Chapter 10: True Love's Kiss
It took everything Averil had not to swim as fast as he
could, as far away as he could. He wanted to just vanish, to disappear into
oblivion. Then everyone could just move on without him, and not have to worry
about him. Erryn wouldn’t have to square with the fact that the boy she loved
rightfully had fins instead of feet. His father wouldn’t have a disappointing
youngest son anymore, his brothers wouldn’t have to be ashamed of him anymore.
Averil closed his eyes and floated aimlessly. He the blue-green waters wash over him, trying to gather up his courage. Facing his father on a good day took much of his nerve, but doing so now was almost as crazy as a deal with a witch. Above the surface he could see the glow of dawn, and he wondered if the princess had made it to shore. She could swim just fine, so he wasn’t really worried, but she was surely concerned about him.
Even as he flicked his tail around to head for the surface, Averil felt a cool palm against his shoulder, stopping him.
“She’s fine,” came Arren’s deep rumble. “She headed for land as soon as she got clear. You picked a strong girl, that one.”
Averil turned to face his eldest brother, his expression as neutral as he could make it.
“I suppose you think I’m an idiot,” he said quietly.
“I do,” Arren replied, crossing his arms over his broad chest. He frowned at his youngest brother, but it wasn’t his usual condescending glare. When Averil raised a brow at him, the older merman shrugged.
“Little brothers are supposed to do idiotic things,” he said casually. “I just don’t think anyone expected something like this from you. Alec, maybe, but not you.”
“Well, you might’ve done if anyone ever looked twice at me,” Averil retorted.
“That’s not fair and you know it,” Arren replied sharply. “Everyone was worried sick when you disappeared. You were gone for three days, Averil, didn’t you think we’d care about it? For all we knew, you were dead.”
Averil looked away, unable to meet his brother’s eyes.
“It was my only chance,” he mumbled. “Dad would’ve killed me if I’d said anything. You wouldn’t understand, you never did anything against what Dad said.”
Arren snorted, and raked a hand through his golden blonde hair.
“That’s not true,” he said sagely. “You just weren’t old enough to remember when I did. You should ask Allan sometime, I’m sure he’d love a chance to tell stories about me.”
When Averil said nothing, Arren just sighed. He leaned forward and snagged his little brother around the waist, hoisting him up and tossing him over his shoulder.
“Oy!” Averil yelped. “Put me down!” He squirmed, turquoise tail flipping back and forth with all the strength he had, but it was no use. Arren was much stronger than Averil, as older brothers are wont to be.
“Come on, little brother,” Arren drawled, nearly as cynical as Averil himself. “You’ve got some other brothers to apologize to.”
Fighting tooth and nail all the way, Averil was dragged forcefully back to his family.
They were gathered in a small bunch at the sea floor, where the entire problem had begun. The King had been returned to his former self, but Averil was shocked to see how haggard his appearance was. He had never seen so many worry lines on Triton’s face, and the regal gleam was gone from his eyes. He didn’t even look angry, as Averil had expected. He just looked tired. His trident hung almost listlessly from one hand.
Everyone looked up when Arren arrived, with Averil in tow. Ansel had tied Ursula’s eel minions into a knot, which he and Alec were lazily tossing back and forth like a ball. Amery lay on the sea floor with Antony and Allan, who was carefully wrapping a long bandage around Amery’s chest and stomach. The twins were both mottled with bruises, and looked a little worse for the wear.
Amery made to sit up, but Allan gently pushed him down.
“Hold still, I said,” he scolded.
A red blush of embarrassment crept across Averil’s cheeks when he realized what must have happened.
“She got her tentacles around him, didn’t she,” he whispered to Arren. The elder nodded discreetly.
“Looks like a couple of cracked ribs,” Arren answered softly. “He’ll be okay, but it was a near thing.”
“Did anyone else get hurt because of me?” Averil asked bitterly.
“Don’t worry about that, he’s fine, just-”
“I can hear you whispering over there,” Amery interrupted loudly, glaring at them.
“See?” he said, speaking at normal volume. “He’s even acting like himself. And to answer your question, everyone else is fine. In a couple of weeks, Amery will be too.”
“You get to do my chores until then, little brat,” Amery added. Despite his harsh tone, he couldn’t help the way his mouth twitched into a smile. Averil hesitantly smiled back, and nodded.
