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Skins and Torrents

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It’s cold and blustery. The sea spray whips wildly against the stone walls of the cottage, the smack of water against window panes causes them to rattle and nearly drowns out the crash of waves below.

If Aaron were a different man he’d feel lonely, but the way the salt hangs heavy in the air and his thick jumper hugs his shoulders is enough for him. He putters around the small kitchen, warming up a bowl of stew and keeping an ear out for any tell-tale plinks of leaks.

There’s a simple wooden table with two chairs “In case you have company,” his mum had said, but he moves to the small sofa instead, curling his body with his feet on the table and the bowl in his lap. There’s no need for manners when you live alone, not that he’d had those when packed into his mum’s. He slurps a bit from his bowl, feeling an odd pang when no one admonishes him. Rebellion isn’t nearly as fun when you’ve no one to tell to do one.

The storm should blow over soon. Tomorrow he’ll head out early to check his lines and then build some new traps. A couple of boats had liked his recent set of pots and requested more. He chews thoughtfully, wondering if he has enough netting.

Aaron glances out the window, considering checking his shed for materials. The rain cuts across the sky with diagonal slices in response. Tomorrow, then.

He brings his bowl to the sink, submerging and leaving it there. He shivers a bit at the bite of the cold water and eyes the wood-burning stove for a moment before relenting and adding two more logs. He settles back into the sofa, wraps a wool blanket around his shoulders, and closes his eyes. The wind has died down for the most part, and the constant drum of water on the roof relaxes him. There’s plenty that should be done: he owes a letter home, there’s always small mends to make in his clothes, and there’s bait to prepare in his icebox. But that can be done later. Now he just sits and hugs himself with the blanket and listens.

 

**********

 

The next day dawns grey but dry. Aaron wakes before the sun and heaps a generous amount of butter onto some thick cut bread warmed on the stove. He pulls on both a jumper and a wool coat under his raincoat because the air is cold and the days are short of sun in January. There’s lunch he wrapped in waxy fabric stuffed into his bag, and a few smaller tools he doesn’t keep on the boat.

He can see his breath as he steps outside, the exhale hanging in the air before him. He walks down the narrow winding stone streets to the harbor, nodding to the other quiet men who trek to their boats, and sets out as the sun rises.

Aaron’s patch of ocean where he’s laid his traps has been a productive one this month. Lobsters about a foot long, and some crabs as well. He’s the only boat with a crew of one, and he doesn’t have a family to feed, so his line is short, only twenty or so pots to pull up. He finds his buoy and pulls out the long hook to grab the start of the line, catching onto the bit of chain that marks the beginning. He pulls each trap up, inspecting its contents. He keeps all ones large enough to eat and throws back the small and the heavy with eggs. He then adds more bait and lowers the pot back down.

It’s hard work. The sea is cold, the traps heavy and awkward to yank onto the deck. His gloves slowly soak through and he has to work his fingers to keep them from creaking from the chill. Halfway through the chain of pots he spots a pod of seals, heads barely out of the water, watching him as he works. There’s always seals swimming off the coast, but they’ve never come this near him before. He shrugs in apology to them. He has no fish beyond his bait for them to eat.

One by one they disappear under the waves only to pop back up on a different side. He smiles. They’re harmless and friendly. A speckled one comes closer than the rest, testing Aaron’s boundaries and weaving in and out of his eyeline. It pops up mere meters away, then disappears and splashes up on the other side. It makes Aaron quirk his mouth in a small smile.

The seal glides effortlessly along the side of his boat, twirling in the water as if showing off. Aaron pulls up the next pot and begins sorting the catch. The seal floats close by, watching for something. He realizes what that something is as he dumps the rejects back and the seal dives after a crab. He snorts out a laugh, “Clever.”

He expects his freckled watcher to leave now that it had gotten lunch, but the sleek shadow swims beneath his boat for the rest of the morning, occasionally surfacing alongside a pot to catch a snack. It’s nice knowing there’s nothing more dangerous in the water, the seal would be gone in a flash if there were.

When the last trap is sent back down Aaron unwraps his hard boiled egg, bread, and herring. He pours himself a cup of tea from his thermos and sits on the edge of the craft looking out at the horizon, listening to the soft slap of the waves. He hears motion behind him and twists to see the seal’s curious face, the closest it’s been so far.

“There’s no more today.” He feels foolish talking to a seal, but there’s nothing else to do. “I’ve nowt.”

The seal snuffs out a spray of water and continues to stare.

“You’ve eaten more than your share, tubby.” The seal huffs again and dives.

Aaron turns back to his egg, breaking it in half and peeling the white off the yellow yolk. The boat creaks and a chain clanks against the line hook. He pops the last half moon of yolk into his mouth and wipes his hands on his thighs, lunch done. He sweeps his gaze over the blue-grey of the sea and frowns when he finds it empty.

He checks that his bins of catch are secure, pulls up anchor, and heads back to shore.

 

**********

 

The other ships get back later than his; they’ve bigger catches and further lines. He docks and waits as a few people come over to buy their dinners. His prices are fair and he has no bigger buyers to save stock for. Once he’s sold all he will for the day he bags up the remainder of his catch. The pub will buy the lot if he hauls it up to them, the owner a bit too busy to trek back and forth.

He gathers his things and makes the climb from the harbor. It’s not far, but his shoulders burn by the end from hard use all morning. He goes to the kitchen door and knocks, weather worn wood abrasive against his knuckles. The door swings open and there stands the owner, Sarah, hand on hip. She’s not one for idle small talk, which is what Aaron likes about her. She’s like his mum in that way. Won’t stand for fools.

“Let’s see ‘em.” Her tone’s as strong as the whisky she serves. Aaron hands the fine mesh net bag over. It’s shifting with the struggles of his catch, but they’ve slowed in the cold air. She hefts it in one hand, testing the weight and twisting the bag to see the state of all the inhabitants. Aaron knows the worth, so he looks absently at the door frame while she assesses. “Five pounds?”

He scoffs and raises an eyebrow.

“Fine, ten.” She pulls a note and a handful of shillings from her pocket and puts them in his hand. Aaron knows that’s this week’s expenses covered, and more to put away for when the traps yield nothing all summer. She disappears inside, and returns with his empty bag, handing it to him roughly. She stares at him for a moment, perhaps about to say something, but then closes the door in his face.

The sky is darkening again, low clouds rolling in and promising to send more rain. He walks home, lighter with his profit and a good day’s work. The other boats have returned, the men boisterous with their wares. He recognizes a few calls as they echo and bounce around the harbor, men he’d have a beer or two with after the season ends, when the long, slow time breeds boredom. One is sharp in his ears, ringing above the rest, reminding him that the off season sometimes leads to other distractions than beer. He shakes his head, that hadn’t ended well for anyone.

A couple of crewmen from one of the larger ship climb the hill toward him, their pleasant brogues bumping off walls and cobblestones. One spots him as they round the bend, “Aaron!”

He turns, recognizing the voice as Ellis, a greenhorn from a nearby village who married into the Campbell family. He raises a hand in a half-shrug, half-wave and moves to continue home.

“Come for a drink?” Ellis is affable and similarly new to town. He’s always willing to buy a drink for someone else, and he hasn’t taken Aaron’s brush-offs poorly no matter how often he gets them.

“Some other time.” Aaron grumbles, hitching his shoulder back higher up, turning up the lane that leads home. Ellis’s good-natured sound of agreement follows him.

Once home he steps into his small work shed, collecting the items to build the traps for the Reilly family. They’d not had much luck since their son was lost in the war, and he sold them the pots for cheap. They keep his hands busy on quiet evenings, and having a family in town that respects his work is worth the meager profit. He looks at the set of tools his uncle Cain had given him and thinks of the din of home.

Burdened by his armful of trap materials, he pushes the door open with a hip and steps into the cottony quiet of his cottage. There is no screaming fight or pig squealing by. No mother wondering when he would find a nice girl.

This is why he’d gone out on his own, to escape the Dingle name, the expectations of settling down and having a litter of children and being everything he isn’t.

He dumps the supplies onto the table unceremoniously and rubs his hands together for warmth. He spends some time making a healthy fire and finally warming his aching knuckles. He cracks the joints as he puts on his kettle, pulling out a sturdy brown mug and dumping a teabag in it.

While he waits he cleans up from the day: hangs his coat, removes his heavy layers, and toes his shoes off into the corner. He walks over to the trunk he keeps at the foot of his bed and puts most of his profit for the day inside a small lock box within. He scratches at his beard, the rough noise loud to his ears. He pulls out a softer, thicker woolen jumper, the decorative braided pattern textured under his fingers, and shrugs it on.

He pours the boiling water into his mug, steam curling up towards the slanted roof. He puts the mug to the side to steep and opens his icebox, assessing what he’ll have for dinner, and settles on stew again. He’ll need to go shopping soon, he’s low on eggs and bread.

Placing the tea bag on a small plate to be used for a second, weaker cup nearer to bed, he starts the careful construction of knitting netting and wood into a trap.

 

**********

 

On days when he doesn’t have lines to pull he goes and checks that his buoy is secure. There’s nothing to see around his pots, and if he catches himself looking out for his seal companion, well that’s his business and no one else’s.

After the check he heads to a beach further north that has large stones covered in mussels he can harvest for dinner. He hears the barking of a pod of seals before he sees them. They’re lying all across the beach, looking less like graceful hunters and far more like his great uncle Zak after a few too many. The arrival of his boat causes a few males to sit up and begin posturing, but he’s far enough away that they’re more keen to nap than chase him off.

He beaches his boat near the rocks and pulls it a bit up shore for when the tide comes in. He keeps one eye on the seals, he’s not fool enough to bother them even on land, but they settle back down for their sprawl and the barking conversations restart.

He pries mussels off one rock, and happens across a small tidal pool nestled in the rocks that has a good sized crab in it. He grabs it swiftly from behind and puts it into his bucket along with the mussels. The joyful hubbub of the seals is calming in its own way, and he looks out over the beach to the group, laughing as one lumbers over and practically flattens another. There’s something so familiar and domestic about them.

Aaron feels eyes on him and looks around, expecting another fisherman or a wandering beachcomber. One younger male is on the outskirts of the group and looks to be watching him. It’s speckled and oddly focused and Aaron meets its gaze, wondering why it is so set on him.

If he was a more fanciful man he would swear it was his visitor from the day before. But seals all look alike, even if this one is covered in spots and seems so familiar. They hold eye contact until another bull comes up and begins a playful battle, clearly posturing for the cows. With the spell broken, Aaron shakes his head and trudges back to his boat. He pushes it into the water and wades in next to it, wellies thankfully protecting his feet.

He hops up over the side and starts the quiet ride back to the harbor, swearing to himself he’ll write his mother and sister letters that night. Looking for companionship in a seal, he must be losing it.

 

**********

 

Aaron’s sat at home, weaving the netting around the neck of the trap. He’s nearly finished and his stew is bubbling on the stove. There’s a homeyness to the sound of burbling liquids, they sound like waiting for tea on a stool in the back of his mum’s pub, swinging his legs and crunching through the carrot she’d given him to shut him up. His heart aches a bit inside his chest, missing her in a way he’d never thought he would.

He twists and knots the ends of the ropes and seals them with wax to prevent water damage. If well maintained they will last years.

He stretches, cracking his spine on the back of his chair and working his sore shoulders. He moves the trap to the small pile by the door, ready to be brought to the shed to be painted and weather-proofed in the morning.

