It was so cold in the flat that Jon half-expected to see his breath.
No matter how tightly he wrapped his borrowed robe around himself, it still seeped through the fabric. The kitchen floor beneath his bare feet might as well have been ice. His nose was already halfway to numb.
As he turned the kettle on, he thought wistfully of the bed he had just left, warm and delightfully crowded as it was. But he was wide awake, and when he was awake it was impossible to sit still. The last thing he wanted to do was subject them to his fidgeting at three in the morning.
No. They needed rest, and he needed calm. Chamomile should do the trick, even if he didn’t have Martin’s magic touch.
The kitchen’s single window was shut tight against drafts, but the blinds were open. When Jon leaned against the counter at just the right angle, he could see the moon peeking over the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. Tonight it was closer to full than half, like a glowing fingernail that someone had clipped.
…What an odd analogy. He wondered if Martin would genuinely like it, or find it funny.
Jon suppressed another shiver as he continued to watch it, mesmerized by the glow as he teetered between wide awake and exhausted. A distant howl reached his ears, muffled by distance and the closed window. There was no answer. Less than a week ago the moon had been full, the voices many.
When the water was ready, he filled his mug and dropped the bag in, then resumed watching the sky. He sipped mechanically as soon as it had cooled enough to drink, heedless of how long it had steeped. Warmth filled him from the inside, leaving his mouth in a relieved sigh.
It was nearly half-past when he felt arms wrap around him from behind, long and slender and gracefully strong. Breath whispered across his skin as a familiar face tucked itself into the crook of his neck, cool in spite of the warmth of the bed.
Jon leaned back, eyes slipping shut as he was drawn close. “You should be in bed.”
Breath brushed his neck again in a quiet laugh. “Pot, kettle,” Gerry replied. “Is this mine?”
He plucked at the sleeve of the robe, fingers catching on the soft white fabric, and Jon tucked his chin in with a smile. It was, and it never failed to amuse him that, in spite of the rest of Gerry’s fashion sense, he had a soft spot for fluffy bathrobes at home.
(His smile faded when he remembered why.)
“You weren’t using it.” Jon turned around in Gerry’s arms, and bit his lip when he caught sight of his face. The dark circles beneath his eyes were more pronounced than ever, and his skin was so pale it was almost translucent. When he loosened his embrace to let Jon move, he could not longer hide the shaking.
“Oh dear,” Gerry said indulgently, as if Jon were the unreasonable one. “What’s that look for?”
“You should be in bed,” Jon repeated.
“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know.” Taking advantage of height, Gerry rested his chin on the top of Jon’s head. “Woke up and you weren’t there.”
Jon pursed his lips with disapproval that was only a little bit exaggerated. “So you left Martin all alone? Heartless.”
“I’ll go back if you do,” said Gerry. “I’ll even stay there for the rest of the night if you like.”
The tea was doing the trick already, though Gerry’s closeness certainly didn’t hurt. Drowsily relaxed, Jon let his forehead rest against Gerry’s chest. “Is that a promise?”
“Cross my heart,” Gerry said with an audible smile. “Long as I have you both there. I don’t want to miss a moment.”
He froze, like he knew it was the wrong thing to say.
“Gerry,” Jon began.
“Sorry,” Gerry pulled back to press his lips to Jon’s forehead. “I’m sorry, that sounded less maudlin in my head. I’ll be fine. It’ll pass, like it always does. I’ll live. You know that.”
“Gerry, you need—”
“Come back to bed.” Gerry’s hands, pressed to the sides of Jon’s face, were just as cold as his lips had been. “Please?”
Jon shut his eyes against the threat of tears. He’d come out here to calm down, to settle himself so that he could go back to sleep. He wasn’t supposed to cry.
“Alright,” he said, once he trusted himself to speak. “I’m coming.”
He left the mug on the counter to deal with in the morning. If Gerry leaned on him a little more heavily than usual on the way back to the bedroom, neither of them commented on it.
Martin was stirring when the two of them returned, almost hidden entirely by the down comforter. When Jon pulled the covers back, he found him curled around a familiar coat of soft, dark fur, hugging it to his chest like a security blanket. His face was half-buried in the hood, breathing in the comforting smell of the sea.
Without a word, Jon coaxed Gerry into the middle. Any other night, Gerry would have argued, and probably would have won by picking Jon up and put him between them. As it was, Gerry went without protest, which was a relief at the same time as it worried him.
Martin shifted to curl up against him and pull him close, all without waking up. With a sigh, Gerry cuddled up to the fur coat and closed his eyes.
Finally Jon shed the bathrobe and lay down with them. The bed was as warm as he’d left it, and he pressed up against Gerry’s cold back until, nestled between them, he finally stopped shivering fitfully and went back to sleep.
In the morning, Martin called in sick to work and stayed in bed long after Jon had reluctantly left. The flat stayed cold but Martin was still warm in bed, weighed down by heavy blankets and nestled in soft sealskin that smelled of home.
In his arms, Gerry slept on, and on, and on.
He wasn’t dying, no matter how much he might look it. He breathed, his heart still beat, and if Martin pressed close enough, he swore he could smell the life still clinging to him. Gerry was no weaker than he had been yesterday, which wasn’t saying much, but Martin would take every boon that came their way.
