First off, I do not own any of the characters listed herein. Set around Seasons Three-Four.
I wrote this, inspired in part by Faerax's Sea Legs and one of my favorite Jimmy Buffett tunes. In Haven, good intentions sometimes go awry, as Duke is about to find out...
Duke made his way back onto the Cape Rouge, exhausted. Another long day of chasing after Troubles with Nathan and Audrey. And to top it all off, he was soaking wet.
Not because it had been raining; in fact, Haven could use a little rain right about now. He'd been driving out past Mill's River, seeing a group of kids playing on the sandbar that had emerged because the river had receded, and he'd stopped to watch them.
He observed them wistfully, remembering when he used to be the same age, playing chicken with his friends, making a game of who could hold their breath the longest. And he'd usually won, he grinned to himself.
A sudden squeal had snapped him out of his reverie. A small boy in the group had waded out too far and had gotten caught in the undertow that ran about ten yards off the western side of the sandbar.
Duke shut his truck off, and climbed out, rapidly making his way down the embankment to the river, his eyes on the boy in the water.
It wasn't readily apparent that there was an undertow there, the lazy current of the river disguised it; but an inexperienced swimmer would often find it out the hard way, and more than one soul had been drowned in it.
He'd watched with horror as the little head went under the water, and bobbed back up, flailing and gasping, hearing the other children's cries of alarm.
He'd torn out after the boy, his long legs churning the water before he got to where he could swim out after him. Guess that was one thing Dad taught me, Duke thought. How to save myself from drowning in riptides and undercurrents.
"Hold on!" he shouted to the boy. Duke was a strong swimmer; it didn't pay not to be a good swimmer and own a boat, you never knew when you might be in the drink without warning.
The boy burbled in the water, growing more and more panicked, and started to slip beneath the surface again, but Duke's strong arm pulled the kid against him.
"I gotcha, I gotcha," Duke soothed him. "It's okay. Just hold on, all right?"
"Okay," the boy gasped, clinging tightly to his rescuer's neck.
Duke let the current carry them until he knew he could swim out of it, and paddled back to the little group waiting anxiously.
The other children on the sandbar were cheering and ran to them as Duke waded ashore with the boy in tow.
"Thank you," an older girl said, practically in tears as she knelt down and hugged the boy.
Duke nodded, catching his breath, and looked down at the boy.
"You okay, kid?"
The boy nodded. "I'm okay. I slipped off the underwater ledge."
"It happens," Duke replied. "You gotta be careful on that side of the sandbar—that's where the undertow is," he told the little gaggle of kids. "That undertow catches you, you're a goner."
"Not you, you weren't scared," the boy said, smiling, his near-death experience forgotten. "You were like a mermaid!"
"Merman, doofus," one of the other boys teased.
Duke grinned. "I used to think it would be cool to be a merman when I was a kid," he said. "Now, no more swimming on that side of the sandbar, right?"
"Right!" chorused the kids, and Duke swam back to the side of the river he'd come from.
Duke threw his wet clothes in the laundry basket, and ran the water for a bath. He was so tired he half hoped he'd be able to stay awake long enough for one as he slipped his worn-out frame into the water, the heat soothing sore muscles. That Trouble they'd struggled with today had been a bear; not literally of course, but who knew an old lady could be so feisty? Or strong, for that matter. He only hoped Nathan would honor his promise to never tell anyone that he'd been body-slammed by a woman in her eighties.
Can't do for herself anymore, my eye, he thought. That old lady needs a nursing home about as much as Sasquatch does.
He draped a washcloth over his face, closing his eyes. The water felt so nice and warm, and he soaked for a long while, letting the water work its magic on him.
The tub was large, but still not large enough to accommodate his long frame, and Duke started to prop his feet up on the edge of the tub as he usually did.
Only his feet didn't respond. His legs felt like they were caught in something, binding them together. He must have gotten tangled up in the shower curtain, it was too long, and tended to end up in the tub with him.
"That stupid shower curtain-" Duke sighed, and pulled the washcloth off his eyes.
For a moment, he thought he was dreaming. And then he thought that Nathan or someone was playing a prank on him, and had thrown a large fish into the tub with him, because he could see the tail flukes sticking up out of the bathwater.
Duke pushed at it with his feet, and the fish's tail shot up over the side of the tub, splashing water all over the bathroom.
His eyes grew wide with horror when he realized what he was seeing wasn't a prank with a fish; he was the fish!
His—fishtail-was longer than his actual legs were, and was a blackish-green, scaleless like a manta ray, with large flukes resembling a beluga whale's tail, about three feet across. Duke guesstimated that were he stretched out flat, he would measure almost seven feet long.
He reached a hand out, and felt of the tail cautiously. It was smooth and somewhat slippery to the touch; but the kicker was that he could feel his hand on the tail. It was as much a part of him as his legs had been, as though he'd always been this way.
"This can't be happening," Duke said, still agog, racking his brain to comprehend what he was seeing and experiencing. Of course-he'd fallen asleep in the tub, that was it. Better wake himself up before he accidentally drowned. No more of Gloria's 'Jamaican brownies' for me! he thought.
"I'm dreaming," he said, shutting his eyes tightly. "All a bad dream. Now wake up."
He opened his eyes again—and was still staring at the fish's tail.
"Oh, you gotta be kidding me," Duke said, looking down at his new form. He tried to bend his knees, and the tail thrashed as a snake's body might, splashing in the tub. He made to wiggle his toes, and the flukes corresponded to the movement.
Okay, Crocker, don't panic, think, he thought. This is a Trouble. It HAS to be a Trouble. Call Audrey, she can fix it. Maybe.
He glanced around, and realized his cell phone was on the other side of the bathroom, sitting on the counter.
"I gotta call Audrey," he said aloud, and began to try to stand, but realized that wasn't going to work. He'd need feet with which to stand, and he didn't seem to have any at the moment.
"Okay, Plan B," he muttered to himself. "Alley-Oop—whoa!" he cried as he pulled himself up on his arms, meaning to perch on the edge of the tub and swing himself over, but he overcompensated, the powerful muscles in his tail propelling him up as though he'd been launched from a cannon.
Duke shot over the edge, landing on the already-drenched floor on his back, knocking the wind out of him and his head against the tile. He winced, rubbing at his head, his tail flopping on the tile noisily. He lay there for a moment, catching his breath, thinking on his situation. This would be funny—if it was happening to somebody else, he reflected.
Duke rolled over, and pulled himself across the bathroom to the vanity with his arms, using his back brush to poke the phone off the counter and down into his waiting hand.
At Nathan's house, Audrey and Nathan were cuddling together in bed, just as tired as Duke was—or had been.
"Long day, huh?" Nathan drowsed in her hair.