Job done, he moves to set himself up for dinner and letter writing. He puts a slice of bread to toast on the hob, and pours his stew into a bowl, scraping the stuck vegetables in. He slices a bit of cheese and places it onto the toast, letting it melt a little before moving it to a plate. Meal sorted, he sits down at his table, pulling paper and a pen over as he blows on his first spoonful.

Dear Mum,

All is well here.

He chews on a too-large bite of bread and looks around the room for inspiration.

I’ve really settled in, and a few locals have started to come to me for business. They say my traps are worth investing in, and they’ll let other families know.

He hums, thinking about the potential work. He’d rather spend his off season building traps and working with other boats than scrimping and saving until the next catch.

The lobster season is good so far. The catch has been steady and the prices high. I’ve worked out a deal with the pub owner to sell her my extras. She’s a good woman, and pays fair. She’ll even give me a beer or two some nights. Her pints aren’t pulled nearly as well as yours though.

He pulls the tough crust off his bread and soaks it in the stew. This is where the letters always get difficult. What can he talk about? He knows she wants to hear about his friends, his romances. He decides to give her something so she’ll worry less.

There’s a greenhorn on another boat named Ellis who I’ve become mates with. He’s also new in town and good for a laugh. He and his new wife have invited me over for dinner a few times.

He carefully does not write he’s never accepted that invitation, dreading the very idea of making small talk with Ellis’s wife. He’s never been good with women who like to mention that they have single friends.

Send my love to the family.

Love ya,

Aaron

P.S. I have included a letter for Liv, could you pass it along to her?

That will have to be enough. He’s not one for words, and his mum knows that. She’ll be happy just to hear from him. He has never been a particularly easy son, too standoffish, too unwilling to farm or help out with her business beyond lifting the kegs. His father left when she fell pregnant, but his whole family agrees that it’s no loss to anyone with how he treated Chas. Aaron can’t say he misses another authority figure in his life.

Liv, she’s a different story. She showed up one day on their doorstep, barely ten. Turns out his father had run out on her mom too, and she’d not taken it well. Slowly drank away everything, so Liv had run away to Emmerdale to find their father. Finding him long gone she’d remained, helping out at the pub and with the pigs at the family farm. She’s good at the hard graft, funny in her own way, and can’t stand most people. He loves her. He takes out a piece of paper to write to her.

Dear Liv,

You had better have survived the winter.

Aaron

He folds Liv’s letter into a makeshift envelope, and then places it with the other in a real one. He carefully addresses it and places it by the door to bring to the post the next day.

He finishes the dregs of his stew, sopping up the last swipes with his crust. He goes to the sink and scrubs both the pot and the bowl, making sure there’s nothing left to stick overnight.

The day’s tasks done he decides to settle in for the night. He changes into some warm long underwear, washes his face, and crawls under his woolen blankets. The wind blows around the house, and he falls asleep listening to the waves crash below.

 

**********

 

Aaron sleeps fitfully, eventually settling on just getting up because he clearly can’t fall back to sleep. The sky is barely lightening at the edge and the cold has seeped into his bones while he slept. He scrubs a hand through the coarse hair of his beard, the scratch too loud in his ears.

There’s nothing to do but start the day. He opens a tin of beans and begins to warm them, opting for a heartier fare than normal to fuel him. He slices his bread, toasting it thoroughly on both sides while the warmth of the stove radiates into his thighs and stomach.

He makes a cup of tea and adds more sugar than he usually would, hearing echoes of childhood admonishments about rationing. Beans heated through he pours them over his toast and goes to throw on a layer while they cool enough to eat.

He sits, tucking one foot against his body, knee bent up, and propping the other onto a rung of the empty chair across from him. He crunches into his toast, beans dripping mostly onto the plate. He slurps at his tea and looks at the blank wall by the door. He should put something there, make it feel a bit more lived-in.

Once Aaron finishes he stares at the plate, mug, and pot in the sink and just submerges them in the wash water. He puts more water on to boil for his thermos, and wraps up his lunch, adding a few extra herring. He begins packing his bag, making sure he has everything he needs. The weather should be fine today, a good day to check his pots, and he has to pack bait to refill them.

He heads out with the world still dark, picking his way through uneven cobblestones down to the harbor. He turns on the floodlight at the front of his boat and heads out to his line as the sky lightens.

 

**********

 

There’s a moment of panic when he can’t find his buoy, but it turns out he’s just misjudged his location in the dark and as dawn finally breaks he comes to it, the blue and black stripes bobbing on the slightly choppy sea. He pulls up alongside and hooks onto the line, dragging the first pot up to him. He’s watching for the shape of it in the water when a movement below startles him. A seal is diving and twirling around his line, doing figure eights under his boat. Even at this depth it looks like the one from before.

“Come back for seconds, have you?” He laughs, watching as it lithely glides past, flicking its tail at him. He’s reached the first pot and hefts it up onto the side of the boat, sorting carefully all while watching the seal pop in and out of his peripheral vision. Only once he’s done sorting does it come right up to him, head out of the water, and watch the bucket intently. Aaron looks into the bucket, he has a number of lobsters laden with eggs and he wants them to survive.

The seal watches him with dark eyes.

“You! Leave the lobsters alone. You can have the crab.” He feels instantly foolish, but it’s worth a shot he supposes. He dumps the bucket overboard, and watches the seal dart down after its contents. It quickly resurfaces with a crab in its jaws, looking like a proud puppy, and he barks out a laugh.

As the day continues the seal stays close, nosing up to his boat and twisting in the water gracefully. The waves are choppier than he likes to work in, making each haul harder to manage. At the end of his line he’s reaching out with his long hook to pull in the trap when an unexpected swell unbalances him and he grabs the boat with both hands to stay in, dropping the hook.

“Shit.” He’ll have to go back to shore for his other one, there’s no way he can lift the heavy loads over the edge without it. He looks in his bins at the day’s catch, wondering if he should just pack it in and return the next morning. The seal’s disappeared again beneath the slate dark water, and he’s done well enough he supposes.

He’s resigned himself to the frustration of pulling up the whole line again tomorrow when the seal resurfaces, dragging the long handle of the hook in his mouth.

Aaron gasps, not knowing how to convince a seal to give him a stick. He supposes talking worked before? “Erm, could you give that here?”

The seal watches him quietly.

He stretches out his hand. The seal approaches, bringing the handle within reach. He grasps it gratefully. “Thank you.”

The seal pirouettes in the water, making Aaron’s eyes crinkle at the sides. He quickly pulls the final pot onto the boat, and places the hook carefully into its straps. There’s a good number of lobster in this trap, all well sized, and no remnants to throw to his helper. He pulls out his lunch, unwrapping the herring he’d brought, and holds some out.

The seal approaches, but remains out of reach, so he tosses the fish, and it catches it easily. He’s sure he’s never once been as effortless as this creature. The seal watches him and he takes a minute to look at his patterning. He has small spots all over its cheeks, and smatterings everywhere else.

Aaron throws him the remainder of his fish.

The seal glides on its back around the boat, nosing at the chains and making them clink. Aaron lets down the trap, pulls up his anchor, and heads home. The seal stays behind, idily twisting around and around his buoy.

 

**********

 

Aaron is in town picking up eggs, bread, milk, potatoes, a few cans of basics, and tea. He doesn’t require much, and there’s almost nothing fresh beyond seafood, so it’s a quick set of errands. He’s waiting for the baker to come out from the back when he feels eyes on him. He looks out the large front window and spots someone he’s sure he’s never seen before.

The man is handsome verging on beautiful, with a well-defined jawline and artfully tousled blonde hair. He’s tall and broad shouldered, but not burly in the way most of the men in this town are. He’s also far tanner than he has any right to be when it’s the dead of winter and it feels like there hasn’t been a stretch of sun longer than a blink in months.

Aaron takes a moment to stare back, then realizes he’s probably just looking at the reflection in the window and feels his cheeks heat.

He shifts his weight onto the other hip and crosses his arms. He sees the man’s eyes track the movement and realizes he’s mistaken, he’s definitely being watched. Aaron feels a bit like a lobster in a tank, trapped and waiting to be chosen. There’s something predatory in the stare, and it makes his skin prickle in anticipation. In response he juts his chin out a bit and settles his shoulders; he’s not one to be easily intimidated.

A self-satisfied smile slowly spreads across the man’s face and his eyes light up playfully. Aaron doesn’t quite know what to do with this man, he just knows he wants to shove him against a wall and wipe the smirk off his face. The door squeaks behind him on old hinges and he turns to place his bread order. When he looks back the man is gone. He’s not sure if he’s relieved or disappointed.

 

**********

 

As January comes to an end Aaron is doing the hard work of repositioning his line so he doesn’t overfish the area in the last month of the season. He pulls the traps up and stacks them on his boat, making sure none have any breaks in their netting or hinges.

The seal swims around his boat, popping up often to seemingly check on his progress. He would never admit it, but it’s nice to have company, and the seal even noses a trap up to the boat when he loses his grip a bit. There’s a camaraderie that surprises him, he’s never been one for teamwork, but he supposes it helps that the seal isn’t jabbering his ear off about nothing.

The day is going well, the traps coming easily and the stack balancing well. He pauses before moving locations for lunch, sitting sideways with one arm along the edge of the boat so he can watch the water. He’s taken to bringing a bit of extra fish each time, and if the seal doesn’t want it then Aaron doesn’t mind another helping. He has some local smoked salmon today. Not something he normally buys as it’s not his favorite, but the shopkeeper had thrown it in as a bonus when he brought her some crab.

His seal seems to like it more than Aaron does, so it goes to him as Aaron grumbles out a few sentences explaining where they’ll move the pots to. He cracks a joke and the seal barks, and Aaron wonders just how mad he’s gone with guessing at a seal’s sense of humor. Rather than face that particular issue at the moment, he decides to get a move on, tossing the last nibble of salmon over.

The seal easily keeps up with his boat, and Aaron’s not jealous at all. He puts down his anchor and watches as the seal swims laps around his boat.

“You love yourself, don’t ya.”

The seal stops and twists onto its back as if to say “who wouldn’t?”

Aaron begins lowering the first trap, making sure it’s at the right depth for lobsters, using bare hands on the line so he can feel when he hits bottom. He’s sure it’s on solid ground, so he lets the pressure off and it suddenly falls another few meters, the taut line slicing into the meat of his palm.

He clenches his fist and begins rooting, left handed, through his gear for a bandage, finding none. The seal launches out of the water onto the stern, splashing saltwater everywhere. He’s got wide, flat, brown seaweed in his mouth, the same type older sailors used for wound dressings. He drops the lot and awkwardly scrambles off the side, leaving a good amount of water behind. Aaron wipes his hand clean as he can and presses some of the seaweed to the cut, hissing in pain at the salt rubbing into the wound. He wraps the whole mess in a handkerchief, still speechless.

He turns to look at the seal, but it has disappeared again.

“What just happened?”

The sea, unsurprisingly, yields no answers. He puts his glove over the wound as best he can, and finishes the job, watching all the while for dark silhouettes under the surface.

 

**********

 

After weeks of less than convincing excuses, Ellis finally gets him to go to the pub for a night of drinks. It’s not that Aaron hates him, in fact, he thinks he’s a laugh, it’s just that he’s not had many mates and he likes his privacy. But, Ellis doesn’t pry, just spins tall-tales of epic storms and alluring sirens that draw sailors to their death. Aaron’s laughing into his pint at Ellis’s animated story, “He saw a sea witch! I swear! She was hideous and covered in kelp!”

“Sure she was, mate.” He tilts his mostly empty glass at Ellis’s, “Another?”

Ellis finishes the lager in a gulp, “Go on then.”

