In which Tezuka is a hermit, Ryoma looks for treasure, and messages in bottles wash ashore. AU.
They know each other well: the slippery juts of black rock on the north shore, the sure steps of bare feet. They wake up together at the call of the gulls, at the first flat rays of light, content for the day to come. Though the man is not the only one to understand the island, the island is the only one who understands the man.
The rocks warm under him as he nestles into the spot he chooses today. He pulls his bait out of his pocket, unwrapping the leaves to select a shrimp. The smell of rot is strong, but he doesn't seem to give it much thought as he slides it onto his hook. He flicks his pole back, forward, /whhhshhh/, and the line flies out, far enough out to discourage the chance of a small fish taking the bait. His finger is steady, ready for the slightest change in tension. His brown eyes are still, he does not smile, he does not think.
When there are three silver fish flopping in his net, he sets aside his rod for a sharpened shell. He slits the fish's bellies open, throwing the guts out. The ocean surface dances in a frenzy as the smaller creatures fight over the remains. After he finishes cleaning, the man sets off to his shanty. His strides are long and purposeful, beating down the same path he's walked before. He stirs his fire pit with a long, heat-hardened stick, freeing the hot charcoal and blowing them back to life. The fire is his pet, his companion, and he feeds it wood until the flames are licking the salty air.
Cooking is methodical: he adds coconut juice, a few roots he'd dug out in the dry season, sun-dried clams and a fish into his tin pot. He doesn't waste the rich juices that would have drizzled down into the pit. The other fish are skewered and left out of the intense heat to smoke slowly. Later, he will store them inside. After he finishes cooking, he scatters sand back over the coals.
He barely tastes the food, though he chews slowly. There is no such thing as silence for him. The leaves flutter-scrape against each other in the slightest of breezes, the birds cry out, the waves roll in and out, the fire crackles. His own breath draws in and out in constant motion, in constant life.
In the hour before the sun sets, the man leaves the food he's gathered inside his shack, takes out a worn satchel and heads for the beach. The sand still lingers with the heat of the mid-afternoon sun as the man's footprints become uneven, as they weave from side to side erratically. His eyes blur to focus out details -- to catch glints of light, color. At last, he finds one. He bends down and retrieves an pale blue, worn piece of sea glass. It is ignited to an icy jewel against the sun. Perhaps, it was once a vase for wildflowers. Now, it is a treasure. The man tucks the sea glass into his pack and continues his search.
The island does not understand this side of the human. It is something that the other creatures do not do. It is purposeless.
The man does not smile as he scavenges for these small reminders that he is not alone in this world, but his eyes do not seem quite so dead. The glass chinks prettily against each other as heads the opposite direction from his home. On the southern tip of the island, there is a cave that opens up further down into the water. Just past the entrance of the cave is a chest that once held the scarce items inside the man's house. Now, it holds the man's treasure.
The stomach of the cave is dark, and the sea glass barely touches light, but even the sound of the pieces being poured onto their brothers and sisters catches something in the man's throat, causing sadness to skim over his face. When it begins to hurt too much, he closes the chest carefully, and goes home.
He does not dream.
Sometimes, whole bottles or light bulbs wash onto the shore. The man always takes care to smash these and toss the shards back in to be made beautiful, soft, frosted. He doesn't like things that remind him too much of elsewhere. The island cannot be elsewhere. It must be safe.
He spots an amber-colored bottle half-buried while lazily watching a crab scuttle over the beach. It still has its cork. Furrowing his brow, he pulls the bottle out, dusting the caked-on sand off. Squinting, he makes out that there is something inside. He cracks the bottle open with an oyster shell, and pulls out a rolled up sheet of paper. It's pale purple with small flowers curling in the corners. He sniffs at it, catching a whiff of an exotic perfume.
He holds the paper and arm's length away, to make out details. There are markings over the paper, and it takes a while for him to remember language, reading, meaning. He had brought a Bible with him to the island when he came, long ago, and glasses to read it. They both aren't here anymore.
O love is the crooked thing,
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,
For he would be thinking of love
Till the stars had run away
And the shadows eaten the moon.
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon. Â¹
The script is delicately written with a subtle flourish. The man's own handwriting had been a small scrawl, tidy and plain. Now -- now, he knows, rolling the paper back up as best as he can with trembling fingers, there is no need for such things.
By the light of his fire, he reads the note many times that night, until the words are lit on his eyelids. He tries to speak the words aloud, but shivers at the low rumble of his voice. The animals go quiet. The island listens.
But the man is afraid to speak.
The footprints are small, tired and weak. There is still wetness pooled in the pits of the heels, the front and in the biggest of the toes. If they had belonged to an animal, the man would know that the animal was weak, vulnerable -- an easy kill. But they do not belong to an animal, and the man drops his satchel of sea glass and runs to where they end, to a tree on the outskirts of the jungle.
