“I want to meet your family.”
Tezuka glanced at him and held his gaze. “I don’t think that would be possible.”
“Why not?” Ryoma pressed, although he knew very well why not.
“They wouldn’t believe you existed,” said Tezuka.
“Not even if they saw me?”
“Not necessarily.” Tezuka continued stroking up and down Ryoma’s spine with the flat of his hand. Ryoma had never known why the dolphins liked to be petted so much. Now he knew.
“Why do you believe in me, then?” Ryoma twisted his head back to look at Tezuka again.
“Because I do,” said Tezuka. It was answer enough. He was satisfied with that being Tezuka’s reason to believe in him, but he still thought it was silly that Tezuka’s family wouldn’t.
“I’d like you to meet someone.” It was the first thing Tezuka said, after their greeting kiss, Ryoma halfway on the beach and Tezuka on his stomach in the sand. “If you’re willing.”
“Who is it?” Ryoma asked. He never even stopped to consider whether he’d say yes or not.
“Two friends of mine,” said Tezuka. “They’re waiting on the cliff.”
“I want to meet them,” said Ryoma.
Tezuka nodded. He began to stand up. Ryoma took hold of his shirt, meaning to pull Tezuka back down for a second. Ryoma didn’t have to pull, because Tezuka leaned in to give him another light kiss, caressing Ryoma’s cheek with a hand. “I’ll be right back,” he said quietly.
“Okay.” Ryoma pushed himself back into the water as Tezuka walked up the cliff. He swam in lazy circles. It calmed him down a little, not, he told himself sternly, that he needed it. If they were Tezuka’s friends, they had to be all right.
He came back to shore when Tezuka reappeared. He didn’t pull himself so far onto the sand, though. He’d lay like a seal on the beach when it was only Tezuka there, but with strangers he wasn’t going to look so undignified.
Another human followed Tezuka. He had short black hair, and he gave Ryoma a tentative smile as he approached. The third human had black hair, too, but it was tied up under a piece of cloth. He surveyed Ryoma in as non-expressively as Ryoma was watching him.
“Ryoma. This is Oishi, and this is Kaidoh.” Tezuka sat down on the sand. “Oishi, Kaidoh, this is Ryoma.”
Oishi exchanged a glance with Tezuka, and then he sat down too. He held out his hand. “It’s good to meet you, Ryoma.”
“Good to meet you too.” Ryoma gave Oishi a firm handshake.
Kaidoh was more reluctant. He knelt slightly behind Oishi, giving Ryoma only a nod. “Good to meet you,” he said shortly.
“So you’re the one Tezuka’s been coming to see?” Oishi asked, and then hesitated. “I’m sorry, but…are you really…?”
“Yeah.” Ryoma raised his tail, flicking water up with the end of it.
“You really are,” Oishi said wonderingly. Kaidoh’s eyes were as big as Momo’s sometimes got. “I almost didn’t believe it.”
Ryoma shrugged. “It’s okay. Do you believe now?”
Oishi laughed, surprised. “Of course.” Kaidoh nodded, too, unconsciously moving nearer to the water.
“I think I know why Tezuka keeps coming to see you, now,” said Oishi thoughtfully. He positioned himself more comfortably.
Ryoma looked at Kaidoh. “I won’t bite you, you know.” He was tempted to snap his teeth together menacingly to contradict that statement. Tezuka was right there, though, and wouldn’t approve, so he didn’t do it.
Kaidoh flushed an interesting shade of red. “I…I didn’t think you would,” he said gruffly.
“Do you think I’m a demon or something?” Ryoma asked, being as blunt as it was possible to be.
Kaidoh looked startled. He glanced away uneasily. “Of course not.”
“Well, I’m not a demon,” said Ryoma. “I don’t kill people or steal their souls or anything.” Sometimes he would have liked to have that power, but that didn’t seem like the right thing to say.
“Of course you don’t!” said Oishi, giving Kaidoh a look. “Tezuka wouldn’t make friends with a demon. We both know that.”
“Maybe not,” said Ryoma, giving in to one of his unhelpful impulses. “But maybe I am a demon.” He flicked his tail again, this time sending water flying far enough that it rained on Oishi and Kaidoh’s heads. Oishi laughed, and Kaidoh looked up, surprised. “I do things like that,” said Ryoma. “Kind of like a demon.”
“More like my brother,” Kaidoh grumbled. He didn’t even seem to be aware of it, but his posture relaxed.
“Like my brothers, too,” said Ryoma, rolling his eyes. “They do that all the time to me.”
“You have brothers?” Kaidoh asked, curious, apparently, despite himself.
“Two,” said Ryoma, making a face. “They’re both older.”
“My brother is younger,” said Kaidoh. He met Ryoma’s eyes for the first time.
Tezuka kept silent, but when Ryoma looked his way he gave Ryoma a slight nod and the smile that was only in his eyes. Ryoma almost grinned.
They all talked, mostly Oishi and Kaidoh asking questions. Kaidoh was almost as curious about merpeople as Eiji had been about humans, once he got more comfortable being around Ryoma. Tezuka stayed quiet, but gave Ryoma a look, a touch whenever Ryoma wanted it.
By the end of the day, they were all in the water, soaked, Tezuka and Ryoma teaching Oishi and Kaidoh how to swim faster.
“They’re like your family,” said Ryoma, after Oishi and Kaidoh had gone.
“They are,” said Tezuka.
Ryoma should have been satisfied, but he wasn’t. Instead of saying so, he pulled Tezuka under the water for a kiss that lasted as long as Tezuka could hold his breath.
“I need your help.”
“What, my help?” Fuji inquired. “Whatever for? Did Eiji send you?”
“No,” said Ryoma. “I just thought you might know.” He glanced around Fuji’s cave. It was filled with sparkling things, fluorescent sea life and human things made of glass and crystal. Ryoma had no idea how he’d gotten half of the stuff. He didn’t think he wanted to know. He just wanted advice.
“I might.” Fuji smiled, rearranging a few of his trinkets. “It depends on what you’re asking.”
“How can I become a human?”
Fuji stopped. He put his hand on a bottle, touching it with a musing expression on his face. “Why would you want to become a human?”
“You know why,” said Ryoma.
“Mm.” Fuji turned so that he wasn’t facing Ryoma anymore, facing his collection instead. “He didn’t ask you to turn into a human.” It was a statement, not a question.
“No. He wouldn’t.” Ryoma swished his tail impatiently. He was careful not to hit any of Fuji’s treasures, though. Fuji glanced at him, but said nothing.
