"You are looking a little pale, Karina; are you alright?"
"Rebecca, you need not fuss over me, I am fine."
Riley cracked an eye open to examine the scene going on before her. She was still feeling rather lazy and was too comfortable to bother with moving just yet. Karina was a few tail-lengths away, sprawled over a large, smooth rock. She lay on her side with her tail pulled up beneath her, and she was resting her head on Nero's tail.
Nero was half curled around her, sitting up and stroking his fingers through her hair, watching as his mother hovered over them both.
Riley watched as her Aunt's fintips twitched. "At least let me check on the baby."
"They are fine too," Karina groaned. Riley bit her lip to smother her amusement as she watched the pregnant Mer shift onto her back anyways.
Strands of Rebecca's short coconut colored hair drifted around her ears as she dropped to the ground beside Karina and lay a hand flat on her rounded belly with her fingers splayed.
To her credit, Karina did not flinch or squirm when she began to gently press and rub over the smooth, slightly bulged skin; Riley did not think she could remain quite so still.
After a moment, her Aunt pulled away and Karina sat up, propping herself on her elbows. "I appreciate all that you are doing, Rebecca, but I really am alright; and I promise if that changes, I will say something. I have just been a little tired is all."
Nero leaned forward and nuzzled his nose against her cheek. His murmured tone was so soft that Riley barely caught what he said. "Then you should rest."
Karina brought a hand up to cup his face and kissed his opposite cheek. "I am resting," she protested lightly. She settled back down and laid her head back on his tail. "Or at least, I would be if I was not being disturbed so much."
"Stubborn," Nero muttered.
In the next heartbeat, he flinched as Karina's hand moved to his tail. While Riley did not quite see the subtle motion, based upon Nero's reaction, she could only assume she had pinched him.
"And lovely," he added hastily as he rubbed her arm. Karina hummed shortly in the back of her throat. Nero's lips split into a grin and his hand returned to petting her hair and rubbing at her skull. Karina's soft brown eyes slid shut and her hum returned, a deep rumbling content that echoed in the water. Riley barely smothered a chuckle.
"It is not polite to eavesdrop, Riley," her Aunt scolded as she twisted to initiate a stare down with a knowing and amused look glistening in her gaze.
Riley yawned and dragged her stiff muscles into a massive stretch, her fins flicking out and her arms pushing out past her face. She snapped her jaws shut and then drew her arms back in, folding them over one another beneath her chest to prop herself up a bit more. "If you do not wish to be overheard, do not have a conversation directly in earshot," she replied, grinning widely with the tip of her tongue poking out between her fangs.
"You have not changed," Rebecca sighed with a shake of her head.
Riley shrugged, then her lips twisted into a frown as she arched her back. She felt stiff, and her hip was locked again, though she tried not to let that show, lest her Aunt begin to fuss over it. "How long did I sleep?"
"The sun rose and set twice," Karina answered and Riley found her gaze snapping to the peach-scaled Mer. Karina's warm brown eyes regarded her calmly, but Riley felt her heart squeeze within the confines of her ribs. She had slept for that long? She shuddered. She must have overtaxed herself more than she originally thought.
"We moved you yesterday," Karina continued, her own mouth dipping into a frown. "Do you not recall?"
Riley shook her head. "No. I guess I needed the rest more than I thought."
"I gave you something to help you sleep," Rebecca added. "You are very lucky that sleep was all you needed. A trip like that could have killed you, Riley. I do not care the reason; you are never to attempt something like that again."
"I do not plan on it," Riley agreed. "But you should not have wasted your resources on me. I would have been fine without the red kelp." The roots of red kelp stalks were powerful in inducing deep sleep. Mer avoided the relatively rare plant because of it, but it made for a good way of ensuring the sick or injured got the rest they needed.
"I thought you did not remember being woken yesterday," Rebecca commented. "How do you know what I gave you?"
Riley's smile was small and tentative as she gazed at her Aunt. "I paid attention, you know; all those times I stayed with you."
"I thought you were merely avoiding your mother."
"I was," Riley admitted. "To an extent. But I also enjoyed being with you, and I do like to learn. I want to know everything I can. Whenever you were working, I watched and I listened, and I remembered. Some of the knowledge has helped me over the turns."
The pride that glowed in her Aunt Becca's eyes had Riley lifting her head a little higher. She was no longer a youngling that craved praise, but it still filled her with satisfaction to know that her Aunt was able to see her as more than a reckless, headstrong child. She may have been once, and she still did not cower at risk, but she had grown. There had always been a sense of emptiness that few would ever see it, for they had not known her prior. The moment was warm while it lasted, but then her Aunt's face slowly warped back to one of concern.