Finally, as the bedroom brightened in the midmorning sun, Gerry stirred, pressed his chilled face into Martin’s shoulder, and made a noise of quiet discomfort.
“Morning,” he mumbled. “Don’t you have to be up?”
“Called in,” Martin answered. “I thought it’d be nice to spend the day with you.”
I didn’t want you to wake up alone, he didn’t say.
Martin had always run hot. Even as a child holding his mum’s hand, others felt cool to the touch until he held them long enough. He used to tell himself that was what his hands were made for.
It worked the first time Gerry got sick like this, and the second. But now, no matter how long and how desperately he clung, he couldn’t keep him warm, not in a way that stuck. Gerry still shivered the moment he let go.
So no, he didn’t particularly feel like leaving the bed today.
“Martin.” Gerry’s voice reached his ears, drowsy and softly fond. “You can’t stay in here forever.” Instead of answering, Martin buried his face in Gerry’s neck. “Have you even eaten yet?”
“Thought I’d wait for you,” said Martin. “Are you hungry?”
“I could try and eat,” Gerry said after a moment, which wasn’t a yes.
“Alright, then.” Martin sat up, taking Gerry with him as he pushed back the comforter. He started to draw the seal skin around his shoulders, only to pause and weigh his options before tucking it around Gerry instead. For once, Gerry didn’t protest. Either the argument had finally run its course, or he just didn’t have the energy for it anymore.
Dry toast wasn’t a half-decent breakfast for anyone, but Martin had tried buttering it yesterday morning, and Gerry had barely kept it down. The kettle went on, of course. Martin wondered if maybe this time the tea would warm him properly.
Gerry picked at the toast valiantly, chewing a tiny bite to nothing before he forced it down. Pulling his own chair closer, Martin let his hand rest on Gerry’s back, nestling in the soft fur coat.
“Think I upset Jon, last night,” Gerry admitted.
“That’s… not all that hard to do,” said Martin.
“Didn’t mean to.” Gerry put the toast down. “Found him in the kitchen at three a.m., and when I asked him to come back to bed it just… slipped out. I told him I didn’t want to miss a moment.”
Hearing it upset Martin, too. But he had always been better at sitting on things than Jon was.
“I meant it,” Gerry went on. “I wasn’t lying—I’m tired of lying. I’m tired of pretending this’ll get better again. I just want to—to bury myself in all the good I have.”
“And I’ve had it good. I really have. Even without…” His fingers curled into the coat he was wrapped in, rubbing the soft fur between his fingers.
Martin pressed a kiss to the side of his head, breathing in the sweet herbal scent of his shampoo.
“I’m sorry,” Gerry whispered. “I just wish I could give you more.”
The kettle went off before Martin could reply. Old habit took over, and he got up to get the tea ready. Gerry was shivering again when he returned, even under the heavy warmth of the seal coat. He only stopped when Martin took his hands and wrapped them around the cup.
“Do you ever miss it?” Martin asked.
“I dunno. Maybe.” Gerry let Martin pull him against his side. “Yes. Every day. I still remember the feel of it, sometimes.” He shrugged further into the coat around him. “Can’t tell if wearing this makes it better or worse.”
He sounded so apologetic that Martin had to kiss him again.
“I still fly in my dreams,” Gerry admitted. “Even now.” He sniffed, shrugged, forced nonchalance into every move. “Not that it matters. It’s been years. Probably wouldn’t even remember how, if I did get it back.” His voice cracked on the last word.
Martin couldn’t quite stifle the low noise that built in the base of his throat.
“Hey.” With some effort, Gerry turned toward him, releasing the cup to hold Martin’s face between his hands instead. “Listen to me. Are you listening?”
Martin smiled. “Always.”
“When I was a kid, the one thing I knew—the one thing I was sure of — was that I was gonna die the way my dad did,” Gerry said bluntly. “But now—no matter what else happens, that won’t. I got—I get to have you, and Jon. And that’s so much more than—”
He had to stop, then, and Martin pulled him close and tried not to notice that even his tears were cold as they came out.
Time was running out, now. Nothing could warm him anymore, not Martin or Jon or the bed they shared. Not even the sealskin around his shoulders could replace what was stolen from him.
Martin had always been better at sitting on his feelings. Jon’s were like sodium in water sometimes, bright and loud and volatile even if they changed on the way out—fear to denial, sorrow to anger. But Martin kept his close, bore down on them with heat and pressure until they hardened and resolved.
That was what he needed now. More than warmth, more than caring, more than tea and soup and a kiss, he needed resolve.
The morning before the moon was full again, Jon woke to the sound of Martin crying.
Martin didn’t cry often, or easily. He claimed that it was by design, that he found it unhelpful and didn’t like to upset people, though Jon had his doubts. But he was crying now, and that was enough to yank Jon from the depths of sleep into full wakefulness.
“Martin? What is it? What’s wrong?” Half-blind without his glasses, he felt his way to the blur of Martin’s face, finding it already damp beneath his fingers.
