The Skin of a Seal, by kishmet. AU, TezuRyo, PG, 6110 words. Good basic information on selkies and other creatures from the folklore of the Orkney islands can be found here. It's not necessary to have prior knowledge of the selkies before reading, though.
Tezuka liked walking along this beach. It was still half-wild, especially on chillier days like this one, when there were no families with children and sunbathers occupying the sands. It was a hike to get here, but for him, that only added to its appeal. He could bring a backpack filled with the essentials and spend the entire day by the ocean.
Today there was an unusual amount of flotsam washed onto the beach, the result of a storm two nights before. He picked his way around and over the various pieces of driftwood, stopping once in awhile to run a hand over a smooth, pale surface, washed that way through the tumbling and battering of the sea.
Stepping over a large, forked piece of wood, his foot landed on another. He leaned down to study it, then picked it up. It wasn’t a piece of wood; well, it was, but it was more than that. It was a tennis racket with half of its strings broken, soaked in salt and washed the same white color as the rest of the driftwood.
He turned it over in his hands, wondering what the chances were that he, a tennis player, captain of his school’s team, would find a tennis racket on a deserted beach. That thought led him to the answer. If no one came here during the colder seasons, then there would be no one else to find it. Then again, that it had come ashore here, on his favorite stretch of beach, also seemed unlikely, but not impossible.
Lost in thought, speculating as to the origin of the racket (a boat capsized in the storm, perhaps, racket and owner both lost to the depths? It was possible), he nearly stepped on something even less likely to be found than a racket. He had to snatch his foot back at the last instant, only his athlete’s balance saving him from a fall.
It was a hand, attached to an arm, which was attached to a boy. Tezuka was relieved; he’d assumed, at first, that it was a body, lost, like the racket, in the storm. This boy was sleeping, half underneath a sheltering alcove of driftwood. He was curled in on himself, eyes closed, his sides most definitely moving up and down in the slow rhythm of breath.
Tezuka crouched, supporting himself with one arm on the overhanging wood, to take a better look at the boy. He set down the racket in the sand beside himself.
This boy wasn’t wearing any clothing at all, even though the day was cold. He wasn’t shivering, though, which could have been due to the driftwood protecting him from the wind. Tezuka put out a hand, cautiously, meaning to touch the boy’s arm to try to wake him. When he thought about it later, he wondered why he hadn’t called an ambulance or the police before trying to wake this strange boy on his own.
The boy’s eyes snapped open before Tezuka could touch him. His eyes were bigger than any Tezuka had ever seen, a peculiar shade of gold. The boy scooted out from beneath the driftwood, getting to his knees, evidently unconcerned by his nakedness. “Hi.”
“Are you all right?” Tezuka asked gravely.
“Of course,” said the boy, stretching, for all the world, like a cat who’d just been woken from a nap. “Who are you?”
“Tezuka Kunimitsu.” Tezuka stood, offering a hand to the boy. He was clearly uninjured, at least in the ways that would prevent him from moving. Tezuka thought he could be dehydrated, he was so slim and pale. He was going to give the boy some of the sports drink he had in his backpack, as soon as the boy lost some of his disorientation.
“I’m Echizen Ryoma.” Ryoma took Tezuka’s hand, but Tezuka had the feeling that he could have managed perfectly well on his own. Now that he saw Ryoma move, he could tell that it wasn’t dehydration that made him so slim. He was unusually lithe, yes, but his stature was made for it.
Tezuka barely had a chance to think this before Ryoma pulled him down into a kiss, his body fitting perfectly against Tezuka’s in all the places they were touching. When Ryoma’s tongue slipped into Tezuka’s mouth, Tezuka tasted the salty ocean and the tang of raw fish, and something that reminded him of an exotic fruit he’d never actually tried.
This was wrong. Ryoma couldn’t be more than eleven or twelve years old. They’d just met each other for the first time five minutes ago. Possibly– no, probably, Ryoma had suffered a head injury during the shipwreck, or he could still be in shock and not in control of his actions.