"Mm," Audrey answered faintly. "But this is the best part of the day."
Nathan smiled, and pulled her closer. They were almost asleep when Audrey heard her phone ring.
"Leave it," Nathan mumbled.
Audrey glanced at it. "It's Duke."
"He can keep till morning," Nathan protested.
"It might be important, Nathan," Audrey argued. "Mrs. Kirkland did hit him pretty hard, she could've hurt him."
Nathan's response was to laugh. "I'll never forget the look on his face when she picked him up over her head and tossed him down like it was a cage match. The only thing hurt on Duke was his pride."
"You're horrible," Audrey told him, and reached for her phone. "Yeah, Duke?" she asked, her voice full of sleep.
"Um—Audrey? Do you think that you could come over?"
"In the morning, sure," she yawned.
"I need you right now. I have a—situation."
"What kind of situation, Duke?" Audrey sighed.
"Something's happened to me," Duke said.
Audrey snapped awake. "What happened? Are you hurt?"
"No, I'm not hurt or in pain, not really, although I did bump my head pretty hard when I jumped out of the tub," he went on.
"Why did you jump out of the tub?" Audrey questioned.
"I'm—I-I can't explain it. Just get over here, Audrey, please. I need you."
"All right, Duke, give us twenty minutes," Audrey exhaled, sitting up on the edge of the bed under Nathan's withering glare.
"This better be important, Duke," Nathan called loudly.
"Tell Grumpy it's important. Hurry up," Duke answered.
"All right, Duke. We'll be there soon," Audrey finished, and hung up. "He needs me over there. Something's happened."
"Something's gonna happen if it's not earth-shattering," Nathan grumbled, reaching for the pants he'd abandoned earlier. "This had better be important, Crocker."
Duke grimaced. He'd half hoped that when he'd dried himself off, that maybe his legs might reappear again, like Daryl Hannah's had in Splash. Instead, his tail-skin felt really tight and dry. He realized that he would have to stay hydrated, and he slithered back toward the tub, feeling like a walking catfish.
He managed to pull himself upright as much as he could until he could fall back ungracefully into the tub, the impact creating a tsunami of bathwater and tearing the shower curtain loose in the effort, the thin fabric gracefully draping itself over his head. He was glad he'd gone with the larger tub when he'd installed it as he curled his tail back under the water, feeling relieved at being wet again. He pondered on what it would be like to live as a creature of the sea, wild and free, far away from the Troubles.
Wonder if there really are mermaids, he idly thought, refilling the tub and dragging the shower curtain over himself. Not so much for modesty, but at least so he could give Audrey and Nathan a chance to prepare themselves.
Duke settled back into the tub, closing his eyes. There wasn't much else he could do.
Outside, he could hear someone playing music. But it was unlike anything he'd ever heard before. It had what he would call an unworldly quality, sweet and haunting at the same time. It seemed to have words, but he couldn't make them out. It was as soothing as a lullaby, and he was almost asleep when he heard Audrey's voice, and he jerked awake.
"Duke? Where are you?"
"I'm in the tub!" he called.
"Well, hurry up and get out!" he heard Nathan say irritably.
"I can't!" Duke shouted. "You have to come here!"
"Why are you in the tub? You said you fell out of the tub, are you hurt?" Audrey asked, concerned. "There's water all over the hallway!"
"No, I'm not hurt. I'm—I just can't get out."
"Duke, if you called me over here to un-stick your toe from the faucet or wash your back, I'm going to be very upset with you," Audrey answered, coming toward the bathroom. "Now, what's so impor-" she trailed off, her mouth forming a perfect O as she stared at the form in the tub, her eyes wide as Duke slowly eased his tail out from under his shower curtain blanket and over the edge of the tub.
"Hi," he said sheepishly. "Guess what happened to me today."
Nathan came in behind her. "Duke—oh," he goggled, taking in the fact there was a large fish's tail hanging out of the other side of the bathtub directly across from Duke.
Audrey snapped out of her shock, and approached the tub.
"Is this real?" she asked, reaching out to touch the tail. She could feel the muscles rippling beneath the warm slippery skin as the flukes moved. She could also see into the water, and realized that it was definitely a part of Duke.
"Feels pretty real to me," Duke replied.
"Duke," Nathan managed, trying to adjust to the shock. Duke growing a mermaid's tail definitely qualified as earth-shattering. "When did it—this—happen to you?"
"I guess almost an hour ago," Duke said. "One minute I had legs, the next I had—that."
"What were you doing?" Audrey asked.
"What do you mean, what was I doing? I came home, ran a bath, stripped my clothes, got in the tub, and the next thing I knew, I had turned into Charlie the Tuna," Duke protested.
"Well, what did you do today that was out of the ordinary?" Audrey questioned. "This doesn't have anything to do with the Trouble we dealt with today."
"You think it's a Trouble?" Nathan asked, feeling stupid the instant he said it. This had caught him off guard; it wasn't every day someone turned into a merman, even in Haven.
"No, I've always been like this, Nathan, I just decided to swim out of the closet tonight!" Duke snapped. "Of course it's a Trouble!"
"Okay, enough," Audrey interrupted. "Now, Duke, think. Who did you come into contact with?"
"Well, you and Nathan, ran into Vince and Dave at Rosemary's, Sasquatch, and—I did save a kid from drowning," Duke said, thinking on the little boy and his friends. "That's why I was all wet when I got there with you. I didn't have time to come back here and change."
"That's right, you told us about that," Nathan said.
"what happened when you rescued him?" Audrey asked.
"He got caught in that undertow on the western side of the sandbar at Mill's River, it was pulling him under," Duke began. "I fished him out, took him back to the sandbar." He thought a moment. "I remember he said I swam like a mermaid," he mused aloud.
"You are a good swimmer," Audrey smiled.
"I think I said something to him about how I thought it would have been cool to be one when I was a kid," Duke said, putting it all together. He looked down at himself. "It looks like he granted my wish." He thought. "At least he didn't turn me back into a kid too," he remarked. "Once is enough on that count." He grinned ruefully. "I should have told him I always wanted to be a billionaire."
"A kid with a Wishing Trouble, that's just what Haven needs," Nathan said. "Who was he, did he look familiar to you?"
Duke shook his head. "No, I've never seen him before."
"Do you think you'd know him if you saw him again?" Audrey asked.
"Maybe. He was swimming at the sandbar with a group of other kids. I think a couple of them might be Susan Flagg's kids, she works at the Gull. Maybe they might know him."
"Okay, that's a start," Audrey said. "We'll go and see them in the morning."
"What's wrong with tonight?" Duke retorted. "They're going on vacation tomorrow. She's off all this weekend, I remember, she asked me for the time off."
