(a #sheith mer AU for #mermay feat. mer!keith and human!shiro)

Keith waits behind his normal cluster of rocks for the human to come into the cove. He's not supposed to be this close to shore, much less at the surface, but the sky has always called to him.
The man who comes to swim in the sheltered cove every other day calls to him too.

Keith bites down on his bottom lip, sharp teeth digging in as he cranes his head, watching the shore path. There's a smaller group of rocks closer in that he could potentially hide behind.
Checking the path was still empty, he decides to risk it. His tail splashes softly as he takes off, black fin tips shimmer in the morning sun before disappearing back below the water.

Keith surfaces behind the grouping of rocks. They're smaller than the ones he usually shelters
behind and significantly closer to where the man swims. He'll have to be careful today. He makes himself as small as possible and barely peeks over the rocks.

"No, Matt, I'm fine." The man's familiar voice, deep and smooth, announces his presence.
He's talking into the little device he brings with him but always leaves on shore. "I'm out for my swim and I'll deal with everything else when I get back."

He comes around the bend in the path and Keith watches with wide eyes. He can see the man so much better from this spot.
Even from further out, he'd been able to see that the hair over his forehead is a bright white while the rest is as black as Keith's, that he's well-built and strong.

But from here... he can see the definition of muscles in his arm and his legs, the sharp cut of his jaw.
The man smiles at something and Keith can see the way his face changes, the way it lights up a little. His tail swishes as the sight rockets through him and he sinks lower in the water. He's going to need better control if he wants to stay hidden here.
"Yeah, okay," the man says with a little huff. "Don't let Pidge in my apartment while I'm not there. Don't let yourself in my apartment either." A pause. "No, that's not why you have the spare key. That's not what it's for."
He grins and Keith feels himself blush. It's weird. "I'm hanging up now."

The man pulls the device away from his ear and holds it in his hand as he shrugs the bag off his shoulder. He kneels down and puts the device inside and pulls out a large piece of fabric that he
always uses to wipe the water off himself when he goes back on land.

He reaches behind him and grabs the collar of his shirt and pulls it off, dropping it on top of his bag. Keith bites his lip again as he eyes the defined planes of his chest.
He completely misses him kicking off his shoes, only startling himself out of staring when the man starts walking towards the water, a determined look on his face.

He wades until the water is up to his hips and then dips forward into the gentle waves and starts to swim.
Keith is impressed at how gracefully the man swims, especially with only one arm and no tail. He can't help but imagine how powerful of a swimmer he'd be /with/ a tail. Maybe one silver and black to match his hair.

Keith dares to lift his head a little bit, wanting a better view
of the way the man's back muscles flexed with each stroke. He's not prepared for the man to suddenly stop and float upright like he's standing in the water. He turns his head towards Keith before he has a chance to duck back behind the sheltering rocks.
Keith has just a moment to register that his eyes are silver like the tail he envisioned before it sinks in that he's been seen.

In a panic, he dives down below the waterline and takes off as fast as he can towards the open ocean, powerful strokes of his tail
sending him spearing through the surf and away from the man he's so drawn to. He doesn't stop until he's reached his caves many miles away. His heart doesn't stop racing for another hour after that.
Shiro doesn't have time to do more than blink in surprise when he realizes there's someone watching him from behind a grouping of rocks.

He gets a brief impression of wide purple eyes and dark hair before whoever it is disappears with a splash. He spies a glimpse of something
ruby red speeding through the water as he opens his mouth.

"No way," he mutters when he finally manages words. "I did not just see a mermaid. Mermaids aren't real."

/You saw something/, his brain insists.
Shiro swims over to the rocks. It's a bit further out than he's really comfortable going, but he needs to see.

There's no trace of anyone around the boulders and nowhere someone could have swam to except the shore - which Shiro would've seen - or out to sea - which is insane.
"Mermaids aren't real," he tells himself again, holding onto the rocks as he gathers himself to swim back to shore.

Today's already going to be long with Matt and Pidge coming over to work on his prosthetic and this swim being longer than normal.
He doesn't need mythical creatures on top of everything else.

Shiro makes his way back to shore, stopping a few times to rest. He dries off quickly and slips his shirt back on before hiking back out of the secluded cove and back into town and his apartment.
"Do you think mermaids exist?" He asks Pidge as she adjusts something on his arm.

Pidge shrugs, not looking up. "I don't see why they couldn't," she says. "I believe in aliens and the ocean is as fucking weird as space. Why?"

"No reason," Shiro hedges. "Just thinking about
it during my swim this morning."

"Well, if you run into a merperson ask them if they'd be willing to talk to me. I have questions." She taps on the metal of arm with her screwdriver. "All done. How's it feel?"

Shiro rotates his shoulder. "Heavy but fine."
"Wiggle your fingers," she orders.

Shiro lets Pidge put him through his paces and then has a beer with her and Matt before they leave and he collapses back on the couch. He resists the urge to unhook his arm, but the Holts need him to keep it on longer for more data.
Shiro spends the next 48 hours after his swim trying to forget about the curious purple eyes peeking out over the rocks. As much as he'd like to think that he'd imagined the whole thing, he /knows/ he saw something.
He heads down to the cove half an hour earlier than normal, not sure if he hopes to see the violet-eyed person or not.
Shiro purposefully doesn't look out towards the rocks as he slides into the water. He swims out partway and then turns over on his back to float.

He feels so free in the water. It's easier to forget how unbalanced so often these days with his prosthetic back in his apartment and
the water holding him up. The soft lap of water against rocks helps clear his mind.

Shiro takes a deep breath and turns over, eyes straying back to the rocks where he'd seen the person last time.

He's not really expecting to see violet eyes staring back at him. But they are.
Keith doesn't know why he's back. He should be anywhere /but/ here after the human saw him last time. But here he is, watching the man float in the water, something like serenity on his face.

When the man turns over, Keith once again doesn't duck fast enough and his eyes lock
with the human's.

He's about to flee again when the man calls out.

"Wait!" The man calls out. "Don't go."

Keith freezes and slowly looks back over to the man, heart pounding.

"I'm not going to..." he seems to struggle for words, "hurt you or anything."
Keith doesn't say anything but he tilts his head to the side and lifts up so his whole face is visible.

"Okay," the man whispers, obviously not realizing that Keith can still hear him. "Okay. So, you were here the other day to," he says to Keith again.
"Don't usually run into anyone here," the man continues. "Kinda like it because it's quiet."

Keith bites his lip, wondering if this is a hint that the man doesn't want him here.

The man laughs and shakes his hair out of his face. "You seem to be quiet too."
The human sighs. "I don't even know if you can understand me and I feel like an idiot talking at you and kinda assuming you're a mer...person? Is that the gender-neutral term? God, I'm losing it."
Keith hates the way the man's face twists with uncertainty and self-directed derision. He's already broken all the other rules of the pod he used to belong to, why not this one?

"What's your name?" Keith asks, voice rough with disuse. Talking above water is weird.
"Holy shit," Shiro blurts out as soon as the merman (?) speaks. "You can actually understand me?"

The merman nods, still watching him warily and staying behind the rocks.

"I'm Shiro," he says. "Well, it's a nickname but that's what everyone calls me."
The merman's eyebrows draw together. "Nickname?" he asks, the cadence of the word slightly off.

"Yeah, like a shortened version of a name," he explains. He pauses. "Can I ask your name?"
The merman smirks and Shiro is struck with exactly how attractive he is with his big violet eyes and features that are a little to sharp to be human.

"Sure," he says.

It takes Shiro a second but he laughs as his jab sinks in. "What's your name?"

"I'm Keith," he says.
"Keith," the man - Shiro - repeats, rolling it off his tongue easier than he's ever heard a mer say it. His smile is gentle and possibly the most beautiful thing Keith's ever seen. "Nice to meet you."

"You too," Keith says, trying not to stumble over his words. He knows English,
but he doesn't exactly speak it often since this is the first human he's talked to. He mostly learned it from lurking too close to shore and docks and ships, listening in.

"Are- are you actually a merperson?" Shiro asks, curiosity and awe in his voice.

Keith nods carefully.
He's been taught to be wary of humans for as long as he can remember. Most mers stay far away from them, generally pretending they're not afraid.

"Could I come over to your rocks?" Shiro asks. I'm getting a little tired floating here and could use something to hold onto."
Worry immediately crosses Keith's face and Shiro hears a splash. "Do you want help? You don't usually come out this far?"

Shiro is a little taken aback. "How long have you been watching me?"
He watches Keith blush, charmed at the blooming red. "A while. I was usually further out."

"Okay," Shiro says, not as weirded out as he thought he might be.

"Okay? You want help?" Keith asks earnestly. "Here or do you want to go back to shore?"
"I'll come over there. I can do it without help," Shiro says. "Just might take me a minute."

"Okay," Keith says.

Shiro swims over to Keith's rocks as quickly as he can manage and clings to the rocks, opposite Keith.
"You swim well for someone without a tail," Keith says after a moment.

Shiro feels the tension that had built in his shoulders st the beginning of that sentence release with the last word. He was too used to strangers commenting on his arm.
"Most humans I've seen swim," the word is dripping with derision, "use too many movements. Not..."

Shiro watches him flounder for a word. "Efficient?" He offers.

Keith's mouth quirks in a smile. "Yes."

"Had to learn to be more efficient after I lost my arm," Shiro admits.
"Makes sense," Keith says with a nod.

Silence stretches between them and Shiro takes the opportunity to study Keith up close. His hair is inky black and tied back in a braid that he cant see the end of and his skin looks impossibly smooth and pale.
There's strength in the set of his shoulders and his arms are all wiry muscle. One of his hands is spread on the rock and there's webbing between fingers that are all tipped with claws. His teeth are slightly pointed too, fangs almost.

This is definitely an apex predator.
"Why were you watching me?" Shiro asks after a moment.

Keith drags his eyes up from where he'd been looking at Shiro's hands (big and strong, even if lacking claws).

"It was an accident the first time," he says slowly. "Then I found you interesting so I came back."
"Are you just interested in humans in general? Is that why you speak English?"

"I am, but you're the first one I've talked to," Keith admits.


His tail twitches in annoyance. "I listen," he snaps. "Places where humans talk but dont look at the water too closely."
"Makes sense," Shiro says, offering Keith's words back to him. "If you ever decide you want to talk to another human, I have a friend who'd love to ask you some questions."

He watches fear cause Keith eyes to slit and the merman draws back. "No others," he says. "Dangerous."
"Okay," Shiro tries to soothe. "No others, I promise."

He watches Keith relax slightly but his claws still scrape against the rock and his eyes aren't back to what Shiro would consider normal yet.

But he wonders... "Why are you talking to me?"
Keith narrows slitted eyes and leans back again "Do you not...want to talk to me?"

Shiro's known him for all of ten minutes but he can read the hurt rolling off him in waves.

"Course I do," he assures him, smiling softly. "Just... why me?"
Keith hesitates and Shiro has a brief moment of fear that maybe smiling has different connotations to a species that has sharp teeth. Did he threaten Keith accidentally? Keith smiled briefly but didnt show teeth. Oh God, he DID threaten him. But he's seen humans, he has to know..
"I wasn't planning to talk to you," Keith says, interrupting Shiro's spiralling thoughts. "Just being this close to the surface and shore is dangerous. If I still swam with a pod.. " He shakes his head and looks away.
Keith's heart pounds. "I feel..." He peeks up through long lashes. "I feel like you won't try to trap me because I'm something different from you."

The words "I trust you" hide between syllables and beats of his heart. They feel true but Keith holds onto them. Not earned yet.
"I wouldn't," Shiro says and it holds the weight of a promise, "I won't."

He sees the tips of Keith's fangs dig into his lip as the merman nods.

"So being close to the shore and surface is dangerous?" Shiro asks.
Keith gives him a Look. "Humans are dangerous. Mers stay hidden for a reason."

Shiro nods. That's completely fair. "But not you," he says.