There is a boy, aged just past adolescence, leaned against the smooth gray trunk, eyes closed and lips parched and cracked, whiteness gathered at the corners. His hair is dark, the color of seaweed, and trickling water down the sides of his sunburned cheeks. His clothes are soggy and loose. He has no shoes.
He is not dead; his chests moves up and down like the tide, still in motion.
The man crouches down, and gently eases the boy over his shoulder. He weights more than the man thought he would have, but the man has hauled heavier burdens to the shanty before, though none like this -- none that would wake up. As he walks, he hears not the waves, the birds, the wind -- he hears the heart of the boy, beating slowly against back.
The man peels the wet clothing off of the boy and dries him off before setting him down on the cot. He had forgotten how smooth and free from scars humans could be. Even the most careful of the ocean suffered in the past, but the boy was all lean, unmarked muscle. A new ship, untested by the tempestuous water, yet to know her love and fear. The man draws the covers over the boy, hiding the innocence from the world.
He dampens a cloth with water, cleaning the boy's eyes, his mouth. The boy shifts in the cot as the coolness touches his mouth, and he opens his lips wider.
The man sets the cloth down and retrieves a tin cup of water with one hand, easing the boy's head up with the other. Most of the water runs rivulets down the boy's chin, but enough gets in that he coughs, and sips for more. When his lips close, the man sets him back down.
He is turning to go make broth when the boy's hand moves, catches at his wrist. His lips move, forming a shape, but nothing comes out. The man strokes a calloused hand over the boy's forehead. /Shhh/, he thinks, and the boy stills.
The sun rises, sets, rises again, and when the man returns to his shack, the boy is standing, albeit holding onto the driftwood walls for balance. He looks at the man and says, "Ryoma. My name is Echizen Ryoma." His voice is light and soft and wonderful all at once. Nothing else on the island makes sounds like that. His eyes are a startlingly pale shade of brown, lit like glass in the sun.
The man sets the plate of stew he's carrying down on the small table he has, and Ryoma's gaze hasn't wavered when he looks back. The man nods. /I understand/.
The man can say nothing in return. He tries to nod again, but the boy interrupts him before his head can move.
"Who are you?" When the man doesn't answer, he tries again. "You do know how to speak, don't you?"
The man sits down on the cot, but the boy doesn't move from where he is. It is strange to look up at someone. "I --" the man's voice cracks, his tongue large and clumsy in his mouth. "I am Tezuka."
"Tezuka," the boy repeats, and the man -- Tezuka -- likes the way it sounds in his mouth. Wants the boy to say it again. "Thank you, Tezuka."
"You are welcome, Ryoma."
The boy -- Ryoma -- smiles an easy, sharp smile.
Ryoma recovers quickly, maybe solely because his appetite is so ravenous. It is fortunate that he is quick to learn the techniques of survival, for Tezuka doubts he could catch enough fish in a week to satisfy Ryoma's stomach at snack time. Somehow, everything falls back into rhythm, but not at all.
Ryoma kicks water up at Tezuka, daring him to splash back as his wide eyes stare guilelessly. More often than not, Tezuka splashes back, scaring the fish away, but making Ryoma laugh in a rich, breathy sort of way. When Tezuka insists on sleeping on the floor of the shanty, Ryoma insists on sleeping next to him. Ryoma does not ask the questions that he should ask, but "What was the biggest fish you've ever caught?" or "Do you think you can run faster than me?" It is strange to no longer be alone, to think of 'we' and 'us'. He no longer looks for pieces of sea glass in the sunset, but sits by the fire, listening to Ryoma.
The island grows happy, and Tezuka does too.
Ryoma's father Nanjiroh was a treasure hunter. He'd been famous for it, uncovering many sunken ships, donating ridiculous amounts of valuables to museums and living handsomely still. He'd often been away from the home on expeditions, but Ryoma's mother never wavered in her love of her husband when he came home, much to Ryoma's confusion. He'd hated his father, not for leaving so much, but for the way he looked at other women, for the way he boasted.
Ryoma did not like the sea, but he was more skilled at navigation and sailing than any of the other boys his age, than any of the men he'd see at the marina. The sea was for the foolish. The sea was stupid.
When Ryoma was fifteen, Nanjiroh claimed that he'd located a treasure more precious than any other he'd recovered before. "The World's Eye," he'd murmured around his cigarette, and even Ryoma's eyes had widened at the word of the legendary blue diamond, said to be larger than a closed fist. "I've found it, boy, and I'm going to get it. Come with me."
Ryoma had refused -- it was stupid, a waste of time, his mother and cat would be left alone. The thought of being alone with his father was repulsive.
