Ratings/Warnings: some angst, loneliness, nothing too terrible
Word Count: 16,352 total
Disclaimer: If I owned this manga, it would be happier
Summary: Sometimes the place in which you’re born isn’t the place where you belong.
The mers do their best to keep that promise. As soon as Kamui feels comfortable swimming in his new body, Kotori and Fuuma lead him out into the open ocean and he'd never realized just how much they were holding back for him till now.
With the new merman keeping pace as they slice through the water, the siblings can finally show him the ocean's hidden treasures: quiet grottoes and deep caverns, tiny islands perched upon the sea. When Kamui grows hungry, Fuuma and Kotori teach him how to hunt like merfolk. He and Kotori trap a school of fish against the rocks while Fuuma darts among them, his hands flashing like quicksilver until he’s gathered a full meal.
His friend gives him the best selection and Kamui doesn’t even hesitate before biting down on the small fish. The merman’s teeth slice through scales and bones alike and while some part of his mind feels a bit unsettled by his actions, the thought is brief and fleeting. He’s always been fond of sushi and his new instincts guide him forward, the raw meat sweet upon his tongue.
Kotori and Fuuma eat as well, a bit more delicately, and then the trio finds some lovely sun-warmed rocks to lie upon. Kamui stretches out across the stone, enjoying the heat against his skin, and then lets himself doze off. He doesn’t actually fall asleep, just enjoys the peace and quiet until Kotori slips off for another swim and Fuuma pulls him close.
“Pearl for your thoughts?”
“Not sure they're really worth it,” he murmurs quietly. “But I have been wondering, where are the other merfolk? You've told me so many stories about your people but I've never seen them. I…. they're not gone, are they?”
The thought is horrible. Kotori and Fuuma can't have been alone for all those years; he doesn't think that he could bear it if they truly were the last. But the other merman is quick to reassure him, sliding one hand across his shoulder soothingly.
“It's all right, sweetheart. Our people are not gone. Far from it, honestly. There are many clans and cities scattered through the ocean; we're simply far away from the usual hunting territory,” Fuuma tells him. “Most merfolk don't swim this close to humans in order to keep our secrecy. Only the sea witch and her protector travel this far west; she swims along the borders to renew her glamour spells.”
“Who's the sea wit-?” Kamui starts to ask. But he stops in realization when the other merman laughs, each chuckle shaking him.
“You could have just said you and Kotori,” he gripes, smacking Fuuma lightly.
“But this was more amusing,” his friend replies. “And I wanted to see if you'd remember Kotori's title on your own.”
“Sorry, it's still weird to think of her as someone who does magic,” Kamui tells him and the merman grins.
“Says the person who was human just this morning,” he answers impishly. “But if you want to see our city, we can show you next time. I think you would find it fascinating.”
“I- next time?” Kamui asks. He hasn't allowed himself to think beyond today and the casual assumption makes his heart leap in his chest.
“Well, of course. I'm not sure how often Kotori can transform you but I know I would love to have you swim with us again. Unless you don't want to?” Fuuma asks, sounding uncertain for the first time. “If you prefer being human…”
“No!” Kamui almost shouts. “No, this is amazing, and I want to see your home. I want you to show me the whole ocean, however long it takes.”
“Good,” the merman says with a soft smile that Kamui wants to kiss right off his face. And he can now, so he does. They make out lazily, soaked in sun, salt, and desire until Kotori splashes them. That starts an outright war between his friends and so Kamui puts aside the future once again.
However, time keeps passing and all too soon the sun begins to set. The trio swims back to shore, racing his transformation, and when he changes back, leaving the water is one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do. Kamui does because he has to, though it feels like his heart is breaking with each step. Even after just one day, walking feels unnatural and all he wants to do is swim again.
“I can only cast this spell when the moon is right,” Kotori tells him. “Four days from now, I think, though I will ask the tides as well.”
Four days seems like a lifetime. But Kamui is good at waiting. He's had a lot of practice and at least he can kiss Fuuma while he waits. It's different as a human. Different but just as sweet and Kamui's biggest annoyance now is that he has to breathe. The teen pulls away reluctantly when he starts to shiver, gathering up his sodden clothes and dressing quickly. He's lucky that his clothing was still here since he’d done nothing to secure it – wallet and keys included – and he’ll have to plan out something better for the next time. Because there will be next time, Kotori promised, and this thought has Kamui walking on the air.
