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Alfonso thinks at first that he’s just got the wrong stretch of beach. The day is so fog-drowned that it would be an easy mistake to make – he can scarcely see his hand if he holds it out at arm’s length, let alone tell one stretch of near-identical shoreline from another.

He wanders up and down it all the same, hoping to stumble across the shape of a tent. The sand finds its gritty, inexorable way in to scratch at his feet, even as the texture of it changes below his shoes. First it turns firmer, no longer trying to twist his ankles out from under him with every step, and then, abruptly, it subsides completely. Yelping, he plunges ankle-deep into an oncoming wave, the shock of the cold a slap against his senses. Staggering backwards, he loses his footing, and crashes down onto his back, denting his bag under him, the tide still tugging at the hems of his trousers, frigid.

Should have brought PM-17, Alfonso thinks, gloomily, as he shuffles back away from the water. He’s not sure what help exactly PM would be in this situation – the fog is hardly a weight that can be lifted with arms strong enough – but perhaps it would have gone some way to shifting the misery of being sodden and alone.

He pushes himself slowly upright, trying to brush sand off his clothes – it sticks to his skin, instead, layering itself into the webbing of his fingers, and he gives up. Wonders, absently, if the smarting just starting to fade in his elbows will result in bruises.

At any rate, he’ll have to go home and change before he heads back to work. That’ll shorten what he has left of his lunch break significantly, but he expects that the meal itself is going to be beyond repair anyway. Selwyn probably wouldn’t mind, but the rolls he’d brought with him are going to be crushed at the very least, and probably wet and sandy too.

He’s still, despite the cold and the damp, reluctant to go. He casts about, trying to turn his collar up against the wind and wondering what exactly had possessed Selwyn to set up camp on the beach again in the first place. It’s all well and good when the tide’s out and there’s a wide, expansive view out across the shifting blue-green tones of the water, but the foul weather can blow in all too quickly.

He’s been considering asking his landlady if she has a room she could spare, but even if she’d been willing to accept Selwyn, the kobolds might be a step too far, and he’s half-sure that Selwyn wouldn’t use it anyway, for all that it’d ease Alfonso’s mind for him not to be flitting round Fortuna like thistledown on the breeze.

Maybe he should just give up on today. It’s not as if he’d told Selwyn he’d been thinking of bringing by some lunch – he’d never had to before. Perhaps his best bet is to go home, change, and ask Tony to let him know where Selwyn’s ended up if he sees him.

Alfonso turns back in what he hopes is the direction of town, and starts walking.

Ahead of him, there’s a squealing through the indistinct haze of fog, and something comes barrelling towards him, kicking up sand around it. It’s a blur of motion, too fast for him to do anything – by the time he manages to half-raise a foot to kick, it’s already clinging to his ankle, and then it’s all he can do to regain his balance, stop himself from tipping over again.

The thing swarms up his leg, and then settles against his chest, chirping. It curls in with its face against the inside of his forearm, comfortable and belonging, a tail wrapping around his wrist.

“Bluebell?”

The tiny kobold lets out a hiss of complaint – his voice had been too sharp, incredulous – and tucks in a little tighter against him. He sighs, and settles her so that he can cover her from the chill a little more effectively. She might, he supposes, be Foxglove. He’s not got quite as good at telling them apart as Selwyn has, but he’s better than Tony, who makes no effort at all.

“Selwyn!” he calls.

Distantly, he thinks he can just about make out an answering shambling of pots and pans through the fog. He moves towards it, a smile splitting his face despite everything.

“Alfonso!” Selwyn strides into view, Foxglove sitting happily against his neck, her claws hooked over rucksack straps and ropes. He keeps coming, claps Alfonso on the shoulder so hard that he stumbles again. “What are you doing out? I would’ve thought you’d be tucked up warm in your… office?”

“I was looking for you, actually.” Alfonso tries to deposit Bluebell back into Selwyn’s arms, to join her sister, but she clings to his sleeve with a muffled grumbling. Instead, Foxglove springs over to him, scrabbling at his collar as she wraps herself around his neck, the consonants of his name clipped against her teeth, a little more discernible than the last time he’d heard it. Heading towards first words, he guesses, with a flash of pride. “Um, hello – Selwyn, did you move your camp?”

“Yes!” Selwyn grins. “Just leaving this afternoon – wouldn’t have come back but I think I left a pan somewhere and, can’t teach the little ones bad habits, now, can I?”

“Right.” Alfonso hesitates, uncertain, trying to judge the kitchenware hanging off Selwyn’s body, see if anything’s missing. It’ll be an ordeal of a search, but he can still feel that he’s going to offer to help. “Are you moving further into the city? I could recommend a few places–”

“Oh, no, off to Morthyme!” Selwyn announces. “Abstinence invited me to come and stay for a while – she says she’s excited to see how big Bluebell and Foxglove have got.”

“Morthyme,” Alfonso echoes. His face drops, and the smile that he pastes onto it feels the way it looks when he asks PM-17 to have a go at the expression. “How long for?” The question is too tight, the air in his lungs trying to choke him.   

“Oh, I’m welcome as long as I like, she says!” Selwyn’s grin only broadens, as if it’s a novel and enjoyable prospect. “I suppose I’ll see how I like it there.”

