Checking over his shoulder one last time, Lance darted into the secret passageway. It took a bit of maneuvering to dart through the hidden channel in the rock, but he popped out into open water after a few seconds and took a deep breath as his warming charm kicked in. Expelling a few bubbles from his nose, he oriented himself after them and headed up towards the surface. The way to his favourite rock was practically muscle memory by now, and he flicked his head back as he breached the surface to keep his hair out of his eyes. The rock was coarse as ever under his fingers, and he pulled himself almost halfway out of the water to lie on it.
The beach was a ways away, far enough that it was rare anyone tried to swim out to his rock, but he could still make out the humans there. He recognized most of them from his years observing their world, the sunbathers and volleyball players and families making sand castles. One local boy, at least he was pretty sure it was a boy, was towing a smaller boy by the wrist. Lance didn’t recognize the smaller boy, and couldn’t help but giggle to himself at the atrocity which was his hair. It looked like someone had gotten halfway through cutting his hair and then given up.
The boys were carrying surfboards, and as they paddled out Lance pushed off the rock and sank down into the water. His eyes refocused quickly, and on a whim he trailed after them. He’d watched the familiar boy surf before, and it always looked like so much fun, even on the pitiful excuses for waves they had up here on the surface. Lance settled on a submerged rock, and watched as the local boy’s large brown feet vanished out of the water up onto his board. One of the paler boy’s feet left Lance’s field of vision, and then the surfboards were moving. The one with the local on top surged forwards, but the other boy was dumped in the water. A large burst of bubbles escaped his mouth as he tumbled with the wave, and then he struck his surfboard and a larger burst came out. He went limp, his eyes shut, and began to sink.
His whole life, Lance had been told never to interact with humans. They were cruel, vicious creatures with no empathy for anyone different from them. But this one sinking right now looked no older than he was, perhaps even younger, though not as young as the last child whose life he’d saved. Human or no, Lance couldn’t just let him drown. He shot forward with a flick of his tail, diving after the human, and locked lips with the boy. Instead of drawing air into his lungs, he exhaled the oxygen straight into the human’s mouth, forcing water out of his nose as they shot towards the surface.
The human stirred, coughing out huge bubbles of air, and Lance took a quick breath for himself before forcing more oxygen into the human’s lungs. Despite the human’s struggling, he didn’t pull away until they broke the surface. The human hacked out a rough cough, feet flailing below water just to keep himself afloat, and Lance couldn’t help but stare as dark eyes met his own.
Then his brain kicked back into gear, and he realized a human was staring at him. A squeak escaped his lips, and he dove back underwater. That was enough human-watching for today. He’d just, go hang out with his friends or something. Hunt for oysters and see if they could find any with pearls, dare each other to touch jellyfish and race sharks. Normal, stupid shit everyone expected from prospective guards. Yeah, he’d go do that. Just as soon as his heart stopped racing like it was about to beat its way out of his chest.
“I’m telling you, Hunk!” Keith insisted as they dragged their surfboards up onto the beach. Or, well, he dragged his and Hunk carried his over one shoulder like it weighed nothing. “Somebody saved me.”
“And I’m telling you, we were the only ones out there.” his new friend retorted with a roll of his eyes. “Come on, it’s a miracle you managed to keep treading water with a head wound like that. We need to get you some first aid.” Hunk gestured with his free hand, and Keith adjusted his grip on the board Hunk had loaned him.
“That’s the thing, I didn’t.” he dropped his board next to the sand castle two of Hunk’s sisters had built. “Someone caught me underwater, blew air into my lungs, and pulled me up to the surface.”
“And where did they go, after saving you?” Hunk challenged. “You were alone with your board when I got back.”
“I don’t know!” Keith threw up his hands, and sat down in the sand at an insistent gesture from Hunk. “He just ducked underwater and didn’t come back up.”
“Maybe it was the merman!” one of Hunk’s sisters chirped, giving Keith a smile as Hunk fished out a bottle of water from the bag.
“Kalie, there’s no such thing as merfolk.” Hunk said, his tone implying it was a conversation they’d had before.
“What’s this merman look like?” Keith asked as Hunk parted his hair, presumably trying to expose the cut.
“He’s all brown, but he’s got really blue eyes.” Kalie said, turning to face him completely. “And when he saved me, he made a squeak like this!” she let out a short, shrill noise, and Tria smacked her over the head with a plastic sand mold.
“Mermaids aren’t real, dummy. You washed up on that rock because you got lucky.”
Keith winced as Hunk started pouring the clean water on his cut, then chewed his lip as he considered what Kalie had said. The boy who’d saved him had been paler than Hunk, but not by all that much, with dark brown hair and inhumanly blue eyes. He let Hunk bend his head down, and tried to think about those few seconds of consciousness before his head had broken the surface. The chest pressed against his had felt strange, and when he’d kicked his legs he hadn’t hit his saviour’s knees or shins.
“Shit, man, I think you’re gonna need stitches.” Hunk muttered, and Tria whined.
“But we just got here!” she complained.
“Yeah, and if Mom finds out I left you two alone she’s gonna skin me alive.” Hunk retorted. “Pack up, I’m gonna go grab some napkins so Keith’s not bleeding all over the place.”
The girls grumbled, and Keith resisted the urge to rub at the back of his head. “I think you’re right, you know.” he said, and both girls looked at him. “I think it was a merman who saved me.”
“Yes!” Kalie cheered, jumping up and punching her fist in the air.
“Keeeeith!” Tria whined. “You’re a big kid, you’re not supposed to believe in that stuff anymore!”
“I didn’t.” Keith shrugged and Kalie started cheerfully rolling up the towel. “But nothing else makes sense.”
“You don’t make sense.” Tria huffed, and went back to sullenly stuffing her beach toys back in a bag.
“She’s just mad cuz Max is home sick and can’t agree with her an’ Hunk to outvote us.” Kalie beamed at him.
“The Goldbergs offered to give us a lift.” Hunk said as he trotted up, what looked like half a dispenser worth of napkins clutched in one hand. “Girls, bring your sh- stuff to their car. Keith, you follow them. I’ll catch up with the boards.”
“Okay!” the girls chorused, Kalie cheerfully and Tria sullenly.
“Here.” Hunk pressed about half the wad of napkins to Keith’s scalp, and he winced as the pressure reignited what had become a background pain. “Hold these in place, and if they soak through add these.” he handed Keith the remainder of the stack, and once Keith’s hand was firmly on the napkins he nodded. “Great. ” Hunk said, patting him on the shoulder. “Girls?”
“C’mon.” Kalie beamed, grabbing Keith’s free wrist. “The parking lot’s this way.”
Keith decided not to mention that he knew perfectly well which way the parking lot was, and instead let Hunk’s sister lead him away from the ocean. He’d have to come back, and soon. He needed to thank whatever, whoever, had saved him.
Keith rubbed at his head with a grimace as he dragged Hunk’s old surfboard towards the waves. It had taken three days after the surgery to get his foster dad to let him go back to the beach, and when he’d shown up at Hunk’s in his swim trunks his friend had handed him a piece of flat red silicone. Or, well, he’d thought it was flat until he’d accepted it and realized what it was. Now it prickled against his newly-buzzed patch of hair, and pinched at the edges, and even after only a few minutes he could hardly wait until his stitches were out. He was going to put this thing through an industrial strength shredder, and then maybe go throw it in a fucking volcano for good measure.
“Hey, Hunk?” he asked, looking over his shoulder as he stepped into the surf, bringing the front end of the board with him.
“Hmm?” Hunk looked over from watching two of his sisters bury the third in sand.
“Lava’s got silica in it, right?”
“Yeah. The stuff around here doesn’t have much, though.” he fell silent for a few seconds, then gave Keith a suspicious look. “Why do you ask?”
“Trying to figure out if I can dump the remains of this thing in a lava flow like the world’s worst confetti once I get my stitches out.”
Hunk stared at him for a solid half second, then burst out laughing. “Oh, man. I mean you probably shouldn’t, but it’d be funny as hell.”
“I’m gonna do it.” Keith declared as he finally got the back and of the board into the water and floating free of the sand. “I’m gonna use Mr. Cusinotta’s shredder to turn this thing into confetti, and then I’m gonna watch it burn.”
“Are you sure that thing can even handle a swim cap, though?” Hunk asked as Keith straddled his borrowed board and they started paddling out. “I mean, it’s a lot thicker than paper, and I jammed a shredder with a DBQ packet once so I know they can’t chew through anything like they do in movies.”
“He’s got an industrial strength one.” Keith said with a grin. “Let me shred a CD in it once. All I’ve gotta do is cut the sides, and it’ll go down just fine.” he gestured
“Can I be there to watch?” Hunk grinned.
“Don’t see why not.” Keith shrugged. “Hey, if you bake something we can make a day of it. Shred this piece of shit, go have a lava-side picnic, and watch some rubber confetti melt.”
“You’ll have to remind me closer to the big day.” Hunk chuckled. “I’ll make something special for the occasion.”
Keith opened his mouth to say Hunk’s cooking was always special, but motion below the surface caught his eye. At first glance he almost thought it was a dolphin, but then he realized it was too long. Too long, and far too human-looking on the other end. “Hey!” he yelled, and dove off his surfboard as much as one could dive off of something they were straddling.
Water closed over his head, and he blinked against the slight sting of it in his eyes as he spun in place. It was the boy from yesterday; or, more accurately, the merman from yesterday. He seemed frozen in place as Keith exhaled slightly, sinking to his level to grab his wrist. He gestured towards the surface, and the merman didn’t resist being towed along up towards where Hunk floated with their surfboards. He took a deep breath as he breached the surface, and slung one arm over his borrowed board.
“I was right.” he said triumphantly, lifting the merman’s hand up out of the water. He’d started to doubt his memory, after the stitches and painkillers, but here was irrefutable proof. Or, here would be irrefutable proof if the merman would just stick his head above the water for a second.
“Um, what?” Hunk frowned.
“One sec.” Keith ducked back underwater, and unhooked his arm from around the board to gesture for the merman to surface with him. He did, and Keith gave Hunk a shit-eating grin. “Hunk, meet the merman who saved my life after I got clocked by a surfboard.”
“Holy shit.” Hunk breathed, and Keith felt the merman’s tail flick against his shin.
“I’m Keith, by the way.” he told the merman. “What’s your name?”
The merman opened his mouth, and a sound which didn’t seem to even have letters came out.
“Whoa.” Hunk’s eyes were so wide, Keith wondered if they’d pop out of his head. “Okay, merman sounds more plausible now.”
Keith’s head snapped back to the merman, who seemed to have recovered from his shock some. The merman cleared his throat. “Do not know word.” he said softly. “In-” he made another unpronounceable sound, and Keith found himself staring.
“How do you do that?” he asked, grip not loosening a bit.
“Keith, he’s not human.” Hunk interjected. “Let’s get his name, first.” he turned to the merman with one of his patented Sunny Smiles™, and the boy seemed to relax. “Is your name a word?” he asked, planting a hand on the board he’d leant Keith so he wouldn’t capsize his own and get dunked in the water.
The merman nodded, slow and hesitant, and used his free arm to mime stabbing something. “Weapon.” he said, the word coming out strange and somewhat stilted. “For ha! ha!” he made cute little noises as he pretended to thrust a weapon at imaginary enemies.
“Like a spear?” Hunk asked slowly.
“Um, a rapier?” Keith suggested. The merman rolled his eyes, and gestured at Hunk.
“Okay, so polearms.” Hunk said with a thoughtful expression. “Halberds aren’t stabby, or spear-like...” he trailed off, lost in thought, and Keith remembered the movie he’d seen on TV yesterday.
“A lance?” he asked, and the merman’s face lit up.
“Yes! Lance!” he beamed, and Keith released his wrist.
“Well, Lance.” Keith made to push his bangs out of his face, and wound up just rubbing his fingers against the stupid swim cap. “Thanks for saving my life. I really owe you one.”
Lance grinned and moved closer, until he was so close Keith could feel his tail undulating slowly beneath the waves. He had really, really sharp teeth. “Promise.” he said solemnly. “Tell no human.”
“You’re really gonna waste your favour on that?” Hunk asked, and Keith watched Lance’s expression turn confused as he glanced at Hunk. “I mean, it’s not like we can go around saying we met a merman. Nobody would believe us.”
“Your sister would.” Keith pointed out.
“My sisters are seven.” Hunk rolled his eyes. “Nobody’d believe them either.” he paused, and looked at Lance with the same expression he’d worn just before declaring he’d teach Keith how to surf. “You saved her, didn’t you? Little girl, pigtails, perfect teeth.”
Lance nodded, and Hunk laughed. “Well, that’s both of us owe you one now.”
The merman tilted his head slightly, considering the both of them, then beamed what would’ve been a smile to rival Hunk’s if all his visible teeth weren’t needle-sharp and deadly looking. “Life debt.” he declared, and Keith laughed.
“Yeah, sure. Life debt.”
Lance swam up towards the surface, and flicked his head back as he surfaced to keep his hair out of his eyes. “Hi!” he chirped, drawing the attention of his human friends. “Oh, wow.” he giggled, drifting closer with a lazy flick of his tail. “You look like you took nap too close to vent.”
“Oh yeah, you wouldn’t get sunburn living underwater.” Hunk tilted his head.
“I know what sunburn is.” Lance huffed. “I’ve been human-watching for years.”
“Then you know it fucking sucks.” Keith grumbled.
“I know it’s similar to taking nap near vent.” Lance replied, folding his arms over the end of Keith’s board. “Only humans sometimes get darker once red goes away.”
“Unfortunately, I burn instead of tanning.” Keith huffed. He really looked kinda funny, all red and hunched over himself.
“How far down do you live that there are thermal vents nearby?” Hunk asked, and Lance looked up as he thought about that.
“You know, I’m not actually sure. But outside city we need to echolocate to see, and not many of us can handle temperature for long, so pretty far down?” he shrugged. “I like it better up here, water’s warm and there’s so many things to see.”
“Okay, now you ask a question.” Hunk prompted, and Lance cocked his head to the side. “You know, to keep it fair? One of us asks a question about you, or merfolk in general, and then you can ask us the same sort of stuff in return.”
“Oh.” Lance nodded. “Hmm...” he thought for a second, then grinned. “Your teeth. Why aren’t they sharp like mine?”
“My teeth?” Keith frowned, running his tongue over his front ones.
“Well, humans are omnivores.” Hunk supplied. “We’ve got teeth optimised for all types of food.”
“Yeah but why?” Lance asked, resting his chin on his arms and letting his tail float just under the surface behind him.
“Hell if I know.” Keith shrugged. “But if we were carnivores we never would’ve invented cookies, so I’m glad we’re not.”
“We’ve got cookies.” Lance protested. “You mix shredded shree and guorna with some builner for binding and then place them on hotstone until they’re done.”
Hunk and Keith stared at him for a solid few seconds, and Lance’s tail sank lower in the water, curling under him. “What?”
“Dude, like, half of that was in Mermish.” Hunk said, and Lance felt his face screw up in confusion.
“What is mer-mish?” he asked, lifting his chin from his arms.
“Oh, uh.” Hunk looked aside, and Keith rolled his eyes.
“It’s what we’re calling your language, since we can’t pronounce its actual name.” he explained. “Now it’s my turn to ask a question, so tell me. How did you pick up English so quick?”
Lance grinned, pushing off the surfboard and keeping both hands out of the water. “Magic.” he willed the familiar energy to pool around his fingertips, and instead of bubbles tiny blue-white sparks danced along his nails and the webbing between his fingers. “I found book in library with spell for learning other languages, changed some words and applied it to Human tongue.”
“Holy shit.” Hunk breathed. “First mermaids, now magic? What else is real?”
“Aliens.” Keith said with absolute certainty. “Also, bigfoot.”
“Aliens definitely exist just as a matter of probability.” Hunk nodded. “But bigfoot? Come on, man.”
“What’s bigfoot?” Lance asked, tail swishing lazily as he stretched it out behind himself again.
“A hoax.” Hunk scoffed.
“A cryptid.” Keith grinned.
“What’s cryptid?” Lance asked, propping himself up on Keith’s board again.
“Oh shut up.” Keith punched Hunk in the arm. “I know this one, lemme answer!”
“You answer with lies.” Hunk insisted, but he sat back with a small, fond smile on his face.
“Okay, so cryptids.” Keith began, and Lance rested his chin on his folded arms. This seemed like it was going to be a lengthy explanation.
“What are you making this time?” Keith asked, drumming his heels against the cabinets under the counter he was sitting on.
“Croissants, and pudding.” Hunk said, not looking up from his work on the counter.
“Are you gonna fill the croissants with pudding?” Keith asked, and Hunk shook his head.
“Lance hasn’t tried either of them before, I want him to see what they’re like separately before putting them together.”
“You could always make some pudding-filled ones in a separate bag.” Keith suggested.
“I’ll think about it.” Hunk replied, and Keith shrugged.
“I’m gonna bring sodas.” he said, leaning back on his hands. “Mr. Cusinotta bought some of that flavoured mountain dew the last time he went shopping.”
“I know, right?” Keith chuckled. “But at this point I’m pretty sure Lance has a whole mouth full of sweet teeth, so he’ll love it.”
“Sweet teeth you wanna suck on.” Hunk sniggered. Keith grabbed a plastic cup sitting next to him and pitched it at Hunk’s head.
“Do not.” he protested, the cup bouncing off his friend’s shoulder.
“Do too.” Hunk retorted childishly, turning away from the croissant dough to give Keith a shit-eating grin. “Keith and La~ance, sittin in a tree~”
Keith threw a spoon at him, and Hunk blocked it with a laugh. “Lance couldn’t even climb a tree.” he pointed out, and Hunk’s expression turned thoughtful.
“Damn, you’re right.” he muttered. “And the rhyme doesn’t work with surfboard.”
Keith threw another cup at him, nailing him in the chest. “What about you?” he challenged. “I’ve seen the way you look at him, when he hauls himself up on your board to sun.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Hunk huffed, turning back to kneading the dough with his hands.
“You can’t tease me for liking him when you feel the same way.” Keith pressed.
“I don’t though.” Hunk insisted. “I-” he sighed, shoulders slumping. “I don’t do romance, with anyone.”
“Oh.” Keith stilled his feet. “But you still like him, right? Just not like like.”
Hunk didn’t answer immediately, returning to working the dough. “Yeah.” he replied softly. “I really, really like him.”
“We should ask about mermish relationships today.” Keith tilted his head back, resting the crown of it against a cabinet behind him. “Test the waters, yknow?”
“I’m positive I can make that into a pun, if you give me a minute.” Hunk chuckled.
“Well, hold it until we’re talking to Lance.” Keith smiled, sitting up again and swinging his feet again, the dull thud of flesh on wood filling the kitchen. “He makes the best faces when you do puns.”
“He really does.” Hunk agreed, and they settled back into comfortable silence. Keith could hear Hunk’s sisters playing Mario Kart in the other room, music playing faintly on a radio upstairs, the neighbours having another argument, dogs barking somewhere down the street. It was nice, being able to hear life going on around him. He’d liked his last family well enough, but living out in the middle of nowhere with two ancient hippies it had been so quiet he would’ve gone stir-crazy if not for school.
“I’m glad we moved here.” he said, shutting his eyes and focusing on the sounds of the kitchen. The sound of the oven heating, the fire on the stovetop crackling, Hunk’s hands turning raw ingredients into dough which would become delicious, delicious pastries.
“Me too.” Hunk’s smile was audible. “But do you think you could pick up the shit you threw at me and toss it in the sink?”
“Sure.” Keith pushed off the counter, and knelt to collect his spent ammunition. Once Hunk had the pudding in the fridge and croissants in the oven, they could go boot one of the triplets off and play a few rounds of Mario Kart. And after that, when the pastries had been baked and the pudding set... then they could go see Lance.
Lance lounged on his favourite rock, shifting this way and that trying to get comfortable. Unfortunately, sprawling on Hunk and Keith’s surfboards had made his rock seem quite uncomfortable by comparison, and no matter how he squirmed he just couldn’t find a nice spot. He heaved a sigh, and pushed himself off to drift deep enough below the surface his silhouette wouldn’t be immediately visible to just anyone. Hunk and Keith were usually here by now, so where were they today? He had some of his mom’s lumploaf to share, after the meatloaf sandwich Hunk had given him yesterday, and if they didn’t arrive soon he might eat it himself.
His stomach growled, and Lance pouted up at the sun glinting on the surface of the water. Damn his humans, getting him used to having snacks around this time. If he wasn’t trying to bulk up for guard applications anyways, he’d probably be a bit distressed by how quickly he was putting on insulation from all of Hunk’s delicious human food.
Two familiar surfboards cutting through the water pulled him from his thoughts, and Lance grinned as he oriented himself towards them with a flick of his tail. Cradling the wrapped food to his chest with one hand, he came up under Keith’s surfboard and brushed the pads of his fingers over the bottom of his foot. There was a muffled yelp from above, and Lance got in another swipe as Keith yanked his foot up and away. The human fell off his board, and Lance laughed as he surfaced with a flick of his tail.
Keith popped up on the other side of his board, and Lance grinned shamelessly as the sun-reddened human glared at him. “Jerk.” Keith huffed, splashing water at him.
“Not sorry.” Lance laughed, holding the surfboard steady so Keith could get back on. “I brought lumploaf to share.” he said, holding up the wrapped parcel of food for the humans to see.
“I brought dessert.” Hunk replied, patting the insulating fabric case nestled between his legs.
“Yesss.” Lance hauled himself up onto Keith’s board, resting the lumploaf on his tail as he unwrapped it. Keith chuckled, and reached out to poke Lance in the arm.
“Sweet tooth like yours, you’d think merfolk don’t have sugar or something.” he teased.
“Oh, we do, but it’s got nothing on what you humans can make.” he shrugged, picking up one of the slices of lumploaf and holding it out to Hunk. “Here, my mom made it last night.”
“Huh, squishy.” Hunk mused as he accepted it.
“Of course it’s squishy, it’s soaked.” Keith rolled his eyes, accepting the slice Lance handed him.
“It’s my grandma’s recipe.” Lance grinned proudly, taking a large bite of his own slice. It tasted just as good cold as it did fresh from the hotstone, and he watched his friends’ faces as they took experimental bites. Keith’s face screwed up in disgust after his little nibble, and Hunk’s pinched slightly after his normal sized bite.
“It’s so salty.”
“Saltier than the cookies.” Keith agreed, holding his slice out to Lance. “Sorry, I just-”
“It’s fine.” Lance said quickly, jamming the rest of his slice in his mouth and accepting the offered food. He managed to swallow his mouthful of lumploaf, and flashed a grin at Keith. “More for me.”
“How do you even do that?” Hunk asked, taking a much smaller second bite of his lumploaf and washing it down with a drink from his water bottle.
“Do what?” Lance asked, cocking his head sideways.
“Just, scarf down something that salty. I think I’d literally die.”
Lance shrugged, taking another bite of his lumploaf as he thought on it. “I guess I can’t taste it?” he suggested after a minute. “I mean, it doesn’t taste salty to me.”
“Of course!” Keith smacked himself in the forehead. “This is as salty as the ocean, and you live in the ocean.”
“Oooooh.” Hunk’s eyes widened, and then he was laughing. “Well now I feel like an idiot.”
“You’ve lived here your whole life and you forgot food made underwater would be salty?” Keith laughed, and Lance felt his lips spreading in a smile. Their joy was infectious in the best way, and he curled his tail up against the bottom of Keith’s surfboard to hold on to it better as he finished his lumploaf.
“I guess that’s why your food is so sweet.” he said once the laughter had petered out into sporadic giggles. “There’s no salt to balance it out.”
“Well, there’s still salt.” Hunk explained, leaning down to rinse his hands in the ocean. “Just nowhere near as much as you’re used to.”
“Basically no salt.” Keith amended.
“Yeah, basically no salt.” Lance bobbed his head. “So, what basically-saltless thing did you bring today?”
“Pudding, and croissants.” Hunk said, pulling out a bag of curved tan things and a lidded container of darker brown stuff with no apparent shape.
“Oooh.” Lance leaned forward, lifting a hand and curling his fingers in the universal motion for ‘gimme’. Hunk laughed, but handed over one of the solid things to Lance before giving one to Keith. Lance bit into it without hesitation, and nearly moaned at the taste. “If you ever figure out how to make these underwater, for love of Deep Ones please tell me.” he said, taking another larger bite.
“Um, what?” Keith asked, lowering the treat from his mouth without taking a bite.
“What?” Lance asked around a mouthful of delicious, delicious food.
“Did you just say Deep Ones?”
