"Cleo, darling, it's so good to see you," Don said, hugging her tightly. "It's been too long."

"I've missed you," Cleo sighed. "We've just been so busy with all of this contest nonsense. It's difficult for any of us to be away from the island for too long, but we're hopeful that things will get easier soon."

Don pressed a kiss to her forehead and pulled away to look at her.

"How are you? Getting enough to eat? I know that you have to, and I'm proud of all of you, but I can't help but worry about you living out on an island by yourselves."

"I'm good, Dad. Plenty of fresh food on Mako, and I stashed the groceries I just bought in your boat for the next time you can visit," As great as the produce that they grew and the meat that they caught was, there were still a great many things that they hadn't figured out how to make yet. Like cold chips that were as good as those at the market (Lewis's attempts had so far been lackluster). These necessitated the occasional trip to the mainland as Cleo was currently doing. "Nakia's still adjusting well. Her head has been buried in those inventory scrolls that Lewis gave her the other day."

Don led her inside to sit in the living room. It gave her a thrill of nostalgia to see the house still so unchanged, unlike everything else in her life.

"But how are you doing, Dad? I don't want you to get lonely around here."

"Oh, he isn't lonely," Kim's voice cut across whatever her Dad had been about to say. The girl in question made her way down the stairs, sneering. "Hasn't he told you? He's got a new girlfriend."

Cleo turned back to him in surprise.

"Have you? Oh Dad, that's great! What's she like?"

Don blushed and rubbed at the back of his neck.

"Well, I was going to wait until I could introduce you. Her name is Sam, and she's-"

"She's awful," Kim crossed her arms and threw herself into an open chair. "You would know that if you were ever around."

"Kim," Don said warningly at the same time that Cleo exclaimed "Kim!"

"What? It's the truth. You practically disappear and Dad acts like you're the Queen. You don't even know anything."

"And what do you know, Kim? How to be a brat?" Cleo couldn't help it; her sister brought out the worst in her.

"You're so stupid, Cleo. Do you even know what's been going on around here? There are mermaids at Mako Island!"

Cleo saw Don shift out of the corner of her eye and fought to keep a straight face. Really, she shouldn't be shocked that Kim, with all her nosiness, would be aware of the contest.

"Really, Kim? This again? I thought you grew out of this ages ago."

Kim shot to her feet, jabbing a finger at Cleo.

"They're real, and Nate Cunningham's going to prove it. He's sending a whole army to Mako to capture those freaks! Then we'll see who's right - and it won't be little Miss Perfect." She bit out furiously, whirling and storming out. The front door slammed behind her.

Cleo immediately turned back to her dad.

"Did you-?"

"No," He shook his head. "I would have told you as soon as I heard. You better go."

Cleo was already standing and grabbing her bag, but she hesitated.

"Dad, I'm-"

"It's okay, Cleo. I'll come by as soon as I can and we'll talk then. Right now you need to tell the others what's happening. I love you."

"Love you too Dad. Keep an eye out."

Then she was out the door and hurrying down to the water. They'd stopped using their phones to discuss anything related to Mako or Mer, so she had to just get there as fast as she could; they needed to figure out what the hell was going on.

Jason plucked at the blades of grass in front of him. He was bored. Normally he'd be hanging out at the JuiceNet or riding dirt bikes instead of wasting a summer afternoon sitting on the banks of the canal, but the former was full of people bugging Nate for any information on the rumored militia hired to storm Mako and that meant that there was no one to race against in the latter. He sighed and threw the grass into the breeze, leaning back on his elbows. He was getting pretty tired of the whole Mako thing. It had been exciting, sure, but once the contest was over he was ready to move on. It wasn't like there was any money to win anymore. People were just obsessed with those stupid stories of mermaids. He'd been there. It was definitely creepy but he hadn't seen anything that could convince him that there were mythical creatures living there. If anything it was just some crazy cult. And Jason Harris knew when to leave well enough alone, thank you.

A soft splash caught his attention, and he peered down into the water. Maybe he should have brought his fishing rod…

Except the fish he found was one he doubted would fall for a simple lure. It took a moment for his brain to catch up with his eyes, but when it finally did he scrambled to pull out his phone and snap a picture. It wasn't a moment too soon; the creature was already gone.

But the grainy picture on his cell phone screen had captured what he couldn't, displaying the image from above of a girl with long brown hair and a shimmering white-ish fish tail.

