For hikaridonya, who put up with me and my complaints and flailing all through the writing of this. I hope you're feeling better by tomorrow, Donya! ;_;
When Atobe entered the restaurant the next night, he stopped as soon as he set foot inside the door. Ryoma was singing. Atobe closed the door behind himself, not caring that his guards had probably heard the music. They were trustworthy, and frankly, it was difficult to care about much of anything at the moment. Ryoma’s voice, singing by itself, pure and high and sweet, was one of the most melodious things Atobe had ever heard.
The song was in English, curious given that Ryoma normally spoke Japanese. Atobe understood English perfectly, however, and he had to chuckle when he heard the lyrics. The song Ryoma was singing was Eddystone Light, an old European sea tune that told of Eddystone lighthouse keeper, who slept with a mermaid and had three children with her. Ryoma’s voice made the very glass and water around him hum with the music, and his tail flicked lightly in time with the song. The last line made Atobe chuckle again, because Ryoma sang it beautifully, but also with feeling: “To hell with the keeper of the Eddystone Light!”
“Interesting,” said Atobe. “A good thing you’re incapable of bearing children, then, isn’t it?”
“Che. Maybe I’m not, did you ever think of that?” Ryoma flicked his tail and grinned. “You don’t know all that much about me.”
Atobe was fairly certain that Ryoma was teasing him, as usual. “You can’t. You’re male.”
“How can you tell?” Ryoma asked.
“I assume that Yuushi’s team… checked.” Hm, now that thought wasn’t at all pleasing.
“They probably couldn’t tell,” said Ryoma. “They’d never seen anything like me before. Besides, they were too busy testing my intelligence and shocking me.” He made a face.
Atobe had forgotten that. Yes, Oshitari had told him that they’d seen how the creature responded to electricity as well as to food and light, and had gone through some of the other tests they’d performed, just to let Atobe know what he was in possession of. “Hm. I apologize.” He meant it, too.
“You’d better. It wasn’t hard to flinch away from that.”
“No, it wouldn’t be,” said Atobe, the very idea filling him with fierce protectiveness. He reminded himself that it was long over and done with, and that Oshitari’s team would never have administered shocks higher than an acceptable medical level, especially not to a newly-discovered, possibly delicate creature. “So, why did you play stupid fish to begin with? And why didn’t you give up the act when they began testing you? I’m sure they would have-”
“Would have what?” Ryoma asked. “They would have asked me all kinds of questions, and then they would have made me try to contact my people, or something.”
“And you object to that,” said Atobe thoughtfully. “I see. Why? Too much effort for you?”
“Don’t be an ass,” said Ryoma.
“But I always am.”
Atobe never received an answer to the question of ‘why?’. Ryoma was terribly distracting when he wanted to be, and when Atobe let him.
“You’re supposed to be waiting tables,” said Atobe irritably, not looking up from his menu. He knew the contents by heart, of course, but it was remarkably good for ignoring people under the pretense of doing something important. “I’m not even in the section you’re supposed to be serving, so I don’t know what you think you’re-”
“You can stop staring at that mer-thing for a second,” said Gakuto, snippy as ever. Sometimes Atobe forgot exactly why he’d kept Gakuto on after the mermaid costumes had come to an end. Then he remembered that Jiroh and Oshitari were likely to leave his employ if he fired Gakuto, and that Jiroh and Gakuto were surprisingly good at their new jobs anyway. Gakuto was actually polite to the customers, and Jiroh could win anybody over as long as he wasn’t falling asleep in their soup. “How come you’ve got one of our armrests up there? It never comes up anyway.”
“We decided that it would be best for hi- it to have the choice, in any case,” said Atobe. “We don’t know its natural habits. Now are you going to get back to you job?”
Gakuto glanced at the tables he was supposed to be servicing. “Nah, they’re fine. I’m a good waiter, y’know. But I made an even better mermaid, and if you have that thing in there anyway, it couldn’t hurt to have me and Jiroh come in once in awhile, right? Three mermaids is better than one, and that one doesn’t even talk. Even if he is so pretty you can’t take your eyes off him,” he added.
Atobe refrained from commenting that Gakuto and Ryoma probably would have gotten along very well, given their mutual tendency to say the most maddening thing possible every time they opened their mouths. “With a real merboy in there, do you really think that the customers will have any use for you?”
“Well, yeah,” said Gakuto. “The kids will, anyway. They liked talking to us, you know that.”
“We don’t know how the creature will react to humans in its tank,” Atobe pointed out, though he very much doubted that Ryoma would bother doing anything at all to Jiroh or Gakuto. Ryoma was in the tank they’d used before, and to use another tank would mean building another secret entrance in the back. Atobe was prepared to use that as a reason not to hire back his mermaid impersonators, if he had to. Unfortunately Gakuto’s next argument negated that option.