"Duke, I know this is weird for you," Audrey began.
"Kind of weird from this end too," Nathan said. He knew he had to be overtired—it was all he could do to keep from giggling hysterically at Duke, slouched in the tub, looking like a reject mermaid from a water park show.
Audrey glared at him, and then turned her attention back to Duke, his somber gaze fixed on her face.
"If this kid caused your Trouble, then hauling him out of bed in the middle of the night will only scare him more," she told Duke. "But we'll be over there to their place first thing tomorrow," she promised. "Will you be all right until morning?"
"Tub's a little cramped, Audrey," Duke replied. "Do you think-" he paused, as if he were thinking on something. "Do you think you and Nathan could maybe put me over the side of the Rouge?"
Something in Duke's question felt odd to Audrey, and she shook her head. There was something about the look in his eyes that just felt off for some reason. The request was so out of character for him; Duke normally would have never asked that. He'd want to be where he'd be safe, not out in open water where who knew what could happen to him.
"I don't think that's a good idea, Duke," she said. "You could get hurt, or somebody might see you like this."
"All we'd need is for you to blunder into a fishing net or get hurt someplace," Nathan pointed out. He had an idea. "Hey—do you think Chris would let us put him at the marine center?"
"I'm not going to go and be studied by Brody," Duke argued.
"No, it's a good idea," Audrey said. "We can put you in the tide pool tank. It's got restricted access, and right now, the staff's on vacation. Chris asked us if we'd patrol a little more in the area because there's no staff there this week. I'll call Chris and get him to meet us there."
Duke thought it over. At least he'd have more room than he was going to get in the tub.
"Fine," he ground out. "I guess I can keep till morning."
Audrey and Nathan struggled with Duke's weight, trying to get him out of the tub, but Duke proved to be exceedingly slippery, as though he'd been oiled. And heavy.
"I can't lift you," Audrey gasped. "Have you always been this heavy?"
"I think it's that," Duke said, gesturing at his bottom half. "Large fish are heavy, Audrey. You should try landing a 200-pound marlin sometime."
"I'm gonna get Dwight over here to help," Nathan said, fishing out his own phone.
"Why not call Vince and Dave while you're at it, I could be the lead story tomorrow!" Duke answered hotly.
"Dwight's stronger than Audrey. He can help me get you in the Bronco," Nathan said. "He'll keep quiet, you know that."
"I know. I'm sorry," Duke groused. He was tired, and the tub felt as though it were getting smaller every second. He wanted to be able to move around, and that tide pool simulation tank was sounding better every moment. It was large-150,000 gallons of seawater, plant and animal life that Chris Brody studied in his research as a marine biologist. Duke just hoped Chris wouldn't want to study him.
About ten minutes later, they heard a heavy tread on deck, and Dwight came down the hallway, carrying a canvas stretcher and a couple of poles.
He came into the bathroom, and stared down at the floor where Audrey and Nathan had managed to wrestle Duke to, his lower body covered with wet towels. Duke looked up at him from he was propped up against the side of the tub. He knew Dwight would have some snarky remark for him. Duke crossed his arms, and looked up at him expectantly.
Dwight looked shocked, but recovered quickly. He'd seen a whole lot weirder in this town, but this was definitely one for the books: Duke Crocker, merman, and he grinned slightly.
"Catch of the day, Nate?"
"Get bent, Sasquatch," Duke said crossly, and Nathan made a choking sound. Audrey shot him a fierce look.
"It's not funny, you guys," Audrey admonished them sternly.
"What happened to bring this on?" Dwight questioned.
"I'm just filling the Troubles quota for Haven today," Duke deadpanned. "Take a bath, get turned into a mermaid—yep, we're good, quota filled," he snarked, giving a glaring Dwight a sarcastic thumbs-up.
"We think it may be a kid's Trouble that did this," Audrey explained. "But right now, we need to get Duke to that tank."
Dwight lay the stretcher out flat, and they helped Duke get situated onto it, and carried him out to the Bronco.
Audrey peered out at the docks to see if the coast was clear. Thankfully, no one was around. She motioned to them, and they got Duke into the back of Nathan's Bronco. Audrey crawled in with him, and Dwight shut the hatch with a thump. Nathan put the Bronco in drive, and they drove slowly through the harbor.
"You two okay back there?" Nathan called as he drove.
"Yeah, we're okay," Audrey answered, looking down at Duke. "Right?" she asked him.
"Mm," Duke said faintly. He suddenly didn't feel all that hot.
In the dark, Audrey couldn't swear to it, but Duke's hand felt different. His color too, seemed to be changing. He was taking on a bluish tinge and he was gasping, as though he couldn't catch his breath.
"What's wrong? What's the matter?" she asked.
Duke felt like his body weighed a thousand pounds out of the water. He could see why Audrey had asked why he was so heavy.
"Audrey," he choked. "Feel like I can't—breathe."
"Hang on, Duke," she told him, her face concerned. "Nathan, hurry," she said. "I think this Trouble is making him change."
"He's changed pretty significantly already," Nathan answered.
"No, this Trouble's making him change even more. I think it might be like the Glendowers' Trouble—he needs to be in the water, Nathan, so step on it."
Nathan punched the gas pedal to the floor, and the Bronco roared through the night, Dwight's pickup behind them doing the same.
"Okay, just stay calm," Audrey soothed Duke, smoothing back his hair. "We're almost there."
Duke nodded, gasping. He now had a new appreciation for the term fish out of water. He felt like he was atop a mountain, the air too thin for him to breathe anymore.
Nathan pulled to a stop, and Dwight scrambled out of his pickup as Nathan came around to the back.
"What's the matter?" Dwight asked as they opened the hatch.
"He's suffocating, we gotta get him inside to that tank, stat," Nathan said.
Audrey saw Chris Brody emerge from the building. He looked as though he'd thrown his clothes on in haste; and she suspected he was still wearing his pajama pants.
"What's so crucial it couldn't wait till morning?" he grouched. He might have a Trouble that caused people to adore him on sight; but he was as acerbic as ever.
Nathan and Dwight both smiled, seeing Chris coming. With Chris' Charm Trouble, the urgency with Duke's situation was all but forgotten.
"Hi Chris!" Nathan greeted enthusiastically.
"Hey Chris, long time no see," Dwight grinned.
"Chris, go back in the building," Audrey ordered. "Guys, focus. Duke first, okay? Then you can talk to Chris."
"What's wrong with Duke?" Chris questioned.
"Go inside the building!" Audrey screeched at him. Chris glared at her, and ducked back inside.
Dwight and Nathan snapped out of it, and retrieved a barely-conscious Duke from the back of the Bronco, carrying him through the doors as Audrey held them open.
