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Compass

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The ocean under a storm had symmetry. The skies roiled and the water thundered, and when they crashed together in the rain, they seemed to merge entirely. Shiro was home, with his own house on the cliffs overlooking the chilly northwest coast, and he watched the chaos of the weather just to appreciate Earth as it was. He had spent so much time looking up that sometimes he forgot to look around. But this was Earth, and Earth was beautiful.

He had seen it all from a distance, all at once as he had left Earth behind. He had laid foot on Mars twice, then Kerberos at the end of the solar system. He had given everything to humanity's aspirations to leave Earth, including his right arm.

The accident had retired him. The Garrison gave him a prosthetic, the best of the best, but even the replacement of his arm didn't make him spaceworthy in the eyes of the brass. Even so, he was set for life. He would live comfortably, even if he chose never to work again. He'd elected to move to Washington, where he had spent some of his childhood, and chose to teach at a Garrison location near Seattle. He needed to stay involved. He needed to stay active and productive and connected to the sky that he loved so much. And there at his window, he watched the sky touch the surface of the Earth, like it was reaching down to greet him, like it missed him too.

The sky and the sea. The beautiful chaos of the blue planet. Shiro's favorite moments on Earth were these shattering ones, on mountains and in storms that made him one small, humble spectator in the glory of such a relatively small sphere in space. He was in the snowglobe as it shook.

He smiled. He watched from his living room window with a mug of tea in his hands, and he admired the sea as it waged war against the cliffs.



The morning was sopping wet and sunny after the storm. The beach stank of everything the storm had upturned, and Shiro chose to take his morning run along the shore. Why not? Classes weren't in session, and he had very little else to keep him entertained.

(He complained that he wanted to stay busy, but he couldn't deny that he enjoyed the peace and quiet. Solitude had begun to suit him. The next house was a mile and a half away, and he wasn't in the mood for curious neighbors.)

He improvised his route that morning because, again, why the hell not? He avoided the tide pools, but he admired the barnacles on the rocks and the dead seaweed sprawling and drying out. He explored the coast as far as he pleased.

The gulls were talkative. He saw crabs and mollusks and dodged them with his feet, but he brought a simple pocket knife to poke at empty shells. They were all fairly good company, bringing color and activity to the world without making it noisy. They were becoming familiar sounds and sights.

An unfamiliar sound ripped through the morning. Shiro thought it was tearing metal, at first, and stumbled to a frightened stop.

The gulls were louder around another jut of dark, uneven rock sticking out of the beach. Shiro hadn't even been out for long--he could still see his house--and already something was causing trouble. There was a wet smack against the beach, and the noise came again, strident and distressed.

A scream.

Not a normal scream, as screams went.

Shiro bolted out of his stand-still and rounded the cliff.

The gulls were beginning to regret their curiosity about the shape on the beach. It was dark, long, and tangled in something, and it was thrashing and screaming.

A shark? Did sharks scream? Shiro didn't think so. He grabbed his phone, certain that he was supposed to contact some wildlife service.

Wildlife, that once it scared off the gulls, Shiro saw had a long, violet-black tail. The creature squirmed and hissed and bared its teeth at the gulls, and once its graceful figure stopped thrashing, it looked right at Shiro.

Dark eyes, dark hair. Fair skin and a lean, quite human-seeming body, at least down to the waist where those black-violet scales overtook it.

Shiro had seen artists' renditions. He had seen it in movies. His subconscious put it together while he was still choking on the sight before him.

His phone slipped from his hand and hit the wet sand with a smack. He looked down at it dumbly, as if his phone was really more important than a beached fucking mermaid. He processed the absurdity in that and looked back up at the figure before him.

They were bleeding. It seemed like the rocks had cut them, or perhaps even another creature. The net--the tangle was an old fishing net--was cutting into the creature's body where it was tightest. Struggling would only make it worse. They stared at him in horror, looking just as surprised to see him.

Then they screamed again and fought against the net. It didn't loosen, and they couldn't quite find purchase to bite it.

Shiro counted the reasonable responses in a situation like this. First, he should pick up his phone so it wouldn't get lost in the next tide. Done.

Next, he should call some wildlife service. He rejected that idea, fearing what would be done to this creature.

At the very least, he should turn around and go back home, out of sheer self preservation. Also rejected.

Shiro pocketed his phone. He held up his empty hands, a sign of surrender or peace. The creature stilled, staring at him in rage and fear, but also some grim form of curiosity.

