Everything goes by so fast in the next two weeks Keith could hardly keep track of everything. The first day he simply slept, either in Kolivan’s arms or later in a hammock’s cocoon of a tattered sail, recovering from everything his body had gone through. He didn’t hurt per say, there was no pain, but the dull ache of muscles worked long and hard coursed through every fibre of his being. He dozed easily, only roused by Kolivan’s arms gently shaking him awake to make him eat.
The next morning he’d woken to several of their children huddled up against his body, little arms curled under themselves or entwined with one of their siblings, heads pressed up against his chest.
“They miss your heartbeat it seems.” Kolivan smiled at him from where he sat, several more of them exploring his legs and launching themselves from his shoulders to practice swimming. He chuckled, carefully stretching his arms, and watched as the lilac one with red ear fins floundered to grab it’s father and recover from the pinwheel loop it had be caught in.
“They’re graceful,” Keith chuckled as another moved opposite to where it’s little eyes were fixed, widening with each stroke in growing frustration. He couldn’t help but notice the smaller dark haired one perched right against Kolivan’s neck, oddly content to stay still compared to the others.
“They’ll learn in time. It’s not common for my kind to swim for several days after hatching. Until then they’ll grapple around on their surroundings.” As if to illustrate, he lifted his elbow, revealing two hatchlings making their way up his arm.
Keith sat up, bumping a few of the ones pressed against him awake. “So… they’ll be around for a little while longer?” he asked, trying to keep his voice calm.
“A week or two, yes. Will that be a problem?”
Keith opened and closed his mouth a few times, trying to calm the two babes who were now giving him the darkest stink eye he’d ever seen on something barely bigger than his hand. “Not exactly…” he mulled, “but still… I’m not a female… I don’t exactly know how to deal with all of this. Or if I can.”
Even if the gender divides in the ocean were muddy at best and fluid at worst, it was common consensus that the individuals who raised the young until they were fit to survive on their own were female. Whether they carried them until they were born like most or simply took over afterwards as was the way with his kind, they were the ones equipped to do so. They had the temperaments, the soothing hormones, the instincts to do what was needed to help them grow. He was just the one that looked after all the stuff before that part.
“You remember neither am I, and yet they’re all healthy and nothing has happened to them.”
“But what?” Kolivan carefully moved forward, limbs burdened with active tots held high to avoid sweeping them underfoot. He dropped several of them onto Keith’s lap, leaving him under a blanket of the little octopi now exploring him as actively as they had Kolivan. “You’ve done splendidly until now. Who’s to say you won’t with this?”
Now, two weeks later later, it was hard to say Kolivan had been wrong, or at least, completely wrong. He still isn’t all that skilled at corralling the biggest troublemakers before they could endanger the more delicate pieces in Kolivan’s collections, but he doesn’t mind the feeling of little arms hugging onto him as he moves, or waking up to a pile of them curled up against his chest. There’s something about the weight of their bodies on him that’s strangely soothing. It brings him back to the feeling of carrying them, that extra warmth coming from small lives more than enough to help him drift off at night. Even the times he and Kolivan take them out into the surrounding kelp forest to explore it leaves him feeling strangely good, something he thought he’d never feel at the start of all this. Interspecies breedings weren’t uncommon for most, but for him the idea had always been fraught with worst case scenarios, of abandonment and forced mothership.
Keith smiles to himself as he watches Kolivan try and extract one young one from his waist for the third time this afternoon. She was almost a spitting image of Keith himself, minus the white hair and set of eight legs. They’d taken to calling her Leva, though neither of them had given much more thought into naming the entire brood. Many, Keith included, picked their own names when old enough to do so. Names given by parents were just that, nicknames used by families and families alone.
There’s a tugging at Keith’s wrist and he finds two of their children staring up at him with wide golden eyes and one covering and uncovering their face until he gets the message. Hide and Seek. So many of them love the game, and as soon as he chuckles and tells them he’ll count to thirty a good dozen have perked up at it’s mention and begin squabbling to find hiding spots.
“I’m counting now, you’d all better be out of sight when I’m done!” he laughs, and quickly covers his eyes to the sounds of little voices drifting away. He waits until he can no longer hear them, probably longer than the time he said he’d give them, but he can’t help but give them all the time they need. Hiding is important to learn for all of their kind, irregardless of species. Best to train them slowly.
He finds the first two almost too easily, latched onto huge ropes of kelp with their little arms fanned wide to look like anemone flowers on the vine. He grabs them with a shriek of delight from each, gently chiding them to remember where anemones actually grow. It’s not a bad trick, but there’s the right place for it. They latch onto his shoulders as he continues to swim around searching for the rest.
Another is hiding in a small rocky outcrop, almost completely out of sight save for one forgotten tentacle that he tweaks to let them know they’ve been found out. The next two have buried themselves in the sand to varying degrees of success, with one of them forgetting the crown of their head, ear-fins poking out like little signal flags. It takes him longer to find the others, some of them balling themselves up to hide in the crags of reefs or holding a disgruntled flounder over themselves. Soon enough the count hanging onto him climbs to ten, weighing him down as he continues to hunt for the rest.