"Why did you bring Duke here?" Chris asked. "Wha-what's the matter with him? Has he been attacked by a shark or something?" he went on, seeing the fins sticking out from beneath the sheet, and Duke's pale face and blue lips, listening to the rales as he struggled to breathe. "I'm not a people doctor, Audrey! And what are you planning on doing with him anyway?"
"We need to put him in the tide pool tank," Audrey said as Dwight and Nathan marched past them, their eyes screwed shut tight to avoid seeing Chris.
"We're having an emergency here, Chris," Nathan said, pushing the doors to the tank room open with his back. "We gotta put Duke in here for now."
"Are you all drunk or something? You're not—you're not throwing Duke Crocker into my tide pool tank, are you crazy?" Chris protested. "It'll destroy its Ph balance! Stop!" he screeched. "It-" he broke off as Nathan and Dwight lifted up one side of the stretcher, depositing Duke into the tank in a blur of fishtail and sheet.
Duke jerked to consciousness, feeling the sensation of floating for the first time with his new lower body. He pushed himself ahead, his fins cutting through the water. Strangely, it didn't feel weird at all to him.
"Oh, my God," Chris blurted out. He staggered toward the tank, his eyes wide, incredulous at the sight of Duke. "What happened to him?" he asked.
"It's some kind of Trouble," Nathan said.
"Well, I guessed that, Wuornos," Chris shot back. "His or somebody else's?"
"Somebody else's. We think," Nathan replied.
Duke turned and surfaced, clinging to the side of the tank. He felt some better now, but he still felt strange.
"Hi Chris," he said, shielding his eyes from the scientist.
"Hi Duke," Chris answered. "It looks like you've having an interesting day. How'd it happen?"
"No good deed goes unpunished," Duke remarked dryly. "At least in Haven, anyway."
"We think a kid Duke rescued from drowning may be responsible," Audrey told Chris. "We're going to try to find him in the morning, but we need to keep Duke here till we can get him back to normal."
She started to say something else, but she noticed Duke's hand as he pressed it against the glass. She could see why it had felt different to her in the Bronco—there appeared to be webbing developing between his fingers, like a duck's foot.
"Duke, your hands," she pointed.
Duke looked down at them, as though they belonged to someone else, and not him. He didn't seem overly concerned, rather he seemed curious, as though he couldn't understand the fuss.
Chris came forward, looking at Duke.
"Let me see your hands," he asked him. "A-and I'd like to do a blood test on you too, if I could," he asked in a more conversational tone. It wasn't every day he got a real live merman dumped on his doorstep, even if it was the by-product of a Trouble.
Duke looked up at him, a sharp retort on his tongue, but upon seeing Chris, his face melted into a smile.
"Sure, Chris," he answered, letting Chris examine his hands. "Anything you want."
"We did not bring him here to be experimented on," Audrey told Chris, putting herself between Chris and Duke.
"Audrey—obviously there is something happening to him," Chris argued. "If I examine him, maybe I can find out what and possibly stop it from progressing."
"All right," Audrey grudged. She was concerned about Duke; he seemed so different in the short time since she and Nathan had found him in the tub. She watched him let go of the side of the tank and submerge fully into the water.
He burbled, as though losing his air, and his mouth opened.
"He's drowning," Audrey began, and stopped.
The three stood on the outside of the tank, watching their friend as he swam slowly around the tank.
"No," Chris said wonderingly, watching Duke come back over to them. "He's not drowning, he's breathing. He's breathing water," he marveled.
"Whatever's happening to him, it's accelerating," Nathan observed. "If we don't find that kid-"
"Duke could be like this forever," Audrey finished. "We'll find him. First thing in the morning."
Chris managed to get his blood sample, and went off to his lab, while Nathan and Dwight wrote down the kid's description the next time Duke came to the surface.
They were all exhausted, but kept going. Duke however, seemed energized, swimming around the tank. He could move at startling speed, far faster than he could have ever done swimming as a regular man. At one point, he'd jumped out of the water like a dolphin, somersaulting in the air, the resulting splash drenching Nathan and Dwight, and Audrey couldn't help but smile at his prank. The boys, however, were not so amused, and Dwight and Nathan threatened to have him stuffed and mounted if he did it again.
Audrey was worried about him. While Duke seemed to understand that things were urgent, he didn't seem overly concerned anymore about whether or not he changed back again.
Duke rolled over on his back in the tank, feeling the current he created skim over his body, the feel of his fins as he churned the water he swam in. This was—liberating—for him. He felt a freedom in the water that he had never had as a normal man, and certainly not since he'd come back to Haven.
He could also hear the music he'd heard earlier again too. He still couldn't understand the words, but he began to understand their meaning: be with us. And he wanted to do just that.
Finally, as it was almost two a.m., the little group decided it would be easier to bed down next to the tank for a few hours of shut-eye with some sleeping bags that Dwight had stashed in his truck. It just made more sense to stay at the marine center, rather than driving back to the other side of Haven, where Nathan and Dwight lived. And Audrey didn't want Duke to be alone; whatever was happening to him wasn't a good thing. He seemed so detached from it all now. She half hoped that their being with him, to know he did have people that cared for him, would help him to resist a total transformation.
But right now, it doesn't seem to be working too well, she thought.
Audrey put her bag next to the tank, and crawled in, closing her eyes. She heard a faint thump, and opened her eyes to see Duke alongside her, his hair fanned out around his face in the water. She smiled at him, and closed her eyes. He gave her a faint smile, and then swam off.
Around six in the morning, Dwight came back with donuts and coffee, and once awake, Audrey climbed up on the little diving platform next to the tank. After a moment, Duke emerged from the water, surfacing alongside her.
"Brought you coffee," she said, offering the cup, but Duke shook his head, his wet hair dangling in his eyes before he pushed it back.
"Don't want it," he replied. "Audrey—if we don't fix this-"
"We'll fix it, Duke," she assured him. "We'll have you back to normal before you know it."
Duke half smiled at her answer. She could see he was thinking over something, and after a moment, he looked up at her.
"Audrey—I don't know if I wanna be normal anymore," Duke said softly. "I didn't at first—but I like the me I am now."
"Duke, no. That's this—Trouble, it's affecting you," Audrey told him, but Duke shook his head.
"It's not just this Trouble, Audrey. It's been everything," Duke said. He looked down at himself. "Maybe this is my new start in life." He looked back up at her. "Will you promise me something, Audrey?"
"Of course," she said, her hand over his. The webbing had extended itself to his second knuckles and his skin felt rubbery, almost like a dolphin's. She realized that his body was adapting from a life on land to a life in the ocean, and if they didn't do something about it quickly, they wouldn't be able to fix him back.