Shiro took a tentative step forward. The creature warbled and growled, and their tail drew up, sliding and squirming with what give the net lent them.

"It's alright," Shiro said. He took another step, and he let the creature hiss before he spoke again. "It's alright. I'm not going to hurt you. Can you speak?"

The creature's scowl turned from hatred to confusion.

"Ssspeak?"

Their voice was hissing and metallic, layered with something like water.

"Yes! Yes, speak," Shiro said, relieved. "You look hurt. Will you let me help you?"

"Hellp yyyou," they repeated.

"Help, yes." Shiro had taken a few more steps, and the creature growled deeply and bared their teeth. "Help. I can get you out."

"Out."

Shiro stopped again, uneasy, glancing down the length of the creature's body. He was a short distance from them now, and he could see that though their upper body was roughly the size and shape of a human man's, if a bit slender, their tail was much longer than a pair of legs would be. Their whole body was trapped in the net. It looked worn and broken in some places, like it had been abandoned a long time ago, but it was intact enough to have snagged around their tail and arms, and even to threaten their neck.

"Yes," Shiro said. "I can get you out. Do you understand?"

The creature stared at him, burning holes into him with their dark eyes.

"Stand," they hissed. "Understand. Get you out."

Shiro didn't know what to make of that. They might just be mimicking him, or they could be trying to parse something together, though the meaning wasn't clear. He knelt down, watching for any sudden movements.

"My name's Shiro," he said, touching his own chest. "Shiro."

The mermaid blinked at him with an extra pair of eyelids.

"Shiro," they said. "You, Shiro."

"Yes!" Shiro smiled. Smiles were universal, right? "Yes, I'm Shiro. What about you? You?" He asked clearly, gesturing to the mermaid this time.

Their expression closed off again in a dark scowl.

Shiro nodded. "Okay. That's alright. Can I come closer?" He gestured between them and tested the offer, scooting forward slightly with his knees in the rough sand. A growl rose from the creature's throat, so Shiro stopped again.

He reached back and took out his pocket knife. He opened the blade as unthreateningly as he could, and he picked up some of the fishing net loose on the sand between them. He demonstrated and cut through a strand of the net, then gestured toward the mermaid's body.

The mermaid studied the knife, the net, then Shiro. They watched him cautiously, but finally said, "Yes."

Still, they flinched back when Shiro reached for them. Shiro slowed down, and he let them calm down before he tried again. He took hold of the net pinning their arms to their chest, and he cut the notches open one at a time. 

Finally, the net was cut open far enough to free their upper half. They warily slipped their head and arms out from under the net, and they didn't protest when Shiro continued down the line, dedicatedly slicing the net over their hips.

"Keesth," the mermaid said then, and Shiro paused to look up at them. They had a fair, heart-shaped face with delicate features and those large, dark eyes. They were elegant, not fragile, but lovely in their alien way. Their hair was black and silky, and it hung in wet twists around their face and shoulders.

"What?" Shiro asked, momentarily breathless. The mermaid tapped their chest.

"Me," they explained, though they weakened with shyness. "Me. Kheeiths."

Shiro took a second to absorb that. A name. They were telling him their name.

"Keeiths?" he asked, genuinely trying to pronounce it as they said. They frowned.

"Keith," they insisted.

"Keith?" Shiro asked with some incredulity.

"Keith," they confirmed.

It didn't seem like a name for a mermaid, but Shiro was just happy to have the introduction. He smiled.

"It's nice to meet you, Keith," he said, then cut another loop of the net.

Keith replied softly with something he didn't understand, but their face showed embarrassment.

Shiro's fingers brushed against scales then, and he had to hold the net closer against Keith to grip it properly. It was tighter across their tail. Keith gasped at the first direct touch, and their tail flicked uncertainly. Shiro kept focused on his work, murmuring, "It's alright. Almost done. You're okay." The gills along their ribs fluttered, but they didn't fight against him.

Shiro clipped the net around their tail and its long, glorious fins, and then they were free. They lurched, and Shiro yelped and scrambled backward. Keith didn't go for him, though; they scrambled across the sand, avoiding the net, and threw themself into the water.

Shiro watched, frozen, as they disappeared. He stayed there well past sunrise.



He went back home and drifted around his daily routine in shock. He glanced out the window continually, and before he knew it the sun was setting. He had a cup of microwave macaroni in hand, and he almost forgot to look up at the beach one more time.

He was stunned to see it. He knew he had been hoping to see it, but didn't begin to think that wish would be fulfilled. Yet there it was: a long, dark shape stretched languidly on the beach, playing with something in the sand.