Aaron nods, clapping him on the shoulder as he passes by. He goes up to the bar, frowning when he realises the barmaid is the less-than-pleasant Mary, who usually only serves the day crowd. “Two more please, Mary.”

She rolls her eyes, closing her book, pushing herself up off the bar, and yanking the glasses from his hands.

“Where’s Sarah then?” He has no idea what possesses him to ask Mary anything, she’s barely said two words to him since he’s been in town.

She looks up from the tap, hip jutting out in annoyance as if answering is just as much effort as changing the barrels.

“Her husband’s back on shore. She won’t be in for the week.” She huffs out a breath of annoyance. “Some of us have husbands who work respectable jobs and we’d like to spend our evenings at home.”

Her emphasis on respectable makes Aaron barely reign in his eye roll. He knows for a fact Mary’s husband Bill’s just a dock worker just like most of the men in town.

She’s finally done with the pints. They’ve too much foam, but he’s not about to waste any more words on her. “Ta.”

She sniffs derisively and goes back to reading her novel.

He brings the pints back to the table. “Miserable Mary’s just a ray of sunshine.”

Ellis laughs, his shoulders shaking.

“She’s alright, just mad that her boss is all loved up for a week. Sarah’s fella’s a navy man and he’s away for months at a time, so they…” He wiggles his eyebrows like a school boy, “Make the most of his shoreleave.”

Aaron shakes his head and grimaces a bit. Sarah’s older than his mum, he does not need that image in his head. “Good for her, s’pose.”

The door of the pub pushes open, bringing with it cold air and the local doctor’s apprentice, Alex. He’s got a poncy scarf wrapped around his neck, and he’s blowing on his hands dramatically. Aaron sighs and looks down at the wooden pub table covered in circular watermarks, steadily avoiding eye contact.

Ellis is telling a story about the catch his boat brought up. It’s a shrimp trawler, and they’d managed to catch an angry squid in their net, “And me, the greenhorn, I’ve got to catch it, you know? And it’s writhing around surrounded by shrimp and seaweed and I’m just trying to grab it when I slip on a jellyfish and go sprawling back into the heap of shrimp! Wham, man!”

He demonstrates by smacking his hand on the table, drawing the pub’s eyes to them as he laughs. Aaron feels Alex’s eyes on him before he even looks up.

They make eye contact for a moment, Alex’s darting over to the door of the gents. Aaron allows himself a flash of memory of need and pressing Alex’s body into a dark corner and harsh gasps and heavy breathing.

He shakes his head. He’s not looking for that tonight, and certainly not with Alex. They’ve nothing in common and he can’t keep things quiet. He’ll be a terrible village doctor, spreading gossip like Spanish flu.

He focuses back on Ellis, letting the conversation and beer warm him, shrugging off Alex’s hurt expression.

 

**********

 

It’s late and he stayed out with Ellis far longer than he should have, so now Aaron is sitting alone at his table, glass of whisky in his hand, thinking. He’s not usually one for introspection, but tonight he’s got the twist of alcohol at the edges of his vision and his cottage feels cavernous and cramped; filled with the need for something.

His mind drifts to Alex, feeling guilty about how he blanked him at the pub. He knows he’s not popular with the local men, he’s too educated, too flashy, too delicate. He’s every mum’s favorite: just the type they’d like their more reserved daughters to land, but those daughters have eyes and they know Alex isn’t looking their way. No one’s said anything, since there’s precious few doctors willing to settle in a place as small as this, but Aaron could feel the looks a few of the older men shot him when Alex entered the room. There’s more than the fact that he’s not from here that makes other crews not respect him.

He takes an angry swig, grimacing at the burn and letting it distract him from his wallowing. He needs some air. Needs to not stare at the four bare walls that mock his lack of a woman’s touch. He finishes the last of the glass, grabs his peacoat, and shrugs it on.

He steps outside and thankfully the moon is bright and full, lighting his wobbling to the cliffs. He stands, letting the abrasive air buffett his face and clear his mind.

A flash of white by the shoreline catches his eye. He looks and gasps, a naked man stands in the freezing air looking for all the world as comfortable as if it were midsummer. There’s something familiar in the set of his shoulders, but it’s only when he turns his head to scan the whitecaps that Aaron recognizes the man from the window. He’s gorgeous even from this distance.

The man crouches and picks up what looks to be a blanket, commiting what Aaron feels in his bones should be a capital crime by wrapping it around his waist. He’s glowing with moonlight, and Aaron is transfixed. He begins to walk into the sea and Aaron is about to yell to him when the man dives under and disappears. Aaron stands, mouth agape, and counts.

The man does not resurface, even as Aaron ticks past one hundred. No one can survive that long in these temperatures. As he counts he’s less and less sure he saw anything at all. His own nose is raw with cold and he’s only been outside for minutes at most. The wind is biting and the ocean spray scrapes like sandpaper. There’s no way anyone could be outside uncovered.

He looks down at his white knuckled hands and notices it’s a bit difficult to focus on their outline. Too much to drink and too many tales of mermaids and sirens from Ellis. The seafoam in the moonlight sometimes convinces sailors to throw themselves into it, and apparently his temptress is a man. He can’t say he’s surprised by that.

His mind no clearer, he decides to retreat to bed for the night, hoping the rhythmic noise of the ocean will help him sleep.

 

**********

 

For the first time in weeks when he arrives at his pots his seal’s not there. Aaron tries not to mind. He’s got plenty of work to do and no need for distraction. He’s settling in and pulling his first trap when he sees a ripple coming towards him. His mood brightens before he realizes it could be an orca, which would explain the seal’s scarcity, and means he’s in for a dangerous harvest. He holds in a sigh of relief when the freckled face pops out of the water.

In an effort to seem less of an utter muppet, Aaron continues raising his traps as if he wasn’t hoping a marine mammal would visit him. His seal swims into his line of sight, accelerating in one direction and then seemingly instantly changing paths. Aaron likes his bravado, even if it does seem like a waste of energy in the cold water.

The dappled lines of the seal refracted under the water seem almost human. He understands why sailors thought seals were merfolk. There’s something otherworldly in the way he swims. It’s as if he’s cutting through something with no resistance.

They spend the hour in relative silence. The clank of traps against his boat and the constant pounding of the waves the dominant sound. Aaron doesn’t know what to say after the past few days of experiences. He’s not a fisherman for nothing. He knows strange things happen at the seam between ocean and land. Knows some things can’t be explained. Some of his family believes in faeries and changelings, and those have always seemed foolish, but there’s far weirder things at the bottom of the sea.

An intelligent seal feels like the least of his worries. Particularly when said seal is currently lying on its back like a sea otter and waiting for a free meal. Aaron rolls his eyes. “You’re a hunter, you know? What will ya do when my season is done and you’ve got no one to feed ya?”

The seal does its best to look offended and dives.

Aaron snorts and pulls up another trap, mumbling about moody creatures. He’s two more pots in when he hears splashes behind him, “Oh, finally come back for your free meal, have ya?” He turns and gasps. His seal’s there, teeth firmly around the tail of a cod that looks to be at least twenty kilos. It may be the largest Aaron’s ever seen. While he’s frozen in place the fish is thrashing and his seal looks exasperated. He finally springs to action, grabbing a net from the side of his boat and extending it to the seal, who forces the cod into it. Aaron pulls it on board, draws out his knife, and stabs it in the head so it stops gasping. He steps back to admire the catch. It’ll make an excellent dinner for the next few nights, and the rest he can salt.

He looks over at the seal who is now twirling proudly around his boat, shaking his head. He fillets one side of the fish expertly and holds a cut out over the water. The seal comes close and grabs it, happily munching on its prize. He stays close to Aaron’s hand, and he tentatively reaches out and smoothes the fur along the crown of his head. It’s cold and slick and solid, not unlike his leather boots when they get wet.

There’s a strange moment when the seal watches him, and then it’s broken as it swims off toward the bay, head disappearing under the water.

Aaron is left, once again, wondering what he’s doing.

 

 

**********

 

The butcher is at the docks when he pulls in, and writes him a receipt for some stew beef in exchange for some of his lobsters. He’s a good man, huge and bearded and prone to far more Scots Gaelic than Aaron knows, but they understand each other well enough.

A sale made, Aaron finishes his clear up duties and gathers his catch to bring to Sarah. He has to manage the cod as well, and wraps it as best he can. He almost wants to show it to another crew, but they all know he’s not much of an angler and his seal is not a story he wants to share.

He trudges up the incline to the pub, only realizing he may be dealing with Mary when he’s halfway there. He contemplates turning around and trying his luck with buyers at the docks, but knows that if he disappoints Sarah she may not buy next time.

He knocks at the door, and it opens to reveal Sarah. She looks more well rested than he would after a week spent horizontal, but perhaps her bed is more comfortable than the few he’s shared. She tilts her head, eyes searching his face in a way he wants to hide from. There’s an awkward beat of silence. He clears his throat, “Erm, lobsters?” He holds up the bag.

Her eyes flick to the catch, “Ah.” She reaches out for them, and twists the bag around looking at the contents.

“Heard your husband’s in town.” He’s not good at small talk, but there’s precious few people in town he likes and Sarah is one of the good ones.

She looks up from her examination. “Was. He’s back at sea now.” She narrows her eyes at him, “Twelve pounds.”

He frowns, that’s more than the product is worth and they both know it. He’s a fair man, and she’s not one to make mistakes. “Ten’ll do.” He hates losing out on profit, but there’s people he’ll scam and ones he won’t.

She quirks a smile and he feels like he’s passed some unspoken test. She pulls out the money and hands it to him, “It’s worth it, you know.”

He nods, “They’re good ones, it’s been a fine season.”

She shakes her head. “Not what I meant.” She cocks a hip, looking at him again with the same intensity she started with. “My husband. He’s worth even the loneliness.”

Aaron has no idea what to say. This is so far beyond a friendly chat. He settles on a shrug and an expression he hopes looks consoling.

She huffs out a half laugh, “You boys. I know, it’s hard to imagine.”

She turns, throwing over her shoulder, “Sometimes we mums know more than you’d think,” and shuts the door behind her.

Aaron is left feeling utterly lost. He looks around him to see if this is some form of local prank. There’re no giggling whispers to be heard. The street is empty. 

He shoulders the rest of his cod and heads home, ready to close his door against the week’s strangeness.

 

**********

 

Aaron heads to the beach to harvest mussels. He’s idly wondering if it will be as bustling with life when he realizes he can’t hear anything but the waves. The shore is empty apart from sandpipers, just as it always used to be.

He beaches his boat, eye on the tide to calculate how long he has. He reckons he has until lunch before the sea picks up his boat for him.

He’s awkwardly pulling his bucket from underneath his seat where it’s gotten wedged when he hears, “Hiya!”

He very nearly brains himself. He was sure the beach had been abandoned. He stands up, bucket in hand, and turns. It’s the man from the store. He’s got a canvas bag slung over his shoulder and a friendly smile on his face. He shoves his hands into his coat pockets and nods in greeting, not trusting his tongue just yet.

He’s just as beautiful as Aaron remembers, and far better than a drunken trick of the moonlight. The man crouches and picks up something small and shiny from the rocky shoreline. He turns it a bit in his large hands and puts it into bag.

“What’s that then?” Aaron swears he never told his mouth to say anything.

“Oh! It’s just,” he digs back into his bag and draws the object out, a few long strides bringing him nearer Aaron and he’s suddenly overwhelmed by his sea green eyes and the freckles across his nose. He opens his hand and inside there’s a flashy lure, one that summer anglers use. It’s managed to maintain its shimmer, and Aaron looks at and cocks his head. It’s not worth much, but it’s pretty in a way.

He tilts his head up and quirks a brow in an invitation to continue.