"You seem to have done very well for yourself, but I still have concerns. We need to talk about your side."
"It is a rather brutal looking scar," Nero observed. "What happened?"
"It does not matter," Riley replied. "It is just a scar." She did not want to get into the details of her most recent two injuries. There were too many related topics that she had not yet figured out how to share with all of them.
Riley reared her head back and her gliders flapped in alarm as Aunt Becca shoved her face into hers. Her eyebrows were furrowed into a tight line and her eyes were hard as she stared Riley down. "I am not talking about your scar, Riley. I am more concerned with your hip."
"My hip is fine," Riley countered in an even tone.
"It appeared to be bothering you when we moved you yesterday. You were barely swimming."
Riley shrugged and averted her gaze. She did not like lying to her aunt, but she had no desire to dive into this topic. "I was probably just not lucid. I am fine."
When she peeked back up, she found her aunt gazing evenly back at her with a grim line pressed over her mouth and one eyebrow raised. "Then prove it and move," she demanded, jerking her chin at Riley's side.
Riley froze at the request. Her hip was seized up from being still for so long, and she knew there was no chance of popping it back into motion without her aunt noticing.
Rebecca's eyebrow raised a little higher at her hesitation and Riley hissed in frustration. "Okay, it gets stiff sometimes if I lie still too long," she admitted. "But it is fine, it only hurts a little to get it moving again, and it does not give me problems otherwise."
Aunt Becca shook her head and her gaze clouded. She brushed a hand over Riley's side and Riley flinched at the contact. "That is not fine, Riley. It could get you killed on your own as you often are. How did this happen?"
"It was broken in an accident. Took a while to heal, but I promise it is fine. I am fine. You do not need to fuss over me."
"You broke the bone?" Rebecca repeated, her splayed fingers rising to cover her mouth. "Oh Riley, something like that does not heal well, ever. I am amazed you can swim at all."
Riley had opened her mouth to protest, but closed it when Aunt Becca reached out and cupped her cheek. "I am glad you came here, Riley. You must stay now, you understand? We are stationary – it is nice here – and you will not need to worry about heavy travelling or being at risk if your side seizes up. I should be able to help you manage pain if it gets worse, which it will over time," she continued. "I know you have your concerns about staying, but you are no longer a child; you have your own voice and Iliene has no control over you. It has been a long time; you may find things have changed. But I cannot allow you to continue to roam the oceans alone in such a state."
Riley leaned into her aunt's touch for a moment, then pulled away with a shake of her head. "I appreciate your concern, Aunt Becca – really I do – but I cannot stay permanently, and I am no longer alone. I came here for a reason, but after that, I will be going home," she explained. She could not help the soft smile that spread on her lips as she thought of home, of her family. Already her heart yearned and the instinctive call pulling her back thrummed noisily in her ears with every beat of her heart. She finally had a place to belong.
"Why are you here then?" her aunt sighed, suddenly seeming so much older and tired.
Riley was surprised she did not push the issue, but chose to let it go. She did not need any more distractions. But now no longer seemed like a good time to tell Aunt Becca about her presumed dead daughter. Karina's unintended warning still lingered heavily on Riley's heart. She knew the news would not be well received if she just dumped it on her aunt. She needed support, and a gentler means of delivering her message.
In a rash decision, she glanced over at Nero – still flopped over a smooth rock with Karina sprawled against him while he rubbed her head – and chewed her lip. His dark eyes were fixated on her as well. "Can I speak to you, please?" she finally decided, making a rash choice that she could only hope would yield merit. "Alone?"
Silence stretched through the four of them, and she could feel Rebecca's piercing gaze drilling into the side of her head, though her Aunt said nothing.
"I could use some exercise," Karina stated finally as she sat up. "It is good to still move around. Rebecca, would you accompany me for a swim? I would rather not go alone."
"Alright," Rebecca agreed, though there was a strangle in her tone that made Riley frown. Karina, however, had made eye contact and nodded in understanding. Riley returned the motion, grateful that her cousin's mate was so willing to assist. "We should go find Ixion anyways. He has been wondering after the situation. Join us when you are done, both of you," she instructed, though she directed the statement at Nero alone.
He nodded silently and both watched as the two Mer swam off. Only once they were out of sight did Nero's gaze whip back around to her. "When I first found you, you told me your news was not for me to hear first. How is it that I am the one you need to converse with now? You did not even know I was alive, your message could not possibly be for me."
"It is," Riley replied. "Not just for you, but it is relevant to you. I was not intending to tell you first, but I need your help."