“Um, yes?” Lance swallowed the last of his treat, and looked between the humans’ faces. They looked, well, Hunk looked shocked and Keith looked unsettlingly delighted.
“Screw relationship advice, I wanna hear about your religion.” he said, leaning forward and bracing his hands on the board. “What are these Deep Ones like?”
“Relationship advice?” Lance frowned, looking from Keith to Hunk. He wasn’t sure why, but the thought of helping either of them with a romantic endeavour left a bad taste in his mouth.
“We were wondering earlier if mermish relationships are different from human ones.” Hunk explained, and the cold weight gathering in Lance’s gut vanished.
“Oh, well, depends on relationship I guess? Like, there’s families, friends, work relationships, school relationships-”
“Romantic relationships?” Keith suggested, and Lance nodded. “So, how do those work?” he shifted on the board, looking distinctly more reserved than he had when asking about the Deep Ones.
“Like, courting or...?”
“Yeah, that.” Hunk looked slightly less awkward than Keith, but still awkward, his fingers fiddling nervously with the lid of the brown stuff container. Lance was about 50% sure it was pudding.
“Oh, well...” he trailed off, recalling the various plays he’d seen and books he’d read. “When someone wants to court someone else, or to invite them into existing relationship, traditionally there’s escalating series of gifts. If gift is returned at any point, it means that other is uninterested, and if you keep sending them gifts you’re jerk. If they send you different gift of equal importance or value, though, then that’s acceptance.”
“Huh.” Hunk leaned back on his surfboard, resting his weight on his hands. “Seems kinda complicated.”
“Well, you don’t just send gifts. You have to talk to them too, or there’s all kinds of misunderstandings that can happen.” he chuckled at the memory of a play his eldest sister had been in where the leading merman sent his acceptance gift to the wrong person. So much needless, but hilarious, drama.
“So, what kind of gifts are usually given at the start?” Keith asked, and Lance shrugged.
“Whatever you can afford, basically. Most people start with something little, though. Flowers, shells, pretty rocks. After that it’s customary to give handmade things, and then after that if nothing’s been returned yet you move on to more expensive stuff to show you’re serious. Most times you won’t see more than two, maybe three nice gifts sent before something is sent in return.” he looked at Keith, who was studying the surface of the water. “Why do you wanna know?”
“Same reason you want to know about humans.” Hunk said, grabbing his attention. “We don’t know anything but what you tell us, and Keith here is so used to not having proof things are real he’s desperate for any information he can get.”
“Oh.” Lance looked over at Keith again. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that, or what answer he’d hoped to get. “Well, can I try some of that?” he asked, pointing at the container of probably-pudding. Keith evidently wasn’t comfortable with this topic, so the sooner they got off of it the better. “I’ll tell you about Deep Ones if you tell me about human families.”
“And give you pudding.” Keith teased.
“Well, I’m getting pudding either way.” Lance huffed, but he couldn’t suppress a smile. Keith was back to normal, or at least mostly so.
“Keith was right.” Hunk chuckled, pulling some metal utensils out of his bag. “You really do have a whole mouthful of sweet teeth.”
Lance grinned, displaying a good number of his nice sharp teeth. “Thanks!”
Hunk rolled his eyes, but held one of the things out to Lance. “I trust you know how to use a spoon?”
“Yeah.” Lance nodded, taking the spoon and turning it in his fingers so it matched the way Hunk was holding his own. He had no idea what he was doing, but if humans could do it then it couldn’t be that hard.
Hunk looked at the list on his phone, mouth pulling into a frown as he moved another item to a different spot. Keeping track of what he’d already made for Lance to try had sounded like a great idea when they started this whole cultural exchange thing, but now it was turning into a mess. He’d been keeping the list chronological, but that made it really hard to check quickly. He’d almost made cookies again, albeit with different mix-ins. But with the number of cookbooks his family had, trying to pick an order to put things in was a huge freaking pain in the butt. Keith’s sarcastic suggestion of ‘just alphabetise it’ was looking more and more appealing.
“Maybe I could make homemade soda?” Hunk mused.
“Lance hates carbonation, remember?” Keith rebutted from halfway down Hunk’s bed.
“He keeps stealing sips of your drinks, though.” Hunk frowned.
“Because he’s an idiot.” Keith grinned. Hunk looked back at his phone.
“Okay, so nix on that idea.” he muttered.
“I could totally steal some of Mr. Cusinotta’s booze.” Keith suggested, falling sideways and then rolling onto his back so his head rested in Hunk’s lap.
“Getting drunk on surfboards out of sight of the lifeguard is a terrible idea.” Hunk rolled his eyes. Honestly, sometimes Keith said and did the dumbest shit, like when he’d agreed to try something that Lance had admitted beforehand was made with jellyfish. That had been a fun trip to the hospital.
“I never said we’d be drinking.” Keith smiled devilishly, pulling Hunk’s phone aside so they were face to face. “The whole point of this is to let Lance try things humans have that merfolk don’t, right? And they don’t really have drinks, with the whole underwater thing, so alcohol is just another thing he’s never tried before.”
“We’ve never tried alcohol before.” Hunk pointed out. Keith just raised an eyebrow at him. “What’s that look for? You’re underage too.”
“And since when has that ever stopped anybody?”
Hunk was pretty sure his mouth fell open, because after a second Keith bit his lower lip in a poor attempt to muffle his giggling. He gave up soon enough, devolving into full blown laughter, and Hunk pushed him off the bed. Keith didn’t even stop laughing.
“I still feel like it’s not right to trick him.” Hunk protested, and Keith’s laughter tapered off slowly.
“Of course we wouldn’t trick him.” he said, still grinning like he didn’t know how to stop. “That’d just be creepy and gross.” he managed to school his face back into something resembling seriousness, and Hunk had to resist the urge to reach out and tickle him to make his smile come back. “But Mr. Cusinotta has a whole bunch of those pre-mixed margarita things and now I’m totally bringing some of those for Lance to try.”
“Y’know what, I’m bringing calzones again.” Hunk announced, removing the empty line from the bottom of the list. The ones he’d brought the time Lance brought jellyfish had all fallen in the ocean in the rush to get Keith to the hospital, and he’d never made more for the merman to actually try. Keith made a wordless sound of agreement, and got back up on the bed to lie across Hunk’s lap, his warmth and weight a familiar comfort by now. Hunk went back to sorting the list on his phone, putting things in order by what meal they were meant for, what type of food they were, and then alphabetically within that.
Over half the list was desserts, he realized as he dragged yet another block of text into that section. Well, Lance did have a whole mouthful of sweet teeth, and Hunk loved the way his face lit up when he tasted something new and delicious. There was also the fact that his sisters occasionally needed to be bribed into silence on the topic of him and Keith leaving them alone on the beach for hours at a time, and all three of them were easily swayed by sweets. Hunk glanced past his phone to look at Keith, now sprawled on his stomach and playing some colourful app on his own phone.
Keith liked his baking too, though not as vocally as Lance, and it showed. He wasn’t soft like their mermish friend, not surprising since Lance was a warm-blooded deep sea creature who was trying to ready himself for a potential job that involved working in frigid waters, but he’d filled out considerably from the twig of a boy Hunk had dragged down to the beach that day the moving truck pulled up to the house down the street. It was a good look on him, and not just because of the way his once-loose shirts now clung to his muscled arms. He looked healthier, cared-for, and Hunk realized with a start that he would do whatever it took to keep him looking like this. He wanted to keep Keith around, to be part of his life, to make sure he had someone to take care of him when he forgot to take care of himself. Oh, god, he could imagine them spending the rest of their lives together; sharing a dorm room, a shitty apartment, a tiny house with three cats and a dog. It all felt so clear, almost tangible, like all he had to do was reach out and Keith could be his.
He was so royally screwed.
“Hello!” Lance chirped, popping up out of the water and folding his arms over the edge of Keith’s surfboard. The way their faces lit up made him smile wider, and once Keith had scooted back to balance the board out Lance hauled himself up out of the water. “I brought kelp bites.” he held up the pouch, and Keith leaned over to pull something from Hunk’s fabric box.
“I brought margarita in a can.” he grinned like it was some big thing.
“And I brought calzones.” Hunk added. “Since the last batch kinda went to the fishes and all.”
Lance winced at the memory of Keith falling off his board, clutching at his throat and gasping in pain. “I’m still sorry about that.”
“Hey, I’m okay aren’t I?” Keith frowned at him. “And anyways, consider this payback.” he lobbed the can at Lance. “You said that jellyfish stuff was supposed to be a sort of drug?”
Lance nodded. It was hard to buy, but not that hard to collect if you knew what you were doing and were willing to venture out into the open ocean, and its appetite and mood-boosting effects made it super helpful for prospective guards or guards who’d been sick.
“Well, this is sorta a drug too.” Keith grinned. “And your digestive tract is similar enough to ours that it probably won’t poison you.”
“And if it does, we merfolk do have natural resistance to toxins.” Lance grinned, hooking a finger under the pull tab like Keith had shown him and pulling to open it. It smelled strongly of fruit and something he couldn’t name, and Hunk grabbed his wrist before he could lift it to his lips.
“Don’t you want to know what it’s supposed to do?” he asked, frowning sternly.
Lance shrugged, pulling his hand free. “I trust you not to poison me, and being surprised is half fun of trying new things.”
“It’ll lower your inhibitions.” Hunk said, crossing his arms. “And too much can be deadly, which is why it’s illegal for anyone underage to buy it.”
“Well, good thing we’re all adults here.” Lance grinned, and took a swig.
He promptly bent over and spat it out, and Keith snorted. “Burns, doesn’t it?”
“You could’ve warned me.” Lance pouted, and Keith reached out to card a hand through his hair.
“I thought you liked being surprised.” he teased, and Lance shoved him in the chest.
“Jerk.” he huffed, and took a more cautious sip of the drink. It was sweet, behind the burn, and thicker than the other drinks Keith had brought before. He emptied the can in one go, and Keith gave him an impressed look.
“Are you sure you’ve never had alcohol before?” he asked, accepting the empty can and tucking it back in the fabric box.
Lance shook his head. “Never heard of it. Tastes good though, like soda but less burny here.” he gestured at his gills, which never agreed with the carbonation in Keith’s drinks.
“Well, let’s wait and see how it affects you before you have any more.” Hunk said, reaching into the insulating box and fiddling with something. “In the meantime,” he pulled out a calzone and held it out, and Lance took it carefully. It was the perfect size to fit in his hand, warm in his fingers, and he ate it slowly as Hunk and Keith tried the kelp bites. The sun beat down, a pleasant heat on his skin and scales, and when he finished the calzone Hunk didn’t stop him from leaning over and snagging another can. Days like this, he wished he could stay up here forever.
I have decided that merfolk, like sea turtles, can get high eating jellyfish. Lance accidentally sent Keith to the emergency room trying to give him, essentially, a pot cookie.
“Hey, Keith?” Lance tilted his head to look at Keith, who was munching on the kelp bites. They were surprisingly good, if a bit salty for Hunk’s taste. Then again, everything Lance brought up was a bit salty for Hunk’s taste.
“Hmm?” Keith looked back, head cocking sideways slightly to match Lance’s.
“Can I touch you?”
“Um, sure?” Keith agreed, holding the bag of kelp bites out to Hunk. He took them, and watched silently as Keith and Lance scooted towards each other on the board, trying not to tip it and dump either of them in the ocean. Lance moved slowly, deliberately, with none of his usual easy grace, and it wasn’t until he’d squirmed halfway into Keith’s lap that Hunk realized what was going on.
Lance was drunk.
“Hey, Lance?” he said, drawing Lance’s attention away from Keith’s ears. “Remember what I said about lowered inhibitions?”
“Yes?” Lance frowned, like he wasn’t sure of his own answer.
“Oh, shit.” Keith breathed, and Hunk assumed he’d realized it too. “Hey, Lance?” he brushed his fingers over the skin between Lance’s lower gills and the upper edge of his scales, drawing the merman’s attention back to him. “Maybe-” his breath hitched as Lance’s fingers traced the back of his ear where it joined his head. “Maybe we shouldn’t do this today.”
“Why not?” Lance pouted, playing with Keith’s ears some more. “I’ve always wondered why you humans have these things. They look so strange.”
“Because-” Keith’s voice caught on a sharp gasp, and Hunk gripped the bag in his hands tighter. Keith’s cheeks, red with perpetual sunburn, had gone even redder with a blush that was slowly but surely creeping down his neck.
“Becaaause?” Lance drew the word out as he leaned fully into Keith’s space, an inhuman trill echoing underneath his voice.
“Because you’re drunk.” Hunk said, and Keith shot him a grateful look as Lance leaned back so they were no longer chest to chest. “You’re drunk, and you’re not thinking straight.” he insisted, and Lance shifted out of Keith’s lap. Hunk very deliberately did not look any lower than his friends’ chests. “We don’t want you to do something you’ll regret later.”
“But I trust you.” Lance pouted at him, puffing out his cheeks.
“Then listen to us.” Keith said, his voice still slightly strained but much more stable. “Let us be your restraint.”
A devilish grin flickered across Lance’s face as he looked at Keith. “Restraints, you say?” he waggled his eyebrows, and Hunk reached out to grab his wrists.
“Okay, that’s enough.” he said firmly. “We’re not going to have sex with you. Not while you’re drunk.”
Lance grinned again, and Hunk sighed. “Don’t you start.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You were going to.” Keith pointed out, now looking and sounding much more composed.
“Just, get over here.” Hunk tugged gently on Lance’s wrist, and helped maneuver the merman onto his board. Leaning around Lance, he grabbed the cooler and lifted it to place behind himself, out of range of the merman’s tail. “Food helps you sober up.” he said, grabbing a mini-calzone and offering it to Lance. Lance didn’t take it, though. Instead he grabbed Hunk’s wrist and pulled it up towards his mouth, taking a large bite of the calzone right out of Hunk’s hand.
Keith made a soft choking noise, and Hunk wasn’t sure if he was breathing. His head was spinning, heart suddenly beating far too hard in his chest. Lance ate the rest of the calzone from his fingers, and Hunk realized he had in fact stopped breathing when he sucked in a sharp breath between his teeth at the feeling of Lance’s rough tongue laving over his thumb. Lance leaned back against him, head tilted back, and Hunk didn’t even think before reaching for another calzone. There was still a pair in the cooler, he’d brought enough for each of them to have two, but- “Do you want another?” he asked, and Lance nodded with a breathy sound that was completely and utterly inhuman.
This time he didn’t hesitate, bringing the calzone directly to Lance’s lips and holding it there for him to eat. He moaned softly when he finished, hands sliding up Hunk’s thighs from where they’d come to rest on his knees, and Hunk’s breath hitched. “Just one left.” he murmured, fumbling for it blindly and then lifting it up for Lance to eat once he had it in hand. He took smaller bites of this one, moaning softly every few nibbles, and Hunk startled slightly when waves lapped higher on his legs than they’d been doing. Keith had pulled his own board up just under the nose of Hunk’s, letting Lance’s stretched out tail hold it in place as he straddled the merman’s lap. He rubbed gently at Lance’s stomach, his motions stiff and hesitant, and Hunk placed his free hand over Keith’s to guide it in circles and apply more pressure.
“That feel okay?” Keith asked, and Lance nodded.
“Feels good.” he mumbled, taking another little bite of the calzone.
“You’re halfway done.” Hunk murmured, pressing the food to Lance’s lips gently but insistently. “C’mon, you can do it.”
Lance obligingly opened his mouth, and Hunk’s heart caught in his chest as a realization struck him. This was way, way more intimate than anything else he’d ever done. Lance was drunk and half asleep in his arms, literally eating out of his hand. Lance gasped, his mouth falling open as a small, almost musical noise left his throat, and Keith made a strangled sound that drew Hunk’s attention as Lance took half of the remaining calzone in a single bite.
Okay, so that was what a mer-dick looked like. That- Hunk wasn’t sure how to feel about knowing that. Keith gave him a distressed look, and Hunk shook his head as Lance polished off the calzone and started licking his fingers, hands straying higher up Hunk’s thighs.
“It wouldn’t be right.” Keith nodded.
“Guuyysss.” Lance whined, and Hunk shivered as Lance licked at his fingers again. No, nope, he wasn’t even going to think about that.
“Sorry.” Hunk grimaced, and took a deep breath as he leaned towards the cliff that hid them from view of the beach. Keith’s eyes widened, and Hunk waited until he saw his friend inhale before throwing his weight the other way. The water was cooler than the air had been, shocking his system back to full alertness and chasing away the heat which had been coiling in his gut. Lance squirmed free of his grip, body convulsing like he was coughing as clouds of foggy, discoloured liquid leaked from his lower gills.
Keith made a sound that was remarkably close to what Lance had called himself that first day Hunk met him, darting forward through the water to grab the merman by the wrists and orient him upright. He pulled Lance to the surface with hands under his arms, and Hunk bobbed up after them. He rested one arm on each board, and floated there as his heart rate slowly went back to normal.
Dear god, if he was right about what had just happened, he was double extra royally screwed.
Lance’s gills burned. His body convulsed as another breath sent searing pain shooting through them, and he leaned into the gentle touch brushing his hair back from his face as he whimpered. His head was starting to throb as the pain in his gills ebbed, and he went limp against the form holding him as the burning heat faded away.
“You okay, Lance?” Keith asked, arm tightening around his waist.
“Maybe.” Lance wheezed. His head hurt like hell, and his gills vaguely ached, but it didn’t feel like he was dying. “Gimme beat.” he squirmed free of Keith’s hold, not a particularly tricky thing, and ducked underwater to breathe deeply through all his gills. He pressed carefully at the skin around them, feeling for inflammation or tenderness, and found none. Just a deep ache, like- like that time he ate a raw vent worm on a dare and the poison all came out his gills as it was absorbed into his bloodstream.
He bobbed back up to the surface, and stared at his human friends. “Is what you gave me toxic?” he asked, and they looked at each other uncertainly.
“Uh, technically?” Hunk shrugged.
“Well, that explains it.” Lance sighed. “There are really, really few toxins that can hurt me. That can hurt most merfolk, really, as long as we’re underwater.”
“Sorry.” Keith grimaced, and Lance pulled himself up onto his friend’s board.
“Don’t worry about it.” he smiled, flicking his tail to splash Keith around the shoulders. “Drinks tasted awesome.”
Keith chuckled, looking away as he brushed some hair behind the cartilaginous shell on the side of his head in what had to be the cutest display of shyness Lance had ever seen. “So, um, since you’re sober now...” he trailed off, looking up at Lance through his eyelashes. “Did you still want to, uh, play with my ears?” he gestured at the pale curve of skin holding his hair back from his face, and Lance noticed a thin red line just above where it met his skull.
“Can I?” he asked, reaching out before part of Keith’s question caught in his mind. “Wait, still?”
“You’re kinda a handsy drunk.” Hunk said, and Lance felt himself flush.
“Oh.” he mumbled, ducking his head.
“Why the sudden interest in my ears, anyways?” Keith asked. Lance didn’t answer. “I mean, I don’t mind.” Keith said quickly, filling the silence. “It’s just, you seemed super interested and I was wondering why you never mentioned it before.”
Lance suddenly wished he was still in the water so he could sink down and hide the blush blooming across his cheeks. “I thought you’d think it was weird.” he mumbled, shoulders hunching as he curled in on himself. “You’ve said before that my skin feels weird, and-”
“It’s not a bad weird.” Hunk interrupted. “Or, it wasn’t. It’s not weird at all anymore.”
“Same here.” Keith scooted closer, and laid a hand on Lance’s tail where it bent just before dipping underwater and curling along the underside of the surfboard. “So, if you want to-”
“Yes.” Lance blurted, leaning forwards and reaching out to trace the edge of Keith’s ‘ear’ with his fingertips. The human shuddered, and Lance’s heart leapt in his chest at the blush that spread across his friend’s face. The skin of Keith’s ear was soft, the cartilage underneath more pliant than that of a nose, and when Lance gave an experimental tug Keith whimpered. He didn’t look pained though, with blush dusting his cheeks and his mouth slightly open, eyelids fluttering slightly but not enough to make his eyes open.
“Hey, Lance.” Hunk said, drawing his attention away from Keith. “Ease up on him.”
Lance pouted. “But I’m not doing anything!”
Hunk rolled his eyes, then sighed. “You wanted to take a closer look at how feet work, right?” Hunk lifted one of his legs, and wiggled his toes. “You can poke at mine if you want.”
Lance leaned away from Keith slightly, lowering his hand from the human’s ear. “Really?”
“Really.” Hunk nodded.
Lance relaxed his tail so it hung straight down in the water, and pushed off of Keith’s surfboard. With a flick of his fins he oriented himself to bob back up out of the water next to Hunk, and rested one arm on the human’s surfboard while reaching out the other to carefully feel along the bottom of Hunk’s foot. He didn’t shriek and jerk away, like Keith did, but his face did contort strangely.
“Are you okay?” Lance asked, and Hunk nodded.
“Just tickles a bit.” he explained. “There’s a lot of nerve endings in our feet.”
“Huh.” Lance titled his head, looking down at the appendage in his hand. It seemed strange, to make the things that carried you around so sensitive, but then again how else were they supposed to know if they were walking somewhere unsafe? “And you can’t grip anything with these?” he asked, grabbing one of Hunk’s toes and wiggling it a bit.
“Not really. That’s what hands are for.”
“Can you grab anything with your tail?” Keith asked.
“Well, yeah.” Lance looked over at him. “I use my tail to grip your surfboard, don’t I?”
“But like, fine control and stuff.” Keith elaborated. “Could you grab anything with your fins?”
Lance shook his head. “I’m on lower end of dex spectrum, tail-wise. Shark-tails are even lower, though.”
“So who’s on top?”
“Anyone with tentacles.” Lance shrugged. “But they don’t really count because they’ve got tons of extra arms, so probably eel-tails or seahorse-mers.”
“Sea-centaurs, you mean?” Hunk grinned.
“I guess?” Lance frowned, folding both his arms on Hunk’s surfboard and stretching his tail out behind himself. “What’s centaur.”
“Human on top, horse on the bottom.” Hunk drew a line across his waist. “Kinda like merfolk, but with four legs instead of none.”
“Huh.” Lance tilted his head sideways, resting his cheek on his arms. “I guess if centaurs are half horse, seahorse-mers would be sea-centaurs.”
“Your sisters would flip if they found out centaurs are real.” Keith chuckled.
“Well, yeah, but we’re not gonna tell them.” Hunk rolled his eyes.
“Hey, I said would, not will.”
Lance flicked his tail lazily, and grinned as Hunk and Keith started debating linguistic semantics. Reaching out, he traced the edges of Hunk’s extended foot with one finger. Maybe tomorrow he’d ask to touch them more, see how far he could go before they told him to stop.
Lance slipped back into the city through the same hidden crack he’d left by, and relaxed slightly as the water warmed around him. The way home was familiar, and he found himself humming under his breath as he swam through the streets. Hunk had brought something called a phone today, and they’d taken pictures together and listened to music. Hunk had even liked the tuna balls he brought!
He flicked the door shut behind himself with his tail, and dropped the empty bag he’d used to transport the tuna balls in the kitchen before snagging a cookie from the jar. He’d hit a murky patch on the way home, so he should probably scrub down his scales before dinner. He waved hellow to his moms as he passed through the living room, and as he reached for the bathroom door it swung out and hit him in the face.
“Oh, Lance!” Amaia exclaimed, then laughed. “Sorry. Your face okay?”
“I’m fine.” he waved her off. “Won’t even bruise, probably.” he smiled reassuringly, and she leaned back against the door.
“Speaking of how you’re doing.” she grinned, and Lance’s heart sank. Nothing good ever came of that expression. “You’ve been awful smiley lately.”
“Have I?” he felt his own grin go brittle.
“Yep. And more than you were when you were just spending all day training with your friends.” she leaned forwards into his space, hands tucked behind her back. “So, who is it?”
“Nobody.” Lance insisted. “Look, can I get into bathroom? I wanna clean up before dinner.”
“You can get in once you tell me who you’re courting~” Amaia half sang, flicking her orange-edged tail fin at Lance to toss some stray sand at him from the floor.
“I already told you, I’m not courting anybody.” he crossed his arms. “Now will you let me into bathroom?”
“C’mon, Lance. You know I’m good at keeping secrets, if you think our moms won’t approve.” she winked.
“For last time, I’m not courting anyone!” Lance snapped. “Hunk and Keith are just friends, nothing more.”
Amaia’s eyes widened, and Lance clapped a hand over his mouth.
“Who?” Amaia hissed, the needle-sharp tips of her perfectly manicured nails digging into his skin as her hand gripped his wrist tightly.
