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Annie needs a spiritual break from the world. She goes on a sabbatical by herself in the Blue Ridge Mountains, seeking to reconnect with the magic inherent in life. She finds magic and more, in an enchanted pool that will offer her the chance to embrace magic as well as love.

Heart Quest

© Copyright 2009 - All Rights Reserved

Annie was lost, and loving every minute of it. When she had begun her two-month vacation, hiking by herself in the Blue Ridge Mountains, she had almost been swayed by the pleas of her friends. Take a cell phone, take a companion, take a dog. Take a cell phone.

She hadn't caved. She was here, deep in the forest, miles from another human being. No technology within touching distance, not even a watch. In the eyes of civilized society, if she got hurt, or vanished without a trace, it would be because she was irresponsible, naive, or just plain stupid.

More than once during the first several weeks, she had faced situations that made her agree with that. This morning, sitting on the edge of a cliff and watching the sun rise, she didn’t feel that way. The sky turned pink, orange and violet colors, so beautiful she felt like wrapping herself in them and twirling. So she did. Shedding her clothes, she danced in the many passionate shades of the changing early light. The warmth of the morning sun kissed her damp skin, a reward for her ardent sun ritual.

She had been a practicing Wiccan for ten years, but the momentum of day-to-day life meant that monthly rituals were a mere smile and distracted prayer at the full moon. Gatherings with her old coven were few and far between, and she found she didn’t have the time before those get-togethers to still her brain, turn it off so she could benefit from the energies that such events attracted.

She had decided it was time to untie the spiritual and emotional knots and test herself physically, open up the energy centers and drum out the bullshit. Except for the voices of nature, she wanted absolute quiet. The sounds of the phone, people on the street, even the whine of her refrigerator, were making her lose her mind.

While she believed in reincarnation, every life was too short. The daily regimen of sleep, work, eat, TV and start all over again was squandering a life the Lord and Lady were holding out right under her nose, a world of awareness and connection she was missing, too busy grinding it to dust on the treadmill of daily life.

She had many people in her life she loved and who loved her, but no one to whom she could explain her urgency to abandon civilization and go on this hiatus by herself.

In her younger days, she had camped extensively. Backpacked through Europe, helped build houses deep in the Appalachian mountains, on Native American reservations and in Third World countries. She’d been part of a student group that hiked with natives from Brazil to the coast of Venezuela through miles of rain forest, carrying only essential provisions and living off the land as the natives did. She’d spent one summer in the company of a tribe of Aborigines in Australia to help her complete her sociology thesis. Ten years later, she remembered the solitude of that tribe, the tranquility that pervaded their daily lives. Those memories, and the skills she’d acquired from those youthful adventures, had given her what she needed to embrace this personal quest.

For that was how she viewed this trip. A quest. To find the truth in her life.

Annie arched her back, stretching, and raised her bare arms to the sky. Not a practiced move, just a spontaneous reach toward all she saw before her. Life accepted her presence.

When she first left the human trails, using her compass to mark her course as she followed faint deer paths, she had to adjust to the rustling of other creatures sharing the forest with her that did not mass near the man-made paths. On her third day, she came face-to-face with a black bear in a clearing. He or she seemed as startled to find her there, but after giving her a measured look, the bear had trundled off, clearly satisfied that she was neither a threat nor of interest.

She smiled at the recollection. So much for the superiority of humans. Out here, beyond the egocentric constructs of men, life moved on. The sun going up, the sun going down.

What magic might be found if humans walked here, as she had done, in the footsteps of other beings, rather than creating their own trails? What wonders did these creatures see every day that she and the rest of humankind missed, what alternate reality?

Her morning meditation done, Annie got dressed, packed up and headed out, choosing a north direction, following the same impression of a path she had been following for several days now.

There was a sensual nature to a quest like this, a dropping of inhibitions. An emotional vulnerability, a willingness to believe in what seemed unlikely, and trust intuition. Oddly similar to the decision to give one’s heart, body and soul to a lover.

She was a sexual creature by nature. Her closest friends had teased her the most about that aspect of her trip. They couldn’t believe she would go to a place where the closest thing to a man she’d find was the black bear she'd met. But her sexual side was inseparable from her spiritual side. She wasn’t a casual sex person, no matter that she knew they often thought she was, when she lay with a man for just one night, or ended a relationship after a couple weeks.

She hungered for a touch that went past skin level. It occurred when the strand of her Web was meant to cross that of another. That could happen anywhere, and when it happened, it had its own lifespan.

When she was a twenty-something, she had experienced the casual encounters that she supposed all young people with the benefits of her looks and confidence could indulge, and discovered the disease of excess. She had gotten past that, and entered into her thirties determined not to engage in that dissolute sating of physical needs and temporary loneliness. The issue was not to avoid loneliness, but to be comfortable with being alone. Since then, she chose partners based on genuine attraction, and attraction in the real sense of the word. A drawing together of two entities, pulled together by some compelling desire to join, to share.

Not sure if she ever would find a person whose strand would permanently tie into hers, she had nevertheless learned to release a partner when the time came, to give way peacefully when there was a change in their attraction. She experienced a relationship as long as it lasted, whether a day, a week or a year, holding no part of herself back, and let the strands part as they would, sparkling with diamonds of knowledge and pleasure learned, like the moisture of a kiss lingering on the lips.

With the mind and heart open to all possibilities, miracles could happen. Magical moments such as the experiences of the past few weeks. Such as what lay ahead of her now.

Annie heard the rush of water at the same moment a bead of sweat rolled down the collar of her throat. Anticipating a creek or pool, she stepped up her pace. The reality was far more than she hoped.

Fluttering from the breeze stirred by the water’s movement, the foliage brushed the bare skin of her arms as she passed through their loose embrace to gaze with pleasure down at the fall below. Shaped like a soft rendering of a fetus, the pool was wide and deep, the waterfall dropping into the curl of the body. The wide curve of the head, back and hip would give her room to keep away from the reverberations while swimming. A rock marked the eye indentation, and a cluster of rocks were the tiny clutch of fingers held to the chest.

The deer path took her down to the edge. Footing was precarious, but she enjoyed the feel of her muscles straining, testing their strength as they grew slick from the stroke of the sun. It was difficult to descend without looking at the beauty that every step brought to her, so she stopped, stepped, and looked again. The intrusions of water into the bank gave the image flowing hair, so the impression shifted between a fetus and a woman sleeping. Each movement brought a new perspective of the pool below, the sun glittering off of different portions of the water, highlighting the various greens of the forest around it and changing their hue. She sensed eyes upon her, but she had gotten used to that, knowing her every movement was noted by the twitching noses and liquid brown eyes of the woodland creatures.

Water was not Caribbean clear blue in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It sparkled with the sun but kept its mysteries beneath the surface, secrets that brushed one's thighs and nipped at the toes when wading or floating in the water's grasp. There was a peculiar quality to this water, however. As she looked at it, Annie felt she could see things moving beneath the depths, sunlight finding shapes that almost took recognizable form, then were gone.

She stepped onto the "hand" of the sleeping fetus-woman shape. Something about the pool demanded a pause for respect, the need to become in tune with the spirits that surrounded it, so she did not instantly shed her clothes.

It was a place where water brought together all elements. Water glittered with fire, water touched the banks of earth, water rippled with the touch of air. As for the fifth element, the Spirit that created all, it was as if the shape of the pool itself was a mark of Its Presence.

