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Ari flicked her long auburn hair over her shoulder, crossed her arms, and pouted. The current fashion for human things was all very well, but prom nights? With long evening gowns?

"This is ridiculous," she grumbled. "How will I swim?"

She pirouetted in the water, flicking her shimmering green tail behind her, and nearly knocked the proffered gown from the hands of the shop assistant. Her six sisters, each busily examining the racks of diaphanous gowns, gasped and looked disapproving. Ari hastily apologised, as her oldest sister, Aquata, gestured meaningfully at the gown.

"Fine," she said, "I'll try it on." Behind the seaweed curtain she struggled into the gown; its fitted purple bodice clung to her body, and the gossamer skirt floated down, forming elegant drapes and folds. She hated to admit it, but... it looked good. Ari turned to go show her sisters, but her tail flukes tangled in the skirt. She wobbled and sank. Frowning, she righted herself, and sedately inched her way out of the changing room.

Her sisters cooed over their littlest sister, and rushed to find their own dresses. "Isn't this exciting?" Andrina squealed. "I can't believe we're having a prom! And in a week!"

Ari just scowled.

=========

Prom night came. Ari avoided the primping and fussing by sneaking out of the castle early. A single sea anemone in her hair, the purple gown tucked in her bag until the last moment, and she was ready. It'd do.

If she was going to be fashionably late, so her disdain would be obvious, she had some time to kill. She headed down to the park. As she'd expected, Crush and the other turtles were there, just chilling under a kelp tree.

"Ari! Duuude," Crush said, lazily gesturing with a flipper. "Whatcha up to?"

"Oh, you know, not much," she said, toying with the strap of her bag, conscious of its contents. "Got any suggestions?"

He looked around, and leaned close. "Might do. You interested?"

She eyed him thoughtfully. Ari liked Crush, despite his relaxed and occasionally erratic ways, but her family didn't. Ah, what the heck.

"What have you got?" she whispered back.

"Something new. Dude, it's totally sweet. It's called Rapture, and you'll love it. Easy ride, sweet as, totally takes your worries away."

Ari nervously glanced around. "How... how long does it last?"

"Just an hour or so. Plenty of time for you to get to that prom of yours." He looked at her solemnly and slowly blinked his big eyes. Ari giggled; that was as close to a sly wink as Crush could get when he was wasted.

"I'm in. Hook me up." She sat next to him, and discreetly palmed the object he slid towards her with a flipper. A quick glance - a nondescript grey tablet - and she swallowed it.

She waited. Nothing much seemed to happen, so she distracted herself by describing her sisters' fixation on humans. "... and when they like someone, they don't say 'I'm hooked' any more, they say they 'have a crush'!" She blinked at Crush, and burst out laughing. "If I-" she snickered, "had a-" she giggled, "a- a- a crush on you-" she snorted, "I'd have a crush on Crush!"

"Dude," he said. "You are like so raptured now."

She nodded, and laughed until she hiccuped. Crush laughed with her.

=========

Eventually the giggles died away to an occasional snort, and they sat in companionable silence. Ari leaned back against his shell, watching the kelp fronds dancing in unseen currents.

"Thanks, Crush," she said. "I needed that."

"Dude, no worries!" he said. "Any time!"

"I suppose I should get ready for this stupid prom," she sighed. Crush just nodded, so Ari slipped behind a clump of sea lettuce and changed into the floaty purple dress. She inched gingerly back to Crush. His eyes boggled appreciatively, but he said nothing but "Dude, want a lift?"

Ari nodded, grabbed the edge of his shell, and they were off, bouncing and scooting through the water. By the time they arrived at the prom, her hair was tangled, the anemone long-lost, and her cheeks were flushed with laughter. "Thanks, Crush!" she said, and boldly made her way inside.

She was immediately engulfed by a gaggle of sisters in a rainbow of gowns. They talked over each other; "Where in water have you been?" "What have you been doing?" "What have you done to your hair?"

The loudest of all, as always, was Aquata, who demanded "Don't you want to be here?"

Ari grinned. "Oh, I'm just raptured to be here."