“Nobody, nobody.” Lance waved his other hand. “Amaia, I swear-”
“You swear what?” Amaia hissed, eyes narrowing. “Those are human names, Lance.”
“They’re my friends.” he yanked his wrist free, glaring at her. “I’m no idiot, I wouldn’t spend time with people who-”
“Aren’t allowed to know we exist!” Amaia threw her hands up. “It’s bad enough you go human-watching, if anyone finds out about this you could be exiled.”
“Nobody will, if you keep your mouth shut.” Lance snapped, hands curling into fists. Amaia opened her mouth, and he flicked his tail to shoot off down the hall. He shot back through the living room, ignoring his moms’ questions about where he was going, and didn’t slow down to shut the door behind himself. He swam up, shooting through the water well over the street at top speed. He didn’t slow down until he reached the crack which lead out of the city.
“So, uh.” Hunk shouldered his surfboard, watching Keith heft his own in both arms. He’d gotten stronger in the weeks since Hunk had first dragged him out to the beach, and his sunburnt skin now covered some noticeable muscles. Muscles Hunk couldn’t help but admire, especially when Keith was still slightly damp from surfing and goofing off with Lance. “There’s this thing I’ve been thinking about for, kinda a while now.”
“Hmm?” Keith looked over, pretty lips pulled down ever so slightly at the edges as Hunk lead him to the sidewalk.
“I like you.” he said simply, getting the words out before his anxiety could get the better of him again.
Keith blinked at him once, twice, then chuckled awkwardly. “I’d hope so.”
“No, like, as more than just a friend.”
The surfboard tumbled from Keith’s arms, landing squarely on his bare toes, and he leapt back with a curse.
“Shit, are you alright?” Hunk asked, turning to look at Keith. There was a loud thud, his surfboard vibrated, and a second thud quickly followed by Keith cursing some more.
“Sorry!” he yelped, dropping his surfboard next to Keith’s and kneeling to check his friend’s head. No blood, thankfully, but from the size of the red spot and how Keith was groaning he was pretty sure it was gonna bruise something awful.
“What the hell, Hunk?” Keith squinted his eyes open, mouth curling down in a proper scowl. “Even I know you don’t just spring a confession on a guy like that!”
“Huh?” Hunk blinked.
“Are you boys alright?” someone asked, and Keith’s scowl turned into a grimace.
“Let’s finish this at your place.” Keith grumbled, pushing himself to his feet and grabbing up his surfboard. It took a second for him to get it up in his arms, but once he was upright with the board he started walking, not looking back to see if Hunk was following. Hunk scrambled to his feet, giving the tourist some half-explanation, and hurried after his friend with his own board under one arm.
The walk home was silent, but blissfully short, and as soon as the surfboards were put away Keith turned to him with an expression Hunk could only describe as intense. “You like me as more than a friend?” he asked, and Hunk nodded. Was this where Keith said he only wanted Lance? That was a definite possibility, Hunk hadn’t missed the way his friends looked at each other when each thought the other wasn’t looking.
Keith took a step closer, and lifted his hands to cup Hunk’s face with a gentle grip. Hunk squeaked as Keith abruptly pulled him forwards, drawing his head down and pressing their mouths together. He went along with it clumsily, and as soon as Keith’s hands left his head he pulled away. Keith looked thoughtful for a second, then grinned. “That was it.” he nodded decisively.
“Um, I’m not entirely sure what that was, but-”
“I like you too.” Keith grinned, small and shy and Hunk’s chest ached with how much he wanted to love and protect this boy. “In a gay kinda way.”
“Well, that’s uh, not exactly how I like you.” he grimaced, and Keith’s face fell instantly.
“But you said-”
“I know, I know.” Hunk rested his hands on Keith’s shoulders, and sighed. “I like you as more than a friend, but not romantically. Not because of you or anything you’ve done, but because I just, don’t do romance, remember?” Keith blinked, the hurt slowly fading from his expression to be replaced by something like comprehension. “I feel the same about Lance, and I plan to tell him tomorrow.” he added.
Keith nodded. “I bet he’ll have a word for it.”
“Well, there’s already a human word for it.” Hunk grinned. “Queerplatonic.”
“Queerplatonic.” Keith repeated the word slowly, visibly turning it over in his head. “So like, gay best friends?”
“Gay super best friends.” Hunk chuckled, letting his hands slide down Keith’s arms until he could wrap them around his friend’s slender fingers. “I can link you an article or two, if you wanna read up on it.”
“I’d like that.” Keith nodded, then winced and pulled one hand free of Hunk’s to rub at his forehead. “I’d also like some ice, I think.”
“We’ve got cold packs.” Hunk chuckled, pulling Keith towards the door which lead into the house. “Wanna grab one and go kick the triplets off the TV?”
Lance hauled himself up onto his favourite rock, pulling his tail free of the water as well this time so he could curl it up to his chest as he tried to get comfortable. It was futile, of course, and after a minute he resigned himself to an awkward hunch on the rough stone. Wrapping his arms around his tail, he stared at the beach. He wanted to go closer, to ask them questions Hunk and Keith couldn’t answer, to simply be surrounded by the chaotic noise of humans enjoying themselves. The urge to go was so strong it felt like a physical ache in his chest, but he couldn’t. Or, if he did, he could never go home again.
Then again, it wasn’t like he could go home now anyways. Amaia was a great sister, but she was fiercely loyal to the crown and lived with the good of the city always at the forefront of her mind. The day he’d let Keith pull him to the surface, he’d committed high treason. Every day spent with his friends since had been another mark against him, and he didn’t even want to count how many times over he’d earned his imminent exile. Or worse, how many times he’d earned a re-lifing.
He gazed over the water at the beach, and smiled at the sight of some adults teaching a group of young children how to play the game Hunk had told him was called volleyball. Maybe a re-life sentence wouldn’t be so bad. He’d still have his own mind, and he didn’t doubt that Hunk and Keith would still care for him, even if they didn’t know it was him. But he wouldn’t be able to hold them again, wouldn’t get to play with Keith’s hair or run his fingers over Hunk’s callouses, wouldn’t be able to introduce them to any new foods. No matter what he wound up as, if he got re-lifed it was going to suck.
Unless... he lifted his head slightly, eyes unfocusing from the beach before him as an idea swam across his mind. Unless he got his hands on a high-level instruction book, and performed the spell himself. It wasn’t random, which meant he would be able to choose what animal to turn into. And according to both his friends and the law, humans were just animals which happened to walk on two legs. He’d figured out how to alter spells before, if he could work out the word for human in the magic tongue then- his breath caught in his throat, a smile spreading across his face. He could become human. He could be a human boy, and have Hunk and Keith as his friends for more than a few hours a day.
He’d have to find a book with instructions for that particular spell first, though, which meant returning to the city. Amaia had certainly already alerted the authorities, so at the point the best course of action would be to let the search die down, slip back in at night, and find the book he’d need. Either to tear out the pages or to steal the whole damn thing, it depended on which was easier.
He watched the humans a while more with a smile, releasing his tail to rest his chin on his forearms as one of the kids learning how to play volleyball managed to do something right. Lance was pretty sure that if the kids’ team was winning, the adults were letting them score on purpose. It made his heart ache to join them all the more, and he pressed his mouth into a thin line as he remembered playing with Amaia when they were young. On second thought, he could blow a few hours poking around a vent. He didn’t want to think about Amaia right now. He gathered his tail under himself, and in one smooth motion turned and launched himself off of his rock.
It wasn’t the ocean that caught him.
“He’s usually here by now.” Keith muttered, frowning out at the waves as if they could answer his unasked questions.
“He’s probably just running late?” Hunk suggested, but it was easy to tell he was worried too. They didn’t exactly have a schedule, but the two of them tried to leave the house around the same time every day and Lance never failed to show up within half an hour of them. Today they’d left a little late, on account of needing to wait for the melted candy ‘glass’ in the cookies to fully cool, and they’d been floating out here on their own for nearly an hour. By now the cooler of lemonade and stained glass sugar cookies should’ve been completely demolished, but instead it sat untouched on the back of Hunk’s board.
Doubts clawed at Keith’s mind, whispers that he shouldn’t be surprised about this curling through his head like smoke. Lance wasn’t even human, he was just as weird as Keith. And anyways, even if he did decide Keith wasn’t enough of a reason to keep coming to the surface, he and Hunk still got along like a house on fire. Nobody in their right mind would decide Hunk wasn’t worth sticking around for.
“Or maybe he’s sick.” Hunk said, and Keith realised his partner had been rambling anxiously while he zoned out and stared at the unusually placid water. “Merfolk get sick, right? I mean, they must, there’s-”
“Hunk.” Keith interrupted his babbling, bringing their boards alongside each other so he could rest a hand over his partner’s. “I’m sure Lance is fine. He was saying yesterday how he usually spends a lot of time with his family, that’s probably what he’s doing today.”
“Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” Hunk nodded, visibly relaxing. “Guess I’ll have to put my confession off ‘til tomorrow, then.” he chuckled, and Keith squeezed his hand gently.
“What do you mean, too?” Hunk frowned.
“Well, after reading those things you linked me yesterday, some stuff started making sense.” Keith looked down at where his fingers were wrapped around Hunk’s, spotty burnt pink and sunny tan against dark, smooth brown. “I think I like Lance too, romantically at least. Sexually...” he trailed off, and Hunk snorted.
“You seemed pretty into it when he was playing with your ears that time he got drunk.” he teased. Keith felt himself flush.
“That was different.” he protested.
“Suuuure.” Hunk grinned, leaning back on his other hand.
“It was.” Keith insisted. “It wasn’t because of Lance.”
“Really?” Hunk cocked his head, and Keith had a feeling he’d regret divulging that particular bit of information sooner or later.
“Really.” he confirmed anyways. “I think-” he looked away from Hunk, out over the water again. This shouldn’t be so hard to say. Hunk had confided in him so casually, why couldn’t he do the same?
“Take your time.” Hunk said softly, hand pulling halfway out from under Keith’s so he could twine their fingers together. Keith’s throat tightened, and he inhaled deep. He could do this. It was just words, ones Hunk already knew.
“IthinkImaybedemi.” he blurted, glancing at Hunk briefly before turning back towards the open ocean.
“Demisexual.” he said, the word heavy as iron on his tongue. “I was reading one of the things you sent me, the one with the flags? And it just, it clicked.” his whole torso shook as he drew another breath, words coming faster. “I always thought it was like, a joke, when other kids talked about wanting to fuck someone they weren’t already with. I thought one night stands were just a thing in TV an stuff. I didn’t- I hope you-” a hand over his mouth made him stop, and Hunk gave him a gentle smile.
“Keith, breathe.” he held his hand in place until Keith took a deep breath through his nose, then removed it so Keith could exhale through his mouth. “I kinda figured you were at least a little bit ace.” Hunk admitted.
“How?” Keith frowned. He hadn’t even known that, and he’d only known Hunk since moving here.
“We hang out at the beach all the time and you never give anyone a second glance.” Hunk shrugged. “Guys, girls, doesn’t matter how skimpy the swimsuit is, you don’t give a shit.” he smiled again, soft and warm in that way that made Keith feel just a little less stressed no matter what. “It’s fine with me, either way. Me liking you isn’t contingent on us having sex.”
“Oh.” Keith ducked his head, shoulders hunching up slightly as he fought down a small grin. “Well, you’re actually how I figured out I’m not just full ace.” he glanced up, and found Hunk’s eyes fixed on him. “I like you and Lance both, but I can’t imagine being with him like I can being with you.”
Now it was Hunk’s turn to look away, cheeks quickly going dark with blush. Keith looked down at their hands, still joined together and resting on Hunk’s surfboard. He still didn’t quite know what it was he felt for Hunk, or for Lance, but he knew he didn’t want either of them to leave. Which would make it all the more painful when they inevitably did, but that was something for future Keith to worry about. For now, he was going to hold on to both of them as tight as they’d let him.
“Wanna go home?” Hunk asked, squeezing his hand gently. “Lance is a no-show, and we’re not catching any waves today.”
“Yeah.” Keith looked up with a grin, squeezing back. “I can show you that zombie movie I mentioned the other day.”
Hunk made a protesting whine, but his pout only made Keith smile wider as he pushed away from his partner’s board and started turning his around. There hadn’t been quite enough blood and gore and death in it for him, but Hunk liked sappy romances and happy endings, so he’d enjoy it. And maybe Keith would get some scaredy-cat cuddles, too.
Their mutual confession to Lance could wait until tomorrow.
Lance dove into the water, and scarcely had he taken a breath when he felt it. A mesh of knotted ropes, coarse and unnatural, wrapping around his body from below. He spun to try surfacing, but that escape was already cut off and he was being dragged up, the ropes pulling tight around him and tangling when he tried to claw through the net. His hands quickly became stuck, and as he was lifted from the water he went stone still. Humans, unfamiliar ones, wearing strange clothes and smiling far too wide. His gills fluttered frantically, trying to draw in the oxygen his mouth and throat couldn’t seem to pull into his lungs fast enough.
His moms were going to kill him.
“Incredible.” one of the humans said as the net moved over the deck of the ship towards an open hatch. “His photographs were actually genuine.”
“Hands off, Cusinotta.” another human said sharply. “We don’t know what kinds of diseases it could be carrying.”
“You just want to examine it yourself.” Cusinotta accused.
“I am the medical professional on this team.” the second human huffed.
“First!” a third voice laughed, and Lance yelped as a hand smacked his tail hard enough to sting.
“Miss Flynn.” Cusinotta glared at a woman who didn’t look much older than Keith. “That is not acceptable behaviour here.”
“You’re just jealous an intern got to be the first human to touch a mermaid.” she scoffed, and the other humans looked upset.
“Alright, that looks good. Start lowering.” yet another voice said. The net sank towards the opening beneath him, and Lance looked down to see it was full of water. His tail had barely dipped beneath the surface when suddenly he was submerged, and his head spun as his gills finally began pulling oxygen into his bloodstream. He managed to thrash his way free, and shot up towards the bright rectangular opening he’d been dropped in through. If he could get back on deck, he could get back in the water.
He broke the surface at full speed, and cried out in pain a split second later when his face hit something hard and unyielding. Blood seeped from one nostril as he sank back down, a cold panic expanding to fill his chest as he settled on the bottom of his cage. He was trapped. Worse, he’d been captured. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He curled up, tail to his chest, and gripped his hair hard enough to hurt.
He’d been such a fool, thinking he could get away with breaking one of the most stringently enforced laws in existence. Humans were dangerous, and now that they had him they would endanger his whole city, his whole species with their greed. His throat ached, too tight for anything to escape but a strangled sob. He was never going to see his family again, never going to play with Keith’s hair again, never going to become a guard or have a family or- or-
A wailing sob wracked his body, followed by another, and he released his hair to pound his fists on the coarse stone surface beneath him. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair it wasn’t fair it wasn’t- he screamed, the sound echoing back at him from walls that were too close, too blue, like the humans wanted him to think he was still free. Another sob wrenched itself free of his throat, and he collapsed on the floor. He was never going to see his friends again, or his family, or his home.
He was going to die here.
Keith stared at the ceiling of his bedroom, only barely seeing the plain expanse of white above him. Today made three days since he and Hunk had started friend-dating, and also three days since either of them had seen Lance. He and Hunk had agreed that their friend was probably sick, merfolk probably caught colds too after all, but it still didn’t sit right with him.
His phone buzzed next to him, and at the second buzz he turned to look at it. Hunk’s contact photo grinned up at him, and he accepted the call on speaker. “Hey.” he mumbled.
“Hey.” Hunk replied, audibly smiling.
“Somethin up?” Keith asked, and Hunk made a low little noise.
“Not really, just-” he sighed, heavy and slightly crackly through the speakers on Keith’s phone. “I can’t sleep.”
“Me neither.” Keith admitted. “I keep thinking about-”
“Yeah.” he nodded, even though Hunk couldn’t see him. “It’s not like him to just, vanish like this.”
“I’m worried.” Hunk confessed, the first time he’d said it in as many words. “What if he’s hurt?” he gasped, and the audible horror in it sent a chill down Keith’s spine. “What if he got caught?”
“Lance would never.” Keith refuted. “He’s been sneaking out of his city for ages, remember?”
“Oh, yeah.” Hunk sounded almost sheepish. “But what if he wound up as bycatch?”
“Then he would’ve been all over the news.” Keith rolled his eyes. “Look, I’m worried too, but it’s not like we can do anything. If he’s sick, or if he got hurt, then he’s home with his family getting better.”
“But what if...” Hunk trailed off, and Keith squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn’t bring himself to say it either, could barely even think about it.
“No.” he said firmly. “He’s not.” if he was, then there would be no reason for Hunk to keep loaning out his old surfboard. If he was, Keith had a terrible certainty that it meant he’d be alone again, only this time it’d hurt so much more.
“Hey, Keith?” Hunk whispered through the phone.
“Yeah?” Keith’s voice came out choked, and he cleared his throat. “Yeah?” he repeated more confidently.
“Can I come over?”
Keith, froze for a second, two, and then Hunk started talking again.
“I just, I can’t sleep, and I don’t think you can either, and I hate thinking about you lying awake all alone in the dark and-”
“Okay.” Keith interrupted Hunk’s babbling. “My foster dad is pulling an all-nighter at work, so if you want...”
Silence met his implication, and he could only imagine the colour Hunk’s face was turning. He kinda wished he was there to see it in person.
“Or not, we don’t have to.” he shrugged. “But, I think I’d like having you here.”
“I’ll be right over.” Hunk hung up, and Keith stared at his phone screen until it went black. He’d just done that. He’d invited his partner over, and pointed out they’d have the house to themselves, and- he rolled over to bury his face in his pillow. Was he even ready for this? He had some things tucked in a narrow box between his mattress and bed frame, and the thought excited him, but it was terrifying too.
He counted backwards from ten, and once he hit zero he forced himself to unfold his arms and push himself up away from the pillow. His limbs shook slightly as he got out of bed and padded down to the front door to unlock it, heart pounding like crazy in his chest. Hunk was coming over, and they’d be alone, and they were basically dating. There was only one outcome to this scenario.
Should he put on something nice? That was a thing people did for their partners, right, inviting them over and then greeting them at the door in something pretty? He didn’t own anything really nice, though, and what if Hunk laughed at him? What if that was a thing only girls did?
A knock on the door startled him from his thoughts, and he pulled it open to see Hunk in his usual shorts and T-shirt. Suddenly, his own ratty pj pants and lack of shirt made him feel weirdly under-dressed. “Keith!” Hunk grinned, and stepped forwards to wrap him in a hug. Keith practically melted, his own arms coming up automatically to return the embrace as he buried his face in Hunk’s shoulder.
“Let’s get to your room.” Hunk murmured in his ear, the brush of lips over his skin sending lightning down Keith’s spine. He nodded when Hunk pulled away, and took a second to lock the door before leading Hunk to his room. The moonlight through the open window fell next to his bed, and he swallowed hard as Hunk started to take off his pants. He could do this, he wanted to do this, so why was his stomach tying itself in knots at the idea of taking off his PJs?
“Keith?” Hunk’s voice shook him from his thoughts, and Keith gave his partner an apologetic grin.
“Sorry, little nervous.”
Hunk frowned. “Y’know, I wasn’t kidding when I said we don’t have to have sex if you don’t want to.”
“I want to.” Keith said quickly. “I want to have sex with you.”
Hunk smiled, and the chill seeping through Keith’s core abated a little bit. His pants slid off easily, and when he settled on the bed next to Hunk they were both down to their underpants. Hunk rested a hand on his waist, gentle as anything, and Keith shivered at the contact. Hunk’s hands on his skin weren’t unfamiliar, but like this, lying face to face on his narrow bed with only the moon and streetlamps outside for light, it was different. Intimate.
He scooted closer and Hunk’s hand drifted to his back, running gently down his spine. “If anything feels bad, in any way, tell me.” Hunk breathed, fingers tracing along the waistband of Keith’s boxers and sending shivers up and down his spine.
“Okay.” he nodded, and let Hunk gently turn him over onto his back. His heart was pounding in his chest as Hunk’s fingers traced mindless patterns on his skin, and he tried to focus on that, the warm touch which never failed to soothe him when he was frazzled. It wasn’t working this time, and instead he fixed his attention on his partner’s face. Hunk looked, stunned almost. Like he couldn’t comprehend what he was looking at.
“You’re so beautiful.” he murmured, one hand trailing up to trace Keith’s collarbone while the other settled on the mattress to support his weight. Keith felt himself blush, and Hunk’s mouth pulled into that soft little smile that made Keith’s head go all stupid.
“You too.” he replied, lifting his hands to cup Hunk’s face. Hunk smiled wider, and leaned down to rub their noses together.
“I bet you’ll look even more beautiful moaning my name.” his voice dropped lower as he ground down, and the lazy warmth which had stolen through Keith’s limbs without his noticing vanished in a flash, cold running down his back like a lightning bolt. He tensed, and Hunk went statue still above him. “Are you okay?” he asked, brows furrowing in concern as he pulled back.
“Ye- yeah.” Keith shivered, goosebumps breaking out across his skin. Hunk’s frown deepened.
“Keith, are you sure you want to have sex tonight?” he asked, thick calloused fingers carding Keith’s bangs back from his forehead. “We don’t have to.”
“I-” Keith took a shuddering breath, and Hunk’s frown flattened into a straight line.
“One second.” he said, rolling to sit on the edge of the bed and grab something from the floor. “Here, put these on.” he sat up, and held out Keith’s pj pants.
“Hunk, I-” he sat up, but stopped when Hunk held up a hand.
“I’m not having sex with you tonight, Keith.” he said firmly. “If you’re not ready, it won’t feel good, and I don’t want to hurt you. Ever.”
“Oh.” Keith took the clothes numbly, and looked down at the fabric in his hands.
“Now c’mon, get dressed and we can cuddle.” Hunk punched him gently in the shoulder. “That’s what I came over here for in the first place.”
“Really?” he blinked.
“Well, yeah.” Hunk smiled, small and soft and Keith swallowed down a strange, wordless sound that wanted to come crawling out of his throat. “When we were talking about Lance I just, I started thinking about how you’re all alone in this house, and I couldn’t just let you lie around in the dark like that.”
“That’s how I usually sleep.” he pointed out, and Hunk made a soft, wounded sound as he reached out for Keith, then seemed to think better of it and turned to grab something else off the floor. Keith shimmied back into his pjs, and when Hunk’s warm arms wrapped around him there was a layer of fabric between their chests. Hunk had put his shirt back on.
“C’mere.” Hunk murmured, pulling Keith’s back flush to his chest and lying down with an arm over his waist, hand splayed across most of his chest. Keith relaxed instantly, melting into the solid heat of the body behind him, and Hunk’s other hand stroked over his hair. “Don’t worry, it’ll all be okay.”
A pang of longing speared through Keith, and he turned over to bury his face in Hunk’s chest with a muted whine. “I wish Lance were here.” he mumbled. The bed was hardly big enough for three, but he still wanted the merman pressed up behind him, wanted to feel his inhuman skin on his bare back, to have that beautiful blue tail tangled in the covers right along with his and Hunk’s feet.
“Me too.” Hunk whispered, tucking Keith’s head against his shoulder. “But at least we’ve got each other, right?”
Keith nodded, and squeezed his eyes shut against the tears welling in them. Hunk held him closer, and eventually Keith drifted off to sleep.
It had been a week. One week since she found out Lance was consorting with humans. One week since he’d run away from home. He’d vanished before, but never for so long, and Amaia found herself worrying constantly. Hence her current position, floating just inside the crack which allowed any brave enough soul to leave the city unimpeded by guards. She clutched the warming charm around her neck tighter, held the bag of Mom’s cookies close to her chest, and headed deeper into the passage. It felt much smaller now that she was fully grown, but she still remembered which turns lead to dead ends and which would have her swimming in circles, so she was able to navigate it fairly smoothly.
It wasn’t far at all to the dead vent-stack, and the hidden door in the side opened at her touch. So he hadn’t locked her out, that was good. That meant there was still a chance to make this right. She shut the door behind herself, and sighed as the protective magics enveloped her. It really was something like a miracle this place was still standing, considering she and Lance had put the wards on it ten years ago at least. “Lance?” she called out, looking around the single room of the lower level. It looked like nobody had been here in a long time, the grit on the floor undisturbed except by currents she could’ve sworn weren’t there when they were little.
She swam up to the second level, and her heart leapt into her throat. It was just as undisturbed as the first, including the bed. Lance hated leaving his bed a mess, and this one was covered in the grit and grime which came with prolonged neglect. But if he wasn’t here... she dropped the bag of cookies and bolted for the door, trusting the magic to seal it behind her. Lance had been consorting with humans, humans he must’ve met at the surface. It went against everything she knew, everything she’d ever been taught, but she had to. For Lance.
