Disclaimer: I own nothing involved in this story unless I invented it myself. This is written for fun, not for profit.
Fandom: Yu-Gi-Oh
Title: Catch of the Day
Romance: Ryouta x Yuugi
Word Count: 6,549
Genre: Romance, Fantasy||Rated: PG-13
Challenge: Yu-gi-Oh Pairings: Season Eight: Round Thirteen
Feedback: All forms eagerly accepted. Concrit is loved the most, but everything is welcome.
Notes: This takes place in an AU that involves merpeople. It has nothing to do with The Little Mermaid at all.
Summary: Ryouta loves the ocean and all that dwells within it. He just never thought that a piece of it was going to love him back.

Purple eyes flashed from the depths of the ocean. Ryouta rubbed his own eyes and looked down again. The sun was bright and hot, but he didn't think he'd been out in it too long. What else could explain seeing a pair of shimmering violet eyes staring up at him, though? From underwater?

No. They were gone now. No, that wasn't right either. They weren't there at all and couldn't have been. No one could be underwater like that. He closed his eyes and wondered when he was going to get something to eat. Being on guard duty was probably the most boring part of the day. He tilted his head back and cracked an eye open long enough to stare at the position of the sun.

Not soon enough. His shift ended at noon. Until then, he would have to sit out here and watch for any ships coming into sight. Pirates or merchants, he was to watch out for them all. Or for anything else that might threaten the peace of the village.

He rubbed the back of his head and toyed a bit with the spear beside him. I should catch something to eat. That was against the rules for guards, though. No one on guard duty could fish. It would take their attention away from actually watching for trouble.

Not that this spear was all that suited to fishing. It needed to be more of a gaff, to have a hook on it so the fish wouldn't get away. But he could always improvise if he had to…

"Ryouta!" The sharp voice of the mayor cracked across the water and Ryouta winced, jumping to his feet. "Are you paying attention?"

"Yes, sir!" Ryouta saluted and turned his gaze at once to the ocean. He couldn't help but send a passing glance across the water he'd thought he'd seen those eyes in first, though.

Purple eyes. Looking back at him. He thought he saw a wisp or two of hair as well, in a style he'd never seen anyone in the village wear before. Those eyes caught his attention the most; they were huge and full of lively curiosity. He swallowed; what was someone doing under the water like that in the first place? Swimming he could understand, but they weren't swimming, they were just …there. The only sort of person who could just exist underwater like that was a…

Ryouta jerked his head up and stared at the horizon. No. It couldn't be one of them. His fingers clutched at the grass and earth beneath him as he focused on his duty. The mayor had moved on, but others would notice if he watched the water more than he should. Or watched underwater more than he should.

Merman. The word whispered through his mind no matter how hard he tried not to think it. Everyone knew the stories, but he'd always thought they were just that: stories. Legends of the sea. His father had beguiled away many a lonely hour on their boat with tales of how mermen and mermaids sang sailors to their doom, crashing boats upon reefs so that all those aboard died.

Ryouta swallowed at the thought of his father. No merman or mermaid would have deceived him. No, the sea itself was responsible for the elder fisherman's death. It also confined Ryouta to the land until he could afford a new boat of his own.

He kept his attention on what it should be on, the ocean and what dangers could arise from it or cross over it. Fish, too. Gotta watch out for fish. Anyone who brought word of a potential huge catch could claim the right to go out on one of the boats that would go out to haul it in. He hadn't been on a boat since the storm.

What if someone caught the merman? The thought wandered in unbidden and Ryouta wanted to get rid of it right away. But try as he might, it stuck to the forefront of his mind. It would be good if the merman were caught, he told himself. One less threat to the safety of the village.

The memory of those violet eyes told him a different story, one he didn't want to listen to. They were just eyes. You couldn't tell what a person was like from that. Even a merperson.

Water splashed and he looked quickly, wondering if someone had come down to the beach for something. Most people didn't swim or fish near the lookout station, not wanting to distract whoever was on guard there. Most didn't mean all, though.

