The celebration for the winner of the goatfish race was short-lived. Soon the crowd was settling down again for the next heat, this one between lobsters. Since it was the shortest day of the year, the light was already getting dim, and the glow of the bioluminescent jellyfish becoming a noticeable contribution to the Piazza del Corallo.

Massimo glanced up at this. "I'm not sure of the time," he said, "but I think we should head back to town. Professor Hamid and Dr. Cozzolino's train will be leaving, and it would be polite to say goodbye."

"You're going back?" Arturo popped up out of nowhere. "Can I come?"

"I thought you wanted to stay for the festival," Giulia teased him.

"There'll be another one next year," Arturo replied with a shrug. "I wanna see Maurizio's biting plant."

Giulia smiled, because Arturo was right – there would be another sea monster festival next year. He had his whole life to enjoy things like that, and so did she.

"You'd better be back for supper," said Daniela firmly. "After all the times you've cooked for us, you have to let me return the favour! I can't wait. I'm doing shark's liver," she told Massimo, "since that's traditional for the Solstice, but we'll also have Luca's favourite dumplings again."

"Those are yummy," Giulia promised her father. "They taste meaty, even though they're made of seaweed."

"And don't be late!" Daniela wagged a finger at them. "Don't let them forget, Luca."

"I'll look forward to it," Massimo promised.

Luca gave his mother and grandmother each a quick kiss, then followed his friends up the anchor line to the boat. Arturo was close behind them, and they were pulling up the anchor chain when Giordana appeared, her arms full of Signora Mitilo's vegetables.

"Wait for me!" she said. "I promised Ciccio and his father I'd bring more stuff for them to try in their bread!" She handed the produce up to Giulia, and then let Arturo help her climb in. "I've been talking to some of the neighbours. They don't know what they think about human food but they've said they might try it if there's some ingredients they know. So maybe they can expand their market!" She smoothed her skirt, then wrung the water out of her fins as they transformed into curly dark hair.

Alberto snorted. "For all you said you wanted to go home, you didn't even stay there two days!"

"Well, I wouldn't want to live on land like some people," Giordana told him, "but it's a nice place to visit. And Aunt Concetta and Aunt Pinuccia said they'd love to see more of us, so Mom really can't refuse."

"Until she finds out about your boooooyfriend," Arturo couldn't resist.

"I told you," Giordana glared daggers at him, "I'm going to ease her into it."

They arrived back in the harbour to find Portorosso was busy, too. With Christmas only days away, people were putting up wreaths and lights. The town didn't usually do a public tree, but there were plenty of lanterns and greenery, and the restaurant across from the Pescheria had a nativity scene in their window.

It had ended up snowing about two inches on the day of the genie's return, and while it had quickly melted away on the roads and piazza, it was lingering on rooftops and hung from the eaves in glittering icicles. People had been worried that their pipes might freeze, which had apparently happened the last time Portorosso got snow, some twenty years ago, but it hadn't happened. Giulia liked to think the genie had made sure of that specifically, because he didn't want to hurt anybody else.

Ciccio was waiting impatiently outside the focacceria, blowing on his hands to warm them. When he saw the sea monsters coming, he hurried to greet them on the quay.

"What did your Mom say?" he called out to Giordana.

"I think she suspects something's up but she doesn't know what it is," Giordana replied, hefting her basket of vegetables. "We need to get her a little more used to humans. I talked her into sending a present to Signorina Repetto, so that should help."

"Next time we'll convince her to come see her herself," Luca added.

"Let me help you with those!" Ciccio met Giordana on the steps to take the heavy basket from her. "Ooof! There's a lot in here."

"Things don't weigh as much underwater," she replied apologetically. "I can..."

"Mai! I've got them!" Ciccio did his best to see around the heaped sea plants as he climbed the stairs again.

"You're sweet," said Giordana with a lovestruck smile. She followed him up, while Alberto groaned and rolled his eyes as he followed them.

"I shouldn't have encouraged him," he muttered.

Unfortunately, Ciccio's was not the only familiar face waiting for them in the piazza. They reached the top to find Ercole standing there sneering.

"Time for a romantic evening with your fishy little girlfriend?" he asked.