The young man is still giddy when he goes to work on Monday and tells Mr. Arisugawa that he’ll stay on at the store. His boss is delighted by the news and glad to see him happy, saying that he’s never seen Kamui so exuberant. Mr. Arisugawa’s smile grows when the teen admits that he went on a date this weekend; even though he can’t share the details, he wants to tell someone that he’s in love right now.
His boss actually hugs him, ruffling his hair more like a brother than an employer but Kamui doesn't mind. Truthfully, he thinks it's kind of nice and he'll probably miss the other man if he ever leaves the land for good. However, the call of the ocean is far stronger and he practically runs out of the door on Friday when his shift is done.
Kotori told him yesterday that the moon was right again and this time he doesn't hesitate at all. The young man just pricks his finger and he waits with anticipation for the mermaid's spell to end.
The transformation feels just as right as it did before, the change from feet to fins settling Kamui in his skin. If there was any doubt before, it's dissipated; this is the body that should always have been his. He was meant to be a merman. He was meant to swim and laugh and love with Fuuma and Kotori and he thinks he hates his mother for attempting to keep this life from him.
Kamui knows that she was probably trying to protect him; for all she knew merfolk practiced human sacrifice. But his mother hadn't asked him and that's why he can't forgive her. She hadn't given his friends a chance and she hadn't trusted her son to know what was best for him.
Perhaps she would have told truth if she hadn't died before his birthday. Maybe she'd kept the house for just that reason and once he'd gotten old enough, she would have let him choose. He would have picked the ocean in a heartbeat – perhaps his mother knew that – but in that life, she would have been his link back to the shore.
Thinking about his mother makes him nervous when Kotori and Fuuma say their father wants to meet him. What if the merman hates him? What if he makes the siblings choose between him and their family like his mother tried to do? Kamui couldn’t bear to lose them but he also can’t bear to disappoint them when they look at him so hopefully.
So he manages to smile as he says, “I'd love to meet your father,” and it's only partially a lie. He does want to meet the merman who raised such lovely children and he wants to hear all the embarrassing stories that his friends haven't told him about their childhoods.
Kotori and Fuuma take his agreement at face value and lead him into the ocean, deeper and further than they’ve ever gone before. Several hours of hard swimming leave Kamui with too much time to think and his stomach is full of butterflies by the time the siblings slow.
“Father lives on the edge of the city so we should not see other merfolk,” Kotori tells him. “But if we do, you are a guest of the sea witch from another clan up north. While there are no laws against this, befriending humans has never been encouraged.”
“Of course, you make such a gorgeous merman that no one would believe us anyway,” Fuuma adds, giving the mer a look that warms him from head to fins. “When we show you around the city, we'll have to tell them that you're mine. Otherwise, I'll have to fight off all your admirers.”
“Being yours sound perfect,” Kamui says with a faint blush. After so many years of hiding, he's still not used to the merman's declarations; he likes them though, he truly does. “But maybe we can just start with your father? I'm not that great a liar and I don't want to rub someone the wrong way by accident.”
“Impossible,” Fuuma replies before wrapping his arms around the mer and stealing a quick kiss. “Even if you did, I wouldn't let my kinfolk disrespect you. No one is allowed to hurt the ones I care about.”
“And no one is stupid enough to cross a witch's bodyguard,” Kotori adds with an impish grin. “But we should get going. Father will be wondering what's taking us so long.”
She leads the way through an underwater canyon until the trio reaches a garden of bright seaweed planted against the rocky walls. There is a carved shell door nestled in the stone and Kamui holds onto Fuuma's hand tightly as Kotori swims up to knock. Moments later, the shell moves aside to reveal an older merman with a kind and weathered face. The teen can see both of his children in his features, though Kotori must have gotten her hair from her mother since his is speckled gray and black. His scales and fins are also gray, the color of dark slate, but it gives the impression of warm ashes rather than a mountain's chill. Maybe it's the merman’s smile, bright and welcoming even as he chides his daughter gently.
“Didn't you tell me quarter-tide?”
“Sorry, father. We lost track of the time,” Kotori apologizes. “But we brought a guest for you to meet.”
“This is Kamui Shirou,” Fuuma says, tugging the mer forward. “Kamui, this is our father, Kyogo Monou.”
He doesn't let go of Kamui's hand and the teen is grateful for the support when the elder Monou turns piercing eyes on him. Did he say their father seemed kind? He was wrong. Kyogo Monou is scary and Kamui has no doubt that the older merman could slice him up for shark-bait if he wanted to.
