and talk to the teachers, and Azul always knows the best way to get out of trouble.”

               “Get into a trouble rather regularly do you?”

               “Course not.  Weren’t you listening little fishie?  I said that Azul always gets us out of trouble.”

               “Indeed he does.”  Jade agreed with a smile, his warm breath blowing gently across Floyd’s now slightly damp neck.  “It’s quite the gift.”

               “I’m right here and can speak for myself.”  Azul muttered around his bun, his cheeks turning a rather pretty pink as he angled his head up just enough to glare at Floyd.  It wasn’t his really angry glare, just his usual I think I know better than you, so show me the proper respect, minion look, so rather than back off, he simply patted the pretty octopus on the top of his head.

               “Hush and eat your bun.”  Floyd grinned toothily down at him while giving him a little squeeze.  “You’ll need your strength for when Goblin Shark arrives.”

               “With all due respect, you’re all insane.”  Jamil growled up at them, somehow managing to look down his nose at them all despite still being on the ground pinned beneath Kalim’s sleeping form.  While it was impressive, Floyd really hoped that Azul didn’t learn that trick. 

“Excuse me!?”  Riddle snapped, those big eyes of his lighting up dangerously.  “I am NOT insane!  We were simply walking through the orchard and were attacked by the horses!  I’m the victim here!”  He paused for a moment, as if only now considering the darker boy’s words.  “And that wasn’t respectful at all!  What kind of servant are you!?”

“The sort who’s had enough of this.”  Jamil shot back haughtily then turned his head around to look at Silver who’d been quietly observing their antics up until now.  “I have come to the conclusion that my Master would be best served far away from all of you and your… antics.”  His dark grey eyes glared at them all accusingly before looking back at the Diasomnia student who seemed to be rather confused as to what he’d done wrong, though judging by the look of him, was ready to apologize either way. 

As if only now noticing the rather contrite look on Silver’s face, Jamil’s tone softened somewhat, though still retained the haughty edge to it. 

“If you would be so kind as to remove your spell from my Master so that he may awaken?  Then we can say our piece to the faculty and leave.  This doesn’t involve us as we arrived well after the fact and I will not have him drawn into this… madness you all seem to revel in.”  Lies lies lies.  Not the words, he certainly wasn’t lying about that, but the attitude, the polite words over dripping venom… Floyd didn’t trust it.  Something about the way the darker boy carried himself made Floyd want to punch him in the face, or maybe just squeeze him a little, but he was too busy cuddling Azul to free up a hand.

He could feel Azul becoming more alert and smiled into that soft hair, pleased that he wasn’t the only one who’d noticed that something was a little off.  It didn’t matter that he couldn’t quite pin down what gave it away, that wasn’t his job.  That was Azul’s.  All he had to do was find a way to provoke it again when the time was right.  Heh… best day ever!  This school was so full of fun little playthings!

“I gotta admit.”  Ruggie cut in, breaking the tension with his soft snickering giggle.  “I’m totally reveling in this.”  His admission earned himself twin glares from Riddle and Jamil, though he didn’t look like he minded at all.  Floyd could totally understand the little fuzzy guy’s sentiments.  This was all sorts of fun, so why pretend that it wasn’t?

               While the others had their little stare down, the three mer watched with interest while Silver’s cheeks pinked up slightly as he looked at Jamil, then the sleeping form of Kalim, then back to Jamil.  Coughing somewhat awkwardly, he ran his fingers through his shiny pretty hair and gave an almost repentant shrug.

               “Er… Apologies… but… he’s not under the influence of my spell.”  Well duh, anyone with half a brain could tell that.

               “He…what!?”  Or not.  Were humans really so blind to the ebb and flow of the currents of magic around them?  It seemed hard to believe, but he was pretty sure that Jamil’s outrage wasn’t feigned, nor was the baffled look he shot his “master”.

               “I believe he most likely simply wanted to nap.”  The Diasomnia student replied with another apologetic shrug which was followed by a rather wide yawn which sent the little birds perched on his shoulder into the air with indignant chirps.

               “Ugh, can’t say I blame him.”  Floyd couldn’t resist grumbling.  “All you’re doing is blah blah blahing and it’s dull!  We just fought off monsters!  We should be talking about how much fun that was!”

               “Those were horses, not monsters.”  Riddle huffed crossly.  “And you’d better not have hurt them.” 

               Indignant at having his awesome heroism thrown back in his face, Floyd felt himself stiffen slightly, his smile turning into a petulant frown, but before he could reach out and squeeze the little fishie’s head off, Azul reached up and ran those talented fingertips through his hair, setting off all sorts of pleasant tingles through his body and pulling his attention away from murder to more… interesting things.

               “The horses are fine.”  Ruggie stated with a sort of confidence that made you want to believe him.  “And Kalim seems to be pretty comfy there on your lap.”  He added with a grin, thoroughly enjoying the Scarabia student’s discomfiture. 

Putting his hands behind his head, he gave a little self-satisfied stretch, his tail lazily wagging back and forth as his grin grew wider, showing off the tips of his teeth.

“You two should follow his lead and just relax a little.  It wouldn’t kill ya to pull those sticks out of your asses for a bit.”  Unable to help himself, Floyd snickered into Azul’s hair and though the octopus hid his expression behind the remains of his bun, he knew the little bastard was smiling too.  Jade naturally didn’t so much as twitch, his face was its usual perfect mask, but he could practically smell the amusement radiating from his brother and couldn’t help but snicker again.  It didn’t held that the two humans looked absolutely outraged beyond all belief!

               “I assure you that there is nothing so vulgar inserted into any of my bodily cavities.”  Jamil hissed under his breath, shooting the hyena boy a seething glare while Riddle looked practically apoplectic, his mouth opening and closing several times, but no words came out.  He was however growing progressively redder with every passing second.

               “Oh, that’s good!”  A bright voice chirped from right behind Jade, causing the three mer to leap into the air and spin around, drawing their pens in mid motion as they prepared to attack.  It likely would have looked far cooler if they hadn’t stumbled halfway through.  Stupid legs still not working right!  Stupid gravity pulling them down!

Floyd caught Azul before the octopus could fall to the ground, but the last few bites of his tasty bun fell from his hands, landing on the grass and rolling a few times.  Normally, he might have lamented the loss of such a delectable meaty treat, but the newcomer stole all of his attention.

Not only had he been able to approach them without scent or sound giving him away, but he was by far the most interesting human he’d seen as of yet!

Shorter than even the mini human Riddle, he sort of made up for it by floating about a foot off the ground on legs that ended in footless stumps.  Unlike the other humans, he was covered in a shiny black shell which gleamed in the sun and was trimmed with a beautiful blue glow around his neck and arms.  His hair floated on an invisible current, like the bright feathery tendrils of tube worms or maybe even the long flowing tail of betta fish.  It was a rather lovely blue with edges of white and it looked a lot like that fire thingy Jade had made earlier.  A second bloom of tendrils floated over his heart, sort of reminding him of a weird sort of pelvic fin.

“You’d be amazed at some of the things that end up in there.”  The small boy continued, his huge amber yellow eyes taking up most of his face, full of a wide innocence which was so annoyingly pure that it couldn’t possibly be feigned. 

Despite the three magical pens aimed in his direction, he didn’t look the least bit worried, which meant that either he was an absolute idiot, or way more badass than he looked.  Given the shell, Floyd was more than willing to bet on the latter.  Things in shells tended to have nasty claws tucked away. 

Oops, better make that six pens aimed and ready to release all sorts of fun spells.  It looked like the others had finally drawn too… except for Kalim who simply snored softly and shifted a little on Jamil’s lap, and Silver who was looking a little confused as to how the situation had fallen apart so quickly.

“They always have the oddest reasons for things being up there.”  The boy continued with a childishly innocent giggle and Floyd had the impression that he was grinning, but it was hard to tell because he had this strange shell over his mouth.  “I’ve asked the Headmaster to look into it several times, but he always looks really uncomfortable and then defers me back to my Big Brother.”  Another happy giggle flowed out of the strange mouth shell, then the boy turned to look at Jamil and Riddle.  “Did you need me to speak to my Big Brother about having your sticks removed?”

Floyd tried… he really really tried, but the looks on their faces… the horror, the revulsion, the sheer embarrassment, it was too much.  He fell over onto the ground laughing loudly, nearly pulling Azul down with him, but the octopus quickly stumbled away and was caught by Jade.

               “I…what!?”  Jamil gaped at the newcomer, clearly wrong footed.  Riddle’s imminent explosion seemed to have been short circuited by pure shock and his face went from bright crimson, to pure white, and was now working his way back to crimson as his mouth opened and closed repeatedly, reminding Floyd of poor little Monstro in his bowl. 

“Holy Founders!!  His head’s on fire!”  Riddle finally settled on panic and with a rather grandiose wave of his wand, he sent a rather impressively sized wave of water at the boy. 

Feeling the surge of magic, Azul grabbed Jade and pulled him down just as the water passed by them, leaving them dry, though now laying on the ground next to a thoroughly delighted Floyd.

BEST.DAY.EVER!!  Coming to Night Raven College was the best idea Azul had ever had!  Maybe he’d play with the octopus’ dangly thing to show his thanks for finding a way to keep him so thoroughly entertained.

Oddly enough, the wave of water, while not packing even a fraction of the lethal force it could have, still should have sent the kid back several feet and left him, as well as anything around him utterly soaked.  Instead, it seemed to splash against a sort of bubble around him, spraying in all directions and leaving them all with a sudden rather soggy downpour.

Being soaked was just another bonus as far as Floyd was concerned, and he knew that his companions were hardly bothered by it, but the others… they all let out indignant squawks.  Several more wands were waved as they conjured little barriers to keep the rain off them.  As much as Floyd wanted to tell them that they were too late, and that there was nothing wrong with being wet, he was still too busy grinning in delight at the little floaty guy.

“Apologies.”  The boy murmured, then gave a sort of bow from the waist, looking honestly contrite over his actions.  “Big Brother got tired of people always trying to put out my hair upon meeting me, so he instilled this anti-hydration barrier into my systems.  It activates immediately upon a sudden increase in environmental saturation.”  Turning to Riddle, he gave what Floyd figured was another grin.  “Thank you for trying to save me though.  It was very kind of you.”

“That… that’s your hair?!”  Riddle gaped at him, eyes wide and unbelieving.  “But… but it’s on fire!”

“I think it’s rather lovely.”  Azul sat up, making a show of brushing himself off, pausing for a moment when he noticed a bit of apple on his shoulder.  “The way it flickers draws the eye, and the colours are rather remarkable.” 

All eyes turned to Azul, the humans not understanding how nonchalant he sounded, and the little boy looked absolutely delighted by the compliment.

“You really think so?  Big Brother says that people always stare and point.  They’re very rude about it and it makes him very uncomfortable so he tends to not go out in public all that much, but I’m really trying to help him with that, and I thought I might have convinced him today, but he said that he had to keep an eye on his experiments, so he sent his MagiTablet to man the Games Club table instead.”  The little boy’s happy voice took on a sad tone and with that warm smile still fixed on his face, Azul stood up and approached the strange human mollusk. 

He kept enough distance between them to be polite, not trying to touch or crowd him, but lending a sort of intimacy to their conversation that he usually wouldn’t allow, especially with a stranger.  It was always interesting to watch Azul on the hunt.

“That’s a pity that people look down on either of you for being different.”  He stated, his words carrying the weight of experience, causing the twins to glance at each other briefly before rising to their feet, taking their usual place flanking their suddenly brash little octopus.  “I personally think that your hair is rather lovely.  The colour, the way it flickers, it’s mesmerizing.”

“I like your shell.”  Floyd couldn’t help but add, feeling perhaps a tad jealous that this little human got something so cool when he had to be all squishy and vulnerable.  “Where did you find it?  I’d love something like that.”

Giggling at the unexpected compliments, the little boy looked up at them… then up a little more, taking in their full height as they towered over him.  Rather than strain his neck, the little human mollusk simply floated up a little higher into the air, keeping eye level with Azul which was surprisingly polite by mer standards.

“I can talk to my Big Brother about that.  He loves building things and he’s really good at it!  He built my body for me!  Isn’t it great!?”  Spinning around a little, he let them see his shiny shell from all angles.  “He’s even going to make me a new one with even cooler mods!  He says that I should multiclass rather than specialize because too many people specialize here and it’s too niche.”

“Your big brother is a wise man.”  Azul agreed, his smile radiating such genuine warmth and kindness that if Floyd didn’t know him as well as he did, he’d have fully bought into it.  “Evolution and success is all about adaptability after all.  It’s good that he’s helping you to be the best you can be.  I’d love to meet him and discuss such things.”  Those seemed to be the magic words because the little human practically lit up with delight.

“YAY!  Then you could be Big Brother’s friend!”  His delight was short lived and he paused after a moment, frowning thoughtfully.  “Wait… no… Big Brother said that I’m not supposed to bring normies back to The Lair.  He said that they don’t understand.” 

“Wait… so we’re not going to talk about how that kid’s hair is on fire?” Ruggie asked, after taking a moment to give his whole body a rather vigorous shake, sending water flying everywhere.  “Because I should probably point out that he really should be doing that stop drop and roll thing.”  Glancing around at the others, the hyena couldn’t help but note the lack of action.  “Just me?  Alright…”  Shrugging, he seemed to accept that this wasn’t his problem and he wasn’t going to do anything to change that.  “I suppose I’ve seen crazier shit… alright… I haven’t… but… whatever.  Hey Azul, you gonna finish that bit of bun?”  He was already reaching for the now soggy treat on the ground by his feet.  No one stopped him.

“This is just too much.”  Riddle shook his head, looking at his wand, then the floating boy, not quite understanding how his spell had been so casually deflected despite the explanation.  “Ugh, and I’m soaked.”  Everyone ignored him.

“You’re in Ignihyde correct?”  Silver asked the boy, noting the insignia emblazoned on his chest plate.  Nodding in response, the boy bobbed in the air, delighted by the attention and warm reception he was receiving.  Floyd was willing to believe that he didn’t get out much, no one could be this… open with their emotions.  The kid practically made someone like Floyd seem all mysterious, and Floyd tended to just say whatever was on his damn mind.  He didn’t know how to handle someone like this!

“Yes, I’m Ortho Shroud!  My Big Brother is Idia Shroud, he’s the Ignihyde Prefect and is the most amazing Technomage that’s ever lived!  He’s also the best Big Brother ever, and I know that I might be biased, but I believe this to be a fact and will not be swayed.”

“Idia?  Ah, My old man has spoken rather highly of him.  He said that he truly PWNS the Noobs.  I’m not sure what that means, but it’s apparently a good thing… I think?”  Silver offered the boy a tentative smile and bowed politely, just as gentile as before, causing the boy to giggle again in delight.

“Yes, he truly does!  He holds the champion title on several battlegrounds and is undefeated in both the Badlands of Azkar and the Forgotten Pillars of Jakkah!  Both are elite level!”  Floyd had no idea what they were talking about, but it sounded pretty badass, and he was good with that.

“Apologies for interrupting.”  Jade cut in, glancing off to the side, his nostrils twitching slightly.  “Someone is coming.” 

Everyone looked in the direction he indicated while Ruggie’s ears simply swiveled a little, then twitched as a growing look of horror dawned on his face.  Groaning, he shook his head and took a step back.

“Ugh, not just anyone… it’s that Crewel guy.  Ugh.  We’re so dead.  He hates us.”

“Speak for yourself.”  Riddle shot back.  “Some of us paid attention and behaved in his glass.”

“Guilt by association.”  Jamil muttered.  “We didn’t even do anything and he’s still going to blame us.”

“No one is getting blamed for anything.”  Azul assured them all smoothly, slick as hagfish slime.  “Trust me, I’ll take care of everything.” 

Chapter Text

               “There’s shit on the ground.  Why in the name of all that is evil is there shit on the ground!?  I thought this was an orchard!  I swear, if those damn puppies are crapping all over the place, I’ll have the flesh whipped from their bones and turned into a new jacket!”  They could hear Crewel long before they saw him and it didn’t seem as if he was in the best of moods… even for him. 

Everyone listened to the ongoing tirade growing closer and closer, then looked at Azul as if he were a condemned man about to meet his fate.  Risking the ire of the twins in order to give the octopus a rather solemn pat on the shoulder, Silver shook his head in an almost mournful fashion.

“Your sacrifice is a noble one, and we shall all remember you fondly for the short time in which you enriched our lives.”  He paused for a moment, listening to the furiously snarled threats drawing ever closer.  “But I’m going to go and stand next to Jamil and Kalim, as I had no part in this and would appreciate it if as little attention as possible was brought to my whole… putting the assembled student body to sleep, thing.” 

“Yeah… I’m with Silver on this one.”  Ruggie murmured, his ears flattening against his skull even as his tail drooped between his legs.  Hunching himself up to look even smaller, he backed away from the group of them as if their imminent death might be somehow contagious.

Jamil, still pinned by Kalim was unable to do anything other than watch the impending doom with ever widening eyes.  While he did his best to awaken his master, the boy simply curled up on his lap and mumbled incoherently, a line of drool trickling out from between his lips, soaking the darker youth’s pantleg.  Sighing loudly, all Jamil could do was pray that with luck, perhaps he would go unnoticed what with everyone crowded around him. 

“I’ll stand with you.”  Riddle spoke up, drawing his shoulders back and doing his best to puff up his small chest.  He looked determined and resolute, though Azul couldn’t help but note how the already pale boy was now white as an iceberg and trembling.

“My thanks, it’s much appreciated.”  The octopus smiled at the redhead, pleased that he looked so shaken, it could only help their cause, and judging by the sounds of it, they’d need every bit of help they could get.

“Ready boys?”  He glanced over at the twins, feeling the familiar thrill of challenge slide through him and was rewarded with answering grins from them both.

“Are you going to lie?”  Ortho floated in front of Azul, his already large eyes seeming to grow even wider at the prospect of anyone daring to lie to a teacher, especially one as volatile as Crewel.

“Of course not!  I wouldn’t dream of such a thing!”  Flashing the boy a wide smile, Azul placed his hand against his chest, as if shocked by the very implication of falsehood.  “I’m merely going to ensure that there is no doubt that we are the injured parties here.”

“But… my bio-scans say that you’re all mostly unharmed, merely suffering from a mild influx of adrenaline… ooooh, this is a bluff check!  Big Brother has mentioned them several times and I’ve always wanted to witness one done successfully!”  Clapping his hands in anticipation, the little boy floated around them happily.  “You’ll have to be careful.  Professor Crewel is very high level and has bonuses against students.”

While Azul wasn’t entirely sure what the little Ignihyde student was talking about, he understood the gist of it and nodded his head in gratitude for the warning.

“I swear that if someone isn’t dead, I’m going to kill them myself!”  Crewel snarled, sounding as if he were seconds away from reaching them.  “I don’t get paid enough to deal with this nonsense and it’s my goddamn lunch break!”

“Weren’t you just placing bets with Mozus on which students were going to start duels first?”  Oh lovely, he wasn’t alone.  It didn’t sound like Professor Trein though, the voice was deeper, more booming.

“I swear on my Testoni shoes that if you say one more word, I will lodge BOTH of them so far up your ass that you’ll be belching out bespoke alligator skin for a month!”

“Honestly, it’s not the worst thing you’ve put up-HEY STUDENTS!”  The trees parted easily as huge hands the size of Azul’s head pushed them aside as if they were little more than seaweed, revealing the massive form of Professor Vargas.  “Look Divus, I found the students… and they’re not dead!”

The man approached them, despite his joyful exclamation, a look of concern filled his perfectly chiseled features.  Not that that mattered overly much.  What worried Azul was that he was so large, he was positive that he could feel each of his footfalls vibrate through the ground.  The professor had to easily weigh as much as those horse things, and was likely even more dangerous. 

As always, Vargas seemed to take up most of the room around him, and despite not wearing the heavy black flowing robes from last night, he looked no less intimidating in his common school attire of gold and crimson.  It bore a rather strong resemblance to their physical education clothes, save that Vargus’ jacket fairly burst at the seams as it struggled to contain his massively bulging muscles. 

Everyone was so focused on the behemoth of a human that they barely noticed the smaller, yet no less dangerous form of Professor Crewel slip around from behind his co-worker, silver eyes taking in the scene with a quick sort of efficiency which warned that this wasn’t his first disaster scene. 

Despite the warm weather, Crewel was still dressed in his heavy fur coat, the long tails firmly gripped in his hands in an attempt to keep them off the filthy ground and he looked positively furious at being called out into nature. 

Rather than immediately glaring at Azul, which was a nice change as far as the octopus was concerned, those silver eyes seemed to settle on Floyd, who certainly didn’t help matters by hugging Azul a little more tightly and glaring right back.  He may or may not have stuck his tongue out, it was hard to tell from his angle, but it seemed likely.

“You.”  Crewel growled, as if that was all the evidence he required for wrong doing, but before he could properly accuse Floyd of being responsible for the chaos, Vargus placed one of his huge hands on Crewel’s fur clad shoulder, earning himself the full brunt of the man’s fury.  “Get your filthy paws off of my coat!”  He snarled, whipping out his riding crop with frankly rather alarming speed, and roughly knocking the larger man’s hand away, having no compunction against using it against a fellow professor.  “You still reek of sweat and filth from your class and I will NOT have you depreciating my wardrobe with your taint!”

“S’not what you were saying earlier.”  Vargus muttered under his breath, then pointed towards the tightly packed crowd of students who were doing their best to not be involved in the upcoming interrogation.  “And I think one of them is dead.”  As he spoke, he began to stomp towards Kalim’s downed form, the earth beneath his feet quaking a little with every step.

“Nonsense.”  Crewel snapped.  “If he was dead, they wouldn’t be nearly so calm about it.  The stupid pup is likely napping like all the others.  Ugh, this entire clearing is saturated with magical residue.”  Showing no interest in the welfare of the Scarabia student, the Potion Master instead turned to the trio, noticing how they and Riddle were standing apart from the others like virgin sacrifices to appease a vengeful god.  “You-”

Not giving either professor a chance to gain the upper hand in the upcoming interrogation, Azul took a deep breath, then stepped up to the professor, plastering a most shocked look on his face, one tinged with just the right mix of anger and fear.  It was the perfect look for someone who’d just survived a harrowing experience and was seeking someone to blame, but also willing to be comforted.  After all, it never did well to back someone too tightly into a corner, especially when he didn’t have their measure.

“One minute they were fine and eating apples our of our hands and the next, they were trying to kill us!”  He gasped out, grabbing onto the massive form of Vargus as the man tried to stride past, wisely concluding that if he so much as wrinkled Crewels coat, he wouldn’t survive long enough to see if his bluff worked. 

Instinct and a healthy dose of testosterone caused the huge professor to allow the much more slender and weaker youth to cling to him tightly, feeling how his body trembled and his lips quivered despite the bold face he was struggling to present. 

“I… we thought they were safe!”  Azul blurted, drawing in a deep and steadying breath as he shot a wide eyed look at Riddle who looked more than a little stunned as how quickly the silver haired youth had switched temperament.  While he hadn’t known him for long, he’d gotten used to seeing the Octavinelle youth as a snarky and bold companion, not this… flustered maiden seeking a prince for rescue.  Still, Riddle wasn’t stupid, and he caught onto the plan quickly enough, nodding his head.

“I’d heard that some of the horses would be available for demonstrations for prospective club members.”  He explained, unwilling to lie in order to escape punishment, but sensing that the truth would be far more powerful, especially with the dramatics of the silver haired youth.  “Azul hadn’t seen a horse before… I thought he’d like them.”  He did his best to keep from frowning in confusion as he saw how the Octavinelle student continued to tremble and cling to the Phys Ed teacher as if he were some sort of safety net while the twins he’d been so recently draped against were just standing there, looking utterly indignantly at the teachers.  “We… we were giving them apples to eat.”

“They were so big and I was nervous, but Riddle said that we were safe, and they were walking around loose… nothing dangerous would be allowed to wander around freely would they?”  Azul cut in, staring up at Vargus with wide eyes.