No one was there, at least not on the shore that he could see. His fingers tightened on the spear shaft and he started to his feet, doing his best to make it look as if he only wanted to stretch his legs while still guarding. That splash had sounded closer than it should, now that he thought about. There were a few rocky build-ups on each side of the station, big enough for someone to hide behind if they wanted to. He'd done it before when his father had had this duty, waiting for quiet times when he could sneak over and wait with him.

Another splash, this one definitely coming from one of those build-ups. He headed in that direction, trying even harder to look casual and not at all sure of how well he was succeeding. He shot a quick peek ahead and thought he caught a glimpse of wild, damp hair, styled in spikes. It reminded him of what he'd seen of the merman's hair. The colors were easier to see in the sunlight, gold and black for the most part. At least that was what his fond imagination painted it as.

He took another step and this time he saw a hand rise up to brace itself on the rocks. The hair he'd seen before lifted up and for the first time he saw those eyes without the water between them.

Ryouta's heart sped up in his chest and he froze where he stood, the spear held loosely in his fingers now. Merman or not, this was no one from the village, and he hadn't ever met someone who wasn't from there. Most visitors dealt with the mayor, not with orphaned fishermen's sons.

He swallowed. Perhaps this wasn't a merman. Perhaps he was just a…a long-distance swimmer who had gotten lost and wanted directions? A very long-distance swimmer?

"Hello?" The word fell tentatively from his lips and as soon as it did, the other ducked back down out of sight. Ryouta hesitated before he took another step forward. "Can you understand me?" If this stranger was from some foreign country, he guessed he might be too afraid to try to talk to someone around here.

A third splash, then a fourth. No one would normally stay that close to the water, even a practiced swimmer. Ryouta took another step, wanting to say something about how he wouldn't hurt the stranger, when something else caught his eye, a few feet away from the strangely colored head of hair.

Scales? That was one big fish if it was! As big as a man! They would eat for days if he could make this catch! On instinct alone he lifted his spear and took aim.

The scales and the head switched places in the space of a heartbeat and he had time enough to see the full body as the other scrambled back to the water. A silver-scaled tail splashed once, then was gone.

Ryouta blinked and decided not to rub his eyes this time. He'd seen it, whether he wanted to really believe it or not.

He really was a merman. But what was a merman doing here in the first place? They lived out in the deeper waters, not close to shore. That was what every story he'd ever heard about them said.

"Ryouta!" He whirled, wincing when he saw the mayor a few feet away, fury written all over the old man's florid face. "What do you think you're doing?"

Ryouta spoke without thinking. "There was a merman there." As soon as he heard the words, he winced; that wasn't what he'd wanted to say. This merman wasn't trying to kill anyone. He'd just been there. Watching. And not for a chance to kill anyone. At least Ryouta didn't think he was.

The mayor's eyes widened only for a moment, swiftly replaced by a darkening frown. "Don't tell lies. Just get back on watch."

Ryouta wasn't sure if he should be relieved about the mayor's reaction or annoyed. He headed back to the station and settled down into the watchman's crouch, ready to keep an eye out once again. The merman was gone and that was really what mattered, he decided in the end. Whether or not the merman wanted to kill anyone didn't matter when the merman wasn't there in the first place.

Splash! Something flew upward from the ocean and Ryouta caught it on instinct. He opened his hand to look at what it was: a shell, small enough to fit into his hand. He tilted it this way and that, then glanced down into the water. He hadn't expected to see those sparkling violet eyes looking back at him, but at the same time, he wasn't surprised to see them either.

"What's this for?" Ryouta murmured, closing his hand around the shell. Making shell jewelry was one of the occupations performed by village women, but this shell didn't feel like one of those. There was something else about it altogether.

All the answer that he received, however, was a flash of a smile that washed warmth all through him, and a quick wink before the merman plunged away through the waters, vanishing from sight in a matter of heartbeats. Ryouta glanced at the shell again, a glittering pure white that caught the sun. He tucked it away inside of his sleeve; even if he didn't know what it was for, he would hardly turn down a gift from the sea.

"Yuugi, what do you think you were doing?" Prince Atem's balled fists rested on his hips as he stared down at his younger brother. Yuugi flitted this way and that, a vaguely mischievous grin gracing his lips. He was only like that around Atem, the elder merman knew.

"I wasn't doing anything wrong." Yuugi shrugged as he came to rest against the marble wall. "Why do you ask?"

