It was a while before anyone Nemo told the story to said much of anything except "Wow!" and "What next?" and "Weren't you scared?"
Well, of course he was scared. It was a really big adventure. "It was scary," he had said to Sandy Plankton. "And then Gill, he flipped up in the air and he landed on the other end of the ninstrumen and it shot up in the air like this and I just flew up right through the air and then I landed in the water again in a little tiny tank called a sink, and then I went down the drain."
When he heard, Sandy Plankton said importantly, "All drains lead to the ocean," but Nemo knew Sheldon had told him that.
After about half of the year was over Nemo got so used to telling the story that he always used the same words, every time he told it, and Tad, Pearl and Sheldon heard it so many times they knew a lot of the words too.
(When he first got back every time he talked about his adventure he got really caught up remembering it all--the first view of the Dentist's eye through the scuba-diving mask; the clatter of the blue pebbles falling over him in the tank at night; the scary shining from the Ring of Fire on top of Mount Wannahockaloogie; the funny ripply texture of the scar on Gill's side where his bad fin was; the feeling of gasping, lying out of the water on the dentist table and in the big net on the fishing boat; the glow of pride when he stopped the filter. The look on Gill's face.)
Then one day a school of silver fish came to the reef--"Hey, have I met you guys before?" Dory said.
Dad came swimming out of the anemone, going, "Dory, how many times have I talked to you about talking to strange men!"
("How many times?" said Dory.
"A lot of times," Nemo told her.
"Ho boy," she sighed, "I was afraid of that.")
But then something strange happened. When he saw the silver fish, Dad said, "--Hey! Guys! What are you doing out here?"
The fish zipped around really fast and formed a picture of an exclamation point made out of a lot of little fish. "Hey, little guy! Takin' a vacation, show the kids a little of the world. - What, little lady, you don't remember us?" Then they turned into so many pictures in a row Nemo could hardly keep track, a bunch of ripply lines, a big arrow, a round fish with a frowny face that looked sort of like Dad.
Dory's eyes opened wide and she darted right up to them. "Oh, yeah! Hey, thanks for the directions!"
"Oh, no problem," said the spokesfish. Nemo had already figured out they were the big school Dad and Dory met when they were looking for him. "Okay, kids, go play," said the fish, "but stay together!" A silver circle came off of the now-smiling picture of Dad and formed itself into an arrow made out of the same silver fish, but smaller.
Nemo smiled. "Hey, come on, guys, I'll show you around."
"Are you Nemo?" said the group of little fish while they waited at the crossroads on their way to the sponge pads.
"That's me," said Nemo and waved his little fin. (Pearl smacked him with her short tentacle and squirted off ahead, giggling.)
"We've heard a lot about you," one of the little fish piped breathily after a whispered conference. The shape of the arrow was quivering a little--maybe they needed practice. (Nemo flipped his good fin frantically to turn right side up again.)
"Oh yeah?" he said politely.
"But you can tell us the story from you," said one, and the others chorused "yeah!"
"Oh oh," said Tad, "Let me tell. Let me let me!"
"It's Nemo's story," said Sheldon.
But they both helped him tell, and Pearl came back by the time he got to the part about Darla. She liked to do the voices. And Nemo didn't mind that she never sounded quite like Deb, or Peach, or Jacques. Nemo wouldn't let anyone else do Gill's voice. He always did Gill himself because it was important, because Gill was special.
(It was when he really thought about his time in the tank that he realized the most how grown up he had got since his adventure. No one had ever made him feel grown up before Gill and after Gill it had just kept happening to him, even without Gill there. He thought about the adventure and remembered himself being littler and--
--and really wished he could of done it when he was already this big. Sometimes he babysat the little fish in the preschool and big things happened like that time Swish and Paddle disappeared and he remembered how Swish wanted to be a cavefish when he grew up, or when he thought of the shark drill and him and Pearl and Dory taught it to the whole preschool. And then he thought, "I really wish Gill could see me now.")
"So he plays dead," Pearl was telling the silver fish. Tad floated upside down to demonstrate. "So the dentist would put him in the toilet, because all drains lead to the ocean."
But this time when they got to the part about Nemo washing down the sink it didn't go the way it always did.
This time for the first time no one said "What did you do?" or "Weren't you really scared?" or "What was it like?"
Instead the silver fish said: "Oh, man. What happened to Gill?"
"What do you mean?" said Nemo.
"Nemo fell down the drain and he didn't see anymore," said Sheldon.
"Gill went back in the tank!" said Pearl.
But Nemo stopped them and said, "No really, guys. What do you mean?"
"Well, if the last time he landed on some dental ninstrumens he got all cut up and almost lost a fin--" said some of the fish.
"And he jumped right on the end--" said some of the others.
"And he was out of the water! You left him out of the water?"
"You think he made it?" some more of them whispered.
"Nemo! Nemo! Neeeeeeeeeeemo?"
Nemo was lurking under some sea fans thinking about stuff, stuff like Gill's face when the dentist scooped Nemo in the net and his gasp: "Sharkbait!" and the way when he was in danger "Gill!" was the first thing he screamed and how he didn't swim through the ring of fire until he saw Gill smiling at him from the other side with his eyes mysteriously half-closed, glinting through the rushing bubbles, and how Gill said such nice things about his Dad, and how when he screamed "Gill" it wasn't because he thought Gill could protect him, but because all he wanted was to be safe, back with Gill.
"I'm under here, Tad," he said when the voice got closer.
"Nemo," he said, "Are you OK? You just swam off."
He swam out and drifted, stirring the water with his little fin. "I'm fine. Just thinking."
"It took me a long long time to find you. Pearl and Sheldon are waiting with the kids and if you don't come back after a while Sheldon says he's going to get your Dad."
Nemo sighed. "I didn't swim off the reef or anything, I just wanted to be by myself."
They swam around the rest of the fronds, past the seahorses'. Sheldon's dad waved a fin at them.
The sun was rippling on the rainbow surface of the reef and the huge noisiness of the school was drifting up from the sandy dip on the other side of an overhang. Parents there to pick up their children gossiped and shouted and over it all Mr. Ray trumpeted, "Oooooooooookay, everybody off! See you kids tomorrow!" A couple of hermit crabs were trading shells as Nemo and Tad swam by. Angel's little brothers and sisters were chasing each other high up where the water moved faster, shrieking with laughter.
"I'm sure he's okay, Nemo," Tad said as they swam in sight of the sponge beds.
Nemo didn't answer.
The little silver fish were nowhere in sight, but Sheldon popped up, curling and uncurling his tail excitedly, and shot over to them. "Nemo! Pearl! Here he is!"
Squirt rolled into sight turning a lazy flip and said upside down, "Duuuuude, there you are, dude. Can't just go vanish by yourself, it's totally not groovy, you know what I'm sayin'?"
"Hey, dude," said Nemo. "I know. I didn't mean to vanish." But he was looking back over his shoulder to where it was quieter. Pearl appeared, following a wavy silver ribbon of fish, staring curiously at him.
"I just lost--track of time."
He'd never felt more grown-up, but it didn't feel good. Was this what it was like? Wishing you could be away from your friends to worry by yourself?
It was Pearl's Dad's idea that Nemo go with Squirt to the drop-off at the end of the school year.
"Call me Ted," he said. "So listen. We all know that even though your dad's loosened up a lot, the edge of the reef is not his favorite place. And, ah--not to make you nervous or anything, but Bill here hears from Bruce that there's been a liiiiiittle more shark activity than normal."
