Kris can smell the ocean when he wakes up, and it feels like his heart has been run through with sea urchin spines.
He didn't know they were that close, that the bus had been trundling him toward home (he still thinks of it as home) as he slept. He's bad at keeping track of the where, up here. He's used to things moving around him, changing subtly with the currents and tides. Here, everything stays static---roads and statelines and names drawn on the giant map David has tacked up in the bus's kitchen---and they're all moving through it. So he doesn't know where they are, but most of the time no one else does, either. This is one of the Things on David's list of Things About Touring, which is tacked up near the map.
David loves lists, because he loves words. (Kris traded his voice to follow someone who loves words. He tries not to think of it that way.)
Today, they're near the ocean, and that's all Kris needs to know.
They all roll out of the buses into a hotel parking lot lit by a sleepy orange sunrise, and David stretches and yawns and rubs a hand over his face, everything about him looking pleasantly rough and sunny-warm, and says: "Let's go to the beach."
Today is a day off, Kris remembers, and he watches David and feels the nearness of the ocean clinging to his skin, he thinks about those two things (the things he wants most) together, and he can't. He can't. He's afraid of what all that longing in one place could do.
He feigns sleepiness as they check into the hotel, makes a show of yawning and dragging his feet and crawling into bed and shaking his head when some of the other guys ask him if he's coming with them. They promise to bring him back some sand.
Kris waits a while, until he's sure everyone has left, and then goes down to the hotel lobby to see if the breakfast buffet is still there. It is, and so is Adam, who's standing by the toaster.
"Oh, hey," Adam says, "You didn't go to the beach either?" He waits for Kris to shake his head no before continuing. "I always get sunburned, and we have a show tomorrow night, and I don't want to be a singing lobster, so... Anyway, I was thinking of trying to smuggle half of this food up to my room and just watching TV all day. Do you...you can hang out with me, if you want? If you didn't have other plans, obviously."
Adam talks a lot. And Kris doesn't talk at all, so they make an unlikely pair, a kind of automatic walking joke. (Kris overheard Monte teasing Adam about it once. "He's clearly the perfect guy for you," Monte said. "Tiny, cute, can't talk..." Adam had responded by throwing a handful of almonds at him.) He doesn't mind the talking, though, because Adam's voice is fluid and transfixing and changeable like water, so even when he's missing the what of the conversation (sometimes Adam talks about shoes at length, for example, and up until recently, Kris didn't have feet), he can just let himself drift in the sound and the rhythm.
He gives Adam a nod and a shrug to say sure, why not?, and Adam grins.
"Great," he says. "Here, will these fit in your pockets?" He hands Kris two little tubs of yogurt. Between the two of them and their various pockets, they manage to leave the lobby with the yogurts, several napkins full of fruit, a toasted whole wheat bagel and some jam, two miniature boxes of cereal, a cheese danish, and two styrofoam cups of tea.
Adam closes the curtains, and the flickery blue glow of the TV reminds Kris of sunlight filtering down through water.
"I channel surf a lot, you know, zero attention span," Adam says, fidgeting with the pillows and offering Kris a grape. "Just tell me if there's something you actually want to see, okay?"
They watch part of a movie about girls who like shopping, and a show where people live in a house and argue, and some music videos, and a pair of terrifyingly cheerful women trying to get them to buy enameled cookware, and something about manta rays that Adam leaves on for a long time even though Kris doesn't ask him to. It's strange, Kris thinks, that while just the smell of the ocean is enough to fill him with a spiny, aching sadness, actually seeing it on the TV screen is sort of nice. It feels both familiar and unreal at the same time.
"That fish is so fucking weird," Adam says. "I want to wear it as a hat."
