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Indigo

Chapter Text

She had turned his beloved research center into a theme park. He had let her do it. It sounded like a reasonable thing to do, at first. Display a few of the sea’s wonderful creatures while he conducted his research or nursed them back to health, and have interested visitors pay a little fee, so he could sustain his work and their station. It made sense and she had convinced him quickly. It could do so much good to educate people, she had said. They could buy better equipment, she had said. They might even be able to hire an assistant, so he could spend more time with his family. They could even pay for college, maybe, so Bae could study to become a marine biologist like he wanted. A real one - with a degree to his name.

His wife had a flair for business and was better with people than he was, so he had left everything up to her. Her sparkling eyes and rosy cheeks had made everything better. They were happy again, for a little while. There was a smile on her face when she looked at him, a spring in her step. Her excitement was contagious and soon his tentative smile had cracked into a wide one to mirror hers.

It didn’t last. She was restless. Never happy with how things were. She wanted bigger tanks. She wanted more animals, bigger animals, rarer animals. They expanded constantly – adding a diner, water park rides and a shop with horrifically inaccurate ugly merchandise, toys, and other knickknack for the wailing children to torment their parents until they would waste their hard-earned money on it.

They also had a crew now. Obnoxious people in white collar shirts bustling about and making it hard to think. For all the good the money did them, Murchadh Gold always sighed with relief when the heavy golden gates closed and opening hours were over.

“Papa! Papa, come quick!” The door to his study flew open with a bang and his son, wide-eyed and panting, came bursting through.

“Bae, what – ?“

Before he could finish his sentence he was dragged out of his chair.

“They found one, Papa!” Bae beamed. “A mermaid! A real mermaid!”  He grabbed his hand and pulled him out of the room and into the hallway. “They are bringing her in now. Come on!”

Gold could not believe his ears. Of course he knew the legends. Merfolk were very much alive in them, but nobody had seen a living mermaid or –man in centuries. Most people believed them to be mere myth these days. Ever since he had been a little boy he had tried to find them, and had passed his fascination with the beautiful people of the sea down to his own son. Legend had it that their blood was pure gold that held the secret to eternal beauty. They had been hunted down to near extinction upon first discovery for it.

The pain in his ruined ankle momentarily forgotten, he found himself jogging after his son, who had let go of his hand and sped further down the hall to the main aquarium. There were no people here now, they had closed two hours ago.

“Hey, Murdo!” One of their employees, Killian Jones greeted him from the top ramp when he arrived at the scene. “Just in time for the big show. You won’t believe your eyes when you see what a fine piece of meat got tangled up in our nets this afternoon. Milah is ecstatic.”

Of course she would be. Golden blood in her veins or not, that mermaid equaled big money. His wife would be overjoyed at the thought of all the publicity and riches the poor creature would get them. Theirs would be the only sea park in the world with such a rarity.

He grimaced and looked around, but Milah was nowhere to be seen. She was probably on the phone with national TV right about now and had all the newspapers on hold. Murchadh shook his head.

“Where is she?” he asked, and wasn’t sure whether he meant his wife or the mermaid or both.

“Nottingham and Nolan should be wheeling her in any minute now.” Killian Jones checked his watch.

“What does she look like?” Bae asked, hopping from one foot to the other on one of the seats of the seating area to see better. Apparently staff had not let him through to the ramps.

“Eh, lad,” Jones laughed, “like half a fish, I suppose.”

Bae made a duh face and turned to him. “Papa, can I go watch from the top?”

Gold looked at the small group of white shirts on the ramps. Shook his head. “Not yet,”

His son’s face fell.

“-but you can go up once she’s settled in, alright?”

“Fine,” he grumbled, “but I would not fall in. I’m not a baby.”

Gold felt almost sorry for his boy. He could see the waves of excitement crashing through his tiny body. His 11-year-old tingled from his head to his toes, bounced on his flexing feet and rubbed his hands together. He wore the facial expression of a small child with an especially large Christmas present. Gold smiled.

They brought her in in one of the transparent containers. Three quarters filled with murky water.  Gold could not help but hurry up the water-level ramp after them.  

“Careful, people, that’s a living creature!” He bellowed. They had thrown her out with the water onto the platform, where the trainers usually stood during their despicable live shows. “Show some respect.”

“That’s just a fish, man.” One of the haulers, a short man with a grumpy face, said and shrugged. “It doesn’t care.”

Murchadh’s hands curled into fists at his side. He very much wished that he had not left his cane behind in the office right about now. He didn’t need it at all times, just when he got tired– or when he longed to smash people’s heads in. Like now.

“Out of the way!” He pushed past the man and two others and crouched down beside their haul. It was a mermaid. She would have been beautiful with her pastel white skin dusted with light specs of gold, her pink lips, and long obsidian hair all black from the water, but there were bloody cuts in her tail (-red, not gold. So much for the rejuvenating elixir-) and angry red marks on her skin where the rope cut into it. The bastards hadn’t even bothered to get her out of their fishing net.

“Jones, knife!” He barked and his demand was met instantly with a Yes, Sir!, and the requested object placed in his hand. People knew better than to cross him when he was angry, at least.

He cut her loose in a few swift, but careful, movements and tossed the remainder of the net aside. She was breathing, but still out.

“Bae,” He called down to the seating area. “Can you get Dr. Whale’s kit from the Cockpit and bring it to me, please?” The Cockpit was what they called the little circular office that looked like a tower. Bae was closest to it.

Within minutes the boy had fetched the vet’s emergency kit and crouched down next to him, the water seeping through the knees of his pants as he leaned closer to look.

“Oooh!” He extended a hand to touch, but then drew back abruptly. “Papa, she’s hurt!”

Gold’s face softened at the indignation in Bae’s voice. He had raised the boy well. Every living creature deserved to be treated with the same level of respect and kindness.

“Yes,” He placed a soothing hand on Bae’s shoulder, “but it looks worse than it is, I am sure. We can help her. Would you like to assist me?”

Bae nodded eagerly.

“Alright, my boy, first we must patch up the cuts… .”

They sanitized their hands with spray, and then Gold dipped a clean cloth in disinfectant. “I will clean the cuts first. You can help me sew them up.”

“Uh-huh”, Bae said without taking his eyes off the mermaid’s tail, gazing in the same way he'd take in the night sky. "It’s so blue," he squeaked. "Sparkly… ."

Blue it was indeed - a rich deep indigo. To the touch it was silky. Murchadh ran the cloth up and down slowly, expecting to feel roughness through the fabric. Instead it felt more similar to stroking glass, but softer.

He still marveled at the strange sensation when suddenly she jerked awake and bolted upright, her face turned towards him, her eyes wide. She had a look in her eye Gold had seen before, but not on a person. It was the look he’d seen in captive orcas' eyes when they came in for schooling, wild, not even knowing what people are.

He stopped, gazing, mesmerized by how very blue her eyes were. Lighter in color than her tail.

She drew a deep breath, hissed through her teeth and explosively slashed her tail back and forth, splashing them wet, then hurtled into the water.

They watched the faint red trail she left behind.

Gold sighed. She would probably not come out of the fake caves at the bottom of the artificial lagoon willingly to let them help and patch her up then. He did not want to sedate her to do it either, though. No matter what everyone else thought, she wasn’t just an animal, just a fish. It would not have felt right. But help she would need, or her wounds would get infected.

Slowly he got to his feet. “Let’s leave her for a bit until she calms down, Boy.”

“But,” Bae gestured to the water. “She’s bleeding!”

Gold steered him off the platform and down the ramp, medical kit in hand. “I know. We’ll take care of that as soon as we can.” He shooed everyone off the ramps “I want everyone out of here! NOW.”

The staff obeyed, but their faces were clearly disappointed. Had they been expecting some kind of show? Did they truly believe the poor thing they just captured and dragged here so barbarically, would entertain them in thanks? Oafs.

He dimmed the main lights and sent Bae upstairs. It was too late for the boy to be here anyway. It was a school night.

After everyone was gone, he sank down on one of the plastic seats and watched the water in the reef-tank, his chin resting on his palms. The dust and sand had settled and the fish had come back out, but she remained hidden. He could see her bright eyes flashing at him from inside the cave.

He wondered if she had a name. Every living creature in their tanks had been given a name. It was harder to mistreat something that had a proper name, he had found. Names were powerful that way. He would often pick out the names himself or let Bae do it, but somehow it felt wrong to give her one.

He would have to call her something, though. He looked at the bright blue shining in the darkness again. He loved the color blue. Blue was the color of his favorite things- the sea, bluebirds, bluebells and the sky. He would call her Indigo. For now.

Chapter Text

The ear-splitting wailing that cut through the silence, rising to peak and then ebbing and rising again, undulating like a wave, had her flee the shelter of the cave instinctively.

A grievous error.

As soon as she was out in the open, she found herself blinded by flashes of strange lightning that stung in her eyes and paralyzed her with terror. She had seen lightning before, of course, but it had always been at the surface, far above their heads, and they would retreat to deeper and darker waters until it had passed. Yet, when Belle tried to do just that she collided with something solid under the very thin layer of sand.

Down was not an option, but neither was back. The entrance to the small cave had vanished, another solid barrier in its place. Disoriented, she spun back around. Her breath came in small spurts, shallow and panicked. She couldn’t see.

She knew of predators that blinded their prey when hunting, but she had either to be surrounded by multiple schools, pods, packs or herds of them or was facing an entirely different ginormous beast to warrant this level of brightness.

Whatever it was, it was going to eat her alive.

Her unseeing eyes wide with fear, her muscles contracted and she froze in place as dread crept over her like an icy current, numbing her brain. The fine hair on the nape of her neck and on her arms bristled, and as if on cue something slick and slippery touched her shoulder. She jumped.

Dead fish. A stream of tiny dead fish rained down on her from above. The metallic tang was everywhere. It filled her nose and crawled to the back of her mouth. Her stomach contracted convulsively and she retched and recoiled and her back collided with yet another glass wall. She turned around. Was this a threat, a warning? If they scorned the small fish, they would be coming for her next. Her skin prickled.

She squinted through the glass, but could only make out blurry colors, movements, flashes of white. Eyes? Teeth?

If vision was out, she had to rely on sound. It was her only chance. She emitted a string of high clicks and short pulses of sound, and listened for the echo. She had to detect the attackers in the hopes of navigating around them to safety or shelter.

She found herself unable to identify, recognize or understand any of the signals over the din. Other noises at frequencies similar to her own were interfering. She raised the intensity of her vocalizations to rise above the ruckus, and tried changing the frequency, but nothing worked. None of her distressed calls were answered (or, if they were, she could not hear the answers) and the noise level made it impossible to navigate by sound. Not only was she practically blind, they had also rendered her mute and deaf.

There was no way around it. She would have to surface.

She came up and the flashing and blaring was magnified tenfold instantly. Belle pressed her hands over her ears. Were these birds? Strange birds of prey screeching? She forced her eyes open to look around and found what must have been hundreds of pale faces, not so very different from her own, staring back at her.

Airlings? - Had the one that had found her injured summoned them all?

She felt the adrenaline almost bursting through her skin, a silent scream locked in her throat. Belle hissed as loudly as she could, then threw herself into a dive with even greater abandon than before. Her lungs and heart were pumping, but the oxygen didn't seem to be enough as she propelled back down, panic tingling in her exhausted muscles.

Some of them lunged forward. She both heard and felt their bodies connect with the walls that surrounded this - for want of a better word - lake. The impact sent waves through the water and the energy sizzled through her body like sparks.Heart pounding, her rapid breath like thunder in her ears, eyes burning and her lungs on fire, she prayed not to be snatched from the water on her way back down and for the diversion to work.

She whirled in circles to stir up as much sand and sediment, seaweed and coral as she possibly could, then threw herself flat on the ground and rolled a few times.  At least somewhat camouflaged with dust particles and sand, she covered her head with her arms and lay completely motionless and quiet, pressed to the cold barrier like a skate, the sand and rubble scraping her skin and scales.

Be still. She had to blend in, become invisible. Never easy with her obtrusive flashy tail. Dead still. Be still or be dead. Shhh.

***

“What on earth is it doing?!” Milah ran a hand through her heavy raven-colored curls. Well, this was what you got, if you didn’t set the rules from the very beginning. She may not have been a biologist or an animal trainer, but her own statistics clearly supported that a firm hand from the very first day spent in their tanks onward was absolutely necessary – especially with the larger and more intelligent cetaceans, who could not always be persuaded by buckets of fish. They were more prone to act up and be moody, if you didn’t make it absolutely crystal who was boss. Then they became a hazard rather than an asset. They had had no accidents happen at their own park and – thank God – no casualties to report either – but those things happened and they ruined an entire business in one blink of an eye.

The mermaid was half fish, half human-looking, so it would be classified as marine mammal, probably. Milah had long stopped listening to her husband’s ramblings about the merfolk and was hazy on the details, but most of that had been him spinning yarns anyway.

There had been a time when she had found it endearing. The way his eyes lit up to resemble amber rather than dim chestnuts when he told the stories and legends that had haunted him since childhood. He knew most of them by heart and would gesture animatedly as he repeated them back to her. He had had different voices for all the species and would make her laugh with his one-man show until her sides hurt and tears came streaming down her face. Sometimes she had hiccuped for almost an entire hour after until she managed to compose herself again.

He had called her his darling manatee back then. Her booming uncontrollable laughter and strictly vegan diet had earned her that moniker – that and the actual hiccuping sea cow they had come across during their honeymoon cruise. Of course, soon after that the name had proven to be a perfect fit - for her resemblance to the massive mammals had quickly become more and more pronounced as she piled on the pounds during her pregnancy. She had made Murchadh stop calling her pet names at some point during her last trimester.

“I have absolutely no idea,” Killian shrugged. “But I think they got some good shots.”

She turned a little to look at him. Well, they better. Nobody would believe it, if there were no pictures to go with the media coverage. Nobody would come.

“Hopefully -” Milah scrunched up her nose at the fishy odor from the bucket that their staff manager was holding. “And would you mind getting rid of that?” She gave him a disgusted look. “The stench makes me want to lose my breakfast.”

She was very well aware of his eyes roaming up and down her body at that, but she did not mind. No one else would know. They were all watching the motionless fish-creature at the bottom of the tank, transfixed – as though continued staring would somehow motivate it to move again.

She had spent hours getting ready this morning, matched her crisp, perfectly tailored skirted suit with her favorite Louboutins (4 inches, black leather with the signature red bottom) and some subtle, but classy jewelry. Then she curled her luxuriant hair and styled it until not a single shiny polished curl fell out of place. Her make-up accentuated her high cheekbones and full lips, but wasn’t overdone. She knew how to use her sexuality like a weapon to twist men around her little finger and make women jealous, but her fashionable appearance and confident strut also demanded respect and gave her the necessary authority to run the park efficiently and make deals as successfully as she had. She could easily have graced any billboard or magazine cover – she knew she would have outshone those two dimensional photo-shopped models, but she preferred a line of work that required both looks and brains.

The corner of her mouth turned upwards a little. Let him look. Heaven knew Murchadh hadn’t looked at her properly in years. Whatever diet or exercise regime she put herself through to keep her slim figure, whatever new haircut she got to compliment her face, whatever clothes or shoes she wore, Murchadh would not notice. He only had eyes for his books and his slimy sea-creatures. If you didn’t have scales, gills and fins that sparkled in neon-colors under the skylights, you were practically invisible to the man.

“Mama!” Her son came running towards her through the crowd.

It wasn’t even lunch yet, why wasn’t he in class? He all but crashed into her and grabbed her by the arms.

“Baelfire, what -? Why aren’t you in class?” She would need to have a word with Dr. Hopper, if the teacher was being too indulgent and allowed Baelfire to neglect his school work. Mornings were school hours. The boy knew that. She had not arranged for him to be homeschooled so that he could choose to work at his leisure. She wanted him to excel in life. He needed the best education available to do that.

“Dr. Hopper let me have my break a little early, so I could come and watch the rest of the show for the newspaper people!” She raised a brow and he hastened to add, “We’ll make it up later.”

He tugged on her left arm and hand with both of his hands and she took an involuntarily step forward. “Mama - she isn’t moving!”

Milah’s face softened a little. “Yes, it’s not much of a show yet, I’m sorry,” she offered, taking in his sweaty face and agitated expression, and ruffled his hair. “You know we haven’t trained it yet.” She added a ‘because you father won’t let us’ in her head.

Not even Dr. Whale would touch the creature against Murchadh’s orders. He had said not to sedate it (unless it showed signs of illness) and not to submit it to training yet either. He wanted it to be left in peace and they had closed the reef-tank to the public for now – but she could not deny the reporters or possible sponsors a peek at their newest addition. That wasn’t how business worked. He would not have liked it, but he wasn’t here to spook them with his yelling. She called the shots.

“They have to stop! Tell them to stop!”

“Tell who to stop what?” She had to shift her weight to her right leg to balance his efforts out. “Please, stop dragging me! Baelfire, we discussed this, remember?”

He looked at her and let go, his chest heaving.

He was old enough to verbalize whatever requests or issues he had calmly – or at least as calmly as possible.

“She is scared. They need to leave her alone! Make. Them. Go. Away!”

He took great care to speak clearly and in short and complete sentences, but he was very far from calm. Tears welled up in his eyes (so much like his father’s in shape and color when she had hoped he would inherit her blue eyes instead).

“She is fine, lad,” Killian interjected. “Nobody is harming her.”

She shot him a warning look over her shoulder then turned back to her son. This wasn’t about the mermaid at all. Realization began dawning on her and she had to suppress a sigh. He was projecting again. She thought they had moved past this. Dr. Reul-Ghorm had said that he used it as an out when he felt overwhelmed by his own feelings. They were less scary, if they weren’t his. Making them a fish’s or seal’s helped him to verbalize his problems.

What had the doctor said? It was important that he felt heard. Acknowledge, mirror, offer comfort and a solution (whenever possible) to deescalate the situation and  keep the lines of communication open. Reassure.

Maybe Bealfire had heard her and his father argue last night? Or, if it wasn’t that, maybe Murchadh’s sudden departure had triggered old fears. He hadn’t been away from home in years. His traveling for the weekend at short notice might have caused the anxiety issues to resurface.

Milah took her son’s hands and squeezed them gently.

Maybe she should reconsider signing him up for a few classes or afterschool activities at the town’s school, so he could let off steam with other boys his age on the football field rather than sit around and get antsy, restless and worried from all the bottled up energy and too much time spent in his fantasy world.

Her boy was too soft, too sentimental. He would not make it far in the outside world like this. He needed to learn how to work through his emotions instead of living with his head in the clouds. But she was fighting a lost battle – Murchadh would not hear any of it. Quite to the contrary, he fed into their son’s fairy tale obsession and exuberant imagination whenever he could.

Baelfire would choose the mermaid as mouthpiece, naturally.

“Bae,” she said. “It – she – is fine. All the strangers, the change, yes – that might be a little frightening at first, but - - she will get used to it quickly, believe me. Change isn’t scary. She knows that. Animals can adapt very quickly.” She smiled at him, but he did not look convinced.

“But,” She could see him struggle for words. “She doesn’t look like she’s fine.” His intonation made it sound like a question.

“Baelfire,” She crouched down to be at eye-level and stroked his knuckles with her thumbs reassuringly. “Have you ever seen me, your father, or anyone else here mistreat any of our animals?”

He shook his head. “But –“

“When Miss Pans first came here, did we hurt her?”

“Miss Potts,” he corrected defiantly.

“Yes, of course, sweetheart, Miss Potts -” Pans, Potts – did it really matter? But she knew he didn’t like it when she got any of the names wrong. Especially not the name of his favorite orca. “You know I always mix them up. I’m sorry – but we took good care of her, did we not?” She pressed.

“Yes.”

“See? There is no need to worry. Just leave it up to the adults to take care of everything, okay? I promise you, everything is alright.”

Baelfire looked in the direction of the tank, his jaw clenched. She could feel her toes go numb in her shoes.

“Milah!”

She wanted to turn and snap at Killian to keep his mouth shut, and straightened up to do just that, but then saw the group of people he was discretely pointing at.

Suits. Lots of suits. Then cardigans and oddly discolored eco shoes. Dictaphones, pens and clipboards, cameras and microphones. The whole motley crew was coming their way now.

She let go of one of Bae’s hands and ran her fingers through her curls.

“Mama!”

She didn’t have time for this now. She had a press conference to run. She had to go in there and give her carefully constructed speech and Baelfire had classes to attend.

The first eco-shoed imbecile to reach them extended his microphone, his face eager “Mrs. Gold, can you comment on -”

“It’s Mrs. Montgomery-Gold, “ she corrected automatically, with the fakest smile of fake smiles plastered on her face and her voice liquid honey. “And I assure you, we will have plenty of time for all your questions and concerns in just a moment.”

What a greenhorn.

She turned towards the whole group, which had come to a halt. “Ladies and Gentlemen, now that your curiosity has been somewhat sated, please follow Mr. Killian Jones here,” She signaled Killian with her eyes and he raised his hand. “To our conference room and set up at your leisure. I will be with you all shortly.”

Killian brushed past her and made his way to the head of the group. “Please, if you would all follow me. Through here -“ Thankfully he had left his smelly bucket behind.

She turned back to her son, but remained standing. “Which class do you have now?”

“Algebra,” Bae mumbled. “But –“

“Look, Bae, we both have jobs to do right now,” She brushed his cheek with her hand. “But I can call Dr. Whale to come in and take another look at the mermaid as soon as I am done with our visitors, if you would like that?”

The tension left his face. Finally.

“Yes, please.”

“Alright,” she said. “And if I catch Miss Lucas after her break, I will consult her too. That sound like a good idea?”

Baelfire beamed at her. “Yeah.”

Her muscles were screaming at her to move. She had to get to the conference.  She was determined to do this right, though. Check off all the neat little boxes in her head. She didn’t need another thing for Murchadh to yell at her over when he returned.

“I am glad you came to me to talk about what bothered you, sweetheart. We can talk more over dinner, if there is anything else.” She ruffled his hair again. “But now, please get back to your equations.”

She watched him go and waved when he looked back from the door. Once he had turned the corner, she fluffed her hair, smoothed down her skirt and made her way to the conference rooms at a fast but controlled pace.

Chapter Text

He had homework to do. Dr. Hopper had asked him to write a story. Bae sat at his desk and stared at the blank page in front of him. He liked stories and coming up with them was easy, but his mind was elsewhere. Whatever his mum and Killian Jones had said, she had been frightened.

He threw his whale-shaped eraser into the air and caught it a couple of times. If only his father hadn’t left this morning. He would have seen it. He would have understood and he would have stopped them.

Bae rubbed the soft sea animal between his palms until his skin was hot and smelled of rubber. Of course Dr. Whale had not been in – at least not as far as he knew– and his attempt to locate Ruby himself after class had also failed. He put the eraser down, shoved his pad and pens further away and got up. His mother wasn’t back yet and he could finish this later.

Determined he walked to his parents’ bedroom and got the key from his father’s bedside cabinet. Technically he wasn’t allowed in the study unsupervised, but nobody paid him any mind as he walked the halls a little while later and  - after having made sure that the coast was clear – let himself in. 

He turned on the lights and navigated the organized chaos with utmost caution. If he didn’t disturb anything, his father would never know that he had been in here.

The only thing he moved was the book he had come for. It was a very old book, bound in leather with roughly cut pages. On the cover was a picture of a mirror and a comb. He took it from its usual spot on the shelves and sat down on the floor cross-legged to read.

***

The daily pre-closing announcements echoed through the building and startled him out of his reverie. He had forgotten the time. He needed to hurry. He scrambled to his feet, but his numb legs gave out from under him and he fell face forward to the floor. He meant to land on his palms and forearms in a pushup position without letting the rest of his body touch the ground (like Ruby had taught him), but instead his palms and knees made contact first and he winced. They were still tingling when he put the book back and quickly left the office.

He ran down the hallway and up the stairs to their home, taking two steps at a time.

The scent of tomatoes, garlic and onions greeted him at the door. The rich aroma of his favorite creamy tomato sauce bubbling sluggishly in a saucepan on the stove wafted down and beckoned him into the kitchen. 

His mother had her back to him and was slowly stirring and adding condiments while talking into the phone cradled against her shoulder. He inhaled deeply -parsley, oregano, basil and pepper.

Bae peeked around her and to his delight found small dough pouches sitting on the chopping board and a bowl with filling right next to it. He grinned. Home-made ravioli were his favorite. His stomach growled and anticipation made his mouth water, but there was something else that he needed to do first.

His resolve to leave the room quietly was put to the test the moment he turned and spotted the strawberries. Fresh crimson berries covered with a mountain of tangy sweet whipped cream and grainy brown sugar in a bowl on the table. He stopped and licked his lips, glancing back over his shoulder. Maybe he could just take one - ?

“Don’t even think about it!” His mother had turned and covered the phone with her hand. “Dessert,” she said, covered the pan and reduced the heat, and then walked out of the kitchen and into her office. Bae heard the door close. His mum didn’t like when other people were in the same room when she talked on the phone.

Bae snatched a small strawberry from the side and plopped it into his mouth, then went into the bedroom to return the key. He hesitated. He should probably ask first, but if he went and knocked on her door now, the answer would most definitely be no.

His heart pounding hard, he sat down at her vanity table and rummaged in the small drawers until he had found it. A jeweled comb, silver, the spine shaped like a leaf with a single blue gemstone set in the middle. It was a blue garnet, Bae knew, because his father had shown it to him once. They were really, really rare and could change color too - from blue at daytime to reddish purple under incandescent light. His papa had given it to his mum on their wedding day. It had belonged to his grandmother.

Not to Marmie Montgomery, who thankfully lived across the country, and whom he only had to see once a year (Christmas) if he was lucky and two to four times if he was not (Christmas, his mum’s birthday, his birthday and sometimes Easter or Thanksgiving). It had belonged to his other grandma, who had died when his papa had been just a boy. Bae sometimes wished he could have met her. The only grandmother he had left was nothing like the grandmothers in stories and her perfume made him dizzy and sick to his stomach. He much preferred Ruby’s grandmother who ran the diner and had everyone call her Granny. 

He carefully took the comb from its box, closed his hand around it, and went to his room to get a backpack.

The sauce was still simmering on the stove when he walked back into the kitchen. His mother hadn’t returned to check on her cooking yet. He double-checked that her door was still closed before he climbed onto the counter to reach the Tupperware (Do not sit or climb on the counters! Get a stepping stool or ask an adult for help, don’t make me tell you again!), and then hopped back down and opened the fridge.

Surveying the contents, Bae bobbed on the balls of his feet, the cool air pleasant on his flushed face. He had to decide fast. He reached for half a cucumber, a tomato, and a green and yellow pepper, and put them in the container. His heart in his throat, he stopped and listened. Yes, she was still chatting and walking up and down in her office, her heels clicking on the hardwood.

Next he grabbed two bananas, an apple and a box of cubed mango from the fruit bowl and shoved everything into his bag. He also snuck two large chocolate-chip cookies from the cookie jar, wrapped up in paper towels, into the front pocket.

He had just reached the door again when the office door opened and his mum (phone still glued to her shoulder) strode past him and, in passing, gave him a look that said she had counted the strawberries before coating them (which, of course was a lie). He leaned on the door frame and inconspicuously pushed his bag into the hall with his foot.

His mother peered into the pan and beckoned for him to come and taste the sauce. It was delicious. Bae gave her the thumbs up and she smiled before returning her attention to the small voice at her ear. He rolled his eyes and scuffed to his room to get the comb from his desk. She was always on the phone.

Hair adornment in hand, he stopped in the kitchen door and took a deep breath.

“Mama!”

 No reaction. She hated being talked to when she was on the phone. She was filling the pouches.

“Mama!” he said again, louder.

She turned around then, her raised eyebrows snapping ‘What?’, and indicated the phone.

“Can I have this?” He held up the comb so that only the prongs were visible, the gemstone hidden in his palm and cool against his skin.

She glanced at it, then looked at his face and pressed her lips into a thin line. She was talking numbers with whoever was at the other end of the line. Excellent.

“Can – I – have – this?!” he repeated, a calculated vein of whining in his voice.

“Hang on one second.”

He felt his neck and ears grow hot when she put down the phone and covered it.

“Baelfire, I am still in the middle of a call. What do you need a comb for?!”

He shrugged noncommittally. “Can I have it? This one?” He held it up a little higher.

The caller said something that was muffled by her fingers.  “Yes, for the love of God, take it.”

“Okay, thanks. Can I go downstairs until dinner?”

She nodded, the phone back against her ear, and pointed to the hall. Yes. Out.

Bae grabbed his backpack from the floor, swung it over his shoulder and thundered down the stairs. He smirked. Victory.

***

Numb with exhaustion and pain she had stayed inside the cave (after it had opened back up for her) and curled into a ball until she was one hundred percent sure the danger had passed. The airlings had left and taken the bright lights with them.

She swam around gingerly and recognized nothing in this strange new place. The fish and plants were alien, taste, sound, and smell foreign to her senses. The water, although salty, was somehow overly acidic and soapy, rancid and putrid, with other strange flavors mixed into it. What was this place? Where was this place?

She called out again, but had stopped expecting an answer. Deep down she knew that she was alone. And yet - what if there were others? Somewhere behind other sets of glass walls?

She was surprised the airlings hadn’t killed her yet. That was what they did, wasn’t it? Maybe they hadn’t been hungry. Maybe they liked to play with their food first. Food.  She already felt light-headed and weak, but there was nothing edible anywhere. She had tried some of the weird-looking plants in her despair, but they were hard as rock and lifeless.  

It had rained tiny brown grains earlier and the listless creatures that lived in this glass coffin had gobbled them right up, so she had tried a handful too. Gross – but they had staved off the pains for a little while.

Her stomach rumbled, the hunger gnawing away at her insides.

With a long sigh she let herself sink to the bottom and stared up at the strange grey sky. Did the sun never come out here? Were there no clouds? The air was as still – no fresh breeze and no wind to caress the water. Absolutely no movement at all - except for the few colorful fish that swam around in a stupor every now and then. Their beady little eyes were dull and saw nothing.

Belle missed the sounds of her home. She missed the waves. She wondered whether it was possible that she would dissolve into foam before they could come back and make her their next meal.

She lay on the hard sand unmoving for what seemed like an eternity and felt time move right through her and leave her body to trickle into the sand grains.

Then her eyes flew back open. Music.

The voice was smooth, clear, and quiet and the song was entirely unfamiliar, but she found it strangely soothing, in a way. She knew that airlings could not sing, but this one did. It didn’t matter that the melody was sung out of tune. It was the promise of tomorrow. It was beautiful, and she wished that the singing would never stop.

The voice sang the same song over and over again, but then went quiet and did not resume.

Belle worried her lip and waited. The sudden silence rang in her ears.

If she was going to die either way, she might as well – her curiosity getting the better of her, she plucked up her courage and swam to the surface to take a peek at the singing airling.

It was a young airling and he was alone. No other airlings in any direction (as far as she could tell). What was the boy doing here? What did he want? Why had he sung?

His legs (that’s what the flesh-colored things at the end were called, right?) crossed, he sat on the strange yellow platform that she had awoken on and waved at her.

Belle cocked her head slightly to one side. He didn’t look dangerous. Had he had a tail, he might have looked a regular little merling. Not that she had seen one herself, but this was how she imagined them to look. The little thing was strangely cute. She swam a little closer, but stayed out of his reach. Just in case.

The airling made a sound – sounds – but he wasn’t singing now. This had to be how they sounded when they spoke. Not pretty. Rough and throaty and there were hissing sounds. Many of them.

He looked at her expectantly. His hopeful little face almost made her laugh. He wanted to - talk? Talk to her? Belle shook her head.

The airling furrowed his brow, his little pink tongue peeking out between his teeth like he was biting down on it. Then his face lit up and he sat up a little straighter. Belle watched fascinated as he pushed back the green fabric that covered his arms to reveal more of his skin and raised his hands in front of his body.

He waved as if to make sure he had her attention (which he had) and then - in quick succession -raised his brows, pointed at his earlobe, the corner of his mouth, and then at her. Waited.

Huh? Belle shrugged.

He spoke again.

Belle shook her head once more. Those sounds must have meant something, but she had no idea what it was.

He raised his eyebrows again, pointed at his right ear, and tapped it twice.

Ear? Ears? - Oh, did he want to know if she could hear him? Belle touched her own ear and nodded.

He smiled and she could see that his upper left canine was missing. He also had dimples.

She touched her throat and shook her head.

He nodded.  Then he moved his curled right hand down in front of his chest. Pointed at her again.

What?

She moved a little closer as he turned his upper body sideways and rummaged in the bag next to him. Belle watched as he produced a little box with a blue lid. It made a popping sound as he took it off. Then he took something else – white – from the bag and put it in the box as well. His lips pressed tightly together, he held the box out to her, his eyes wide, open, and round. He rubbed his belly with his other hand and nodded encouragingly.

Belle hesitated. Had he brought – food? She was hungry. She bit her lip.

He shook the box a little and the contents rattled.

Okay - (but only because she was very very hungry).

There was not much distance left between them now. She looked at him again. He was still smiling. She could see his little chest fall and rise rapidly. Apparently she wasn’t the only one here who was nervous. What could the little airling possibly have to be nervous about, though?

Belle peered into the box and saw:  a long green thing, a round red one, something green and something yellow, two longer and slightly crooked objects in another shade of yellow, and another round thing of reddish-green color.  All were unfamiliar. She sniffed at them.

Her nose directed her to the white object that lay on top of the others. She touched it with her fingertips (soft), but then drew her hand back and looked at the boy’s face again. Yes?

He put the box down in front of him (could she snatch it? Drag it into the water?) and waved for her attention again (yes?). His right hand made a little fist, thumb on his knuckles.

She watched as he nodded, then raised and lowered his fist, bending at the wrist and moving it like he was knocking on something. He did it again, more slowly, and pointed first at his nodding head and then at his - - nodding fist.

Oh. His fist hand was supposed to be his head - his head nodding ‘yes’?

She copied him. Yes.

What kind of game was this? She didn’t quite understand what he was getting at, but she liked games. She liked games too much. That was why she had - Oh, more waving.

Belle directed her attention back to his little hands and face. Somehow she found him extremely funny to watch.

He raised his right hand again, took his index finger together with his middle finger, and tapped them together with his thumb in a firm single motion. Shook his head.

It reminded her of a seagull’s beak snapping shut (as if. Obnoxious little buggers). So –  a closing beak equaled ‘no’? Alright, she would play. She repeated the hand gesture back to him.

He nodded his fist in response and she laughed soundlessly.

He picked up his box again and motioned yes, so Belle reached for the white object again. Inside it were two brown ones. They smelled pleasantly sweet. She took one (rough, but also soft) and paused, her belly roaring at her to just cram the thing into her mouth already.

The boy took the other one and bit into it. Bravely, Belle did the same. Hmmm. Whatever it was, she liked it. It was a little dry though. Maybe-? She dunked it into the water and took another bite. Eww, no, mistake. Belle looked at the now rather gooey thing in her hand, appalled and just a little bit offended. What good was any food if it could not be taken underwater?

The boy was making sounds again and, although it sounded nothing like what she was used to, she could instantly tell that this was laughter. He was laughing at her!

Oh, just he wait! She threw the thing in his general direction. It brushed his leg and he looked up. His eyes were narrowed and a little teary, a rosy glow to his cheeks now. There were more teeth missing. He signed ‘no.’

She responded ‘yes’ and raised her chin defiantly, but her mouth twitched, and she had to fight a smile.

He held out the box again.

Passing over everything that was green (unripe?) and red (danger!), her hands wavered over the yellow objects.  The long ones seemed sturdier (maybe they wouldn’t crumble?), so she took one of them and put the tip in her mouth.

He was laughing again. What had she done now?

He made the closed beak again, laughter shaking his tiny body, and held out his hand.

Reluctantly, she handed it over and then watched as he broke the shell and peeled it down to reveal something just as long, but paler in color. She stared at it. Was it – a pearl? No, those were round?

He broke the thing in half and handed one half back to her, then shoved his half into his mouth.

She copied him. Despite its mushy texture it was rather nice. Sweet, but not overly so. She reached for the other one from the box and repeated his movements to get to the edible core. For a fleeting moment she thought about eating the entire thing and quickly, but then divided it anyway and held out the second half to him.

He took it, moved it into his left hand, and placed the fingers of his flat right hand near his lips. Then, smiling, he moved his hand forward and a bit down in her direction.

What? She tilted her head.

He produced another box from his bag. It held little orange cubes. He gave her one and this time she did not hesitate to put it in her mouth. It had a rich, sweet flavor and was very juicy. Belle held out her hand for another.

They had made it through half of the box when he waved for her attention again.

She licked her fingers. Nodded.

He pointed at her tail in the water, so she raised it a little bit until her fin was visible, and tried not to wince.

He made the yes gesture, then moved his hands to his legs and, extending the index fingers of both hands, brought them toward each other twice using a twisting movement, his leg in the middle and his face contorting.

His anguished face had startled her and she only caught him pointing to her fin with his eyebrows raised at the end of it, the second time he repeated his movements.

This was harder than the beak. Belle blinked. It looked like - - like he was miming getting his legs caught in something. Something that hurt them. Oh. Oh.

She pointed at her fin, screwed up her face a little, and nodded her fist. Yes, her fin and tail did hurt - if that was what he had been asking her. The cuts (however they had come about) were painful and moving around hurt her quite a bit. It also did not help that she had gotten sand into the wounds earlier. For some reason they wouldn’t heal as quickly as she was used to. Maybe it was the water.

Before she could do anything else, the airling had gotten up and was running someplace. Diving, she followed him to keep him in sight. He vanished for a moment, but then came hurtling back in her direction with another box in his hand. Red.

She was faster than he was, came up, and waited for him at the platform.

He crouched back down and opened the box.