“He can come into the water with me. I can’t go on land with him,” Ryoma said finally. “That’s why.” Tezuka could visit Ryoma’s brothers in the water, but Ryoma was so helpless on land. He would never be able to see where Tezuka lived without all kinds of special care. He’d always relied on Tezuka to come to him. He wasn’t worried that Tezuka would stop coming. He just wanted the option of having it the other way around.
“Ah. Understandable.” Fuji turned to Ryoma again. “You really want to become human, then. You know everything you’ll lose.”
“I know everything I’ll get from it, too,” said Ryoma.
“All right then.” Fuji’s smile returned, only now it was more disturbing. “There’s only one person who can turn you into a human, and I know where she lives.”
The floor of the witch's huge cave was littered with the bones of fish, merpeople, and humans. Ryoma wasn't afraid. There were bones all over the ocean floor. Maybe the witch collected them, or something. He doubted that she actually ate them. She was supposedly just a mermaid herself, and mermaids weren't cannibals. Nanjiroh had told him differently once. Ryoma tended not to listen to a thing his father said.
There were also sea snakes making their silent way around and past the entrance of the cave. Ryoma stopped to look at them. They weren’t one of the poisonous types, so he ignored them and swam through them, batting them away with a hand or his fin when they brushed against him
"Hey," Ryoma called from the mouth of the cave.
There was a clatter, as though he'd disturbed something that the witch was doing. "Hold on a moment, Ryoma."
Ryoma didn't know whether to be glad or creeped out that the witch knew his name already. On the one hand, it saved introductions. On the other hand, it was weird.
"So you're finally here." The witch swam out, smiling sweetly at him. She was subtly terrifying. She was pretty enough, with long brown hair and human-style spectacles, and a dark green tail. Still, there was something about her, and it wasn't just her title. "I knew you'd be coming. You're here because of your human prince, aren't you?"
"Yes," said Ryoma. He supposed he shouldn't be surprised that she knew all this. She was a witch, after all.
"Now, now," she admonished. "Don't think of me as 'witch.' My name is Hanamura."
"Fine. Hanamura," said Ryoma, just to make her happy.
"Oh, I've been looking forward to this day." She swam closer than was comfortable, caressing Ryoma's hair with a hand. "Such lovely hair. Such eyes, too," she added, regardless of the fact that Ryoma was now glaring at her. "And such a tail! I've never seen one like it. They say you're the fastest of Nanjiroh's sons, isn't that right?"
"I'm faster than anyone," Ryoma said.
She positively beamed at him. "Of course, of course! I only want the best, you know, and you are that."
Ryoma began to wonder if she'd actually be able to help him, or if she was only interested in playing with his hair. He scowled and swam back a little, out of her reach.
"That's not very friendly, Ryoma." She shook a finger at him. "I have what you want, you know." She held up a small glass vial filled with black liquid. The label was marked with a skull and crossbones. Ryoma eyed it dubiously. "Pay no attention to the label. I put these in whatever I can find. Now, this potion will turn your tail into legs."
"What do I have to pay you?" Ryoma asked immediately.
"I don't want to pay that," said Ryoma.
"That's not what I meant," she said. "I'll explain what it is you have to pay, or rather, the gamble you have to take. This potion, as I said, will give you human legs and human lungs so that you may go ashore and win that prince of yours."
"I don't have to win him," said Ryoma.
"Well, whatever," said Hanamura. "You have to convince the prince to stay with you, and only you, forever. Otherwise..." she smiled even more sweetly than before. "Otherwise, the spell will be broken, and you will return here to serve me for eternity. Is it a deal?" She held up the potion bottle.
Ryoma raised an eyebrow in a conscious imitation of Tezuka. "What's the catch?"
"Oh, dear, the catch, I almost forgot!" Ryoma didn't believe that for a second. "The potion will give you legs, but it will make you lose your voice." She sighed. "It's the only way to make it, I'm afraid." Ryoma didn't believe that, either.
"That's stupid," said Ryoma. "You could make it another way."
"No, I could not," she corrected him. "I'd love to, but some of the ingredients have such nasty side effects. It's either this or one that will make you vomit every hour..."
"I'll take this one," Ryoma said, reaching for the vial.
"Ah ah ah." She held it back, out of his reach. "You agree to the terms? Not that you'll have a choice, of course, but it does sound better this way."
"Fine. I agree."
This time, she let him take the potion. "Don't drink it until you're at the surface." She laughed, looking slightly maniacal. "I'd hate to swim all the way from here to the surface with air-breathing lungs, wouldn't you?"
"Tch." Ryoma gave her a disdainful glance, now that he had what he wanted. He brushed off one of the sea snakes that had twined itself around his tail as he swam away.
“Where’re you going, little one?”
Ryoma had gotten up early, meaning to avoid his brothers altogether. He didn’t have to worry about Nanjiroh, who always kept a weird sleep schedule. Usually Nanjiroh wouldn’t be awake until well into the afternoon.
Momo was still asleep, too. Eiji had always been the earliest riser of them all, including Ryoma. It was part of the reason he’d made friends with Fuji, who seemed to be awake most of the time.
“Nowhere,” said Ryoma.
Eiji wasn’t content with that answer, but then, Ryoma had known he wouldn’t be. He draped himself over Ryoma’s shoulders, making it very difficult for Ryoma to swim. “Are you going to see your human? It’s early for that.”
“He’ll be there,” said Ryoma. He closed his fingers tighter around the vial.
“Hmmm.” Eiji tickled Ryoma with his fin. “I think you’re not telling something.”
“Let go,” Ryoma said, a little annoyed. “That tickles.”
“It’s supposed to!” said Eiji cheerfully. He tickled more. “Tell. Come onnnn. You should tell your older brother everything.”
“No,” said Ryoma. If he told Eiji what was going on, Eiji would tell Momo, who would undoubtedly slip and tell Nanjiroh, who would end up telling everyone in the ocean exactly what was going on. All this would happen by the end of the day, especially because it would be so inconvenient for Ryoma.
“What’s that?” Eiji asked, glancing down alertly. Ryoma looked where Eiji was looking, which was straight at the hand with the tiny glass bottle. Ryoma tried to make a break for it, giving one hard stroke with his tail.
Eiji, unfortunately, was worse than a barnacle when it came to hanging on where he wasn’t wanted. He let himself be pulled along with Ryoma, clinging onto Ryoma’s shoulders.
“Let go,” Ryoma ordered, though he knew it wouldn’t work.