However, before he has a chance to panic, that same warm smile reappears on the merman's face like sun piercing through the storm clouds after a hard winter’s rain.
“Welcome, Kamui. It is good to finally meet you,” Mr. Monou says with a short bow. He backs away from the entrance and ushers them inside, Kamui letting out a sigh of relief at passing this first test. The sound turns into a gasp when he gets his first glimpse of the mer's home.
The furniture is mostly stone, softened with cloth and seaweed, and pictures made from colored shells decorate each wall. Others are more like photos, younger versions of Fuuma, Kotori and a mermaid who must be their mother imprinted onto glass. At least, Kamui thinks it’s glass. He doesn’t have time to examine the pictures closely as Mr. Monou leads them through into the parlor and Fuuma tugs him down on a soft shell couch. The older merman waits until they’re settled before offering refreshments, strange sealed globes of liquid and oysters on the shell. Kamui has some trouble with the former but Fuuma is glad to teach him and his father doesn't judge his struggling.
Mr. Monou waits patiently until the younger mer slices his globe open – the liquid inside a fragrant juice that he doesn't recognize – before he starts asking questions about Kamui’s life. He’s a surprisingly good listener and the teen finds himself saying more than he means to under the weight of those kind eyes.
“I work in a convenience store,” he admits, feeling a little insecure. He’s hardly that successful when compared to both his friends. “It isn’t the best job but I like my boss and the hours are flexible enough that I can keep visiting. My mother left me a house in her will so I don't need much cash to pay the bills.”
“What about your other family?” Mr. Monou asks. “Do you have more relatives?”
“Father!” Fuuma protests. “This was supposed to be lunch not an interrogation.”
“It's all right,” Kamui tells the merman, putting one hand on his arm when he starts to leave his seat. “If I were him, I know that I'd be curious as well.”
To his surprise, he discovers that he means it and he turns back to Mr. Monou to explain, “There's no one else. I was an only child and my mother had no family. I guess I could have relatives on my father's side, but I've never even met him. He's had eighteen years to claim me and he hasn't so I figure that's a lost damn cause.”
“You don't know who your father is?”
“Mother never told me and I'll never find out now. She died this year, that's why I finally came back. I want… I want you to know that I never meant to hurt your children,” Kamui continues earnestly. “I didn't want to leave and I would have come back sooner, but my mother got some lady to lock away my memories. And even then I missed the ocean anyway.”
“I see,” the older merman says. “Children, why don't you take care of the dishes? Your guest and I must speak.”
Fuuma opens his mouth to argue but a look from his father makes the mer subside. He pats Kamui's arm and whispers a reassurance before collecting the oyster plates and swimming from the room. Kotori gives the teen a smile before following her brother, leaving Kamui and her father all alone. The young mer clenches his hands against his scales as he waits for Mr. Monou to pass his verdict and he's honestly expecting to be told that he's not good enough. How could he ever hope to match someone as strong and kind as Fuuma, let alone love him the way that he deserves?
However, the older merman simply looks at him before sighing heavily.
“I must admit, when my children first spoke of you, I had my reservations. I worried that you'd break their hearts, never thinking that a human could love the water the way my people do. But now, I think that I was wrong,” Mr. Monou says as Kamui stares at him in shock. “Indeed, I fear the person most likely to be hurt in this is you since you have the most to gain and thus the most to lose. I will not argue my son's choice; he's much too stubborn to listen his father in these matters. However, I want you to know that you will always have the friendship of my family. As far as I'm concerned, you are a Monou, whatever form you wear.”
At first Kamui doesn't realize that he's crying. He can't feel the tears upon his cheeks like he would above the water, but he recognizes the sharp ache inside his chest. The emotion is too strong to fight and soon the teen is sobbing freely into his hands, a mix of relief at his acceptance and sorrow that his own parents would never say such words to him.
“Father! What did you do?” He hears Kotori ask even as familiar arms wrap around his shoulders and Fuuma murmurs, “Are you all right?”
“It's okay. It’s not his fault,” the younger mer chokes out. He doesn't want his friends to scold their father when he's just too damn emotional. But Kamui is grateful for the support when Fuuma tugs him against his chest and muffles his harsh sobs. The merman holds him gently, stroking his hair and murmuring words of comfort until his crying finally stops.