Keith takes a deep breath and is glad Shiro can't see the way his tail fin twitches with his nerves.
"I've been told that my curiosity is going to get me killed one day," Keith says, attempting a casual shrug.

The elders of the pod he'd grown up in had lectured on it often enough and it was cited in the decision to expel him from the community.
That's a bit heavy for a first conversation though.

Shiro flashes him another smile, something that feels soft and makes his insides squirm. "I'm glad your curiosity led you here," he says. "Meeting you is.... it's good."
"Good," Keith echoes.

Shiro thinks there's a pleased tilt to his lips. He's trying to come up with another line of conversation when Keith's head whips towards shore.

"What is it?" Shiro asks, squinting at the rocky beach that still looks empty.
"Something is... buzzing?" Keith says.

"Might be my phone," Shiro offers. "I left it on vibrate."

Keith turns to look at him. "Phone?" he says carefully. "Is that... the device you talk into sometimes?"

Shiro nods. "Communication device that I can use to talk to other people
who have one too." He pauses. "You can hear my phone vibrating from out here?"

"Better hearing than humans," he says, staring back at shore, brows furrowed. "Better underwater too." After a moment, the tension drains back out of him. "It stopped," he says.
"They'll leave a message or call again if they need me," Shiro tells him. "Is this how you were able to learn English without being seen? Really good hearing?"

Keith nods. "Yeah. Took a bit to figure out that you couldn't hear as well so I didn't have to be silent myself."
Shiro can imagine Keith holed up and listening to people talk and quietly sounding out the words to himself as he tries to learn.

"What-" Keith cuts himself off with another glance at shore. "It's doing it again."

"Shit," Shiro swears under his breath. "I probably need to go
see who's calling. No one usually calls twice in a row, especially on one of my swimming mornings."

"Do you..." Keith pauses. "Do you want me to take you to shore? It would be faster."

Shiro considers for a moment. Keith's not offering because he thinks Shiro /can't/ do it,
just offering because it's something he obviously can do more efficiently and time might be important.

Plus, if he lets Keith help, he'll probably get to actually catch a glimpse of Keith's tail.

"You wouldn't mind?" Shiro asks.
"I offered, didn't I?" Keith scoffs.

"You did," Shiro says with a smile. "Okay, you can take me back to shore."

Keith smiles back, sharp teeth flashing for a moment before he disappears below the water. Shiro knows a brief moment of fear before Keith breaches the water right
in front of him.

Shiro goes breathless as he sees the water bead on Keith's face. His skin must be different than human, he thinks. He glances down and takes in the toned chest before dragging his eyes back up.

"Ready?" Keith asks, looking amused.
Shiro nods, hoping his blush isn't too noticeable.

Keith wraps an arm around Shiro's waist and tells him to hold on. Shiro mirrors the movement and finds Keith's skin to be cool and smooth to the touch, the texture somehow different than what he's accustomed to.
As soon as Shiro is secured to Keith's side, Keith gives a powerful kick of his tail and sends them rocketing towards shore, enjoying the little noise Shiro lets out as they start moving.
Keith's tail brushes against Shiro's legs as they move through the water faster than Shiro's ever experienced before. The fact that Keith must be able to move faster than this when he's not weighed down by another person.

Incredible, he thinks.
They reach shore, what would've been a ten minutes swim for Shiro, in three minutes flat. Keith slows to a stop in the shallow water and lets go of Shiro.

Shiro takes a deep breath and sits in the water, just staring at Keith. From this angle he can see that his braid reaches
hip length, right where skin starts giving away to scales. The water is murky from the dirt they've stirred up and he can't really make out what his tail /looks/ like.

"Thank you," he stutters out.

The fin of Keith's tail, iridescent black, flips out of the water for a second.
"You're welcome," Keith says. "Bit slower when I have to keep us above water."

"It was incredible," Shiro breathes. "Thanks."

Keith blushes and it creeps down his neck. The water ripples by his tail again.
"Can I-" Shiro starts. The buzz of his phone cuts him off.

"You should get that," Keith says. "Someone needs you and I should go."

Shiro hesitates. "Will you be here tomorrow?"

"I can be."

"Meet me here tomorrow morning," Shiro says. "I'd like to talk to you more."
Keith tucks a stray piece of hair behind his ear and Shiro notices that it's pointed. He wants to touch but pulls away.

"Okay," Keith says. "I'll be here." He pauses. "You're not... bringing anyone? You don't usually... come here two days in a row."
"I promise I won't," Shiro swears. He can't blame Keith for being cautious, even if it stings a little. "I won't ever bring someone with me without your permission. I'll be talking very loud if someone does try to come so you know not to approach."
Keith's whole face softens with relief. "Thank you," he whispers. "I want to talk to you more, too. I'll be here."

"I'll see you tomorrow, then," Shiro says, standing up, water streaming down his form.
"Tomorrow," Keith repeats. He smiles once more and then turns around and disappears into the water of the cove with another flip of his black tail fin.

Shiro stares after him until the insistent buzz of his phone demands his attention.
Matt's name is emblazoned on the screen next to the notification of five missed calls. Shiro answers.

"What's going on?" He says in lieu on a greeting.

"Why the fuck weren't you answering your phone?" Matt shoots back.

Shiro relaxes a little. Matt wouldn't sound annoyed if
something major was wrong.

"I was swimming," he says. "You know, like I do frequently."

"Right," Matt says, sounding abashed. "I didn't think about that."

"So, why did I drag myself out of the water to answer your sixth call of the morning?"
"Um, well..."

"Spit it out, Holt," Shiro says. "I'm standing here dripping because I can't dry off and hold the phone at the same time." He could use his shoulder to hold the phone but... it's wet too.
"I wanted to see if you would go with Pidge to the thing tonight? Science dinner or whatever?"

"And that was urgent enough for /six/ phonecalls?"

"Well, after the second one I was just concerned that you weren't answering like you usually do."
"Matt." He can't believe this is what cut his time with Keith short.

"Dude, you were spacey the last couple days. I worry." Matt sounds sincere and Shiro feels a pang of guilt.

"Sorry," he says. "Just got caught up in my head. Nothing bad or arm-related," their shorthand for
all the trauma surrounding the loss of limb, "just... daydreams more than anything."

Matt makes a considering sound. "Does somebody have a crush?" He singsongs.

Shiro flushes bright red and is glad that this is a phone conversation. "I'm sure somebody does," he retorts evenly.
"Weak," Matt shoots back. "Okay, but Pidge's thing?"

"I'll consider it and text you when I get home," Shiro decides. He'll go to Pidge's science dinner, but Matt deserves to sweat it out a little.


"Insulting the person you're asking for a favor is not smart."
"You can't see me but I'm flipping you off in spirit," Matt says.

"Same to you," Shiro replies with a laugh. "Hanging up now. Talk to you later."

He ends the call without waiting for an answer and trades his phone for his towel to dry off.
He wonders is Keith stayed close enough to listen. The thought makes him smile.

"I'll see you tomorrow," he calls out, just in case, after putting in his shirt and shouldering his bag.

He doesn't think he imagines the flip of a tail fin out in the mouth of the cove.
Keith swims into the cove at sunrise, anticipation and anxiety spurring him on. He barely got anything done yesterday, spending all day turning over his interaction with Shiro. He doesn't know what to expect from today but... he's excited.
Shiro wants to talk to him and that's more than he ever expected, if he's being honest.

Keith swims around the cove as he waits for the sun to climb to the position it usually sits in when Shiro shows up.
On his second circuit, he spots a shell. It's big and shaded with lavender and gray and white over the conical shape. It's beautiful and Keith plucks it from the sand with gentle fingers. Maybe Shiro will like it.
His face flushes as he realizes he's already picking out /gifts/ for the man, but he doesn't put the shell back down.

Keith has time to second guess his decision to give a gift several times before he hears Shiro on the shore.
He bites his lip and decides to go for it. It probably won't have the same meaning amongst humans anyways.
Shiro drops his bag on the rocky shore and stares out at the sun glinting off the calm waters of the cove. His eyes stray to the rocks where he talked to Keith yesterday. He's still thrumming with the thrill of talking to Keith, and it's only partially because he's a merperson.
"Keith?" He calls out towards the water as he kicks off his shoes. He can't go fully in the water today since he's wearing his prosthetic, but he can wade out a bit. "Are you here?"
A second later, Keith's head and shoulder emerge from the water right around where Shiro knows there's a dropoff.

"Hello," Keith says, an almost shy look on his face. His eyes drop down to the silver prosthetic and stay there for a second.
For once, Shiro doesn't mind. There's curiosity in his eyes but no pity, and there's a good chance he's never seen anything like it before.

"Hello," he echoes with a smile. He lifts his right arm a little. "Can't swim since I'm wearing my arm today."
Keith's brows draw together. "You can't swim with it?"

"Too heavy," Shiro admits. "And we're not sure how it would affect the mechanics of it if I submerged it in ocean water."

Keith hums, not moving yet.
"Do you mind if I sit up here while we talk?" Shiro asks, suddenly nervous.

"It's fine," Keith says. "I'll come up there."

Shiro smiles. "Does that mean I finally get to see what your tail looks like?"
Keith's face flushes red and Shiro realizes that he might have been rude. Again, potentially.

"I'm so sorry, that was probably rude," he stutters out. "I'm just curious and my mouth got ahead of me and..." He shuts his mouth with a click, face aflame.
He really wishes he could just google mermaid etiquette so he knew how to avoid sticking his foot in his mouth.

At least he's finding new and interesting ways to do so. A refreshing change from his usual ineptness when talking to human guys he finds attractive.
He can't even begin to deny the fact that he finds Keith attractive and his normal tendencies to be less than smooth were bound to take over at some point.

"It's fine," Keith says after a moment. "I didn't understand everything you just said. Too fast, I think."
He smiles slightly. "And yes, you can see my tail. It's not rude, I was just... surprised, I think. Forgot you haven't really seen me as much as I've seen you."

Shiro nods and steps back a little so he can sit in the shallow water.
Keith disappears below the waterline and Shiro tracks his progress through the opaque water. He surfaces a few yards from Shiro and slowly closes the gap.

When he's about an armslength away, he flips over and sits up, leaning back on his arms and looking out towards the cove.
His tail is pointed out in front of him, still partially obscured by the dirt in the water kicked up from their movements.

"Hi," Shiro says, trying not to immediately let his eyes down to what he can see of his tail.
Keith rolls his eyes and huffs out a laugh. "We did that already. You can look, Shiro."

Shiro smiles and he knows his face is a bright pink at this point. He trails his eyes down Keith's torso, admiring the wiry strength obvious there and lingering where skin starts to give way
to scales around his waist. Despite the scales being a deep ruby red, there's no defined line between skin and scales, just a gentle change somehow.

The water is starting to clear and Shiro can see the long length of Keith's tail in full.
It's gorgeous, a deep red that darkens subtly until it reaches the black tail fin Shiro's already seen a couple of times. There is a sheen to his scales that makes him think they would shimmer in direct sunlight.

He swallows hard and drags his eyes back up to Keith's,
easily reading the nerves there.

"Beautiful," Shiro breathes, offering another smile. It feels a little sappy and smitten but he has no chance of changing that. It's almost refreshing to be dealing with a crush after everything else.
Keith's cheeks flush a pretty pink and then he shifts, pulling one of his hand into his lap, around where skin starts giving way to scales.

"I have something for you," Keith says. He holds out his hand, revealing a large shell. The spirals are perfectly formed and
colored in shades of lavender, grey, and pearl. "A gift," he continues, an odd weight put on the statement.

Shiro takes the shell, fingertips brushing against Keith's palm as he does. "Thank you, Keith," Shiro says. "I'll treasure it. It's beautiful."
Keith looks pleased with his response and his shoulders relax.

They sit in silence for a minute before Keith asks if he can look at Shiro's arm. Shiro figures that he got to stare at Keith's tail and this is more than fair.
He holds out his arm, expecting Keith to give it a thorough visual inspection. He's not expecting the way Keith reaches out and cradles his metal forearm between his hands.