"Overheard actually," put in Tad's dad, Bill.
"Cause he wasn't really talking to me, as such, heh. Was talking to Dory."
"They're pretty pally."
"They seem to get along," Nemo agreed.
"Nothing to worry about, just to maybe be careful," said Ted.
Sheldon's dad raised a brow ridge meaningfully at Nemo and said, "Don't mention it to your dad."
"You don't have to go with me," said Squirt, back paddling lazily with gentle short strokes. Nemo had to swim hard to keep up. Squirt had already gotten a lot bigger than him.
Nemo replied, "No, it's okay. I want to. You might have to wait a while. We wouldn't want you to wait on your own or anything."
But the water rumbled with the rhythmic synchronized swish of sea turtle fins, and Squirt's dad appeared with some other turtles and Nemo said hi to him and saw, upon swimming up, that Crush's eyeball was almost as big as Nemo's whole body. Then Squirt left, and Nemo, who did want to be on his own, took all the time he wanted getting back to the fronds.
Nemo was moseying along, hugging every curve of the reef, and letting his thoughts wander nowhere more threatening than the hypnotic swell and ripple of the water around him, the feel of it caressing every scale and fanning the membranes of his fins.
He heard something. Nemo stopped and whispered to himself, "What was that?"--smothering his instinctive prickle of panic.
A voice was echoing in the vast empty blueness, so far away that he couldn't understand what it was saying. It was just long, drawn-out notes, high-pitched and questioning. A speck appeared.
Nemo backed slowly into the tentacles of a nearby anemone. This one was smaller than the one he lived in with Dad and Dory, the texture a little different, but it didn't sting him. He peeked out, staring hard at the speck and willing it to go away, to not become anything dangerous.
The speck was getting bigger; it was blue; and suddenly the voice was speaking words, not just sounds, and it was saying, "? 'Ome back here! ?Trying to? you? swim away! Floooooooooooooooooo!"
Nemo stopped breathing. "Deb?"
But no matter how hard he stared at the speck, the shape didn't resolve into the familiar one.
"Deb?" he called, louder. "Deb!"
It was no use. The voice faded again--the speck was moving sideways, and getting smaller and smaller, vanishing.
He had darted unthinkingly out of the anemone, and had stared at the empty blueness for a long time without seeing anything more than sunbeams and water--so long his little fin was starting to get tired and he wasn't even sure how much time had passed. He drifted back to the little anemone, this time squeezing all the way through to the tentacle-less heart of it. It was so small that he couldn't quite fit, but he closed his eyes, thinking about that speck that might have been Deb so hard that it hurt.
What if it had been? What if his friends from the tank had escaped?
From the light when he poked his head back out of the anemone, not very much time had passed. He swam out, and back, and out, and back, and out, and started determinedly, quickly, back towards the center of the reef where he would be surrounded by noise again, because suddenly he felt a little more alone than he had bargained for. The water seemed cooler than before.
He was looking nervously to the left and right as he swam, moving unconsciously faster and faster until he swam over a patch of sea grass and right into something which he bounced off of. Wrinkling his nose against the sting so hard his eyes squeezed shut, Nemo told himself he was being stupid, and that he had been ever since that school of fish visited. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He wasn't sure he was ready to be grown up after all.
He opened his eyes. In front of him was Gill--with his eyes wide and shocked and his mouth open. Behind him, besides the waving of the seahorses' fronds in the distance and the orange and pink of the reef, were Peach and Bloat and Jacques.
("Nemo!" Peach whispered.
"It's Nemo!" said Bloat.
Nemo stared and blinked, and blinked, and blinked? but Gill was still there.
"Gill? That was your nose I bumped?"
Nemo swam forward slowly, cautiously, until their noses bumped again, but not hard enough to hurt. Yes! Real! "Yeah," said Gill.
Both of them were still staring too hard to smile. Nemo could feel his eyes getting wider and wider until he thought they were going to fall out of his head.
Then he shook his head rapidly and smiled at them all. It felt so strange. Here they all were, the same, but here, at his home--and he still felt grown up. He didn't know what to think about that anymore. "Hi, guys! I thought I saw Deb, but then she swam away and I thought I was just imagining things again--and then here you are!"
"We made it," Gill murmured. He was barely smiling at all. He seemed still shocked.
"Oh no," Peach sighed, "Deb. I don't suppose she came towards the reef?"
"Nuh-uh," said Nemo, "Off that way."
Gill turned to look at her. "We'll meet at Sharkbait's place. Just over--well." He turned back to Nemo. "Which way is it?"
Peach and Bloat went after Deb and the others. Jacques hurried ahead toward the school (he said he was hungry), and Nemo and Gill followed.
"It's good to see you, kid," said Gill. "I wasn't sure I recognized you. You're as big as your dad."
"Almost," said Nemo.
"Almost as big as me."
Nemo smiled sideways at him, and he still had to look up. I'm not a kid, he thought, but he didn't mind if Gill called him that. "You made it," he said.
Gill looked surprised. "I always knew I was gonna make it, Sharkbait. Fish don't belong in boxes. It was only a question of time."
"You landed on the dental instruments again," said Nemo, and swam closer, nudging Gill's scarred fin with his good one. "I thought maybe--I don't know. It was pretty dangerous." It felt different from when he hugged his Dad or Dory; the torn ends of Gill's small fin were spiky, and thin and fine as a hatchling's.
Gill swallowed, slow. He fanned the fin out and it brushed Nemo's fin again. "I was fine," he said, and his voice was strange and low and filled with his breathing, just like when Nemo escaped from the filter the first time and Peach said they weren't sending him in there again, and Gill shook his head in slow mesmerized horror and said "No."
Nemo shivered. He looked up at Gill only to see that Gill was staring at him with much the same expression he'd worn that day.
He didn't know where that face came from--didn't know what to say to make it go away--wanted Gill to say something else to him, something more--wanted to swim closer to him like before, to keep swimming that way so their fins brushed and their scales slipped and slid past each other. And he was so shocked and happy to have Gill here that he felt more scared than happy.
"Tell me," Nemo said slowly, "Tell me about how you got away."
He didn't want to be too slow about getting back or his friends' dads would probably talk to his Dad, and they'd send out a search party, not to mention he'd be grounded for life. So he swam faster than he wanted to the fronds. "Hey! Sheldon!"
Sheldon's dad, Bob, poked his head out and blinked. "Don't think he's here."
"Oh. Well, nice to see you anyway, Mr. Seahorse," said Nemo. "This is my friend Gill. From the tank."
"Oh!" said Sheldon's dad, "Ohhhh," and his whole back straightened. "Nice to meet you. Bob."
"Gill," said Gill.
"You'll want to be getting back before your Dad worries, Nemo," said Sheldon's dad.
"Worries?" Gill inquired, swishing along easily next to Nemo with one tail-twitch for every five strokes of Nemo's fins.
"Oh," said Nemo, embarrassed. "Well, I think the adventure really meant a lot to Dad. I mean he's a lot different now, cause he's not afraid of everything, and he lets me do all kinds of stuff, and Dory says he's really proud of me--"
Gill chuckled. "Course he is, kid. He's your Dad."
"But he still worries," Nemo explained, skirting around the long way behind the sandy dip where the school was and swimming a little faster so they wouldn't have to say hi to too many people in traffic.
Gill said gruffly, "He's your Dad."
Dory was the first one they met back outside the anemone. "Nemo! Hi! Who's that, do I know you?"
"Dory, this is Gill."
"Gill," said Dory, "Hi, Gill. Have I seen you before?"