Done with her moment of obeisance, Annie unbuttoned her shirt, slid out of it and let the first cool touch of air finger her skin, lifting the short hair on her nape. She shed her jeans, socks, shoes and underclothes, leaving them in a neat pile on the bank. Making her way over to the flat rock near the falls, she squatted down on it to drift her fingers in the water. Feeling the sun on her cheek, her shoulder, she closed her eyes and realized she had thought of nothing for nearly the last hour, her mind free of anything but the basic necessities of life.

Am I hungry? Thirsty? Hot? Cold?

Not: Where should I go? How much progress am I making? What should I do if…? She had found an area of stillness in herself. As her vacation had progressed, she had nursed it, and the infant had grown, spread out, and linked her with the underlying quiet around her, so going into the state of instinctive stillness had become second nature.

Something touched her gently moving fingertips, and she smiled. Not too long ago, her eyes would have popped open and her fingers drawn back, not in that order. Now she knew that curious fish would nibble. She opened her eyes and lowered her chin to see what manner of finned creature was trying out her taste.

A man stared back at her out of silver gray eyes, his face below the surface of the water. His hand mirrored hers, each of his five fingers pressed to the tips of hers, moving back and forth with her slow, waving motion. Black hair swam like silk around his strong, pale features.

Annie slowly raised her hand from the water, blinked. His hand followed, emerging into sunlight.

It was like when she had looked into the marble face of Michelangelo’s David at Firenze. She had felt a flutter in her vitals, half expecting something so intensely beautiful to come to life like this, the smooth alabaster eyelids raising to reveal silver irises and focused pupils, glowing with energy. The cheekbones, the fair, broad forehead and straight, thin nose, had the same unsettling perfection of a work of art. The faint pink hue of the lips, the only true color in his face, made him mortal, touchable.

She was dizzy. Annie realized she had stopped breathing. She opened her mouth to gulp in air, and his fingers reached, rested on her bottom lip before she could consider whether or not to draw back.

Drops of water rolled over the creases of his knuckles as those on his fingertips slid into the soft fold of flesh between her teeth and inner lip.

His head broke the surface of the water, his face tilted up toward her so that his hair clung smoothly to his skull, not marring the angles of temple, cheek and forehead as he emerged into the oxygen-rich atmosphere.

Annie blinked, her mind doing what she would expect it to do under such an extraordinary circumstance. Grasp for reality.

Gray eyes. He has gray eyes, not silver. He’s a hiker who was swimming here, and she just hadn't seen him when navigating the steep slope. His every dive below the surface had choreographed with her frequent stops to look around and—

He put his hands on the smooth surface of the rock before her, and the muscles from the curve of his throat to his shoulder tensed.

--then she sat down and closed her eyes, and somehow missed him.

He straightened his arms, lifting himself from the water. It fell from his shoulders, leaving a glistening film of moisture. Liquid diamonds flowed unimpeded down the curve of his smooth pectorals, sliding to the edge of his nipples. They fell and rejoined their brothers in the rivulets that bumped their way down the indentation of sectioned stomach muscles, not slowed by body hair.

The wind had covered the noise of his splashing. Or he was behind that group of rocks and he had circled around to where she was.

His cock rose as impressively as the rest of him from the cool grip of the secluded pond. Other than being unaffected by the water temperature, it was a man's penis, something familiar, though there was a faint blue-silver tattoo pattern in a triangular design from his hip bones to the base of his thick member where pubic hair would have been. A blue vein pulsed just beneath the stretched, satin skin.

He had looked at her so clearly beneath the water’s surface, but that, too, was an illusion, caused by her first disoriented moment coming out of her contemplations...

Pivoting on the heel of his hand, he turned, and his hip and wet buttock slapped against the rock, a slab of granite fired for millions of years, when nothing was doubted and all things were new and possible. Annie's eyes closed, then opened. The slow blink brought into focus what she was looking at, something which sucked her babbling internal monologue into a black hole in her mind, the same place that swallowed her anchor on what was real and what was not, and left her adrift.

The sculpting of the lower back to hip to buttock to thigh was perfection, but she wasn’t looking at a tight ass or muscular leg, not exactly. Glistening silver scales rode low on his hips. The tightly overlapped supple skin that allowed fish such dexterity and speed in navigating their world.

Annie's wide-eyed gaze jumped back several times across the boundary of skin to scales. The scales sloped at the pelvis, allowing for human skin, a navel, a pubic area, the silver surface forming a vee cradle for his very human nest of testicles and stiff cock.

Annie gave him a timid look. At his curious, bland expression, she leaned forward to see past him, into the water.

The muscular silver column bent where human knees might have been. She leaned even further forward, bracing a hand beside that hip to follow the tail into the water. Just beneath the surface she saw the twin fronds of tail fins, floating with the beauty of silver sheer cloth.

Drops of water fell on Annie's neck. She might have jerked back, but her mind was now open to far more than it would have been when she started her trip. Her flight instinct was harder to rattle, the instinct to embrace a sensual experience honed razor sharp. She forced herself to release her held breath in a whispering sigh. If this wasn’t a sensual experience, what possibly could be?

His breath was on her neck, raising the fine hairs there. She had short hair, and she had never been more pleased with the decision. Each tilt of his head from his private examination of her made his breath stroke something new. The back of her ear, then the other, the point of the neck between the shoulders. He smelled of mountain water, clear and clean, but under that was also the mystery of layers of silt and water vegetation at the bottom of the pool, the top stratus of a million years of change and evolution, creation built upon death.

His fingers touched her shoulder blade, followed its angle to the curve of ribs leading down her side, around to the base of her firm breast, easily accessible to cup in her bent forward position.

Annie turned her head to meet his gaze and moved back onto her heels. He did not move his hand, so her breast and nipple passed briefly over his knuckles, and the friction of contact pulsed in her labia, one hard contraction that moistened her folds such that she felt the ripening of that fruit when she pressed herself against her heels.

"Hello," she said in a whisper.

Where had he come from? She supposed the waterfall came from a creek which flowed from a larger body, but she had always imagined merpeople as sea creatures. Perhaps they simply dwelled in any water body capable of supporting them. Of course she hadn't actually imagined them existing anywhere other than storybooks, and what she remembered most was the poignant end to the original Little Mermaid fairy tale, a broken-hearted creature frozen in stone forever to gaze longingly upon the land, bereft of both the prince she loved and her heart's desire.

"What’s your name?" she asked, her voice still little more than a hushed murmur above the sound of the water. A small school of fish surrounded the water just beyond his hip, flashes of silver moving around him, accepting him as one of their own He tilted his head slowly, watching her mouth. Used his fingers to smooth drops of water across the soft give of her full bottom lip.

She put her hand to her breast. "Annie," she said.

Comprehension crossed his face, startling her. She hadn't expected that. He understood English.

He spoke in a musical cadence, like the complex noises of the dolphin or whale. Each note he uttered soothed her in the same way their haunting notes did, evoking both reassurance and yearning. A reassurance that there was a larger order to things, and a yearning to be a part of that confident knowledge.

"Kyle," she repeated. It wasn't what he had said exactly, of course. It was what her vocal cords could manage. When he pronounced it, it came out with elongated syllables, more like Chaiyeille. She had apparently done well enough, however, for he nodded, thrilling her again with his understanding.

His gaze shifted over her shoulder and she turned to look with him, jumping a little in reflex.