As gently as he could, Tezuka put his hands on Ryoma’s shoulders and pushed him away to arm’s length. Ryoma didn’t give him the betrayed look of a child rejected. He just stood there watching Tezuka as though he was trying to read his mind.
To distract himself as much as anything, Tezuka removed his jacket, putting it over Ryoma’s shoulders. It fell to Ryoma’s knees because of the difference in their heights. In this case the mismatched size was a good thing. It effectively covered anything that would usually be hidden by clothing.
Ryoma looked down at himself, and tugged on the jacket’s long sleeves. Then he looked up at Tezuka. “Why?”
“Because it’s cold,” said Tezuka simply, explaining about the jacket instead of about the interruption of the kiss.
“Oh. I forgot.” A frigid breeze blew and Ryoma shivered, even inside of the warm jacket. “It is cold.” He glanced around Tezuka, scanning the sand as though he was looking for something. His eyes widened. “It’s gone!” He grabbed Tezuka’s arm to steady himself, still searching the surrounding area. “It’s not where I left it...”
“What is it?” Tezuka asked patiently. It was probably some possession of Ryoma’s that had been on the boat with him, in which case it was gone forever.
After his initial burst of anxiety, Ryoma didn’t seem to be in any hurry to find whatever it was. “My sealskin,” he said, leaning against Tezuka’s side and looking up at him. “My sealskin is gone.”
Tezuka had been about to ask if Ryoma meant the racket he’d found, which was still lying in the sand where he’d put it, but apparently that wasn’t what he’d meant. “If it was in the boat with you, we might not be able to find it.”
Ryoma raised an eyebrow at him. “Ship? What ship?”
“There was a storm two nights ago,” said Tezuka, breaking the news as carefully as he was able. “Several boats were capsized.”
“Oh.” Suddenly Ryoma smirked. “A boat? What would I be doing in a boat? I can swim just fine without one.”
Denial and confused reactions were to be expected, if Ryoma was a storm survivor. Something in Tezuka’s mind rebelled against the idea, but it had no basis in fact yet, so he ignored it. “Here.” Tezuka reached around and into his backpack, pulling out a bottle of clear, lemon-flavored sports drink. It would replenish any electrolytes Ryoma had lost. “Drink this.”
Ryoma took the bottle, eyeing it distrustfully. He twisted the cap off easily enough, then licked at the rim. He grimaced and pulled his head back, almost making Tezuka smile. It was one of the better-tasting energy drinks available, but it wasn’t to everyone’s taste. “Do I have to drink it?” Ryoma asked.
“Yes,” said Tezuka sternly. “It will help with the cold.” This was true; if Ryoma’s blood sugar and other levels were low, he wouldn’t be as able to ward off the chill.
“Fine.” Ryoma put his head back and drank down half of the bottle. His throat rippled as he swallowed again and again.
Tezuka had to pull his gaze away, looking instead at the racket in the sand. “Slowly,” he instructed. Ryoma paused for a moment and Tezuka wasn’t sure that he’d obey. He did, though, taking smaller sips.
Finally Ryoma finished, making a face. “Here. I drank it.”
“Good.” Tezuka took the bottle, unzipping the pocket of his backpack to replace it where it had been. On a whim, he picked up the racket, holding it out so that Ryoma could see. “Is this your racket?”
“No,” said Ryoma. He curled his fingers around the racket’s handle anyway, taking it and examining it. “It’s not my racket. I do play tennis, though,” he added. “Do you?”
“Yes,” said Tezuka. He hesitated, then said, “I’m the captain of a tennis team.”
“We have to play sometime,” said Ryoma, his eyes lighting up almost literally, or so it seemed. Tezuka attributed it to the odd lighting provided by the ocean and the partly cloudy sky. “Are you good?”
Any answer he gave here would seem either falsely humble or unconscionably arrogant, so he settled for the plain truth. “Yes.”
“I am too,” said Ryoma, grinning. “Very.”