"Yeah, for a second," said Gill, "but you were in a pelican's mouth at the time."
"A pelican's mouth! Fun!" said Dory. "You know, that sounds familiar."
Nemo leaned over and whispered, "She has short-term memory loss. --Dory, where's Dad?"
"Short-term...?" Gill said.
"Your Dad. Oh my God, your Dad!" Dory exclaimed. "I can't believe I forgot. Your Dad is worried about you, young man!"
"Uh-oh," Nemo muttered. "But where is he?"
"Nemo!" Something that looked like a giant orange polyp being launched from a boomerang shot past the anemone and straight up to Nemo so fast it drew a stripe in the water. (But it wasn't a polyp, it was just Nemo's Dad, of course.) "Nemo, there you are. I've been worried sick about you--well, not sick, but I've been worried. Did you have a good day?"
"Hi, Dad," said Nemo. "This is Gill."
"Gill!" said Dad, "Hi! Gill, from the tank! Wow, we've never met before. I mean, we've met, of course we've met, but we haven't really met." He laughed nervously.
"Well, you didn't really have time, did you, silly?" said Dory. "We were kinda in a pelican's mouth at the time. Nice guy, Nigel. How's he doing?"
"Nigel was fine when we got out," said Gill. "He provided a distraction with the Dentist that really helped us out."
Gill said to Dad, "It's so nice to meet Nemo's father at last. He talked about you a lot in the tank."
"He did!" said Dad, smiling dorkily like Nemo had just hugged him in front of everybody. "He did? Will you stay for dinner? So you got out of the tank, huh! Will the rest of your friends be coming, Nemo?"
Nemo squinched one of his eyes shut in embarrassment, but Gill didn't seem to notice--he just smiled. "They'll be along," he said, waving his damaged fin dismissively. Nemo saw his Dad's eyes dart to the torn little fin and widen, then skip up to Gill's face and over to Nemo.
When Dory asked innocently if the tank fish were going to stay on the reef, Gill said immediately, "I am, anyway."
"Oh good!" she trilled. "It's such a nice place. Isn't this a great reef, Nero?"
("Nemo," Dad muttered under his breath, "It's Nemo.")
"The whole big ocean is pretty cool," said Nemo, "but the Reef is still home."
Gill looked over at him and smiled strangely, more with one side of his mouth than the other, his eyelids heavy and covering half his eyes. It reminded Nemo of the face he made through the Ring of Fire right before Nemo swam through it. "Your reef has quite the reputation in the ocean," he said. "All the way here, everybody was telling us how beautiful it is. It seems to be an... ideal place to stay."
It took a while for most of the tank fish to settle. Not Gill. He swam all over the reef in just a few weeks with Jacques and Peach and Deb and Bubbles and Bloat and Gurgle until all of them had found places they wanted to stay, and then he kept doing the same thing because, he said, there was "nothing better to do."
Pearl and Sheldon had both already been allowed to finish school completely. Tad had been at school longer than Sheldon, but he never wanted to learn; and Nemo hadn't been there as long as any of them, but Mr. Ray said he was doing very well. He didn't have to come very often, because the older schoolfish didn't. A lot of times he was off with groups of little fish from the pre-school, and a lot of other times he was taking care of beds of seaweed and coralline algae.
It seemed like he ran into Gill everywhere: at the sponge pads when Nemo was on his way past; swimming over the sandy hollow, high up, when Nemo was at school; deep in the reef; among the seahorse fronds; under the edge of the drop-off, near the cave where Nemo had slept when he was still an egg.
Most of those times they didn't speak, just waved, and sometimes Gill didn't do anything, but Nemo knew he saw him. So when Nemo saw Gill from a distance on the way to the drop-off, his eyes widened. He wanted to swim up to him when he had the chance because he didn't, very often, and when he thought about Gill coming to live on the reef, he'd thought he could see him all the time. He saw Dory and Dad at dinner every night, and as much as he loved Dad and Dory, he couldn't help thinking sometimes that that time could have been better spent with Gill, whom he hadn't seen all day--or for two days--or three days, sometimes!
But he was coming here to visit the cave where he'd been an egg--the cave where, he knew, his Mom had died before he was born--even though Dad never talked about that, of course. He wasn't going to be distracted until after he was done with that, and then if Gill was still there, they could talk.
It was while he was floating near the entrance, gazing down at the shifting shadows and the little rocks inside, that Gill swam silently up behind him, like he always did. Nemo knew he was there because there was no one else there at the edge of the drop-off then. He could hear, even feel, the different movements of the water as Gill passed through it.
"Quiet out here, huh, Sharkbait."
Nemo looked up at Gill--not so far up this time. It looked like he had even grown a little. "This is the cave I was in when I was an egg," Nemo said.
Gill raised his brow ridges. "Really."
"I didn't hatch there, though. When all the other eggs got ate Dad took me away and moved inside the reef, because he was afraid."
Gill made a soft, unrecognizable sound and swam silently forward until he was inside the mouth of the cave. "Sharkbait, everybody's scared of something. Your Dad might have just had more to be scared of in his time."
Nemo swam inside too: the opening of the cave was shaped like a big mouth, and he was a little afraid even though he knew it wasn't one. If it had been another cave anywhere else, though, would he be afraid? No. It was this cave, this cave where he had almost died even before he was born.
Gill had turned at the back of the cave--his unscarred side was presented, showing all the stripes. The black was the same color as the inside of the cave behind him. The little bit of light coming in from outside made his white and yellow stripes glow.
The cave looked larger from the outside than it was. He swam out of the sunlight all the way, until he was in the deepest shadow of the cave, in the rear. The walls were close. Gill was close enough to touch when their fins fanned as they breathed.
"This is a dark place," said Gill. "Are you scared?"
Nemo opened his mouth to answer as fast as he could, "N-No."
"Well," said Gill, "You should be."
Nemo stared up at Gill even though it was hard to see him in the dark. "I should be?"
"You should," Gill said firmly. "The ocean's a big place. It's full of sharks, lantern fish, and jellyfish, and deep, dark trenches scattered with the skeletons of little fish. It's not safe. To forget one bit of that is insane. You should be scared of the ocean."
"But," said Nemo, "You can't be scared of everything. You can't just go around and be scared all the time."
Gill nodded, slowly, so slowly. The dark was soft around them like night; Nemo gave up to it, and stopped trying to see more than the white of Gill's eyes. "Let me tell you something, kid. A smart fish does not panic. A smart fish knows that everything is scary, and he also knows that panicking's not going to do any good. So he doesn't."
Nemo frowned. He was kind of afraid to ask. But then he asked, "Are you scared?"
In the dark, watching just Gill's eyes and feeling the soft and warm water in the cave wash around him, in smooth shapes that curved as the currents followed the cave walls--Nemo could almost forget what shape he was, where his fins were, which one was big and which was little--what color he was, what color Gill was, what size they were. It was just Gill's eyes, the slow ripple of water, and the low sound of Gill's voice. "You bet I am," he said quietly. "But you know what, kid?"
"I'm not as scared here as I usually am."
"Because the cave is shelter," nodded Nemo. "If you're in shelter, a predator probably won't see you."
Gill was quiet for a while. It was hard to tell how long it was, in the dark. Nemo even thought he was about to go to sleep for a while, or maybe he did go to sleep. But after a while he felt this brush on his fin, which might have been Gill's big fin, or it might have been just the water. But he was awake. "Nemo," said Gill, "Do you mind if I ask you a question?"
