The sun is low over the horizon when Johnny slips out of the water. He stashes his skin under the rocks closest to the cove and slides on the pants he leaves there. His human skin is pink and new and always odd, but he can’t help returning to it. There is more to see than he’d ever imagined. More that he wants.
Patrick is sitting on the dock, watching the sun set, his feet trailing in the water, and Johnny watches him. The way that Johnny has watched him since Patrick first looked down into the ocean off the edge of his father’s fishing boat, and saw Johnny there, underneath the water. Patrick had waved, and Johnny had wondered how he’d known. It was only later that Patrick told him he waved at every seal he saw, just in case.
It’s just the kind of boy Patrick was. The kind he still is.
Johnny’s footsteps are still wet, always wet, and they don’t make much noise against the wood of the dock, but Patrick looks over his shoulder, unsurprised. His nose is covered in freckles, the pink tinge of sunburn, and his hair is golden-light from long hours out on the ocean. He licks his chapped lips, and Johnny can’t help but watch the movement. He can’t help but watch Patrick.
“I know where you keep it,” Patrick says, as if continuing an earlier conversation, but they haven’t talked about this. Still, Johnny knows the subject well. “I touched it with my own fingers, but I left it there. It’s so soft.” He looks up, pupils huge in the growing half-light, and Johnny crouches, but doesn’t sit.
“If you took it,” Johnny says, like a confession, “my family would gut you, spill your insides out onto the sand. They would hold your sisters under the water until they drowned, and then behead them with sharp teeth, eat out their motionless hearts. My family would ruin you.”
“And you’d still be stuck on land,” Patrick says, but it’s not a threat the same way Johnny’s isn’t. Just truth. He turns enough to touch the side of Johnny’s face, callused fingertips. “I wouldn’t do that, you know. I wouldn’t steal you from them.”
Johnny knows that Patrick means he wouldn’t, not without Johnny’s permission, but not that he wouldn’t want to. He lets himself lean into the touch, the salt-washed skin and rough fingernails, the sandpaper palm. Nothing soft on him, not on Patrick.
“I know,” Johnny says, and feels Patrick’s fingertips press against the corner of his eye, thumb just against the plush center of his lower lip. Like Patrick is mapping him.
“Your eyes never change, did you know that? Always huge and deep and black.” His hand moves back, into Johnny hair, and then Patrick is kissing him, sitting twisted on the edge of the dock, Johnny crouching like an animal next to him. Johnny doesn’t pull away, just feels the tacky catch of Patrick’s chapped lips against his mouth, the humming, keening whine that builds up in his chest from even the simplest of touches. Patrick’s mouth is sloppy, urgent, and he licks into Johnny, bites into him, and Johnny opens up. Lets him in. Still crouched as if to flee. Patrick tastes like the sea, and smells of it.
Johnny wonders what Patrick’s family would say – Patrick, running with a boy, and a seal-kin boy no less – but Patrick acts as if nothing he does is pre-thought or worried over. As if he only exists in the now, and nothing else matters. It’s a lie, but a comforting one.
Johnny’s mother and father raised him to rend apart those humans that want to keep him, to distrust the words on the surface. That they’re meant to catch and keep and hold, and no seal-kin son of theirs will ever be tamed. Johnny is disappointing them simply by being here, but the truth is that he isn’t tame. He wants to leave marks behind that Patrick’s family and friends will see and ask about, he wants to say mine, feel the word cupped in his mouth like saltwater. He has the teeth and the heart and the lungs for it.
Patrick pulls away, pushes his face into the curve of Johnny’s bare shoulder, the crook of his neck. His breath is humid, and too quick, and Johnny can feel his heart beating. Johnny can see the freckles on the back of his neck under the gaping collar of his shirt. “You’re always so warm,” Patrick murmurs, and Johnny wants to say something about the touch of the sun on Patrick’s skin, how he wants to put his mouth on each of marks left behind, but instead he threads a hand through the hair on the back of Patrick’s head.
Patrick can talk of stealing Johnny all he wants. Eventually Johnny is going to have to admit out loud that he’s already been stolen.