Martin breathed in sharply, quick and shuddering the way he always did when swallowing his tears. When spoke, Jon had to marvel at the icy calm in his voice.
“I can’t wake him.”
In the hellish seconds it took to get his glasses on, Jon was half-convinced he was dead. He had woken up wrapped around him the way he’d fallen asleep, but with Gerry so frighteningly cold this past month, that was hardly reassuring.
But Gerry still breathed, and his heart still beat, and even his eyelids twitched as he dreamed. He didn’t move, not even to stir in his sleep, no matter how much Jon shook him and pleaded with him and pressed kiss after kiss to lips that would not return them.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jon saw Martin move. He looked up, eyes stinging with the threat of tears, just in time to see Martin start to slip the sealskin off.
“What are you—Martin, no.” Jon reached him in an awkward lunge, seizing handfuls of soft fur to keep the coat wrapped firmly around Martin’s shoulders. “What are you doing?”
Martin squirmed against his grip. His eyes were still fixed on Gerry, glassy with desperate anguish. “Jon, he’s freezing—”
“I know, but—”
“He needs it more than I do,” Martin pleaded.
“No , Martin.” Jon gathered him close, arms wrapped tightly around both Martin and his coat. “ You need it more, right now. You know that. You have to keep it on.”
Martin shuddered against him, wheezing as he swallowed a sob. “What if we’re too late?”
“We’re not.” Jon took his hand, threaded their fingers together, pressed their palms flat on Gerry’s chest, where they could feel both the heartbeat and the steady rise and fall of each breath. “We’re not too late. There’s still hope.”
“Just a few minutes,” Martin murmured.
Jon shook his head. “It won’t help. You know that.” With his other hand he let go of the fur, safe in the certainty that Martin wouldn’t try to take it off again, and pressed it to Martin’s damp cheek. “There’s only one thing that can warm him now.”
Martin took one more long, shuddering breath, and turned his head into the touch. “Okay,” he whispered. “Okay.”
They spent the day at home, neither of them willing to stray far from the bedroom. Jon watched as Martin checked again and again, scowling over their sleeping boyfriend to make sure he hadn’t stopped breathing since the last time he looked. He didn’t comment on it, because he knew that Martin was watching him do the same.
They drank tea and ordered in and read books and talked quietly—mostly to each other and sometimes to Gerry—and most of all they waited. There was nothing more that they could do, not quite yet, no matter how desperately they wished that they could. That night they went to bed together, both of them curled around Gerry’s sleeping form. Martin managed to fall asleep, and Jon did not.
Morning came. The sun rose and Gerry slept on, pale and wasting away but still breathing. Exhausted after a sleepless night, Jon locked his arms around Gerry and shut his eyes against the morning. He stayed there long after Martin had gotten up, drifting in fog as he chased whatever traces of rest he could grasp.
Eventually, when he was forced to open his eyes, he found that he was no less beaten-down and worried than he had been when he lay down the previous night.
“I don’t think this is working,” he whispered, even though he knew that Gerry wouldn’t answer. “Can’t afford to put it off any longer.”
He wriggled back against the headboard as he sat up, careful not to shift the covers off of Gerry. He knew in his head that they were useless against the unnatural chill, but still he carefully tucked them around Gerry’s shoulders, plumped the pillow beneath him, and brushed his long, dark hair out of his face. That turned easily into a caress, and Jon sat with him for a while longer, crosslegged on top of the covers as he stroked his boyfriend’s hair.
“Today’s the day,” he said to the silent room, to Gerry’s still face. “Did you know what we were planning, I wonder? You never said—I always thought that was a sure sign that you didn’t. You were always—” He stopped himself. “You’ve always been adamant, about keeping us away from all that. And I do love you, and I think you’re wonderfully clever, but if you’d known, you would have tried to stop us.” He bit his lip. “I hope you can forgive us for doing it anyway.”
His throat hurt, the way it usually did when he might cry. He slid back down, until his face was level with Gerry’s again, and he could lean over and kiss the spot between his eyebrows.
“I’m sorry we didn’t do it sooner,” he whispered. “I’m sorry we let it go this far.”
Eventually he tore himself away. He was equal parts cold and thirsty, and knowing Martin, the kettle would still be on. He knew he had to be hungry, but he couldn’t feel it through the heavy knot of dread in his stomach.
And then he stepped out to find Martin curled up on the sofa, seal fur draped over his shoulders like an afghan. The knot loosened, just enough that he could breathe again.
Martin lifted his head as he approached, eyes heavy-lidded when Jon’s hand threaded into his hair. “How is he?”
“No worse,” Jon replied, sliding into his lap. “What about you?”
“What about me?” Martin grasped the edges of the fur coat, wrapping it snugly around both of them. Jon’s eyes drifted shut at the familiar smell.
“Today’s the day,” he said. “How do you feel?”
“Scared,” Martin answered readily. “Angry. Determined. Plenty of other things. Why?”
Jon tucked his head under Martin’s chin, burying his face in the knit wool that covered his chest. “Just seeing if you’re sure,” he said. “You are sure, aren’t you? That you want to do this?”
“What other choice do we have?”