“I re-feather them and reuse them; no need to let the sea have them.”

His accent sounds a bit like home, Aaron realizes. It’s slightly hard to place but the more he says the more he sounds of Yorkshire.

“Hooks are cheap, mate.” He gestures at the man’s bag, “Hope you’ve not got a bag full of those.”

The man’s eyes light up, his lips curve into another smile, and he holds out a hand, “Robert.”

Aaron shakes Robert’s hand, feeling how smooth and warm his palms are. He knows in an instant this man is no fisherman, his hands haven’t been worn raw by the salt and ropes. He’s also radiating heat and Aaron forces himself to step back before he allows the warmth to draw him in. “Aaron.”

“Pleasure to meet ya, Aaron.” He gestures to the bucket, “What’s the catch of the day?”

Aaron tilts the bucket towards him, “So far it’s just air, but I’m headed to grab mussels.” He twists his shoulders a bit, opening his chest up and standing taller. It’s a surprise how much space he can slouch under his shoulder blades. “You can join if you want?”

Robert’s tongue wets his lips, and Aaron cannot stop himself from tracking the motion with his eyes. “I’d like that.”

His voice is dark and gravelly like the sound of a storm far off over the sea.

They walk toward the imposing boulders encrusted at the base with mussels exposed by low tide. Aaron feels words buzzing and boiling under his skin. He doesn’t know what to say but for the first time in months he wants to.

“You’re new to town, yeah?” Robert thankfully breaks the silence for him.

Aaron bristles a bit, “Been here over a year now, pretty sure at this point I’ll always be new though.”

Robert hums an agreement. “My family’s been in area for generations but since we don’t all live in the town proper we still aren’t locals.”

He pops a mussel off the rock and into Aaron’s bucket, “Too many wild ideas about travel and exploring places beyond.” He waves his hand, seemingly encompassing the whole vista in a gesture.

Aaron nods while using his penknife to separate a particularly healthy cluster of deep aubergine mussels. “My folk farm and raise pigs.”

He can feel Robert’s eyes on the side of his face and he hopes he’s not about to scoff at his family.

“I bet you’d pull off a bit of mud. The local girls all want a roll in the hay with a dirty farmhand.”

Aaron’s played this game for long enough to hear the compliment wrapped in self preservation. The push-pull of testing interest. He’s bolstered by hope, “Wouldn’t know, I’m not one for local girls.”

He lets that remain in the air between them, hoping he’s read this right. He’s sure he could take Robert in a fight, but that’s not how he’d like this to go.

There’s a hitch in Robert’s breath, a slight parting of his lips as if Aaron’s said something revelatory. Aaron watches his gaze track down to his mouth. He’s suddenly hyper-aware of every nerve ending on his body; he can feel the way the sand and rocks shift under his weight even through his boots, the drag of his thick jacket on his shoulders, and the tang of salt on his tongue.

Aaron pictures what could happen. He could push Robert back against the rock, edges digging into his back and rough stone scrapping. He could have him there, he thinks; a crash of release. He’s sure Robert’s jawline would taste like the ocean, sure his hands would brand him with their warmth, sure Robert wants him too.

He’s not so sure about what would come after. Doesn’t know Robert well enough to trust he wouldn’t run, wouldn’t spread confirmation of things that are currently only whispers. His other moments of desperation have had as much to lose as he. But Robert, he doesn’t know what’s at stake for this man. There’s plenty of people to buy lobster and traps from, plenty of time for his gear to be sabotaged. He’s not established enough, not safe from being shut out here. He’s over two hundred miles from Emmerdale and no man may be an island, but he’s about as close as he can get.

His gaze shutters, he steps back from the rock, shaking the bucket they’ve quickly filled. “I think that’s enough for a few dinners.”

Robert’s eyes look cloudy and lost. “Oh, yeah. That’s quite the haul.” He blushes a bit and looks down, twisting his head away to glance at the horizon and stepping back.

Aaron searches his mind for something to bridge the chasm he just opened between them. He gestures a bit further up the beach, “There’s usually some tide pools up there, want to help me search them? Might be a crab in it for your troubles.”

Green eyes watch blue ones. Finally, Robert seems to have made up his mind, and nods, hitching his strap up higher. They scramble a bit up the slippery rock, but end up near a large pool that’s shallow and clear. Robert reaches in, drawing out a periwinkle shell. It’s a nearly perfect spiral and vibrantly blue. He turns it a few times and puts it into his bag.

After a search that yields nothing Aaron shrugs at Robert, “Sorry. Guess you trekked up here for nowt.”

Robert’s laugh is bright and loud, he swings one arm out to the five foot drop next to him, “Right pair of Shackletons, we are. Exploring the highest peaks of Scotland’s beaches.”

Aaron shakes his head, hand wiping a smile off before Robert can see he finds him charming. His stomach growls suddenly, and he realizes it’s nearly lunchtime. He’s brought some cod pasties, wrapped up tight to stay warm against the biting cold. He pulls them out, gesturing with one, “Hungry?”

There’s a moment of hesitation where Robert looks ready to refuse, and he nearly pulls his hand back, feeling he’d read their conversation all wrong, that he’s being humored simply because Robert’s nice.

Something cracks a little inside when Robert’s hand brushes his as he says a quiet “Thanks.”

The sincerity of the moment feels too much too soon, he should crack a joke or brush off the kindness, but he can’t make himself. They move to the edge of the rock, finding a place that’s smooth enough, and sit, eating flakey fish-filled pastries and watching the encroaching tide.

Robert tells Aaron he’s a travel writer, that he moves around and writes reviews of sea towns for guidebooks. “My mum misses me when I’m gone, but I try and come back as much as I can.”

There’s a pause, “There may be some new reasons to visit now.”

Aaron feels his face flush.

The waves have started lapping at the hull of his boat. He’ll have to set out soon. They clamber down off the rock, Robert a bit graceless navigating his way over outcroppings. Aaron has to catch him by the elbow when he slips, and at the bottom Robert claps him on the shoulder in thanks, thumb leaving a ghost of touch that Aaron would happily have tattooed across his collar bone.

Aaron pushes his boat until it’s floating, and turns to find Robert right behind him, far closer than acquaintances stand. He wants to step towards him, closing the slight distance between them, to allow the undertow that is Robert to pull him in, but he just waits, watching the play of freckles on Robert’s jaw as it clenches.

Robert reaches into his bag and hands him the periwinkle shell, “Payment for lunch.” He smiles at Aaron’s affronted frown, “To be redeemed in kind when I’m next in town.”

Aaron rolls his eyes, “You’re sure of yourself. Maybe I don’t want to have another lunch with you.”

“You’ll see, I’m irresistible.” Robert reaches out confidently and brushes flakes of pastry off Aaron’s coat, making his pulse thrum and his mouth go dry. “Everyone loves me eventually... Aaron.”

His only way of saving face against this assault on his senses is a tactical retreat. He takes a large step back, swallowing away the way his heart has blocked his throat. “I’m off.” He’s proud it sounds sure and steady in a way he can’t even begin to feel.

He climbs into his boat, pushing off the sand into the calm water. He doesn’t turn until he’s rather far off shore, and Robert’s already gone.

As he passes some small rocky islands he sees sunbathing seals, none his, and he swears their sounds quiet as he gets close. A few that are playing in the water watch him pass and their barks to his turned back sound far too much like laughter for comfort.

 

**********

 

The village has been planning a Saint Valentine's’ Day Dance for months to lighten up mid-February, and all the eligible men are there. Not Aaron, but all the ones who are looking to find a nice woman to settle down with, or at least one to pass the winter with before spring takes them on longer expeditions that they return from for too short a time to meet anyone willing. A few of them have passed by his cottage, their boisterous chatter slipping under the crack of his door as he sits silently drinking tea and ignoring the curl of blue on his counter and how it makes the blood rush in his ears.

He pushes his chair back, intent on finishing a few traps before falling asleep. He gathers the few supplies he’s allowed to scatter and spread throughout his home rather than keep them neatly together.

Halfway through his second trap the music starts up, echoes of the band’s instruments distracting him. He’s not a dancer, never likes social club events in town, but there’s something about hearing a waltz fractured by buildings and cobblestones that leaves him empty.

He gives up an hour later, fingers too distracted by melodies to keep knotting nets. He pours himself a finger of whisky and gets out a small piece of wood. In school he’d been good at woodworking, so he decides to try his hand at whittling something to occupy himself.

The piece of pine he has is dry and slightly warped, so he looks at it for a bit before seeing what shape he wants to make. His hands are skilled as he slowly shaves off curls of wood, smoothing and shaping the piece.

It’s been years since he’s tried this; he prefers to make things that have utility, but at the moment he’s got nothing decorative in his home apart from some things his mum sent with him when he left. Also, if it is a nightmare he can always throw the thing into the stove for warmth.

The soft scratch of his blade as it passes along the grain draws all his focus in, narrowing the world to just his table and the soft glow of the bulb above him. Once he’s got the hang of it the work goes well, even though he’s no artist. The flip of a tail, the small head and fins bracing the body on each side.

Once he’s got a rough hewn shape he goes to find his sandpaper, dragging it along the seal’s crags and crannies and smoothing the form. It’s a passing likeness, and once he waxes it the sheen will mimic the wet slick of fur.

He places the seal next to the shell, calmed enough to sleep even as the giggles of couples move past his cottage and further up the street.

 

**********

It’s not like his seal to not show. Even on days when he’s just checking on his buoy and making sure the night’s storms didn’t break any lines the seal likes to drop by and watch. Recently he’s taken to nosing the buoy back and forth while Aaron works. Aaron finds it endearing and distracting in equal measure.

He’s keeping his eyes out for predators or something else that could explain the absence when a smaller cow comes into view. She’s darker and less speckled than his seal, and is swimming fast. She gets to his buoy and noses it hard. He wonders if she smells a potential mate, and feels oddly protective of his seal.

He watches her as she continues to hit his buoy. She then moves nearer, pushing the line, and finally bumping into his boat continuously. She seems panicked, and he doesn’t have any answers for her. “He’s not here.” She zig zags frantically, bumping his boat again.

She starts off in a direction, then flips around and hits the boat again before going the same way again. She repeats this again and again, and he suddenly realizes she wants something from him, not his seal. “Do you want me to follow you?” She twirls in the water like his does when he’s pleased with himself.

Aaron can’t say why he decides to go with his gut, but he draws anchor and goes the way she’s been heading. The seal glides just in front of him, constantly circling back to check his progress. They come to an area near some rocks where the water is frothy. The froth looks tinted pink, and that’s when Aaron sees him: his seal is trapped by a reinforced net that has tangled in the crevices between the rocks.

The thin wires and chains that the ropes of the net are woven with are stronger than a struggling seal can break, and it looks like they’ve twisted around his side and are cutting into the skin. Aaron pulls his boat up to the terrified seal, he is frantically thrashing and Aaron can see the whites of his eyes. He puts out a hand, and quietly shushes while petting him a few times. The seal calms, eyes watching Aaron as he takes out a knife and some wirecutters he carries for snipping hooks and begins working on the netting.

It’s a slow job, and pulling the embedded chain from the seal’s flesh makes him flinch away before Aaron’s quiet soothing words help him settle again. He can feel the rapid pulse of fear slow when his hand is on his fur.

Once he’s removed enough for him to swim out, he guides the seal out the hole, and then begins the work of pulling the whole net into his boat to be repurposed. It does no fisherman good for animals to die uncollected, not even fellow hunters like seals. They keep the population healthy and alert the crews by disappearing or worse showing up dead if something is happening with their common prey.