"With what?" Nero inquired. He pushed from his rock and closed the distance to sit on the sand in front of her with his tail tucked beneath him. His shaggy gray hair waved freely in the water, darting in and out of the way of his eyes. He folded his hands against his tail and regarded her with the same calm, stoic expression he almost always seemed to wear.
"How would you react if I told you something unbelievable? Something that might seem impossible? It is good, I promise, but I have come to learn it is also a dangerous topic that is not so freely discussed any longer."
"It would depend on what it was," Nero answered. His gaze had narrowed. "What is your impossibility? Speak no lies, Riley, I care not for tricks or pranks."
Riley shook her head. "I would never. Not about something like this. Nero…it is about your sister, she-"
She was cut off by Nero's low warning growl. His lips had begun to pull back to reveal his clenched fangs. "You should not mention her so calmly as though discussing the weather or fair hunting. Do not dare mention in front of my mother; she has endured enough pain. Why dredge more up?"
"Because Kera is alive," Riley snapped back. She searched Nero for his reaction, but his expression only darkened with furrowed brows and sharp creases. Riley forced herself to relax and speak more softly. "You believed it once too."
Nero shook her head. "I could not accept that she was gone. My grief fed a desperation for an alternative. It was nothing more than a fruitless wish, Riley."
Riley shook her head and reached out to lay her hand over Nero's. "This is no wish, Nero. Kera is alive. I have seen her, spoken with her. She is why I have come; to reunite her family."
Nero was silent for a long time and Riley could hear her heart pounding in her chest as she waited tersely for a reaction. "I want to believe that," Nero sighed. "But I do not."
"I speak only truth, Nero. Why else do you think I would be here? I never intended to come back, Nero. I told myself I would visit, I felt guilt over never doing so, but I was never going to return. I would not merely to stir trouble. You must know that only something immense and important would draw me back now," she pressed.
"Why did she not accompany you, if what you say is true?"
Riley shook her head. "She could not have made the journey, Nero. I came here under the impression that I was racing a migration. Kera cannot surf a current. It would have taken us over a moon to reach you without the aid of swift water. I came to bring her parents back with me – just temporarily – to meet her again, know her, and take her home when she was able. But I am sure she would be thrilled for her brother to come too."
Again, there was a long silence, but Riley held Nero's gaze evenly. She would not back down. Luna needed her mother and father, and Riley needed Nero's assistance to convince them to accompany her.
"Why tell me first?"
Riley smiled wryly and shrugged. "Look at how you reacted," she reminded. "Do you think your father would be any calmer? Or that Aunt Becca would be able to handle the news? I have not been here for a long time; I no longer have the benefit of the doubt with our family, Nero, no matter how they may love or accept me. They will not believe me readily. I need your support."
Once again, silence lapsed between them. "How?" he finally whispered. "How is it possible for her to be alive? She was so little, Riley. So young and weak, you know, you remember."
"I do," Riley acknowledged. "She could not have survived on her own, separated from the pod and lost in the oceans. But Nero, she has not been in the ocean all this time. Kera went missing due to human intervention. She was captured out of the water and taken to land. She has not had a pleasant life since then, and hers is a tale of pain and suffering to levels I cannot properly fathom still, and I have heard much of the past.
"It was only very recently that Kera – with the aid of a friend – was able to get free of the facility they were being kept at. It was by pure chance that I happened to be in the same area to find them, but it is her, without even the shallowest puddle of doubt," Riley reported.
During her statement, Nero had bowed his head and begun to pick at a loose flake on his tail. He did not look back up or move to speak for several heartbeats. Finally, "If what you say is true… my poor little sister. I should have been there to protect her."
"There was nothing you could have done," Riley refused. "There was nothing anyone could do."
"What is she like now?" Nero inquired.
Riley smiled and flicked her fins through the water. She was glad Nero was finally starting to come around, despite how much the hope had to hurt. "There are a lot of changes," Riley admitted, selecting her words carefully. "She has been through a lot and it has affected her greatly. But I still see much of my little cousin within her. She is sweet and curious, if a little shy. She has a lot of life in her, but she is also easily overwhelmed and reserved at times, and she struggles with trust, but I believe she just needs a little time to heal. Having her family close will help with that. She does not believe she is good enough, that her mother and father will want her."
"That is ridiculous," Nero huffed. "How could they not? She is their daughter and my parents will be overjoyed to be with her. How could she not know that?"
"She does not remember very much about the past," Riley told him. "I had to tell her what her name was. It has been too long and she has been through too much, her self-esteem is not very high. But that is why it is so important that Aunt Becca and Uncle Ixion come with me. She needs them, now more than she ever did. And her brother too, if he will come."