Apologies to both "The Little Mermaid" and "Finding Nemo"! My partner for this intersection round is [livejournal.com profile] mstrobel, and her entry is here.
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Jeremy fumbled his keys out of his pocket with one hand, careful not to spill the chicken salad he was carrying, and unlocked the front door. He hadn't mean to be home quite so late, but the code release hadn't gone well. The day had been so busy that he hadn't even got to eat the lunch that a co-worker had dropped on his desk around 1, when they noticed he hadn't even had a coffee break yet.

Charlotte didn't say a word, just offered him the baby. Jeremy hurriedly dropped the chicken salad on the coffee table, and cradled his daughter close. He gazed down at her murky dark eyes, then placed a reflexive kiss on her wispy hair as he looked at his wife.

"Sorry it's so late," he said. "Things fell apart."

"Well, they nearly did here, too," she snapped. "Ella's only just stopped crying, first time all day."

As if in response, Ella stirred, stretching and grumbling, a promise of trouble that threatened to grow. Jeremy cradled her closer and automatically started the swaying bounce that he'd learned over the last six weeks. She turned her head towards his chest and started mouthing her hand. "I think she's hungry."

"She can't be!" Charlotte said, collapsing exhaustedly onto the couch. "I've been feeding her all damn day! I'm not a bloody cow."

"I know... but look," he said, tilting his daughter so that Charlotte could see her searching mouth. "She looks hungry to me."

"Fine, then. You feed her." Charlotte looked away so he couldn't see the tears forming in her eyes. He knew that tone of voice, though, the tone of tiredness, self-doubt and worry. It had become all too familiar lately.

"You know I would if I could," he said, trying desperately to find a tone of sympathy that wouldn't be interpreted as patronising through the endless fug of exhaustion they were operating in. He worried about Ella, but he worried about Charlotte more. Ella had both of them watching out for her, but Charlotte only had him. He refused to think about who was looking out for him.

Charlotte's voice cracked as she muttered, "I don't think my milk's any good."

Jeremy carefully lowered himself to the couch next to her, protective of the infant in his arms. He pressed his leg gently against Charlotte's. "Look at her, though," he said. "She's growing and beautiful. You're doing great."

Charlotte leaned against him, hiding her face. "I'm not! She's hungry all the time! And I'm so tired. I don't know if I can do it."

Jeremy paused. He'd been determined to be the best father he could possibly be, so when Charlotte had gone through stacks of pregnancy books from the library he'd flicked through them, too. An infographic had suddenly come to mind, of growth spurts and wonder weeks. Wasn't there something about a six week growth spurt? It seemed so much her domain, though, and she was so tired and therefore sensitive that he was reluctant to suggest it.

Ella chose that moment to loudly protest the cessation of movement, and her hand-sucking became even more frantic. Jeremy quickly lumbered to his feet and started swaying again.

"Tell you what. How about you try to give her a bit more of a feed, and then I'll jolly her along while you have a shower."

Charlotte lifted her head. "Are you saying I smell?" Jeremy almost made hasty protestations, until he glimpsed her tiny smile, a glint that he hadn't seen in weeks. He grinned back, and gently gave Ella to her. Charlotte sighed, settled back and did the complex one-handed fiddling inside her shirt that preceded every feed. As she delicately fended Ella's hand out of the way and helped her to latch, she glanced up at Jeremy. "What about dinner?"

"I'll sort it out while you're in the shower." Jeremy went to the kitchen and filled a glass of water, just as Charlotte called to ask for one. He quietly grinned to himself at the thought of how quickly some parts of this turbulent change to their life were becoming routine, and gave her the drink.

Back in the kitchen, he rummaged through cupboards, hoping earnestly to find something attractive and, more importantly, easy to make for dinner. There hadn't been last night, and there wasn't tonight. By the time Ella had finished feeding, and Charlotte handed her to him, en route to the shower, he still had no inspiration. In the end, he toasted some bread, found the least soggy lettuce leaves in the fridge, and put the chicken salad on the table. There was only so much he could do one-handed.

Charlotte re-emerged, her hair wrapped in a towel, and took Ella from him. Her fresh clothes were promptly branded with curdled milk. Her resigned sigh was followed by an accepting snort, which grew into an all-out giggle. She sat at the table, laughing, and Jeremy joined her.