Silence fell, the awkward kind of silence that almost suffocates anyone in the vicinity. The brothers stared at one another, their gazes unsure. Everyone knew what needed to be said, but it seemed that the one who needed to speak was determined to stay silent.
Growling, Arren elbowed his little brother. Averil yelped once again, rubbing at his side, glaring furiously.
“What?” he demanded sulkily.
“You know what,” Arren replied, equally grumpy.
“I’m not apologizing,” Averil insisted.
Allan raised his hands, ever the mediator.
“Averil-” he began, but the younger cut him off before he could say much of anything.
“No!” Averil shouted, his face reddening. “What do you want me to say? I’m not sorry I did it, I’d do it all again if I had to! I couldn’t breathe down here, is that what you all wanted? Poseidon take me now if its so wrong to think of better things!”
Out of breath, Averil huffed and crossed his arms. His face was as red as the coral reef, and he knew he’d probably just made the situation even worse for himself, but subtlety and tact had never been his strong points.
“You really don’t think anyone cares about you, do you.”
That deep, soft voice belonged to none other than King Triton. He stared at his youngest son, who reminded him so much of his beloved Queen, seemingly wondering how he had ever let it get this far. His haunted gaze stirred something in each of his sons as they looked at him. The strongest merman they knew had been brought low by a sixteen-year-old with an attitude problem.
“That’s not...I...I tried, Dad,” Averil mumbled, barely even audible. He screwed his eyes shut, trying not to imagine how his father was going to react to this. He tried not to let his voice waver, but his hands were shaking with the effort.
“I tried to be perfect like everyone else, I really did,” he continued, “But no matter how hard I tried, you just...everyone just brushed me off. You were all so busy trying to see someone just like you, but I just want to be me. Is that really too much to ask for?”
Everyone winced a little at that barb.
“Oh, Averil,” Triton sighed, rubbing at the back of his neck. “No one ever meant...you just...I don’t....”
“We didn’t realize that was how you felt,” Allan supplied quietly.
Averil felt even worse than he already had, if that were even possible, listening to Allan. His distant father was one thing, but this was Allan, who had tucked him in most nights, told him stories, helped with the chores...Averil had never meant to hurt him.
Looking around at his brothers, Averil couldn’t keep down the guilt that was building inside him. No matter how mad he was at his family when this whole thing had begun, he had never intended for anyone to get further involved. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Alec wasn’t supposed to have to cover for him, Amery wasn’t supposed to get hurt.
“I’m...I’m sorry,” he whispered, his crimson head hung low with his intense shame. His voice finally gave way, and now he fought to get the words out.
“I didn’t want anyone to get hurt,” he said hoarsely. “I just wanted to be happy. You weren’t supposed to c-come after me, it was just- I just wanted...”
Averil trailed off, unable to finish his sentence. His shoulders were shuddering with the effort of holding back the tears he absolutely refused to shed. He didn’t know what to do now, everything had fallen apart and it was all his fault, again.
A warm arm encircled his shoulders. Averil looked up, expecting to see Allan, and was surprised to find his eldest brother instead. Arren met his eyes squarely.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” he rumbled. “We are always going to come after you. It doesn’t matter what you do, you’re still our little brother, and that’s not something you can run away from. Better get used to being looked after.”
“That’s right,” Triton agreed.
Allan and Antony smiled, while Ansel and Alec traded exasperated looks.
“It’s not like you’re the first one to do something stupid for a girl,” Ansel commented lightly.
“Though you get some bonus points for the whole ‘human’ thing,” Alec finished.
At the mention of humans, everyone went quiet again. It was clear that King Triton had not yet changed his opinion of humans, but he was struggling not to chase his son away from him again. His face was twitching as he tried to find something to say.
Averil drew his arms in, and took a deep breath.
“They’re not all bad, you know, Dad,” he said softly, trying not to set him off. “Just like merfolk. I mean, I think so. Every human I met was decent enough, anyway.”
Triton balled one hand into a fist.
“That’s different,” he argued carefully. “They didn’t know what you were.”
“That girl did,” Arren interjected. “At the end, even after she knew everything...she still came after him.”
“Seems like she really cares,” Alec added.