“Yeah? Yuushi said it’s been fine with humans the whole time,” said Gakuto triumphantly. “And Ohtori says it’s good even for veterinary work and stuff.” Ohtori was a waiter and a tank keeper, and he was exceptionally good even with the most fussy fish at Okeanos. “So we could try it, right?”
“Fine,” Atobe agreed, just so that Gakuto would shut up, leave him alone, and return to waiting his tables.
He had to admit, two evenings later, that Gakuto’s idea had been a good one. Atobe had gone all-out on a new set of mermaid costumes, tailored to match Ryoma’s shape more closely. With Gakuto’s red tail, Jiroh’s green, and Ryoma’s gold, they were quite a set. The adults among Okeanos’ clientele, of course, recognized the other two as stunning fakes, but the children were delighted.
Atobe had watched Gakuto and Jiroh acclimatizing Ryoma to their presence that morning; the keepers were going on the assumption that Ryoma was like any other animal who would be startled by anything new in his environment. Ryoma did an admirable job of playacting, and gradually settled down after inspecting the new arrivals. Jiroh was fascinated by Ryoma, seeing him at such a close range for the first time. While he was underwater, he cautiously held out a hand. Ryoma blinked at him, and then brushed Jiroh’s palm with his fingers.
Upon coming out of the tank, Jiroh was more awake than Atobe had ever seen him. “Did you see that? I think he likes me!”
“Possibly,” said Atobe. His unenthusiastic response did nothing to eradicate Jiroh’s innocent joy, which was probably a good thing. But somehow, Atobe could not bring himself to believe that.
The smirk that Ryoma shot at him when no one else was looking did not help, either.
“You were jealous earlier.”
“I was not.” Atobe lifted his chin haughtily and made his way over to the bar, not deigning to favor Ryoma with even a glance.
“Yes, you were,” said Ryoma. “You were jealous because I touched him.”
“I have no right to be jealous. He has no idea that you’re anything more than an oversized fish, anyway.” Atobe opened one of the cabinets to find the wine he was looking for. He selected one and brought it out, and then brought out a wine glass for it.
“Here, give me some of that.”
Atobe looked up from pouring his glass of wine. It was a Chardonnay from a very good year, one of the wines the restaurant kept for VIP customers. “What, wine?”
“Yes, wine,” said Ryoma, rolling his eyes. “I’m of age, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’m older than I look, remember?”
“I remember, but I didn’t think that swimming and alcohol were generally supposed to be mixed.” Atobe could recall hearing something of the sort from one of his nannies, who hadn’t been opposed to slipping her charge a sip of her drink every once in awhile, but who had been vehemently opposed to his going in the swimming pool afterward.
Ryoma snorted. “I can’t drown, or did you forget that?”
Atobe hadn’t forgotten, exactly, but now that he considered it, that had probably been why his nanny hadn’t let him swim after drinking. A person with gills wouldn’t have to concern themselves with such a matter, however. “All right then. Chardonnay, or something else?”
“Shiraz,” said Ryoma promptly. “A lighter one, if you have it.”
“We have everything,” said Atobe, producing a bottle of the type Ryoma wanted. He glanced askance at Ryoma as he poured the Shiraz. “I never took you for a wine connoisseur.”
“I took you for one right away.” Ryoma reached down to accept the glass. He drank half of it down within a few seconds, and then looked supremely satisfied. “This is good.”
“We don’t stock anything but good wine.” Atobe was nearly as satisfied as Ryoma looked.
Ryoma took another sip of his drink. “This isn’t very romantic.”
“What isn’t?” Atobe asked, amused. “Sipping wine by candlelight, piano music in the background… would you prefer some love song from the eighties? I can change the CD.”
“The CD is fine, even though live music would be better,” said Ryoma, darting him a sly glance. Before Atobe could think of a retort, Ryoma continued, “I mean, you’re there. I’m here.” He gestured to the distance between them. “Not very romantic.”
“Oh, and standing on a chair is?” Still, Atobe could understand Ryoma’s point, and he didn’t complain any more before dragging his chair close enough that they could be face-to-face again. “Better?”
“Much.” Ryoma clinked his wine glass against Atobe’s.
“Remarkable how sophisticated you can be when you’re not flinging insults,” Atobe commented. “You should try it more often.”
“What, you approve?” Ryoma asked mockingly, draining the rest of his wine.
