The force of the surf propelled him up and tumbled him through the sand. It left him beached and winded, twitching from head to tail as the wave receded, cold and wet and alone.
He dragged himself farther up the beach, hating the effort. Here, he was ponderous and ungainly. His body was nothing but a hindrance, and the salt air made his flesh crawl. He thrashed onto his back and raked claws across his chest, digging into until they caught and the fur split open down his stomach.
He pulled and twisted, scraping his back against the sand until he'd shucked the pelt off and came spilling out of it in a tumble of pale, naked skin and unsteady limbs.
When it was done, he lay on his back in the sand, gasping. The sun burned too bright. His bare skin prickled beneath it, unprotected. He needed to get up, find shelter, find clothes.
He wanted to throw the fur back on and disappear into the waves. He wanted to go home. He already hated it here.
The threat of the sun compelled him, finally. He rolled over and got his knees beneath him, grabbed up the pelt and shook as much sand from it as he could. With one hand planted in the beach, he made to push upright—
—and found himself staring into a pair of sharp, angry eyes, framed by hair the color of the sun itself. He froze, heart pounding, while the young man's scowl deepened and he folded his arms across his chest. "What do you think you're doing?"
His voice was lost. He tried to speak, but managed only a dry rasp.
The young man's mouth flattened into a disapproving line. "What's your name?"
He cleared his throat. "Grantaire," he said, testing his voice. The sounds came harsh and awkward at first, then easier. "Call me Grantaire." It was what the others called him, or near enough. It was as close as he could manage with this limited human voice and the air all around, shaping his sounds in strange and unexpected ways. He needed the water, to do it properly.
"What are you doing?"
"Swimming." It's the obvious answer. Grantaire pulls his shoulders back, pushes the pelt still dangling from his hand behind his back. He didn't even have a chance to tuck it away where it could stay safe, and he hates this boy for it. He wants to bare his teeth. He wants to have his claws back.
The boy's mouth stays tight and disapproving. "Skinny dipping is illegal on this beach."
"Arrest me," Grantaire suggests, and strides past him.
It always works. Humans never know what to do with someone whom they can't intimidate.
This time, the other man's hand whips out and grabs him by the wrist, locking him in place. He's staring down at Grantaire's hands, at the fur of the pelt spilling out from between his fingers. "What is that?" he demands.
Questions, questions, questions, it's always questions with the humans. Below the waves, they know better, they conserve their breath. He shakes his hand to rid it of the other's grasp and it should work, he's strong, stronger than the humans with their soft skin and their easy lives.
But he stays caught. The other man's grasp doesn't loosen, doesn't slide off. He holds Grantaire in place and stares at him like he won't be shaken off until he's had his answer.
Grantaire stares back. He won't play these human games.
The other one breaks first. It's always the humans who do. His fingers spasm around the bones of Grantaire's wrists. "That's a pelt," he says with all the viciousness of a wild animal.
This is why the folk of the sea know better than to waste their breath. Humans always like to ask questions they think they already know the answers to.
"Where did you get it?" The young man's face is livid red, like it's been burned by the sun or stung by the salt of the waves. "I've heard rumors— Are you out here poaching?"
"I would never," Grantaire snarls, violent. There are some things that aren't worth the breath it takes to speak them, and there are some things that are. "I would never hurt another seal, not on my life. I'd die first."
It's a mistake that he said another and it makes him grimace, bracing for the suspicion and then the accusation. If this angry young man realizes the truth of what he is— Well. Grantaire would never hurt another of his own kind, but the humans of the shore are not his own kind. This man means nothing to him, and their secret must be protected.
He doesn't accuse, though. His eyes go narrow as they rake over Grantaire, suspicious. But he's got more sense than most humans, he must sense the honesty behind Grantaire's outburst. He relaxes. His fingers go loose on Grantaire's wrist, and this time he lets Grantaire shake him off. "Did you find that out here?"
"Yes." It's the easiest lie.
"God damn it. Bastards." His hand whips out, quicker than Grantaire expected. He grabs the pelt from Grantaire's hand, and Grantaire feels the fur slip through his fingers, feels the sick wrench in the pit of his stomach that is being separated from his own skin.
The young man is holding it up, examining it like it might hold hidden meanings. "We have seal populations off the shores here, you know," he's saying.
"You don't say."