Shiro bites back a shiver as Keith trails one hand up his arm, almost to the join between
prosthetic and skin before sliding back down to drag against his fingers. Shiro's breathless as he plays with his fingers for a second. The sensors in the prosthetic are lighting up like crazy, sending signals to his brain like sparks.
He kinda wishes his regular arm was getting this treatment.

Keith glances up at his face and catches the dumbstruck look there. He glances back down at his hands and then Shiro's face. "Can you feel this?"

Shiro nods.
Keith drops his arm, pulling away as fast as he can. "Sorry," he says. "I didn't realize. I should've asked."

"It's fine," Shiro tells him and he /sounds/ sincere. "I would've told you if it wasn't."

He studies Shiro's face and finds nothing but open honesty. "Okay."
Shiro realizes that he's not the only one floundering with trying to figure out different social conventions here. Keith might have the advantage of observing humans, but he's already indicated that Shiro's the first one he's interacted with.
"I didn't know humans could make things like that," Keith says after a moment.

"Most people who have a prosthetic," he moves his arm to let him know what the likely unfamiliar word means, "can't feel anything with it. Mine's a bit experimental. Perk of having science-y friends."
He pauses. "Do mers have things like this?"

Keith nods. "I've seen a few. The ones who can feel things with it are created by powerful druids, though. It's usually not worth the price."

"Price? Like, monetary?"
Shiro has so many questions as to how merperson society works and this seems as good of a place to start as any.

Keith shakes his head. "We don't usually use money. It's a trade of services and favors usually."

"Not goods?"
Keith blushes and Shiro doesn't understand. "No. Trading physical things is... different."

Shiro feels like this is something he shouldn't pry into yet, but the shell Keith gifted him with suddenly feels more significant.
"So, what kind of price are you talking?" Shiro asks, going back to the original question.

"Magic always comes at a steep price," Keith says slowly, obviously trying to pick the right words. "Especially when you ask a druid for something. They always want... something of you."
He pauses, mutters something in a barely audible, guttural language. "They ask for a piece of your soul, almost."

Shiro shudders. "Definitely doesn't sound worth the cost."

Keith cocks his head to the side. "Do humans not have druids?"
Shiro shakes his head. "Most humans don't believe in magic. We're pretty science-based."

"Do you? Believe in magic?"

Normally, Shiro would shrug and shake his head but he pauses, really thinking about it. Two days ago, he didn't know merpeople existed. The world obviously holds
more things than he knows. Science hasn't been able to explain everything yet, so who's to say magic can't exist too?

"Haven't thought about it much," Shiro says. "But I don't not believe in it." /In you,/ he thinks. It's a gut feeling that Keith won't lie to him. He trusts him.
Keith considers that for a moment and then nods. "So, Shiro, what do you do when you're not here swimming?"

Shiro laughs and tells him about his job with the Garrison and what he does when he's not working and answers as many of Keith's questions as he can.
(Keith is full of questions. What exactly is "Netflix"? What does fish taste like cooked? Isn't having to cook everything over heat before eating it tiring and hot? Does walking get tiring too and how far is too far to walk for most people?)
He knows a lot from listening and watching humans from a distance, but he could never /ask/ anything before.

Shiro has questions of his own and tosses them at Keith whenever he can.
He learns that mers usually live in communities of up to 100 mers, called pods. Most had extended familial networks and different kinds of mers lived in different waters and depths. He learns that Keith spends much of his time hunting fish and mapping the area.
He does odd jobs for a nearby pod when he needs something he can't get himself.

Shiro wants to ask why Keith seems to not actually be part of the pod or mention any family but he lets it lie for now. The sun is getting high and his consulting is on his own schedule these days,
but he probably should show his face before lunch.

"I need to go," he tells Keith. "I have to work today."

It's painful to watch the small smile drop off of Keith's face. "Yeah, I probably should get going too."
"I'll be back for my normal swim tomorrow," Shiro offers, hoping that Keith will be back too. "Maybe we can talk more then?"

"I'll be here," Keith promises. He ducks his head, mostly dry bangs obscuring his eyes. "I like talking to you."
"Well that's good," Shiro says, leaning over to nudge Keith's shoulder with his own, "because I like talking to you, too."

The wonder in Keith's purple eyes almost undoes him. He wishes he didn't look so surprised at such a simple indication of friendship, of being liked.
"So, I'll see you tomorrow, then," Shiro says when Keith stays quiet.

"Yeah, yeah, I'll see you then," Keith says. He starts edging further into the water. "Until tomorrow, Shiro."

He flashes a quick smile, sharp teeth glinting, and then disappears into the waves.
They start meeting almost every day on the beach. Shiro can't always come on his non-swimming days, but he tries. Keith is always there.

Shiro's put up a little shelf in his bedroom that holds the tiny treasures Keith gifts him occasionally. In addition to that first shell,
he has a couple of coins, a pearlescent shell, a geode with purple crystals, and a couple pieces of sea glass.

Two months in, Shiro thinks to snap a picture of the shelf on his phone to show Keith. In fact, he films a quick video tour of his apartment.
Keith is always fascinated by his phone and this will be a fun thing for tomorrow's visit and a reason to be up close to shore. He loves the days where he can see Keith's tail in full and watch loose strands of hair start to dry and curl.
Shiro packs a couple of sandwiches the next morning, makes sure his phone charged overnight and heads down to the cove with a bounce in his step.

As soon as the water is in sight, he calls out. "Hey Keith, got some stuff to show you!"

There's a couple seconds of silence where
Shiro starts to worry that Keith's not actually here for once before Keith surfaces close to shore.

"Beach day?" Keith asks, guessing from Shiro's words and the fact that his prosthetic is on.

"Yeah, I want to show you something on my phone."
Shiro sets down his bag just past the water line and kicks off his sandals. Keith is already moving up into the shallow water and sitting up, watching Shiro expectantly.

Shiro tosses him the extra towel and watches Keith dry off his hands and arms so he can use Shiro's phone.
Shiro sits next to him and watches as Keith does another pass over his hands, focusing on the webbing between his fingers.

"Is it more cat videos?" Keith asks, looking at Shiro with a sly smirk.

Shiro blushes. "No, but I can pull more up if you want."
Keith tosses the towel back towards Shiro's bag. "No, I want to see whatever you're planning."

"It might be boring, but I realized that I haven't actually shown you where I live so I filmed a little video tour."

Keith's eyes light up. "Your apartment? Really?"
"Yeah," Shiro says with a little laugh. "I would just invite you over but..."

Keith makes a face and then holds out a hand for Shiro's phone. Shiro pulls up the video and then hands it to him, letting his fingers drag against the webbing on Keith's hands.
Keith shivers.

"Sorry," Shiro apologizes immediately.

"It's fine," Keith says. "Just a sensitive spot."

Shiro bites his tongue before he can ask what else is a sensitive spot. He can't help but wonder, though. His fingers still itch to find out what Keith's tail feels like.
Keith starts the video and Shiro leans over, pressing their shoulders together so he can watch and answer any questions Keith has. He'd narrated the video what room he was in and what he usually did there.

Keith is rapt as he goes through the living room and kitchen.
He rattles off a few questions about the kitchen, which Shiro answers as best as he can.

"I don't actually cook much," he admits. "I can make a few things but I'm not very good at it."

Keith nudges him in the ribs. "You can cook better than me."

Shiro laughs.
Keith starts the video back up and it shows Shiro's guest bedroom and the bathroom. Keith eyes the bathtub and asks if they're all so small.

"Mine's actually one of the bigger ones," Shiro says. "The standard ones aren't as wide or deep."
"I don't think my tail would fit in there."

Shiro eyes his tail. "It'd be a tight fit," he admits.

Keith hits play once more, claw clacking against the screen.

The video heads into Shiro's bedroom. It's pretty basic, not that different than the guest room really, except...
Keith scrambles to pause it when the camera pans across the little shelf of treasures.

"Are those..." he trails off, voice thready.

"Yeah," Shiro says. He reaches for the phone and navigates to his gallery to show the pictures of the shelf he'd taken.
"Put up the shelf a couple weeks ago so I could keep everything in one place. No one else really goes in my room so I don't have to worry about people asking where they come from."
Keith's heart is pounding. Shiro has all of his gifts in the most private room in his house, had specifically made a special place to hold them.

Maybe these warm feelings Shiro inspires in him aren't as one sided as he thought.
"Keith?" Shiro asks after he's silent for a few more seconds. "Is it... okay?"

"Yeah," Keith says with a nod, voice hoarse. "It's perfect."

Shiro doesn't entirely know how to interpret the expression on Keith's face.
He doesn't think he's ever seen his sharp-planed face look so soft, so human.

"I love it," Keith says. He reaches out and touches the screen of the phone lightly, right over where the first shell is in the photo. He swallows hard and then pulls his hand back.
"I would show you my cave but I don't have a camera," Keith says. "It's nothing much, anyways."

"Tell me about it?" Shiro asks. "I brought sandwiches again if you want to eat and talk."

"What kind?"

"The PB&J you liked last time and a ham and cheese."
Keith's heart melts a little more as Shiro puts his phone away and pulls out two plastic baggies with sandwiches inside. This is the third time Shiro's brought him human food to try and he loves it.
Bread is a novelty that he's a little obsessed with, even before considering what's in the sandwich.

"I'll try the new one first," he says. Shiro pulls half out of the bag and hands it to him, quickly listing off the ingredients.
He watches with interest as Keith's sharp teeth cut through the bread and sandwich fixings with almost disturbing ease.

Keith chews thoughtfully and then swallows. Shiro watches the bob of his throat before lifting his eyes back up. "Like it?" he asks.
Keith nods and takes another big bite. Shiro chuckles and takes half of the pb&j for himself.

"So, what's your cave like?" He asks.

"Small," Keith says after swallowing another bite. "Well-hidden, which it has to be since I'm on my own."
"Can I..." Shiro pauses. "Can I ask why you live on your own instead of with a pod?"

Keith freezes for a second and then nods. "I used to be part of a pod further south," he says. The words are stilted in a way they haven't been lately, like the subject matter makes Keith less
sure of his grasp of English again. "I grew up in that pod but I was still somewhat of an outsider. They took me in as a kid when my dad didn't come back from a hunt. He was a loner but I was too young to be on my own."
Shiro feels like his sandwich is stuck in his throat. He carefully wraps an arm around Keith, pulling him close and offering silent comfort. Keith leans into him.

"They took care of me, but I was never family to any of them. Made it easier for them to exile me from the pod when
they decided that my interest in humans was becoming too dangerous."

"They just kicked you out?" Shiro asks, not bothering to stifle his outrage. "How old were you?"

Keith shrugs. "Seventeen. Old enough to keep myself alive."
Shiro clenches his jaw and is glad Keith can't see what's probably a murderous look on his face.

"It's fine, Shiro," Keith says, moving to rest a hand on Shiro's thigh. "It was a long time ago."

"It's not fine," Shiro argues. "What they did isn't right. Seventeen isn't even an
adult in most human cultures."

"On the edge for mers, too," Keith admits. "We live longer than humans but you have to grow up fast to survive in the ocean."

"How old are you?" Shiro asks out of curiosity.

"Twenty-five. I think." Keith tilts his head up. "How old are you?"
"Twenty-eight, or if we're going by how many technical birthdays I've had... seven."

"I... don't understand," Keith says after a moment.

Shiro chuckles and leans his cheek against the top of Keith's head. "I'll explain leap day another time, promise."
"I'll hold you to that," Keith says, settling back against Shiro's shoulder.

"So, why didn't you join another pod? You said before that you trade with a local one?"

Keith sighs and Shiro feels his cool breath through his shirt. "Didn't see the point. Was going to be an outsider
there too. Easier to just be an outsider from the outside."

Shiro rubs his thumb in soothing circles just above where his scales start. He knows that feeling too. It's lonely.