Adam has been holding the same strawberry for the last five minutes, so Kris steals it and eats it himself, and thinks idly that Adam would fit right in underwater. It's surprisingly easy to imagine him gliding along with a tail (he would love having a tail, Kris thinks), wearing a necklace of pearlescent shells and live starfish, his hair floating like a squid ink nimbus around his head. The idea makes Kris smile, and he settles back into the pillows. He can't smell the ocean anymore---the air conditioning is on, and the air is cool and dry and scented faintly with dust---but he can still feel its nearness, in the same way that he can feel the warmth of Adam's body next to him even though they're not touching, and all of it is somehow...comforting. The show changes to something about meerkats, and Adam changes the channel and starts talking about how good the songs from The Lion King (whatever that is) were, and his voice rocks Kris to sleep like waves.
Everyone told him coming here would be difficult, and doubly so with no voice, but Kris---his mother was fond of saying---was as stubborn as an octopus trying to open a clam shell, and he'd come anyway.
He hadn't understood how important talking was up here. He hadn't expected his silence to cause so much interest, and the attention makes him uneasy. When people find out that he can't talk, they stare or speak to him super-loudly like they think he also can't hear or ask him why, like he's going to do an interpretative dance to explain it to them.
The weird solidarity of being on tour protects him, though. Things were a little rocky at first while everyone got used to his communicating via gestures and a memo pad that he carries around in his pocket, but Kris quickly became part of the Family (this is another Thing About Touring) and now he has a whole network of people to talk to the rest of the world for him.
Adam's the one who starts it. They're setting up at a venue, everyone getting idly introduced to the staff, and Chuck, one of the other roadies, says "And that's Kris, he doesn't talk."
"...Doesn't talk?" says the girl with the clipboard, immediately regarding Kris with the kind of curiosity he'd expect if he'd kept his tail and was on display in a tank.
"Nope," Adam says, sidling over from...somewhere. Kris had no idea he was even here. "He's taken a vow of silence until Tupac Shakur's murder case is reopened."
Kris nods at the girl solemnly like what Adam just said made complete sense to him and was very important.
"Oh," she says, and Chuck manages to wait until she's out of earshot before laughing.
After that, it becomes a thing. Whoever introduces Kris to new people makes up an insane story about his non-talking. Andy says Kris was a Yakuza assassin who had his tongue cut out. Chuck tries to keep a straight face when he explains that Kris is a were-talker and can only speak when the moon is full. David manages to convince someone that Kris loves silent films so much he's making his whole life an homage to them. Adam tells people that Kris is a Bulgarian pop sensation who's on voice rest, that Kris's vocal cords were eaten by piranhas when he was rafting in the Amazon, that Kris is under a magical spell that only allows him to talk when people stop being douchebags. Adam's stories are always the craziest, and they generally make people back away slowly and leave Kris alone. Not because they believe what he's saying, obviously, but because he says it with a slightly dangerous shark grin that conveys fuck off now, please and thank you as clearly as if he were holding up a sign.
Kris thinks sometimes that he should let Adam know he can take care of himself, but he doesn't. He's half convinced that one day, Adam is going to accidentally tell the truth, that he'll say and this is Kris, he used to live in the ocean, he traded his tail and his voice to come on tour with us.
There are these moments (intensely panicked moments) when he thinks Adam knows, which isn't possible. There's no way anyone would ever guess or believe---even Adam, who's good at both believing and guessing---that Kris once had a tail, occasionally talked to pods of whales, and played a sort-of-guitar made from a giant clam shell strung with sealgut.
But there are these moments. Adam looks up at Kris from his giant astrology book and says you know, I bet you're a water sign, or glances over into the wings to wink at Kris before launching into Led Zeppelin's "The Ocean" at a show, and Kris's heart seizes up and he thinks he knows, he knows, but they're always there and then gone, nothing comes of them. Adam goes back to his book or wails Zeppelin to a rapt crowd with his voice like a tidal wave, Kris's heart gradually slows down again, and things go on.
When David sings, his voice is sand and sharkskin and sunlight. Kris can almost feel it physically stroking up his spine. It hurts, but it's a good hurt.
"He's good, isn't he?" Adam says one night, leaning down to rest his chin briefly on Kris's shoulder as they watch from the wings.
Kris nods his agreement, feeling Adam's sweaty hair brush against his face.