Belle didn’t like the smell emanating from it. Wary, she watched him spray his hands with something that bit her nose. He then took a piece of white fabric and poured something over it. The stench was sharp and Belle withdrew, apprehensive. She did not like this.

He beckoned her over.

She looked at his eyes. It didn’t appear like he meant her harm?! Slowly, her eyes fixed on the smelly cloth, she swam back.

He motioned for her to lift her fin and, after a moment’s hesitation; she did and placed it – twitching nervously - on the rim of the platform. What was he doing?

He reached for it, but then stopped and did the ‘yes’ gesture with his eyebrows raised. Question.

With her bottom lip between her teeth she nodded. Alright, yes, he could touch.

Or maybe not.

Sharp pain seared through her tail, worse than an urchin’s bite, her mind conceding to the torment, unable to bring a thought to completion. Without meaning to she slashed at him, dove and curled into something fetal, something primeval.  The pain licked up her back like scorching fire, burning and radiating. Even after a few minutes had passed, it still had unpleasant warmth to it, eating at her stomach. There was nausea too, just enough to make her hug her middle, and breathe slowly in and out through her nose for a while.

Ouch.

Only her eyes and nose visible, she came back up. He was still there, an anxious and guilty expression on his face, and also very wet. Good.  That hadn’t been nice of him at all.

Using a couple of clockwise motions, he rotated his right hand on his chest with a sorry facial expression.

She blew bubbles. That had been worse than the nastiest nasty jellyfish.

He motioned for her to come back.

No, no, no. She rose a little, snapped a few beaks at him (using both her hands for emphasis) and splashed backwards into the water again. Absolutely not. No.

He sat up on his knees, blew a strand of damp hair out of his eyes, and put his hands on his hips, pursing his lips.

She sloshed around. Nuh-huh. The repugnant box had to go, or she would. Belle pointed at the cloth in his hand, then at the box.

He sighed and shook his head, but complied.

She then pointed at the box and off into the distance.

He signed ‘no.’

She signed ‘yes’ and crossed her arms.

His steps made squeaking sounds on the floor as he went.  She followed him again, watching underwater; to make sure the red box would be returned to wherever it came from. Once satisfied, she waited for him at the platform once more.

He sat, crossing his legs, and looked down at her.

She touched the spot where his leg bent and made a puffer fish face.

He snorted and wagged his finger at her, then reached for his bag and put the blue box back inside whilst also taking something else out at the same time.

More boxes? No.

The boy held out something silver and sparkly on his palm.

What was it? It had pointy little ends. Belle touched it gently with the tip of her index finger. Cold. And pretty. She gazed at the blue-ish stone and then at him.

He took her hand and placed the strange object in it.

Not sure what she was supposed to do with it, Belle turned it over in her hands and held it up, this way and that, but no idea came to her. Puzzled, she shrugged.

He pointed at her fin again and she moved it behind her back protectively, slightly irritated.

He signaled no and pointed again, first to the gemstone - making a sound (no, three)- and then at her (same string of sounds again). When she did not react, he did it a second time.

What? Belle looked at the object, held it up, pointed at the gemstone.

He repeated the sounds (its name?).

She moved her fin around to the side and pointed at it, testing her hypothesis.

Her pointing was met with the same sounds again.

Slowly, she indicated herself, eyebrows raised.

Another repetition followed.

Was he calling her gemstone? Belle looked away nervously before glancing back at him. A precious radiant gemstone? She felt the color rise to her cheeks. She sucked in her bottom lip and looked up at him through her long lashes, batting them sweetly. Now, wasn’t he cute, the little charmer?

He smirked at her as if saying ‘yes, you heard that right- I was talking about  y-o-u’ and plopped down on his stomach, his elbows raised and almost in the water, his chin resting on his hands.

She pointed at herself again and he said the sounds once more, then she pointed at him and he understood her meaning immediately. The answer was a single sound that she made him repeat three more times.

He held out his right hand and she gave the thing back, but instead of putting it away, he reached out, stretching a little, and put it in her hair.

Oh. Belle looked at her reflection in the water. That was what it was for.

She took it out, twisted her hair up and pinned it, then swam about with fake aristocratic pride and a haughty face, pretending to be a Princess, which made the little airling almost choke on his own laughter. He was yelping and gasping for air, his head on his arms.

Belle giggled voicelessly and stopped in front of him, their faces level and only a few inches apart. She touched his shoulder and he looked up, his face red and his eyes watery.

What remarkable eyes he had. They were copper against honey, and when they watered they glowed like rust blooming across rain washed steel, bursts of color among the darkness. They were chips of sunlit amber; copper coins scattered across whirled rich soil flecked with black; from honey sweet to the sea battered rocks that pierced the ships. She was mesmerized by the deep swirls of brown that colored his pupils. She had seen those eyes before. They had been the first thing she had seen here – but they hadn’t been his. They hadn’t been the boy’s.

She tapped his nose with the tip of her finger and he returned her smile with a genuinely sweet one of his own, before booping her nose in response.

A loud bang cut through the moment, breaking the little spell, and Belle dove under, her eyes turned upwards to watch him.

He put his finger on his lips (Shhh.) and winked at her.

She could hear the scraping of his feet on the floor as he got up and quickly walked away. Peeking around the platform, she saw him run, bag on his back, towards another airling - a female. Belle sighed and quickly ducked out of sight. It seemed her little friend had left behind the box with the tasty orange-colored cubes for her, though. She grabbed them and returned to her cave, box safely tucked under her arm, and the pretty silver ornament still sitting comfortably on her head.

***

Bae shuffled into his room, barefoot and yawning, warm and drowsy, after a hot bath and a large cup of tea, two plates of ravioli (filled with wild mushrooms, spinach and feta cheese), and triple helpings of the delicious strawberries. Pad and pen in hand, he switched on the bedside light and clambered into bed, snuggling up in his sheets.

He began scribbling at once – his mind creating a most wonderful story about a little boy on an island, who came across a magical shell that would allow him to talk to all sea creatures and breathe underwater.

As his consciousness ebbed, his mind went into free fall, swirling with the beautiful chaos of a new dream and he opened his eyes to clear turquoise water, and schools of bright-hued fish, sea flowers and sand. He took a few strokes, swimming like a dolphin, and faster than ever before, and felt the water rush past his ears.

The freedom was intoxicating. He could move in any direction or even just stop and float for a while, bathed by warm currents. His air bubbles made their way to the surface with every exhale, but they were the only thing down here in a hurry to leave. Seized by the sudden desire to go deeper, to explore, he dove, his vision clear and his breathing as easy as if he were strolling down the beach, collecting shells.

Chapter Text

Gold threw his brandy down his throat in frustration, the burning sensation most welcome. Had this been the good stuff, it would have been a waste to chuck it down like lemonade, but one tentative sip from the glass had told him that getting this over with as quickly as possible was the best course of action. 

The alcohol did not help. He was still restless and also freezing cold. Gold scowled at the TV screen behind the bar, and thrust out his glass for the barman to refill.

“Yesterday’s mass whale stranding on Aurora Spit in Golden Bay has left twenty-four of the animals dead and local authorities expect the toll will continue to rise,” the news anchor said, and Gold watched himself and some of his people on the screen, rolling one of the pilot whales onto its front, trying to refloat it. An involuntary shiver ran down his spine at the memory of the distraught animals, the general chaos and shouting, and the feeling of cool early morning fog on his skin. His clothes still smelled of salt, seaweed and fish, and the feeling in his small toe still hadn’t returned fully. Every muscle in his body was screaming, but he was too wound-up to rest.

He knew it was impossible to save all of them, but the loss still stung.

“Close to one hundred volunteers worked all day Friday and most of today to help refloat almost two hundred pilot whales that became stranded on the narrow stretch of beach. Most of the whales that survived were refloated in the high tide, but were swimming in a confused fashion, David Nolan from the Storybrooke Aquarium and Marine Research Center told TVOneNews this afternoon-” Gold’s bitter disappointment made way to fresh fury at the sight of the bespectacled reporter who had gotten in their way constantly, and who was now extending her violently orange mic towards his employee on-screen. “Mr. Nolan, can you explain to us why refloating can be problematic?”

“What the risk is, is you’ve got some of those whales in that pod which are determined to restrand and they’ll be dragging the ones that have been refloated back onto the beach-” Gold made a mental note to have Nolan handle more of the Press in the future. The man must have been just as exhausted and frustrated as the rest of them had been at that point, but he was still donning his biggest toothpaste-ad smile and, for some reason, his disheveled state seemed to be adding to his overall attractiveness rather than diminish it. “It’s sad but in a way it’s how nature works. You’ve gotta be pragmatic about these things.” Nolan ran a hand through his blond hair, and particles of sand rained down like fine golden dust. Gold found himself reminded of advertisements yet again- some ridiculously expensive shampoo, perhaps.

“How can people help a live stranded whale or dolphin?” Like fingernails on chalkboard, the reporter’s voice nearly caused him physical pain (and the old speakers weren’t helping, either). TV-Nolan’s smile, however, didn’t waver. Gold wondered whether it was true that smiling could always be heard in one’s voice too – even when talking on the phone. Maybe he should have Nolan man the phones as well, once they got back. Did that guy ever not flash his perfectly straight, pearly-white teeth at people? Gold almost felt his own facial muscles ache in protest, as he watched.

“The most important thing to remember,” Nolan said, “is that marine mammals are wild. They can carry diseases which are transferable to humans, and they can cause injury by thrashing their tails, for example. Do not put yourself at risk of injury. Keep large crowds, children and dogs away - to reduce the stress to which the whale or dolphin is exposed – and alert the authorities at once.”

The reporter nodded. “So it’s best not to approach them? Who do I call?” She asked.

“Many countries have strandings networks of experts who are specially trained in how to deal with stranding emergencies and have veterinary specialists associated with them. Their involvement will help to ensure that the stranded individuals are treated kindly and appropriately. For this area, you should contact Cape Cook Strandings Network or Storybrooke Aquarium.”  Behind the two, a pilot whale trashed about in panic, sending damp towels flying, and people jumped back, some falling over. “If in doubt, wait for expert help to arrive. Should you choose to approach, always do so with utmost caution and remember the following–“ Nolan made extra effort to speak calmly and clearly, checking each of his points off his fingers. “One, do not attempt to move a heavy whale or dolphin without adequate assistance and expert knowledge. It may cause it a serious injury. Two, always wash your hands thoroughly after contact. Three, make sure the blowhole- through which the whale or dolphin breathes- is not blocked or underwater. It is also helpful to keep their skins wet with water until-”

“Aurora Spit has seen quite a number of whale strandings in the past, so most volunteers aren’t first-timers, but I am sure those tips are an important reminder to everyone out there to stay safe.”  The reporter cut across him, and poor Nolan looked slightly befuddled, clearly still hung up on his previous train of thought, as she went on. “There has been speculation that this recent stranding was caused by increased traffic in the Bay. After it became known that your people had captured a live mermaid–“ She paused for effect- “in the waters not far off the coast and brought it to the Aquarium, many hopefuls– gold diggers and researchers alike- have set sail to maybe discover more where that first one came from.” She looked at Nolan eagerly, and Gold clenched his jaw.

“While the disturbance clearly exposes the animals to increased temporary stress, it seems unlikely, that --” Nolan spluttered, now clearly out of his depth, but still resolutely smiling. He took a deep breath. “At this point, there is no way of telling for sure what caused the pod to beach.”

Broadcast cut back to the studio and the anchor informed the viewers that, “CCSN, Storybrooke Aquarium and the volunteers called off help for the night but will be back at the beach tomorrow morning to keep the remaining whales comfortable and healthy.”

Gold looked down at his half-empty glass. True, they had no solid proof that the craziness that was going down just off the Bay had caused the stranding, but he couldn’t help feeling responsible. His people had captured Indigo and made a fuss about it – and this mess was what that had gotten them. It was their mess. He had the distinct feeling that most of the animal rights activists, who had worked shoulder to shoulder with them over the past two days, would move on to camp outside their doors next – right after all of this would be over.

With a twinge of guilt he thought about Indigo in her tank. He knew it wasn’t right. What had been done had been done, though – and she had been injured when the henchmen had brought her in. Was it morally wrong to keep her – even if only until her wounds had healed – and to conduct research on her in the meantime? Research to which she had not consented? Maybe it was her almost-human appearance that made him feel so uneasy, Gold thought. She was so much more than just another highly-intelligent marine mammal in a tank. If only he could figure out a way to establish communication, to connect with her. Perhaps she would be willing to answer his questions, if he found a way to ask nicely.

“We wish to express our unequivocal criticism of the appalling and irresponsible sensationalism and gold-digging that, it seems, even some of our most-valued colleagues have engaged in.”

Gold’s head snapped back up and, sure enough, his ears had not betrayed him. Milah, perfect make-up and rhetoric, was looking back at him, her bright red lips pressed into a thin, disapproving line.

“We chose to make our latest discovery public as soon as possible in the hopes that experts and enthusiasts alike would join forces with our excellent team here at Storybrooke Aquarium and Marine Research Center to further what is, no doubt, going to become the most exciting and groundbreaking research conducted in the field in a long time. Maybe our initial enthusiasm was misguided, but the invitation still stands.”

Gold knocked back the remainder of his drink, the fiery kick of the alcohol dissolving the lump in his throat. Damn, she was good– and also full of shite. She should have become an actress- talent like hers, he thought bitterly, what a bloody waste.

“We beseech our fellows and the public not to allow their selfish interests to prevail over the principles that ensure the well-being of those animals that fascinate all of us. Their welfare should always remain our number one priority. We need to reflect on the ethic that we already have in common:  a fundamental consensus concerning the existing binding values, irrevocable standards, and fundamental personal attitudes that ensure the preservation of marine life, and the sustainable handling of the resources - which are the responsibility of all of us. Therefore it is our responsibility to remedy this situation. Together.”

“You one of them fish guys, Sir?” His gaze fixed on his wife’s gunmetal-blue eyes, Gold emptied his glass a third time before the barman had even set down the bottle, and the slightly bewildered man took it in his stride to fill it to the brim once more. “Them poor things. It’s a tragedy, really.”

“Aye,” Gold sipped at his drink. “That it is.”

“We do understand that demand is high, but increasing public interest cannot be allowed to determine our actions. It mustn’t become an excuse to neglect the animals in our care. Our curiosity should never be sated at the cost of those that we seek to understand better and have vowed to protect from harm and exploitation.”

Oh, bloody hell. Gold leaned back and roared with humorless laughter. She truly was a master of her trade. Milah had a strong intuition for reading between the lines, for reading people like open books. She had always known just the right thing to say to get whatever she wanted. She toyed with words, twisted and turned them, until they clicked right where she needed them, when she needed them.

“Thus, it can only be in the best interest of all parties concerned, if we handle this exceptional situation responsibly and proceed deliberately. Patience has to be our virtue.”

People muttered and nodded their approval. They had taken the bait. Milah was smiling like the cat that ate the canary and Gold’s stomach turned at the sight. Snag valuable fish; manage your worm supply and try to collect the bonuses – that was how his wife operated. This would not end well.

“To try and meet the expectations of our colleagues and costumers – while never losing sight of our animals – Storybrooke Aquarium has decided to loosen our restrictions regarding public access. Beginning tomorrow we will schedule short viewings that will be open to all those interested. A limited number of tickets will be sold via our official website – with quotas allocated to press, professionals, and the general public – in advance.”

A few reporters raised their hands. Gold closed his eyes for a moment and had to resist the urge to throw his beverage at the TV.

“Tickets, access to the premises, and viewing schedules will remain subject to change without prior notice to ensure the well-being of our mermaid. Thank you for your understanding and patience in advance. We look forward to welcoming you, your family and friends at -“

The glass shattered, exploded in his hand, and Gold winced at the sharp pain as brandy mingled with blood.  At least the alcohol would keep the cuts from getting infected, he thought darkly.

Chapter Text

The heat and noise were unbearable. There were too many people here now, and they were scaring Indigo – and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. His mother was busy, and even if he elbowed his way over to where she stood with Killian Jones and Gus Gaston, she would not listen to him. Nobody in this place ever listened to him.

Frustrated, Bae stomped his foot a little as he turned to glare in the general direction of the adults. People were blocking his view. Stepping on his seat wasn’t enough to get a clear shot of either Indigo, who had buried herself in the sand at the bottom of her tank again, or his mother. The only person he could see over the sea of shoulders and heads was Gaston, who towered over everyone, parting the waiting crowd like water, as he made his way over to the Cockpit.

Oh, no.

***

“Stop moping and start mopping,” Granny held out mop and bucket to her, and Ruby rolled her eyes dramatically. “It is not my fault they canceled your show for the viewing.”

“Fine!” Flaring up, Ruby snatched the string mop from her hands, and forcefully plunged it into the bucket of steaming, soapy water, like someone trying to drown a cat by holding it under with a stick. “Sunday’s ruined anyway – oh and my whole life, by the way, thanks for asking!” She added under her breath, shoving the mop back and forth over the floor, but her grandmother had already disappeared to the back and hadn’t heard a thing.

Summer was almost over and she could have really used that money! Disgruntled, Ruby wiped at her eye with the heel of a damp hand. It wasn’t this particular show, really. It would not have changed anything – but she wasn’t ready to admit defeat just yet, either. Maybe she should not have gotten ahead of herself and looked at classes online. Maybe planning a schedule and pinning the brochures to her wall had been a mistake. Glossy pictures – that was all she was going to get this year, perhaps ever - and it hurt. It hurt so goddamn much. She watched the shiny, wet trail on the floor, the linoleum brightening at her feet, and sighed. Perhaps this was it. Everything her life should ever amount to. Maybe her dreams were too big. College wasn’t for everyone.

Ruby plunged the mop in again and squashed the life’s breath out of it to attack another square of floor with its lifeless corpse. Maybe it was for the best. Perhaps this was the universe’s way of reminding her where her place was. Like she would ever fit in with those kids, anyway.

“Ruby! You gotta–“

A squealing sound and a yelp, followed by a chair and the mop clattering to the floor noisily - and Ruby found herself on her hands and knees, worriedly leaning over a stunned Baelfire on his back, who was gulping like a fish on land, eyes wide.

“Are you okay, Kid?” The diner had been empty a second ago, no need to put up the silly yellow warning signs, but watch the adults blame her for it, should Bae have gotten himself hurt. Ruby bit her lip anxiously. “The floor is wet,” she said unnecessarily. “You know.”

Bae sat up and touched a hand to the back of his head. “Ouch,” he breathed, but focused on her face rather than his hand, as he withdrew it.

Ruby couldn’t see any blood on his fingers. His guardian angel truly was at the top of its game. It deserved a hefty pay raise. Still, Bae was probably concussed.

“What in the name of–“ Granny had reappeared, dropped her bottle crate on the bar, and was hurrying towards them. “Ruby!”

Ruby flinched. Here it went. She got off her knees and helped a shaky Bae to his feet, bracing herself for the royal dressing down coming her way, but before Granny had reached them, Bae gripped her arm with alarming force. He was as white as a sheet, swaying slightly where he stood, lips pressed tightly together.

Where was her mop bucket? Getting puked on would just make the icing on the crap-cake that was Ruby’s Sunday – and it wasn’t even noon yet. “You need to sit down,” she said and picked up the chair he had sent tumbling down with him, and tried sitting him down. “Believe me, cereal and juice only taste good going down.”

“No!” Bae protested impatiently and pushed her helping  hands off him. “Ruby, I don't have time to argue with you!” He said, fixing her with a stern gaze that was worthy of the boss lady. The kid’s impression of his mother – from his raised head, squared shoulders, and pushed out chin, right down to the characteristic hands-on-hips and thumbs-out gesture – was so accurate, it gave Ruby the creeps. He was absolutely nailing it – and the effect was not lost on her. She wasn’t sure whether she was just impressed, or actually a little bit scared, but she froze in her tracks to listen either way. “You and me, we are going to the main aquarium right now!” He informed her, his tone making it absolutely clear that he’d not brook insubordination. “Indigo needs you.”

Being dragged across the diner by her hand, Ruby managed a half-shrug and threw Granny a slightly bewildered look over her shoulder that was supposed to say: ‘Whatever he’s up to - I had no part in it- I swear !’.

Resolute, Bae didn’t let go until they were outside. The sun was up, the sky blue, and the park already packed with people. Families on their Sunday outing, mostly, and as per usual, and some youth groups too, but also a bunch of others, couples and singles of various ages, who had all gotten up at the crack of dawn for whatever incomprehensible reason, and had- apparently- nothing better to do than to spend their morning strolling about the aquarium.

It was a lot busier than their regular Sunday, which surprised no one. Tickets to see Indigo had sold out within seconds, every last seat in the Main Hall filled with excited kids, parents, scientists and reporters. Mrs. Montgomery would sure up the prices as soon as she had the chance. She only needed a good reason to justify it publicly. Animal health, maybe, exclusivity, or simply trainer wages, once training would begin and the masses’ need for entertainment would be met. People complained about show-prices all the time, but still paid extra for V.I.P. day-passes and special shows - for fear of missing out. Ruby wondered who would get to work with Indigo, harboring no false hope herself. She was too young. They’d pick someone more experienced than she was, even if she offered to do it for free. With her college plans out of the window, she would do it pro bono- just for the experience and exposure - and to pimp her applications come next fall, but even her boss wasn’t that much of a cheapskate.

“Kid!” Ruby huffed, zig-zagging around the outside pools at a fast jog, dodging visitors. Why did people suddenly hold freaking degrees in how to walk ridiculously slow and stop at the most inconvenient times, taking up as much space as humanly possible ?! “Where’s the fire, huh?”

He might have been a couple heads shorter than she was, shorter legs and all, but he sure was fast. She broke into a proper sprint to keep up. “Hey! Wait up!”

“She’s letting the Ogre handle things!” Bae yelled back over his shoulder. “Hurry!”

That was a really bad idea. Ignoring the pain in her sides and her burning legs, Ruby sped up again and got ahead of Bae. If they let him have a go at it, he’d filet her, and render any future training-attempts pointless. Quite why Mr. Gold still kept that Cesar Millan on his payroll, and allowed him anywhere near his animals - or his people and guests, for that matter - Ruby didn’t get. That brute would break Indigo, frighten her to death. His wasn’t the right approach. Ruby yanked open a side-entrance, exchanged curt nods with security, and made for the ramps, Bae at her heels.

The crowd wasn’t happy. She had become good at spotting the signs during the past two years. No wonder her boss and co-workers had such tense, sour looks on their faces.

“What’s taking him so long?!” Mrs. Montgomery snapped, running a hand through her hair. Then she noticed them, and Ruby slowed into a trot. Jeez, that woman was scary when she was pissed. “Baelfire, what are you do-”

“Mama, we can fix this!” Bae called, skidding to a halt inches from her. “Wait! Ruby can fix this!”

“I don’t --- Is that true?” Panting hard, hands on her knees, Ruby looked up and the cold, blue eyes swept over her hot face. “Miss Lucas?”

Ruby knew that tone. She was stressed out, but not wanting to let it show. They had to tread carefully. One wrong move and -

“Yes, she can. We worked on a routine!”

Oh, Bae! No!

“You trained the mermaid?” Her boss's eyes narrowed, fixing her face, and Ruby hoped every blood cell in her body was as terrified as she was, and as immobile too, or her head would turn beetroot and blow the cover she hadn’t known she needed. What was the kid doing? Did he want her dead?! “Against my husband’s wishes?”

“Uhh, well..,” Ruby spluttered, and Bae stepped on her foot, hard. She would kill him - later - if his mother didn’t beat her to it, and had them both beheaded first. “I - it wasn’t training .” She could feel her survival instincts kick in and the adrenaline flooding her veins. Years of wriggling out of tight spots had her brain kick into emergency-bs-gear . Ruby took a deep breath. “I just wanted to --- you know, it’s harder to start training and set the rules if you don’t establish them straight away. To do that, and do it successfully, you need to go slow, create a bond with the animal first,” she explained, watching Mrs. Montgomery’s eyebrows travel higher and higher up her forehead. “Have it trust you. Like -- like horsemanship exercises.” Her boss didn’t look like a former horse girl, but, surprisingly, the term seemed to register with her. “We were just getting to know each other, really.” Ruby shrugged. “To not engage at all would have meant a huge setback - cost us more valuable -- time . Proper training would have had to be pushed back even further --- and I thought -- what’s the harm, if...” Ruby trailed off, looking at her feet guiltily for effect, but she hadn’t missed the small smile now tugging at the corners of those perfectly contoured lips.

“I wouldn’t have taken you for the pragmatic business-type, Miss Lucas.” Yup, she was definitely smiling at her now, and the sight was even more terrifying than the dismissive, haughty frown. What had she gotten herself into? - What had Bae gotten her into? “I guess my husband can’t fault you for making friends with the mermaid,” she said. “At least you ’re planning ahead.” She threw a pointed glance over her shoulder - in the general direction of the cockpit. “Some foresight might have prevented this disaster .” She considered Ruby for a long moment. “ Miss Lucas, if you know a way to fix this, I’m all ears. It can’t possibly get any worse. What have you got?”

Jeez, thanks for the confidence. Ruby looked around at the unhappy visitors. “They knew there would be no show included, right?” she asked.

“That doesn’t mean they don’t expect one,” her boss said. “We need to get it out of the sand. Sirens didn’t help,” she huffed impatiently. “With the press present, something more invasive is probably risky, but -”

“It won’t work. Not under these conditions.” Ruby interjected quickly. She had seen the Ogre at work. The press would have a field day with that.

Her boss raised an eyebrow. “Conditions can be modified.”

“Um,” Ruby gulped. Now what?

“The lights,” Bae said before Ruby had even had time to think. “Too bright.”

Mrs. Montgomery looked at her for confirmation and Ruby nodded. Whatever game the kid was playing, she prayed he had a plan. The little foot stepping down on her toes once more seemed to suggest as much - either that, or he held a grudge for the wet floor and wanted to see her head on a spike. “Yes,” Ruby said. “The brightness startles them. Research suggests that-”

Mrs. Montgomery stopped her with an impatient hand gesture. Not interested in research then. “Lights dimmed. We can do that.” She waved over Jones and Nottingham, but then paused and turned back towards her. “You are sure you got this?” Ruby tried to look like personified competence and confidence, in spite of her clenching stomach and the queasiness it caused her. “Whatever you need, I can make it happen, but if I put this much confidence in you, you’ll have to deliver, Miss Lucas. No blunders - everyone's heads are on the line here. This isn’t child's play. There will be no do-overs if this backfires!”

“We got this, Mama!” Bae interjected again, before Ruby could open her mouth. She wanted to strangle him. Now.

Someone's flash went off right in her face, blinding her, and Ruby closed her eyes for a moment. She couldn’t back out now, she’d never get a promotion if she did, but if she went ahead, it would cost her her head, too. There was no safe way out. Well, if she was going to get the boot anyway, she might as well go all in and give this her best shot (and pray for a miracle). Ruby exchanged a quick look with Bae. “No cameras.”

“We can’t do that,” her boss said firmly. “Customers want pictures.”

“It’s not like their photos and videos will be any good in this light,” Ruby said dismissively, gesturing at the ceiling. “Not with their crappy phones and all. I was just thinking-- once we got a proper show up and running-- People would probably pay for good footage, right?” She asked innocently. “You know, DVDs, action-shots, Selfies with Mermaid, or something. Stuff they can post online or give as gifts?” She shrugged. “If they take their own crappy pictures --- but what do I know.”

Her boss blinked at her for a moment, then her face split into a wide smile, and it took Ruby all her willpower not to jump. That look was what predators gave you, right before they ate you alive. She was dead. Absolutely dead.

“Alright,” Mrs. Montgomery said. “Let’s roll then.” Her tone was all business now. “Get this show on the road.”

“People are getting restless,” Killian Jones had finally managed to push his way through the crowd. “What you wanted me for? Heard something about lights? Keith’s stuck at the entrance.”

“Call off Gus. Miss Lucas is taking over.” Their boss gave the walkie in his belt a pointed look, then turned back to Ruby. “Lights, cameras, anything else?” she asked.

Bae beat her to it once more. “Rows A through D need to be cleared. People can’t touch the tank.”

“Why’s my son your mouthpiece, Miss Lucas?” she chuckled. “I won’t bite your head off if you ask directly.”

“Right.” Ruby blushed and shot Bae a warning look. “It would be best to have a buffer zone. The noise-level might distract the mermaid,” she explained, her mind working furiously to keep up with whatever shenanigans the boy was up to. “If visibility’s an issue, I’d suggest we stick to the Orca shows’ seating plan, moved back four rows, of course, and have the kids come to the front, adults in the back.”

“Tickets have no assigned seats. We can do that.” She turned to Jones again. “Please have staff ready to assist with reseating. Nottingham and the others will have to man the doors and ask everyone who’s not press to erase their pictures and videos before leaving. Get Mrs. Nolan at the shop to put out anything and everything remotely mermaid, and have her prepare a box of free tokens - one per child - you know, the cheap plastic rubbish, small toys.” She took a breath. “And we need a Mermaid Menu at the diner, half-price, I don’t care what’s in it. Just slap the name on it. Available lunch and dinner.” Jones gaped at her. “And have the lights and sound crew wait for signal. We need everything dimmed for the show.”

Ruby stifled a smirk. Granny would love that, having to come up with some stupid themed menu last minute - and having to sell it at half-price. She’d forget all about all the reasons she was angry with Ruby, if she had reasons enough to abuse the boss lady all night instead. Awesome.

“We’re having a show?” Jones gaped at them, mouth hanging slightly open. “Now?”

“There won’t be one, if you don’t get going.”

Ouch. He got the hint and turned away again to bark more orders into his walkie. This was huge. Ruby’s heart threatened to escape through her mouth and run for it, screeching in panic. If she fucked this up, it would cost her more than her little job. It would cost her grandmother hers too. It would cost them their home. But hey, no pressure.  

“What’s the timeframe, Miss Lucas? How much can you give me?”

“Uh, probably 10, 15-- ” Bae took a step to the right, and put a hand behind his back to signal up without his mother seeing. Okay then. “Maybe 20 -- 30.” He waved his hand. “30 minutes, tops. It’s no real show yet - just a bunch of tricks.”

“It will have to do. You better make this good,” Mrs. Montgomery said. “I’ll head to the bridge now to introduce and you can take over from there. Direction and tech will be on standby to await your cue. Baelfire, I don’t want you on the ramps, come on now and let Miss Lucas do her work.You can join me on the bridge, if --”

“No!” Bae protested. “I - that’s not how- how-” He faltered under his mother’s stern gaze. Ruby had to come to his aid this time.

Not how we planned it ,” she said firmly. “With all the added stress and excitement, deviating from training routine is a bad idea.” She put her arm around Bae’s shoulders. “They prefer children. Like dolphins. She’d be a lot calmer if he’s there.”

Mrs. Montgomery shook her head, looking back and forth between them. “So that’s what you have been up to all day yesterday.”

“That’s my fault,” Ruby said quickly. “He found me out and I allowed him to stay and help - and I asked that he keep it quiet. I’m sorry.” She shuffled her feet. “I didn’t want to get in trouble.”

Her boss smiled. “We get better results if he’s up there with you? That’s what you’re saying?” She looked at her son curiously. “Fine, but I want the safety protocol followed. Life vest at all times. No one in the water!”

“Of course!” Ruby assured her. “He’ll assist me, but it’s just for show! The kids will like it, though.”

Mrs. Montgomery checked her watch. “Baelfire, we’ll make an exception, but we will talk about this later! You will listen to whatever Miss Lucas tells you up there. She’s in charge, you hear me?”

“Yes, Mama,” Bae said in the sweetest little voice (that wouldn’t have fooled Ruby in a thousand years, but seemed to work on his mother).

“Alright, places everyone!” She brushed down her hair and skirt and turned to leave, a quick hand squeezing Jones’ shoulder in passing. Ruby had no time to think anything of it. She turned to Bae, who was grinning mischievously. “Come on, puppet master, let’s grab you a vest!” Ruby said, pushing open the gate to the ramps, and the two of them strode up to the platform and trainers’ nook .

“You got ten until we’re on!” Her boss called after them and Ruby made an ok gesture over her head without looking back. Good thing she had been too furious to change out of her gear after they informed her that her Orca show was canceled this morning.  All she needed to do was turn on her mic - and maybe get some liquid courage into her system to keep from passing out, but that would probably be pushing her luck too far. She was underage.

They quickly stopped at the trainers’ nook, a small nook hidden from view right off the platform, where they stored all the hoops, balls and buckets, additional gear, and the vests. Ruby wiped her sweaty palms on her black and red suit and tightened her ponytail, then handed a violently orange PFD to Bae, who grimaced.

“You heard what your Mom said. We’re lucky we’re still alive.” She punched his shoulder lightly. “What was all that, by the way? You hate me this much?”

Bae sniggered. “You should have seen your face,” he gloated. “But don’t worry. I got this.”

“You better!” Ruby glared at him.

“Tell them to move back and dim the lights, and then gimme a minute to talk to her. I need to get her on board first.”

Her ?” Ruby furrowed her brow. “You mean - the mermaid ?! --- Talk to the mermaid?! Baelfire, you’re batshit insane! Absolutely nuts!” She shook her head like a horse bugged by a persistent fly.

Bae pulled the vest over his head and clicked it shut. “It’s genius, you wait!” he said, sticking out his tongue, and turned on his heels a split second later to run across the platform and down the lower ramp - towards the tank. Hopefully his mother hadn’t seen him go, or she’d have a stroke. He could have slipped and fallen in. No running on the ramps and platforms.

Feeling her own heartbeat in her tingling fingers and shaky legs, Ruby walked out onto the main platform slowly and stood at her mark to signal that she was ready (or as ready as she would ever be). The spotlights were still off, so she could see the sea of disgruntled, bored faces, but they hadn’t spotted her yet. A deep breath now. This was just another show. She could do this - even if she had no clue what this was, exactly. Smile and wave, smile and wave .

Headlights went on, illuminating what they called the Bridge - the Cockpit’s elevated podium that was used for announcements - and her boss standing in its center, her hands linked and a relaxed, friendly expression on her face, as she stepped towards the mic.

“Distinguished guests, dear Children, Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Milah Montgomery-Gold and it’s a pleasure to be here with you all today, and to welcome you to the first-ever official presentation of our newest addition to Storybrooke Aquarium and Marine Research Center: Indigo, the mermaid!” She paused, smiling, and the last few conversations died as heads turned in her direction and people clapped. “We apologize for the slight delay and would now like you to direct your attention to one of our most promising young talents - many of you may already know her from the Orca Experience shows - our trainer, Ruby Lucas!” Her voice was warm and cordial, laden with unspoken praise, but Ruby knew it was just an act; her cheerful tone just as fake and carefully studied as her facial expressions and body language. “Ruby-”

She hastily switched on her own mic. “Thank you, Milah, ” Ruby said, equally chipper. They weren’t on first name basis, but everyone was during shows. Look, y’all, we are a big, happy family and our team is happy, and the boss is happy, and our animals are happy, so you should be happy too, and should happily spend all your money here! How does that sound? - Excellent. So they were Ruby and Milah for the next hour or so, and it didn’t matter that it felt like swallowing a fuzzy carpet to call her boss by her first name.

“Ruby will now treat all of us to a little surprise ,” Milah said, fake excitement in her voice. “Your passes, Ladies and Gentlemen, did not include a show, because it’s still a work in progress. Ruby here, however, has kindly agreed to give us a glimpse into her work, an exclusive preview - free of charge- so you can get an idea of what to expect in the very near future.”

The news was met with excited muttering and enthusiastic clapping and cheering.

“We must ask you, however, not to record any videos or take any pictures during the preview. Once the show is finalized you will have sufficient opportunity to get all the footage you desire. Please respect our trainers’ wishes - they are going out of their way to provide us with the best entertainment every day.”

More muttering, less enthusiastic this time, and people rummaging in their bags, cameras being lowered, phones being switched off.

“To get started, we will have to make small adjustments regarding the seating arrangements and the lighting. Starting in a few moments, we will ask all children under the age of thirteen to come to the front - the front rows, starting with row F, are reserved for our little guests. Parents, you can either choose to keep your children in the back with you or send them with our friendly staff - white shirts and basecaps - to the children’s rows. After the preview, the lights will be turned back on, and everyone will stay in their seats until collected by a parent or guardian.” She signaled the staff to start moving along the rows to collect the kids and escort them to the front, like uniformed Pied Pipers of Hamelin. “Afterwards, we invite all families to a nice lunch at our diner. Ask for the new Mermaid Menu, it’s 50% off today. Each child will also receive a free toy at the souvenir shop - while stocks last.” Milah gave her the signal to get ready, and Ruby squared her shoulders. Here went nothing. “Now, I hope you enjoy the preview and have a wonderful Sunday with us at Storybrooke Aquarium and Marine Research Center!”

People clapped again, the headlights panned to her, and Ruby waited until the general commotion had died down and everyone had found their new seats, before she spoke. “Good Morning, dear Guests, and welcome to our super-secret preview. Don’t clap too loudly or the guys outside will find out what we’re up to!” She put her finger to her lips and the crowd laughed. “Just kidding. On a more serious note, for Indigo’s safety, we had to lay down a few ground rules, so please listen carefully.” Ruby took a deep breath and tilted her head to catch a glimpse of Bae, who had sat down cross-legged on the floor, his nose inches from the tank, right were the mermaid was still hiding in the sand. “Mermaids are shy and sensitive creatures,” she said, walking a few steps and gesturing towards the tank. “Therefore lights will be dimmed during the show - and I must emphasize again that taking pictures or videos is not permitted. Flashlights and beeping noises would startle Indigo and we’d have to terminate immediately. So please, turn off your cameras, phones, and other electronic devices, and store them in your bags until the lights are back on. Thank you.” Ruby switched on the platform’s soft floor spotlights. “Another - slightly odd - request, please do not clap. I know you will want to - or at least I hope so,” she laughed her show-laugh. “But for Indigo’s sake, please refrain from doing so.”