His hand edges down a little bit until his pinky is brushing against scales.

Keith sucks in a breath.
"Okay?" Shiro asks, ready to yank his hand back up.

Keith nods against him. "You've just never touched my tail before," he says slowly. "I thought it must freak you out or something."

"No!" Shiro blurts out. "I just didn't know if it was rude but I wanted to."
He manages to cut himself off before he reveals that he has daydreamed at length and in detail about touching Keith's tail because he's fully aware of how weird that sounds.

"It's fine, Shiro. You can touch if you want to." Keith pulls away from where they've been sitting
pressed up against each other. "Here," he says, rearranging so that his tail is draped over Shiro's outstretched legs.

Keith's tail is heavy in his lap, pure muscle Shiro thinks. He hesitates, stealing a look at Keith to make sure it's really okay
before stuffing the rest of his sandwich in his mouth and resting both hands on the red scales.
He strokes down Keith's tail with his flesh hand, registering the unique texture and ocean-cool temperature. It's smoother than Shiro expected. He can feel little ridges where the scales overlap each other but the scales themselves are slick.
Gently, he runs his fingers the opposite direction.

"Careful," Keith rasps out.

Shiro freezes and looks over at Keith, taking in his blush and trying to ascertain if he made him uncomfortable.

"The edges can be sharp going that way," he says. "Don't want you to get cut."
"Okay," Shiro breathes. "This is okay, though? Doesn't hurt?"

"It's good," Keith says.

And it's so good. Keith is fighting down his reactions to having someone touch him. It's been so long since someone's touched his tail just because they could.
He half wants to pull away because it's overwhelming and half wants to push into it, to just ask Shiro to hold onto him until it feels like his body isn't about to shake apart from a few simple touches.
Somehow, Shiro touching his tail is more intense than the touches to skin he's always been generous with, though those are always a lot too.

He closes his eyes and tries to memorize the way Shiro's careful, curious fingers feel against his scales.
His tail fin twitches, splashing Shiro a little and startling a laugh out of him.

"Sorry!" Keith feels his face going fully red.

"It's fine. Ticklish?"

"Something like that," Keith mumbles, not wanting to own up to the fact that a few innocent touches have him tingling.
"I think I've told you before, but your tail is beautiful," Shiro says, his own cheeks tinting pink. "The color is..."

"It's not a common color," Keith admits. "Mostly makes sure that every pod can mark me as an outsider on sight."
Shiro frowns. "That's awful. I think it's gorgeous. The red is so... it's luminous."

He's so close to just telling Keith that he thinks he's gorgeous just in general. All of him. But he bites his tongue.
"Thank you," Keith says after a moment. "No one's ever..." he trails off and Shiro's heart breaks a little bit.

"Well, they're all blind," he declares. He remembers something else he stashed in his bag the other day all of a sudden. "Oh! I almost forgot."
"Forgot what?"

"Let me up real quick?" Shiro asks, tapping on Keith's tail. "I saw something that reminded me of you a few days ago."
Keith moves his tail off of Shiro and Shiro moves over to his bag and starts digging through it. His fingers close around the necklace he'd probably overpaid for. He just saw it and knew he had to get it for Keith.
"The color reminded me of your tail and it looks like it will at least hold up in the water for a bit," He says, moving back into the water, necklace still hidden in his fist.

Keith is staring at him, wide-eyed. Shiro opens his hand before he can start second-guessing himself.
The necklace features a red stone pendant strung on a leather throng. Shiro thinks it's a garnet but isn't entirely sure. He just knows the red almost perfectly matches Keith's tail.
"It's... for me?" Keith asks, stopping with his hand in midair as he reaches for it. "You got it for me?"

Shiro smiles, a soft, pleased thing. "Yeah. It reminded me of you, like I said. I thought you might like it."
Keith's fingers brush against the stone still nestled in Shiro's palm. His eyes flick from the necklace to Shiro's face and back, something blooming on his face that Shiro can't quite name.

Keith lurches forward suddenly, wrapping his arms around Shiro in a tight and more than a little damp hug. Shiro's just managed to return it when Keith pulls back a little and moves his hands to cup Shiro's face.

"You got me a gift," he breathes.
"I did," Shiro agrees, absolutely lost but completely willing to be right here with Keith staring at him with wonder in his eyes from two inches away.

Keith tilts forward and presses his lips to Shiro's. It's a quick kiss, a little firm and a little colder than Shiro's used to.
Keith pulls back before Shiro has a chance to kiss him back. Shiro makes a strangled noise and brings the hand that's not gripping the necklace up to tangle in the hair at the base of his skull, messing up his braid as he pulls him in for a softer, lingering kiss.
It's nothing like he's imagined, and he's imagined it a lot, but Shiro is absolutely in heaven when he traces his tongue across the seam of Keith's lips and tastes salt.

This is real and happening and so much better than his dreams and imaginings.
Keith pulls back before Shiro can coax him into letting him get a deeper taste. He presses his forehead against Shiro's, eyes closed.

"Thank you," he whispers, voice wavering and rough and so sincere that it burrows straight into Shiro's heart.
"Of course," Shiro whispers back. "If I knew better what could survive underwater I'd be getting you so many things."

Keith opens his eyes. They look so otherworldly from this close. Shiro wants to drown in them. "You mean that?"

"Yeah, Keith," he breathes. "I do."
Shiro brings his hand up to cup Keith's cheek.

"No one's given me a gift since my dad disappeared," Keith admits. "There wasn't anyone who would...want to."

He makes a choked noise and Shiro leans forward and kisses him again, chaste and soft.
"I want to," Shiro says. He feels like there's more to this gift-giving in mer culture than what he understands, but Keith is so special to him and he'll do anything to make sure he knows that. "I want to give you so many things, if you'll let me."
"Of course I'll let you," Keith says. "Shiro!"

Shiro chuckles and pulls back a little to look at Keith properly. "Well, you haven't actually accepted this gift yet."

Keith rolls his eyes and twists so Shiro can see the back of his neck. "Put it on me?" He asks.
With Keith holding his braid and stray pieces of hair out of the way, Shiro can see sets of gills behind Keith's pointed ears. It takes a concentrated effort to fiddle with the necklace clasp instead of dragging his fingers over the closed gills.
He gets the necklace clasped and then presses a kiss over it, right at the base of Keith's neck.

"There we go," he says.

Keith turns back to him with the softest smile on his face, long fingers already fiddling with the red pendant. It looks beautiful on him.
"Thank you," Keith whispers.

"Of course," Shiro replies. He leans forward and kisses Keith again, soft and slow and sweet.

"I really like you," Shiro admits when he pulls back, forehead resting against Keith's. "A lot."
"I like you too," Keith says. His claws scrape through Shiro's undercut with devastating gentleness. "A lot."

Shiro grins, sappy and delighted. "That's good."

Keith huffs out a laugh and rolls his eyes. "Yeah. It is."
Shiro's thumb rubs against Keith's waist, against both scales and skin and he feels Keith's shiver. He's leaning in for another kiss when his phone starts ringing.

Shiro growls which just makes Keith laugh, even though he'd been giving the device a murderous glare of his own.
"You should get that," Keith says. "Your friends worry when you don't answer."

"They could have better timing," Shiro grumbles.

"They could," Keith agrees, barely holding back laughter at this point.
The phone stops ringing.

"I have hunting to do today," Keith says. "So I should go, anyways."

"I'll see you tomorrow?" Shiro asks.

"Of course," he replies with a smile.

Shiro leans in and kisses him quickly.

His phone starts ringing again and Keith laughs against his lips.
"Go," he says. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"Until tomorrow," Shiro agrees. He ducks his head and looks at Keith through his lashes. "I'm glad you like the necklace."

Keith wraps his fingers around the pendant. "I love it, Shiro."
"Good." His phone signals a third call and he's actually going to murder Matt this time if it's not something urgent.

"See you later, Shiro." Keith presses one last kiss to Shiro's cheek and then brushes the spot with his fingers before turning and disappearing into the water.
It turns out that it's the Garrison calling, not Matt. Shiro isn't any less annoyed. Technically, as a consultant, it's not really his job to come fix emergencies or fill in for a flight instructor who called out with what's probably nothing more severe than a hangover, but he
agrees to come in anyways.

By the time the end of the day rolls around, Shiro's dead tired and his shoulder's sore from the weight of his prosthetic. He wants food, a shower, and bed. Preferably in that order.

He walks into his apartment and finds the Holt siblings instead.
He sighs and puts his keys on the table by the door and toes off his shoes. "You both know this isn't why you have keys to my place, right?"

"We brought you takeout from that Thai place you like," Pidge says through a mouthful of food.
Shiro eyes her. "Did you or Matt think of it?"

"I did!" They both claim in unison before turning to glare at each other.

"Well, I was going to forgive one of you for invading my apartment but..." he trails off and flops down in his armchair. "One of you bring me my food."
Matt leans forward and grabs a to-go container from the coffee table and hands it to Shiro. Pidge catches his eye and then lobs him a bottle of beer. He pops the cap off with his metal thumb and takes a long swallow.

"That kind of day?" Matt asks sympathetically.
"Garrison called me in to put out fires and also cover a flight class. Had me running around all day," he says.

He opens the to-go container and inhales the rich sent of spices. His mouth waters immediately.
"You could just tell them to go fuck themselves," Pidge says with a wave of her fork. "It's not like you need the money."

"I'd go insane if I didn't have work to do sometimes," Shiro argues. "As long as they don't /keep/ doing this, it's fine."

Matt hums. "They probably will."
"You can come be a gopher in my lab," Pidge says. "Hunk brings in food a lot so I guarantee we'd feed you better than the mess hall."

"Not hard to do," Shiro says with a laugh. "But you don't have planes."

"Does the Garrison actually let you fly their planes?"
Shiro sighs. "No, they're still suspicious of the arm and haven't cleared me to fly anything other than sims."

"Fuck them," Matt spits out. "I know the arm's not perfect but it's a damn sight better than anything they've provided people."
"It is," Shiro agrees, rubbing at the scarred join between flesh and metal. He can't wait to take it off after eating.

Pidge's eyes flash behind her glasses. "Bothering you today?"

"Just been on for a long time today. The weight is getting to me more than anything else."
She nods and takes another bite of food.

The trio eats in relative silence for a couple minutes before Shiro remembers that he didn't actually invite them over. "Why are you two here, anyways? I mean, I appreciate the food but..."
"We've missed you, dude," Matt says, kicking his feet up on the coffee table. "You've been dodging us for weeks outside of when we need to calibrate the arm."

Shiro flushes, shame crawling up his throat. He hadn't realized he'd pulled away from his friends so much.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I didn't mean to shut you two out. I've just been..." He's been caught up in Keith but he can't exactly tell them that. "Tired?"

Matt and Pidge give him matching disbelieving looks.

"Yeah, that wasn't my best," Shiro admits, dragging a hand over his face.
"But I really didn't mean to avoid you."

"If you're seeing someone, you can just tell us," Matt says. "Whoever it is is making you happy. Even though you've been spacey lately, you've been smiling more."

"We'll automatically like him more than Adam," Pidge puts in.
Shiro rolls his eyes. "You liked Adam just fine while I was dating him. You're just holding a grudge from how the breakup went down."

"Damn right we are," Matt says, narrowing his eyes. "Someone has to and you're not."

Pidge puts her food down and rests her elbows on her knees, studying Shiro. "So, spill. Who's the mystery boy you're mooning over?"

Shiro shoves a bite of food in his mouth, but he feels his face turning red and he knows the Holts won't let that slide.
Pidge cackles triumphantly. "You were right," she says, elbowing Matt in the ribs, making him wince. "He /does/ have a crush!"

"Please don't tell me it's that guy from the communications department at the Garrison," Matt pleads. "He came to lunch with us once and I almost died."
"It wasn't that bad," Shiro protests.

"A person can only listen to so many stories about houseplants, Shiro."

"That's fair."