Another one sat on the rock behind her. Larger than his companion, his shoulders were a handspan wider. His muscles bunched in the crooked angle of his arm with his hand braced on the glistening slope of scales where a thigh would be. His eyes were the same silver metal color, but his hair was fire and ice, red darkened by water, with streaks of silver through it. The gray-blue tattoo pattern on his cheekbones ran from the corners of his eyes, curving to the right side of his neck. It marked him like a sash along his pectorals, his rib cage, and disappeared around back to reappear and triangle his groin as it did the other merman. Also like the other merman, he was aroused. Aroused in spades. Annie swallowed.

Dolphins were equipped with impressive genitalia, something that might scare the average human woman. For all the talk about size, Annie knew the obsession with it for most women had to do with the bat theory. If you got a big enough bat, anybody could hit the bloody ball. It made up for a lot of ineptitude, bumbling and sheer incomprehension of the female body and response system. If men focused on doing it right with the five to six inches most of them had, size would not be an issue at all. All that said, the message her eyes sent to her brain compelled that complex organ to shoot an immediate and urgent fax to her womb, setting off pulse points.

His gaze noted the direction of hers, and her reaction needed no translation, as did the amused sparkle of his eyes in response.

“Garnet,” Kyle said. His fingers trailed down her spine. Turning back, she found he had moved closer, and so she was turning into the shelter of his braced arm and chest, her cheek brushing his jaw line as she raised her eyes to meet his. He seemed younger than the other man, which she assumed made sense; a lot of fish seemed to reflect their age in size. Kyle seemed equal in height to a six-foot man, with a lean build like a swimmer, the irony of that comparison not lost on her. Garnet would have made a good blocker for a professional football team. Perhaps it was the dark-haired one's youth that made him seem more approachable.

"Should I be afraid?" she asked.

She was not really frightened as much as amazed, but there was the need to establish some bond, some sense of mutual understanding to settle the faint, distracting disquiet. An unease that a lifetime of Jekyll and Hyde sci-fi theme movies had implanted, from a civilization that was so far away at the moment as to seem just a faint disturbance to her soul.

In answer, his mouth opened, and those soothing tones came forth again. It was then she saw the movement of the gills along the throat, just below the ear on either side, covered by the sleek fall of dark hair. The mermen obviously had lungs for breathing oxygen, but were equipped to breathe underwater as well.

Their long, sleek locks and their eyebrows were the only body hair they appeared to have. That and eyelashes, like the long dark lashes of Kyle’s that fanned his cheekbones as he focused so intently on her lips.

She didn't jump this time when she felt the touch of the flame-haired merman. Garnet's massive hands set themselves upon her waist, and a shiver rippled across her skin at the restrained power she felt in their easy grasp. An independent woman she was, but one who could still appreciate the implied protection in a man's strength.

Kyle bent and pressed wet, warm lips upon hers. She sat quietly for a moment, just receiving and experiencing the way those unfamiliar lips felt, the flick of tongue on the soft seam. Her lips parted and her arms began to rise, only to be arrested in mid-motion by the shift of Garnet's grasp to her upper arms, that superior strength now keeping her still. His touch was as careful as she might be with an infant, but it rendered her just as helpless.

A trickle of fear managed to insert its cold touch as he eased her off her feet, onto her backside, then leaned her back, so her knees straightened, her feet trailing in the water, the line of her thigh parallel to Kyle’s. The disquiet was little more than a drop of rain in a simmering cauldron, however. Her cauldron was liquefying like candlewax as clever lips coaxed hers further apart, and an even more clever tongue probed her mouth, the tip exploring the slick inside wall of her cheek, the enamel of her teeth, dueling with her own tongue and playing along the top of it, holding it down as Kyle’s kiss became more demanding, thrusting into the hot cavern of her mouth with an unmistakable comparable intent.

Kyle’s hands slid up her rib cage and Annie moaned as Garnet’s mouth closed over the artery in her neck, sucking the taste of mountain water from her skin.

Without the use of her arms, the ability to be proactive, she was at their mercy, a sensation that had been an aphrodisiac since the first creature had mounted another for their mutual pleasure.

Annie's head fell back onto Garnet's shoulder, and she made another soft noise as Kyle's hands cupped her breasts, lifted them, his long fingers stroking their tops. He did nothing to the nipples, single light strokes of her curves only as his mouth continued to tease her tongue and her mind into mindless sensory response.

Her fingers were able to reach a section of his glistening tail, and they splayed out and landed, light as a butterfly's feet, on the silken surface. He froze, his eyes opening only an inch from hers, as she stroked across the limited reach given her. Catching her short nails gently beneath the soft edge of the tiny overlapping scales and releasing them to smooth them down again.

Garnet's touch left her right arm, giving her more freedom, and she sensed his fascinated attention, a mirror of Kyle's, as she ran her knuckles along the magnificent line of what felt like one long, quivering muscle.

Had they held her because they thought they would have to persuade her, seduce her a bit before they could be sure she wouldn't run? Or maybe they thought if, in her passion, she touched the unfamiliar parts of them, it might make her recoil. Annie traced the silver up to the curve of Kyle’s hip, rested her palm on the place where human anatomy and water creature met, and looked up at him. Stretching out the range of her arm, she settled back against Garnet's chest.

Perhaps it was the shifting angle of the sun that made Kyle’s eyes appear to glow more intensely at her response, but he bent forward, those heat-filled eyes on hers until the last moment before his lids dropped and he closed his lips over her nipple and the areola encircling it, trying to pull as much of her into his mouth as he could. She arched, crying out, and Garnet had her arms again, this time to help increase the angle of her body to give Kyle’s hands even more to hold, as they came up under his working jaw to cup the quivering breasts. His tongue flicked, lashing her nipple inside that hot mouth, and she moaned as his fingers simultaneously pinched the other nipple, a slow increase of pressure in the hold of index finger and thumb, and then a tortuous, gradual roll.

Annie writhed, her breath coming fast. In his leaning position, his erection lay on her belly, just above her spread thighs. When he drew back from her, the broad head of his cock slid down the channel of her swollen clitoris, making her buck in spasms of sensational reaction. Her hips arched, seeking him. Garnet's arms curled around her waist, and suddenly the world turned upside down.

They flipped off the rock in a motion of grace and speed no human ever got to experience without mechanical help, but she did, locked in the arms of a merman to whom she was no hindrance.

The water rushed across her cheeks and lips and they were underwater. She remembered the stories of water sprites dragging sailors happily to their deaths, seduced by their beauty.

A woman who comfortably camped alone did not let herself get mired in the fears that lived in the underbelly of the Great Subconscious. She pushed the thought away and instead focused on how it felt to be as boneless as flowing seaweed in the arms of the merman and experience movement through the water as a fish would. Effortless propulsion. It was too much of a glide to be compared to the ease of walking; it was like flying. She had done hang gliding and skydiving, and this was closer to that, but even that did not do it justice. This was magic, on many different levels, and magic could not be compared to anything manmade.

They brought her up behind the waterfall. There was an expanse of flat rock there, worn smooth by falling water. The main body of the fall created a roar of sound as it rushed through the air to plunge into the depths of the pool, harmonizing with the quieter songs made by smaller flows of water, coming through cracks in the rock and earth in the cavern that formed the wall of the cliff for the fall. These smaller falls of water she supposed were what kept the network of flat rocks behind the waterfall smooth and algae free, glistening only with the moisture reflecting off their polished rounded surfaces. When Garnet sat her down on one of the largest rocks, she discovered, to her delight, the water coming through the cracks was warm, heated by their passage through the earth. It splashed on her skin, rolled down her breasts, gathered along the line of her thighs and formed a triangular pond between them and her pulsing folds.