Unused to dealing with a panicking student, the huge man cast a somewhat worried look at Crewel who simply sneered at him and continued to look around the clearing, as if wanting to verify their story.  Not foolish enough to take any student at their word, especially ones as clever as those two, he couldn’t however ignore the dirt on the backs of their uniforms nor the smears of apple.  When matched with their overall pale faces and tousled hair, it was obvious that something had happened. 

“We saw that something was upsetting them, so we backed away but we tripped and fell.  I… I think the sudden movement made them panic because they went up on their hind legs and started to scream at us.  One was about to hit us.  I… I thought I was going to die… on my first day of school!”  A large tear edged his silvery lashes, threatening to fall as he continued to tremble against Vargas, holding him tightly.

Unsure of what to do in this sort of situation, the huge man kept his hands in the air, as if terrified of touching the shivering youth and he shot Crewel a pleading look, silently begging for aid, only to have the potions teacher snort softly under his breath and return to studying the scene of the attack for clues.

Pretending to have not noticed the exchange, Azul simply clung a little tighter and sniffled.

“We were lucky that the others were curious as to where we went and came looking because they saved our lives!”  Pulling away slightly, Azul beamed at his two companions then made a show of wiping the tear from his eye just as it began to run down his pale cheek.

Taking this as their cue, the twins stepped forward, gently wrapping their arms around Azul and pulling him away from a rather relieved looking Vargus.

“You both were so brave.  I don’t know what I would have done… what We would have done without you.”  Practically melting against the two of them, he drew in a deep breath, enjoying how their scent surrounded him.  “You risked your lives to save us.  It would have been a terrible tragedy… two students killed on their first day.”

It was impossible not to notice how both teachers stiffened at his words, both realizing how badly this could have gone.  The fact that the clearing had been all but obliterated by Floyd’s spelled leaf attack showed just how dangerous the situation truly had been.  It likely also didn’t hurt that there were nearly twenty students still laying there, many with pens still drawn; barely conscious and unaware of the presence of the faculty in their midst. 

A kinder person would have left it at that and moved on, but Azul wasn’t a kind person, and he wanted to dig the knife in a little deeper, driving home just how little he appreciated being put so needlessly in danger.

“That student… the one from the horse club mentioned beasts sneaking in and attacking the herd… We didn’t know… if we’d heard… if there’d been some sort of warning, we’d have stayed away.  Oh Founders… what if the beasts are still here!  We could all be in danger!  We need to speak to Headmaster Crowley!  We need to warn the other students!”

“Now now, let’s not be hasty.”  As if summoned by the mere mention of his name, the aforementioned headmaster appeared, seemingly out of nowhere behind them, his loud brash voice making the trio stiffen despite themselves.  As they turned to face the newcomer, the twins couldn’t help but attempt to shield Azul with their bodies. 

Instead of throwing himself brazenly at the Headmaster, Azul shared a little secret smile with the brothers.  Good, now they were getting somewhere.  While it would be nice to have the fearsome Professor Crewel in his debt, or at the very least, hold this over his head, the true prize was always the one at the top of the pecking order, and Dire Crowley was worth every false tear shed.

“You both were very brave.”  The Headmaster spoke as Azul turned to face him, a warm and benevolent smile on his dark glossy lips.   “It must have been quite terrifying to be faced with maddened animals.  Why, we could use many more students such as you all, so willing to put yourselves at risk to keep them from stampeding through the Club Fair.”  Wait… this wasn’t quite how it was supposed to go and Azul had to take a moment to try to sort out what the Headmaster was up to.  Shouldn’t he be downplaying the event and attempting to save face?

“Now,”  Crowley continued, looking at the assembled group, his face, at least what they could see of it was a perfect mask of concern which Azul might have possibly believed if he didn’t know how to recognize a con from a mile away.  “I trust that none of you were injured at all in the attack.  It wouldn’t do for such brave heroes to be wounded in the defense of others.” 

Ah, was the Goblin Shark trying to imply that he was lying?  Perhaps exaggerating the details a little?  As if Azul would be so crass.  Granted, it wouldn’t be the first time someone had implied that Azul wasn’t being wholly honest with a situation, nor the last, but there was no way he was going to let that go unanswered.

“We were so lucky.”  Azul stated, snuggling deeper into Floyd’s arms and adding in a little tremble for good measure.  Favouring his grand protector with an adoring smile, he then ducked his head, allowing his lovely eel to wrap those strong and protective arms around him.  “Thankfully Floyd stepped in and took the brunt of it.  He protected us valiantly at great risk to himself and though he was hurt, we were luckily able to heal him.  We… we didn’t know if anyone would come… if those monsters were hiding nearby, closing in around us…”  Another little shudder, then the weight of Jade’s arms curling protectively around the two of them.   

Anyone who was familiar with Azul would have accused him of laying it on a little thick, but these humans seemed to like it.  In fact, that huge beast of a man was eyeing Floyd with renewed interest, causing the eel to meet his stare challengingly.

“Eh?  What’cha lookin at?”  He asked, his body growing tense under the scrutiny.  Rather than look at all upset, Vargus grinned at the twins, causing Crewel to groan softly, as if he knew what was coming next.

“You fought a herd of horses on your own?  Did you use magic, or muscle?”  The man slapped his massive bicep for emphasis.

“Well first I slammed into the big one that was about to smush Azul.”  Floyd admitted cautiously, not quite sure where this was going.  “I knocked it away and gave it a few more shoves before using my magic to keep the rest of them off.  A good brawl is fun, but there were a lot of them, and just me since Jade was pulling Azul away.  Didn’t wanna risk anyone getting flattened.”

“Ugh… Vargus, this isn’t the time or place.”  Crewel grumbled irritably, but the larger man simply waved him off, hardly concerned with the fact that he was surrounded by possibly traumatized youngsters. 

“Have you ever played basketball?”

“I find I must agree with Professor Crewel on this matter Vargus, perhaps you could recruit the young lad later?”

“But Headmaster, look at the size of them both!  The muscles!!  Think of the strength it would take to knock an enraged horse away and keep it back!  We need them on the team!  I refuse to lose to that Royal Sword Academy again!”

“Yes, I understand that Vargus, but please, recruit them later, we need to ensure that they are all fine after this pesky little incident.  We can’t very well have students falling over due to ruptured organs, now can me?”

“…no sir.”  The huge man stared sullenly at the ground by his feet, though did sneak several rather appreciative looks at the twins, both of whom looked rather confused as to what this was all about.  Azul couldn’t help but feel a tad protective.  Despite being fully aware at his own lack of sports skill, he wasn’t sure he liked having anyone look at his eels like that, especially so brazenly.  Ugh, this whole situation was rapidly growing out of hand and he needed to reclaim control over it before the Headmaster pulled whatever stunt he had up his sleeve.

“Ortho.”  Azul glanced over at the floating youth and smiled at him.  “You’d mentioned that you were able to perform bio scans, are you able to report your findings to the Headmaster?  I am sure that he’s quite concerned for our well being.”

As he’d hoped, the diminutive human mollusk nodded his head, bobbing in delight at being able to be of service to his new companions.

“Yes!!  Oh yes!”  He chirped happily, floating over to the Headmaster in question.  “Mr. Crowley sir.  I performed my initial scan when I first appeared on the scene.  While most of the assembled students are in perfectly fine health, both Mr. Riddle and Mr. Azul have elevated levels of adrenaline and are suffering from minor shock.  They also have quite a bit of superficial bruising and Mr. Riddle has a lightly sprained ankle.  Judging by the pattern of the bruising and the marks upon both the ground and their uniforms, they appear to have fallen over a tree root or something while backing up.  Mr. Floyd has also recently sustained several cracked ribs and a dislocated shoulder, but they appear to have been magically healed.

“I will provide printouts of my diagnosis for you if you wish, though they all appear to be in good health overall, however I would recommend rest and plenty of juice for Mr. Riddle and Mr. Azul.  Mr. Lilia says that nothing heals like a good glass of juice.  He’s very wise and smart… but I’m pretty sure that’s not juice he’s drinking…”

Azul studied the headmaster’s face as the report was given, struggling not to smirk as his story was verified by the eager youth.  Hah, trying to catch him in a lie, Azul Ashengrotto!?  Impossible!

“Sir?”  Riddle spoke up, his voice still strained and his face paler than before.  There was a determination behind his eyes though that made Azul wary.  This wasn’t part of his plan.  They’d clearly gotten away with their little misadventure; the faculty would be forced to acknowledge, albeit quietly, a debt to them all for their service and sacrifice.  Why push it further?

“Sir… Hector mentioned that there were beasts that had broken into the grounds and gone after the horses… and… well… I don’t see Vorpal here.”  Riddle bit his lower lip nervously, his eyes darting to the herd, then back.  Honest tears of true concern edged his crimson lashes.  “Is he alright?”  His horse?  They’d almost been trampled to death, and he was worried that his own particular monster might have been injured?  Ugh, humans made no sense at all. 

“Yes of course he’s fine.”  The Headmaster smiled ingratiatingly at the redhead, not looking at all surprised by the show of emotional vulnerability, though there was a sort of patronizing edge to his voice that Azul found to be rather off-putting.  “Student mounts are off in the South Paddock with the rest of the herd.  The club horses were supposed to be in the West Paddock for demonstrations.  Now, where are the club members?  They were supposed to be keeping an eye on them.”

“Hmph, Hector was it?”  Crewel growled, then stalked over to the crowd of bleary eyes students who were still in the process of waking up, not yet realizing the level of danger they were all in.  Finding the student in question, the potion professor glared down at him, then gave his leg a little kick before slapping that riding crop of his into the palm of his leather clad hand.  “Get up you mangy little puppy.”  He snapped as all the nearby students instantly scattered, none of them wanted to deal with the living nightmare that was Professor Crewel.  “Explain to the Headmaster what happened before you’re whipped.”

Staring up into the pitiless eyes of the professor, then quickly looking over at the others, the poor blond Pomefiore student from before realized that he was on his own.

“I…I was talking to some students who were interested in signing up for the club and I heard a horse scream.  He sounded furious, and I could hear the others too.”  Swallowing nervously, Hector spun around to look at the herd, breathing out a loud sigh of relief as he saw that they were unharmed.  “They were going after those two students… I don’t know why, it didn’t look like they’d done anything.  They were just holding apples out for them.  I saw them back away and fall, then Galahad attacked them… I … I thought they were going to die, but then that guy…”  He paused as the saw the twins and realized how identical they were.  “Um… one of them came out of nowhere and slammed into Galahad while the other guy and that little Savanaclaw student grabbed onto those two and pulled them to safety… They… they kept the horses at bay with magic … then… I… I don’t really know.”

“Hmph.”  Crewel’s lips thinned as he continued to glare down at the student.  “And why were the horses not tied up or in the West Paddock?” 

“Um… well, sir… The paddock still smells like the beasts, and I was worried that more might try to attack… I thought that the horses would be much calmer in the orchard… I never thought that they’d attack students!”

“Detention for the next two months for your lack of foresight, and that’s one demerit for putting the lives of these puppies at risk!”  Hector paled as his punishment was stated and he tried several times to speak, but all that came out was a rather pathetic sounding squeak.  “You will also personally ensure that these beasts are taken care of.  I don’t care how you do it, but those horses will be in their proper paddock and I will not have my lunch break ruined with such nonsense again!”

“But… but sir… I… I can’t fight!”  The Pomefiore student sputtered in horror.  “This… this wasn’t my fault!”

“Silence puppy!”  Crewel snapped, giving his palm another sharp slap into his crop.  “I didn’t say that it was your fault.  I said that I’m blaming you.  Now cease your pointless yapping and get those animals back where they belong or I’ll add another demerit onto your record.  I expect either beasts to be cleared out by the weekend or to see your bloody corpse on the grass.  Am I understood?”

“Yes… yes sir.”  Hector sank down to his knees, looking utterly horrified at the situation he’d suddenly found himself in.  “I… oh Founders… Vil’s going to kill me.”

“He certainly will if he see’s you like that.  Show some pride puppy.  Straighten up your collar and clean off your coat, you look like some puffy faced mongrel.”  Turning away from the distraught student, Crewel nodded in the direction of the Headmaster.  “I’m returning to my lunch before I have to endure any more of this … nature.  It’s terrible for my complexion and I will NOT be paying for my cleaning bill if any of this filth so much as touches me.”  He snarled, then walked up to Crowley, dropping his voice so it didn’t carry.  “Get rid of those damn monsters before they cause any real damage.  This puppy couldn’t take out an errant bunny if his life depended on it.”  With that, he turned on his heel and stalked back down the path as if he was just daring anyone to try to get in his way.

“Sir… Headmaster.”  Riddle spoke up, there was something in his tone of voice that made Azul’s guts clench rather unpleasantly and though he stepped towards the foolish redhead, he knew that he wasn’t going to be quick enough to stop the idiotic flash of nobility which had obviously driven him to momentary insanity.  “Sir, let me do it.  I’ll take care of the monsters.”  Dammit!

“Well… it was nice knowing the little fishie.”  Floyd shrugged, hardly concerned, while Jade hummed softly under his breath, still watching the social carnage unfold.

“Pardon me?  What was that Mr. Rosehearts?”  The Headmaster glanced over even as Hector sagged to the ground in absolute relief, sensing salvation in the making.

“Sir, if there are monsters attacking the horses, then Vorpal is in danger.  I can’t rest easily knowing that.  Vorpal is more than a horse to me… he’s a good friend and I’ve raised him since he was a foal.  I… I promised that I’d always keep him safe, and I keep my promises.”

“Hmmm, I believe that arrangement will be between you and Mr. Van Reese over there. So long as the problem is dealt with within the allotted time frame, and it doesn’t interfere with your studies.”

Ugh!  Everything had been going so well!  Why did Riddle have to go and do something like that!?  There were easier ways to get people into your debt, and now he was in danger, which meant that all the lovely power just radiating off of him was in danger of being lost!  There was no way that Azul could sit back and allow such a thing to happen!

“We’ll help.”  He stated through gritted teeth, earning a rather confused look from Floyd, and a knowing smile from Jade.

“Eh?  Why are we gonna do that?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do.”  Ugh, the words couldn’t have sounded more forced if he’d tried, and Floyd stared at him as if he’d utterly lost his mind, but after a moment, just shrugged as if spending their evenings monster hunting wasn’t a big deal. 

“Alright, but you gotta let me check out this basketball thingy.  If you gotta beat up horses to get in, it sounds fun!”

“Well then, I’ll leave you all to it.  Do enjoy the rest of the Club Fair!”  Crowley grinned at them all, as if he’d totally planned for this to happen all along.  Then, with a flip of his long feathery cloak, he was gone without a trace, leaving Azul to quietly stew in his inner rage. 

First that Monstro idiocy, and now this!  He had plans and timetables for those plans dammit!  He didn’t need to be pulled away on foolish endeavors!  Ugh, fine… fine, the Sea Witch did espouse the virtues of aiding all the poor unfortunate souls around her.  All he needed to do was find ways to twist it into his favour.  Besides, that would be a rather huge debt the Headmaster owed him, and Riddle as well.  You could damn well bet that he was going to make good use of those.

Chapter Text

Idiots.  The humans were all idiots!  His mind was still reeling over how defeat had been snatched from the very jaws of victory by that tiny little sanctimonious human!   If the reasoning behind it had been a grab for more leverage against the faculty, he could have understood it, perhaps even supported it, but no.  It was for a horse!  One of the animals who’d nearly murdered them less than ten minutes ago!

Azul could have happily lived the rest of his life never seeing those big stupid animals again and it would be considered a worthwhile effort.  Now here he was, committed to traipsing around campus in a body he was still learning, in a world which seemed determined to thwart him at every step, all to waste time killing monsters, who as far as he was concerned, were performing a public service in eating the damn horses!

“You’re pouting.”  Jade murmured softly in his ear, covering the whisper with a gentle nuzzle.  His hand was resting on the small of Azul’s back, beneath his jacket; a welcome pressure which helped to balance his still somewhat unsteady legs as they navigated the uneven ground.

“I am not.”  He grumbled under his breath, shooting a dark glare at that knowing smile.

“Yes, you are.”  Floyd added in, his own hand resting next to Jade’s, their thumbs lightly brushing over each other as they shared playful smiles over Azul’s head.  “Don’t know why though.”  He continued blithely.  “We won, the teachers all feel bad, we made the angry anemone super pissy which is always fun AND now we get to wander around killing stuff!”

“He does have a point.”  Jade admitted, still smiling that annoying smile of his that said You know we’re right so you might as well just go along with it and save yourself the headache.  He hated that smile.  “Besides, it just gave us an excuse to go pay Savanaclaw a visit after dinner.  So nice of the Headmaster to grant us such freedom.”

“True enough, but I want to cement our position in Octavinelle first, and if you’ve forgotten, there’s some potions I have to work on.”

“And Monstro.  We have to free Monstro.”

“Ah yes, we simply cannot sit back and allow a goldfish to remain unmolested in it’s bowl.”  Azul snapped back, his voice dripping with sarcasm and was perhaps a tad louder than expected because several of the people around them paused mid stride to stare at them, trying to figure out what they’d just heard.  Ugh… this wasn’t his afternoon.  All he wanted to do was find a club and sign up.  At this point, he didn’t care what it was, so long as afterwards, he could go back to his room, get out of these restraining clothes and tuck himself into a small dark corner somewhere.

No!  Dammit, that was the old Azul talking, the scared and weak-willed chubby octopus who hid himself away when things got difficult, nursing his rage with dreams of vengeance.  This was a new start, a new world, and he’d never grow strong enough to become the new Sea Witch if he allowed something so trifling as a couple of little monsters stop him.  The brothers were right.  He had to work this to his advantage, and not just this, there’d been so many little openings for new opportunities presenting themselves.  Deepest Abyss, they’d been all but throwing themselves at him!

“Ortho.”  He asked, glancing over to the small boy still floating alongside them, clearly delighted at being part of their group.  It reminded Azul of himself when he was younger and still yearned to be included, even in the most token fashion in the activities of others.  He recognized that loneliness, that eagerness to please, and made a point of softening his voice even as he flashed the shelled child a warm smile.

“Yes Mr. Azul?”

“Simply Azul, please.  We’re… Friends are we not?”  The unfamiliar word still felt strange on his tongue, but despite it being a title seemingly easily won, the boy seemed to be beyond delighted, so much so that his eyes quite literally shone with delight.

“Yes!  Oh, I’ve never had a friend before other than my Big Brother!  This is so exciting!!”  Oh Deepest Abyss, he truly hoped that he’d never been like that, it was almost embarrassing.  Thankfully, he didn’t plan on throwing the small boy’s enthusiasm back in his face as some cruel joke, as had happened to him.  No, he had a feeling that little Ortho could be quite useful indeed.

“These demerits.  That Hector fellow seemed rather distraught about receiving one.  How are they recorded?  Do you know?”  He could practically feel the twins grinning in anticipation, at least on the inside.  He trusted them both to be professional enough to keep their faces perfectly neutral.

“Oh yes!  Everything is stored on the school computer system with the student records!”  Lovely… he had no clue what a computer was or how one would work.  Judging by how no one seemed to be at all surprised, it was likely another one of those “common knowledge” things he’d have to speak to Carmine about.

“You are NOT going to hack the school systems.”  Riddle growled under his breath, shooting Azul a warning glare.  “I might have stayed silent during that… theatrical performance back there because we were an innocent party, but you know how I feel about rules.”

Allowing himself a soft chuckle, Azul looked met Riddle’s gaze with a look of pure sincerity and smiled.

“I can honestly tell you that I know almost nothing about computers.”  Truthful enough, he now knew that they were used by the school for record keeping.  Handy that, and now, thanks to that helpful warning, that it was possible to breach said system.  “I wouldn’t know where to start even if I wanted to.” 

               For a moment, it appeared as if the redhead was going to challenge him on the matter, but after a long moment of pensive silence, he nodded his head in acceptance.

               “If it helps, he’s not lying.”  Silver stated, breaking the rather tense silence, drawing everyone’s attention to himself.  “There’s a lot he’s not saying… but he’s not lying.”

               “Is this some creepy fae thing?”  Ruggie asked, frowning thoughtfully as he glanced at Silver, then Riddle and Azul.  “Cause dude, if you can smell lies or whatever, we can make a fortune here!”

               “Firstly, I’m human.”  Silver looked almost offended for perhaps a second or two, then he sighed and settled on simply being resigned.  “Secondly, the fae don’t lie, not even the Dark Fae.  It turns their magic back on themselves until they find a way to atone or make amends.  It’s…”  He paused thoughtfully for a moment, trying to put an abstract concept into words the others would understand.  “We’re all magical beings, tied to the energies of the world around us.  When you lie, it causes a ripple, rather like static in the magic around you.  For most mages, there’s no real effect and they can continue on just fine.  Since the Fae are tied so intrinsically to magic, that static hurts them.  The more the fae lies, the greater the backlash buildup.”  Pausing for effect, Silver allowed himself a slight smile.  “I’ve learned how to feel those vibrations, despite not being fae myself.  It always felt dishonest, being able to lie when those around me couldn’t.”

               “So you handicapped yourself… willingly?  Wow… that totally sucks.  I couldn’t imagine always having to be honest.”  Ruggie couldn’t help but repress a shudder at the very thought.

“Not really.  As a human, I was always kept at arms length by my peers.  My old man and my Liege treated me as an equal of course, but the other children?  I was so different from them, but like any child, I wanted to belong so badly, so I tried to be like them as much as possible.”  His tone grew almost wistful and Azul clenched his teeth, wanting so badly to call this boy out for his sob story.

Oh no, he wasn’t allowed to play with the fae kids.  The horror, the suffering!  At least they didn’t go out of their way to hunt him down for torment, they didn’t pin him down and try to cut him to pieces while he screamed and begged for mercy.  What did he know of being alone!?

The hands pressing against the small of his back gave him a little squeeze and the eels drifted closer.  They both understood what he was thinking and silently leant what support they could.  Still, that didn’t stop them all from listening to what was being said, and the trio made a point of not glancing knowingly at each other. 

All three were familiar with this strange “static” sensation and how quickly it could build to near intolerable levels if one wasn’t clever enough to learn how to speak with half truths and insinuation, allowing the listener to formulate their own answers… even incorrect ones.

                No matter what layer they called home, all merfolk shared a certain amount of fae ancestry.  It was what separated them from their full-blooded aquatic ancestors, granting them long lives and a certain natural affinity for sensing magic.  Few rarely ever bothered to pursue it, seeing the arcane spectrum of energies as little different than the currents around them, or an electromagnetic buzz.  It was simply part of the ever-present background hum which made up their lives and few ever bothered to look beyond that.

It was simply yet another of the numerous shortcomings of the merfolk of the sunlit layers as far as Azul was concerned, and not for the first time, he felt a cool flush of pride regarding his darker heritage.  Thought he might have been raised among them, he’d never truly been one of them, and that awareness had been both a blessing and a curse.  While he might see and understand the flow of the energy around him, he was also aware of the pain brought on by its change in frequency.  As Silver had said, it hurt to lie.  Much like blot, it could build up and drive a budding sorcerer mad if they weren’t careful… if they didn’t learn how to twist the meaning of words into perfect traps for the unwary to swim into.

Of course, with the three of them together, they could spread the effects between them, lessening the pain so that a few blatant lies were barely worth noticing, so long as it didn’t become habit.  While it only worked when all three were together, they were all quick to take advantage of those little moments.  Anything to give themselves an edge.

“You didn’t have to do this you know.”  Speaking of honesty, Riddle was pensively staring at his feet as he walked, doing his best to cover up the slight limp he’d acquired since they began their trek back to the Club Fair proper.  Glancing somewhat nervously at Azul, he looked like he wanted to say more, but seemed unsure of how to put it into words.  “I… I know that you don’t want to do it.”  Oh, this human was just so precious.

