Mike stood outside his front door and scowled at the morning. It was all bright and sunshiny, like it hadn't spent the last two nights rattling the roof and keeping him awake. Now that the storm had gone through, everything looked washed clean; even the air sparkled. Faker. He took another sip of coffee and stepped out into the yard, turning around to squint at the roof. He'd thought he heard something come loose last night, and it could have been one of the small tree branches that were scattered all over the place, but he was afraid it had been slates and he was going to have to fix them. Too bad Uncle Ezer hadn't included a user's manual with the old house when he up and moved to the Keys.
There was a patch at the gable end where Mike could see slats peeking through from under the slates. Dammit.
"Good to see you didn't blow away."
"More likely to happen to you," Mike said without turning around. William came up next to him; he had a knitted cap pulled down over his ears, and his hair stuck out from under it in all directions.
"Hardly; I've been sleeping under the kitchen table." He followed Mike's gaze upwards. "What are we looking at?"
"Hole in the roof." Mike glared harder at the gap, like maybe it would fix itself if he just willed it hard enough. "Wait, under the table?"
"It's like a pillow fort, only less collapsible." William gave up on looking at the roof and quirked an eyebrow at Mike. "What?"
"No, I know that, I'm just amazed you fit."
"I'm flexible." William grinned. "I'm going to go see if anything interesting got washed up. Come with me."
"I should really…" Mike glanced at the roof again.
"Tell you what: you come with me and goof off, and I'll help fix your roof later," William promised. "It's too cold to be up there anyway."
"…All right," Mike agreed. He should probably find out what he needed to do, first, rather than trying to make it up as he went along. Besides, he should probably check on the boat; there had been enough warning of the approaching storm that Mike had pulled it well out of the way — he hoped — but still. He reached inside the door to get warm gloves and a hat of his own, grabbed a bucket and a short coil of rope from the shed because you never knew, and joined William on the road.
"So were you all right, apart from sleeping under the table?"
William shrugged. "Nothing too bad," he said. "Sisky came pounding on the door in the middle of the night because his lights went out, but I think he'll recover from the shock."
Mike sniggered. "Maybe he'll believe me about the weather now."
William smacked at his shoulder. "We didn't all grow up spending summers in East Coastal Nowhere, Michael. Poor Adam is holding on to the shreds of his belief that beaches are nice."
"It must be traumatizing for him," Mike agreed. "Uh, speaking of, where is he now?"
"When I last saw him he had a large wrench and a determined expression," William said. "That's the other reason I came to find you."
"I don't think even Sisky would try to enlist you as an electrician, Bill."
"No, but he might have wanted me to come watch, and I'd hate to leave Evie a tragic fatherless orphan." They crested the last ridge and started down towards the strand. "See anything good?"
"Not seeing any treasure chests yet." The most likely thing they'd find would be a lot of rotting seaweed and maybe a couple of trees. And a lot of trash. "If you find any booty, though, I'll totally help carry."
"You just like saying booty." William took a long step over a tangle of seaweed and trash.
"Yup. I'm going to go check the boat. You have fun." Mike left William picking his way through the mess and walked along the very top edge of the shingle, above most of what had been washed up. The boat was still where he had left it, tied down behind some big rocks. It was half-full of water, so he tipped it out, then made sure it was tied down again. He wasn't going to be going out until the storm swell calmed down, anyway.
He was tightening a knot, fighting with the wet nylon, when he heard Bill yell down on the beach. He stood up fast and looked for him. "You all right?" he called, when he spotted William coming towards him, moving as fast as he could on slippery flat rocks covered in seaweed and junk.
"You need to see this," William gasped out when he was in earshot. "I think we need help."
"See this — what — Bill!" But William was already gone again, turning back the way he'd come and making his storklike way over the shingle. Mike followed him as fast as he could, cursing Bill's longer legs and ability to balance on impossible surfaces.
"This," when he reached it, looked at first like another clump of seaweed, with someone's old shirt or something caught in the tangle. Then Bill crouched down and pushed at part of it, and the whole scene realigned, until Mike realized he was looking at a person, half-caught in some ratty garment and wrapped up in kelp that had ripped free of the deeper seabed.
"I think he's alive," Bill said grimly, with his fingers at the man's throat, then wrist. "But I don't know if moving him is a good idea."
"Well, we can't just leave him here," Mike said. "The tide's going to come in." He eyed the choppy grey water. "Who's — the professor guy, Springer, he's closest."
"And that stupid truck of his is probably better for moving him." Bill stood up. "I'll go — you'll be okay waiting?"
"Go, you can get there faster than I can."
"Right." William started up the beach then doubled back, knocking a small stone into Mike's knee. "Here, we should keep him warm." He stripped off his jacket and half-threw it at Mike, then scrambled off again, taking the shortest route up to stable ground.
"Right," Mike muttered to himself. He draped Bill's jacket over the man and pulled off his own. He debated pulling the seaweed free, but without knowing if any bones were broken, he didn't want to risk causing further damage. He settled for pulling away as much as he could without jostling the man, then tucked both jackets around him and settled down holding on to the man's wrist, monitoring the thready pulse as best he could. The man showed no sign of regaining consciousness, even when Mike pushed wet hair off his face and tapped gently at his cheek. He had freckles scattered across his nose, Mike noticed; it was hard to tell if they'd stand out as much when he wasn't nearly blue from the cold water. He looked mostly dead, and Mike hoped there was some point in going for help.
Bill was back in probably less time than it felt like, with Springer close behind him. "We called the clinic," Bill said as he dropped down beside Mike, "But they said the road is out and they don't know when it'll be clear."
"In the meantime, I have some first-aid training." Springer joined them. He looked like he'd been planning on giving a lecture when Bill interrupted him — his jacket even had leather patches on the elbows. "Has he woken up?
Mike shook his head. "Nothing."
"That's a little worrying." Springer ran his hands carefully over the man's head. "There's a bit of a bump here — can't tell if it broke the skin. You kept him warm, at least." He pulled the jackets away from the unconscious man. "Let's see what we have here."
"I didn't want to move him," Mike babbled, as Springer pulled away seaweed with a grimace. "I didn't know—"
"It's fine," he said absently. His hands stilled as he found the odd garment the man was wrapped in. "This is interesting," he said to himself in an undertone.
"Nothing." He shook his head briskly. "I don't think anything's broken, and he's breathing all right. We'll carry him up to the house; he can stay with me until a doctor can make it out or it's safe to transport him. If you take his legs, and you steady his head — careful — on three—"
The man was heavier than he looked, but the three of them carried him without dropping any pieces. It was a good thing Springer's house was close, but once they were there it was easy enough to settle the unconscious stranger on the big couch. Springer disappeared upstairs and came back with a couple of heavy blankets and a towel.
"Let's get this off him," he said. He dropped one blanket halfway over the man and pulled the weird shirt-thing — was it fur? — away. "See if you can dry him off some, then wrap him in the blankets. I'll see if Greta left any soup I can heat up." He tossed the towel to Mike and disappeared again.
Mike did his best to wipe the seawater off, the stranger's skin sticky with salt and probably seaweed and fish guts and who knew what else. Mostly he just tried to squeeze the water out of his hair. It was — more than a little strange, wiping down a more or less naked stranger, but Mike tried not to notice that part, just stealing glimpses so he didn't accidentally poke the guy somewhere tender.
"Where do you think he came from?" Bill asked, sitting on the arm of the couch and frowning down at the stranger.
Mike shrugged. "It's got to be somewhere close by, right?" He shook out one of the blankets. "Hey, grab that corner. I mean, he couldn't have survived in the water for long, with that storm."
"Where is nearby, though?" Bill said thoughtfully. "Unless maybe he was on a boat and fell overboard in the storm."
"If he did, they'll be looking for him," Mike said. "Did the rescue boat go out last night?"
William shook his head. "I don't know."
Mike frowned. It was weird. Before he could put it into words, though, Springer bustled back in, clapping his hands together.
"Right, that's taken care of," he said. "Thanks for your help, gentlemen, I couldn't have gotten him up here on my own." Springer moved to pick up the man's wrist again. He bent over him for a minute, then straightened. "You probably want to get home and find dry clothes as well."
Mike grimaced. It was true; he and William were both partly soaked from helping to carry the guy.
"Yeah, I should—" William started.
"Yes, of course," Springer went on over top of him. "I'm sure they'll have the road clear again in no time, and this poor lad can see a doctor. Thanks again. Take care." The door slammed behind them, and Mike and William found themselves outside the door of Springer's house. Mike, at least, wasn't at all sure how they'd gotten there.
"Is it just me, or was that a little weird?" he asked.
"Hospitality is dead," Bill said drily. "If I stagger as far as yours, you'll give me a crust and a glass of cold water, won't you, Mike?"
"You're a rotten freeloader," Mike told him. "Doesn't Christine feed you?"
"Hey, I'm going to help fix your roof," Bill said. "You're paying me in kind. Is that Siska I see coming this way?"
"Do you think he knows anything about roofs?" Mike asked hopefully.
"I think anything he knows is unlikely to make things worse. The nails go in pointy end first, I'm sure of that much."
"It's a start," Mike said. "Hey, Sisky."
Adam looked embarrassed. "Um," he said. "Do either of you know anything about fuses?"
"Ugh," Bill said, slumping into Sisky's one beaten-up armchair. "I think that was a genuine stone-age fuse board."
"With genuine stone-age fuses," Mike agreed. "Adam, if your power's back on, do you have beer?"
Adam made grumbling noises, but he came back from the kitchen with three bottles. Mike twisted his open and flicked the cap into the basket in the corner.
"Civilization in the wilderness," Bill sighed, and threw his own bottlecap after Mike's.
"Hey, I didn't force you to come out here," Mike said.
Sisky flopped into the other end of the sofa. "If we weren't here, who'd protect you from the spiders?"
Bill made a disgusted noise. "Don't mention the spiders."
"You probably shouldn't mention the mice, either," Mike stage-whispered to Siska.
Bill glared at them both. "Unspoilt scenery, you said. A purer existence, you said. Closer to nature and also to a good pub. Lies." He waved one arm dramatically and took another drink.
"I'm pretty sure the one who said all that was you, Bill. Mike just said he used to come up here in the summer."
"Hey now." Mike raised a finger. "I'm pretty sure I mentioned the fish."
"Fish." Bill shuddered.
"You don't like it, don't eat it."
"I'm not saying I don't like it, I just—" Bill screwed up his face.
Sisky patted Mike's arm. "There's such a thing as too close to nature."
"You saw a program about it on TV?" Mike asked drily.
"Don't be silly, it was on the internet." Adam prodded Bill with one toe. "All right, all right, we've heard about your fish-related trauma."
Bill huffed. "No one understands my pain," he said, and poked Sisky back.
"Wimps," Mike declared them both, over the escalating sounds of the poke-fight. "Wimps and wusses, and you're lucky I haven't left you both to starve."
"You wouldn't do that to us, Mike. For one thing, I know the pizza place delivers."
"Not very close to nature, is it, though?" Mike grinned at Bill.
Bill just waggled his eyebrows. "But the delivery boy is."
"I'm not drunk enough to speculate on that image, Bill." Mike shook his half-full bottle. "And I shouldn't be. Wait, you're helping me fix the roof, you don't get to drink any more."
"What?" Bill scowled as Mike took his beer away. "What are you doing?"
"Keeping us all from breaking our necks. Come on."
"Don't you know any helpful locals who could do this for you?"
"Why would I need 'em? I have you."
"This is sure to end in tears," Bill announced, but he got up anyway. "Make sure you tell my grieving public I died bravely, fighting slates to the last — Siska, why are you bringing a camera?"
"I want to make sure your hilarious last moments are documented," Adam said, shoving it in his pocket. "Since I — wait, you don't think I'm going up a ladder, do you?"
"Oh, my young friend, emphasis on the young," Bill said, dropping a hand on his shoulder, "I think you just volunteered."
There was something wrapped around Kevin's leg — seaweed, or a rope, or something. He kicked out, and his foot ran into something soft, not warm but not cold, either, and dry. His eyes flew open and he stared at the cloth in front of him.
"There now, you're all right," a voice said nearby. There was a clinking noise and someone moved, over to the side. Oh, so the cloth was — Kevin's brain sorted directions out, and he realized he was lying on something, and he'd been looking at a— cushion?
His throat felt unused. He cleared it and tried again. "Hello?"
"You do speak English, excellent." The voice sounded pleased. "Can you sit up?"
Kevin went to put out a hand, found it was tangled in a blanket, and bit by bit sorted himself out and struggled up to sitting. "Where am I?"
"One thing at a time." The owner of the voice turned out to be a mature man, with close-cut hair and sharp brown eyes. He was wearing a heavy green pullover and sitting next to — the couch, it turned out, that Kevin was lying on. "Try some of this, you'll feel better."
Kevin nearly dropped the wide mug — hot! — but the man helped him steady it. The mug held soup, thick with fish and something else but in small enough pieces that he could drink it.
"There you go." The man folded his hands in front of him and sat back a little. "I'm sure you have questions — feel free to ask."
"Who are you?" It was probably rude to start with that, but Kevin was too confused to care.
The man didn't seem to mind, anyway. "My name's Gerald Springer. This is my house."
"Your house…." Kevin looked around, careful not to spill his soup. The room looked — familiar, but new, in a way, like he was comparing it to a template in his head or something. It was a very strange feeling. "Oh."
"Do you like it?" There was an odd note in the man's voice that Kevin couldn't quite decipher. He settled for "Yes" as what he hoped was a safe answer.
"So what's your name?"
"Your name," the man pressed. "You can call me Gerald, and you're…?"
"Kevin," he said. "I'm Kevin."
"What's your last name?" Kevin shook his head in incomprehension. "Your family name?"
Kevin wracked his brain but came up blank. Family — family was… "Paul," he blurted out, then shook his head. "I don't know." Something wasn't quite right, but he wasn't sure what. He stared at Gerald, hoping for any other clues.
But Gerald only said, "All right," and smoothed down the edge of the blanket. "We — I found you on the beach. Do you remember how you got there?"
Kevin shook his head again.
"No, I'm sorry." All Kevin could remember was — water, and seaweed tangling around him, preventing him from getting loose, and then that last big wave—
"There, you're all right." Gerald's hands were soothing Kevin, taking away the half-empty mug of soup and patting his shoulder. "Will anyone be looking for you?"
Kevin shook his head again and winced as that just made it hurt more. "I think — I don't know."
"That's all right." Gerald helped him lean back again and tucked a pillow under his neck. "You can stay here as long as you like."
"Oh, no need to thank me." Gerald smiled. "I don't think I've ever met anyone quite like you, Kevin."
Mike was still busy waking up when Bill came knocking on his door. Just to be a dick, of course, since he'd never let a closed door stop him before.
"Rise and shine," he said cheerily. "We have a housecall to make."
Mike just glared and poured more coffee into his cup. "I'm not going anywhere before noon."
"You are. Stop trying to kill me with your mind, it never works. We're going to go visit our friendly neighborhood retired professor and inquire as to how his personal flotsam is doing, and if he's been sent home to the bosom of his doubtless loving family."
Mike drank half the mug while he was figuring this one out. "You want to check on the guy who washed up in the storm."
"Exactly." Bill reached up for his own mug and filled it from the coffeepot despite Mike's renewed glare. "Not having seen any suspicious activity with shovels in the back forty, I assume he is still among the living."
"That's fucking morbid, Bill."
"Yes, well." He leaned back against the counter with the mug cradled in his hands and stared at Mike expectantly.