“I should call the police.” Tezuka set down his backpack. Fortunately, his parents and grandfather were out of town for two weeks, visiting other relatives, so it had been easy to bring Ryoma to the house and then up to his room. “Someone will be looking for you.”
“Yes, they will,” Ryoma said darkly. He sat on Tezuka’s bed, folding his legs neatly beneath him. “But don’t call the police.”
“I have to call them.” Tezuka picked up the phone. “I should have called them as soon as I found you.” He really should have, in fact. He’d rationalized it in his mind by thinking that it was better for them to have a fixed location, like a house, but that wasn’t good enough. If Ryoma had a head injury, Tezuka couldn’t be the one to care for it. In any case, Ryoma’s family was probably desperate to have him back. Tezuka was only prolonging their suffering.
“It won’t help my family to find me, if you call the police.” Ryoma’s keen eyes were on Tezuka, making Tezuka feel as though his thoughts were being read. “They’ll just take me and keep me forever.”
“If that’s the best thing for them to do,” said Tezuka, putting the phone back in its cradle and sitting down on the bed beside Ryoma. He’d kept it quiet, but he was concerned himself. If Ryoma had been in a capsized craft with the rest of his family, then the chances were that they would never be found.
Ryoma shook his head. “I don’t want them to keep me.” His voice lowered, and his tongue flickered across his lips. “I want you to keep me.”
It took an effort for Tezuka not to react to the tone. He kept his voice even and said, “I don’t think that would be possible.”
“It would,” said Ryoma confidently. “I would make it that way.” He laced his arms around Tezuka’s neck, scooting close and draping his legs over Tezuka’s lap. He nuzzled into Tezuka’s side. “I’m staying with you.”
“No, Echizen, you’re not.” Tezuka took a deep breath, which didn’t help, as he inhaled the scent of the ocean, and of the storm and the strange, sweet scent he’d learned belonged to Ryoma. “Let me get you some of my old clothing.” He disentangled himself from Ryoma’s embrace.
“Yes, I am,” said Ryoma, as Tezuka walked out the door.
Late that night, Tezuka remembered the racket he’d found along with Ryoma on the beach. He slipped out from under the covers. Ryoma still dozed in the bed, curling into the warm imprint Tezuka had left. Tezuka had laid out a futon for him on the floor, but Ryoma stubbornly refused to stay on it, no matter how many times Tezuka carried him there.
He unzipped his backpack and brought out the racket. He looked at it again, ghostly, sea-bleached white in the dark. It would be a good racket, if it were re-strung, and if the few gashes along the handle were repaired. He’d found it on the beach along with Ryoma; such an amazing coincidence. He thought he’d have it fixed and then perhaps even use it to play with. It felt comfortable in his hand in a way he’d thought only his own racket could.
For now, he put it away in the closet, inside of his tennis bag where it would be protected from further harm. Then he went back to the bed and slid one hand beneath Ryoma’s knees and the other carefully under Ryoma’s neck. Without waking Ryoma, he gently placed him on the futon, brushing a strand of hair away from his eyes and bringing the sheets up to cover him.
Tezuka stood and got back into his own bed, at the very edge so that Ryoma would either have to go around the bed, or climb over him. Hopefully if Ryoma was sleepy enough, he’d give up and stay on the futon.
Less than five minutes later, the sheets on the futon rustled. Tezuka didn’t open his eyes. He could barely hear the soft, padding footsteps, but they were there. Ryoma walked around to the other side of the bed and climbed under the covers with Tezuka, laying so that they were spooned together, Ryoma’s arm around Tezuka’s waist. Ryoma mumbled something like, “Have to help me find my sealskin...” and snuggled close.
This time Tezuka gave up, but it was a very long time before he could sleep.
“This is Echizen Ryoma.” Tezuka introduced Ryoma to his team. Ryoma gazed at his audience indifferently, his face hidden beneath the brim of the cap Tezuka had given him. The clothing he wore was still a little too big, but it fit well enough to be serviceable. “He’ll be practicing with us today.”
