“Go,” Keith whispered, voice rough with tension as he hauled the captured—injured, tortured—merman to the side of the ship. The night was dark, but it wouldn’t cover the escape for long, not with how frequently the Galra crew patrolled the ship. At times it seemed paranoid of them to do so; but well, Keith supposed they were right to be when one of their own was helping precious cargo escape.
Even as the thought crossed Keith’s mind, angry cries floated into the night air.
“The mer’s gone!”
“Where’s the brat?”
Keith’s heart pounded, and he dragged the nameless creature closer to the side of the ship, peering down at the dark depths. “You’ve got to go, your people are waiting for you.”
The merman was limp in Keith’s arms, struggling for breath; and when he turned to look at Keith, his eyes were dull with pain. He hadn’t been responsive since the Galra had hauled him aboard the ship, drugged, starved, hurt.
“Why—why are you helping me?” he rasped, the first words Keith ever heard him speak.
Keith snarled; there was no time. “Get out of here.”
And before the merman could protest—and though it made Keith’s heart ache—he grabbed the creature bodily to push him over the side, hitting the water with a loud splash.
And not a moment too soon.
Rough hands hauled him backwards, and he snarled, reaching for his sword. But the crew were bigger, faster, and in seconds his weapon lay useless at his feet. Keith gritted his teeth as a cruel hand fisted in his hair, yanking his head back, and chains were clasped around his wrists. He kicked out, snarling, but then his feet were knocked out from under him.
Keith’s heart hammered as they advanced on him.
“Half-breed brat,” spat one voice, to a chorus of angry agreement.
“Traitor,” Sendak snarled, his claws tightening around Keith’s throat, turning the world dark.
But as Keith’s vision faded, he thought he saw the glint of scales in the water and the flick of several tails. And as the dark of unconsciousness mingled with the shadows of the night, he was glad, at least, that the unnamed merman was safe.
Like most days, as Keith woke slowly from sleep, he was aware of the chatter of voices and the lapping of water. But he wasn’t used to the deep ache he felt in his bones, and how frigid he was.
“How long do you think we should wait?” someone murmured.
Forever. Please, he didn’t want to be disturbed, least of all by grumpy Galra who just wanted to drag him out of bed for chores...
“Do you think he’s still alive?”
Those—those were not pirate voices.
Keith bolted upright, muscles protesting at the sudden movement. “Wha—”
The chatter stopped abruptly, and Keith looked around him to see three—no, four—no, five sets of eyes staring back at him.
Five pairs of eyes, belonging to five different mers.
Keith blinked, confused. “I—”
“You’re awake!” one of them exclaimed, clearly excited. “It was really touch and go there for a moment, but we’re glad you’re okay. I mean, not entirely okay, but alive enough, you know? We thought that maybe you’d actually die, ‘cause when—oh, I shouldn’t have said that.” Panic crossed the babbling mer’s face, before another elbowed him gently.
“Hunk, shut up.” The new speaker turned to Keith, smiling brightly. “Ignore him. I’m Pidge. And you’ve got Hunk, the talkative one, and Lance, Allura, and Coran,” Pidge continued, pointing to each of the mers in turn, who looked a combination of suspicious and hopeful.
As for Keith, well, he just felt kind of confused.
“I—what—where am I?” he rasped, coughing at the dryness in his throat. By all accounts, he should be dead, but instead he was...wherever this was. Water slid down the walls of what looked like a cave, and the mers were all lined up, watching him curiously as they floated in the pool of water next to the sandy ledge where Keith was sprawled. Sunlight filtered in weakly through an entrance overhead, far away enough that he couldn’t make it out amongst the shifting light thrown up by the water.
“You’re safe,” Pidge said, and there was something familiar about that face. Keith took in the brown hair, cropped short, and the eyes wide with curiosity, and realised—
“You’re—you’re from that night.” He looked around, and slowly memories of weeks ago came back to him. The captured merman, the beach, a pair of eyes staring at him in the dark. Which meant—
Which meant they knew where the mer was.
“Where’s your friend?”
