He had caught her completely off guard. Not that he had meant to, exactly. The last three years hadn't been easy, but they had survived it. Together. Every holiday he could he would fly home if only to see her for just a short while. The third year into his studies had been the hardest in terms of communication.
Cleo always felt guilty when he would come all the way from America just to see her. Lewis reminded her of his family, if only to ease her unnecessary guilt. But during his final year, Lewis sacrificed a few small holidays to focus on his studies. They skyped often, maybe 3 nights a week, but still—it wasn't the same as actually being there with her. Cleo insisted she understood his need to focus, but he knew her. He knew everything she didn't say.
But this—this was the real thing. He hadn't told Cleo the exact date he would be home because in all honesty he hadn't even known himself, so he wasn't surprised when he ended up hunting for everyone. His final exams had been nearly a week earlier, but he had stayed to finish up some of his personal projects. Many of which he couldn't wait to share with Cleo. Dodging the question of his homecoming, which Cleo asked during every conversation—whether it was verbalized or not, was difficult to do without having to admit to himself that he was somewhat lying to her.
Finally, after all this time, he found himself in the same room as her. He could reach out and grab her, but he couldn't. All the words he wanted to say—all the thoughts he'd had of her on the way to her all vanished the minute the 21-year-old brunette crossed his line of vision. The moment seemed to freeze. She was laughing with a small group—Rikki, Bella, and Will. Colorful drinks littered the large table—too many for such a small group.
The way she pushed strands of her long dark hair out of her big eyes made his hear skip a beat, effectively killing the words in his throat. The world seemed to tilt and everything sped up. He side stepped as someone entered the café and gently brushed past him to join the table the girls were at. The boy was maybe six inches shorter than Lewis, his short sun-bleached hair glistening wet.
Upon seeing Will wrap an arm around Bella, his focus shifting towards Lewis's direction, he ducked away into a corner table out of their line of sight. To say he was freaking out was an understatement. And completely out of character. He couldn't even say hello. This was Cleo. His oldest friend. His best friend. His girlfriend, and hopefully maybe…
He was acting ridiculous. He knew visiting her the day of the graduation ceremony seemed easier because it had only been a handful of months. He leaned into his hands on the table. Just get up—just get up and say hi, he tried to persuade himself.
He took a deep breath, stood, and slowly approached the girls' table slowly. He was barely halfway there when Cleo looked up and visibly froze, hand flying to her mouth in shock. A lopsided grin slid onto his face. How could he have forgotten this feeling? How could he have been so hesitant when just seeing her felt this good? The way his stomach flipped when she looked at him, the way she made him smile the entire time she was with him. All of her. It just felt completely right. It just felt…complete.
He took a step up towards the table and everyone else followed Cleo's line of sight.
"Lewis!" Rikki gasped, slightly startled—though whether it was because she was caught off guard or the fact that he was standing there, he wasn't sure.
A chair tumbled backwards loudly as Cleo stood up too quickly. "Lewis," she muttered brokenly, pulling her hand away from her face to reveal her dazzling, heart-stopping smile. She dashed around the table as fast as she could. Rikki and Bella pulled their chairs in tighter to the table as the girl flew by. Lewis opened his arms for Cleo before enclosing her in a vice grip.
"Oh, God, Lewis," she cried into his neck.
He took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of her shampoo, before letting it out slowly. He wanted her as close to him as possible. He wanted all of her. Close wasn't close enough.
"I missed you so much, Cleo, you don't even—" Cleo cut him off as she firmly planted her lips on his.
"Aw, nerd love," Rikki cooed from the table.
Cleo pulled back with a laugh. Lewis reached up to wipe a few stray tears off her cheeks.
"Are you here to stay?" Bella prompted with the tilt of her head as Cleo dragged him back to her chair. Rikki reached to an empty table behind them and pulled over another chair for him, though Cleo more or less pulled him into her lap.
He couldn't help the grin on his face. "I have successfully completed my time at the institute," he announced. "I passed with flying colors." He smiled at Cleo as everyone congratulated him. She couldn't help giving him a kiss.
"Who's this?" Lewis asked, referring to the blond haired boy sitting there, looking on with a small smile, which was slowly fading. "I'm Lewis."
"I'm disappointed," the boy responded, ignoring Lewis's outstretched hand.
Cleo laughed. "Lewis, this is Elliot."
Lewis's eyebrows pulled together in confusion before shooting up to his hairline in realization. His jaw worked as he fought to find words. "Elliot!"
"And here I thought you'd forgotten me," he muttered, standing. "Anyways, like I said. Emma just sent me to tell you she'll meet you guys at Mako Island around seven."
They watched the 15-year-old head off the direction of the beach. Lewis couldn't believe it. Last time he had seen Elliot was before he and his family left to travel—the kid was only, like, ten. Four-foot-something and maybe a hundred pounds.
"Emma's back?" He turned back towards the group, astonished.
"For maybe a month now," Rikki nodded.
"Explains the radio silence for the most part," he smirked at Cleo.
"I've been a bit side-tracked," she admitted lightly.
"Ugh, we're in public," Rikki groaned when they kissed again. "There are children around."
"I'm so proud of you," Cleo sighed happily, placing a hand gently on his cheek, blatantly ignoring her friend's protests of their PDA.
"Well, I'm sure you'd be proud of Cleo. She's the new head of marine research at the Marine Park," Bella announced with pride.
Lewis raised his eyebrows and looked at Cleo, who was blushing and smiling, confirming this bit of news.
"Really?" Cleo nodded. "Wha—that's great! When did this happen?" He wracked his brain, trying to think of the last time he'd spoken to her. It couldn't have been more than a few weeks; surely she would have brought it up unless it had happened recently.
"Uh, two months ago, maybe?" Cleo mumbled in thought.
"Well, what about the dolphin training?" he asked suddenly.
She nodded slowly. "I still do shows every once in a while," she explained. "At least until I graduate."
His heart sunk. He had been right. He could tell himself nothing had changed, but he had been right all along. They may have been able to keep in touch after three years, but it wasn't the same.
"Let's go to the beach, Lewis." Cleo stood up abruptly, yanking him out of his chair and his thoughts. "I'll meet you guys at Mako later, yeah?"
"Sure," Rikki and Bella nodded, waving as they left the café.
Cleo wrapped both arms around Lewis as they slowly made their way towards a deserted strip of beach where they could talk. The waves crashed down and glittered in the setting sunlight. A gentle breeze brushed past them, tangling Cleo's hair. She pushed a few fly-away strands out of her eyes and sat down in the sand.
Lewis stopped walking, but didn't join her. Instead, he turned towards the ocean and shoved his hands in the pockets of his cargo shorts. That ocean. It changed everything. What would his life have been like if somewhere, part of that ocean hadn't been magical? Would he still have fallen in love with this girl? Would he have even gotten that scholarship?
He wasn't sure if he resented it or not. True, he had been in love with Cleo long before the magical happenings on Mako Island, but without it, would he have been able to help Cleo? Would he have been able to show her the kind of man he was? Or would they have drifted apart, falling back onto the "childhood friends" label, never seeing each other but a passing moment every while.
"You're pretty deep in through today," Cleo whispered into the wind. He glanced down and met her deep eyes with his own. She held his gaze longer than he would have wanted, but he found himself unable to look away. With one last glance out towards the water, he took his rightful seat next to her in the warm sand.
When he had been in America, it had been warm like this. The winters were cold, unlike in Australia, and the summers never got quite as hot. He preferred the warm weather.
"Penny for your thoughts?" she tried again, nudging him.
He rubbed his arm anxiously. "I was right."
He visibly hesitated. "Us."
She had to fight to keep herself from cringing. "Lewis." She shifted more so she was facing him. "What are you talking about?"
He looked at her, studied her face. The way she would frown so deep, the way her eyes seemed older when she was about to cry. "The day I left, I told you long distance relationships never worked."
"Ours did," she insisted. "We haven't drifted." Cleo didn't like where this conversation was headed.
"Things have changed."
"Of course they have. We're not seventeen anymore. We've grown up," she tried to explain, fighting to keep her voice calm.
"We're living different lives—"
"If this is about my not telling you about the Marine Park—"
She sighed. "Then what is it?"
"When I left, your dad said I couldn't have both—it was either you or the scholarship."
"Why?" she snapped, grabbing his attention. She gently turned his face towards her. "Why does it have to be one or the other? Yeah, we've changed. We've grown. But we couldn't stay the same kids, Lewis. I couldn't hold you back—I couldn't be selfish, no matter how much I wanted to."
"I know," he murmured.
"I still love you—"
"I love you, too, Cleo," he said forcefully.
She rolled her eyes, dropped his face, and stood up. "Then what's the problem?" she demanded, throwing her arms out. "Tell me, because I don't understand. It's not like I don't want to be with you. My feelings for you haven't changed."
"I've missed out on a lot, Cleo. I missed being there when you got the research position. Who knows what else I've missed," he admitted, looking up at her sadly. "We're not the same people we were back then. Too much has happened, too much has changed." She dropped to her knees in front of him.
"Lewis, listen," she instructed. He nodded in her hands. "We might have changed, but we changed together. Of course we're not the same people. Someone wise once told me, 'Sometimes you need to stand on your own for a while just to fulfill your potential. It doesn't have to be forever.' And I still believe that." A lopsided grin formed on his face. "Who knows? We might come back together better than ever before." She couldn't help grinning herself.
Unable to contain himself any longer, he reached up and pulled her down on top of him, capturing her lips in a kiss. The loss of her balance and added extra weight pushed him down into the sand on his back. She pulled away, a small smile playing on her lips. The setting sun silhouetted her beautifully.
"Have I told you I love you?" he whispered to her, pulling her in for another kiss. "You're absolutely and easily the most amazing thing in my life."
"I love you. So much." She gave him a peck on the cheek. "You have no idea how much I've missed you."
"Mm, I have some idea," he chuckled, sitting up. He checked his watch. "Now, I do believe you have a mermaid meeting soon?"
"You know," she started, "no one said I couldn't bring you with me." His lopsided grin confirmed his attendance for her. "And I'm sure Emma would be happy to see you."
"You're sure you don't mind me crashing your party?"
She stood up and held out her hand, helping him up off the sand. "I'm sure I love you and I missed you. And I'm sure they'll get over it."
He lifted her hand to his lips. "I'll meet you there?" His eyes flicked over her shoulder to the darkening sea.
"I'll be late if I don't swim, but I'll ride back with you," she offered. "We've got a lot of time to make up for."
He pulled her close and locked his arms around her waist. "We've got all the time in the world." With one last kiss, she stepped away from him reluctantly and then dove into the sea.