“Yes, I do. Would you like another glass?” Atobe didn’t believe that Ryoma’s small and slender body would be able to handle much alcohol, but two glasses probably wouldn’t be able to hurt anything. Of course, he didn’t know what a drunken merboy would be capable of. He decided that he would cap the drinks at two apiece, because he hardly wanted to become inebriated either.
But Ryoma shook his head anyway. “No, one’s fine.” He carelessly dropped the glass into the tank, letting it sink to the bottom to rest among the sand and gravel.
“Oh, for-” Atobe began, intended to tell Ryoma that yes, he would be expected to fetch that wine glass.
Ryoma leaned out and kissed him then, though, tasting of salt water and of wine. “You’re still picking up that glass later,” Atobe informed him in what turned out to be a mumble, given that it was spoken against Ryoma’s mouth. He nipped Ryoma’s tongue sharply when he got no proper response.
“I know. Now come in here,” Ryoma murmured, tugging at him, kissing along Atobe’s jaw, down the side of his neck until he reached a particular spot behind Atobe’s ear. Atobe shivered as Ryoma sucked at the skin there, flicking out his cool tongue to soothe it afterward.
“And ruin this suit?” Atobe inquired, turning the tables by grazing the delicate shell of Ryoma’s ear with his teeth and then tracing it with his tongue. “You’ll have to give me a terribly good reason to entice me into that.”
Ryoma pulled back and looked at him, and grinned slowly. “Oh, I can.”
It was next to impossible for Atobe to resist the insistent hands pulling him into the water. He was an excellent swimmer, and Ryoma wouldn’t let him drown anyway, and dammit, there was too much glass between them. He let out a startled curse as he half-fell into the water (it was quite cold), but Ryoma grinned again and distracted him from the chill rather effectively. Atobe’s wine glass fell from his fingers to drift down to the bottom of the tank with Ryoma’s.
“You shouldn’t be jealous,” said Ryoma, playing with Atobe’s earlobe, careful not to draw blood with his sharper-than-human teeth. The mild pinpricks of pain were delightful, though Atobe had enough self-control to hide his reactions.
“Oh no?” Atobe ran a hand over Ryoma’s skin, finding the place at his hips where it became smooth scales instead. When he traced his fingers over that juncture, Ryoma shuddered, and so Atobe smiled and did it again.
“No,” Ryoma managed, though he was shivering in Atobe’s arms. “No one else is as obnoxious as you.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” said Atobe. Ryoma’s response seemed to confirm it.
Atobe would never have admitted it aloud, but he’d been wondering for weeks how a mermaid, or a merboy, could… well. Now he found himself wondering again, though Ryoma didn’t seem particularly concerned. Clearly there was a way for them to-
Oh. Oh. Yes there was, and a most satisfactory way, as it turned out. He might have been soaked and sticky when he finally made it out of the tank, but it had been worth it. From Ryoma’s expression, which went from smug to slightly dreamy and back again as he floated through the water, it had been worth it on that end too.
“And here’s yesterday’s records. There’s a few notes in there for you, too.” Shishido handed over the entire leather-bound binder that was used to hold the reports of the day’s customers; who they were and how much they spent. Atobe went over the records himself to make sure there were no anomalies, and also to note which political and social circles were currently meeting at Okeanos.
“Hm. Notes from who?” Atobe was accustomed to receiving messages from those who wanted to do business with his company. Sometimes the notes were passionate declarations of love, as well. Those he threw away immediately. Even if they were from highly-placed executives (and they sometimes were), Atobe was not the type of man who formed strategic romantic attachments. They were too much of a hassle, and unprofessional as well. Besides, doing business with scorned lovers was never a good idea.
Shishido shrugged. “The lawyer you talked to last week. He hasn’t given up yet, I guess.”
Oh yes, Atobe remembered that one. He’d wanted to be a part of Atobe’s legal team, but his track record and his grades from law school didn’t do much to recommend him. “Anything else?”
“Some school,” said Shishido, displaying a piece of paper with Harvard letterhead. “Oh, and something from Oshitari. Here.”
“Thank you.” Atobe unfolded the note from Oshitari and read it. Apparently Oshitari would be back shortly, with some new specimens and with some news.
Shishido paused on his way out. “By the way, I think one of the groups in last night got a little rowdy. We found a pair of wine glasses at the bottom of Flipper’s tank.”
“Just a nickname,” said Shishido, looking slightly sheepish. “The mermaid. Merboy, I guess. The keepers started calling him that, and it stuck. Anyway, they think someone threw the glasses in there, and they wanted me to check out who’d been sitting at the closest tables. What do you want me to do about that?”
