I would like to take this moment to thank all people who have reviewed (and those that will- I'll still give you a cookie for late reviews, no matter how delayed, as I love reading them). This story would not have gotten nearly as far without several lucky souls who got to listen to me rant about plot, keep myself from killing off a very annoying character, try to find an ending, and battle the evil known as writer's block. There will be small changes made to earlier chapters, fixing grammar and small details, but nothing that will drastically alter the plot. These changes aren't quite finished, and won't be until I'm satisfied I have eliminated my many mess-ups. This story will be entered in a writing contest, so please let me know what parts are good/bad/need a bit of reworking.
At seven minutes past eight o'clock in the morning, Aquiline and Jesse found breakfast in the form of rapidly cooling pancakes sitting on the table, as well as a gathering of patient people. The entire residency of the MRC was crammed around the rectangular table that seated twelve at a stretch, somehow managing seventeen with ample room for two late guests. Fifteen were students, and Candy and Mako claimed the seats closest to the obviously reserved pair of empty chairs. It seemed that a quiet, solitary breakfast was out of the question. They had been given an entire night, and the patience of the surrounding people was now gone. Jesse knew he was lucky to not have crashed into a crowd on the stairs outside his door.
"So, how did you sleep?" a student prompted. A sea of blank faces did not betray the falsely androgynous voice, and it was too early for guessing games.
"Well." Aquiline gave away nothing. She sat at the table, choosing the chair closer to a window. She never had given buildings more than the smallest of tolerances, and liked to see the ocean. She took a short stack of pancakes from the serving dish, ignoring the imploring gazes of college students to hear some fact about what had happened. Candy and Mako were trying to appear more distant, and were almost succeeding.
"Don't pry," Candy said as prissily as she knew how. She could only keep a straight face for a moment before grinning. "That's my job." She was hopeless at poker, and part of that complete lack of luck came from her inability to maintain an expressionless face. Her smile the one time she had spread her hand of cards to reveal a royal flush had made all other players hurriedly withdraw from the round, leaving her to sulk as she raked in the small pile. She didn't even have to show a single card. Everyone else had backed out, knowing there was a reason the reporter conducted interviews by phone.
"No details," Jesse said, making his first comment of the morning to the assembly. "And I won't even give vague hints until I've had my coffee." They knew that to be true. He would not give anything but surliest of statements until he had consumed at least two cups of the caffeinated fluid, a habit from college days.
A brief round of introductions was ignored by Jesse as he distracted himself with his cup of coffee. He listened as she began a new explanation. Jesse didn't have all the details just yet. There was only so much two people could say in a night, and she had insisted on hearing about college life and exactly how the rescue program usually went. She had already decided that she was joining, and he had an idea that she would be even better than Mako at coaxing recalcitrant dolphins into a sling.
Sophia stopped her at one point, as Aquiline explained why she had used the name of Lille. According to her modified version of the past, to keep from going into a few details that could be regarded as supernatural, she had thought Lille was an English word. She gave the place of her birth as a small Scandinavian island, as Mako's story of a Filipino island would draw more questions. "Isn't Aquiline an adjective?" Sophia asked.
Aquiline nodded. "Hooked, sharp, or bent. Mer- my people use the first image of a babe as a name. My name is a different word, one that doesn't translate to your language." That got everyone's attention, except Mako. Aquiline pronounced it, four syllables that sounded like waves. No one else tried to say it. She continued her story, answering more questions as she went.
Mako smiled at a few parts, amused at the thought of a few created details. The thought of Sirene being a mean old aunt who needed a live-in companion, but couldn't afford a nurse, was not in itself funny. Aquiline's descriptions of changing diapers and bedpans as she fed gruel to her dear old aunt were. She stuck to her story unfailingly, bringing up new details that complimented her story when asked.
"How on earth did you end up in that tidal pool?" Danielle finally asked. From the sudden complete attention, everyone wanted to know the answer. Jesse hadn't breached the topic yet, still a bit shocked that she was back. Candy never had understood why that night had happened. Mako had relied only on guesses.
