A mermaid with strawberry-blonde hair did a flip, her tail making the water splash a bit. She swam gracefully past a platinum-blonde mermaid and they took hands, doing a synchronized turn before swimming to the surface and taking a breath. Once their lungs were filled, they slipped back under water and continued the routine.
A dozen happy tourists stood outside the tanks, watching the girls. The strawberry-blonde pressed her hands against the glass, low enough that one of the little girls outside was able to match it. The mermaid smiled at her and swam back up as the routine ended.
They did several more shows like that before their shifts were over and they went to the dressing room to return to their human forms.
“We were pretty awesome, today,” Freya, the platinum-blonde commented.
Aria, the strawberry-blonde, smiled. “Yesterday, you said we were fabulous and today, we’re awesome.” She carefully wrapped up her tail and put it in the storage closet.
“What can I say?” Freya grinned. “We rule the sea.”
Aria laughed. “Well, the aquarium, at least.” She looked at her friend, trying to determine, not for the first time if her hair was really that pale by nature. Freya insisted it was, but Aria had her doubts. “Today went pretty well, though.”
“We are on a roll!” Freya linked arms with Aria. “Together, there’s nothing we can’t do.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say nothing.” Aria smiled as she looked at her friend. They had met at the aquarium a year before, when Freya had taken over for a mermaid who had moved away. The two were much more in sync than Aria’s previous partner and had quickly become friends, even getting an apartment together. She found herself drawn to the girl’s ever-bright personality. She was the most optimistic person Aria had ever met and always seemed to find a way to make things work out for them.
“Well, I would and I did,” Freya replied, looking at her friend, “Respect your elder.”
“Are you my elder?” Aria raised her eyebrows. “How old are you, again?”
“Nine hundred and seventy eight,” Freya answered, immediately. Aria hadn’t been able to find out her real age and the girl always seemed to come up with the same number when asked. She couldn’t be tricked into telling the truth, it seemed. They were paying attention to each other as they walked and accidentally bumped into someone.
“Sorry.” Aria looked to see who it was, just as he was kneeling down to pick up some papers he had dropped. She felt thoroughly embarrassed when she realized they had run into Frederick Grey, a biologist who worked out of a lab in the back of the aquarium. He studied the fish and had several papers published on the subject.
“It’s not a problem,” he assured them, standing back up once he had his papers, “It’s just some research materials and they weren’t organized to begin with.” He smiled at them. Dr. Grey was tall and slender. He had black hair, which had been quickly brushed, and a deep voice that made many girls swoon. He was rather pale from spending most of his days in his lab and he always kind of reminded Aria of a vampire.
She returned the smile. “Just as long as we didn’t cause you any trouble…”
“No trouble at all,” he replied, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be off to my lab. Important studies to do and all that.” He gave the girls another smile before taking off. It seemed he was always doing research of one kind or another. He was attractive enough to have a girlfriend, but he had no interest in such things. Sometimes, Aria wondered if he ever left the lab, at all.
“That guy’s so weird,” Freya commented, once he was out of earshot.
Aria gave her a playful slap. “That’s not very nice.”
“Doesn’t he seem odd to you?” Freya asked as they started walking, again, “He cares way more about science than people. It’s not healthy.”
“He’s a little eccentric,” Aria reasoned, “He’s harmless, though. You shouldn’t really allow yourself to be troubled by people being different. You won’t make many friends if you can’t tolerate quirks.”
“I have all the friends I need.” Freya smiled and squeezed Aria’s arm. “Why would I ever need to find more?”
“You’ll want a boyfriend, eventually, right?” Aria asked.
Freya stared at her, blankly. “What would I do with one of those?”
Aria shrugged. “Go on dates and stuff?” She really didn’t have much experience with such things, herself.
“Why can’t I do that with you?” Freya cocked her head, managing to look so adorable that Aria couldn’t help but wonder if it was intentional.
“It wouldn’t really be the same,” Aria replied, “It’s not like we would ever get married.”