“While I will admit that I have failed to see the appeal of horses, I can tell that they mean a great deal to you, enough that you are willing to risk your life.  Ergo, what sort of person would I be if I let you go wandering off alone to fight unknown beasts?”  You see?  It was quite simple to dance around the truth, to allow the little humans to hear what they wanted to hear and draw their own conclusions. 

“But… it’s dangerous.”

“Well, now I’m insulted.  Are you implying that I’m a coward?”  A silver brow arched up elegantly in blatant challenge while Floyd snickered softly under his breath.  The thumbs resting against his back stroked smooth small circles against his skin, letting him feel the amusement of the twins as they enjoyed the show.

As expected, Riddle’s eyes widened, and he stammered over an answer.  The boy was so easy to read, so open and honest with his emotions.  Pride flowed from him in a veritable unending current, forcing him to prove himself against some silly standard.  It demanded that he not accept help for his wounded ankle, even though Ortho had offered several times, as if in the act of accepting help, he’d be failing in some nebulous way. 

It was an emotion Azul knew all too well and he’d gone through much of his life believing that he couldn’t count on another, that in relying on anything… anyone outside of himself, meant he was failing.  The twins had broken him of that habit, and now he embraced their little trio wholeheartedly.  He’d seen the power in their partnership and held no regrets on sharing his life with the eels.  As much as they might drive each other insane, Azul couldn’t even begin to picture life without them at its center. 

Pride was a virtue as far as he was concerned.  It drove one to strive to be better, to constantly improve, and to acknowledge what one has achieved; but like all virtues, it could be twisted back upon one’s self.  Riddle had yet to learn that, and far be it for Azul to not strive to educate the poor unfortunate soul… through painful experience.

“Judging by Hector’s words, there was more than one of these beasts that attacked and escaped.”  He continued, easily dividing up his train of thought along various currents.  “We don’t know how many, or how strong they are.  Might I also point out that we’re only first years?  It’s one thing to put on a bold front, but quite another to take needless risks.” 

“Well spoken.”  Silver stated, giving Azul a respectful nod of his head before turning to Riddle and smiling.  “I shall also join you in your quest.”  This time, Riddle did stop walking and turned to face the group.  Just as he opened his mouth to protest, the young Diasomnia student raised his gloved hand and continued to speak. 

“Azul is correct.  It would be most callous of us to name you as a friend, then turn our backs on you.”  Riddle’s look of utter confusion was met with a warm smile that was so honestly altruistic that it hurt.  “Besides, I also signed up for the Horseback riding club, so if it’s easier to believe that I’m merely seeking to protect my own social investment, then you’re welcome to do so.”

               Ruggie snorted at his words and gave his shaggy head a shake.  His large ears flicked back and forth as he huffed out a heavy sounding laugh of exasperation.

“You’re all nuts, you know that right?”  Giving his head another shake, he looked at Riddle.  “No animal is worth risking your life over.  No person either for that matter.  Those horses would have kicked your ass, and you want to try to fight the things that eat them?”  His large blue eyes flicked over to Azul.  “And you, you’re a smart guy, you should be talking him out of this with all those slick little tears you just magicked up earlier.”  Lasty, he turned to Silver, a hint of a smile tugging at his lips.  “You… you be you man.  I ain’t gonna try to talk you out of this hero shit.  I know a losing fight when I see it.”  Shrugging, he stuck his hands in his jacket pockets and leaned against a nearby tree.  “Count me out of this one.  I value my fluffy little tail and there aint no way I’m risking it for nothing more than a pat on the head from the Headmaster.”

“One would have thought that a member of Savanaclaw would be eager to leap into combat and prove their prowess.”  Jade mused in a low voice, his usual smile perfectly in place as Ruggie’s ear flicked in his direction.  Rather than rising to the bait, the hyena yawned widely.

“One would be wrong.”  He shot back.  “Not all of us are meatheads man, just like all Octavinelle aren’t gonna shake us all down for our lunch money.”

“Hey, the little noisy guy bought our lunches fair and square.  We didn’t even ask him to.”  Floyd butted in, looking rather defensive even as Ruggie snickered in amusement.

“I know.  See?  We’re not all cookie cutter crooks and goons.  You guys want to play the noble hero, go for it, but I’ll stay back here safe and sound.  I came here to learn to become a great sorcerer so I could make tons of money and support my village back home, not fight random monsters.”

“Well put.”  Jamil muttered in a somewhat strained sounding voice as he struggled to carry the still sleeping Kalim on his back.  “This doesn’t involve any of us.  The faculty should be handling it, not passing it off onto students, especially first years.  If a third year didn’t feel that they were capable of this task, why should we?” 

“Jamil!  How can you say that!”  Kalim gasped loudly in horror, causing his servant to shriek and drop him onto the ground as he tripped over his own feet in shock.  Landing hard on the ground, Jamil stared at the Al-Asim heir who was sitting there, splay legged in the dirt where he’d landed, arms crossed imperiously over his chest as he fixed the dark-haired youth with a stern glare.

“You… you were awake!?”  Jamil sputtered in shock.

“Of course I was!”  There wasn’t an ounce of shame in Kalim’s reply.  He even shot his servant a wide and

utterly unrepentant grin.  “I was enjoying being carried.  It’s been a while since you did that for me and I’d forgotten how comfortable your back was.  But that’s besides the point!  These are our friends!  We can’t allow them to go into danger all alone!  It would tarnish the pride of Scarabia!”

“Sire… might I point out that you don’t actually know any offensive magic?”  Jamil struggled to keep his tone respectful, but Azul had the feeling that he was only a few moment’s away from screaming in frustration and tearing at his elaborately braided hair.

“Well, I’m sure I’ll come up with something.” 

“He’s totally making the same face Azul makes when I find something toxic to play with.”  Floyd murmured to his brother, just loud enough to Azul to hear and the octopus shot him a dark glare.

“I do not!”

“Course you do.  Look!  His eyebrow is even doing that little twitchy thing!”  There was no need to look, he could feel it.

“Sire, I’m NOT putting your life at risk!  What would your noble father say!?”

“Then we won’t tell him silly!”  Kalim grinned, as if he was suggesting doing something no more dangerous than taking a walk through an orchard… alright, bad analogy.  Perhaps they could use him as bait?  He was certainly noisy enough to attract monsters, and if they ate him… it was an added bonus!

“You’re all very brave.”  Ortho gushed as he bobbed up and down in excitement.  “I wish I could join you, but Big Brother says that I’m not allowed to leave the tutorial zone.  I’m too low level and would get PWND like a noob.”

“Your big brother is a wise man.”  Azul smiled, still half convinced that the little floating student was speaking another language. 

“He is!”  Ortho agreed, nodding his head vigorously.  “That’s why he’s the Prefect of Ignihyde!  He’s the most brilliant student in the school!”

“Oh really?”  Even better, “I’d love to meet him.”  At that, Ortho’s excited bobbing ceased.  His shoulders sagged in such a comically exaggerated expression of grief, that had it not been for his utterly earnest expression, Azul would have thought the boy was teasing them. 

“Um… I’d like that… but… he doesn’t do well with people.”

“Understandable.  True genius is seldom truly appreciated in their time.”  Azul smiled warmly at the boy.  “But I have never been one to give up without a fight.  Perhaps if you introduce us, he will not see me as people, but instead as Azul?”  It was a silly and overdramatic thing to say, but the way Ortho lit up once more proved that it was exactly what the boy wanted to hear.

A horrifying shriek cut through the air, coming from the Club Fair grounds, causing Ruggie’s hair to stand on end and the rest of them to cringe, hands already reaching for their pens.  Had Monstro escaped his fishbowl and was now trumpeting vengeance upon the school?  Was a dragon laying waste to the fair?  Had those horse eating monsters returned for dessert?

The twins immediately shifted to stand between Azul and the crazed demon beast, prepared to tear it apart if it dared to show it’s face to them.  Riddle clutched at his ears and took a step back, unable to handle the mind shattering screeching which sent every bird in the orchard into the air, screaming in panic.

“Master!  Get behind me!”  Jamil leaped to his feet and stood protectively over Kalim who was staring in wide eyes horror.  As for Silver… Silver was simply standing there, the only one who hadn’t armed himself or even looked remotely concerned.  He did wince as a few particularly harrowing shrieks pierced the air, causing a sensation akin to someone dragging claws down Azul’s spinal cord, but otherwise the Diasomnia youth appeared perfectly calm.

“Are we under attack?”  Ruggie spun around, amber jeweled pen in hand.  Azul could feel the hum of a protective spell just waiting to be unleashed.  “What’s screaming like that!?”

Sighing softly, Silver brushed a stray lock of hair behind his ear and resumed calmly walking towards the Club Fair, and its attacker.

“That would be a guitar solo.”  He replied, glancing over his shoulder.  “It seems that the Light Music Club is putting on their presentation.”  Pausing for a moment, his head seemed to bob in time with the screeching.  “Yes, that would be Once Upon A Dream.”

“The LOVESONG!?!?”  Riddle raced after Silver, his face filled with horror.  “That is NOT Once Upon A Dream!  That’s… that’s a nightmare!!”

“Ah, you’ve heard this version then?”  The Diasomnia student smiled, wincing as another screeching note tore through the air.  “This is told with the twist on it that the singer is actually a Dark Fae stalking their victim.”  Closing his eyes, he sang softly, his voice creating a rather oddly lovely yet sinister counterpoint to the screeching music.  “And I know it's true, that visions are seldom what they seem.  But if I know you, I know what you'll do.  You'll love me at once; The way you did once upon a dream.”  The threat behind the words was almost tangible and Azul would be lying if he claimed that he didn’t shiver slightly.  At least he wasn’t the only one.

“Ooooh creepy!”  Floyd grinned from ear to ear, picking up his pace, pulling Azul and Jade along behind him.  “I wanna see the show!  C’mon guys!  Maybe they’ll let us play!  We know lots of amazing songs and I wanna see what makes this sort of sound!  It’s like someone is murdering a whole pod of dolphins!”

“Oh!  That would be Mr. Lilia!”  Ortho happily supplied as the group raced towards what sounded like certain death.  “My Big Brother modified a bunch of the instruments the Light and Music Club uses so that they can hit those notes, and there’s even a focus amplifier inside which allows you to cast magic as you play.  It creates quite the light show!  Only… Lilia was banned from using it on school grounds, especially during official functions ever since he sort of accidentally shot a rocket at the west tower and kinda blew it up.  It was very exciting!”

As if the words had brought disaster upon them, there was a bright flash up above their heads, followed by a concussive blast which caused all of them to drop down to the ground, even as several apples fell from the nearby trees.

Looking up, Azul could see several brilliant burst of colour searing the sky, almost as if someone had conjured several suns and set them loose upon the campus.

Immediately on the heels of the explosions, the hideous wailing took on a new pitch, and if it had previously sounded like tortured dolphins, this was Poseidon Himself being murdered!

“Ah, and this would be Dragons Set My Hair on Fire.”  Silver helpfully explained as he picked himself up off the ground and began to run.  “Ugh, he promised he wouldn’t play this one!”

“I’m rather sure he’s not playing!”  Riddle panted, hot on his heels.  “He sounds deadly serious!”  Was that a joke?  Seriously?  Azul wasn’t sure if he wanted to throttle the little redhead, or pat him on the back for finally showing a sense of humour.  Pity that they were all likely about to die, preventing him from enjoying the moment.

Bursting out of the orchard, they found themselves not too far from the musical stage they’d spied upon their arrival.  While Azul hadn’t paid too much attention to it at the time, he was rather sure that it hadn’t been crowned with several of those Fire creatures.  They greedily chewed up the curtains on the top left of the stage, chasing off several of the band members, save for one.

This little madman was dressed in their ceremonial robes and he twisted and writhed on the stage.  In his hands was what looked like a glowing guitar, the headstock having apparently attracted one of the fire beasts.  Unconcerned, he continued to wrench the most agonizing sounds out of the instrument, shaking his head violently in time with the hideous tempo.  His hands flew across the strings in a blur as the shrieking grew both louder and higher in pitch.

Several students were running, others had fallen to the ground and were writhing in pain, doing their best to cover their ears, yet still the auditory onslaught continued.

Moments before Azul was ready to join them, the crazed guitarist let out a blood curdling scream and, grabbing his instrument by the neck, he proceeded to beat the no doubt possessed instrument into multicoloured splinters on the stage.

Smoke erupted out of the poor thing, as well as several brilliant sparks as it let out one last defiant howl, then… blessed silence.

“THAT WAS AWESOME!!!”  Floyd screamed, pumping the air with his fists and bouncing up and down, his voice echoed by Kalim who was already racing towards the stage with manically wide eyes.

Looking eerily nonplussed after such a violent rampage against the senses.  The guitarist straightened his robes, grinned at the tortured crowd, then bowed deeply.

“That… that wasn’t music.”  Jade murmured from his place by Azul’s side.  His face was a picture-perfect expression of horror.  After years of learning to play several string instruments, seeing a guitar so horribly abused left the poor eel practically speechless.  “I have no idea what it was… but… no… not music.”

“He… he set the stage on fire!”  Riddle murmured, his voice little more than a horrified whisper.

“Oh, Yay it is!  What a finish!”  Ortho clapped his hands together in delight, then paused.  “Oh wait… that’s bad.  I have to go put it out.  Big Brother made sure to equip me with a state-of-the-art fire suppression system ever since the Hard Drive Overload of First Year!  It was also very exciting and there was a lot of screaming.  Come find me later Azul!  I’ll be at the Gaming Club Table!”  With a happy wave, he flew off to keep the rest of the fair from burning to the ground around them.

“Is EVERYONE at this school insane!?”  Jamil’s voice sounded perhaps a tad unhinged as he watched the rapidly retreating form.  That look grew to one of true horror as he looked around, realizing that he didn’t see his precious charge anywhere.  “Master Kalim!?  Sire!?”

“He’s at the sign-up table.”  Azul pointed out, doing his best to contain his amusement as he watched the chaos unfold.  After all, this wasn’t his problem in the least.  Not his school, not his minnows.  He did however reach out a hand to snag Floyd by the collar in order to keep him from heading over in that direction.

While he’d be among the first to admit that Floyd was a rather talented and creative musician, there was no way he was going to allow one of his eels to be around that… destroyer of harmony!  Floyd would just have to enjoy some quieter hobbies.

Following his own train of thought, Jade also took hold of his brother’s arm, holding him back despite the soft whimpers of protest he made. 

Lacking the ability to restrain his charge, Jamil was left to his own devices and Azul took no small amount of amusement out of how those dark eyes fixed on him.  It took a few seconds for what he’d said to fully dawn on the poor human, but when it did, the darker youth spun around, instantly spotting the white-haired menace exactly where Azul had said.  Worse, he was happily chatting with the robed beast who’d dared to turn music into an instrument of torture.  Whatever they were talking about, it was certainly an animated conversation, causing Kalim to gesture expansively several times and everyone could see that a pen was held in his hand.

“Better hurry.”  It was rather nice to pass that feeling of suffering on to someone else, and Azul drank in Jamil’s strangled sort of scream as the poor Scarabian student began to fight his way through the crowd, desperate to stop the inevitable, but obviously far far too late.

“Aren’t you gonna try to go too?”  Ruggie glanced over at Floyd who, while still held by both Jade and Azul could simply slip his jacket off and catch up to Jamil.   “That sort of seems like your style.”

Floyd glanced over at the direction of the club table, then at the other clubs being presented, then at his two companions and laughed loudly, drawing the stares of more than one student.

“Nah.”  He chuckled, a wide grin splitting his face.  “I already told Azul that I’d join the cooking club and stuff him full of tasty food so that he gets all chubby and squishy!  If I don’t, he’ll either poison me or tear off my dangly thing… and it really hurts when he’s mean to it.”  Off to the side, Riddle made a sort of choking sound, his face going a brilliant crimson once again.  Noticing the reaction, his grin turned sly.  “I want him to be all nice to my dangly thing, like how he was with Jade.  He was REALLY nice to Jade’s and it exploded all over the place!”

“Oh Founders.”  Riddle buried his face in his hands and shook his head.  “You’re not supposed to talk about stuff like that!”  Pausing for a moment, he seemed to digest what had actually been said and then looked over at Azul.  “Wait… BOTH of them!?”  His scandalized shout drew more than one ear in their direction.  “You’re SLEEPING with BOTH of them!?”

“Well… yes.”  The trio glanced at each other, not sure what the problem was.  Why did humans have to be so strange?

“Oh man, you guys are amazing!”

“Hey, what’s wrong with Azul sleeping with us both?”  Stepping forward, Floyd glared down at Riddle, not liking feeling like he was missing out on a big joke, especially one that involved his favourite octopus.  “Whatever.  This is stupid.  You’re stupid.  C’mon guys, let’s look at some more tables.  We need to find a club for Jade and Azul or you’ll be all bored without me while I’m cooking lots of tasty food for us all.”  Sticking his tongue out at Riddle, he grabbed on to his two companions and began to walk away.

“I’m gonna go sign up for Magift before it’s full.  I’ll see you guys at the massacre tonight!”  Ruggie waved his hand at them.  Glancing over at Riddle, he gave the boy a pat on the shoulder.  “It’s not that big a thing. My mom has three boyfriends, ya know?  My Gran had five if the stories are true.  Heh, rumour has it she’s working on a sixth, crazy old bitch.”  He grinned affectionately.  “Don’t tell her I said that though.  No one messes with Gran.  Anyway, she had lots of cubs from them all, I hear that even King Farena has a few wives, though Queen Jagter is First Queen, and man, you do NOT fuck with her!  I heard she ripped a rhino in two once during a raid.” 

“But… but… the rules…”

“Rules?  Ain’t no rules on who ya love.”  Ruggie gave the boy another pat.  “They’re happy, let em be happy.  I mean, sure, it means we gotta watch em be all touchy feely with each other, which even I’ll admit is a bit wacked, specially since two of them are twins.  But hey, they’re sort of fun and sexy to watch.  Beats half the crap on Magicam, AND we don’t have to pay per view.  Besides, at least they’re not sucking each other’s faces off in public or nothing.”

“Ugh, you’re a pervert!”

“Duh.  Sixteen years old.  I’ll take my spank material where I can find it.”

“I can’t believe I’m talking to you.”

“And yet here we are.  Wait… you tellin’ me you don’t slap the badger!?”

“I MOST CERTAINLY DO NOT!”  Riddle all but shrieked.  “But I can guarantee that I will certainly behead the hyena if you continue along this vile conversation!”

“Oh… yeah… heard some humans do that to their dicks.  Can’t say I’m all for it.  Yeesh, you crazy monkeys- WOOOAH  Okay, okay… put the pen away.  Let’s leave my little hyena intact…”  Backing away from the infuriated redhead, Ruggie decided that it was high time he lost himself in the crowd.  “I gotta go, and you clearly need to see someone about your anger management… Bye!”  It was rather impressive how quickly a hyena could move given the proper motivation and within less than a second, Riddle was standing alone in the center of a crowd, glaring at anyone who dared to look in his direction.  Given his rather infuriated state, and the fact that his pen was drawn, everyone gave him a rather wide berth.

“Riddle?”  Trey called out gently before approaching and was relieved to see those tense shoulders sag.  “Did your friends have to go?”

“They are NOT my friends!”  Spinning around, furious grey eyes stared into his, then, taking a deep breath, Riddle slowly lowered his pen.  One could only argue an obvious fact for so long before they looked foolish.  “Yes.  They… they went to sign up for their clubs.”

“Did you sign up for yours?  You seemed to be rather excited about joining the Horseback Riding Club.  I have a bet going with Cater that you’ll be running it in a month.”

“No… not yet.”  Brushing some of his hair out of his face, Riddle glanced around for any sign of his previous companions… his friends.  Spotting the brilliant teal hair of the twins was easy enough, and that meant that Azul would be with them, but… he really wasn’t sure he wanted to be the odd man out.  They were so wrapped up in each other, so utterly devoted to each other that they couldn’t even bear to be apart.  Even he could see that, and he knew how socially ignorant he was.  By the Queen, Floyd had tackled a horse to save Azul!  He couldn’t imagine anyone doing anything so recklessly brave for him.

It would be a lie to say that he didn’t feel a surge of jealousy fill him whenever he saw how Azul looked at those two, how they immediately became his whole world. 

What was it like to love someone like that?  To know without a doubt that they loved you just as much?  His mother had always insisted that love was just a distraction, that allowing oneself to be swept away by a simple chemical reaction was the very height of foolishness.  But… she’d also said that strawberry tarts were poison… and they were so wonderful.  He could still taste its sweetness on his lips and wondered, not for the first time if a kiss might feel as wonderful.

“So… Riddle… not that I’m trying to embarrass you or anything…”  Trey began, sounding rather unsure of himself.  “But… you have what looks like applesauce all over your back.”

“Yes… that sounds about right.”

Chapter Text

“Are you sure about this?”  Azul glanced over at Jade who was signing his name to the club list just beneath his brother’s.  There were a lot of names there, no doubt enterprising students who’d panicked upon learning that they were expected to cook two of their daily meals or go hungry.  There was some level of satisfaction to see not only Alto and Relen had signed up, but also Sage, Carmine as well as Braun, one of the sous chefs from this morning.  It seemed that Octavinelle was going to have several budding chefs for their kitchen.

               “None of the other clubs appealed to me overly much.”  Jade replied as he finished his name off with a neat flourish as opposed to Floyd’s messy scrawl.  “At least with this, I will be able to be of service to you rather than merely idling my time away.”

               “Hmph, as if you’re ever idle.”  Azul smiled, reaching out and picking up a fried shrimp on a stick.  Yes, it wasn’t on his diet plan… but it was fried shrimp… and he’d been through a lot today.  He deserved this dammit.

               Closing his eyes in bliss, he nibbled on the tender treat, enjoying the sweet flavour of the delicate meat and the interesting spices in the batter.

               “Sir… you need to pay for that…”  Ah, a different voice, a new student was manning the table.  How amusing.  Without opening his eyes, he took another pointed bite of his treat, rolling the meat around on his tongue in order to taste every subtlety he could.  After growing up with his parents, he had a rather discerning palette and was truly enjoying the exciting new flavours.

               “Have you perchance looked inside your till?”  He heard Jade ask sweetly and a smile tugged at his lips as he took another bite, aware that his delightful companions were back on point.

               “What does that have to do wit-”

               “If you open it up, you will find within, a rather thick coin of gold stamped with the seal of the Land of the Hot Sands.”  Jade cut the boy off, his tone never losing its silken politeness, though Azul could picture the gleam in that golden eye as it no doubt stared into the fool who dared to try to interrupt his snack.  Few could meet the golden eyes of the twins and not feel their souls stripped bare.  Rather literally in Jade’s case.  “That coin could buy every item on every table ten times over and still have change left so I would ask that you not begrudge the hospitality of House Al-Asim and allow my companion to enjoy his food.”

               There was a weighted pause as the boy no doubt tried to stand his ground, then the slight shuffle of cloth as he began to fidget nervously.  Ah, yes, there was the softest intake of breath as he realized his defeat.

               “You’re Them… aren’t you?”  Ah, it seemed that their reputation was preceding them.  How nice.  “Jakki said that there was this terrifying guy who ate a bunch of the food then this crazy rich kid dropped a pure gold coin down for everyone to eat their fill… He’d said the scary guy was really tall… with bright green hair and crazy eyes.”

               “Teal.  Our hair is teal, not green.”  Jade gently corrected him. 

               Taking another bite of his shrimp, Azul opened his eyes and glanced over at the boy who looked more than a tad petrified, something both twins were relishing, though only one showed it openly.

               “What’s your name?”  He asked the human, his voice every bit as gentle as Jade’s and was rewarded with the boy immediately turning to him.  Though the student tried to hide it, he relaxed upon seeing someone of normal size and unimposing features.

               “Sax.”  He replied immediately.  “Sax Spotter.”  Judging by his red vest and matching ruby jeweled pen, he was Heartslabyul.

               “A pleasure to meet you Sax.  I’m Azul Ashengrotto.  This is Floyd and Jade Leech. As you can see, they have joined your club and are most eager to learn the intricacies of the culinary arts.”  Smiling warmly, he lightly tapped the registration list with his fingertip.  “It seems that many members of Octavinelle have joined your club.”