When their laughter stopped, they looked at each other, just breathing and smiling, enjoying the camaraderie and synchronicity that used to come so easily.

"I was thinking," Charlotte said as Jeremy dished out their impromptu dinner, "That maybe it's the six week growth spurt. Mum reckons it only lasts for a day or two."

Jeremy nodded in agreement, and ate a forkful of chicken salad. He promptly spat it out. "Urgh," he said. "It's gone off."
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Nurses whisked past in the corridor, the tap of their soft-soled shoes joining the background of mumbled conversations, mechanical beeps, and the rumble of wheeled beds. Slumped in a chair, Linda rubbed her eyes with one hand. She carefully adjusted her position, easing the cramp in her back from hours of sitting, but never let go of the hand of the woman in the bed.

Mary's body, worn thin after nearly nine decades of life, barely made a crease in the covers. The outlines of her bones were sculpted through her papery skin, like shipwrecks in wind-ravaged sand dunes.

The curtain rattled gently, and Linda jerked upright. She glanced at the clock on the wall; while each sullen tick was a morbid metronome of precious seconds, somehow the hours had slipped past. She rubbed her eyes again. Shift change- this nurse was unknown, yet his motions were familiar. He checked the IV, hung another bag of saline. He glanced at the catheter bag; Linda flinched as she saw his mouth twitch downwards. The bag was as empty as it was the last time the shift changed.

A scribble of his pen and a nod of his head, and he was gone again, pulling the curtain shut behind him. Linda stared after him. After a moment she glanced back to the gnarled hand cradled inside her own.

She started to talk.

She spoke of memories, past adventures and holidays. The time William fell in the cow trough. The birthday doll that a jealous Cynthia shaved bald. How Dad put a flagpole in front of the house for Mary to use when he was out on the farm - a green flag for "lunch is ready", blue for "visitors here", red for "the baby's on its way, get home now".

She spoke of love.

She talked until her voice was rasping, until the words were gone. Then she sat, gazing at her mother's beloved face, hollowed and shadowed, watching each breath.

The curtain rattled again. Linda didn't even look, numb to the clinical rhythms around her. A hand touched her shoulder. She jumped. She was standing before her brain had even processed who it was, and she was swept into a three-way embrace.

The three heads huddled together had the same colour hair, all just starting to grey at the temples. Linda held her brother and sister close, and her shoulders relaxed ever so slightly.

"You made it," she said, her voice husky. William hitched a breath in; he stared at the bed, his face pale. He pulled away from the hug and moved to his mother's side. His hand hovered over hers as if afraid to touch her.

Cynthia nodded. "We managed to get the same connecting flight for the last bit. How is she?"

Linda looked away. "The doctors haven't said much. They're giving her antibiotics, but nothing really changes. I... I don't know."

Her sister nodded again. She gazed at Linda with an assessing eye. "Go eat, have a shower, maybe a quick nap... Will and I will be here." There was a pause. "Honestly. I'm a nurse. We're here now. We'll get in touch straight away if anything changes. You need a break."

Linda finally agreed. Cynthia was right. If nothing else, a change of clothes would help. She collected her bag, kissed her mother on the forehead, laid a quiet hand on William's shoulder as he sat on the edge of the chair, and left.

The automatic door at the entrance to the hospital slid open, and the wind ruffled her hair. The brisk chill was a relief after hours of sterile stuffiness. It was dark, not surprising at that time of year, and Linda glanced reflexively at her watch. Six o'clock. She stumbled a little, disoriented by the discovery that she doesn't know which six o'clock she's facing.

The parking machine demanded a ridiculous sum of money. She paid it, climbed into her car and turned the key. The click of the ignition was followed by the inane blather of the radio; definitely morning.

The drive home was sedate, as she concentrated carefully through a fug of tiredness. She fed the cat, and ate some toast- pausing for a moment, remembering after-school toast and Milo on rainy days, and Mum in her floral apron. It was a relief to shuck her antiseptic-and-sweat clothes and climb into the shower. She scrubbed away the last 32 hours, washing shampoo and tears down the drain together.