“You wouldn’t marry me?” Freya pouted her lip. “I’d be a good wife.”
“And you think Grey’s odd?” Aria laughed and shoved her away, shaking her head. “Sometimes, I think you really are as crazy as you act.”
“Of course, I am.” Freya smiled. “It’s part of my charm.” She flipped her hair.
Aria couldn’t help but laugh at that. “You have charm, now? I think I missed that memo.”
A young man came rushing in their direction. He looked around, clearly flustered. He had brown hair, blue eyes and a baby-sweet appearance. He saw the girls and took a breath. “Have you seen Dr. Grey? We were talking and he suddenly took off. I’m his new intern and he forgot to show me where the lab is.” His expression was desperate. “I don’t want to make a bad first impression, but I have no idea where I’m going.”
The girls looked at him, wearing matching, amused smiles. This wasn’t particularly unusual behavior for the absent-minded doctor. Everything came second to his work, even his interns. It wasn’t the first time he had forgotten one and had to be chased down. Aria took pity on the boy. “It’s towards the back. I’ll show you.”
He gave her a relieved smile, then paused, staring at her. “You’re really pretty.” As soon as the words were out, he realized what he had said and his cheeks turned crimson. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…” he faltered, having no explanation for the awkward compliment. He rubbed his neck, uncomfortably. “Sorry.” He was half-afraid he might have scared her off, leaving him to find the lab by himself.
Aria raised her eyebrows, suppressing a giggle. She often got compliments from strangers, since she was a performer. However, this one was a little more interesting. “No need to worry. It’s always nice to hear that someone finds me attractive.”
“Right.” He didn’t look any less embarrassed. “So…about the lab…”
“It’s this way.” Aria continued to smile as she led him towards the back of the building. “I’m Aria, by the way. I’m a mermaid, here.”
“I’m Eric.” He didn’t look at her, directly. “I’m an intern with Dr. Grey.”
“You mentioned that,” she reminded him, the amusement clear in her voice.
“Oh, right.” He cleared his throat. “I guess I’m a little nervous. I’ve read several of his papers and I was really impressed by his work. I couldn’t believe he hired me, at all.”
“Don’t worry so much,” she advised, “Dr. Grey is a little absent-minded and probably won’t remember any screw-ups, as long as they are not too big.”
He frowned, not seeming to be terribly comforted by that idea. “He’s not really what I expected.”
“He’s not what most people expect when they hear he’s a renowned scientist.” She stopped outside the back door. “The lab is through here and to the right. He’ll probably have his nose buried in his work, but don’t get offended. He’s always like that.”
“Thanks.” He took a breath and stepped through the door, looking rather grave.
Aria returned to Freya, who had waited patiently for her. Freya shook her head and sighed. “Poor boy doesn’t have any idea what he’s in for. I almost feel sorry for the kid.”
“Pretty sure he’s too old for you to call him a kid,” Aria pointed out, “At any rate, he’ll learn, quickly, I’m sure.”
“He’ll have to if he doesn’t want to get left behind.” Freya smiled and took Aria’s arm, again. “Now, then, I believe we were discussing how charming I am.”
Eric rushed into the lab, hoping he wouldn’t be reprimanded for falling behind. “Sorry it took me so long to catch up. I got a little turned around.”
“Hm?” Dr. Grey looked up at him, seeming uncertain about who the boy was for a second. “Oh, yes, Aaron. It’s no trouble.”
“Um…my name’s Eric.” He wondered if it was a bad idea to correct his boss, but the sentence slipped out before he could stop it. In an attempt to rectify any possible damage, he added, “Sir.”
“Eric, of course.” Dr. Grey didn’t seem at all concerned. As Aria had predicted, he was bent over some research notes, making corrections. “Hand me the red pen, will you?”
The intern nodded and found the pen, holding it out to the doctor. He realized he probably wasn’t going to get an explanation for why the doctor had run off, but, at least, he didn’t seem to be in any trouble. “What are you working on?”