"Get out of the way, Ercole," said Ciccio crossly.

"I should have known you wouldn't be able to get a real girl to like you," Ercole said, stepping aside to let him by. "But I never thought even you would sink to kissing a sea monster."

"Giordana is the prettiest sea monster in the entire ocean!" huffed Ciccio. "And you don't even have a girlfriend at all!"

Ercole gave Ciccio a shove, intended to knock him over and spill the vegetables. With his hands full, Ciccio couldn't defend or catch himself, but Giordana caught him from behind and made sure the produce was balanced, then hopped up the last couple of steps to confront Ercole herself.

"You leave Ciccio alone," she ordered.

"Or you'll do what? Smell fishy at me? You do that anyway."

Giordana tackled him.

Ercole hollered in surprise, and the two of them rolled around on the ground for a moment, scratching and pulling hair. Massimo went to separate them, but before he could do so, Giordana sank her teeth into Ercole's arm. He shrieked like a child who had seen a mouse.

"Basta, both of you!" Massimo said. He grabbed each of them by the collar and set them on their feet.

"He deserved it!" snapped Giordana, wiping her mouth.

Ercole would probably not have agreed, but he didn't even appear to have heard. Giordana hadn't bitten him hard enough to draw blood, but he was still staring at the marks with his eyes bulging out. "You bit me!"

"I'll do it again!" she threatened.

"You will not," said Massimo. "I will tell your mother."

Ercole scrambled backwards, then picked himself up and ran for his life. Halfway up the street, a door opened ahead of him and a woman tossed out a bucket of mop water. This prompted another terrified scream, and Ercole dived out of the way even though he'd only barely have gotten wet, landing on his belly in a mud puddle. He got up again, with mud all over his face and shirt, and kept running.

"What's with him?" asked Ciccio.

"Dunno," Alberto replied with a shrug.

Giordana came back to check on Ciccio. "Do you really think I'm the prettiest sea monster in the ocean?" she asked him.

"Definitely the prettiest one I've seen," Ciccio told her with a smile. "And the toughest, too!"

She giggled and kissed his cheek, and the two of them headed into the foccaceria together. Since Ciccio was carrying the basket, Giordana held the door for him, and the kids could hear her call out, "Happy Solstice, Signor Ottonello! Longer days ahead!"

"Grazie, Giordana," the baker replied. "Buon Natale to you as well."

"May I have a bombolona?" Arturo asked, running after the older kids.

The rest of the group continued on to the hostel. Their timing was good – Dr. Cozzolino and Professor Hamid had gathered up their things, and were just paying their bills and thanking Signor Gamacchio and his wife for their hospitality.

"You'll certainly be seeing me again," Professor Hamid promised them.

"They will?" Luca asked hopefully.

She looked over her shoulder and smiled at him. "Of course, you all will! We still have to excavate that shipwreck this summer... I understand the genie probably made a bit of a mess of it, but what I need to prove it's the lost Antonine column is definitely still down there." The Professor came closer. "I've been thinking, actually. Underwater archaeology is dangerous, especially when it's deep, but do you know any of your own people who might be interested in helping? I could give them a quick course in archaeological techniques and procedures, and they could excavate far more safely than humans could."

"I bet a lot of people would," said Luca with an eager nod. "Most of the kids around my age are really interested in the surface, but their parents won't always let them go. Although they might be more willing now, with me coming home from school all right, and Arturo and Silvio visiting Concetta and Pinuccia."

"That will be wonderful!" said Cozzolino happily. "I'm so glad you're not just going to go back to ignoring each other. I'm sure both side have so much to learn. I'll be back as well, to get to know you better... and I have something for you," he added, speaking to Luca specifically.

"You do?" Luca was startled.

"Like a Christmas present?" Alberto asked.

"Not quite," said Cozzolino. "It certainly won't be here in time for Epiphany, but I've been writing a book on creation stories in the ancient near east, and it includes a chapter on the apkallu. Before it's published, I want to send you a copy of that and get your thoughts on it, and I'm also happy to hear from any other of your people who'd like to take a look."