"A storm came faster than I had guessed, while I was trying to swim alone," she began carefully. This was too important to lie about, but using extended metaphors didn't quite count as lying. "I didn't think I could keep my head above water any longer, and all the dark water kept drawing me down until I could barely remember to breathe. I let a wave take me, and it popped me into the kelp. There was an air pocket, so I could breathe," she explained, the only lie in her story. Bringing up gills would not be a good idea. However trustworthy, no college student could keep such a secret without wanting proof, and proof was hard to keep hidden. They were research students, after all.
"There are black currents out there," Mako added, not speaking of water. "Sometimes, the only way out is to coast with the waves, let the ocean take you where it will, until you see a way out. Saving your strength for when it really matters is the only way to survive, when you're caught in something bigger than yourself."
No college student caught the second meaning to his words. Jesse, much more awake after two cups of thick coffee, understood. Candy agreed. Aquiline mouthed a thank-you while most eyes were still on Mako, and then quickly changed the subject to what students were majoring in. Today was going to be a good day, and Aquiline would not ruin that for anything.
"I don't see why I agreed to a press conference," Jesse grumbled as he was shooed unceremoniously from the kitchen. Neither he nor the newest resident of the MRC was to be allowed to do such chores. Aquiline only smiled, guessing that one of the changes he had made was to not be a morning person. That was a positive change, oddly enough. When she had first met him, he wasn't a morning, afternoon, evening, or night person. Confined grouchiness was much preferred.
"So we could dance without being crushed." She ran a brush through thick hair that Jesse compared to honey and gold before he ran out of metaphorical comparisons. He was working on being more poetic, but such things as amber and the golden eyes of a raptor escaped him still. She was impatient with her hair, not willing to let it slow her down. She had a press conference in four minutes.
"I hate these things." Jesse still was not pleased about the impending press conference.
"You used to love them," she reminded him. She ignored any attempts at a retort. She acknowledged his past, but that didn't mean she had to like it. "Besides, we'll have plenty of time to ourselves. Candy agreed to call me with an urgent message if it lasts more than an hour, so this will not possibly take the entire day. We'll be done long before your reservations for that overly fancy restaurant."
He knew that there was nothing else to do. The media demanded an explanation, and several tabloids were miffed that quite a few rumors were lost. The one reporter from last night had made the connection, and others were bound to repeat her bit of information. Soon, everyone would know that a maid that had disappeared thirteen years ago was back in the public's eye, and linked with a celebrity.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," Aquiline said to the assembled reporters after learning the finer points of using an elevator. She still preferred the stairs, but the moving box was much faster. "I am glad that you could all make it today. My name is Aquiline Eriksson. I had to give a pseudonym those years ago because I could not yet speak English, and a very severe case of laryngitis made speaking dangerous." She had rehearsed a plausible explanation earlier, and Jesse knew all details of the lies she decided to tell. She did not like lying, but the truth would never work.
"We can't hear everyone at once, but we will try to answer your questions to the best of our ability," Jesse assured after the brief clamor of voices died down with a motion from him. "One at a time, please. Aquiline would like to keep some semblance of a private personal life, so any questions of an intimate nature will be disregarded without answer." Aquiline nodded in agreement. No stranger needed to know everything about her.
The questions were fired rapidly. They were mostly about her background. She was perfectly vague, listing a small island nation near Denmark She refused to acknowledge the place by name, saying that tourism would only make her family and friends distrustful. She had not seen her parents in years, as nothing but a private yacht could reach their homes. The island had no airstrip, after all, so reporters could hardly pop in for a visit. Aquiline answered questions easily, and made sure to pay equal attention to what kind of reporter asked each query. Surprises while being interviewed were not good, and no tabloid writer needed to be given basis for a rumor.
For once, Jesse was ignored. A few token questions were asked, but they were about Aquiline. He was surprised to find that he wasn't jealous. Being recognized by the media didn't matter to him as it once had. He was happier when not answering all sorts of questions about his personal life, and liked the occasional freedom of being an anonymous guest at parties. Blending into the background was not the gross fate he had imagined it would be, when he still thought studying was for anyone but him.