Atobe was the head of a multimillion dollar corporation, and he had seen and heard of things that would cause lesser men to turn pale and perhaps even faint. He did not blush.
“Are you blushing?” Shishido asked curiously.
“No!” Atobe snapped. “Don’t bother doing anything unless it happens again. I’m sure there was a good reason for it.”
“For throwing wine glasses into a fish tank?” Shishido said incredulously, but didn’t pursue the matter.
“So, I hear that the keepers call you Flipper,” said Atobe casually. “You never mentioned that little piece of information.”
“It obviously wasn’t important,” said Ryoma. “It doesn’t fit me anyway.” He was attempting to look as though he didn’t care, and failing.
“Oh, I don’t know. I would say that it fits you rather well,” said Atobe, smirking like the cat who’d caught the canary. “Flipper-chan.”
Ryoma brought him tumbling into the tank again for that one, but in Atobe’s mind, the damages to his clothing and hair had been more than worth it.
Oshitari returned with the promised specimens, which were welcome, if nowhere near as flashy as his last acquisition, and with the promised news, which was anything but welcome.
“A group from Harvard wants to study the creature,” said Oshitari, and gave Atobe a sheet of paper printed with the school’s letterhead. Atobe realized that it was probably the same letter he’d dismissed a few days ago. “The American scientific community is convinced that we have a fake on our hands.”
“Evidently not convinced enough, if they still want to study him.” Atobe gave the letter a cursory glance, and then tossed it aside. “Tell them no.”
“They argue that a new species should be given first to science, and not to some- ahem- overpriced, dine-in freak show.”
This irritated Atobe. His restaurant was anything but a freak show; if they wanted to call it that, they could just as easily say the same of every well-kept zoo and aquarium in the world. “If they’re trying to gain my sympathies, they’re not doing very well. Tell them that if they want one, they can catch their ow-” He stopped. “On second thought, don’t even imply that there are more for the catching, and do not tell them where you caught him.” Atobe could be selfish and cold, in a word, businesslike, but he was not cruel He refused to put an entire race of sentient creatures in danger simply because he’d had the fortune (misfortune, though he couldn’t make himself believe that) to catch one.
“I wasn’t planning to.” Oshitari delicately picked up the letter again. “But they also say that they have legal grounds on which to confiscate the creature, if you won’t comply. They said something about the betterment of humanity.”
“Oh for god’s sake,” Atobe snapped, not angry with Oshitari, but with the idiots who had sent the letter. “Tell them that Ry- the fish is mine, and if they want him, they’ll have to face my lawyers first.” All corporations kept a full complement of legal consultants on staff, and Atobe Corporation was no different, except that their consultants were better than any others. It would be a cold day in hell before those Harvard imbeciles so much as laid eyes on Ryoma.
“Of course.” Oshitari made no move to leave, however. “Keigo.”
“What?” The look on Oshitari’s face made Atobe suspicious. “What, Yuushi? Something else to do with this raving bunch of scientists? I can tell you that the answer, in any case, will still be-”
“It has nothing to do with them, at least not directly. Keigo, is the creature sentient?”
Atobe handled this new development coolly. “You were the one who had him tested. You tell me.”
“Our tests showed that he had the rudimentary intelligence of a fish. But while a lower order of animal can’t feign higher intelligence, a higher animal can feign lower,” said Oshitari calmly. “To do that, he would have to have near-human capacity, at least. So.”
“So.” Atobe wasn’t going to admit anything, not until Oshitari told him the reasons he thought Ryoma was sentient.
Oshitari sighed. “For one thing, you called him ‘it’ in the beginning. You’ve begun calling him ‘he’ now.”
“So have you,” Atobe shot back.
“Only after you did, and you didn’t notice any difference in me,” said Oshitari. “Very unlike you.”
That was unlike Atobe, but it was only natural that when he picked up a habit, others around him did the same. It came from being wealthy and influential. “You followed my lead,” he said dismissively. “The keepers have done the same.” The tank keepers had also taken to calling Ryoma “Flipper,” as he’d found out from Shishido, but that didn’t seem very important at the moment.
“I haven’t been around you often enough for that,” Oshitari reminded him. “And also, a minute ago, you were about to call him by a name.”
Well, damn Oshitari and his powers of perception. “For all you know, I’ve named all the fish in the tanks.”
“But you haven’t. I’ve never heard you utter a fish’s name before tonight. Or perhaps…” Oshitari regarded Atobe measuringly. “Perhaps you’re just infatuated. Is it his good looks? How very juvenile of-”
“Oh, shut up,” Atobe snarled at him, and then jerked back on his mental reins. Oshitari was aware of many things Atobe didn’t intend him to be aware of. Atobe knew that. This was just another in a long line of unwelcome discoveries Oshitari had made, and by all rights Atobe should not even have been surprised. “Fine. He’s sentient, are you happy?”