"Yes! Of course, Sir," said Luca. He was thrilled by the idea of being the first person ever to read a book, a book that wasn't even properly a book yet! "Why, though? I think you probably know more about our history than we do."

"That's exactly why," Cozzolino told him. "I'd like you to show it to your Librarian and see what she knows about the stories, and whether there are any artifacts or ruins that might add to or refute them. And I'd also like to be sure I don't insult you by accident. I'm afraid it's unfortunately easy for historians to do that when writing about other cultures, and a lot of us aren't nearly as worried about it as we ought to be."

Luca nodded. "I'll do my best," he promised.

"Good." Cozzolino patted him on both shoulders, then turned to Alberto. "I've got a book for you, too."

"You do?" Alberto frowned. Why would anybody get him a book?

"Yes, it'll be a guide to archaeological drawing, written by a colleague of mine. He gave it me a copy ages ago and I'm afraid I've never even opened it. Since you seem to have a talent for archaeology and art, I'd like you to have it."

Alberto never would have thought he'd be excited about a book, but that sounded great. "Sure!" he said. "Thanks!"

"And if any of you three want to pursue higher education in history or archaeology someday, or in anything else, really, let me know," Cozzolino added. "I will happily write you a letter of recommendation."

Luca didn't know what that was, but he could tell it was considered an honour. "Thank you! We'll have something for you, too," he grinned and looked at his friends on either side of him. "In the summer, we think we're going to try to go to Santorini, to see if we can find the underwater ruins the Librarian mentioned." The very thought of that was so exciting it made him want to bounce on his toes. They'd checked on a map and while Santorini was a long way away, it wasn't anything like on the other side of the world.

Cozzolino seemed to find this almost as delightful as Luca did. "Really? You'll have to send pictures! I don't suppose you have a waterproof camera, do you?"

The kids exchanged a glance and started giggling. "No," Giulia managed. "We don't."

"You're right, foolish question," said Cozzolino. "I will send you one! It can be my gift for you," he told her, "since I've promised each of the boys something already. What do you say?"

"Santo Pecorino!" Giulia exclaimed. "You'd just give me one? Isn't that expensive?"

"In exchange for pictures of the works of a lost civilization I didn't know existed until a few days ago?" he asked. "I certainly would."

"Thank you very much," said Giulia. "I'll take good care of it, I promise."

Professor Hamid looked concerned now. "You're not going to Santorini all by yourselves, are you?" she asked. "You're going to have an adult along."

"They will not," Massimo assured her.

"He won't let us," Alberto grumbled. "And he won't leave town because he's got fishing to do."

"But my Uncle Ugo promised he'd go with us," Luca told them.

"Oh, that's a relief," said Professor Hamid, although having met Uncle Ugo, she didn't look entirely sure about it.

"Speaking of cameras." Cozzolino opened his bag and took one out. "May I get a picture of all of us?"

"Sure!" said Giulia. "Signor Gamacchio, can you?"

"I would love to." The hostel owner took the camera and everybody stood in a group and smiled. Then, with that done, it was time to head for the train station. This place was bustling, as people both arrived and left for Christmas, many of them laden with packages as well as bags. As it happened, Signorina Repetto was there, greeting her sister who had come back from Genova where she lived with her husband. She waved to them, and then came over to chat.

"Time to head home for the holidays?" she asked the academics.

"We'll be back," Professor Hamid promised.

"Lovely! You'll always be welcome, unlike certain people who don't know how to treat their neighbours," Signora Repetto shook her head. "But it does seem like he learned his lesson. There was an article in the paper this morning, about a group of people in Paris who swore they saw the Abominable Snowman wearing a coat and hat, and taking the train out of town!"

"Oh, good!" said Luca. He'd been a little worried about the Abominable Snowman.

Alberto poked him. "While we're here, you should give her the things."

"That's right," Luca remembered, and reached into his pocket for the items of jewelry Signora Trota had made. "Giordana and Arturo's mom made these for you. They're a present. They're to put on earrings."

"For me?" Signorina Repetto took them and held them up with a smile on her face. "Well, definitely tell her thank you for me! In fact... do you mind taking something back to her? I've got some glass beads I bet she'd like, if she enjoys making jewelry."