"Are you engaged, or do you plan to be?" The question came from the newspaper reporter who had interviewed Aquiline years ago. The woman smoothed back glossy black hair, waiting for a response. She was the first woman to reach the position of editor for an entire section of the Sacramento Daily.
Aquiline turned to Jesse. "Are we?"
Dr. Jesse Dalton, world-known for a cool distance during conferences and an imperturbable game face, actually blushed. "I was going to ask you tonight at dinner," he mumbled, pulling a small box out of his pocket. He took the ring from its velvet resting place. It wasn't his mother's gaudy ring, covered with enough diamonds to finance the purchase of an entire tropical island, as well as two-way transportation for the next twenty-three years. It was a slender silver band that proudly displayed a single blue-tinted diamond, simple but just right.
"I'll keep you from waiting, then. Of course I'll say yes. You can ask me then, if you like, and pretend you didn't hear what I just said." She ignored the video cameras, whose technicians were adjusting sound levels as they tried to get the perfect shot of the proposal. "When are you asking me?"
"Now." Waiting now seemed foolish, and this was as good a moment as any. He wasn't about to let any chance of Fate delaying them happen again. He, too, ignored all other people, including the entire staff of the MRC that was quickly exiting the building to congregate behind the quickly-made makeshift podium. Some statements were not nearly as effective when watched on television a few hours later, and they wanted to see this for themselves. "Will you marry me?"
"Yes." She felt that there was some eloquent addition that should follow the response, but for the life of her couldn't think of what words would express how she felt. Instead, she just let the moment be, and everyone else ceased to exist for just that moment. It was a perfect minute, or second, or however long it lasted. He slipped the ring onto the appropriate finger, and the sound of cheers and a few knowing I-told-you-so's did not reach either of them. Instead, they left the press conference, and a set of reporters sprinted out of the parking lot, determined to break the news first.
Aquiline laughed at the sight, but looked away after just a moment of the frenzied reporters dashing helter-skelter for their vehicles. She grabbed his arm, distracting him from staring into space with a smile wide enough to threaten his face being split into two happy portions. He hadn't known what he would do if she said no, but still had never really guessed that she would say yes, and that the entire saga would finally be over. The third time was the charm, and he knew that saying would have much more meaning than he had ever guessed six words could. Even those six were eclipsed by one, much more powerful. Yes. It meant everything could finally be happy, or at least had a chance to.
Jesse pressed the call button for the elevator. Aquiline grew bored of waiting after just a second. Calling that she would meet him on the top floor, she chose the stairs. Waiting had never been her favorite pastime, and she was more than a little claustrophobic. Large rooms were bad enough. She felt no need to confine herself in a tiny moving box, as she still thought of it. Aquiline didn't miss the scattered bloodstains on the stairs. That wasn't quite the mark I had in mind, she mused as she stood outside the opening elevator doors. She had known her way was faster.
Inside the room, Aquiline hummed as she took a new blue evening gown from her bag. Her emerald dress was already hanging in the closet, scales blending in easily. The small duffel bag, emblazoned with the logo of a surf shop, contained a limited wardrobe. She never had believed in excess. She noticed Jesse staring at her.
"What?" she asked, unused to such a thing as a stare.
"You still have that dress?"
"Yes. That's my mermaid's-scales. If I lose that, I'd have to wear one of the ridiculous things you call wetsuits." He only looked more confused. She would have to explain. "You know that I can change from legs to a tail, but only when I'm wearing that. I did a bit of experimentation on my own. The first time I changed without a set time by the witch, you had already broken the curse. I just didn't know it yet. I can change back and forth at will, just like anyone else in the sea, but I really wouldn't advise becoming a mermaid without scales."