“Some would argue that there’s always a choice,” Jon mused, and smiled at Martin’s soft snort.
“Never said their wasn’t,” Martin pointed out. “Just—what else is there? Let him waste away to nothing? That’s not a choice.”
“I won’t,” Martin said fiercely. “I won’t just watch him die, Jon. I refuse.”
“I know.” Jon’s fingers curled in the soft wool. “And I feel the same. You know that.”
“Well. Good.” Martin shifted beneath him, pulling him into a more snug position. “I can leave now. Get a head start.”
Jon ground his teeth worriedly. “Not a good idea,” he said. “Timing is everything. Too early can be just as fatal as too late.”
“Right, right, yeah.” Jon rose and fell on another heavy sigh from Martin. “Stick to the plan, then.”
“Soon,” Jon reminded him.
They spent the day together, drifting quietly from the living room to the kitchen and back to the bedroom, always within sight of each other, never so far away that they couldn’t reach out and touch if they wanted. It felt… not like a goodbye, exactly. But it felt like waiting. Like their were both holding their breath, wishing for the peak and the fall if only so that the climb would end.
When they reached it at last, it still felt far too soon.
Martin went back into the bedroom once more, when it was nearly time. There wasn’t much he could say, when Gerry couldn’t answer. There wasn’t much he could say that Gerry didn’t already know.
So he sat beside him for a moment, running his fingers through his hair, before bending down and pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth.
Watching from the doorway, Jon heard him whisper, “I’ll get it back for you,” before he finally, reluctantly, rose from the bed and left the room.
“Right.” At the front door, Martin clasped Jon’s hands in his own. “I’m off. Look after him, will you? Keep him here. Keep him with us.”
“I won’t leave his side until you’re back.” Jon pulled one hand free to cup his face. “And you will come back.”
Martin managed a lopsided grin as he leaned into Jon’s palm. “Obviously.”
“I’m not trading one of you for the other,” Jon went on. “Much less losing both of you. So don’t—I don’t know. Don’t do anything stupid.”
Instead of answering, Martin pulled him into a kiss, long and sweet. By the time he pulled back, he had already slipped the seal skin from his shoulders and pressed it into Jon’s waiting arms.
“You’re sure you won’t take this with you?” Jon whispered.
“It’ll be safer with you.” He squeezed Jon’s hands one last time. “I love you both.”
“I love you, too.”
He let go, and Martin was gone.
The drive to London took well over an hour. By the time Martin found a quiet, out-of-the-way place to park near Morden, it was evening. The moment he opened the door and stepped out, the cold winter wind swept around him, pressing in but not quite touching him. He breathed it in, wrinkling his nose at the familiar city-stink that he could never quite bring himself to miss.
The sky was dim, too late for proper sunlight but still too early for moon and stars. Even so, Martin could hear howling in the distance. There were wolves out tonight, as he knew their would be. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, but he shrugged off the instinct to duck into the shadows, and set off down the sidewalk with his head high.
He made sure to mark the place he left the car. Depending on how the night went, he might not have a chance to come back for it until much later.
Lingering warmth still clung to him, smelling of salt and sea and home. It had seeped beneath his skin, into his blood, as deep as his beating heart, and as he walked through Morden beneath the darkening sky, it kept the cold and the fear at bay. For the first time in months, since the day he first pressed his hand to Gerry’s face and felt the cold creeping in, Martin felt nothing but calm purpose.
When the only way was forward, it left no room for uncertainty.
In the end, he found it by following the smell of ozone. It was faint at first, barely a wisp carried on the wind, but the farther he walked, the stronger it grew. With his eyes fixed on the sky overhead, he watched the stars wink into view one by one, until he finally stopped on a street corner and lowered his eyes to the building in front of him. The dark stained wooden door may not have been there before. The brass plaque above it, reading “Pinhole Books – By Appointment Only” in the dim light of the street lamp, definitely had not been.
Pinhole Books was not the sort of shop that stayed in one place. On nights that it did appear, solstices and equinoxes and full moons and other nights its owner felt appropriate, there were only two ways to find it: either you knew exactly how, or you weren’t looking for it at all.
He stepped closer to the door, but at some point he was forced to stop. The door shimmered in what little light reached it, glinting on the linings of silver and copper, on the tiny etchings of protective wards along the edge. The invisible barrier bowed outward, keeping Martin at a healthy distance as long as it was shut. He rang the bell before he had the chance to lose his nerve.
The door opened far too soon, and all at once he felt very, very alone.
“Evening,” Mary Keay said with a wide smile. “Lovely night, isn’t it?” Her nostrils flared at the sight of him, but her face held no trace of recognition. It wouldn’t; Martin had never met her before. Gerry wouldn’t hear of it, because Mary Keay was many things, and dangerous was the least of them.
Gerry, he reminded himself. He was here for Gerry.
“Have you made an appointment?” Mary asked, smiling as if she’d just made a private joke.
“No,” he answered. “Thought I’d browse. Are you open?”
Mary’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully, but before Martin had the chance to properly worry, the unseen wolves sent up a howl. The old woman’s hands went to the bracelets and rings she wore on both hands, drawing Martin’s eyes. All of them were either silver or silver-plated, and when her movements shifted them aside, Martin caught sight of the gentle red-pink of irritated skin.
