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Jagged Fins

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The water was cold and smooth this far below the surface of the ocean. Rocks jutted up from the soft sand, and here and there a frond of coral would wave in the currents. Small schools of silver fish swam around, their scales just barely glinting in the scarce sunlight that made it this far down. An octopus crawled along the craggy rocks, carefully unfurling each tentacle, and a couple of small sharks darted through the water. Down here, in the middle of this serene setting, Lance was in danger.

He swam swiftly from rock to rock, pausing to glance all around him. His blue-green scales almost perfectly matched the water, glistening when they caught a rare sunbeam. His fins were practically translucent, and he kept them tucked tightly to his body. The smaller he made himself, the easier it was for him to hide.

Lance poked his head out, surveying his surroundings closely before he darted to the next rock, squeezing himself under a ledge. He might not be able to see them, but he knew they were close. Every now and then his ears picked up the sound of a tail stirring up sand or a fin hitting the rocks. They were very close, and it was only a matter of time before they would catch up.

Lance sucked a breath in through the gills on his neck before ever so slowly raising his head to peer beyond the rock. He scanned his surroundings cautiously, first looking right, then left. Nothing but the octopus as it continued to fumble along. He spotted his next cover, a couple of boulders he could squeeze between. Lance shut his eyes for a moment, mentally preparing himself before he shot into the open.

He had barely swam a tail-length when something collided with him. Lance let out a gasp as he slammed against the ocean floor. He didn’t even have time to blink before his vision was blocked by a mass of writhing tails. Many pairs of hands reached out and grabbed onto him, holding him down. They’d found him. It was too late. Lance’s body shook as he opened his mouth to cry out.

“Stop it, that tickles!”

His statement was met by a bunch of gleeful giggles, and the tiny hands only continued to tickle him with renewed fervor. Lance shook with laughter and he raised his tail high, bringing it down on the ocean floor with a powerful thump. The motion allowed him to shoot up in the water, knocking him free of his tiny captors. He turned to grin triumphantly at the merchildren.

“The evil shark is free once more!” Lance declared. With a swish of his tail he shot off into the water, pursued by the squealing kids. He made sure to swim slow enough so that they could keep up, but not so slow that they would catch him.

“Get the shark!” one of the kids yelled.

“You’ll never catch me!” Lance shouted over his shoulder, doing his best evil laugh. He was just turning his head to look forward again when he collided with something solid. The children were upon him in an instant, mercilessly tickling him as he rolled through the water.

“Alright everyone,” a voice cut through the sound of the children’s laughter, “leave the shark alone, you’ve killed him already.” The kids reluctantly obeyed, leaving Lance to catch his breath as they rushed at the newcomer.

“Can you be the shark next?” A little girl asked while Lance finally composed himself and looked over. His best friend, Hunk, was floating there, smiling at the kids as they latched onto him. Lance had always been jealous of Hunk’s beautiful golden scales. His family was the only one in their shoal with such brightly colored scales. It meant they couldn’t help with hunting or scouting new waters, since they were far too easily noticeable, but they were still able to do other things, such as watch over the kids, look for shelter, protect their fellow merfolk from predators, and, the most coveted of tasks, pass on stories.

“Maybe in a bit,” Hunk told the girl. “We’ve strayed too far from the rest of the shoal, so we have to get back.” A chorus of groans met that statement. “But,” Hunk continued over them, “I can tell you the story of the hero Alfor.” At those words, the groans quickly turned to cheers, and Hunk beamed over at Lance, who returned his smile. Hunk knew this was one of Lance’s favorite stories. He turned to swim back towards the shoal with the kids in tow. Lance made sure to keep up, not wanting to miss a word. He’d heard this story a thousand times before, but it still thrilled him, and Hunk told it best.

“Our story,” Hunk spoke up, “begins, not with the hero Alfor, but the loathsome and evil Zarkon.” The kids oohed at that, staring at Hunk with wide eyes. “Zarkon was not a merman, but one of the vicious sharkpeople that roam this ocean. He was a monster that killed and ate anything in his path, including,” Hunk paused dramatically and gave Lance a meaningful look before he said his next word, “merpeople.”

On cue, Lance leaned down next to the kids and snapped his razor-sharp teeth together. Several of the children near Lance shrieked, including the boy closest to him. This same boy whirled around and shot Lance an indignant glare. “Lance, don’t do that!” the kid snapped. He had the same blue-green scales and light-brown hair as the older merman, though his eyes were brown instead of blue like Lance’s.

“Sorry, Tion,” Lance smiled, ruffling his younger cousin's hair. Tion huffed at him in annoyance before darting away from Lance’s reach.

“Half the ocean was left barren and empty from Zarkon’s great cruelty and greed. That was when Alfor, the founder of our shoal, vowed to end him. Alfor declared that he would not stand by as Zarkon slaughtered the innocent and destroyed our home. He armed himself with the Staff of Justice, the same staff his descendant, our leader Allura, carries with her today.” The children let out some oohs of appreciation and Lance nodded his approval. “Alfor went to face Zarkon. The terrible sharkman swam straight at him, intending to devour Alfor as he had so many before. But our brave hero stood his ground and struck Zarkon down with a single blow of his staff. Alfor had saved the ocean, and forever after the sharkpeople would be cowards, scattered across the seas and never daring to challenge the merfolk unless one wandered away from the shoal. If any one merfolk strays too far from home,” again, Hunk gave Lance a meaningful look, “they will be snapped up and devoured.”

“Like this!” Lance yelled, grabbing onto Tion and twisting through the water with him.

“Lance!” Tion cried out, but this time he was giggling.

“Get the shark!” a little girl screamed, and next thing Lance knew he was once more covered in writhing fins and tickling hands.

“Hunk, help me!” Lance pleaded, trying desperately to shake off his small attackers. Tion laughed triumphantly and squirmed from Lance’s grip, tickling him on the neck.

“You got him!” Hunk called out through his laughter. “The shark's dead, you can retreat soldiers! I see the rest of the shoal just up ahead.”

The kids cried out in joy and darted off, each swimming to their parents or tackling their siblings. Tion gave Lance a last playful whack of his tail before darting into the waiting arms of his father.

“Hunk!” Lance beamed as he threw his arms around his best friend. “You saved me! I thought I was fish food back there.”

“Yeah, right,” Hunk laughed. “I’m just glad I didn’t have to be the shark. My tail’s not nearly as camouflaged as yours.”

“Your tail,” Lance began, “is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Don’t you dare bash it!”

“I wasn’t,” Hunk rolled his eyes, though he looked pleased at the compliment. “I overheard Coran say we should be at the winter feeding grounds by sunset.”

Lance lit up at those words. “You know what that means, don’t you?”

Hunk shot him a cautionary look. “That we will all go to bed and get a good night’s rest?”

Lance sighed. “C’mon Hunk. Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“Lance, we’ve been traveling for almost a month! That’s plenty of adventure.”

“Hunk,” Lance whined his friend’s name. “The winter feeding grounds have the biggest ship graveyard I’ve ever found! I’ve been waiting half a year to explore it again!”

“We aren’t even supposed to go near shipwrecks,” Hunk hissed, lowering his voice. “They’re unstable and dangerous and they were made by humans! Humans are the most dangerous things of all. It’s basically an entire species of Zarkons!”

“But there aren’t any humans in the ships,” Lance said. “Just all their junk. Pidge loves their junk!”

“Oh no,” Hunk shook his head. “You are not asking Pidge.”

“Why not?”

“Because then Pidge will want to go right away. If you wait until tomorrow then it’ll be daylight and we can all… Lance, where are you going?”

“I’m gonna ask Pidge!” Lance called behind him, smirking.

“Lance, no, wait up!” Hunk yelled. He did his best to keep up, but Lance was one of the fastest swimmers in the shoal and he was determined to see those shipwrecks tonight. He darted through the groups of people, searching for those tell-tale shiny green scales. He finally caught sight of said scales, and the fiery reddish-brown hair of the person who owned them.

“Pidge!” Lance cried out as he swam up to them. The person turned around and Lance paused in front of them. “Oh, hey Matt,” he smiled. “Sorry, ever since Pidge cut her hair you two look the same from behind. Where is she?”

Pidge’s older brother smiled back. “She got called out to join a hunting party. They’re off catching dinner right now so the shoal can eat when we get to the feeding grounds.”

“Damn it,” Lance cursed softly. “Thanks anyways, Matt.”

“No problem!” the boy called after him.

“Lance!”

Lance almost jumped out of his scales when he heard Hunk next to him. “You scared the shit out of me! What is it?”

“Don’t- just swim- off!” Hunk gasped as he tried to catch his breath. “I can’t keep up!”

“Sorry, buddy,” he smiled apologetically. “So it turns out Pidge got hunting duty. Guess it’s just the two of us tonight!”

“Lance,” Hunk frowned. “I was trying to tell you this before you swam off. Other than all the many other reasons why we shouldn’t do this, I really can’t. You know my older sister hatched some new kids recently. Our old cave in the winter feeding grounds isn’t going to be big enough anymore. I need to help look for a new place.”

“What?” Lance exclaimed. “That sucks!”

“We’ll have a safe place to sleep, so it’ll be kinda nice,” Hunk pointed out.

“No, I mean that you can’t come with me.”

There was a pause for a moment. “You aren’t still going, are you?” Hunk asked.

“Of course I am!”

“Lance! You can’t just go there alone!”

“Why not?” Lance frowned. “I’ve gone off on my own before.”

“Not to shipwrecks! You aren’t even supposed to be there at all in the first place! What if a ship collapses on you, or a shark eats you, or-”

“Hunk,” Lance put a hand reassuringly on his shoulder. “I’ll be fine. I know how to fend for myself. Besides, I got these bad boys.” Lance grinned wide, showing off his sharp teeth. “Each one is immaculate!”

“Why aren’t you bringing your spear?” Hunk asked worriedly.

“Because then my family will know I’m up to something.”

“Lance,” Hunk looked his friend straight in the eyes, completely serious. “Please don’t do this. Just wait until tomorrow. Then we can all go.”

“I can’t, Hunk,” Lance told him. “Tomorrow I have scouting duty, and then I’m on hunting patrol for the next two days! I can’t blame them, though. I have reflexes like a catfish.”

“Lance-” Hunk began.

“Look, if you’re so worried then I promise I’ll just go, take a quick look around, and then come right back. I won’t even go in any of the ships!”

Hunk still looked worried at this, his brow furrowed.

“Deal?” Lance asked, slinging his arm around the other boy.

“Fine,” Hunk sighed. “Deal. But you better come right back.”

“Have I ever given you a reason not to trust me?” Lance asked. Hunk snorted and opened his mouth to comment but Lance cut him off. “The correct answer was no, Hunk. You fail the quiz.” Hunk bumped against him with his shoulder and Lance laughed, nudging him lightly back.

 

 

Just like Hunk had said, the shoal arrived at their winter feeding grounds right as the sun was beginning to set. Lance went as fast as he could with helping his family unpack the few belongings they had brought along on their migration. Once he was finished he yelled something about hanging out with friends over his shoulder before swimming off. Guilt coiled in his gut as he headed towards the ship graveyard. He hated lying to his family. Normally he told them the truth about everything, but visiting shipwrecks was the one thing he had to keep secret. Anything human-related was taboo and was supposed to be avoided at all costs. If his family ever found out, he would be in huge trouble.

The guilt vanished as soon as he spotted the looming shapes of the ships in the distance. Dusk was just beginning to settle across the ocean. However, this hardly hindered Lance. Like the rest of the merfolk, he had excellent night vision. His eyes lit up, glowing blue in the dark waters and warning any nearby predators to stay away.

Lance held his breath in excitement as he swam among the first few ships. This ship graveyard was so huge that even after all these years he and his friends still hadn’t seen all of it. There were mysteries around every corner, and new treasures to be found! He approached a gaping hole in the side of one of the wrecks. He had promised Hunk he wouldn’t go inside any tonight, but he’d never said he wouldn’t look in them.

The inside was encrusted in barnacles. The usual assortment of human junk lay scattered about, equally as barnacle covered. Lance wanted to pick each item up and examine it, but they all lay out of reach. He sighed in frustration, backing away. A promise was a promise. Besides, he’d be back with Hunk and Pidge in a few days.

Lance was backing away from the ship when he caught a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye. He whirled around, flaring his fins out threateningly. All was still. That’s when it dawned on him. There was nothing in this ship graveyard. Just because it was a graveyard didn’t mean it was dead. Usually there would be schools of fish swimming around, crabs scuttling across the sand, and eels poking their heads up from their holes. But now, the place was completely empty. Something was wrong.

Lance bared his teeth and let out a warning trill. It rolled through the water, bouncing off the shipwrecks and echoing back at him. Nothing answered. Nothing moved. Feeling increasingly uneasy, Lance turned to head back home. Perhaps coming here alone really hadn’t been the best idea.

Just then he heard a rush of water behind him. Lance tried to spin around, but the next thing he knew he felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. He cried out and thrashed around desperately, but the pain only increased. Lance could see his blood clouding the water around him. He swiveled his head towards his attacker, and what he saw almost made his heart stop.

Rows and rows of jagged teeth were buried in his skin, and just above them loomed a pair of glowing violet eyes. It was one of the things that mermaids feared most. One of the things they must never run into all alone. This monster glaring back at Lance was a sharkperson.

Chapter Text

Lance beat his tail heavily in the water, twisting and writhing as he tried to shake his attacker off. However, the sharkperson only sunk his teeth in deeper, determined not to let Lance escape. The merman screeched out threats and warning calls, but he knew it was no use. The shark was bigger and heavier than him. His only hope would be to pull away somehow. If he did, he might be able to out swim the sharkperson, and-

His thoughts were interrupted when his eyes caught a flash of light. His gaze immediately shot to the object in question, which was shiny enough that it had been able to catch a beam of the faint moonlight above. Dread settled in the pit of Lance’s stomach as he recognized it. The sharkperson was clutching a dagger, but it wasn’t like the merfolk daggers made of sharpened stone or shell. The gleam of the weapon showed that it was unmistakably metal. And metal, as Lance had learned after all his times sifting through human junk, was much sharper than any rock.

The sharkperson plunged the dagger towards Lance’s chest and Lance just managed to swerve his body away in time. Before the shark could strike again, Lance grabbed the wrist that was holding the weapon, trying his best to keep it in place. Adrenaline was now pulsing through his veins, and he beat his tail furiously, dragging the sharkperson along with him as Lance careened towards the nearest shipwreck. He smashed the shark against the side of the ship, causing the beast’s jaws to open in a gasp of pain. Without a second thought, Lance jerked his shoulder free, feeling even more of his skin tear open.

He was about to swim off as fast as he could when he realized he was still clutching the wrist where the sharkperson held the dagger. Without really understanding why, Lance wrenched the dagger from the shark, an angry threat ringing from his throat. The shark screeched out his own dangerous trill, and he lunged at Lance, jaws snapping. Unlike before, Lance could see the beast coming, and his lithe body twisted from the other’s grasp. With a shriek of fury, Lance swung blindly with the stolen dagger.

In that instant, he felt as though he couldn’t see or breath. Blood erupted into the water, choking his gills and flooding his vision. It was immediately followed by a scream of pain that shook the merman down to his bones. Hacking and coughing, Lance whipped his tail to propel himself backwards. Clean water filled his lungs once more, and his eyes now took in an ugly sight.

There was a cloud of blood before him, every now and then punctured by a massive gray tail or flailing limb as the shark person thrashed around on the ocean floor. Its screams rent the cold waters, chilling Lance to the core. Those sounds were unlike anything Lance had heard before, and he never hoped to hear them again.

Just then the danger of the situation crashed over Lance, and without a second thought he turned and shot off into the water, racing back towards the safety of the shoal. The shark’s screams echoed in his mind long after he was out of earshot. It wasn’t until he was nearly back that the shock seemed to wear off and the pain from his shoulder came crashing down on him. Lance grimaced and clutched at the wound, hissing as the pressure only made it hurt worse.

“Lance, is that you?”

Lance nearly jumped out of his skin when a shape emerged from the darkness. He recognized the golden scales before he could even make out the face, and a sigh of relief rippled through his body.

Hunk's gills flared, concern etched across his features. “I smell blood. Are you alright?!” In response, Lance slowly removed his hand from his shoulder and Hunk’s eyes shot to the wound. “Oh, my god, Lance!” He reached out to touch it, causing a wave of pain to wash over the smaller merman. Lance let out a warning hiss before he could stop himself, and Hunk quickly pulled his hand away. “Is that a bite? What the hell bit you?! I’ll go fetch the healer!”

“No, Hunk!” Lance called out, grabbing onto his friend’s hand before he could swim away. “I need you to listen to me carefully. Go snag a few bandages and maybe some medicine and we’ll patch this up real quick. Grab Pidge while you do and meet me back here. And bring spears!”

“What?” Hunk frowned in confusion. “Lance, that bite is deep! You need to see the healer!”

“No!” Lance snapped. “We don’t have time! Hunk, this is important! There’s a sharkperson at the shipwrecks, and-”

“A sharkperson?!” Hunk exclaimed. “Then we’ve gotta tell Allura!”

“We can’t tell her!” Lance yelled. “Then the whole shoal will know about me going to the ship graveyard!”

“But then who's going to deal with the sharkperson?! We’ve gotta send some warriors out there so that they can-”

“We’re going to deal with it!” Lance interrupted. “You’re going to patch me up real quick, and then you, me and Pidge will go and-”

“Are you insane?!” It was Hunk who interrupted him this time. “You are in no condition to be fighting, and me and Pidge can’t take on a sharkperson alone!”

“That’s why I’m coming too!” Lance growled.

“Didn’t you just hear me? You’re injured!”

“I’m aware of that, thanks! We don’t have time to argue on this! Let’s say we do go tell Allura. By the time a fighting party is organized, the sharkperson could be long gone. So all we get is the threat of imminent danger at every turn and never being allowed to go back to the shipwrecks again! Plus whatever other punishments they give us! If we want to protect the shoal, we need to act now! Think of your family, Hunk! Do you want your sister’s kids to be at risk of getting turned into shark food!”

“Fine!” Hunk yelled. “I’ll get some bandages and I’ll go grab Pidge. But once this is all over, you are seeing the real healer.”

“Deal,” Lance grinned. “Thanks, Hunk.”

“You’re lucky I love you,” his friend snapped before turning and frantically swimming away.

Lance sighed and let himself sink down to the sea floor, careful to make sure he was resting on his non-injured shoulder. He watched as little rivulets of red trailed into the water behind him. The wound was clotting up quickly, but there was still some blood seeping out. He ground his teeth together, trying to focus on anything but the pain. His mind settled on the sharkperson, which wasn’t much better.

Images of those glowing violet eyes shot through his mind, sending shivers down his spine. He could almost hear the monster’s shrieks, and see it’s frighteningly massive tail thrashing in a cloud of red. He remembered how it had tried to stab him with its dagger and-

Lance jumped, suddenly remembering that he had taken the shark’s dagger. Cautiously, he held the blade up near his face, turning it over slowly and watching it glint despite the seeming lack of light. There was a strange glowing purple symbol on the hilt, and Lance squinted at it. He couldn’t make any sense of it, but for some reason it filled him with dread, and he felt another shiver crawl through him.

“Holy shit, Lance!”

He shot up at the sound of the voice, turning to see Pidge racing towards him, followed closely by Hunk. Pidge was holding three spears and Hunk’s arms were full of bandages. They stopped in front of him and Pidge spun the merman around, looking at the teeth marks on his skin.

“Holy shit,” Pidge repeated, much quieter this time.

“Outta the way, I gotta patch him up,” Hunk said, dumping the bandages on a nearby rock and yanking Lance over.

“Why the hell did you go to the ship graveyard on your own?” Pidge practically yelled at him.

“I told him not to, but he wouldn’t listen,” Hunk chimed in, dipping his fingers in a shell filled with some sort of ointment and beginning to rub it over Lance’s wound. Lance hissed as an extreme burning sensation spread through him, but Hunk ignored him.

“And a sharkperson?!” Pidge exclaimed. “Why the hell did you challenge a sharkperson?!”

“I didn’t!” Lance growled indignantly. “I was attacked! I got out of there as soon as I-” Lance paused for second, biting back his words. He hadn’t really ran as soon as he could’ve, had he? He should’ve taken off the moment he’d wrenched his shoulder free, and yet he’d stayed behind long enough to snatch the sharkperson’s dagger. Why’d he do that?

Pidge followed Lance’s eyes down to the weapon he was holding. “What the hell is that?”

Hunk looked at where she was pointing before leaping back. “Whoa, that is way too sharp!”

“It was the shark’s,” Lance said, frowning. “I don’t know if it came from one of the shipwrecks or if the monster got it somewhere else.”

“It’s pretty pristine for something that was sitting in a sunken ship,” Pidge commented, gliding closer. She adjusted the weird glass circles she wore on her face; a human-made contraption she'd found and never taken off since.

“Yeah, whatever,” Hunk spoke up, swimming cautiously back over to Lance. “Just don’t point that thing anywhere near me.” He resumed bandaging Lance’s wound, and Pidge took the dagger from Lance’s hand.

“What’s this symbol?” Pidge asked, prodding at the glowing mark.

Lance shrugged, wincing with the movement of his injured shoulder. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

“Hold still!” Hunk barked.

Pidge frowned. “So the plan is to go kill a shark guy all while dragging your injured butt along with us?”

“I’m not that hurt,” Lance lied. “I’m going to help too!” Pidge raised her eyebrows at him and Hunk snorted. Lance opened his mouth to retort, but Hunk spoke up before he could.

“That’ll have to do,” he said, tying the bandages in place. “I guess it’s time to start the crazy suicide mission.”

Lance took a spear from Pidge. “I think you mean Mission Kick Shark’s Tail!”

“No,” Hunk shook his head as he took his own spear. “I definitely meant crazy suicide mission.”

“Are we going to actually do something, or are we just going to stand around arguing?” Pidge snapped.

“Well, then let’s go!” Lance called out, shooting forward. Pidge and Hunk fell in behind him as they swam back towards the ship graveyard. The closer they got, the more uncertain Lance began to feel, but he shook his doubts away. This was the best option. No one had to know about his visit to the shipwrecks, and they could confront the sharkperson before it had a chance to escape. The three of them were more than enough to take on a single shark. Everything would be fine, and the shoal would be safe. That’s what mattered.

 

 

Lance smelled the blood before he saw the shipwrecks. It was faint at first, but the scent became harsh and repugnant the further they swam. The water practically tasted of blood by the time they drew up to the first ship. Lance glanced around, but he didn’t spot anything other than scattered rocks and the old, crumbling wrecks. This hardly deterred him, however. Following the scent of blood would be easy enough. Or so Lance had thought.

The three had picked up a trail at first, following it deep into the ship graveyard. However, the scent had gradually grown fainter, until it disappeared completely. Lance hissed in frustration as he and his friends searched through the millionth shipwreck, coming up with nothing. The sharkperson had seemed like a big, blundering creature. Lance’d had no idea it could get so far so fast!

“Lance,” Hunk spoke up gently as they left the wreck. “I think maybe we should call it a night.”

“No!” Lance hissed. “If we don’t find that shark now, then the next time we see it could be when it has its jaws around one of our own!”

“Hunk’s right,” Pidge sighed. “I know this sucks, but the ship graveyard is like a maze. The bastard could’ve gone anywhere! Besides, it seemed like you injured it pretty good, judging by all the blood, and it was swimming in the opposite direction of the shoal while we were following its trail. We should go back and get some sleep. Tomorrow we can come straight back here and look some more.”

Lance turned away to look out at the expanse of sunken ships, eyes narrowing. “We can’t just let it get away!” he hissed.

“We won’t,” Hunk reassured him. “Look, you need to get that injury properly treated, and I think we really should tell Allura.” Lance opened his mouth to protest but Hunk continued over him. “We don’t have to tell her you were in the ship graveyard, we can just say you were near there. That way everyone at the shoal knows to be on the lookout.”

Lance remained silent a moment longer before letting out a frustrated sigh. “Fine. But we are coming back tomorrow to flush this bastard out.”

Pidge beamed. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. Also, Lance?”

The merman turned to her and she hit him hard across the head. “Ow!” Lance cried. “What was that for?!”

“For being an idiot and coming here on your own!” Pidge scowled.

“Seriously, dude,” Hunk patted his uninjured shoulder in a much less violent manner than Pidge. “We could’ve lost you. Don’t do that again.”

“Yeah,” Lance mumbled, feeling guilt bubble up in his chest. “I’m sorry, guys.”

Hunk smiled kindly at him in response. “Hug it out?”

Lance spread his arms, beckoning his two friends over with a grin. “Hug it out.”

Chapter Text

The next morning the entire shoal was on high alert, which made it extra difficult to sneak out early. Allura had called an emergency meeting the moment the news had been delivered to her, and Lance had enjoyed bragging about how brave he’d been when facing off against the sharkperson. Or at least, he was enjoying it until his mother came up and gave him the scolding of a lifetime.

Now, after a barely adequate amount of sleep, Lance was up extra early so that he could meet up with Pidge and Hunk and scour the ship graveyard, as planned. Luckily the rest of his family was still fast asleep, so getting out of their home was easy. However, Allura had appointed several merpeople to patrol the area around the shoal’s caves, so Lance’s trek to open waters was filled with lots of diving behind rocks and hiding in patches of coral. He liked to think it made him look cool, but in reality he more resembled a guppy who hadn’t yet learned to swim properly. Fortunately for him, no one saw him, meaning that no no one was able to tell him so.

“Took you long enough,” Pidge snorted as Lance swam up to her and Hunk.

“Shut up!” Lance retorted. “I was gravely wounded in battle yesterday, so forgive me for getting a little extra beauty sleep.”

“Gravely wounded?” Pidge raised her eyebrows.

Lance was about to reply when Hunk spoke up.

“Why’d you bring that thing?!” he exclaimed, shrinking away at the sight of the sharkperson’s dagger.

“I kinda like it,” Lance grinned. “Makes me feel badass. Plus, in case my spear breaks, I’ll still have this bad boy to whip out. Imagine the shark’s face when I come at it with its own weapon!”

“I am imagining it,” Hunk nodded. “And it looks angry and scary and full of razor teeth!”

“Relax, Hunk,” Lance said smoothly. “There’s three of us and only one of them. This’ll be over in no time.”

“That’s assuming we can even find it,” Pidge mumbled.

“Well, we’ve gotta find it,” Lance replied, determination in his voice. “And we’ve gotta find it soon, because I have to be back on time to go on that scouting patrol.”

“Then let’s quit chatting and start swimming!” Pidge chided, taking the lead. Hunk and Lance followed suite, with Lance mumbling something along the lines of how he was supposed to say that.

Their search of the ship graveyard proved just as fruitless as the night before. Lance was practically colliding into each ship with how fast he was going. The truth was, the place was simply too big with too many places to hide. It would take weeks to scour the whole thing top to bottom, and that’s only if they got the entire shoal to help them look.

“How do we even know the shark guy’s still here?” Hunk asked at one point.

“Look around,” Lance called back. “This place is usually teaming with fish and other life. Now there’s just nothing. That beast’s gotta be nearby, scaring everything else away.”

“Everything except for three idiots with a few pointy sticks,” Pidge grumbled. Despite her words, she was the only one of the three that seemed to be enjoying themself. She was just as vigilant as the rest, but still found the time to stuff any human items she came across into her bag. Hunk, on the other hand, was nervous and jumped at every little sound. Even Lance was uneasy. He swore he was seeing things move out of the corner of his eye, or hearing the faintest swish in the water, but every time he raced to check it out, there was nothing there.

“Patrol is going to start soon,” Pidge pointed out after about an hour of searching. She, too, had been appointed to help scout the surrounding waters.

“Damn it!” Lance hissed. “I shouldn’t have run away last night!”

“Um, yes you should’ve,” Hunk replied. “You can’t take on a whole sharkperson alone, and you know it. Running was the only thing you could do.”

Lance sighed. “I hate it when you’re right.”

Hunk smiled at him, though there was a bit of a sassy edge to his voice. “Someone’s gotta be.”

Lance was opening his mouth to make a friendly quip back when a large shadow fell over them. The three instinctively dove for cover, finding refuge in the nearest shipwreck. Pidge peeked out cautiously before whispering back, “It’s ships!”

“Yeah, we’re surrounded by them,” Lance said flatly.

“Not shipwrecks,” Pidge shot him a glare. “I mean above us! On the surface!” There was an excited gleam in her eyes.

Lance stuck his head out too and looked up. Sure enough, he spotted the broad, dark undersides of what could only be human vessels, sailing through the water high above them.

“Are they headed towards the shoal?” Hunk hissed worriedly.

“No,” Lance reassured him. “They’re just skirting the edge of our territory.”

“Well, we gotta move,” Hunk announced. “They could drop those giant nets that drag along the ocean floor and rip everything up.”

For once, Lance didn’t protest. He had seen those nets at work before. They were huge, and they dropped all the way to the bottom before scraping up everything they touched and hauling it to the surface. He had seen entire coral reefs torn to shreds in minutes by those things. The memory made him shudder involuntarily.

“Let’s just stay and watch a little longer,” Pidge said, her eyes wide with wonder as she looked at the ships above them. Lance, channeling his own much rarer voice of reason, reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Pidge,” he began, his voice quiet and dead serious. “It’s time to go.”

Pidge looked at him for a moment before sighing. “Okay, I get it.”

The three swam away from there quickly, Pidge casting longing glances back. Lance looked back too, but for a different reason. He swore he could hear a fourth tail beating through the water, but each time he glanced behind him there was nothing but Pidge, taking up the rear. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that they weren’t alone.

 

 

 

The scouting patrol was organized to check the feeding grounds for the best hunting places, as well as look for areas of human activity and any other dangers. It was all pretty routine and no sharkpeople were found, much to Lance’s disappointment and growing concern.

He tried to talk Hunk and Pidge into going back to the ship graveyard with him that night, but Hunk reminded Lance that he had been attacked there at night in the first place. Lance was adamant that it only raised their odds of catching the shark, and Pidge was just eager to get back out there, but unfortunately Lance’s father came by and called him home to rest. His family was worried about his wound, so Lance obliged them and simply went to sleep that night.

His dreams were plagued by glowing purple eyes and giant tails swishing just at the edge of his vision. The next morning held another secret shark hunt between him, Hunk, and Pidge. Unsurprisingly, they came up with nothing, leaving Lance to reluctantly swim back and join his assigned hunting party. He didn’t end up catching many fish, which surprised his teammates. Lance was one of the fastest swimmers in the shoal, and usually came up with a big haul. Today, however, he was too frustrated and distracted. While he could’ve sworn he kept hearing and seeing things at the ship graveyard the day before, he hadn’t noticed anything at all that morning. Some of the fish that used to swim between the wrecks even started to appear again. Perhaps the sharkperson really had left there. But all that meant was that it could be anywhere else, even right outside the shoal that very moment.

Night fell and Lance made up his mind to do something stupid. He had to get back out there one more time, and he was going alone. Crazy though the idea was, if he went alone then perhaps he could lure the shark out. This time he would be armed, too, and since he had the sharkperson’s dagger, his enemy hopefully wouldn’t be.

Lance waited until he was certain everyone in his family’s cave was asleep. Then he slipped out from between his younger brother and sister and swam into the darkness. Guards were still patrolling, so he was forced to do some decidedly ungraceful acrobatics to avoid detection. Still, he managed to reach the stretch of ocean leading to the shipwrecks.

Lance was on full alert, straining all his senses as he swam through the dark water. He held his spear close to him, wearing the shark’s dagger on a sash tied around his waist. He was only going to use that particular weapon in case of an emergency. Soon the ships loomed before him, and then around him as he swam into the graveyard.

It was eerily quiet. Nothing moved, and there weren’t even faint flickers at the corner of his eye to give him a hint of where to search. Lance hissed in frustration, startling a crab from where it had been burrowed in the sand. That wasn’t a good sign. If that crab was hanging around here, then the sharkperson most likely wasn’t. Still, there were plenty of other places the shark could be lurking among these wrecks. Heart pounding in his chest, Lance headed deeper into the graveyard.

At first Lance was frightened at the thought of seeing something at the edge of his vision, but as hours went by and nothing happened he began to hope for it. At least that way he’d be broken out of this awful tension. However, the only things that moved were trickles of fish flitting here and there. At one point he ran into a cloud of jellyfish and had to turn around entirely. The whole thing was beginning to seem pointless.

Lance spotted an edge of the ship graveyard and started swimming for it, deciding to head back along the perimeter until he got to the side facing the shoal. He was just about to emerge into open waters when he heard a sound. It wasn’t a small sound, like a crab scuttling along or a fish brushing against seaweed. Whatever was making it was big, and it was close by.

On instinct, Lance dove into the shadows of one of the wrecks. He froze, listening intently until the noise came again. It sounded like something big was dragging through the sand. He heard a quiet huff of distress too, almost masked by the louder sounds of sand scraping together. The merman quietly crept forward, his spear at the ready.

He peeked around the side of the ship and saw… something. Lance wasn’t really sure what it was at first. Part of it was hidden behind a rock, and it looked more like a blob than anything else. Then the thing moved, and his eyes registered what he was staring at.

A massive gray tail was just visible, tangled in a mesh of torn net. The net seemed to have snagged on the same rock that was concealing the rest of the creature from view. That enormous tail thumped on the ground angrily, but it only seemed to get further tangled with the movement, and another low cry of dismay rippled through the water.

Lance shuddered. That tail was so large. He hadn’t gotten a good look at the sharkperson before in the heat of battle. He couldn’t imagine what the rest of it looked like. Probably nightmarish, with sharp and monstrous features crowned with an ugly maw of teeth. Lance swallowed thickly. He couldn’t just float here all night. Bracing himself, he swam slowly into the open.

He’d thought he was prepared for anything when he rounded the rock, but what he saw was beyond anything he had imagined. Attached to that massive, thrashing tail was a boy. He didn’t look any older than Lance, nor any more monstrous. His skin was pale and almost shone in the faint moonlight trickling down into the depths. He had hair that was even more black than the water around him, stopping just short of his shoulders. His frame was slim, almost fragile when compared to the sheer size of his tail. And his eyes, those glowing purple shards that had seemed so cruel and heartless before, were now wide with fear. At least, they were until they fell on Lance.

All the softness and vulnerability from before disappeared in an instant. The sharkboy tensed up, an angry roar ripping from his throat. Lance shrunk back on instinct, the sound activating something in his brain that wanted him to swim very far away very fast. However, he forced himself to stay put, his eyes drifting over each one of the shark’s needle-sharp teeth before the creature snapped its mouth shut. Even with the earlier softness gone, the creature before him was undeniably beautiful. Absolutely breathtaking. Lance moved tentatively forward and the other boy shrunk back, baring his teeth in a snarl.

“Stay back!” the shark growled. Lance jumped. He hadn’t heard the sharkperson speak before. His voice was surprisingly deep and a bit gravely. It sounded nice. Or as nice as it could when it was laced with danger. Lance drifted forward once more.

“I said stay back!” the shark hissed again, though this time there was a hint of desperation in his tone. The boy’s eyes flitted between Lance and the spear. He tried to move further away, but the net was holding him firmly in place.

Lance cleared his throat, willing his own voice to remain steady. “You can’t be here,” he spoke up, his voice only wavering slightly. He glared down at the sharkboy and flared his fins, trying to seem as big as possible. “This is my shoal’s territory!”

“What shoal?” the boy growled back. “I’ve been living here a year and there aren’t any shoals nearby! You and your friends are the first mermaids I’ve seen here!”

“Aha!” Lance shouted triumphantly. “I wasn’t just seeing things! I knew you were following us through the shipwrecks!”

“I was mostly just hoping you’d go away,” the boy snarled. “But that clearly hasn’t worked.”

Lance frowned at him. “If you just wanted to be left alone, then why’d you try and stab me?”

The shark glared at him. He was fiddling with the place where he net was snagged to the rock, as if hoping this conversation would give him time to pull himself free. Lance wasn’t too worried, though. It didn’t look like that net was untangling any time soon.

“I couldn’t risk you running back to your friends and sending a manhunt after me. Which is exactly what you did. What the hell are you guppy gills doing here anyways? This place was empty until now!”

“This is our winter feeding grounds,” Lance snarled, taking the phrase ‘guppy gills’ rather personally. “Sharks aren’t welcome here!” He glided threateningly closer and the sharkboy strained against the nets, hissing and spitting. Lance really liked having him caught in that net. He snickered at the the other boy. “How’d a high and mighty predator like you end up like this, anyways? You an idiot or something?”

The sharkperson bared his teeth. “I was busy watching out for you and your buddies, day and night. Sue me if I forgot to keep an eye on the surface! Besides, I could’ve easily gotten away if you hadn’t slashed my tail open!”

“No regrets,” Lance shrugged. “I was pretty badass!”

“You’re an ass alright,” the shark snarled. “And if you hadn’t taken my dagger, I could’ve cut myself out of here by now!”

“You mean this dagger?” Lance unsheathed the weapon with a smirk. Its purple symbol lit up the water around him.

The shark’s eyes narrowed. He seemed to be just barely holding down his rage. “Give it back,” he spoke, his voice low and dangerous.

“So you can escape and try to stab me again?” Lance sneered. “Tempting, but I think I’ll pass.”

“I SAID GIVE IT BACK!”

Lance jumped at the sudden outburst. The sharkboy started writhing around violently, threat calls rumbling from his throat. The net bit down into his skin, causing small bits of red to feather out into the water. His eyes were murderous.

“Christ, calm down,” Lance said, sheathing the dagger once more. “If you keep this up you’ll just make it worse.”

The shark ignored him, thrashing his tail and kicking up a cloud of sand. Once he seemed to have exhausted his energy he finally flopped down, panting heavily. There was a long silence. “So,” the sharkperson spoke up, his voice breaking slightly. “Are you going to kill me?”

Lance froze. Kill him? Yes, that had technically been the plan. A dangerous sharkperson couldn’t be allowed so close to the shoal. Of course the boy would have to be disposed of. It made sense. Lance had just never really stopped to consider what his search for the shark had actually meant.

He had killed plenty of fish before, and other small creatures for feeding the shoal. But this felt different somehow. The sharkboy was staring straight at him, all his fire from earlier seeming to have burned out. The boy no longer snarled or bared his teeth. He just looked tired and defeated, the metal snares of the net pressing painfully into his skin. Lance swallowed thickly.

The merman swam forward, raising his spear above the shark’s chest. The other boy gazed up at him steadily, his face blank despite death being so near. “A-any last words?” Lance choked out. The sharkboy remained silent, just looking at him with those soft violet eyes. Lance squeezed his own eyes shut, but the image of the other boy was now burned into his mind. He took a shaky breath.

Just then he felt a slight tug on the spear. Lance jumped, his first thought being that this was a trap. His eyes shot open and he glanced down, but he just saw the sharkboy moving his spear point slightly.

“My heart’s here,” the shark whispered. His voice was strangely calm and steady. “I don’t want to spend forever bleeding out just because you can’t get the angle right.”

Lance shuddered and braced himself. The sharkboy nodded solemnly at him and Lance counted down slowly under his breath. “Three, two, one-”

Chapter Text

Lance thrust the spear downwards. A ringing silence followed, completely unbroken across the waters until-

“You missed, dumbass,” the sharkboy snarled, sounding rather pissed about that for someone that almost had a spear thrust through his chest.

Lance scowled at the insult, but then his face lit up into a smirk. “Did I?”

The sharkboy turned his head and frowned. The spear was sticking up from the sand, but more importantly, it had sliced clean through a single strand of the net. The boy turned back to the grinning merman, glaring challengingly up at him. “What are you playing at?” he spat.

“I’m going to set you free,” Lance replied. He unsheathed the shark’s dagger, causing the latter to growl and slink back. However, Lance simply set about slicing more of the net open. “And you,” he continued. “Are going to be so grateful that you’ll leave this part of the ocean and never come back. And tell all your murder-friends to do the same, while you’re at it.”

“I can’t,” the sharkboy whispered, so quietly Lance almost didn’t hear him.

“What?!” Lance snapped. He sat back, stopping his work on the net. “Why not?!”

The other boy was silent for a long moment, brooding something over in his head. Finally he spoke. “This ship graveyard is the only place I’m safe. If you’re going to make me leave then you might as well kill me now.”

“What do you mean it’s the only place you’re safe?” Lance asked slowly. He suddenly felt very exposed in the open water. What could be so scary that even a sharkperson was afraid of it?

“Those ‘murder-friends’ of mine you mentioned earlier?” the boy hissed, his eyes narrowing. “Well, they would love to murder me.”

Everything was making less and less sense by the minute. “Why would your shark pals want to kill you?”

“They’re not my pals,” the boy spat. “And that’s none of your business!”

“It is now,” Lance frowned at him. “Or at least it is if you want to be getting out of this net any time soon.” The sharkboy snarled at him, but seemed resigned to keep his mouth shut. Lance had to try harder. He lifted up the dagger and twirled it between his fingers. The other boy’s eyes widened, following the movement carefully. Lance grinned. “You know, there’s an ocean crevice not far from here. Legend says it’s bottomless. It would be a shame if I were to drop your little toy in there.”

The sharkperson’s eyes narrowed once more and he let out a noise that sounded half threatening, half distressed. “I hate you,” he hissed.

“Don’t get too sentimental,” Lance beamed.

“What do you want?!”

“Why is this place safe?”

The boy glared at him, but still opened his mouth to answer. “It’s almost impossible to navigate, and it’s huge. No one can find me here.”

Lance nodded his head thoughtfully. He himself had been unable to find the shark these past few days, despite the fact that the boy had apparently been following him. “So why do you need to hide in the first place?”

The shark ground his teeth together noisily. All his muscles tensed up, causing some of the netting to dig deeper into his skin and draw more blood. “I wasn’t ever exactly a favorite among the others,” he said slowly, methodically, as if carefully selecting each word.

“Why not?”

“Have you ever seen a sharkperson before?”

Lance paused, thinking back. He had once, when he was very young. One had wandered too close to the shoal. It had been chased away almost immediately by their warriors, but Lance could still remember how enormous it was. Its features were all sharp and spiky, and its skin was a deep purple that faded into the gray of its tail. Most of all, however, Lance remembered its eyes. Those hungry, bloodthirsty yellow eyes, staring right at him. Sometimes he still had nightmares about those eyes.

“I have,” Lance responded. shuddering slightly at the memory. “I don’t remember it very well, but you’re a lot less purple than that other one. And your eyes are different.”

“Then do you see the problem?” the sharkboy looked away. He seemed ashamed.

“Um-” Lance thought for a moment. “You’re not purple?”

“I’m a half-breed, fishtail!”

Lance paused once more, taken aback. “You’re not all shark?”

“No,” the boy responded. “And those ‘all-sharks’ don’t really like a half-shark.”

Lance looked closer at the boy in front of him, which seemed to make the other uncomfortable. The sharkboy looked like a shark to him. Except-

It was just then that Lance noticed all the pale scar-lines across the boy’s tail and torso. There was the fresh cut from where Lance had slashed him, but that had been in self-defense. These scars were older, and many appeared to be much deeper. Some were thin lines, others seemed to be bite marks. There was even a chunk missing from one of his fins.

Lance narrowed his eyes. “Did they do this to you?”

The sharkboy jumped at his dangerous tone. However, he quickly hardened his face once more. “That’s why I need to hide here,” he replied.

Lance sighed and leaned back. This wasn’t a good idea. Setting the shark free in the first place wasn’t a good idea. But letting him live so close to the shoal? There wasn’t even any way of knowing if this shark (er, half-shark?) was telling him the truth. Perhaps he got those scars from all the mermaids he had eaten overtime. He had genuinely tried to kill Lance earlier, after all. There really wasn’t a trustworthy thing about him. So why did Lance want to believe him so badly?

“Do you ever leave this place?” Lance asked slowly.

“I told you, I can’t,” the boy hissed. “It’s the only place they can’t find me.”

Those words stung a little. Lance couldn’t imagine what it was like being confined to such a small part of the ocean. Yes, the ship graveyard was massive, but compared to the whole rest of the ocean? It was barely even a pinprick. And Lance could freely swim through any part of it without even worrying. He felt guilt rise up inside him.

“So,” Lance began, not confident in anything he was saying, “I can trust you not to leave here?”

“Not unless I suddenly feel like dying a horrible death,” the boy muttered sarcastically.

“You seemed pretty ready to die earlier,” Lance pointed out, a grimace on his lips.

“I thought you were going to kill me no matter what.” His voice was quiet, causing Lance to wince.

“And will you promise not to hurt any merfolk if they ever come here? You can just hide like always.”

There was silence for a moment and Lance glared challengingly down at the boy. “Alright,” he finally replied. “But if your people ever attack me, then I will fight back.”

“As long as you don’t attack first,” Lance said sternly. He felt like a mother scolding her hatchling. “Do we have a deal?”

The shark flinched back when Lance extended his hand to him, and something deep inside the merman clenched angrily. He wasn’t angry at the sharkboy, but at whoever had made him react that way to a simple gesture. The boy eyed him suspiciously for a moment before taking his hand. Lance shook it, smiling reassuringly at him.

“Now then, let’s get you out of this net!”

The sharkboy was surprisingly docile while Lance cut him free. It was the first time Lance had seen him lie still for even a moment. However, the closer Lance got to untangling the net, the more the boy began to fidget impatiently. Lance felt a little nervous, but he forced himself to keep going. A deal was a deal, and he certainly was going to uphold his end of it.

“There,” Lance sighed as he cut the last strand with the shark’s dagger. “Now you’re all s-”

He didn’t have time to finish his sentence before the sharkboy lunged at him. Lance’s eyes widened in surprise as he fell to the sea floor. For a moment all he could see were those purple eyes, mere inches from his. He was convinced they’d be the last thing he ever saw, and he cursed himself for being stupid enough to fall for the monster’s tricks. Then the weight lifted from Lance and the shark was gone, leaving the merman staring up at empty water.

Lance bolted up just in time to see a gray fin disappear into the wrecks. He looked down at himself to check for wounds and realized the shark’s dagger was gone. More than a little annoyed at the other boy’s abrupt exit, Lance swam after him.

“Hey!” he called. “So that’s it? You’re not even going to tell me your name?”

Silence greeted him. The merman stopped and listened intently, but he heard nothing to indicate the shark was anywhere nearby. Muttering under his breath, Lance swam back over to the net and plucked his spear from the ground. He then spun back in the direction of the ships and shouted, “You’re welcome, by the way!”

There was nothing except his voice echoing back at him from the rotting wood. A frustrated trill rang from Lance’s throat, but he turned back home. He had been out here long enough. He still had hunting patrol tomorrow, so he had to try and get a little sleep. Plus, there was no point hanging around with ungrateful sharks.

On his way back, Lance could swear he heard the bastard following him. He called out several times, but if the sharkboy was there, he didn’t answer. Once Lance was clear of the shipwrecks, the sound faded so that there was nothing but the swishing of his own tail. At least he knew that the shark was honoring his promise and not following him back to the shoal.

 

 

“Wait, we’re not going on another shark hunt?” Hunk whispered as he bit into his breakfast. He looked around the hollow to make sure none of the other mermaids were close enough to hear. “Don’t get me wrong, I am in full support of that idea, but why?”

“I was just thinking you guys are right,” Lance shrugged, guilt pooling in his stomach as he picked at the fish bones before him. “The shark’s probably left by now, so there’s no point in chasing our own tails forever.” He felt bad about lying to his friends. Really bad. But he wasn’t quite ready to come clean about the whole shark thing just yet. What was he supposed to say, anyways? That he found a dangerous threat to the shoal trapped in a net, and instead of killing it and keeping his people safe, he freed it to potentially attack them at any time? Lance felt fairly certain that the sharkboy would keep his deal and not harm anyone, but convincing the others of that would be a whole lot harder.

“Let’s go back and just explore then,” Pidge grinned. “I barely had time to check anything out when we were swimming around on a monster chase. There’s this one ship in particular I want to go back to-”

“Tomorrow!” Lance blurted out. Pidge and Hunk paused, looking at him suspiciously. “I, um, I mean-” Lance rubbed the back of his neck nervously. “I have hunting patrol again today, so I won’t be able to go until tomorrow. And you guys should wait for me, because we’re all buddy pals and stuff, and I want to go too!”

“You didn’t wait for us the first day we arrived here,” Pidge pointed out, raising her eyebrows.

“Yeah, and it got me bit by a shark,” Lance snapped back. “Please just wait until tomorrow? I’ve been excited to actually start exploring again too!”

Hunk shrugged. “Since it’s inevitable that you two will drag me back there eventually, I have no problem postponing it one more day.”

“Me and Matt were planning to go to the ocean trench today anyways,” Pidge said.

“What, without me?” Lance huffed.

“Hey,” Pidge smirked at him, “either I go to the ship graveyard today, or I go to that crevice. You can’t have it all, buddy.”

“Fine,” Lance sighed.

“All of us can go to the crevice together some other time,” Pidge said, patting the sulking merman’s shoulder.

“Or we could not do that,” Hunk chimed in. “Maybe just swim around the nice, not-bottomless reefs instead. That’s always an option.”

“Hunk, my man,” Lance slung his arm around his friend. “I love you, but you are bad at having fun.”

“I just prefer the kind of fun that doesn’t potentially get us killed.”

Pidge then started debating with Hunk about what activities could be considered dangerous, but Lance’s mind had drifted elsewhere. The sharkboy had promised not to hurt any merfolk that entered the ship graveyard, but Lance still wanted to warn him that they’d be coming. And that they’d probably be there quite frequently, since it was one of his and Pidge’s favorite spots. And also that Hunk and Pidge couldn’t know about their deal, or at least not yet, so it would be in everybody's best interests if the shark were to stay out of sight.

‘Not that he seems to have much problem with that last part,’ Lance thought bitterly.

There was one more thing, too. Done in self-defense or not, the wound Lance had given the sharkboy shouldn’t just be left untreated. It needed some proper medicine and bandages or it’d get infected. Whether that stubborn jack-ass wanted to show himself or not, Lance was gonna make him come out so that he could help the bastard yet again. Why he even wanted to help that ungrateful brute was beyond him. Still, Lance decided that the shark was just going to have to sit still and accept his help like a civilized creature!

Chapter Text

“Sharkboy!” Lance yelled into the dark water. The sound rattled off the shipwrecks, echoing all around him. “Come out, I’ve got something for you!”

No answer. Lance grit his teeth and swam forward. He saw something move at the edge of his vision and he spun around. As usual the shark was a step ahead of him and there was nothing to be seen.

“I know you’re there, you stubborn asshole, now come out! Look, I’m not armed, and I didn’t bring anyone! I’ve just got some bandages so you don’t get an infection and die!”

Still no answer. Lance let out a frustrated trill. To his surprise, another trill answered. It was low and cautious, but not threatening, and it was coming from the shipwreck to his left. Slowly, Lance swam forward, peeking warily into the wreck. It seemed empty at first glance, but then something moved in the shadows. On reflex he let out a warning hiss. However, the next moment pair of glowing purple eyes peered out at him, and he relaxed.

Lance swam into the wreck, and the shark shuffled a bit away from him. “I just want to treat your tail,” Lance spoke calmly. The sharkboy gazed up at him. His eyes had a droopy, sedated look to them. It felt strange to not see them actively glaring at everything.

“I think it’s a little late to stop that whole infection thing,” the boy spoke. His voice was raspy and quiet.

“Shit,” Lance hissed. “Well, we can at least treat the infection, then.”

He reached a hand towards the other boy’s forehead and the shark flinched back, growling threateningly at him. Now the old glare was back.

“Quit being such a hatchling,” Lance snapped. “I’m just trying to feel if you have a fever.”

The shark flinched again when Lance moved his hand forward, but this time he didn’t growl or pull away. Lance pressed his hand gently to the boy’s forehead. Without realizing it, the shark leaned into his touch, and Lance stiffened. He kept his hand there a moment longer than necessary before pulling it away.

“You, uh, you’re burning up,” Lance stuttered, feeling his own cheeks start to burn.

“Did you bring any medicine?” the sharkboy rasped out, thankfully not seeming to notice Lance’s blush.

“Yeah, but that was supposed to prevent infection. Now that you’re already infected, we’re going to need something to treat it with and to help with the fever.” He straightened up abruptly, almost tripping over his own tail. “I’ll swim back and grab some more stuff. You wait here.” For some reason the shark growled at that statement, but Lance ignored him. He was probably just being grumpy, as usual.

Without another word, Lance swam off. What was that reaction back there? So the sharkboy had nudged his hand a little. So what? It was nothing to get all embarrassed over. He’d just been startled, that’s all. It was unusual to see the sharkboy let his guard down. That’s all it was.

Lance pushed those thoughts aside as he spotted the caves of his shoal. He’d need to sneak into the healer’s dwelling for the second time that night and grab some supplies. Lance just hoped he could remember which medicine was used for infections.

 

 

The shipwreck was empty when Lance got back, the bandages and medicine he had left with the sharkboy gone as well. Lance cursed quietly. Why couldn’t that overgrown fish just stay put for once in his life? An angry trill rumbled from his gills. There was a short pause before a faint, softer trill answered him. His ears instantly pinpointed the call and Lance shot from the wreck, following the sound to another ship not that far away.

For a moment he thought maybe he’d just gone to the wrong ship, but then he saw that the new one was sheathed in rusty metal. The one they were in before had definitely been all wood, and a frustrated sound rumbled in the back of his throat.

“I thought I told you to stay put!” he snapped when he spotted the glowing eyes of the sharkboy in a corner.

“I had to move in case you didn’t come back alone,” the shark hissed at him. His voice wavered slightly, hinting at a different emotion hidden somewhere beneath his harshness.

“Why the hell wouldn’t I come back alone?” Lance asked, exasperated.

“You saw that I was weak and sick, then you suddenly wanted to swim back to your shoal,” the shark snapped, though his voice still seemed to be shaking. “It was the perfect opportunity for you to grab reinforcements and finish me off.”

“Why would-?” Lance hissed. “If I wanted to kill you, I would’ve done it last night when you were trapped!” The boy didn’t answer, instead turning his head away. However, Lance noticed the way his shoulders were trembling, and he softened his demeanor. “Hey,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry it’s just- At some point you need to start trusting me. At least a little, you know?” The shark’s only response was to glare at the ground. Lance sighed. “Alright, let me see your tail.”

“I can do it myself,” the boy spoke up, though his voice just sounded tired now.

“You won’t be able to properly wrap the bandages at that angle,” Lance frowned at him. “Trust, remember?”

The sharkboy growled, but Lance approached his tail anyways. He shuddered a little as he drew up close to it. The thing was truly massive. One well-aimed swipe from it could snap his spine in half. He pushed those thoughts aside and reached out towards the wound, placing light pressure on the skin next to it.

The sharkboy hissed and jerked back. “Does it hurt?” Lance asked.

“What do you think, fishtail?” the shark snapped.

“Well, you need to try and hold still, or this isn’t going to work.”

The other boy bared his teeth but he nodded solemnly. Lance couldn’t help but think that no creature had any business having that many teeth. He tore his eyes away and focused on the wound once more, grabbing a seaweed cloth and spreading a poultice over it. He then placed one hand on the boy’s tail to attempt to hold it in place. Carefully, Lance pressed the cloth to the wound.

A high-pitched shout burst from the sharkboy’s throat and Lance jumped back. “I-I’m sorry!” he exclaimed. “I know it hurts, but I’ve gotta clean the wound or it’ll never get better!”

The boy nodded at him, shaking slightly. “Just-” he gasped out, “just give me something to bite into.”

Lance looked around before spotting a split wooden plank jutting up from the floor. He ripped it free, then handed it to the sharkboy, who promptly put it in his mouth. Lance swallowed involuntarily when he saw how easily the shark’s teeth sunk into the old wood. He looked at the boy for permission, and the shark nodded curtly at him, his purple eyes squeezing shut.

Lance took a moment to breathe, steadying himself against the other boy’s tail. Then, as gently as he could, he pressed the cloth down to the wound once more. A strangled cry rippled through the water, and the sharkboy curled his hands into fists. However, he made no move to stop Lance, and the merman increased the pressure. Lance began to rub into the wound, cleaning it out as best he could with the shark’s tail jumping all over the place. Muffled yelps filled the ship, echoing around them. Lance swallowed his guilt as he felt the sharkboy trembling beneath his hands. He had to do this, or the infection would get much worse.

Lance was relieved when he was finally done, and he tapped the shark’s shoulder gently to let him know it was over. When the other boy opened his eyes they looked distant and hazy and he slumped onto the floor, the plank falling from his slack mouth.

“That-,” the boy gasped out, “sucked.”

“Yeah,” Lance agreed, his own voice a little shaky. “I need to put something else on it to help with the infection-” the boy let out a groan, “-but it shouldn't hurt nearly as bad. It’ll only sting a little at first.”

“Just hurry,” the other boy whispered. He looked exhausted.

Lance nodded and set to work. The shark winced as he rubbed the ointment in, but just as Lance had said, it wasn’t nearly as bad as before. Once that was over, the merman held some strange purple spines up in front of the other boy’s face. The shark flinched back at the sudden movement, eyeing the spiky things warily.

“Eat these,” Lance commanded, causing the other boy to raise his eyebrows. “Well, you gotta snap the pointy ends off first or it'll prick you,” he added. “But these’ll help ease the fever.”

The shark took the needles from him and began to snap off the sharp ends as instructed. He sniffed them tentatively and winced. That was not something he wanted to put in his mouth.

Lance laughed when he saw the other boy scrunch up his face. “Yeah, they taste awful. But trust me, they’ll help.”

The sharkboy seemed to think there was a lot more blind trust going on here than he entirely was comfortable with, but he pushed that aside began to chew the spines. The taste flooded over his tongue and he gagged, grimacing. Lance nodded encouragingly at him and, shuddering, the sharkboy swallowed them down.

“Awful doesn’t begin to describe it,” he choked out.

“You can say that again,” Lance smirked.

The shark looked at him with a puzzled expression before repeating, “Awful doesn’t begin to describe it.”

Lance stared at him, bewildered. The sharkboy stared back, his confusion only growing. “No,” Lance finally said, a slight smile curling at his lips. “That’s just an expression.”

“Oh,” the boy replied, glancing at the floor with a look that showed he had no idea what Lance meant.

The merman sighed goodnaturedly and patted the other boy’s shoulder. The sharkboy jumped at his touch, slinking back. “Shit, sorry!” Lance apologized, pulling his hand away quickly. “Old habit.”

“No, I’m sorry!” the boy blurted out. He reached out and snatched Lance’s hand, putting it back on his shoulder. Lance just stared, freezing up as his face turned steadily red. The sharkboy stared back, his eyes big and face just as red as Lance’s. “That-that’s not how that works, is it?” the boy stammered.

“How what works?” Lance said, his voice quiet.

“The shoulder-pat thing.”

Lance suddenly snapped to his senses and remembered his hand was still on the sharkboy’s shoulder. He pulled it back and the other boy winced.

“I-I’m sorry-”

“No!” Lance interrupted, holding up his hands. “No, no, no, it’s fine! I just, I mean-” He trailed off, at a loss for words. The two boys just stared at each other a few moments more before Lance finally looked away. “I just remembered, I never got your name.”

“Oh, right,” the sharkboy looked away as well. “It’s Keith.”

“Keith,” Lance repeated, smiling. He didn’t notice the way the other boy’s eyes widened. “I’m Lance.” He held out his hand and Keith slowly took it. The sharkboy jumped a little when Lance shook it. “Damn, you jump at everything,” Lance teased.

“Shut up!” Keith snapped, the familiar glare returning to his face as he pulled his hand away.

They both sat there for a moment in silence, looking at everything but each other. “Ah!” Lance exclaimed, making Keith jump yet again. “I still need to bandage your tail!”

He grabbed the bandages and moved over to the wound, uncomfortably aware of Keith’s eyes on him. Why had everything gotten weird all of a sudden? Biting his lip in frustration, Lance set to work wrapping the wound. He heard the shark hiss in pain, but continued on. The simple task was a welcome distraction for his mind.

Lance tied a knot on the bandage and sat back to survey his work. Not too shabby, if he did say so himself. His eyes wandered from the bandages to the many scars trailing over the other boy’s tail. Frowning, he reached out and gently touched an especially nasty one. It was a bite mark that had left permanent indents in his skin.

“Uh, Lance?”

Keith’s voice brought him back to reality and the merman pulled his hand away as though he had been burned. “Sorry!” he blurted out. “I didn’t mean to, I just, it looked like it must’ve really hurt, and-”

“It did.”

Lance winced at the flat tone of voice, but when he turned to look at Keith, the sharkboy didn’t seem especially angry. On the contrary, a light blush dusted his cheeks. Shit. Not again.

“So,” Lance straightened up, hastily gathering the leftover medical supplies, “I gotta sneak these back to their proper place. And get some sleep. And you need sleep too! You know what they say. Snoozers are never losers!” He physically winced at the sound of that stupid rhyme rolling off his tongue. If there was ever a moment to bury himself in the sand and never come out again, this was it.

His thoughts were interrupted by a sound that he didn’t fully register as a laugh until he turned and saw the sharkboy beaming at him. Oh no. Lance couldn’t breath.
“That’s the stupidest saying I ever heard,” Keith snorted.

“Y-yeah,” the merman managed to choke out. “Not one of my best.” He shook himself before the other boy could notice he was staring again and turned away. “Well, goodnight, sharkboy!” he called over his shoulder. A smile spread across Lance’s lips when he heard Keith’s reply.

“Goodnight, fishtail.”

Chapter Text

“Hurry up!” Pidge called, swimming ahead of the other two.

“Wait!” Hunk yelled out after her. “Am I the only one that remembers there’s a sharkperson still on the loose somewhere? Maybe we should just stay together at a nice, leisurely speed and not get picked off one by one?”

Lance and Pidge turned to each other and grinned. At the same time, they both chorused, “Nah!”

“Hey, guys!” Hunk protested as they shot off.

“Keep up, Hunk!” Lance yelled over his shoulder. “Last one there’s shark food!”

Hunk muttered something under his breath before swimming after them. He caught up to Pidge in a few tail-strokes, but there was no chance of anyone passing Lance. The merman shot through the water like an arrow, his fins perfectly streamlined for speed.

As he swam Lance thought of Keith, alone in a shipwreck somewhere. He quickly shook those thoughts away. He’d visit the sharkboy later that night and see how his wound was. Right now he was just going to have fun with his friends and enjoy exploring the ship graveyard! Keith was so cautious and elusive anyways that he was bound to stay safely out of sight.

The three slowed as they entered the ship graveyard. Lance and Pidge looked around them excitedly while Hunk sighed and followed behind. Hunk enjoyed exploring as much as the rest of them. He just preferred the exploring to not involve places they weren’t supposed to be, particularly unstable, crumbling places that could collapse on their heads at any second. The additional threat of a sharkperson didn’t exactly help ease his mind. In fact, due to said threat, all three of the mermaids were carrying spears as a safety precaution. Hunk still wished their safety precaution had been to just not go.

“Follow me!” Pidge grinned. “I spotted this cool old wreck the other day and we’ve gotta check it out!”

“Lead the way,” Lance called back, falling in behind her.

They swam deeper and deeper into the graveyard, chatting idly. Hunk was in the middle of talking about what his baby niece had done that day when Pidge suddenly froze. “There it is,” she whispered in awe, a smile spreading across her face.

Lance turned to see the ship she was staring at and his stomach immediately dropped. The ship in question was covered in rusting metal, lying crookedly in the sand. It was the same ship he and Keith had been in last night. Lance’d been so busy treating Keith’s wound that he’d completely forgotten to warn the shark that they were coming. Just then Pidge shot off, racing for the ship. Lance had to stop her.

“Hey!” he yelled out, trying to make her turn and look at him. Luckily it worked and Pidge froze, spinning around with a puzzled look on her face. She was just opening her mouth to respond when a different sound rippled through the water. It was a low, soft trill, echoing from inside the ship. Lance knew that call. “Shit!” he hissed in alarm.

“What the fuck was that?!” Pidge snarled, whipping back towards the ship. Her fins were flared out dangerously and she clutched her spear in front of her.

“Pidge, wait!” Lance yelled, but she’d already darted into the darkness of the wreck. Cursing, Lance shot after her, Hunk right behind him.

A chorus of growls and threat calls filled his ears as he swam inside. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness, and in that moment Hunk got in front of him. “You’re still hurt, Lance, stay back!” Hunk hissed as he swam by.

“No, Hunk, you don’t-” Lance began, but then his eyes caught a flash of movement and he spun towards it.

Keith was backed into a corner, curled in on himself so that he could get as far away as possible. He clutched his dagger, eyes flashing threateningly as a warning growl ripped from his throat. In front of him was Pidge, brandishing her spear and flaring her fins as she screeched a threat at him. Hunk joined her, holding his own spear out and glaring at the shark, though it was clear he was trembling slightly. Pidge thrust her spear forward as a warning joust and the sharkboy struck against it with his dagger, baring jagged teeth.

“Guys, stop!” Lance yelled, darting over. He squeezed between the two fighting parties, spreading his arms out to block as much of Keith as possible.

Hunk and Pidge’s eyes both widened in shock. “Lance, get back!” Hunk cried, reaching out to try and pull his friend to safety. Lance swerved away from Hunk’s hand but stood his ground.

“What the hell are you doing?!” Pidge shouted, fear and anger ringing through her voice.

“He’s not a threat, it’s okay!” Lance exclaimed.

Pidge narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean it’s not a threat?!”

“Lance, get over here!” Hunk growled impatiently, his tone full of worry.

“Guys, calm down! Just put your spears down, okay?”

“No way!” Pidge snarled, brandishing hers.

“Pidge, you’ll hit Lance!” Hunk hissed.

“Then tell that maniac to get out of the way!”

“Hunk, Pidge!” Lance yelled. “Just trust me, okay? I promise we’re not in any danger!”

There was a long silence. Finally, Hunk lay his spear down on the floor. “I trust you, buddy,” he whispered, although his voice shook slightly. He nudged Pidge and she snarled, pulling her spear back. Lance raised his eyebrows when she didn’t set it down.

“I’m holding on to this,” she stated, silently daring Lance to challenge her.

“Fine,” Lance sighed. “Just don’t point it at anything.”

“We’ll see about that,” Pidge snarled.

A growl rumbled from the sharkboy at those words. “Quiet, Keith!” Lance snapped.

“Keith?!” Hunk exclaimed. “It has a name?!”

“Yes, he has a name,” Lance answered. “Keith, this is Hunk and Pidge. Hunk and Pidge, this is Keith.”

Complete silence followed. Hunk looked confused and scared. Pidge was alternating between glaring at the sharkboy and glaring at Lance. Lance couldn’t see what Keith was doing behind him, but he had a feeling he wasn’t being especially friendly. Lance sighed in exasperation. “Okay, so I clearly have some explaining to do.”

“You think?” Pidge snapped.

Hunk nodded. “Seriously, what the hell is going on right now? Am I just having some bizarre dream, or what?”

“Alrighty,” Lance started. “So Keith here,” he slapped his hand down on the sharkboy’s shoulder, making the latter jump, “got tangled in a net. I cut him loose and he promised not to eat everybody, so it’s all good.”

Another silence. Then-

“What the fuck?!” Pidge growled. “The shark was caught in a net and you just set him free?!”

“Wait, I am totally lost here,” Hunk chimed in. “When did all this happen? I’m pretty sure we never split up when we were going on our shark hunts-” Keith growled at that last phrase and Hunk jumped slightly, his eyes darting down to his spear.

“You are not helping right now,” Lance hissed quietly at the sharkboy before raising his voice. “Yeah, I might’ve gone out on my own two nights ago…”

“You WHAT?!” Hunk cried out. “Lance, you could’ve been eaten! That’s how you got bitten in the first place!”

There was a small noise from Keith’s throat, only it didn’t sound angry or threatening this time. However, Lance didn’t really have time to pay attention to him at the moment. “I know,” Lance said guiltily, “but we weren’t having any luck going together, and I thought that since I was alone and it was night when I got bitten, then maybe if I went back alone at night-”

“Okay, I get it,” Pidge interrupted. “You were being an idiot again. But why the hell did you cut that thing loose? You’re not that stupid, Lance! Or at least I thought you weren’t!”

“I-” Lance trailed off. There was a pause for a moment. “I don’t really know? I was going to kill him so that I could keep everyone safe but then I just couldn’t. I mean, he was trapped in a net and he couldn’t even fight back! That’s not fair-”

“Who cares if it’s fair!” Pidge yelled. “That thing could’ve eaten you, Lance! And even if you don’t give a fuck about your own safety, then you should have at least been thinking about us! About your family! You’ve put them all in danger!”

“But that’s the point!” Lance shouted back. “They’re not in danger! Nobody's in danger! Keith promised he wouldn’t hurt anybody!”

“He looked pretty ready to hurt us a moment ago,” Hunk pointed out, frowning.

“You rushed at me with spears!” Keith shouted.

Both Pidge and Hunk leapt backwards. Then Pidge suddenly lowered her spear and everyone started screaming. Lance leapt in front of Keith once more, shouting at her to put the weapon down. Pidge screamed at Lance to stand aside, Hunk was just straight up panicking, trying to decide whether to pick up his own spear or not, and Keith roared. Everything was chaos.

Pidge tensed up, ready to strike. In an instant Lance’s hand shot out and he grabbed the weapon just above the spearhead. “Let go!” Pidge screamed, but Lance ignored her and moved the spear away from Keith, making sure it was pointed at his own body.

“Look at me, Pidge!” Lance yelled. “Just look at me!”

Pidge’s eyes snapped to his. Her glare was so fierce that Lance almost shrunk away. However, he forced himself to stay put, both his and Pidge’s chests heaving rapidly. All the shouting had left them breathless. After a long moment, Pidge released the spear. Her eyes still burned with rage, but there was something else there too now. Something that looked an awful lot like pain.

Lance sighed in relief and let the weapon drop to the floor. “Keith,” he said over his shoulder, “you put your dagger away too.” There was a growl of protest from behind him and Lance turned his head to glare directly into the sharkboy’s eyes. “Keith,” he repeated, his tone dead serious. “Now!”

The shark’s eyes widened for a moment, but then he looked away as he sheathed his dagger. There was an expression that looked suspiciously like a pout on his face, and if the situation hadn’t been so serious Lance might’ve laughed.

“Good,” the merman sighed. “Okay, now we’re all going to talk this out like civilized mer-” Lance paused a moment, shooting an awkward glance behind him, “and shark-folk.” Pidge snorted, crossing her arms angrily, but she didn’t say anything. Lance continued, “So, as I was saying earlier, Keith and I made a deal that if I got him out of the net, he wouldn’t attack anybody.”

“He was about to attack us a moment ago!” Pidge scoffed.

“You came at me first!” Keith snapped back.

“Hey!” Lance shouted over them. “I’m still talking! And yeah, part of the deal was that he could still defend himself if anybody came after him.”

“Well, I’m glad you’ve got this whole thing worked out,” Pidge hissed sarcastically.

Lance opened his mouth to retort but Hunk beat him to it. “I have a question. Why is the shark guy still here? I mean, once you freed him couldn’t you have politely asked him to find somewhere else to lurk around?”

“I can’t leave here,” Keith spoke up, making Hunk jump in surprise.

“I think I can convince you otherwise,” Pidge hissed threateningly. Keith growled in return and Lance stepped further in between them.

“Guys!” he snapped. “Could you cool it for one second?” Lance shot them a warning glare before turning to Hunk. “I did ask him to leave, but like he said, he can’t really do that.”

“Why not?” Hunk frowned at him. Keith opened his mouth to answer and Hunk floated a bit backwards, his eyes glued to the shark’s pointy teeth.

“The other sharkpeople and I don’t really get along,” Keith replied, glaring down at the floor. “If I leave these shipwrecks then I’ll be killed.”

“Good,” Pidge spoke up. “I don’t see the problem with that.” Keith’s eyes snapped up to glare at her and she flared out her fins in return.

“Look, Hunk, Pidge,” Lance interjected. “Keith’s not a threat. He promised not to hurt anybody and he can’t go near the shoal anyways since he can’t even leave the ship graveyard. We’re the only three that ever come here, so everyone else is safe.”

“That doesn’t mean that we’re safe,” Hunk replied.

Lance was about to respond when Keith spoke up. “I’m not going to attack any of you. I just thought you guys were going to hurt me earlier so I was ready to fight back. But I’m not going to come at anybody on my own. I owe Lance. He saved my life.”

Lance turned to the sharkboy, bewildered. “I did?”

“Yeah, you- Wait, what did you think you were doing?!”

“I thought I was just getting you out of a net!”

“And if you hadn’t I probably would’ve suffocated!” Keith scoffed. “I need to move around to breath and there wasn’t exactly a lot of room when I was all tangled up. Plus, even if I’d managed to get enough water in my gills, I still would have starved eventually, and that’s if my tail didn’t kill me first!”

“What’s wrong with your tail?” Pidge asked quietly, her eyes narrowing.

Keith shuffled so that his wound was hidden from view. He glared down at the ground, looking like he wished he hadn't said anything. Lance rolled his eyes and answered for him. “I cut his tail when we first met. He didn’t treat it properly-”

“Because I was stuck in a net!” Keith hissed.

Lance ignored him and continued on, “and it got infected.”

Pidge glanced down at the shark’s tail and Keith shifted uncomfortably, trying to hide as much of himself as possible behind Lance. It didn’t work so well considering his tail in itself was almost the size of the merman. “I see you’ve gotten it treated now,” Pidge glowered, shooting Lance a glare.

“I wasn’t just going to let him die from infection!” Lance protested.

“It’s pretty clear by now you don’t plan on letting him die at all,” Pidge hissed. “Sharkpeople are our enemy, Lance! You know the stories as well as any of us. Better than us, even! They eat merpeople!”

“Not unless there’s nothing better to eat,” Keith said darkly. Lance drifted a little away from him and Keith’s eyes widened. “No, Lance, I was kidding! I’ve never eaten a merperson in my life!” Lance looked at him warily and Keith sulked. “I-I’m sorry, it was a bad joke.”

The merman sighed before drifting back over. “You need to work on your humor,” he said, reaching up to ruffle the sharkboy’s hair. Keith hissed in protest, causing Pidge and Hunk to both flinch back. Lance, however, stood his ground and the sharkboy didn’t pull away, instead glaring darkly at the floor as his cheeks turned red.

“Oh my god,” Pidge hissed.

“What?” Lance pulled his hand away quickly, turning to her.

“Nope,” the smaller mermaid growled. “I am not seriously seeing this.”

“Seeing what?” Lance pressed.

“You figure it out yourself! You seem perfectly capable of deciding whether or not a bloodthirsty sharkperson is dangerous, so you can sort your own shit out!” She picked up her spear and Keith shrunk back, growling as Lance stepped in front of him once more. “Relax, I’m leaving. Come on Hunk, I think Lance wants to be alone with the shark.”

“Hey, I thought we were going exploring!” Lance called after her, his heart deflating a little.

“I changed my mind!” Pidge snapped.

“Pidge!” Lance called out. “You can’t tell Allura, okay? Or anyone!” There was silence as Pidge paused at the porthole leading outside. “Pidge!” Lance repeated.

“Fine!” she swung around, snarling. “But when this whole thing blows up in your face, I’m going to personally beat your ass!” With that she disappeared outside.

Hunk slowly leaned down and picked up his own spear, keeping his eyes on Keith the whole time. “Lance,” he said quietly. “Come with us.”

“Don’t worry, Hunk,” Lance smiled at his best friend. “I’ll be fine, I promise. I’ll catch up with you guys in a little bit, okay?”

Hunk frowned at him. “Lance-”

“I’ll be alright,” Lance swam up to the other merman and hugged him reassuringly. “Just go try to calm Pidge down, okay?”

Hunk sighed worriedly and nodded, hugging Lance tightly back. He paused at the porthole, casting one last glance back before following after Pidge. Lance let out a long, slow breath before turning to Keith.

“So, now you’ve met my friends. Charming, right?”

Chapter Text

“I think they like me,” Keith muttered sarcastically. He finally relaxed his posture and sank to the floor. The fight drained from his eyes. He looked exhausted.

“Hey, you alright?” Lance asked, swimming closer.

“I was doing okay, but I think the fever might be starting to come back. And my tail hurts like a bitch.”

Lance clicked his tongue in worry. He should’ve left more of the fever meds with Keith, but he didn’t want to risk the healer finding out some of the supplies had gone missing. “I won’t be able to get you any more until tonight,” Lance spoke up. “Can you last until then?”

“I’ll be fine,” Keith waved his hand dismissively. “Lance?”

“Yeah?” the merman responded. Keith turned to him, fixing Lance with his piercing purple gaze. It sent chills down his spine.

“Thank you.”

Lance shook himself, forcing his eyes away. “For what?”

“Everything,” Keith replied, his tone still dead serious. “You didn’t have to release me from the net. You didn’t have to agree to let me stay here. You didn’t have to come back and help treat my wound. And you didn’t have to protect me from your friends. But you did all that anyways. So thank you.”

“Yeah, don’t mention it,” Lance rubbed the back of his neck, a little uncomfortable with how serious the situation was. “Sorry about the way Hunk and Pidge reacted. They’re awesome usually, it’s just-”

“You don’t have to explain it,” Keith turned away, glaring at the floor. There was an uncomfortable silence between them. Finally, Lance broke it.

“Hey Keith? You said something about you living in the ship graveyard for a year, right?”

“Yeah,” Keith responded, wondering where Lance was going with this.

“So where’d you live before then?”

The sharkboy looked away, a dark expression crossing his face. There was a pause as he seemed to think something over. After a while, he replied, “Same as your shoal. I’d travel around to different waters.”

That answer was bland and typical. There was clearly more to it, but Keith didn’t look like he was planning to share. Lance frowned. “And you got those scars whenever you’d run into one of your own kind?”

Keith visibly winced, and Lance felt sorry for asking. “Something like that,” the sharkboy mumbled.

Lance could practically feel the tension in the water. Now clearly wasn’t the time to be pressing the other boy for details on his past, so he decided to drop the subject. “Let me see your tail,” the merman spoke up.

“It’s fine,” Keith said stubbornly, shifting away.

“It’s infected,” Lance sighed in exasperation. “Stop throwing a fit every time I want to look at it. I’m just trying to help.”

The sharkboy growled in response, but he moved his tail back towards Lance. The merman reached out to pull it closer, not noticing the pink color forming on Keith’s cheeks. He inspected the wound closely. Some of the swelling seemed to have gone down. However, parts of it still appeared to be a bit unnaturally yellow-green. It would take it bit more for the infection to go away.

“Sorry about this,” Lance said, his fingertips brushing gently near the wound. Keith’s cheeks were now turning hopelessly crimson and he prayed that Lance wouldn’t turn and look at him.

“It’s fine, I attacked you first,” the shark grumbled in his best indifferent tone. There was a pause where he seemed to be debating something with himself. Then slowly, cautiously, he reached out and rested his hand on Lance’s shoulder, just below the bandages that were covering Lance’s own wound. The merman turned to him, surprised, but Keith was refusing to meet his eyes. “I-I’m sorry too. About this.”

Lance shrugged. “The scars will just make me look like a badass. Though you did ruin my flawless skin-”

“I’m sorry!” Keith repeated earnestly.

Lance frowned at him. “Hey, buddy, it’s alright. You were scared for your life, I was scared for mine. We just did what we had to in the moment, okay? No hard feelings.”

Keith nodded. He still wouldn’t meet Lance’s eyes. The merman was becoming more and more aware of Keith’s hand on his shoulder with each passing second. Why did his skin feel so hot where Keith was touching him? Lance cleared his throat loudly and the sharkboy winced a little, but he still didn’t pull his hand back. “Keith?” Lance asked quietly.

“I, um-” the shark mumbled. “Could I see it?”

“My wound?”

The other boy nodded and Lance grinned wickedly at him. “If you can tear your hands away. I can’t get the bandage off otherwise.”

“Sorry!” the sharkboy yelped, pulling back.

“I get it, I’m irresistible,” Lance joked. “It must be hard to keep your hands off me.”

Keith groaned loudly, but there was the smallest of smiles on his lips. Lance stared for a second longer than necessary. It wasn’t fair for someone to have that pretty of a smile. He tore his eyes away and began to unwrap the bandages. Lance could feel the other boy’s eyes burning into him as layer after layer came undone. He shifted nervously, his face heating up a bit.

Finally the last bit of bandage came off. The bite marks were deep, covered in red scabs. They were healing significantly better than the sharkboy’s wound, thanks to Lance getting them treated right away. Still, it seemed likely that they would leave a permanent mark.

“Sorry,” Keith whispered, his eyes looking big and sad.

“Hey,” Lance responded softly. “Really, it’s alright. Don’t beat yourself up over it. I got you back, remember?” He grinned, quirking an eyebrow.

“Yeah, thanks dickhead,” Keith scoffed, though there was a smirk on his own face.

“You try and stab me, you better believe I’m gonna be all cool and get you with your own dagger.”

“That was luck,” Keith scoffed.

“How dare you?!” Lance exclaimed, faking offense. “I’ll have you know I was going off pure skill alone!”

Keith raised his eyebrows. “You didn’t even aim. You just hit me because I was pinned against that ship and had nowhere to run.”

“And who was it that pinned you to the ship in the first place?” Lance beamed in triumph.

“Shut up,” Keith grumbled, though there was that faint smile on his face once more. Damn, that smile was distracting-
“Lance?”

“Huh, what, yes?” Lance shook himself, snapping out of it.

“Can I touch your wound?”

Lance looked at the sharkboy, startled by the question. “Um, sure I guess?”

Keith reached out tentatively. Lance had to admit, he looked kind of cute, his brow furrowed in concentration like he was handling something made of glass. The merman couldn’t help but want to mess with him a little bit. “Ow!” Lance yelped the moment Keith’s fingers brushed the wound.

The sharkboy snatched his hand away, a concerned trill ringing from his throat. Shit, that was a cute sound. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-”

“I’m screwing with you,” Lance laughed. “I’m fine!”

Keith narrowed his eyes. “You really are a dick,” he hissed.

“If I had a fish for every time I’d heard that, I’d never go hungry,” Lance teased. “Sorry though, you can touch it for real now if you want.” Keith glared at him, but reached his hand out once more nonetheless. When his fingers touched the bite marks he pressed down a little harshly. Lance hissed, wincing. “Okay, now that actually does hurt a bit.”

“Good,” Keith growled, though he immediately eased up the pressure.

“Now who’s being a dick?” Lance grinned.

“Still you,” Keith snapped.

“Yeah, probably,” the merman shrugged. He fell silent then, watching as Keith’s fingers ghosted over the bite marks. It tickled a little. The shark’s hands were shaking slightly, and Lance glanced up to see a complicated expression on his face. Keith’s eyes were hazy, as though he was somewhere else. There was fear and pain in them. Lance shivered slightly. “Keith,” he whispered, reaching up and pressing his palm to the back of Keith’s hand. His fingers slipped between the sharkboy’s, their hands still resting against Lance’s shoulder. “Where’d you go, buddy?”

Keith’s eyes widened and he took in his current surroundings once more. He stared at their hands as though in a state of shock before his skin began to flush bright red. “I-I’m here,” the sharkboy stuttered. “I was just- thinking?”

“About what?” Lance asked. When Keith didn’t answer he reached down and touched one of the scars on the other boy’s waist. “About these?” Keith jumped at the contact and Lance pulled his hand away quickly. The shark nodded, not meeting his eyes. “If you ever want to talk about any of that, I’ll listen,” Lance told him.

Lance’s mom had always held him close during a storm, or when he’d gotten a nightmare. She would hold his hand and let him spill all his worries to her until he felt better again. The merman didn’t know where Keith’s parents were, but they clearly weren’t here. He was more than happy to step up and offer his own comforting gestures.

Keith nodded briskly at the floor. His jaw seemed to be clenched shut. “Do you want me to let go of your hand?” Lance asked, suddenly worried he might be making the other boy uncomfortable. Keith shook his head vigorously.

Lance laughed softly and the other boy’s eyes snapped up to him. They were full of bewilderment and something else. Fondness? He supposed the shark would have to be at least somewhat fond of him to let Lance hold his hand. This was progress. Lance had known the people in the shoal his whole life, so it had been a while since he made a new friend.

The merman glanced down at where their hands were clasped over his wound before looking back at Keith. “I told you it looked badass,” he smirked.

The sharkboy seemed to relax a little. “Yeah, well, you’re welcome for that.”

Lance let out an amused trill, and Keith answered back with an exasperated one. They looked at each other for a moment, eyes locked. Then Keith’s stomach growled.

Lance raised his eyebrows. “When was the last time you ate?”

Keith looked away. “A few days ago,” he remarked, as though it wasn’t a big deal.

“A few days?!” Lance exclaimed, causing the other boy to jump. He released Keith’s hand to throw his own arms up exaggeratedly.

“I've tried to catch something, but my tail’s been slowing me down.”

Lance winced. “Shit, I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t be!” Keith spoke up. “I didn’t mean to blame you, I’m just not fast enough right now! I’m fine, I’ve gone longer without food before.”

“Longer?!” Lance’s voice was hitting an octave he never knew he could reach. “Food’s one of the best parts of the day! Plus, it’s just kind of necessary for survival. You know, a little bit.”

“I’m fine, I-”

“Keith, shoosh!” Lance held a finger up to the other boy’s lips, not noticing how his cheeks turned red. “You are not fine, and you are going to eat if I have to force feed you myself!”

“But I can’t catch anything-”

“Shoosh! I’m the best hunter in my shoal, not to brag.” Lance had a smirk on his face that showed he absolutely meant to brag. “I’ll catch you something. I’ll catch you all the somethings!”

“You don’t have to-”

“Keith,” Lance interrupted, dead-pan. “You shut your pretty little mouth.”

“My what?!”

“SHHHHHHHHH!” Again, Lance pressed his finger to the sharkboy’s lips.

At this point Keith was redder than a tomato, and Lance decided that he was not ever from this point forward going to reflect on why he’d chosen the phrase ‘pretty little mouth’. Nope. Not happening.

“Just because you’re awful at asking for help doesn’t mean you can just go for days without food, you lunatic! Now, is there anything in particular you want?”

Keith was studying the floorboards of the ship as though his life depended on it. “Crab,” he mumbled.

Lance grinned. “Crab it is! Don’t go anywhere!” He swam for the porthole before pausing at it. “For real this time, don’t just up and disappear on me.”

Keith managed to tear his eyes away from the endlessly fascinating floor. “I’ll think about it,” he smirked.

Whatever that weird flip that Lance’s heart just did was, the merman did not appreciate it. He swallowed thickly before quickly turning and diving outside. That sharkboy should not be allowed to smile, smirk, or laugh, ever. It was hazardous to other’s health. Or at least, Lance was convinced it was hazardous to his own health. Then again, if Keith never smiled then Lance would happily fight who ever took the shark’s smile from him. There was just no way to win.

He grumbled to himself as he swam among the wrecks. Stupid weird feelings and stupid pretty sharkboy with that stupid mullet. Everything was stupid. Then a crab caught his eye and Lance lunged for it.

 

 

“Eat up!” Lance grinned broadly as he dropped a few too many crabs next to Keith’s tail. The sharkboy, despite all his insistences that he didn’t need to eat, immediately snatched up the food and bit into it.

“Thunk oo,” he mumbled through a mouthful of crab.

“You just owe me your first born now, no biggie,” Lance waved his hand dismissively. Keith snorted and rolled his eyes but didn’t take the time to reply, casting the now empty crab shell to the floor before grabbing another. “Slow down there,” Lance laughed. “You’ll get stomach cramps.” The shark didn’t look like he had any intention of heeding the merman’s advice, not that Lance blamed him. “Well,” Lance spoke up, “I should probably get back before my family realizes I’m missing.”

“Mmf!” Keith made a noise through his mouth full of crab. He chewed and swallowed quickly. “You’re coming back tonight, right?”

“Yep. Doctor Lance is making house calls!”

Keith groaned. “Please don’t ever say that again.”

“Keith, you know I can’t make that promise,” Lance replied with a tone of mock seriousness. “You enjoy those crabs, okay?”

“Lance!”

The merman paused as he was almost out of the ship, “Yes?”

Keith didn’t answer at first, looking like he was pondering something in his head. “Don’t be too long?”

Lance smiled softly at the other boy. “I gotta wait until the rest of the shoal falls asleep, but as soon as they do I’ll head over.” Keith nodded a bit meekly, taking another bite of crab. Lance spun back to the porthole. “Catch you later, sharkboy.”

“Bye-” Keith called after him. He waited until he was sure the merman was out of ear-shot before he whispered, “-Lance.”

Chapter Text

Lance spotted something big moving towards him out of the corner of his eye just as he was leaving the ship graveyard. Keith was back in the wreck he’d just left a moment ago. So then who, or what, was this?

Lance spun around with a startled shriek, pulling out his spear. His cry was immediately joined by Hunk’s own yelp and the two just floated there for a moment, staring at one another. “Watch where you’re pointing that thing,” Hunk frowned nudging the spear to the side. Lance quickly pulled it back.

“Sorry, man, you just scared me. What’re you still doing here?”

“Well,” Hunk started, looking worried. “Pidge wasn’t really in the mood to talk. She just kinda stormed off ahead of me. And I didn’t want to go back without you in case, you know-” Hunk fiddled with his fingers nervously, “in case anything happened.”

Lance beamed at his friend. “That’s sweet, thanks! I’m fine though. I really mean it, Keith isn’t going to hurt anybody.” Lance started to swim towards the shoal and Hunk fell in beside him.

“Yeah, well it never hurts to be sure. You can be a bit too quick to trust sometimes. Which normally is totally fine, but when you’re trusting something with that many teeth-”

“Wait,” Lance interjected. “When have I been too quick to trust?”

Hunk looked at him with a serious expression. “When we were six you decided you were going to be friends with this giant man-of-war jellyfish that you named Loopy. You claimed it would never sting you and yet, the second you touched its tentacles, you got stung real bad. And blacked out. I had to race back and get your parents to come save you before the whole jellyfish swarm ate you.”

Lance shuddered at the memory. “I still can’t believe that Loopy betrayed me like that.”

“The point is,” Hunk continued, “you thought you’d made a friend and in the end you almost died. This might be a repeat of Loopy, Lance.”

