You can do this, Tsumugu thought, hand hovering near the house phone. He’ll be glad to hear from you.
Right. So why had he been staring at phone, pen, and notebook for the past half-hour?
Because I’m scared, the oceanography student admitted to himself. He taught me about ena, this could wait until we go see him....
But with everything that’d been happening lately he couldn’t wait. Miuna, the saltflake snow starting again, the mess with Manaka’s heart, Hikari and the others trying everything except asking Manaka what she wanted, Uroko up on land - he wasn’t even sure he should go back to the university. Something was going to happen.
I thought it was just Chisaki who was afraid to change. But this - this changes everything.
Yet it didn’t change what was really important, did it? Not what he felt. Not who he felt it for. Not... whose family he was.
One way to find out. Jaw set, Tsumugu dialed.
“Isamu Kihara’s room!” a nurse’s voice announced brightly.
“Nurse Hanae.” Tsumugu relaxed a little; if she was that cheery, his grandfather was doing well.
“Tsumugu!” Phone cord thumped as it stretched and pulled back together. “Mr. Kihara, it’s your grandson.”
Fingers tapped plastic, the receiver changing hands. “Tsumugu?”
Grandfather, I have ena.
He’d practiced saying it a dozen times in his head. But the words just stuck.
It doesn’t feel real. It feels... impossible.
Almost as impossible as Chisaki loving him. And she did. She just needed time.
“Grandson? Is everything all right?”
Important details first. Tsumugu picked up a pen. “Gramps? Could we go over how to take care of ena on land again?”
“Eh?” A drawn-out, thoughtful breath. “Another stray wash up?”
Silence on the line between them. Like silence on the trawler when they went out, each giving the other time to put away all the confusion of dealing with people and think.
“Tsumugu.” His grandfather was gruff, but patient. “What happened?”
With anyone else, he might avoid this. But his grandfather knew how hard it was for him to say what he felt. “I told Hikari I’m in love with Chisaki.”
No surprise. Of course his grandfather wasn’t surprised. Tsumugu refused to blush. “She was standing right behind me.”
“Ouch.” Not a trace of a laugh. “So she bolted, hit her head, and you’re fretting over her?”
“She ran.” Why was it so hard for him to get the words out? Facts he could deal with; with hard reality, he’d never had a problem saying what needed to be said. But this was so much more than facts. “For the sea.”
A slow breath. “Tsumugu, if you let that brave girl get away-”
Tsumugu’s hand clenched on the receiver. “I didn’t.”
A longer silence. “What happened?”
Deep breath. Did breathing feel different now? He wasn’t sure. “She swam for Shioshishio. I followed her.”
“Of course you did.” Gruffly gentle. “We can try calling one of the phones down there, she might hear it-”
Which didn’t make sense. Miuna had drowned, sinking into the still harbor, but gained ena in time to save her life. If Professor Mihashi was right, and the stress of near-dying might induce a body to change to save itself - then why had he drowned twice?
A voiceless fisherman’s curse brought him back to the present. “Stay right there. We’ll get an ambulance.”
“No.” Why did he feel like crying and laughing, all at once? “I don’t need an ambulance, Gramps. I’m - I’m fine. I drowned.” Tsumugu held up his hand, still startled by the shimmer on his own skin. “And then... I was breathing.”
Startled silence. “Tsumugu?”
“It’s so beautiful down there,” Tsumugu got out. Remembering the sea village, and Chisaki’s wide eyes. “I never knew seawater could be so bright.”
If that was disbelief in his grandfather’s voice, Tsumugu couldn’t blame him. He hardly believed it himself. If the professor was wrong, and Uroko was right; if ena was tied to the heart and emotions - Miuna’s mother had been seafolk, and loved her. His parents hated the sea. How... how could he have ever been this blessed?
One of them is wrong. But which one? Or... are they both wrong?
He had to find out. For all of them. Because he wanted to stop the disaster coming for the surface, but if he couldn’t - then Mukaido, and Akira, and- he had to.
Calm. There’s still time. “So I need to know how to take care of it. I can’t lose this chance. Chisaki....”
“You’ve always had a chance, Grandson.” A quiet laugh. “What, did you really think she’d find some nice seafolk boy and settle down?” His voice sharpened. “You did go after her, eh?”
“Yes,” Tsumugu nodded. “I told her, I love her like the sea.”
“Hmm. If she doesn’t understand that, there’s no hope for the girl.” Isamu’s voice turned brisk. “You have a notebook?”