The black-haired merman was before her again. As much as both mermen fascinated her, it was something about Kyle’s eyes that made her feel no fear, only a desire to stay close to him. It was a strong feeling, exceptional, and she wondered if he had some form of unique magnetism, a scent of pheromones or some other scientific basis for her instant attraction to him. If vampires could have it, there was no reason mermen couldn't, since prior to a few moments ago, she'd had no knowledge of either's existence. Anything seemed possible.

The roar of the water echoed off the rock, so speech would not be possible without shouting. Annie had no desire to let reality intrude so audibly anyway.

His finger reached out, followed the line of her cheek, trailing water along the skin, again emphasizing his fascination with her face, her mouth. Women had the ability to feel their own bodies through the touch of another and Annie was keenly aware of the benefit of that. She felt the softness of her skin by the light pressure of his wet fingertip along her jaw line. Moisture rolled down his palm, pattered onto her collarbone. His touch moved to her lips and yet she kept her eyes on his silver ones. He was amazed by her. She saw it in his eyes, and then she lost a breath when the Garnet’s hands slipped forward from behind and cupped her breasts, one in each palm, as if he held the soft breasts of tame doves. He lifted them, as if displaying them to Kyle.

The press of his body behind hers and the capture and lift of her breasts compelled her to arch and lean back against Garnet’s support. She felt displayed like an object, in a sense, her ability to move hampered by their strength, their hold, but it was like she was an object of reverence, the way they handled her. Garnet’s thumbs flicked across her cold nipples and they stiffened further, as if she had been touched by fire in truth. Her fingers curled into balls at her thighs, even as her legs loosened, unconsciously communicating her surrender.

She was not easy. She didn't fall into every man's lap that came along, merman or no. But those silver eyes, they begged, cried out to her. Kyle wanted to ravish, to take. He wanted her to open, to give. It was naked in his face, no artifice, no smooth veneer of civilization painting layers upon him. Like any wild animal, he was as she saw him, mysterious for the sensory powers he had that she did not, but no emotional façade.

His eyes studied her breasts as Garnet squeezed them, lifted them higher, flicked the nipples again. Annie moaned, and the silver gaze shot to her face, Kyle’s fingers brushing the tongue that briefly slipped out to wet her lips.

He slid forward, so his hip was aligned with her knee, which shifted her legs back together. He did not encroach on his companion's territory. Instead, his hand reached out and alighted on her thigh.

Garnet was fully pressed against her back now, the silver-scaled hip pressing against her tense right buttock. His head was next to hers, just above her shoulder blade as he watched Kyle and the intriguing movement of his own large hands. The fair skin of her breasts flushed with pleasure beneath his skillful manipulation.

Kyle’s finger slid down the seam of her thighs, from mid-thigh down to her knees, and then back up, parting the collected canal of warm water gathered there in the triangle. He stopped mid-way and his gaze rose back to her face. Annie felt the pressure of his fingers, and his expression was easy enough to read, virile and hungry. It was more overpowering than words, this use of touch and expression to express desire.

She swallowed. Though she felt sure this was a sexual situation she wanted to embrace, she needed reassurance. Another kiss might help.

But when she tried to move forward toward Kyle’s face, Garnet tightened his grip. She drew in a breath as the pinch on her nipples crossed a small step past pleasure into pain, where of course they blended into a ripple of reaction in her womb.

Kyle brought his other hand to her thighs and pressed his knuckles from the back of one hand against another, forming a human prying tool he used with gentle insistence, burrowing down in between the soft flesh of her thighs. He moved slowly, not because the long muscles in his arms were outmatched by her clamped position, but more, it seemed, not to alarm her. Yet his insistence indicated he was not going to be refused what he desired. With a mix of terror and excitement, she realized there was little "no means no" in Nature, unless you could back it up with superior strength or the ability to escape. She had neither at the moment. Dominance was the guiding force that won respect and obedience. It could be brutal, but he was not. Just insistent that she capitulate. Civilization was far away and her body knew it, responding not with fear or disgust, but willing capitulation.

He had her trembling thighs parted now, about a foot spread, and he leaned forward, his nostrils flaring, taking in her scent. He came in closer, sniffed her pussy, and his eyes looked up, met hers with obvious male satisfaction. That he was taking the time to confirm she wanted him, and show he wanted her, seemed a roundabout way of reassuring her, but one she clung to fiercely at the moment.

His grip on her thighs tightened at the same moment Garnet began to ease her down to her back.

"No, I'm not sure." She made a futile effort to struggle and they simply bent her body to their will. Fear clamped down on her now, irrational though it might be. Yes, she was aroused and willing, but they were taking away the choice from her. If they took it away from her on this, what else would they take away?

"No," she said more firmly, and began to kick her feet. "No!"

The men stopped, perhaps because they caught the edge of fear. While Garnet did not let her go, Kyle did. He released her thighs to cup her face gently in his hands. He made a crooning noise at her as his thumbs brushed her lips, her cheeks. Garnet stroked her breasts again, just the base of the curves, his fingertips caressing her rib cage and her upper abdomen, making the same crooning noise.

As if he had no sense of urgency at all now, Kyle explored just her face, his fingers sliding down her neck, probing the smooth area where there were no gills, caressing the soft skin. Her neck was highly sensitive to touch, and prickles of sensation drifted outward from his fingers, making the whorls of arousal affect a variety of erogenous points.

He leaned forward over her body, bracing his palm on the other side of her hip, and brought his lips to her mouth. He stopped just a whisper from contact, his eyes studying hers.

There was the sound of the falls behind them, the rustle of creatures in the foliage, the calls of birds. Intertwined with it all, a part of the same natural world where things were understood with instinct, not spoken, there was the sound of her breath and his, mingling, touching skin.

Annie reached up when Garnet responded to the pressure to release her arm and put her fingers on Kyle’s jaw. It was smooth. Apparently, mermaids did not grow beards either. No body hair beyond the brows and lashes, and the thick, luxurious hair on their heads, which she stroked now with her fingers. His eyes never left her face. He was waiting, not with predatory stillness, but with the stillness of an eager lover, hungering for her to offer him his desire, give him the sweet passion of invitation.

Perhaps she was just imagining that, but up until this moment it had been them, pressing their suit. For just a moment, her distress had charged the air, made the stakes higher, and he seemed to be waiting for the richer reward. Dominance might be the way of all animals, but all animals knew the pleasures consent could offer.

"So, he's the muscle, you're the closer." She smiled up into Kyle's face. His fingers immediately came up to outline the curve of her mouth. He touched her teeth and then he emulated, giving her a smile in return. At first it was just imitation, copying her movement. Then as her smile broadened, pleased with his actions, that juice that fueled a smile and made it real caught him and reached his eyes.

"Damn," Annie murmured. What the hell was she waiting for? She reached up, locked both arms around his neck, and plunged.

