“We have swimsuits you can put on there if you want,” Denver said, undressing on the platform above the tank, which just entailed taking his hat off. “But the sharks like to eat them, so it’s up to you if you want to bother. We have successfully trained all the sharks to stop eating lifejackets, so you’ll each want to wear one of those.”
The five boys on the platform with him were already undressing, no concern about being seen. Well, it wasn’t like it was a secret that most people went in the shark tank naked; it was visible from the rest of the aquarium. “I can swim,” said one of the younger boys.
Denver nodded. “I’m not saying you can’t. But for safety reasons you guys are only allowed on the surface of the water. I can only take two of you at a time, who wants to go first?”
The swimmer and his brother—their names were Sean and Sawyer—got in the water first, sliding in with Denver, who held both their hands. They both seemed pretty nervous. “There’s no need to be afraid,” he promised. “I do this every day and I have never been eaten by sharks.” Sawyer’s eyes went to the bite marks on Denver’s shoulders, and Denver grinned at him. “Those came from a dragon,” he said, gently pulling the two of them farther out into the water.
“I’m not afraid of sharks,” Sean muttered, glancing around.
But he was afraid of something, Denver thought. The sharks started to come over, interested in their visitors, and swam around them. “They’re saying hello,” Denver assured the brothers, as Tekki got in the middle of them. “This is Tekki. Zhe’d like some headpats, if you want to give zher some.”
They did, and Denver coaxed them into playing with the other sharks a bit, telling them cool educational shark facts and trying to calm them down. They never quite stopped being scared, but they were smiling and laughing a little by the end of it. He gave them about fifteen minutes, then led them back to the platform. “See, sharks aren’t scary at all.”
“You’re right,” Sawyer said. He went to Denver’s school and they’d fucked at some party last year, but they weren’t really friends. “They’re not. They’re just big dogs.”
“Basically, but don’t tell them you said that,” Denver said, gesturing for them to head up the ladder.
“Thanks, Denver,” said Sean, hand on a rung. “That was really fun.”
“Come back and do it again sometime,” Denver offered, watching them go up. As par for the course, he checked out both their asses on the way up, noticing that they both, but Sean especially, had some bruising there. Hm.
The next two boys were Sean’s age, and their names were Gino and Max. They weren’t nervous about getting in the water, but they sure were scared of something, and Max had a lot of bruises too. “You guys okay?” Denver asked them as they swam out a bit. The sharks came faster this time. It was because they knew it was Denver in the water, but he wouldn’t tell the boys that.
“Yeah,” said Max, nodding, and casting a glance downwards. Denver followed him, saw their guardian, a tall guy named Cassius, watching them and taking pictures. “Is it true that sharks will attack you if you’re bleeding?”
“They do like blood,” Denver told him, holding his hand and noticing that it went tight. Max didn’t seem to be bleeding anywhere, though he did have a small cut on his chin. “But no, they’re not going to go nuts and attack us over a papercut. They can actually tell the difference between fish blood and mammal blood, and they prefer fish blood for the same reason that we prefer chicken to peacock.”
“Because it’s what they usually eat,” Gino said, nodding, huddled closer to Max.
“Exactly. And these sharks don’t eat people.” Usually. He’d had weeks of training from Alse before he’d ever been allowed to even be in the tank by himself, nevermind with other people. “I promise I wouldn’t bring anyone in here if it wasn’t totally safe. You’re completely safe here with me and the sharks. Nobody can even hear us except for them, and sharks keep great secrets.”
Gino went just a little tense at that in a way that suggested that he’d gotten what Denver was saying, but that was all. He relaxed and Denver didn’t know how to push him on it, so he gave them their fifteen minutes, taking pride in the fact that by the end of them, they were both relaxed and happy. Then he sent them up the ladder and got the last guy—Cyrus also went to his school—to come down.
They swam out together, and Cyrus waved at Cassius. He was Pax’s brother, so Denver figured he knew how to talk to him. “What can I tell you about sharks that you don’t already know?” he asked, as the sharks swam around them excitedly. It was almost time for Alse to feed them.
“Probably not too much, no offence,” said Cyrus, smiling bashfully. “What are their names?”
“This is Tekki. That’s Sukkel, and Katla, and Ove and George. They’re headbutting you because you’re not petting them.”
Cyrus chuckled, and started giving the sharks attention, his smile seeming tired. “They’re sweet. For apex predators.”
“They are,” Denver agreed. “I do know something about sharks you probably don’t.”
“They can tell when someone’s afraid.”
Cyrus’s smile faltered just a little, and he sighed. “Can they? Or can you?”
Denver shrugged one shoulder, guiding Ove around and coaxing him to turn upside down so they could rub his belly. “Does it matter? You’re all scared and they’re all hurt.” Cyrus, Denver couldn’t help but notice, didn’t seem to have any injuries.
Cyrus nodded, and the way he carefully didn’t look down at Cassius was noticeable to someone who’d spent a lot of time with Cyrus’s family. “They had nowhere to go,” Cyrus said. “After their families died. Cassius took them in. I’ve been trying to protect them, I really have been, but…”
Denver sighed. Shit. Shit. “Okay,” he said. He wanted Louis. Louis would be able to help. He’d do something. But he wasn’t here in the shark tank, only Denver was. “Okay.”
“Can you help them?” Cyrus asked. “Please?”
“Why aren’t you hurt?” Denver asked him quietly. “Why doesn’t he hurt you?”
Cyrus looked at the sharks. “Because letting him trust me is the only way to keep them remotely safe.”
Ah. “Which means that if he finds out they’re getting help from someone, he’ll assume it was one of them who asked for it.” And he’d hurt them for it.
Cyrus shook his head. “I’m in danger too, Denver. And if we get them all out, then nothing will happen.”
If. There was no we, but there was an if. “Okay,” he said, getting one of the sharks to do a twirl. “You have ten more minutes before I have to take you back. Tell me everything you can about their situation.”
By the time he took Cyrus back to the platform, Denver felt sick. But determined. He asked the boys if they wanted to help Alse feed the sharks, then left them with Alse so he could go find Louis.
Because sharks weren’t the only apex predators around. And these boys needed a dragon.