It felt like she had just gotten into bed when she heard an insistent tapping at the door. She sprang out of bed, suddenly wide awake. She combed her fingers through her tangled hair as best she could, scraped it back into a quick braid, and went to open the door. 

When the Cailleach stepped through by herself, Máiréad was relieved. She had just remembered the letters on the table and had been slightly embarrassed for a moment at the idea of Liam reading his letter while she was still there. She hadn’t thought about it while writing the letter, but now she realized she’d prefer him to read it after she’d gone. While the Cailleach was taking off her outer layers, Máiréad went into the kitchen folded up the sheets of paper, wrote Liam’s name on the outside and brought them back to the front door where she gave them to the Cailleach and asked her to give Liam his letter after she was gone and requested that the Cailleach not read her letter until then either. The Cailleach nodded and placed them in the pocket of her coat, put an arm around Máiréad’s shoulders and walked her into the kitchen to make them breakfast. 

As they worked in companionable silence, the Cailleach whistling a tune and Máiréad humming along and tapping her toes, Liam came in. All blustery winds and the sharp smell of a late winter storm brewing. Máiréad lifted her nose and sniffed at the air, knowing she’d have to leave soon or she’d be smack in the middle of the storm while trying to get off the coast of Ireland. 

Liam smiled and sat at what Máiréad thought of as ‘his place’ at the table. She had a moment where her lip started to quiver as she thought that tomorrow morning he would be there, but she would not. ‘No.’ she firmly told herself, ‘None of that today.’ Instead, she asked them both, “So what are you going to tell the people who notice I’m gone? Have you decided on a story?” Initially, she was going to come up with a story, but she had quickly realized since it wasn’t her that would have to tell people it should come from the Cailleach and Liam so they would remember the details. “Yes” the Cailleach replied. “We decided to say you’re visiting family in the city. That way it makes sense for Liam to stay here and take care of the house and animals and then if you come back it won’t seem odd.” Máiréad nodded and said, “I think that makes sense.”

All Liam heard was the single word, if. He felt his stomach turn sour, and it felt like he had a knot in his throat. He had known all along it was a possibility that this was the last time he’d see Máiréad, but now that it was time for her to go, he felt sick at the thought. Liam had been staring at the table and couldn’t bring himself to look up, so he was startled by the Cailleach’s hand on his shoulder. When he looked up at her, he could see in her eyes that she knew how hard this was for him. He nodded at her and mentally shook himself and decided he needed to remember this was Máiréad’s choice and her journey to go on, no matter how much he wished she wouldn’t and that, if he really was her friend, he needed to support her. That was that, he decided, and smiled thankfully at the Cailleach. Her small gesture had been all he needed to shake himself out of a mood his auntie would have called ‘disagreeable’. 

When Máiréad turned around and put their plates on the table, his face was composed and her two friends were sitting there looking at her calmly, as if this was any other day when they had gathered for breakfast. 

The Cailleach kept the conversation lively and the three of them laughed about the kinds of small things friends laugh about over breakfast. Memories of silly things, fun days, inside jokes and the like. It all felt so normal, thought Máiréad. “I appreciate the two of you sitting down with me this morning and making me feel so comfortable and helping me stay relaxed about leaving.” Máiréad said. The Cailleach nodded and softly said, “But now it’s time, you need to get ready to go.” And turned to Liam to signal they should start out. Liam almost couldn’t move, but he got up and joined the other two at the door. As they put on their coats, the Cailleach stepped outside, but Liam stopped Máiréad and hugged her. Hard and tightly. He gruffly said, “Just be safe.” and then added, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.” and then joined the Cailleach in the yard. Máiréad stopped and looked around, mentally saying goodbye to the little cottage, not sure if she’d be back, but comforted to know Liam would be there to take care of it while she wasn’t there. When she crossed the threshold, she almost faltered, suddenly very unsure of her choice not to wait for Maeve. The Cailleach seemed to know how she felt and reached out to hook her arm around Máiréad’s waist. “You don’t have to go anywhere you know.” she said. Máiréad nodded and seemed to consider for a second but firmly shook her head and, raising her chin, walked out the gate and onto the path. Her two friends following along behind her. 

The high tide was on its way out, leaving the sand smooth and glittering in the moonlight, with the dawn light just creeping over the horizon and hit the tops of the waves furthest from shore. All three of them stood, thinking their own thoughts for a minute. None of them wanted to be the one to start saying goodbye. Even the level-headed Cailleach couldn’t easily wish her new friend a safe journey and the hope that Máiréad would find what she was looking for. Even she was feeling the emotion of the moment.

Liam finally, almost painfully, drew out the slim box with the ascension jewelry in it and held it out to her. Máiréad took it and handed him her coat. She went down to the beach and went to the rocks by the shore, and reached in to a nearly invisible break in the rocks and pulled out a parcel. Liam got chills down his spine and the Cailleach said softly, “Selkies never tell where their sealskin is hidden. She’s giving us quite the compliment right now.” Liam knew, but he just nodded, wishing he had already trained his sight so he might know what Máiréad was feeling. He sensed indecision balanced with stubbornness, and it made him want to rush down and tell her not to go until she was sure. Instead, he swallowed hard and watched Máiréad disappear around the corner to transform. 

Giving her a few minutes to transform and acclimate herself, they walked down the rocky path and turned the corner to see a single seal, stretched out next to a neatly folded pile of clothes with the jewelry box on top. 

Liam choked back his tears, remembering the day she’d saved him from going under when he’d gone out too far and the day he’d saved her from the fishermen and they’d met back in the cove and she’d confirmed what he’d somehow known, that she was the seal he’d seen all those days he’d come down to enjoy the sunshine and play in the sand. The Cailleach didn’t try to hide it; she let the tears flow freely down her cheeks in a mixture of sadness and pride. Máiréad waited for them to get down to the shoreline, her own tears flowing as freely as the Cailleach’s were. 

When they were all together, the Cailleach reached down to get the jewelry box, opening it and watching the beautiful links slip through her fingers and she found the pin and the catch that would allow Máiréad to get into the piece of jewelry. Liam reached over and helped her separate the strands until it was clear of any tangles. Then, together, they draped it over Máiréad’s head and watched it flash and sparkle in the coming light of dawn as it fell around her body. They closed it around her broad, strong chest and Liam fastened the catch and put in the pin he had so painstakingly made. 

When he straightened up, his eyes were bright with unshed tears but he smiled and said, “That looks like you’re a proper Queen now.” Máiréad smiled, made a soft noise and then looked at the Cailleach, searching her eyes for approval. Máiréad knew she didn’t need the woman’s permission to leave, but it still felt good when the Cailleach said, “He’s right, you look every inch a royal”. She ran her hands lightly over Máiréad’s head and whispered, “Be safe my girl, and remember you can always come back here if you don’t find what you’re looking for.” Then she took a step back and left room for Liam to say goodbye.

Liam did not know what to say, so he just reached out and touched the pinhead, with the interlocking circles, and reminded her, “These mean friendship and no matter what, you’ll always have me as a friend.”

Then the two of them watched as Máiréad slid into the water, turned and barked at them, as if to say goodbye, and started to swim out beyond the breaking waves. She turned one last time as if to store the image of her friends waving goodbye in her memory, and then dove under and was gone.

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