Keith pulled himself from his daze at the excited barking from his canine passenger and looked around. Somehow, miraculously, he'd driven himself home from the airport without incident or accident. John leaned across the space separating them, licking his owner's face consolingly. Keith smiled, freeing a hand to scratch the Retriever under the chin. "I'm fine, thanks. I'm just..." He chuckled softly. "I'm not surprised. Now I understand why I felt the way I did... when they left."
Keith was pulling on his jacket at the end of his sky-diving shift when he felt his phone vibrating in the pocket. He pulled it out and his eyes widened at the name that flashed across the screen. He accepted before the call was missed and lifted the phone to his ear. Softly, he recited, "Hello."
"You look like you've seen a ghost," a female voice stated as softly as he had. "I'm glad to see you're still doing this. I chose it because of you, for your freedom."
Keith lowered his hand and turned, looking in the direction of the hanger door. Standing in its open frame, the sunset at her back, was a slender figure that was also lowering her hand. Keith shoved the phone into his pocket as he took off in a jog towards the woman. He stopped a few feet from her, hesitating, but she helped him with his indecision by walking up and sliding her arms around his neck.
Keith laughed, his arms winding around her waist. He picked her up, spinning with her around the hanger bay. "Cis," he breathed after setting her down. They had been in correspondence ever since she left—her last letter having been delivered over half a year ago, but he hadn't seen her in years. He reluctantly released her so he could take a step back to admire her. Her white hair was cut short, trimmed in a bob, but it fit her face.
Eyes as blue as the deepest ocean sparkled as the woman smiled. "I'm sorry I stopped writing. I was in the middle of a big project and I didn't want to lose focus. I knew that the sooner I finished it without mistake, the sooner I'd be standing here with you like this."
Keith's smile widened to a grin as he laughed, "I'm happy to see you."
Cis tilted her head. "I'm only here until tonight. My flight leaves at midnight." She giggled softly. "Like Cinderella." Cis sighed as Keith's expression fell, reaching out to brush her fingers across his cheek. "Don't. We'll spend every minute of it catching up. You can tell me everything that I've missed." She blinked in surprise at the look that flashed across his face before his smile hid it; even the smile was filled with excitement. With a soft chuckle, she lowered her hand to his shoulder. "Let's go to the beach."
Keith decided to swing by the house and pick up John. The Golden Retriever was just as excited to see Cis, running around them both, demanding kisses from the woman—he indeed received them—before climbing into the truck. They talked on their way to the beach, even when they stopped to pick up burgers from their favorite joint.
Sitting on the sand, Keith smiled as he reached the end of his fries. "I don't think I had as much fun as I did a few months ago. A diver washed up on the shore, courtesy of a mermaid."
Drawing her legs up to hug them against her chest, Cis laughed, "A mermaid? Coming from you, I believe a mermaid indeed rescued this diver."
Keith smiled, retelling the story of all his adventures with the two marine biologists and their friend. He then singled out Antonio and Nathan. Cis studied him carefully; from the way he clutched the Styrofoam container to the slight tick that appeared in his jaw. She smiled, realizing she had no reason to worry.
At the airport, Keith almost didn't let her walk out of his life again. Cis took his hands in hers, placing them over his chest. "You love me, Keith, but only in the same way I love you. We're nothing more than siblings rooting for each other." She averted her gaze before looking him straight in the eye. "I'm getting married."
Keith's eyes widened, his hands trembling beneath hers.
"I want you to be there, to walk me down the aisle—to give me away, as my darling big brother." Cis pressed more firmly against his hands. "I also want you to bring this Antonio."
Confusion crept onto the man's face. "Why...?"
"Wouldn't you want to? You love him, Keith, in a way you could never love me."
"That's not true!"
Cis smiled sadly. "Let me go from in here—" She patted his chest before slowly pulling her hands away, "—and you'll see just how true it is." Cupping his face between her hands, she leaned up to place a chaste kiss to his lips. "I'll always love you," she whispered before stepping back. Cis smiled brightly, wiggling her fingers in a wave. "I'll try to keep in touch more often, and I'll let you know the date of the wedding."
Keith couldn't keep his eyes off of her as she turned away from him and headed for the security checkpoint with a bounce in her step. Even after she disappeared beyond the crowds, he remained rooted in place. 'I… love…?'
Keith sighed, the sound torn. John nudged him again, whining softly. "Alright, alright. We're going inside to sleep." The blond opened his door, waiting for John to follow behind him. They made it inside-Keith managed a quick shower—and promptly passed out together.
Bright and early the next morning, Keith pulled up to an available pump after turning into the gas station. He was there to top off his tank, but more importantly, to fill the two five gallon containers he dragged out of storage. John watched his master complete the tasks patiently, eyes following every movement. Keith grinned at him through the window before running inside the gas station's shop.