“Very. But I doubt that you should be. If the public becomes aware of his true nature…”
“I know.” It would start with the radical groups, no doubt. Those people wouldn’t believe Ryoma didn’t object to his captivity, even if they stood in front of the tank and heard him say so themselves. It would spread from there; it always did. There would be protesting outside of Okeanos, with ignorant commoners demanding that Ryoma be released, as though he was in some kind of jail and not in the lush surroundings that had been created for him. “So,” said Atobe. “I’ll assume you have some kind of suggestion as to what I should do.”
“The only thing that can ever be done when a sentient creature is involved,” said Oshitari. “Ask him.”
Oshitari probably hadn’t envisioned the exact circumstances of Atobe and Ryoma’s discussion, though it was always possible. Atobe liked floating on his back in the tank with Ryoma on his stomach, tail twined around Atobe’s legs, though, and Ryoma liked it as well. They could both breathe that way, although Ryoma had to be sure to keep his gills just underwater, while Atobe had to ensure that his nose and mouth were above the surface.
In any case, once they’d figured out how to make it work, it was undeniably the best position in which to discuss important matters, and in which to do just about anything else, actually.
“So they want to study you,” Atobe finished. “They seem willing to go to great lengths to secure my… cooperation.”
“You won’t cooperate,” said Ryoma. “You never do.”
Atobe raised an eyebrow. “Oh no? I was extremely cooperative just a few minutes ago.”
Ryoma scoffed. “That doesn’t count and you know it.”
“Oh really.” Atobe proceeded to do something that made Ryoma agree with him, although the agreement did not come in so many words. However, Atobe agreed with the old saying that actions spoke louder than words anyway.
The American school did not contact him again in the following three days. By the third day, however, Atobe was expecting something else to happen and, indeed, something else did.
He was at Okeanos, as was his habit these days. Ryoma could not look at him, and Atobe couldn’t look at Ryoma long, and of course they couldn’t speak to each other, but in a way that only added to the interest. They had a secret, one that was only between the two of them if Oshitari wasn’t counted.
Tonight when Atobe glanced at him, Ryoma was unusually active. He actually splashed once, tail above the water, eliciting gasps and scattered applause from the restaurant’s patrons. Ryoma was still the center of attention and outshone everything else in the tanks, though he’d been at Okeanos for weeks.
This strange behavior, though, didn’t affect Atobe the way it did the rest of the people present in the room. Ryoma rarely did anything without reason, although tormenting Atobe seemed reason enough for many of his actions. Atobe took a closer look at the tank, and that was when he saw the man in front of it. This man had a table near Ryoma’s tank, only five feet from the glass. Atobe frowned. The man was behaving even more oddly than Ryoma. He had barely touched his food, and he kept standing and moving closer to the tank, and then sitting back down. If Atobe hadn’t been observant, he would not have seen the notepad the man slipped into his jacket pocket.
Atobe collared Hiyoshi, who was serving the man’s table. “Have you noticed anything about that man? That one, there.”
Hiyoshi looked where Atobe pointed and nodded curtly. “He has a camera. I don’t know why he keeps hiding it in his sleeve, but he does. I don’t think that he’s an ordinary tourist. I can find out more if you want me to.”
Thank goodness it was Hiyoshi working that section and not someone who paid less attention to his customers. “No, that will be all. Thank you.” Atobe brushed past Hiyoshi. As he neared the tank, he saw that Hiyoshi had been correct. The man was attired properly, in a relatively casual suit, and someone else might have thought him a normal restaurant patron who happened to be interested in Okeanos’ star attraction. The camera that he slipped in and out of his sleeve gave him away; it was a tiny but durable model Atobe recognized. It was used primarily for government work, by reporters, and for various illegal ventures, including corporate espionage.
Before the man could even register that Atobe had approached him, Atobe grabbed hold of the man’s collar and hauled him to his feet, after glancing at his bodyguards and nodding shortly to let them know that he was all right. “What are you doing?” Atobe asked, in a low and dangerous tone. He suspected he already knew what the man was doing, and where he had come from. The fact that he’d spoken in English, and that the man answered in a fluent American accent, confirmed Atobe’s suspicions.
The man lifted his chin with such arrogance that Atobe wanted to slap him. Had he no idea that he was in Atobe’s restaurant, deliberately disobeying Atobe’s command to stay away? “You’re Keigo Atobe, the owner, then. I’m from Harvard,” said the man, with incredible dignity given that he’d just been dragged to his feet. “We have every right to study this creature. Certainly more right than you have to keep it here.” He sent a disparaging look around the restaurant, a completely unwarranted disparaging look, because Atobe took only the best care of his fish and his tanks.