Lance gasped in a scandalized manner. “Keith would never do me like Loopy!”

“Lance,” Hunk spoke up, “I’m serious. You need to be more careful. And that’s just in general. Now that you apparently befriended our people’s worst nightmare, you need to be extra careful. Like, super careful. Don’t just let your guard down.”

Lance sighed. “Yeah, I know. I’ll be careful, okay?”

“Last time you said that you got bit by a shark,” Hunk reminded him.

“A shark that’s now my friend!” the other merman grinned.

“I don’t think you’re getting my point-”

“No, really I do. I grew up with the stories about sharks too. They’re terrifying and evil and-” Lance sighed, thinking for a moment. “But, we’ve never really known a sharkperson before, now have we? Neither has anyone else in the shoal. Maybe they’re not all like that, Hunk.”

Hunk frowned thoughtfully. “I still think you should be wary.”

“I will,” Lance smiled reassuringly at him. “I promise.”

Hunk nodded. “Well, I think it’s best you don’t bother Pidge for now. She’ll come to you when she’s ready to talk. Or to fight.”

Lance grimaced. “You don’t think she’s really gonna kick my ass, do you?”

His best friend shrugged unhelpfully. “She was pretty livid. I think you really scared her. You definitely owe her an apology. Just maybe don’t approach her until she isn’t actively planning your demise, you know?”

Lance nodded, feeling guilt coil in him. He wished he’d gotten more of a chance to explain things to her. Then again, it wouldn't have necessarily made a difference. Lance’s trust for Keith wasn’t so much proven as it was just a feeling he had in his gut. After all, Keith could simply be refraining from attacking the shoal because he was too injured. But Lance didn’t believe that. Somehow he just knew Keith could be trusted. That wasn’t something Pidge was likely to understand. She liked hard evidence. The best Lance could hope for was to apologize for making her worry over him and not bring up Keith.

He sighed as the shoal’s caves came into sight. These days it seemed like he had a lot to hide. The one nice thing about Hunk and Pidge now knowing was that at least Lance didn’t have to hide it alone.

 

 

Lance cursed softly as he rolled his sleeping sister off him. It had been extra hard to get his two younger siblings and cousin Tion to bed that night. After about the millionth game of catch the crab (with Lance being said crab) he had finally worn them down enough to get them settled into their shared moss bedding. Then he’d had to wait for them to stop whispering and giggling, hushing them impatiently at times. And once all that was over, he still couldn’t leave until he was certain that all of them were fast asleep.

After what felt like an eternity, he was finally satisfied by their slow breathing. The merman slipped from beneath his little brother’s arm and swam silently through the tunnels of the cave until he’d reached the outside. Looking out for any mermaids on night watch, Lance darted from rock to rock, heading towards the healer’s dwelling.

He reached the small mouth to this familiar cave in no time and dove inside, going straight to the alcove where the medicines and bandages were stored. Lance fumbled through them, pulling out medicines for fever, pain, and so on. He was just closing his hand around a shell containing some disinfectant when he heard someone clear their throat loudly behind him. Lance shrieked, dropping his supplies on the floor.

“Hello there, young Lance,” a familiar voice called out. “It’s a little late for a visit, don’t you think?”

Lance turned around sheepishly to face Coran, the shoal’s healer and chief adviser to Allura. The merman had dark blue scales and fiery red hair, complete with a well-groomed mustache. “Um, hey Coran! Just-just out for a late night swim! Wanted to stretch my fins-”

Coran peered at the medical supplies now lying on the floor. “Strange thing to bring on a stroll,” he remarked. Lance couldn’t tell if he was angry or not, which made him even more nervous. The man was always so cheery.

“Yeah, I was, um-” Lance rubbed the back of his neck nervously.

“Well,” Coran spoke up, “considering all the stuff you dropped back there, I assume this stroll involves a patient who needs treating. I was wondering where all my medical supplies had been going lately.”

“You knew?” Lance asked sheepishly.

“I noticed yesterday that quite a few of the fever spines were missing,” Coran answered. “I haven’t had to treat a fever since little Benjo caught one. Then, when I double checked the rest of my supplies, I came up short on a few other things.”

“Yeah,” Lance mumbled, not really sure what else to say.

Coran tapped his chin thoughtfully. Lance squirmed under his gaze. “Well, since you're sneaking the supplies out and not just fetching me, I assume that whatever your treating is not a member of this shoal.” Lance froze at that, his eyes going wide. “You know, Lance, if you’ve found another injured dolphin or sea turtle, you don’t need to be so sneaky about it. I’m more than happy to help.”

The younger merman shuffled uncomfortably. “He’s really shy and scared easily. The-the turtle, that is. It took a while for him to warm up to me, so I think it’s best if I’m the one to do it.”

Coran looked at him a long moment and Lance fidgeted around, staring at the floor. “Alright,” the older merman finally said, and Lance breathed a sigh of relief. “But tell me, how’s the turtle hurt?”

“A cut got infected,” Lance replied.

“Ah,” Coran nodded, stooping down to help Lance gather up the supplies he’d dropped. “In that case you don’t need these two.” He put two of the medicines back and held out a new one. “You’ll want this. It’s the best thing for infections.”

Lance beamed at him. “Thanks, Coran!”

“Lance!” the older man called after him, making Lance stop at the cave entrance. “Don’t stray far. There’s still that sharkperson on the loose.”

“Yeah,” Lance laughed nervously. He then spun around and shot into open water.

 

 

The shipwreck Keith was in earlier that day was empty. At this point Lance wasn’t even surprised. He huffed in frustration before letting out a sharp trill. Nothing answered, and the merman grumbled to himself as he swam further into the ship graveyard. The place was huge. That dumb shark better not have gone far, or Lance might not be able to find him.

He wandered for a few minutes, calling out fruitlessly. His frustration was just starting to turn into concern when, finally, he heard a faint trill calling back. Lance sighed in relief and rushed towards the sound, calling out once more to make sure he had the right wreck. The answering trill came from a small ship that was almost completely upside-down. The sound itself was rather quiet and uneven. Perhaps Keith had dozed off and Lance’s commotion had just woken him? Lance spotted a small hole in the ship. His sleek body fit through easily, but he imagined it might have been a bit of a squeeze for the sharkboy’s large tail.

“Keith?” Lance called out, his eyes not spotting anything despite their night vision. “It’s just me. Where are you, buddy?” That same soft trill drifted from the other room and Lance darted to it. He grinned when he spotted the shark lying on the floor, his eyes squeezed shut. “Did I wake you, grumpy gills?” There was no answer. Lance frowned, drifting closer. “Keith?”

A groan escaped the sharkboy’s lips and Lance froze. Something wasn’t right. As he approached he noticed how pale Keith looked. The sharkboy’s skin was already normally lighter than the underbelly of a whale, but this was different. Now it looked almost ashen. His breathing was ragged, coming out in slow, uneven gasps. Lance reached out and placed a hand on the other boy’s forehead. He was burning up.

“Shit, Keith!” Lance hissed. “I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner, I just got caught up in some stuff and-” Lance trailed off, letting out a long breath. “Shit.”

“S’okay,” Keith slurred, his voice raspy. “It’s been like this since before sunset, just getting worse. You wouldn’t have been able to sneak away in time anyways.”

Lance noticed that the shark boy was shivering all over. He grabbed the fever spines and began snapping their pointed ends off frantically. “Quick, eat these!” Lance exclaimed, holding them out in front of Keith’s face. The sharkboy wrinkled his nose in disgust but he obediently popped them in his mouth, letting out a groan of displeasure at the taste.

Lance then turned to Keith’s tail. He placed a hand on it and was immediately struck across the face by a powerful swipe. The merman flew backwards, clutching his cheek and cursing.

“Lance!” Keith cried out, swimming closer to him at somewhat sluggish pace. “I’m so sorry, you startled me! I didn’t mean to-”

“It’s fine,” Lance waved away his apologies, though he still clutched his stinging cheek. “I should’ve warned you. Hold your tail still this time, alright? I’ve gotta clean the wound.”

Keith nodded, sinking to his side on the floor. His body was trembling everywhere despite the fact he was burning up. Lance approached him and carefully placed his hands on the shark’s tail. Keith flinched a little, but other than that he kept as still as possible.

The merman made quick work of undoing the bandages. He sighed in relief when he saw that the wound didn’t look any worse than it had this morning. Lance dipped his fingers into the special ointment that Coran had given him earlier.

“This might hurt a bit,” he huffed. The sharkboy nodded at him and Lance began to rub in the ointment. Keith winced, hissing in pain, but luckily it didn’t seem to sting nearly as bad as the stuff Lance had first put on him the other night. The shark just clenched his teeth and rode it out. Once Lance was satisfied, he began to wrap the wound in fresh bandages. “You’ll be fine,” the merman smiled reassuringly. “It looks like the fever’s just back because I didn’t leave any medicine with you last night.”

“Can you leave some with me this time?” Keith rasped out.

“Definitely,” Lance nodded. He thought a moment before nudging himself behind the sharkboy and laying down.

“What are you doing?!” Keith yelped as Lance circled his arms around him.

“This’ll help bring your body temperature down since you’re so overheated,” Lance explained, making sure his cool skin was pressed up against Keith’s back. The sharkboy’s breath hitched. “My parents used to do it to me whenever I’d get a fever. I know it’s kinda uncomfortable, but bear with it for now.”

“Y-yeah, alright,” the sharkboy wheezed in response. There was silence for a moment.

“Keith?”

“Yes!” Keith answered a little too readily.

“You can relax, you know. You’re twitching all over the place.”

“Right!” the shark practically squeaked. Lance had to bite back a laugh at the sound. Keith’s twitching was only seeming to grow worse.

“I can give you a massage if you want,” Lance offered.

“No!” Keith snapped. “I mean, maybe?” He paused, seeming to think it over before saying,” No. Definitely no.”

“Your loss,” Lance shrugged, a little offended at how readily the boy had rejected him. “If this fever-spooning thing is really that uncomfortable for you, we can stop.”

“No!” Keith exclaimed. “That’s not it! Th-this is helping. I feel cooler already.”

“Liar,” Lance smirked. “We haven’t even been doing this a full minute yet. It doesn’t work that quickly.” Keith froze as Lance laughed softly right next to his ear. The merman easily felt the shiver that snaked down Keith’s spine, what with him being pressed against the shark's back. “You okay?” he asked.

“Fantastic!” Keith squeaked. Lance laughed some more and the sharkboy swore he was going to die right there, right then. Or at least, he thought so until he felt Lance nudge his face into his mullet, resting his chin in the crook of the shark’s neck. Now Keith was definitely going to die. The merman’s quiet, sleepy trill did not help matters.

“Your hair’s soft,” Lance whispered.

In that moment Keith felt his soul leave his body. He wasn’t able to manage more than a strangled choking noise in response, but Lance didn’t seem to mind. The sharkboy lay there for what felt like an eternity, staying as still as possible. His tail beat slowly, keeping them drifting in circles so that he could still get water in his gills. The lazy motion must have lolled Lance to sleep, because in a matter of minutes the merman’s hands relaxed on Keith’s chest and waist, his head still resting on the other boy’s shoulder.

Keith didn’t fall asleep so easily. Between the burning fever and the burning feeling from wherever Lance was pressed against him, it was a little hard to doze off. However, exhaustion finally numbed his mind enough to let him slip away himself. His tail continued to swish automatically so that he could still breath throughout the night. The last coherent thought Keith had was that he wished he could get a fever more often.

Chapter Text

Lance woke up to the sound of screaming. He felt himself being yanked through the water, his eyes just barely open. The merman didn’t recognize his surroundings. There were wooden planks above his head, covered in barnacles and algae. Why was everything so loud? Then Hunk’s fearful face flooded his vision.

“Oh my god, Lance, are you alright?!” Hunk yelled.

“Don’t move!” Pidge’s voice shouted from somewhere to the side. “Don’t you fucking move!”

Lance sat up in Hunk’s arms, rubbing his eyes in confusion. “I’m fine,” he said. “What’s happen-” His eyes fell on Pidge and they widened. She was in the corner of the room, shaking as she held her spear out in front of her. The spear’s point was pressed directly against Keith’s neck, the sharkboy snarling as he glared back at her. His hands were frozen just above his sheathed dagger. “Pidge, what the fuck?!” Lance yelled, darting over to her before Hunk could reach out and stop him. He knocked her spear away and shoved his body in front of Keith. “What the hell are you doing?!”

“No, what the hell are you doing?!” she screamed. Lance froze when he heard how raw her voice sounded. Her eyes weren’t angry, just full of fear. “Your family woke up and you were missing and they searched the shoal and no one could find you! Then Coran said you went to help an injured turtle so everyone’s out searching and me and Hunk rushed here and-” she sucked in a much needed breath. “Lance, what the hell! Everyone’s so worried! We were so worried, I thought you’d-”

“Pidge,” Lance choked out. He had never seen Pidge make that face before. He was the cause of that face. Lance felt absolutely awful. “I’m so sorry! I’m okay!” He floated forward and embraced her in a hug. She went limp against him, hiding her face in his shoulder as a strangled sob ripped from her throat. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep here,” the merman continued, rubbing soothing circles into her back. “I was just helping Keith with his wound and I guess I dozed off.”

“I thought that monster ate you!” Pidge choked out.

Lance heard a soft sound from Keith behind him but he ignored the shark for now. “Everything’s okay,” Lance whispered. “I’m sorry.” He looked over at Hunk, who had a similar expression of hurt on his face. “C’mere buddy,” Lance smiled at him.

Hunk looked warily at the shark, still trapped in a corner behind Lance and Pidge. However, he swam over nonetheless, enveloping both of them in a big hug while simultaneously moving them away from Keith. “I’m so glad your okay,” Hunk breathed out, his voice breaking.

“Don’t you ever do that again, asshole!” Pidge growled from somewhere in between them. It sounded like she was regaining her composure.

“I won’t,” Lance reassured her. “I’m so sorry, guys. For everything.”

Pidge grumbled something that sounded suspiciously like ‘dickhead’ and Hunk sniffled quietly. Lance just held them both close, feeling awful. He’d really screwed up this time. Why the hell couldn’t he have just treated Keith’s wound and left? But even thinking about it now, Lance hadn’t wanted to leave. He liked spending time with the shark.

“We have to get back,” Pidge broke into his thoughts. “The whole shoal’s worried about you.”

Lance nodded, pulling away. He turned to address Keith, only to find the corner behind him now empty. Lance spun around, scanning the room. “Where’s Keith?” he asked aloud. Pidge hissed, whirling around and searching for him with a glare.

“He swam out there,” Hunk spoke up, pointing towards the other room. Lance darted over but found that room as empty as the other. He swam to the hole leading outside, looking around. Absolutely nothing. The merman let out a frustrated trill. There was no answer.

“Come on,” Pidge spoke up from behind him, bumping him with her tail. “We’ve gotta head back. You spent all night with the shark, I’m sure you’ll survive apart for a little while,” she added bitterly.

Lance sighed and followed her out. While they swam back all three of them scanned their surroundings for Keith, though for very different reasons. However, the sharkboy did not make an appearance, much to Lance’s disappointment and Hunk and Pidge’s relief.

 

 

“Lance!” Tion shrieked. It seemed like half the shoal was hanging around the caves, so upon hearing the child call out, heads turned everywhere. There was a chorus of chatter as the mermaids swam up to the three friends. Tion got there first. He barreled into Lance, wrapping his arms around him. A second later Lance’s younger brother and sister joined him while Lance’s older siblings pushed to the front of the gathering crowd.

“We thought you’d been eaten!” Tion sniffled.

“Did you go fight the shark again?” Lance’s little sister asked, looking more excited than worried.

“Where have you been?!” one of his older sisters snapped, ruffling his hair a little too harshly.

“Don’t just swim off!” his older brother chided.

“Were you taken by the sharkperson?” someone called from the crowd.

“Is he alright?” a nearby merman whispered.

“Someone better let the search parties know he’s back,” someone else commented.

“Move aside!”

All the voices stopped, and the crowd parted. Lance gulped when he saw the faces of his parents. His mother’s long black hair flowed behind her as she swam forward, her deep blue eyes filled with worry. Beside her his father floated, frowning slightly. He was paler than his mate, with dark brown hair and a scruffy beard. His brown eyes were slightly red and puffy, and Lance felt his guilt resurge with a vengeance.

“Lance!” his mother cried as she wrapped her arms around him. “Are you hurt?”

“No,” Lance spoke meekly. “I’m fine.”

“Where were you?” his father asked, hugging his son close.

“I-” Lance started before swallowing thickly. He was going to have lie right here, right now, not only to his family but to the entire shoal. He tried to force down the sickening feeling that was growing in the pit of his stomach. “I found an injured sea turtle the other day,” he said, uncomfortably aware of Pidge and Hunk’s eyes burning into him. “I was sneaking out to treat it. And last night I kind of accidentally fell asleep while tending to it.”

“Lance!” his mother snapped. “You can’t just be going out alone! You’re the one who was attacked by that sharkperson in the first place!”

Lance winced. “I-I know, I’m sorry.”

“You should’ve had Coran take a look at the turtle,” his father frowned. “Or at least ask Hunk and Pidge to go with you!” Lance nodded numbly, trying not to meet the eyes of any of the many people around him.

“Why were you even sneaking out in the night?” his older sister spoke up. “Couldn’t you have gone in the daytime?”

“I guess,” Lance shrugged. “It was just easier to go at night because usually I’m hunting or playing with the kids and such. I don’t really have time until you guys all go to sleep.”

“Where even is this turtle?” Lance’s mother asked.

“It’s-” Lance winced, his mind reeling. “It’s, um-”

“It’s down in the reefs,” Hunk spoke up. Lance turned to him, surprised. Hunk gave him a small smile before continuing. “Me and Pidge have gone with him a few times, we just didn’t know he was going last night.”

Lance’s father frowned at his son. “You should have told your friends,” he scolded. “You cannot swim off alone with a shark on the loose!”

“I’m sorry.” Lance hung his head and his father sighed, pulling his son into another hug. His mother followed suit and then Lance’s entire family was hugging him, squashing him in the center.

“Don’t scare us like that,” his little brother chided.

“It won’t happen again,” Lance reassured him.

 

 

“What happened to, ‘it won’t happen again’?” Pidge hissed quietly, glaring at Lance over her untouched dinner.

“Keith's still sick! I’ve got to get him more medicine,” Lance whispered back. “Besides, I never meant that I wasn’t going back! Just that I wasn’t going to make my family worry over it again. My parents know I’m not just going to abandon an injured sea turtle-”

“Shark,” Hunk interjected. “The thing you are helping is a shark.”

“I’m just trying to get used to saying he’s a turtle,” Lance sighed.

“Turtle’s aren’t going to eat you for dinner,” his best friend pointed out.

“Neither is Keith!” Lance hissed. “I fell asleep next to the guy last night! If there was ever a time to eat me, that was it, and yet I’m fine!”

“Well I don’t care how harmless you claim he is,” Pidge growled. “I’m not coming with you!”

“Pidge, please!” Lance whined. “My parents will only let me go as long as you and Hunk are with me.”

“I don’t want anything to do with this, Lance!” Pidge snapped. “You’ve already got me lying to everyone! I’m not interested in watching you grope a shark’s tail!”

“I’m helping heal it,” Lance hissed indignantly, his cheeks flushing slightly. “And you and Hunk don’t have to go see Keith with me!”

“But I thought you just said-” Hunk frowned.

“I need you to come with me to the shipwrecks,” Lance whispered, “but then you guys can just go off exploring and I’ll meet Keith on my own. Once it’s time to head back we’ll all meet up and swim back together.” There was a pause. Lance turned to Pidge, who was busy glaring at the ground with her arms crossed. “I know how much you’ve been wanting to explore the shipwrecks. This is your chance!”

The smaller mermaid refused to meet his eyes, still glaring at nothing. “I wanted to explore them with you,” she muttered.

Lance felt guilt coil in his stomach. He was getting all too familiar with this feeling. “I’m sorry,” he spoke softly. “I want to explore with you too, but this is important to me.”

“You mean he’s important to you,” Pidge growled.

“Yes,” Lance replied.

“I don’t get why,” the mermaid spat, turning to look Lance in the eye this time. “He attacked you, and then suddenly you’re both best friends, having sleep overs and giggling together.”

“I don’t giggle!” Lance exclaimed. Pidge rolled her eyes.

“I just don’t get why you cut him out of that net,” she continued. “He was going to kill you, and your response is to just go and save his life? Without even thinking about how you’re putting everyone else in danger?”

“We made a deal that he wouldn’t hurt anyone,” Lance reminded her.

“And how do you know that he’ll keep that promise! Why do you trust him more than you trust me?!” Lance froze, his eyes widening. Pidge was glaring directly at him, her chest heaving in anger. The next moment she looked away. “Just forget about it,” she muttered, turning to swim off.

“Pidge, wait!” Lance called out, grabbing onto her wrist so she couldn’t go. “I do trust you!”

“Apparently not enough to believe me when I tell you that thing is dangerous!” Pidge snarled. “It attacked you! And I’m willing to bet it would have again if it hadn’t gotten caught in that net!”

“He was just scared!” Lance told her.

“What the hell does a shark have to be afraid of?!” Pidge scoffed.

“Us!” Lance snapped. “Keith told me that he knew that if he let me escape, I’d just bring more mermaids to hunt him down. And he was right, now wasn’t he? I brought you and Hunk back and we spent the next few days trying to catch him so that we could kill him. How would you like it if you were being hunted?” Pidge didn’t answer. She had instead resumed glaring darkly at the ground. “You didn’t see his eyes, Pidge! I was holding up my spear, about to kill him, and he didn’t even look sad or afraid or anything! He just stopped trying to escape! He stopped trying to live! And then he moved my spear because I had the angle wrong. He was helping me kill him! I just couldn’t-” Lance’s voice broke. “I couldn’t do it.”

Pidge was staring at him with wide eyes now. Hunk, who had been watching most of this exchange in silence, reached out a hand and placed it comfortingly on Lance’s shoulder. Lance took a deep breath, trying to calm himself before continuing.

“It wasn’t anything like when we hunt fish,” he spoke quietly. “He had just given up. I couldn’t hurt him. I still don’t really understand it, but I couldn’t kill him. It wasn’t right.”

A long silence followed. Hunk patted Lance’s back while the smaller merman sucked in slow breaths, his fists clenched and body shaking slightly. Pidge just stared, not moving an inch for the longest time. Finally, she let out a deep sigh.

“I’ll go with you.”

Lance’s eyes snapped up to her. “Really?”

“Yes,” the mermaid breathed out reluctantly. “But I still don’t trust that shark. Hunk and I won’t be too far away, so call if-” she trailed off, a dark expression crossing her face.

“I know,” Lance smiled at her. “Thank you, Pidge. Thanks for listening.”

“Well, I already regret it,” she growled, but there was a good-natured smile on her lips. The next moment her smile disappeared as she added, “But if that shark so much as looks at you the wrong way, I will skewer him.”

“I’m so touched,” Lance grinned, putting his hands over his heart and swooning backwards into Hunk.

Pidge groaned. “Let’s just get this over with, okay?”

Chapter Text

“I’m not really comfortable going to meet a shark without our spears,” Hunk called.

“You don’t need any weapons,” Lance scoffed.

“The shark has a weapon,” Pidge pointed out, scowling.

“So do you,” Lance replied, raising his eyebrows. Pidge tightened her grip on the shell knife she was carrying.

“I said that I’d go, not that I’d go empty handed.”

“I suppose it’s better than a spear,” Lance sighed.

“I should’ve brought a knife,” Hunk grumbled.

“No, you shouldn’t have,” Lance replied. “Guys, just relax! We’re going to help heal him, not cause him more injuries.”

“You got to stab him,” Pidge grumbled.

“That was self-defense!” Lance snapped. “And I didn’t stab him, I just cut his tail.”

“Well if he tries anything, I’ll be the one saving our asses,” Pidge hissed back. Lance sighed and just dropped the subject. There was no point in reasoning with them.

In no time the shipwrecks closed around them. Hunk and Pidge were looking around frantically, jumping at even the slightest movement. Lance just swam deeper in, leading the group. Every now and then he’d let out a trill, only to be greeted by silence. Finally, after several minutes of this, he heard an answering trill in the distance. Lance called out again, using the response to pinpoint the shark’s location. He spotted the wreck that the sound was coming from and swam up to it.

“Keith?” Lance called out as he swam into the ship. He spotted a pair of glowing purple eyes in the darkness.

“Lance!” the sharkboy beamed warmly, swimming closer. The next moment Keith’s eyes widened and he backed away, letting out a warning hiss. Lance looked behind him to see that Hunk and Pidge had just entered. To Pidge’s credit, she at least wasn’t pointing the knife at anything, though her grip on it was slowly turning her knuckles white.

Keith was glaring at them, his eyes darting from one to the other. When they fell on Lance his face softened slightly, but it was more from pain than anything else. Lance raised his hands to try and calm the sharkboy. “Keith-” he began, drifting forward.

“Don’t come any closer!” Keith growled, his hand closing around the hilt of his dagger.

“Keith, it’s okay, just listen-”

“I said don’t come any closer!” Keith pulled the dagger out, holding it in front of himself. Hurt and betrayal twisted across his face as he looked at the merman. His hands were shaking.

Lance heard Pidge hiss threateningly behind him. “You two, stay here!” Lance snapped.

“But Lance-!” Hunk’s voice called out.

“Don’t move an inch from that spot!” Lance whirled around to glare challengingly at them. He then turned back to the shark. “I’m gonna set these supplies down, okay Keith?” The sharkboy didn’t respond, his eyes still darting between the three of them. Lance bent over and set the medical supplies on the ground. He straightened back up and drifted slowly forward.

“Stay back!” Keith yelled.

“Lance!” Pidge hissed.

“Neither of you move!” the merman snapped over his shoulder. He turned back to Keith. “I don’t have anything, see?” Again, he swam forward.

“Lance, don’t come any closer!” Keith tried to growl, but his voice broke. He was trembling, the dagger shaking in his hands.

“It’s me, buddy,” Lance spoke calmly as he continued moving forward. “I’m not going to hurt you. I won’t let anything hurt you.” There was a strangled sound from the shark’s throat. Lance responded with a soothing trill. “You’re going to be okay.” He reached out towards the dagger.

“Lance,” Keith choked out.

The merman smiled softly at him.“Trust, remember?” Then his hand closed around Keith’s wrists and he slowly moved the dagger to the side. Once it was safely out of the way, Lance let go, wrapping his arms around the shark and pulling him close. Keith let out another strangled cry, pressing his shaking body into Lance. The merman hummed softly to him.

“I told you to stay back, dumbass,” Keith hissed, his face buried in the other boy’s shoulder.

Lance shrugged. “I can’t ask you to trust me if I don’t trust you.” The sharkboy didn’t respond, instead just leaning further in.

Right then there was the sound of someone loudly clearing their throat. Lance turned and saw Pidge watching them with her eyebrows raised, an unimpressed expression on her face. Hunk was staring up at the ceiling, fiddling nervously with his own fingers. Both Lance and Keith blushed and Lance moved quickly away, though he kept his arm draped across the sharkboy’s shoulders.

“Right,” Lance began, clearing his own throat. “Pidge and Hunk are here because, after making the whole shoal worry about me, I promised I wouldn’t go off alone anymore. They’re not going to hurt you,” Lance rubbed Keith’s back reassuringly and the sharkboy shivered at the touch. “You’re perfectly safe.”

Keith’s eyes flitted doubtfully to Pidge’s knife. She saw him looking and growled, “I won’t use it unless you try anything.” The sharkboy turned to Lance with an uncertain gaze.

“She won’t hurt you.” Lance smiled reassuringly at him. Keith didn’t look convinced. “How’re you feeling?”

The shark’s eyes swept nervously between Hunk and Pidge before he answered. “Better. The fever’s gone.” He spoke so quietly that Lance had to strain to hear him.

“That’s good,” Lance beamed. “I still gotta give you some more medicine and change your bandages, though.” He swam over and scooped up the medical supplies, bringing them back with him.

“R-right now?” Keith croaked out, his eyes still moving between Hunk and Pidge.

“No, tomorrow,” Lance replied sarcastically. He frowned when Keith didn’t present his tail. “Anything wrong?”

“No!” Keith said quickly.

“Then can I see the wound?”

The shark let out a small trill that almost sounded like a whine. Nevertheless, he moved onto his side and stretched out his tail, looking uncomfortable. Lance didn’t notice, his eyes instead taking in the bandages. He began to undo them. Keith squirmed slightly at his touch.

“Where’d you get all those scars?” Hunk called out. The sharkboy jumped at the sound. Lance turned around to shoot a warning glare at his friend.

“Hunk, don’t be rude!”

“Sorry,” the other merman responded sheepishly. “I was just curious.”

“I’m curious too,” Pidge spoke up. She narrowed her eyes and floated a little closer. Keith immediately rose from the floor, flinching back as he snarled quietly.

“Keith!” Lance snapped, “Get back down here. And Pidge, you stay back.”

Pidge stopped moving forward but she didn’t stop talking. “Why are you so beaten up?”

“Pidge!” Lance shot a warning glare at her this time.

“The other sharks used to use me as target practice,” Keith growled out. The whole room was silent. Finally Hunk broke it.

“Why?” he asked quietly, looking concerned. Keith turned to glare down at the floor. He clenched his jaw, not answering.

“So sharks are monsters even to their own kind,” Pidge huffed. The sharkboy shot her a glare. Interestingly enough, she didn’t glare back this time, instead quickly looking away. She looked almost guilty. There was another awkward silence.

“Well,” Lance spoke up. “Thank you both for all your help, but I think you two should go explore some wrecks now.” He was frowning in disappointment at his two friends.

“Y-yeah,” Pidge grumbled, turning to go. Hunk swam after her. He paused a moment at the porthole, looking back.

“Sorry we were rude, Mr. Shark.”

Keith froze for a second, just staring at him in shock. Finally he choked out, “I-it’s okay.” Hunk nodded with a small smile then turned to follow Pidge out.

Lance snorted, looking up at Keith with amused eyes. “Can you please get your ass down here, Mr. Shark?”

Keith shot him a glare. “Shut up,” he grumbled. However, he did as he was asked. The sharkboy seemed considerably more loose and relaxed than before, and Lance got the rest of the bandages off easily. He let out a low whistle and Keith blushed. “What?!” the shark snapped.

“It’s healing well,” Lance replied, indicating the wound. “The medicine must be really working.”

“Just get this over with,” Keith huffed. Lance nodded and began applying ointment to the wound. The sharkboy winced, but he didn’t say another word. Once the wound was properly treated, Lance wrapped it up in bandages once more.

“Guess we don’t need these,” he grinned, holding up the fever spines. Keith wrinkled his nose in disgust.

“Thank god.” However, the next moment he blushed, looking away. Lance quirked an eyebrow at him in confusion.

“Is something wrong?”

“No, nothing!” Keith replied quickly.

“Hmm?” Lance hummed doubtfully.

Keith narrowed his eyes, studying the floorboards. “It’s just- I just wanted to say thank you. For last night. It was nice not to have to sleep alone for once.”

Lance smiled at him. “No problem! Sadly, I can’t be doing that again anytime soon or I’ll get my tail kicked.”

“W-we don't have to fall asleep!” Keith blurted out. Lance stared at him in shock for a moment and the sharkboy turned bright red. “Nevermind! Forget I said anything!” He tried to move away but Lance reached out and grabbed his hand, grinning wickedly.

“Keith, do you want to cuddle me?” he teased.

“No!” Keith snapped.

“Keeeeiiith?” Lance drawled, pulling the shark against him. Keith went rigid at the contact. “You’re a bad liar,” Lance whispered, sending shivers down the sharkboy’s spine. “I can’t blame you,” the merman continued. “I am a master cuddler. Once you’ve snuggled with me, you’ll never be the same.”

Luckily these words broke Keith out of his trance and he groaned loudly, rolling his eyes. “They're not that good,” he retorted, fully aware that his statement was a complete and utter lie.

“Prepare to eat those words, sharkboy,” Lance smirked. Again, Keith lost all ability to function as the merman’s arms circled his waist. He guided them down so that they were both lying on the floor. Unlike last time, they were now face to face. Keith swallowed thickly. Lance’s lips were right there, barely an inch away-

Then Lance was guiding Keith’s head down so that it rested against his chest, his fingers combing gently through the shark’s hair. Keith let out a sigh, relaxing into the merman’s embrace. Lance responded with a soothing trill that seemed to seep beneath the sharkboy’s skin and vibrate in his bones. Without thinking, Keith nuzzled his head against Lance’s chest.

The merman, who had been smirking to himself, suddenly couldn’t breathe. He felt a strange shiver curl through him as Keith let out a satisfied hum. Lance shook himself briskly. He needed to stop being weird around the other boy. This was perfectly normal. Lance cuddled Hunk all the time. This wasn’t any different.

 

 

The two had almost drifted off despite their best efforts to stay awake when Pidge’s loud groan startled them back into reality. Lance quickly untangled himself from Keith, sitting up. “Uh, hi! What’s up?” He was not blushing. Nope. His face was definitely not burning up right now.

“Sorry to interrupt your ‘bonding moment’,” Pidge said, “but we gotta head back.”

“The sun’s setting,” Hunk added.

Keith let out a small disappointed sound before he could catch himself. He looked down at the ground in embarrassment, his face somehow turning even more red. Lance shot him a fond smile. “I’ll be back tomorrow evening, okay.”

The shark nodded stiffly. “Yeah, see you fishtail.”

Lance grinned, a look of pure evil on his face. He leaned over and whispered into the shark’s ear in a gruff voice, “Bye-bye, sharkboy.” Keith almost jumped right off the floor. Lance laughed and the shark swatted him with his tail, glaring despite his flushed face.

“Oh my god, they’ve already got pet-names for each other,” Pidge groaned, turning away so she wouldn’t have to watch. Hunk was doing his best to pretend that he had seen nothing.

“They’re not pet-names!” Lance protested, his face turning the same shade of red as Keith’s. He wished he’d picked a more private moment to tease the sharkboy. Pouting, he got up. “Night, mullet,” Lance grumbled as he reached out to ruffle the shark’s hair. Keith growled in response.

Lance swam over to Hunk and Pidge, following them towards the exit. He paused at the porthole, looking back over his shoulder. “Try not to miss me too much.” The merman smirked as darted into the waters outside.

Keith glared after him before his expression softened. “No promises,” he mumbled.

Chapter Text

Keith shuffled uncomfortably as Lance tied the new bandages in place. He had grown used to Lance touching his tail by now, but having an audience was definitely new. Lance noticed Keith’s flushed face and smirked slightly, though he still turned to address his two friends hovering awkwardly behind them.

“You guys don’t have to stick around, you know. You can go out exploring.”

Neither of his friends answered. After a moment of Lance staring at them with his eyebrows raised, Hunk shuffled over to Pidge and elbowed her lightly in the ribs. She shot him a glare but cleared her throat. “Uh, actually,” Pidge began, “I was thinking you could come with us?” Hunk elbowed her once more and she hissed at him before adding, “and the shark can come too.”

Lance beamed from ear to ear. “That sounds awesome! Keith’s been living in this place for like a year so he probably knows where all the cool stuff is! Right Keith?”

The sharkboy looked much less eager than Lance. He was regarding Pidge and Hunk with a suspicious frown.

“Keith?” the merman repeated.

Violet eyes met blue ones, and the shark visibly melted, his whole demeanor softening. Pidge rolled her eyes, biting back a groan, and there was a knowing smile on Hunk’s face. Luckily, neither Lance nor Keith noticed this. “Um, y-yeah,” Keith spoke up. “I guess.”

“Great!” Lance grabbed the other’s hand and pulled him up, dragging the shark along with him. “Let’s get going then. I’ve been wanting to explore this place again since we got here, and now we’ve got our own personal guide!”

Keith really hoped his cheeks weren’t as red as they felt while he was dragged straight passed Hunk and Pidge. To his mixed disappointment and relief, Lance dropped his hand once they got outside the wreck.

“Lead the way, captain,” the merman smirked.

“Um, what do you want to see?” Keith asked hesitantly.

“Human gadgets!”

Keith jumped a bit in surprise when Pidge answered instead of Lance. In that moment her usual hostility was completely gone, replaced by a gleam of excitement.

“Okay.” Keith thought a moment. “There’s this one wreck that has a lot of their junk left in it. It’s kind of deeper in, though.”

Pidge’s eyes narrowed, as though she suspected this was a trap, but Lance cut in before she could say anything. “Sounds perfect! Take us there.”

Keith nodded, turning to lead them in the direction of the wreck. He was relieved when Lance swam by his side, though a little less so that Pidge was close on his other side, still clutching her shell knife from yesterday. The shark did his best to ignore the weapon. He was armed too, after all. Besides, Lance had said Pidge wouldn’t hurt him. And although Pidge didn’t seem to fully agree with that statement, she had at least promised not to attack him first.

After a few minutes of swimming in awkward silence (with Lance playfully nudging him from time to time), they reached their destination. “There it is,” Keith spoke up, pointing out the giant metal ship before them.

Pidge’s face visibly lit up. Then Lance was yelling, “Race you!” and she and him shot off through the water like a couple of giggling hatchlings. Keith stared fondly at the retreating merman before he suddenly remembered Hunk was here with him. He cast his eyes down nervously. There was a moment of silence as the two swam at a more reasonable pace towards the ship.

“So,” Hunk finally spoke up. “Lance said you’ve been living here a year?”

“Yeah,” Keith answered simply. He could take some small comfort in knowing Hunk was unarmed. However, the merman’s muscled arms looked like they could do plenty of damage on their own, so Keith made sure to keep a close watch from the corner of his eye.

“And you hide out here from the other sharks?”

“Yep.”

“Are the sharks not allowed to go in ship graveyards either?”

Keith turned to him in surprise. “No, this place is just convenient for me because there are so many places to hide. You guys aren’t supposed to be here?”

“Yeah,” Hunk shrugged, smiling good-naturedly, “It’s kind of taboo. But it’s no use telling that to Pidge and Lance. They’re always looking for their next big adventure or crazy discovery.”

“But not you?”

“I just want my friends to be safe.” Hunk turned to Keith, and the sudden intensity of his gaze made the sharkboy squirm uncomfortably. “And I will do anything to keep them safe.” There was a moment of silence. Keith braced himself for a fight. He flinched back when Hunk raised his arm, but then was left staring in surprise at the hand the merman offered. “Lance trusts you.” Hunk spoke while Keith watched him in confusion. “He can be too quick to trust sometimes, but I trust Lance. So if he considers you a friend, that’s good enough for me.”

Cautiously, Keith reached out and shook Hunk’s hand, his eyes never once leaving the merman’s face. Hunk stared at him fiercely a moment longer before his face softened into a warm smile. “Help me keep Lance out of trouble, okay?” Keith smiled back a little hesitantly and nodded, still studying Hunk’s reactions closely. Then Hunk let go of his hand and turned to swim into the wreck.

“Hunk!” Keith called out, stopping him just before he could. The other boy turned back to him and the shark swallowed nervously, suddenly unable to meet his eyes. “I-I know I just met Lance, but I care about him. A lot. I won’t let anything happen to him.”

Keith flinched when he felt the hand on his shoulder, but when he looked up Hunk was smiling at him. “Come on,” the merman said. “We gotta make sure he and Pidge didn’t get stuck in a porthole already.”

“Already?” Keith asked as he followed Hunk inside.

The other boy beamed at him. “You can’t tell Lance I told you-”

 

 

Everyone really was acting like a bunch of hatchlings. Pidge would get unreasonably excited from finding the tiniest and most pointless seeming “treasures”. At one point she had discovered a small metal circle with a needle that pointed the same way no matter how you turned it. Pidge had spent almost half an hour trying to figure out what it was for, and when she eventually gave up she still put the useless thing in her bag, saying she’d come back to it later.

Once Hunk was certain the place was structurally sound, he, too, seemed to relax. Although he was inherently suspicious of every human-made thing they came across, he still enjoyed helping Pidge tinker with the weird trinkets, sometimes getting so absorbed in the process that he forgot his own initial fear of messing with human junk.

Lance was less interested in messing with the little things and more excited about the exploring itself. When Keith took them to the giant room filled with shelves and shelves of junk, Lance had the time of his life darting between the rows. Every now and then he’d pop up out of nowhere, tackling Keith. Soon the two of them were chasing each other around, Keith shamelessly letting his own inner child loose.

Lance was just darting around a corner, Keith in hot pursuit, when a voice shouted out, “Watch it!”

Lance, with his lithe tail, was able to twist away from Pidge at the last second. Keith, though fast, did not have the same agility as the merman, and he collided into Pidge head-on.

“Shit!” Keith yelped as they both tumbled through the water. He grabbed onto one of the shelves, snatching Pidge’s wrist with his other hand before she could slam into the wall.

“Let go!” Pidge snarled, and Keith dropped her wrist immediately.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-”

“It was my fault, Pidge,” Lance swam up, looking apologetic. “I should’ve been watching where I was going.”

“Yeah, you should’ve!” Pidge snapped. She looked around frantically, cursing. “Shit, I dropped my bag.”

“We’ll help you find it!” Lance called out, grabbing Keith’s hand and dragging him back down the aisle. He stooped low, scanning under the shelves. Meanwhile, Keith glanced around higher up. His eyes fell on a brown strap snagged on a corner and he grabbed it, pulling the bag into the open.

“Found it!” Keith called. The bag was promptly snatched from his hands and he turned to see Pidge putting it back over her shoulder. “You’re welcome,” the shark bit out before he could stop himself.

Pidge glared and opened her mouth to retort, but Lance beat her to it. “Really, it was an accident Pidge. We found the bag, so everything's fine.”

Keith glanced down at the ground, feeling guilty about his earlier remark. “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to run into you.”

“You’d have to have a death-wish to do it on purpose.” Keith looked up to find the small mermaid smirking at him. His eyes widened in surprise. Was she joking with him? Then Pidge was waving her hand dismissively. “Just watch where you’re going next time.” With that, she swam off, leaving the sharkboy staring after her in confusion.

Keith turned to Lance, bewildered, only to see him mirroring Pidge’s smirk. “She’s warming up to you,” Lance laughed. “If there’s one way to get on Pidge’s good side, it’s to give her some junk to nerd around with. And speaking of junk-” Lance’s expression suddenly twisted to one of curiosity and confusion, “-what’s that?”

Keith turned to look, only to suddenly find himself being pinned to the ground. For a brief moment he panicked, but then Lance was whispering in his ear, “Made you look,” and he remembered where he was and that he was safe. Then Keith realized just how close Lance was, pressed against his back, mouth just inches from Keith’s ear. Maybe he wasn’t so safe after all.

“You suck,” Keith growled, grateful that Lance couldn’t see him blushing from this angle. A smirk curled across his face before he added, “and so does your hold.” In an instant Keith pulled himself free, pushing Lance off him. Effortlessly, he used Lance’s own weight to trip him up, sending the merman sprawling out on his back on the floor. Keith held him down, careful to not lean his face too close to Lance’s for the sake of his own sanity. He pressed his free hand into Lance’s neck, mimicking holding a knife. “This would be the part where I win,” the shark smirked.

“Not quite,” Lance grinned mischievously up at him. Keith cocked an eyebrow at that. The next instant Lance was batting his eyelashes cheesily up at him. “I still have the chance to seduce you,” he winked.

Keith snorted. There was no way he was going to admit how real that possibility was. Instead he made a slicing motion across Lance’s neck and said, “Your plan failed.”

Lance pouted at that, and it took all Keith’s self control not to stare at his lips as the merman pursed them together. The sharkboy was suddenly feeling way too hot all over, so he hastily got off the other boy.

Lance sat up. “My ghost’s still gonna come back and haunt your ass.”

“Even in death I won’t be rid of you,” Keith groaned.

“Nope!” Lance grinned. The next moment he was hugging Keith. The sharkboy’s mind short-circuited. Lance was here in his arms, his skin smooth and cool against him. He could feel Lance’s cheek pressing against his and he was so close, too close.

All too soon Lance was pulling back and Keith was drifting there, looking everywhere but at the merman’s face. His mind raced, trying to think of something to say. Finally it settled on the ever-intelligent and sophisticated phrase: “I’m hungry.”

“Right!” Lance smacked his own forehead. “I was so excited about exploring I forgot to catch you something.” He paused a moment, thinking something over. “Want to come with? Your tail’s getting better so maybe you can catch a few fish too.”

Keith nodded eagerly in response. It had been too long since he’d stretched his fins and gone on a real hunt. That eagerness soon faded, however, as fish after fish slipped through his fingers. In fact, he became so frustrated that he didn’t notice how far he and Lance were swimming from the wreck. Or the fact that they weren’t alone.

Chapter Text

Keith was supposed to be safe in the ship graveyard. He was supposed to be safe from the sharks that beat him. He was supposed to be safe from the mermaids that would kill him on sight. Lance was supposed to make sure he was safe. And maybe he would’ve been, if Lance hadn’t suggested Keith come with him to hunt. Maybe he would have been fine, safe back at the wreck with Hunk and Pidge. But supposed to’s and maybe’s didn’t stop Keith’s blood from gushing into the water that night.

 

 

“Shit!” Keith growled, his fingers closing on empty water as the fish he was chasing darted safely away. Lance laughed, to which Keith responded with a glare. The pout on the sharkboy’s face was entirely too cute.

“How did you survive without me?” Lance teased.

“I could catch my own food before some fishtail maimed me,” Keith spat back.

“And people say I’m dramatic,” Lance smirked. He shot Keith a wink that had the shark frozen in place. “Watch and learn, pretty boy.”

The merman’s eyes snapped to his target, drifting among some seaweed a few tail-lengths away. Lance shot through the water like a missile, his hands outreached. The poor fish didn’t stand a chance. Or rather, the poor fish wasn’t supposed to have stood a chance. But today wasn’t a day where ‘supposed to’ made any difference.

The first thing Lance saw was the teeth. There were so many of them. Rows and rows of jagged needle-points. Next thing he knew he hit the sea floor, a crushing weight on top of him. The air was wrenched from his lungs as Lance gazed up into the horrible face of a shark. This creature had none of Keith’s beauty. It was enormous and monstrous, scowling crookedly down at him. Those glaring yellow eyes sent chills down Lance’s spine.

Barely a moment had passed before the shark was suddenly gone, replaced by an arc of silver and glowing purple. Lance gazed up to see Keith hovering over him, his dagger clutched at the ready and a snarl on his lips. Despite the sharkboy’s tough stance, there was something else in his eyes. Something that looked an awful lot like fear. Or, more accurately, absolute terror.

“Haxus!” Keith growled. Lance stared at the other boy in complete confusion as the gibberish word rang through his ears. His breath was just starting to creep back into his shuddering lungs.

“Keith,” the other shark replied, looking no more happy than Keith himself.

“What the hell are you doing here?!” the sharkboy demanded.

“Looking for you, of course,” the other shark growled bitterly. “Deserters are not tolerated, as you well know.”

“So Lotor sent you,” Keith growled.

Haxus, which Lance now realized was the name of the other shark, nodded solemnly. “It was our punishment for allowing you to run away.”

Keith’s eyes widened and he whipped his head around, scanning his surroundings. “Our?!” he spat, though he wasn’t able to keep the tremor out of his voice.

“Hello, Keith.”

The sharkboy spun towards the sound. Lance shook himself off and leapt up as well, uncomfortably aware of the fact that he was completely unarmed.

“Sendak,” Keith whispered, his face white as a ghost.

The new shark swimming towards them was even larger than the last. There was a gaping hole where his right eye should have been and one of his fins seemed to have been ripped off, replaced by a metal and leather contraption that allowed him to still swim. Lance had thought that Keith’s tail was enormous, but he seemed like a guppy when compared to these two sharks.

“We’ve been searching for a long time now,” Sendak growled quietly. “If only we’d thought to look among the human’s trash sooner. It’s the perfect place for a traitor, after all.”

Lance bared his teeth, cursing himself for not bringing a spear. But why would he have? They were supposed to be safe here. He shivered involuntarily when Sendak’s eyes snapped to him.

“What’re you doing with this overgrown fish?” Sendak smirked. “Playing with your food?”

Keith drifted in front of Lance, nudging him back. He held his dagger out threateningly, his eyes sweeping from Sendak to Haxus. “That’s none of your business,” Keith growled out.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Haxus spoke up, “but it looked like you were hunting together.”

“Was deserting not treason enough for you?” Sendak scoffed. “You decided to go live among the enemy like a coward?”

Keith growled lowly and Lance let out a threatening hiss. Sendak smirked at the merman and Keith moved further in front of him. “Looks like the fishy bites,” Sendak sneered, making a small motion with his hand. In response to the signal Haxus sprang forward, pulling a out a blade and swinging at Keith. The sharkboy just managed to parry the blow in time. However, fending off Haxus had left him distracted.

Lance let out a warning trill as Sendak shot towards them. However, the shark wasn’t aiming for Keith. Next thing Lance knew he was being pushed through the water, Sendak slamming into him full-force. He struggled but the shark’s hands were already closing around his wrists, bending his arm painfully behind his back. The merman snapped his teeth, but he couldn’t reach his attacker over his shoulder.

“Lance!” Keith cried out.

“Don’t,” Sendak warned gleefully as Keith started towards them. The sharkboy froze, rage twisting across his features. Lance could feel rows of teeth brushing against the skin on his neck he trembled slightly.

“Don’t you dare hurt him!” Keith snarled.

“Drop the weapon,” Sendak commanded. When Keith didn’t move he shrugged, saying, “I was starting to feel hungry anyways-” Lance hissed as jaws encircled his neck.

“Stop!” Keith screamed, throwing his dagger down. He raised his hands to show that he was unarmed, eyes wide. “Just stop.”

Lance could hear Sendak’s laughter, low and sinister, brushing his ear. Haxus swam up behind Keith and pinned his arms behind his back. “Don’t do something you’ll regret,” Haxus warned. Keith snarled but made no move to resist.

“This brings back memories, right Keith?” Sendak grinned. “We missed you. Once you left, who else were we supposed to push around? Plus,” Sendak’s tone changed dangerously, “you got us in a lot of trouble. You slipped away on my watch, meaning it was our unit that had to pay the price for your cowardice. Lotor said not to come back unless we were dragging your mangled corpse with us.” Lance let out a threatening trill at that. Sendak chuckled behind him, and Keith shot him a glare that told him to stay quiet.

Just then a hand closed harshly around Lance’s throat. It crushed his gills, cutting off his breath. The merman’s hands shot up automatically, clawing desperately at the source of his pain while he coughed and sputtered. Through the static infecting his mind, he heard Sendak laugh quietly and mutter, “Such pathetic noises.”

“Let go of him!” Keith screamed, writhing around and trying to break the hold that Haxus had on him.

Lance’s vision was quickly going dark, his struggles becoming sluggish. Finally all strength seeped from his aching muscles, his arms falling limply to his sides. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the pressure on his throat was gone. Water rushed blissfully back into his gills as he hacked and sputtered, his lungs burning.

“Lance!” He heard Keith call out. His voice sounded broken.

“He’s just as feisty as you were before we broke you in,” Sendak remarked. There was a wistful fondness in his tone that made Lance want to gag harder than he already was.

“Don’t hurt him,” Keith pleaded, a tremor in his voice. “I’ll do whatever you want. Just let Lance go!”

“No,” Lance rasped out. Sendak had shifted his position since choking the merman. He could now see the shark’s shoulder out of the corner of his eye.

“Lance, be quiet!” Keith snapped at him, his eyes wide with fear.

“No!” Lance growled. “They can’t have you!” With that he twisted his head and sunk his teeth deep into Sendak’s shoulder. The shark screamed in pain and Lance took the opportunity to rip himself free. He dove for Keith’s dagger, fingers closing around the hilt. The merman then shot at Haxus, lashing out with the blade. The shark dodged away in time, but in doing so he had to release Keith. Lance reached out and grabbed Keith’s hand, pressing the dagger into it just as something grabbed him from behind.

The merman managed to slip free, spinning away just as jaws snapped in the water where he’d been moments ago. He saw a flash of metal to his right and flinched back, but Keith stepped in front of him at the last second, blocking Haxus’s blade with his dagger. Sendak lunged at Lance and he dodged, doing his best to lead him away from the other two’s fight.

The merman used his speed to stay just out of reach, Sendak’s hands and jaws closing on empty water each time. However, the shark’s tail had a much farther reach than his arms, so when he spun around and lashed out with his fins, Lance wasn’t able to escape in time.

Sendak’s metal fin hit Lance straight across the face, tearing a gash in his cheek. The merman spiraled through the water, his mind foggy as the world spun around him. The next thing he knew his arms were being gripped so tightly they hurt, Sendak’s face leering just inches from his own.

“Your life is insignificant,” the shark spat. “But your death will be put to good use. You’ll make the perfect little snack!”

Everything still felt like it was spinning, and then Lance could see nothing but endless teeth, gleaming in the fading light. He squeezed his eyes shut, tasting the blood in the water as he waited for the pain to set in. Nothing happened. Perhaps he was numb from shock? Or maybe he was already dead. But then, why could he still taste the blood?

Lance opened his eyes. Instead of Sendak’s face there was Keith’s, his violet eyes wide and unfocused. A cloud of blood surrounded him like a dark halo. Lance’s eyes followed the blood down until they saw Sendak’s teeth buried deep into the sharkboy’s side. Keith coughed quietly, a slight movement that sent a thin trickle of blood curling from his mouth. The dagger slipped from his limp fingers. Lance watched in shock as Sendak lifted Keith up, his teeth still buried in him, and flung the sharkboy roughly to the side.

Just then an ear-splitting scream rang through the water. Lance glanced frantically around for the source, before he realized the sound was coming from his own mouth. Everything felt so distant, as though time had been slowed down. He saw Sendak rear up, ready to strike, and his finger’s closed around Keith’s dagger. Still screaming, Lance shot forward, the shark just barely swerving away in time as the blade grazed his side. Haxus swung out but Lance ducked under the blow, slashing one of his fins. He spun around to face Sendak once more and swung the dagger blindly. The blade missed its mark but the hilt hit his attacker squarely in the jaw, sending Sendak flying back.

Then the dagger was wrenched from his hand and Lance was being pressed face-first into the sand, screaming and writhing and spitting as a blade was pressed to the back of his neck. He could see Keith lying limply to the side, almost completely concealed by the cloud of his own blood. Sendak was saying something but Lance couldn’t hear it. He just stared at Keith, those violet eyes looking back at him.

The sharkboy slowly started to crawl over through the sand, hissing in pain. Lance tried to call out to him. To tell him to hold still. To lie and say that everything would be alright. But when he opened his mouth, the words wouldn’t come. Then Sendak raised his tail and brought it down on Keith’s wound with a snap. A fresh spurt of blood burst forth and Keith shrieked in agony, clawing at the sand under the weight of the tail. Lance screamed too, though whether he was saying words or not, he wasn’t sure.

The next moment the merman was being dragged up through the water, his arms held behind his back and the blade still at his throat. At the same time Sendak grabbed Keith’s chin and forced it up, leaning down to whisper in his ear. Lance could just barely make out the words.

“Your going to lie here,” Sendak growled, “and you’re going to watch me eat your friend. I was thinking about just breaking his neck, but since you’ve both given me so much trouble, I think I’ll take my time. I’ll pick him apart, bone by bone, savoring every tiny little bite. He’ll have me begging to kill him, but I’m going to bleed him out, nice and slow. Make him watch while he’s torn apart and eaten alive. And you are going to lie here like the pathetic coward you are and see it all happen.”

Keith screamed incoherent nonsense, his face twisted in a mesh of rage and pain and fear. He seemed to be trying to struggle, but the blood loss was clearly taking its toll. He couldn’t even sit upright. Sendak grinned widely and ground the sharkboy’s face down into the sand before straightening up. His eyes fell on Lance, and the merman felt as though he had ice flooding through his veins.

He watched in horror as the shark drew closer and closer, writhing around fruitlessly in Haxus’s grip. Sendak’s eye was a yellow slit, his mouth gaping open to show off the very teeth that were about to rip Lance apart. Never before had the merman known such absolute, mind-numbing terror. There was no escape. He was going to be eaten alive, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Everything felt too sharp, too focused. And yet, Lance still didn’t know what nonsense he was screaming out. All he could see were those teeth, inches from his face.

Suddenly, Lance found himself staring at empty water. Then Lance jerked through the water as the grip on his arms was wrenched free. He glanced around numbly and his eyes fell on familiar golden scales, flashing in the sand as Hunk grappled with Sendak. Movement from the corner of his eye revealed Pidge fighting with Haxus. She seemed to have knocked the blade from the shark’s hand, and it was all the he could do now to keep dodging away from Pidge’s knife.

Hunk’s cry brought Lance back to reality, and he whipped around to see Sendak’s teeth buried in his friend’s arm. Blind rage consumed Lance and he shot forward. His fist connected with Sendak’s face, forcing the shark to release Hunk in a gasp of pain. Once Lance started he couldn’t stop, absolutely pummeling every inch of Sendak’s body that he could reach. A broken cry ripped from his throat as he threw punch after punch.

Suddenly he was bowled over, getting a face full of sand. Lance wasted no time in springing back up, but by the time he did Haxus was darting away, dragging the bloodied Sendak with him. Lance’s first instinct was to give chase, but two shaking arms closed around him from behind. The merman whipped around, ready to fight this new enemy, only to see Hunk, eyes big and scared. Pidge appeared next to him, and both his friends were yelling at the same time, screaming out words Lance couldn’t make sense of. Then his eyes fell on Keith.

With a strangled cry Lance ripped himself from Hunk’s grasp, shooting over to the sharkboy. He choked on the blood that clogged his gills but refused to turn away, instead scooping Keith up into his arms as a broken trill rumbled from his throat. Keith didn’t answer the call and Lance let out another trill, trembling so badly he was afraid he might drop the sharkboy. Then his ears heard it, an answering trill so soft that it was barely audible. Keith’s eyes opened just a tiny bit, little slits of purple peering up at Lance. The faintest of smiles twisted around his lips. He reached up weakly, fingers brushing against the merman’s cheek. “Lance,” Keith rasped out.

Lance tried to respond, but instead of words, a sob broke from his throat. He held Keith closer, but immediately loosened his grip when the sharkboy cried out in pain. There was so much blood, flowing endlessly from the deep bite marks. The few bandages back at the shipwreck weren't going to fix this. Keith needed real help. And they were quickly running out of time.

“Coran,” Lance choked out. “We need Coran!”

“Lance, those sharks are still out there-” Pidge began.

“Keith’s hurt!” Lance shrieked. “I’ll get help myself!”

“Lance, wait!” Hunk called.

The merman lay Keith back down on the sand as gently as he could. “You two, watch Keith! I’ll be back in no time, just keep him safe!” Without thinking he pressed a quick kiss to the sharkboy’s forehead before turning in the direction of the shoal. He beat his tail as fast as he could, shooting away.

“Lance!” Pidge yelled out behind him. Lance ignored her, doing his best to hold back sobs as he raced through the water.

Chapter Text

“Coran!” Lance screamed as he shot into the healer’s cave, having to put his arms out to stop himself from colliding with the wall.

The older merman bolted up from the moss bed where he’d been settling down for the night. “Lance?” he asked, brow furrowed in concern. “What’s the matter?”

“Keith needs help!” Lance blurted out. “You have to hurry!”

“Keith?” Coran asked, looking confused. A moment later realization crossed his face. “Oh! You mean the turtle?”

“What?” Now it was Lance’s turn to be confused. “No- I mean yes! It doesn’t matter, just hurry!”

“Alright,” Coran nodded, swimming over to the shelves of supplies. “What am I treating him for?”

“A bite,” Lance said, fidgeting frantically. “A really bad one.”

“A bite?!” Coran’s eyes widened, turning to face the other merman. “Lance, you don’t mean that shark from before is back?!”

“No! I mean yes, I mean- it doesn’t matter! Coran he’s bleeding so much! Please just hurry!”

Coran heard the sob that overtook Lance’s words. Whatever had happened, it was bad, and it didn’t sound like it could wait for Allura and the rest of the shoal to be alerted. The healer steeled himself and began quickly selecting the supplies he’d need to treat a shark bite.

“Hurry!” Lance called again.

“Help me carry these,” Coran ordered. The younger merman darted over, scooping too much up into his arms. “No, give me those,” Coran scolded. “We can’t help your turtle friend if you’re dropping the medicine everywhere!”

“Are you ready?” Lance asked, his pupils blown wide. Coran hefted the rest of the supplies into his arms and nodded. Without waiting another second, Lance shot off. It was all the older merman could do to keep up with him.

 

 

They hadn’t been swimming long when Coran noticed something was off. “Lance!” he called, wishing he didn’t have to waste breath at this break-neck speed. “The coral reefs are that way!”

“We’re not going to the coral reefs!” Lance yelled back, not pausing for a second.

“What?” Coran asked. Lance had just said the other day that the turtle was in the reefs. However, the younger merman didn’t answer him, or even look back over his shoulder. Coran looked around, starting to feel dread grown inside him. Something was very wrong. Then the truth of their destination hit him.

“Lance!” he yelled. “Lance stop!” The other merman ignored him. “Lance!” Still no response. “Lance, I won’t swim a tail-length further if you don’t answer me!”

Just then Lance whirled around so fast that Coran almost collided with him. ”We don’t have time for this!” he snapped. Coran was taken aback by his harsh gaze. Lance was glaring at the older merman, teeth bared.

“Lance,” Coran repeated. “Where are you going?” He asked this despite already knowing the answer. Still, that didn’t stop him from wincing at Lance’s response.

“The ship graveyard.”

“You know that place is off limits!” Coran exclaimed. “No wonder you found an injured turtle, that place is dangerous! There’s a reason no one’s allowed to go there! And-” Coran suddenly paused, realization dawning on his face. “Is that where you were bitten by the shark?” Lance didn’t meet his eyes. “Lance-” Coran chided, but just then the younger merman lost his patience.

“He’s dying!” Lance shrieked. “Keith is in there! In the ‘forbidden’ ship graveyard, and he’s dying because of me! If you won’t help him, then I will! Give me your supplies!”

Coran stared in shock for a moment. Lance reached out but the older merman pulled the supplies away from him. Lance shot him a glare that set Coran’s teeth on edge, but he spoke up before Lance could. “I have never abandoned a patient in need, and I’m not starting now! Have a little faith, my boy.”

The younger merman’s cold expression instantly softened into relief. He gave Coran a grateful smile, then without warning he was darting away again, leaving the older merman to swim desperately after him.

 

 

When Coran spotted Hunk and Pidge, the merman was filled with a stab of disappointment that they’d joined Lance in his dangerous escapade to forbidden territory. However, now was hardly the time to dwell on such sentiments.

His eyes traveled over to the cloud of blood, and extreme confusion overtook him. The injured creature certainly wasn’t a turtle. His eyes swept over the wounded boy’s dark hair and pale limbs. There was so much blood seeping from him that the color of the boy’s scales was completely obscured.

So Lance had found a rogue merman, had he? Though rare, there were mermaids who traversed the ocean without shoals, typically because they’d been kicked out of their old ones. It wasn’t that hard to understand why Lance had lied about the boy being a turtle, either. Shoals didn’t typically mix, other than crossing paths during migration. They weren’t supposed to encroach on each others territory, and lone mermaids were especially regarded with suspicion. If they’d been kicked out of their old shoal, they could hardly be trusted around a new one. Children were taught from a young age to stay away from unfamiliar mermaids. But since it was now evident Lance had a penchant for breaking rules, Coran wasn’t all that surprised that he had befriended a rogue.

The older merman swam over to his new patient, his eyes scanning the surrounding shipwrecks nervously as he did. None of them were supposed to be here. This place belonged to the humans. To make matters worse, the bite in the rogue merman’s side was clearly a shark bite. If the patient wasn’t so gravely injured, Coran would’ve insisted they move to a safer place immediately.

Hunk shifted back when he saw Lance, allowing him to take his place beside the injured merman. Lance smiled gratefully at his friend as he reached out to grasp the injured merman's hand. This movement caused the water to stir around them, making the blood drift just enough to the side-

Coran gasped, dropping the shell of medicine he’d been holding. That large, curved fin poking out from the cloud of blood was definitely not the fin of a mermaid. Instinctively he sprang back, and Lance looked up at him in alarm.

“Coran, do something!” he pleaded.

The older merman just started at him, mouth gaping. Lance was inches away from a shark, holding its hand like it was no more harmless than a sardine. He turned to Hunk and Pidge, but instead of mirroring his own shock, both were looking at him with the same pleading eyes as Lance. Swallowing thickly, Coran gazed back down at the creature before him.

The boy looked so innocent from the waist up, but that tail was unmistakably the tail of a shark, the sworn enemy of their entire species. This injured kid that lay before him was the bogey man of merchildren's stories, the threat to their people's lives, the fear in every merfolks' heart. This was the same bloodthirsty creature that could tear a mermaid to pieces in seconds. This was a monster.

At that moment the shark moved slightly, causing Coran to flinch back. The thing let out a groan of pain, and Coran shivered when he caught a glimpse of its jagged teeth.

“-oran! Coran, snap out of it!”

The older merman shook himself and turned to see Lance gazing up at him, trembling from head to tail.

“Please!” Lance begged. “Help him!”

The look in Lance’s eyes was something no boy of his age should have. He seemed to be on the very edge, consumed by grief. He was looking at Coran as if he were his last hope in the world. And it was that look that sent the older merman into action.

Pushing back every instinct he had, Coran knelt beside the shark. He set to work, doing his best to stem the bleeding while he tried to ignore the giant shark’s tail just inches away. Lance was whispering quiet reassurances and soothing words to the shark as Coran worked. However, if the shark heard him, he gave no sign.

Getting the creature to take the pain killers proved difficult since he had become largely unresponsive by now. Eventually Coran had put them in the creature’s mouth, pulling his hand away from those monstrous teeth as quickly as he could, before stroking down the boy’s throat until he was forced to swallow.

While Coran worked, a sort of cold, numbing feeling seeped through the older merman’s limbs. He wished more than anything that he could become lost in his work as he usually did, everything else in the world fading out as his mind singled-in on the task before him. And he probably could have, even forgetting that his patient was a shark, if it weren’t for one crucial factor: the futility of the task.

Yes, he was doing everything in his power to save the shark. Yes, the shark stood a chance of surviving now. But all that didn’t really matter, since in the end this shark would still need to be killed to protect the shoal.

Coran hazarded a glance up at Lance while he was in the middle of applying pressure to the wound. The younger merman looked utterly destroyed, his face sunken in fear and pain as he gazed at the shark before him. Coran shivered slightly, hardly believing that such a deep and sincere look was being given to a shark. It was clear Lance was not going to like the news that this monster must be disposed of. Coran silently hoped for Lance’s sake that the shark would die here, sparing the younger merman from having to accept the creature’s fate later. Still, Coran couldn’t find it in himself to stop his work. He carried on, the numbness consuming his mind as he did all he could to save a life that he knew was already dead.

Finally he sat back, putting his supplies to the side. “That’s all I can do for him,” Coran announced. “The rest is up to fate.”

Lance let out a soft trill as he gazed down at the shark. Coran froze as he recognized the tone. It was a special trill, meant only for family and close loved ones. The situation was worse than he thought.

The shark fluttered his eyes in response to Lance’s call, though they still didn’t open. Lance trilled in concern before looking up at Coran. “Are you sure there’s nothing else you can do?”

“I’ve done all I can,” Coran answered solemnly. “It’ll just take time now.”

“Will he live?” Lance’s voice was raw and broken.

“I don’t know,” the older merman answered honestly. “He’d already lost a lot of blood by the time we reached him. The only thing left to do now is wait.”

Lance let out a soft sob at that. He gently pulled the shark closer so that its head was resting in his lap. Slowly, the merman began to card his fingers through the shark’s hair. Coran looked away, reaching down to pick up his supplies. He flinched when he heard Lance humming a lullaby. That song was special, unique to their shoal alone. It wasn’t meant to be shared with strangers. But then, mermaids weren’t supposed to swim among shipwrecks, and sharks and mermaids were not meant to be friends. Nothing here was as it was supposed to be.

“I’m heading back to rest,” Coran announced quietly. “It is not safe here-”

“I’m not leaving,” Lance spoke up. The tremor from his voice had vanished in and instant. He was gazing at Coran with cold, steady eyes.

“I cannot allow you stay here,” the older merman sighed wearily. “Like I said, it's not safe.” He gestured towards the shark’s wound.

“I’ll hide with Keith in the shipwrecks. The only reason we were attacked is because we were out in the open. If we stay hidden, we’ll be safe.”

“Lance-” Coran started to say.

“I’m not leaving him.” The younger merman had never looked more certain of anything in his life. His gaze was unwavering as he stared challengingly at the older man.

“We’re staying too.”

Both Coran and Lance turned to look at Pidge in surprise. She glared at both of them, as if daring either one to protest.

“We let you guys get attacked once,” Hunk spoke up. “We’re not going to let it happen again.”

Lance smiled gently at his two friends as he hugged Keith closer to him. “Thank you,” he whispered. Then he turned back to Coran. “Please, don’t tell Allura.” His voice didn’t sound like a plea, but rather had finality in it.

“No,” Coran replied immediately, meeting Lance with the same finality. “I’m sorry, my boy, but this is much bigger than you. Bigger than either of us. You have broken numerous rules that were put in place for your own safety, and you have endangered the entire shoal. There are more lives at stake here then just that shark's.”

Lance stared at the other merman for a long time, his face betraying no emotion. Finally, he said, “Just for tonight.” When Coran didn’t answer, he continued. “Please, Coran, just for tonight. Give Keith one night to rest. Give us all one night.”

There was a long silence. Coran could see the fire in the young merman’s eyes. Lance had no intention of just laying still and allowing the shark to be taken from him. This was going to get very ugly, very quickly. But all that could be dealt with another night.

“Alright,” Coran agreed reluctantly. Lance, Hunk, and Pidge all collectively let out a sigh. “But I’m staying with you. I’ll need to head back briefly and talk to Allura-” Lance hissed at that, but Coran continued over him. “I won’t tell her what has happened, but I’ll inform her that you are all safe and that I’ll be staying with you tonight to ensure that. That way your families won’t worry. And I’ll let her know that she will be given the full story first thing tomorrow morning.” Lance narrowed his eyes at that last part, but he knew Coran wasn’t going to budge on this, so he just nodded in agreement. “I’ll be fetching some weapons as well,” Coran continued. “We aren’t staying all night in dangerous waters unarmed. I’d like one of you to come back with me. We should travel in groups.”

“I’ll go,” Pidge volunteered. “The sooner I have an actual spear in my hands, the better."

“Don’t be too long,” Lance spoke up. “We’ll wait for you in that shipwreck over there, but once you’re back we should move away from this area.”

Coran was not pleased at the notion of having to go in a shipwreck, but he knew it was still safer than being in open waters. “Alright,” he nodded. “Lay low, and stay quiet. We’ll be back as quickly as we can.”

Lance nodded to him before turning to Hunk. “Help me get Keith over to that wreck.”

Hunk propped Keith up under one arm while Lance took his other side. Slowly, they began to drag the shark through the water, who let out a low groan of pain at the movement. At least they knew he was still alive, though at this point he hardly looked it. The shark’s eyes hadn’t opened the entire time Coran was here. His skin was deathly pale, and his breathing was shallow and uneven. Still, some breath was better than none.

Coran tore his eyes away and turned to Pidge, gesturing to her knife wearily. “Keep an eye open, and have that at the ready. We’re not alone out here.”

Chapter Text

Lance swam alongside Keith, nudging him and laughing. Little schools of fish darted around them, sheltering them from the world. Their hands brushed and Keith smiled, warmth spreading through him. Suddenly they paused, and the sharkboy found himself looking into Lance’s eyes. They were more blue than the water around them, and Keith felt completely lost in their depths. Lance was drifting closer and closer. Everything felt soft and warm and good.

Then it began to change. From the corner of his eye, Keith noticed the schools of fish start to thicken, becoming less like a curtain to shelter them and more like an angry swarm. The water grew darker around them and it seemed to heat up, as though the sun was scorching them despite the obvious lack of light.

Keith tried to open his mouth and alert Lance, but no sounds would come out. He tried to tear his eyes away, to look at the mass of writhing scales pressing closer and closer to them, but he was unable to look away from Lance’s eyes. He was frozen on the spot, watching hopelessly from the corner of his eye as the fish surged towards them.

Just as Lance’s lips were about to touch his, the fish swarmed over them. Keith lost Lance in the mass of writhing tails. Finding strength in his limbs once more, the sharkboy lashed out, trying desperately to bat the fish away as his fingers searched for Lance. He opened his mouth to call the merman’s name, but in that same moment, the fish all opened their mouths in unison.

A terrible, ear-splitting scream ripped from the throats of every fish; sounds that no fish should be able to make. Keith’s hands automatically flew up to cover his ears, but the sound still seemed to tear into him, making his very bones shake. He squeezed his eyes shut as he thrashed through the water, hoping, praying, that it would stop.

As if to answer his prayers, the screams slowly started to fade out, one by one, as each fish individually shut its mouth and stilled. After a few moments there was only a single scream left, piercing the water. But this scream was far worse than all the rest. Keith knew that voice. Lance-

His eyes flew open, and the scream immediately stopped. Keith found that all the fish had vanished, as though they’d never been there in the first place. Several tail-lengths away, Lance was drifting on his back, eyes hazy and unfocused. The sharkboy watched in horror as a gash opened up on Lance’s side, blood slowly starting to seep into the water. Then another wound appeared and another, Lance’s life bleeding out into the ocean. Despite this, the merman didn’t react, staying perfectly still with his dull eyes staring at nothing.

Keith tried to swim to him, but the water suddenly felt thick around him and he found himself struggling with each tiny movement, as though some invisible force were pulling him back. He yelled Lance’s name, but the sound came out quiet and muffled.

Then a dark shadow rose up inside the growing cloud of Lance’s blood. Keith couldn’t clearly make out any part of the creature other than it’s jaws. For some reason that part was completely clear, mouth hanging open crookedly and endless rows of teeth gleaming. The shadow dove down, jaws ripping into Lance’s side.

The merman’s eyes widened then, his mouth opening in a scream that was an exact copy of the one Keith had heard earlier. Lance writhed feebly under his attacker, but his movements were sluggish. He was clearly becoming weaker by the second.

Just then Lance’s eyes caught sight of Keith, and he turned his head to him. Keith was fighting furiously against the water that tried to push him back, shrieking despite how muffled his voice was. The sharkboy felt like he himself was being torn apart as he saw the pain and terror shining in Lance’s eyes.

Then, just as the sun sinks beneath the waves at the end of the day, the light faded from those blue eyes. Lance’s body went slack, his limbs losing all tension. The teeth withdrew and the shadow creature seemed to fade into the blood, leaving the merman to fall limply to the sea floor.

Suddenly Keith could move freely again and he shot over to Lance, screaming his name loud and clear. But just as his hands closed around the limp body, the merman exploded into a thousand fish, all darting off in different directions. Keith shrieked in fear, trying to chase after them all, to bring them back, but there were too many, and in no time they had disappeared into the dark folds of water.

Keith was left there alone, not so much as a frond of seaweed in the water around him. The seafloor seemed to have vanished from under him, and if the ocean’s surface existed somewhere above, no light was making its way into the depths. He managed to choke out one single word.

“Lance.”

Then his mouth and gills filled with blood.

 

 

Keith woke up, hacking and coughing, clawing at his gills as he tried desperately to suck in clean water. He could hear voices around him, but they were mostly drowned out by the ringing in his ears. Everything was dark, just like in the dream. Then Lance’s face was flooding his vision, staring down at him with big eyes full of concern and fear.

Keith shrieked, reaching out and latching onto Lance’s head, pulling him down roughly so that the merman’s face was pressed against his chest. He thumped his tail on the deck to flip them over, a scream of pain ripping from his throat as the movement made him feel as though he were being ripped in half. He pressed Lance against the deck, using his body to shield the merman from anything and everything around them. He had to protect him. He had to protect Lance. He had to protect him.

The voices were louder now, though it was still impossible to hear what they were saying over the constant ringing in his eardrums. He could feel Lance thrashing against him, as though trying to throw him off, but Keith just held on tighter, his teeth grit against the excruciating pain radiating from his side.

Then countless hands were on him, pulling him away. Keith screamed in rage, clinging to Lance as though his life depended on it. He thrashed his tail, managing to throw some of the hands off him. However, that movement caused the pain to increase sevenfold. He could taste blood in the water, and his mouth fell open in a silent scream. All at once his muscles seemed to go numb, and his vision began to turn black. Fighting it every inch of the way, Keith’s mind eventually succumbed to the numbing darkness.

 

 

“Shit!” Lance screeched, wriggling from Keith’s crushing grip as the sharkboy went limp against him. “Oh, fuck! He’s bleeding! Coran, do something!”

“What the fuck just happened?!” Pidge screeched, helping Hunk and Coran heave the sharkboy off of Lance.

“You guys hurt him!” Lance yelled angrily. “You made his wound worse!”

“He was hurting you!” Hunk yelled back, his eyes wide and fearful.

“Just help him!” Lance cried out.

Coran was already snatching up his supplies, hurrying over from where he had been bandaging Hunk’s arm. “Step aside!” he called. Everyone moved back to give him more room.

“Shit. Shit!” Lance cursed, rubbing his now thoroughly bruised arms as he stared down at Keith.

Coran’s hands were shaking. He was clearly very uncomfortable with having to be so close to the shark after he had just crushed Lance against the deck. Lance was still in shock from the experience itself. His heart was pounding a mile a minute, but that didn’t stop him from drifting over to Keith, trilling in concern. What the hell had just happened?

One moment Keith had been sleeping soundly in Lance’s arms, albeit with the occasional groan or twitch. The next, he’d grabbed Lance’s head so hard the merman thought his skull would shatter and pushed him into the deck, knocking the breath from his lungs and digging his fingers so hard into Lance’s arms that it had left bruises.

What startled Lance the most, however, had been Keith’s eyes. They were far too wide, pupils dilated seemingly beyond what was possible. In that moment he had looked like an animal being hunted. Lance shivered involuntarily at the memory.

“Help him,” he whispered quietly to Coran.

Coran made no sign that he heard Lance, too busy trying to keep his hands from shaking as he worked to treat and re-bandage Keith’s wound. Lance was about to repeat his phrase when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He jumped, turning to find Pidge hovering behind him.

“Are you alright?” she asked, worry in her eyes.

“Yeah,” Lance choked out, his voice feeling small and feeble. “I’m fine.”

“Why’d he freak out?” Hunk questioned him. His muscles were tensed, as though he was preparing to pull Lance to safety in case the sharkboy should spring up again.

“I-I don’t know,” Lance replied, his speech faltering.

“Maybe it was a nightmare,” Pidge offered. She was tense as well, keeping her eyes trained on Keith.

Lance turned to the sharkboy, staring at him with wide eyes. Keith’s upper body looked disproportionately small when compared to that massive tail. With his eyes shut, lying there motionless, he almost looked fragile. A protective urge suddenly shot through Lance’s veins and he knelt beside Keith, making sure to stay out of Coran’s way. He brushed the hair out of the sharkboy’s face, using his other hand to fan lightly over Keith’s gills.

Before he had been rocking Keith back and forth to ensure he stayed moving and got air in his lungs, but now he could hardly move Keith around while Coran was treating him. He did his best to keep a constant flow of water over the other boy’s gills, humming softly to him. His friends drifted in close, still ready to jump into action at a moment’s notice, but Lance let out a warning trill that made them slink back slightly.

“We’re not going to hurt him,” Hunk said, holding his hands up defensively. “We just want to make sure he’s not going to crush you to death.”

“I know,” Lance sighed. “Sorry.” He gazed down at Keith worriedly. “He scared me,” Lance admitted.

“I don’t think he meant to hurt you,” Hunk said gently, a reassuring smile on his face.

“Yeah,” Pidge nodded thoughtfully. “If he was trying to attack you, he probably would’ve just bit you. It almost looked like he was trying to shield you from something.”

Lance frowned at that, looking back down at Keith’s motionless face. “He’s already been through hell tonight,” Lance hissed bitterly. “Can’t the universe at least let him sleep peacefully?”

“There,” Coran interrupted them, straightening up. “I’ve stemmed the bleeding again and reapplied some bandages. As long as he doesn’t thrash around anymore, they should hold.” The older merman gathered his supplies hastily, drifting a safe distance away from the shark. “Hunk, come over here,” he ordered. “I still need to finish bandaging your arm.”

“Right,” Hunk nodded, swimming to him and presenting his half-bandaged bite-mark.

Coran started to wrap more bandages around him but he glanced over at Lance and Pidge as he worked, frowning when he saw Lance pull the sharkboy into his arms.

“You two should come over here, too,” Coran spoke up. “That way we’re all at a safe distance if the shark wakes up again.”

“No,” Lance said, his tone flat.

“Lance,” Coran sighed. “Cuddling with a shark is not a good idea in the first place, but that one isn’t stable right now, so he’s especially-”

“No,” Lance repeated firmly. “He’ll suffocate if he isn’t constantly moving. Someone’s gotta keep the water flowing through his gills.”

It was then Coran noticed that Lance was rocking the shark gently as though he were a new hatchling. That at least made sense. What didn’t make sense was the soft look Lance was giving the sleeping shark. He’d just been attacked, and yet he was already back at the shark’s side.

Coran turned away in defeat, focusing solely on treating Hunk. Once he had finished he drifted over to Lance. The younger merman tightened his grip on the shark, watching Coran closely. “I’m just going to put a bit of disinfectant on that cut on your cheek,” Coran reassured him. Lance relaxed then, tilting his head and gritting his teeth as Coran rubbed the stinging ointment into the cut.

Once this had been accomplished, the older merman straightened up. “Alright,” he began. “Now that everyone’s been treated, we should set up a guard to watch for danger. We’ll rotate out so that the others can sleep while one stays alert.”

“I’m not leaving Keith,” Lance said flatly.

“I know,” Coran sighed. “You stay there and keep the shark breathing. Hunk, Pidge, and I will take turns keeping watch. But I want everyone to have their spears by them, just in case.”

The others nodded. Pidge passed Lance his spear,and the merman laid it down next to him so that he could use both his hands to gently rock the shark. He continued to hum his lullaby, eyes clouded with worry.

“I’ll take the first watch,” Coran announced. “Hunk, my boy, you’ll be next, then Pidge.”

“Okay,” Hunk smiled wearily at him, and Pidge nodded her agreement.

With that, Coran swam out of the room they were in and headed to the porthole where they had entered the wreck. He eyed the boards above his head suspiciously, afraid they would give in, but they seemed stable enough. He paused at the porthole, clutching his spear close as he peered cautiously outside, scanning the dark waters. There was nothing unusual so he drifted back out of view.

For the millionth time that night, Coran let out a deep sigh. On the one hand, he hoped morning would come soon so that he could get out of this forbidden ship graveyard and away from the imminent danger of sharks. On the other hand, morning meant telling Allura of what had transpired that night. This wouldn’t bother him if it weren’t for Lance. The younger merman was far too attached to that beast. Perhaps there was still a chance that the shark would pass in the night, and they would all be spared this ugly mess.

Chapter Text

All Coran’s hopes for a peaceful end to this ordeal had faded come sunrise. The shark was still breathing, thanks to Lance’s efforts. At most the creature had had a few more fever dreams in the night, what with his constant twitching and occasional muttering. However, nothing extreme had happened with the beast again. Even so, Coran hadn’t been able to sleep. It didn’t seem like any of the others had, either.

“It’s time,” Coran spoke up warily. Lance was giving him a hostile look. “We need to head back and explain everything to Allura.”

“I’m not going,” Lance responded. “Keith still needs me.” Coran didn’t miss the way Lance’s voice broke in that last sentence.

The older merman was supposed to argue with this, but he already knew from all he had seen last night that it would be useless. My god, this was such a mess.

“I already knew you wouldn’t,” Coran nodded solemnly. “Hunk, Pidge?”

The other two mermaids weren’t meeting his eyes, guilty looks written across their faces. After an uncomfortable silence, Hunk finally spoke up. “We’re not going, either.” He was studying the floorboards as though they were the most interesting thing he’d ever seen.

Coran frowned. He could feel his patience waning. They needed to return to the shoal, not stay in shark infested waters. “So,” the older merman began, “what exactly are you all planning on doing? Living out the rest of your days with a shark inside crumbling shipwrecks?”

Lance flared his fins threateningly and Coran winced on instinct. He stared at the younger merman, taken aback. He had never seen the usually friendly and carefree merman act so hostile before.

“I’m not going to let you hurt him,” Lance growled lowly. “He saved my life. He’s not like what you think, Coran. Keith’s a good person. He deserves better than this. And I’m not going to let anyone hurt him.” His last words faded into an angry hiss.

At that moment, fear overtook Coran’s heart. Not because of Lance, but rather for Lance. There was no chance of this going well. Not like this. He was lost for words, trying to figure out something to say. However, his thoughts were interrupted when Pidge spoke up.

“He’s really not that bad.” Lance looked at her in surprise but she didn’t meet his gaze, instead looking steadily at Coran. “I mean, I was just as suspicious of him as you were when I first saw him-”

“Even more so,” Hunk mumbled, an amused smile on his face. He shut up when Pidge shot him a glare.

“But,” Pidge continued, “he’s never done anything to threaten us unless we were threatening him right back. And the guy practically melts as soon as Lance is in sight-”

“Hey!” Lance snapped, cheeks flushing red.

“Oh, shut up,” Pidge snapped back. “You know it’s true.” She turned away from Lance’s pouting face. “What I’m trying to say is, I think he really isn’t a threat. I mean, if this guy is in league with the other sharks, then why would he attack them and try so hard to keep Lance safe? He literally almost died trying to protect him!”

“Plus he told us that the other sharks would always attack him,” Hunk added. “That’s where he got all those scars from. And that’s why he was hiding out here in the first place! He doesn’t want anything to do with those guys.”

Coran frowned thoughtfully. It did seem rather strange that this shark had been bit by another shark. And if what the others said were true-

The older merman shook himself. He didn’t have time to be dwelling on ‘what ifs’. Allura was expecting a report from him, and he still didn’t know how he was supposed to explain to her, or the others’ families, that he had allowed them to spend the night in a forbidden ship graveyard with a shark. Allura trusted him as her closest adviser. What was she going to think when he returned alone with the news that these three were still hauling a half-dead shark around the shipwrecks?

“If what you say is true,” Coran started, “then it was rather valiant of the beast. But Allura, and your families-” Lance, Hunk, and Pidge all winced at that, “are still waiting to hear what has happened back at the shoal. I must tell them.”

“But you’ll tell them that Keith saved me?” Lance spoke up. There was some hope glimmering in his eyes.

Coran felt his gut twist painfully. Still, he nodded. “I will,” the older merman said solemnly. “But Lance, I’m not sure it will make a difference.”

Lance narrowed his eyes at that. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he hissed quietly.

Coran sighed before he spoke. “A shark in our territory is a threat to the shoal.”

“But we already told you, Keith’s not a threat!” Lance protested.

“Even if the others could be convinced of that, this particular shark attracts other sharks to the area, and those sharks clearly are a threat,” Coran gestured between Keith and Hunk’s bite wounds. Hunk winced and unconsciously rubbed at the bandages on his arm.

“So what’s going to happen?” Lance whispered uncertainty.

Coran gazed down at the other merman as he rocked the shark in his arms. He didn’t know how to respond, how he could possibly address the delicate matter at hand. But after a moment of the two’s eyes being locked, Lance seemed to understand.

“No,” he growled, fins flaring out once more as he hunched further over the shark, pulling the beast closer to him. “I won’t let you.”

“Lance, please-” Coran began.

“Please what?” the younger merman snapped. “Please sit back and let Keith be killed?! No.”

“It’s for the good of the shoal-”

“No, it’s so that you can all continue to cower in your delusions. Not everything that’s different is bad!”

“Lance-”

“Just go, Coran.” The younger merman turned away from him, eyes glaring daggers into the wall. “Get out of here.”

Coran paused for a moment, debating whether he should actually leave like this. However, in the end, he really did need to get back to the shoal. He had delayed long enough. Reluctantly, he stooped down to gather some of the medical supplies.

“Leave some of those with us,” Hunk spoke up. His usually gentle smile was strained and uncertain. “We’ll need them.” He was still rubbing his injured arm.

“You can’t carry them all back anyways,” Pidge pointed out.

Coran nodded. He was just turning to leave when he thought of something. He swam back over and tried to pick up the spear that Lance had left untouched all night. Lance’s hand immediately closed around it, and he glared challengingly up at Coran.

“Don’t you trust me?” Lance hissed, his gaze sharpening.

Coran paused for a moment. His eyes looked down to where Lance was cradling the shark. He remembered the sound of those loving trills that the younger merman had sung out to the shark all last night. He thought of the way Lance snapped and hissed when anyone got too close to the creature in his arms. And he remembered how Lance had flared his fins, a gesture that was the last warning before an attack. He looked back up to meet Lance’s gaze and breathed out, “No.”

Something in Lance seemed to break then. The sharpness disappeared from his eyes, replaced by a watery uncertainty. His gaze drifted down to the shark, but as soon as he laid eyes on the creature, whatever doubt Lance had been feeling disappeared. When he looked up at Coran once more, it was with a steady resolve. Without waiting another moment, he handed Coran the spear.

The younger merman no longer seemed angry. He held himself firm, keeping the shark close as he watched Coran with a steady gaze. Whatever he had decided in that moment, it was clear that he was not turning back.

A stab of pain rose inside Coran. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was witnessing the beginning of the end. This shipwreck suddenly felt far too small and cramped, like it was closing in on all sides. With an instinctual shudder, Coran forced himself to turn away from those unwavering blue eyes. He suddenly needed the feel of open water as desperately as he needed to breathe.

Pidge drew back as he passed her, clutching her spear close. Coran waved her down. “Some of you will still need weapons,” he said. His voice sounded tired and frail. “There are sharks beyond the one in this room, after all.” Then with a final flick of his tail, he was gone.

 

 

Coran had barely been gone a moment when Lance sprang into action.

“Hunk, grab those medical supplies,” he ordered. “Pidge, help me move Keith.”

They needed to find new shelter before the shoal could be alerted and sent out after them. Lance and Pidge led the way, supporting Keith between them. They swam as fast as they could while dragging the dead-weight of the shark.