"Spill," Pidge orders. "Who is the crush?"

"I'm not mooning over anyone," Shiro says primly.
Matt and Pidge both snort.

"I'm not!"

"You are," Pidge tells him.

Shiro thinks back to this morning and how Keith had been so excited to see the video of his apartment, so touched by the shelf housing his gifts.
He remembers stroking his tail and his kisses and the way the necklace Shiro gifted him hung around his neck. He can't believe that was all only this morning.

"Definitely mooning," Matt cuts in.

"Okay fine, I'm... not /exactly/ crushing on someone," Shiro says.
It's only true because he'd kissed Keith this morning and he thinks maybe they're some sort of together now and so it's More than a crush.

"Oh?" Pidge raises her eyebrows.

"I'm kinda seeing someone."
The Holts freeze and then a flood of words spill out of their mouths, incomprehensible in speed and volume.

"And you haven't TOLD us?" Matt exclaims. "Haven't told ME?"

"Have we met him?" Pidge demands.

"No. He's shy and a very private person," Shiro tells them.
It's not a lie.

"Plus this thing is really new for us and we're taking it slow," Shiro continues. He watches them both open their mouths to pepper him with questions. "I'm not telling you anything more right now. I want to respect his desire for privacy."
"More like you want to keep him to yourself and not subject him to us yet," Matt says with a grin. "Come on, we'll only scare him off if he's a dick."

"No." Shiro takes another bite of food.

"How long have you been together?" Pidge asks.
"I've known him a couple months but..." he blushes. "We really only confessed that we liked each other this morning."

"VERY new," Matt exclaims. "I guess we can give you a pass on not introducing the boyfriend yet, then."
"Says you," Pidge mutters. "Can we at least get a name. I'm not referring to him as the mystery man for any longer than tonight."

Shiro weighs his options for a moment and then decides not giving a name would be highly suspicious. Besides, it's not like it's an uncommon name.
"Keith," he says. "His name is Keith."

"Last name?" Pidge asks, voice syrupy sweet as her hand reaches for her phone.

"No," Shiro answers. "You're not looking him up. No last name." Again, not a lie. He doesn't know if Keith has one.

"Spoilsport," she mumbles.
They spend the rest of the time it takes Shiro to finish eating trying to quiz him on his new boyfriend but Shiro refuses to give up any more information. He's happy and Keith makes him happy and that's all they need to know.

Eventually, Pidge turns to Matt's love life instead.
By the time they gather all the trash and let themselves out of Shiro's apartment, locking the door behind them with his spare key, he's feeling much better.
The middle of his day might've been mildly terrible but it started and ended well. He takes a quick shower and then crawls into bed with a smile on his face.

He dreams of Keith.
They keep up their routine of meeting up almost every morning for another month.

Pidge and Matt mostly leave him alone about Keith other than occasionally ribbing him for having a mystery boyfriend.

Things with Keith are going great. They still talk and swim and now spend
some of their limited time together kissing, hands wandering.

He keeps bringing Keith whatever little trinkets he thinks might survive underwater for at least a bit. Keith looks stunned and smitten every time Shiro hands him a gift.

Shiro's shelf gains a few more items too.
But while things with his friends and with Keith are going nowhere but up, things with the Garrison are... souring.

"They expect me to just drop everything and come in whenever they call," Shiro complains. He and Keith are hanging out at the grouping of rocks where they'd met.
Keith is floating in the water, occasionally splashing Shiro with his tail as Shiro holds onto the rock.

"Last time I told them that I couldn't because I already had a commitment elsewhere they reminded me that I signed a contract with them."

Keith frowns. "They don't own you."
Shiro sighs. "No, but they seem to think they do. Told them that I'm only a consultant and will only work the hours I agreed to and am paid for."


"And they threatened to terminate my contract entirely if I can't be available more often."
Keith swims over and reaches up to cup Shiro's cheek in his hand. "Why are you still there if they're treating you like that?"

"I keep hoping they'll let me fly again," Shiro admits. "It's like... maybe if I show them that I'm still competent, they'll forget about my arm."
Keith strokes his cheek softly, keeping his claws away from skin. "They're idiots for not letting you fly. You can do anything."

Shiro turns his head to kiss Keith's palm. "Thanks baby."

"I mean it, Shiro," Keith presses, wanting to make sure Shiro believes him.
"I know." He smiles at Keith but it's a tired thing. There are shadows under his eyes that worry Keith. "The Garrison just doesn't like that the Holts made me something leagues better than what they offered me after the crash."

Keith doesn't understand why Shiro still works
for the people who blamed him for the crash that took his arm and almost killed him. But he does understand the yearning for something else that he hears in Shiro's voice when he talks about flying.

Keith feels like that about the human world.
"You going in today?" Keith asks. He looks away from Shiro to glance at the clouds gathering out over the ocean.

"Yeah, this afternoon," Shiro confirms.

Thunder rumbles, far enough out that only Keith hears it.

"Storm's coming in," he says. "Want a ride to shore?"
Shiro nods. "If you don't mind. Little tired today."

Keith moves to carefully touch the circle under Shiro's right eye. "Get some rest tonight," he says. "I can go a day without seeing you if it means you get the sleep you need."
Shiro shakes his head, stubborn as ever.. "I'll be here."

Keith leans in and kisses him before wrapping an arm around his waist. "Come on, strilkia."

Shiro holds onto Keith and enjoys the feeling of rocketing through the water.
When Keith loosens his grip in the shallow water, Shiro nuzzles into the join between neck and shoulder, nipping lightly in a way that always makes Keith shiver.

"If you keep doing that, I'm not going to let you leave in time for work," Keith warns.
"Mmm, that's not really incentive for me to stop." Shiro mumbles against cool skin.

Keith squeezes Shiro's hips. "You'll be upset with yourself if you skip."

Shiro bites down again, worrying at the skin. It's hard to raise a bruise on Keith's skin, but Shiro's determined.
Keiths fingers tangle in Shiro's hair, claws pricking at his scalp as he holds him in place. "/Shiro/," he rasps out. "Strilkia, please."

Shiro lets up, pulling back to look at Keith. His eyes are slitted like they get whenever strong feelings get ahold of him.
It's a beautiful look.

"What does that mean?" Shiro asks. "Stril-" he stumbles over the unfamiliar word. "You've said it a few times lately."

Keith flushes. "Strilkia," he says slower. "It's... something you call someone you care for."
"Okay," Shiro says. "I like it."

"Good," Keith says, cheeks going fully red now. "I might like it when you call me baby, too."

Shiro grins. "Good."

Keith shoves at his shoulder. "Go. Before you have to walk back in the rain."

Shiro steals a lingering kiss before he listens.
He makes it through the afternoon at the Garrison that stretches further into the evening than he expects almost entirely powered by the memory of Keith calling him strilkia with something tender in his voice.

He wonders what it actually translates to.
Shiro drags himself home, heats up some leftover takeout and then collapses into bed at the first opportunity.

His dreams are twisty, dark things and he awakes on a strangled scream a full hour before his alarm, feeling more tired than he was before sleeping.
Shiro makes twice as much coffee as usual and fills his biggest thermos. He tugs on his coziest hoodie and throws a few things in his bag and heads down to the beach early.

He might even catch the sunrise if he hurries.
He steps out into one of the first true fall mornings and quickly makes his way through still sleeping streets to his and Keith's cove.

Everything is still damp and dreary after the storms yesterday afternoon. Shiro picks his way down the path and emerges on the empty beach.
"Keith?" He calls out towards the choppy water. "I'm early but I'm here."

Keith doesn't appear, but Shiro knows he's far earlier than normal.

He pulls a blanket out of his bag and finds a spot to sit and wait.
The sun rises, painting the sky and water in vibrant pinks and oranges. Shiro keeps calling out to the water, expecting an answer every time.

The sky has brightened to blue and Shiro's ignored three calls from the Garrison by the time he accepts that Keith isn't here today.
He leaves his partially full thermos on the beach where Keith will see it if he shows up, and texts Sanda that he'll be in to help out in a few hours.

He throws one more worried glance towards the ocean before leaving, anxiety heavy in his stomach. He needs work to distract him.
Work is busy. There's a buzz around the Garrison that he never quite picks up on the origin of. It's not something that affects the pilots and flight crews he's working with.

He's too busy worrying about Keith to pay much attention. The moment he's done with his work,
he shoulders his bag and is out the door. His feet automatically take him towards the beach. Keith wasn't there this morning and Shiro never visits later in the day, but he can't help but check anyways.

Darkness is starting to settle as Shiro heads down the familiar path,
phone flashlight lighting his way. There's a chill coming off the water and Shiro's glad his sweatshirt is still in his bag. He wants to put it on before walking back to his apartment.

He sweeps his light across the rocky beach, heading towards where he'd left his thermos.
"Keith?" He calls out, just in case. "Missed you this morning, thought I'd stop by."

Something whimpers and Shiro freezes. "Hello?" he tries, stepping towards the sound. It came from near the rocks at the far side of the beach, by where he left the thermos of coffee.
"Who's there?" Shiro asks, moving closer to the rocks. "Hello?"


The voice is weak but Shiro recognizes it instantly, shock rocking through him. He almost drops his phone as he scrambles forward. "Keith! Keith I'm coming, hold on."
His heart is pounding as he runs towards the end of the beach. He rounds the boulders and the beam of his flashlight lands on Keith's torso and the breath punches out of him.

The left side of his ribs are a sickly purple color and there's a deep gash bleeding sluggishly
on his right shoulder. There's a collection of smaller cuts and bruises littered over his chest and Shiro drags his eyes up to Keith's face.

A cut slashes across his right cheek, dangerously close to his eye and another bruise blooms high on the opposite cheekbone.
His hair is wild and tangled around his pale face. Shiro immediate drops to his knees setting, his phone down so the light shines on them but he has both hands free.

He carefully cups the uncut side of Keith's face. "Keith? Oh my god."

Keith cracks his eyes open.
They've gone slitted again and his sclera are glowing gold. Shiro has no idea if that's a good or bad sign.

"Shiro," Keith breathes, relief in his voice. His fangs look longer than usual. "You're here."

"Course I am, baby," Shiro manages. Panic is threading through his veins.
"Got worried when you weren't here this morning." He pauses. "You're not looking too good," he says gently.

Keith reaches out with one hand, blindly looking for Shiro's other hand. Shiro catches it with his metal hand and feels Keith press something into his palm.
"Broke," he whispers around his mouthful of fangs. "Sorry. But I didn't..." he lapses into the gutteral sounds of his native tongue before dragging himself back, eyes locking back on Shiro, "didn't lose it."

Shiro looks down and finds the necklace he gave Keith in his hand,
cord cut clean through. He lets out a noise too close to a sob. "I'd rather you lose it and stay safe," he whispers, hoarse. "But we'll fix it up after we get you feeling better."

Shiro sweeps his eyes over him, seeing a few cuts in his tail too. He is in no way qualified for
anything more than basic first aid. He's very out of his depth here.

"Keith, baby," he starts, "how long can you be out of the water like this?"

"Keith, please focus, just for a bit, please sweetheart. How long?"

"Twelve hours or so? Don't know how long I've been up already or if all this will..." he trails off, tail fin thrashing. Shiro can read the pain on his face.

"Okay," Shiro whispers. He trails his hand
down to Keith's pulse point, feeling the too fast and thready beat there. His skin is even colder than normal.

Shiro quickly digs his sweatshirt out of his bag. "Can I help you sit up? I've got something to help warm you up."

"I'll get blood on it," Keith protests weakly.
"/Really/ don't care," Shiro says with a huff of a laugh.

Slowly, he helps Keith sit up, supporting him through it and trying to ignore his little sounds of pain. Keith's back is scraped up too, but it looks mostly superficial.
He's as gentle as he can be as he slips the hoodie onto his boyfriend.

"There," he says, "should at least keep you warm for now."

Keith slumps against him. "Don't feel good." His words are slurring together.