“How many more?” he asks, and two of the little ones on his left arm hold up three fingers each.
“Six?” They shake their heads and both point at each other’s hands. “Oh, so three”. The pair nod and Keith begins to circle back the way he came, scanning for even the smallest thing he could have missed. He returns to Kolivan without a single new find, face now twisted in concern. They’re supposed to know not to run off out of sight of both their parents, at least not until they’re ready to fully leave the nest.
“Have you seen them?” he asks with a wrinkle in his brow, and Kolivan shakes his head with a smile.
“They’re certainly within range, but as for being able to see them at the moment, I can’t.” Leva lets out a little bubble of glee from her father’s shoulder.
“So that means you both know exactly where they’re hiding, but neither of you is going to tell me,” he sighs. “Great, can I at least get a sense of hot and cold?”
He begins to swim around the small clearing, occasionally glancing at Kolivan every so often for hints. The octopi gives no such thing, merely smiling at Keith as he continues to overturn every stone and sand dune he can lay his hands on as Leva giggles at him. It grows maddening, Leva prodding Kolivan’s neck and pointing gleefully at Keith’s continued failure, whispering in her father’s ear. He’s about to admit defeat, tell them all he gives in, when he notices the way Kolivan sits.
For all the time they’d spent together these past few months, Keith would have been an idiot if he hadn’t picked up on Kolivan’s quirks. If resting for long periods the octopi liked to settle down, his many legs crossed over each other into almost a nest of sorts, one Keith hates to admit he enjoys settling down into at the end of a long day to feel the weight of one of those arms draped over him. Right now though, Kolivan doesn’t sit like this. He’s between upright and laying down, almost as if he’s attempting to stay at attention despite sleep weighing down his bones. Almost as if there’s a reason he can’t sit…
Keith dives at Kolivan’s legs before the other can protest, several of his little hitchhikers tumbling from him at the sudden lunge. His head wedges between two and he begins to wiggle further between them, despite Kolivan’s protests. One tries to wrap around his waist but Keith takes the opportunity to tug his arms in as well and work to wedge his shoulders through the gap. He’s finally trapped halfway under Kolivan’s skirt of tentacles, no less than three wrapped around his tail and torso as he hangs onto one of the rear ones to avoid being yanked out.
Three little faces stare owlishly up at him from the small patch of sand in the centre of Kolivan’s arms, illuminated with streaks of sunlight. At the appearance of Keith they shriek, trying to scrabble for a final attempt at cover before he scoops them all up in and arm and shoos them out from under Kolivan, commending them but also reminding them there won’t always be their father around to hide under. He’s about to follow after them, pull back out of Kolivan’s tentacles, when the other squeezes him tighter, one of his suckers brushing over Keith’s slit.
The result is instantaneous, Keith has to hold back his voice to avoid the children hearing. He can hear Kolivan’s voice above him, almost rumbling through him as he playfully chides him.
“Swimming between someone’s legs without asking, that’s quite rude, don’t you think?” There’s a chorus of ‘mm-hmm’s and ‘yes papa’s from nearby, as if Kolivan had been asking them and not Keith. He grips onto the tentacles in his hands tighter, trying to hold his composure enough. This isn’t the time to beg Kolivan to fuck him.
It feels like it’s been ages since the last time, even though its only been a few weeks. Before the kids had been born Kolivan had been in intimate contact with him, many arms wrapped around and in Keith at any hour of the day as he milked any stress from Keith’s bones any way he saw fit. Since then… Keith let out a shaky breath as Kolivan’s arms twisted around him, trying to tug him free. Since then… he’d hardly had a moment like that in days, the closest thing being sleeping together with their brood, one of his heavy arms laid over Keith’s middle. He tried looking around the underbelly of them all, searching for Kolivan’s breeding tentacle, but to no avail. He was yanked out, held upside-down and face to face with his kids, and that was that.
“You have anything to say for yourself?”
Keith felt blood rush to his face, and not simply because of his current position. “I’m sorry Kolivan,” he says, sarcasm and honey dripping from every word. “I should know better than to do that to someone.”
His mate nods, seemingly pleased, and frees Keith from his grip. He’s painfully aware that there’s no lingering touch, no teasing swipe down his backside as he slips from Kolivan’s arms. He half-heartedly rights himself with one last stolen glance at Kolivan’s arms, and begins collecting the little ones for their trip back home.
That night, lying in the hold with Kolivan and kids, he thinks back. Kolivan really hasn’t gone beyond platonic touch since they’d been born. There’d been hugs, yes, and he’d been carried around when he was too tired to move, but other than that, Kolivan hadn’t even given Keith a look beyond one of a parent sharing in their chores. His interest in Keith seems to have stopped at a successful breeding.