While the adults turned off their gadgets, Ruby turned to the children- tiny balls of excitement threatening to go off at any moment, fidgeting and buzzing in their seats, their faces flushed and eyes shining like Christmas Morning. Ruby loved kids. It was the adults who made her nervous. She’d be fine, if she focused on the kids. “Is everyone here ready?”

Her question was met with loud screams of ‘YEAH! ’ and she put her finger on her lips again, raising her eyebrows, then repeated the question. This time she got a whispered ‘ YES! ’ back and gave them the thumbsup. “Alright, very good! Then - let’s hit the lights, maestro!” She gave the cue and lighting was slowly dimmed down until the hall was almost completely dark. They had even dimmed the headlights to a bare minimum.

Everyone waited. Ruby’s heart drummed in her ears. She turned her head. Bae still sat there, but he was gesturing now. This was insane. “It’s Indigo’s first day and there are a lot of people here today, so she is a little nervous. Will you guys help her?”

The children whispered ‘yes’ again, and Ruby smiled. They were so eager to do this right and trying hard to keep as quiet as possible. “Awesome! The most important thing you can do to help is to keep absolutely still and quiet once we get started,” Ruby whispered back. “Now, I know that’s super hard, so let’s practice. When I give the signal-” she put her thumb, middle- and ring finger together, pointer and pinkie raised.

“That’s the silent fox, duh!” A small, dark- haired boy shouted, and was immediately shushed by the others. Ruby smirked. “And what does the silent fox tell us, Nicholas Zimmer?” she asked. She knew most of the local kids. They had gone to the same school, given that the town only had one for all ages, and a lot of them were at her shows regularly.

“To keep our traps shut and listen,” Nick grumbled, sinking lower in his seat. His older sister Ava caught Ruby’s eye and shook her head, the most dramatic, exasperated look on her face Ruby had ever seen on an eleven-year-old.

“Thank you for explaining it to us again,” Ruby said. “So-” She repeated the gesture and the kids caught on, putting the hand signal up immediately. “Look at that, guys, I don’t think your parents got it yet!” The kids turned in their seats, and a few adults copied the gesture uncertainly. “I know we’re at an Aquarium, but can I get everyone’s foxes , please?” Ruby enjoyed dragging the adults out of their comfort-zone like this. “Thank you.” She bit her lip to keep from laughing. “So, once you see a fox, we will need absolute quiet. No talking, shouting or clapping. That’s very, very important.” She made another fox and at least ¾ of the hall followed her lead. Close enough.

“Good,” she said. “Now let’s ask my assistant Baelfire,” she emphasized the name to get his attention, “if he and Indigo are ready for us. Bae?”

Bae got up and walked towards her, shaking his head quickly as he passed her, and then sat down at the edge of the platform. Indigo shot after him like a torpedo and vanished from view again, hiding at the edge. Ruby almost jumped back at the sudden movement. “I guess, we need a little more time.” Her face was hot, tiny trails of sweat trickling down her back. She shuddered and turned towards the kids again. “Since we can’t talk later - there must be stuff you want to know about Indigo. Now is your chance!”

Tiny hands punched the air at once. Ruby pointed at Ava.

“Is Indigo her real name? How old is she?”

“Yes, yes it is.” Oh boy. This had been a bad idea. Ruby beamed at the girl. “And I have no idea. I haven’t asked her yet. But I will find out for you, I promise.”

She pointed at the butcher’s daughter. “Yes, Grace?”

“What’s her favorite color?”

“Why blue, of course!” Ruby said. “Indigo blue.”

That answer seemed to be cause for concern, as the girls around Grace immediately huddled closer together and put their heads together to whisper. Maybe pink had been the desired reply.

“What does she eat? What’s her favorite food?” The blonde girl with the pigtails, who was sitting next to August, asked. She was wearing a white tank top and red dungarees. Of course she’d ask about the food. “Well, Emma- I am not entirely --”

“It’s bananas!” Bae shouted over his shoulder, and a few people laughed.

“Okay, apparently, the answer is: bananas,” Ruby repeated into her mic. “Indigo loves bananas. Who would have thought.”

“Really?” Emma scrunched up her face. “They’re gross.”

“Tastes differ, Emma,” Ruby said, grinning down at her co-workers’ daughter. Emma Nolan was a handful, but could also be frickin’ darn cute- if she wanted to be.  

August raised his hand. “Is she a princess?” he asked, and Ruby had to shut down the other boys’ laughter with a stern look.

“That’s a valid question, Nicholas!” Ava snapped at her brother. “She might very well be! What do you know?!”

Jeez. Ruby got out the fox again and the kids fell silent, although Nicholas was giving every impression of  wanting to retort. They’d all be here until next week, if she allowed the mechanic’s kids to get into it.

“She might be,” Ruby said slowly, and Ava looked smug. “Though I don’t know for sure. Another one for the list.”

“Thank you,” August said.

“You’re welcome.” Such a polite kid, but also kind of a loner.

Nicholas raised his hand and Ruby her eyebrows, before pointing at him. “Yes, Nick?”

“Can she talk to dolphins?”

“Yes.” Ruby lied. It wasn’t like they’d ever find out the truth.

She pointed at the small girl sitting next to Emma. “Yes, Tally?” Her real name was Tallulahbelle Green, but everyone called her Tally.

“Does she sing?” Tally asked. “Mermaids sing and collect sparkly things, don’t they?”

“I haven’t heard her sing, but maybe she does,” Ruby answered. “She didn’t have anything sparkly on her when she was found, but she might have things back --- home .”

“Does she have any brothers and sisters?” Ava asked.

“That’s another one for my list,” Ruby said. “I really should have done my homework.” She grinned. “Any more questions?”

Crickets. Apparently not. Whatever Bae was doing, she hoped he was almost done. “Last chance - anyone?” Still nothing. Okay then. Ruby rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet a little. “Then I think we should be ready. Are we? Baelfire?” Pleasesayyespleasesayyespleasesayyesplease -

“Yup,” Bae got to his feet and came over to stand beside her. Ruby could see the mermaid peeking over the edge nervously to keep him in view. “All set.”

“So, Bae , tell everyone what we’re doing today?” Ruby said. What she really meant was: tell me what on earth is happening here, but she couldn’t have phrased it like that, could she?

Bae grinned. “We’re playing a game, Ruby .” The little shit had copied her show-voice. She’d kick him in the shins for that later.

“Cool!” She said, fake-thrilled, as though this was an exchange they had rehearsed. “What game? A ball game, maybe?”

“Nah, that’s not a good idea,” he said slowly, as if thinking about it. “She throws like a girl.” He pointed at Indigo over his shoulder, who promptly made a sulky face and sunk a little lower, blowing bubbles in the water. How did he do that?

“Excuse you!” Ruby laughed. “That’s not very nice. Girls can throw, and run, and jump, and climb just as well as boys can!”

“Okay, okay,” he waved a hand, and Indigo came back up. “Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. We’d like to play Simon Says , though. You’re Simon.”

“Oookay,” Ruby raised her eyebrows. He wanted a copycat game? Alrighty then. She made another fox gesture to be safe.

“Simon says - lift your left arm and wave hello!”

Bae rolled his eyes, but did as he was told- and so did Indigo.

“Sit down!”

Neither of them moved.

“Simon says turn around three times!”

Both Bae and Indigo did, but she was a little slower than he was, keeping a close eye on his movements, it seemed. Ruby had no idea how, but he must have gotten her to copy whatever he was doing.

“You’re good. Okay. Simon says do a shoulder stand!”

Bae shot her a hateful glance, but sat down and did. Indigo dove under and stuck out her tail and fin instead. This was fun. “Eh, she was a little slow, wasn’t she?” Ruby asked the audience. “But we’re not eliminating anyone just yet. It’s a little harder to play this in water.”

Will and Nicholas laughed and rolled their eyes.

“What? You don’t believe me? Try it yourselves the next time you’re in a pool then!” She wagged a finger at the sniggering boys. “Do six jumping jacks!”

Nothing happened.

“Simon says stick out your tongue!”

Bae turned sideways and did, and so did Indigo. Was she laughing?

“Touch your toes- err, fins!”

Bae touched his trainers and Indigo grabbed her fin.

“You’re both out!” Ruby shook her head. “Too bad.”

“No!” Bae protested. “Give us another chance. There was water in my ears!”

Ruby looked at the audience. Yeah, right. “Do they deserve another chance?” she asked and people nodded, the kids both whispering ‘yes’ and nodding, so she said “You’re lucky. They like you. Okay, last chance. Here we go-”

“Simon says clap once!” - They did.

“Simon says clap twice!” - They did.

“Clap three times!” - Nothing.

“Simon says touch your nose!” - They did. Indigo wiggled hers too, nearly causing Ruby to burst out laughing. Bae had to introduce them later. She was adorable.

“Touch your shoulders!” - Nothing. Ruby pointed at them. “I see we’re paying attention now. Good.”

“Simon says run or swim around the pool like a dolphin!”

Bae rolled his eyes again, but got up anyway and made to jog around the pool, Indigo at his heels, the two of them speeding once around the entire tank before they came to a halt at the platform again. Bae was panting, pretending to wipe sweat off his forehead, and Indigo copied him.

“Oh, come on. That wasn’t that bad!” Ruby said. “You need to exercise more. Let’s start right now. Simon says do a backflip!”

Bae gaped at her, hesitated, then plopped down on the platform, and for a wild second Ruby thought he was making the silent fox sign, but then she recognized that both of them had signed ‘ no’ using actual ASL, and were shaking their heads.

“What do you mean ‘no’?!” She chuckled, and the audience laughed with her. “You two are just lazy.” She exchanged a quick look with Bae. “Here, let me show you.” Ruby took three great strides towards the audience, took a deep breath, and stepped shoulder-width apart, raising her arms over her head and facing forward. She bent her knees, swung her arms from high over her head to back past her hips; then back towards the ceiling. And she jumped- doing a perfect backflip, sticking the landing.

To her surprise, the audience was clapping but clapping silently, using the appropriate ASL sign. She spun around to look at Bae, who, no doubt, had gotten everyone to do this. He was still sitting on the floor, grinning like an idiot, and wet from head to toe. Ruby looked at the mermaid. She must have jumped, too- too bad she had missed it- but was now ‘clapping’ along with everyone else. Ruby bowed in all directions. Bae and the mermaid copied her.

“Hey!” She said. “I didn’t say Simon says ! You two suck at this game!”

They both folded their arms across their chests and Ruby laughed. “Well, I guess that means we’re done for today. You had your second chance.” She turned towards the audience. “Thank you all for playing! I hope you have enjoyed our little preview. Please remain seated and silent until the lights are back on. Parents, please come collect your children.” She bowed again. “My name is Ruby Lucas, and I, Baelfire, and Indigo the mermaid wish you all a wonderful day at Storybrooke Aquarium!”

The crowd ASL-clapped again and Ruby watched Indigo laugh soundlessly, copying them of her own accord. Bae waved to get her attention, pointed at the ceiling and then at her cave. She --- signed no. Not copied him doing it- actually signed it herself. So that was how they communicated. Bae signed yes- twice- and Indigo finally dove for her cave. He got up and made to stand beside Ruby. She signaled the tech guys and the lights went back on gradually, blinding everybody just a little bit.

Slowly, people filed outside, parents waiting in line to pick up their kids, and Ruby and Bae headed to the trainers’ nook. They had done it. They had actually done it!

“That was insane, you know.” Ruby beamed at him.

“Told you,” Bae said. “She’s awesome. A little stubborn, maybe.”

Stubborn,” Ruby laughed. “How did you do that?”

Bae shrugged. “We played copycat yesterday. Asked her to play again- but she was scared of the people at first.” He took off his PFD and handed it back to Ruby.

“You asked her to-”

“Yup.”

Before she could ask anything else, he had dashed off again. Seriously, what had happened to not running on wet surfaces? Ruby unplugged her mic, left it at the trainers’ nook, and hurried after him. He had sprinted back out onto the platform and sat down cross-legged at the edge. There was no sign of the mermaid, though.

“Kid, you can’t sit here without a vest on. Your Mom is going to kill me-”

“Nah, she’s not,” Bae said. “We just gave her what she wanted. Show was great.” He didn’t look at her, as she plopped down beside him, but kept staring down into the water. Where did the sudden gloominess come from?

“True,” Ruby said, putting an arm around him. “Hey, penny for your thoughts?”

He looked at her then, his little face troubled. “Did you see her tail? She won’t let me help. She says it’s not bothering her- but she’s lying!”

Mermaids could lie? “Doc’s scheduled to show his face around here later, I could ask to have Indigo put on his list?” Ruby offered. “Maybe he can help?”

“Doubt it,” Bae sighed. “But thanks.”

“Don’t worry,” Ruby nudged him. “She’d tell you if anything was seriously wrong, I’m sure. Come on, let’s head over to the Diner. Hot chocolate with cinnamon and cream? My treat.”

Bae sighed again, stretching. “Okay.”

They got to their feet and headed for headquarters to take the shortcut to avoid the masses, but were stopped by Mrs. Montgomery at the Cockpit, who did indeed look at them like Christmas had come super early this year. Ruby smiled back uncertainly.

“Miss Lucas,” Her boss nodded appreciatively. “You did good. Next week’s already sold out. You should aim for a 60 minute show, as soon as I’ve cleared this with my husband.”

“Um, thank you-” Ruby hesitated. Had she just made headmermaidtrainer without even trying? Without even doing any of the work? “I--- Bae, how about you go ahead? I’ll catch up,” she said and nudged the kid, who, to her surprise, did shuffle towards the exit without further ado. She’d have to cheer him up somehow once she got to the Diner, but first, she had to try and fix this mess.

Mrs. Montgomery was still smiling at her. “We could up your hours, if it’s a scheduling conflict?”

“It’s not that,” Ruby said quickly. “It’s- I just graduated, and ---” Did she really want to come clean? Tell her boss that it had all been her son? That might get both of them in more trouble than her honesty was worth? Ruby worried her lip.

“Ah, still weighing your options. Well, I hope for our sake that local schools offer great programs. It would be a shame to lose you,” Mrs. Montgomery laughed. She paused, thinking. “You know, my husband and I are still looking into setting up a scholarship program for promising young talents like yourself. Maybe we can speed that up a little- if you’re interested- the only catch would be staying with us part time.”

Ruby’s mouth went dry. What ?! She didn’t dare believe her ears. That sounded too good to be true? If this worked out- she could go to school, and keep her job, and train Indigo, and maybe even accept one of the places she’d already been offered- UNE, maybe, or UMM? Possibly this fall, too? “I haven’t decided yet, but tuition’s due very soon,” she said. “I was going to discuss my options with Granny ---” She didn’t feel comfortable sharing that she hadn’t told anyone about the acceptance letters yet, because she couldn’t have afforded any of the schools anyway.

“Like I said, I’ll have to talk it through with Murchadh, but if you leave a list of your preferred schools and programs on my desk, and if your grandmother agrees, I’m fairly positive we can figure out something that works for everybody. If you’re interested?”

“I --- of course, that would be-” Ruby spluttered, her head spinning. “I’d be honored to be consid- I mean, that would be amazing. Thank you!” She finished breathlessly. Okay, screw honesty. How could she not agree to this deal? Bae would understand, if she explained it to him. He knew how badly she wanted this.

“Lovely,” They shook hands. “Let’s schedule a little meeting next week to go over the details.”

Ruby nodded.

“And you go think about what school’s deserving of a clever head like yours in the meantime, Miss Lucas. Don’t sell yourself short.”

She blushed even more deeply and stood rooted to the spot, too stunned to speak, her heart racing and eyes watering. She would have punched the air, but her arms and legs wouldn’t move - and neither would her mouth. This was huge. Just super freakin’ ginormous.

Chapter Text

He was no violent person. Any questionable impulses, justified or not, he would keep a firm handle and a tight lid on; rather hit the books than ever mistreat those he had once vowed to cherish and protect - in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health ---

Sick. That was what she was indeed. Or at least the sight of her made him boil like their burning dinner, hissing and screeching in a large pot on the stove behind her. His insides felt like charred-black coal, dark and heavy in his stomach. Perhaps he was the sick one and she the inflamed nerve and pulp, the rotten tooth that needed pulling.

Her dark lips pressed into a thin line, her face a bag of blotchy lemons, her eyes acid and venom, Milah paced back and forth in front of him, ran her bejeweled fingers through her hair, opened her mouth - no doubt to yell some more - then closed it again, color draining from her lips and cheeks.

Bloody hell.

He wanted to grab her shoulders and make her stop, make her think, make the never-ending click-clack of her heels on the polished wood die and go away forever, but he wouldn’t touch her.

Murchadh Gold just stood there; stood and watched his wife, wondering - in the part of his brain that wasn’t exhausted and furious right now - how in the world they had ended up here, shouting themselves hoarse in an immaculate kitchen, one step away from homicide by blunt cutlery. He wondered how they had managed to give themselves everything they’d ever dreamt of having, everything their wild plans - hatched over the course of many illegal picnics under the stars at the wildlife reserve, countless strolls through sea parks and long study sessions at the library - had ever entailed, down to the very last damn detail, but still wound up to be the two most miserable people alive. It was sad, really. Pathetic, even.

“Look,” she said, in that horrible voice she only ever used with him. “The mermaid is fine. Whale cleared her, Miss Lucas cleared her - and I know how highly you think of the girl,” she added, as though his favorable opinion of the young trainer meant automatic approval-by-proxy of all her actions. “Even your son had no objections --- Murchadh, we can’t put everything on hold here every time you decide to up and save the world somewhere else - one fish at a time. This world needs to keep turning too, even if you’re not the one personally pushing it!”

“No, that would be you, wouldn’t it?” he shot back. She always bested him at the words game, but that didn’t make her words any more true than his. “Pushing things? Always pushing -” He was so tired of riding this carousel with her, round and round and round, never getting anywhere. So bloody tired of beating the old mare that was their marriage, their life, with the same crooked stick over and over again. “And don’t you dare drag the boy into this! He’s not the one strutting around making decisions!” His accusatory finger, aimed at her heaving chest, did nothing to strengthen his argument, so he pocketed it again.

“So that’s your problem?! Me deciding?” She snapped. “Thinking for myself? Thinking about what is best for us - the aquarium, this family - us; making the best business decisions - to my knowledge and ability - that I could possibly be making, business decisions that you -” her eyes found his, holding him there, trapping him, like two halves of a sea shell clasping shut around him. “Asked me to make, remember? Begged me, actually, to take off your shoulders and carry on mine, so you could go and peruse your books in peace, poke and prod at everything that crawls, slithers, swims and floats in the sand and the mud and the seawater whenever it strikes your fancy!” She clasped her hands tightly together, wringing them a little, her gold rings clinking softly. “Did I not do exactly as you asked, Murchadh?” The plea in her question was about as authentic as her long eyelashes and blood red fingernails. “Tell me what I did that wasn’t exactly what you asked me to? What have I done that was so horribly, unforgivably wrong that whenever you look at me, you might as well be looking at a pile of dead, gutted fish?!”

Tears. Hers or a crocodile’s. Milah smudged her mascara with the heel of a shaking hand, for show or out of real agitation and anguish, Gold could no longer tell. Perhaps he was the one in the wrong; perhaps she was trying her best. He had asked her to run this place all by herself, after all. She might be the one constantly pushing for change, for growth, but something that no longer adapted to its surroundings, no longer grew and strived for growth, might as well be declared dead.

Time of death: when he had started looking at his wife like fish heads and offal, apparently. Gold exhaled and relaxed his jaws, trying to shake the tension in his facial muscles, neck and shoulders. He should have told her that she was wrong, that he didn’t look at her that way - never had and never would - but the bitter truth was that he didn’t look at her at all, if he could help it.

He sank down on his chair. “That’s not what I meant.” She folded her arms in front of her chest, a silent, humorless laugh flashing over her face.

Elbows on knees, chin on hands, he looked up at her, contemplating her cheeks streaked with black, the redness around her eyes, the way her hand was tangled up in her curls, and he hesitated.

He had almost made up his mind, his limbs half set on pushing him to his feet and towards her, his hands almost reaching for her face in his mind’s eye - but before thought could finalize and legs and arms could be set in motion, she had spun around and dropped the steaming pot into the kitchen sink with a deafening bang, the lid sliding off, hitting the edge and clattering to the floor, the thick glass interveined, streaked with fissures like lightning. Nevermind.

“Sod it!” Gold slammed a flat hand on the table, the broken lid on the counter, and, finally, the door in her face without so much as another word, then he gripped his cane tightly on the way down to his office, face and knuckles white as spilled milk.

***

It must have been the middle of the night when he woke again, woke in his dark office with a jolt, stiff neck and sore jaw, and looked down to find his boy curled up on his lap, holding onto his chest and fast asleep. Gold watched his little hands, closed to fists around the fabric of his dirty shirt, unwilling to ever let go again; watched his breathing, slow and even; watched his eyelids twitch and dark lashes flutter, rapidly taking in the world he was exploring in his dream.

Gold smiled and raked a hand through Bae’s soft curls, breathing deeply and relaxing to the warmth of the small body snuggled up so tightly against his own. He sighed. It was late and the boy should be asleep and dreaming in his own bed, tucked in safely under his soft covers - not down here with his father, in a cold and hard leather chair, a drafty office.

Flinging curses at his useless leg in his head, Gold nudged the boy gently to rouse him. Gone were the days when he could easily have hoisted him up in his arms and carried him home, balancing his weight on a hip. Gone were the days he had been the superhero that his boy needed and wanted, and - inexplicably - still saw in him, emulating all his actions and words as best he could. What a great example he had set him tonight. Gold shook his head.

“Baelfire-”

Slowly, the boy opened his eyes, coming to. He yawned and blinked, his eyes adjusting to the semi-darkness around them.

“Bae, I’m sorry, we -” Before he could finish or move, Bae had wrapped his little arms around his neck in a bone crushing hug that knocked the breath right out of him.

“The show - I know we shouldn’t have,” he whispered, rambling drowsily, his words stumbling over their untied shoelaces and falling out of his mouth mid-run. “I wanted to help! I asked her, Papa, and ---” He let go, suddenly, sat up straight, and Gold saw the idea forming in his eyes like a pebble jumping on smooth water. “She can tell you! Come on!” Bae clambered off, took his hand, but didn’t drag on it, even if he was bouncing back and forth on the balls of his feet impatiently. “Papa, can I show you?” He asked.

Show him what? “Bae, it’s late, you got school. Your mother -”

“I know, just five minutes? I promise! Please? Pleeease?” How could he ever say no to that little disappointed face? He owed his son this much. With a grunt, Gold got to his feet and, once again, allowed for himself to be lead out of his office and towards the Main Aquarium. Bae, now fully alert and buzzing with excitement, did not run ahead this time, but stayed right there by his side, holding onto his hand and beaming up at him every other bouncy step. “It’s a surprise ---” he whispered, but so low Gold knew the words weren’t meant for him.

On arrival, his eyes caught a glimpse of blue reflecting in the night lighting before it vanished into the dark water with a splash. Bae worried his bottom lip, stopping, and turned to face him. “Let me go first, tell her you’re coming to see her too, okay?”

Gold nodded and dutifully remained standing where Bae had let go of his hand to run towards Indigo’s tank and onto the trainer platform. Perhaps he should have been worried, watching him go - in his turtle-print onesie and fuzzy shark slippers - and sink down to sit cross-legged at the edge, his hands playing in the water, but he wasn’t worried at all. He had taught his son to never be afraid, to respect the water but not fear it, and Bae knew how to swim long before he could crawl.

Waiting and watching, his pulse only quickened when she reappeared, slowly and cautiously, shooting him suspicious glances over her shoulder, before meeting his son at the platform. He looked on, fascinated, as the pair gestured and laughed, encoding and decoding the other’s meaning and intent with ease, a working system of communication already established between them. And in that moment Gold wanted nothing more than to join them, become part of their little circle. Now it was he who struggled to keep standing still, heart pounding out of his chest and head reeling with all the wonderful possibilities opening up before him. Abundant excitement like he hadn’t felt in years bubbled in his veins and tickled his skin from the inside out. Incredible. While he had yelled at spectators and reporters and his wife, his son had done what he had lost sight of. He had made sure Indigo was alright, had looked after her and had fended for her in any way he knew how. Gold felt his heart swell with pride and love - for whatever else he had managed to mess up in life, he had done right by the boy, had raised a good and kind child, who looked out for those around him, keeping their best interest at heart, always. Gold smiled.

***

She couldn’t tell the time in here. Without the sun, the moon and stars in the sky to guide her, without the wind and the waves to whisper and sing in her ears, Belle had no means of navigation - temporal or spacial - left to make sense of the world around her. The airlings controlled the strange, cool sun in this place and it did their bidding without asking twice and without fail. She wondered how they had captured it, made it bend to their will and became its masters. Perhaps it had been a net, and food in neat little boxes, and silly games?

She knew what her father would say, but what choice did she have? Deny their food and company and risk angering them while at their mercy, trapped in their little moldy glass box? Hearts starved as well as bodies - perhaps that was why they kept her isolated, quite literally in the dark, removed from time and space. They gave her food that didn’t kill her and while she did as they asked, they hadn’t tried to hurt her. But they also hadn’t let her go. Perhaps she could ask the little airling to set her free, but she was too afraid of his answer. It would shatter her to never feel the salt and the sun on her skin again, would rip the strand of eelgrass, the last flicker of hope that she clung to for dear life, clear in two.

When the little airling came to see her again, the strange sun didn’t rise - perhaps it only listened to the tall ones - and, although she didn’t feel like playing or eating, she swam back up to meet him - for it would be rude not to. The child hadn’t harmed her and he was the only living being she could talk to - even if the funny little gestures only allowed for a limited number of thoughts and wishes to be expressed and shared. Perhaps it was good she had to break it down to the basics, express herself clearly and directly. Her father would surely approve of her learning to get to the point, tone it down, get her head off the shore and cliffs and back to the bottom of the sea. Belle sighed.

But her little friend wasn’t alone. He had brought someone else. Not the girl with the strange skin, who jumped like her dolphin friends, but an adult airling. In the semi-darkness, she couldn’t quite make him out clearly and he didn’t approach them, her and the little one. He just stood there, a little while away, unmoving, watching. It reminded her of predators who buried themselves in the sand at the bottom, hid between grass and corals, and kept perfectly still - until they didn’t - and the unsuspecting passer-by became their dinner. The thought made her shudder. But surely the little one wouldn’t have her eaten? She had done as he asked, had played all the games he wanted - even when the strange sun had been out and she had had to swim in the sea of faces, her tail hurting and her heart beating so loudly, it deafened her ears. She had played, because he had asked her to; played, even when she had been deadly afraid. She had been brave. And so she would be again now. What else was there for her to do?

He waved at her. She waved back. The sounds and gestures he made were all alien, unfamiliar and confusing, and he was going too fast for her to grasp whatever it was that he wanted her to know or do. He was adorable still, eager and vivacious, grinning from ear to ear and showing off the gaps between his teeth, as he rambled on, effervescent like sea foam. Studying his happy little face, Belle wished she could have tapped into his enthusiasm and joy. She wasn’t such a glum fish, not usually, not really - and it was beginning to tear at her.

He pointed at the tall airling. Looked at her. Nodded his little fist. Raised his eyebrows. Again. Question.

Alright. Yes.

Holding her breath, her eyes stayed on the tall one as he came closer. Not a predator. He didn’t have the agility, the swiftness for it. His movements were jerky, shaky, labored. Old or hurt then. The one to be brought into the center of the pod with the mothers and children during an attack. Not a threat, not a hunter. She could outswim him, if she had to - unless he was much quicker in the water than he was on land. She flicked her tail slowly from side to side, testing it. Not good, but if push came to splash, it would have to do.

She scrutinized his every move for signs of aggression or ambush, but he just sat down next to the little airling, again moving with considerable difficulty and effort, and Belle blew out a breath. She wasn’t usually this on edge, this suspicious - though, maybe if she had been, she wouldn’t be here now. She swished her tail again. He’d hurt his too. Perhaps that was why he was here.

She looked up at his face - and shot backwards with a jolt, right to the other end of the glass box, but not downwards. They didn’t like it when she did that and hid in the sand. It would only wake the wailing noises. She didn’t want the wailing noises.

Him. It was him.

Belle would have recognized his face anywhere, its image so tightly interwoven with the sharp thorns of pain that she had awoken to. She wanted to dive under, but held herself there, hands gripping the edge tightly, heart clenching, her belly flooding with black death, a slick film of dark colors dancing on black canvas coating her insides and slowly suffocating her. She felt their ropes cut into her flesh, felt the lacerations on her hands and fingers where they tore at her ever constricting confinement - desperate, but in vain - felt the deep and angry pain burn white hot in her veins, everything so much brighter, so much louder, blinding and deafening, before her world faded into more than black, more than white, crashing into nothing.

Blinking through her tears, she could still see them sitting on the opposite shore. They hadn’t moved, hadn’t followed, but also hadn’t gone away - and she knew they wouldn’t. She took a couple deep breaths. There were no ropes here. She was faster than they were. Steadying herself, Belle ran the back of her hand across her face, straightened her back, let go and propelled herself forward with powerful strokes, thinking sugary cubes, and yellow pearls and gemstone, as the stiff water rushed past her ears.

She looked at him again, pushing the blackness back down into her belly. He didn’t look dangerous. Or vicious. He looked sorry. And just as nervous as she felt. She cocked her head to the side and back again, studying his features from all angles. He had a kind, round face, thin, chapped lips, a rather prominent nose, and eyes that were just like the little airling’s, really - smooth brown with long lashes. But his were darker than the child’s. They weren’t all that scary, if she didn’t look at them too long.

The boy addressed her - she recognized the sounds that made up gemstone by now - and did the circular motion on his chest, before he put a hand on the older airling’s arm and then touched his right thumb to his forehead, fingers fanned out and wiggling a little.

She was absolutely lost.

Belle shifted her attention to the grown-up, because that was what the boy had done. Slowly, a little uncertainly, the older one placed his left hand in front of him, palm up, and moved the flat palm of his right hand across his left. Then, after hesitating again, he raised his index fingers, the left hand held away from his body, the right moving from him towards her, his fingers meeting, touching.

They all waited.

She blinked confusedly, then shrugged, and he smiled back helplessly, doing the same, which made her smile too.

Yeah, ‘what?!’, right?

Belle rubbed at her eye with the heel of a hand, almost missing the older airling pointing at the little one and placing both arms together, gently rocking them back and forth, as if holding an infant.  Oh. Baby, child. His child. Belle’s face softened, her smile widening and spreading to her eyes like sunbeams reflecting on water. Of course. They were father and son, they were family. She nodded, wanting to signal her understanding, but then her face fell like sudden cloudburst. Would she ever get to see her family again?

His brows raised, the father pointed at her, and, in a fluid motion, touched his fingertips against his chest and rocked his invisible young again. Belle blushed. Question.

Her eyes downcast and biting her bottom lip, she felt her cheeks grow hot as she closed a shy beak at him in response. What a question to ask her! Like she would ---, like she had ---, like she was worthy of ---! In very, very deep waters at the flattering, but slightly uncomfortable question, Belle squeezed her eyes shut, scrunching her nose, and looked everywhere but at the airling’s face. Young merlings were endlessly precious, more valuable than all the treasures of the sea, and indefinitely more beautiful. Oh gosh. Flustered, she buried her flushed face in her hands, peeking out at them from between her fingers.

The child nudged his father with his elbow, as if saying Look, what you did, father! You embarrassed me in front of my friend!, then folded his arms in front of his chest, shaking his head. The father just sat there, nonplussed, a confused crease forming between his slightly furrowed brows. The scene warmed her heart, making it both melt and ache at the same time.

Belle swam up directly to the platform, but kept her eyes resolutely nowhere as she reached out to touch a small turtle on the boy’s leg. Turtles laid many eggs, their offspring roaming the waters in big numbers; not one of them alone that didn’t want to be, each one finding their bale, their group, their partners and families; not a single one left behind or made to feel like they didn’t belong, like they had nowhere to go and no one to be with. Sighing, Belle traced the little brown shell with the tip of her finger and the young airling laughed, squirming and wriggling, relaxing his arms.

She looked up at his laughing face to find the father had placed a hand on his shoulder, telling him something in a soft, gentle voice, something she had no means of understanding, but the boy nodded, looked down at her, tapped her nose affectionately, and scrambled to his feet to dash off like a sailfish chasing bait. She followed him underwater until he had vanished from sight, waited a breath or two, and then resurfaced to return to the platform.

The father was studying her over his steepled hands, deep in thought, his face rippled like the water’s surface in soft rain, his gaze so intense that she was blushing deeply yet again. He made no attempt at communicating with her, didn’t ask any more questions or invite hers, so Belle wasn’t sure whether to stay or go, and in two minds about which of the two she actually preferred herself.

They watched each other for a while.

Just when she had relaxed to his presence, when he had blended into her surroundings almost perfectly, like he was part of the air himself, the child returned, red-faced and breathless, clutching another box and something white, rectangular and solid. He handed everything to his father, who put both hands on his shoulders, kissed his forehead, and after a short exchange of words and stubborn body language that needed no explanation, sent him off again. Belle smiled. Perhaps merlings and airlings weren’t all that different after all.

The gleaming white object on the platform, the father bent down low over it, he scratched and scribbled on it with the long objects from the metallic box, his hair falling into his face as he did so. Intrigued, Belle hovered at the edge, trying to catch a glimpse of what it was that he was doing, and she swam this way and that - even considered a jump to get a better view - but she couldn’t get a clear shot either way, and jumping would have been a little too much. She wasn’t a little merling anymore.

Then he lifted his head and turned the rectangle towards her, and Belle’s heart froze in her chest for a split second, missing a beat. He had drawn a picture, a beautiful, colorful picture of a reef - almost exactly like the one that was her home. Her mouth falling open, she reached for the familiar plants and fish, the rectangle’s surface hard and cold under her fingertips, and gazed up at him, fresh tears rapidly filling her eyes.

He smiled at her, engulfing her in warmth and understanding that had her eyes spill over, sending silent tears rolling down her heated cheeks, as he extended the box of colors to her, his kind eyes whispering ‘Show me.’ in words that traveled on the wind, from one heart to another.

Her shaking hand reached for a deep, deep blue, and she made it dance on white, like waves during a storm, breaking banks and sinking ships.

Chapter Text

She had no means of telling its passing, but time passed regardless.

They had fallen into a routine, the airlings and she. A routine which brought her both comfort and boredom in its familiarity. There was no natural daybreak or nightfall, no tides, so her days began whenever the airlings came to wake up the strange sun - and her - and gave her colorful food in funny shapes. Then they asked her to play.

First, she played with the girl who loved to jump. She was nice, a little more reserved than the little airling perhaps, but her games were more demanding physically. They involved jumps and hoops and speed, and Belle tried her best to do what was asked of her and to remember the right number of jumps and in what order they were to appear in their game.

She had never been good with directions, though, and her memory, she had been told time and again, seemed primed for the useless rather than the necessary, so it took her a while to memorize everything correctly.

When they were done playing, she got more food and a little time to herself - with the lights low in the ever-gray sky and silence pressing in on her glass coffin from all directions. She had begun to wonder where the girl went when she wasn’t playing with her, if there were others she played with. Others confined to glass boxes and soapy water. Others - just like her.

Belle wasn’t sure what kept her from asking. Perhaps the knowledge that neither answer would have been what she wanted to hear.

On most days, the little airling visited her too. They would play or just talk and eat. She liked that.

Some days he brought his little friend along, a girl with green eyes and hair the color of dry sand. She liked that a little less. The girl was loud and easily bored. She had little patience to explain when Belle didn’t understand and often lured the little airling away to places she couldn’t follow.

Today, they had chosen her platform to play, shared some of her favorite food - the mushy yellow things - with her, and then started to draw funny shapes and symbols on the white rectangles they had brought. Belle didn’t know what they meant and she had been told not to touch anything.

These rectangles were different from what the older airling gave her to draw on. Smaller. Softer. When she tried touching them, they turned into gooey seaweed and the symbols vanished in a cloud of black squid ink.

Perhaps the shape-creatures were alive and afraid of her? Why else would they need the diversion?

Belle watched the young airlings bring more of the strange creatures to life. What were they for, she wondered, what was their purpose? She couldn’t ask - no one was paying her any mind. She waved and tried getting the attention of her little airling friend, but he was all wrapped up in his game.

No one cared when she had her fin smack the water with a loud splash and swam circles as fast as she could until she was out of breath. She even jumped - once, but very high - at which the airlings did glance up briefly, but resumed their game just as quickly.

It was like Belle wasn’t even there.

She didn’t particularly want to be part of their drawing game. Since the boy’s father had first shown her the pictures and handed her the colors, she’d been drawing so much the drawing game had become just as dull as the jumping game to her. However, she also didn’t like being ignored. If they didn’t want her here, they could go somewhere else to do whatever it was they were doing, couldn’t they? Unlike she who was stuck in the stupid box and couldn’t go anywhere.

The box was boring, and the cave was boring, and the fish and plants were boring too. She was sick of looking at them.

Belle surfaced and crossed her arms.

Swimming in circles wasn’t fun, either. It only made her dizzy. Plus, she still hadn’t regained much of the strength in her fin. How could she have in such a place? Without the salt on her skin and fresh air in her lungs? Without the currents and waves to guide her movements and strengthen her muscles? Without dolphins she could race and whales to practice her echo location skills with? She had nothing and no one in here - and the little airling girl had taken away her only friend. The only one who provided some distraction and relief - for a little while at least.

Belle took the sparkly hair shell from her hair, juggling it between her hands for a moment, then dropped it. It sank to the bottom. The gemstone blinked up at her reproachfully.