               “Is… that a problem?”  A look of mild confusion crossed Sax’s otherwise unmemorable face as he glanced first at Azul, then the twins.

               “None at all, quite the opposite in fact.”  Azul flashed the boy a grin.  “I’m the Kitchen Manager of Octavinelle dorm, and I will wish updates as to their progress.  Many of them are rather new to the idea of cooking, and I wish to ensure that their conduct and progress is befitting their positions.”

               “Um… sure?  But… aren’t you taking this a tad seriously?  I mean… it’s a club.”

               “One which represents the school at various cultural events.”  Azul corrected him, his smile never wavering.  “And as they will have duties within the kitchen of Octavinelle, I wish to ensure that they are striving to be their best at all times.  If one is experiencing difficulties, then I will see to it that they are given the proper encouragement and education as required.  I would hope that you will do the same in turn.”

               “You’re asking me to spy on your housemates to make sure they’re learning fast enough?  Fuck, and I thought Heartslabyul was strict.”

               “Discipline must be upheld in all aspects of life.”  Azul replied.  “Rule Number 451 of the Queen of Hearts dictates that one must always act with the utmost respect and decorum at all times.  Is that not correct?”  It was most satisfying to see the boy blanche as he blithely quoted the rule as if he’d been studying them all his life.  “I wish to know if my fellow students are failing to take their club life seriously.  After all, we’ll be eating what they create, and I do not enjoy digesting the works of fools.”

               “Y…yeah… sure… of course Azul…”  The stunned student just stared at him as Azul nodded his head, plucked another shrimp skewer from the neat little pile and began to walk away from the table.  Jade immediately joined him at his side, a thoughtful look on his face as he considered all that had been said… and not said.

               “See you on Wednesday!”  Floyd grinned happily, snagging another meat bun from the table as he walked away.  Easily catching up with the other two, he tore the bun in half, giving one to Jade while he nibbled on his portion.

               “So… why the shakedown Azul?  You don’t trust us to give you reports?”  He asked, sounding more curious than insulted.

               “Of course I trust them.”  Azul replied with a smile.  “But you’re both going to have your hands full learning about how to cook on the surface.  I imagine it’s quite different from what we’re used to.  Also, I want outside eyes and ears watching.  That way, I can compare what he says with what you say and see if he can be a reliable information source.”

               “Oooooh.”  Taking a large bite of his treat, Floyd chewed thoughtfully for a moment.  “Seems to be an awful lot of effort.  I could just scare him.”

               “You’re wanting eyes and ears in the other dorms.”  Jade murmured softly, taking his own small bite from his bun.  “Is your little redheaded pet not enough?”

               “Spread the net wide and have a larger catch.”  Azul stated as he wrapped an arm around each of the eels, pulling them a little closer.  “With many voices whispering in my ear, its far easier to sort out lies from the truth.  Also, Riddle is no fool.  He’s like coral, and needs to be carefully cultivated and grown in order to be worthwhile.”

               “Heh, lots of growing.  Cause he’s teeny… and red… and angry.  Just like that goldfish!”

               “Ugh, that’s a terrible analogy Floyd.”  Azul couldn’t help but roll his eyes.  “I doubt he’s harmless.”

               “Ha!  Neither is that goldfish!  It’s Monstro!”

               “It’s not… you know what?  Never mind.  Yes, he’s a goldfish.”

               “Told ya.”  Azul was shaking his head in frustration when he noticed a somewhat familiar face in the crowd.  Ah, Hector, the keeper of the Giant Mantis Shrimp.  Just one of the many people he wanted to see.

               As if his awareness had alerted him, the boy in question looked up, his wide, startled eyes meeting Azul’s delighted smile.  It was painfully obvious that he wanted to run, to vanish in the crowd, but he couldn’t, not without making it obvious that he was avoiding one of the very people who’d just saved his life.

               Sensing more hunting to be had, the twins both slid away from him, moving to flank the timid little Rockfish, closing in quickly before he could escape.

               “Ah, Hector!”  Azul smiled and strode towards the boy as if he didn’t have a care in the world.  It was a far cry from how they’d last seen each other, and it was a bit of a balm to his pride to see the Pomefiore student eyeing him nervously.  “I was wanting to speak to you about a little… problem.”

               “Look…”  The blond looked to the left and right, seeing the Leech twins practically materialize at his side, blocking any possible escape.  “I know the horses should have been tied up and I’m really sorry!”  Wide blue eyes stared into his, full of shameless terror.  “Please don’t hurt me.  I saw what you did to the horses… I didn’t mean for it to happen!”

               “Now now, none of that.”  Azul gently chided the other student, making a show of reaching up and straightening the other boy’s collar and tie, still askew from his earlier attempts to scuffle with Floyd.  “I’m here to help.”

               “…help?”  Honestly, were spines so seriously lacking in this school?  He wasn’t even trying to be terrifying yet. 

               “Oh indeed.  I know that this wasn’t your fault.  The error lays directly on the faculty for their inability to fix the fencing and allowing beasts to enter.  That they were so quick to place blame on your shoulders only further worsens the problem, and you did speak up in our favour during their questioning.”

               “I… I did… yes.”  Honestly, his octopus ancestors had more of a backbone than this human did.

               “It’s a pity that you were given a demerit for something so beyond your control.”

               “It… it really was.  But… it’s not about being fair.  Nothing is fair, it’s about winning.”

               “Ah indeed.”  Azul grinned at that.  “But it’s so difficult to win when everything moves against you… why… if you had some way of removing that demerit, then not only would you have avoided having to fight some dreaded beast, but you’d have truly stuck it to the faculty.”

“Yeah… if only.”  The boy sighed, falling into place as neatly as if he’d been reading from a script.  “There’s got to be something I could do.”

“Pity that such an act would drive them to a righteous fury.”  Jade murmured thoughtfully, placing his hand lightly over his heart.  “And you’d be the first person they’d suspect.”

“Yeah, they’re always like that.  What did Ruggie say?  Apex predators hate being made to look stupid?  And they’d look really stupid if you got away with it all.”  Floyd chuckled, his voice rising and falling in an almost playful singsong cadence. 

“They’d kill me… they’d give me to Professor Crewel for lab experiments.”  They all watched as the boy’s face began to crumble, the full weight of his doom weighing heavily on his shoulders.

“But what if someone else could do it?  A stranger who has nothing to do with you?  Someone with nothing to gain in seeing you succeed?”  Azul continued in a soft voice, immediately catching the boy’s attention.  “They’d have no way of knowing, and they couldn’t make what happened public without appearing weak in front of the students.  What an interesting dilemma.” 

Hope sprung up in Hector’s eyes and for a moment, Azul was half convinced that the boy was going to hug him or something equally awkward.  Thankfully, self control won out in the end and the boy simply nodded his head gratefully.

“Anything.  Please.  I can’t get a decent job with a demerit against me, and it’s my third year!  I’ll never be able to get it removed before the companies come scouting!”

“So, their fangs cut twice as deeply. You poor unfortunate soul.  Of course, we might be persuaded to be of some service.  Though I’m curious, what sort of companies are you hoping will invest in you?”

“I… I design clothing.  Not run of the mill stuff you find in civilian stores.  I learned how to weave Moonsilk!  It can hold spells within the very fabric and most high-profile sorcerers wear cloth made of either that or fae silk.  I’m hoping to be scouted by Godmothers.  They make clothing for all the best celebrities.  Even Vil models for them!”

“How fortuitous, it seems that the Sea Witch has guided the currents of our fate towards you.  You require a clean record, we require clothing suitable for our daily lives.”

“You… you’ll do this… go against the Faculty… for clothes?”

“For clothing designed by someone worthy of working for Godmothers.”  Azul corrected primly.  “We have nothing for the climate here and well, I must admit that I would be most pleased to wear something worthy of my ambitions.”

“If you do this for me, I’ll make each of you a full wardrobe!”

“It’s a deal.”  Azul smiled.  “We’ll notify you as soon as your record is clear.”

“Thank you!  Thank you so much!  I… This is amazing!!”  Hector practically sputtered in gratitude, grinning widely at them all and practically bouncing in his delight.

“We students need to look out for each other.”  Patting the boy gently on the shoulder, he gave the limb a rather firm squeeze, letting the boy feel his strength for a fraction of a second.  “After all, it’s dangerous out there.”  The bubbling delight faded as Hector felt the warning as well as the promise in that touch and he nodded his head.

“If you’re pleased with the results, do spread the word discreetly among your dormmates.  It’s about time that Octavinelle became known for helping their fellows rather than making their lives more difficult, don’t you think?”  Giving that shoulder a gentle pat, Azul turned slightly on his heel and began to walk away, rather pleased with himself and how things turned out. 

“Who’s Godmothers?”  Jade mused out loud as he and Floyd fell into step on either side of him.  “He made them sound important.”

“We’ll ask Carmine when we see him.”  Azul stated simply, though there’d been no faking the awe and respect in Hector’s voice when he’d named them, and Pomefiore had a reputation for the pursuit of beauty and all things fine.  It was likely a safe bet that the boy had some level of talent to call upon.  Besides, it was hardly as if they could afford to be picky.

“So… where are we going now?”  Floyd glanced around, noting that the crowd was starting to thin out, the tables up ahead seeming to be of little interest to the student body.

“We’re going to find that delightful little floating mollusk and meet this Big Brother of his.”

“Devious.”  Jade chuckled in approval.  “Our little octopus is certainly doing well today with his schemes.”

“Schemes?  You wound me Jade.”  Smirking up at his companion, Azul allowed himself a gentle chuckle.  “I’m merely doing what I can to aid my fellow students.  Perhaps we should be looking at it more as a pooling of talents.”

“Lovely words.”  A new voice spoke up, causing the three to turn in time to see two students walking towards them.  “A lionfish is one of the most beautiful fish in the ocean, though it hides a lethal dose of venom within the splendor of it’s spines.”  The speaker was without a doubt, the most beautiful creature Azul had ever seen, he knew several mermaids who’d commit cold blooded murder for even a fraction of the grace and poise this magnificent youth possessed.  Blond hair the colour of pale champagne gold was tied up artfully against his head in braids, though there was a hint of a pale lavender in the highlights which perfectly complimented not only his milk pale skin, but also the brilliant amethyst of his eyes.

“C’est la loi de la mer, n’est-ce pas?”  The second figure drawled, his voice deeper, less cultured though lilting somewhat, as if he was finding something humous in the exchange.  This one Azul recognized despite only seeing him from a distance.  The shadowy figure from the other night.  The one who’d watched them through spells tainted with blood.  In the full light of day, he didn’t appear to be overly intimidating.  Nearly the same height as Azul, his hair was a bright and vibrant yellow gold, offset by deep green eyes which immediately captured Azul’s attention.  There was something about their stare, the steadiness of his gaze which warned him that this man wasn’t someone you wanted to merely brush off.

Neither of them were.  The taller of the two had a brilliant presence about him which demanded attention, and coupled with his natural beauty, it made a rather extraordinary first impression.  On either side of him, the twins stiffened slightly, preparing to attack at the slightest twitch from Azul.

“Indeed it is.”  The taller of the two spoke, his eyes never once leaving Azul’s.  “So it does give one cause to question as to why the lionfish of Octavinelle would help out one of my poison apples?”  There was no doubt as to who this newcomer was.  He’d heard the name spoken several times, each time in open reverence.  Rather surprising for one who only appeared to be a year older than the rest of them, but there was no denying the sheer natural charisma pressing down against him.  It practically demanded that he drop to his knees and give praise to this living god of beauty.

“Hmmm, you would be Vil Shoenheit of course.”  Azul smiled, giving his head a small nod.  “Your beauty precedes you.”

“And you would be Azul Ashengrotto, your reputation does much the same.”  The Pomefiore beauty smiled.  Refusing to squeal in delight at having someone so beautiful acknowledge that he’d heard of him… that he’d been listening to his exploits, Azul simply nodded his head in acceptance of the somewhat barbed compliment. 

He’d grown up in the Coral Reef, inarguably the most beautiful kingdom in this, or any other world, surrounded by some of the most stunning people and creatures around.  While none compared to this gorgeous youth, he’d long ago learned that a lovely appearance could all too often hide deadly fangs. 

“I must say that I’m impressed.”  Vil continued, his voice never rising, never shifting from its gentle and soothing cadence. “Few manage to stir up the waters of Octavinelle quite as much as you three, and in such a short amount of time.  I’ve never seen Glaucous quite so livid.”

“Yeah… better get used to it.”  Floyd shrugged, his eyes still locked on the blond lurking behind Vil and all but hissing in challenge.  “We don’t really play nice with others.”  The twins shifted slightly closer to Azul, wanting to place themselves between him and these new predators, but they restrained the impulse, trusting in their octopus to control the situation with his usual skill.

“Indeed, I’ve heard there’s to be quite the after-dinner entertainment at Savanaclaw tonight.”

“Oui oui, so many of les petites pommes are whispering about a tall dark newcomer who stood up to the bullies.  I doff my hat to you Monsieur Octavinelle.”

“Jade… he’s speaking crazy talk.”  Floyd loudly whispered to his brother.  “I don’t understand his funny sounds.”

“Nor am I familiar with the language.”  Jade murmured thoughtfully, as if he hadn’t only recently learned the common surface language a few hours ago.

“Ah, veuillez m’excuser.  I find that the common trade tongue never quite fully grasps the magnificence of the words I seek to speak, and one must always strive for that which is beautiful, must we not?”

“Personally, I prefer results over aesthetics.”  Azul was wary, he didn’t trust either of these youths, and while the feeling was obviously mutual, it did little to set him at ease.  These were the true predators of Night Raven College, finally come to call.

“Ah, spoken like a true child of Octavinelle.”  The strange blond chuckled in amusement.  “Always the goal, never the journey.”

“Goal indeed.”  Vil picked up the conversational thread as easily as the trio did with each other.  “And what, pray tell is your goal with Hector?  From what I’ve heard, you do not seem the type to stoop to petty revenge for a simple accident of fate, so when it came to my attention that you and little Rose Kingdom prodigy have stepped into his shoes, I grow curious.”

“Oui, and quandaries such as this cause frown lines.  Tsk tsk, most unbecoming.”

“And yet you waste time asking questions you’ve already given the answers to.”  Warming to the game, Azul smiled at the two in amusement.  “We are but small fish in the great sea of Octavinelle, and our Prefect has already grown tired of our wake.  Lamentably for him, we’re not the sort to conform, so then what are little fish to do?”

“Swim in a school!”  Floyd grinned, waving his hand as if answering a question in class.

“Indeed Floyd.  If the First Years work together, might we not be stronger for it?”  Neither looked as if they were taking the bait, though the strange blond did look intrigued.

“Le petit poisson argenté has a most intriguing idea.  A large herd might escape predators with far more ease than a single animal.  Though a pack of little predators might also bring down much larger prey when working together.  Je me demande lequel vous êtes?”

“Yes, which one are you indeed.”  Vil studied Azul intently for a long moment, then, slowly smiled.  It was a rather fantastic smile, one which could easily break hearts and soften even the most stalwart of foes, but Azul was a master of lies and camouflage.  It was as fake as his earlier tears.  “However, it cannot go unnoticed that you have agreed to take a great risk upon yourself in order to protect one of my poison apples, so I would be remiss in not doing my part to lessen your burden.” 

He could feel the fangs hidden in the sand, waiting to snap shut and drag him to his doom.  How many had fallen for that smile?  That open generosity?  Likely far too many, but Azul had no plans to number among them.

“Your offer is much appreciated, though unnecessary.  As you said, we wish to prove ourselves, and so long as we’re not foolish in our hunt, we will prevail.  Your dorm mate is safe and you lose nothing in the process.

“On the contrary lovely Azul, we would lose face.”  Vil continued to smile gently.  “Let it not be said that Pomefiore will not stand by and allow others to fight for them.  These beasts who hunt the school grounds are a danger to us all, and if they’ve remained hidden for so long from the faculty then they will be most difficult, to track.  Why, the chances of you being led into an ambush are high, and none of you seem to be well versed in travelling the woods surrounding the grounds.  They are most treacherous indeed for even experienced woodsmen. 

“As luck would have it however, I have with me a most accomplished hunter.  This is Rook Hunt.”  He motioned towards the strange blond who gave a rather overblown bow which seemed all the more ostentatious after Silver’s gentile decorum.  “There are few things which can escape his sharp eye, and no prey he has not driven to ground.”

“Certainement, Roi du Poison.”  Vil smiled at them all as Azul felt the fangs snap shut around him.  There was no way they could refuse this offer and not look like fools, especially since he knew damn well that neither he, nor the twins knew a thing about hunting on the surface.  He didn’t even know what they’d have to look for and none of them were familiar with even the most basic of scents.  It was a safe bet that Riddle would be equally unskilled in this regard. 

Unwilling to accept failure, he would have to tolerate this spy within their ranks.  Pity it likely wouldn’t work both ways.  This Rook Hunt was far too canny to be played for a fool.  He wouldn’t reveal anything by accident.  They would have to be careful lest their trip into the forest become a one-way journey.

“You are as generous as you are beautiful.”  Azul replied smoothly, his smile coming easily despite how he seethed inside.  “We would be honoured to have you as our guide Rook Hunt.”

“Magnifique!”  The blond grinned in delight, appearing to honestly be excited about the upcoming quest.  “I look forward to our hunt!”  From the way he looked at the twins, Azul wasn’t entirely sure if he was referring to tracking down the beast for them, or … more dangerous prey.  “What are your numbers?  We shall rendezvous after your little match against les bêtes de Savanaclaw.”

“Er… NRC103?”

“Ah, non non.  Your Magicam number.”  Rook chuckled, reaching into his jacket and pulling out an odd flat rectangle which gleamed on one side.  An image of an apple was emblazoned on the back while the front was glossy, rather like glass.  Yet another thing to add to the list of “What the fuck!?” that he was going to present to Carmine.  Honestly, at this rate, he was going to have an entire scroll full of questions filled out.

“Ah, yes.  Unfortunately, we were raised in a … rather sheltered community and had rather limited access to Magicams.  Our parents simply wouldn’t have approved, and we do plan on acquiring them for ourselves now that we’re out from beneath their watchful eyes.” 

For a moment, both Pomefiore students looked truly horrified, as if neither could envision a life without the small brick and Rook fanned the air in front of his face rather dramatically.

“Ah non, une telle tragédie.”

“Ooooh hey Jade, didn’t we get one of those for our birthday two years ago?”

“Indeed we did, though the colours were different.”

“What… you WHAT?”  Azul spun around to stare at them, his jaw hanging open.  “Wh…HOW?”  Just the effort to bring it down to the depths alone was mind boggling, not to mention the work behind actually acquiring it.  Items from the surface world were strictly forbidden and being caught with something… well, he had no idea what the repercussions would be, because he’d never heard of anyone actually pulling it off!

“Oh, one of Father’s guests gave it to us as a gift.  It was rather boring really and we’d sort of forgotten about it.  Then, a few days after receiving it, it began to make a terrible racket, so we killed it.”

“Wasn’t tasty at all.”

“Father wasn’t impressed.”  It was easy enough to imagine what had happened to that foolish guest.  He’d likely found himself fed to the family pets… if the Leech’s themselves didn’t glut themselves on his flesh first.  No one crossed the Twins parents and survived.

“Well, you’ll need one in order to function properly in Night Raven College.”  Vil stated, as if this was the most obvious fact in the world.  “I would suggest you acquire one post haste.  Every moment you’re out of contact with the world, opportunities are lost, and you are forgotten.”

“Oui.”  Rook nodded his head emphatically.  “Why, Roi Du Poison has over 5 million followers!  He’ll have even more once he finishes his shoot for Queen Magazine.  Not to mention the release of your newest film.  Your fans will be clamouring for your attention like hounds on the trail of the fox.”

“Hardly a favourable position for the fox, Rook.”

“Ah, but is the fox not the cleverest of animals?  Is not Vil Shoenheit as brilliant as he is beautiful?”

“And yet all it takes is one misstep for the fox to fall.”  Vil replied, flashing his companion a cool look regarding the overindulgent flattery.  “I believe you are able to acquire Magicams at Mr. S’s Mystery Shop, on the edge of Campus.  Until then, Rook will meet you in the Hall of Mirrors after your little… soirée at Savanaclaw.  I’ll notify the Headmaster that he’ll be joining you in your quest.”  Giving his head a slight nod of dismissal, Vil then turned on what Azul only now realized was a raised heel.  Somehow, his steps were both graceful and confident, leaving Azul with no small amount of envy.  He could barely walk on flat feet, the very idea of striding about on… well…massive heels made his ankles ache.

“D’ici là, Octavinelle.”  Rook smiled, giving them a little wave as he turned to follow his leader back into the crowd.

“Hey… did we just get played?”  Floyd mused out loud.  “Cause… I’m pretty sure he just played us.”

“What interesting individuals.  So unusual for the hunter to show themselves to their prey so early in the game.”  Jade murmured, a smile tugging at his lips as he watched the departing figures.

“They’re overconfident.”  Azul watched as the crowd neatly parted for them, then seemed to close in in their wake, obscuring them for sight.  “This is just a little test nibble to see what we do.  Pity that they don’t realize that they’re not the only hunters in these waters.  Still, we shouldn’t underestimate them.”  Glancing over at Floyd, he frowned when he noticed that the eel was still watching where they’d vanished. 

“Come on, our plans haven’t changed.  They’ve merely evolved.”  He stated, brushing rather pointedly against the distracted eel, quickly regaining his attention.  Glancing down and noticing the slight frown on the shorter youth’s face, Floyd leaned down and nuzzled his cheek.

“Jealous Azul?” 

“Hmph, hardly.  Pretty faces are easily lost through either time, or terrible accident.  My brilliance is eternal.”

“Heh, that’s what I like so much about you Azul.”  Floyd pulled him a little closer, chuckling softly.  “You’re so happy to destroy something for no better reason than spite.  It’s so deliciously petty.”

“Yes, well I still can’t believe you guys had a friggin Magicam thingy and you never told me.”

“Only for a few days.”  Jade shrugged.  “We failed to see the allure.”

“Still don’t see the big deal.  It just sat there and screamed.  Didn’t even have the curtesy to bleed.  I sorta felt cheated ya know?”

“Don’t worry Floyd.”  Jade smiled as he patted his brother on the shoulder.  “There will be plenty of blood tonight.”

Azul merely smiled slightly as he listened to the soft cackling taking place over his head.  Despite this little hiccup, things were progressing wonderfully, and once he sealed this last deal… well, then his plans would begin to move on their own momentum and require little more than the odd guiding hand. 

Yes, the surface world was proving to be most interesting indeed.

 

  *    *   *

Translations for Rook Hunt

“C’est la loi de la mer, n’est-ce pas?”  That’s the law of the sea isn’t it?

“Ah, veuillez m’excuser”  Ah, please excuse me

“Le petit poisson argenté”  The little silver fish (A cute play on words since he also just called Azul a pest)

“Je me demande lequel vous êtes?”  I wonder which one you are?

“les bêtes de Savanaclaw”  The beasts of Savanaclaw

“Ah non, une telle tragédie.”  Ah no, such a tragedy!

Chapter Text

               “Azul!  Azul!  Over here!”  Glancing over his shoulder, he could make out the figures of Alto and Relen waving at him as they did their best to slide through the crowd.  Unfortunately, lacking the sheer size and presence of the trio, it wasn’t quite as simple to navigate the press of humanity around them.  “’Scuse us, watch your step.  Ack!  Sorry!  Didn’t see your tail!”

“Heeey, the guppies found us!”  Floyd snickered, resting his chin on top of Azul’s head as they all paused to wait for their dorm mates to catch up.   “Azul is so popular here on the surface.”

“Indeed he is.”  Jade mused lightly.  “Perhaps we’re the ones who should be jealous?”  He smiled slightly as Azul rolled his eyes at them and tried to push Floyd away, but the larger youth retaliated by wrapping his arms around Azul’s waist, making him impossible to remove. 