“You have no right to intrude on my property under false pretenses, however.” Atobe was keenly aware that Ryoma was mere feet away. He sure as hell had better keep up his fish act, Atobe thought. He trusted Ryoma to do so, but he knew that one wrong look, one wrong action could cause this trained scientist to see that something was up. He resisted the urge to glance into the tank. “Now get out, before I have you thrown out.” He released the man’s coat, resisting the urge to shove him away as well. He was already treading dangerous ground by laying hands on the man at all.
“You can have me thrown out of here, but you won’t be keeping the specimen.” The man’s lips curled into a slight sneer, and Atobe gritted his teeth. Hearing Ryoma referred to as ‘the specimen’ was infuriating. “Maybe you didn’t realize where the creature was caught?”
Oh, shit. The truth was, Atobe didn’t know where Oshitari procured anything he brought back to Okeanos. He could always ask, but he generally didn’t bother. Now Atobe’s mind worked at full speed, understanding what the man meant almost instantly. “United States territory,” said Atobe under his breath. It had to be, if this ingrate thought that he would be able to take Ryoma.
“That’s right, Atobe-san,” said the man. “And the United States wants him back.” He pulled a card from his pocket and handed it over. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way. It’s your choice.” He left Atobe standing by the tank, glaring after him. In the water, Ryoma kept up his act, darting among the tendrils of real seaweed and searching for pieces of food that might remain from the afternoon feeding.
The easy way or the hard way, indeed. If it was a fight they wanted, Atobe was prepared to give it to them.
He spent the entire afternoon calling Atobe Corporation’s lawyers and researching any possible legal recourse he might have from his office, which was a block away from Okeanos.
“Any legal ground you could stand on would involve proof of a sale,” Sakaki told him from the other end of the line. “You can fight them without it, but they’re likely to win. Anything taken from U.S. waters belongs to the country, and if they choose to give the creature to Harvard, that is their prerogative.”
“Can you recommend anything else?” Atobe asked, tapping his pen impatiently against the desk. “I’m not willing to let them win a court battle.”
“You could use a more creative method,” said Sakaki. “We would have to discuss this at your office.” ‘Creative method’ meant something that wasn’t entirely legal, and therefore would not be safe to discuss over potentially monitored phone lines.
Atobe considered it, and then said, “No. If they find out, they’ll be able to take him and I won’t be able to do anything about it. We’ll have to use some more traditional method.” As futile as any other course of action would be, he had no choice. “Prepare a defense, in any case. We’re going to need it.”
Before he’d hung up with Sakaki, his secretary let Oshitari into the office. Oshitari took a seat and waited patiently for Atobe to be finished. As soon as Atobe was done, Oshitari said, “On the phone with the legal consultants, I take it.”
“Of course.” Atobe set his pen down. “You didn’t tell me that the creature was from American waters.”
“You didn’t ask,” Oshitari pointed out. “And you can call him by name in here. I take it that he’s far more clever than my team gave him credit for, if you’re willing to go to such lengths to keep him.”
“Very much so.”
“Then I would like to give him due credit now,” said Oshitari.
“Fine, then. Ryoma it is. I was about to go back to the restaurant now, actually, if you’d like to join me. I need to speak with him.” Atobe glanced at the clock on his desk, an expensive, imported French thing that made it nearly impossible to decipher what time it was. Quarter after eleven, which meant that even the staff would have gone home for the night. The time had passed quickly, though Atobe had certainly not been having fun.
Oshitari stood as well, pushing his chair in and following Atobe out the door. “So what is the situation exactly?”
“The Americans claim that he’s theirs, and they can do what they want with him,” said Atobe, frowning.
“And they don’t know he’s intelligent?”
“I don’t think so, no. They would have caused a much larger commotion from the outset if they’d known, I believe.” Atobe did not generally use his limo for the eighth of a mile to and from the restaurant, but today he signaled for the limo driver to follow them. His bodyguards were in the car, and though he didn’t think a group of American scientists and scholars would cause him harm, there was no sense in being careless.
They were silent during the walk, Atobe contemplating his options and Oshitari thinking about goodness knew what. When they entered the restaurant the ambient music was on, as Atobe had ordered it to be left so each night.
Atobe paused just inside the doorway. What was he going to say, exactly, to introduce Ryoma to Oshitari and vice-versa?
He didn’t have to worry. Ryoma broke the surface of the water immediately. “You brought him with you this time,” he said, gesturing to Oshitari.