"Ash?" Emma called as she finally reached the top of stairs (while it was a dream come true to live in a literal palace, it was sometimes tedious to live all the way on the top floor when it was otherwise empty). "Ash, are you up here? Cleo mentioned you wanted to talk about something."

When she received no answer, she continued down the hall toward their suite. It was unusually quiet; the evening tended to be filled by the sounds of Lewis tinkering in the lab and Cleo keeping him company, and Rikki and Zane's loud banter drifting out of the entertainment room. But a quick check told her that both rooms were vacant.

"Ash?" She called again, surprised when she still received no answer. It wasn't like him not to follow through on something - even if it was as small as a meeting arranged through a friend. A sinking feeling began to make itself known in the pit of her stomach when she didn't find him in their suite at all. Horrific images of Ash being experimented on flashed unbidden through her mind.

'Surely nothing could have happened to him without us knowing.' Emma thought. She resolved to search the whole floor before sharing her worries with the others. It was still possible, she reassured herself, that he had been distracted and lost track of time somewhere.

She moved from room to room methodically, but was disappointed each time. With each letdown, the sinking feeling grew. By the time she reached the last door - the dining room - she was fighting her rising anxiety. Emma Gilbert did not panic. She forced the feelings back down, squared her shoulders, and turned the knob with a hand that trembled only slightly.

The mob of sound that assaulted her made her heart skip a beat.

"Surprise!" Her friends - minus Cleo - were gathered around the dining table, laden with a veritable feast, all beaming brightly at her.

Emma turned to Ash, who had left his position at the end to approach her. Her jaw worked, but she couldn't make any sound come out.

"I know you've been missing your family," He said, taking her hand into both of his own. "Especially your family dinners. So I thought we could have our own family dinners here. With our new family."

"Oh, Ash…"

He lowered his forehead to meet hers, gazing softly down at her.

"What do you think? I didn't want to overstep-"

"It's perfect." Emma interrupted. She blinked back a prickling feeling from behind her eyes.



Ash pulled away with a smile.

"Well come on, then. We've got you seated in the place of honor."

The food tasted as good as it smelled: heavenly. Emma took the brief lull in conversation as everyone dug in to marvel at how self-sufficient they'd become in a matter of months. Even two weeks ago a meal like this wouldn't have been possible on their own. It had taken much experimentation and careful planning; there had been a particularly spirited argument between Cleo and Rikki when the former questioned the morality of eating animals when they could speak to them and the latter responded with a rather gruesome citation of the circle of life. The matter was only ended when Ash suggested that they only kill as much as was necessary and set specific guidelines for the act. Lewis had recently had a breakthrough with the growth of spices, and as soon as he got the drying process down they would be officially free of human markets. At least, unless they had a serious craving for processed snacks. They were good at stocking those in bulk, though, if the dedication of one of the smaller pantries said anything about that.

Talk picked back up as they cleared their plates. Ash unveiled a pile of board games that had been common fixtures of Gilbert family dinners - Emma pointedly ignored the pang of sadness at the thought - and they set about explaining the rules. As was to be expected, Rikki and Zane quickly grew over-competitive, which provided a great deal of entertainment to everyone else. Will made his usual mistake of trying to blindside them and once again succeeded only in uniting them against him. Bella refused to help on the principle that he had to learn his lesson sometime. They laughed, chatted, and played until no one could remember the score (Nakia always did, but no amount of wheedling would ever get it out of her).

After another spectacular defeat at the hands of the Bennett duo, Emma threw down her cards with a groan.

"I am never playing with you two again."

"You always say that-" Zane began with a grin.

"-and yet you always come back for more." Rikki finished cheekily.

"You're menaces," Emma rewarded them with an eyeroll. "I'm stepping out for a bit of air. Ash?"

He looked up from where he'd been carefully studying his cards.

"Huh? Oh, right. Coming!"

Emma glanced at Lewis, who was reclining across the table from him and looking for all the world like he'd already won. Which was not unlikely; Lewis was the only one who was even with Rikki and Zane.

"You can stay, if you want," Emma told Ash with as much innocence as she could muster. "I would hate to interrupt."

"Urgh, no," He grimaced, flicking a card at Lewis. "I've had enough of him for the night. I'm right behind you."

Emma led him out to the balcony and leaned up against the stone balustrade, closing her eyes to savor the feeling of the gentle breeze ruffling her hair. Ash's arms wrapped around her middle and he rested his chin on her shoulder.

"Thank you," She murmured. "It was exactly what I needed."