"A human saw you." Atem pointed out, swimming closer to him. "You gave him one of your summoning shells. Why?"

Yuugi shrugged again. He liked being around Atem; he felt stronger just by being in the same room. But that didn't mean he could always find the words to say what he needed to. "I thought he might need it one day." Something in that human's eyes, the way he hadn't been afraid, tugged at Yuugi's heart.

Atem sighed and sagged against the opposite wall from his brother. He wasn't going to go into how risky it was to give one of the rare summoning shells. One of those could call the merman or mermaid it belonged to from across the depths of the ocean, to a human. Any human, let alone one from one of those superstitious fishing villages.

"Just don't get yourself caught up there." Atem said at last. Any other words of advice would slide away from Yuugi if he didn't want to listen. When he wanted something, he wanted it, and that was all there was to it. He'd been known to devote years to solving puzzles that had confounded other merfolk for centuries and once he gave his heart to something, or someone, it remained that way. He'd won some of his greatest friends by doing that.

Yuugi flicked his tail, the flukes shining in the pale light emitted by the pearl spheres attached to the walls. "I won't." There was the faintest hint of annoyance to his tone, as if he'd heard that a thousand times.

Atem couldn't help himself. "Do you even know his name?" He knew the answer already. There could be no other one.

Again Yuugi's tail flashed, but now more with frustration than anything else. "Not yet. But I will soon!"

"How were you going to tell him yours?" Atem raised one eyebrow as he asked the question. There weren't that many ways that one from the sea and one from the land could speak to one another, after all. Yet another reason why he didn't want Yuugi to be involved with the surface. How could you trust someone you couldn't understand?

"I'll find a way." Yuugi didn't pout, but that was, in Atem's opinion, because he was too old to. "I'll be careful, Atem."

Atem swam closer to Yuugi and pressed one hand on the other's shoulder. "I trust you will be." He turned and swam away; everything would be in Yuugi's hands now.

The younger prince watched as Atem vanished from sight before he made his way to his room. It was too soon to go back up to the surface. He didn't think anyone else had seen him, but as much as he wanted to see that human whose eyes glowed with love for the sea, he wasn't stupid. Merpeople seldom survived open encounters with humans. If he hadn't moved fast enough when the other came closer with that weapon…

I don't think he was going to hurt me. There hadn't been a look of malice in the other's eyes. More than anything there was respect for the sea. I wish we could talk to each other. Maybe then he would have more than his own instincts to go on. Those instincts said he could trust that human, but he didn't want this to be the time he turned out to be wrong.

He settled himself into his sleeping net, wrapping the support threads around one wrist in long-established habit. It wouldn't do to go floating off somewhere in his sleep, after all. He closed his eyes and let his thoughts wander where they would. Unsurprisingly, they wandered right to the stranger.

I wonder what his name is. For that matter, he wondered how he would be able to tell the other what his own name was. Maybe Atem's right. His brother hadn't specifically said that this was too dangerous or difficult, but he'd meant it with everything that he did say.

Yuugi fidgeted in the net, turning over and tucking his arm under his head. He would have to go back there sooner or later, he knew. His curiosity wouldn't let him do anything else. There was so much that he wanted to see up there and that stranger was just the beginning. The stranger who loved the sea as much as a merman did.

Just a few days, he promised himself. He would go back in a few days and this time he would find a way to say something to him. Something that he would understand, somehow. The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that the almost attack was nothing but a misunderstanding. The human had been trying to talk to him before that, after all. Yuugi wasn't the best judge of human voices, but he thought the other sounded kind. He hoped he did.

He let himself drift into sleep, visions of dark black hair lacing through his dreams, and of swimming together with the nameless stranger across the moon-drenched ocean.

Ryouta fiddled with the shell as he walked along the sandy beach toward the little shack he called home. Other villagers had better kept homes, but he and his father had always considered their boat to be more of a home than this place. But now, this was all that he had.

He'd watched the ocean for any further signs of the mysterious merman for the last four days, yet had no luck at all. He kept the shell tucked into a pocket on the inside of his vest, not sure of what else to do with it. He didn't want to leave it in his home for some random thief to run away with. Not that there were thieves who would consider taking a shell that looked like any one of a thousand that could be found on any one of a dozen beaches. But he wasn't going to leave it there anyway.