He immediately returned the kiss with ardor, his hands sliding down over her neck and shoulders, to clutch over her hipbones. His mouth pressed insistently upon hers, the crooning noise more feral. They eased her down to her back, and Kyle followed. Garnet’s fingers stroked her elbows and wrists, drew her arms out from her body and to her sides, caressing the pale white skin up to her armpits, then wandered back down to her forearms and wrists again, dripping water on her from strands of his long hair. Kyle dominated her vision, now leaning over her, his tongue in her mouth, exploring teeth and gums, soft wet flesh. He made that noise again, harsher than the croon, and her body shuddered in response to the sound of male hunger, universal in translation. The silver-scaled tail was pressed against her outer thigh, making it impossible not to imagine what it would be like for his body to be slapping rhythmically against the spread V of the inside of her thighs.

His hands descended to her waist again, outlining her hips, and she turned her head, liking the look of that strong hand alongside her bare hip bone, a delicate point next to his curved knuckles. Kyle bent, his cheek caressing the indentation of her waist, and she trembled as his lips followed. His palms slid down to her thighs, beneath, caressing her buttocks and then his grip was on her thighs again, over them, between them, gently parting them, his breath warm against her skin.

Annie sighed, complying. Garnet slid to the right of her vision, down to her ankles, putting his cool palms upon one as Kyle seduced her. Kyle’s hands gripped her hips and shifted her to the left, just an inch or two, and put her directly under one of the warm sprays of water emitting from the cliff walls. At the same moment she felt Garnet's touch on her other ankle and a quick jerk as he spread her wide and locked down her legs.

Two things happened at once. She reflexively strained upward at the pressure of the water on her clit and found she was bound to the rock in the spread eagle position Garnet had placed her in. Her head snapped to the right, seeking the source of the bond. She saw damp strands of some type of braided water vegetation, what she had thought was the soft caress of Garnet’s hair on her skin as his lips had moved over those areas.

The glistening, varied colors of green crisscrossed up her arm, from wrist to armpit so it formed a bond that she could not break. Apparently the bitter end at her wrist was somehow anchored under the rock such that she could not break loose. Indeed, from her absorption with Kyle, it could have well been braided from water life growing out of the rock by Garnet while Kyle compelled her attention away from him.

Panic was immediate, but at the same time was drowned, literally, in the sensation that Kyle's movement of her body had accomplished. With her clitoris positioned directly under one of the smaller waterfalls of warm water, the distance the water fell gave it enough impact to send jolts of pleasure screaming deep inside her pussy. It made her buck upward in one half-shocked, half-panicked reaction.

"Stop." She strangled out on a gasp. Squirming did not help, but instead gave the water a variable pattern like the manipulation of fingers, but far more consistent and strong. Her exposed clitoris and labia were glistening, and not just from water. Her head fell back and Garnet was there. It was his turn to plunge. He seized her lips in a kiss and she bit, fighting him by the command of her outraged mind. There was a feral growl low in her throat that even to her own ears sounded like the ferocity of a cat in heat. His powerful hand locked into her short hair and he yanked her head back, laying his own teeth to her vulnerable neck, but not to draw blood. Instead he descended upon her jugular with sucks and nips that had electric volts running between her clit and neck and back again, shooting sparks of sensation into the sensitive tissues of her breasts and nipples. Her hips were moving of their own accord, imitating the act of being fucked, slapping down against the rock then lifting, then down again, each downward movement causing the water to make a lingering stroke like a long, firm tongue, bringing her closer to orgasm.

Then Kyle's hands were on her hips again, holding them in a tilted position, forcing them to stay still that way as the water battered her swollen pussy. Annie cried out, unable to climax, but so shudderingly close that any movement at all would make her come. As if the demon spawn from hell knew it, Kyle bent and placed his hot mouth over her pulsing clit. No tongue, just the pressure of his mouth mixing with the heat of flowing water, storing the impact of it, so it was as if his mouth was a hot cavern over the folds of her sex. The warm water filtered beneath the press of his lips, into the grooves. His mouth and tongue shifted slightly, precisely, and a moment later her eyes widened as the water bathing the folds angled down the crevice between her buttocks, tickling her there. The way he was holding her hips tilted upward, his fingers gripping and spreading her ass cheeks, facilitated the angle of the water, and she swallowed too little air, struggling desperately to move and held fast by his grip.

"God, please…" It was a guttural plea, and he made that curious, dolphin-whale noise against her, only there was nothing soothing about it. He looked up at her, and she saw it in his eyes. They wanted to drive her as high as possible without pushing her over the edge. Who knew that merpeople could appreciate the art of prolonging pleasure? Any other time she would appreciate one man, no two, who wanted to take the time, but at the moment, her body was screaming for a slam, bam, thank you fuck. And not just because she was aching for it physically. She was bound helpless by two strangers who had not asked her consent, and all her civilized notions were warring with her body's obvious response to them. It made her feel vulnerable, raw. A quick screw would make her feel in control again, but they were not going to give her that. When they fucked her, if that was part of their plan, she would be so mindless, so out of control, she would deny them nothing, lose herself in them.

The one word he had spoken against her sent ripples through her skin. Slowly, the way they did time lapse photography of the opening of a rose bloom, she felt his tongue ease into her drenched folds, water following the path he picked.

She cried out, and her traitorous legs, though bound, opened even wider. Her body convulsed, moving with the primitive rhythm that all nerves so aroused knew, straining toward a pinnacle she could not reach because the damn man, damn fish, would not let her hips move. His grip was like iron, his tongue deep in her pussy but studiously staying away from her clit, despite her whimpers.

Abruptly, her wrists were free, and her legs. The men were lifting her. The shudders of reaction had not made it from her neck to her toes before they had her turned on her stomach and rebound. Just as the upward slope of the rock had tilted the ripe folds of her clit and labia to the probing of his lips and maddening tattoo of the water, now the water struck her buttocks and the base of her pussy, the opening that wept to be filled. Streams of cold water and warm both, the alternating temperatures that caused her to utter a deep, soul wrenching groan, so aroused now that the physical had cracked into the emotional. She wanted fulfillment on all different levels, reassurance. She wanted to be fucked, she wanted to be cuddled, she wanted to believe in true love again, she wanted this particular moment to continue forever, she wanted it to stop, because it was cracking her open to soul level and she wasn't sure she could mend herself if that happened.

But that might be the point. Kyle's hand was on her back, his fingertips sliding down her spine, no longer the hungry touch of a lover, but an incredibly tender touch, like a child seeking the soft skin of his mother. Then his palms cupped her buttocks and she felt his lips touch the left cheek, his jaw caressing it. She heard him speak, crooning again, only with a sad note this time.

She turned her head to look at him, and he had his face tilted up to meet her gaze. Annie parted her lips and flexed her fingers as if she would reach out and touch him if she could. Desire raced through her body like a fever.

Strong hands replaced his touch on her ass and she felt the broad tip of Garnet’s cock teasing her wet entrance. Ripples went all the way to her womb, imagining how it would feel to have him sliding in there, but looking at the silver sad eyes blinking at her, she knew that wasn't what she wanted. That was the quick, soul-sucking fuck she had known often enough in her younger days to know it was poison. Even though her body screamed that any cock would do at this moment, her heart and soul knew better. Once they had been shattered by abuse and misuse of the body's sensual potential, they never forgot.

"No," she rasped. Then, stronger. "No!"