“Yes, I did,” said Atobe. “This is Oshitari Yuushi, my-”
“Oh. Yes. You would, wouldn’t you.” And Ryoma undoubtedly took great pleasure in interrupting Atobe to inform him of the fact.
“And this is-” Atobe began.
“Of course. A pleasure to meet you, Ryoma-san,” said Oshitari smoothly. He took just as much pleasure in interrupting Atobe, even if he wasn’t smirking as obviously as Ryoma was. Atobe stopped worrying about the two of them; they would get along famously, if this first encounter was any indication. “I apologize most sincerely for our treatment of you. However, I must congratulate you on your ability to fool even my trained team.”
“Apology accepted,” said Ryoma, and grinned. “And thanks.”
Atobe stayed after Oshitari departed, but Oshitari pulled him aside first, out of Ryoma’s hearing range. “If worse comes to worst, Keigo, you will have to let him go.”
“No,” said Atobe. “Surely after meeting him you wouldn’t even consider letting those American bastards-”
“Not let him go to them. Let him go entirely,” Oshitari corrected. “Back where he came from, although perhaps not in American waters. One never knows what lengths men of science will go to in order to achieve their goals.”
Oh. Atobe stared at him, because he hadn’t even considered the possibility. In a tank, the researchers had a good chance of getting their hands on Ryoma, but in the ocean, what were the odds? One in a million? One in ten million? Oshitari’s team had been incredibly lucky to catch Ryoma at all. “I’ll consider the idea,” said Atobe finally. Oshitari nodded, and left, while Atobe went back into the restaurant. He was quiet and contemplative for the rest of the evening, no matter how Ryoma tried to goad him into argument.
The corporation’s legal team managed to postpone the hearing over Ryoma for months. They argued that the creature had been given the best of care, that a new species was to be nurtured and studied in a more natural environment, rather than being experimented on in a laboratory. Of course, more schools took an interest, now that the one had become aware of the merboy’s presence.
Atobe had ordered the staff of Okeanos to investigate any customer who so much as looked like they’d come from an academic background. Shishido stopped patrons at the door, the waiters kept a sharp eye out, and Jiroh and Gakuto (in mermaid guise) watched to be sure that no one lingered near the tank for inordinate lengths of time. This meant that some of Atobe’s business associates were stopped and asked for identification. Most took the new policies in stride, but some complained, and complaints were never good for corporate relations.
“You really love me,” Ryoma observed one morning, when Atobe had stayed so late into the evening that the sky was lightening, turning the dim gray found only during the time just before sunrise.
Atobe leaned his forehead against Ryoma’s, kissing Ryoma’s nose lightly. “So confident, are you.” He couldn’t stay in the water all night, obviously, but he’d grown accustomed to standing on chairs. Actually, standing on chairs was now tied to so many good memories that he almost enjoyed it more than standing on the floor.
“Yes,” said Ryoma. “You’re doing all this, aren’t you?” He smirked slightly, then made a face when Atobe flicked his nose gently instead of kissing it.
“Brat. Now. I’ve been thinking,” said Atobe. “I am perfectly willing to keep up this new security, but we can only stall them for so long. I believe…” he sighed. “No. I know that there is only one permanent solution to the problem. You, back in the ocean, where you can’t be found. There will be hell to pay from Harvard, and Oxford and whoever else is after you, of course, but…”
“But I’m comfortable here,” said Ryoma, his eyes taking on that stubborn gleam they held whenever he was dead set on something.
“You were comfortable in the ocean before,” said Atobe firmly. “You’re going back.”
Ryoma, surprisingly, did not argue for long. He kissed Atobe, slow and sweet and lingering, and then he leaned his head on Atobe’s shoulder and began to hum. His voice was as beautiful as ever.
Of course, he was humming Eddystone Light again. He wasn’t ever going to be completely amiable, not when he could inject a bit of snark into their interactions. 'To hell with the keeper of the Eddystone Light,' indeed. Fortunately, that was exactly the way Atobe liked him.
Oshitari’s boat was not allowed to leave port, not until after the hearing. However, Atobe owned several yachts, and one of them was plenty large enough to hold a tank large enough to hold Ryoma in comfort. Atobe saw to the building and installation of the tank himself. He crewed the yacht only with the people he trusted most, which included the staff of Okeanos, those who did not suffer from seasickness, anyway. In all likelihood, they would find out Ryoma’s true nature at some point. Atobe did not feel like playacting, unable to speak to Ryoma for the duration of their voyage.