Nemo wondered why Gill would ask that--what question Gill could ask him that wasn't perfectly all right to hear. He felt strange, uneasy or worried but kinda excited, but he said, "Of course you can, anything."
"How did your mom die?" said Gill.
Well, that wasn't what he was expecting. "She--" Nemo started and stopped. "She got eaten by the barracuda that ate the other eggs. She could've hid in the anemone, but she didn't. She swam really fast to the eggs, and the barracuda ate her and the eggs. All except me."
Gill whispered, "All except you... ."
"That's why," said Nemo. "That's why my Dad was always afraid."
It was quiet except for a soft hum that Gill made. "Kid," he started. "Sharkbait."
Nemo swished his tail behind him, waiting.
"Anyone is always more afraid on their own. You weren't happy that the Dentist took you out of the ocean and put you in the tank. But you were happier when you met all of us. Because you weren't alone. That's how your dad made friends with Dory on his way to look for you. Let me ask you something. If a shark swam up to this cave when you were in it all alone, no one else around the drop-off, would you be afraid?"
"How would you feel if a shark swam up right now, while you and me were both trapped in the cave?"
Nemo shivered. "What if it ate us both?"
Gill was impatient. "We're not gonna get eaten. A shark's nose can't fit in a little hole like this. That doesn't mean we're happy to see a shark. But wouldn't you feel better if you saw it when you had someone else with you?"
Nemo thought about it. He thought about it hard. But he had to admit that Gill was right. He would never want to hide, or to run away, or to do anything, really, by himself. "I'd be glad you were here," he said finally. Gill's was the first name he would call, Gill the first fish he would want to see.
Now Gill sighed. "So do you understand," Gill said, "when I say that your dad wasn't scared because your mom got eaten? He was scared because she was gone."
"Yeah," Nemo said softly. "Dad never liked being alone."
"There you go," said Gill. "The answer." And he swam out of the cave.
"Wait!" said Nemo, following. "The answer? What?"
Gill looked back and slowed down to let him catch up. Then he said calmly as they swished briskly back towards the sandy hollow, "Why most of the time I'm more scared than I was in the cave with you. Don't blame your Dad. No one likes it, Nemo."
And Nemo got it. "You weren't scared because," he said disbelievingly, "you were with me?"
"You weren't scared because you were with me," said Gill, low and calm.
It wasn't true that no one liked being alone at all, because Nemo could remember a time when he wanted to be alone at least every couple of days, and his friends had got very worried about him. And now he still wanted to be alone sometimes, but just not as much.
Except it just so happened that usually when he went off by himself he ended up swimming around a lot all over, examining every inch of the reef he could see like he was going to be given a test on it. (Actually he was, but Mr. Ray's tests weren't that hard. And he wasn't ready for his school-leaving test yet anyway, he didn't think.) Since Gill came, actually, he had hardly ever wanted to hide under fronds and think all day, like before.
And now that Gill was here, he seemed to bump into Gill every time he went out to be alone--but Nemo didn't mind that. Even if he wanted to be alone--he was pretty sure now that that was cause he was growing up--he always wanted to see Gill too. Gill could talk to him for hours, and when he swam away Nemo was disappointed because there was always so much more to talk to him about.
At first, Pearl and Sheldon each spoke to him about that. But Sheldon had met a girl seahorse named Silver who didn't live on the reef, and Pearl had got old enough to have to go on a trip by herself, which was something the octopuses did (even though, Pearl told him, she didn't really feel grown up, she wanted to try new kinds of food and check out other places to live). So Tad, who was at school almost all the time trying to learn everything he'd never paid attention to before, was the only one of his friends who was around at all.
"It's all so fast," Tad gurgled at him one day at school. "Sheldon and Pearl are gone, you're almost done at school and you're already working in the beds, and Mr. Ray's teaching me how to be a teacher!"
"A real teacher, and not a babysitter?" said Nemo. "Wow! That's great, Tad!"
Tad stuttered a little. "Well, ah, just a pre-school teacher, you know, Nemo. An ass-ss-sistant teacher, because Mr. Ray says he needs an assistant. I can't remember all that stuff he knows. You know how hard I have to study."
Nemo didn't say anything because they all knew how hard Tad had to study to remember the simplest anatomy, species identification, or plant-care. The only thing Tad was better at than Nemo was taking care of the little fish, which Nemo thought was mostly because Tad was so childish himself that the kids never made him tired or angry.
"He's going to give us our tests next week, you know." Tad said with an obnoxious air of mischievous glee.
Nemo didn't answer right away because he wasn't really paying attention. He was thinking that Tad and Sheldon and Pearl must be about grown-up now too, so maybe he could ask Tad, "Tad, do you ever wish you didn't have to live with your mom and dad?"
Tad's eyes opened wide. "What, and live alone? Gosh, Nemo, are you crazy? Fish like us can't do that! I won't move away from the hole until I have somewhere to move to."
Nemo frowned, and flipped his tail hard and swam in a fast circle around Tad. "But where? When?"
Tad stayed where he was and drifted in a slow circle, staring at Nemo. But then he said, "Nemo, you know. Until I meet a--a girl fish and--and--go and--make eggs and--"
"But there are girl fish everywhere, Tad. You could go make eggs right now."
Nemo's friends had often thought he was a little too brave. Sheldon was always the first to swim off the drop-off or throw pebbles at Mr. Johanssen, but Nemo was the one they followed in the end because when he decided to go somewhere, he was always the first there. Tad said that when he got excited he forgot to be afraid.
Tad thought Nemo was reckless, but now he said, sounding kind of awed, "You're crazy." And he had never said that to Nemo before and meant it. "Why do you want me to have kids?"
Nemo tried to explain that he was speaking hypo--hypotethericly--hypithesically.
"What does that mean?" said Tad skeptically.
Nemo was airy. "Oh, it's just something my Dad says."
"Your dad wants me to have kids?"
"No, no," said Nemo. "Never mind."
First he actually tried to ask Gill about this. He was always running into Gill but now that he wanted to find him it seemed to take much too long. "Gill?" He called all around the mouth of the little alcove where Gill had taken up residence. "Gill? Gill!" He went looking for all the other tank fish too. No one had been more than a day without seeing Gill, but no one knew where he was right away.
Nemo muttered to himself, "I give up." He didn't really mean it, but he had decided to go back to the sandy hollow to look for something to eat. He was almost there this time when he swam into Gill. He wasn't swimming as fast, so he didn't exactly bounce off; and Gill didn't stop swimming right away, so he found himself drifting nose-to-nose with Gill. "Hey," said Nemo, going cross-eyed trying to see Gill's eyes. "I was just looking for you."
"Really?" said Gill. "Just a few inches to the left and you'd have swum right past without seeing me."
Nemo continued to go cross-eyed, twitching his good fin occasionally and his bad fin constantly to keep him in position with his nose on Gill's. "Oh, well, I couldn't find you," he said. "I wanted to talk to you, so I went to Bloat's, and I went to Jacques', and I went to Peach's and Deb's, and Gurgle's, and then I went to Bubbles's, but nobody knew where you were. So I was going to get something to eat."
He thought Gill raised his brow ridges, but he couldn't be sure because his vision of things so close to his nose was a little blurry. Nemo wrinkled his nose, which was an interesting sensation--his skin bunching against Gill's firm, smooth-scaled nose.
"Then I was going to keep looking," he said, "at least until dinner-time." He experimentally wrinkled his nose again.