"I always hope he's going to pour a bottle of water over his head again," Adam says, sounding conspiratorial, and Kris is glad Adam can't see his face, he can feel himself blushing. He always hopes the same thing. David onstage with his hair matted down around his face, his shirt clinging to his torso, had been almost too much to take. It made him think of swimming, of sex, of David's body pressed slippery-wet against his, his mouth on David's throat so that his voice would be touchable, tasteable, everywhere all at once.
They stand there without saying anything else, both of them swaying and rocking to the music, for the rest of David's set, which closes without ever featuring an upended water bottle.
"Maybe next time," Adam says.
David disappears directly after the show, typing something into his cellphone with a kind of worried concentration that Kris doesn't want to consider, and Kris spends the next while toting amps around and thinking maybe next time, maybe next time, maybe next time, not even sure what he's thinking it about.
Maybe next time what?
He feels lost, all of a sudden, hopeless. He knows that next time will be exactly the same as this time, that all he can do is watch. All he can ever do is watch, and he has no idea how to change it.
Someone sends him to go find Neal, and he finds Adam instead. Adam is being pressed up against a non-operational cigarette machine by a guy who has to stand on his toes to kiss him. His hands are in the guy's back pockets.
Kris eventually finds Neal, drags him backstage, waits until no one is watching, and gives one of the amps a vicious kick. He spends the rest of the night limping on his stubbed toes.
None of this is what Kris imagined, and he's never sure for more than a few hours at a time if it's worth it, if he made the right choice.
Sometimes he wants to go home more than he wants to breathe. Every time David plays another love song about someone who left (rather than about someone who's right there with him, who left everything they knew to be there), Kris thinks about walking into the ocean, the way the tide would erase his footprints like he'd never come ashore at all.
And sometimes it seems perfectly clear that he's meant to be here---when the music wraps around him and resonates in his chest at a show, so much sharper than what he'd expected, different than anything he'd heard before he got here, and he feels it pulling him like a strong, fast current. When he and David are the only ones awake on the bus at 3 AM and they make popcorn and play cards and Kris almost forgets that he can usually feel David wishing he could talk. When he sits down at a piano and plays.
He usually starts with new music, things from this world. He starts with David's songs, or Adam's, or something he heard on the radio, and sometimes, if he's in the right mood, makes his way slowly to the things he's written. There are a lot of songs he wrote to make Allison laugh when they were younger, with silly lyrics about undersea volcanoes or a girl with hair made from sea anemones, and there's the Horseshoe Crabs Are Humping Song, which Kris was proud to note had been played by a real orchestra during last year's summer full moon festival (although he'd changed the title for the occasion). And there's the song he wrote when he'd made up his mind, when he'd known he had to come up here. He'd played it for Allison without singing the words, and she'd heard them anyway. He'd finished it and she'd said you're leaving, aren't you? and punched him on the arm so hard that when he washed up on a pebbly beach, unsteady on his new legs, he was still sporting a faint bruise.
He's playing that song one afternoon when Adam sits down next to him, perches on the very edge of the piano bench like he's not sure he's allowed. Kris doesn't meet his eyes.
"Did you write that?" Adam says, his voice quiet.
Kris nods, eyes resolutely on the piano keys.
"I can tell. I just...it belongs to you. I wish you could sing," Adam says, and Kris looks up at him without meaning to. "Fuck talking, I think you'd be happier if you could sing."
Kris actually opens his mouth---somehow, for just a second, he's forgotten he can't talk---to say I would be, and then shuts it again.
"Anyway, I think everyone's going for dinner, if you want to come with us," Adam says, but Kris barely hears him, Kris just sees his eyes saying I'm sorry, I shouldn't have.
He brushes his fingers over Adam's shoulder to let him know it's okay, closes the piano lid, and follows Adam out to the buses.
The next time he finds a piano, he skips straight to his own music, the songs that belong to him, and imagines the notes as a school of fish swimming around his head.
He's trying to write David a song, but he can't get it right. He keeps thinking it would sound better underwater.