"I wanted to see you happy. This situation has been so unfair to you," He pressed his lips to the smooth skin beneath him. "You deserve better."

"What did I do to deserve you?"

She felt him smile against her as he continued to plant kisses.

"You were Emma; that was more than enough."

She finally opened her eyes and twisted in his arms to meet his gaze.

"I love you."

"I know," He could only keep a straight face for a moment before he broke it with a grin, ducking her swatting hand. He caught her wrist, pulling her back in. "Kidding. I love you too."

Then her eyes were sliding shut again as he caught her mouth with his. The kiss was pure Ash - gentle as the breeze, letting her take the lead as often as he did, and yet still able to communicate the passion and depth of emotion that he was pouring into it. She would happily get lost in the feeling. She often did.

Of course, such a perfect moment could not be allowed to last.

"Guys?" Rikki called from the doorway. They broke apart to turn to her, Emma stiffening at the look on her face - Rikki was rarely so serious. "Hate to interrupt, but Cleo's here. You'll want to come hear this."

"You can't be serious," Emma's pacing hadn't paused once in the five minutes that Cleo had been back and begun explaining what she'd heard. "Is it possible that you misunderstood? Kim could have been exaggerating."

Cleo and Lewis exchanged a look, and Lewis spoke up instead.

"I've searched the Net; it looks pretty real. It's all over the chat rooms and a couple blogs. Miriam posted about it."

"She would know." Cleo added.

"Unless it's a hoax," Ash mused. "How do we know it's true?"

"Nate couldn't be that invested, could he? Or that rash?" Rikki asked.

The room was silent for a moment aside from the constant slapping of Emma's feet on the floor. Slowly, attention turned to Zane. He sighed.

"He could be. I had a hard enough time reigning him in at times."

"Could you try to talk him out of it?"

Zane shook his head.

"I don't have the influence I used to, living out here. Going back to all of that would only bring questions and a lot of unwanted attention; so far, Nate's been respecting my space and making sure everyone else does the same."

"Could we… could we tell him the truth?"

All eyes shot to Cleo.

"What? He was your best friend, and maybe if there was no mystery he'd lose interest."

"You can't actually be suggesting that?" Rikki was incredulous. "Cleo, he's trying to expose all of us!"

"Lay off, Rikki. It was a valid suggestion," Lewis said. "Zane?"

"Telling anyone is risky enough, but I'm nor sure that Nate would let something like this go. Even if we convinced him to become a Mer, he might be equally likely to go to the press as he would be to protect the secret," He scowled. "But Nate's commitment isn't my biggest worry right now. He may fancy himself a leader, but he's always been more of a follower; he wouldn't have decided to spend so much money on something like this on his own. The question is who he's following."


The name sent a chill down the spine of every person in the room. Everyone had been made fully aware of the threat she presented.

"What?" Emma said once she'd recovered from the spasm of fear. "Don't look at me like that. We all know it's her."

"She is the most likely culprit; we know she's still in town." Ash said.

"Alright, so say it is her," Bella said. "What do we do? A bunch of teenagers in fishing boats is one thing-"

"-and armed and trained commandos is another." Will finished. "And we don't even know what to expect, or when. We're out of our depth here."

Cleo and Lewis exchanged another long look, a silent conversation playing out between the two of them.

"Actually… We might have some ideas." Cleo said.

"We found some defense scrolls for the original Atlantis. I've been looking over them and seeing what we might be able to adapt for our own use. Just in case."

A brief cheer went up around the room.

"For once I'm not going to complain about your researching habits," Rikki said. "Lay it on us!"

"I've got to go get my notes. Cleo can start to walk you through it until I get back."

"Right," Cleo started as he hurried out. "So, we were thinking-"

Zane's groan cut her off. He held up his cell phone in answer before anyone could voice the question. Cleo squinted to see, blanching when she glimpsed the image.

"This makes things a bit more complicated."

Author's Note: I hope that you enjoyed! I know that it's been a while since the last chapter, but I'm hoping that updates will be a bit more frequent now. I finally got some inspiration for a couple of my other WIPs, which of course just so happened to coincide with a bout of writer's block for this one. Thank you to everyone who reviewed - it's what finally sparked some ideas and got this chapter written. If you have an OC to submit, I will still happily take them and try to fit them in as best I can (though this may result in some changes). Additionally, I am looking for a beta reader for this fic to look over new chapters and bounce ideas off of. PM if interested! As always, please review.

Much love, Miss Luxe