"It's just so odd to think about. I'm a marine biologist. By everything I ever learned in a school, mermaids don't exist. I can't pretend that I understand what happens." He was frustrated. This made no sense. He had never asked for his life to be a fairy tale, but he knew that he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I'll run through the facts one more time, the things that don't make sense unless you know that magic exists. It does, but not in the form where anyone can really control it. The Seawitch thought that she could manipulate magic to her will, but it deserted her when she tried one last spell, and that's how I beat her. Mako was a shark for a couple hundred years, under an enchantment, and was freed when I reminded him of the old provisions for magic. 'Should an enchanted minion find a new companion, to keep him from all misdeeds, he can declare his service terminated,'" she recited. "It's sea customs. Maybe, in twenty years, I can teach you half of them."
"I think I'm smart enough to learn a few laws." He was indignant. He had earned a doctorate in complex specialized fields. He could handle a few customs from an ancient race, old enough to be termed primitive.
Aquiline rolled her eyes, a land-dwelling expression she had adapted. "Considering that forty percent are mer-speak phrases with no translation to any language you would know, it isn't a question of intelligence, unless you know the language they spoke in Atlantis."
"Atlantis?" He almost fell off his chair.
"No, not really." Aquiline grinned. "I just couldn't resist. I mean, people always fall for it. Atlantis tried indoor plumbing. The tunnels cut beneath the city were too deep, with not enough support, so the city fell into the ocean. No one really likes that explanation, of some plumber miscalculating the weight of the entire city. It's much less glamorous than some dramatic transformation to merfolk, or some great tragedy." That looked to be enough teasing for the moment- he still hadn't lost the explorer's wild-eyed look. Grabbing her dress and the duffel, she left the room.
"Where are you going?"
"The girls' dormitories," she called back, not slowing. "Don't you know that it's bad luck to see the bride-to-be before you have the official proposal dinner?" She was gone before he could realize that was a custom she had made up. It had a purpose. She needed to be caught up on the gossip, and Sophia definitely looked like her best source.
Dinner that night was, for lack of a better term, perfect. The roads had been almost clear of traffic, the chosen restaurant had not been leaked to rabid-with-eagerness paparazzi, the waiters were attentive, and the atmosphere of the quiet restaurant was the complete opposite of the cheerfully exuberant chaos of the MRC. Jesse had reserved one of the best booths in the place, of course, where the sounds of an orchestral recording were quiet but still perfectly audible. The setting could have been the middle of a football field in the midst of a game, and they wouldn't have noticed. Even twenty-odd sweaty American men lumbering about on top of the table ripping through dinner with their cleats while fighting for a lemon-shaped leather ball wouldn't distract them.
The ring glittered, a happy sparkling that held no hint of malice that a dagger had once shown. Instead, it was a promise of things to come. Aquiline looked at it frequently, turning her hand in the light to admire the stone. It could have been a length of grubby twine, and she would have granted it the same treatment. She had found a way, against all odds, to forge a real relationship with a human. Mermaids now had a chance to let a human catch a glimpse of a tail now and then. Mermaids would not fade completely into legend, not when Aquiline could help it. Forgetting helped no one, and not all myths should die into the background. She would stop encouragement short of letting scientists get too close with their testing. Mermaids had their secrets, after all.
He still could barely believe that she was sitting across from him in the small booth, sneaking glances at her ring when she thought he wasn't looking. She wore the blue dress he had glanced earlier. She had found a pair of blue ballet slippers in a store, which she had said were much easier on her feet. With a special liner in the bottom, they would leak no blood.
Jesse was tired of waiting for dessert. The main course had been wonderful, but the waiter had nervously explained that the sorbet was being re-made. He could think of much better things to do than wait. There was a dance floor, rarely used but not forbidden, and there was music. He felt that he could never feel the need to eat such things as tiramisu as long as he lived. He recognized the over-romanticism in the statement, but couldn't help himself. He wanted to do something. Waiting grew boring, and he had done that long enough.
"Dance with me?" she asked, just before he could.
"Doesn't it hurt?" The question had been buzzing through his mind, an irritating mosquito that was just out of reach. He couldn't imagine every step hurting. Hans Christian Anderson's descriptions of "dancing on daggers" were enough to make him feel queasy just thinking of such a sensation.