He didn't go inside when he reached the shack. It was a fine night and he didn't see the sense in sitting indoors when he could enjoy the moonlight on the water and the spray of the ocean on his face. So he wandered down a short distance and settled where the waves could lap at his toes.

She's in a good mood tonight. He stared at the ocean, flipping the shell back and forth between his fingers. He'd seen the ocean like this so many times before. In a single heartbeat, everything could change, as he knew all too well. But for the moment, there was peace.

Silver light kissed the water in a trail that led from the horizon all the way up to Ryouta himself. He hadn't even noticed he'd seated himself in the exact line of moonlight. He stayed where he was, watching the ocean, listening to the splash and froth of the waves, all of his attention so entwined with that he almost missed a particular type of splash.

Even if he had missed it, what happened next would've caught him regardless. From the water in front of him rose a head of spiky hair. For a moment, that was all he could see, then came a slender neck and a pair of shoulders, followed by a chest. That was all; the merman probably couldn't come out any more than that.

Ryouta caught his breath at how the moonlight framed the other. He didn't dare move, lest he scare the merman away as he had before. At least he didn't have a spear right now. All of his fishing gear was up in the shack.

"Hello?" He offered the word, wondering all over again if mermen could understand his language. If they sung sailors to their doom, then surely they could.

The merman tilted his head to the side, his brow furrowed in confusion. He opened his mouth and moved it, but nothing at all came out. His eyes narrowed for a moment as he heard, or didn't hear, himself and his tail threshed the water, sending up those splashes Ryouta had heard the first day that they'd met.

"I guess you can't talk?" Though even as he said the words, Ryouta didn't think that was the problem. The merman seemed to have expected himself to make some kind of noise, if that look of confusion was any hint.

The merman lowered himself back into the water until only one hand was visible above the waves. Ryouta wondered if he planned to leave so soon, until that hand beckoned to him. He didn't wait for a single moment, but dived forward into the ocean. Once he was underwater, it took a few seconds to orient himself, then he saw the merman swimming in front of him.

Underwater, he was even more graceful than he'd been on land. This was his element, as much or more so as it was Ryouta's. He grinned widely at the fisherman before he opened his mouth again.

This time, Ryouta did hear something: a high-pitched sound that made little sense and sent a sharp pain through his head. He winced and shook his head, more confused than before. What was that? He could only hope that his expression showed what was going through his mind.

From the look on the merman's face, it did. Again that high-pitched squeak or squeal, Ryouta didn't know what to call it, echoed around and he pressed his hands against the sides of his head.

That…that must be how they talk. In that moment, the belief that merpeople could sing sailors to their doom vanished from Ryouta's thoughts. If there was anyone who found that sound attractive enough to follow to a reef, he didn't want to meet them.

A warm hand touched the side of his face and he looked up into the merman's eyes. Words didn't matter, Ryouta decided. They both loved the ocean and that mattered.

Afterward, he never could have said how long the two of them swam together or where they went. They journeyed deep below the ocean, far deeper than anyone he knew had been, and saw sights that he thought no human could've ever seen before. Water clear as glass, filled with fish and sealife the likes of which he'd never seen or even imagined before were all paraded before his eyes. If Ryouta hadn't loved the ocean already, he would have when the tour ended.

The merman swam from here to there, at home no matter how far down they went, and kept one hand on Ryouta at all times. Ryouta wondered if that touch was what kept him from feeling the pains of the depths that he'd heard of from those divers who sought pearls at the bottom of the ocean. He didn't want to drop the other's hand and find out the hard way.

Speaking underwater still wasn't possible for him, though, nor could he ever bring himself to understand the high-pitched squeaking that his companion used. His head throbbed a little more every time the other spoke.

But despite not sharing a common language, Ryouta knew something was wrong when another merman swam into sight. At first he thought that somehow the other had swam away and then grown another inch or two. Then he realized that the two of them simply looked a great deal like one another. The major difference was a slender golden circlet around this one's head that the one he knew didn't wear.