Her name was Belle, not gemstone. And she wanted to go home.

Determined, she slammed her fin on the platform, tapped it insistently.

The airlings looked up. Finally.

She recognized “gemstone,” followed by raised eyebrows and a hand gesture.

Gemstone, what ? - She would tell him what alright.

The little airling shook his head. Not now.

Yes, now.

She wanted out. She wanted something to tell him that.

Belle pointed at the object in his hand.

He shook his head again, said something to the girl, cocked his head to the side.

She pointed at the girl’s hands. Colors. Someone give her the colors and the rectangle.

The girl laughed. Looked at the boy. She pointed at Belle, then laughed again.

Hadn’t she been so irritated with them, Belle might have found it cute. She was cute - with her missing youngling’s teeth, face sprayed with sun spots, and wild hair that stuck out at the back of her head, but not right now. Right now she was in the way.

Belle’s tail twitched, back and forth, back and forth.

Splish-splosh, Splish-splosh, Splish-splosh.

She grimaced. Swallowed back the bitter taste on her tongue.

The airling girl pointed at Belle’s tail. She wasn’t laughing anymore.

Well, of course it wasn’t pretty. What did they expect?

The girl sat up on her heels, leaned in -

Belle reacted before the little hand could touch her scales. She pulled away and pushed off backwards with a powerful stroke, cutting through the water and floating on her back a sufficiently safe distance away.

Enough with the touching, the probing and prodding!

Eyes blown wide, the airling girl shrieked as she slipped, fell over, and her tiny body hit the water.

She didn’t swim, like most younglings would have done on instinct, but bobbed around like a log for a moment, cheeks puffed out and crab-faced, then went under silently.

Belle watched, perplexed at the girl’s utter lack of movement. She wasn’t even trying to get back to the surface?

The boy’s voice sounded off as he shouted. Strangely muffled sounds. As if his voice were coming from very far away;  from above - while her ears were already under.

Belle looked at him, made to dive for the girl.

She reached out to pull her up and immediately was grabbed by the neck and yanked in the opposite direction so hard it took her breath away.

Belle’s hands flew to her neck, to the object that had closed around it like a fist. She couldn’t get under it, couldn’t get around it, couldn’t get away from it. The more she struggled and pulled, the tighter it latched on.

She gasped. If she didn’t want to suffocate, the only thing left to do was yield.

She stopped moving.

The world rushed by in a blur and she knew pain was coming for her. She prayed it might go by fast, and it did, yet felt unbearably slow at the same time.

She was suspended. Then impact.

The pressure around her neck let up. Belle felt her tail move in a way it shouldn't. She was out of the water, the platform slippery under her as she attempted to move away from whatever this was.

She had threatened their young. They were going to eat her now.

Before she could get anywhere or do anything, her attacker threw her on her back, pinned her down and forced her onto her side, where he held her with his own weight, legs pressing down on her tail, hands biting into her middle and curled around her shoulder like a claw.

Belle craned her neck to look back over it, wanted to communicate using her hands, using the signals she had been taught, but he wouldn’t let her.

The airling’s gaze burned, the way ice burned skin, and she hissed as he grabbed her chin and turned her face towards him, then the other way and back again, his thumb dragging down her lip to examine her teeth as he went.

She wanted to bite him.

Belle hissed again, bucked up against the pressure on her tail.

He grabbed her by the back of her head, his fingers twisting her hair, and smiled at her. Not all at once, but slowly, revealing his very white teeth like a rising stinger.

She took a deep breath, growled in warning.

When she attempted to snap at him, he shoved her face into the ground so hard she tasted blood and heard the night sky hum lullabies in her ears. She coughed.

Across the water, she saw the shapes of the little airling girl and boy being carried from her blurry field of vision.

Away, away, gone.

He yelled her name, and she wanted to signal … something. Sorry, help, anything.

Squealing like a pup, she squirmed about on the platform, pulling at the hands, tugging, scratching the smelly skin - which earned her a slap across the face. His hand hit and she fell limp and silent with the force of it.

He flipped her over like a piece of dead fish ready to be gutted and she closed her eyes.

Releasing her hands, he moved behind her, his knees digging into her back, one hand on her tail, the other resting on her cheek and neck.

Cold, disgusting, dangerous.

Belle’s tail twitched and he hissed in her face.

Short, sharp. Warning.

She pressed her fin flat to the ground; slowly moved her fingers, crab-like, closer to her body, began to lift her head and arm-

Hiss.

He slammed her back down so hard, her bones jangled and her teeth chipped, all air leaving her in a soundless cry.

Her brain buzzed and stung. Her foaming heart raced to the water. Blood dried on her tongue.

Endless moments passed.

Belle kept perfectly still as his hand moved from her tail to her belly; as his fingers fanned out across it like a many-legged creature and began caressing her prickling skin in lazy strokes and circles.

She didn’t dare breathe.

If she moved, he’d hiss and drag her back here. If she fought him, he’d crack her skull.

He held her in place, eliminating all chance of fight and all hope of flight with the relentless touching, and Belle simply lay as she had been positioned, her eyes closed and breathing shallow, her essence curling in on itself in the hope that he would go away if she just remained completely still long enough.

He didn’t.

After a while, an insistent clacking noise joined them, came closer and grew louder. Belle felt too exhausted to open her eyes. The sound rattled in her ears, then echoed in her hollow head. She didn’t like the sound. The sound was bad, she wanted it to stop.

When the biting smell hit her nose, her eyes flew open.

He was still there, his presence heavy on her shoulder and tail, but crouching directly in front of her was a new airling, an unfamiliar female.

Belle blinked rapidly to chase the fog from her brain and the sparks from her vision.  

The airling was beautiful. Dark hair and lips and lashes, bright eyes like sunken treasure. She bent toward her, lifted Belle’s head to place it in her lap, then patted her hair.

Belle tried to speak using her hands, but she couldn’t. The airling woman had gathered them up in one of her own, holding them tightly together at the wrists.

The male tapped her back with his knee, causing her to jerk and curl up instinctively. She immediately froze, but no one was hissing at her or yanking her tail back. Instead, something gelid touched her lower back - and this time he reversed her reaction and restricted any further movement.

Parched as she was, her tongue had glued itself to the roof of her mouth, so she made no sound as the stinger broke her skin, but her whole body tensed and hot shivers dribbled down her spine.

This was it… then?

Belle looked up at the airling woman. Her face was turned away, but her hand stroked Belle’s hair almost gently.

When the second sting came, she could no longer keep still.

The pains were sharp as teeth. Nippers grasping and clawing at her insides.

White hot spasms flashed through her body, blinding her eyes, deafening her ears, and numbing her fingers. The stinger twisted in her back and she nearly choked on her tongue as it rolled back in her mouth to make way for sounds that wouldn’t come, vocalizations that couldn’t be heard above the sea. The sea, the sea.

She couldn’t breathe.

An ache in her chest, a hole. Hot searing pain in her tail. She no longer had a fin.

Chapter Text

Only after the tears had stopped running down Bae’s face, did they leave his office. He took his boy by the hand and directed their steps outside and towards the diner. One of Granny’s famous hot cocoas - with cinnamon, rainbow sprinkles, and whipped cream - would do the boy good, and he’d feel much better knowing him in the widow Lucas’ care - rather than alone in his room or with his mother. He hoped the friendly atmosphere would calm Bae down and that the everyday hum and hustle would help take his mind off the matter.

Of course he hadn’t thought that last part through properly, and Gold sighed when he spotted the Nolans and their little girl sitting in a booth in the corner. Emma Nolan was wrapped in a green bathrobe and an old beach towel and grinning as broadly as the shark head that her robe had for a hood.

“... and then, woosh, she was gone!” Emma’s little hands shot through the air. “And Dad, Dad, she’s super-fast. Like superduperuber-fast!” Face flushed, the girl threw her arms up higher and the terry shark slid off her head and shoulders, exposing her arms and neck. Apparently, the shock of the incident had already worn off and morphed into wide-eyed, breathless overexcitement.

Her mother immediately leaned over to fix Emma’s robe.

“You mean to say-” David Nolan lowered his voice-“that mermaid’s faster… than me?!” His tone matched his daughter’s in pitch and volume and he seemed just as enthusiastic about the topic, which Gold knew couldn’t be true. Had it been Bae - and hadn’t he known for a fact that merfolk did not harm humans - his expression would have been much more like the one Mrs. Nolan wore: concerned, displeased, disapproving.

“Excuse me,” Gold said. All eyes fell on him. He cleared his throat.

Bae had steered them towards his friend and her family, but was uncharacteristically quiet now that they had arrived at their table.

Gold and David Nolan exchanged a look and small nods of greeting, Mrs. Nolan, however, only pursed her lips. She was still fussing over Emma’s clothes and towel.

“I only just heard,” he began, his face growing warmer under Mrs. Nolan’s stern gaze. By the dirty looks she was shooting him, it might as well have been him - the culprit, the guilty party, persona non grata - who was to be held personally responsible for Emma’s accidental adventure in the reef tank. “And I wanted to apologize. Bae knows better than playing by the tanks -” Her eyes narrowed- “but, of course, we shouldn’t have left the children unsupervised at any time,” he added quickly and Mrs. Nolan nodded along in agreement.

“Our Emma knows not to go too close too. She’s here a lot,” David interjected, placing a hand on his daughter’s head. He smiled. “Right, kiddo? If anything, we should have checked that the gates were properly locked. That’s not the kids’ responsibility. They were just having fun.”

It was a noble attempt at defusing his wife's anger, but it all boiled down to him and Milah as the ones to blame either way. They had failed to perform their supervisory role properly - either neglected their duties as parents or employers, or both. Probably both. Simultaneously.

“It was an accident, no one got hurt. No harm done.”

Bae tensed at Gold’s side. Gold let go of his hand and put his arm around the boy’s shoulders.

“That’s a very kind way of looking at it, Mr Nolan. My wife and I are, however, truly sorry.” He spoke mostly to Mrs. Nolan, despite keeping his eyes firmly on a spot somewhere behind her left ear. “And I wanted to personally come and check in with you both - make sure your daughter was alright.”

Finally, a little smile. Mother’s absolution.

“But I’m fine, Mr Gold,” Emma piped up, turning in her seat to look up at him. “I just got wet.” She grinned. “Almost dry now.” She flapped her arms a little, as if to prove she wouldn’t shower him in droplets or leave puddles where she stood - or sat, respectively. Her mother shot her a pointed look. “If- if we promise not to get into trouble again and to do what we’re told, can Bae stay and play? Please?” She reached for Bae’s hand. “Please?!”

“If your parents are alright with that-”

“Of course!” David said. “Sit with us for a bit, buddy.” He smiled at Bae and scooted over to make room, patting the seat. “My wife is heading home to get Emma a change of clothes, but I’ll keep an eye on them. My shift’s over, I don’t mind hanging for a bit.” He looked at Gold, keeping eye contact long enough to make it significant. “I’m sure you’ll look into the mermaid business? Check that things are good over at the reef? Gates closed and all?”

Gold nodded. “Absolutely. I’m headed there next. Thank you. We really appreciate your help and understanding,” He turned to Mrs. Nolan, “and we’ll make sure something like this won’t happen again;” and then addressed his son: “Bae, listen to Mr Nolan, alright? Have Granny fix you a cocoa, if you like - but no pastries. It’s almost dinner time. Your mother or I will come and get you in about… an hour.” He checked with Mr Nolan. Yes, an hour would be fine. “No wandering around without an adult, ok?”

“Yes, Papa,” Bae said. Then he shifted in his seat, beckoned him closer and whispered, “We were just playing, she didn’t mean to.” He hesitated. “Papa, her tail looked all… funny. What if-”

“I know.” He squeezed Bae’s shoulder. No need for the boy to get all worked up again. “Don’t worry. I’ll talk to her.”

Leaving Bae with the Nolans, he returned to the main building. Now that he knew him in good hands, his only thought was Indigo.

***

Things were much worse than he had anticipated.

In the time it had taken him to calm Bae down enough to speak and tell him what had happened at the reef tank, and then walked the boy over to Granny’s, Milah and Gus Gaston had made a good job of it and - without waiting for Whale’s approval or his - begun medical procedure.

He was done yelling at them about it.

Unfortunately, the yelling hadn’t made Gold feel any better. It was too late for that and it was his fault anyway. Had he kept an eye on Bae, had he gone to check on Indigo sooner that afternoon, had he paid better attention, had he not gotten so carried away with his research on corals and plants that he forgot to ask her about herself, this whole situation could have been prevented.

He should have known.

It was hypocritical to vent his anger and blame his wife and their employees. Gaston was a brainless brute, his methods questionable at best, but he had detected what Gold had not: Indigo had been in pain and immediate action necessary. Of course, immediate action should have meant dialing 911 for professional veterinary care, not a thoughtless DIY-approach.

Gus Gaston had dropped out of the program back in the day, they knew, but still acted like he held a double degree in veterinary medicine and marine biology. He had claimed that caring for a mermaid’s tail was no different from declawing a cat or filing down horses’ teeth. Easy. Quick. And he had handled the anesthesia with such confidence that no one had stopped to question his actions. How they had gotten Indigo to keep still long enough to do it, Gold didn’t want to know. Hadn’t Gaston’s family been big money, he would have fired him long ago, would fire him now- going on his unpleasant gut feeling alone.

He’d deal with the idiot later.

“Murchadh?”

It took all the self-control he possessed to keep the grimace off his face and the anger out of his voice. No matter how pissed off he was, he would not argue with Milah in front of their son.

“Yes?”

She gave him the once-over.

His old wetsuit wasn’t something he particularly wanted to be seen in. It had fit snug as a glove once, but was now rather too large in the body and perished in places. He had had to roll up the sleeves and legs a bit too, which made him feel like the boy he’d once been: Forever embarrassed by his size and build, stumbling about in second-hand rags he never quite managed to grow into. He had been the smallest boy in the village, but also the fastest, and he held his breath longer than anyone else, which had saved his life more than once. Standing here now, in his baggy suit, barefoot on the slippery tiles made him feel small and vulnerable, and he had to fight the urge to hold his breath, close his eyes, and count in his head until the danger had passed.

He glanced at the boots lying by the holding pool, then forced himself to look at her face. In her heels she was taller than he was.

“Dove will take us to the airport,” she said, and he was grateful she had chosen to keep any remarks on his appearance to herself. God knew she didn’t think him attractive, they didn’t need to rehash it in front of Bae. “Our flight leaves in three hours.”

“Give Ethel my best,” he said, making it sound almost like he meant it. The old hag would love this. Another opportunity to meddle and tell her daughter how much better she could do if only she divorced that good-for-nothing cripple of a husband. And hadn’t they warned her about him from the start? Hadn’t they told her so? She needed a real man. A man to worship the very ground she walked on. A man to teach her son how to become one. Play some ball, shoot a deer, memorize useless facts about overpriced motorized vehicles that cost more than the average person made in a year. That sort of thing. Gold’s lip curled.

“Thank you. I will.” She checked her watch. “Come on, Baelfire, the car is waiting.”

“I don’t want to go!”

Bae’s face darkened and Gold felt a twinge of guilt. He didn’t want him to go any more than the boy wished to spend the remainder of the summer at Montgomery Manor. Yet, fighting Milah on this would only have the opposite effect. He might have been a runner by necessity in his youth, but it was she who had running down to an art form. He needed to let her go.

“Bae,” He opened his arms for Bae and hugged him close as the boy came running into them. “Listen, your grandmother called and she’s really looking forward to your visit. She hasn’t seen you and Mama since Christmas and I imagine it might get quite lonely in that big old house all by herself… “

“She’s not alone. She’s got Dougal.”

He had almost forgotten about the Doberman. His mother-in-law loved that creature. Her late husband had bred Doberman Pinschers, a favorite pastime of his, and Dougal was the last one he had trained himself before his accident. Ethel held onto that dog like it was the son she’d never had.

“Yes, but I’m sure she’s excited to hear all about your summer, Bae. Dogs don’t make the best conversationalists.”

Bae looked at him, eyebrows arched.

“You can’t expect them to tell good stories,” Gold explained.

“I know lots of good stories,” Bae said.

“I know you do.”

“Why can’t you come?”

“I have to work,” Gold said, catching Milah’s impatient eye. Her lips were a thin white line. She hated how much their son didn’t want to belong to her old world, how reluctant he was to visit her childhood home, how little joy he got out of the things and activities her family valued. He felt almost sorry for her sometimes. Not today though.

“Marmie told me she’s having the big pool ready for when we arrive,” she said, her gaze fixed on Bae’s curls. “You can work on your butterfly and dive. Maybe beat me at freestyle?”

The one thing they had in common. Watching his wife in her tailored suits and high heels, it was hard to imagine her as a young girl, swimming laps, racing for Gold in a Speedo and swim cap. She was great in the water. Before all this, she’d killed him in a race for the best waves and won. He still didn’t know why she’d asked him out after. Milah had been 30.000 leagues out of his back then - just as she was now - and they both knew it.

“That would be great, wouldn’t it?” He broke the hug to steer Bae back to his mother. “Marine biologists and trainers need to be good swimmers,” he said encouragingly, and Milah released the tension in her face long enough to give him a fleeting smile.

This wasn’t for her. It was for his son. Bae shouldn’t have to feel like he had to choose sides. There weren’t supposed to be sides.

“Okay,” Bae said. “But I’m not wearing the cap Marmie got me last year! It looks stupid.”

Milah laughed. “We’ll get you a new one. Now-” She held out a hand for Bae to take. “We’ll call you when we get there.”

“Have a safe trip,” Gold said.

After they had left, he went and pulled on his boots, grabbed the temporal artery thermometer from the tray, and carefully stepped down the ladder into their largest quarantine holding pool. Even if it was the largest they had, it wasn’t much bigger than a very spacious bathtub or two, and, as his feet touched the ground, the water only went up to his thighs. The water resistance meant he didn’t need his cane walking in the pool, and, as he didn’t have to swim, the low water level made it easier to use his hands freely.

“Good evening.”

With his left hand, he made little waves in the water to announce his presence - in case she was awake.

Indigo was their only patient in the med wing, which had become restricted-access and special-permit-only with her arrival.

When Milah had pushed for an upgrade from their old Med Shed, a regular garden shed on the premises they used to operate out of, and which had served them just fine up to that point, to what was now the medical wing with several indoor holding pools and an airlock door for quarantine purposes, she had also insisted on having a security system installed that required ID and allowed communication via intercom. He had deemed it extravagant and unnecessary at the time. Now he was grateful for the extra security.

The medical wing was top-notch and allowed them to do terrific work. His team now rescued, rehabilitated and released more than 200 animals each year; last year, they had rescued more than 270 animals and made the papers as Ocean Angels when they’d taken in large numbers of California sea lions, northern elephant seals and harbor seals, as well as sea otters, turtles, a baby dolphin and a porpoise after a horrible oil spill higher up the coast.

“For every patient, the goal is to treat, rehabilitate and return it to the wild as soon as possible,” Milah had told the press. “Maintaining the animals' wildness and reducing the stress they experience is an integral part of our work. The animals are not used to interacting with humans, and we want to be able to eventually return them to their habitat with their instincts and abilities intact.”

It was the same line she had used on the investors and generous sponsors, and the reason why they now had a facility that included not only a ridiculous security system and optional quarantine space, but an exam and surgical room equipped with a new endoscope and x-ray. The total budget for the facility was $554,000; which had been raised entirely by private donations, with 346 donors supporting the project. Husbandry still was the core of all their rehabilitation efforts - including nutrition, handling techniques, hygiene and sanitation, housing, disease prevention, and stress reduction, but the new equipment and ongoing cash flow made their work a lot easier. As did qualified staff applying for their team and the many volunteers that more positive press coverage had swept in, who were eager to help with their rehabilitation and release efforts and regular work, including much of the day-to-day care of the animals.

Gold turned on the thermometer and gently swept it across Indigo's forehead. He read the number then double-checked the reading with another go, nodded, and waded back to the stairs to heave himself out of the water. Grunting, he limped over to the tray and table, and, checking the time on one of the screens, jotted down both the temperature and the time in the notebook.

Whales, dolphins, seals and other marine mammals could generate their own heat and maintain a stable body temperature despite fluctuating environmental conditions. Like people, they were endothermic homeotherms, meaning: warm-blooded, but unlike the average person, they could endure water temperatures as low as -2 degrees Celsius and air temperatures reaching -40 degrees °C. Indigo’s inner thermostat, however, was out of whack.

He went over the older entries. Not better, not good, but at least her temperature had been relatively stable for the last couple of hours.

Just like with human patients, the first twenty-four hours after trauma were the most critical, which was why he was determined not to leave Indigo’s side tonight, and also the reason he hadn’t fought Milah on her decision to up and leave, taking Bae across the country on the next machine available to see her mother. They needed a break and he needed time to fix his mistakes.

With a sigh, he looked through Indigo’s chart, scanned the printouts (they might as well have been in Chinese) and notes in the margins, then watched her vitals on the screen. The steady hum and whir of all their fancy equipment was both alienating and soothing, a constant soundtrack in the background like a mechanical heartbeat. His hand hovering over the computer mouse, Gold wondered what would be a mermaid’s favorite music genre, wondered if the legends were true, wondered what she sounded like singing. Then he clicked play.

The music filled the air like mist, like a cautious creature, shy and soft, treading with utmost care. A timid fawn in the snow.

He adjusted the volume and the lights. “I hope you like this one, sweetheart.”

He looked at Indigo in her sling. She didn’t stir.

Upon arrival, staff had immediately begun administering emergency therapy. There were several lacerations along Indigo’s tail, likely caused by their nets and Gaston’s crude attempts at removing infected tissue- infected, inflamed tissue, caked with sand and blood- which had done more harm than good. Indigo had been dehydrated and unconscious, and she required around-the-clock care.

Whale had been in multiple times, put her on antibiotics and blood pressure medications. In addition to fluids and meds, veterinary staff had to use a wide array of their equipment to rule out severe internal injuries – including ultrasound and x-rays. Stitching up the cuts had been tricky. Just like pinnipeds, Indigo had a thick blubber layer that rejected many suture materials, and surgery had been complicated further by her dive reflex; a reflex which caused a pinnipeds heart rate to slow down, their breathing to stop, and their blood to pool centrally during anesthesia. It made keeping her under for longer periods of time extremely risky, especially after she’d been out of the water and under for an undetermined period of time prior to surgery already.

“I’m so sorry,” Gold told her, tracing the outline of the IV needle in her arm. They had struggled with that too, intravenous fluid therapy, unsure whether to adhere to human or marine mammal guidelines. The fluids and drugs had to be monitored and adjusted frequently. Indigo was too weak to swim on her own and needed to be supported in the pool, for which they had come up with a special sling: A sort of hammock made from swimming noodles and a harness that held her floating comfortably in the middle.

Indigo’s eyelids twitched, indicating rapid-eye-movement and dreams. Stroking her temples, Gold could only hope they weren’t nightmares. They had pumped her full of drugs and she didn’t appear to feel anything - not on the operating table and not now - even though they had yanked at her body, sticking her with all sorts of implements, rough and messy and bloody.

It was almost completely dark in the med wing, with the music playing softly and the machines beeping like it was them who breathed, deep and calm, and fast asleep. The doctor had ordered bedrest and close monitoring and would be back in the morning.

Until then, Gold would stay with Indigo.

Floating in the salt water beneath her harness, holding her and rocking them gently, he thought of Chipper, the dolphin.

Estimated to have been just four to six weeks old at the time of rescue, weighing under 15 kilograms when found stranded on the beach, she had been in very poor condition, dehydrated and close to death. Rescue staff did not expect her to survive the first few hours, let alone live through the night. Regardless, they had stayed with her, providing treatment, fluids, and supporting her in the water. The next morning arrived - they were still there. The first day came and went. Chipper stayed. For days and weeks, staff and volunteers worked around the clock to save the youngster. In addition to food and medication, they used close contact and music to treat the calf - which had given Gold the idea.

Indigo was breathing on her own. The tubes made sure she got everything her body needed. The drugs kept the pain at bay, the meds helped her heal. He would provide comfort and company as best he could, and she would wake up soon. 

Chapter Text

It was dark and it was cold. The more she tried to outswim it, the larger the ominous darkness grew. The bottom of the sea expanded and stretched on endlessly. After a while her tail and arms grew tired. Her skin went cold, then hot, then seemed just thick enough to allow her to stop and breathe for a moment.

Belle’s eyes adjusted and she looked around. This wasn’t the bottom of the sea.

So they hadn’t eaten her. Perhaps that was the bright side. Perhaps it would have been if they had.

***

He could see the panic in her eyes. They were wide and unbelievably blue. Just like the marks her tight grip would leave on his arm.

“Hey,” he said softly. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”

He knew that she could not understand his words, but hoped to communicate their meaning by keeping his voice at a low, soothing whisper, and his expression friendly and reassuring. He didn’t make any sudden movements, just let himself float in the saltwater underneath her harness without holding tension in his body; and he didn’t touch her - save for the modified Rautek grip he’d been using to support her and rest her head against his chest.

He could see hers rise and fall rapidly now.

“You were hurt,” he explained in the same calm voice. It helped if he imagined that he was talking to his son - back when conversations had been rather one-sided, mostly a lot of adorable babbling on Bae’s part - instead of a frightened mermaid in his arms, who didn’t share his language. She blinked up at him, lips parting and eyes drawn to his moving mouth.

“We did the best we could to help, but I’m afraid, you might be in some discomfort for yet a little while longer. I’m sorry.” He jerked his head at her tail and her gaze followed his. “The cuts are healing quite nicely, I believe. They must have been causing you a great deal of pain befo-OW!”

Gold inhaled sharply as her nails dug into his arm. Contrary to what he had expected, a mermaid’s fingernails weren’t soft. Even when submerged in water most of the time, they remained hard and sharp. They had clipped Indigo’s the other day - otherwise they might have done more than just scratch the top layer of his skin.

“That’s quite alright. Okay. It’s okay.” He patted her hand and let his thumb run over her knuckles in slow, deliberate circles.

Indigo was despondent, and it showed on her face.

“What is it?”

Gold thought for a moment, then gently removed himself from her grip and gestured with his hands. He didn’t remember exactly how the correct sign went, but that didn’t matter. He only had to get the message across somehow. He pointed to Indigo’s perfectly still tail, miming a screw clamp of some sort with his fingers and remembering to let his face show the pain that he wished to inquire after. Perhaps, he should have brought a pain chart. The laminated one with the child-friendly faces from the infirmary. He raised his eyebrows, held his breath, and waited.

Blinking furiously, Indigo shook her head. Even without language, without the necessity of words, she had just answered two of his questions in the simplest way possible - one of which he hadn’t even known he had had, and which would have felt far too awkward to ask her directly, had he been aware of his curiosity sooner. One: No, she wasn’t in pain. And two: mermaids could cry, and cried real tears when they did. Up close he was sure.

“Ah. There now-”

He felt the crinkle appear between his eyebrows and rubbed at it with the heel of a wet hand, leaving behind a damp patch and splattering the length of his nose with lukewarm droplets. Was this even the correct water temperature, he mused, licking his lips and registering the faint salty taste before pressing them together. Sure, they all assumed, made their best educated guesses based on their experiences with what they believed to be congeneric species, but it was humbling, truly, to realize just how little they actually knew or understood about Indigo and what she was - who she was.

“Let’s see…”

Gold untangled himself and got to his feet. With small, controlled movements, and making sure to stay where she could see where he was going and what he was doing at all times, he moved to stand beside her tail. Indigo’s watery eyes followed him, but she kept absolutely still in her harness, and for the first time since her fever had gone down, and since she had slipped in and out of consciousness in his arms until fully awake and alert, did he feel concern needle at him again.

He reached out one hand, the other, paused to make eye contact with her, waited another beat, and then lay his hands flat on her tail - like you would on a table or kitchen counter, but soft - without any weight or pressure behind it. He turned a little so that he was facing her more and moved his hands up the length of her tail inch by inch, making his eyes wide and compassionate.

She fixed him with a baleful glare, her lip trapped and quivering, and his heart sank further as he felt the smooth scales and rough stitches under his palms. She didn’t flinch away from his touch. Only when he reached the very top - where her tail blended into her human-looking upper half - did it prompt her muscles to twitch. He checked her face, but Indigo seemed oblivious to her body’s response, and the muscle movement involuntary, which did nothing to alleviate the uneasy feeling growing in his belly.

He backed up a little, went from feather-like touch to gentle kneading, and moved upwards again, going circumferentially and as far around as he could reach. The more he warmed up her slack muscles, the more of a reaction he got - like a fly would from unbothered livestock.

They had done the x-rays, run the tests, Gold reminded himself. Nothing broken, nothing torn, nothing severed.

Indigo’s squeal made him jump.

She might have sounded like an excited baby seal, but her face was sudden cloudburst out on the open sea. Emotions flashed so fast across their pale canvas, they barely made it to the surface at all.

He didn’t seem to have hurt her, though. She didn’t look hurt. Just-

Upset.

He held his hands up and took a step back to signal that he meant her no harm, but Indigo vocalized again, louder this time, her face crumpling, and Gold reacted on instinct, grasping for her hand to soothe whatever storm he had caused. Half swimming, half squatting down next to her, he tugged at her arm, and she allowed herself to be pulled a little towards him, staring up at him with a mixture of indignation, confusion and fear, her expression fluctuating between anger and anxiety.

He took a deep breath. Another. A third, but more slowly, inviting her to do the same.

He heard the rattling intake of air, watched her chest rise - fall - again; and they breathed together for a moment.

Then her body sagged and she slumped against him, almost startling him out of his neoprene skin.

“O-okay. Okay,” he rasped, tentatively putting a wobbly arm around her, raising her chin up with his other hand to look at her face. She jerked her head away with a hiss, but instantly after, the fight seemed to go out of her - entirely and all at once. All he could read in her eyes was full-blown fear.

He sucked his teeth and withdrew his hand, rubbing it over his mouth. All wrong, this was all wrong. He didn’t want her to be afraid. Not of him, not of this place. He wanted her to feel safe here, or else she wouldn’t heal fast enough for him to undo what his wife had started.

She needed to heal or she’d never be released back to the wild.

He stepped back, held out his hands - open palms - for her to examine. She eyed him warily.

Something was wrong. The flight instinct reflected in her eyes, stark contrast to her unnatural impassivity, and he knew that she would have fled the scene if she could have.

There were lots of nerves in the back, within the fluid in the spinal canal, but usually they had room to move out of the way. If one of them was touched by accident, however, it could give a nasty ache or pain, usually in a leg in a human, and make the body spasm. It could cause tingling sensations or numbness. Perhaps they had hit something vital after all.

Yet, MRI of Indigo’s back had been clear, hadn’t it, nothing to indicate neuropathy.

Gold stepped away sideways, like a crab would - though not as fast, keeping his hands in front of his body, and edged out of the pool slowly.

Indigo watched as he grabbed a towel, dried himself off, checked her file, and called the doctor, grudgingly leaving a message on the bloody answering machine for the man to telephone as soon as possible, please and thank you. Then he stood, water dripping from his hair, unsure how to proceed.

Indigo’s eyes narrowed. He lifted one shoulder and let it drop, got back into the water, and sat down on the ladder to give her some space.

“What are we going to do?” He asked, heaving a sigh. “What can I do?”

Face set hard, she sat up and forward, reaching out to squeeze her tail with pale, trembling fingers. It hurt to see her fluid, effortless elegance reduced to something so stiff and labored like that. She was helpless and vulnerable, understandably shaken and afraid, and while it sparked such a fierce protectiveness in him, and while he wished she’d understand that he would be going to do everything in his power to help her, he could only begin to imagine the panic and pain she experienced, the loneliness she felt.

Her squeal broke through his thoughts, and Gold rushed to her side at once. The harness swayed in the water like a cockleshell, and Indigo squeezed her eyes shut, covering her face with her hands. She whimpered, her voice muffled, and he resumed his old position, holding her secure, his thumb stroking her skin in a gentle rhythm.

Leaning into him, taking comfort from the contact, she buried her face in his shoulder.

Pressure, he realized. She was pressure stimulating or soothing, using his body to do it. For Odontoceti, or toothed whales, whistles were for communication and clicks for SONAR, so Gold imitated a low whistle to get her attention in the least intrusive way he could think of, and, to his own surprise it worked. Indigo shifted and looked back at him through her fingers, her gaze intense.

He covered her hands with his briefly, then let them slide to the sides of her head, and began stroking her temples. Dizziness, weakness, headaches - these were common post-procedure side effects. Indigo’s closed eyes and open mouth told him this hunch was correct; and the restored rhythm to her breathing meant that treatment was working.

Gold squeezed her fingers sympathetically, and Indigo sent him a wan smile without opening her eyes.

Poor girl.

“Don’t you worry, sweetheart.” He kept up the gentle stroking, watching her relax into his touch, gradually, but fully.

She opened her eyes, chewing her lip a little nervously as she touched his hands with her fingertips. He stilled instantly, and cocked his head to the side. “Better?”

She gave him a sweet little smile that warmed his heart, but, in the next moment, appeared like she wanted to cry, eyes cast to the side as she withdrew into herself.

Gold touched her cheek. “Your tail?” he asked, voice and eyebrows rising as his fingers pointed loosely down her body. He let them ride on the air like waves.

Indigo opened and closed her mouth a couple of times. She shook her head sadly, pressing a hand to her heart, which, curiously, was off to the right, not left. She looked so small, pale and weary that an unseen hand grasped his heart and squeezed it tight.

He didn’t know how to sign what he wanted to say, and she wouldn’t have understood him if he had. Drawing it all was impractical. They needed to establish another way to communicate, and soon. Something easy, but efficient. Gold covered her hand with his. Her heart was thumping fast, and she flicked her eyes up to meet his, surprise glistening in their watery depths as he smiled down at her.

“I understand,” he wanted to say. “I’ll help you.”

She swallowed.

He kissed the top of her head.

Indigo wrinkled her nose, the sound of her shy laugh muted by air. The tiny, tremulous smile she gave him before dropping her eyes pulled up the corners of his mouth as well.

There. Better.

Gold slowly flexed his shoulders and rolled his neck, but his cold muscles refused to relax and his empty stomach rumbled in protest.

“Ah.” He felt the color rise to his cheeks as she pointed up at him, laughing and then quickly trapping her bottom lip between her teeth to make herself stop. He caught the worried glint in her eye and smiled warmly to dispel it. Hesitantly, Indigo reached up, running a finger briefly over his lower lip and making it tingle, her eyes bright with wonder and curiosity.

He chuckled and she withdrew her hand, looking at her fingers for a moment, then back at him. He pointed at his mouth, squeezed her shoulder, and eased back. High time for a snack.

Her eyes followed him while he fixed himself a piece - salted butter, tasty cheese, tomato slices and a thick layer of cream cheese mixed with a liberal helping of pecans, sandwiched between two slabs of thick crusty homemade bread. He wouldn’t swear off the cheeses or his condiments, but didn’t like having anything dead in his food. Yet another thing his wife struggled to understand.

Suppressing a shudder, Gold ran a hand up and down his arm. Marine mammals had excellent insulation in the form of fur or blubber, but his wet suit provided him with no such luxury.

Speaking of which-

He took a big bite, set the bread on a plate and left it beside the little sink to go and look for the formula. Since she was awake and had been stabilized, she was to be taken off the IV to reduce risk of infection, and to be fed their fattening formula to regain strength and rebuild that blubber layer asap. Doctor’s orders.

The type, amount, and frequency of food each animal at their center received varied depending on species, age, body condition, and, where applicable, specific medical problem.

Animals that spent most of their time in water relied heavily on blubber, a layer of tissue containing fat, collagen and elastin that provided, among other things, insulation and energy storage like human fat. The amount of blubber varied from one animal to the next. Newborn harbor porpoises, for example, packed the most; for some up to 45 percent of their total body mass was blubber. Those suffering from poor nutrition or health status might have trouble maintaining a healthy blubber supply, both in terms of quantity and quality—as measured by fat content—and thus could come down with some serious illness due to their weakened immune systems or die from exposure to extreme temperatures, for instance - an unlikely occurrence among healthy wild animals.

With their young or emancipated pinnipeds, or seals and sea lions, they aimed for a diet regimen consisting of feeding them roughly the equivalent of 10 percent of their own body weight in whole fish—mostly herring—every day. This ensured that they got adequate nutrition and were putting on weight. Later, once their health improved, they would be switched over to a maintenance diet, which reduced their daily intake to 5 percent of their body weight.

Somehow Gold doubted Indigo would have been keen on a fish-based diet. The idea alone seemed grossly barbaric to him, cannibalistic. He had argued them out of it, insisted that, despite her outward resemblance to pinnipeds, it would have been a waste of their time, not to mention cruel, to offer her the same food, especially when she had clearly shown a preference for a plant-based diet.

There had been jokes about nuts and nut milk, soy and boob growth, that had made Gold want to roll his eyes very far back into his head, but finally, Whale had agreed that the Pup Plan would be their best course of action and the way to go for Indigo.

To save time, accurately monitor food intake, and prevent unwanted bonding with humans, their seal pups were tube-, not bottle-fed, and generally started on Zoologic, a high fat milk protein powder containing low levels of lactose and fortified with vitamins and minerals, mixed together with fish oil and water. They used the Milk Matrix 30/55 formula to replace mother's milk, which would be 30 to 60 percent fat, and, at this stage, fed the pups every four hours, starting from eight in the morning to midnight. Once they had their teeth, they’d be weaned and offered fish, being taught how to track, catch and eat it in playful interaction before having to compete for it with other animals, so they would be able to forage for food on their own in the wild later on.