All the members of the Seigaku tennis team peered curiously at this freshman, whispering to each other. They were probably wondering why Tezuka-buchou would introduce a new player when he’d never done so before.
“Buchou?” The question came from Momoshiro, one of the team regulars. He grinned down at Ryoma, trying to elicit some kind of response. Ryoma eyed him coolly. “Is he transferring in for good, or what?”
“No,” said Tezuka, at the same moment when Ryoma said, “Yes.”
Tezuka glanced at Ryoma and amended his statement. “Possibly.”
None of the other players seemed concerned about the slender, stuck-up new freshman, at least not until he beat Momoshiro hands-down in a match that Tezuka himself selected. When Ryoma scored the winning point, he smirked at Tezuka through the chain link fence. Play me, he mouthed, and Tezuka gave him a tiny nod of his head.
Tezuka turned, pausing in his tracks. “Go on ahead,” he told Ryoma, handing him the key to his house. He didn’t stop to think that he’d never have given that key to anyone else he’d known only for a day.
“All right, buchou.” Ryoma grinned. He liked the nickname, and had begun using it ever since he’d heard Momoshiro say it to Tezuka. “Come home soon.”
“I will.” Tezuka watched until Ryoma was out of hearing range. “What is it, Fuji?” He trusted the tensai, but he didn’t trust what he would say when a supposedly innocent twelve-year-old was there to hear.
“I’m just curious,” said Fuji, gazing in the direction that Ryoma had gone. “What did you say Echizen was? A cousin of yours?”
“No,” said Tezuka. “I didn’t say what he was.”
“No, you didn’t,” Fuji agreed. “The question is, Tezuka...did he say what he was?” Before Tezuka could answer this question, Fuji pressed a book into his hand: The Book of Orkney Folklore. “Read this,” he said quietly. “It might provide you with some answers.” He smiled. “The page I’ve turned down might especially interest you.”
“Thank you,” said Tezuka, his eyes narrowing. A gift from Fuji was always suspect, but he tucked it into his backpack.
Tezuka stopped on the way home from practice at the sports equipment store, the specialty place where he’d always had his rackets repaired before. He knew the owner as any customer did, and he asked to speak with the man.
“Tezuka-san,” he said with a smile and a bow. “What brings you here today? Surely you haven’t worn out your strings again, since the last time?”
“No, I haven’t, Kazuo-san.” Tezuka placed the racket on the counter, and Kazuo picked it up with an exclamation. “Whose racket is this?” He turned it over in his hands. “I can’t find the brand name, but it’s certainly a fine piece of equipment...or it would be, if it hadn’t been so damaged. What on earth happened to it?”
“It washed up onshore after the storm three days ago,” Tezuka replied. “Is it reparable?”
“It should be, it should be,” said Kazuo, fingering the broken strings distractedly. “I’ll have to sand down the handle somewhat, if that’s all right.”
“That’s fine. Please fix it any way you can.” Tezuka bowed to Kazuo and left the shop. He would have to pay for the repair once it was finished, but he was willing to do that. He didn’t know why, only that it meant a lot to him.
He stopped again at a clothing store to buy several sets of t-shirts and shorts for Ryoma, in a variety of different colors.
When Tezuka arrived at his house, he was greeted in the hallway by a Himalayan cat he’d never seen before. It rubbed against his legs, purring. Ryoma was right behind it, grinning as Tezuka had never seen him grin before. “This is Karupin, buchou,” he said. “He found me!”
“This is your cat?” Tezuka leaned down to stroke the cat’s soft fur. Karupin butted his hand affectionately.
“Yeah.” Ryoma picked Karupin up, hugging him. The cat didn’t seem to object, only closed his eyes and purred louder. “Is it all right if he stays here with me?”
“You’re not staying,” said Tezuka firmly. “But he can stay until I call the authorities.” He handed Ryoma the bag of clothing. Ryoma set Karupin on the floor and took the bag, looking curiously inside. Then he looked up at Tezuka and smirked again. “I’m staying.”