Somewhat pinned by Floyd’s weight and unwilling to embarrass himself by publicly struggling… and losing against his larger companion, Azul resigned himself to waiting for the two to catch up to them. 

“We’ve got the menu worked out for tomorrow!”  Relen gasped out as they drew closer, waving a sheet of paper over their head.  “We got the cooking club to help out a bit with the ideas.  That’s ok right?”  As they came to a stop, the two of them flashed Azul nervous smiles, handing over the sheet for his perusal.

“We also found out that the seniors had all thought that we were going to mess up breakfast, so they’d ordered in food to eat.”  Alto frowned, taking it as a personal slight.  “That’s why they were so pissed that we didn’t mess up.  The bastards wanted us to fail!”

“That wasn’t obvious?” Azul asked as he took the sheet and glanced at it.  The breakfast and dinner options seemed to be simple enough, but still both filling and delicious.  At least they didn’t require a lot of ingredients or fancy preparation.  “Excellent.  I’ll get the list of ingredients to Glaucous for his approval.”  Folding the paper into a neat square, he tucked it into his jacket pocket.  “Seeing as how I doubt that the seniors included us in their food order this morning, is there anything to feed the first years for dinner?”

“Yeah… we can make a stirfry with the leftovers from breakfast.  It shouldn’t be too big a deal.”  Sweet Neptune, more fried food?  Perhaps he shouldn’t have had that second shrimp stick… The surface world was going to be hard on his waistline.  “Hey, have you guys chosen clubs yet?”  Alto glanced at them, then the surrounding tables, his dark eyes bright with curiosity.

“Yeah, Jade and I joined the cooking club.  We’re gonna cook with you guys!”  Floyd spread his arms out wide and grinned.  Both newcomers shared somewhat nervous smiles at that proclamation, though neither said anything against it, proving that humans… and kin did have a few braincells to rub together.

“I’ve noticed several of our fellow first years signing up for it.”  Azul added gently, letting the two know that they wouldn’t be alone in dealing with the twins.  “I’m sure you can all look out for each other.”  It would be interesting to see if they would focus on improving the team as a whole, or ensuring that their positions as chefs remained secure.   While he doubted that they would be foolish enough to attempt to sabotage the Leech brother’s creations, the others might not be quite so lucky.

“Oh excellent!”  Relen clapped his hands together in glee.  “We’ll get our kitchen running smoothly in no time!”

“Yeah!  We’ll show the rest of the school what Octavinelle is capable of!”  Alto joined in happily.  “But, what about you Azul?”

“I was thinking of the Board Game club.  It sounded interesting.”  He hadn’t meant anything by it, but he’d clearly said something both grave and momentous judging by how the two boys shared nervous looks with each other, suddenly seeming to be rather uncomfortable with the conversation.

“Are… are you sure?”  Relen asked in a rather hushed voice.  “I mean… there’s other clubs…”

“Yeah… safer clubs.”

“Safer?”  He couldn’t help but ask, his curiosity peaked even as the twins made some rather unhappy sounds in the backs of their throats.  Floyd’s grip around Azul tightened as he growled softly into ear and there was no mistaking how Jade drifted closer, as if proximity would somehow protect him from some nebulous foe.  Not that he could really blame either of them.  They’d already had to save his life once today and had little interest in seeing him swim right back into danger like some idiot fry.

“Yeah, the leader of the club is Idia Shroud!”  Alto whispered loudly, his eyes widening expectantly, as if the name was supposed to invoke some sort of emotional reaction.  “The Shroud family!?  You’ve never heard of them?  From the Isle of Lamentation?”  His outburst was met by blank stares all around.  “They’re evil!”  He continued, waving his hands in the air for emphasis.  “Like seriously evil!  I heard that they’re all necromancers and summon demons!  The whole family is cursed, and their hair burns with blue flames!”

“I heard they’re actually demons themselves.”  Relen cut in, eager to share his knowledge with the others.  “He’s supposed to look all freaky too!  With white skin and blue lips!  I heard about him from a couple of second years.  They say that he hides away all the time plotting and barely attends class at all.  But when he does show up, he’s got this freaky little robot familiar with him that looks like a kid!  It floats around doing his bidding and spying on everyone around them!”

“Yeah!  Watch out Azul.  You don’t want to get messed up with them.  They’re no good.  Best to avoid the game club and those freaks.  I don’t even know why they let people like that into the school.”

Hearing those words seemed to take him back to the ocean; terrified, hurting and desperate for anyone to reach out their hand in kindness and help make it better.  How many times had he heard the other merlings say those words regarding him?  How often had they taken it upon themselves to drive him away, to sneer at him as if he was a blight on the very ocean itself.

“Is not the ocean filled with such diversity that you could spend your life trying to see the vastness of its life and still behold but a fraction?”  He asked, doing his best to keep his words cool and calm, not wanting to antagonize his pawns, but deep inside, he wanted to tear them apart with his claws and teeth.  How dare they judge!  A human and a merkin!?  THEY were the freaks as far as he was concerned!  “Never cast another aside simply because they’re different.  The Sea Witch helped all who came to her, without judgement, and we should all seek to follow her benevolent example.”  With that, he pried Floyds hands free from him, giving his arm a gentle squeeze.  “I’ll be back.”  Flashing the twins a warm smile, then nodding politely to the two interlopers, he headed towards the Board Game table, now more determined than ever to get to know this Idia Shroud. 

It was simple enough to spot the club in question, the space around their table was empty, the rest of the student body giving it a wide berth, as if proximity alone might corrupt them.  The display itself was rather spectacular actually, and he could immediately see the love and devotion which had been poured into it.

The table was a large game board made up of a map of the continent of Twisted Wonderland.  Each kingdom was set with various colours and had different yet ornate symbols painted beneath the name, as well as several carefully carved figures.  It looked quite a bit like a strategy table one might expect to see in a war, and with a smile, Azul realized that that was exactly what he was seeing.  A wargame.  How intriguing.

Manning the table was Ortho, who immediately upon seeing him waved his hands excitedly and floated over.

“Azul!  I didn’t think you’d come!”  He practically gushed, his yellow amber eyes glowing in delight even as several students scrambled back even further.  Ignoring them, Azul flashed the boy a brilliant smile and made a point of approaching the table, daring anyone to try to stop him.

“And break my word to my friend?”  Already, he could hear several students whispering and staring.  None of them even bothered to hide it.  No wonder this Idia fellow had little interest in appearing in public.  Like himself, the Ignihyde leader had found his own little octopus pot to pull himself into.

“It’s alright if you don’t want to be here.”  Ortho murmured softly, drifting over to Azul and looking up at him with those large innocent eyes even as that seemingly ever present aura of innocent delight flickered as he glanced over at the onlookers.  “I can hear what they say you know… about me and my Big Brother…You’re new here.  You shouldn’t have to hear it too.”  Once again, that full body smile flared brilliantly around the boy, but his words stuck with Azul.  He’d sounded so accepting of it, as if it was a fight he’d long ago learned to stop defending against, and once more, Azul couldn’t help but draw uncomfortable parallels between himself and these strange people.

“You wound me Ortho.  I’m not one of the common masses.  Why should I listen to the whispers of the ignorant when I can make decisions based on what I see with my own eyes?”  He smiled at the boy as he approached the table and glanced around, marveling at the detail of the board.  “You’ve been nothing but polite and helpful to me since we met, and your kind words towards your sibling speak well of him.  Now, show me how this game is played?”

“This?”  Ortho glanced over and Azul watched in fascination as the board seemed to swell and shift.  Mountains draped in white like deep ocean vents rose towards the sky in the north of Pyroxene while the water over the Coral Reef rippled with beautiful colours beneath the waves.  A small dust storm blew across Afterglow Savanna from the Land of the Hot Sands and even as he watched, a shining sun rose along the edge of the board, casting everything with a rosy glow of dawn. 

Azul couldn’t restrain himself from staring like some stupid little guppy and he might, if pressed, admit to having gasped in shock, but who would have blamed him?  Even being surrounded by casual magic such as he was, there was a level of artistry and subtlety behind these spells which were instantly recognizable to an avid practitioner such as himself.  More importantly, it wasn’t so much the way the way the board had shifted, but the way the power around the table seemed to ripple along with it.  The very air around them felt charged with energy, as if he was back in his mer form and feeling the electromagnetic currents slide across his sensitive skin. 

This was a new type of magic, something he’d never felt before in any way shape or form, but unlike the harsh alien magic he’d felt from the Savanaclaw prefect, this was… exciting.  It whispered of possibilities he couldn’t even begin to possibly comprehend and called to him with that familiar lure of power, urging him to reach out his own awareness and explore it the way he would a sunken wreck or deep cave. 

Azul had always prided himself on being rather well versed in almost all of the main branches of magic, even if he was still working on refining his grasp of their arts.  He also was rather well read regarding the more esoteric schools of spellcraft, but this… this was something completely new to him, and it was infinitely fascinating. 

If he were at home, he’d already be grabbing for his research journals with one tentacle, his pens with another, all while opening himself up to the seductive whispers ghosting across his senses, eager to learn its secrets.  The twins would grumble over his new obsession, both fully aware that they’d lost their favourite plaything for the next few months while he immersed himself in this mystery.  Eventually, they’d join him, driven by a combination of boredom and their own curiosity, but they never fully understood the extent of his obsession with learning magic.

Unaware of the deeper reaction of his audience, Ortho continued to prattle on, eager to show off his Big Brother’s passion project.

“This is called The Crimson War.”  He announced proudly, waving his arms in the direction of the board.  “It’s rather popular on the Isle of Lamentation where we live when we’re not at school.”  Pausing thoughtfully for a moment, he leaned closer to Azul and whispered in a conspiratorial tone of voice.  “It’s not my favourite but it looks impressive, so Big Brother figured that we should show it off.”  Pulling back, he winked at Azul and continued to espouse its many virtues and intricacies.  “It works best with a lot of people, one for each kingdom but you can play it with only two people… that’s often how we end up playing.  You get cards that have different goals that you draw and you have to achieve all of them to win the game, but you can make bargains with other player’s kingdoms and work together to overthrow the other players too!  Since they don’t know what your goals are, you can trick them and be all sneaky, or betray allies!  Games can last hours!  We have a game set up back in our dorm and sometimes we can convince the other students to play to blow off steam.  It usually only works around test time which is odd really.  I’m not sure why, but Big Brother said that it’s because when the kingdoms battle, the pieces really do fight it out and stressed-out students like to see a good gibbing.  It scared me the first time I saw it, but now I know that it’s just a game and the pieces aren’t really dying.” 

Ortho giggled slightly as he spoke, looking rather proud of himself for making that realization.  Before Azul could ask for clarification on just how bloody those battle could be, the boy tapped a button on the table. 

The huge map vanished and in its place was what looked like a kitchen, rather similar to the one in Octavinelle.  Like the previous game board, this one was meticulously detailed, right down to dishes and cutlery.  There was also the rather worrisome addition of a multitude of small creatures scurrying across the floor and getting into the food, causing little red bars to grow on each side of the board.

“This one is called Vermin, and you have to build traps to catch all the critters before they eat all your food.  You have to build it piece by piece and when you’re done, it has to work and actually catch them!  It’s my favourite because I love how the little mice and roaches skitter around.  I always end up cheering them on and lose, but they’re so cute!”  As he spoke, one of the little creatures, a small furry thing with an almost tubular body which still somehow managed to look soft and chubby raced over to the edge of the board and looked up at them, its little nose wiggling as its beady eyes stared. 

Honestly, it looked rather tender and tasty as far as Azul was concerned, and he had a feeling that if Floyd was here, he’d already be trying to pop it into his mouth.  Honestly, the thing even had a long thin tail which made a perfect handle to grab it by.  It was practically begging to be eaten.  Still, he couldn’t quite get over how he could feel the ripple around each of the little creatures, how they hummed with some strange new frequency along his nerves.

“See?  I couldn’t hurt him!”  Ortho coo’d happily as the little creature appeared to wash its face with its little hands before growing bored with its audience.  Turning away from them, it raced around in circles after its tail, then returned to the little feeding frenzy.

“We have all the games in analogue of course, but Big Brother likes to make them more interesting by having them race around with AI adaptions.  It certainly does make things challenging!”

“This… this is amazing!”  Azul couldn’t help but exclaim, his eyes tracking the erratic movements of the creatures as his more predatory instincts demanded that he lash out and capture them despite being comfortably full.  Pushing them aside with long familiar stubbornness, he looked beyond the twitching snacks to admire the intricacies of the game, both magically and practically.  The idea of building traps to capture the little morsels was intriguing and he found himself studying the rather impressive pile of seemingly random pieces on the side of the board strewn about like the remains of a shipwreck, waiting to be turned into some sort of artificial monstrosity.  The pieces were designed to fit together in various ways and there were little cogs and wheels as well to make them move.  It was fascinating and he itched for the chance to try his hand at building little death machines.  “We don’t have anything like this where I’m from.”

“What?  You don’t have games?!”  The look on Ortho’s face was one of pure horror, rather akin to the looks Vil and Rook had given him regarding not having Magicams.  It seemed that for all their “civilization” Atlantica was rather behind in the times, at least technologically speaking.  The very thought of the snobbish elite he’d grown up around being little more than backwater bumpkins caused Azul to chuckle slightly.

“No, we have games, but nothing like this.”  Lamentably, most of the games in the Kingdom of the Coral Reef were physical in nature.  After all, what mer would willingly pass up a chance to show off their sleek form and gorgeous tail?  It was just one more way that Azul was singled out and mocked.  Still, they weren’t wholly without a few more sedentary pastimes…usually designed by the old, infirm… or octopus.

“We have Tides, which is a game I’ve always enjoyed.  It’s a strategy game based on water currents.  The goal is to try to move a bead across the board using other beads as the tides, while your opponents try to move their own beads and obstruct your journey.”  As he spoke, he looked down at the little kitchen game board thoughtfully, aware that he wasn’t explaining it properly.

Reaching out with a hand, he felt along the energies which rippled across his skin like waves on the shore, and gently smoothed them with a gentle brush of power.  The table obediently cleared itself of the previous game, leaving him with a blank canvas to work with.  Pulling out his pen, he began to draw out the hexagonal board required for the game, smiling in delight as the energies seemed to understand what he wanted, and the simple shape began to form.

As always when casting, he lost himself in the sheer delight of the flow of magic sliding through his veins, rendering everything else around him into little more than white noise.  Ortho’s gasp of shock went unheard as he focused on drawing the various shaped beads which would represent the current strength and once he had twelve drawn, for each side, he then drew the Point Bead.  A little poke with his pen sent them rolling over towards Ortho’s side of the board. 

“You start with the twelve and can place them where you want on your side of the board.”  He stated, drawing a line down the center with his pen in red light.  “The larger beads require more strength to move them, so you have to both place, and attack them carefully.  If your current isn’t strong enough, you end up having to give your beads to the other player as your current is swallowed up.”  A grin tugged at his lips as he remembered the many hours he’d play this game with Jade.  Floyd usually lasted only a few minutes before he resorted to just pinging beads off his opponent’s heads.  Though the few times he did focus on the game, he’d given Azul one hell of a run for his money.  “It’s more challenging with more people, but two works just fine as well.  Each turn, you can add a bead to either bolster your main current, or try to offset mine.  If you have more beads in the attack, you get to knock off one of my beads and take it as your own, and vice versa.  It sounds simple, but once we get a bunch of currents in play, it becomes quite tricky.”  Glancing up at Ortho, he flashed him a grin of challenge.  “Want to try your luck?”

Finally looking up at his opponent, he finally noticed the look of utter shock on the boy’s face and immediately began to wonder what he’d done wrong.

“I… didn’t ruin the previous game did I?”  He asked, silently kicking himself for getting excited about a stupid game and forgetting to take things one careful step at a time.  Honestly, he wasn’t Floyd for Neptune’s sake!  He had no excuse!

“No!  oh no, it’s saved.  But… “

“It’s alright Ortho.  Let’s continue with the game.”  A deeper voice spoke, interrupting the exchange.  Looking over, Azul noticed a large rectangle which now floated in the air behind Ortho’s head.  While it appeared to be nearly identical to those Magicams, it was much larger, nearly four times the size, and like the game, it seemed to hum with energy along Azul’s skin.  Instead of empty black glass on the front, it glowed a brilliant blue in the center with flickering flames, and there was a sort of caricature of a skull in its center.  “Is there a set pattern to begin for the beads, or may I place them where I wish?” 

“Wherever you wish, Idia.”  Azul smiled and gave his head a polite little nod, pleased that he’d flushed his prey out of hiding so quickly, though still feeling a little off balance regarding what he’d done to warrant Ortho’s reaction.  “Keep in mind that the pattern you choose will affect the gameplay.”  He warned the Prefect.  “As I’m the experienced player, I’ll set my beads first and you can plan your placement accordingly.  Normally, the players position one at a time to keep things even, but I can be generous… once.”  His smile widened, becoming more challenging and he could hear an answering chuckle from the floating device.

“Ah, calling me a noob already.  Heh.  No need to be generous.  Skip the tutorial.  I’ll catch on quickly enough.  Let’s see how you play Tides.”  The confidence was the easy sort of one who was comfortable with their level of skill rather than someone desperately trying to impress, and Azul couldn’t help but be intrigued.  Still, he did as requested, setting his first bead in place, then watched as the energy around the board hummed and fluctuated.  One of the beads on Idia’s side floated forward then settled neatly into its designated position.  Not quite mirroring Azul’s placement, but definitely following his lead.

Additional beads appeared in front of Ortho, who giggled and reached out with his fingertip, levitating his own piece into place and looking absolutely delighted at being included.

“Normally it’s only Ortho and I playing.  The normies tend to avoid us, even when we offer analogue games.”  Idia murmured as Azul placed his next bead neatly behind the first.  “I figured that if it was going to only be Ortho and I, then I might as well have a bit of fun and show them all some real games.  See if there were any leet gamers in the zone.  I’d have even settled for curious noobs, but no ones showed any interest in the club since I took over.”

Rather than following his example, Idia set his second bead up at the opposite end of his starting territory.  Interesting that he would already be planning a defense.

“And yet you still put forth such effort on a lovely display.  That says a lot about your passion.”

“Just because normies can’t truly appreciate a good game doesn’t mean I have to be ashamed of it.”  The disembodied voice shot back somewhat defensively.  “I’m proud of my collection and wanted to show off how leet it was!  Plus I’d made all the epic level improvements!  We’re talking plum text item cards!  Why play something in analogue when you can play it in 3D or VR?!  Total immersion are the best games, but yeah, the classics rock too.  They’ve got soul and you can feel the love the designers put into them!  Any good otaku would want to fully explore every possible way to play these games, but… normies just wanna play to win, they’re not in it for the sheer joy of the game!” 

It was… certainly an unusual way he had of speaking, and much like dealing with Rook Hunt, he had a feeling that there was another language being used, one which his potion couldn’t identify.  Still, the meaning was clear enough that he could sort out the intent of the words even if the true definition escaped him.

“That being said… it wasn’t the games that brought you.  You know Ortho?”  The boy cringed slightly at his brother’s rather pointed words, as if he had been caught straying in waters too deep for his age and Azul had to fight to keep from smiling.  He knew that urge well enough and had little interest in getting his new little pawn in trouble.

“Yes, he was of great aid to us earlier in the orchard in dealing with the professors.”  Azul kept in vague just in case the prefect was the protective type.  “He spoke rather highly of you several times and I must admit that I was curious to see how well you measured up.”

“So, you came just to stare at me?  To judge me and laugh at the freak?”

“Hardly.  It seems there’s enough people doing that already, which is odd seeing as how being a freak seems to be one of the entrance requirements for Night Raven College, at least as far as I can tell.”  Shrugging slightly, Azul kept his voice carefully modulated, ensuring that Idia understood that that phrase encompassed all the students around them.  “Who am I to judge?  I simply wanted to meet someone who was worthy of the level of praise Ortho’s given you.”  As they spoke, they continued to build up their tides, putting aggressive cross currents into play as well as ones which were more directly able to protect their flanks.  “As for the games, I’ve found that one shows their true worth when under the pressure of a challenge, so what better way to take your measure than in combat?” 

Upon saying that, he moved his riptide into position, deftly nipping Idia’s current in half and neatly plucked up the extra beads.

“Mind your flanks.”  He added with a rather self-satisfied smirk, earning a chuckle from the floating rectangle.  At least he took the attack well, and rather than immediately going onto the offensive, he instead shifted one of his side tides into a more favourable position.  In three moves, it could very easily be threatening Azul’s main current and its accompanying bead.

“Few would challenge a member of Ignihyde to a battle of intellect.”

“Well, I’m new here and often have to learn the hard way.”  Azul countered smartly as he shifted his beads into Idia’s territory, noticing how Ortho was beginning to try to move in behind him even as Idia positioned himself to shatter the barrier wave he’d set up.  It was a good idea, but he’d been hunting as part of a shoal for some time now and was all too familiar with such tactics.  “Also, I’m terrible at playing by the rules, especially when I don’t agree with them.”

“A fair warning.  Planning on using cheat codes?”

“If I was, would I warn you in advance?”   Idia chuckled at that and moved his pieces, his tide snipping Azul’s in half, but it left the octopus with a clear line for his bead.  Rather than take the offered target and slip into the trap he could see being set, he instead combined his damaged wave with a barrier current he’d had drifting within rage, just for that purpose.  Grinning at hearing Idia’s softly indrawn breath, and Ortho’s gasp, he began to alter his course into something much more aggressive.

“That being said, I’m unsure as to why your club is bereft of members.”  Azul continued as they manoeuvred their beads across the board, nipping each other’s currents as they attempted to get at each other’s marker.  “The way you present these games is fascinating, and I’m not merely saying that because I’m winning.”  He couldn’t help but add.  “Integrating classic games with magic is brilliant, it makes them completely immersive!  I can’t wait to play them and compare them to the originals.” 

It was impossible to ignore the somewhat uncomfortable look Ortho shot the floating screen, or how the item seemed to stutter slightly in the air.  He’d hit a nerve, that much was obvious, and given what he’d heard from those around them, Idia’s problem wasn’t much different from his own back in the Coral Sea.  The issue was, how he dealt with it, which it seemed to be the octopus pot approach.  Well… it appeared that perhaps it was Azul’s time to be the eel and give the little cephalopod something else to think about.

“I…. don’t deal well with normies.”  Idia murmured softly, the screen pulling away from the board slightly, bobbing nervously.  “They… just don’t understand and their brains are so analogue.  To them, these are just games, ways to pass the time, like they were just grinding dailies or something!  They don’t see the pure joy!  The art and devotion put into them!  They don’t understand the thrill of the strategy or the pure joy in battling against a worthy opponent!  Ugh, they just want easy wins.  Might as well just put yourself on follow.  How mundane!”

Ah, we were going to go with this strategy then?  Well, it was his choice and Azul was hardly going to be one to burst someone’s little bubble of denial, not unless he had something to gain.

“Do you know what your problem is?”  He asked instead, nudging his pieces into position as he spoke, once again noticing the way Ortho continued to glance nervously at the tablet.  “Marketing.”

That seemed to bring the two of them up short as it clearly wasn’t what they’d been expecting to hear.  Ortho blinked at him with huge, confused eyes while the tablet stopped bobbing, appearing almost frozen in mid air.

“…marketing?”

“Yes, how you present yourself and your club.”  Azul gave the table a negligent wave of his hand.  “Your packaging is good and so is your product, but you need to tempt people, make them curious about what you have to offer.  Simply having Ortho standing by what equates to an impressive diorama isn’t going to cut it with this crowd.  Look at your competition.  The Riding Club has homicidal beasts racing about, the cooking club has placed themselves upwind of the school proper so that the first thing anyone notices is the smell of their food.  The Light Music club… well… that’s hard to miss… but the Board Game Club, a club which focusses on both strategy and mental skill… they sit quietly in a corner.”