It’s not like he misses it, Keith tells himself, even as he pulls in closer against Kolivan. It’s not like he misses those strong arms rubbing up and down his body, feeling every last inch of him they can reach. He hadn’t really loved the feeling of being the centre of Kolivan’s focus or the way he’d tease Keith’s insides until he was begging for release. It was just a honeymoon brain, making the best of where he found himself. That’s what he kept telling himself, even as he drifted off to sleep, trying to pull Kolivan’s arm further around him.
In another two weeks nearly all the kids are gone. They trickle away slowly, one by one growing restless, wanting to spend less and less time with their parents and siblings and more and more try and sneak out of the breach in the hull. The first time it happens Keith catches them and pulls them back inside, ready to chide them for being to reckless, only to be stopped by Kolivan.
Instead what transpires is a talk, Kolivan carefully asking their wiry haired son the ins and outs of the ocean, how to hunt (they’d been slowly teaching them ever since beginning to take them outside), how to find shelter, everything. At the end of it he simply nods, and that’s it, all the blessing he needs and their first child leaves. Soon after more and more take the same path, showing they’re ready to leave the nest before giving one final goodbye.
It’s… strange. Keith remembers his sisters leaving far earlier than him, but he stayed with his mother for some time, raised well beyond the stage his own children were at now until she was certain he could survive safely on his own. Octopi clearly don’t have the same issues as seahorses, and for that he’s grateful for them. Still… part of him will miss waking up to excited voices and little bodies dragging him to see the latest craft they’d build of scrap and driftwood. He never thought he’d feel this way, but as Leva departs, the last of their brood, he’s left with a strange hollow feeling inside, one wondering how long until the next time he’ll see them again or care for a new set of fresh faces.
As her form fades out into the blue of the ocean Kolivan turns to him. It’s the first time in forever that it’s just been the two of them. Keith’s breath catches in his chest as he strides closer.
“Well, it’s done. What will you do?”
Keith blinks in confusion. “What will I do?”
“Yes. Now that the children are gone there’s no reason for you to remain here.”
He’s not sure he’s heard right. The way Kolivan’s talking, it as if he’s a tool, now used and useless to him. The way he’s spoken those many months ago had had him convinced Kolivan’s mind would be set on keeping him, regardless of what Keith wanted himself, treated like another treasure stashed here in his wreck.
“Don’t you want another brood? More babies?”
The muscle in Kolivan’s jaw tenses. “I’m out of eggs. You’ve depleted me of all I had for the season. There will be no more until next year.”
“So I see little point in keeping you here. You seemed quite fixated on leaving at the beginning of all this, I figured I should allow you the opportunity to leave should you wish.”
It’s true. He’d hated the idea of it at first, caught and kept for the one use the ocean saw him for, locked away in Kolivan’s lair too filled to swim away. But it hadn’t been all bad, it had hardly been at all. He’d been cared for after all, looked after with a softer touch than those rippling arms had first suggested.
Arms that even now, stayed at Kolivan’s sides, unmoving, unreaching towards Keith.
It hits him with a pang realizing it. How little he’s been touched by Kolivan since their brood came into being. Even that one time, trussed up in his tentacles so like the many times they’d rolled together in the sandy bottom, had been under his own initiative. He missed it, Kolivan stringing him up, taking away his power and doing as he wished with him, both pleasuring him and pushing him to his limits. Every time he’d thought he was at a breaking point Kolivan pushed him further, sending him crashing even further over his edge only to wake later wrapped in those same arms that took such joy toying with him.
Without eggs Kolivan had no use for him, no need to keep and tend to a weaker through the winter months. The illusion of choice now was no doubt his attempt at manners to cover up a choice he’d already made. It was foolish to think the look now on Kolivan’s face was one of pain instead of one hoping for the easy route.
But really… did he want to stay? Kolivan had his moments of kindness, but he could find another, a female of his kind, one who’d return his attentions with interest, who’d dance around him every day of his carrying, barely leave his side until their brood was born. There were many fish in the sea.
“So I guess this is it then,” he says, drawing himself up, trying to hide the way his breath betrays him as it catches in his chest. “I’ll be going then.”
Kolivan nods sombrely. There’s little else to say. With their transaction of parenthood complete, nothing remains. Keith takes one last look around the wreck that’s become his home these past several months. He’ll miss the loose panes of stained glass, the shelves of human artifacts and the way it’s old beams creak in the tides. This could be the last time he ever sees the inside of it.
“Goodbye… I guess.” The words seem wrong, unfitting after months of being so close to the other, but Keith can’t find the strength to say anything else. He bobs out of the entrance, into the open ocean, and takes one last look back.
Kolivan watches him from the gap in the hull, one hand gripping the loose planking, his face unreadable. Keith’s about to turn away, never look back, when the silence breaks.
“You can come back, you know… visit.” Kolivan looks almost surprised as Keith at the words that have just left his mouth, the lighter patches on his cheeks deepening. Its enough for hope to flutter in Keith’s chest, despite the doubts nagging in his gut. “If you’d like of course. I won’t stop you either way.”
Keith nods, traces of a smile trying to crack through his bittersweet facade.
“I might take you up on that one day.”