It’s just the beginning of spring, the first time Johnny pulls himself up out of the water. Storm season, where the waves crash up against the rocky shore and the tide pulls the dead things back out to sea. The sky is bruise-heavy above his head, and his parents don’t know he’s here. Or if they do, they’re not stopping him yet.
He’s watched the shore for almost an entire year, eyes just skimming the surface of the water, but he hasn’t dared walk out of it, yet. Hasn’t dared to pull off his pelt and leave himself naked like he’s never been. He has watched and watched, yearning for something he doesn’t have to words for, but it’s warm enough, now.
The first touch of his feet on the sand nearly makes him gasp. He holds his discarded pelt to his chest, and looks for a hiding spot. The beach is only sandy for a few meters, before sliding up into a cliffed rock face pocked with caves. The sand is coarse underneath the new skin soles of his feet, and he’s ginger, each step careful. The breeze blowing in off the water makes him shiver. Everything is perfect.
He stashes his pelt underneath a rock in the mouth of the second cave, wanders back, naked, toward the beach. He knows that most humans cover themselves with cloth, but he doesn’t have any, so he lets the air dry his arms and stomach and thighs, digging his toes into the sand. He crouches, touching it with the palm of his hands, tiny grains sticking to his tacky skin. He doesn’t know how everything can feel so different to him, now. He looks back at the ocean, and wonders if he can even swim.
“Hey, are you – whoa, oh, hey,” he hears, and he turns his head back toward the dunes, the beach grass. There’s a figure, a boy, stumbling toward him, hair lightened with the sun, grinning with white, white teeth. Even with the cloud-cover, Johnny can tell that he spends most of his time outside. It shows in the burnished tan of his skin, the freckles on his cheeks and arms as he comes closer. Johnny knows who this is. He opens his mouth to speak, but he doesn’t know what to say.
“I’m Patrick,” the boy says, giving Johnny a clear once-over – taking in his face, his body from neck to knees. Johnny feels his cheeks burn. “Why’re you naked?”
“I –” Johnny starts, and he shakes his head. This is the boy who waved to him through the water. The one he sees, sometimes, on the shore when he gets close enough, laughing with his sisters, helping his father haul in the day’s catch up onto the dock just in front of their home. “I’m Johnny,” he says, eventually. He’s trying not to stare and he can tell from the way Patrick crosses his arms over his chest that he’s failing. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure –”
He’s not supposed to interact with humans. He’s not even supposed to be getting this close. Johnny’s heart is thundering in his chest but he’s not sure if it’s because he’s breaking the rules or because he now knows Patrick’s name. Knows what his voice sounds like. He thought that might make him less curious, but instead all he wants is to know more.
“Did you want –” Patrick starts, squinting, a little. “I can grab you some clothes, if you want. I don’t, uh. Live very far.” He pauses, and appears to take Johnny silence as assent. “Wait here.”
Johnny watches him go, quick and nimble up the dunes, down the lane that runs alone the edge of the beach, back toward his house. Johnny knows where it is. Johnny wants to stay, wants to know what Patrick’s freckles look like up close, if he smells like the sea or the land or both. Johnny wants to know everything, and there is nothing more dangerous than that.
He waits until Patrick is out of sight – one glance back down at the beach and then he’s over the dunes – before standing up and starting off down the shore. He fetches his pelt from the cave, feeling the soft, smooth fur against his new human fingertips. If he’s quick about it, his parents won’t know he’s even been gone. He thinks about what it would be like to say Patrick’s name out loud. He doesn’t.
It’s summer the next time Johnny ventures out onto the shore. The sun is blazing in the sky, hotter than anything else he’s felt directly against his skin. There are no clouds, and Johnny wonders how long it would take his skin to burn. He wonders what the pain would feel like.
He watched the shore for weeks after – he'd stayed even after slipping into the water, watched Patrick holding the clothes meant for Johnny in one hand while he looked around, confused – but he'd thought he could go back to his life, then. He'd been wrong. He'd spent whole afternoons watching Patrick with his family, watching Patrick laugh on the shore, in the sun, without him – watching Patrick sit by the edge of the ocean for hours, and wait for him. Johnny doesn't know how to not want something more than that.