Lewis walked away from the beach, high as a bird. Mr. Sertori had been wrong. Why couldn't he have had both? That kind of thinking was childish. Nothing was black or white—nothing was ever one way or the other. There was always an in-between of some sort. There were always more options.
He still stood by his opinion that long distance relationships never worked. Because what he had with Cleo was special. Magical. Their relationship couldn't be defined under "normal." And Lewis was okay with that. He didn't know why he was dwelling on the changes. He was home. He had Cleo. Why couldn't he just be happy with that—see the glass as half full?
Lewis let his fingertips trail the rough rock wall as he took his time and slowly meandered towards the moon pool. The closer he got, the louder the girls' voices were. He smiled softly. He had missed this, their stupid, secret club. He had actually missed it all. Once he was in a different time zone, he was no longer on full-moon-duty. Not once did they ask him for help for any of that.
Sure, there were e-mails asking scientific questions, but they were always fairly vague. He was never really told what was going on, other than the comet—which he had been tracking on his own, anyways. But they had handled it without him.
"…but he promised it wasn't like that. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and—" A round of shushing erupted in the cave.
"I thought I heard someone," one girl whispered.
"It's just me," Lewis announced with a slight wave as he entered the cavern. The girls were all sitting, dry, in a circle in the sand.
"Oh, Lewis," Rikki smirked. "Emma here was just telling us about her adventures in America." Lewis looked over to Emma, who was standing now, approaching him with arms outstretched. Of course she would tell them that story.
"It's good to see you, Lewis," Emma grinned, hugging him.
"Cleo, don't listen to her—"
"It's okay, Lewis," Cleo laughed. They both joined the group in the circle, Emma back where she was before, Lewis next to his girlfriend.
"That was actually something I wanted to talk to you guys about. Except, not that part," he added, throwing a mock glare towards Emma.
"Oh, no, see, I'm actually very interested in all your adventures in America," Cleo grinned, her chin in her hand. She was enjoying watching Lewis squirm. Even if it was needlessly. They stared at each other for a long while. Lewis wanting to drop it, and Cleo secretly making fun of him.
"I did some research while I was there—" Lewis started, changing the subject.
"This better not go where I think it's going," Rikki warned.
"Calm yourself, this is important," Lewis promised.
"Let's just hear him out," Bella suggested.
"Right. I did some research. I was curious about something and it was really bothering me. Bella didn't change here in the moon pool, so I was wondering how many others there could be. I found a few mermaid stories based in America and tried to follow up. Only one really panned out."
"You found others like us?" Cleo asked, astonished.
"Well, yes," he nodded slowly. "A pair of sisters. The younger one can make fog, the older could move water like…you, Cleo."
"Oh? Is she really?" she asked innocently.
"Dark haired and equally tanned," Emma grinned, playing along with Cleo.
"Is she, now?" Cleo leaned away from Lewis to give him a look. And his face was priceless. He looked like a deer in headlights, completely unsure of the situation and how it would turn out. Had Cleo been as jealous as she was pretending to be, it probably would have ended badly. "Would this be that Carly I've heard so much about?"
"No—I mean yes, but no," Lewis stuttered, stumbling over his words. He stopped and let out a short, quick breath. "Nothing went on, she was spoken for."
"So were you, if I recall," Bella joined in.
Lewis threw his head back and groaned. "Come on, guys. Don't do this." Cleo pulled him towards her suddenly and pecked him on the cheek.
"We're just messing with you," she laughed.
"God knows you wouldn't have skyped so damn much if you were cheating on her," Rikki muttered bitterly.
"Well, we don't have to worry about it anymore," Cleo announced, liking the thought of Lewis being within arm's reach each and every day.
"You're moving back?" Emma asked with a hopeful smile.
"Just got back today. I'll be staying with my parents until I can find a place of my own."
Cleo wasn't sure if that was a hint or not. Her heart skipped a beat and sped up a little. She hoped that Lewis couldn't feel it through their close proximity. The girls all gave her a short look, she averted her eyes. She couldn't just do that. Not with everyone there. No. It wasn't right. They should have that discussion later. But Rikki and Emma would have none of that.
"Cleo, what about your apartment?" Emma started. Cleo didn't respond. She simply gave Emma a subtle glare Lewis couldn't see.
"It's big enough for both of you, I'm sure," Rikki added.
"Oh, no," Lewis started to protest. "It's fine."
"We'll talk about it later," Cleo sighed, lacing her fingers through his. "They just need to cool it. I don't see Zane or Ash living with you guys." And that sent everyone into chaos.
"Hey, Zane and I are just making sure—"
"Ash doesn't want to rush—"
"Hey, don't fight! It's not that big—"
"Anyways. My research." Lewis yelled and waited for everyone to calm down before continuing. "I found out something interesting."
"You learned that they only gave you the scholarship so that they really could experiment on you in your sleep?" Rikki asked.
"No," he replied flatly, not amused. "Like I said, I found the two others in America, but their story was generally similar to yours—they were more or less exploring and fell into a cavern, went for a swim and the bam. Mermaid."
"Alright, how is this noteworthy?" Bella asked, not understanding the point.
"What was noteworthy was that Carly's boyfriend was in the pool with them during the full moon," he continued with a knowing smirk.
"So there's what? A merman out there?" Rikki muttered.
"Nope." Lewis's smirk grew. "He didn't change at all. No powers, no tail."
"So the magic doesn't affect guys at all?" Cleo concluded. "Have you tried it yourself?"
"Well, no. I figured it wouldn't be all that great an idea to try to turn myself into a fish in a foreign country."
"We can push you in now and try," Rikki suggested, a gleam in her eye.
"I'd rather not," he grumbled honestly. "But you tell Zane he is free to jump in."
"Speaking of Zane," she started, standing up and brushing sand off the seat of her pants. "Date night."
"Yeah, Will and I have a date, too. Sorry guys." Bella joined Rikki by the side of the pool.
"I guess we can continue tomorrow," Emma smiled. "Full moon this Saturday."
"That's right," Bella sighed. "Whose place is it this month?"
"Mine," Cleo piped in. "Everything will be set before you guys get there."
"I'm sure it will. You have help this time," Rikki grinned, gesturing towards Lewis before diving into the pool.
"I'll see you guys tomorrow," Bella giggled, diving after Rikki.
"You coming?" Emma stood on the edge of the pool, eyebrow raised.
Cleo glanced at Lewis then shook her head. "Nah. I'm gonna catch a ride. See you at five?"
Emma nodded like she had been expecting this. "See you then."
The once crowded cavern was now nearly empty. Cleo shifted on the ground so that she was in front of Lewis. His insides flipped when she looked up at him through her lashes. She was perfect for him. She was amazing, and she was his. All his.
Their time apart hadn't necessarily harmed their relationship. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. His feelings for her hadn't faded. Everything they had—it was still there. It hadn't drifted away.
"I love you, Cleo," he sighed happily, standing up and reaching a hand down to pull her up and into his arms.
"I love you, too." She couldn't help but smile at his lopsided grin. "About the apartment thing—"
"It's okay, Cleo. I'm fine living with my parents until I find something for myself," he tried to assure her.
"That's not what I meant," she grumbled, looking at her feet.
"Then what is it?" He grabbed both her hands and leaned down to try and look at her face.
"It's just that I haven't…" She threw her head back and looked at the ceiling of the cave. "I haven't been staying at my apartment…lately."
Lewis's eyebrows pulled together in confusion and concern. The more he thought about it, the more he couldn't remember where she had been skyping from. He remembered when she first got her apartment. She showed him the whole play she had to herself.
"When we skyped," he started thoughtfully. "The last time we skyped, where you at home or at the apartment?"
She avoided his gaze. "I was in the bathroom at home." He let out a breath of air. "I didn't want you to worry over nothing! It's just that it's so big when it's just me there and it gets so lonely that sometimes I actually start to miss Kim…"
He took in her green eyes and placed a comforting hand on her cheek. "You could have called," he said softly. She calmed down a bit, leaning into his hand, taking comfort in his touch.
"Do you even know the time difference between here and there?"
She looked up at him sadly and he wondered, just how many times had she wanted to call him but didn't because of the time difference? Sure, he had wanted to call her sometimes when it was pretty early in the morning her time. There had only been one time he could remember when he had gotten on skype to find she had tried to call him several times in a row while it was three in the morning his time.
Lewis had never actually figured out what that had been about, he had forgotten all about it and she never brought it up. He doubted she'd even remember now.
"I want you to move in, I just…" she trailed off and stepped away from him, scratching her head.
"Just what?" He leaned back against the cave wall to give her as much space as she wanted and crossed his arms.
Cleo leaned over the moon pool and stared at her reflection. "I just want to make sure this is real."
"Cleo," he started hesitantly. "Before, on the beach, what you said—you were right."
"Not entirely," she shot back.
"No, you were right," he insisted with a shrug. "If we both want the same thing, if we're both on the same page, then what's the problem?"
"The problem is what if we're living in the past? What if we're just living on old emotions?" She walked around the edge of the pool. "We have changed—"
"But we've changed together, Cleo," he pressed, pushing away from the wall and talking a step towards her. "I love you. That hasn't changed."
"I know, Lewis," she said so softly that he barely heard her.
He took a deep breath and walked up to her. "Well, if you don't want me to move in with you, then I'll just have to get my own apartment and make you move in with me," he grinned as he pulled her towards him. "Because nothing would make me happier than to wake up to you in my life, not just a bunch of pixels that look like you."
She smiled and captured the lips that had just said the one thing that made her genuinely think, "everything's going to be okay with us." And it was right then that Lewis knew her wanted her in his life. Forever.
"Come on," she giggled, tugging him towards the cave entrance. "Sam made dinner and I'm positive you've never tasted anything like it. I'm sure there are leftovers we can heat up."
"You know, last time I had something of hers, it had the oddest texture—"
She groaned and swatted him playfully. "You and Kim both need to expand your horizons."
To say Lewis was nervous to see Cleo's family again would have been a lie, not that he told her he wasn't nervous at all when she asked. It wasn't like he had never seen her family since he had left. In fact, most of his time he'd spent at her house or on Mako Island.
Having Cleo's hand in his gave him a little bit of strength, a little bit of the courage and bravery and needed to get through what he was about to do. He could have done it without her, sure, but her touch was just a gentle reminder of the goal, a reminder of what it was worth to him.
"Hello? Anyone here?" Cleo announced, pushing open the door wide enough for Lewis and herself to get through. She ventured on into the empty living room while Lewis shut the door.
"In the kitchen," a woman called back. Cleo peeked around the wall and saw her stepmother digging in a cupboard above her head.
