“Thank you again for rescuing such a rare animal, Shiro. Syreni minisculus is an endangered species. This poor creature has been separated from it’s mother” Coran explained.
“No problem, but… what is it?” Shiro asked. He examined the round, white sack about the size of a baseball nestled in plants in a fish tank.
“Why, a mermaid of course!”
“This is a mermaid?” Shiro said.
“One that has yet to hatch from it’s egg sack. It’s ready to pop any hour now, though.”
“Wow. Can I stay and watch it hatch?”
“Of course, though you may find it boring to sit around watching me feed fish and do paperwork.”
Shiro stayed anyway. He helped feed the fish. He decided that his favorite was an odd triangle-shaped one named Rover. Then he noticed the soft egg moving.
“Coran, I think it’s ready!” Shiro could hear squeaking as it squirmed inside. Eventually the outside tore open.
A tiny arm around two inches long emerged from the rip. It was skinny and looked like a small version of an adult human arm.
Shiro was expecting the mer to look like a human infant. Instead a fully-grown yet smaller than doll-sized merman crawled out of the sack and curled his peach-colored tail around himself to rest his head on it. His dark beady eyes looked at Shiro but could hardly stay open.
“Hi” Shiro whispered.
“He’s surely exhausted. If he doesn’t start eating on his own I really should hand feed him” Coran said.
“Why does he look like an adult? Isn’t he a newborn?” Shiro asked.
“Well, this is his first time out of his egg sack and into the real world, but mermen of this species become fully developed and sexually mature before they even leave their egg. The females on the other hand are the typical size for a mermaid and hatch as infants much like humans. Besides the egg sack, that is.”
“Huh… that’s bizarre. Thanks for the science lesson, Coran” Shiro said. He wasn’t joking; this sort of thing really did fascinate him.
“If you think that’s interesting there’s so much more I could go on about. For example all genders of almost every mermaid species have a pouch on their stomach that they use to store their growing eggs or even food, tools, and their favorite objects!” Coran said enthusiastically. “But before I continue I need to feed this little fellow before I let him nap.”
Shiro watched Coran stick his hand into the tank. The merman lifted his head weakly and sniffed Coran’s hand. The older man petted him gently. The tiny thing had a mop of black hair almost to his shoulders.
“Hello, my little friend” Coran greeted. He tore off a piece of the soft egg shell and held it in front of the mer who started nibbling it.
“I bet that has a lot of nutrients in it” Shiro said.
“Yes. You should be a marine biologist yourself, Shiro” Coran suggested.
Shiro had considered it, especially later after Coran told him that they were transferring the merman to a larger commercial aquarium that actually housed other mermaids. Shiro just had to go visit. He never got to see the merman awake since he hatched and then slept the whole time, even through his transfer.
“Hey, you must be Shiro, right?” a woman with short hair and large glasses asked. “I’m Pidge and I work with the mermaids. Well, behind the scenes I mean. Hunk and Allura get the hands-on experience.”
“Sounds fun” Shiro said. He wouldn’t mind feeding or playing with the mermaids at all.
“It kinda is” Pidge admitted. “But it’s also a lot of work. So, you rescued Keith, right?”
“Keith? Is that what you call him now?”
“Yeah. Not my first choice but Hunk doesn’t like naming them something like ‘snowball’ or whatever because they aren’t pets. They’re almost as smart as we are.”
Shiro nodded. They went over to a giant tank even bigger than the ones they kept the dolphins in. He saw a beautiful merman with tan skin and a shimmering blue-green tail. That one was human-sized, though. He didn’t expect that there were any as small as Keith around.
“I don’t see Keith” Shiro commented.
“He’s in there. You saw how small he was. He can hide pretty well. The bigger one is Lance, his tank mate.”
“That’s safe? Lance won’t… eat him or crush him?” Shiro worried.
“Nah. Their species are actually really closely related and they’re very social. Lance needs the company and I don’t think he’d like the way Keith tastes” Pidge giggled. “But they don’t really get along too well yet. Keith wants space and Lance keeps trying to play with him.”
As Shiro chatted with Pidge Lance swam up to the glass and started trilling playfully and doing flips. He was excited to see Pidge. When he was close enough Shiro could see little blue markings under Lance’s eyes.