Patrick isn’t waiting, now, when he wades up onto the shore, but when he tucks his pelt into the crevice between rock and cave wall Johnny finds a pair of loose, drawstring trousers draped over one of the rocks. Like Patrick knew, without asking. Johnny shudders, knowing that this, now, should make him slide back into the water and never come out again, but instead he tugs the trousers on. They’re a little short, a little loose, but the rough cotton feels new against his hips and the inside of his thighs. He is fish-belly pale all over, and when he steps out into the sunlight, he thinks about Patrick and the golden tan of his skin, the spray of freckles across his nose and cheeks.
On the beach, he digs his feet into the cool, wet sand and lets the ocean lap against his ankles. The wind tousles his hair, and he lies back, pillowing his head on his hands. The closest town is several miles down the shore, and Johnny hasn’t ever seen anyone on this particular stretch of sand other than Patrick, though he’s not certain why. The water cools his skin and the sun warms him, and it doesn’t take long for him to drift off.
It’s movement that rouses him some uncertain amount of time later.
“Sorry,” Patrick says, scrubbing a hand through his hair with a sheepish grin. “I didn’t realize –” He shrugs.
“Um,” Johnny says, and brushes the sand off of his face and out of his hair. It sticks to him, the salt in the air making his skin tacky, so the grains stay on his fingers instead.
“I wasn’t sure you’d be back,” Patrick says, voice deceptively easy. He sits next to Johnny on the sand, and Johnny ignores the part of him that wants to slide further away, and the part that wants to slide closer. His skin has turned slightly pink in the sun. He looks down at his knees. “Did I do something wrong?”
Johnny can’t help glancing up at Patrick. He’s got his arms tucked around the curve of his knees, hugging them close to his chest, and he’s looking out over the water.
“No,” Johnny says, quickly. “I just –” can’t be seen here with you, he doesn’t say.
“You’re a – you’re seal-kin, aren’t you?” Patrick says, his eyes wide and blue when he looks over, when he catches Johnny staring at him. “A selkie, I mean. I always thought they were real, I just didn’t think –” He unwinds one of his hands from around his knees to gesture at Johnny from head to bare chest to sandy feet, like Johnny is something more, maybe, than he’d expected.
“Shut up,” Johnny says, and he wants to cover Patrick’s mouth with his hand. “You can’t – you don’t just ask that.”
“That’s not a no,” Patrick points out, and it’s true, it’s not. “You’re wearing my pants. The pants I left, I mean.”
Johnny squeezes his eyes closed, because he’s not supposed to be here, and he’s disobeying everything his parents ever asked of him, and now a human knows. Knows about him.
He jumps when Patrick touches the side of his face. His palm is callused, used to work, and Johnny holds his breath. His skin is warm. Johnny has never felt skin against his before. He can see Patrick’s face out of the corner of his eye, the way he’s biting his lip, and it’s no use. Johnny should be leaving, but he’s not.
“It’s okay,” Patrick says. “I’m not going to tell anyone.”
Johnny believes him, but he’s not sure it’s going to matter, in the end.
When Johnny’s mother asks to speak with him privately, he already knows the reason. He’s been carrying the dread of this moment in his belly like a sinking stone for months, and now that it is here he’s run through with twin spears of fear and relief. Her voice is soft, like it always is, and he swims close to her, the water cool and buoyant around him. She touches his chin with her nose, pushing their faces together so that she can stare into his eyes. If he were human, now, she might see the mark that Patrick left on his neck, the one in the shape of his mouth. She might ask him if he’s been claimed, and he might blush. But they’re both smooth slick pelt, mouth full of sharp, rending teeth. Her eyes are liquid brown when she looks at him.
