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a hard place

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Clef had been on the little island and mostly on his own for almost three months when the first big storm blew in, the rain slamming into the windows jolting him away from his computer. He looked up, blinking in the thinned light to see steel-grey filling the massive windows of the observation room in every direction. Both sea and sky were roiling mass, blurring together on the horizon.

Swearing under his breath, he saved the report he'd been engrossed working on, and shot across to the stairs. The windows up here were reinforced to ridiculous levels, but the ones in the living quarters downstairs weren't quite as industrial, and there were shutters he was meant to close before something like this hit. He glared over at the weather-station in the corner as he went; it should have alerted him this was coming.

Only the lights on the weather station were, actually, all on and flashing warnings at him, and now he thought about it, he had a vague memory of turning the sound to the unit off when it started beeping at him around lunchtime. And he hadn't remembered to check the forecast for a few days, too fascinated by some of the results his colleagues over in Norway had started sending him from their own research base.

He looked out of the window one last time as he reached the stairs, and froze. There was a set of lights out in that terrible grey, a pale blur being tossed about on the water. It looked like a little boat; in this weather, they had to be in trouble.

If they could make the boathouse, as least they should be able to get ashore - but the boathouse was at the end of a harbour that was more of a crack in the cliff-face than anything substantial, and in this weather, they might not even see it.

All thoughts of the shutters abandoned for this far more pressing thought, Clef tried to raise them on the radio several times before grimly grabbing his coat. They'd been headed towards the harbour side of the island, at least, and if he could get the guide lights on before they passed the channel to the boathouse at least they stood a better chance of spotting it.

Getting the storm door open was bad enough, it was heavy in the first place and right now the wind was full against it as he tried to push it open. Once he'd got outside, that wind was full against him, and he could barely open his eyes against the hammering downpour.

Fortunately the path over to the boathouse had a heavy wire fence all the way along it; he kept his hands on the cable and let it lead him down until he could scramble inside the boathouse and out of the worst of it, fumbling on the sharp fluorescent lights inside before trying to get along the damp decking to turn on the harbour lights as well. The wailing of the wind filled in all the gaps in the noise of the relentless drumming rain. It was far louder, here, than it had been in the thick steel-and-concrete of the main building, and he shuddered at the thought of being out on the sea in this.

He got the harbour lights on before getting to the front of the boathouse to look out of one of the little porthole windows on the front of the building. The view was horrible, waves crashing down the channel towards the boathouse and no sign of anyone. Clef had lost track of the boat in the trek down here. It might already have gone by. Hopefully, if so, it was bigger than it had seemed, with enough power and strength and crew to ride this out safely.

But he should have been able to raise them on the radio, if that was the case.

In the meantime, he checked over his own small boat. Fyula was bobbing in the water even in the sheltered boathouse; he pulled her in closer and made sure she was as secure as he could manage.

Some change in the sound outside made him look up, as he reached her prow, next to the window again - and his heart leapt into his throat to see a dainty pleasure yacht-type thing being tossed from side to side as the lone figure on its deck brought it down the channel towards the boathouse.

He scrambled over to yank the bar off the boathouse doors, kicked the motor on to open them, and scrambled to help them apart faster when the prow shot straight inside. The yacht came barrelling in, engines whining as the lone figure tried to slow it down, and somehow managed to neither thump into Fyula or hit the bumpers about the dock too hard.

Clef slammed the button to shut the doors and shoved as well for good measure, until he could sidle out and get the beam in place to hold them shut, then turned to help tie up the yacht. He couldn't help snapping "Who on earth are you?" as he reached out for their ropes, but got no response beyond an exhausted look (and the rope). The lone figure turned out to be a young woman, long hair plastered to her bright-yellow coat and life-jacket.

Why anyone would be out in this storm - but it had blown up so fast, and it was well out of season for this kind of thing. He hadn't expected it, either.

Whoever she was, her hands knew their business so far as her yacht and the ropes went, even shaking so hard he could see it. Once the yacht was secure, she seemed to just… wilt, slumping down on the deck like a puppet whose strings had been dropped.

Clef swore, and jumped across, nearly losing his footing in a puddle. He'd come out without changing from the flimsy canvas shoes he wore about the house, rather than finding his boots or anything sensible. "Hey!" he called, kneeling down beside her. "Are you okay?" Then, belatedly, "Do you speak English?"

"I - yes," she said, voice shaking but clear as she closed her eyes, rubbing a hand over her face. "Thank you."

