It often took Maddie’s breath away, just how intelligent Ryn was.
Not that she had ever had any reason to believe that her girlfriend wasn’t intelligent, but watching as she learned to speak an entire language that wasn’t even built for her vocal chords over an incredibly short period of time, for example, would always leave her in awe. Figuring out social norms was occasionally a little more difficult for her, but it was usually because she didn’t think that the said norm was necessary, rather than because she couldn’t understand what to do.
Honestly, Maddie kind of agreed with her most of the time. Who needed things like a guy holding the door open for you, or being told that you weren’t allowed to sit cross-legged in a chair in a fancy restaurant?
Ben also usually agreed – except for the holding the door open part. “I was raised a gentleman,” he’d always claim, which always won him an amused roll of her eyes from Maddie and a confused tilt of her head from Ryn.
Nonetheless, the two of them enjoyed every moment of helping Ryn learn about life on land – not just because it meant getting to spend more time with her, but also because it was incredible to see how quickly she picked up and incorporated new information. They tried their best not to treat their girlfriend like a science experiment, but they were both scientists. It was hard to ignore the urge to analyze and catalogue all the new data they encountered – especially in a species that they weren’t super familiar with.
Well. Not super familiar with in a scientific sense, anyways.
It was also a learning experience for the two of them. Most of the time, it was easy to explain to Ryn what certain words meant, or what purpose certain objects had, or why people did the things they did. Sometimes, though, it highlighted the information that they took for granted, the way that some things were never really explained to them and they just picked up along the way. Or sometimes it made them realize how unnecessary or nonsensical certain unspoken rules or societal expectations were.
The rain poured down in Bristol Cove, pattering out a staccato rhythm on the roof of the houseboat. It had already been going strong for a couple of hours; even before then, the dark clouds and strong wind had started up the previous evening and howled through the night. There was no doubt in the minds of any of the townsfolk that a storm was coming. There hadn’t been any thunder or lighting yet, but Maddie figured it was only a matter of time before they started.
She and Ben sat at the houseboat’s kitchen table, pouring over the recent observational data from the research centre to write up into a report. They each had a steaming mug of hot chocolate before them – hers white chocolate peppermint, his dark chocolate hazelnut. Ryn sat cross-legged on their bed, a handful of books and objects scattered around her. Every now and again, Maddie heard her voice as she softly sounded out the words on the pages and labels. Each and every time, she smiled fondly to herself as she worked; she heard Ben’s soft chuckle beside her each time as well, equally as enamoured as her with their mermaid girlfriend.
The quiet atmosphere didn’t stay untouched for too much longer. “What is different between like and love?” Ryn asked. Maddie looked up with wide eyes; Ryn was looking down at one of the bottles on the bed. Maddie turned to Ben, not quite sure how to explain, and caught the same wide-eyed, off-balance look on his face that was surely on hers. She cleared her throat awkwardly, buying an extra second of time to figure out what to say.
“Well,” she started, “like and love are really similar. They’re both positive feelings about things, or – or people.” She twirled her hands around vaguely in front of her. “You look forward to spending time with that person, or you enjoy them – their personality, their appearance, their sense of humour.”
“Or if it’s a thing that you like,” Ben picked up where she trailed off, “it’s something that makes you happy, or it brings you comfort to have it.”
“Okay yes.” Ryn nodded, but Maddie could still see the little furrow of her brow and adorable tilt of her head that said that they didn’t really answer her question. Maddie shifted a bit in her seat and leaned forwards, her hands splayed out in front of her.
“Think of it as a sliding scale. Or water levels. There’s kinda like –” she illustrated her point by holding her hand down near the floor; Ryn leaned over to see it better, which drew another fond smile from Maddie. “Then there’s like,” she said, and lifted her hand up to near her hips, “and then really like,” and brought her hand up to around her bust, “and then love.” She finished with her hand hovering near her head. Across the houseboat, she saw Ryn’s eyes light up in understanding.
“So really like is small love,” she said confidently. Her voice oozed with pride at understanding this new idea.
“Pretty much, yeah,” said Ben. “Some people will say they really like something instead of saying that they love it.”
The furrow returned to Ryn’s brow. “Why?”
“Because they’re scared,” Ben replied softly. “Love is… it’s intense, and powerful. They feel like saying that they love something might be too strong of a feeling, or that if they say they love someone, it’ll be too soon and they’ll scare that person away.”
Ryn looked aside, considering everything that Ben and Maddie had just told her. After a long moment, she got up from the bed and walked across the houseboat to them, one of the objects from the bed in her hand. She stopped right before them and kissed Ben, sure and steady and utterly unapologetic.
“Ben is really like,” she said, sounding very self-satisfied. A startled laugh bubbled up from Maddie’s throat as she grinned over at her boyfriend’s stunned expression. A second later, she felt Ryn’s small, cool hand on her cheek and let her turn her face to give her a kiss of her own, strong yet soft and all-encompassing, like only the depths of the ocean could be.
“Maddie is really like.” Ryn nodded to herself, then placed the object she held down on the table in front of them. It was one of Maddie’s Lush body wash bottles, still mostly full.
“Need your help,” Ryn said, then turned on her heel and strode purposefully towards the bathroom.
Ryn’s words clicked into place, and Maddie suddenly realized what exactly had just happened. She laughed, soft and fond at first, then growing almost uncontrollable a moment later.
“What’s so funny?” Ben asked, utterly lost. Maddie glanced up, caught his bewildered expression, and doubled over laughing all over again. She reached out with one hand and shakily pushed the bottle of body wash towards him.
“R-re-ead the instru-uh-ctions,” she choked out around her laughter. She watched Ben grab the bottle and spin it around, a look of intense concentration crossing his face.
“How to use,” he read. “If you really don’t know how, then we suggest you find someone you really like and invite them into the shower with you to demonstrate.” He looked up at Maddie with wide eyes; it was an effort not to start laughing again, but Maddie somehow managed to get herself under control.
“She played us like a damn fiddle,” she said, grinning, her voice still a bit high and tight with barely-restrained mirth. As if on cue, the sound of the shower turning on hit their ears, muffled through the bathroom door. Maddie felt her face grow warm, and a matching warmth rush through her to pool low in her abdomen. She saw a matching blush on Ben’s face, and she swore she could see his pupils dilate in real time.
“We, uh,” he stammered out, “we shouldn’t keep her waiting, should we?”
“No, no.” Maddie giggled again. “This is important; y’know, continuing her education.”
“Right, exactly.” The two of them stared at one another for a moment longer, then as if being released like a rubber band being snapped, Ben grabbed the body wash off the table and abruptly bolted upright, in the same movement that Maddie pulled her sweater off over her head and swung around the table as fast as she could. They both rushed over to the shower, eager as always to help Ryn.