"Hey," Cleo greeted. "Where're dad and Kim?" She heard Lewis walk into the kitchen behind her, but Sam was so busy reaching for a serving dish on the top shelf, she never noticed.
"Your father's running out to the store for me—he should be back soon—and Kim is upstairs in her room." Sam grunted, attempting to reach higher, her fingers brushing the lip of the dish.
"Here, let me help you," Lewis offered, reaching around her and easily lifting the dish off the shelf. He handed it to her, smirking at the look of surprise on her face. His heart warmed at the genuine happiness the woman had on her face upon seeing him once again occupying their kitchen.
"Lewis!" she exclaimed, leaving the dish on the counter to wrap her arms around the blonde man. He gave her a kiss on the cheek. "It's so good to see you. How long are you here for this time?" Her bright blue eyes flicked between Lewis and Cleo.
Lewis rubbed his arm and Cleo grinned. "For good," he said proudly. Cleo took his hand, unable to hide the grin sweeping her face.
"I'm glad," she said, kissing Cleo's cheek. "There's leftovers in the fridge, I can heat some up if you're both hungry."
"It's fine we can do it—" Cleo started to protest, but Sam waved her away.
"It'll only take a few minutes," she insisted. "I'll be in here making brownies anyways, so it's no bother."
"Thanks," Cleo said with a sigh, pecking her stepmother on the cheek. She headed over to the kitchen table to remove some of her father's fishing magazines and some of Kim's homework.
"You should try staying at your own place for a change." Someone said as they bounced down the stairs loudly.
"I do, Kim," Cleo retorted.
"I'm sure you do." Kim appeared over the kitchen counter and a sarcastic smile slid onto her features. "Ah, Lewis is back," she stated flatly. "So I guess you're not staying here tonight."
"Shut up, Kim," Cleo ground out, thrusting her sister's homework at her in an attempt to make her go away. "Don't you have homework? Or a friend?"
"Oh, I have lots of friends," she smirked, and Cleo knew what was coming. Because her sister really couldn't help herself. She had to ruin everyone else's happiness. "Have you told Lewis about your new friends? There was Ryan, and what was his name—Nathan?"
"It's not going to work, Kim," Lewis told her. "I've already heard about Ryan. The one who gave you the telescope?"
"That was Ryan," Sam laughed.
"Yeah, but Nathan actually landed one on her," Kim full-on grinned now. "And it didn't look like she minded, either."
"You were spying on me?" Cleo snapped, blushing deeply.
"Go on and finish your homework upstairs, Kim," Sam suggested with a small nudge. "Leave your sister alone."
Cleo pinched the bridge of her nose and squeezed her eyes shut. "Lewis, that was—"
"Let's talk about it later, yeah?" Sam placed two dishes on the table for them. With a smile she left the two to eat their meal alone.
Silence befell the kitchen, interrupted only by the tiny clinks of forks on plates. Lewis, although hesitant at first of the strange cuisine, found himself enjoying the odd taste and texture of it. But the silence didn't last as long as the tension did. It never happened that way.
"I can't believe Kim is still…You can't tell me nothing happened between you and Carly," Cleo stated, not looking up from her plate.
"It meant nothing."
"So there was something," she clarified.
"Briefly." Lewis sounded genuinely remorseful. Whether it was because she found out or that it had happened, she didn't know. "But this Nathan guy—"
"I won't lie to you, Lewis," Cleo interrupted, dropping her fork into her plate loudly. He looked up, startled, a fierce look in her eye as she stared him down. "I really liked Nathan. He was into real estate. He was….nice."
"But…?" Lewis prodded.
"He was no Lewis," she finished quietly.
Lewis inwardly smiled. "Cleo, I can't lie and say I expected you to wait for me."
"I promised you I would."
"And it was selfish of me to expect you to keep that promise."
Cleo took a deep breath. "Well, what's done is done," she stated and stood, clearing her plate off the table. "Let's just focus on us?"
Lewis couldn't stop the smile this time. He stood up and followed her to the sink. He wrapped his arms around her waist and rested his chin on her shoulder. "I can do that." He kissed her neck, liking the way it made her squirm just a little. She turned in his arms and pulled his face up to hers.
"Hands off my daughter, Stranger."
The two jumped apart, Cleo smoothing her clothing out, Lewis rubbing his arm, both embarrassed.
"Lewis!" the man exclaimed with recognition.
"We—I didn't hear you come in, Dad," Cleo stammered.
"I could tell." He turned towards Lewis. "How is studying abroad? Haven't come home much lately."
"Was," he corrected the elder man. "I finished a week ago. Graduated. I'm home for good, now."
Mr. Sertori's face fell slightly. "I see. Why don't we go have a chat in my office? I'd like to hear a little bit about what your plans are."
"Dad," Cleo began to complain.
"No, no, it's fine," Lewis pressed. "Why don't you go get your stuff? I'll take you back to your apartment on my way home—15 hour time difference has me jet lagged."
She gave Lewis a suspicious look, but left and disappeared up the stairs. Lewis watched her go, before turning towards her father.
Mr. Sertori jerked his head in the direction of his office and headed off. As soon as the door was shut, the silence between them shifted and became awkward. Lewis could physically feel his pulse quicken.
"Mr. S, I'm going to be straight with you," Lewis started.
"I want to marry your daughter," they both said at the same time.
"Wait—what? How did you—" Lewis stopped his small ramble and sat down in an empty chair across from Don.
"I know these things, Lewis," he chuckled. "I may be old, but I'm still her father. It might not seem like it, but I know these things." Lewis gave him a wry smile. "But my answer right now is no—"
"Mr. Sertori, I love Cleo. I want everyone else to know how much I love her. I—" Lewis began to argue, his heart in his throat.
He held up a hand. "I said 'right now.' Lewis, you've only been home—what? A day or two?"
"I got back today, but—"
"—I just think you should wait a few months. Make sure this is what you both want."
Lewis sat still, silently, considering this. It wasn't a bad idea, but months? Could he really wait that long? Then again, what would he do in a few months, in a year, that he couldn't do with her now? All he wanted to do was make it legally official that she was his. He wanted to prove to her just how serious he was.
"Two weeks," Lewis offered.
"A month," Don responded.
"Just," Don struggled to get the words in his head out in the air. "Just make sure it's what you want." Lewis knew immediately what he was referring to. Cleo's mother. He didn't want what had happened to him happen to his daughter.
But that would never happen. "Mr. S, I'm sure I love Cleo. And I would never leave her."
"You already have, once, Lewis," he reminded him.
Lewis let out an angry breath. "I don't know what you want me to do about that, Mr. S," he started animatedly, standing and pacing the room. "I wouldn't have gone! Cleo told me to go. She said she couldn't hold me back. All I could think about was how much I wanted it." He suddenly stopped and turned towards his girlfriend's father. "And I didn't just want it for me. I did a lot of thinking about it.
"With this education I can get a better job. I might not have to start at the very bottom. I'll definitely get a better pay," Lewis explained. The pacing began again. "I've had numerous job offers in both the States and here in Australia."
"Any that you might take up?"
Lewis paused. "There's one—seventy thousand a year. I'd get five grand just to accept the offer."
"Sounds pretty good," Don admitted, genuinely impressed. "Why haven't you taken it?"
"I've got four months before they want my decision," Lewis told him. "I'm just waiting for a response from one more place."
Don smiled to himself. "I trust you know what you're doing." Lewis nodded in thanks. "One month?" He looked at the young man seriously.
"One month," he agreed just as Cleo pushed open the door, a bag in one hand a pillow in the other.
"One month until what?" she asked curiously, suspicion still in her eyes.
"Nothing, sweetie," her father said with a small smile. "Just work talk." She narrowed her eyes and glanced at Lewis, who simply shrugged under her scrutinizing gaze.
"Ready to go?" Lewis asked, heading for the door.
"Yeah." He took her bag from her, freeing up her hand to lace through his as they walked out the front door with a short goodbye to her father.
This was how it was supposed to be. Cleo standing next to him. Not on the other side of the ocean. Not on the other side of the room, next to someone else. By his side. Forever. He would do anything—anything —to make sure it stayed that way.
"You're not seriously going to just drop me off, are you?" Cleo asked suddenly, tugging at his hand. "Because I was under the impression that I wouldn't be very lonely in my apartment tonight."
"Oh you were, were you?" He jerked her closer to him and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
"You don't have to if you don't want to."
"No, no. I've been away long enough." He stopped walking and pulled her to him.
"You've been doing that a lot tonight. I think you're gonna rip my arm clean off," she laughed up at him, their proximity suddenly taking her breath away. They stood on the side of the street as they studied each other's faces. Both wondered briefly how he had gotten such an amazing person to stay by his side, after everything—Lewis's studying abroad and Cleo's "other half."
Cleo brought her lips to his, but pulled away before the intensity became too much for such a public place. Lewis seemed to want to protest this, but changed his mind when she hugged her pillow to her chest and continued down the street. "Come on," she beckoned, holding out her hand for him. "You haven't physically been in my place yet, have you?"
"I don't believe I have," he admitted, grabbing her hand once again and followed her lead.
"And that brings up back to the kitchen," Cleo finished with a small flourishing wave towards the small, white, seemingly-unused kitchen.
Lewis sat down on a barstool on the outside of the kitchen counter. "I like it," he grinned.
"As you can see, there's quite enough space for you if you're too lazy to look for your own," she offered quietly. "You know, temporary—however long that may be."
"I'm sure we can work out something," he muttered. He glanced over her shoulder at the clock on the stove.
"If you're tired you can go to bed. I'm sure you're jetlagged."
"It's only—" he stared at the clock for a second, doing calculations in his head, "—three in the morning in America."
"There's this documentary I found a while back," Cleo said suddenly, heading into the adjoining living room and flipping through a box of DVDs. "I think I told you about it before. It's all about marine life—everything from the shore to the abyss and back."
A sideways smile crossed his lips as he flipped the DVD over in his hands. "Is this the one with the section about mythical marine life at the end? Mermaids?" he asked humorously.
"Only one I know of," she replied with a yawn. "Come on. We can watch it in the bedroom that way if you fall asleep I can just leave you there." He chuckled and chased her down the hall, picked her up, and dumped her on the bed.
"Here, let me—"
"I can put in a DVD, Cleo," he stated, popping open the case with ease. "I graduated from one of the top research facilities in the world."
"Oh, I'm sorry." She bit her lip and sat quietly in the middle of the bed, watching as he inserted the disk and turned the TV on. Lewis turned towards her and stared for a second, his lopsided grin returning once more. "What?"
