The crystal clear water of the bay would have kept Finn safe as a human, but his seal form rang the dinner bell for the two tiger sharks lurking below the shadow of the boat he was heading toward. The blood in the water from the nearby processing plant had attracted the creatures, and their presence pushed the schools of fish nervously to the shallows. The fish scales reflected the moonlight like flashes of silver as they twisted and turned, trying not to be the closest ones to where the bay’s sandy bottom dropped precariously.
Being selkie allowed Finn total awareness of his surroundings in an ever-changing song of temperatures and electrical currents. If he’d been sent to Mexico on his master’s business, Finn might have chanced skimming along the surface, but for the first time in two years he didn’t want to risk his life.
The bottom of the bay gave him some level of safety against sneak attacks, but he was using up air. He pushed to the surface in his seal form and willed his pelt to open. He broke through the water’s skin as a man, naked but for the incongruous leather jacket his pelt had become after changing forms.
His pelt might have looked like an article of clothing, but it didn’t cause drag in the water. Finn pulled himself along with his arms and didn’t move his legs. Dragging his body took longer, but he didn’t break the water’s surface tension as a wounded fish would have.
The boat remained still on its anchor chain. Finn never felt safe during slack tide when the moon’s pull had no effect.
The diving ladder wasn’t out for him. He knew he had found the correct boat. Devon had repainted the transom’s SECOND BREATH and VICTORIA, BC last year. The oil hadn’t completely dried. Finn pressed his thumbnail into the last C’s bottom serif. His nail left the tiniest indention. No one would see it but him, but Finn liked marking his existence.
“Do the words shark-infested waters
mean anything to you?” he called instead of banging his fist against the hull. Finn heard the hatch open and Devon’s footsteps approach.
“Haven’t you told me a thousand times that anyone could heave themselves aboard if I left the stairs out for them?” Devon asked, swinging the ladder into place.
Despite Finn’s best efforts, hearing Devon’s voice caused Finn’s heart to race. The water was the worst possible place for increased electrical activity. One of the sharks twisted around on the bay’s floor, launching itself at him. The staircase came down over the Second Breath
’s transom not a second too soon. Finn already had his foot on the bottom rung before Devon said, “Permission to come aboard granted, by the way.”
Finn pulled himself up and over the transom just as one of the sharks broke the water behind him. The sound of its tail slapping the surface echoed. The other creature bumped the ladder where Finn’s ankle had been. Adrenaline Finn didn’t need or want shot through him. He was safe and dry on an eighty-foot boat, but his body responded like he was bleeding in dark and murky water.
But at least he was with Devon. Devon hadn’t changed much from the teenager who had practically grown up with Finn on the water. They’d been neighbors, the only two houses on Saddle Bay just outside of Victoria, British Columbia.
“Are you okay?” Devon asked.
While Finn was in his selkie form, he thought in the way of animals, concentrating on the here and now. In his human body he had human problems. Last year Devon had been in a relationship. Finn didn’t know if they could fit together again. Devon stared at him, obviously waiting for an answer.
He’d forgotten the question. He was so happy to be here that his tail wanted to wag, but it didn’t have the ability to. In his seal form, it was just a tiny bump like the pope’s nose of a chicken. In his human form, the little nub wasn’t physically there, but Finn felt it.
Devon frowned. Finn empathized with his confusion but couldn’t stop checking him out. Devon wore cutoffs, as usual. They showed off spectacular thigh muscles. He was more tanned, and his hair was three shades lighter. In the sun, it would be a dirty blond. The sea air kept him youthful while the hard work of running a boat chiseled his body. Finn worked with boats as well, but for nine months of the year salvage was done from a computer on a desk.
Devon had spent the past decade building a small fleet of charter boats he ran with military precision. Finn was in charge of his operation when the salvage ship was at sea, but in Victoria he was still minion number two.
He forced himself to smile. Maybe Devon had phrased what he’d asked as a yes/no question. Finn stabbed the dark rather than ask Devon to repeat himself. He used to hang off Devon’s every word, and he didn’t want Devon to know he couldn’t remember what had just been asked. “Yes.”
Devon started toward him, his hands out.
Finn fell back. “I’m sorry I--” he began but couldn’t think of an excuse fast enough. Devon stepped past him and then lifted the staircase out of the water. He didn’t look upset that Finn was here.
Devon hadn’t passed a message on through his sister to tell Finn to stay home again. But that wasn’t the same as an invitation. At best Finn would be put up in the guest quarters below and sent on his way in the morning. Finn knew that, but he’d still cowered. He couldn’t get his body to relax even when he wasn’t in danger.
A year ago, Devon had been with his new boyfriend, Miguel. Finn needed to see them happy to believe Devon had moved on. Finn just caught a glimpse of them through the porthole, but they’d both been smiling on the bed. Miguel strummed a guitar. Devon drank from a beer bottle. They’d looked like an advertisement in a gay magazine selling the life Finn wanted.