His father had laughed coarsely -- of course he was just joking about Ryoma coming. He'd have only been a burden on Nanjiroh's own brilliance. "Stay here like a good boy and take care of Rinko."
"/And/ Karupin, old man," Ryoma had reminded him.
"Aye, and Karupin." His old man had winked before waving him off, sailing out, goofily catcalling to his wife until the waves took his voice away.
That was the last time anyone had seen him, over a year ago.
"Is that why you were out on the ocean?" Tezuka asks, stirring the fire until orange sparks erupt like frantic butterflies into the air. "You were looking for his last treasure?"
Ryoma laughs, strangely, bitterly. "I was looking for him," Ryoma says, a wry grin twisting his sharp face. "I was looking for him so I could beat the crap out of him for leaving us. But I guess the ocean wanted to beat the crap out of me more."
A large knot pops in the fire.
"I should have gone with him."
Tezuka does not say anything, but he presses his hand against Ryoma's until Ryoma's turns over and holds it tightly.
Ryoma falls asleep in front of the fire, head against Tezuka's shoulder, and they sit there until the last coals fade to death. It's cold, but Tezuka doesn't move away, just strokes his thumb over the side of Ryoma's hand, over and over.
The clouds crawl darkly forward, heavy with rain and purpled with angry lightning. Ryoma paces the small, single room agitatedly. He does not want to be still, to stop. He has the youthful energy that ghosts in Tezuka's memory so briefly. Enthusiasm, fresh-faced and longing. It almost hurts to watch.
Tezuka sips at an herbal drink, bitter and soothing all in one mouthful. Like all things, the storm will pass in time. Tezuka himself is no different. He wants to tell this to Ryoma, but something hold him back. He does not want Ryoma to change.
"Kunimitsu," Tezuka whispers. "My first name is Kunimitsu."
Ryoma looks surprised but pleased all at once as he sits beside Tezuka on the cot. His eyes glow like a cat's in the shadows. "Kunimitsu." Together, they look through a large crack in the shanty to the turbulent sea before them. Together, they are still, silent. It is enough and more than enough.
The wreckage of the storm means more work for Tezuka and Ryoma, but it is good to be busy. They patch the hut up with fallen branches and leaves, harvest the fallen fruit, scare gulls from any carcasses that might still be good. The ocean is a mirror now, deceptively peaceful.
Ryoma skips stones over the surface, rippling the water back to chaos. "Hey," he says suddenly, and Tezuka looks away from his pole to Ryoma's face.
"Hey, what's that?" Ryoma says, but he's already wading out into the water, not caring that his pants were getting soaked, all the way to his waist, nor that he's scaring away their lunch. He plucks something green that was floating in the water out and holds it up for Tezuka to see. "It's a bottle!" he calls out, running back as quickly as he can. "I think there is something inside."
"Aren't you a little too young to drink?" Tezuka says seriously.
Ryoma rolls his eyes. "None that kind of something. I think it's a letter. Romantic, isn't it?" he grins. "Let's open it up."
He hands the bottle to Tezuka, but doesn't let go right away, his hand lingering against Tezuka's. After he pulls away, Tezuka's arm shakes slightly in the seconds before he brings the bottle down against the shells.
Ryoma nimbly picks a thick piece of yellowed parchment out of the emerald slices of glass and unrolls it. He reads in a voice that doesn't sound like his own, but someone older, with an intent that Tezuka should not hear. Tezuka is not sure if he likes it.
Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction. Â²
"Weird," Ryoma says after a long pause. "I wonder why someone would put that in a bottle."
Tezuka begins to toss shards of glass back into the water, each glimmering with sparks before hitting the surface. "What would you put in a bottle?" Tezuka asks.
Ryoma decides to help Tezuka clean the beach of glass. "Hmm. Secrets, I guess. But I don't really have I want to hide," he murmurs, his hand brushing Tezuka's too often to be coincidence. "What about you?"
Tezuka finds a piece of deep purple sea glass loosely buried in the sand under the broken bottle. He closes his fist around it. "I want to show you something," he says.
Ryoma climbs up to the cave mouth more nimbly than Tezuka, but he waits outside for Tezuka to catch up before going any further. Howls and crashes echo up out of the cave, and a briny breeze whistles out, making Ryoma wrinkle his nose. He has never been here before. He does not go anywhere without Tezuka.
Together, they walk into the cavern, but not far. Tezuka guides them to his chest, and he's not sure what Ryoma is expecting when he sees the thousands of glinting pieces of sea glass of thousands of different colors, what Ryoma thinks as he adds the purple piece in with the rest. "This used to be my treasure," Tezuka says lowly. "I don't need to collect them anymore."
"Kunimitsu," Ryoma breathes, but his words are stopped by a finger.
"This isn't what I wanted to show you. Follow me."