“Good.” A decisive slap of a hand on blankets. “First rule. Headache? Shortness of breath? Hydrate....”
Isamu listened to the hum of the line after his grandson hung up, and felt the twitch of a rare smile. I win the bet.
A private bet, with no one but himself and the sea to know who won or lost. But once Tsumugu and Chisaki had told him about Miuna falling into the ocean... oh yes. He’d just bet. Or prayed. A bit of both. Because if ever a soul born on land was meant for the sea, Tsumugu was.
My grandson has ena.
Heh. And it’d flipped his poor grandson’s world upside-down, the lucky youngster. Oh, he’d bet Tsumugu thought he was all-points-of-the-compass because of Chisaki. And no small part of that was, Isamu was sure; confessing to the girl you loved was like coming up to the surface the very first time, not sure what to see or feel or be next.
But part of it would be who he was shifting under the young man, like a ray taking off from under his feet. Tsumugu had scrimped and saved and run away to live with him ten years ago, with nothing more than the conviction that he loved his grandfather and loved the sea and wouldn’t be parted from them any longer. No matter what his parents said. No matter what the boy himself knew, even then; he was a land-dweller, born without ena, and the sea he loved would never open to him.
Only it had. Tsumugu was his grandson, and whenever Shioshishio woke, it’d be his home as much as anywhere on land. Tsumugu had never been exiled.
And if I have to swim down there and toss Chief Priest Tomoru into a sandpit until he admits it, I will, Isamu thought. Stiff-necked idiot. No wonder Akari left. Well, well; the stubborn old sea-turtle will have to look swimming grandchildren in the eye and tell them the sea village doesn’t want them.
Because if Miuna had ena, and Tsumugu had ena - he’d just bet Akira could gain it too. Yes; that was a bet he was willing to make. Even if it did overturn every theory biology had on what ena was, and how it worked.
It can’t be the amniotic sac after all.
Miuna had been born of a seafolk mother. If ena were related to that sac - well. It made sense that she could gain it. But Tsumugu’s seafolk blood had come from Isamu. Not only was the youngster a generation removed, his heritage came from the paternal line.
And I know his parents. Isamu sighed. Outside baths, his mother kept him dry as a bone. And she definitely didn’t let him add salt. If he’d had ena, he would have lost it.
So it hadn’t been hidden. It hadn’t been overlooked. Tsumugu had been born without ena... and then that had changed.
It can’t be just drowning. Tsumugu drowned at the Ofunehiki.
Meaning all the science, old and new, was wrong, and ena was more of a mystery than anyone had ever suspected. It must be driving his poor oceanographer grandson to absolute distraction.
...Well, that, and the youngster was probably having to fight down the urge to toss aside the duties of a responsible college student and stay underwater for a week. At least.
“It’s so beautiful down there....”
Isamu hung up the phone, feeling that wonder in his grandson’s voice wrap around him like a warm tide. All he’d told the boy of the world under the waves, all the arguments and idiocy the young man had hit head-on from both sides, and Tsumugu still treasured ena like a precious gift. He’d take care of himself. Isamu knew it.
Doesn’t mean this old fisherman can’t help. Isamu pursed his lips, thinking. I should start with the Fishing Cooperative. They know there are exiles in the fishing boats and the city; shouldn’t be hard to lay a little groundwork. After all, half the reason they’ve never thought about hiring an oceanographer to look at improving the fisheries is the cost of diving equipment. If they don’t need to pay for that.... Hmm. Shioshishio’s Young Men’s Consortium - eh, they may be trouble if they wake up. Once they get over the shock. Heh. And I doubt Tsumugu’s even thought of calling his parents. No need to bring that calamity down on top of everything else. But we should talk about how he wants to tell them. If he wants to. Ever.
“Are you sure no one needs an ambulance?”
Isamu raised a brow at Nurse Hanae. A bit young and eager, but she meant well. “False alarm,” he shrugged. “The ocean’s a bit cold even for seafolk these days. My grandson will make sure she gets as warm as she wants.”
Brown eyes brightened, and Hanae giggled. “Mr. Kihara! You make it sound like we should be planning a wedding.”
He put a finger up beside his lips. “Don’t scare them off. I plan to live to see great-grandkids.”
Tsumugu and Chisaki, with a house full of sea-eyed children. He would see it. But first....
He tilted a hand to catch the light, imagining that same shimmer on Tsumugu’s skin. The joy almost hurt.
First, he’d see his grandson.