“Oh.” Alfonso swallows something that, if he’d given it any oxygen, might have been I thought you liked it in Fortuna. He reaches up, absently, to support Foxglove as she tries to bury herself inside his collar, and it feels so distant it might as well be from another man. “Um. Will you be coming back?”

“Well, it depends,” Selwyn says. “I’ll see how the little ones are getting on – formative years are a delicate time and all that.”

“There are very good schools in Fortuna,” Alfonso says, the edges of it jagged in his throat. “The best.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” Selwyn says, off-hand enough that Alfonso grits his teeth. “Never really went to school, myself–”

“I think it would do them good,” he interjects, somehow managing to keep control of his voice. Doesn’t want to say that he’s already worked up a list, and has been doing everything he can to gather enough petty blackmail material to force whichever one ends up on top to accept such unusual pupils.

“We’ll have to see,” Selwyn says, a repeated and vague sentiment that does nothing to ease Alfonso’s mind.

“Fine,” he says, short and colder than he means. He shifts Bluebell awkwardly, trying to distract himself from Selwyn’s oblivious face. “So, were you just… going?”

You didn’t want to say goodbye? something asks, unbidden, in his head. He frowns, at that, at the prickling of hurt over the inside of his mind that causes it, wants to study the part of him that wants to snap and sob and try to understand what it means.

“Best to start early on this kind of journey,” Selwyn tells him, answering a question that’s not the one he’d asked. “Make the best of the light.”

“The light?” Alfonso glances around – he still can’t see the sea behind them, though he can hear its scrape along the shore. Any advantage of visibility from it being daylight has been utterly voided. He shifts on his feet, shoes squelching, and shakes his head. “Did you manage to find your pan?”

“Yes!” Selwyn snatches one up from its tie and brandishes it at him. It looks to him as if, given a couple of days, it would have quite happily disintegrated into the sand. There are probably more structurally sound ones in Fortuna’s bins. “I was just heading off again, but Bluebell must have smelled you.”

“So… you’ll be off now, then?”

Selwyn nods. He reaches out to take back the kobolds, but neither of them moves, and he sighs, starts rummaging around in his pockets for a segment of orange.

“I–” Alfonso bites down on his lip. He doesn’t know what he’s trying to say, let alone how to say it, and the sentence and sentiment withers, dying in his throat. “Will you write?”

“I can’t really write in anything except Orcish,” Selwyn says.

“Oh.” Alfonso manages to keep his wince internal, tries to quash the instinct to ask him to stay a little longer, so he could teach him. “So there’s no point in sending you letters, then.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.” Selwyn pats his arm this time, a little gentler. “Abstinence could read them to me.” Maybe Selwyn sees a twitch in his features, the discomfort at the idea of having someone else read his correspondence. “Or maybe she’d let me borrow her monocle and I could read them to the kobolds – I’m sure they’d like hearing from you, they do seem to have got fond of you.”

Are they the only ones? It’s an entitled, spiteful question, and Alfonso chooses not to speak it, for all that the answer he can feel still jabs at him. He just watches as Selwyn holds out a piece of fruit. Foxglove slowly starts to detatch herself from his neck, bright eyes shimmering.

“Maybe I’ll do that, then.” Alfonso glances down at his shoes, and wonders how long it would take to count the flecks of sand on them. It would probably feel like a more productive use of his time.

“Are you quite all right?” Selwyn asks, a frown finding its slow way across his features. “You seem a bit… would you like a hug?”  

“No, thank you, Selwyn.” Alfonso attempts another difficult smile, and glances in what he thinks might be the vague direction of the sun, as if he’s judging the time. “Just glad I got to see you before you left.”

“Hm.” Selwyn hugs him anyway – not like he would have if Alfonso had said he could, just an awkward, sideways, one-armed thing, camping equipment squashing against him. He’s sure he’ll spend hours trying to smooth the imprint of the pan out of his clothes. “Well, it was nice to have met you, Alfonso.” He says Alfonso’s name like he had in Lord Jasper’s house, after he’d healed him – like it’s important, like it matters, and the tone of it sits heavy in Alfonso’s stomach. “I hope I’ll see you again soon – maybe come and visit us in Morthyme? Almira is apparently doing a lot of very interesting things with… stuff.”

Alfonso says nothing, and when Selwyn leans away from the hug, he seems to somehow have both kobolds back on his shoulders. He wonders, about it – it’s not a short trip to Morthyme, and as much as the others keep telling him to take time off, he’s not sure that he can.

“Goodbye!” Selwyn tells him, after what feels like far too lengthy a silence.

Alfonso watches him walk away into the fog, loses track of him before the wheels in his head can turn enough to recognise that he should probably have returned the farewell. That aches, along with everything else that he hadn’t said. He scuffs his shoes through the sand, knows he should just head back to work, but that if he does he’ll have to go past Effie, and that she’ll ask how his friend Selwyn is, giggling all the while.

He doesn’t want to. Instead, he turns and trudges a little further along the shore. He rubs his hand over the place on his arm where Bluebell had leant, and hates how suddenly it’s gone cold.