Nero nodded. "It is a painful topic, Riley. It will not be easy to convince them. It brings my mother too much pain to discuss Kera, and my father is very protective of her. I do not know how to tell them," he admitted.
Riley sighed. "I was hoping you might have an idea. I agree that they will not react well to the news, especially coming from me. Your initial reaction has proved that. But I do not know how I would get them to come without telling them."
Nero made a noise in the back of his throat. "Could I make the journey back with you and simply bring her home?"
"It is more complicated than that," Riley refused. "And the journey would be too perilous without providing her proper training. She has spent next to no time in the ocean and has no survival skills. And you cannot part from your mate for that long. She will need you when the time for birth comes."
Nero sighed and beat the sand with a fist. "I understand now why you wanted to tell me first. So we need to get them to come with us, without telling them why." He paused for a moment and gazed towards the surface. "Perhaps we could appeal to my mother's skills," he suggested.
Riley paused to mull the possibility over in her mind. "As a healer, you mean?"
Nero nodded. "Exactly. Tell her that you have come because someone back at your new home is very sick and in need of care. That you lack a healer and do not have the time to sway the trust of a stranger. She has too big a heart, she may just agree."
"It might work," Riley agreed. "Although I hate to lie to her."
"I think given the situation that she will forgive you. If you are telling the truth, that is."
"I am," Riley vowed.
"Then let us go," he decided as he pushed off the sand and grabbed her by the wrist.
Riley yelped as he dragged her up and she wound up flipping on her side due to her locked joint. Grimacing, she twisted slowly until it cracked noisily and loosened up once more. She was really going to have to get Lewis to look at it.
"Are you alright?" Nero checked. "I should have warned you. But they should know, and soon."
Riley nodded. "I have no desire to delay," she agreed.
She flicked her fins and followed him up over the reef. Her family was large and spread across the corals. A few sat up and stared as she and Nero swam overhead. She imagined it would not be long before a crowd gathered wanting to greet and wring details of the past cycles from her.
They found Karina and Aunt Becca at the edge of the shelf. Nero darted immediately to his mate's side and checked on her, placing a hand on her belly and his lips against hers in a tender gesture. Rebecca was perched on a large mound of brain coral and was tracing a finger through the lime green groves.
Beside her was Riley's uncle. Ixion was a large Mer, the rippling muscle over his chest and arms aiding to his size. Riley knew he could easily snap a threat into a broken heap when angered enough. He kept his hair short – well above his ears – a small patch of dark brown tendrils. His skin was a browned gray, much like Nero's and his tail was rippled with green-gray scales. They were light and faded, unlike Rebecca's brilliant hues, more a light gray with some soft green mixed in. Running down the sides of his tail were small strips of waving webbing, gray-white in color to match the silvery split fins that erupted from the tip of his tail. His dark eyes watched Riley carefully from his spot with his arms wrapped around his mate.
"Riley," he greeted in a rather gruff tone. If Riley did not already know it was simply how he was, she would have imagined he was displeased with her. "I hear you had quite the dramatic arrival. You have not changed much from your youth then."
Riley grinned and stuck her tongue out between her fangs. "It is good to see you as well, Uncle."
He hummed in response. "And what brings you back around after so many seasons?"
"Yes, what did the two of you discuss?" Karina prompted as she nudged Nero, who had sat beside her once more. She leaned against him and he wrapped an arm around her.
"I would like to know as well," Rebecca agreed.
Riley hesitated and glanced at Nero. Warmth sparkled in his obsidian gaze and he nodded softly, a barely noticeable bob of his chin. It was a small gesture, but it filled her with a bit more confidence; which was all she needed.
"I need your help, Aunt Becca," she began. She twisted her fingers as she spoke and her gliders shuffled at her sides, betraying her nerves.
"My help with what?" Rebecca pressed, her tone gentle.
Riley chewed her lip and looked away. "I have found a home recently, with people who accept me and want me to stay. I am happy there. But-" Riley hesitated, the lie sitting heavily on her tongue. "Something has happened, someone is sick. I do not have the means or knowledge to help and she is unable to travel. I did not know where else to come or what else to do."
Rebecca pursed her lips and nodded. "You want me to come back with you," she stated. It was not a query.
"Yes," Riley confirmed. "Please Aunt Becca; I know you do not like to leave the pod, but I need you and I will never ask such a boon again, you have my vow on that."
There was visible hesitation on her Aunt's face and Riley's heart sunk. She did not know what she would do if she refused. Her Aunt and Uncle would never believe the truth now if it followed a lie, and she was starting to think she had made the wrong choice.