“What do you want?” Pidge teased the merman. “You big goofball. Keith’s a wet blanket, huh? In five minutes Hunk’ll be here and he’ll tire you out so much you’ll sleep for ten hours. Do you want to watch and maybe meet Lance, Shiro?”
“Yeah, of course!”
They went up a flight of stairs behind an “employees only” door until they reached a platform above the surface of the tank. A man in a wet-suit introduced himself as Hunk and started splashing the water and clicking his tongue.
Lance popped up and chirped when he saw Hunk. Hunk patted a platform that floated a couple of inches under the water and Lance pulled himself up on it.
“Hey, buddy, you wanna play? You’ve got enough energy for the whole aquarium” Hunk said. He scratched under Lance’s chin and Lance purred and slapped the platform with his tail.
Hunk reached into a bucket and pulled out a toy. It looked like a green caterpillar with a dark belly and little nubby legs. It’s face had a mustache in a similar shape to the markings under Lance’s eyes. Hunk pressed a button and turned it on. He let it loose in the water and it zipped down below for Lance to chase.
Lance disappeared after it under the water. The caterpillar moved so fast Shiro could hardly see it.
“I don’t think playing is in Keith’s nature but I still wish he’d come out more. He just sleeps and hides all the time” Hunk said.
“Maybe he just needs a familiar face?” suggested Shiro.
“Maybe so. You want to try and get his attention?”
Shiro nodded. “I want to meet Lance, too. I probably have to anyway before I get to Keith.”
“You’re right about that. Lance might feel uncomfortable with you just sticking your hands in without greeting him first.”
When Lance came back up with the caterpillar in his mouth Hunk took it and tossed Lance fish as a reward. He threw the fish over the water and Lance leapt up and caught them in his mouth. When he was done he licked his fingers and yawned, showing his sharp teeth.
“Hi, Lance” Shiro said. Lance looked at him and cocked his head. Shiro knelt down and held out a hand.
Lance swam forward cautiously. He sniffed the hand and cheeped.
“I’m a friend of Keith’s” Shiro continued. “I wanted to see you, too.”
Lance smiled. He rubbed the marks under his eyes against Shiro’s hand.
Hunk smiled, too. “That’s a good sign, Shiro. Those marks are for sharing scents with members of his social group. They’re also erogenous zones for his possible mates but I wouldn’t worry about that since he just met you.”
Shiro chuckled. “I hope. I’m taken, Lance. But I’ll tell Adam how cool you are when I get home, don’t you worry.”
Lance yawned again. He swam down lazily to take a nap in the plants.
Shiro dipped his hand in the water and hoped that Keith would smell it. “Keith? You down there? It’s me. I was with Coran when your egg hatched. Remember Coran?” He kept talking for a while and just when he was about to give up he saw something small swim up.
A very tiny little head broke the surface. Keith squeaked when he saw Shiro.
Shiro cupped his hand half in the water. Keith layed himself on Shiro’s palm.
“Hi there. You do recognize me.”
Keith squeaked again. It was the sound that he first made when he was hatching from his egg sack, a sound only Keith made.
“Aww, Shiro, he’s imprinted on you” Hunk said.
Shiro was confused. “But I thought he wasn’t a baby when he hatched?”
“He wasn’t, but if he lost his mother before he was quite ready to leave her pouch he may have imprinted a second time as an adult.”
Keith stretched himself out and got comfortable. Shiro could feel him breathing against him and felt a bit nervous to be holding such a small, fragile life in his hands. But clearly Keith trusted him and saw him as a father figure.
Shiro came to the aquarium as often as he could. Keith and Lance were always delighted to see him through the glass and would roll around and flip. The other visitors would ask how he “got them to do that.” Shiro took offense to the notion and explained that they were his friends and were happy to have him there, not trained to do tricks. No one really quite understood.
Keith hid less often. Lance still tried to play but Keith would nip him or bat him with his little tail. Sometimes Lance got annoyed back and flicked Keith away with his finger and sent him swirling off. Shiro scolded Lance from outside the glass but couldn’t help finding their antics a little humorous.
Shiro noticed that Lance was a collector. He loved to get his hands on little shiny things. He’d makes his rounds through the tank and pick up a shell or two here and there or a colorful rock and put them in his pouch. He would arrange them in the sand in patterns and decorate.