"And people have been poaching them. Quietly enough that it hasn't garnered any interest from the authorities yet, but my friend Combeferre, he's studying marine biology. He's the one who first noticed something happening with the local seal populations. We've tried to bring it to the attention of the authorities, but they say we need evidence before they can take any action." His mouth twists like the word is bitter. And his gaze goes sharp and avid on the pelt, and Grantaire knows with a certainty that goes all the way down to the marrow of his bones that this boy is going to be trouble.
"Give me that." He lashes out for it, and he's a seal, he's a creature of the sea, he should be able to move too fast for any mere human to avoid. But the boy pulls away and Grantaire's fingers close on empty air.
"Is that why you're out here, too?" the young man asks. His gaze is burning bright still, but now it's with eagerness, not anger. "Looking for poachers? You should join us. We could use the help."
It would be an easy thing, to chase this boy down like a fish in the sea, to catch him and pin him and take the pelt back into Grantaire's possession. Grantaire wants to. He needs. A pelt that's given will remain in perfect condition indefinitely, but a stolen pelt is another story. Stolen pelts are the reason so many selkies have found themselves trapped on land amongst the humans. A pelt stolen from its owners hand degrades, losing its potency quickly. Grantaire needs his pelt back, and quickly.
But Enjolras's words make Grantaire hesitate. Seals have been disappearing from their group, it's why Grantaire's come ashore in the first place. Because sometimes their kind come up, and sometimes they find themselves stuck here when stupid humans like the one in front of him find their pelts and decide to keep them, and inadvertently destroy them. Grantaire came ashore to find them, and help them retrieve what remained of their pelts, and come home if they can.
But this firebrand in front of him says that seals are being poached, and the only seals in the area are his kind. If they're not trapped at all, if they're being killed…
Grantaire takes a breath. "What's your name?"
"Enjolras," the young man says, smiling like he's already won. And Grantaire supposes he has.
He nods once. "I would like to help you." It takes everything in him to fall into step beside Enjolras, making their way up the beach, and not reach out to take back his pelt from Enjolras's loosening grip.
He only remembers that he's naked and that the humans find that strange when Enjolras stops half a dozen steps on, turning back to him with a frown. "Wait, where did you stash your clothes? Do we need to go back for them?"
Grantaire feels no guilt about lying to humans, but he hates the necessity of it. That's all the shore ever holds for his kind, is burning sun and nosy humans and one lie after another after another. Things are so much simpler beneath the waves.
He makes an excuse about someone having spirited them away while he was in the water, and it's even mostly true, though Enjolras doesn't realize when he gets incensed on Grantaire's behalf that he himself is the thief, standing there red-handed with the pelt still in his fist.
"I always plan for getting my jeans wet when I come down to the water, because I always do," he's saying. "So I've got an extra pair in my car. I don't know how well they'll fit you, but it's better than nothing, right?"
Grantaire just makes a noncommittal sound, letting Enjolras assume it means whatever he likes, and keeps pace at his side as they walk up the beach, then climb up the steps cut into the cliffside. He freezes at the last step, staring out over the frozen sea of pavement at the top of the cliff, stretching out toward the human city beyond.
He already hates it here. He wants to go home.
But he came here to find his people and bring them home. If he can't do that, then the least he can do is bring back word of their fates, and the promise that the threat has been eliminated. He can protect his people.
He follows after Enjolras, two steps behind, his eyes fixed constantly on the pelt spilling from his hand.
It's only temporary, he tells himself. He'll get his pelt back before it suffers any damage. Then he can go home, and he'll never have to set foot on human land again.
The town he has come to has a community box, back behind the library, where people leave clothes and shoes and other items for those in need. Grantaire knows the trick to opening it — all selkies do. It only takes a moment for him to crouch behind, find the catch underneath, and swing the door open. Another moment and he's found an oversized sweater to protect his delicate, furless skin from the cold coming off the water, and a pair of jeans that fit him somewhat better than Enjolras's borrowed pair do.
He pulls on the sweater and carries the jeans in his arms as he makes his way through town, up the long, winding road that leads to the townspeople's homes.
There's one he's looking for in particular, a little cottage that sits on the cliff's edge and looks out over the sea. There are flowers blooming in boxes beneath the windows, and carpeting her garden in a riot of colors. They make Grantaire smile as he skims a hand across their blooms, and comes away with pollen dusting his palm.
