"Now, just where're your eyes lookin' at, Quinn? Can't be the new crew member, can it?"
You stiffen, quickly shifting your gaze back onto Arlen's face, and, more importantly, your concentration back onto the small card game you're playing to pass the slow afternoon. The black-haired man has a mischievous grin aimed at you, and his expressive eyebrows are quirked in amusement. He's always been too sharp to fool.
"Looking at Sam, weren't ya?" he asks, though he's sure to know the answer already.
You stay quiet and choose instead to carefully place a card down.
"Worried about the kid?" Arlen continues, flicking a card out quick as lightning. It's as if he's barely thinking about what he's putting down while you deliberate over your choices for a lengthy amount of time.
You scratch your chin, ignoring Arlen's pestering. It's vexing how your eyes are drawn to Sam's every move, how just hearing the boy's voice makes you turn your head to search for that sandy mop of hair. You two haven't talked much since the first day, mostly because you've been busy helping the cook. Despite that, you've managed to get an idea of what the boy's been up to: neglecting mop duty and leaving poor Jonathan to fend for himself.
The only reason, you suppose, that the captain hasn't gotten on Sam's case about it is because the boy's been running around helping out with other chores. He's passed by you once or twice, but he's never helped out in the kitchen. You're not sure if you're disappointed or glad not to be caught up in the boy's fiery personality.
"Quinn?" Arlen's voice brings you back to the game. You frown down at your hand and sigh.
"Pass," you mutter.
"Ha! Ya keep worryin' about little kids, and see what comes of it? You lose miserably to me!" Arlen proclaims triumphantly, sending out combination after combination that you can't follow up on, until he runs out of cards.
"Mmhm." You nod, halfheartedly mixing your cards into the pile before gathering them all to clean up.
Arlen leans back against the wall, and you keep your head down because you don't want to meet his questioning stare.
"Really, Quinn? Nothin' else to say?" he jokes, swiping the deck away from your hands and putting it in a small leather pouch.
"I'm going to win next time."
Arlen laughs as he tucks the pouch into his belt. He usually waits until nobody's looking to put his things away just to be safe, but you've never tried to pick his pockets or anything, so he's less careful around you.
He opens his mouth, but whatever he's trying to say is interrupted by the captain's threat to have the lot of you flogged if you keep sitting around gossiping like a bunch of women at the market.
"Ah that'll be the end of our break then, Quinn." Arlen, with hands on his thighs, grudgingly gets to his feet and salutes his goodbye. You watch with a mix of apprehension and amusement as he strolls past the captain and amiably slaps his back. The captain whirls around --you catch the look of outrage on his face --and shouts out all sorts of curses and swears, some of which you haven't ever heard.
"If I did that, I'd have gotten the whip for sure," a voice says from behind you. You peek over your shoulder, and quickly avert your eyes despite yourself.
"He let 'im off easy!" continues Sam, grumbling under his breath.
"They're friends. From the same town." Shamed by how fast you avoided his eyes just now, you turn around and see that he's carrying two big buckets of water. The daily ration size for the other sailors on the ship.
It's surprising at first how much stronger the boy is than he actually looks, but then you step closer and see how his skinny arms are trembling ever so slightly.
"What unfair treatment," he mutters, his lip curling in mock disdain.
"Arlen's a good man," you say plainly, reaching out for one of the buckets.
It's a subtle movement, but he pulls his hands away. You lower your arm and say nothing of it, though disappointment is curling up in the pit of your stomach.
"Good or nice? There's a great difference there," he says bitterly, turning his back on you and walking away, his balance undisturbed by those heavy buckets. His back is straight, his posture steady. Makes you forget his short stature, and that seemingly weak, small frame.
Though you remember all too easily his questioning of your friend's integrity.
"Ha! He really said such a thing?" Arlen says, chuckling quietly to himself.
The room is loud with the many conversations from the other sailors, and with the clink of dishes. It stinks heavily of fish, but after years of sailing, you've gotten used to it.
"Why aren't you the first mate?" you ask, making sure to lower your already soft voice.
"Me? First mate?" He makes a noise of disbelief. "All I'm good for is my eyes."
It's not true at all. Arlen keeps a steady rapport with everyone on board the ship. He somehow manages to get along with even the coldest of the mercenaries that the captain's hired to help protect the cargo.