She swam upwards until bright light dappled her brown scales, then set off towards the island their city was hidden in the base of. Lance wasn’t stupid, he wouldn’t human-watch from a place they’d easily see, which meant she needed to find somewhere near a congregation of humans which could double as a hiding place. A rock a decent ways out from a loud stretch of shore looked promising, and she was halfway over to it when a scrawny two-legged figure plunged into her view.
“Lance!” it cried, and she bared her teeth. as she shot forwards, wrapping a hand around the human’s neck.
“How do you know that name?” she hissed, and its eyes went wide. It clapped its hands over its mouth, bubbles trickling through its fingers, and she squeezed harder. “What did you do to my brother?” she screamed, shaking the human violently. A burst of bubbles escaped from its mouth, and she flicked her tail to bring them up to the surface. She could drown it after she got answers.
“Where is Lance?” she asked again, easing her grip enough for the human to breathe.
“Lance?” another voice asked clumsily, and she whipped her head around to glare at the speaker. Another human, this one much closer to her brother in colour and figure. It gibbered something at her, then paused and placed a hand to its chest. “Hunk.”
“Hunk?” she repeated with a frown. That was the name of one of Lance’s human friends, which meant the one she had in a stranglehold was probably the other. What was its name again? “Keet?” she asked, and it nodded. She released its neck, and it quickly attached itself to a wide colourful float.
Looking between the humans, she scowled at them both, baring her teeth slightly at them. “Where is Lance?” she asked sharply, and they looked at each other with- confusion? Fear? If they had taken her brother from her, they had better be afraid.
Hunk said something unintelligible, but the intonation was clear as day. They didn’t know. She flicked her tail to get some space, readying to dive again and keep looking, but the smaller human grabbed her wrist as if to keep her there. It asked something, then repeated itself slower and louder, as if that made its words any less garbled. Hunk touched it on the shoulder, and it looked away with a pout as the larger human took its hand and placed that on its chest.
“Keith, Hunk,” it said a gibberish word, then moved its own hand to the smaller human’s chest. “Hunk, Keith,” it repeated the word, and Amaia nodded slowly. They were close, obviously. Possibly siblings?
“Lance,” it pointed at her and said the word a third time, questioningly.
Amaia nodded and pressed a hand to her chest. “Amaia Espinosa.” she held a hand out next to her, slightly below the top of her head. “Lance Espinosa.”
The humans exchanged looks of shock, and gibbered at each other briefly before Keith gave Hunk a shove and pointed at her. Hunk grimaced, and turned to face her again. “Hunk, Keith,” it said a third word and pointed at the island. “Lance,” it repeated the word and pointed at the water just next to her. It gestured at itself and Keith, shaded its eyes and looked from side to side, and repeated Lance’s name before miming carrying something and dropping it in the water.
Amaia felt some of the tension leave her shoulders, and smiled as she nodded her head. They would help. These humans her brother had befriended would search for him where she could not. She swam closer, and took one of each of their hands in a tight grip. “Thank you.” she said, and released them before turning and diving back under. She would continue her search for her brother, but now there would be two more sets of eyes on the lookout. By the Deep Ones, she would be in so much trouble if anyone ever discovered what she’d just done.
Ever since the meeting with Lance’s sister, Keith had taken to counting the days since his friend’s disappearance. The day his foster dad sent a text asking him to bring a folder to the lab, it was fifteen days since Lance disappeared and eight since he and Hunk promised Lance’s sister they would look for him and bring him home if they found him. The folder wasn’t hard to find, he’d actually noticed it on the table earlier, and he shrugged on his hoodie before walking out of the house with it under his arm. It looked like rain, and he didn’t feel like getting completely drenched if the sky decided to open up while he was en route.
Got the folder, headed over now he texted, and jammed his phone in his pocket. He hated running errands while Lance was missing, but there was nothing he could do. He and Hunk didn’t even know where to start looking, and unless Lance’s sister turned up some information they could understand that was how it would stay. He scuffed the heel of his shoe on the sidewalk, and curled his fingers around the phone in his pocket. He hated this, everything about it. Lance was missing, probably alone and scared, maybe hurt, and he couldn’t do anything.
By the time he reached the facility his foster dad worked at, his mood was well and truly blackened. He showed the guard the folder and Mr. Cusinotta’s texted instructions, and they let him in without a fuss. The inside of the facility was as subtly unsettling as ever, large blocks of blue-tinted white and grey on the walls broken up by lines of a blue that was just a bit too vibrant to look natural. The receptionist pointed at the map by his desk rather than looking up from his phone, and Keith scanned the little colour-coded blueprint for offices.
Three long hallways and sharp turns later, he was pretty sure he was lost. And his phone didn’t have signal this deep in the building, so he couldn’t even call his foster dad and ask for directions. Sighing, he looked around for any doors with name plaques that looked interesting. His best bet was to find an employee, and if he was doing that he might as well try to find one who was doing something cool. An aimless turn or two later, he came to a door simply labelled Tanks; it opened when he grabbed the handle, and he stuck his head inside.
The room beyond was absolutely massive, wide walkways laid out around brightly lit tanks holding all manner of animals. Okay, that was pretty damn cool. He stepped into the room, letting the door fall shut behind him, and looked around. Each tank had a plaque bolted to the glass at the left edge, with a piece of printed paper detailing the condition of the animal inside. He tilted his head, scanning the information on the nearest one. Between the medical gibberish, he could make out that it was a sea turtle, and something about plastic garbage?
“Who are you?”
Keith startled at the voice, and spun to see a man with a bright blue lanyard staring at him. “I’m Keith.” he held up the file folder. “Mr. Cusinotta wanted me to bring this to him.”
“Oh!” the man laughed, walking over and clapping a hand on Keith’s shoulder. “Got lost?”
“A bit.” he answered sheepishly.
“It’s alright.” the man, Mr. Marren according to the ID on the end of his lanyard, assured him. “I’ve been here almost a year and I still get turned around sometimes.”
Keith nodded, unsure of what to say.
“Well, I’m just about done doing my rounds here, so you can follow me on the last of them and then I’ll take you to Mr. C’s office.”
“Thanks.” he managed a small, looking over at the tank with the sea turtle in it. “Is this where you bring the ones that are hurt?” he asked as Mr. Marren started leading him deeper into the room.
“Actually, it’s mostly new arrivals and temporary stays.” he said. “Our long-term residents are in another room.”
“How do you feed them?” Keith asked as they stopped by a tank with a pair of dolphins in it. According to the paper on the tank, they were scheduled to be moved to another facility for release into the wild next week.
“See those catwalks up there?” Mr. Marren pointed up, and Keith followed his finger to see thick grated walkways above their heads. “We use those to get food in, and animals in and out.”
“Cool.” Keith grinned, following the scientist to another tank. When the sound of their footsteps on the metal ceased, he realised there was another sound. Low and muffled, almost musical, it reminded him of documentaries he’d watched with Hunk. “Do you have a whale here?” he asked, eyes widening as he turned to Mr. Marren.
“Oh, no.” the man shook his head. “This facility’s nowhere near equipped for a whale.”
“So what’s that noise?” Keith asked, gesturing vaguely in the direction he was pretty sure the sound was coming from.
“New arrival. It’s pretty hush-hush right now, so don’t go telling your little friends anything.”
A chill ran down Keith’s spine, settling low in his gut. “Is it the one this file is about?” he asked, turning the folder so Mr. Marren could see its title. The man looked stunned for a minute, then chuckled.
“Yeah. I forgot, Mr. C is one of the project heads on that.” he grinned, and gestured for Keith to follow him. “If the boss trusts you with the files, I guess it’s alright for me to show you the real deal.”
Keith nodded mutely, and followed the scientist over to the wall opposite where he’d come in. Mr. Marren opened a door with a swipe of his badge and a four digit pin, and the anxiety in Keith’s gut only grew colder and heavier as they neared the source of the sound. These tanks weren’t like the ones in the other room. They were plain, minimal decoration inside. Most of them had completely flat bottoms without space to hide, which Hunk had said was important even in regular fish tanks.
“Normally we only keep animals in here while they’re recovering from surgery or the like.” Mr Marren said, his tone explanatory. “But until we figure out what exactly this thing is and how to set up a proper tank for it, we’re keeping it in here.” he stopped, and gestured to what seemed like the only occupied tank in the room. Keith made a small, wounded noise, and before he knew it his hand was pressed against the glass. Inside the tank, floating listlessly in the corner, was Lance.
He was singing, Keith realized with a painful jolt. He hadn’t realised at first, it was so different from the handful of songs he’d sung for them, but it was definitely Lance.
“Incredible, isn’t it?” the scientist said behind him. “Living proof that mermaids are real. It’s just the first specimen, but already we’re learning so much.”
He kept talking, but Keith wasn’t listening anymore. Lance was there, right there. Keith could call out to him right now, interrupt his achingly sad song and let him know he wasn’t alone anymore. But if he did that, there would be questions, and he couldn’t take that risk.
“I think I should get this folder to Mr. Cusinotta.” he said numbly, taking a step back from the glass. “Can you show me the way to his office?”
“Oh, of course. Right this way.” the scientist gestured, and Keith looked back over his shoulder as they headed back to the first room. He had to find a way back in here. Even if he couldn’t get Lance out right away, the merman didn’t deserve to think he’d been abandoned.
Keith held his breath as he tried the door handle, hoodie sleeve flopped over his hand to keep his fingerprints off the metal. It turned at his touch, and he slipped inside quickly. The metal grating rang softly under his feet as he crossed the room, trying to walk like he belonged here, and he looked around as he made a beeline for the far wall. The room seemed bigger from up here, nearly cavernous without the tanks blocking his view. The ceiling was too close for that, though, but he did feel strangely exposed.
The catwalk went right over the wall which separated Lance’s tank room from the other one, and finding Lance’s tank among the rest was a piece of cake. It was the only one with curtains set up around it. Keith ducked through the fabric, and after a moment of studying the latch on the mesh tank lid shrugged off his hoodie. A helpful handle made opening a section of the sturdy mesh easy, and he hauled it open with a grunt. Below him, Lance remained curled in the corner of the tank, staring silently at nothing.
“Lance.” he stage-whispered, and the merman didn’t react. Right, sound didn’t carry well from air to water. But the surface of the water was too far down for him to easily stick his face in it, so what was he supposed to do? “Lance.” he repeated himself louder, as loud as he dared. Still nothing. He opened his mouth to try a third time, and paused. Mr. Marren had talked about Lance like an animal, and the implication that he wasn’t smart enough to be his own person made Keith’s blood boil but it also gave him one very important detail. Lance hadn’t talked to them, not in English at least. He’d used magic to learn human language, maybe he’d used more magic to un-learn it?
“Lance.” Keith called, this time in Mermish. The merman’s head snapped up, and he launched himself off the floor with a single graceful motion. Keith leaned back from the opening, and a second later Lance burst from the water. He landed on the metal mesh which formed the lid of his cage, and Keith wasn’t sure if the sound he made was a word in any language but it was definitely happy.
“Keith!” he cried out, and pulled him into a hug. Keith hugged him back tight, and something in his chest twisted with pain and anger at the feeling of Lance’s ribs under his fingertips. They parted far too soon for his liking, and Lance made a distressed sound as he spotted the bruise around Keith’s neck, his hand coming up to hover over it. “Are you okay?” he asked, eyes flicking from Keith’s throat up to his face.
“I’m fine, are you okay?” Keith asked, resting his hands on Lance’s waist just under his gills. He certainly didn’t look okay, easily twenty pounds lighter with dark bags under his eyes.
“I do!” Keith exclaimed and pulled Lance in for another hug, this time squeezing as tight as he physically could. “Your sister, too. She’s the one that tried to choke me out.”
“Which one?” Lance asked as they parted, his hands drifting down to linger on Keith’s hips. He did his best to mimic the sound she’d made when introducing herself, and Lance’s eyes widened. “Holy shit.”
“She talked to you?”
“Uh, more charades than talking, but yeah.” he nodded. “She was looking for you.”
Lance laughed softly, and Keith raised a hand to gently touch his thin face. “Have they been feeding you?” he asked, and Lance nodded.
“Yeah, I just-” he grimaced and pressed a hand to his stomach. “I can’t keep any of it down.”
Keith made a worried noise, and moved his hands to grip both of Lance’s. “Are you sick?”
“Maybe.” Lance returned his grip. “Doesn’t help that it’s all super gross, compared to Mom’s and Hunk’s cooking. It’s practically raw.”
“Can you use magic to cook it?” Keith asked, and Lance shook his head.
“Bad enough they caught me, I don’t need them seeing what I can do.”
That made sense, but didn’t make Keith feel any more at-ease.
“But now you found me, so I won’t have to choke it down anymore.” Lance grinned, and Keith’s heart fell.
“I’m sorry.” he mumbled, looking down at their joined hands. “I can’t get you out of here.”
Lance made a distressed sound, and Keith looked up at his face. “I can’t get you out of here on my own, but I swear, once I get Hunk up to speed we’ll come back and get you out of here.” he promised, putting as much sincerity into his words as he could muster. “Hunk and I told your sister we’d bring you home, and I don’t care what it takes, we’re doing just that.”
Lance’s smile was so bright it nearly hurt, and he yanked on Keith’s hands to pull him in close. His lips were surprisingly soft, and unsurprisingly salty, and after a heartbeat of shock Keith kissed him back. Clumsily, he was sure, but Lance made a happy little sound and wrapped his arms around Keith’s waist so he must’ve done something right. He inhaled quickly when they parted, and Lance pressed another quick kiss to his lips.
“I’ve wanted to do that for while now.” the merman breathed, warm against his cheeks.
“Me too.” Keith grinned, pressing his nose to Lance’s for a quick nuzzle. “Hunk’s gonna be so happy you’re safe.”
“Tell him I miss him.” Lance said as Keith pulled away.
“I will.” Keith squeezed his hand. “Stay ready, we’re gonna come bust you out of here as soon as we figure out how.”
Lance nodded, and Keith leaned in to give him another quick kiss before he slid back into the water. The tank lid shut with a soft click, and he pulled his hoodie back on before slipping past the curtains into the larger room. Pulling out his phone, he drafted a message to Hunk to send as soon as he had signal again.
Meet me at my place. I found him.
Hunk fell backwards onto Keith’s bed with an oof, and stared up at the ceiling. “So you’re telling me Lance is safe for now, but slowly starving, and in order to keep our promise to his sister we have to break into and back out of your dad’s work?”
“Basically.” Keith nodded.
“This is crazy, you know that right?” he asked, turning his head to fully look at his partner where the paler teen sat cross-legged at the head of the bed.
“We can’t just leave him there.” Keith frowned.
Hunk sighed heavily, and folded his arms over his stomach. “I know, just- I’ve never broken into anywhere before.”
“Me either, which is why we need to plan.” Keith said, his tone leaving no room for argument.
“Alright.” Hunk sat up, leaning his weight on one hip so he could pivot and face Keith fully. “We’ll need a way in, a way to get Lance out of his tank, and a way back out.”
“The way out has to be to the ocean.” Keith insisted. “We can’t risk more people seeing Lance.”
“Good point.” Hunk wished he’d brought a notebook to write in. “Okay, then we’ll need blueprints. And some way to break the tank to get him out.”
“Why are we breaking the tank?” Keith frowned. “There’s a lid on the tank, yeah, but they used a hatch to get him in there.”
Hunk stared at Keith blankly for a moment, then dropped his head into one hand. “And you didn’t mention this earlier because?”
Keith didn’t answer, and when Hunk looked up he saw his partner flushing the most adorable shade of red under his sunburn. “Wait, did you get him out of the tank and not break him out right then and there?”
“He may have lost weight but he still weighs at least as much as I do!” Keith protested. “It’s gonna take both of us to carry him, or you to carry him and me to open the doors.”
“Damn, you’re right.” Hunk frowned.
“Also...” Keith looked down at his hands, blushing even redder. “Lance kinda, kissed me. A couple times”
Hunk blinked. “Well, at least we know he’s into you.” he grinned. That would make them asking Lance to be their sorta-boyfriend less awkward, if nothing else. “Was he any good?”
“I think?” Keith ducked his head, ears burning red in the middle of his mess of hair. “Not like I’ve got anyone else to compare him to.”
“Really?” Hunk frowned. “No, wait, yeah that makes sense.”
Keith chuckled, and Hunk scooted across the sheets to sit next to him. Keith fit perfectly against his side, and hummed contentedly as Hunk wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “I’m so happy he’s not in some rich jerk’s collection.” he mumbled.
“Me too.” Hunk gave his partner a gentle squeeze. “Now c’mon, we gotta work out how we’re getting in before anything else.”
“I can always say I’m there to see Mr. Cusinotta.” Keith suggested.
“Yeah, but what if they call him?” Hunk pointed out. “And since when do you go to see him without a reason? Or with me?”
“Mmm.” Keith frowned, brow furrowing under his bangs for a minute before his eyebrows shot up. “The dolphins!”
“Dolphins?” Hunk frowned. “We’re talking about Lance, not dolphins.”
“No, no.” Keith shook his head, sitting up and turning to face Hunk. “The facility has a pair of dolphins they’re releasing next week. I can say we’re there to see that.”
“That could work.” Hunk nodded slowly. “We get in, then get Lance out of his tank while everyone’s watching the dolphins.”
“Actually, I was thinking of something else.” Keith grinned. “But we’ll need to buy a few things for it to work.”
The waiting was the worst part. First for today to come, and now for the clock on his phone to hit 8. By then the only people left should be the cleaning crew, which lessened the chance of someone seeing them and sounding the alarm. They’d only been here a few hours, but it felt like forever. Especially since he’d had to stop playing on his phone to conserve its battery something like half an hour ago.
“Is it time yet?” Hunk whispered from the next stall over. Keith rolled his eyes, and pulled out his phone to check. 7:52.
“Close enough.” he replied, and got to his feet. His legs promptly complained, since he’d been curled up on the toilet seat for nearly three hours, and he leaned down to touch his toes. He saw Hunk’s feet touch the floor and walk out of the stall, and followed after another few seconds of stretching. “You good?” he asked, flipping up the hood on his borrowed hoodie.
“As I’ll ever be.” Hunk grimaced, and Keith reached out to take his hand and squeeze it.
“Remember, all you have to do is carry Lance.” he assured his partner. “Anything else needs doing, I’ll handle it.”
Hunk nodded, and followed him over to the door without releasing his hand. A quick check showed the halls as clear, and the two of them slipped out to head towards their objective. The door to the feeding area was unlocked, the metal catwalks beyond just as empty as they’d been last time Keith was here. This time though, with all the tank lights off for the night, the space felt foreboding.
Hunk followed on his heels, and Keith found himself holding his partner’s hand tight as they crept towards the curtained-off top of Lance’s tank. The fabric moved easily, and once it had fallen shut behind Hunk he pulled out his phone again. His lockscreen wasn’t bright enough to burn his eyes, but it was more than enough to illuminate the hatch. And the big, fat padlock holding it shut.
“You didn’t say there was a lock!” Hunk hissed.
“There wasn’t one last time I was here!” Keith hissed back, and turned to yank on the lock. It rattled, but didn’t give.
A soft cry of “Hunk!” came from the tank, and slender brown fingers slotted through the mesh next to the hatch as Lance pulled himself out of the water. “You’re here.” he grinned, and Keith’s heart thudded painfully in his chest. They’d promised Lance’s sister they’d bring him home, he’d promised to get Lance out of here, and now they couldn’t even get Lance out of his tank.
“Lance!” Hunk’s hands pressed over Lance’s fingers, relief washing the anxiety from his face.
“Lance, we’ve got a problem.” Keith said, cutting in before the merman could say anything else. “The hatch is locked.”
“Locked?” Lance frowned, moving hand over hand to the hatch. “What’s it made of?”
“Metal, probably steel.”
“Alright.” Lance let go of the lid and sank slightly in the water, bringing his hands together and interlacing his fingers before turning them palms-out in a stretch. “Stand back, this is gonna be messy.”
Keith took a step back, and Hunk stood to follow suit. Lance murmured something under his breath, light building between his palms before condensing to a ball maybe the size of a marble, and with a single flick of his wrist he threw the ball into the lock. The reaction was instantaneous, a noise like a dozen gunshots combined followed shortly by the clang of metal on metal. Well, there went any hope they had of getting out unnoticed.
“Hunk!” Lance chirped, leaping from the water and hauling himself up onto the walkway. Hunk staggered slightly, shook his head, and stooped to lift the merman into his arms.
“Maybe give us a little more warning next time?”
“Let’s just get out of here.” Keith said sharply, pulling the curtain open as he pocketed his phone again. The exit door was easy enough to find, the sign above it glowing red in the low light, and he pulled it open in time for Hunk to burst through without slowing his stride.
“Left!” he called out, and Hunk skidded slightly as he turned. The facility’s layout was pretty simple, the hallways laid out on a neat grid, but the only door on the side which overlooked the beach was a fire exit. Hunk shouldered it open when they reach it without breaking stride, and Keith ducked through on his heels. Right into a spotlight, with flashing red and blue lights visible on either side of the building.
Lance didn’t know much about human laws, but it didn’t take a genius to know that bright lights when Keith and Hunk were saving him were bad news.
“What do we do?” Hunk whimpered, turning to Keith.
“We get Lance home.” Keith narrowed his eyes, hands curling into fists. “Run for it!” he gave Hunk a shove, and Lance held on tighter as his friend charged down the stairs. A distorted voice was blaring down at them from the sky, but he ignored it. He had to focus, had to remember. There was a spell, a shielding one built into large hotstones which kept them from warming the entire room or building they were located in. If it was left active too long, all the water inside would boil away and you were left with a bubble of crystals which dissolved almost instantly once the stone was turned off. That meant the spell stopped water from getting in, but which one was it?
He pooled magic in his palms, and as the first sprays of ocean water touched his scales he twisted to reach for Keith. He was about ninety percent sure he had the right incantation, he just needed skin contact for it to work on both of them. “Keith!” he cried out, and the human stopped waist-deep in the surf to turn towards him. “Trust me!” he gripped Hunk’s neck tight with one hand, and reached the other out as far as he could. Keith took it, and Lance uttered the spell breathlessly. Magic shimmered around their bodies, and he crowed in triumph before squirming free of Hunk’s hold.
He grabbed one of Hunk’s wrists as he fell, and pulled both humans down into the water with him. One flick of his tail had him pointed out to sea, and with another two they were out in water deeper than the three of them put together. He dove down, darting sideways along the island’s shore to evade the roving searchlight, and only when Hunk’s grip began to slacken did he pause.
“Hunk?” he turned, and found Keith with a hand clapped over his mouth and Hunk’s chest moving with rapid, shallow breaths. He moved Keith’s hand to Hunk’s back, and pulled Hunk in with both hands. “Hunk, stay with me.” he murmured, tilting the human’s head up and pushing his face through the magic shielding to seal their lips together, breathing in deeply though his gills as he exhaled from his lungs. Hunk pulled away coughing, and Lance reeled him in for another kiss, forcing oxygen into the human’s lungs. This time Hunk held his breath when they parted, and Lance moved around him to do the same for Keith.
Keith held his breath after the first one, and Lance brought them gradually towards the surface as he kept following the coastline. The bright lights were nowhere to be seen, and he dragged his human friends to the shore not so far away. He cancelled the magic as soon as they got their feet under them, and Hunk staggered three steps before collapsing to his hands and knees, gasping for air.
“Next time.” he wheezed, turning to look at Lance imploringly. “Warn us.”
“Sorry.” he said sheepishly, sinking lower in the water until his tail rested on the gravel bottom. Normally the texture would’ve irritated him, but after what felt like an eternity in that observation box h welcomed the sensation of actual rocks shifting against his scales.
“I mean, it worked.” Keith laughed, a sharper sound than usual. “Holy shit, that was close.” he pulled off his jacket, balled it up, and flung it to shore before wading over to Lance and dropping to his knees so they were level with each other. “Can I kiss you again?” he asked breathlessly, eyes shining in the moonlight.
Lance answered by leaning in, and Keith’s hands came up to cup his cheeks. Keith wasn’t a terribly good kisser, but there was no denying his enthusiasm. Lance gripped him by the hips, pulling himself closer, then moved a hand up to grip the back of Keith’s head. He opened his mouth slightly, swiping his tongue along Keith’s lower lip, and the human’s lips parted immediately.