“Nope.” Eiji wrapped one arm completely around Ryoma’s neck. He darted his other hand down to pry at Ryoma’s fingers. “Show me.”
“No!” said Ryoma. “It’s mine.”
“I’m not taking it, I just want to see,” said Eiji, using his best convincing tone of voice. “Please, little one?” It was almost enough to make Ryoma feel guilty, or it would have been if he hadn’t heard this same voice used hundreds of times before.
“No,” said Ryoma stubbornly.
“Please?” Eiji asked, right in Ryoma’s ear. “Ple-e-ease?” Eiji was nothing if not persistent. When he wanted to know something, he found out that something. It was just a matter of time. With Momo, it took less time than it took with Ryoma. “Please?”
“No.” Ryoma wasn’t about to back down on this one without a fight. “Go find Fuji.”
“Fuji’s busy with something, and he won’t tell me what it is!” said Eiji, adding an indignant noise to that. Fuji was the one person who could never be coerced into telling anything he didn’t want to. Ryoma wondered if Fuji’s secret had anything to do with Ryoma’s. Fuji was the only other one who knew, after all, except for Tezuka.
“Fine. Go bother him about it.”
“I did already,” said Eiji. “You know he won’t tell!” He was abruptly silent. Ryoma twisted his head around to look at Eiji. Silence was never a good sign with his oldest brother.
Indeed, Eiji now wore a crafty expression. “Should I call Momo?” he asked sweetly. “I bet he’ll want to know too.”
“You wouldn’t,” said Ryoma. Momo and Eiji together would be able to wrestle the vial away from him.
“I bet Father would want to know,” said Eiji. “I could call him.”
“He wouldn’t wake up.” But that was a risky business, because there was always the possibility that Nanjiroh had slept all night and would wake up if Eiji called.
“Maybe not,” said Eiji. “But maybe.”
”Fine.” Ryoma reluctantly uncurled his fingers so that Eiji could see the vial full of black liquid.
Eiji tilted his head to the side. “What’s that?” He plucked it from Ryoma’s palm. Ryoma tried to snatch it back, but Eiji held it away. “Hmm.” Eiji shook it. The liquid moved sluggishly around the bottle. “Doesn’t look very good.”
“I’ll give it back,” said Eiji. “But what is it?”
“It’s…” Ryoma couldn’t tell Eiji what it really was, or who it was from. “It’s from Fuji.”
“Hmm.” Eiji looked at Ryoma sideways. “Really?”
“What’s it do?” Eiji asked. “Is it poison?”
“Of course not. Stupid.” Ryoma grabbed for the vial. Eiji let him take it. “It’ll let me breathe air for a little while.”
“Ohhhh.” Eiji nodded wisely. “So you can visit your human.”
Ryoma didn’t bother to correct Eiji on the issue of “his human.” “Yes.”
“Maybe I should ask Fuji if he’d make something for me like that,” said Eiji. “Sounds like fun!”
“It’s not,” said Ryoma. “Now let go.”
“Okay,” said Eiji, finally releasing him. “Have fun, little one.” He ruffled Ryoma’s hair and then tapped him on the nose.
“I will,” said Ryoma.
For some reason, he felt guiltier now than he had when Eiji was trying to make him feel that way.
“You don’t need to do this.”
“I know,” said Ryoma. “I want to.” He fingered the tiny potion bottle. He’d peeled off the label, of course. Tezuka wouldn’t let him drink something with a skull on it, he was sure.
“But you don’t need to.” Tezuka put a hand on Ryoma’s cheek. “Think it through.”
“I did. I want to do it. If you’ll let me stay with you,” Ryoma added. “If it’s all right.”
Tezuka closed his eyes and sighed. He opened his eyes and met Ryoma’s. “Of course.”
“Then…” Ryoma pulled the cap off of the bottle. He put it up to his face and held back a grimace. He thought that it had better not actually be poison, and that Fuji had better give that witch a piece of his mind if it was. “Oh.”
Ryoma had almost forgotten about the one important point he had to tell Tezuka. “I won’t be able to talk once I’m human. It’s a side effect.”
Tezuka leaned in, almost close enough for a kiss but not quite. “Be sure.” He rested his forehead gently against Ryoma’s. “Be sure, Ryoma.”
“I am.” Ryoma pulled back just enough so that he could drink the potion. He tipped his head back. The stuff didn’t taste bitter or sour, the way he’d thought it would. It was sweet instead, almost sickeningly sweet. He’d been prepared for convulsions, or for pain.
He didn’t expect that the transition would be close to unnoticeable, the way it was. The shift from tail to legs was instantaneous. It wasn’t so different. The real difference came when Ryoma suddenly gasped in a breath of air. His eyes widened. He gasped again, startled by the rush into lungs he didn’t have before.
“It’s all right.” Tezuka put his arms around Ryoma, pulling him close. “You’re breathing with lungs.”
Ryoma took a minute, trying to control his breath and to get used to it. It was a strange feeling, to have his chest moving up and down every time he breathed. He leaned into the comforting warmth that was Tezuka. He glanced back at his tail, which wasn’t a tail anymore. It was a pair of legs. Experimentally, he moved one, and then the other. They moved separately.
He looked up at Tezuka, remembering that he couldn’t speak. He reached out to write with a finger in the sand. I’m fine. He looked up at Tezuka, who was gazing at what he’d written. Tezuka glanced at him.
Ryoma abruptly realized his mistake, too late. Although he understood and spoke human language, he couldn't read or write it. Frustrated, he scrawled on the sand, in his own language, Stupid!
He looked over at Tezuka, knowing that if anyone would understand, it would be him. Tezuka inspected the word in the sand thoughtfully, even tracing it with a finger. "You don't read the language I know?"
Ryoma shook his head, relieved, but still angry with himself.
Tezuka took Ryoma's hand gently. "I'll teach you."
Ryoma nodded emphatically. He wiggled his toes, testing to be sure something so ridiculous-looking could move properly. They could, but they didn’t feel at all like fins.
Tezuka led Ryoma through a pair of enormous gates.
They’d spent an hour down at the beach, with Ryoma trying to learn how to keep his balance while he walked. Now Ryoma was almost completely steady without even putting a hand on Tezuka’s arm. He wasn’t quite used to the clothing Tezuka had brought for him yet, especially the shoes. They felt heavy, even though they were the lighter than the ones Tezuka wore.
They didn’t have to walk far, luckily. Tezuka lived right on the coastline, in a huge building Ryoma saw all the time. It was hard to miss.