The head of the cock was pushing in and Garnet’s hands were spreading her ass wider. The abrupt pressure of water on the bundle of nerves against her rectum made her cry out in near orgasm, but the pleasure was painful. Strong emotions wrapped their hands around the sensual responses and squeezed cruelly, sending conflicting signals to every nerve ending. But once the emotions became involved, there was no way the body's voice could hold dominance over a woman's will.

She drew in a breath. "No!" she shouted, clenching her fists against the bindings and slamming them against the rock. "No. Stop. I don't want this. I don't want you!"

She jerked her head around to glare at the red-haired merman.

It might have been her anger, her tone, her struggles to thwart him with clenched ass cheeks and indignant twitches, as far as she could manage in terms of physical withdrawal, but it wasn't. When she turned her head and said "you", it was that which froze Garnet's movements. He stopped, his grip on her ass easing to a light resting of his fingertips on her skin. His hips likewise backed off, and while she still felt the brush of that enormous arousal against her, it was no longer penetrating, just a faint rub against her swollen tissues, as it moved with his breathing.

His expression was not one of anger. There was some physical frustration, but not as much as she would have expected. In fact, there was a glimmer of amusement, perhaps regret, but not for the loss of her compliance. Something else. A reluctant pleasure, warring with the regret. The two emotions confused her. She was good at reading faces and knew she wasn’t wrong about what she was seeing. She shifted her gaze to Kyle's face and filled in the missing piece.

Hope was naked on his face, nothing subtle or hidden in the raw expression, including the fear that she was including them both in the rejection. There was something going on here, far more significant than two males vying for sexual rights over the same female. The hope and fear in his eyes were as fragile as the glass menagerie in Tennessee Williams’ play.

Garnet confirmed her intuition by looking toward his companion and making a questioning keen. A struggle went on in Kyle's face.

"Let me go," Annie said softly, lifting her arms against the bonds to illustrate.

Kyle looked at her, then back at Garnet and gave a short, quick nod, the hope replaced by sadness again. In an anguished flash, Annie realized that he thought she was rejecting them both.

Garnet had freed her one ankle when Kyle began backing off, his eyes never leaving her face. He was sinking, preparing to go below the surface. He was leaving.

"Wait!" she called out, her bound fingers straining for him.

He stopped, chin almost touching the water's surface, the silver eyes almost as blank. That blankness was a shield, covering whatever it was he had been hoping to obtain from her, whatever his friend had been hoping for him. Though the regret suggested Garnet had held some conflicting hope that Kyle wouldn’t find what he sought.

Embracing him, choosing him, permitting him to take her body apparently was a significant matter, something that would alter the path of their existence in a way that seemed to matter very much to him. She knew enough of the Web to know if she helped him alter it, it would somehow alter her path as well. That was the way it worked. She was being asked to make the choice without knowing what the path was, for him or for her. If she went back and extrapolated their very adult situation to the stuff of fairy tales, perhaps it was to transfer him, make him human. Or perhaps it was a reverse situation. She was to become one of his kind.

Perhaps acid rain was making their women sterile. Perhaps with the aid of magic, a human woman could be transformed to merwoman and help increase the population. The tattoo pattern, hell, his very existence, suggested they were beings of magic, who knew its potential in a way humans only dreamed and hoped it existed.

Perhaps they even waited in places like this, knowing when a woman came alone to a secluded, remote spot like this, she was already close enough to nature to have the ability to adapt.

And what were the chances of a lone woman being out here? She believed in choice, but she also believed the Lord and Lady led their children to where they were supposed to be, if their hearts, minds and souls were open, cleansed. Well, she had had nearly a month of purification in her vision quest, and it had led her here. What was she afraid of? If she had found this place, a place quite possibly undisturbed by any human, ever, then their meeting was fated.

She had walked for days with no company but animals, trees and rocks. She knew their voices and movements, and was not afraid to be a part of their world, day or night, any longer.

Annie smiled. Whatever transformation would occur, would occur because it was the Will of something far larger than herself. That was the true lesson of being out here day after day, returning step by aching step to a closer embrace with the Mother so much of man's world had excluded or abandoned. Still there was one thing, one reservation.

She beckoned, and Kyle drifted closer until their eyes were no more than an inch apart, her cheek still resting on the rock. She reached out and touched his face, cradling it, gazing into the silver eyes.

Male aggression was there, the restless primal animal that called to a woman's heart and loins both. But she saw intelligence. Hunger, tempered with understanding that Fate must be respected. Most importantly, if she had not already felt this and more in his touch, she saw kindness, an honest openness, the quality she sought in every man she embraced. She sensed good from him. Whatever his intent, it was not evil.

She was thinking way too much, and this wasn't a moment for theorizing. The incredulity of it struck her and warmth bloomed in her heart, awe at what might just be possible.

Her other wrist was free now and her ankles, and she turned on her side. She watched his gaze leave hers and travel down her body, study her curves and angles. Physical desire rose again in his eyes, encompassing the other motives.

Pushing herself up to a sitting position, she raised one hand to comb her hair back into a sleek cap on her head. She felt a touch upon it and looked at Garnet, his palm fitting the contour of her skull. His expression was resigned but peaceful. Obviously desiring her still, he had turned over their direction completely to Kyle and her. She’d made her choice and both men were honoring it. Their dual attention prickled over her body like a cool wind in sweltering heat, a shuddering contrast of sensations.

She smiled, scooted forward to the edge of the rock. Kyle swam in closer and she held out her arms. His hands closed on her forearms and he lifted her with ease, an amazing strength that he now used to his advantage. He lowered her in the water, a controlled, inch by inch descent, in more ways than one, because as her thighs entered the water, she felt the brush of his hard arousal, sliding up the channel between them. Annie's mouth opened, drawing in a breath, and his face watched her, the doubt gone. All that was left was the male drive to take, to fuck and make her writhe and cry out, the desire that she make him harder with her pleas, make his thrusts more demanding. She saw it in the light in his eyes, the set of his jaw, felt it in the relentless clamp of his hands, and she completed it by making her mental capitulation a physical one, her thighs opening so that as he lowered her into the water, he lowered her onto himself.

He took his time, and she was grateful for that, at first. He was well endowed, and it took some adjusting, some movements of her hips to work onto him, movements that increased his human-like breathing function, the chest rising with the increased pulse rate. Annie moaned as he slowly penetrated, his lips touching her breast as she descended in the water. She curled her arms around his neck and his grip moved to her hips, wresting a cry from her as he pushed her down to the hilt that final inch, with hard purpose. The impact shot to her core and wrested a deep groan from her, and from him.

Framing his face with her hands, she kissed him without reservation, her choice made. He wrapped his arms around her upper arms and back, so her arms were folded in except for her hands on his face, like a bird drawing its wings into itself, wrapped in the embrace of its mother. He used that position to lift her and then push her down again, a stroke that shuddered through her pussy and told her the orgasm was going to come hot and hard, like his impressive cock, and she was unable to keep her hold on his mouth, had to tear free to gulp in air, though her heart turned over when he pressed a soft kiss to her jaw as she broke the contact.

She should have known they wouldn't let it be easy, or over that quickly. Garnet's hands clasped her waist, and his wet, warm body slid up against her back. His hands came forward, caressing her breasts again, rubbing them against Kyle's chest so the friction of the nipples made her arch. Kyle's hold eased, and he laid her back against Garnet, her face pressed to his thick neck. It was the first time in her life she'd had the experience of being held and shared between the embrace of two men, and now that the moment of conflict had passed, she felt comfortable being between them, as long as it was Kyle she faced.