Lance was determined to find the best hiding place possible. After that, he really wasn’t sure what to do, besides wait for Keith to recover. Would they have to run away, leaving the winter feeding grounds behind? But then, what about their families? His heart ached when he thought of his family and how worried they must be. Again. Or would Lance be able to convince Allura to accept Keith into the shoal? He liked the idea of that one, but no matter how he thought about it, he couldn’t think of a way it could possibly work. Allura hated the sharks even more than your typical merfolk due to her past. A stab of guilt passed through Lance at the thought of all she had gone through. But if neither of these options would work, what else was there to do?

Lance forced these thoughts away as they swam. He could worry about a plan later. Right now they just needed to get Keith safely hidden and far, far away from the shoal.

 

 

They had been swimming for more than an hour and it was really starting to take its toll. Hunk had switched out with Pidge not long ago so that she could get a break from dragging the shark along, but Lance refused to leave Keith’s side. His muscles ached as his eyes darted from wreck to wreck, both to search for a suitable hideout and because he feared that at any moment a shark or a member of the shoal would spring out. He smirked bitterly at the realization that he was afraid of running into his own shoal, his kin. How had everything gone so wrong so quickly?

Another half an hour passed before Lance spotted it. It was a small boat, barely noticeable among the towering ships around it. Most of it was buried in the sand, and the parts that stuck out where so barnacle-encrusted that it appeared to be no more than a boulder at first glance.

“There,” Lance whispered, pointing it out. Hunk followed his gaze before nodding at him, and the three swam up to the wreck. For a moment Lance was afraid that there wasn’t a way inside. No portholes were visible on the part of the ship not buried in sand. However, once they swam to the other side, Pidge discovered a long, narrow gash in the boat, just above the sand. With some effort, Hunk and Lance managed to squeeze Keith in through this opening, being careful not to scrape his wounds.

Luckily, most of the inside was sand-free, giving them as much room to move around as could be expected inside a small boat. Lance brought Keith to the farthest back of the two-roomed cabin. He nestled Keith comfortably on the soft sand covering the floor before he looked up at the other two.

For a moment there was silence. Finally, Lance spoke up. “Thank you,” he said to his friends, his voice shaking a little. “But you don’t have to do this. I don’t even know what to do next. Everything’s such a mess. Those sharks are out for Keith’s blood and now our whole shoal is after him too and-”

“Hey,” Hunk interrupted, swimming forward. “We’re not abandoning you, or Keith.”

Pidge nodded in agreement. “I think the shark has proved enough that he can be trusted now. If it weren’t for him, you might be-” She trailed off, a dark look coming across her face as she glanced away.

A heavy silence fell across the room as each person contemplated what could’ve happened to Lance if Keith hadn’t been there. After a while, Hunk broke them out of it. “The point is, Keith is one of us now, and we aren’t going to just abandon our friends.”

For the first time in what now felt like forever, Lance smiled. He could feel himself trembling slightly, overcome with emotion. At the same time, Pidge and Hunk let out a relieved sigh. Lance’s smile could light up the whole ocean, and as long as he was smiling, it felt like everything would be alright.

Chapter Text

Lance was alone in the wreck with Keith, carefully rocking him back and forth to keep the water flowing through his gills. Pidge and Hunk were out catching breakfast for all of them. Although Hunk’s scales were a dead give away, he could at least catch some fish if he snuck up on them. Plus, Pidge would need help carrying all of their catch back.

Lance sniffled a little as he stared blankly at the ship’s bare wall. He’d been away from the shoal less than a day, but the thought that he might not be able to go back was sinking deeper and deeper into his chest. He thought of his father’s hugs, his mother’s warm smile. He thought of Tion’s laughter, the corny jokes exchanged among his aunts and uncles, and the never ending teasing and bickering among his siblings. He missed them. He missed his family.

Slowly, Lance looked down at the shark in his arms. Why did everything have to be so complicated? Why couldn’t he just swim home, arm in arm with Keith, and have everything be fine? Why did Keith have to be a shark-

A pang of guilt rose in Lance’s chest. It wasn’t Keith’s fault that he was part shark. It wasn’t right for him to be treated as an enemy just because of what his tail looked like. Even so, Lance couldn't help but wish that Keith was a merman. Everything would have been so much simpler then. He could be back in the safety of his family’s cave right now, watching his siblings pounce on Keith and wrestle with him the way they always did with Lance. Or he could be chasing Keith around the coral reefs, or daring him to swim out over the bottomless crevice. Instead he was here, clutching the gravely wounded sharkboy as he did all he could to keep Keith breathing.

A strangled sound escaped from Lance’s mouth before he realized it. He felt his shoulders shaking slightly. Keith stirred in his sleep, a low growl coming from his throat. Lance sniffled a little as he reached down to card his fingers through Keith’s hair, trilling soothingly to the shark. Keith seemed to relax under his touch, the tension draining from his face.

Lance sighed. He was so tired. He hadn’t slept at all last night, but he mustn’t doze off. He needed to keep an eye out for danger. He needed to keep Keith safe. He mustn’t doze off. He mustn’t-

 

 

“Lance!”

The merman shifted, rolling over slightly. Did he have patrol today? No, he was certain he hadn’t been assigned anything. It was fine to sleep in. His little brother and sister would just have to play on their own for a bit.

“Oh god, please, Lance!”

That voice was too deep to be his little siblings. And why did they sound so afraid?

“Please, no!”

Something tightened around him and Lance jolted, fully awake. He found himself staring into purple eyes and for a moment he panicked, not remembering where he was. Then his mind finally caught up as he recognized the voice speaking to him.

“Lance-” Keith whispered, his voice breaking. “Lance.”

“Keith!” Lance gasped out. He tried to sit up but he found that the shark had wrapped his arms around him. “What’s the matter, what’s wrong?”

The shark opened his mouth to answer but only a strangled sob came out. He buried his head in Lance’s shoulder and clung tightly to him, his body shaking. Lance reached up and hugged him back, letting out a calming trill as he rubbed circles into Keith’s back.

As he lay there, holding Keith, he felt relief begin to wash over him. Keith had woken up. Thank god, Keith had woken up. But there was still fear clouding the merman’s mind. Why was Keith so upset?

“Keith,” Lance tried speaking to him again. “What’s wrong?”

The shark shook even more violently, but he still made the effort to try and answer Lance’s question. “I-I woke up, and you weren’t moving and-” his words faded into more sobs.

Guilt coiled in Lance’s stomach. “I’m sorry, Keith, I must’ve dozed off,” Lance said, reaching up to stroke through the shark’s hair. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep, I’m so sorry-”

Suddenly Keith pulled away. Before Lance could do anything Keith had grabbed him by both arms, looking him square in the eyes. “Did he hurt you?” Keith demanded.

“What?” Lance asked, still trying to catch up with everything. “Who-”

“Sendak,” Keith snapped. “Did he hurt you?”

“Oh,” Lance replied. “No, I’m fine. Hunk and Pidge found us and they chased those two off.”

For a moment Keith smiled in relief, his eyes crinkling at the edges. Then that smile disappeared and he slumped down. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.

“What?” Lance asked. “Sorry about what?”

“They were after me, but I got you caught up in it.”

“You didn’t know that they would find us,” Lance said, placing his hand on Keith’s shoulder. “This wasn’t your fault.”

“But it was!” Keith protested. “And I couldn’t even protect you!”

“You did protect me!”

“And I did a great job of it,” Keith scoffed sarcastically. “Sendak almost ate you!”

“But he didn’t eat me!” Lance exclaimed.

“You almost died!” Keith yelled. For a moment there was a ringing silence. Keith was trembling from head to tail. Lance’s eyes widened as he let those words sink in. “Lance,” the sharkboy whispered, his voice raw and broken. “You almost died.”

He’d almost died. What with Keith bleeding out, Lance hadn’t really had the time to reflect on that before. He’d almost died. The merman remembered those teeth, those awful teeth, coming closer and closer. He remembered the way they felt, grazing his neck. Sendak’s words rung through his head.

 

“I’ll pick him apart, bone by bone, savoring every tiny little bite. He’ll have me begging to kill him, but I’m going to bleed him out, nice and slow. Make him watch while he’s torn apart and eaten alive.”

 

Bone by bone. Eaten alive. Bone by bone. Bone by bone-

“-ance! Lance!”

The merman shook himself, his vision refocusing to find purple eyes staring at him in concern. He felt light-headed, and everything seemed blurry around the edges.

“Just breath, Lance. Look at me and just breath, okay?”

He hadn’t realized how shallow and uneven his breathing had become. Lance focused on Keith’s gills, trying to match the way they flared open and closed. Slowly, the world started to become sharper and the numbness faded from his limbs.

“I’m sorry,” Keith whispered. “I didn’t mean to- I’m just so sorry.”

Lance felt exhaustion seeping back in to him. He wanted to sleep. To slip into darkness and not wake up again until the world made sense once more. God, he wanted to sleep.

Lance leaned his weight into the sharkboy, resting his head on his shoulder. “I’m tired,” he mumbled into Keith’s hair.

The sharkboy froze, glad that Lance couldn’t see the way his face was heating up. He forced himself to relax, wrapping his arms around the merman. “You can sleep,” Keith whispered. “I’ll keep watch.”

Lance hummed tiredly and Keith was certain that his heart stopped for a moment. “Stay,” Lance whispered, nuzzling his head into Keith’s hair. Yep. His heart had definitely stopped.

“O-okay,” Keith nodded. He let himself be pulled down to the floor. Lance pressed his head against Keith’s chest, his arms circling Keith’s waist while avoiding the heavy bandages on his wounded side. A few moments passed with Lance nuzzling into the shark and Keith doing an excellent impression of a tomato. Finally, Lance broke the silence.

“Keith,” Lance spoke up, his voice slightly slurred with sleep.

“Yeah?” Keith replied, his voice a little too high-pitched.

“I was so scared,” Lance mumbled. “I thought I’d lost you.”

For a moment Keith was silent, not sure what to say. Finally he said, “I’m sorry.”

“Shut up,” Lance growled tiredly.

“Wha-” Keith began, confused and frustrated at Lance’s sudden change of tone.

“Shoosh!” Lance reached up and firmly pressed a finger to Keith’s lips. God, Keith hated it when he did that. It was way too dangerously cute. Lance’s hand slumped down to curl back around Keith’s waist and that was hardly any better. “Just don’t die, you idiot,” Lance hissed, though his voice was soft.

Keith snorted lightly. “Whatever you say, fishtail.”

Lance hummed at that, and Keith could feel the vibrations right against his chest. It’s a good thing he needed to stay awake, because he doubted he would’ve been able to fall asleep like this. Instead he let his fingers stroke through Lance’s hair, catching at the short strands and playing with them. Lance hummed his approval. He really needed to stop doing that before Keith’s face turned red permanently.

It didn’t take long for Lance to doze off, and Keith was finally spared of his sleepy noises. Everywhere that Lance was pressed against him felt so warm despite the relatively cool temperature of Lance’s body.

 

 

Lance hadn’t been sleeping long when Keith began to feel whatever painkillers he had been given start to wear off. His side had been blissfully numb when he had woken, but now a burning feeling was slowly starting to radiate from the deep bite marks. At first it was easy to ignore, but after a few minutes the pain became more and more unbearable.

Keith’s eyes swept the room, and to his relief they landed on some medical supplies in a corner. His tail had already been moving lazily, keeping him and the sleeping Lance drifting around in circles. Now he propelled them over to the supplies, doing his best not to jostle the sleeping merman.

Once Keith’s eyes fell on the different medicines he let out a small huff of distress. He had no idea which of the things in front of him was painkillers. He contemplated waking Lance and asking him, but as he gazed down at the merman’s peacefully sleeping face, he couldn’t find it in him to disturb Lance.

Keith ground his teeth together, wincing as another wave of pain rolled through him. He’d just bear it a little longer. Let Lance sleep as long as possible before waking him. He just had to hold on a little longer-

There was a scuffling noise from the next room. Keith shot backwards, crying out in pain as the movement made it feel as though he was being stabbed in his side. Amazingly, Lance managed to stay asleep. Keith clutched him close baring his fangs as he stared at the entrance to the room. He let go of Lance with one hand, reaching down to pull his dagger from its hilt.

More sand moving around. Whatever was coming in must know that they’re here after Keith’s cry of pain. His eyes darted around frantically, looking for an escape route, but there was none in this tiny room. This was bad.

Keith snarled, baring his teeth as he caught sight of movement at the edge of the doorway. Just then Hunk and Pidge swam into view, arms full of fish. For a moment they paused, Keith looking at them and them looking at Keith.

Pidge glared from the dagger to the unconscious Lance in his arms. Suddenly realizing how bad this must look, Keith quickly sheathed the weapon. “He-he’s just sleeping,” Keith stammered.

Pidge dropped her fish and swam forward. Keith shrank back, pulling Lance closer as he kept his eyes on Pidge’s face, afraid she might take Lance from him. Pidge’s eyes swept over Lance, as though double-checking him for injuries, before her face softened.

“He always sleeps like a lump of driftwood,” she muttered, shaking her head in fond annoyance. Keith relaxed. However, the action sent needle-pricks shooting through his side and he winced, gritting his teeth.

“You alright, buddy?” Hunk asked, setting down his own fish.

“Yeah,” Keith nodded weakly. “Just stings a little.”

“Looks like it stings more than a little,” Pidge commented, raising her eyebrows.

Lance grunted in his sleep and Keith shifted to keep his head from falling off the sharkboy’s shoulder. This action caused another stab of pain and Keith winced once more. “Yeah, maybe more than a little,” he commented.

“Here,” Hunk spoke up, holding out what looked like crushed pieces of coral. “These’ll help.”

Keith smiled gratefully at him. “Thanks,” he said, taking the coral and swallowing it down. He was prepared for a bitter taste similar to the fever spines, but to his luck the coral seemed to be rather flavorless.

“It’ll take a while for it to take effect,” Hunk told him. “Until then, fish?”

Keith eyed the offered morsel ravenously. It’d been so long since he’d eaten. He looked down at the merman sound asleep in his arms. “I don’t want to wake Lance,” he said sheepishly.

“Quit being such a softy,” Pidge said, rolling her eyes. “Besides, Lance could sleep through a hurricane. It’s fine.” Without hesitating a moment longer, Keith took the fish and downed it in a few short bites. True to her word, Lance barely even stirred.

“Another one?” Hunk asked.

“Please,” Keith nodded eagerly.

 

 

At first even chewing seemed to send little sparks of pain from Keith’s side. However, as the minutes ticked on, the pain began to dull. Besides, Keith was starving. He’d almost eaten half their supply of fish before he was finally full. Hunk and Pidge ate far less since they had had a proper dinner last night, and the rest was saved for when Lance woke up.

There was an awkward silence once the sounds of crunching and chewing had faded. Keith fidgeted uncomfortably, keeping his eyes on Lance's face. Finally, Hunk cleared his throat, and Keith’s eyes snapped up to him, unconsciously pulling Lance closer.

“Thank you for saving Lance,” Hunk said. He smiled but his eyes looked tired.

“But,” Keith began, “I didn’t. You guys did.”

“No,” Pidge shook her head. “We wouldn’t have gotten there in time. The only reason we found you two is because the sun was setting, so we went to go find you and bring Lance home. Then-” Pidge paused for a second, a far-away look clouding her eyes, “-then we heard the screams.”

Keith flinched. He remembered Lance’s screams so vividly. He had been lying there on the sand, blood gushing from his side as Sendak approached Lance. The merman’s pupils were hazed over with fear. He had been thrashing around, screaming, begging for Keith to help him. And Keith had just lain there, his vision going in and out of focus while Lance begged for his life. Those screams would probably haunt Keith’s nightmares for the rest of his days.

“The point is,” Hunk broke them all out of their heads, “if you hadn’t kept Lance safe before we got there, he’d probably be hurt now too. Or-or worse. So, thank you, Keith.”

The sharkboy suddenly felt emotion welling up inside his chest. He turned away quickly before either of them could see his face. “Thank you, too,” Keith managed to rasp. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if Lance had been hurt.”

“Sa’ heard my name,” Lance slurred, his eyes blinking open sleepily. He sat up and stretched, Keith reluctantly letting go of him. “Hi guys,” Lance yawned, waving at Hunk and Pidge. Then his eyes fell on the food. “Oh, sweet!” Lance yelped, diving for it. “Keith, have you eaten?”

“Yeah,” Keith nodded. “I had some while you were asleep.”

“You’re lucky he left you some,” Pidge smirked. “The guy looked like he was ready to eat a whole whale!”

“I did not,” Keith huffed. “I was just hungry.”

“So is this all for me?” Lance interrupted.

“Yep, go ahead, buddy,” Hunk grinned. Lance wasted no time in digging in.

Chapter Text

Coran straightened up when he spotted the gathering of mermaids, letting out a huff of breath. He had been hoping to speak to Allura privately, but he was hardly surprised to see Hunk, Pidge, and Lance’s families, as well as what seemed to be most of the shoal, gathered around their leader. Curious faces peered at him as he approached, and there were worried looks being exchanged among the loved ones of the three missing kids.

In the center of all this floated Allura, leader of the shoal. Her dark skin contrasted with the both silvery white of her long, flowing hair and her pearlescent scales. Her eyes were a sparkling blue and her gills were tinged pink. Even with this beauty, she was hardly dainty or delicate. She was a fierce warrior and brave leader despite her young age. Whatever she decided, the shoal would trust and follow.

“Allura,” Coran spoke up, bowing his head slightly in respect. His leader frowned at him in confusion, scanning the waters for the other three. “They aren’t here,” Coran answered her unspoken question.

“Where’s our daughter?”

Coran turned to see Pidge’s parents staring at him in concern. They had their arms around each other, with Matt settled in between them.

“Coran,” Matt spoke up when the older merman didn’t answer right away. “Where’s Pidge?”

“They’re safe,” Coran quickly reassured the crowd. He bit back the ‘for now’ that rested on the tip of his tongue.

“Coran,” Allura spoke up. Her frown had deepened. “You promised me an explanation once morning came.”

“Of course,” Coran responded. “I shall explain. Last night I had been settling down for bed when Lance burst into my cave, quite distraught.” The merman noticed Lance’s family tense up at that. A few of the young children started murmuring, but their parents quickly hushed them. “He told me that the injured sea turtle he had found had been bitten by a shark.” A concerned murmur broke out through the crowd.

“Was it the same shark that bit Lance?” Lance’s mother asked, fear written across her features.

“I-I don’t know,” Coran answered honestly. “But according to Hunk and Pidge, there was more than one shark.”

The crowd let out a collective gasp at that, and a murmur of fear rippled through them. Allura stiffened, but when Coran looked to see if she wanted to say anything, she just nodded at him to continue.

“Lance insisted I come with him to treat the creature, and naturally I wasn’t going to turn my back on a patient in need. We were swimming for a while when I realized that he was leading me to the ship graveyard.” There was another collective gasp, then a frenzy of whispers broke out. They died down quickly once Coran continued. “I tried to stop him then, but Lance was very distraught. Apparently the creature he had been helping was actually within the ship graveyard and not the reefs, as he had initially said. Lance threatened to go on without me, and I wasn’t going to leave him alone in a dangerous place, so I followed.”

“You said that my son was there as well?” Hunk’s father spoke up, his golden scales flashing as his tail beat in worry.

“Yes,” Coran nodded. “Both Hunk and Pidge were by the shark when I got there.” He realized his mistake too late, and this time the commotion that broke out was more than a few murmurs.

“Shark?!” Someone gasped.

“What do you mean they were by the shark?” Pidge’s father demanded.

“Did they kill one of them?” Another person called out.

“I thought you said they were safe!” Lance’s father growled.

“Everyone, please!” Allura spoke up, causing the voices to steadily die down. “Let us hear the rest of the story.” She turned to Coran expectantly, who couldn’t help but feel guilty under her gaze.

“When I got there,” Coran continued, “I discovered that it wasn’t a sea turtle that Lance had found. It was an injured shark.”

Another uproar, only it subsided much sooner thanks to Allura thumping her tail forcefully on the sand. She was staring at Coran with wide eyes, as though she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. If Allura had such a look on her face, then Coran couldn’t bring himself to look at the kids’ families.

“I was in shock, and I wanted to get the kids out of there, but Lance wouldn’t leave the shark, and Pidge and Hunk were determined to stay by his side. The beast had a large bite-wound that was clearly from another shark, and it was mostly unconscious. I fixed up the wound as best I could, then tried again to bring Lance, Pidge, and Hunk back home, but none of them would leave. In the end I agreed to let them have one night to let the shark rest-”

Coran was interrupted by Pidge’s mother as she swam forward, flaring her fins. “You let my child-- each of our children,” she gestured at the other families, “stay the night in a ship graveyard?! With a shark?!!”

“I’m sorry, madame,” Coran replied sheepishly. “I could not get them to come home-”

“So you thought the best idea was to hole up in some human contraption instead of alerting their families to come get them?!”

“Lance would have run away!” Coran raised his voice. His tone wasn’t harsh, but it carried a hint of finality. “Perhaps I could have convinced Hunk and Pidge, but Lance was not going to leave that shark, and if I tried to take him away he would’ve disappeared. He would’ve been all alone out there all night with no weapons and a half-dead shark. I could not leave him.”

Pidge’s mom looked as though she were about to say something else, but as she glared Coran down, she couldn’t seem to find the words. For a long moment she floated there, quivering in rage, before finally lowering her gaze and drifting back to her family. Coran noticed the way she continued to clench her fists.

“I wasn’t going to leave them out there unarmed, so Pidge and I swam back to retrieve spears and warn Allura that we would be gone. As a part of the deal to get Lance to stay put, I promised not to reveal anything until the next morning. I did what I thought was best. I understand that many of you may not agree with me. But my first priority was to keep those kids safe, and this was the only way I could think to do it.”

Coran jumped a little when he suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to find Allura floating next to him. Her face was blank, and her voice oddly controlled as she spoke. “Where are they now?”

Coran huffed out a sigh. “Lance-” he trailed off for a moment, and the crowd seemed to hold its breath. “Lance wouldn’t leave. And Hunk and Pidge would not leave Lance. I’m sure they moved as soon as I left so that I wouldn’t find them again. The three of them are still hiding somewhere in the ship graveyard with the shark.” Coran turned to look Allura in the eyes then, speaking to her directly. “I’m sorry. I tried to get them to come back with me. I really tried.”

Allura didn’t answer. Instead she turned away to address her people, her face still expressionless. It felt wrong, seeing her so calm and devoid of emotion. Coran had expected anger, fear, anything. But this, this wasn’t right.

“We have received grave news,” Allura called out, her voice echoing off the rocks and caves around them. “More sharks have entered our territory, and three of our own are harboring an enemy. We must bring our people home, and patrol the waters to ensure that home is kept safe. I will be leading a patrol in search of Lance, Hunk, and Pidge. I would like two more search parties formed, and the rest of you to organize and patrol around the caves. We must arm ourselves and protect our people. Once everyone has been organized, report to me. Then the search parties will set off.”

With that Allura spun around, heading towards her cave to retrieve her staff. Coran made to follow her, but was held back by a hand on his arm. He turned to see Lance’s mother gazing up at him with her deep blue eyes. A little ways away her husband seemed to be rounding up the rest of their family to guide them back to their cave.
“I am so sor-” Coran started, but she cut him off.

“I don’t understand. Why is Lance harboring a shark?” She seemed utterly bewildered, looking at Coran as if desperately pleading to help her make sense of it.

Coran lowered his voice to address her directly. “Lance told me that the shark had saved his life.”

Lance’s mother looked down for a moment, though the bewildered look never left her eyes. “I just don’t understand,” she murmured.

Coran placed a hand on her shoulder comfortingly. “When we bring your son home, you can ask him.”

The mermaid nodded absentmindedly. She continued to stare off into space as she swam away, following after her family. Coran let out a deep sigh before turning back to Allura’s cave. He swam after their leader, entering into the shadows of her abode.

“Allura?” Coran called out, hovering at the entrance.

“Ah, good, Coran,” Allura spoke up, appearing from a side chamber. “I want you to join my patrol. Make sure you’re armed.”

Coran glanced down at his and Lance’s spear, still held in his hands. He leaned Lance’s spear against the wall. Allura wasn’t paying any attention to him, instead fiddling with her staff as she stared blankly ahead.

“Princess,” Coran said softly. At the sound of that nickname, Allura seemed to snap back to her senses. She looked over at Coran as he swam up to her. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Allura waved him off, drifting over to grab a few shell daggers and strapping them to a sash.

“Whether we find Lance, Hunk, and Pidge first, or run into the ones that attacked them, we will be encountering sharks. Will you be okay?”

“Yes,” Allura spun around, fixing Coran with a challenging glare. She softened when she saw the sincere look on his face. “Yes,” Allura repeated. “I will be fine. There’s no need to worry.”

“I’ll be right there by your side,” Coran said, smiling gently.

“I know you will,” Allura returned the smile. Then her smile faltered. “I know you thought it was best, and I trust your judgement, but-” she trailed off a moment, her eyes seeming to stare at something only she could see. Then she shook herself sharply and continued, “-but how could spend a night next to a shark? How could you allow three of our own to stay in such danger?!”

“I wish there was anything else I could’ve done,” Coran admitted, unable to meet the ferocity of Allura’s gaze. “Truly I do. But Lance has grown attached to the shark. Dangerously attached-”

“Dangerously?” Allura repeated.

Coran gestured to the spear against the wall. “I took that from Lance. I left Hunk and Pidge with their spears, but I felt I couldn’t leave Lance’s with him. I-I’m afraid of what he may do to protect that shark.”

“He’s chosen a shark over his shoal?” Allura asked, her expression darkening.

“No,” Coran said quickly. “I think he doesn’t want to choose. That’s what scares me. The fact that this shark could be so important that Lance actually has a hard time making that choice.”

“How could he?!” Allura growled, her composure breaking down. “How could he stay with that monster?! Doesn’t he know what it’ll do to him the moment he lets his guard down?!”

“He claimed the shark saved his life,” Coran spoke up.

For a moment shock passed over Allura’s face, but then her expression hardened once more. “Impossible.” She thought a moment before continuing. “You said there were other sharks, right?”

Coran nodded. “None that I saw, thank the heavens, but according to Hunk and Pidge, they were attacked by two.”

“This has to be a trap,” Allura hissed. “And they’re all being lured in.”

“The bite on the injured shark was real,” Coran pointed out.

Allura waved her hand dismissively. “Sharks are monsters. They would do anything to get their next meal.” For a moment, fear flashed across her face, and she straightened up to meet Coran’s eyes. “I just hope we get there before it’s too late.” Coran was about to drift forward and comfort her when a voice interrupted.

“Ma’m,” a mermaid called from the cave entrance. “The patrols have been organized.”

Allura’s face immediately went blank again, and she nodded to the mermaid. “Come, Coran.”

With a feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach, Coran turned to follow his leader out of the cave.

 

 

Hunk was sound asleep, soft snores rippling through the water. Pidge was taking her turn as look-out in the next room over. Keith, though nervous at first, had finally convinced himself to rest his head against Lance’s shoulder. The merman had instantly pulled him into his arms, and the sharkboy was currently listening to the quiet sound of Lance’s heartbeat as fingers carded though his hair.

He couldn’t stay too relaxed, though. Sendak and Haxus’s appearance was beyond just troubling. They now knew where he was. As great a hiding spot as the ship graveyard was, it wouldn’t do them any good once Sendak brought back reinforcements. They needed to leave. It was finally time for him to tell Lance the truth.

“Lance,” Keith spoke softly, so as not to wake Hunk or alert Pidge.

“Mm?” Lance hummed sleepily.

“I need to tell you something.”

Chapter Text

“What is it?” Lance murmured. Keith could tell from his tone that he was only half awake, so he reluctantly withdrew himself from Lance’s arms. He took both of the merman’s hands in his and tugged on them until Lance complied and sat upright, grumbling the whole time. Once he had Lance’s full attention, Keith opened his mouth to speak, though he still kept one of Lance’s hands in his own.

“I need to tell you the truth about why I’m hiding from the other sharks.”

Lance’s eyebrows raised at that. “You said it was because they were out to get you since you’re only half shark.”

“And that wasn’t a lie,” Keith reassured him quickly. “It just wasn’t the whole story.” He bit his lip, brow furrowed. Lance waited patiently as the sharkboy thought of how to word what he had to say. “Sendak is- was my unit leader.”

“You’re unit leader?” Lance interrupted confusion clouding his eyes.

Keith sighed, not sure where to even begin. “There’s an army-”

“What?!” Lance straightened up, alarmed.

"Lance, please, just let me finish. When I’ve said everything you can ask me whatever you want.” The merman nodded, still staring at Keith in bewilderment. The sharkboy glanced away, finding it difficult to hold that piercing gaze. “Like I said, there’s this army of sharks.” A strangled noise came from Lance, but true to his word he didn’t try and interrupt.

“I was one of their soldiers,” Keith continued. “I spent most of my life being raised in their ranks. I was- good at what they did. Fighting. Killing-” he trailed off here, eyes clouded over. Lance just stared at him in shock. “I-I’ve never killed a merperson before. But that was the goal. Throughout time sharks have lived mostly apart from one another while merpeople lived together in their shoals... Have you heard the story of Zarkon?”

“The monster that tried to destroy the ocean?” Lance responded automatically.

Keith wrinkled his nose at that. “Yeah, well, they tell the story a little differently among sharks. But from what I’ve seen, I’m willing to bet your version is more accurate-”

“Keith,” Lance interrupted. “What does this have to do with the shark army?”

“Right,” Keith shook himself. “Sorry. It’s, um- It’s just that that story is the reason for the army being formed in the first place? In our version,” he glanced away for a moment, eyes darkening. “In the sharks’ version, Zarkon is this great hero that was going to make the ocean a paradise for all shark-kind. But then the merman Alfor rose against him and slaughtered him in cold blood. Ever since then sharks were forced to live apart, never understanding the true potential of their power if only they banded together, whereas mermaids lived in their shoals and used their combined strength to rule the oceans in tyranny over the sharks.”

Lance scoffed at that. “We live in shoals to protect ourselves from the sharks, and any other threats. Does that seem like people who are ‘ruling in tyranny’ to you?”

“I know,” Keith sighed. “I understand that now. But it was easy to believe the stories back then. I never really saw merpeople while in the army, I was just told all these terrible things about them. And it didn’t help with what had happened to me before the army took me in-” Keith shook himself suddenly, almost looking angry for having let those words slip. Lance wanted to ask him about it, but he pushed on before he could.

“The point is, when you’re told all these terrible things about certain people, but never actually see the people yourself to have any of it proved wrong, it’s just easy to believe. And like I said, I was good at what I did. It felt like I had a purpose, had a place I was meant to be. I wasn’t ever really accepted by the others, since I wasn’t a full-blooded shark. I was always regarded with suspicion and contempt. But I worked harder than any of the others to make myself useful, so in the end nobody could deny my talent.”

Lance swallowed thickly. That sounded awful. Growing up around people that hated and mistrusted you, but still having to prove yourself useful to them? His thoughts were interrupted as Keith continued his story.

“Sendak was one of the top generals in the army, just shy of Lotor’s personal generals. I was assigned to his unit as soon as I completed basic training. Everyone in that unit, especially Sendak, despised me. They hated having to ‘babysit’ the bastard runt of the army. Ironically, it didn’t help matters that I was just as capable as them. They had worked for years to get where they were, whereas I was assigned there first thing, and only being a halfbreed at that. They sent me on the worst missions, always kept me at the front-lines, and used me as the so-called demonstration for any combat practice. I just had to grit my teeth and bear it, doing everything I could to prove them wrong and continue to come back successful every time.”

Keith paused to take a deep breath. “One day, they went too far.” With shaking hands, he reached down and curled his fingers around the fin with the large chunk missing from it. Lance’s eyes widened as realization dawned on him. “I had just gotten back from a particularly rough mission when Sendak invited me to spar with him. It was strange because before then he barely talked to me other than to give me orders. However, I couldn’t refuse without it being insubordination, so I went along even though I was exhausted. It started out simple, the way actual sparring is supposed to go. Then Sendak mentioned something about Lotor having said he was impressed with the results I was getting. I didn’t answer him because I was hoping he would just move on from the topic, but he only seemed to get angrier. He started calling me a traitor, said he knew I was just going to betray them all one day. His attacks got much harder, and he seemed to be working himself into a rage. At one point he had me pinned under him, and he asked where my loyalties lay. I answered honestly, and told him with Lotor.”

Keith’s nose scrunched up here, as though the words left a bitter taste in his mouth. It would’ve been adorable if the situation weren’t so serious. Keith shook himself, and Lance didn’t miss the shudder that rolled through his body before he said his next words. “Sendak snapped. He started biting my tail and slicing me up, screaming about how I was a liar and I didn’t deserve the tail of a shark. He said he was going to rip my tail off for me-”

Another shudder rolled through Keith. Lance reached out and removed Keith's hand from his tattered fin, squeezing it reassuringly. The sharkboy squeezed back, a faint, grateful smile curling around his lips. He took a breath before continuing on.

“I-I couldn’t fight back. You aren’t allowed to attack your leaders, obviously, so if I had ever fought back during any of the times my superiors had injured me, then it would’ve been considered treason and grounds for execution. I think that’s what Sendak wanted. He wanted me to fight back. To prove him right, and finally be rid of me. But I wasn’t going to give him that satisfaction. So I just had to lay there while he- while he tore me apart.”

Keith curled his tail in close to his body. He was trembling all over, his eyes unfocused, as though they were staring at something Lance couldn’t see. Lance let out a soft trill then, tired of just sitting quietly and listening to Keith recount these horrible events. He reached out and pulled the sharkboy against his chest, humming gently into Keith’s halo of hair. Slowly, Lance reached down and began to stroke Keith’s tail.

The sharkboy froze, his frame going stiff. For a moment Lance worried he had gone too far, and he was about to withdraw his hand when suddenly Keith went limp against him. All tension drained from his body in an instant, and Lance would’ve worried that maybe Keith had passed out if it weren’t for the subsequent growl that rumbled from his throat. It wasn’t scared or hostile, like the other times Lance had heard the boy growl. There was something soothing to it, something peaceful. It seemed to come from deep within Keith’s chest, and spread throughout his body, the vibrations tangible from where Keith’s skin touched Lance’s. The merman gazed down at the other boy to find that his eyes were a hazy sea of violet, relaxed and unfocused.

“Keith?” Lance whispered. His only response was another rumbling growl. He couldn’t do much more than stare in awe at the sharkboy as he continued to stroke his tail, fingers brushing over the lines of his scars.

Keith was slowly arching backwards, his back arching up as he exposed the soft underbelly of his tail. Lance swallowed thickly, reaching out to start stroking the sensitive skin there. There was something far too intimate about this, sending alarm bells off in his head. However, as soon as he felt the vibrations of another gentle growl rolling through Keith’s body, he threw caution to the wind.

Keith almost seemed to be in some sort of trance, his body still besides the slight flutter of his gills and the way he slowly arched up into Lance’s fingers. His eyes didn’t take in any of their surroundings, their gaze blank and blissful. The skin on the underside of his tail was lighter and softer than the rest, almost matching the paleness of Keith’s upper body. Lance couldn’t help but notice the way the gray of Keith’s tail faded seamlessly into the soft pink of his hips. It was- beautiful. Keith was beautiful.

Lance shook himself harshly then. No. No way. Keith was his friend, and he had just told him a very dark story about his traumatic past. Lance was not spending his time ogling his friend.

With one last stroke of Keith’s tail, marveling at how smooth the skin was between the ridges of scars, Lance finally pulled his hands away. He reached out, hesitating a bit before placing his hand on Keith’s shoulder, shaking him gently. At first the sharkboy didn’t respond, only drifting onto his side from the slight force of Lance’s movements. Then he blinked a few times, eyes refocusing. For a moment a panicked expression crossed his face and he shot upright, his violet eyes dark and wild. Lance let out a startled trill at the sudden movement, Keith’s gaze snapping to him. In that moment, Lance didn’t even recognize the boy in front of him.

“I-I’m sorry!” the merman stammered. “I didn’t- Keith, are you oka-?”

Before he could finish Keith had slumped against him, hiding his face in Lance’s neck and wrapping his arms around him. He was shaking slightly. “You scared me,” he whispered, his voice so quiet Lance barely heard him.

“I’m sorry-”

“No,” Keith sighed. “It’s okay. It was just instinct taking over. I’m sorry I startled you.”

“Instinct?” Lance questioned, bringing his arms up around Keith.

“Mmm,” Keith hummed, and for some stupid reason Lance’s heart stuttered for a second. “One of the first things they teach you in basic training is to never let an enemy flip you on your back.”

“Why?” Lance asked, curiosity getting the better of him.

“Well, the more obvious reason is you don’t want to give your enemy the chance to slice open your underbelly. But there’s also a chance that... this could happen.”

“This?” Lance prompted further.

Keith sighed. “It happens sometimes when a shark is flipped on their back. We go into a sort of trance-like state. No one really understands why- But it’s very dangerous if your in the middle of a fight. Then you’d be completely at the enemy’s mercy.”

“I’m sorry,” Lance repeated quietly.

“No,” Keith shook his head against Lance’s shoulder. “Don’t be. It was- that was-” Keith sighed in frustration, and Lance could see that the tips of his ears were red, though the rest of his face was still hidden. “-nice,” the sharkboy finally finished in a huff. "It was nice. I’ve never really- No one’s ever-” his voice trailed off and he let out a frustrated growl burying his face deeper into the crook of Lance's neck.

“Yeah,” the merman breathed out, rubbing circles into Keith’s back. “Nice.”

The stayed there in silence for a while, holding each other and listening to the soft swish of water passing through their gills. Finally Lance cleared his throat, breaking the quiet.

“What happened after Sendak attacked you?”

Keith pulled away from him, and before Lance could stop himself he had let a small, disappointed trill leave his lips. Lance’s face turned bright red then, but Keith just smiled softly at him and reached out to intertwine their fingers the way they had been before. There was a brief pause before the shark answered.

“I must’ve passed out at some point. I remember slipping in and out of consciousness, feeling the way Sendak's teeth tore through my skin.” Lance squeezed his hand comfortingly as a shiver snaked down Keith's spine. “All I could see was blood, and every time I woke up I’d just choke on it until I passed out again. At one point I woke up and Sendak was gone. I was just lying there on the ocean floor where he’d left me. I tried to move, but the pain was so intense that I blacked out instantly.”

Anger was boiling from deep within Lance’s gut. How dare Sendak lay a finger on the boy sitting before him. How dare he! If the merman ever saw that shark again, Lance vowed he would make him pay for every single time he had ever hurt Keith. Lance would not rest until Sendak regretted ever so much as looking at Keith the wrong way. He didn’t realize he was snarling and flaring his fins until he heard Keith hesitantly say, “Lance?”

Lance’s eyes refocused and he saw the sharkboy staring at him in concern. “Sorry,” Lance mumbled, looking away. “I was just thinking about how sorry Sendak’s going to be that he ever hurt you.” There was a beat of silence. Then suddenly Keith burst out laughing. “What?!” Lance huffed. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing,” Keith giggled, bringing his hand up to cover his grin. Lance had to resist the urge to pull it away. “It’s nothing. I don’t even know why I’m laughing. I guess I’m just not used to people caring.”

“Well, I care!” This time Lance did pull Keith’s hand away, grasping both of the sharkboy’s hands in his own and turning Keith so they were face to face. Keith’s eyes widened, the grin fading from his face as he stared back at Lance. It was then that Lance noticed how close their faces were. The merman swallowed nervously, and Keith’s eyes darted down to follow the motion of his throat before shooting back up again. When next Lance spoke, his voice came out a lot softer. “I care.”

“Lance-” Keith whispered.

A loud snore from Hunk made both of them jump, whirling around as the yellow-scaled merman turned over in his sleep. Both of them stayed frozen in place, watching to make sure Hunk was still asleep, before turning back to each other.

“So,” Lance said, his voice coming out shaky and thin. “You were saying?”

“Huh?” Keith asked, blinking in confusion. Then his eyes cleared and he quickly backed out of Lance’s space. “Oh, right,” he said. Lance didn’t miss the disappointed look that flashed across the sharkboy’s face. He barely had time to wonder why before Keith was speaking again. “The next time I woke up, Shiro was there.”

“Shiro?” Lance asked.

“He’s the army’s top soldier. He has the nickname ‘Zarkon’s Greatest Weapon’.” Lance was just deciding he didn’t like this guy when suddenly Keith’s face softened. Lance stared at the other boy in confusion, but Keith just kept on talking. “I’d heard so many stories about him before. He’s a legend. But I’d never met him until then. Apparently, that day just so happened to be the day he was visiting our unit to help give advice and run training exercises. I found out that Sendak had been so upset because Shiro had been sent there by Lotor to mentor me specifically. Only he wasn’t like the others.”

Lance gave Keith a questioning look at the soft smile on the other boy's face. “When Shiro got there, he found me lying there in my own blood. Sendak’s plan to get me to fight back and thus commit treason failed, so he tried to explain away my wounds by saying I had come back from my mission like that. That way he could avoid the blame and try to make me seem incompetent.”

Keith’s expression darkened again for a second there, but then it faded back into that fond smile. “Shiro didn’t believe him, but he had no proof otherwise. He got me the medical help I needed before I bled out. He saved me. And then he saved me again.”

“Again?” Lance asked. Whoever this Shiro was, Lance was eternally grateful to him.

“The stories about him weren’t all true,” Keith said, a smirk curving his lips. “He was indeed an amazing fighter, and without a doubt the best soldier in the army. But he was hardly the loyal subject everyone hailed him as. He despised Lotor, and he wasn’t exactly trying to hide it. It’s thanks to him that I began to question Lotor’s motives, and all the bullshit stories I’d been fed about his ‘righteous’ army. Then, a few months in to my apprenticeship with Shiro, he confided in me that he was a double agent, working with a resistance group known as the Blade of Marmora.”

Keith’s grin was only spreading as he spoke, a kind of fire in his eyes that left Lance breathless, transfixed on those burning purple shards. “I’d heard of the Blade before. They were supposed to be a group of cowardly deserters and traitors. But Shiro told me the truth of how they were working to take Lotor down. When I found this out, I wanted to help too. To become a double agent like Shiro.”

A pout crossed Keith’s lips suddenly, his brow furrowing. It took every ounce of self control that Lance had not to grin at how cute it was. “But Shiro said that would never work,” Keith continued, oblivious to Lance’s inner struggle. “Everyone already automatically regarded me with suspicion, thanks to me being a halfbreed. I tried to fight him on it, but he wouldn’t budge.” Lance snorted then. This Shiro must be a formidable person indeed if he could withstand Keith’s stubbornness. Luckily Keith didn’t hear his exclamation, seemingly too wrapped up in his own memories.

“Then Shiro said, even though I couldn’t work to help take down Lotor, the Blade could get me out. They could help me escape from the army, from Sendak. Things were getting more and more dangerous for me. Shiro had got wind of rumors that Sendak was plotting a way to ‘purify the bloodline among our ranks’. It was hardly difficult to figure out what he meant by that,” Keith spit out those last words bitterly. Lance himself bristled. Sendak better hope he never ran into them again. Giant scary shark guy or not, he was going to regret everything he’d done to them.

“I refused at first,” Keith said, brow furrowed. Lance looked up at him in surprise. “It felt like I was running away, going against everything I’d worked so hard to accomplish. I didn’t want to give in and let Sendak have his way. But Shiro pointed out that if I stayed and was killed, Sendak would win anyways. Better to run and fight another day than to give in.”

Keith was glaring at the floor, though his expression looked more pained than angry. Lance couldn’t imagine what that must have been like. To be raised from the time you were just a child to believe in undying loyalty to a cause, to be led to believe that all those who deviate from the cause were cowards. Not to mention how he had to work ten times as hard as anyone else to prove himself, over and over again. Then, in the span of a few short months, to be asked to throw it all away and do the one thing he was never supposed to do. Even now Keith seemed to be angry at himself for deserting the army, even though he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was the right thing to do. He didn’t owe them anything. But it was hard to erase everything you’d ever been raised to believe. Lance felt himself shiver involuntarily.

“So they got me out,” Keith’s words broke through his thoughts, “and I’ve been on the run ever since.”

“How long have you been running from them?” the merman asked.

Keith winced at the phrase, as though he hated the thought of running from anything. “A little over a year,” he finally grit out. “Which reminds me of why I told you all this in the first place. We have to move, Lance.”

“Move?” Lance questioned.

“Yes,” Keith nodded firmly, eyes determined. “Now that Sendak and Haxus know I’m here, they’ll be coming back with reinforcements. We aren’t safe here anymore. We should leave as soon as possible, before they bring the whole army down on us.”

Chapter Text

“What about my family?” Lance asked. He was staring at Keith with wide eyes, fear seeping beneath his skin.

Keith looked away, glaring down into the sand beneath them. Right. That. Lance had a family that he loved and cared about. How was he going to convince the merman to come with him? There was no way he was leaving Lance on his own, not now that Sendak knew about him. He would do whatever it took to protect Lance.

“What about my family, Keith?” Lance’s tone was harsh, causing Keith’s eyes to snap up to him. Apparently the merman had not taken Keith's silence well.

The sharkboy bit his lip, trying to think carefully of what he should say next. “Sendak now knows about- about you and me. Th-that we’re friends.” He hated the way he stuttered over his words, hated the way his face heated up. But most of all he hated that little voice in the back of his head telling him that he wanted to be more than Lance’s friend. “You aren’t safe here. If he can’t find me, then he’ll go after you next.”

For a moment the sharpness faded from Lance’s eyes. He seemed to be remembering when Sendak had attacked him earlier, and Keith noticed the way he shivered slightly. Then Lance shook himself, gaze hardening once more. “So let me get this straight. You’re telling me an army of sharks with the sole purpose of killing mermaids is on its way here to the shoal, and you just want me to leave?!”

A part of Keith knew he was being unreasonable. Of course Lance cared about his family, about his shoal. It made sense, logically speaking. But Keith still didn’t quite understand it. He didn’t have a loving family or supportive shoal he wanted to protect. All he had was Lance. So, even though he knew it was selfish, all he wanted to do was protect was Lance, the rest of the ocean be damned. Yes, he was warming up to Hunk and Pidge, but he still would sell out practically anyone and everyone if it meant keeping Lance safe. And if they didn’t leave soon, Lance sure as hell wasn’t going to be safe.

“Sendak isn’t after your family,” Keith grit out. “He’s after me. So if we leave-”

“What, he’ll just swim on by and not take the opportunity to kill everything he sees? Even if he somehow missed our caves completely, thanks to you and me, there are now members of my shoal patrolling the ship graveyard even as we speak! They second he finds other mermaids, he’s going to slaughter them!”

“And if we stay he’s going to slaughter us!” Keith shouted.

Hunk groaned sitting upright. “Guys, wha-”

“Oh, so it’s you or them, is that it?!” Lance hissed, ignoring his sleepy friend.

“No, it’s you or them!” Keith yelled, grabbing Lance’s face so he could glare directly into his eyes.

For a moment there was complete and utter silence. Pidge had appeared in the doorway to see what the commotion was. She and Hunk drifted silently, staring in confusion at the spectacle before them. Lance was staring at Keith with wide eyes, seemingly shocked by his outburst.

Then the moment passed, and Lance was glaring darkly at him once more. He reached up and yanked Keith’s hands away from his face. “So that’s it. Me or them, huh?”

Keith held his gaze, glaring back. ‘You’re all that matters,’ he thought, though he bit the words back.

“Well, I choose them,” Lance growled. He straightened up, swimming towards the door.

“Lance!” Keith cried out. He reached out to try and catch Lance’s wrist but the merman swatted him away. “Where are you going?”

“To alert the shoal of what’s coming!” Lance hissed over his shoulder. He brushed passed Pidge as Keith swam after him.

“Lance, wait!”

“Don’t follow me,” the merman growled, shoving Keith back. For a second his glare faltered, something like worry shining through. “You’re still hurt, you idiot.” Then he was gone, sliding out through the slit in the side of the boat.

“Lance!”

“Hey,” Pidge latched onto Keith’s arm, pulling him back before he could follow. She was surprisingly strong for her size. “I don’t know what the hell just happened, but Lance is right. The shoal’s out searching for you right now, and you’re in no condition to be swimming around.”

“What did he mean by ‘alert the shoal’?” Hunk called, joining them in the other room. “I’m pretty sure Coran already did that.”

“No,” Keith sighed, dragging a hand down his face in frustration. “It’s something else.”

“What else?” Hunk asked.

“You guys said something about our families?” Pidge added, looking worried.

Keith groaned, slumping down against the sand. The painkillers were starting to wear off again. It wasn’t like he was going to get out of telling Hunk and Pidge now that they’d heard all that. He steeled himself to tell the story all over again, albeit a briefer version with a lot less personal details.

 

 

The three search parties had all started from the wreck Coran lead them to; the last place Lance, Hunk, and Pidge had been seen. They split off from there, fanning out in different directions. Many of the missing kids’ family members had joined the search, including Lance’s mother leading one search party, and Hunk’s father leading the other.

Despite his mother’s protests, Matt had volunteered to join the search, and he was currently inspecting a rock outcropping at the base of a ship, checking for caves. He could hear Allura and Coran talking nearby, going over what was to be done if they found the three kids and shark. The other members of their party, a couple of mermaids named Nirm and Plaxum, were busy checking through the ship Matt was outside of.

Matt sighed in frustration as the rocks revealed no hiding places. They had been searching almost five hours now and still they hadn’t found even a hint at where the missing mermaids had gone. Worry was eating away at Matt’s insides as he thought of Pidge, out there with a shark. What if this shark they were with tried to eat them? Or what if they’d run into the other sharks that had attacked them? He let out a frustrated trill as he swam to the next shipwreck alone, ignoring Allura’s earlier orders to stay close together.

It was dark in the wreck, and Matt felt the familiar feeling of dread seep into him at entering the unknown. Despite this, a weak bit of excitement curled inside him too. Pidge was hardly the only one in the family that loved adventure, and Matt felt a bit hurt that she hadn’t trusted him enough to tell him about her secret escapades to the ship graveyard. Then again, if she had he probably would have tried to stop her, no matter how exciting the prospect of exploring forbidden territory was. She was still his little sister, after all, and her safety came first. Only she definitely wasn’t safe right now, getting into fights with sharks and hiding out in shipwrecks. Why the hell was she always like this?

Another frustrated trill left Matt’s lips as he swam deeper into the ship, his eyes becoming adjusted to the dim light. It was at that moment that he froze, a shiver rolling down his spine. Something was watching him. He could feel its eyes on him, burning into his skin. Matt cursed under his breath, hands closing around his spear. Why didn’t he just wait for the others?

Matt clutched his spear close to his body, slowly turning to see if he could spot any movement. All that greeted him was an eerie stillness. Still, the feeling of being watched didn’t go away. Moving slowly, Matt began to inch back towards the exit.

Then he heard it. The faintest swish of fins, coming from somewhere to his right. Without a second thought, Matt hurled his spear at the sound. It embedded itself in the wall over a rusty chest, and a startled yelp rang throughout the room. Instantly Matt pulled out his dagger, shooting at the trunk with and angry cry.

“Matt, Jesus, it’s me!”

The merman stopped himself just in time, finding large blue eyes peering out at him from behind the trunk. “Lance?!” he gasped, lowering his knife.

“You almost stabbed me!” the other merman squawked indignantly, swimming into the open.

“Why the hell were you spying on me?!” Matt barked. His eyes whipped around, scanning his surroundings rapidly. “Where’s Pidge?!”

“She’s safe,” Lance replied. “Don’t worry. And I had to make sure you were alone before I came out.”

Matt narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Why?”

“Because Allura would probably personally skewer me right now. That is, if my mother didn’t beat her to it.”

“I’m pretty sure my mom would happily stab you as well at the moment,” Matt added, a sly grin on his lips.

“Oh great, there’s a line,” Lance sighed, rolling his eyes.

“Why isn’t Pidge with you?” Matt asked, his mind quickly getting back on track. “What happened?”

“Coran already told you about the whole injured friend thing and stuff, right?”

“Injured frie- the shark?”

“Yeah,” Lance nodded. “His name’s Keith and he’s pretty awesome.”

“The shark is?” Matt replied, bewilderment clouding his features.

“No, the turtle,” Lance scoffed. “Yes, the shark!”

“And Pidge is with this shark?”

“Yes.”

“Alone?”

“No,” Lance shook his head. “Hunk’s out here too. They’re both fine, Matt. Keith isn’t going to hurt anyone.”

Matt let out an unconvinced snort at that. Lance narrowed his eyes but Matt just continued on. “But there are other angry sharks around, right? Did Pidge get hurt?! Is she alright?!”

“Matt,” Lance placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “She’s fine, I promise. Keith and Hunk were the only two who got hurt, and luckily Hunk’s wound wasn’t too bad. Well,” mischief glinted in Lance’s eyes for a moment, “I do have this badass battle scar. You can tell I’ve been through some pretty tough stuff, right?” The merman pointed at a slight scar on his cheek, the wound already healing over. Matt rolled his eyes, though he did still return Lance’s grin. However, it was only a moment before his brow furrowed once more.

“Take me to Pidge.”

“I can’t-”

“Lance!” Matt interrupted, grabbing the merman by both shoulders. “I want to see my sister.”

Lance wasn’t meeting Matt’s eyes, trying and failing to keep a guilty look off his face. “I told you, she’s fine-”

“Great!” Matt piped up sarcastically. “Guess I have nothing to worry about then! Oh, except for the part that my little sister is in a forbidden ship graveyard crawling with sharks!”

“Look, I don’t have time to argue with you-”

“Good, because my time for arguing ran out last night when Pidge didn’t come home!” Matt snarled.

Lance flinched back a bit. He’d never really seen Pidge’s brother get angry before. He was usually a care-free goofball, joking around and getting Pidge into trouble with his weird schemes (though it’d be unfair to say Pidge didn’t help devise most of the schemes herself). Lance had been hoping that approaching him would go smoother than this.

“I’ll try and talk Pidge into going back to the shoal, okay?” Lance said, still not meeting Matt’s fierce gaze. “But there’s something really important I need to tell you!”

“No, you will bring Pidge home!” Matt growled, flaring his fins. “And Hunk too! And you’ll get your own scaley ass home before your parents die of worry!”

Further guilt clouded Lance’s vision. “Matt, I can’t just-”

“Lance, if my sister isn’t home by sunset, I am going to whoop your tail so hard you’ll feel it next winter!”

“Another one for the ‘beat Lance up’ line,” the other merman grumbled half-heartedly.

“Promise me,” Matt glared at him, not falling for the joke.

The was silence for a moment before Lance finally whispered, “I promise. I’ll get Hunk and Pidge to go back home.”

“Good. Now- Wait what about you?” Matt asked, eyebrows raising.

“I’m not leaving Keith alone out here,” Lance said quietly.

“Lance-”

The merman’s guilty expression suddenly hardened and he threw Matt’s hands off his shoulders a little forcefully, swimming backwards. “I’m not abandoning Keith!” he shouted.

Dead silence followed, Matt frozen in shock as he took in Lance’s threatening glare, the other merman’s fins flared dangerously around his body. His teeth were bared. For a moment Matt felt like a guppy before a shark. Then he shook himself, letting a lighthearted, though somewhat strained smile take over his face.

“Jesus, calm down there tiger-shark. Don’t get your fins in a twist over your evil mate.”

“My wha-?! He’s not my mate!” Lance’s anger was quickly replaced by mortification, a dark blush coloring his cheeks.

“Mhmm,” Matt hummed sassily, his face splitting into a more genuine grin as the tension in the room diffused. Lance was left sputtering before him, his face only getting redder as he tried to come up with excuses. “So,” Matt interrupted, “Pidge and Hunk will be home by tonight, and they’ll have a nice apology from you to your family? Since you have the hots for a shark and all that weird stuff.”

“I don’t have the hots for Kei-!”

“Do we have a deal, Lance?” Matt cut him off, his serious expression resurfacing.

“Fine,” Lance growled. “But Keith's not my mate!”

“Right,” Matt grinned dubiously. Before Lance could retort, he spoke up, his amusement disappearing in the blink of an eye. “Be careful, Lance. Don’t let your feelings get in the way of reality, okay? That thing you’re hiding is dangerous. Don’t ever let your guard down.” Lance tried to respond again, looking like he was going to protest, but Matt didn’t let him get a word in. “And figure something out quickly so you can come home to your family, won't you? They don’t deserve this.”

That definitely shut Lance up. Guilt returned to his face as he glared down at the floor, shuffling his tail. Matt sighed, turning to yank his spear out of the wall. He held it out to Lance, who stared at it in confusion. “Coran told me he took your spear, but you’re going to need something to defend your boyfriend’s honor until you come back home.”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Lance muttered, though he still took the spear from the other merman. “Thank you, Matt,” he whispered, his voice thick with gratitude. A slight sniffle escaped him.

“Don’t mention it,” Matt shrugged, smiling kindly. “Just keep Pidge safe, yeah?”

Lance snorted. “You and I both know she can handle herself.”

“True,” Matt agreed. “But it never hurts to have someone watching your back.”

Lance nodded. “Thank you,” he whispered once more.

“Don’t get all sappy on me,” Matt teased, though his eyes were soft. “Now, you said you had something important to tell me?”

Lance’s expression darkened. When he met Matt’s eyes, there was a seriousness there that made the other merman’s blood run cold. “I need you to listen carefully, and as soon as I’m gone you have to deliver this message straight to Allura. The shoal is in danger.”

Chapter Text

Keith hates this. There’s nothing wrong with Hunk and Pidge’s company, and he’s really glad they stayed here with him, even after he told them that an army was on their way. It’s better than being all alone again. But he hates that Lance is gone. He hates fighting with the merman, hates that Lance has other people he wants to protect, and he especially hates how guilty he feels for hating that at all. It’s like a part of him wants to possess Lance, to not share him with anybody, and that scares him. He knows how horrible it feels when someone else controls every aspect of your life. He should never wish that upon another person, so he has to hold back his selfish desires. If Lance won’t come with him then-

He doesn’t know what to do, honestly. If Sendak didn’t know about Lance, then maybe he could force himself to leave alone in order to protect Lance, no matter how much it would break his own heart. Maybe he could bide his time, waiting in the shadows to strike, risking it all so he could maybe take Sendak and Haxus out and return to Lance once more. But Sendak does know about Lance, so leaving the merman isn’t an option. Keith can’t help but allow himself some selfish relief that they don’t have to part ways. But still, that poses the new problem of keeping Lance safe.

If it was just him and Lance, then he could protect the merman. They could run from hiding place to hiding place, keeping one step ahead. But Keith can hardly single-handedly protect Lance’s whole shoal. Not to mention the fact that said shoal probably wants to kill Keith just as much as the army does. He has to figure something out. He has to protect Lance.

However, this isn’t the only fear churning in his gut. Lance left. He didn’t say when he was coming back or if he was coming back. Maybe Sendak stuck around and attacked Lance while he was alone and unarmed. Maybe the shoal is keeping him under watch so he can’t return. Or maybe…

Keith swallows down he bile rising to his throat, feeling slightly nauseous. Maybe Lance never planned on coming back. Maybe he was looking for the first opportunity to get away from Keith. Perhaps he decided that the sharkboy was a threat after all, or that he was a coward running away from his own problems, not worthy of Lance’s time. Maybe Lance despised him, thought he was a waste of space.

Keith grit his teeth. It would hardly be the first time he’d been abandoned. If it had happened once, it could happen again. Maybe there was something wrong with him. Maybe he really was just unwanted, unlovable, worthless-

“Keith, you alright?”

The sharkboy jumped, startled at the sudden voice beside him. Pidge was looking at him in concern, her gaze slightly wary. She and Hunk had switched places on watch duty a little while ago.

“I-I’m fine,” Keith lied, looking away. “Just thinking.”

“You see, there’s your problem,” Pidge said, a mischievous glint in her eye. “Thinking is for nerds.”

“Wha-?” Keith began, perplexed.

“Jesus, man, you look like I just insulted your ancient ancestors. I’m joking.” Pidge nudged him slightly, causing Keith to jump. Her eyes widened at his reaction. “Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. I always do that when I’m teasing Hunk and Lance. If it bothers you, I can-”

“No!” Keith cut her off. “It’s fine. Sorry I’m so jumpy.”

Pidge raised her eyebrows at him, looking unimpressed. “You just explained how you spent your whole life getting kicked around by a bunch of military assholes. You don’t have to apologize for being jumpy.”

“Right, yeah. Sorry,” Keith mumbled, a little uncomfortable that so many people knew about his past now.

Pidge cleared her throat loudly and Keith glanced up at her in confusion. She rolled her eyes good-naturedly before saying, “We just discussed how you don’t have to apologize?”

“Sor- I mean okay,” Keith nodded.

There was silence for a moment. Keith was staring down at his hands as he fiddled with his fingers nervously, so he didn’t notice the conflicted look on Pidge’s face. After a moment of contemplation, she opened her mouth to speak.

“You may not need to apologize, but I still do. I was a pretty big asshole to you when we first met. And after that. So I’m sorry, you know, about the whole trying to stab you thing.”

Keith glanced up at her warily, but when he saw the sincere look on her face, he nodded. “It’s alright. You were just worried for Lance. I doubt you’d ever met a shark that wasn’t trying to kill you before either. We are kind of supposed to be enemies.”

“True,” Pidge nodded. “I’m still sorry though. You turned out to be a really great guy.”

“Thanks,” Keith responded, a small, pleased smile curling shyly around around his lips. He paused a moment before adding quietly, “You’re not half bad yourself.”

Pidge scoffed. “Thanks,” she said sarcastically, but the smile on her face showed she was only teasing. Something seemed to occur to her and she pondered it a moment before saying, “Is that why you like Lance so much? Because he didn’t really threaten you when you guys met?”

Keith snorted. “Oh no, he threatened me alright. He was puffing himself up really big and trying to look all intimidating. I mean, he was clutching a spear and I was caught unarmed in a net, so the situation was pretty scary. But it was obvious his tough act was all show and that he was super scared himself. It was cute-” Keith cut himself off suddenly, turning to stare at Pidge as a blush warmed his cheeks. “I-I mean- I didn’t-!”

Pidge burst out laughing at his horrified expression. “Oh my god, you are not subtle!” She wheezed, clutching her sides.

“It isn’t like that!” Keith exclaimed, drowning in embarrassment.

“Oh come on,” Pidge snickered, trying to regain her breath. “It’s not like I’m only just now noticing how you feel about him.”

“You- What?!”

“I’ve known since the first time I saw you. You should see the way you look at him, it’s one of the grossest things I’ve ever seen,” Pidge told him, sticking her tongue out as she scrunched up her face.

“You-! I-I don’t-!” Keith continued to stutter unintelligibly.

“Keith,” Pidge reached out, placing a hand on his shoulder seriously. He only slightly flinched under the touch. “I already know. You can quit trying to deny it before you fry your brains out.”

Keith let out a long, shaky breath. He thought for a moment, brow furrowed in worry. “Does Lance know?” he whispered, voice coming out small.

Pidge snorted in response. “Look, I love Lance, but sometimes he can be denser than whale blubber. That boy has no idea.”

The sharkboy let out a sigh of relief at that. He hesitated for a moment before asking uncertainty, “Are you going to tell him?”

Whatever face the sharkboy was currently making caused Pidge’s own exasperated expression to soften. “No,” she assured him, smiling gently. “That’s for you to decide.”

Keith nodded, swallowing a lump in his throat as gratitude spread warmth through his chest. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“No problem,” Pidge replied, shrugging nonchalantly. “I am more than capable of suffering both of your guys’ grossness in silence. Well, mostly silence.”

Keith was about to ask her what she meant by ‘both’ when there was the sound of shuffling sand from the next room. Lance. Was he hurt? Did he come back to fetch Hunk and Pidge and tell Keith he never wanted to see him again? The sharkboy shot through the doorway, almost colliding into the wall. He squeezed his eyes shut as the sudden movement caused pain to radiate from his side.

“Keith?” A voice cut through the pain and caused him to force his eyes open once more. Lance was looking at him, his eyebrows raised. He seemed a bit standoffish from their fight earlier. Every fiber of Keith’s being demanded that he throw himself at Lance, wrap him up in his arms, and never let go again. However, he held himself back, afraid that Lance would push him away and say that he was leaving for good this time.

There was a pause that felt like it dragged on for centuries while the two stared at each other. Finally, Lance’s face softened and he swam forward. “Jesus, Keith,” he sighed. “You look like a kicked goldfish.” He wrapped his arms around the sharkboy and Keith instantly relaxed into his hold, humming happily. “How am I supposed to stay mad at you like this? That’s cheating,” Lance murmured, a pout evident in his voice.

Keith could hear gagging sounds coming from the other room but he ignored them in favor of focusing entirely on Lance. He’d been so worried that something horrible could have happened to him or that he wouldn’t come back. Even now, in Lance’s arm, some doubt still lingered. “Are you leaving me?” he whispered hesitantly.

“What?” Lance asked sounding confused. “No, of course not! But, uh-” Dread filled Keith’s stomach. Here it comes. “Pidge and Hunk, you guys, uh- You actually need to go back.”

“What?” Hunk asked.

Keith stared at him in shock as well. That wasn’t what he’d been expecting.

“You know, if you want some alone time, we can just go to the shipwreck next door for a bit,” Pidge added, sounding exasperated.

“What?!” Lance yelped, pulling away from Keith. His face was bright red. “No! No no no, it’s not that!”

“Then what is it?” Hunk pressed, looking concerned.

Lance sighed, getting his blush under control. “Did Keith fill you in on what’s going on?” His friends both nodded, Pidge coming to join them in the other room. “Well, I went back to warn the shoal, and the first search party I ran into had Matt in it. He- Well, let’s just say he wasn't too pleased about Pidge being in danger, and he wouldn’t even listen to anything I had to say until I promised that you two would go back home to your families.”

“Bullshit!” Pidge growled. “We’re not just leaving you guys alone out here!”

“Yeah, Lance,” Hunk nodded. “I’m pretty sure we already talked about the whole not abandoning our friends thing.” Keith felt a little spark of happiness that Hunk had said ‘friends’ and not ‘friend’.

“I know,” Lance groaned, running a hand down his face. “This is such a mess. All our families are worried sick and everyone’s out to get Keith-”

“I’m sorry,” Keith murmured, guilt replacing his earlier happy feeling.

“Hey,” Lance frowned taking his hand. “Don’t worry about it. I’m here because I want to be, alright? Same for Hunk and Pidge.” The other two nodded in agreement. “None of this is your fault.”

“We’re still not abandoning you guys,” Pidge said.

Lance nodded, thinking for a moment. “Well, maybe we can do this. Maybe you two can go back and spend the night there, then come back here in the morning. That way your families know your safe.”

“But what if they don’t let us come back?” Hunk asked. “I doubt everyone’s just going to let us stay for a night, then send us back into the ship graveyard the next day. And even if they did, what if they then followed us and found you guys?”

“We already did.”

Lance’s blood ran cold as Allura’s voice rang through the small room. He whipped around, staring in shock as their leader swam into their tiny wreck, followed closely by Coran and Matt. The latter merman had a guilty look on his face. However, his eyes lit up as soon as he saw Pidge, racing to her and pulling her into a hug.

“Pidge!” he sighed. “I’m so glad you’re okay!”

For a moment Pidge returned his hug, confusion in her eyes, before the situation came back to her. “Matt,” she whispered, shock in her voice. “What did you do?!”

“I’m sorry!” He exclaimed, pulling away. He turned to address Lance then, shock and betrayal written across the other merman’s face. “I didn’t mean to, Lance! I went to tell Allura when you left, just like you’d asked me, but as soon as she’d heard you’d been here she shot off to find you and follow you back here. It was all we could do to keep up! I didn’t mean-”

“Enough!” Allura held up her hand. She was glaring darkly at Keith, her spear pointed at him, though she had yet to close the distance.

Instantly Lance got in front of the sharkboy, shielding him. “Allura,” he began desperately. “You don’t even know what’s going on-”

“You’re right Lance,” she interrupted, turning her glare on him. “I don’t. What I do know is that you are harboring an enemy and a threat to this shoal!”

“He’s not a threat!” Lance growled. Allura’s eyes narrowed and he shrunk in on himself involuntarily. “Please just listen to us. Matt was supposed to give you a warning-”

"Warning?!” Allura growled out. “Is that a threat?!”

“Princess,” Coran said quietly, his eyes big and full of fear.

“Not now, Coran!” their leader spat. Her hands were trembling where they clutched her spear.

“Allura, please calm down!” Hunk spoke up. “I know most sharks are bad, but Keith’s a good guy!”

“Enough!” she yelled. A ringing silence filled the room, broken only by their leaders ragged, angry breathing.

Lance felt a hand curl into his from behind, but he didn’t dare take his eyes off Allura in front of them. Their leader’s own gaze shot down to where the shark and merman were holding hands. Pain flashed across her face before her expression hardened again. “How could you, Lance?” she whispered.

“Allura,” Lance spoke again. “You need to listen! The shoal is in danger!”

“I’m aware of that!” she growled. Her eyes darted to the side for a moment and she yelled out, “For god's sake, Coran, get your spear out!” The older merman followed her orders, though he didn’t particularly point the weapon at anything.

Allura started to move forward. Lance’s hand closed around the spear Matt had given him, but before he could draw it out, Hunk and Pidge had both stepped in front of them. Matt hesitated a moment before stepping in front of Pidge, only she growled and elbowed him so he was standing beside her instead.

Their leader froze at the sudden movement, another brief flash of pain in her eyes before she pushed it down. “Step aside!”

“I’m sorry, ma'am,” Hunk shook his head, looking genuinely apologetic. “We can’t do that.”

“Allura,” Pidge added, raising her hands placatingly. “You have to listen to us. Please.”

Allura looked between the four members of her shoal before her, gaze piercing. She turned to Coran. Unlike the others he didn’t flinch under those harsh eyes. “I think we should hear what they have to say,” Coran said quietly. For a long time the two stared at each other, waging a silent battle between them.

Finally something seemed to break and their leader turned back to them, her walls gone and the fear and hurt she felt shining clearly through. “Why can’t you see that I’m trying to protect you?” she whispered to no one in particular.

Chapter Text

It turned out that explaining the situation did not help much. The goal had been to warn the shoal of danger, not convince them that Keith wasn’t a threat, but Lance still couldn’t help but feel disheartened by the angry looks Allura kept shooting Keith, and the obvious distrust written across both Coran and Matt’s faces. Pidge and Hunk would chime in every now and then, but Keith remained quiet throughout the entire thing, clutching Lance’s hand tightly.

“So, let me get this straight,” Allura spoke up, breaking the harsh silence that had followed the end of Lance’s story. “There is an army of sharks, created to eradicate mermaids, and it is on the way here because you are harboring a shark.” She spat out the last word, shooting Keith a particularly poisonous glare. Lance could feel Keith shiver slightly behind him, but he still refused to take his eyes off Allura, every muscle ready to spring into action should she choose to attack the sharkboy.

“Yes,” Lance replied, holding her gaze.

“Do you understand that you have endangered the lives of your families and kin because of that thing?!” She gestured angrily at Keith.

Lance looked away, guilt pooling in his stomach. There was no point in hiding from the truth. The entire shoal was in danger because of him. “I never meant for this to happen,” he whispered. “But Keith is innocent too!”

“Is he?”

Lance was surprised and dismayed to see that Coran was the one talking this time.

“My boy, you just told us that this shark was raised to kill us. In an army that was created to kill us. That is not innocent.”

“That was in the past!” Lance exclaimed. “He left them! He’s on our side!”

“That thing is not on our side!” Allura growled, gesturing wildly with her spear. Lance bared his teeth and stepped further in front of Keith, his hand clutching his own spear.

“Allura,” Coran said, placing his hand gently on her shoulder. She gave him a heated glare. Then she closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths. When she spoke again, her words came out much steadier. “Sharks are not our allies. You have literally just explained to us that they are our enemies, Lance. They want us dead.”

“They want Keith dead too,” Hunk added, a bit unhelpfully. Pidge elbowed him in the ribs.

“Yes!” Lance exclaimed, going off of Hunk’s words anyways. “They want him dead too because he isn’t one of them any more! Keith isn’t a threat! We wouldn’t even know about this army if it weren’t for him!”

“Okay,” Matt spoke up from the side, “so here’s where I’m confused. You’ve been sneaking off to see this shark for a while now, right? So how come you’re only just hearing about this shark army?”

Lance opened his mouth to retort but paused. Why hadn’t Keith told him about it before? An army of sharks planning to eradicate all merfolk was kind of a big deal. Hunk and Pidge must have been thinking the same thing because they were shooting Keith quizzical looks.

“W-well,” Lance began, “what matters is you do know now, so you guys can go warn the shoal and not come back to the graveyard so hopefully Sendak won’t find you and-”

“And what, leave you here to get eaten by sharks?!” Allura snapped. “I am bringing every one of you home to your families, today!”

“I'm not leaving Keith,” Lance growled lowly.

“Oh, don’t worry,” Allura hissed, her gaze icy. “He’s coming too.”

 

 

“No way,” Lance growled. “Keith isn’t some prisoner! We are not going to tie his hands behind his back!”

“And I am not going to allow that thing within a thousand tail-lengths of the shoal unless he is bound!” Allura spat back.

“Look, I agree that we need to learn more about this shark army, but he is perfectly capable of answering your questions without being tied up like a ragdoll!”

“He is also perfectly capable of attacking our people without being ‘tied up like a ragdoll’, as you say,” Allura snarled. “I am not going to let a threat just waltz into the middle of our home!”

“I keep telling you, he’s not a threat!”

“Lance.” The smaller merman turned towards Hunk as he felt a large hand land on his shoulder. “Maybe it’s for the best. It’ll put the rest of the shoal at ease so nobody will lash out at Keith.”

“Not you too,” Lance whispered, staring at his best friend in disbelief. His eyes traveled around the rest of the room, searching for someone, anyone to back him up. No one would meet his gaze.

“Hunk’s right,” Pidge murmured, shuffling her tail in the sand. “It would be safest for everyone, especially Keith.”

“You have got to be kidding me,” Lance hissed.

“Sorry, buddy,” Hunk said, though he was looking past Lance’s shoulder to the shark behind him. Lance’s hand was starting to go numb from where Keith was crushing it in his own.

The merman let out a frustrated snarl before holding out his free hand in defeat. Coran handed him some braided seaweed ropes, and Lance turned to face Keith for the first time during that whole encounter. Keith was staring at him with wide, fearful eyes, trying and failing to hide the way his body was trembling. Lance froze, staring back at him, guilt stirring so violently in his stomach that he felt nauseous. “Lance,” Keith whispered, voice breaking. A few gasps came from behind them and he saw Keith flinch.

“It’s okay,” Lance said shakily. “I’m sorry, I wish I didn’t- I just-” He let out a frustrated sigh. “If you just swim into the shoal, then the others might attack you. I know it seems insane,” he raised his voice for that last word, shooting an angry glare around the room before turning a gentle gaze back to Keith, “but you’ll be safer this way. I promise, I’ll be right beside you the whole time and I won’t let anything bad happen to you. Not anything.” He shot a dark glare over his shoulder at Allura. She flared her fins in indignation, but still seemed too shocked by hearing the shark’s voice to retort.

Lance reached out towards Keith’s wrists but the sharkboy shied away from him, slinking back against the wall. Lance’s eyes widened at his actions. “Keith,” he whispered, his voice coming out small. He reached out and rested a hand against the sharkboy’s cheek, rubbing his thumb soothingly against the skin. Keith squeezed his eyes tightly shut, leaning into the touch. “Please,” Lance pleaded, his voice barely above a whisper. “Trust me.”

For a long moment everything was still. The tension felt hard enough to bruise, no one daring to move besides the slow glide of Lance’s thumb across Keith’s cheek. Finally Keith opened his eyes, staring directly into Lance’s. The merman couldn’t help but shiver under their intense gaze, swirling like the inky depths of a whirlpool.

“I do,” Keith whispered. His shaking had subsided, his arms perfectly steady as he held them out to the merman. Lance let out a sigh of relief, gently taking Keith’s hands in his.

“Behind his back,” Allura barked out and Lance winced, shooting a venomous glare over his shoulder. Keith nodded to him and Lance turned the sharkboy around, holding his wrists behind him as he bound them with ropes.

“Coran, check that they’re tight enough,” Allura snapped.

Keith growled as the other merman approached him, but Lance’s arm shot out quickly. His hand hovered uncertainly in the water for a moment, not sure what to do with itself since he couldn’t take the sharkboy’s hand, until finally it settled on Keith’s waist. The shark immediately froze at the contact, and he glanced up to find big blue eyes only inches from his own.

“It’s okay,” Lance murmured. Keith swallowed thickly before nodding, his gaze never leaving Lance’s. He flinched when he felt another pair of hands on his arms from behind, but Lance just squeezed his waist in a way that was meant to be reassuring, though instead it made Keith feel as though everyone of his nerves were on fire. The sharkboy watched, mesmerized, as Lance leaned forward to whisper in his ear. “He was the one that treated your wound.”

Who was? A sharp tug on the ropes reminded Keith that there were, in fact, other people in the room. On instinct he let out a threatening hiss, feeling the ropes bite into his skin. Then Lance’s hand was on his face, turning him to meet the merman’s gaze once more and washing out the rest of the world in blue. “It’s okay.”

Coran straightened up and nodded to Allura before hastily swimming away, still not particularly fond of being within a tail-length of the shark’s teeth. Pidge had a constipated look on her face, as though she was trying really hard not to laugh or groan or vomit, the seriousness of the situation hardly calling for any of those responses. Hunk seemed to have become suddenly very interested in the barnacles clinging to the ship’s wall, and Matt was staring at Lance and Keith with a knowing smirk, though there was still a reserved wariness in his eyes when he looked at the sharkboy. Allura’s eyes narrowed as she watched the whole exchange before her, her grip tightening on her spear each time the shark growled. She smiled gratefully at Coran when he swam back over to her.

“If you’re done Lance,” Allura’s voice rang out, causing the pair to jump, “then we need to get moving to safer waters.”

Lance nodded at the ground, the glare in his eyes not matching the blush painting his cheeks. He swam past the others, guiding Keith over to the gash in the ship’s side. They slipped through the narrow opening, Keith’s larger tail kicking up sand.

Nirm and Plaxum turned from where they had been keeping watch, their eyes widening when they fell on the shark. Their shock only multiplied when they spotted Lance swimming right at his side. The two mermaids turned uncertainly to their leader as she emerged behind the pair.

“Keep your spears trained on the shark,” she ordered. The two mermaids nodded, lowering their weapons. Lance growled low in his throat until he felt a shoulder bump into him gently. He turned to find Keith giving him a small, reassuring smile. Lance blushed and looked away. He was supposed to be the one reassuring Keith here, not the other way around. He took a deep breath, letting the water swish out through his gills, before straightening up. He heard the others filing in behind them and then Allura was calling for them to move forward. Gritting his teeth, Lance did so.

 

 

When the shoal first spotted their party approaching, the noise was deafening. Someone called out that the missing kids were back and suddenly the coral was flooded with swishing tails and excited chattering, loved ones calling out for the three returned mermaids and children giggling like it was some great parade. Then the mermaids noticed Keith, and all fell deathly silent. A wide path opened up in the crowd as they neared them, adults shying away and dragging their curious children with them.

Pidge and Matt’s mom was the first to approach, swooping in and herding her two children out from the group, clutching them both close to her and whispering scolding words to Pidge. Hunk’s older brother reached out to tug his sibling into the crowd, both of Hunk’s parents still gone in their respective search parties. Lance’s father started towards his son but stopped short at edge of the circle that Allura, Nirm, and Plaxum had formed around them. He stared in shock at the creature that swam alongside his child.

“Lance!” Tion cried out happily, oblivious to the somber atmosphere. He darted forward, followed closely by Lance’s little brother and sister. The merman’s father reached down quickly and snagged Lance’s younger siblings. However, he only had two arms, and he let out a trill of distress as Tion scampered past. Lance’s aunt gasped in horror as her child shot past the circle of spears, barreling straight towards where the shark was.

“Hey little buddy,” a genuine grin split across Lance’s face for the first time in what felt like forever. Without missing a beat he scooped his cousin up into his arms. “Jeez, you’re getting big!”

Tion grinned proudly before a sour frown suddenly graced his features. “Where were you?” he demanded, whacking Lance lightly with his tail.

“I was just hanging out with my buddy, Keith.” Lance turned so that they were facing the shark, the crowd letting out a collective gasp. “Tion, this is Keith.”

The sharkboy fidgeted uncomfortably as the child scrutinized him. Tion’s eyes widened when they reached his tail. “Aren’t you a bad guy?” he asked bluntly, straightening back up to meet Keith’s eyes.

Keith looked startled by the question. “I, uh-” he gave Lance a pleading glance, “I don’t know?”

“He’s not,” Lance spoke up, and Keith looked relieved that he didn’t have to answer the question. “He’s my friend.” There was another gasp from the crowd.

Tion seemed to ponder this for a moment before saying, “I want a shark friend.”

Lance laughed slightly. “Well, I’m sure Keith would be happy to be your friend too.” He shot the sharkboy a teasing glance. Keith was looking at him like he just suggested they should pet an eel.

“Tion,” the voice of Lance’s aunt cut through the water, quiet and cautious. “Tion, come here.”

“But mom-”

“Tion, now!” Lance instinctively winced at the harsh tone, sternness obviously running in his own mothers' family. Tion grumbled quietly to himself but he still wriggled out of Lance’s grip, swimming defeatedly back to his mother.

Their group had finally reached the front of the crowd, Allura turning them to face everybody. “Our three missing members have been returned safe and sound,” she spoke up. “This shark is being detained for questioning, and I can assure you that it will be kept under close guard. Once we have the whole story, all will be explained, but for now please go about your days.”

Allura gestured towards her cave, and Nirm and Plaxum began to usher Keith and Lance in that direction. Suddenly an hand closed around Lance’s arm and he was pulled out of the group, away from the shark. “No!” Lance cried out, trying squirm away. “Keith!” He had just enough time to see the sharkboy staring back at him with wide eyes before Lance’s massive family closed around him, boxing him in.

“Lance, what is going on?” His father’s concerned face filled his vision. The merman could feel little hands latching onto his tail as his younger siblings squealed out his name.

“Are you hurt?” an older sister asked, examining her little brother.

“Why didn’t you come home?” his uncle chided.

More and more relatives pressed in on all sides, all speaking at once, asking him questions, hugging him, patting him on the back.

“No!” Lance cried out, searching for a gap among all the people. “No, you don’t understand! I have to get back to Keith! I promised I wouldn’t leave his side!” His voice was drowned out in the crowd.

Chapter Text

One moment Lance was right next to him, swimming alongside Keith, his hand placed comfortingly on the shark’s back. The next he was gone, leaving nothing but a swirl of water in his wake. Keith turned frantically, his heart threatening to burst through his ribcage as he was met with a writhing sea of unfamiliar faces. For a brief moment he caught sight of Lance in the crowd, yelling something, his eyes wide as they locked onto Keith. Then he was gone, the swarm of merfolk closing their ranks.

“Lance!” Keith called out. He almost didn’t recognize his own voice, his words coming out high-pitched and desperate. Immediately he started towards the place he had last seen the merman, only to find his path blocked by a spear.

“You and I have much to discuss,” Allura hissed, flaring her fins in warning. In any other situation Keith would have feared the consequences of going against her, but right now he barely spared her a glance.

“Lance!” he cried once more, trying to duck around her. Two more spears jutted into view as the two mermaids from earlier closed ranks. Keith snarled when one of the spears prodded into him, snapping his teeth.

Suddenly Allura lunged, snatching his bound hands and whirling him around, pushing him towards the cave she had indicated earlier. Keith writhed around in her bruising grip, hissing and spitting without care for the consequences. He put up a good fight, his massive tail whipping through the water and pushing them back a few feet. However, Allura simply doubled her efforts, snarling a warning as she dragged him along.

“Lance!” he managed to screech out one last time before the darkness of the cave closed around him.

“Nirm, Plaxum,” Allura called. “Stand guard at the entrance.” The two mermaids nodded before taking up their posts, their leader dragging Keith into a small chamber near the back of the cave. It was so dark that Keith could feel his night vision automatically kicking in, though all it revealed was the sharp spires of stalagmites.

With a grunt of effort Allura heaved him over to a stalagmite against the wall. Before Keith could so much as blink she had bound his wrists to the stone outcropping, rendering his escape attempts futile. The shark could hear the blood rushing through his ears, his heartbeat so loud that he couldn’t even register the words Allura was saying to him. His eyes darted around frantically, his mind filling up with a faint buzzing that seemed to grow louder and louder until it was unbearable. The pressure was intense, throbbing in his head. He almost swore he could feel his skull cracking. He couldn’t think, he couldn't breath, he couldn’t-

“-’s alright. In and out. Breath in, hold it- Now out. Very good, that’s it. In- and out.”

Keith opened his eyes, not sure when he had closed them. The throbbing in his head was dying down to a dull hum, his muscles slowly relaxing. The man before him was the one he had heard the mermaid leader call Coran. He was staring at Keith with a kind smile that didn’t quite mask the edges of fear in his eyes. Keith let Coran’s words roll through him, trying to match his breathing to the exaggerated rise and fall of the merman’s chest.

Allura drifted against the far wall of the room. She was staring at Keith with something that looked an awful lot like concern, but her gaze instantly hardened the moment the shark met her eyes. She turned away, glaring off to the side.

“That’s right. In- and out,” Coran said smoothly. “It’s just some questions, it will be alright.”

Right. The questions. All Keith’s training was screaming at him right now. If captured by the enemy, don’t speak. When they torture you, do not ask them to stop. Do not plead. Do not beg. Do not disgrace the army. Do not disgrace Lotor.

He screwed his jaw shut. He must not speak.

“Where was the army last stationed?” Allura asked, swimming forward.

He must not speak.

“How many members does this army have?”

He must not speak.

“Have you ever killed a merperson?”

He must not speak.

“Answer me, damn it!” Allura bared her teeth, leering up in his face. Keith stared back at her blankly, numbly. He must not speak.

“Who have you hurt?!” Allura screeched. “Who have you killed?!”

Coran reached out and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. She whirled around and for a moment it looked like she was going to scream at him too. Instead she buried her face in his shoulder, a broken sob escaping her. Keith watched impassively, unfeeling. He couldn’t afford to feel. He couldn’t afford to think. Even the tiniest slip-up could break open the cracks in his armor. He must not speak.

“Let me through!”

Keith’s head shot up so fast he swore he heard his neck crack. Warmth began to spread from his chest to the rest of his body, a smile curling around his lips before he was even consciously aware of it.

“Let me through or I swear to all that is holy I’ll-”

Keith couldn’t help but wince at the string of profanities Lance spouted, though his smile continued to split across his face, growing so wide it was quickly becoming painful.

Allura sat back from Coran and let out a frustrated huff. “Oh, just let him in before he hurts himself,” the mer-leader growled.

A blur of brown skin and blue scales shot into the room, letting out an indignant squawk as he collided with the opposite wall. Keith squirmed in his restraints, trying to turn so he could face the merman fully. “Lance,” he breathed out, straining to get closer.

Lance straightened up and turned towards him, a grin at least as wide as Keith’s own breaking across his face. It was so blinding the sharkboy almost had to look away. “Keith,” he exclaimed, instantly barreling towards him. The sharkboy let out a shuddering breath as Lance collided with him, a messy tangle of limbs and tail and relieved laughter. “Keith,” Lance began, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to get separated from you, but my family was worried and they pulled me away and there’s so many of them, Keith! I swear I almost got suffocated at least eight times!”

“That many?” Keith grinned, his eyebrows raising playfully. His arms were still straining against the ropes, trying automatically to come up and wrap themselves around Lance. He couldn’t help but note that trying to suffocate others must be a family thing, considering how tightly Lance was hugging him right now. Not that he would have it any other way.

“Eight, Keith!” Lance exclaimed, still caught up in his rambling. “That is eight times too many to have your life flashing before your eyes and just- UGGHH!” He dropped his face into the crook of Keith’s neck. “I came as soon as I could escape. Are you alright, does your wound feel okay?”

“I’m fine,” Keith replied, and he meant it because now Lance was here, and as long as he was then everything would be okay. A small laugh escaped his lips. “I’m great!”

Lance pulled back to study Keith’s face. He must have liked what he saw there because his mouth curved up into a matching grin and he shut his eyes, pressing his forehead into Keith’s. The two stayed like that for a moment, simply enjoying each others’ presence, before Lance finally registered the fact that Keith wasn’t hugging him back. He glanced down to find that Keith’s hands had been bound to the stalagmite, and he hissed at the offending ropes. Without missing a beat, Lance leaned down and snapped his jaws around the bindings, cutting them apart with his teeth.

“What are you doing?!” Allura yelled.

“You’re not talking to him while he’s tied to a fucking rock,” Lance retorted. “We’re not in front of the shoal anymore so this stupid publicity stunt is over!” He went back to gnawing at the ropes. Keith shivered slightly when one of Lance’s teeth grazed the pulse point on his wrist.

After some frustrated grunts from Lance and a few harsh tugs, the binds fell to the floor n tatters. Keith instantly snatched his wrists up to his chest, rubbing at the bruises on them. Lance let out a concerned trill and took Keith’s hands into his own, inspecting the damage. The shark looked up to the other boy’s face, pausing before he barked out a laugh.

“What?” Lance asked, quirking his eyebrow in confusion.

“You’ve got rope in your teeth,” Keith giggled.

The merman turned bright red and he spun so that Keith couldn’t see his face, frantically picking at his teeth. Keith laughed some more, reaching out to circle his arms around Lance’s waist. Lance froze beneath him as Keith pressed himself into the other boy’s back, fully appreciating the use of his arms again. He nuzzled into Lance’s shoulder and let out a hum which was met with a startled squeak from Lance, a noise the merman would deny forever. It was only a moment before Lance brought his arms down over Keith’s, lacing their fingers together. The sharkboy felt himself relax. Lance was here and everything was going to be okay.

“You’re here,” Keith whispered.

“Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Lance responded without missing a beat, shooting a smirk over his shoulder that quickly turned into a fond smile at Keith’s snort.