Gill stared at him hard for a second. "Nemo," he said, sounding like Sheldon in the middle of an allergy attack--soft and hoarse. Then he gave himself a little shake, all over, and laughed a little. "Kid, you're too much," he said softly. "Are you going to go cross-eyed, or tell me why you wanted to see me?"
"Oh," said Nemo. "Well, I--Tad told me yesterday that Mr. Ray's giving us our school-finishing tests next week."
The other fish went completely, perfectly still--stiff in the water. "Oh yeah?" he said politely. "What are you going to do?"
Nemo couldn't see his expression, again, because they were too close. This time he switched his tail and backed away a little. ("I swim into your nose every time I see you," he said, a little embarrassed now that it occurred to him to be.
"That's okay," said Gill, coming back to life and clearly trying not to laugh, "if you didn't I'd have to think something was wrong."
"I'm sorry." Nemo was smiling too.
"Don't be sorry, Sharkbait.")
"Well, I don't know," said Nemo, "I've been doing some of everything."
"I've seen you taking care of the little fishes," said Gill, clearing his throat. "You like that?"
"I like them," said Nemo. "Most of the time."
Gill laughed. "Most of the time. Most of the time! I know how you feel, Sharkbait. Would you believe I like just about everybody most of the time?"
Nemo was amazed. "Almost everybody?"
One corner of Gill's mouth--not the scarred corner, the other one--tilted higher than the other. "Well, maybe not that many," he said. "What I meant was, there aren't very many I like all the time."
"Oh." He thought about that for a little bit. "Me too."
And the thing just then was that the ocean was really beautiful, even on the reef. Nemo could still remember the first day of school when he'd gone out to the drop-off for the first time, just before he got caught by the Dentist. Oh, wow. The water going on forever and ever, the shimmery rainbows of blue and purple in it, clear and dark. He'd never seen the whole ocean spread out like that before, because living on the reef, the surface of the water was never that far away. But once you'd seen the deep part of the sea off the drop-off, no water ever looked the same again.
But today on the reef it was sparkly and clear, almost white, and you could see up to the air and sunlight above and for leagues around. It only looked blue when you looked into it, and at it, and not through it.
He had really meant to ask Gill about Tad. The problem was that he didn't want to know about Tad; he wanted to know about growing up, and he still didn't know the right questions to ask. Maybe he could ask someone else, like Sheldon's dad, or Peach, or Bloat, about Tad when what he wanted to know was about himself; but he couldn't do that to Gill.
And what would he ask Gill instead? He had an uncomfortable feeling that when he tried to explain his question about growing up, it would turn into a question about Gill instead. Nemo knew a confused not-question about Gill and feeling grown up would upset Gill somehow--he didn't know how. So he didn't ask.
He said, "Well, I never want to stop the little fish from having fun. I have to--to--make myself tell them what to do. And I'm always getting ideas."
The subject was changed. Gill said seriously, "You'd rather be out there doing stuff. Don't let anything crush that out of you, kid. It's what got you out of that tank, and it's what got me out of the tank. There have to be fish like you."
Nemo corrected him, "Like us."
Next he tried to ask Dory. They were watching some cyanoplankton near the anemone (when he probably should have been studying the life cycles of algae). "Dory," he said, "If Tad just has to move away from his parents when he finds a girl fish to make eggs with, how will he know when it's time to make eggs?"
Dory blinked. "Who's Tad?"
"Ohhhh, Tad! Your little friend Tad! So, he wants to make eggs, huh? Who's the lucky lady?"
"No, see, Tad doesn't have a lady, it's just I wonder--"
"Doesn't have a lady?" said Dory, wrinkling her nose at him in confusion. "I've got news for you, bucko. Can't make eggs without a lady. You need a girl fish for that."
"He doesn't want to make eggs, though," Nemo said patiently.
"But I thought you said he did."
"No," Nemo explained, "Let me try again."
"I was talking to Tad about whether he ever wants to move out of his parents' cave."
"Boy, I sure hope so. Can't live with Mom and Dad forever, eh?"
"Right. When he grows up he'll move away."
"Right. Grown up, move away," said Dory with a little frown of concentration.
"But Tad says it's not time to do that until he meets a girl fish and it's time to make eggs."
"But we already know a lot of girl fish."
"So he could just make eggs now," said Nemo. "All he'd have to do is go live with a girl fish and--"
"Well, no, silly," said Dory fondly, and batted him in the side of the head with a flipper. He rolled sideways in the water until he waved a fin to turn right side up again. "He can't just make eggs whenever he feels like it! Not until he grows up."
"But Tad is grown up."
"Nuh-uh," said Dory, "Believe you me, mister. He's not grown up until he moves out of Mama and Daddy's place. Then you'll know."
Nemo forgot about it for a little while with studying. He spent two whole days just swimming around with Tad and taking turns telling what things were, and how they worked, and who lived in them and why, and what things you could eat and what things other fish could eat.
Nemo even thought about asking Mr. Ray about growing up and making eggs, but that day Mr. Ray was going through whale reproduction--which was much more complicated than shark reproduction even though they were both really big, because whales weren't really fish but something called mammals--down to the cellular level. The mechanics of nourishing an egg from the inside of a mother whale's body were making him dizzy and he'd heard too much about the stages of meiosis, he guessed, because when he opened his mouth to ask his eyes glazed over and he realized that he didn't care that much about the chemical basis of growing up and making eggs.
He went to visit Peach at her rock by the fronds. Deb, who lived very close and liked to hang out with Peach, bustled around on the edges of what Nemo could see, poking her head in crevices and under leaves, muttering to herself. "I'm afraid to ask Mr. Ray anything because he knows too much about everything and you never know what he'll answer," said Nemo.
"It's okay, kid," said Peach, "you can tell the truth. Just say it's because you don't know when he'll stop talking again."
"Okay," said Nemo doubtfully, "but I like Mr. Ray, and I'm not a kid anymore."
Peach laughed. Then she peeled another point off the rock and turned around to really examine him upside down. "Huh," she said, "you are getting big for a little fish. Still."
Nemo scowled. Then he changed the subject. "Should I have asked him anyway?"
Peach applied herself to the rock with a thoughtful sucking noise and wriggled into place--getting comfortable, she had explained before. Then she picked up the other side, bent around and looked at Nemo again. "Not if you don't want. Why don't you ask your dad, kid?"
"Well..." Nemo hesitated.
"Go on. Ask your dad. It's what he's there for, you know," she said.
Nemo had never thought of it that way.
He ran into Gill on his way back to the anemone--this time, Gill's tail, although it wasn't completely an accident, because otherwise Gill might not have noticed him. Nemo stopped and turned expectantly. Gill extracted his nose from a dense growth of coralline algae and floated slickly through the water to Nemo's side. "Sharkbait," he said, "What's up?"
Nemo twitched his whole spine, straightening himself a little and pushing forward through the water, confident that Gill would speed up to stay with him regardless. "I'm going to talk to my Dad," said Nemo firmly.
"Oh," said Gill quickly, and then he paused, swimming silently along beside Nemo. "Good. Good."
As determined as Nemo was, he couldn't resist looking quickly over. "You think so?"
Gill was smiling at him. "I think so." It seemed like that was the end of the conversation, though. "It's nice to see you, kid," he said.
He had to stop himself from smiling when Gill called him "kid." "I'm glad to find you too, Gill," he said earnestly. "I wish I could talk to you for a long time right now, but I really have to go find my Dad when we get back to the anemone."
A funny smile was on Gill's face now, that didn't necessarily look like a smile if you looked at it for a long time, but that looked definitely like one if you just glanced at it out of the corner of your eye. "That's okay," said Gill, "I'll be around. Come find me sometime."