“Corrections. It occurred to me that I made an error in my notes, earlier.” He began scribbling, fervently, seeming to forget there was anyone else in the room.
Eric looked around, his discomfort growing by the minute. He didn’t want to interrupt the doctor, but he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be doing. He took a breath and was about to speak when someone else entered. It was a boy a few years older than him. He had perfectly-styled, golden hair and steely-gray eyes. He gave Eric a friendly smile. “You must be the new guy.”
He nodded, relieved to have someone talking to him. “I’m Eric Fisher, the new intern.”
“Adam Bane, the old intern, now assistant.” He raised an eyebrow. “Your last name is Fisher and you decided to work in an aquarium? You must have a good sense of humor.”
Eric shrugged. “I wanted to work with the best.” He glanced at the distracted scientist, questioning the wisdom of his decision.
Adam followed his gaze and seemed to read the younger boy’s mind. “This could take a while. Come on, I’ll give you the grand tour.” He held open the door to the lab.
Eric glanced back at their boss, uncertainly.
Adam understood his reluctance and looked at the doctor. “Dr. Grey, do you mind if we walk around the aquarium, for a while?”
“Yes, fine.” He never looked up from his work.
“Would it also be alright if I introduce Eric to my meth dealer out back?” Adam asked with a grin.
Eric raised his eyebrows, scarcely believing the older boy had said that, but Dr. Grey seemed untroubled. “Yes, of course. That would be great.” His tone sounded like someone reading from a script.
Adam winked and jerked his head to the side, indicating that Eric should follow him out. The intern obeyed, now, feeling even less confident about his choice in mentors. “Is he always like that?”
“Whenever he’s working,” Adam replied, “How do you think he pumps out all those papers? He is extremely focused on his work at all times. If he could teach himself to live off light and air, he would never leave the lab, at all.”
“That seems unhealthy,” Eric commented, “Why does he bother taking on interns if he doesn’t even pay attention to them?”
“Oh, he’ll pay attention when he needs help,” Adam assured him, “When he gets on a big project and can’t do everything himself, you will get plenty of work. In general, I assist him with day-to-day activities, getting him coffee and making sure he keeps any appointments, such as meeting new interns.”
Eric sighed. “So there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have even come out to greet me if you hadn’t reminded him.”
“You’re catching on.” Adam grinned. “Not to worry, you’ll learn plenty here, even if it’s not always from the good doctor.”
Eric thought, for a moment. “Out of curiosity, who picked me for this internship? Was it Dr. Grey?”
Adam sighed. “Don’t go getting hurt feelings. He just doesn’t have time for that stuff.” He offered Eric a smile. “I went through a lot of candidates before picking you. Just because it wasn’t actually Dr. Grey who made the decision, that doesn’t mean you weren’t selected because you were the best person for the position. I’ve been working for the man for three years and I knew exactly what he would need. You fit the bill, perfectly.”
Eric nodded, still uncertain. He had been thrilled when he’d received his acceptance, but it didn’t seem like such an honor, now.
“Ah, now, you look sad.” Adam put an arm around his shoulders. “I think you’ll feel better when you get the tour. Most people only get to see the aquarium during the day, but we get to stick around after closing. We get to see everything and even check out all the animals up close because we are scientists and it is our job.” He winked. “Just follow my lead and you will really be able to enjoy this internship, regardless of our crazy boss.”
“I’m just saying he was very cute and obviously into you,” Freya commented as they girls entered their shared apartment. Halfway home, she had decided that Aria had met her soulmate and needed to pursue him, immediately. She had briefly tried to convince her friend to run back to the aquarium and declare her love for him in the lab. That idea was scrapped, however, when Aria reminded her that the lab often had dead fish prepped for dissection, which was not romantic, in the least.