Shiro dropped his macaroni on the windowsill and fought to counterbalance his excited rush with slow, respectful caution. He stepped out onto the porch, hands shaking.

The screen door banged shut behind him.

Keith's head jerked up. Their face aimed for Shiro, and they stared at each other from a couple hundred feet away, the cliff to the sand.

Keith launched themself back into the sea.

Shiro stumbled into his slippers, in too much of a rush to get his shoes, and ran down the path to the beach. He reached the spot where Keith had been and found tracks in the sand where they must have dragged themself up. At the end of the tracks was a semicircle of sleek white shells arranged around an organically-shaped pearl the size of Shiro's fist.



Shiro didn't think he was allowed to harvest pearls like this, and no one would believe he'd just found it. He kept it, though, as his own personal treasure. It seemed right to do that.

He didn't know what mermaids liked. He knew he was ridiculous to use it as a reference, but he thought of Ariel's treasure trove full of shipwreck salvage. Silverware, baubles, jewelry. Shiny things.

He went into town and did some shopping. He had money to spend, but he didn't go too pricey. Keith likely didn't know the difference. At least, he hadn't intended to until he saw the necklace. It was gold, something that would last in the sea, and its chain wasn't so delicate that it would snap easily. It was decorated with several garnets and dark, nearly black purple tourmaline. It was a little unorthodox next to the jewelry with delicate silver and fine gold chains, barely supporting overpriced, synthetic diamonds. The clerk unsurprisingly said something about a lucky girlfriend, and Shiro just smiled. 

He brought the necklace back to the beach before sunset, when the tide was high. He set it out of the water's reach, and he arranged shells around it just as Keith had done. Then he retreated to his living room window and waited.

He was afraid that Keith was done with him and that they wouldn't show. He considered going and taking the necklace back to get a refund.

But then they appeared. They slithered onto the sand, hesitant and perplexed, and Shiro watched as closely as he could. From what he could tell, Keith figured out the clasp (Shiro had had it modified to a toggle with a circle and post rather than the usual lobster clasp) and fixed it around their neck.

These exchanges continued for weeks. Shiro gave Keith jewelry, coins, and even a small stainless steel globe that he was incredibly fond of. Keith brought him shells and pearls, large teeth and stunning fossils, and for the globe, Keith awarded him with a massive, dead, only slightly mauled sturgeon.

Shiro didn't know what to do with that last one. His evening was spent frantically researching how to safely cook and preserve wild-caught fish, since it seemed churlish to reject such a generous gift. That, and sturgeon were endangered, and Shiro felt the panicked need to get rid of the evidence.

Shiro had to step up his game. He felt like he was flattering himself to assume it, but some part of him was certain that Keith hunting for him was a gesture of high esteem.

It was the best thing he could think of. That morning, he arranged the gift shells around a diving compass. It was the prettiest one he could find, with mother of pearl backing the face and hung on a sturdy chain.

Keith received it and didn't come back that night.

Shiro had done something wrong. Keith didn't like it, or he'd offended them. Or maybe Keith had gotten hurt and wouldn't ever come back. That was Shiro's new greatest fear. He watched out his window and fell asleep in his chair.



Shiro woke mid-day, groggy and stiff in the neck, to an unfamiliar sound. It reminded him of Keith's metallic scream, but it was mellower, a different song on the same instrument. Like a violin played properly, sweet and confident rather than shrieking and grating. He bolted to his feet and bruised his thigh on the table, and he crammed his shoes on and pulled on his jacket on the way out the door.

He couldn't believe it. Keith was calling for him.

No, he really couldn't believe it, even when he stopped on the sloping path and looked out to the beach. He saw their dark shape in the water, black hair and pale face in the shallows where they could escape should the need arise. Heart in his throat, Shiro held his hands up in peace.

Keith mirrored him. Two pale hands above the cold water.

Cautiously, terrified of scaring them off, Shiro made his way down the path and across the beach. He stood at the edge of the water, and he waited through the heartbeats of silence and anticipation. It was only tense from excitement, anxiety in the best sense.

"Hi, Keith," he finally said.

"Shiro," Keith replied. They didn't smile, but they weren't frowning, either, careful and collected. They swam closer and finally dragged themself up to lie in the shallow water, and Shiro sat down on the sand. They wore both the garnet necklace and the compass, as well as a golden torque on their arm and a simply engraved ring on one finger, other gifts from Shiro. They slipped the compass off over their head to show him.