“Well, come in,” the old woman snapped, cordiality dissolving into more natural poison. “Hurry up, before you bring the dogs running.” Her nostrils flared again. “You smell like something they’d chase.”
Martin forced a smile, thought longingly of warm fur and the smell of home, and followed Mary Keay into her shop.
Once the door was firmly shut behind her, the old woman vanished into the back without another word, leaving Martin amid rows and rows of bookshelves lit by dim electric lights. Foul smells and soft whispers trickled from the shelves, each tome calling to him as he passed. A single window was set in a wall that, by the shop’s position, should have opened to the building next door. But instead, when Martin pushed back the curtains, he found a view of the clear eastern sky.
He left the curtains open and moved on.
Timing, as Jon had said, was everything. So Martin counted the seconds carefully as he wandered the shop, pretending to inspect the spines while keeping a healthy distance from them. Finally, when he could wait no longer, he walked to the back of the shop to look for Mary.
He found her seated at an ancient desk, grimacing over her jewelry. With flinching fingers she slipped off the bracelets and the rings, showing off the reddened skin beneath them. As soon as the silver was gone, it gradually began to heal before Martin’s eyes.
“Can’t be too careful.” She turned to him with a pleasant smile as she put the jewelry away. “Most nights I’m open, the streets are crawling with wolves. Shame I’m not quite pure enough for silver’s taste, these days.”
Behind him, the miasma of rot and whispering continued to pervade the air. “Hazards of the job, I imagine,” Martin remarked.
“It can’t be helped.” Mary turned her oily smile on him again. “Finding everything alright?”
“Not quite,” Martin replied. “What I’m looking for is a bit rarer.”
“Oh?” Mary sat up straighter, eyes alight with interest. “Well. You’ll be happy to know that I have a few more… interesting items, not on display.”
From where he stood, Martin could see partway into the rooms beyond: the edges of more shelves, filled with books and boxes and other things he couldn’t quite make out. “Is everything in here for sale?”
“Everything? I suppose. Within reason.” Her eyes grew sharp. “What did you say you were looking for?”
“Your son’s cloak,” Martin replied, and watched the ice and venom flow into the old woman’s face. “I know you have it.”
Mary Keay stood up. Her nostrils flared again, and her eyes glinted with a predator’s hunger, as if she smelled blood in the air and found it sweet. As she stepped around the desk, Martin fought the urge to back away, clinging desperately to the smell of the sea and the distant warmth of home.
“I almost didn’t believe it,” she said, her voice thoughtful. “When I heard my Gerard had stolen the heart of a selkie. It just seemed too sad to me, too desperate. Like he thought he could replace what he gave up.” She eyed him disdainfully. “And yet, here you stand. Tell me, how is my son? I’ve missed him dearly.”
“I’m not here to talk about Gerry,” said Martin. “I’m here for his cloak, and I have nothing else to say to you.”
She laughed at him, quiet and sibilant. “Then our business is done. Tell my Gerard he may ask for it himself, when he’s finished with his tantrum.”
“I’m not asking,” Martin said coldly. “I’m even offering to buy it from you—you did say everything here was for sale.”
Her eyes flashed. “I said ‘within reason.’”
Every instinct screamed at him to back away. He stepped forward instead. “And I think I’m being more than reasonable. What else would you call offering to buy something you stole?”
Her laughter raked at him like claws. “Stole? Is that what you think I did?”
“I know he didn’t give it to you,” he shot back. “You took it and you kept it from him, just like you did to his father—”
More laughter, and he longed to pin his ears back just so he wouldn’t have to hear it. “And if I did? It wasn’t theft—it was never theft. I can hardly steal something that already belongs to me.”
“It doesn’t,” Martin spat. “It wasn’t yours, he wasn’t yours—”
“Oh, but it was,” she sang out in triumph. “They both were. One was given to me, and the other I made.” She smiled with all her teeth. “Go home, selkie. Tell Gerard he can come home whenever he wishes, and I will consider letting him use it again.”
The air changed, then.
It wasn’t anything that Mary said, or that Martin did in response, because he did nothing in those moments but count the seconds. It was simply the passing of time, and the changing sky, and the curtains that Martin had left open over the window behind him.
The moon rose, and silver light spilled into the shop. The whispering books fell into a hush.
“I’m not leaving,” said Martin, as the very edge of the leaking moonlight reached him.
The warmth of seal fur, soaked in saltwater and sea wind and love, could only cling to him for so long.
He saw it in her eyes when she smelled the difference—the way they widened, and flickered, and drifted down to her hands, now empty of silver.
“No,” she said. “No, that’s—you’re not. You’re not.”
“Give me his wings, Mary,” said Martin.
She was backing away, but he’d stepped closer to her desk, blocking her path to her precious silver. “You’re a selkie,” she spat. “You came in reeking of the sea—”
The last traces of salt wind and home left him, as if the moonlight itself had burned them away. Martin’s teeth parted, gleamed. Grew.