“Sorry,” he mutters, wiping at his face. He’s a bit embarrassed but none of the Monous seem irritated and Kamui can't deny that he feels better. Tired and a little hollow, yes, but the hard knot of resentment inside his chest has finally disappeared. Maybe his parents didn't love him or understand him the way he thought they should, but Kamui can't let that pain stop him from living his own life.
He has a chance for something better: a chance for love, friendship, and a family, and he’s going to grab onto that future with both hands.
“You've been more cheerful lately.”
Kamui glances over at his boss and shrugs in answer, not moving from where he's stocking mochi on the shelves. But the other man doesn't seem dissuaded by his lack of a proper response. Mr. Arisugawa simply grins.
“I don't need all the details but things must be going well with your new lover.”
“Now, now, there's no need to be embarrassed. I'm glad to see a young man off sowing his oats. Not like me, celibate and pining after my one true love.”
“Is she still not talking to you?” the teen asks, curious in spite of himself. Over the past few months, Mr. Arisugawa has worn him down into a long-suffering sort of friendship and their recent conversations have centered on the woman that his boss has fallen for. A woman who, probably quite sensibly, has so far refused to budge.
“Still no date, but I got another smile,” Mr. Arisugawa crows and Kamui has to grin. He wants to meet this woman. She sounds like she'd have zero trouble saying no outright so she must be interested, but she's sure making his boss work for every inch of ground.
As opposed to Kamui’s own relationship, which is still going swimmingly. Fins or feet, Fuuma truly seems to love him and the teen has felt more settled since meeting his friend’s dad. He still has moments of doubt but he’s no longer as worried that his newfound happiness will just up and disappear. However, the young man hasn't been able to transform since that last conversation and he’s starting to get antsy. Kamui almost craves that sense of rightness and belonging and he can't wait until Kotori says the time is right again.
Thankfully, she does just that only a few days later while they're swimming near the shore. The teen doesn't mean to be selfish but he's so relieved at her announcement that the words slip out, “I wish I didn't have to change back. I wish you could cast a spell that would let me stay with you.”
“Oh, Kamui, you know I want that too,” Fuuma says, pulling him into a hug. But Kotori is silent and when the teen glances over, her expression is strangely serious.
“Do you mean that?” the mermaid asks. “Would you truly give up your current life to swim beneath the waves?”
“What life?” Kamui retorts. “Sure I like my boss and my job is fine, but they don't make me happy. I've only ever been happy in the water. And…. you're my family, don't you know that? You're the sister I never had and Fuuma…. Well, you know how I feel about him. If we could spend the rest of our lives together, that would be a dream come true.”
“Yes, it would,” the merman agrees before his tone turns sharp. “Do you know something, sister? Why didn't you speak up earlier?”
“I didn't want to pressure him. I've been to talking to our father and this would be a big decision, one that Kamui has to make for himself,” Kotori answers, returning his tone in kind. But then her posture softens. “In truth, I don't know if I can do this. I have been looking through our mother's records and she wrote about a hidden shrine, one built atop the highest peak of an island in the sea. Legend says that if a human who truly loves the ocean finds that shrine and prays there, our goddess might grant the gills they seek. But that is legend only and I do not know if it is true.”
“Legend is better than nothing. Please, Kotori, will you try to find out more?”
“Of course I will,” she promises. “But do not get your hopes up yet. Even if the shrine is real, it may take months or more for me to track it down.”
And Kamui does try. He tries to focus on the present instead of that distant dream. His next day as a merman is spent entwined with Fuuma while Kotori spends hours buried in her people's archives, leaving them alone together once her spell is done. The full moon after that, Kamui and Fuuma barely manage to drag her into a brief conversation before she disappears again, determined to find the answer as soon as possible.
But the weeks just keep on passing and even though he's trying to be patient, he can't stop the stab of disappointment whenever the mermaid shakes her head. So Kamui decides that he might as well put his life in order. That way he'll be ready when the moment finally comes.
The young man cleans his home until it's spotless. He goes through his finances in detail before scheduling a few repairs that he's been putting off. Kamui finds a lawyer to help him write a will and while the man seems surprised to have so young a client, he doesn't question it. He simply says how wonderful it is to see someone his age being so proactive and Kamui feels much lighter once he's signed the document.
He's leaving everything to Sorata in case of death or disappearance. It's not as though he knows a lot of people and maybe the other man will find a use for his mother's legacy. He hopes Sorata doesn't sell the house. Kamui would understand it, but he hopes his boss gets to have a wife and family the way he talks about, people who would turn that house into a proper home.