He hadn’t prepared the formula himself in a long time, but once he had gathered the needed supplies from the cupboards and drawers, it was easy enough to do. Gold washed his hands thoroughly with soap and warm water, checked the containers for dents and their expiry dates, boiled utensils, mixing pitcher, nipples, and rings in water, dried them off, and then brought more fresh filtered water to a rolling boil for one minute, turned off the heat, and let the water cool to room temperature before adding it to the measured scoops of formula he’d filled into the pitcher in the meantime. Making formula with boiling water could cause clumping and decrease the nutritional value, he remembered that much. He also remembered to sprinkle a few drops on the inside of his wrist to make sure it wasn’t too hot. Preparing many, many bottles for Bae had taught him when the temperature was just right. It had also taught him the importance of sterile bottles and supplies, and the benefits of using a nipple with a larger hole for premature infants with a weak sucking reflex.

Shaking his head to chase the frantic all-nighters from his mind, he filled a plastic cup with Zoologic from the pitcher, made sure he had turned off the gas, grabbed waterproof spray plaster from a shelf, and returned to the holding pool, careful not to spill anything as he reentered the water.

Indigo shot him a quizzical look.

He answered it with a smile and pressed the cup into her hand. She eyed the sluggish liquid inside, smelled it, and pulled a face, making him laugh as if he was in on a particularly hilarious joke.

She stuck out her tongue at him, puffed out her cheeks, and, clamping her nose shut with two fingers, took a mighty gulp - then spat it everywhere, coughing and wheezing, and he rubbed her back before sighing and running a hand over his face, rubbing at an eye with the heel.

Aye, THAT he remembered too.

Shaking his head, he took the empty cup from her, carried it to the pool edge and exchanged it with the spray plaster can, then reached out for her hand, threading his fingers through hers and squeezing to signal that he wasn’t cross with her.

She looked embarrassed regardless, little pink blotches splattering her cheeks like freckles.

He squeezed her hand again to get her attention, then pointed at the IV needle in the back of her hand, indicating that he would now go about removing it and spray the skin. She bit her lip, but nodded, and kept very still for him, even though he saw the grimace on her face and her bulging eyes.

Good girl.

He rubbed her back again, holding their joined hands up and out of the water long enough for the plaster to fully dry. This had gone better than expected, but, with the IV-line out, they still needed to resolve the food issue and more urgently so. He wouldn’t allow intermittent eating.

Gold pointed at the cup with a firm nod, and Indigo raised her chin, shook her head, and pouted, looking indignant. He wagged a finger at her, she folded her arms - a little gingerly, he noticed - and he found himself strongly reminded of his son once again: Of his little angry face that seemed to spell out “Make me, if you dare!” whenever they tried smuggling mushrooms, asparagus or Brussels sprouts into his supper. Gold laughed.

“It can’t be that bad!” he wanted to tell her, but then remembered that time he had tried Bae’s baby food and subsequently banned all store-bought from their kitchen and his child’s spoon. Perhaps it was that bad. He paused, tapping his lips with a finger as he thought, then clasped his hands together with enthusiasm.

Gesturing for her to wait and be a good little mermaid, he heaved himself out of the water yet again, ignoring the painful twinge in his ankle - he’d put a heated pad on the sodding thing later - and bent down to pick up the cup. Feet squelching on the wet ground and water dripping, he grasped the towel, slung it around his hips, and stepped into his street shoes, shooting Indigo another mock warning glance over his shoulder from at the door before he entered the code into the security system, grabbed his cane, and pushed it open.

Some of his employees shot him bewildered looks as he went, but he waved their stares and questions away. He had a thing to do, a plan to execute, and they could wait. Cursing his ankle, he climbed the stairs to his home like he was ascending a mountain, and, reaching the top, he had to stop and catch his breath, ghostly white fingers digging into his thighs.

Damn.

Panting, he limped through to the kitchen where he sank down on a chair and, with a groan, stretched out his leg, rubbing his aching muscles for a bit.

Then he started opening supply cabinets and rifling through their contents in search of the bright yellow container. He had no idea where his wife kept the flavored milk powder, but he figured it would probably be somewhere that Bae couldn’t reach. Too much sugar.

By the time he had dug it up, the kitchen was a mess. Gold didn’t care. Milah wouldn’t be home to throw a hissy fit over it. He could tidy up later. During his quest for the strawberry-flavored powder, however, he had also found one of Bae’s old sippy cups. Despite being years old, the thing looked practically brand new. It was a pink and turquoise model with travel lock that featured Disney’s very own redhead mermaid, and Milah had deemed it too girly and thus inappropriate for Bae, who had screamed his dismay at the top of his lungs as the cup went away forever. It appeared, she had forgotten to throw it out.

Gold grinned toothily at the cartoon mermaid and decided to take her too. Bae surely wouldn’t mind.

Chapter Text

The strawberry flavor had been a good idea. It had taken some convincing, but Indigo would now happily accept whatever beverage was offered to her - if it came in the mermaid sippy cup. She had been mesmerized by the redhead version of herself that adorned it, tracing the flaming red hair and green tail with a finger and pointing repeatedly. Gold tried explaining to her expectant face that the cartoon character was nothing but a pretty picture, that the depicted mermaid wasn’t real and never had been, but he wasn’t entirely sure he’d gotten the point across. At least Indigo had stopped pointing and gesturing every time he handed her the cup, accepting that they weren’t going to see another mermaid any time soon.

Mixing a fresh formula shake - banana-flavor, her favorite - Gold glanced over at Indigo, watching her out of the corner of his eye. She wasn’t looking back at him, feigning interest in the plain tiles at the bottom of the holding pool, lying belly-down in her harness. She reminded him of tourists at the beach, kids floating on flashy pool mattresses like bored lobsters with beach hats, gazing down through the see-through window head rests.

Nothing much to see, was there?

Bemused, Gold’s mouth twitched. It had been a little over three weeks. Just like with Bae, one quick look at Indigo’s face in the morning was enough to tell him exactly what kind of day it was going to be. This morning it had been overcast with a chance of rain, but he had hoped her mood would clear up by the afternoon. No such luck.

On good days Indigo was their model patient: cooperative and eager to start with whatever was on her schedule. On bad days her favorite sign was ‘no’ and she refused any and all things just to spite him. He never lost his temper with her, however. His short fuse wasn’t an issue when it came to Bae and, no matter what Indigo did or didn’t do, the same applied to her. He’d survived the terrible-twos once and he could do it again if he had to. Calm and consistent did the trick. Perseverance was key.

He twisted the lid on and scratched his nose. “What’s the matter today, sweetheart?” he asked, smiling at her when she lifted her head. “We’ve got work to do.” He opened a drawer and took out the flashcards, rifling through the stack until he had found the one he wanted. He held it up to show it to her, then walked over, crouched down, and pinned it to the magnet board.

To facilitate communication with Indigo they had printed out pictograms, laminated the cards, and propped up a magnet board against two chairs by the edge of the pool. It helped her understand what was going on and what they intended to do next. Routine and rituals were powerful tools.

Each activity had a corresponding flashcard: mealtime, playtime, physio, light therapy and rest or nap-time. He had raided Bae’s cupboard and taught her Connect 4, UNO junior, and backgammon, using their old travelling roll-up set.

Indigo’s favorites were Operation and Halli Galli, a speed action game in which players watched for sets of exactly five fruit and rang a bell as soon as they were revealed, tapping the silver bell - the type found at hotel reception desks - with the flat of their hand and crushing their opponents’ hands in the process - if they happened to have gotten there first and were in the way. Sharp eyes and quick reflexes helped to win, but Gold suspected Indigo loved the game simply for the colorful fruit and the loud pings that echoed around the medical wing, making her shudder with warm shivers at the shrill sound.

He set down the cup at the edge of the pool, and went back to get his tea and the other flashcards. As he did so, Indigo paddled over and snatched her snack, returning to the middle of the pool before he had made his way back.

He swapped the food card for the one with the big yellow sun, noticing her pout.   

“Come on, you like the warmth!”

Indigo nursed her drink for a moment.

“Indigo?” He saw the name register, even though she was pretending not to be paying attention.

Not for the first time in the last three weeks, Gold wondered if there was such a thing as mermaid-years. If so, how old was Indigo anyway? Her appearance wasn’t much to go on to gauge her age. They knew nothing about aging and maturity levels in mermaids.

He waved a hand and pointed at her. “Young lady? I’m trying to have a conversation here?!”

She sniffed, tossing her hair. Gold knew she couldn’t understand what he said, but how he said it carried meaning too - and she was very well able to pick up on that.

“You’re going to be like that for the rest of the day then?” he asked. “Make both our lives miserable?”

Indigo smacked her lips, lowered her cup almost dramatically, and made for the magnet board. She still favored her tail, for the most part relying heavily on her arms and the harness to get around in the water, while occasionally splashing about with her fin. They would have to find a solution to that soon - before it could become a real problem. Her wounds were healing, sensation had returned to her bottom half, her muscles were strong enough. No reason to keep the crutch around longer than necessary.

Indigo bobbed in the water by the board until she was sure she had his full attention. Holding his gaze, she reached for the sun card, took it down, and turned it over with a flourish, placing it upside down on the tiles.

“And why is that, hmm?” He sat down at the edge of the pool, facing her and his feet in the water.

A tiny grin curled the corners of his mouth. Nursing Indigo back to health was a full-time job. Keeping her happy and entertained on bad days another one on top of that. Initially, they had put her mood swings down to the feelings of weakness and dizziness, and the frequent headaches she was experiencing. They took things slow, put her on Fiorocet - which only gave minor relief and, after five days, resulted in an awful skin reaction; Indigo’s torso covered in itchy hives. She switched to Aleeve and a little bit of coffee for a few days and had to take a Benadryl for the first day of the hives, but they faded quickly. The headaches subsided, the moods stayed.

He offered her the other cards, which she shuffled through listlessly, taking a long time to look at each picture before placing them on the ground face down one after the other.

“Then what would you like to do?” Gold kicked at the water, toying with the idea of swimming a few short laps to try and animate her to do the same. But it wasn’t the right time for physical activity just yet, her muscles weren’t properly warmed up, and since she wasn’t in the mood for anything anyway, they might as well stick to the original schedule as planned. 

He leaned over to pick up the cards and looked for the sun. It went back on the board and Indigo blew bubbles in the water. She pushed herself off the wall with her arms, made the harness swirl in a circle, and turned her back on him. Silly girl.

He sipped at his thermos mug, Indigo finished her shake.

He’d give her a few more minutes to sulk, Gold decided. He carried his mug to the sink, checked all ropes and hooks on the hammock hoist and transport system for wear, and the mattresses on the gurney and exam table for stains or tears in the foam rubber. Indigo might have been on the mend, but he wasn’t going to take any risks with her safety or delicate health. When porous, that foam rubber became a host for various bacteria and soft rot fungi, and if the ropes snapped mid-lift the impact alone would kill her.

After he had made sure the equipment was ready, he returned to her to see if she was too.

He snapped his tongue to get her attention. “Ready to go?”

Indigo refused to respond or acknowledge his presence, looking right through him. He wasn’t going to be fooled by her antics anymore though, and calmly proceeded according to plan, pushing the button that lowered down the small whale and dolphin transportation sling into her pool until it was half submerged.

For quick procedures and short distances, a mattress of foam rubber or plastic was sufficient to make dolphins and seals comfortable out of the water. They could be used to transfer animals from rescue boats to their holding crates and vice versa, but weren't suitable for long distance travel, because lying on their bellies, the animals quickly grew uncomfortable. Their flippers had no freedom of movement and were forced in a somewhat awkward position. Even when put on their sides and strictly monitored to keep the blowholes free from obstructions at all times, dolphins had to be turned over every twenty to thirty minutes to prevent lung damage - and all that manhandling added considerably to the stress of being out of the water.

To reduce the number of casualties, mattresses had been replaced by sling or stretcher systems for long distance road transport and could also be used to hoist heavy animals up and out of their pools and pens. The most common models were padded slings to suspend a dolphin belly down. Slits on appropriate places allowed passage of the flippers, spilling of faeces, and the taking of rectal temperatures. Adaptations could easily be made to fit size and weight of the individual animal.

For Indigo transport in a sling or stretcher was far less complicated. She could lie down or sit up in it, hold onto the sling or ropes with her hands, and more than once Gold had had to warn her to keep still and not treat the pool hoist like a swing set.

Today, she wasn’t playing and it would require more effort on his part to coax her into the sling and out of the water.

“If you’re not coming out, I’m coming in!” he informed her, purposefully lowered himself into the pool, and waded closer.

Indigo couldn’t care less.

“Indigo.” He touched her fin - at which she shot him a dirty look over her shoulder - and pointed at the magnet board, widening his stance and squaring his shoulders.

Indigo rolled her eyes.

He pulled the sling a little closer and held out a hand.

She didn’t take it, just handed him her empty cup, and, revealing her painful looking bruised back and cut tail, carefully pulled herself off the harness and onto the sling, slouching in the fabric with her arms crossed like a petulant child.

Gold gave her a flat look, and Indigo’s frown deepened.

Even as she lay on the exam table a few short moments later, stretched out comfortably like a cat in a patch of sunlight, basking in the heat lamps’ warmth and relaxing to his touch, she hadn’t lost any of the attitude. Head resting on her arms, her eyes were closed, and she allowed him to knead and manipulate her back and tail muscles in any way he wished, but she wasn’t putting in an ounce of work herself.

Gold felt his hands and her skin grow warm as he worked, pondering how, in such a short space of time, he’d gained so much of her trust. Indigo trusted him enough to make herself completely vulnerable, allowing close contact, and putting her guard down with an openness that might have very well gotten her killed in the wild. Perhaps her trusting nature was what had swept her into their nets in the first place. Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.

He was gentle and careful, applying pressure only where it was needed to work out the knots. Her shoulders and lower back carried the most tension and he’d run through half the salt water spray bottle before there was any real progress. Once he had loosened her up, gone through one hundred repetitions of the hip rotation exercises, and stretched her tail sufficiently, he let his fingers run over her smooth skin and back up to the nape of her neck.

Not a single one of the soft baby hairs stood up in warning as he came closing in. His hands around her exposed neck, a little pressure, one hard squeeze - or a sudden pull or twist - would have been all it took. How could her instincts fail her this gravely?

Her breath came slow and calm, not a cell in her body aware of a possible threat to her life and calling a halt. He let his fingers curl, feeling her pulse vibrate against them, and it brought tears to his eyes. This was too much - even for blind trust. How much damage had they already done for her self-preservative drive to be overridden to the point of nonexistence? No wild animal, no matter how much it trusted another, would ever relinquish all control like this; put its life into another’s hands willingly and completely - unless severely traumatized or forced into submission.

Swallowing hard, Gold took a step back from the table, a wave of grief sweeping over him and making him sway where he stood, his feet growing cold in their booties.

She noticed, but again it took her way too long to catch up with the changes in her surroundings. And even as she did, her first instinct wasn’t to flee, to seek shelter or safety, but to prop herself up on one arm, raising an eyebrow at him and flopping over onto her back like a dog that wanted its belly scratched. If only she’d been acting more like a domesticated cat and dug her claws into his hands as soon as they dared touch her, but Indigo did no such thing - instead, Gold was sure, he would have heard her purr - if she had indeed been a cat and could have made those low, rumbling sounds.

The bitter taste of guilt on his tongue, he went through the motions of massaging her arms and torso, his fingertips skimming down her sides and making her squirm and laugh soundlessly. He even found it in him to smile back at her, so as not to unsettle Indigo in her vulnerable state and shake her faith in him - however misplaced it was. It wasn’t her fault and she shouldn’t have to feel punished for their mistakes. His mistakes. 

Gold sighed.

Something small hit his temple and broke through his thoughts. He turned his head with a confused smile, blinking down at the red ball on the floor.

Hurt. --- Was she hurt?!

His eyes swept up her body and searched her face anxiously - only to find a lopsided smile and a quiet question mark gazing back at him.

He shook his head, trying to shake his dark thoughts like rain from an umbrella, and gestured to find out if anything he had done with his hands while lost in his head had caused her pain - as had been the agreement and the function of the little soft toy she’d thrown at his face.

Indigo brought her thumb and two fingers together. No.

She blew out her cheeks, batting her eyelashes, and Gold burst out laughing without meaning to.

Sobering instantly, he made himself stop, put a lid on the tension - bottling it up and pushing it down. He began pacing back and forth across the tiles, rubbing a relentless hand over his mouth as he thought, and watched her watching him out of wide, concerned eyes.

When the redeeming idea finally came to him, he pinched his upper lip so hard it turned white.

His eyes darted to the plain clock on the wall.

Why hadn’t he thought of it sooner, he wondered. All he needed was another thirty minutes and Ruby Lucas.

Chapter Text

Most days, she didn’t mind the food, the games, or his company. The sweet milk he gave her tasted a little funny and the beak-feeder she was to drink it from took some getting used to, but she had gotten used to a lot of things lately. It reminded her of birds feeding their young ones - hence the name she had chosen for it.

Names had to be either descriptive or meaningful - or both. Sometimes that made them dull.

Her own name - beauty - she had grown into it. She didn’t feel particularly beautiful. The ocean held so much beauty, it felt wrong to call herself special. She had pretty scales. Not everyone had a tail like hers, and it got her noticed. That much was true. But her so-called beauty paled in comparison.

The beak-feeder, for example, was much more interesting and thus infinitely more beautiful in Belle’s eyes. A beautiful, curious little object that filled her with awe and wonder. And it filled her with questions too. So many questions. She didn’t know where to start or how to start asking them.

Why the merling girl? Who was she? Was this her beak-feeder? And where was she now?

All her attempts at asking the airling about her had failed. Either he couldn’t understand, or he didn’t want to. She would try again, but not today. Now was not the time. She didn’t feel like labored, broken, fruitless conversation. She wasn’t in the mood for games or learning new symbols. She just wanted to be left alone, stare at the water, and dream of home.

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the airling step away. She could have propped herself up to keep him in view, get a better look at what he was doing, but she couldn’t find it in herself to move.

It didn’t matter. It wasn’t like she had a say in anything anyway.

She had taken the milk, sat in the one-armed kraken, and let him touch, and manipulate her body in any way he wished, while the little red sun warmed her skin. If she closed her eyes, she could pretend it was the real sun that tickled her nose and drew the sprinkling of sun spots from her soul and right onto her cheeks. If she concentrated hard enough, she could make herself believe that it was a warm rock her body rested on, and that the salt she tasted in the air came from the waves breaking on it - rather than from the hiss-spitter clutched in his hand.

Only, the airling’s footfalls sounded nothing like the big waves that pounded on the shore, nor were they like the smaller ones that lapped at it. His legs didn’t roll and crash into the open space in front of him. His feet wouldn’t wash over sand and rocks with grace. His walking was very stiff and rather jerky, as much unlike water as anything could be. There was a tendency to shuffle. He could stride out if he wanted to, leaving him exhausted.

Belle sighed and turned her head, studying him.

He had given her a squishy round thing - almost like a sponge and alarmingly red - that fit into her palm perfectly and tasted like floater when put into your mouth, and which she was to throw if whatever they did hurt her.

She had understood that pretty quickly, but had thrown it precisely at his head once or twice before -just because- regardless. Because she had been bored, or displeased, or wanting to annoy him back. It would have been easier to just hand her more throw-things to express those sentiments as well, she thought. Maybe different colors or shapes. But he was a quick study too, and by now could tell which was supposed to be which - most of the time.

Right now, he wasn’t paying attention. His focus was turned inward, eyes exploring a world she couldn’t see, lips forming sounds that weren’t meant for her ears - and which she wouldn’t have understood even if they had been- his eyebrows drawing together, forcing deep folds into the smooth forehead.

Something was wrong.

Instinctively, Belle froze, listening for whatever had caused his mood to shift so drastically. Had something happened? Her eyes and ears didn’t detect anything out of the ordinary. Nothing suspicious, no imminent danger. But perhaps the airling had spotted something she had not. After all, it hadn’t been he who had found himself entangled, trapped in silent death’s clutches, had it?

Unease growing in her belly, Belle bit her lip.

The airling, he looked so… sad. But there was more to it than just your regular low spirits.

She had learned to read him pretty well. Airlings were much harder than merlings, but it wasn’t like there was much else for her to do around here anyway, he was with her almost all the time now, and practice made perfect. Yet, Belle struggled to make sense of his facial expression and general agitation.

Her fingers closed around the squishy sponge.

What was going on?  

Squinting slightly, she took aim, but didn’t let it fly just yet. Instead, she propped herself up on one arm, raising an eyebrow at him and flopping over onto her back with a playful grin. Perhaps a game would cheer him up? He seemed to enjoy playing those almost as much as she did. She’d agree to a round of Ding Snatcher or Four Eggs in a Row, if that was what it took.

Belle held her breath as his hands touched her arms and torso, the rough fingertips on her sensitive skin making her squirm and laugh. Under his touch, she felt herself relax again, and he smiled at her, his eyes crinkling.

He had old eyes, Belle noticed. Cut from weathered sandstone that braved the waves and storms. They reminded her of something she hadn’t felt in a very long time: trust. 

Belle sucked in air, a tiny gasp of surprise.

His hands had stopped moving, but the happy little tickle was inside her chest still- and starting to spread. She traced it to her twitching fin, and felt it jump the gaps between her fingers. The sense of calm, peace, and stability she had felt a mere second ago had rolled back on the horizon and turned into a sizzling wave of warm, effervescent energy that made it hard to keep still.

Her heart beating faster and cheeks flushing with anger and confusion, Belle clenched her fists and squeezed the little sponge hard, then threw it in his direction.

When he shifted his gaze, her indignation evaporated into thin air like foam on hot sand. She couldn’t help but smile at the puzzled look on his face and the attentive concern she found in his eyes as they swept over her face and body.

His hands formed a question. He shook his head.

Still smiling, Belle pressed her lips and her fingers together. No, she wasn’t hurt.  

Little bursts of energy fizzed in her tail and belly, and she blew out her cheeks, batting her eyes to try and quickly dispel some of it before the urge to move, to swim and dive, grew too strong and overpowered her. The little water box she lived in now wasn’t built to withstand such whims. And her tail and fin weren’t strong enough to support silly endeavors like the one she yearned for, even if it were. 

The airling burst out laughing, but then his face clouded over, and he turned away from her and began to pace. Apparently, she wasn’t the only one with excess energy in her limbs.

When he didn’t stop, worry and despair drawing lines on his face again, Belle wished nothing more than for a magnificent wave to rise from the tense silence, break in his path, and wash them away.

The strangely euphoric feelings that had had her feeling more positive and energized- she could feel them dying, her lungs slowly clogging up with dead tissue, choking her. 

Belle never took her eyes off him. Thunder boomed and clapped in her chest so loudly, she feared she might lose the gift of sound permanently. She was so focused on the airling and what he was doing that she didn’t notice someone else enter their space until they moved in on the newly recalibrated center of her universe, and made her jump in fright.

Jumper Girl.

Belle hadn’t seen her since-

all the white hot energy coalesced in her belly, causing it to flip-flop and then drop out. Nausea and panic crept up into her chest and closed up her throat. Belle tried blinking away the sudden sting in her eyes, but it didn’t seem to be working.

Was he sending her back? Back to the glass coffin and the soapy, dead water and mindless fish?

Eyes flicking to him briefly, Belle’s heart thumped, her belly churning as she worried over what would happen next.

Would she be asked to jump again?

Sitting up, hands by her sides and fists clenched, Belle felt tears trail down her cheeks and she shifted her tail awkwardly. It felt much heavier than she remembered. Swimming without aid, let alone performing multiple jumps in quick succession seemed like a sheer physical impossibility. She’d never swim like that again.

“IN-DI-GO?”

His voice broke through her stupor, and she turned her head with a grimace.

She refused to answer - didn’t know how, yet opened and closed her mouth helplessly, looking for reassurance despite herself, and he took her hands.

Voice and eyebrows rising, his face troubled, he asked her something, and Belle glanced down at their linked hands as she held the tears back as best she could.

Her best, however, wasn’t good enough, and she sagged, covering her face with her hands in shame.

The airling pulled her into a hug. She let it happen, listened to the rhythm of his heart beating. How curious was it that their hearts were on opposite sides of their chests? Airlings and merlings were so different, and yet so alike. Watching them was like watching your own reflection on still water. The same, almost, but not quite.

She had gotten used to so many strange things that no longer felt strange to her at all.

Their way of communicating would forever stay alien to her, but even if she failed to distinguish the meaningful parts - save for ‘gemstone’ and the little boy’s name - the airling gibberish had grown on her, become familiar. She noticed nuances now, subtle changes in pitch and volume, patterns of stress and intonation that allowed her to infer- or at least, make an educated guess on- the meaning of what was being said to her with some certainty. Knowing the context, the speaker or their intent, helped a lot and made it even easier.

Belle had no way of knowing what he said as he held her in his arms, but the string of sounds was a warm current against her ear, harshness turned soft and soothing, and she instantly felt a lot calmer.

Pulling back and smiling up at the airling, she quickly ran a hand over her eyes. She chuckled tearfully.

It was going to be alright.

A sudden movement to her right caught her attention. Jumper Girl was off to the side, arms folded around herself protectively, watching them. Belle wanted to smile at her too, maybe wave, but just then she caught a glimpse of something that sent cold chills down her spine and mobilized her with such fear that she reflexively leapt up and almost dove off the sunbathing platform in panic. Covering her head with both arms she pressed herself flat onto the warm surface, her scream another silent one.

Gemstone, he said again. A question. Confusion. 

After a moment’s hesitation, she slowly turned around to face him, her eyes wide. The white pelt draped over the girl’s arm had her heart beat a rapid staccato against her ribcage.

Were they going to skin her?! Skin her alive?!

She had heard the stories, heard them sung a million times. Merlings making contact with airlings where water meets land. Merling maidens seeking those in need of help, those who are dissatisfied with their lives or lonely, and being coerced into relationships or servitude before brutally slaughtered for their skins. The tears they shed into the sea as they sat and wept turned the water salty, and from their blood, the fish and corals were born into this world- to fill the ocean with a far greater beauty than any airling eye would ever get to behold.

The airling.

He was looking at her with concern in his eyes; smiling at her now- a smile bright with affection and warmth. He had been good to her, Belle reminded herself with a deep breath. Even after the incident. Even after she had endangered his family. He had shown her nothing but kindness. He never lost his temper. He didn’t mind when she got grouchy from pain and nostalgia or moaned about the food and games.

No, his hands caressing her shoulders and back assured her. He was not going to hurt her. Not now, not ever.

His touch whispered and hummed on her skin, singing a lovely little tune of its own, and she sighed, feeling the tension ebb away.

He nudged her.

Belle reached out a trembling hand. The pelt was soft, despite its wetness. Baby seals just grown out of their whitecoat stage was what it looked like, but it felt different under her fingertips. This was no relict from the Great Killings in the North, no airling hunter’s trophy.

Immensely relieved, but slightly bewildered, Belle let the airlings carefully drape it around her shoulders, then help her arms through strategically placed holes that allowed free use of her hands.

The coat was large and long, reaching down over her torso and covering part of her tail. Her skin, heated and dry from the little red sun’s beams, welcomed the luxurious, heavy cool. It closed in the front, where the airling father tied a loose strip into a knot to keep everything in place. Then he drew up a smaller part attached to the back, bringing it over her head.

The rich smell of ice and salt engulfed her like a hug, her skin breathing into soft fur, and Belle felt a lump in her throat. They had turned her into a gigantic Ice-Lover from the Green Island, the Isle of Mask Makers, between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans and east of the Ice Uplands.

Staring down at her own body covered in snow-white furs, Belle’s imagination pushed to life, woken from its slumber and propelling her mind forward fast, and she began to wonder. Green Island, was that where they were? Or perhaps the airlings would be taking her there? She had only heard of its airling population in her people’s darkest and creepiest songs.

The sewers of skins, the makers of masks; They who called upon the ghosts of the dead and carved their bones with their teeth. If they saw you, they would put you to sleep forever.

Belle shuddered, her heart gripped with terror and curiosity alike.

Perhaps she would find out if the stories were true- or just something merling fathers told their young daughters so they’d stay close to home and far away from the airling world. As long as this airling was by her side, she might even live to tell the tale.

Wherever it was they were going, at least they were going somewhere, she thought, readily rolling over onto her belly and on top of a hard piece of something like wood, shaped like a seal’s belly. On the count of three, the airlings then moved it onto another platform, not unlike the one she took her sunbaths on- only this one could float.    

She gripped the handles tight and they pushed her towards the opening. Towards where the airling disappeared to sleep and reappeared in the mornings; then through, and into another place that she had never been before.

Belle looked around wildly, cast her eyes around the open space expectantly, but it was just another box. Another long, narrow box made from stone, dark and lifeless. Her face fell a little.

But they kept moving. In and out of boxes, up and down, through endless caves and tunnels and openings that closed behind them with a loud click, until finally, something wonderful hit her nose and filled her ears.

Birdsong, saltwater.

She didn’t hear the waves, but they couldn’t be far.

Belle’s fin twitched. She pushed up on her hands and shifted her weight to get a better view. In front of her a wall eased out of the way to reveal yet another opening, and behind it- a glowing horizon, and a vast body of glittering blue.

She gasped, sucked in heady air. The squeal that escaped her, she couldn’t have held it back if she tried.

Beside her, the airling chuckled, covering her hand with his. The evening breeze picked up and caught in her hair, playing with a loose curl. Her heart was thumping with excitement, her breath coming hard through her nose, and she squinted in the orange light of the setting sun, sinking towards the water.

The beautiful, beautiful water.

His voice was gentle and full of reverence as he bent down to whisper something in her ear, and her smile widened.

As they slowly lowered her down to the ground, she squirmed and wriggled, eyes set on the waterline. Had he not held her back by the shoulders, she would have dashed for it, dove right under that smooth surface, the itch tickling every cell in her body, the urge to swim far greater than any conscious thought.

The airling helped her disentangle herself from the fur coat.

Laughing, he shook his head, let go and took a silent step back from her, putting the strap of fur to his lips and bending to pick up her coat. He shook it out, draped it over the floating sunbed, straightened his back, and waved her off towards the sound of water lapping against a stone-made shore.

Belle lunged forward, let herself hit the water face first, and pushed off with a long stroke.

Wonderfully cool and calm turquoise blue threw its arms wide in welcome, washing around her body, caressing her tenderly from head to fin. Salt danced and swirled around her, and she twirled underwater, feeling as light as a jellyfish on a wave. The silence took a breath and winked at her. Belle closed her eyes and listened for a while, floating on strong invisible hands.

Before she could decide to head back up to the surface to breathe air, a shrill sound from above split the relaxing refuge in half, forcing her to open her eyes and recollect herself, gathering all her little pieces back from inside the water’s melody.

When she breached the surface, so had another, and they were coming towards her.

Both of them went back under.

Belle felt the string of pulses, clicks and whistles vibrate against her skin, the sound reverberating in her body.

She clapped a hand over her mouth, so as not to interrupt. She had to wait her turn, listen to the pulse pack fully before making a response, or it would be considered rude. She was entering into their home, a visitor in their world, and needed to conform to etiquette.

Belle held her breath, listening intently.

“Greetings, merfolk!”

The pulses grew louder as the dolphin came closer, zoomed past, and gave her a quick once-over. And then it went off into the opposite direction.

Dolphins know no secrets, they know the truth, was what her father used to say to her when she was a child and tried to spin him some seaweed to get herself out of trouble.

“Gree-ee-ee-tings,” the dolphin trilled.

Dolphins were able to see inside you, inside your body and soul, so they could see your true self and all your emotions, could see how excited or calm you were; and they were particularly attuned to attitude, so the inner attitude that you had about them- if you appreciated them, if you respected them, if you took a polite and sensitive approach to them, maybe showed some curiosity and open-mindedness, they would know that immediately.

The dolphin came back, stopped, and looked at her, its body forming a soft S-shape.

“TEACHER,” it said, opening its mouth. “TEACHER.”

Self-identifying whistle.

Belle waited, put a hand on her heart. Waited another beat.

“Belle,” she answered. “My name is Belle.”

Belle kept very still, waiting for the dolphin to take its turn in their conversation. When conversing with each other, each dolphin listened to the other’s pulses before producing its own.

TEACHER came up and nudged her nose a few times, and Belle scratched them under the chin.

“Female,” TEACHER said, using her self-identifying whistle again. “TEACHER.”

Dolphins would understand what it was you intended to do, or what you would like them to do, well before you had even fully formed the thought in your own mind.

She nodded.

TEACHER gave a displeased little click, and Belle felt the blood rise to her cheeks and temples.

My apologies, TEACHER, she thought. Please, continue.

Emitting a low squeak and whistle, TEACHER moved yet closer, almost touching her forehead to Belle’s.

“Come.”

Belle closed her eyes, and immediately saw the pictures flash before them.

A migrating pod, a cluster of floaters, silent death’s web, a black wave, a deserted beach, rain - PAUSE - hands and eyes, airlings. A familiar face and familiar places - full stop.

She exhaled. Breathed in.

A pool - this pool. More airlings. Young airlings, old airlings, sick airlings. Sick or hurt airlings swimming in the pool with TEACHER - full stop.

“Come,” TEACHER repeated, nudging her arm. “Come. Come. Come.” She eased back a little, did a slow roll, turned back, and looked at Belle, scanning, prompting, asking her to move.

Come where?

“Hurt,” TEACHER whistled low. “Hurt outside, hurt inside.”

She circled Belle, touched her side with her fin, made it so Belle’s hand would slide over her back, open palm, and come to rest just next to her dorsal fin.

“TEACHER. Come, Belle. Come.”

Belle understood, gripped onto it lightly with both hands, and the two of them were off, circling the pool, diving and swimming, going fast and going slow, parting the water and feeling it rush over shared skin.

Chapter Text

Dolphin Assisted Therapy proved to be a great success. Not only did her sessions with Chipper improve Indigo’s strength and agility, they also helped buoy her mood and lifted her spirits. She was more alert and cooperative, eagerly awaiting her daily trip to the outside pool each morning.

Gold had exchanged her stretcher for a wheelbarrow. It made the ride easier, and he didn’t need Miss Lucas or anyone else to assist them to get going. Indigo could easily lower herself down into the barrow from the pool hoist, and, as the barrow provided enough support for his bad ankle when he walked as well, he could push her the entire way to the pool without his cane.

Ever since therapy sessions had started, they had adapted Indigo’s schedule and her wardrobe accordingly. Her pale skin was sensitive, so she always wore a bathrobe when in transit and, after initial protest, would allow sunscreen to be applied to her face, ears, neck, torso, and arms. He used the strongest lotion - suitable for surfers and swimmers - that didn’t come off the second skin met water, and always applied copious amounts - which left a white sticky film on her, but sufficiently protected Indigo from getting sunburn for about at least half an hour.

After the first few trips, their gear had grown to not only include sunscreen, Indigo’s cup, and the flashcards, but also a selection of pool toys and a pair of orange floaties, and Gold wondered if, at the rate they were going, he might need a changing bag soon.

Today, he and Indigo had spent a wonderfully cool and calm morning in the medical wing, eating breakfast and doing physio, before he decided it was time to head out into the late summer heat of the grounds again.

Just when he was about to get the dolphin card, however, and put it up on the board, the phone rang; and when he returned to Indigo in her holding pool a little while later, Gold’s mood had shifted.

“That, sweetheart, was the nice doctor,” he told her, picking up her empty cup from the side of the pool and carrying it over to the sink to rinse. “Apparently, you need swimming lessons.”

She looked at him quizzically.

He took a brush to the inside of the cup, shook his head, and scrubbed. “And there I was thinking… never mind.”

A loud splashing noise had him turn, and he couldn’t help but laugh at Indigo, who, seemingly tired of waiting, fussed with the pool ladder, trying to figure out a way to use it.

“And what, little Miss Impatient, are you doing? Hmm? If you don’t mind me asking.”

She didn’t mind. In fact, she minded so little that she completely ignored him.

Pink tongue peeping out between her lips and brows furrowed in concentration, she used her arms to hoist herself up and climbed the narrow steps one by one, travelling up and out of the water backwards on her bum; nearly losing her balance and toppling over in the attempt to maneuver her heavy tail.

Again, she reminded him of Bae; Bae as a wee one, tackling a flight of stairs on his nappy-padded backside; but Indigo was neither a child - nor was she supposed to leave the holding pool on her own. What if she got stuck somewhere in the lab with no one around to help? What if she hurt herself or didn't make it back into the water on time? He couldn’t risk any more injuries. Or the life threatening dehydration.

“Now, wait just one minute!”

Lying on her back on the slippery tiles, Indigo grinned up at him as he leaned over her, droplets of water clinging to her dark eyelashes and glossy lips. Winded after the unsuitable exercise, her cheeks were colored and her chest rose and fell rapidly. Even so, she managed to look rather pleased with herself.

“And what’s this supposed to be, hmm?” He put his hands on his hips; told her ‘no’ in sign language, using the fingers on his right hand.

But fixing her with his sternest, most disapproving gaze had absolutely no effect. Indigo just laughed her charming quiet little laugh. It made him ridiculously aware of how pretty her face was: a hint of dimples, a cute buttoned nose - even when scrunched in amusement - and big round eyes so deep, for the first time in his life, he felt a fear of drowning.

Indigo stuck her tongue out at him, the moment passed, and the knot in his belly unravelled. He followed her outstretched arm and pointing finger to the magnet board.

There was no laminated picture card there, but Indigo made an unmistakable flowing motion in the air with her hands - mermaid and dolphin? - huffed soundlessly, and crossed her arms over her chest.

“Ah, I see.” Gold chortled. “Your Grace deems it high time for her lunchtime stroll in the dolphin pool, is that it? Well, I’m sorry, but that will have to wait just a little bit longer….”

He nodded towards the holding pool, waited.

She narrowed her eyes, glared back unblinking, and shook her head once but with decision.