“You think you can bully me?” Mary hissed as she backed away. “How dare you. How dare you take him from me, and come back and demand the rest. You’re wrong. It’s mine, damn you, he’s mine!”
Her back hit the floorboards roughly, hard enough to break the bones of any other old woman. She struggled to rise, but the heavy weight of blunt, spreading claws kept her where she lay. Jaws parted inches from from her face. Fur and teeth and eyes gleamed down on her, bathed in silver.
“Hmmine,” the wolf replied.
Jon woke in wild alarm, checked Gerry again, and waited for his racing heart to slow down.
His back hurt from the slumped angle he’d fallen asleep in, and his book had slipped from his hands and landed face down on the floor. Wincing over his stiff neck, he bent down over the side of the bed to retrieve it. His bookmark had fallen somewhere else, and he couldn’t remember what page he’d been on when he dozed off. The bedside lamp was still on, and he squinted in the light as he flipped through, trying to find his place, before giving up and putting it aside.
His coat was still wrapped around Gerry beneath the comforter, warm against his cold face. It was helping, Jon thought. It wasn’t warming him, and it wasn’t making him better, but he imagined it was buying time. Keeping him here, keeping him with them, like Martin asked.
Distantly, the sea was calling to him. He hadn’t tasted saltwater since Gerry first got sick. It wasn’t easy to ignore, but he could do it for Gerry. He’d gone without for years in the past. He could survive a few months by choice.
It was worth it, for Gerry. For Martin.
As if in answer to his thoughts, a howl soared though the night, rising and falling through the octaves. It was close.
It was familiar.
Jon sat up straight in bed, suddenly wide awake. He waited, scarcely breathing, hand frozen-mid stroke against Gerry’s hair.
The howl died away. Barely a minute later, there came a scratching at the door.
Jon leapt out of bed, nearly tripping and falling in his frantic scramble to reach it. He fumbled for light switches as he went, illuminating the flat until, finally, he turned on the outdoor light, undid the latch, and threw open the door.
A wolf stood outside, windswept and panting wearily. Light from within the flat fell upon yellow eyes and thick fur of mingled gray and tawny. As soon as their eyes met, the wolf surged forward, bulling roughly into Jon’s chest.
“Martin—” Jon gathered him close as best he could, arms barely fitting around Martin’s neck. The smell of London still clung to his fur, but it was faint, and the familiar scents of the seaside town were already smothering it again. “Did you run all night to get here?”
Martin responded with a rumble from deep in his chest, nosing gently against Jon’s face. Jon let his hands sink into his thick ruff and leaned forward to press a fond kiss between his eyes. As much as Jon loved to see Martin wrapped in his fur, he loved seeing him wear his own even more.
“Did it work?” he whispered. “She didn’t hurt you, did she?” Gerry would never forgive himself if she did—he might never forgive Jon for letting Martin go alone.
Martin stepped back, eyes gleaming with triumph, and looked down. Jon followed his gaze.
There, neatly folded on their doorstep between Martin’s massive paws, was a bundle of white.
Jon reached for it, hesitating at the last moment before he touched it. Martin’s muzzle dipped down to nudge it forward, and Jon finally picked it up with shaking hands.
It was soft, that was the thing. Softer than Martin’s fur, softer than Jon’s, even. It was the kind of soft that barely felt like touching anything at all. The kind of soft that caught on his fingertips, even though he didn’t have the sort of life that led to calluses. It was impossibly light as he lifted up, as if the down and feathers missed the sky just as much as their owner did.
Even now, years after he’d last touched it, it still smelled of Gerry.
Martin’s head pushed against his shoulder, urging him on. “Right, right,” Jon muttered, grasping his ruff fur to pull himself back to his feet. He raced back inside, while Martin kicked the door shut before following.
Was he imagining the way Gerry breathed easier when he returned to the bedroom? Or the hint of color in his face that hadn’t been there before?
Jon pulled back the covers and eased his coat away from Gerry. Then, with the utmost care, he shook out the folds of the cloak and tucked it around him in its place.
For a moment, Jon froze. He waited, half-expecting Gerry to wake up, but Gerry simply pulled his cloak closer around him, and rolled over to a fresher spot on the pillow. It was the first time he’d moved on his own in two days. When Jon reached out to touch his hair again, Gerry made a soft noise in his sleep and pushed further against his hand.
Jon wiped his eyes. His seal skin settled back around his shoulders, clinging close to him like it was made for him—which, in fact, it had been. Exhaustion sank in along with it, pressing him down beside Gerry’s sleeping form.
At the edge of the bed, Martin’s head settled on the edge of the mattress, staring longingly at them both. Jon chuckled quietly and patted the space near him.
“Come on, then,” he said. “There’s room.”
The mattress dipped alarmingly as Martin climbed onto it, then bounced gently while he sought out a comfortable position curled around them both. With one last huff of contentment, he finally settled down and closed his eyes.
The sea’s distant call faded from Jon’s senses as sleep—real sleep—finally claimed him.
His back was warm.
That was the first thing worth noticing, because he could barely remember the last time his back had been warm. He knew it had been, before some hazy point in the past, but beyond that point his memories were overtaken by the cold that ached deep in his bones.