“-orse than we feared.”

Lance had fallen quiet just in time to hear the end of Coran’s sentence, him and Allura having been whispering among themselves during the whole exchange.

“What was that?” Lance asked, turning towards them.

“Nothing,” Allura responded hastily. “But if you two are done with- this,” she gestured awkwardly to where the merman and shark were still huddled together, “then we do need some answers.”

Lance’s face turned red and he moved away hastily, though he offered no protest when Keith held on to his hand. “Right!” he said, voice coming out high pitched. He cleared his throat loudly before repeating, “Right. Of course.”

Keith felt a snaking sense of dread in his gut. His goal had been to protect Lance, not share the secrets he’d pledged his life for. But he had to remind himself that he had broken that pledge. He had no obligation to the army now other than his desire to take them down. He harbored no loyalty to Lotor.

Allura fixed him with a level stare, steely and cold. Keith was expecting her to start over with her earlier questions, but instead she jumped straight to a personal one. “Have you ever killed anyone?”

Keith sucked in a sharp breath, glaring down at the floor. This wasn’t something he wanted to talk about, not with practical strangers. He didn’t even want to share this with Lance. Yet here he was, all eyes in the room trained on him, one hostile, one wary, one concerned. He clenched his jaw, his body shaking slightly as he tried to hold back a wall of bitter memories.

“Allura, why do you have to-” Lance began, trying to come to Keith’s rescue despite his own morbid curiosity.

“No, Lance,” she snapped, cutting him off. “The deal was we take him to the shoal unharmed if he answers our questions. Now answer!”

Keith ground his teeth together, grimacing. He wasn’t getting out of this. He didn’t want to do this, he didn’t want to say it, but he had no choice. He felt Lance squeeze his hand reassuringly and he let out a harsh breath, looking up to meet Allura’s eyes.

“Yes.”

The silence felt worse than if everyone had just started screaming at him. Lance didn’t flinch back, or try to pull his hand away or anything like that, but Keith could see the merman staring at him with wide eyes in the corner of his vision.

Allura was the first to break the silence. Her face had gone completely blank, her eyes seeming to stare right through the shark. “Mermaids?” she breathed out.

“No.” Keith could see Lance relax just a fraction more beside him.

“But you were training with the intent to kill mermaids,” Allura continued.

“Yes.”

Another harsh silence.

“Have you ever attacked a mermaid?”

“No,” Keith responded simply. Then his eyes shot over to the bite marks on Lance’s shoulder and he lowered his eyes to the ground, guilt curling in his stomach. “Not while I was in the army.”

Allura’s eyes darted between the sharkboy and Lance’s shoulder. She seemed to understand what Keith was inferring because she didn’t push the topic. Instead her eyes narrowed and she said, “Why should I believe what you say?”

Keith was taken aback by the question. He didn’t really have an answer. He was a shark, the natural enemy of mermaids. He had willingly served in army formed to kill them. He had attacked Lance. She really didn’t have any reason to trust him.

Just as Keith was opening his mouth tell her that he didn’t know, Lance spoke up.

“Because he saved my life.”

Keith’s eyes snapped to him, staring at the merman in surprise.

“This wound here?” Lance’s fingers landed on the sharkboy’s waist just above the bandages. “It’s because of me. He would have been fine if it weren’t for me, but instead he chose to save me.” Lance turned to Keith then, his eyes big and empty. “If Coran hadn’t- then you would’ve-”

He trailed off, glancing away. Keith let out an upset trill, reaching out to tilt Lance’s head back towards him. Lance just stared at him sadly, a silent apology written across his face. Keith had to suppress the urge to scoff. As if the merman had anything to apologize for.

He didn’t know what to say, how to respond, so instead he just shut his eyes and pressed his forehead into Lance’s, trilling reassuringly. He could have sworn he heard the merman sniffle, but then Lance was answering his call with one if his own, the sound soft and gentle. The two boys were too caught up in their own moment to notice Allura and Coran exchanging worried glances with one another.

Chapter Text

Keith swayed from side to side, letting the water flow into his gills. He was uncomfortably aware of Allura’s eyes on him, watching from the opposite wall. Even worse was that she was the only pair of eyes on him. Although Lance had wanted to stay with Keith, there was no way he could get away with being apart from his family for another night. Coran had offered to stay as well, but Allura had sent him to get some rest, assuring him she wasn’t going to be able to sleep anyways.

So there they were, Allura clutching her spear and the sharkboy re-tied to the stalagmite for the night, at Allura’s insistence. At least this time the ropes had been made looser so Keith could move around slightly, just enough to keep the water in his gills. He huffed out a sigh, not missing the way Allura tensed at the sound, her grip tightening over the spear. He winced slightly, but when neither of them made a move, they both relaxed.

Keith wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but it felt like an eternity. He hadn’t even bothered trying to fall asleep since, besides the fact that he wasn’t bound in the most comfortable position, there was no way he could rest with hostile eyes piercing into him. All his instincts were telling him to swim far and fast, his nerves frayed and ready for action. However, even if he could somehow escape the ropes, he wasn’t going anywhere without Lance, so there was nothing to do but drift aimlessly and wait for a morning that seemed as if it would never come.

The sharkboy shifted slightly to breathe in more water, but the movement aggravated the burning feeling that had begun to radiate from his wound. He doubled over, gritting his teeth so he wouldn’t cry out. Keith heard a sharp intake of breath across from him and the subtle swish of fins in the sand. He straightened up quickly to get his bearings on where Allura was, the movement making him wince once more.

The mer-leader was glaring suspiciously at him, but when she noticed him wince she sunk back, her expression softening. There was a heavy silence as Allura seemed to think something over, before finally opening her mouth. “Coran should be coming soon to check on us. I’ll ask him to fetch some painkillers then.”

Keith nodded curtly at her before turning away, making sure he could still kept her at the edge of his vision. Another silence followed.

“Lance says you got that wound protecting him.”

Keith’s eyes snapped back to her at the mention of Lance’s name. He waited for her to continue but when she said nothing else he just nodded once more.

“Why?”

The shark studied Allura’s face. At this moment she didn’t look distrusting or accusatory. Her expression was blank, though her eyes were filled with an honest curiosity and something else. Something that was always hidden just behind her other emotions whenever she looked at the shark. Something like pain.

Keith turned away from that intense gaze for a moment, his eyebrows furrowing as he thought. “Because I couldn’t stand to see him get hurt.”

“Why?”

“Because I care-”

“Why?”

Keith’s gaze snapped back to Allura, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. Still, there didn’t seem to be any ill intent written across her features. He swallowed thickly before speaking again. “He’s kind.”

Allura nodded thoughtfully. “Many people are kind.”

Keith snorted. “I’d love to meet them.”

For a moment Allura’s eyes narrowed, and the shark feared she would snap at him. However, she just continued to stare at the sharkboy thoughtfully. He fidgeted slightly, quickly growing even more uncomfortable than he already was.

“Why did you agree to speak with us?” Allura asked. Keith glared off to the side. “It’s what Lance wanted, right? You had no intention of alerting us if it weren’t for him.”

“I wasn’t aware I could just stroll on up and make house calls,” Keith snapped.

“An entire army built to eradicate merkind, and you were just going to sit on this information.”

“I was waiting for Shiro to contact me! Or did you conveniently tune out the part about the Blade?”

Allura scoffed. “That’s the part I find hardest to believe.”

“Why? Because all sharks are monsters, incapable of feeling? Last I checked you had to have everyone in the room talk you down from killing me on sight!”

“It was to protect them!” Allura growled. “This shoal has thrived in safety! They have not seen what I have!”

Keith’s eyes narrowed. “What have you seen?”

Allura clamped her jaw shut, glaring daggers at the sand.

“Everyone I’ve encountered in this shoal seems to be afraid of me, but you’re the only one that’s angry. Why is that?”

“That’s none of your concern,” Allura hissed quietly, still giving the sand a withering look.

A heavy silence followed. Keith huffed in a breath, gritting his teeth before he spoke again. “I’m sorry.” Allura’s gaze snapped up to him, eyes wide. “I’m sorry for whatever it was that happened between you and sharks. But we’re not all like that. I’ve already told you that I was once hateful and mislead, but that isn’t who I am anymore. I don’t want to see anymore suffering. I don’t want to harm anybody. I just want to protect Lance.”

Allura stayed quiet for a long moment, studying the sharkboy’s face. Finally she said, “And Pidge and Hunk? Do you trust them?”

Keith’s brow furrowed. “We’ve only just gotten on good terms, really. But they’ve been kind since. And Lance trusts them.”

Allura said nothing, merely holding Keith’s gaze. So much time passed that the shark was starting to feel very on edge. Then, suddenly there was a flurry of movement at the room’s entrance. Keith’s eyes snapped to it, and Allura spun around, gripping her spear. She relaxed a second later when Coran swam in.

“Evening princess,” he beamed. “How’s our shark watch going, eh?” He shot Keith a friendly wink, who just stared at him blankly in return.

“Fine,” Allura smiled. “You have good timing, though. Could you swim back and fetch some more pain killers?”

“Ah, yes,” Coran’s eyes shot to Keith’s bandages. “It’s about time to redress the wound, too.”

“No,” Keith growled out.

Coran flinched at the sound of his voice. “It’s important to change the bandages now and then so-”

“No,” Keith cut him off, glaring challengingly at the frightened merman. “Not until morning.”

“Morning?” Coran raised a ginger brow. “Why’s that?”

Keith looked away, cursing the way his cheeks flared up. “Then Lance will be back,” he mumbled.

“Ah.” Coran’s eyes glimmered knowingly.

Allura let out an exasperated sigh. “Just fetch the painkillers then, please.”

“Be back in a tick!” the merman called out, swimming away.

All was quiet for a moment before Allura broke the silence. “Did Lance have this hard a time getting you treatment?”

Keith’s blush darkened. “He’s stubborn,” he muttered.

“Something you seem to have in common.”

Keith opened his mouth to snap back, but the words died in his throat when he saw the faint smirk on Allura’s face. A moment later she seemed to realize what she was doing and she looked away, glaring at the ground. She dragged her fins through the sand before speaking up again.

“Could you find them?”

Keith looked at her questioningly. “Find who?”

“The Blade of-” Allura trailed off for a moment, thinking. “What do you call them? Marmalade?”

“The Blade of Marmora.”

“Yes, that. Could you find them?”

Keith thought for a moment, brow furrowing. “I could try.” He spun towards her suddenly, eyes narrowing. “But I’m not leaving Lance.”

“Even if it were for his own safety?”

Keith looked away, an uneasy feeling swarming in his gut. “If it would keep him safe, I would leave,” he whispered. Then his eyes snapped back up to Allura, gaze darkening. “But Sendak’s seen him now, which means he would only be in more danger if we’re apart. I can't leave him. I won’t leave him.”

Allura let out a sigh, nodding to herself. “In the end, you’ll do whatever it takes to keep him safe.”

“Yes.” Keith answered without hesitation.

“Do you think he would do the same for you?” Allura asked.

“I don’t care.”

The mer-leader gave him a confused look. “What?”

“I don’t care if he would do the same for me. That doesn’t matter.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t need him to. I don’t want him to ever give his life for mine. I want him to keep living above all else. So I hope he wouldn’t do something stupid like sacrifice himself for me, because I couldn’t bare that.”

“Why are you so devoted to him?” Allura asked quietly.

“He saved my life,” Keith replied, a small, fond smile curving around his lips. “He didn’t even know me. I was a threat to him, to his family, to this whole shoal. I even tried to kill him the moment I saw him. And yet, he wouldn’t kill me. I was so confused, but when he cut me from that net, I thought I’d never see him again. Not unless he changed his mind and came back with others to kill me after all. But then he came to treat my wound. He lied to all of you to keep me safe. He took care of me. No one’s ever really done that for me before. No one’s cared-” Keith cut himself off abruptly, eyes widening as he seemed to realize he’d shared too much. He glared down at the ground, grinding his teeth together before finally looking up to meet Allura’s gaze. She felt a chill run down her spine at the fire that blazed behind those violet irises. “I won’t let anyone hurt him.”

A long silence followed. Allura swallowed thickly, grateful when those intense eyes turned away from her. She thought a moment, taking in all the shark had said. “You’re right,” She finally murmured. “He is kind.”

 

 

“Did you sleep well?” Lance asked, smiling softly as he undid the last knot securing Keith’s hands in place.

Keith shrugged, wrapping his arms around Lance the moment his wrists were free. “Did you?” he asked, not wanting to worry Lance over his lack of sleep.

“Hardly,” Lance snorted, returning his embrace. “All the little gremlins kept me up with their giggling and kicking. I‘m gone for a few days and they decide they’ve gotta make up for all the time they could’ve been harassing me.” He yawned as he nuzzled into Keith’s shoulder. “Pidge and Hunk are bringing breakfast.”

“Mm,” Keith hummed. “I’m starving.”

Just them someone coughed loudly from behind them. Lance spun around to see Allura raising her eyebrows at him. Coran was floating beside her, his arms full of medicine and bandages.

“R-right,” Lance spoke up, swimming over to take the medical supplies. He turned back to Keith, setting the supplies down on the ground. “Let’s get you treated.”

Keith looked warily from Allura to Coran. He wanted to ask them to leave, but he doubted Allura would listen to such a demand. Clenching his teeth, he presented his tail, trying to push down the uneasiness of being watched.

Lance swiftly undid his old bandages. The merman winced at the sight of Keith’s wound, especially when a bit of blood trickled out of it. “Does it hurt?” he whispered.

Keith shook his head reassuringly. “The pain meds are a lifesaver,” he said quietly, smiling at Lance. “It can be a bit tender if I move too fast, but mostly it’s just numb.” Lance huffed out a shaky sigh, getting to work with cleaning the wound.

“You’ve gotten quite good at this, my boy,” Coran spoke up. Keith jump slightly, slinking back. He had to resist the urge to bare his teeth, though Coran didn’t seem to notice as he continued to address Lance. “I told you it wouldn’t hurt to know a thing or two.”

The merman smiled good naturedly at him. “Okay, fine. I admit all your weird ramblings came in handy.”

Sure enough, Lance treated and re-dressed the wound with practiced precision. Keith couldn’t help but feel embarrassed. After all, if he hadn’t been injured so much, Lance wouldn't have gotten so much practice. He was relieved when Pidge, Hunk, and Matt showed up, bearing armfuls of fish. At least now Allura had something to distract her from constantly watching his every move.

Once the last of the fish had been picked clean, the mer-leader straightened up, clearing her throat. “Now, you may be wondering why I asked you all to come here.” The group turned to her, exchanging glances with one another. “I think it would be unwise to sit around and wait for an army to come to us. We do not have the numbers or the weapons to combat such a force. But the shark has informed me of the Blade of Marmosa.”

Keith snorted quietly at that, suppressing the urge to correct her.

“Although I find it hard to believe that sharks would be working to help the ocean,” Allura’s eyes darkened here, “I believe they are our best bet. That is why I am putting together a team. I must leave our strongest warriors here to look after the shoal, and furthermore, I need people who can work with these sharks. Since some of you have proven your recklessness,” she shot a glare at Pidge, Hunk, and Lance respectively, “I am asking you all to join me on this mission.”

A ringing silence followed, everyone staring at the mer-leader in astonishment. After a long moment, Lance finally spoke up.

“My mom is gonna kill me.”

Chapter Text

“Mama, I have to go!”

“Mijo, you are but a child! I don’t know what Allura is thinking!”

“She recruited us because Keith trusts us! I don’t think surrounding him with a bunch of hostile strangers is the greatest way to get him to help us.”

“So she thought the next best thing was to take our children away from home? For who knows how long, and to meet with a bunch of sharks? Dios, she has lost her mind!”

“It’s what’s best for the shoal!”

“Delivering my son to a bunch of bloodthirsty sharks is what’s best for the shoal?!”

“Mama, she’ll be here soon to help explain. She’s been talking to Pidge and Hunk’s families-”

“What will Coleen think of this? Or Amosa? There’s no way they’ll let her get away with this, not with our kids-”

“I’m not a child anymore, mom, I’m almost grown!”

“Growing up does not mean swimming into the jaws of a shark! I still don’t understand how any of this happened, or what that thing is doing here, or-”

“That thing is named Keith, and he is my friend!”

“Good evening.” The two spun around to find Allura floating in the cave entryway. “May I come in?” She had a look of steely determination on her face, though she was staring straight ahead, seemingly unable to meet their eyes.

“Allura,” Lance’s mom called out. “What is the meaning of this? You have just brought my boy home, and now you want to take him from me again?!”

Lance glanced over to the cave entrance, tuning out their bickering. He wanted to see Keith. The two mermaids seemed to be entirely engrossed in their argument, not noticing how the topic of their discussion was inching away.

“The other families have already agreed-”

“What?!”

Without further delay Lance slipped out the door, trying to ignore the guilt of sneaking out yet again. He’d already argued with his mother enough for one night, and besides, he’d be back later for bedtime anyways. He tried not to think about how it would be the last time he’d sleep there for a long while.

His tail beat faster as Allura’s cave came into view, and he cursed quietly when he saw the guards stationed outside of it. He kept his head down, attempting to swim in passed them.

“Stop!” one of the guards called out, their spears crossing to block his path. “Allura said not to let anyone in or out.”

Lance was just opening his mouth to argue when a voice came from within the cave. “Let him through, chaps. We're all a might safer when he’s distracting the shark anyways.”

The guards exchanged uncertain glances but they drew back their spears. Lance swam in to find Coran beaming at him. “What do you mean distract him?” The younger merman scowled, trying to hide the blush on his face.

Coran just winked at him cheekily before gesturing to the same back room as always. Lance glowered as he swam over, trying to get his cheeks to return to their normal shade. His irritation was forgotten when his eyes fell on Keith. The shark looked exhausted, drifting there as he stared blankly at the sand. Lance trilled in worry and the other boy jumped, gaze shooting up to him. His eyes softened a second later and he trilled back, pulling against the ropes that Allura kept insisting on restraining him with.

Lance growled lowly as he reached for the stupid cords, tugging on them in his attempt to get them off. Keith winced slightly and Lance instantly let up the pressure. “Sorry,” he murmured, being more careful as he undid them. He pulled Keith into a hug the moment they came off and the sharkboy returned it, humming softly.

“Didn’t know if I’d see you again today,” Keith murmured.

“Allura’s trying to convince my family right now. Apparently she somehow already talked Pidge and Hunk’s families into it, which has got to be the miracle of the century.”

“Seems like it took her all day though,” Keith pointed out.

“Might take her all night to convince my mom,” Lance sighed. “I wish I didn’t have to do this to her.”

He felt Keith flinch against him. “I’m sorry,” he breathed out.

“No,” Lance pulled back just enough to see the other boy’s face. “No, don’t be. This isn’t your fault.”

“It kind of is,” Keith mumbled. “They were after me and I got you involved.”

Lance shook his head vigorously, hand reaching up to Keith’s cheek. “It’s not your fault they’re a bunch of psychopathic assholes. You didn’t do anything to deserve this, Keith.”

The shark leaned into the touch, his eyes shutting contently. When they opened again, there was a fire blazing in them. “I’ll keep you safe,” he whispered.

“Hey,” Lance gave him a gentle smile. “That’s my line.”

“Hmm?” Keith hummed. “Then maybe you should learn how to fight.”

Suddenly Lance pulled away and Keith let out a distressed squeak, afraid he’d done something wrong. Then he noticed the playful raise of Lance’s eyebrows. “Excuse me?!” the merman scoffed. “I’m a fantastic fighter! If I had been armed I would’ve had Sendak begging for mercy!”

Keith rolled his eyes. “Prove it.” He drifted closer, smirking darkly at Lance and reveling in the way the merman’s eyes widened.

“Prove what?” Lance squeaked, rather un-eloquently. Keith was so close now that Lance could see every last fleck of violet in his eyes. He had to use all his willpower not to glance down at the sharkboy’s lips.

“That you can fight.”

Suddenly Lance was being spun around, his chest colliding with the wall as his arm was twisted behind his back. He heard Keith chuckle breathily next to his ear, and he had to pause for a moment to get his heartbeat under control.

“Oh, it is on, pretty boy.”

 

 

Okay, so maybe Lance could use a few combat lessons. He certainly wasn’t terrible. After all, it was necessary that every member of the shoal learn how to defend themselves. The ocean wasn’t always so kind. Still, he wasn’t quite Keith’s level of skilled. Keith’s level being a freaking super soldier who didn’t even seem short of breath as Lance grappled with him. The merman let out a frustrated huff as he was pinned to the floor yet again.

“Ready to give up yet?” the sharkboy smirked, all pointed teeth and smugness. Man, what Lance wouldn’t give to wipe the smirk off that gorgeous face.

“In your dreams, Mullet,” the merman wheezed. “I’m just getting warmed up.”

“Oh?” Keith raised his eyebrows. “Been going easy on me?”

“That’s right!” Lance wiggled around, snarling when he couldn’t seem to find any weak points in the hold.

“What a gentleman,” Keith teased, his grin only growing as he observed Lance’s futile attempts at escape. “Maybe it’s time for you to kick it up a notch.”

“Just- you- wait!” Lance gritted out.

“Waiting,” Keith replied. God, that stupid smirk. How was Lance supposed to concentrate on kicking Keith’s ass when he was looking at him like that?

The merman was quickly getting fatigued from all his thrashing. He thumped his tail in frustration, his fins lightly grazing Keith’s uninjured side. Lance just had the thought that maybe it was stupid for them to be fighting with Keith’s wound when he froze. Keith had flinched. His fins had brushed the sharkboy’s side and he had flinched. A grin slowly split across Lance’s face.

Keith stared down at him incredulously. “What are you-”

Before he could even finish his sentence, Lance brought his tail up, his fins digging into Keith’s side. The sharkboy yelped loudly, the sound changing into a laugh as he instinctively pulled back. Lance shot up, whirling to face him. Of course! Lance hadn’t suffered through eighteen years with siblings for nothing!

He reached out, one hand holding Keith in place while the other dug into Keith’s side, wiggling his fingers. The shark thrashed around, whacking at him as laughter was forced from his throat. “You- cheater!” Keith gasped out.

“I never said I play by the rules,” Lance smirked. “Ready to admit defeat?”

Keith’s tail thumped against the ground, shaking the whole cave. Still, Lance held on, refusing to let up.

“Stupid- fish- dick!” The shark was trying rather unsuccessfully to snarl between fits of laughter.

“You gotta say the magic words, Keithy,” Lance snickered.

“Fine! Fine, I give, just stop!”

Lance finally released him and the shark boy collapsed on top of him, gasping for breath. “I hate you,” he mumbled.

Lance grinned, reaching up to card his fingers through the other boy’s hair. “Liar.” His breath caught in his throat when Keith nuzzled into his chest.

“Is tickling your secret weapon?” the shark asked sarcastically.

“You bet,” Lance joked. “No foe stands a chance against me.”

Keith snorted. “I would’ve loved to see you use that one on Sendak.”

The merman grimaced below him. “Yeah, on second thought, maybe not.”

“So, is this a bad time, or-?”

The two boys jumped, shooting up to find Pidge and Hunk drifting in the doorway. Pidge was giving them a long-suffering look and Hunk was bright red, not meeting either of their eyes.

“H-hi guys!” Lance stammered out. “We were just-”

“You’re lucky it’s just us and not Allura,” Pidge spoke up. “She probably would’ve thought Keith was trying to eat you. Although,” Pidge shot the merman a devilish grin. “It looked like you were trying to eat him right back.”

Keith was sputtering beside him, and all Lance managed was to get out an indignant, “Pidge!”

“So!” Hunk spoke up, almost as red as the other two boys in the room. “Changing the subject! Our parents actually agreed to let us go.”

“Yeah, we heard,” Keith said, smiling a little shyly at the other two.

“How did Allura manage that?” Lance piped up.

“Not easily,” Hunk replied. “She just basically had to promise a million times that we were going to ask for help, not take on the whole army. And she kept going over the importance of having people on the mission that Keith would trust.”

“Yeah, she told my mom we wouldn’t be fighting anybody,” Pidge said. “Also, Matt’s coming too, because he’s a stubborn asshole and can’t stand to be left out of anything. I think mom doesn’t know whether to be relieved or twice as worried now because at least we can watch each others backs, but also-” Pidge trailed off there, her eyes clouding over. She wrapped her arms around herself and averted her gaze, ducking her head so the others couldn’t see her face.

“Pidge?” Lance asked, worriedly.

“It’s nothing,” Pidge said. “Just got lost in thought.”

“It’s not nothing,” Hunk spoke up. “What’s bugging you?”

The mermaid ground her teeth together, seeming to steel herself before looking up. “Because now there’s a chance she could lose both her children.”

“Hey,” Lance swam over, pulling his friend into a hug. “She’s not losing either of you doofuses. We’ve all got each other’s backs, yeah?”

“Plus, Allura said it was just a diplomatic mission,” Hunk added. “I mean, I’m still terrified to just be going to meet a bunch of sharks, no offense Keith.” The sharkboy shrugged at him. “But all we’ve gotta do is talk to them.”

“Yeah,” Lance grinned. “Just imagine meeting a whole bunch of Keith’s.”

Pidge scoffed. “I can barely handle the one.”

Keith flared his fins indignantly, about to snap at her when he saw the smirk on her face. He glanced away awkwardly, still not entirely sure how to respond to her joking when she was so hostile towards him only days earlier.

“Lighten up, sharky,” Pidge snorted, swimming over to punch him in the arm.

Keith jumped slightly, shooting her a half-hearted glare. “My name’s not sharky,” he muttered.

“Really?” Pidge faked astonishment. “I was certain it was. Besides, I figured ‘sharkboy’ was off limits since that’s part of your little pet name-”

“We do not have pet names!” Lance shouted, face flushing.

“Okay, okay,” Hunk held his hands up placatingly. “So the point is, we’re all going on a super scary mission tomorrow to meet Keith’s buddies and save the shoal. And our families. And maybe the whole ocean. Oh, god-”

“Hey. Buddy.” Lance snapped his fingers in front of Hunk’s face, getting his friend to focus on him. “You said it yourself, remember? Everything’s going to be fine. We’re just going to have a friendly chat, and boom! We’ll be the heroes who saved the shoal. Just think of the victory parade!”

“No one’s gonna throw a parade, Lance,” Pidge snorted.

“They might!” Lance shot back. He turned back to Hunk, who still looked unsure. “Need a hug?” the merman asked.

Hunk nodded, immediately sweeping his best friend up in his arms. Pidge groaned when she was dragged in too. Keith just floated there awkwardly, staring at the ground and shuffling his tail through the sand.

“Hey.” The shark looked up to find everyone staring at him expectantly. “Don’t leave us hanging,” Hunk smiled kindly, opening his arms.

“Oh,” Keith stuttered. “I, uh-”

“Get over here, sharkboy,” Pidge said, wiggling her eyebrows at him.

Keith flushed, glaring at the ground. He was just opening his mouth to retort when a tanned hand closed around his wrist, yanking him into the circle. Just like that he was surrounded by warmth on all sides, the sharkboy being pressed into Hunk’s chest with Lance’s comforting weight behind him and Pidge hanging off his side. He just floated there for a moment, stunned, before he finally allowed himself to relax, reaching up to return their embrace. He heard Lance hum happily in his ear, and small smile curled around Keith’s lips. This wasn’t such a bad feeling.

Chapter Text

“We will be departing on a diplomatic mission.” Allura’s voice rang out, addressing the shoal as they gathered in front of their group.

Keith shifted around, uncomfortably aware of so many pairs of eyes on him. His arms were predictably tied again, though at least no one was pointing spears at him. He couldn’t wait to get away, to finally be free of the tide of strangers and their relentless gaze. He felt a hand land on his shoulder and he flinched slightly. However, when he turned he found Lance there, smiling reassuringly at him. Keith returned his smile gratefully, and for a second everything was okay. Then some of the nearby merpeople gasped at his reaction, effectively ruining the moment. He turned away, his brow furrowing as he glared at the sand. Still, Lance’s hand remained on his shoulder; a comforting weight to keep him grounded.

“Luxia will watch over the shoal in my place,”Allura continued. “I have already informed her that security is to be tightened while we are away and that no one is to leave the shoal unless in a hunting party or to patrol the borders. There is a great enemy bearing down upon us, and we must not risk losing any of our own. Hopefully, when we have returned we will have a better understanding of our enemy, and a plan for defense. Until then, you all must lay low. May the currents grant us a swift journey.”

The entire shoal chanted back in unison, “May the whales sing of your travels.” Keith jumped at the unexpected chorus, his hand instinctively trying to reach for where his dagger would have been, only he was bound and unarmed. He had to resist the urge to hiss in alarm, knowing it wouldn’t help reassure the shoal of his trustworthiness. The hand on his shoulder slipped to his back, rubbing there comfortingly. Keith leaned into Lance’s touch.

Then Allura gestured forward and the group complied, Lance’s hand gently guiding Keith through the rapidly parting crowd. Some of the mermaids were calling out to their loved ones, pulling them into final hugs and giving words of encouragement as they passed. Lance was pulled away several times, making Keith’s breath catch in his gills. However, each time the merman returned to his side, easing his worry with a calm smile.

It was like a weight had been lifted from his chest when the caves of the shoal had finally disappeared behind them, the last farewell calls fading to silence. Instantly Lance’s hands were at his bound wrists, tugging on the knot. The merman locked eyes with Allura, silently daring her to protest. However, she merely sighed in exasperation.

“Go on,” the leader said. “Even I can see it would be impractical to have him swim across the ocean tied up.” Lance shot her a grateful smile as he undid the last knot. Keith let out a relieved sigh, flexing his arms to get the blood flowing back through them.

“So,” Hunk spoke up. “Where are we going?”

Keith’s relief vanished when everyone turned to him expectantly. However, at least none of them were looking at him like some kind of freak on display, so he forced himself to relax. “I’m going to take us to the last place the Blade set up headquarters. There’s no guarantee that they’ll still be there. It has been over a year, after all. But it’s at least a start.”

“What’s the plan if they aren’t there?” Matt asked. His smile was friendly but his eyes were still wary as he took in the shark. Keith hadn’t missed the way he seemed to be trying to put himself between the sharkboy and his sister while they swam. Judging from Pidge’s occasional elbow in his side, she hadn’t missed it either.

“Then we’ll have to try to track them down,” Keith answered.

“And how will we do that?” Allura asked, frowning at him.

“I’ll probably have to find a way to contact Shiro. It will be difficult, but he’s our only option. I don’t know of any other undercover agents and the Blade won’t exactly leave a trail for us to follow.”

“So you want to lead us straight to the very thing we’re trying to avoid?” Allura hissed, her eyes narrowing.

“Hopefully it won’t come to that,” Keith spoke through gritted teeth, trying to keep his temper under control. “But if the Blade has moved, then the only way to contact them is through Shiro.”

“I will not lead my people into the heart of our enemy,” the merleader hissed.

“You don’t have to!” Keith snapped back. “You guys can stay back and I’ll sneak in and locate him. It’ll be easier that way-”

“You’re not going alone!” Lance spoke up.

“Lance-” Keith began, sighing exasperatedly.

“Nuh-uh,” the merman shook his head. “You need backup! What if you get caught?”

“Better me than you,” Keith muttered under his breath.

“What did you say?”

“How exactly am I going to swim into the middle of the army with a mermaid in tow. It’s going to be hard enough for me to sneak in-”

“Which is why you need someone watching your back!”

“Guys!” Pidge spoke up. “We’ve literally been swimming for five minutes. Unless this super secret shark club is around the next corner, I don’t think we need to worry about that right now.”

“We’ll cross that chasm when we get there!” Coran piped up cheerfully.

Keith glared off to the side, trying to ignore the scowl Allura was shooting his way. Suddenly Lance was leaning into his space, lowering his voice to whisper in Keith’s ear. “And you won’t be crossing that chasm alone.”

Keith turned to glare at him, opening his mouth to retort.

“Hey,” Lance spoke up, drifting back and shooting Keith a wry grin. “You heard Pidge. No more bickering.”

The sharkboy gave him what he hoped was a withering glare, but judging by Lance’s smirk, he had missed his mark. Instead he settled for whacking the merman with his tail, reveling in the indignant squawk it solicited.

 

 

Ironically, it wasn’t long after that that the group came to a literal chasm. The ocean trench split the seafloor in half like a long, gaping mouth. Keith had certainly seen bigger trenches, but it didn’t stop this one from being any less intimidating, it’s bottom hidden in endless pools of darkness.

Matt, Hunk, Pidge, and Lance were all teasing each other, trying to push one another out over it. Allura and Coran had paused to discuss something quietly to the side. That left Keith to drift there, staring down into the depths as he lost himself in thought. He jumped when he felt a hand slip into his, turning to find Lance smiling softly at him.

“You okay there, buddy?”

“Yeah,” Keith nodded quickly, looking away.

“What were you thinking about?”

The shark winced, but when he felt Lance squeeze his hand, he opened his mouth to reply. “Just remembering my time in the army.”

A thumb ghosted over the back of his hand, sending a slight shiver down the sharkboy’s spine. “I’m sorry we’re going back there.”

Keith shrugged. “If all goes well we won’t ever need to see the army. But-”

Lance gave him a small smile, though this time it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “That’s not likely, is it?”

Keith shook his head. “It’s been over a year now. The Blade moves frequently to avoid detection. I doubt they’re still there.”

“Will you be able to find the army then?”

“I should be. The Blade has to remain hidden, but Lotor’s ranks aren’t exactly easy to hide if you’re looking for them. There’s too many of them.”

Lance flinched slightly beside him, but before Keith could ask if he was alright he shook it off. “How will you find Shiro?”

“A lot of sneaking around. I’m sure he’s still playing the part of Lotor’s champion, so it shouldn't be too difficult to find some intel on where he’s at. Getting to him will be the hard part.”

Lance glanced over to where the merleader was talking with Coran. “I don’t think Allura’s too thrilled about that. She promised all our families that we wouldn’t be going near the army.”

The shark huffed out a shaky breath. “I know. But it’s a better option than doing nothing.”

There was silence for a moment. Lance seemed to have something on his mind, his brow furrowing as he stared down into the chasm. “Earlier, you said something.”

“Hmm?” Keith turned to him, confused. He’d said a lot of things.

“When we were arguing about you trying to be sneak around solo. Which is rude, by the way. Save some of the cool stuff for the rest of us.”

Keith huffed out a frustrated sigh. “Lance, this is serious.”

“So is what you said.” Keith looked up at the merman’s flat tone. He was gazing at Keith steadily, any hint of teasing gone from his eyes.

“I don’t-” Keith began, confused.

“It sounded like you said, ‘better me than you.’”

The shark froze, his eyes going wide. He thought he’d been quiet enough that nobody heard that. “Oh, I-I-”

“You can’t say stuff like that, Keith.” Lance’s face was still uncharacteristically blank, making the shark uneasy. He flinched slightly when Lance raised his hand. However, he relaxed the next moment at the sound of Lance’s trill, leaning into the hand that moved to rest on his cheek. “You can’t think things like that.”

“I’m sorry,” the sharkboy whispered, not really sure what else to say.

“Don’t apologize,” Lance sighed. “It’s just- You need to know that your life isn’t any less important than mine. You can’t just go around doing reckless things and putting yourself in danger to protect me.”

“It’s not the same, Lance. You have a family-”

“You are family!” The shark froze, eyes widening. Lance was still looking at him with that same steady gaze. A moment later his eyes softened, a smile gracing his lips. When he spoke again, his voice came out hushed. “You are family.”

“Hop to it, boys!”

The two leapt apart, whirling around to see Coran giving them a somewhat strained smile. “Daylight’s wasting!”

“Y-yeah,” Keith stuttered. He felt his heart skip a beat when Lance slipped his hand back into his own. “We’ve gotta cross this trench.”

The pair lead the way as the group swam over the open water. Keith started when he heard a shriek from behind them, but it turned out to just be Matt. Pidge had apparently snuck up behind him and poked him in his side. Lance laughed at his friends’ antics, the sound music to Keith’s ears.

“I always wanted to take you here,” the merman spoke up once his laughter had subsided.

“Why’s that?” Keith asked, turning to him.

“Me and my friends go here all the time. We always dare each other to swim down into the trench. See who makes it the deepest before chickening out.”

“Then you’re going to love where the last Blade headquarters was,” Keith replied, smirking slightly.

Lance turned to him, jaw dropping. “No!”

“Bottom of a trench,” Keith confirmed. “Had to make it hard to find.”

“Only a bunch of sharks would be insane enough to have their secret base in a trench,” Lance groaned.

“You scared?” Keith asked, smirking at the indignant glare Lance shot him.

“No! I just value my time on this earth.” He paused for moment, thinking something over. “There isn’t, like, a giant lobster down there or something, right?”

“No,” Keith replied. He waited for Lance to let out a relieved sigh before adding, “It’s not a lobster.”

“Keith!”

The shark chuckled, picking up the pace to leave Lance sputtering behind him.

 

 

“Okay disarm me.”

“Right now?”

“No, tomorrow evening,” Keith said sarcastically.

“I’m just making sure you're prepared,” Lance shot him a wink.

“Just disarm me, Lance.”

Before Keith even had time to blink, his hand was wrenched to the side, the strain just enough to ache slightly. The piece of driftwood was snatched from his hand, held out of reach by the grinning merman. The shark raised his eyebrows in surprise. He hadn’t been expecting such a quick reaction.

“Very good” he grinned. Lance beamed, releasing him. The next moment the merman let out a yelp as he was pinned to the ground.

“Hey, no fair!” the merman huffed, squirming around. His struggles stilled when he felt the sharkboy press against his back, a blush coloring his face.

“Lesson one,” Keith murmured, leaning close to his ear. “Never let your guard down.”

“Okay, okay, I get it hot-shot,” Lance snapped. “Now let me up.”

The shark complied. Before Lance had even straightened up he lashed out with his tail, grinning cockily. However, instead of tripping Keith up his tail only hit open water, the momentum making him spin off to the side. He let out a groan when hands closed around his wrists once more, pushing him into the sand.

“Nice try,” Keith smirked down at him.

“Just let me up for real this time,” the merman grumbled. The pressure disappeared from his back and he turned to face the shark, pouting.

“Now,” Keith spoke up, picking up the driftwood from where Lance had dropped it. “Disarm me.”

“Again?” the merman raised a brow incredulously.

Keith simply nodded in response. Without waiting a second longer he leapt into action. His hand was just about to close around the sharkboy’s wrist when Keith swerved away, using his other hand to knock Lance’s to the side. “Hey!” Lance huffed. He tried another go at it but Keith spun away just as effortlessly.

“Any enemy worth their salt will learn from their opponents moves,” Keith spoke up, all business once more. “You need to learn to strike when and where it’s least expected.”

“Alright,” Lance nodded. “So how do I do that?”

“Well, first you need to work on your stance.”

“My stance?”

“Yeah, it’s all over the place.”

“Rude!”

Keith rolled his eyes, ducking behind Lance. The next instant the merman suddenly forgot how to breath, two hands landing on his waist as the shark pressed in close behind him. “You need to hold you tail like this,” Keith murmured, his voice lowering with their close proximity. “That way you can maneuver away at a moments notice. And you need to angle your upper body like this-”

Despite his best efforts, Lance couldn’t hold back the small gasp that escaped him as Keith’s hands tightened on his waist, moving him into position. It was then that Keith seemed to realize how close they were, his face heating up as Lance turned to look at him over his shoulder. “Like this?” the merman breathed out.

“Y-yeah,” Keith stammered. “You look good.” He paused for a moment, eyes widening before exclaiming, “It! It looks good!”

There was a moment of silence before Lance burst out laughing. Keith could feel the way his body shook from where his hands still rested on the other boy’s waist, his face only getting redder. Lance was cut off by the sound of someone clearing their throat from behind them. The two spun around to find Pidge floating there.

“Sorry to interrupt-” she trailed off for a moment, eyes sweeping up and down their current position, “-whatever this is, but it’s time for bed.”

“Oh, yeah!” Lance squeaked, pulling away. “Be right there.”

Pidge shot them an unimpressed look. “Don’t be too long.” Then she turned and swam off.

Lance faced Keith again, face flushed and not quiet meeting his eyes. “Thanks for, you know. Helping teach me how to fight.”

“Y-yeah, of course,” Keith replied, his own cheeks burning as he studied the sand between them. “Do you want to do this again? Tomorrow night?”

“Yeah,” Lance breathed out, looking up to meet his eyes.

“Okay,” Keith whispered, giving the merman a small smile.

Lance nodded. “Okay.”

“Any day now!”

Lance’s head immediately snapped towards the sound. “Pidge!” he exclaimed. “I thought you already went back!”

“It’s not my fault you take a million years,” she grinned evilly.

“It was five seconds!”

“Thirty seconds.”

“Whatever!” Lance reached down to take the sharkboy’s hand. “Let’s go, Keith,” he muttered. Keith let himself be pulled after a cackling Pidge, trying desperately to make his face return to a normal shade.

Chapter Text

“Keith, help me!”

The sharkboy coughed, squirming weakly as a mixture of sand and blood filled his gills. All his limbs felt like they were made of jello, moving sluggishly through the water. An immense pressure pushed his head down, forcing him to choke on sand.

“Please, I don’t want to die! Please!”

Lance? Where was he? He couldn’t see anything, couldn’t move. All he could do was sink further into the sand as the crushing force held him down, each tiny grain digging into his skin like little knives.

“Keith, help, please! No, no, stop it! Don’t! Stop, PLEASE!”

A sickening snap rung through the water. Lance screamed.

 

 

The sharkboy bolted upright, his head instantly colliding with something. He let out a hiss of pain and rubbed at his skull, the throbbing reminiscent of the pressure that had been holding him down only moments before.

“Keith?” a tired voice whispered.

The shark’s eyes widened. He turned on his side, snatching the startled merman into his arms and pulling him against his shaking form. “Lance!” he choked out. “You were-- I’m so sorry, I- Lance!”

“Shhhh,” the merman said, reaching up to rub the shark’s back. “You’re okay. It was just a dream.” Lance started to hum softly to him, shushing Keith every now and then when a whimper tore its way from his throat. “You’re safe. I’ve got you.”

Keith glanced around, relief flooding him as he recognized the rocky overhang they had fallen asleep under. In the crevice next to them lay Hunk’s familiar form, his snores filling the water with a constant rumble. They were safe. It was just a dream.

“Lance-” the sharkboy sniffled out, burying his face into the merman’s shoulder. A few long moments passed, Lance continuing to hum as Keith slowly got his breathing under control. Just as the he was beginning to relax, the shark felt the hand on his back dip down to his tail. He stuttered out a gasp.

“I’ve got you,” Lance repeatedly sleepily, his hand massaging into the tense muscles of the shark’s tail. Keith felt his vision start to blur, his heart rate slowing down to a dull hum. The world was fading out around him, replaced by a soothing calm that seeped beneath his skin and flowed sluggishly in his veins. He was briefly aware of arching backwards through the water, Lance’s hand coming up to touch the soft scales on his underbelly. Then he was gone, lost in bliss and the feeling of weightlessness, floating but not existing, completely free from the restraints of the physical world.

There was no telling how much time passed in that blissful state, numb to all around him. Unfortunately, though, it had to come to an end. His eyes gradually refocused as his body curled to the side, feeling returning to him while a tan hand ran over his sensitive scales. The first thing he saw was Lance, all warm browns and cool blues, gazing at him through sleep-heavy eyes. Keith was so close that he could count every one of Lance’s eyelashes framing those deep blue irises, a soft smile just barely curling around the merman’s lips. The sharkboy had never seen anything more beautiful in his life. With his mind still half-dazed and his gaze focused on those soft lips, he leaned forward.

Lance let out a gasp and suddenly he was pulling away, recoiling, his hands withdrawing from Keith as an indescribable expression flashed across his face. The shark’s own eyes widened as he realized what he had just tried to do. He opened his mouth to explain, to apologize, to blame it on the trance, anything. However, Lance beat him to it.

“I’m sorry!” the merman gasped out, his voice breaking. He straightened up quickly and Keith instinctively tried to chase after him, desperate to feel the safety of those arms around him once more. However, Lance drew back, trying to hide his face. “I-I’m sorry, I just-” Then he was gone, darting out into the water beyond their shelter.

“Lance!” Keith cried out, ready to swim after him.

Suddenly a large hand landed on his chest, pushing him back. He cried out in alarm, whipping around to find Hunk giving him a sympathetic look. “I’ll go talk to him,” the merman rasped, voice heavy with sleep. He shot Keith a half-hearted smile before swimming after his friend.

The shark stared into the dark water where the two had disappeared. He had messed up. Lance was there for him, comforting him, holding him, and he had ruined that. His throat ached as he forced down a sob. He had just gotten so caught up in the moment. Everything had seemed right, the way Lance’s hand ghosted over his skin, the soft look in the merman’s eyes. But clearly he had messed up somehow, had caused Lance to run away with that pained look on his face. The shark sunk back to the sea floor, trembling as he ground his teeth together. He would not cry. It was his fault, he had no right to cry. Then, with one sharp intake of breath, his walls broke down.

 

 

“Lance, wait up!” Hunk called out, squinting to try and spot the blue-green scales in the water. “Lance!” Suddenly the other merman stopped, causing Hunk to yelp in surprise as he just narrowly missed colliding with him.

“I’m sorry,” Lance breathed out, his voice small and broken.

Hunk raised his eyebrows. “What’re you sorry for?”

“I-It shouldn’t be like this, I shouldn’t-” Lance cut himself off with a sharp intake of breath, wrapping his arms tightly around himself.

“Hey,” Hunk said gently, ducking down to look at Lance’s face. The smaller merman tried to turn away but Hunk stopped him with a hand on the shoulder. “You have nothing to be sorry for. It’s not your fault.”

“Isn’t it?” Lance sniffled. “There’s something wrong with me, Hunk, there’s gotta be, I just-”

“Stop that.” Lance glanced up at his words, surprised by his friend’s stern tone. “There’s nothing wrong with you. Relationships don’t always work out. That doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be loved.”

“But-”

“No buts. She’s the one that didn’t deserve you, Lance. You can’t blame yourself.” Hunk’s serious expression softened then, a mischievous glint in his eye. “You know I’ll gladly fight her if our migration paths ever cross again.”

Lance snorted, a weak, watery sound, but the smile on his face seemed genuine enough. “Thanks, Hunk.”

His friend returned his smile, pulling the smaller merman in for a hug. When he pulled away again, the serious expression was back on his face. “Is she why you ran away back there?”

Lance chewed on his lip, nodding slightly. “I’m just so scared, Hunk. I care about Keith so much and everything's been going great, but I can’t-” he let out a frustrated sigh. “I’m afraid that if we go beyond friends then he’ll leave me. He’ll get tired of me or maybe I’ll just become a nuisance or-” the merman paused as Hunk’s hand landed comfortingly on his shoulder. Lance met his friend’s eyes, giving him a grateful nod before taking a deep breath. “I don’t want to lose him.”

Hunk was silent for a moment, thinking over all Lance had said. When he spoke, he had a thoughtful look on his face. “I don’t think Keith would leave you. I mean, the dude’s crazy about you. He’s not the same as her. I think he really cares.”

“I’m just scared.” Lance’s voice came out so small that Hunk had to strain to hear him.

“Hey,” he spoke up, giving Lance a reassuring smile. “I’m not saying you have to go back there and suck his face off right this second.” Hunk raised his hand to placate Lance’s flustered sputtering, continuing on. “It’s okay if you’re not ready, man. There’s no rush. And if for some reason Keith’s not okay with that, then you just come tell me.” He gave Lance a conspiring wink, who just rolled his eyes in response. “In all seriousness though, I’m sure Keith will understand. Have you told him about her?”

Lance studied the sand as though it were the most interesting thing in the world. “No.”

“Are you going to tell him?”

The merman took in a shaky breath. “I probably should. But what am I even supposed to say? He’s had real hardships in his life.”

Hunk frowned at him, cutting his friend off. “Don’t compare your problems to his. They’re two very different things. Just because you weren’t raised in an evil shark army doesn’t mean what you’ve been through matters less.”

Lance sniffled, burying his face against Hunk’s shoulder as he pulled him in for another hug. “You’re the best, buddy, you know that?” he mumbled, voice muffled by Hunk’s chest.

“I know,” his friend teased, holding Lance close. They stayed like that for a long moment, just taking in the other’s stable presence. Finally, Hunk pulled away. “I should probably go back and make sure Keith isn’t crucifying himself right now.”

Lance winced. “I can’t believe I just ran. I made everything so much worse-”

“Hey, I said to stop that,” Hunk said sternly. “Just explain it to him.”

Lance nodded. “I will. Just, maybe not tonight? I need to prepare myself for all this emotional bullshit. And preferably be fully awake, you know?”

“Yeah,” Hunk agreed. “How about I go bunk with Matt and Pidge for the rest of the night? Then you two can get your cuddle on.”

Lance’s face flushed a deep red, but he gave his friend a grateful smile nonetheless. “Thanks, Hunk. For everything.”

“Of course,” Hunk returned his smile. “You coming?”

“I’ll be back in just a bit,” Lance replied, his voice getting a little strained once more. “I just need another moment.”

 

 

Hunk found Keith right where he’d left him, lying limply on the ground. His eyes were puffy and red as he stared miserably at the opposite wall. The sharkboy momentarily perked up when he heard the swish of fins in the water, but when he saw that Lance wasn’t there he sunk back down, grinding his teeth.

“Lance will be back soon,” Hunk whispered to him, shooting the sharkboy a sympathetic smile. “He just needs a moment.”

Keith clenched his jaw, nodding stiffly at the wall.

“Keith,” Hunk began, shooting the shark a worried look. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

The other boy snorted bitterly.

“I’m serious. Lance says he didn’t tell you, so you didn’t know.”

Those words finally caught Keith’s attention and he sat up, meeting Hunk’s eyes. “Didn’t know what?” His voice came out raw and raspy.

“He’s- had some trouble in the past. It’s not really my place to say,” Hunk answered, glancing awkwardly to the side.

The shark nodded slowly. “Will- will Lance tell me?”

Hunk smiled at him. “Just be patient with him. Give him time.”

It was just then that Keith saw a dark shape moving towards them through the water. He tensed up, only to relax a moment later when he recognized the blue scales. His breath caught in his throat as he took in the guarded expression on the merman’s face, not meeting either of their eyes. Keith’s heart throbbed painfully as he noticed the splotchy redness of Lance’s eyes. Had he done that?

“I’m going to go sleep with Matt and Pidge,” Hunk spoke up. He placed a hand comfortingly on Lance’s shoulder as he swam by. The smaller merman nodded to his friend, but kept his gaze carefully lowered to the floor.

A heavy silence hung in the water upon Hunk’s departure. Keith shifted around clearing his throat weakly. “I-I’m so sorry, Lance. I didn’t mean to hurt you, or freak you out or-”

His words caught in his throat as Lance surged forward, wrapping his arms around the sharkboy’s waist and hiding his face in the crook of Keith’s neck. Keith just floated there for a moment, stunned, before gingerly bringing his arms up around Lance. For a long time they just drifted there, Lance shaking slightly as Keith tightened his hold, hoping he’d never have to let go.

“Can we just go to sleep?” Lance finally whispered, his voice weak and shaky.

Keith nodded slightly before he realized the merman couldn’t see that. “Yes,” he whispered, guiding them down to the floor. Lance snuggled into him, a shaky breath leaving him. Softly, uncertainly, Keith let out a small trill. There was a pause during which the shark feared he might have messed up again. Then Lance trilled back, the sound wavering and vulnerable, but still full of fondness.

Letting out a relieved sigh, the sharkboy shut his eyes, reaching up to card his fingers gently through the merman’s hair. Lance let out a sigh of his own, leaning his weight into the other boy. “Thank you, Keith.”

The sharkboy glanced down at him in surprise, though he still couldn’t see Lance’s face. “For what?”

“For being here.”

Keith wanted to question him further, but there was something about this moment that felt so fragile, like one wrong move could break it wide open. Finally, he whispered, “I’ll always be here.”

“Don’t say that,” the merman whispered, his voice coming out strained.

“Why not?”

“Because you don’t know that.”

Keith ran his thumb over Lance’s cheek, back and forth. “I do though.”

“How can you be sure?”

Keith bit back the words on the tip of his tongue. Instead, he opened his mouth and whispered, “You said it yourself. We’re family.” He heard a sniffle and glanced down at the merman worriedly. “Lance?”

“Please don’t leave.”

“I won’t.”

“Please stay.”

“Always.”

Lance’s breathing was evening out, his body going limp against the sharkboy. Keith stroked his fingers through the merman’s hair, gazing at his face as it became peaceful with sleep. Softly, just before sleep took its hold on him as well, Keith whispered those three simple words he couldn’t say before.

Chapter Text

“Rise and shine, mullet.”

Keith groaned. He rolled to the side, batting at the hand that was gently shaking him.

“If you don’t hurry there won’t be any breakfast left.”

That was odd. The other soldiers didn’t typically care if he missed breakfast. It meant more food for them. Plus, no one cared about whether the half-breed was eating. Come to think of it, they didn’t call him mullet, either. And why was one touching him-

Keith’s eyes snapped open, his hand flying up to crush the fingers of the person shaking his shoulder. He snarled, baring his teeth.

“Ow, Keith, ow, ow!”

The shark’s eyes widened as he saw, not one of his unit members, but Lance, wincing at the pressure of having his hand crushed. “Lance!” Keith exclaimed, instantly releasing him. The merman rubbed at his sore fingers. “I’m sorry, I forgot where I was for a moment!”

Lance smiled understandingly at him. “It’s alright. I still technically have all my fingers, though I’m not sure I’ll be able to use them ever again.”

“I’m sorry!” Keith swam over, taking Lance’s hand in his so he could inspect the damage. He let out a worried trill, oblivious to the blush painting the merman’s face.

“I’m fine,” Lance waved his free hand dismissively. “I was just joking about that not being able to use my fingers thing. See?” He interlocked his fingers with Keith’s own, making a matching blush bloom across the sharkboy’s face. However, when Keith looked up to meet Lance’s smile, he noticed that it didn’t quite reach his eyes. There was something else there, dark and hidden just beneath the surface. He was just about to say something when Lance spoke up again. “I was serious about that breakfast thing. They won’t save any for us.”

“O-oh,” Keith stammered. “Right.”

Lance led the way, guiding Keith along from where their hands were still clasped. As they got closer to the center of the rock outcroppings, a voice drifted through the water.
“-ere supposed to watch them!”

“I’m sorry, I just thought-”

“You said that you wouldn’t let anything happen to Lance, so we trusted you with this. Then you just leave in the middle of the night?!”

“But they were-”

Keith glanced over at Lance, taking in the way the merman furrowed his brows, his mouth turned sharply downward. Keith was about to whisper something to him when Lance tugged them out into the open, clearing his throat loudly.

“Good morning everybody,” he called out, his tone not all that friendly. The rest of the group had already gathered. Matt and Pidge were distributing fish, Coran was digging in, and Allura was floating face to face with Hunk. She had been glaring at the merman up until Lance called out to them. At the sound of his voice she spun around, her eyes growing wide for a second before her face relaxed into a blank expression.

“Good morning,” she replied. “You’re just in time for breakfast.”

“Glad to hear we didn’t miss it,” Lance answered coolly.

“Right, well, eat up everyone. We have a long swim ahead.” Allura turned away, though not before shooting Hunk one more stern glare.

Lance led Keith over to Hunk, plopping down beside his friend. “What’s got her tail in a twist?” he whispered.

Hunk rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “She’s mad because I went to sleep with Pidge and Matt. I was kind of supposed to watch you guys.”

“Hunk!” Lance hissed.

“Hey,” his friend said defensively, “She was gonna make someone do it and I figured it was better me than her.”

Lance let out a sigh. “That’s fair.”

“Thanks, Hunk,” Keith murmured.

The other merman looked a bit startled by his words, but it was replaced a moment later with a warm smile. “No problem, buddy. I have a feeling I’m permanently off guard duty, though.”

Lance groaned, slumping dramatically to the ground. “Please, gods, don’t make Allura the babysitter!”

“Morning,” Pidge yawned, swimming over to them with her armful of fish. “Feast on the fruits of my labor, you bunch of freeloaders.” Hunk and Lance made no argument, snatching up the food. Matt swam up beside her, offering Keith an awkward, tense smile as he held out some fish. The sharkboy took it gratefully, giving the merman his own just as awkward smile.

“So,” Pidge continued, plopping down in front of Lance and giving him and Keith a rather unpleasant smirk. “What’d you two do last night?”

“Nothing,” Lance grumbled through his mouthful of fish.

“Apparently it was enough to send Hunk packing,” she snorted, turning to share a conspiring glance with him. However, she paused, frowning as Hunk shook his head slightly. The mermaid’s gaze traveled between him, Lance, and Keith, confusion coloring her features. She lingered on the last two, studying the bitter look on Lance’s face and the concern on Keith’s. After a moment she shrugged, biting into her fish.

“So,” Matt spoke up. “How far are we from this base?”

“Another few days,”Keith replied.

“Wonder if there are any shark babes there,” Matt said thoughtfully. Keith sputtered in shock as Lance burst out laughing. Pidge groaned, whacking her brother in the side.

“They could eat you in one bite, dude,” Hunk pointed out.

“Kinky,” Matt replied, wiggling his eyebrows. Lance’s laughter heightened as Keith just stared at Matt in mortification.

“Shut up, Matt,” Pidge groaned. “Besides, I’m the hot one. Any babes will be all over me.” She winked to no one in particular.

“Hey, you can’t have all the babes!” Matt exclaimed. “There’ll be some left for me! Right, Keith?”

For a moment the sharkboy just continued to gawk at him, letting Lance use him as a crutch while he snickered. Slowly a grin spread across Keith’s face, eyes narrowing. He made sure to deliberately drag his gaze from Matt’s head down to his tail as he said, “Sorry, man. They don’t go for shrimps.”

For a moment all was silent. Then Lance slapped Keith on the back, doubling over with renewed laughter. Pidge’s face lit up as well, rolling around as she cackled at her brother’s expense. Hunk looked like he was trying to hold it in, but as soon as the hushed word, “Burn,” left his lips he broke too. Keith stared around himself in bewilderment. A peel of laughter left his own lips when he caught sight of Lance’s red face, the merman wheezing against his shoulder.

“Hey!” Matt cried out indignantly. “I thought you were supposed to be on merkind's side!”

“Hate to break it to you, bro,” Pidge snickered. “But finding you a mate ain’t for the good of merkind.”

“It’d be for the good of this merkind member,” he grumbled, though the smile breaking across his face gave away his true feelings. “Wait, if I’m a shrimp, then what’s Lance?”

“Hey!” Lance snapped, shooting Matt a playful glare.

“I’m serious! He’s like the same size as me! How come he gets a shark babe?”

Keith flushed, averting his gaze.

“What can I say, I’m a charmer,” Lance smirked, flinging his arm across Keith’s shoulder.

“As if,” Pidge snorted. “You guys attacked each other when you first met. So Matt, I guess if you’re willing to get stabbed-”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Matt cut her off. “I’m not that desperate.”

“Ah, the things you do for love,” Pidge snickered, faking a swoon. Just then Lance straightened up, his smile disappearing in an instant. All humor was gone from his eyes as he turned sharply, swimming away without a word. The mood instantly shifted, the laughter dying from the water in the retreating merman’s wake. “Lance?” Pidge called uncertainly, her own smile dropping.

“Lance!” Keith exclaimed, about to go after him. A hand on his shoulder made him pause, turning to find Hunk giving him a stern look.

“Remember,” the merman said. “Be patient with him.” Then his expression softened into a reassuring smile, releasing his grip on Keith. The sharkboy nodded, turning to hurry after Lance.

“What was that about?” Matt asked, raising his eyebrows.

Hunk turned to them with a sigh, locking eyes with Pidge. “It’s her.”

 

 

“Lance!” Keith called. “Lance, hold on!”

“Go back, Keith,” the merman called over his shoulder. “I just wanna stretch my tail. I’ll be back in a moment.”

“Lance, what’s wrong?” Keith asked, trying desperately to catch up with the speeding merman.

“Nothing’s wrong!” Lance scoffed. “Everything’s great and perfect and I’ve never been happier!”

“You don’t sound happy.”

“I’m peachy!”

“What does that even mean?!” The shark finally caught up to him, grabbing the merman by the shoulders and spinning him around. “Stop running away!”

“Let go of me!” Lance snarled, wrenching himself free. He looked up to meet Keith’s eyes but the harsh words he had planned died on the tip of his tongue. Keith was looking at him with big eyes, overflowing with hurt and worry and fear and so much more. So many things that Lance never wanted to see written across the sharkboy’s face, let alone all at once.

“What did I do?” Keith whispered brokenly.

“No,” Lance murmured. “No, no, no, it’s not you. Keith, I’m sorry.” He approached the sharkboy, hesitantly wrapping his arms around him. When Keith didn’t push him away he tightened his hold. “I’m sorry, please don’t look at me like that. I shouldn’t have snapped at you. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Are you sure?” Keith whispered.

“Positive,” Lance replied.

The shark let out a sigh, reaching up to return Lance’s embrace as he nuzzled into him. “What’s wrong, Lance? Why are you acting like this? Why do you keep running away?”

“I-” Lance swallowed thickly. “I’m scared.”

“Of what? You don’t need to be scared, I’ll protect you-”

“No, Keith,” the merman sighed. “This isn’t something you can protect me from.”

The sharkboy frowned at that. “Then what is it?” When Lance didn’t respond right away he continued on. “Hunk said you’d had some trouble in the past. Is that what’s going on?”

Lance tensed up at his words. “Did Hunk tell you what that trouble was?”

“No,” Keith murmured. “He said it wasn’t his place to say.”

Lance relaxed, letting out a sigh. “He’s a good friend.”

They floated there in silence for a moment, nothing but the sound of water swishing through their gills. Finally, Keith spoke up. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Lance said quickly. “Yeah, I-” He paused for a moment, frowning. “Actually, no. I’m not.”

Keith flinched at his cold tone. He started to draw back. “I-I’m sorry, I-”

“What?” Lance asked, eyes widening. “No!” He tightened his hold on Keith, pulling him back in. “No, I didn’t mean with this. Or with-with you.”

“Oh,” Keith sighed, relaxing into Lance’s arms. “Then, what is it?”

“It’s-” Lance let out a frustrated sigh. “It’s stupid.”

“If it’s making you this upset then it’s not stupid,” Keith whispered, nuzzling in close.

Lance’s breath caught in his throat, though he still managed to choke out a response. “But it is! It always feels like I’m making a bigger deal out of it then there needs to be.”

“You can talk to me, Lance,” Keith murmured. “I’ll listen. If you want.”

Lance sighed. “I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t ever want to, but I think I need to. Just keeping it inside clearly isn’t doing anyone any good. And I think you deserve to know, since-” The merman trailed off there, casting his eyes down. “Just, try not to laugh at me, okay? I’ve already built it up to be this big thing and it’s not really.”

Keith pulled back a bit, just enough so he could see Lance’s face. He took both the merman’s hands in his, squeezing tightly as he fixed the other boy with a sincere look. “I would never laugh at you. Just, talk to me, Lance.”

The merman let out a shaky breath, not quite able to meet Keith’s eyes. “Right. Okay. Yeah. So, you know mates are a big deal, right? Especially for us merfolk. We bond for life.”
Keith nodded encouragingly, trying to force down the blush on his face.

“So I’ve dated a few people from other shoals. None of them ever really worked out, which hurt a lot at the time, but I was able to heal and grow from all of those. I at least learned a lot. But the last relationship I was in- It was different.” He took in a shaky breath, eyes darting up to Keith’s for a moment before they lowered back down.

“She-she was cruel. It started out fine. We didn’t really know each other. And I wasn’t as open and honest with her as I should have been about my feelings, so maybe that messed some of it up. I don’t regret my other relationships, but they still made me cautious about really opening up to others. But our relationship all started out normal. Then it just- wasn’t.”

Keith squeezed the merman’s hand reassuringly, causing Lance to shoot him a grateful smile before continuing.

“I wasn’t ever allowed to touch her in public. If I ever tried to hold her hand she would get angry at me, and the one time I kissed her on the cheek, she was livid. I thought that was fine. Not everyone likes to be touched all the time, you know? But she never sat me down and told me she was uncomfortable with it. Instead she would just get angry. She’d snap at me or make a point ignoring me the rest of the day. One time she even hit me.”

Keith snarled at that, baring his teeth at this mermaid he’s never even seen before.

“It’s not as bad as I make it sound!” Lance said quickly. “It wasn’t so much a hit, she just slapped me. It didn’t even really hurt, I was just shocked.”

“She shouldn’t have done that,” Keith growled.

“But-”

“I don’t care why!” Keith snapped. “I don’t care if it didn’t hurt! She shouldn’t have done that! You don’t hit someone you care about!”

Lance huffed out a laugh; a dry-humorless sound. “That’s the thing, buddy. She never cared about me.”

Keith took one look at the broken expression on the merman’s face and let out a concerned trill, pulling the other boy closer. He held Lance tight, reaching up to run his fingers through the other boy’s hair. He felt the merman curl into him, his own grip tightening as he nuzzled into the shark’s neck.

After a long moment, Keith finally whispered, “I care about you.” There was a pause. Then suddenly Lance sobbed, hiding his face in the other boy’s shoulder. “Lance?” Keith gasped. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-”

“I care about you too,” Lance interrupted, his voice high-pitched and broken. “I’m so scared-”

“I’m not like her,” Keith whispered. “I would never treat you like that.”

Lance half-laughed, half-sobbed into his neck. “You haven’t even heard the worst part,” he croaked.

“There’s more?” Keith murmured, his heart sinking.

“Wish there wasn’t,” Lance sniffled. He took a moment to calm down, though his voice was still a little unsteady when he next spoke. “Do you- do you want to hear about it? I’ve already been rambling on-”

“Yes,” Keith interrupted him. To be honest, Keith wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to hear more. This was already so much, the anger bubbling beneath his skin threatening to spill over. He felt like he was drowning in the look of pain on Lance’s face. But he needed to hear it, hear all of it. He needed Lance to trust him. “Tell me, Lance.”

The merman swallowed heavily, taking in a breath. When he next spoke he couldn’t quite meet the sharkboy’s eyes. “She started flirting with other people in front of me,” he rasped out, so quiet Keith had to strain to hear him. “This one guy in particular. One time they were even cuddling while I was sitting right next to them. I should’ve confronted her, I should’ve said something. But I kept telling myself that it was my fault. That I was being unreasonable and jealous. She was allowed to have friends, I couldn’t control her life.” The merman scoffed. “Anyone with half a brain could see that they weren’t just friends. That’s the thing. Every shitty thing she did to me, I always blamed myself. I thought I was being too controlling or too sensitive or too clingy. I wanted to respect her. I wanted to respect her life and her space and just- her. So every time she did something cruel, every time she treated me like shit I would just blame myself and move along.”

The merman took in a breath, letting it out slowly. Quietly, uncertainly, he spoke again. “Then she cheated on me. It wasn’t even with the guy she’d spent most of her time flirting with, either. It was with some random dude she’d just met. She apparently lied to him, said she was single. I didn’t find out until I overheard her brother talking about the date she was on.”

Lance laughed bitterly then. “The most ironic thing was that was the day I finally decided to confront her. I was going to talk to her about how I wasn’t okay with the way she acted around all those other boys. Except, of course, I couldn’t find her because she was on a date. It’s funny. I had convinced myself that I loved her. And that’s the worst part.”

A sob tore it’s way from Lance’s lips as Keith watched in dismay. However, the merman didn’t stop, continuing right on with his story.

“I did love her, Keith. She treated me like shit. She ignored me and avoided me and mocked me. But I loved her! How could I love a person like that? How much do you have to hate yourself to fall in love with someone that cruel? What’s wrong with me?”

At that point Lance broke down, dissolving into deep, painful sobs and gasping breaths. Keith let out a frightened trill, wincing at how tightly Lance clung to him. However, he made no move to loosen the merman’s grip, his heart feeling as though it were shattering as he listened to Lance gasp next to him. He rocked the merman gently, trying desperately to remember the tune Lance had hummed to him so many times before.

Chapter Text

“I-I’m sorry,” Lance was gasping between sobs. “I-I’m so sorry. I said too much, this is why I didn’t want to talk about it, it’s all so stupid!”

“Lance, no-” Keith started to say.

The merman let out a laugh; a sharp, unpleasant sound. “God, this is so pathetic. You grew up with a bunch of murderous psychopaths and here I am, the loser whining cause he got cheated on-”

“Lance, that’s enough!” Keith snapped. He felt the merman flinch in his arms and he let out a soothing trill to try and calm him. “You’re not a loser. And you have every right to be upset. What she did to you was horrible. You gave her your love and your trust and she just- just-” The shark let out an angry growl. “I don’t know how someone could do all that to you. I don’t know how someone could do that to anybody!” Keith shut his eyes for a second, taking a deep breath as he tried to get his anger under control. Anger wouldn’t help Lance right now. He had to focus on Lance. Just Lance. “You didn’t deserve to be treated like that, Lance. You’re-you’re wonderful.”

The merman sobbed louder, his body shaking.

Keith winced. “Am- am I making this worse?”

Lance shook his head against Keith’s shoulder and the shark sighed in relief. “I-I’m s-sorry,” the merman gasped out.

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Keith whispered. “It’s okay, I’m here. I’d never hurt you like that.”

“K-Keith!” the merman rasped out, whatever else he was going to say swallowed by another painful sounding sob.

“You’re okay,” Keith murmured. There was a pause for a moment, the shark thinking something over before he spoke again. “You were wrong, though.” He felt Lance tense against him, so he rubbed his hand soothingly up and down the merman’s back. “This is something that I can protect you from. I won’t let anyone hurt you like this ever again.” The sobs that left Lance’s throat had Keith wincing. “Are you sure I’m not making things worse?”

Lance shook his head vigorously once more.

“Okay,” Keith whispered. “You can cry as long as you need.” He started to hum, trying his best to recreate the song Lance had hummed for him so many times before. It was shaky at best, but it at least resembled music. It seemed to do the trick, too, as Lance’s sobbing slowly subsided until he was left gasping for breath, shaking against the sharkboy.
“We should get back to the others soon,” Keith breathed out. “He felt the merman nod against him. “Hey, let me see your face.” He reached down gently, cupping Lance’s cheeks and guiding him up into view. The merman was a mess, face all splotchy and eyes so red they outshone his blue. “Maybe we better wait a little more.” Keith gave him a soft, teasing smile.

The merman nodded again, pressing his forehead against the shark’s. Keith’s eyes widened, his breath catching in his throat. He could see the freckles that just faintly dusted the bridge of Lance’s nose, and the graceful curve of the eyelashes lining his shut lids.

“Lance,” the shark breathed out, a pang in chest as the question forced its way up his throat. “Do you still love her?”

Lance pulled back, though only just slightly. When his eyes opened they were dark and empty, like the calm in the waves right before a storm. Keith felt a shiver run down his spine. “No,” Lance rasped out, his voice raw but sincere.

Keith nodded slightly, warmth spreading through his chest. “Good,” he whispered, not sure what else to say. “That’s good.”

Lance smiled half-heartedly. “It might’ve taken getting cheated on, but even I have standards.”

“Wish you would’ve dropped her sooner,” Keith muttered, some of his anger seeping out. Lance pulled away, trying to hide his face but Keith saw the hurt look there before he could turn around. “Lance, wait!” the shark exclaimed, reaching out to catch his wrists and pull him back in. “I didn’t mean that as blaming you! I’m just-” he grit his teeth. “I’m so angry. I’m so angry that you’re hurt and I can’t even do anything about it. It’s frustrating.” He let out a huff, glaring at the ground. Just then a peel of laughter broke out. The shark glanced up with wide eyes, seeing a genuine smile across the merman’s face. “What-?”

“Oh my god, you’re adorable,” Lance snickered.

The sharkboy felt his face flush bright red. “What?!”

“I tell you this shitty story and your first reaction is to pout because you can’t beat anything up for me!”

“I don’t pout!” Keith exclaimed indignantly, very much pouting. However, only a moment later his lips were curving up into a wicked grin. “And who says I can’t beat anything up? You point me in the direction of your ex and I promise I’ll get results.”

Lance laughed louder, his grin infectious as it softened Keith’s own smile. When he finally calmed down he brought his hand up to rest on the sharkboy’s cheek. “Adorable,” he murmured.

Keith didn’t know it was possible for him to blush any deeper but there he was, drowning in the soft look the merman was giving him. Maybe now wasn’t the time. Lance had just admitted he was afraid of relationships, and it was only yesterday he’d pushed Keith away. Now probably wasn’t the time. But the shark found himself throwing caution to the wind as he took in the beautiful boy before him.

“Lance, I-”

“Hey guys.”

Keith sprung back, him and Lance both turning towards the voice. Hunk was floating there sheepishly, Pidge beside him. The smaller mermaid was giving Lance a worried look.

“Sorry to interrupt, but Allura says we gotta get going,” Hunk spoke up, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Oh, okay,” Lance nodded. He shot Keith one last heart-stopping smile before reaching down to lace their fingers together.

“Are you doing better, buddy?” Hunk asked as he turned to swim back.

“Yeah.” Lance gave his friend a grateful smile while he and Keith swam after him. “Better.”

Pidge fell back to Lance’s other side, still looking worried. “I’m sorry, Lance,” she spoke up. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“It’s okay,” the merman replied. “You were just joking around. I shouldn’t have reacted that way.”

Keith squeezed his hand, frowning at him. “You’re fine, Lance.”

“Yeah, don’t go throwing yourself a pity party,” Pidge said, nudging him lightly. “At least not unless we’re invited.”

“So, did you guys talk?” Hunk asked.

Keith nodded and Lance breathed out, “Yeah.”

Hunk studied the peaceful look on his best friend’s face before he turned to Keith, patting him on the back. “Good,” he murmured, smiling gratefully at the shark. Keith returned his smile, nodding softly to him.

 

 

Allura was glowering at all of them when they came back. She swam up to Lance, shooting him a cold look. “Lance, a word,” the merleader hissed. Keith tensed beside him but Lance gave him a reassuring smile, squeezing his hand before letting go to swim after Allura. He could feel the shark’s eyes burning into the back of his head the entire way.
Allura led him just far enough to be out of earshot from the others before she turned to him. “You can’t just swim off like that!” the merleader snapped. “Need I remind you that we are on this mission because of a shark threat in our waters. Going off on your own puts not only yourself in danger, but all of us. It compromises the mission, endangers our lives, and endangers the shoal!”

Lance glared down at the ground. “I’m sorry,” he muttered.

“That’s not good enough,” she hissed. “You are on this mission because the shark trusts you. Now prove that I can trust you.”

Lance winced. “Are you saying you don’t trust me?”

“I’m saying you need to take this seriously,” Allura snapped.

“I am taking it seriously!”

“Then act like it!”

Lance was opening his mouth to retort when Allura’s face changed, the anger seeping out to be replaced by fatigue. There was something else hiding in her eyes, too. Something shining just below the surface that he couldn’t quite place. He paused, studying his leader’s face as she opened her mouth to speak once more. “You could have been attacked. You could have been killed, Lance. I promised your mother I would keep you safe. And even if I hadn’t, I would never let harm befall any member of my shoal.” She placed her hand on the bewildered merman’s shoulder. “Do not make the mistake of thinking the shark is the only one who cares for your well-being.”

For a moment they just drifted there, staring at one another, Lance with shock and Allura with a sort of tired concern. “Allura, I’m sorry-”

“Just don’t let it happen again.” His leader waved dismissively. She shot him an easy smile. “I have enough to worry about as it is.”

Lance nodded, smiling back as he gave her a salute. “You got it, boss.”

The merleader rolled her eyes. “Come, we’ve wasted enough daylight.”

As soon as the pair had turned back towards the others Keith shot over to them, taking Lance’s hand protectively. The merman got the feeling he had been watching the entire time. “What did she say to you?” he whispered as Allura swam ahead. Keith seemed extra on edge since Lance’s break down, glaring at Allura’s retreating back.

Lance huffed out a laugh, ruffling the sharkboy’s hair. His grin only widened at the indignant look Keith gave him. “She was just telling me not to swim off. She’s right, I shouldn’t just stray away from you guys in unknown waters. Plus I was holding up the whole mission.”

“That’s not your fault,” Keith huffed out.

“Running off was,” Lance shrugged. “I could’ve had a date with Sendak’s teeth.” The sharkboy winced, growling lowly. “Hey, it’s okay,” Lance murmured. “I’m fine, and I won’t just run off like that again, alright?”

“Idiot,” Keith grumbled, nuzzling into his side.

“You didn’t think of it either,”Lance snorted. “Now who’s the idiot?”

The shark shot him a soft smile. “Guess we both are.”

“Yeah,” Lance smiled back. “Guess we are.”

“Ew.”

The two whipped around to find Pidge side-eyeing them. “I know you two are very busy being gross, but try to keep up, will you?”

“Y-yeah,” Keith stammered out, his face heating up. Lance snickered slightly at his reaction and the shark shot him a glare.

“Sounds like someone’s jealous they don’t have a shark babe,” Lance quipped back at Pidge. That topic certainly wasn’t helping Keith’s blush.

“Hey,” Pidge held her hands up defensively. “That was Matt going on about shark babes, not me.”

From further ahead her brother groaned. “I talk about shark babes one time-!”

“That literally happened a few minutes ago,” Lance pointed out.

Pidge wiggled her eyebrows at him. “You missed some rather merciless teasing while you two were giving each other the smoochy eyes.”

Lance winced and Keith tensed beside him. Pidge seemed to catch what she had said and was opening her mouth to apologize when Lance spoke up. “Smoochy eyes? Pidge, ew.”

Pidge and Keith both let out a sigh of relief. Keith shot the mermaid a teasing smile as he let himself relax again. “And you call us the gross ones,” he said.

Pidge shrugged, smirking at them. “I call it like I see it.”

“Smoochy eyes, eh?”

The kids all collectively jumped, not realizing Coran had been listening in on their conversation. “Back in my day we just called it good old macking.”

Keith watched curiously as the mermaids around him groaned in unison.

“Look at what you’ve done,” Hunk chided.

“You’ve doomed us all,” Matt added mournfully.

“No, really,” Coran piped up. “The evolution of the ‘hip lingo’ among you kids is rather fascinating. Now I remember-”

“Settle in,” Lance whispered into Keith’s ear. “It’s gonna be a long swim.”

Chapter Text

The next few days were mostly uneventful. That was probably why they were some of the best days of Keith’s life. There were no army drills to run, no reconnaissance missions, no getting chewed out or beat down by the higher ups. No dodging from shipwreck to shipwreck under the constant fear of being caught and killed. There was of course the ever present threat of Sendak looming over all their heads, and the urgency of their mission. But compared to what his life once was, their journey practically felt like a vacation.

Allura was still mostly distant from the others, watching Keith’s every move closely. But Matt had warmed up to him quickly after seeing how relaxed his sister was around the shark, and Coran seemed to enjoy talking to Keith as well. Although the others always groaned when the older merman started another wild tale, the stories really did help pass the time. Besides, Lance would typically jump in after a while, doing funny voices for the characters or even helping Coran act out the more outrageous scenes. Sometimes Lance pulled the others in to join them. He had managed to get Keith to play the part of a damsel in distress one time, though he’d had to promise Keith whatever he wanted in return. The shark was going to hold it over his head for a while, really mull it over and bring up that promise every now and then just to see Lance sweat. In all honesty, though, he didn’t know what he would ask for. This was the first time in his life he could ever remember feeling this happy. What more could he want?

Staring at Lance’s peacefully sleeping face, Keith knew exactly what more he wanted. There was a dull ache in his chest every time he looked at the merman, even in their happiest moments. His skin burned everywhere they touched despite the coolness of Lance’s body, and he found that all it took to get his heart racing was one glance from those blue eyes, the slightest curve of those copper lips, or a simple brush from cerulean fins. Yes, he knew exactly what he wanted. But he couldn’t ask Lance for that.

The merman had just explained a few days earlier that he was scared. He wasn’t ready to be in a relationship. He wasn’t ready to be that open and vulnerable, to trust himself to another person. Honestly, Keith understood that. He didn’t feel ready either. He was terrified at the thought of Lance getting hurt, his nightmares proof of that. Or maybe this was all some big joke, the universe just laughing at him, and one day Lance would wake up and see him as the monster everyone else thought he was. He was absolutely terrified. But all it took was one look at the merman’s face and Keith didn’t care anymore. He couldn’t give a damn about his fears, not with this beautiful boy smiling, laughing, crying, and just living in front of him. He couldn’t give a damn about anything but Lance.

That’s why he allowed himself these selfish moments. These stolen glances throughout the day and gentle touches at night, just soft enough so as not to wake the merman. He allowed himself one such moment right now, leaning forward to press a feather-light kiss to Lance’s forehead. The merman’s bangs tickled his nose and he nuzzled his cheek into the brown locks. Lance stirred in his sleep, groaning slightly, and the shark froze. However, the merman made no other sound and Keith allowed himself to relax, sighing in contentment. This was enough, he told himself. For now, this could be enough. The familiar ache in his chest seemed to disagree.

 

 

“Wow,” Lance whispered, staring down into the gaping void before him. “You weren’t kidding when you said bigger.”

“I can’t even see the other side!” Hunk exclaimed. “Are you sure the base is down there and not somewhere brightly lit and cozy?”

Keith shot the merman an amused smile. “Nope, it’s down there,” he replied.

“Oh,” Hunk sighed in disappointment. “I guess having one non-deadly adventure really was too much to ask.”

“Non-deadly?” Pidge scoffed. “Where’s the fun in that?”

“That’s my sister!” Matt beamed, high-fiving her. “Seriously though, you die down there and I’ll kill you.”

“Same here, bro,” Pidge grinned, punching him in the shoulder. “Because if either of us dies, mom’ll kill whoever's the survivor.”

“True,” Matt nodded sagely. “And she’ll probably find a way to bring us back from the dead just so she can kill us all over again.”

“Never doubt the wrath of that woman,” Pidge mumbled. Despite her words there was a sad glint in her eye. Her brother seemed to catch it, and he reached down to place a hand on her shoulder. “It’ll be okay, Pidge,” he whispered. “Us Holt’s are made of sturdy stuff.”

She smiled gratefully at him. “Thanks, Matt.”

“Uh question?” Hunk spoke up. “What if you’re not made of sturdy stuff? What if you just taste really delicious and all the trench monsters want to eat you?”

Lance rested his hand on his best friend’s arm. “Hunk, it’s not your fault you’re a total snack. We both know that beauty comes with a price.”

“Yeah, yeah, thanks buddy, but like really though,” Hunk continued, his worried expression never dropping. “Because personally I’d rather not be a snack since we literally could be facing off against evil monsters soon.”

“Just stay behind me,” Keith spoke up, shooting a determined glare down into the darkness below. “I’ve only been here once before but I still remember the way. If we move quickly we can be out of danger before we ever have to fight.”

“The shark brings up a good point,” Allura said, turning to address the others from where she, too, had been staring down into the void. “We must move quickly and be ready for a fight at any turn. If all goes smoothly we won’t ever have to raise our spears, but we must be ready for anything down there.”

“You heard our leader,” Coran chimed in. “Everyone, brace yourselves. Whether its a gnarled fumpcus or a jolly gorganford, we have to be prepared!”

“I don’t think we’ll be seeing either of those,” Keith said, trying to force down his smile.

“A gnarled-” Hunk muttered to himself. “Oh god, I think I’m gonna be sick!”

Lance floated over to comfort his best friend. Meanwhile, Matt and Pidge were caught up in Coran’s detailed explanation of the perils of the jolly gorganford. Keith was about to swim after Lance when he felt a hand land on his shoulder, stopping him. He turned, surprised to find Allura floating there. “Tell me,” the merleader said, her tone grave. “What can we expect down there?”

Keith cast his eyes aside. “Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. I didn't encounter anything when I was taken to the base. But the blade doesn’t exactly choose it’s hideouts for their safe and easy locations.”

Allura nodded solemnly. “And you remember the way?”

“Yes,” Keith replied. It may have been over a year ago, but he could never forget that night. The frantic rush, Shiro hurrying him on, the eeriness of the empty water when he knew at every turn something could emerge from it. It was burned into his mind. He could almost hear Shiro’s voice, whispering, ‘Remember this. You might need to find your way back.’

Allura’s voice broke him out of his thoughts. “Don’t lead us astray.” She pinned the shark with her sharp stare, not hostile this time, but still intense and demanding. He felt the instinctual urge to flinch back, but the shark forced himself to stand his ground.

“I won’t,” he promised, meeting her gaze. The two just floating there a moment, staring each other down. Then all of a sudden something barreled into Keith’s side, making him cry out in alarm. He hit the sand, his line of sight immediately filled with an obnoxious grin.

“I recall someone telling me to always be on guard,” Lance quipped, laughing at the glare Keith shot him.

“Hmm?” Keith hummed, not even bothering to struggle against the weight Lance was leaning on his wrists. “Guess you’re rubbing off on me.”

“Hey!” the merman huffed indignantly.

“Really?” Pidge groaned off to the side. “Right out in public?”

“I-I wasn’t-!” Lance sputtered, getting off Keith hastily. “We weren’t-!”

The sharkboy’s blush was just as bad as Lance’s, but despite his own mortification he couldn’t help but burst out laughing when Lance turned to him with helpless eyes, gesturing wildly as if to get Keith to back him up. The merman sputtered some more at Keith’s reaction, though eventually he let a grin crack across his own face. Pidge rolled her eyes at them, turning away to try and hide her smile.

“Everyone, gather around!” Allura called out, effectively silencing Keith’s laughter. He took the hand Lance offered him and straightened up, swimming over to join the others. “We have no more time to delay,” Allura continued, her eyes sweeping over them all. “The shoal is in danger, and our best hope lies at the bottom of this trench. I want all of you on guard. We don’t know what’s down there and casualties are not acceptable. That’s why everyone must stick together and have their spears at the ready. The shark will take the lead.” She nodded to Keith, moving aside so that he could come to the front.

Keith squeezed Lance’s hand as he leaned in close. “I’ll protect you,” he whispered.

Lance shot him a playful smirk. “Ditto, Mullet,” he murmured back, making Keith roll his eyes.

Reluctantly, Keith released the merman’s hand, swimming up to the front. He turned to glance at the others over his shoulder, saying, “Stay to close to me.” Then, without further delay, he dove into the darkness below.

 

 

“Okay, is anyone else totally creeped out right now?” Matt whispered. Pidge hissed for him to be quiet. “I’m just saying. It’s so dark I’m pretty sure my night vision is kicking into overdrive and I still can’t see anything.”

“Hush!” Allura hissed. She turned to Keith, narrowing her eyes. “How can you tell where we’re going, exactly?” the merleader whispered.

“We just need to reach the bottom,” Keith whispered back. “I can find our way from there.”

“How long will it take for us to get there?” Lance murmured from behind him.

Keith glanced down into the void stretching endlessly below them. “Long,” he answered unhelpfully.

“Will we need to rest before reaching this base?” Allura asked, her fins flaring slightly. She was not comfortable with making camp in open waters, in the middle of a trench no less.

“No,” Keith shook his head. “We might be worn out, but we should get there in time.”

The merleader nodded, turning away.

The silence that followed was eerie. It rolled over them, surrounding them, suffocating them as though it had become something physical that they could feel pressing into their skin. It didn’t help that there was literally nothing around them. They had swam far enough away from the cliff walls that there was nothing but empty water, stretching down into darkness. Keith was reminded of the dream he’d had right after Sendak attacked. That point where the nightmare had shifted and he found himself floating in empty water, nothing below or above. The point where he had lost Lance.

He shivered, trying to shake those thoughts away. They were fine. He hadn’t encountered anything the first time he was here. There probably wasn’t anything to encounter. The base was just far away and hard to find. That’s all. Besides, if anything tried to come at them, he would surely hear it before it could strike.

Only he didn’t hear it. He didn’t hear anything. All had been silent except for the swish of their fins in the water and the faint, hushed fluttering of their gills. There was no bloodthirsty roar, no chilling growl, no warning at all. Nothing could have prepared them.

Hunk saw it first. The scream had just barely left his mouth when the tentacle came down right in the middle of their group. Keith tried to turn but the force of the giant appendage dragged him down with its current, causing him and Allura to spiral away from the others. He beat his tail furiously until he finally had control of himself again, whipping around to spot their attacker. His stomach churned at the sight that greeted him, dread sitting deep in his gut.

The creature was enormous. Each one of them was barely as big as the tip of one of its tentacles. He managed to dive to the side as one of the sickly pale arms lashed out at him, the whole thing thicker than his own body. A giant sucker cup grazed him, its serrated edges digging into his skin and drawing a small trickle of blood.

It was then that he heard the scream. He knew that scream. He had heard it the day Sendak ground his face into the sand. He had been forced to listen to it, again and again, in his nightmares. He would never forget that sound.

“Lance!” Keith wailed, diving in the direction of the noise. Just then the giant squid turned slightly, it’s massive body getting in Keith’s way. He could see it’s beak, open slightly, the teeth lining its tongue a sure promise of agonizing death. He cursed loudly as fear chilled the blood in his veins, switching directions to try and maneuver around the monster. He had to get to Lance. He promised he would protect him. He promised-

A jet of water stronger than the fiercest hurricane hit him, the squid propelling itself forward. He was flung backwards, spinning endlessly. The force was enough to wrench his mouth open as his breakfast violently forced its way back up. He might have been screaming. He couldn’t tell.

Keith’s head was starting to go numb, the pressure quickly becoming unbearable as the world spun around and around and around. All his flailing couldn’t stop the sickening tumble through the water, the darkness opening up to swallow him. He managed to catch one last blurry glimpse of a white speck, thread-like tentacles waving about. He was a lot farther away than he had been a few seconds ago. A few hours? He couldn’t tell. The shark jerked around in another spin, just hard enough to finally rip the consciousness from his unwilling body.

Chapter Text

Waking up was like being pulled through shards of glass. Keith fought it, wanting desperately to slip back into the numbness of nothing. However, once he became aware of existence once more he couldn’t escape. First came the sensation that he had a body, and then there were the various dull throbbing pains that seemed to spread through it, growing in intensity. They pulsed beneath his skin, the soreness of aching muscles, the slight sting along his side, the cold water rushing unevenly into his gills. His head throbbed, and his neck was especially tender. Then something touched him.