"Okay, okay, I'm moving." Mike still didn't bother actually doing anything until he'd gotten to the bottom of his mug. He shoved his chair back and refilled it to take with him. Getting dressed was going to be a serious undertaking this morning.
Bill tsked. "I hope you're going to put some pants on. We don't want to scar him further with your glorious knees."
"My knees are awesome — wait, why am I even trying to talk to you?"
Bill widened his eyes and held up one hand. "I'm helping."
Mike rolled his eyes in response. "One of these days, you're going to wake up strangled, and it's gonna be all your own fault, Beckett."
He was even more sure it was going to all be William's fault after he'd gotten dressed and drunk the dregs of the coffee (Bill had made off with most of it while Mike was out of the room) and been gently shoved out the door and down the road. At some point, Bill had started speculating that the man could be a deposed prince, set adrift to prevent him threatening the succession, and due to his tragic amnesia following his trauma, they would have to raise him by hand. "Like an adorable fluffy baby bird."
"I think you're getting carried away with the plot, Bill." Mike squinted into the morning sunlight. Dammit, he'd had plans. Plans that involved staying in bed, but still.
"Hey, It worked for Shakespeare." William shook his head sadly. "You Philistine. But look, we're here."
Mike tried to steer them around the side of the house — Greta was probably in the kitchen and she'd let them in, and besides, he just wasn't a front-door sort of person, even if he could hear Bill making bad puns in his head already — but Bill was having none of it. He marched both of them up to the front door and knocked briskly. Mike was sure that if there'd been a bell, he would have been yanking on it.
There was a pause, and then the door opened. Springer stood in the gap, not looking particularly welcoming. Mike was right, they should have gone around to the kitchen.
"Yes?" Springer said.
Bill reached out a handshake without letting go of Mike — neat trick. "Dr. Springer. We were just wondering how our blow-in was doing. Is he still in your care?"
Springer shot a glance behind him into the dark hallway. "Why, yes, he is," he said. "He's understandably still somewhat shaken by the accident—"
"Oh, that's all right, we just wanted to say hi," Bill interrupted cheerfully. "We won't wear him out."
Springer must have realized he wasn't going to win this — and Mike knew that Bill hadn't lost the determination that had clawed them as far as they had gotten in the music industry, Before, but it was different seeing it in action again — because he folded gracefully rather than trying to brazen Bill out. So he wasn't stupid.
"Come in, then," he said, and held the door wider for them. He even managed to smile. William smiled back and led Mike into the hall.
"I believe Greta was making tea," Springer said, and brushed past them to lead the way to — the small front room, it turned out.
"Kevin, you have visitors."
The man — boy — something in between — on the sofa looked up. He was barely recognizable as the same person they'd carried in only a few days before. His round face looked much better when it wasn't slack with unconsciousness, for one thing, and his hair — well, not being full of seawater certainly agreed with the curls.
"Kevin, this is William and — Michael, yes? They live nearby." Springer said.
"Mike," Mike said. "Hi."
"Hello." Kevin's voice was low and careful.
"It's good to see you again," William said, and slid around Springer to sit at the near end of the sofa. He flicked his eyes to Mike, then to the armchair opposite, nearer to Kevin, but Springer was crossing to sit in that one before Mike started to move. Whatever — Mike shrugged internally and sat in the chair right in front of him, next to Bill.
"What the professor didn't explain," Bill said, "is that Mike and I helped retrieve you after your accident. We wanted to see how you were doing."
"You found me?" Kevin asked. He looked between them and settled on Mike.
"William did." Mike's throat felt rusty. He cleared it and went on. "I just helped carry."
Kevin looked like he was going to ask something else, but whatever it was got lost under Springer's hearty greeting of, "Ah, Greta, thank you."
Greta put down a tray on the table in the middle of the room. "I'll get more cups. I didn't know you had guests." She winked at Mike. "Young Mr. Carden, good to see you," she said.
Mike grinned back. "Likewise, Miss Morgan," he said. He'd known Greta when he spent summers with his great-uncle, and had a fierce cross between a crush and hero-worship when he was seven and she was ten and brave enough to run along the top of Old Jer's wall with the dog barking and leaping up to snap at her heels. When he'd come back, and found her still here, and more or less unchanged — well, she still never took him seriously, but he had gotten over the hopeless crush. Really.
She was back quickly with more cups, and Mike might have said something else to her, but Springer said, "Thank you, Greta," in a tone that made it a clear dismissal, and she just nodded and left, rolling her eyes at Mike when he was the only one who could see her face. He bit his tongue to keep from laughing, and meekly took his cup of tea.
"So what happened? When I saw you on the beach—" Bill said.
"Unfortunately, Kevin doesn't recall anything before his accident," Springer said.
Kevin shook his head. "I'm not even sure what happened," he said, his voice clearer now. "I'm glad you found me, though."
"Me too, but —" Bill frowned. "Surely someone's looking for you."
"I'm sure you understand that with nothing but a first name to go on, progress on finding Kevin's family must be slow," Springer said.
"And you've told the police—"
"Believe me, gentlemen, everyone who needs to be aware of the situation has been informed," Springer said. He sounded like his patience was wearing thin. "Kevin, if you've finished your tea, perhaps you'd better go lie down. There's no need to over-tire yourself."
"I — Yes, I'll do that," Kevin said. He replaced his cup on the table and stood up. "It was nice to meet you both," he said, and offered Mike a tiny smile. Mike tried to return it without catching Springer's eye; Kevin stepped softly around the end of the sofa and out the door.
Springer waited until the stairs creaked, then set his cup down with a definite click. "I must ask that you not bother Kevin while he is a guest in my home. He has survived a traumatic experience, and that is enough to contend with, without strangers, however well-meaning, pestering him about what he cannot remember."
"Did you know him before, then, Dr. Springer?" Bill asked brightly.
"Of course not; if I did, I would have contacted his family long since."
"Oh." Bill smiled. "I just wondered, since you were so worried about strangers."
The tops of Springer's ears turned red and Mike genuinely wondered if he was going to start whistling like a kettle. He put his own cup down and stood up. "Well, thanks for your time, Dr. Springer, and I'm glad Kevin's got such a good place to stay. We'll just get out of your hair."
Bill glared at him, but followed his lead. "Of course. Sorry to drop in on you so precipitately."
"Not at all. Neighbors are always welcome, isn't that the way?" William and Springer bared their teeth at each other again, and Springer shuffled them out the door fast enough that Mike was startled by the door clapping shut right behind them.
Bill raised an eyebrow. "Interesting."
"Oh, do not start with that."
William didn't say anything else, just shrugged and started walking. Just as they reached the gate, he said, "Tragic amnesia is much more interesting in the romance novels."
"I thought it was Shakespeare."
"He has very small ears," Bill observed, maybe thirty feet down the road.
"No, our celebrated Dr. Springer, who I simply can't stop gazing at." Bill's voice dripped sarcasm.
"Okay, okay. Was that relevant?"
"No, I just thought it was noteworthy."
"I think you upset the professor."
"Me?" Mike stopped dead in the middle of the road. "I upset him? I'm not the one who barged into his house — thanks for dragging me along, by the way — and starting implying he's a kidnapper!"
"Mmm," said Bill, in that maddening way he had. "But I'm not the one our adorable human flotsam was watching."
"I — what do — that's—" Mike stopped and took a deep breath. "Adorable," he said flatly.
William smiled. "Very shy, of course, but I think that adds to his charm, don't you?"
Mike stared at him for a few seconds, but he didn't start laughing, or reveal that April Fools had been rescheduled this year, or hold up a sign saying "Just Kidding!" like that panda in that weird anime Sisky had made them watch. So Mike just snorted and said, "Right," and started walking again.
"Very pretty hair, too," William commented from behind him.
Mike just kept walking. Left foot, right foot — you could pay a lot of attention to walking.
"And he has very faint freckles, too, all over the bridge of his nose. Like cinnamon sugar," Bill mused.
Mike stopped again and turned to face him. "What are you looking for, here? You think he's hot, fine. Knock yourself out. But I don't know why you're telling me."
Bill smiled sunnily. "I'm telling you because I was looking at him."
Mike rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I got that, I just—"
Bill reached out and tapped him on the nose to stop him. Mike thought about biting him, but he knew Bill was too fast to catch. "I was watching him," Bill said, "Because you were too busy looking anywhere but at him to notice."
Bill shrugged. "And nothing. I just thought it was noteworthy." He grinned again and sidestepped around Mike, whistling as he walked down the road.
Mike desperately wanted some aspirin. And maybe a translator. He didn't have either of those things. He pulled his shoulders up around his ears and followed Bill.
"Kevin." Gerald's smile when he looked around the door was affable. "I was wondering if you'd mind helping me out with something?"
Kevin had only been sitting on the windowseat, squinting a little at the view outside and trying to decide if that shape was a person, or just a strange tree. Something to do was a welcome distraction. "Of course."
Gerald led him into — "My study." He waved a hand at the shelves ranged with books and some things Kevin couldn't identify from this distance. "I'm retired these days, of course, but I like having a room of my own."
He laughed a little, like there was a joke Kevin wasn't getting. Kevin smiled anyway. "It's nice." It was, too — the room wasn't big, but it felt like it was used, and lived in, and there were interesting things to look at, and a comfy chair across from the small desk.
Gerald closed the door behind Kevin, and then went and leaned on the desk. "Would you mind if I measured you?"
"You mean like how tall I am?"
"That and a few other things, yes. Nothing intrusive, I promise." Gerald smiled. "May I?"
Kevin wasn't sure why Gerald looked so intent on his answer, but it seemed harmless. A little strange, but harmless. "Sure."
"Wonderful! If you could stand over here first, please. Put your heels against the wall, yes, that's right."
Kevin stood where Gerald pointed. Gerald came over and did something over his head — though in his hair, which made Kevin want to move — and then said, "All right. You can step away."
Kevin moved over, and watched as Gerald used a tape to measure from the floor to a mark on the wall, and wrote something down in a notebook. He pulled a flat, boxy thing out from under the corner of the desk.
"And your weight, too, just step onto the scales with both feet."
Kevin got onto the scales. The disc spun back and forth some, then steadied, but it was too far away for him to see what was on it.
Gerald leaned down and read it. "Mm-hmm," he said.
"You're much heavier than I'd expect, given your height and build, is all," Gerald said.
"Is that bad?"
"No, just interesting." Gerald flashed a quick smile at Kevin. "You're very dense — in the purely physical sense, of course."
Kevin looked down at his feet. "Can I get off this now?"
"What? Oh, of course." Gerald waved a hand. "Just shove it out of the way, I'll take it back upstairs later. Can you come over here now, please?"
Kevin joined him at the desk. He had a large piece of white paper spread out, and a pencil.
"What's this for?" he asked.
"I'd like to trace the outlines of your hands and feet. See, here are mine." He pulled another sheet out from under the blank one; sure enough, hands and feet were outlined on it in pencil. "I'm just interested in proportions. If you put your hands down flat, like this—" he demonstrated on the desktop.
"Okay." Kevin put his right hand on the blank paper.
"Excellent. Just hold still." Gerald pressed down on his hand — kind of hard, actually — and ran a pencil all around the outside edge of it, sliding in between his fingers, too. "Now the other one."
They repeated the procedure, and then Kevin sat in the chair by the desk while Gerald traced his feet. The pencil tickled where it slid against his skin, and Kevin couldn't help twitching. Gerald just pressed harder on the knuckles of his toes. "Hold still." Kevin bit his lip and tried to obey.
"Excellent, thank you very much." Gerald whisked the tracing away before Kevin could get a good look at it, though he thought it looked different from the other tracing, of Gerald's hands. But he supposed that was the point, that people were different. He didn't have time to get up before Gerald came back and bent down to look at him.
"I wish I could measure the curvature of your skull, but I don't have the equipment," he said. "Still…. No, I suppose not." He peered at Kevin for a few more seconds; Kevin just looked at him. Finally Springer straightened up and offered him a hand out of the chair.
"Thanks for your help," he said. "It's all very interesting."
"What exactly do you use this — data for?" Kevin asked. He thought that was the word Gerald had used.
"Oh, it's nothing important," Gerald said, and leaned on the edge of the desk again. "I used to be a professor, you see, an anthropologist. I'm not… involved in the academic world any more, but I still like to have my little projects."
"What's an anthropologist?" Kevin hated sounding like he didn't know what was going on, but that word seemed pretty key to understanding the rest of it.
"Anthropologists study people," Gerald said. "I looked especially at the sort of stories that seem obviously impossible, but they still get told because they hold some sort of meaning. Like the story of the firebird — do you know that one?"
Kevin shook his head.
"No, no, you wouldn't," Gerald murmured, sounding vaguely satisfied by the answer. "Well, any stories like that. Only my — colleagues — thought that their impossibility was immutable." His mouth twisted sideways and he glared out the window.
"I'm sorry?" Kevin tried.
Gerald looked back at him, all traces of bitterness gone from his face. "Oh, don't be," he said. "You may be just the piece I've been looking for." He stood up. "Now, shall we go see if Greta has something delicious in the kitchen for us?"
Kevin started to follow, but the coolness of the floorboards in the hall reminded him of his slippers. He doubled back to get them, and detoured to look at the paper with his traced hands and feet. The first page Gerald had shown him was right there — it did look different. His fingers were shorter than Gerald's, his hands wider, and his feet looked — well, more like his hands than like Gerald's feet. He tipped his head to one side, trying to figure out what that might mean.
"Kevin, are you coming?" Gerald called from outside.
Kevin shook off whatever it was, and stuffed his feet back into the borrowed slippers. "Coming." The whole point was that people were all different, right?
A shadow crossed the window. Kevin looked up from the book of pictures he was looking at and immediately wished he could fade right into the couch. It was one of the men from the other day — Mike, Kevin thought his name was, but he wasn't sure. Greta had known him, though.
Mike had passed the window in the direction of the door, and Kevin realized after a few seconds that he was holding his breath, waiting for the sound of a knock, or the bell being yanked. There wasn't anything, though, not even footsteps, and he relaxed again. A minute or so later, though, he heard voices, and he was sure Greta had been in the kitchen alone before.
He bit his lip. He'd acted like a complete puppet a few days earlier — Gerald had all but sent him off to bed, and in retrospect, he wasn't sure how he felt about that — and part of him wanted to hide and not let Mike see him again. The rest of him, though, wanted to see Mike up closer, and maybe see if his eyes were the same stormy green-blue of— of—
He rubbed at his forehead. His head hurt. Maybe he could get a drink of something, that might help.
He crept down the passageway, his feet silent in the socks Gerald had given him — they were thick and stiff, and smelled like wet animal, but Kevin liked them. He could dig his toes into the texture when he leaned forward to peer through the crack at the edge of the kitchen door.
He couldn't see anyone, so he slid around the edge of the door. He'd just get a glass….
"There you are, Kevin," Greta said from the outside door. "You remember Mike, right?"
Kevin peeked over. Mike was definitely the same guy who had come before; Kevin remembered the mole on his cheek.
"Yeah, hi," Kevin said. He started to wave but then stopped himself. He was afraid he might squeak or hit himself with the cupboard door or something.
"Good—" Mike cleared his throat. "Good to see you again." He didn't look all that happy about it; his face was sort of flat, like he didn't feel anything in particular. Kevin looked away back into the cupboard, and tried to ignore whatever Greta was doing on the other side of him.
"Right," she said. "I'm off, Mike's going to walk me home. There's a casserole in the fridge, and I left instructions. You remember how to turn the oven on, right Kevin?"