He wasn’t just warm, Gerry realized as he floundered closer to the surface of consciousness. It was kind of hot, actually. Bordering on sweltering. Now half awake, Gerry squirmed under the heavy covers, twisted his head around as far as his neck would allow, and opened his heavy eyelids to the sight of a fawn-colored wolf the size of a pony, curled up against his back.
Gerry lay back down, grinning into the pillow, and found Jon’s face in front of him, half-buried under rumpled seal fur. Turning his face, he muffled a quiet laugh into his pillow at the sight. It was nice to see it—Jon had spent so much of the past few months throwing his coat at them for comfort, he’d hardly touched it himself unless he was tucking it around one of them instead.
Freeing one arm from the covers, Gerry reached across the narrow space between them and let his hand rest against Jon’s face. Jon stirred at his touch, brow furrowing as he slowly awoke. Finally his eyes opened and landed, still bleary with sleep, on Gerry’s face.
In an instant they flew open wide, and Jon heaved himself up on one elbow. “Gerry.”
“Morning,” Gerry murmured, before Jon threw himself across the space between them.
The kiss lasted until time slipped free of any real meaning. Gerry rolled back against Martin’s side, smiling helplessly against Jon’s warm mouth.
When Jon finally pulled back, his hands framed Gerry’s face, fingertips caressing his skin. “You’re awake.”
The aching relief in his voice made Gerry frown. “How long was I asleep?”
“Two days, nearly three,” Jon replied. “It’s after the full moon.”
His heart sank. “I’m sorry—”
“It’s alright,” Jon cut him off. “God, Gerry it’s alright.”
Gerry’s heart ached. He swallowed past the feeling and tugged on the edge of Jon’s coat. “You’re wearing your fur again.”
“Hm? Oh, well, yes. But what about you?” Jon pulled back again, eyes bright and eager. “How do you feel?”
He’d grown to hate that question, lately. He could either upset them or lie, and the second option usually upset them even more when they found out. Frowning, he hunted for the least terrible answer.
His thoughts stalled. Gerry’s frown deepened as he finally registered the rest of himself. The truth was, he felt kind of fantastic. And that made absolutely no sense.
“Gerry?” Jon’s face had gone from eager to confused the longer he took to answer. “Are you…?” His voice trailed off, and understanding dawned in a single blink.
“I can’t believe you,” Jon said, fighting back a smile. “Of course you notice mine and not yours.”
He looked down, and everything else just sort of fell away.
Some nights, he still dreamed about this. The weight around his shoulders. The warm, downy softness at his fingertips. The subtle drag of flight feathers sweeping the air. The layers of wind that made up the sky. The way it felt to be whole.
Losing it had been the price of freedom. He got out for good, he lived, he breathed, he laughed, he tasted joy every day, all because he’d traded this away. He wasn’t supposed to just—get it back. That wasn’t how it was supposed to work.
“This is—” He raised his head, struggling to focus on Jon’s face while the rest of the world spun out of reach. “How—?”
Panic slammed into him without warning.
“Jon, what did you do? ” He found Jon’s wrists and gripped them so hard it must have hurt, but he couldn’t think. “What did you do, how—”
“She would never have give this up,” Gerry went on desperately. “Not for me, not to save my life, not for anything, so what did you do, what did you give her—”
Wide, gentle arms wrapped around him from behind. “Breathe, Gerry,” Martin murmured. He was human-shaped again, and Gerry had been too busy losing his mind to notice the bed shifting.
Gerry realized, to his frustration, that he was starting to cry. He couldn’t afford to cry, not when the two people he loved more than anything may have done something phenomenally stupid while he was too weak to stop them.
“Shh, Gerry, it’s alright.” Jon’s hands were back, gentle and soothing as they pushed through the blind panic to anchor him again. “We didn’t give up anything. We knew you wouldn’t want that.”
“But—” Gerry gasped out. “There had to be something, Jon, she wouldn’t just…”
Jon’s calm eyes slid past him. “Well, Martin? What did you give Mary for his cloak?”
Pressing his cheek to Gerry’s head, Martin snorted quietly. “Gave her the favor of not ripping her throat out.”
Gerry made a strangled noise. “How did you even—she hates wolves. She wards against them every time her shop appears.”
“Mm.” Martin nuzzled into the back of his neck. “Good thing I’ve been wearing Jon’s coat so often, then.”
Jon’s coat. He’d been throwing it over Martin’s shoulders more often than his own. For months.
“You two planned this,” he said helplessly.
“Well, yeah,” Martin conceded.
“We did, a bit.”
“It could’ve gone wrong,” Gerry told them. “You have to have known that. I never wanted either of you anywhere near her.”
Jon smiled sadly. “I know.”
“Then why? Why would you do that—why would you take that risk?” He couldn’t glare at them both, not with Martin still behind him, so he settled for glaring at Jon instead. “And don’t say it’s because you love me, that’s a cop-out and you know it.”
“Still true,” Martin muttered.
Jon sighed. “Because it wasn’t up to you, Gerry.”
Gerry sat up, pulling out of Martin’s arms. “What do you mean it wasn’t up to me? She was my mother! I knew her better than either of you! Damn it, there’s a reason I never wanted to go back!”