He tasted strange, utterly unlike anyone Lance had kissed before, and when his hands drifted down Lance had to break their kiss to moan softly. He wanted Keith, wanted to do so much more than just kiss him senseless, but this wasn’t the time or place. The relief of being free was already wearing off, the gravel digging into his scales becoming properly uncomfortable, and the skin on Keith’s legs was softer than those so he certainly wasn’t comfortable either. “Keith.” he gasped, planting a hand on the human’s chest to push him away.
Keith made a small whine of protest, but didn’t try to push his way closer, instead pouting at Lance. The moonlight made his skin look even paler than usual, where the burnt red had peeled away, and the contrast between it and his hair and eyes was intoxicating. “We should go home.” he said softly, looking past Keith to where Hunk had found a feat on the stony shore. “Meet me here tomorrow, and we can- we can talk.”
“Okay.” Keith nodded, lifting a hand to brush a lock of Lance’s hair back from his forehead. “I love you.”
Lance felt his face heat, and uncurled his tail with all the force he could muster to fling himself backwards. He twisted as he flew through the air, and the water was cool on his surely reddening face. Keith loved him. Loved him. That was all the more reason to hunt down the re-lifing spell. They could never be together like both their hearts yearned to be as long as they were two different species.
Lance hadn’t fit through his bedroom window since he was thirteen, but when he drifted up to his house he headed for the side anyways. Amaia being a light sleeper had been the bane of his existence for a few years, but tonight it was going to be helpful as all hell. He knocked on the wall of her bedroom softly but insistently, and after a minute her curtains parted just enough to reveal her face. She glared at him for a second, two, then her eyes flew open and she gasped. Lance grinned, and darted over to her window with a flick of his tail.
“You’re back.” she breathed, reaching out a hand to caress his cheek. “They found you.”
“They saved me.” he grinned, covering her hand with his own. “But, uh, I need you to unlock door.”
Amaia snorted, and pulled her hand from his face. “Give me two beats, I’ll let you in.”
Lance nodded, and swam down to wait by the door. A few minutes later, he was on his bed with Amaia at the tail and a thick blanket wrapped around his shoulders. His sister pulled the blanket tighter around him, and he swatted her hands away. “Ama, I’m fine.” he chuckled, and she glared at him as she crossed her arms.
“You come back from almost two weeks in human hands stem thin and say you’re fine?”
“Aside from that.” he grimaced. It had taken him months to build up his insulation, and not even two weeks to lose it all. Getting into the city guard would be even harder now.
“What are you going to tell our moms?” Amaia asked after a few long seconds of silence. “Not truth, obviously.”
“Obviously.” Lance nodded. “It should be simple, too. Something we can avoid contradicting each other on.”
“And as close to truth as we can get without you being exiled.” Amaia said, scooting closer to him. He turned so they were side by side, and one of her arms came to rest across his shoulders. “You may be reckless idiot, but you’re still my brother.”
“If you think I’m reckless, you should meet Keith.” he chuckled.
“I actually did.” Amaia admitted. “Those humans you mentioned, they promised to bring you home.”
“I know.” he grinned, leaning into her embrace. “I meant you should come with me sometime, when I go to see them.”
“You’re going back?” Amaia pulled away from him, looking aghast. “You just got away!”
“Well, there’s stuff I gotta talk about with them.” Lance fixed his gaze on the floor, avoiding looking at his sister. They were practically twins, hatched within months of each other, and it showed in their uncanny ability to read each other. “But first, we gotta figure out what to tell Mom and Mama.”
“Well, if we wanna keep it close to truth... we could say you were kidnapped by exiles?” Amaia suggested. Lance shook his head.
“Last thing we want is to get authorities involved.”
“Good point.” she hummed, and he looked down at his hands, his unnaturally thin fingers curled in the hem of his blanket.
“Maybe... we say I was sick.” he said slowly. “I ran off to our hideout to sulk, then got too sick to make it home.”
“And I was taking care of you, which is why I’ve been out of house so much.” Amaia nodded. “Oh, speaking of that hideout, it’s lots nicer than I remember.”
“I was pretty bored last summer.” Lance shrugged. It had been a fun project, turning the old vent into a passable little apartment. Kept him busy, at least.
“Why wouldn’t I tell our moms, though?” Amaia asked, bringing the conversation back around to hiding his capture from their parents.
“Hmm, we didn’t want to worry them?” he suggested after a minute of thought. “That, or I didn’t want them coming out to our hideout.”
“Or both.” Amaia chuckled.
“Both is good.” Lance nodded. Both put the responsibility on his shoulders, and he looked too pitiful right now for his moms to stay mad at him. He’d have to sneak out in the morning and come back once one of them was up, but then he could go to the library and find that spell. And if it was in a reference book he couldn’t check out, well, he could always take notes.
Hunk blinked awake, and smiled. Lance was safe at home, Keith was curled up against his chest, and he could smell his mom making breakfast. Today was already off to a good start, and it was only... he twisted to check his clock, careful not to disturb Keith. Wow, it was only seven-something in the morning. He settled back into a comfortable position, and pulled Keith close. His partner made a sleepy noise of confusion, and Hunk shushed him gently.
“It’s okay.” he murmured, stroking Keith’s hair. “You can go back to sleep.”
Keith grunted, and pressed his face into Hunk’s chest. Hunk hummed softly, rubbing at his partner’s shoulders, but after a minute of cuddling Keith squirmed free of his embrace and pushed himself vaguely upright. Hunk made a questioning noise, and Keith blinked at him with a sleepy scowl before his face softened into a smile that made Hunk feel warm all over.
“Bathroom. Back in a minute.” he murmured, and leaned down to press a kiss to Hunk’s cheek. He managed to keep his composure until Keith left the room, then rolled onto his stomach and buried his face in his pillow. God, Keith was so cute he couldn’t stand it, especially with his hair all mussed up and that tiny sleepy smile on his face. And he was so warm, too, and just the right size to curl up with.
“Your mom says breakfast is almost ready.” Keith’s voice was soft, barely louder than the click of the door shutting.
“Mmng.” Hunk grunted, turning his head when the mattress dipped. “But cuddles.” he whined, and Keith’s whole face lit up with a soft, delighted little smile he was sure nobody else had ever seen.
“C’mon, Hunk, your mom’s almost as good a cook as you are.” Keith poked him in the side, and he whined as he batted his partner’s hand away. Keith was undeterred, though, and soon Hunk was laughing as he fended off tickle attacks, quite firmly no longer asleep.
“Alright, alright.” he wheezed, and Keith flopped down next to him. “I’m up.” he grinned at his partner, and Keith’s cheeks dusted pink. “I’m glad I met you.” he murmured. Keith’s blush darkened, and he curled closer to press his warm face into Hunk’s chest.
“Me too.” he mumbled, curling even closer when Hunk draped an arm over his waist. Mom would expect them downstairs for breakfast soon, but until then he was going to enjoy this. Keith didn’t talk much about his life before moving here, but what he’d let slip painted a bleak and lonely picture. One Hunk was determined to make brighter, by giving his partner as much affection as he needed.
“I wonder if we’ll see Lance today?” he thought aloud, and Keith pulled away to give him a look of disbelief.
“He agreed to meet us today, didn’t he?”
“Well, yeah, but you know how much his family’s missed him.” he moved his hand to Keith’s neck, brushing his fingers over the pale remnants of the bruise Lance’s sister had left there. Keith pouted, and Hunk leaned in to press their noses and foreheads together briefly. “If he’s not there today, it’s not because he doesn’t care.”
“Right.” Keith sighed, relaxing into Hunk’s embrace. “I just, I miss him.”
“Me too.” Hunk pulled Keith closer, squeezing him gently. “Me too.”
He hoped Lance showed today. They had a lot to talk about.
The beach, when they arrived, was empty. Hunk wasn’t surprised, this particular scrap of gravel wasn’t exactly inviting unless every other beach was packed with tourists. Keith was silent as they paddled out into the gentle surf, his face thoughtful, and Hunk wondered what was going through his head. He didn’t have long to wonder, though, because a spray of water soon erupted between their boards and Keith let out an undignified yelp as he was wholesale tackled off of his in a blur of brown and blue.
He surfaced a second later, spluttering and pushing his hair out of his eyes while Lance circled him. “You’re here!” he chirped happily, darting in to hug Keith once he’d made a complete circle. He backed off quickly, and dropped underwater for a second before resurfacing at the side of Hunk’s board and hugging one of his legs with a wide grin. “I was worried bright light humans caught you.”
“You mean the cops?” Hunk chuckled, reaching down to lift Lance from the water for a proper hug as Keith righted his surfboard. “Nah, Keith’s a ninja and I know this island like the back of my hand. Nobody’s catching us unless we want them to.”
Lance smiled with all his sharp teeth, and made himself comfortable on Hunk’s board as Keith pulled himself out of the water and paddle over to float next to them. “You said we could talk today.” the merman said, smile fading as he looked from Hunk to Keith. “Can we talk about, us?” he gestured vaguely, and Keith nodded.
“I like you.” he said bluntly. “I think I maybe love you. It’s not the same as what I feel for Hunk, and I don’t want the same things from you that I want from him, but it’s just as strong and I-” Keith drew a shaky breath, and Hunk reached out to put a supportive hand on his knee. He’d helped Keith write this whole confession out while they waited for it to be late enough to reasonably expect Lance at the beach, but that didn’t make it his to say. Not this part, at least.
“I want to date you.” Keith said, audibly forcing the words out. Lance made a happy sound, and the look on his face didn’t need any kind of translator.
“I have something to say too.” Hunk said, moving his hand down to rest on Lance’s tail. “I don’t really do romance, but Keith is important to me. So are you, and in the same way.” he paused, watching Lance’s face for comprehension before continuing. “I don’t know if merfolk do multiple partners, or if you do multiple partners, but if you don’t you don’t have to-”
Lance twisted in his arms, and pulled him down into a kiss. “Yes.” he grinned when they parted. “I’ll be your-” he said a word in Mermish, and leaned in to nuzzle their noses together.
“I was right.” Keith chuckled, and Lance made a confused noise as Hunk looked over to where his human partner had one leg curled up to his chest, a soft little smile on his face.
“About what?” Hunk frowned, Lance sitting up and curling his tail around the underside of his board.
“About Mermish having a word for it.” Keith’s grin brightened, and Hunk was struck by a powerful surge of affection.
“Is that what you wanted to talk about?” Lance asked, head tilting slightly as he looked between them.
“Yeah.” Hunk nodded, placing his hands on the board behind him and leaning back. “Was there something else you wanted to talk about?”
Lance nodded, his heart doing a strange twisty thing in his chest. “It’s, actually part of why I got caught.” he said slowly, trying to figure out how to word it. “There’s this spell, see. It’s really complicated, and can only be cast on person once, and it’s usually used as punishment, but...” he took a deep breath and looked between their faces, though their expressions did little to calm his racing heartbeat. “I was thinking of using it to become human.”
“What?!” they cried in unison, and Hunk lurched forwards to wrap a hand around his wrist.
“Can we really be together like this?” he asked rhetorically. “If I stay as I am, then pretty soon I’ll be in training, and I won’t be able to see you every day. If I make myself human-”
“You wouldn’t exist on paper.” Keith interrupted. “No birth certificate, no social security number, you can’t go to school or get a job without that stuff.”
“Plus, Mr. C knows your face now.” Hunk added. “You wouldn’t be able to go to Keith’s house. Hell, you wouldn’t be safe on this island.” he gestured at the landmass behind him.
“You say that like I’m not getting kicked out the second I turn 18.” Keith huffed.
Lance looked between them, a distressed whine building in his throat. “But, I don’t want to lose you.” he said, his voice coming out small and hurt.
“We don’t want to lose you either, Lance.” Hunk’s hand slid down to twine with his own. “You’re perfect the way you are, that’s why we don’t want you putting yourself in danger for us. Right, Keith?”
Lance followed Hunk’s gaze to the paler human, and found him looking at the water with a thoughtful expression. “What if...” he looked up, an unreadable look on his face. “Lance did the spell on me?”
“Keith.” Hunk said, almost pleading, and Lance stared at the human.
“You would do that?” Lance asked, locking eyes with Keith, who nodded.
“It’s not like anyone would report me missing if I vanished, but you’ve got your whole family.” Keith lifted a hand to his throat, fingertips resting on the shadow of a bruise which marked where Amaia had hurt him. “If one of us is changing species for this, it should be me.”
“I would.” Hunk said before Lance could respond. “I’d report you missing, if you vanished.”
“Aww, Hunk.” Keith grinned, pressing a hand to his heart.
Mentally shelving the fact that Keith seemed touched by the very idea of someone caring if he went missing, Lance turned to give Hunk an imploring look. “What about you?” he asked, laying a hand on the human’s knee. “It wouldn’t be right, just having Keith with me.”
Hunk shook his head. “I can’t. I love the ocean, and swimming, and both of you, but I could never give up my family.”
Lance nodded, and moved his hand to take Hunk’s again. “If you ever change your mind, just tell me. All I need is few days before full moon to gather materials.”
“Why the full moon?” Keith frowned.
“I don’t know.” Lance shook his head. “But magic is always strongest when moon is full, especially when performed in its light, and spell of this caliber needs most magic possible. If I’m doing this alone, I’ll need full moon to make it work.”
“Wait, how many casters is this spell supposed to have?” Hunk frowned. Lance looked away, trying not to think about the diagram which left clear spots around the circle for five casters.
“Does it matter?” he asked. “I can do it, as long as I have full moon.”
“But can you do it without burning yourself out?” Keith asked, his voice laced heavily with concern. “It would suck to turn mermish and have you die on me a hot second later.”
“Keith, I promise.” he said solemnly. “This next full moon, I can and I will turn you into merman. And then we’ll both come back to surface so Hunk knows we’re okay.” he turned to the human whose hand he was still holding, and smiled softly as he gave Hunk’s strong fingers a squeeze. “Does that sound alright?”
“I still don’t like the idea of you turning Keith into a merman.” Hunk said slowly. “We haven’t known each other that long, and this sounds like a pretty big life decision.”
“It is.” Lance nodded. “This spell can only be performed on person once.”
“What?” Hunk balked. “And you were going to turn yourself human with it?”
“I’m still in.” Keith said resolutely.
“Keith, please, think about this a little more.” Hunk pleaded. “This is the rest of your life we’re talking about.”
“And I want to spend the rest of my life with Lance.” Keith tilted his chin up, eyes narrowing stubbornly. Lance’s heart fluttered at the words, and he leaned over to take one of Keith’s hands in his own. Four days. Four days, and he would have one of his future mates with him on the seafloor.
“Tell me why I’m helping you with this again?” Amaia asked as they slipped out of the city, each of them carrying a bag of materials slung over one shoulder.
“Because I only have few days to manufacture a spell circle in water shallow enough moon’s light will reach it, and I won’t make that deadline if I have to make twice as many trips.” Lance huffed, gathering the bag into his arms as he started upwards. “Also, you’re already accomplice.” he grinned over his shoulder at his sister.
She stuck her tongue out at him, but said nothing else until they reached the ledge he’d been constructing the circle on. A few carefully placed spells had generated the right combination of currents, and he carefully set his bag down against the rocky wall. With this, he had all the materials he needed. It would take a few more hours to set the circle up properly and bind it all in place with magic, but after that...
“Can you take me to see your humans?” Amaia asked, startling him from his thoughts. He twisted around, and stared blankly at his sister.
“Can I what?”
“Introduce me to them.” she said. “I haven’t had chance to thank them for bringing you home.” a small smile flickered across her face, and Lance sighed.
“I think you already introduced yourself well enough.” he mimed crushing his own throat with one hand, and Amaia grimaced.
“I thought he’d hurt you.” she defended. “That he was why you went missing.”
Lance elected not to mention that technically, the one who had him pulled from the water was Keith’s current legal guardian. “He doesn’t hold it against you, y’know.” he said instead, taking Amaia’s bag from her and setting it down carefully alongside the others.
“I’d still like to meet them. We couldn’t really talk, last time.”
Oh, right, his sister had never learnt Human. “So how did they promise you anything?” he asked, bushing some grime from the ledge off of his scales.
“Charades, mostly.” she shrugged. “But enough of that, are you gonna introduce us or not?”
“Fine, fine.” he lifted his hands placatingly. “I was planning to head up and meet them after this trip anyways.”
“Yes!” Amaia punched one fist over her head.
“Wait, just one beat.” Lance grabbed the end of her tail as she shot up, tightening his grip just enough his hand didn’t slide down past the flare of her fin. “I’m not playing translator for you.”
“Then how am I supposed to talk to them?” Amaia pouted, crossing her arms.
“I’m gonna put spell on you.” he said simply, already gathering magic in his fingertips. “This one, I found while I was looking for that one.” he jerked his head towards the still-unconstructed circle. “Hold still, this may tingle slightly.” he touched his fingertips to Amaia’s face, and murmured the incantation. Shimmering lines of magic spread across her forehead and over her scalp, only dimly visible through her thick hair. The sensation was a strange one, different from any other spell he’d cast, but it quickly passed and he removed his hands from her head.
“Can you understand me?” he asked in Human.
“I- yes.” Amaia blinked. “What spell was that?”
“Sharing spell.” Lance grinned, backing off to a comfortable distance with a flick of his tail. “It’ll only last ‘til end of day, but until then you’ll know everything I know about Human.”
“Huh.” Amaia grinned. “Neat.”
“It really is.” Lance nodded. He may have to use it on Keith a few times, until he was passably fluent in Kletlese. Oh, Deep Ones, he was going to have to teach Keith Kletlese wasn’t he? And pick out a proper name for him.
“C’mon, let’s go see your humans.” Amaia grabbed his hands, pulling him up with her.
“Yeah.” Lance nodded. “Let’s.”
“Hey, Keith?” Hunk grabbed his partner’s wrist as the shorter boy moved to stand, and Keith looked at him with a soft questioning sound.
“Do you think I could sleep over at your place tonight?” he asked, and Keith gave that soft smile that never failed to make Hunk remember why he’d wanted to spend his life with this boy.
“Sure.” he said, scooting closer to Hunk’s side instead of getting up.
“You’re not gonna text Mr. C?” he tilted his head slightly, and Keith shook his.
“What’s he gonna do, ground me?”
“Fair.” Hunk pursed his lips. He still didn’t like this plan, didn’t like the idea of Keith making such an irreversible life decision before he could even vote, but every day closer to the full moon his partner had seemed happier and happier. Even now, he was smiling brighter than normal as he cuddled up to Hunk’s side, slipping his wrist free to lace their fingers together. It stung, just a bit. Keith and Lance both said they would make time, they would make it work, but Hunk couldn’t help feeling like he was being left behind.
Keith had been given a choice: human or merman, land or sea, Hunk or Lance.
He’d chosen Lance.
“Hunk?” Keith murmured, blinking up at him with his utterly adorable sleepy expression. “Something wrong?”
“Nah.” Hunk shook his head. He didn’t want tonight to be soured by his stupid irrational emotions.
“We should head over soon.” Keith yawned.
“We should.” Hunk nodded, squeezing his hand. “Lemme grab a change of clothes.”
“Mm’kay.” Keith nodded, and Hunk’s heart did a painful little twist in his chest. He would never see Keith like this again, sleepy and adorable and so utterly, painfully vulnerable. After tomorrow, Lance would be the one who got to see Keith like this.
He grabbed a change of clothes quickly, tucking them in a drawstring bag with his toothbrush, and when he returned to the living room Keith was waiting at the door. Keith’s hand slid shyly into his the second the door shut behind them, and Hunk gave it a gentle squeeze as they started over towards his partner’s house. It wasn’t a long walk, the silence between them filled by the ambient noises of nighttime, and before he knew it they were at Keith’s door, then in Keith’s room. Brushing their teeth and pulling on their PJs, or in his case shucking off his pants, seemed to take no time at all, and anxiety welled up in Hunk’s chest. This was going too fast, time was moving too fast. It felt like if he blinked it would be morning, and then he’d have just one day left to spend with Keith.
“Okay, what is it.” Keith crossed his arms and frowned at Hunk, the pale light of the near-full moon on his cheeks making him look more pouty than scowly.
“Nothing.” he denied quickly. Keith’s eyebrows pulled down farther. “Keith, really, it’s nothing.” he took his partner’s hand and squeezed it gently. “I just want to spend my last night with my qpp cuddling.”
Keith still didn’t seem convinced, but let Hunk guide him to lie down and quickly curled up against his chest. He was warm in Hunk’s arms, like a little campfire, or an oven, and the heat was soothing in a way nothing else was. Hunk ran a hand up Keith’s bare back, feeling the soft skin laid out over bones he still thought were far too close to the surface, and tried to commit the feeling to memory. Tomorrow night, Keith’s skin wouldn’t feel this way anymore. Tomorrow night, it would be Lance holding Keith close as he drifted off to sleep. He should be happy for them, happy that the two people he cared about most in the world outside of his family had found love in one another, but it still burned like acid in his throat.
“I can’t believe this is our last night together.” Keith murmured into his chest, and Hunk stilled.
“It doesn’t have to be.” he whispered, but he knew the words were futile. Keith had made up his mind, made his choice. Nothing Hunk did or said could change that. It didn’t stop him from wishing he could, though. Keep Keith with him, here and warm and human in his arms. But Keith would hate him if he tried to do that, and then Lance would steal Keith away for real and the depths of the ocean would swallow them both.
“I’m going to miss this.” Keith mumbled, pulling Hunk back to the present. “I’m going to miss you.” he tilted his head up, dark bangs splayed across his pale, sunburnt forehead. Hunk couldn’t stifle the pained little noise that left his throat, and and he pulled Keith into a tight hug.
“Then don’t go.” he begged. “Stay here, stay human.” he opened his mouth again, but choked on his words. Stay with me.
Keith seemed to understand, though, because his expression turned achingly sad. Hunk hated to be the reason for that look on Keith’s face. He wanted to make Keith’s life better, make him happy, not be another person to let him down or try to control him.
“I know-” Keith frowned, and pulled away slightly. Hunk let him go. “I want to.” he said eventually. “But I want to be with Lance, too.”
“You want to be with him more.”
Hunk hadn’t meant to sound accusatory, but the words left his mouth sharp and angry. Keith stiffened slightly, as if readying for a blow, and somehow that was worse than if he’d flinched. Silence hung heavy over them after that, and Hunk fixed his gaze on the bedsheets between them. There went his hopes to spend tonight cuddling Keith and making him feel good.
“Remember how I said once that I’ve been in the system for a while?” Keith said eventually. Hunk’s eyes flicked up to his partner’s face, and he nodded. “Well, that ‘while’ started when I was six years old.” Hunk drew a sharp breath in through his teeth, and Keith’s gaze drifted down. “My mom left, and then my dad let them take me. I don’t even remember the last time I lived somewhere that felt like home.”
Hunk made another soft, pained noise and reached out to take Keith’s hand, gripping it tight.
“Being with you is nice. It’s-” Keith chuckled, dry and almost forced. “It’s the best I’ve ever felt around another human. But being with Lance, out on the water?” his gaze lifted, his eyes dark and bottomless and pleading. “It feels like home, Hunk.”
Great, now he felt like even more of a jerk for wanting to keep Keith to himself. “Oh.” he mumbled, and Keith scooted in closer.
“But I wouldn’t give you up for the world. You know that, right?” Keith freed his hand from Hunk’s grip, lifting it to rest on his cheek. “That why Lance and I, we’re going to make this work. We’re going to make time for you, no matter what happens, because you’re important to us.”
“Alright.” Hunk forced a smile, and Keith scooted closer again, this time until they were flush from hip to shoulder. Or, well, hip to where Keith’s shoulders pressed against Hunk’s chest.
“Feel better now?” he asked with that stupid little grin that usually made Hunk’s heart soar.
“Mostly.” he answered honestly. “Still feels like I’m losing you, but-”
Keith leaned in, silencing him with a quick brush of his lips. “What if,” he whispered, voice lower than it had been a second ago. “I give you something that I’ll never give to Lance?”
“What?” Hunk asked, and Keith grinned as he hooked a leg over Hunk’s thigh.
“You can be my first.”
In my state and in Hawaii, where this story takes place, Hunk and Keith are both of consenting age, so I’ve not applied the “underage” content warning. This chapter does contain 17 year olds engaging in sexual activities though, so if that makes you uncomfortable you can skip it.
“Are you sure?” Hunk asked, and Keith nodded once. The hesitance and uncertainty he’d felt last time were nowhere to be found tonight.
“Absolutely.” he answered, sliding his hand from the back of Hunk’s head to trail down his side, pausing at the waistband of his boxers. “I want to have sex with you, Hunk. Before I give up my dick for that tentacle thing Lance has.”