They weren't to the anemone yet. "Wh--" Nemo exclaimed, and started to turn after him as Gill vanished silently away to the side like a cloud of ink being dispersed in the water. But then he saw his Dad.
"Nemo! Hi, son!"
"Hey, Dad," said Nemo. "Going home?"
"Yes, I'm on my way to the anemone," said Dad happily, "would you care to join me?"
Nemo smiled to himself. Dad was so funny. "I'd be delighted," he said, and swam quickly to catch up.
"I've just seen Bill and Ted," said Dad. "I was hanging around the sandy hollow. I thought I might run into Dory coming back from her Fish-Eaters Anonymous meeting, but she wasn't there yet." Dad never admitted that he went on purpose to wait for Dory to come back. It made him feel better.
"How was your friend from the tank, hm? Peach?"
"Peach was good. We chatted a little. I watched her doing five-armed aerobics."
"Personality as sparkling as ever?" said Dad. Nemo rolled his eyes while Dad broke down chuckling. "Get it? Sparkling? Heh heh heh."
"Gill found her a nice outcropping of real rock to cling to," said Nemo. "Deb and Gurgle stay near there under a little overhang..."
"Ahh, so she's a rock star!" Dad burst out, leaning over to nudge Nemo in the side companionably. He was in a really good mood.
Nemo couldn't help laughing that time. "Dad--"
"She could put on a concert--Dory would love that. She could sing backup. Maybe they could do 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.' Or 'Stars Fell on a Piranha.' What do you think?"
Nemo and his Dad swam the rest of the way back to the anemone singing together, "Just keep shining, just--keep shining! Just keep shining, shining, shining... ."
Dory wasn't back yet at dinner time, so they decided to wait for her.
"Dad," Nemo ventured.
Dad settled onto the soft bottom of the anemone and curved his tailfin around sideways with a little sigh. "You know, Nemo," he said with his eyes closed, "I've been meaning to just sit down and have a little talk with you."
"Okay," said Nemo so swiftly that Dad opened one of his eyes again curiously. Nemo just grinned really brightly, so Dad shut his eye. "Tad and me are taking our tests to get out of school next week."
"Oh, that's great, Nemo. I'm so proud of you, son," said Dad sleepily. You could see he meant it even if his eyes weren't open.
"Mr. Ray's already started teaching Tad how to be a teacher and after we're finished Tad's going to be an assistant teacher, so I asked him about when he's going to move out of his parents' place. But he said he can't just move out, because he doesn't want to live on his own so he has to wait until--"
"Well, I imagine he's not going to want to move out until he finds a mate," said Dad.
"A mate," said Nemo. This was a new word.
"Oh, you know," said Dad, "A girl fish--" and Nemo thought oh great, that again. Until Dad said, "But not just any girl fish."
"A girl fish to make eggs with," said Nemo, who had heard this part a number of times.
"Well, sure," said Dad, switching his tail contentedly against the cushiony bed at the anemone's center. "But the important thing is, a girl fish you want to make eggs with, you know. Tad's not going to want to move away and make eggs with just any fish--the girl has to be very special," he said dreamily.
Nemo considered this. "How special?"
"Oh," said Dad, "really special. Your mother, you know--I just saw her and went after her. That didn't happen to your old Dad very often. But all of a sudden, I decided I wanted to be brave--I swam right up to her and asked her if I had a hook in my lip." He chuckled softly.
Usually Dad wasn't this forthcoming about his Mom. "You don't have to talk about this, Dad, if you don't want," said Nemo cautiously.
Dad's eyes both shot open. "Oh no, Nemo," he said, "It's fine. Why not? I am your Dad, you know." He patted the anemone next to him with one fin. "It's what I'm here for."
Nemo settled down a little ways away from his Dad, like he hadn't actually done since a really little while after the adventure. "But what's so special about the right fish?"
Dad waved his fin a little bit. "You have to understand that it's not really anything about the fish, Nemo," he said. "Because then there'd be one fish that was the best in the whole ocean and everybody else would be chasing around after her! She'd never get any sleep. She'd probably send a message begging the Dentist to put her in a tank just to get away from it all."
"So it's really the way the fish makes you feel," Dad said. "Special. You want to stick around her just because. You start looking around for your own anemone. You feel like you could talk to her forever and at first you won't want to let her out of your sight. She's always the first fish you think about." He grinned. "You... you..." he finished softly, "You look at her, and you're home."
Nemo glanced nervously down at the bottom of the anemone, chewing on his lip and feeling hot and cold and scared all over and shivering because he was thinking about Gill. He also kind of wanted to say Dad, you're getting a little mushy, but he thought that would be mean, so he didn't say anything.
Dad looked over at Nemo again all on his own in a little bit. "Hey," he said, surprised. "You've really been growing! My goodness, Nemo! You're almost as long as I am! Let's measure."
They measured and discovered that the tip of Nemo's tailfin came almost to the beginning of Dad's tail when their noses were exactly even.
"Wooooow," said Dad.
"Dude," said Nemo.
Dad looked at Nemo consideringly. "I should have known," he said. "How long have you been thinking about this?"
"About--" Nemo stuttered. "A-about?" He was afraid he was in trouble.
Dad cupped a fin and patted the top of Nemo's head. "It's all right," he smiled. "About growing up, and moving away?"
"Oh," said Nemo uncomfortably, "I don't know--it seems like kind of a long while now, that I was thinking about growing up. But only a couple of weeks about moving away. Since, oh... since the party in the sandy hollow where Mr. Johanssen went to sleep and Jacques cleaned so well behind his gills and everyone found out that he used to be a kind of bluey green color?"
Nemo's Dad laughed at that. He murmured, "A long time. No, a fair time. Well, it's not that long, Nemo, you understand. I'm not saying that, I'm just saying that, well, you've been thinking about it for a decent amount of time... and that means that you've had these things on your mind for a decent amount of time. And there's nothing wrong with that," he said quickly at Nemo's worried look. "It just means you're growing up, is all."
Because he had known this for some time already, Nemo couldn't help feeling a little disappointed. He had been able to feel himself slowly growing up since a long time before the tank fish came to the reef. What he needed to know was about when he was going to be done growing up and what was going to happen, and was he going to move away and--
"But," Nemo said, "What I want to know is when I'm going to be--"
Dad just kept talking like he hadn't even heard Nemo talk. Which, to be fair, he probably didn't. "Yes, I'd say you're almost all the way done growing up. You'll be moving away any time."
While Nemo was still staring at him, feeling a little bit scared but mostly stunned, like he'd swum too fast into a rock or a big fish, his Dad said, "I'm glad you've found a mate, Nemo."
"A mate!" said Nemo, feeling sort of relieved. "How did you know?"
His Dad raised his brow ridges at him and said, "Nemo, a clownfish never grows up before it's time for him to. If you hadn't found a mate, you wouldn't be thinking about moving away and you wouldn't have grown this long."
Nemo stared. "You mean I would just have stayed little?"
His Dad nodded smugly, smiling. "Yeah. Neat, isn't it?"
"For how long?"
"A long time. I don't know how long. However long."
"I guess so, if you never ever found a mate--forever even."
Nemo picked himself up and brushed one side off against the inner ring of the anemone's tentacles. Outside they could hear Dory singing, "Oh there's a hole in the bottom of the sea!"