“I know,” Jon said again. He took Gerry’s hand hesitantly, before squeezing gratefully when Gerry didn’t pull away. “And that was your choice. That you didn’t want to go back to her, no matter what, not even to try to take back what’s yours. We never would have asked you to.” He tugged Gerry’s hand closer, brushing it against his limps. “But we saw a way in, so we could take it back for you. And… Gerry, we thought we were going to lose you.”
“We were losing you,” Martin added quietly.
“We couldn’t just watch you die and do nothing,” said Jon.
“You could have,” Gerry tried to argue, but his heart wasn’t in it. It was so hard to argue when his cloak hung around his shoulders for the first time in years, his wings just a breath away.
Martin sat up beside him, gently turned Gerry’s face toward his, and said, “No. We couldn’t.”
His eyes were already watering. “Did you really threaten to go for the throat?”
“I mean, not verbally,” Martin said, with a smile just on the edge of smug. “But I think I got the message across.”
“I…” His throat closed. “I-I don’t… What do I even say?”
“You don’t have to say anything,” Martin assured him.
“Oh, that’s not quite true,” Jon said pointedly. “You can start by explaining yourself, Gerry Delano—how in God’s name do you look this good in white?” It shocked a laugh out of him, but Jon just kept going. “I mean—look at you. It’s absurd! You could have at least warned us.”
Gerry laughed until he was out of breath, until joyful tears were running down his face and into his feathers, until Martin could no longer contain himself and bore him back down to the pillows to kiss him deeply and thoroughly.
He’d thought he’d known joy before, but now there was more of it in him than he knew what to do with, more than he thought his body could hold. He poured as much of it as he could into the kiss, fueling the heat in him that had been missing for so long.
And then Martin pulled back to hover over him, eyes alight and lips red and swollen, and Gerry realized with a visceral thrill that he was hale and healthy again, and currently being straddled by his very enthusiastic and very naked boyfriend.
Jon reached over and pinched both of them. “Is this it?” he asked in a long-suffering voice. “Do I need to leave already?”
Gerry covered his face to stifle himself, while Martin hopped off him with a snort of laughter and reached over to grab Gerry’s bathrobe off of the headboard. “No, no, we’ll behave, I promise.”
“It’s fine if you’d like to,” Jon assured them. “It has been a while since I last had a swim.”
“There’s time for that later,” said Martin, settling back down. “God. There’s time. Imagine that.”
“Yeah,” Gerry said dreamily. Surrounded by the people he loved best, wrapped up in a softness he thought he’d lost forever…
When was the last time he’d properly dreamed, without having to fall asleep first?
“Actually,” he said aloud. “There’s something I have to…”
His voice trailed off, and a sting of fear pierced through the cloud of euphoria.
“Gerry?” Martin prompted.
It had been years. He’d been so young, the last time he touched his cloak. What if he didn’t remember how to use it?
Thin arms wrapped around him, holding him close and gentle.. Seal fur tickled the side of his neck. From the other side, Martin gathered both of them in. Breaths and heartbeats mingled into softness and warmth, and Gerry simply let himself sink into it.
The shape between them now was smaller, lighter, and deceptively delicate. He nestled in the folds of the down comforter, fully surrounded—on one side, sea-scented fur, and on the other, a fluffy borrowed bathrobe. Between the two of them, the cloud of snow-white feathers shifted, and Gerry arched his neck upward to take them both in at this new, half-forgotten angle.
“Oh.” Martin’s voice was hushed with awe.
Jon’s smile was softer, tinged with a recognition that didn’t quite make sense, because in all the years they had shared, he had never seen Gerry in this shape before.
And yet he smiled, as if the swan before him were the most familiar thing in the world, and all he said was, “There you are.”
Martin’s hand hovered over his back for a moment, before lowering carefully into white feathers. Gerry’s head curved back and rested briefly on the back of his hand, before he shifted again and stood to his tallest height.
The window was shut, but through the glass, at least from this angle, the only thing visible was the color blue, blended with the pale gray of winter clouds.
Jon had sat up again, and now he held out his hands in silent offering. Gerry’s head came down to rest in them, eyes shut as they cradled him gently.
“Do you want to fly again?” Jon asked. Gerry pressed into his hands with a quiet whistle, and Jon laughed and kissed his head. “Alright then. Take all the time you need. We’ll be here when you get back.”
The swan pressed his head against the side of Jon’s face, then turned and did the same to Martin, who laughed and kissed him as well.
“Well, I’ll be here,” said Martin. “Jon’s been needing that swim, haven’t you, Jon?”
“I can wait so you don’t have to be alone—”
“Jon,” Martin said fondly. “I had a good run last night. Don’t put it off any longer, will you?”
The sea still called to him, just as the sky called to one and the night called to the other. Jon smiled, and at last resolved to answer it. “Alright.”
As the sun rose to morning, a swan took to the air and a seal dove beneath the waves, while a man who had spent the night a wolf turned on the kettle and settled in to wait, safe in the knowledge that they would be back.
No matter how high, how deep, how far, they all knew which way led to home.