"I know. Is there someone you know that can help patch you up?"
Keith presses his face against Shiro's chest, heedless of his injuries. "You're the only one I trust," he whispers and Shiro's heart cracks a little.

"I don't know enough to patch all this, Keith," he admits, pained. He bites down on his lip. "I know someone who is though."
Keith's claws dig into his shoulder. "Shiro."

"Baby, I know, but you need medical attention. You know your safety is the most important thing to me and that means keeping you /alive/."

"Dangerous," Keith whimpers, echoing what he said upon their first meeting.
"I know, Keith," Shiro says, tangling his fingers in the last remnants of Keith's braid. "But I'd only call someone I trust not only with my life, but with yours. They'd never tell anyone or trap you," he says. "Probably ask you a million questions but she'd do that anyways."
Keith's claws dig in a little more and Shiro winces. Keith's a deadweight against his chest at this point and he can already see blood seeping through the sweatshirt over his shoulder.

"Trust you," Keith slurs out before going still.

Shiro tries to rouse him with no luck.
He takes a deep breath and reaches for his phone. He hopes Keith forgives him for this, but even if he doesn't, him being alive will be enough.

Shiro quickly dials and impatiently waits for an answer. As soon as the call picks up he starts talking.

"Pidge, I need your help."
There's silence on the other end of the line for a long second before Pidge finds her voice. "Are you okay? What happened?"

"I'm fine," Shiro says quickly. "How much do you remember from your med classes?"

"...you're not making me think you're fine."

"Pidge please."
The desperation in his voice seems to get through to her.

"Enough to treat most physical injuries that don't need surgery," she says. "But if you're hurt, please just go to the hospital. I'll drive you."

Shiro tightens his hold on Keith. "No hospitals," he says.
"And I'm not hurt."

"Then why ar-"

"You took some courses in marine biology, too, right?"

"Shiro, you're not making /sense/."


"Yes and I helped Hunk study for vet exams. Why?"

"You can't tell /anyone/ about this," Shiro stresses. "Not even Matt."
"What the hell is going on, Shiro??"

"I'll explain as soon as you get here. Can you pick me up at the cove? In the car? Bring whatever medical supplies you can pull together."

"Seriously, are you hurt?" Pidge asks.
He can hear her digging through her things, presumably throwing a bag together.

"No, but someone else is and I need help."

Pidge lets out a long breath. "I'll be there as soon as I can."
Shiro takes a deep breath and presses a quick kiss to the top of Keith's head. He tucks his phone back in his pocket and quickly puts his bag over his shoulder.

Shiro is as careful as he can manage as he picks Keith up, hoisting him bridal style. He's heavy, all that muscle mass
adding up quick, and Shiro's glad that he won't have to try and carry him back to his apartment on his own. He'd do it, but not only would he have to wait until he was sure the streets would be empty, he's not sure he'd actually make it up the stairs afterwards.
He /can/ however carry Keith up the shore path to where Pidge can drive up and get them. He gets them almost to the top of the path before putting Keith back down to wait out of sight.

Shiro remembers that the blanket from this morning is rolled up in his bag and he digs it out.
He wraps it loosely around Keith's tail so it's not obvious at a glance that he's carrying a merperson and then picks him back up as his phone vibrates in his pocket.

"This isn't exactly how I'd hoped you'd meet Pidge one day, but here we go, Keith," he whispers as he rounds the
last curve in the path.

Pidge's green hatchback is in the dirt pull off that serves as an access point to the cove. Her eyes are wide behind her glasses as she sees him and puts down her phone.

She's out of the car in a flash. "Who is this?"
"Can you pop the back first? I think the backseat would be a squeeze."

Pidge leans back into the car and hits the hatch release. She quickly moves a couple bags from the cargo space into the backseat and Shiro sets Keith down gently. He's still a little scrunched up but it's not
too bad. He heaves a sigh of relief.

"Shiro. Who is this?"

Shiro tears his eyes away from Keith to look at his friend, worry and concern written all over her face. She's also already eyeing the way that the blanket drapes over Keith's tail. "This is Keith."
Pidge freezes and then levels a piercing gaze at Shiro. "Keith. As in the boyfriend you haven't let us meet, Keith?"

Shiro rubs at the back of his neck. "Yeah."

"What the hell happened to him?"

"Don't know. Haven't asked yet. Kinda more focused on making sure he's okay."
"And the reason behind the secrecy is the same reason you have him swaddled?"

Shiro nods, looking back over at Keith. He's too pale and his face is cut and bruised and his heart squeezes. "I promise I'll explain but we need to get him back to my apartment."
"Okay," Pidge says with a decisive nod. "I'm guessing you're riding in the backseat?"

Shiro nods. He closes the hatch and then squeezes himself into the overly small backseat of Pidge's car. She's silent as she books it to Shiro's building.
She pulls into guest parking and looks back at Shiro. "How busy are the hallways usually?"

"Not very and it's a weird time," Shiro says. "Can you go ahead of us and get the doors unlocked?"

She nods and cuts the engine. She pops the back and grabs her bags from the backseat.
She gives Shiro a long look. "You're really gone on him, aren't you?"

"Yeah," Shiro chokes out, "I really am."

"He's going to be okay," Pidge promises. "You know we take care of our own."
Shiro is touched that Pidge is automatically counting Keith as family because he loves him.

"Thanks, Pidge."

"Save it for later," she says before heading towards the building.

Shiro takes a deep breath and then leans down to pick up Keith, still worryingly unconscious.
"Come on, baby," he whispers, kicking his foot out to trigger the sensor to close the hatch door. "We're going to my apartment. I know you're going to want an in-person tour." He starts walking. "Gonna get to find out if you fit in my bathtub."

Keith doesn't stir.
They get into Shiro's apartment without incident. Pidge locks the door behind them.

"Where are we going?" she asks.

"My bathroom," he says. "Tub's a little bigger than the guest bedroom."

"And that matters because..."

"Keith's a merman," Shiro says, walking past her.
Shiro is already in the doorway to his bathroom when Pidge catches up.

"Seriously? Is this why you asked about my marine biology knowledge? Because your boyfriend is a merman?" She asks poking him in the back.

Shiro ignores her and focuses on lowering Keith into the tub.
It's a tight fit, but it's definitely better than nothing. Shiro carefully unwraps the blanket from Keith's tail, barely registering Pidge's sharp inhale behind him.

"I mean it when I say you can't tell anyone," Shiro says as he drops the bloodstained blanket on the floor.
He starts easing the hoodie off of Keith too. "Mers avoid humans because humans are dangerous to them. He might hate me for even bringing you in but I..."

Pidge rests a hand on his shoulder. "You're just trying to take care of him. I'm not going to snitch."
"I know," Shiro says. "I wouldn't have called you if I thought otherwise." He gets the hoodie off and drops it on the floor with the blanket. Neither of them are likely to be salvageable but he couldn't care less about that right now.

He reaches out and cups Keith's cheek,
hating how still he's been this whole time. "There's a bucket under the kitchen sink," Shiro says. "Can you go get it so we can rinse him off before filling the tub?"

"He's not looking good, Shiro," Pidge says.
"I know," Shiro snaps back, voice cracking. He winces and draws his hand back from Keith. "I know," he repeats, softer this time. "But he doesn't have anyone else. I have to try to help."

"And we will," Pidge assures him. "I'll go get the bucket. Is fresh water going to be okay?
Or do I need to run to the store for a fuckload of salt while you google the salinity of the local water?"

"I think freshwater will be fine while we treat his wounds," Shiro guesses. "Hopefully he'll wake up soon and we can ask him. Clean water of any sort is better than none."
"I have so many questions," Pidge says. "I'm going to ask them all later."

She disappears to get the requested bucket and Shiro just keeps looking at Keith. "Please don't hate me for this," he whispers.

He turns on the tap, letting the water run cool over Keith's tail.
Pidge comes back with the bucket and Shiro immediately sends her for the collection of washcloths and beach towels in the hall closet.

When she comes back with those, they work together to carefully clean most of the blood off Keith so they can see his wounds.
The cut on his shoulder is the worst, but the bruising on his ribs and the slash on his face and a deep cut on his tail are also worrisome.

"He doesn't bruise easily," Shiro says absently, ghosting his fingertips over the purple area. "I don't know what could have caused this."
"You can ask when he wakes up," Pidge says. She finishes applying butterfly bandages to Keith's face and carefully tapes gauze over the whole thing as another safeguard for now. She's already covered his shoulder wound with gauze too.
"We need to get waterproof bandages," she adds. "I want to wrap his ribs and his shoulder. The gauze can come off his face when you want to get him fully in the water."

She moves onto his tail, examining the wound closely. "Anything you can tell me about his tail?"
"Nothing of medical use," Shiro says apologetically. "Scales have a sharp edge if you move against the grain."

"Okay, I'm just going to clean this as best I can and leave it. Keith can tell us more of what to do when he wakes."

"I want to get him underwater soon," Shiro says.
"He can't stay up indefinitely and I don't know how long he was on the beach before I found him."

Pidge stands. "I'm going to run to the store for bandages. Once we get those on we can try to submerge him."
"Grab a sweatshirt from my room," Shiro suggests. "Less visible blood that way."

"Good call," she says, already heading out of the bathroom. "I'll be back in ten minutes max."

"Okay, we'll be waiting."
Shiro listens for the apartment door to open and then shut. When he hears the click of the lock he relaxes.

He gently strokes Keith's hair before getting to his feet and finding the brush stashed in one of his bathroom drawers, a leftover from when he grew his hair out.
"Let's get this brushed out and rebraided, baby," he says quietly. "I know you hate when it gets too messy."

Shiro unknots Keith's long strands of hair as gently as possible and brushes it smooth. It's not until he's at the end of a clumsy braid
that he realizes he doesn't have a hair tie of any sort.

The braid's not tight enough to stay in on its own so Shiro holds onto the end as he thinks. Finally he remembers the necklace Keith pressed into his hand earlier.
The leather cord was cut, making it useless as a necklace for now, but it should work fine as a tie.

Shiro fumbles it out of his pocket one handed and lets gravity pull the pendant off. He stashes it back in his pocket and uses the thin leather cord to tie the end of the braid.
"There we go," he says. "I'm going to have to learn to do that better with your shoulder out of commission for the time being. You can deny it all you want but I know you're vain about your hair."

Shiro strokes the top of Keith's head. "Need you to be okay, baby."
He leans down and presses a kiss to the crown of his head. Keith lets out a small noise. His tail twitches, sending water spilling onto the bathroom floor from the still running tap.

"Keith?" He cranes his neck to look at Keith's face.

Shiro's never been happier to hear Keith's voice, slurred and woozy as it is.

"Yeah it's me," he says, tears welling up in his eyes. "How are you feeling?"

"Not good," Keith manages. He cracks his eyes open. The sclera are still golden. "Where...?"
"My apartment," Shiro explains. "Turns out you do mostly fit in my bathtub."

"Need to..." he swallows hard.

"Be under the water?"

Keith nods.

"I'm waiting to finish bandaging you up and then I'll fill the tub for you."
Keith says something but it's in his native tongue so Shiro just makes a soothing noise and presses a kiss to his forehead.

"Is freshwater okay or do I need to make it salt water?" He remembers to ask.

"Fresh is fine, I can breathe it," Keith manages. His eyes are slipping shut
again when he suddenly tries to sit up, eyes flaring wide and panicked.

"Woah, hey, you're going to make your injuries worse if-"

"Someone's coming," Keith rasps out, eyes fixed on the wall that faces back towards the front door.

Shiro hears the lock disengage a second later.
"Keith, it's fine, I promise," he says.

"I can't," he sinks lower in the tub, tail twitching again, "Shiro I can't..."

"I promise I'll protect you if it comes down to it but it's okay, Keith." He hesitates. "Trust me? Please?"
"Shiro? I'm back," Pidge calls out, voice getting closer to the door. Keith tenses. "I bought the Wal/greens out of bandages so we should have enough."

