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when the leaves are gone

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Emma rests her elbows on the kitchen counter, humming softly to herself as she draws all over a printed timetable in red ink. She circles the box on the bottom right corner -- no chores on Tuesdays, thank you very much -- and decides that Elliot can handle one day's worth of work by himself. After all, she's going to find something new to fill her time. Maybe she'll take up sketching, or learn how to identify birds by the colours of their feathers. She's not known for being open-minded, exactly, but things have been changing recently. A slow, inevitable transformation from one phase of her life into the next. If she talks to an adult about it, they'll say it's puberty, it's normal, it's something everyone goes through and makes it out okay on the other side.

She taps the end of the pen against the table.

She doesn't like keeping secrets from the people closest to her. At least there's a good reason to hide the mermaid thing, but what she and Rikki have feels bigger than that. It feels like a cloak of warm water drawn over her shoulders. It feels like something to be shared with the world: it feels like somehow, it's meant to be.

But the fact Rikki wants to keep whatever they have from Cleo, that circles her thoughts. She puts down the pen and folds up the timetable, labelling it neatly with her name and securing it onto the fridge with a dolphin-shaped novelty magnet, an ancient gift from Cleo when she still worked at the water park.

There's one instance where she almost caves: Cleo's spooning a rootbeer float into her mouth and chatting idly about Lewis, before she pauses, tilts her head, and asks Emma about her love life.

"How's things with Ash?"

Emma forces a smile. "Good. Yeah, he's just been busy with family stuff recently, but we're doing great."

"That's, uh..." Cleo doesn't buy it, but she's too tactful to say anything. That flickering pity in her eyes makes Emma want to slam her hands onto the table and just announce it, just say that she likes kissing Rikki more than she has ever liked kissing Byron or Ash, that holding Rikki's hand as they swim to Mako Island makes her feel alive, that she wishes Rikki would link arms with her and laugh with her and admit that they're more than friends in public.

But Cleo's phone buzzes, a text from Lewis, and in a few moments she's gone.

Emma texts Rikki and spends the evening at her place, dancing to terrible pop music with their hands on each others' hips, and tasting the fruity, post-smoothie tang of Rikki's lips.

Her parents drop the news a few days later. She's smiling and nodding and pretending to be as excited as Elliot, but her heart cracks open at everything there is to lose. It's not her fault that she knows the numbers: only one in every ten long-distance friendships survive, with hope dwindling even further when it comes to matters of the heart.

Emma pours herself a glass of water. She fires off a quick text and sips it as she awaits a reply.

EMMA: Come over tonight?

RIKKI: w/ or w/o cleo?

EMMA: Without. Bring ice-cream, please.

RIKKI: ok, laters <3

Emma looks at her handiwork on the fridge, trying to focus on the good. There's a world beyond this island, full of people and ideas and magic. This is a future to look forward to. She'll learn languages. She'll visit famous places. She'll come back with a hundred thousand stories to tell.

But the voice in the back of her mind, the one that insists she delay breaking the news to her friends and more-than-friends, questions if she'll have anyone to come back to at all.