"I remember." It wasn't like it was complicated, once she'd showed him which knobs to turn.
"I'll see you tomorrow, then. Bye!"
"Bye," Kevin echoed.
Mike sort of nodded at him, and closed the door behind them.
It took a few seconds for Kevin to notice he was still holding on to the cupboard door. He shut it quickly and got himself a glass of water, then went back to the front room. The door of Gerald's study was still closed, and Kevin wasn't sure he wanted to bother him, so he went back to the parlor to look at his book until the light got dim.
It was another couple of days before the weather was settled enough for Mike to feel safe out in the boat. The catch was worth it, though — something had the fish all riled up, and they flung themselves onto the baited lines like they were trying to get out of the water. Mike reeled them in until he had more than enough, then cleaned them and threw the heads and guts over for the gulls and the rest of the school.
When he motored back in, the tide covered most of the strand, leaving a gap of only a few feet below the start of the scrubby, salt-blasted grass. Mike pulled the boat all the way out of the water — after that storm, he wasn't going to take chances leaving it in the water — and across the stones, grunting with effort. The boat moved more easily on the grass, and he pulled it well out of harm's way before tying it down again. He double-checked the locks on the outboard and on the gas cap, then collected his fish and the remaining bait from the bottom of the boat.
It was a very different scene from the last time he had been down here. Much of the wreckage and trash that had been washed up by the storm had washed out again, or else been picked up by public-minded citizens or someone. With waves lapping so high, it barely looked like the same place.
Mike looked down at his bucket of cleaned fish, considering. He'd sold fish to Greta, for Springer, before now, and with Kevin around — it might be welcome. And he could say hi. To Greta, of course.
Springer opened the back door with a thin smile. "Michael. What can I do for you?"
Mike held the bucket up — over to the side, so neither of them were too close to the smell of fish blood. "I went out in the boat, and I wondered if you'd like some mackerel."
"I don't — actually, that might be just the thing," Springer said, which didn't really make sense, but he was pulling the door open and ushering Mike in.
"Greta! Look what Michael brought us!"
Greta looked over from the table at the far end of the room and spotted the fish tails. "Ooh. What've you got?"
"Mackerel, some really nice ones." Mike smiled. "Hi Kevin."
Kevin grinned back. He had flour on his hands, and on his nose, and maybe even in his hair. "Hi! Greta's teaching me how to make pastry!"
Springer cleared his throat noisily "Do you have anything to put the fish into, Greta?"
"Of course." She brushed her hands off and pulled a large ceramic bowl off a shelf. "Any thoughts on how you'd like them?"
"I leave the artistry entirely to your discretion." Mike rolled his eyes inwardly. Either Springer had no idea of how pompous he sounded, or he wanted to sound like he should be wearing a monocle. Mike wasn't sure which would be worse.
"Well, I could fry them, of course. Or fish pie?" Greta tipped her head. "Here. Put the bucket on the table, so I don't dump them all over the floor."
Kevin's eyes fixed on the bucket as soon as Mike put it on the table, and instead of looking grossed out at the smell of the fish, he leaned closer. Before Mike had any idea what he was doing, he'd whipped his hand into the bucket and pulled out a headless mackerel.
Kevin ignored Mike and bit down. There was a ripping sort of noise, and about a quarter of the fish came loose. Kevin swallowed it — whole, as far as Mike could tell — and bit again.
"Kevin!" Springer took a step towards Kevin, looking like he was going to try to take the fish away. Kevin's eyes narrowed, and he tightened his grip, wiping blood from the corner of his mouth with the back of his other hand. He clearly wasn't going to give the fish up without a fight, and even Springer seemed to get that.
"Greta, take as many fish as you think you'll need. Michael, perhaps you'd better go," he said.
Next to Mike, Greta broke from her stunned immobility. "Yes, right," she stammered. She picked several fish out of the bucket, paused and glanced at Kevin, and added a couple more. Then she hastily backed away. "Thanks, Mike."
"Sure." Mike wasn't sure he wanted to try to take the bucket away, but Kevin seemed happy with the fish he had, and was still locked in a staring match with Springer. "I'll just go out this way, shall I?"
"Yes, of course, thank you so much." Springer snapped back to his usual booming self. "Here's something for your trouble. I'm sure you understand there's no need to mention any of this. Head trauma can cause very odd behavior, it's very complicated."
"Right, sure," Mike agreed, bemused. "I'll just — be going, then." He hustled around the side of the house to the road; when he looked back just before he turned the corner, the door was firmly shut.
He peeled his hand open and looked at the note Springer had shoved at him. That was — a lot more than half a dozen mackerel were worth, but he wasn't going to argue.
That was weird. And he wasn't just talking about Kevin.
"Kevin, I'd like a word." Gerald came back inside and caught Kevin's elbow, not waiting for him to say anything before he hustled him out of the kitchen. They went all the way to the study before Gerald let go.
"Kevin, you must never, ever do that again."
"I'm sorry." Kevin rubbed at his arm — it didn't hurt, exactly, but it tingled.
"Eating fish like that may seem entirely natural to you, but it's not what people do. People wait until the food is cooked, and they use a knife and fork." Gerald opened one of the desk drawers and pulled out a handful of tissues. "Here, wipe your face. You have blood on it."
Kevin scrubbed at his chin dutifully. "I'm sorry," he said again. "I don't know why I did it."
"It's not your fault you can't remember," Gerald said, his voice softer now. "But you have to make an effort. If people found out that you can't remember, they might take you away, and do all sorts of things to find out why. They'd have to test you — they might have to cut your head open to look inside…"
Kevin froze, the wad of tissues in his hand forgotten, as Gerald explained what 'they' might do in order to discover why Kevin couldn't remember anything clearly before waking up in Gerald's bed. He hardly dared breathe, and when Gerald said, "So you understand why you mustn't do anything like that again?" all he could do was nod frantically.
"Good," Gerald said. "It's all right, Kevin. I know it was a mistake." He patted Kevin's shoulder reassuringly. "You don't need to worry, we'll keep you safe. Now I'm going to go make sure Greta knows everything's all right. You go wash your face — and maybe stay out of the kitchen for a bit, all right? I think you frightened her."
Kevin nodded. He felt miserable — he liked Greta, he didn't want to frighten her, and what if—
"Actually, one more thing," Gerald said, and came back from the door. "May I look at your teeth?"
Kevin just stared at him, confused.
"Your teeth, Kevin," Gerald repeated. "Smile for me." He demonstrated, a wide grin that didn't look very happy at all, really. Kevin grimaced back, uncertainly.
"Thank you." Gerald bent down and looked more closely at Kevin's mouth, then used his thumb to pull Kevin's cheek back on one side. "Hm, yes." He straightened up and went around to the other side of his desk again. "I should have thought to check that sooner."
Kevin rubbed at his cheek and his hand came away with flecks of dried blood on it, too. "Check what?"
"Oh, just looking a gift horse in the mouth." Gerald smiled again, and while it still didn't look like he thought it was funny, it was better than the last one. "You go on and clean up, all right? And if you're ever not sure what to do, just ask me. I know you'll do your best."
"Yes." Kevin took a few steps backwards towards the door, but Gerald didn't look up from whatever it was he was writing down. Kevin hesitated, but if he had scared Greta, maybe he should go clean up before he apologized to her. He could smell old fish, now, and she might not like that. He cast one more look over his shoulder and went up the stairs, walking as silently as he could.
"Your drowsy little community just keeps getting more peculiar," Bill said.
Mike kicked at him half-heartedly under the coffeetable. "I don't know why you're pinning this on me, you're the one who found him."
Bill frowned at his cards, and rearranged them before he said, "Well, yes, but you're the one who brings home stories about people eating raw fish."
"You eat raw fish. I've seen you," Sisky said from his spot on the floor. "Mike, got any threes?"
"I eat raw fish in a civilized way," Bill said. "There aren't any crunching noises."
Mike flipped his three across the table to Adam. "Look, it didn't seem weird when he did it, okay? I mean — it was, but it wasn't. I don't know." He scowled at his cards and folded them together. "Why are we playing this stupid game again?"
"We can't play much else until you get that eight out from under the bookcase, and Bill's not allowed to play Scrabble with humans, remember? Bill, got any queens?"
"Queen of my heart, queen of the May — no. Go fish."
Mike scowled at his cards. It hadn't seemed weird at the time — or, well, yeah it had, but Kevin hadn't acted like it was anything out of the ordinary.
"Your turn. Stop staring into space."
Mike picked up his cards again. "Fine. Sisky, gimme your queens."
"I shoulda known. Here. So what's this guy like, apart from the raw fish?"
Mike shrugged. "I don't know. He was helping Greta, but he didn't really get a chance to say much, now I think about it."
"Crunching noises," Bill muttered darkly.
"He has a nice smile, though."
Bill and Adam both raised their heads like dogs that had smelled a rabbit. "A nice smile?" Bill asked, with only a tinge of incredulity.
"Yeah. So?" Mike glared at them both.
"Mr. Siska, our companion has passed a comment on someone's smile, did you hear?"
"I did hear, Mr. Beckett," Adam said. "It's very unusual behavior."
"Curious, even." William tilted his head to look at Mike. "Is it possible that the stoic Mr. Carden has a crush on our mysterious visitor?"
Mike rolled his eyes. "Fuck off."
"A noncommittal answer, but highly indicative all the same, I think," Bill said. "Mr. Siska?"
"I think you are very likely correct, Mr. Beckett. I also think Mr. Carden is about to snap and kill us both if we don't stop."
"Look, even if I did — which I don't," Mike said, "I really doubt Springer is going to be letting him out on any dates. You saw what he was like when we were there, Bill."
"You have a point." Bill made a face. "Rather like a collie with one lamb, or some such rustic expression. Sisky, you look like you bit a lemon."
Adam shook his head. "Just Springer. He's kind of creepy."
Bill's attention lasered in, temporarily diverted from Mike and his absolute lack of crush. "Did Springer act improperly towards you, young Siska?"
Adam laughed. "Oh, man, I didn't tell you? He showed up when I was moving in, said he wanted to make sure I was settling in all right. He hung around for like, twenty minutes, and then left." He took a long swallow of beer. "I thought you were there, William."
Mike and Bill stared at him in silent unison. "No," William said slowly. "No, I was not there, because I am very sure I would have remembered that."
Adam shook his head, still half-laughing. "I seriously wasn't sure if he was trying to make a pass, or what. I mean, he didn't do anything, just kept — hanging around, like a really old teenager."
"Hmm," Bill said. "And now he has Kevin staying with him, another personable young man?"
"He seemed happy enough," Mike said.
"Yes, but it makes you wonder." Bill tapped the lip of his beer bottle against his chin. "That day we found your mystery man — stop rolling your eyes, Carden, they'll stick that way — I thought Springer called the clinic when I went to get him, but did the doctor ever actually come out?"
Mike looked at Adam and shrugged. Adam shrugged back and slid a little further down the sofa. "I dunno; I thought she must have," he said. "There were cars on the road, right?"
"But were they the right ones?" William said distantly. Then he shook his head and came back to himself. "Anyway, give it up, Mike. You're a secret softy, but you're not in the habit of just giving fish away."
"You've never given me fish," Adam said mournfully. He was only staying on the sofa by friction, at this point. "Mike, there's a really freaky big spider in the corner of your ceiling."
"That's Charlotte. Leave her alone and she'll leave you alone."
Bill hooted with laughter. "Mike, you're naming your bugs? You really need to get out more. With Kevin, for example."
"We are not starting this again," Mike said. "No."
"We just need a plan for you to seduce him away from his dastardly captor," Bill mused.
Adam lost his battle with gravity and slid off the sofa with a thump. "You should sing to him."
"Oh, god, shut up," Mike muttered into his hand. He hadn't drunk nearly enough for this. "Don't make me suggest playing Scrabble instead."
It was a good thing he had the kind of friends who could be distracted with arguments over whether 'veprecose' was a word or not, because if they couldn't, he'd have strangled them years back, and — wait. He wasn't seeing the downside, there.
"Morning, Kevin." Greta blew in through the door and caught it before it slammed behind her.
"I don't usually see you this early. Did you sleep all right?" She bustled about, hanging up her jacket in the nook behind the door and trying to make her hat stay on the peg above it. She looked over when Kevin didn't answer. "Kevin?"
"Sorry, no, I slept fine." Kevin turned his mug back and forth in tiny arcs. "How are you?"
Greta shrugged. "Can't complain." She crossed to the sink and washed her hands. "Is he awake yet?"
She must mean Gerald, Kevin decided. "I don't know."
Greta shot him a look he couldn't quite figure out. "Could you check? You don't have to go wake him up," she added quickly. "Just see if he's up and about."
"Okay." Kevin pushed his chair back and went out into the hall. He didn't hear anything from behind the closed study door, so he opened it and peeked around; Gerald wasn't in there. All the other rooms were open, except for Gerald's bedroom door, so Kevin went back down to the kitchen door. Greta was just pouring boiling water into the teapot. "I think he's still asleep," he said.
"Good, that gives me time to start scones. Come in and sit down again." Kevin had been about to turn away, but he did as he was told. Greta brought another mug over to the table and sat down opposite Kevin. She poured for both of them and added milk to her cup. "Kevin — is everything all right?"
"Huh?" Kevin looked at her. She turned her mug between her hands and took a sip.
"Maybe I'm imagining it, but I think you've been avoiding me. I'm not saying you have to keep me company all the time, but you used to hang out in the kitchen a lot more."
"Oh, um…" Kevin trailed off.
"Did I say something that upset you? I'm sorry if I did."
"No, I — " Kevin scrabbled for an answer. He couldn't come up with anything but the truth. "I thought I scared you," he said quietly. "I didn't want you to be frightened."
"You scared me? Oh…" Her voice was quieter. "When Mike brought the fish?"
"You didn't scare me," she said. "Um — all right, you surprised me, but I don't think you're going to bite me or anything. I don't," Greta said more firmly. "Kevin, look at me."
Kevin looked up.
"Yeah, you don't quite believe me, do you." Greta sighed. "Look, it's clear there's something different about you. Ordinary people don't wash up in storms. But I like different. Look at my other friends."
"Well, I'd like to think we were friends, or at least friendly," Greta said. "Do you think we can do that?"
Kevin nodded. "I'd like that too."
"Good." She tipped her head to one side and studied him. "Usually this is where I'd start mining for blackmail material, but you wouldn't be able to tell me much, would you?"
"No. I'm sorry."
"Not your fault. So instead you get to ask me things you'd like to know, and I'll draw terrible conclusions from the pattern of what you ask. All right?"
"It seems unfair that I get to ask all the questions," Kevin said.
"You're assuming I'll tell the truth." Greta's smile was so twinkly Kevin had to smile back. "So, ask your worst."
"How do you know Mike?" he blurted out.
Greta froze halfway out of her chair. "Now that's an interesting question," she said. Her twinkle got a little sharper. "Would you have a reason for asking that?"
Kevin shrugged. "It's just — you seem to know each other pretty well, and he walked you home. But he's not from around here, is he?"
"No, he's from Chicago. He used to come visit his great-uncle when he was little, though, and we hated each other on sight. Which is probably why we still like each other." Greta scooped flour into a sieve and added salt. "Next question?"
Kevin bit his lip over what he wanted to ask next, but he'd already embarrassed himself. He might as well keep going, even if it wasn't any of his business. Greta hadn't promised to tell the truth, after all. "Are you going to get married?"