“Your highness.” The three men inside the gate bowed, one after the other. Ryoma refused to look surprised.
They went around the building to a back door. A woman bustling past them paused to drop something Tezuka later explained as a curtsy. “Highness.” Then she hurried on by.
Ryoma looked up at Tezuka and raised an eyebrow. Tezuka nodded to show that he’d seen and he knew what it meant, but he didn’t stop. They walked down a long corridor, and then down a winding staircase. Tezuka kept his arm close anyway. Ryoma appreciated it, but he refused to show he needed it. He had to hold on tight to the bar next to the stairs. He never stumbled once.
At the bottom of the stairs, Tezuka stopped to take a ring of keys out of his pocket. He unlocked a door made of dark wood and opened it, holding it there so that Ryoma could step through.
Ryoma walked into a room that was larger than any of the caves he’d ever lived in. The first thing he was drawn to were the windows, one taking up almost an entire wall, two smaller ones on either side. The windows looked out on the ocean. There was maybe a two foot drop from the windowsills to the water.
“This castle was built into the rocks,” said Tezuka, from behind him. “Part of it is below sea level.”
Ryoma laid his palm on the glass. He turned to Tezuka, grinning. Perfect, he mouthed.
“Would you like to stay here, or would you like to see more?”
That didn’t take much thought. Ryoma’s new legs were getting sore, true, but not sore enough to stop him from wanting to do what he’d been wanting to do for weeks now. More.
Tezuka offered Ryoma his arm. Ryoma took it this time, partly because they’d probably be taking some of those stairs again, and partly because he liked the contact. “This way.” Tezuka led Ryoma back up the steps, letting Ryoma support himself on his arm, or not, as he chose.
Ryoma recognized the voice. Oishi came into sight a moment later, hurrying down the stairs. Ryoma narrowed his eyes, watching how Oishi did that. He resolved to learn how to hurry down steps that way. “Tezuka, are you…oh, Ryoma!” Oishi smiled warmly. “Tezuka told us you’d be here today. How are you, well, adjusting?”
Ryoma shrugged, as though it really wasn’t all that different. Unfortunately, he had one foot on one step and one foot on the other, and the shrug put him off balance. He had to tighten his grip on Tezuka’s arm.
“It’s hard, even for people who were born with legs sometimes,” Oishi told him kindly. Ryoma suppressed a scowl at the unwanted sympathy. He had to admit to himself that it was nice to be cared about by someone who wasn’t even his species. Naturally, Tezuka didn’t count. He was Tezuka, not some human. Ryoma nodded instead of making a face, regaining his balance.
“Are you going to show him your room, Tezuka?” Oishi asked.
“I am,” said Tezuka.
“My room is across the hall from Tezuka’s,” Oishi told Ryoma. “Kaidoh’s is a little farther down, but if you need anything, you can come see us anytime. Please, don’t hesitate to ask for anything.”
Ryoma raised an eyebrow. Tezuka glanced at him. Ryoma grinned slightly and decided he’d be polite. Thank you, he mouthed to Oishi with a proper nod of appreciation.
“You’ve told your parents?” Oishi asked Tezuka. “They must know, if you’re using the downstairs suite.”
“Yes, they know,” Tezuka replied. “Not the whole truth, but yes.”
“I don’t think they’d believe the whole truth anyway,” Oishi said with a rueful laugh. “It’s just as well. I’ll leave you to the tour now, Tezuka, Ryoma.”
Ryoma was puzzled again over why Tezuka’s parents still wouldn’t believe him, even with a strange boy staying in their home. He stopped thinking about it when they ascended another staircase. “I thought you’d want to be closer to the water,” said Tezuka once they reached the top. “Otherwise I would have put you closer to me.”
Ryoma nodded. Tezuka was right, even though the need to be close to water and the need to be close to Tezuka were vying for top priority in his head. He thought it would be hard to sleep if he couldn’t at least hear the ocean.
“This is my room.” Tezuka opened the door onto a room just as spacious as Ryoma’s. This one also had a large window, but this one was two floors above the ocean. The sea sparkled from here, sunlight dancing over the waves. Ryoma had never seen the ocean from so high before.
He took in the whole room. Tezuka stood by silently to let him look around. Ryoma took cautious steps around the room, looking at the shelves full of books, the desk with papers neatly stacked on it, and the bed that looked just as comfortable as the one in Ryoma’s room.
“The key.” Tezuka extended his hand. Ryoma took the slightly heavy piece of metal from him. He knew what keys did, because Fuji had a collection of them. Ryoma pointed to the door, and gave Tezuka a questioning look, wanting to make sure that it was the key to this room.
“Yes,” said Tezuka, almost smiling. “This room is as much yours as the one downstairs.”
Ryoma found that standing up was much easier when he wrapped his arms around Tezuka’s neck and held himself up that way. It was hard to think about balance at all when he was kissing Tezuka fiercely, and Tezuka was kissing back the same way.
With the hand that wasn’t sliding gently over Ryoma’s back through the fabric of his shirt, Tezuka closed the door and turned the lock.
Ryoma was startled out of his thoughts, and his practice with the quill pen and paper. Tezuka had taught him all the letters of the human alphabet that afternoon. He was trying to remember as many as he could. He was sure he’d missed one in the middle, which was irritating. It was silly that humans didn’t just do what merpeople did, and use recognizable symbols for every word. They had to spell things out, and none of the words looked sensible to Ryoma.
He went to the window, which he’d opened because he liked the sea air. It was so different to breathe it than it was just to smell it. His eyes widened.
Right below his window were his brothers. Momo was waving enthusiastically, even though he was hardly two feet away. “Hey!”
“You should have told, you know,” said Eiji. “You didn’t say you were turning all human!”
Ryoma opened his mouth, forgetting that he couldn’t talk. To his surprise, he could…in mermish. He could still sing, even if he couldn’t speak human. His mermish was broken and didn’t feel quite natural when he was breathing air like this, but it was still his first language and easy to get used to. “How did you find me?”
“Fuji,” said Eiji smugly. “He knew what you were doing, and he told. He knew where you were and everything.”
Somehow Fuji had the answer to everything. Ryoma didn’t know whether to be irritated or relieved. This meant Fuji’s secret didn’t have anything to do with Ryoma, or if it did, it was about something different.
“Fine,” said Ryoma. “I was just about to sleep, you know.”
Momo whined at him, “But it took so long to get here.”
“It did not.” Ryoma knew better.
“Okay, we’ll go,” Eiji said, with a dolphin-like click of disapproval. Both of them turned to leave.