After, he wasn’t sure how sex would work. Did merfolk even have penetrative sex, or was it more like fish, with external fertilisation? He’d never worked up the courage to ask Lance about that. Thankfully, Hunk didn’t mention the implication about having sex after his transformation, just pressed their foreheads together and gripped the back of his head with one broad hand, thick fingers tangling in his hair.
“Are you really, really sure?” Hunk asked, and Keith wanted to nod but his head was held too firmly for that.
“Yes.” he said instead, and Hunk rolled so Keith was pinned between his partner and the mattress. Hunk was already starting to stiffen, and Keith pushed his boxers down with one quick motion. He hadn't really taken it in, last time, but Hunk's dick was kinda massive. Thicker than his own, no question, and possibly longer as well. It was hard to tell just from looking.
“Pants off.” Hunk said suddenly, and pushed himself up onto his knees, grabbing at the back of his shirt. Keith complied, tugging his PJs and underwear off together, and almost as soon as he'd kicked the fabric off Hunk was pinning him down with one hand on his chest, the other blindly flipping open the box Keith kept stuffed between his mattress and bed frame.
The first thing out of it was, unsurprisingly, a condom. Hunk held it out to him, and Keith shook his head. “You should probably wear one, though.”
“I don't think they're my size.” Hunk frowned at the packaging. Keith slid his hand down a bit further, moving it to wrap briefly around Hunk's dick, and oh yeah that was bigger than his in every way. He wasn’t sure how it was going to fit in him, but damn if he wasn’t gonna try taking it.
“Well, I know I'm clean.” Keith chuckled, moving his hand back to Hunk’s hip. “As long as you are, it's not like we've got anything to worry about.”
“Definitely clean here.” Hunk nodded, setting the condom back in the box. Weird, to think that they'd never get used now. The next thing Hunk drew out was a tube of lube, and Keith let his head fall back against his pillow.
“Y'know, I'm not sure that'll be enough.”
Hunk chuckled, and pressed a kiss to his jaw. “It'll do for tonight.” there was a snap as he popped the lid open, and Keith took a deep breath to stop himself from tensing up as he heard Hunk squirt the lube on his fingers and start warming it up. This was Hunk, the human he trusted more than any other. Hunk wasn't backing out, he was making sure Keith wouldn't get hurt. “Ready?” Hunk asked, his clean hand resting on Keith's thigh and pulling it up.
Keith drew it up all the way to his chest and wrapped an arm around it, exposing his ass to Hunk. “Yeah.” he breathed, and shut his eyes. “I trust you.”
“This is gonna feel a little weird.” Hunk warned, and Keith grinned.
“I know. Why do you think I have lube in the first place?”
Hunk sucked in a sharp breath, and Keith giggled softly.
“I'm not going to think about the answer to that right now, because I think if I did I'd come before getting you anywhere close to ready.: Hunk said, his voice rough. Keith opened his mouth to retort with something teasing, but whatever he'd meant to say fled his mind as Hunk pushed one finger into him. It was thicker than one of his own, almost as big as two, and he whimpered as Hunk curled it inside him. God, it had been too long since he touched himself like this, he'd forgotten how good it felt.
“Wow.” Hunk breathed, sounding something like reverent. “And I thought you were warm on the outside.”
A pulse of heat went through him which made his dick throb, and Keith gripped at his partner’s shoulders like a lifeline. Fuck, why did those words sound so good when Hunk said them?
“You okay, Keith?” Hunk asked, his finger stilling. Keith nodded, opening his eyes slightly to see Hunk looking concerned.
“Yeah.” he breathed, managing a small smile. “Just, li’l intense.”
“I’ll take it slow.” Hunk promised, and moved his finger again with slow, deliberate care. Keith’s eyes fluttered shut, and he held on tight as Hunk worked him open enough for a second finger. He bit down on the little whimpers which tried to crawl out of his throat, his breaths shaky as pleasure and raw sensation coursed through him. It was so much, almost too much, more than he’d ever felt even when he used all four of his own fingers.
“Hunk.” he gasped, hips bucking up into his partner’s touch. “Feels so good.”
“Think you’re ready for another?” Hunk asked breathlessly, and Keith managed to pry his eyes open to see the larger boy wearing an expression of something he could only liken to wonder.
“Please.” Keith moaned, letting his eyes fall shut again and digging his head back into his pillow as Hunk scissored his fingers wide. His dick throbbed with every spread of Hunk’s fingers, dribbling precome on his stomach, and all it would take to come was a touch but he didn’t want to finish. Not yet, not until he’d felt Hunk inside of him.
“God, you should see the face you’re making.” Hunk breathed, his fingers moving faster now. “Do my fingers really feel that good?”
“Yes.” Keith moaned, bucking up against Hunk’s hand. “Fuck, Hunk, I need you in me.”
Hunk groaned, doubling over until his forehead rested on Keith’s raised knee. “Say my name like that again, and I just might skip the fourth.” he panted, splaying his fingers wide enough to make Keith cry out as brilliant sparks shot through his veins.
“Hunk!” he arched up against his partner, and Hunk growled into his sternum. “Hunk, fuck me, please.” he begged, and the fingers in his ass withdrew. He whined in protest, not bothering to muffle the sound, and a second later heard the wet sound of lube being spread over skin. Right, Hunk was trying not to hurt him. He whined again when he felt the head of Hunk’s dick press against his ass, Hunk’s hand on his hip tightening almost enough to bruise.
“Do you want this?” he asked, his voice deeper and rougher than usual.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes!” Keith bucked up against Hunk’s hand on his hip, his partner gasping when the head of his dick pressed harder against Keith’s asshole. “Please.” he begged. “Hunk, I need you in me.”
That seemed to do the trick, because a second later Hunk was slamming into him. Keith screamed, eyes flying open, and clung to Hunk all the tighter. “Oh god, oh god, Hunk I’m gonna-” Hunk hit something inside him, and the rest of Keith’s words were lost in a loud cry as he came all over both their chests. Hunk followed a second later, moaning long and low, and when he pulled out Keith went utterly limp. Hunk collapsed next to him, and Keith turned his head to smile at his partner.
Hunk smiled back, and lifted a hand to brush his bangs back from his sweaty forehead. “I’m guessing you liked that?” he asked, his tone almost but not quite teasing.
“Yeah.” Keith nuzzled into Hunk’s touch when his partner’s hand moved down to rest on his cheek. “I think your fingers are magic.”
Hunk’s smile went sad, and Keith sighed. “I’m gonna go wipe this off.” he gestured to his chest, and levered himself up on one arm. Only to promptly fall back down on the bed with a groan as most of the muscles south of his navel complained. at the movement.
“What’s wrong?” Hunk asked, pushing himself up and leaning over Keith with a concerned expression.
“Sore.” Keith groaned, turning onto his side to pout at Hunk more effectively. Hunk stared at him for a moment in evident shock, then snorted, a wide grin spreading across his face as he fell back down to the mattress. “‘S not funny!” Keith protested, and Hunk leaned in to rub their noses together.
“It’s not.” he agreed, still giggling. “Just, you’ll have something to remember me by now.” his smile softened, and Keith’s heart did a funny little skip in his chest as painfully warm, bright affection surged through him. He was going to miss Hunk so much, more than words could say.
“I’m gonna grab a towel to wipe us both down.” Hunk said, pressing a kiss to his forehead. “Be right back.”
Keith nodded, and watched as Hunk got up and walked over to the door. This wasn’t a sight he’d get to see again, and he didn’t want to forget a single thing about the layout of Hunk’s body. He stared at the door for a few seconds after it shut behind Hunk, then rolled onto his back and carefully, deliberately, brought up the leg when hadn’t been curled up against his chest while Hunk fingered and then fucked him senseless. Every muscle involved protested, and he could practically feel the echo of Hunk’s dick in him from the ache.
He lowered his leg before Hunk returned, and laid silently as his partner wiped both their stomachs and chests down. The damp washcloth was then discarded, and when Hunk laid down next to him he curled into his partner’s warmth with a wordless little sound of contentment. Hunk made a similar noise in reply, and wrapped an arm around his waist.
“We should do this again, in the morning.” he mumbled, and Hunk chuckled.
“You’re out of lube, that wouldn’t be fun for anyone.”
Keith grimaced, and pressed his face into Hunk’s chest with a displeased little huff. He’d have to think of something to do tomorrow morning which would be as unforgettable for Hunk as this had been for him.
“So, how long until...” Keith trailed off, and Lance looked over at the human sitting on the other end of the surfboard. Until what remained unspoken, it had been hanging between them ever since Keith suggested it four days ago.
“Until moon is up.” Lance said, curling his tail tighter around Hunk’s surfboard and leaning against the human’s broad chest. Usually talking with them was easy, but today no topic of conversation seemed to stick. He almost wished he’d asked Amaia to stay up here with them, rather than waiting down by the circle for the moonlight to reach it.
“So...” Hunk said slowly, and Lance tilted his head up to look at him. “How will this spell work, exactly?”
“Well, I say incantation, then touch circle, and magic will turn Keith into merman.” hopefully. There was no guarantee that mermish magic would even work on humans, and if it didn’t he would have to rush Keith back up to the surface.
“Yeah, but like, specifics.” Hunk’s hand stilled on his skin. “How does it work?”
“Is there anything I have to do?” Keith asked, and Lance shook his head.
“You just have to be there in circle. Amaia helped me rig some ropes to put around your waist, so that you don’t float away while you’re changing.” he paused, and tilted his head slightly. “You should probably be naked when we head down, now that I think about it. I don’t know how transformation would react to your swim trunks.”
“Okay.” Keith said after a particularly awkward pause. “So, once I’m down there and naked and all, I just have to hold my breath?”
“Basically.” Lance nodded.
“You done flirting?” Amaia asked as she surfaced, draping her arms over the empty space on Hunk’s board. Keith startled, and Hunk’s arm tightened protectively around him for a second before relaxing.
“Is circle lit already?” Lance frowned, looking from his sister to the night sky. The moon was barely above the horizon.
“Lit enough to read by.” Amaia curled her tail, lifting her silvery fin from the water.
“What’s she saying?” Hunk asked, and Lance remembered that the humans couldn’t understand anything but their own language.
“She’s saying circle is ready.” he translated. “So, spell’s ready to go whenever you are.” he looked at Keith, who looked down at the surfboard.
“This is really happening, isn’t it.” he mumbled to himself, then sighed. “Gimme a second to get these off.” he gestured to his swim trunks, and Lance nodded.
“This is going to work, right?” Hunk asked nervously. “I mean, you’re sure it’ll do what you want it to?”
“It should.” Lance assured Hunk. “I transposed words for merman and beast, then changed beast to Kletlese word for human.”
Hunk blinked a few times, and Lance sighed. “It’s not like I’ve had chance to practice, but spell is sound in theory.”
“Guess that’s all I can ask for, huh?” Hunk grimaced, and the board tilted precariously as Keith slid off it into the water.
“Alright, I’m ready.” he said, and Lance looked between the two humans for a moment. This was the last time he’d be able to do that. If he succeeded, Keith wouldn’t be human anymore. If he failed... well, best not to think about that.
“Good?” Lance asked, and Keith nodded. His lungs were already screaming for air, and the oxygen in his little bubble was painfully limited. Speech wasn’t a thing he would be doing until this spell was over.
Amaia said something in Mermish, and Lance nodded at her.
“I’m starting spell.” he said, holding his hands in front of his chest with the palms facing each other but not touching. “It’ll probably feel weird, but don’t worry. I won’t let you get hurt.” he smiled, and Keith wished that reassured him. He wasn’t sure if he had enough air left to get back to the surface, if the spell didn’t work for whatever reason.
Lance mumbled to himself, eyes sliding shut as he moved his hands around what looked like a ball of boiling water. The language didn’t sound like Mermish, and Keith was wondering what it was when Lance moved with that inhuman grace and slammed his hands to the circle. After that, everything seemed to happen all at once and excruciatingly slowly.
Bright light burst from the lines of the circle, every beam focused on the lower half of his body. It burned, like touching hot metal, and Keith bit down on a scream as Lance began to chant. The burning went deeper, sinking through fat and muscle into his bones, and his resolve failed as a sharper pain carved into his sides between his lower ribs. He screamed, throat and jaw burning as he felt his bones snap, and snap, and snap. It started with his pelvis and moved down his femurs, then through his lower legs and feet until they hung limp and useless in the water, too broken to move.
Hot tears ran down his cheeks, and he screamed again as a new kind of pain joined the stinging itching burns and throbbing broken bones. It was a stretching sort of pain, like something pressing at him from the inside. It felt like it was about to break the skin, but the ripping pain never came, the feeling of something trying to force its way out only intensifying as it moved lower and lower. He sobbed in relief when it stopped, then again in pain at the sensation of something long and thin forcing its way out of him. Or, well, four somethings, two on the front of his hips and the others...
He opened his eyes as the pain began to fade, blinking away his lingering tears and the afterimages of a few last flashes of light, and looked down. The shaky breath he’d been drawing turned into a straight up gasp, and his hands flew up to his mouth. The things forcing their way out of him had been fins. His fins. Grown from his tail. He had a tail! It flicked at a thought, and he bobbed up to the limit of the tethers around his waist.
He sank to the ground, tail curling under him, and only looked up when a tan hand entered his vision. “I’m sorry.” Lance murmured, their faces oh so close together. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know it would hurt.”
“Lance.” Keith breathed, the Mermish pronunciation coming easily to his lips, and suddenly there was water on his face, in his mouth, in his lungs. He gasped for air, and only got more water.
“Hey, hey, easy.” Lance’s hands landed just under his arms. “Breathe with your gills.”
Keith gave him a helpless look, and Lance used one hand to pinch his nose shut while the other covered his mouth. “Inhale.” he said with a gentle firmness. Keith tried, and the verging blackness faded from the edge of his vision as- okay, that felt... weird. He managed a few inhales and exhales, and by the time Lance pulled his hands away the motion had become automatic, easy. As easy as, well, breathing, he supposed.
“There we go.” Lance murmured, running a hand down his back. His skin felt different now, smoother against Keith’s own, and Keith tipped forwards to slump against Lance’s shoulder. “Just breathe, you’re good.”
“It worked.” he laughed shakily, pulling away from Lance to look down at himself. “Lance, it worked!” he rose from the ground, looking down at his tail. It looked nothing like Lance’s, or his sister’s, but it felt strangely right somehow. “We gotta show Hunk.” he flicked his tail as if moving both legs at once, and shot upwards. It was a strange sensation, the water moved differently around him now than it had when he was human, but he surfaced quickly and wound up throwing himself awkwardly over the unoccupied end of Hunk’s surfboard.
“Keith!” Hunk lurched forwards, and Keith gave him a bright smile as he pulled himself up to sit on the board, lifting his tail out of the water. It was beautiful in the moonlight, a deep red with pale blue accents on his pelvic fins and blue-white mottling on his tail fin.
“Hunk, look!” he gestured to his tail with one hand, gripping the surfboard with the other and leaning back to keep his balance. “It worked!”
“Holy shit.” Hunk’s eyes widened, even as Keith lowered his tail into the water.
“I know.” Keith bounced in place slightly, curling his tail under the surfboard like he’d seen Lance do a hundred times. “I have gills.” he couldn’t’ve fought the smile spreading on his face if he wanted to, joy thrumming in his blood like pain had been just a few minutes ago.
“And a tail, and no ears, and pointy teeth.” Hunk rattled off.
Keith frowned briefly and ran his tongue over his teeth, one hand reaching up to feel for his ear. “Huh, didn’t notice those.” he muttered, probing at the sharp edges of his front teeth and running his fingers over the spot where his ear was supposed to be.
“Didn’t- how did you not notice that?” Hunk exclaimed.
“In Keith’s defense, transformation was pretty intense.” Lance offered helpfully, brushing his hair back as he surfaced.
“It really was.” Keith agreed.
“And I bet once rush fades, you’re gonna be just as tired as I am.” Lance lifted a hand out of the water, and Keith- he’d meant to whine, but the sound which left his throat absolutely wasn’t human. He paused, and Lance sighed heavily. “C’mon, Keith. All three of us need to sleep.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty late.” Hunk agreed. “And we can always see each other tomorrow.”
“Yeah, we can.” Keith smiled, but it was just a flicker of a thing. He let Lance pull him off the board, and waved goodbye to Hunk before slipping beneath the waves.
As they headed deeper, Keith began to shiver. Lance’s hand tightened around his, pulling him down and down into the dark. “Lance?” he said hesitantly as the water seemed to thicken around him, the cold biting deeper than any he’d felt before.
“Just little further.” Lance said, his voice muffled and distorted by the water between them. Keith shivered again and kept swimming, a numbness creeping into his arms and gnawing at his tail and torso. The energy which had filled him in the wake of his transformation was all but gone now, and he felt so heavy.
“I’m cold.” he mumbled, wrapping his free arm around his waist.
“Hang on just little longer.” Lance urged, pulling harder on his arm until Keith was pressed up against the darker merman’s back. Lance wasn’t warm, but he was certainly warmer than the water pushing against Keith’s skin from all directions. “We’re almost there.”
Keith made an affirmative noise, and squinted his eyes in an effort to keep them open. Falling asleep in the cold like this was a bad idea, he’d learnt that much from watching documentaries with Hunk. But his eyelids felt just as heavy as the rest of him, and Lance’s low voice was soothing despite its indistinctness, and before he knew it he was gasping awake as warm water enveloped him. His muscles spasmed briefly, trying to adjust to the sudden difference in temperature, and there was the sound of a door latching before Lance was in front of him, hands brushing gently over his face and neck.
“Hey, hey, it’s alright.” he soothed. “We’re safe here.” Keith shivered violently, and Lance leaned in to press a gentle, lingering kiss to his lips. “You had me worried for bit there.” he murmured.
“Sorry.” Keith rubbed at his arms, and Lance grabbed his wrists to stop him.
“I’ve got better way for you to warm up.” he grinned, pulling Keith up from the floor and over to a hole in the ceiling. He went without struggle, and blinked in surprise as Lance dragged him into what looked like a fairly normal bedroom. It was round, like the room below, and the ceiling came to a point, but there was a neatly made bed in the middle and a chest up against the wall next to something resembling a vanity with a little stool in front of it. “C’mon.” Lance tugged him over to the bed, and Keith settled down onto it awkwardly. His tail hung off over the footboard, and the texture of the sheets and mattress under him were completely foreign.
“Shit, one beat.” Lance muttered, swimming over to the vanity and pulling something out of one of its drawers. He came back holding a strange looking rock, and dragged it along the floor as he swam around the bed. Keith watched him work between slow, sleepy blinks, pulling the bed’s pillow under his head. When Lance finally stilled, he set the rock down and gave Keith a wide grin. “Watch this.” he said, and held his hands in front of himself, cupped around a ball of water between his palms. He pressed them to the circle with a single smooth motion, and Keith’s heart jumped into high gear.
He was off the bed and hovering near the ceiling before his sleepy brain fully registered why he was moving, but then the lines Lance had drawn lit up with unearthly light which curved through the water to engulf the bed. And then the bed grew. Keith drifted down towards the floor, his mouth hanging open as the light faded to reveal... either a full or a queen, he wasn’t sure. But either way, it sure as hell wasn’t the kiddy bed it had been a minute ago.
“How did you do that?” he breathed, and Lance gave him a questioning look. “The bed.” he gestured at the newly enlarged piece of furniture. “How did you do that?”
“Same way I turned you into merman.” Lance wiggled his fingers with a grin as Keith’s tail hit the sheets. “Magic.”
“That’s, really impressive.” Keith looked down at the bed, looking up when the mattress dipped.
“Really tiring, more like.” Lance yawned, seating himself on the bed. “My moms already know I’m not gonna be home tonight, so...” he turned, and held out an arm to Keith. Keith grinned, and scooted over towards the middle of the bed. Lance met him halfway, and Keith relaxed as a familiar arm wound around his waist under his gills, accompanied by a strong tail winding around his. It was going to take some getting used to, having gills and a tail.
“Hey, Lance?” he mumbled, exhaustion already setting back in. Lance made a questioning sound, and Keith nuzzled into the merman’s shoulder. “Love you.”
“Love you too.” Lance stroked a hand down the back of his head. “Now, let’s get some sleep.”
Keith made a sleepy affirmative sound, and let the darkness take him.
Lance slipped in the door of the hideout, and listened carefully. Silence greeted him, which meant Keith was probably still asleep. Good. He swam up to the second floor, and set the reason for his little errand down on the dresser before turning to the bed itself. Keith made a pitiful little noise, groping at the sheets where Lance had lain overnight, and Lance answered with a wordless sound of his own as he settled back in next to his boyfriend.
Keith stirred, eyelids sliding open just enough to let Lance glimpse his beautiful eyes, and he made a shushing sound as he ran a hand down the side of Keith’s back. “Just had to grab something.” he murmured, lifting his hand and moving to stroke the ex-human’s hair.
“Mm’kay.” Keith grinned, and snuggled closer.
Lance smiled, and continued stroking his boyfriend’s hair. He’d been up for too long to drift back off, which left him with nothing to do but think. Well, think and admire how freaking pretty Keith was. The gentle currents of the room tousled his hair, making the black strands drift around his head and accentuating the contrast between his hair and his pallid skin. There was an unmermish beauty to it, to him, and Lance wondered how he’d gotten so lucky.
But of course, that beauty came with a few downsides. His name, for one. Keith. Distinctly human, not a name which could ever be passed off as that of a boy who’d been born on the seafloor. He needed a new name, one which would fit in the Kletlese language. Which, Keith also have to learn. He sighed, and Keith’s hand came up to rest on his cheek.
“Lance?” he asked in Kletlese, and Lance lifted his hand to rest it over Keith’s.
“Hey, babe.” he leaned in and Keith met him in a slow, sweet kiss. “Sleep well?”
Keith shrugged. “Had some weird dreams, but otherwise yeah. You?” he smiled, smaller and softer than Lance had ever seen, and Lance’s heart did a flip in his chest. Oh, by the Deep Ones, he was face over fins for this boy.
“Really well.” he grinned, running his fingers down Keith’s back just behind his gills. “After all, I had you next to me.”
“Lance.” Keith gasped, pressing forwards so their bodies were flush from the waist down. A thrill ran down Lance’s spine, and he forced himself to still his hand on the back of Keith’s tail. They were boyfriends in name only, no gifts had been exchanged yet. Anything more than kissing was far too forward for this early in their relationship, if they intended to go about it with the intent of making it official at any point.
“Can I cast spell on you?” he asked, and Keith pulled away slightly with a wary expression.
“What will it do?” he asked slowly.
“Make talking easier.”
Keith frowned for another few beats, then nodded once. “Alright.”
“Great.” Lance sat up, gathering magic in his fingertips. Just transpose those two words, lay his fingertips on Keith’s temple, aaand... lines of magic spread across his boyfriend’s skin as he recited the incantation, decorating his forehead and scalp with fractals of light which soon faded. “Can you understand me?” he asked in Kletlese, just to make sure.
“I- yeah.” he said in Kletlese, looking surprised. “What’d you do?”
“Temporarily shared all my knowledge of Kletlese with you.” he grinned. “The language you and Hunk kept calling Mermish.” he clarified, when Keith’s confusion didn’t fade. That seemed to do the trick, thankfully.
“Kletlese, huh.” Keith made a thoughtful face. “It definitely carries better than English.” he admitted, the last word coming out in Human. Or, well, English. If Keith was using the proper word for Kletlese now, he had no excuse to keep using the wrong word himself.
“Of course it does, Kletlese is meant to be spoken underwater.” Lance grinned and pinched Keith’s cheek, just because he could. Keith scowled, swatting his hand away, and Lance let his grin fall. “It also has some pretty specific naming conventions.” he said, his eyes not leaving Keith’s face. “Conventions that most human names don’t fit.”
“Lemme guess, including mine?” Keith said flatly, and wow Lance hadn’t noticed before but Keith’s voice sounded really nice when he spoke Kletlese.
“Yeah.” Lance nodded, pulling his attention back to the task at hand. “Which means that we need to pick out new name for you, or you’d be found out before your first day in city is up.”
“Did you have anything in mind?” Keith asked, levering himself up on one arm and blinking those sinfully beautiful eyes at him.
“Um, kinda?” Lance shifted awkwardly under Keith’s intense gaze. “I looked through book of baby names at library other day for ones that sound kinda like your human name, but it’s your name, you should choose.”
Keith looked thoughtful again, then sat up properly and took one of Lance’s hands in both his own. “Mermish courting is about giving gifts, right?” he asked rhetorically. “I think, I’d like you to gift me my new name.”
Lance’s jaw fell open. “Keith, that’s-”
“I know it’s not something I can return in equal value,” he said softly, looking down at where his thumbs were rubbing gently across the back of Lance’s hand. “But... you’ve already given me so much more than I ever could’ve hoped to have, even just few months ago. So please,” he looked up through his eyelashes with a pleading expression on his face. “Give me this?”