Kevin couldn't see her face, not really, but she sounded a little sad when she said, "That's a complicated one." She tipped the last of the flour into the bowl. "Oh, wait, you mean to Mike? What gave you that idea?"
"Well, you seemed really friendly, and he walked you home," Kevin stammered, "And in the movies—" He had to stop because Greta had started giggling so hard she had to wipe her eyes.
"Okay, rule of life, Kevin," she said. "Don't believe what you see on TV."
"Okay," he said meekly.
She cracked an egg in to the bowl and tossed the pieces of shell into the sink. "Kevin, have you gone out since you came here?"
"Yes? You've seen me outside." The constant noise — which Gerald had told him was the waves on the beach — made him nervous, and he hadn't really gone outside the garden, but he had gone out.
"No, I don't mean just outside the house, I mean out." Kevin looked at her blankly and she rolled her eyes. "Meeting people. Socializing? Not being a complete shut-in?"
"I'm not!" he protested. "I talk to you, and to Gerald. And Mike!" he added, because Mike didn't even live here, and even if Kevin hadn't seen him since he brought the fish, Greta couldn't say that didn't count.
"True," she said, but it didn't sound like she thought it was a good enough answer. She stirred the scone batter for a minute or two while Kevin watched, then looked over at him again. "You want to add the raisins?"
"Start the oven while you're up, too." Greta wiped her hands off and poured a fresh cup of tea, adding a little hot water to it from the kettle. "I'm just going to take this into the study; I think I heard him come down."
"Okay." Kevin found the canister of raisins in the cupboard and lifted it down.
"We'll talk more later, all right?" Greta flashed him a smile before she went out, and Kevin returned it before he got busy measuring out dried fruit.
Mike determinedly didn't think about what Bill — or Sisky — had suggested about Kevin, for the whole of the next week. It was easier than it might have been: Christine had an opening in Chicago, so Bill had gone back to the city, and Adam had gone along to get a taste of civilization "and pizza, real pizza. It's just not the same when you can fold it."
His life was quieter without idiot friends in it, but on the upside, it didn't have idiots in it. If they stayed away for long enough, he'd actually be happy to see them when they got back.
In the meantime, he could entertain himself. Fishing was meant to be a solitary occupation, anyway. It probably wouldn't be that much longer before the fish shoals moved offshore again, and then it would be too cold and stormy to risk going out by himself.
The fish were slower than they had been the week before, but he caught some mackerel, and garfish on the other side of the headland. It was tempting to keep going, but there wasn't any point catching more than he could eat or keep, so he stopped after a few hours. Besides, lunch had been a long time ago, and his stomach was putting in a vote for going home.
He took the boat back around to the strand, dragged it up the shingle and went through the routine of cleaning the fish. It was slow — his hands were cold and getting clumsy, so he had to take even more care with the knife — but it wasn't a job that was going to get better for sitting around.
Even cleaned and stacked up nicely, the fish almost filled the bucket, and the garfish tails caught at the handle. Mike slid the wound-up lines on top — he'd have to be careful not to snag himself or the fish when he took them out — stuffed the empty thermos in his pocket, and set out for home.
He paused outside Springer's house. It wasn't anything to do with feelings he might or might not have; after what Sisky had said about Springer … well, Mike kind of wanted to stop by and make sure everything was okay.
Springer's truck wasn't parked outside. That sealed the deal — no harm in saying hello to the neighbors, right?
Kevin was outside, collecting something from under the tree in the corner. "Hi, Kevin."
Kevin straightened up. "Hello?" He looked around and spotted Mike. "Oh! Hi!" He dropped whatever it was he was holding into a basket next to him, and waded out of the tall grass to the open kitchen door. "Greta, Mike's here!"
"Well, tell him to come in," Greta's voice floated out of the kitchen. Kevin beckoned to Mike, and disappeared inside himself, with his basket. Someone was cheerful today. Mike followed and leaned against the doorframe.
"Hi, Greta," he said.
She looked up from behind a giant pile of apples, to which Kevin was adding even more from his basket. "Hey, Mike. Any news?"
"Not really. Oh, I got a letter from Ezer last week—" He told her the story his great-uncle had sent, which had been about coconuts, an inflatable hammer, and three different sizes of swim trunks, and which Mike wasn't all that clear on himself, but it was funny anyway.
She grinned over her pile of apples. "Tell him hi for me when you write back, all right?" Mike nodded. "Are you going to come in, or just hang there in the doorway blocking traffic?"
"I'll stay here. I'm kind of … fishy." Speaking of which— "Do you want some? Fish I mean — um." He stumbled over the end of the sentence as he remembered what had happened last time he brought fish.
Greta barely paused, though. "Sure. Kevin, if you get one of the flat pans, you can put them on that." She looked over at Mike. "Please tell me you cleaned them already."
"I scrubbed behind their ears myself, I promise." Mike smiled at her and transferred it to Kevin as he came over with a dish. "It's good to see you again."
"Yes! I mean, you too," Kevin said. He really did have a nice smile, Mike thought, and stamped that down. Stupid Bill, messing with his head. He looked down into the bucket of fish instead.
"Um, these are mackerel," he said, and pointed, "and these are garfish."
Kevin said something he couldn't quite catch, a spiky-sounding word under his breath.
"What was that?"
Kevin looked confused. "I don't know. But those taste good, right?"
"I think so, not everyone agrees with me," Mike said. He and William had had a long argument about whether or not you could eat something that had green bones. Mike was firmly on the side of green bones being delicious, William said he was sure to turn into a zombie sooner or later. "You know, next time I go out in the boat, you could come too. I'll show you where I catch them."
Kevin shook his head fast. "I don't — I don't think that's a good idea," he said. "No. The ocean — the water makes me nervous, and Gerald said I should stay away from it."
Shit, of course he had bad associations with the water; he'd nearly drowned. Mike cursed himself out for being an idiot.
"No, right, of course not," he said. "You don't have to, I just wondered if you'd like — you don't have to," he finished weakly. "Um, I can just bring you some of the fish, if you'd like."
Kevin blinked rapidly and nodded. "I like fish," he said, his voice stronger.
"Yeah, I remember," Mike said, and wanted to slap his hand over his mouth for the second time in two minutes.
But Kevin was the one who looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry about that. I — Gerald says I shouldn't do that."
"Don't worry about it," Mike said. "Here, take several, I have plenty."
"Mike, do you want some apples?" Greta asked from the table. "They're not going to keep and if I have to peel all of these I'm going to never want to eat apples again."
"Sure." He could figure out something to do with apples, right? "Since it's to help out a friend."
She snerked. "You're selfless. Kevin, if you put the fish on the counter, I think there's a bag over in the corner."
"Can't they just go in the bucket?" Mike asked.
Greta made a face. "Only if you want fishy-tasting apples." She laughed at the face he must have made. "Right."
Kevin brought the bag full of apples over and held it out for Mike to take. "Thank you for the fish."
Mike shrugged uncomfortably. "Yeah, well. I like sharing with you," he said, surprised to find it was true. But whatever, it was just fish. And he was getting apples out of the deal.
"Still. It's nice," Kevin said, and there was that smile again, the small, bright one.
"So, um, I just stopped to say hi. I should probably take these the rest of the way home before — something happens."
"You can't be too careful these days," Greta said solemnly. "I'm sure we'll be seeing you."
"Yeah. I mean, sure." He couldn't slap himself in the face, he had both hands full. "Bye, Kevin."
"Bye, Greta." Mike beat a retreat before he could embarrass himself any further. He couldn't hear Greta laughing at him, but that didn't mean it wasn't happening. He focused on not dropping anything while he worked the latch of the gate.
Stupid Bill. Mike had been fine until Bill had made him notice.
It was only a few days after Mike had visited that Gerald came into the front room, where Kevin was dividing his time between looking at a book and looking out the window at the rain.
When Gerald had first put a newspaper in front of him and asked, "Can you read?" the page had been a confusing tangle, covered in shapes that felt like they should mean something if only Kevin could pick it out. The longer he looked, the more sense they made, though, and when he'd tipped his head to one side and said, "Financially?" Gerald had smiled at him like he was proud. It still felt like he was remembering how to do something, and he hadn't caught all of the details just yet, but Kevin didn't mind if he had to look at a book for a while to figure out what it said.
"Did you find something interesting?" Gerald leaned down to look at the cover. "Ah, The Magician's Nephew, an excellent choice."
"I like it," Kevin said, because Gerald seemed to be waiting for some response.
"Good, good. What I actually wanted to tell you was that I am going to be away for a few days."
"Where?" Gerald's never mentioned anywhere else before, and Kevin can't help a little jump of panic at the idea of him not being somewhere around.
"It's nothing important, just business I need to take care of in person. Greta will still come in; she'll take care of you."
"Okay. When are you going?"
"Can't wait to be rid of me, eh?" Kevin started to protest, but Gerald just kept going. "I'm leaving tomorrow, and I'll be gone for two nights. You'll be all right on your own, won't you?"
Kevin thought about it. "I think so."
"Greta can stay in the guest room, if you'd rather not be alone."
"No, I think I'll be all right."
Gerald smiled. "All right, if you're sure. Now, no throwing wild parties and wrecking the place while I'm away."
Gerald patted his shoulder. "I know you wouldn't." He looked at his watch. "Shall we go see if Greta has something delicious in the kitchen?"
Gerald left the next afternoon; Kevin waved from the doorway. He wasn't quite sure what to do with himself for the rest of the day, and wandered around the house, never settling anywhere for very long. He finally ended up in the kitchen in the late afternoon, where Greta was peeling the last of the apples that had fallen from the old tree in the corner.
"Do you want to stay here by yourself tonight, Kevin?" she asked, when she'd packed the apples into a big pot with sugar and cinnamon and put the cores and peels into a plastic bag.
He blinked up at her. "It's all right, I don't mind."
"Oh, not the lost-puppy eyes." Greta put a hand over her eyes. "Anything but those. Come on, get a coat."
"What?" Kevin said, but she just pointed at the door, so he went and poked around in the closet near the front door. He came out with a brown coat that was too big for him, but he liked the way it swung when he walked.
Greta was waiting by the back door with the bag of apple peels. "Ready?"
"Where are we going?"
"I thought we'd drop in on Mike, see if he's doing anything interesting."
"Sometimes people just go to see their friends," Greta said. "And I kind of like poking him with a stick. He's almost as reclusive as you are. Oh, you're wearing shoes, right?"
Kevin held up a foot in demonstration. "Will it be okay, though? I mean, he won't mind?"
"If he gets upset — which he won't — I'll make him cookies. Now come on, it's getting dark out there."
She locked the door behind them with the spare key, and gave it to Kevin. "Hang on to that, all right?" They went around the house and out onto the road. The noise of the surf got louder and Kevin shivered.
"Are you all right?"
Kevin nodded and looked around. It was hard to see in the dim light, but he could make out scrubby trees near the road, and lighted windows further away.
"That's the Richardson's house," Greta said, and pointed to a dark shape. "They only come in the summers, though. And those lights are the research station. They study the birds that come through and nest here."
"Where's your house?" Kevin asked.
"Oh, you can't see it from here. Careful, the road turns here." They rounded the corner and Kevin saw a whole new area of house lights spread out. "This is where old Joe lives. He has a really friendly goat." Greta hung the bag of apple bits over the gatepost.
"Goats eat apples?"
"Goats eat almost anything, I think. But I'd rather give her the apples than throw them out." They walked on another little bit. "And this is where Mike lives."
It was a small house, a lot like Gerald's and like the house with the goat, tucked away behind a low wall. The glare of the outside light made everything stand out strangely, and threw deep shadows behind the tree near the house.
"It looks, um —"
"Unfriendly, I know. I think it's just the house. It looked the same when Mike's uncle lived there, and he didn't try to pretend he's a cranky bear the way Mike does." Greta bent over to fiddle with the latch of the gate, then pulled it open. "Come on."
The door opened before she even knocked on it, and she and Kevin both took a half-step back.
"What— oh, hey." Mike was wearing a jacket, like he was on his way out. "Did I know you were coming?"
"I thought we'd surprise you," Greta said. "Were you going somewhere?"
Mike looked down at the hat in his hand. "I was going to go keep Siska company," he said. "Bill's down in the city for a while, and Adam says he's afraid of the things that go bump in the night." He looked up. "I think he's just bored, though."
Greta looked at Kevin for a second, biting her lip. "What if you go get him and bring him back here?" she said. "Or we could all go to mine, but it's further away."
Mike cast a glance back over his shoulder into the house. "Um, no, here is okay," he said. "Do you want to come in while I go get him?"
"Sure." Greta smiled and went through the door when Mike held it open a little wider. Kevin followed her; he felt like he needed to keep track of her in case things got even more confusing and new. "Mike, can I take over your kitchen?"
"I think that's the only part of the house that's warm," Mike said, coming behind Kevin. When he shut the front door, the house seemed warmer immediately. "If you mean can you cook, then yes please, though I don't know what's in there."
"I'll make something up," Greta said. "Even a bachelor has to have eggs, right?"
"Well…." Mike said, but when Kevin looked, he was smiling a little, just at the corners of his mouth.
"Don't give me that, Mike Carden," Greta mock-scolded. "You get Adam, and Kevin and I will make ourselves comfortable here."
Mike saluted briskly. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "Going now, ma'am." He ducked out the door and pulled it shut behind him.
Greta grinned at Kevin. "This way," she said, and pushed open a door that had light peeking around the edges. The kitchen was warm, like Mike had promised, and there was one light left on in the corner.
Greta took her jacket and hat off, and rubbed her hands together. "That's better," she said. "Um, Kevin, you can tell me to stop arranging your life, you know. I know I kind of take over sometimes."
"It's all right," Kevin said. He fought his way out of the big coat and made it stay on the hook on the back of the door, since it would have taken over an entire chair. He looked around the room. "I think I like it."
Greta made a noise that sounded like she was trying not to laugh, but when Kevin looked at her, she just had her usual smile. "Good, then. Check the fridge and tell me if the situation's hopeless." She opened a cupboard and leaned up on her tiptoes to see inside.
"Well, he does have eggs," Kevin reported. "And milk, and cheese, but I think there might be something growing on it—" He heard the front door open and shut, and voices outside. Mike came into the kitchen, and his almost-smile was a little bigger. He looked over at Kevin and winked.
Another man came in behind him, taller and skinnier and covered up in a very long scarf, wrapped around and around his face. "I still don't get what was wrong—" he was saying, using both hands to unwind the scarf, and stopped in the doorway. "Um, Greta. Mike didn't say you were here."
Greta's smile showed more teeth than Kevin was used to seeing. "Adam," she said. "It's nice to see you. Have you met Kevin?"
"Kevin? Uh—" Adam looked around until he caught sight of Kevin still standing by the fridge. "Hi," he said. "Wait, are you—"
"Come in and take your coat off, Sisky," Mike said, and slapped him hard enough on the back that he stumbled forward a step.
"Ow! Okay, okay," he muttered, and finished unwinding the scarf.
"I'm making pancakes," Greta announced. "And I think someone should teach Kevin how to play poker."
Kevin found himself the focus of everyone's attention. "Um?" he said. Or maybe squeaked.
Mike grinned. "Oh, this is going to be fun," he said. "Sisky, come help me find that card we lost."
"You look like you're going to blow away," Mike said. The day before had rained, a steady downpour that kept them inside, sprawled on chairs and the couch (and sometimes the table, in Sisky's case). Now it was clear, and the wind had picked up, flapping Kevin's coat like a loose sail.
Kevin shoved his hands deep into the pockets and spread the loose fabric wider. "Do you think if I held it out, I could fly?"
