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He nodded. "I know how it goes. The heart wants what the heart wants, and so do the feet."
"Jonas, please stop talking about shoes or get out of here, but you've gotta pick at least one."
Jonas held up his hands. "Oh, simmer, I'm just making conversation with your new friend-"
"Not. My. Friend."
"So just put down the glass of haterade."
"That's wonderful," Betsy said, smiling. "I'm stealing it."
"That's okay," Jonas said, "I did, too. Amazon forums, would you believe it? But seriously, you guys-why are the three of you sitting up here almost by yourselves in a giant food court when none of you are eating much of anything, when you've barely been back in town ten hours"-nodding at Fred-"because of something you've done." Nodding at Madison. "Is it super-secret mermaid stuff?"
No one seemed to know how to answer him until Betsy spoke up. "No. Super-secret vampire stuff."
Fred was astonished, and then frightened, and then admiring. That fanged cow wants Jonas to be curious. She had a very specific reason to tell him what she did and she did it in a very specific way. She wants people I care about in this. She wants them nearby. Because that will make me be careful. Maybe I'll be so worried about keeping Madison and Jonas out of trouble, I won't have time to kick her undead ass all over the NEA break room. Nice one, blondie. Maybe you only look like a vapid dumbass.
The irrepressible Jonas took it well, considering. "You guys are vampires now?" he gasped.
"Not her." Betsy, jerking her head at Fred. Then she nodded at Madison. "Her mom. And me."
"Is that why you're chilly to the touch?" Fred asked. She'd been wondering about it before, but in the ensuing excitement had forgotten. But now she was thinking about Betsy grabbing her wrists in the break room, how cold her grasp was. "You can't keep a ninety-eight point six body temp anymore?"
"No," she said with a sad sigh. "I'm always cold. Even in summertime. It's a terrible burden."
"Try swimming the Arctic Ocean in January sometime," Fred snapped back, unmoved.
"Ooooh," Jonas said, leaning back in his chair. "Is there gonna be a mermaid-vampire smackdown?"
"There already was," Madison said, picking up her drink, looking at it, and putting it down once more. Fred estimated she'd drank about twenty milliliters at most. A waste of a daiquiri. "It was rilly horrible."
"Whaaaaaaat?" Jonas's chair came forward with a thunk. "And I missed it? Dammit! I knew I should have tracked you down the first time you blew off my text. The event of the century and I was stuck on the Red Line! So who won?"
"I think it was a tie. Then Fred stripped naked and swam in the Giant Ocean Tank and proved she was a mermaid because Betsy never watches TV."
"And where was I? Son of a bitch!" Jonas smacked himself on the forehead, like a man vigorously checking himself for fever. "Okay, from the top. Seriously, guys. Start over. I wanna hear everything. We're wasting valuable time, time that could be spent making me feel like I was there and didn't miss the awesomest evening out ever."
And because Fred and Betsy had the same thought, though they didn't know it (I still have questions and Madison still hasn't told us everything), the mermaid and the vampire thought that was a fine plan.
"Does he do this a lot?" the vampire asked. Fred noticed that, as she'd sucked all the liquid from her smoothie, she'd begun eyeing Madison's all-but-untouched drink. Hmmm. Unnatural thirst? How often does she have to suck down blood? And when did she last do so? Hmmm. "Just plop himself in the middle of something and assume he belongs?"
"Since we were seven." Fred sighed.
Betsy's smile widened. "Yeah. I've got one of those, too." She didn't elaborate, but unless the vampire was an Oscar-caliber actress, she was looking at Jonas with genuine fondness, and for that, Fred could almost forgive the mind snatch.
"So I came to town for the Tall Ships thing-"
Fred winced. Don't do it. Don't. Don't. She might finally be ready to tell the whole thing. At last you'll have answers. So keep your piehole shut tight.
"-but, like, they were late or whatever, or I was early, because-"
Jonas frowned at her. "Don't, Fred."
"-the ships weren't there."
"Of course not!" Fred had held herself in as long as humanly (or Undersea Folk-ey) possible. vzyl "That's in the summer, as anyone within five hundred miles of Boston knows, it's always in the summer. Who comes for Tall Ships in the spring?"
"Okay, I can see how that would annoy a local," Betsy conceded, "but come on, are you gonna interrupt after every sentence? How many hours have you allotted to story time? I could be hanging out with my insane husband right this minute."