“We thought once you’d satisfied your curiosity, you’d give it up,” she says, and he can’t be sure if the it is the land, his human form, or Patrick. The we, he knows, is her and his father, and Johnny’s breath catches in his lungs. The sea is calm this far offshore, and Johnny wishes for a squall, for a sudden summer storm to force this meeting to an end, or at least stave it off until he can better prepare. But his mother continues speaking. “It isn’t as if none of us have wanted to know. We understand the intrigue the shore holds, how curious the humans and their customs are, but none of us, no one in this family going back centuries has tempted fate the way that you have. You court a human, son, and that isn’t just dangerous, it is recklessly stupid.”
She brushes against him, keeping her body between him and the open ocean. The cove is at his back, waves spraying up onto the rocky island. There are no trees, no dune grass or beach, no sand. Just seal-kin sunning, blinking sleepily out over the water.
“He won’t tell,” Johnny tries, but it sounds weak to his own ears. No matter how he believes it, she won’t.
“You’re so young,” she says, nipping at him. “Foolish, enamored, young. You think him different from the rest of the humans. Better, maybe. Trustworthy.” Her voice holds a note of derision in it that Johnny has never heard, and it hits him in the lungs, in the soft tissue of his belly. “You’re wrong. You can’t help it, but you are wrong. He might even believe that he won’t betray you, but he will. And they will hold you captive, he will, force you to the land because he believes he must, because he believes that he loves you. And we will slaughter his people until they set you free.”
She says it with an iron core of certainty, and Johnny doesn’t doubt that she believes she’s protecting him, telling him what he needs to hear, but he can’t think of Patrick that way. Patrick’s sunny smile, and surety of his hands, the kindness with which he touches Johnny’s face and neck and chest.
“Your father, of course, believes we should kill them now, before such a thing could happen. He has always been about action, and you’re putting us in a terrible position. Think about your family, Jonathan. Stay away from the human, keep your feet in the ocean, and your loyalties where they belong.”
“I am,” Johnny says, and he hates the pleading in his voice, but he can’t excise it. “I do. I always do, but you don’t know him, mother. I can’t believe that he’d do anything to harm me. I can’t imagine that it would even occur to him.”
“They never do,” his mother says, sadly. “They believe what they do is right, and just, because they don’t understand the call of the ocean in our hearts. I won’t stop you, but you are only sealing his death, and his family’s, and most likely your own. Are you willing to gamble it for this? For him?”
Johnny nudges his mother with his head, once again meeting her eyes. “I am,” he says. “For him, I am.”
They’re careful for so long that they get sloppy with it. Patrick meets Johnny on the beach where they first spoke, the moon high overhead, the sky unclouded. It’s been more than a year of clandestine trysts, a couple of stolen hours, an evening, a sunrise – they find the time where they can, and it’s not enough. Patrick puts his hands on Johnny’s skin, and Johnny licks the sea salt from the curve of Patrick’s collarbones, and the sand is rough on the palms of Johnny’s hands, on Patrick’s back, but they make do because they have to.
Johnny doesn’t want to return Patrick to his family. Doesn’t want to with a ferocity that comes of the animal instincts he will always possess, of the fervor with which he yearns, of the knowledge that this can’t last forever, and won’t end well. He follows Patrick down the shore, their shoulders brushing, and basks in the cool, humid air on his bare skin. He’ll walk Patrick back, because he can’t bear to leave, yet, and then he’ll slip back into the ocean, swim off toward home.
But as they approach, the lights are on in Patrick’s house, and his family is outside, on the front steps, waiting. All three sisters, even the littlest, slump against each other and yawn, and Johnny stops walking. Patrick makes it two steps before he notices, and he looks over his shoulder. Johnny wants to shake his head, but Patrick’s expression pleads with him not to go, and so he – doesn’t. His survival instincts have never been able to withstand Patrick.
Patrick grabs his hand, twines their fingers together. They’ve never done this, never pushed their palms together, but Patrick tugs him forward, so he goes.
“I’m sorry if I worried you,” Patrick says, feet still on the sand in front of the porch steps. Johnny is close enough to see how alike they all look – tanned and freckled and fair-haired, earnest and open. Backlit by the light shining out through the windows. He wants to shrink back into the darkness and flee, but he doesn’t. Patrick is still holding his hand. “This is, um. This is Johnny. We’re, um. He’s my –” Patrick starts, but he doesn’t seem capable of finishing the sentence.