"I'm just so happy to be back," he noted, now standing beside the bed. Cleo simply reached up, grabbed the collar of his shirt with both hands, and pulled him down with her. He kicked off his shoes and got comfortable against the abundance of pillows on the bed.
Getting used to this wouldn't be so hard. He liked the thought of living with her, of being able to lie in bed and watch a DVD with her any time he wanted. No parental supervision. They were both adults. Their sudden freedom hit him like a brick house.
He found himself dozing in and out of consciousness throughout the movie. He was okay with this. They'd just have to watch it another night. The possibilities were now endless. No more eating dinner in front of the computer just waiting for her to get online so he could rant and rave about all he had learned that day. They could actually do other things—regular date-night things.
With a shuddering breath, Lewis opened his eyes to a bright light shining in the window next to the bed. In a moment of disorientation, he temporarily forgot where he was. He sat up straight and glanced around the room. His eyes fell onto a desk in the corner. In a blue frame sat a photograph of Cleo and him.
That's right. He had spent the night at Cleo's apartment. Lewis pushed himself further upright and off the bed. His shirt was wrinkled from having slept in it. Venturing out the door and down the hall, he blinked in the vast amount of light streaming in from the several windows in the living room.
"Afternoon," Cleo called from the table where she stood sorting through a bag. "I was just about to wake you up. Let's go get dinner from the café. There's not much in the fridge here."
She stopped moving and looked up at him as if he'd grown a second head. "It's past nearly five, Lewis."
He ran a hand through his bed head and yawned. "Jetlagged." He glanced down at his watch, which was still on American time. "Eleven in the morning."
"Is America really six hours behind us?"
He smiled. "It's eleven in the morning yesterday. Where I was, it was around eighteen hours behind here." He paused. "You're going now?"
"We can stop by your house on the way to get clothes," she laughed.
"So what do you usually do on a day like today?" Lewis asked.
Cleo pursed her lips and swung their laced hands as they walked towards the café. She liked having the café so closed to where she lived. "Well," she hesitated for a second. "I wake up around six to go feed Ronnie and the other dolphins at the park. Then I usually hang around and work until I have to go to whatever class I have that day." She nudged him with her elbow and gave a small smirk. "I don't have classes on Saturdays, so I'm all yours tomorrow."
"You know, I think I like the sound of that," he said brightly.
"Tomorrow night is the full moon, though, so…" She drifted off at the approached the café.
"I got it," he understood, his voice light. He pulled the beads aside and motioned for her to enter first. "I figure my family wants to—"
"Welcome home, Lewis!"
Lewis nearly jumped out of his skin. Next to him, Cleo laughed at the surprised look on his face and gripped his hand tightly. "Gotcha," she grinned. His eyes traveled around the room, instantly recognizing every single person in the room smiling brightly back at him. There was a huge banner hanging from the ceiling with "Welcome Home" painted in big blue blocks.
He looked down at his girlfriend, who had undoubtedly planned all this over night. How else could she have done it? When could she have done it? Okay, well, that was a stupid question. She'd had all day what with him sleeping off his jetlag.
"You—" Lewis pulled her to him, "—are absolutely amazing." With that, he kissed her. She was perfect. Lewis couldn't help but wonder what he had done to deserve such a person in his life. He was reminded of their somewhat public vicinity when everyone around then "aw"ed. Cleo pulled away and grinned.
"You just can't help yourself, can you?" Rikki asked with a laugh.
"It was Cleo's idea," Bella added, coming up behind them.
"We only put it all together," Emma smiled, handing Cleo and Lewis a drink.
"But I don't want you to kiss me," Rikki said quickly, taking a small step backwards.
"Please don't put those images in my head," Lewis groaned, earning a swat from Cleo. "Did you plan this all today?"
Cleo shook her head. "I got the idea last night at Mako."
"Do you know how hard it was getting it all together in less than 24 hours?" Rikki whined.
"You had help," Bella defended.
"And it wasn't that hard," Cleo laughed. "He was sleeping all day."
"Jetlag sucks," Emma sympathized with a wince.
"Hey, Lewis," someone called for him. And the night went on. Everyone asked about his journey and how it went. They asked what he was planning on doing now that he was home. Some wondered why he would come back, why not just stay with the institute. His whole life was here, he would tell them. He didn't regret leaving now, and he was pretty sure he never would. But he was glad he came back. He sure missed all of these people.
After some time he found himself at the counter picking at some chicken, yawning. He glanced at his watch. Why was he so tired? It was only about one in the afternoon Maybe he was slowly sliding into a regular schedule. He decided if he could hold off maybe three more hours and didn't sleep in too late the next morning, he could be on the correct sleep cycle by the end of the weekend.
He glanced over his shoulder and stared at Cleo, who was at a corner table with Emma and Rikki watching their friend prance around the room with a mic in one hand and a colorful drink in the other. The sun was setting in the window over Cleo's shoulder, making her look more tanned. It added an ambient gold aura and darkened her naturally auburn hair.
He imagined what it would be like to propose to her. What would she say? Yes, he hoped. As soon as he had the though, a floodgate of awaiting "what ifs" rushed at him. What if she didn't say yes? Easy, he'd keep asking. Naturally.
But how was he going to do it? And where? On Mako? With candles and lights reflecting off the moon pool's surface? No. He didn't want to remind her that she was part mermaid. He wanted to marry her for her. He didn't want her to worry about that portion of her life. But would he do it on the beach? Or what about in a boat at sea? No boat. Surrounding her with water wasn't a good idea either.
Lewis thought about surprising her, but figured that unless he dropped hints all month; it would be that ways anyways. He knew he couldn't drop hints—he didn't want her to know beforehand. He had promised Mr. Sertori he wouldn't ask until the end of their month agreement. And he would stick to that if only to get on Cleo's dad's good side.
"Lewis!" Lewis's head snapped back at his name being called. Across the counter, Zane was staring at him curiously, eyebrows pulled together. "Let's go. Follow me." Lewis was about to protest, but the other man walked away before he found his voice.
It was weird. The two had hated each other since an early age, but once their girlfriends connected them through their mermaid drama and their own friendship, some sort of twisted friendship had formed. And it seemed like Zane had gone even softer while he was away. He jerked Lewis into the office and closed the door.
"Out with it," Zane demanded, hand on his hip. "I haven't seen that look on your face since right before you left."
Lewis rubbed his arm anxiously before deciding it wasn't that big of a deal. He dropped his arms to his sides and plopped down on the couch. "I want to ask Cleo to marry me."
Zane looked taken aback. "You—wha—right now?" he asked, completely flustered. Given any other circumstances and Lewis was sure he would have laughed at Zane's odd behavior. "I'm not sure now is the time. This party is—"
"No," Lewis interrupted. "Not now." He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I promised her dad I would wait a month. He wants to make sure that our being together is really what we want."
"What's a month going to prove? If nothing has changed in three years a month is hardly going to matter."
Lewis simply shrugged. "My thoughts exactly."
Zane suddenly froze and Lewis could swear he saw him backtracking. "Wait, you already asked her dad?"
"He and I just had a chat while Cleo was getting some things to take back to her apartment," he explained easily. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he regretted it. Especially when Zane's eyebrows shot up to his hairline.
"You stayed at Cleo's apartment last night?"
"Nothing happened," Lewis groaned. "Besides. We're both adults." He stood up and jammed his hands in his pockets. "What about you and Rikki?"
He shifted his wait from one foot to the other nervously. "Rikki and I—we're in a good place right now. We're taking it slow, not rushing." He paused, jaw working until he found the words. "I don't want to mess up this chance." Zane shook his head, clearing his thoughts. "Do you have a ring yet?"
"No," Lewis sighed. "I don't even know how or where I'm going to do it."
"Mako?" he suggested, but Lewis shook his head.
"I don't want to bring the whole mermaid thing into it."
"Yet you're going to marry one?" He sounded confused.
Lewis let out a breath. He was starting to see Rikki's frustration. "I'm marrying the girl I love," he tried to explain. "What she is doesn't matter. She could be an alien for all I care."
Zane shook his head. Figures he wouldn't understand. "It doesn't matter where you do it—"
"There you two are," Rikki exhaled, poking her head in the door. "Cleo's looking for you." She nodded to Lewis. "What are you two talking about?"
"Nothing," they chorused together, shooting each other a glance in surprise. But Rikki didn't buy it.
"Right," she replied slowly. She jerked a thumb over her shoulder towards the party and said to Lewis, "Cleo's about ready to tear the building down."
"Right." He brushed past her and headed back to his party. As soon as he was gone, though, he heard the two whispering loudly in the office. Great. Just what they needed. A repeat of what had happened when he learned he got the scholarship.
A slow melody emanated from the stage. Bella smiled from her stool when she saw him, her eyes shifting stealthily to a figure sitting in the booth in a corner. He put on his lopsided grin and stepped up to the table.
"I apologize for that. Zane needed my help with something." He held out his hand, but she didn't take it right away. She hesitated before even looking up at him, her big, beautiful eyes full of some clouded emotion. "Hey, are you okay?" he asked out of concern as he pulled her to an empty spot on the floor. Her arms shifted up and rested around his neck, his hands sitting gently on her hips. Together they swayed to the music encircling them.
"I love you," she smiled; her voice shook even in that hushed tone.
"I love you, too, Cleo," he responded breathily before pressing his lips against hers with a gentle ferocity.
"So what were you and my dad talking about last night?" She asked when they came up for air.
"Just work stuff," he breathed, leaning down to kiss her again, but Cleo turned her head and his lips landed on her cheek. He didn't outwardly seem to mind. He trailed kisses down her jaw line.
"Elaborate," she demanded, giggling unwillingly.
He pulled her closer, locking his wrists around her waist, but pulled back and rested his forehead on hers. "He wanted to know what my plans were. For the future."
"And?" she prompted. "Did Mr. I-studied-abroad-at-some-big-league-institute land a high paying job in America or something?"
"Actually," he started nervously.
She jerked back to look at him. "Lewis…" he avoided her gaze. "Lewis—I—"
A small grin spread across his face and he couldn't help but laugh. "I'm just teasing—I have plenty of offers both here and in the States, but I've got my eye on one. It's 45 minutes up the coast. I can commute from here."
She pushed him away and smacked his shoulder. "I can't believe you!"
"Cleo—" She started to walk away from him.
"No, Lewis, just stay away from me!" She demanded, charging out the door. His heart froze and screamed at him to stop her. He didn't know what he'd do if he let her leave.
"Cleo—stop. I'm sorry. It was a bad joke." He grabbed a hold of her wrist and spun her around to face him. Cleo couldn't keep the smile off her face.