He knocks, and waits. And when the door opens, it's all he can do not to throw himself at the woman who opens it and stands on the other side of the threshold.
"Grantaire," she breathes, staring at him like he's an apparition. Her hand clenches tight on the door frame, turning white-knuckled and pale.
He dredges up a smile and greets her with, "Éponine," and a nod. But then his strength breaks, and he steps in off of her porch and wraps her in his arms.
She feels too small, too thin. But she's as strong as ever, as she throws her arms around his back and clings to him. She presses her face to his shoulder and breathes raggedly, and when he tucks his fingers beneath her chin and lifts her face, there are tears clinging to her lashes.
It's such a human thing, tears. She's been gone so long. He wipes them away for her, and rubs at the salt that they leave on his fingers.
She manages a smile eventually, though it's wet and watery. "Come in, come. God, my manners." Manners are a human concept. He grips her hand and wants to drag her back into the sea where she belongs. Instead, he lets her pull him inside and swing the door shut behind him. "What are you doing here? You swore you'd never set foot on the shore so long as there remained a drop of ocean to swim in."
"And you swore you'd come back," he says softly. It still makes her flinch.
"Of course it is." When isn't it?
"I lost my pelt."
He'd assumed as much. He'd considered, briefly, the possibility that she remained on land because she chose to, because she'd met some human and loved him and he'd loved her back. But she wasn't the sort to let anything, not even love, keep her from the sea for long. They were alike, in that way. "You could have come anyway," he says quietly. "You could have swum with us in the surf. You didn't have to cut yourself off from us entirely, just because your pelt's degraded—"
"It's not degraded." Her words snap out at him, sharp with violence, but then just as quickly go unsteady and start to waver. "I have to believe it isn't. It isn't stolen, it's lost."
She turns sharply on her heel and walks away from him. He follows after her, into the kitchen, where she puts a kettle on to boil and sets about scooping tea into cups. He watches her move through the human ritual with a frown. It looks too natural on her. She's been trapped on land for much too long. "I gave it away," she says quietly, with her head bowed over cups and leaves.
Grantaire rises up from the chair he had been lowering himself into, staring at her in surprise. "You?"
She slams the ceramic cup down on the counter, hard enough he jumps and half expects it to break in her hand. "I love him. Loved him. I thought... It doesn't matter." She squares her shoulders, pulls her spine straight. That's the Éponine that he knows. "He didn't know what it meant, and he didn't love me back. And before I could ask for it back, there was an... accident."
"An accident," he echoes, staring at the lines of misery drawn in her stiff back and her hunched shoulders.
"He wouldn't have lost it. He's not careless like that. Someone took it."
"And you haven't found it yet?" She's been gone for years. If Grantaire had been in her position, he'd have torn the town up and left every building a pile of tinder until he'd found it again. "Are you sure it hasn't—"
"I gave it away freely. If it was stolen from him afterwards, what does that matter? It still left my hands voluntarily. It isn't degraded."
The water boils. The kettle's whistle sounds like a scream. Éponine pours the water, then turns on her heel to face him squarely. "What's the point, anyway?" she asks, soft and weary to the bone. "Of looking for it. Of finding it. If I go back to the sea, I'd just be leaving part of myself here. I don't want to live half a life."
He doesn't know what she calls this, living on the fringes of the humans and losing more and more of herself with every human mannerism she picks up. But she won't thank him for saying any of that, so he just shakes his head, says, "But if you found your pelt, you wouldn't be leaving anything behind." He wonders, briefly, if she means something more substantial, if she's succumbed to the human addiction to material possessions. But she gives him a flat look that's so much like the ones he's used to from her that it makes his heart ache, and gives him hope. She can't be all lost, if he's still able to make her look at him like that.
"The heart's a little harder to retrieve, once lost or given away," she says quietly, but with weight behind it, like he's being obtuse. "I'd take it back if I could."
"Oh, Ep." He sighs and goes to her, and folds her into his arms. She leans against him again, like she had in the doorway, and they hold on to each other there in her tiny kitchen with the smell of the tea wafting up around them.
He doesn't know what else to say. But he knows what he can do. He'll help her find her pelt and get it back, just as he will with his own. He'll get them both back, whole and undamaged, and then they can go back to the sea together and she'll forget all about this human man who doesn't deserve anything she's given him, not her heart and certainly not her pelt.