The newcomer drew himself up straight before them, arms folded over his bare chest, and delivered a look that read older brother, no matter what one's species was. Ryouta's companion drooped at that look, then drew himself up as well and began to speak in that high-pitched language. The other replied in the same way, his tone stern, shaking his head as well. He pointed toward Ryouta, then upward, the message plain.

It was time to go home.

Only then did it dawn on Ryouta that he could've been down there for days. He wasn't tired or hungry but that didn't mean much when it came to the call of the sea. He'd spent days working nets with his father and hadn't noticed how much he wanted to eat until the meal was set in front of him.

His merman…did he dare to call that one 'his'? At any rate, the one he'd been with tightened his grip on Ryouta's hand and the two of them began to swim upward. Some part of Ryouta thought this was dangerous, people had died going from the depths to the heights like that. But whenever he looked at those eyes, he couldn't bring himself to be afraid.

The two of them broke through the water almost precisely in front of Ryouta's home. The merman turned to look at him, smiling a hint of a rueful smile. Then he reached inside of Ryouta's vest and pulled the shell out.

"You want it back?" Ryouta wondered; he hoped that wasn't true. So long as he had the shell, he would never forget that all of this was real. Why else would he keep such a trinket?

The merman frowned at Ryouta's words. He touched the shell with the tips of his fingers, then gestured to himself before making a throwing motion with the hand that held the shell and then gesturing to himself once again. He glanced at Ryouta, his head tilted to the side, glimmers of hope flickering in his eyes.

Ryouta frowned himself; what did all of that mean? The merman did it again, this time changing the last motion to indicate himself rising up from the water. "Oh!" Now he understood! "Throw it in and you'll come?"

He realized a heartbeat later how ridiculous that was when the merman couldn't understand his language either. Instead, he took the shell and repeated the little pantomime. The merman's smile burst across his features and he nodded before wrapping his arms around Ryouta in a warm hug. Ryouta froze at first, then put his own arms around the merman.

The hug didn't last all that long, but neither of them wanted it to end. Ryouta could see the sun rising to the east and only the sudden rumbling of his stomach told him that he should take care of it before he forgot that his companion wasn't on the dinner menu.

He took a few steps away toward his shack and turned to look back. The merman was already gone, however, and Ryouta sighed. I wonder if I'll ever see him again. He glanced at the shell he still held in his hand. Someday, he decided. But not today.

Ryouta made his way into the shack and threw himself down on his cot, closing his eyes. I'll get something to eat later, he promised himself. But not any fish. Fish would resemble him too much, the merman with the dancing violet eyes. I wish I knew his name. I wish I could tell him my name.

If he hadn't been so tired, perhaps he might have heard quiet murmurs from outside of the shack. As it was, he paid no more attention to the small sounds he did hear than he would have to the sighing of the wind in calm weather. Sleep's net had just begun to catch him when the door banged open.

"Kajiki Ryouta!" The mayor declared, even as three of the burliest men in town surged forward to bind him with thick chains. "You stand accused of harboring a merman, consorting with said merman to kill our townsfolk, and failure to appear at guard duty for three days!"

Ryouta struggled in the chains but to no avail. His captors shoved him down onto his knees before the mayor, who stared down with frozen eyes and asked, "How do you plead?"

"Not at all!" Ryouta declared, lifting his head as best that he could. "He doesn't want to kill any of you!"

One of the men behind him seized him by the hair and pulled his head back. "And you spoke to him and know this?" He asked, his voice thickened by years of wind and water.

"He doesn't even speak our language!" Ryouta struggled still to get away but the chains and the grip were both far too strong. Mocking laughter bubbled up from all around him.

"And he thinks that the beast means no harm." The one who held him snorted as he set a sharp blade to Ryouta's throat. "Conspiring to kill is a death sentence. Shall I carry it out?"

"Wait." One of the others reached inside of Ryouta's vest, digging around until he found the shell. "I watched him and that creature tonight. If we throw this into the ocean, it'll come back and we can catch it and kill them both."

Ryouta surged to his feet, tossing one of the men to one side as he did. "You'll do no such thing!" His years on the ocean had given him quite the set of muscles and he thought for a moment he could get out of there. Then the one that still gripped him kicked his feet out from under him and planted himself firmly on Ryouta's back.