John sat up, his tail wagging excitedly as his master returned. Keith had purchased a few treats for himself and a few dog-centric items for John as well. "Are you ready?" he asked, turning the key in the ignition.
John barked out his 'yes' before returning to chewing on the jerky bone. Keith smiled and pulled out of the gas station. Now began their journey to Sternbild.
X X X
Unable to reach Kotetsu by phone, Antonio could only think of one place where the man could be. He entered the lab after punching in his code for the doors to open, only to stop just inside the entrance. With a roll of his eyes, he shook his head at the sight before him. Two heads poked out of the futon, one blond and one a dark tawny brown. Antonio wouldn't be so mean as to wake them, but Kotetsu wasn't going to talk his way out of the aquarium today. He turned and left, heading to the lab's cafeteria to see what he could salvage for breakfast.
Barnaby didn't wake when Antonio walked into what was technically his room. He sighed and curled tighter against Kotetsu, not wanting to move too far from the emotional comfort of the man. They were both forced to wake up when Nathan came to collect him to start his tests. The doors whooshed open and Barnaby grimaced at the soft squeal of excitement. He still didn't dislodge from Kotetsu's front, but the older man's emotions were stuttering, which meant he was waking. Nathan had no intention of leaving either.
Barnaby reluctantly extracted himself, smiling when Kotetsu whined softly and followed. "You have the traits of a mating mimic octopus."
Kotetsu huffed out a soft chuckle, his eyes not ready to open yet.
Barnaby looked to Nathan, who crossed his arms and began tapping a booted foot impatiently. "Nathan's glaring at us," he whispered.
Kotetsu inhaled loudly, exhaling deeply. He forced his eyes open, squinting at the blond in front of him. A slow grin tugged at his lips. "Mornin'," he mumbled.
"Good morning, Kotetsu." With a pleased sigh, Kotetsu closed his eyes.
"I won't feel right leaving you here alone, old man, and I don't think Nathan's leaving unless I'm with him."
"Where's the Bull Tank?" Kotetsu asked loudly, the question directed at the visitor.
"He went to tend to his wounds and eat breakfast," Nathan hummed, more interested in getting his hands on Barnaby's body than the familiar frame of Antonio.
"I don't understand..." Kotetsu rolled over onto his back, allowing his bed mate absolute freedom. Though Nathan's over-appraising glance made him blush, Barnaby had no desire to cover himself when he stood.
Nathan smirked and walked to the coat rack by the entrance, snatching off a lab coat. "You're not leaving much to Kotetsu's imagination."
"He's leaving plenty," Kotetsu mumbled from the floor, his back to the duo. "My imagination sucks. Besides, I try not to look, and I haven't seen it in that state yet."
Nathan almost dropped the coat, but he caught himself, a wide smile splitting his face. "I thought you just said you didn't have any imagination, Tiger." Looking away from the sheepish man on the floor, he lifted the coat, draping it over Barnaby's shoulders.
Barnaby shrugged off the lab coat and stepped away from the article of clothing, finding the material far more irritating than the robes usually brought to him.
Nathan appeared worried. "You can't walk around naked, sweetheart. Even though I wouldn't mind..."
Grunting the entire way, Kotetsu pushed himself up onto his feet. He stretched out his kinks and grinned at the duo. "We'll carry him!" he declared.
Barnaby stared at Kotetsu, trying to understand what the man meant. Nathan, however, seemed to understand, as he made a sound of agreement. Both scientists faced him and he shied away.
"Change," they declared in unison.
Realization dawned and Barnaby rolled his eyes. He took the jacket from Nathan's fingers. "I thought only a handful of people knew about me. Did you plan to tell everyone and have more... reporters..." Barnaby trailed off and Kotetsu was at his side, holding him close. Everyone was well aware of what happened to Maverick that night, but they had no idea the depths of hell that Barnaby had almost visited. The night had been pushed to the back of his mind. With his status as a marine biologists, no questions were asked about why he was at the beach that late. His injuries proved he had indeed been attacked, and Maverick's unfortunately death was the result of self-defense.
Kotetsu took the jacket from the blond's fingers, pulling it on around him. "Let's go, he whispered with a gentle smile.
"Sickening," Nathan sighed, sauntering by the couple.
Kotetsu shook his head with a laugh, never removing his arms from Barnaby's shoulders as they followed.
After leaving Barnaby in Nathan's care, Kotetsu tackled cleaning up in the convenient complete bathroom before heading up to find Antonio. He wasn't in his office, but he recalled hearing Nathan say something about breakfast. Kotetsu found his friend in the cafeteria, seated at a table near the wall so he was staring out of the window. Rather than sneak up on him, he made his presence known by calling out.