"Audrey," Duke got out. He could only stay above surface for a few moments now, and he ducked back under for a moment, before resurfacing. "Audrey, if you don't find that kid-"
"We'll find him, I promise," Audrey said fiercely.
"If you do, and he can't—fix me," Duke went on, ignoring her outburst. "I want you to promise me that you and Nathan will get me to the ocean. I don't want to be experimented on or live my life in a lab."
"I know you don't, Duke. Chris is just running some tests on you, that's all. You won't be experimented with, I promise."
"Promise that you and Nathan will set me loose in the ocean," Duke repeated, his dark eyes on hers. "I don't want to be kept in a tank. You know how I feel about aquariums, they're glass prisons for water species for people to come and gawk at. I don't want to be like that, ever."
"Promise me, Audrey," Duke urged.
Audrey reached out, and took his hand in hers. She looked into her friend's eyes. She'd never seen him so serious about anything.
"I promise," she said. "If we can't fix you—Nathan and I will see to it you get to the ocean." She smiled. "Maybe you could help us out on water cases."
"Maybe," Duke said vaguely.
Even as he said it, Audrey knew. She could see the look in Duke's eyes; that once whatever was happening to him had finished changing him, he wouldn't want to be part of this world anymore. He'd entirely stopped worrying about being turned back, and as he submerged again, slowly swimming around the tank, she knew that if he were asked right now if he wanted to be normal again, his answer would be no.
She felt tears prick her own eyes. She knew that Duke couldn't help it, that his attitude towards his becoming a merman was being caused by this Trouble he was experiencing, but at the same time, she couldn't help but wonder if she and Nathan should just let this Trouble run its course. If it were anyone else, she might consider it. But this was Duke. He wasn't just anyone else.
What if this is what he was supposed to be all along? she thought.
She felt Chris come up onto the platform. He sat down alongside her, watching Duke as he swam around the tank.
"You know, I'd just about trade places with him, if I could," Chris said after a moment. "To be able to truly experience the ocean without air tanks and wetsuits," he went on. "That would be something."
"What did you find out?" she asked without looking at him. She didn't want to think of a Haven without Duke Crocker in it.
"His cell structure's altering at a drastic rate," Chris told her. "He's got characteristics of deep-sea animals that humans shouldn't even begin to possess."
"What do you mean?"
"Humans can only dive to 300 feet with scuba gear, after that it requires deep-sea pressurized suits," Chris said. "Truthfully, with the way his body's changing, right now, Duke could probably submerge to 500-700 feet, maybe more, and could surface in a matter of moments without having any of the side effects of the bends."
"How long do you think we have before we can't fix him?" Audrey asked, turning her face to look at Chris.
"Truthfully, Audrey—I don't know," Chris replied quietly. "To be honest—I think Duke might already be past the point of no return. Maybe you should just let him be what he's going to be."
"Just give up without even trying to save him? Why would you even say that?" Audrey asked, agog.
Chris was silent a moment more, and then spoke again.
"He doesn't want to be human anymore, Audrey. He said that."
"It's this Trouble, it's affecting his mind," Audrey argued.
"Is it? Look at him," Chris said. "I've never seen Duke that relaxed, ever. It's what he wants."
"No," Audrey ground out, wiping her eyes. "I'm not giving up on him, even if he's given up on himself. We need him."
"I remember I told you I needed you," Chris answered softly. "And you said that it wasn't about being needed. It wasn't enough just to need someone."
"And this isn't that," Audrey shot back, unable to hide her tears anymore. "This Trouble's affected his mind. You said he might be fixable. How long do we have?"
"Audrey, it would be a scientific guess, there's not a precedent for this," Chris protested.
"Then I want your best scientific guess," she stated.
Chris looked back at Duke, who was watching them from the bottom of the tank, and then back to Audrey.
"I'd say by the end of the day. If Duke's not back to normal by then he's not going to be normal ever again," Chris said as gently as he could. "He's surfacing less and less—I think by tonight he may not be able to surface anymore," he went on. "What was he saying to you before I came up?"
"He said that if we couldn't fix him, he wanted Nathan and I to set him loose in the ocean," Audrey replied. She looked at Chris again. "He asked us to put him over the side of the Cape Rouge, instead of bringing him here. But I didn't think it would be a good idea. I was scared he'd get hurt, or-"
"You were scared he'd leave," Chris finished. "You knew that if you did, you might never see him again."
Audrey nodded. "I have to at least try, Chris. He's my friend."
"If he's truly your friend, and it doesn't work—can you be strong enough to let him go?" Chris asked. "As much as I'd love to study him, I wouldn't want to subject him to the barrage of tests and experiments he'd be put through if somebody else were to find out about him."
Audrey didn't answer, and climbed down the ladder to where Nathan was coming over to the tank. He watched Duke, who swam up to the glass, looking out at him.
Nathan put his hand against the glass, and after a moment, Duke did the same on the other side, placing his hand where Nathan's was.
"We're gonna do our best to fix you," Nathan said, knowing full well that Duke couldn't hear him.
But Duke seemed to understand, and taking his hand down, swam slowly away.
"Come on, we've got to go," Audrey told him. "Chris says we have till maybe the end of the day before we can't fix him back."
Dwight came over, glancing at the tank, where Duke was settling into a bed of sea grass. He suspected that it might already be too late for Duke to regain his human form. But he also knew that Audrey would keep on trying to the last, so he squared his shoulders.
"We ready?" he asked.
"Yes, let's go," Audrey replied, taking one last glance at Duke who was lying on the bottom of the tank, holding himself in place with his hand wrapped in the stems of the sea grass, his eyes closed.
They drove directly to the Flagg residence, where they found them packing up for a trip to the mountains.
"Hi, Susan," Audrey greeted the blonde-haired woman.
"Oh, hi, Chief, Nathan, Audrey," she greeted. "Are we getting a police escort for our vacation?"
"No, not quite," Audrey smiled faintly. "We're looking for a little boy, we were wondering if your kids might know him. Did they go swimming down at the sandbar on Mill's River yesterday?"
"Oh, sure, they go out there every chance they get," Susan said. "Matt! Lainey!"
A boy and girl came out of the house. They appeared to be around twelve and ten, respectively.
"Hi," Audrey spoke kindly. "We're looking for a little boy you were swimming with yesterday. He's got blonde hair, blue eyes, about eight to ten years old?"
The boy and girl gave each other guilty glances. Their mother saw it, and spoke up.
"That sounds like Jimmy, their cousin," she told Audrey. "Guys? I saw that look," she said to her children. "What happened yesterday?"
"Jimmy slid off the ledge at the sandbar," Lainey admitted. "He got caught in the undertow. But a man came by and saved him," she finished hastily. "He didn't get hurt or anything."