"Well." He shrugged awkwardly, pulling a face she couldn't see. She'd saved herself from the storm - all he'd done was open a door and put some lights on, and he was trying his hardest not to yell at her for being out in this on her own in the first place, so far from anywhere. "I guess you'll have to stay with me until this blows over," and wow, that sounded so welcoming of him.

He hadn't spoken to another human in person for over a month, and apparently he'd lost all the social skills he'd had.

"Come on," he tried again, pushing to his feet. "Come up to the house, it'll be safer than staying down here. I'm Clef, by the way. I staff the research station here."

She smiled up at him as she took his hand, and even bedraggled and grey with exhaustion, she looked - well, she was handsome enough Clef actually noticed, and at the most inappropriate moment.

"I'm Ryuuzaki Umi. Sorry to gatecrash your island."

"I'm only looking after it for a year or two. Here, do you want anything from the cabin? Uh, you are alone, right?" He has a sudden vision of an injured crewmate he should have found already, but she shook her head even as she headed for the little cabin and unfastened the hatch.

"I'll just grab my emergency bag, it's just in here, there's a change of clothes and some other stuff in it…"

She swayed as the deck tilted under them, and he reached out in alarm to catch her shoulders and pull her away from the drop into the cabin.

"Are you actually okay?" he asked, reaching for the bag and slinging it over his shoulder when she handed it across. "You never did answer that, earlier. You didn't hit your head at all, or-"

"I've been at the tiller trying to outrun this storm for hours," she said, with a tired laugh. "I'm exhausted, and frozen, and I would probably murder for a mug of tea. But I don't think I banged my head at any point."

"Tea, I can get you," he promised, helping her across onto the dock. "Up at the house. Plus food and a bed."

"How about a towel large enough to be a blanket?" she said, wistfully.

"I can manage one large as you, and a spare dressing gown."

"It's official, then - I've crashed into paradise," she told him, grinning.

He glanced out the windows, and winced. "Well, we've got to get up to the house, first," he pointed out. "There's a fence that goes all the way up to the door - keep hold of it, I'll be right behind you, and I promise I'll make an entire vat of tea when we get there."

Looking out of the window with him, Umi shivered. "I'll hold you to that," she muttered. "Okay, lets go before I decide I'd rather just stay here and be damp and tossed about for hours."

The journey back up the hill seemed to take three times as long as coming down to the boathouse had, even though the wind was behind them this way. It might just have been because he spent the whole way back fretting every time the figure before him stumbled - which, on unfamiliar ground in a complete gale and already exhausted, happened a lot. But they did make it, and the clang of the door closing behind them was the most welcome thing Clef had heard all day.

There was more than one bedroom, but he hadn't actually turned the heating on in either of the others - he'd just shut the doors and left them since he arrived. So now he ushered his guest into the bathroom with the promised towels and robe, and while the kettle was boiling he threw the worst of his mess into the closet in his room and changed the bedding. He could always sleep on the sofa tonight if it took too long to warm one of the other rooms.

He didn't remember the shutters until he'd filled the largest teapot he had to the brim, so when Umi emerged from the bathroom in dry clothes and wrapped in the dressing gown, she found him tearing about the place trying to get them shut.

"Tea's brewing on the counter over there," he called out, clambering over the sofa. The external shutters could be closed from the inside, but you had to use a hand-crank on each side of every window to pull the shutter across, and they were horribly stiff. "I didn't know what you'd want, so it's assam, as that's what I had out. There's another teapot if you'd rather have something else."

"Strong and hot, it'll be perfect," she said, and by the time he'd made his way about the big round room, she had curled herself onto one of the sofas with a large mug cradled in her hands.

"Do you need to let anyone know you're safe?" he asked, finding another mug of tea waiting for him. He added a heap of sugar - he felt like he needed it, after the last hour - and tried to drink it despite knowing it was too hot. "I've got wifi, I can get you hooked up if you've got a smartphone in your bag."

"That would be great." She smiled at him again, but the smile seemed - blurry, and he barely managed to get her to eat a chocolate bar from his stash before she finished her call and started drifting off on the sofa. She let him push her towards the bed without protesting, and he shut the door behind her and made his way slowly back up to the observation room, where the windows were still clear and he could see the storm pressing in from all sides, no end in sight.

His solitude had been quite thoroughly shattered, and he didn't know what to think about his unexpected houseguest.

Whatever he thought, they were both going to be stuck waiting out this storm together, like it or not.