"Oh, you are just as gullible as I am," she laughed.
Lewis rubbed the stubble on his face, grinning. "I guess that's just one of the many reasons we're meant for each other," he declared. He reached over and picked her up, bridal-style, and carried her back to the party.
By ten o'clock, Lewis was willing to just lie across a table and sleep there. He could feel his mind fail to focus. It wandered helplessly and his eyes drooped unwillingly. He attempted to stay alert while the girls talked. Most of the guests had gone home. The band was quietly packing up their equipment. And Club Mermaid was sitting around the café's largest table in a corner chatting away.
"So, full moon tomorrow night," Zane brought up, his arm slung across Rikki's shoulders casually.
"No," Rikki gasped sarcastically.
"Oh, come on," Will groaned. "Can we just go one night without you two bickering?"
"We don't bicker every night," the both defended. Zane froze, a smirk sliding over his face.
"Cute," Emma sighed. "Anyways." She shifted her gaze to Cleo. "I trust you'll have everything set up this time?"
"Oh, you are never gonna let that go are you?" She ran her hands over her face.
"Nope," Rikki chirped.
"You still block up the windows every month?" Lewis's eyebrows pulled together and he leaned over the table a bit to keep from falling asleep against the backrest, which was unbearable comfortable at the moment. "I thought you all had moved past that."
No one said anything for a few minutes. Glances were exchanged, eyes diverted. Something was going on, there was no way to avoid Lewis's question without admitting something was up.
Cleo let out a loud breath, unable to lie to him. "Things kind of got…sticky last year."
"Cleo's first time with alcohol?" Will asked with a small smile.
"Sure was," Bella nodded slowly, stirring the ice in her empty cup with her straw.
Lewis gave Cleo a quick look and she held up her hands in defense. "Let me explain—we thought we'd gotten over the whole full moon thing. I went to party, got a little tipsy—"
"Three and a half vodka shots, seven jell-o shots, and a half of a bottle of Peach Schnapps is not 'a little tipsy,'" Rikki laughed outright.
"Okay, so I was completely drunk," she admitted in a huff.
"She got drunk, looked at the moon, and decided to go out and lure sailors out to sea like a 'real mermaid,'" Rikki explained.
Lewis's eyebrows pulled together. No one had mentioned this to him before. You'd think Cleo would have mentioned it during one of their skype dates. It didn't sound like something that "slipped your mind" very easily.
"And no one else was moonstruck that night?" Lewis asked the other girls.
"Well, I wasn't here when it happened," Emma told him with a shake of her head.
"Bella and I didn't go to that party—we stayed at my place. Neither of us was affected."
Lewis sunk into a pit of thought, but kept getting distracted by his tired and wandering mind. He pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to focus, but it wasn't happening. Maybe the alcohol had had and affect on her in some way. Maybe it was a different effect then seeing the full moon.
"It's okay, Lewis," Cleo murmured, clasping his hand beneath the table. "You don't need to figure it out." He opened his eyes to look at her, concern written across her face.
"The jetlag," Emma called out. "I totally forgot. What time is it in America right now?"
Lewis glanced at his watch. "Four in the morning. Really, it's nothing. I need to do something to get myself on a normal sleep schedule."
"Well, this will definitely help," Bella chuckle.
"You're welcome," Rikki grinned. Lewis rolled his eyes.
"So where are you sleeping tonight?" Zane asked with that annoying smirk he always had. Rikki and the girls gave Zane a surprised, confused look. Will just smiled.
"I am way too tired to be having this conversation right now." Lewis stood up, Cleo following him automatically, a light blush on her tanned cheeks.
"Wait a minute!" Rikki yelled as they walked away.
"What is he talking about, Cleo?" Emma laughed.
The table burst into loud laughter as the slightly embarrassed couple left the café in a hurry. A comfortable silence befell the two as they walked hand-in-hand back to the apartment.
"I am so sorry," Lewis blurted out as soon as the apartment complex was in sight.
Cleo giggled. "Don't be. They were bound to find out—if they didn't know already. Which I'm sure they did."
"Well, it's not really that big of a deal," he yawned. "I love you. They know that. They were the ones who suggested I move in with you. Besides, we're both adults."
"I don't know about their ideas sometimes," she sighed theatrically, shaking her head.
"Oh, I see how it is," he smirked.
"I don't think you do," she challenged, unlocking the door. She kicked it open with the heel of her shoe and let it hit the wall softly.
"I don't know, I'm pretty smart," he shrugged, shoving his hands in her pockets nonchalantly.
"Oh, all that studying abroad has gone to your head now, has it?" Cleo backed away from him, headed towards the bedroom. She turned and bolted when he quickly shut the door and took off after her.
Lewis slammed to a stop in the doorway of the bedroom when he noticed Cleo was not there. Slowly, he kicked off his shoes and ditched them in the hallway as silently as he could. He crept into the room a little further and after a process of quick elimination, decided she was either behind the door or under the bed.
He nudged the door gently, hitting something like he knew it would. But upon further inspection, he found that a pillow had been wedge there, not Cleo.
"Think you're smart, do you," he chuckled, seeing the bedding shift a bit on the side furthest from him. He dove across the bed, effectively scaring her and making her jump up from her crouch position behind the bed. Lewis gestured to himself. "I studied abroad."
Cleo shook her head and laughed. She stood up, pulled her shoes off and climbed into the bed with Lewis, who was making an effort not to look like he was yawning. She smiled to herself as she turned out the light and pulled herself closer to Lewis.
"You're dead tired," Cleo noted, knowing the look that was on Lewis's face without having to see it.
"I feel dead," he admitted, voice suddenly quiet.
"We'll move all your stuff in tomorrow before the full moon," Cleo whispered, lacing her fingers in his. He responded with a half conscious guttural noise of agreement. His breathing soon evened out as he fell asleep and suddenly Cleo felt like she was no longer just in her apartment. She was finally, finally home.
"Lewis." Lewis felt a finger nearly imbed itself in his stomach. "Lew-is." Another in his ribs. "Lewis!" A third in his cheek. "Oh, come on!" A gentle slap to the face.
"Hey, you break it, you buy it," he grumbled, pressing his face into the pillow. He could feel sleep just around the corner. He wanted more. All his mind would allow him to focus on was the ability to sleep.
"You'll be sorry," she warned. The bed shifted violently as Cleo bounced off. "You don't know what I can do."
He smiled to himself, but kept silent. That was an empty threat. Maybe if he faked being asleep she would leave him alone and he could actually fall back to sleep. Instead of leaving, suddenly Lewis found himself drenched in incredibly cold water. He shot upright and looked down at himself.
"Cleo!" he shouted.
A knowing smirk shot across her lips. She held her right hand out in front of her, fingers spread apart and parallel to the floor. In a single quick motion, she flipped her hand over and raised it above her head.
The shit-eating-grin returned to her face and her eyes shifted to something above his head. He followed her gaze and sprung off the bed like it was on fire once his eyes landed on the floating ball of water hanging in the air just above him. His back slammed against the wall, his glance moving from the water, to his dry clothes, to Cleo, and back again.
"How can you—how did—when—"
"I've been working on it for years, now," she answered his broken questions. "I had some theories of my own. If I could create water from existing water, why can't I move existing water the way I move the water I created? After a year of practice, I learned how to do just that."
Lewis's eyes darted around the room. "That's great Cleo, but I don't see any water in here." There were no glasses on the nightstand or even a fish tank full of her beloved saltwater critters. Nothing. Sure, she could create new water from existing water as a result of this foreign mermaid magic, but even magic had its limits, right?
"Moisture in the air," she responded quickly. "I used the moisture in the air to create water from." He began to nod slowly. "Only thing is, is that I have no idea what to do with it once I have it."
His eyebrows pulled together in confusion. "What do you mean?"
She left the room, orb leading the way, and headed into the bathroom. He followed her and watched her drop it slowly into the tub, avoiding small droplets that bounced out of the basin. "I mean I can't disperse the molecules back into the air like Rikki can. I think, really, that's my power. Gather molecules of bonded hydrogen and oxygen. I can't move juice or milk, just water."
"Rikki can't gather the molecules, but she can spread them out, like heating up water," Lewis concluded in a moment of epiphany. He pulled Cleo towards him spontaneously and kissed her hard. "God, you're brilliant."
She giggled. "Get dressed. We need to get you moved in before the full moon rises," she called over her shoulder as she left him in the bathroom by himself. He glanced over his shoulder and noted a stack of clean clothes sitting on the counter next to a clean towel.
Lewis rushed through a shower and dried off as thoroughly as he could. He all but threw on his clothes. A hushed whisper caught his attention and he stopped moving. Straining his ears, he could hardly make out the words. As stealthily as he could, he slunk out into the hallway and tiptoed towards the kitchen praying the floorboards wouldn't give him away.
"I can't tell him," Cleo was muttering into the phone, quiet enough to be suspicious to Lewis, but loud enough for whoever was on the other end to hear. "I don't want it to ruin anything." She sighed. "I'm sure he'll tell me about Carly when he's ready. And when he is, I just hope I'll be ready to tell him." She paused and Lewis's heart lurched into his throat.
Cleo had to be talking to Emma, Lewis decided. She was the only one whom he had told about her. Her and him. Lewis refrained from banging his head back into the wall. He should have known Emma would tell her best friends everything about their trip. But he had to be honest with himself. Three years was a long time for kids their age. And from her tone, she hadn't been able to contain herself either.
"Look, Emma, I'll call you later, yeah? I think Lewis is done with his shower." Her phone snapped shut and Lewis picked up the sounds of her sniffling. He chanced a peek around the corner and nearly exhaled with relief when he saw her facing away from him, leaning around the kitchen counter. Her back was hunched, her hands wiping at her face. She was crying.
Still trying to be stealthy, he snuck back towards the bathroom and pushed the bathroom door open so it hit the wall lightly. He flicked the lights loudly and then headed back down the hall. Cleo spun around and Lewis studied her slightly red eyes, her flushed face.
"You ready to go?" she asked, turning away from him but putting on one of her faces. He decided to let it drop. It was obvious she didn't want to talk to him about it, and he sure as hell wasn't ready to admit to her what had gone on between him and Carly while he was in America.
"Yeah," he managed after a second. He fumbled around in his head as he pulled on his shoes for a change of topic. "So, does your dad know I'm moving in?" Maybe not the best topic, but she did crack a small and let out a sarcastic little chuckle, so it did the trick. And they were off to retrieve his belongings.
"Well, I'm pretty sure I'm old enough to decide who I bring home. Besides, I'm paying for this place on my own, he really has no say."