"Where can we find Jimmy?" Nathan asked. "He's not in trouble, I promise. But it's important that we find him."
"He's my brother's son," Susan said. "Jimmy, well, he's-"
"Troubled," Audrey finished. "We know."
"Anything that Jimmy thinks of, he can make it happen, like making a wish, and it comes true," Susan told her.
"Please, if you know where he is, then we need to find him. Jimmy's wish he made yesterday is affecting Duke," Nathan said.
"Duke! He's the one that saved Jimmy?" Susan asked.
"Yes, he did. Please, it's important that we find Jimmy," Audrey told her.
"He's up at the cabin already with his folks," Susan replied. "We were just leaving for there."
"Then we'll come with you," Audrey said.
At the marine center, Chris watched Duke as he swam restlessly in circles. He'd slept for a few hours earlier, but now he was back to pacing the tank. He'd showed no interest in the food Audrey had offered earlier, but on a hunch, Chris ordered in sushi and sashimi, taking it up on the platform with him.
"Hey," he called, splashing his hand in the water to get Duke's attention, and he surfaced.
"Are you hungry?" he asked. "Notice you didn't want the donuts earlier. Figured you're probably getting pretty hungry by now."
"Hungry," Duke admitted.
"I-I got sushi. I don't know if you're a fan of it, but I got enough for two," Chris said, making a concerted effort to be friendly.
"Sure," Duke replied, and joined Chris over by the platform. He ate with gusto, munching the raw fish and seaweed salad with his fingers, and Chris observed him while trying not to make too much eye contact with him. He noted that Duke preferred this to more processed foods.
He's eating a diet that he might have out in the ocean, Chris thought. I know it hurts Audrey, but I don't think he's going to go back to being a person.
Duke looked up at him, and Chris could see that Duke's pupils had taken on an elongated shape, almost like a fish's eye. They were so dilated, his irises were barely visible.
Chris reached out to him, and Duke swam out of his reach. He reacted as a wild animal would, he thought.
"Hey, I'm not going to hurt you," Chris said gently. "I just want to have a look at your eyes. Okay?" he smiled.
Duke seemed to be thinking it over, and slowly came back toward him. Normally, if Chris had asked him that, Duke would have fallen over himself to accommodate him. But this—whatever-he was turning into seemed to have some amount of immunity to his Charm Trouble.
Duke too, was observing Chris. The song he'd first heard in the bathtub was now almost constant, and he realized that no one else could hear it. He also knew now that it was not a song, it was voices. He hadn't really understood them at first, but he did now, and they were telling him: the human is weak; control him. Make him bring you to the sea.
Chris tilted Duke's head up for a better look.
"Your eyes are changing," he said.
"Silver?" Duke asked.
"No, they're not silver, but your pupils are super-dilated," Chris told him. "Are these overhead lights hurting your eyes?"
"All right, I can dim them down for you, so you'll be more comfortable."
"Why are they different?"
"I'm guessing your eyes are adapting to being able to see in very low light," Chris answered, his brow furrowed. Normally, Duke had a verbal onslaught matched by few in Haven. Now he was making Nathan look like Chatty Cathy.
"I don't want to be here," Duke said softly, looking Chris dead in the face.
Chris stopped his examination, surprised at him. Normally, anyone that looked right at him resembled a lovesick puppy, with the exception of Audrey. But Duke just stared straight at him with that strange unblinking gaze.
Chris returned his look, kind of enjoying being able to make eye contact either with someone who wasn't Audrey Parker or fawning over his every word.
"You really don't want to be here, do you?" he asked.
"No. I want to be out there," Duke gestured toward the ocean.
"I bet you do," Chris replied gently. He had half a mind to take Duke out of the tank and transport him down to the beach. "But hang in there, Duke—Nathan and Audrey are working on getting you back to normal."
"You could take me there," Duke pressed, looking at him.
Again, Chris felt the urge to do what Duke asked. Maybe he felt sorry for him—after all Duke had been through due to the Troubles, maybe this was his redemption. But he shook it off. No. Audrey and Nathan would be beside themselves if he set Duke loose.
"Duke, I can't," Chris answered. "You're too heavy for me to lift by myself. Dwight and Nathan said you must weigh close to 250 pounds now."
"Lift me with that," Duke pointed to the hydraulic harness they used to treat injured marine mammals, his tone quiet but persistent.
Chris wanted to help him; he knew Audrey would be beyond furious if he released Duke into the ocean, but at the same time, he felt almost as though he were being compelled to help Duke.
I think he's trying to make me help him, Chris thought, his eyes searching Duke's face. Duke's expression was neutral, but Chris could see a determination in his eyes. Does he have some form of mind control now? Like the all those old stories about sirens being able to make sailors jump from their ships?
"I can't do that, Duke," Chris said quietly, pouring on his Charm Trouble for all it was worth. "I'm sorry."
Duke pushed back from the platform, and submerged back into the tank with an angry splash.
Chris exhaled heavily, and climbed down from the platform and made to walk away when he heard a bump. He turned around, and was face-to-face with Duke through the glass. He had his eyes fixed on Chris, his face less than an inch from the tank glass.
Help me, Chris could hear Duke's voice in his head, echoing over and over. I want to be free.
"I can't," Chris said, and winced in pain as a shrill screech like a chorus of dolphins filled his head. It stopped, and Chris looked back at Duke, his eyes wide, unbelieving at what was happening. Duke's expression still remained neutral, his gaze unwavering from Chris' face, and any lingering doubts that Chris had about Duke having developed telepathic abilities vanished.
Help me, came Duke's call again to him. Set me free.
And then suddenly, Chris wanted nothing more than to set Duke free in the ocean.
"Audrey's gonna kill me," Chris said aloud. "Just give me time to change into my wetsuit, okay?"
Duke's smile told him he didn't have to hear him to understand.
It was a three-hour drive to the mountains, but they finally made it to the cabin where Jimmy and his family were staying.
"Go ahead and go find him," Audrey told Nathan. "I'm gonna call Chris and see how Duke is doing."
Nathan and Dwight nodded and set off for the lake, where they could hear the sounds of kids splashing and yelling.
The phone at the marine institute rang and rang with no answer. When Chris didn't pick up there, Audrey tried his cell phone, and it went to voicemail.
"Damn it, Chris," she muttered. A hundred scenarios played through her mind. Maybe he was taking a nap. Maybe he was in the tank with Duke, conducting a further examination. Or maybe he had Duke stretched out on some lab table—no, she thought. He wouldn't do that to him. Or something could have happened.
She debated about calling Stan to go by and investigate; but she couldn't take the chance of someone finding out about Duke.