"You're not going anywhere, traitor." He growled. "Not unless it's to the fire, just like that fishy lover of yours."

Ryouta wondered at times afterward why the blush didn't burn through the chains all on its own. "He's not my…" Before he could finish the protestation, the mayor shoved a thick handkerchief between his teeth.

"You are found guilty on all charges." The mayor declared. "Your sentence is death by fire, once we have captured your accomplice. Take him away."

The rest of the morning resembled nightmares Ryouta had never dared to have. Dragged through the village, with everyone throwing trash at him when they weren't insulting him to his face, he was bound to a high stake, around which piles of wood were set. Directly in front of him was another stake, though it wasn't set up as his was. That one far more resembled the setup one used to grill a pig than anything else.

"Too bad mermen aren't good eating," one of the villagers cracked, supposedly speaking his neighbor. From the way he kept staring at Ryouta, the fisherman knew who was really supposed to hear it. "We could have ourselves a good fry with the murdering beast!"

Ryouta yanked harder at his bonds, but still to no avail. These are anchor chains! The odds of him being able to break them with raw strength alone were not that good. But he refused to give up.

He could see his shack from the top of the small hill where they had tied him, and now he saw the mayor and some of the other men working down there with nets and more chains. They're going to do it. He paled; was there no way that he could warn the merman before it was too late? He yanked harder, then froze as the stake he was bound to shifted.

Can I… Would he be able to pull it all out? He looked up, taking stock of the situation. Most of the village milled about him, and there were plenty of eyes and strong hands to make sure that he stayed where he was. At least right now. A slow plan washed into his mind. If this all goes wrong, we're both dead.

But they were just as dead if he didn't try to do anything.

"You know-" Ryouta looked up at the sly tone and spied Keith, a rough-featured quasi-foreigner to the village. He claimed that his mother had been born there, naming a woman who had died some years before while on a trip, and there were rumors that a few passing travelers lost more than their way if they asked Keith for directions. No one could ever pin anything on him though. In Ryouta's opinion, if anyone deserved to be in those chains, it was more Keith than him. "Mayor said not to get him going until we have his fishy boyfriend here. But if we wait, he's probably going to warn him somehow."

A small fire burned not far from the stakes. Keith picked up one of the sticks and stepped toward Ryouta. "Why take any chances?"

He thrust the flame into the wood piled around Ryouta, holding it there until it began to catch. "Just so you know," he murmured with just enough volume for Ryouta alone to hear, "I was the one who told the mayor about you and that merman. Bet he promised you a lot of treasure, didn't he?"

Ryouta held his head up high, staring into those cocky eyes. "What he showed me you can't even begin to imagine, Keith." Memories of coral older than the kingdom itself, perhaps older than a dozen kingdoms, of a brief glimpse of an underwater city of marble and stone, of gemstones larger and more precious than anything he'd seen in his life, flickered through his mind, as did images of the merman's fair eyes and sweet smile.

"I'll just bet." Keith leered at him, his breath reeking of alcohol and whatever foulness he'd had for breakfast. "Tell me where you've got it hid and I might see if I can let you go."

Ryouta would've believed that more if Keith hadn't also been moving the burning brand around to light the fire in more places. "There's nothing I could tell you, even if I wanted to." His gaze flicked to where the mayor and the others were putting the finishing touches on their merman trap. The mayor held up something that Ryouta realized was the shell only as he threw it forward, sending it spiraling under the water. Don't come. Don't come!

For long moments, nothing at all happened beyond the fire rising higher and higher around Ryouta. His heart beat faster as he set his feet and tried to pull the stake up. That didn't last very long, as Keith reached over the flames to smack him. "Try that again and I'll just cut your throat right here, fish boy." A knife gleamed in his hand, one sharp enough to gut a shark if need be, and Ryouta pulled away. Though death by blade would at least be quick and painless, not like the fire that lapped at his legs already.

"Where is it?" Thinned by distance, the mayor's voice rose from the oceanside. "We did it right, where is the thing?"

Don't come, don't come! Ryouta continued to chant that to himself even as the flames loomed higher and higher over him. Stay where you're safe!