She felt Garnet’s desire for her and accepted it, for she saw in Kyle’s eyes he would give his friend this gift, share their pleasure, if it did not disturb her. It didn’t, not as long as the emotional pact had been sealed between their two hearts, something she felt so sure of now that she oddly almost felt like the two organs were beating in sync.

She tilted her face up to Garnet and his hand circled her throat, holding her still for a rough kiss, his lips parting hers and tongue plunging within. In their element, Kyle brought that powerful tail into play, using it to increase the strength of his thrusts. The ripples of desire were building, the telltale coil in her belly spreading, reaching out tendrils into her nerve endings. Garnet's fingers pinched her nipples, hard enough to spur her with an agony of sensation, and he began to stroke her as well, his long cock sliding up the channel of her ass, rubbing the ridge of his massive head against her rectum, setting off taut fireworks in her lower back and muscles of her backside.

His hands gripped her waist and Kyle's eyes were on her, crooning to her, soft urgent sounds of encouragement, of praise, of primal, fierce devotion that were easily translatable. His speed was not increasing, though the strain was costing him, she could see it in the tense muscles of his face. She tightened muscles of her own, clamping down on him as he slid half out of her, teasing the sensitive head of his cock by narrowing the channel. He cried out, but did not completely lose control, though his next thrust was more powerful and wild, almost bringing her pain mixed with ecstasy in its force.

Garnet's cock slid down her channel, and then she felt the silken slap of the broadest part of his tail against the heart-shaped base of her ass as he changed the angle and eased his cock into her with one smooth stroke that opened her mouth in a scream. She had noticed their cocks had a silky slick texture, the way fish scales were to the touch, a natural lubricant aided by the fact she was immersed in water and her body was languorous in its reception to stimulation to every sexual point. Even so, it shocked her, so that she gripped him in all those lower muscles, making the friction of the invasion even more intense. There was sheer sensual overload in the thought of it, the image of one man between her legs and the other ravishing her ass, enough to take her over. She was helpless between them, making little bleating cries of near pleasure, near pain, her fingers clutched on Kyle's biceps, her breasts pushing into Garnet's eagerly kneading palms, jiggling with the seesaw motion of their hard rhythm, in, out, in, out, alternating, now quickening, now together.

The climax began the way an earthquake did, a slow rumble, a trembling welling up from the earth that abruptly split the firmament with a roar. She was like the water over the fall, shoved into open space by the force of nature's will, propelled fore and aft, and she could not draw breath for a scream. It was too intense. Her pussy contracted as if she was giving birth, her lower cavities squeezing Kyle and Garnet as her body convulsed like an eruption, becoming rigid and then bucking spasmodically, every muscle and nerve fiber out of control, unable to draw away from a shattering precipice. Her abdomen and thigh muscles became silken steel, conducting the electrical energy that slammed through them, sparking into her pounding clitoris and setting off a deeper reaction in her womb.

She screamed now, her hands grabbing back above her, grasping Garnet's shoulder, her fingers snarling in the hair that fell forward around his neck, her body impossibly bending as he continued to pump within her, and Kyle likewise maintained his aggressive slap into her, the flukes of his tail sliding back and forth along her trembling ankles and heels.

She couldn't endure it, she was sure. Kyle gave a hoarse cry, and Garnet answered it at the same moment, two sets of powerful hands digging cruelly into her hip bones. As they both gushed their life into her, she thought surely her orgasm would start to die off, shudder into incredible aftershocks, but the spurt of their come set off a cataclysm of explosions deep with her, deeper than even their impressive anatomies could reach. As they jetted, her body reared up, her nipples stiff, breasts flushed, her legs and ass spread to let them pummel her as they would, and she could no longer hold onto any sense of reality. The sparkling water became a wall of flashing lights, the scent of water and males filled her nose, her hands no longer felt as if they lay upon their skin. Instead she felt covered by them, surrounded, obliterating everything, as if in this last, wrenching climax, her soul had launched itself from the shell of her body and now there was only sensation.

She had never been one of those women who expelled fluids when she climaxed, like men did, but she felt as if she did now, a sudden heat on her thighs beneath the water and a weakening, as if she was expelling life essence. But the weakening was a form of surrender that, instead of relaxing her from the iron grip of the orgasm, gave it propulsion to whisk her limp body straight up another cliff side. It flung her off its very edge with no warning, in one final, climactic aftershock that was more intense than most orgasms she’d had.

Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she fainted, though in her mind, she was falling. Falling into the gentle hands of two silver, sparkling spirits whose breath touched her face like kisses just before she lost consciousness.

* * *

Passion could slow time down, make a woman feel as if she’d lived a full life from the first touch to the last gasp of the climactic pinnacle. Making love to the right man could make a woman into a phoenix, consumed by fire and then rising from the ashes to embrace life. The aftermath was a rebirth, a chrysalis shed, her whole being stepping out, renewed.

Consciousness returned as if she had woken in a parallel dimension. Indeed, Annie felt as if she had somehow transcended everything she had known, passed a key test to another level of awareness that made everything she saw more vivid. Particularly the concerned face peering down at her, a Renaissance-handsome expression fanned by fluttering silky long hair, and blue eyes rimmed with silver.

She lay in his arms as he sat on the earthen bank of the pool, his back comfortably situated against a tree trunk as he patiently awaited her return to consciousness. Seeing him dry was like seeing a sculpture fired and glazed into perfection after having seen it wet and sleek in the process of creation. The tattoos were gone, though, and the gills. Her fingers fluttered up to his neck. Smooth arteries, pumping a bit fast.

Annie struggled to sit up and his arms loosed her, but still kept her in their cradle, and she braced her hand on a long thigh. She glanced down, startled, her fingers clutching just above the knee in spasmodic reaction. He jumped, pulling her hand away. A crooked smile crossed his face.

"Ticklish," he managed in a hoarse voice. "I’d forgotten that. Like I’d forgotten what a smile was, until I saw you do it. Mermaids smile with their eyes, not their mouths."

She stared up at him. "Did I--"

"No." He shook his head, and even if his words hadn't confirmed it, the warm glow in his eyes would have. "You didn't dream it."

"Your friend…" Annie looked around.

"My brother-in-law and best friend. Gone."

She brought her head back around, blinked at him. She saw the shadows of sadness in his eyes, but also a peaceful acceptance. And, more reassuring, a tentative happiness, like he was trying out a feeling he hadn’t had in quite awhile and wasn’t quite sure how to experience it. "You're wearing clothes." A faded T-shirt, comically with a Power Rangers design, and an old pair of jeans, well-fitted. Hiking boots.

He nodded. "I left them in a waterproof knapsack behind that bush over there, forty years ago. The jeans are a little tight. Somehow the muscle tone I built up as a water creature came with me when I transformed.” His eyes sparkled in a very appealing way. “I had somewhat of a gawky build, before." He glanced down at himself and continued speaking, as if he knew she needed some time to organize her thoughts. “The T-shirt was a gift from my nephew right before I went on this hiking trip alone. He was worried about me being safe, and he told me the Power Rangers would keep me safe.”

"I thought… it was the fairy tale." Her thoughts were swimming in mud, nothing coming out clearly. His caressing, reassuring touch along her jaw confirmed that her distress was transmitting itself to him.