“Oh, Patrick,” his mother says, and covers her mouth with one hand. Johnny can feel his shoulders hunching in, trying to make himself smaller like he would in the face of any other kind of insurmountable threat.
“Don’t,” Patrick says. “I’m not sorry.” He’s holding Johnny’s hand hard enough to hurt, but Johnny needs it to. He squeezes back.
“Come inside,” Patrick’s father says. He looks Johnny right in the eyes, takes in Johnny’s pale skin, the sand still dusted across his shoulders. Johnny feels wilder, more alien than he ever has. “Both of you.”
Johnny could leave. He could slide back into the ocean and never return, except that there would be no point. Patrick’s mouth presses close against his ear, and he whispers, “Please, I need you. Come with me.”
Johnny believes him. His breath shakes when he pulls it in, but he takes the first step forward. He doesn’t let go of Patrick’s hand.
Patrick spends the spring and summer building a house. Johnny helps when he can, and though he knows next to nothing about construction, he works hard. Patrick doesn’t need to tell him that this house is meant to be their house, in some respects – the location is enough of an indicator, set right back on the beach, close enough for their own set of stairs pressed into the dunes, leading down onto the beach. It’s less than a mile from Patrick’s family home, and half a mile from the beach where they met. Johnny presses his fingers against the doorframe, and is glad that he can smell the sea from the front porch.
The house is finished just as the heat of summer starts to abate, wind sifting through the dune grasses that brush against the wood siding. It’s mostly one room, but Johnny can’t imagine needing much. Patrick is sitting on the front steps, his hands tucked beneath his knees, and Johnny has been thinking about this moment for months and not discussing it – the expectations that Patrick must have, by now, the things that he must want. And Johnny knows enough about himself to understand what his answer will be.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” Patrick says, after a long moment. There’s a mark, a small bruise, just beneath his ear, and Johnny knows that there are more beneath the soft, worn cotton of his clothing. He wants nothing more than the strip Patrick down, here, on their front steps, and have him. The ocean at their backs, drowned out by their own heaving breath, Patrick’s name in Johnny’s mouth, the slick sound of their bodies moving together.
But this is not the moment. There is something else, first.
“I won’t leave you,” Johnny admits, like he’s pulling out some vital, beating part of himself and exposing it to the air. “I can’t do it.”
“I know that,” Patrick says, puzzled. His head tilts to the side, and even with the sun mostly gone, he is so bright.
“What I mean is – if you would have me leave the ocean behind, I would do it. Give my skin over to you. I would.” It’s feels like he’s speaking around sandpaper, every warning his mother has ever given him pressed underneath his tongue, and he should regret it, but Johnny does everything with all that he is. There is no holding back. There is no compromise. There is just this, here.
“No,” Patrick says, startling Johnny. “I don’t want it.”
“You don’t – but I thought –
“Johnny, Johnny, I want you, and how could you be – what would you be without the ocean? Without your family? You would never ask this thing of me, so how could I ask it of you?” Patrick’s expression is almost hurt, wounded around the edges, and Johnny doesn’t understand. Patrick presses both palms against the sides of his face and kisses him. Johnny can’t help the way that he bites into Patrick’s mouth, how he wants to push Patrick down and cover him completely, chest to hip to knee.
“You think you have to sacrifice everything for me, but I say fuck that. Hide your pelt from me and never tell me where it is, not ever, because – I won’t be the one to take you away from the things that you love. No matter how much I want your attention on me, always.”
“This is not how it works,” Johnny says, still uncertain, and Patrick laughs.
“When have we ever done what everyone else does?”
Johnny smiles then, just a little, and tangles his fingers in Patrick’s hair. Patrick slides closer, until they are pressed together all along their sides, and the sun is going down over the water. Johnny can only think of all the ways he wants Patrick, how he doesn’t think that all the time they have can ever be enough, but maybe that’s what forever is for. Maybe, maybe that’s how long they have.