As it turned out, Ryoma seemed to feel the same way. Once they were out of sight of the harbor, he swam to the top of the tank and leaned on his perch, exchanging barbs with Atobe, who’d made sure that his chair was placed right next to the glass. The crew was respectfully silent on the matter, except for Jiroh, who came over and chattered his head off for a good fifteen minutes once he realized that Ryoma could speak. The conversation lasted only fifteen minutes because after that, Jiroh’s eyelids began to droop and Gakuto showed up to half-drag, half-carry him away.
“You’ll be all right in the water here?” Atobe asked.
Ryoma shot him an amused look. “You asked that three times already. I’ll be fine. I’ve been in this part of the sea before.”
“Have you.” Well, there was an interesting piece of information to file away for future scrutiny. “Good.”
“Atobe, we’re here.” Shishido showed up, glancing at Ryoma and then away. He didn’t yet seem comfortable with the fact that the ‘fish’ he’d been working around for months could speak, and could understand every word he said. “We’re at the coordinates you wanted.”
“Excellent.” Atobe gestured to Kabaji, who stood behind Shishido. Kabaji nodded, and pushed the tank (which had been outfitted with wheels that could be pushed in or pulled out at a moment’s notice) slowly toward the edge of the deck. The tank was also made to tilt. Ryoma watched Atobe the entire time, as his water spilled into the ocean. Atobe was too busy supervising to watch Ryoma back, or so he thought until he realized that he’d never taken his eyes away from Ryoma’s.
The other boats who had come out with them circled the area, making sure that no one else entered this stretch of water until Ryoma was safely far enough away and deep enough below the surface that he would not be found. Atobe had spared no expense in the preparation of this mission, even paying the Coast Guard enough that they would not mention this expedition to anyone who came asking.
Everyone discreetly left the two of them alone once Ryoma slid into the sea. Shishido had to be poked in the ribs by Gakuto before getting the hint, but then he departed as well. Ryoma lingered by the side of the boat, looking at Atobe expectantly. This part of the deck was low enough that Atobe was just about at the water’s level. “Well,” said Atobe, from a most undignified crouch. “You had better go, then.”
“I will,” said Ryoma, and didn’t.
“What are you waiting for?” Atobe asked, a bit more sharply than he’d intended. “I can only cordon off the area for so long. The ocean is public domain, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“I know,” said Ryoma, and he twined his arms around Atobe’s neck, tugging him down for a kiss that was even wetter than usual. “Don’t be too much of an idiot,” he said, without letting go. “I can always find you, if you come out here again.” He glanced up at the boat and made a face. “No one could miss that.”
“It’s called traveling in style, and you didn’t seem to mind it much on the way out here,” said Atobe. “How many other boats have a luxury tank built right into the deck?” To be perfectly honest, this one hadn’t either, not until Atobe had specially outfitted it for this trip with accomodations suitable for a person with gills and a tail. “Furthermore, I was already aware that this is not our last farewell.”
Ryoma raised an eyebrow at him. “Where did you get that, a bad romance novel?”
“It was a very good romance novel, actually,” said Atobe. “Not some bargain bin trash for middle-aged women, or whatever you’re thinking.”
“If you keep saying things like that, I might not show up when you come out here,” said Ryoma. “You never know.”
“Brat,” said Atobe, and leaned down to whisper right against Ryoma’s ear, “You’ll come, all right. I’m having a grand piano installed on the deck, did you know?”
“Well.” Ryoma squirmed in an unsuccessful attempt to hide a pleased shiver. “It had better be a good piano.”
“Only the best,” said Atobe. “A Steinway. You know me well enough by now to know that. And do you happen to know what else?"
"No. Do I want to know?"
"Oh, I think you do. I've found the score for Eddystone Light, and I thought perhaps a duet might be in order at some point..." Atobe smiled at Ryoma's fleeting look of surprise, an expression that was promptly hidden, though it was already too late.
"That's good. You'd better keep up with my singing, though," said Ryoma, feigning nonchalance.
"Then you had better sing at the correct tempo," Atobe retorted. "Now go, before my legs fall asleep and I fall into the water.” Crouching wasn’t very comfortable for very long.
“I’d save you if you fell in,” said Ryoma, and grinned slowly. “Maybe.” Without warning, he lashed his tail, pulling back… and bringing Atobe with him. Atobe had time only for a short, startled exclamation before he tumbled into the sea. He heard the shouts of “Man overboard!” and “Atobe!” and “Keigo-sama!”
In the water, Ryoma was laughing. Atobe shook the salt water out of his hair and had to chuckle as well. A wave washed over him, thoroughly dousing any chance he might have had of pulling his clothing out of this intact. He was too busy exchanging salty kisses with his merboy to notice.