And when Pidge didn’t question him, Keith knew that she was the one he had seen. Pidge beckoned Keith closer, gesturing at the water.
Keith peered over the ledge, into the clear turquoise of the water. And down, down below, he saw the familiar form—shock of white hair, one arm missing, in what looked like deep slumber. Keith hadn’t realised the anxiety he had felt for the mer until he saw him in that moment: peaceful, resting.
A splash startled him out of his reverie, and then Hunk’s blurry form was also moving through the water. Keith watched curiously as Hunk sped downwards, before gently prodding his friend, who shook himself awake. Hunk gestured upwards, and the other mer seemed to startle, before pushing himself up from the sand.
Then they started to ascend together, Hunk’s arm wrapped firmly around the other’s waist, the lack of arm clearly throwing him off balance. And when Keith saw the hope on the merman’s face, nerves suddenly sparked in his heart. What if the merman hated him? What if he blamed him for everything that had happened? Keith had been just as guilty, standing by as the crew had prodded and poked, what if—
Hunk broke the surface of the water, and his friend followed a moment after. His expression was still hopeful, and Keith was speechless.
But then the merman just extended a hand, resting clumsily on the ledge.
“Hi,” he said gently. “I’m Shiro. Thank you for saving me.”
Keith had never appreciated how cold it was in the cells below deck. He’d occasionally been instructed to clean them, but had never truly realised how achingly cold it was until he was thrown in unceremoniously, limbs chained, to await his fate for hours on end.
There wasn’t any doubt in his mind as to what exactly that fate would be. He could hear them already, muffled voices drifting down, occasionally loud enough for him to make out the words.
“Let him drown!”
Keith winced. That voice was unmistakably Sendak’s. No one went against Sendak and, well, that was going to be that.
Deciding not to think about how much longer he had before they tossed him over the side of the ship, Keith peered through the hole in the hull to the wide expanse of the ocean outside, chains scraping on the damp floor as he shifted. He wondered where the mer had gone. Had he been able to find his family? Keith could only hope so—it had never felt right for the creature to be held captive. Keith had seen many atrocities in his years on the ship, but there had been something so wrong about holding the mer. The pained defiance in the creature’s eyes, the deep sorrow it held. It had been without its family.
Keith knew that feeling all too well.
So in the end, it had been an easy decision to make. An easy decision to choose freedom and life, even if it meant he condemned his own.
Months passed quickly, and Keith found himself staying.
It was odd to realise that he didn’t want to leave. Unexpectedly, he’d found himself in a rhythm with a people he had no right to call his own, and he didn’t know when it had changed. The first handful of days, all he could think about was where to go next. After all, the mers lived underwater; he could never truly belong with them.
Not that the others didn’t welcome him, keeping him company as much as they could. Pidge always liked to ask him about life as a land-dweller, and Lance was always chatting. Keith didn’t see much of Shiro, who still needed to be in the water as much as possible to rest.
But no matter how friendly, whenever the mers retired underwater for the night, leaving Keith on his own, he was reminded that he wasn’t theirs. Keith had never belonged anywhere since his parents had left with nothing but a promise, and he didn’t see why it would be any different here.
And then, between one moment and the next, he found that he wanted it to be different. He didn’t know when it all changed. The realisation came, sitting on the ledge in the cave he called home, fire burning gently next to him and watching the mers lazing on the sand and basking in the faint moonlight. Feeling at peace and watching them—Hunk slowly braiding Allura’s hair, Coran imparting some piece of wisdom or another on Lance—Keith realised: I don’t want to leave.
The quiet was broken by Shiro bursting out from the water to flop dramatically onto the sand next to Keith. Even as fondness welled in Keith’s heart to see Shiro so much healthier, his heart also ached at the thought that they might all part. That their differences were too great for Keith to ever truly belong.
Shiro glanced up at him, panting after some game or another with Pidge, grinning wildly. “You should really join in, Keith. It’d be fun.”
Keith gave him a look that was hopefully stern, and not betraying the heartache he felt when he said, “You know I can’t exactly do that.”
He kicked his feet, in case the meaning was lost on Shiro.