"She's got a new one," he giggled, and looked over to see Dad smiling and rolling his eyes at the same time. "Dad," he said, burrowing into the tentacles to brush his left side really well. "When will I get as big as you?"
His Dad grinned and rolled his eyes at Nemo this time and swam forward to bump their noses together.
"As big as me? Never! I'm the biggest fish in the ocean!" He laughed sort of maniacally.
Dory poked her head in. "Hey, no offense, Marlin," she said, "but you're really not the biggest fish in the ocean. I mean, just for starters Bill is bigger than you, and he's really still pretty small."
"Hello, Dory," said Dad.
Dory had brushed by him affectionately already, but she acted pleased. "Hello!"
"Dad," said Nemo.
"Right," said Dad. "Ah. Right. Well, you're a clownfish, son. You'll get big when you need to."
"Don't get your hopes up too high, though," Dory put in. "I mean, I doubt you're ever going to be the biggest fish in the ocean."
"Okay," said Nemo, while Dad frowned and tried to explain the whole conversation from the beginning. "Bye, guys," he called when he was done brushing.
"No. Clownfish stay juvenile--"
"--That's not a very nice thing to say about your own son."
"--Not like that. They stay children. Nemo, you haven't had supper!"
"It's okay," Nemo called. "I don't want to eat here. I'll see you later, Dad. Bye, Dory!"
"Okay. Goodbye, son! Good luck!"
"Bye, Nemo! I think you're a very mature fish, no matter what your Dad says!"
It was just dusk. Thick rays of the dying sunlight still filtered through the water, highlighting the exotic textures of the reef in paling pink light as Nemo swam through it. The chatter of voices was gone, as most of the fish had settled down for the night. He went through the crossroads at the sandy hollow, and it was completely empty. He swam through a moonbeam and glanced down at himself to see his little fin and his whole side turning sort of blue and sort of silver in the light.
There was the grandfather sea fan, as big as a barracuda; Nemo darted around the frilly edges, around a wide branching piece of living coral covered in orange and blue algae, under a little bit of overhang--and paused at the entrance of the dark hollow. Skeletal coral, hard and not spongy, poked through here, while living fronds and branches waved nearby. Only a fine mist of algae covered the surface, and a deep, narrow, cup-shaped hollow in it was completely dark this late in the day.
He remembered visiting Gill in his pirate skull in the tank after the time he almost got sucked through the filter. Gill had been lurking motionless in the back of the skull against the plastic side. He'd been still and quiet, like he was really sick. When Nemo had spoken to him he'd hardly moved.
"Gill," said Nemo, starting to think the little cave was empty. But then the darkness shifted.
Gill swam forward and what little light there was outlined him for a second. The white of his eyes showed. "Sharkbait," he said quietly. There was a tiny bit of silver moonlight making a line on his face near his mouth, and Nemo thought maybe he was smiling. He couldn't be sure though. "Hey. What's on your mind?" He sounded a little bit surprised.
"Hi, Gill," said Nemo, trying to keep hold of his determination and staring through the water, trying to see Gill more clearly. "I didn't want to eat dinner at home. I'd rather be here with you, so I came."
Gill said, "So let's have dinner." He floated forward into the little bit of moonlight, stopped to look down at Nemo, and then swam out of the hollow.
Nemo followed. "Wait," he said, a little bewildered. "That's not what I meant."
"No," Gill agreed, poking his snout into a little sponge. It made a little pouf and some tiny particles of food floated up. Gill caught a few of them in his mouth. "But you haven't had dinner?"
Nemo shrugged. "No." When Gill gestured with his good fin, Nemo swam up next to him with a quick wriggling motion and started to graze as well.
"You decided not to have dinner at home," said Gill.
Nemo thoughtfully licked a bit of plankton off his upper lip, quirking an eyebrow ridge so he could look up at Gill. "Dad talked for longer than I thought he would."
Gill smiled a little. "Your Dad getting on your nerves, kid?"
"No," said Nemo. "I didn't not want to eat dinner with Dad and Dory. I would just rather see you."
You could see that Gill was surprised--no, Nemo corrected himself, Gill was nervous. It was strange to think Gill was nervous, because, well, when he first saw Gill he was so impressive that Nemo had thought of him almost the same way ever since. But he'd seen Gill desperate, and sad, and happy and determined and worried.
"You've never had any kids, have you?" said Nemo.
Gill shook his head and went back to eating little bits of food.
"You've never had a mate." He'd never said that new word. It was funny. But he was sure Gill would know what it meant.
"Fish tanks aren't the best place for meeting fish, kid," said Gill, turning a little to look at Nemo. There was a mysterious, secret expression on his face.
Nemo grinned. "I met a lot of good friends in the fish tank." He wriggled sideways and swam into Gill on purpose, nudging Gill's good fin with his little one.
Gill laughed a short, surprised, hard little laugh.
Nemo liked his fin there against Gill; he fanned it experimentally without moving away, and felt it trapped in the little space between his body and Gill's, folding and sliding over the smooth, smooth side of Gill's body. He didn't move away from Gill, and Gill didn't move away from him.
Nemo had been thinking about it, and he had decided to trust his Dad and his body that he'd found Gill for a--a mate. Gill wasn't a girl fish. But Nemo couldn't imagine a girl fish he could--could--like so much; he couldn't feel about anybody the way he felt about Gill. And he didn't. And he hadn't.
And he didn't want to.
Gill was the best fish he could imagine. Well, he didn't know as much as Mr. Ray; and he wasn't as funny as the silver fish or as big as Mr. Johanssen and Nemo could tell he wasn't as nice as some fish, because he could look at Gill's face and tell when he was thinking bad things. But it didn't matter--because Mr. Ray wasn't as mysterious as Gill and the silver fish weren't as brave, and no one else would make Gill's nervous face and cover it up by inviting Nemo to dinner.
Nemo smiled. "You haven't had a lot of really good friends, have you, Gill?"
Three choice bits of perfectly round plankton floated unnoticed past Gill's nose. He had stopped eating. He looked right at Nemo and said carefully "I have my friends. But there haven't been many fish I really cared about."
Nemo looked down and up again into Gill's eyes. Gill's heavy eyelids were low, half-covering his eyes. They followed Nemo as he swam around Gill's nose with two tiny movements of his tailfin.
There was the long, jagged scar--the white, hard line, dull and unreflective between the smooth shiny scales. There was where it crossed the fin and the trailing tatters at the end of it. Nemo put out his own little fin easily. He didn't have to reach; he really was as big as his Dad, at least, although he'd never be as big as Gill. And the water under the membrane of the little fin lifted it up until the edges of his fin and Gill's brushed together. "You and me are a lot the same."
"Don't be silly, Sharkbait. You have lots of friends," said Gill roughly. "You're surrounded with fish who love you."
"I know," Nemo insisted, looking straight in Gill's eyes, letting his little fin ripple gently along the edge of Gill's. Gill shivered. "But we are a lot the same, not just because of our fins. You could tell as soon as we met. That's why you've been my friend from the beginning even though I was just a little kid."
"No," said Gill. "I was your friend because I liked you."
"Even though I was a little kid," said Nemo. "Stop moving away. ...Unless," he faltered, "You want to."
Gill's mouth moved a little bit in the darkness, but he stopped backing up. The delicate torn ends of his fin brushed like tiny strands of sea lace against Nemo's fin and the side of his body. Their two small fins curled around each other. "All right," said Gill. Nemo could tell that face even in the dark. It was Gill's determined face, even though his voice was low and nervous.