The stakes had been set a fair distance from the shore, to avoid waves soaking them and preventing the fire from burning. But they weren't that far; Ryouta imagined, in those pain-filled moments, that they'd been set so when they captured the merman, they wouldn't have to take him too far. A quick run through the village and that would be it.

But perhaps they should have set them even farther back. One, two, three slaps that echoed like fins on a rock, and Ryouta had just enough time to look before a wave twice the size of a normal one splashed upward, washing over the flames, and sending them into sizzling ruins. It also sent the stake itself falling over, and Ryouta wriggled as hard as he could, sliding the chains that bound him to it over one end of the stake and dragging himself to his feet.

I'll get those later! He shot a quick glance at the chains that still bound his wrists together, then hurried toward the water. The merman had to be there somewhere. If not, this was suicide. He drew in a deep breath and dived in as best that he could, the chains dragging him down more quickly than he'd ever submerged before.

A few spears shot through the water, but none of them came close to hitting him. Especially not when a familiar hand fell on his wrists and he saw those eyes once again. Without even needing to speak a common language, they both knew Ryouta's time in that village was over. The merman tugged him along, faster than they'd traveled before, and Ryouta let himself not think for a while. Not thinking was so much easier than anything else. He was too tired to think even if he'd wanted to.

The sharp sound of metal against metal stirred Ryouta's thoughts back to life and he opened his eyes to realize that he was still underwater. The merman floated before him, one hand on his wrists above the chains, and in the other he held a knife of a finer make than anything Ryouta had seen before. Even as Ryouta began to wonder how he could tell the other this would probably not work on chains that thick, the blade cut partway through them. Another few strikes finished the job and Ryouta stared at his freed wrists.

Where can I get one of those? He didn't have time to think about how to ask, though, as the merman urged him onward again. This time they went upward, rising through the waters until their heads broke the surface. The merman looked around before he pointed to the side. A beach of white sand, unmarred by a single footprint, spread out before them there. Ryouta made his way there without hesitation, especially when he saw the fruit trees that grew a short distance inland.

By the time he looked back, the merman was gone again. Ryouta hesitated, not sure of where to go just yet. Food first, then I can figure out what to do. The knowledge he could never go home again burned in his gut. Everything that had happened that day had a haunting, dreamy quality to it, as if he would open his eyes and find himself on the cot in his shack, with no shell and no merman and nothing but dreams to hold onto.

Two days and a night passed before he saw the merman again. The beach turned out to be part of a small island, perfect for a few days of rest. A cave some distance back from the shore offered shelter from the elements and he could eat all the fruit he wanted. There were fish available as well, but he still hadn't made his mind up if he wanted them again.

As the sun drew closer to the horizon on the second day, he heard that familiar sound of fins in the water, and hurried down to the beach. Before the merman, on the beach, there rested a rusted, seaweed-encrusted chest. He gestured for Ryouta to come closer and the fisherman did, curious as to what he could've brought him.

In the past, a lock had kept the treasure within safe. But that was no more, rusted away by time and seawater, and now with a bit of struggle, Ryouta cracked the chest open. He drew his breath, not quite believing what he saw.

"Is this…what do you…" He struggled for words before finding the right ones. "This is gold!" Indeed, a small ransom's worth, though the coins were older than any Ryouta had seen before. He picked one up and bit it; it was indeed real gold. I could…I could do anything I wanted with all of this. A thousand dreams he'd had coursed through his mind, but only one stayed. The one that had been there all along in the very back, since that day so long ago.

The merman's hand landed on his and Ryouta looked at him again. Sorrow filled those huge eyes as he gestured toward the chest, then toward Ryouta. As clearly as if their languages were one, Ryouta knew what he meant: this is yours. Then the merman gestured to himself and waved a hand toward the ocean. Again, Ryouta knew, and didn't care how he knew. The merman belonged to the ocean.

"I won't see you again, will I?" Ryouta wondered if the other would understand this and could never be sure if he had. What he knew was the merman hugged him with all of his strength, then pushed away, waving good-bye. Ryouta lifted one hand to do the same, too stunned to do anything else. "Good-bye…"

He never did see the merman again. At least not in life. But with the money from the chest, he was able to not only buy the boat he'd always wanted, but to affix a figurehead to it: of a merman waving.

The End