“Please, sweetheart. Be a good little merm-”

Indigo rolled over onto her belly and, wriggling her tail from side to side on the floor like a snake or lizard might, propelled herself forward with such an unexpected swiftness that it caught him completely off guard.

Gold sucked his teeth and cussed under his breath. “No. No, no. Absolutely not.” Hurrying to block her path, he crouched down with a grimace and held her back by the shoulders. “That’s exactly what the doctor said not to do.”

He scrambled to sign his concern and disapproval - somehow, clumsily, and also, unnecessarily, as Indigo seemed to understand just fine. She just didn't agree with him.

“I’m sorry. Argh… look. How do I… let me try and explain, at least?”

She blinked up at him. Pouted.

The thing was, he had no idea how to explain anything to her; how to get her on the same page.

Truth be told, he wasn’t sure he had grasped the issue in its entirety himself just yet, the unpleasant conversation with the veterinarian still fresh in his mind and swirling around his brain in never ending circles without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.

Until this morning; until only a matter of maybe twenty minutes ago, in fact, everything had seemed to be going perfectly fine; seemed to be going according to plan. He had felt hopeful. Indigo was recovering, rebuilding and regaining strength and confidence. Looking at her now, on the floor of the med wing, her tail swishing cat-like across the white tiles, all he could do was to avert his eyes and give a sigh, pulling a plastic chair closer and sitting down on it.

He put his palms together and copied her movements with his hands, shaking his head firmly. “You need to stop doing that,” he told her. “It feels easier… ay? I get it.” He ran a hand over his mouth. “But it’s going to hurt you, sweetheart.”

Had there been any chance of helping them both understand better, he would have pulled up her latest x-rays and shown them to her on the large projector screen on the wall.

According to Dr Whale, there was a bulge now where there shouldn’t have been; enlarged muscles in the wrong places pulling on her vertebrae and causing damage to it, endangering her spinal cord - and thus, her life.

What exactly had he said on the phone again?

“See this bulge right there? It’s from swimming. She’s just like a dolphin, man. Spinal cord's exactly like ours, right? It's controlling everything. It's controlling her breathing, her heartbeat, movement. You get the picture. Irreversible damage to that and-”

At this point, the man had made an obscene noise and the corresponding gesture had entered Gold’s mind unbidden, so he had turned his face and held the receiver away from his ear in disgust, but it had already been burned into his memory; and the message was crystal clear. He could still hear it ringing in his ears.

“So you're saying swimming like that's gonna kill her?” he had asked, already knowing the answer but hoping for a different one.

“That’s exactly right.” The weird glee in Whale’s voice had made Gold shudder. Slightly unorthodox, but brilliant vet that he was, Dr Whale had always had a rather morbid outlook on, and attitude towards, life, which - given his excellent work performance - they generously overlooked and usually put down to professional curiosity. The man just liked to cut things open and study them. That was all.

But, for as long as Gold lived, he would not get his hands on a mermaid corpse to dissect. Not in this lifetime or the next. Whale would get to Indigo over Gold’s own dead body only.

“Sorry, boss,” Whale had added after an uncomfortable pause. “Her… anatomy… it’s… well, fascinating.”

“Anything we can do, doc?”

They had ended the call on a less than enthusiastic suggestion from Whale to give Indigo some exercises to try to improve her swimming; to correct her posture mistakes before the pattern got fixed in her body and became permanent. Only, he had seemed at a loss about how to best go about doing it, claiming that, with all due respect, live fish training and studies was more of Golds domain than his. He would, however, ask around his circles, though. See if any of his many acquaintances would come up with something to help them. Until then, Gold and Indigo were on their own.

Gold pointed at Indigo’s twitching tail. “Up and down. It is meant to flex up and down. It's not supposed to go side to side.”

Indigo cocked her head and knitted her brow. Studying his hands, her eyes darted back and forth between them and his lips while he spoke and gestured.

“You know that, right? Oh… what do we do, love? What do we do?”

Indigo at least seemed to have an answer to that. Her face set and lips pursed, she pointed first at the board, then made her hands swim again, and then nodded towards the large wall clock.

She couldn’t tell the time, could she? Yes, she knew how to count, but surely, her concept of time was nothing like a human’s?

“Outside, yes.” Dismayed, Gold dragged a hand across his face. “You want to see Chipper. Aye. I understand.”

He sat and thought for a moment.

No use burying one's head in the sand, was there? He was no marine-life vet, no college-certified marine biologist, and he didn’t have a trainer’s eye, but Gold had one thing going for him: his gut feeling. When push came to shove, his instincts had yet to fail him, and right now, they were telling him to get some air and a clearer picture to tackle the problem from the best possible angle.

“Okay.” He got up and walked around her to get the wheelbarrow out of parking - they ‘parked’ it beneath one of the long desks. “Outside it is then.” He gestured toward the holding pool and pool hoist. “M’lady, if you please?”

Indigo’s face lit up.

Chapter Text

What had gotten into him today? Something was definitely off, Belle thought, tilting her head back to catch a glimpse of his face. He seemed distracted, preoccupied with something; so much so that he had deviated from their usual routine and wasn’t paying attention to where they were going now either, taking yet another wrong turn - for the second or third time in a row.

Belle touched his arm and waved at him. What was going on?

She pointed over her shoulder, off to the right. If they wanted to go and see TEACHER, they had to turn around and take a left, a right, and then another left. And they had to hurry, or she would be late. She couldn’t be late. To leave a dolphin waiting was highly offensive.

He smiled, shook his head, said something.

Belle bit her lip. It didn’t matter that it wouldn’t be her fault; she didn’t want to be rude.

She leaned back in her seat, making herself as heavy as she could to force him to stop. They were going in the wrong direction and needed to head the other way.

“Indigo!” He let go of the Travel Puddle and it hit the ground hard.

Bend double, holding onto the edges of her sitting-mold not to be thrown off, Belle felt the sudden impact reverberate in her body, making every cell and raw nerve ending tingle. The water sloshed around and splashed against her in angry waves, breaking on her fur-clad tail.

She glared up at him. That hadn’t been necessary, had it?

He gestured, raised his eyebrows.

Question. But she had missed the contents.

It didn’t matter. Belle blew damp frills of hair out of her face and gave him a double beak in response. No. No. This was entirely his fault! He was the one who had dawdled too long, taken wrong turns, and was acting all funny - not her!

Using her hands, she mimicked swimming with TEACHER, then pointed at the sun. It was too high already. They were late. Perfect.

He copied her, making his hands swim, but then signed a firm ‘no’; and the knot in her belly that had just begun to loosen at the sight of him finally cottoning on, tightened painfully.

But… but… why not?! Belle gaped at him.

He repeated the gesture, pointed at the sun, then seemed to try pushing it down with his hands. Silly airling. Didn’t he know that the sun, the moon, and the flow of water and time could not be meddled with?

Unless, ... that sort of thing was something airlings could do?

She squinted at him. Was he trying to make them even later than they already were?! Could he do such a thing? Why would he do such a thing?!

She watched; the sun didn’t budge an eel.

He did everything again; and she was about to laugh at his feeble attempt at… whatever this was, when suddenly the dots connected in her brain and formed a crooked line of understanding. Oh,… oh!

Later. He must mean: later.

Well, actually... no. Absolutely not! Belle sniffed, tossed her hair over her shoulder, and crossed her arms.

“Indigo?!”

Eyebrow-raise.

Indigo, what?

Oh, she would tell him ‘Indigo, what?’ alright!

Belle pointed in the direction of TEACHER’s home, at herself, at him, but he wouldn't listen. Instead, he had grasped the steering poles and was moving them again, resolutely following down the wrong current, heading into the least sensible direction.

He was a lying liar who lied. Oh, how Belle wished she had her throw-thing with her right now, but that was way out of reach, back at the place, Inside, on the sunbathing platform somewhere.

He was talking to her - well, at her - as they went, but she wasn't in the mood. Why should she make an effort to put the bits and pieces together, go out of her way to try and understand him, when he didn't even so much as try to listen to her, or include her wishes in the decision-making process?

They had agreed to go out and see TEACHER. And now… where was he taking her?

She wanted to shut her eyes and cover her ears - to let him know that he could talk to the sea slug, if he expected her to listen to another sound coming out of his mouth today; however, this area was a new one, one he’d never taken her before, entirely unfamiliar and exciting, and she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

There were more airlings here than anywhere else she had been recently. All of them had wrapped themselves in fabrics of the same color: white.

Perhaps it shielded their skin from the sun? Like the cool, white mud he put on her every morning before they left Inside and came here?

The airlings smiled as they approached, some uttering what Belle assumed to be greetings, and politely stepped out of their way.

She wasn't scared of them. Not anymore. Still, part of her was glad they didn't come any closer. Just because she didn't fear them any longer, didn't mean she trusted them; and she’d rather observe them, their comings and goings, from a safe distance.

They were such curious beings, though. Always moving, always busy, always headed some place or other; some clutching strange-looking objects in odd combinations that didn't make the slightest bit of sense to her.

She wanted to ask the airling about them - the others and their objects - but then remembered that she was mad at him just in time, and refrained, resorting to watching intently and storing away her questions for another time.

***

As soon as word reached her, Ruby dropped everything at the diner, jumped out of her waitressing garb and into her wetsuit, and dashed off towards the old show tank.

Technically, it wasn’t in use, hadn’t been for years, but the old show tank was where Mr Gold wanted her; wanted her specifically and asap, so Ruby had no time to wonder or question the instructions she’d been given.

She knew where it was; knew the way, of course, but, seeing as it had already been shut down and replaced by a better, larger tank closer to the main buildings by the time she and Granny moved onto the premises, she had never performed there herself. The equipment probably still worked though, Ruby assumed. Plus, the old tank was on the outskirts now, out of the way, so it might offer some privacy? Maybe that was why she was supposed to meet Mr Gold and Indigo there? Maybe he wanted to watch her work with Indigo to assess if she was ready to resume regular training? Ruby’s stomach clenched with nerves.

“Ruby!” With a delighted squeal, a pair of short, chubby arms flew around her middle, and Ruby would have recognized that mob of wild hair and the cheeky, toothless grin anywhere.

“Hey, Emms.”

“Emma Ruthie Nolan!” Mrs Nolan, a fat pink plush-kraken clutched in one hand and the other coming to a full stop on her hip, fixed her daughter with a stern look. “What have we told you about-”

“I know. I know.” Emma let go and stepped back, holding out her hand instead. Bemused, Ruby took it, and the two of them laughed. “I’m not supposed to jump at people like that. But this isn’t people, Mom! It’s Ruby!”

“Don’t get smart with me, Emma.” Mrs Nolan dropped the kraken into one of the open cardboard boxes, and came over to say hello. She looked tired today, more so than usual, her friendly smile coming off a little forced. “Hello, Ruby. How are you?”

Ruby put on her best toothy show-smile. “Hi, Mrs Nolan. Good. How about you?”

Emma rolled her eyes. “I get it! I get it!”

“Manners are important, Emma.” Mrs Nolan lectured as the kid stomped off towards the half-restocked toy shelves and open cardboard boxes, and kicked the nearest one.

“Emma!”

Ruby smirked.

Mrs Nolan shook her head and, apparently deeming her sulking daughter a lost cause, returned her attention to Ruby. “What can I get you, Ruby? Does Granny need a new batch of toys for the Mermaid Menu?” She sighed, looking put upon. “Let me tell you, they can’t make them fast enough. We only got one box left, I’m afraid. Not sure when the next order is due.” Eyebrows arched, she turned and moved behind the counter to flip through pages on a clipboard. “Monday, I think. Tuesday? The rest of them are in back, if-”

“No. No, thank you.” Ruby held up her hands and lifted one shoulder in apology, making the frazzled frown on Mrs Nolan’s face deepen and her hands pause. “I’m not here for the toys.” She let her gaze roam over the shelves and the goods on display next to the register as she walked up to the counter. “You got batteries, don’t you?” She nodded toward the polaroids and colorful kiddy cameras. “Mr Gold wants me to record Indigo, but this ancient thing -” She patted her bulky bag - “is out of juice.”

“Oh! Yes, of course. Which model is it?”

“Uh,” Ruby shrugged. “No idea.”

“If we haven’t got it in the shop, I’m sure David can help.”

Right. She had forgotten about Mr Nolan’s fascination with anything and everything with a lense and a flash.

“It’s these…” She rummaged in the side pocket and produced one empty, square battery, setting it down on the counter between them for Mrs Nolan to have a look. “Two?”

“Ah. Those we got. They’re right over-”

“Got them! Here you go!” Out of nowhere, a grinning Emma materialized next to her mother, rising on her toes to place the desired objects next to the old battery. Then she ran over to the cluster of cardboard boxes again; this time not to kick them, but to get something else and carry it back to them fast as lightning - there and back again, before anyone had the chance to say anything about it.

One kiddy camera. Cheap plastic on a shoulder strap. Bold red.

“You’re taking pictures? Of Indigo? Can I come? Can I be your assistant? I could be your assistant, see?” She held out the kiddy camera box. “Please, can I? Can I?”

Ruby glanced at a tight-lipped Mrs Nolan. The kid had nerve.

“Emma.” They wrestled for the ugly thing. Mrs Nolan won. “This belongs to the shop. How many times do I have to tell you not to remove things from the shelves?”

Emma sniffed. “I can pay for it! … How much is it?”

Mrs Nolan shut her eyes for a beat. “More than your allowance.” She held the box out to Emma. “Now, please, put it back.”

Emma clutched the toy camera to her small chest. “But… but…”

“On the correct shelf.”

“But how am I supposed to be Ruby’s assistant if I don’t have a camera?!” Emma protested.

“Have you asked Ruby if she needs an assistant?” Mrs Nolan shot her an apologetic smile. “She is working right now, and we are keeping her, Emma. You’d be in the way; and we don’t want you falling into the water again, do we?”

“I can swim proper now!” Emma whined. “Daddy showed me. We practiced!”

Mrs Nolan grabbed the batteries, checked them against Ruby’s, and proceeded to scan them quickly, opening and closing the register, and handing her her receipt. “Would you like a bag?”

“Nah, I’ll pop them right in. Thanks.” She made to open her bag, but then caught a glimpse of Emma, who seemed glued to her red treasure in its box, determined not to part with it again, and Ruby thought better of it. Best not to torture the kid unnecessarily. “Better do it on the way.”

“Mooom! Pleeease.” Emma hopped from one foot to the other. “What if you take all my allowance money for… for… until school starts?”

The kid looked so hopeful, Ruby almost felt sorry for the little pouting pest. She bit her lip and reached for the Apollo Bars, quickly tallying up the loose change in her fanny pack in her head. Three, maybe four. Perhaps she could give one to Emma later - to cheer her up.

“No, Emma.” Mrs Nolan leaned on the counter for support. “Now, put it back, please.” She proceeded to scan the candy in silence and waited patiently as Ruby unzipped her bag and dug out the coins.

“No fair!” Emma fumed. She stood rooted to the spot for a moment longer; then, after another pointed look from her mother, set the box down and began kicking it across the linoleum floor towards the right aisle.

Ruby heard Mrs Nolan draw a sharp breath. “Emma!”

“Don’t ‘Emma’ me!”

“Emma Ruthie, you will pick that up at once and carry it. Carefully. Do you hear me?”

Emma kicked the toy again, making it slide a few more inches, then lazily strolled after it and picked it up. “Fine. Whatever.”

Mrs Nolan ran a hand over her face. “Sorry about this,” She nodded toward her daughter. “She’s bored. Two more weeks.” She sighed.

“Oh!” Her face lit up. “I heard about school. The program? Your grandmother told me someone got the big envelope in the mail?” She took Ruby’s hand and gave it a quick squeeze. “Congratulations! Are you nervous? Excited?”

Ruby suppressed the mile-wide grin that bubbled beneath the surface and settled for a regular smile and a non-committal shrug. “Yeah, it’s pretty neat. Checked out the dorms the other week. Granny almost had a stroke when she heard some of them are co-ed now.”

Mrs Nolan smiled warmly. “She’s worried for you, Ruby. A pretty girl like you is bound to break some hearts in college.”

Ruby felt her face flush. “Dunno. I’m fine with whatever - co-ed, all-girls - I don’t mind.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Don’t tell anyone - especially not Granny - but I’m really going for the knowledge.” She giggled. “The program is amazing. Classes don’t start until late September, though.”

“It’s not far, is it?” Mrs Nolan asked. “You could live with your grandmother and commute to school? Fewer distractions?” She winked.

Ruby raised her hands in front of her body. “Let’s not take it quite that far, okay?”

They both laughed.

“I’ll be around. I get to keep my job, do both, part-time.”

“Good for you.”

A loud bang and crash had them turn their heads, and the conversation died abruptly as a tidal wave of toys and plastic rubbish came bursting out from behind the aisle where the toys, cameras, and photography equipment was. That, and presumably, a very grumpy Emma Nolan.

Ruby glanced at Mrs Nolan, who watched her merchandise spill all across her shop’s floor in horror.

“Emma! Come here! What are you doing?!”

“It was an accident!” Emma hollered back into the shocked silence. “I didn’t mean to…”

“Excuse me,” Mrs Nolan said, leaving Ruby at the counter to find her daughter between the shelves. “Ever since her father promised her... all she talks about is going to see that mermaid!”

The polite and right thing to do would have been to leave, Ruby knew, but she felt sorry for them both - and she had an idea. “Mrs Nolan? You know, maybe I could take Emma off your hands for a bit…”

Mrs Nolan stopped and turned around to face her. “That’s very sweet of you to offer, Ruby, but I couldn’t possibly. I know you’re good with kids,” she added quickly, “but Emma has been a little… difficult lately, and, well… thank you, though.”

“Okay. But if you change your mind…?”

They found Emma on the floor, on all fours amidst several pink octopi, schools of different-size dolphin plushies, and an army of wind-up rubber crabs that walked sideways and clicked their nippers if set loose. The kid, scooting about on her knees on the floor like a distressed pelican flapping its wings, was trying to scoop up as many crabs as possible in her little hands to return them to their - overturned - cardboard box.

When she spotted them, Emma scrambled to her feet and brushed invisible dust and lint off her knees. “Wasn’t on purpose,” she mumbled, glancing at her mother. Her ears were the same color as the octopi. She shuffled her feet.

“Leave it,” Mrs Nolan said, holding out her hand and squatting down to be eye-level with her daughter. “Leave it, and come here, please.”

Ruby watched as a very sorry little Emma did as she was told. Mrs Nolan truly had the patience of a saint. If it were her, a younger her anyway, making an absolute mess of her grandmother’s kitchen or the diner, she would have found herself across Granny’s lap long before now.

“Emma,” Mrs Nolan didn’t yell. Her voice was firm but gentle. “I told you. The mermaid-”

“Indigo.”

Indigo got sick and we can’t go and visit her until Dr Whale says it’s okay.”

“I know,” Emma’s head snapped up and she wriggled free of her mother’s grasp, looking around wildly, trying to spot something amongst the rubble. “That’s why I ran and got the picture! It was on the fridge, and Ruby was about to leave, and I wanted to… and then I crashed into your boxes, Mom!” Breathless, she twirled on the spot, then dropped to her knees again to look for her picture under a pile of plushies. “I’m sorry.”

Ruby scanned the floor. There was something white peeping out from underneath the toy shelf.

Carefully stepping over the general mess, and side-stepping a frantic Emma, she went to retrieve the piece of paper from its hiding place. Bingo! As she turned it over, there was Emma Nolan’s precious masterpiece.

Ruby held it up. “That it, Emms?”

Her finder’s reward was another Emma-hug.

“She wanted to give it to… Indigo. As a present,” Mrs Nolan explained, picking up the crab box and setting it right. “Bae told her… told her she draws?”

Ruby nodded. “Yeah, we gave her crayons. She’s not half-bad.”

“See? That’s Indigo.” Emma pointed to a human-shaped blob with brown hair and a blue tail. “And that’s Bae and me. And you-”

“Found Nemo!” Ruby laughed, indicating red and orange fish at the bottom of the picture, swimming around the words ‘Get well soon! Xoxo’ in big, strained letters. Emma snatched the picture from her.

“Very funny.”

“Hey, just joking, kid. It’s a beautiful picture. I’m sure she’ll love it.”

“You think?” Emma scrutinized her own work. “It’s not stupid?”

“It’s a great idea.” She ruffled Emma’s hair. “And you know what, I got another one.”

“Yeah?”

“Do you remember Indigo’s favorite food?” Ruby asked, grinning.

Emma pulled a face. “Bananas.”

“Yeah, and I bet Indigo would love it if she got one from you - together with your picture. I’ll tell her they’re from you. She’s feeling much better already. Or,” Ruby exchanged a quick look with Mrs Nolan before she continued. “Or, we could all go for a flying visit? A few minutes tops, and you can tell her yourself?” 

Mrs Nolan nodded behind Emma’s back. “A banana. That’s a lovely idea, Ruby! How about you and I tag along and give her one, Emma? But, like Ruby said, only a few minutes!” She cautioned.

Emma beamed at them. “Can we wrap it? The banana?”

Mrs Nolan hesitated. “Err… we could, but we only got the Christmas paper right now. It’s a little early for that, don’t you think? It’s not even Halloween yet.”

Emma frowned, thinking. “When is Halloween?” She asked.

Mrs Nolan blew out a breath. “Over two months away, Emma.”

“Yeah, but… how many sleeps is that?”

“Many, kid.” Ruby cut in before Mrs Nolan could lose her cool at long last. She really didn’t look so good. Maybe it was the shop’s lighting? “How about you tie a ribbon around it? It’ll look much nicer than wrapping paper anyway.”

Mrs Nolan gave her a thankful smile. “Yes. Emma, could you get me the biggest banana from the fruit bowl, please? Make sure it doesn’t have any brown spots? We can pick out a nice ribbon for it together.”

“Okay.” Emma skipped off to the back, and Mrs Nolan wiped a hand across her forehead and cheeks.

Chapter Text

She didn’t want to go into the water; didn’t want to swim. Not because something was wrong with it – actually, it looked and smelled quite nice – but because that was exactly what he wanted her to do, and Belle wasn’t in the mood to play pebble.

So she sat there, right at the shore, careful not to dip so much as one scale into the inviting cool, and watched the little waves feebly lap against warm stone. They were frail, elderly creatures that brought her no joy.

Her body longed and ached for the water’s touch. She ignored it. What did it matter that she was at the sun’s mercy, growing warmer and warmer under her Ice-Lover skin?

To float in silence right at the border between two worlds, watch the sand and hear the salt sing, was to appreciate the very breath and heartbeat of the sea – but this place had no lungs to breathe or heart to keep it alive. All it had was a strange, soulless, sharp black eye that soaked into her skin and click-click-clicked like a flock of angry little birds’ beaks, open and shut, open and shut, making Belle feel coarse-grained and foraminous under the heat of its intense stare.

Her right hand made a beak, she turned her body away from him, and the clicking stopped.

He lowered the eye and said something. She didn’t react or respond; pretended she hadn’t heard anything; nothing that sounded familiar and held meaning.

After what felt like half a lifetime in the sun, but might as well have been only a few moments spent in tense silence and stillness – just when Belle had decided enough was enough and reached for the slip of fur tied around her middle – she noticed the little group breaking away from the busy stream of whites and coming her way. They weren’t donning the sun-repellant colors of their peers and Belle squinted to see better.

Three airlings, two of which she thought she recognized, were headed straight for where she sat – or maybe they just wanted to talk to the other airling – but she wasn’t going to take any chances.

With hurried movements, Belle untied the knot and slipped out of her loaned furs, leaving them in a heap at the water’s edge. She didn’t push off at once, didn’t swim away, but watching the newcomers approach from the safety of the water still felt like the better, more sensible approach to the situation.

The airling looked at her quizzically, put his clickety toy down on his seat and turned around, then laughed – and Belle made a face and stuck out her tongue at him.

So what?!

She watched the airlings greet each other.

Jumper Girl had brought another click-eye, bigger and bulkier than the first, and set it down next to it. Looking at them sitting on the portable resting hollow – watching her every move, staring unblinkingly and silent – gave Belle the creeps. With a grimace, she splashed in their general direction to scare them off, warn them not to come any closer, and turned her attention back to Jumper Girl and company.

They were still talking airling gibberish, but now it was directed at her, and, even when at first Belle tried her best to look haughty and ignore them all, she had been raised better than to be rude to kind strangers – and the unfamiliar female airling had a very kind face. She looked a little tired.

“Indigo?” Jumper Girl addressed her, and Belle smiled self-consciously; nodded to signal she was listening.

Jumper Girl put her arm around the little airling girl and brought her closer. Together they crouched down.

Belle bit her lip. It was indeed her friend’s little friend – the one who had fallen into the water and didn’t know how to swim. Her hair was shorter now, not quite touching her shoulders. She grinned at Belle and held out one of her favorite food things: a crooked yellow pearl-shell, shiny colorful strings tied around it.

A gift.

Belle inhaled sharply, part surprised and part preoccupied with how close the little one was to the water. What if she slipped and fell again?

On the girl’s other side, the female airling squatted down as well. She struggled to keep her balance, leaning back on her hands, and only now did Belle notice the bump.

A youngling on the way. No wonder the poor thing was tired.

Belle cocked her head. She knew airlings weren’t hatched but born, but no one had ever bothered to tell her exactly how long it took until a female airling gave birth or when airling mating season was. Airlings were a part of their folklore, not proper education. No one else cared, probably, or maybe… no one knew?

The thought of having discovered something new; of having gained knowledge that no one else back home had, made Belle giddy with excitement.

She hadn’t thought about it this way before. If the airlings wanted to know all about her, who was to say she couldn’t or wouldn’t turn the winds on them and do the same, study them the way they wanted her?

Belle gazed at the airling mother with renewed interest.

She hadn’t spotted any other expectant airling mothers. Airling children of various ages – the smallest being carried or pushed around in funny, shell-shaped carriers – yes, but this female was the first airling mother-to-be that Belle had come across here – or ever.

“Oh–” The airling indicated her round belly, smiling softly as she sat up on her knees to free her hands. She glanced at Jumper Girl, hesitated, gestured a little awkwardly, gave up, and finally cradled some invisible young in her arms – a gesture that Belle understood.

Young one, child

The airling pointed at the fidgeting girl next to her and did the same thing again, the gesture accompanied by soft sounds that purled brook-like and absolutely meaning-less from her mouth and rolled right off Belle’s eager mind –

… parent.

Oh. Oh no.

Belle froze, unsure how to communicate what she wanted to say next with only her hands.

She wanted the airling mother to know that she didn’t – never had and never would – mean her children any harm; that the accident involving her daughter had only ever been that, an unfortunate accident. She didn’t want the airlings to think she was dangerous to their young. There would never be peace or mutual understanding as long as either side believed their little ones at risk.

It was paramount, therefore, that Belle convey her message clearly.

She nibbled her bottom lip.

The airling girl pushed her gift into Belle’s hands and beamed at both her and her mother in turn, her attention expectantly bouncing back and forth between them like a lively otter.

Belle caught her eye with a little wave, then copied what she’d seen her young airling friend and his father do countless times: Extend fingers and thumb. Touch fingers to chin and bring forward. Move hand away from face, palms upward. Smile.

It meant: You have my gratitude.

Remembering that using two hands meant you were very grateful, Belle hastened to amend her response by putting her present down and repeating the sign with both hands, making her smile more enthusiastic.

The airlings laughed, and she felt her cheeks grow warm.

With a shy smile she touched the mother’s arm with the tip of one finger, tapping it ever so lightly, then inclined her head towards the airling girl and indicated herself. She made her right hand into a fist and rubbed it in a circular motion across her chest.

She hadn’t understood this at first, but the more she observed, the sooner its meaning became clear. It was like you were rubbing around your heart because you were truly sorry and your remorse or compassion made your heart ache – which was why Belle consciously chose to rub circles closer to the right side of her chest.

The airling mother smiled and nodded, taking Belle’s free hand in hers and patting it gently. Her hands were warm and soft, as were her eyes. And her voice – as she spoke again, the sounds just as foreign to Belle’s ears as before – was soothing and full of reassurance and understanding.

Belle blinked. Her heart thudded dully and painfully. She blinked again.

With a loud, impatient wailing sound, and little hands dragging on her arm, the airling girl demanded her mother’s undivided attention, and they both looked round to find her glaring at them, sulky-looking, with her arms crossed in front of her chest a moment later.

This little one didn’t like feeling ignored or left out. Belle had learned that lesson the hard way last time. And, as much as she disliked being rudely interrupted, she also empathized with the child.

She thought for a bit, then gestured for Jumper Girl to fetch her light-eaters from the Travel Puddle. It took them a moment to negotiate which object she wanted, but they finally landed on the pair of round glass shards she’d been given on her second outing. They turned day into night and protected your eyes from harsh light.

Wearing them, you could even dare looking directly at the sun. A thrilling game Belle loved, that would have had her father in hysterics. According to her father and the elders, the sun was dangerous and not to be trusted. Neither were airlings. They were all wrong. Belle would roll her eyes and do both anyway.

The light-eaters weren’t alive, and no home to tiny squids – invisible to the naked eye, who turned the glass some opaque shade in terror – like she had first hypothesized. They were just tinted glass pieces in a frame made from airling waste. Waste of a ridiculously loud color. It reminded her of corals or flashy crabs. Which was why she liked it – and why she knew the little airling girl would like it too.

She put the light-eaters on her nose and turned her face towards the sun to make sure they still worked. Then she handed them to the airling girl, who squealed in delight – and after prompting from her mother – repeated the gratitude gesture back to Belle.

Satisfied, the grown airlings went to rest on sitting hollows. The younger ones stayed behind and sat down close to the water.

Next they showed her a picture, a drawing of what seemed to be airlings and a merling with big smiles on their faces, holding hands underwater as if in prayer or celebration. She couldn’t get too close or touch anything – that would have ruined the colors, made them run, she knew – and she couldn’t very well ask if it was supposed to be them and her in the picture, or point out that airlings couldn’t breathe underwater and, therefore, wouldn’t be happy down there for very long, so Belle settled for a polite – but slightly puzzled – expression of gratitude and a smile.

“Indigo–” Jumper Girl asked for her attention and referred back to the picture, pointing out the hand-holding to her. She then indicated herself and Belle, the airling girl and Belle, the airling mother and Belle, and finally – though not without hesitation – Belle and the airling father, which, at first, threatened to derail Belle’s attention and direct it elsewhere, but she quickly recollected her wandering wits when she realized Jumper Girl was about to teach her another gesture. A new one.

She pressed her palms together and watched intently.

Jumper Girl made a low rumbling noise in her throat, clearing her airway as though about to speak, then raised her hands in front of her body. She held out both of her index fingers, making two curved shapes – like two halves of a whole, a growing and a diminishing night guardian, Selas. Holding one hand with her shape facing up, she hooked the second shape into the first. Then reversed the position for the hands and did it again.

Belle frowned, her own hands still stuck at two fingers turned torn halves, facing each other uneasily.

Jumper Girl laughed. She pointed at the airlings and merling in the picture on the ground and repeated her gesture, going a little faster this time.

Belle sucked in her bottom lip and let it pop. W-what?

Jumper Girl spoke to the little airling girl, who got up from the ground, rubbed her hands over her knees, then turned sideways and stood facing the older airling, who had also gotten to her feet. They grinned at each other.

With a sharp whistle, Jumper Girl held up a hand – a signal that meant she wanted Belle to pay close attention –  then made the curved shapes again, moving her hands towards herself and the little airling.

Belle nodded.

Okay. The airlings were the shapes now. Understood.

She watched as the two of them embraced, holding the other close. Then they stepped back, switched positions and held each other once more.

Both of them turned to face Belle, who made Selas-shaped halves with her fingers and went back and forth, thinking of open arms and warm embraces, friends giving each other a long hug. As if she knew anything about that.

Jumper Girl made a nodding fist and showed Belle her thumb. A gesture airlings seemed to use whenever they wanted to express ‘yes’ or, ‘great!’ or, ‘well done.’.

The airlings sat back down again.

The young one pointed at Belle, at herself, then back at Belle. She did the hugging gesture with her fingers, then put both hands flat on her chest, right over her heart.

Belle felt her lip tremble and heart stutter as she responded with two hugging halves of her own.

Friend. The little airling girl meant: friend.

The airling girl’s smile lit up her entire face, stretching it as far as it would go. She smiled the way only a child knew how, and Belle nearly had to shield her eyes against the brilliant joy, wishing for a split second that she hadn’t given her light-eaters away quite so readily or quite so soon.

Chapter Text

Nothing happened. They didn’t ask her to do anything.

After her new little friend and her mother had left, Belle felt fully prepared to face (and possibly fight) whatever was to happen next – with both Jumper Girl and the airling still around, there had to be something going on; something they wanted – but they just let her be and talked between themselves for a while.

When she grew bored, Belle tried grabbing their attention – which failed – then resorted to exploring the unfamiliar waters on her own. This place had walls all around it, just like the others, and sand at the bottom. There were no other living creatures here and no caves or other hiding places. Starting from either wall, it took her almost exactly the same number of strokes and the same amount of time to reach the rocky island in the middle.

However, there was nothing remotely interesting about the island either. It was just a pile of rocks – big enough for her and maybe three or four Howlers. Howlers were large and lazy creatures; They loved to lounge in the sun lying belly-up on warm rocks. But when aggravated, you better made a quick dive for it, because, once in motion, these good-natured colossi were fast and could, quite literally, chew your fins off.

Just when Belle felt really very uncomfortably bored and made for the unnatural shore, where the waters became warm and shallow, to tell the airlings as much – and demand they take her to see TEACHER at once, instead of wasting everyone’s time doing nothing – something inside the water shifted.

At first, a low humming noise vibrated against her skin. Then loud rumbling had her cast her eyes upward in expectation that wasn’t met. All around her, the little waves grew bigger and stronger, became young and wild again. Young and wild – and angry. They shoved her about and pulled her hair, and Belle struggled to push back and remain on stream to her desired destination.

What had happened? What signs had she missed now?

It was true, Belle had never been the most vigilant merling. She had missed obvious harbingers of sudden weather change, danger, or imminent disaster before. But this? This wasn’t her fault for dreaming with her eyes open and finding herself wandering off places a proper young merling shouldn’t go. When she had last checked it, the sky had been as clear and as blue as the surface on a lazy summer’s day, the wind no more than a gentle whisper in her ears, and the energy levels in the water so low, it had felt practically dead.

Belle knew that sometimes, change happened in a tail beat, but this break had come out of nowhere and hit her right between the eyes.

She rolled over onto her back to keep afloat with powerful backstrokes and looked at the sky. It was still clear. No roaring clouds, no flashing. She rolled back around.

This was different. This wasn’t normal.

It had been so long since she had last locked tails with the storms of time – and even longer since she’d won such a challenge. Swimming against their power, she felt her arms and tail tire quickly – too quickly – growing heavy and useless before she had made any real headway.

She huffed and panted; dove and came up for air; stretched, pushed, and splashed.

Nothing helped. The waves were relentless and she wasn’t getting anywhere.

The water wasn’t deep enough to go under its rage and she wasn’t strong enough to go through it. So, to conserve energy, Belle tried floating on it next – wait it out that way.

Almost immediately, strong currents grabbed at her fin and tail, holding fast, and knocked her off stream, sending her into a tailspin. Belle pushed back against it, collided with something solid but soft, and found herself being pulled up flush against it, held around her folded arms, and moved out of the immediate impact zone.

Surprised, she blinked up at whatever or whoever had her in a youngling’s hold like a clueless hatchling. They had no trouble navigating the rough waters and, when she saw that it was Jumper Girl, Belle was too stunned to protest or wriggle free.

Pfft. Youngling’s hold. By an airling.

Belle blew out a breath and beat her tail in sync with Jumper Girl’s movements. Pinned down like this, it wasn’t easy and felt unnatural, but she didn’t want it to look like the airling was doing all the work. Things were embarrassing enough as they were.

***

“Um, Mr Gold? Why…? – Is she mad at you?” Ruby’s eyes darted from the mermaid to her employer and back again. Indigo was sulking in the shallow waters near the in-ground pool steps and sun ledge, while Gold pretended not to notice the dirty looks he was getting.

“What makes you think that?” he asked, swiftly stepping away from the controls, but keeping his distance from the water. Smart move.

Ruby grinned. “Intuition.” She finished wringing out her hair and wrapped her towel around her shoulders. Tail or no tail, Indigo was a girl – and Ruby didn’t need a dictionary to decode the signals. Why did guys never notice when they made a girl angry? “I don’t think she digged the waves, boss.”

Gold’s mouth twitched. He didn’t like it when she called him that, but addressing the man as Mr Gold or sir all the time seemed awfully formal. Some of the others even went as far as to using his first name, Murchadh, or Murdo, which, on the other hand, felt way too familiar and friendly, so, a lot of the time, Ruby settled on ‘boss’ as the middle ground. Respectful, but chill. He’d just have to deal with it.

“It seems not,” Gold said flatly, reaching for the cuff on his left leg and tugging it down over his ankle. It didn’t cover the scarring. “Miss Lucas, on your way back, please let maintenance know to fix the wave panel, so it doesn’t get stuck again?”

“Will do... boss.”

Gold raised an eyebrow at her and Ruby smirked. She couldn’t help it. The man was far less intimidating in a wetsuit, struggling with the zippers on his boots.

“What about…” She nodded towards the cameras. “Do we have enough… I mean, you wanted good close-ups, right? I could go back in and–”

“There’ll be no need, Miss Lucas. Not today.” He walked over to the pool and touched the water – checking the temperature – and Indigo scowled, retreating a bit further. “She has had quite enough excitement for one day, I reckon. Time to head back and have her... relax in a more familiar environment. I’ll do a quick exam, and–”

As soon as his right foot broke the surface and hit the first step, Indigo’s head snapped up. By the second foot, she had already gone under and was nowhere to be seen – until she re-appeared by the rocks a few short moments later and a safe distance away.