Triton stared back and forth between all of his sons- every one of them looked right back, their gazes varying degrees of steely.
Averil took his chance.
“Her name is Erryn Amalia Margarethe von Pomerania,” he said firmly. “She’s a princess, and an orphan, by the way. Her parents are dead.”
“Averil...” Triton said warningly, but it did no good.
“She plays the flute, like Arren,” Averil continued, raising his voice above his father’s dissention. “And she loves plants and things that grow, like Antony does. She likes being outside, and she wants to learn to sail...”
Each new piece of information skewed the king’s opinion, as he was slowly forced away from his original thoughts about ‘spineless harpooning fisheaters’. Hearing this human girl compared to his own children, it was a bit crueler of a technique than anyone would have expected of Averil.
Averil stared his father down, his blue eyes gleaming.
“...and I love her, Dad,” he finished softly.
For a moment, there was a deafening silence that permeated the family meeting. Averil had played the cards in his hand, and now they all had no choice but to wait for the King’s decision. Three days previously, any of them would have sworn twice over that he would never allow his son (or any of the merfolk) within a hundred meters of a human. However, things had changed. It was not yet clear if they had changed for the better, or for the catastrophically worse.
Averil’s heart was close to beating its way out of his chest. He honestly didn’t know what he was going to do, no matter what his father said. He had never planned on coming back here like this, had never even considered having to wait at the mercy of the King’s judgment again.
His face was flushed scarlet as he held his breath.
King Triton’s blue eyes were glazed over with concentration. He didn’t seem angry, but it took him quite a while to come to his conclusion.
They could have cut the tension with Alec’s knife.
“Eighteen,” Triton said finally.
Averil blinked, taken aback.
“What?” he asked, dumbfounded.
“In two years, you will be eighteen,” King Triton clarified calmly. He seemed to have regained some of his usual composure, drawing himself up to his full height. Still, the look in his eyes as he gazed as his youngest son was not the harsh stare Averil had become accustomed to.
“In accordance with our laws,” Triton said carefully, “A merman comes of age at eighteen, and is free to make his own choices. That does also apply to members of the royal family.”
Averil’s eyes went wide, even as his heart sank. He didn’t know how to feel, it was so conflicting. His father seemed to be getting with the program on the human front, but who was to say that Erryn would wait for two years? Would he even be able to see her in the meantime?
Still, as he cast his gaze around at his various brothers, they all wore the same expression.
Take what you can get.
Slowly, Averil nodded. He tried to keep his face schooled.
“I understand, Father,” he said softly.
“That being said,” the King continued, his eyes suddenly crinkling up at the corners, “We will need to establish relations with our land-dwelling neighbors. So far we have escaped their notice, but now that they know we’re here, it seems we must pay them due attention.”
Alec, Ansel, and Averil all traded very confused looks. Where was he going with this?
After a moment, Arren, Allan, and the twins all adopted slight grins.
“That sounds like a job for an ambassador,” Allan remarked lightly, sweeping his long, auburn hair over his shoulder and out of his face.
“Not just anyone, though,” Arren mused, stroking his beard. “It requires someone with an intimate understanding of humans. We need someone with experience.”
“Someone intelligent,” Amery added dryly.
“Someone who can blend in on land or in the sea,” Antony contributed.
“And a good relationship with the current ruling party would be beneficial,” Triton finished off.
He turned to Averil, trident upraised, as if they floated in the throne room at the palace.
“I hereby charge Prince Averil of Atlantica with the duties of ambassador to the human realm,” he declared, his voice rumbling with power. It sent shivers up the spines of his sons. The two eldest mentally sighed with relief.
“Speak with the voice of Atlantica, and keep faith with our customs,” the King intoned. “Preserve our dignity and might, and establish connections of goodwill as best you are able.”
Almost dizzy with surprise, Averil bowed his head.
“I accept my post,” he said quietly.
Averil looked up when he felt a firm hand on his shoulder. He looked up into the eyes of his father, which shone with a strength he had never felt so personally. It was as though they were the only two mermen present.
“Never forget who you are, Averil,” King Triton said. “Whether you have fins or feet...you are still my son.”
Unable to answer, Averil simply nodded.