She put her phone back in her pocket and hurried in the direction that Dwight and Nathan had gone.
Chris finished fastening the sling around Duke, and swam back over to the ladder, climbing out of the tank.
"Hold on," he told Duke, and hit the button. The crane whined, and began to lift him out of the water, where it would deposit him onto a waiting stretcher. Chris had the Marine Institute's van parked in the garage, and then it was just a short drive down the beach to the ocean.
Chris got Duke down, and wrapped the netting he'd laid out on the stretcher around him.
"This netting is so I can get you down into the water," Chris explained, tying it closed around Duke with Velcro. "You okay?" he asked him.
Duke nodded his understanding, closing his eyes against the harsh overhead halogen lights.
Chris pushed the stretcher down the hall and somehow got it and Duke loaded into the van.
He heard his phone ring and went to reach for it, but Duke put his hand on Chris' wrist.
"No," he said, his eyes on Chris'. Chris dropped his hand by his side, fully under Duke's control now.
"Ocean," Duke told him.
Chris nodded his understanding.
"Okay," he answered. "I'll take you to the ocean."
Duke let go of his wrist. Chris climbed in the driver's seat, and started the van.
Audrey caught up with Dwight and Nathan, and a small boy, his wet blond hair plastered on his head.
"Audrey, this is Jimmy," Nathan told her.
"Hi, Jimmy," Audrey greeted him, kneeling down. "I understand that you met a friend of ours yesterday. He saved you from drowning."
"Uh-huh," Jimmy answered. "He said he wanted to be a mermaid when he was a little kid."
"Well, that may be true—but Jimmy, sometimes what people want to be when they're little, they don't want to be when they grow up," Audrey answered tenderly. "I know that you just wanted to make his wish come true, and that you didn't mean to hurt him. But Jimmy, you're hurting our friend with your wish."
"I'm hurting him?" Jimmy asked, his blue eyes filling with tears. "I didn't wanna hurt him. I just wanted him to be happy."
"What do you mean, he's hurting him?" a man asked.
"Sam Hayward, Jimmy's father," Nathan introduced.
"Jimmy's wish is causing our friend to change," Audrey told him. "If he doesn't make it stop, our friend is going to be something that he's not supposed to be."
"Jimmy's never been able to reverse his wishes," Sam put in. "We've had-incidents—and he hasn't been able to fix any of it."
"Well, we're going to try something," Audrey replied. "Jimmy, would you like to go for a walk with me?"
Chris got the van to the edge of the beach, and climbed out.
Duke lay still in the back, rolled up in the netting. He hadn't uttered a word since they'd left the Marine Institute's garage, and Chris came around to the back, opening the doors.
"I'm gonna have to drag you to the water," he told Duke. "I'll go as quick and as easy as I can, okay?"
Duke nodded. He was already having difficulty breathing, and he groaned as Chris pulled him off the stretcher to the floor of the van and then down into the soft sand of the beach.
"We're almost there, hang on," Chris gasped, tugging with the effort, and he waded into the surf, pulling the netting and Duke in with him.
Audrey and Jimmy went up to the porch of the little cabin and sat down on the swing.
"Okay, Jimmy," she began. "I want you to picture the man in your mind. Here—I'll make it easier," she continued, taking out her phone. She flipped through until she came to one of her and Duke. "Here he is," she smiled. "His name is Duke. Duke Crocker."
"Duke," Jimmy repeated, looking at the picture. "Aunt Susie works for him. He was nice."
"That's right, she does, and he is, he's very nice," Audrey answered, smiling. "Now, close your eyes," she instructed. "I want you to picture Duke in your mind. Not as a mermaid, but how he looks as a man, okay?"
"Okay," Jimmy answered.
"Are you doing that, Jimmy?"
"Okay," Audrey pressed on. "Now I want you to imagine him that way, how he looks in the picture."
Chris was waist-deep in the surf now, and he struggled to unfasten the Velcro holding the netting closed, as the tide was coming in.
Duke thrashed around, trying to work himself free of it.
"Easy, easy," Chris protested. "I've almost got it—there," he finished, as Duke swam free of the netting.
Duke submerged, and resurfaced a few yards away from Chris. He looked back at him for a few moments, and in a blur of fins, he was gone beneath the waves.
Chris just blinked in surprise, as though he'd just woken up, and he realized what he'd done. He knew it was going to hurt Audrey and Nathan to lose their friend like this; but he felt he'd made the right choice as he looked out at the horizon.
"Goodbye, Duke," Chris said softly.
"Okay, Jimmy," Audrey said, her eyes closed along with Jimmy's, his little hand in hers. "Do you have Duke pictured in your mind?"
"Yes," Jimmy answered.
"Okay," Audrey breathed. "Now—I want you to wish for him to be like he was yesterday—a normal man. Say that with me."
"A normal man," Jimmy said somberly.
"A normal man," Audrey replied. All she could do was hope and pray that if and when Duke did turn back human, he wouldn't drown himself in the tank.
"Did you do that?" Audrey asked. "Did you wish for Duke to be a normal man again?"
"Yes," Jimmy replied. "I did."
"Good job," Audrey smiled. "I'll tell you what—when you and your family get back into Haven, you come by The Grey Gull and we'll get Duke to fix us banana splits on the house. Would you like that?"
"Yes!" Jimmy cheered.
"Okay. Just be careful granting people's wishes next time, all right?"
"All right," Jimmy said. "Do you think it worked?"
I'll let you know," Audrey promised.
"Can I go back swimming now?"
"Sure," Audrey smiled, and watched Jimmy trot off in the vicinity of his parents, who were coming over to them.
"Did it work?" Sam asked.
"I guess we'll find out when we get back to Haven," Audrey said. "So if we get started now, we should make it back by sundown."
She glanced over, and she could see Nathan on the phone. The news wasn't good, whatever it was, she could see from his body language.
"Excuse me," she said to the Haywards, and went over to Nathan, who was talking to Dwight. Both their expressions were serious.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"Chris just called me," Nathan began in a low voice. "He says that somehow Duke was able to hypnotize him or something."
"What did he do?" Audrey said, her voice strained.
"He let him go in the ocean," Nathan told her. "About 20 minutes ago. He said Duke was compelling him to do it, that he had developed some form of mind control."
"Oh, God," Audrey said. "I just got Jimmy to wish him back to normal! Dwight-"
"I've already notified the Coast Guard to start a search," Dwight said grimly. "But if Duke changed back while he was deep underwater-" he broke off. "He wouldn't have the oxygen to surface."
Audrey fought the tears down. Duke might be gone forever, and Nathan put his arms around her.
"And maybe Jimmy's wish didn't work," Nathan said softly. "He might still be near Haven. And if it didn't—" he broke off, thinking. "Then he's free now."