“Uh, I think that’s a ‘no’–” Ruby laughed. “sir.” She wrestled her laughter into a cough and cleared her throat.

“Aye.” Gold looked at Indigo across half the pool, shook his head, and stepped back out, standing a little forlorn by the still body of water. There were deep lines on his face – just like the ones Granny’s got when Ruby accidentally burned something in the kitchen – and a few silent seconds ticked by before he continued in a low voice, talking more to himself than to her. “She can’t stay out here. It isn’t safe. She’ll never… but, that would be worse, wouldn’t it? Ack, the bloody… but how to…?”

“Boss?” Ruby kicked her feet a little, making ripples. “Mr Gold? Maybe I could–”

“A game!” Gold exclaimed suddenly, turning towards her and making her jump. “But yes, of course! That’s it. Miss Lucas, if you–”

“On it!” Cottoning on, Ruby quickly swung her legs over the edge and got to her feet. Thank goodness, she had thought to make a little detour on her way here and had not only brought a fully functional camera, Emma and Mrs Nolan to the old show tank, but also grabbed a few things from the trainers’ nook and thrown them into a duffle.

“Just a sec. I got just what–”

Faced with a random selection of your classic pool toys – swimming noodles, diving rings and diving sticks, a ball or two, some squeaky animals – Ruby decided none of them would do and began rummaging, digging deeper and pushing things around in search of the water disc. It had to be in there somewhere. A neon-pink, bright and bouncy skimmer disc that jumped on the water felt like just what they needed. The perfect choice for a pick-me-up game with a butt-sore mermaid. Or tail-sore.

“Aha! Bingo!” She held the toy up for Gold to see. He looked skeptical, but didn’t comment on her pick. “If anything, this will work.”

Indigo had a thing for bold colors and fast-paced fun. She loved throwing that disc, skimming it like a stone; marveling as it leapt, hopped and sprang across. Then she would shoot after it to fetch like an overgrown water-puppy. It was adorable. Ruby wasn’t fully confident Indigo would play with her today, but she had yet to witness a day when their mermaid resisted a good game or a shiny new toy, so it was worth a try.

Mouth straight, Gold nodded, seemingly awaiting further instruction. Well, this was a first. 

“Err…” Ruby shuffled her feet, looked at Indigo in the distance, at the ground, then back at his face. “You know you can’t… play, right?” She tossed her hair back with a nervous giggle. “Just the cool kids today, boss. I’m sorry.”

“Ah,” He smiled wistfully, “but of course. Truth be told,” He lowered his voice. “I wasn’t too keen on the impromptu aqua fitness class. I know how you work, Miss Lucas.”

They both laughed. It didn’t dispel any of the tension.

He rubbed his hands together. “Well then, I guess I’ll leave you to it.” He turned to the cameras, carefully closing the bags and checking all zippers and buckles twice, then swung them over his shoulder and looked at his watch. “If you’re good here for, let’s say, about an hour, I’m taking these to the Med Wing. Take a peek, maybe – if I can manage.”

“An hour,” Ruby repeated. For one thing, she wanted to show that she had listened, listened carefully – something Granny frequently accused her of being incapable of – and for another, repeating his own words back to him was the only thing that wasn’t her clamming up from the awkward vibe they had going and turning mute like a Guppy, that she could think of doing right now. “David can help.”

“Ah yes, David Nolan. Indeed. Good thinking, Miss Lucas. Very… help–ful.”

The uncomfortable little sister of major brain freeze, it felt like her whole brain cringed from how much she wanted this conversation to end already. If he wanted to get into the water, try his luck at engaging Indigo in a game after the wave-machine-debacle himself, he just had to say the word. She’d hand over the sparkly toy (currently clutched very tightly in her right hand) and keep her mouth shut. If that was what he wanted. Or maybe, she was reading this wrong.

“Sunscreen’s in the bag, should you need it. Her robe.“ He gestured toward the wheelbarrow. “Make sure she stays in the water and keeps cool, no detours.”

Ruby nodded.

“She’s gotten used to it more, but better safe than sorry.” He glanced in Indigo’s general direction, sounding both a little irritated and a lot concerned.

“Absolutely.”

Somehow, his tone made Ruby bristle. When had she ever neglected or endangered an animal, any animal, in her care since starting work here, oh, only about forever ago? Had accidents happen on her watch? Injuries? – Never, that was when. And he was talking to her like she was five. Or an intern. Or a five-year-old intern. Oh, whatever. She had this.

“We’ll stay put. I won’t leave her out of my sight for a second.”

“Great. Just –”

He stopped himself, and Ruby was glad for it. She could already feel her temper simmer in her chest and belly. Bringing it to a boil was both easily done and a very bad idea. She couldn’t lose it in front of her boss. She couldn’t lose it and go off at her boss either.

“I’ll bring her tea when I get back. Thank you.”

Tea. Why did he have to call it tea when he didn’t mean the drink at all – she knew for a fact Indigo had never had tea tea before – but food? Tea. As in: evening meal. As in: dinner. Why not just say it like it was then, call it by its name?

“Uh-huh.”

“An hour.” He shielded his eyes against the low sun, blinking in the direction of the main buildings.

“Yup.”

“Alright then.”

***

He left. The airling actually left her behind in the strange waters that she was pretty sure she didn’t like very much or trusted. Just like that, between two trips to the surface, he was gone. Gone wherever to do whatever without letting her know what was happening or when he’d be back.

Sure, Belle was mad at him for – somehow – angering the Spirits and making her look like a complete fool. It was embarrassing, to say the least, that she, a grown daughter of the sea and self-proclaimed explorer of the unknown, had had to be hatchling-towed away from a little turbulence like that. She had every reason to resent him for it. That didn’t mean he could just take off.

“Indigo!” Jumper Girl beckoned her over. The airling had left her behind too, but unlike Belle, Jumper Girl could up and go wherever she wanted whenever she wanted. Belle wished she’d leave right now, but for some reason, she was out of luck. Jumper Girl seemed perfectly happy sitting on the round platform, in the little splashing puddle it formed, enjoying the sun and dangling her feet in the deeper waters.

Belle sighed.

Jumper Girl called for her again. She held out something, waving it above her head.

Belle squinted. By now, the sun was so low – and chances of seeing TEACHER lowered with it – the light danced on the surface and hurt her eyes. She had to swim closer. Only a little bit.

Then she heard it coming; heard it rather than saw it. It was the jumping pebble – and it hit her on the shoulder. Not hard, but still. Belle looked down at the toy and scowled. Too slow again. She picked it up and turned it over in her hands.

No, not right now.

She didn’t throw it back. She let it hit the surface just right and watched it fly across the water, towards the opposite shore. Jumper Girl could collect it there, if she wanted it back.

Before Belle had time to turn around or wipe the smugness off her face (she really hadn’t meant to be rude. She just wasn’t in the mood), she felt something hit the water, and a split second later, Jumper Girl passed her by, speeding past in pursuit.

She reached the jumping pebble in record time, snatching it from the water mid-jump like a fish-eating Air-breather, then turned around, pushed off, and – parting the waters like a blue-and-white Speeder – swam past again. Belle stared after her.

Were that… fins? Since when did airlings grow fins?! 

She could feel the soft O-shape of her dry lips, uncomfortable and unflattering, but struggled to close her mouth just the same.

This wasn’t... right?!

Bewildered but intrigued, Belle decided to follow at a remove to investigate. From below the surface, she studied Jumper Girl’s movements, counted her limbs, and studied her swimming some more, her eyes travelling back and forth, always coming back to the bright green flippers at either end of her… legs.

Belle’s heart and thoughts raced each other for her attention, one telling her to stay away, the other to get a closer look and find a reasonable explanation.

Could… could airlings grow fins and flippers at will? Spontaneously make them appear whenever they wanted or needed them? Or, was there something in the water around here that... triggered these changes to their bodies? And if so, were they, by any chance, studying merlings and sea creatures to… to copy them? To turn themselves into more efficient hunters? It wasn’t unheard of. Some hunting species adapted by copying prey behavior. Whenever they managed to do so successfully, it made them even more deadly.

So, what if–?

Belle frowned, shaking the horrifying thought, and sped up to beat Jumper Girl to the shallow waters. She’d let her know who was the better swimmer – airling or merling – and set things straight between them once and for all.

***

She hadn’t gotten Indigo to play fetch, not quite like she’d pictured the game to go anyway, but instead, Ruby had discovered a fierce competitive streak in their mermaid they hadn’t known was there before. Yes, one of them would throw the disc and let it jump (Indigo tried to beat her best here too) and the goal was to bring it back, but as soon as it stopped and stilled on the water, they would sprint race each other for it, see who got it first.

After a few rounds, they tossed the disc aside completely and straight out raced for the heck of it, swimming laps in something resembling what competitive swimmers called the individual medley, a race that involved swimming all four strokes in a particular order – butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. Individual medley, or IM, races could be anywhere from 100 yards to 400 meters. In high school and college swimming meets conducted in short-course pools, IM races were typically 200 and 400 yards. Masters meets often featured 100-yard or 100-meter races for certain age groups.

Ruby had made the team in middle school, then dropped out when things got too… professional, but this much she recalled. Strangely enough.

She was in pretty decent shape, but Indigo – despite her physical limitations and lack of proper exercise – still gave Ruby a run for her money. Man against marine mammal was hardly a fair fight anyway, so, in her opinion, she had put up a good one, considering.

Racing Indigo, Ruby had lost track of time. Her boss hadn’t come back to take Indigo inside yet, and, although she was certain their hour was more than up, Ruby decided they’d stay put as instructed and wait. Mr Gold had told her not to leave. He’d also said she wasn’t to take Indigo anywhere, so even taking her back inside on her own authority would most likely result in her getting yelled at by some adult at some point. It wasn’t worth it.

Stretching her arms above her head, she felt the pleasant ache in her muscles, then leaned back on her hands and let herself slowly sink onto her back. Hands behind her head, she closed her eyes, enjoying the way the sunlight turned a warm red behind her eyelids.

The only thing separating her from a nice nap in the sun by the pool were her freezing feet.

With a long sigh, Ruby pushed to sitting and swung her legs out of the water, hugging them to reach her feet. With practiced hands, she took off her diving fins – Indigo looked scandalized – and tossed them in the direction of the patio chairs, then began rubbing her numb feet to warm them up.

Indigo watched her from the sun ledge, her eyes narrowed. Designed for the human sunbather or trainer, she was a little big for the splash pad. The water depth was great to splash, tan, or to keep your suit wet, but with Indigo taking up most of the space, the water had nowhere else to go but back inside the pool, leaving the ledge nearly completely dry.

Ruby shielded her eyes and blinked at the descending sun. It was still there, wonderfully warm on her cold body, but nowhere near as merciless as when she’d arrived at the pool earlier this afternoon.

Indigo seemed fine – enjoying the extra warmth after the long hours in the cool pool just as much as she did – so it had to be okay, right? If she got uncomfortable, too hot, or too dry, she would go back in the water on her own, wouldn’t she?

Ruby waved and pointed at the white bathrobe in the wheelbarrow. She raised her eyebrows. She didn’t feel like getting up to grab it, but felt she should at least ask – just in case, just to make sure.

Indigo followed her outstretched arm and pointing finger with her eyes, then shook her head. She raised her tail from the sun ledge, rested her chin on her hands, and yawned – a sight so breathtakingly relatable that Ruby had to do the same.

They both laughed – one with sound, one without – then Ruby lay back on the warm ground pulling her knees up, looked up at the clear, blue sky for a moment, and closed her eyes.

Chapter Text

Maybe she should have listened to her father. Some of the things he told her were bound to be true. Apparently she had to learn that lesson the hard way.

Belle shivered and winced. Biting her lip, she rolled back her shoulders. Pain exploded across her screaming skin as the furs slipped down to her middle. She let out a breath and opened her eyes.

He hadn’t moved.

With his face this close to hers, she could tell that it was anger that made his smile hard and tight-lipped. Like ndweshi, his sharp eyes studied her, tracking her every move to anticipate the next. The intensity of his gaze stung on her burning cheeks and Belle was internally grateful that he wasn’t a leaping ndweshi and she no blue swallow, caught in flight and eaten alive; feathers, beak and all.

He sucked his teeth, giving voice to chagrin, and she cast her eyes down. Belle knew she had been reckless. He had every right to be cross with her. Her recklessness kept landing her in trouble and turbulence, and he had to come to the rescue time and time again and clean up her mess.

She raised her hands for an apology, but didn’t make it anywhere near her chest before the pain cut through her like a split rock.

She couldn’t help the yelp.

Even with her hands back safely at her sides, the aftershock hummed under her skin. With every flat note it felt less like hers; less like part of her body, and Belle had to keep still until the horrible song ended and she could breathe again.

She wouldn’t try that again.

She looked at her arm, taking in the angry red and watery white, and felt tears well up in her eyes. Predatory and merciless, the sun had turned her beautiful smooth skin to sand. Cool and salty, it now felt brittle and dead, threatening to rip open and spill out her boiling flesh for all to see.

“Indigo.” His voice was soft and gentle, but she didn’t want to check his face for contrast; didn't want to see if anger or worry had won out on his features.

He kept talking, voice low and reassuring, but Belle wasn’t listening.

She watched his hands instead. Strong and steady, they squeezed the eel-shaped object they were holding, kneading and rolling it back to front. The thing wasn’t alive, but squelched under the pressure and belched out a clear jelly-like substance.

The familiar smell hit her nostrils and Belle looked up, surprised.

Healer’s Breath.

Harvested from a rare plant, it could be used to treat cuts and bites, sores and boils. If taken with their food, it would help a sick mermaid or merman fight back chronic viral, nano-bacteria, and fungal infections.

That’s how powerful a plant it was.

Every mermaid knew how to spot the long, fleshy, narrow, light green leaves with whitish to reddish toothed margins. They knew how to cut open a plump leaf and remove the clear sap inside, carefully filling their empty shells to take them to the nearest healer.

If mixed with the right ingredients – flowers, seaweed, sediment – not only would it calm inflamed skin, reduce swelling, and fight infection, but also function as numbing medicine.

Only healers knew the recipes though. It was too valuable to have every fin and tail temper with it. Not that most merfolk would have tried. Most weren’t too fond of the strong odor and stayed clear of what they sometimes referred to as air-breather pus.

Belle took a deep breath, breathing in the peculiar smell from within the plant’s leaves and the main part of the plant. Bitter and musky, it put a soothing spell on her, and she felt the comfort of instant familiarity tug at the corners of her mouth.

When she looked up, he was smiling too.

His hand gently cupped the liquid medicine, his palm still visible underneath.

With her next breath she caught a whiff of something new, something more, added to mask the signature smell, but not completely covering it. He had added other components to the mixture, more pleasant fragrances, to make it sweet.

Belle hadn’t known this was knowledge they shared, but the realization made her smile grow wider. She felt her heart slow down and body relax. Her relief put her completely at ease and, when he raised his eyebrows in silent question, indicating he wanted to dip his fingers into the liquid and apply it to her arms, she nodded, never taking her eyes off his.

She allowed him to take her hand. Even when the pain got worse – (it had to get worse before it got better. She knew that much.) – she didn’t pull away. Weathering the storm, she let it flash through her. Her tail twitched and her teeth clashed, grinding up the squeaks she wouldn’t let escape, but she didn't let go.

When she came up for air, he had moved onto her other arm. As he worked his way up, her fingers fell into place with his, braiding them together.

She felt the cool, healing breath whisper on her skin, the sting and the burn that followed. He squeezed her hand, lightly, as if in response, adjusting the pressure to match hers.

Belle would have marveled at this new way of communicating without words, this strange language they had discovered and were speaking between themselves, had she not been so preoccupied with the fact that her eyes and cheeks just wouldn’t stay dry, no matter how hard she tried to blink the embarrassing blur away.

He must have added something to numb her pain, but when he reached her shoulders, neck, and back, it became intolerable again. Her back had taken the worst of it, so it wasn’t surprising exactly, but the pain still took her breath away.

Belle whimpered and blinked up at him through her tears. He gave her a moment to breathe, but didn’t step back.

He had placed her arms on his shoulders to better reach her back, not the least bit worried when she linked her hands behind his neck. So she had left them there, now letting her weight sink onto his shoulders as she leaned into the contact for comfort. Touching foreheads, she sighed; then rested against his chest for some shuddering breaths. He murmured into her hair, the warm reassurances tickling her scalp and coaxing the tension from her shoulders.

Belle concentrated on her breathing. The bitter musk, the sweetness – it filled her nostrils and airways, leaving behind something salty and unfamiliar; a scent, a taste that she couldn’t quite place. It wasn’t bad. A little strange maybe, or perhaps, the strange thing was how it wasn’t strange at all – and that made her dizzy.

The first thud out of tune was followed by a second, a third, a fourth, her heart beating out a fast rhythm against her rib cage like a wild seahorse. Protective little creatures, seahorses. Fathers protecting their children, raising them. Like merlings. Like airlings. Like this airling.

Her heart stuttered and Belle’s eyes flew open. She twisted her neck a little, watched him from behind the safety of strands of her hair. He had that look on his face. That look that said he’d be there, he’d protect her. No matter what foolish thing she did, she was one of his own now and he’d be there to protect her.

He was that kind of an… air...man. The seahorse kind. And Belle liked that about him.

***

He should have listened to his gut feeling. Reasoning with it had never been a good idea. He should have ignored the little persistent voice in his head that told him he worried too much. (That voice that sounded surprisingly like his wife and told him he was a worrywart on good days and a bloody coward on bad.) He shouldn’t have left her in the care of a child. High school diploma or not, that's what she was, a child. It wasn’t Ruby Lucas’ fault. She was good with the animals, her heart was in the right place, but her mind was that of a teenager - and teenagers’ brains weren’t built for risk assessment and reason. She’d grow into it, learn, do better. Eventually.

Sunburn. On a mermaid. It would be funny if it weren’t so excruciatingly painful to watch poor Indigo suffer and wince in pain whenever anything or anyone touched her.

He tried to be as gentle as possible. The aloe vera helped some. But just as soon as he had taken care of one problem, another popped up. The aloe was good for the immediate burns, relieving some of the trapped heat, stopping it from doing any further damage underneath.

But once the heat was gone, came the cold. She needed to stay hydrated, needed to get back into the water asap, but the water was too salty, too hot or too cold. The sunburn covered most of her skin – her freckled cheeks, her buttoned nose, her slender neck, chest, arms and entire back – and it made it impossible for her to regulate her own body temperature, to keep her core temperature steady. She’d overheat, start to shiver, or wince from the sting of the salt particles. So the holding pool was out.

The spray bottle wasn’t an option either. He’d give himself Carpal tunnel before she was anywhere close to comfortable. The bathrobe scratched her skin and she’d shrug out of it and shake it off the second he tried to wrap her in it.

After a few moments of restless pacing – with Indigo watching him, doe-eyed and vulnerable – or maybe it was long minutes, ticking by on the large clock in the medical wing until his ears were ringing, he finally had an idea.

A good idea.

Official hours were over, visitors and most of the staff were gone. He knew he’d find Mrs. Lucas and her granddaughter at the diner, the Nolan family down at the shop, and Killian Jones in the cockpit – hopefully – catching up on overdue paperwork. He’d never understand why, but for some reason his wife had insisted on making the guy her deputy about a year back or so. Given how, at the time, she had hardly left her office anyway, he had chosen his battles wisely and agreed to keep the peace. Now that decision would be put to the test.

With a sigh, he picked up the phone and dialed the cockpit. Even with almost everyone out of the building, there were security measures to be taken if they were to do what he wanted to do next.

Killian Jones proved not to be useless after all, pulling strings and clearing their path.

David Nolan jumped at the opportunity to help – or to meet the mermaid his wife and daughter were, no doubt, raving about in stereo after this morning, up close and personal. He was strong and reliable, a real Prince Charming, and carried Indigo down to the spa area like she was a princess made from glass, rather than a simple girl wearing a glass slipper.

Jones had closed off the area to unauthorized personnel, which meant everyone but him, David Nolan, and Dr Whale. And Miss Lucas – as soon as she felt up for it. Her grandmother had informed him over the phone that Ruby was currently indisposed, having a heart-to-heart with the toilet. The old lady really didn’t sugarcoat things. Usually he found this quality refreshing. Well, you couldn’t have your cake and eat it too.

The spa area was in the back of the main building, a private part of the ground floor for staff to relax and unwind. It came with a heated indoor pool, a Nordic sauna, and a large Turkish bath. His wife had read somewhere that all the big corporations were doing it like this now, building indoor playgrounds – not for their employees’ kids, but the employees themselves – offering yoga classes, or hiring a private masseuse, on-call and ready to work out some knots in under five minutes, if need be.

He had wondered whatever had happened to the simple cafeteria, staff room, and nursery – the trusted trifecta that had worked just fine for years, but didn’t fight her on it. Bae liked the pool, he enjoyed the steam bath in the wee hours of the morning, and Milah did the books. If she said they could afford such an unnecessary luxury and that it would pay off in staff well-being, increased motivation, and better work ethic in the long run, who was he to argue her out of the idea.

Plus, the steam was just what they needed right now.

The big difference between a sauna and a steam room was in the type of heat that they provided. A sauna used dry heat, usually from hot rocks or a closed stove. Steam rooms were heated by a generator filled with boiling water and typically kept somewhere around 110°F. The key to the steam room’s unique health benefits wasn’t the temperature though, it was the humidity.

Moist heat improved circulation. Improved circulation could lead to lowered blood pressure and a healthier heart. It could also promote healing of broken skin tissue, which was what they were going for. The warm condensation would rinse away the dirt and dead skin and help Indigo heal without dehydrating her.

Steam therapy was also relatively safe in comparison to any alternative he could think of – as long as she was closely and constantly monitored. That, however, was the tricky part. With Miss Lucas out, there was no one else he’d trust to do the job, so he had to make lemonade, gallons and gallons of lemonade – both in the metaphorical and the literal sense – to keep himself hydrated for hours to come.

He had put on his wet suit and grabbed one of Bae’s waterproof stopwatches to remind himself to take a break about every fifteen to twenty minutes – to replace the lost water weight by drinking homemade lemonade to avoid dehydration. He had also taken the time to instruct Jones to make sure they kept the steam room running all night and to tell the guard dogs to start barking if anyone came within a few feet of the area and had no business being there.

Indigo had been a good sport through all of it, more bemused than bewildered by the commotion. She was trying not to let on in how much pain and discomfort she was, but the long, deep exhale, five minutes into steam therapy, told him everything.

Smiling, he shifted in his seat and rubbed at his wet suit.

He shouldn’t be wearing it. He knew that. Wearing a wet suit in a steam room was about as beneficial to your health as wearing swimming gear to the sauna. Probably less so.

Gold closed his eyes and tried to take deep, slow breaths. The hot, humid air burned in his nose and throat. He could already feel his heart hammer away in his chest and didn’t need a mirror to tell him that his face was the color of cooked lobster. Coming to think of it, that was exactly how he felt right about now. Live lobster sitting in boiling water, about to be broken out of its shell and eaten limb by limb.

Something touched his knee and he jumped.

Indigo had scooted closer and was looking up at him. The tiniest crease had formed between her eyebrows, her glistening lips halfway to a worried frown. She tapped his knee again, poked a finger at the neoprene skin, and cocked her head, looking quizzical.

He shook his head and she pouted.

The dim lights were making him dizzy and he was short of breath, which was why he didn’t bother swatting her hands away when she reached for the zipper and began tugging on it like a dog with a bone. She looked so adorable doing it, face screwed up in concentration and the tiny tip of a very pink tongue peeping out between her teeth, that he allowed her to push his suit from his shoulders.

Breathing became a little easier and he stopped her before she could roll off the bench and tug on the legs. He was wearing swimming trunks, so sitting in a pool of black neoprene wasn’t an issue, but he didn’t feel like taking it off completely.

She narrowed her eyes, ready for a battle of wills, and he pointed a finger at her determined face before breaking out in hearty laughter. The mind on that one!

“Okay, sweetheart.” He grinned at her. “You win.”

And, actually, why the heck not?

Leaning on the bench, careful not to break his neck on the slippery, hot tiles, he tugged on his booties, kicked them off, and pulled down his suit, sitting back down to take it off.

The sudden change in temperature and humidity gave him goosebumps and then a second round erupted on his thigh, when she took that inquisitive finger and ran it over his skin. He covered her hand with his and removed it gently, setting it down on the bench.

Indigo blinked, then bit her lip.

Curious little thing, wasn’t she? Maybe that was the problem.

Watching her, he leaned back, linking his hands behind his head. She was more relaxed in the steam room than she had been all evening, but he still had to make sure he wasn’t doing more harm than good by having put her here.

He cleared his throat, shook out his hands, and reached out to feel her forehead, making Indigo go cross-eyed in the process. She didn’t pull away, but wanted to keep his hands in view, which was understandable.

He pretended burning himself on her too-hot skin and she stuck out her tongue at him. They both laughed.

If she developed a fever or showed signs of distress or dehydration, he had to remove her from the steam at once. Sitting in a steam bath with a fever was extremely dangerous. He would not put her at risk like that.

Not again. Never again.

She tried to blow hair from her face, but the damp strands stuck to her skin. He brushed it aside for her and gently stroked her hair.

Indigo fidgeted beside him, inching a little closer and resting her chin on her hands.

When he tried to stop, remove his hand, she wouldn’t let him, making tiny sounds of protest and moving his hand right back with one of her own – pretty much like a cat or dog would – the gesture universal and immediately understood.

They sat for a while, breathing, relaxing, him stroking her head and shoulders, combing through her long, silky hair, and occasionally checking her temperature.

Not wanting to disturb the comfortable calm more than necessary, he tried to make the sittings longer, went to re-hydrate every half hour instead of the recommended fifteen minutes, and cussed under his breath every time the damn watch went off and startled her awake, until he turned the alarm off for good. He could keep an eye on the time himself. Indigo needed to rest. And that insistent beeping was annoying.

Time moved differently in the steam room. He had no idea how many hours they had spent on the tiled bench, breathing in hot air with their eyes half closed. He also couldn’t have said when or how exactly Indigo’s head had ended up in his lap, his fingers automatically taking to brushing out her hair and checking her temperature intermittently. He got up in silence to get a drink, carefully moving her and moving her back once he was done.

Outside the room, it was cold and hostile; the bright glaring lights stung his eyes, making them lose focus and the world turn blurry. Inside was definitely preferable. Pleasantly warm, calm, and peaceful. All he had to do was stay awake; not to fall asleep, dry up like an old fig, and die. Other than that, inside was great. Inside was perfect.

He awoke to someone drilling holes in his head, slowly and deliberately, one rotation of the damn drill head at a time. Before he had time to come to fully and wonder what sick being would do such a barbaric thing to another, the door to the steam room swung open and the cold light cut the steam in half like a guillotine, blinding him momentarily.

He blinked at the tall shadow in the door.

“Did you forget?! Jones said…”

He groaned and ran a hand over his face.

“Murchadh! I've been looking for you all over the freaking… Baelfire wants… and you’re taking a spa day! Spa… night. Whatever. What ––– Oh! You got to be kidding–”

Apparently, the sight in front of her had stunned his wife into silence. Sadly, the effect didn’t last long.

Milah recovered quickly, her mouth doing that thing between curling and smirking, before she half huffed, half laughed an exasperated “I don’t even want to know!” in his general direction, turned on her heels and stormed off, closing the steam room door behind her with feeling.

Great. Absolutely wonderful.

Chapter Text

The apartment was a mess; the books were a mess. Admittedly, the latter less so than she had anticipated, which was nice. Unlike her husband, Killian still tried.

Murchadh had no reason to try and impress her anymore.

Well, he’d surprised her, stunned her even, she had to give him that. Just as the messy kitchen, his obsession with the creature shouldn’t have come as a surprise exactly, but the extent of it had still rendered her speechless.

“She responded well to the aloe?” Milah looked up from her half-finished Southern Cobb salad and smiled at her husband. “I’m glad.” She watched him lower his fork, mashed potato and sauce dripping onto his plate. He closed his mouth and swallowed.

“Uh, yes. Very… well.” His eyes narrowed, but only by a fraction.

“How nice.” She dabbed at the corners of her smile with her napkin. “Who would have thought mermaids got sunburn?!” She turned to Baelfire. “That’s why we always put on sunscreen at the pool, Baelfire.”

Baelfire rolled his eyes as he took a big gulp of his soda. She didn’t normally allow soft drinks in the house, let alone at the dinner table, but, as this was their first proper night home and the last weekend of Baelfire’s summer break, she had made the exception. She wouldn’t, however, let him forget his manners.

Murchadh beat her to it.

“Bae!” He put his fork and knife down and leaned closer to look directly at their son. “Don’t be rude to your mother, my boy.”

She almost felt proud of him then – before he ruined the effect with a push-over smile. He was such a softie.

“Sorry.” Baelfire sat back in his chair, looking everything but. Tanned and freckle-faced, he fought back that cheeky grin she loved so much. For once, his goofy ears weren’t red from nerves or anxiety, but from being a regular little boy on his summer vacation. She would take all the ripped jeans, grass stains, and busted lips – and even tolerate a little backtalk every now and then – if it meant her little man finally acted like one.

“Baelfire, please sit up straight and finish your dinner,” she said.

The boy huffed before stuffing a forkful of potato in his mouth. He finished chewing his food in silence, then pushed away his plate. “I’m full.” Catching her eye, he quickly added, “May I be excused?”

She and Murchadh shared a look across the table.

“You may. But please, play in your room quietly.”

“But –, Can’t I–?”

“You heard your mother.”

What had gotten into Murchadh tonight? Whatever it was, Milah decided she liked it.

“Fine.” With a sigh, Baelfire got up and carried his plate to the sink. Stepping on the stepping stool, he washed his hands and dried them. “Can I go play Star Wars?”

Murchadh’s eyebrows shot up, his fork frozen halfway to his mouth. He looked so baffled and confused, it made her laugh. She quickly stifled her amusement to a cough and hid it behind her hand. “Alright, Baelfire, but only fifteen minutes. And please, brush your teeth and put on your pajamas first.”

“Okay.” He hopped off and dashed out of the room, hollering “Will you come and tuck me in, Papa?,” back over his shoulder.

“A gift from his grandmother.” Milah took a sip of her wine and crossed her legs under the table. “All the boys are playing it now.”

“Uh-huh.”

“He had a lot of fun, you know?” She set her glass down, ran a finger along the rim. “His butterfly is getting better. He’s got great wingspan and power for his age, Murchadh. Maybe, once school starts over in town, swim team tryouts might not be such a bad idea. It’ll be good for him. What do you think?”

He liked when she asked his opinion. She hadn’t done that in a long time. Judging by the creases on his forehead, it seemed to confuse him even more than the casual mention of Star Wars in their kitchen.

She blinked, played with an earring.

“Well, if… if that’s what Bae wants, yes. I mean, if he would like to do it… sure.” He let out a breath.

 “I agree.” She wet her lips. They tasted like wine, the fresh and fruity a clean counterpoint to her salad’s earthy, smoky flavors. “We could ask him tomorrow?”

He shoveled more potato into his mouth, taking his good time to chew. “Fine with me.”

Well, this wasn’t going as smoothly as she had hoped, but he’d always been slow that way. She would have to give him some more time– to adjust, to warm up to the changes ahead.

“So,” She poured herself another glass. When she gestured to refill his, he covered it and shook his head. He wasn’t big on booze. Not anymore. She set the bottle down and smiled, leaving her own drink untouched as she leaned forward, moving her plate and resting her arms on the table. “Has Dr. Whale set up a follow-up appointment yet?”

“Erm, no, actually. He… he’s still looking for… erm, asking around, I guess.”

“It has been weeks though, hasn’t it?” She rested her chin on her hand, eyeing him. “He’s usually more invested.” She took care to add a pinch of concern. “That’s not… like Whale, is it?” Marriage was like cooking. You just had to know what to add when, and how much salt was too much. As long as you used what the recipe called for and had good intuition about the rest, the dish would come out perfect.

“It’s complicated. She’s… her anatomy is different.” He put his knife and fork down for good, folded his napkin and left it next to his plate.

“Really? Different how?”

Hook, line, and sinker. He considered her, but she had already won. She could see it in the way his body language changed. He no longer slouched in his seat, but sat up with his back straight, his shoulders back, and head up when he met her gaze.

“You– you remember the Legend of the Treaty?”

“Yes, of course.” She did not. Something about mermaids… or sirens, sinking ships, some fish gore? That might have been another one. Or a weird movie one sleepless night too many. “I heard it often enough.” She touched his arm and laughed. “What about it?”

His eyes lit up. So much like Bae’s – when she let him have a rare Apollo Bar or brought home a new book on marine life. “You remember how the story described mermaids as having a kindred connection with... with dolphins and humans alike? How they were somehow both and neither? It’s like that.”

“Oh, how so?”

“She’s… human-looking, at least on the outside, but her spine’s... more like a dolphin’s. You know, both and neither, Ocean Ambassador to Land, that sort of thing. It’s fascinating!” Hands steepled, he braided and unbraided his fingers over his plate. “But it’s also the problem. Her spine… it leaves her vulnerable.”

“If this is about Gus Gaston again… I said I was sorry.” She didn’t raise her voice even though she wanted to. Now was not the time to fight. “It… she might have hurt the children, Murchadh. Wounded animals–”

He raised a hand to silence her and, for once, she let him. If mother had taught her one thing it was when to bite her tongue. “No, no, Milah! It’s not about that. Though the situation could have been handled better.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, shook his head like a wet dog. “What’s done is done. The infection would have spread further and… what I’m concerned about right now is that, in the healing process, she’s… changed her swimming and... it’s taken its toll on her body. If– If we don’t fix this, she might die.”

The death of the mermaid would ruin everything. It would be their undoing. It would cost their son his future. She wouldn’t let that happen.

His eyes were wide and worry-filled. He looked at her like he’d done so many times before, lost, and desperate for comfort and guidance; desperate for someone to take the lead and row the boat away from the dangerous coastline into safe waters.

She reached for Murchadh’s hands. “What do we have to do?”

***

He couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t so much that he’d expected to spend the night in his study or on the sofa, and instead found himself in the Master bedroom, sleeping next to his wife for the first night in what felt like forever. As he lay on his back staring at the ceiling and listening to her sleep, Gold marveled at the strange turn his day had taken, wondering what had prompted Milah’s sudden change of heart.

Ever since she and Bae had returned from Montgomery Manor, Milah was nothing but understanding and supportive. She even showed an interest in his work. Something she hadn’t done in years.

He rolled over and studied her face. Her eyes were closed, her jaw relaxed, her lips their natural shade and slightly parted. She had taken her time combing out her curls at the vanity and left them down for bed, the soft waves fanning out around her like dancing corals in a warm current. She looked so much younger; so much more like the girl he’d admired from afar every day one summer; the girl who bravely braced any wave; the girl he’d fallen in love with.

With a shaky breath, he touched her cheek, brushed a curl behind her ear. She smelled soft and powdery, a whiff of coconut filling the dark space between them. “What are you thinking, Milah?”

While he didn’t get an answer in so many words, he got one over the next few days.

Milah’s positive attitude was unwavering, her newfound enthusiasm and dedication heartwarming. She had borrowed some of the books from his study, the old tomes and scrolls he’d inherited from his aunties, reading up on all the myths and legends.

More often than not, long after they had tucked in Bae for the night, he would find his wife in her office upstairs, pouring over ancient scribbles, runes, and stories; squinting at fading ink and scrutinizing every picture and drawing in the harsh light from her computer and desk lamp; her reading glasses pushed up on her head, her curls wild, and eyes pink from exhaustion, looking for a clue; looking for anything that might help them save Indigo.

Sometimes, during the day, he would walk in to find her sprawled out on the living room floor in her work clothes with her heels kicked off and set aside, in the middle of a heated debate on mermaid or marine mammal physique and behavior with Bae; open books, notepads, and pens strewn all across the once pristine carpets as they put forward opposing arguments to argue for their respective viewpoints like members of debate teams during a competition.

He still wasn’t sure what had brought the change in her about, but he felt himself warming up to it– and to her– more and more with every passing day. Perhaps their son had finally gotten through to his mother during their time away. Whatever the reason behind it, it had brought them closer as a family and Gold felt grateful for that. More than anything, he wanted his son to grow up loved and happy, and to give him the best childhood he possibly could.

Since their return, they had spent more time together, both he and Milah making sure to plan their work around important things like family dinners and weekend trips. Those had become more frequent again recently. Just like when Bae was little. They went to the beach, visited the ship museum in Piper’s Cove, took Bae and his friend Emma Nolan to the movies. Milah had met up with Mrs. Nolan a couple of times to talk about the school in town, set up meetings with the principal and the swim coach.

Overall, things were looking up. The only damper on his mood was that they still hadn’t found a solution to Indigo’s problem.

“Coming to bed?” He stood in the door, watching Milah copy down something from an open book in front of her and cross-checking whatever it was in another. Eyes fixed on the page, jaw set, and pen poised like a steak knife, she hadn’t heard a single word or noticed his presence. On her desk, the sandwiches he’d brought her for dinner sat untouched on their plate; the tea cold in the teapot beside it. “Milah?”

She looked up briefly, her mind occupied and far away. He’d always admired this about her – her grit and determination, and strong work ethic. Once Milah set her mind on getting a job done, there was no stopping her. She wouldn’t rest until she had accomplished her goal. It was the competitive swimmer in her, she said.

“Your dinner is getting cold,” he jested, stepping into her office and indicating the abandoned tray. “It’s past midnight. Come to bed?”

She frowned at her notes, possibly clinging to her train of thought by the handrail. “In a minute. I just– come look at this!”

“One look, and then you’ll let me fix you a warm milk.” He moved behind her chair, kneading her shoulders as he leaned over to see what she’d been working on. “Eviction notice for the resident workaholic. Effective immediately.”