Exhaustion flooded through her, and could not be denied. The sheets of her bed, chucked hastily aside when the call came last night- no, the night before- weren't crisp and white, but they looked good. She carefully checked the ringtone volume on her phone, set an alarm for 9 o'clock, and crawled into bed. The slight jolt of the mattress as the cat joined her didn't even register.

Linda's eyes sprang open at the first tinny cheep from her phone. She grabbed for it, her heart pounding, and gasped in relief at the sight of the "Snooze" and "Dismiss" buttons on the screen. It wasn't even 9:30 before she was back at the hospital; three short hours seemed like too long to have been away.

Nothing much had changed; Mary lay in the bed, even more shrunken and still. William dozed in the chair, jet-lagged from the flight. Cynthia was perched gently on the edge of the bed, holding Mary's hand and talking quietly. She glanced up at Linda and smiled, but didn't stop speaking to Mary. As Linda came closer, she realised that Cynthia was doing the same thing she had done; pouring a lifetime of love, memories and appreciation from her heart.

The clock ticked through the day. As doctors and nurses came and went, shifts changed, and the meal trolley rumbled past and past again, the three siblings shared their stories. They remembered other times, laughing over the different perspectives and blame from childhood incidents. William confided that he'd recently got a ginger cat, just like Mary had always had, and laughed to discover that his sisters each had one already. He hadn't heard that Poppet, the young successor to eight ginger cats before him, had been hit by a car. Mary had found him crumpled beside her mailbox just last week.

They spoke of their dad, quiet but immensely proud of his family, and their eyes met with the unspoken question of whether his sudden, shocking, early death had been easier than this slow possibility.

The truth was there in the nurses' eyes, and in their hearts, but it took a doctor to speak it. "There's not a lot else we can do," she said. There were other words, too; sepsis, anuresis and microthrombi. "We can keep trying to fight the infection, but in all honesty, all it's likely to do is lengthen her discomfort."

"Is there nothing else we can do?" Linda asked.

The doctor tilted her head to the side, looking directly at Linda. "We can keep giving antibiotics, but as you can see, they aren't having any effect. We've already tried all the usual drugs. Your mother was in good health for a woman her age, but an infection like this..." She shrugged.

"Is she in pain?" Linda felt Cynthia's hand on her arm, squeezing gently in reassurance as the doctor showed her Mary's chart, and the opiates listed amongst the six-syllable medications.

"So... we just let her go?"

A movement from the bed startled them all. Mary opened her eyes- barely, but enough- and nodded slowly, once, twice.







Topic: If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time.

This piece is dedicated to my mother, and to my grandma, Betty. We miss you, Grandma.
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Amanda looked at her watch, and leaned forward to glare at the front door. She wriggled her phone out of her jeans pocket, a bit of a struggle in the confines of the car seat, and double-checked the time. They were going to be late, dammit.

She tapped her fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. It was tempting to honk the horn until her husband finally emerged. Despite his work hauling him all over the country, he could never get it into his head that you had to be there well before the flight time, that check-in wasn't something that you just breezed through fifteen minutes beforehand.

Trouble was, he somehow always managed it, schmoozing at the staff and getting on the plane.

He wasn't the one flying this time, though. Amanda had been anticipating this trip for months. Her father, a man her mother described as "a deadbeat perma-child", had contacted her for the first time in 18 years. Despite the history- forgotten birthdays, promised visits that never eventuated, Christmas gifts that never arrived- she was looking forward to seeing him, if for no other reason than to tell him that she never wanted to see him again. She hadn't quite decided.

Nervousness coiled in her stomach, and she gave in to the impulse. She leaned on the horn, blat blat blaaat, and finally he came out. He climbed into the passenger seat, grinned at her, and said "Ready to go?"

Amanda repressed the urge to snarl at him, and started the car in silence. In her peripheral vision she could see Paul open his mouth as if to speak, but change his mind. She accelerated roughly down the street, the tension in her body expressed in her foot. A corner of her mind felt guilty; she wasn't really mad at him, just overwhelmed with anxiety, nerves and the memory of past hurts.