They got back into the Bronco, and made the long trip home to Haven in silence.
Audrey sat nestled next to Nathan, a million memories crowding her mind. Duke had saved her from drowning when she first came to Haven, and of all the times he'd been there for her and Nathan. It just didn't seem possible that he wouldn't be there anymore.
Chris had phoned them on the drive home—he'd apologized profusely, explaining that it was as though Duke had him in some sort of trance, that even his own Charm Trouble didn't work on Duke.
"Like the old sailor's stories about sirens luring men to their deaths from ships," Dwight said quietly from the back seat, echoing Chris' earlier thoughts. "There must be some grain of truth in there somewhere if Duke was able to overcome your Trouble like that and compel you into releasing him."
"I am so sorry, you guys," Chris said on the phone. "If I could turn back the clock and fix this, I would. I-I just couldn't help it. I tried to resist, but I couldn't."
"You did your best, Chris," Nathan said in a monotone.
"He didn't even say goodbye," Audrey choked. "Did he?"
"No, he didn't. It was almost like he didn't care, or maybe he wasn't able to anymore," Chris replied. "He just looked at me, and he was gone. Again, I'm truly sorry, Audrey," he finished, and hung up.
"Mer-beings aren't supposed to be able to have human feelings," Dwight said. "At least, that's what the legends all say about them."
"In the ocean, it's the law of survival—eat or be eaten," Nathan put in. "I guess there's not a lot of room for emotional ties in that equation."
They dropped Dwight off at the Institute to pick up his truck, and then Nathan drove Audrey home.
It was difficult, seeing The Gull dark and shuttered as they drove up. They got out of the Bronco, and Nathan put his arms around Audrey, guiding her towards the back, where the stairs led to her apartment.
"How do we explain that he's gone?" she asked.
"Well, Duke was a fisherman, sometimes," Nathan replied. "We can say that he was lost at sea in a fishing accident."
"I am not lost at sea, and you two certainly took your sweet time getting home," they heard Duke say from somewhere. A collision, and a muffled curse told Nathan and Audrey that Duke Crocker was very much alive.
"Duke!" Audrey cried with relief.
"Duke?" Nathan asked, unable to keep the grin from his face.
"Yeah," he replied from the shadows. "I was just about to break into your place."
"Why break in?" Nathan questioned.
"Well, I'm kind of—naked here, Nathan, I don't have my keys. And I don't feel like getting arrested for indecent exposure at my own place," Duke explained.
"You've seen me naked," Audrey teased.
"Yeah, well, if you want to be all technical about it, you've seen me all but naked, but we won't discuss that," Duke answered pointedly, seeing the angry flush in Nathan's face. "But we won't talk about that."
Nathan shone his flashlight over by the supply shed and they could see Duke with a fishing net wrapped around his waist, his bare legs sticking out from beneath it. He squinted as Nathan deliberately pointed the flashlight beam at his face. He scowled, and shielded his face.
"Yes, see, I'm naked, Nathan," Duke retorted. "Now stop blinding me with your flashlight."
"You're back to normal," Audrey smiled, and Duke returned it.
"I guess I am. Well, as normal as I get, anyway," he answered, looking down at himself.
"How? Chris said you dove out into the open water," Audrey said.
"I'll explain all that, but can we go inside? I'm getting cold out here. Also, there's a fish hook somewhere in this net, and it's poking me in a very delicate place," Duke protested.
"I think I have some clothes over here you can borrow," Nathan said.
"That would be nice. I don't think any of Audrey's would fit me anyway," Duke cracked, wearing his fishing net like a toga as he made his way up the stairs to Audrey's apartment.
A short time later, he was attired in a pair of Nathan's jeans and a T-shirt, and the three gathered around the fire pit, where Nathan had gotten a cozy fire going.
Dwight had been notified and in turn let the Coast Guard know that they had located their missing man. Audrey also told Chris that he was now off the hook, that Duke was safe, and back to normal.
Duke curled up in his chair, absentmindedly rubbing his feet and legs, as though he were trying to get used to having them again.
"So—what happened after we left?" Nathan asked. "Chris said you used some kind of mind control on him, and that you seemed to be immune to his Charm Trouble."
"I guess I did," Duke admitted. "It would've been kind of nice if I could've kept those little tricks," he grinned. "But when I turned back normal, I was just that—normal," he showed them his hands, web-free once again. "How did you convince the kid to change me back?"
"I told him you'd make us banana splits on the house," Audrey laughed.
"I don't have banana splits on the menu," Duke said. "But I guess I could make an exception since he was nice enough to wish me back to normal." He grinned. "Besides, I can always take it out of Susan's paycheck."
"Don't you dare," Audrey scolded with a grin.
"But—how did you end up here?" Nathan questioned. "The Gull's 20 miles from where Chris released you."
"I'm—not sure," Duke said, puzzled. "All I remember is wanting to be free. I started out swimming out into the open ocean, but I wanted to come here first," he went on. "I think maybe I wanted to say goodbye?" he asked them, getting shrugs in response.
"That's odd—because Chris said you seemed very emotionless," Audrey spoke.
"Things here—well, they just didn't seem to matter anymore," Duke replied. "I was there, I was present, but—I just didn't seem to care about human problems anymore, for lack of a better term. At any rate, I was swimming here, and all of a sudden, I had legs again. I was a good twenty feet underwater when it happened. Somehow, I made it up onto the dock," he went on. "I think I threw up about five gallons of seawater. Took me a few minutes to figure out how to work these again too," he gestured at his feet.
"I'm just glad you're back to being plain old Duke Crocker," Audrey smiled, taking his hand in hers.
Duke smiled, and turned his gaze out toward the sea, the full moon's light casting a billion diamonds on the water.
He caught a momentary flash of movement on the water, and for a moment, was filled with a sadness he couldn't explain.
He didn't tell Audrey and Nathan that he would have drowned; by all rights, he should be dead, buried within the depths of the sea. He would have been—had they not carried him unconscious and unbreathing to the beach under the dock, helped to push the seawater from his lungs, their soft cries of sorrow at having to leave him behind, and his heart ached for the loss of his pod, separated once more, he a child of the land; and them, children of the ocean, intersecting, but never together.
Duke looked out over the ocean, still feeling that faint tug at his heartstrings, before it disappeared. He tried to remember their faces, what they looked like, but it was fading away rapidly, like some forgotten dream.
"What are you looking at?" Audrey asked, squinting out at the water. "What's out there?"
"Nothing. Just watching the moonrise," Duke replied.
He knew they were there; he'd heard the sirens calling to him, and he had very much wanted to join them; not as their victim, but as part of their tribe. But that would be for another day.