"I suppose it is," he said. She heard the nuances of his real voice beneath the rustiness, a quiet, rich tone that elicited the same reaction in her that she suspected a cat had to having its fur stroked in the right direction.

“But you’re young. How can you…”

“Merpeople age differently. Most live to be two or three hundred years old, so at sixty-five, I’m about your age, in their years.” His eyes smiled at her again, then darkened. "Tess. She was here when I found this pool. She gave me the choice to belong to her, and be one of her people. When I willingly accepted her, I transformed. The same way I was able to transform back, when you accepted me. Chose me. It's a strong bond, between human and merperson. You can hear one another's heartbeat, when you listen for it. You share many thoughts together. But most of all, you feel you cannot survive without one another. At least, that’s what I thought, that it was some type of magic special to mermaid pairings. I didn’t know that humans, all beings, are capable of it, if they learn to love that way. One of the many things the merpeople taught me. I can hear your heart beat even now.”

His eyes came back to her face, focused in a way that made Annie hold her breath. She felt like he was seeing everything she was and would be, drinking in everything about her as the world passed by, unnoticed around them.

“When Tess died…” He paused, and the grief passed through his gaze, but something else did as well. It told Annie that what he carried in his heart was no longer a wound, but the memory of a gift well cherished. “I thought I died, too. But you see, merpeople are not like us. They are so deeply connected to one another, as a community, they would not let me languish. Like schools of fish, they communicate in a way you wouldn’t call telepathy. It’s more emotional than that. They stayed with me, helped me find myself again, though it took many years. It was my brother-in-law, Garnet, whom I love like a brother in truth, that helped me understand that my time with them was over.”

A frown crossing his face at the memory. “It was difficult. I accused him of trying to expel me, but he consulted their Seer, and she said that I had a dual life path. That Tess had been reborn, was growing up, and would come to me on two legs, that I must go to her on two legs. That she would be the key to the full healing of my heart.” He cupped her chin, lifted her face. “For you see, after having a love like I had with my Tess…” He brushed his lips over her face. “My Tess,” he murmured again, and Annie felt the name fall upon her ears as if it were in fact her own, as if he had said ‘Annie’, the two names becoming one in her mind.

“I couldn’t live without such a love in my life again. I thought, as I said, that it was unique to mermaids. The Seer told me no. It was how soulmates felt about one another. Tess accepted me. She was so open to her Path, that she knew I was her destiny from the first time we saw one another.”

Annie recalled the sadness in his eyes when he had thought she was choosing Garnet, and the sudden wrenching pain in her own heart when she thought he felt that way.

“So the Seer told me to go back to the pool. That I had to believe that the woman who would draw me back to the human world would eventually come to this secluded stream. It did not matter how far apart our strands were, they would cross in the web here. For it is all woven by the Creatress who knows what paths are meant to be together.”

He shook his head. “I say these things, but I won’t compel you to be with me, Annie, not out of pity or a sense of obligation. That would be worse than having died. She told me this, too, that though you may be Tess, your spirit may have things to accomplish that cannot include me right now.” There was a sudden fierceness to his expression and his arms tightened on her, in contrast to his forceful words. “Or, it may be your spirit does not completely recognize me, and I am rushing you too fast. I do not wish to drive you from me. I know how things are in this world, how magic is doubted. I know that the things I tell you may seem fantastic, a world that has made fairy tales into nothing more than children’s stories.”

He carefully lifted his fingers, and she felt how much of an effort it took him to ease his grip, as if the ache were in her own chest. “I understand now what the Seer was telling me. Just by this moment, feeling this sense of connection to you, I know that I can heal fully, and live. My heartbeat, my blood, tells me she is right, that you are the other half to my one soulmate, my Tess, two women of the same body, blood and mind. While I may be ready to embrace that, you may not be. This may not be our time or life together. It is enough to know you exist, and that our time will be again. I simply ask if I may join my destiny to yours for the time we are meant to share, and then when you wish it…” He swallowed, and he stumbled over the words. “I will let you go.”

Annie looked into herself, into the deep place his words were touching. He had just described the way she had learned to conduct her relationships, joining her destiny to someone else’s until Fate told her it was time to let go. It had made her open to listening to Fate, to believing in Her Wisdom. While it had been harder at some times than others to obey Her suggestion, Annie had learned to do so, and had never regretted the choices. She saw this same reluctant acceptance in Kyle now, bracing for her response.

Just as the mind could be taught to listen to the physical body to know just the right way to care for it, the right food and exercise, so too could the soul be taught to listen to the Lord and Lady’s guidance.

Their Voices were telling her quite clearly that, while Kyle was nobly giving her a choice, her choice had been made when she’d obeyed her heart and gone on this quest, seeking to reconnect with herself, with what she wanted for her life. With whom she wanted for her life.

The spiritual part of her understood. The woman wanted to draw out his anticipation a few more moments, to give her time to adjust to the idea.

“And your brother-in-law’s…participation. Was that part of the Seer’s wisdom?”

A tentative smile curved his lips, catching her breath.

“Merpeople fascinate humans. So my brother-in-law was here to make sure the choice was a true one, and not just the spell our presence may have laid upon you. You accepted us both. Sensual, insatiable creature that you are." The grin grew wider. "But your heart chose me."

The hoarseness was definitely fading. His words were like music, and she closed her eyes. He said several more sentences, but the lyrics and their meaning receded, as her mind chose to absorb the hushed stillness surrounding each perfect note. Then the music and words blended, creating the whole symphony of meaning and purpose. As her eyes opened, she saw his lips were not moving. She wondered if that was the telepathic connection he had talked about mermaids sharing, and if he had brought that gift back with him…along with his excellent muscle tone.

Smiling, she reached up, cupped his jaw. Watched in awe as he turned his lips, not to her palm, but to the jumping pulse in her wrist where life ran hard and strong beneath the fragile veneer of mortality. Strength and vulnerability, the base definition of love in all its forms, whether at its beginning, middle or end, or the Mobius Strip all three made.

“So you would let me go, just like that, if I said no?”

He looked at her, and there was an expression in those eyes that made her shiver, made heat pool in her lower belly and her nipples tighten. He brought his lips down close and her own parted involuntarily. He paused a breath above them, looked at their openness, and his lashes lifted so he was staring directly into her eyes.

“Just like that, Annie. But know this. If you accept me now, I won’t make it easy for you to ever ask again.”

She rose unsteadily, naked in more ways than one. She was cognizant of his gaze coursing down her, to the narrow small of her back, to the flare of her hips, the length of her legs, and back up again. Annie found her clothes, lifted them in her hands, then turned, met his eyes. She saw the concern there, and a flash of all-consuming hunger so potent it staggered her, though he masked it a blink after she turned. But it was there, below the surface. Wanting her. Not just the breasts and legs, ass and pussy, though there was that raw need there. He wanted more than that, everything underneath, the soul that animated the flesh.

Annie wet her lips, and a tremor went from her heart to the fingers she clutched on the clothes. "I can't tell where my flesh ends and yours starts," she whispered, watching with joy as his eyes darkened with emotions. "So I think…” She straightened her back, proudly displayed her body before him, letting the clothes drop to the ground. “No, I know. I’m yours, and you’re mine, until Fate wills it otherwise."

He was up and in front of her faster than she would have imagined for a man just getting his land legs back under him, but when he gathered her closer, his arms possessive and strong, he was trembling like a newborn.

"Then may Fate be kind, for as long as we both shall live."

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