Finn’s master, Paul, had sadistically purchased him a plane ticket, complete with a commuter flight to the closest fishing town to where Devon had moored, as though he hadn’t read the message from Amy telling Finn to stay home. Finn spent twenty-two hours in the air to spend thirty seconds staring through a porthole.
If Paul had stolen Finn’s pelt instead of his heart, he would have died right then from it breaking. As much as seeing Devon happy with Miguel had hurt, Finn’s heart wasn’t Devon’s to break. Paul had stolen it to keep Finn obedient and loyal. It was also supposed to make Finn love Paul the way he’d loved Devon, but Finn had managed to keep his first love. He had no idea how it was possible, but it saved his life that night.
Selkie laws were strict and absolute, even if Finn only understood half of them. He hadn’t been raised selkie. Their laws were like knee-high boxes in a pitch-black room. Finn only felt them when he stumbled blindly into one.
Finn’s contract promised one day off a year. It was the one freedom he had that Paul respected, which made Finn think it must be a selkie thing. But in order to start the clock on his day once he reached Devon and not waste it all in travel time, he had spent last night in Paul’s bed in exchange.
“Finn?” Devon repeated, voice low.
Finn blinked, returning all the way to the present. “Why didn’t you put the staircase down? Didn’t you know I was coming?”
“The night with the highest tide in the twelfth month of your service is not exactly a save-the-date card,” Devon said. “You could have sent me a message saying you were free.”
“Paul took my phone away last week,” Finn said. His e-mail was monitored. He had a hard time getting any work done lately. He just couldn’t concentrate. Water dripped from his hair down his face. He hadn’t gone swimming in months. He was either in a high-rise or out in arctic waters on a savage boat. Sea lions weren’t meant for the cold. They didn’t have the right kind of blubber in the right places.
He hadn’t noticed he was shivering. He couldn’t react in time to do anything but brace himself for the flash of white coming at him. Devon wrapped a white towel over his shoulders. Finn felt its warmth through his pelt.
He looked away. Want ached inside him as a separate thing from the lust that was thickening his blood. Finn understood why seals, eared like sea lions or not, would chase potential mates into danger and not even realize it. “How’s Miguel?”
“I assume he’s fine.”
“You broke up?” Finn asked. As practiced as the question was--and it was very, very practiced--he still managed to make it roll off his tongue. He thought the execution was flawless.
Devon put his hand on his hip. “I know about Belize.”
Finn felt his throat open and close several times. He would have thrown himself over the side of the boat, but the sharks would hear his heart crashing about.
“You know about San Ignacio,” Finn said, not phrasing it like a question. Of course Devon would know. E-mails and phones existed. Devon was such a nice guy that when he told his exes they should just be friends, he maintained the friendships for years.
“What was it about Miguel?” Devon asked.
Finn had wanted to lick wherever Devon had been in or on Miguel’s body, and slid off the couch whenever Miguel tried to get on top of him. Finn had been glad when Miguel lost Devon’s smell entirely. “I didn’t even get undressed for most of it.”
“He said he hadn’t had to hump a guy over his jeans since high school.”
“Did you laugh at me?” Finn asked. His body temperature cranked. Droplets of water on his skin evaporated, but didn’t cool him down.
“I would never laugh at you,” Devon said.
Finn wiped off his face with the towel. Once he was dry, the night air was warm again. He zipped his pelt up. It looked like any other leather jacket from a high-end boutique, but without embellishments that would have dated it or let it fall out of fashion. The metal-looking “zipper” wasn’t a zipper or metal. It was made of chitin, like his hair and nails.
The lining looked like velour but felt like his coat when he was a selkie. He just had to jump over the railing, think of how it felt to be a seal, and he’d be gone. As long as he stayed low and headed for the open water, he should be able to outswim the sharks.
Or he could answer the question.
“He still tasted like you. I didn’t want to use or hurt him. He told me he didn’t care.”
“Full disclosure. I loved him,” Devon said, his voice tight.
Finn’s body didn’t understand why they were fighting. It wanted Devon so badly he had to hold his sides together. “This is torture for me. If you don’t want me to stay, just say it. I--” Finn couldn’t say he loved Devon. No matter how Finn felt, Paul still owned him.
Devon came up to Finn and slipped the pelt off his shoulder. Finn’s elbows kept it from sliding all the way off. The leather was still covering most of the earlier brands, but there were six new ones. His newest was from the week before last. He’d made typos on a year-end report. Spellcheck would have caught them, but Finn was distracted. He could have stopped Devon from seeing the marks, but if Finn was going to stay, Devon would see them eventually.
Devon had been branded above his right elbow. He and Paul had been together first when Devon was eighteen. Finn tried to picture Devon holding still while Paul went through the ritual of heating the anchor-shaped cuff link with his small butane torch, but Finn couldn’t imagine it. Paul must have caught Devon unaware.