He recognized the pages she’d worked on. All different versions of the merpeople creation story. She’d copied down some paragraphs, highlighted sections here and there, and crossed out some words. Or maybe she had meant to underline them. Milah was a steam engine when fired up, her mind outracing her body.

“We can pick this up tomorrow.”

She gave in to his touch, rolling her shoulders under his hands as though to help and sighing as he carefully worked out the knots and massaged away the tension. “Okay. Fine. …How about you spice up that milk a little? I could use a nightcap.”

“Some honey for my bee?”

“Murchadh.”

“Alright, alright. Just joking.” He gave her shoulders one last squeeze. “I’ll be right back. You close those books and shut that machine down.” He nodded at her laptop. It glared at him reproachfully; hard blue light and blinking cursor. She had looked up someone, begun writing them a message. “Who is… The Mills Foundation?”

“People who might know how to help.” She closed the laptop and rolled her neck. “Maybe.”

“That’s great.” He pressed a kiss to her curls. “Thank you.”

“I need a better chair.” She stood, bookmarked her place in four books and one scroll with yellow post-it strips, and took his hand to lead him out of the room. “This one’s killing my back.”

“We’ll get you one tomorrow.” He grinned. “Or maybe a Stability Ball.”

“Absolutely not. I hate those things.”

“I know you do, Manatee.” He smirked. “A new lamp then. You’re ruining your eyes.”

“A new lamp I can live with,” she said, sinking down on the kitchen bench, taking Bae’s usual spot at the table. Their boy was at a sleepover at the Nolan’s house. “The black one is rubbish.” She rubbed her eyes. “And ugly.”

“Your mother gave you that lamp for Christmas.” He got out a pot, milk, and honey, and set them on the counter; then took her favorite mug from the sink and rinsed it. Bae had decorated it for Mother’s Day: a large, wonky heart and schools of colorful fish dancing all around it, having the time of their lives. The heart read ‘I love you, Mummy! – From Bae’ in Bae’s best handwriting.

“I know.”

They both laughed.

Chapter Text

“Just one more go.”

“No. That’s enough for today, Baelfire.” The boss lady was lounging on a towel near the usually empty lifeguard station, where Killian Jones was sitting in a tall chair that gave him a perfect view of more than just the action in the old show tank. As if to prove the point, Jones lowered his camera and glanced down at Mrs. Montgomery in her sleek black Speedo.

“Fine!” Bae hollered and dove for one last summersault.

From the deep end of the pool Ruby watched him get out of the water, dripping in his shark-print trunks as he headed for the showers. He rinsed quickly and then pulled off his swim cap, pulling and twisting it in his hands, and letting it snap loudly as he dragged his feet.

His mother was watching him like a hawk.

“Baelfire!” Her voice cut through the air like fins. The expensive kind on a custom-made board. “Leave it. You’ll wear it out. Come here!” She beckoned him over to the benches, indicating a folded towel beside her. “Quickly.”

She turned her head to look at Ruby. “Miss Lucas?!”

“My turn,” Ruby grinned at Indigo, who had just surfaced beside her, clutching one of the bright yellow toys. She beamed and handed it over. “You’re next. Today’s the day.”

Laughing at Indigo’s puzzled frown, Ruby gave back the toy, obediently kicked off, and crossed the pool in quick strokes to get within earshot of her boss, who, apparently, deemed it inappropriate to yell instructions at anyone but her son. 

“Yes?”

“Please, Ruby dear, would you be so kind as to wrap this up?” She asked, making a sweeping gesture that encompassed the tank and most of the sitting area. “We’re running a little late for Baelfire’s lesson and our visitors will be here soon.” She glanced at Bae, who sat with his legs stretched out in front of him, looking down at the wet flip flops dangling from his feet. He swung his legs listlessly, partially losing one flip flop. It slid forward and hung from a couple of toes.

“Not my fault,” he mumbled into his towel, letting the dangling flip flop fall to the ground. Then he let the other one go.

Mrs. Montgomery cleared her throat. 

“Sure thing,” Ruby said quickly. “No problem.” The boss lady had never called her ‘dear’ before and she wasn’t sure what to make of it. “Indigo’s staying?”

“Yes,” Mrs. Montgomery said slowly. “Yes, yes, I think that would be best. Would you–”

She didn’t get to finish her request. The sudden sound of heels on concrete had them both turn their heads. Mrs. Montgomery gasped. “Oh no.”

People were approaching, a woman and a man, David Nolan leading them straight to the benches. The woman was tall, even taller on her noisy heels, easily towering over the quickly-parting sea of white shirts and her black-clad companion. She was slim, but had a swimmer's back. Her kelly green dress and red hair stuck out like a sore thumb. Ruby smirked.

“Miss Lucas, keep the mermaid calm, will you?” With a hurried glance at her watch and a frazzled hand brushing her curls out of the way, Mrs. Montgomery stood, shrugging on a summer dress over her suit and slipping into black pumps that left her a few inches shorter than usual. She turned to Bae.

“Baelfire, please find your father and tell him he’s needed here asap.”

Bae looked at her, at the approaching newcomers, and back again. He cocked his head. “Why? Who’s–”

“Baelfire!”

“Oookay.” Bae rolled his eyes, but got up all the same. “Whatever you say, woman.”

Muttering, he kicked his flip flops ahead of him as he went. Ruby distinctly heard some of the Sailor-ese Bae’s father reserved for special occasions or very, very special people, and had to fight back a laugh.

Mrs. Montgomery must have heard it too, but chose to pretend she hadn’t.

“They are almost two hours early,” she hissed, tugging on her dress. “Now, seriously.” She bit her lip, then pulled her dress over her head and stepped back out of her shoes.

Ruby watched, bemused. The woman was wigging.

“You okay?” Jones made to leave his seat. “That them?”

Her face flushed, Mrs. Montgomery looked up at Jones, blinking against the sun. She shook her head, not gracing him with an answer to the obvious. She rummaged in her purse, withdrew a pocket mirror and lipstick, and carefully painted her lips her signature red.

“You meeting ‘em like that?” Back on the ground, Jones looked her over, his eyes lingering where they had no business being.

Mrs. Montgomery spun around to face him, turning her back on Ruby. Ruby didn’t have to see her face to know she was glaring. “Like what?”

Perhaps, it was natural, Ruby thought. Perfectly normal. Mrs. Montgomery was in good shape and the streamlined Speedo fit her like a glove, hugging her curves in all the right places. Eyes on the older woman’s butt for, maybe, half a beat too long, Ruby bit her tongue, her ears growing hot. Yep, perfectly fine.

Choosing to tune out the adults bickering, she took a deep breath and let herself sink to the bottom of the pool. She stayed there until her face no longer felt like it was melting off her bones, watching Indigo swim through Bae’s new underwater hoops, merrily entertaining herself.

When she came back up to draw a much-needed breath, Jones was gone and Mrs. Montgomery had moved away from the pool and the benches to greet the visitors. Ruby could see her talk animatedly and heard her laugh her professional laugh. Their early arrival may have forced the boss lady onto her back foot, but she wouldn’t go down without a fight. No matter how tall or flashy the opponent, Milah Montgomery would defend her home range – even if that meant entering the arena barefoot, in nothing but swimming gear and lipstick.

The man, all dressed in dark and gloomy colors, hung back, his eyes darting back and forth, taking in his surroundings. He didn’t seem remotely interested in the women’s conversation and didn’t join, not even to exchange fake pleasantries. He reminded Ruby of a lone wolf, a scout, sent to see if the new area was safe for the pack, or to explore new hunting grounds and carry word back to his alpha.

When their eyes met, Ruby felt a jolt go right through her and her skin pebbled, despite the warm pool water. The man held her gaze until Ruby looked away. When she looked back up, he had momentarily vanished, only to reappear somewhere to her left, so close to the pool, it made her start.

“Hello,” he said, his husky voice low. It sounded more like a growl than a word. “And you are?” He asked, his head tilted to one side. He didn’t seem to have to blink a normal amount, fixing Ruby with unblinking eyes and pinning her to the spot. His left eye was bright blue, like ice, the right brown, almost amber.

“R-Ruby,” she stammered. “Ruby Lucas.”

“Ruby,” he repeated, rolling the ‘R’ on his tongue like a smooth pebble. “Hello, Ruby.”

He gave her the creeps. “Hi,” she breathed, her heart rate quickening; her heart drumming up a fast beat that rose within her and threatened to block her ears. Internally laughing at herself, she took a shaky breath and attempted a smile to dispel the sinking feeling in her stomach.

She had just opened her mouth to ask the stranger for his name, when, unexpectedly, Indigo popped up between them like a jack-in-the-box. She shoved Ruby behind her, hissing at the man showing her teeth, and raised her fin out of the water menacingly.

Whoa. What–?

Ruby wanted to reach for her, put a calming hand on her shoulder, but Indigo quickly pushed her a little further back with her tail, before raising her fin high again, swinging it from side to side like a cat.

The stranger withdrew, apprehensive, his piercing eyes solely trained on Indigo. Ruby half expected him to snarl back, to bark maybe, but he merely smiled as he retreated slowly, showing off very white, slightly pointy teeth.

Indigo let her fin hit the water with a deafening splash.

Hadn’t he jumped back, the water would have hit him. With a grimace, he tugged his shabby leather jacket tighter around him and took another step back. With one hand, he reached into his pocket – Ruby held her breath – and pulled out a packet of Pixy Stix. He fished for a grape flavored one, ripped it open, and, throwing his head back, tipped the contents into his mouth.

Ruby stared at him over Indigo’s shoulder. What the–?

“Humbert! What are you doing?! Come here.” The woman’s voice was sharp and, to Ruby’s bewildered astonishment, the man’s head snapped up and around at once, before he trotted back to his original spot, right behind the tall red-head. Like a trained lapdog, she had brought him to heel, just like that.

Ruby couldn’t stop staring.

She wanted to move closer, get out of the water and join the adults and their conversation, or listen in from a safe-enough distance, and find out what exactly was going on, but before she could put the thought into action, Indigo had taken her by the hand and dragged her halfway across the pool, to the little island made from rocks in the middle.

Undeterred by Ruby’s spluttered protests, Indigo gently nudged her, and pushed and shoved, until Ruby had climbed on the closest rock. There she sat, panting and confused, her feet dangling in the water.

What had gotten into Indigo?

Before she could do or say anything else, Indigo had begun examining her feet, her legs, then moved on to her hands and arms until her own hands came to rest on Ruby’s shoulders, causing Ruby to bend double and almost topple back into the water under the weight of the frantic mermaid. Indigo studied her face closely, touched her forehead to Ruby’s.

Ruby kept very still, letting Indigo do as she liked, hoping to calm her down that way.

Indigo let go and hit the water with a small splash. She went under, but resurfaced almost at once, her cheeks puffed out.

Before Ruby could wonder or ask, Indigo spit water in her face.

“Hey!” Ruby threw her arms up. “Okay, stop. Stop!”

The mermaid was bonkers.

“What has gotten into you, hmm?!” Ruby asked, running a hand over her face. “What was that for?” She put her hands on her hips. “And, are you done?”

Indigo looked up at her, her face still clouded with whatever was going on in her pretty head.

“You got a few… starfish… loose in the top… reef,” Ruby snorted, giggles bubbling up deep in her throat and spilling from her mouth. “You know that? My, my.” She kept laughing, watching Indigo’s frown slowly morph into a smile and finally end in silent laughter. “He wasn’t that much of a creep, honestly. Just spooky eyes, that’s all.”

***

Jumper Girl was alright. Belle blew out a breath, her heart gradually slowing to a more relaxed pace. The… thing hadn’t gotten her.

Belle threw a quick glance over her shoulder, her eyes zooming in on the dark being that stood with the airling women. It looked like an airling, but didn’t smell like one, and, whatever it was, it was dangerous, and Belle didn’t like it. She didn’t like it one bit.

Thankfully, her little airling friend had already fled and was nowhere to be seen. That only left the airling women in danger. One of them, Belle didn’t know, and the other – yes, she had learnt by now – was her little friend’s mother; and she tolerated her presence for that very reason, but Belle hadn’t forgotten it had been she, who had held her down while the other male had attacked. Belle was living proof that children could grow up without their mothers and be just fine. He would still have his father and that was more than enough.

The predator did not attack. Perhaps, Belle mused, he could not swim, or simply wasn’t hungry. She kept him in sight at all times though, just to be safe. Keeping an eye on the predator also meant she no longer had time for their diving game, but since the little airling did not return and Jumper Girl seemed done playing as well, that wasn’t a problem.

She would watch the predator all day and all night, if she had to. He would grow tired, or bored, or return to where he had come from, eventually. Until then, he could not be left unsupervised.

He mostly kept to the strange airling woman with fiery hair like an odd pilot fish. As far as Belle could see, he did not, however, eat nasty parasites on his host, or small leftovers of her food. His food source seemed to come from somewhere inside his… skin.

He was a weird creature – not merling, not airling – some form of ‘other’ Belle hadn’t yet encountered, and she wondered, why he did make the airling women nowhere as uneasy as he did her. Hadn’t her father once told her that airling senses were dulled from living above water for so long? That had to be it. They simply could not sense the danger. Belle almost pitied them. Almost. But the pilot predator didn’t seem interested in hurting them – not at the moment, anyway. He just followed them around, occasionally strayed to explore his surroundings, then returned to his host.

Belle, on her part, stuck to Jumper Girl like a merling-shaped sucker cluster. While in the water, she became her shadow, drifting right along, and, if on land, she always kept a close eye on her, hissing a low warning whenever the predator crept too close for her liking.

She preferred Jumper Girl safely in the water with her, where, if push came to splash, she could protect her; which was why she didn’t mind the silly game her friend wanted to play next.

Jumper Girl had brought odd yellow seaweed string in some sort of shell into the water with her. She pulled it out next to Belle’s arms and tail, along her fin, and wrapped it once around her middle and her tail – as if to measure her – then let the seaweed roll back into its shell like a mussel’s feeler. It tickled her skin, and Belle bit her lip not to laugh.

Perhaps, the objective of the game was indeed measuring her, since Jumper Girl kept shouting short bits at the mother airling, who jotted something, most likely the shouted information, down with a color on a small rectangle. Belle didn’t mind. She couldn’t see how her measurements could do any harm in the hands of the airling mother.

She was far more concerned about their unbidden guests – the fire-haired airling and her companion who kept watching their game with great interest – and had already put the measuring game from her mind, when the little airling and his father reappeared and the unknown airling and her predator finally left a short while later.

Chapter Text

Whatever he thought about the Mills Foundation, or rather the representatives he’d met, they delivered, and they delivered fast. It was true that most problems could not be solved simply by throwing money at them, but the foundation’s money and connections had absolutely something to do with the shiny prototype he was looking at right now.

“And you got the idea from your work with… vets?” Gold asked, looking round at the man who had brought the large silver case. While the case was plain and ordinary, not warranting a second glance or a turned head on the streets, the man was everything but. He had to be around Gold’s age, maybe a little younger, but dressed like a man from another era. His getup reminded Gold of someone from the theatre or the cabaret; entirely too much detail, expensive fabrics, and deep colors.

“Something like that, yes.”

The man had introduced himself as Tailor, but Gold wasn’t sure if that was his last name, given name, or his occupation.

“We sometimes work with veterans.”

Gold nodded. “And it won’t be too heavy? Slow her down in the water?”

Tailor briefly looked up from the loose piece of thread he’d been examining. “Drag effect? Unlikely. It’s light as a feather.” He waved a hand at the case, then resumed studying the place on his sleeve where a button had gone missing, or maybe a cufflink.

“That’s… good.”

Gold waited for Tailor to elaborate, to tell him more about the wondrous device he had brought, or at least ask about the Med wing’s expensive equipment, like he was used to whenever he brought outsiders in, but the man remained silent and focused on his shirt.

“Is it… safe? I mean, can we try and put it on her? Or will you have to…”

“Made to measure brace. Don’t need me there.” Tailor gave a half smile and let go of his sleeve to wiggle his fingers. “Should fit like a glove. And if not—” he let his hand do the talking, directing Gold’s attention back to the open case on the table in front of them. “Adjustable straps and buckles.”

“Right.” Gold shifted his weight. “How much?”

“Pardon?”

Gold drew a deep breath and cleared his throat. Tailor buttoned his coat.

“I’m not sure we can afford this,” he admitted, feeling familiar embarrassment flooding his cheeks. In all those years, the knot in his stomach and the heat in his cheeks had stayed the same. “What range are we talking here?”

“Pfft, paper and coinage.” Tailor waved his concerns away and reached for his top hat in the same extravagant move. “It’s a gift.”

Gold blinked, feeling his jaw drop before he clenched it and ground his teeth. If there was anything he hated more than being skint, it was begging alms. They did not need handouts.

“In my experience, life comes with a price.”

“True, true.” Tailor nodded along gravely, then spun his hat enthusiastically. “But this,” he nodded at the case and clapped his hands. “is a gift.” His grin widened as Gold’s eyes narrowed. “Your un-birthday. Or hers.” He shrugged. “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

There was silence for a moment as Gold digested the news. It was too good to be true. There had to be a catch.

“And? You’ll leave it in exchange for…?”

He knew he was being rude, but he had too much life experience to bite.

“Updates,” Tailor said finally. “Management wants updates on the mermaid.” He spun his hat again, then put it back on his head. “Or the brace. Or the brace on the mermaid. Something like that.”

“Ah.” The tight feeling in his chest let up. Now they were talking. “Will a monthly report suffice?”

“Weekly.” Tailor gave him a knowing look. “The powers that be like to read.”

Gold grimaced, but, after a beat, held out his hand. Tailor eyed it curiously.

“Sale or return,” he said, winking. “You like it, you buy it. Then you can spin her royal highness some… tales.”

Gold frowned. “Come again?”

Tailor laughed, but it was a humorless laugh and it left his face harder than before. “Don’t mind me,” he said. “Just… watch out for that mermaid of yours.”

The words prickled at the back of Gold’s neck, and he took a moment to replay them in his mind to see what was wrong with them, but he could not detect anything bad, anything tangibly… off.

The whole money thing had rubbed him the wrong way and put him on edge. That was it. This was a business transaction. One he had insisted on handling himself. And so he would.

“Certainly.” he said, putting feeling into the word. “Her well-being is our main concern. And your… brace will help improve that, I’m sure.”

Hands in his pockets, Tailor nodded. “Let them know what you think.” He touched the brim of his hat, hesitated, then held out his hand.

Gold threw out his own again, only to notice the business card held between two fingers. He coughed slightly, then pocketed it without looking at it.

“If… there’s any trouble—” Tailor said, taking off his hat in a small bow.

“Thank you, Mr. … Tailor. We’ll let you know if we have any problems with the… uh, device.”

“At your disposal, Mr. Gold.”

***

After the visitor was gone, Gold pushed the case to the wall and logged onto the computer to take another look at the video footage of Indigo swimming. They, that was his wife, had sent it to the foundation - along with Indigo’s measurements, medical history, and copies of Dr. Whale’s reports. He had not liked it, but it had gotten them a custom made tail brace in record time.

Milah had explained to him that the Mills foundation had old ties with the military, which allowed them access to certain resources and personnel. None other than Ethel Montgomery herself had pointed them out to her daughter during her stay at Montgomery Manor. Another fact that didn’t sit well with Gold, but which he had to accept for the greater good: his goal to help Indigo as soon as possible.

Gold sighed heavily as he watched Indigo struggle against the artificial waves.

Just when he clicked to pause the video, a new email popped up, and he frowned, recognizing Milah’s name on his screen. Were they back to communicating via email only, sending messages from one office at the aquarium to another? No, she had forwarded a recent message from the Mills Foundation. The text wasn’t long, thanking them for their time, congratulating everyone involved on the great business decisions made, more of the usual hogwash, and finally, expressing hopes of continued successful cooperation in the near future.

Gold only skimmed the message, then stopped to look at the attached files more closely. They were instruction manuals. Furrowing his brow, he opened the first document, surprised to find a drawing of the brace and sock, detailing every screw and scrap of material used and giving instructions on assembly, use, repair and storage.

With a groan, he pushed up from his chair to drag the case towards the desk and popped it open. He was a hands-on guy; and touching what he was looking at would allow him to connect the dots a little faster.

He had just concluded that he’d acquainted himself fairly well with the metal-made monstrosity and put it back in its case, when the door to the Med wing gave a shrill beeping sound - access denied - and the intercom hissed.

“Papa?!” The voice panted audibly, gulping down air. “It’s me. Uh…”

Shaking his head and grinning, Gold walked over to hit the door to press the buzzer and let his son enter.

“Is it here? Can I see it? Mama said…” Bae was out of breath, his face flushed and eyes wide. He had probably run the entire way.

Gold chuckled. “Good afternoon to you too, son.”

“Hi, Papa.” Bae quickly threw his arms around Gold’s waist and hugged him. “Is it done? Is it ready?”

“Oh hold on, can’t a man sit back down and catch his breath for one minute, before you start bombarding him with questions?”

Bae stepped back, almost glaring, which made Gold laugh. “Alright. Yes, it’s in here.”

Bae took the case and pulled it closer to the desk, attempted to lift it, then decided to open it on the floor.

“Wow!”

“Careful now, my boy.” Gold hurried over to sink back into his chair and watch as his son tentatively reached out to touch the metal brace and stroke the soft sock. Wide-eyed, he looked up at his father.

“This is the same stuff we use for humans,” Gold explained, remembering what he had read. “It’ll protect the skin and slide around her tail.”

Bae nodded. “They use this for soldiers. When they’re injured.” His eyes flickered to Gold’s bad leg. “To help them walk again.”

“Yes.”

“Feel it, Papa! It’s so soft. What’s it made from?” Bae’s little hands went up and down the sock again. “Do you think she’ll like it? How do we put it on? Will she have to wear it all the time? Like, when she sleeps? Can she swim normal with it? Is it…”

Gold held up a hand, smiling. “We will see,” he said, concern already gnawing at the back of his mind.

“What’s it made from?” Bae asked again, lifting the sock from the case and feeling its weight in his hands.

Gold cleared his throat. “It’s a silicone elastomer. Took them a couple tries to get just right, make it soft as a baby seal’s arse.” He laughed at Bae’s incredulous look. “They say it’s saltwater proof and should stick to her scales, easy.”

Bae stuck his arm inside the sock and wiggled his fingers. “I dunno,” he said. “Feels like seatbelt.”

Gold raised a brow.

“It’s gonna rub!” Bae clarified, rubbing at his neck. “She’s going to hate it if it rubs.”

“We’ll make sure it doesn’t,” Gold smiled, thinking to himself that it would probably be fine once the sock was wet. Bae had always been a child who winced at new clothing, needed all the tags cut out just so, and who had thrown screaming fits whenever they had tried to wrestle him into knitwear as a toddler — until they had abandoned the idea of wool on the boy entirely.

Bae looked doubtful.

“You could help, if you like?” Gold offered. “I’m meeting Miss Lucas and Indigo at the pool in a bit, so she can try it on and see how it feels.”

“I know!” Bae squealed. “I want to come!”

Gold pointed a finger at him. “So that’s why you raced up here like a bull shark was chasing after you.”

“Mama told me.”

“I see.” Gold winked.

Bae carefully replaced the sock, then turned to his father. “Papa?” He hugged his knees. “Is… is she going to die? If she doesn’t wear it?”

“Don’t worry, son.” Gold reached out and ruffled Bae’s curls. “Nothing’s going to happen to Indigo.” He shifted in his seat, leaning on his thighs. “The brace, it’s… just a tool to help her swim better.”

Bae scrunched up his nose and rubbed at it, his eyes watery as he held Gold’s gaze.

“You know, like your retainer.”

“Huh?”

“When you put on your retainer at night, it tells your teeth how to grow in the right direction, right?” Gold waited until Bae nodded. “This brace is going to tell Indigo’s tail muscles how to swim properly.”

“But she’s a mermaid. She knows how to swim.”

“Yes, she does. But when she was hurt, well, she taught herself to swim with a wiggling motion side to side—” Gold made the motion with his hands.”—like a snake.”

Bae nodded again. He had seen Indigo swim that way and compared her to a lizard.

“Or a lizard. But that’s not how mermaids are supposed to swim and it’s hurting her back. We were worried she could end up paralyzed, and since there are no wheelchairs for mermaids, we asked really smart people—”

“The Mills Foundation?”

“Yes, we asked the Mills Foundation for help and they made her this brace to make sure she’s going to be ok.”

Bae let go of his knees. “How does it work?”

“The brace?” Gold gestured at the case and motioned for Bae to close it. “Well, they designed it so that her tail moves up and down again.”

“But how?”

“By putting slight pressure on the right spots.”

“Yeah, but how does that work, Papa?”

Gold sighed internally. “You’ll see when we attach it. How about we pack this up and head downstairs? We can stop by Granny’s on the way. I hear there are waffles with two scoops of vanilla ice cream and our names on them.”

Bae scrambled to is feet and beamed. “Okay.”

***

The prosthetic designer hadn’t lied. They really had used the finest materials, durable but flexible. The sock was indeed soft to the touch, the joints flexible enough so it should feel natural, or at least as natural as a brace made from metal and screws could feel.

Indigo, however, didn’t look convinced.

They were on a submerged platform in the reef tank, the area once again closed off to the public, and had slipped on the sock (it had a hole for her fin, but they had had to roll it up a bit to make it slide through). Then they carefully attached the brace. Indigo had let them do it after examining the squishy soft material first and then eyeing the brace warily, but now her brow was furrowed and her teeth had come down hard on her bottom lip.

“Hey,” Gold tipped up her chin. “It’s okay. You’ll see.” He smiled at her.

“Yeah, and don’t worry if it itches a little,” Bae said, tugging on his life jacket. “We’ll fix that.” He too gave her a warm smile and Gold noticed chocolate sauce on his chin.

“Indigo?” Miss Lucas waved to catch Indigo’s eye, then pointed at her still tail in the water. “Move it for me?” She gestured with her palm held out flat. “Tail up, tail down. Tail up, tail down. Up and down.”

Lying flat across the platform, Indigo moved her tail up and down.

“Up… and down.”

Indigo glided off the platform and began to swim as intended, flapping her tail up and down.

Gold felt his heart rate pick up, a cautious grin tugging at the corner of his mouth.

He spotted the look of utmost concentration on her face seconds before it morphed into disgust and dismay, as Indigo swam around the pool, quickly looking harried.

“Indigo? Come back here,” Miss Lucas’ beckoning call fell on deaf ears. Beating her tail from side to side, Indigo thrashed in the water.

“No, Indigo! —”

Indigo bashed the tail brace against the side of the pool.

“She doesn’t like it!” Bae exclaimed, pointing and grabbing Gold by the arm. “Get it off her!”

Miss Lucas sat up on her knees. “Indigo! Stop!”

Indigo huffed, then did it again, pounding her tail against the side until the brace broke off in pieces and the metal began to sink.

“Indigo. No. … Damn,” Miss Lucas breathed. “I didn’t… I didn’t do anything.”

Bae folded his arms with a frown and Miss Lucas looked on with grim resignation as Indigo reached for the sock, tugged on it vigorously and finally managed to shake her tail partially free, causing her fluke to collapse like a sushi roll.

Dismayed, Gold dragged a hand across his face. He shook his head. “What are you doing, sweetheart?” He made to untangle himself from Bae’s renewed grip and let himself sink into the water to come to her rescue.

“Indigo?”

Indigo squeaked and dove under, reaching for the metal brace. She doggy paddled towards him and pushed the brace over.

He took it and briefly looked round at the others, before turning his attention back to her.

“That’s quite alright, sweetheart,” he said, palms up, and willing concern to the back of his mind, put a reassuring smile on his face. “Not to worry. You’re not to worry. We’ll have that sorted out in no time. It’s okay—”

He took her hand and gently guided her to the platform. “Let’s just have a look, shall we?” he cooed, patting the platform, and Indigo lifted her tail onto it. “Okay, here we go. — Miss Lucas? A hand?” 

***

They had taken the strange instrument away and not bothered her with it again until a few sunrises later. Belle didn’t much fancy the clammy feeling of the odd thing’s umbrella as it sucked on her scales, and the skeletal trap wasn’t exactly painful on her tail, but not comfortable either, and it restricted her movement considerably, so she could not understand why the airlings wanted it on her.

She refused to let them attach it to her again and after a couple tries, also shut down any and all conversation on the topic.

The airlings didn’t pressure her or force it on her, but she could tell it stayed on their minds, and so Belle wasn’t surprised when, one night, her airling brought it up again.

They were alone in the place she had been on her first night here, and he sat by the water silently and motionless, watching her out of the corner of his eye. He looked so heartbroken then that she just had to swim over to inquire what was the matter, and if there was anything she could do about it.

To her surprise, he got up and returned with a picture of the instrument. When he showed it to her, his hands shook. She stared at the picture, wondering at the many symbols and the lines that connected them to the drawing.

Why was this so important to him? Belle frowned, then pouted, as she touched his arm. What was the point of trapping her in the uncomfortable thing? Why couldn’t he just drop it?

He shook his head and patted her hand as if to say, it’s okay, you don’t have to, but I’d really wish you’d change your mind.

Before she could do anything else, he had gotten to his feet and left through the opening in the wall without so much as another glance at her.

Belle worried her lip. Had she offended him somehow? Was he angry with her? Was this about the instrument or something else?

She had noticed that both the airling and Jumper Girl seemed more reserved ever since she had rejected their instrument. Her little airling friend hadn’t come round to see her in days. His mother came to bring her snacks sometimes, but she didn’t linger long, just left a box or bucket by the platform.

Belle started to circle the pool. Had it been a mistake to express her dislike of the instrument so freely? She was sorry for breaking it. Could they all still be mad at her about that? Maybe if they gave it to her again, she could try and fix it? She had nimble fingers and could probably figure out how, if they gave her enough time and the right tools.

Just when she had managed to work herself into a state, all hope of sleep long gone, the airling returned.

Belle squinted at him in the bluish dark.

Something about him was different.

He approached slowly and it took her a moment to realize that it was his gait that had changed his whole demeanor so drastically.

When he was close enough for her to hear, he uttered a greeting, but the sound came out strained and clipped, like it took him too much effort to walk and speak at the same time.

Belle rubbed at her eyes, willing them to work better in the semi-darkness, and leaned forward, pressing her hands down on the edge of the platform, her mind half made up to push herself out of the water and meet him halfway. Had something happened? Was he… hurt?

She drew in a sharp breath.

“Indigo.” He finally stepped onto the platform, shoulders bent, hands on his knees, and breathing heavy, which did nothing to dispel the sinking feeling that seemed to cut off Belle’s own air supply.

He pointed at his leg and Belle followed his hand with her eyes, gasping again as they landed on the intended target. His leg was caught in the instrument! How had he managed to get trapped in the thing?! She reached out to touch it, to yank him free, realizing halfway there that it wasn’t the same instrument at all. This one was smaller and missing the sucking umbrella underneath.

Belle gazed up at him, confused.

He smiled weakly, then mumbled something that might have been words of encouragement to himself, and she looked on as he laid his hands on the platform and slowly maneuvered down into a press-up position. Wincing in pain, he kneeled on his free leg and reached out one hand to touch her cheek, gently stroking the soft curve of it, cupping her face in his palm.

Feeling her stomach drop out, then flip flop, Belle followed it under, diving in place, before she poked her head above water again. Feeling his eyes on her, she dipped her hot head beneath the surface and turned upside down so that the end of her tail and her fin poked up out of the water next, showing him her shiny scales, twirling and making her fin flop to this side and that, before she let it hit the water with a splash.

When she came back up after, her face was still burning, and she hoped he was too busy sorting his limbs finding a comfortable sitting position on the platform, to ask her what the halibut’s gill plate she was doing.

Biting her lip, Belle studied his weak leg and the instrument encasing it from the safe distance of the water. Now that he sat breathing normally and smiling at her, the tightness in her chest loosened enough for her to notice that it wasn’t the instrument that was hurting it. It had already been hurt, requiring him to lean on a piece of elegantly carved wood more times than not to reach optimum travel speed. He didn’t seem to need it now, and Belle began to wonder if that was due to the instrument; if helping his leg was it’s true purpose.

If that was true, however....

She swam up to him, intent on inspecting his leg instrument more closely, but got sidetracked when, after a few moments of her running her fingers over it, he started running his own over her skin, stroking up and down her arm slowly and gently, with the light pressure of only one fingertip.

Belle stopped what she was doing, frozen in awe, following the tickling sensation from her fingertips to her elbow, up to her shoulder, and down her neck. His touch tingled in her chest and belly, leaving an unknown sting just below her middle. Somewhere between a tickle and a bite, it made her squirm and shudder involuntarily as heat radiated from it.

With a breathless gasp, she withdrew, then reached for his hand, allowing their fingers to intertwine.

She licked her lips, not recognizing her own heartbeat anymore. His gaze was intense but gentle, flooding her with warm currents from head to fin.

Finally, the tingling and stinging became too much and Belle broke contact. Without meaning to do it, she went under, somersaulting beneath the surface, then went to float belly up on the water, letting it support her weight. She just needed a moment to gather her senses, slow down the rushing and roaring within her. What had this been about anyway? Why was he here?

The instrument. Right.

It floated back into her consciousness, and Belle made a decision on the spot. She mentally felt around for her tail, turned, and swam back up to him.

“Indigo?”

She nodded at his leg. Then lifted her fin out of the water and placed it on the platform. She pointed at it, then at his leg, and back again, and a ray of hope seemed to spark and ignite in his eyes as he grinned from ear to ear.

***

Heart pounding in his ears, Gold wheeled in the case and opened it, kneeling on the platform. They had long fixed the brace, but he had decided not to bother her with it again until she was ready.

Getting out his own brace had been both a stroke of genius and a mean, manipulative trick, but, thankfully, it had worked. The old thing had proven useful for more than just gathering dust in the back of his closet at last. Apparently, it could also be used to convince skeptical mermaids.

“You ready?” He looked over at Indigo, who was dutifully waiting for him by the platform.

At his signal, she heaved herself out of the water, rolling until she lay flat on her back, gazing up at him as he kneeled beside her. He half managed to convince himself that it was the darkness rather than his presence that gave her a sense of security and lowered her natural defenses this much, but before his thoughts could spiral and get away from him, he put a stop to it and focused on the task at hand.

Taking the sock out of the case, he showed it to her and waited for confirmation to proceed, which came in the form of an unmistakable nodding fist.

So he went ahead, sliding it on, noticing halfway up that it seemed to get stuck on her scales every now and then, the more so the higher up he went. Pausing, he frowned, then ran a hand over her tail to see where the problem was. The blue night lighting made it hard to find out any other way, as it danced on her scales and made them sparkle like moonlight on waves.

To his surprise, he found that Indigo’s tail was no longer the smooth, cool glass-like texture he had learned to associate with mermaids. It had changed, her scales no longer smooth and uniform, but with erect clusters, their once smooth edges standing up to prickle his palm.

He let go of the sock and examined with both hands, looking for a pattern. The higher he went, the more clusters he felt, their margins growing harder, the strange sensation culminating in the discovery of a sharp L-shape, maybe a hand’s breadth down from where her belly button would have been - if she had had one.

As he traced it, curious to see where its exact margins were, the scales… twitched under his fingertips and Indigo jerked away with an audible gasp, turning on her side and propping herself up on one arm, hair billowing in still air, then falling over her face like a curtain.

Perplexed, Gold froze, his mind shutting down momentarily.

With bated breath, he watched her form quiver and her chest heave, as she turned back around. Was it his ears playing tricks on him, or was there a faint sound… vibrating off her, her skin pulsing with it— like hitting glass just right?

Gold scooted closer against his better judgement and looked at her in amazement.

“Hell's bells. What—”

Indigo shivered and shone in the night lighting. In the skin along her ribs, he saw dark lines that looked like gills flutter wildly. She gazed up at him, her eyes curious, and he felt overcome with the sudden urge to kiss her, to press his dry lips to her wet ones, so dark they seemed almost black; a deep dark mauve when the scarce light hit them just right.

He couldn’t take his eyes off her. She’d never looked less human.

The faint sound grew louder, but didn’t stand a chance against his own blood’s deafening roar as it flashed from warm to unbearably hot under his taut skin. He felt the shivers roll over him like waves, strong and primal, and could just keep from tearing his clothes right off then and there and jumping right into the deep unknown that were her eyes.

He wanted to fall into them; fall into the sea, go down, descent below, go far beyond to a place where all light faded away, and disappear. His eyes locked on hers, everything he held dear residing in their depths, and he felt himself sliding down, leaning in, the need to inhale driven clear from his mind as it was filled with the sound of the sea.

“Oh, Jesus suffering fuck!”

Gold smacked a hand so hard against his own forehead, he nearly heard birds sing. Any lower than that and he might have accidentally knocked a tooth, his mouth hanging open like that of a total buffoon, a freaking primate at the zoo.

He blinked against the white noise between his ears and swallowed hard.

Had he just… had he been about to… nah, fuck off.

Gold ran a hand over his mouth, pinching his upper lip until it hurt. What had gotten into him?

When she touched him, he nearly jumped out of his skin; the touch of a fingertip on his arm enough to send him flying over the edge into absolute mental mayhem.

“Yes? Yes… sweetheart?” he rasped, voice rising half an octave, internally smacking himself about with as much vigor as his spluttering heart and seasick brain could muster.

Indigo rolled over, almost toppling into his lap, and reached for the brace, handing it over with a challenging look on her face.

He couldn’t move a muscle.

Moments ticked by and his ears were still stuffed with cotton balls.

Gold cleared his throat roughly.

When more time passed and he still didn’t comply, Indigo took matters into her own hands, yanking on the sock until it had moved about an inch, then giving up and flopping back down onto her back with a frustrated huff.

Gold blew out a long breath.