"What?" they asked.

Shiro looked down at the compass and back up to Keith's lovely face.

"What is it?" he asked, and Keith frowned and nodded. "It's called a compass."

"Callda-compas," Keith tried, frowning. Shiro shook his head and reached out, and Keith hesitantly lent him their hand and their treasure. Shiro held both between his own warmer, dryer hands, which seemed to shock Keith into a small gasp.

"Compass."

"Com-pass. Compass."

It didn't sound like a word anymore, but Shiro smiled and nodded.

"Yes."

"Compass is," Keith struggled, working hard over a complete sentence, "bad."

Shiro's face fell.

"Bad? You don't like it?"

"Like it!" Keith insisted, jerking it back to themself. They huffed and scowled at the sand for the right words. "Compass is…"

They grabbed a small white shell on the shore and cracked it between their hands, then showed it to Shiro. They dropped the pieces and gestured back to the compass.

"Broken?" Shiro supplied. Had it broken already?

"Broken! Break," Keith said, nodding quickly. They showed it to Shiro again, and he took it, searching for flaws.

It pointed perfectly north. There wasn't a scratch on it. The subtle engravings and embellishments were impeccable. It was the gift he had given them.

"I…" Shiro shook his head and held it back out to them. "Where? Broken how?"

Keith shuffled closer across the sand and showed Shiro the compass face, holding it level. They aligned a finger in the direction of the needle, pointing true north across the water to their side. They turned their face again and gave Shiro a confused look.

Shiro nodded. "It points north. North," he repeated, gesturing that way.

Keith's face fell then. Their lips pursed, and their brow furrowed.

"Shiro," they mumbled, injured. "I-- Keith, I go north? A-way?"

"You go-- What?" Shiro's brows shot upward. "Did you think I was telling you to go away?"

Keith looked at him helplessly. With that same wounded look, staring down at the compass, they pointed toward Shiro, then up to his house on the cliff. The compass didn't point to either.

"Broken," they mumbled again.

"Oh," Shiro exhaled.

"I go north," Keith said then, fighting off the misery in their voice. They nodded at the compass and hardened their face. "Away."

"No!" Shiro grabbed their hands again, and Keith went still and startled, eyes wide up at him.

Violet, Shiro realized. Their dark eyes were deep, blue, black, grey, violet.

"Don't go," Shiro said, shaking his head. He looked north. "Don't go north. No." He took a hand back to gesture to himself and their beach. "Go here. Come here. Yes."

Keith gave him that desperately confused look again, down at the compass and back up at him.

"But it, compass," they said.

"It points north," Shiro said, "because…" He frowned at the device. How to explain this? He pulled out his phone, and Keith startled when he turned the screen on and flicked through a couple of screens of apps.

Keith said something, mostly clicks and gurgles. Shiro jumped and watched them, surprised only for a moment. Keith almost sounded like a dolphin. Shiro wondered what their words sounded like, and he doubted that he could mimic them, as much as he would have liked to meet Keith halfway across this language barrier. Keith was doing all of the work.

"It's alright," he reassured them. "Phone. Phone is good."

"Fone," they repeated suspiciously. Shiro pulled up a global map, and he turned the display slowly with a drag of his fingertip, spinning the Earth. Keith brightened up and pointed toward it without touching the screen, and they said something in that clicking language again. When Shiro didn't understand, Keith pointed to the circle of gifting shells and pantomimed a ball in their hands.

"Yes," Shiro answered with a grin. "Yeah, I gave you a globe. This is a globe. The world."

"The world," Keith breathed, watching the screen, enamored. 

"Good. And we're here." Shiro zoomed in on Washington, then the coast, then the very beach where they sat. The map displayed the ocean and the shoreline, even the cliffs and the dot of Shiro's house. "Here," he repeated, pointing to the ground and then back at the phone.

Keith stared at it in wonder.

"Here," they said doubtfully. They mimicked the gesture toward the beach and then at the coast on the map, then at Shiro's house and the dot. They looked directly above, maybe checking for a giant phone watching them, and then turned their attention back to Shiro in confusion. "Here?"

Shiro nodded. "Yeah. That's here. And north…" He zoomed out again, and he followed the longitudinal line up to the north pole. "...is this. North, up." He turned the globe and made the same motion, up from any location leading up the sphere to the top. "North. Up."

Keith studied the screen with severity. They hesitantly pointed to their own north, across the water, and then gestured toward the map's north.

"North."

"Yes! North is always there."

"Al-ways."