Tezuka had no reply. Instead, he said, “Play a game with me, Echizen.”
“Any time, buchou,” said Ryoma.
“You weren’t playing your hardest.”
“Yes I was.” Ryoma looked surprised. His breath was still coming in quick pants, even though he was trying to control it.
“You can’t have been.” Tezuka didn’t believe it himself. If Ryoma hadn’t been playing in top form, it meant that he was a tennis prodigy unlike any Tezuka had ever seen. Even if Ryoma had been playing his best, he was one of the fiercest opponents Tezuka had ever played. He would only strengthen over time. “You’re not sweating.”
“Oh.” Ryoma watched Tezuka speculatively, then put out a finger to trace the line of sweat falling nearly into Tezuka’s eye. He brought the finger back and licked it, tasting. “You taste like the ocean, buchou.” His golden eyes flickered with that odd trick of the light again.
“You’re not sweating,” Tezuka repeated, not impatient although he thought Ryoma was trying to change the subject. “Why?”
“I’m not human, you know.” They sat side-by-side at the edge of the court after their match. Ryoma sipped at a can of Ponta, which he said tasted better than any sports drink. He glanced up at Tezuka. “That’s why I don’t sweat.”
“I see.” Tezuka took a sip of his sports drink. He wasn’t inclined to argue right now, right after they’d played such a brilliant match. Strangely, he wouldn’t have guessed that Ryoma was in the mood to lie, either. A passing thought reminded him that Ryoma could still have a head injury and need treatment. That thought was gone as soon as it came. No one with a head injury could have played such a game of tennis.
“I’m a selkie,” said Ryoma softly. “We have to mate with mortals, and that’s why I came. That’s why you found me.” He leaned up to kiss Tezuka again. This time he tasted like sea salt mixed with grape Ponta, a bizarre combination. “I want to stay with you,” he breathed.
Tezuka got to his feet and held out his hand. “Let’s go home, Echizen.”
Tezuka only remembered the book Fuji had given him when Ryoma was sound asleep beside him. He shifted carefully so that he wouldn’t disturb Ryoma, and opened the book to the place that was marked. The pale light from the street lamp outside illuminated the page just enough. The chapter was entitled The Seal People: Selkies and Their Kin.
It took all the self-control Tezuka had not to close the book. Was this where Ryoma had gotten the idea that he was a selkie? Tezuka dismissed that as impossible. The book had been in his backpack all along. Ryoma had never had access to it when Tezuka wasn’t watching.
Closing the book would mean admitting that the idea disturbed him, and it wouldn’t disturb him unless it was true. The only rational thing to do would be to read the chapter, and in doing so put out of his head all thought that Ryoma wasn’t human. The facts wouldn’t match, or the stories would be too ridiculous. He began reading.
The seal-person, or selkie, is one of the few creatures of Orkney folklore that does not intentionally cause harm to human beings. In fact, for a fisherman who acquires a selkie wife, the selkie folk can be a great blessing. The selkie wife’s relatives and friends will drive fish into his nets. A farmer, marrying a selkie woman, will find that his fields produce double what they once did. Unions between a human woman and a selkie man are rarer, but not unheard of. Any woman who marries a selkie will live in contentment all her life with a good husband and obedient children.
In appearance, the selkie resembles a seal naturally, and resembles a human being when it casts off its sealskin.
Tezuka drew in a breath upon reading this sentence, then shook his head slightly. The mention of a sealskin, the same thing Ryoma had referred to, did not mean that Ryoma’s story was necessarily true. He read on.
However, a selkie will always be more lithe and beautiful than any human being. They are strong and athletic, especially when in water. They are said not to be immortal, but will not die naturally of disease or old age. The selkie has only one major weakness: when it casts off its sealskin to assume human form, the sealskin may be stolen and the selkie will be forced to do the bidding of the human who possesses it, unable to return to its home waters. In this way many men have obtained their selkie brides.