The 20-minute drive to the airport passed without conversation. Amanda stopped the car in the drop-off zone outside the main doors, pulled the key from the ignition, and sat for a moment with her hands in her lap. With a deep breath, she pulled the lever to open the boot, opened the car door and went around to the back. Paul had already collected a luggage trolley from a rack beneath the "Drop-off zone - 5 minutes or less" sign.

He hauled her suitcase out and dropped it on the trolley. She looked at him, and proffered the car keys. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's not-"

Paul pulled her close and hugged her. "It's okay," he said. "I know this must be hard for you."

She nodded, snuggled against his chest. A moment passed, and with another deep breath she stood up straight.

Paul kissed her on the forehead. "It'll be okay. He'll either have got his act together and realised that he's been a fool not to be part of your life, or he's a total dickhead and you'll be right there to kick him in the crotch."

Amanda laughed, offering him the keys again. Paul always made everything all right. He tucked the keys into a pocket, and turned back to rummage in the boot. "If he's a dickhead, I'll kick him twice. He deserves it."

He grinned at her. "Now now, stay calm," he said. He held out her carry-on bag. Amanda took it, and slung the strap over her shoulder. Together they wrangled the trolley up onto the footpath, battling the obligatory wonky wheel.

Paul gave her one last kiss, confirmed her return flight details, and climbed into the car. He waved over his shoulder as he drove away; Amanda waved back.

She pushed her trolley through the automatic doors, and into the bustling airport crowds. Whatever happened on the trip, it would be okay. There was one man in her life she could count on.
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The fiddler's bow flashes as he plays, his fingers flickering. His notes flirt with the mandolin and accordion, lighter than my feet will ever be.

I don't care. I dance.

It's a tradition. Monday is an odd night for dancing, but it's the one with the music I love. This pub is usually a refuge for elderly drinkers, but tonight it's claimed by a different clientèle.

The air is stifling. Beer fumes and cigarette smoke condense on my sweaty skin. I'm sober, but intoxicated with camaraderie, endorphins and the love of the music. I am buried in the crowd I meet here every week. Our feet fly together.

The minuscule area in front of the stage was never designed for the enthusiastic efforts of amateur Celtic dancers. These days it flexes beneath us, keeping time with the beating of the bodhrán, with the thumping of my heart.

My eyes meet Niall's across the dance floor. As so many times before, I quickly glance away, feigning interest in the band. I'm not looking, but I am acutely conscious of him, even through the press of bodies and the thrashing of feet.

Everyone whoops as the song finishes, applauding and sucking in lungfuls of the fuggy air. The bearded accordion-player grins at me as the band begins a new tune. This is my favourite set of reels, starting with The Silver Spear and building in intensity to the explosion of the High Reel. It's irresistible; I tap, stamp, kick and spin as the music lifts me from the base of my spine to the top of my head.

The crowd is moving, too, and somehow the shifting of bodies brings me next to Niall. I sneak another glance. The hem of his kilt flicks as he follows the rhythm with lithe grace. His dark hair curls sweat-slicked across his forehead, and his white shirt sleeves are rolled above his elbows. Even sodden with sweat, he smells good.

We dance through the building intensity. The single half-beat of silence before the High Reel is expected, but exhilarating every time. It bursts within my chest like a bubble of joy. The musicians are working as hard as the dancers, pushing the tempo, pushing us, pushing them.

It ends, as it must. The pub explodes with cheers, and the musicians disband, heading for the bar and a well-deserved drink. I head for the door. It's too hot in here, in more ways than one.

The crisp night air is a welcome relief against my flushed cheeks. I lean against the cold concrete wall, trying to catch my breath.

A familiar voice startles me as I'm handed a glass of water. "Here you go. I thought you might like a drink." It's cold and refreshing. Drinking it gives me something to do as I try to form a coherent sentence.

"They're on top form tonight," I offer, gesturing with my head towards the door.

Niall nods. He glances at me and looks away, his usual calm, quiet manner replaced by something more diffident. "You are, too."

I have no way to reply except a smile. We stand in silence until the random twanging of strings tells us the band is doing a quick tune-up.

"Coming?" he asks, holding the door open for me. I suppress the urge to make an old joke, and wade back into the dense atmosphere. He follows me in, and we join the group.

As the music begins, he takes my hand.

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