"Sharkbait, you weren't a little kid. You thought you were. And you were a kid," he added. He was looking at the sponge, not at Nemo. Little particles of food would float into his mouth as he spoke and he'd keep talking, and then swallow. "But I could see you were smart and brave. You were responsible. You were ready to start growing up when you had to, and you had to to get out of that tank, and you did--beautifully."
Nemo swallowed and looked up.
Gill still wouldn't meet his eyes. "It wasn't your fault that all of us didn't get out with you."
Nemo swam back a little, and let himself drift forward until his nose came to rest against Gill's with a little bump.
"Sharkbait," said Gill, "you can't tell me you didn't see me."
Nemo said innocently, "I saw you, but you weren't looking at me and now you are. You're supposed to look at someone when you say something important to them."
Gill said, "I am, but I'm cross-eyed."
Nemo wrinkled his nose. Then he swam forward without swimming back--sliding warmly, slowly down the side of Gill skin-to-skin, scale-to-scale. He had to close his eyes and turn his cheek against the hard thread of the scar and the trailing tendrils of the torn fin, the smooth, muscular length of Gill's body all the way to his tail. At the end he turned and swam back up under Gill's fin, while all of Gill shivered again, so slowly you could see each shiver go over him from nose to tail.
"Nemo," he gasped. "What. What are you."
It felt so good to press close, to feel Gill's fin folding automatically over his back, that it was difficult for Nemo to open his eyes and look up into Gill's face as he nestled against his side. "Gill?"
Since Nemo didn't move, Gill's fin was moving cautiously, stroking gently over the top of his head and his dorsal fin, the end brushing unevenly along his side. But it seemed hard for him to talk. He swallowed and sucked water through his gills. "Yeah?"
"You know how clownfish grow up?"
Gill closed his eyes. "Too fast."
Nemo frowned. "It seemed like it took a long time to me. But no. My Dad told me about it today. Clownfish only grow up when it's time for them to grow up--and leave their anemones. Dad said, he should have noticed I had grown bigger and he would have known I found a--" he hesitated. "mate."
Gill's fin wasn't moving. They were at rest in the water, floating a little as currents flowing over the reef got past the currentbreak of the grandfather sea fan. They were attached only to each other. Nemo let his eyes open a little and watched.
"I'd have stayed a--" what was that word? "--juvemile forever if I never met you."
The moonlight made black-and-white outlines of sea fans on the tips of its leaves, and of the coralline algae on the nearest one. "Kid," Gill whispered.
He shook a tiny bit, so little that Nemo could never have seen it and only knew because he could feel the movement against him. It was nice--better than nice. Nemo tried a little wriggle with his body, sideways against Gill.
Gill pushed back against him, then slipped away. He turned to face Nemo, breathing with his mouth open and his sides moving.
"I'm not really a kid," Nemo whispered.
"I know." The tip of Gill's nose bumped gently into Nemo's again, and Nemo looked cross-eyed and surprised. And then it moved sideways so carefully and slowly that he could see Gill concentrating, fluttering both fins to keep him still in the water--tracing down the edge of Nemo's mouth to one corner and back across his lip to the other.
Nemo opened and closed his mouth, and sighed--"Oh."
Gill slid his nose down under Nemo's chin. Nemo shivered and twisted a little, letting himself float almost sideways in the water as the firm touch traced down the center of his belly to his tailfin and back. "Oh," Gill agreed quietly, tilting to rub his cheek against Nemo's.
Then Nemo switched his tail twice, almost humming with pleasure, and swam slowly forward just a little bit, sliding on Gill's side and tucking his head against Gill's scales with his eyes slipping happily closed as Gill sighed and whispered something he couldn't hear behind him.
Instead of turning around, he shook his head and writhed backwards so he could feel his tail fin touching the gill slits on Gill's good side and the long fan of his undamaged fin. When he switched it sideways again and felt his tail rub against Gill's fin and wrap around his body Nemo stopped, shivering and voiceless like he'd been stung by a jelly. "Gill," he said, asking a question or asking for help or asking for more. From his voice it sounded like he was going to cry.
"Shhhh," Gill whispered, and Nemo felt the good fin brush along his side and over his tail again. He couldn't see for a second, everything went black and he closed his eyes, the top of his head and all down the base of his dorsal fin prickling and tingling and almost hurting.
He pressed his face into Gill's side and wriggled forward, feeling with his good fin and his bad one, until he was partly upside down (he thought), but he stopped looking when he felt his belly drag against Gill's smooth scales and shivered, and felt with his fins more until Gill felt it too and they swam back and forward in tiny little shuddering bits, whispering "Ahh." and "Oh."
"Gill," Nemo whispered, drifting in the water and slowly pushing himself right side up with tiny movements of his good fin.
"Sharkbait." Gill was floating too, eyes closed and mouth open, with just his fins making little twitches. But he turned back around to Nemo, and when he looked he smiled a little bit, very slowly, making Nemo's tail and his belly tingle warmly again. "You're amazing, kid."
Then they both smiled, and Nemo talked his tail into moving so he could swim closer to Gill again. "Thanks. I think you're--" but he had to stop, lamely, because he couldn't think of a word for what he thought Gill was. He started over. "You can call me kid."
Gill swam very close to him and raised his brow ridges, and said, "Even though you're not one."
Nemo darted forward and turned to slip under Gill's torn fin again. "Yeah--" he started to say, and broke off yawning. "Let's go in your cave."
"Hmmm," said Gill.
"I dunno. Do you really want to call it that?"
Nemo shrugged. "You mean the cave?"
"The hollow--the alcove. Whatever. You want to call it mine?"
Nemo grinned and nudged the side of Gill's face with his nose. "Oh. Well, I..."
But they were swimming into the cave already, with a few easy waves of Gill's tail and a little flutter of Nemo's fins, to keep up.
It was pitch black in the cave. The tiny hints of silver light at the opening looked like they were above you even when they were in front because everything, the bottom and the sides and top, was invisible in the dark. Gill flicked his tail, and swam to the back of the cave where Nemo had found him before dinner. He floated there a second, then settled to rest against the bottom, pulling Nemo along with his torn fin.
Nemo settled against his side, curling up at first, then discovering it was more comfortable and safe-feeling to stretch out full-length against the solid warmth of Gill's body in the dark, and fan his tail flat against Gill's side instead of folding it like when he slept by himself. When they had shifted their fins and had been so still and comfortable for so long that Nemo was starting to forget where the parts of his body were, Gill spoke.
His voice sounded like the inside of the cave--low and rough, sleepy, and black. Secret. "I'm glad you came here tonight, Sharkbait. It was a good thing you and your Dad had that talk."
"It was Peach who gave me the idea," Nemo murmured sleepily, "She told me that's what he's there for."
Gill laughed, surprised. "It was! That Peach... she's... a real peach."
Nemo twitched his fin. "What, you mean, you don't think she--?"
The fragile end of Gill's torn fin folded over Nemo's back, soothing. He chuckled. "I don't know, kid. She's a pretty classy lady."
"What is it, Nemo?"
"Will you--" Nemo told himself he was being stupid, so he made himself say it. "--be my... mate?"
The gentle stroking against his back was as light as the pulses of water moving in a tiny cave, or the tattered ends of Gill's damaged fin. "Mmmm," Gill sighed, a sound of helpless contentment, not of decision-making. He said quietly, "You're a very brave fish."
Nemo flipped his tail up and let it drop on Gill's side.
Gill chuckled, "And I like you. Yeah..." Nemo's eyes drooped closed, and he felt himself fall into sleep. Gill whispered, "...Stay."