The rest did nothing to make Tezuka feel better. It said that selkies tended to have dark hair, pale skin, and strange-colored eyes, and that they had to mate with humans in order to reproduce. There was nothing in the book to make him think that Ryoma’s story was untrue.
He watched Ryoma in the dim light, breathing peacefully, the covers clutched under his chin. It was hard not to believe that he was some mystical creature washed up on the shore for Tezuka to find.
Tezuka fell asleep and dreamed of the roar of the waves and of seals with golden eyes.
Ryoma wrinkled his nose at the breakfast Tezuka had prepared. “What is this?” He'd seen telephones and computers before, but evidently toast was new. He took an experimental bite of it. “Not bad,” he said finally, chewing and swallowing it. “Can I have some fish with it?” He fed a bite of the toast to Karupin, who had his front paws on the table, looking for scraps.
“You have to go,” said Tezuka abruptly. Ryoma had to leave the house before Tezuka started believing that he was a mythical creature called a selkie, and even more importantly, before Tezuka kissed back one day. “I’m calling the police. They’ll find your family.” He had the phone in hand and had dialed the first number before Ryoma’s hand closed on his wrist.
He stared up at Tezuka defiantly. “You can’t.”
“I can, and I am going to.” Tezuka pressed another button, but Ryoma was far stronger than he looked.
“No, you can’t.” Ryoma crossed his arms, and the look on his face was enough to make Tezuka stop dialing. “I told you yesterday that I was a selkie. The police would look and look and they would never find my family, and I would never find my sealskin.”
“I need to stay with you to find it!” Ryoma was obstinate. Tezuka didn’t want to disbelieve him, but it was easier to do that than to accept the impossible. “If you want me to find my family, you have to help me find my sealskin. Without it I can never go back.”
“I’ve read as much,” said Tezuka evenly. Ryoma looked at him skeptically. “Fuji gave me a book of Celtic myths.”
“Oh.” Ryoma looked thoughtful now. “Fuji-senpai knows.” He didn’t seem surprised. “It’s not Fuji-senpai I’m here for, though, buchou. It’s you.”
“Tell me why I shouldn’t call the police, and have them track down your family,” said Tezuka.
“Why didn’t you call them before?” Ryoma asked.
“Because I...” This made him pause to think. Why wouldn’t he have called the police the minute he’d seen Ryoma’s hand sticking out from under the driftwood? Why hadn’t he called the minute they’d arrived home? Why would he have bought clothing for Ryoma, why would he have brought him to school, why would he have kept Ryoma without tell anyone where he’d found him? Suddenly the absurdity of the situation hit him like the metaphorical ton of bricks.
“Because I put a spell on you, that’s why.” Ryoma sounded smug again. “We can bewitch anyone into anything. Well...” he frowned. “Not anything. You wouldn’t...never mind.”
Bewitched was the way Tezuka felt. At any other time, with any other boy, Tezuka would have turned him in to the police immediately. “I won’t call the police,” he said, hanging up the phone. He had to accept that he’d been bewitched, because he never would have acted the way he had otherwise. He had to be able to trust himself, which meant accepting the fact that Ryoma is a selkie. “How will we find your sealskin?”
Ryoma smirked and wrapped his arms around Tezuka’s neck, hugging him close. “I’ll find it,” he murmured in Tezuka’s ear. “It’s somewhere around here. If you help me, I can find it.”
“Stop bewitching me, and I’ll help you.” On this point Tezuka was firm. If he was going to believe in mythological creatures, he was going to do it while in full possession of his faculties.
“Fine,” Ryoma said. “It didn’t work very well on you, anyway.” He wouldn’t say any more, leaving Tezuka to wonder what he meant.
Karupin, in the meantime, had jumped onto the table and was nibbling delicately at Ryoma’s eggs and toast.
“Is that a new racket, Tezuka?” Oishi noticed that Tezuka was carrying the sea-washed racket instead of his usual one.