"Cleo. You're paying for that entire apartment yourself? Why didn't you get a roommate to split the cost?"
"Well," Cleo hesitated. "I had a roommate, but it didn't work out, exactly. We wanted…different things." Slowly, Lewis felt like things were piecing together. Despite his thoughts and feelings about their situation when he left, he was beginning to feel like it could all come back to them very easily.
"Geez, Lewis," Cleo grunted, dropping one of the last remaining boxes on the kitchen table. Small boxes had littered the living room and kitchen, while the larger boxes filled with his clothes had occupied the small bedroom down the hall. It had taken them several hours to unpack most of his things. All that was left were a few heavy boxes of books on the table and counter. "I thought you said you didn't have much. I feel like we've been doing this for days."
He looked up from a box he was rummaging through and gave her a flat look. "Oh, really? How many boxes did you use to move all your stuff in here? I'll wager it took you at least a week to unpack."
She hesitated, her jaw working to find the right words. "Well, that's a different story. I never claimed to not have a lot of belongings."
"And I don't remember saying that I did, either." He abandoned the box and leaned against the table, arms crossed in defiance.
"Oh, I think you did," she countered, walking towards him.
"And when was this?"
"On our way out this morning."
"I don't remember."
Suddenly they were inches apart. He grabbed her around the waist and leaned down to kiss her, but she turned away unexpectedly. He sighed and followed her gaze over his shoulder and into an open box on the table. She reached in a pulled out a book. The cover was a slick, bland paper, but the image was a beautiful water color painting of a shadowy fish-like figure surrounded by pastel corals and sea life. Cleo's fingers traced the edge of the creature in the center and then glanced up at Lewis.
"I got it in the fiction section, so none of it is true. Except there's one thing," Lewis murmured, taking the book from her. He flipped it open to a well-worn spot towards the back. He studied the picture inside for a second before flipping it around and tipping it towards her so she could see. Her eyes widened and she nearly ripped the book from his hands to get a closer look. "It seems the author took a trip to Mako while writing the book."
"But—" Cleo was at a loss for words. A large, full-page image filled her vision. No way. No way had this picture been taken—not only without their knowledge—but no way had it been taken and not been a big deal. "How—"
"Well, it was pretty popular among the institute for all of about ten minutes," Lewis smirked, crossing his arms smugly. "It was quickly dismissed as a fairly good Photoshop job."
"Lewis, this is a picture of me and Bella," Cleo grumbled, snapping the book shut. "It's not Photoshop."
"Yeah, but no one else knows that."
She paused and poked around through the rest of the box. She paused and glared at him. "Please tell me this was not one of your textbooks." He couldn't help but smile. Cleo groaned and dropped the book on the table.
"Hey," Lewis exhaled, jerking her towards him. He held both her hands in his. "No one but us knows. It was just a little added crap at the end of the book. It was never part of the curriculum. It's in the 'about the author' section. No one reads those."
She paused and mulled this over. True, no one had taken it seriously. If they had, she would've known about it long before now. "You're right, you're right." She ran a hand through her hair.
She swatted at him and yanked the box off the table. "Well, we need to hurry up. The girl's will be here in an hour or two."
"Is it really that late already?"
They sat together in the living room on the floor, sorting through the boxes of books and stacking them on the large bookcase that lined one wall. Lewis shoved one book after another onto the shelves slowly while Cleo got distracted every time she brought out a new book, taking a minute or two to flip through them.
"If you keep reading them all we'll never get done in time," Lewis mumbled distractedly. He couldn't help but feel like none of this was real. A thought popped into his head and he couldn't stop himself from dwelling on it, turning it over in his mind until he came to the conclusion that he didn't have a definitive answer. "What exactly are we?"
"What do you mean?" Cleo laughed.
"Us," he responded quietly. "Are we together, best friends, good friends, are we—"
"Lewis," Cleo stopped him, a hand on his shoulder. "You've been away a while."
"Well, yeah, duh."
"So you've slipped back into your old habit. Think back, back to before you left, before Charlotte. What did you learn?" she hinted, willing him to get it on his own. But it was obvious by the confused look on his face that he wasn't. For a genius, he really could be slow. "Our relationship is…."
"Is what?" he prompted with the shake of his head.
"Magic," she smirked.
He gave her a flat look. "Right. Magic."
"You're home now, you can't analyze everything scientifically."
"Mm. And if I remember correctly, you're now a marine biologist. You can't just blame everything on magic."
"I don't," she gasped, shocked.
She pushed his shoulder. "I don't, really." Lewis just laughed and continued pushing books onto the shelf. "I don't even want to imagine how that would go over."
Lewis smiled to himself. This was exactly what he feared would drift away. He just couldn't get over it. They were able to keep their tight relationship alive over three years and thousands of miles. If they could push through that and the trials brought on by magical mermaid events, what couldn't they get through?
"You don't think we're rushing things, do you?" Lewis asked out of pure curiosity. He knew how he felt about the current state of things, but he couldn't get a read on her. A poke face clouded her expression and she dazed off into space. Her thinking face.
A slow, small smile appeared on Cleo's face and she shook her head vigorously. "No, I don't." She slid three more books onto the shelf and tossed the now-empty box behind her. "I think this is the next step in our relationship."
"Yeah, I mean, we've been best friends since we were, like, five," she explained, turned a book over in her hands, but not really looking at it. "What else is there? You're done with school, I'm in the home stretch, and neither of us is living at home anymore. We're adults, Lewis. We've matured." Her face grew a bit pink and she turned her face downward and thumbed through the pages of the book. "I'd like to think our relationship has, too."
Lewis didn't say anything for a long while. He mulled this over in his head for a bit before talking himself out of over-analyzing it. Cleo looked up to see him staring at her, certain softness in his eyes that warmed her heart. Though neither of them said it aloud, but their love for one another spoke volumes in the small apartment living room.
"Mmm. Shocker," a sarcastic voice droned. The front door slammed shut and the two jumped nearly a foot in the air. "So how long have you two been sitting there giving each other the lovey-dovey look?" Rikki slid a box onto the kitchen table, pushing a few half-empty ones further away. She peered into one and made a face. "Nerds."
"You could knock, you know," Cleo muttered, standing up and stretching. How long had they been sitting there?
"Funny thing about that," Emma chimed in, sticking drinks in the fridge. "You kind of have to answer when we do."
"Which you did not," Bella added.
"Sorry, guys," Cleo sighed.
"It's not your fault." A smirk appeared on Bella's face and she raised her dark eyebrows at Lewis. "I see you offered Lewis a place to stay. That was nice of you."
"You're early." Lewis cleared his throat and quickly resumed to stacking the remaining books on the shelf.
"Yeah, well, we just knew Cleo wouldn't be ready for tonight," Emma laughed.
"And look at that! She's not!" Rikki exclaimed. "Shocker."
"Well, I was under the impression that I had another hour," Cleo defended.
"Well, you don't," Rikki sighed. "So I guess we'll have to help." Cleo narrowed her eyes in suspicion at the smirk on Rikki's face. She sighed when both Emma and Bella averted their eyes and busied themselves with pulling black cloth and cardboard out of the hall closet.
"Right, we're being chaperoned," she muttered to Lewis as she cleaned up the empty boxes, breaking them down so that they laid flat. Lewis glanced over his shoulder at Rikki, who was opening and closing food containers in the kitchen.
"So let's give them something to watch," he grinned. "Come here." Cleo let out a squeal as she fell backwards into his lap, his lips now at her neck.
"No!" she cried in between laughs.
"Oh, my gosh," Rikki grumbled, leaving them alone.
Lewis calmed down and Cleo stopped fighting his hold. She sunk further back into his chest and craned her neck to see him over her shoulder.
Lewis's lips landed on hers for a moment. "I think I'm going to like living with you." She just grinned, stood, and helped him to his feet so that they could join the others in preparing for their monthly lunar battle.
"All set," Rikki declared, throwing her hands in the air as she fell down onto the couch in the living room.
"And just to be safe, all reflective surfaces have been covered," Bella said as she joined her. Lewis looked over his shoulder at the sheet-covered flat screen with a frown.
"I always feel like a freak when we have to do this," Cleo groaned, running a hand over her face.
"Trust me, it's worth it," Emma stressed with a humorless laugh. "We really don't need to seducing guys into the water."
The month passed before Lewis knew it. It felt like he had only just moved in, but also like he had been there forever. Some say it's the people that make the home, and maybe that was true for him. Cleo was his home.
He was sitting at the kitchen table while Cleo ran through the apartment like a mad woman looking for some sort of whistle.
"Are you sure you haven't seen it?" she asked breathlessly as she jogged from their bedroom to the living room.
"Positive. Look," he turned around in his chair and leaned into the backrest. "I'm sure the park has extras." She gave him a look like he had just suggested she quit her job. He threw his hands up in defeat and turned back to his breakfast. "Okay, sorry."
"Found it!" she exclaimed. "It was behind the TV."
"That's disgusting. How did it wind up there?" he asked around a mouthful of cereal.
"Don't know, don't care. I'm going to be late." She kissed his cheek hastily, grabbed her things, and ran for the door. "Oh yeah—don't forget, my dad invited us over for dinner tonight."
"Right." Lewis turned back to clear the table without a second thought.
His cell phone started vibrating, bouncing around the kitchen counter. He leaned over to look at the caller ID and nearly fell over trying to answer it. He had, after all, been waiting for this call for over a month.
Lewis fidgeted with the cuffs of his long sleeve button-up. He desperately wanted to roll them up, by Cleo had insisted against it, claiming it would be a formal family outing. His fingers twitched on the button discretely, but Cleo slapped his hand away and gave him a look that said "really?"
"Can you contain yourself, please?" she pleaded, pushing open the door to her childhood home. "Dad?"
"Cleo." A dark haired woman wrapped her step-daughter in her arms.
"Hey, Sam," Cleo giggled. Sam smiled and pulled back to embrace Lewis.
"Just warning you—Kim's in a sour mood." She led the two to the living room and took a seat on the edge of the arm chair, leaving room for them to sit together on the couch. She smiled as their hands found each other out of habit.
"What for?" Cleo sighed. This was going to be a long night.
"Your father told her she couldn't bring her boyfriend," she muttered. "He says it's a family thing."
"But I got to invite Lewis," Cleo shook her head, motioning to the man in question with their joined hands.
Sam shrugged. "Just…try not to rub it in her face, yeah?"
"For the sake of the evening, I guess."
Not a minute later Kim came bouncing down the stairs. Cleo didn't doubt she had been sitting at the top listening in.
Because she would never grow out of things like that.