"All the time. Forever. Always."

Keith nodded, like they understood. They looked up at Shiro again curiously, then pointed at the sun rising in the east.

"Not north?" They pointed to the map again and drew a westward path over the globe. "Sun. Sun not north."

They were catching on fast. Shiro gave a very approving nod.

"Yes, exactly. Yes. East," he said, pointing to the sun, then aimed his hand over the sky to the other side over the water. "West."

"Est. Wezst."

As Shiro explained, answering Keith's questions to the best of his ability, they looked more and more satisfied and amused.

"Shiro is east," they explained, as if Shiro hadn't noticed. They pointed to the water west of Shiro's home. "West. Keith is west. Shiro, Keith go east, sun. Sun compass. Little sun-- star! Star compass. Big water… Big water compass."

Shiro smiled and chuckled. "Yeah. I guess you don't need a compass. You know your way around."

Keith tilted their head. They didn't understand, but they put the compass back on their neck and touched Shiro's hand.

"Like compass," they reassured him. "Like it. Thank you."

Shiro's smile quirked up a little wider. "You're welcome."

"Shiro is east. Sun is east. North…" They pointed north, then shifted their hand to the east, turning the compass with it. They indicated the angle, and demonstrated exactly how to find direction relative to north. "...east."

"Yes." Shiro let his voice fall a little softer. Keith was sweet, highly intelligent, and effortlessly endearing. "Compass. Yes."

"Compass." Keith was content. They shifted back on the sand, and they dug into it to find something temporarily hidden from the waves. They pulled something from the hiding spot, dragged it through the water to rinse the sand off, and offered it to Shiro. It was their first gift given directly.

It was a necklace, hand-made. It looked like strands of old, thin fishing lines, tied and braided meticulously, and decorated with sharks' teeth and a few thin, interesting bones. There was a pearl in the center wound carefully in a fine net so it wouldn't slip out. The knotwork was genuinely impressive, and Shiro wondered how often Keith made things like this. He admired it in his hands, and Keith waited anxiously in front of him.

Shiro slipped the necklace on over his head. Keith sat up taller on their arms and beamed.

"Not bad?"

"Not bad." Shiro felt the trophies on the necklace against his collar and smiled. "Very good. Thank you. I love it."

Keith's face flooded with color. They looked down at the shallow water.

"Love it?" they asked meekly.

"I love it."

Keith glanced up at him again through their lashes. Shiro halfway hadn't expected a mermaid to have eyelashes, considering many of Keith's other more alien features. They crawled closer with their elbows on the sand, and Shiro stayed still, even when their arms brushed against his thighs to put them even closer. Their hair hung in damp ropes to their shoulders, their eyes were dark and serious, and though their skin and the water dripping off them was cold, their presence made Shiro flushed. They smelled like the sea, with all the good and bad that entailed, and Shiro was growing to love it.

Keith was the most beautiful thing Shiro had ever seen.

He had thought that he would find that beauty in space, and it had been on Earth the whole time.

Keith moved closer until they were leaning over his lap. They touched their nose to Shiro's and whispered his name. They asked a low, crooning question.

Shiro had realized weeks ago that he had hoped for this, and now that the moment was here, he was almost too stunned to follow up on the offer. Almost.

He brought one hand up to Keith's cheek, stroked their skin to their ear and cradled their face, and moved in and kissed them.

Keith gasped and pulled back. Shiro stopped, dreading that he had done something wrong, and asked if he had. Keith pressed their own lips together, testing the sensation, and then closed in again, kissing him hard.

There were a few things to adjust to, a few walls to climb over, but Shiro was too eager for this to care. He had to accept these things if he was kissing a mermaid. Keith was cold and wet, and they literally tasted like fish, and once the shy, closed kiss had opened and deepened, their teeth were pointed against his lip, but never drew blood. Their tongue, too, was a surprise, longer and slicker than he'd expected. That probably startled him the most, though Keith used it sparingly. What mattered was the way Keith leaned their jaw into Shiro's palm and the painfully gentle way that they met his mouth. He wondered if this was their first kiss. It wasn't clumsy, but they were careful enough that he wouldn't have been surprised. It was sweet. It felt nice. Shiro gave them the best he could.

It was a long time before they separated. When they did, Keith withdrew slowly, eyes cast down toward Shiro's lips. Their own were still parted slightly, like they wouldn't mind if Shiro picked up where they had just left off. Shiro took that as a good sign.

"Good?" he asked quietly, smiling. Keith smiled back at him and bumped their noses together. 