“I… well… I don’t like to be noticed…”

“Clearly.”  He gave the screen a pointed look.  “But in trying not to be noticed, you run the risk of being forgotten.  If you are forgotten, then so are the games you love.”

“But-”  Idia began to say, but Azul held up a finger, silencing him.

“Now, you’d mentioned the sort of appreciation you’re seeking for these games and you’re clearly the sort who’s more interested in the journey over the goal which means you want to have fun while playing, and you want those around you to have fun as well.  Am I correct?”

“Well… yes.  I mean… no one would want to play a game if it’s boring.  It would end up being like grinding over and over without an end goal.  Not that the goal is what really matters, but sometimes you REALLY NEED that epic Stormguard armour so you spend a whole month killing dread lions in the Shadowvalley and collecting fangs even though you’ve slaughtered like… thousands of them and why do only a fraction of the damn things have fangs!?  I mean, why are they even a threat if they’re fangless!  Ugh, I hate the drop rate there!”

“Um… yes… exactly.”  Perhaps Idia really was a little more insane than the norm here?  He really had no idea what the other student was talking about, but the prefect seemed to be agreeing with him, so he’d keep swimming with it.  “But, if you had friends with you, laughing and joking while hunting fangless dread lions, then it wouldn’t be such a chore would it?  It would in fact be rather fun and if people saw you having fun, they’d be curious as to what you were doing… wouldn’t they?”  If humans were even half as nosey as merfolk, people having fun without them would draw crowds like crabs to a whale carcass.  It was a rather juvenile tactic really, yet eerily effective.

“It…might work?  But… the normies…”  Ah, a nibble.  That was all he needed to snap his jaws shut on his prey.  Smiling widely enough that even Floyd would be impressed with his show of teeth, Azul savoured his victory even as he pushed his beads across the winning line.

“I’ll make you a deal.”  He murmured, leaning forward over the board.  “I’ll join your Board Game Club.  I rather like the games, and the company suits my tastes.  But as you said, many of the games are best suited to multiple players, and I wish to see them at their best.  So, I’ll bring in more players to your club if you do a little favour for me.”

The energy around the board sizzled for a moment as shock warred with suspicion.  Once again, the tablet stopped bobbing and Azul could practically feel eyes studying him intently.

“What sort of favour?”

“More of a challenge.”  His wide grin faded into a more subdued smile.  “One you’re uniquely suited for, but it’s not the sort of thing to discuss here with so many ears listening.  Instead, join me for lunch tomorrow, you as well Ortho.  Bring a game, that one where you build the pest traps.  We’ll play over lunch.”

There was no mistaking the way that Ortho’s eyes lit up at the prospect of getting to spend time with people in a social environment, especially playing his favourite game, but Idia seemed to pull away.

“I… I don’t do well with people.”

“This device seems to work well enough interacting with the games.  Merely use that if it makes you comfortable.  That’s the idea of this demonstration after all, making everyone comfortable so they can enjoy themselves.”

“Can we Big Brother!?”  Orto practically squeaked in delight.  “You’ve always wanted to show off your amazing game collection, and Azul seems confident that it will work!  He’s got lots of really fun friends!!”
               “I… I’m not sure… I mean…”  Idia trailed off and there was silence which stretched for several seconds while Azul waited patiently, secure in the power of the lure he was dangling.  A long, drawn out sigh welled up from the tablet.  “Very well… so long as I don’t have to be there in 3D.  Lunch it is.”

“Excellent!”  Azul smiled brilliantly at them both.  “You bring the game and yourselves.  I’ll handle all the other details.” 

“And you’ll join the club?  No matter how this works out?”  There was no mistaking the longing in that mechanized voice, making Azul wonder just how long it had been since Idia had really spoken to anyone other than his brother.  The ever-enterprising part of him urged him to push it a little further, to see what other deals he might be able to wring out of this interesting recluse, but well-honed instincts warned him that this was enough for now.  Overstepping could cost him everything.  He had plenty of time to chum the water.

“Of course.  Where do I sign up?”  As he spoke, the tablet screen flickered to a registration sheet, which unlike his companions, he took the time to read.  Having long ago learned exactly how dangerous foolishly signing your name to any sort of agreement could be, he wasn’t about to be trapped into anything he wanted no part in. 

Sadly, there was nothing malicious hidden within the wording.  It was a simple and straightforward agreement to join the club, attend the meetings and to bring in any new or interesting board games he might come across during his time in the club.  There was a small clause regarding using magic to cheat at the games, which seemed to be grounds for expulsion, but honestly, it was a rather dull contract considering where they were.  Signing his name with his usual elegant flourish, using the strange stylus pen provided, Azul then stood up and stepped back from the table.

“As much as I have enjoyed meeting you Prefect, and spending time with you both, I do need to go and check on my companions.  They can’t be left unsupervised for long, especially in a crowd like this, but I will see you both tomorrow.”

“Bye Azul!  It was really great meeting you and I’m glad you didn’t get eaten by horses!”  While he was sure Ortho meant that innocently enough, Azul still couldn’t quite keep his eyebrow from twitching slightly.

“It was a pleasure Azul.”  Idia’s tablet bobbed in the air.  “I truly enjoy meeting a fellow technomancer, even if you don’t happen to be part of my dorm.”  There was something behind that disembodied voice, as if Idia was teasing him with a lure, and it took a moment for Azul to realize that it was the exact same tone he’d used in cajoling the prefect into accepting his challenge.

 

Wait… technowhat!?

 

Before he could open his mouth to ask, the tablet shimmered and faded away from view, leaving Ortho standing along at the gaming table, still happily waving goodbye. 

Hmm, well played.  It seemed that Idia wasn’t quite the social pushover he made himself out to be.  This school grew more and more intriguing with every passing hour.  Dammit, now he had to figure out what the hell Idia had called him.  He was going to have to write home and ask his parents to find a way to send him his library… or perhaps locate the one in the school… it should be well stocked.

First though, he had twins to gather, food to order, and an execution to watch.  All in all, his first day at school was turning out to be rather… delightful.

 

Chapter Text

“AZUL!”  Floyd loudly cheered the instant the octopus stepped through the crowd and into his line of sight.  Several nearby students were unceremoniously shoved out of the way as the much taller youth literally pounced on the poor octopus who’d had the misfortune of freezing when he’d heard his name called out.  Bearing the two of them down to the ground and driving the air out of Azul’s lungs with the force of the impact, the stunned youth could only lay there and wonder why the hell the sky was suddenly in the wrong place. 

In his delight, Floyd neglected to notice that he was currently crushing the much smaller boy as he happily nuzzled Azul, drinking in his scent as if he hadn’t seen him in ages rather than half an hour. 

“I was worried that Azul had gotten eaten by monsters again!  I was gonna go looking for you, but Jade said that not even you could get killed playing games at a fair, which really doesn’t say much cause you did almost get smooshed just going for a walk and… hey, why are you turning purple?”

               “I believe that Azul is in dire need of air.”  The fact that Jade sounded more amused than concerned would have earned him one hell of a verbal flaying had Azul not currently been more concerned over his rapidly tunnelling vision and the bursts of light dancing in front of his eyes.

               “Oh yeah… Azul has lungs.”  Floyd murmured, more to himself than anyone in particular.  “Oops.  I forgot.”  Sitting them up with exaggerated care, the overexcited eel released his companion and made a show of straightening his now rumpled clothes, still grinning widely.  If he’d had the strength, Azul would have throttled Floyd for his embarrassing exuberance, but right now, filling his lungs with precious air was his main priority.

               “So, I joined the Basketball team.”  The eel continued, happily taking advantage of the rather distracted octopus even as he brushed some wrinkles out of Azul’s jacket.  “It looks like a lot of fun!  You’re supposed to bounce this ball around this flat area while everyone else tries to steal it away from you before you can throw it in this little pot made out of a net!  You’re not allowed to use magic, but everything else seems to be fair game!  Jamil joined it too.  He said that he needed to have some time to himself… which I think was his way of telling me to piss off… but ha!  Too late, I’d already signed my name to it!  They even let me play for a little bit and it was a lot of fun!  This one senior Diasomnia guy stole the ball from me right when I was having fun with it, so I punched him in the face and took the ball back and I threw it into the net!  Honestly, I thought it would be harder to do.  Everyone was making such a big deal about it.”

Forget breathing, he was going to strangle Floyd.  They had priorities dammit!  They couldn’t spend their time playing silly games with humans! 

“Oh don’t give me that look.”  Floyd stated airily before Azul could even open his mouth to begin his reprimand.  “You’re going to be spending all your time after class brewing potions and looking up crazy spells no one else can pronounce, and Jade will be helping you, leaving me booooored.”  Floyd’s eyes narrowed and his happy smile took on a menacing edge as he matched gazes with the surly octopus.  “You don’t want me to bored, do you Azul?”

               It was always annoying when Floyd made sense.  Even if he was currently manipulating events to ensure he got his own way, which was totally Azul’s game!  Honestly, if he wasn’t still so focused on trying to draw air into his lungs, he’d be snarling at the eel, which was likely the reason for the intense rib fusing squeeze in the first place. 

Unable to properly chastise Floyd, Azul instead had to console himself by glaring accusingly at Jade.  He’d had One Job!  ONE!  Keep Floyd out of trouble!

               “He made a good point.”  The other twin shrugged before reaching down to help the two of them back up to their feet.  “And he does need something to burn off his excess energy or he’ll be nothing but trouble, you know this.”  Azul hated it when the twins ganged up on him.  Still, it did make sense, and an occupied Floyd was much less trouble than a bored one.  At least this way it gave him an hour or two every day after class to work uninterrupted on his potions.  He’d be able to focus on his projects and not have to keep half his attention on a certain eel who’d likely think it was funny to slip extra ingredients into the cauldron, something now made much more difficult to accomplish while missing his tentacles. 

“So long as you don’t forget that the cooking club is your priority.”  Azul grumbled, taking his defeat gracefully.  “And you shower before coming back to the dorm.  I won’t have you making the room all… smelly.”

Carmine had been right with his warning this morning.  It was painfully easy to tell which students made a habit of bathing regularly, and which ones relied on artificial scents to cover their poor hygiene.  There was a truly appalling number who fell into the latter category. 

“Awww, but I wanted to shower with you and Jade.  It sounds like fun!”  Floyd pouted, earning odd looks from many of the students around them.  Honestly, for social creatures, humans certainly seemed to take offense to just about every group activity that involved any sort of nonviolent physical touch.  Odd creatures.

“We’ll shower tonight.”  Azul assured him, shooting the onlookers a defiant stare, daring them to say something about it.  Just because these socially uptight bipeds couldn’t handle physical intimacy didn’t mean that he was going to go without such comforts.  They could just deal and keep their damn mouths shut.  “Let’s head back to the dorm.  We need to find Carmine and get him to answer some more questions for us, and I have to give the food order to Glaucous, then we need to get our homework done before we head out.”

“…eh?  We had homework?”  Floyd just shot him a blank look as Azul grabbed onto first his arm, then Jade’s, making sure everyone who was spying on them saw.

“Yes Floyd.  Remember when Professor Crewel told us to read pages forty to sixty-three on the most commonly used ingredients and their reactivity to each other?  Then answer the questions at the end of the chapter?”  It was about then that he remembered who he was talking to.  “Professor Trein also wanted us to read Chapter three and be ready to answer questions tomorrow regarding the Battle of Prydain and how The Horned King altered the geopolitical landscape in the area for the next century.”

“Ew… we gotta study a horny king?  How did I miss that?”

“Horned, like a narwhal.”  Jade clarified while Azul was busy grinding his teeth.  “Though there is a rather high chance that he also suffered from a lack of physical release.    From what I’ve picked up from the conversations around us, the act of seeking relief from such… pressures should be one of our primary driving focuses even well past our sexual peaks.  It stands to reason that the moniker Horned King could be a double enterdre.”

“How is this helping the issue Jade?”  Azul glanced up at the taller youth, noting his amused smirk, fully aware that both eels were likely fucking with him for their own amusement, but as usual, he was utterly unable to back down.  “Nowhere in our texts do the authors show anywhere near that level of wit.  All you’re doing is confusing Floyd, who clearly couldn’t be bothered to turn a single page in his book.”  Unable to simply let ignorance fester, he reached up and grabbed onto the dark lock of Floyd’s hair, pulling him down to eye level.

“It’s not overly complicated.”  He explained.  “The Horned King was also known as King Arawn. According to our book, he was one of the pivotal figures in the events leading up to the Oathbreaker war as his Cauldron Born significantly bolstered the ranks of Chernobog.  There’s also a great deal of speculation that the activation of an artifact known as the Black Cauldron was what drove the Dark Fae insane, causing them to go on the offensive.”  Once again, he was met with an utterly blank stare. “Honestly Floyd, didn’t you read anything during class?  I know you’re not stupid, so why would you choose to remain ignorant of the history of the world we’re now a part of?”

“Why?”  Floyd shrugged, not at all bothered by Azul’s lecture.  “It’s way more interesting to have you explain it to me rather than reading it or having that old guy blah blah about it.  Hearing you tell it makes it feel more real than just staring at words.” Floyd paused thoughtfully for a moment and despite feeling his cheeks heat up somewhat over the unexpected compliment, Azul inwardly braced himself for whatever nonsense was going to assault his poor brain.  “Do you think he wouldn’t have been as horny if he’d just given his dangly thing a few tugs?”  At this point, all Azul could do was sigh.

“Sure, why not?  Perhaps all he’d needed was for some enterprising adventurer to help him achieve sexual climax and everything would have been fine.”  Frowning, Azul leaned a little closer to Floyd, locking stared with him.  “And that is NOT an answer you’ll give Professor Trein tomorrow.  Allow us to retain some small measure of intellectual pride.”

“Depends… I might go all horny king myself unless someone was kind and generous and helped me with my dangly thing.  It’s been aching since the fight.”

“After we study.”

“Ha!  It’s a deal!”

 

“Ashengrotto!”  Azul was truly growing tired of people yelling his name out.  Grumbling softly under his breath, he paused and looked around as the twins moved a little closer to his sides, hissing under their breaths.  At least they sounded just as irritated as he felt, and it did feel good to have their solid presences bracketing him in.  It had been a long day after all and he really wanted a few minutes with jut the two of them and no one else so he could drop the polite mask he’d been wearing all day… not to mention get out of the binding clothing.

Fate seemed determined to keep them busy today.  Despite having barely stepped through the mirror onto the enchanted walkway, they saw Mikado, flanked by two goons and leaning against the jawbone of the huge sea beast which made up the entrance of Octavinelle at the end of the path.  He’d clearly been waiting for them specifically, and that didn’t bode well at all.  Sadly, Azul couldn’t even quite pin down which incident the Vice Dorm Head might be wanting to speak to them regarding.  Their usurping of his power over the kitchen, the illusion on their dorm wall having likely faded, revealing the damage, the brief fight with Savanaclaw and upcoming duel, perhaps even the attack of the horse beasts?  Actually, that was a rather impressive list, and Azul couldn’t help but feel a slight flush of childish delight.  He’d never been such an overt troublemaker before!

Ignoring him for the moment, the trio warily surveyed their surroundings, still not at ease with the strange pathway which seemed to throw all the rules they’d grown up with in the ocean out the proverbial window.  Even as they walked, fish lazily darted between them, shimmering living jewels who’d long ago learned to ignore the humans invading their realm.  Whatever spell enabled the trio to walk and breathe comfortably in their former home didn’t seem to affect the fish at all.

Normally, Azul would be able to hear the soft chatter of the school as they gossiped among each other, discussing which coral hid the tastiest treats and who’d eaten who’s eggs.  Instead, there was only this strange silence which caused the whole scene to feel surreal and distant.  To make it even worse, they were walking on the seafloor.  Their shoes clacking against smoothly polished stone walkway as they worked their way up to the dorm proper and their unwelcoming committee.  Large brightly coloured colonies of fan coral which drifted lazily in the gentle current edged the walkway, keeping students on the enspelled path, but Azul felt the strong urge to push off the ground and rise into the water.  While normally he wasn’t a huge fan of swimming in the open water, walking like a human in a place which looked so much like home felt intrinsically wrong.  Judging by the looks on the faces of the twins, they felt the same way.

“This is all sorts of creepy ya know?”  Floyd muttered, tucking his hands deep into the pockets of his jacket while his eyes tracked the small school of fish more out of habit than hunger.  On Azul’s other side, Jade nodded his head, doing his best to look relaxed but radiating a tension the other two could feel.

“Agreed.  Walking like this while the fish swim is… unnerving.  It feels as if we’ve been rejected by the ocean and no longer belong.  I’ve never before felt that the water wasn’t our home… until now.”                      

“Yeah.”  Floyd nodded his head before giving a little hop, no doubt trying to do as Azul wanted, and swim off the path towards the wider, wilder waters, but the false gravity pulled him down, keeping his feet firmly rooted.  “This is so wrong.”

Pressing his lips together into a tight line, Azul found himself mentally agreeing with both twins.  Despite this being the second… no… third time walking through this enchanted passage, he still felt something intrinsically wrong with it.  Yes, most of the members of the dorm needed air to breathe, as much as it galled him to admit it, he could accept that, but really, true mer shouldn’t be subjected to such a thing.  At the very least, they should all swim like proper denizens of the depths.  This was all simply too alien for him to be at all comfortable, and it was a feeling he was rapidly growing tired of.

A few brightly coloured clownfish darted around above their heads, one adventurous one even dove down and nibbled curiously at Jade’s bright hair, only to be slapped away irritably by the eel.  It darted back a moment later, only to narrowly miss being grabbed.  Seeming to enjoy the game, it once again drew closer, this time aiming for the dangling earring which shimmered as it lightly bumped against Jade’s left cheek.

“I know you can’t understand me, but if you continue this game, I will make a point of devouring you in front of your friends.  Consider yourself warned.” 

“Awww Is the little fishy bullying Jade?”  Floyd grinned, thoroughly amused by its antics.  “I think it likes you.”

“Ashengrotto!  Stop dawdling and get over here!”  Mikado called a second time.  “Do NOT make me repeat myself!”

‘Ugh, you just did you puffed up tube worm.”  Azul muttered under his breath, earning further snickers from Floyd.  He could suddenly understand Riddle’s frustration with his own dorm.  It seemed that standards were seriously lacking here at Night Raven College. 

“Ugh, he can’t even minion properly.”  Jade muttered, batting the little fish away once more.  “Does he truly believe that he requires goons to deal with us?  He might as well have his pen already drawn.”

“Heh, his pen IS drawn, it’s hidden down by his leg… and what do you mean?  We Are rather intimidating Jade.”  Floyd grinned at his brother who was once more glaring at the little fish tugging at his hair.  “Well… we were.  You gonna eat that?”

“Don’t eat the fish.”  Azul warned.  “We don’t know if a human stomach can digest raw fish, let alone their bones.  I doubt you want punctured intestines.”

“It would be worth it.”  Jade grumbled under his breath as he once again batted at the fish.  He was rather sure the stupid thing was laughing at him and it wasn’t something he was used to.  Ugh, once Azul altered their shape changing potion, he was going to teach the fish of this reef the true meaning of terror.  Never in his life had fish been so… relaxed around him.  It was annoying.

As much as none of them wanted to deal with the little bottom feeder of a Vice Dorm Leader, the encounter was inevitable as he’d staked out the only enspelled entrance to the dorm, and none of the trio knew spells for breathing under water… yet.  Still, it made the victorious smirk he flashed them rather foolish when one considered the fact that they really had no other option but to approach.

“Ah, Vice Dorm Leader Mikado, how kind of you to take time out of your… busy schedule to deliver a message.”  Azul smiled widely at the older youth and the twins didn’t even bother hiding their grins as they watched that smirk visibly wilt before their eyes.  Personally, Jade rather liked the slight pause the octopus had included, reminding the boy of his sudden plethora of spare time now that Azul had begun to nibble away at his duties.

“Good thing the barnacle's got nothing important to do.”  Floyd yawned widely, digging the knife in a little deeper.  “Wasn’t that supposed to be something us wee little first years did?  Boneworm must be really pissed at you.”

“Founders, you really are stupid aren’t you.”  Mikado sneered at Floyd.  “My name is Mikado Sary, you should make a point to remember it seeing as how I own your asses for the next two years.”

“Did you hear that Floyd?  He thinks he’ll be in charge next year.”  Jade smiled sweetly at their senior.

“Heh, the barnacle think’s he’ll be alive next year.”  Floyd shot back.  “Sort of adorable really.”  Neither Mikado nor his goons seemed to think it was nearly as amusing as the twins did, and they shifted so that their drawn pens were visibly displayed in their hands, already aimed at the trio.

“You wouldn’t be the first students to accidentally slip off the path.”  Mikado drawled, giving his pen a little twirl.  “It’s a shame really, so much potential lost.”

“Oh my, did he just threaten us Floyd?”  Jade glanced over at his twin, his smile never wavering.

“Nah, it’s only a threat if you can do it.  Otherwise, it’s just annoying mouth flapping.”

“While this is all very exciting.”  Azul cut in, stepping away from the protection of the eels and walked boldly up to the Vice Dorm Leader.  “I have a busy schedule and Prefect Glaucous is waiting for me do deliver the food orders to him in a timely manner.”  Blue eyes locked with orange, making it clear that time was precious to only one of them.  “So, with all due respect Vice Dorm Leader, the message you’ve been tasked to give to me?”

It was both immensely satisfying and amusing to see how many barbs he could dig in with one single sentence, and judging by the look on Mikado’s face, every single one had hit its mark.  He watched as the older youth’s jaw clenched and there was the distinct sound of teeth grinding against each other.

“You’re to meet Prefect Glaucous in his office.  Also, you’re to see him alone.  I’m sure you can manage the walk without your boyfriends holding you by the dick.”

“I’m sure I could manage, but it’s so much more pleasurable when they do.”  Azul replied crisply, then glanced over at the two goons.  “Perhaps you gentlemen should work on your grip?  It doesn’t seem to be helping.”

“Watch your mouth you little whore before I put you in your damn place!”  The larger goon snarled at him, pure human by the smell of him, but no less loathsome. 

Both twins immediately stiffened in response, their eyes narrowing, but Mikado held up a hand, calling his man off.

“There is no need to fight.  We’re all in Octavinelle and follow the Sea Witch.  This allies us against the other dorms and we hardly serve our goals by infighting.”

“Hmph, don’t know what’cha got against the other dorms.”  Floyd shrugged, not relaxing in the least, which was just as well as the other three still hadn’t put their pens away.  “Even if the Goldfish nearly got Azul killed.”  The sheer bizarreness of the statement seemed to defuse the situation as the three aggressors all glanced at each other, unsure of what exactly he was talking about, or how the situation had been so thoroughly derailed from their plans.

“Just go see Prefect Glaucous.”  Mikado growled, flashing Azul a murderous glare as the first year smiled at him sweetly, striding past as if he didn’t have a single care in the world.  When the twins made to follow, his voice snapped out like a whip.  “You two, stay here.  I want to speak with you.”  He’d clearly been working on his Professor Crewel imitation. 

“Nah.  I’m gonna go to my room and play with my dangly thing.  It sounds more fun.”  Floyd shrugged, not even breaking stride as he walked towards the door, following in Azul’s footsteps.  “Can’t risk turning into a narwhal and starting a war.”  No one tried to stop him.

Smiling in amusement at his twin’s antics, Jade simply shrugged and made to join them.

“Apologies, but we do come as a pair.”  Reaching behind his head, he flicked the little clownfish hard in the face, sending it racing away, back to the safety of its school.  “Perhaps next time.”  Shrugging, he walked through the gaping skeletal jaws of the beast guarding the front door.  “Or perhaps not.”

 

The office was simple enough to find, it was just around the corner from the main door, which as far as Azul was concerned, was a hideous security risk.  Considering the reputation Octavinelle seemed to have with the rest of the school, there were likely more than a few dangerous files kept in Glaucous’ office.  This begged the question of if this was a pretty little dangling lure, or merely a woeful display of incompetence.  At this point, Azul wasn’t so sure. 