“Not new, exactly.” Tezuka held up the racket so that Oishi could see. “I found it on the beach, and had it repaired and re-strung.”
“That’s interesting.” Oishi examined the racket, looking fascinated. “I never would have guessed that you found it, although it’s an unusual color.” Oishi smiled. “It’s very nice. It looks like it fits you.”
“It does,” said Tezuka. It fit his hand in the same way it had fit his hand on the first day, the day when he’d found Ryoma. Even after being repaired and sanded, it was still perfect. He used it for the first time in a game that day.
He won the game, thinking of Ryoma the whole time.
“Buchou, can I go out for burgers with Momo-senpai and Eiji-senpai? Momo-senpai’ll give me a ride home.”
“You don’t need my permission,” said Tezuka. “Yes, you can go. Be careful, and be back before dark.” He realized that he sounded like a parent, but then, Ryoma was prone to staying out late. He liked to be outdoors, and Tezuka couldn’t walk with him to the beach every day. He did so as often as he could, though, because Ryoma liked the sea so much. He could sit rapt, watching it, for hours, particularly if he could watch it from Tezuka’s lap.
“Okay.” Ryoma headed back over to Momo and Eiji, where he was pounced from two different directions at once. He’d been accepted by the rest of the team, and by the rest of the school, as easily as anyone else. No one but Tezuka, and possibly Fuji, knew his true nature.
“Your little boy’s growing up,” Fuji commented from behind him, as though he’d been conjured by the thought of his name. “Doesn’t it worry you?”
“He has the right to do what he chooses,” said Tezuka, paying no attention to the knowing look Fuji gave him.
Tezuka walked home alone. Karupin greeted him at the door, but peered behind him, looking for Ryoma. “He’ll be back later,” Tezuka promised, not sure what that made Karupin, if Ryoma was a selkie. The cat seemed to understand Japanese, unless whatever being said was a command to get off the table or to leave something alone. Tezuka wrote part of an essay and finished some math homework in Ryoma’s absence. He found himself worrying, as he’d promised himself he wouldn’t do. He looked out the window every so often, to see if Ryoma had come home.
“See you tomorrow, Echizen!” Momo’s voice was loud enough to be heard from all the way inside. Tezuka looked out the window again, watching Ryoma swing his leg over the side of Momo’s bicycle, landing nimbly on his feet. He said something back to Momo, giving him a half-wave and heading for the house.
Tezuka told himself to finish one more sentence, not to leave his essay in mid-word. He couldn’t do it. He got to his feet, telling himself that he was under a spell, until he remembered that Ryoma had promised to stop.
Clearly he was under a different kind of spell, one that wasn’t selkie magic.
“Miss me?” Ryoma asked, as Tezuka came down the stairs to meet him. He was grinning.
Tezuka reached the bottom of the stairs, and bent down to brush a kiss across Ryoma’s lips. Ryoma looked surprised, and then very, very pleased, the way Karupin looked when he’d stolen a piece of food off the table. “Yes,” Tezuka answered honestly. “I did.”
Ryoma lay on the bed, purring as Tezuka gave him a gentle back rub. Tezuka wondered if real seals liked being petted as much as Ryoma seemed to. If given a chance, Ryoma would stay this way for hours.
“Echizen,” Tezuka said quietly. “Have you come any closer to finding your sealskin?”
“Mm, no.” Ryoma yawned, his face the picture of contentment. “It’s still close, though. It’s been close this whole time. Probably someone found it the same day you found me.”
It had been close this whole time? Someone had found it the same day Tezuka had found Ryoma... Suddenly Tezuka had a terrible flash of insight. “What does your sealskin look like, Echizen?” he asked.
“Oh, it can look like anything,” said Ryoma, flicking at the corner of the bedspread, not really paying attention to what Tezuka was saying. Then his head shot up and he met Tezuka’s eyes, confirming Tezuka’s suspicions.
Tezuka stood up and walked to the closet.