"Well, well," Kim smirked, hands on her hips. "Haven't seen you around here lately."
"Yeah, been kind of busy," Cleo smiled, trying not to start anything.
Kim raised her eyebrows and tried to hide the full on grin. "I can tell," she nodded towards Lewis.
"Kim!" Cleo and Sam snapped. Lewis just shook his head.
"Everyone here?" Don thumped down the stairs, buttoning a cuff on his sleeve.
"Everyone on the guest list," Kim grumbled.
"Will you grow up?" Cleo muttered under her breath.
Lewis stood as Don and Sam headed for the door and extended a hand to help Cleo off the couch. She smiled, pecked him on the cheek, and followed her sister out the door.
"So, Lewis," Don addressed him for the first time that night later as they picked up their menus. "Have you decided on which job offer to take?"
Lewis tilted his head in thought, his eyes flickering towards Cleo.
"Well, this sounds like a good problem to have," Sam chuckled. "Have you gotten a lot of job offers?"
"I wouldn't say a lot—"
"He has like six or seven that I know of," Cleo interrupted, scanning the menu indifferently. They'd already had this conversation before. It always turned into an argument. She wasn't exactly looking forward to the subject.
She looked up at him finally, taking a sip of water. His eyes met hers and something passed between them. She knew he would behave as long as she did. They'd end up having this talk again later, when they were at the apartment alone.
"That's incredible," Sam gushed.
"Well, I've narrowed it down to two. I didn't intend on taking up any offers in the states—"
"Shame," he heard Kim breath, secretly texting beneath the table. Cleo elbowed her.
"—I'd be doing more or less the same work no matter where I went. So if I got to choose—and I do—I'd choose to live here." Lewis played with the corner of his menu absentmindedly. "Besides, it pays a little bit more here."
"Understandable," Don nodded.
They all looked down towards their menus. The waitress came by and took their orders, leaving them in silence as she left.
"But I got a call this morning," he started suddenly. He was going to wait and tell Cleo first, privately, but he decided to knock out several birds with one stone. Well, several birds and a mermaid.
"What?" Cleo asked dryly.
"Oh?" Don laced his hand with Sam's on the table. "From the job you were telling me about—the one you had your eye on?"
"Yeah," he nodded. Cleo's eyebrows pulled together. His skittish demeanor had her worried. It was like senior year all over again. Her veins ran cold and she waited patiently for him to continue. "It's a little further away than I thought."
"How much further?" Sam asked.
"It's a good hour out of the way."
"Well, that's not much more than what you said it was before," Cleo breathed, her heartbeat slowing just a bit. Lewis looked up at her.
"And it doesn't pay as much as the other two I was considering."
"Lewis." He looked away from Cleo and across the table to her stepmother. "Don't worry about the money. Don't worry about the distance or the traveling. Take the job you want to take and everything else will fall into place."
"If you have to move, you have to move. You'll still be on the same continent this time—you and Cleo will be able to visit."
Cleo just let out a breath and glanced at Kim, who had hardly said anything. She was sitting quietly, phone in her lap, texting away.
"So, Cleo, how's your job going?" Sam asked, helpfully changing the subject after noticing the tension between Lewis and Cleo.
"Great," she smiled. "Nothing new."
"Sometimes no news is good news," Don grinned.
"I'm in a good position for me right now." She once again glanced over at her sister. "So, Kim, when do I get to meet this new boyfriend?" Kim looked up and smiled before diving into a heartfelt and eager description of their relationship.
Lewis dropped down onto the couch with a sigh and pulled Cleo down on top of him as soon as Don and Sam had disappeared into the kitchen to put away the leftovers.
"Cleo?" Sam called. "Can you come here for a minute?"
They froze. Cleo kissed him on the cheek before jumping up and leaving him on the couch. He smiled and watched her go, a familiar content feeling overcoming him.
"So," Don started awkwardly, walking into the room and sitting down directly across from Lewis. "You landed your dream job at age 21."
"Looks that way," Lewis smiled. Don looked at him expectantly. "What?"
"It's been a month, you know."
Lewis's eyebrows pulled together, not in confusion but in disbelief. "I can't believe I forgot." His voice was quiet.
"I was surprised you hadn't jumped on it first chance you got," Don laughed. There was a short silence and he shifted on the couch, sitting himself on the very edge, hands on his knees. "What do you think I'm going to say?"
"Honestly, Mr. S?" Lewis leaned forward. "Honestly, it doesn't matter." Don looked a little shocked. "It doesn't matter if everyone else knows—she's the only one who needs to know just how much I love her."
"And how did you come to this revelation?"
"I've been living with Cleo, as I'm sure you're aware," Lewis nodded. "Well, even if we did get married, nothing would change. She already knows how much I love her—or I hope she does anyways. If you still don't approve yet, I'm willing to wait longer."
"I should make you wait," Don said finally, after a long moment of thinking, "but it's not really my decision. I've done some thinking myself. You're both adults."
Lewis's eyes widened slightly. "Mr. S, are giving me…"
Don clapped his hands against his knees and stood up. "I am."
Lewis smiled and hugged the man. He honestly hadn't been thinking about his wanting to marry Cleo much in the last month. When he had initially gotten back, all he wanted was to be as close to her as possible. But now that he was—and had been for the last month, there was nothing more that he wanted than to be with her for the rest of his life.
"Alright, it's getting pretty late," Cleo announced, returning with Sam close behind her. Lewis was hoping with all his being that she hadn't heard anything they had said. But knowing Don, he and his wife had set this up all along. Get Cleo out of the room so they could talk.
"What did Sam have to show you?" he asked curiously as they walked down the driveway and back towards their apartment.
"She just needed help testing the soil in the backyard. She can't get the tomato plants to grow." He smiled and nodded. "Why?"
"No reason." He grabbed her hand and pulled her to him.
"You're going to do it soon?" Zane asked once again just for clarification.
"Yes," Lewis groaned, spinning around at the barstool. He had met up with Rikki, Zane, and Ash at Emma's place for lunch since Cleo was busy with a dolphin show and wouldn't be able to make it.
"When?" Emma asked, leaning against the counter.
"Do you have a ring?" Rikki fired.
"No, no ring yet," he mumbled. He had been out looking for the last week—ever since he had gotten her dad's permission to ask her.
"Okay, easy. Step one. Get a ring," Ash offered helpfully. "Do you know how you're going to do it?"
"Knowing him, it'll probably be something lame and marine-life-related," Rikki scoffed, earning a whack on the arm from Emma.
"I'm sure whatever you think of, Cleo will love it," Emma reassured him.
"I've been looking for a ring, but nothing seems to say Cleo," he sighed.
"Cleo's pretty…unique," Zane started hesitantly. "Have you ever thought of getting a ring custom made?"
"That can't be cheap," Ash muttered.
Emma cleared the dishes off the counter. "I don't know. On one hand something custom might feel right for Cleo, but on the other hand, she might not like you spending a lot of money on her." Everyone could clearly see the gears turning in Lewis's head. He stared at the counter, deep in thought.
"What price range are we talking about, exactly?" he asked Zane suddenly.
"Depends on what you want done." Zane tilted his head back for a second before he spoke again. "I'm thinking anywhere between five to twelve hundred dollars."
"Holy crap," Rikki gasped. "Where is he gonna get that kind of money for a ring?"
"Well," Lewis started slowly. "There's the three hundred I saved up during my last year in America. Then the five hundred I get from taking the marine research job."
"Any idea what you're looking for?" Emma asked.
Lewis rubbed his arm. All this thinking was seriously giving him a migraine. He hadn't thought this hard in months. "I'm not sure honestly. I want it to be special. Like the lockets and the pendants you guys have. Something…I don't know."
"I'm sure you'll think of something," Ash encouraged.
"Right. It's not exactly something we can help you with," Emma agreed. "But if there is something we can help you with, just let us know."
"Thanks." He offered up a small smile.
"And it's not like you have to figure something out right now," Rikki sighed. "So I don't know why you're freaking out."
"I'm not," he defended. "I'm simply trying to work this out while I can. Once work starts, who knows how much free time I'll have?"
"Right," Emma laughed.
It wasn't until the following day when Lewis decided to visit Cleo at the marine park that he finally got an idea. He was sitting on a wooden railing on the docks for one of the tanks just watching her interact with the dolphins on her break. Cleo was standing dangerously close to the edge of the dock with a silvery ball in her hands. The sun shone through the tree tops across the tank and made it glitter like a pearl.
It was perfect.
It wasn't special enough.
But it would be.
"Hey," he hopped off the railing and walked towards Cleo. "I have to go run some errands, but I'll see you at home later?"
She gave him a quick kiss. "See you."
He wasted no time in trying to find Will. He knew the man in question would be available—it was three in the afternoon. His classes were over for the day. Chances were that he would be exactly where he needed him to be.
Lewis arrived at Will's boathouse and knocked on the door. He smiled when the tall blond answered.
"Awesome," Lewis breathed. "Any chance you're free this afternoon?" Will nodded like Lewis knew he would. He backed out of the doorway and waved Lewis inside.
Lewis slowly made his way around the room before he spotted what he was looking for. He held up a small glass jar filled with glittering round balls. Only half looked real.
"Did you find all of these?"
"A few of the real ones, yeah," he answered. "Why?"
"What are the chances of finding one?" Will's eyebrows pulled together so Lewis elaborated. "I want to find one to use in Cleo's ring."
Will made a face of approval and nodded. "It'll take you a while and a lot of searching—they're rare. But I'm positive it's possible." He jumped up and rummaged around in the corner before pulling out an oxygen tank and handing it to Lewis, who looked back at Will utterly confused.
"You want to go search right now, right? That's why you're here?" Will grinned and pulled out another tank. "I'm done with classes today—though you knew that. The tanks are easier than snorkeling—we can stay down longer and go further." He walked around the room until he found a few other things he was looking for: a knife and a small tube about a half an inch in diameter and two inches long.
"What's that for?"
"I'm pretty sure Cleo would skin you if she found out you killed dozens of mollusks just for her."
"True story," Lewis agreed, taking the tools from him.
"You'll have to carefully slip the knife between the shells just enough to pry it open and slip the tube in to keep it open. Then check for a pearl. If there is none then it's free to go," Will explained. "My sister and I used to do it all the time."
An hour later and they were geared up, in the water, searching mussels. Three hours later and the sun had just about set, diminishing their available light. They called it a day and returned to the surface.
"Don't give up," Will encouraged, removing the mask from his face once they were both situated back on the boat. "It's a really great idea and I'm positive Cleo will love it."