“Come back tomorrow,” said Ryoma. To anyone who didn’t know him, it would have seemed as though he didn’t want his brothers to visit. Momo and Eiji knew him better than anyone.
“Of course we will.” Momo grinned up at him. “Don’t get lonely while we’re gone.”
“Sweet dreams, little one,” said Eiji.
“Bye.” Ryoma fought against a grin of his own, and lost.
“I’ll teach you to ride, if you want to learn.”
Ryoma nodded. He extended a hand to the horse, unafraid. It blew warm air into his palm and then shook itself. Ryoma ran the hand over the silky hair on the horse’s neck, then over its shoulder. It was tall; taller, even, than Tezuka. It didn’t seem dangerous, though, and its eye didn’t look as tricky or smart as a dolphin’s.
“You sit on his back.” Tezuka made a step out of his hands, at the perfect level to stand on it and, from there, get onto the horse’s back. “Hold his mane. It won’t hurt him.”
Mane? Ryoma mouthed silently. He’d never heard that word before.
“The long hair on the back of his neck,” Tezuka said. Ryoma eyed it for a moment, and then gripped the mane and stepped onto Tezuka’s hands.
Tezuka boosted him up and over the horse’s back. The horse snorted and twitched, but didn’t move any more than that. Ryoma remembered that he had to swing his right leg over to the other side. Having four limbs could be confusing.
Ryoma’s first thought was to marvel at the feeling of sitting astride. It was so different from anything he could do with a tail. It was strange, not quite comfortable but not quite uncomfortable either. Then he looked around.
The horse seemed even taller from up here. Ryoma could see so much more from this height. He looked down at Tezuka. He grinned because, for once, he wasn’t the one looking up.
Tezuka’s lips curved in a faint smile. He kept his hand on Ryoma’s leg. “You’re all right?”
Ryoma nodded again. “Hold on,” said Tezuka. He clucked to the horse, who obediently began to walk. Ryoma continued to clutch the horse’s mane. The horse’s stride was bumpy, and Ryoma was determined not to fall off.
He looked down at Tezuka. Faster?
Tezuka shook his head. “Not yet. Not until you’re used to it.”
In Ryoma’s opinion, he was already used to it enough already. He wanted to go fast. With legs, he could walk and swim, but he couldn’t do either fast enough to suit him.
“Your legs will be sore already, later,” said Tezuka. He urged the horse into a slightly faster walk, but that was as quick as he’d let Ryoma go.
Ryoma didn’t protest any further, and when they got to that later Tezuka had spoken of he was more grateful for Tezuka’s caution. He lay on his bed, wincing when he tried to bend his legs. Tezuka sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing Ryoma’s legs to relax the muscles.
With the pen and paper he carried around everywhere now, Ryoma scribbled a note: I’ll get used to it. Sometime. He handed it back to Tezuka.
Tezuka read the note. Ryoma could hear the amusement and affection in his voice when he replied, “Yes, you will. I promise.”
Although his legs still hurt him the next day, Ryoma insisted on going for another ride. They started riding together every morning after that. Sometimes Oishi came with them, sometimes Kaidoh, sometimes both. Sometimes they rode to the beach to visit Eiji and Momo. Eiji always tried to talk to the horses, and always cheerfully failed.
Sometimes, too, it was Tezuka and Ryoma alone, which was better than just about anything.
“My parents will be there.”
Ryoma nodded. He’d already heard gossip around the palace that during the party for the courtiers, Prince Tezuka would finally be introducing his young, silent friend to everyone. The servants all knew Ryoma already, of course. The maids treated him like a younger brother or like a son and teased him into scowling at them, and the cooks always took pity on his thin, half-starved, large-eyed appearance. He could get fresh bread, milk, and fish anytime he wanted it.
Tezuka was wearing formal clothing with all too many frills and unnecessary pieces to it. Ryoma didn’t mind that so much. In his fine coat, his silk shirt, and his long dress trousers and high, elegant boots, Tezuka was handsomer than Ryoma thought anyone could be in clothes.
Ryoma kept pulling at his own formal attire, though. The shirt he liked. It was softer than his ordinary ones, made of silk like Tezuka’s. It fit him perfectly, but then, it would, since it was custom-tailored to his measurements. Ryoma had scowled throughout the entire fitting.
The coat was annoying. The collar was too high, and he felt like he was wearing too many layers of cloth. One was more than enough, in Ryoma’s opinion. The pants were all right. The boots were the worst. Ryoma felt as though he could hardly pick up his feet, they were so stiff and heavy.
Tezuka escorted Ryoma through the hallways, which were full of bustling servants and courtiers, all chattering and only bowing to Tezuka as an afterthought. They entered a huge room Ryoma had never been into. It was completely full of people and noise.
Ryoma looked around dispassionately, trying to hide the fact that such a crowd made him uneasy. Merpeople never stayed in groups so large, and they definitely didn’t enjoy them. These humans seemed to be enjoying themselves a great deal, eating and talking and coming and going and listening to music and dancing. It was a lot to take in all at once.
Tezuka put a reassuring hand on Ryoma’s lower back. “We won’t stay long,” he murmured. Ryoma nodded again.
“Oh, Your Highness, is this the friend you’ve been hiding?” Almost the second they stepped through the door, they were surrounded by a group of people, most of them female, decked out in even more trappings and ribbons and lace than Tezuka or Ryoma.
“He’s absolutely adorable!”
“Would you like a candy?”
“Here, some punch for you!”
“Do you like sweet rolls?”
So many hands were held out to him, it was like being attacked by a squid with hundreds of tentacles. Ryoma looked up at Tezuka, who looked as though he was used to this kind of attention. Tezuka stood partially in front of Ryoma, though, so that he couldn’t be completely mobbed.
Ryoma accepted a candy that he’d tried before, when Tezuka had given him a dish of them. Chocolates, they were called. He liked those. This one was filled with cream, which was even better. It came close to making him forget about the swarm of humans around him.
“Please excuse us.” Tezuka, amazingly, swept right through the crowd of them like they were a school of little fish. He guided Ryoma through alongside him. Ryoma took the opportunity to take another one of the proffered chocolates, chewing it thoughtfully. It was filled with that caramel stuff this time.
“Your Highness.” Oishi and Kaidoh were dressed up, too. They bowed formally to Tezuka. They were courtiers, pretty high-ranking ones, or so Ryoma had heard. Ryoma thought the whole system was slightly ridiculous, but he didn’t comment.