The seal dives down, probably to check on its own health. He hopes the cuts haven’t reached muscle. They didn’t seem deep enough to cut all the way through the blubber layer that protects seals from the cold, but an injury like that can turn a seal into an orca’s supper.

The seal reappears with something in his mouth and swims up to the side of his boat. He puts his hand down, there’s no reason to make him jump. He places a blue swirled shell into his hand, backs up, and watches Aaron.

Aaron looks at the periwinkle and feels his mind try and make sense of what is happening, but he finds can’t quite come to any sensical conclusion. He looks up, and both seals have disappeared under the swells.

 

**********

 

Aaron spends his afternoon building and installing a small shelf for the wall in his kitchen. It’s rough hewn wood stained simply on one side. He likes the weight of it, the way it makes the wall tangible rather than merely a barrier from the elements. When he’s done he steps back, then decides to add some hooks at the bottom for dishcloths.

Working with his hands keeps his mind from wandering out to the sea to worry. Seals are heartier than humans, they don’t need his concern.

He puts the two shells by the seal carving on the shelf, admiring how similar the blues are.

It’s already blustering in a way that says tomorrow will be stormy and cold. He can hear it in the way his windows shake and see the whitecaps far further out than normal. He’s glad he secured his boat well when he returned, this is the type of weather that can mean gear losses for lazy crews.

He begins chopping potatoes, onions, and leeks. He puts a large knob of butter into the pan and adds his leeks and onions, the room slowly filling with the soothing smells of homemade soup. He thinks of warm winter meals his cousin Marlon made for the family, of days as a child stood on a stool helping stir the pot. Soup is a meal meant for more than one, but that just means he can have leftovers for days.

The broth and potatoes bubble away together as Aaron watches the storm build over the sea.

 

**********

 

One of the mysteries of weather at the coast is how it can change direction so fast. The dark clouds have remained offshore and the day dawns cloudy and diffusely illuminated. The kind of bright winter light that makes Aaron squint at his windows.

He’s sipping tea, and he was frying an egg until he tried to flip it; now he is scrambling an egg. Once it’s cooked he pours the scramble onto a slice of buttered toast and eats while walking around and mentally putting his day together, pulling on two jumpers to protect against the wind that’s still blowing cold air off the sea.

Breakfast and his morning routine done, he turns to the pile of traps by the door. He’s meeting the Reillys to bring them his finished product, so he begins stringing them together so he can heft them onto his back. He looks a bit like a hermit crab, wooden and netting pots stacked just so.

He makes his way to the harbor, keeping eyes out for the Reilly boat. He spots the happy red topped ship and goes to make the exchange. Angus Reilly is a kind man, and pays him in both shillings and shrimp. He’s got a nice bag of them for dinner, and he can put aside some for the next day’s visit to his pots. He thinks seals eat shrimp.

He holds the bag filled with shellfish and ice down by his side so the chill can’t seep any deeper into skin. He catches a flash of blonde hair amongst the fishermen and his pulse quickens. Robert’s laughing with a man Aaron only vaguely knows and clapping him on the shoulder good-naturedly. There’s a rush of jealousy that nearly knocks him back.

Robert’s not his, but he feels like Robert’s.

He grinds his teeth against that fact and decides to make his way home, skirting the dock Robert is on and keeping his head down.

“Aaron!” He’s never been lucky. He turns to see Robert jog up to him, wincing a bit. He looks paler, slight bags under his eyes, but he’s smiling as if seeing Aaron’s made his day. The expression pushes his envy down.

“Hiya.” He scrubs the back of his neck with his free hand, then gestures with the bag, “Just grabbing something for tea.”

He never knows what to do with the intensity of Robert’s stare.

“You going home, then?”

Aaron hears it, the hope and uncertainty permeating Robert’s question.

“Nah, just ate breakfast. Could do with a walk.”

Robert’s eyes warm, and he takes his hands out of his pockets. “It’s a nice day, I think I’ll join you.”

“Who invited you?” Aaron laughs, but waits for Robert to fall in step with him as he heads to the path along the cliffs.

 

**********

 

The problem, Aaron’s decided, is that Robert is easy to talk to. He’s probably said more words on this walk than he’s said in weeks. Even the silences have none of the stilted awkwardness of most of his small talk with the rest of the village. Worse still, he finds he wants to hear everything about Robert.

“My father always wanted me to stay in the family business.” Robert’s voice is tinged with bitterness.

“What’s that, then?”

Robert looks out at the ocean, breaking eye contact. He hesitates for a moment, “He’s in the navy.”

Aaron wasn’t expecting that. He can’t picture Robert in a uniform, following orders and fighting wars. He realizes he’d have been the right age to enlist, and Aaron exhales selfishly in relief. “Can’t see you listening to an admiral.”

Robert snorts, and the air feels lighter between them.

They’re walking close, the path is narrow after all, and Aaron bumps Robert’s side with his elbow. He draws up short and hisses in pain.

“Robert?” He can’t manage to quite keep the panic out of his voice, and his hands come up instinctually to reach for him, then freeze in the air.

Robert waves him off, bracing the other on his side as he winces. “I’m fine, just a bad bruise. I was on a ship last week during a storm and the waves knocked me into the railing.”

He smiles boyishly, shaking his head self deprecatingly. “Guess my sea legs still need some work.”

They’re not far from Aaron’s, and Robert’s looking strained. “Well, I live close by, and I’m thinking of heading in to make myself a brew. D’ya want one?”

Robert straightens and his eyes darken. There’s a change in the air that Aaron hadn’t anticipated. It’s the crackle of electricity before lightning hits.

When Robert nods Aaron can’t remember what question he asked.

“Which way’s yours?”

 

**********

 

The walk is quiet and spiked with potential. Their arms bump, Aaron switching sides so he doesn’t do Robert more damage. Every time they brush Aaron’s skin prickles underneath his layers. 

Robert opens his mouth twice on the way, words appearing to stick in his throat, and each time Aaron’s heart drops to his stomach, fearing a rebuff. He wants Robert to be sure, to want Aaron as much as he craves the other man. He doesn’t trust himself to reach out and touch him, knows he’d never stop if he did.

If they pass anyone on the way, Aaron doesn’t notice. His whole world has become the sound of Robert’s steps beside him, the sight of his cottage, and the way his blood is racing through his veins.

He opens his door, scanning the room to make sure it’s not a complete hovel while Robert’s heat rolls off him in waves crashing against his back.

He steps inside, moving over while he pulls the key from the lock so Robert can come in as well, and for a blink Aaron wonders if he’s actually going to have to make tea, but then the door swings shut and Robert shoves him, bracketing him against the wall with his larger frame. He drops the bag of shrimp unthinkingly and brings his hands up to wrap them into the fabric of Robert’s jacket, dragging him down at the same time Robert’s hands grasp his jaw.

Robert’s inhale as he surges forward is all the warning he gets before he’s overwhelmed by sensation. Robert’s lips are soft, his grip sure as he angles Aaron’s head to the side. Aaron’s hands unclench from their grip on his lapels and drag south, pressing fingers against sternum and ribs. He goes to bring Robert even closer, hands clinging and pulling his sides and Robert gasps into his mouth in pain.

“Sorry… sorry, forgot.” Aaron whispers against his lips, letting go of the sore side and moving to grab Robert’s hipbone instead, dragging their bodies together.

Robert’s pushing off Aaron’s jacket insistently, mouth skimming the line of his neck. Aaron’s head thumps back against the wall, gasping at the scrape of teeth. It’s far too much and in no way enough. He untucks Robert’s shirt, hands finally on smooth skin. His thumbs travel up, and he feels the edge of a bandage on the hurt side, the injury clearly worse than Robert is letting on.

“Leave it. I’m fine.”

He can feel the rumble of Robert’s voice in his ribcage, the exhale of words against his throat. The way Robert is tugging on his jacket pulls on his arms and forces him to let go so it can fall to the floor.

He’s not used to doing this somewhere he can see his partner’s body; back alleys and dark corners aren’t made for undressing.

He needs to see all of Robert, wants to nip at freckled thighs. He pushes a bit at Robert’s chest, and loves the way the green has been obscured by dark pupils. He pulls off his own jumpers as Robert catches on and unbuttons his own shirt, leaving it crumpled in a pile with his jacket on the floor. He catches a glimpse of white bandage stark against Robert’s skin, but allows himself to be pulled back in to taste Robert’s lips again.

The feel of skin against his chest is intoxicating. He was right about Robert; he’s inescapable. It’s like drowning in touch. Strong hands everywhere, dragging him down and onto the rumpled sheets of the bed.

There’s a second where they’re both panting, Aaron’s elbows pushing him up to chase Robert’s lips, sandwiched between a soft mattress and skin blushing pink, when Aaron wonders if this is what he’s been missing when other people talk about falling.

 

**********


Aaron’s never woken up in bed with anyone before. Never felt the way another body takes up the space his makes. He’d thought maybe Robert... but even with his eyes closed he knows his cottage is empty. He only hears his own breathing. Only feels his own heartbeat.

He turns, lying on his back and looking up at the ceiling. Something prickles at the edges of his eyes and he wipes them angrily. He feels like a fool. Reading too much into a one off. Didn’t even warrant a goodbye.

Robert’s got options Aaron doesn’t. He travels, can be anonymous in the towns he visits. Aaron’s sure he’s just another notch on his bedpost. He bites his lip viciously, the sharp pain grounding him. He sits up, rests elbows on knees, and lets his bare feet touch the cold floor.

Another slip up in the grand tale of Aaron Dingle.

He reaches for his pants and trousers that are crumpled near the bed and pulls them on. It’s evening now, and he should eat if he wants to work tomorrow. There’s a small mirror above the sink he uses to wash his face and brush his teeth and he studiously avoids his own eye contact as he splashes his face, knows he’d see marks Robert left on his collar bone. He can feel it even if he won’t see it.

He picks up the jumpers, throws them into his laundry bag. He knows they’re mostly clean, but they smell like Robert. He looks at his bed and strips the sheets off.

He opens the chest, pulls on a long sleeved shirt that is soft and high collared. He puts some folded sheets onto the bed, can’t make himself to put them on yet. He sits on the bare mattress for a moment, tries to quiet the tempest inside.

He remembers the shrimp, realization pulling him from his pain and goes to grab the bag from the floor. It’s created a cold puddle he cannot be bothered to mop up, but much of the ice is still solid, so it should be safe to eat.

He throws the bag on the counter and goes to grab a head of garlic. His hands shake a bit, but he’s sure that’s just hunger. He tries to peel a few cloves, but they’re small and delicate and he can’t get his nails under the skins, so he just smashes them with the side of his knife and leaves the bits. They’ll cook in the cream.

He throws the lot into his pot with some butter and leans back against the counter. He wants a drink, wants to punch something, wants to see a bruise form underneath freckles. He inhales sharply and looks up, willing the thunder in his ears away.

The garlic’s done so he pours in some cream. He looks at his shelf, moves to pull the shells off, but he doesn’t know which is Robert’s and he likes the colors. It takes him a moment to realize the seal is gone. He looks at the ground, maybe the shelf isn’t as level as he thought and it rolled off? It’s nowhere.

Why would Robert take it? A trophy to remember a bit of rough? It could only be him, no one else but Aaron’s ever been in the cottage since he bought it.

He peels and de-veins the shrimp, making a mess of it in a way he’s not used to. He’s out of sorts and he hates Robert for doing this. They’ve talked twice. Spent one day together. How dare he get to Aaron like this?