By now it's been over two months and Kotori keeps saying that she's getting closer to finding out the truth. However, the wait is wearing on all three of them, even Fuuma starting to snap from time to time. He's always sorry after and to be honest, Kamui is kind of glad to know that the merman isn't perfect. Fuuma gets irritated and impatient just like a normal person and this realization gives the young man hope that their relationship might last.
Because he's not an idiot. Most people don't stay with their first loves forever and while Kamui would be overjoyed to end up the exception – honestly, ecstatic – love is not the reason that he wants to change his form. Or at least, not love for Fuuma, although he's never cared about another person more.
Kamui wants to become a merman for family and the ocean, for the absolute certainty that this is the life he was always meant to lead. For that chance, the young man would wait forever if he had to, but Kotori finds the answer one sunny autumn afternoon.
He knows the instant that he sees her. She doesn't have to speak, not with the way both mers are beaming and Kamui throws himself into Fuuma's arms with a smile of his own.
“She found it, didn't she?”
“I found it,” Kotori tells him, satisfaction in her voice. “We will need to swim for several days and you must make the journey as a human; you will require your legs when we arrive. If the legends are correct, you will need to climb to the top of the island, find the shrine, and ask your boon. Our goddess will weigh your heart in judgment and then decide what she should do.”
“Several days, huh?” Kamui says.
“Yes, we can leave whenever you are ready.”
“Maybe tomorrow?” the young man asks, a little hesitant. He doesn't want to waste any more time than necessary and yet, “I think I need to say goodbye.”
“Of course, love,” Fuuma answers. “Take whatever time you need.”
Their swim is quiet that evening, each of them thinking about the future and the trip that lies ahead. When Kamui returns home, he packs some essentials for the journey into his old diving bag: food, water, a change of clothing, and a few mementos of his mother that will survive the sand and salt. Then he goes to sleep and his rest is more peaceful than expected, all his anxiety disappearing now that the moment has arrived.
Indeed, the young man wakes up well-refreshed the next morning. He eats breakfast and then bikes to work, pulling Mr. Arisugawa aside as soon as he arrives. The other man is disappointed to receive his notice, but he brightens up a bit when Kamui tells him why.
“I'm going on a trip with my beloved,” he explains, wanting to be as truthful as he can. “I know this is last minute but the details just worked out and if everything goes the way I hope, I won't be coming back.”
“Well, who am I to argue with love?” Mr. Arisugawa asks. “I'll miss you but I wish you luck in your endeavors. You'll still have a place here if you ever change your mind.”
“Thank you, sir,” Kamui tells him and he truly does appreciate the sentiment. But his thoughts are already far away and the end of his shift cannot come soon enough. He flies back to his house once the day is over, grabbing his bag and doing one last loop around the building to say a quick farewell.
Then the young man locks the door and leaves an envelope in the mailbox to go out this afternoon. It contains his keys and a letter to his lawyer, asking the man to enact his will in two weeks if he does not hear otherwise.
After that, it's on to his new adventure. When Kamui arrives at the beach, Fuuma and Kotori are there already and he feels a smile spread across his face.
“What are you waiting for? We're not getting any younger and an island's calling me.”
The journey is interesting, though not very comfortable. The trio has never swum this far together and the logistics of traveling with a human take some effort to work out. Kamui holds onto Fuuma's back as the merman slices through the water and for the first few hours, he seems to catch every wave with his face. The young man gets the hang of it eventually, but it's still tiring and their group has to stop and rest more often than he'd like. Kamui wants to be there now, not drag a two-day journey into three.
However, the teen knows it's probably best to arrive well-rested and so he doesn't protest when they stop for the night. At least sleeping in the sand is surprisingly comfortable with a merman wrapped around him and his friends hunt fish to complement the food he brought along. Sure he wakes up wet and tired, his skin crusted with salt and his swim-shorts chafing. But this chance is worth it and the trip passes soon enough.
On the third day about mid-morning, Kotori slows and tells her brothers, “We are here.”
Except the only thing in front of her is open ocean and Kamui asks awkwardly, “Um, sis? There's nothing here.”
“Oh, right! I forgot that you were human,” the mermaid answers and while somewhat flattering, that's not an explanation. But then Kotori reaches out to draw a symbol on his forehead and Kamui gasps as an island seems to rise up from the sea.