Antonio turned and smiled. Kotetsu missed that smile; he'd seen it almost every other day, if not every day, when they'd dated in high school. He also wouldn't question him anymore on his disappearance. If it was anything important, Antonio would tell him, but considering his behavior, everything seemed to have worked out just fine. As though realizing he was exposing his emotions too much, Antonio settled for a smug smirk.
Kotetsu flopped into the chair across from him with a grin. "Did you leave any breakfast for me?"
"Hmm... check the buffet counter."
He sat back with a pout. "How are we supposed to run amuck in an aquarium if you don't give me a proper nutritional meal?"
Antonio's right eyebrow arched sharply. "You were no longer my concern after you dumped me."
Eyes wide in horror, Kotetsu sputtered incoherently, arms flailing. "That was almost a decade, Antonio!"
Antonio lifted his shoulders in a careless shrug. "I bear grudges for a long time apparently."
"Bull Tank?" an alto feminine voice laughed. The young woman approaching their table carried a tray. Over her navy blue shirt and khaki pants was an apron. With a wide smile, she placed the tray down in front of Kotetsu, then straightened up. "I haven't heard that name in a while, Antonio."
"He does it to annoy me," Antonio scoffed, looking away.
Kotetsu stared at the tray, brow creased in confusion. The chef laughed, "Bull Tank here told me to make you breakfast."
"Cindy," Antonio groaned, closing his eyes.
Kotetsu turned his puppy eyes on Antonio, who blatantly ignored the look. "You do care."
"I'll never stop caring, idiot."
Kotetsu attempted to launch himself across the table, but Cindy kindly held him back, laughing at his behavior. "You have your hands full, don't you?" Antonio rolled his eyes, accepting her pity. Cindy laughed again, forcing Kotetsu back into his seat. "Eat so you can tend to our wonderful creatures of the world."
Kotetsu beamed up at her before starting on the breakfast made especially for him. He received a pat to the head before the chef walked away. Antonio watched Kotetsu eat, unable to stave away the smile already threatening to creep onto his face. After another half an hour, it was time for them to head out for the start of their aquarium visits.
X X X
Ivan leaned against the closed locker beside Edward's, checking his phone after it chimed. Edward was with him; Karina didn't text him; Antonio and Kotetsu should have been too busy to text. That left him wondering who could be texting him. Ivan's eyes widened and he laughed softly.
Edward closed his locker, snatching the phone from Ivan's fingers. His eyes narrowed. "Who's Keith?"
"A lifeguard," Ivan answered. Edward pressed his boyfriend against the wall of lockers. Ivan didn't look concerned with the action, but he was blushing because he knew other students were watching. "He's a friend," he continued, freeing an arm to reach up and take his phone back. "Mr. Kotetsu introduced us during the diving trip."
Edward relaxed a little, but was still scowling. "Why does he need your help?"
"I'd like to find out if you let me."
With a resigned sigh, Edward stepped back, falling against his locker beside the blond. Smiling, Ivan straightened up, resorting to calling rather than texting a reply.
Keith snatched up his phone, answering after two rings. "Ivan. I hope I'm not disturbing you–"
"No, school just let out, so I can talk. I almost forgot we exchanged numbers."
"Yeah, same here," Keith laughed, rubbing the back of his neck. "I'm sorry for texting you out of the blue, but I need a favor. I just arrived in Sternbild–"
"You're here? That's amazing! You should have contacted Mr. Kotetsu, not me."
Keith smiled sheepishly. "That's the thing... I wanted to surprise them."
"They'll be surprised... Oh."
"Oh?" Keith parroted, worry making him straighten against the side of his truck. John lifted his head long enough to yawn, but lowered it back down onto his crossed paws.
"The lab is not someplace you want to be right now. Oh!" That "oh" sounded better. "Mr. Kotetsu and Mr. Antonio are not at the lab. They're working in the field—the aquarium!" There was another muffled voice in the background and then a giggle from Ivan. "I'll text you the address, Mr. Keith. If you're sticking around, we need to hang out at the beach. Mr. Antonio spent most of the day with you last time."
The whole reason I came out here was because of someone else—someone I spent a great day with.
Keith laughed at his own naivety. "So stupid," he muttered.
"Thank you, Ivan. I'll be waiting for that text and the time we can spend together."
"You're welcome. I might join you at the aquarium," Ivan stated excitedly. "Edward's thinking about taking me, since we've been talking about it."
"Edward?" Keith inquired.
"Boyfriend," a deeper voice stated before the line went dead.