Keith shrieked, all his survival instincts kicking in as his eyes flew open. There was a startled yelp and he whirled around, baring his teeth. He found himself facing the pointy end of a spear, beyond it a familiar pair of blue eyes. Not the eyes he needed to see.

“Allura,” Keith croaked out, his voice strained. “Where’s-” he glanced around in confusion. “Where’s Lance?”

The merleader lowered her spear, though she still seemed to be scrutinizing the shark closely. “Do you remember what happened?”

“Remember-” Keith trailed off, furrowing his brow. Everything hurt and his mind felt groggy. He looked around, hoping to catch a flash of blue and brown. There was nothing but them. “Lance?”

“We were attacked,” Allura told him. “The giant squid-”

Keith cut her off with a gasp, his eyes flying wide open. The squid! Lance’s screaming, and then the jet of water-

“Where’s Lance!” Keith shouted, turning frantically towards the mermaid. “What happened while I was out?!”

“Calm down,” Allura growled lowly. “Panicking will not help.”

“Where is he?!” Keith snarled.

The merleader’s eyes widened, her grip on her spear tightening. “I don’t know,” she admitted, guilt flashing across her features. “You and I were thrown back by the squid. It took me awhile to search, but I eventually found you again.”

“How long was I out?” Keith asked, fear coursing through him like an electric current. Where was lance? He had to find Lance.

“Only a few minutes,” Allura replied. “You woke up as soon as I touched you.” The shark darted off, causing the merleader to let out a startled cry. “Where are you going?” she called, swimming after him.

“I need to find Lance!” He whipped around, letting out an impatient growl as he realized he didn’t know which direction to go. He spun towards Allura, startling her as she instinctively lowered her spear, hissing angrily. However, Keith payed the threat no mind, instead demanding, “What direction did we come from?”

The merleader gestured with her spear.“The squid was over that way.”

Without waiting another second Keith shot away, not caring whether the mermaid was following. He had to find Lance. The merman had been screaming. He could still be in danger. He could be hurt. He could be-

The sharkboy shook his head, clearing his mind of those thoughts. It wouldn’t help to dwell on them now. He had to just keep moving, keep searching. He opened his mouth and let out a loud, rumbling trill. It rolled through the water around them, carrying on and on. There was no answer.

“What are you doing?!” Allura hissed. “The squid will know exactly where we are!”

Keith ignored her, letting out another trill. Still no reply.

“Are you trying to get us killed?!” the merleader spat.

“I’m trying to find Lance,” Keith growled over his shoulder. He let out another cry.

“You can’t help Lance if you’re dead!”

Keith continued to ignore her, letting out trill after trill. He did his best to tune out all of Allura’s hushed cursing as he beat his tail. Every second was another second that Lance could be in danger. He didn’t have time to wait. He didn’t have time to plan. He needed to keep moving.

Blood. It was so faint he almost missed it, but the familiar taste was enough to catch his attention. He halted immediately, Allura cursing his ancestors as she had to swerve to avoid crashing into him. They had been here. He tried to pick up a definitive trail, but it was no use. It seemed that when the squid had jetted off it had messed up the surrounding waters.

Keith ground his teeth together. “Lance!” he screamed, following it with the loudest trill he could manage.

“You…”

Keith turned, attention momentarily captured by the tone of Allura’s voice. His eyes widened as he took in the seething look on her face. “You overgrown excuse of a fish!” Allura snarled. “I know you seem to think you’re the only one who cares about Lance, but guess what?! You’re not! I’m worried about everyone too, but running off and screaming at the top of your lungs is not going to save anybody! I am just as scared and pissed off as you are right now, but I am not going to hand us over to the squid on a silver platter because you can’t shut up for five seconds!”

Keith was speechless. He had seen Allura angry plenty of times before, but never had she been this downright furious. “Now, we are going to find the others and we are going to do so without getting us all killed!” The merleader paused a moment, seeming to try and collect herself. When she spoke again her tone was hushed, though her eyes burned as fiercely as ever. “I lost my shoal once. I won’t ever lose them again.”

“Allura-” Keith began.

“Shut up,” she growled. “Just shut up and listen to me and we might just get out of this alive.”

The shark clamped his jaw shut, waiting for her to continue.

The merleader let out a deep sigh, closing her eyes for a moment. “Coran and I each have a kelp that, when you tear it, it lets off a strong scent that can be tracked for miles. The plan was that, if we ever got separated in the mission, he would tear his first and I would try and find him. If that didn’t work then I would tear mine and wait for him to find me.”

Keith narrowed his eyes. “Why didn’t the others get this kelp too?”

“It’s very rare,” Allura sighed. “We only had time to find enough for us two before the mission began. There wasn’t exactly a lot of time to prepare.”

Keith furrowed his brow. “So if we find the scent-”

“We find the others,” Allura finished for him.

“What if something happened?” the shark demanded. “What if Coran lost his kelp in the fight, or what if he’s too injured to use it?”

Keith saw fear flash in the merleader’s eyes before she forced it away. “We can worry about that if we don’t pick up on the scent. Until then, we need to search.” Keith nodded his affirmation, ready to swim off. However Allura blocked his path with her arm, forcing him to turn and look at her. “And for the love of god, be quiet,” the mermaid hissed. Keith grit his teeth, but he nodded begrudgingly.

 

 

At first Keith had only been focused on Lance, but as the time wore on, he began to think of everyone else, too. What if Hunk and Pidge were hurt? What if Coran was, or Matt? Had the squid gotten any of them? Had it-

A wave of nausea rolled through him and he forced his thoughts elsewhere, trying to come up with something else to think about. Lance’s smile flashed through his mind, but it came with a stab of pain and fear so intense that he had to shake himself yet again. Lance couldn’t be hurt. He couldn’t be gone. He couldn’t be.

His mind was desperately scrambling for something to think about, something to distract him. The words Allura had said earlier came to the surface.

Keith sucked in a deep breath, trying to calm himself before he asked, “Allura?”

The merleader stiffened, whirling to face him. “Did you find it?!” she exclaimed.

“No,” Keith admitted bitterly. “I’m just confused about something.”

Allura slumped in disappointment. “Oh,” she said. “What is it?”

“Earlier you said you’d lost your shoal.” He saw her stiffen from the corner of his eye. “But we’re on this mission to save the shoal.”

There was a heavy silence. For a moment Keith thought she wasn’t going to answer him. Then, letting out a deep breath, Allura spoke. “I wasn’t born into this shoal,” she admitted. “They adopted me when I was still a child. Coran practically raised me.”

The shark looked at her in surprise. “What happened to your old shoal?” The look on the merleader’s face made him instantly regret asking. “Sorry,” Keith said quickly. “You don’t have to-”

“They were slaughtered,” Allura interrupted him, her voice flat. “By sharks.”

Silence weighed down upon them. Keith swallowed thickly, watching the pain that pooled behind her eyes. “Oh,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”

She nodded slightly, acknowledging his words.

“S-so,” Keith stuttered. “That’s why-”

“Yes.” The merleader glanced up, locking eyes with the shark. He couldn’t help but wince at the fury burning there. “That’s why. Now, you help me find my people,” she hissed, floating steadily towards him, “you help me save my shoal, and you prove to me that you are not the same as the monsters that murdered my family. Understood?”

Keith nodded quickly, a shiver running down his spine.

“Good,” she muttered. “Now, if you’re done interviewing me, we have some people to sa-”

She cut herself off, eyes widening as her gills sucked in water. Keith noticed it a moment later; a distinct scent wafting towards them, unlike anything he’d ever smelled before. It was faint but it was unmistakably there. The two locked eyes for a moment, hope burning within them. Then they took off.

The smell grew stronger the farther they swam. Keith’s tail was aching from all the darting about, but he couldn’t make himself care with the promise of seeing Lance again. He had to know that the merman was okay. He had to get back to him. Keith wrinkled his nose at the scent surrounded him. Then he saw shapes in the water ahead.

A relieved cry burst from his throat as he swam up to the others. Allura launched herself at Coran, pulling the merman into a hug. Keith glanced around, his heart sinking as he noticed two were missing from their group. “Where’s Lance?” he demanded, turning towards Pidge.

“He’s not with you?” Matt asked, glancing at Allura and Keith worriedly.

The sharkboy let out an angry growl. “What do you mean ‘he’s not with us’? We’re the ones that got separated!”

“I was just hoping that maybe you’d found them,” Matt murmured, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly.

“Found them?!” Keith snarled.

“Keith,” Pidge spoke up. He instantly did not like her solemn tone.

“What?!” the shark snapped, not caring when she flinched at his glare.

“Him and Hunk got separated from us too.”

“How?!”

She swallowed, not quite able to meet the sharkboy’s eyes. “The squid- it grabbed Lance. Hunk stabbed it in the eye and then it swam off, dragging them both with it. We couldn’t keep up, it was so fast-”

“Where?” Keith interrupted, his voice cold.

“What?” Pidge asked.

“Where’d it go?”

“T-that way,” she murmured, pointing. The next instant Keith was gone, swimming as fast as his tail would let him. “Keith, wait!” Pidge called after him. The shark didn’t stop.

Chapter Text

The others were following Keith, calling for him to slow down. He didn’t listen, darting around like a madman. The squid had Lance. Lance and Hunk didn’t have the kelp. He didn’t know how he was going to find them, but he needed to. He had to find them. He had to find Lance.

Why was that damned squid so silent? If it had made a sound before it attacked, just a single slip-up, then Keith could have alerted everyone in time for them to get away. Or he could track it right now, following the noises it made. But despite its size, the creature was silent, and there would be no telling where it was until it was already upon you.

Keith growled in frustration, opening his mouth. “LANCE!” he screamed, the sound carrying endlessly through the water.

“Quiet!” he heard Allura snap from somewhere behind him. However, Keith was passed the point of caring. If the others were so worried about the squid coming back, then they could stay put while he looked for Lance. Or better yet, if the squid still had Lance then drawing it back to him might just be his best option.

“LANCE! LAAAANCE!”

The group continued this way, Keith keeping ahead of them as he called out for people who didn’t answer. Allura kept trying to catch up with him to shut him up but the shark stayed carefully out of her reach, ignoring all the warnings and threats she was muttering under her breath. The others followed in silence, wide eyed as they scanned the water around them for any signs of their friends or the monster that had taken them.

“LA-mmph!” Keith was startled as a hand clamped over his mouth. He spun around, throwing Allura off him as she bared her teeth.

“What did I say about drawing the monster to us?!”

“It has Lance!” Keith snarled. “Drawing it to us could be our best chance of finding him!”

The merleader paused for a moment, thinking that over. “But if the squid finds us first, then we’ll likely be killed before we can lift a finger to help them! We need a plan!”

“What plan?” Keith growled. “Search the whole trench in complete silence?! Sneak up on a giant squid that we have no way of tracking?!”

“I’m sure we can think of som-”

“There’s no time for that!” Keith snapped. “I’m not just going to float around brainstorming while any second Lance could be-”

“Guys!” Pidge yelled, cutting them both off. Everyone turned to her. The mermaid was floating there, staring back at them with big eyes. “I smell blood.”

Keith froze, sucking some of the water into his gills. Sure enough, the sharp tang of blood flooded in. It wasn’t strong, but it wasn’t faint either. He swam around, trying to discern if there was trail or if it had been like the blood he found earlier. He wasn’t sure whether to be delighted or terrified when he picked up the scent leading away from them.

“This way,” he growled, darting off.

All was silent as they followed the trail, the taste of blood gradually getting thicker in the water. Keith didn’t know what he was going to find at the end. Visions of Lance, mangled and bloody, kept flashing before his eyes. Or maybe there wouldn’t even be anything left. He felt sick. It was hard to breath.

“-wim for the top of the trench, then-”

A strangled cry left Keith’s throat as he recognized Lance’s voice. “Lance!” he yelled, swimming frantically in the direction of the sound.

There was a pause, and then, “Keith?!”

The shark coughed as he cut through a cloud of blood, the two merman visible on the other side. Without thinking Keith barreled into Lance, wrapping him up in his arms.

“Keith, ow, ow, ow!”

Letting out a startled cry the shark pulled back, his heart freezing as he took in the angry red welts across Lance’s chest. “Oh my god,” he breathed, before turning to yell over his shoulder. “Coran, get over here! Lance is hurt!”

The merman in question appeared, spinning Lance around to examine the wounds. A couple of giant, circle-shaped welts were imprinted into Lance’s chest and back. Around his right arm were some smaller circles, these one’s cutting deep enough to draw blood. With a quick glance at Hunk, Keith determined the other merman wasn’t injured, just visibly shaken. That meant all the blood in the water was coming from Lance. It was a lot of blood.

“W-what happened!” Pidge gasped, catching up with the others. “How’d you guys get away?”

Lance gave a shaky grin, speaking up. “Hunk stabbed it in the eye! That freaked the squid out so it took off, but he was still clinging to the spear and I was caught in a tentacle so it took us with it. Then I stabbed it in its creepy arm and Hunk yanked his spear out.”

“Where’s the squid now?!” Allura asked, scanning the waters around them frantically.

“It kept swimming,” Hunk groaned, looking like he’d be sick any moment.

“Ow!” Lance hissed, wincing as Coran rubbed some sort of ointment over his wounds. The older merman was bustling about, Keith flitting around worriedly as he tried to both stay out of the way and keep as close to Lance as possible.

“Don’t just gape like a yelper fish!” Coran chided, handing a shell to the worried shark. “Make yourself useful and clean out the cuts on his arm! I gotta put something on the welts to make the swelling go down.”

Keith nodded, darting forward and gingerly taking Lance’s arm. His hands were shaking, and he jumped when another hand rested on top of them. “I’m okay, Keith,” Lance whispered, smiling softly at him. “I mean, I’m probably scarred for life now, not gonna lie, but we got away from the squid. It’s okay.”

The shark bit his lip, not quite able to meet his eyes. “J-just hold still,” he murmured, reaching forward to clean the wound. Lance cried out in pain, flinching back. Keith flinched as well. “S-sorry, but you gotta hold still!”

“I know, I know,” Lance gasped out, moving towards him again. The shark trilled soothingly, the thumb of his free hand rubbing gentle circles into the merman's shoulder every time he hissed.

“Almost done,” Keith murmured, cleaning out the last of the cuts.

“Now the disinfectant!” Coran piped up, throwing a new shell at him. The sharkboy fumbled with it, shooting Lance an apologetic look as he started to apply the new ointment.

“Fuck!” Lance gasped, his arm jumping violently. Keith trilled as he held it in place, muttering apologies the whole time. He hated seeing that pained look on the merman’s face, but Lance needed the treatment.

The merman sighed in relief when it was finally over, shooting Keith an apologetic smile. “Now I know how you felt when I had to treat your tail.”

Keith laughed half-heartedly. “Not fun, is it?”

“That’s an understatement.”

The shark reluctantly stepped back when Coran took his place, swiftly wrapping Lance up in bandages. By the time he was done the merman looked like he was part mummy, the wrappings covering his chest and arm. Coran nodded to himself, pleased with his work. He patted Lance on the back before swimming off to where Matt and Pidge were trying to calm Hunk down.

There was silence for a moment, Lance and Keith just floating there. Keith could feel the merman’s gaze burning into him, but he couldn’t bring himself to meet his eyes. Finally the sharkboy cleared his throat. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, his voice small and broken.

Lance raised his eyebrows in surprise. “For what?” he asked.

“I said I would protect you and then-” Keith trailed off, glaring down into the darkness below. “Then I couldn’t even do anything.”

“Keith,” Lance murmured, floating forward. He cupped the shark’s face between his hands, forcing him to look at him. “None of this was your fault. That squid came out of nowhere. You couldn’t have known.”

“But you got hurt and I couldn’t even do anything to help!” Keith growled pulling away. “I should’ve been there, I should’ve-”

“Keith.” The sharkboy stopped, wincing as he waited for what Lance would say next. “Don’t blame yourself.” Keith glanced up then, startled when he saw the soft way Lance was looking at him. “It could have grabbed any one of us. And that thing was massive! I don’t think even you could’ve taken it down, buddy.”

“But I could’ve helped!” Keith protested, falling silent when Lance raised his hand.

“It got between us. That’s not your fault. If I hadn’t been so careless then I could have dodged the tentacle before it got me.”

“Lance, don’t-” he was cut off by Lance’s finger pressing against his lips. The shark’s eyes widened, staring into that unbearably fond look the merman was giving him.

“We messed up. But everyone got away okay. We’ll just need to be extra careful from now on, you know?” Keith nodded, his eyes darting between each of Lance’s own. “Everything’s okay.”

“Lance,” the shark breathed out, his voice breaking. “I thought I’d lost you.”

The merman laughed quietly, reaching up to rest a hand on Keith’s cheek. “It’ll take more than some tentacle douchebag to best me!”

Keith trilled softly, drifting forward to gently wrap his arms around the other boy, careful of his wounds. “I can’t lose you,” he murmured. “No matter what, I can’t.”

Lance furrowed his brow in worry, reaching up to return Keith’s embrace. “Hey, it’s alright,” he whispered, rubbing soothing circles into the shark’s back. “You won’t have to. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Don’t leave me,” Keith murmured. He didn’t realize he had said that part out loud until Lance responded.

“I won’t,” the merman whispered. “Not ever.”

Keith buried his face in Lance’s neck, shaking against him. He had to bite back a sob as he heard Lance hum to him, that familiar tune rolling over him like a warm summer current.

“Keith.”

The shark pulled away from Lance, surprised to find Allura floating next to them. He looked at her questioningly, Lance tensing beside him as though he were preparing to be chewed out. However, Allura’s face was calm. She reached into her satchel and pulled something out, holding it up to the shark. Keith blinked in surprise as he found himself staring at his dagger.

“Here,” Allura said. “I didn’t want you armed before because I didn’t know if we could trust you. But I do trust that you would do anything to keep Lance safe. Having this might make that easier.” Keith took the knife slowly, his bewildered gaze never once leaving Allura’s. The merleader nodded to him. “Now, put that knife to good use and show me that I can trust you with more than just Lance’s well-being.”

Keith nodded back, still half in shock. The merleader gave him a fleeting smile before turning to Lance. “And Lance, I’m glad you’re okay.”

“You and me both,” Lance replied, smiling. Allura returned his smile before swimming away to join the others.

Keith stared after her a moment, still half in shock, before looking over at Lance. The merman was grinning wickedly at him. “Who knew I just needed to get kidnapped by a squid for you two to get along?”

Keith stared down at his dagger. It felt right in his hand, the same familiar weight and smooth touch of metal. Not to mention the sense of security that came with it. He knew exactly how to hold it, how to swing and jab and parry. If anything should happen to Lance again, he would be prepared, no matter what. He wasn’t going to let this happen again.

“Hey, buddy, you with me?” Lance asked, waving his hand in front of Keith’s face.

“Y-yeah,” Keith stammered out. “Just feels better. You know, not being unarmed anymore.”

“Actually, speaking of unarmed-”

Keith turned, his eyes sweeping Lance to find that the merman’s weapon was missing. “Lance where’s your spear?!” he asked, scanning the water as though he would find the weapon miraculously floating nearby.

“It snapped in half when I was stabbing the squid. Me and Hunk were in a hurry to get away so I didn’t stop to get the pieces.

“Damn it,” Keith hissed. So he was no longer unarmed, but now Lance was? “Okay, when we get to the base we can get a new weapon for you. Until then you have to stay close to me, alright? I mean really close. I’m not letting anything get between us again!”

“Hey,” Lance whispered, resting a hand on Keith’s shoulder. “Calm down. Just take deep breaths.”

Keith hadn’t even realized he’d started hyperventilating, his heart thumping angrily against his ribs as his gills rapidly sucked in water. He held still, listening to Lance’s soothing trill while he willed his breathing to slow. “You have to promise, Lance,” Keith murmured, taking the merman’s free hand in his own. “You have to stay close.”

“I will,” Lance said, smiling softly at him. “I promise. It might be hard to believe, but I’m not too eager to see a squid ever again.”

Keith nodded, pulling Lance in close. He listened to the blissful sound of Lance’s breath, felt the coolness of his body against him. He was here and he was alive. And Keith was going to keep it that way.

“Everyone,” Allura called softly across the water. “We have to get moving. The squid could come back at any moment. The sooner we reach the base the sooner we can put this day behind us.”

Keith nodded, pulling away from Lance, though not far away considering the fact he was still pressed up against his side. “We’ve been swimming long enough that we should be near the bottom,” he said. “Once there, I’ll get us to the base.”

“Everyone keep close and alert,” Allura added.

Keith leaned into Lance, whispering in his ear. “Stay right beside me.” Then he turned, making sure Lance was next to him before swimming off.

Chapter Text

Empty. It was all empty. Keith had taken them straight to the base as soon they reached the bottom, following the same discrete trail of purple algae that he and Shiro had first used what almost felt like a lifetime ago. Only this time, instead of being greeted by scowling guards demanding that they identify themselves, there was only silence and stillness. The cave network was vast, so Keith tried to keep his hopes up as they explored the tunnels. Perhaps the Blade members had just retreated further inside. But deep down he knew that no guards meant no Blade, and the longer they searched the more he had to accept that.

Accepting it was not easy. He had led the others down here, putting all of their lives in danger. They had wasted far too many days getting to this place. Lance had almost lost his life. And it was all Keith’s fault.

“They’re not here, are they?” Pidge asked as they came upon yet another empty chamber.

Keith winced, glaring down at the floor. “No,” he murmured. “No, I guess they’re not.”

He felt Lance place a comforting hand on his shoulder. Keith had to force down the desire to press into him and hide his face in his shoulder. He didn’t feel like he deserved it.

"We should all rest,” Allura spoke up. “It’s been a long day, and it would seem we’ll need to get back out of this trench tomorrow.”

Keith let out a sharp sigh, making sure not to meet anyone’s eyes. Lance took his hand to lead him further into the room but he tugged the merman back. “We should get you a weapon,” Keith murmured. “I’ll take you to the armory.”

He glanced up just in time to see Lance’s smirk. “Lead the way, hot shot.”

Keith rolled his eyes, unable to help the slight curve of his lips.

“Be right back,” Lance called to the others. “Papa needs a new spear.” That last statement was met with a collective groan.

“Dude,” Hunk said. “I don’t ask much. But please, never call yourself ‘papa’ again.”

Keith fought to keep the smile off his face as he pulled the cackling Lance from the room. However, back in the hallway they fell into silence, Lance humming under his breath as Keith was forced back into his thoughts.

He had led them all here for nothing. He had taken them straight to the maw of a giant squid. Lance almost died because of him. It was all his fault. All of it.

“Keith?”

The shark shook himself, glancing over at his companion.

“You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Keith croaked out. “Just thinking.”

“Well stop that,” Lance teased lightly. “You look like you just swallowed some more of those fever spines.”

Keith huffed at that, whacking Lance lightly with his tail.

“Really though,” the merman continued. “What’s bothering you?”

“It’s nothing,” Keith whispered. “I’m just tired.”

“Keith.”

The shark stopped when he realized Lance was no longer following him, turning uncertainly to face him. Lance’s brows were furrowed, staring at him softly.

“We’re all tired, but no one else looks like a sad newt. What’s wrong?”

Keith sighed, glancing away. “It’s just- There’s nothing here. I led us all this way, straight into danger, and the Blade isn’t even here. You almost died, Lance! I almost lost you and it’s all my fault-”

“Woah, hey,” Lance whispered, drifting forwards. “You couldn’t have known that the Blade wouldn’t be here. We had to at least try. Finding them is the whole point of the mission, and this was the safer option then just going straight to your army buddy.”

Keith snorted bitterly. “Yeah, it turned out real safe.”

“Hey,” Lance said again, reaching out to take Keith’s hands. “You couldn’t have predicted any of this. Not the Blade being gone, or the squid, or anything. You have to stop blaming yourself.”

Keith’s voice was small and strained when he replied, reaching out to rest his hand lightly over the bandages on Lance’s chest. “How can I not blame myself? You’re hurt because of me. Christ, you could have died!”

“So what else is new?” Lance said, smiling softly. Keith flinched, pulling his hand away. The next moment Lance had snatched it back, bringing it up towards his lips. Keith’s eyes widened as he watched him, but then Lance paused, a conflicted look on his face. Finally he changed his course, pulling Keith’s hand up to his cheek and nuzzling his face into it. “Sorry,” Lance whispered. “Wrong thing to say.”

There was a pause as the two looked into each other's eyes. Keith felt like he was melting, Lance’s gaze so warm and soft. He ran his thumb gently over the merman’s cheek, causing Lance’s eyes to flutter shut and a quiet sigh to slip from his lips. Keith wanted to lean forward, to close that distance, but he forced himself to hold still.

“What I’m trying to say,” Lance began as his eyes opened once more. “Is that you can’t keep beating yourself up over this stuff. This is a dangerous mission. Everyone of us knew that, but we all still agreed to go. People might get hurt sometimes, but we all have each others backs. You didn’t give up on me after the squid took me, now did you?”

Keith shook his head slowly.

“Exactly,” Lance breathed out. “It doesn’t matter if bad things happen, or if things get out of our control. We’re a team, and we’ll face whatever comes together. I trust you, Keith. And I’d follow you anywhere.”

At this point Keith’s lip was trembling, his teeth sinking into to it to try and quell the fullness in his chest. “Lance, I-” He cut himself off, shaking his head slightly. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” Lance pulled him into his arms and Keith didn’t hesitate to melt into him. “You just gotta stop being so hard on yourself.”

“I’ll try,” Keith murmured, nuzzling his face into the merman’s neck. He wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that. It could have been a moment. It could have been a lifetime. However, eventually Keith forced himself to pull back, though he reached down to take the merman’s hand. “I believe I promised you a new weapon,” he said, smiling softly.

Lance beamed back. “You spoil me.”

Keith rolled his eyes before leading him down the hall.

 

 

The armory had been mostly cleared out. Only a few things were left behind, scattered randomly across the floor. Lance picked up a club, frowning as the bulky weapon swished slowly through the water. “Damn, you’d have to be a leviathan to wield this thing,” he huffed. He swam over to another item, poking at it tentatively. “What even is this one?”

Keith glanced down, laughing when he saw what the merman had indicated. “That’s a lance.”

“Excuse you?” Lance said.

“You’ve never heard of them?” Keith asked.

“No, I think I have, I just didn’t realize they looked this-” he trailed off, gesturing vaguely at the object.

“This-?” Keith repeated, raising his eyebrows.

“Lame,” Lance said, pouting slightly. Keith laughed again, and the merman huffed indignantly. “I mean, look at it! It looks like it was trying to be spear but it seriously fucked up. You can’t just charge into battle wielding a giant cone! There’s gotta be some finesse, you know? Some pizazz!”

Keith chuckled, eyeing the other boy fondly. “And what ‘pizazz’ would that be?”

“I don’t know, like-” Lance paused, eyes scanning his surroundings. A moment later his face lit up and he darted over to the other side of the room. “Like that!” he called.

Keith swam over just as Lance bent down to pick up the item. “Now this is more like it!” He exclaimed, brandishing a slightly worn broadsword. “This baby knows how to dazzle!”

Keith burst out laughing again, causing Lance to sputter indignantly. “It’s war, Lance,” he grinned. “I don’t think anyone’s gonna care if your weapon has pizazz.”

“Well I care,” Lance huffed. “Besides, you can’t talk. You’ve got that cool, glowy dagger. Are you telling me you’d waltz into battle wielding that thing?” He gestured back towards the lance.

Keith shrugged. “If it got the job done.”

Lance gasped, scandalized. “You truly are a man without class.”

Keith leaned in close, smirking as Lance’s eyes widened. “But I picked you, didn’t I?”

A blush spread across the merman’s cheeks, his mouth gaping slightly. “P-picked?” he stuttered out.

Keith’s bravado dropped then, a similar blush spreading across his face as he withdrew back into himself. “Well, yeah. You know, I could’ve just swam off and hid away when you got me out of that net.” He glanced up at Lance uncertainly then. “But I didn’t.”

Lance smiled softly at him. “You just needed me for my medicine.”

Keith glanced off to the side, face practically on fire. “I need you for more than that.”

“Keith, what are you-”

“Hello boys!”

The two spun around, leaping apart even though they technically hadn’t even been touching. “Coran!” Lance exclaimed.

“Sorry to startle you,” the older merman said. “You were taking a while so we thought someone should check up on you. I wasn’t sure if I was going to find you at first. This place is like a maze!”

“Y-yeah, it is,” Keith agreed, nodding bashfully.

“Well,” Coran continued, clapping his hands together. “We all need to sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day, lads! Plus, Keith, I better redress that wound on your side before bed. We haven’t checked it in a couple days and your still on the way to recovery.”

“Yeah, good idea,” the shark nodded, grateful that his blush finally seemed to be going down.

“Alright chaps, follow me!”

The two boys did so, swimming after the merman. Keith glanced over at Lance when he slipped his hand into the sharkboy’s and gave it a squeeze. The smile on Lance’s face was so warm and open that the shark couldn’t help but smile in return, squeezing gently back.

 

 

Keith was sound asleep when something smacked into his tail. He bolted up, instantly awake, his eyes frantically scanning his surroundings. A small whimper sounded from below him and he glanced down to find Lance, the merman fidgeting around, his eyes squeezed tightly shut.

“Lance,” Keith whispered, trying his best not wake the others. “Lance wake up.” He reached down to gently shake the merman’s shoulder. Lance’s eyes snapped open, a gasp leaving his lips. It took a moment for his eyes to focus on Keith’s face, his chest heaving with stuttering breaths.

“Keith,” he whispered. “S-sorry, did I wake you?”

“It’s alright,” Keith murmured reaching down to stroke his fingers through the merman’s hair. Lance sighed happily, letting his eyes flutter shut. “Were you having a nightmare?”

The merman nodded timidly.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Lance paused for a moment, his brow furrowing before he opened his eyes just enough to glance up at the shark. “It was about Sendak. It was like we were back when he attacked us, only this time you weren’t there. I was all alone.”

Lance’s lip trembled slightly, and without thinking, Keith reached down to smooth his thumb over it. He coughed awkwardly before quickly reaching up to continue running his finger through Lance’s hair. “I’ll never let him hurt you,” Keith whispered.

Lance sat up then, wrapping his arms around Keith’s waist and burying his face in his chest. A moment of silence passed before he spoke again. “He had tentacles.”

Keith’s hand paused in it’s ministrations, looking down at the merman in confusion. “What?”

“Sendak,” Lance murmured. “He had tentacles instead of arms.” The merman laughed softly. “He looked stupid.”

Keith smiled fondly, resuming playing with the other boy’s hair. “Did you tell him that?”

Keith felt a shiver run through Lance’s body. “I couldn’t. He was holding me down, I couldn’t breath.”

A low growl rumbled from the shark’s throat. “He’s not allowed to touch you,” he muttered darkly.

Lance sat up fully then, hands reaching out to ghost over some of Keith’s old scars. “He’s not allowed to touch you either,” he murmured. “No one that’s ever hurt you can touch you ever again. I’ll make sure of that.”

Keith smiled softly at him. “I thought I was comforting you right now.”

“We can comfort each other,” Lance whispered. He pulled Keith down so they were both lying on the floor, their foreheads pressed together. For a long moment they just looked into each others eyes. Lance’s own eyes were flitting back and forth, almost as if he were searching for something. Finally he let out a small breath, guiding Keith’s head to rest on his shoulder. “Thank you, Keith.”

“For what?”

“For being here.”

The shark nuzzled into him, humming contently. “I’m not going anywhere. It was just a nightmare, Lance. You won’t face any of this alone.”

For a moment there was silence. Then Lance sniffled.

Keith tried to pull back to look at his face. “Lance, are you?”

The merman reached up, gently but firmly guiding Keith’s head back into the crook of his neck. “I’m fine,” he murmured. “Just tired.”

Keith frowned. “I tried to use that excuse on you earlier and it didn’t work then either.”

“Then I’m happy,” Lance replied. “I’m happy, Keith.”

The shark smiled at that. “I’m happy, too.” Before he could stop himself he placed a light kiss to the merman’s neck. Lance breathed in sharply, and the sharkboy froze. Keith panicked, mind racing as he realized what he’d just done. “Lance, I’m sorry! I didn’t-”

“Shhhh,” the merman whispered, cradling Keith closer to him. “You’re fine.” He smoothed his hand up and down the shark’s back. “Everything’s fine.”

Keith relaxed letting out a sigh of relief.

“Let’s just sleep now, yeah?” Lance continued. “I really am tired.”

“Yeah,” Keith agreed. “Goodnight Lance.”

“Goodnight, Keith.”

The sharkboy tried to ignore the goosebumps that ghosted over his skin as Lance’s breath brushed his ear. He let himself go limp, happily tangled up in Lance as his eyes drifted shut. Keith hadn’t been asleep too long when the merman finally shifted, his lips pressing lightly to the shark’s forehead.

Chapter Text

Water rushed passed Keith as he darted forward, his eyes flitting frantically from side to side. He didn’t know if he was running away or chasing something. He couldn’t remember how he got here or what he was doing. He just knew of the itch under his skin, prickling through every muscle and simmering at the edge of his mind. He had to keep moving. He couldn’t stop. He wasn’t sure why but he knew that he couldn’t stop, he had to keep swimming. Flashes of blue and brown appeared in the water ahead of him, always just out of reach. He darted after them, urgent, seeking what they lead to. He was going somewhere. He didn’t know where, but he had a purpose, a destination. He had to keep moving.

Suddenly Keith came to a stop. A merman was floating before him, his back facing the shark. Tanned skin lead down to deep blue-green scales. He knew this merman. He had seen him somewhere before. A name was drifting at the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t quite grasp it. Then the boy turned his head just slightly. Keith could make out the profile of his face but he couldn’t see the merman’s eyes. They were obscured in shadow.

“Lance?” he called out, the name leaving his mouth before he even had time to process how he knew it.

Then the boy’s own mouth opened. The voice that came out was deep and smooth, mismatched with the merman that was speaking. It was so very familiar. He knew that voice.

“Keith.”

 

 

The sharkboy bolted upright, his breath coming out in shuddering gasps. Lance jumped back in surprise, gazing at the shark in worry. “Keith, are you okay?” He laid a hand on Keith’s shoulder and the shark flinched back, fixing him with wild eyes. For a moment they just stared at each other, Lance in concern and Keith slowly taking in the boy before him as the panic ebbed away.

“Lance,” he murmured, burying his face in the merman’s neck.

“Bad dream?” Lance asked, wrapping his arms around the other boy.

“It wasn’t bad, exactly,” Keith replied. “Just strange.”

“What was strange about it?”

Keith furrowed his brow, trying to recall what happened. The memory was already starting to fade from his mind. “Well, you were there. Or at least, I think you were. But when you spoke, Shiro’s voice came out instead.”

“Your army friend?” Lance asked.

Keith nodded.

“What did he say?”

“Just my name.”

There was silence as Lance thought it over. “That is strange,” he finally said. After another moment of silence, he added, “Did he have tentacles for arms?”

Keith snorted, shoving the merman playfully. “He wasn’t even the one there. You were.”

“Right,” Lance nodded. “Did I have tentacles for arms?”

“Lance,” Keith groaned, trying to hide his smile.

“So I’m gonna take that as a no,” Lance said, pausing to think something over. “Does Shiro at least have a cool voice? Like, on a scale of one to ten how badass did I sound with his voice?”

“Oh my god,” Keith laughed.

“What? It’s an important question!”

Keith almost would’ve fallen for Lance’s affronted tone if the merman’s smile didn’t give him away. “And what if I said his voice is super squeaky and annoying?”

Lance pouted. “Aw, come on! Dream-me should be cool!”

Keith smirked, flicking the merman’s forehead. “Real you is pretty cool.”

“Keiiith!” Lance exclaimed, blushing furiously. “You gotta warn me before you say something like that!”

Keith just laughed, nuzzling back into Lance’s shoulder. They floated that way for a bit, the shark letting his eyes flutter shut as Lance’s fingers carded through his hair. Finally he straightened up, only just realizing how quiet their surroundings were. He hadn’t heard any groaning or gagging sounds in the background during that whole exchange.

“Where is everyone?”

“Hunk and Matt went to catch breakfast, Allura and Coran are off strategizing somewhere, and Pidge snuck off to explore the caves before we have to leave. I was gonna let you sleep until breakfast arrived, but then apparently you had a dream about a devilishly handsome me with a not-so handsome voice, so-”

Keith snorted. “Shiro’s voice isn’t actually squeaky.”

The merman gasped, leaning away from Keith so he could throw a hand dramatically over his chest. “And to think I trusted you!”

Keith just laughed, slipping back into the other boy’s arms before he had the chance to notice the soft look Lance was giving him.

 

 

Breakfast passed in a tense silence, each person anticipating the danger that loomed just outside the walls around them. They were just finishing up the last of the scraps when Allura pulled Keith to the side, Lance trailing curiously after.

“So,” the merleader began. “The next step is to contact the double agent, yes?”

Keith nodded. “The army should only be a day’s swim away from here. They’re too big to move around unnoticed and Lotor’s set on keeping their existence secret.”

“If this army is so big, how will you find the agent’s location?” Allura asked.

“He’s a legend,” Keith replied, a strained smile on his face. “Anywhere Shiro goes, there will be people talking about it. I’m not worried about getting to the army or finding out where Shiro is. It’ll be actually getting to him that’s the hard part.”

“Well you won’t be doing it alone,” Lance chimed in.

Keith let out a sigh. “Lance, I can’t take you with me. There’s no way you’d go unnoticed.”

The merman narrowed his eyes. “The full-blooded sharks are all purple, right? You’d stick out just as much as I would! Plus you’re already a wanted man back there.”

“I’d keep out of sight,” Keith replied. “It’d be easier and faster to move alone. I won’t be away long, okay?”

“No, it’s not okay,” Lance growled. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing! You’re not trying to go alone because it’s easier or whatever, you just don’t want to put me in danger.”

“Can you blame me?!” Keith retorted, his voice raising slightly. “The last time you went head to head with a shark you were almost killed!”

“Are you saying I’m weak?!”

“I’m saying I care about you, jackass!”

“We don’t have time for this,” Allura growled, shooting a stern glare at the two blushing boys. “You can continue you’re bickering once we’re out of the trench. Right now we have to get moving.”

“Yes, Allura,” Lance said with all the air of a hatchling who just got scolded. He waited for the merleader to swim back to the others before he leaned into Keith’s space, whispering in his ear. “And continue we shall, sharkboy.”

Keith blushed, glaring at the merman’s retreating back. There was no way he was letting Lance come with him. He was not putting his life in danger like that.

 

 

Everyone made it out of the trench without so much as a hint of the giant squid, though Keith couldn’t feel his hand the entire time from how hard Lance was squeezing it. It wasn’t a long swim to the outskirts of Lotor’s army, and soon Keith spotted a familiar dune. Just beyond lay a place he had hoped he would never have to return to. But now wasn’t the time to dwell on that.

“We’re here,” he hissed to the others. He felt Lance tense beside him, and didn’t miss the way everyone else slowed, trying to conceal any trace of their fins swishing through the water. “The army is just beyond that rise.”

Carefully Keith led them up the dune, keeping low to the ground. He peaked over the summit, letting out a strained sigh. There it was. Allura gasped beside him, and Pidge muttered an obscenity under her breath.

“That-” Matt began, pausing to swallow nervously, “That’s a lot of sharks.”

Before them, stretching as far as the eye could see, were barracks constructed out of all manner of sea plants, rocks, and driftwood. In the distance a platoon was running drills. The shouting of the sergeant was just barely audibly from where they were concealed.

“This is where you grew up?” Lance whispered. Before Keith could answer, shouting came from below. Everyone ducked out of sight, staring at each other with fearful eyes. Keith dared to peak over the rise and let out a sigh of relief. It was just a group of cadets swimming laps. They passed by the dune in a matter of moments, their commotion fading into the distance.

“They’re just kids,” Hunk whispered, watching with wide eyes as the cadets swam away.

“They train us from a young age,” Keith replied bitterly. He glanced around, checking to see if there were any guards nearby that might notice his approach. The area seemed to be clear. If he just went back down and skirted around the side of the dune, he shouldn't be spotted. “Everyone wait here,” he hissed. “If I’m not back by night fall then get as far away as you can.”

“Uh-uh, I don’t think so!” Lance exclaimed. “You are not going in there alone!”

“I don’t have time for this, Lance,” Keith growled. “You can’t come with me. It’ll be easier to hide if there’s only one person and again, you don’t exactly blend in.”

“Neither do you!”

“So I won’t get caught!”

“Great, I won’t either!”

“You-” Keith began, not even realizing he and Lance had drifted so close together their faces were only inches apart.

“Uh, guys?” Hunk interrupted.

“What?!” Both boys snapped in unison, their heads whipping around to gaze at the other merman.

Hunk grinned a bit sheepishly. “I think I might have a solution to your blending in problem.”

The two boys followed his gaze downwards. The dune they were one consisted of a purplish mud. “Hunk, my man,” Lance beamed at his friend. “You are a genius!”

“Wait, you aren't suggesting-?” Keith trailed off, his brows furrowing. "There's no way that'll work! Besides, how do we know that stuff isn't toxic?" He let out a frustrated growl. One of his best arguments for keeping Lance here was slipping between his fingers.

“Oh, it’s quite safe!” Coran piped up. Keith cursed quietly. “We have some of this muck back near the shoal. I use it for treating burn wounds. Nothing like a good old mud wrap to heal the skin and soothe the soul!”

“Alright, Keith, let’s get messy!” Lance grinned.

“You can’t come!” Keith said sternly.

Lance quirked a brow. “Mhmm. And what’s your excuse this time?”

“I-I’d move faster alone.”

“Lance is one of the fastest swimmers in the shoal,” Pidge pointed out.

“Yes!” Lance exclaimed. “Thank you, Pidgeon!” She gave him a two-fingered salute, meeting Keith’s glare with a deadpan stare.

“We’ll draw more attention if there’s two of us,” Keith tried, scrambling for whatever he could find.

“Keith.” The shark turned apprehensively towards Allura. “I am loathe to send a member of my shoal into danger.” Keith felt hope welling in his chest. “But I think it would be best for Lance to accompany you. The fate of the entire shoal is at stake. We cannot risk failure, and sending you in without any backup or any way for you to contact us should something go wrong would be foolish.”

“Welp, you heard our fearless leader!” Lance whooped quietly. “This is a two-man job!”

Keith ground his teeth together, glaring daggers at the ground. He didn’t want to do this. If anything happened to Lance he’s never forgive himself. This wasn’t the same as meeting him in the ship graveyard or even leading him down into the trench. This time he knew the danger. It was right there before their eyes.

Keith was startled out of his thoughts by something cool and wet splatting against his cheek. He jumping, gazing up in shock to that familiar grin that made his heart beat faster. Lance’s hand stayed on his cheek, rubbing the purple mud over it. “What’s the matter, sharkboy? Can’t stand to get a little muddy?”

Keith glared at him, swiping his tail through the water so that mud sprayed up onto Lance. Pidge hissed off somewhere to the side as some got on her too, but right now all Keith’s attention was on the boy in front of him. He grinned, though it more closely resembled baring his teeth than smiling. “I’ll show you muddy, fishtail.”

 

 

One short mud fight and a harsh scolding from Allura later, Lance and Keith were covered in muck. Keith’s upper half was entirely caked, and he had to scrub away a few of the spots on his tail where Lance had nailed him with a mudball. Coran and Pidge were helping rub some silt into the mud on Lance’s lower half so that his tail would appear gray. Lance was frowning in discomfort as Pidge rubbed the silt in a little harsher than necessary as payback for the mud that had accidentally gotten on her.

“That should do it!” Coran said, leaning back. “The mud should hold well, but try not to rub up against anything.”

Lance nodded, though the next moment he was swatting lightly at Pidge as she retreated with a cheshire grin. Keith rolled his eyes, stooping down to fix the mud he’d just disturbed on his fins. When he leaned back up he realized he was a lot closer to Lance’s face than he had meant to be. His own face heated up, grateful that his blush couldn’t be noticed under the layer of muck.

Suddenly Lance reached out, and Keith couldn’t hold back the small gasp he made when the other boy’s thumb stroked over his lower lip. “You missed a spot,” Lance whispered quietly. Keith’s breath caught in his throat.

“Oh hell no,” Pidge snapped. “I just finished rubbing mud all over you, Lance. You two are not going to makeout and ruin all my hard work. Rubbing mud on you is an experience I never want to repeat.”

“Pidge!” Lance squawked, pulling his hand back hastily. Keith’s face felt like it was on fire now. He hoped Coran was right about the mud being able to treat burns.

“She does bring up a good point,” Allura chimed in.

Lance groaned in mortification. “Oh my god, you are not giving us the talk right now.”

“I’m just saying that you two can get a bit- handsy,” the merleader said. She tried and failed to hide her teasing smile. However, the next moment she was all business again, the sudden change leaving the two boys reeling. “Until you two get back you need to keep your hands to yourselves. You can’t risk destroying your disguises.”

“Yes, mom,” Lance grumbled. Keith was still too embarrassed to speak. Maybe Coran had been thinking of some other mud because this really didn’t feel like it was doing a damn thing to the burning sensation in his cheeks.

“What was that, Lance?” Allura said, her tone laced with danger.

“Nothing, your leadership, ma’m!” Lance replied quickly.

“W-we better get going,” Keith stammered out, miraculously finding his voice.

“Be careful, you guys!” Hunk exclaimed, starting forward as if to pull them into a hug before he remembered about the mud.

Everyone exchanged their farewells, Lance and Keith promising to come back as quickly as possible. The shark could feel their worried gazes burning into their backs as he and Lance began to swim away. Just then a hand landed on Keith’s shoulder, making him pause. He turned to see Coran, a serious look on the other man’s face. “Look after him,” Coran said quietly, nodding towards Lance’s retreating back.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Keith answered, “I will.” In that moment he was promising not only Coran, but himself. He would do whatever it takes to keep Lance safe. No matter what. He gave Coran a determined nod, and was just turning to swim away when the merman spoke again.

“And Keith?” The sharkboy looked back over to him. “Look after yourself as well.”

Chapter Text

The further they swam into the camp, the more on edge Keith felt. Everywhere he looked was another bitter memory he’d been trying to bury, another terrible situation he’d never thought to question before Shiro came into his life. There were only two things, no, two people keeping him going at this point. When every instinct screamed at him to run, to escape and never look back, he held his ground, driven by the need to protect Lance and to see Shiro again. He had to focus on keeping Lance safe, on getting him the help he needed to protect his shoal. He had to focus.

“Are you alright?” Lance whispered as they darted behind yet another rocky structure. His hand paused where it had been about to land on Keith’s shoulder, remembering Allura’s words about not disturbing their disguises.

“Yeah,” Keith hissed back. “Just focus on the mission.”

Lance frowned in concern, but luckily he seemed to understand that the middle of enemy territory wasn’t the ideal place for having heart to hearts. He peered cautiously around the corner before darting to the next piece of cover, Keith close behind. Luckily the soldiers in this area of camp seemed to all be at the drill practice they’d spotted in the distance. Then again, that meant they’d have to go deep into the camp to get the information they needed.

“So,” Lance spoke quietly after a few more minutes of silently darting around. “What’s the plan exactly?”

“Eavesdropping,” Keith whispered. “Shiro’s always the talk of anywhere he goes. It might take a while, but eventually someone will be talking about him.”

“So we’re going to have to listen to five thousand conversation about how bad the canteen food is,” Lance said, groaning quietly. “Got it.”

“Hold it!”

The two boys almost jumped out of their skin, spinning around to find a shark looming over them. Keith’s eyes widened in panic, his heart pounding out of his chest. This was it. This was the worst case scenario. He knew bringing Lance was a bad idea, he knew it would just get the other boy hurt and now here they were. Keith’s fingers closed around the hilt of his dagger, his mind racing a mile a minute as he tried to determine the best angle to strike from.

Suddenly Lance stepped in front of him, grinning shakily up at the shark. “H-hey, buddy! How’s it going?”

If the situation wasn’t so serious, Keith would’ve face palmed. Now he had to deal with getting around Lance without accidentally stabbing him, or maybe he could just push the merman to the side-

“All soldiers in this sector have been instructed to be at drill practice,” the shark said, his voice deep and booming. His arms were crossed over his chest, muscles bulging intimidatingly. But that was good, it meant it would take him an extra second to uncross them and reach his weapon. All Keith needed was a second, which he would’ve had if Lance wasn’t standing in the damn way.

“Y-yeah,” Lance said, reaching up to rub the back of his neck. “Well, I could say the same to you! Skipping practice, you should be ashamed!”

The shark raised his eyebrows at him, unimpressed. “I’m on guard duty. It’s my job to patrol this sector.”

“Right,” Lance nodded. “Of course you are! And we are too!”

The guard's eyebrows raised further. “I was not informed of any other guards being assigned to this area.”

Lance laughed nervously. “Oh, you know how they are around here, always changing plans last minute.”

A tense silence followed. Keith was wound up, ready to throw Lance to the side and bury his dagger in the enemy, the weapon already halfway out of its sheath. He was just about to launch into action when a smile spread across the guard's face.

“You can say that again!” the man exclaimed. “Just last week I was supposed to be patrolling the north sector. I was already halfway through the shift when supervisor Kirn comes, fuming because apparently they changed my shift to the southwestern sector last minute. Can you believe that?”

“The nerve of them!” Lance exclaimed. Keith stared at the two in bewilderment. Had that seriously just worked? “You know who would never do something like that?” Lance continued, seemingly emboldened by his success. “Shiro! I mean, I’ve never met him, but I’ve heard that dude is just the best!”

Suddenly the guard's face scrunched up. Keith sucked in a breath. Okay, back to square one, less talking more stabbing. He was just reaching for Lance’s shoulder, intending to push him out of the way, when the guard spoke.

“You mean you haven’t heard?”

“Heard what?” Lance asked, looking up at the towering figure in confusion.

“Oh, man,” the guard shook his head disbelievingly. “I thought the news had to spread to everyone by now. Do I have a story to tell you!”

Before either of the two boys could realize it, the guard had placed his hand on Lance’s shoulder. Lance flinched, Keith gasped, and the shark guard’s eyes widened. Everyone froze. Then, slowly, the guard pulled his hand back, staring at the purple muck on it. “What the-”

Keith’s dagger was out of the sheath, his body tensing to spring, when Lance screamed, “A disease!”

Once again, everyone froze. Was Lance seriously still trying to talk his way out of this? “I,” the merman cleared his throat, lowering his voice. “I have a skin disease. It’s very nasty, makes the skin rot right off your body, and very contagious.”

The guard's eyes widened further, and he hastily shook his hand to get all the muck off.

“That’s why I’m always assigned guard duty! It keeps me away from other people but still lets me serves the army. This guy’s my nurse!” Keith shot him a glare, making sure to keep his drawn weapon hidden behind the cover of Lance’s back. “He’s the strong silent type, not afraid of a little skin-rotting contagion, you know?”

The entire time the guard had been backing away from them slowly, his eyes huge as they flitted from his hand to the disturbed mud on Lance’s shoulder. “Well,” he spoke up, his voice coming out a lot squeakier then the intimidating rumble of before. “Since you’ve got this area well-guarded then, I’ll just be on my way! I have a routine check-up with a medic that I can’t miss anyways, so-” And with that the guard turned and shot away, cradling his hand to his chest as though he had been burned.

For a moment there was absolute silence, Keith staring after the retreating shark in shock. Finally, he spoke up. “Your nurse?!”

“I’m sorry!” Lance exclaimed, turning to face him. “I panicked!”

“Guard duty?” Keith continued incredulously. “A skin disease?”

“Hey, it worked, didn’t it?!” Lance huffed.

Keith paused for a moment. The next second he was laughing, doubling over as Lance stared at him in bewilderment. “It worked!” he croaked out. “It fucking worked!”

Lance grinned, a few relieved bubbles of laughter spilling past his own lips. “Either I’m the suavest liar in existence, or that guy is the most gullible guard ever.”

“Pretty sure it was the latter,” Keith replied, straightening back up, though the smile hadn’t disappeared from his face.

“I’d say a healthy mixture of the two,” Lance said, beaming back.

For a moment they drifted there, Keith tempted to close that distance and wrap Lance in his arms. Suddenly he realized they were drifting right out in the open, a cold feeling smothering the warmth in his chest. He yanked Lance against the side of a barrack, reaching out to smooth over the disturbances in the mud caused by the guard’s and now his hand.

“I wish we could’ve heard what he had to say about Shiro,” Lance whispered with a frown. “What do you suppose he meant?”

Keith shrugged, though worry was beginning to settle within him. “I don’t know. Maybe he got injured during one of Lotor’s crazy missions.” He paused, baring his teeth. “I swear if he’s hurt I’ll bring this place to the ground!”

“Woah, there,” Lance said, reaching out to cup Keith’s face before once again remembering their current restrictions. He settled for pushing some of the hair away from the shark’s eyes instead. “I’m sure everything’s fine. You said people like to gossip about Shiro, remember? It’s probably nothing more than that.”

Keith nodded, sighing regretfully at the inability to press himself into Lance’s arms.

“Now,” Lance whispered, grinning playfully. “Lead the way, nurse.”

God, Keith wished he could smack him.

 

 

“The squid is just so slimy, I can barely keep the stuff down!”

“I know right!”

Keith eyed Lance apologetically as the other merman made a disgusted face. The shark had a feeling that Lance was positively green under all that muck. After their previous encounter, squid wasn’t exactly Lance’s favorite food, and listening to a couple of soldiers discuss its sliminess wasn’t doing wonders for the merman’s stomach. Keith was just getting ready to lead Lance away to yet another mundane conversation when one of the soldiers spoke up.

“Speaking of slimy, how did your shift go with that Shiro?”

Keith froze, eyes widening.

“Filthy traitor,” the other shark growled.

In that instant his blood turned cold. He could feel Lance’s eyes on him but he couldn’t tare his own gaze away from the two soldiers they were spying on.

“Haggar’s doing a real number on him. But I don’t pity that bastard! Parading around as Lotor’s champion all this time while he was just passing information to the enemy!”

“I can’t believe I ever looked up to him,” the other shark said, shaking his head. “You know, they think that he’s the one who helped that filthy half-breed escape.”

“That little runt with all the scars?”

“Yeah!” The shark laughed cruelly. “They say he had a habit of swimming into the sharp end of a knife.”

The other shark joined in on the laughter. Keith was gritting his teeth. It took every ounce of self control he had to hold himself still. He didn’t care what they said about him, but no one was allowed to talk that way about Shiro.

“Keith?” Lance whispered uncertainly. The sharkboy ignored him.

“Now I get why Shiro took such a liking to that mutt!”

The other soldier nodded, grinning. “Scum attracts scum!”

“I wonder what else Haggar will cut off? I’m betting his tail.”

“It’s what any traitor deserves! Sendak has claimed the halfbreed’s tail once they find him.”

“I’m sure Lotor himself will want to keep Shiro’s tail for a trophy!”

“Keith!” Lance hissed, his hand closing around the shark’s wrist. Keith whipped around, the expression on his face murderous. Lance shrunk back, though he didn’t release his grip. “Put that away,” he whispered quietly. Keith glanced down, surprised to see that he had drawn his dagger at some point. Furiously he sheathed it, shooting one last venomous glare at the oblivious soldiers floating a few tail-lengths away.

“Let’s go,” he growled.

 

 

The swim back to the others took far longer than Keith liked. The drills must have ended, because sharks were milling about, making it extra difficult to keep out of sight. Thoughts were racing through Keith’s head the entire time, ricocheting painfully off the inside of his skull. What had they done to Shiro? How did they find out he was a spy? How was he going to get him out? He ground his teeth together as he darted behind a clump of coral.

There wasn’t time to worry about that now. He had to focus on getting Lance out of here safely. Right now he just needed to focus on Lance. As much as every part of him screamed to just charge Haggar’s quarters right then and there, to slice up everyone that got in his way and get Shiro out, get him out if this goddamn place, just-

Keith took a deep breath, unclenching the fingers that had been locked into fists the entire swim back. ‘Don’t lose sight of the mission,’ he told himself. ‘Priority one is to get Lance to safety.’ He had to just stick to the mission, stick to the training that had been drilled into his very being by this awful, horrible place. The first objective was to ensure Lance’s survival. The second would be to ensure Shiro’s.

After what felt like centuries, the pair finally reached the edge of camp. Keith waited until the coast was clear before signalling to Lance, the two darting around the dune and out of sight. Keith felt Lance slip his hand into his, squeezing it lightly. For once he felt no comfort from the gesture.

“Guys!” Hunk called as soon as he spotted them. He lead the others towards them, a big smile on his face. However, the smile melted away as soon as he saw the two boy’s grave expressions. “What’s wrong?”

“Where’s the double agent?” Allura asked, eyes sweeping their surroundings as if she were expecting Shiro to leap out from behind a rock. Keith ground his teeth together, feeling everyone’s eyes burn into him. He was shaking with rage, using every ounce of self control to keep him from immediately springing into action.

“They have him.” It was Lance who spoke up, his concerned gaze never once leaving Keith. “The sharks found out that he was a double agent, and their keeping him imprisoned somewhere.”

Allura’s eyes widened in shock. She was silent, seemingly thinking something over in her head, several expressions from rage to pain to fear flitting across her face in quick succession. The others were still just staring at the pair, themselves too shocked to form words. The silence stretched thinner and thinner, Keith unaware of anything but the blood rushing in his ears and the gentle way Lance’s thumb glided over the back of his hand. Finally he looked up, his teeth baring in a snarl.

“I know where he is.”

Chapter Text

“Pass me th-”

“-oing to be okay?”

“Does it matter? He’s just a-”

“Everyone deserves to li-”

“Not everyone. Not in war.”

“I won’t stand by and let a soldier die under my watch!”

“It’d be for the best, if you ask me. It’s his own incompetence that got him here.”

“And I’ll have to inform Lotor of your incompetence if you don’t start treating him!”

“Fine! Shit, he’s waking up. Hold him down, I just have to-”

 

 

“No!” Keith growled, rounding on Lance. “Absolutely not! You are not coming!’”

“Didn’t we literally just have this conversation?” Lance pointed out, exasperated. “You need someone to have your back!”

“I’ve ran a hundred missions solo, Lance. I don’t need anybody.”

“You’re not in their god damn army any more! You have friends now. You have people who want to help you!”

“I don’t need your help!”

 

 

Everything hurt. His tail, his chest, his head. Everything. Waking up wasn’t like emerging from a dream. It didn’t feel like being given a second chance, being brought back from the brink of the abyss. It was hell. It hurt. God, it hurt. He wanted nothing more than to slip away into the numbness of darkness, but his eyelids forced themselves open, his body jolted in a way that let him know it wasn’t giving up, even if his mind wanted to. Something big and purple was looming over him, staring down at him with it’s yellow eyes. His heart was pounding, blood searing in his veins, his ears ringing. Kill. Kill it. Kill it it so it couldn’t hurt him anymore.

The next moment his teeth were buried in something firm, something that gave way beneath them and left the bitter tang of iron in his mouth. Then strong hands where grabbing him, yanking him away, pressing and holding him down. No. He couldn’t take this anymore. He couldn’t lie still anymore, he couldn’t just lie there and take it. He didn’t care what the consequences were anymore, he didn’t care if it got him killed. It hurt so much. He had to make the pain stop. He had to kill before he was hurt anymore.

Every movement was agony, his struggle getting weaker with each passing second. The grip pinning him down was too strong to overcome, too strong to break. He couldn't do this, couldn’t lie here any longer and let himself be torn to pieces. It wasn’t worth it, this wasn’t worth it. He opened his mouth, just barely managing to rasp out, “Kill me.” The answer was immediate.

“No.”

 

 

“You don’t know what they’re like!” Keith snarled. “You don’t know what they’re capable of!”

“Well I do!” Allura spat. “And I know exactly what will happen to the shoal if we don’t get help!”

“No, you stay out of this!” Keith snapped, turning on her. “I don’t care who you’re the leader of! You’re not my leader, I don’t take orders from you!”

“If you care about Lance then you should care about his family!” Allura growled. “You should care about giving them the best possible chance-”

“Of what, of losing their son?!” Keith snarled. Allura flinched at that. “Don’t you tell me how to feel! Don’t you try and tell me they’d want you to throw away his life!”

“You’re not throwing away my life!” Lance exclaimed. “Why won’t you trust me to do this?!”

“I do trust you! I don’t trust myself!”

 

 

“Who are you?”

It had taken Keith a long time to calm down, his muscles finally relaxing as the adrenaline drained from his system, leaving him exhausted and in pain. So much pain.

“My name is Shiro.”

Shiro. He knew that name. He was the top soldier of the army, Lotor’s champion. A hero.

“Where am I?” was his next question.

“I brought you to a medic. You have to try not to move too much or you’ll aggravate your wounds.”

“Medic?” Keith tried to crane his head up to look around but winced from the pain, collapsing back down. “Sendak-?” he asked weakly.

Shiro’s face darkened. “He did this to you, didn’t he?” Keith didn’t answer. Shiro didn’t press him. Instead, he asked, “You’re Keith, right?”

The shark tried to nod, but even that movement sent pain shooting through him. He grit his teeth.

“Lotor heard of your success among the ranks,” Shiro continued. “He sent me to help mentor you.”

“Not sure how well that’s going to work now,” Keith grit out.

“You’ll recover,” Shiro said. The gentle look on his face was unnerving. The sharkboy couldn’t meet his eyes. “I’ll help you with that.”

“So orders are orders, huh?” Keith growled out bitterly.

“I wasn’t ordered to help you heal, Keith. I’m doing this for you, not for Lotor.”

“Why?” the sharkboy asked, his voice thin.

“Because you deserve better than this.”

Keith didn’t like this. He didn’t like the way this man talked. No one looked at him with kindness in their eyes. No accepted anything short of perfection from him, no one nursed his wounds, no one talked to him like this, like he was a person and not a tool, or something disgusting and impure. He didn’t like it.

“What’s in it for you?” he growled out, trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and this man despite how much it hurt to move. He didn’t like the sadness in the man’s eyes either.

“Nothing, Keith. This is for you.”

 

 

“I won’t get in your way, I promise! I won’t be a nuisance, I just need to keep you safe!” Lance cried out.

“I don’t think you’re a nuisance!” Keith exclaimed. “But Shiro is hurt! He's being held by Haggar! I will not let her get you too!”

“So what am I supposed to do if she gets you?!”

 

 

“How are you feeling?”

Keith made a noncommittal grunt, refusing to meet the other man’s eyes.

“Your wounds look much better. They’re closing up nicely.”

“You’re wasting your time,” Keith growled. “You should be out serving the army, not being useless in here.”

“Caring for a wounded soldier isn’t useless.”

“I don’t need your help,” Keith snarled.

“I’m not saying you do,” Shiro sighed, sitting himself on the mossy bedding. Keith flinched away, glaring at him. “But everyone does need help every once in a while.”

“Not me,” Keith said, glaring to the side. “I can’t afford to.”

There was a heavy silence. Finally, Shiro asked, “Why are you here?”

Keith’s eyes widened. “What?”

“You're treated as a punching bag, everyone’s always saying terrible things to you, Sendak literally tried to kill you. Why do you serve in this army?”

“I’m loyal to the cause,” Keith growled out. He didn’t like these questions.

“Eradicating merkind?”

“And making the ocean a safe place for sharks,” Keith added.

“What makes you think mermaids are a threat?”

Keith stared at him in bewilderment.

“Have you met a mermaid before?” Shiro asked.

The sharkboy ground his teeth together.

“Have you ever wondered if-” the other man paused here, a conflicted look flashing across his face. However, it was only there for a second before it was replaced with a look of determination. “Have you ever wondered if we’re the bad guys?”

Keith stared at him with shock. Slowly his eyes darkened, channeling every bit of hatred and resentment he could into his gaze. “If we’re the bad guys?” he scoffed. “How dare you?!”

Shiro raised his eyebrows. “You’re quick to make an enemy out of people you’ve never even met.”

“You don’t know anything!” Keith screeched. The other shark drew back, startled by his sudden rage. “You don’t know anything about me! Mermaids are the scum of the earth! They aren’t people, they don’t care! They’re monsters!”

There was a long silence. Keith clenched his teeth as hard as he could, doing everything to hold back the sob threatening to force its way past his lips. He would not show weakness in front of this man. He could not show weakness. Just then he saw movement at the corner of his vision and he lashed out, his jaws snapping on empty water as Shiro pulled his hand back just in time. He looked up to glare at the other soldier, but froze when he saw the look on his face. That damn look, with those gentle eyes brimming with sadness.

“Keith, I-”

“Get out,” he whispered, turning away to hide his face. “Just get out.”

The other man did. For some reason his absence weighed heavily on the sharkboy’s chest, offering no relief from the anguish that consumed him. He clenched his jaw, refusing to let a sound spill past his lips.

 

 

“I can’t lose you,” Keith whispered, his voice quiet now.

“Then you know how I feel,” Lance whispered back.

 

 

“Again.”

Keith growled. He stiffened his posture from where he had let it slack for a moment in exhaustion. His eyes darted around trying to find the best angle to strike from.

“Any day now, soldier.”

Keith snarled, choosing then to try and take the bigger shark by surprise. Shiro instantly saw him coming, catching him mid-charge and slamming him into the ground. The breath was knocked from his gills.

“Again.”

Keith coughed, gasping as he tried to get oxygen back in him. He straightened up slowly, really trying to play up his fatigue, before suddenly lashing out with his tail. In the blink of an eye, Shiro caught him by the fins, pushing so that he spiraled away. The sharkboy snarled in frustration as he regained his balance, trying to duck beneath the other soldier's arm and get behind him. Next thing he knew Shiro’s tail was buried in his gut, the breath forced from him yet again. For a brief moment his vision went white, and by the time the world came into focus around him again he was on his stomach in the sand, his arms pinned behind him. Then Shiro’s weight lifted from him.

“Again.”

He got up, glaring daggers at the other man. His old wounds were throbbing, every muscle in his body aching. This wasn’t working. They’d been doing this forever and all Keith had accomplished was gaining a few extra bruises and a nasty temper. He paused for a moment, shutting his eyes as he took a deep breath. He heard the other man coming then, intending to take advantage of his distraction and teach him a lesson. Keith didn’t let him.

He swerved to the side just in time, taking Shiro by surprise. However, the other man instantly recovered, spinning to strike. Keith was ready for him, blocking his blow and using Shiro’s momentum against him to force him to careen to the side. Shiro whirled around to face him. Keith was already there, braced for his next blow. It didn’t come. For a long time the two just drifted there, staring. Finally a grin spread across Shiro’s face. “Very good,” he said.

Keith vehemently ignored the pride swelling in his chest, instead simply glowering back.

“Again.”

 

 

“I need to focus on saving Shiro,” Keith murmured, leaning into the hand on his cheek. “I have to get him out of there, but I can’t do that if I’m worrying about you the whole time.”

“You don’t need to worry about anything but Shiro,” Lance whispered. “We’ve got a whole team. We’ll have your back, and we’ll have each others backs. You just get Shiro. We’ll keep you safe.”

“I don’t care about my safety.”

“Well I do. And if you don’t want me to have to come save your ass, then you better care too.”

“I can’t risk losing you. I won’t.”

“You aren’t the only one who can keep me safe. You focus on Shiro, and we’ll take care of the rest. They’ll protect me Keith. And we’ll protect you and Shiro.”

“Please stay here,” Keith whispered.

“I won’t.”

The shark let out a frustrated trill. Lance answered with a soft one.

“You aren’t alone anymore,” the merman whispered. “Wherever you go, I go too.”

 

 

“You aren’t alone, Keith.”

The sharkboy couldn’t meet Shiro’s eyes.

“What he did was terrible. But you aren’t alone anymore. I’m here for you.”

“I don’t need your pity,” Keith said, his voice coming out strained.

“This isn’t pity. This is a promise. You don’t have to face everything alone.”

“It’s easier alone,” Keith growled out.

A hand landed on his shoulder. He flinched badly, his eyes shooting up. There it was again. That gentle gaze. “You know that isn’t true.”

Keith ground his teeth together, looking away. For a moment there was silence, the sharkboy itching to pull away from that crushing weight on his shoulder. The hand was too close, perfectly poised to wrap around his neck or jab him in the throat. Every fiber of his being was screaming at him to pull away. Yet for some reason he didn’t.

Finally, Shiro spoke up. “You’re right. What that man did was evil. But is what Sendak did any less evil?” Keith flinched. “Is it any less evil for the other soldiers to hurt you and treat you like a monster?”

“I am a monster,” Keith whispered.

The hand tightened on his shoulder. He winced, letting out a threatening growl on instinct. The pressure lightened but Shiro still didn’t pull it away. “You’re not. You’re a person, just like any of the rest of them. There is no such thing as an evil race, Keith. There are good and bad in all groups. And you’re good.”

Keith scoffed. “How can I be? I’m part them!”

Another silence. Finally Shiro spoke up. “I once knew a merman. He was the kindest, most caring man I ever met.”

Keith’s eyes widened, shooting up to meet Shiro’s gaze once more. “You knew one of them?!”

“Yes,” Shiro nodded. “He wasn’t evil. He wasn’t a monster. He was kind.”

Keith scoffed. “That’s not possible.”

“Is Sendak one of the good guys? Is Lotor?”

“Wha-?” Keith started.

“What ‘good guy’ takes a child and raises them to kill? What ‘good guy’ rips apart someone who can’t even fight back without being killed? You have been told a lot of stories, Keith. Not all of them are true.”

“Well how can I know what’s true?” Keith growled in frustration. “If I can’t trust Lotor’s word then how can I trust you?!”

“Let me ask you something,” Shiro replied. “Which sounds more monstrous to you? People just trying to live their lives? Or people forming an army to wipe out those other people’s entire existence?”

“Trying to live their lives?” Keith scoffed. “They’re the enemy! It’s their fault sharks are scattered and living in fear!”

“Where’s the mermaid army, Keith?”

“What?”

“Where’s their death squads? When was the last time you saw a group of mermaids come and kill a shark?”

Keith was silent.

“What happened to you back then was horrible. But wasn’t what happened with Sendak just as horrible? So why is he one of the good guys, yet all mermaids are forever monsters? The actions of one should never define nor condemn the existence of all.”

Slowly Keith looked up. He saw those eyes, those familiar eyes, staring at him with all of the gentleness and kindness that no one else in his entire life had ever given him. And for the first time, he found that he didn’t dislike those eyes.

Chapter Text

Nightfall was hardly noticeable this far down, with only a slight darkening of the water to herald its coming. Keith took a deep breath, clearing his mind. He had to focus on Shiro. Somewhere some part of his mind was screaming at him to turn back, to get Lance to safety. But he forced that down, instead trying his best to find security in the thought that the others could look out for Lance. Hunk was here. He wouldn’t let anything happen to his best friend. And Allura would be damned before she lost another member of her shoal. It was fine. He just needed to focus on Shiro. Just Shiro.

Coran, Pidge and Matt were back at the dune. They were the last resort. Should the others not return by morning, they were to swim back to the shoal as quickly as possible and get everyone as far away as they could. It wasn’t an ideal plan. Forcing the shoal from their home and making them spend the rest of the winter in unfamiliar territory was a danger in itself. They would be vulnerable to predators, and face the risk of being unable to find an adequate food source. But being sitting ducks, just waiting for the army to come down upon them, was hardly any better. It was the best backup plan they had.

Keith peered out at the quiet camp, the soldiers all having gone to their bunks. His eyes narrowed, watching as a guard swam past. The shark waited just long enough to ensure the guard wouldn’t hear the swish of fins in the water. Then he darted out, the others close behind. He froze when he heard voices nearby, but relaxed a moment later. It was just soldiers in the barrack, chatting before sleep claimed them.

He glanced behind them, doing a silent headcount. Everyone was there, covered from head to tail in purple muck. The mud was only a precautionary measure. Should they get into any serious fights, it was bound to rub right off. Keith suspected the stuff would come undone if they so much as swam too quickly. Still, it made the others feel better, and it’s effectiveness had been proven earlier that day when he and Lance had almost been caught.

Keith shook himself. He couldn’t think about Lance. Not even a little bit. If he did then he’d just start worrying, start regretting, and he couldn’t afford that. Not now. Shiro needed him. It was Keith’s turn to save him.

The guards thickened the closer they got to Haggar’s dwellings. Her work served a special function that couldn’t be taken lightly. Keith grit his teeth as he recalled the rumors of all she did to Lotor’s prisoners. If she had so much as touched a hair on Shiro’s head, she would pay.

Finally, after countless dodging and weaving between guards, Haggar’s cave came into sight. The dwelling in question rose up out of the ground as a giant mound of boulders, the whole collection jagged and looking alarmingly unstable. An eerie purple light seeped out between the cracks, cast by the phosphorescent algae that allowed her to work in the dark caves. A pair of guards were stationed at the entrance into the horrid place, with more patrolling the perimeter.

Keith saw Lance tense out of the corner of his eye. “Is that the place?” the merman whispered. He nodded wordlessly. Lance sucked in a breath, as if steeling himself to dart to the next cover, but Keith held up a hand, stopping him.

“We’ll only get one shot at this,” Keith whispered. “It has to be just right.”

“Then what’s the plan?” Hunk asked.

Keith’s eyes narrowed, scanning the building. “There,” he pointed to the gaping chasm that formed the entrance. “There’s only two guards on duty. We’ll have to sneak around the side and take them out quickly and quietly.”

“What about the guards around the perimeter?” Allura asked. “There are too many for us to take out.”

“We have to wait a bit longer and observe the route they take,” Keith whispered. He couldn’t hold back the frustrated growl that spilled passed his lips. He didn’t want to leave Shiro waiting a second longer, but he knew rushing in right away wouldn’t do anything more than get them all killed. Or worse, left to the hands of Haggar. Nausea roiled in the pit of his stomach as thoughts of Lance invaded his mind, strapped to a slab with the sea witch looming over him. Keith shook himself. That wasn’t going to happen. They were waiting to ensure that wouldn’t happen.

“Keith,” Lance whispered, bringing the sharkboy back to the present.

“What is it?” he murmured back.

“What are those?” Lance pointed towards some small openings at the top of the structure. They were square, clearly having been built that way, unlike all the other little cracks and gaps in the boulders.

Keith narrowed his eyes, his teeth baring unconsciously. “Those are ventilation shafts,” he hissed. “They’re to filter out all the blood from Haggar’s experiments.”

“Oh,” Lance said, shivering slightly. A moment of silence passed before he spoke again. “Where do those two lead?” he indicated a couple of shafts near the front of the structure.

“They should be right inside the entrance,” Keith murmured. “Why?”

“I have a slight adjustment to the plan.”

Keith’s stomach dropped. He had a feeling he wasn’t going to like this.

“What is it?” Hunk asked before the sharkboy could say anything.

“Allura and I will sneak in through those shafts and take out the two entrance guards-”

“Absolutely not,” Keith hissed.

“Keith,” Lance said, furrowing his brow. “It’s a lot less risky than trying to take them from the outside. If we do the original plan, we can only approach them from one side since the perimeter guards will be patrolling on the other side of the structure. We’ll be in plain sight while we take out the first guard. They’re not stationed that far apart from each other, but even a moment of delay could give the second guard time to call for help!”

“He’s right,” Allura nodded. “We can’t risk it.”

“That’s not the problem,” Keith growled. “I’ll go in, you stay here and-”

“No,” Lance snapped back. “It has to be me and Allura. We’re the only two that will fit through the shafts.”

Keith’s head turned back to the vents. Sure enough there was no way Hunk could squeeze in there with his broad shoulders, or Keith with his large tail. He glared at the vents as though they had personally offended him.

“Keith.” The sharkboy looked back, softening at the tender look in Lance’s eyes. “I’ll be alright, I promise.”

The shark let out a long sigh, squeezing his eyes shut. When he opened them again he fixed Lance with a firm gaze. “Fine,” he whispered. “Hunk and I will be around the side of the building in case anything goes wrong.”

Lance beamed, and for one blissful second, Keith forgot all about the fear and anger weighing on his heart. He forced himself to tear his eyes away and focus back in on the harsh reality before him. Shiro needed him. There’d be plenty of time to stare at Lance when Shiro was safe and away from this god awful place. Right now he just needed to focus.

 

 

It took fifteen excruciating minutes for the group to see the entirety of the guard's route. The sharks would swim around the boulders once before branching out into the surrounding barracks, the reconvene and repeat the cycle. Keith’s mind raced as he tried to determine the best time to make their move. Finally he spoke up, breaking the tense silence that had fallen over them.

“As soon as those guards pass the entrance, we’ll go. Keep low to the ground. We have about ten minutes to get in, get Shiro, and get out before the other guards come back around and notice the two at the entrance are missing.” He turned to stare directly at Lance and Allura, fixing them with a fiery gaze. “I don’t care how you do it, just make sure those guards go down quietly.”

Lance swallowed thickly. In this moment he could really see the hardened soldier in the other boy, beaten into him through years of intensive training and even more intensive abuse. He ached to reach out and stroke Keith’s brow until he’d smoothed away the angry wrinkles, but he held himself back.

The next few moments felt like an eternity, everyone waiting with bated breath as the patrolling guards unknowingly inched closer and closer to the start of their plan. Lance’s breath caught in his throat as the group of sharks reached the entrance. His heart was beating a mile a minute, his hands feeling clammy and cold.

“Go!” Keith hissed, and without a moment’s hesitation, Lance and Allura shot off. He didn’t dare look back, and as such he didn’t notice the worry on Keith’s face or hear the comforting words Hunk whispered to the sharkboy.

Allura was in the lead, swimming low to the ground. They reached the boulders in a matter of seconds, then began silently scaling them. The pair swam as close as possible to the rocks without brushing up against the jagged edges. Once they reached the ventilation shaft, Allura dipped inside, Lance close behind. He had been right about only him and Allura being able to fit. Hunk would’ve never made it in, with his broad shoulders and muscled arms, and while Keith would’ve been able to fit his upper body, his massive tail would’ve easily gotten stuck.

For a moment Lance didn’t dare to breath. Keith has said they used these shafts to vent out the blood. He was afraid of sucking in a breath and tasting the anguish of countless of Haggar’s past victims. Finally, though, he had to let his gills take in water. To his relief it was clean, only the musty tint of algae to alter the taste.

Allura slipped out, Lance taking a brief moment steel himself before he drifted after her. Sure enough, they were right in the entrance, the two guards drifting before them with their backs turned. The merleader gestured towards the guard on the left and Lance nodded, positioning himself behind the one on the right. Allura gave the signal and he darted forward, arm wrapping around the guard's neck and hand coming up to muffle him.

The next few moments were a blur. The guard thrashed around, Lance doing all he could to just hold on and try and pull the massive creature back into the cave. This shark had to be twice his size at least, and in a flash of panic Lance wondered if this had been such a good idea after all. There was a muffled grunt somewhere in front of him, but Lance didn’t have time to focus on it because the next moment his back hit the cave wall, hard.

The breath was crushed out of him, his limbs automatically loosening as the guard tore himself free. Lance tried to squirm away but it was too late, his movement too sluggish from pain. All he could see was teeth. At the last moment he squeezed his eyes shut.

Suddenly there was a strangled sound from in front of him. Lance’s eyes flew open, taking in the sight of Allura. She had her arm wrapped around the shark’s neck, crushing his windpipe, and her teeth buried into the gills on one side. Blood filled the water in a dark cloud until the only thing that could still be seen were Allura’s eyes, sharp and wild.

Lance sprang up, darting over to help. He wrapped his own hands around the sharks throat, clinging on as the beast twisted and thrashed. Then Hunk was there, grabbing the shark around the middle and pinning it down into the sand. The gleam of metal flashed before his eyes, and the giant creature lay still.

For a moment Lance froze, staring in disbelief at where the dagger had disappeared into the blood. His ears were ringing, a coldness seeping through his veins. Then the pale arm retracted from the cloud of red, and suddenly Lance could breathe again. Keith had been holding the dagger the wrong way. He’d only knocked the guard unconscious with the hilt, not stabbed him in the skull.

A hand landed on his shoulder, stirring up some of the mud, but it hardly mattered anymore after their frantic struggle. All of their disguises were effectively ruined. Lance turned, meeting fiery violet eyes.

“Are you okay?” Keith murmured. Lance nodded numbly, and for a brief moment, Keith smiled. It had only been a few hours, but god, how Lance had missed seeing the other boy smile. Then the sharkboy turned away, eyes landing on the still figure beneath them. “Help me drag him.”

He nodded again, grabbing an arm as Keith took the other. Beside them, Allura and Hunk were doing the same to the other guard. Dragging them was easy enough in the water. Stuffing their unconscious bodies out of sight proved more difficult, but after a few moments of fruitless struggling Keith finally let out a frustrated growl and bashed them with his tail, forcing the pair into a narrow gap in the rocks.

“Okay,” Keith whispered, turning away from the two sharks. “Everyone stay close behind me. Haggar’s lab is just at the end of this tunnel.”

The others all nodded as he turned, swimming swiftly and quietly away. Lance followed after, and uneasy feeling building in his stomach with each stroke of his tail. Everything was so quiet. He hated the silence, almost as much as he hated the eery purple glow they were growing closer and closer to.

Suddenly Keith pulled up, pressing himself flat against the wall. The others did the same, inching along behind as the sharkboy crept forward. Keith peered around the corner, scanning whatever he saw for a long moment before darting into the room. Lance followed after.

The room they entered into was large, the ceiling high over their heads. Glowing purple algae hung from this ceiling in tentacle-like strands, waving with even the slightest disturbance in the water. There were several stone slabs laying about, though all were, thankfully, unoccupied at the moment. Something purple gleamed around the slabs and, upon closer inspection, Lance recognized the sharp edges of countless tiny knives, saws, and needles, the metal reflecting the glow from the algae. He shivered at their sight.

However, the worst part of the room was undoubtedly the smell. The stench of rot tainted the chamber, and Lance felt his gills stuttering as they tried to expel the putrid taste.

Just then he heard the sound of retching. Lance spun around, finding Hunk trembling in a corner, his back to the smaller merman. He darted over, placing a hand on his friend’s shoulder and trying to ignore how the stench seemed to have increased tenfold. “Hunk, what’s-?”

Lance trailed off, eyes widening as they took in the sight before them. The two were floating over a pile of bones. Not the bones of fish either. There were hip bones, the long, arching spine of tails, ribs lying scattered, and skulls staring back at them with their lifeless sockets. But it wasn’t the bones Hunk was looking at. Sitting on top of all of them, right at the center of the pile, was an arm.

Suddenly Keith was beside them, a gasp tearing its way from his mouth. He knelt down, his fingers shaking as they brushed the purple skin, now starting to turn black with decay. Lance couldn’t see his face but the shark was trembling from head to tail, a quiet, strangled noise leaving his lips.

Lance left Hunk in the care of Allura and knelt down beside the sharkboy. Slowly, cautiously, he reached out, pulling Keith’s hand back from the severed limb and interlacing their fingers. When Keith didn’t react Lance reached out again, gingerly taking the shark’s chin in his free hand and turning him to face him. Keith’s eyes snapped to him and Lance flinched. The shark’s gaze was positively murderous, and it took every ounce of self control Lance possessed to not swim fast and far from here.

“I’m going to kill her,” Keith hissed. “I’m going to kill her!”

“No,” Lance replied, and the look in Keith’s eyes only got darker. The merman swallowed nervously, hardening his face into something he hoped looked equally as determined as Keith’s expression. “You’re here to save Shiro. Killing Haggar won’t help him. It’ll just get us caught. You came here to save your friend, Keith. Now save him.”

For a long time the two simply stared each other down. A million emotions flashed through Keith’s eyes, from rage to despair to pain. Finally he looked away, his hand tightening in Lance’s. “Come on,” he growled out, tugging the merman with him as he darted to the other side of the room. Lance could hear the swish of Allura and Hunk behind them.

There were two tunnels branching off from this side of the lab. Keith took them down the left one, sloping deeper and deeper until all glow from the previous chamber was gone and Lance’s night vision kicked in. The tunnel seemed to go on forever, spiraling downward as their group swam silently along. Lance shivered once more at the eerie quiet, his heart racing as his eyes darted frantically back and forth, searching for more guards or worse, Haggar herself. His stomach churned at the memory of what they’d just seen in the room above. If the sea witch could do that to a person, he sincerely hoped he’d never meet her.

Keith must have felt Lance’s trembling because he squeezed the merman’s hand reassuringly. However, he didn’t slow in his movements or look back, so Lance’s grateful smile went unnoticed.

Just then the tunnel opened up into a long, narrow room, just as dark as the hall they’d come from. Lance squinted, making out a row of cells in front of them, fitted with metal bars. They all appeared to be empty, with nothing but rocky ground and a few stray chains. Suddenly, a form Lance had mistaken for a lump in the ground moved in the far cell, chains clinking as they were dragged across the rock.

One moment Keith was by Lance’s side and the next he was gone, already down at the far cell, his hands curling around the bars. “Shiro!” His frantic voice rolled back towards Lance, and even from this distance Lance could see the fear in the sharkboy’s glowing eyes.

The shape curled in on itself, shrinking away.

“Shiro, it’s me! It’s Keith!”

Lance swam froward, but paused a few tail lengths from the cell. The water around him felt fragile, as though it were ice and the slightest wrong move would shatter it.

“Keith?” A voice rasped, deep but strained. “No,” it murmured. “Keith’s dead.”

“I’m not, Shiro!” Keith exclaimed. His own voice sounded raw and broken. “I’m here! I’m going to get you out of here, I promise!”

“Leave me alone,” the figure mumbled. “Just leave me alone.”

A sob tore it’s way from Keith’s throat. Suddenly Lance didn’t care about shattering the moment or whatever bullshit he’d been thinking before. He swam forward, wrapping Keith in his arms. The shark buried his head in his shoulder, shaking.

“T-t-the s-aw,” Keith gasped out, trying his best to speak between sobs.

“What?” Lance murmured. “Look, it’s okay Keith. We found Shiro, now we just need to get him out-”

“I k-know!” Keith rasped. He straightened up to look Lance in the eye. It almost broke the merman’s heart to see the look of despair there. But there was also fear and anger, and something outshining all the other emotions battling in those violet irises. Something like hope. “We n-need the saw! From i-in the lab. We can saw through the bars-”
Lance nodded in understanding, turning to address the two mermaids behind them. “Hunk-”

“On it,” his friend whispered, turning to disappear back up the tunnel.

“S-Shiro!” Keith was murmuring, reaching out to grasp one of the bars again. “Shiro look at me!”

“You can’t trick me,” the shape on the floor growled. “I know Keith is dead!”

“I’m not!” Keith sobbed. “I’m here!”

“No!” the figure snarled. “I saw your- his tail.” Keith didn’t respond, just clung tightly to Lance as he gazed between the bars. “They showed me Keith’s severed tail.”

“Shiro.”

Lance was shocked at the tone of the shark boy’s voice. In an instant it had gone from hurt and frantic to sharp and demanding.

“Shiro, look at me, damn it!”

For a long moment nothing happened. Then slowly, the form straightened up. Lance swallowed nervously. It had been hard to tell with the figure curled up on the floor, but the man behind these bars was truly massive. He fixed them with a pair of glowing yellow eyes that set the merman’s teeth on edge.

Silence. God, Lance hated this silence. But he dared not break it, not with that fierce yellow gaze meeting an equally fierce and stubborn violet one. Finally the figure spoke, voice small and unsure.

“Keith?”

“Lotor will be pleased.”

The trio jumped, whirling around while Shiro shrank back. Floating at the entrance to the tunnel was a shark with long, stringy white hair. Allura drew her weapon, snarling. Lance and Keith followed suit.

“He was rather disappointed with Sendak’s failed attempt to capture you,” the shark continued, voice cold and emotionless. “Who knew you’d be the one to come to us?”

A low growl left Keith’s chest. Lance took a moment to glance at the sharkboy and was startled to see the pure hatred shining in his eyes.

“Haggar,” Keith hissed.

Chapter Text

“I was just about to send for some fresh test subjects,” Haggar said, her eyes cold and calculating. Her skin was a pale purple, like that of a corpse, and her frame was sharp and bony, with yellow eyes sunken into the pits of her cheeks. Her teeth could be seen, thin and needle-like, when she opened her mouth to speak again. “But these three should be adequate.”

“Three?” Keith asked, slowly inching out of Lance’s arms as he drew his dagger. Lance felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. Either Haggar was including Keith in that count, or-

“I already dealt with your friend in the lab,” Haggar responded, confirming his worst fears. “Why don’t you join him up there? There is much to do and so little ti-”

Right at that moment Allura lunged at the witch, thrusting forward with her spear. Haggar dodged with a practiced twist of her body, reaching out to grab the weapon’s shaft and using it to yank Allura towards her. Lance started forward, Keith beside him, but it was too late. Haggar brought her other hand down, burying a syringe in the merleader’s neck. Allura instantly went limp, drifting down to the floor. Lance let out a sharp, terrified cry as he watched her fall.

Keith reached the witch first. He swung his dagger, but the witch dodged back like she was doing no more than avoiding a minnow. The sharkboy reeled back for another attack but before he could so much as blink, a large, muscled arm shot out of the darkness. The hand that grabbed Keith’s wrist pressed down hard, and with a shout of pain Keith’s fingers went limp, the dagger slipping through them.

Lance gasped, changing his trajectory last minute from Haggar towards the guard that had appeared. He swung his sword towards the arm trapping Keith, but then something solid and purple was blocking his way. There was the clang of metal as his weapon met the sword of a second guard, darting in from the tunnel. The merman drew back, getting some space so he could land another hit. She was ready for him, her own sword coming up to meet his. Before Lance could strike again, his opponent threw her weight into where their blades connected, sending him flying back. He hit the wall with a gasp, his vision blurring. He managed to blink away the bleariness just in time to see a giant blade slicing towards his face. Lance just barely rolled away in time, the sword nicking him in the neck. He turned, bringing his weapon up to block a strike so hard, it made his bones vibrate.

Just then there was a hand on his throat from behind, and the feeling of something sharp pricking into his skin. It distracted him long enough for his sword to be ripped from his hands, the guard grasping his wrists in a crushing grip. Behind him, someone screamed.