Which was worse, being reprimanded by a thieving vampire, being confronted with Madison's essential stupidity, realizing that Jonas would rip into her snobbery when he could get her alone, or knowing the vampire was correct? "Nnngghh. Go on. Sorry."
"And also, I thought maybe mermaids would be interested in tall ships, and maybe I could meet a couple more. You, um, you said you'd introduce me to some, but you've been super busy."
I will not feel guilty. I will not feel guilty. I will not feel guilty for politely blowing her off.
"And also, I was hoping to meet some people that I'd met online, doing the PR stuff for the NEA and for you."
"Fred doesn't even do her own PR stuff; she wouldn't stick you with it," Jonas agreed.
"Except I did," Fred said slowly, remembering.
Jonas threw up his hands. "Well, great."
"Madison offered to catch the e-mails for NEA's 'Ask a Mermaid' page." Just saying the name of the thing out loud made her want to break things. "The volume. You wouldn't believe the volume of stupid, stupid, stupid questions. There were almost as many of those as there were sex questions. You wouldn't believe what some people wanted me to do with my tail."
Betsy made a strange sound and clapped her hands over her mouth; Fred realized she'd barked laughter without meaning to. She took her hands away and said, "It's awful you had to be exposed to those and then exposed Madison to those."
"Well." Fred coughed. "Madison was there and she offered and she's good at it." Fred saw the young woman blush with pleasure, the first time that evening she hadn't looked like she was coming down with a violent stomach virus. "And she offered to do the press releases, too, and I said sure."
Jonas was nodding. "Okay, yeah, I get it." To Betsy: "Fred hates that shit. If she had her way, she'd dig a hole in a Cape Cod sand dune and live in it and hardly ever leave it except to bitch at tourists for building sand castles in her yard and maybe bathe."
Fred kept her mouth shut. It's not like he's lying. Ahhhh . . . my own sand dune . . . my own hole in the beach . . . The thought was so haunting and beautiful she wanted to cry.
"Okay, so I was rilly, rilly flattered that Fred trusted me with it."
More like couldn't be bothered with it and didn't care who did it as long as I didn't have to, but okay. Sure. Please go on.
"I figured if I did a good job, maybe I could meet some more of your Undersea friends."
"Awww, Madison." Jonas patted her hand. "That's where you went wrong. Fred doesn't have any friends, Undersea or otherwise, except me, and that's just because I lost the coin toss with God."
Betsy had now snaked Madison's drink for herself and was sucking it down. "So you dumped your job on Madison, who did her best to make you proud . . ."
"Hey!" Fred said sharply. "It was never my job. Dr. Barb set the whole page up after the Folk outed themselves on CNN. There are pages on the website for the penguins and the sea turtles, and those aren't my job, either."
"Yep, that's true. Fred's former boss is my current sexy squeeze . . . She told me you weren't keen on the idea, which is Freddish for get away from me with that thing before I vomit and embark on a killing, puking rampage."
"What did she expect? I had next to no privacy after all that. People would come up to me and do the weirdest things. Mermaids don't grant wishes, that's myth number one I'd like addressed and then smothered. Thank God I was the unofficial bridge between the races, because after a while the royal family appointed actual capable ambassadors, which we all should have realized they should have done in the first place. I'll be the first to admit: even though I signed on for it, I sucked at that job."
"We can't all be recovering Miss Congenialities," Betsy said cheerfully.
"Okay, whatever. After a few months it got so bad I got the hell out of Dodge. I've been tagging along with my fiancé while he makes the fellowship rounds." Fred pointed to her head. "This weird red is not my natural hair color."
"It's nice, though," Betsy commented after eyeing the fake hue. "Auburn, with deeper auburn lowlights."
"Thank you," Jonas said, bowing from the waist. He managed to do it from a chair without looking ridiculous. "Fred kicked up such a fuss you'd think I'd shaved it instead of dying it Awesome Awesome. (And if that's not a real name for a hair color, it should be.)"
"I didn't ask you to do that," she snapped. "I had a box of Yuck-O Brown Number Twenty-one all ready to go." Even now, the memory of Jonas's horrified screams made her shudder. He'd actually knocked her to the ground to wrench Yuck-O Brown Number Twenty-one out of her hand, then dragged her to a salon and personally supervised the cut and coloring. "That was three hours of my life, gone forever."
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