"I think we'd better put a string on your ankle just in case," Greta told him. "There's room for two of you in there, Kevin!" She had braved the rain to go home for the night, and looked a lot neater than Mike felt.
"I know. I like it." Kevin tried to twirl, to feel the heavy coat swing around his legs, but the wind tangled him up and he almost fell over, instead. Mike caught him by one arm before he pitched over entirely.
"Maybe we should find you a different coat anyway," Mike suggested. "Something a little more…. aerodynamic."
"There might be something in the attic," Greta said. "I think there are boxes of stuff up there."
"Whose is it?" Mike asked. "Springer's?"
"I assume so. That's where some of the clothes he gave Kevin came from, I think."
Mike shrugged. "Worth a look, then."
They turned in the gate — Springer's truck wasn't back yet, Mike noted gratefully — and went around to the back door.
"Kevin, do you have the key?"
Kevin fished around in one of the coat's many pockets. "Um, somewhere." He produced the key and unlocked the door. "It smells different in here."
"You're just not used to it, probably," Greta told him. She followed him in and sniffed. "I think that's all. How about you two go look up in the attic, and I'll start getting things going down here."
"How do we get up to the attic?"Mike asked before following Kevin into the hall.
Greta frowned. "There's a trapdoor somewhere. It's one of those pull-down ladder things. Maybe in the hallway upstairs?"
Kevin was still wrestling his way out of the giant coat, so Mike went up the stairs by himself. He hadn't been upstairs in this house before, even before Springer moved in, and it felt strange. He looked at the ceiling, and found the trapdoor easily enough. He was just unfolding the lower half of the ladder-steps when Kevin came up the stairs.
"You found it!"
Mike gestured at the ladder. "After you."
Kevin scampered up the steps, then stopped dead at the top. "It's kind of dark up here."
"Hang on." Mike looked around for switches, then started flipping them one by one until Kevin called out, "That's it."
"All right." Mike followed him up the ladder into — well. It looked like every attic Mike had ever seen that wasn't in a commercial: boxes and loose junk everywhere, and you could sort of see where it had started out with a plan and then just sort of… slid, until it was almost complete chaos by now. There was a fine layer of dust on everything, and Mike could see cobwebs up in the corners of the roof.
"See anything that looks like clothes boxes?"
Mike looked around. "Any of these could be what we want. Pick a direction."
"Over there!" Kevin crouched his way to a box that looked like everything else up there — except, as Mike got around the side of it, there was something poking out the top that could be a sleeve.
That box turned out to be mostly shirts, with an inexplicable poncho stuffed right down at the bottom. Kevin pulled it over his head and held out his arms. "What do you think?"
"I think it doesn't solve the too-big problem," Mike said. "Pick a different box."
"We have to put the stuff back into this one first."
Mike rolled his eyes, but Kevin was right; if they just started emptying boxes, they'd never find their way back out. The next box wasn't really clothes, just a baggy sweater stuffed in on top of a bunch of old magazines, and after that Kevin went right and Mike went left, and they lost sight of each other in the maze.
Mike was picking his way through a shallow box of old tin toys — a lot of them had worn paint, but apart from that they were in good condition, and they were pretty neat — when he heard Kevin call, "I think I found something!"
Mike stood up — carefully, he'd already banged his head on the rafters once — and picked his way towards the sound. "Kevin?"
"Here." He was right next to Mike, really, just around the other side of an old bookshelf. Mike wasn't sure how they'd gotten that through the trapdoor.
"What've you got?"
"I think—" Kevin pointed at a sleeve that trailed out of the box from underneath several layers of flannel and knitwear. "Does that look like a raincoat to you?"
"Could be." Mike pulled a stack of folded pants out and put them aside. Kevin worked his hands down deeper into the box — and froze, still reaching in.
Kevin didn't answer, just pulled his hands out slowly. He was holding a dark, shiny bundle of — was that fur? Mike reached out to touch, but Kevin hissed and turned away from him, shielding the package with his shoulder.
Kevin slid past Mike and down the ladder, still clutching the bundle in the crook of one arm. Mike scrambled after him as fast as he could, and was just in time to glimpse him pounding down the stairs. He stepped on Kevin's shirt at the foot of the ladder, and then on a tangle of shoes and socks at the bottom of the stairs.
"Mike? Is everything okay?" Greta came out of the kitchen. "I heard — what's wrong?"
"Kevin," Mike said, and pointed at the open front door. "I don't know." He ran out, towards the road, and nearly fell over the tangle of inside-out jeans halfway down the path. He caught himself on the open gate, though, and looked around for Kevin.
There — he was headed for the beach, not running, but he was moving really fast for someone not running. He didn't show any sign of the nervousness about the water he'd confessed to Mike, just kept going at that same smooth, fast pace, over the loose shingle and seaweed, down to the edge of the waves.
"Kevin!" Rocks shifted and dumped Mike face-down on the strand. He pushed himself halfway up and watched, dazed, as Kevin stripped off his underwear, all he had on by now, leaving himself standing naked in shallow water. He picked the fur bundle up again and shook it out — it was bigger than Mike would have thought, for how small it had folded up, and it moved like it was heavy — then swung it around himself. With that, Mike recognized it: it was sleek and dry, rather than matted with seawater, but he was sure it was the same piece of fur that they had found with Kevin when he washed up.
Mike must have hit his head harder than he thought, because his view blurred. The next thing he could see clearly was a smooth, dark body hauling itself over the rocks until the water lifted it and it slid out of sight.
He couldn't have just disappeared. Mike scrambled the rest of the way to his feet and stumbled down to the wet rocks. "Kevin?"
He thought he saw something break the surface, maybe fifty feet out from shore, but it disappeared again before he could get a good look at it. He yelled again, but there wasn't any answer; he might have seen the shape again, even further out, but he couldn't be sure.
Greta met him halfway back to the house. She grabbed at his arm. "Where's Kevin?"
Mike shook his head and pointed at the water. Greta took a couple of steps past him, her head turning frantically from side to side. "What? Where did he go?"
"He went into the water," Mike said. "He — It was—"
"Oh no. We have to call the Coast Guard or someone." Greta spun around and started hurrying back towards Springer's house. Mike followed her, but as they got near the gate, a familiar dark-blue truck pulled up, and Springer got out.
"Hello, there!" His smile melted away as he took in their faces. "Has something happened?" He didn't wait for an answer; he turned to go into the house but stopped short at the pile of clothing Mike had almost tripped on. Greta clutched at Mike's hand and he squeezed back.
"Kevin?" Springer paused just inside the front door and called. "Kevin!" He waited for a few seconds, then came back towards them, faster. "Where is he?" He looked between them and settled on Mike. "Where is he?"
Mike found his voice at last. "Water," he stuttered out. "The water, he ran down to the beach."
Springer's jaw clenched and for a second Mike thought he'd swing a punch. Instead he just grabbed Mike's arm and pulled him along, moving quickly towards the strand. "And then what?"
"I don't know! He — he disappeared." Whatever Mike thought he'd seen — well, he couldn't have, could he?
Springer dragged them both to a halt at the edge of the shingle and surveyed the beach. "Yes," he said, in a dull voice. "Of course he did."
"I'll call the Coast Guard." Greta had caught up with them again. "They'll find him. He could have been caught in a current."
Springer caught at her elbow. "No."
"What? We have to!"
"There's no point." Springer watched Mike's face, even though Mike thought he was talking to both of them. "They won't believe you."
"I saw him," Mike said.
"I know." Springer's eyes were intent. "You saw him walk into the water — and then what?"
Mike looked away. "I didn't see. He disappeared."
Springer shook his arm. "Yes, you did. What did you see?"
Flowing fur, a twist that his brain tried to block out, a dark shape sliding into the water where Kevin had stood upright. Mike shook his head. "I don't know."
"And you'd tell them that?" Springer's smile was bleakly triumphant. "Tell them what you saw and they'll call you crazy." He finally let go of Mike's arm and stepped back. "I know." He turned to Greta. "The coast guard wouldn't find him anyway."
"But they'd—" she started.
Springer shook his head. "They'd be looking for a boy. There's no one to find." He turned to look out at the water. "Don't worry, Greta. He didn't drown." He stared for another minute, then his mouth tightened and he turned to glare at Mike. "You had no idea, did you. Idiot." He shoved past them and strode back towards his house, his long legs eating the ground.
Greta stepped closer to Mike and they both stood there, watching, until Springer was out of sight. "I think you'd better stay away from him for a while, Mike," she said softly.
Mike nodded numbly. His brain was still reeling. "Will you be all right?"
"Probably. I…won't tell him we went to visit you while he was away, it's better for all of us." Greta turned to look at Mike. "What did you see?"
Mike shook his head. "Nothing possible." He looked out at the rocks surrounding the small cove. "You'd probably better get back. I'm going to stay here for a while."
"Okay." She reached out and squeezed his hand. "Mike, don't you go falling into the water, too. Promise me."
She held on until he nodded and said, "I won't." Then she followed Springer up onto the road, looking back once while Mike was watching her.
Mike climbed out along the rocky point, watching the water more than where he was putting his feet until he slipped and almost ended up falling in, despite his promise. He paid more attention after that until he got out to the end, and then he stood, and then sat, searching the water for any sign of — anything. The tide rose, and there was nothing but seaweed and a few gulls. When he gave up and climbed back on to the shingle, any evidence that anything had happened had washed away.
He cast one more look across the beach, then trudged up to the road. He needed — all sorts of things, probably, but in the absence of anything else, he'd take a stiff drink.
"Look," William said, filling Mike's glass again and pushing it across the table, "I'm not saying you imagined it. Just—"
"Just you couldn't possibly have seen it," Adam offered.
"No, I know," Mike said, and took the glass. Drinking wasn't helping, but it sort of was. Things aren't supposed to make sense when you're drunk, after all. "Couldn't have happened." He emptied the glass and put it back down. "But it did." He sounded plaintive even to his own ears.
From the way William slid onto the couch next to him and patted his shoulder, he sounded fucking pathetic.
William stopped the patting, but he didn't go away. "It's not that surprising, that your brain came up with something to — gloss over what happened."
"Shut up, Bill." Mike scrubbed his hands through his hair.
"The Coast Guard didn't find anything?" Adam asked.
"Nope." The brightly-striped Jeep had passed Mike as he walked home — Greta must have called them anyway. Several people had poked around the beach and the rocks, but like Springer had said, there was nothing to see. There had been a five-second mention on the news, a young man had possibly been swept out to sea, but with no real proof of Kevin's existence, everyone seemed to have agreed that a transient had just moved on. "Bill, you remember when we found him on the beach?"
"When I found him," Bill corrected.
"Whatever. Remember the thing that was wrapped around him? Kind of — like fur?"
"Not really." Bill shrugged. "But I'll take your word for it."
"I think that was what he found. I think he took it into the water with him." Mike shook his head. "Only it was — bigger. Like it'd healed or something."
William narrowed his eyes. "That's impossible."
"And why would he take it with him?"
"Why would he walk into the water in the first place?" Mike countered. "He hated the water."
"I think we need more to drink," Adam announced.
Mike groaned and let his head flop back. "I think you're right."
Kevin followed the currents, surfacing for air and diving again to get his bearings. He couldn't have said how, if he'd been asked, only that he knew it was this way and over there. He was starting to doubt himself after so long with nothing but a feeling, but finally he lifted his nose out of the water and scented the bachelor pod nearby.
He hauled himself out onto sun-warmed rocks, and before he could even figure out which way to go, was almost bowled back into the water by Joe's enthusiastic greeting. They rolled over and over on the edge of the rocks, until Kevin was mostly sitting on top of Joe, and Joe smacked his flippers against the rocks in surrender.
"Where've you been?" he demanded, sliding out of his skin and wriggling around to face Kevin. "We thought you were dead!"
Nick came up beside him, already bipedal and looking searchingly at Kevin. "You've been gone for months." He almost didn't sound accusatory at all.
Kevin shrugged off his own skin and rubbed his hands together. "I know. I'm sorry."
"What happened?" Nick asked.
Kevin looks at them and shrugged again. "I don't know. I lost my skin for a while."
Joe's "Lost your—" almost drowned out Nick's "Who—?" They stopped and had a whole conversation in facial twitches that Kevin couldn't follow. Nick looked back at Kevin. "You'll tell us later. We should go find Mom and Frankie, and Dad."
"And—" Joe started, but Nick cut him off.
"Later. Let's go." He melted back into his seal form as he rolled into the water, and popped his head up to grunt at Joe and Kevin impatiently.
"Yes, boss," Kevin muttered, but he was already pulling his skin back around himself. In a few seconds, all three of them sped off through the water.
Nick and Joe clearly knew exactly where they were going, so the trip was more direct and certain. It was still long, though, and by the time they pulled themselves out onto sand, sun-warmed even in spring, Kevin could feel every mile of swimming in unaccustomed muscles.
The small beach was full of selkies — mostly mothers with pups, with a few juveniles, still too young to be out on their own, roughhousing around the edges. Nick cast around for their family, but Kevin had already spotted their mother, in a group with Frankie rolled over on his back next to her. He excused his way through the crowd, and was halfway there when she spotted him. Her greeting bark was more of a yelp, and while she didn't knock him over the way Joe had, Kevin definitely felt the impact. She called Frankie over, and wasted no time leading the way past where Nick and Joe were waiting, back into the water and to a small rocky inlet nearby.
She shed her skin as soon as she was out of the water and almost drowned Kevin in a hug. "Honey, where have you been?"
"It's a long story?" Kevin tried. His mother frowned at him.
"Are you in trouble?"
"No!" Kevin thought about it for a second. "Not any more?"
"Dude, you're going to have to explain some time," Joe said, poking him on the shoulder. "You can't just say you lost your skin and leave it there."
"Your skin?" their mom gasped. "Kevin, what happened?"
Kevin scrubbed a hand over his hair. "It was complicated," he said. "It was — well, that big storm that came in so early. I think I must have gotten too close to the rocks."
"You're not supposed to do that," Frankie told him, from around elbow-height.
Kevin smiled ruefully down at his youngest brother. "Yeah, and now I know why."
"You're supposed to pay more attention," Frankie said. "Did someone take your skin?"
"I'm still not entirely sure," Kevin said. No one interrupted while he told them about how he'd washed up, how he'd forgotten where he came from and that he had a sealskin, how he'd found it and remembered all at once. His dad arrived about halfway through the story, brought by Nick, but he didn't interrupt, just waited until Kevin was done to ask, "Did he hurt you? This Springer character?"
Kevin met his dad's eyes and read all the unspoken layers of questions there. He'd grown up with the stories, of course — every selkie pup did — and he had some idea of what could happen to a selkie whose skin was hostage. Bad feelings weren't actual harm, though, and Kevin losing his memory hadn't been Gerald's fault. "No sir."
His dad seemed to slump with relief. "All right then."
"I'm glad you found us," his mom said from next to him.
"Me too. I'm sorry it took me so long."
She shook her head. "Don't be. It's enough that you weren't caught in a net, or—" she cut herself off, glancing sideways at Frankie who was pushing empty shells around with the appearance of deep concentration. "It could have been much worse."
"I'm all right," Kevin told her. "Promise." He leaned over and nudged one of Frankie's shells. "So what about you, Frankie? You're being awfully quiet."
Frankie shrugged and squinted up at him. "I dunno. Stuff."
"He's been learning to sing," Denise said, ruffling her youngest son's hair affectionately. "He's good at it, too."