Lance froze, cursing himself internally. In his frantic attempt to get to Keith, he had forgotten about Haggar. He shivered slightly. The sharp sting in his neck wasn’t from a dagger cutting too close. It was deep. He kept replaying how Allura had crumpled to the ground like a pebble drawn into the depths. Lance didn’t even know if she was still alive. And he was about to meet the same fate.

His breaths came out in stuttering gasps, his body feeling numb. He trembled as he waited for it to happen. For the feeling of something rushing into his veins, for the chill of his muscles giving out, for the world to go black, anything. But nothing was happening. Why was nothing happening?

He fought to slow his breathing. The black spots in his vision began to clear up, revealing the sneering face of the guard that still had his wrists pinned. He could still feel the hand at his throat and the needle buried in his neck. Why hadn’t Haggar injected him already? Then the blood rushing through his ears began to fade. He could hear again. He could hear Keith.

“-ease, don’t hurt him, I’ll do anything! Just let him go! I’m the one that you’re after, he doesn’t have anything to do with this, please, please, I’ll do anything you want, please-”

Lance swallowed thickly, hissing at the pain that shot through his neck. Keith sounded broken, his voice raw, his words spilling out frantically as he went on and on, never pausing for breath. This was too much. Keith’s mentor was chained up in a cell with his arm cut off, Allura was lying limply on the floor, Hunk was somewhere above them either hurt or dead, and Keith was behind him, begging desperately for Lance’s life. This was all too much.

The faces of his family flashed in his mind. His mother’s smile, the humorous twinkle in his father’s eyes, the wicked grins of siblings and cousins, the gentle care of his aunts and uncles and grandparents. He would give anything to be back with them right now, safe and tucked away in their cave. He wanted to see them again. He didn’t want this to be the end.

“-please!” Keith sobbed.

“Tie him up,” Haggar’s cold voice cut through his thoughts, scattering them as he felt the needle withdraw from his neck. He was spun around, arms forced behind his back as rough ropes bit into his skin. He could see Keith now, pinned against the ground by the other guard. Keith was gazing up at him with the most broken expression Lance had ever seen on his beautiful face.

“Keith.” Lance’s voice came out like a whisper, a prayer. “Keith, everything’s going to be okay.” His gut twisted at the lie, but he didn’t care. He would do anything to wipe that expression off the sharkboy’s face. “It’s okay.”

Keith tried to strain towards him, but the guard holding him down twisted his arm further, causing the sharkboy to hiss in pain.

“Take him to the lab,” Haggar ordered the guard holding Lance.

“NO!” Keith screamed, renewing his efforts to escape. Lance felt a numbing terror taking over his mind as he stared into those desperate violet eyes. He was being dragged away, Keith yanked up and dragged in the opposite direction. Lance twisted his head so he could see over his shoulder, watching as Keith was forced into a cell, the guard binding his wrists in chains as Haggar withdrew a large ring of keys, inserting one to lock him in place.

“LANCE!” Keith was thrashing wildly, his teeth snapping as he tried desperately to sink them into his captors.

“Keith, I-”

Lance was cut off as Haggar’s cold voice rang through the water. “Don’t worry,” she said, looking at Keith like he were nothing more than a piece of slime on the floor. “I wouldn’t kill him without you there to see it.”

Then Lance’s view was cut off, the guard yanking him up the tunnel. He could here Keith screaming his name the whole way, the sharkboy’s voice echoing off the walls. It wasn’t until they had almost reached the lab that the sound finally faded out, too far below to be heard anymore. Lance felt cold. Not like the pleasant coldness of fresh waters, but the numbing terror of the unknown. He didn’t know what was going to happen to him. He didn’t know what was going to happen to his friends. He didn’t know if Allura was alive, or Hunk-

“Hunk!” Lance gasped. He strained against the ropes binding him, trying desperately to break free.

“Lance,” his friend breathed out, voice small and quiet. The merman was strapped onto one of those awful slabs, metal instruments gleaming around him in the dim light. He struggled against the chains holding him there, but they didn’t budge. Lance noticed the sizable welt blooming on his forehead. “Lance, where are the others?” Hunk asked. His breathing was shallow, but he seemed to be just barely keeping himself together, his eyes intensely focused on his friend.

“They’re-” Lance trailed off. How was he supposed to explain that he didn’t know if Allura was even alive? That he had been too late to help her? That he had tried to save Keith, but he couldn’t even do that?

“Lance?” Hunk asked, his voice increasingly desperate.

“Gag them,” Haggar spoke up as she emerged with the second guard from the tunnel. A bundle of seaweed was immediately shoved in Hunk’s mouth, muffling his strangled cry.

“NO!” Lance screamed, thrashing around as he was dragged towards another slab. “DON’T YOU TOUCH HIM! DON’T YOU DARE-”

He was cut off by a sharp blow to the back of his head, leaving him dizzy. “Shut up, would you?” the guard holding his bound wrists growled. The second guard swam over from Hunk and grasped Lance’s chin, tilting his head up. Lance clenched his teeth down hard, glaring defiantly up at the shark. The guard simply increased his pressure, pressing harder and harder into Lance’s jaw until he was forced to open it with a gasp of pain. Instantly seaweed was shoved into his mouth, another strand being used to tie the gag in place. He was thrown backwards onto a slab, one shark holding him down as the other reached over to fasten the chains in place.

“No.” Haggar’s voice caused the two guards to pause. “I want him to be able to see my work. Tie him up over there.” A purple, bony finger pointed to a stalagmite near the wall. Lance was hauled back up and dragged over to the stone outcropping. The rope tying his hands was used to fasten him to the stalagmite, leaving him sitting up with a full view of the room. He thrashed around, screaming obscenities no one could understand through the gag. With a swipe of his tail, he managed to hit one of the sharks in the gut, making him curl in on himself. He gasped and sputtered for a moment before straightening back up with a look of rage on his face. The shark raised his fist as Lance flinched back.

“Why, you-”

“Leave us!” Haggar barked. “I must conduct my work in private.”

The woman guard nodded, swimming away. The male guard snarled, taking that opportunity to land a blow across Lance’s face that was hard enough to knock his head to the side. Pain erupted along his jaw. Lance tasted blood, but the gag prevented him from spitting it out. With one last sneer, the male guard vanished.

There was silence for a moment, during which Haggar picked up several different tools, inspecting them closely before placing them down. Lance could see Hunk’s eyes widen with terror as she examined each one.

“I don’t believe in pain for pleasure,” Haggar finally spoke. Lance mustered all the hatred he could find and channeled it into his gaze. However, she wasn’t looking at him, only inspecting her tools. “Or for revenge. I believe pain must serve a purpose. Whether that be eradicating our enemies or,” she paused a moment, reaching down to press a small blade against the middle of Hunk’s chest. The merman whimpered quietly, and Lance pulled harshly against his restraints, ignoring the way they dug into his wrists. Finally Haggar pulled back, shaking her head slightly as she placed the knife down. “-for finding their weaknesses. I tend to not do interrogations. I don’t deal in the information told to me by others. I prefer to find answers for myself. Lotor will likely want to know where you came from, how you came to know the halfbreed and so on. But he only needs one to answer his questions.”

She looked up then, locking eyes with Lance. Her indifferent expression didn’t even waver under Lance’s ferocious glare. “I’ll kill you last,” she said. Then she turned to gaze down at her instruments again. After a moment of her eyes flitting back and forth between them, she reached down, closing her hand around a giant syringe. “Well, there’s no point in talking of death now. There’s still work to do before then.”

Suddenly, without a moment’s hesitation, she plunged the syringe into Hunk’s neck. Lance watched in horror as the dark liquid disappeared beneath his friend’s skin. For a moment Hunk went rigged, every muscle in his body stiff. His eyes flew wide open, cloudy and unfocused, and there was nothing but a muffled choking noise. Then Hunk screamed.

The gag cut off some of it, but Lance could still hear. It was loud and raw and inhuman. Hunk was spasming on the table, the chains biting into his skin and drawing blood.

“HNNNNNNNNK!” Lance screamed around his own gag. A sob spilled past his lips. He thrashed wildly, but only succeeded in drawing more blood from his battered wrists. His eyes darted around, searching for something, anything that could help him escape. A glint of metal caught his eye, and he focused in on the nearest slab. A small knife was perched on the edge, it’s handle halfway over the side. If he stretched his tail out, maybe he could reach just far enough to knock it off.

Lance glanced back over at Haggar. She wasn’t paying attention to him, instead watching with interest as his friend’s struggles grew weaker. Fighting back the bile rising in his throat, Lance lifted his tail, stretching it out. He strained, his fins just barely brushing the edge of the knife.

“There’s an experiment I’ve been wanting to try.” Haggar’s voice almost made Lance jump out of his skin. He quickly drew his tail back, glancing to her in fear. Luckily she didn’t seem to have noticed his escape attempt, her eyes still focused on her instruments. “I’ve been wondering, if one were to pull out a mermaid’s scales one at a time, how many must be removed before they bleed out?”

Lance froze, his blood running cold. Hunk let out a muffled sob, shaking uncontrollably. The two of them watched in horror as Haggar held up a pair of thick, metal tongs. The sea witch didn’t smile, but there was a sharp gleam in her eye, like a child about to open a present. Lance wanted to vomit. “Let’s find out,” she hissed.

Lance couldn’t watch. He turned away, instead forcing himself to focus every ounce of concentration on reaching that knife. Sobs tore their way from his throat, his chest felt like it was burning and shattering all at once but he refused to look. He tried his best to shut out Hunk’s agonizing screams, to ignore the scent of blood that was beginning to fill the water. He had to focus. He was so close. If he could just stretch a little farther-

Lance had to bite back his triumphant cry as the knife fell to the ground. He quickly swept it over to himself with his fins, trying to grapple for it with his fingers. He flinched as another scream came from his friend, but he still didn’t turn his head, didn’t stop trying to grasp for the handle. He felt something sharp slice into his palm but he didn’t care. He pulled up the knife, wincing in pain as it dug deeper. He managed to turn it so he was grasping the handle instead, then began to saw frantically at the ropes. Thank god he hadn’t been chained to a slab.

It didn’t take long for the ropes to give. Lance’s hands sprung forward, ripping the gag from his mouth. He shot up, lunging towards the stringy white hair floating at the edge of a cloud of blood. His hands found a bony shoulder, a neck, and he plunged the blade down.

Haggar’s scream was the most horrible sound he had ever heard. It was loud and shrieking, like some monstrosity that had crawled up from the depths. Lance reached down, ripping the key ring from the witch’s sash before she thrashed out of his reach, disappearing into the blood that was steadily taking over the room. He reached out, blindly groping until his hand met smooth scales that flinched at his touch, a pained sob coming from below him. Lance squinted, making out Hunk’s form as he felt for the lock on the chains. His hands shook as he shoved key after key into the lock, cursing each time it didn’t work. Haggar was still screaming and writhing somewhere in front of him, the blood stirring around wildly from her movements. Finally the lock gave, and Lance dragged his friend off that cursed slab. With a harsh tug he hauled Hunk in the direction he remembered the tunnels being. A rock wall met him, and the two mermen were forced to grope blindly until they finally found the opening to the prison below.

Hunk was sobbing quietly as Lance dragged him along, but as much as it hurt his heart, Lance didn’t have time to console his friend. They had to get the others and get out of there. The further down they got the more Lance could hear Keith’s continued screams. They were a mixture of Lance’s name along with wordless cries of rage. He could hear the thrashing clink of chains and something else. Something softer.

Relief hit Lance like a tsunami as he recognized Allura’s voice, trying fruitlessly to calm the sharkboy’s outburst. Lance and Hunk careened into the chamber, Lance letting go of his friend’s arm so he could dart over to Keith’s cell.

“Lance!” Keith sobbed out at the same time Allura called, “Lance! Hunk!”

The merman cursed darkly as he fumbled with the keys again, finally finding the one that fit. He knelt beside Keith, reaching around to struggle with his chains as Keith leaned his body weight into him, trembling and nuzzling at Lance’s neck. After a few attempts the chains gave way. Lance planted a quick kiss to Keith’s forehead before darting over to Allura’s cell, trying out the lock there next.

“Hunk?” he heard Keith whisper behind him. “Are you okay?”

The merman let out a sob, and Lance could hear the sound of Keith’s breath being crushed out of him as he was swept into a hug. He himself cried out in triumph as the lock sprung open, darting to Allura and making quick work of her chains. “Allura, are you alright?” he whispered frantically, placing his hand on her shoulder. “Haggar injected something in your neck and then you just-”

“I’m fine,” Allura replied. “I was only out a few minutes. My neck’s a bit tender, but I feel fine otherwise.”

Lance let out the breath he’d been holding, shooting her a relieved smile. He helped her up before springing into action once more, dashing past where Hunk was sobbing into Keith’s shoulder, the sharkboy patting him awkwardly as he gazed at the other boy in worry.

Lance started struggling with the lock on Shiro’s cell, noticing the way the giant form shrank away from him. He cursed these stupid locks and stupid keys and how long it took to find the right one. After a few too many moments, the cell door swung open. Lance immediately tried to reach for Shiro’s chains but the shark flinched away, fixing him with a wild yellow gaze. “Don’t touch me,” he growled, sending a shiver down the merman’s spine.

“Keith,” Lance said slowly, never once taking his eyes off the shark below him. “Come here and unchain Shiro.” He heard the sound of Allura’s reassuring murmurs as she took over with Hunk, Keith coming to join him. The shark knelt down, taking the key ring Lance offered him. Shiro shrank back once more, baring his teeth at Keith’s approach.

“I don’t have time for this, Shiro!” Keith snapped, fixing the other man with a glare. Shiro’s eyes widened for a moment before softening.

“It really is you,” he whispered, emotion welling up in his voice.

“Yeah,” Keith whispered back, his glare smoothing over into a tender smile. “It’s me.”

The moment was made a bit less touching by Keith’s colorful swearing as he struggled with the chains, but eventually he had Shiro freed. For a second the two drifted there staring at each other. Then, at the same time, they surged forward, coming together in a hug. Lance glanced away, feeling like he was intruding on a private moment. He gave them a bit before speaking up.

“Not to ruin the moment, but there is a very angry sea witch above us and an entire army of sharks around us, so-”

“Right,” Keith pulled away, straightening up.

However, Shiro didn’t follow him. The shark glanced off to the side, keeping his face hidden. “I can’t swim,” he murmured.

Lance glanced down, gasping when he saw the odd angles that the shark’s fins were bent at. He gazed up at Keith to see the other boy wince. Keith’s gaze met his own. “Lance-”

“Got it,” Lance nodded, stooping down beside Keith so they could haul the shark between them. Lance swung Shiro’s arm over his shoulder, Keith reaching down to secure the man with an arm around his waist. The trio swam from the cell, Shiro hissing in pain as his limp fins dragged through the water, but otherwise not making any protest.

“Alright,” Lance spoke up, gazing at his other two friends. Luckily Hunk seemed to have somewhat composed himself with the help of Allura. Lance still couldn’t bring himself to look at where blood was seeping from his best friend’s tail. He took a deep breath, bracing himself for whatever awaited them above. “Let’s get out of here.”

Chapter Text

The lab was filled with blood. Forms could be made out through the red haze now that the water had diluted it enough. Shiro let out an audible groan at the sight, his eyes squeezing tightly shut as he let Lance and Keith guide him forward. Lance swallowed thickly, inhaling his last clean bit of water before they dove in. The blood was sickening, tainting every breath, its scent overpowering. Lance heard Hunk gag behind him and guilt coiled in his chest. Some of this blood was his.

The group proceeded swiftly but cautiously, all eyes save for Shiro’s darting around. Nothing moved, nothing stirred the crimson waves. Lance could just make out the outline of the tunnel to the exit. They were gonna make it. Just a few tail lengths away and they’d leave this horrible room forever.

Just then bony hands closed around his throat. He was pulled away, his friends disappearing in the blood as his startled cry was crushed from his windpipe. The merman was spun around, wincing as a furious hissing shriek assaulted his ears. Haggar loomed before him, her eyes wild, her hair splayed around her like so many writhing tentacles as she screeched in fury. Lance twisted, clawing desperately at the hands on his throat. One of her hands released him and for a moment he thought he had managed to pull it away. Then he saw it reach into the blood, withdrawing a long, thin needle. Lance writhed, trying desperately to break free. He watched in horror as she raised the needle above her head, her yellow eyes flashing. Then she brought her hand down.

Haggar was gone. One moment she was there, poised to stab him in the throat. The next she had disappeared into the blood. Lance caught sight of a heavily scarred tail for a brief second before it had disappeared after her. He doubled over, hacking and coughing as water rushed into his lungs, only to hack and cough some more as it came with the taste of blood. Blindly he groped his way forward, trying to following the sound of a struggle, of metal instruments clattering to the floor and shrieks of fury met by roars. He bumped into something and felt arms come out to grab him. He could just barely make out white hair in the bloody haze, and almost shrank back before he saw that the hair was tidily tied into a bun.

“Allura?” he wheezed out.

“Lance!” she exclaimed. “Oh, thank the gods!”

“Lance!” Hunk cried out somewhere to his left.

“Where’s Shiro?” the merman managed to get out.

“I don’t know,” Allura replied. “We lost him after Haggar attacked you and Keith charged after you two.”

“Find Shiro and get to the exit,” Lance ordered. He winced as he heard something crash to the floor nearby. “I’ll find Keith and meet you there.”

“Got it,” Allura said.

“Wait!” Hunk called out before anyone could move. Lance felt the touch of cold metal being pressed into his hands. “It’s your sword. I grabbed it off the floor before we left.”

The smaller merman smiled, even though it couldn’t be seen through the blood. “Thanks, Hunk,” he said. “Now hurry and get out of this place.”

“You too,” he best friend replied. His tone voice was firm. “Don’t be long.” With that, he and Allura were gone.

Lance clutched the sword close to him, alone with the sounds of a fierce fight echoing off the walls. “Keith!” he yelled, slowly drifting forward once more. “Keith!” There was no reply except for the continued screams of rage.

His fingers skimmed along something and he reached out, groping the edge of one of those horrible slabs. He was just about to pull away when something heavy smashed into the other side of the slab. The motion stirred up the blood enough to make out Keith’s face, snarling down at a tangled mess of white, wispy hair.

“Keith!” Lance cried out. The shark’s eyes snapped up to him. That moment of distraction was just enough for the witch to break free, howling in fury as she twisted behind the sharkboy. “Keith, duck!” Lance screeched.

The shark’s eyes widened as he saw Lance raise his word. He dove down, disappearing behind the slab just as needle pierced the water where his neck had been moments before. Lance didn’t hesitate. The blunt end of the sword smashed into Haggar’s skull, the force sending the witch careening off into the blood. Keith sprang up, spinning in the direction the witch had disappeared. Before he could pursue Lance’s hand closed around his wrist.

“Keith we’ve gotta go!” He cried.

Keith growled, eyes darting between Lance and the blood concealing Haggar.

“Keith!” Lance yelled. “We’re here to save Shiro, remember?”

With a frustrated snarl the sharkboy turned away from where the witch had disappeared. He reached down, lacing his fingers with Lance’s. For a brief moment their eyes met, Keith’s simmering with leftover anger, Lance’s with determined resolve. Finally they darted off, trying to find their way through the blood.

It had only gotten thicker since Haggar and Keith’s fight. To Lance’s relief, he couldn’t spot any wounds on the sharkboy other than a few scrapes and bruises. Then again, he could hardly see with all this red around them. After a few moments of frantic searching they finally hit a wall, starting to grope their way along it. The wall opened up and, praying that it was the tunnel to the entrance, Lance pulled Keith after him.

The further they swam, the more the water started to clear up until, finally, Lance could see again. He spotted Allura and Hunk at the end of the tunnel, trying to support Shiro between them. Lance’s eyes focused in on the blood still steadily streaming from Hunk’s tail.

“I’ve got it, buddy,” Lance murmured, taking Hunk’s place by Shiro. On his other side Allura switched with Keith, the sharkboy not too eager to let anyone else carry his mentor.

“Keith,” Shiro groaned lightly. His eyes were still shut. “You’re alive.”

“Yes, Shiro,” Keith whispered. “Now we’re going to get you out of here.”

 

 

Getting back through the army was hell. To their extreme luck, no alarm had yet been raised. Lance’s blow had either knocked Haggar out or killed her, judging by the delay. But still, trying to dart from cover to cover, avoiding guards was more than just a little difficult with Shiro’s massive form sandwiched between them. It was slow-going, which made it all the worse. Everyone was on edge, wildly scanning their surroundings for enemies. Worst of all, Hunk’s tail wasn’t getting any better. Blood seeped around them in the water, the merman’s face screwing up in pain every time he had to swim forward. Something ugly twisted in Lance’s gut at the sight of his friend in so much pain. Something uglier twisted in his heart knowing that he still couldn’t do anything about it yet. He just wanted to get out of this place.

The edge of the camp was a few tail lengths away when it happened. A loud, roaring sound rumbled over the waters. “The alarm!” Keith hissed. The group abandoned their plan of doodging for cover and made a break for it, shooting over the last bit of ground before they were rounding the dune, out of sight.

“What happened?” Pidge exclaimed, rushing forwards as soon as she spotted the others.

“What’s that sound?” Matt added, gazing frantically towards the camp.

“We have to move!” Keith snapped. “The whole army is going to be after us in a just moment!”

“Where can we go?” Coran’s eyes were wide with fear.

For a moment there was silence. Lance’s brow furrowed. There was one place they could go. A place he had hoped the never see again. Steeling himself, he took a deep breath.

“The old Blade base.” The rest of the group turned to him. “We can lose them in the trench, then hide out in the caves.”

“Lance-” Coran began.

“I know!” the memran snapped. He shook himself as thoughts of sickly pale tentacles invaded his mind. “It’s our best shot.”

“Let’s move!” Allura called. She took the lead, darting off with Coran close behind, followed by Pidge and Matt, Lance and Keith supporting Shiro, and Hunk taking up the rear.

The noise faded the farther they got from the camp, and for a few blissful minutes, it seemed they might be in the clear. Then a roar came from behind them. Lance dared to glance back and saw a platoon of sharks, armed to the teeth.

“They’ve found us,” Shiro hissed.

Time moved in a blur after that. It was a frantic dash across the sea floor, dodging spears hurled at them with the sharks in hot pursuit. At one point another platoon seemed to join them, the shark’s numbers doubling. Their group had gotten a good start, but the enemy was gaining quickly. Shiro and Hunk were both slowing them down, causing them to lose more and more ground.

Suddenly the trench appeared before them, the ocean floor seeming to just drop away into darkness. Lane cried out in relief, straining to cover that last bit of ground. The edge disappeared behind them and they began their descent. The spears had stopped raining now, but Lance could hear the sharks close behind, likely holding back merely so they didn’t lose their weapons to the depths.

“Guys!” Hunk called. “We’re not going to make it!”

“We’ll make it!” Lance yelled back.

“No!” Hunk replied. “We won’t! I’m slowing you down!”

“Hunk, shut up and keep swimming!” Lance snapped.

“I can’t.” Hunk’s voice sounded farther away. Alarmingly farther away. Lance glanced back. His friend had stopped swimming. The darkness made it so he couldn’t see the sharks pursuing them, but he could hear them. They weren’t that far behind.

“Hunk!” Lance cried. He stopped in his tracks, spinning around. Keith let out a startled cry as he took the brunt of Shiro’s weight. “Hunk, get over here!” Lance yelled.

“I can’t, Lance!” his friend called back. “None of us are going to make it if you guys wait for me. Go on, I’ll keep them distracted.”

“Hunk, this isn’t funny!” Lance’s voice was shrill and desperate. He started towards his friend, but a hand closed around his wrist.

“Lance, we can’t stop!” Keith cried, his eyes wide.

“What the hell are you guys doing?!” Pidge called from somewhere far in front of them.

“Hunk, come on!” Lance cried, pulling at the wrist Keith had in his grasp. “H-hurry up!”

“Lance,” Hunk replied. His voice wavered slightly, but his eyes held firm. “Tell my family I love them, okay?”

Lance could see the sharks now, starting to emerge through the darkness. They were almost upon them.

“WE NEED TO MOVE!” Allura yelled.She sounded far away.

“Why isn’t Hunk moving?!” Pidge screeched.

Lance watched as Hunk turned to face the sharks bearing down on him. “HUNK, NO!” he screamed, tearing himself from Keith’s grasp. He hadn’t made it a tail-length before the shark had wrapped his arms around him, holding Lance back. “LET GO OF ME!” He shrieked.

“Lance!” Keith’s voice came out in a sob. “You can’t-”

“HUNK!” Lance screamed. He could hear Pidge screaming something from somewhere behind him, but he couldn’t make it out, couldn’t hear anything but the blood rushing in his ears. Hunk glanced behind him at the last moment before the sharks reached him. He met Lance’s eyes and smiled. Then a sword sliced towards his neck.

The sound that left Lance’s throat was unlike anything he’d ever heard. The world was crashing down around him, shattering before his eyes, and he could do nothing but drift there and watch helplessly. It was agony, pure agony alight in his veins, searing through every portion of his being. In that moment he knew that nothing was ever going to be okay, ever again. It was all over.

He didn’t understand what happened next. One moment Hunk was there, the sharks upon him. The next he was shooting past Lance, his golden scales flashing as he tumbled through the water. Lance managed to crane his head around in time to see the merman collide with Coran far behind him, the two ending up in a sputtering tangle of limbs. Lance’s head whipped forward again, and he sobbed in a strange mix of relief and absolute terror.

The giant squid. Its tentacles were waving about, sharks scattering between them as they tried to dodge the flailing arms. Half of a spear was lodged in one of its enormous, saucer like eyes. Lance watched in horror as a shark was plucked from the water like a pebble, dragged towards the monster’s snapping beak.

“Lance, we’ve gotta go!”

Keith’s yelling finally snapped him out of his stupor, the merman diving over to where they’d both dropped Shiro and hauling the shark back up. The trio shot off, following the others as they turned to make their escape. Coran and Pidge each had an arm around Hunk, helping him through the water as his golden tail spasmed in pain.

 

 

Lance never thought he’d be happy to see those creepy caves again, and yet here he was. They all rushed inside, frantic despite the fact that no one seemed to have followed them after the squid. Lance helped lower Shiro onto the floor, then left to give Keith a moment alone with his mentor. Besides, he had someone of his own he needed to talk to.

He drifted into the room Hunk was in, leaning against the wall as he watched Coran work on treating and bandaging the merman’s tail. Pidge had her arms wrapped around his neck, mumbling something Lance couldn’t make out into his ear. Hunk’s eyes met Lance and they shared a look. Then they both glanced away, waiting for Coran to finish treating the deep wound in Hunk’s tail.

“That should do it!” Coran announced. His voice was cheerful as always, but it wavered slightly, hinting at other emotions underneath. “Take some of these to help with the pain. I’m off to go treat our shark guest. Just holler if you need anything.”

With that the merman swam out of the room. Lance and Hunk’s eyes met again. “Hey, Pidge?” the bigger merman said, gently unwinding her arms from around his neck. “Is it okay if Lance and I have a moment?”

The mermaid nodded, sniffling lightly. She reached up to adjust the glass circles she wore, and Lance noticed her face was red and splotchy. Pidge swam towards the exit, pausing for a moment to lean her weight into Lance, her exhaustion showing. He reached down, ruffling her hair affectionately as she hissed and swatted his hand away. Then she was gone, likely off to find Matt.

For a long moment neither of them moved. Then, slowly, Lance drifted over. He plopped down, settling himself against the wall next to Hunk. They both stared straight ahead. There was silence.

“Lance, I-”

“Wait,” Lance held up his hand. “I need a moment.”

More silence. Lance’s brow furrowed as he tried to collect his thoughts. They were all spinning through his head, whirling out of control as he desperately grasped at them. After a long moment, he let out a breath. “I’m sorry,” he murmured. His voice came out small.

Hunk’s eyebrows shot up as he turned to face his friend. “Sorry? Why are you sorry?”

“Because this is my fault,” Lance forced out, fingernails digging into his arm. “This is all my fault.”

“Woah, slow down, buddy,” Hunk said, his voice soothing. “I’m not following you here.”

“I’m the one who sent you to get that saw. I shouldn’t have done that, I should’ve just gone myself. Then I would’ve been the one on the slab.” Hunk’s breath caught in his throat and Lance winced. “I’m so sorry. I made you and Pidge go to meet Keith with me and I dragged you on this mission. If it weren’t for me you’d be safe back at home and instead you got hurt and I almost lost you because I’m so stupid, I can’t even get a stupid saw myself, I’m just-”

“Hey,” Hunk said. His voice was stern, his hand coming down on Lance’s shoulder. “Stop that, right now. None of this is your fault. You didn’t make me come on this mission, I chose to. And you didn’t make me come with you to see Keith, you asked and I agreed. Same with the saw. I’m glad it wasn’t you on the slab, Lance. I wouldn’t want anyone-” Hunk trailed off, his voice breaking.

“Hey,” Lance murmured. “I know. I-I saw. I’m so sorry, Hunk.”

A sob spilled past Hunk’s lips and Lance immediately surged forward, wrapping his friend in his arms. Hunk buried his face in Lance’s shoulder, shaking as gasps and sobs spilled passed his lips.

“You’re safe now,” Lance murmured, rubbing soothingly along his friend’s back. “Everything is okay. We’re going to make it back to the shoal, and you’re going to see your family again and you’re going to tell them-” Lance’s voice broke off for a moment there. He swallowed the lump in his throat. “-t-tell them you love them yourself.”

Hunk sobbed harder, and Lance held on tighter, some of his own sobs joining that of his friends. The two held each other, bawling as they let all their emotions from the past few hours out. At one point Allura peaked in, worry written on her face, but Lance waved her away. Hunk needed this. They both needed this.

After a long while the two finally managed to calm down, Lance’s breath evening out as Hunk let out miserable hiccups. “T-this isn’t your fault Lance,” Hunk stuttered. “Don’t you dare blame yourself, you hear me? You didn’t make me do anything. I d-did it because I care.”

“I care too, buddy.” Lance shot the other merman a watery smile. “So much. So don’t you dare ever try and sacrifice yourself again, you hear? I don’t care how hopeless the situation is. We stick together and we fight for each other. That’s the only way we’re getting out of this. None of this hero bullshit.”

Hunk snorted at that, wiping at his eyes.

“You’ve gotta stay alive, you hear me? You’ve gotta do it for your family. Do it for me and Pidge. W-we can’t go on without you, okay? Don’t you ever make us.”

“Yeah,” Hunk nodded gently. “And don’t you go blaming yourself when any of us gets hurt. This isn’t your fault. We’re here to save the shoal, remember?” Hunk grinned softly then. “So, you know. A little bit of hero bullshit.”

Lance’s face cracked into a smile. It felt like centuries since the last time he had smiled, even though it had only been a few hours ago. So much could change in just a few hours.

“Yeah,” Lance said, his voice soft as he pulled Hunk back in for another hug. “A little hero bullshit.”

Chapter Text

“Shiro, what-” Keith trailed off, his eyes glancing over to the stump where Shiro’s arm once was. “What happened?”

“I was found out,” the shark replied. He pushed the white tuft of his bangs out of his face.

Shiro seemed to have changed so much since the last time Keith saw him. Physically he had more scars, with an especially deep one slicing across the bridge of his nose, and his once jet black hair now had that shock of white. Mentally, well. Keith didn’t know. But he could hazard a guess that it wasn’t good judging by Shiro’s behavior the past hour.

“The army had me in charge of all efforts to find you after the Blade got you out. Lotor figured I had been closest to you, plus I was his best soldier. His champion.” Those last words were said with a sneer. “I did everything I could to keep the army off your trail. But then Sendak came back with the news that you had been spotted with some mermaids. I knew you’d be gone by the time he came back with reinforcements, but if mermaids were there then that meant a shoal. I needed to find a way to make sure they never made it back there.”

Guilt coiled in Keith’s stomach. This had all happened to Shiro because he had let Sendak escape. A shiver rolled down his spine at the memory of the shark’s teeth burying into his side. Everything always seemed to come back to Sendak. When he was torn apart, when Lance was almost killed, and now with Shiro, tortured as Haggar’s test subject. It was always Sendak.

“I needed to find a way to take Sendak and Haxus out,” Shiro growled. “They were the only two who knew how to get back to where you’d been spotted. I managed to take care of Haxus,” there was a gleam in Shiro’s eye as he said that. “But with Sendak, I failed. I had him right there, in my grasp. But he knocked me over the head, which gave him just long enough to escape. I knew then that my cover was blown and I needed to get out, so I tried to get back to the Blade. It was no use. If I’d had more time, maybe I could’ve found a place to hide out and laid low for a few days but-” Shiro trailed off.

“Then they gave you to Haggar,” Keith hissed, fury burning bright in his chest.

“Yes,” Shiro replied, eyes cloudy.

Keith looked at him a moment, hesitant. The other man wasn’t meeting his eyes anymore. “Do you want to-?”

“No,” Shiro cut him off. “Not now.”

Keith nodded. He paused a moment, considering his next question before he spoke up. “I know you just said you’re not ready to talk about what happened, but I have to ask. Why did you think I was dead?” Shiro flinched. “You said something about my tail?”

The shark huffed out a laugh; a cold, humorless sound. “It was just one of Haggar’s tricks. She was playing with my mind. They showed me-” Shiro took a breath, squeezing his eyes shut. “-a tail. It was small for a shark’s. About the size of yours. And heavily scarred. Haggar told me it was your tail, and that Sendak had found you. At first I refused to believe it but as time went on I had to admit that the only reason I wouldn’t believe was because I didn’t want to. In time I just came to accept that-” Shiro’s eyes came up to meet Keith’s, holding his gaze firmly. “-that you were dead.”

There was a heavy silence. After a long moment, Keith broke it. “Whose tail was it?” His voice came out thin and strained.

Shiro looked away once more. His eyes hazed over, taking in nothing. “Judging by the size, I’d say it was a child’s. Probably one of the cadet’s.”

Those words hung heavy in the water. Keith didn’t even know what he was feeling at this point. There was anger, fear, revulsion, guilt, remorse, and so much more all churning in a confusing mess inside his guts. He looked over Shiro, over the scarred and battered body of his mentor, his friend, and decided that what he felt most of all was relief.

Shiro flinched when Keith first wrapped his arms around him, but it only took a second for him to relax, his own arm coming up to curl around Keith’s back. “I’m glad you’re here,” Keith whispered.

“Glad to be here,” Shiro murmured back, a tender smile on his face. They stayed that way for a long while, as if the moment one of them let go the other would disappear. “You’ve gotten better at hugging,” Shiro remarked.

“What?” Keith exclaimed, pulling back. “No I haven’t! I mean-”

Shiro’s brows almost reached his hairline as he studied the blush blooming across the sharkboy’s face. “You mean what?”

“It’s just, um-” Keith wasn’t meet his eyes.

“Hello!” A cheerful voice called. Both men jumped, although Shiro’s was followed by a hostile growl. Coran’s smile slipped slightly but he continued into the room, pausing beside Keith. “I noticed you looked a bit worse for wear on our swim here and thought I could offer some help. Coran, at your service!”

The merman extended his hand, although Keith noticed the way he kept it somewhat close to his own body, a wary look in his eyes. Shiro returned the smile, taking the offered hand. “I’m Shiro. Sorry about that just now,” he added a little sheepishly. “I’ve been a bit on edge, I suppose.”

“Not to worry!” Coran said, his smile brightening once more. “I am the resident medic in our little party and I was wondering if you’d oppose to me taking a look at some of your wounds?”

“Not at all,” Shiro replied. “I could really use the help.” His voice got quieter as he spoke, glancing to the side with a furrowed brow.

“Excellent!” Coran beamed. “There’s nothing that a little time and attention can’t heal!”

Shiro flinched, and Keith sucked in a breath, glancing at where the older shark’s right arm once was. Coran seemed to catch his mistake, his smile slipping away.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-”

“It’s alright,” Shiro said quickly, his mouth turning up reassuringly. It didn’t quite reach his eyes, but Keith wasn’t sure anyone but him could tell when the man was genuinely smiling. “How about that treatment?” Shiro continued. “Lord knows I could use something to help numb the pain.”

“I have just the thing!”Coran cried, digging around through his supplies.

“I'm going to go find Lance,” Keith announced, straightening up. “Are you alright here, Shiro?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine” the shark replied, fixing Keith with a smile. A real one.

“Okay,” Keith nodded. “Coran, when you’re done could you come get us? I, uh-” Keith trailed off, glancing to the side as he felt his face heat up. “Shiro, I want you to meet Lance. Officially.”

“Officially?” Shiro’s eyebrows raised as he fought to keep a grin off his face. He wasn’t doing a good job of it. “This sounds serious.”

“I just meant officially introducing you two!” Keith snapped. “I’ll see you in a bit.” With a huff he left the room, pretending he couldn’t hear the amused chuckle that came from the older shark.

 

 

Keith found Lance in the room next door, hugging Hunk. He waited patiently at the entrance, a soft smile on his face as he studied the other boy. When the two finally pulled away, Keith noticed that Lance’s face was red and splotchy. His smile slipped into a worried frown as he darted over.

“Lance, what’s wrong?”

“Hey, Keith,” the merman replied, a watery smile on his face. “Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s okay.”

Keith settled down next to him, pressing against his side. His eyes swept over Lance one last time before he turned to Hunk. The other merman’s face was red and splotchy too. “Hunk, are you alright?” Keith asked.

“I will be, buddy,” Hunk said. His smile was as wide as Lance’s. “Thanks for letting me cry on your shoulder back in that prison.”

“Of course,” Keith replied, smiling softly. “I’m not always the best with that kind of stuff so sorry if I was weird.”

“You were fine,” Hunk waved his hand dismissively. There was an amused twinkle in his eye. “I just needed somebody to cry on and you fulfilled that role beautifully.”

“Glad I could help,” Keith replied, smirking back. His smile faded away a moment later as he glanced down to the ground. “I’m sorry,” he began. “I never meant for anyone to get hurt. I should’ve-”

“Nope, no, no,” Hunk cut him off, fixing him with a stern gaze. “I just had to listen to Lance’s guilty delusions, I’m not doing this with you too.”

“Hey!” Lance exclaimed.

“Nothing that happened was either of your guys’s fault. We all chose to go on this mission and we all accepted the risks that came with it. All we can do is just have each other’s backs. Right, Lance?”

“Yeah,” Lance said, fixing his best friend with a warm smile. Keith felt like he was missing something here. Whatever it was, it was probably the reason why Lance and Hunk’s faces had been all splotchy when he came in. He shrugged it off, not wanting to pry.

There was something else he had to say. It was on the tip of his tongue, just about to come out, when suddenly a head of auburn hair poked itself into the room.

“You two done having your bro moment, yet?” Pidge’s eyes fell on the sharkboy. “Oh, so Keith’s invited to the party, but not me?”

“Get over here, you gremlin,” Lance said, gesturing for her to join them. Pidge started grumbling about a lack of respect but she swam over none-the-less, plopping herself down between the two mermen.

“Room for two more?”

The group turned to see Allura and Matt floating at the door, the merleader smiling expectantly after her question.

“Never,” Lance replied, deadpan.

Allura huffed, swimming in to plop herself down anyways. Matt followed, hand clutching his heart as he met Lance’s gaze. “You wound me.”

 

 

The next hour was one of the best of Keith’s life. No one talked about the mission or the shark army or Haggar. They all just sat in a circle, joking and teasing, sharing stories and laughing. Keith especially liked the one Hunk told (over Lance’s indignant squawking) about a jellyfish called Loopy. He pressed against Lance’s side, resting his head on the merman’s shoulder so he could feel every time the other boy shook with laughter.

Eventually Coran wandered into the room, giving Keith a silent nod. The sharkboy sucked in a breath, reaching out to take Lance’s hand.

“Could you come with me for a moment?” He whispered.

“Yeah,” Lance replied, smiling fondly.

The two got up, resolutely ignoring Pidge and Matt’s catcalls and the way Allura quirked a brow at them with a knowing smirk. Coran took their place, capturing everyone’s attention when asked if they’d ever heard the tale of the Snaluffgaster. Keith was almost sorry to miss it.

“What’s up?” Lance asked once they were out of earshot of the others.

“I just wanted to introduce you to Shiro,” Keith replied. “You know, when we’re not all trapped in prison cells and fighting for our lives.”

“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea,” Lance bumped Keith’s shoulder playfully.

Keith didn’t miss the way Lance sucked in a deep breath just before they entered the next room. It was comforting to know he wasn’t the only nervous one here.

“Shiro,” Keith spoke up. The other man turned towards him, adorned in fresh bandages with both his tail fins strapped into a splint. “This-” Keith’s voice cracked. He paused to clear his throat, Lance squeezing his hand reassuringly. “This is Lance. He’s my, um-” Keith trailed off, shooting the merman an awkward glance. “-my friend?”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Lance said, drifting forward with his free hand extended. He had his most charming smile on. “Keith has told me so much about you.”

“It’s nice to meet you, too,” Shiro beamed, shaking the offered hand. “I’m glad to hear that Keith has been making-” Shiro paused for a moment, a smirk curling on his face as his eyes traveled to the place where Lance and Keith were still holding hands. “-friends.”

Lance coughed awkwardly and Keith snatched his hand back, his face burning. He shot Shiro a glare, the older shark meeting his look with the smuggest grin he could muster. Why had he thought this introduction was a good idea, again?

“But anyways,” Shiro continued, that smug look melting into a polite and way too innocent smile, “tell me, how did you two meet?”

“Oh my god, yes, I’ve got dibs!” Lance exclaimed, plopping himself down across from Shiro. Keith rolled his eyes as he sat beside him, unable to keep the smile off his face.

Lance proceeded to tell Shiro a rather embellished tale about how he had defeated Keith unarmed. Keith interjected several times with his own version of events until the two were bickering fondly, Shiro’s eyebrows reaching ever greater heights. Then Lance started bragging about the scar he’d gotten from where Keith had bit him, rambling about how badass it looked as he repeatedly showed Shiro.

When it got to the part about how Lance had initially been searching for Keith to take him out, Shiro’s eyes narrowed. Keith met his gaze, narrowing his own eyes and shaking his head minutely. The older shark shrugged then, relaxing. Luckily Lance didn’t seem to have noticed Shiro’s heated gaze, too busy rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. Then he got to the part about how he’d freed Keith from the net and came back to treat his wound. That had Shiro smiling, a grateful look in his eyes.

“It seems you two are really close,” the shark finally spoke up. Luckily his tone was innocent this time around.

“Well, yeah,” Keith shrugged. “Lance has saved my life countless times now.”

“As if you’ve saved mine any less,” Lance scoffed, smiling fondly.

Shiro’s eyebrows were lifting back into a danger territory and Keith had to avert the situation before he made anymore wry remarks. “Seriously,” he spoke up, fixing the other shark with a sincere look. “Lance has helped me through so much. It had been so long since I talked to anyone-” Keith trailed off, eyes clouding over slightly. “He’s just always there for me.”

“Awww, Keith!” Lance exclaimed, throwing his arms around him. Keith let out a startled yelp before he relaxed, bringing his arms up to return Lance’s embrace. He nuzzled into the merman’s shoulder, forgetting about Shiro and the eyebrows currently threatening to ascend into the heavens.

“I think I’ve solved that hugging mystery,” the shark said matter-of-factly.

Keith groaned, burying his face in Lance’s neck to hide the blush there. “Oh my god, shut up, Shiro!”

Chapter Text

Keith’s favorite place in the whole world was in Lance’s arms. He always felt so safe, so warm, like the monsters of his past couldn’t reach him there. He loved to snuggle into Lance’s chest, or nuzzle into his neck. He loved it when Lance pressed into his back, wrapping his arms around Keith’s waist and pulling him close. He loved to be held just the way Lance holds him. Like he’s something precious and important. Like he’s loved.

That night, when Lance opened his arms, instead of tucking himself into the crook of the merman’s neck like he usually did, Keith took Lance and held him. He cupped the back of Lance’s head, gently bringing it to rest on his own chest. He wrapped an arm around Lance’s waist, pulling him snugly against him, the other hand stroking in soothing motions through the merman’s hair. Lance let out a startled chirp, then melted against him without another sound. That night Keith wanted nothing more than to hold Lance.

He couldn’t sleep. It had been a long time since he’d had that problem. Ever since Lance came into his life, he’d slept soundly, if you didn’t count the nightmares. It was like his time in the army, where he tossed and turned in his bunk a few hours before giving up and rising to get an early start on training. It was like in the ship graveyard before Lance’s shoal came, when he was too afraid to close his eyes because he knew the next time he opened them he might find a knife at his throat. Except, really, it’s not like that at all. It’s not because, instead of being consumed by fear or anger or loneliness, he gets to look at Lance’s peaceful face. He gets to map every freckle dusting his nose, every tiny flutter of his gills, every sleepy sound that spills past his lips.

He wants to hold Lance. He wants Lance to feel safe, the same way he feels safe whenever Lance is holding him. He needs to know that Lance is here, really here. To know that this isn’t all just some dream that he’ll wake from, to find himself chained back in a cell in Haggar’s lair. They escaped. Lance escaped and he’s safe.

Keith glanced across the room, his chest flooding with warmth as he made out Shiro’s sleeping form. Lance was here and Shiro’s here. The two people he cared for most in the world were with him. Smiling softly, he leaned down to press a kiss to the top of Lance’s head.

The others were sound asleep in the room next door. Keith had thought it best if Shiro slept separate from them. He’s not yet sure of just how bad Shiro’s mental state is, so he didn’t want the shark waking up around strangers. The others hadn’t protested much. They’re wary of Shiro, of this strange shark that has suddenly come into their midst after they’ve spent all their lives learning that sharks are their enemy. Shiro himself seemed pretty relieved at the arrangements, and rather amused when Lance tagged along to bunk with them. Keith had been relieved himself. He’d much rather sleep with Lance than by himself, and that night especially he needed the merman close. He needed to know he was safe.

Lance made a sleepy noise and Keith reached up to card his fingers through his hair. The merman settled down instantly, nuzzling slightly into Keith before going still once more. Keith smiled softly down at him. Lance seemed to enjoy having his hair played with just as much as Keith himself did.

It was funny to think that just a year ago, Keith would have been appalled at the thought of anyone touching his hair. Then a pretty merman came into his life and changed his mind. Then again, before Lance most of Keith’s experiences with touching had been more violent in nature. He didn’t know it was possible for someone to be so kind, so gentle.

Keith was torn from the happy bubble of his thoughts by a loud thumping noise. Lance sprang up, startled, and Keith followed him, wrapping the merman back in his arms and holding him against his body as he searched for the source of the noise. The army couldn’t have found them, could they?

The thump came again, followed by a strangled sort of noise, but this time Keith could see where it was coming from. Shiro was thrashing around, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. His fist was swinging through the air, like he was fighting off some invisible attacker, and his tail spasmed wildly. It came down on the ground with another heavy thump, snapping one of the splints in two.

“Keith, wha-” Lance began, his voice heavy with sleep. Keith released the merman and darted over to Shiro.

“Lance, help me!” he cried, an edge of panic in his voice. “He’s going to hurt himself!”

Lance seemed awake enough then, his eyes widening as he shot over.

“Get his arm!” Keith ordered, doing his best to keep Shiro’s tail still. He leaned his full weight onto it, his entire body jolting each time it jumped beneath him. Lance made a few attempts to grab Shiro’s arm without getting hit before he finally managed it. He did his best to keep it pinned to the floor but he was having about as much luck as Keith in that regard. Shiro was much bigger than both of them.

“Shiro, wake up!” Keith cried. “You need to wake up!”

“What’s going on?” Pidge poked her head in, her eyes going wide at the scene before her.

“Pidge, go get Coran!” Lance yelled. The mermaid darted out of sight. A moment later she returned with Coran, everyone else crowding behind them and filling up the doorway.

“What’s happening?” Allura called out, her face a mask of alarm.

“Hunk,” Coran ordered, “help restrain his tail. Allura, help Lance with the arm. Matt, Pidge, I need you to pin his chest down. Not too hard. We don’t need any broken ribs tonight.”

Everyone did as they were told, their combined efforts managing to keep the shark mostly still.

“What’s wrong with him?” Lance cried.

“Night terrors,” Keith whispered, his eyes never once leaving Shiro’s face. His brow was creased in worry.

“W-what are those?” Matt asked, swallowing thickly as though he expected some monster to emerge from the shark below them.

“It’s a bit like a nightmare,” Coran said. He was kneeling beside the shark, using his arms to cushion Shiro’s head so that he wouldn’t bash it into the floor. “It can cause the one experiencing it to thrash around or scream in their sleep.”

“Can’t we do something?” Allura asked, her brow creased in worry.

“I’m afraid there’s not- Whoa there!” Coran paused to reposition his arms as Shiro’s neck jerked violently, “-there’s not much to do except wait it out and keep him from hurting himself. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”

“Can’t we wake him up?” Pidge said, her eyes almost as round as her glasses.

“It’s very hard to wake someone in the middle of a night terror,” Coran responded. “Best just to wait it out.”

Sure enough, Shiro’s thrashing was slowly growing weaker. The furrow in his brows smoothed over as his face relaxed. A few more jerks and his body finally went limp. For a moment no one moved, worried the thrashing might start up again. Then everyone drew away, Lance flexing out his sore arms as he did. Keith rushed up to sit by Shiro’s head, trilling worriedly. “He hurt his tail,” He said, gesturing to the broken splint.

Coran nodded. “Alright, I’ll fetch my supplies. Lance, mind helping me carry them?” The merman nodded in response. “Excellent! Everyone else, back to bed. We don’t need him waking up surrounded by the lot of us.”

The others shuffled from the room, shooting worried looks over their shoulders as they went. Keith didn’t pay attention, too busy staring at his friend in concern. He jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder, spinning around to find Allura.

“Will he be alright?” the merleader asked. She was floating there uncertainly, brows creased with worry.

“I think so,” Keith nodded. “In the army some of the other soldiers got night terrors. It would begin after something really bad happened, like they lost a friend or were maimed during a mission.”

“I see,” Allura said, her expression only growing more worried. She drifted there a moment, as if she wasn’t sure what to do with herself. When she started to straighten back up, Keith called her back.

“Wait!” She paused, looking down at him expectantly. Keith straightened up as well so they were on the same level. “I’ve been meaning to apologize,” he said. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you earlier. You were right. Getting Shiro out was too big a job for me to do alone. I was just so worried about Lance, I-” Keith trailed off, unable to meet her eyes. “I wasn’t thinking.”

The hand that landed on his shoulder made him lift his head once more. “It’s alright,” the merleader said, smiling kindly. “I know you were just scared.” And like that, Keith couldn’t meet her eyes again. “But you know, Lance is a very capable person. Maybe you should try trusting him more and shielding him less.” Keith’s gaze shot up, staring at her in surprise. The merleader gave him one last smile before she turned to swim away. At the doorway she paused, glancing back over her shoulder. Her eyes were sharp. Proud. “He did save us, after all.”

With that she was gone, leaving Keith to ponder over her words. He didn’t get to ponder long before Lance and Coran were bustling back into the room, arms filled with various medical supplies.

“Alright, Keith,” Coran spoke up. “I think it’s best if you wake Shiro. He’ll probably be confused right now, so it’s best he sees a familiar face.”

Keith nodded. He reached down, shaking the shark’s shoulder gently. It was strange how Shiro could go from thrashing about one minute to sleeping soundly the next. It took a good few shakes, but finally Shiro stirred.

“W-wha-?” the shark mumbled out groggily. He sat up, his hazy eyes falling on the sharkboy. “Keith?”

“Hey, Shiro,” Keith smiled softly.”You were having a night terror. We just need to re-bandage some of your wounds now.”

“I don’t-” Shiro trailed off, staring blankly at the floor. Keith shot Coran a worried look.

“That’s quite normal,” Coran reassured him. “Most people are rather out of it if you wake them up right after a night terror. Normally I’d recommend to just let them sleep, but wounds need treating.” While he talked his hands were moving rapidly, flying over the shark’s fins as he replaced the broken splint. Shiro made no protest, completely docile as he let himself be maneuvered. He blinked sleepily a few times, but that was it.

After fixing the splint, Coran checked over the rest of him to make sure there wasn’t anything else needing his attention. He deemed Shiro all set, then had Lance help him carry the supplies back to the next room.

“Shiro?” Keith began hesitantly. The shark didn’t react. “How do you feel?”

“Weird.”

Keith was startled by how instant the man’s reply was. He hadn’t really been expecting him to reply at all. “Do you want to go back to sleep?”

That time Shiro didn’t answer.

Keith tried again. “You can sleep now.”

Instantly the shark laid down, curling up as his eyes shut. He didn’t move again. Keith watched the steady fluttering of the other man’s gills, letting out a worried sigh. He studied his mentor’s face. Shiro looked content. Peaceful. One could have hardly guessed he’d been thrashing around just moments before.

“Hey.”

Keith jumped at the quiet voice next to his ear. He hadn’t heard Lance re-enter the room. The merman settled behind him, wrapping his arms around Keith’s waist. “Coran said there was nothing to worry about. He’ll be fine.”

“I know,” Keith said, bringing his arms up to rest over Lance’s. He stared down at Shiro’s sleeping face. “I just wish I could have saved him.”

“You did save him,” Lance murmured, squeezing Keith’s waist lightly.

“Not soon enough,” Keith whispered.

For a moment there was silence. “Keith,” Lance finally said. The word came out soft. Gentle. “I know you’re always thinking you should do more. You’re always blaming yourself. But this isn’t your fault. You didn’t know that they were hurting Shiro. And the moment you found out, you rushed off to save him. You did enough.” Lance rested his head on the back of Keith’s shoulder. “You are enough.”

Keith felt something squeeze in his chest. He clenched his teeth, trying to hold back the sob clawing its way up his throat. Instead he laced his fingers with Lance’s, squeezing them gently. Lance nuzzled into his shoulder, a soothing trill rumbling past his lips. Keith’s answering trill sounded strangled, but Lance didn’t say anything. He just hummed low beneath his breath, holding Keith.

Keith’s favorite place in the whole world was in Lance’s arms. He felt safe and warm, knowing the monsters of his past couldn’t reach him here. He snuggled into Lance’s chest, nuzzling into his neck. Lance pressed against his back, the arms at his waist pulling him closer. Keith loved to be held just like this. Like he’s something precious and important. Like Lance loves him.

Chapter Text

Everyone had been allowed the reprieve of breakfast without talk of their mission. Shiro hadn’t remembered a thing about his night terror episode, so Keith filled him in on the details. The meal had passed a bit awkwardly, with Shiro being self conscious about the incident and the others being wary of his presence. Lance had made things better, of course. He chatted to Shiro like an old friend, making the weary expression melt from is face.

Keith had spent every second he wasn’t talking to Shiro staring at Lance in a way that made Pidge gag and Matt snicker at him. Normally he would’ve been embarrassed but right then he didn’t care. He was so grateful to Lance for instantly doing his best to make Shiro feel at home despite the others reservations, and he just didn't care how dopey his smile was. At least, he didn’t until Shiro raised a dark brow at him and fixed him with that stupid smirk. Then Keith traded his longing looks for glaring at the other shark while he tried to use his bangs to hide the blush quickly spreading across his face.

It was after breakfast that the spell was finally broken. They were on a mission, after all, and it couldn’t be delayed for long, even with Hunk and Shiro’s injuries.

“Do you know where the Blade base is?”

They had moved back to the room Shiro, Lance, and Keith all slept in last night, this time with Allura and Coran accompanying them. Allura was staring earnestly at the shark. Keith was both relieved and slightly surprised that she wasn’t expressing any hostility towards their new shark member, though he’d noticed that she tracked his movements closely with her eyes. Coran was floating slightly behind her. He had his usual bright smile on but it was strained, his posture tense as though he were preparing to pull Allura away at a moments notice.

“Yes,” Shiro replied. He shot a questioning look at Keith, but then the mermaid was speaking again.

“We need to get there. Can you take us?”

“I would be happy to help, but the Blade’s location is top secret. Why-?”

“The shoal you heard about when Sendak returned,” Keith spoke up. “Lance and the others are from it. Allura’s their leader. After Sendak found us, we knew he’d be coming back with reinforcements.”

“I have capable warriors in my ranks,” Allura spoke up proudly, “but we do not number enough to take on an entire army. Keith told us of the Blade and the work they do to undermine the other sharks. We came to ask them for help.”

“I see,” Shiro nodded. There was a pause. Allura and Coran were both tense, waiting in silence. “I’ll take you to them,” Shiro finally said. A collective sigh was let out.

“It’s rather urgent,” Coran said, “so while normally I would advise against a patient with your injuries taking on any sort of travel, I’m afraid this can’t wait.”

“I understand,” Shiro replied. “But I-” he glanced off to the side, “I can’t swim. So how will we-”

“I have an idea!” Lance spoke up, drifting forward from where he’d been floating by Keith. “If we fashion a kind of stretcher, then we could carry you along with us.”

Shiro opened his mouth as though he were going to protest, but Coran spoke up first.

“An excellent idea, my boy!” He slapped his hand down on Lance’s shoulder, steering him towards the entrance. “Now, what materials do you propose we fashion this stretcher out of?”

Lance’s answer faded as the two swam off down the hall. For a moment there was an awkward silence as Allura, Keith, and Shiro all drifted there. Finally Allura spoke, turning back to Shiro. “I thank you for all your help, but I better go and make plans for our journey. Do you know how long it will take us?”

“It shouldn’t be more than two days,” Shiro replied.

“Two days-” Allura muttered to herself, her expression thoughtful as she darted away.

There was another moment of silence, but this one was far more comfortable than the previous ones. At least, for Keith it was. Shiro’s brow was furrowed and he stared down at the floor. Keith sank down to sit next to him. “What’s wrong?” he asked softly.

Shiro let out a sigh, reaching up to run his fingers through his hair. “I’m just not used to this. To being so useless. I was the Blade’s top agent, and the top soldier in that godforsaken army, and now I can’t even swim for myself.”

“You’re not useless,” Keith said, staring at his friend in worry. “You’re literally helping them save their shoal right now.”

“But if we get attacked I won’t even be able to do anything. I’ll just be dead weight. All my life I’ve trained to fight and now I can’t do the one thing I’m good at.”

“That’s not your fault-” Keith began. Shiro cut him off.

“Isn’t it? The whole point of being an undercover agent is to not get caught. The only reason your friends need help in the first place is because I failed and let Sendak escape. I failed, Keith.”

Keith didn’t know what to say. Shiro never talked like this. In the past he had always been so confident and sure of his own abilities. He had been kind, never wanting Keith to deal with his problems when the sharkboy had so many of his own. He had been the one propping Keith up, the one consoling him, the one Keith turned to when he needed someone.

Keith didn’t know how to do this. He didn’t know how to comfort people, least of all Shiro, his best friend, his mentor, the man he admired more than anything. He didn’t know how to do this and he was angry. He was angry at himself for not being able to help. He was angry at Shiro for not understanding how important he was. But most of all he was angry at the ones who had done this to Shiro. At the army that had taken this confident, kind-hearted man and tried to break him. Keith would be damned if he let them succeed.

“Fuck being useful.”

Shiro’s eyes snapped to him, round with shock. “Keith, language!”

“I’m serious, Shiro.” Keith’s anger was boiling to the surface now, spilling over, spilling out, consuming him. “Fuck being useful. You don’t need to have some sort of use to matter. You don’t need to fight or spy or whatever the fuck. You matter because I care about you. So shut up and and deal with it.”

For a moment there was silence. Then Shiro burst out laughing. Keith’s brow crinkled in confusion as the other man doubled over. “Wha-”

He was cut off as Shiro reached out and pulled him into a hug. Keith drifted there a moment, surprised, before he reached up to wrap his arms around Shiro in turn. The other shark was still laughing but it was quieter now, slowly dying down. When he finally stopped, neither of them pulled away.

“I missed you,” Shiro whispered.

“I missed you, too,” Keith murmured back. He buried his face in Shiro’s sturdy shoulder, holding on. It felt like a child clinging to their parent. Or in his case, clinging to an older brother. It felt safe and warm and stable. It felt like the home he never had, like the hug he never got from his real family. But Shiro was his real family. Realer than anyone else that raised him. So he held on, not willing to let go. Not after everything.

“So we got this stretcher figur-” Lance swam in, trailing off as he saw the two of them. “Sorry!” he exclaimed while the two pulled apart. “I didn’t mean to ruin the moment. I can just-”

“Get over here,” Keith said, holding out his hand as he smiled softly.

An evil smirk curled across Shiro’s face as he turned to Lance. “Yeah, get over here,” he said, mimicking Keith’s tone. Keith shot him a glare.

“I should’ve fed you to the squid,” he mumbled.

Lance’s face was bright red, but he took Keith’s hand none the less and sat down beside them.

“Sorry,” Shiro said, his apology directed at the merman and not the grumpy shark currently planning various ways to bring about his demise. “It’s my job to make his life difficult.”

“Well, I think you deserve a raise,” Lance replied, grinning back.

“Don’t encourage him,” Keith groaned.

“I like him,” Shiro remarked as he gestured towards Lance.

“You, hush,” Keith snapped, though there was no real heat behind the words. He turned back to Lance. “What were you saying before?”

“We figured out how to make the stretcher,” Lance replied. “We used some old spear shafts out of the armory for the frame, and Coran’s currently weaving the bed part of it from seaweed. I’ve never seen anyone weave so fast. I didn’t even know it was possible to weave that fast!”

“You should take lessons,” Keith quipped innocently.

Lance gave him a haughty glare. “I can weave just fine, thank you very much.”

“Wait, you weave?”

“Of course I weave! I’m a man of many talents!”

“Sounds like you’re the one who needs lessons,” Shiro huffed.

“What, like you can weave,” Keith shot back. Shiro only raised his eyebrows at him in response. “Wait, you can weave?!”

“I can make a decent net,” Shiro supplied.

“Child’s play,” Lance said. “No offense, Shiro.”

“A little taken,” Shiro responded, though it was evident from the amused smile on his face that he didn’t mean it.

“Okay, then what’s the hardest thing you can make?” Keith asked.

“A sweater,” Lance announced proudly.

“What’s that?”

Lance gasped in a scandalized manner, flinging his hand dramatically across his chest. “You don't know what a sweater is?!”

“No?” Keith replied.

“Shiro, tell me you know what a sweater is!”

“I know what a sweater is.”

“Oh thank god,” Lance sighed. “At least one of you is cultured.”

Keith narrowed his eyes at the slight smile Shiro was trying and failing to hide. “You have no idea what a sweater is, do you?”

“Of course I do,” Shiro replied.

“Okay, then what is it?”

“Well, it's, um-”

A satisfied smirk curled across Keith's face as he watched the other shark flounder for words.

“Uh, Lance?” Shiro said. “Why don't you tell our ignorant friend here? I'm sure you can explain it better than me.”

“Why of course,” Lance replied, and Keith was not having this.

“Oh, come on! You know he's lying!”

“I know no such thing,” Lance told him, fighting to keep his own smile off his face. “Clearly Shiro is a man of wisdom in the ways of the sweater.”

“You two are the worst,” Keith grumbled.

“Hello all!” Coran poked his head into the room. “I just finished that stretcher, and Allura says we should head out straight away. Lance, Keith, care to fetch it?”

“Sure thing,” Lance replied, raising up with Keith beside him. The sharkboy gave Shiro a reassuring smile as he passed. Shiro’s brow was furrowed once more, but when he saw Keith’s smile he returned it.

By the time they returned with the stretcher, Coran had launched into a tale about how he once made a stretcher out of only a few sticks of driftwood and a sea slug. Shiro had a slightly baffled expression on his face. However, he almost seemed disappointed when Coran cut his story short, turning to address the two returning boys.

“Very good. Set it down right there.”

Lance and Keith followed instructions, placing the stretcher on the floor beside Shiro. Keith reached out to help. Shiro hesitated a moment before taking Keith’s hand, leaning his weight into the other shark as he shifted himself onto the stretcher.

“Now,” Coran spoke up, bustling forward. “We’ve just gotta strap you in so you won’t fall out during the journey.”

Shiro tensed, his eyes going unfocused. Keith’s brow furrowed, studying his mentor in confusion. Coran reached down to take a strap and the shark shrunk away, baring his teeth.

“No!” Shiro growled out. Coran flinched back, his eyes widening in concern.

“It’s just more secure-” Coran started, his voice cautious.

“No!” Shiro snapped again, his eyes wild. “Don’t touch me!”

Keith instantly knelt down beside him. “Shiro, what-?”

He trailed off. An image of Haggar’s lair popped into his mind. The stone slabs, with their chains curled around them. Metal instruments glittering in the purple light. Oh.

“We don’t strap him in,”Keith said, his voice final.

“Keith?” Lance asked.

“I just thought-” Coran began sheepishly.

“I know,” Keith turned to the older merman, giving him an understanding smile. “But we don’t strap him in.”

Lance’s eyes were narrowed, darting between Keith and Shiro. Finally, his eyes widened in understanding. “Uh, Coran?” he spoke up. “Why don’t we step out for a moment.” He shot a worried glance at Shiro. “Um, let’s go tell the others that we’re ready to go.”

Coran nodded, still gazing at Shiro with a mixture of confusion and concern. “Alright,” he said, giving one last parting glance to the older shark. As they left, Keith noticed Lance lean in close to whisper something to Coran.

He sighed, turning back to his mentor. Shiro’s head was bowed, hiding his face. “Shiro?” Keith asked tentatively.

“I’m sorry,” the man breathed out. He sounded exhausted. “I’m sorry, I just- I can’t-”

“I know,” Keith cut him off. He placed his hand on Shiro’s shoulder. The other man flinched at the touch. Something angry curled low in Keith’s stomach, but he pushed it down, instead focusing on the man who still wasn’t meeting his eyes. “I understand.”

“I know it’s more practical, I just-”

“Hey,” Keith cut him off, his voice no more than a murmur. “I get it.” There was a pause. Keith ducked his head, trying to see Shiro’s face, but the older man turned away. A little stab of pain spread through his chest, but he pushed that down too. “You know, when I first went to Lance’s shoal, I was tied up.”

Finally Shiro raised his head, a look of surprise on his face.

“Lance had, well- He’d basically ran away from home so he could stay with me,” Keith glanced off to the side, a blush darkening his cheeks. “His whole shoal was out looking for him and Hunk and Pidge. Allura found us and she didn’t exactly like me at first. She wasn’t just going to let someone she saw as a threat swim into her shoal, so I had to have my hands bound behind my back. The whole time I was there I was tied to a rock. Except when Lance was there.” Keith huffed out a laugh, a fond smile curling across his face. “He’d get so mad, and he’d always bite the restraints right off me. But whenever he left they were put back on. So I get it. I get how that feels, I really do.”

Shiro’s eyes had never left Keith’s. He was staring at him with that same look of shock.

“I mean, I don’t blame Allura. If I were in her position I would have done the same. She didn’t know me then, and she was just trying to protect the people she loves. But still, being tied up like that. Knowing they could hurt me and I couldn’t even do anything about it, I couldn’t even get away. It just- I just get it. How it feels.”

There was silence for a long a moment. Keith was just starting to think that he’d messed up somehow when a smile slowly spread across Shiro’s face. The older shark reached out, placing his hand on Keith’s shoulder, mirroring the way Keith’s hand still rested on his own. “Thank you, Keith.” The sharkboy returned his smile, relief flooding through him.

“Hey.” Lance’s voice was soft as he swam in, like he was afraid to pull the two out of their moment. Keith lit up at the sight of him, his head turning away from Shiro so he didn’t notice the knowing look the other man was giving him.

“We need to get going,” Lance said. His eyes darted to Shiro, concern still on his face. Shiro gave him a somewhat sheepish smile, letting him know that everything was fine. Lance smiled back before turning to Keith, his smile growing that much softer.

“Well,” Keith began, bending over to take one end of the stretcher. Lance quickly swam over to the other end and they hoisted it up. Keith shot him a teasing grin that made the merman’s cheeks go red. “Lead the way, fishtail.”

Shiro snorted, that stupid knowing grin spreading across his face. If Keith decided to jostle him around a bit on the way out of the caves, no one needed to know. Lance’s face was still red, but he met Keith’s eyes unwaveringly. “After you, sharkboy.”

Chapter Text

“We’re here,” Shiro whispered.

Lance swallowed heavily, eyeing the field of boulders and its many shadows.

“Everyone, proceed calmly,” Shiro continued from his place on the stretcher. “We’ll be intercepted by some of the Blade’s guards.They may be suspicious at first, but I’ll talk to them.”

Lance glanced back at the others. Matt was fidgeting nervously, his eyes scanning the looming rocks before them. Beside him Pidge was floating stiffly. Her face was blank, but her eyes betrayed her fear. Hunk was still as well, his cheeks paling. He looked like he might be sick. Lance caught his eye, giving him a firm nod. Hunk nodded back, sucking in a deep breath. Some of the color returned to his cheeks.

Lance’s gaze then swept over to their leader. She held herself tall, but there was hunted look in her eyes that made Lance shiver at the sight. Coran reached over and took her hand in his, squeezing it lightly. Allura shot him a grateful smile, and some of that darkness swirling in her eyes seemed to fade.

Lance then turned back towards Keith, only to find the shark already looking at him. He gave Lance a reassuring smile when their eyes met, and Lance was helpless to do anything but smile back. He wished he was closer so he could press into Keith’s side, but the stretcher lay between them, and he couldn’t exactly drop Shiro for a spontaneous cuddle session.

He drew in a deep breath, nodding to Keith, and the two started forward. The shadows swallowed up their little group like some great monster of the deep. It was eerily silent, nothing but the sound of their fins swishing through the water. The further in they swam the larger the boulders became until the rocks towered over them, closing them off from the rest of the world.

An octopus slunk across their path, and suddenly Lance was reminded of a different boulder field far from here. He and Hunk had spent that day chasing Tion and the other kids around right before they reached their winter feeding grounds. It felt like a lifetime ago. So much had happened since then, so much had changed.

Again, Lance looked to Keith and again he found the shark watching him. This time Keith blushed, glancing away, but Lance kept staring until the other boy looked back at him once more. Lance gave him a soft smile, and the smile Keith gave in return was breathtaking. The merman looked long and hard, studying the way Keith’s hair fanned around his face, the ebony strands contrasting beautifully against his pale cheeks. The way his eyes it up like a star-speckled sea, and how his dark lashes framed them perfectly. He gazed down at his tail. That part of Keith’s body had once been so frightening to him. Now Lance could see the beauty in it. The way it curved gracefully, and how the dark grey of his back faded into the soft grey of his underbelly. Even the scars were beautiful, arching lines and patterns that proved Keith was still here, alive and well even after everything. He was here.

Lance’s eyes returned to the sharkboy’s face to find him blushing once more. The merman’s smile only grew that much fonder. There was a bit of a desperate glint in the sharkboy’s eyes now, almost like he was considering Lance’s earlier idea of dropping the stretcher and closing the distance between them. Luckily they both seemed to have more self control than that, if just barely.

“Who are you?”

Lance was torn from his happy bubble by the strange voice. Reality came crashing down on him like an icey current. He glanced frantically around, scanning the boulders but finding nothing but his teammates around him.

Shiro sat up then, the only one in their group that seemed completely calm. “It’s agent Shirogane,” he spoke loud and clear. “I’m here with the people who rescued me from Haggar.”

“You know better than to bring strangers to us,” a second voice spoke. It sounded so close that Lance thought the speaker must be floating right behind him, but when he turned around their was nothing there.

“They have business with the Blade,” Shiro said. “They’ve come to ask for our help.”

“What help?” the first voice hissed again.

“Commander Sendak is planning to lead an attack on their shoal.”

Just then a shape materialized out of the shadows before them. Lance yelped in surprise, and he heard Allura let out a threatening hiss. He glanced back to find another shark had appeared behind them as well. Lance swallowed thickly.

The shark before them was pale purple with a single stripe of white hair running down the center of his forehead. He studied their group, yellow eyes narrowing. Finally they landed on Shiro, who was smiling at the other man as if he couldn’t sense the tense atmosphere around them.

“Hello, Ulaz,” Shiro said. For a moment there was silence. Then all of a sudden the man smiled back, and it was as if a storm had cleared.

“It’s good to have you back, Shiro,” Ulaz replied. He turned then, glancing over his shoulder. “Follow me.”

The group swam in silence, Ulaz leading the way with the other shark taking up the rear. As they swam, more sharks started to appear from the rocks around them, usually in pairs. They fell in alongside the group, silently joining them. No words were exchanged, but Lance caught Shiro and several other members exchanging warm smiles, so he let himself relax a little bit. He had a feeling the others weren’t faring so well. They were in unfamiliar territory being steadily caged in by a mob of sharks as they went to meet even more sharks. However, Lance trusted Keith and Keith trusted Shiro. Hell, Lance trusted Shiro and he'd only known him a few days. Despite his nerves, he was confident that everything would be alright.

Just ahead, Ulaz slipped into a crevice in the rocks that Lance hadn’t even noticed was there. The sharks around them stopped, allowing their group to follow after Ulaz and into the narrow entrance. It led to a dark passage, the merman’s night vision kicking in. He glanced behind himself but none of the sharks seemed to have followed then inside other than the rear guard from their first encounter.

The others were tense, swimming stiffly forward. Lance studied the tunnel around them, feeling unease creep beneath his skin as well. It was he perfect place for an ambush, so narrow that it would be easy to trap their party in the middle of two groups of enemies. He shook himself. These sharks were not their enemies. They would be fine. Everything was going to be fine.

The tunnel was branching off into different paths, Ulaz guiding them deeper and deeper. Every now and then a shark would pass them, eyeing their group curiously as they swam by. Suddenly the tunnel opened up into a giant chamber. Lance heard the others gasp behind him, and on instinct he froze. The chamber was filled with sharks. It appeared to be some kind of mess hall considering most of the people in it were eating. He watched as countless mouths opened, teeth glinting in the light of phosphorescent algae, before tearing effortlessly through the fish they clutched in their giant hands. A chill snaked its way down his spine.

“Lance?”

The merman glanced up, meeting Keith’s worried gaze. He shook himself. Everything was fine. These people were not their enemies. He gave Keith a small smile, swimming forward once more as Ulaz led them into the crowd.

Countless yellow eyes were staring at them, watching them as they made their way across the hall. None of the gazes were hostile, but it was still unsettling to have so many pairs of eyes on them. He could hear the low murmur of Coran’s voice behind them as he whispered reassuring words to Allura.

Lance didn’t dare glance behind him. Perhaps Allura looked murderous, the way she had when she first laid eyes on Keith. Perhaps she looked terrified. Either way, it wasn’t something he wanted to see. Somehow it felt too personal, too private to see their normally fearless leader be so vulnerable and undone in this hall of sharks. It wasn’t his place to look, and he thanked all the gods that Coran was here to be Allura’s rock as she faced down her greatest fear.

“Thace!”

Lance was torn from his thoughts as Ulaz called out. They had come to the end of the hall, swimming up to a group of sharks gathered there. One of the sharks turned around, his face lighting up in surprise as he saw the mermaids floating there. Lance felt tiny next to him, the shark easily twice his size. However, in contrast with his menacing stature was his hair, wich puffed up in two points that almost looked like ears. It was a strange contrast to the rest of his sharp features.

“Ulaz, what is-” the man trailed off, his eyes finally resting on Shiro. “Shiro!” he cried, starting forward with a wide smile on his face. He held out his hand and Shiro took it, sliding off the stretcher with a wince. The other shark’s smile slipped into a frown, his eyes studying Shiro closely. They rested for a long time on the place where his right arm once was. “My god, what have they done to you?” he whispered.

“Nothing I didn’t survive,” Shiro answered, smiling easily. However, that smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“We had a rescue planned out,” Thace said. “It wasn’t easy, but everything was finally in place. Ulaz was going to lead it himself, just a few days from now.”

“It’s good thing I showed up first then,” Shiro replied.

“I’m just sorry we couldn’t act sooner,” Thace said gravely.

“I know how hard it is to infiltrate that place,” Shiro told him. “But speaking of infiltrating,” He turned, beaming at the mermaids who had been watching this exchange in nervous silence. “Meet my rescuers.”

Hunk waved shyly, and Lance managed a nervous smile, but other than that, no one moved. Lance turned, watching Allura drift there like a minnow caught in the light of an angler fish. Her eyes were wide and unfocused. Slowly, Coran reached over and placed a hand on her shoulder. She jumped slightly, startled by the touch, before turning to him. He gave her a solemn nod, and suddenly the Allura Lance knew was back, her face hardening with resolve as she swam forward. She held herself tall and proud even though the sharks around her easily dwarfed her.

“My name is Allura,” she spoke up, hand extended. Thace shook it and Lance was happy to see that the mermleader didn’t flinch. “I am the leader of my shoal, and we came to you because we need help.”

 

 

“I see,” Thace said, nodding thoughtfully at the end of Allura’s explanation. “My deepest apologies. Had we known a shoal lived nearby, we wouldn’t have hidden Keith in that ship graveyard.”

Keith winced at those words. Lance had long ago set down the empty stretcher and swam over to his side. He slipped his hand into the sharkboy’s, squeezing it and giving him a reassuring smile.

“He is not the problem,” Allura spoke up, and both Lance and Keith turned surprised eyes on her. “The existence of this army is. They would’ve attacked us eventually no matter what. It’s thanks to Keith that we know about the army, and have the time to prepare.”

Pride bloomed in Lance’s chest. That’s the leader he knew. A woman who would never blame anyone for something that was beyond their control. Allura had lost sight of that for a while out of fear of losing her family a second time. But now she knew and trusted Keith. And here she was staring down her worst fear all to try and protect the people she loved. He was so proud that this was the woman he followed. This was his leader.

Thace shot Keith a warm smile over Allura’s shoulder, giving him a nod. Lance glanced to the side to find Keith nodding back, a tiny, pleased smile curling around his own lips.

“Our mission is to prevent the massacre that Lotor wants,” Thace spoke up. “It appears he plans on instigating that massacre early, starting with your shoal. We shall of course help you. I’ll lead the Blade back to your shoal and we’ll face down Lotor’s troops together. We were already planning on changing bases, so most of our supplies have been packed. We can leave tomorrow.”

For the first time since they entered the midst of the sharks, Allura smiled. It was so bright it almost seemed to light up the hall. “Thank you,” she breathed out.

Thace held up a hand. “No thanks are necessary. We merely aim to combat a wrong started by our own kind. Now, preparations must be finalized. Ulaz here will show you to your quarters for the night. Afterwards, Allura, if you could meet with me to start working on strategies?”

“Of course,” Allura nodded solemnly.

“Excellent,” Thace smiled. “The rest of you may explore the base at your leisure.”

The group started to swim away, following Ulaz out of the hall.

“Keith!” Thace called out. The sharkboy paused, Lance beside him as he clutched Keith’s hand. The Blade leader smiled at the other shark. “It’s good to see you again.”

Keith smiled back. “It’s good to see you too.” Then he turned, that smile still on his face as he swam off with Lance by his side.

Chapter Text

The quarters they were shown to were small but comfortable, supplied with moss cots. Lance groaned as he slumped down onto one of them. “I can’t even remember the last time I slept on a real bed!”

“You’re telling me buddy,” Hunk called from his own cot. “My back has been killing me!”

“Come on you lazy bones,” Pidge chided, whacking Lance with her tail. “We’re inside of a giant rebel base! You can sleep later.”

“Five more minutes,” Lance grumbled.

“Keith, get him up,” Pidge complained.

“What do you expect me to do?” Keith asked, trying and failing to hide his smile.

“Give him one of your sappy looks,” Pidge replied. “He’s helpless to those.”

“I am not!”

“Oh please,” Pidge huffed. “You’d take on the giant squid single-handed if Keith asked you to.”

“I don’t have sappy looks,” Keith mumbled.

“Hunk, help me out here, buddy,” Lance called out.

“Sorry dude. She has a point.”

Lance gasped in a scandalized manner. “The betrayal!”

“Seriously, can we go?” Pidge asked. “Matt’s already out there ‘picking up shark babes’.”

“I didn’t think he was actually serious when he said that,” Hunk murmured thoughtfully.

“Never underestimate the lengths my brother will go to embarrass himself.”

“Where’s Coran?” Keith asked.

“He went with Allura and Shiro to see Thace,” Hunk replied.

“I swear to god, Lance, if you don’t get up right this second I’m leaving without you,” Pidge chided.

“Uuuuuugh,” Lance groaned, rolling over.

Pidge threw her hands up in the air, turning towards the sharkboy. “Keith!”

“It does actually sound fun, Lance,” the shark said, swimming over and sitting on the edge of his cot. “I didn’t really get to see any of the base the last time I was at the Blade. It’d be nice to look around.”

Lance turned, scrutinizing Keith through narrowed eyes. The other boy had an earnest look on his face. Lance sighed, taking the hand Keith offered him and sitting up. “Fiiiiiiiiine.”

“See,” Pidge said, smug look on her face. “Anything.”

“I don’t think agreeing to go for a swim is the same thing as fighting the giant squid, Pidge,” Lance grumbled. He adamantly refused to look at the soft smile Keith was giving him. Or to acknowledge the way his face was suddenly heating up. Nope, not happening.

Keith squeezed his hand and okay, maybe he looked a little bit. And maybe the sight of Keith smiling made him smile too. Just a little bit. It’s only polite to smile back, you know. It’s common courtesy. The warmth in his chest had absolutely nothing to do with it.

“Oh my god, they’re disgusting,” Pidge groaned.

“We didn’t even do anything!” Lance exclaimed while Keith glanced away, his face heating up in a blush that was not at all adorable.

“You two existing in a room together is bad enough,” Pidge replied, a teasing glint in her eye.

Lance opened his mouth to retort but Hunk cut him off. “Okay, I think that’s enough teasing Lance and Keith. Let’s just go exploring, yeah?”

“This isn’t over, Pidgeon,” Lance growled, shoving her gently with his shoulder as he swam past, bright red Keith in tow.

Pidge quirked a brow at him. “Bring it, fishtail.”

“Oh, come on! That was a cheap shot!” Lance squawked. He turned to Hunk, gesturing wildly in Pidge’s direction. “Hunk, that was a cheap shot!”

Hunk opened his mouth to respond, a glint of amusement in his eyes that Lance resented. However, he was interrupted by the sound of laughter. Lance spun around, eyes widening as he saw Keith doubled over, clutching at his stomach.

For a moment Lance just stared, slack-jawed, as Keith howled beside him. Finally, he managed to sputter out, “Keith! You’re the one person that’s supposed to be on my side!”

“Hey!” Hunk said indignantly. However, Lance couldn't tare his eyes away from the shark beside him. Keith was bent over, laughing so hard that he had to gasp for breath. He was turning bright red, his eyes squeezed shut as he shook with the force of his laughter. By all laws of reason, Keith laughing that hard should not have been pretty. It should have been ridiculous and unflattering and perhaps even hilarious in its own right. It certainly should not have been pretty. But this was Keith. Broody, gorgeous Keith, who apparently looked like an angel from above when he was laughing so hard. Lance did not appreciate the twists and flips his heart was doing. He did not appreciate how he couldn’t seem to remember how to close his own damn jaw. And he definitely didn’t appreciate the looks that he could see Pidge and Hunk giving him from the corner of his eye.

Then Keith’s eyes opened, a sea of dusky violet gazing gleefully up at him, and Lance broke. He smiled so wide his face hurt, and without thinking he slung and arm around Keith’s shoulder, helping prop him up as Keith chuckled into his neck. This boy was going to be the death of him.

“That’s it, I’m leaving,” Pidge said, turning to swim away.

“Alright, we’re coming,” Lance replied, all his earlier indignance forgotten. Keith was still laughing softly into his neck, leaning on Lance as they swam after the fiery mermaid. Lance’s own dopey grin hadn’t faded a bit.

 

 

“Oh. My. God.”

Pidge looked like the kid who got the last crab. She stared, her eyes wide in wonder as they swam into the large chamber. Lance shifted, not liking the warmth of the water on his scales. Said warmth was coming from the mound of volcanic vents that took up the chamber’s center. Sharks were bustling about, carrying all manner of weapons and tools. A few sharks were clustered around the vents themselves.

Lance watched as one of them hammered on a sword that was glowing a bright golden color. Another shark had a rod of metal clutched in a pair of tongs. He stuck it into the vent, leaving it there a second before pulling out the now glowing rod. It sizzled in the cooler surrounding waters.

“I was wondering how the sharks managed to have so many metal weapons!” Pidge exclaimed. “They were in too good of a condition to all be salvaged from shipwrecks! I can’t believe-”

She started rambling in what Lance fondly referred to as nerdonese. He shifted again, his body heating up far too quickly in the warm room. “I don’t think I can stay here too long,” he spoke up. “I’m gonna roast alive.”

“You guys can go ahead,” Pidge waved her hand distractedly. “Oh, and if you run into Matt, tell him to get his ass here, stat! Shark babes can wait.”

“You got it,” Lance replied, giving her a two-fingered salute as he led the others out of the hall.

The trio swam around, peering into rooms and stopping for a bite to eat that was supplied to them by some friendly soldiers in the mess hall. They were headed down yet another hallway, passing one of the countless rooms when a voice called out to them.

“Keith! Lance, Hunk!”

They stopped, peering inside to find Shiro grinning at them from where he was sitting on a bed of moss, Coran floating next to him. The room they were in appeared to be some sort of medical unit, with various patients being attended to in the background.

“Shiro!” Keith called back, swimming over with a wide smile.

“Hey, Coran,” Lance said, him and Hunk following after. “I thought you guys were with Thace and Allura?”

“Shiro here needed his wound checked out,” Coran answered. “I am an avid believer in second opinions, so I tagged along. I’ve never seen any medical facilities other than my own little abode!”

“There’s good news,” Shiro continued. “Apparently my fins aren’t broken, just twisted.”

“They’ll heal up in half the time!” Coran added cheerfully. He picked up a jar of ointment, inspecting it curiously. “I’ve never even seen half the medicines they’ve got in here,” he muttered, more to himself than anyone else.

“That’s great, Shiro,” Keith said in response to his news.

“What’ve you three been up to?” the older shark asked.

“Just exploring around,” Lance answered. “Pidge found some metal stuff to nerd over so she’ll be set the rest of the day.”

“Have either of you seen Matt?” Hunk added on.

“Sorry, my boy,” Coran answered. “Haven’t seen him since we got here.”

“If you run into him, send him Pidge’s way,” Lance told them. He turned to Shiro in way of explanation. “He’s just as nerdy as she is.”

“Before you go,” Coran spoke up, “could you perhaps check on Allura? See how the plans are going?” Coran had a friendly smile on his face but he wasn’t quite able to hide the worry shining in his eyes.

“I’ll go,” Hunk said immediately.

“You sure?” Keith asked.

“Yeah,” Hunk replied. “My tail kind of aches from all this swimming so I think I’ll go find her then head back to the room and rest.”

Lance’s eyes fell on the bandages wrapped around Hunk’s tail. He shivered slightly at the memory of the wound underneath. “Keith and I can come with you, buddy,” he spoke up.

“Nah, it’s fine.” Hunk gave him a warm smile. “You guys keep exploring. I’m just gonna nap, so unless listening to my snoring is your idea of a good time-”

“I guess when you put it that way,” Lance said teasingly. He swept Hunk into a hug, squeezing him tightly. “See you later.”

“Yeah, see you, man,” Hunk replied, hugging him back. When the two pulled apart Hunk turned to Keith, pulling the startled shark into their own hug. Keith’s eyes widened for a second but then he was hugging back, a tiny smile on his face. Lance felt his heart skip a beat. “Keep Lance out of trouble for me,” Hunk teased.

“I’ll try,” Keith joked back at the same time Lance cried out, “Hey!” Hunk gave them both a parting smile before he was gone, swimming off to find Allura.

“Traitor,” Lance muttered under his breath, though he couldn’t keep the fond smile off his face.

 

 

They found the training room. They found the training room and it was like Lance’s worst nightmare and Keith’s greatest dream. Now, don’t get him wrong. Lance appreciated a bit of good old fisticuffs and rabble-rousing, as Coran might've said. But today was his day off, alright? They’d been swimming for god knows how long on this mission to find the Blade and they were finally here. They had to fight a giant squid, infiltrate an army, escape a sea witch, and rescue a secret agent to get here. But now they were finally here and he was officially on his break. No fighting, no drills, and absolutely no exercise of any sort.

“Please?” Keith asked.

“Absolutely not,” Lance replied, his arms crossed resolutely. They were floating in a corner of the giant training room, away from the drill session currently going on.

“There’s always need for more practice!”

“There’s also need for rest and relaxation, which I think I’ve earned after almost being eaten at least three times in the last week.”

“But training will make sure you don’t get eaten!”

“Or it’ll make sure I pull something so the next time one of those army assholes tries to chase us down, I’ll be the main course!”

“I wouldn’t let that happen,” Keith said, frowning.

Lance sighed. “I know, buddy. I’m just saying, a little rest never hurt anybody.”

Keith was pouting and damn it, it was cute. He looked like a grumpy goldfish and Lance was not okay with just how adorable that was. “Just for a little bit? You know, your reaction time could still use some work.”

“My reaction time is flawless, thank you!” Lance exclaimed.

“Prove it.” Keith had a smirk on his face now and that was hardly any better than his pout. He had Lance exactly where he wanted him and he knew it, and Lance knew it, and he knew that Lance knew it, and Lance knew he knew- The point is, he wasn’t playing fair, and Lance was going to make him regret that.

“Oh it’s on, pretty boy!”

 

 

“Okay, okay, I give!” Lance groaned into the floor. He was real sick of being up close and personal with the ground. Keith’s weight lifted off him and he rose up, wincing as he stretched out his aching muscles. “Damn Keith, ever heard of holding back?”

Keith raised his eyebrows challengingly. “You want me to go easy on you?”

“Nah, I can take you down all on my own,” Lance shot back, a cocky smirk spreading across his face as he tried adamantly to ignore the past hour of being pinned repeatedly.

“If you say so,” Keith replied, a matching smirk on his own face. If there was one thing Lance was certain of, it’s that before the day was over, he was going to wipe that smug look off the shark’s excessively pretty face.