“Tezuka, your parents want to talk to you.” Oishi said this less formally. “They’ve been waiting for you.”
Tezuka glanced across the room. Ryoma could just see two people sitting on high seats there, surrounded by servants and courtiers. “I see.” He looked at Ryoma. “Will you stay here with Kaidoh?”
Ryoma shrugged. It was fine with him. Tezuka walked off with Oishi, looking back to catch Ryoma’s eyes one more time.
The second Tezuka was gone, Ryoma was accosted again. It might have been the same crowd as before, or it might have been completely different people, Ryoma couldn’t tell. They all made their introductions in the space of one breath. Ryoma couldn’t make out one single name before they started shooting questions at him.
“Is it true you’re from another country?”
“How did you meet His Highness?”
“Do you care for hunting?”
“Would you like a drink?”
Ryoma exchanged a look with Kaidoh, who didn’t look any more comfortable than Ryoma felt. “Please-“ Kaidoh began, and then subsided, clearly not commanding quite as much authority as Tezuka did.
Ryoma didn’t bother hiding his distaste. It didn’t put the ladies off, though. In fact, it almost seemed to make him more appealing. They cooed over him and petted his hair, exclaiming over how soft it was and over how gold his eyes were and over how many chocolates he’d eaten. That was the one good thing about them. They seemed to have an endless supply of candy hidden away in their silk and satin dresses.
When Tezuka came back, it was like plunging back into the sea after being dry for a long time. He took Ryoma’s hand and said again, “Please excuse us.” He brought Ryoma into one of the few empty spaces in the room. The ladies dispersed. Ryoma saw Kaidoh escape, too, leaving the room altogether.
Tezuka gave Ryoma time to catch his breath, keeping one arm around him. Ryoma eyed the crowds of humans. They really enjoyed all this. Humans were strange.
“Will you dance with me?” Tezuka asked quietly.
Ryoma knew what dancing was. Merpeople did it too, only underwater. Ryoma wasn’t sure how humans did it, but he nodded anyway. Anything all these humans could do, he was certain he could do at least as well.
They went out onto the dance floor, almost in the center of the room. Ryoma glanced at the other couples, studying them. He decided they all had to know the right way to do it, so he copied them. He put his hands on Tezuka’s shoulders, and Tezuka rested his hands at Ryoma’s waist.
Dancing here was the same as dancing in the ocean, except that Tezuka was there.
The musicians started a fast and cheery song, and the two of them just about flew over the floor. Ryoma had never known that feet could do so much. Breathlessly he thought it was a good thing he’d learned how to balance since he’d first turned into a human, otherwise he would have fallen down.
All the couples on the floor whirled and spun, close to one another and then at arm’s length. Tezuka and Ryoma were doing the same dance, but they never got as far apart as everyone else.
They went through a series of fast dances, until Ryoma’s feet were sore and he’d almost forgotten they were in a room full of other people. It was like being on the surface of the sea during a storm, letting the waves toss him around. Each time the musicians were between songs, someone asked either Tezuka or Ryoma if they would dance with them instead. Both of them declined.
The musicians slowed down, then. Ryoma thought he heard a collective sigh of happy relief from everyone around him.
As though he knew that Ryoma’s feet were aching (in a good way, though), Tezuka leaned down to say softly, “Lean on me.”
Ryoma did. He leaned his head against Tezuka’s chest, closing his eyes. This dance was more like the ocean when it was calm. When it finally ended, Ryoma was almost sorry.
“It’s late,” said Tezuka. “We’ll go.”
They were headed for the door when Oishi tapped Tezuka on the shoulder. Both Tezuka and Ryoma turned to look. “Tezuka,” said Oishi. “Your parents want you again. I’m sorry, Ryoma.”
Ryoma shook his head. It was fine. He’d had Tezuka to himself all night, in the middle of a crowded room. He’d have Tezuka to himself again, possibly later and definitely the next day. It was enough just knowing that.
“Thank you, Oishi,” Tezuka said, with a slight bow. He held Ryoma’s hand for a few seconds more, and then gave him a light squeeze and walked away. Ryoma went down to his room, brushing by other people tired from the night of dancing and socializing. None of them paid him much attention, which was just the way he wanted it at the moment.
It had been one of the weirdest, best nights of his life, even though he’d never actually met Tezuka’s parents.
Engaged? Ryoma looked at Tezuka curiously, saying the word silently. He had to think about the meaning of it. He’d never used it, and he’d only heard it once in awhile in the palace, usually in passing from one of the maids.
Ryoma considered that, and then wrote on his piece of paper, You’re going to get married? Now Ryoma remembered what engaged meant. He bit his tongue, hard enough to hurt. Tezuka wouldn’t look that way and sound that way if he meant what Ryoma wanted him to mean.
“My parents arranged it,” said Tezuka. “They informed me last night.”
During the party, then, probably after Ryoma had danced with Tezuka. Obviously Tezuka’s parents didn’t want him to be with a strange young man who had come out of nowhere. Ryoma’s lips formed the word oh. He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Tezuka started to reach for Ryoma’s hand, and then pulled away. He’d never done that before. “I’m sorry.”
Ryoma scrawled something else on the paper: Who?
“A princess. One I’ve never met.” Tezuka had understood what Ryoma meant by that single word. “My parents feel an alliance marriage would be best for the kingdom.”
Ryoma didn’t say anything at all for a moment. Then he wrote one more thing. If you have to.
The only sounds were Tezuka’s breathing, his own breathing, and the sound of the ocean outside his window. After fifteen minutes of silence and stillness, Tezuka got up and left the room.
“He’s getting married.”
“Oh. Uh…congratulations!” Momo looked dubious about the idea, probably because their father had coached them never to make lasting romantic attachments.
“Congratulations!” Eiji echoed. “Does this mean you’re never coming back, though?”
“Not married to me,” said Ryoma. “Married to a princess.”
”What?” Eiji demanded, changing moods in the blink of an eye. Momo just gaped like a landed fish. “He can’t be!”
“He is,” said Ryoma. “His parents arranged it already.”
“Didn’t you say anything to him? What did he say to you? He had better apologize,” Eiji said, crossing his arms angrily. “And then he had better apologize to that princess for not marrying her.”
“I told him it was all right.” That statement made Eiji gape the way Momo had been doing. “If he has to, he has to.”
“That. Is. Stupid.” Eiji bit out each word as though that would help Ryoma understand better. “Little one, you love him! Right? Don’t you?”
“Yeah.” Ryoma moved away from the window to sit on his bed instead. “I do.”