Keith made an effort not to hide away but it was obvious that he loved to squeeze himself into small spaces that a regular mer couldn’t fit in and he liked being wrapped up and protected. He’d swim around bundled in seaweed like a blanket. He’d burrow into the sand at the bottom with only part of his head sticking out, the sand dusted in his hair.
One day Shiro got Pidge and Hunk to take him “backstage” again, so to speak. That was when he met Allura. She was more reserved than the other two but very passionate about marine life, mermaids in particular. She had pink markings tattooed under her eyes to resemble a mermaid’s. When she dove into the tank to clean it or do maintenance Lance would try to rub his marks on Allura’s to say hello but her mask always got in the way.
Keith was shy around Allura, but he was shy around most people besides Shiro.
“How are ya, Shiro? Haven’t seen you in a while.” Pidge greeted.
“I’m good. Just busy. But I had to make time to see everyone” Shiro smiled.
“You’ll be happy to hear that our boys are getting along much better since the last time you came.”
“Really? That’s great!” Shiro said. “What are they up to right now? Are they sleeping?”
“Lance is hunting for treasure. Keith’s shoved himself somewhere but we lost track of him. Little booger’s gonna get stuck in a hole one day.”
Shiro’s face fell with concern for a second before Pidge laughed.
“Oh my gosh, Shiro, I was joking. Everything’s safe in there and he’s smart. He’ll be fine.”
With that Shiro bought a snack after Pidge reminded him that the place was closing pretty soon and made to enjoy what time he had left. He watched Lance swim along the bottom of the tank with his eyes peeled for goodies. He picked a flowering plant and it went in his pouch. He held a pebble in his hands, licked it, then decided against it and put it back where he found it. He ran his hands through some sea grass, plucked Keith out of it, then put the tiny merman in his pouch.
After almost choking on his popcorn Shiro heard the aquarium announce that it was closing for the day.
“Psst, Shiro” Hunk called. “I heard you came here late. Why don’t you come say hi before you leave?”
Shiro jogged up the stairs and sat by the water. Allura was sitting there as well with her gear next to her.
“Getting ready for a swim?” asked Shiro.
“I just finished what I was doing right before you came into the building I think” explained Allura.
“I see” Shiro said.
Hunk patted Shiro’s shoulder. “Sorry, dude, but I already played with them earlier so you won’t get to try out the catterpillar.”
Allura whistled and splashed the water. Lance came up and chirped excitedly, swiveling his head back and forth from face to face, almost overwhelmed. He settled on Allura and rubbed his marks on hers. She rubbed back.
“Keith just doesn’t understand this” Allura lamented. Shiro almost forgot that Keith didn’t have markings.
“Where is Keith?” Shiro asked. Hunk shrugged. Shiro called for him and splashed. He frowned when he didn’t get a response. Lance flopped on his back on the platform and made grabby-hands at Shiro.
“Yes, I didn’t forget you.”
Shiro took one of Lance’s hands and used his other to give the mer a belly rub. Lance purred loudly and brought his free hand up to play with Shiro’s white forelock of hair.
There was a squeak. Keith poked his head out of Lance’s pouch. Lance pet Keith’s head with a finger.
“Were you hiding from me?” Shiro teased. He stuck his index finger out towards Keith. Keith wrapped his little arms around Shiro’s finger and Shiro brought him up to eye level. He kissed his soft stomach and Keith squirmed around happily, squeaking and peeping.
“I bet not even the whale sharks get this much love” Hunk chuckled as he pet Lance’s tail fin.
“Did you not give one a massage two days ago?” Allura said.
“I mean, Bertie’s 84 years old, he deserves to be pampered.”
Shiro weaved through the crowd trying not to drop his pretzel. When he reached Keith and Lance’s tank the mermen didn’t notice he was there. It took Shiro a moment to even spot them.
Lance was sitting on the sand in a circle of shells, rocks, and plants. His tail fin had puffed up on a beautiful display not unlike a peacock. Other fins on his backside and hips that were normally flattened had spread out and billowed in the water as well.
Keith’s little tail fin was puffed up too and was tinged with red that it normally didn’t have at the tips. The tiny mer flitted around Lance and rubbed his body against the sensitive markings on Lance’s face.
Resisting the urge to make a scene by telling the crowd to have some decency Shiro turned around and walked away to give the mermen privacy.
Any worry for Keith being able to make a home here dissipated.