"And — Danielle?" She hadn't been with the mothers and pups, of course, and Kevin didn't know where the single girls were hanging out these days—
"She's — well, probably a little ways over from where Frankie and I were," his mom said. She avoided his eyes. "The courtship beach is very nice this year."
Kevin thought about that for a second. "Oh."
"I'm sorry, honey — she waited all through the winter, and she left it late this year, but we thought you were — not coming back." Denise swallowed. "You remember Drake?"
Kevin nodded. They'd never been particular friends, but he'd seen Drake around, and he seemed all right. "I think I should talk to her." He looked over at his mom. "I can do that, right?"
"I'm sure she'd be glad to see you," Denise said, which wasn't an answer, really, but it was some of what Kevin was looking for.
"Near where you were?"
"A little north," Denise said. "Just past — there's a deep current coming up over the rocks, you can't miss it."
"Thanks. Um, I'll be back," Kevin said, and gave her another hug for good measure before sliding back into the water.
The smooth stretch where the young females had settled for the season was nice: warm and sheltered, with the current Denise had mentioned bringing plenty of fish almost to their feet. When Kevin surfaced, there was some giggling and preening among the younger girls nearest to him, until some of them recognized him. Then it was a lot of whispering and nudging,without him even saying anything, and finally Danielle came down to the edge of the water and said "Kevin?" She looked happy to see him, but she was biting her lip, too.
"Hi," Kevin said quietly. "Can I talk to you?"
She glanced at the nearest girls who weren't even pretending not to listen, and said, "Over here." She paced him on the shore as he swam alongside to a rougher point that stuck out into the water. It was no good for sunbathing, but comfortable enough to sit on. Danielle hesitated a moment, with another glance behind her, before she sat half-facing him, almost at arm's length.
"Drake?" Kevin asked her.
Her face crumpled, just a little, before she smoothed it out. "I'm sorry, Kevin, but it's — I couldn't wait forever."
"It's okay," Kevin said, and was a little surprised to find it was true. He hadn't thought about Danielle for months, even if it was from weird amnesia-whatever, and now that he was thinking about her again — well, he'd gotten used to not thinking about her. "He makes you happy?"
"He does." It looked like she tried to bite down on her smile, but she couldn't stop it spreading across her face like a sunrise. Kevin couldn't remember if he'd ever made her look like that. "I'm sorry, K, but he really does. I — If he asks me, I'm going to say yes."
"Don't be sorry," he told her. "And he'd be really stupid not to ask. Um — can I give you a hug, or is that going to make trouble?" He tipped his head towards the sunbathers who were still watching them avidly.
Danielle tossed her head. "I don't care," she said. "Anyone who makes trouble is just hateful and jealous anyway." She was the one to pull him in, squeezing briefly but tightly before kissing him on the cheek and leaning back again. "I'm glad you're all right."
"Uh, me too?" Kevin's hands twitched nervously. "It's been a busy few months."
"You're going to have to tell me about it."
"I will," he promised. "Maybe not right now, though."
She wrinkled her nose. "Yeah, later," she agreed. "I'm holding you to it, though!"
Kevin held up his hand and she linked little fingers with him for a second.
"I hope you find someone, too, K," she said. "Someone who makes you really happy."
"I do too," Kevin said. "I'm glad you did."
Danielle smiled at him again, this time with a little sadness in it, and there was an awkward moment before Kevin cleared his throat and said, "Well! I guess I'd better be going."
"I'll see you around," Danielle said.
"Sure. And good luck with Drake." Kevin was even able to mean it sincerely. "Um. Bye."
She stood up and waved at him before he dived; he could already head the whispers starting up, but — she'd be all right. He was pretty sure of that.
Mike finished tying his boat behind the usual rock and picked up his bucket and the rest of the gear. The fish hadn't really been biting, but he'd stayed out for a while, anyway, until he was cold enough that he tangled the line around his fingers instead of wrapping it up. It wasn't like he had anywhere else in particular to be.
He found himself slowing as he passed Springer's gate, and dragged to a halt to study the house for a few minutes. He hadn't seen Greta since the day Kevin disappeared; William said she was all right, but he'd only waved hello from the road. Springer hadn't seemed to blame her, but — Mike wanted to make sure she was all right. He decided to chance it, and pushed the gate open.
He tried not to slink past the windows — Greta had said Springer spent most days in his study, and that was on the other side of the house — but he still winced at the noise his knock made.
Greta pulled the door open. "Mike!" She glanced back over her shoulder and hushed herself. "Come in." She tackled him in a hug as soon as the door was shut. "I've missed you. How've you been?"
"All right," Mike said awkwardly. "Busy. I just wanted to come say hi. How are you?"
Greta's mouth pinched up for a second before she smiled again. "Oh, you know how it is. There's always something to do. Here, sit down."
Mike left the nearly empty bucket by the door and sat down. He watched her bustle around the kitchen for a few minutes — he was sure making tea didn't require that much fuss — before asking, "How are you really?"
"Oh." Greta's hands lifted in the air before she dropped them again. "I don't know. I miss Kevin."
"Me too," Mike admitted.
"I know they never found anything, but — " she raised her hands and dropped them again. "I feel like it was my fault. Maybe if he'd just stayed here, he would have been safe."
"Hey, none of that," Mike said. "Besides, I was the one who didn't stop him." He scratched at the edge of the table with his thumbnail. "I know it sounds crazy, but I think Springer was right, he didn't drown."
"What do you mean?"
Mike scratched harder. "I mean — Kevin was there, and then he wasn't. Something else was." He looked up at her. "Looked like a seal."
Greta folded her arms. "That's just old stories."
Mike shrugged uncomfortably and looked down at the table again.
"I can't cope with that right now, Mike," Greta said. She sounded tired. "I don't know what happened, but it's better than making up stories that can't be true."
Mike shrugged again. "Okay." There was an awkward silence for a few minutes that left a bad taste in his mouth, then he asked, "How's Springer been?"
Greta's eyes darted to the door and she sat down opposite Mike, leaning in close to talk quietly. "I don't know," she said. "He's been — strange. I'm not sure what he's doing, but I hear him moving things around in the study, and he told me I wasn't to move any of the books on any account." She made a face. "Not that I was going to, I'm a housekeeper, not a librarian, but he won't even let me tidy up in there. I don't know what he's looking for, but he has papers all over the place."
"Yeah?" Mike said, frowning. "He hasn't threatened you or anything, has he?"
"No, though I wouldn't put money on your chances." Greta looked down into her teacup, tilting the dregs of her tea back and forth. "Sometimes when I come in in the mornings, his boots are still wet. I think he goes down to the water at night." She looked up and pinned Mike in place with a glare. "This is not to be repeated, you understand. I don't even know why I'm telling you any of it."
Mike held up his empty hand and tried to look harmless. "I'm just trying to figure stuff out," he promised. "No one's going to hear anything from me." Greta looked slightly mollified, and he pressed his luck. "What about—"
He only had a second's warning from the heavy footsteps in the hallway outside before the door into the kitchen slammed open. "Greta, are you talking to someone in here?" Springer demanded from behind Mike.
Mike turned around. "Dr. Springer. Nice day, isn't it?"
Springer looked at him blankly for a moment, then his face twisted into a full-blown glare. "You!" he exclaimed. "I'm surprised you dare show your face around here!"
"I was just on my way back from the boat," Mike said. It wasn't like he could have avoided passing the house.
"That's what you'd like me to think, isn't it?" Springer said. His face was flushing brighter and brighter red as Mike watched. "Bringing fish, like I don't know what you've been up to."
"Sorry, you've lost me," Mike said.
"You made him leave!" Springer yelled. "That was the only chance I'll get to study one, and you lured him away!"
"You mean Kevin?"
"Get out! You and your fish!" Springer kicked at Mike's bucket, which bounced off the solid leg of the table. He hopped back, shaking out his foot.
"Okay, I'm going," Mike said, and stood up. "I'll just take these with me, then."
"And you!" Springer turned on Greta, who'd been trying to melt into the background. "Never let him into this house again, do you understand? Or you can find yourself another job!"
Greta nodded frantically and followed Mike to the back door. "Greta, you have to get out of here," Mike whispered when he was safely outside. "He's not stable."
"I know, but I'm worried he'll lose it completely if he gets left on his own," she hissed back, and then shut the door in his face.
Mike stared at the faded varnish for a few seconds, then hefted his bucket and started towards home again. Strange didn't even begin to cover it — he thought he saw movement behind one of the front windows as he closed the gate behind him, but there was nothing when he looked — Springer had gone completely off the wall.
By the time he got back to where Nick and Joe were trying to sit on each others' heads, Kevin was starting to hurt all over. Seals might be designed for swimming, but he had been out of the water for weeks, and his muscles weren't used to it any more.
"I'm done," he grunted, stretching out on the rocks. "I'm staying here now."
"And what, you want us to bring you fish or something?" Joe asked.
"Mike brought me fish," Kevin mumbled into the rock, then froze when he realized what he'd said. "I mean. Um."
"Wait wait wait." Joe bent over so his face was right up next to Kevin's, upside-down. "Mike brought you fish? Mike on shore?"
Kevin glared back at him. "Yes."
Joe blinked. "That's kind of — what's the word I'm looking for?"
"Ridiculous?" Nick asked dryly. "Are you coming or what?"
Joe snapped his fingers. "Sweet! That's what I wanted to say!"
"Joe, you know drylanders don't do things the same way we do," their mom said, from where she was sitting just inside earshot. Of course, she spoiled it immediately by leaning back and saying, "Remember when you used to being me fish, honey?"
"Good days," their dad agreed.
Kevin groaned. "I don't want to hear this," he said.
"It's a good example, Kevin," Joe said sincerely. "You should try to emulate worthy role models."
Kevin groaned. "I hate you." He sat up fast enough that Joe startled backwards, and Kevin followed him, using his momentum to push both of them over the edge into the water. Joe sputtered for a second, just long enough for Kevin to duck him under again.
"Guys. Guys!" Both of them ignored Nick, at least until he launched himself into the water and landed nearly on top of them, sending all three of them under the surface in a cloud of bubbles. Kevin flailed around — swimming wasn't something he was going to forget, but these days it was harder than it had been since he was a half-grown pup — and managed to claw his way back to the air.
Nick glared at him and Joe impartially. "Idiots," he said, and struck out for the rocks. They looked different, Kevin thought, and felt a little foolish as he realized they were different; their parents and Frankie were still where they'd left them, and Nick was leading the way to a smaller, less smoothed stretch.
He and Joe pulled themselves up onto the rocks, still elbowing each other and snorting water. Kevin found a fairly comfortable spot and stretched out, propping his feet up on a conveniently placed stone.
"So who is this Mike?" Nick asked. "Other than someone who brought you fish. You never really explained."
Kevin shrugged uncomfortably. "He was — he was nice," he said at last. "He lived nearby, he came by every so often — he talked to me."
"And brought you fish," Joe interjected.
"Yes, we've established that," Kevin snapped. "He was just bringing it to the house, all right? And he — " he broke off in realization, and bit his lip. "He was there when I found my skin again," he said. "I didn't even say goodbye."
"Probably for the best," Nick said practically. "You really couldn't have told him, anyway." Not without saying all sorts of things he wasn't supposed to mention to drylanders, Kevin knew, but still.
"He was friendly," he said miserably, then thought it over and changed his mind. "He was my friend."
"What are they like?" Joe asked. "Drylanders, I mean."
"I don't know, really."
"But you have to! You spent ages with them!"
"I didn't talk to much of anyone, though." Kevin scratched at a limpet clinging to the rock, trying to get his nails under the edge of the shell. "Gerald didn't exactly encourage me to go outside."
"He's the one who had your skin, right?" Nick asked. Kevin nodded.
"Need us to hunt him down?" Joe asked. "For real, Kev, he can't get away with treating you badly."
Kevin shook his head. "It's okay," he said. They looked skeptical. "No, really. He wasn't bad — I mean, apart from hiding my skin," he added hastily when Nick glowered. "But it was more — remember when Frankie started that collection of round stones?"
"And flipped out if you even touched one?" Joe grumbled. "Yeah, I've been trying to forget that since last summer."
Kevin nodded. "Well, it was like — Springer acted like I was the roundest stone he'd ever seen, and he didn't want anyone to move me out of place."
They considered that for a minute. "That's really creepy," Joe said at last.
"He was trying to, what, collect you?"
"I don't know," Kevin said. "But I know he never seemed like he wanted to hurt me. Just - keep me."
"Ugh," Joe said after another pause. "I need something to get the taste of that out of my mouth." He scooted over to the edge of the rocks and rolled off into the water. His snout poked above the waves briefly before he dove, doubtless going deeper to find prey.
Nick watched the ripples where he'd disappeared for a minute or so. "I'm glad you're back," he said at last. "I mean, not just because I was getting tired of hearing about all the horrible things that could have happened to you." He slanted a smile over at Kevin.
Kevin snorted and rolled over onto his stomach, propping his chin on his folded arms. "You're just jealous."
"That's right, I really want to be accidentally canned as tuna. Then you'll all be sorry," Nick said dryly, and slapped Kevin on the back of his shoulder. "You weren't even here to appreciate being the centre of attention."
"Probably a good thing," Kevin said, and yawned.
"Did we wear you out?" Nick asked. "Clamshells, we really are going to have to bring you fish!" He poked Kevin's arm, then his shoulder where he'd slapped it. "You're gonna have to come out swimming with us, get back in shape."
"Later," Kevin mumbled. "'M sleeping."
"You might want to watch your back, Mike." William didn't bother with a greeting or any kind of context, just swung into the shed like he'd been having this conversation for several minutes and was just waiting for Mike to catch up.
"Nice to see you too, Bill. Is there a hit out on me or something?"
"You still haven't seen me, you're — what are you doing? Building a better mousetrap?" Bill came around the end of the bench and bent down to examine the frame of bent twigs in front of Mike.
Mike sighed. "It's a lobster pot."
"Really?" Bill reached out a finger and Mike slapped it away without letting go of the split stem in his other hand.
"If you make it fall apart again, I'll kill you where you stand. This isn't as easy as the book made it sound."
"You are a very strange man, Michael Carden."
Mike lost his grip and growled in frustration as part of the basket unravelled itself. "Did you want something?"
"No, it was — oh, right, here." William rummaged in his satchel and pulled out a few envelopes and flyers. He held onto two of them and dropped the rest on the bench next to Mike. "I met the postman coming in, and he asked if I could drop these off."
"And mentioned a death threat at the same time?" Mike finally looked up from the crazy wicker work and blinked a few times to make his eyes refocus on things more than two inches away. "Ow. I think my eyes have gotten stuck crossed."
"I hope not, it would be terribly unattractive and ruin your manly good looks." Bill folded himself up on a stack of split timber. "No, but our charming neighbor was also nearby, and when he heard your name I'd swear steam came out his ears."
There was only one likely candidate for that description. "Springer?"
"The one and only," Bill confirmed. "He acted like you'd said something terrible about his dog, or maybe just destroyed everything he held dear. Do you remember doing that any time recently?"
"Fuck's sake." Mike rubbed at his face. "He's got some weird grudge against me for — the Kevin thing." He still wasn't sure what to call it; he'd about convinced himself that he hadn't seen anything impossible, and he didn't want to encourage backsliding.
"Are you sure that's all?" When Mike uncovered his face, Bill looked unusually serious. "He was — look, I meant it when I said you should watch your back. He growled."
"Okay, okay, I believe you." Mike poked at the piled-up twigs that his lobster pot had turned into. "I don't think this is working."