Eiji peered over the windowsill. “And he loves you.”
“I don’t know,” said Ryoma. He was lying to his brother again. Eiji knew it, Momo knew it, and Ryoma knew it. They all knew that Ryoma loved Tezuka and Tezuka loved Ryoma.
“Does this mean you’re coming back?” Momo asked. “Back with us?”
Ryoma decided to be straightforward about his deal with the witch for the first time. “No. If he doesn’t stay with me, and only me, forever, then I have to serve that witch forever.”
”What?” This time the incredulous exclamation came from both Momo and Eiji. They started talking very fast over one another.
“But then he can’t-“
“Does he know-“
“Are you going to tell-“
“-won’t let you-“
“It was the deal,” said Ryoma, interrupting them.
“I know, but, I mean, he wouldn’t want you to do that,” said Momo, looking horrified. “You’ve got to tell him about it! You haven’t already, have you?”
“Of course he hasn’t!” said Eiji scornfully. “His human wouldn’t want him to serve some witch forever!”
“No, I haven’t,” said Ryoma. Before they could start babbling again, he added, “If he doesn’t marry the princess, his parents will be angry.”
“Oh, parents.” Eiji dismissed that with a wave of his hand. “Father’s not happy that you’re a human, but you are anyway.”
“His parents aren’t the same.” Ryoma came back to sit on the windowsill. He looked out at the ocean. Honestly, Tezuka’s parents weren’t Ryoma’s first consideration. He hardly cared about them at all, except that Tezuka seemed to think he had to do what they wanted.
He just didn’t want Tezuka to think that he had to stay with Ryoma, if he really wanted to marry the princess.
“You should still tell him,” said Eiji. “I bet Fuji would say so, too.”
“No,” said Ryoma, and wouldn’t hear another word about it, though his brothers stayed at his window all night.
There was a knock at Ryoma’s door.
Ryoma hadn’t been out of his room all day, not even for the usual morning ride. Maybe Tezuka had assumed that Ryoma wouldn’t want to see him, because he hadn’t seen or spoken with Ryoma at all. Ryoma was curled in his bed, thinking. The door wasn’t locked, but he couldn’t call for whoever it was to come in. He got up and opened the door.
It was Kaidoh, which surprised Ryoma a little. Kaidoh was perfectly friendly (or as friendly as he got) now, but Ryoma knew he didn’t usually approach people first. Ryoma raised a hand partway in greeting.
“I heard what happened,” Kaidoh said abruptly. One thing Ryoma liked about him was that he was sometimes just as blunt as Ryoma himself, mostly when he didn’t know what to say.
Ryoma shrugged, as though it didn’t matter, and looked down at the carpeted floor. He hadn’t brought a pen or paper with him to the door, so he couldn’t say anything.
There was a long pause. “I’m sorry,” said Kaidoh gruffly, and then he left. Ryoma went back to bed. Evidently Kaidoh liked him more than Ryoma had thought.
Less than an hour later, there was another knock. This wasn’t Tezuka, either. It was Oishi. “Ryoma,” he began. “Please, let me try to explain.”
Ryoma shook his head. Tezuka had explained enough that Ryoma knew it was his duty to marry that princess, and that his parents would be angry if he didn’t do it.
“Please,” Oishi said more quietly. “I know that Tezuka would never do anything to hurt you if he could help it. He’s…he’s very upset right now. I know him, and he is.”
Ryoma gave Oishi the same shrug he’d given Kaidoh. Not only hadn’t he brought pen and paper this time, he didn’t feel like talking. He wanted to think by himself.
“Is there…is there some way that you could go back to being what you were?” Oishi asked hesitantly. “I’m sure Tezuka would have you stay, if you wanted to, but…with this…”
Ryoma shook his head again. That was what he’d been thinking about. The only way he was going to return to being a merperson was in Hanamura’s service. He definitely wasn’t going to try for that.
Oishi sighed. “I’m so sorry.” He looked as though he was about to say something else, but he only put a hand on Ryoma shoulder, and then turned and left the room.
Ryoma went swimming after that, stripping his clothing off and going through his window. He swam out farther than he’d gone since turning into a human, so that he could look back at the palace and see Tezuka’s room. Then he dove underwater until his lungs protested, remembering all the times he’d kissed Tezuka with the salty water all around them.
When he finally swam back to his room, he was exhausted, but he still couldn’t fall asleep.
“Little one, wake up!”
Ryoma opened the window. “I wasn’t asleep.”
“Oh, okay.” Eiji put a hand and pulled himself up on the windowsill.
Ryoma saw that he had something in his hand. “What’s that?”
“A knife!” Eiji announced proudly. He pushed the hilt into Ryoma’s hand. “It’s from that witch lady. It’s your last chance,” he said, turning his tone low and dramatic.
“What’s it for?” Ryoma asked skeptically.
"You're supposed to take it and, uh, stab him with it," said Momo, making a gesture that was apparently supposed to mime stabbing someone. He sounded slightly uncomfortable with the idea.
"Stab who?" asked Ryoma.
"Your human, of course. Duh."
Ryoma studied the knife in his hand. It was darker than the finest ink he'd ever seen. He moved it to his other hand to make sure it hadn't stained his fingers. It hadn't, but his skin felt kind of slimy where he'd been holding the hilt. "How will that help?"
"Uh..." Momo and Eiji exchanged a glance. It wasn't clear whether they were reluctant to tell, or if they just hadn't bothered asking.
"When his blood splashes on you, your tail will return, and you’ll no longer be indebted to Hanamura," Fuji supplied helpfully. "It's your last chance to avoid eternal servitude."
"Yeah," said Momo. "That."
Ryoma made a face. "Can't I stab that princess instead?" That seemed as though it would be more useful to all parties concerned, except, perhaps, the princess herself. Fortunately Ryoma didn't care much about her one way or the other.
"I don't think so..." Momo looked at Eiji.
"Nope," said Eiji, shaking his head. "That witch didn't say anything about that." He shivered. "She was creepy."
"Why did she give this to you, anyway?" Ryoma asked. "Didn't you have to pay?"
Eiji grinned, brightening. "Nope! Fuji talked her into it." He poked Fuji fondly in the side.
Fuji poked Eiji back, and smiled at Ryoma. "Your brothers were the ones who thought of going to see the witch again, though. They were quite willing to pay their souls to get you back."
"They were?" Ryoma asked, skeptical.
"Yes, we were!" Momo said, crossing his arms indignantly.