Suddenly and without warning, the surrounding sea echoed with the whooping and hollering of enthusiastic young mermen. Alec and Ansel immediately tackled their youngest brother to the ground, laughing maniacally. They hugged him forcefully, demanding to hear the full story of his adventure, as the elder brothers all smiled and applauded.
Averil carefully extracted himself from his brothers’ grip, his blue eyes soft.
“I’ll tell you all about it, I promise,” he said, “Later.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Alec snickered. He turned to Ansel, the pair of them sporting matching evil grins.
“He’s got a girlfriend,” they drawled in unison. Averil instantly went red and balled his fists, but he looked away and didn’t answer.
King Triton sighed.
“Well, go on then,” he said sternly. “You’ve got work to do.”
What happened next was one of the most unforgettable moments in the family’s history.
Averil’s face split into a wide smile. His eyes lit up with excitement, as they always had when he discovered something new...though now, they were trained on his father’s face. It was the first time anyone could remember Averil having smiled like that at their father since he was very young.
He launched himself forward and wrapped his arms around Triton’s neck, just as he had when he was little. The force of it knocked Triton back, as he stared at his son, completely bewildered.
“Thanks, Dad,” Averil whispered.
Without waiting for a response, Averil let go. As the whole family stared in surprise, he flipped his tail round and began racing for the surface. Within moments, he was nothing but a green and scarlet blur overhead.
The remaining family looked at each other, all lost for words. Where once there were seven, now there were only to be six. The younger trio was down to two.
“He’ll be okay,” Antony said softly.
“He’s a good kid,” Allan added.
“A bit dense, maybe...” said Ansel thoughtfully.
“But he’s got it where it counts,” finished Alec.
“Even if he is an irritating little brat,” Amery conceded.
Arren stroked his beard thoughtfully.
Brat, indeed... he mused.
The waves that slowly beat against the shoreline were almost as bad as a ticking clock. With each whoosh, Erryn felt more time passing by. The waves were laughing at her, she just knew it.
She sat on the beach, her off-white wedding dress soaking and torn. It hung off her pale skin like rags, and her long, dark hair was all in tangles. Still, her azure eyes were as focused as ever, scanning the waters for the person she was most anxious to see. He was alive, but there was no knowing if he would ever come back to her.
Beside the princess, on the sand, was an untidy collection of shells, driftwood, and debris- all having washed up nearby after the torrential storm. The ocean sent the trash back to the land it came from, but no matter how much the lady collected, it still did not send her what she wanted.
Erryn pulled her knees up to her chest, and buried her face in her hands. She felt like she should have known he wouldn’t come back. Why did she have to make friends with everyone? If she had just ignored him from the beginning, this wouldn’t have been so hard. He was just so alive, the way his eyes lit up every time he saw her. He was kind to her, but never patronizing. Why did it have to be him?
“Well met, well met, said an old true love...”
Not for the first time since she had made it back to shore, Erryn found tears spilling down her cheeks. How strange. She should have run out of tears long ago.
“Well met, well met, said he...”
Frustrated, she brushed the tears away. It would not do to keep crying until the cows came home. She had lost enough to know. That wretched song about the sailor kept ringing in her ears, mocking her endlessly.
“I’ve just returned from the salt, salt sea...”
Suddenly, her eyes widened. That song...it wasn’t in her head...the high, lilting voice that sang it....was real...
“And it’s all for the love of thee.”
Heart racing, Erryn clambered to her feet. She cast her eyes out to the sea, and found the source of the song. He was only a little ways out, perched precariously on a large rock that stuck up out of the water. That familiar mop of crimson hair was fluttering in the breeze he so loved...and the ends of his tailfins curled up when he met her eyes.
Hesitantly, he smiled at her. In an instant, the princess found herself splashing out into the shallow water, fighting against the waves to reach him.
When she was close enough, Averil held out his hand. She took it gratefully, and he pulled her up onto the rock with him. He drew his tail in, to leave her enough space to sit comfortably.
“I’ve always liked that song,” he said airily. “It’s sad, but it’s just too pretty not to sing.”
Erryn couldn’t keep herself from smiling.
“You certainly have the voice for it,” she said softly. “It’s just how I imagined it would be.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Averil replied quietly. “I would have told you if I could...I tried, but it just...it didn’t really work. I don’t think you would’ve believed me even if I could have said it, though.”