He adds the shrimp to the sauce, grinds in some pepper, and slices bread for toast to pour it onto. He shoves the cutting board and knife into the sink, splashing a bit of water up and onto his sleeve. He rolls it to his elbow in annoyance, sees a half moon scratch where Robert dug a nail in a bit too hard.

He’d kissed the mark and apologized.

He tugs the wet sleeve back down. It’ll dry better that way.

He sits on his chair with a plate of food and stares at the other chair. Tomorrow it’ll become firewood. He doesn’t need it.

 

**********

 

 

He spends all morning working on his boat, but not going onto the ocean. He’s got nets and tools to maintain, and he needs to make sure everything is in good working order. His last harvest of the season is soon, and he wants to preempt some of the clean up by making sure everything is ready for the off season.

It doesn’t use up nearly enough of the day, though. He can’t go sit and stew in his cottage. He knows himself, knows the damage he could do if left to his own decisions.

He decides to spend an hour or so at the pub, maybe chat with Ellis if he comes in. Whisky would not be his friend tonight, but beer could be.

It’s quiet in the pub. Sarah’s behind the bar, unusual for the daytime, but he figures she’s covering for Mary on account of her doing all of Sarah’s work the other week. The only men in there are a couple of sad drunks nursing their hangovers with more liquor, so he sits at the bar.

“Pint, Sarah.”

She raises an eyebrow and he wants to pull his sleeves over his hands like he’s a teen again. He clears his throat and grumbles, “Please.”

She pours his pint and hands it to him. He drinks it in companionable silence with her while she wipes down the wooden bar and cleans a few glasses. The bitter lager helping to wash away a bit of the day’s anger.

He looks over her shoulder at a piece of embroidery she’s got framed on the wall. It’s a swirl of waves and rocks around a woman who is wrapped in the sea with what looks like a speckled grey blanket pulled up and over her shoulders.

“It’s a selkie.” She says, as if that explains anything. There’s an itch in the back of his mind, but he can’t quite place the word.

“A what?”

There’s something familiar in the set of her jaw and the intensity of her eye contact. “A selkie. It’s an old folktale about a pod of seals who can remove their skins and become human, but they can only stay in the form for a few hours or else they’re trapped in their seal form for months after.”

Her mouth twists sadly.

“Lonely sailors fall for them and steal their skins, keeping them trapped as wives. And when they find their stolen skin and return to the water they don’t come back, leaving even children behind forever.” She sighs, “There’s also stories about ones that fall in love, and give up their seal forms; breaking off that part of themselves to be with their partners.”

Aaron’s sipping his pint while he listens. He must have heard this story from his mum, because the nagging buzz of familiarity is driving him mad.

“That’s not much of a life, giving up what you are to be with someone.”

Sarah looks sad, “No, but they say some loves are worth it.”

She brightens, leaning over the bar towards him as if she’s sharing a secret. “The legends say that a selkie who gives their skin freely to a true love can come and go as they please.”

Aaron snorts at that, suddenly needing air and to be away from Sarah’s loaded gaze. “Well, sounds like selkies are stuck, then. True love’s more of a myth than they are.”

He downs the rest of his pint and pushes himself off the barstool, no longer willing to listen to fairy tales.

Sarah doesn’t try to stop him, just shakes her head as he shrugs his jacket back on and heads home.

 

**********

 

Aaron’s glad he cut his pint short when the sky opens up and begins to rain in thundering sheets that crash into the streets. It’s the type of storm that leaves welts on sailor’s backs if they’re trapped in it. He watches from his window as the other boats come in, workers moving hurriedly, glad he secured everything that morning.

He’s shut himself in as well as he is able, checking that windows and doors are secure as they can be, but there’s a leak forming above his sofa, so he positions a bucket under it and listens to the way the water drums into his home.

By late evening it is a ship wrecking storm, the type that leaves widows in its wake. The waves are screaming up the cliffs, swallowing up chunks of earth. He’s worried about his lines, and doing some mental calculation about the work he’ll have to put in on other ships over the summer in order to manage until the season starts back up. He thinks he can manage, but just barely, and if his traps are gone that will mean a good amount of work to replace them.

There’s nothing to be done but wait out the night. He wishes he had something to occupy himself, something other than the raging storm outside filling his ears.

He tries to distract himself. He puts the leek and potato soup on the hob to warm, finally remakes the bed, rearranges the pillows on the sofa he curled up on last night.

He pours out a bowl of soup, deciding to sit on the sofa rather than at the newly emptier table, the blank side staring at him. The chair is waiting for him to take it apart in the shed, but it has a stay of execution from the storm.

The soup warms his hands, but he still feels raw and on edge. A flash of lightning outside followed by a rumble of thunder makes him clench his jaw. He’s like this when storms trap him inside, when they dictate where he can and cannot be. He paces the small room like a caged animal, muscles tensed.

His mum hates him like this, can’t deal with his pacing, with the way he can’t be soothed. “I hope you’re not thinking someone will put up with you like this. You’ve got to learn to control your temper, Aaron.”

The cottage is too small for anyone to escape the black cloud hanging over him. It’s the perfect size to trap his mood in with him and let it ooze into all the dark corners.

He laughs bitterly, sitting on the sofa with his face in his hands and knees bouncing. He’s a mess. Robert’s lucky he snuck out, even if he didn’t know what he was escaping.

He settles in for a long, sleepless night of thunder.

 

**********

 

He wakes up with creaking joints, hours spent coiled and on edge taking their toll. He can’t force himself to eat anything, stomach rolling from lack of sleep and nerves.

There’s nothing to do but get moving, it’s the end of the lobster season and he needs to check what damage was done.

Arriving at the harbor to far more activity than usual sets his teeth on edge. There’s a reason he’s always first out. The other crews are all inspecting their own boats, hoping nothing got swept overboard, or worse, that the storm hitting it against the dock opened a hole in a hull. Thankfully everyone is busy and not up for cheery banter, he’s sure he’d make unneeded enemies in his mood.

Finally at his boat he sees the sea has deposited a good amount of seaweed inside, but otherwise it’s unscathed. He drags out the slippery green tendrils, wipes down the seat, and steps in, hearing something crunching underfoot. It’s then he notices underneath his seat’s a handful of shells. They’re all sorts of colors, some he doesn’t recognize.

The storm must have swept them in. He knocks a couple out of the way of his boots and gets moving.

The sight of his buoy bobbing where it should be makes him want to punch the air in celebration. If his line were broken it would have floated off. It doesn’t mean his traps all survived, but it means at least some will be recoverable.

Pulling the traps up is nerve-wracking, but feeling resistance on the line after each pot signalling something is on the other end anchors him. The pots are even well stocked. He’d taken an extra day off between catches and there’s plenty of good sized lobsters inside. They’d probably seen the bait as a gift after the relentless ebb and flow of the storm.

He works longer than he should, pulls all the pots in one go rather than rest. His back aches, his hands are freezing, but his pots are all roped onto the boat. It’s a miracle they all made it, he must have chosen a place well protected from the undercurrents.

His seal doesn’t visit. He tries not to let that get to him. The seal is nursing an injury and he’s sure the pod hunker down during storms.

He’d have liked to say goodbye, but this is better. A clean break. No reason to get sentimental over an animal that’s only interested in food.

He finally sits down, breathing heavily. He should eat something. He pulls out his thermos of soup and takes a careful sip. Under the thermos is the shrimp he’d brought for the seal; he tosses them overboard. Something will eat them. He looks down as his feet crunching over the shells underneath and throws them out too, working to pick up the smaller shards so they don’t slice into him later. He doesn’t know why the ocean put them in his boat, but he’s had enough of gifts of seashells.

 

**********

 

The off season begins with Aaron on his roof, patching the leak he discovered during the storm. He’s no handyman, but he can certainly replace rotted wood on his own. The air is cold and calm, and every inhale tastes of salt.

He can see the beach in both directions from his roof, and notices the seals lounging. He’s glad they made it through the storm. He supposes they’re better at that than people are.

He catches himself scanning for his seal. There’s no way he could tell from this distance, and now that Aaron’s not feeding him they’ll probably never meet again.

He narrowly misses his own thumb with the hammer at that thought.

He gives in and lets himself look in earnest, just for a second. Scans the dark shapes that stand out against the lighter sand. He’s nearly certain his seal isn’t there.

He looks back down at his roof, checks for other places where the wood may be beginning to crumble. He needs to add more insulation this year, he nearly ran out of firewood even though it’s been relatively mild for Scotland.

He looks to his shed, he really should spend some of today taking the chair apart, but there’s something about the view and the way the sea is calm and clear that makes him just want to sit, perched by his ladder, and listen to the waves.

The chair can wait, it’s not going anywhere.

 

**********


Aaron’s two days into the off season and going a bit stir crazy. It’s not that he doesn’t have anything to do, it’s that he feels landlocked. Trapped.

He’s been itching for something all day. Energy buzzing in his bones everywhere he goes. In an effort to disperse it before bed he goes for an evening walk, hands thrust into his pockets and balled up in fists. The narrow streets feel like they’re herding him, buildings hemming in his movements and blocking his path.

He looks up while passing Sarah’s kitchen door. He sees Robert stepping out, kissing Sarah on the cheek playfully. She laughs at something he leans in to tell her, all while his hand stops to rest on her elbow. Aaron’s never hated a man more than he does Robert in that moment.

“You know she’s married, mate?” He sneers.

Robert looks at him in confusion, mouth agape as if he’s about to defend himself. He has the decency to look guilty, but that doesn’t stop Aaron from shoving him as hard as he can into the stone wall of the pub. Robert’s hand goes to encircle his wrist, and that gesture of intimacy, of familiarity, is what sends his fist into the wall rather than a cheekbone.

“Just can’t stop yourself, can ya?” He hisses through his teeth, face as close to Robert’s as he’ll let himself get.

“Aaron, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Robert’s had the wind knocked from his lungs by the force of Aaron’s push, but he’s still trying to spin tales.

“I know you, Robert. You use people.” His voice cracks a bit on the word use, so he presses harder, knows the stones are digging into Robert’s shoulder blades from the wince he inflicts. “You use people, and you disgust me.”

He shoots the words out like barbs, hoping they dig into Robert’s confidence and charm.

The way Robert’s face falls and his eyes harden feels like a victory. His hands flatten against Aaron’s chest and shove, putting enough space between them that Sarah can step in.

Aaron can’t believe her, after all her talk of love, of marriage. She’s no better than any other cheat.

“Aaron, you’ve got this all wrong.” Her hands are up, placating Aaron and protecting Robert.

“Leave him, mum. He’s clearly made his mind up about who I am and what type of a woman you are.” Robert’s voice drips with disdain, “Guess you can move away from the pig farm but you can’t get the filth off.”

Aaron’s never felt more worthless.

He stands there while Robert storms down the street and Sarah sighs, looking between his retreating back and Aaron.

“Sarah

“Go home, Aaron.” She walks inside and slams the door.

Left alone in the rapidly darkening street, Aaron looks down at his scraped and battered hand. It needs ice soon, and he’ll have to assess the damage in the morning. He looks up at the pub. He’ll need to assess that damage in the morning too.

 

**********

 

Morning dawns, but Aaron’s been up for hours, staring at his ceiling and flexing his hand. The sting and burn helps him focus. He’s got precious few friends in this town, and he needs Sarah’s business. Also, it’s not her fault her son’s Robert. She probably doesn’t even know how he is. No one’s truly themselves with their mum. His still thinks he fancied Holly Barton.

He’ll go and apologize.

He gets up and goes to his mirror to wash his face. Just because he hasn’t slept doesn’t mean he needs to look like the dead. He locks eyes with his reflection.

Robert thinks he’s filth.

The gnaw of the Robert’s words has left him hollow.

