Three months have passed since Neri was crowned Heiress Apparent to the Ocean Planet by her mother, Queen Shalamorn. Since then, her mother, Neri’s younger sister Mera and the rest of the commandoes have long left earth, all signs of the deadly red virus have been eliminated from both planets. Through frequent calls on the sea-shell shaped alien communication device which Neri had on the solitary island where she grew up, Shalamorn and Mera kept Neri posted on the progress they made in travelling to the many regions to meet with the people on Ocean Planet and assure them the harm caused by the exiled Malakat was history. Happiness and peace was quickly restored. Neri sensed the calm contentment of her people, and was very happy this sunny morning when she swam out to greet her best friend, the whale Charley.
Charley was not surprised Neri only swam with him for a little while, since she was on her way to ORCA, the underwater oceanic research station where Jason Bates lived with his mother Dianne and younger brother Brett. Charley teased her about hardly ever having time for him as she was spending more time with Jason than ever. Neri smiled a little ruefully before she waved goodbye and swam on to ORCA. When she came up through ORCA’s diving pool, she saw a small group of cadets, including Brett and his friend Cass, who were taking inventory of the ORCA station’s diving equipment under the supervision of Officer Hartley. Lithely, Neri climbed out of the pool and was barely acknowledged by the group of people other than a few nods and hellos. In the past three months since the news broke that Neri was an alien ambassador, and the fact that she was Jason Bates' girlfriend, her visits to ORCA have become nothing special to the underwater station’s inhabitants. Once Neri had changed into her ORCA uniform in one of the cabins behind the lockers and walked towards the door, Brett called after her: "Jase should be on the bridge, he is on duty!" Neri thanked Brett with a smile. She knew that personal visits to the bridge were not permitted, so as she walked away, she contemplated if she should head to the commander’s cabin for now, or rather to the lab to join Winston. Dr Winston Seth is Dianne Bates’ former assistant and a close friend to Neri and the Bates family. She moved through the corridors and ran into Louis Danton, the First Officer’s precocious son.
Louis stopped and grinned: "Hi Neri, are you looking for Jason?"
Neri smiled at the younger boy. "Yes, but he’s working."
"So is my father, they are both on the bridge. I will take you." Louis led the way.
Neri wondered if First Officer Danton has potentially relaxed his strict adherence to rules to allow for Louis and her to enter the command center of the underwater station. She didn’t want Jason to get in trouble with his superior. After a moment of hesitation, and even though Neri knew her way around ORCA, she accepted Louis' offer and, while walking to the bridge together, she listened to him telling her about the most recent security updates to ORCA’s supercomputer HELEN. Those extra security measures were implemented since a group of journalists has been trying to get into ORCA without badges to get what they hoped to be access to Neri and the Bates family. They made it to the Commanders Quarters and took pictures of Dianne, Jason and Brett eating breakfast just a few days after Shalamorn returned to the Ocean Planet. Jason got up to shove the reporters and photographer out of the cabin, while they kept on snapping pictures and throwing invasive questions at him about his relationship with Neri.
Jason loved Neri, and he was not afraid to show his feelings openly, even in front of Neri's mother and his own parents, let alone Brett and Mera, their constantly teasing siblings. He was bothered by the fact that Neri and his relationship have become tabloid fodder ever since Neri was introduced to the world in a TV broadcast with the President of the Global Union, who first met with Shalamorn only days after she had been reunited with her daughters. One week later, in a larger-scale TV broadcast, the President of the Global Union gave a speech to introduce Shalamorn, who then addressed the citizens of earth to apologize for the damages done by Malakat, vowing to restore their planet and to return to the Ocean Planet with all aliens except Neri, whom she introduced standing next to her, as the Heiress Apparent, and as ambassador of peace between their two people. Neri did not say anything during the telecast but smiled a slightly shy yet warm smile at the camera. Afterwards, everyone was ushered into a rather stiff reception hosted by Madame President with prominent World Leaders. Jason walked over to Neri's side, who smiled at him gratefully and immediately looked less tense when Shalamorn introduced herself, then Neri, Mera and Jason to another group of leaders. At some point, when Neri started to look a little unsteady on her feet, Jason asked her if she needed water. She nodded, so they excused themselves and he led her outside the room to flag down one of the waiters he has seen earlier bringing pitchers of water to the room. Walking hand-in-hand through long corridors, they found the kitchen and Jason asked for a glass and pitcher of water. Neri drank two glasses of water, and Jason helped sprinkling her face and her hair without getting her dress too wet.
"You did not drink any water earlier, did you?"
Neri shook her head.
"I was nervous. Mother and Mera are better prepared than me to speak to many people."
They slowly strolled back to the reception room and noticed an open door to the beautiful gardens. They stepped outside, walked hand-in-hand along a narrow path, and took in the fragrant flowers and the smell of freshly mown grass. It was such a tranquil place, bees were buzzing around and they spotted a couple of hummingbirds! There was a small pavilion at the end of the path, surrounded by colorful flowers. Jason and Neri sat down on a bench, Neri resting her head on Jason’s shoulder, and they were silent for a while, just taking in the beauty around them.
At some point, Neri looked up at Jason and asked why these particular leaders have been invited to meet with her mother, so Jason explained to her about the many countries across the world and that some were considered more powerful than others based on size, history, economic strength and political influence.
With a pang of guilt, Neri said: "I wish I was more comfortable talking to these strangers, just like Mother."