Oh look, he even had a goon standing by the door.  Add in the two looming hulks accompanying Mikado, that meant that three students had been pulled away from more important tasks for the sole purpose of looking intimidating.  It was such a waste of resources that it was almost painful to witness. 

Surely the student had better things to do than loom mindlessly, though come to think of it, this one did appear to be one of the bottom feeders who’d flanked Glaucous this morning when he’d barged into their room.  Did the guy not have a life outside of swimming around stuck to the Dorm leader’s belly like some overgrown remora?  Well, at least he talked less than those sucker headed jerks. 

Still, it was impossible to ignore how the larger youth was staring at him, eyeing him up and down with a rather uncomfortable level of intensity.  It was a look he’d seen Floyd give fat little fish when they swam a little too close and it made his skin crawl.  He hadn’t been looked at as prey in a long time, and it wasn’t a position he felt like returning to, especially in the mind of some overgrown kin who barely had a more than a single drop of the sea in their veins.    

 While this would-be thug was wider across the shoulders than the twins, and was likely half again their weight, the merkin lacked that predatory sharpness which came naturally to the Leech brothers.  He might enjoy bullying those smaller than himself for the thrill, but the twins hunted and killed as a matter of course.  The darkness of the Abyss was in their blood, just as it was with Azul’s, undiluted by the softer shallows this kin’s ancestors had called home.

As much as he wanted to sneer at this parasite, Azul knew that he could hardly rise far within Octavinelle if he had enemies in every corner of the reef.  While he doubted that this fool would ever be an ally, it would still be foolish to cast him aside, especially this early in the game. 

Doing his best to ignore the way the fool was still staring at him as if he was only one tail flick away from taking a bite, Azul smiled pleasantly at him and came to a stop, just out of easy reach.

“Azul Ashengrotto, reporting in as summoned.”  Despite his almost playful demeanor, the goon didn’t relax in the slightest, in fact, his stance shifted minutely as if he was preparing for a confrontation.  Well honed instincts demanded that Azul respond in kind, but he knew that if he responded with magic, it would cause no end of problems.  As for physically battling against this goon… well, that was just laughable.  As Floyd loved to put it, he was soft and incredibly squishy.  Neither were notably intimidating traits unless one was a jellyfish.

Well, that just left him with his mind and his wits, so in truth, the fool in front of him was already doomed if he wanted to escalate this little meeting.  Still, it didn’t hurt to continue to play at being polite.

“You were with Dorm Leader Glaucous this morning as well.”  He noted, keeping his tone light and his smile friendly.  “I do hope he at least gives you breaks for food and homework, or at least pays you well for services rendered.”

“Don’t worry about that babe.”  He drawled, his gaze still crawling greedily over Azul’s body.  “I got plenty of compensation what with that little show you put on this morning.  Shameless little slut aint’cha?” 

There was no need to know what exactly the unfamiliar word meant.  He knew an insult when it was thrown at him and felt his smile begin to ice over.

“Shame would imply some sort of wrong or foolish behaviour on my part.”  Azul countered neatly.  “I assure you that I have done no such thing.  Perhaps you’re instead projecting some sort of guilt on me rather than confronting it in yourself?”  This likely wasn’t the best thing to say because suddenly the goon was right in his face, his fetid breath making Azul long for his gills.

“Think you’re so smart do you slag?”  The kin sneered, the expression further twisting already less than appealing features into something truly grotesque.  “We’ll fix that.  Once Glaucous is done with you, I’m sure he’ll let us all pass you around.  From what I saw this morning, that seems to be the sort of thing you’re into.”

Pass him around?  What in the Abyss was he talking about?  Wait… was this a mating thing?  Was he implying that Azul would want to play breeding games with him?  Was this human courtship?!  EW!  This fetid hunk of whale meat had the wrong cephalopod.  He wouldn’t touch this idiot with a ten-foot-long hectocotylus… ugh, someone else’s ten foot long hectocotylus!  A bobbit worm would be a preferable mating partner than this half breed freak! 

There was no way to hide the absolute revulsion which tore through him and it didn’t seem to go over well at all because the goon grabbed Azul by the shoulders and spun around, slamming his back rather soundly into the door of the office. 

For the third time today, precious air was forced out of his lungs, leaving him gasping from the impact, but he didn’t have time to do much more than thrust a hand into his jacket pocket, the tips of his fingers brushing the small thin barb hidden at its bottom.

“You’re gonna learn real fast that there’s a pecking order here, bitch.”   The goon was close enough that he could feel the spittle spraying his face with every word he snarled.  Most would have been utterly intimidated by this openly threatening display, but all Azul felt was a rising sense of indignation over being so grossly manhandled.  “You wanna play The Game here?  That’s fine by me, but you’re gonna have to earn your place.”  Again, those hungry, beady eyes travelled along his body and the hands gripping his shoulders massaged the bruised flesh beneath them as he leered openly.  “And we both know what that place is.”

“Are you quite done with your little threat display?”  Azul didn’t so much as twitch a silver eyelash as he met that disgusting stare.  “Because I assure you that I know exactly where my place is, and if you don’t get your hands off of me in the next two seconds, you’re going to learn that lesson the hard way.”  While the smile never left his lips, Azul dropped all pretense of being human and allowed the cold cruel depths of his true nature to show in his eyes.  This fool was nothing more than a bully, a coward preying on those smaller and weaker than himself for no other reason than to enjoy the rush of power.  He was no better than those self-indulgent fools who’d haunted Azul’s youth.

It was a safe bet that this idiot had never actually killed.  That he’d never looked into the eyes of someone as they begged for their life and simply smiled, savouring every sweet little plea for mercy before turning away.  He’d never fought in a life and death battle, let alone revelled in the sweet rush of victory.  For Azul, it had all merely been just a regular part of life. 

Only one of them was fully prepared to kill their opponent in this fight, and it showed.  There was just enough kin blood in the fool’s genetic makeup to recognize the darkness of the lightless depths in Azul’s glare; the briefest glimpses of a world more vicious and alien than anything his limited experience could possibly understand.

Long buried instincts reared up inside the goon and he blanched visibly.  Releasing Azul, he went so far as to even take a step back before catching himself.  Gone were the leers and the aggression.  Instead, he looked like he’d take any excuse he could to put as much distance between himself and the suddenly terrifying first year student who simply stood there staring at him with eyes bearing less humanity than a hungry shark. 

“Mercy isn’t even a concept beneath the waves, are you aware of that?”  Azul asked him, holding those dark eyes trapped with his own.  “Neither is bluffing.  If you challenge someone, you’d better be ready to die for your cause, because they certainly will be.”  Taking a step closer, he looked up at the older youth, noting how a fine layer of sweat now glazed the goons face, his scent was saturated with a primal sort of terror that he didn’t even fully understand, and that just made it all the sweeter.  “If you dare touch me again without my permission, I’ll tear your hand off and feed it to you.  This is not an empty threat or a little territorial display.  This is a promise.  The same goes for those who work for me. 

“If any of them come to me and inform me that you’ve been teaching them their place in the pecking order, there won’t be any little threats of pushing you off the entrance path.  You will simply vanish.  No begging.  No bluster.  No bribes.  No Mercy.”

His tone never changed at all as he spoke.  To anyone listening in, they might as well have been having a perfectly lovely conversation… so long as they didn’t notice how the much larger boy was visibly trembling.  It was always so amusing to watch how people reacted to having their whole world turned upside down on them, and this lout… the precious pecking order which he’d previously believed to be inviolate had just been shattered.  Well, this was a place of learning after all.  Azul was merely doing his part to help the process along.

“Do we have an understanding?”

“Y…yes… yes we do.”

“Good.  What’s your name?”

“Geel… Geel Buik.”

“Thank you.  Always remember your manners Geel.  It’s the hallmark of a true gentleman, and it’s time we brought a little bit of class back to this little corner of the Reef, don’t you think?”

“Y…yes sir.”

“Excellent, you catch on quickly, Geel.”  He watched as the older student swallowed nervously accepting both the compliment and the threat it was wrapped around.  For all his earlier brazen display, this thug wasn’t an idiot.  He knew when he was beaten and the line had been rather clearly drawn in the sand.  Rather than fight against it, he carefully stepped around Azul, giving him a rather wide and respectful berth as he opened the door.  All the while, he refused to meet Azul’s eyes, keeping his own politely downcast, doing his best not to attract any attention.  Good.  Prey should always know their place. 

“Thank you Geel.”  Azul’s entire demeanor was back to being perfectly polite and cheery once more as he stepped past the hulking figure, though he never once took his hand out of his pocket.  “I hope you have a pleasant evening and I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other around.  Do take care of yourself.”  There was just the slightest of winces as Geel waited for Azul to enter into the room before closing the door behind him and breathing a rather audible sigh of relief.

Well, the remora was down, now it was time for the shark… or as Floyd aptly described him, the bone worm. 

Judging by the look of outraged confusion that flickered for the briefest of moments across Glaucous’ face upon Azul’s entrance, it was a safe bet that poor Geel had been instructed to be as overbearing as possible.  No doubt it was planned so that the great and glorious dorm leader could then deal with an unnerved, if not outright terrified first year.  Whether he’d been planning on taking advantage of that by playing the part of the grand protector, or further shredding any remaining courage Azul might still have, remained to be seen. 

“Prefect Glaucous.”  Azul greeted him with every bit of sweet and warm politeness one could ever ask for.  His parents would have been proud to see him minding his manners so graciously.  It was likely good that the twins weren’t here right now because there was no way that Floyd wouldn’t be falling over laughing.  “It’s a pleasure as always.  Thank you for sending Vice Dorm Leader Mikado with your message.  I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long?”  Honestly, all he was missing was one of Silver’s little bows, but there was hamming it up, and then there was just pushing it beyond the bounds of good taste.

“Not long at all.”  Glaucous replied with an answering smile which was just as false as Azul’s.  Despite his initial surprise, he seemed to be regaining his proverbial footing rather quickly as he stepped forward, his arms gently spread in welcome.  “It’s good to see such manners in students these days.  So often, they come in believing that they are Sorcerer Supremes and expect the world to bow down to them, as if it’s their due.  Arrogance such as that never lasts long here, or in any of the other dorms.”  As he spoke, he motioned Azul over to the large couch in the center of the room.  It wasn’t an overly large piece, just big enough to sit two comfortably… so long as they were on friendly terms.  Very friendly terms.  It was a Floyd couch and best avoided.

While he savoured the physical closeness of the twins, the idea of allowing anyone else, let alone someone he detested that deeply into his personal space was abhorrent in the extreme.  Keeping his expression perfectly pleasant, he instead pretended to distract himself by looking at the decorations the dorm head had chosen to surround himself with, allowing the other boy to continue talking.

“Ambition however, that is a rather favoured trait, and one which is well rewarded here in Octavinelle.”  Glaucous certainly did like to hear the sound of his own voice.  Honestly, he could likely give Kalim a run for his money, though at least the Scarabia student was simply sharing his exuberance rather gratifying his own ego.

“Power is what reigns supreme here.  Raw magical power, and the power to rule over others.”  Glaucous continued, taking full advantage of his trapped audience.  “It’s the one real truth of this school, though we’re the only dorm to openly admit it and live by it.”  Radiating confidence, he casually stepped over to Azul, following the youth’s gaze to a bookshelf filled with various knickknacks pulled up from the ocean depths.

“Beautiful aren’t they?”  He asked, his breath ghosting over Azul’s ear as he moved even closer, defying all mer manners by approaching close enough to casually touch without an invitation.   “I have dedicated my life to recreating the glories of Atlantica and the Sea Witch.  Countless treasures which have been buried beneath the waves for centuries have been brought to the surface for my amusement.  That which was hidden away by the secretive merfolk are mine to touch and admire, their mysteries mine to explore.”

Reaching out a hand, he brushed his fingertips possessively over a collection of books written in mermish, the flowing script looking more like waves on the surf than human writing.  Bound in polished scale, and carefully cured seaweed, they did look rather impressive until you read the titles.

“Can you read them?”  Azul asked, stepping away from the proximity of the kin under the guise of admiring the collection, his voice tinged with the best approximation of awe he could manage given the circumstances.  “It barely even looks like writing.”

“Not yet.”  Glaucous admitted somewhat begrudgingly, brushing a loose lock of blue hair back behind his ear.  “But I’m working on it.  There are very few guides to work with, and fewer people willing to translate my treasures.  Though I’ve been told that they bear within their pages great tales of the histories of Atalantica from the time of the Sea Witch Herself!”

It was hard to disguise his snicker as a gasp of awe, but somehow he managed.  History indeed.  One of the great and mysterious tomes was a cookbook entitled Crustaceans and You; Meals on the shell!  Another was a collection of storied from a dolphin.  He’d read it once before and found it seriously lacking in substance, though that likely was due to the fact that he’d been far too young to appreciate the humour.  Dolphins were generally rather perverse creatures as far as he was concerned, so that wasn’t overly surprising.  Granted, he doubted that the grand knowledge Glaucous was seeking involved the best way to indulge in the ill-conceived desire to mate with a reluctant sea turtle or the many surprising uses for a tube worm.  Mammals.  They were all sorts of messed up.

The other titles were no better and while Azul, as well read as he was, only recognized a handful of them, none were what the Prefect was touting.  The only actual history he had managed to acquire was a grotto textbook, and it was nearly as useless as merlings who read it.

“Imagine the secrets hidden within these pages… the power and knowledge!”  Oh yes, because Professor Misky the Manta Ray was a great purveyor of the vast unknown, and she would take the reader on an epic adventure through the history of the reef with her friends Casten Clownfish and Samise, the somewhat misunderstood shark.

“But that’s not all!”  Glaucous grinned, clearly pleased to be able to show off his treasures to an appreciative audience.  “This desk was discovered by divers nearly half a century ago.  My father purchased it during an auction at no small expense and had it restored to its previous glory.  Naturally, when I became Prefect of Octavinelle, it was only right that I demanded it for my office.”  Placing a hand on Azul’s back, the dorm leader guided him to the massive piece of treasured furniture. 

Easily taking up half the office, it might have once been a rather breathtaking piece, had the owner had any clue how to tend to Mer furniture.  Looking at it, Azul felt a twisted mix of revulsion and anger as his sense of aesthetics was utterly assaulted. 

In Atlantica, everyone took great pride in their coral gardens.  They were not only the center point of every household, but the very building blocks of Atlantian architecture and design.  Homes, furniture, artwork, all were made up of the tightly clustered communities of the tiny creatures. 

Families would raise them with both pride and care, feeding, caring for them, encouraging their growth into various useful shapes.  There was a beautifully symbiotic relationship between merfolk and their coral, to the point that each individual family had their own colour patterns, even their own style of polyps which were immediately recognizable.  As with all things in the sea, these structures were ever changing, new patterns emerging as styles changed and the caretakers of the corals continued to inspire new colours and shapes with their creations.

Ashengrotto coral for example was currently favouring a gorgeous silvery grey at the base of the skeleton, while the polyps themselves were a gorgeous vibrant blue.  Since finding him hiding amidst the branches as a tiny, terrified fry all those years ago, his mother had worked hard to produce a lovely black edging along the tips of the polyps soft tentacles, no doubt to try to help make the increasingly distant and difficult Azul feel more at home. 

When the coral was feeding, it caused their home to shimmer like rippling water, but when danger threatened, it looked just like a simple rock structure.  It was considered to be rather dull as far as most mer buildings went, and a huge contrast to the vibrant and eye-catching shapes and colours of their restaurant.  Though he hadn’t always said it out loud, he’d been deeply grateful that his mother had always insisted that home should be a place of comfort for all members of the family rather than some shiny showpiece.  It let him blend in with his surroundings, giving him a little oasis of peace amidst a world which seemed to grow increasingly unwelcoming to him.

While his mother had set aside her typical merish flare in order to appeal to her beloved son, his father had gone in the opposite direction, hoping that constant exposure would elicit some deeply buried appreciation for the wild vibrancy of mer tastes.  He filled their otherwise simple looking home with the most vibrant and extravagantly shaped furniture he could sculpt.  Every available space was filled with such garish and hideously contrasting colours that Azul had a running theory that his father was in fact completely colour blind.  The twins insisted that he could see just fine, he was just clearly insane. 

Still, despite the unfortunate chromatic combinations, every piece was radiant, reflecting the deep skill and love lavished upon the tiny creatures from which it was comprised.

This desk… it was dead.  The beautiful polyps had dried up and shrivelled away, leaving behind only their empty skeletons which had been further shaped and polished by blades and merciless scouring to create this… monstrosity.  It was an offense to all mer design and Azul could almost taste his recently eaten lunch threatening to make an ill-fated return. 

Only surface dwellers could have looked at what had no doubt once been a gorgeous and thriving desk, and  then callously slaughter it out of some twisted sense of aesthetics.  Yes, the delicate skeletons were a rather lovely shade of lavender, and the silver gilt which had smothered the poor little carcasses was pretty.  Someone had even killed more coral from some other unrelated system to create a series of fanciful tentacles which wove around the base of the legs.  As a final insult, polished shells and precious stones had been pounded into the spaces between the branches, obliterating the subtle interplay of growth with a garish display of wealth buried among the dead.

“It’s… it’s…”  For perhaps the first time in his adolescent life, words utterly escaped Azul as his mind struggled to comprehend the thoughtless waste in front of him.  How could Glaucous be a quarter mer and not feel how abhorrent this desk was?  This was an anathema to a culture he was claiming to venerate, a desecration of a world in which everything had a vital purpose, interconnected intrinsically with the world around it. 

“Incredible, I know.”  There was no mistaking the pride in Glaucous’ voice as he stared down at his treasure.  “I’ve spent many an hour sitting at it, tracing my fingertips along the edges and imagining its original owner sitting in my place, working on some grand tome, or perhaps documenting some new spell.  I imagine that he’d approve of what I’ve done with this lovely treasure.”

Unable to look at the vile thing any longer without saying something he’d regret, Azul turned away, trying to find something to take his mind off of just how… ignorant this fool was towards the culture he so blithely revered.  It was an impossible task.  No matter where he looked, there were bits and pieces of the underwater world, misinterpreted, twisted and taken out of context to the point of becoming insulting jokes.  Cutlery was displayed with hair ornaments and labelled as ancient mer weapons.  Worthless children’s baubles were mixed in with some rather decent pieces of jewelry and dammit, he had a breeding aid labelled as something called a bong! 

The sheer level of cultural ignorance on display here was astounding!  Sure, he detested most of that society and what it represented, but that didn’t mean that stupid land bound merkin got to make a mockery of it!   

“This is the wealth that is greatness’ due.”  Glaucous continued.  “This is what I promise to those who follow me.  Riches from a distant land, lost mysteries reclaimed, and the seas tamed by our power!  We’ll rise beyond even the ambitions of the Sea Witch and rule it all!”  Grinning widely, he turned to Azul, his deep blue eyes practically blazing with untampered ambition.  “But to do that, I need those willing to follow me, to do what it takes to get the job done… no matter what it takes.”

He’d been wrong in his earlier assessment.  This was nothing like how Riddle saw Heartslabyul.  This was far worse.  This fool stood as an affront to everything the Sea Witch stood for.  Blunt, blatant use of power wielded like a club rather than a fine scalpel?  Ignorance ruling at the behest of greed always led to destruction.  Be it over hearts, minds, or kingdoms, one couldn’t rule what one didn’t understand. 

“Join me Azul, I can feel your ambition, your power.  Work for me and I’ll help you grow to your full potential.”  Suddenly Glaucous was in his face, leather clad fingers lightly stroking along Azul’s cheek in a tender touch that left the octopus feeling oddly filthy.  “Together, we could rule this school, this kingdom… this world.”

“Together?”  Azul asked, his voice sounding unnaturally loud in the sudden vacuum which followed such a long and self-aggrandizing speech.  Staring into those gleaming, greedy eyes, he couldn’t quite keep from toeing the line just a little.  “So long as I know my place in the pecking order?”

Glaucous’ smile became a twisted parody of its previous tenderness as he cupped that porcelain pale cheek in the palm of his hand.

“Everyone earns their place within Octavinelle.   Nothing is freely given after all.  But… every king needs a queen, and I believe that you have what it takes for such a lofty position.”  Yeah, Azul could just imagine… actually, no he couldn’t; nor did he want to. 

“And what about Mikado?  Isn’t he your queen already?  I doubt he’d take well to being cast aside so easily… or so quickly.”

“Let me worry about Mikado.  All you need to think about is me, and what you can do to make me happy.”  Ugh, was this another courtship thing?  Honestly, as disgusting, and vile as Geel was, he was a far better choice than this ambulatory hunk of hagfish slime.  Humans were just as stupid as mer when they were in season and he couldn’t believe that he’d have to deal with DECADES of this idiocy!

“You’ve given me a lot to think about Prefect Glaucous.”  Azul murmured, taking a step back from the oppressive stink of kin mingling with the growing muskiness of human arousal.  He had to get out of here before he vomited. 

“Indeed I have, and I don’t make this proposal lightly.  Take the time you need, and plan accordingly.  After all, as you said, Mikado won’t take such a loss of power lightly.  Deal with him and prove yourself to be worthy of the power and prestige I’m offering.”

“It is a most generous offer.”

“I’m a most generous leader… to those who please me… and speaking of pleasing me.  Join me for dinner.  I would love to get to know you better.”  As with Geel, the dorm leader couldn’t quite seem to keep from looking Azul up and down, as if remembering what he’d looked like unclothed.  Honestly, had these people never seen another naked human before!?  What was the big deal!?  Ugh!  Fucking mammals!

“I would be honoured Prefect, but as I’m sure you’ve heard, my time has been taken by the Headmaster.  It will be quick meals for me, then scouting the grounds patching holes in fences for the untold future.”  And longer if he could help it.  Anything to keep away from this psychotic barnacle. 

“Yes… I had heard… the Headmater is as lazy as he’s incompetent.  Having a first year be allowed to take the place of a third year’s punishment?  Inconceivable.  I’ll have to speak to Vil regarding such… unattractive behaviour.  Honestly, he and his little brothel should just stick with doing what they do best and look pretty while staying out of everyone else’s business.” 

Honestly, Azul was pretty sure he’d pay good money to see how that conversation went.  He might have only met Vil Schoenheit briefly, but it was a safe bet that he’d tear Glaucous to pieces without getting a single smudge on his impeccable makeup. 

“It’s quite alright.  After all, you said that I had to prove myself worthy.”  Azul smiled, taking another slow step back, more than ready to end this interview.  “Allow me to show you my worth in my own fashion.  I will do my best to earn my place within your glorious empire so that all might see your greatness for what it is.”  Ugh, he was going to either scream or vomit.  It was a race now to see which was going to happen first.  He had to get out of here.

“Very well, as I said, I do so appreciate your ambition.  Impress me, my lovely little queen.”

Taking another step back, Azul paused only long enough to quickly pull the carefully folded list of ingredients required for tomorrows meals out of his pocket and placed it on the desk, doing his best not to touch the corpses of those poor little corals.

“Then I’d best begin.  Great rewards are never earned without great sacrifice, and while it pains me to leave your company and these lovely surroundings, I need to get started on my quest for a most glorious reward indeed.”  Yup, vomit was in the lead.

Nodding his head in a clear dismissal, Glaucous turned his attention to his other “treasures” and as Azul slipped out the door, he was already pulling down the book of dolphin humour.  How perfectly appropriate given how that vile and disgusting meeting had been just one sick and juvenile joke. 

Closing the door behind him, Azul nodded absently to Geel who once again did his best to avoid direct eye contact and headed directly to his room. 

Thankfully, he didn’t run into anyone on his way as most of the dorm residents were no doubt still enjoying the fair and its many distractions.  His mind was still reeling from the meeting and struggling to sort out all the information, both wanted and unnecessary, working out the best possible ways to capitalize on the sheer narcissism of their glorious leader.

Both Floyd and Jade were already undressed when he stormed into their shared room.  Jade had thoughtfully folded their clothes up into a neat square and placed them on one of the desks, pen resting on top, ready to be grabbed at a moment’s notice.  The eels were curled up on the bed, their limbs entangled as they drew comfort from the feel of flesh on flesh and both glanced up lazily at Azul’s entrance, no doubt having heard him stomping his way over from down the hall.