"Pidge wait!" Shiro tries to yell, wanting more time to explain to Keith.

The bathroom door swings open.
Keith hisses, fully baring his fangs, which are definitely bigger than normal. All the fins on his tail flare out at the same time. The hiss fades into a low, steady growl.

Shiro's never seen him like this before.

Pidge freezes in the doorway.
"You're awake," she says, the only real indication of her surprise being her suddenly tight grip on the plastic bag in her hands.

Keith growls louder.

"Keith," Shiro pleads, reaching down to squeeze his hand. "She's helping. She has medical training."
Keith doesn't take his eyes off Pidge and Shiro thinks the gold, slitted gaze has to be somewhat unnerving but Pidge is holding up well. The growling softens a little.

"I'm Pidge, by the way," she says. "Shiro might've mentioned me at some point. Presumably he's not as secretive
about his friends as he is about his boyfriend."

"Boyfriend?" Keith asks, glancing over at Shiro. Shiro can feel his face heat. They've never actually talked terminology.

"Oh shit," Pidge whispers.

"Yeah, I told them you were my boyfriend," Shiro admits. "That okay?"
Keith's whole face softens and he nods. "Strilkia," he murmurs, pale face gaining a little bit of color.

Shiro grins. "Is /that/ what that means?"

"Not exactly," Keith hedges.

"You two are adorable," Pidge cuts in, "but I've got to finish wrapping your injuries so you can get
that good H2O."

Keith looks confused.

"She means water," Shiro whispers.

"Chemical formula for water," Pidge explains. She kneels next to the tub and meets Keith's eyes. "Will you let me wrap your ribs and shoulder or do I need to talk Shiro through it?"
Keith hesitates.

"If you're okay with Pidge doing it you can hold my hands the whole time," Shiro offers.

Keith nods. "You can, Pidge." Her name is strangely accented when he says it, like the combination on consonants is close enough to his language to cause confusion.
"Shiro's talked about you and your brother. If he trusts you, then you have to be okay."

"Ringing endorsement if I ever heard one," Pidge says with a grin.

Shiro squeezes Keith's hand. He laces their fingers together, the fit odd with the webbing between Keith's fingers, but
still good.

"Thank you," Shiro whispers once Pidge directs them into position to wrap Keith's ribs. "I know it's dangerous for someone else to see you, but it was the only way I could make sure you'd be okay.

Keith rubs his forehead against Shiro's shoulder. "I understand."
He pulls in a sharp breath when Pidge tightens the bandage. "It's okay, Shiro."

"If it helps, Shiro swore me to absolute secrecy. Even from Matt," Pidge says. "And that was before he would tell me where he was and who was hurt. Didn't let on about you being a mer until we were
already here."

"Pidge can keep a secret," Shiro swears.

"I do have five million questions for you, Keith, but they can wait until you're feeling better." She finishes wrapping his ribs and sits back.

Keith looks a little bewildered and a lot tired. Less wary, though.
"That's... a lot of questions," he says finally.

Pidge laughs. "It's probably an exaggeration," she assures him, pushing up her glasses. "Probably."

Shiro snorts. "You can ask Pidge all about human stuff too," he says. "Fair's fair."

Keith definitely looks interested in that.
Pidge gets to work on his shoulder. Keith hisses again at the pressure, claws digging into Shiro's shoulder where he's hanging onto him.

"You're doing great, baby," Shiro soothes. "As soon as she's done we'll take the gauze off your face and fill the tub so you can breathe."
Keith sucks air in through his teeth. "Distract me? I dont want to..." he flexes his claws. He doesn't want to accidentally lash out at Pidge. Shiro feels his heart warm even further for this man.

"Did you know your eyes have gone all gold and yellow?" Shiro asks.

Keith blinks.
"No." He hesitates. Blinks again. "I didnt know they could do that."

"Figured it was a stress response from the pain," Shiro offers.

"Deep sea mers have yellow eyes." He swallows. "And druids."

"Interesting," Shiro says carefully. He knows Keith doesn't have the best
opinion of druids, nor does he know his complete family history.

"Does... does it bother you?" Keith asks. "My eyes being different?"

"Nope." Shiro leans forward and steals the quickest kiss. "Still beautiful."

"Now that you two have /completely/ forgotten I'm here...
I'm done bandaging. Should hold underwater for a fair few hours until we need to clean the shoulder and tail wound again anyways."

Shiro and Keith both startle when she starts talking. Pidge looks smug as hell.

"Thanks Pidge," Shiro says, sheepish.

"Keith," she says, turning her attention to him, "I just cleaned the cut in your tail. I don't know if it can or should be bandaged."

"Usually packed with um... seaweed? And..." he's struggling for the words he wants, "medicinal plants? To keep out infection and help healing."
Pidge nods. "Okay, I'll do some research and see what I can find. I'll have something for it when we change the bandages."

"Thank you," Keith tells her. The words sound formal and weighty in his mouth, undeniably earnest.

"Of course," she says, embarrassed. "You're part of the
family since Shiro cares for you so much." She quirks a half smile at them. "And you two seem good together, even with you woozy with pain and blood loss."

"Thanks," Shiro quips.

"Anytime. Now, I'm going to raid your kitchen and start researching. See you later, Keith. Nice to
meet you, circumstances aside."

"You too."

Pidge breezes out of the bathroom and Shiro just laughs.

"Did... your friend just give us her blessing?"

"She did," Shiro says. "Not that we needed it but it's nice." He smiles. "She's your friend now too."
Keith's mouth opens in shock. "Oh."

"Yup. Okay, lemme get this gauze off your face so you can get under the water." He starts peeling off the tape. "I can make the water warmer, if you want, but it might take a bit," Shiro offers.

Keith shifts his tail. "No, feels nice."
"Okay," Shiro says. He reaches over and closes the plug for the tub so it starts to fill. "We can refill the tub as many times as you need as the water stops being fresh enough," he says. I'll teach you how to use it next time."

"Okay," Keith echoes. "Think I'm going to fall
asleep again."

"That's okay, you need rest to heal." He pulls the gauze off and sets it aside. "Will you tell me what happened when you wake back up?"

Keith hesitates and then nods. "It was humans," he said quietly. "They saw me."
Shiro sucks in a breath and pushes down the anger that tries to immediately rise. That won't help anyone right now.

"You're safe now," he reiterates. "We can wait to talk about it when you're feeling a little better."
Keith reaches up and presses his palm to Shiro's cheek. "Not scared of you. Don't worry strilkia."

Shiro traps Keith's hand against his face, leaning into it. He doesn't know how Keith can read him so well but he's grateful.

"How's the water feel?"

Keith sinks lower into it.
"Good," he says. "I felt like I was drying out."

"Can't have that," Shiro says with a fond smile.

"Stay until I fall asleep?" Keith asks. "Don't want to be alone."

"Of course, Keith," Shiro says. "And if you wake up and I'm not here for some reason, just call out and I'll be
here in a couple seconds max. I just might have to go to another room to get something."

"S'fine," Keith murmurs. "Thank you."

"Anything for you," Shiro whispers back, brushing his hand over Keith's hair.

Keith dips low enough that the water slips over his gills and his whole
body relaxes, tension that Shiro hadn't even registered disappearing in an instant. Keith had to have been on that beach waiting for Shiro to come for a /while/.

He shivers at the thought of what could have happened if he hadn't gone back this evening.
He waits until Keith goes fully relaxed in the water, sleep claiming him quickly. Shiro smiles one more time before slipping out of the bathroom. He needs a shower and clothes that aren't covered in Keith's blood and he has a feeling Pidge is waiting to question him.
Shiro takes the pendant from Keith's necklace and carefully places it on the shelf full of treasures from Keith for safekeeping. He gathers up a pair of sweatpants and a soft sweater before tiptoeing back into the bathroom to swipe his shampoo and soap from the shower.
Finally he has no choice but to go face Pidge and her questions.

She's sitting crosslegged on his couch, laptop in her lap. Light glints off her glasses as she looks up at him.

"He's sleeping," Shiro tells her. "Which means now is the only time you have to ask things without
him being able to hear you. Maybe. There's always the chance that we wake him up by talking."

"Good hearing then?" Pidge asks.

"He heard you coming up the stairs towards the apartment. He can be out near the mouth of the cove and clearly hear me talking if I'm just slightly
louder than normal. It's even better underwater, apparently."

"Impressive," Pidge says. She closes her laptop. "Are you okay?"

Shiro was not expecting that one. "Yeah."

She just stares at him. "You're not. You're all tense and your boyfriend is beat up in your bathtub."
"That does tend to put a damper on my mood," Shiro quips.

Pidge is entirely unimpressed. Shiro sinks down onto the couch next to her, still holding onto his clothes and soap.

"He was attacked by humans. I don't know more than that but... that's enough."
He sighs. "I don't know how he trusts me enough to come to me for help when I'm the same species as his attackers."

"Shiro, I've known him for less than thirty minutes of consciousness and I can already tell that he loves you. Of course he came to you. Don't be an idiot."
Shiro flushes a deep red. "Pidgeee," he whines.

"Oh my god, you're a disaster."

"You knew this already," he mumbles. "Are you really not going to ask me a million questions about mers?"

"Nah, I'm going to pester Keith when he feels better." She pushes her glasses up.
"Is this why you asked me if I thought mermaids were real that one time?"

"Yeah. That was right after the first time I caught a glimpse of him. Hadn't even talked to him yet." He pulls in a breath. "Knowing you at least were open to their existence made it easier to call today."
Pidge leans over and wraps an arm around Shiro. "I'm glad you called. I understand now why you were being so secretive about your boyfriend and all that."

"I have to keep him safe," Shiro whispers. "As much as I can."
"Now you've got me to help," she assures him. "And Matt if we need him. He can actually keep a secret when it matters."

"I know. But hopefully I'll be able to ask Keith if he's willing to meet him."
Pidge squeezes him once more and then lets go. "Okay, off to the shower with you. I'd rather Keith not wake up while you're not there."

Shiro laughs quietly. "Me too." He stands. "Thanks Pidge."

"Yeah, of course." She flashes a half smile before going back to her research.
Shiro takes the fastest shower he can manage, trying not to think too hard about the pink tinge to the water when it runs over his hands.

He dries off enough to pull his sweatpants and sweater and then ventures back out into the main area. Pidge doesn't even look up.
Shiro veers into the kitchen and assembles a few sandwiches, stacking them on a plate to take into the bathroom.

"Any progress with the research?" He asks.

"Yeah. I'm gonna head to get supplies soon," Pidge replies, still not looking up.

"Think it'll raise questions?"
"Nah. I think most of the shops around here are used to me buying weird shit at all hours. They don't question me any more. I'll throw in some extras just to make sure though."

"You're the best, Pidge."

"I know."
Shiro smiles and steals one of the couch cushions to take into the bathroom with him.

He quietly opens the door to the bathroom and finds Keith still sleeping, face tense with pain. Shiro sets the plate of sandwiches on the counter and the cushion next to the tup before nipping
back out to grab a blanket and his phone charger. He hesitates for a moment before bringing his laptop and charger as well. Keith will probably like seeing it.

Maybe they can watch a movie or something when he's awake and inevitably gets bored.
Shiro settles in and pulls up a book on his phone to read while he waits. He's made it a quarter of the way through and polished off one of the sandwiches when Keith stirs and lifts his head up over the water.


Shiro immediately puts down his phone. "I'm here."
Keith's eyes open slightly. The yellow has started to recede but his pupils are still slitted.

"How are you feeling?" Shiro asks quietly.

"Hurts," Keith admits.
Shiro carefully pushes hair out of Keith's face. "I know, baby. Do you want new water? I made sandwiches, too, if you're hungry."

Keith nods, sitting up more. "Haven't eaten in a while."

"I'll make something different next time, but I wanted to be here when you woke up."
"Sandwiches are great, Shiro." Keith's voice is gravelly from sleep. "What kind?"