"Not as much as staying away from something I love. Avoiding pain by not doing something that's a part of a person is a foolish idea. You might as well try to stop breathing. That's why mermaids are graceful. If every step hurts a little, you watch every motion without even paying attention, making the motions a little more fluid. Pain's a part of life." She paused, smiling wryly. "And I thought I wouldn't be giving any lectures today. Philosophy can wait."
"Point taken." He had never thought of the pain in such a way, a gift rather than a curse. "I'll just have to go swimming with you sometime." It wasn't really the same, but he couldn't think of an equivalent. He stood, dessert forgotten. The bars of some classical piece he might name after twenty-nine guesses were beginning.
"I won't let you drown," she promised, teasing to cover the more serious tones. She knew from reliable sources that he had not been more than ankle-deep in the ocean since he was seventeen. "Just think what an odd way to end this little fairy tale of ours that would be." Mermaid's loves did not drown, even if she wasn't available. Once a human was in the family, the entire family would come to his aid. He didn't have to know that just yet- the in-laws could come another day. They would be quite the sight for a marine biologist still struggling with squids and mermaids he had witnessed with his own eyes.
"Is it really a fairy tale? There hasn't been a single fairy."
Aquiline shrugged. "Whatever it is, I like this one better than the original." Dessert finally arrived. Neither she nor Jesse glanced at it. "Let's dance, already, before the orchestra packs up to leave." A new song started, one that he would recognize as George Frederic Handel's Water Music.
Aquiline doubted she could stop smiling if she tried. For once, a tale of a mermaid and a man would have a happy ending. She felt that she could fly, if she could ever think of leaving the dance floor. Clouds may be softer on the feet, but they rarely had an orchestra to listen to as they danced. They left the instant the song was over, retreating to his car as they laughed like a pair of teenagers sneaking back from a successful date just a few minutes past curfew. They only laughed harder as a pair of paparazzi snapped pictures furiously, with the air of guerilla fighters as they competed for better shots. Their car roared out of the parking lot, leaving behind a trail of dust.
The car brought them to a beach, and the driver gave just enough attention to stay in the lane on the right side of the road. Neither was paying much attention to the road, but the late hour could have contributed to the success of their drive. Being drunk on sheer happiness is a dangerous thing, far more intoxicating that any substance produced in a factory or brewery. However long the drive took, with invented turns and a half-tour, they reached the beach before sunrise.
"Every time I watch the sun rise, you disappear," he said, half to her and half to the sun. Speaking to the sun did not sound too far-fetched, as speaking to a mermaid was second nature. His logical system of thinking was still adapting to the concrete realization that mermaids and magic existed.
Aquiline only smiled. "Well, in my opinion, it's a much better curfew than midnight. And I never once have left you with an oversized pumpkin." She watched the waves from where she stood on the cliff. A few familiar faces, as well as ones that had not been seen in centuries, appeared above the waves. Aquiline waved and blew a few kisses to her relatives, half of them merfolk she had never met.
"I'm not going anywhere," she said in response to the question he hadn't asked. She would get rid of this doubt as quickly as possible. "You can't be rid of me that easily. We're engaged, remember? That means we get to come up with a lovely story to explain why my family can't come."
"Why can't they come?" he asked with a grin. "They can have legs at will, according to the old spells Mako was telling me about. There may be more of a problem about how they lived on an island in the middle of the Pacific."
"I'm from around Scandinavia, remember?" she reminded him. "My aunt from Anderson's story was from around there, too. I have more than enough international relatives to compensate." She glanced away from the water for a second. "You do know what you're getting yourself into?"
"Yes, and I wouldn't miss it for the world." He watched the sun rise fully above the horizon, leaving a golden streak across the water. "Is this the end, then, Aquiline- where we slip into the happily ever after, never to be seen again?"
"This is a sunrise, remember? Sunrises mean another day is starting." She caught his knowing look. "Well, this one is, no matter how foolishly philosophical I sound, and you can quote me on that. We're not riding off into the sunset just yet."