“I can’t.” Lance whispered hoarsely. “Keith, that kind of gift is something for late in courting process. Skipping that far ahead, it’s bad luck.”
Keith lifted his head properly, face falling into a scowl. “That’s bull.” he said stubbornly. “And anyways, we’ve been exchanging gifts basically since we met. Or...” he paused, face turning contemplative. “Actually, you giving me my mermish name would make us even.”
“And how do you figure that?” Lance pulled his hands free to cross his arms.
“Easy, Lance.” Keith said his name in English, a smile spreading on his face as he switched back to Kletlese. “I gave you your human name.”
Lance opened his mouth, then closed it again. That, made a certain amount of sense. And the other gifts Keith was referring to were probably the food and drinks they’d shared. “Alright.” he said after a short stretch of silence. “Of names I looked at, I think... I like Keet best.”
“Keet.” he repeated, his mouth curving up in a small, pleased smile that made Lance’s heart thud painfully in his chest. “I like it.”
“This isn’t normal.” Keet huffed, crossing his arms over his stomach as he sank lower in the water. “Even if he was sick, Hunk would’ve come out at least once to tell us so.” his face scrunched into a pout, and Lance swam closer to trail a hand down his boyfriend’s arm.
“It’s probably just bad timing.” he said, trying to sound more certain than he felt. It had been a week since Keet accepted his new name, and in that time they hadn’t seen Hunk once. Even spending almost all his time with his boyfriend wasn’t enough to properly fill the void left by their human partner’s absence.
“Hunk and I said something similar when you went missing.” Keet pulled his arm away with a sharp movement, pout shifting to a full on scowl as he turned to face Lance. “What if he’s in trouble?”
“Then there’s nothing we can do.” Lance said softly, moving closer to wrap his arms around his boyfriend. “Hunk is strong, he’ll come back to us.”
“I miss him.” Keet mumbled, ducking his head against Lance’s shoulder.
“Me too.” Lance agreed, stroking the back of Keith’s head. And idea popped into his head, and he pulled away to grin at his boyfriend. “Hey, maybe he just missed surfing. This beach isn’t the best for it.”
“But, didn’t you get caught at other one?” Keet frowned.
“Yeah, which is why they won’t expect me to show back up there.” Lance grinned. “So long as we stay underwater, we should be fine.”
“Alright.” Keet nodded, and Lance reached out to twine their fingers together. They kept close to the seafloor as they circled the island, until Lance began to recognize the landmarks he’d used to locate his people-watching rock before that fateful day. Keet broke away from him as they approached the surface, and his torso left the water for just a beat or two before he was sinking back down with something in his hands.
“What’s that?” Lance asked, tilting his head curiously.
“It’s from Hunk.” Keet breathed, holding out the item in his hands for Lance to see. It was a bottle, sealed with a cork and containing a curl of paper with indecipherable writing on it. Tied tight around the neck, the ends tangled in Keet’s fingers, was a long strip of orange fabric. Hunk’s headband, he realized after a beat.
“What’s it say?” Lance asked, and Keet shook his head.
“I can’t open it underwater, the message would be destroyed.”
Lance looked around, scanning the surface for any boats. He found none, the largest shape on the surface being a surfboard a good ways away. “Then we surface.” he said firmly. “We surface, I make air bubble around bottle, and you tell me what it says.”
Keet nodded, and not long after they were settled on the seafloor with Keet holding a single sheet of human paper in his hands. “It’s so short.” he murmured, his eyes scanning the message.
“But what’s it say?” Lance asked, leaning over his boyfriend’s shoulder.
“Being watched, can’t see you again.” Keet read, and Lance’s heart dropped to somewhere around his tail fin.
“No.” he breathed.
“Reconsidering your offer.” Keet kept going, his voice shaky. “Will meet you at other beach next time it’s possible.” he twisted to look at Lance, his face pained. “This isn’t good.”
“It’s better than it could’ve been, though.” Lance placated, reaching around Keet into the bubble to roll the paper back up into its initial tight tube and slide it back into the bottle. “We’ll get to see him again.”
“Next month!” Keet protested, releasing the bottle to Lance and shooting free of his arms with a lash of his tail that nearly yanked it out of his hand with the wake. “Hunk didn’t want to become merman, Lance. He didn’t want to leave his family behind. Whatever’s going on up there, it’s bad enough to make him-”
“Keet.” Lance dropped the now-sealed bottle and cancelled the spell keeping it dry, catching his boyfriend’s hands to hold him still. “Calm down.”
“Hunk is in trouble!”
“And either of us showing our face would only make it worse!”
That seemed to knock some sense back into him, but Lance still waited a few beats before he kept talking. “If he’s being watched, it’s because of us. Bad enough they had me as long as they did, but if one of us got caught again, or worse, both of us, that’d be it. Game over, for our entire species.”
Keet sombered at that, and Lance moved his hands up to his boyfriend’s elbows. “I’m worried about Hunk too, but there’s still almost three weeks until spell can be done again. He has three weeks to make up his mind, and there’s nothing we can do until then either way.”
Keet looked down at his hands, at the scrap of orange cloth clutched in them. It had ripped, Lance realized; ripped off at the knot, likely when Keith left the bottle in Lance’s hands. “This sucks.” he said forcefully.
“It does.” Lance nodded, pulling his boyfriend into a hug. “But there’s nothing we can do about it, except make sure that everything is ready for him if he decides to join us.”
Keet nodded, and hugged him back tightly. It was selfish, so very selfish, but Lance hoped that Hunk would let himself become a merman. To never see him again... that would hurt worse than any guilt he could possibly feel over being the reason Hunk had been forced into this decision in the first place.
Keet ran the story through his head again as he swam towards the foreboding cave mouth. He was Keet Coane, seventeen, lucky survivor of a nameless little settlement destroyed by an overactive vent. All he had to do was get in the city and fill out the paperwork given him, and then Lance could help him through the rest. He just had to sell the story to the guards at the gate, first. The gate which Lance had insisted was in this cave, but Keith still couldn’t see a single sign of. Not so much as drag marks on the floor, which in hindsight was obvious. These were merfolk, they wouldn’t have to touch the floor if they didn’t want to.
“Who goes there?” a voice asked, and Keet whirled around as he tried to locate the speaker. As far as he could tell, he was alone in this cave, which meant there was magic involved. He lifted a hand to the warming charm around his neck, eyes wide as he tried to figure out which way to face to address whoever was questioning him. “If you refuse to answer, you will be assu-” the speaker cut off with a grunt.
“Cool it, Fier, he’s just kid.” another voice snapped, and then- Keith flicked his tail and shot back as a visibly inorganic arm emerged from the back wall. The second voice chuckled, and a merman leaned out of the stone with a warm smile. “Hey, fry. You know you’re not supposed to go outside city limits without adult supervision, right?”
Keet’s nose scrunched up at the merman’s tone, and the guy laughed as he emerged from the wall fully. The same runes that glowed dimly on the pendant around Keith’s neck flashed bright on the medallion held in place over this man’s heart by what looked like sturdy fabric straps, surrounded by other symbols he didn’t recognize which were surely magical in nature. His tail was black, with long flowing fins floating around him, and his eyes were kind as he kept his inorganic arm extended. An inorganic arm with runes glowing around the base where it joined his flesh.
He swam closer slowly, cautiously, and the merman smiled. “My name is Shiro. What’s yours?”
“Keet.” he replied, eyeing the extended hand warily rather than taking it. He could see more runes etched around the elbow, but they weren’t lit at the moment, so this Shiro guy’s prosthetic could do something more than what it was currently doing.
“Well, Keet, I’m guard.” Shiro placed his prosthetic to the medallion on his chest. “Keeping you and everyone else in this city safe is most of my job description.” he chuckled, and extended his hand again. “So, how about you tell me where you live, and I’ll make sure you get home safe?”
Keet looked down, swallowing hard as he braced himself to tell the story Lance had spun for him. “I-” he froze, and swallowed again. The magic in his necklace was fading, and he shivered as the cold began to sink in. “I heard there was city here.” he blurted. “Somewhere safe from vent flows.” he looked up, and Shiro’s eyes were wide.
“Oh, you poor thing.” he breathed, drifting back with a flick of his tail. “Come on, let’s get you to citizen center. We’ve got programs for helping mers like you.” Shiro gestured for Keet to follow, and he did. He wondered what story Lance would spin for Hunk to tell, when Hunk joined them. If Hunk joined them.
Shiro hadn’t been kidding about the programs. Keet set the small pile of pamphlets down and stared around the apartment, taking it in. It was tiny, maybe half the size of one floor of Lance’s place outside the city, but it was his free of charge for the next month while he got his fins back under him. After that he’d have to pay rent, but it was still a damn sight better than anything America had.
Between the pamphlets and the building full of people Shiro apparently knew by name and the fact that Shiro had promised to swim by in a few days to make sure he was settling in alright... Keet had to admit he was a little overwhelmed. He sank onto the bed in the corner, which felt cheap compared to the one he’d been sleeping on the past week or two, and fell onto his back. Were merfolk just, naturally more friendly than humans? He’d have to ask Lance when-
Oh shit, Lance! Keet bolted upright. With all the paperwork and stuff, he’d completely forgotten that he was supposed to meet Lance at the library. He shot out the door, barely remembering to grab his key on the way, and headed up away from the street. Lance said it had a roof like a conch shell, which would make it easy for him to locate, but he wasn’t seeing- he turned, and almost smacked himself in the face. It was practically next door! Which, did make sense, considering the job workshop things Shiro had mentioned were all held there. He had to admit, whoever planned this city did a damn good job of it.
Finding the entrance was easy, and once he got inside Keet found his breath taken away. The underside of the ceiling was inlaid with shells, arranged in beautiful swirls and spirals that reminded him of the sky in Starry Night. He wandered forward, craning his neck back to look up at both the ceiling and the towering maze of shelves. He was trying to figure out how the bookshelves were secured when something hit him in the side, throwing him to the floor and knocking the wind out of him. Or would it be water, since he had gills?
He shook his head and pushed himself up to kneeling, grabbing a book as it floated past. “Sorry. Shoulda watched where I was headed.” he held the book out to the person who’d run into him, and then blinked in surprise.
“Oh, don’t worry about it.” Lance grinned, taking the book from him and adding it back into his stack. “Not every day I swim into someone as hot as you.”
If before he’d had a look of slack-jawed idiocy, now he was sure his facial expression was flat as a board. “Is that really your best pickup line?” he asked, and Lance laughed.
“Name’s Lance.” he held out a hand, balancing his pile of books in the other arm as he rose from the floor. “Watch out, or I’ll lance right through your heart with pure love.”
Keet couldn’t help it, he sniggered as he let Lance pull him back up to eye level. “Somehow, I think that one was even worse.”
“Good sir, you wound me.” Lance gasped dramatically, pressing a hand to his chest.
Keet sniggered again, and reached out to steady Lance’s pile of books. “I’m Keet. Nice to meet you.”
Lance looked back at Keet, and paused at the expression on his boyfriend’s face. “Something wrong?” he asked, squeezing Keet’s hand gently.
“Could we maybe do this later?” he asked, tail curling anxiously under him. “Today’s been... eventful”
“All the more reason to do this now.” Lance grinned, pulling Keet closer and nuzzling at his cheek. “My family is gonna love you, and once they get to know you we can go cuddle in my room. Which I’m sure is nicer than your new arrival apartment. Especially since you just got here today.”
Keet looked thoughtful for a few beats, then nodded slowly. “Alright, but your bed better be nice.”
“Of course it is, it’s my bed.” Lance scoffed, resuming pulling Keith down the street towards his house. The door swung open easily, and he waved at his youngest sibling when she looked over her shoulder at him.
“Hi, Vee! Look who I met today!” he pulled Keet up next to him, and let his boyfriend squeeze his hand as hard as he had to while the ex-human waved hello.
“Oh, you made another friend?” Mom asked, looking away from where she was braiding Saome’s hair back.
“Yep!” Lance beamed, leaning against Keet’s shoulder. “Swam into each other at library.”
“Lemme guess, love at first sight?” Amaia guessed flatly, hanging upside down from the entrance to the second floor.
“How did you guess?” Lance laughed, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Keet flush.
“Your tail is pretty.” Vee said, resting her chin on her folded arms and curling her own tail up so gold-speckled fins waved over her shoulder. “Cichlid?”
“I- yes.” Keet blinked, evidently surprised.
“Where’s Mama?” Lance asked Mom. “I wanna introduce Keet to her.”
“Out shopping. She’s got Ferna with her, so you can introduce your new friend to both of them while you help put away groceries.”
“Mooom.” Lance groaned, making Keet and Vee giggle. Deep Ones, he had the cutest laugh. The past few weeks had been tense, thanks to the situation with Hunk and the pressure on Keet to learn written Kletlese, which there was no magical aid for, but now that one of those stressors was gone Lance was determined to make Keet laugh as often as possible.
“Lance is in trou~ble.” Saome half sang, and Mom rapped her over the head with her knuckles.
“Yes, and he knows that full well. No need to rub it in.” she scolded.
“Well, until Mama and Ferna get back, Keet and I are gonna hang out in my room.” Lance said, guiding Keet towards the second floor.
“Alright, have fun.” Mom turned back to braiding Salome’s hair. Amalia flipped back upright as Keet swam up towards her, and when Lance followed after him she gave him a smirk.
“Swam into each other?” she raised an eyebrow. Keet’s face went almost as red as his tail.
“I had books, and Keet was distracted by the library ceiling.” Lance shrugged. “You wanna hang out with us, or?”
“Pass.” Amala shook her head. “I don’t need to see you two being schmoopy.”
“Your loss.” Lance slung an arm around Keet’s waist. “Keet here is one brilliant conversationalist.”
“Suuure.” Amalia drawled. “And I’m our beloved princess.”
“Oh, got stick your head in vent flow.” Keith huffed. Amalia laughed, and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Y’know what, I changed my mind.” she grinned, displaying just a few too many teeth to be friendly. “I think you and me are gonna be great friends.”
Keet smiled, and Lance’s heart simultaneously soared at the sight and plummeted at the reason for it. Keet and Amalia were going to get along like symbiotics.
I really, really hate that I couldn’t think of anything better to be the mermish equivalent of “get along like a house on fire”
This chapter contains NSFW content between two 17 year-olds, in a society where the age of majority is 17. Feel free to skip if you'd rather not read it.
“Hey, Lance?” Keet’s fingers slid between his slowly, shyly. “Could we just, chill here for bit before you go home?”
“Of course.” Lance nuzzled at Keith’s cheek, and let himself he lead to the bed. It wasn’t much, but then again nothing in this apartment was. The only things in here that he could say with certainty were younger than his moms were the mattress and kitchen appliances, and even some of the appliances were iffy. He was pretty sure hotstones didn’t come in that colour, or at least they hadn’t since his big sister Isia was born.
Keet settled down sitting across his lap, and Lance hummed happily when his boyfriend leaned down to kiss him. Keet’s hands ran down his back, fingers tracing his spine, and Lance did the same in turn. Keet pressed closer, and Lance hesitantly ran his hands down his boyfriend’s sides, brushing over his gills. They fluttered under his palms, Keith gasping and then moaning into his mouth as Lance brought his hands forward, fingering the sensitive slits.
“Fuck, Lance.” Keith moaned as Lance moved his hands away. “That felt so good.”
“You want me to do it again?” Lance asked, keeping his voice low.
“Please.” Keet whimpered.
Lance ran his nails over Keet’s gills, and his boyfriend moaned again. Deep Ones, Lance loved that sound. He guided Keet’s hands to his own sides, and let out a shuddering breath as his boyfriend’s touch sent the best kind of sparks dancing through his body. Getting Keet laid out on the cheap mattress wasn’t hard, and after that it only took a single finger run down the front of his tail to get him unsheathed.
His hands immediately stilled, and Lance moved his own hands to rest on Keet’s sides just above his scale line as he pulled away. “Something wrong?” he asked, and Keet shook his head.
“Just, different.” he panted, looking down as where his tentacle was squirming and demanding attention.
“Want me to slow down?” Lance asked. “It is your first time, after all.”
“Only in this body.” Keet grinned, and Lance bent down to kiss him.
“Technicality.” he murmured, drawing a laugh from his boyfriend.
“I’m counting it.” he retorted, and Lance kissed him again.
“Alright, then. Ready to continue your second time?”
“I think so.” Keet nodded, and Lance ran a hand down the upper portion of his own tail. It took a few strokes, Keet’s touches were too clumsy and unsure to have him right on the edge, but once his own tentacle uncoiled he would their tails together from the halfway point down.
“So, I guess Hunk showed you how human men fuck.” he lowered his voice, and Keet snorted.
“Please, porn showed me that way before I met Hunk.”
“I’m trying to be romantic, you nerd.” Lance smacked at Keet’s head, but couldn’t keep a smile from his face when Keet laughed.
“Sorry, sorry.” he gasped, using his arms to block Lance’s swats. “I promise I won’t interrupt again.”
“Good.” Lance leaned down, and kissed Keet fiercely until his laughter faded to nothing. “Now, I can show you how mermen fuck.” he brought his body down, and his tentacle twined with Keet’s. His breath caught for a second, and under him Keet moaned loudly. It took a good deal of concentration to get his tentacle to move with anything resembling a rhythm, now that Keet’s was squirming against it and producing such blissfully mind-blanking sensations. He rolled his tail, grinding the upper part down and drawing a high keen from Keet’s throat.
“Fuck, Keet, you feel so good.” he panted, rolling his tail again and trying to establish a rhythm. It was nowhere near as easy as the magazines under his bed at home made it look, but Keet was whimpering and lifting his own tail to meet each of Lance’s thrusts and that certainly helped. “Oh, you feel so good!”
“Harder.” Keet gasped, head thrown back and digging into the pillow, and Lance did his best to comply. Keet squirmed under him, high thin sounds trailing from his lips with every harsh motion of their joined tentacles, and Lance swore under his breath. He wasn’t going to last much longer at this rate. “Lance-” Keet panted, choking on an inhale as Lance snapped his tail down hard and squeezed with his tentacle. “Lance, I’m gonna-” he moaned as Lance ground down against him again, tentacle tightening sporadically.
Well, at least he wasn’t the only one on the edge. He lifted a hand to card through Keet’s hair, and his fingers caught in the strip of fabric his boyfriend had been using to tie his hair back since their last venture to the surface. He tugged the scrap of Hunk’s headband loose, leaving it to float to the floor as he fisted his hand in Keet’s hair and smashed their mouths together in perhaps the least elegant kiss he’d ever had.
One of Keet’s hands moved from the sheets to wrap around their intertwined tentacles, and Lance moaned into his boyfriend’s mouth. Keet bit down on his lip, needle-sharp teeth digging in hard enough to draw blood, and that was it. He came with a low moan, Keet following not half a beat after, and when the rush passed his arms gave out, sending him toppling down onto his boyfriend’s limp form.
“Fuuuck, that was intense.” Keet groaned as Lance rolled off of him, not bothering to untwine their tails. “Is it always like that?” he asked, and Lance turned his head to see his boyfriend giving him a questioning look.
“Next time’ll be even better.” he promised with a grin, and Keet chuckled.
“Man, I almost wish we’d gotten to have sex before I got turned.” he sighed. Lance gave him a quizzical look, but only for a moment before he gathered magic in his fingertips and started tracing runes in the air. “That tenta-dick of yours coulda given Hunk run for his money.” he said, as if that explained anything.
Lance murmured the incantation as he traced the last rune, and the currents of the room picked up sharply for a few beats. Just long enough to wash their combined ejaculate into the bathroom, where it would be filtered into the city’s waste system while the rest of the water went out to be re-aerated. “You never did explain to me how human sex works.” he said, and Keet looked away.
“Well, it’s not like it matters anymore.” he muttered. “Unless you know somewhere with enough air we could take Hunk there, next time we see him.”
Lance opened his mouth, then closed it again. The only place he could think of which fit that description smelled disgusting, and even with his gills underwater breathing the air had made him lightheaded. Bad place to bring a human.
“But hey.” Keet grinned, turning on his side and scooting closer. “Upside, Hunk’s mind is gonna be just as blown as mine just was when he introduce him to mermish sex.”
Lance chuckled, and leaned in to capture Keet’s lips in a slow, gentle kiss. “I guess I’ll have to teach you how to give as well as you get.” he murmured, trailing a hand down Keet’s side and relishing in the shivers he got when his fingers passed over his boyfriend’s gills. Keet even let out a whimpery little moan, and Lance resolved to only ever draw that sound from his boyfriend in private. Of the whole world, only he and Hunk were allowed to hear that noise.
“I can’t wait til Hunk is here with us.” Keet murmured, his eyelids drooping. “You’re gonna love it, his cuddles are best.”
“I bet they are.” Lance nodded.
“I miss him.” Keet pouted, and Lance kissed him again.
“Me too.” he whispered.
“Can you stay?” Keet wrapped a hand around his wrist, looking up at him with those dark, beautiful eyes.
“Of course.” Lance laid back down, cuddling closer to Keet and draping an arm over his waist. He would have to leave soon, his moms were expecting him home by curfew, but he could stay here until Keet fell asleep. He’d do it every night until Hunk joined them, if he had to.
I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry that this is how I have to say goodbye, but if I try to say it to your faces then I’ll never be able to leave. And I have to leave. I’ve thought it over so many times, trying to find a way around this, but there is no way around it. Last month, Keith and I did something. It wasn’t bad, but it was illegal. Really illegal. It’s part of why he went missing. I can’t say too much about it, but I can say this. I’m going to be okay. I won’t be able to see you again, but I’ll be with Keith and his boyfriend. I’ll write, when I can. If I can. I’m sorry.
I love you.
Hunk read over the note in his hand one more time, then set it on the kitchen table so it would be clearly visible to Mom in the morning. He’d considered leaving Kalie a note saying she was right, but he didn’t trust her to keep her mouth shut about it. She was only seven, after all, and easily excited.
He padded out of the house barefoot and clad only in his old swim trunks, and made his way down to the beach. The moon was barely over the horizon, shining down full and bright on the ocean’s gentle waves. He hesitated at the tide line for a minute, two, then exhaled heavily and took a step forwards into the surf. One step, then another, then another, he waded out until his feet no longer touched the bottom and he had to start swimming. It wasn’t long before a hand brushed his ankle, and then two figures bobbed up head and shoulders out of the water.
“Hunk!” Keith cried, arms wrapping around him tight. “You came.” he smiled as he pulled away, and Hunk noticed he’d drawn his longer hair back into a ponytail.
“You’re growing out your hair.” he replied dumbly.
“Old Ones be blessed, right?” Lance laughed, slinging an arm around Hunk’s shoulder and guiding him forwards. “It’s just manner of time until hair in front is long enough to tie back too, and then we’ll be rid of his mullet for good.”
“Just for that, I’m getting it trimmed.” Keith said flatly, and Hunk laughed.
“God, I missed you guys.” he grinned, wrapping an arm around the back of Lance’s ribs and holding out his other arm to Keith. Keith darted in immediately, accepting and returning the hug enthusiastically.
“We missed you too.” he said, burying his face in Hunk’s shoulder. Lance nuzzled at his cheek, but pulled away with a serious expression.
“Hunk, are you sure about this?” he asked, laying a hand on Hunk’s shoulder. “Spell can only be cast on you once. There’s no going back.”
“I’m sure.” Hunk forced a grin. “These last few weeks, I’ve had plenty of time to think about it.”
Not that he had much of a choice, either way. They had his blood from a bit of shrapnel which grazed his cheek, and if he stayed he would certainly be arrested sooner or later. Leaving his family without being able to say goodbye or see them again hurt like a knife in his ribs, but at least if he left like this he was still free. Keith’s hand on his cheek drew his attention back to the present, and he chuckled humorlessly as their foreheads pressed together. “I’m sure, Keith.” he lifted a hand to cup his partner’s cheek. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.”
“If you say so.” Keith pulled away, frowning slightly.
“Look, can we just-” Hunk sighed, pulling away from Keith and Lance slightly so he could use his arms to help with treading water. “Can we get this transformation thing done before someone sees us floating out here?”
“Oh, yeah.” Lance circled around to bob in front of him and held out a hand above the gentle waves, fingers curled up like he was trying to hold water in it.
“You’re gonna want to take a deep breath, and hold it.” Keith advised. Hunk inhaled as deeply as he could, and then Lance’s hand touched him and he felt for the second time the curious sensation of what could only be magic crawling over his skin. It felt slick and a little bit sticky, like a thin film of dish soap, and as soon as it fully encased him each of his partners took one of his wrists and dragged him under.