Shiro hummed, and he fell silent, although the flicking of his tail mirrored Keith’s movements.
And just when Keith had thought that Shiro was just lost in thought, content with the silence, the other man asked the words that Keith had been both dreading and hoping to hear.
“Do you want to stay?”
The word—the admission—was difficult to voice. After all, what was the point of speaking a hopeless wish? Nevertheless, a hoarse “yes” scraped past his throat, a quiet plea he cast out to the ocean, that he floated in the moonlight.
Shiro’s eyes filled with hope at his answer.
“Do you trust me?”
And the answer to that question? Well, that was far simpler to admit.
Deep down, some part of Keith had always known that he would die aboard the ship.
They were pirates, for heaven’s sake. If he wasn’t arrested, he would no doubt be run through by some other pirate ship, dying for a cause he never believed in but needed for his own survival—or rather, an attempt to delay death.
Despite all the fear and pain, he’d never imagined it would come at the hands of his own crew. Not because they were kind, but because he had always thought he would be too smart to risk anything to upset them. But seeing the merman had changed that.
Now, here they were, dragging him as he struggled and snarled across the desk of the ship. Chains weighed down his wrists, his ankles, his neck—chains that would only be all the heavier once he was underwater.
“Let go of me,” he growled, scrabbling for any kind of purchase on the harsh wooden planks, gnashing his teeth so uselessly as his heart pounded.
I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die—
Sendak grabbed his hair, shoving his face right up to Keith’s, golden eyes glinting madly.
“I will gladly let you go,” he growled. “We should have done it long ago.”
And before Keith could snarl any other insult, he was hurled into the ocean. He didn’t have time to think or take a breath as he braced himself, knowing what would come—
Cold. Cold, cold, dark, metal dragging him down damning and final, the light above disappearing—
He wished he could’ve seen his parents again. Wished that he could be there on their return, as they’d promised.
He wish he could’ve gone home.
But there was nothing but the cold, the fear infecting his veins, the disappearing sunlight.
And the flicker of light, glinting off scales before the world went dark.
Months later, Keith waded out into the water of the cave, treading lightly to stay afloat. One hand was propped on Shiro’s shoulder, the other clasped lightly in Hunk’s firm grip, as they led him out together into the clear turquoise.
Pidge glanced at him, before her gaze flicked to Allura, who was far below them with her hands pressed to the sea floor, blue light gathering in her palms. Coran and Lance flanked her, their tails twined together with hers.
“You realise you can’t change back?” Pidge asked quietly, her voice floating gently over the water.
“I know,” Keith said. They had told him, all those months ago, the warning coming on the heels of the hopeful suggestion about how he could stay. And despite everything, Keith wasn’t rash. A little impulsive, a bit too blunt, but not rash. He couldn’t have been, to survive as long as he did.
(Maybe it had been rash to rescue Shiro the way he had, but then again, it had probably been the most sensible thing he had done in all his time aboard the ship.)
“I know,” Keith repeated, and he smiled at Pidge, his heart warm with her concern. “I want this. It’ll be okay.”
Her expression softened, and she nodded, backing away as the blue from the sea floor glowed brighter. “I’ll see you on the other side then.”
Keith nodded, before glancing at Shiro and Hunk. “I think she’s ready,” he said, watching as Allura brought her hands together before her, the glow having spread to cover her entire body.
Shiro squeezed him on the shoulder once, before paddling away, Hunk in his wake.
Looking upwards, Keith sighed. He glimpsed the moon through the opening in the cave, soft light drifting in and out of sight with the clouds. With one last breath, Keith dove underwater.
The water was silent. It was still, and as Allura headed up towards him, Keith felt as though the very liquid around him was alive.
It is, he heard Allura’s voice echo. Alive with millenia of spirits, with the age of the world, with the knowledge of the universe.
Keith dove down, reaching out for bright blue and a new belonging.
Now it is alive with your heart.
Gentle hands clasped his, and Keith felt himself come to life.
Months later, heart full with a million feelings he couldn’t begin to describe, Keith saw the moonlight shine from the red of his own tail for the first time.