He cleans his knuckles, wraps them carefully, and gets dressed. It’s tough to tie his boots with his dexterity muffled by gauze, but he manages. He heads to the pub. It’s early, but it’s off season, and there are many young men with money in their pockets and nothing to do. Sarah’s a savvy businesswoman; she’s open.

He enters and Sarah watches him as he makes his way to the bar. She doesn’t throw him out, which he thinks is a good sign. She also remains silent and simply waits.

“Erm.” He hasn’t thought about exactly what he should say. He bites his lip and looks down. “I’m sorry about yesterday. I shouldn’t’ve lost my temper like that.”

He won’t apologize for more than that.

She sighs. “I know Robert’s not easy, but he’s staying with me for a while, so you’ll have to try to get on as best you can.”

Aaron is ashamed at the way his chest aches knowing Robert will be in town. He couldn’t even have the decency to leave him be.

“As long as he stays out of my way we’ll be fine.” He says with more venom than he probably should.

He’s never been good at apologies.

She looks put out at that, rolling her eyes and making an exasperated gesture, but she doesn’t seem like she hates him, so he figures he’s done well enough.

He turns to go and sees Robert carrying something in from the back, sleeves rolled up over his elbows and forearms corded with muscle.

He makes his escape before he can do something else he’ll regret.

 

**********

 

He spends two days holding his breath when he passes the pub, hoping. It’s like biting the inside of his cheek- he can’t stop tonguing at it. He knows Robert isn’t for him. Knows he doesn’t want Aaron. Even worse he knows he shouldn’t crave anything from Robert, but when he sees blonde hair he always turns to check.

It’s never Robert. He’s not sure what he would do if it was.

 

**********

 

He sits at home, wood stove warming the kitchen while he waits for his water to boil. It’s late, too late for tea, but he wants the spread of heat that a cup offers.

He adds the water to his tea cup and sets it down to steep.

There’s a knock on his door. It’s past eleven, why would anyone come by unless it was an emergency? He opens it, coming face to face with Robert, who’s slouched a bit to one side in Aaron’s doorway.

“What’re you—”

Robert’s hands grab him and pull him into a kiss. It’s harsh and tastes like whisky and Aaron surges up to meet it. Robert’s slightly uncoordinated with drink, but he matches Aaron’s intensity easily and eagerly. For just a second he lets himself have what he wants. Until he remembers the sting of filth and pulls back.

Robert still has his hands on his jaw and Aaron’s are clenched in his shirt fabric. He feels Robert lean forward, feels the way his feet are trying to walk Aaron back inside, and he almost steps back, almost gives in to the relentless force that is Robert.

He’s proud he doesn’t budge, catches himself between shoving him away and pulling him back in. Robert feels the resistance and steps back, and it’s only then that Aaron sees he’s got tear tracks on his face.

He also realizes he just kissed a man while silhouetted in bright light on a dark street.

He pulls the door shut behind him and pushes Robert away, whispers harshly, “What do you think you’re doing?” He scans the street, hopeful no one else was about.

Robert is illuminated only by the moon and a bit of light spilling from one of Aaron’s windows. Warm and cool tones criss crossing his face.

“I messed up, Aaron.” His voice is slurred, consonants softer, “I left ya, and I knew I shouldn’t, but I had to, and the storm—”

He’s too loud, neighbors will notice. “It was a one off. Forget it.”

“It wasn’t meant to be, I swear. I wasn’t messing you around.” His voice cracks. His hands keep trying to reach for Aaron.

He has to get out of this conversation, has to squash the hope Robert’s building a home for in his rib cage.

“It was for me, alright? I’m not here to be your bit on the side whenever you’re in town. I’m not here to be your anything.” He bites the words out, says them as convincingly as he can.

Robert looks lost, eyes glistening with unshed tears. He steps into Aaron’s space, one hand at his neck, thumbing across his jawbone, “You can’t mean that.”

Aaron retreats from the touch, “I have to live here.”

He steels himself, “I live here, and I can’t just leave when things go bad.”

He’s made it to his door, but Robert’s still there. Still watching him. He feels it on his shoulder blades, the buzz of his stare.

“Leave it, Robert.” He opens his door and quickly closes it behind him, blocking out any reply that may or may not come. He’s shaking. He can’t believe he let that happen. Let Robert under his skin again. Nearly let him in again.

His brew is so bitter it’s undrinkable. He dumps it out into the sink.

 

**********

 

The town is small. Rumors spread. When Aaron enters the bakery and sees two women whispering across the counter with the baker he holds his breath, sure they’ll stop when they see him and then he’ll know. Know the street wasn’t empty, that the dark windows of houses had neighbors’ eyes behind them.

Instead they speak a little louder, letting him in on the gossip.

“She made a pass at him, a married woman!”

The other gasps falsely, then leans in a bit, “Mind you, with a man like that minds wander. Particularly with a husband as dull as hers.”

The first hums in agreement.

The baker interrupts, “But that’s not all, I heard when he turned her down she called him something I won’t repeat.”

Aaron doesn’t miss the flash of a glance in his direction at that. “Sarah fired her on the spot.”

“Serves her, going after the boss’s son.” The first woman makes a disapproving face. “But what’s Sarah to do now with no help?”

“Seems he offered a hand.” The baker shakes her head, “That boy’s been unsettled so long, it’s good for his mam to have him home, what with her husband always God knows where.”

Aaron’s heart catches against his ribs.

Robert is staying.

The women smile at him as they pass, nodding a hello.

Robert is staying.

“Aaron, what can I get you today?”

He’s broken from his stupor.

“Just a plain loaf today, Maggie.” He’s itching with questions, and tries to settle on one that feels innocuous. “So, Sarah’s got a new barman?”

She nods while wrapping the bread in wax paper to protect it. “Robert. You’ve probably not met him, he’s not been around much this past year.”

She leans on her arm over the counter, conspiratorially, “He had quite the reckless youth. Breakin’ hearts, disappearing for months at a time.” She shakes her head, “His poor mam, he was always a handful. Running naked as a wee babe down the street into the sea while she yelled after him. Hopefully he’s grown out of that by now.”

Aaron huffs out a laugh in reply.

She smiles at him, “But that’d be quite the show! I wouldn’t mind catching an eyeful.”

She winks at him, sounding so much like his nan that he’s homesick. He can’t help but laugh with her while she hands him his bread.

He steps outside, feels the light rain on his skin, and lets the thought that Robert’s staying echo through him. He doesn’t know how to imagine a world where he’s always near. It’s somehow worse than the thought of him leaving town.

 

**********

 

He’s making roasted potatoes and cod. It’s the type of meal that requires nothing more than putting everything into the pan and placing it in the oven. There’s a letter on his table from his mum, and once everything’s ready he’ll sit down and read it.

He lays the filets over the thinly sliced and seasoned potatoes, adds some small crumbs of butter, covers the pan carefully, and slides the whole thing into the oven rack of his stove. He fiddles with the wood a bit, trying to get the temperature to around what he needs. But, he figures it’s alright if some bits are a bit more done than others.

He grabs his cup of tea and sits, tearing open the envelope with a finger. Inside there’s a smaller envelope addressed in Liv’s frankly awful handwriting. He’ll save that one for after the guilt he’s sure his mum’s will be full of.

My Dear Aaron,

I’m glad you’re making friends and enjoying your local. I bet their meat pie doesn’t hold a candle to Marlon’s, though. And I’m happy to hear the owner can’t pull a pint like me. No one can!

Aaron smiles at her scrawling handwriting, the way her words rush together a bit and crowd at the edge of the page. There’s even a small beer stain at the top, she probably wrote it while standing for her shift and doing less than her share of work at the bar.

There’s a paragraph about the family news that he skims, too many names and cousins to keep track of, but they all seem alive and well.

Paddy has started making me dinner some nights. He’s a sight better cook than I am, that’s for sure. He sends his love.

That stands out. He always thought the village vet had an interest in his mum, and he’s a good man. He’ll treat her well. And she’ll have some decent meals that aren’t pub food, toast, or a sandwich.

I can’t believe it’s been over a year since you left. You sound settled and content. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for you, and it sounds like where you are is doing you a world of good. You deserve to be well and truly happy, Aaron.

Love,

Your mum

He finds he’s got tears in his eyes at the end. He knows she’s always meant well, but sometimes he’s felt like he can’t be what she wants. She doesn’t understand his love for the water, hates having him so far away. This is the first time she hasn’t ended a letter with a plea to come home.

He feels lighter than he has in a decade. He wipes his face and opens Liv’s letter.

No. I passed away. This is a notice that I’m haunting you.

-Liv

He laughs and drinks his tea.

 

**********

 

Ellis’ crew is a few men down, and they bring him on to help with the spring clean up. Scraping muck and barnacles off a hull for hours may not seem like a good day, but to Aaron it’s just what he needs. The ache in his arms and back, the constant scratch of tools against wood and metal, the easy camaraderie of men with a common goal.

He’s on his back underneath the tracks they’ve got the ship on, listening to the muffled nothings of the crew and working some particularly persistent shellfish off the edge of the keel, and feeling more himself than he has in days. The sand scratches as it shifts beneath his shoulders, the waves are quiet but ever-present.

It starts to drizzle, and the men begin to pack up their tools. There’s no need to work in the wet, they’ve days to finish this project. The boats aren’t going back in the water until they’re clean.

“Pint, Aaron?” Ellis is at his side, clapping him on a shoulder with gloved hands.

Aaron’s tired. He hasn’t slept well since Robert, and for the first time in days he feels like he might, so he waves him off, “Tomorrow, yeah? Once the work’s all done.”

Ellis smiles, pointing a finger at Aaron, “I’m holding you to that!” He jogs off to join the rest of the crew in their walk to the pub.

Aaron tilts his head back, letting the light rain tap against his forehead and eyelids briefly. He walks home, stretching his neck and shoulders as he goes so that he won’t wake up sore.

There’s a package on his doorstep, wrapped in simple brown paper. It doesn’t have an address or even a name on it, and it’s simply taped together. He picks it up and tucks it under one arm, wanting to wash his hands before opening.

He toes off his shoes, puts a log into the stove, pulls off his wet and sandy layers, washes his hands and face, and then pulls on a warmer black jumper. He sits down at the table to open the package.

Inside looks like a spotted seal skin, but it’s as thin as silk. It flows in his hands like mercury, spilling over his fingertips and clinging to his skin. It’s wrapped around something, and he pulls and twists the material that seems to be constantly changing in bulk from voluminous to barely there.

At the middle of the bundle is his seal figurine.

Aaron swallows. He looks at the pattern on the shifting skin. He knows those spots.

He stands, pushing the chair back. His table is draped with his seal’s skin.

He needs a drink.

Cup of whisky in hand he looks back at the table. His heart is racing. He takes a swig. It burns and twists in his throat. He knows what this means. He does. He just can’t think the words because if he does he’ll have to face what Robert is.

He’ll have to face what this gesture means.

He winces at his second sip, too large and full of fire.

Aaron folds the skin neatly. It’s so small when it’s smoothed and pressed. He places it in the trunk, nestles it in next to his sheets and jumpers. All he can hear is his own ragged breathing and the crackle of burning logs in his stove. He takes another large sip and looks at the seal in the middle of his table.

He picks it up and places it back on the shelf. He doesn’t need to have the small sculpture dominate his kitchen, preventing him from thinking about anything else.

He’s suddenly drained. The rain has picked up into a soothing whir of sound and he hasn’t slept well in so long and the thought of looking straight at what he knows makes him sag in exhaustion. He can’t tonight.

Tomorrow, he promises himself as he tugs off his trousers and climbs into bed.