"One PB&J, one ham and cheese, again," he says. "You're welcome to both."

Keith devours both sandwiches quickly as Shiro sets about draining the tub and refilling it with fresh water.
"I heard Pidge leave a bit ago," Shiro says as the water runs. "She was going to go pick up some stuff to treat the cut on your tail."

Keith swallows. There's a little more color in his face now that he's eaten. "Okay."

"You still hungry?"

Keith hesitates before nodding.
Shiro is racking his brain for what is left in his fridge to offer when his phone starts vibrating. Keith tenses and then winces when the motion tugs at his injuries.

Shiro scrambles for his phone and answers as soon as he sees that it's Pidge calling.
"Hey, I'm picking up food since you haven't gone grocery shopping maybe ever," she says.

"I swear you're a mind reader sometimes," Shiro retorts.

"Yeah, yeah. What does Keith eat? Pretty much only fast food options open."
He looks at Keith. "Do you want to try a burger or chicken?"

Keith considers. Shiro's told him about both and he's heard other humans talk about them. "Burger," he decides.

"Pick a burger place and get Keith like... three big burgers. I'll pay you back."
Keith hears Pidge snort in response but tunes out what she says before hanging up on Shiro. The ache radiating from his shoulder is excruciating and he already misses the open ocean.

Shiro sets his phone down and then turns off the water, giving Keith the gentlest look.
"What?" Keith asks. His tail fin twitches a little in anxiety.

"I wish I could do more," Shiro says. "I know a tub in my apartment can't be where you really want to be. I don't even know if I can give you anything to help with the pain and..." he trails off. "I just..."
Shiro reaches out and finds Keith's hand and presses their palms together. "I just want you to be okay and I'm afraid that I can't do enough."

Keith squeezes his hand. "You're /here/, Shiro. You saved me. That's more than I could've asked for."

"You can ask me for anything."
"Shiro, you can't just /say/ things like that," Keith complains, sinking down in the tub a little bit.

"I mean it, though," Shiro insists, earnest as anything.

Keith doesn't know what he ever did to deserve someone like Shiro looking at him like this, to have him accept gifts
and offer them in return, even if Keith hasn't exactly told him what they mean.

"Can I..." The sharp points of his teeth dig into his lip. "Can I ask for a kiss?"

Shiro's smile is a beautiful thing. "You can always ask me for that," he says, leaning in. "I always want to."
Shiro gently cups his uncut cheek and leans in for a lingering kiss. It does more to numb the pain than anything else so far. He reluctantly pulls back when Shiro tries to deepen the kiss.

"Fangs," Keith whispers when Shiro whines at him. "Don't want to hurt you."
Shiro presses another kiss to his lips before drawing back. "They're longer than normal."

Keith nods. "Feels weird."

"Anything else different? Or just teeth, eyes, and these." He picks up Keith's hand and runs a careful thumb over a sharp claw that is indeed longer.
"I think that's it," Keith says. "Although I didn't know my eyes had changed before you said something."

"Do you want to see?"

Keith nods and Shiro squeezes his hand before standing to dig through a drawer. He comes back with a mirror and hands it to Keith.
Keith hisses at the image of his face, cut up and bruised, and then peers at the unfamiliar eyes peering out from his face.

"They're less gold than they were before your nap," Shiro offers.

The color is far too close to the hue of druids' eyes for Keith's comfort and he shoves
the mirror back at Shiro, trying to will the unease away.

"You're still gorgeous," Shiro says as he puts the mirror down.

Keith offers a shaky smile. "I look like shit, Shiro."

"Beautiful," he insists. "I will only accept criticism on your braid because I'm not very good yet."
Keith reaches up to touch the loose braid. "You braided it?"

"I know you don't like it being messy," Shiro says, ducking his head. His cheeks are pink. "It's still kind of messy but..."

"Thank you," Keith cuts him off. He's willing down his own blush.
It's not the first time Shiro's played with his hair, but it is the first time he's braided it. He knows it's different for humans, devoid of declaration, he /knows/, but he can't help the love that overflows from his heart at the gesture and what it means to him.
Keith hopes that when he manages to explain everything, from gifts to braids, that Shiro will be okay with it, that he'll understand.

He thinks, most of the time, that Shiro loves him too, and he won't begrudge Keith reveling in some mer traditions.
The romantic corner of his heart can't help but want to indulge a little bit. It's not like anyone else has ever expressed even the slightest interest in courting or being courted by Keith.

He only wants Shiro anyways.
"Of course," Shiro says, oblivious to the path of Keith's thoughts. "I'll get better at it."

"Okay," Keith answers, more than willing to let Shiro braid his hair while he's conscious.

"I don't know how long we have until Pidge comes back with food and will want to change your
bandages, but I brought my laptop in here so we could watch a movie, if you want," Shiro offers. "Or you could try to nap some more."

"Not tired," Keith insists. He eyes the larger electronic that Shiro had motioned to. "Movie?"

"Much better than when we've tried to watch on
my phone before," Shiro assures him.

Keith watches closely as Shiro sets up his laptop and opens Net//flix - which he recognizes from Shiro's phone - and picks something to watch.
(A Disn/ey movie about cats, Shiro explains quickly. Keith hides a smile, unsurprised Shiro is picking something featuring cats.)

Keith gets sucked in quickly, charmed by the look of what Shiro calls animation and the way Shiro hums along with the music.
It seems like barely a second passes before Keith hears Pidge cursing lowly near Shiro's front door. He tells Shiro who pauses the movie and goes to help her, correctly assuming that her hands are too full to work the key.

They both come back into the bathroom bearing many bags.
"Hey Keith," Pidge says as she sets things down. "You're looking a bit better."

"Sleep helped," he says, still a little wary of her. "The water, too."

"Good. I brought back like... a ton of food. Eat first and then we'll see about that cut on your tail and checking everything."
Keith ends up devouring four burgers and two orders of fries. Pidge had ordered twice the amount of food Shiro'd requested and it was definitely a good thing.

"So, burgers a hit with you?" Pidge says as she cleans up the wrappers and stuffs them into a bag.
"They're good," Keith says. "Warm. And I liked all the different things on them."

"And you got enough?" Shiro asks.

Keith nods and then squirms.

Pidge's eyes narrow at the motion. "How's the pain?"
"Not as bad as before," Keith says. Under Pidge's unwavering look, he continues. "Still hurts."

"Okay, I'm going to drain the tub and change your bandages. I got some stuff to pack your tail wound, too. All safe for aquatic life and have healing properties so, should be fine."
"Encouraging," Shiro mutters.

Pidge ignores him and sets the tub to drain.

Shiro holds Keith's hand while Pidge efficiently cleans and rewraps his injuries, weathering his tight grip and the prick of claws with aplomb.
"Hey baby," he says as Pidge digs through her bags and then mumbles about needing a mixing bowl.

Keith's eyes follow Pidge's retreat from the bathroom before snapping back to Shiro. "Hi."

"Doing okay with everything? You're starting to drift a little."
Keith leans his head over to rest on Shiro's shoulder, leaving the slash on his cheek all too visible. It's shining with the antibiotic cream Pidge applied and an angry red against too-pale skin.

"Tired," Keith says after the silence stretches a little too long. "Hurts."
"As soon as Pidge is done, we'll get the water back up and you can sleep." Shiro strokes over Keith's hair. "Rest is important to get you feeling better."

He'd started to look better while he was awake with Shiro while Pidge was out, but it'd taken a lot out of him.
Keith looks wiped out now. Shiro presses a kiss to the top of his head as Pidge comes back in with a mixing bowl that Shiro vaguely recognizes from his kitchen and a mixing spoon.

"Doing okay?" She asks, pausing in the doorway.
"Just wearing out," Shiro says quietly. "He's been awake a while."

"Okay. I'll get this mixture whipped up as fast as I can so we can fill the tub again."

Shiro hums in acknowledgement and watches as she dumps things he doesn't recognize in the bowl and mash it all together.
It smells herbal, medicinal, and Shiro assumes that's a good thing.

Keith mutters something in the oddly lyrical and harsh sounds of his native language.

"What was that?" Shiro asks.

"The smell. Don't know your word for it," he slurs out, half asleep.
Pidge looks up sharply. "Does it smell right? Familiar for healing stuff?"

Keith nods and Pidge's shoulders relax. "Okay, good. Almost done and then I'm going to mix it with seaweed and pack the wound."
Keith turns his face into Shiro's shoulder when Pidge washes out the gash on his tail and starts to pack it with the herb and seaweed mixture. Shiro can barely hear the muffled sounds escaping Keith but his heart hurts with each one.

Keith's tail convulses, pushing Pidge away.
"She's almost done, baby," Shiro soothes, sending a pleading look at Pidge. She nods and grabs the last bit of the mixture to use. "I know it hurts, but she's almost done."

Pidge quickly smooths a hand over the gash, making sure everything looks okay before retreating.
"All done," she calls out. "Going to start the water, now."

She plugs the drain and starts the water running before gathering up the detritus of her work and slipping out of the bathroom after giving Shiro an understanding look.

"Keith, she's gone. It's just me. Are you okay?"
Keith slowly pulls away from Shiro's hold. Shiro's heart cracks when he sees the tear tracks on his face, immediately reaching out to wipe them away. The liquid tingles against his fingers.

"Keith, sweetheart," Shiro starts, voice wavering.

"It's okay. I'm okay," Keith assures.
"You're crying."

"It stings," Keith says softly, using his uninjured arm to scrub away the rest of his tears, "a lot. Tail injuries are..." he grimaces. "The water helps."

"Okay. That's good." Shiro feels so out of his depth here. He just wants to help and he doesn't know how.
"Stay until I fall asleep again?" Keith asks, sinking lower in the tub.

"As long as you want," Shiro promises.

Keith mumbles something in his language again and is asleep before Shiro can ask what it means, before the water even makes it up to his gills.
Shiro waits until the water is at the right level and then turns off the faucet. He makes sure Keith's gills are in the water and gently pushes a couple loose strands of hair back from his face before standing. He lets himself out of the bathroom as quietly as possible.
Pidge gives him a questioning look as soon as he steps into the living room.

"He sleeping," Shiro says, sitting down. "Passed out, essentially. The packing stings, he said, but he didn't seem concerned about it so I assume it always does."

"Can't be comfortable," Pidge agrees.
Shiro sighs and buries his head in his hands. "I don't know what I'm doing, Pidge. What if I make things worse?"

"You're not going to," she says, confident. "You know the basics of injury care and you have me and you know to listen to him. It'll be fine."
"How are you so calm about all of this?" Shiro asks.

"I'm not the one in love with the injured mer in the bathtub," she says, pushing up her glasses. "Also my anxiety manifests very differently than yours."

"Fair." Shiro yawns, exhaustion feeling bone deep at this point.
"You can go home, if you want. Get some rest. Or use the guest bedroom. Whatever you want," he rattles off.

Pidge raises an eyebrow. "I'll head home for the night but I'll be back tomorrow."

"Sounds good. Thanks for all your help," Shiro says with a tired smile.
"Of course," Pidge says. "Now, hand over a card I can use to buy and I'll come back with groceries tomorrow."

Shiro snorts. "Let me go get my wallet." He goes back into his bedroom to get his wallet off the dresser and listens carefully for any movement from the bathroom before
going back out.

"Here," he says, handing over a credit card. "Thank you."

"I know you're not going to want to leave him here and I feel like delivery people would just stress him out," she says, tucking the card into her pocket.

"Yeah," he agrees.
"You need rest too, if you're going to be taking care of Keith," Pidge tells him after a long look. "Do not forget to sleep."

"I won't," he protests.

Pidge gives him a sharp glance and he wilts. "I'll get at least a little bit of sleep."

"Good enough," she decides.
Pidge packs up her things and gives Shiro a ribcrushing hug before letting herself out, reminding him that the leftover food is in the fridge if they get hungry.

Shiro sighs into the heavy silence of his apartment then steals the rest of the couch cushions for the bathroom.
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