"Definitely," Luca nodded.

"How pretty," said Signorina Repetto's sister, and gave the children an apologetic smile. "I hope you don't take her too seriously when she goes on about sea monsters and abominable snowmen and flying saucers. She's always been very interested in things like that."

"Don't worry," Giulia replied with a smile. "We know what's real and what's not."

"They certainly do," Signorina Repetto said proudly. "And you may have some surprises while you're here, Antonia!"

The train whistle blew, and with a final round of hugs and goodbyes, Professor Hamid and Dr. Cozzolino climbed aboard. The kids waved as the train chugged away, then joined the crowd heading back to the town. People were happy and laughing, exchanging news and holiday wishes with friends and family they hadn't seen in months. After all the stress they'd been through in the past weeks, it was a very reassuring sight and sound. Giulia felt like they'd finally be able to relax and enjoy the holiday the way they'd hoped in the first couple of days after she'd made her wish.

"Okay," said Giulia. "We'll tell Mamma we're going to be away for dinner... it's too bad she can't come." But her mother wasn't as close to sea monsters, and did a bit of travelling for her art... being a sea monster wouldn't suit her, and Giulia understood that.

"I think she will want to insist the Paguros join us on Christmas Eve in return," Massimo said.

"Definitely," said Giulia with a nod. "So we'll tell her, and then we'll go back to Luca's house for dinner... Can I stay over again? If his parents will let me?"

"I don't see why not, as long as your mother approves," Massimo replied. "I'll pick you up in the morning."

"Right. We'll do that, and then..."

"We'll need to go look at the Cormorano place in the morning," Luca put in, "and see if we can find the vent. Then we..."

"Excuse me!" a voice called out. "Marcovaldos!"

This was presumably only meant for Massimo and Giulia, but everybody turned. It was Aristide Visconti, clearing his throat as he walked towards them.

"What in heaven's name did you do to Ercole?" he asked. "He's hiding in his room and when his mother suggested he take a bath after he slipped and fell in the mud, he screamed."

"We don't know, Sir," said Luca... but then Alberto started laughing.

Luca and Giulia both turned to look at him in confusion as he tried to get a handle on himself, nearly doubled-over with suppressed laughter.

"Uh... are you okay?" asked Luca.

"Giulia!" Alberto managed to gasp out, pointing at her as he continued to snicker. "Guilia told him..." He couldn't get the rest of the words out.

"Santa Mozzarella!" She slapped her forehead. "I told him I became a sea monster because I was bitten by one!"

"What?" asked Signor Visconti.

Luca sighed. "Yeah, Giordana Trota bit him because he was picking on Ciccio..."

"She bit him?"

"So now he thinks if he gets wet he's gonna turn into a sea monster."

Signor Visconti blinked a couple of times. "Is he?" This question was directed at Massimo, who could only shrug.

"No!" said Giulia.

"I don't think so," said Luca. "But I've never actually bitten a human and checked."

Alberto was still laughing. Giulia gave Luca a sideways look.

"What? I haven't," he said.

"I'll... just go turn the hose on him," Signor Visconti decided.

As he walked away, Alberto finally managed to get a few words out in between wheezes of laughter. "Oh, man, that was incredible," he said. "We should tell Ercole stupid things more often!"

"I don't know why he believed that when he didn't believe me about the platypus," said Luca.

"A lot of people didn't believe in the platypus when we first discovered it," Giulia said. "They sent one to London and the scientists thought it was fake."

"You know what?" Alberto asked. "We all got what we wished for! I got snow!" He pointed to the icicles hanging from a rooftop.

"And I get to be a sea monster," Giulia agreed.

"And we'll be learning a whole lot more about sea monster history," Luca finished. "We even get the camera... and Professor Hamid gets her shipwreck, and Dr. Cozzolino got to find out we really exist! I hope we see the genie again someday. We'll have to say thank you."

"Maybe the Librarian will know where they went," Guilia suggested.

"And in the mean time, we've still got Solstice Dinner!" Alberto said. "Race you!" And he took off down the hill, with Luca and Giulia running after him. The near future looked good, and the long-term future was full of possibilities.