"We would've paid our souls, and ended up serving the witch in her evil plots even after we turned into sea foam, floating around forever on top of the ocean," said Eiji, gazing almost dreamily at the sky. "And maybe the sea foam would have kept serving her, too. You never know." It sounded like Eiji thought the idea of eternal servitude was vaguely romantic. Ryoma couldn't understand it.
"I dunno...what could seafoam do?" Momo asked.
"Float?" said Eiji.
"True," said Momo, nodding in a way he probably thought looked wise. "Float, yeah."
“I thought you liked him,” said Ryoma.
“Who?” Momo asked. “Oh. Tezuka. Yeah.”
“We do!” said Eiji earnestly.
“But you want me to kill him.”
“Not want, exactly,” said Momo. “But, you know…”
“We don’t want you to die instead,” said Eiji, turning serious. He reached out a hand and put it on Ryoma’s cheek. “Don’t die, little one.”
“I have to go,” said Ryoma suddenly.
“Oh good,” said Momo, brightening. Then he looked sheepish. “I mean, not good, exactly.” Eiji elbowed him. “I mean, good! Better.”
“Wait, how are you going to get back out here once you’re normal again?” Eiji asked, cocking his head quizzically.
“That’s a pretty good question,” said Momo. “How are you going to get back out here?”
“I don’t care. Thanks for the knife.” Ryoma closed his window, despite his brothers’ loud protests. He looked out at the sea. He was careful not to catch Fuji’s eyes, because he knew Fuji would give him that measuring look he always had when he knew something no one else did.
Fuji was probably the only other one who knew Ryoma wouldn’t be regaining his tail anytime that night.
Ryoma still had the key to Tezuka’s room. He tiptoed through the hallways, keeping a wary eye out for any servants who might stop him and ask questions he wouldn’t be able to answer.
He was lucky. There were no servants around Tezuka’s door. Ryoma turned the key quietly in the lock and pushed the door open. He looked around the room.
Tezuka was already awake, sitting at his desk. He had a pen poised over a piece of paper with words on it, but he wasn’t actually writing anything at the moment. He was staring out the huge glass window that looked out to sea. He turned, probably hearing Ryoma’s footsteps.
Ryoma didn’t raise a hand in greeting. He only looked at Tezuka, stepping through the door and closing it behind him. He locked it, too.
“Ryoma.” Tezuka said his name very softly.
Tezuka, Ryoma mouthed the name, unable to do anything else. He walked over to the desk and held out his hand, asking for the feather quill that would let him speak. Tezuka gave it to him.
Ryoma was prepared to stand and write all that he needed to say. Tezuka moved over in the chair, though, a silent invitation for Ryoma to sit. Ryoma did. He thought for a second, and then started to write as quickly as he could in human. He knew he made some spelling mistakes. He scowled whenever anything didn’t look right, but he didn’t stop to correct himself.
Tezuka read it over his shoulder as he went. Ryoma didn’t stop, even when he heard Tezuka’s slight intake of breath. That came when Ryoma wrote out the conditions of his deal with the witch.
Ryoma only hesitated when he came to the part about what had happened already that night. He looked up and met Tezuka’s eyes. Then he pulled out the knife he’d tucked into his waistband. He set it on the desk. Tezuka never flinched away from him, even though he knew what Ryoma had been told to do with the knife.
“I didn’t know.”
I know, Ryoma began to write, and then stopped. He stared at Tezuka. The last thing Tezuka had said hadn’t been in human, and Ryoma almost hadn’t noticed.
Tezuka was speaking mermish. He spoke it with barely an accent. His pronunciation was perfect. His voice was deeper than any merperson’s Ryoma had ever heard. It didn’t make a difference. It just served to remind Ryoma that it was Tezuka, speaking his language.
“You know how to sing,” said Ryoma, also in mermish.
“I do,” said Tezuka.
“For how long?” Ryoma asked.
“Since I learned that you could still sing,” said Tezuka.
“Who taught you?”
“Oh.” That figured. If anyone would approach Tezuka secretly and teach him how to speak mermish, it would be Fuji. Either he’d done it because he regretted sending Ryoma to the witch to begin with, or he’d done it for the fun of it. Ryoma suspected the second one.
“I love you,” said Tezuka for the first time, saying it in Ryoma’s own language.
“I know,” said Ryoma. “I love you too.”
Tezuka kissed him very gently. This was the first time he’d done that since telling Ryoma he was engaged. Ryoma had missed the peculiar warmth that kissing Tezuka always sent through him. He didn’t let the kiss last for long, though. He pulled back. “You can marry that princess if you want to.”
“I don’t want to.” Tezuka picked up the piece of paper Ryoma had written on. Ryoma wondered what he was doing, now that they could speak out loud. He didn’t ask. He trusted that Tezuka had a good reason.
Tezuka handed Ryoma the piece of paper beneath that one. Ryoma started to read it, stopped, and raised an eyebrow at Tezuka. “It’s for your parents.”
The letter was short and to the point.
Honored Father and Mother,
I must first apologize for my disobedience. I will not be taking a wife, regardless of how suitable your choice of bride. My affections lie elsewhere, and I feel that the prior commitment takes precedence over any more formal commitments you make for me.
The letter was signed with Tezuka’s name.
Ryoma met Tezuka’s eyes. He put the paper back on the desk. “That’s good,” he said nonchalantly.
“Yes,” said Tezuka.
“Come with me,” said Ryoma suddenly. He took Tezuka’s hand and pulled him up, out the door, down the stairs that he could now walk as quickly as any human. He opened the door to his own room. Ryoma kicked off his shoes and looked at Tezuka.
Tezuka did the same, and he let Ryoma tug him out of the window. Eiji and Momo and Fuji weren’t there anymore. Maybe they were telling Nanjiroh what had happened, maybe they were off worrying, or maybe Fuji had convinced Eiji and Momo that there was nothing to worry about. Ryoma didn’t care which it was as he and Tezuka landed in the water together.
“Kiss me,” said Ryoma.
Tezuka didn’t reply out loud. He pulled both of them beneath the waves lapping at the palace wall and kissed Ryoma, holding him close as though he was never going to let go. Ryoma felt his air running out and he didn’t care about that either, not yet. A fish brushed by Ryoma’s leg, and Ryoma laughed against Tezuka’s mouth, sending bubbles through the water and startling the fish away.
“Wow,” Eiji whispered, from where he, Momo, and Fuji were hovering, just out of sight behind the place where the wall curved. He peered out at Ryoma and Tezuka again. “You were right, Fuji.”
Fuji smiled. “I know.”