“Welcome back Azul.”  Jade smiled warmly at him, holding out a hand in open invitation to join them in their little knot of flesh.

Ignoring the offer, Azul instead slammed the door shut behind him, then leaned back against it, taking some small measure of comfort from its solid presence.  Drawing his pen from his breast pocket, he quickly cast the strongest silencing spell he knew, then drew in a deep bracing breath.

His scream was loud enough to chase the curious little fish away from their window and cause both eels to leap out of the bed in pure shock, their mismatched eyes wide with alarm.  Pens instantly in hand, they both looked around, trying to locate the source of the danger, but finding none, shared glances of utter confusion with each other.

Azul meanwhile managed to finally run out of breath and slumped back a little more against the door.  How about that?  Screaming had come up from behind and beaten Vomit.  Honestly, it was rather cathartic, and he had a feeling that that scream had been building all day.  Considering that he hadn’t even made it to dinner, that didn’t bode well for what was to come.

“So… how was the meeting?”  He had no idea how Jade managed to keep a straight face, but Azul was seriously considering punching him for it.

Chapter Text

“Oh, the meeting went swimmingly.”  Azul snarled in response to Jade’s question, flashing him a rather murderous look, even as he kicked off his shoes and tugged at his tie while stalking across the room.  “He had his stupid goon harass me, then he waxed poetic while showing off his collection of disgusting trash scavenged from some sort of offshore refuse bins and then… ugh.”  He cut himself off as he tugged the wrong part of the tie, nearly strangling himself. 

Stepping over, Jade braved certain death by calmly batting his hand away from the tightened knot before patiently loosening it, motioning for Azul to continue speaking.

“Calm down.  You’re safe here with us.  Simply tell us what happened, then we’ll go out and tear the skin off those who’ve dared to offend you.”  His smile was soothing, almost tender, though his eyes practically shone with deep concern and barely suppressed rage.  Still, despite his inner fury, he gently removed the tie, then the jacket, sliding it carefully over Azul’s arms before folding it neatly and placing it next to their own on the table.

“Thank you.”  Azul grumbled, not having any energy left to fight.  That scream, as cathartic as it was, had left him feeling somewhat drained and he allowed Jade to unfasten his vest and shirt without protest.  In short order, they joined his jacket with his pen following shortly afterwards.

The cool air of the dorm was soothing on his skin, but what felt better was the sensation of Jade’s fingertips lightly stroking over tense muscles and a plethora of newly discovered bruises.  Before he knew it, he was leaning against the solid body of the eel and nuzzling his chest, wanting to wrap himself in the comforting scent of his skin.

In the utter absence of a proper pot to hide in, losing himself in the grasp of those strong familiar arms would have to do and thankfully, Jade was all too happy to oblige him, though he did flash his brother a look of concern over those soft silver curls.

His concern was shared by that matching gaze and Floyd stepped up, once again lightly brushing his cheek over Azul’s shoulders.  Nibbling affectionately against the back of that slender neck, he enjoyed how those soft silvery curls tickled his nose.  The three were so familiar with each other, that it was impossible to hide the minute tensing at his touch, and noticing this, Floyd frowned, his eyes narrowing.

“Azul has new bruises.”  His voice, while deceptively soft held a rather audible hiss of rapidly building rage.  Pulling away, he lightly brushed his fingers across the reddened skin, feeling the heat radiating from the damaged muscles.  “We’d healed Azul’s bruises from the horsy things, but these are new.”  Gently turning the smaller youth around, Floyd bent down a little and stared intently into those sky blue eyes, knowing that while Azul might weave fantastic worlds crafted out of half truths, he could never lie to the twins.  “Who mushed our octopus?” 

“Geel Buik, a third year.”  Knowing that any attempt at misdirection was a lost cause, Azul replied without hesitation or shame, though disgust was clear in his tone.  “An overgrown kin with an underdeveloped sense of survival, and one who doesn’t know enough to keep his hands to himself.”

“Is he still alive?”  Though furious at the admission, Jade prided himself on being ever practical, though while his voice remained perfectly restrained, his fingers did tighten, digging into Azul’s shoulders hard enough to threaten bruises of their own. 

“He is.”

“Hmph, not for long.  C’mon Jade, it’s time to go hunting.”  Spinning around on his heel, Floyd headed for the door but Azul caught his arm, stopping the eel in his tracks with surprising strength.  Glancing down at the arm in confusion, Floyd didn’t fight the grip but instead regarded his companion thoughtfully.  “Eh?  It’s not like Azul to show mercy, specially if someone hurt you.”  He mused out loud before a cruel smile spread across his face.  “Ooooh, Azul has something nasty in mind?”

“That depends on how he reacts to my advice.”  Releasing the captive arm, Azul shifted in Jade’s arms just enough to be able to look at the confused expressions on both of the twins faces. “I want you both to watch him, feel free to be obvious about it if you want, but don’t lay a hand on him…yet.”  Matching predatory smiles met his words.

“Yet”  Jade murmured softly.

“We watching for anything in particular, or just making him paranoid?”  Floyd stepped back to the other two, wrapping his arms around them once more and taking a moment to nibble affectionately on both their shoulders, his eyes never leaving theirs.  “Azul sounds like he’s up to something.  That’s Azul’s plotting smile.”

“Watch him, watch the other seniors as well.  Make sure their bullying doesn’t escalate.  If they hurt any of the first years or lay a hand on them in any way that isn’t acceptable, I want to know immediately.”

“Acceptable… Hmm…something happened at the meeting.”  Floyd’s eyes narrowed.  “What did Boneworm do?”

“There was the intimation that those who wish to rise in the ranks within Octavinelle can do so in a variety of ways.  Some less pleasant than others, and one which was… colourfully suggested was by mating with senior students in Glaucous’ favour.”

“Eh?  But it’s not mating season… and we’re all guys.  It’s not like anything is gonna be accomplished other than a lot of murky water… ooooh, the dangly things!  HA!  I knew they were up to something!”  Letting go of the other two, Floyd slapped his fist into the palm of his hand, crowing in victory while looking far too pleased with himself.  Jade on the other hand studied Azul with an expression which grew markedly darker. 

“Did Glaucous try to mate with you?”  He asked, causing Floyd to stiffen and stare in horror even as Azul shuddered at the memory of how those looks had made him feel as if he were covered in hagfish slime.

“He… made it clear that it would be in my best political interests to do so.”  Azul ground out through gritted teeth.  “He went on and on about me becoming his queen and all the benefits to being at his side, as if natural urges could be bought or traded.  Ugh, are humans so desperate and cheap?!  What was worse was the whole time he spoke, he stared at me as if he was remembering how I looked naked.  I just don’t understand these creatures!” 

“First he wants you dressed, then he wants you undressed?  Humans are stupid.”  Floyd growled, then reached out, pulling Azul out of Jade’s arms and into his own, hugging him tightly.  Rather than struggle, the octopus not only permitted the manhandling, he welcomed it, wrapping his arms around Floyd and holding him tightly.

“And it would be safe to assume that you have no interest in mating with him?”  Jade watched the two of them with thoughtful concern, taking this chance to finished folding up Azul’s shirt, placing it on top of the rest of his clothing.  While he had no doubt that Azul genuinely enjoyed physical contact with the two of them, he was rarely so desperately clingy.  To see him brought to this level twice in one day said a great deal towards the level of stress he was under, though it was some small measure of consolation to see that his little octopus still had enough ferocity left to flash him a mildly murderous glare in lieu of answering his question.  “I shall take that as a no.”

“I’d chew off my own hectocotylus’ before allowing them to touch that bottom feeder.”

“Yeah, but you don’t have them in this body, you just got a little dangly thing like the rest of us.”  Floyd pointed out, earning a sharp bite from Azul on his shoulder.  “Ow!  No fair biting me when I’m being all comforting!”

“You were not, you were teasing which makes this fair game.  There is no way that I’m touching that boneworm with any part of my body and that’s disgusting of you to suggest it.”

“Good.”  Jade murmured, reaching over and running his fingers through both their hair.  “I rather like having you all to ourselves.”  His words clearly struck a chord with Floyd because his twin eagerly nodded his head in agreement before resuming nuzzling Azul and making happy sounds in the back of his throat.  “You’re our octopus.”  He clarified with a smile and nuzzled Azul’s cheek when he was met with a rather dazzling smile.  “And we’re your eels.  Nothing is going to come between that.”

“Not if they want to live.”  Floyd finished, favouring said cephalopod with another little nip before shifting his grip and picking Azul up in his arms and tossing him onto the bed, ignoring his indignant squawk as he bounced on the soft mattress.  “Now it’s time to cuddle Azul.  He’s all tense and clingier than usual and that means that our octopus is upset, so it’s up to us to fix it.”

“I will NOT be manhandled like some toy of yours Floyd!”

“Step one in comforting the octopus is to distract it so it doesn’t bite.”  Floyd continued with a wide playful grin.  “Has Azul looked inside his glove yet?  I gave you a treat when I helped you up after the horseys tried to mush you.”  

“What are you talking about?”  Azul grumbled, not sure he was appreciating this game, but vaguely remembering something being slipped under his glove.  In his defense, a lot had been happening and he hadn’t really been paying much attention to what he’d taken to be just more of Floyd’s general strangeness.  Since then, he’d simply gotten used to the odd feeling of something pressing against his palm and had honestly forgotten about it amidst all the other distractions of the day. 

Giving the inordinately proud looking eel an odd look, Azul cautiously pulled off his gloves and felt his breath catch in his throat as a large thick golden coin fell onto the mattress between them.

“You… that’s…”  For the second time today, he was at a loss for words as he stared at the beautiful gleaming coin.  Reaching out a hand, he gingerly picked it up, noticing its weight and the delicate engravings on its face of a rather stern looking man on one side, then a long and fierce looking striped animal on the other.  It was an exquisite piece and in much better shape than the coins which usually made up his collection, granted, this one hadn’t spent an untold amount of time at the bottom of the ocean.

“The little noisy guy said he had lots, and that he wanted to make his friends happy.  He’d also said that Azul was a friend, so I figured he wouldn’t mind making Azul happy.”  Floyd chirped, rather pleased with the smile on the face of his companion.

“Odd.”  Jade mused out loud.  “I don’t remember him giving you one.”

“Doesn’t matter.”  His twin didn’t look at all bothered by the gentle accusation of thievery.  “It made Azul happy.”  Shooting his brother a wide grin, he hopped onto the bed and proceeded to wrap himself around the suddenly much more compliant Azul.  “And it distracted him.  Step two is taking advantage of the octopus’ distraction for optimum snuggles.”  His voice grew muffled as he buried his face into Azul’s side, wrapping his arms tightly around the smaller youth who was still staring at the coin in absolute delight, turning it around in his fingers so he could watch how the dim light of the room reflected across its surface.

“At least finish getting undressed if you’re going to do that.”  Jade couldn’t help but roll his eyes in amusement as he sat down on the bed next to them, sliding his fingertips along Azul’s chest, then down his brother’s arm.  “I’m tired of feeling cloth between us.”  Unsurprisingly, he was being completely ignored by both, leaving him to be the one to unfasten Azul’s belt and buttons, then carefully slide the clothing down his legs.  At least Azul was helpful enough to lift his hips up off the bed, then his feet, leaving Jade thankful that he’d simply grabbed all the layers in one go.

As tempting as it was to simply throw the clothing onto the floor and join them, he could tell that the pants would wrinkle, and looking anything less than impeccable would result in Azul being further annoyed, undoing all the good Floyd was doing in relaxing him.

Only once everything was perfectly folded did Jade join the other two on the bed, pleased that they both readily shifted to make room for him.  Azul even wrapped one leg around him, tugging him closer as he snuggled deeper into their embrace, though his eyes remained on the coin, like the greedy little fiend that he was.

“Look at the craftsmanship on the relief.”  He murmured, showing it off to the twins, neither of which could be less interested, though Jade at least gave an appreciative hum as he nuzzled Azul’s throat, enjoying how soft the skin there was.  “I wonder what sort of creature this is.  It looks impressive what with those teeth and claws.  Do you think Ruggie would know?  We should ask him tonight when we’re at SavanaclAW!”  His voice shifted into a sharp yelp of surprise as Floyd nipped at the pale pink nipple on his chest, grinning shamelessly at the reaction.

“Eh?  Azul should stop babbling about the shiny coin and pay more attention to us or I’ll bite this little nubby thing.”  His smile was as wicked as it was threatening.  “Here Jade and I are being really snuggly and you’re ignoring us.”  Despite his warning, Floyd didn’t look at all upset, in fact, he reached over and lightly poked at the stiffening pink flesh, enjoying how it made Azul squirm and gasp.  “Wonder why humans have these.  I thought they were just spots before, but look, it’s growing just like our dangly things… neat!”

“I did NOT give you permission to play with my spots.”  Azul growled and batted at Floyd’s hands, only to have his own caught by Jade.

“Now now Azul, it’s only fair.”  He gently chided the smaller youth.  “After all, you got to explore my body this morning, now it’s Floyd’s turn.  Or are you denying our quest for knowledge?

“I’m not denying any…anything.”  Azul sputtered, gasping softly as Floyd once against nibbled at the sensitive flesh, causing nerves deep inside his body to spark to life.  It was as if that simple touch had caused a chain reaction in his body and everything tingled around the strange warm wetness of Floyd’s lips.  How that combination of heat, moisture and pressure turned a simple touch into something so… mind searingly pleasurable defied description, and the sensations didn’t stop there.  They caused everything to almost sparkle and tighten in a line down his body until it all pooled into the most interesting sort of heat in his groin.  “I just… we… we have homework.”  His voice sounded so breathy and soft that he almost didn’t recognize it, but at this moment, he couldn’t quite bring himself to care.

Floyd had bitten, licked and nibbled him countless times without eliciting such a reaction, which meant that this had to be something about their human bodies and these strange pink spots on his chest.  They were clearly some sort of strange sensory organ, nearly as sensitive as his suckers, but in such different ways! 

Worse, the feeling was spreading out from inside him, making his entire body hum pleasantly with every touch, causing his breath to quicken and his heart to pound. 

There really was no mer equivalent to this sensation, at least none that he could think of.  Granted, it was rapidly growing harder and harder to think with every passing moment… and speaking of things growing harder, he could feel a tightening in his groin as his penis grew firm in response to the pleasure.  Yes… definitely a human thing… one that didn’t seem to be quite so bad as far as weird biological surprises went… was this why they were all so obsessed with mating? 

“Would you really rather be doing homework?”  Jade all but purred, sliding his fingers down the length of Azul’s body, enjoying the interplay of muscles beneath fine flesh as he twisted and writhed between them.  “You do seem to be enjoying yourself.”  His hand slid lower, teasing trembling thighs and admiring how that flawlessly smooth skin trembled so enticingly.

“M…my head is spinning.”  Azul murmured dreamily, his voice growing husky with desire, causing the twins to groan softly in growing hunger for something much more interesting than mere food.

“Mmmm Azul tastes delicious.”  Floyd chuckled softly, savouring the taste of that soft skin and the soft gasps his touch coaxed from those darkening lips.  “And he makes the cutest little sounds.”  He couldn’t help but add as he traced along the fine line of tendons along that slender throat with his tongue, his fingers stroking across the now firm flesh of those maddening twin spots, toying with the little swollen nubs in their center.  “Maybe we’ll forget about dinner and just nibble all night on Azul.”

“Dinner…”  Something about dinner… something that brought up bad memories of hagfish slime being smeared on his skin, of a vile stink filling his nose and a hungry smile that twisted his stomach, turning his pleasure to disgust. “Dinner!”  The pleasant sounds emanating from Azul immediately faded and he suddenly sat up, pushing the twins aside as he hissed softly to himself, squeezing the coin in the palm of one hand while the other covered his mouth.  His previously prettily flushed skin now seemed to pale and take on an almost greenish hue.  “I’d almost forgotten…We’re going to just be having a quick dinner tonight… and every other night I can manage it.”

“Eh?  Wha?  We were just getting to the good part.”  Floyd whined in annoyance, glaring up at the rather sick looking octopus.  “I wanted to see Azul explode like a sea cucumber.”  This time, when he reached over to Azul, his hand was knocked away with much more force than before as the object of his attention moved to get up off the bed.

Stopping him with a gentle hand placed on his shoulder, Jade gave the confusing youth a curious look, struggling to understand the sudden change in mood.  Had they not been having fun and enjoying these new pleasures?

“One would think that being newly promoted to Kitchen Manager, you wouldn’t wish to hide from your new position and the work it entailed.  That doesn’t exactly sound like you.”  He let his concern bleed into his voice and made note of the fact that Azul didn’t quite meet his eyes, even though he did relax back down into the bed.

“I’m not avoiding my work.  I’m avoiding dinner itself.”

“Those two shrimp sticks were hardly enough to throw off your dietary requirement for the day, Azul.”

“I’ll eat.”  How eyes as blue as glacial ice could hold so much heat, Jade would never know, but he could feel the power of behind the glare as they met his gaze.  “I’ll just do it in the kitchen while we work.  We mustn’t be late for our duel after all.”  It was an empty excuse and they all knew it.

Why’s that?  Azul is the kitchen manager, so you gotta manage the kitchen… Can’t do that if you’re eating, and you have to eat all the tasty food we all make.  It’s no fun otherwise.”  Floyd pouted, looking both confused at Azul’s words, and still rather annoyed that his fun had come to a stop. 

“Its simple really.”  Azul hissed at them both.  “Glaucous wants to have dinner with me, and I get the feeling that this is part of some courtship ritual that I’d rather have nothing to do with.” 

“Ah.”  Jade breathed out the word, attempting to expel the flash of white hot rage he felt stir in his guts at the idea of anyone making Azul feel so uncomfortable.  “And if you refuse, you insult him, which will make our efforts here that much more difficult.”  Though he nodded his head slightly in understanding, his eyes narrowed dangerously.

“Exactly.  I can’t alienate him.  At least not yet.”  Azul continued, too wrapped up in his incessant plotting to notice Jade’s reaction, allowing the eel the time he needed to properly school his face back into a gentle and benign mask.  “We don’t have the strength to overpower him and hold power in the dorm.  We need to win enough of them over first so they’ll want to follow us.  It will make our victory all encompassing, and his defeat so much better… so much more… satisfying.”  There was a definite growl behind his words which spoke of a love of overblown revenge far beyond anything either of the twins could match. 

“So wait, we don’t even get to eat?  This sucks.  I wanted to eat more human food.  It’s really tasty!  Even if the texture is all weird and dry.”  Floyd whined loudly.

“We will Floyd, we’re not going to starve, but for now, it’s better to have the rest of the students see our great sacrifice, how we’re heading out into danger to keep them safe.”  Azul’s sly smile spoke of plans within plans already forming in his devious mind.  “We’ll take Carmine with us.  It will give us a chance to see how he is in a fight, and even if it’s just for the one night, he’ll no doubt talk to the other first years about how we’re not only fighting for the protection of all first years, but also hunting down a vicious beast at the behest of the Headmaster.  We’ll be campus heroes by weeks end.  Hmph, that alone will earn us their admiration and respect.  Seeing us missing inner however…” He smiled slyly.

“That show everyone how dedicated we are, not to mention, it will earn us a respectable amount of pity as well.”  Jade nodded his head in agreement.  “So we appeal to all ranges of intellect within the student body.  Simple, yet brilliant.”  He allowed himself a slight chuckle as he drank in the sheer delight of having his devious octopus back in fighting form.  “All of them can relate to our many sacrifices, and best of all, this understanding will come from their own observations rather than us directly.  In doing so, you don’t alienate Glaucous, keeping that option open if need be.”

“Hey!  No!  No Boneworm option!”  Floyd grabbed onto Azul and hugged him tightly.  “Azul has made it clear that the Boneworm is gross and I don’t like him.”

“Air Floyd… I need to breathe!”  The octopus managed to gasp out as he felt his ribs fuse together from the force of the embrace, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to push the protective eel away, rather touched by his protective instincts. 

“I’m not saying that he actually-”

As seemed to be the ever-growing norm, the awkward moment was shattered by a somewhat timid sounding knock at their door.  Jade was more than willing to ignore it in favour of soothing his brother’s sudden burst of temper, but Floyd flashed them both a thoroughly evil grin and hopped off the bed, jostling both of them roughly in the process. 

“I’ll get it!”  He announced loudly, as if that fact wasn’t already blatantly obvious.  Jade did take a moment to open his mouth in order to point out that his brother was currently naked, but he decided against it.  No doubt Floyd was already fully aware of that fact and simply wanted to amuse himself with making another person uncomfortable.  While not an optimal plan, it would keep him happy and give him a feeling of being back in control of their current situation.

In the end, the reasons hardly mattered, and when Azul chose to return to reclining back onto the bed, snuggling himself up against Jade, he found himself caring less and less with every passing moment.  After all, one had to have their priorities in order…

“Oh, it’s only Carmine.”  Floyd huffed in disappointment as he stared down at the shocked youth.  Jade was hard pressed to keep from snickering, and judging by the twitching of Azul’s lips, he wasn’t the only one.

“And your naked again!”  Carmine announced perhaps a tad louder than was necessary.  “You can’t answer the door naked!”

“Sure I can!”  Jade could practically hear Floyd rolling his eyes.  “I just did.  It was easy!”  And that would be the sound of Carmine grinding his teeth in frustration.

“No… I mean you shouldn’t open the door naked.”

“Eh?  Why not?  Wasn’t aware there was a dress code.  Besides, it’s just you.”

“Well, you had no way of knowing it was me, did you?  What if I’d been the Headmaster?”  Upon saying that, Carmine stepped into the room and looked around.  Jade could hear the sharply indrawn breath which stated that he and Azul had been spotted on the bed and Carmine immediately dropped to the floor, and began blubbering out apologies, no doubt expecting to have another fireball thrown at his head. 

“Eh, the Headmaster has already seen us naked.”  Floyd shrugged, closing the door and walking back over to the bed.  “Besides, I knew it was the little fishie.  I could smell you.”  That response seemed to cause Carmine to tense up even more, which was something Jade had previously thought to be impossible.  Honestly, the boy was even worse than Jamil.  The thought of the two of them, side by side, quivering with righteous indignation was simply too much and Jade couldn’t quite keep from snickering in a rather juvenile fashion.  It was endlessly amusing, how sensitive this little human was to simple facts.

“You’re not supposed to say things like that!”

“Ugh, Don’t answer the door naked, don’t talk about smelling people.  You humans have a lot of rules you don’t tell people about.  It’s stupid.”

“Well… they’re sort of self explanatory.  No one wants to see you naked after all.”

“Eh?  Why not?  I never wore clothes before coming here.  Jade and Azul don’t mind, and their opinions are the only ones that matter.”  Realizing that Floyd had been about as reasonable as he was going to be given the current situation and mood, Jade gave Azul an apologetic little nuzzle, then sat up and smiled at the endlessly frustrated human, enjoying how hard he was trying to keep his eyes just on the eel’s face rather than anywhere else on his body.

“So, Carmine… by our contract, we’re friends now, correct?”  He smiled at the boy, enjoying how Azul shifted so that he was now rather comfortably draped against Jade’s side, chin resting on his shoulder even as Floyd flopped back down next to them and proceeded to resume snuggling Azul’s legs.

“Y…yes?”  Heh, clever enough to sense the trap but not enough to know how to avoid it.  Truly, this little human was an adorable little pet.

“And friends help out friends with problems?”  The octopus picked up Jade’s conversational tail with his usual effortlessness, flashing the boy a brilliant smile.

“Oh Founders…Is this about that fight?  I heard there was going to be a fight.”

“Fancy a trip to Savanaclaw?”

 

 

“So… this is how we die.”  Carmine muttered under his breath as the quartet stared at the imposing sandstone fortress which made up the Savanaclaw dorm.  Carved out of the living rock of the mountainside, it offered nothing in the way