“Don’t.” Ryoma was up in a flash, grabbing Tezuka’s arm. When Tezuka looked, Ryoma was glaring at him in a way he’d never done before. He looked truly angry, not just challenging or defiant. “Buchou, don’t.”
Tezuka didn’t want to, but now that he knew, he had to. He didn’t know if it was selkie magic compelling him, and he suspected that was a part of it.
But he knew, also, that he could not let Ryoma’s family fear for their son forever, whether they were human or not, whether they lived above or below the ocean. He could not let himself feel as though he was one of the human men who had stolen and kept a selkie’s sealskin for his own selfish reasons.
He opened the closet to pull out the racket, repaired and worn not just by the sea, but by his use of it. Then he held it out to Ryoma.
Ryoma bit his lip, but raised his chin to eye Tezuka haughtily. “Fine,” he snapped, and snatched the racket from Tezuka’s hands. The only effect it seemed to have was to calm Ryoma down. He cradled the racket, gazing at Tezuka. “Take me back to the ocean.”
Karupin shot out from under the bed ahead of them to block the doorway. He looked curiously at Ryoma. “Mrow?”
Ryoma scooped Karupin up and cuddled him. “We have to go,” he said softly. He didn’t look at Tezuka again as he slipped out the door.
They stood at the end of the ocean together, Ryoma holding the racket and Karupin, staring out to sea. Tezuka glanced at the sea himself, but it held no interest for him right now, aside from the fact that Ryoma had come out of it.
“I have to go,” said Ryoma, looking up at him with those fey golden eyes of his. Even Karupin looked reproachful. Tezuka nodded.
Ryoma set Karupin on the sand alongside the racket. He quickly stripped off his clothing, folding it and giving it to Tezuka without a word. Then he picked up the racket, hesitated, and stood on his tiptoes to kiss Tezuka. It was a light kiss, flavored by Ryoma’s tears, nothing like the seductive kiss Ryoma had given him the day they'd met.
It came so close to changing Tezuka’s mind, even though he knew it was too late. He couldn’t let Ryoma go at first, pulling Ryoma against him, deepening the kiss and tasting that mixture of sea flavors that belonged uniquely to Ryoma.
Possibly other selkies tasted the same way, but none would ever taste the same to Tezuka.
Then Ryoma pulled away, looking as though he’d never been crying at all. Tezuka couldn’t be sure anymore whose tears they had been. “Thanks, buchou,” Ryoma said, with a little half-grin. Then he stepped into the waves, wading until he was chest-deep in the water...and disappeared.
Karupin bounded after him, and Tezuka caught a glimpse of a sleek dolphin swimming rapidly away from shore. A moment later, a dark seal’s head with bright gold eyes appeared above the waves, then the seal dove under and was gone. Tezuka knew that his decision had been the right one.
He would regret it forever.
He explained to everyone that Ryoma had been a cousin of his, visiting for a week, who’d returned home. Everyone believed him, except for Fuji, who looked at him with sympathy when no one else was there. Tezuka returned the book to him, but he never said anything else about it, not to anyone, not even to his parents when they returned. There was no reason for them to know that a boy and his cat had been living in their house while they’d been gone. There was no reason for anyone to know that Tezuka would never see Ryoma again. They’d barely known each other as it was.
Tezuka would have liked to know Ryoma better.
Weeks later, when Tezuka convinced himself that the sharp pain had faded to a dull, omnipresent ache, he went back to his favorite part of the beach. The waves crashed on the sand, soaking the driftwood that had come ashore in the storm two days before.
He didn’t really expect to find Ryoma here. There had never before been a selkie washed up on this stretch of beach, and it was more than likely that there never again would be. It didn’t matter. He still preferred to be here than anywhere else. He gazed out at the ocean, and in doing so stepped on a tangle of seaweed. He glanced down, meaning to pull his foot away, when something caught his attention.
Something was stuck in the coils of seaweed, something white and smooth like driftwood. It was a tennis racket, its strings whole and in good repair.
Tezuka picked it up and almost smiled.