Jason looked into her eyes and said "You will get better in it over time, with more practice."
Neri smiled at him and allowed for him to pull her in for a long and gentle kiss. Hand-in-hand, they walked back to the building and rejoined their families, Madame President and the World Leaders in the reception room.
Next morning, back at ORCA, Jason received a very early video call from their long-time friend Vanessa. She was enrolled at the University on the mainland and worked part time at a news wire firm.
"Jason, I want you to know so you won't be surprised: Pictures of you and Neri are all over the wire and news blogs today. "
"What do you mean? Which pictures?" Jason asked, not entirely awake yet, and feeling confused.
"Of you and Neri in some pretty garden. The captions identify you by name and as ORCA officer, I just wanted you to be prepared."
Brett, who shared the room with Jason had woken up and notced his brother's incredulous expression.
Jason finally caught himself: "Eh, thanks Vanessa. Say hi to Mick!" Then they said goodbye.
Little did Jason anticipate the storm of inquiries ORCA received with interview requests for Jason and Neri. Paul called Jason and Dianne mid-day to give them a heads-up on the large number of requests that have him reached at ORCA headquarters. Eventually, after a few weeks, the hype around Neri and Jason subsided, but Jason was still not keen on leaving the secure realms of ORCA, with the exception of visits to Neri's Island. Thankfully, the island has remained a secret. After Jason's experiences with PRAXIS, the anti-extraterestial intelligence services agency, he was surprised none of the reporters has figured out a way to follow him to Neri's island. Overall, even though things have gotten much quieter, Jason was still concerned that the media scrutiny was not gone yet.
When Neri and Louis entered the bridge, Neri immediately spotted Jason standing next to First Officer Danton, looking at a screen with graphs on it. Louis pulled her arm to follow him.
Then, looking at Jason, he said: "Look Jason, whom I brought along."
A small smile spread on Jason's face for a short moment, but he was on duty, so he just briefly touched Neri’s arm and said: "Hey Neri. My shift will be over soon, should I meet you in our quarters? Or in the galley?"
"I will go be with Winston then," she smiled at First Officer Danton, and Louis, and went to the lab. The scientist was happy to see her and immediately, an animated conversation between them started. Cass and Brett who had finished their lesson joined them shortly after. Winston was in the midst of telling them a story from when he was growing up in Mumbai when Jason entered the lab. He hugged Neri from behind and joined in listening to Winston's tales.
Once the scientist has finished his story, Jason spoke up: “Sorry to interrupt.” He then glanced over to Brett: "I just found out Dad's on is way here, he said he and Mum had something to discuss with us. You know what that could be?"
Brett shrugged and speculated: "Maybe they decided to give exclusive interviews to some of those trashy magazines about you?"
Jason gave him his most condescending older brother look in response, then asked Neri: "Do you want to stay for dinner?" Neri shook her head. "I will go for a swim with Charley. He is cross with me for spending little time with him. You come to island later?" Jason nodded and they parted with a kiss.
Paul Bates, Jason and Brett’s father and supreme commander of ORCA in the South Pacific region, arrived just in time for dinner.
"Hello boys! Dianne," he greeted them as he entered the Commander’s quarters.
“Hi Dad,” the boys responded. Dianne nodded at her ex-husband in acknowledgmenet of his arrival. The way her jaw was clenched, she looked quite tense to Paul, but the boys seemed oblivious to that.
He sat down and smiled at his ex-wife: "Dianne, this looks and smells delicious!"
"Thank you. Actually, the honors go to Jason today." Paul raised his brows in surprise.
Dianne nodded and said: "He has turned into quite a chef lately. Would you like to eat with us?"
“Thanks, that would be nice.”
So the family dug in. While Brett still did not really agree with his parents on Jason's cooking skills, he finished his plate first, as usual. After everyone cleared the table, they all sat down again. The kids looked expectantly at Paul, who cleared his throat and looked at his older son.
"Jason, your mother and I have been talking about this for a while. You graduated high school with straight A's, you completed the ORCA cadet training with highest marks, and you are one of the youngest Officers in the ORCA organization. Your mother and I are very proud of you." He paused, searching for words: "Now, we are wondering what your plans are for the future?"
Jason felt awkwardly put on the spot. "What do you mean?"
Dianne chimed in: "Have you maybe given any thought to going to university at all?"
Jason looked surprised. "Not lately, no. I’m very happy here at ORCA."
Dianne gave Paul a pointed look that pretty much said: "Didn't I tell you so?"
Paul smiled, he was not surprised in the least.
"Son, in order to have a lasting career at ORCA, you will need more than the cadet training and high school diploma. You’ll need to get a university degree."
"I won't go anywhere. I wouldn’t want to leave Neri behind," Jason responded calmly.
Dianne chimed in: "Look, Jason, all your friends have already moved on and enrolled in schools these past few years, and your father and I think you should not delay university any further. Growing up, you always wanted to become a marine biologist…"
"But Mum, don't you understand? I can't move to the mainland."
Dianne did not waver.
"We all are here for Neri while you are at school, and you will return to ORCA during breaks."
Jason resolutely shook his head.
His mother smiled sympathetically: "Why don't you go and check it out? ORCA is partnering with the University on the mainland. You will meet some of your old friends there."
Jason sighed, looking down at his hands that were laying folded in front of him. There was no doubt in his mind, he wouldn’t go anywhere, no matter what his parents said.