If he was the first mate, would Sam still see it as unfair? You sigh, staring down at your half-finished meal. You know you'll be hungry later, but worrying so much makes you lose your appetite.
Arlen finishes his food without a complaint. He gets up, pats your shoulder and whispers, "Eat your dinner now, Quinn, or mama'll get mad." He nods towards the captain and grins mischievously. Worries aside, you smile slightly. You're a pretty tall man; you tower over Arlen and you have a few inches on the captain. Doesn't make the man any less intimidating.
Whistling lightly, Arlen goes off to join the other crew members in their games. He's a fun-loving man, and you can't begrudge him for it.
You scan the room for Sam, only to see him already stepping out of the room. The boy, probably not used to the rowdiness during mealtime, has been making a habit of getting out as soon as possible. It's a good chance to talk with him alone.
Scarfing down the rest of your food, you get up and gently elbow your way through the crowd, almost wrestling yourself to the exit. A glance backwards and you catch Arlen's eye. The man makes a small, but encouraging, hand gesture before he flicks his raven-black hair with a smirk and goes back to his game. Really, you can't tell what that man is thinking half the time.
The cool, salty breeze is a welcome change from the stuffy quarters below. You can see why Sam's always in such a hurry to come here.
It's easy to spot the boy; the deck is almost empty, save for a few watchful soldiers. You nod to them as you walk past, and they nod back, polite but distant. Sam is standing by the bow of the ship, leaning forward in a rather precarious manner. Worried for his life, you rush over to him, keeping your steps audible so he doesn't become startled by the sudden sound of your voice.
"Is that you, Quinn?" he asks. Closer now, you can see what he's looking at: the bow of the ship cutting through the seemingly endless stretch of water.
"Yes," you answer, taking the final step to his side.
"It's strange. It's only been a few days, but I can already recognize your footsteps. You're the only one who treads so heavily."
Is he telling you that you're some lumbering fool of a giant who stomps everywhere he goes?
"Be careful near the edge," you warn, choosing to not take his words to be offensive.
Sam straightens himself, and then he looks up at you with a wry smile on his face, his amber eyes narrowed slightly.
"You didn't come here to say just that to me, did you?"
There's no use in lying, so you shake your head slowly.
"It's about your friend, Arlo, right?" he says before you can even begin to explain yourself.
"Yes, that's his name. Arlen." He lowers his voice to a whisper and repeats Arlen's name over and over again to himself, as if it'll help him remember.
"Sam." Suddenly, all his attention is on you, and it's unnerving. Your tongue feels weighed down; you pause to think of what to say. "What do you think of Arlen?"
"He's everybody's friend, ain't he? If I speak ill of him, you'd gladly throw me overboard," Sam grumbles, turning his glare on the watery depths of the sea.
"I'm...more reasonable than that."
"Fine then! I hate Arlen! I can't stand that man!" Sam exclaims.
He's like a petulant child throwing a tantrum over nothing. You tilt your head and raise an eyebrow at him, waiting for him to elaborate.
As if he can hear what you're thinking, all the anger on Sam's face drains away and he's left looking embarrassed and deflated.
"I apologize, Quinn."
"I suppose you're wondering why I'm being so touchy over this?" Sam asks hesitantly, though he plows ahead without waiting for your response. "The people on this ship look at me as if I'm in the way, even when I'm helping them. It's not so different from how it usually is, so I suppose I should be accustomed to it. Arlen though...he has so much respect while all he does is watch these seas."
It makes sense. Honestly, you were skeptical about the captain hiring a boy Sam's size at first, but now, you know Sam's capable of more than he looks.
"They'll come to their senses sooner or later," you mumble. It's awkward encouragement, but it's enough because Sam's determined smile is back.
"They'd better, or I might just throw them overboard! I'll let them spend some nice time with the mermaids!" He sounds as if he'll start cackling at any moment, but he calms down almost immediately. "I do wonder if there are mermaids. If the captain does want me off this ship in the future, I'd like to see one before then..."
It's taken a while for you to notice, but Sam's language, which is usually just as coarse as that of any other sailor, has reverted to a slightly more sophisticated accent.
You think nothing of it. Instead, you nod blankly to everything Sam says. Slowly, his pleasant, lilting words coupled with the cadenced crash of waves against the bow of the ship carry away your restless thoughts.