He kept his eyes shut, held his breath, and prayed to every god he knew that he wasn’t making a mistake.
Keet looped the second rope around Hunk’s waist, and gave his partner a quick kiss on the cheek before darting out of the circle with the human’s swim trunks. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Lance do that thing again, the weirdly fluid motion of bringing his hands down to the circle, and then the lines lit up with magic light. He held his breath, and a second later the light focused fully on Hunk’s lower body. From the outside, he could see how it spread over the skin like lightning. Hunk tensed, a low groan filtering through his clenched teeth, and then his feet went... wrong.
There was no other word to describe it, they were just, wrong. Hunk started screaming then, kicking wildly, and Keet realised what had happened. His bones had disappeared, leaving his feet squishy blobs of skin and muscle without any kind of support. The process moved swiftly up his legs, and Keet’s stomach turned as Hunk’s screams trailed off into nothing. His legs only vaguely resembled legs anymore, long roughly-tubular sacks of meat attached to the bottom of his torso, and it was thoroughly unsettling. Not as bad as what followed, though. Blood abruptly spilled across his torso from six massive gashes between his lower ribs, three on each side. More blood seeped from his mouth, and Keith had barely realized what was going on before he found himself darting into the circle.
He kept his tail and body well above the ribbons of magic light, and grabbed Hunk’s face to tilt it up towards his. Hunk’s lips were wet and salty, his mouth tasting of blood, and Keet focused on drawing air into his lungs from his gills as he exhaled through his mouth. Hunk jerked as the oxygen jolted him back awake, and screamed again. Keet looked down, and winced in sympathy. Hunk’s legs were fused together down to the knee, with brown-gold scales grown in on about half that. He took a deep breath for himself, then leaned in again and silenced Hunk with another air-giving kiss.
Or, well, almost silenced him. He was still crying, whimpering in pain, but when Keet had to pull away to let Hunk exhale he nuzzled against his partner’s forehead. “It’s almost over.” he murmured. “Don’t worry, it’s almost over.” he gave Hunk another brief air-kiss, and looked down again to see translucent fins slicing through the scales. A second later the light of the magic circle vanished, and then Lance was at his side dispelling the bubble around Hunk’s body. The blood was quickly swept away by the currents within the circle, which explained Keet’s question about why he hadn’t noticed his own when he was transformed, and Lance pulled Hunk down to sit on the stone ledge under them.
“I’m sorry.” he murmured in English, pulling Hunk into a hug. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
Hunk’s mouth opened and closed a few times, and Keet put a hand over it and his nose. “You have gills now.” he reminded his partner. “They work underwater much better than your lungs do.” he used his free hand to push water up at Hunk’s gills, and relaxed slightly as they began to flutter rhythmically. He pulled one of Hunk’s hands to hover just over his own gills, to let him feel the water moving over them, and soon enough Hunk’s gills were doing the same thing.
“I almost died.” Hunk croaked, clinging to Lance as Keet snuggled up against his side.
“But you didn’t.” Keet said over Lance’s latest apology. “You’re alive.” he felt his face splitting in a grin, and buried it in Hunk’s shoulder. “You’re a merman, Hunk.” he laughed breathlessly. “You’re a merman, it worked!”
“And hot, too.” Lance teased, getting Hunk to blush.
“I have a tail.” he said dumbly, and Keet snuggled closer to him. God, he’d missed being able to hug Hunk.
“It’s a pretty tail.” he said, laying his own out next to it. “And look, the three of us are the primary colours.” he pointed at their tails, which were even arranged in colour-wheel order now that Lance was straightening his out and settling down on Hunk’s other side.
“Huh.” Hunk grinned, weak and wobbly but so much better than the shell-shocked expression of a moment ago. “What are the odds of that?”
“Deep Ones have sense of aesthetics.” Lance said, leaning his head on Hunk’s shoulder. “So, pretty good actually.”
Hunk laughed, and Keet hugged him tight again. “Just wait til you see Lance’s place.” he smiled as Hunk started experimentally twitching his fins. “It’s like the best little apartment ever.”
“It is not.” Lance scoffed. “You’re just saying that because you’re living in new-arrival housing now and that stuff is old as hell.”
“Is there a kitchen?” Hunk asked, and Keet was nearly overcome by the urge to kiss his dorky partner. Only almost, though; Hunk didn’t like kissing.
“There’s hotstone and some basic tools.” Lance nodded.
“And a huge bed.” Keet rested his chin on Hunk’s shoulder. “It’s really soft, and definitely big enough for all of us.”
Hunk raised an eyebrow, and turned to look at Lance. “Any particular reason you have a threesome-sized bed?”
Keet snorted. Lance made a choking noise. “It’s not threesome-sized!” he squawked, once he finally got his voice back. “And anyways, until last month is was just little kiddy bed. I only made it bigger when Keet needed somewhere to sleep.”
“Suuure.” Hunk grinned, small and teasing but genuine.
“It’s true.” Keet added. “I saw him do it, there was a lightshow and everything.”
“Why do you sound so surprised?” Lance huffed, releasing Hunk’s arm to cross his own. “Do I really seem like type of guy to- wait, no, don’t answer that.”
Keet exchanged grins with Hunk, and he was the first to crack. Hunk followed a second later, and Lance joined in after a few more seconds of pouting. Hunk fell backwards, sprawling out across the circle, and Keet twisted to lay on his partner’s chest while Lance turned sideways and wrapped his tail around both of theirs. Warmth welled in Keet’s chest, hot and bright as any flame, and he buried his face in Hunk’s collarbone as his smile grew wide enough to start hurting his cheeks.
He’d missed this.
Hunk's tail is patterned after a reef triggerfish, for those curious.
More nsfw content this chapter, finally making good on that Hunk/Keith/Lance tag. As before, feel free to skip if you'd rather not read it.
Hunk’s first thought, when Keith pointed it out, was that Lance’s pad looked an awful lot like an old volcanic vent with a sealed top. As they drew closer, he was forced to revise his opinion. Lance’s pad was definitely the husk of an old volcanic vent. One with a hidden door in the bottom, apparently, as part of the wall swung open when Lance waved his hand over it. The inside looked, surprisingly normal. There were dishes sitting out on the counter, an oddly proportioned table with two stools, and some stuff scattered around which he couldn’t make heads or tails of.
“Second floor is bedroom.” Lance said, tugging him forward by the wrist and up towards a hole in the ceiling. Huh, he supposed merfolk wouldn’t really need stairs if they could just, swim up. He followed Lance without complaint, a bit drained from the late hour and also almost dying earlier. That had been, an experience. One he hoped never to have again.
The bed, once he got his head above the floor of the second level, was impossible to miss. It dominated the center of the room, the proportions off in a way that made him want to take it apart and figure out what was wrong with the damn thing. Keith flopped down on the bed quickly, and Hunk laid down next to him without prompting. Lance settled close against his back, and he sighed as he let their warmth envelop him. Was it possible to miss something you’d never had?
“Don’t worry.” Lance murmured, running a hand down the front of his chest. His skin felt strange in a new and different way, and Hunk realized that his own skin must’ve changed to match Lance’s in texture. “This place is warded against everything short of Old Ones’ wrath, we’re safe here.”
“Thanks.” Hunk mumbled as Keith twined their tails together. He let his eyes drift shut, but sleep refused to come to him. His body felt strange, different, and he couldn’t shake the awareness that he was breathing through gills and had fins pressed against the mattress. He had a freaking tail, for crying out loud! That wasn’t normal!
“Hunk?” Keith pulled away slightly, his mouth pulling down a hint at the edges. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” he answered reflexively, and Keith frowned at him in earnest. “Just, still getting used to the whole ‘being a merman’ thing.” he admitted. Keith blinked, then smiled that soft little smile of his.
“It does take some getting used to, doesn’t it?” he chuckled, and leaned in to rub their noses together. “The new skin was the weirdest, for me.”
“I think the tail is throwing me worst.” Hunk grimaced. Keith made a sympathetic face, and trailed his hand down Hunk’s side towards where his hips should be. Hunk drew a sharp breath as Keith’s fingers slid over his gills, and his partner paused briefly before repeating the action. Oh, that- that felt really good.
“Want me to do that again?” Keith asked, and he nodded. It felt good, but more than that it felt right. Like his body was supposed to be this way, tail and gills and all. Keith stroked over his gills again, and Hunk bit back a whimper.
“Hunk?” Lance murmured, pushing himself up to look down at him. “Roll onto your back.”
Hunk did, and Lance wound his tail around Hunk’s so it laid alongside Keith’s. “Alright.” Lance murmured, cupping his hands around nothing so his fingertips nearly touched. “This may tingle some, but it won’t hurt.”
“More magic?” Hunk frowned. “But I thought you were still drained from that big spell.”
“I’ve got enough juice left in me for this, don’t worry.” Lance grinned, and reached out to press his fingers to Hunk’s face. He murmured some words in a language Hunk couldn’t understand, and a strange sensation spiderwebbed across the skin of his forehead and scalp. “There, you should be able to understand me now.” he grinned, and Hunk nodded before he realized that Lance... hadn’t spoken English, just there.
“You’re gonna have to show me how that spell works.” he said, the words coming out in Mermish. “Because that trick’s really neat.”
Lance beamed, and leaned down to press a kiss to his cheek. “Gladly, Hunk.”
Oh, wow, was that what his name sounded like in Lance’s language? It was beautiful. He opened his mouth to suggest another trick Lance could show him much sooner, and wound up gasping instead as Keith’s fingers traced his gills on both sides. One of Lance’s hands came to rest on his stomach, and Hunk shivered as it traced downwards. Not from the feeling of Lance’s skin on his, which was already becoming familiar, but because as soon as Lance’s fingers started dragging over his scales he felt a strip of them part.
“Do you always get riled up this quickly?” Lance teased, and Hunk blushed as he felt something squirm out of the slit between the parted scales.
“No.” he mumbled, and Keith giggled as he leaned in to nuzzle at Hunk’s neck.
“You don’t know that yet, in this body.” he breathed, warm against Hunk’s skin as he took one of Hunk’s hands and lifted it to his own fluttering gills. “But I bet we’ll be sure by the time you’re ready to join us in city.”
Hunk decided not to think about any of what Keith had just said, instead focusing on stroking his fingers over his partner’s gills gently. Keith moaned happily, rubbing the upper section of his tail against Hunk’s, and Hunk lifted his other hand to rest on Lance’s upper ribs. He glanced at the merman, and when Lance nodded stroked his hand down. Keith whimpered and panted against his neck. one hand stroking clumsily at Hunk’s gills while the other rubbed between their tails, trying to coax out his own genitalia.
“Little harder.” Lance panted, propping himself up with one hand and leaning back as he rubbed at his tail. Hunk obliged, and Lance moaned obscenely as his scales parted and- Hunk nearly did a double take. He’d seen Lance’s dick before, back when he let Keith test if merfolk could get drunk, but somehow he’d forgotten that it was a goddamn tentacle. And if Lance’s was a tentacle, then that meant... he looked down at himself, and quickly back at Keith and Lance’s face. If he started thinking about that now, he’d completely ruin the mood. He didn’t want to ruin the mood, he wanted to have a fun time tonight with his partners.
Keith let out a breathy moan which was almost a sigh as his own tentacle unsheathed, and then pulled back to look between Hunk and Lance. “Do you want us to go together, or take turns?”
“Together.” Hunk answered after a few moments of thought. “I don’t think I’m up for two rounds tonight, and only picking one of you wouldn’t be fair.”
“Aww.” Lance grinned, and leaned down to drop a peck on Hunk’s jaw. “You’re so sweet.”
Hunk blushed, and Keith shifted his hands around so one was planted on the bed at his side and the other was resting on his chest. “So, uh, is there anything you want us to do?” he asked awkwardly, and Lance’s face flashed with the proudest smile.
“I, uh-” Hunk looked to the side, his cheeks burning. “I guess, you could touch my chest? And my gills, that felt really nice.”
“How do you feel about biting?” Lance asked, and Hunk quickly shook his head.
“Not with teeth like yours.” he said quickly. How some people found pain and bleeding sexy, he would never understand.
“Fair.” Lance shrugged, mirroring Keith’s pose and looking over at the palest member of their trio. “Here, we can wrap around him like we’re doing with our tails.” he guided Keith’s upper tail forwards, and Hunk shivered as he felt two warm, semi-slick things wrap around his... fish-dick. Having a tentacle dick was definitely something that would take some getting used to.
“Move with my hand, okay?” Lance said to Keith softly. Keith nodded, and Hunk shivered as the two pressures around his dick began to shift in slow, gentle tandem. It felt weird, but a good kind of weird, the kind that didn’t pry at his brain insisting it was Wrong. Keith’s fingers trailed over his chest, wandering aimlessly, and Lance took one of Hunk’s hands to bring it up to his gills again.
“You can touch.” he murmured, still guiding Keith in slow motions. “We’re future handmates, after all.”
Hunk nodded, and ran his hand down Lance’s side. The other, he lifted to curl around the back of Keith’s neck and grab at his hair tie. It came free easily, and once Keith’s hair was loose Hunk tangled his hand in it. Keith and Lance’s moans were something close to musical, harmonising beautifully, and Hunk gasped as one of the pressures around his dick tightened significantly. They both sped up, falling slightly out of synch as they did so, and Hunk reflexively stifled the moan that tried to crawl from his throat.
“Don’t hold back.” Lance breathed, leaning down to kiss Hunk’s throat. “I want to hear you moan.” his voice resonated in Hunk’s chest, sending lightning shivers down his spine to coil hot in his gut, and then Lance moved his mouth down, kissing along Hunk’s collarbone and over his pec until his tongue laved over Hunk’s nipple. Hunk gasped, bucking up into the pressure around his dick, and Lance grinned up at him wickedly.
“Oh, you meant-” Keith trailed off in a moan, but his hand moved to play with Hunk’s other nipple and Hunk’s hand tightened in his partner’s hair, drawing another moan from Keith’s throat and a rough, asynchronous thrust from one of the two pressures around his length. Simultaneously, Lance jerked back with a cry, the gentle coil of pressure tightening almost to the point of pain. Hunk’s eyes snapped to his partner, and he loosened his hand with a wince. He’d clamped down his grip right over Lance’s gills, that couldn’t’ve been fun.
“Do that again.” Lance panted, speeding up his and Keith’s thrusts. “Fuck, Hunk, you’re so strong.”
A small, detatched part of Hunk catalogued the fact that Lance apparently had the mermish equivalent of an asphyxiation kink, and he shelved the thoughts on how objectively bizarre this situation was for later examination. Instead, he smiled and stroked down over Lance’s gills again, this time pressing down as hard as he could without shoving Lance into Keith. Lance moaned, loudly, and Keith’s pressure around Hunk’s dick followed a half second behind Lance’s sharp thrust.
“I’m gonna come.” Lance moaned, and Hunk felt his hand sliding past his arm to stroke over Keith’s gills. “Oh, Hunk, grab me again.”
“Not yet.” Keith panted, his cheeks pink and mouth hanging open. “I’m not-” he groaned, and Hunk released Keith’s hair to bring his hand down and wrap around the slick, pulsing coil of their three dicks. It was thick, so thick he couldn’t get his hand fully around it, but when he squeezed both coils of pressure spasmed tighter as Keith and Lance moaned.
“That do it for ya?” he panted, and his partners exchanged a brief look before both diving down and latching onto his nipples. Hunk cried out, pleasure flashing through his whole body, and his hand tightened further around the intertwined flesh between them. Keith came first, moaning into Hunk’s chest as he did. Lance followed a second later, when Hunk pulled his hand away to slap into his gills roughly and squeeze. His own orgasm wasn’t far behind, and when his partners collapsed on top of him he only grunted a little bit.
“Lance?” Keith panted a minute later, his dick loosening its hold on Hunk’s. “Sorry, but- I think Hunk is better at this than you are.”
“Definitely better than you.” Lance laughed, rolling off of Hunk.
“Guess I’m just naturally talented.” Hunk managed a grin as his length pulled back into his body, and Keith swatted at his arm.
“Don’t rub it in.” he grumbled, and Hunk laughed as he slid an arm around Keith’s lower back.
“What?” he teased. “Are you upset that I can still fuck your brains out?”
“I’m not complaining.” Lance declared with a grin, pressing up against Hunk’s side and resting his head on Hunk’s shoulder. “You can show me how to make Keet dissolve, and then we can tag-team him.”
Keet? Hunk frowned. Who was Keet?
“Laaance.” Keith whined, and Lance pushed himself up slightly to kiss him.
“Dissolving.” he grinned. “Gonna happen.”
Oh. Keet was probably the closest pronunciation to Keith that Lance could get in Mermish. “I, for one, wouldn’t object to dissolving you.” Hunk agreed, and Keith buried his face in Hunk’s chest with a groan.
“You two are going to be my death.”
“That’d certainly be headline news.” Lance chuckled. “Local boy fucked to death, unofficial handmate and heartmate to be tried.”
Hunk snorted. Keith huffed a laugh out against his chest.
“I hate you both.” he grinned.
“No you do~n’t.” Hunk sing-songed, and Lance laughed.
Maybe, as long as he had Keith and Lance with him, he’d be able to get used to living as a merman.
Motion in his peripheral vision made Keet look up, and his face split with a smile. “Hey, you’re done with your paperwork!” his grin fell a second later, though, when he noticed Hunk’s expression. “Is something wrong?”
“Where’s Lance?” Hunk asked in lieu of an answer.
“Grabbing another book. Seriously, what’s wrong?” he reached across the library table to grab Hunk’s hand.
“I don’t wanna have to say it twice.” Hunk mumbled, and Keet squeezed his hand gently.
“Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s fine. You stuck to Lance’s story, right?” he asked, running through the lie his boyfriend had crafted for Hunk in his head. Defector from the guard of a nearby not-allied city for moral reasons, not trained enough to provide any useful information, looking for asylum. A bit more risky than Keet’s story, but Lance had insisted it would work. Shit, had it backfired? Was Hunk here to tell them he was being put under close watch or something?
“Of course I stuck to his story.” Hunk hissed.
“Well, hello there handsome.” Lance said, setting his newest book down atop the stack already present on his portion of the table. “Haven’t seen you around here before.
“I think my spell didn’t work.” Hunk blurted without preamble, and Keet’s eyes flew open.
“What? No, we would’ve noticed that already.” Lance said with a shake of his head.
“Then it gave me uncommon tail or something, because people have been staring at me since my fins touched city limits.” Hunk whispered urgently. “Something must’ve gone wrong, I’m not blending in at all.”
Keet looked past Hunk’s shoulder, and his stomach dropped. Sure enough, a cluster of mers around their age were eyeing their group and whispering to each other. Keet had seen them around just about every day he was here, but even earlier today they’d just ignored each other.
“Well of course you’re not blending in.” Lance said blithely. “If I was built like you, I’d stick out too.”
“Oh.” Hunk drooped, and Keet scowled at Lance.
“Rude.” he huffed, crossing his arms.
“What? I was complimenting him!” Lance protested. “I spent all freaking summer trying to get my body to look like his.” he gestured at Hunk, and Keet exchanged a look with his partner.
“Lance, what are you saying?” Hunk asked slowly.
“Um, that you’re hot?” he frowned. “Like, hottest person in this library, easy.”
“What.” Keet said flatly, blinking a few times as his face twisted in confusion. “I mean, yeah Hunk is awesome, but-”
“Im hardly model material.” Hunk finished.
“No, you’re guard material. That’s so much better.” Lance grinned. “Once we start properly courting, I’ll have to get you something nice and flashy, so everyone knows you’re taken.”
Hunk flushed, and Keet stretched his tail out under the table to hook his fin behind Hunk’s tailtip. “I’ll get you something nice too. New headband, maybe?” he tilted his head slightly, and Lance slung an arm around his shoulders.
“Damn, now I gotta think of something else.” he laughed, extending his own tail to hook his fin around the other side of Hunk’s tailtip. “But seriously, don’t worry about people staring. You only stand out in a good way.” he smiled, and Hunk flushed darker.
God, they were both too cute.
“So.” Hunk said firmly, casting around for a way to change the subject. “What’s with all the big thick books?” he asked. Lance’s face lit up, and Keet slumped forward to rest his forehead on the open pages in front of him with a groan.
“Magic.” they answered in unison, Lance chirping it while Keet groaned.
“I’m trying to figure out how to extend insulation charm life so I won’t have to stop to refresh it during training outside city limits.” Lance explained, gesturing to his pile of books. “Keet’s working on basic concepts.”
“And I’m this close to giving up on them.” he growled, holding up a hand with his thumb and index finger only barely not touching.
“Well, maybe I can help.” Hunk reached across the table, and Keet lifted his head so Hunk could pull the book out from under it. It only took a brief glance at the page for him to get completely lost, and he slowly flipped back to the beginning. This was, really complicated stuff, and not just because it was working on the premise of the reader being able to generate and harness something humans had no idea existed.
“You look like you just swam into a wall.” Lance chuckled. “What, surprised by how easy it is?”
Hunk slowly looked up from the incomprehensible text, and locked eyes with Keet for a moment before they both turned to look at Lance. “Lance, how long have you been doing magic?” Keet asked, his voice carefully emotionless.
“Uh, I think I picked up that book you have there when I was six? Maybe seven.” Lance shrugged. “Bit of a late start, really, compared to the pros.”
“Lance...” Hunk waited until his partner was looking at him expectantly. “If this was something humans could do, with instructions like this? Nobody would start until college.” he laid a hand on the book, and Lance gave him a skeptical look.
“If you have to read every step of the instructions, you’re doing it wrong.” he said, as if it was blindingly obvious. “Unless it needs runes, like insulation charms or my vent stack wards, I just scan to see how magic has to be applied. Y’know, incantation and motions and stuff.” he shrugged.
Hunk opened his mouth, shut it, and looked back down at the book under his hand. The book that he’d probably need another few years of math and science courses to even begin to understand. “You keep talking about joining city guard.” he said, pushing the book across the table towards Lance. “Have you ever considered magic instead?”
Lance gave him a Look, and Hunk cringed. “Sorry, is there no magic career choice?” he asked. “What am I saying, of course-”
“There is.” Keet interrupted, pulling the book out from under Hunk’s hand and starting to flip through the pages looking for something.
“But I’m nowhere near skilled enough to get apprenticed.” Lance continued as Keet scanned the pages.
“That’s shit.” Hunk said flatly.
“Those books of yours disagree.” Keet added.
“Thank you, Keet. Lance, how many professional...” he trailed off, racking his brain for the word.
“Sorcerers.” Lance supplied.
“Yeah, how many of them do you think could pull off what you did for us?” he gestured at himself and Keet, flicking his tail against Lance’s for emphasis.
“Uh, any of them?” Lance scoffed. “They’re pros for reason.”
“But could they do it alone?” he pressed. “Could they have done it on us? How many people our age can say they’ve done what you have? Between your vent stack, language spells, that thing you did at facility...” he trailed off, and Lance looked pointedly off to the side.
“At least two dozen.” he muttered. “There’s only sixteen slots this year, and if I shoot for sorcery I can’t join city guard until next year’s recruitment.”
“So shoot for it.” Hunk urged him.
“Plus, if you make it, their formal dress would look really nice on you.” Keet added, turning the book so Hunk and Lance could both easily see the two-page spread on royal sorcerer duties. “And if you somehow don’t, well, there’s always next year for the guard.” he smiled, his fin shifting against the back of Hunk’s tail as he pressed against Lance’s.
“You two only think I’m strong because you’ve never seen real sorcerers.” Lance mumbled, shoulders hunching up around where his ear would be, if he were human.
“I think you’re strong because I’m really good with math and science, and I can’t make heads or tails of this.” he gestured at Keet’s book. “Because I’ve seen you calculate new spell parameters in beats. Because you’re self-taught and one merman and look at us.” he gestured to himself and Keet.
“You should go for it.” Keet said softly, laying a hand on Lance’s arm.
“Fine.” Lance sighed. “Fine, I’ll go for it. On one condition.”
“Listening.” Hunk said, and Lance met his gaze with iron in his eyes.
“You join city guard.” he said, then turned to Keet. “And you join with me next year.”
“If you don’t make it, sure.” he grinned, shutting the book and disentangling his tail from Hunk’s. “Hunk?”
He thought about it for a minute, then nodded. City guard, as he understood it, was basically a combination of beat cop, gatewatcher, and park ranger. It wouldn’t require him to know much, if anything, that was specific to the mermish education system. And, bonus, his cover story meant he could easily get out of any questions about history. “Sure.” he said with a small grin. “I think I can do that.”