"Good," they whispered, and they kissed him again.

The next time they pulled back, Keith gave Shiro a regretful smile.

"Keith-- I, I go away. I go here? Here…?" They pointed at the sunlight over the cliffs and then in an arc over to the west, then back to the east.

"Tomorrow?" Shiro offered.

"Tomorrow!" Keith brightened up, like they recognized the word rather than learned it from scratch. Shiro wondered how many other words Keith had lying dormant. "I go here tomorrow. And Shiro?"

"I'll be here. Yes," Shiro replied, and this made Keith happy enough that they stole another kiss. They gave a soft, thoughtful hum, and when they pulled back again, they pointed from their lips to Shiro's.

"What?"

Shiro smiled. He touched his own lips to gesture to them by themselves.

"Mouth," he said.

"Maoth. Mow-th. Mouth." Shiro nodded, and Keith beamed. Then he leaned in and touched their lips together in a gentle kiss.

"Kiss," Shiro murmured.

"Kiss," Keith whispered. "I love kiss."

"I do too." Shiro grinned wider and kissed them one more time; he couldn't help but linger. "I'll see you tomorrow, Keith."

"I'll see you tomorrow, Shiro," Keith said back, looking proud of themself. They butted their forehead gently against Shiro's cheek and let out a soft, clicking sound, and then they were gone, back into the dark blue water and slipping out of sight.

Shiro was left on the sand, heart racing, grinning like an idiot.

How could tomorrow possibly outdo today? He couldn't wait to figure that out.



Keith's mom wasn't happy when he came back, yet again without having said where he would be. He clearly hadn’t been hunting that morning, though he regularly provided the pod with more than his share. She followed him to the mouth of his cave, one of many little nests carved into the larger littoral cave that their small pod called home. He didn’t mean to be surly, he reminded himself, so he kept his mouth shut while he tucked his treasures away in a hinged box he kept strapped to a hook he’d embedded in the corner. The tides weren’t going to steal the gifts Shiro gave him.

"That’s quite beautiful," Krolia commented as Keith removed his latest gift from around his neck, the compass. Keith wasn’t afraid of his mom, or anyone in the pod, seeing what he’d brought home; they would never steal from each other. Still, he didn’t want the interrogation he sensed was brewing.

"I like it," was Keith’s bland reply. It was all the reply he thought necessary.

"You’ve found some beautiful things lately," his mom continued. "And here I thought you didn’t care for treasure."

"I guess I found a new appreciation for it." Keith thumbed the surface of the compass, and he watched the needle point North. One of the glyphs lining the edge of the circle was printed in red, and Keith assumed that was North. He angled the compass to match the needle with the glyph. That meant that East was to its right.

His mom was quiet for a moment. Instead of relief, Keith felt the tension clear in the air, just over the surface of water that cut through the caves.

"You made a necklace," she said. "You spent weeks on it. It was beautiful, too."

"I lost it," Keith said.

"Ah." Krolia’s presence behind him soured. "That’s a shame. It would’ve made a fine courting gift."

"I’ll keep that in mind the next time Sendak’s pod comes around," Keith said dryly, and his mother gave a low, derisive chirp of laughter.

"Keith," she sighed then. "You know I recognize this behavior."

"I know." Keith kept his eyes down on the compass, but he could sense the simple gold ring on his mother’s hand like a beacon in the caves. In all his life, he had never seen her without it.

"I’m not going to tell you to stop what you’re doing," his mom said gently. Gentle was unusual for her, and it disarmed him. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me. But I was lucky. I wasn’t caught, I wasn’t hurt, and I got a beautiful son out of it. I was lucky, and my heart is still broken."

It was an old wound, and it still put a lump in Keith’s throat.

"I miss him, too," he said softly. Krolia was quiet for another moment, then sighed.

"All I can ask you to do is be careful. So please, please be careful."

Keith nodded, but they both knew him. Caution was an all or nothing concept for him.

Krolia swam closer and found a seat on the gently sloping stone leading into his cave. She leaned her head and peeked at the compass in his hand, then studied the jewels and baubles that he had accrued.

"Your human’s been very good to you," she chuckled, and Keith smiled.

"He is. It’s hard to talk to him, though. I barely remember what Dad taught me."

They tried not to let that comment sting too much. His mom smiled over it.

"I remember a little. We can practice together."

"You’re taking all of this really well," Keith noted, and Krolia chirped again.

"Better a human than some Galra pod bastard. But your grandfather? Kolivan is going to kill you."