As she always did when she was uncomfortable, Erryn busied herself tucking her stray hair behind her ears, out of her face.
“I can understand that,” she said. “I just wish...”
She trailed off, unsure if she should finish that sentence.
“What?” Averil asked, his curiosity piqued.
Erryn took a deep breath.
“I wish...I’d almost rather you stayed with me, even if you couldn’t speak.”
Without looking at him, Erryn reached over and took Averil’s hand in hers. She held onto him tightly, as though afraid he might vanish again.
“I don’t suppose I’ll ever see you again, will I?” she asked ruefully. Her gaze was locked on his turquoise-green tail. “You saved my life, and in three days you managed to be the best friend I’ve ever had besides Max. Is this really how all of this ends?”
His response caught her entirely off-guard.
“I think that’s probably up to you,” Averil said lightly. His tone with thick with implication, in that irritating manner that only sixteen-year-olds think is amusing. He was baiting her, it was obvious, and the princess did not appreciate it.
“What do you mean?” Erryn asked sharply.
Yawning overdramatically, Averil lay back on the rock, enjoying the sun and the breeze. He closed his eyes, as though he really didn’t care at all.
“Well I’ve got two more years until I’m of age,” he said lazily, “But once I’m eighteen, I can do what I want. Maybe we could work something out.”
Averil’s eyes shot open as he felt cool hands against his side. The gravel scratched against his back as he was shoved forcefully off of the rock. His stomach dropped, and he fell with a splash back into the water.
Shaking his head, he surfaced again, a full Cheshire grin on his face.
Hooting, howling laughter erupted from behind them, further out to sea. Averil turned just in time to see Antony elbow Ansel in the ribs. His brothers all floated there, several meters away, enjoying the show. Arren held their father’s trident in one hand. When he caught Averil looking, he shook his head, and pointed back at Erryn, who had crossed her arms and was glaring at him.
“I think I liked you better when you were mute,” she said, crossing her arms indignantly. “Spit it out.”
Sighing, Averil braced his forearms on the rock, and hoisted his torso out of the water.
“Fine,” he said simply. “Then come here and I’ll tell you what I mean.”
Hesitantly, Erryn moved closer, so that they were face to face.
Their blue eyes met. His were deep as the oceans from whence he came, shimmering like the sunlight on the sea. Hers held the pale hue of the distant skies, peaceful and serene, even in the face of her somewhat tumultuous temperament.
“Erryn,” he said softly. She shivered at the sound of her name rolling off his tongue. It was the first time he had ever said it, and she loved the way it sounded.
Averil reached out and took her hand. She was surprised to find that his hand was trembling.
“In two years,” he breathed, never taking his eyes from hers. “Will you marry me?”
Erryn squeaked in surprise, her eyes wide with shock, blue gleaming with an incredulous hopefulness.
“Y-you- we- we can’t, can we?” she stuttered. “I mean, you’re- isn’t that a...?”
“If we could,” Averil challenged desperately. “Would you? Don’t think about it, just tell me!”
Suddenly his joking, lighthearted demeanor was gone. His panicked fear was obvious. Fortunately for him, this young merman had selected quite the unusual partner.
Sensing his discomfort, Erryn took a deep breath. She squared her shoulders, and nodded.
“Yes,” she said calmly. “Yes, I would.”
Averil closed his eyes, and sighed with relief. The water that surrounded him began to glow a soft, golden light.
“Good,” he said, his mischievous smile back in place. “It would’ve been pretty embarrassing if you’d said no.”
To her intense shock, Averil shifted his weight so that he could brace him palms on the rock. When he pulled himself out of the water, Erryn saw that his long, turquoise tail had been once again replaced by a pair of ordinary, human legs. The same legs that she had met him with.
No sooner had he become visible than she leapt forward, wrapping her arms around his neck as she had done several times before. Only this time, the lonely princess pressed her lips to his. Finally, after all this time, he had won his true love’s kiss. Averil put his hands around her waist and pulled her closer, as close as they had been when she taught him to dance. It felt so long ago, now.
When they broke apart, Erryn held Averil as close as she could, their foreheads pressed together.
“I’m not even sure this is real,” she whispered, awed.
“Oh, it’s real, alright...” Averil replied,
“...and I give it about three seconds before the catcalls start.”
Stand by for epilogue.