They walk deeper and deeper into the heart of the cave. Tezuka has to crouch to fit in some of the spaces, and Ryoma pretends to need to crouch. The sound of the waves grows louder, the breeze harder -- losing its playfulness for bitingly cold slices. Eventually, they wind down to where the rock meets the water.
There is a large, oblong shape covered in banana leaves on the rocks a few feet from the shore. Tezuka uncovers it, revealing a old, but clearly well cared-for canoe. "I came to this island out of choice," Tezuka says, looking at the boat, not at Ryoma, "not out of necessity."
Ryoma is the silent one now. There is a look etched across Tezuka's face that forbids interruption.
"I told myself I would tell you of the boat when you recovered. Later, I thought I would tell me when you asked, asked how I got here, asked if I knew a way out. But you never did, and even if you had, I might have found another excuse. It was selfish of me. To want you to stay."
"Che," Ryoma says, folding his arms, and Tezuka looks back at him with disbelief. "Who said I wanted to go back?"
Tezuka closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. "Think about your mother, left by a husband and a son. Think of going back to the real world, of having your own house, a job you love -- think of finding a pretty girl and growing up, of having children and --"
"Maybe I don't want that," Ryoma says quietly. "Maybe I don't want that at all. My mother knew what she married. She's not that weak."
Tezuka sighs, and doesn't step away when Ryoma wraps his arms around him. "Don't be afraid to change your mind," is all he says, as he holds Ryoma, knowing the longer this will take, the more it will hurt.
A message in a bottle washes up after Ryoma and Tezuka have shared their hundredth sunset together. It's the only method Tezuka can use to count the days; before, it had no meaning. The bottle is clear and dirty, and the inside smells strongly of rum, Ryoma tells Tezuka, rubbing his nose roughly. A gold chain slips out of the rolled up paper -- it looks like a page ripped from a book. Ryoma picks the chain back up and holds it with a curiously tight grip.
I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you
when I sit alone or wake at night, alone
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again
I am to see to it that I do not lose you. Â³
Ryoma drops to his knees, breathing harshly. Tezuka flies down to him, /are you okay, are you hurt/. Ryoma holds his hand out and lets the chain dangle down, and Tezuka sees a cheap ring, the sort that comes out of gum-ball machines for pocket change, twisting around back and forth.
"This belongs to my father. It was the first treasure he'd ever found, or that's what he'd said anyway. My mom had dropped in on the beach after running away from him -- it gave him an excuse to track her down."
"Ryoma," Tezuka says.
"He might still be alive. He might still be out there."
"Ryoma," Tezuka says. "I understand."
Ryoma sucks his lips into his mouth to bite them, and he shakes his head. "I have to find him."
There are currents for everyone and everything, and to fight against them is to break. And just maybe, the current that carries one away will later bring them back home. That is the way of things.
Tezuka doesn't say anything as he packs water and dried food into the canoe, covering them with woven reeds to protect them from getting wet. He does not know what to say. He's pushing the boat past the surf when Ryoma covers Tezuka's hand with his own. "Come with me," he says, eyes wide and a little red. "/Please/."
Tezuka looks away. "I cannot leave," he says. "I am sorry."
Like a snake strikes in a fantastic burst of speed, Ryoma's hands leave Tezuka's and grab his face, forcing him to /look/, to look at /Ryoma/. "/Why?/" Anger, desperation. "Why won't you?"
Tezuka is silent, mouth tight and bitter. They are past the surf now, and everything seems so much quieter.
Chin shivering, Ryoma wipes at his eyes with his fists. The dried salt on his skin rubs in, but he doesn't notice any new pain. "I promise," he says fiercely, and when he drops his hands back to Tezuka's, Tezuka is still looking at him. "I promise I'll come back to you. Kunimitsu."
A smile unfurls on Tezuka's face as wetness trickles out of his eyes. He leans forward to press the smile to Ryoma's forehead, giving it to him. And he pushes the canoe out into the ocean.
Ryoma sets off bathed in dawn, eyes like sea glass, face turned to Tezuka's until the details fade, until island and man become one. Tezuka watches the ocean take the boy, take him to where Tezuka cannot follow.
Yearning swells within Tezuka as the coming wave draws in the shoreline, uncovering the vulnerable, shell bones of the banks. The crest curves into itself as though it were afire, frothing to white. The water crashes, churns, changes the land. He could sit there forever, and never would he see the same arrangement. He might never see the boy again. He watches the horizon with sharp eyes, staring the glare of the sunset down.
When the stars sprinkle brightly into their dark puddle, Tezuka closes his eyes. It's then that he sees a tanned back gleaming in the sunlight and muscles shifting as they drive the oars that bring the Ryoma back, bring him back home.
Â¹ from "Brown Penny" by W. B. Yeats
Â² Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Â³ from "To a Stranger" by Walt Whitman