Keith tensed up, watching Lance’s movements closely. They began to circle one another, low to the ground. Suddenly Lance lunged. Keith spun away, his movements infuriatingly graceful as Lance stumbled into open water. The merman turned, just managing to block a blow from the shark. The two stayed close, grappling for control as they tried to wrestle one another to the ground. After a few long moments of struggling, Lance finally collapsed, Keith pinning him down.

“Damn it,” he huffed out.

Keith sat up, extending a hand to help Lance do likewise. Lance took it, leaning back on his palms as he tried to catch his breath.

“Do you need a break?” Keith asked. Lance glanced over at him suspiciously, but there was no hint of teasing in the sharkboy’s eyes. Instead his gaze was sincere and attentive. However, he also seemed to be doing just fine, his gills taking in water steadily.

“Nah,” Lance said, straightening up. “I can- keep going- all day.” His words were made less convincing by the fact he had to pause for breath between them.

“Lance, if you-” Keith started, his brow creased in worry.

“Really, I’m fine,” Lance puffed out. “Let’s go a few more rounds.” He extended his hand to help Keith up, who took it with a grateful smile.

“And to think I couldn’t get you to spar me earlier,” the shark quipped.

“Hush, you,” Lance said, too tired to come up with a better retort.

He got into position, eyeing Keith closely. As usual the two began to circle each other. It was slow, drawn out, neither daring to make a move. Finally, after studying the merman for a long moment, Keith lunged. Lance just barely managed to dodge in time. He spun around, yelping as he found a fist coming towards him. He blocked the blow, but then there was another and another, the merman just barely managing to keep up. Keith was steadily forcing him back as Lance did all he could to dodge and block him. On one such block Keith caught his arm, pulling him in.

They were back to wrestling desperately with each other, each trying to overpower the other. Lance could feel his arms failing him after so many rounds. The muscles ached, trembling under the force of Keith pressing into them. Just then a thought struck him. Abruptly he let his arms give, shifting slightly to the side so Keith was thrown off balance. In a flash the merman was behind him, tripping Keith up with his tail and sending them both crashing to the floor. They rolled around for a few long moments, the shark managing to wriggle around in Lance’s grip and make his life significantly more difficult. However, Lance finally found just the right angle to hold Keith’s wrists down that didn’t make his own sore arms feel like death. He smirked down at the sharkboy in triumph, watching with glee as Keith squirmed around under him. The shark growled in frustration before finally falling back. Lance had been tricked by the sharkboy’s false surrenders one too many times now, so he didn’t let up on any of the pressure. Instead he leaned his full body weight into Keith, their chests pressed together.

“Told you I could take you down!” Lance crowed.

He expected Keith to come up with some sharp retort, but instead the sharkboy just smiled warmly at him. “Good job, Lance.”

Lance just stared, feeling somehow gutted by the shark’s lack of appropriate defeat. He could feel his cheeks heating up as Keith stared back, his eyes soft and fond and only a few inches away.

Lance saw Keith’s shoulders tense then and he immediately tightened his grip on the wrists he had pinned down. After the past hour of sparring, he was finally beginning to pick up on some of the sharkboy’s tells.

“Uh uh!” Lance cried out as Keith tried and failed to break his hold with a sudden push. “You aren’t pulling that trick on me again! Thought you could sweet talk me to distract me, but you forgot one thing!”

“And what’s that?” Keith asked, collapsing back down with a sigh after his failed escape attempt.

“I’ve got laser focus,” Lance said, beaming down at him.

“Hmm,” Keith hummed. “So it was your laser focus that had you on the floor this past hour?”

“Low blow, man,” Lance replied, but there was no heat behind the words. Keith’s eyes were sparkling up at him in amusement, and they were still right there, just inches away. In fact, now that he thought about it, their entire position was rather compromising. He was on top of Keith, pressed together all the way to their chests, with Keith’s wrists pinned on either side of his head. Yeah, a bit compromising.

Keith noticed the blush quickly forming on Lance’s face. He opened his mouth to say something, and on instinct Lance’s eyes darted down to his lips. Keith’s mouth snapped shut then, his eyes widening in realization. His own face started to turn bright red, the flush spreading down his neck and onto his chest.

Lance swallowed thickly. The appropriate time to let Keith go had long since passed. He had to say something. Anything to break the tense silence.

“I-” Lance’s voice came out as a squeak. He had to stop and clear his throat. “I have laser focus,” he repeated from earlier. Smooth. He could still salvage this. Taking a deep breath, he added, “But you seem rather distracted, sharkboy.” He managed to throw in a teasing quirk of his brow at the end, and he gave himself a mental high five.

Keith’s face turned even redder. He swallowed, and Lance’s eyes darted down to watch the motion of his slender neck. “L-Lance-”

“Hey guys!”

Lance almost jumped out of his skin at the sound. He sprang off of Keith as though he had been burned, whirling around to find Matt floating there with a knowing grin.

“Sorry to interrupt, but you guys were kind of distracting the other soldiers so Ren sent me over to see what’s up.”

Lance’s face lit up in a blaze of mortification as he recalled the fact that he and Keith were very much in public. His eyes shot over to where several nearby soldiers were giving them teasing grins. One of them even wolf-whistled. The drill sergeant cleared his throat loudly and the soldiers eyes snapped forward again.

“W-we were just-!” Lance started saying at the same time Keith exclaimed, “It’s not-!”

“Wait a minute,” Lance cut them both off, staring up at Matt in confusion. “Who’s Ren?”

It was Matt’s turn to blush now, though the cocky grin didn’t falter for a second. “Let’s just say, a certain shark babe.” Matt turned to give a coy wave over his shoulder. The drill instructor caught the gesture, rolling his eyes, but there was a smile on his face.

“Uh, Matt,” Keith murmured from where he seemed to be trying to become one with the ground. “Pidge is looking for you.”

“Oh, yeah!” Lance spoke up. “She found this place where they make metal weapons, and she was freaking out-”

“She what?!” Matt exclaimed. “They know how to make metal weapons?!”

“Yeah,” Keith replied. “You know, you guys could’ve just asked me.”

“Keith,” Matt interrupted, deadpan. “Are you saying you knew the sharks had the power of metal and you kept this information from us?”

Keith squirmed uncomfortably under his gaze. “I mean, you never asked.”

“Shameful,” Matt said, shaking his head. “And to think I trusted you.”

“That’s your mistake,” Keith shot back, shrugging nonchalantly.

“Oh, snap!” Lance exclaimed, holding up his hand for a high five. Keith stared at it in confusion for a moment before reaching over and gently lacing their fingers together. Lance made a sound like a dying dolphin, his face heating up yet again. Keith’s brow only crinkled further in confusion and Lance waved his free hand dismissively, unable to meet the sharkboy’s eyes. He stroked his thumb over the back of Keith’s hand in small, repetitive motions, and Keith’s expression morphed into something unbearably soft.

“Well, I better go find Pidge,” Matt spoke up suddenly. “You two might want to consider taking your sparring session somewhere a bit more... private.” He gave them a wink coupled with a cheeky grin, then swam off, leaving the pair sputtering in his wake.

Lance glanced to the side, still unable to meet Keith’s eyes. “So, what do you want to do now?”

There was a long silence. The water seemed to stretch thinner and thinner around them with each second. Finally, Keith opened his mouth to reply. “Cool down stretches,” he said bluntly.

Lance flopped backwards onto the ground, groaning loudly. “You’re no fun.”

Chapter Text

Keith couldn’t sleep. He was tossing and turning in his cot, unbearably aware that Lance was not here. Okay, technically he was here, lying in the cot just a few feet away. But he wasn’t here here. Keith had grown used to sleeping curled up next to Lance these passed few weeks. Now that they were in a place with actual beds again, he couldn’t come up with an excuse to leave his perfectly adequate cot vacant and go bunk with Lance, especially under the amused eyes of the others. He let out a sigh as he turned over once more. They were departing for the shoal tomorrow. He really needed to get some sleep.

Keith squeezed his eyes shut as if that would help. For a moment he held himself still before letting out frustrated sigh. He pushed himself up, slipping quietly out of the cot and swimming over to the next one. His eyes softened as they fell on Lance. The merman looked younger in his sleep. He had always been light-hearted and cheerful, all big smiles and boisterous laughter. But over the course of their mission those shining blue eyes had steadily grown darker. Fear was creeping into his gaze. There was an almost hunted look in his eyes now, and Keith didn’t miss the way he would startle at sudden movements or noises.

It had gotten especially bad after the encounter with Haggar. The whole swim to the Blade Lance had hardly spoken, his smiles reserved for the times Keith caught his eye and smiled first. The shark let out a sigh. He never meant for any of this to happen. Lance was here because his family was in danger, and his family was in danger because of Keith.

Allura’s words from earlier rang in his head. ‘They would’ve attacked us eventually no matter what.’

It was true. Even if he had been hidden in some other part of the ocean, even if he and Lance had never met, it wouldn’t have changed the inevitable. Perhaps Lance’s shoal would’ve had a few more years, but eventually the army would have come for them. He had brought this danger upon them early, but he had also allowed them the time to prepare. Had he and Lance never met, the mermaids never would have known their lives were in danger until it was too late. At least now they stood a chance.

It was a relief to know some good had come from him meeting Lance other than his own selfish desires. He remembered what it had been like. A year. A whole year with no one to talk to. No one to be there when he woke up in the mornings or went to bed in the evenings. He remembered the loneliness that burned deep beneath his skin, so final and all-consuming. He had almost missed the army then. Almost missed the insults and threats hurled at him by his fellow soldiers. At least there he had been someone, even if that someone was a filthy halfbreed. At least they could see him, even if all they saw was a monster.

In the ship graveyard, it felt like there were times he just didn’t exist. Floating aimlessly by until the next tiny noise sent him into a paranoid rage. He was torn so completely between wishing someone, anyone would come so he wouldn’t be alone anymore and being terrified at the thought of seeing a single other person because that would surely mean his death. Some days he thought it might be worth it.

It scared him. It was so much like that other time in his life, that time right before the army had taken him in. He had never wanted to feel like that again, that alone and helpless. Some nights he thought he heard his father's voice, ringing through the wrecks. At first it started in his dreams, and he would wake gasping for breath, his skin cold and clammy. Then he started hearing it when he was awake. He wondered if he would die like that. Cold and alone in an empty graveyard, driven insane from the isolation.

Then Lance had shown up. Lance was there, and Keith had never before felt anything so intensely. He was relieved. Relieved to know he wasn’t the only sentient thing in this god forsaken slice of ocean. His heart wanted to burst for joy at the same time it shriveled up in fear. Fear because Lance was a merman, and fear because Lance couldn’t be alone. If there was one mermaid here, then there was bound to be many nearby. Keith may have only been a halfbreed, but he was still shark enough to be seen as a threat, to be seen as one of those monsters currently plotting to slaughter all merkind back in Lotor’s damned army.

He didn’t want to hurt Lance. Not really. But he felt so sure, so absolutely certain in that moment that it was himself or that boy. He acted on instinct, driven by the burning loneliness and paranoia and desperation to feel something other than afraid. He had tried to kill Lance that day. And he had spent every day since regretting it. It terrified him to think that he had almost killed his best friend, his hope, his-

‘You are family.’

Lance’s words rang soft and true in his head, whispered on a day that felt so long ago now. He remembered the way Lance had first said it, insistent and sharp, as if daring Keith to object. Then the way his eyes softened, the storm in them soothing over into gentle waves as he whispered it one more time.

‘You are family.’

Lance was his family. And he loved him. He loved Lance so, so much, and the thought terrified him and excited him and made him burn, burn, burn. He would do anything to keep the merman safe, anything to make him happy, anything at all. It scared him. Being that vulnerable scared him, because that meant he had a weakness. He couldn’t lose Lance. He had lost everyone else in his life, including Shiro, though thanks to Lance he had been able to get the other shark back. He couldn’t afford to lose Lance. Not Lance.

Keith felt himself burn hotter, brighter, an all-consuming desire to protect and care, to love. He gazed down at the sleeping merman, at his family. Then he surged forward.

Lance let out a sleepy noise as Keith invaded his cot, pressing himself into the merman everywhere he possibly could. He tucked his head into Lance’s neck, wrapped his arms around his waist, and tangled their tails together. As soon as they touched the burning feeling inside was tempered, simmering down into a soft, steady warmth that lay just beneath his skin. It was like flames meeting cool water, soothed over into embers.

“Keith?” Lance whispered into the stillness, and the sound of his voice made the embers in Keith’s chest spark.

“Sorry,” Keith murmured, an apology he absolutely didn’t mean.

“S’okay,” Lance slurred. “Missed you too.”

He reached up, combing his fingers through the sharkboy’s hair, and Keith just felt right, like this was exactly where he was meant to be. For a long time they stayed that way, curled into each other in comfortable silence. Keith thought Lance had dozed off again, and he was almost there himself when the merman spoke up.

“I’m really glad we saved Shiro,” Lance whispered into the stillness.

Keith arched his back into a stretch, letting out a yawn. “Me too.”

“I knew before that he meant a lot to you from the way you talked about him. But I didn’t realize until I saw you two together. He’s your family.”

“Yeah,” Keith smiled, happily nuzzling into the neck of the other half of his family. “He is.”

There was silence for a moment. Keith was happy to let it stay until he realized how tense Lance felt against him. The shark’s brows creased in worry and he pulled back so he could see the merman’s face. “Lance?”

Lance let out the breath he’d been holding in, some of the tension easing as he met Keith’s eyes. He reached out, tucking a strand of hair behind the sharkboy’s ear before he looked away, a guilty expression crossing his face. “I don’t want to make this about me,” he said quietly. Too quietly. He looked small, and if there was one thing Lance wasn’t, it was small. He was loud and cheerful and he took up a whole room in way that brought a smile to everyone’s face. Keith did not like it when Lance looked small.

“What’s wrong?” the shark whispered, placing his hand on the merman’s cheek.

“I’m sorry, it’s selfish-” Lance began. He seemed to grow even smaller.

Keith did not like that, so he moved his thumb to rest against Lance’s lips. The merman’s eyes widened, a blush darkening his cheeks. “Lance,” Keith spoke up, voice firm but gentle. “You’re not selfish. Now tell me what’s wrong. I’m listening.” He moved his thumb back over to stroke against the merman’s cheek.

Lance took in a shuddering breath, steeling himself for a moment before he spoke. “Like I said, I’m really happy we saved Shiro. And it’s so nice seeing you and him joking around and just being yourself. I-it just-” Lance trailed off. Keith nodded encouragingly at him and the merman sucked in another deep breath. “It just reminds me of my family.”

“Oh,” Keith replied, his brow crinkled in confusion. “And that’s bad?”

“No!” Lance said hurriedly. “No, what I mean is I-” Just then Lance sniffled a little, and Keith felt his heart breaking. “I miss them.”

There was a pause, and Keith watched in horror as Lance’s eyes welled up with grief and guilt. “I-I’m sorry, I know it’s so selfish of me to see you being happy and to only be thinking about my own family and I should be happy too- And I am! I really am, Keith, but I’m also sad because seeing Shiro tease you just reminds me of my siblings or when you guys hug it reminds me of my parents and I miss my mom’s hugs a-and-”

“Hey,” Keith interrupted, his thumb stroking gently along Lance’s cheek. The merman let out a muffled sob and nudged his face further into the sharkboy’s hand as though he were trying to hide behind it. “I already told you, you’re not selfish. Of course you’d miss your family. But you’re going to see them soon. We’re headed back to the shoal tomorrow and then you’ll have to put up with all your siblings teasing the way I have to put up with Shiro and you can hug your mom again and just-” Keith paused, a soft smile curling across his face. “What I’m trying to say is it’ll be okay. You’re not selfish for missing them and you’re going see them soon. Maybe with the Blade there to help protect everyone, you won’t ever have to leave them again.”

“Keith,” Lance breathed out. He was looking at the other boy as if he’d hung the stars in the sky, and Keith felt himself blushing. Lance sniffled again, but this time it was accompanied by a smile bright enough to light up the whole room. “As soon as we get back you’re meeting everyone. They’re going to love you! I can’t be held responsible if my younger siblings turn you into their personal jungle gym, though. Oh, and the older ones will try to intimidate you but don’t let them. They’re a bunch of pushover softies who are just trying to act cool. My mom is going to absolutely adore you! She’s big on the whole dark mysterious vibe. My dad’s got a bit of a dark mysterious thing going on too so you and him are going to get along great!”

Keith smiled at Lance’s ramblings, but there was a sad edge to it. When Lance paused, Keith breathed out, “Are you sure?” This time he was the one who sounded small.

“Of course I’m sure!” Lance beamed. “You’ll probably be an official part of the family within the week!”

“Lance,” Keith said quietly. “I’m not sure it’s going to go like that.”

“What?” Lance’s face fell, staring at the shark in confusion. “Why not?”

“Well,” Keith swallowed thickly before continuing. “I’m a shark. I’m not sure they’re really going to want me around.”

“Keith,” Lance said quietly. “I won’t lie, they might have some trouble at first. But everyone in my family is a giant softie. Once they get to know the real you they will absolutely love you.”

Keith winced. “I just don’t think it’ll be that simple.”

“Why not?” Lance asked softly.

“I’m supposed to be their enemy, right? You saw they way everyone looked at me the last time I was at your shoal. They,” Keith paused, squeezing his eyes shut. “They already don’t like me and they haven’t even met me. I’m not sure getting to know me will change anything.”

“Hey,” Lance said. This time it was him who reached up to caress Keith’s cheek. The shark trilled softly at the contact, and Lance answered back with his own gentle trill. “When we first met, I was afraid of you. But then I got to know you. Same with Hunk and Pidge, Coran and Matt. They were all scared at first, but then they got to know you and look at us now. And what about Allura? She was furious when she met you but now it’s like she sees you as one of her own shoal. It’s not going to be any different with my family, Keith. Or any of the rest of the shoal. Me, Hunk, Pidge, and everyone else here? We love you, Keith. And once my family takes the time to know you, they’ll love you too.”

Keith’s breath caught in his throat. Loved. He was loved. And Lance was one of the people who loved him. He wanted to say it back right then and there, to tell Lance he loved him. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t because he was afraid it would be too much. It felt like too much in his own chest, so he could only imagine how it might feel to Lance. Lance had said ‘we love you.’ If Keith responded back ‘I love you’ then maybe it would be needy and desperate and inconsiderate. Maybe Lance would be mad at him. Or maybe he would be hurt and he’d run away like the last time Keith tried to kiss him. He didn’t ever want to see that expression of hurt on Lance’s face again. He didn’t ever want to be the cause of that. So he bit his tongue and he let the embers in his chest burst back into flames as he burned and burned and burned. The only thing grounding him anymore was the line Lance stroked into his cheek with the gentle glide of his thumb. A splash of cool water against the flames that raged beneath Keith’s skin.

“Keith.”

The sharkboy glanced up to meet the blue eyes looking so gently at him. Lance’s gaze was searching yet cautious. He opened his mouth, whispering into the waters surrounding them. “What happened to your parents?”

Just like that the fire in Keith was gone, replaced by endless, piercing ice.

 

 

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want!” Lance added quickly. Keith wasn’t looking at him but his expression had gone so cold that Lance couldn’t help but flinch. The shark had stiffened and Lance quickly drew his hand back, afraid he had done something wrong. When Keith didn’t move, didn’t say anything, Lance’s worry only increased. The shark was staring at a spot over the merman’s shoulder, his gaze so fierce that Lance could feel a chill run down his spine. “I’m sorry,” Lance began. “I shouldn’t have-”

“They left me,” Keith spoke up suddenly. Silence hung heavy in the air for a long time.

“I’m sorry,” Lance managed to get out. He paused for a moment, before adding, “You know, you really don’t have to-”

“No,” Keith cut him off. “I want to.”

His eyes went back to Lance and they softened. The merman instantly relaxed. Keith leaned forward then, burying his face in Lance’s shoulder. His hand was curled into a fist where it rested against Lance’s chest. The merman could feel it shaking.

“My mom was a shark,” Keith said quietly. “I don’t have any memories of her. She left when I was really young. I don’t know why. But my dad always blamed me.”

Lance stiffened at those words.

“My dad raised me alone. Not that he did a very good job of it,” Keith added bitterly. “He was always distant. He wasn’t the kind of man to give hugs or comfort you after a nightmare. But he taught me how to hunt and how to survive out in the ocean.”

Lance wasn’t sure if he should speak, but curiosity got the better of him. “So was your dad-?”

“Yeah,” Keith said before he could finish. “He was a merman. He was kicked out of his shoal after they discovered him and my mom. Growing up, it was just me and him. I didn’t know anyone else. Even in the army the other cadets were separated from their parents early so I didn’t really have anything to compare it to. Until Shiro I just thought it was normal to have a dad that... distant.”

“Keith, did he-” Lance trailed off, not sure how to phrase this without being too blunt. “Did he ever hurt you?”

Keith flinched, shrinking in on himself and Lance felt himself bristle. “He never hit me,” Keith spoke up, voice quiet. “He just- He didn’t really talk to me except to give orders. Telling me to do this or that. He’d get really angry if I made a mistake or wasn’t fast enough. And he blamed me. For my mom. Said it was my fault she left.”

“Why?” Lance asked quietly.

Keith shrugged helplessly. “He never said. He just told me it was my fault. He said she’d still be here if I’d never been born.”

Lance could feel rage unlike anything he’d ever felt before boiling in his chest. Things weren’t always perfect with his family but his parents had never blamed him for something that was beyond his control. His family was a place of love, affection, and acceptance. The pieces were finally starting to fall into place now. Between Keith’s time with his father and his time in the army, no wonder he had been so moody and skittish when Lance first met him. It all made sense now. Keith’s inherent mistrust of everyone, the way he would jump at the slightest sound or movement, how stiff he had been when they touched, that constant wary look in his eye.

Lance pictured a little Keith, alone and curled up as he cried from a nightmare, not daring to wake the man who slept beside him because he knew he would find no comfort there. That image made fury spark so brightly in his chest that Lance couldn’t contain the growl that slipped out of his throat.

Keith shrunk in on himself at the sound, flinching, and for a moment Lance could see that scared little boy in front of him. “Keith,” Lance said softly, his voice like a prayer. Keith was staring at him with big, uncertain eyes. “Keith, come here,” Lance whispered.

The shark stared for a long moment, eyes darting back and forth between Lance’s own. Then he melted into the merman, nuzzling his neck and wrapping his arms around him. Lance held him close, stroking his fingers idly through Keith’s hair. “I’m so sorry,” Lance whispered. “I’m so sorry you had to grow up with someone like that.” He paused for a moment, hand dipping down to stroke along Keith’s spine, trying to sooth the trembling there. “I would never treat you like that. Ever. That is unforgivable and I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”

Keith let out a quiet sob, and Lance leaned down to press a kiss to the top of his head. “It’s okay, sweetheart. I’ve got you.”

Keith’s breath caught in his throat the moment the endearment left Lance’s lips. Then all at once he broke, muffling his sobs into Lance’s shoulder as he shook against him.

“Shhh,” Lance hummed calmly. “It’s alright. Everything’s going to be alright. I’m here.”

“L-Lance!” Keith gasped out.

“You’re so brave,” Lance continued. “You’re so strong for surviving that. I’m proud of you, Keith.” He leaned down to press another kiss to the shark’s forehead. “So proud.”

“I-I don’t,” Keith’s voice was cut off by another sob.

“Shh, honey, don’t talk yet,” Lance whispered. He traced soothing circles into the small of Keith’s back. “Just breath.”

Keith sucked in a shuddering breath. He let out a watery trill, and Lance answered back with his own steady call. It took several long moments for the sharkboy to calm down after that, trying to get his breathing under control as his sobs faded away. Finally he relaxed, slumping fully into the merman that cradled him close.

“I don’t know what I did to deserve you,” Keith whispered.

Lance snorted. “I don’t know maybe save my life multiple times, put up with all my rambling, comfort me when I need someone, help me save my shoal… I could go on.”

Keith hummed, a content smile spreading across his face.

“You really are amazing,” Lance murmured.

“You’re amazing,” Keith whispered back. He placed a light kiss to Lance’s collar bone that had the merman’s face flushing bright red.

For a long moment they lay there, basking in each other’s company. Finally, after Lance had managed to calm the blush on his face, he spoke up. “Keith?”

“Hmm?” the shark hummed.

Lance paused for a moment, not sure if it was a good idea to continue their earlier conversation. But he had to know. “You said earlier that both your parents left you?”

Keith stiffened again, and Lance’s arms immediately tightened around him. The shark relaxed at his touch, letting out a soft sigh that Lance could feel against his neck.

“When I was about ten my dad abandoned me.” His voice sounded distant and hollow. “He’d found a new shoal that was willing to take him in. But they weren’t exactly going to welcome someone with a shark’s tail into their home. So he just left. No warning, no goodbye. I only know where he went because he’d mentioned earlier that he found a shoal who’d invited him in.” Keith started trembling again and Lance tightened his arms around him, feeling the rage from earlier come back with a vengeance.

“I was so stupid,” the sharkboy rasped out. “When he told me about that shoal I assumed that I’d be coming too. I was so excited. I’d never really been around anyone other than my dad, so I thought I was going to make friends and have neighbors and all that normal stuff. I spent that whole day packing the things I had and planning out what I’d say when I met other kids. And then I woke up the next morning and he was gone.”

Lance could feel his heart breaking. Keith had been one step away from a normal life, and it was taken from him by people who saw him as a monster instead of a child and by a man who didn’t love him. A man who, out of everyone in the world, should have loved Keith the most. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair.

“I will never leave you,” Lance said, his voice coming out firm. Keith froze against him. “I will never leave you like he did. Not ever.”

“Please-” Keith whispered, his voice so hopeful, so vulnerable.

“You don’t need to ask,” Lance said. A small smile graced his lips. “You’re stuck with me, now and forever.”

Keith sniffled, nuzzling into Lance’s neck. “Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he murmured, his voice breaking.

“I wouldn’t either,” Lance breathed out. “And seriously, Keith, my family is going to love you. You’re already my family, but give it a week, tops, and my mom is going to claim you as her official child. You’ll see.”

A laugh bubbled from Keith’s throat, and it was the most beautiful sound Lance had ever heard. “Thank you,” Keith breathed.

“You don’t need to thank me,” Lance replied. “You deserve to be loved.”

There it was again. That word. Love. Keith wanted to say it so bad, to say those three simple words. Three words he never heard when he was a child, and yet Lance had said he loved him twice in one night. Keith wanted to say it back. He wanted to but he remembered the eyes, his father’s cold, impassive eyes during the one time in Keith’s life that he’d ever tried to say those words to anyone. He remembered the way his father had looked right through him, as if he wasn’t even there. The silence had been deafening.

Keith sealed his lips tight, shaking slightly from where he huddled against the merman. One day he was going to say it. He was going to say those words and he was going to kiss Lance and he wasn’t going to let any of his doubts and fears get in the way. But that day wasn’t today. He was exhausted, physically and emotionally, and Lance was already half asleep beside him. There was a time for these things, Keith told himself. A time and place. It had to be perfect. It had to be just perfect so Lance would know how much Keith loved him, so Lance wouldn't stare right through him the way his father had so many years ago. It was going to be perfect, and it was going to be soon. Not yet, but soon. He just had to wait for the right time.

Chapter Text

The swim back to the shoal seemed to pass in no time for Keith. The days slipped by, all the tension and fear from before seeming to have melted away. They had been successful in their mission. They had reached the Blades, gotten help, and now the shoal would be safe. The others were no longer afraid to close their eyes at night, were no longer checking over their shoulders with every tail-length that they swam. It was still an adjustment process with them suddenly being surrounded by sharks, but they no longer lived with the fear that the next corner they turned would be their last.

Lance was glowing. Every day as they got closer to his home his smiles came easier and easier. His old energy was back, darting around and babbling at anyone who would hold still long enough to listen. Keith wished he could enjoy it. And he did, for a while. But the closer they got to the shoal, the more his dread grew. How would the mermaids react to having a miniature army of sharks in their midst? And what of him and Lance? Keith had grown used to spending time with Lance, being by his side from the moment they woke up to the moment the went to bed. He wasn’t naive enough to think that could continue with Lance’s family in the mix. They weren’t going to welcome some shark into their home, let alone the shark that took their son away from them in the first place.

Lance noticed. He noticed because of course he did, because he’s Lance and he’s wonderful and sweet and kind and so attentive. But Keith couldn’t bring himself to tell him. Not when Lance was so happy, his smiles no longer small and afraid, but real, warm, bright smiles. The kind of smiles Keith had missed so much. So the sharkboy kept quiet. He wasn’t going to let his selfish feelings ruin Lance’s excitement. He would just savor these last few days before whatever came next. He just had to focus on Lance.

Those last few days passed far faster than he would have liked, until finally their party was just a short swim from the shoal. It was then that Allura stopped them, turning to address the Blade of Marmora.

“My shoal is just up ahead,” she announced. “I must ask that you all wait here for the time being. My people have long lived under the belief that sharks are nothing but a threat, so bringing you unexpectedly could cause some complications. Me and my fellow mermaids will go to inform them of your arrival, and I will return once it is time for you to join us.” She turned then, giving a grateful, if formal smile to Thace. “I thank you again for agreeing to help us, and apologize for the delay, but it is necessary for everyone’s safety.”

Thace held up his hand to stop her. “There is no need for apologies. We are well aware of the tales that proceed us, and given our common enemy, those tales are not unfounded. The Blade will wait here for your return.”

Keith felt his stomach drop. So it was already time. The first of what would be countless hours he’d have to spend away from Lance, from Hunk, Pidge, and Matt, from the people he had come to call his friends. An unpleasant feeling curled in his gut but he pushed it down. Lance was going to be reunited with his family. He should be happy for him, not wallowing in self-pity.

Lance swam up to him then and Keith met his gaze, forcing a smile onto his face. He was just opening his mouth to say goodbye, to hold Lance close once more for what may be the last time in a long while, but he never got the chance. Lance took his hand without a word and pulled him over to the other mermaids. He didn’t say anything, didn’t bat an eye, just swam over with Keith at his side like it was the most natural thing in the world. Like Keith’s place was meant to be there, right by him.

Allura caught the pair’s eyes. A sigh left her lips and Keith tensed, ready for the inevitable. But when she locked eyes with him once more all she did was nod. If Keith hadn’t been speechless before, he certainly was now. The merleader turned then, uttering, “Follow me,” and then they were off.

Keith glanced behind him then, catching Shiro’s eye from where he drifted beside Thace and Ulaz. The older shark smiled at him, shooting him a wink. Keith’s bewilderment faded and he rolled his eyes, returning the man’s smile before he turned back to the merman leading him away. Lance was already looking at him, and Keith’s smile melted into something soft.

“Okay, so my family might be kind of weird at first,” Lance began. He was starting to look a little nervous himself, though it still had nothing on the way Keith’s stomach seemed to be doing cartwheels. “But remember, they just need some time to get used to having sharks around. Once they do they’re going to love you! And pro tip, if you want to speed up the whole process, let my little sister braid your hair.”

Keith’s eyebrows scrunched up in confusion. “What’s a braid?”

Lance simply stared at him for a moment, face oddly blank. Finally he let out a deep, long-suffering sigh, shaking his head. “You make me so sad sometimes.”

“Guys!” Pidge called excitedly from the front. Lance wasn’t the only one who had been glowing these last few days. “You know what we should all do as soon as we get back?”

“What?” Hunk asked.

“Go to the trench!” Pidge beamed.

“Noooooo,” Lance groaned. “If I don’t ever see a trench again it’ll be too soon!”

“Oh, come on,” Pidge griped back. “You’ve gotta show it to Keith.”

“He’s already seen it,” Hunk pointed out. “We had to swim over it on the way to the Blades. We’ve still gotta swim over it one more time to get back.”

“I don’t mean just swim over it. We’ve gotta explore!”

“I’m with my sis,” Matt spoke up. “You can’t just see the trench, you’ve gotta experience it.”

“I think I’ve experienced trenches enough for the rest of my life,” Keith dead-panned.

“Yes!” Lance cheered. “Thank you, Keith. We have met our trench quota!”

“I’m with these two,” Hunk added. “If there was ever a time for a nice, peaceful swim through the reefs, this would be it.”

“Lame,” Pidge said, shaking her head disapprovingly.

“Yeah, what if there’s a secret base full of shark babes down there too?” Matt added.

“Things not going so smoothly with, what was his name?” Keith mimed thoughtfulness, though he couldn't hide the smirk curling around his lips. “Rin?”

Matt flushed bright red, and Pidge’s eyebrows rose up to her hairline as she studied her brother. “It’s Ren! And I’ll have you know there isn’t anything to be going on with him…. yet.”

Pidge’s eyebrows had returned to their normal place, but the grin spreading across her face was far more alarming. “I don’t recall hearing about this Ren.”

“Well, uh-” Matt stuttered face flushing even darker. “Lance and Keith were all over each other!”

Keith’s cheeks heated up at the memory. Lance wasn’t doing much better, though he still managed to get some words out. “Way to throw us under the bus, man.”

“Oh please,” Pidge waved her hand dismissively. “That happens on an hourly basis.”

“Hey!” Keith said indignantly, finding his voice once more. “It’s not hourly!”

“You’re right, every five minutes.” Pidge waved away the outraged squawk coming from Lance’s general direction. “This Ren guy, though, this is news.”

“Hunk, back us up here, buddy!” Lance said, not realizing Matt and Pidge were engrossed in their own conversation involving a certain shark person. Hunk didn’t say anything. He merely raised his eyebrows, glancing knowingly at where Lance and Keith were still holding hands. Lance let out a scandalized gasp. Keith tried to subtly move their hands so that they were hidden behind his back, as if that would help.

“My own best friend,” Lance sighed, draping himself dramatically across Keith. The shark reached up to catch him, blushing further as he watched Hunk’s eyebrows reach ever growing heights.

“Nuh-uh!” Lance exclaimed, making absolutely no effort t remove himself from his current position. “This doesn’t count. I was wounded, Hunk!”

Hunk didn’t look impressed, instead glancing to Keith to get his take on the current situation. Keith shrugged, fighting to keep the smile off his face. “He was wounded, Hunk.”

“Thank you!” Lance exclaimed. “Keith gets it.”

Suddenly Allura appeared out of nowhere, causing Lance to screech as he almost leapt out of Keith’s arms, the sharkboy to bear his teeth on instinct, and Hunk to scream, clutching at his chest. There was a smile on Allura’s face, but something was decidedly unsettling about it. “I promise, you will all ‘get it’ if you don’t stop lagging behind.”

“Yes, Allura,” Hunk and Lance mumbled in unison at the same time Keith murmured, “Sorry, ma’am.”

This time it was Allura’s eyebrows that rose. Keith flushed furiously, realizing his response too late. “Ma'am?” Allura asked. She gave an approving nod before saying, “Alright, Lance. You can keep him.”

Lance, for his part still wound tightly around Keith, pumped his fist in the air. “Yes!”

 

 

Being around the others made it easier. Their joking and laughing helped Keith relax, keeping his mind off what lay ahead. However, no matter how much Keith wished it would, the moment had to end. The caves of the shoal appeared, and as soon as they were spotted mermaids poured out into the water. Keith stared, wide-eyed, his earlier sense of dread back full force. He didn’t realize he was shaking until Lance squeezed his hand, trilling softly to him. Keith shut his eyes then, taking in a deep breath, before he trilled back. When he opened his eyes Lance was smiling softly at him, and he reached out to tuck a strand of hair behind Keith’s ear.

The noise was deafening. Mermaids were calling out, asking what had happened, if they were okay, calling loved ones over. More than a few people were staring at Keith, at the fact he was untied, at the place where he and Lance clasped hands. People shrank back as he passed, wary looks and glares being sent his way.

Just like the last time Keith was there, one by one the others began to disperse, pulled into the crowd by family members. Keith’s grip tightened around Lance, not wanting to find himself all alone again in this crowd of strangers. Luckily, everyone seemed reluctant to approach them, Lance trying his best to answer his family’s calls and questions even as they poured unceasingly over them. All of a sudden they stopped, and Keith glanced up to see a woman blocking their path. Her eyes were a familiar shade of blue, her long black hair tied in a messy braid.

“Mijo?” she asked, her words uncertain. Her eyes darted down to where the two boys held hands.

Lance smiled warmly at her. “Hi, mama.”

“Mijo, come here.” Her voice was quiet, though she gestured rapidly with her hand.

Lance shook his head. “We’ll talk later, mama.”

“Mijo.” She reached out, her fingers curling around the arm farthest from Keith. Her voice only grew quieter, her eyes big and searching. “Come here.”

Lance shook his head, more firmly this time. “Not yet, mama. We’ll come see you after Allura is done speaking.” At the word ‘we’ the woman’s eyes darted over to Keith, flinching slightly when they fell on him.

“Lance-”

The merman gently retracted his arm from her grip. “Soon,” he said, before swimming forward with Keith at his side.

Keith could feel the woman’s eyes burning into him the whole time. He felt guilt stir in his gut, seering into him like a red hot iron. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Lance turned to him then, frowning. “What? What for?”

Keith opened his mouth to reply, but before he could get anything out Allura’s voice rang over the clearing, loud and firm.

“Our mission was successful. We made contact with the Blade of Marmora, and they have agreed to help us. They are waiting across the trench to come join us here, where they will help to keep look out, provide defense training, and fight at our side should an attack come.” Gasps and murmurs broke out through the crowd. Allura raised her hand, and instantly everyone fell silent. “They are sharks,” she continued, “but I have spent the past several weeks meeting with them, and more than that with the shark who warned us of this danger in the first place.” Allura’s eyes met Keith’s then, and it seemed everyone in the shoal turned to stare at him. He shrank in on himself, wanting nothing more than to swim far and fast, but the hand in his grounded him, holding him to that spot.

“Were I not certain that they are here to help, I would not have invited them here. I have the utmost confidence that these sharks are on our side and are essential to the safety of our home. Any and all questions you have will be answered now.”

The words had barely left her mouth before a roar of voices rose up, everyone seeming to have something to say. Keith shrank back further, but at least found comfort in the fact that the eyes were no longer on him. He was startled by a tug on his hand, and turned to see Lance giving him a sympathetic look. The merman leaned over, speaking quietly so only Keith could hear, but still loud enough to be heard over the noise. “Let’s get away from here, yeah?”

Keith smiled gratefully, nodding. Lance smiled back, squeezing the shark’s hand once before using it to guide him away. The crowd made a wide berth around them, once again people turning to stare as they passed, though none made any moves to stop them. After several grueling moments they were finally free of the cage of bodies, the water feeling lighter in Keith’s gills.

Lance led him a little ways away from the caves, the noise fading and the crowd falling out of sight. He settled down in a patch of coral, Keith gladly slumping next to him. The coral fronds waved gently in the currents, all various shades of reds and blues, and Keith felt like he could breathe again. Lance didn't say anything, just smiled softly as his thumb traced a path back and forth across Keith’s hand. The shark returned that smile, but almost as soon as it had spread across his lips it faltered. Lance’s brow creased in worry. He was opening his mouth to say something, but Keith beat him to it.

“I’m sorry,” the shark breathed out, unable to meet the merman’s eyes.

Lance’s frown deepened, the lazy trail of his thumb pressing firmer, steadier. “What for?”

“You’ve been so excited to see your family, but even now that you’re back I’m still keeping you from them.”

“Keith.” Lance’s voice was firm, and the sharkboy glanced uncertainly up at him. “You’re not keeping me from my family. I’m here right now because I want to be with you.”

“But-”

“Nuh-uh,” Lance cut him off. “No buts. I do want to see them, and I will in just a moment. But I’m going to see them with you. I’m not going to choose between one or the other. You’re both important to me. Right now there might have to be some times where we’re apart, but I’m not going to stop spending time with you, okay? And especially right now now, because I am not leaving your side until Shiro gets here with the others. I want you to feel safe and comfortable here, Keith. This is my home, and I want it to be a home to you too.”

Keith swallowed heavily, unable to meet Lance’s eyes once more. However, he nodded, hoping that simple movement would convey all that he couldn’t put into words. What Lance had said meant so much to him. Lance meant so much to him. And if the merman said he wanted this place to be a home for him, then Keith could do nothing but trust that. Lance had more than earned that trust, time and time again. He’d fought for it tooth and nail back when Keith had been unwilling to give it. Now he trusted Lance with his life. He would trust him with this, too.

“Keith?” Lance asked, voice quiet.

“Okay,” Keith breathed out, forcing his gaze up to meet the merman’s eyes.

“Yeah?” Lance asked, a smile spreading across his face. His eyes sparkled, and Keith felt the breath leave his gills once more. He really couldn’t help the smile that spread across his own face.

“Yeah,” Keith whispered, and the next moment Lance was pulling him in, wrapping Keith up in his arms and holding him close. Keith sighed, letting himself relax against the other boy. A single word rang through his head, settling warmly in his chest.

‘Home.’

Chapter Text

Keith was shaking, his breath shallow in his chest and his hands cold and clammy. For the third time Lance stopped to check over him, to ask him if they should turn back, but each time Keith shook his head, urging Lance on. With the way he was reacting you’d think he was going to meet the giant squid. It was just Lance’s family. If they were anything like Lance then they would be fine. It just might take a while to win their trust. Lance hadn’t trusted him at first, yet he’d still come back to save his life and take care of him again and again. Everything was going to be fine. It would be fine.

“Hi, mama,” Lance said, beaming as he swam into their family cave. The woman’s answering warm smile faltered as she glanced at Keith, trailing behind. For a moment Lance let go of the sharkboy’s hand, swimming over to give his mother a hug. Keith felt like his lifeline had been snatched from him, and he drifted there awkwardly. A tall man drifted into the room then and it took all Keith’s willpower not to shrink back. Hissing at Lance’s family was not the best way to make a good first impression.

“Hey, pops” Lance beamed, enveloping the man in a warm hug. The man smiled down at his son, his eyes twinkling above the scruffy beard.

“It’s good to have you back,” Lance’s father said.

Lance pulled away then, swimming over to Keith with a reassuring smile. Keith had to resist the urge to sigh in relief when Lance clasped his hand once more. “Mom, dad,” Lance spoke up. “This is Keith. He’s the one that warned us about the shark army and led us to the Blades.”

For a long moment there was silence. Lance’s mother was frowning at the place where the two held hands, and Lance’s father was staring at the shark uncertainly. Keith was just starting to weigh the pros and cons of turning around and booking it out of there when a flurry of movement burst into the room.

“Lance!” a little voice cried.

Lance’s mother reached down in a flash, managing to catch one of the little bundles, but the other two slipped past before anyone could react. Keith watched as a little boy and girl latched themselves onto Lance’s tail with tiny fists, another boy trying to squirm out of his mother’s grip.

“Are you back from your adventure?” the little girl asked.

“Did you fight the bad guys?” the boy piped up. “Did you win?!”

“You got me a present, right?” the boy still struggling in his mother’s arms called.

“I want a present!” the little girl added.

“Is this your shark friend?”

Keith froze as he felt a tiny hand touch his tail. He blinked owlishly down at the little boy, who stared right back at him. A sharp gasp came from the direction of Lance’s mother.

“Tion,” Lance’s father hissed, his eyes shooting between the boy and the shark. “Come here.”

Tion frowned at his uncle. “I want to say hi to Lance’s friend.”

“Tion,” the man continued. “It’s rude to touch someone’s tail.”

“Keith doesn’t mind,” Lance said, frowning at his father. Lance bent down, getting on his cousin’s level. “You remember Keith, right?”

“Yeah!” Tion beamed. “He was our prisoner!”

“He wasn’t a prisoner,” Lance said, rolling his eyes with a fond smile. “He just came here to answer some questions.”

“But he had his hands tied,” Lance’s little sister piped up.

“Yeah, they’re all loose now,” Tion added, reaching up to grab one of Keith’s hands and shaking it for emphasis. There was another round of gasps from the adults in the room. Lance’s father started forward and this time Keith couldn’t help the way he flinched. The older man’s eyes widened at the sharkboy’s reaction and he drifted to a halt.

“What’s the matter?” Tion asked, frowning up at Keith.

Keith took in a deep breath, shooting an uncertain look at Lance. Lance smiled softly at him, nodding his head. Slowly, Keith leaned down so he was on Tion’s level, too. “It’s nice to meet you,” Keith said, his voice earning another sharp gasp from the direction of Lance’s mother.

Tion grinned and in that moment he looked like a little Lance, albeit with a big gap where some of his baby teeth had fallen out. “We’ve already met, silly.”

“I haven’t met you!” the little girl exclaimed. She rushed over, grabbing Keith’s other hand. “I’m Corra!” she announced proudly.

Keith smiled, trying his best to quell the shaking of his hands. He could still feel the way Lance’s parent’s eyes burned into him. “Nice to meet you, Corra,” Keith replied. “I’m Keith.”

“Keith,” Corra repeated, as if testing out how the name sounded. She seemed to deem it adequate because the next moment she nodded firmly at him. For a moment Keith forgot about the tenseness of the situation, having to stifle a laugh at the business-like expression on the little girl’s face.

“I’m Anton!” the other little boy added in, still wrestling with his mother’s grasp.

“Mom, you can let him go,” Lance said, raising his eyebrows at his mother. The woman shot an uncertain glance over to her husband, who nodded minutely at her. Reluctantly she let the child go and he immediately barreled over to Keith, so eager that he wasn’t able to stop in time and ended up colliding into his sister.

“Hey!” Corra squealed. She began to whack at her brother, who started to whack her back.

“It’s my turn with Keith!” Anton yelled, thwapping his tail against Corra’s.

“I saw him first!” Tion called out, still gripping tightly to Keith’s hand.

“He’s not a toy,” Lance snorted. “You can all talk to him.”

Corra’s head snapped to Keith so fast it almost gave him whiplash. “What’s your favorite color?” she demanded.

“Umm,” Keith said eloquently. No one had ever really asked him that before so he’d never taken the time to consider it. Just then his gaze landed on Lance’s eyes and he knew the answer. “Blue,” he said.

“That’s my favorite color!” Anton exclaimed, flailing his fins excitedly.

“That’s awesome,” Keith said, unable to contain his smile at the child’s excitement. He turned to the other two. “What’re your guys’ favorite colors?”

“Orange!” Corra yelled out.

“I like purple,” Tion said, swinging Keith’s hand back and forth in his own.

“What about you?” Keith asked, flicking amused eyes up to Lance.

Lance was just opening his mouth to speak when Corra yelled out, “He likes red!”

“Hey!” Lance said, pulling his little sister over to him. She squealed as he put her in a headlock, giggling and whacking at him. “It was my turn to speak!”

“We should play shark tag,” Tion said abruptly. “Keith can be the shark!”

Keith looked to Lance in question. He was surprised to see the merman wincing slightly. “I’m not sure we should play that one,” Lance spoke up.

“Why not?” Anton asked.

“How about we play catch the crab instead?” Lance continued. “It’s pretty much the same game.”

“It’s not the same game,” Corra said, frowning. She slipped out from her older brother’s headlock, sitting back with that serious expression on her face. “One has sharks and the other has a crab!”

“Keith’s the crab!” Tion shouted, bouncing with energy as he dragged Keith’s still thoroughly captured hand with him. Keith smiled at the boy, opening his mouth to say something when a voice interrupted them.

“Tion!”

A mermaid shot over, ripping the young boy away from the shark and clutching him close to her chest as she retreated. “What is going on here?!” the lady demanded.

“Kamilla,” Lance’s father began, “the children were just playing-”

“With that thing?!” she shrieked, brandishing her arm at Keith. The sharkboy winced, shrinking in on himself. “Allura said some sharks were coming to patrol the borders, not take our children!”

“Aunt Kamilla,” Lance called out, straightening up. His little brother and sister clung to his tail, staring with wide eyes at their aunt’s outburst. “Keith wasn’t doing anything wrong.”

“What’s it doing in our home?!” Kamilla growled. “Are we expected to let them sleep in our beds next?!”

“Kamilla,” Lance’s father cut in. His gaze was sharp. “Let’s step into the other room and talk.”

For a moment the mermaid glared defiantly at him. With a huff she spun on her tail, swimming into the other room with Lance’s father close behind. Tion stared over his mother’s shoulder at Keith, his eyes wide, until he was swept out of sight.

For a long while there was silence. Finally, Lance’s mother let out a sigh. “Anton, Corra, go to your room,” she said.

“But mom-” Corra began.

“Now,” the woman said sharply. The two young mermaids began to drift away with slumped shoulders. There was another long silence until the kids had cleared the room. The woman squeezed her eyes shut then, pinching the bridge of her nose. Keith held his breath, not daring to move. Beside him Lance seemed to be doing likewise.

When the woman opened her eyes again they fell on Keith. Her expression was blank and controlled. “You should go,” she stated simply.

“Mom!” Lance exclaimed.

The woman didn’t look at her son, instead keeping her eyes on Keith. “You need to go.”

“Mom,” Lance repeated, gaze becoming hard. “Keith is my friend! He saved my life!”

The woman let out a deep sigh. “Now is not a good time, mijo.”

“When will be a good time, then?” Lance snapped. “Tomorrow? Next week?”

“Do not take that tone with me,” Lance’s mother said, her eyes narrowing at her son.

“Keith is the reason we’re not all going to die, and you’re just going to kick him out?!”

“We have children here, Lance!” the woman snapped back.

“Oh, thank you for reminding me,” Lance said, voice dripping with sarcasm. “I almost forgot to tell Keith not to eat the kids!”

“That’s not funny,” the woman snapped.

“Trust me, I don’t think anything that’s happening right now is funny,” Lance growled.

“Lance, you better quit talking back right now or-”

“Or what?” Lance exclaimed. “You gonna kick me out too?”

Hurt flashed across the woman’s face. “How dare you,” she breathed out. “I would never turn a child of mine out into the depths!”

“Then how come-”

“Lance,” Keith interrupted, his voice soft. For that entire exchange he had been floating there silently. Now he met the merman’s eyes, forcing a feeble smile onto his lips. “It’s okay. I’ll go.”

“What?” Lance asked, shock flashing across his face. “Keith, no-”

Keith reached out, squeezing Lance’s hand once before letting go. He tried to ignore the sharp hiss that came from the woman’s direction. He tried to ignore the way it stung.

“It’s okay,” Keith repeated. His lips were trembling but he forced his smile to remain anyways. “I’ll see you later, alright?”

“Keith-” Lance started but the other boy turned then, swimming from the cave. No matter how much he wanted to, he forced himself not to look back. The shouting behind him resumed, angry at first, before turning high pitched and frantic. Keith squeezed his eyes shut, trying to ignore the thing shattering in his chest, shredding at his insides. He let his tail carry him away. He didn’t know where he was going, when he would stop swimming. He just had to get away.

Keith yelped as arms encircled him. He bared his teeth, throwing his attacker off him and whirling to face them.

“Calm down hotshot, it’s just me.”

For a moment Keith just drifted there, numb with shock. “Lance,” he breathed out, staring at the other boy as though he were a ghost. “What are you-?”

Lance moved forward then, carefully wrapping Keith in his arms once more. His expression was solemn and he reached down press a kiss to Keith’s forehead. “You didn’t seriously think I was just gonna let you swim away, did you?”

For a long moment Keith couldn’t move, drifting there as shock rolled over him in waves. Finally, with a strangled cry he brought his arms up around Lance, pressing into the merman. He was shaking so hard it was jostling Lance around, but the merman didn’t comment on it.

“W-what-?” Keith rasped out. “What are you doing here?”

“I told you,” Lance said, pressing another kiss to the top of Keith’s head. “I’m not leaving your side until Shiro gets here.”

Keith just trembled some more, unable to form any words.

“I’m sorry about that,” Lance continued. “I didn’t know she was going to react like that.”

Keith just shook his head, hiding his face in Lance’s neck.

“I gotta go back there tonight,” Lance said, his voice soft and uncertain. “What she said back there was not okay but she-she’s still my mom, you know?” His voice got quieter with each word. “I-I don’t want her to worry.”

Keith nodded, holding on tighter.

“She’s going to come around,” Lance said, his voice turning firm and certain once more. “It’ll take time but she’s going to come around. She loves me and I… I love you. So she’s going to love you, too.”

Keith broke. The sobs he’d been trying so hard to hold in spilled out all at once. He dug his fingers into Lance’s skin, afraid that if he let go the merman would disappear. Lance just held him tighter, pulled him closer, whispered soft, soothing words in his ear. He gently pulled Keith away from the patchwork of caves, from the curious and wary faces, from hostile strangers. He led him away until it was just them, alone in the water, until Keith’s cries had quieted down into watery hiccups. Finally, once his voice came back to him, with Lance pressed in close and the world empty of everything except for the two of them, Keith whispered the words he’d wanted to say for so long.

“I love you, too.”

Chapter Text

The entire shoal was deathly silent. Lance had never known his home to be so quiet before. The sharks had arrived, and other than their little group, not a mermaid could be seen. The children who usually raced through the streets were all kept inside today, the regular visits between neighbors had been cancelled and any family outings postponed. It was like the life had been sucked right out of the water. Lance couldn’t help but feel like a stranger in his own home.

Allura and Coran drifted by Thace, discussing arrangements for the housing of the Blades and planning patrol routes. There was another merman out too, one Lance had seen plenty before but couldn’t put a name to the face. He seemed strangely calm compared to the rest of the shoal, leaning idly against a boulder as he scanned the crowd of shark people. Lance narrowed his eyes at him in confusion but the next moment Keith was tugging them into the crowd.

The sharks either ignored them or gave them polite smiles as they swam past, waiting at attention for Thace’s orders. Keith was scanning the rows for a particular face, and he broke into a bright smile as soon as he found it.

“Shiro!” Keith called, darting over to wrap his friend in a hug.

“Hey, Keith,” Shiro replied, beaming down at him. When they pulled away Shiro opened his arm towards Lance and the merman leaned in for his own hug, feeling like he’d won the lottery. He gave himself a mental high-five for earning Shiro’s approval so quickly. Looks like the old McClain charm was working.

“Hey, Lance,” Shiro greeted, a smile in his voice.

“It’s good to see you again,” Lance replied as they pulled apart.

“Any news on where we’re staying?” Keith asked.

“Thace is talking it over with Allura right now,” Shiro replied. “It sounds like we’re actually going to be setting up camp in the ship graveyard Keith was living in.”

“Really?” Lance asked, surprised.

“It makes the most sense,” the shark told him. “The mermaids still aren’t comfortable with having us here yet, so it’s best to give them some distance while still being close enough that we can rush to their aid in an attack. Plus there’s plenty of shelter there.”

“It’s going to be weird being back at the shipwrecks,” Keith said. “Especially with this many people. I’m used to that place being empty.”

“I brought enough personality to fill ten ship graveyards!” Lance exclaimed, grinning cheekily at the other boy. Keith rolled his eyes, but there was a fond smile on his face. He reached out to squeeze Lance’s hand.

“You sure did.”

Shiro had a smirk on his face that the younger shark absolutely refused to acknowledge. “I take it there’s some history at this ship graveyard?”

“It’s where we met,” Lance piped up, shooting Keith a warm smile.

“Ah, yes,” Shiro continued, an amused quirk in his brow. “If I recall you two tried to kill each other, right?”

“He started it,” Lance teased, nudging Keith. The sharkboy gave him a playful glare, opening his mouth to retort when another voice cut him off.

“If I recall, we tried to kill each other, too.”

Lance’s head snapped up, eyes widening as he recognized the merman from earlier. The man was swimming towards them, his orange scales glimmering in the sunlight. His dark brown hair complimented his brown skin, framing a square jawline. Lance turned back to the other two, quirking his brow in confusion. Keith looked just as confused as he did, but Shiro, interestingly, was staring at the man with wide-eyes, his face steadily turning red.

“Adam?” the older shark breathed out.

“That’s the name,” the man replied, smiling.

Just then Keith’s eyes widened too. His head whipped around. “You’re Adam?”

There was a glimmer of amusement in the merman’s eye. “I take it Shiro’s mentioned me, then?”

Keith’s eyes narrowed, shooting Shiro a shit-eating grin that may have made Lance swoon. Only a little. It wasn’t his fault that Keith was hot when he smirked. “Oh, he’s more than just mentioned you.”

Shiro seemed to recover enough in that moment to shoot the younger shark a glare. “Keith!” he hissed quietly.

Keith mouthed the word ‘revenge’ back at him, his grin not faltering for a second. Lance had to resist the urge to fan himself whilst swooning dramatically across the sharkboy. There would be time for that later. Right now he had to figure out what was going on, because he seemed to be the only one out of the loop.

“Hello,” the merman spoke up, waving his hand. “Lance here. Me and Shiro haven’t known each other too long so I have yet to be treated to these fascinating stories. Do tell.”

Shiro was officially red as a beet, bringing his hand up to cover his face as he seemed to regret every life choice at once. Adam shot him a soft smile that Shiro didn’t notice since he was too busy wallowing in self-pity, but Lance absolutely did, and didn’t that make this situation all the more interesting.

“Back when I was still a rogue wandering around without a shoal, I ran into Shiro on one of his missions.” Adam had a fond smile as he reminisced. “I might have tried to slit his throat.”

“I just want to say for the record that he tried to kill me,” Shiro spoke up. “I did not try to kill him, I was just defending myself.”

“You broke my finger,” Adam said flatly, raising a brow.

“I had to disarm you before you skewered me! I’ve said I was sorry a million times!”

“And I’ll never forgive you,” Adam replied. However, he had a smirk on his face and his tone wasn’t serious. In fact, it was almost flirty.

Lance couldn’t help the giant grin that was spreading across his face. He glanced over and locked eyes with Keith, who was sporting an even bigger grin.

Shiro had gone back to being a speechless tomato, spluttering at the other man, so Adam spoke up once more. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?”

“R-right,” Shiro stammered. “This is Keith. I mentored him during the undercover mission in the army.” A spark of emotion flashed in Adam’s eyes for a moment, but before Lance could put a finger on what it was it had vanished, Adam back to smiling politely. “I helped get him out of the army,” Shiro continued, giving Keith a fond smile. “And then he came back and saved me after my cover was blown.”

“You were found out?” Adam asked, worry shining in his eyes. Lance noticed the way his gaze quickly darted down to the place Shiro’s arm once was before looking back up.

“Yeah, but I made it out thanks to these two,” Shiro replied, clapping Lance on the back before putting his hand on Keith’s shoulder and jostling him around. Keith hissed at the older man, ducking out of his grip as Shiro smirked mischievously at him.

“Lance is the one that really saved us,” Keith spoke up, turning to give the merman a smile so soft that Lance felt like his heart would burst. “We all got captured but Lance escaped and broke the rest of us out. If it weren't for him we wouldn’t be here.”

Lance felt his face heat up and he glanced bashfully to the side. “Oh, stop it, you,” he murmured, patting Keith’s cheek affectionately.

“I take it you’re Lance, then?” Adam asked, smiling politely.

“I see my reputation precedes me,” Lance joked.

“So,” Adam continued, gesturing to the place where Lance and Keith were holding hands. “How long have you two been together?”

“We-we’re not-” Keith started, face heating up.

“It’s just-” Lance began, his own cheeks darkening as he shot a nervous glance over at the sharkboy.

“The thing is-” Keith tried again before faltering.

“It’s complicated,” Lance finished. Him and Keith were both bright red, not able to meet each other’s eyes, or anyone else's for that matter. Their hands were still linked.

“Sorry,” Adam said. His words were sincere but there was an amused edge to his voice. “I didn’t mean to assume.”

“No,” Lance coughed awkwardly. “It’s fine. Um, how long have you and Shiro-?”

Lance trailed off as he caught sight of the solemn expressions on the two men’s faces. Shiro was studying a patch of ground off to the side, his body tense and eyes narrowed. Adam was staring at the other man, a wrinkle between his brows and a somber frown in place.

“It’s complicated,” Adam said simply.

Lance noticed Keith shoot Shiro a worried glance and he got the feeling that once again he was the only one out of the loop. However, this wasn’t a topic he had any right to pry on, so instead he cleared his throat, searching frantically for a change of subject.

“So, um, Adam? Did you hear the Blade’s are gonna be living over in the ship graveyard?”

Adam’s eyebrows rose. “I thought you would be closer.”

“It’s best to give the shoal some distance while they’re getting used to our presence,” Shiro spoke up, looking relieved at the new topic.

“Well, you and Keith are welcome to stay with me,” Adam said. He had a small, hopeful smile on his face. “My cave isn’t big, but it’s just me in there so I could use some company.”

Shiro’s eyes widened, his face flushing bright red once more. Lance finally knew why his friends had so much fun teasing him and Keith. Seeing Shiro so undone like this was beyond entertaining.

After a long, drawn out silence in which Shiro seemed to have lost all ability to function, Keith finally spoke up. “We’d love to,” he said, giving Adam a polite smile and elbowing Shiro roughly in the side. The older shark shook himself then, offering Adam his own bashful smile.

“Um, y-yeah. That would be great.”

“Great,” Adam said, beaming. His eyes were crinkled at the edges and he had a light dusting of pink on his cheeks. Lance had to wonder, did he look like that when he talked to Keith? No wonder everyone was always making fun of them. “I’ll show you where it is. Lance, you’re welcome to join us.”

“It wouldn’t be a party without me,” Lance replied, grinning.

Adam’s eyebrows raised as he shot an amused smile towards Shiro. “I like this one.”

“You’re not the only one,” Shiro replied, giving his very best shit eating-grin to Keith. Keith whacked the older shark with his tail, narrowing his eyes at the same time a blush dusted his cheeks. As soon as Shiro looked away, Lance leaned over to whisper in Keith’s ear.

“The feeling’s mutual,” he murmured, nuzzling against the sharkboy. He noticed with satisfaction the way Keith’s ear turned bright red before the other boy moved to rest his head on Lance’s shoulder, unlinking their hands so he could instead curl his palm around Lance’s waist. It made swimming a lot more difficult as they went to follow after Adam and Shiro, but Lance wasn’t a quitter, damn it, and Keith was warm steady weight against him that made his heart skip a beat and- The point is Lance had no intentions of breaking up their impromptu cuddle session for a thing like movement, so if they stumbled over each other the whole swim to Adam’s place then at least they did so with smiles on their faces.

Chapter Text

“I know he’s a shark, querida, but he’s also just a boy. He can’t be any older than Lance.”

“I know sharks start as children too but they all grow up the same! I don’t want one of them in my house.”

“If that were true then how come there are a bunch of sharks here to help protect us?”

“Who says we can trust them? Perhaps this is all a trap and as soon as we let our guard down they’ll attack the shoal!”

“Allura says we can trust them. You know what happened to her family. She’d be the last person to trust sharks, and yet she brought these ones to us. If she has faith in them, then we must too.”

“How am I supposed to have faith in anything she says anymore? She took our son from us! She took a group of children to an army of sharks! You’ve seen the scars on Lance’s arm. He was almost eaten by a giant squid, Manuel!”

“Lance is not a child anymore, querida. He’s a young man now. It was his choice to go on that mission. He did it for the good of the shoal. He put all of us before himself and I think that’s something we should be proud of.”

“And what if he hadn’t come back? What then? Would losing our boy have been worth it? Would you be proud?”

“That’s not what I said-”

“Stop. Please. I just- I don’t want to talk anymore. I’m going to bed.”

“Elena-!”

“Don’t. Just please check on the children for me.”

Lance shut his eyes quickly, forcing his breathing to relax as he feigned sleep. There was a long pause before his father entered, the swish of his fins quiet in the water. The man stopped next to the moss bed, taking a moment to look at the figures all huddled on it. After a moment he turned, quietly leaving the room. Lance waited until the sounds of fins had disappeared before he let his eyes blink opened. He was surprised to find a little face staring back at him.

“Dios, Tion!” Lance gasped clutching at his chest. “You scared me!” He frowned when not so much as a giggle came from the small boy, Tion simply staring back at him with big eyes. “What is it, chiquito?”

“What’s wrong with sharks?” Tion asked.

Lance sucked in a deep breath. He felt his little brother roll over on his other side, pressing against his back. His little sister’s snores could be heard, and a part of him was grateful they weren’t awake, too. Then again, he might have to have this conversation with them all over again.

“Um, you see,” Lance began. “Some sharks are mean. They want to hurt mermaids. If you’re ever out playing and you see a shark you don’t know, then you should swim back home.”

“But I’m supposed to do that with mermaids, too,” Tion said. “Mom said if I ever see a mermaid I don’t know that I shouldn’t talk to them and I must come straight home. She says some mermaids don’t have shoals.”

“Yes, that’s right,” Lance said. “Some mermaids are bad, just like some sharks are bad. But there are good mermaids too, right? Your mom is good. I’m good. Nuestra familia es buena, tambien. And the whole shoal. It’s like that with sharks, too. Some of them are good. In fact, you’re going to be meeting a lot of good sharks over the next few days.”

Tion paused, thinking over what his cousin had said. Finally, in a voice so small Lance could hardly hear him, he asked, “Is Keith good?”

“Yes, Tion,” Lance whispered. He reached out, wrapping an arm around the little boy. “He’s very good.”

“Mama doesn’t think so,” Tion spoke up. “She said Keith’s bad and that I can’t talk to him.”

Lance frowned at that. “Your mama doesn’t know Keith yet. Once she talks to him she’ll see that he’s one of the good guys.”

“Your mom doesn’t think he’s good either.”

Lance let out a sigh. “Mom’s just scared. Both our moms are. They’ve never known a good shark before. But once they know Keith they’ll see that sharks can be good, too.”

There was another long pause as the child seemed to mull something over. “Mama almost made me sleep with her tonight.”

“What?” Lance asked, stiffening slightly. Tion always slept with him. It had been him, Corra, Anton, and Tion, all cramped in a bed together since the little ones had been born. Lance used to sleep with his older siblings so they could keep an eye on him, and now it was his turn to sleep with the younger ones. It was always tired giggles and shoving and elbows in the most painful places, but it was family tradition. They stuck together.

“She’s says she doesn’t trust you anymore because you’re in love with a shark.”

Lance couldn’t even muster up the energy to blush or protest, too busy with the crushing weight in his chest. He had been Aunt Kamilla’s favorite nephew ever since he was a little boy. She would claim she didn’t have favorites, but she’d always wink conspiratorially at him, making him giggle. They’d only gotten closer as Lance grew up, with him taking on the role of an older brother for her only child. It seemed they weren’t so close anymore.

“What changed her mind?” Lance asked, voice thin.

“I did,” Tion said. “I told her I’d just sneak out and go sleep with you anyways.”

“Thanks, little buddy,” Lance said, a weak smile on his face. He ruffled his cousin’s hair. He paused a moment, thinking something over. “You like Keith, right?”

Tion didn’t answer right away. Lance held his breath. He was not sure why his little cousin’s opinion mattered so much, but it did. It really did.

“I think he’s one of the good guys,” Tion finally said. Lance let out the breath he’d been holding. “He’s nice.”

“Yeah,” Lance said, a smile curling across his lips. “He is.”

 

 

Keith had a feeling he would have this problem. It didn’t make it any less frustrating, though. Unsurprisingly, he couldn’t sleep. The bed was plenty comfy. He and Shiro had went and gathered some moss earlier so they could make a place to sleep in Adam’s cave. He felt safe, Shiro in the bed right next to him and Adam just a little beyond that. He was certainly tired. But Lance wasn’t here, and apparently his traitorous body had decided that if Lance wasn’t here then he wouldn’t sleep.

Keith sighed, letting his eyes wander. Adam’s cave was small but cozy, a single room decorated with shells and bits of coral. It was a crazy coincidence that, after all his lone wandering, it was this shoal that had taken him in. Or perhaps it was luck, and luck for a certain shark in particular. The sharkboy glanced over at Shiro, taking in the other man’s peacefully sleeping face. While Keith had never met Adam before this day, he had certainly heard all about him. He blushed slightly as he realized that all Shiro’s lovesick ramblings sounded an awful lot like his own thoughts about Lance.

Shiro let out a quiet snore and Keith shook himself. Right. Sleep. He needed sleep. Keith rolled over, taking all of 30 seconds in a half hearted attempt to drift off before his eyes snapped open again and he let out another frustrated sigh.

“Can’t sleep?” a voice whispered.

Keith jumped up, baring his teeth on instinct before he recognized Adam staring back at him. The sharkboy relaxed, glancing off to the side. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

“It’s okay,” Adam waved his hand dismissively as he sat up. “I startled you.”

There was silence for a moment, interrupted by another one of Shiro’s snores. The merman chuckled fondly. “He always sounds like a whale when he snores.”

Keith quirked a brow at the word 'always.' However, Adam wasn’t looking at him, still gazing softly down at the other shark. Keith chewed on his lip, pondering something over in his head before he spoke. “Have you forgiven him?”

Adam looked up at him then, considering. “There is nothing to forgive,” he finally said. “I knew Shiro was a part of the Blade. I knew any one of those missions could take him away from me. I was mad at him for a long time because the one that did take him away from me was by choice. That’s what I thought, anyways. That he chose that assignment over me. But that’s not right. It wasn’t a choice for him to go undercover, it was necessary. It wasn’t just his job, it was his calling. If he’d let a single other soldier take his place then he wouldn’t be Shiro. Besides,” Adam continued, giving Keith a friendly smile. “He met you. And it sounds like he changed your life.”

“He did,” Keith replied. Now it was his turn to smile down at the sleeping shark. “He saved my life.”

“Keith,” Adam spoke up. “I don’t mean to be insensitive, but um- You’re not a full shark, right?”

“Yeah,” Keith answered. “My father was a merman.”

“Is it hard?” Adam asked, eyes full of genuine curiosity. “Being both?”

“Yeah, it’s been pretty hard,” Keith answered, glaring off to the side. “The sharks all think I’m a mermaid and the mermaids all think I’m a shark. No matter where I go I’m everybody's enemy.”

“But Lance was different?” Keith looked up but there was no amusement in the merman’s eyes, his expression open and sincere.

“Um, yeah,” Keith said, shifting awkwardly, He wasn’t used to being so open with someone he’d just met. “Lance was different. Is different. Even when he thought I was his enemy he still showed me kindness. He still saved me.”

“I heard you saved him, too.”

“Yeah, but it’s-it’s not the same,” Keith said. “He didn’t just save my life. I didn’t talk to anyone for a year. Then Lance showed up and he was loud and obnoxious and funny and charming.” Keith’s cheeks darkened in a blush but he didn’t stop. “He gave me hope in a time where I didn’t have any. He just keeps giving and giving and it scares me because what if there’s a point where he just doesn’t want to give anymore? He’s risked his life for me multiple times, risked his place in the shoal, and now he’s fighting with his family because of me. He’s done nothing but make my life better and I worry that I’ve only made his life worse, and-” Keith snapped his jaws shut suddenly, realizing he’d said too much. Way too much. He wrapped his arms around himself, trying to make himself as small as possible, as if he could somehow disappear.

“Keith,” Adam said quietly. The sharkboy couldn’t meet his eyes. “I only just met you both, so I don’t know exactly what the situation is. But I do know what I’ve seen. That boy looks at you like you’re his whole world. If you truly made his life worse then he would not be so happy just being by your side. You don’t have anything to worry about.”

Keith held himself very still. He sunk his teeth deep into his lip, trying to get his emotions under control. His hands were shaking minutely but he just curled them into fists, clutching on to the moss. Adam didn’t say anything more, just let him be, and Keith was infinitely grateful for that. Finally, he let out a deep, shuddering breath. “Thank you,” he whispered, his voice sounding strained.

“Of course,” Adam replied, smiling kindly at him. He paused for a moment thinking something over before saying, “You know, I once-”

Keith never got to find out what Adam once did, because in that moment Shiro’s fist came down on the ground. Both merman and sharkboy leapt back, gazing with wide eyes as the man started to thrash around before them. Keith lunged forward at the same time Adam did, leaning his body weight down onto the shark’s tail while Adam hovered uncertainly over them.

“What’s happening?” Adam exclaimed, gazing with fear as Shiro’s body jerked violently.

“It’s a night terror!” Keith called, trying to catch the fist that was flailing through the water. “Cushion his head! We have to keep him from hurting himself.”

Adam did as he was told, wincing when Shiro almost bashed his head against the ground. Keith finally managed to catch the flailing fist. He did his best to keep it down, but trying to restrain the majority of Shiro alone was too big of a task. Still, it was better than nothing, his body weight keeping the other shark from thrashing too violently.

“Should we get Coran?” Adam asked, eyes frantic.

“No,” Keith replied. “There’s nothing to do but wait for it to pass. By the time Coran gets here it’ll probably be over.” He winced as Shiro’s fist almost smacked him in the face.

“Has this happened before?”

“Once that I’m aware of,” Keith murmured, brow furrowing at the memory. “I don’t think he had these before Haggar tortured him.” Even saying the sea witch’s name left a bitter taste in his mouth, anger curling through his chest.

“Is that how he lost his arm?” Adam asked quietly.

Keith nodded in return, his face grave.

The two didn’t speak for the remainder of Shiro’s episode, simply waiting for his struggles to cease. Finally, the shark relaxed, muscles going limp and face smoothing over into something peaceful.

“Should we-?” Adam asked, hand pausing above Shiro’s shoulder.

“No,” Keith whispered. “He’ll just be confused. It’s better to let him sleep, then tell him in the morning.”

Adam nodded, turning a worried frown on the shark below him. He reached down to take Shiro’s hand, lacing their fingers together. Keith didn’t comment when Adam didn’t return to his own bed, instead rolling over to give the merman some privacy. He didn’t say anything next morning, either, when he woke up to find Adam passed out against the wall, Shiro’s hand still clutched firmly in his.

Chapter Text

“This is weird,” Pidge said, frowning through her mouthful of food. She sat with Lance, Keith, and Hunk in the hollow at the center of the shoal, digging in to lunch.

Lance frowned himself as he watched the other mermaids come, snatch food from the supply brought by the hunting patrol, and disappear back into their caves. Normally the hollow was bustling at meal time, filled with friendly chatter and people enjoying their meals. Now the only people there were him and his friends, staring around at the empty space.

“I know,” Hunk replied, picking at his fish. “My dad almost wouldn’t let me come see you guys. He’s keeping pretty much everyone else on house arrest.”

Lance glanced over at Keith. The sharkboy had barely touched his food. He looked miserable, staring sadly down at the ground. Lance let out a trill and reached out to take his hand.

“That fish isn’t going to eat itself,” Lance murmured, giving Keith a half hearted smile. The sharkboy didn’t return it but he did take a small bite of the fish, chewing slowly.

“It’s not your fault, Keith,” Hunk spoke up, giving him a sympathetic look.

“Yeah,” Pidge nodded. “I promise you, you’re not single-handedly keeping an entire shoal on lock down. Everyone’s just nervous about the Blades being here.”

“Exactly,” Lance said, nudging Keith slightly. “No offense dude, but you aren’t that tough. Plus, your hair totally ruins the whole scare-factor.”

Keith shot him a weak glare. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means he thinks your hair is cute,” Hunk piped up.

Keith and Lance flushed bright red almost simultaneously. “I did not say that!” Lance exclaimed.

“But that’s what you meant,” Pidge added, smirking at him.

“No comment,” Lance grumbled. He felt Keith rest his head on his shoulder and he decided maybe admitting Keith’s hair was cute wouldn’t be the end of the world after all. Maybe.

“Mind if I join?”

Lance glanced up to see Allura floating there, smiling down at them.

“Sure, the more the merrier,” Hunk said, smiling back. Allura sat herself between him and Pidge, starting to tuck into her own meal.

She glanced over at the food pile, watching as a couple of mermaids gathered up armfuls to bring back to their families before retreating. “They can’t keep this up forever,” she said, almost to herself. She took a hearty bite of her fish, taking the time to chew and swallow before speaking again. “Lead by example. That’s what Coran would say.”

“I would indeed!” a jovial voice piped up. “Is six a crowd?”

“Not at all,” Keith replied with a small smile. He pressed further into Lance, making room for the older merman to sit down.

“Just the man we all needed to see,” Allura said, beaming. “We could use some chatter to fill all this silence.”

“I take that as a compliment,” Coran replied. “One of my tales of daring deeds wouldn’t go amiss, then?”

Lance felt Keith nod eagerly against his shoulder and he smiled. The others may groan and tease Coran for his stories, but Keith was always completely open and sincere in how much he enjoyed Coran’s dramatic tales. His eyes would go wide at the key moments; he would gasp and jump and laugh unabashedly at all the right parts. Coran himself was quite pleased with having such an eager audience, and Keith just seemed pleased to have stories to listen to. Lance had a feeling he didn’t have anything like this in the army. Or likely with his dad, either. No bedtime stories, no myths and legends, no embarrassing accounts at the expense of friends or family. The thought made Lance’s chest hurt.

Coran began telling them of the time he’d had to wrestle a whale for something that was apparently called a hinglebob. What a hingelbob was, Lance had no idea, but that didn’t seem to matter to Keith. While the others rolled their eyes fondly at Coran’s exaggerations, Keith was staring at him like he’d seen the face of god. Lance snorted quietly. It was cute. A lot of things about Keith were cute.

Inevitably Coran ended up roping him in to help act out some of the more dramatic parts. He might have laid it on a little thick this time around as he played the part of the vengeful whale, but Keith laughed so hard that he cried, making Lance ham it up all the more.

Eventually, though, the story had to come to a close, which meant it was time for his plan. A plan that Lance had been nervous about all day and Keith, he knew, had been quietly dreading.

“Thank you, thank you,” Lance said, giving a deep bow. Hunk and Allura clapped, grinning at his antics. Pidge booed like the little gremlin she was and Keith was doubled over on the ground, still clutching at his sides from laughter. When he straightened back up his gaze was soft, his eyes crinkled around the edges, and Lance couldn’t help but feel like he’d officially won at life. He held out his hand and Keith took it, straightening up before happily collapsing into his arms, giggling against Lance’s neck.

“Well this has been fun,” Lance started, grinning cheekily at the others as Coran clapped him on the back, “but Keith and I have to go.” He felt Keith tense in his arms. Lance ran a hand soothingly down his back, feeling guilty for having to burst his bubble of happiness.

“Where are you off to?” Allura asked.

“Keith and I are going to meet with my parents and possibly the little monsters that elbowed me in the face this morning.”

Keith pulled back, keeping his hand in Lance’s. His eyes were downcast, doing little to conceal his worry. Lance squeezed his hand slightly, about to say something when Hunk spoke up.

“Aww, come here, dude,” Hunk said, pulling Keith into a hug. Keith stiffened for a moment, letting out a startled sound. However, he almost instantly relaxed, a small smile curling across his lips as he rested his head on Hunk’s broad shoulder. Lance caught his eye and gave him a soft smile. “It’ll be fine,” Hunk continued, patting Keith’s back. “Lance’s mom might seem scary now but she’s actually just as big of a softie as Lance. You’ll be okay.”

“Quit hogging Keith,” Pidge grumbled, pulling the shark over to her and wrapping him in her own hug. Keith’s eyes widened in surprise. It was the first time she had hugged him, not counting group hugs. “You’ve got this,” Pidge muttered into his chest, smushed as she was by her own short height.

“Thanks, Pidge,” Keith murmured, smiling warmly down at her.

“Well, I can hardly be left out of this!” Coran announced. “Come here, my boy!”

Keith beamed as he swam over to Coran, a peaceful look on his face while they hugged. Honestly, it was breathtaking. Lance wanted to see him looking this happy all the time. It’s what he deserved.

“Break a fin,” Coran said as he pulled back, patting the sharkboy’s shoulder affectionately.

Keith was starting to turn away when Allura got up, swimming over. The sharkboy wasn’t the only one watching her approach with wide eyes. Everyone but Coran stared in surprise. Allura reached out, taking Keith’s hand and clasping it between two of her own. “Keith,” she began. The shark gazed back, somewhat confused, somewhat wary. “I know better than anyone the fear and mistrust that can consume a person. But you have proven yourself to be a kind, honest, and loyal young man.” Her eyes flickered over to Lance at the word ‘loyal’ and Lance felt his cheeks heat up slightly, glancing bashfully to the side. “You are truly an amazing person and I’m glad to have met you. This shoal may be wary now, but soon enough they’ll see you for who you are.”

Keith looked like he might cry. He didn’t, grinding his teeth together hard to ensure that, but Lance could tell he was right on that edge. He gave Allura a watery smile, nodding gratefully to her. Allura smiled back, pulling him into hug that Keith returned instantly. Lance could feel his own eyes stinging a little and he wiped hastily at them, smiling at nothing in particular.

Keith and Allura pulled apart and Keith swam back over to him. His smile was dazzling as he slipped his hand back into Lance’s. Lance felt himself melt at the sight. He turned to address the others, warmth in his chest. “Don’t get me wrong, I am all about acknowledging how great Keith is, but we really have to get going or we’re gonna be late.” He felt Keith squeeze his hand lightly and he squeezed back.

“Good luck!” Hunk said, beaming at them. “You’re gonna be great!”

“Bye, guys,” Keith said, his voice wavering slightly. “Thank you.”

“No need for that, my boy!” Coran exclaimed. “Now off with you two! You’ve got some people to wow.”

 

 

Keith was over the moon. He had officially decided hugs might just be his favorite thing in the world. Lance still definitely gave the best hugs, but what happened back there was truly something special. He smiled softly to himself as he gazed down at his and Lance’s interlocked hands, playing gently with the merman’s fingers. Friends. He had friends. Lance’s friends and his friends. God, that felt good to think. It felt good to know.

“You okay?” Lance whispered to him.

“Yeah,” Keith murmured back. “Yeah, I actually am.”

Lance pressed a kiss to his forehead and Keith leaned into him, wanting to be as close as possible. However, the closer they got to the coral reefs, the more his nerves started to return. The face of Lance’s mother flashed before him again, staring at him coldly, impassively. He wanted so badly for her to like him. Lance loved her. He’d talked about her endlessly on their journey to and from the Blades. Keith knew Lance had a lot of respect for his mother. Keith wanted to earn her respect himself. He just didn’t know how. He didn’t even know if it would be possible. That scared him.

He drew a little farther away from Lance as the clearing came into sight, though he didn't drop his hand. He was worried of how Lance’s mother might react if he was too close. Best to be cautious.

“Dad!” Lance called out, beaming as he went to envelop his father in a hug. He pulled back then, giving the older merman a puzzled look. “Where’s mom?”

The smile on his father’s face faded and he let out a sigh. “She’s not coming.”

Keith simultaneously felt relief and hurt. He glanced over at Lance, seeing a similar emotion flash across the merman’s face. Lance’s dad turned then, calling behind him. “Corra, Anton, your brother’s here!”

The two little bundles burst from the corral, barreling into Lance and immediately filling the water with their demands that he play with them.

“Hi, Keith!” Anton called, his smile leaving the gap in his front teeth on full display. “Are you gonna play, too?”

Keith glanced over at Lance but the merman was still looking at his father, an earnest expression on his face. “Is Tion here?” Lance murmured, scanning the surroundings. Lance’s father shook his head minutely.

Keith glanced back to the little boy, trying to ignore the sinking in his chest and focus on the child staring expectantly at him. “Um, I think so,” he offered quietly.

Lance’s father turned to Keith then, swimming forward. Keith flinched slightly before he could stop himself, averting his eyes. The merman paused, a complicated expression crossing his face, but then he continued forward until he was drifting in front of the sharkboy. Slowly he held out his hand. Keith eyed it warily.

“I’m sorry I didn’t properly introduce myself the other day,” the man spoke, smiling cautiously down at the shark. “I’m Manuel McClain, Lance’s father.”

Keith swallowed nervously, reaching out to take the man’s hand. He relaxed slightly when all the man did was shake it before letting go. “It’s nice to meet you.” Keith glanced over to Lance and saw that the merman was positively glowing, looking at the two of them with pride shining in his eyes. Keith steeled himself, trying to force his worries away. “You, um. You live in a lovely place,” he offered, gesturing around to the colorful fronds of coral.

“Yes, the shoal is lucky to have such beautiful winter feeding grounds,” Lance’s father said, his smile becoming a little less strained. “Where did you live before coming here?”

Keith winced slightly. In an instant Lance was beside him, slipping his hand into Keith’s, even as his little siblings protested his wandering away. In that moment the world felt like a much safer place. “My father- We, uh, we moved around a lot. Before he left.” He decided now wasn’t the best time to mention the army taking him in.

When no answer came right away Keith glanced up, stiffening when he saw the man frowning down at him. However, the moment their eyes met Lance’s father smiled kindly, easing his worry. “Have you two eaten?” He spoke up. Keith was grateful for the change of subject.

“Yeah, we had lunch with some friends,” Lance replied.

His father nodded. “The kids and I have yet to eat. Mind keeping them busy while I catch us some food?”

“We can handle a couple of little guppies,” Lance said, shooting his siblings a teasing grin. The older merman nodded, turning to swim away. Just before he did, he locked eyes with Keith. The sharkboy froze, holding his breath. Then Manuel smiled, giving him a small nod before he was off. Keith was left staring after him, a little tendril of happiness curling warmly in his chest.

Corra interrupted his thoughts with a loud huff, her arms crossed. “I’m not a guppy.”

“Maybe a crab then?” Lance added.

“No, Keith’s the crab!” Anton exclaimed. “He was supposed to be the crab last time before he left!”

“The council has spoken,” Lance said, shrugging as he gave Keith a soft smile.

“I don’t know what to do,” Keith whispered nervously.

“Don’t worry, I’ll teach you,” Lance murmured back.

“Keith’s the crab, Keith’s the crab!” Corra yelled, spinning in excitement.

“I want to play, too!”

Keith spun around at the new voice, seeing Tion come darting out of the seaweed.

“Tion!” Lance exclaimed. He knelt down, getting on his little cousin’s level. “Does your mom know you’re here?”

“No,” Tion replied, frowning. “But I wanted to see Keith! It’s not fair that Corra and Anton can see him but I can’t.”

For a moment there was silence, Lance’s brow wrinkled as he seemed to be contemplating something. Tion pouted at him, his arms crossed and brows raised in a way that made him look just like a mini Lance. Keith had to bite his lip to keep from chuckling at the sight.

“Okay,” Lance finally said, nodding more to himself than anyone else. “You can play.”

“Yes!” Tion cried out, darting over and immediately grabbing for Keith’s hand. The shark stared down at the grinning boy in surprise. He really did look like a smaller version of Lance, all dimples and sparkling eyes. Keith glanced up to see the actual Lance giving him almost the exact same smile, a soft look of contentment gracing the merman’s face. Keith smiled back, first at Lance, then down at Tion.

“Tion, that’s cheating!” Anton announced, glaring in the way only a wronged child could. “Keith’s the crab! You can’t catch him before the game starts!”

 

 

They were on their fifth round of catch the crab when Lance saw her. He wasn’t sure how long she’d been floating there, watching them, but he saw his Aunt Kamilla, drifting among the coral, mostly concealed by their fronds. Lance held his breath, expecting her to angrily storm forward, to grab Tion and yell at them, maybe even threaten to never let Lance around her child again. Instead she simply stared back at him, an expression he couldn’t quite decipher on her face. She looked desperate. Scared. Then she turned, and just like that, swam away. It wasn’t until later that evening when Lance saw her again. He had just put the kids to bed and was on his way to say goodnight to his parents before joining them.

“Lance,” Kamilla called softly. The merman paused, seeing her drifting uncertainly in the doorway. He swam up to her, bracing himself for the worst.

She wasn’t quite meeting his eyes, staring passed him, through him. She had that same expression on her face from before. Then her gaze cleared and her eyes focused on him with a startlingly intensity that made him almost flinch. Her eyes were fierce. Proud.

“Thank you for watching over my son.”

Lance didn’t say anything. He couldn’t say anything, too stunned by his aunt’s words. She didn’t seem to need a reply from him. Instead Kamilla turned, swimming away into the dark recesses of their family cave. Lance was left drifting there in bewilderment. Then slowly, gently, a smile spread across his face.

Chapter Text

Screaming. Lance awoke to screaming, distant and hollow. At first he wasn’t sure what he was hearing, the sound so muffled and far off. He sat up slowly, groggily.

“Lance?”

The merman peered down, finding three little faces staring uncertainly up at him. Tion opened his mouth once more.

“What’s that sound?”

The drowsiness was quickly fading now, replaced by a gnawing dread. “I’ll go check,” Lance whispered.

He swam over towards the door, pausing when he heard another scream, this one closer. He reached down, grabbing his sword from where he had left it against the wall. “Stay here,” he murmured, before swimming from the room.

The screams got louder the closer he swam to the cave’s entrance, joined by clanging and thudding sounds. He felt cold. Numb.

Then the entrance was in sight and beyond it, chaos. A mass of writhing bodies lay just outside the cave, shrieking and twisting. He recognized the many colored scales of his own shoal but also interwoven among them was a deep purple he’d only ever seen on one kind of creature. A shriek split the water as he crossed the threshold, his eyes tracing the source to a familiar figure.

His mother cried out, straining, her spear held horizontally against a shark’s blade, the creature snarling as he pressed his weight further into her. With a growl Lance launched himself at the shark, swinging his sword in an arc that his opponent only just managed to dodge. The shark reared back, preparing to strike, when suddenly Lance’s father burst from the fray, colliding with the shark as the pair disappeared into the crowd.

“Lance!” his mother screamed over the din, turning terror stricken eyes on him. “Get back inside!”

“Mom, I can fight!” Lance yelled back, gesturing to the sword clasped in his hands.

She shook her head vehemently, trying to push him back towards the cave’s entrance. “You need to hide! Take the children and-”

“I’m not leaving you here!” Lance shouted, swerving out of her grip.

“Mijo, I-”

His mother’s words were cut off as a shark charged at them from the crowd, swinging a mace in its giant hand. Lance shoved his mother out of the way, bringing his sword up to parry the blow. When their weapons connected a deafening clang rang out, making his very bones vibrate beneath his skin. The shark sneered at him, showing off rows of needle-sharp teeth.

Suddenly a spear point slashed across the enemy's shoulder, causing it to shriek in pain as it slunk back. Lance turned slightly, seeing his mother beside him, a look so fierce on her face that it made the little boy in him want to hide under his bed.

“Lance, run!” she hissed, never taking her eyes off the shark.

“No,” he said, turning back to face the creature before them. He was opening his mouth to say more when the shark attacked, it’s mace shooting down towards his head. He ducked out of the way at the same time his mother thrust her spear forward, the weapon grazing the shark’s chest this time. With a furious howl the creature suddenly changed its trajectory, mace shooting to the side. Lance was too far away to react in time but his mother just managed to bring her spear up and block the blow. However, the next moment the shark heaved the entire weight of its body against the spear, sending the mermaid flying back as she smashed into a rock.