“I’m way too busy for a boyfriend, right now,” Aria replied, “Between work and school, I am completely booked.” She was seventeen and still in high school. Her mom had passed when she was young and her dad had remarried, causing him to move away a few months before. She’d already been working at the aquarium for a while and she convinced him that she couldn’t move right before her senior year. That was when Freya had stepped in and agreed to look after her, even letting Aria move into her apartment, as long as she paid half the rent. It had taken some time, but her dad had agreed and Aria was left with only her best friend as a guardian. It was the only proof she had that Freya was over eighteen.
“School is important, I’m sure, but love is the most important thing, ever,” Freya insisted, “You must latch onto any opportunity for it and refuse to let go. Besides, he was just too adorable with his big, puppy-dog eyes.” She stepped out of her shoes as Aria closed the apartment door. Freya never liked wearing shoes longer than necessary. She used to run around the city barefoot until she stepped on a piece of glass and had to get stitches in her foot. Aria had scolded her all the way to the hospital and never let her leave the apartment barefoot again.
“I’m not going to marry a guy just because he looks sweet,” Aria told her, “Besides, we barely know him.”
Freya shrugged. “I get a good feeling from Eric.” She looked at her friend, skeptically. “Would you be so hesitant if it were Adam asking you out?”
Aria blushed. “We’re just friends. Besides, I thought you didn’t like him. You said he gave you the creeps.” She stepped into her bedroom, so her friend couldn’t see her face. She closed the door, knowing that wouldn’t end the conversation.
“He is creepy.” Freya nodded. “You should not date him or be friends, but you clearly think he’s attractive.”
“Most girls think he’s attractive,” Aria pointed out, changing into a tank top and some jogging shorts, which she used as pajamas, “Besides, I doubt he would show interest in a high school girl like me.”
“That is for the best.” Freya paused, thoughtfully. “You shouldn’t date Adam. You should date Eric. He is nice. I can tell.”
“Oh, really?” Aria couldn’t help smiling at the older girl as she returned to the living room. “And how are you so certain? He could be an ax murderer for all we know.”
“He’s not.” Freya’s voice was adamant. “I am an excellent judge of character.”
“Of course, you are.” Aria rolled her eyes, still smiling.
Freya looked at her. “I picked you as my best friend, didn’t I?” She stepped into her own bedroom to change and called back, “Do you think that was a mistake?”
“I could still turn out to be an ax murderer.” Aria flopped down on the couch and turned to face the closed door of Freya’s room. “What’s with you trying to find me a boyfriend, all of the sudden, anyway? Are you trying to get me out of the apartment?”
“I would never do that.” Freya stepped back out, her platinum-blonde hair braided on one side. She wore satin, sea-foam green pajamas with blue swirls. To Aria, it seemed like the girl had braided her hair and changed clothes abnormally fast, but that was normal for Freya. “I would have you live with me forever.” She grinned. “I just want to be sure you don’t wind up with a bad guy or just the wrong guy. There are too many of those around, these days.” She sat beside Aria. “I am your guardian, more or less. Isn’t it my job to protect you from dangerous and creepy men?”
Aria gave a brief laugh and shook her head. “I am perfectly capable of handling my own love life, thank you, very much.”
“If you say so.” Freya smiled. “Well, I’m off to bed. Remember not to stay up late. You have that test, tomorrow.”
Aria groaned. “Don’t remind me.” She hated school and was never very good at it. There always seemed to be too many distractions. “Good night, Freya.”
“Good night.” The older girl disappeared into her room and Aria went to bed, soon after, thinking she couldn’t wait until school was finished and she could get back in the water. It was the only place Aria ever felt really happy and she would never leave it if she had her way.
Freya had similar thoughts as she lay in bed that night and looked at the stars through her window. She smiled and closed her eyes. However, as soon as they were shut, she was hit by a blinding light and a comet came into view, shooting right towards her.
Her eyes snapped open and she sat up, but there was little relief to be found, even then. She pulled her covers over her face and willed the vision away, wishing it could have waited a few more decades.