Lewis didn't answer. He just stared out across the ocean, Mako Island a small point on the horizon, and carefully steered them back to shore.
"Where have you been?" Cleo asked, trying to be too pushy and failing. "When you said you'd see me at home, I assumed you meant you'd be home for dinner." She followed him into their bedroom, arms crossed over her chest.
He pulled off his shoes and sat on the edge of the bed. Pinching the bridge of his nose in a vain attempt to relieve his oncoming headache, he sighed. Cleo sat down on the bed next to him, noticing something off about him.
"I wanted to…I want to…"
He took a deep breath. No, he wouldn't give up. It was perfect and he wouldn't let this go. He shook his head to clear his thoughts. "I'm working on a super secret project that you can't know about yet."
"A project," she stated flatly, looking at him through narrowed, suspicious eyes.
"Yup. A super secret project that I started in America. Ask Will."
"Those errands I had to run today—I asked him to help me gather tissue samples from mollusks near the moon pool."
"Why the moon pool?" She seemed even more suspicious, or maybe that was just her way of hiding her intense curiosity. Whatever it was, Lewis knew he had her far enough away from the truth that their relationship wasn't in danger. There would hopefully be no infidelity accusations any time soon.
"Secret." He kissed her and left the room to shower.
The next thing Lewis knew, two months and a half months had passed. He had more or less two weeks to find a pearl before he started work. After that—who knew when he would have time? To lessen the load, Lewis had gone to a jeweler to make sure they would be able to turn the pearl into a usable gem on a ring. He described the design of what he wanted. When a prototype was shown to him, he immediately knew that he had made the right choice. Now all that was left was the pearl. Lewis would occasionally take one of the girls out with him to help, sometimes even Will or Zane would come along. But no dice. It felt like they had searched the entire area surrounding Mako Island.
So that's how he found himself out in the ocean as soon as the sun cast enough light on the water. He decided to start out further than he would have, just to make sure that he was searching some place new. He took a packed lunch and told Cleo he was going out for the day. Her finals were that week, so after hours of studying with her, she was okay with him wanting time to himself.
Will had given him several oxygen tanks, but told him not to overdo it. He told Lewis that he would help whenever he could, but Lewis went out when the sun rose and came in when it set. His hope was slowly diminishing. He had long since run out of oxygen tanks—he didn't want to keep running through Will's supply, so he stuck to snorkeling.
Finally, finally, he found one. A pearl. It was small, maybe four or five millimeters at best, and sparkled in the filtered light. As carefully as he could, he dropped it into a bright orange mesh bag and paddled to the surface. He felt lighter than air. He had finally found one. He felt a psychological release. There were no time limits anymore.
Lewis pushed himself into the boat and kicked off his flippers. He laughed hysterically and punched the air. Finally.
"You're pretty little," he whispered to himself, picking the pearl out of the bag to closer inspect it. It threw rainbows of light off its clean white surface. It wasn't perfectly round, but Lewis figured that only make it more perfect.
He secured it back in the bag and then lay down on the bottom of the boat, completely wiped out. Figuring he'd take a small nap before heading back, he shut his eyes and allowed himself to drift away.
"Wake. Up. Dumbass," a voice commanded Lewis out of his sleep. He opened his eyes to a gray sky. Hadn't it been sunny just a little while ago? The boat shook and jerked Lewis out of his groggy state. Fully aware, he sat up and looked at the being latched onto the side of the boat.
She was visibly, fuming mad. "You are in so much trouble," she ground out. "We have been looking for you for hours. Have you been sleeping out here all night?" Confused, Lewis checked his watch. 11 AM. Okay. He had definitely found that pearl around four in the afternoon. Realization clouded his face and Rikki smirked. "Yeah, there we go. Light bulb."
"Oh, crap," he muttered.
"Yeah." Rikki pulled herself into the boat, nearly making it flip, and began to dry off. "Cleo called us about two hours ago freaking out. You remember her, right? Tall, tan, dark hair, you're living with her?"
Lewis ignored her ranting and jerked the motor to life, the boat suddenly taking off for the shore.
"Have you found anything yet?" she asked after some silent time to calm herself.
Lewis held up the bag in response. Rikki took it from him and examined the pearl by poking around from outside the bag. "It's tiny."
He didn't see Rikki's genuine smile.
Cleo, Emma, and Zane had gathered on the docks near the café, Cleo in front. And man, she was pissed. Even from several hundred feet out, Lewis could feel the tension. Before they made it in, he handed the bag to Rikki, who looked at him like he had just handed her a spider.
"Give it to Zane. He'll know what to do with it. Please," he begged.
"You owe me," she muttered, zipping it into one of the several pockets on her pants.
"I know," he sighed.
As soon as the boat was secured to the dock and both of Lewis's feet were planted firmly on the ground, Cleo grabbed his arm and roughly pulled him to her. After a moment of the embrace, she pushed him away just as roughly, and crossed her arms over her chest.
"Where have you been, Lewis?"
"I've been working on the—"
"Secret project," she finished for him with a huff. "So I've been hearing."
"Cleo, Rikki found him asleep in the boat," Emma started calmly, laying a hand on her best friend's shoulder. "Maybe you should take him home."
"Right," she sighed, grabbing Lewis's hand. "Let's go."
"She has it," Lewis mouthed to Zane, pointing dramatically to Rikki. Zane's eyebrows shot upwards.
"What?" he mouthed back, looking then at Rikki, who handed him the orange pouch.
Another psychological release. The pearl was en route to the jeweler. He would—hopefully—soon get a call saying the ring was finished. But a new knot had formed in the pit of his stomach. He had not only freaked Cleo out, but she was mad and completely suspicious.
Once they were alone in their apartment, Cleo left him and disappeared into their bedroom. He followed sluggishly, kicking off his shoes. He threw his shirt towards the hamper in the corner, which missed, and fell onto the bed.
"I don't know what you're doing, Lewis, but this has to stop," she ranted, walking back and forth between the closet and the bathroom, jerking off her t-shirt and pulling on her work shirt.
"Okay," he mumbled into his pillow.
"I don't know how much more I can take of this—going out early and coming in late."
"Are you seeing someone else?" She had stopped in front of him at the side of the bed. His eyes snapped open.
Lewis couldn't believe she had just asked that. He reached up and pulled her down onto the bed, rolling over so that she was next to him. "If I was cheating on you," he whispered, "I wouldn't have been found sleeping in a boat out at sea alone."
"I know," she smiled. "It's just nice to see you freak out once in a while."
"With you, I freak out an awful lot," he murmured, sleep once again trying to pull him under after the crisis had been averted.
About two weeks later, everything was starting to come together. Lewis had started his job and absolutely lovedit, Cleo had graduated and was working full time for the marine park, and a certain number lit up Lewis's phone.
"Who was that? Cleo? Made you awful happy," Andy, one of the scientists Lewis worked with, stated as he glanced up from his clipboard.
"No," he shook his head, picking up his own clipboard to put his nose to the grinder in hopes he could duck out of work a few minutes early. "That was the jeweler making Cleo's ring."
"I see," Andy smirked. "So tell me—when do you plan on giving it to her?"
Lewis dragged his hand through the small tank of water sitting in front of him, identical in shape and size to the dozens of others lined up in the warehouse. Rippling waves stretched out across the surface. "I've been trying to think of a way to do it for months now."
"And I think I'm just going to ask."
"You're just…going to ask?" Andy stared at him, confusion on his face. "What does that mean? You're not going to just be like, 'Hey, Cleo, pass the peas. And marry me? Please?' That's a bit…."
"No," Lewis laughed. "It'll be a little more of a special occasion than that."
"Good," Andy sighed, reaching into the tank and lifted out a rock. "Because I always knew you were lame, I just never thought you were that lame."
"Thanks," Lewis mumbled sarcastically.
"She doesn't sound like the type to enjoy something overly romantic, like a ring-in-the-champagne kind of thing," Andy noted.
"She's not," Lewis agreed.
"Then again, maybe she would."
"I'm sure whatever you do she'll love it," he assured him.
"Is it what you wanted?" the man with the American accent asked Lewis, who was leaning against a countertop examining a ring.
"It's perfect," he breathed. They had taken his pearl and wound it into a white gold band. The white gold curved gently around the pearl before looping up and resting on the side. It was simple. It was beautiful.
It was Cleo.
"She's going to love it. It really is a unique idea for an engagement ring," the man gushed. "And you even found the pearl yourself."
"I can't thank you enough." Lewis handed him a wad of money. The jeweler counted it as Lewis carefully placed the ring into its velvet box and snapped it closed.
Now how to break it to her. Should he jokingly take her fishing? Do it at Rikki's Café in front of all their friends? Hide the ring and let her find it? Take her to Mako? There were so many possibilities, all of which he was sure she's like. But what would she love?
When the moment was right, he was sure he would know. All he could do was wait and carry the ring around in his pocket.
The minute he walked through the door and threw his keys down on the little table by the door, he was hit with a scent so strong and so amazing he almost groaned out loud. He followed his nose to the kitchen and found Cleo standing at the stove, dropping pieces of potato into a pot.
"That smells amazing," he breathed, coming up behind her. She turned and stepped into his embrace. His lips found hers; it was an unusually hungry and eager kiss.
"Mm. Careful," she murmured, pulling away.
"I love you." He smiled and kissed her again.
"It's apparent." She pointed to the kitchen table, which had already been set. He frowned—he usually did that for her as his way of helping out. "Sit."
By the time dinner was done and Lewis had single handedly cleaned the dishes, he was ready to fall over and sleep for a year. The hour drive didn't really kill him all that much—he got up at 6:30 to be out the door by 7, and was usually home by 6:30. Not as bad as it could have been. He counted himself lucky and he knew Cleo agreed.
He trudged to their room and found Cleo lying back against the headboard watching the news. He flopped down next to her. She took his hand and slid down further so that she could lie against him.
Was this is? It was just the two of them, alone. It was perfect. He rolled onto his back to let Cleo lie on his chest. Reaching into his pocket, his heart sped up the minute his fingers met velvet.
"What's that?" Cleo whispered when she noticed him fiddling with it.
"It's the product of all that work I did before."
"All the days you spent in the ocean?" She sat upright and turned on the light. Once she could see, she noticed just exactly what he was holding.
Lewis held it out to her. "It's not gonna bite."
Hesitantly, she took the box from him and pulled the lid up. She gasped and gently took the ring out to better examine it. "Oh, my…"
"I found the pearl myself."
Shocked crossed her face and her eyebrows shot to her hairline. "What? Why—how was that related—?"
"Cleo." He sat up. "I love you."
"Lewis, what are you—"
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Marry me?"