"Just as well, because I came here with the secondary purpose of dragging you out of your hermit shell."
"My what? Bill, you're making even less sense than usual."
"Hermit shell. You know, like a crab." William wiggled his fingers in illustration of….something. Crab claws, Mike guessed. "Come on, we're barely seen you in days, and you barely talk then. Sisky misses you. He's pining away without the sunshine of your regard."
"Weren't you going to go back to Chicago for the winter? Both of you?"
"Well, yes, but that was before it got so interesting here. You brought it on yourself, really."
Mike snorted. Encouraged, Bill continued. "If you don't come smile at him, his hair will lose all its curl. And that will be a sad, sad day." He blinked ridiculously and pouted for effect.
"Okay! I'm coming, I'm coming, you nutjob." Mike slid off his stool and straightened up with both hands in the small of his back. "Ow. They didn't mention that part either."
"We'll give you backrubs!" William promised. "Or, Sisky will. Or something. Backrubs and peeled grapes! Just as long as you leave the house and talk to people!"
"I already said I'm coming, Sisky's curls are safe." Mike looked around, decided there was nothing he really needed to clean up, and grabbed his jacket from the makeshift peg behind the door.
"It's too bad you can't call him," Bill said casually as Mike yanked the door shut.
"Call — wait, who?"
Bill rolled his eyes. "Kevin. He could have — left a number or something."
"I thought you thought I was seeing things."
"Yes, well. You seemed pretty certain, and stranger things have happened."
"Like what?" Mike demanded. "And what's Kevin got to do with this?"
"Kevin's got everything to do with this! You've been moping ever since he left."
"Have not." If William was going to start declaiming, Mike was going to be contrary just on principle.
"Have so! Oh my god, I am not doing this." William slung an arm around Mike's shoulders and wouldn't let go even when Mike squirmed. "Stop that. You've been moping since he left, growing progressively mopier. At this point, the force of your mopage is threatening to scare small children and animals."
"I don't think mopage is a real word, Bill."
"Details. Important part is, if you're not going to call the guy—"
"—Then you need to do something to get him out of your system."
Hideous visions of small-town strip clubs flashed through Mike's head. "What are you maniacs planning?"
William nodded decisively; Mike could feel his hair brush his cheek. "We're going to take you out and get you very, very drunk."
"Getting drunk is your answer to everything."
"I know." Bill beamed. "It's such a useful response."
Once he was doing it as a matter of course, Kevin got his swimming muscles back soon enough. It helped that a seal was basically designed to move through water; it was a lot less exhausting getting from place to place when he was the right shape. It was a good thing, too, since the bachelor pod was spending the season a good distance away from the mated adults and the single females' haul-outs. It was a relief when swimming from wherever the bachelors were at the moment to say hi to his mom, or to Frankie, didn't leave Kevin an exhausted mess.
Most of the bachelors were younger than Kevin, now; his age-mates had paired up already. Even the ones younger then him, like Joe, seemed to spend an awful lot of time loitering around the girls' beach for no reason in particular. Kevin — well, he didn't. He had a sneaking suspicion that there were things he needed to figure out first.
Besides, once he'd regained his sense of direction and navigation from the water, it turned out that where he'd washed up wasn't that far away from the areas where the bachelors usually congregated. There was even a rocky spit way out from the beach, and Kevin could prop himself up on it and watch what was going on on shore.
Kevin wasn't entirely sure himself why he kept going back; it wasn't all that interesting. He could see the top part of Springer's house, and sometimes there was smoke coming out the chimney and sometimes there wasn't. He could see Springer's truck when it left the house headed towards town, and a few times he saw the man himself, stumping down to the strand like he was angry at the road, staring out at the water for a long time before he stumped back to the house. When he did that, Kevin let himself slide lower into the water, until only someone who knew exactly what they were looking for could have seen his grey-brown head barely peeking out of the water, against the grey-brown rocks.
There was a boat pulled way out of the water, up behind a gnarly old tree trunk that must have washed ashore years ago and been pulled even further up by people. Kevin didn't know whose it was, but he hoped maybe it was Mike's. He'd said he had a boat, right? Apart from that, though, there was barely any sign that people lived nearby. No one else seemed to come down to the water at all.
Kevin was about to give up — nothing was happening, and he shouldn't be hanging around people anyway — when he saw someone coming down towards the beach. Not Springer — they didn't have that angry stamp — but they looked familiar somehow. Whoever it was stopped to fiddle with something in the boat, and pulled it down over the flat rocks to the edge of the water, pulling it in just a couple of feet. They straightened up, and Kevin twitched. It was Mike, he was sure of it, even though all he could really see was a blur of dark hair above the man's jacket.
Mike went back to the end of the road to get whatever it was he had left there, and brought it back down to the boat. He shoved away from the shore and climbed in, and after some scrambling that made the boat rock wildly, he started rowing with two stubby oars. After a few minutes of that he pulled the oars out of the water again, and an outboard engine roared into life.
Kevin slid down in the water and watched the boat chug past him, out of the small cove and around the rocks opposite Kevin's hiding place. When Mike was turned away, he let go of the rocks entirely and followed the boat, tracking the noise and vibration of the propeller. It gave him a headache, but it turned out Mike wasn't going all that far — just to a spot a short distance along the coast, where a collapsed cliff meant deep water continued right up to the rocks. He cut the engine there, and let the boat drift.
Kevin veered away before he got too close, and surfaced on the ocean side of the boat to have a look. Mike didn't seem to be doing anything, just sitting in the boat looking at the water. After a few second he shook himself and put the oars into the water again, then fiddled with something and dropped it over the side of the boat. Kevin dove down to check — it was a heavy orange string, with hooks knotted into it and a weight on the end. Mike was fishing, of course. Kevin wasn't sure what he was hoping to catch, though — there were some fish around, he could tell, but they were mostly a lot deeper and further away from the shore.
Mike didn't seem to worried about it, anyway, when Kevin resurfaced. He wasn't even holding on to the end of the line, just sitting there. This time he saw Kevin, though, and he stilled, looking at Kevin intently. Kevin stared back — could Mike recognize him? He looked pretty much like any other seal, and there must be some of those around. There was no need to act suspicious and disappear from sight immediately.
They watched each other for a minute or two. Mike fumbled for the oars and propelled the boat a few strokes closer to Kevin. Then one oar came out of the water awkwardly, and the splash startled both of them. Kevin ducked back under the water and dove down.
He was torn between worry and elation all the way back to the bachelor pod. Mike had seen him! But — Mike had seen him. He turned sharply and cut through a school of small fish, sending them scattering in all directions. He knew he had to be careful of humans, that even one wrong person getting wind of selkies' existence could mean imprisonment — or, these days, a lab and all the possible horrors that entailed. He knew he'd already used up his one lucky chance getting away from Springer.
And still, even before he was in earshot of the boys' playful barking, he knew he'd be going back.
Of course he couldn't expect to sneak off alone and not be noticed. On one level, he wondered if he hadn't hoped to be caught. Still, when he came back to the flat rocks where the family gathered when they weren't off with their various age-groups, and found only his mother sunbathing, with an expression very much like she was waiting for him, he couldn't help a little nervous lurch.
"Get back here, Kevin, I'm not going to believe you suddenly remembered something you have to do."
Guiltily, Kevin turned back around and hauled himself over to near where his mom was propped up comfortably against a seaweed-covered rock.
"Where've you been spending all your time, Kevin?"
She wasn't going to let him go until she got an answer, he could tell. Sighing, he slipped his skin and bundled it up under his head, lying back and looking at the sky as he tried to figure out what was least incriminating.
"I've been watching people."
Mike?" she asked. Kevin nodded. It was easier to admit to when he didn't have to make eye contact.
"You haven't been getting too close, have you?"
Kevin opened his mouth to say, 'No, of course not,' then closed it again. He hadn't gotten close enough for anyone else to see him, but he was pretty sure that Mike seeing him fit 'too close.'
He licked his lips. "He saw me," he admitted softly.
She didn't say anything. Kevin risked a look over; she looked worried.
"Did he recognize you?"
"I don't know — I was in skin," he said.
"And he had already seen you like that, hadn't he?"
There was silence for a few minutes, then Denise started talking again. "You know, I always pictured you with Danielle. Growing up, having pups, the whole thing. A lot like me and your dad have."
"I'm sorry—" Kevin started, but she shushed him.
"I don't mean I'm upset, Kevin. I'm happy with my life, and I want you to be happy too. And I think maybe I was looking at it the wrong way. Does Mike make you happy?"
Kevin swallowed. "I think he could," he whispered.
"Then I don't think there's any harm in trying to be happy," his mother told him. She poked him in the leg with one toe and grinned. "And you can't overestimate the value of a man who brings you fish."
Kevin clapped his hands over his face. "Mom!"
"I'm just saying, sweetfish. You could do worse."
There was a deep swell rising, and the smell of electricity in the air mean another storm was coming in fast, but Kevin had already gone well away from the rest of the pod chasing eels. He figured there wasn't any harm in a short detour before he swam back.
To his dismay, when he poked his head around the point of rocks off the small bay, Mike was in the middle of loading gear into the boat. Kevin watched, stuck in indecision. He couldn't warn Mike about the coming storm as a seal, but if he dropped his skin — he couldn't, even though he thought he trusted Mike. He'd have to go closer in, too, or risk a repeat of the accident that had landed him on the strand in the first place, all those months ago.
While he dithered, Mike pushed the boat out and started the engine. The noise shook Kevin out of his quandary and he barked as loudly as he could. The engine drowned him out, though, and Mike continued on out of the sheltered cove. Kevin pushed off the rocks and followed him — he couldn't call as well when he was swimming, but maybe he could do something. He dove down and came up ahead of Mike, trying for once to make sure he was seen. It had one desired effect, anyway: Mike let the engine idle and peered at Kevin.
"Is that you?" he said, quietly enough that Kevin could barely hear it, then repeated himself, louder. Kevin couldn't figure out a way to answer, and Mike shook his head. "Stupid," he muttered, and revved the engine again, heading further along the coast, away from the looming clouds.
Kevin swore to himself and dove again so he could swim faster. All he'd managed to do was distract Mike from the danger.
He followed the boat along the coastline, hoping every moment that Mike would stop and notice what was going on, but the motor kept chugging, taking Mike past the usual hollow where he fished and on to a stretch of rocky shore that Kevin was nowhere near as familiar with. Then the engine finally cut out, and when Kevin surfaced again, he thought Mike was fiddling around in the bottom of the boat like he thought he was going to fish. Kevin dove again, and came up only a few lengths from the stern of the boat.
He barked as loudly as he could. After all the swimming, it was more of a hoarse cough, but it was enough to get Mike's attention. He turned to look, and stopped to stare.
"It is you, isn't it," he said. "Kevin?"
Kevin coughed again, because right now he couldn't reach over and shake Mike to make him pay attention. He jerked his nose sideways, and Mike finally stopped looking at him and looked at the horizon.
"Oh, fuck," he said, and started pulling in the one line he had put out. Kevin waited impatiently until Mike had the line in and started the engine, then swam alongside the boat, just far enough ahead that the noise of the motor underwater wasn't overwhelming. He didn't know what he could do, since he hadn't managed to stop Mike coming out in the first place, but if something went wrong, maybe he'd be able to help somehow.
The boat was still well short of the entrance to the cove when the water got so choppy that Mike had to fight to keep the boat on track. He wrestled with the tiller, and opened the throttle more in an attempt to make headway against the wind that was getting stronger by the second. He couldn't keep track of the seal — he was sure, for no logical reason, that it was Kevin — in the broken waves, and he just hoped it could look after itself. He had his hands more than full enough; making sure he didn't run into a seal he couldn't even see was one thing too many.
He was glad he'd learned to always wear a lifejacket rather than assuming he'd be all right and nothing would happen, but he had the feeling that a lifejacket wouldn't do him all that much good in the worsening conditions. It wasn't so much the water he had to watch out for, as the rocks. With the way spray was smacking upwards in the wind, the waves were slapping the rocks pretty hard.
Mike didn't have time to think about that too much; he needed all his attention to keep the boat from being yanked around broadside-on to the waves. Length by length they made progress, though, and when the boat was more than halfway past the opening of the sheltered cove, he turned the boat and let the wind shove him in, barely registering the sleek, furry head that cut in front of the bow.
The arms of the cove provided some shelter, but it was still clear there was a storm going on outside, and Mike had no desire to stay on the water any longer than necessary. The rocks were a lot closer in here, too, with less room to maneuver. The shelter from the wind made it easier to steer the further from the mouth of the cove he got, and the side-to-side pull of the waves was unpleasant but nothing too bad. Mike was focused so hard on the rocks to the side, and the edge of the surf ahead, that he was nearly to the shingle before he looked past that.
Springer was standing on the beach, right about where Mike's course would land him, and he had a heavy walking stick with him. When the wind dropped for a second, Mike caught a snatch of what Springer was yelling.
"—Out of here! You can't—" Then the wind drowned him out again.
Mike had way too much to do to pay too much attention to Springer. He steered the boat up onto the shingle — the crunch wasn't gentle even with the background noise, and he winced — and he jumped out to start dragging it to the sheltered spot he'd found for it, hopefully out of the reach of even a storm-assisted tide.
The whack across the back of his knees caught him by surprise, and he stumbled forward, scraping his shinbone on the gunwale of the boat. When he turned around, Springer raised his stick again.
"I won't let you land here! You're not wanted!"
What the hell was wrong with him? "There's a storm!" Mike yelled. "I need to get—" he gave up on an explanation and just pointed over Springer's shoulder, trying to indicate the safe tie-up he was trying to get to.
"No!" Springer yelled. Mike wasn't expecting the shove, and stumbled back a step. He looked at Springer.
"You can't land! I won't let you!" Springer shoved at him again — trying to drive him into the rising water, Mike realized.
"Filthy seducer! Get away!"
Mike gaped. "Seducer?" Pieces clicked together in his brain. "Wait, are you talking about Kevin?" It was like some horrible kind of nightmare — it made sense, but not in any rational way.
"Don't talk about him!" Springer shrieked.
Mike took another step back, to the point where foam lapped over his heels, and raised his hands, trying to look non-threatening to a man who'd pretty clearly come unhinged. "Okay, okay, I won't. Just let me get the boat safe, and we'll get help. I'll go away."
"No!" Springer yelled even louder than before, and lifted his stick over his head.
Mike was pinned between his boat and the rising water; there wasn't anywhere left to retreat to. He ducked reflexively, but instead of Springer whacking him on the arm or the head, there was just a blur of motion, a crashing sound, and the vibration of something hitting the hull of the boat. Something smacked Mike on the ankle, and he dropped his arm to see what was going on.
Springer was on the ground, was the first thing, and the stick must have flown out of his hand and hit the boat. He was struggling with someone — someone naked, as far as Mike could tell, and dripping wet. Even soaked with water, though, the second person's hair was a mass of curls.
"Kevin?" Mike asked incredulously.
His voice distracted Kevin — it was him — and Springer got the leverage to roll them over along the beach, trying to grab Kevin's arms. Mike shook himself out of his feeling that none of this could really be happening and went to help. With Kevin keeping Springer's attention, Mike was able to pull the man away, and finally hauled him upright, holding onto his wrists tightly in case he tried to grab or punch again.
"I knew it!" Springer exclaimed, twisting a little in Mike's grip. "I knew it had to be true!"
"Kevin?" Mike asked, more cautiously.