Not too long after Kris and Adam don't go to the beach (and they keep not going to the beach, even though the tour is wending its way steadily down the coast and there are plenty of opportunities), Archie shows up. David is at a radio station doing an interview when he arrives, so Kris is spared their big reunion moment for a while, at least.
Archie hangs around backstage, getting introduced around and hugged by David's band. He smiles and fidgets and is exactly as adorable as everyone's always said. Kris sits on a couch trying not to watch, playing Monte's secondary guitar and clenching his jaw. Adam sits down next to him, and Kris can feel him radiating questions and concern, but both of them stay silent.
Archie ambles over to them eventually, and Kris just stares down at his shoes, pressing his fingers into the strings of the guitar hard enough to hurt.
"You're Adam, right?" he says.
"Most of the time," Adam says, and Archie laughs a little. "And this is Kris."
That's it. No story, no shark-grin, just this is Kris. Kris feels almost betrayed.
"Hi," Archie says, and Kris has to look up. Archie has eyes like a baby whale's, sweet and curious and a little sad, and Kris understands why David has waited for him. The understanding is bitter like stagnant water in his mouth.
He wants to hate Archie. (And he does hate Archie, all sweetness and light aside.) He wants to want to drown Archie in the nearest bathtub. He wants to pull out his memo pad and write a thousand horrible lies. David is too busy to see you. David hates you now and never plays any love songs for you at all. David mysteriously turned into a squid so we released him into the ocean, nothing to see here, please go home.
Instead, he gives Archie a hello wave and feels Adam's hand resting on his back, between his shoulderblades, solid as an anchor. He hates and loves Adam simultaneously for knowing that he needs it. He doesn't want an anchor. He doesn't want to be moored to this place. He wants to be carried straight out to sea.
Adam and Archie talk about music and touring and David and Kris strums angry, discordant nonsense on the guitar until Monte takes it away from him, gently.
David walks in and stops talking mid-sentence.
"Archie," he says, "You weren't---you said you---"
"Surprise," Archie says quietly, and David opens his arms and they hug and Kris's heart writhes like a fish on dry land, and he wonders if this was part of the bargain and he just hadn't realized it, that if he came up here and didn't find love, if he came up here and he'd been wrong, he'd actually die.
He doesn't die. He leaves everyone cooing over David and Archie, who are still embracing, in their own private undersea grotto lit by glowing jellyfish. He can feel the heat of Adam's hand on his back all the way to the ocean.
Things are a blur after that. He's standing knee-deep in the sea, the voices of his family filling his ears, filling his whole skull. His jeans are clinging wet and leaden and unfamiliar to his legs, and he wonders if he just keeps walking, walking and wishing hard enough, maybe he can go back. Maybe it will just reverse itself, and he can submerge and let the water muffle the hurt of it, he can write songs about rip currents and start to forget.
And then Adam is there, swooping in like this is the ending of all those movies they'd pretended not to watch on the bus, the ones where people are in love, but things keep them apart, and then at the end there's swooping-in and a perfect kiss and all is well.
Which is almost exactly how it works, as it turns out. It makes Kris curious about what else from those movies is actually true.
He and Adam are sitting together on the beach and watching the sun set, pressed together from shoulder to hip. They're sandy and damp and their clothes smell faintly of low tide and it's wonderful.
"I knew there was something different about you," Adam says, and Kris raises his eyebrows to say really. (He's pretty sure he can talk now, but he's a little scared to try.) "Well fine, I wouldn't have guessed you used to be a mermaid. Merman. Mer...person. But I knew you hadn't always been...I could...I used to be something else, too, kind of. So I knew."
Kris smiles and snuggles closer.
"What did you used to be, a unicorn?" he says. His voice sounds like a sunken ship, all barnacles and rust, and he has a second to think fuck, it better not stay that way, he needs to sing, and then Adam is laughing and kissing him again, his hair raining sand down onto Kris's face, and Kris knows, finally, that he's in exactly the right place.