“Mom!” Lance screamed. He charged at the shark, lashing out with his sword. His opponent deflected it, Lance advancing forward as he swung again and again. The shark was forced to backup but it still managed to meet every blow, the clang of their weapons adding the the roar of the battle raging around them. Suddenly the shark lashed out with its tail. Lance’s eyes widened. He tried to back up but couldn’t jump out of the way fast enough. Next thing he knew his back hit the sand, the breath crushed from his gills. He saw a flash of purple and just managed to drag his sword up in time, blocking the mace before it could bury itself in his chest. The shark pressed down into him, crushing him into the sand. His arms trembled from the exertion of trying to hold the beast’s body up. Those razor teeth were only inches from his face, snapping on empty water. All he could see was purple and teeth. His arms felt like they were on fire. As his sword slowly sank down towards his own chest, Lance opened his mouth and screamed.

 

 

Keith bolted upright. For a split second he wasn’t sure what had woken him. Then he heard the screams. In a flash he was up, his hand closing around his dagger as he started for the cave entrance, body moving automatically. He only paused when he heard Adam’s voice behind him, his mind snapping out of it’s almost dissociative state.

“Shiro, stay here!” Adam said. Keith turned, watching as Shiro tried to grab for his weapon, a halberd. “You’re still injured!”

“I’m fine!” Shiro insisted, his hand closing on empty water as Adam pushed him gently but firmly back down in the bed. “Let me up!”

“Shiro,” Keith spoke up. His voice came out focused. Clear. It almost felt like he wasn’t awake, but not in a dreamy, muted kind of way. Everything was too sharp, too focused. It’s like the world had been reduced to pins and needles. He didn’t have time. “You can’t fight with your tail injured. Stay here.”

Keith didn’t pause to see if Shiro would heed his words. He didn’t have time to pause. He didn’t have time to think. His blood was rushing through his veins, the world so sharp it almost hurt. He was out the door, immediately swallowed up in the movement and the sound. A shark swung at him with a metal-tipped flail. Keith didn’t think. His body just moved, bending out of the way. The enemy didn’t even have time to start his next attack before Keith’s dagger was buried in his chest. Crimson erupted into the water. The man screamed.

Another form appeared in the corner of Keith’s eye. Without missing a beat he ripped the flail from the injured shark’s hands and struck the oncoming shark across the chest, tearing open angry red gashes. He struck again and again, the shark wailing as it backed up, trying feebly to shield itself. With a single blow to the head the creature crumpled to the ground. Keith dropped the flail, turned, and ripped his dagger out of the other shark’s chest. The man writhed in agony, Keith making sure to kick the flail well out of his reach. He turned then, eyes scanning the crowd with a singular, piercing focus. There was only one thing on his mind. One thing that cut through the dull buzz of white noise filling up his head. Lance.

 

 

Lance screamed in fury as he swung again and again. The shark was just barely keeping up, it’s eyes wide and panicked. Lance knew that any moment now it would slip up. He was proved right when the shark brought his mace down just a moment too late, Lance’s own sword cutting a deep gash up through its chest and across it’s collarbone. The shark opened its mouth on a scream, but a second later a spear skewered straight through its side. Lance’s mother shrieked as she pulled her weapon back, the shark’s scream cut off into a wet choke as a trail of red seeped from between it’s lips.

The woman released her own scream, driving the spear forward as it sank through the shark’s throat. Lance’s eyes widened at the same time that the shark’s did. There was another dull cough, this time erupting a fountain of blood. Then the spear was ripped back and the shark sank to the floor. It didn’t move.

Lance found himself frozen to the spot, staring down at the lifeless thing before him. Logically he knew this creature was his enemy. He knew that it had come here to kill him, to kill his shoal, to kill his family. Still, there was something so final about that last quiet cough, about the way its eyes stared blankly like two glass pebbles. He felt cold.

 

 

Keith twisted his dagger deeper into the chest of a shark twice his size. He had been hacking his way through the crowd, cutting down any enemy foolish enough to get in his way. When he ripped the weapon out it brought with it a thick ribbon of blood, further clouding the water that was growing more and more opaque with each passing moment. There was a gash on his shoulder, a few small cuts on his side, but he couldn’t feel them. He couldn’t feel anything except the thrumming beneath his skin, the buzzing in his head as his eyes darted about.

Another shark stepped in front on him and without even thinking Keith split open their throat. They crumpled, landing heavily next to a smaller body with light pink scales. A body attached to a face Keith didn’t recognize. But perhaps Lance might. Perhaps they had been Lance’s friend. His neighbor, a distant cousin, a mentor. It didn’t matter now. All that mattered is that Lance didn’t join them on that blood soaked sand.

 

 

Lance’s gills felt like they would burst. His chest heaved as he found himself with his first moment of stillness in the middle of the chaos. It of course didn’t last, a shark erupting from the throng and throwing itself at him and his mother. Weapons clashed, cuts opened up, blood seeped out. He was just swinging his blade towards an opening in the shark’s stance when a second enemy shot out of the crowd. It collided with his mother and suddenly he couldn’t see her or the other shark anymore, the two swallowed up in the battle.

“Mom!” Lance yelled, his alarm slowing his blade enough that the shark was able to spin around and block it in time. It took the shark’s own sword slicing open his collarbone for Lance to focus in on his opponent once more. He roared in part fear, part fury, doubling his efforts to take the enemy down. The shark was tiring but so was he, their movements growing heavier, more sluggish. He was just stumbling back from a particularly powerful blow when he collided with something. He felt himself falling through the water, gasping as his back hit the sand. He winced, sitting up in time to deflect the blade flying towards him. Then his eyes landed on what he’d tripped over.

A mermaid lay there on the sand, hair tangled and stained with blood, dark green scales split open around several deep, jagged gashes. Their eyes were those same pebble eyes of the shark his mother had killed before, dull and lifeless. He knew this mermaid. She lived next door. Her son would often play with Tion, Corra, and Anton, helping them stir up mischief. She’d just had a new hatchling that fall, a baby girl, if Lance remembered correctly. He felt like vomiting.

The flash of the shark’s sword caught his attention once more. He rolled to the side, but not before getting a sizable cut on his arm. The shark struck again and again, never giving him enough time to get up as he frantically thrashed around, trying to avoid the blade. Trying to avoid the same fate as the corpse that lay cold and still just a tail length away. He felt like his chest was splitting open, overwhelmed with horror, with panic, with the knowledge that he couldn’t keep dodging forever.

The shark raised it’s sword, the weapon making a silver arc through the water. Lance screamed, thrusting his sword up at the same time he squeezed his eyes shut.

 

 

Keith gasped as his back hit the side of a cave, the breath torn from him. He ducked as a war-hammer smashed into the stone where he’d been moment’s before, tiny cracks splintering it’s surface. With a practiced arc his dagger cut through the water, but the shark leapt out of reach, a sneer on its face. Keith growled in frustration, swinging again and again as his opponent danced out of reach. Suddenly the shark brought it’s hammer down. If it weren’t for Keith’s lightning reflexes, beaten into him from years of training, his hand would have been crushed. Luckily he pulled it safely out of the way, but the broad metal still met with his dagger, ripping it down and out of his hand.

Keith hissed in alarm, trying to dive for it but having to pull up short as the hammer swung dangerously close to his head. He was forced back, twisting and turning in increasingly difficult ways to avoid the crushing force of his opponent's weapon. Then his back hit solid rock.

For a brief moment his vision whited out, panic consuming him as he realized there was nowhere left to run. Lance’s face flashed before his eyes, smiling, radiant. He’d never get to see him again. He’d never get to kiss him. He’d never get to tell Lance how much he loved him.

The hammer almost seemed to fall in slow motion, it’s path perfectly aimed to come down on his skull. Keith watched it’s descent, eyes looking but not seeing. All he saw was blue. Beautiful, crystalline blue. Like the ocean on a clear day. The same ocean that had chewed him up and spat him out as a child. The ocean that had left him cold and afraid when his father left, when he’d been trapped in those shipwrecks all alone. The same ocean that had drifted passively around him as he was beaten and bruised by his fellow soldiers, as he was torn to pieces on Sendak’s teeth. The same ocean that had brought him Shiro, kind and trusting, healing his wounds and teaching him to love instead of hate. And the same ocean that had given him Lance, the love of his life, the person who had shown him that he wasn’t the monster everyone said he was.

All he could see was blue.

 

 

The sword sunk through the shark suddenly, easily. Lance could feel the weight skewered on his blade above him, could feel as the thrashing went from panicked, to weak, until stopping all together. He could feel when the shark’s blade hit the ground, a dull vibration kicking up sand, the sound not even able to be heard over the cacophony of the battle waging around him.

Lance rolled to the side, eyes still squeezed tightly shut, the sickening weight rolling with him until it thudded next to him. He yanked his sword back, tasting blood in the water. So much blood. His eyes slowly blinked open. The moment he got a look at that lifeless, pebble gaze he rolled over onto his other side and vomited, all that was left of his dinner coming violently to the surface. It mixed with the blood and made the water taste foul, rancid with death and suffering.

Lance’s breath came out in quick gasps, his gills not seeming to be able to take in air as he choked and hacked. Another wave of nausea had him retching up whatever was left, his body somehow feeling both numb and on edge, like a thousand volts was coursing beneath his skin.

He sat up slowly, wiping at his mouth and gazing at the scene in front of him. It was all a blur, his ears ringing as he watched the colors flash before him. It was mostly purple… no. Mostly red.

Slowly he became aware that there was one figure not moving like the rest. He glanced over, finding a piercing yellow gaze locked onto him. It’s eyes narrowed, it’s lips curled up in a needle-point grin. A metal fin caught the light, glinting in the water. Lance’s blood turned to ice.

 

 

The hammer was an inch away when it stopped, the arm wielding it suddenly locked up. Keith’s vision cleared, the calming blue seeping away around the edges. He was sad to see it go, a sound of anguish leaving his throat as he reached out blindly as if to grasp at it. Then he took in the scene before him, his mind clearing of the illusion. The shark was frozen, every muscle locked up as a spear protruded from its chest, right where its heart was. Keith couldn't see the wielder, their form hidden behind the bulky mass of the shark. However, the next moment the spear disappeared, leaving nothing but a cloud of red. The shark fell as heavily as its hammer, its body stirring up sand and blood as it hit the earth. A form started to move through the blood and Keith darted away from the rock he’d been pinned against, bracing himself.

Suddenly the figure emerged. Keith’s eyes widened. It was Lance’s mother. He barely recognized her at first, her eyes wild and teeth bared. She relaxed when she saw him, the tension draining from her shoulders.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Y-yeah,” Keith gasped out. “Thank you.”

The woman nodded, turning as though to swim away before pausing. An uncertain look crossed her face. A vulnerable look. “Have you seen my son?”

Keith’s stomach dropped. Lance. He still had to find Lance.

“No,” he admitted. Shame enveloped him, outmatched only by the fear thrumming in his veins. “I’ve been looking for him.”

The woman’s face fell. She nodded briskly before pausing yet again. This time when her eyes met Keith’s they were hard, but not unkind. “Keep him safe.”

With that she was gone, charging back into the fray with a piercing cry. Keith stared after her a moment before he snapped back to his senses. He dove down, kicking the shark’s body aside as he searched for his dagger. After a few too many moments he spotted the glowing symbol on the hilt. Relief flooded him as his hand closed around it, the dagger a reassuring weight in his hand. He straightened up, looking out to the crowd where Lance’s mother had disappeared. He was going to find Lance. He was not going to stop until he found Lance. And no matter what, he’d keep the merman safe.

Chapter Text

“I’ve been looking forward to our next meeting,” Sendak growled out. His voice was venomous, Lance’s muscles locking up in fear as he stared at the shark looming over him. His hand quaked on the hilt of his sword. “You gave me a lot of trouble. And look where that got you. Lying here in the sand, watching as your shoal is slaughtered around you.”

Lance didn’t want to look but he couldn’t help himself. His eyes darted around, flitting over the bodies tangled up in the sand. He could hear the agonized screams, taste the blood in the water. He couldn’t move.

“Don’t worry,” Sendak reached down slowly, teasingly, as though he were merely reaching down to pet a minnow. His hand closed around Lance’s neck, lifting the frozen mermaid up into the water. “You won’t die yet. No, I’ll make you watch until the last member of your shoal falls. Then I’ll kill you. Nice and slow, right in front of that halfbreed traitor. I can’t wait to hear his screams. Or yours. And then, once I’ve picked the meat off your mangled bones, bit by bit, I’ll kill him too. I’m going to rip his tail right off.”

Lance saw red. All at once he could move, fury burning deep and dark in his veins. He wouldn’t let that happen. There was no way in hell he was ever going to let Sendak hurt Keith. Not ever again.

In a flash he buried his fist right into Sendak’s throat. The shark made an awful wheezing noise as he dropped Lance, the merman falling in a crumpled pile. He snatched up his sword before he even had time to think, already back up and swinging the weapon. Sendak’s eyes widened and he darted out of the way, but not before Lance had sliced open his cheek.

The shark’s eyes narrowed then and he let out an ear-splitting roar. When Lance swung next the shark brought his own weapon up to parry. The force of the collision was enough to throw Lance back, Sendak’s sword so huge it was almost the size of the merman. Lance screamed in rage, throwing himself at the shark again and again. Sendak sneered, a sick sort of amusement in his eye every time Lance was thrown spiraling back.

Sendak kicked out with his tail, Lance yelping in surprise as he hit the ground. His eyes widened as he saw Sendak’s monster of a sword above him and he rolled away just as the blade impaled the ground. Snarling, Lance grabbed a handful of sand and threw it in Sendak’s eye, using the time it bought him to get back up. Sendak hissed, rearing back as he hastily tried to rub the grit away. Lance screamed as he brought his sword down as hard as he could on Sendak’s shoulder.

The shark wailed, wrenching himself free and spinning away, a cloud of blood in his wake. Lance chased after him, not giving him the time to recover as he swung again and again. The shark was still squinting through the grit, his movements sloppier now with his dominant arm wounded.

Lance bared his teeth when he saw the opening, thrusting his sword against Sendak’s then twisting around with all his might until the weapon was ripped from his opponent's hand. It sailed up in a flash of silver before disappearing into the blood-choked water. Lance’s blade flew up, pressing into Sendak’s throat as the shark backed right against the rocky side of a cave. He had nowhere to run.

“I’ll kill you!” Lance screamed, inches from the shark’s terrible face. “I’ll kill you for attacking my shoal!”

Sendak threw his head back and let out a long, cruel laugh. “You think this is my fault?” he sneered. He pressed forward slightly, a trickle of blood seeping out as the sword just barely sunk into his flesh. “Has the halfbreed told you nothing? I may have found you, but it’s Lotor who demands your blood. All of your blood. Your friends, your family. I may turn this ocean red with the death of everyone you love, but I do it at Lotor’s command. Kill me, but it will change nothing. This,” Sendak gestured to the torrent of thrashing bodies around them, his eyes wild and grin crazed. “This will never stop! Not until you are all dead and Lotor reigns supreme. You can not win!”

Lance’s rage burned brighter, hotter. He was not sure why he paused, why he allowed this vile man to speak, but his patience was gone now. His hands shook but still he lifted his arm, sword poised to strike. Just then he felt something bury itself in his chest, right between his ribs. His eyes widened, his mouth falling slack as the sword slipped limply from his fingers. Then the object was drawn out of him, bringing with it a pain so intense that he screamed. He could taste his own blood, see his own blood as it turned the water red. It almost felt as though he’d been burned, as though a vent of magma had burst forth from right between his own ribs. Sendak pushed him back and he fell easily to the ground, writhing and shrieking as the pain clawed through him like a beast set on devouring him.

He felt a weight press into him, a shadow darkening his vision. A terrible, rasping voice whispered, “Your fate has always been to die,” just before a palm pressed down on the wound. Lance hadn’t thought it possible for the pain to get any worse but it did, a volcano in his own skin, tearing up his insides and spewing it’s molten blood. His ears were ringing, his mind consumed by pain, his body nothing but roiling agony. Teeth sank into his ear and they pulled, pulled and pulled until the lobe was torn, until he could feel his own flesh rip away and it hurt, god, it hurt.

Suddenly the weight lifted off of him, a furious shriek all that was left, and even that fading into the distance. He managed to squint his eyes open and saw a mass of purple all around him. Sharks were fighting sharks, weapons clashing, teeth bared, all a confusing blur.

Slowly, he pulled himself up, wailing as the movement made it feel like he was being stabbed all over again. His hands clutched at his side but the pressure made it so much worse so he snatched it back, sobbing. He stared hazily at the action around him, confused as he watched gray tails whip through the water and purple skin flash by in violent jerks. Then it hit him. The Blade. The Blade was here, finally here from the shipwrecks. They were flooding in, overwhelming the battle-weary troops lead by Sendak, pushing them back, back, back.

Lance’s vision blurred and he tilted heavily to the side. He heard a voice then, but couldn’t quite make it out from all the blood welling where the lobe of his ear was ripped off. A hand landed on his arm and he hissed, jerking back and trying to feebly push the person away even as his struggling made white hot pain shoot through his chest. He slumped down, groaning as the world spun beneath him.

The hand returned, this time on his shoulder. It shook him gently and he couldn’t find the strength to resist. Then another hand was on his face, tilting his head up and suddenly all he could see is a pair of wide, violet eyes.

“Keith,” Lance breathed out, and he reached up to grasp weakly at the other boy’s shoulders.

“Lance!” Keith was in front of him now, his voice able to reach Lance’s unbloodied ear. “Oh my god, oh fuck, Lance!”

The next thing he knew he was being jerked upright, his arm slung over a sturdy shoulder and his weight supported by the boy at his side. Keith was still talking, words coming out rapid-fire. Lance could hear his voice rumbling from beside him, but Keith was on the side of his bad ear so he couldn’t make out anything. He just slumped heavily into the sharkboy, letting him lead the way through the rapidly thinning-out battle.

There were so many bodies. Shark bodies and mermaid bodies. Lance shivered every time his fins brushed one of the fallen. He could barely breathe with all the blood in the water, could barely see more than a few tail-lengths in front of them. He spotted his family's cave as Keith guided him toward it, the sharkboy still muttering panicked gibberish into Lance’s blood-clogged ear. His side burned and he hissed with every slight jostle, feeling the warmth of his own blood against his skin.

They were almost at the cave when Lance spotted a particular body among the others. His eyes were initially drawn to it because of how much smaller it was than the rest. They stayed on it because of the scales. Those scales were the same color as his own. The figure was facing away from him, looking so small and fragile in the sand. Lance’s heart stopped.

Suddenly he tore away from Keith, unable to even feel the pain in between his ribs anymore as the icy numbness of shock took over him. He sunk down beside the figure, reaching out in a movement that both seemed to span forever and happen in a heartbeat. He rolled the figure over onto its back and the world crashed down around him.

“Tion,” Lance choked out.

There was a deep puncture in the boy’s chest, splitting his copper skin into violent red. He looked so small. Small and helpless. He lay there on the sand, too still, much too still for a child full of so much life and energy.

“T-Tion!” Lance gasped out, lifting his cousin into his arms. He felt so very, very small. “Tion, wake up!”

There was a gentle cough, a fluttering of eyelashes, and the child blinked up at him. His gaze was hazy, clouded with pain and fear as he slowly focused on the merman above him.

“Lance?” That single word caused the child to burst into a coughing fit, clouds of red spilling passed his lips.

“I’m here, Tion.” Lance whispered. “You’re okay, everything's going to be okay!” He glanced up, searching frantically until his eyes fell on Keith. The shark was drifting beside him, staring down in shock at the mangled child in his lap. “Keith!” Lance exclaimed, voice breaking. “Get Coran!” The shark snapped out of his daze, turning to shoot off in search of the healer. Lance looked back down to Tion, cradling him close. “We’re getting help, Tion. You’re gonna be okay, everything’s fine!”

“I want mom,” Tion rasped out, his voice so small and fragile.

“Your mom will be here soon,” Lance replied. “Just a little longer!”

Tion coughed. Just once, a quiet sound. His gills fluttered, taking in a shuddering breath. Then he went still.

“Tion,” Lance breathed into the cold, passive water. “Tion!” He shook his cousin, gently at first, but then rougher and rougher. No response. “Please, please, oh god, no! Please, Tion, wake up! Wake up!”

The child’s little body slumped as it was shaken, limp like fronds of seaweed. His eyes were barely open, all the mischief that was once in them gone, stolen like the breath from his gills. He looked even smaller in death than in life. So small and still.

Lance’s mouth opened. He was not aware if he was making a sound, not aware if he was cursing or screaming or begging. He heard nothing, felt nothing. His entire world was narrowed down to the child cradled in his arms. He was aware of someone settling next to him, and then another person and another. A pair of hands reached out and rested on the face of the child in his arms, their palms shaking. Those hands reached up to comb through the Tion’s hair, then back to stroke over his cheeks before lifting the boy up.

Lance held on, unwilling, unable to let Tion go, but the person the hands belonged to simply pressed into him, Tion held between them. They clutched at Lance and Lance clutched at them. Distantly he could hear wailing, perhaps from them, perhaps from him, perhaps both. He buried his face in the shoulder of the other person and he sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, arms shaking from where they held the cold, limp form that was once his baby cousin.

He felt a tiny hand rest on his arm and he glanced up, finding Corra there, staring with big eyes. She was saying something, saying it over and over. Lance strained to hear her, to let her voice cut through the ringing in his head. He hung off her words, straining and straining until they cleared up, until the sounds cleared up and he could recognize them as more than just a dull hum.

“I told him not to, I told him not to, I’m sorry, I told him not to-” Corra was repeating, her eyes big and scared and breaking.

“What-” Lance rasped out, his voice cracked and stretched beyond recognition. He needed to know, needed so badly to know why, to know how. “What happened?”

“He wanted to find his mom,” Corra said, her voice starting to crack too as she sniffled. Lance heard a heart-wrenching sob from beside him and realized the other person cradling Tion between them was Kamilla. She was murmuring under her breath, little choppy strings of words.

“Shhh, shhh, it’s okay Tion, it’s okay. You’re okay, it’s okay, no, no-”

“I told him not to. I told him you said to stay there. I told him, Lance! I told-”

Corra was cut off as a pair of arms swooped down and scooped her up. Lance glanced up to find his mother, holding Corra against her shoulder and turning her away from the scene below. He could see members of his family all around, Anton clutched in his father’s arms. Keith was kneeling beside him, his expression absolutely gutted, his eyes hazed over as he looked at nothing. People were wailing, shaking, staring in shock.

Kamilla let out a deep, wretched sob, her arm reaching up to wrap around Lance with Tion still cradled between them. Lance held her close, shutting his eyes as little punched-out sobs made their way passed his lips. He felt like he was dying. Like the life was draining from him slowly, torturously, just like it had with Tion. He just couldn’t accept it. He couldn’t accept the reality of the tiny body in his arms. Everything felt like it was spinning. He could feel himself swaying slightly, his arms falling slack around Kamilla, around Tion. Suddenly he lurched to the side. Instantly arms caught him, a haze of violet clouding his vision. Then it all went dark.

 

 

Lance woke up. He woke up. For a blissful moment he didn’t remember, then it all came crashing down. He curled up on his side, feeling bandages scrape over his skin, crusty and scratching. He shook and shook, not reacting when he felt a hand on his shoulder other than to curl further into himself. That hand stayed there, a steady weight, and he was torn between wishing it would go and being afraid for it to disappear. He sobbed until his throat was raw, until he was gasping so hard he felt like he might throw up.

This was a nightmare, this had to be a nightmare, there’s no way this could be real. Not the bodies, not the weight of the shark as it was impaled upon his sword, not... not Tion. Not Tion.

This will never stop. Not until you are all dead and Lotor reigns supreme.

Lance sat up. He heard a startled gasp from beside him, turning to see Keith straighten from where he’d been perched next to Lance’s bed. The sharkboy's eyes were wide, his hand falling limply from where it had rested on Lance’s shoulder. He said nothing.

Lance took a breath. A deep, rattling breath that came in as ice. He held it there, deep in his chest, letting the cold numb his insides, turning them hard and jagged. When he exhaled it came out as fire, scorching, tearing up his throat and ripping though his gills in one long, ashen stream.

“I’m going to kill Lotor.”

Chapter Text

The trench stretched before them, gaping like a giant, hungry mouth. Keith shivered as memories from the other trench flooded back to him, the one far from here, just outside of Lotor’s army. In that trench Lance had almost died, taken away by a giant squid. In that trench Hunk had almost lost his life, too injured to swim any farther from their enemies. He had almost lost two friends there. That trench hadn’t gotten them then, but this one would be claiming Tion.

The boy was cradled in his mother's arms, so still and limp. Seaweed was wrapped around him in intricate patterns, covering all but his head. He didn’t look like he was sleeping. They never did. His face was not peaceful. It was empty. There was nothing left of the boy that had held Keith’s hand, of the boy that had beamed up at him and snuck out to see him just the other day. Tion was gone.

The entire shoal was gathered there, some members of the Blade grouped around the edges as they kept watch so the mermaids could mourn in peace. Tion was hardly the only body, countless families huddled around their fallen loved ones. The water felt heavy, pressing down on everyone as they gazed through broken eyes. All was deathly silent, save for the occasional sniffle or muffled sob.

Lance was a few tail lengths away, surrounded by his family. He was looking straight ahead, his face strained and jaw clenched. Keith hadn’t been sure if he had the right to be there, but when Lance’s family gathered together to leave for the trench, Lance’s mother had ushered him over. She didn’t say a word, just gave him a tired smile, and Keith had fell in beside her as they swam. He’d kept his eyes trained on the back of Lance’s head the entire time, unsure of whether he could approach.

Lance had been different since the battle. He’d hardly said a word, which was so unlike the bright, joyful merman Keith had met in the shipwrecks what felt like a long time ago. He wouldn’t look at Keith. He wouldn’t look at anyone, for that matter. His eyes never glanced down but always straight ahead. His gaze was somehow both hazy and sharp, like he was looking through everyone and seeing something no else could.

Keith glanced to the side, spotting Hunk floating among his family. There were a couple of bodies laid before them. A young girl no more than twelve was wrapped in Hunk’s arms, sobbing into his shoulder. Hunk himself was sniffling lightly but he seemed to be keeping himself together. Perhaps not for his own sake, but for the girl before him. Keith winced, looking away.

Pidge’s family drifted to the other side. They were a much smaller group than Lance or Hunk’s relatives. Only a pair of parents, Pidge, and Matt. Keith breathed a sigh of relief as he noticed no bodies by them.

Keith scanned the crowd but he couldn’t see Shiro anywhere. He hadn’t seen his mentor since the battle, but he knew he was alright. Adam had stopped by earlier to check on him as he sat at Lance’s bedside, letting him know the older shark was fine. Speaking of, Keith couldn’t spot Adam in the crowd either. His brow furrowed, but all thoughts of the pair were pushed from his mind as his eyes fell on Allura.

She was swimming forward slowly, her back to Keith but her entire frame sagging. Coran drifted beside her. Keith caught a glimpse of his face. His heart went cold when he noticed that, for the first time since he’d known the merman, there was no spark in his eyes. He just looked tired and defeated.

Coran paused at the front of the crowd but Allura did not, swimming up to the edge of the trench before stopping. She turned slowly, sluggishly, as though her muscles were weighed down with lead. When Keith saw her face he gasped. Allura looked like she had aged, her eyes sunk into the pit of her face. Devastation radiated off every ounce of her being, from her slumped posture to the shattered look in her eyes. Keith shuddered. She had lost her shoal once before and now she was faced with losing them again. He couldn’t begin to imagine what she was going through, especially considering she was the leader of this shoal. It was her duty to keep her people safe. Keith wanted to tell her this wasn’t her fault, but now was not the time or place.

“Today,” Allura called out, her voice thin, “is a dark day. We have lost friends, family, loved ones. Many a noble mermaid fell on this sand. But they did not die in vain. It is thanks to their sacrifice-” Allura’s voice broke. She drifted there for a moment, shaking as she seemed to shrink in on herself. Keith had never seen her like this before. He had never seen her as anything but fierce and strong, nothing but a blaze of fiery passion. Now here she stood, breaking before him.

Coran started to drift forward but Allura shook her head minutely at him. He slumped back, his face cracked with despair. The merleader took a few more moments to compose herself, taking a deep, shuddering breath through her gills. “It is thanks to them that we are here now. Our shoal still stands. And now we must pay our respects to the brave people who fought and- and died so that we may live on.” She fell silent, tilting her head down.

Keith watched as all the mermaids around him echoed her action, their heads bowed towards the sand. He did the same, not sure what the gesture meant but knowing it was important. Knowing he must honor the dead.

After a few long moments of silence Allura lifted her head. Her expression was as broken as before. “We begin with the youngest of the fallen,” she rasped out.

Lance’s aunt drifted forward then, Tion clutched in her arms. She paused at the edge of the trench, her head bowed down towards her son. The family drifted up around her, the nearer members able to reach in and lay a hand on the boy. Keith saw Lance near the front, his hand trembling where it rested on Tion’s cheek. His jaw was clenched, his eyes looking yet not seeing the child beneath him.

“T-Tion,” Kamilla choked out. “Of the McClain family.” She paused for a moment, shaking as a sob spilled passed her lips. Family members around her reached out to comfort her, laying hands on her shoulders and back. “Tion left this world too soon. He was my only son, the l-light of my life. He brought a s-smile to the face of everyone who met him. He was truly a treasure. He was-” Kamilla broke off, another sob spilling passed her lips. “He was my treasure. I will miss him everyday for the rest of my life. Every day,” Kamilla paused, leaning down to press her trembling lips to her son’s forehead. “Until we meet again.”

Allura nodded solemnly. “May he rest in gentle waters,” she breathed out.

The shoal responded in unison, an echoing chant that rang across the sand and down into the depths before them. “May the currents guide his soul.”

Kamilla held her son close in shaking arms. She started forward, swimming out over the trench. However, she had barely moved at all before she paused. The woman, turned, locking eyes with Lance. The merman’s own eyes widened, for once seeing rather than merely looking. Kamilla reached out, took Lance’s hand, and guided him forward with her. The two swam several tail lengths over the great, gaping chasm. When they stopped Kamilla pulled Lance in, pressing her forehead to his, Tion cradled between them. Keith was reminded of back when the battle was still fresh, when Lance and Kamilla held the limp form of this boy between them as they sobbed and begged and wailed.

The two locked eyes, all their pain shared between them in that moment. Then Kamilla drew back enough to lean down, pressing one last kiss to her son’s cheek. Lance ruffled his hand softly through his cousin’s hair, his eyes welling up. Then, together, they let Tion go.

The boy drifted down slowly, gracefully. His little face grew smaller and smaller until finally he was gone, swallowed up by the darkness. Kamilla stayed staring after him until Lance reached out and gingerly placed his hand on her shoulder. She instantly pulled him into her arms, burying her head in his shoulder and sobbing. Lance trembled against her, a few sounds breaking passed his own lips, though Keith could see the way he ground his teeth together to try and keep them in. For a long while the two floated there, embracing as despair washed over them.

Eventually Lance composed himself enough to move, gently leading Kamilla back to the others. The pair was swallowed up by their family, more sobs filling the water as they all held each other.

Allura called out the next family to bring forth their dead but Keith was no longer watching. His eyes were trained on the place Lance had disappeared. He didn’t dare move forward, not wanting to intrude on the family’s mourning. His heart felt like an open wound in his own chest, pain mixing from the loss of Tion and from knowing Lance was hurt yet he was unable to help.

Lance’s family slowly parted again, turning to watch as other mermaids said goodbye to their loved ones. Lance had gravitated towards the back now, facing away from Keith. The shark drifted forward slowly, uncertainly. He stopped when he was at Lance’s side. The merman didn’t acknowledge him, instead watching as another body was left to drift down into the trench.

“May the currents guide her soul.”

Keith jumped at the sudden voices ringing out from all around him. Lance still didn’t turn to look at him, his gaze back to that same far-away look. Still, Keith stayed, floating beside him through the rest of the ceremony. He chimed in the next time the shoal did their chant, saying it again and again as body after body was surrendered to the depths.

 

 

“Stay here.”

Keith paused, turning shocked eyes to the woman before him. Lance’s mother floated there, giving him a small, tired smile. “I’m sorry for the way I treated you before,” she continued. “I can see that I was wrong now. Please stay. Lance needs you.”

Keith looked away, feeling his heart sink. “I-I don’t know how to help him,” he admitted, fins scuffing the sand by the entrance to the McClain’s cave. A hand rested on his arm and he looked up once more.

“He needs to time to grieve,” the woman said softly. “But I don’t think he should be alone. You’ve been with him across the ocean and back. Stay with him now.”

“Of course I will,” Keith whispered. He still felt so small and unsure, but at the same time he was somehow lighter. A stone that had once pressed heavily on his heart was cast away. Yet it was barely even noticeable with all the stones that had come since. Keith swam over the threshold. The last time he had been here this same woman turned him away, and yet here she was, welcoming him into her home. “Thank you,” Keith murmured.

“There’s nothing to thank me for,” Lance’s mother replied, giving him another tired smile. She gestured to a tunnel branching off from the entryway. “Lance’s room is that way. Should you need anything, Manual and I are through the tunnel across from it.”

Keith nodded, giving her a smile as he started towards the first tunnel.

“”Keith,” the woman called out. The sharkboy paused, turning to her. “Please look after my son.”

“I will,” Keith said. It didn’t take any thought, any consideration. He would do whatever it took to help Lance. He didn’t know how but he wouldn’t stop until Lance was happy once more. No matter what.

“Thank you,” Lance’s mother said. This time her smile was less tired, her eyes full of gratitude. “Goodnight, Keith.”

“Goodnight, Mrs. McClain.”

“Call me Elena.” Lance’s mother gave him one last smile before swimming away. Keith felt a tendril of warmth break through the ice in his chest. He turned, smiling softly to himself as he headed down the opposite tunnel.

Lance was lying on his bed when Keith entered the room, curled up on his side with his back facing the sharkboy.

“Your mom asked me to stay,” Keith spoke up. No response. Keith drifted over to the bed, pausing a moment before sitting uncertainly at its edge. “Is it okay if I stay?” Keith asked quietly. Lance nodded, though he still kept his back to the shark. “Can I-” Keith trailed off, a wave of nervousness washing over him. However, his nerves were quickly beat out by the need to reach out and touch, to feel for himself that Lance was here and alive and okay. “Lance, can I hold you?”

There was a pause and for one terrible second Keith was worried that the merman wouldn’t respond. Then, slowly, Lance nodded. Keith let out out a sigh, instantly pressing against the merman’s back as he wrapped his arms around Lance’s waist. Lance didn’t return the embrace. However, Keith could feel as the tension drained from his muscles, his stiff form sinking into the bedding. Keith didn’t know what else to say, didn’t know if there was anything more to say at all, so he simply laid there, holding Lance in his arms and thanking whatever gods lay above for the breath he could feel from where his arms circled Lance’s chest.

 

 

Keith awoke to sniffling. For a moment he was confused, not quite remembering where he was. Then the warm weight against him shifted and he glanced down to find Lance in his arms. The merman had turned some time in the night, his face now buried in Keith’s chest and his hands clenched into fists over Keith’s shoulders.

“Lance?” Keith breathed out. He was met with a quiet sob, the merman trembling against him. Keith blinked the last of sleep from his eyes, tightening his arms around the other boy as he pulled him close. “Hey, it’s o-” Keith trailed off, the words dying on his tongue. It wasn’t okay. Nothing about anything that had happened was okay and Lance knew that. Instead Keith breathed out, “I’m here.”

Lance stiffened against him and for a moment Keith was worried that he’d messed up. Then the merman was surging forward, bringing his arms up around Keith as he sobbed into his shoulder.

“I’ve got you, Lance,” Keith whispered. “I’ll always be here for you. Always.”

Lance could only sob in response, clutching at Keith as he shook and shook. The sharkboy trilled softly to him, running his hands soothingly across the merman’s back. Keith nuzzled into him, breathing his promise into Lance’s hair.

“Always.”

Chapter Text

“Keith,” Shiro had said. “Gather everyone who was with you on the mission to find the Blade and meet us at Allura’s cave.”

He’d done as Shiro asked, going from person to person until only one remained. Keith stared at Lance’s still form, lying right where he’d left him on the moss bedding. His back was to Keith but the shark knew he wasn’t asleep. He’d been awake before Keith that morning, lying just as still as now, staring at the blank wall before him. Keith had left to get them some breakfast, hence why he ran into Shiro and hence why he was now tasked with gathering everyone together.

“Lance?” Keith spoke up, his voice feeling strangely loud in the otherwise silent room.

“I’m not hungry,” Lance replied. His voice was thin and flat, not betraying any emotion.

Keith frowned down at the fish he clutched in his hands. “It’s not that,” he said. “Shiro asked me to gather everyone from when we were trying to find the Blade. I don’t know why, but it seemed important.”

The merman didn’t respond, didn’t move.

“Lance?” Keith asked. His chest ached.

Slowly Lance straightened up, turning around. His eyes flitted over Keith for the briefest of moments before he glanced away. “Let’s go.”

The merman started towards the exit without waiting for a response. Keith fell in behind him, their untouched breakfast still clutched in his hands. He spent the swim over trying to figure out how he was going to convince Lance to eat. However, all thoughts of food were wiped from his head once they’d entered Allura’s cave.

Keith’s first reaction was dread. The last time he had been here he’d been tied to a stalagmite in the back room, his only moments of freedom being when Lance was able to slip away from his family and visit him. It was not a pleasant memory; the sleepless nights, the feeling of being under constant surveillance, and of course, the fact that he was bound and helpless in the middle of a hostile shoal.

He glanced over at Lance, his source of comfort, the man who had saved him time and time again. Lance didn’t look back. His eyes were sharp yet empty. It seemed as though he were somewhere far, far away. No matter where that place was, good or bad, Keith longed to be there with him. He missed the days when Lance would look at him and see him, really see him. He missed the merman he’d come to know, to love. But this was that same merman. This was Lance, broken, defeated, silenced. This was Lance.

Keith felt that familiar ache beneath his skin, the ache to reach out and touch, to hold, and yet he couldn’t. There was a wall between him and the man he loved. A wall built up in a matter of moments, in a single, heart-shattering tragedy. Keith didn’t care what it took or how long. He would be there when that wall came down, waiting to take Lance into his arms. He would be there for Lance no matter the cost.

“Lance, Keith.”

The shark finally glanced away from the merman, taking in the room before him. Everyone from the mission had gathered, with the addition of Adam and a member of the Blade. Keith racked his brain until he came up with the name Ulaz. He recalled Shiro greeting this man when they first arrived at the Blade’s headquarters. He glanced around but didn’t spot the Blade’s leader, Thace.

“Thank you for joining us,” Allura spoke up. She gave Lance a tentative smile, though her eyes betrayed the grief still within. Lance looked through her just as he did everyone else. Allura’s eyes landed on Keith then and the sharkboy froze beneath her gaze, the full force of her sorrow crashing over him like a wave. He managed to force a weak smile onto his face to match her own, and Allura nodded minutely at him.

“We have called you all here to address a matter of great importance. The Blade of Marmora’s presence took the shark army by surprise, thus driving them away. However, as Ulaz has informed me, we will have no such advantage when they return. They’ll come back with enough forces to overwhelm us. We cannot withstand another such attack.”

Keith glanced around, his eyes met with nothing but a sea of grave faces. Shiro in particular alarmed him. While the others had a solemn demeanor, Shiro was glaring heatedly at the ground before him, his hand shaking where it was clenched into a fist. Keith caught Adam’s eye and saw his own worry reflected in the merman’s face.

“There is another problem as well,” Ulaz spoke up, sharing a glance with Allura. “Thace has been taken. When Sendak’s troops were retreating they managed to capture him. As the leader of the Blade he is invaluable to the resistance against Lotor. Losing him is a blow we may not be able to recover from.”

“That’s why,” Allura spoke up once more, “I am asking you all to come with me on another rescue mission. Ulaz will stay here to lead the Blade in Thace’s absence and I’ve already spoken with Luxia and asked her to look after the shoal. You all have proven yourselves more than capable on our last mission to recover Shiro.”

Keith glanced to his mentor once more and noticed the man’s gaze had darkened, his eyes narrowed at the spot where his tail thrashed agitatedly in the sand.

“I know it is a lot to ask of you,” Allura continued, “but with the shoal weakend and the threat of another attack, there are few we can afford to spare. I believe every one of you are the best for this mission.”

“What about the shoal?”

Keith turned to see it was Pidge who had spoken. Her eyes were big and scared. It felt wrong, to see the normally bold and sharp-tongued mermaid reduced to something small and afraid. All of this felt wrong.

“That,” Allura responded, “is the other part of the mission. We stand no chance if we go head to head with Lotor’s army. They have more training, better weapons, and far superior numbers. Coran, Ulaz, and I have all been discussing the best course of action and we’ve come to a decision.”

“Kill Lotor.”

Keith almost gasped at the sound of Lance’s voice. The merman had been like a statue since they entered the cave, unmoving and unseeing. Now, however, his gaze was fixed on Allura with an intensity so sharp that Keith was glad he wasn’t on the receiving end of it.

“Yes.”

It was Ulaz who answered. Allura seeming almost pinned beneath Lance’s fierce gaze. Her eyes were wide with shock and Keith had a feeling that she’d never seen Lance like this before. He had a feeling that no one had seen Lance like this.

“Killing Lotor won’t necessarily stop the army, but it should buy us some time,” Ulaz continued. “Allura has been speaking to me about the possibility of reaching out to other shoals and forming an alliance. The only way to pull that off is to give us the time to do so. Lotor must be removed from the picture.”

“I’ll do it.” Lance’s tone was flat, but his gaze burned.

“Lance,” Allura seemed to have finally found her voice. “I can’t ask you to do that.”

“You don’t need to,” Lance replied. “I’m going to kill Lotor.”

“Buddy,” Hunk spoke up, drifting towards his friend. “Think about this for a moment-”

“I’ve thought about it,” Lance cut him off. “It has to be me.”

“No it doesn’t,” Pidge interjected, frowning at her friend. “Lance, you aren’t an assassin. You don’t know how to do this. Your emotions are blinding you.”

“My emotions are fueling me!” Lance’s voice came out in a hiss, turning the force of his gaze on Pidge. The mermaid flinched back when their eyes met.

“We’ve already decided,” Allura spoke up. “Shiro is going to retrieve Thace and I will take out Lotor. The rest of you are here to support us on our respective missions but none of you-”

“No,” Lance said.

“Lance, I can’t-”

“No. Tion is dead. The rest of my family could be next. I will not stop until Lotor is destroyed.”

“You’re not the only one who lost family, Lance,” Hunk said, frowning at his friend. “We all want to see this nightmare end. That’s why we’re going on this mission. We’re all going to play a part.”

“It doesn’t matter who it is that kills him,” Adam spoke up. “What matters is that he dies.”

“And that is why it is my mission to take him out,” Allura added. “If we all try to go for him at once it will be chaos. To maximize the chance of the mission being successful we need one person to shoulder the responsibility and the others to serve as backup. We can’t risk letting Lotor escape or getting us all killed. Success is the only option.” Her tone had a finality to it that rivaled the edge in Lance’s gaze.

There was a ringing silence as the pair stared each other down. After a long moment Allura swam up to the merman, holding his gaze the entire time. When she next spoke her voice came out soft, so quiet that Keith wouldn’t have heard if he hadn’t been floating right at Lance’s side. “Lance,” she whispered. “Promise me you won’t try and take out Lotor yourself. Promise me you won’t compromise this mission.”

The silence that followed was even longer, Lance’s eyes seeming to flicker like flames. Finally, his gaze still locked with Allura’s, he breathed out, “I promise.”

The merleader gave him a smile he did not return as she retreated back to the center of the room. Lance had gone back to gazing at some invisible force only he could see, but that gaze was every bit as sharp as it had been the moment Lotor’s name was uttered. Keith felt a chill snake down his spine.

“We depart first thing in the morning,” Allura announced. “Until then everyone should try to rest up. Keith, Shiro, you’ll be leading the way.”

The sharkboy nodded silently to her. At the sound of his name Shiro seemed to snap out of whatever had kept him brooding the entire meeting. He gave Allura a nod of his own.

The others began to disband. Matt and Pidge left first, the pair bickering between themselves in hushed voices. Hunk was next. He paused before Lance on his way out the door. His eyes were sad and concerned but Lance wouldn’t meet their gaze. He hardly seemed to realize there was anyone else in the room now. Hunk gave him one last glance before swimming past. He stopped long enough to rest a hand on Keith’s shoulder, giving him a small smile, before he was out the door.

Ulaz and Allura headed towards the back room, discussing plans for the upcoming mission. They passed by Shiro and Adam, the latter of whom was leaning close to murmur in the shark’s ear. Shiro’s earlier expression had returned full-force, his brow furrowed and fist clenched at his side as he listened silently to whatever Adam was saying to him. Keith was so un-accustomed to seeing the other man angry that he almost wanted to shrink back. Shiro was endlessly patient and understanding. He had been by Keith’s side through some of his worst days and had never once snapped at him or blamed him. He wondered what could have possibly happened to effect Shiro in this way.

He didn’t have time to ponder long before Coran was approaching him and Lance, giving the pair a half-hearted smile that felt out of place on his usually jovial face. “Lance, it’s about time to redress your wounds. And Keith, it couldn't hurt to put some more disinfectant on those cuts.”

“Yeah, sounds good,” Keith replied, giving Coran a weak smile of his own. Lance said nothing but he followed when Coran turned to lead them from the cave.

 

 

Keith felt nauseous as Coran slowly undid the bandages around Lance’s chest. He remembered when he first met. Lance was nothing but smooth, unbroken skin. Now he was a patchwork of scars. There was the bite mark, little raised gashes along his shoulder from where Keith’s teeth had once pierced the skin. The shark winced at the memory, wishing he could go back in time and stop himself from hurting Lance. Then there were the scars left from the serrated edges of the giant squid’s tentacles. The ones on Lance’s chest were healing over nicely. In just a few more weeks it looked like they may disappear without a trace. The ones on Lance’s arm, however, were staying. They were still angry and red, puffed up from how deep they had cut. Keith had been injured enough times to know that those would be there for life.

And now there were the two puncture wounds in Lance’s chest, left behind by Sendak’s dagger. As the bandages came away, blood began to pour out from them. Keith hissed in alarm, drifting closer. The stitches Keith had watched Coran sew into Lance’s body were still holding firm. However, a day was hardly enough time for the wounds to close up, hence the rush of blood.

Coran wordlessly handed Keith a shell with the disinfecting ointment he had come to know too well. The older merman turned to rummage through his supplies as Keith dipped his fingers in the ointment, reaching out towards the wounds. Lance flinched under his touch, pain flashing across his features. As much as Keith hated to see the other boy in pain, he couldn’t help the relief that flooded through him at seeing something on the merman’s face other than that controlled, blank stare.

“Sorry,” Keith murmured to him. Lance’s gaze flitted to him for a second before it was gone again. The moment was too brief to see if there had been anything in his eyes besides that same stare, but Keith wanted to believe there was.

Once he’d finished applying the ointment, Coran started forward with the bandages. Keith closed a hand around his wrist, stopping him. When the older merman shot him a confused gaze Keith replied with two simple words. “Show me.”

Coran gave him a smile, the most genuine one he’s seen since before the battle. “You’ll want to start here,” the merman said.

He coached Keith through the process, guiding his hands when he was too far off the mark and showing him how tight the wrappings must be. Keith listened as best he could but his mind was occupied with something else at the same time. Every brush of his hand against Lance’s skin felt sacred, every flinch the merman gave under his touch was proof that he was still alive. Alive and right here, right beneath Keith’s trembling fingers.

As Keith tied off the bandages Coran offered Lance the corral bits that Keith recognized as pain killers. Lance swallowed them easily, still staring straight ahead.

“Alright, boys,” Coran spoke up. “As much as I’d love to stay and chat, there are other patients I must get to. I”ll see you both first thing tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Coran,” Keith murmured, smiling his first real smile in what felt like a lifetime. He reached down to pick up the fish he’d set aside while treating Lance, the meal still untouched.

“Of course, my boy,” Coran replied, giving him a smile in return. He turned then, swimming over to his storeroom to start picking out the medicines he’d need.

Lance straightened up from the moss cot and started for the exit, Keith falling in beside him. As soon as they were in open waters Keith reached out, halting Lance with a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Lance,” he murmured. “You need to eat.”

Lance said nothing.

“You need your strength for the journey tomorrow.”

The merman turned to him then, their eyes finally, finally meeting. Keith was awash in a sea of blue, calm and impassive. He wondered when Lance’s gaze had gotten so hard to read. Lance reached out suddenly, his hand clasping Keith’s. Then they were moving, Lance leading an awestruck Keith away from the caves around them as Keith tried to remember how his tail worked.

The rocks faded into corral, and Keith slipped his fingers between Lance’s as they swam, studying the merman’s face and gleaning nothing from it. Finally Lance came to a halt, settling down in a patch of purple corral. Keith sat across from him, the soft fronds tickling his fins. Lance reached out and gently took a fish from Keith. “Thank you,” he said softly before taking a bite.

Keith felt like he’d won the lottery. “You’re welcome,” he breathed out, warmth alighting in his chest. Lance seemed to go back into his dissociative state that moment the words left his mouth, but Keith was more than willing to count this as a small victory. He was so pleased with himself for getting Lance to eat that he forgot about his own fish until Lance was halfway done. The shark flushed in embarrassment when he realized he’d done nothing but stare at Lance the past few minutes. He stuffed some fish into his mouth, scarfing down the meal so hastily that he was done before the merman.

Keith picked idly at the fishbones now lying in the sand, the heat beneath his skin slowly starting to cool over. He frowned as he thought of their upcoming mission, of all the dangers they faced. Of all the dangers Lance faced.

“Lance?” Keith asked, his voice coming out soft. Lance looked at him. Keith still got the sense that the merman wasn’t quite seeing him, but at least this time he didn’t look away. “When you promised Allura you wouldn’t go after Lotor-” Keith paused, his brow furrowing. “You meant that, right?”

Lance didn’t answer. Instead he took another bite of fish, staring right through him.

Chapter Text

Today was the day. Allura stood before the shoal, Luxia at one side of her and Ulaz at the other. She was giving some speech, probably something inspirational or hopeful. Lance didn’t know. He didn’t care. Keith drifted beside him in the crowd. Lance’s fingers itched. It was an old habit, wanting to reach out and take Keith’s hand. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t because his arms were too heavy, weighed down at his sides. He could still feel it. The touch of Tion’s cold skin, the weight of his fragile body as it went limp. He could still feel it, carved into every inch of his being until he felt sick even from the barest of movements.

The shoal was around him and yet he could see nothing but the fear in Tion’s eyes, fading, fading, gone. Then nothing. This was the boy he was supposed to cherish and protect. This was the boy he slept by almost every night of his life because it was his job to make sure he’d wake up safe in the morning. He’d let that boy down. He’d let Tion down.

Allura’s final words rang across the shoal. Some chant was uttered from the throats of his people but he did not hear the words, did not join their hopeful call. People were around him then. Faces he knew, people he loved. Lance melted into the arms of his family, letting them carry him away from his own mind. He held Corra and Anton in his arms, pressed into his father’s strong embrace, held his mother close, and on and on. He tried to take in every detail, every wrinkle, dimple, or freckle. Every strand of hair out of place, every glimmer of light on their scales. He didn’t know if he would ever see them again. He didn’t know if he was coming back.

Eventually the crowd faded to a few lingering family members, a few final goodbyes, and then it was just them. The people who had started this all, and the ones who would now end it. Keith smiled at him. He was breathtaking. Every day, every time Lance looked at him. From the gentle way his hair curled in the water to the shimmering violet of his eyes to his soft gray tail. He was the most beautiful creature Lance had ever had the privilege to behold. He couldn’t help but wonder when would be the last time he’d ever get to lay eyes on him. When would be the final day.

They were moving. Pidge was saying something, something about Matt staying behind, about their family not losing more than one member should this all go wrong. Hunk had his arm around her, consoling her. Lance thought of Pidge, lying lifeless on the ground. He thought of her eyes, just like Tion’s, full of fear and then nothing. Empty. Gone.

Allura and Coran drifted together, discussing plans. Keith was beside Lance because of course he was, he had been there since the moment they met. He was beside Lance but his eyes were trained on the back of Shiro’s head, watching with concern as the shark led them forward. Shiro had grown sullen and quiet the last few days. Lance didn’t know why. He might’ve thought he and Adam had a fight if it weren’t for the way Adam kissed Shiro before the shark left. He didn’t know what was going on with anyone, really. He didn’t know what was going on with himself.

The one thing he knew for certain was the thing that kept his tail beating through the water, kept him moving forward when every fiber of his being screamed for him to lay down and not get back up. Lotor. The man who caused this all. The man whose army ripped apart Keith’s childhood and his body, the man who tore apart his shoal, the man who killed Tion. The one thing he knew for certain was that he would not, could not rest until Lotor’s blood spilled onto the sand. Not until he’d seen the fear in Lotor’s eyes, just as he’d seen in Keith’s a thousand times when the shark woke, shaking and gasping from a nightmare. Not until he’d seen the life drain from Lotor’s eyes just like it had Tion’s.

They swam all day, a silent parade. When it was finally time to make camp, Lance sunk into the sand like he would never get up. He felt Keith lay down tentatively beside him, close but not enough to touch. Lance reached out, wrapping his arms around the other boy and pressing his head into Keith’s neck. He didn’t know how long he had with Keith. He didn’t know if it would be years or just another few days.

Keith let out a soft trill as he returned Lance’s embrace. Lance opened his mouth, about to answer, before snapping his jaw shut. He could feel a sob bubbling in his throat but he wasn’t going to cry. He was so tired of crying. So instead he just held Keith closer, tighter, listening to the sound of his breathing.

 

 

The body lay before him. He couldn’t see their eyes. They were hidden in shadow, but he didn’t need to see them to know that they were dead. Skin split open around angry, burning red. Blood pooling over their pink scales. Still, he continued forward.

There was another body. Light green scales, messy auburn hair. A pair of odd glass circles lay beside them, cracked and twisted in the sand. He couldn’t see their eyes but he knew who they were. He knew they were dead. Still, he continued forward.

Golden scales. Beautiful, ones he had admired all his life, now split with crimson. Some lay scattered in the sand, pulled out of the limp tail. Dark skin and eyes hidden by choppy bangs. Still, he continued forward.

Body after body. A neighbor, a family friend, a mentor. More and more, limbs twisted, tails tangled together, until they rose from the ground in a great mountain of lifeless flesh and scales. His mother. Still and silent, right near the top. An abhorrent mosaic of his family, their eyes cloaked in shadows, but the gashes, cuts, and scars easily betraying the life the had been bled from them. Tion cradled in his cold mother’s arms. Corra and Anton, little lumps in a sea of bent limbs and blank faces. Allura and Coran, bloodied and torn apart.

Atop this ghastly monument of suffering drifted a shark. Large, cold, but alive. His face was shadow, his features sharp and monstrous. He held Keith before him. Keith, alive and yet still. So very, very still that Lance would have thought him a corpse if it weren’t for the fact that he could see his eyes. Beautiful, vibrant eyes, glistening like starlight and overflowing with fear.

The shark behind him raised an arm, metal glinting in the scarce light. A flick of the wrist and blood poured from Keith’s neck, the cloud of red obscuring his face. The shark dropped him, leaving Keith to roll slowly, lazily down the hill of corpses. He came to a stop at Lance’s fins, eyes wide open and empty. Pools of darkness gazing up at him from the crumpled form that lay as a final testament to everything he had loved, everything he had lost.

He could see them now. The eyes, the countless eyes, staring at him from every silent, ashen face, from every lifeless pupil. They were staring at him. They were staring at him. They were staring at him.

 

 

Lance screamed. He jerked back, clawing at his face to try and rip away the image of those eyes, those empty eyes. He felt hands on him and he twisted away, thrashing in the sand. The hands closed around his wrists, pulling them away from his face and he wailed, trying desperately to return to their safety.

“-op! Please, you’re hurting yourself!”

Keith. It was Keith, staring down at him with those big, violet eyes. Eyes still ablaze with life, with fear and concern, with everything that promised he was here, breathing, living. Lance let his limbs go limp and he couldn’t have stopped the sob from leaving his throat if he tried. Keith held his wrists a few moments more before he pulled Lance into his arms, cradling him against his chest. Lance sobbed into his neck, shaking and wailing and pressing in close, close, closer until he could feel the hum of Keith’s heart.

There were voices, murmurs, but Lance paid them no mind. He merely clung to Keith, celebrating every rise and fall of his chest, every movement of his body. Slowly his wails subsided to sniffles, his shaking growing still. He heard Keith saying something but he couldn’t make out the words. Everything felt hazy, muted. It was almost dreamlike, the only thing grounding him to reality being where his skin pressed into Keith’s.

The shark gently took his face then and Lance allowed himself to be guided out of the safety of Keith’s chest. He met Keith’s eyes, beautiful, vibrant, alive. The shark had ointment in one hand. Lance didn’t know where he got it, didn’t care. He just kept gazing into those starlight eyes, basking in every second, in every flicker of emotion.

Keith’s caressed Lance’s face, the merman wincing at the sting. When the sharkboy pulled his hand back the ointment on it was stained pink. Lance’s eyes widened. Had he scratched himself that badly?

Keith continued his task, gently, dutifully applying the balm. Lance felt himself leaning into the touches, chasing them when Keith pulled away for more ointment. He watched as a smile spread across Keith’s face, soft and fond, and the sharkboy leaned forward to press a kiss just above Lance’s hair line. Lance melted against him, nuzzling into his neck and letting out a sigh.

Keith shifted Lance slightly so that he was sitting with his back to Keith’s chest. He felt as the sharkboy’s hands trailed around his waist. Then his bandages were being undone, layer by layer falling away. A little blood seeped into the water but it was far less than it had been the last few times Lance’s wounds were redressed.

Keith leaned forward to peer over Lance’s shoulder so he could see what he was doing. Lance found himself staring at Keith’s profile. His brow was furrowed in concentration, his teeth sunk into his lip as he tried to be as gentle as possible. His bangs drifted down and he blew a breath up at them to get them out of his face, out of his eyes. His eyes. They were a spark, a fire, ablaze with life, and that’s all they needed to be for them to be the most beautiful thing Lance had ever seen.

Lance was pulled out of his thoughts by a sharp pain between his ribs. He glanced down to see Keith’s hands gingerly applying a poultice over the wounds. Lance grit his teeth, trying to focus on Keith’s eyes, but every little touch sent a shock of pain through him. He couldn’t help but remember when the blade had sunk through his flesh, the cold shock before the agony. He felt another sob slip out of his throat as he felt the crushing weight of Sendak over him, the cold metal breaking skin and tearing organs apart.

Keith paused to simply hold him. He rocked Lance gently against him, murmuring soothing words that Lance couldn’t seem to make out. Still, he focused on the pleasant rumble of Keith’s voice, following it back to the present, to the warm embrace of the man he loved. Keith continued to whisper to him when he resumed treating Lance’s wounds, shushing him when Lance let out little whimpers of pain. Once he was finished he carefully wrapped the merman in fresh bandages, giving him some painkillers to soothe away the remaining ache.

Keith lowered them down to the floor then, holding Lance close as he pressed against his back. Lance stayed that way until he felt the itch beneath his skin. The need to touch, to see, to know Keith was alive and well. He turned, catching a glimpse of those shining eyes before nuzzling into Keith’s chest. He laid his head right over where Keith’s heart was, every beat a symphony.

“I’ll protect you,” Lance whispered into the heat of Keith’s skin. He murmured this, his vow, over and over. “I’ll protect you, I’ll protect you, I’ll protect you-”

Chapter Text

Everyone was silent, sullen, as if swimming to their own graves. There was no friendly chatter, no laughter, no smiles. Just quiet, staring faces, swimming steadily ahead. However, this heavy atmosphere couldn’t last.

As the days passed, there were little changes. Pidge and Hunk would whisper among themselves, not so much to hide their words from the others but rather to keep the sanctity of the silence. They’d trade stories between themselves, sharing small smiles and quiet huffs of laughter that faded too quickly. Still, it was better than the nothingness of before.

Allura and Coran would murmur to themselves, sometimes plans, but more often than not they were stories as well, memories of the past that would pull forth fond, wistful smiles. Keith spent his time talking with Pidge and Hunk and listening to Coran’s tall tales, all while staying by Lance’s side. He left Lance to his silence, knowing a few jokes and some chatter would do nothing against his grief. All he could do was stay by Lance and hold him close through the night.

Shiro, on the other hand, was Keith’s daily project. The man was almost as quiet as Lance, giving short, empty answers whenever anyone tried to talk to him. Keith didn’t know what was wrong and Shiro wasn’t telling him. It was so unlike the older shark to withdraw like this and each day Keith’s worry was only increasing.

They had been traveling for a week when Shiro’s sullen facade finally cracked. Their group had set up camp for the night, taking shelter in rocky crevices along the seafloor. Hunk and Pidge were bunking together in one crevice, Allura and Coran were sharing another, and Keith, Lance, and Shiro had made their camp in the biggest crevice. Lance and Allura were out, catching fish for supper. Keith couldn’t help but bask in the hope he felt when Lance had agreed to do something other than swim forward or curl into himself.

Keith was clearing rocks from the crevice, hollowing out the space so the three of them could sleep comfortably. Shiro knelt beside him, picking up a rock. He leaned forward again, his shoulder shifting, before he froze. Keith froze too, his eyes widening as he stared at the rock still lying on the ground, untouched beneath Shiro’s missing arm. For a long moment neither of them moved.

Suddenly Shiro brought his hand down, the rock he was holding smashing against the ground and splintering into a thousand pieces. Keith flinched back, staring with wide eyes at the man before him. “Shiro-?” he began, hesitant.

“I’m sorry,” Shiro whispered, so quiet that Keith almost didn’t hear him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry-”

He curled up against the wall, head lowered to hide his face and fingers coming up to claw at his scalp.

“-sorry, I’m sorry-”

“Shiro!” Keith exclaimed, reaching out to pull his hand away. The shark fell silent but he didn’t lift his head. “Talk to me,” Keith murmured, cursing the way his voice wavered with emotion. “You’ve been acting strange all week. What’s wrong?”

There was silence. For a moment Keith thought Shiro wasn’t going to answer him, but then the shark spoke, his own voice small. “I am.”

Keith’s brow furrowed. “What? What do you mean?”

Shiro gestured defeatedly towards his missing arm.

“Shiro,” Keith breathed out. “That’s not-”

“You don’t understand!” The shark cut him off suddenly, his voice loud and echoing in the small space. “I’m useless like this! I used to be the top warrior in the Blade, and now I can’t even hold my own weapon! Do you know what I was doing while the army attacked the shoal? Nothing! Adam had to fight for both of us because I was helpless!”

Shiro paused then, his eyes meeting Keith’s shocked gaze. They widened as he took in Keith’s expression. Slowly, the tension in Shiro’s muscles drained and he slumped back against the wall, worn out and defeated.

“People were dying,” he said, voice soft, “and I couldn’t even do anything.”

He let those words hang in the air, let the weight of them settle in.

It was a long moment before Keith spoke. He kept his eyes on Shiro as he tried to formulate the words, tried to put a voice to the anger bubbling beneath his skin. Shiro glared down at the ground, his gaze full of pain.

“You’re not useless,” Keith finally said. His words came out solid, strong, fueled by the truth beating against Keith’s ribs. “You’re not useless,” he repeated. “There’s more to you than fighting. You’re worth more than that.”

Shiro scoffed quietly, turning his face away. The anger simmering in Keith’s chest ignited. It flowed through him in a wave of rage, wanting to tear apart anything and everything that had ever hurt this man, that had ever made him feel this way.

“Shiro, look at me,” Keith growled. “I love you!”

Shiro’s eyes snapped to him then, big and wide.

“I don’t love you because you’re a brilliant fighter or warrior or whatever. I love you because you gave me a chance when no one else would. You looked after me and took care of me even when I didn’t trust you, even when I tried to drive you away. You never gave up on me. You’re the only family I’d ever had. So when I say you’re worth more than your fighting skills, you better listen because it’s true.”

Shiro’s eyes were still trained on him, their gaze intense. Keith swallowed heavily before he next spoke.

“Do you think Adam fell in love with you because you can punch stuff? He loves you because you’re kind and trustworthy and passionate. He loves you because you never hesitate to help others. Because you’re strong in more ways than just physical.” Keith glanced away, his voice growing quiet. “We love you. I love you. Whether or not you can hold a stupid halberd. I-” Keith stammered, growling in frustration before continuing. Emotion welled up in his voice, making it shake. “I’m the person I am because of you. You saved me, more than you know.” He looked up again, meeting Shiro’s eyes with a fierceness sharp enough to cut. “So don’t you dare tell me that isn’t worth anything.”

There was silence for a long while, Shiro staring at Keith with wide eyes while the younger shark held his gaze. Finally, Shiro spoke, his voice quiet. “Keith, I didn’t mean it like that-”

“I know you didn’t,” Keith replied, his own voice quiet. “But what you did mean was stupid and wrong.”

Shiro snorted, relaxing back against the wall. “I love you, too,” he said. Keith felt the angry blaze inside of him soothing over into warm embers. He stood suddenly, reaching down to offer a hand to Shiro. The man looked questioningly at him.

“Come on,” Keith said. “If you’re so upset about not being able to fight, then let's whip you back into shape.”

Shiro smiled at him, taking his hand and allowing himself to be pulled up off the ground. “Right away, sir,” he teased, making Keith roll his eyes.

“I’m gonna enjoy kicking your ass,” Keith said, grinning cheekily at him.

Shiro snorted. “You’re lucky I’m down a limb or you wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“Whatever you say, old man.”

 

 

Keith gasped as his back hit the sand, his hand aching from where his dagger had been ripped away. He tensed up when he felt cool metal against his throat, a blade pressed to the flesh. For a moment there was silence. Then the sword drew back, a hand in its place. Keith took it, allowing himself to be pulled up and finding Shiro grinning at him. His smile made him look like a kid who’d just won a prize, and Keith couldn’t seem to keep the smile off his own face.

“I knew I could still take you down!” Shiro exclaimed.

“You just got lucky,” Keith teased. “Don’t let it go to your head.”

“Too late,” the shark replied, his grin widening. Keith punched him in the arm, trying to scowl. He wasn’t able to manage it, though, not with the pride he felt welling up in his chest.

“Dinner time, you two.”

Keith glanced over to find Allura and Lance drifting there, arms loaded up with fish. Allura was smiling at them. Lance was looking right through them. Keith felt the spark of happiness die in his chest as he took in Lance’s blank expression.

“Coming,” he murmured.

 

 

Dinner was surprisingly lively. Shiro joined in on the chatter, telling some embarrassing stories of Keith, much to the younger shark’s annoyance. During one such tale he could have sworn he saw a small smile curl across Lance’s lips, but he blinked and it was gone. Once the conversation died down and the food was finished, everyone bid each other goodnight, parting for their respective crevices.

Keith had just started after Shiro when he felt a hand curl over his wrist. He paused, glancing back with wide eyes to see Lance floating there. “Keith,” Lance whispered. The shark waited but he said nothing more.

Keith turned to find Shiro looking back at them. He could see his own concern reflected in Shiro’s eyes. “We’ll catch up with you,” Keith told him, giving Shiro a small smile. The man nodded to him, returning Keith’s smile before swimming off.

Keith turned back to the merman then, sliding his hand down to lace their fingers together. “What is it, Lance?” he murmured.

Lance paused a moment before he spoke. “Earlier you were training with Shiro, right?”

Keith nodded, his gaze flitting back and forth between Lance’s eyes.

“Train with me.”

Keith said nothing at first, his brow furrowing. He reached out, fingers ghosting over the bandages still adorning Lance’s chest. “Lance,” he finally breathed out. “You’re still healing.”

“I won’t heal in time for the confrontation with Lotor,” Lance replied. There was something in his eyes, something fiery and determined. Keith didn’t know how to feel about it. Didn’t know if he should be relieved at seeing something other than Lance’s empty stare or worried by the intensity of it.

“If everything goes according to plan, then you won’t ever have to fight,” Keith said quietly.

“And what if things don’t go according to plan?” Lance replied. “I need to be prepared.”

Keith paused, biting his lip. Finally he let out a breath, squeezing his eyes shut before opening them again. “Okay.”

Lance didn’t smile, but the look in his eyes softened over. It made Keith’s heart swoop in his chest. Without another word, Lance crouched down, his muscles locking into the stance Keith had taught him what felt like ages ago. Keith mirrored him, bracing himself.

 

 

“Keith,” Lance hissed. The shark shivered as felt Lance’s voice puff against his ear. He grit his teeth from the hold Lance had on his wrist, his arm wrenched behind his back as sand pressed into his chest. “You’re going easy on me,” Lance growled.

He released Keith's arm, allowing the shark to get up once more. Keith frowned at him, regarding the frustrated look on Lance’s face. “I can’t help it,” he replied, trying to keep his voice hushed so as not to disturb the others. “Like I said, you’re still healing. I don’t want to aggravate your wounds.”

“Do you think the enemy is going to care about my wounds?” Lance hissed, crouching low as he began to circle Keith.

“I’m not your enemy,” Keith replied, watching Lance closely.

“I know,” Lance whispered, his own eyes narrowed as he studied Keith. “But I need you to train me for the enemy.”

“I’m not going to do anything that hurts you,” Keith countered.

The words had barely left his mouth when Lance rushed at him, his hand arcing through the water. Keith blocked the blow with his forearm, spinning back to try and put some distance between them. Lance didn’t give him the chance, crowding into Keith’s space as he threw blow after blow.

“You can’t protect me, Keith,” Lance hissed out.

“What?” Keith exclaimed, indignation in his voice as he blocked another blow.

He spotted an opening then, his body reacting before his brain could register what was happening. His fist flew towards the weakness in Lance’s stance. Then his mind caught up. He froze, flinching when he realized the opening was right over Lance’s chest, right over the bandages concealing his wounds. That moment of hesitation was all Lance needed. Next thing Keith knew he was face first in the sand, his arm being twisted behind him yet again.

“This,” Lance snarled out, panting above him, “is exactly what I’m talking about! I don’t mean that you can’t help me as in you’re incapable of helping me. I mean you can’t let me distract you. You can’t be thinking of me when we go to confront Lotor!” Lance’s grip tightened, not enough to hurt, but enough to push Keith further into the sand. “No shielding me, no sacrificing yourself, none of that. If you keep focusing on me you’re going to get yourself killed. You need to fight for yourself and yourself alone!” Lance’s voice grew quiet then, the bold tone of before fading away to something small and vulnerable. “I’m not going to lose anyone else. I’m not going to lose you.”

Keith was so preoccupied by Lance’s words that he almost didn’t feel his hold slacken. However, the back of his mind still registered it, the part of his brain that had combat beaten into it every day from the moment the army took him in. Next thing he knew Lance was beneath him, his hands closing around Lance’s wrists and pinning them to the sand.

“That’s not going to happen!” Keith growled out, Lance staring up at him with wide eyes. “I don’t fight for myself anymore. I fight for you, for our friends, for your shoal. You need to realize that!” Keith’s voice was rising, his temper flaring up within him. “Anything you do, any move you make, you need to be thinking of us. No one is going to go in there and fight for themselves. We’re all fighting for each other. If you’re in danger, then I am going to come to your side. If my only option is to shield you with my body, then I will do that. You need to think about that before you do anything, because anything you do that could get you hurt is going to get us hurt. I will give up everything to keep you safe. So before you do anything rash or stupid, think of how it’s going to effect us. Think of me.”

Keith broke off, staring into the wide blue eyes below him. For a moment neither of them moved, both their chests heaving as they simply took in one another. Finally, so slightly Keith almost didn’t feel it, Lance pushed up against the hands pinning his wrists down. Keith instantly moved with their gentle prompting, his firm grip turning delicate under the slightest of touches. Lance sat up, his fingers trailing to lace with Keith’s own. He leaned forward, resting his forehead against Keith’s.

“I always think of you,” Lance murmured.

Keith shut his eyes, focusing on every single point of contact between them. On the warmth of Lance’s skin, on the sound of his gills gently fluttering in the water, on the soft curl of his hair as it pressed into Keith’s forehead. He sat there and breathed Lance in, every touch, every sound, every feeling.

There’s was a quiet shuffling to the side. The two leaned back, Keith baring his teeth on instinct before his eyes fell on Shiro, gazing sheepishly at them.

“Sorry,” the shark murmured. “I heard shouting so I came to check if everything was alright.”

“We’re fine,” Keith replied, giving his mentor a reassuring smile. “We were just doing some sparring before bed.”

Shiro couldn’t help but quirk a brow at that, his gaze flitting down to where the two still had their fingers interlaced. “That’s one thing to call it,” he said, the hint of a tease in his voice.

Keith’s face darkened in a blush. Before he could retort, Lance was standing, using the hands holding Keith’s own to pull him up too. “Come on,” the merman whispered, gaze soft. “Let’s go to bed.”

Keith followed as Lance guided him back to the crevice, Shiro settling in beside them. Lance wrapped his arms around Keith as he laid down, cradling him close. The sharkboy melted into him, nuzzling into Lance’s neck as he felt any remaining tension ease from his muscles. It was then that Keith caught Shiro’s eye over the merman’s shoulder.
Instead of the teasing smirk he had been expecting, Shiro gave him a soft smile, eyes crinkled with happiness. Keith smiled back, warmth igniting in his chest and spreading through his veins. He curled further into Lance, getting lost in the warmth flowing though him as his eyes drooped shut. He fell asleep like that, happy and surrounded by his family.

Chapter Text

The army. Keith had hoped he’d never have to return here, never have to see these cursed sands again. Yet there it stood, a nightmare returning to haunt him. Allura and Shiro were finalizing their plans, running over them with everyone as their group crouched in the shelter of a rocky ravine along the seafloor. Keith already had the plans memorized. He’d gone over them in his head a hundred times on the swim here.

A group of cadets swam by, their drill instructor screeching at them. Everyone ducked down, but Keith couldn’t help but peer up ever so slightly. His eyes roamed the young faces before him. Too young. Children caught up in a war.

 

 

“Faster, soldiers!”

Keith’s tail beat frantically, gasping as his gills struggled to take in water. How many laps had it been now? He’d lost count somewhere around the time he’d started to lose feeling in his fins.

“Keep up, runt!” a voice snapped, a shoulder banging into him as its owner swam by. Keith stumbled, almost face planting into the sand. He forced himself back up, now even further behind than before. The other cadets were glancing back at him, sneering and laughing.

“You think it’s nap time, boy?!” the drill sergeant hollered at him. “I said move!”

 

 

Plans were finalized. Night had fallen. There was nothing else left to do, no more preparations or distractions. It was time to move.

Shiro led the way, practically knowing this place by heart. The others fell behind him like shadows, Keith taking up the rear so he could keep watch. They crept from cover to cover, dodging guards on their nightly patrols.Laughter erupted from the bunk house on their right and the entire group froze. They stayed drifting there for a long moment, until Shiro deemed it safe once more. With a silent signal of his hand, the group swam forward.

 

 

Keith jolted awake abruptly, confused when he found sand pressing into him instead of the woven lichen of his bunk. The next instant hands had latched onto him, dragging him upright. Countless bodies crowded around him as he thrashed, pulled from the bunkhouse and thrown out onto the ground behind it. He stared up at the people around him, eyes widening as he recognized his bunk-mates. They were leering down at him, surrounding him on all sides. Keith tried to get up only to be met with a swift kick in the gut. He doubled over in pain, grasping his stomach and wheezing for breath.

“Stay down, runt.”

Keith squinted up at the speaker. He’d stepped forward, seeming to be the leader of all the others. Keith recognized him from the countless insults hurled his way every day in training. James.

“You see,” James began, “me and the others were thinking. What is a little mermaid boy doing in a pack of sharks?” There were snickers from the others. “Doesn’t exactly seem natural, does it?”

“I’m not a mermaid!” Keith snapped, glaring up at him. He tried to get up, only to be struck across the head in an instant by James. He hit the sand hard, dazed as his ears rang.

“I said stay down!” James snarled. He took a moment to compose himself, the smirk curling back around his mouth. “You certainly look like a mermaid to me, doesn’t he, guys?”. The sharks around him nodded, faces twisted in sinister grins.

“So small and fragile,” James sneered. “You know, mermaids don’t belong with sharks.” James crouched down, drawing closer. Keith was having trouble focusing on him, his vision swimming as his head throbbed. “The only place they belong is on the menu.” James reached out, his hand stroking down Keith’s tail. The touch was soft, teasing. It made Keith’s skin crawl, made him grimace in disgust.

The next moment Keith’s teeth were snapping down in the water, James only just barely managing to pull his hand back in time. “Don’t touch me!” Keith growled, baring his fangs as he tried yet again to get back up.

“Stupid bitch!” James spat, open palm flying through the water. Keith’s arm flew up, blocking the blow. He screamed as his other fist shot forward, landing squarely on Jame’s jaw and knocking him prone on the sand. Keith tried to lunge at James but he was stopped by countless hands, latching onto him and throwing him back down in the sand. Next thing he knew he was being struck from all sides, fists and tails beating every inch of his body. He screamed, writhing as he tried to dodge away, tried to cover himself with his arms, but it was useless.

“Filthy halfbreed!” someone snarled.

“Traitor!” another spat.

“Go back to the ditch you crawled out of!”

Just then something sliced open his tail. Keith’s screams hit a whole new pitch as his blood gushed into the water. He sobbed, trying frantically to squirm away as another gash was torn into his scales. Through the flailing limbs he could just make out James, knife clutched in his hand as he stared wildly down at him, his gaze overflowing with rage. Then one of the kicks connected with the back of his skull and Keith went limp, black spots swarming his vision.

He wasn’t sure what happened next. One moment he was surrounded and then everyone was darting away, scattering in all directions. He could faintly make out a voice shouting something. Suddenly there was one person in front of him, yanking him upright. He faintly recognized them as one of the sergeants, the women screaming in his face. Keith couldn’t quite make out the words, everything feeling fuzzy. He was struck across the cheek, gasping as his head whipped to the side.

“Cadet!” the sergeant bellowed, voice just barely starting to break through the haze in his head. “Answer when you’re spoken to!”

“Yes, ma’m,” Keith managed to get out. He tasted blood in his mouth.

“What is the meaning of this?” she bellowed. “Causing a ruckus in the middle of the night?!”

“-was attacked,” Keith slurred. He was really having trouble keeping upright, listing heavily to the side.

“And you let yourself be caught off guard?!” the sergeant screamed. “You are a disgrace, soldier! You are to get yourself patched up, return to your bunk, and then report to me first thing tomorrow morning for disciplinary action!”

Keith’s brow furrowed. “But-” he began.

“You dare question your orders?!”

Keith winced at her shrill tone. It was making his head sting even worse. “It wasn’t my fault!” he exclaimed. “I’m the one who got attacked, I-”

He was silenced by another slap across his face, this one sending him reeling. “You say another word other than ‘yes ma’m’ and I promise you will regret it, cadet,” the sergeant hissed, voice turning low and dangerous. “Am I understood?!”

Keith grit his teeth, rage making its way through the pain clouding his mind. He clenched his fists, his body shaking as he forced himself to hold still. “Yes, ma’m,” he grit out.

 

 

The gaurd passed much too close for comfort, their group shrinking back. Shiro’s eyes were wide, having swam almost directly into the man. The all stood frozen, waiting until the shark had passed. Shiro gestured when the coast was clear, and they started back up again.

It was only a few tail lengths before the group had to pull up once more. The surrounding shelters ended abruptly around a clearing. A drill sergeant drifted in the middle, screaming abuse at a pair of cadets that were struggling to lift giant stones above their heads. Keith’s eyes narrowed. It was past curfew. If these two cadets were out training then they must be being punished for something.

 

 

“Sir, training is beginning now,” Keith said, his voice cold as he regarded the man towering over him. He could still smell the stink of the latrines all around him; his punishment for his latest bout of acting out. Instead of eating breakfast each morning he was here, scraping clean the holes of waste. “Am I free to leave?”

“Be back here before dawn tomorrow,” the man growled, regarding Keith as though he, too, were something found in the bottom of a latrine. Keith nodded curtly, turning to swim away.

It was a relief to see the training grounds. Even with the leers and insults hollered at him by his fellow cadets, soon they would all be too occupied to keep up their jeering. It was the best part of Keith’s day, letting his mind relax and his body take over as he moved through the drills. No one could touch him here, not without him beating them down into the sand. There was no being cornered in the late hours of the evening, no being jumped on his way to the canteen, and no repercussions for fighting back. Not against the cadets he was sparring, anyways. It was the one time of day when he was free, when he was safe as long as he kept pushing, as long as he didn’t give in. Here he wouldn’t let anyone control him or beat him down. Here, he had the power.

“I’ll need a volunteer,” the drill sergeant spoke up as Keith joined the others. The man’s eyes instantly flitted to him and Keith felt his chest sink. “Fishbait!” the man snapped. The cadets around him snickered. “Come forward.”

Keith grit his teeth, swimming up beside the man.

“Now,” the sergeant called out. “I’m going to demonstrate a proper hold.” He rounded on Keith, the sharkboy bracing himself. The man lunged and Keith could do nothing to defend himself. He winced as he was shoved into the sand, his arm grabbed and twisted painfully behind his back.

“If you can get your opponent down like this, then they can’t escape you,” the man announced to the surrounding cadets. He turned his attention to Keith then, his grip tightening. “Does that hurt, soldier?” he hissed.

Keith ground his teeth together. It did hurt. It really hurt. But there was no way he would admit that to this man. There was no way he would show weakness in front of his fellow cadets. He shook his head sharply.

“I must not be doing it hard enough then,” the sergeant growled. He pressed further, Keith’s arm erupting in pain. Still he refused to make a sound. The sergeant’s eyes narrowed and he pressed even further. Keith’s jaw was clenched so tight, he felt like his teeth would crack. Agony was rolling in waves from the twisted limb, every fiber in his being screaming for it to stop, for him to get away. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t admit defeat. He wouldn’t.

The sergeant snarled before pressing even harder. Something snapped. White hot pain tore through him, consuming him until he couldn’t feel anything else any more. He screamed.

 

 

Keith sighed in frustration as their group crouched in a clump of coral. They’d been trapped in this one section for ages, a convoy of supplies being brought through into one of the medical dwellings. Keith recognized some of the medicines now as things Coran had used to treat them. He shivered as he spotted fever spines, remembering their bitter taste. Still, even those were preferable to no medicine.

 

 

“There, I’ve patched you up,” the doctor said dismissively, turning to start mixing a couple of poultices together in a shell. Keith glanced down at his arm, now splinted and bound in a cast. He winced as another wave of pain rolled through him, so intense it made him dizzy.

“Pain killers?” he croaked out.

The doctor turned hard eyes on him then. “The army’s medicine is reserved for real soldiers returning from the line of duty, not filthy-blooded welps who were too weak to keep themselves in one piece from a training session.”

Keith felt anger bubbling beneath his skin. “I’ve never heard of doctors refusing to treat the other cadets,” he hissed quietly.

“The other cadets,” the doctor began, voice sharp, “are training to become real soldiers who have futures serving Lotor. You are a halfbreed runt playing pretend and wasting everyone’s time and resources. You should be grateful I even bothered to spare bandages for you.”

Keith was shaking with a mixture of anger and pain now. He wanted so, so badly to deck this man into next year. Just like he wanted to with all the sergeants that had yelled at him in the past, with all the people that had hurt him and blamed him for things that weren’t his fault. But one wrong move and he could be executed for treason. So instead he bit his tongue, seething with rage as he swam from that place. He knocked over a few of the supplies on the way out, ignoring the indignant shout from the doctor behind him. It didn’t make him feel any better.

 

 

Keith hated this stretch of the camp. They were in the open for far too long, his eyes darting about as he expected a guard to emerge and see them at any moment. Luckily they made it to cover without any incident. He glanced back behind them, shivering as he spotted the pits covered over in spiny bars of corral. He could still remember the screams, the sobs, the feeling of being lost and cold. Empty.

 

 

Keith curled further into himself, wincing as he heard the wails from the pit next door. He had been in there for four days now. He didn’t want to know how long the person next to him had been stuck down here. He saw movement in the shadows, slinking towards him. He squeezed his eyes shut, shivering as he slowly counted to ten. It was just an illusion. It wasn’t real. Just his mind playing tricks on him after being alone in the dark for four straight days.

“You worthless piece of scum!”

Keith growled as he remembered the words of his sergeant.

“You think this behavior is acceptable?! You think you’ll ever amount to anything?! You are nothing! You’ve always been nothing!” The man calmed then, a grin spreading across his face. “I think a few days in solitary confinement would do wonders for your behavior. Give you some time to think about your actions.”

Said actions had been Keith beating the sergeant in a sparring session. Now he was here, eating one meal a day that was thrown down onto the floor for him, nothing to do, no one to talk to. Not even enough room to stretch out fully. He could feel his muscles cramping after the countless hours of being in one position.

The darkness morphed before him, flailing out in tendrils of shadow, thrashing and pulsing and coming closer, closer-

It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. Keith closed his eyes and sucked in a deep breath. One, two, three, four-

 

 

Shiro split off from them, followed by Coran. Keith had to fight his instincts to go with his mentor, everything in him screaming to not let Shiro go back to that terrible place. Rage rose within him as he stared at Haggar’s lair, his chest feeling cold at all the memories. Shiro, lying limply on the ground, his arm missing and his torso wrapped in chains. Lance being torn from him, dragged away as he stared at Keith with eyes full of fear. Haggar’s hands emerging from the blood, closing around Lance’s throat and taking him away from Keith yet again.

Keith growled quietly, shaking himself. They had to stick to the plan. He would have to trust that Shiro would get out alright. With great reluctance he took his place at the head of the group, guiding the others forward.

 

 

“Keith.”

Keith glanced over towards the source of the voice. His unit leader drifted there, giving him a grin that didn’t quite reach his eyes. There was something malicious about it, and Keith instantly found his guard rising. Sendak had barely said a word to him since he was assigned to his unit. The most interaction they’d had in the past was when he was barking orders at Keith or giving him dirty looks.

“Yes, sir?” Keith replied curtly, turning to face him.

“Come with me. We’re going to sparr.”

Something was definitely up. There is no way Sendak could just want a friendly sparring match with him. Still, he didn’t have a right to refuse.

“Yes, sir,” Keith repeated, following the other man with great reluctance. Sendak lead them farther and farther through the army, Keith’s suspicions only heightening the more they swam. They reached the edge of the camp and still kept swimming. “Sir, are we going somewhere?” Keith asked.

“We just need room to move,” Sendak growled, not bothering to turn and look at Keith.

It wasn’t until they were behind the cover of a dune that Sendak stopped. He rounded on Keith then, already in his fighting stance. Keith braced himself, swimming slowly as he and Sendak circled each other. The other man lunged then and Keith spun away, turning just in time to block another blow. They danced around each other, trading hits that neither of them quite managed to land.

Suddenly Sendak pulled up, leaning back. Keith paused, regarding him through narrowed eyes. “Lotor has been very impressed with your progress,” the general growled. Keith felt a little spark of pride ignite in his chest, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it.

Just then Sendak struck hard and fast. Keith gasped, barely managing to block the blow. He didn’t see the other hand in time, the fist burying itself in his side.

He wheezed as the breath was knocked from his gills. Sendak tried to strike again but Keith managed to dodge back, putting some distance between them as he clutched at his ribs.

“He said he was impressed with you,” Sendak hissed out. “A halfbreed, filthy-blooded traitor.”

Keith’s eyes narrowed. “I am no traitor,” he snarled.

“Lies!” Sendak screamed. He charged at Keith, his movements harder, faster. It was all the sharkboy could do to keep up. “You are an abomination! Your very existence is a perversion of nature!”

Keith gasped as he was truck across the face, pain erupting in his jaw as he went spiraling back. “I know you, halfling,” Sendak growled. He paused again, glaring down at Keith with a fury that made the younger man grow cold. “I know you’ll betray us all one day.”

“You know nothing of me!” Keith yelled, lunging at Sendak himself this time. The other shark snarled, grappling with him as they each tried to gain the upper hand. Keith gasped as he felt a tail curl around him, throwing him off balance.

He fell back into the sand, Sendak landing on top of him. The general took advantage of his momentary daze to twist his hands into a painful hold. “Where do your loyalties truly lie?!” he spat down at him.

Keith grit his teeth, channeling all his defiance, all his fury into his gaze. “With Lotor,” he breathed out.

Something in Sendak’s eyes snapped.

 

 

There it was. Lotor’s headquarters, a sheer cliff rising up before them. A giant crack split the stone, guards drifting on either side of it. Keith sucked in a breath. He’d only ever seen the outside of this place before. Going forward they’d have to rely on Shiro’s descriptions.

Something felt so final about this place. So cold and absolute. A monument to all the pain this place had caused him, all the abuse and tortue he had endured over the years. He glanced over to find Lance, his usual blank expression wiped clean off his face. The merman looked terrified, staring up at the cliff looming over them. Keith reached out, gently taking his hand. Lance looked to him then, their eyes locking.

Beside this stone monolith of Keith’s suffering drifted the man who was his hope. His happiness. The man who had held him through every nightmare, wiped away every tear. Who had risked his life for him again and again. Who had shown him that touch didn’t have to mean pain, that words didn’t have to be insults. He had given Keith a future and he had asked for nothing in return. Lance was his whole world, his everything. And he would not rest until Lance was safe. Until everyone Lance loved was safe. He loved Lance more than he ever knew was possible, more than he ever could have dared to dream of.

Keith turned back towards the cliff. Suddenly it felt small to him, insignificant. Lance’s hand in his felt like the entire ocean was cupped in his palm, like a storm barely contained, the waves beating lines in his skin that could never be erased. Keith took in a deep breath, letting the currents of Lance’s touch flow through him until they had filled every ounce of his being. He squeezed the other boy’s hand. Lance squeezed back.