"Um, hi?" Kevin said, complete with the dorky little finger-wave. It didn't seem to bother him at all that he was standing on a beach, stark naked, dripping seawater, in the middle of a storm. A sudden crack of wind reminded Mike of where they were, though.
"We have to get inside," he called, over the rising noise of wind. "Can you get—" he tapped the boat with the side of his boot, making a hollow thumping noise.
Kevin nodded, and ducked around Mike to grab the side of the boat. He dragged the boat up the shingle — still naked! Mike's brain pointed out — and waited while Mike wrestled Springer up the beach. He'd lapsed into fragments of sentences; every so often Mike caught "Knew I was right," or "Like the stories," but mostly he was concentrating too hard on holding on to Springer without tripping them both to listen to what the man was spouting.
"Can you get that rope?" he asked as they joined Kevin behind the sheltering rock. "I think my hands are getting tired."
Kevin fished the hank of rope out of the bottom of the boat and Mike wrapped it around Springer's hands. It wasn't scientific, but he didn't think the man was going to break free any time soon. "Hold him," he said shortly, and started to shrug out of his long jacket as soon as Kevin had hold of the rope. "Okay, I'll take him again," he said, and held the jacket out.
"I'm fine, I'm not cold," Kevin said.
Mike kept holding the jacket out. "Yes, but you're naked," he said patiently. "We need to get inside, because I think we should call the police or maybe whoever deals with whatever's wrong with him," he nodded towards Springer, "And I really want to talk to you. And people are going to notice if you walk to my house without clothes on." I sure will, he thought, and promptly stamped on it.
Kevin glanced down at himself. "Oh, right," he said. "Oh!" He shoved Springer at Mike and took off, back down towards the water.
"Kevin!" Mike yelled, but Kevin wasn't going back into the water, just picking up something at the edge. He ran back up the shingle clutching it — a floppy, dark bundle of something. The same bundle he'd pulled out of the box up in the attic, Mike realized. His sealskin.
"Sorry," Kevin gasped. "I nearly forgot it." He wrapped it around his waist, where it sort of clung to itself.
"Well, if you're all done now, will you take the coat and let's go?" Mike groused. He was glad to see Kevin and all, but he was trying to hold onto Springer, who'd moved on to creepy staring at Kevin, and his gesture wasn't being appreciated, and he was already soaked through.
Fortunately, Kevin seemed to finally be with the program. "Sorry," he said again — half-yelled, really — and pulled the jacket on, snapping it more or less shut around him.
"Right," Mike said. They fought their way over the low ridge, and along the road, and then had to run to stay ahead of the wind when the road turned and suddenly they were all being shoved from behind. It looked like worse was to come, and Mike was glad when they half-fell through his door and he was able to slam it behind them and shove the sandbag into place to block the draught whistling underneath.
With the drop in background noise, he could hear Springer clearly again. "I knew it had to be true," he said. Mike still had hold of his arm, but Springer was completely ignoring him, focusing on Kevin, standing in the hallway in bare feet and a barely-modest jacket. "It was, wasn't it? You're one of them."
Kevin stared back at Springer, meeting his gaze flatly. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said clearly.
"You were a seal," Springer said eagerly, taking a step forward. He seemed to have forgotten that his hands were tied up. "You were a seal, and then you turned into a boy."
Kevin just stared back — Mike could see his jaw muscles clenching — then spoke without looking away. "Mike, you should call someone."
"Right." Mike didn't move. A gust of wind hit the house with a thump, shaking it slightly. "Are you — okay with him?"
"He won't hurt me," Kevin said, still staring Springer down. "You go call."
"Right," Mike said again and edged out of the room. Something made him not want to get in the way of that glare.
The line was crackly with wind-noise, but Mike managed to get the problem across to the woman who answered the phone at the police station. He focused on Springer babbling and trying to attack him; if Kevin wanted to lay charges of attempted kidnapping or whatever, Mike was going to leave that to him. As he'd expected, though, the sudden storm had made the roads unsafe; once she'd confirmed that he didn't think Springer was an immediate danger, the woman told him that she'd send someone out as soon as she could, but she couldn't promise how long that would take. Mike figured that was the best he was going to get, and thanked her. She hung up before he was more than halfway through 'goodbye'.
Since he was already most of the way there, he took the chance to hang his wet clothes over the backs of chairs in the kitchen, and found dry things to put on. The world was about a thousand times better once he wasn't soggy, and he pulled out some extra clothes before he went back out to the entry.
Something had happened while he was gone: Springer was standing with his back against the wall near the door. Kevin stood opposite him, arms folded. He wasn't actually looking at Springer, but Mike had the feeling that Kevin would know if he so much as twitched.
"Is everything okay?" he asked cautiously.
"We're fine," Kevin said. "Did you get through?"
Mike nodded, then cleared his throat when he realized Kevin wasn't looking at him. "Yeah," he said. "They'll send someone as soon as they can, but I think they're — busy, or something."
"That's okay. Gerald isn't going to try to hurt anyone, right?"
Springer made a noise halfway between a grunt and a whimper, but still didn't move.
"Right," Kevin said, and finally turned to look at Mike. Mike blinked — had his teeth looked that sharp before?
"I put out some dry clothes for you," he said, instead of commenting on anything else. "Socks and stuff. And there's a towel in the bathroom if you wanted a shower."
It looked like it took Kevin a minute to parse that, but then he nodded. "Thanks." He cast one last look at Springer and passed Mike in the doorway.
"On the left," Mike called after him, then looked at Springer. "Look, are you going to behave if we go into the kitchen?"
"Of course," Springer said. He sounded oddly dignified, like he was offended that Mike would think anything else. Mike didn't care about offending him; he was just glad Springer had dropped that stick. He still sent the man ahead of him into the kitchen and watched him closely.
"Sit down," he said, and pointed to the chair furthest from any doors. He kept the table between them as he filled the kettle. Coffee, or tea, or something hot seemed called for. Didn't shock make you feel cold? Even with dry clothes on, Mike still felt numb.
He didn't trust the way Springer's foaming rage had just melted away, and not wanting to turn his back on the man or get too close made for some awkward shuffling around the room. Springer acted as if nothing was wrong at all, he just had his hands tied as some sort of interesting experiment or something, but Mike could see the muscles in his jaw working. Just in case, he was staying in arm's reach of the poker.
The kettle had just boiled when Kevin came back, soft-footed in the oversized wool socks Mike had pulled out of the back of the drawer.
"Your jacket," he said. "Should I — it needs to be hung up."
"Over there's fine." Mike nodded towards the other clothing spread out by the stove. "Do you want something to drink?"
A knock on the door interrupted him. Mike weighed the options, and finally settled on, "Kevin, you mind getting that?" He watched Springer as they waited; as soon as he heard the door open, Springer started yelling.
"I saw him, he's—"
Mike kicked a leg of the table, jolting it towards Springer. "Shut up." He listened again. He heard Kevin, then a different voice with a brisk, official tone. A few seconds later, Kevin came back into the kitchen followed by two police officers in dripping jackets.
"Mr. Carden?" the man asked Mike. Mike fought the urge to look behind himself and just nodded. "Let's see if we can get this sorted out, shall we?"
"Neil," the female officer said, and nodded towards the rope around Springer's arms.
Kevin widened his eyes guilelessly at her. "We were afraid he'd try to hurt one of us again," he said. "Or himself. But we couldn't just leave him out there."
"I wouldn't hurt you!" Springer exclaimed. "But you left."
Neil and his partner exchanged a long look. "Why don't you start at the beginning," Neil said. "Not you yet, Mr. — Springer, was it? We'll hear it all from you in a minute." He looked over at Mike, still by the stove. "Mr. Carden?"
The wind was already slackening as the police left. They took Springer with them — he'd started shouting at Kevin again, and made it very easy to convince the police that he wasn't in his right mind, no, Mike didn't want to press charges, please just take him away. Kevin flopped down into one of the chairs at the kitchen table. He felt like the day had been endless, and it was barely even dark yet.
After a couple of minutes, a cup slid over in front of him. It smelled sweet when he sniffed it.
"Vanilla something?" Mike sat down opposite with his own cup. He sipped it and made a face. "Bill says it's soothing."
Kevin looked at his cup doubtfully, but tried it anyway. It was — well, it wasn't bad.
"So," Mike said.
Kevin looked up. Mike was watching him with an expression he couldn't interpret. "Um?"
"I thought I was going crazy," Mike said after a few minutes of just looking. "I thought I knew what I'd seen, but what I saw couldn't possibly have happened. But it did, didn't it?"
"Uh." Kevin scrambled to collect his thoughts. He hadn't been — he should have been prepared for this, he knew what would happen if he came back, or he should have. He shouldn't admit anything to a drylander. But at the same time — Mike had already seen, and he hadn't carried stories. Kevin thought. "Yeah."
"Okay." Mike played with his teacup for a little bit, pushing it around by the handle, turning it to face the other way. "Why aren't you trying to convince me I made it up? Springer did."
Kevin didn't really have an answer for that. He knew what he ought to be doing — the seal-kin's best defense was being completely incredible, after all, nothing anyone would believe. He just shook his head.
"What were you doing out there?" Mike pressed. "That had to be you I saw out in the water."
"I was trying to warn you."
"No!" Mike slapped his hand down on the table. "I mean why were you here at all? Springer went nuts about you, he tried to keep you. You shouldn't have been anywhere near the place!"
"I missed you," Kevin muttered.
"I missed you, all right?" Kevin snapped.
Mike scowled at him but deflated. "That's a stupid reason," he said.
"Yeah, well." Kevin couldn't think of a real rebuttal, so he just folded his arms and sat back in his chair. "So there."
The corner of Mikes mouth twitched. "Well, I guess that tells me, then."
Mike let out a long breath and leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table. "I didn't know what to think when I saw you walk into the water." He rubbed at his eyes, then looked over at Kevin again. "I thought either I was seeing things or you'd drowned, you know that?"
"I'm sorry." Kevin felt inadequate.
"Nah, don't be, just—" Mike shook his head. "I'm glad you were there to keep Springer from braining me and all, but hanging around was a stupid thing to do, you know?"
"I did it anyway," Kevin said.
Mike dropped his head forward with a groan. "I'd hate—" he started, but got cut off by a hammering on the door, and a second later, Bill calling out, "Mike?"
"We came to see if you survived the storm," William said, his voice drifting closer. "Since you weren't immediately out with a hammer and your usual vicious expression, and Siska said he saw a police car—" he stopped in the doorway, mouth partway open through a sentence. "Haven't seen you in a while," he said to Kevin.
Kevin was left without an answer again. "I know," he said at last.
"Mm-hmm." Bill looked at him with narrowed eyes. It was probably meant to be intimidating, but mostly it just looked peculiar. "Does this have anything to do with the police presence?"
"No," Mike said, at the same time as Kevin said, "Sort of?"
"Bill, get out of the doorway, you're not see-through." Siska pushed Bill out of the way, then stopped short the same way. "You came back," he said to Kevin.
"And he was about to explain how that police car was connected," Bill said. "Right?"
Kevin looked at Mike, who shrugged. "Springer finally snapped and attacked me," he said.
"And Kevin?" Bill pressed.
"I was just there at the right time?" Kevin tried.
"That's a hell of a coincidence," Siska said. He didn't look very happy about any of this. "And where were you before?"
Kevin bit his lip. Telling Mike was one thing, and he had seen, but as much as Adam had seemed nice, and Bill too — he couldn't. "I can't tell you. I'm sorry."
"You vanish like that and you're not even going to explain? Mike—" Adam said.
"Let it go, Sisky," Mike said.
"I said let it go."
Bill put a hand on Adam's shoulder and squeezed. "I think things may be even more complicated than we know, Sisky." He raised an eyebrow at Kevin. "Are you planning on disappearing again?"
"Um." Kevin stole a glance across the table at Mike, who looked like he might be interested in the answer too. "No?"
"Are you going to disappear anyway?"
Kevin bit his lip. He guessed this was what his mom had been talking about. He didn't want to leave, but at the same time — now that he'd gone back to the water, he didn't know how he'd ever forgotten about it. And his family — "I won't leave without telling you."
Adam made a disgusted noise and stomped out of the kitchen. William looked after him, then back at Kevin.
"I suppose — Mike, you're happy enough with that?"
"Not that it's any of your business, but yes," Mike said.
"Inexplicable as it seems, Carden, you do actually have friends who care about you," William snapped. He took a deep breath. "I suppose that'll have to do, then. I'll go calm Sisky down." He turned to go.
"I'm sorry," Kevin blurted out. It occurred to him that he hadn't said that yet. Both Mike and William turned to look at him. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "I shouldn't have left like that — before."
William slanted a smile at him. "I'm not the one you need to apologize to, kid," he said. "But I'm glad you get that much. I'll talk Sisky down; I get the feeling you two have a lot to talk about."
Mike rubbed at his face. "Thanks, Bill," he said.
William's smile turned into a full-on grin. "Fortunately, Mike, your boneheadedness is part of your charm." He glanced back at Kevin. "You two — be careful with each other, all right?"
Kevin nodded. Mike just snorted into his hands.
"All right, then." William closed the kitchen door behind him. A few seconds later, Kevin heard him yell back, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do!"
Mike thunked his forehead down onto the table.
"Mike?" Kevin asked. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Mike muttered. He picked his head up. "Just — Bill. And a very long day. And Bill." He looked at Kevin across the table. "So where have you been?"
Kevin took a deep breath and started telling him.
"You'll be all right?" Mike knew it was stupid, but he couldn't help asking.
"I'll be fine." Kevin stepped in a little closer and smoothed his hands down Mike's arms. "The worst of the disturbance is at the surface, and now the wind's eased off, it's not a problem."
"Yeah, yeah." Mike stopped himself from doing anything sappy and just said, "If you get yourself knocked out by a rock again, try to wash up here, okay?"
"Sure." Kevin smiled and stepped back, his hands already going to shed the oversized sweatshirt Mike had lent him. He stopped with the fabric bunched up around his neck and one elbow hanging out. "Sorry, hang on."
It wasn't the best kiss in the history of ever, but Mike thought it was all right anyway.
"Almost forgot that part," Kevin said with a wicked grin. His eyes lingered on Mike's face and the smile dropped away. "Hey. I promise I'll be back."
Mike swallowed down his relief at hearing him say it in so many words. "I know that," he said.
"I know." Kevin held out the folded sweatshirt. "Thanks," he said.
It only took a few seconds for Kevin to strip off his borrowed pants and hand those over too. He'd been barefoot on the shingle from the start.
"Thanks," he said again.
Mike nodded, standing there with his arms full of clothes, and tried not to stare. It seemed — well, it didn't seem like he should, even if Kevin was standing on a beach in his birthday suit in almost-full daylight. He shifted his weight a little, trying to figure out what to say.
"I'll be back," Kevin said again. "Really."
Mike found his voice at last. "Okay."
"I think my mom wants to meet you anyway."
"Uh. She does?"
Kevin nodded. "She gave me some really good advice about you." He grinned again. "She says it's good to have a man who brings you fish."
Mike laughed, he couldn't help it. "I'll miss you," he said.
Kevin's smile sweetened, like he could hear all the things Mike wasn't saying. "Me too." He leaned forward, lightning-fast, and kissed Mike on the cheek again, then took off down the shingle, shaking out his skin as he went. When he flung himself forward into the roiling waves, it was a sleek, furry body that landed in the water.
Mike watched until he couldn't pick out what was seal and what was water. He swore he saw a blunt-snouted head turn back to look at him before it dived again, and then Kevin was gone. He tucked the clothes he'd lent him under his arm and slouched back up the beach and home.