To Paul, the buildup was as important as Finn not moving. The first time it happened, Finn had felt a sense of disbelief. He thought it was a game. He didn’t think Paul was actually going to touch him. Going through the motions as though he were about to brand Finn had seemed like an elaborate ruse to remind Finn of their roles. After the metal touched Finn’s delicate skin, it was all too real. The cuff link had been so hot it felt cold for less than a second. The relief that it wasn’t going to hurt as badly as he thought it might was short-lived. Each time Paul marked him, he held the brand longer in the flame.
Finn wasn’t stupid. He understood abuse was complex. After Paul removed the cuff link, he blamed Finn for his inattentiveness and promised that if Finn was a little more sensitive to Paul’s needs, the punishment wouldn’t happen again. Finn believed him, each and every time.
But Finn made so many mistakes. He hadn’t been trained in any of the software he used, and his high school education had taught him how to play polo and scale mountains, not fill in expense reports.
When Paul was in a bad mood, Finn couldn’t stop his nerves from failing him. When he finally damaged something, said the wrong thing, or made an error that affected the business, he paid for it even if Paul didn’t go all the way to branding.
There was always something. When Paul reached his breaking point, anything annoyed him. Finn didn’t know how to make sense of the random violence. Typos were a concrete reason. One month, Paul would decide Finn wasn’t trying enough in their relationship, and then two months later, he’d get smacked for seeking Paul’s attention too much when Finn needed Paul to sign off on something. It hurt less when the pain made sense. He knew how sick that was but couldn’t stop believing it.
Finn hadn’t wanted to find Paul interesting, but when Devon started bringing him around, there was an air to him that Finn was drawn to. He should have been furious; Finn was turning eighteen in three months, and was convinced Devon should have been counting down the days until he could be with Finn. Instead Devon and Paul disappeared into Devon’s apartment over the boathouse, and Finn wasn’t invited.
Devon’s parents, Muriel and Eddie, had hated Paul on sight, but even they were oddly deferring. A spell had been cast over all of them. That was so obvious now, but at the time Paul had been intoxicating.
Then Finn had turned eighteen, and had shown up expectantly on Devon’s doorstep. But Devon had slammed the door in Finn’s face, obviously hurting, and Finn set off to tear a strip out of Paul.
Instead, Finn had come aboard Paul’s yacht for drinks. He knew was going to end up with Devon at the end of summer, but he didn’t think a fling would hurt anyone. It was more spell work, but after four years of being in Devon’s shadow, it felt good to be so obviously admired.
He thought he had more control of the situation. He liked shiny things, and there had always been a newer, shinier thing with Paul, until Finn had given him his heart.
It made Finn sick. He had been so naive and stupid. He would drown as fast in the memories as he would in the frozen Bering Sea. He wasn’t meant for cold, dark waters.
Devon counted the anchor marks. “Nine?” he asked. “You let him do that to you nine times? You only had a couple three years ago.”
“I had three,” Finn said. Devon had asked Finn if he could start up with Miguel, just to be on the safe side. Finn had wished he’d said no, but thought he would be happier if Devon had a chance at happiness.
Instead, the mistakes Finn made piled up. He’d instigated several arguments he knew he couldn’t win and refused to apologize, so he’d force Paul’s hand. Once he was down to Paul’s last couple nerves, Finn couldn’t concentrate for fear that the next mistake he made would be the one to send Paul over his threshold. At least if he controlled when Paul punished him, he could concentrate on work to distract himself for the next little bit. Finn feared pain the same way he loved reward. Paul, when he was in his honeymoon phase after a branding, could be quite generous. “The last time he gave me several chances, but I kept pushing.”
“What a humanitarian,” Devon said.
“I miss sarcasm,” Finn said. Paul took everything Finn said at face value. Finn touched Devon’s cheek, just under the cheekbone. Devon was supposed to lean forward and kiss him in that moment. It felt like a dream when Devon did what Finn wanted him to.
Finn couldn’t stop himself from yawning, even midkiss.
Devon let him go. It dawned on Finn slowly that Devon wanted Finn to come to the boat. He’d been so sure he would be kicked out for seducing... That wasn’t the right word. Miguel had wanted the relationship as much as Finn had. Whatever had happened in Belize, Finn had forgotten what to do when someone gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“Miguel seemed nice,” Finn said, damning the young man with faint praise. Miguel had been sweet and funny and had the grace of a cat. Finn understood what Devon had liked in him. Finn wanted to be in the here and now, but exhaustion kept pulling him back into his murky memories.
Devon touched him again. Instead of taking the noon flight the next day, Finn knew he should take his chances with the tiger sharks. He didn’t want to go back to Paul. He stopped thinking the terrible thought as soon as he could, but it wasn’t fast enough.
No matter how much he tried to keep himself grounded, he was afraid he would blink and find himself back on an airplane. He would have three hundred and sixty-five days left to go before he could come back.
Finn didn’t want to go to sleep, but he couldn’t stay awake either. “What was wrong with Miguel?”
“He wasn’t you,” Devon said.