jexia: (Me 2015)
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Nemo rushed out from under the ledge of a piece of coral, his stunted fin flickering wildly. "Dory!" he cried. "You made it!"

The blue fish stared at him blankly for a second, spun around in a circle, and then scooped him up in a big hug. "Nemo! I made it!" She paused. "Made what?"

He grinned at her. His friend was notoriously forgetful, and he'd grown to adulthood dealing with her lapses. As he opened his mouth to speak, another clownfish slipped out from under the coral and snuggled beside him. "Dory, you remember my mate, of course?"

Dory nodded emphatically, "Yes, yes, of course. Lovely to see you, uh-"

"Caroline," Nemo prompted.

"Caroline," Dory repeated.

"Hi, Dory. Glad you made it. It's nearly time!" Caroline wiggled her black-tipped fins, and darted away, back under the table coral.

"Come and see," Nemo urged Dory, leading the way. They carefully skirted past the anemone where Caroline and Nemo lived; the orange clownfish were immune to its sting, but the regal blue tang could easily become a victim. Behind it, in a shallow depression underneath the safety of the coral's spreading branches, lay a thousand tiny eggs, grey and pearlescent. Within the eggs, tiny forms shifted, with eyes clearly visible.

Dory stared, her mouth agape. "Wow, Nemo. They grew."

"They sure did!"

An egg twitched. All three fish watched in wonder. Another egg twitched, and another.

In the expectant silence, the fishes' thoughts turned, as often happens in times of imminent new life, to those lives that had been and gone. Nemo leaned against Caroline. "I wish Dad could have been here." She slipped a fin over his back, and Dory did the same.

"Marlin would be so proud," said Dory. His passing of old age, frail and weak, was seared upon her memory, as was the knowledge that she would probably outlive Nemo, the coming brood, and even the next generation of clownfish.

They waited, wrapped in shared memories, hope and excitement. More eggs twitched, the movements inside becoming more emphatic, and the three fish inched closer to watch. Suddenly an egg split, and a tiny clownfish larva burst out. It was translucent and fragile, but Dory squinted closely at it, then flung her fins wide. "It's a boy!"

Another egg split. "It's a boy!"

Another, and another. "It's a boy! It's a boy! Boy oh boy, it's a boy!" She swam in excited circles. "A boy! And a boy! And another boy!"

Dory swam around and around the clutch as more eggs hatched. "A boy! It's a boy!" She stopped and thought for a moment, then pointed at a wriggling egg as it split. "...surely this one will be a girl?" The tiny fish wriggled out and Dory looped the loop in joy. "It's a boy!"

She stopped and pointed again. "Must be time for a gi- it's a boy! Whee!"

As more and more eggs hatched, Dory swam around in a state of agitated confusion, finally coming to a halt in front of Nemo and Caroline, who valiantly tried to repress their giggles. "Surely you should have a girl by now? Ooh, another boy!" She darted away in glee, trying to shepherd the larvae into a group.

"Dory!" Nemo called. "DORY!"

The blue fish halted, and looked back at him. "What?"

"They're all boys!"

"I know! Isn't that strange? So this one should be a girl- it's a boy! Wahoo!"

"No, Dory! All clownfish babies are boys!"

Dory blinked at him in confusion. "What do you mean, all clownfish babies are boys? That makes no sense." She peered accusingly at Caroline. "Are you a boy?"

Caroline grinned. "I used to be."

Dory's jaw dropped. "Wha-? How... how does that work?"

Caroline shrugged. "When there's no females around, we just... change. The biggest male becomes a female."

Dory squinted at Caroline with the dubious expression of someone who has been tricked many times before.

"It's true!" Caroline added.

Dory looked at Nemo. He nodded in agreement, and she looked back at Caroline with slightly less scepticism. "You really used to be a male?"

Caroline nodded. "I've had babies before, but I didn't lay the eggs. My mate-" she broke off, and took a moment to compose herself. "She got taken by a barracuda, and with her gone, I became a female."

Dory listened, her eyes wide with fascination. "Those awful barracuda. That's just what happened to Marlin! Coral got taken, and... wait. You're playing tricks on me! Marlin never turned into a female."

Nemo looked sad. "There must have been something terribly wrong with him. He should have turned into a female. I don't know why he didn't."

Dory assessed him, askance, still not quite sure if he was telling the truth. "Really? Marlin was broken? Well, at least he was a great dad. I don't think he'd have been any better as a mum."

Nemo glanced aside. "Actually, he'd, um, she'd, um. Have been my mate."

Dory blinked. "Your what?"

He cleared his throat. "My mate. Except he didn't turn, and we don't know why, and it's rather embarrassing that he didn't."

"That's incredible! I wish I'd known that before! Why didn't you tell me?"

In unison, Nemo and Caroline answered "We did". Dory didn't hear them; she'd already darted back to the thinning cloud of larvae and was ducking and spinning, greeting each one with a startled exclamation of "It's a boy!"

Oblivious, the larvae drifted upwards, towards the light of a waxing gibbous moon. Nemo and Caroline watched them go, content in the knowledge that tides and currents would drift them through the ocean, to reefs their parents would never see.

That was how it was supposed to be.
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