“I thought we'd talked about the glamours,” Kotori says, sounding a little sheepish. “If not for them, humans would have found us years ago. But you were mer when we brought you home so maybe I forgot.”
Although this answers several questions, Kamui is only half listening. He's rather more preoccupied with the island that holds his future at its peak. To be honest, he'd been expecting something smaller. A little bump in the ocean with a shrine that mers could reach. But this is not a bump. This is a rocky crag reaching for the heavens, its peak completely shrouded in mist too thick to pierce.
Maybe I should be glad that my mother took me hiking, the young man thinks with a nervous chuckle. However, this is nothing like those ordered trails and Kamui is honestly a little worried that he won't manage it.
“You don't have to do this,” Fuuma tells him. “We won't be angry if you decide to change your mind.”
Not angry, no, but disappointed. Worse, Kamui knows that he'd be disappointed in himself if he didn't even try.
“No, I want to do this. I need to do this,” he replies and the words only strengthen his determination. So he climbs onto the shore and pulls out his change of clothing, grateful that he'd brought along real shoes just in case. The thought of climbing this crag in his bare feet is too daunting to contemplate.
“All right, I'm ready,” Kamui says once he's dressed and filled his pockets with the last of his supplies. “Wish me luck.”
“Good luck,” Fuuma murmurs, pushing himself out of the ocean to kiss the young man tenderly. “I wish I could go with you.”
“We would help you if we could,” Kotori agrees. “But the legends say a seeker must walk this path alone.”
“It's all right,” the teen replies. “You've already done so much. Maybe just… try to catch me if I fall?”
It's a long way down from the top of that mountain after all. But his life will never change if Kamui just stands here waiting. So the young man sets his shoulders and begins his final walk.
The small sliver of sand gives way to a rocky incline and although he's barely climbing yet, his calves can feel the burn. Kamui is definitely glad for all the swimming he's done lately. If he'd attempted this hike straight out of high school, he probably would have been exhausted by the top of the first rise.
After about ten minutes, Kamui glances down to see the ocean far below him. His friends wave from the shoreline, already small with distance, and he returns the gesture before climbing up and up and up.
The young man follows a faint trail worn in the rocks, his legs starting to ache as the slope grows steeper. He wonders about the people who walked this path before him, the ones who wore these switchbacks in the stone. Were they humans too, seeking a new future or was this shrine somehow made by merfolk high above the sea?
I should have asked Kotori more about the legends, Kamui thinks. The path has changed from switchbacks to a spiral, winding its long slow way up the cliff face and he could have used a distraction from the burning in his lungs.
The young man briefly considers climbing directly upwards to make his journey shorter. But he doesn't trust himself to make it with the way his legs are shaking and he can't afford to fall. So he just keeps on walking, his footsteps growing slower as exhaustion bears him down.
His legs are actually shaking, muscles screaming from his thighs down to his ankles and he's felt his knees buckle more than once. Kamui can't seem to get enough air, gasping more than breathing, and he wants nothing more than to stop and take a rest. However, he's afraid that if he stops, he might not have the strength to stand back up again.
Momentum is the only thing keeping his feet moving – that and stubbornness – and what if speed is part of the test? What if he has to reach the shrine before the sun sets or his plea will be denied? Kamui doesn't know because he never thought to ask.
If there was anything important, Kotori would have told me, the young man tells himself. But he keeps on moving just in case.
Kamui only pauses when he reaches the ring of clouds around the spire, taking one last look down at his friends before they pass out of sight. He can barely see them now, two dark spots upon the ocean when he squints against the light. The reflection of the sun is almost blinding and he wishes that he'd thought to bring a hat. But there's nothing to be done about that now.
The teen gives himself a few minutes to rest, leaning against the rocks as he tries to catch his breath. He pulls the last apple from his pocket; its skin is a little bruised after three days of travel but it still tastes sweet. Kamui feels a little better once he’s eaten and he throws the core out for the birds before continuing his hike.
After a few more steps the mist curls around him, blocking the sea from view and making him feel disoriented even though there’s just one path. Kamui feels as though he might walk right off the mountain if he isn't careful and his already slow pace reduces to a crawl. His whole body is exhausted, every step an effort, and the young man doesn’t know how much longer he can last.