Keith pulled his phone away to stare at it with wide eyes. Slowly, his expression softened until he was grinning. He climbed back into the truck, picking up the GPS. As soon as he did, his phone chirruped with the notification of a new mail; Ivan had sent the address. Inputting it, he realized it wasn't too far from his current location. After entering Sternbild, he'd driven for another hour before deciding to pull in somewhere highly populated. Keith set the GPS down and started the car, following the automated voice's instructions on how to leave the parking lot.
X X X
Kotetsu had immediately migrated to the dolphins after being led into the Staff Only area of the aquarium and was finally climbing from the small pool when Antonio came to collect him. "We're leaving?" he asked, picking up his towel to dry his hair.
"No. I need you to check on the otters. They say they haven't been themselves lately. I've been called to help with the orca performance."
Kotetsu laughed through his nose. "Wow. Try not to start until I'm finished."
Antonio crossed his arms over his chest, staring back at the dolphin that watched them converse. Kotetsu had been guiding her through some test laps since he fluke was still recovering from an injury. "I have to learn the routine first, and the show's not for another two hours."
Kotetsu slapped his friend on the back with a laugh, "I'll be there with my camera!" He rushed off to his next destination.
The dolphin offered Antonio a wave as its trainer slipped into the water with her and he smiled wryly, waving back in return. With a sigh, he headed off to find the killer whale he would be handing his life over to. Antonio groaned as he walked down the darkened hallway. The only upside to this was he had had trained with this particular whale before, so, hopefully, it was still familiar with him.
From the otters, he was shipped off to the penguins, a task which needed a bit more delicacy since there were babies involved. The show had already started by the time Kotetsu raced through the back hallways. He didn't bother stopping to get his phone; someone, somewhere, was recording the entire thing.
Keith was actually sidetracked from his original mission after paying admission and entering the aquarium. The fairs were nothing like this, and he lost himself in the crowds and excitement. It was after pilling into the stands around the orca pool with everyone else, and seeing his face on the large monitor after the camera zoomed in, that he remembered. Excitement and fear twisted Keith's gut into knots when the show began.
Since trainers were no longer allowed in the water with the apex predator, Antonio and was in charge of getting the orca to perform tricks from the center stage platform. Keith managed to look away from Antonio long enough to catch a glimpse of a familiar face at far edge of the bleachers. Even though it wasn't patterned black and white like the one Antonio wore—to match the orca—Kotetsu was also wearing a wetsuit.
Keith returned to the show when a fanfare began in time to see the orca splash out of the water and up to Antonio. He laughed along with the crowd as the unlikely duo performed a bit of slapstick comedy skits and a few other tricks. At the end of the show, Keith was soaked to the waist, having been one of the lucky few to get a courtesy spray from the animal. He pushed back his damp hair and froze after catching sight of the wetsuit-wearing trainers at the end of the ramp, shaking hands and accepting hugs. Antonio looked his way and the act of his eyes widening was done in slow motion. Keith lowered his arm, grinning shyly at the other man. His feet moved without his consent or approval, bringing them closer. His heart beat frantically against his ribcage and he feared it might explode.
Antonio extended an arm once he was close enough, pulling the blond into a gentle hug. "Will I be wrong if I make an assumption as to why you're here?" he whispered against the shell of Keith's ear. Keith shook his head, curling his hands over the tops of Antonio's shoulder; the wetsuit make it difficult to find a good grip. Antonio laughed, holding the younger man closer.
Kotetsu was hidden within the crowd that continued to stream out of the show, a wide smile splitting his face. He turned, moving along with the crowd, to spare the duo from his teasing.
X X X
Barnaby's phone vibrated on the table below the tank. Karina stared at the device, not wanting to hand it to the merman. After a full minute—and realizing it wasn't a call since it only vibrated once—she picked it up between her thumb and forefinger, holding it like it was the most disgusting thing ever. She climbed the stairs and held it out to the man that smirked at her. Barnaby took it, flipping it open to check the new text. His expression softened. Karina held her head high as she walked down the stairs.
/I miss you./
Barnaby sent back his reply. Instead of calling the young girl back, he leaned as far out of the tank as possible, his fins slapping the water to keep him balanced. Barnaby placed the mobile device onto the stairs and hoped no one stepped on it if he was paid a visit.
Kotetsu had just finished peeling off the top half of his wetsuit when the phone on the bench behind him vibrated and chirped. He dropped beside it, snatching it up and opening the new SMS.
/I miss you, too, old man./
Kotetsu grinned the grin of a smitten lover. He set his phone aside in order to finish stripping out of the wetsuit; a shower was needed. 'I'll be back shortly, Bunny!' Kotetsu hurried into the shower room, humming the entire way.
X X X
[heeeeere... something, maybe?]