 

**********

 

Aaron wakes up later than normal. The bright light of late winter sun fills his room, illuminating every corner. The room feels like it does before a summer storm. There’s a charge and heaviness to the air that has nothing to do with the barometer.

He pushes himself up in the bed, feet hitting the cold floor forcefully. The chest fills his peripheral vision even when his eyes are closed. It looms.

He can’t put this off any longer. He stands, noticing how much more stable he feels after a night of dreamless sleep. In spite of everything he feels better.

He moves to the foot of his bed and kneels. He pushes open the trunk, lid banging against his bed frame. He picks up the skin and marvels at how weighty it feels. He lets it pool onto the table.

He puts water on to boil and watches the skin.

He pours himself a cup of tea, eyes never moving from the silvery spotted material.

He pushes himself up and onto the countertop rather than sit in the chair, sipping his too hot drink and not noticing the numbing burn on his tongue.

He waits in silence for… something. He turns Sarah’s story over and over in his mind. Tries to remember every detail she said. Feels the word tumbling over and over. Tastes it on his tongue: selkie.

 

**********

 

Now that he’s thought the word he needs to leave. Needs to walk, to feel and hear things that aren’t the texture of that thought. He wants to ground himself with sea.

He pulls on enough to keep himself warm and begins to walk the winding cliffside path he last travelled with Robert. He’s grateful the seals aren’t on their beach. Feels lucky the only thing he can hear above the hushed crunch of his own boots is the sea and the wind and the quiet life of the town.

He winds his way down to the beach, filling his lungs with sea air and listening to the rush of water rather than the chaos in his mind.

He gets to the water, pebbles and sand underfoot. He wants to take off his shoes, feel the waves rush over his bare skin, but the water’s bitterly cold, so he settles for inhaling and exhaling as the foam runs up the shore.

He walks along the water, eyes down on the lacy bubbles. He doesn’t have a goal in mind, just wants to settle himself.

He thinks about the halting apology he’d cut off the other night. Thinks about the hurt he saw in Robert’s eyes when he pushed him back. Robert has a secret, one that can ruin him and his whole family if enough believers hear it, and he’d wanted to tell it to Aaron.

He’s given up his freedom to Aaron. Willing to stay out of the sea forever for him. Aaron’s never had someone so unequivocally choose him.

A shock of color in the sand catches his eye. There’s a limpet shell half hidden, its underside a brilliant emerald. He pulls it out of the sand and washes it in the sea. It has been tumbled and smoothed by the ocean.

The outside is brown and lightly speckled, all ridges and rings. The inside is green, far brighter than he’s seen before.

He brings the shell with him, turning it rhythmically in his hand as he walks. At the furthest end of the beach there are large boulders that block the way. He stops and turns back, barely able to pick out the distant shape of the village above the cliffs.

He tries to imagine giving up the sea. Returning to Emmerdale, farming by his family. Would he do that for someone? He’d been unable to resist the pull of the ocean when his own mother had begged him to stay.

He looks down at the shell in his hand, color the same as Robert’s eyes.

He thinks he could.

 

**********

 

Aaron’s walk back is steady. He doesn’t need to rush. This is no impulsive, wild action. He doesn’t stop at home, just continues past to Sarah’s pub.

He goes to the side door, opens the mailbox, and places the shell inside. He hopes Robert will understand.

He walks home, goes to the shed, and brings the chair inside, putting it across from his. 

He picks up the selkie skin, folds it carefully, and puts it on the shelf by the shells. He won’t hide it from Robert, won’t keep him where he doesn’t want to be.

He pulls out a cutting board and begins to prepare a shepherd's pie, hoping he’ll get to share it.

 

**********

 

While the pie cooks he clears away clutter. He makes his bed fully for the first time in months, washes the empty cups in the sink thoroughly, and replaces a bulb that went out weeks ago but felt like too much work to reach. He scrubs his face and trims his beard carefully.

He makes tea. After four cups he’s shaking, so he sits down to write his mum and Liv letters. The words come out jumbled and useless. He gives up and puts the paper and pen away.

He hopes they check their mail every day. Hopes Sarah doesn’t discard the shell as some strange child’s game.

He pulls out a piece of wood and his whittling knife, but stops when it feels like his fingers will be victims of his nerves.

He pulls out the pie to let it rest. He takes down a single bowl and fork, resigning himself to tea alone. He needs to think of what to say to Robert in person, he’d been counting on the gesture to say everything for him.

There’s a hesitant sounding knock on the door. Aaron swallows, closes his eyes for just a second, clenches his fists once before opening it.

Robert’s there in nothing but his work shirt, shivering, and looking into Aaron’s eyes searchingly. He’s got one hand wrapped tight around something, the other runs through his hair nervously. He puts a trembling palm out, revealing the shell.

“Please tell me this is from you.” His voice has none of the bravado Aaron’s come to expect.

Aaron reaches out, wraps his fingers around Robert’s wrist, and pulls him in from the cold. He pushes the door closed behind him quietly.

Robert looks around the room, eyes catching on the shelf. He’s frozen in place for a second, staring at his skin.

He turns to Aaron, eyes scanning his face, and blindly places the shell on the table next to them. He steps in, bringing their faces close enough together that Aaron can feel his shaking exhales on his cheek.

“I’d move inland with you.” Aaron breathes out. “I hate fields and farms, but if you asked I…”

He looks at Robert’s mouth, admires the curve of his upper lip. “I think I could give up the sea for you.”

Robert’s hands start to move as he exhales, “God, Aaron.” They cup his face, tilting his chin up as he presses their mouths together.

Aaron brings one hand up to rest on Robert’s shoulder, thumb pressing into his collarbone, and one travels to the small of his back to pull him closer. He tilts his head, deepens the kiss, feels the ways his nerves sing wherever Robert touches him. Loves how easily they fit together, how his rough hands feel against the smooth planes of muscles.

His stomach rumbles, breaking the moment and reminding him he hasn’t eaten all day. Robert turns his head and laughs against his cheek.

Aaron clears his throat, “I made tea.”

Robert leans back, hands not moving from where they’d ended up on Aaron’s arms. He quirks an eyebrow, looking over Aaron’s shoulder at the pie.

“Sorry it’s not raw crab, but I’m partial to warm meals.”

He can feel the sudden tension in Robert’s grip, the instinctual fear before he remembers Aaron knows and he starts chuckling, resting his head on Aaron’s shoulder. He likes the way the laugh sends ripples down his spine.

“C’mon. I’m starving.” He guides Robert, still wrapped around Aaron, to his chair. “Sit.”

He grabs a second bowl, fills both, and passes one to Robert. They sit across from each other, legs intertwining, and share their first meal on land.

 

**********

 

They do the dishes side by side, shoulders bumping as Aaron washes and Robert dries. Even with two there’s not much cleaning that needs to be done. The second he turns and dries his hands Robert puts his dishtowel down, slotting in behind Aaron, wrapping his arms around his waist, and burying his face into the base of his neck.

Aaron leans his head back, resting it on Robert’s broad shoulder. He feels Robert murmur something against his skin.

“What?”

Robert presses a soft kiss to his temple, bringing his mouth closer to Aaron’s ear, “You threw away all my shells.”

Aaron looks at his shelf, checks the two are still there, and frowns. He has a flash of shells lining the bottom of his boat. He turns in Robert’s arms, rests their foreheads together. “You stole my seal.”

Robert hums in acknowledgment, walking them towards the sofa.

“I borrowed your seal.”

“And I replaced your shell.”

Aaron steps blindly backward guided by Robert, hooking his arms around Robert’s neck and nipping at his bottom lip, making Robert gasp out his name.

He redirects them to the bed, knows the sofa won’t easily fit them lying down, and he needs that. He pulls, bringing Robert down with him, loves the solid weight of him.

They kiss lazily, Robert in the space between Aaron’s legs. Aaron’s hand slowly caressing along freckled ribs. He feels the marks where the net cut in.

God, he could have lost Robert that day.

Robert feels his hands stutter.

“I was stupid. I didn’t even see the mesh, and I thought I could get it off when it got stuck.”

Aaron drags his thumb across the longest line.

“Idiot.” He fills the word with affection.

Robert leans back in to reclaim his mouth, loading the kiss with intent, hands pushing Aaron’s jumper up to expose his stomach, running blunt nails across sensitive skin. He gasps, the tickle making him shiver.

Robert’s unnaturally warm body is pinning him down, stopping him from accelerating what they’re doing. He’s never done this in this soft, slow way. Never let light touches and kisses build like this, like they have all the time in the world. He wonders if Robert can feel his smile in their kiss when he realizes they do.

 

**********

 

He wakes up with Robert curled around him, large hand resting on his bare chest, steady breaths against his shoulder. He’s got one ankle hooked around Aaron’s, his body anchoring him to the bed from head to toe.

It’s still early, the room is mostly black barely touched with tints of moody greys. He can hear the light rainfall, if he focuses and listens he can just make out the ocean.

He can’t imagine what that sound does to Robert.

He shifts, trying to turn onto his side to look at him without falling off the bed that seemed large enough when he bought it. Robert huffs a little noise of displeasure, breathing becoming uneven as he accommodates Aaron sleepily.

He can just barely make out the way Robert’s lashes move as he blinks slowly, just on this side of awake.

“I’ll wait for you.” He doesn’t mean to say it. It whispers out of him and he wants to slap a hand over his mouth, keep the confession inside.

Robert makes a croaking questioning sound, tries to wake up enough to follow what he’s saying, understanding even when nearly asleep that Aaron’s tone is serious.

Aaron swallows thickly, voice an unsteady rumble. “When you need to go back, I’ll wait. I can manage alone.”

A month ago that had been the way he’d imagined the rest of his life, he could return to it.

A week or two with Robert every six months. Sarah’d said it was worth it.

Feeling how he does after just a night with Robert, he believes her.

Robert is fully awake now, the outline of him moves with purpose.

“Aaron,” His voice is deep and dark. “I haven’t been in my skin in days. When my family are together at my mum’s we lock it away because it pulls at us. It wears my family down resisting it.“

“God, Robert, I’m sor—“

Robert’s soft hand on his cheek silences him, Aaron closes his eyes when he smooths his thumb over a brow. “You’ve nothing to be sorry for.”

He shifts closer, sharing the pillow. “I’m tellin ya, I can’t feel it when I’m with you. There’s no undertow, no ache in my bones.”

The room has slowly lightened into shades of violet. Aaron can see the constellations of freckles on the ball of Robert’s shoulder.

“I’m not trapped here.” Robert holds his gaze intently. “I- I think I could go and come as I please.”

Aaron knows what that means. Knows he scoffed at it before.

He doesn’t trust himself to speak, just tucks an unruly bit of hair behind Robert’s ear and nods quickly.

“Yeah?” Robert’s smile creeps wider, making his eyes crinkle at the edges.

“Yeah.”

 

**********

 

Aaron Dingle’s boat has been touched by St. Andrew, that’s what they say. He always knows where to put his lines, never pulls up empty pots. Boats that try and move in on his space find their returns lacking. Gossips who whisper cruel words about him under their breath find buoys missing, boats become unchained and go adrift.

The older men respect his skills. He’s got a reputation for the best built traps in the village; he charges a fair price, but you have to agree to not harm the seals. He’s a bit of a softie for them.

His only crew member is the co-owner of the local pub, Robert Sugden. He works the late night shifts now that his business partner is a bit older, and Aaron’s a regular feature at the bar, sometimes joined by a few mates, but usually just bantering with the barkeep.

Eyes in the village studiously ignore the matching bands around their fingers. That’s none of anyone’s business.