However, just when Kamui thinks he might collapse right where he stands, the mist breaks and he finds himself on the edge of a small valley tucked into the island's peak. Every inch of the basin is covered with lush vegetation and he can hear water flowing somewhere farther on. The young man follows the sound, making his way through a tangle of vines, fruits, and flowers that even he can tell are growing out of season. Kamui wants to taste the fruit, just reach out and pluck a peach right from the tree. There are so many that the goddess shouldn't miss one, but the teen doesn’t want to be rude when he's come to ask for help.
So he keeps his hands to himself despite his hunger and when he reaches the center of the grove, he forgets about the fruit entirely. Here is the spring that feeds this basic, seeping up between the rocks to create a pool of clear fresh water miles high above the sea. And here is a statue of the merfolk’s goddess standing at the valley’s heart.
The statue is perched on the far side of the pond, carved from a smooth white marble that doesn't match the walls at all. She looks incredible lifelike, tall and elegant with every scale carved to perfections. The goddess is truly beautiful as well, her hands held out in welcome and a serene smile on her face, her garments similar to Kotori’s when the mermaid casts a spell. In truth, the young man wouldn’t be surprised if this statue swam right off her plinth in a rush of crashing wave. He's here to pray for magic after all.
So he sets his pack aside and kneels at the edge of the spring. Kamui knows there must be stone beneath the surface, but when he glances down into the water, a dizzying sense of depth almost gives him vertigo. Looking at the goddess is much better, though the young man doesn't know what he should say. He’s been planning this speech for hours, but now his mind is blank. Every argument that he could make seems flimsy, so he simply bows his head down to the ground and begs the goddess, “Please.”
He puts every ounce of longing into the word, paints his voice with a dozen years of pining for the sea. Kamui prays for understanding, for help and for his dream.
There is no response, but the young man just bows lower. He doesn't know what he will do if the goddess doesn't answer. She has to answer and so once again he pleads, “Please make me like your children. Please let me swim the seas.”
The words seem to echo from the stone before a presence fills the clearing. The strength of the ocean seems to press against his mind and Kamui doesn’t try to resist as the riptide pulls him under, stripping the young man to his soul.
But Kamui hadn't lied. He'd meant his plea with all his heart and just when he feels like he might drown here, the goddess lets him go. The teen sits back gasping, tears pouring down his cheeks as a feeling of acceptance wraps around him.
You are my child, a voice speaks inside his mind and then a familiar tingling starts in his fingertips. The surface of the spring whirls before him, his reflection dissolving to show Kotori and Fuuma in its stead. Kamui is looking down at his friends as though through a perfect window and he knows what he must do.
“Thank you,” the young man whispers, pressing his forehead to the stone one final time. Then he grabs his pack and jumps into the water as the magic of the goddess spreads across his skin.
For one breathless moment, he floats in weightless limbo and then he's falling through the air. He plunges down into the ocean, the water cool and welcoming, and when he breaks the surface, he is a merman once again. For one final time, Kamui has shed his human skin and he lets out a delighted laugh as his friends encircle him.
Kotori and Fuuma wrap him up in hugs and playful kisses, a stream of excited chatter washing over him. Kamui doesn't think he's ever been this happy and he kisses Fuuma deeply with a smile on his lips. Because this is it. This is all he's ever asked for and with a flip of his new fins, he dives beneath the sea.
Six Months Later
Sorata still wonders sometimes what happened to Kamui. Sure the kid had been a little odd but he’d also been one of his best employees. Sorata had considered him a friend, practically a younger brother, and he'd contacted the authorities when a lawyer called him to discuss Kamui’s will.
That had been suspicious, too suspicious to ignore, and the police had listened. But despite their best efforts, they found nothing; the younger man was gone without a trace. There was barely any sign that he'd existed and no record of a lover so eventually the authorities ruled his disappearance a well-planned suicide.
Sorata knows they're probably right. Why would Kamui give away his house unless he was doing something drastic? Maybe he’d been happier because he knew the end was nigh and he’d just made up a relationship to keep his boss from ruining his plans. But Sorata can’t believe that. There had been love in Kamui’s eyes, love and hope not sorrow, and even when he finally moves into the kid’s house, he can’t believe he’s really died.
Maybe it's the familiar pack he finds at his door one morning, strange damp footprints leading toward the sea. Maybe it’s the stories his grandmother used to tell him of hidden cities in the water or that he swears he’s heard Kamui's laughter on the beach.
Whatever the reason, Sorata has to believe that the kid has found a place that makes him happy, a changeling returned to his true nature, and he hopes that home is everything Kamui thought it'd be.